Saturday, June 12, 2010

The C&O Towpath--its Not just for Mules anymore!

We periodically take small groups bike-camping on the C&O. Back in 2002, we made a 3½ day ride along what was the entire length back then, overnighting at the luxurious Red Rooster hostel in Paw Paw WV, tenting on the grounds of a hostel at Harpers Ferry, and finally tenting trailside on our final night. We rode Amtrak between Raleigh and DC.

We mostly rode our regular commute/touring/brevet bikes, e.g. Adrian's Koga-Miyata, Gilbert's Moulton, Sue's retro Raleigh Superbe, Mark's Trek (with oyster bucket panniers), Cheseley's Moulton etc.. Pieter rode his sturdy Dutch Gazelle cruiser.

Henry and Roger arrived at camp ahead of us and biked into town in search of food.
"We found a bar but was too dark inside to see your own hand if you held it up in front of your face! Through the smoke we heard voices making bets on the upcoming shooting competion:
'I'll bet my glock 'gainst yer 9mm…'
Next, we found a lady coming out of a church and asked where we could eat. She looked at us like were crazy and asked, 'Eat? In THIS town?!?'

If you go, watch out for:
  • ticks,
  • poison ivy,
  • high water,
  • sticks through your spokes (sent one in our party to the hospital, to get his head sewn shut), and
  • large beaver darting across the trail at night in the rain.

A related anecdote about the Red Rooster proprieters:
Shirley says that J.D. is the only man in town with a city ordinance written specifically against him -- when he was a teenager he used to fly down the mountain and through town on his bicycle and raise the ire of the local "Barney Fife". He had a salvaged Buick steering wheel welded onto the stem of his Sting-Ray and ol' Barney got the town council to pass a regulation against equipping bicycles with automotive steering wheels.
Years later, after J.D.'s old filling station was wrecked by a flood, he hit on the idea to reopen as a hostel, much to the benefit of all users of the C&O towpath.

FYI, Our self-imposed bike-camping rules:
  • no complaining.
  • no spitting, outside of competitions.
  • no cell phones.
  • no asking directions.
  • no sudden stops.
  • no mean drunks.
  • no gunfire after sunset.
  • always call the pocket before shooting.
  • no peeing on the campfire.
  • no flossing.
  • no billy joel.
  • no counting your money while you're sitting at the table.
  • no canned sardines.
  • no wooden shoes.
  • no nitrous.
  • no doubling back--we go forward and find a new route.
  • no making eye contact with anyone at the battleburger eatery. Particulary the owner.
  • no rain gear--skin is waterproof.
  • no fighting with the railroad men.
  • no blaming your parents (even if they did lock you in the glovebox at age two)
  • no salvaging firewood from nearby archaeological digs
  • no watering down the whiskey.
  • no stiffing the waitress.
  • when executing dangerous stunts, no fair peeking.
  • no drinking the sterno.
  • no baklava without coffee.
  • all bets are final on handshake, to be paid in full by sunset.
no rules for ladies.
Lord, preserve us and protect us;
we've been drinking whiskey for breakfast.
—Mike Cross


  1. Gilbert, I've been interested in riding this since I met my wife 10 years ago. Her folks live near Williamsport MD. Is the towpath fixie-friendly?

  2. i think fg or ss could be fun and save a lot of heartache--no debris in the derraileur. While the towpath itself is very flat, if you venture off it, e.g. to acquire lodging food or drink, theres some real chain-bustin' hills! An internal hub may be ideal. A flipable wheel might work for you.

  3. Hello Bull,

    I agree with Adrian. We had several people riding 35-40 year old three speed hubs on our trip. Gears are a mere convenience on this flat trail and avoids the complication and artifice of the derraileur. Coasting is handy with the occasional rough patch or rut. Off the trail gears or hoofs are somewhat mandatory. There seem to be quite a few damaged derraileurs reported along the C&O. Mud proof drum brakes work well on the trail as well.