Cumberland Tour 1994

Cumberland Tour

Consider this a meditation on being from Generation X and growing up before the internet. Having watched a number of video accounts of bicycle trips along the Potomac River, I decided to dig up my own account; it is from twenty-eight years ago and is entirely verbal. I originally wrote it day by day with ballpoint pen in a composition book.

Composition books dated 1994–96

I had no plans for what I wrote, beyond informing myself for future trips. Nonetheless, my Uncle Bill used to talk about his friend Barry, whose failure to keep a diary may have kept him from writing a good book, at least in Bill’s judgment. The topic would have been the Presidential campaigns that Barry had covered for CBS News. They had all been losing.

Among my favorite personal accounts of people’s lives are Southbound and Walking Home, by the Barefoot Sisters, Lucy and Susan Letcher, about their hike from Maine to Georgia and back on the Appalachian Trail. I talked about the books in “On Knowing Ourselves.” The hike lasted from the summer of 2000 to the fall of 2001, and the books came out in 2009 and 2010. Evidently the books are based the notes that the Sisters kept along the trail. The notes then have been excellently edited. Not all travelogues are so—or perhaps can be so, because not all trips are that interesting.

I do not currently remember whether I saw my mother’s brother and sister-in-law during the trip recounted below. I spent two nights at the country retreat of Bill and Jean in Sedan, West Virginia; but I wrote little about being there, and nothing about whether anybody else was there. I spent the next night at my mother’s house in Alexandria, Virginia, before bicycling across the District of Columbia to my flat in Greenbelt, Maryland. I had spent three earlier nights camping along the old towpath of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. I am not sure, but probably I did not tell anybody where I was on those nights.

At the time, I was living with a fellow student from the mathematics department at the University of Maryland, College Park. My friend’s name was Ayşe, and that is why I knew how to pronounce the name of the woman whom I would meet in Toronto, two years later, and marry in Ankara, four years after that.

In 1993, a year before the tour below, I had bought a fancy twenty-one-speed touring bike, a Cannondale T1000, because I was commuting between Alexandria and College Park, and I thought I deserved a better vehicle than my old ten-speed. I was living with my mother again, after my group house in Maryland had broken up over a dispute between two of my roommates. One of these was an American supporter of Pat Buchanan, and the other was an immigrant; I talked about event in “Joan Baez in Istanbul.” So I was bicycling to College Park and back, once or twice a week, an hour and a half each way. Then Ayşe needed a new place to live, and I agreed to join her in a flat closer to our department.

Bicycle with rider next to it, leaning over to the front panniers
My bicycle in September, 2009, in Alexandria
Photo by Ayşe Berkman

I am able to date all of this to 1993, because our move was soon after the March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation, and this was in 1993. Ayşe had friends coming to town for the march. I attended by myself, on my bicycle. Somewhere around the Washington Monument, I saw a mixed couple of younger students from our department. I thought they saw me too, but they seemed shy about approaching me—and I guess I must have been shy about approaching them; but all I remember is thinking that maybe they wanted to avoid embarrassment on one side or the other.

While living in Greenbelt, I never used the laundry room in our apartment building; I always took my dirty clothes by bicycle to my mother’s house. I washed them myself. My mother used to talk about being at school, when her friends would send their laundry home to be washed; if she had done that, her mother would have sent the clothes right back, still dirty.

At the end of one of these laundry runs, I was riding north through Rock Creek Park when another cyclist started telling me about a protest ride. Beach Drive in the Park was closed to cars on weekends, as apparently it still is. The comrades of Auto Free DC thought it should be closed to cars all the time, and to demonstrate this, they would bicycle there during rush hours. I ended up joining them.

Living in Greenbelt was convenient for shopping at REI. Apparently the College Park store has closed or moved since then. On March 17, 1994, I went there to buy a cyclometer for my bicycle: I know this from the first entry in the diary that is my source for the account below.

Four days later, I was on the evening news with other comrades from Auto Free DC. Two of us had been arrested during our Rock Creek “Bike Clot.”

The park police had been aggressive that morning. They were stopping us frequently to let cars pass us on the narrow two-lane road. One of us was too hot-headed to obey, and an officer wrestled him down to the asphalt. They rolled onto, and damaged, the bicycle of somebody else, who then got arrested too.

The latter fellow was able to join the rest of us in the evening, to tell what had happened. Other prisoners in the holding cell had asked, “Did you hurt anybody? No? You’ll be out in no time.” That is my rough memory of Jason’s account, but he surely told it better. Maybe the police held Mark overnight; he had had encounters with them before. I used to hear about his adventures since then through our common friend Jill, but unfortunately she died last year.

