You could call it a four-day biking trip along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal.
Or you could call it a lesson in wildlife biology, Maryland history and maybe even small-town sociology. With plenty of physical education thrown in, and enough camping-related grubbiness to earn a merit badge or two.
The three of us dubbed it "The C&O Cycle a Go-Go," to match our high-spirited and easygoing pedaling expedition from Cumberland in Western Maryland to the outskirts of Washington. The occasional mudhole or sore muscle notwithstanding, this self-guided excursion was amazingly simple to arrange and enjoy, for several reasons.
First of all, the C&O Canal towpath could be considered a bike highway. It has a reasonable surface for riding on a wide-tired bike. It's long and straight and flat, so you don't have to mess around with maps and route choices.
It has free campgrounds for hikers and bikers every five miles or so, while passing near enough towns to offer meals and sightseeing opportunities. It never strays far enough from the Potomac River to impede the occasional dip.
In other words, it's nearly ideal. You just have to like to bike -- and not mind getting dirty.
The night before our cycling began, my sister, Julie, our friend, Veronica, and I got a ride to Cumberland, hauling bikes, gear and towpath information. We had from the morning of July 4 to 11 a.m. July 7 to make 170 miles (the trail is 184 miles long, but we'd arranged a pickup north of the Georgetown terminus). That meant riding about 50 miles each on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, then finishing with an easy 20-mile pedal Sunday morning.
We all like to ride, so we didn't worry too much about making the mileage. Less experienced riders, or those taking their kids (we saw two families doing the ride), might want to plan 30-mile days, perhaps confining the trip to the northern, more rustic half of the towpath.
We left our motel before 9 a.m. Thursday and did some hard pedaling all the way to a fast-food restaurant on the other side of Cumberland. As we stoked up on pancakes, people in the restaurant told everyone else how it looked like rain for sure. I remembered an Outward Bound instructor telling me the more you get rained on, the more you learn. But I wasn't out here to take a remedial course in perseverance.
The first day's ride took us south along the Maryland-West Virginia border on a trail of packed dirt and some small rocks. On our right was the Potomac River, looking healthy if brown; on our left, the canal water was a putrid, slimy green.
(OK, time for the obligatory explanation of canals, towpaths and so on. If, like me, you didn't come this far just to learn something, skip ahead.
(Canals were popular in 19th century America as a way to ship goods inland from harbors. Basically, they are long ditches dug next to rivers, with inlets to feed water from the river into the canal. Ships loaded with freight were pulled along the canal by horses or mules, which walked on an adjacent towpath. The C&O Canal was completed in 1850 and used until 1924. More recently, it was made into a national park.
(Now back to the bicycling, leaving you on your own to learn about locks and aqueducts and how railroads meant the death of canals.)
Before our first lunch break, we'd chased a woodchuck down the trail (woodchucks, we learned, do not like to yield right of way) and scared a great big blue heron into the air. When we left the trail for a short ride into Paw Paw, W.Va, we were delighted by dozens of goldfinches flying low across a field. A bold rooster even enlivened the picnic lunch we rigged up from the Paw Paw 7-Eleven (the town's restaurant was closed for the Fourth).
With 25 miles under our belts -- and 145 to go -- I remembered what I'd learned on two previous bike tours: Much of the success depends on the quality of conversations with other riders, and the pleasantness of your own musings.
Face it: Few recreational riders find enough to contemplate in simply pushing the pedals, and the canopy of trees over the towpath rarely allows riders to gaze into wide scenic vistas.
So what to do for five or six hours a day in the saddle? We sang, together and separately. We planned future stops for meals and swimming.
Best of all, we cast the movie version of our trip, which would star Meryl Streep (10 years younger, perhaps using her "Sophie's Choice" accent), Julia Roberts (five years older) and Amanda Donohoe (given a complete makeover). We used up more trail time figuring out who would play the respective romantic interests (if you want to know, you'll have to see the movie).
The day's most exciting stretch came during a walk through the long, dark and spooky Paw Paw Tunnel. When we emerged, it began to rain and we cycled doggedly to a dinner stop in Little Orleans, where the mayor runs the bar and grill and people sign dollar bills that are pasted to the ceiling -- a guarantee you'll always have a buck to fall back on.