The Cumberland Passage Permanent
10/30/2012 | Pittsburgh, PA to Washington DC (or as close as you can get)
Leading up to this moment (the pre-crux), there was a great deal of speculation and anxiety about delayed and/or canceled flights in the form of countless text and email threads outlying various contingency plans like what about Cincinnati? or how far is it from Detroit? or like, would you rather drive from Chicago to Pittsburgh at night or from Louisville to Pittsburgh in a torrential mixed precipitation deluge?
I The CPP
Look, our failed attempt at the Cumberland Passage Permanent (CPP) was wet and cold and stupid. Like seriously it was exceptionally stupid. And that, really, could be that. Like period, end of story. The thing is, some of what happened to us was not actually our fault. Some of it was patently our fault. And some of it was ‘Other,’ as in somewhere between our fault and not our fault. And some of it was straight-up beyond fault of any kind, like what’s beyond an act of God?, whatever it is, it was that: e.g. the night before our start, our gracious crew-of-ten-hosting host in Pittsburgh poisoned all of us with a semi-mandatory Last Supper of violent diarrhea-inducing Vegan Stew. I mean, not in our wildest dreams did we see that coming and I live in the Alberta Arts District in Portland, Oregon.What I'm trying to say is this: do it (see Beta below), just don't do it like us.”- DWP
Before we get specific, we all know who the elephant in the room (EitR) is, the elephant is Sandy, the deadliest and most destructive hurricane of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season, the one that dropped 1-3 feet of snow in the Appalachian Mountains, the one they called a Nor’eastercane and Frankenstorm. That said, Category 3 Hurricane or no Category 3 Hurricane, it’s stupid to plan a bicycle ride from Pennsylvania to Maryland over the Eastern Continental Divide in October. I mean, that’s just a fact. For one thing you don’t have to be Mr. Bob Almanac to know the Alleghenies have been getting dark & cold every October since roughly 480 million years ago. There are some other things too, but who cares when the first thing is that it’s guaranteed to be dark & cold?
Also, and this is not that big of a deal but it’s relevant I think. Riding close to 350 miles even in the best of conditions takes a really long time. At least I think so. I don’t actually know because I’ve never done it. Listen, coordinating these things sucks but you do some math and you make some informed estimates based on experience and anecdotal evidence, and you give yourself a window; in this case to make our exit flights we needed to be in DC T-plus 51 hours from our 3:00 AM start, which in August in a dry, temperature-controlled environment, when and where the plan was made, seemed reasonable. It wasn’t.
Side Note: We planned the ride for Halloween night. Which, based on what we know about Witches, Tricks and Treats, Hessians, Hunting Season, the Occult and SRAP (Satanic Ritual Abuse in Pennsylvania) was at the very least an auspicious or inauspicious (whichever one is the bad one, I forget) twenty-four hour period during which to travel through sparsely populated Appalachian woods not that far from where Blair Witch Project was filmed. So yeah, factor or not, that one was definitely on us.
To get to Pittsburgh, some of us left Philadelphia and the haven of Pat’s King of Steaks covered seating/eating area in a white Ford rental van the morning after Sandy’s landfall. On the way out of town it was eerily quiet and kinda desolate and shit was definitely fucked-up: power lines were down, transformers were sparking; slow-rolling we passed lots of dog walkers and lookey-loos congregating next to piles of broken shop glass and at the foot of toppled traffic lights still swaying like hangmen in the wind. Lots of heavy shit that doesn’t typically get nailed down (because it’s heavy shit), shit like 55 gallon steel barrels, shopping carts, traffic barricades, foreign cars, homeless people, etc., was blown helter-skelter and left just kinda wherever it was the instant Sandy peaced-out; i.e. high-centered in the neighbor’s hedges, teeter-tottering on the peak of a row-house rooftop, floating down the Delaware, etc. Driving around felt a lot like walking home the morning after a meteorological-sized kegger or city-wide frat party, shit was a mess and there were cops everywhere. Anyway, even though we high-speed turnpike’d the whole way to Pittsburgh we were late to the airport, at which airport we found the LA contingent sleeping on their bike boxes in a Cuddle Puddle at the Delta ticketing area.
Leading up to this moment (the pre-crux), there was a great deal of speculation and anxiety about delayed and/or canceled flights in the form of countless text and email threads outlying various contingency plans like what about Cincinnati? or how far is it from Detroit? or like, would you rather drive from Chicago to Pittsburgh at night or from Louisville to Pittsburgh in a torrential mixed precipitation deluge?
Our host has this thing about anonymity so for now let’s just call him, I don’t know, “Hans.” Anyway Hans, who toured in a punk-rock band in the 90s and who now publishes a successful blog, and who has a small brown dog and a tall lovely wife (which TLW graciously pretended to ignore the fact that all ten of her house guests were borderline incontinent and wantonly flatulent) and who is TO THIS DAY the most welcoming and remarkably accommodating host ever, and who is a guy that we genuinely, as in no lie, l-o-v-e love, set us up in his warm, dry garage and adjacent legit-tool-equipped shop. For the next several hours we made trash, stuffed bags and rigged shit. Highlights include; having Hahn Rossman build my bike for me, watching Rocky (Cole Maness) lose a 2-hour fender fight, and listening to John Watson talk mad-crazy-smack about his stratospheric level of preparedness, Son!