Meanwhile, in the spring of 1994, I started training to take a real tour on my touring bike. On June 27, heading out from Greenbelt, I would cover 825 miles in 11 days, reaching Harbor Beach, Michigan, via Niagara Falls and Ontario, having camped out every night. I mentioned the trip in “Thoreau by the Aegean,” and I talked about a journalist’s perception of it in “Law and History.”

A week before that trip started, I made an overnight tour with a bunch of Auto Free DC comrades to Sky Meadows State Park in Virginia. Before that, I made the tour recorded below. I am transcribing my handwritten notes, almost verbatim, because

  • to see what I thought worth writing about is interesting, to me at least;
  • some of the details may be more generally interesting;
  • I cannot flesh out most of those details, since my memories are too dim.

I am adding some comments, with the typographic features of this introduction: smaller text, not justified. I am also making them blue, as for the recent Hannah Arendt posts (which indeed are not finished).

June 6, 1994 (Monday)

13 miles, but I forgot to reset the counter, so:

June 7 (Tuesday)

The counter reads 89.9, so 76.9 for today!

In my cycle log, I wrote down daily and weekly mileage and a description of where I rode. I could probably use those descriptions, and Google, to draw route maps; but my memories of the routes themselves are dim. I didn’t say where I rode on June 6, but probably it was only between home and REI for last-minute supplies. I had bought my tent there (a Sierra Designs Clip Flashlight) on Saturday; apparently I considered replacing it, but didn’t.

I’m at Huckleberry Hill campsite above Harpers Ferry on the Canal, and it took me 8 hours to get here via Frederick (8:35 a.m. was my starting time). It’s a hot humid day. Ugh! I got sort-of lost twice: in Frederick, and then trying to reach the Canal at the Harpers Ferry area. And maybe I should learn not to carry so much food: I’ve got rice, lentils, flour, oats, raisins, apricots, figs (all dry) and bananas (now just one). Of course, as the trip progresses, I shall not be carrying so much!

It will be relevant later that I was (as I still am) vegetarian, nearly vegan. I note now a lack of any fat in the foods I describe here, but I must have had a bottle of oil and a tub of nut butter—peanut maybe, but it could have been almond or cashew or sunflower.

It’s hours later, almost dark: 8:50. My route? Sunnyside to Rhode Island to Powder Mill to Old Gunpowder to Briggs Chaney to Old Columbia Pike to 198 to 650: all familiar.

650 to end, R on 108, L on 80 (here diverging from route on MD map). 80 has a good shoulder but is kind of suburban.

R on 355 and on into Frederick, where I look in vain for signs for Alt 40. In the end it was L on Patrick I wanted, but first I went beyond it.

Beyond interchange with 70, it’s L on McCain (one passes strip malls to reach it, and much traffic: gross!).

L on Butterfly Lane, R on Jefferson Pike, 180 and on to Knoxville (340 might have smoothed out the hills, and its shoulder might compensate for the traffic).

At Knoxville I continued right, looking for Canal access. But I had to get on 340. Turning up 67, I thought the road into Weverton might go under 340 and reach the Canal. It didn’t, and I almost had to walk my bike out of there (I was too tired for standing in the pedals). So I returned to 340 and continued west, taking the first left and going into Sandy Hook. Never did I see signs for the Canal. I was hot and probably hungry and even thirsty, but I wanted to reach the towpath first. I did, over a footbridge past the train tunnel.

I think now a front is supposed to move through; anyway tomorrow is supposed to be cooler. Meanwhile, with the fly on, my tent is a hot-box. (I lay in it for a while.) So I’ll take the fly off and be prepared to install it in the night. I hope my long ride does not keep me from sleeping.

June 8 (Wednesday)

Of course I did not sleep, much, not from the overstimulation of yesterday’s ride so much as from pondering the identity of every sound. Once or twice I was sure a critter had approached the tent. A buzzing at my ear proved to come from under the tent; I thought it might be a cicada digging out from the ground, and if it could do that, could it dig through nylon?

I left the fly on, by the way, because as I prepared for bed, distant lightning flashed. The air did cool down somewhat, even in the tent, though here I sit in a tee-shirt (it’s 6:40).

Cocks across the river began to crow at four.

5:40 p.m., Cacapon Junction campsite. 61.1 miles today, all on the Canal since Williamsport:

I took the towpath to Shepardstown, then the highway (34?) to Sharpsburg. Then L on 65, L on 68 into Williamsport.

The day was cooler, and periodically threatened to rain. In fact, a few drops fell just as I was setting up camp.

Last night, setting up the tent by the table was unappealing, so I did not. Tonight I did: much more convenient (last night I did not use the table for cooking).

