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Biking the C&O Canal

One minute you're eating warm bran muffins with a dollop of cream cheese tucked in the center. The next you're getting spattered head to toe with mud. That's how it is when you bike the entire C&O Canal from Cumberland, Md., to Georgetown in Washington, D.C., and stay in nice hotels instead of crawling into a tent at night like many bicyclers do.

We figured it was tough enough riding 60 miles a day for three consecutive days, carrying about 20 pounds of clothes, cameras, water and snacks, without also having to lay our tired bodies down on rough ground at night. Handily, there is lodging within yards of the towpath at those intervals.

The pouring rain as we're dropped off in Cumberland on a Friday afternoon does not bode well. It's not the wet and the dirt -- it's the traction. You can't slip and slide for 60 miles along the route that mules used to pull barges and still pretend to be having fun.

But this is camping comfy style, and the Inn at Walnut Bottom in Cumberland distracts us from our rainy worries, what with the cozy parlor full of books on local history and culture and the plate full of homemade chocolate chip cookies we devour before we even reach our rooms -- or ride one mile. The next morning in the breakfast room, we dine on eggs Benedict, fruit and three different kinds of home-baked pastries -- just the energy-stokers we'll need. All in all, a better morning boost than a camp-side bowl of instant oatmeal and a granola bar.

Loaded up, we set off for the towpath less than a mile away. It is a gorgeous sunny day with no sign of rain. A light breeze dances around us as we reach the canal. Only 184 miles to go.

We are three. There is Peter, a magazine publisher fascinated with most every lock, aqueduct and Civil and Revolutionary War site along the path. Laura is a software engineer who can marshal the power of 12 satellites with her GPS system to give us one-mile warnings when our next snack stop is due. And me? I'm just in it for the challenge of being dropped off somewhere in Maryland's Allegany County and making my way home with just my bike, my wits and a bank card with a $10,000 credit line.

The towpath at our start is loose and the rain has left its mark. We spend a fair amount of time swerving around puddles. Even so, flying dirt from our knobby tires attacks us, turning us into rolling versions of a Jackson Pollock canvas, if he'd had a Brown Period.

In the afternoon, we come upon a group of riders whose bikes are rigged with trailers carrying their gear. They are yacht builders from a boatyard in Thomaston, Maine. They plan to take four days for this journey, stopping at the campsites provided along the way. "We've got our own vittles, lots of dehydrated food," says Tom Luther. The steak dinner I'd been anticipating just got tastier.

Near Mile Marker 155, we hit the Paw Paw Tunnel, begun in 1836 and not completed until 1850 due to labor shortages, financial difficulties and lawsuits. For us, it is a pitch-dark, 3,118-foot-long trek, with more than a half-mile of walking our bikes to the light at the end.

During the three-day ride, the landscape changes frequently. The canal on the left is sometimes still and brown, sometimes coated with an eerie green slime, sometimes as clear and pretty as a Dutch landscape painting, sometimes completely dried up. The Potomac River on the right either rushes by, disappears beyond green fields, is barely glimpsed through thick trees or is nearby and gently rocks boats and fishermen. Still, the scene shifts are subtle, and there are monotonous stretches where it seems the path extends into trees forever.

We don't pass very many people. However, we do see red-headed woodpeckers and the occasional horseback rider. We hear the honking of geese overhead and the blast of train horns, and we dwell on the competition 150 years ago between canal barges and the railroad. (The barges lost.)

Five deer gather in the path in front of us to catch wind of the humans rolling toward them. Four of them bolt. But one stumbles and spills onto its back. It rolls over and gets up on its feet looking completely nonplused. We are too. It leaps down the path and finally turns and runs into the woods in the direction of the others.

In the afternoon of the first day, we pull off the path at Little Orleans, Md., for a stop at Bill's Place, a well-known beer station for canal through-riders. It's nice to see civilization again, if Bill's Place counts as such. Up a wooden porch and through a creaking door we find locals on old-fashioned bar stools, smoking, drinking beers and kibitzing with Bill. The walls are lined with deer heads, Miller Lite mirrors and "redneck" trinkets hung next to Confederate flags. It feels good to sit for a while and eat something other than packaged energy bars.

It's darkest dusk before we reach Hancock, Md., and the Super 8 Motel, which gets enough canal business that it provides a hose to wash off muddy bikes. The B&B we'd wanted to book was closed due to a well problem, but our motel was warm, dry and, best of all, well-lighted, unlike the path. And we were able to walk to the Lockhouse Restaurant on

Main Street
for that steak dinner.

We vow to pace ourselves better from now on. Yet, for the following two days, we again get a late start and end in the dark, for reasons we try to assign to glitches (such as getting lost on the way to the path and having to visit a bike shop to replace a bike seat). But really it had more to do with a proclivity for sleeping in, lingering over a hearty breakfast, taking too many pictures and visiting nearly every portable potty on the trail.

It was particularly a shame not to make the Hilltop House in Harper's Ferry in time for sunset. It would have been glorious to sit outside and watch the sky over the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers from our high-up perch at the quaint hotel. But we still got to lay our spent bodies down on comfortable beds and enjoy the morning version of that scene from a dining room with a view.

Throughout the three days, we felt distant from the other people we saw. Most were out for the day, on a walk or a bike ride or a history lesson. We, on the other hand, were through-bikers on a great adventure. We bonded with a New Zealander who was biking to Cumberland and on to Pittsburgh and New Jersey.

By the time we are 15 miles outside of Georgetown, we are achy and tired but jubilant. Biking into Georgetown is surreal. With nine miles to go we are in pitch darkness. A few miles later, I see the lights of the city and feel a sense of excitement, but also complete detachment from the people and cars speeding with ease alongside us on

Canal Road

Do they understand what we've just done? We've taken the mule route all the way from Cumberland. Does the fact that we had a few showers and a half-dozen hot meals take away from the feat?

Not one mile.

First published in The Washington Post. All rights reserved.

2007 Ellen Perlman. All rights reserved.