Experimental Solo Bike Tour Day 2
Catoctin Mountain Park to Gettysburg
27 miles, 1300 feet of climbing
(If you missed it, feel free to check out Day 1 of the Tour).
Slept for about 11 hours.
Part of that was yesterday’s efforts, but part of it was also catching up on some sleep from during the week. Oatmeal and coffee for breakfast and then more time relaxing, writing, and reading Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World, one of those must-read books that I have nevertheless put off for too long. Still as depressing and optimistic as when it was published almost 20 years ago.
Because today was a short day I packed up late, hoping that my bike kit would have dried, but the combination of the humidity and the dense forest meant that it never really did. And that is one of the other kinds of sensations that people who don’t bike camp never experience (and for which they can be profoundly grateful): the experience of slipping on damp bike clothes. It is, I imagine, what pulling on someone else’s skin over your own must feel like. But the upside is that this stuff is designed to dry really fast when you are wearing it, so when I popped out of the campground onto a sunny three-mile descent everything began to dry and I immediately began to feel much better.
There was, however, a sharp 350 foot climb up Eyler Flint Valley Road to snap me back to reality and dampen my clothes all over again, but the scenery was beautiful, including some interesting ruins by the side of the road.
Yet I always seem to block out how lumpy Pennsylvania is: you are ambling down a quiet country lane with what appears to be a couple of small bumps in it, and before you know it you have added a couple hundred feet of climbing.
I rollercoastered my way toward Gettysburg and before I knew it I’d reached the battlefield. Actually, I could see it approaching quite clearly up the road because there was a definite dividing line. Prior to the line the roadside was its usual scruffy rural mess; after the line it just somehow became a little neater. I grabbed some lunch then spent a little while figuring out the roads around the Visitors Center and cemetery and thinking about what I wanted to do the next day.
I cut across the battlefield and took a back road–Black Horse Tavern Lane, significant because the–surprise, surprise–Black Horse Tavern at the end of it served as a Confederate hospital during the battle. The road dumped me almost at the gate of the campground. Even as I turned in, however, the sky was blackening, rumbles of thunder were merging into a near-constant roll, and the first drops were starting to fall.
Camping options in the Gettysburg area are pretty limited. It is a huge tourist destination in a mainly rural area so there are no quiet, out-of-the-way state parks with nice private sites. Your choice is basically between a massive camping resort, a boutique exceptionally expensive small resort, or something in the middle. I chose what looked to be something in the middle, but even that turned out to be huge (my site number was 230 and I am not near the end of the line). Not vast in terms of land area, however, but rather the number of sites, all of which have you pretty much cheek by jowl.
Fortunately it was after labor day so I wasn’t surprised but was very thankful to see that there were very few people in the campground. However I’d ben unable to secure a tent in the tent section because it was booked out by a large group the following night so they gave me a trailer site. That didn’t seem like a big deal; when I used the AAA discount (and boy did it seem weird using AAA on a bike tour) the price difference was minimal. But the trailer site was the kind I haven’t seen since my childhood camping in the US: gravel, everywhere, the entire campground covered in gravel. Dark gravel for the sites, white gravel for the roads, with lines of orange spray paint used to demarcate site boundaries. Still, there were plenty of trees and therefore lots of shade, there was no one around me, and my site backed onto a languid creek. Besides, it looked as if the worst of the rain had passed by.
All these thoughts were running through my head as I began setting up the tent. At which point there was a crack of thunder which inaugurated a constant rumble as if the area was once again being visited by battle (poor Gettysburg; you must get tired of people reaching for that analogy every time a storm hits). At which point I discovered that the ground on my site was rock hard, compacted no doubt by years of outsize camping vehicles and their equally outsized owners (to judge from the few people I’d already seen lurking around their motorhomes). I’d grabbed one rock from the creek bed to serve as a hammer; I now figured I would probably need more to weight the inch-deep tent pegs down. As I scrambled up the bank contemplating how I was going to build a series of little cairns without damaging the tent, it began to rain heavily. I had time to say “For fuck’s sake!” when everything turned instantly extreme. It was as if I was inside someone’s hurricane simulator. It wasn’t raining; it was as if someone had turned a firehose full on me. The wind gave a brief experimental shake of the trees and then came in at gale force. A stream of large sticky leaves plastered themselves to me and the tent, small twigs began hitting me, then large bits of wood began to go sailing past. Any moment I expected to look up and see the local weatherman, clad in a patently insufficient anorak, with both arms wrapped around a tree, yelling into a microphone: “All I can tell you Bob is that it is really windy and wet out here!”
