After a fabulous breakfast (that will be discussed in a different post) we and the rest of the bikers staying at the Town Hill B&B got loaded up in the shuttle van and driven back to the trail, which was 6 miles away. A few of the group (not us) thought it might be fun to bike back as the initial descent would be huge as the B&B rested at an altitude of about 1800 feet above sea level. They thought better of it, however, as it was not just a single descent but a series of rolling hills requiring some hard pumping to get over them.
We get a later start than usual today and don't get on our bikes until around 10 am. The sky is cloudy with a threat of rain and it is cool. I have two layers on and may need to put on a third if the wind kicks up. We are looking forward to today's ride, in particular, as half of it will be on a nice, paved non-muddy trail. A few miles up we will catch the Western Maryland Rail Trail (WMT), which parallels the C&O canal for 21 miles, nearly half of the 42 miles we need to cycle today.
I decide to put on another layer as the chill in the air and falling leaves remind me of fall. I have no idea why the dogwoods are dropping their leaves with such profusion but their release around us has a nice effect in the morning as our bodies become acclimated to the morning ride.
For me, I need to stretch my legs to get out the kinks of my sleep and warm the muscles so they are ready to deliver the repetitive pumping motion that will take us the 40-plus miles we must travel. My bottom shifts a bit back and forth on the seat to find the sweet spot of the day so I am comfortable and everything is in place for an easy ride.
Ted and I keep to ourselves and our thoughts on this quiet and peaceful morning. The trail looks very similar to what we saw yesterday in the last 10 miles. We are high above the Potomac, which is quiet with little noise appearing languid and almost unmoving though we know that not to be true.
A few animals scamper around us: a bunny hops off the tracks into the bush and a deer is running in the canal. There are still few wildflowers around, the sides being colonized with wild Virginia rye and other grasses creating a unvaried greenish patina. Virginia creeper as well as poison ivy compete for dominance against each other as to whom will take over more trees on our journey down to Washington.
We bike through a lock and notice an old rusty railroad bridge to our left thinking that we should soon be able to enter the rail trail and give our bodies a rest from the bumpy path we have been on for nearly 50 miles.
We get off the C&O Canal Towpath onto the WMT just in time as the rain starts forcing us to get on our rain gear. We are not happy that it is about to rain, but pleased that our ride will be on a nice, smooth asphalt path instead of 'Big Muddy.' Ironically we spent more time getting our bikes and us ready for the rain as a drenching lasted all of 10 minutes. When is ceased it left a chill in the air that made me keep on all four layers of clothing I have on. We don't mind, however, as our hands and bottoms are thankful for the lack of jostling.
We have a different vantage of the C&O as we are perhaps at least 50 feet above it and the fact that the pavement is smooth affords us the ability to look around more easily (and safely) than we can on the C&O trail. The former canal appears more like a wooded impression with trees, invasive bushes, grasses, debris in the process of filling it up. In fact, in certain sections of the canal there appears little difference with the surrounding areas.
Up high on the WMT, we are enjoying the ride and notice that its left side has similar, albeit smaller, rock cuts than the GAP. It's sides, too, have become colonized with vegetation but instead of rhododendrons and mountain laurel, Virginia creeper and an occasional tree is its blanket. And we need to be mindful as like the GAP falling rocks are always a concern (as quite a few signs remind us.) We just pass a few boulders to our right, resting on a fence that is between us and a 50 foot drop.
The weather has changed again requiring us to stop, change glasses and strip down layers. I notice the rock formation across from our stop and it appears that it had absorbed the roots of trees that had once lived there. The multicolor swirls don't appear as would the more typical layering of stone that exists elsewhere in the rock. A lone white cedar, bonsai-like in size and spread is trying to make a go of it a few feet above my head. I wonder what it will look like 50 years from now. Perhaps my granddaughter Charlotte or grandson Charlie will have a opportunity to find out.
