A (Wet) Commuter's First Bike Overnight

I had hoped that a nice, sunny day and cool spring temperatures would combine to help make my first-ever bike overnight memorable. And, while my companions and I did get a remarkable trip up the C&O Canal Towpath from Washington, D.C., the weather we wanted wasn't what we got.

It started raining the moment we left our starting point, the downtown D.C. building where I work. It rained as we cycled through trendy Georgetown, where we got a little lost and I almost got mowed down by a big delivery truck in rush hour traffic. And, it rained long past the time when we shivered ourselves to sleep.

Sometimes it came down as a bearable drizzle. At other times, it splashed down on our heads in big pregnant drops. It rained despite assurances from one of my companions when we were planning our trip that the day we settled on is always "a beautiful day." Except, apparently, when you plan to spend it on a bike.

I often cycle portions of the C&O Canal Towpath. It's easily accessed from where I live in West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle. But like many who make their homes in this region, I work in D.C. From my driveway to where I park my car downtown, it's about 90 miles. That's a lot of ground to cover each work day, and I wanted to slow down and see what I'd been missing.

The towpath snakes its way alongside the Potomac River for more than 184 miles, from Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Maryland. If you have time, you can go on for another 141 miles via The Great Allegheny Passage rail-trail all the way to Pittsburgh.

The idea for the canal dates back to the earliest days of our nation. George Washington himself championed it as a way to connect the western frontier with the more populated East. Workers started building it in the 1820s and canal boats used it to bring raw materials such as lumber and coal to market into the early 20th century. It was a lifeline for communities up and down the river.

But it couldn't compete with railroads. And, it would have fallen into obscurity if not for Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who is regarded as the canal's savior. Douglas led efforts to convince Congress to make it a national park.

Boats may no longer ply the length of the canal, but today it's a haven, not only for cyclists, but for hikers and others who want to take in its natural beauty and gaze at history firsthand.

On our trip up the towpath, though, we had to work hard to find the bright future that Douglas saw. It was not only wet, but all that rain made it seem much colder than it was. So cold, that when we stopped from time to time, my teeth started to chatter. One fellow who briefly rode along with us suggested he just might spend the night in one of the Jiffy Johns that are stationed every so often along the towpath. "It's the warmest place, right now," he joked, after using one to change into a dry shirt.

From then on, every time we passed a Jiffy John, I seriously considered curling up in it. I never did, but only because I couldn't get past the heat source. Besides, our goal was a lockhouse near Point of Rocks, Maryland.

According to the C&O Canal Trust's website, there used to be 57 such houses. Lockmasters lived in them with their families, helping boats deal with the elevation gain as the canal made its way into the Maryland mountains. Less than half remain, but the trust has made a few available for overnight stays. They've been restored to reflect separate time periods in the life of the canal.

The lockhouses are rustic by modern standards. Ours had no heat, no electricity, and no running water. But it was a welcome sight after a full day of cycling in the rain, and well-appointed with period furniture. If you are looking to unplug from the hustle and bustle of Washington, D.C., this is the place to do it. It's also a great way to experience how life was lived along the canal in bygone days.

After spending the night snug in period beds, we got up the next day in relatively good humor. The morning sunshine renewed us and it wasn't long before we were back on the bikes.

Two of my companions went back the way we'd come, leaving me and another to move on to Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, where abolitionist John Brown staged his famous raid aimed at sparking a slave revolt. My remaining companion lives there, so that's where we parted ways. I cycled the final dozen miles or so by myself, ending my trip at Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Confederate forces retreated through there after the nearby Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest one-day battle in American history. The battle's 150th anniversary was earlier this month, on September 17.

While the second day's sunshine was re-invigorating, the constant rain of the previous day should have made my first overnight cycling trip a miserable failure.

It didn't. In fact, the adversity only whetted my appetite for more, if only to see what a cycling trip is like in a dry pair of shorts.

We left more than 100 miles of the towpath undone. I'm hoping to tackle the Shepherdstown-to-Cumberland stretch soon. Once our plans come together, it's a good bet I'll be keeping an eye on the weather. But, since I've already cycled through one deluge, a little more rain won't be enough to scare me off.

Get more information about bike overnights.


6 responses so far ↓

Tom Moore - Sep 25, 2012 at 7:26 AM

What is great about the towpath & GAP is you don't have to carry all your gear! It is very easy to do credit card touring from place to place!

Mark - Sep 25, 2012 at 12:10 PM

great overnight...I would like to go when you do the entire path on to Pittsburg!

The other Giles Snyder - Sep 25, 2012 at 5:00 PM

Good for you, Giles. When I was 50 my son and I did the trip from Cumberland to Georgetown. It took us three days, no rain, but 95 degrees everyday. It is easier going east than west, because of the slight elevation drop. We made reservations and left changes of clothes at motels on the way to Cumberland, so we always had something clean to wear the next day, and a warm dinner and breakfast. My wife came along the next day and retrieved all of our dirty laundry from the motels and took them home. It was a memorable trip. I hope you get an opportunity to finish the route.

Sarah - Oct 16, 2012 at 7:33 AM

The GAP/C&O has to be the best bike trip in the country. We got soaked too the first time we did it; that damp cold really gets to you.

John Aulbach - Nov 7, 2012 at 7:49 PM

My then 11 year-old son and I rode the C & O from Cumberland to DC 10 years ago when I was 50. It was our first long bike ride and I can tell you that towards the end, it hurt worse to get off the bike than it did to get back on. Since then, we have done may trips including the GAP and the C & O together and I thnk we have inspired some of our friends to give bikepacking, as we call it, a try, too.

David Becker - Nov 2, 2014 at 9:01 PM

In the small world category, two years ago I was the cyclist who changed in the Jiffy John. I discovered that my "waterproof" rain jacket wasn't, and the portapotty was the only dry spot in miles. I always wondered if you made the lockeeper cabin. It was a long haul, the mud puddles were getting deeper, it was getting dark, and you guys were way wetter than I was - and I was pretty wet. I camped and had a hot one pot dinner and was in bed before I figured you guys had arrived at the cabin. Glad to know you made it. I have since ridden the trail at least once a year, with kids and without.

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