I slept on the floor next to a white leather couch in the living room. John Watson shared a bed with Cole Maness in a spare bedroom on the second floor. Ty Hathaway and Moi Medina also shared a room together on the second floor. Hahn Rossman and Emiliano Granado slept on the floor in the basement. I don’t know where Christophe Raffy slept. We got up at 3:00 AM, we met in the garage where our bikes were built and packed, we rolled down a driveway, we took a photograph in the street, we rode to a 24-hour diner, we ate, it took way longer than we planned, some of it—okay most of it—having to do with explosive as in Hiro-fucking-shima-style diarrhea caused by Vegans. Then we got lost looking for the trail because nobody had a map. I don’t want to sound like a dick, but riding around industrial Pittsburgh at 4:30 AM through the asshole of an ice-cold tempest sucks.The combination of the VD (vegan diarrhea) outbreak and our accidental ride-of-shame tour of Pittsburgh’s many hilly streets and dimly lit, monoxide-choked tunnels was the first big hit.”- DWP
The next six hours was a soaking wet, hypothermic fog-blur. High Points include stopping in several dank, seedy tunnels proximal, without fail, to a river and railroad tracks and a rusty truss bridge. Stamping my cleated feet in various cold-damp-dark places and the subsequent echo. Exhaling billowy back-lit breath clouds like a stoner dragon. The 4,845 bunnies—seriously we saw literally four thousand eight hundred and forty-five white, fluffy bunnies running around in the dark!—that 1) ran across our path 2) jumped out of nowhere into our path 3) froze (on the path) in the beam of our lights 4) threatened to hop from the path into our rolling wheels 5) ran directly in front of us on the path as though we were chasing them or attempting to run them to death, which, lets be honest, entertainment is entertainment. And of course, riding through miles, like literal-actual miles, of BB-deep standing water. Who could forget that. Low Points include repeatedly getting lost in a complex, overzealous network of mixed-modal paths and greenways and trails junctioning and cloverleafing this-a-way and that-a-way every quarter mile, for miles.
We stopped at a store next to the trail at daybreak which daybreak, btw, we literally yearned for. Anyway, Cole and Ty and Raffy and Moi bought a bunch of those chemical handwarmer packs on the counter next to the 5-Hour Energy and stuffed them into their shoes and gloves. I got a hot chocolate and a coffee and made a mocha. At this point, something like 1/17th of the way into this ride situation, everything we owned, every spare set of anything like gloves and hats and socks and you name it, was soaking wet. Meanwhile we pressed our faces against the fogged-up front window and collectively willed the outside world to warm up ala Art Bell’s FIRE THE GRID Mass Consciousness Positive Focus Experiment; which our desire/manifestation seemed reasonable enough because even though it was still gnarly-raining and practically dark we knew the sun was technically already up—I mean, it was 6:15 AM and dude what the fuck this was the Mid-Atlantic not Norway. But it didn’t warm up. In fact if anything it got colder that way it often does just after the ass crack of dawn which dosen’t make sense unless you know about radiant heat and space heat and whatnot.
In a public pit toilet between the store and the trail I stripped down to my bibs to take a shit. While my arms and chest and back steamed I thought about crying and calling my mom to see if she would pick me up. I also considered which one of these motherfuckers was going to uncle first. That we were fated for failure was at this point very clearly written on our frowny, silt-covered faces. Continuing was at best one of those Attrition Wars and at worst, a cruel joke or Thespian-type tragic comedy.I sat there stalling for as long as I could until someone banged on the door and publicly accused me of coveting shelter, at which point I very reluctantly dragged the dripping wet and hoar frost-covered pile of clothes lying on the dirty concrete at my feet over my pathetic head onto my shivering, cowering, nearly-snuffed personage.”- DWP
It rained and rained and rained. And rained. Shit was biblical. Every five miles someone had to stop for something: mud blockage, to complain about the rain, to locate and consume a food item, to pound an Ensure Plus, to change out wet layers for slightly less wet layers, and, my personal favorite, to fix a flat. We rode in a little wet pack and collectively day-dreamed, mostly in our brain-minds and but sometimes out loud as in conversationally, about stopping at a Laundromat-shaped oasis. After two more hours of slog-fest-death-marching we came to the trailside town of Connellsville where we actually did stop at a Laundromat, which Laundromat we found through sheer luck or divine intervention—Pennsylvania is 80% Christian and it was Halloween so you be the judge. Inside the Laundromat it was warm and magnificent and spacious and rich with several automatic hot cocoa machines, a “library” of sorts, a well-lit bathroom and the sensual aroma of heat and powdered detergent.11Side note: At this point we had completed 60 of basically 335 miles.