The drawback to this site is the traffic on 9 as it crosses the Cacapon (also the trains doing the same thing). But there is a nice path down to the river, and the river bed is shallow and stony, convenient for a wash (no sponge-bathing at the pump tonight!).

7:20 p.m., after dinner: So much could be said about my journey so far! More than I have time to say. Obviously, that’s always true.

As I was washing my shirt at the pump last night, another bicycle tourist pulled up. He pushed on to the next site after we chatted a bit. This was his tenth day out; he was from Raleigh NC; his next destination was Gettysburg. He looked more heavily laden than I, with several bags of different colors in front, and a mesh bag full of who-knows-what above his rear Cannondale bags. And he did not have a tent or much food! As a fireman himself, he often managed to sleep in firehouses. When I said it was hard to buy single servings of foods, he said he bought “franks and beans, beenie weenies, stuff like that.” So we did not have much in common. I wonder whether he would have stayed where I was (I did offer it) had I not been there.

In Sharpsburg this morning, I saw his bike at a store, and so I stopped in myself. In our chat, he revealed that he only uses his bike (a 10-year-old Fuji) for touring, so it might go unused for years. It follows that he does not train for tours, but only starts out slow (thirty or 40 miles a day) before building up to 80–100 some days.

I bought nothing at the store (their only canned greens were seasoned with pork, and their bread was all white). We were probably taking the same road (65) part of the way, but I did not think we wanted to ride together, so I shoved off. The potato chips he was eating gave me an idea, so I bought a small bag in Williamsport (along with pretzel rods to stick in nut butter, and a pint of OJ).

Do country folk really tend to have different facial features than city folk, or is it just the way they groom? The women tending the Williamsport store were odd-looking and not especially friendly. I suppose I was really the odd one. I could at least wear loose shorts over my riding shorts, I guess. (By the way, my butt feels no ill effects of my riding.)

Yesterday I stopped at a visitors’ center for a civil war battlefield (named after the Monocacy River?). Today I rode past Antietam Battlefield. I have said that the U.S. is violent because of its being born by violence; I have forgotten the second birth by violence, the Civil War. Yesterday I read how Jubal Early demanded (and received) $200,000 from the city of Frederick, or else he would take [the city] by force. I suppose some would see it as honorable that Early gave the townspeople the option. I suppose there is nothing remarkable about such wartime behavior; what is remarkable is that a criminal warrior (to be redundant) would have a boat named for him (the White’s Ferry boat).

I wouldn’t say so glibly today that all warriors are criminals, at least not if people like the defenders of Ukraine against the Russian invasion are to be counted as warriors.

Maybe some day I shall come back and visit the Antietam Battlefield. I wonder if its plaques and monuments bear any sugestion that Americans should be ashamed that such a place exists.

Now I remind the reader that I am at a picnic table at a beautiful campsite. The sky is clearing, and the setting sun illuminates the trees on the opposite bank. I can see them through the trees and bushes on this side, which do however conceal me from the two men fishing at the mouth of the Cacapon. And I am 30 paces from the towpath, partially behind bushes from it.

I was in Maryland, and the Cacapon entered the Potomac from the West Virginia side.

A ranger at Antietam Creek this morning said the critters to worry about were raccoons and mice. Suspended four feet off the ground on a line between two trees, my food should be OK—I hope: There will be chocolate in it (I bought a 7 oz bar at Super Fresh in Hancock, along with some fresh kale and two oranges. I shall have eaten maybe half of the chocolate; I hope its caffeine does not affect me too much).

I am wearing the long-sleeve (underwear) shirt I brought as my one long-sleeved shirt, and am still slightly cool. So I look forward to having a use for my sleeping bag.

I still remember that campsite as spectacular. In the dusk I wandered back to the towpath, where I saw a lone man in the distance, walking away upstream. This must have unnerved me just enough that I have remembered it. I was in an isolated spot; the Park Service intended the campgrounds to be far from car access. When I watch the videos of Canal trips that have caused me to transcribe my old notes, YouTube also offers me videos about the dangers of getting harrassed, or worse, while camping. People write in comments about always carrying guns because of this. I saw some of that fear in the summer of 1995, when I was cycling west along US Route 50 through West Virginia. I did not know where I was going to camp, and some time before evening, I mentioned to somebody that somebody else, further down the road, might let me camp on their property. He said in the old days they would do that, but today “they are sick of all the violence.” In the event I stayed at the Fellowsville Assembly of God; for I had read somewhere—in a book, not on the internet—that you could camp in a churchyard if you talked to the man next door, who would be the pastor.

June 9 (Thursday)

63.6 mi., so:

Week 12: 2337, 278 mi.