As lightning and thunder matched one another flash for bang, I was suddenly very conscious of the fact that there was nowhere around me that wasn’t under a tall tree. So I did the next best thing and made myself small. Or rather, I had to, because I had to throw myself on top of the tent to stop it blowing away. After a couple of minutes riding the bucking, heaving mass of canvas, I noticed my bike helmet bowling towards me, headed for the creek. I sprinted, grabbed it, then threw myself back on the tent just as it appeared about to achieve escape velocity. There was so much water that I was inhaling it when I tried to breathe. Could you really drown in a thunderstorm on dry land? I have never been outside in weather as bad as this. (And that includes biking in a zero-visibility thunderstorm during the Musselman Half-Ironman in 2012; there at least there was no wind).
Eventually the wind died down to mere storm force and the rain scaled back to torrential and I was able to leave the tent laying in a sad, little puddle where it thankfully stayed put. I stood up, the rain still so heavy it was at least relieving me of the need to take a shower. My bike was sitting in a pool of water and wearing a coating of damp leaves. My saddlebags and their partially unpacked contents were half-submerged in a small pond that had formed under the picnic table. The situation was so ridiculously extreme that even profanity seemed inadequate. So I stood there looking pathetic, shifting stuff to marginally less saturated ground until the rain finally stopped and the sky lightened weakly, almost apologetically.
The first thing to do was to empty the water out of the tent. It was like trying to drain a water balloon but upending the soggy mess produced enough water to solve California’s drought problem. The upside of the downpour however was that at least the ground was soft enough that I could finally get the pegs in, for the most part. Eventually I produced something that vaguely resembled the tent only saturated on the outside and still sporting little pools of water on the inside. Still, at least I could get myself and the gear inside and I was reasonably confident that it wouldn’t then blow all the way to Philadelphia. All my bike kit and everything canvas was drenched. But at this point I said a few devotionals to the inventor of Zip-Locs. I had Zip-Locked everything pretty much and now it was paying huge dividends. I was able to change into clean clothes, my food was still Ok, and I still had my diary in which to write my tale of woe. But first it was off to the camp store to get some snack food and something for dinner only to discover that since it was the day after Labor Day they had pretty much been cleaned out.
I opened the door to the store and was greeted with more thunder and a few spots of rain. I began walking back to the tent. . .and without any warning at all the hurricane simulator instantly turned on back on full force. With visions of my tent doing a Dorothy I sprinted through the campground, still in my drenched bike gear, wallet and phone and snacks banging wildly in my pockets. I heard a muffled bang and stopped abruptly, thinking that something might have fallen out of one of my pockets. Then I heard the sound of foliage tearing, and looked up to see a giant tree limb hit the ground and splinter right where I would have been had I kept running.
I made it to the tent, hurriedly shed my wet clothes, replaced them with dry ones, and hunkered down to wait it out.
There did prove to be a few advantages to what had initially seemed like a less than satisfactory situation. One benefit of the gravel sites was that they drained really quickly. When I took a stroll later in the evening through the tent section it was a swamp, with substantial portions of most of the sites still under water. Plus, the rain had cooled things down and cut the humidity. There didn’t seem to be any more showers forecast until late at night, the weather map on my phone looked clear and it turned into a nice relaxing evening. I had packed a spare freeze-dried meal; it was simple and quick and I’ve certainly eaten worse.
Walking around also gave me a chance to meet some other people. I struck up a conversation with a German couple who were occupying the only other tent in the entire campground; they were spending three weeks traveling around the country with their two-year old, and were next heading south to Skyline. They were worried that the mountains would be cold like on the West Coast but I was able to reassure them that nothing on this side of the country is quite high enough for that!
I met another couple, Lee and Barbara, both of whom had witnessed my narrow escape with the arboreal remnant from the safety of their trailer and commented that I sure must be living right. They were from Florida, traveling with a rescue dog (Buddy) and a rescue cat, for about 8 weeks. I thought that sounded great until Lee described the challenges of trying to keep the cat inside the trailer. They were looking forward to touring the battlefield the next day for the first time, as was I even though it was my umpteenth visit.
Eventually the light faded and I went to bed. The had dried some, thankfully, but it was still like lying inside a gym sock. But I was much too tired to notice.