Category Archives: Maryland-DC

Day 43: Williamsport to Washington D.C.

The final day.  All I need to do is pedal about 90 miles and I will have crossed the continental USA by bicycle for the second time.  Greg, who I met outside of Pittsburgh, is with me and also interested in making it to D.C. by Friday night.  We met for breakfast in the Waffle House, which was beside the motel and had some eggs, toast and juice.  We set off pedaling about 8:15 AM.

The first 10 miles were paved and went through scenic Western Maryland countryside.  Then at the top of a hill, Greg pulled over and said he had a problem.  He had broken a rear spoke.  Spokes are a tough item to fix on the side of the road.  It was even tougher than usual to fix since neither Greg nor I were carrying any spare spokes.  Searching the Internet showed no bike shops close to us, so we carried on and Greg rode on a broken rear wheel all the way to Washington.

About 20 miles into the ride the instructions told us to get back on the C&O Canal bike path.  The bike path started out drier than yesterday but soon started having big problems.  We had to cross over a large tree that had fallen across the trail.  We had to cross three different places where the trail had been washed away by floods.  In two of the washed out places the park service had created temporary detours or bridges.

In the third place the park service had given up, closed the trail and expected cyclists to take a long detour that included sections of a highway and a very large climb.  In the west when I came to a road closed or detour sign I had to guess if it was possible to get through.  In the east it was much easier because there were at least a dozen cyclists coming from the other direction who offered advice.

The consensus view of the west-bound cyclists was that we didn’t need to take the highway detour.  It was possible to push our bikes up a short hill, jog or run along a set of railroad tracks for about 200 feet and then slide down a hill to rejoin the trail on the other side of the washed-out bridge.

Reading this previous paragraph now, which is hours after the day is over, suggests this should be no big deal.  However, it was a lot of effort to get up to the railroad tracks and down the other side, not to mention my concern about being hit by a train while on the tracks, even if it was for only a couple of minutes.  We managed it all safely and the only lasting problem was a profusion of mosquito bites from the swarms that attacked us during the mini-adventure.  The mosquitoes even got under my clothes and I have a large series of bites on my arms, neck and head.

For the next 50 miles the trail was at various points muddy, slippery, rocky, very narrow and for a few miles had branches which kept smacking me in the face.

It all didn’t matter because the mile markers were counting down to zero, which was Washington D.C.  I could feel the end.

Around 4 PM we made it to the Potomac River falls.  Just after the falls Google Maps told me that we needed to get off the C&O Canal and take the “Billy Goat Trail.”  The name seemed quite suspicious.

Luckily, near the falls a park service ranger walked by while Greg was in the restroom.  I asked her if the Billy Goat Trail was suitable for bikes.  She told me that the trail was something people did by scrambling and jumping from rock to rock and that our bikes would not make it.  She told us to stay on the canal path, but to make sure we took a small detour that allowed us to stop and see the falls.  It was great advice.  The falls were spectacular, and I would have missed the best part of the day if I had just kept pedaling.

I left Greg just after we crossed the Beltway into Greater Washington.  His brother met us in a parking lot just off MacArthur Avenue.  It was now 6 pm and I had one hour to get myself across town for an interview with a National Public Radio reporter at Union Station before boarding an Amtrak train for home.

I texted the reporter that I had crossed the Beltway.  I pedaled more and stopped and took a picture of the “Welcome to Washington, D.C.” sign.  No one was there to see it but the smile on my face stretched from ear to ear.

Two blocks after taking the welcome sign’s picture, Google Maps told me to get off MacArthur and onto a bike trail.  The trail turned out to be a two-foot wide dirt path that led down a steep cliff.  I turned around and pedaled back to MacArthur and kept heading towards downtown.  This was a small mistake because Google was furiously updating my screen and trying to both explain where I was going wrong and how I could “fix” it.  I made it Georgetown at 6:30 PM.  Thirty minutes to go before the interview.

For weeks I had been picturing myself and the bike being photographed at the Lincoln Memorial at the end of the trip.  I had half an hour to get to the Memorial and then to Union Station.  I texted the reporter that I was in Georgetown.  The message went out and then the phone’s battery died.  I don’t know if the furious updating killed the battery, but it certainly did not help.

I now had two small dilemmas.  First, I didn’t know exactly how to get to the Lincoln Memorial.  I had a rough idea, but rough ideas don’t cut it when you are short on time.  Second, I now had no way to contact the reporter.  I didn’t know what he looked like or where he would be located at Union Station.

Solving the first problem was easy.  I didn’t go to the Memorial.  Instead, I pedaled down Pennsylvania Avenue and got a quick shot of me, the bike and the White House.  Then I asked several other cyclists pedaling down the street for directions to the train station.  I had been to Union Station a number of times in the past, but I had always taken the Metro and been below ground on the subway.

Around 7 PM I pedaled up to Union Station and asked a tourist to take a photo of me and the building.  The second problem, contacting the reporter, resolved itself.  The reporter was standing outside the building and was looking for me.  I guess there were not that many cyclists covered in mud who were out pedaling that evening.

We had a wonderful interview sitting in a quiet wing of the station.  We talked about economics, the trip and traveling in general.  I don’t know if what I said makes for a good radio show, but both the reporter and I were pleased by the conversation.

I had a quick bite to eat and then caught the 10 PM train to Boston.  The train is not fast since it took over 10 hours to get to Boston but Amtrak was happy to take my muddy bike unboxed all the way home for just $20.

Day 42: Cumberland to Williamsport, Maryland

I just wanted to give up this morning and go home.  This might sound strange given how close I am to the end.

I was biking alongside the Potomac River.  The mileage markers started at 188 and were counting down to zero.  Zero is Washington D.C.'s Georgetown neighborhood.  I have pedaled a huge distance in the last 41 days and the only thought that went through my head over and over was stop, go back to where you started this morning in Cumberland, get on the train to D.C. and stop all this.

