Gazing down the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal towpath through a quiet corridor of dark, damp earth and the pale green froth of spring leaves, it’s difficult to imagine that this area once teemed with the activities of the Industrial Revolution.
Here, as at other locales around the country during the Canal Era of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, brawny mules would pull long wooden boats laden with coal, hay and other goods, between western Maryland and Georgetown. Men guided the boats and extended the C&O’s channel along the Potomac and upward through the Alleghenies.
Today, the canal’s shorelines are blurred by river rushes and beaver dams. Turtles congregate on floating logs, while rabbits scamper across the towpath. The air is thick with honeysuckle and the metallic scent of fresh forest water. The only sounds are waterfalls, the shsssh of tires pushing through puddles, and the occasional distant whine of a train.
It’s a beautiful scene, especially from aboard a bike with members of the Potomac Pedalers Touring Club (PPTC).
A 185-mile sojourn through rain and mud, bunking with sweaty strangers and eating jerky and granola along the way, might sound more like chain-gang life than a weekend pleasure trip. But to the PPTC bikers, this excursion, a four-day trek along the canal over Memorial Day weekend, is a welcome getaway — and just one of dozens like it they undertake every year.
Glenn Gillis, 49, a U.S. Postal Service worker at the Dulles Priority Center, coordinated the trip, arranging food, lodging and logistics for the 19 riders. (Nearly twice that had originally signed up, but weather conditions led to last-minute cancellations.)
Pushing off from Cumberland (the canal’s western terminus) after a bus ride up from Washington, the riders planned stops in Paw Paw and Harpers Ferry, W.Va., and Williamsport, Md., before a final 60-mile push to back to the capital.
“These trips are great because they attract so many fun, outgoing, interesting people,” says the ever-smiling Mr. Gillis. “I love the camaraderie. You’re in close quarters with everyone, so you get to know them well.”
Mr. Gillis’ first PPTC trip, a 1995 foray along North Carolina’s Outer Banks, didn’t go quite as well. Rain poured incessantly, and he had to leave early when he received word his father had passed away. But eight years later he is still an active PPTC member and has loved the experience.
“Biking is the best way to see the countryside. You can take rides as easy or as difficult as you want,” he says. “And there’s such a sense of adventure. These trips offer everything in the way of natural and historical sites.”
With more than 4,000 members, Potomac Pedalers is the largest biking group in the area and, according to Mr. Gillis, unofficially the largest in the country. More than 20 other biking groups exist in the Washington region for every level and interest, including recreational, tandem, mountain, and racing.
Mr. Gillis is not surprised. “There is so much to see and do in this area,” he says. “You have monuments and historical sites around town, and within just a few hours’ ride there are mountains, countryside, historic battlefields, and the ocean. You have flat terrain, hills, paved roads and rocky trails. There’s really no other area like D.C. for this kind of proximity.”
The region’s bicycling trail access is also excellent. Trails like the Mount Vernon, Custis and Washington and Old Dominion (W&OD), can take recreational and commuting bikers almost anywhere they want to go. The Metropolitan Branch Trail, projected to be completed in 2007, will provide an eight-mile long route through northeast Washington paralleling the Metro Red Line from Union Station to Silver Spring — and, when connected with the Capital Crescent Trail, will complete what cycling enthusiasts refer to as the “bicycle beltway” around the city, with access points to Montgomery and Prince George’s counties as well as Arlington and Alexandria.
Bicycling advocacy organizations like the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) work hand-in-hand with the clubs to build these trails and provide commuting options for bikers.
“The bicycling clubs and our advocacy work have given rise to a significant biking culture in the D.C. area,” says Ellen Jones, WABA director.
“We promote biking as a healthy, convenient, safe and environmentally friendly method of traveling. We want people to see biking as not just for weekend fun, but as a regular way of getting around, for going to the video store or the bank. Biking clubs help us by recruiting members and making people feel comfortable riding, and learning to do it safely.”