The plan was very straight-forward: go into the laundromat, dry our clothes, maybe eat something while that happened and leave. Simple. The whole thing, forty minutes max. But here’s what actually happened in real life.
- We didn’t go into so much as crash into the laundromat.
- We exploded in the overly large, reasonably furnished waiting room adjacent to the machine room.
- We left dirt, mud puddles and rivulets of gross rainwater everywhere we went. We made tracks. We left deltas in our wake.
- We stripped down to our just bibs and nothing else. Not even socks. Some of us (yours truly) got totes naked and walked around raw dog under our Poler Stuff Napsacks, as if wearing a sleeping bag with feet and arm hole cut-outs in public in the daytime was socially acceptable, encouraged even.
- We should have made a scene, except—and this is really peculiar if you think about it—nobody seemed to care. Not the fat truck driver on his flip phone in the corner, not the other fat truck driver or the woman washing a multi-generational family of fourteen’s undergarments, or even the old lady owner of the joint. It was almost as if we were expected, or I don’t know, as though it were a common occurrence, which if it is, brings up an entire universe of questions.
- We ordered seven large pizzas (one per person) from Pizza King. Ty ordered his Vegan-style with no cheese or toppings which, of course, sounded delicious.
- King Pizza called the laundromat back to confirm that Someone inside the laundromat actually wanted and was really going to pay for seven large pizzas, one of which was cheese-and-topping-less. And that that very same Someone wanted all seven of those pizzas delivered to a laundromat at 11:30 AM in the morning on All Hallow’s Eve. The owner, our new friend btw, confirmed that yes all that was true, even if seemingly inconceivable.
- We called the Van, we told the Van to come to us.
- Ty got a hot chocolate.
- Hahn read some romance novels.
- Moi slept in the corner.
- I used the flush toilet.
- We all washed and dried our laundry.
- The pizzas were delivered. We sat in plastic chairs and ate all of the pizza which was, let’s be honest, too much pizza to eat in one sitting even if you were planning on swimming the English Channel—I mean riding a bicycle to a different state in a Russian Siege Winter.
- We waited for the Van.
- The Van got lost.
- Really lost.
- A post-pizza funk set in.
- We waited for hours (seriously, literally, hours) like wet rats shipwrecked on an island, which florescent island was A LOT like a minimum security prison rec room combination visiting area and laundry facility. Depression set in. We experienced hair and memory loss.
- We mindlessly shuffled and wandered about the premises, aimlessly.
- We needed to wait for the Van because it was the right thing to do, but (and this really warrants mentioning) we didn’t really-as-in-actually-need to wait for the Van because we were Brovet and Brovet is nothing if not self-contained, self-reliant and self-sufficient.
- But John said he had a pair of dry/warm gloves in the van and was insistent that in order to continue, he needed those gloves.
- Because he was blue, still, even after hours of climate-controlled repose. And because he was forcing his teeth to chatter for, one can only assume, effect. We said we’d wait.
- Our brains addled.
- Our will to kit-up and move-out suffered a kind of soggy impotence.
- We stared out the window, listlessly. (Still raining.)
- We experienced a collective malaise.
- We slept like refugees on display.
- Laundry clients came and went but we remained as though stuck in a rural Pennsylvania Purgatory. Like gown wearing, lobotomy Movie Extras in a psych ward scene, stuck cruising a shitty craft service table for eternity.
- Anyway, finally the Van showed up. Speaking of the Van, John got inside it to (air quotes) look for his gloves and never came out again. Dear John, fuck you. Side Note: John if you’re reading this, before you get butthurt please consider two things A.) If it wasn’t for you it was probably going to be me, like, what I’m trying to say is that your failure emboldened me and forced my resolve, which extra needed to happen because otherwise I was going down! B.) Every story needs a foil and you’re the foil now. It doesn’t mean we love you any less, it doesn’t mean we don’t like you and respect you and think you’re like, totally awesome, it just means unfortunately for you—and dude, RealTalk, you did kind of earn this one, right!?—you’re our escaped goat. C.) You slayed Brovet #3: Mythical State of Jefferson! D.) Everybody bonks bro.
