This time, we planned to head in the opposite direction. We would start from Williamsport again, then finish in Cumberland. This meant a very gradual, but steady uphill climb was in store. And sure, neither of us had touched a bike since our last ride more than a year ago. But with less than 90 miles to go, how hard could it be over a three day weekend?
Friday we met at Cumberland where my Forester was stashed in the long term parking lot, mere feet from the ending of the C&O and the start of the GAP trail. GQ picked me up, and we were off to Williamsport.
When we arrived, we found the access all torn up and under construction. Rangers directed us to Dam 5 as the next best access. Which was fine as we had covered this section on the previous trip anyway. They also told us the Paw Paw Tunnel was out, and that there was a detour around. "No big deal", I said.
So off to Dam 5. Which is a cool place to start anyway. We loaded up our bikes and hit the trail north into the approaching dusk. The temperature was already dropping below freezing. But with our entry point moved, we had just a couple of miles to our planned stop at North Mountain Hiker/Biker Camp. We were just in time for a pretty good sunset. Too bad I only had my phone. But it was just nice to be out in the "wild" again and relaxing in camp.
We made our bag meals, and enjoyed a roaring fire. When the wood ran out, we turned in. It was around 20 degrees, and got even colder. We both struggled to stay warm and were restless. A coyote howled into the night which didn't help. I couldn't get my underquilt situated correctly until sometime in the morning. After which I slept like the dead. I woke suddenly with bright daylight hitting me in the face, and quickly broke down my hammock. Had a breakfast of pop tarts and ramen, then it was onto the trail again.
There were few people on the trail, and I gradually pulled ahead of GQ as I built up a head of steam. Leaves fell all morning and covered most of the trail. I constantly picked them up with my tires after which they would wedge into my brake, adding some rhythm to my pedaling as they hit the spokes.
Just before Hancock we regrouped, then headed to the Sheetz for water and snacks. It seemed like the entire town was inside the store, so I passed on a hot sandwich. I'd come to regret that later.
We headed out after a short snack break. I quickly left GQ behind as we hit the trail again. We planned to rendezvous at the Paw Paw tunnel, then head on to one of the last campgrounds before Cumberland. That would make an 80ish mile day, but then we'd have an early exit the next day. So I chugged along, enjoying the ride and the cool weather. The trail was still emptied except for a handful of other bikers, and girls running with dogs.
Around 50 some miles in for the day, my legs were pretty tired, and my ass needed a break from the saddle. So I stopped for a snack and to pound some water. I checked my phone and got a text from GQ. He was feeling like shit, and wanted to shorten the day. While banging out the miles today for a short day tomorrow sounded good, I was damn tired. We agreed to meet at Stickpile Hill Hiker/Biker camp. When I got there, I had some more snacks, then strung up my hammock for a quick nap. About an hour later I woke up just as GQ pulled in, looking spent. We agreed calling it a "short" day was the best idea, so that we could recover for tomorrow.
Being pyros, we made a roaring fire again, and I set about preparing my slightly complex Packet Gourmet meal of pasta and marinara sauce. It was pretty damn good when it was done. I decided to make a hot bottle for bed, and slept much more soundly.
In the morning I ate what little I had left for breakfast. Jimmy was still feeling pretty shitty, with a mega migraine coming on. We were out of water, so we stopped at the next pump we came to to see if it was on. It was working, but by working I mean water would slowly seep around the pump collar. What liquid that came out was less than appealing, but I drank a bunch anyway. Mmmm, rust.
In short order we arrived at the Paw Paw tunnel detour, which sadly when straight up hill on switchbacks! I tried to granny gear it up, but gave up and walked the steepest parts. It was even harder when the packed gravel trail ran out and became just regular old hiking trail, better suited for feet or mountain bike tires.
I arrived at the top soaked with sweat and ate the last of my snacks; a pitiful handful of peanut M&M's. I had badly misjudged how long it would take us to finish the ride, as well as the effect of the cold nights on my calorie stores. That would bite me in the ass later.
GQ arrived at the top looking like death, but he soldiered on. We had an awesome downhill cruise. It was probably extra exciting due to having hybrid tires, mediocre brakes, and a full winter kit on the back of of my bike. But I managed to negotiate the roots, rocks, and pits without careening off the mountain. There was a great view of the Potomac at one point, but I wasn't going to risk trying to stop. We quickly arrived back on the extremely tame Towpath, and continued on.
