Day 7: Washington, D.C. (62.4 miles)

The junction of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers

Today began in a familiar place. Of the two big bike trips I have done, only today’s segment was one I had done before in its entirety. So, there were no real surprises on the route.  I knew pretty much what the terrain would be like, where the good places to stop would be, and so on.

I got started just at 9:00 AM from the hotel and made my way downtown to the bridge.  The path that crosses the river does so as the footpath on a rail bridge.  You have to walk your bike across and then carry it down a spiral staircase, which is cast iron grate and can give you vertigo.  But the walk across does afford you some beautiful views of Harper’s Ferry and the convergence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers.

The trail I took home is the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Trail, the old towpath for the canal that linked Georgetown with Cumberland, Maryland 150 miles away.  The canal was a marvel of engineering in its day but was quickly made obsolete with the coming of the railway. There are some sections of the canal that have water in them, some that are even like recreational lakes, some where the canal boats still take tourists through the locks, and some parts that are completely overgrown and if you didn’t know that there had been a canal along the way, you wouldn’t necessarily figure that out.

The path itself is compacted sand and gravel, smoother in some parts more than others.  In fact, it’s the part that’s closest to D.C. that I find the most gravelly and annoying.  But the overwhelming majority of the path is covered by a lush canopy of trees that keeps the path cool and prevents the sun from beating down on you.  In the morning when I left, the sky was overcast.  I wasn’t complaining; I was still reeling from some of those really hot days a few days ago.  It was a bit more humid but not unbearably so.

About an hour and a half into the ride, the sun broke through and it warmed up a little.  Not too bad, since I was biking mostly in shade anyway.  About twenty minutes before 11, I passed that couple that I’d met the night before.  They were off to the side of the road at a picnic area talking with some other bikers.  I slowed down and said hi and that I was heading on toward White’s Ferry where I’d take a break and that if they stopped there I’d probably see them there.  I smiled a little bit as I biked away; they’d clearly left before I had, but I’d caught up to them and gone past.  Now, these are experienced cyclists–they’d come all the way from Pittsburgh and this kind of trip is something they do all the time.  So, I felt good that I was making good time compared with folks who do this all the time.

White's Ferry

A few miles down the path was White’s Ferry, pretty much the only way across the Potomac between the Beltway and the US-340 bridge in Harpers Ferry.  They have a little convenience store there and not long after I pulled in so did the couple (whose names I never got, nor they mine, oddly, but as they are from Missouri, I’ll just call them the Missourians).  We sat for a while in the seating area at the convenience store and snacked for a bit.  The guy working there was also a cyclist but was something of a “topper”.  That is, if you said, as the Missourians did, that they’d biked from Pittsburgh averaging about 60 miles a day, he’d say, “I once went on a bike trip with my 8 year old cousin and it was amazing: he could go 50 miles a day.”  Or if you said, as I did, that I was finishing a 350 mile trek through the Virginias, he’d say, “I once did a 962 mile trip in 12 days.” So, yeah.

The Missourians headed out planning to have a fuller lunch down the trail.  I decided to linger a little bit and eat a little more substantially.  The other nice thing about White’s is the outdoor picnic area (which was initially filled by some kind of girls bike camp–I think that’s what it was; they were all wearing the same neon green t-shirts) and they have restrooms.  After taking advantage of this last opportunity not to have to use a portopotty for the next 35 miles, I got back on the bike and headed south.

I continued to pass through some beautiful scenery and saw some wildlife, too.  A deer who watched me closely as I biked past, a few turtles on a log in the canal, a young deer who darted off into the woods, and a lot of squirrels, one of whom ran right in front of my bike causing me, quite irrationally, to shout at the squirrel: “Look out!”

The one downside to the trail, other than its bumpiness which has a detrimental effect on your backside, is that it is so flat.  You have to pedal non-stop; there’s no coasting. With rolling terrain, you spend some energy going up, but you get to save it on the way down and give your legs a break for a little while.  No such luck on this leg (which was something I’d remembered from my trip up here with Michelle and Rachel a year ago).  And somewhere south of White’s Ferry, my legs started to feel it.

There weren’t many other cyclists along the path—between Great Falls and Harpers Ferry it is somewhat deserted—but every once in a while I’d come upon a few bikers and would pass them.  So, laden down as I was with a heavy bike and tired legs, I was still doing pretty well and that made me feel good.  A few more miles down the road, I passed the Missourians and waved again, figuring that since they were more likely to stop than I, I probably wouldn’t see them again.