I wish I could say that things went well after all that, what with leaving John “Timesuck” Watson behind and the town of Connellsville in our helmet-mounted rearview, and while it did kinda look up there for a moment or two, really, on the whole, things did not improve. First of all, on they way out of town we passed a bank with one of those digital marquees that displays the time and temperature; it was 3:30 PM and 36 degrees. Secondly, it continued to rain and flood and rain. Though for a while, basically the whole way to Ohiopyle State Park, we were on a well graded dirt road deep in the woods and that was pretty cool, in fact it was a lot like a bike ride. Also, at some point there was a roaring river and some pretty cool wooden bridges with forest views—that didn’t suck. In Ohiopyle, village of, when we all stopped for some coffees, Scenic Overlook photo-ops and local chit chat, I rode over to the State Park Visitor Center to poop and text and forget, with any luck, that I was alive. That was a super welcome and semi-successful break from reality until Hahn click-clacked his way into the surprisingly busy Visitor Center, held the bathroom door open and shouted so everyone could hear him,Come on Daniel, we all know that even you have to be done pooping by now, it's been like 35 minutes, you can’t hide from us and you can't hide from your duty (laughter), stop wasting daylight, pull-up your bibs like a Warrior and get out here and get on your bike, nowwwwww.”- Hahn Rossman
Through sheer momentum and because nobody had any better ideas we eventually made it past Confluence, PA to the bottom of the last big push up the Appalachians. It was dark, it was raining harder than ever, the temperature was just above freezing and the trail was covered in two to three inches of snow. In normal conditions and circumstances the next forty miles would simply represent the crux, also, side note: the apex. But unfortunately for us we had a snowy mountain pass not unlike Donner Pass (circa 1846) to contend with, i.e suffer, hump, endure, possibly succumb to cannibalism, etc. Meanwhile Raffy was convinced a Bobcat was stalking us. We asked him to describe what he thought he saw and/or felt he saw; subsequently he described in very sketchy detail what we all agreed sounded a lot like a Mountain Lion or Cougar. Because at that moment I was seized once again by Vegan stew cramps I elected to poop exactly where I was in the middle of the trail as it was dark and I was way beyond caring. I hung my kit and outer garments on a wooden fence and squatted. Before everyone rode away and left me there alone in the dark I asked after some kind of toilet paper or extra sock or something but nobody answered me. Luckily I still chewed tobacco at this point in my life and so like there I was, like a total badass, I mean drunk redneck about to pass out and die in the woods behind a tavern—wobbly racing tuck, naked and steaming, explosive diarrhea in the middle of a public trail, 33 degrees and sleeting, alone, 200+ miles and Nondenominational Higher Power-knows how many hours from my desired destination, and a big bail of Cope in my lip, just like you know, totally in the zone!, hoorah bitches. I used a handful of remarkably granular snow and slush to wipe, which, as it turns out, was a bad decision on account of all the poop water run-off which ran down the backs of my legs into my already wet socks. Also I got icy poop-slush in my gloves.22At this point we are in some kind of State Forest or some such tract of woods. There were no roads. No houses. No civilization at all. We had a plan to meet the Van (currently long gone) some 80-odd miles down the road in Meyersdale, PA.
Riding uphill in the rain in pitch black darkness through eighteen inches of wet snow and practically an entire fucking forest’s worth of downed branches and trees for three and a half hours is not as fun as it sounds. High Points include listening to a distant train going past us in the opposite direction on the other side of the river across the valley, riding in the dark by Braille and a totally bitchin’ snow glow which provided (nearly) enough light by which a form of quasi-navigation was possible. Low Points include the crossing of many wooden bridges on which the snow was invariably deeper, a group-wide failure to attend this ride equipped with proper lights, packing snow and slush into my shoes for hours on end, a full-blown DWR/WPB outerwear breach resulting in a steady stream of ice cold rainwater pouring down my back, the time when we were lost and almost tried to bushwhack through a closed and pretty fucking seriously dark tunnel, pooping in the snow again, getting slapped and smacked (repeatedly) in the face by branches, and icicles, and branches covered in icicles.
Somewhere near the top but not the top because oh no the top was too good for us, we came out of the woods into the greater Rockwood, PA metropolitan area. It was late and once again the group was experiencing some light-to-medium yearning this time for something to eat and somewhere dry and heated in which to eat it. We saw an American Legion Hall. A well lit sign next to the road read Visitors Welcome. We left our bikes in the parking lot next to a POS 2-door sedan (‘merican) thoroughly wrapped in streamers of soaking wet 1-ply toilet paper. The front door was locked so we rang the button above which button ring the bell was written in magic marker. After the buzz we shuffled in together but stopped in a huddle on the threshold because two dudes in department store camouflage and two ladies in Pennsylvania lady clothes in an otherwise empty bar room were staring at us pretty hard and so moving forward felt like possibly a bad idea. Which made sense, because to normal country folk we definitely looked like a group of soaking wet French men in spandex and Special Needs helmets looking for the rest of our Halloween Sex Holiday Bus Tour group. After several tense but interesting seconds passed one of the ladies said, well don’t just stand there, come on in and what can we do you for? We said do you have any food. She said is whiskey and little bags of seasoned potato chips (Utz) considered food where younz come from?” And we said most definitely whiskey and potato chips is considered food where weunz come from, but can you heat ’em up first?!?!! After that things went really smoothly so we made another wet mess in a Commonwealth establishment and partied with them there for like fifteen, thirty, forty-five minutes max.