Why was the little voice saying give up?  Because the C&O Canal trail was very difficult.  This past weekend it rained heavily in this part of Maryland.  The Weather Channel on Saturday ran one story over and over about a town in Maryland, not far from here, where they were thinking of evacuating because so much rain had fallen the town's dam was in danger of bursting.  Since the weekend even more rain has fallen, including a few hours of heavy rain last night.

One hundred miles back I met a man called Jan, who was a real character.  You occasionally meet people on the road who pedal a little and talk a lot.  That was Jan.  He was coming back from attempting the Pittsburgh to Washington route.

He had done it five times in the past but said it was too tough this year.  He also said someone he met had turned back because the water was up to the bike's bottom bracket, which is where the pedals connect to the frame.  Jan was an old guy and clearly a story teller so I didn't believe it.  I do now.  I went through at least one puddle that was so deep my bottom bracket was in the water and quite a few other very deep puddles.

Why was the path in such bad shape?  Part was due to the rain.  But another part is that the C&O Canal Bike Path is maintained by the National Park Service.  The Park Service is a wonderful, but woefully underfunded organization.  One result of the under-funding is that my miles today were in conditions designed for mountain bikers, even though there wasn't a hill or mountain on the trail.   Unfortunately, I wasn't riding a mountain bike.

What was it like to ride?  It was muddy, slippery and tree roots crossed the road.  Around 10:30 AM I used a spoon to scrape the mud off my chain, frame and brakes.  The storms also had dropped trees across the trail.  We met up with a three man crew cleaning up downed trees and limbs, twice during the morning.

Plus, to add extra misery you could not stop.  The C&O Canal is a giant stagnant pool of water that breeds mosquitoes.  Stopping resulted in large numbers coming over to feast on my body.

The result was that I didn't pedal down the trail.  Instead, I lurched, slid, bounced and prayed that I wouldn't crash for 50 miles.  At the 50 mile mark the state of Maryland had pity on the bikers who pedal down the C&O Canal Trail.  The state has built a 23 miles long paved bike trail.  It is literally 100 feet away from the C&O trail but because the state built it, the trail is maintained and in very good shape.

After 23 wonderfully easy miles, Maryland's trail ended and we switched back to the C&O.  Luckily, for me and Greg who is still pedaling with me the last 18 miles on the C&O were much less muddy.  Part of this was due to the sun baking off the water all day.  Part seemed to be that this section of the trail was in slightly better shape.  Whatever the reason, after 89 miles I made it to the hotel I booked in Williamsport, Maryland.  My bike, gear and I were so muddy the hotel owner told me not to bring the bike or bags into the hotel's lobby.  Luckily, he let me come in so that I could check into the room and pay.

Tomorrow there is just 90 miles left to pedal in the whole trip.  Most of it is back on the C&O Canal path.  It does not look like an easy ride, but to give up on the last day is foolishness.  My guess is that adrenaline will ensure I make all the way to Washington D.C.

Day 41: Connellsville, PA to Cumberland, Maryland

I write this entry from the state of Maryland.  This might be my last state.  Tomorrow I pedal along the Maryland-West Virginia border and it is hard to see on the map if I need to cross over to the West Virginia side of the border.  If I don't cross the Potomac River, then the last border remaining is Washington D.C's!

The goal  right now is very simple.  Pedal 90 miles tomorrow, which is Thursday.  Pedal 90 miles on Friday and then get on an evening Amtrak train back to Boston.  The evening train is the only one on the schedule that will take my bike home, without the bike being in a box.

The small problem is that these last 180 miles are mainly along side the C&0 Canal.  The Canal area this past weekend was flooded by torrential rains.  I talked to some people who tried to pedal along the Canal two days ago and they gave up because the mud was too deep.  Hopefully, by tomorrow the ground will have dried out enough for me to make it through.  I really don't want another experience like the one I had outside of Fargo, North Dakota, where the mud made the road impassable for bikes.

The end of the today's ride showed me the problems caused by this past weekend's torrential rain.  The first 70 miles of today's ride was a gentle up-hill.  That is not a misprint.  I pedaled up a slight grade from 8 AM until about 5:30 PM.  At 5:30 PM I reached the Eastern Continental divide, which is where water either goes into the Atlantic or the Gulf of Mexico.

From the Continental Divide to the hotel in Cumberland, Maryland it was a gentle 20 mile downhill.  Unfortunately, part of the path was washed away by the rain and someone did temporary repairs by tossing loads of fine rock and gravel on the path without packing it down.  This led to lots of spots where I almost had the bike slide out from under me.  Luckily, I was able to stay upright each time and made it to the hotel without crashing.

The downhill ride was also interesting since it crossed the Mason-Dixon line, which demarcated free and slave states before the Civil War. The people who built the trail created a solid line in the ground so that you knew exactly where the line stood.

The trail also had a number of railroad tunnels for pedaling through.  Five years ago the tunnels had no lights.  This time the tunnels all were lit.  It was much safer today, but less of an adventure when it is possible to see where you are going.

On a different topic, while on the trip I have done a number of interviews about various topics. For example Bloomberg News did a story on “Successfully managing a financial windfall" and the Spanish language newspaper El Pais asked me questions about the economic problems associated with divorce.  Just before typing the blog I did an email interview about when consumers should or should not buy an extended warranty.

The most interesting request so far is an email from a reporter at "The Pulse", a health and science show from the public radio station WHYY in Philadelphia. He wants to interview me as I ride into Washington D.C. for an upcoming episode. The theme of the show is "in the name of science" and it is about the lengths that researchers go to for work or academic field. I don't know if it will happen, but it certainly sounds intriguing.