Wednesday, October 01 2008 @ 07:16 PM UTC
Contributed by: B' Spokes
[A wonderful article about the C&O]
A few of us were veterans of weeks-long or even months-long expeditions in the saddle. Several others had barely been on a bike for years. Our bikes ranged from fancy wheels right out of the shop to tough old machines.
And we had 184.5 miles to cover -- together.
Not a problem. There's something about the C&O that makes these differences not matter.
Bicycling the canal, on a dirt towpath where mules once hauled barges, is like riding through a watercolor painting of nature all day long. Spring, summer and deep into fall, it's like inhaling a passage from "Walden" and exhaling a verse from Robert Frost.
After splashing through the first dozen mud puddles, seeing the first of the turtles lazing on fallen trees in still water, and getting swallowed by the luscious greenery -- as if we'd leaped into that painting -- I knew we'd found our stride.
The C&O, it turns out, is an ideal proving ground for casual cyclists looking to push their limits. It's long, flat and traffic-free, plus gorgeous.
Those same qualities engage dedicated cyclists, too, who can stretch the daily mileage if they want and speed a little faster through the same grand tapestry.
And what a tapestry. On one side is the broad, rushing Potomac River; on the other, the placid canal. Above, a canopy of leaves.
Along the way: 74 locks with massive wooden gates patterned on the designs of Leonardo da Vinci, 11 aqueducts and dozens of white brick houses where gatekeepers tended locks and gardens until the canal went bust in 1924.
The human imprint is frozen in time here. Nature is in motion.
Now herons, songbirds, snakes and the ubiquitous turtles make their living on the C&O.
It wasn't supposed to be this way when people started carving the earth in 1828 to make a waterway for coal and commerce from the Allegheny Mountains to the East Coast.
They reckoned a canal stretching between Chesapeake Bay and the Ohio River would beat the railroad in the race west. The railroad won -- and so did the great outdoors.
Today, the C&O joins the recently expanded Great Allegheny Passage rail trail to give cyclists a 320-mile offroad route along sparkling rivers between Washington and the outskirts of Pittsburgh.