This will be quick.
Haven’t broadcasted it too loudly, but I left my job in Chicago and decided to bike tour across the country. Yorktown, Va., to Santa Cruz, Ca. Might swing down to Monterey to see the good Reverend Dick. Alas, you’ll hear about that.
Anyhow, a few nights ago, I was riding up the C&O Canal path from Washington, D.C., to Pittsburgh.
We go now to the Potomac River, just north of Harpers Ferry, W.Va.
Around 4:30 p.m., about two hours after I was bumbling around Harpers Ferry for lunch, 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 C&O Canal path, slowly steadied my bike down the stairs that you have to portage down, 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 heavy rain, as though it were being magnetically pulled to the ground. Shit.
I stopped soon underneath a bathroom shelter near a boat launch ramp and put on my rain shell and rear pannier covers—a futile gesture. 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 couldn’t 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.
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 rinsing 20 oz at a time.
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.by