Some genius (Ty probably?) suggested we leave the trail and take surface roads to the next town where we hoped to hook-up with the Van and bivouac in a 24-hour diner. The problem with surface roads is that surface roads are designed for normal humans operating more typical post-turn-of-the-century forms of conveyance, you know like cars and trucks and shit. And I don’t know if you know this or not, but cars and trucks and shit, unlike old-timey trains and barge-dragging burros, can manage grades WELL above 1.75%, grades as high as e.g. 27%. Because old-timey trains and barge-dragging burros can’t manage grades above 1.75%, the trail we had been on and were supposed to continue on was super gradual and bona fide manageable even in Southeastern Pennsylvania, a region known for it’s steep hills and deep hollers. Good news though: it wasn’t raining anymore, just snowing as in for seriously a blizzard as far as the eye could see, three maybe four feet. I don’t want to sound like an asshole but riding a laden, improperly lit bicycle on the side of a rural road, at night, through Bumfuck Nowhere (rural Pennsylvania) in the Appalachian Mountains in the middle of a Haunted Blizzard, at night, with seriously limited visibility, is, even as fun as it was, pretty dumb. On the upside, because it was a fairly windy tropical storm every now and then all the clouds and copious snow and sleet would blow-out to reveal a nearly full moon, which scenario was, if nothing else, on point.
At 11:45 PM in a Sheetz in the town of Meyersdale, PA (pop. 2473 in 2000 down 551 from pop. 3024 in 1900) we regrouped with the Van and welcomed sensations in our extremities. The best thing about Sheetz, a gas station and fast food burger-type joint, is that the food ordering process is 100% automated using Touch Screen kiosks. So ordering, say 2 bacon double cheeseburgers extra pickles and onions, a large order of onion rings, a small order of french fries and a large chocolate milkshake is as easy as pushing a few buttons and following a few prompts. The second best thing about Sheetz, at least this Sheetz on that night, was that when you ask the lady behind the cash register if you can sit in your filth and Cave Man your warm burgers in the isle between the candy and gum rack and the battery and winter glove and snow chain and engine oil display, she says, “Yes no problem,” with her mouth words even though her entire whole body, especially her eyes, actually says please nonononononono. Look, at this point we all knew we’re fucked. Morale-spirits couldn’t have been any lower-worse. So really it wasn’t a surprise when I’m not sure who, but I think it was Raffy, started calling around looking for vacancies at any of the many (three) hotels in town. Meanwhile, the Somerset County Police Officer who walked into Sheetz for some Tums and to chat with Mindy at the counter ordered us Rambo: First Blood-style to vacate the premises even though (maybe because) that clearly meant, in our current state, our immediate deaths.
In the rain, absently kicking a gas station concrete curb with his SPD compatible foot, at 12:15 AM on Halloween night, on a Thursday, Raffy managed to get a hold of someone at the Morguen Toole Company, which person told him that that yes, they’d be happy to open up and rent us however many rooms we wanted. It’s hard to describe how warm, how dry, how drinks, how hot shower and how bunk bed-having the Morguen Toole Company (evidently a Bed and Breakfast) was that night. The owners, a lovely younger company with progressive values and sensibilities, knew all about the trail; in fact they had set up their business in large part to accommodate the many typically diurnal hikers and bikers who pass through the area throughout the Summer season; you know, when it makes sense to go for bike rides. Also, their newly artisanally-renovated building which building once housed the Morguen Toole Company (oh, okay, I get it now), was totes legit.
FTR (for the record), we told ourselves like out loud and everything that we were JUST going in to shower and warm-up, and n-o-t not to actually sleep like fall asleep-sleep. We said things like alls we need is a break, you know, a chance to regroup, reprovision and relaundry in preparation for the next 225 miles, which 225 miles we were going to bang-the-fuck just as soon as I can feel my feet, Son!
We woke up six maybe seven hours later. Sad face. Then, in direct defiance of the Universe and our self-inflicted mission, we stumbled a few blocks to the local diner where we had a shameful-and-gratuitous-but-delicious two-course breakfast like it was Sunday or something.
By the time we finally saddled-up at 9:30 AM that morning we knew it was over. We knew it was no longer possible to complete the entire route in the time we had left, even if we weren’t pushing our bikes uphill through a foot of heavy snow. Which some of us—Hahn—did a lot of, due to the fact his metal fenders were mounted to his 650b bike with inadequate snow clearance. Rookie. Anyway, the next four hours would have sucked if the previous Siberian-prisoner-escape-of-an-evening hadn’t happened. But since the previous evening had in fact happened, push-riding over the Divide through the snow and Lord of The Rings-type tunnels with big oaken doors and whatnot, in the daytime, in no-more-rain-and-or-precipitation-of-any-kind, was a frosted cake walk. We passed a cross-country skier. Cole broke his plastic seatpost shredding some natural rollers in a play park on the edge of Frostburg, MD. On the other side of the Mason Dixon line we left the snow and Chronicles of Gnarnia behind once and for all. Prolly Not came out of hiding. Shit was looking up. All we had to do was coast and hi-five and share smiles and do jumps as far as we could in the general direction of DC.
Or we could get nine fucking flats in the twenty miles between Frostburg and Cumberland on the best most buffed-out section of trail-road yet and the last bit of riding before we had to pack it in and drive the rest of the way to DC in one of two cramped mini vans. High Points include throwing rocks at trees, the Bone Cave and dry-humping an aluminum street sign pole. It was dark by the time we got to Cumberland where we did in fact quit just under two-hundred miles short of DC and slightly less than half-way along. On the upside, we found a place to eat where Raffy could order raw oysters which made a lot of sense based on having just expended 43,129 calories in the last 37 hours.
