Posts made in September, 2012

“Counting the Cars on the New Jersey Turnpike”

Well, I’m traveling again but not by bike; I’m on the bus heading up to NY to join Rachael so we can go to the cocktail party that Roger and Laura are hosting to celebrate the epic adventure.

But first Roger and I are going to get together today to get caught up. It’s been three weeks since we went our separate ways, and I’m looking forward to swapping tales of how our journeys ended.

As fun as that will be, there’s another, and more introspective, dimension to our reunion. We often joked about the difficulties we’d have with reentry into normal life after the incredible odyssey we were on. I’m not going to make a whole lot of this – it’s not like we were away at war or anything – but it’s not nothing either.

I had to look this up but in Blue Highways, William Least Heat Moon says, “When you’re traveling, you are what you are right there and then. People don’t have your past to hold against you. No yesterdays on the road.”

A bike trip across America gives you a good amount of time to get used to living like that, and it’s an unusual way to live. The novel and unfamiliar replace the known and the routine, yet unlike foreign travel, you remain more conversant – literally and metaphorically – with the circumstances you encounter. As a result, while the sense of being unmoored from one’s ordinary life is less pronounced than it is with foreign travel, under the right conditions it can be a richer voyage of discovery.

At the very least, biking across the country enrolls one in the national mythos of adventure, escape and renewal.

“All gone to look for America”


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This machine climbs mountains, crosses prairies and makes friends!

(photo: Thomas Cook)

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C&O Canal Towpath

Ah, the towpath – where for the first 5 to 10 miles you think, “wow, this is great; it’s scenic, shaded and inviting. I should do this more often especially as there’s no one out here.” And then, pretty much independent of how far you’re going, by the last 5 to 10 miles, you’re sullen and cursing and desperately wishing there was some way to end the torment but you still have miles and miles to go and your hands are numb, your neck and shoulders ache and your butt registers every bump with a new twang of your mangled muscle fibers and all you can think is “where is that mileage marker?” as you hope that maybe somehow you’ve missed it and you’re actually a mile closer to the end.

Happily for me, my months-long journey so conditioned me that I was largely spared from these horrors; Rachael, not so much. Still after all we learned in Cumberland about the canal, we started off well.

I do like the old locks and the serene environs of the ruined throughway:



About halfway along the first day’s ride (from Cumberland to Hancock) we came up to the 3000+ ft Paw Paw tunnel built in 1850 to create a more direct route past the meandering Potomac.

The surface is fairly uneven and full of potholes so we walked the length of the tunnel.

As the miles wore on:

“our” spirits dampened:

until we saw this happy sign indicating a paved escape:


Our delight in finishing a 62-mile day was somewhat diminished by my bargain-hunting choice of a sadly decrepit rundown motel that Rachael declared was the third-worst place we had ever stayed. As I later emailed Roger, after a few of the places he and I stayed in, I was quite comfortable.

The next day we again started out in high spirits as we were headed to Shepherdstown to see and stay with our friends Will and Kathy. The scenery was mostly pretty good:



But the other side of Williamsport, some serious eutrophication had set in:

However, the Potomac itself was looking pretty good

and we were soon in Shepherdstown, which was a milestone for me because it meant that I was now back within the radius of where I have biked from Washington before. As a training ride, I had come out to see Will and Kathy a few weeks before flying out to the west coast. Coming across the bridge over the Potomac past the Bavarian Inn was all familiar territory to me, and it brought home how quickly my bike odyssey of awesome was coming to an end.

Will and Kathy are great people whom we don’t see enough of, and we were fated not to see as much of them as we would have liked. Rachael’s cat allergy kicked in with alarming ferocity as a casual touch to her eye triggered an impressive and fearsome reddening and swelling that had us beating a hasty retreat to a nearby motel. But the four of us had a delightful dinner (Thai food!) and sat outside their house for a bit playing with their new dog Towpath.

He is so named because that is where Will found him. The incredible tale of this dog’s dire situation and the dogged efforts of so many to save and heal him can be found on Facebook if you go to his fan page; it is grim stuff, but Towpath is now a happy excited bounding bundle of pure canine energy.



The next morning – today in fact, so I’m caught up! – we were again treated to a fine morning’s ride along the Potomac:



But the harsh mistress of stony surface would not be denied, and the third day along the towpath brought Rachael, by now long bereft of song, close to the breaking point. Happily this small bright sign popped into view and we were at White’s Ferry, where I would take my fourth and final vessel across a body of water – this time into Virginia and onto paved roads.




We are now about 40 miles from home and settled into our motel room for a simple self-catered dinner. This trip, which above all else has been of such phenomenological intensity, is now virtually over. My gratitude to Rachael and my friend Roger is boundless and eternal.

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We got into Cumberland on Labor Day and discovered they take the holiday seriously – just about everything was closed! It’s an odd town that’s easy to dismiss. An elevated freeway runs right through the heart of the city, and we’ve driven along it several times glancing at the solid old brick buildings and churches as we whizz on by. But this time, there was rain on the horizon so we took a rest day (I thought we would be much better off not riding on the C&O canal towpath for some 50 miles in the rain), which then raised the question – what do you do with a day in Cumberland?

It turns out that the city’s history is as fascinating and interesting as its modern-day residents are strange and depressing. There is a pedestrian walkway downtown with beautiful old banks (not yet turned into bars!)


but for the most part the area is deserted save for a cluster of down-on-their-luck locals with all the markers that get an urban snob’s tsk-tsk meter running – smoking, overweight, giant soda drinking and physically unattractive with bonus points for being shirtless and not in a good way. Assumptions about and casual attitudes toward obese, smoking rednecks may be the last redoubt for the prejudice of white urban liberals, of which I am surely one.

Cumberland is of course the terminus of the canal that ran from Georgetown, and before Cincinnati acquired the moniker, it was known as the Queen City of the West. Although the canal never got further, the railroad did and Cumberland prospered through the 1800s and up to the Great Depression as a transportation hub with a manufacturing base and a rich coal industry the fruits of which were avidly sought by the British navy.

The historic residential part of town near the old fort is dominated by the courthouse and has several outstanding brick homes.


George Washington had a close connection to the town at the early and end stages of his military career. He was the ranking officer to have survived General Braddock’s ill-fated foray against the French during the colonial French and Indian War, and the last time Washington wore a military uniform was when he came out to Cumberland as the nation’s Commander in Chief to review the federal troops who were being dispatched to Pennsylvania to crush the Whiskey Rebellion. On both occasions, this was his headquarters:

In a fitting example of Cumberland’s odd duality of historic charm and contemporary desultitude, our efforts to learn more about the town came to naught as we were summarily kicked out of the local museum!

Despite the presence of three people working at the small museum in a wing of a public building, the fact that there was no volunteer at the desk meant that technically the museum was closed and so we were shown the door.
The next day, with a backward glance or two, we set out on the formidable – for bikers – C&O Canal towpath. Here’s what the canal looks like at its end:

Our last view of the city:

And here’s Rachael rarin’ to go:


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Train Cam!

Ol’ Smokey!

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About Me

Born in Baltimore and raised in Cincinnati, I have lived on both coasts and driven back and forth across the country a number of times. I now have the "midlife opportunity" to do so on two wheels.