There are still a good number of telephone poles next to the trail and amazingly so are a good number of the glass insulators and pulleys used to guide the long missing wires from one pole to another. It is rare to see so many intact ones in their original home. With a hole in the bottom, these mushroom shaped pieces sit on vertical pegs emerging from the cross members of the poles.
This portion of the trail seems unvaried as it pulls away from the river and C&O trail. It is flat and reminds me of a few open sections of the GAP trail where we saw farms and grazing lands. It is very pretty and peaceful. A few abandoned apple orchards are to either side. Ted is listening to his music via a set of Bluetooth ear buds and I am listening for birds. It is a quiet time and we are both lost. . .
Ow! What the . . My leg! All of the studding a sharp pain shoots up my left thigh and I realize that I have been stung by a bee, wasp, or yellow jacket. There is a swelling red mark that hurts like crazy. I haven't gotten a sting in years and find it strange that I get one riding a pristine asphalt trail going 11 mph. But is is good that I got stung instead of Ted as he is allergic; I am happy to take one for the team.
The forest around us becomes thicker and we hit a section where both sides are lined with young sycamore trees with the mottled bark reaching up for light crowded next to each other forming a tunnel as would solders with their swords raised and crossed honoring us as we pass through.
We reach Hancock and it is time for lunch. We pull up to the C&O bike shop and meet up with our trail buddy Joe, as we have a few times on this trip. Out paths continue to intersect. He recommends a nice diner for us and we head off for a warm meal and a soft seat.
Leaving Hancock we have about 28 miles ahead of us but only 9 more on the WMT. It's gotten cooler, however, so I am back to wearing four layers of clothing. With each mile I appreciate even more the smooth path that we have been on for most of the day now and how it changes the biking experience. For the first time on the C&O we are in a noisy section as a well travelled road is less than 100 feet to our left drowning out any possible animal sounds or potential for conversation.
In the last few miles of the WMT, I see something new: wildflowers. A few wild geraniums and daisies grace the sides as do other flowers. A nice change from the grasses we have become so accustomed to but hardly the profusion of flowers afforded to us on the GAP.
We have arrived back to the C&O canal towpath and we are already nostalgic for the trail we have just left. But we need to just suck it up and move forward. This section is not so bad and we are able to move forward at a good clip. The canal on our left looks more like a lake (called Big Pool) and fishermen are casting their lines into the water and turtles are sunning themselves on tree stumps and the path.
We have noticed that we have not been stopping as much save for water and bio breaks on the C&O as we did on the GAP. I think one of the reasons for that is that save the locks and some state parks, many of the things written about on historical markers are hidden in the brush or have been destroyed by time.
But there is an old mill just off the trail that we stop to look at. Its metal, rusting waterwheel sits on rocks that used to be covered with water cascading from the wheel. It leans next to the stones that are the shell of a mill that was used to grind grain for transport down river. A few wooden lintels still remain framing out old windows and doorways.
We now enter a section of the canal where it merges with the Potomac in an area called Little Slackwater. The nearby cliffs were too high and extreme to cut a canal so a dam was built and for a half mile the river and canal are merged. We carefully bike around the cliffs on a relatively narrow concrete path that has no guard rail. Local kids, however, have no such fear and sun themselves after a swim.
We take a breather at Dam 5, which becomes particularly lovely as the clouds finally leave us and we are able to appreciate the wide expanse of the Potomac River under a full sun. Time to remove a few layers and finish the day.
As the canal has rejoined the land, so has the mud rejoined the path. Flashbacks of yesterday hit quickly and for the next few miles we weave in and out, almost fall, but make our way though a mucky section of trail. Soon we have reached the end of our day at the Concocheaque Aqueduct, a long beautiful structure. I never thought of aqueducts as part of a canal system but once you travel the length of one they are needed, of course, to go over existing streams, rivers and gorges. This one is quite long and architecturally lovely. Down river a bit is a modern bridge to West Virginia, but we leave the trail, get on the main drag and bike the final mile to our hotel in Maryland.