AN ILLUSTRATED CHRONOLOGICAL COUNTDOWN TO FAILURE BY WAY OF WORSENING COUNTENANCES
A HISTORY OF THE GREAT ALLEGHENY PASSAGE AND THE CHESAPEAKE & OHIO CANAL by Richard Ellis
It was The General (even to his wife) who first saw the possibilities of connecting the Chesapeake to the Great Lakes. Having returned to his Mt. Vernon estate after the war, Washington had ordered his slaves to hack away boughs and chisel the bluff to free up the view upon his beloved Potomac. Yet its earthy red hue, that lazy muscularity borne of the Virginian soil, was no idle distraction; instead, it demanded harnessing as “the binding agent, the tether” that might hold the fragile United States together.33Achenbach, Joel. The Grand Idea: George Washington’s Potomac and the Race to the West New York, Simon & Schuster: 2004. p.9 In 1785, after an exploratory trip with his companion Dr. James Craik up the Potomac over the Allegheny mountains and down the Ohio River, he established the Potomack Canal Company and began work on creating a network of canals to connect Georgetown with Cumberland, Maryland some 180 miles away. By 1802 five skirting canals had been constructed around the major falls on the Potomac and small gondolas paddled furs, lumber and flour and farm produce.
Yet man’s mastery of nature always encounters two obstacles: the refusal of nature to be dominated, and the insatiable lust of another man to overmaster that first man. For the Potomack Company it was the floods, unpredictable waters and limestone sinkholes of the river that drove them into administration, while their successors, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company (est. 1828), who completed construction of the canal from Georgetown to Cumberland in 1850, found themselves forever harried by the ravenous steampunkers of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad company. The cinder dinkies reached Cumberland 8 years before the canal did, and set off full pace for Pittsburgh, thwarting the plans of the C&O company to complete George’s original vision, threading this ribbon of national unity beyond the Alleghenies, holding east and west together.
But the canal was a marvel. 74 locks helped it dance up the 605ft elevation difference between Washington and Cumberland along its 184 mile route. Circuses with black bears cruised the section between Oldtown, Maryland and Harpers Ferry. While English miserablist Charles Dickens, having missed out on the top bunk, was not so distressed by the nightmarish approach of his upstairs neighbour’s sagging behind (the ‘Dickensian aspect’) that he couldn’t take pleasure in the sights and smells of the Potomac. Maverick canaler Raleigh Bender of Sharpsburg, Maryland held the speed record—taking all of 62 hours heading upstream.44Tales of his niece Mary navigating locks while his less speedy brother Charles Bender lolled drunkenly on the side of their boat [see Doyle, Vernell and Tim Doyle. Images of America: Sharpsburg, Charleston, Arcadia: 1999. p.108] might best be relived in the drinking hole bearing his name today on Main Street in Sharpsburg. And in 1871 over a million tons of coal slaked their way down to the nation’s capital from the pits of Ohio. But little went back up: some oysters, a few barrels of salted fish (but no empire was ever built on herring), and a largely one-way canal was doomed to economic distress.
And then there was the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, incessantly competitive, ever prone to litigation. The first eruption with the Chesapeake canal was in 1833 over a rights-of-way issue in the narrows of the Potomac Valley at Point of Rocks. The clue is in the name. It was an Odyssean ‘worst of two evils’ narrative: the Scylla of corporate takeover perched on one bank, the Charybdis of wanton recklessness, and the emetic aftertaste of bankruptcy on the other. The canal sailed close to the latter, and persevered with its endeavor, throwing caution and profit to the wind. But Scylla still came and scooped up what was left, and in 1889 the Baltimore and Ohio railroad stepped in when the storm passed, took over control of the canal and set the seal on its demise. For it was always a matter of rights of way: the canal was a boondoggle for B&O’s desire to frustrate the ambitions of its rival, the Western Maryland railroad company, and after several more floods the canal limped to its commercial death in 1924.
It’s here then that we move beyond the treacherous waterways and onto that lucrative ironclad corridor between Cumberland and Pittsburgh, later to become known as the Allegheny Passage. Today its 150 miles represent a shining patchwork of rails-to-trails-joined-up-thinking-elephant-chain-conga-line-synergy. A veritable tunnel through time and space, encompassing the Mason Dixon line and the Eastern Continental Divide. And in a conservational pincer movement between the Pennsylvania Commonwealth and the National Parks Service, the General’s vision of a tether between the midwest and DC is now a free for all, a 334 mile shingle umbilicus holding the past and future together. For the Baltimore and Ohio railroad behemoth couldn’t stop at canals, but slowly began to eviscerate its competitors for the Pittsburgh export market. The Pittsburgh and Lake Erie railroad joined forces with Western Maryland, but B&O came sniffing, and by 1975, under the auspicious corporate smokescreen of its feline logo, B&O’s ‘Chessie’ railroad amalgamated the lines that had previously run in parallel, at times very close to one another. In doing so, the obsolescent grades pondered a new future as a wastebasket for smore droppings, sorry I meant to say an idyllic oasis for bikers, hikers and ramblers.
