It's a beautiful cloudless day and after a quick ferry ride across the Potomac, we are ready and excited to be finishing our trip. Though the trail is 335 miles long we figure that after today's 38 miles we will have biked somewhere between 350 and 360 miles over our 8 days on the GAP and C&O Canal Trail.
This morning the trail starts out as intimate as it is narrow with trees surrounding us. Dappled sunlight makes its way through partially lighting our way and the coolness of the morning is shrugged off as we get into our peddling groove. Surprisingly there are only a few people on the trail at 10 am. A group of bicyclists are to our right wiping the sleep out of their eyes in a campground. Taking a quick look, there is no one we recognize.
The trail is good and our legs strong so we reach mile marker 30 very soon after our morning start. This morning, so far there is nothing new or remarkable about our trip as it is much the same as it has been for the last 150 or so miles on the C&O canal: trees on both sides, the canal often in a mucky state, the river to our right flowing slowly and the occasional soft spot in the trail that we we need to dodge.
The familiarity of the trail and the perfection of the ride gives me time to reflect on all the wonderful things we have seen and done over the past week:
Visiting family in Pittsburgh.
Meeting new and interesting people.
Seeing many different animals and plants.
Traveling a path and visiting places that were very important to the history of the country.
Accomplishing a physically demanding trip.
Getting to know Ted much better (and he me.)
The railroad that has often been on our left appears to have abandoned us and replaced by farms. I miss the sound of the trains and their consistency as they have followed us for nearly the entire trip. But as we get closer to Washington D.C. they will no longer accompany us. But the mud puddles will not go away as another batch emerges on the trail. I have determined that traveling on these wet spots is like driving a car on snow and ice: drive slowly and keep a straight line and you will be fine; too fast and you will wipe out, which we have yet to do (not counting my prior fall.)
As the mud fades into the background at least for now, I notice that we are going quite fast. We are zipping past the mile markers at a 13 mph pace without much effort. And now the Potomac has changed becoming much wider, even when compared to our crossing at White's Ferry many miles back.
We reach a small park and with the lengthening of our ride and lateness of the day, the trail has become more populated requiring us to slow our pace. We pass yet another lock and ride over the Seneca Creek Aqueduct, the final one on the trail, and Lock 24.
The canal has started to change as the locks are intact having been rebuilt by preservationists and the trees that used to line the canal are gone. The canal is filled with water and it is moving slightly. With the change, it has become much more sunny and warm. We have been used to trees surrounding us and now the canal is more in a clearing than anytime in the past. A large cliff of rock shields our view on the canal side.
We are not used to traveling next to a canal with water. It seems as if one could get a mule and pull a barge up and down river as now the canal has the water and clearing to get the job done. Also, this section of the trail has gotten wider and in better condition, letting us increase our speed. The Potomac is getting wilder.
We have reached the Great Falls Tavern Visitor's Center and it is packed with people. It has a replica barge that people can enter to see what was used in the canal nearly 200 years ago. The main overlook to the falls is closed so we have to settle for a less dramatic one that is adjacent to the tavern. A remarkable thing about this park is that it lets people use bicycles and helmets for free on the trail as well as having a tune up station with mechanics for those bringing the own. Both Ted and I think that this is a wonderful idea and can only encourage folks to get on their bikes and take a ride.
But taking a ride in this section on a weekend is crowded so we walk/glide our way around people. Unfortunately, there are too many bikers who don't believe in courtesy and fly though crowds at reckless speeds. Both of us almost got hit and the bikers, whose speeds are well above 10 mph are rude and seemingly uncaring about anything else save their ability to maintain a certain speed. So they weave in and out making the experience that much more uncomfortable for everyone.
This is the only time in 8 days and over 300 miles of traveling that we have seen this type of behavior. So far, everyone that we have met on the trail has been kind and courteous to others they have come across. We both are disappointed in this change.
We rest for lunch on a rocky outcropping perhaps 13 miles from our final destination. The location is starkly beautiful. Along the far side of the canal there are carved out rocks where bonsai like trees have taken hold, softening the view. To our left there is a spillway, that appears to be made of iron, rather than rock, as it has the rusty red patina of that oxidized mineral. To each side appears logs stacked forming a three sided box containing rocks. The canal takes a gentle sweep to the left and a bridge to our right takes us over an adjacent wetland.
After lunch, our trip takes us though a space with different plants and trees than we are used to. With pine and white cedar trees clinging to craggy rocks, the landscape surrounding the canal reminds me more more of a mountain gorge in the West than a canal trail in the East. As we move away from the park, the canal starts a slow transformation back to its more swampy condition. Car sounds are beginning to emerge behind a thickly treed area increasing with intensity as we move toward Washington.
A view to the river has opened up a bit to our right and we appear to be in the flight path of Reagan National Airport, with planes flying overhead every few minutes. So with cars to our left and planes overhead, the tranquility that we have become so used to has ended.
We take a quick break in front of a large sign that is to be seen by river travelers stating, "Stop! Dam Ahead. Deadly Undertow." I am excited that we are about to finish our journey in its entirety and we have had phenomenal luck and good weather considering how long we have been on the trail.
As we are perhaps 3 miles out of where the C&O canal joins the Potomac for one last time, a paved path starts below the towpath. It is smooth and would let us finish our trip with a nice and easy roll. But no. We have been on this trail for most of its 180-plus miles and I am not going to finish it off on a paved highway. We take the high road of the mules of the past and push on the gravel.
At this point the canal has become more of a drainage ditch with a dried bed, weeds on all sides and little interesting within it. No more waterfowl or turtles. The good news is that we appear to have the towpath to ourselves and we are taking it home.
The C&O towpath has become treacherous in the final mile. After crossing over the canal and then walking down a loose gravel incline we find ourselves on a path that is perhaps 2 foot wide at best. To our left is a concrete wall and to our right is a 10 foot drop into the canal. We take a slow roll on the trail until we find ourselves on the streets of Georgetown. We feel as if we have entered a busy world of trendy restaurants, businesses and tourists. Below is a broken canal whose final bit of tow path is blocked by construction.
We know that the beginning of the canal is at the Thompson Boat Basin and with Ted's iPhone and some common sense we find the basin, walk across a small wooden bridge and find the 0 mile marker.
Our journey is complete.