WABA’s efforts are bearing fruit. According to the most recent U.S. Census, the number of D.C. bikers commuting to work increased by 90 percent from 1990 to 2000. WABA has also successfully implemented a “bike-on-bus” program that has equipped all of the 1,450 commuter buses in the Washington area with bike racks.
Currently WABA, along with a range of environmental and recreation advocacy groups, is working to restrict weekday auto traffic along Rock Creek Park’s upper Beach Drive to leave it free for bikers, walkers, in-line skaters and runners. That section of Beach Drive is now closed to autos on weekends.
“Cyclists are not even the majority on Beach Drive,” says Ms. Jones. “It’s wall-to-wall recreation there.”
Every day of the week, PPTC members meet on these trails to cycle around Washington and the surrounding area. Some rides are easy, recreational tours; others are faster-paced training treks.
The PPTC Web site details routes by their length and difficulty, “A” being the fastest and most challenging, “D” being the easiest. (The C&O trip is a “C” ride). Weekend and extended trips include excursions to the Eastern Shore, Williamsburg, the Shenandoah Valley, or more distant destinations like New England or Nova Scotia. In all, PPTC members venture out on several thousand rides per year.
If joining such a group sounds intimidating, don’t worry. Forget those packs of low-hunched, sleek-sunglassed, Stepford bikers streaking past you on the weekends. No neon spandex is necessary, nor do you have to be in top shape. Tall, short, fat, thin, man, woman, it doesn’t matter — anyone can cycle. The only requirements are open-mindedness and a sense of adventure.
“Before I joined Potomac Pedalers, I was afraid at first that I would be dragging the group down,” says Pat Harris, 51, a Springfield nurse who joined PPTC a year ago. “I would go out alone and time myself on the W&OD first to make sure I could keep up. But then I did a ride with the group and I was fine.”
You don’t even need the latest and greatest bike. You can rent one for around $25 a day, or buy one of your own.
“It doesn’t take a lot of money to get into biking, and you don’t have to have anything fancy,” says Floyd Alvarez, assistant manager of Revolution Cycles in Clarendon. “For general weekend rides and short commutes, you can get a decent bike, helmet and the basic repair gear for around $500 to $600.”
Like anything else, though, you get what you pay for.
“You don’t want to go too much lower than that, or you’ll constantly be breaking down on the trails,” he says.
The trips themselves are also affordable — the C&O adventure costs less that $200 for the bus trip to Cumberland and four days of meals and lodging. Because trips are often offered on an “a la carte” basis — for example, participants can choose between staying in nice hotels, or camping out — bikers can have wonderful weekends for little expense.
The C&O trip’s participants form a microcosm of Washington-area bikers. Among them are government and health care workers, a cartographer, and one who is “between jobs.” Ages range from the early 30s to seniors; some members are married but most are single.
The common denominator is their enthusiasm: Meeting at 8:30 a.m. to begin the trip, they chatter like finches, comparing bikes and packing their canvas saddlebags, unfazed that four days of pedaling lie ahead of them.
The riders are shuttled from Washington to Cumberland by J.D. Gross, who, with wife Shirley, runs the Red Rooster Hostel in Paw Paw, a town of 600 whose name is derived from the area’s native pawpaw trees. Shirley Gross was once its mayor.
Paw Paw is home to the Paw Paw Tunnel, a section of the C&O towpath that has been referred to as one of the wonders of the world. Completed in 1850, it took 14 years to cut the 3,118-foot long, tar-dark tunnel through the Paw Paw Ridge to allow the canal to flow through it. Its brick-paved ceiling, visible only with the strongest flashlight, arches high over the narrow path running some 10 feet above the water, with only a thin guardrail dividing the path from the water.
The Grosses make their living mainly from hosting biking groups touring the canal. The walls of their hostel are decorated with photos of smiling visitors — many from the D.C. area.
“We probably have more people come in from D.C. than anywhere else. I make two to three trips to D.C. a week,” says Mr. Gross. “A lot of people come back again and again. They’re our friends.”
