Up before the sun and out the door shortly thereafter, my treads hit the trail just minutes before I see the reddish-orange blur of what looks like an oil painting poke its head above a canopy of dark green. The air is crisp—too early for intense humidity or rowdy families to hog the trail. I feel at home in the silence, save the satisfying crackle of my tires against the pebbles and mud.
Light from the southeast begins to pour in from behind, revealing an ever surprising mix of flora and fauna. Over the course of my 36-mile ride I run into half a dozen blue herons, two herds of deer, four turtles, fish of all kinds, and some requisite scattered goose droppings.
I’d spent this particular Wednesday morning biking the C&O Canal, a 184.5-mile long towpath spanning from downtown Washington, DC to Cumberland, Maryland. Now considered a National Park, the canal was originally used to transport goods by boat almost a century ago. All that remains are the boat locks, several restored houses, and the gravel path itself. I’ve ridden along the canal many times, sometimes into the city, sometimes heading towards Maryland’s more rural stretches.
For this particular trip the gear I chose was my 8-speed GT ZUM and ultralight REI Co-op Stoke 19 Pack to carry all my amenities. I hit the trail in 75-degree heat, made it home in about 4-hours, and drank close to 40-ounces of water when all was said and done.
Not wanting to have my ride end prematurely with DC’s concrete castles and commuter traffic, I chose to head northwest up to Poolesville, Maryland. With an archaic canal system on one side and the Potomac River on the other, it didn’t take long to arrive at a variety of treetop and cliff face vistas.
Different segments of the canal endure in various stages of disrepair. As I pedaled down miniature hills and over rocky outcroppings, I found my eyes tracing the water to my right. At times it was so clean and calm I could spot underwater plants blooming, as well as a variety of fish both large and small. A secret world seemed to open up around me as I shot through the summer heat.
About 6-miles into my ride, the canal began to feel less and less like the swampland I had grown so accustomed to around the DC metro-area. Yes, there were thickets of towering marsh plants that blanketed patches along the banks, but it was hard to stay convinced as I began to swerve between evergreens and boulders ornamented in fungi of all hues.
I had hit one of the main entrances to the Billy Goat Trail, a hiking path running in between me and the Potomac. Biking past the entrance, I took notice of the dramatic change in scenery—and caught a refreshingly ripe whiff of the nearby forest.
I had spent many a-day scaling those jagged rocks with the soothing sound of creek water in my ears, only to rest at several stunning outlooks atop hills so crooked you could lay back and the rocks would support you like a lawn chair. But that wasn’t for today. My sights were set on splashing through the mud at high velocities.
I continued on over small bridges, dodged early-morning runners, and passed by the occasional trailhead. Every half hour or so I would get my own personal view of the Potomac through a clearing in the foliage, complete with gravelly beaches, a golden veil over the trees, and a lively Virginia waving from across the way.
For the first 18-miles my stamina held out. A couple small breaks to catch my breath was all the rejuvenation I needed to push on, but the adult inside knew better than to test my limit so I decided to head home.
It’s mystifying how recognizable your environment becomes once you’ve traversed it by your own brute force. Landmarks that seemed barely above conscious acknowledgment the first time around began to really stick out on my way back: a patch of mushrooms on a log, someone’s forgotten sports cap hanging from a tree, particular dips in the trail. What was once a massive uniformity of shrubs and branches suddenly began to take on meaningful nuance.
Before I could say goodbye to the familiar buzz of the canal and its inhabitants, I found a spot by the river to grab a quick snack and enjoy the stillness of the Earth. The humidity had finally begun to encroach on the day, but it didn’t make much of a difference now that I was drenched in sweat. My bike lay by my side, both of us wearing splotches of dirt like badges of honor.
Back on the trail, I carried on until I approached the last few miles. It was then that I began to thank myself for turning around early. While the trail’s uphill gradation was minor, my calves seemed to think otherwise. I was ready for a cold shower and a few hours on the sofa to replay the day’s voyage mentally; where the beauty shines brightly but the muscles aren’t near as sore.
About the Author: Gabe Kahan has been racing through muddy puddles since he learned to ride as a kid. Living in the DC-metro area, he’s spent much of his time enjoying the nearby national parks and forests. Gabe works as a freelance writer, helping thought leaders and organizations innovate and grow. Find out more about him at: www.gabekahan.com
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