I Love America Tour: Hard Lessons in the sun

It’s day two on the trail, but my first full day touring. I say that because I woke up in a tent and not a bed. I am on my bike immediately and not driving to a trail in my car first. Fully caffeinated and my wheels topped off, I hit the trail.

It is June, and there has been recent rain. The trail is like riding through a green and brown tunnel. The trees provide enough shade to keep the heat from feeling oppressive, but you are still warm. Plus, you are pedaling constantly. It does not take long for a sheen of sweat to cover my body.

The trail is the hard packed gray gravel. It provides a smooth ride, but there is dust. Before long, that changes to a hard packed sand dirt. Now the trail looks like what you would expect to see in any forest if there was continual traffic on a path. I move from one side of the path to the other to avoid roots and tree limps.

Within in an hour I have seen five deer. A couple dash across the path, but most are off to the right of me where the topography changes from forest to small pools of water.

A steady of stream of people pass by me either going in my direction or going the opposite direction. I even pass several hikers, making good use of man’s first mode of locomotion. I wonder about their stories and why they are on the path, but I do not want to approach anyone. It is a little odd, but I am being quite introverted. It is a trait none of my friends would ever ascribe to me.

View of one of the Locks

Like the day before, I eschew playing my phone and music. I am content to just ride in silence with only the thoughts in my head. I could never meditate, but I imagine what I am experiencing as I pedal away is what meditating might be like. I go minutes at a time with not much of a thought, and then a rush of thoughts race through my head. It is the typical musing of anyone who is not quite satisfied with their lot in life. Thoughts about work, career, love, and goals ping around my old noggin like a pinball. The one consistent idea that generates the most thought is the early morning lesson my half-awake; half sleep mind gave me about stretching your life versus scrunching it down.

My current path is no doubt a stretch for me. I have not ridden a bike in 22 years; not around a corner, let alone four thousand miles. Have not been in a tent in thirty years at least. Annnd, I quit a perfectly good job just to do it.

I dunno. Maybe its a guard tower

Yeah, I am getting stretched good.

But, what about in other areas of life? Have I stretched significantly enough elsewhere or settled for the simple path? I keep getting a negative answer.

In short order, life gives me a perfect chance to confront this whole concept.

I am coming up on Lock 38 and the exit from the trail that leads to Shepardstown. I would discover later that Shepardstown is a small college town. It has picturesque buildings and streets, along with a plethora of eateries and lodging options.

That knowledge is secondhand. I would learn it later. In this moment, however, I know that to reach the street that will take me into town, I must ride my bike up a steep switchback. When I say steep, I’m talking about between 60-70 degrees.

I have forty to fifty pounds of gear with me. The thought of trying to pedal up the path of switchbacks, freezes me in place. I am literally just standing in the middle of the trail, staring at the path. Worst, assuming I get up to the street with my bus of a bike, I need to cross a long bridge to get into town. Have I mentioned in this travel account that I hate bridges? I think I may have mentioned it once or twice.

And so, I scrunch down, turning into a shrinking violet in the face of the hill and bridge after that. I decide to skip the ordeal and just ride to the next town, Sharpsburg. I am not up to the challenge at that moment.

I know I am going to face suspension bridges eventually on this trip. I know I am going to have to move off the dedicated bike paths and venture onto city streets with moving cars that do not pay any attention to cyclists. But I could not muster up the…” oomph” to just get'er done!

Here is the lesson life gave me.

Sharpsburg is a scant four miles from Shepherdstown. I take fifteen minutes to reach the exit. I get off the path and hit a lonely country road. There are houses along either side of the street, and a long hill in front of me. Yup, a hill. But it is not steep, so I think no problem. I pedal away.

And pedaling, pedaling, and pedaling. I am making progress, but not getting anywhere. I do not turn around, however. Not even when I pass two large houses with even larger Confederate flags in front of them.

Just under three miles took me an hr to traverse

Now, I do not trip over the confederate flag. Sure, I think the people who display them do it for reasons that make little sense, but I do not think every person who does is racist.

I would be lying if I said I did not start hearing banjos in my head. Damon Matt and his jokes…

It becomes obvious the hilly road is hiding the elevation with its gradual nature, but my legs are telling me the truth of the situation. In short order I pass the homes and all shade, emerging into the heat of the day with nothing but massive farms on either side of me. I am too tired, so I stop, consult my map, and see that yes indeed I am going the correct direction.

I take a long time before I reach town, because the road is an up and down journey of hills. I stop often to walk the bike. When I finally reach town, I learn damn well what country singers are talking about when they sing about small towns.

The main street—also named Main Street, which annoyed me—is a mile long, downhill. Which, of course, means I must come up the hill to leave. I head into town, and it is empty. I mean, people live here, but there is hardly anyone around. There is one restaurant along the entire stretch, a hole in the wall, bikers bar. There are no hotels, just a couple of bed and breakfasts, all booked up.

I have traveled three miles off course, and it has taken me an hour to travel it. I am tired, hungry, and thirsty as hell. Unfortunately, there are no convenience stores in sight. I grind my teeth, turn around and pedal back up the street to see if there are any in the opposite direction I came. I see only quaint homes and small businesses like accountants, and real estate agents.

Now, I am pissed. Silently, enraged with no outlet, because the fault is my own. I should have just freakin manned up and rode my black ass up the switchbacks back at Shepardstown. But, no, I wussed out and now I have biked up elevation anyway with nothing around to provide a freakin happy ending.

I turn around and head to the biker's bar. There is no way I am going to make it back to the trail without water and a few sugary drinks. I lock my bike up and head inside. The bar tender and owner of the establishment takes one look at me and says, “Honey, are you okay?”

I shake my head in the negative, but answer, “nothing some Gatorade and sodas won’t cure. I got a little sidetracked today.”

There are a couple of older men sitting at the bar. When they find out I am biking across the country, they start howling.

“Brother, I’ve heard of people riding up to Cumberland or Pittsburgh, but the whole damn country? You crazy.”

I merely shrug, cause at the moment I cannot argue against the words. I feel crazier, than since I got this idea. I down three sodas, and the owner packs my water bottles with ice. The men wish me luck and I head back into the baking sun.

Three miles and forty-five minutes later, I am back on the C&O Towpath. It is two in the afternoon. There is plenty of daylight left. The next town with lodging and food is Williamsport. It is forty miles down the path.

I resolve to do two things. One, I will ride the forty miles. Two, I will not shrink away from any more damn challenges or take the easy route. I have learned my lesson.

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