And today, whether you race its entire length, or hide in its tunnels, getting smoked out like mischievous naval captains were in the late nineteenth century in the amazing 3000ft Paw Paw tunnel on the C&O canal (restored and open for hedonists today), you’re part of that original vision. Washington’s panoptic fantasy still needs its pragmatic avatars, though, unafraid to bore through rocks, mulching a new grammar upon the trail, taking a stance. For it was only when such revolutionary insiders as Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas hiked the entire C&O canal in 1954 to galvanize public opinion against his employers’ plan to transform the route into an automobile parkway that its future was secured. And it is a future forever freighted with the spectre of what and who went before, and the alternate trajectories hidden in between.55Legend has it that the ghosts of civil war soldiers from the battle of Ball’s Bluff, together with their canine companion, prevented canalers from tying up at ‘Haunted House Bend’.
IV CUMBERLAND PASSAGE PERMANENT RECON & BETA
First, an explanation of why we have dialed information in spite of our abject failure to complete the ride. Several weeks after our CPP attempt, still in the haze of a Snovet Hangover and convalescing, we asked Twitter for information leading to someone with first-hand experience of the entire route. Chris Tank responded.Having real-time-tracked Brovet #2 on Instagram, I knew there was potential for less than ideal weather conditions (to put it mildly) when we went, but then again it wasn't hurricane season so I figured we'd be okay. And we were, we made it.”- Chris Tank
At 8:09 AM on April 27th, 2012 Honorary Animals Chris Tank, Chris Gollan and Mladen 66After hours riding in the rain, soaked to the bone, Mladen purchased a yellow hazmat-looking suit in Confluence, Pennsylvania. Sokolovic left Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on bicycles headed in the direction of Maryland. 103+/- hours later, at 3:18 PM on May 1st, they arrived in Washington DC having successfully completed the seamless combination of the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) trail and C&O Canal trail, otherwise known as the Cumberland Passage Permanent. From Primanti’s to the Thompson Boat Center, they rode close to 350 miles at an average of 13.4 mph over the course of five days and four nights. In addition to actually completing the ride, Chris Tank took detailed notes and observations. Those annotations coupled with their extensive pre-ride research and planning are 1,000,000,000% responsible for the attached Cue Sheet and Beta. Dear Chris, we can’t thank you enough for all your hard work and research. Because of you we have an accurate/vetted Cue Sheet, mileage-specific Beta and detailed descriptions of the C&O Canal (which sounds lovely—maybe we’ll go there some day).
The Following Beta is by Chris Tank
- MILE MARKER 0.0: Before we get too far along, let’s address the alcohol situation in Pennsylvania. In short, it sucks. You can buy a Six-Pack To Go from a restaurant or bar, but you can’t from a grocery store or convenience store. Liquor is only available at State-run Wine and Spirits Stores, which stores can be difficult to locate outside of Pittsburgh. I packed a bottle of Blanton’s that ran out by Cumberland, Maryland—and even there the best I could do was Maker’s.
- MILE MARKER 0.0: Take Amtrak from DC. Even though it takes longer than driving, it’s a comparatively low-stress way to get you and your bike to Pittsburgh. Plus you can drink and eat dinner in the dining car. And they take reservations!77Side Note regarding traveling with bicycles on the Amtrak: you need to remove your pedals and loosen your stem bolts/turn your handlebars 90° in order to pack your bike in Amtrak’s mandatory cardboard travel box. Not realizing this beforehand, we were forced to (frantically) sprint across Union Station to a commuter bike shop. The mechanic on duty came through big time, though we still barely made it back in time to get the bikes and ourselves onto the train.
- MILE MARKER 0.0: The menu at Primanti Bros mentions their #2 Best Seller (the Pitts-burgher Cheese Steak) but nothing about #1. Of course I had to ask; of course it’s Iron City beer. We found a nice loaf of bread right around the corner at Mancini’s Bakery, 1717 Penn Ave.
- MILE MARKER 1.5: When passing through Point State Park, it’s customary to dip your rear wheel in the fountain to symbolize the beginning of your journey. Unfortunately the fountain was dry and surrounded by a chain link fence, so there was no fountain dipping for us.
- MILE MARKER 3.1: Say hello to Golden Triangle Bike Rental owners Britt and Tom just before turning left onto the Three Rivers Heritage Trail. They’re good people who do a lot to promote the trail and cycling in Pittsburgh.
- MILE MARKER 3.2: Completed in 1887, the now bike/pedestrian span of the Hot Metal Bridge formerly carried molten steel by rail from the Eliza furnaces to the rolling mills on the opposite bank of the Monongahela River.
