The ditch seemed to appear out of nowhere. My buddy Victor and I had been biking all day and now it was dark. We’d traveled more than 70 miles and fatigue was setting in, or rather it had set in about 30 miles ago, back when biking all the way to Pittsburgh seemed like a rational idea, fun even.
Since then, my bike light had burned out, so Victor had donned a headlamp that was lighting the way for both of us. But it was still difficult to see, and we didn’t quite know where we were going.
And then I crashed handlebars-first into the trough, which I later realized led to a small embankment and down to the Potomac River. And as I lay there, startled but unhurt, I suddenly realized: this was going to be a very long journey.
Victor and I had biked several Washington-area trails in recent years, including the Mount Vernon Trail, a paved 18-mile track that runs from Theodore Roosevelt Island to George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate, and the 45-mile Washington and Old Dominion Trail, which runs west from D.C. to Purcellville, Virginia.
But the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal towpath trail that we were now attempting to tame was a different beast. For one thing, it isn’t paved. Running along the north bank of the Potomac River, the 185-mile path is made of clay and crushed stone. As such, and isit’s full of potholes, roots, mud and jutting rocks. It was a bumpy ride.
For another thing, the towpath, which ends in Cumberland, Maryland., would get us only halfway to our destination. We’d then pick up the Great Allegheny Passage, which would take us the final 150 miles to Pittsburgh.
The first half of the first day was pleasant, at least relative to what would come.
Several friends had questioned why we were attempting to bike that great distance in just four days and with no recent training. “You’re going to be miserable,” one friend told me. “Why would you want to bike such a long trail?” Our answer was not unlike the one George Mallory gave the man who inquired why he wanted to summit Mount Everest: “Because it’s there.”
The first half of the first day was pleasant, at least relative to what would come. It was a beautiful early fall day and our route took us through historic towns such as Harpers Ferry and provided some of the best scenery on the trail, including stunning views of Great Falls, a series of rapids and waterfalls on the Potomac River.
After about 40 miles, the pain began to set in. It wouldn’t subside until a few days after the trip ended. I had made two crucial mistakes. One was to lug a 20-pound pack on my back, instead of attaching a rack to my bike, as Victor had done. That extra weight took its toll on my shoulders, back and especially my wrists. After a while, even taking it on and off was a chore.
My second mistake was to wear cotton underwear underneath my biking shorts. This was a big mistake, as a quick Google search would inform me. It didn’t take long for excruciating saddle sores to form—the result of an excessive amount of pressure being placed on a small surface for long periods of time.
The C&O towpath and Great Allegheny Passage trails run from Washington, D.C., to Pittsburgh. Geographically, that’s 335 miles. But culturally and politically, it’s even further.
These challenges aside, our lives took on a neat simplicity for the next four days. When it was dark, we slept. When it was light, we peddled. There wasn’t much in between, other than drinking as much water and Gatorade as we could and eating whatever was available.
It was liberating. All the other problems, concerns, commitments, and ambitions in life drifted away for a brief time. Through much of the trail, my cell phone couldn’t catch a signal, which only added to the feeling of emancipation.
Our sole focus was on spotting the next mile marker. Our only ambition was to arrive at to the next B & B, ideally before dark (though that never happened). Our only job was to make it to Pittsburgh.
And so we peddled. We peddled through historic railroad tunnels and dense forests. We passed mountain streams and dozens of old locks. We peddled over wobbly bridges and soaring viaducts, sometimes in almost complete darkness.
A bridge to Trump country in western Maryland.
After peddling 88 miles on day three, we reached Confluence in the Laurel Highlands of southwest Pennsylvania. Geographically, we were only a couple of hours’ drive from Washington. But culturally and politically, we couldn’t have been further away.
We had traveled from Washington, where President Trump won just 4 percent of the vote one year ago, to Somerset County, Pa., where he won 77 percent of the vote. This was Appalachia, the land of coal mines and steel mills, a place where people extract things from the earth and build things with their bare hands. This is also the heart of the opioid epidemic, where drug addiction and overdoses have skyrocketed over the last 20 years.
In short, we were in Trump country.
At this point, my saddle sores were getting the better of me, and I had to take a break. So next morning, Victor rode on ahead, and I rested. The day off allowed me to obtain some much-needed treatment for my wounds. It also gave me a chance to meet the locals.
We were in Appalachia, the land of coalmines and steel mills, a place where people extract things from the earth and build things with their bare hands. This was also the heart of the opioid epidemic, where drug addiction and overdoses have skyrocketed over the last 20 years. In short, we were in Trump country.
Everyone I met in Confluence was an ardent Trump supporter. There was the proprietor of our B&B, Hanna, a devout Catholic who I later learned had lost her husband to a drug overdose. During the election, she posted a Trump campaign sign in her yard until some of her guests, mostly Bernie Sanders-supporting cyclists, complained.
There was her son-in-law Jeffrey, who was visiting from Staten Island and liked Trump’s positions on immigration and free trade and his unwillingness to back down from a fight.
Then there was Jim, the Vietnam War veteran who drove me to town. When I asked him why he liked living in Confluence, he said, “Because there aren’t any black people to ruin things,” and then launched into a 20-minute racist rant. Jim acknowledged that he was ignorant on racial matters, and seemed to listen when I recommended that he spend more time with people different than himself. Later, as Jim drove away after dropping me off back at the B&B, I noticed a faded Trump-Pence sticker on his rear bumper.
Next morning, I woke up refreshed and determined to finish the last leg of the journey. After having put in three grueling days, I wasn’t about to quit. I didn’t want to let down Victor, who was already in Pittsburgh waiting for me. So I grinded out the 91 miles in 11 hours—the best time I had done all weekend. It wasn’t pretty, but I got it done.
When I arrived in Pittsburgh just after sunset, I felt triumphant. I coasted into Point State Park, where Victor met me. We had covered 335 miles in four days of biking. At 650 pedals a mile that comes out to about 218,000 pedals—not a bad weekend’s work.
It was a grueling, painful, and at times excruciating journey—and we loved every minute of it.
Read More: Trempealeau County
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