This was the twelfth week after the purchase of my cyclometer, which recorded a total of 2337 miles since then; evidently I had been averaging almost 200 miles a week.

At 7:10 p.m., I am at Pigmans Ferry campsite below Cumberland. This morning I followed the towpath to Paw Paw, then got on Rte 51 and proceeded to Cumberland, then found the towpath (just a path, in Cumberland, the Canal having been obliterated) and came down here.

The canal passes through the Paw Paw Tunnel, which is a thousand yards long. I had already visited it a couple of times, but arriving by car.

This campsite is an excrescence into private land between the Canal and the river, so I can’t reach the river to bathe. No matter, it’s late anyway.

Last night I slept pretty well until 1:30. I got up to pee, then could not fall back asleep. I suspect the chocolate. The eerie noises were few, being drowned out by frogs (one across the river croaked all night long, I think). And I was excited about doing a long ride on the morrow, and I was thinking about whether I could install an above-the-front-wheel rack in addition to my low-riders, for stowing a few essentials.

I finally slept, then woke to the roar of a train at 6. The fog rolled down the river, and it was cold! My sweater turns out to have been useful. Also my long tights, when I headed out at maybe 8:30. Eventually the fog burned off; but I did not take off my long clothing until after passing through the Tunnel and stopping at the parking lot.

There I made “David’s trail bread”: thick disks of dough fried dry, like chapatis. The are somewhat raw on the inside; but they work to provide calories! I might have used almost a pound of flour, and I made four breads. I figured I had enough for lunch and dinner both.

I learned from a camping video that bannock is a name for such bread. Again I note that I don’t mention any fat. Finally I do in the next paragraph.

Last night I saved some kale leaves, which I steamed and ate this morning (along with oats). I thought I might not make any purchases today. But when I saw another Super Fresh in Cumberland, I stopped in and bought an orange, four bananas, and a can of turnip greens (the last for 50¢). I’m eating half that can now, mixed in with red lentils and basmati rice (and corn oil, sesame oil, salt, and soy sauce). The taste is pretty good.

A cycle-tourist—an elderly gent—just rode past towards Cumberland (at 7:35). And I just heard another gunshot from the direction of the river: I hope it’s the other side of the river.

June 10 (Friday)

39.1 miles.

Again last night I slept until past midnight, but woke to the sound of trains. They crashed around for a long time, and I suppose are why I did not fall back asleep for a while. They were not obviously bothering me, but I suppose the attention I paid to them helped keep me up. When the last train drifted off, so did I.

I woke spontaneously at 5:15 and lay about until six. The tent (no fly) was heavy with dew.

I did not roll out until after 9. Meanwhile I decided to go to Sedan.

After following the towpath to Oldtown, I crossed the Potomac on a toll bridge for 20¢. (It was a “low water bridge,” wooden, with rudimentary rails from a railroad.) I proceeded through Green Spring to Springfield and went left. Across the South Branch was a long climb (I hope so, because it seemed so to me). On the other side, I should have turned right at Points after all, but I went straight, hoping to turn right to follow the Little Cacapon up to 50. But that road was gravel, so I proceeded to Slanesville, R on 29, L on 50, R on Delray Rd (now 29!).

I mentioned in the introduction that Sedan was the location of Bill and Jean’s house. There are some photos from twenty years later in “June in the New World,” but the older generation had all died by then. I do not recall whether going to Sedan in 1994 was a spontaneous decision or had always been planned, at least as an option. I do recall riding into one of those West Virginia communities and seeing some young local men sitting around. They looked at me, I looked at them, but I did not go talk to them, though I could have used their advice on my route.

June 11 (Saturday)

0 mi.: just hang around the house.

Probably I had the house to myself; but my memory is a blank here.

June 12 (Sunday)

103.6 mi in a little under 10 hours: Sedan to Alexandria the standard way (50 to 7 to W&OD). I had awakened in the night with a headache, and did not roll out of Sedan till 10:15. It became a warm humid day. Climbing the ridges, though, was not really a problem.

I might have been a little faster, but I stopped to help a guy with a broken spoke who carried no replacement and would not have known how to install it if he had. On the other hand, I was glad for the break.

I also chatted a bit with a guy who had ridden up from Atlanta. He died a few years ago when a drunk driver hit his car; but they revived him.

June 13 (Monday)

21.4 mi.: Alexandria to office to home.

The “standard way” from Sedan to Alexandria was mostly the standard car way: pretty straight on the map, but with ups and downs, mainly over Mount Weather. The W&OD trail had become a great way for the self-propelled to get out of Alexandria, or in this case back to it. I guess there are more rail trails now. I have no memory of the two guys, either the one with the broken spoke or the one who had been brought back to life.

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