- MILE MARKER 19.6: Don’t pass through Sutersville, PA without pit-stopping for ice cream at Yough Twister, an old Tastee-Freez on 1st Street where you hear people say things like, “Yinz rode all da way dahn here fron da Burgh?”
- MILE MARKER 19.0-89.0 (APPROX.): Take advantage of the swimming spots along the Youghiogheny River in the summer months. One popular spot is above Ohiopyle Falls (approx. Mile Marker 78.1) near the bridge going into Ohiopyle. The Falls City Pub has cheap pitchers of good beer and the burrito ain’t half bad as well.
- MILE MARKER N/A: Since the GAP Trail was a huge volunteer and bureaucratic undertaking, there are markers and benches along the way dedicated to local volunteers and politicians. I can’t say I paid much attention to the names until just southeast of Meyersdale, when we came upon the Dick Stiffey Memorial Bench. Take a moment to pay your respects to the late Mr. Stiffey.
- MILE MARKER 128.1: After slowly climbing for what seemed like forever (1,672 ft. of constant uphill over 130 mi.), the trail finally provided some relief. The Eastern Continental Divide is marked by a short tunnel with murals and an elevation chart showing the trail’s contours. It’s all downhill from here! The weariness accumulated over the first 130 miles washed away as we dropped 1,787 feet to Cumberland over the next 20 miles.
- MILE MARKER 151.7: A few things about Cumberland: Cafe Mark is your best bet for coffee, and the “Banana Bob” is so good! Also pretty awesome is something called a “Doozie” at M&M Bakery across the street (80 Baltimore St). Then there’s the passive-aggressive asshole of a security guard who trolls the plaza, enforcing the no bike riding rule on Baltimore Street. Fuck that guy.
- MILE MARKER 151.7: Time to get on the C&O which means saying goodbye to the smooth surface of the GAP. Instead of the almost monotonous at times crushed limestone surface of the GAP, the C&O is marked with ruts and potholes that demand your attention.
- MILE MARKER 151.8: The Paw Paw Tunnel, one of the greatest engineering achievements of its time, was definitely a highlight. Built to bypass a six mile stretch of the Potomac that includes five horseshoe bends called the Paw Paw Bends, the six-tenths of a mile tunnel took twelve years to build with over six million bricks. It’s pitch black inside since there’s no electricity in the area, and unlike the old railroad tunnels you encounter along the GAP, the Paw Paw was built for the canal. The trail is narrow and the surface is roughly carved natural rock. It runs along the right side of the tunnel with a wooden railing and the dank canal to the left. It’s dark and eerie and I loved every second of it.
- MILE MARKER 195.6: Besides not packing wool merino baselayers, I regret not stopping into Bill’s Place in Little Orleans. Don’t make the same mistake! And make sure you have a dollar bill for the ceiling.
- MILE MARKER 195.7: Big Slackwater is a wide and typically calm area of the Potomac where the C&O navigated the river rather than in a separated canal. Over time, erosion and flooding caused a 1.5 mile stretch of the towpath called Galloway’s Cliffs to become impassable (in 1996), and for over 15 years trail users had to navigate a five mile detour on back roads adjacent to the towpath. That’s all changed now with the completion of the Big Slackwater Project, which, at a cost of 19 million dollars, is the largest stimulus project to take place in a Western Maryland park. Everything about this section is amazing: the sweeping vistas of the Potomac to your right, the sheer cliff wall to your left, and the modern-day engineering feat it took to reconnect the only interrupted section of the entire 184.5 mile towpath.
- MILE MARKER 195.7-252.0: At this point we were pretty much riding head down, knocking out the miles. Besides a brief respite at Chris’ aunt’s house in Shepherdstown for a few beers, we didn’t stop much except to take a nip from the bourbon and refuel with a PB&J. The locks become more frequent which is cool because at every lock there’s a little drop and you get a break from the mostly flat towpath.
- MILE MARKER 276.2: Harper’s Ferry is a historic old town at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. If you’re feeling adventurous you can climb your bike up a flight of steps and cross the railroad bridge into the old section of town. I won’t bore you with the details, but if you find yourself dining at the Town’s Inn they have a beer consumption limit. You can order one 24 oz beer or two 16 oz beers.88According to the Town’s Inn “Beverages” menu, each customer is limited to 36 ounces of beer AND/OR wine. This seems odd. Now this rule sucks no matter how you do the math, but since they don’t forewarn you of said rule we of course all ordered the 24 oz, expecting a second 24 oz would soon follow. Alas, there would be no second beer and no amount of begging or pleading would sway their decision.
- MILE MARKER 322.6: Two things about the arrival into Georgetown: Go all the way to the Mile 0.0 marker! It’s kind of out of the way and tucked behind the NPS-owned Thompson Boat Center, but it’s worth the trek. If you’re looking for a good meal nearby, go to Kafe Leopold. It’s an Austrian place with a great courtyard patio on Cady’s Alley, which is right off the towpath. There you’ll find really good Julius Meinl coffee, Eggenberg beer on tap, and a meal that isn’t PB&J, trail mix, or dry sausage with bread.