Travel Tip: A Kid's First Overnight
“Dad, I want to ride my own bike this time. I’m done with the tag-a-long.”
When is a kid old enough to ride his own bike on a tour?
I wanted my nine-year-old son Griffin to enjoy our trip, and enjoy the ride, but not have the trip be so tough that we “mis-educate” him. In other words, ruin him for life on the thing we love most, touring on the bike.
Our family cannot be described as sedentary, nor are we over-the-top workout fanatics. Well, maybe we are, but we’ve cut back a lot. We jokingly refer to our family by the name of our favorite bull on the PBR circuit, “House of Pain.” But that needs to stay a joke, well, most of the time.
Cycling as a family began for us when our son traded his binki for a bike on his third birthday. We live in a very rural area in Appalachia without the typical neighborhoods or flat streets. We began riding the parking lots and sidewalks on the local college campus. One thing led to another.
Our son's first self-powered tour took place on the C&O Canal towpath. Here we stand in the doorway of one of the lockhouses still standing beside the historic canal.
My wife, Therese, cycled across the United States 26 years ago as a recent college graduate, in a quest for adventure. What she discovered in 4,000 miles across the country: the good people, small towns, open plains, miles of corn, headwinds, the beauty of rain, the pleasure of a dry sleeping bag at the end of a rain-soaked day, friendly conversations with everyday people on their own street corners, and the many wonders of America. It was the kind of healthy, mind-bending perspective that becomes life-altering. After a cycle tour like that, you can never be the same.
We wanted to share these kinds of life-altering events with our son, too; so, when he was old enough to hang on to the bars of the tag-a-long, we began bringing him on trips that I did for local high schoolers. He has tag-a-longed the 320-mile track along the Great Allegheny Passage and C&O Canal in both directions (Pittsburgh to D.C. or vice versa). Rail-trails like these are a great option for groups of beginners.
Our photo was taken on a 100-mile bicycle trip in September, from western Maryland into Washington, D.C. It was Griffin’s first solo ride on his own bike ... bigger things are coming!
Backing up a bit, we’ve been extra careful to somewhat temper our own love of the tour so as not to spoil our son, exposing him but not pushing him. Well, sometimes pushing him. Okay, we push it a little. Still, we understand that as in any love, it cannot be forced, but must be chosen. I’ve seen families towing their kids happily along in trailers many times. I always imagined that is what we would do, too. It looked like the perfect solution to touring with kids. I found a nice used trailer on eBay which worked great for a while, but as soon as my son could walk, he would NOT ride in that trailer. He wanted to walk behind it and push. Towing him in the trailer would have allowed us to tour like “normal” -- whatever that is -- but it would have been torture for all of us.
So, we had to forgo all but riding the sidewalks and parking lots on campus, until he could hang on to the tag-a-long for more than an hour at a time. For us, that was the summer Griffin was five years old. We did our first four-day tour on the Greenbrier Trail, another great rail-trail. Which brings us to today. “Dad, I want to ride my own bike” (angels singing in the background here).
We chose the C&O towpath for our first family tour for several reasons. It’s loaded with history. It’s flat and easy to ride. It has mud, and mud is big when you're a nine-year-old. It has no vehicle traffic, and plenty of places to camp, hostel, or hotel it. The C&O also allows for shorter 25-mile days, which at the pace of a nine-year-old on 20-inch wheels is about right. And, not so important, we already knew and loved this track.
We took the train from North Carolina to D.C., Union Station. If you use your own box, you can bring your bike for $5 on Amtrak. No, this is not a misprint -- $5. If you need an Amtrak box, the cost jumps to a whopping $15. We assembled in Union Station and cycled right down the National Mall, visiting the monuments on the way to our hotel. I hired a shuttle to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, near the Antietam National Battlefield, where we began our four days back to Washington. (Another option is to take the train all the way to Pittsburgh, but that may be a few years ahead for us. Amtrak’s box system only requires a little disassembly -- basically, remove the pedals and turn the bars.)
Tips for this adventure: My only advice for when the youngsters are ready is to bring some cards, a hacky sack, plenty of skittles, and don’t worry about weight. Hit all the mud holes. Take it easy. Enjoy these days, because they won’t last forever.