The C&O Canal is beloved by riders nationwide for its scenery, wildlife, level terrain, and its unique history. Begun in 1828, it was intended to be a major artery of commerce from Washington to Pittsburgh. But the project faced countless obstacles — flooding, funding shortages and infighting among its immigrant workers. Eventually, railroads overtook canals as the fastest method of transport, and the C&O Canal stalled in Cumberland. Although it remained in operation from 1850 to 1924, it was already obsolete.
The canal sat idle until the early 1950s, when there was talk of demolishing it and the towpath, but Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas recognized the canal’s cultural, geological and botanical value and lobbied for its preservation by walking its entire length — and inviting dissenters to join him. His persuasion led to the creation of the C&O Canal National Historic Park, where thousands of bikers, hikers and walkers now visit every year — making it, ironically, far more successful as a park than it ever was as a canal.
Just outside downtown Cumberland, next to the very railroad tracks that were the canal’s downfall, the riders begin at the 184.5-mile mark to pedal away from civilization and into the countryside, the Potomac swirling on the right, the canal on the left, trees’ reflections cast on its black surface.
There are the occasional hazards of mud puddles and wet leaves, but the group is thankful that the weather is kinder than expected. Some riders remain in groups and chat, others stretch out single file and, for a few hours anyway, feel nothing but the breeze, the mist and the pleasant exertion of pedaling.
Reminders of the canal’s original utility are plentiful, aqueducts and locks — massive wooden gates that would close around the canal boats to raise or lower the water level as needed to travel up or down the canal. Nearby are preserved lockhouses, pristine white cottages with green shutters where the locktenders lived.
The first day is a 27-mile ride to Paw Paw, after which the riders spend the night at the Grosses’ hostel. There is no TV, but there is a hot tub, in which grateful bikers can rest weary rears. They cook outside, play games, eat s’mores and endure snores — but get a night of the D.C.-free lifestyle.
The riders have many reasons for joining a biking club.
“Biking is one of my favorite things to do,” says Mr. Gillis. “It’s part of the adventure that I enjoy. A bike is a very simple and classic way to get around. Some bikes have all sorts of bells and whistles these days, but the basic design is essentially the same. It will never go out of style.”
Bill Branson, 56, a photographer for the National Institutes of Health, has been a friend of Mr. Gillis’ since they met on the fateful Outer Banks trip.
“I joined because PPTC has good trips and people like Glenn to coordinate them,” says Mr. Branson, who brings up the rear of the group so that he can help slower, novice riders with bike maintenance and their gear.
Caroline Alder, 35, a public affairs specialist with the Department of the Interior, moved to Washington from Salt Lake City in October and signed on for the trip the day before departure.
“I was looking for an adventure for Memorial Day weekend instead of just sitting around,” says Ms. Alder, a lifelong avid biker, over a card game she is leading at the hostel. “I found Potomac Pedalers’ Web site and talked my way in at the last minute. This has been so much fun. I’ve been looking to make some new friends.”
Ms. Harris, the nurse from Springfield, has yet a different reason. Four years ago, she says, she was overweight and recently divorced. Biking helped her start a new life.
“My son was a mountain biker and encouraged me to try it,” she says. “I thought it was ridiculous, but now I feel free again. I lost 40 pounds. My four kids have been so supportive, and now, riding with groups like this, it keeps me going.”
She now rides more than 100 miles a week and assists PPTC in organizing rides. “I have to ride now. I can’t not ride.”
From Paw Paw, the riders continue to Williamsport, Md., and to the Antietam battlefield, an enjoyable detour from an area of the canal that has been closed due to flooding. Harpers Ferry, Fort Frederick, and other charming rail towns like Brunswick, Md., are also stops along the way.
The bikers cruise into Georgetown on Memorial Day afternoon, muddy and exhausted but proud. They are planning cookouts to reunite and compare photographs; already they are plotting their next PPTC voyages.
“I’m tired, but it’s different than how you feel after being in an office all day,” says Ms. Alder.
“This is a good kind of tired. You feel like you’ve really accomplished something.”