[Editor's note: For tips on riding the GAP-C&O yourself, and for five similar long-haul routes througout the U.S., visit page three.]
Look closely at a satellite image of North America at night and you'll find that even in the brightest blots of white, there are dark traces promising wildness and seclusion. My companions and I had found one such seam, and we were working it. After a late start on the Great Allegheny Passage-Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Towpath, the longest unpaved bike route east of the Mississippi, we were rushing westward in total darkness.
During an hour of hard riding, not a single beacon of light, whether from a car, house or parking lot, had broken the inky spell--even though we were technically within the Washington, D.C., metro area.
Then out of the black came a flash and a roar. Through leafless trees to my right the illuminated passenger compartments of a fast-moving commuter train barreled past. Distracted by the spectral sight of homeward-bound office workers floating through the night woods, I swerved into a quagmire. Wheels hit mud at precisely the wrong angle and, slam, down I went, bike, trailer and all.
"Oh man, that's got to hurt," said my friend Dan Seligman as he rode up on the wreckage. I checked for any protruding bones.
"As long as you're taking a break, mind if I adjust my cleats?" joked David Dickinson, who rounded out our head-lamped threesome.
The nearly completed GAP-C&O route between D.C. and Pittsburgh removes riders so quickly and thoroughly from civilization that modern intrusions can knock you on your backside. For 335 miles, bikers will travel in a green bubble, blessedly insulated from cars, trucks and most any other technological invention to come along since the steam locomotive. The trail, a happy accident of the industrial revolution, follows the abandoned rights-of-way of defunct railroads and a canal, bores through mountains in long tunnels and vaults deep river valleys on steel-girded bridges.
Along the way, it showcases a deep cross section of American history and the remarkable amount of open land still to be found on the eastern seaboard. Just outside the cocoon, a dozen or so former rail and canal towns pepper the route. Which means that a four-poster bed and a plate of pan-seared halibut are just a short detour away.
Autumn, as we found, is the best time to make the ride. Days are usually warm, nights cool, and as the leaves drop, expansive views extend over the Potomac, Casselman and Youghiogheny Rivers. At the time we began, late last fall, a final section of the GAP-C&O hadn't opened yet, but would in a few weeks. By securing the go-ahead to ride it, we could earn lifetime bragging rights as the first visitors to officially pedal the length of the near-completed route.
A delayed departure due to equipment problems at milepost zero in D.C.'s Georgetown district had already put that plan in jeopardy. If we pulled up short today, Thursday, the cascade effect would scuttle our carefully wrought scheme to drive home from Steelers country to Redskins territory on Monday. Hence the night riding--and the spill in the mud. Guidebooks recommend seven or more days to cover the route, but in a sporting effort, Dan, David and I decided to try it in five.
Our itinerary left us with a daily quota of 65 miles, which seemed ambitious but doable. David's a category-four bike racer, Dan's a hammerhead who puts in 80 miles a week on his bike and our route promised to be level. The GAP-C&O, after all, doesn't so much roll up and over the intervening Appalachian and Allegheny Mountains as plow straight through, courtesy of the twin forces of erosion and 19th-century TNT. But flat, we were about to learn, doesn't always equal easy.
If, like me, you're a cyclist whose riding consists of road outings spent hugging the white line as SUVs rocket past and half-day mountain bike blitzes, then the GAP-C&O comes as a revelation. Among long-distance, off-pavement bike trails in the U.S., only the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (2,490 miles) exceeds it in length.
None rival it at presenting history on the fly. The route is a fusion of two existing trails (the GAP and the C&O Canal Towpath, go figure), and riding it is a lesson in the age-old American impulse to open the West and make a quick buck. Since the days of George Washington, whose Patowmack Company blasted channels around rapids so daring boatmen could transport goods, the natural cleft in the Appalachians carved by the Potomac River has attracted visionaries consumed with dreams of empire.
Though you can ride the GAP-C&O east to west or west to east, we decided to stick with the flow of history and set out on the C&O, the older and more authentically adventurous part of the route. The canal, which connects Georgetown to Cumberland, Maryland, was begun in 1828 and intended to shuttle coal and grain from the inland mountains to East Coast ports more efficiently than Washington's river runners. It was obsolete even before completion; by the late 1800s faster and cheaper railroads had driven a spike through its heart. Today the canal trail courses along the berm once trod by mule teams pulling barges loaded with cargo. Along the way whitewashed lock houses and intricate stone retaining walls are all that mark the waterway's former passage.
After camping the first night at Bald Eagle Island, one of 30 hiker-biker sites on the banks of the Potomac, the three of us spent Friday riding through some of the Civil War's most contested ground. General Robert E. Lee twice led his army north across the C&O, first to a tactical draw at Antietam and then to defeat at Gettysburg. Antietam's Sunken Road and infamous stone bridge, somber reminders of the bloodiest day of battle in American history, are easy side treks from the towpath.
We swept upriver in big looping arcs, through all?es of mottled white sycamore, past long cliff lines and always with the broad waters of the Potomac to our left. The sound of our wheels crunching a carpet of golden leaves spooked a 12-point buck; we raced it for nearly a mile until the big fellow found a break in the cliff wall hemming the canal and then bounded away.