We leave Shepherdstown on another perfect day with no clouds in the sky. As we cross the Potomac to rejoin the trail, old bridge supports are to our right supporting only vegetation rather than a means by which the river can be crossed. A solitary fisherman pushes his skiff out from the West Virginia shore hoping for luck that day as he prepares to cast his first line of the day into the water.
Walking down a circuitous concrete trail from the bridge, we spot a lovely clump of wildflowers, which we have seen few of on the C&O trail, brightening our journey toward the canal.
As we start, the trail is dry and firm: a good sign we hope for the rest of the day. But after less than half a mile we run into our old friend of mud and need to pay more attention to our line so we do not slip and fall. In a few miles the canal, which has been colonized by trees and shrubs, is transformed into a well-manicured lawn-like area fronting a road and well-kept homes.
We are coming across more cyclists on this portion of the trail, though many appear to be day trippers given their lack of panniers and grime on their bikes. We finally get to Antietam Creek, which a few miles upstream one of the most significant battles of the Civil War occurred. Upstream appears as would a perfect fishing creek with bends and rocks that would be a good lair for a bass or other fish on a hot summer day. But we know that is not what the creek is famous for and move on toward Harper's Ferry.
After 30 minutes or so we find ourselves back on a deserted trail with few cyclists. There is no sound save chirping birds and the crunch of the trail under our tires. There appears no rock to our left but rather a wide expanse of trees, which also extends to the right. So it feels we are deep in a forest on a solitary journey.
But solitude is not what I feel but rather allergic reactions to whatever this Maryland environment is throwing in my direction. My eyes are constantly tearing and I am coughing and hacking finding it difficult to breath clearly. I hope it will abate in the next few miles.
We have found that certain sections of the towpath, like the one we are on now, are very narrow with little room for error. Off the trail on one side: fall into the canal. Off the trail on the other: 20-30 feet fall into the river unless a tree or poison ivy vine stops you. This becomes even more challenging when you attempt to maneuver around the mud sometimes getting perilously near an edge.
We stop by another lock where the canal has rejoined the river. We must have missed the initial departure but with rapids just downstream on the Potomac it is easy to see why barges need to get off the river. We get out to get a closer look at the river and perch on what appears is an old roadbed that has washed downstream. In fact, we see other sections of the road in the middle of the Potomac. But that doesn't change the natural beauty of the area where we are fortunate enough to see a great blue heron hop off a rock and glide effortlessly a few feet above the water before pulling up and resting on another tiny island. Perhaps it was looking for some freshwater clams whose tiny shells are sized between a dime and quarter and crunch under our feet as we make our way back to our bicycles.
For the first time we are seeing some wildness in the river with some tiny rapids breaking up the smooth flow of the Potomac. The manifestation of this are small groups of people floating down the river in yellow tubes enjoying the day. A bus with a trailer filled with these tubes pulls out of the parking lot.
We finally make it to Harpers Ferry, where the Potomac meets the Shenandoah River. We lock up our bikes and climb a spiral staircase to walk into town across the river along side an existing railroad line. The railroad tracks cut through a high cliff that rises next to the trail. There is a 4.5 miles hike to the top but Ted and I give that a miss.
We leave Harper's Ferry after lunch. I am disappointed as it is set up more as a commercialized version of Williamsburg or Mystic Seaport (in Connecticut) rather than as is Antietam in the respect shown for the battles and deaths of the past.
As when we left Shepherdstown, the trail outside Harpers Ferry is filled with day trippers hiking and riding their bikes. Unfortunately few adhere to the rules of the trail, walking four a brest, weaving around in erratic patters, not watching for others. Ted and I slowly move forward not wanting to hurt anyone or ourselves.
The railroad has taken a more prominent place to our left and multiple tracks and traveling trains are a constant companion. It takes nearly five minutes for us to past a CSX train filled with coal that is resting above us on a siding. There seems as if a train is always in the background.
And then we see Joe. But he is heading toward us.
He first tries to fake us out by telling us that we are going in the wrong direction but then confides that he missed Harper's Ferry and is returning to visit this historical town. We have seen Joe everyday since our initial meeting at the Continental Divide. I will miss his smiling face and pleasant nature once our trip is over.
The trail returns to its muddy state. Must concentrate on not falling.
After passing Brunswick we are riding on the equivalent of a smooth superhighway having a width able to accommodate two vehicles. We are giddy with excitement and hope that this will continue. Unfortunately it lasts for less than a mile and then it is back to the rutted trail we are used to.
The canal, albeit abandoned, does support all types of water life. Turtles abound and we just passed a branch sticking out where a half-dozen waterfowl were resting. But the flip side of this is that certain sections have become eutrophic and may well disappear in the next decade or two.
There have been some efforts, however, to maintain the old. We pass over the Catoctin Creek aqueduct, which was refurbished and rebuilt a few years ago after a collapse in the 1970s. With the exception of some different colored stones, it appears as it would have nearly 200 years ago. A bit further is the Lander Lockhouse, which too has been refurbished.
Though Ted and I are enjoying all of these sites. The days and nearly 300 miles on the trail are taking their toll requiring us to stop more frequently, rest and fuel up. We linger at the latest rest stop before continuing. But the soreness of past days is long behind us and though tired we still strong and ready to continue. We push on silently hoping that we will get to our destination soon. But as soon as we get into our rhythm, a bog pops us requiring more skill and diligence than we want at this point in the day.
After we pass over the Monocacy Aqueduct, we peddle next to a section of canal that appears as it would have in its heyday with clear, deep water and little debris. The catch is not to sightsee to much but pay attention to the trail as it is narrow and there are sharp drops offs on either side.
At lock 26 we spot an ancient sugar maple that is rooted next to the lock. Its branches have a magnificent spread and protruding burls throughout broadcast its age. As we approach Whites Ferry, which will take us to our final hotel, three groups of speeding cyclists on racing bikes pass us. Tightly packed, they are but mere inches from each other as the travel quickly. It looks like an accident waiting to happen.
We reach Whites Ferry and get on a cable ferry, the General Jubal A. Early, and take it across the Potomac. The cable is used to guide the ferry and a tiny boat with a diesel engine powers it across. As we reach the Virginia shore, we watch the ferry make its way back to Maryland. Two dozen geese accompany it downstream in the same direction as the waning light bounces off the Potomac. It is a wonderful way to end the day.