6/8/15: 65 miles, Lock 21 to Killiansburg Cave Campground (near Sharpsburg, Md.)
It was a good, long, hot and humid day on the C&O. I made good time with a tailwind towards Harpers Ferry, W.Va., the famed Civil War town where John Brown’s Abolitionist crew raided a southern arsenal in 1859. Before I made it to Harpers Ferry, I stopped in Brunswick, Md., because it looked inviting and awesome.
There, I met a dude named Patrick. He looked about my age, and said he was touring from Indianapolis to DC. We compared notes about the path conditions, which so far had been good for me, and each other’s bikes. He was on a LHT with a mix of panniers and Revelate Designs bags. After I chatted with him, I rolled over to Three Points Cycle for a bottle of lube. The guy, the owner, Keith, chatted with me for a bit. He was stoked that I rode a Soma Saga instead of the typical LHT crowd (disclaimer, I used to ride a Long Haul Trucker; it’s a great bike, but everyone rides one). He told me to check out his ice cream spot, Swiss Miss, just up the road in Harpers Ferry. I obliged.
Harpers Ferry is a dope town. It’s got history, food, terrain, rivers, and it’s the headquarters of the Appalachian Trail—as well as its roughly half-way point. And there’s a nice delightful bridge across the Potomac into town…except it’s along a rail bridge. What that means is, if you’re on a bike, you have to shoulder it up a flight of stairs to the path, which then permits you to roll into town. On a touring bike, that means dismounting, unloading your panniers, ferrying them upstairs, then returning for you bike, reloading the bike, and rolling into town. But I was hungry, and that’s where lunch was.
I Googled the Swiss Miss place, and it led me on a road to Bolivar, the next town over, up a big mother of a hill, but I assured Keith I’d check out his place. Granny Gear! With each pedal stroke it got hotter and hotter out. Once I got near the street, I realized that the address Google pointed me to was likely the LLC address that Swiss Miss was registered to—his house. Flabbergasted, I turned it around and rode by the post office. Flipped a bitch, and went in to mail about 6 more lbs. of my pack home.
I then descended into town and had a lamb gyro at a place called Cannonball Deli frequented by the AT hikers, I guess. Afterward, I rolled around the corner and discovered Swiss Miss on the next block. I had two ice cream cones, and talked to Cindy, who works for Keith at the bike shop, but everything thinks she’s his wife for some reason. There, I chatted with an AT hiker who was doing the whole trail in 3 months, from Virginia to Maine. He had a trail name—I think it was Bonobo? I met a few other AT hikers around town and they introduced themselves by their trail names, making me think of LARPing events and Furry conventions where people have personas rooted in another reality.
Around 4:30 p.m., about two hours after I was bumbling around Harpers Ferry, I checked the radar. An angry line of yellow-green encrusted blobs was tearing its way across Virginia, heading right for me. So I rode a block over to the path, slowly steadied my bike down the stairs, and made tracks for the next campground, 12 miles up the trail. Just as I was clipping in, some AT hiker asked me, “Hey, man, do you know where the Appalachian Trail is?”
I jammed along the path, and the sky blue gave way to overcast. A couple miles later, a wine-bottle purple bled into the sky, and even though the sun wasn’t going down for three more hours, it was dark. I let out a gear, mashed a bit harder, 16-17 mph. With about two miles to go before camp, the front exploded over the Potomac River, and nearly blew me off the bike. Then, it was a firehose of rain. Shit.
I stopped soon underneath a bathroom shelter near a boat launch ramp and put on my rain shell and rear pannier covers. Once the initial heavy rains from the front passed, I got back on the bike and slogged to camp.
The storm front’s blast of wind brought down a handful of limbs and branches, which weren’t anything I could ride over or around, until I got to this:
I had to go down into the canal bed and tromp through the woods. Once I got out the other side, about 6:30 p.m., I got to Killiansburg Cave campsite.
Wherein I get shot at, naked, in a river
After climbing around the trees, I arrive at camp. There was a grassy, tree-covered campsite, but beyond that I could see a bluff down by the river bank. I steadied through the mud down there, and found a flat spot where someone else had made makeshift camp. I looked at the radar, and caught a gap in the rain before the next wave. My shoes and half my pack were soaked. Figured I could get my dry shelter set up, I quickly pitched the tent while the only rain was the drops coming from the trees. Success. Next: bathe.
Now, all of these hiker/biker sites along the C&O have a Porta-Potty and well hand-pump. Since I was already wet, I planned to just dump a few bottles of water from the pump on me to clean off, then dry and climb into my tent. I slopped through the mud up to the pump. Wrenched on the pump pretty hard, and normally it gets tougher to pump as the water payoff reaches the nozzle, but there was no payoff to be had. Just pumping gasps. No water. I looked down at my legs. Mud dappled every part of my body as though I’d just finished a cyclocross race. No way I was getting into my tent. So, I took a look at the river.
Channeling my inner Theodore Roosevelt, who used to get down to his skivvies and bathe in the Potomac, I resolved to do the same. I idled for a few minutes to see if anyone came down the path. I hadn’t seen anyone for more than an hour, and waited for it to get a little darker out, before stripping. Looking across the river to the West Virginia side, a Sleepy Hollow-like fog descended over the water, creeping me out. Bah.
I waded into the water, about knee-high, with a water bottle and some Dr. Bronner. Dumped some cold river water on me, started furiously lathering, and dumping. Then, I hear a pop-pop-pop-pop. It’s the unmistakable report of a .22 rifle from across the river. I look around for the water splash, confident my Deliverance-inspired assailant is just messing with me, the queero-naked biker boy across the river. I scramble for the trees and duck down, half-muddy, half-soapy and wet and naked, then scour the river for any sign of…well, anything. I see nothing. Then the pops start up again and I duck further. This time, the shots turn into an unstoppable creak accompanied by a heavy rustle. And it’s then, I watch as a giant Sycamore tree leaves the party and crashes down into the Potomac River. The speed of the timber sent a shockwave of wind across the river. The adrenaline in my bloodstream sent my heart into hummingbird.
I clumsily finished rinsing off, dried, and climbed into my tent. But I didn’t sleep. What if there were people after all, who cut the tree to intentionally mess with me? What if they knew where I was? Every possible scenario raced through my head, warding off any chance of sleep.
Once the sky’s dimmer leaked a sunrise into the sky, around 5 a.m., I packed up my wet everything and bolted from camp, in search of breakfast.