Great Falls

Which was a fairly logical conclusion to come to until I got another flat tire.  I noticed that the back end of the bike was behaving somewhat slippery in that it wasn’t quite holding firm with the road: a sure sign of an under-inflated tire.  Since this was the same tire I’d replaced yesterday, I worried that perhaps my patching job had not gone well and that maybe there was a slow leak.  So, I took my hand pump and pumped the tire back up to a reasonable pressure and biked away.  But soon, the tire was deflating again and I knew that whatever it was, it wasn’t a slow leak.  So, I pulled off to the side of the path, flipped my bike upside down and began, yet again, to effect repairs.  I was doing pretty well, actually: I found the hole in the tube and circled it with pen (you’d be amazed how quickly you can lose a hole if you don’t do this).  I even found the offending sharp object poking through the tire and began the process of patching the tube, which if you’ve never done it before involves the following: using sandpaper to rub the tube almost raw near the site of the puncture; applying vulcanizing agent to the tube and to the back of the patch; waiting about 5 minutes for the agent to dissolve the rubber; placing the patch over the hole and pressing down with a firm object; peeling the plastic sheeting off the patch and voilà, your tube is patched.  I also did this for the inside of the tire as well.

Around this time the Missourians biked by and used the opportunity to take a standing break (remember what I told you about the bumpy trail).  They were quickly followed by two National Park Service guys patrolling the trail.  After a couple minutes the Missourians rode off to head to Great Falls and the NPS guys checked to make sure I was okay.  These two were something of a comedy team: one, shorter and older with a think New England accent; the other, taller and thinner with a deep booming voice.  The New Englander said, “To do what you’re doing, a person needs to have the materials, the knowledge, and the tools.”  He was satisfied to discover that, in fact, I had all three and that I seemed to know what I was doing.  By this time, I’d already patched both tube and tire and they helped me put it back on the bike.  Their biggest help was that they had a much faster pump than I had.  Theirs was more akin to a traditional bike pump: stand it up, put your feet on it and use the plunger; whereas mine could require hundreds of pumps just to get it up to a decent pressure. Within a couple minutes, we had my tire inflated and I was on my way.

Great Falls

I was only five miles away from Great Falls, which is the breakwater for the Potomac, where it ceases to be an estuary that flows in an out with the tides and turns in to a proper river that flows in only one direction.  The Missourians had said they would stop there for a snack but as I biked past the falls, I didn’t see them there.  Now, I was only 14 miles away from the end of the trail, so I decided to make one last push. I even passed a couple of bikers who were in pretty good shape and then used the idea of that competition to go as fast as I could and not get passed myself.  I told you I had a competitive streak; and mostly I use it for this kind of self-motivation.

Eventually, the towpath runs alongside the Capital Crescent trail, a paved bike path that runs along an old rail bed all the way to Bethesda and Silver Spring.  When it came along side, I switched over to that trail, pretty much done with the sand and gravel and longing for pavement. Finally, an hour and a half after fixing my tire, I emerged onto K Street in Georgetown and was only a mile and a half away from home. Within a few minutes I was in front of my building and then in the lobby, where my neighbor, Mr. Herman, who I mentioned in Day 1’s post, was there.  “You made it, Reverend,” he said to me. “On that heavy bike, in this heat!”  He seemed happy that I’d had a successful trip.  I was too.

Mark Schaefer with bicycle

I was glad that I had been able to reprise my success from the previous year’s trip to Albany.  It’s helpful to know that something you’ve done isn’t a fluke.  I got into my apartment and discovered that I had some food here.  That was a great find.  And then I jumped into the shower, bike clothes and all, and washed 62 miles of dust, mud, dirt and bugs off of me as I peeled the layers.  I took the chance to note that I have the stupidest tan now: it’s like a farmer tan except that it also goes from about 3/4 of the way down my thighs to right above my ankles.  Ridiculous.

Anyway, I am off to go grab some food (unlike last year, my dad wasn’t waiting for me at the end with a big plate of spaghetti and meatballs) and then I look forward to crashing on the couch later on.  Don’t have to be up for anything tomorrow morning, so I’m free to just… sleep.

Thanks for following along!

Fun facts and figures:

Total Miles Traveled: 348.2
Average Miles per Day: 58
States/Districts Traveled Through: 4
Approximate number of bottles of water/Gatorade drunk: 35
Number of days it takes to listen to Rush’s entire catalog: 3
Flat tires fixed: 4
Broken spokes: 0 (thank God)
Tired legs: 2