Solitary Refinement

Experimental Solo Bike Tour Day 1
Arlington to Owens Creek Campground, Catoctin Mountain Park
90 miles, 2400 feet of climbing

Go West, Young(ish) Man!

Labor day it was in more than one sense.  Ninety miles was definitely ambitious for my first outing on a loaded touring bike.  But the northernmost point of this ride was Gettysburg and there isn’t a whole lot in between home and there in the way of nice camping.  But what was going to make it even more interesting was the weather.  The humidity, largely absent for most of the summer, had hit hard the day before.  When I set off about 7:30 in the morning the temperature was already in the mid-seventies, and it was sticky as hell.  I was dripping before I even crossed the Key Bridge.

I was carrying about 40 pounds of gear, which is a relatively light touring load, but it made the total weight, with bike and rider, somewhere around 260 pounds.  However, I was surprised that I didn’t really notice it too much when the bike was moving (but the Surly is supposed to be good that way when you load it up).  But trying to move the bike around when off it. . .wow!  Is is like your own private tractor pull.  When riding I found that the same strategy that always works with Gypsy Rose worked well when she was loaded.  I have a tendency to try and push too hard on this bike because I know that I can go faster on a lighter bike.  But if I just find the gear that settles her into a pace at which she is comfortable, even if it is slower than I would like, then she just hums along.  I could definitely feel the extra weight when the road tipped up but I’ve got plenty of gears, so even on the long haul up to Catoctin if I was just patient she climbed steadily.  Something strange, too.  The extra weight almost made it easier to feel when the road was leveling out a bit and the bike wanted to pick up speed; it was if the Surly became more sensitive to road conditions.

I think this kind of touring is something I’d like to do more of, but I don’t want to dive in like a crazy enthusiast and buy a lot of gear that I might not end up using again.  My first thought was to hire a bunch of gear for the trip but the REI closest to us, of course, turns out to be the only one in our region that doesn’t rent gear.  So reached out to friends who were generous with offers of various bits and pieces.  I ended up with a tent that was a little heavier than I wanted (a two-person weighing a little over 4 pounds); it was funny but I just always assumed that knowing some of the people that we do, that there would be no shortage of people with solo backpacking tents because, you know, they were kind of people who like to spontaneously light out for the territories.  Turns out, based on the fact that no one had a single-person tent, that either they are taking a crapload of stuff with them if and when they go solo or they are taking another person–or maybe looking to score some action along the trail.

In reality, it turned out that space was the more limiting factor than weight.  A lot of the stuff I took was already pretty light (stove, etc.), I carried minimal food, but the panniers are a couple that Mary bought from REI for light touring and commuting.  They are perfectly serviceable, but definitely not as well-designed as the specialized tour offerings from companies like Arkel and Ortlieb.  Therefore I had to pack pretty judiciously and I ended up ditching even a light-weight sleeping back for a folded sheet that took up less room.

A Beautiful Glimpse

The first part of the journey, almost 50 miles, was along the C&O canal.  I haven’t biked such a long stretch on that trail before (I usually turn around at Widewater, if I am cycling from home) so this was an adventurous start.  I think one of the things I love most about biking along the Potomac is that the river can be spectacular but you never really get to see it (from the towpath at least, although there are a couple of overlooks you can hike to.  The rivers, especially on this side of the US, are so much bigger than anything we have back in NZ.  Well, NZ rivers are wide also, but they are mostly intricately braided shingle streams, even when in flood they rarely fill bank to bank.  By contrast, even the upper reaches of the Potomac (let alone where it empties into the Chesapeake) have portions so wide that the opposite bank sometimes appears hazy and indistinct.  Yet you catch only glimpses of that wide beauty, seen in brief flashes through the trees.  It is an effect that is most fully realized when you are in motion.  You catch a brief sight of the river through the trees and it pulls and almost involuntary “wow” from you, but the view lasts a fraction of a second and it is gone, to be replaced by another glimpse.  Yet, it you stopped to try and locate that view it would be difficult to find it without going off the trail, and in any case wouldn’t offer you much more than you saw while moving.  You are continually being offered the promise of a great view, a reminder that there is a world beyond the narrow tunnel of green and hardpack through which you are moving.

That tunnel of green provided some level of protection from the sun, thankfully.  For interests sake I had the temperature showing on my Garmin and it was constant in the low- to mid-70s.  The problem however is that the C&O tends to concentrate the humidity and I was soon as saturated as if I had been biking in the rain.

Algae in the C&O canal.

Somehow the canal manages to be beautiful even when choked with algae.

Early in the ride I made sure to stop and take a couple of entirely gratuitous pictures.  I also greeted every cyclist that I came across including a steady stream of pannier-laden cycle campers coming the other way, many of them probably riding the final leg of the typical three-day downhill journey along the trail from the Cumberland end.  I figured that the photos and the greetings would gradually help get me into the vacation mood, slow down, look around, focus on the jourrney.

Lock House on the C&O

So I found out that you can book an overnight stay in a couple of the lock houses. Intriguing.

 

Lock house wall

One thing I love about the lock houses is the texture of the walls. The roughness looks like the passage of time.