GQ fell behind again, so I stopped when I arrived at Town Creek Camp to check my phone. He was dying at this point, and didn't think he could continue. We regrouped at the aqueduct which had road access, and he decided to call it. That was a major bummer, but being familiar with migraines myself, I didn't know how he had made it this far.
I was feeling good, and wasn't at all concerned with being out of food and water. It was only 24 miles roughly to Cumberland, and I was confident I could knock it out in 2 hours, retrieve my Forester, and be back in no time at all. A shorter distance then I bike to Annapolis and back from my house. Cake, I thought.
So I dropped my bike bag, keeping only my small back with my puffy jacket. And went screaming off down the trail. I smoked the first 9 nine miles, and then abruptly hit a wall of dizziness. I coasted to a stop and got off my bike on wobbly legs. I collapsed in the grass onto my butt. I was struck with the shivers. So I put on my puffy, laid down on the side of the trail and passed out.
I'm not sure how long I was there, maybe 30 or 45 minutes, but the sound of approaching bikes woke me up. I opened my eyes groggily. But felt better. So I smiled and waved at the trio of bikers as they zipped past. I stripped off my puffy, put on my shell, and hit the trail again.
That lasted for exactly 5 miles. The dizziness hit me again, but this time I tried to push through it. It got worse, and I realized there was a real possibility I was going to fall off my bike and off the trail. And that would just be embarrassing. So I stopped again, sat down, and leaned against a tree.
I've had low blood sugar crashes before. The first time I did the Four state challenge, it hit me a few times. But back then I had the cure, pocketfuls of sugary treats.
A thought occurred to me, and I desperately searched in my saddle bag. I usually have a package of Shot Bloks stashed in there with my tools and tubes for emergencies. But that bastard Past Will had eaten them and not replaced. Sonofabitch.
This energy crisis felt different, and worse. It was beyond just low-blood sugar. Clearly my reserves were totally wiped out. In hindsight, it had just been a couple of weeks since I had run the Four State Challenge again, which probably consumed my reserves. I was probably dehydrated as well.
But I reasoned that if I just rested a bit, my meager fat stores would break down, and give me the energy I needed to get to the end. So I sat for about 15 minutes, eyeing some delicious looking green petals around me.
When I felt good to go, or at least good enough to get on my bike without falling over, I hit the trail. I made it not even 3 miles. This time I laid down and passed out again. Rinse and repeat.
On the next surge I made it just short of Cumberland, and collapsed at the last campsite, Evitts Creek. I leaned against a big inviting tree, and stared out at the lovely vista. I wasn't sure I would be able to get up from that spot. I checked my phone and saw a message from Jimmy. "I'm dying, are you alive"? I realized it was after 3. I had spent nearly 5 hours traveling 20 miles.
I replied, "Dying, but only 6 miles to go!". I had last track of the distance left, as it turned out it was only about 4 miles. Either way, I didn't think I could make it. I sat their for a little while in a daze, breathing heavily.
After awhile, I felt no better at all. But with few options, I summoned the last of my strength for a final push. I climbed on my bike, and rode on.
This section was of trail was quite scenic, but the distraction of starving to death took something from the experience. I kept waiting for the wall of dizziness to descend again, but it held off. I burst forth from the green tunnel and saw the Route 40 bridge. It was a glorious sight. Just next to it was the old brick building. Next to that, was my Forester.
I stowed my gear and bike, and sent Jimmy a message, "Omw!". I tore out of there, glad to be on 4 wheels again. I could hardly believe that, just like that, the ordeal was over. At least for me, anyway. I devoured half a can of peanuts as I drove like a madman back to Town Creek Aqueduct.
I found GQ in the parking lot, looking half dead. We stashed everything, then he plopped down in the passenger seat and pulled his hat over his eyes. All that was left was a nearly vomit inducing (for GQ) race through the mountains back to Dam 5, and his Subaru.
So I guess we nearly completed the C&O. GQ missed the last 24 miles, and I did it sans pack. So that's kind of cheating. But we're already committed to knocking out the remainder when we tackle the GAP trail!
C&O Trail Map: https://www.nps.gov/choh/planyourvisit/maps.htm