I stopped at White’s Ferry for water and a cold drink and met a group of 3 cyclists on their last leg into DC, having left Cumberland two days previously.  When they found out that I was headed to Catoctin one the group, who said he lived near there, responded in a way that seemed both incredulous and alarmed.  “That will be about 100 miles,” he said.  “You’ve still got another 60 miles to go!”  The implication was clearly that I didn’t know what I was doing (despite the fact that I was not the one riding a bike with a big cushy hybrid seat).  Since I wasn’t at all sure that he might not be correct in this case–they were all staring at my bulging panniers in comparison with the relatively light loads they were all carrying–I thought it best to keep that conversation relatively brief.

I had about another 10 miles on the trail, but truth be told I was getting a little tired of it.  The previous night’s rain had left it pretty slimy in places, and the trail condition deteriorates substantially after Riley’s lock, so I had already been slipping and sliding around a lot.  My 32mm tires were definitely proving to be not quite wide enough for the conditions, doing this kind of thing again I would definitely want something a little wider with more traction.

Monocacy Aquaduct

Monocacy Aquaduct. One hundred years ago you’d have been biking underwater.

Yet when I finally exited the trail the tires proved their worth.  I had been dreading this section because it was a 10.5 mile haul north to Frederick along the almost dead straight New Design Road.  But backed by a rather unusual tail wind I rocketed along, rolling comfortably over the gentle rises and falls.

Doing Some Baking

The temperature, however, rose steadily.  By the time I stopped for lunch in Frederick it was in the mid-90s with a real-feel of 102.

I made a few navigational errors here and there but tried not to think of them as wrong turns  but rather as alternate routes which enabled me to see other stuff:: a massive cemetery in Frederick, for example, streets filled with cute row houses, a church atop an unexpected hill (the last compensation for a particularly galling wrong turn outside Thurmont on roads that I knew pretty well).

It was a hot, dripping, uphill grind into Thurmont so I was grateful to stop at the Sheetz for an ice cream and to refill bottles.  And even more grateful because it gave the bike and I a covered place to stand when one of the afternoon’s predicted storms passed through.  While I was there I talked with a lovely couple who had approached me wanting to know what the giant orange things on the back of the bike were.  This prompted the guy to wax nostalgic about how he hadn’t taken any long bike adventures since he and his friends had attempted the C&O when they were all 18.  It was a classic “follies of youth” story (a kind with which I have more than a little familiarity): you determine to do this thing and you set out to do it, but don’t ask for advice or even figure that other people might have tried something similar before you because, you know, you are young, you know everything, and you are invincible.  He and most of his friends had panniers, except for the smallest guy in the bunch who insisted on biking with a hiking pack on his back and who soon fell way behind.  Two of them abandoned at Harper’s Ferry and took the train back to DC.  The remaining group hadn’t protected any of their gear so their tend and sleeping bags got completely soaked in a storm and they ended up spending a night sheltering in an outhouse–four of them!–at Edward’s Ferry.  At which point the guy telling the story called his Dad to come and get them.

Both he and his wife were interested in the technology of the bike because, as he said, it looks kinda like the old ten-speeds but different.

I wasn’t looking forward to next 10 miles which were all uphill into Catoctin Mountain Park.  But surprisingly they went rather quickly.  The climbing was constant but not super steep so I only had to use the granny ring for one short stretch.  Before I knew it I was turning into Owens Creek Campground which was, so far as I could tell, completely deserted.  There wasn’t even a camp host in residence.  All of this made my reserving a site seem rather unnecessary.  But I had wanted to ensure that I got the site I wanted, which I chose mainly on the basis of one vital criterion: proximity to the showers.  And after setting up the tent without a hitch–I had, unwisely, got hold of one so late in the process of preparing for this ride that I hadn’t practiced setting it up–the showers were the first place I headed.

The comforts of Away-from-home

There are some things that people who don’t do cycle camping never experience.  Some of these joys are shared in lesser degree with other cyclists: the unparalleled bliss of finally taking off your bike shoes at the end of a long ride and slipping into. . .well, any other kind of footwear, really.  It feels like your whole body is reviving from the feet up.  But the showers. . .ah, the showers!  It isn’t anything like having a shower at home after a long ride.  In fact, if the shower is more rough and ready that is integral to the pleasure; you are having a shower at time and place where, if we were all living in a state of nature, there should be no shower.  I swear that some of the best showers I have ever had in my life have been in giant shower trucks while on supported bike tours.  But this one was right up there with those.  I was hot, slimy with sweat and sunscreen, coated with bugs from head to waste, and black with trail dirt from the waist down (when I’d stopped for lunch in Frederick I had first hurriedly disappeared into the wash room, trying to at least make my dead-insect face look likess like that of a plague victim so I didn’t frighten the woman behind the counter).  The shower had no light, it was gloomy, but it had–hallelujah–hot water.  I threw myself in still wearing my bike kit, and gradually worked at erasing the layers of the day’s ride.

Bike as clothesline.

Every good touring bike needs to be able to serve as a clothesline.

The campground was unbelievable quiet, nothing but the dense hum of insects.  Oh, and, of course, the occasional high altitude jet, like a distant wind.  Is there anywhere in the US where you can go and not hear a plane overhead?  As the late afternoon sun slanted through the dense foliage it was time to make a cup of tea and kick back for a while with a good book.

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