Caryl and Brian's World Bike Tour

Grantsville, MD to Alexandria, VA

Back Home Up Next


Date: Thu, 26 Oct 95 13:39:00 UTC 0000

Copyright (c) 1995 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.

Chapter 8 - Oct 14 to Oct 24 Grantsville, MD to Alexandria, VA - 2822 miles cumulative

I had forgotten how easy life becomes when you have a motorized vehicle. Going any distance now becomes just a matter of hopping in the car and stepping on the gas. One can get spoiled so fast. "You want to go out to breakfast?" "Sure, it's only 5 miles." One of the greatest things about bike touring and living outside, it quickly teaches you to have a much greater appreciation for this century's wonders.

We spent 4 nights at the New Germany Maryland State park, running errands, seeing some national parks, and basically resting the knees after all that hill climbing.

We stopped at Friendship Hill National Historic Site just to find out what it was. It turns out to have been the home of Albert Galatin back in the early 1800s. Galatin was the secretary of the treasury during Jefferson's term and was responsible for getting funding for the first federally funded road from Cumberland Md to Illinois and for the Lewis and Clark expidition.

The ranger on duty happened to mention that the Parks Service has been under a lot of pressure to close some of the smaller and less significant parks. I'd have to admit I would put Friendship Hill on the list, or at least transfer authority to the state of PA. "Why?", you ask. The grounds are quite nice and have some very good hiking trails. But the house is far from authentic. The interior was completely remodeled in the 1930s to the point that almost none of the original woodwork exists. An arsonists fire destroyed much of the kitchen as well. There simply wasn't that much to see, a short video, a few of his belongings, a description of his life, and just a few of the house rooms. That's it.

It also turns out that Galtin spent little time living there. Between his political life in Washington and being Ambasador to France he spent most of his time somewhere else. Finally, although Galatin did do some significant things during his life, it seems to me that he was not so important as to deserve an entire historic site. Perhaps a separate display over near the national road, Route 40 today, would be more appropriate. I know it may be considered sacrilege to consider closing even one historic site, but the ranger told us that back in the 70s Congress was creating historic sites left and right. "You want the house of the 26th lieutenant govenor of the state of Deleware to be a national monument. No problem." Rarely did they stop to think about the financial burden all these historic sites would have on an ever more strapped park service. At least now there is a lot more effort and thought that goes into creating parks and monuments. But perhps the pendulum has swung a bit too far.

The ranger happened to be a historian by training and he came up with perhaps the strangest tidbit of historical lore we've ever heard. Smokey the Bear was created back in WWII in order to ensure there would be enough wood for gun stocks and barrels. Yup, the government was afraid that carelessly created forest fires would destroy timber resources needed for the war effort. How bizarre. Would this be called enviromental defense?

We also visited Ft. Necessity just east of Uniontown, PA. Back in the late 1700s the British and French were both making moves to control the lands east of the Appalachians, now the state of Ohio. By 1754 the French had established 3 forts along the Ohio river. The colonial govenor, Dinwiddie, moved to establish a fort further south on the Ohio at what is now Pittsburgh. He also sent a 22 year old Lt. Col. George Washington to build a road to the new fort. Well the French proceeded to roust the British from the fort and a patrol of some 40 soldiers were sent to the area where Washington was building the road. Not knowing what the French were doing, Washington set out to surprise them. After a short 15 minutes half of the French were killed, half were captured, and one got away.

Washington knew that the French would retaliate. So he returned to the "big meadow" to reinforce the fort he had ordered be constructed. Since it was built out of great need he named it Fort Necessity. It was a simple fort consisting of a ring of 6 ft tall vertical posts, one small cabin for stores, and a couple trenches. Well, on July 3, 1754 the French showed up with 800 troops and after 8 hours of battle Washington lost. Yes, you read correctly. He lost. His biggest blunder seemed to be building his fort in a clearing surrounded by dense trees. While his troops were practically out in the wide open, the French just stood in the trees taking pot shots at them. Washington was allowed to surrender and retreat with full military honors. Which means they marched out, flags flying and could keep their weapons.

The French thought they were done with the British. But the very next year a General Bradock along with Washington and 2500 troops were sent out to try to retake the French fort at Pittsburgh. As he progressed he widened and improved the road begun by Washington a year earlier. Braddock was a 43 year old British soldier with much experience fighting in the European style. He was not experienced in wilderness fighting and, consequently had his butt severely kicked. While in retreat he died from his wounds right near the remenants of Ft. Necessity and was buried in the middle of his newly constructed road. The thought was that the wagon tracks would hide his grave, preventing the Indians from desicrating it for their victory. The Indians were helping the French in this endeavor.

These events touched off a war that extended from America to Europe, Asia, and India. I guess the French and British were contending for dominance in all of these regions and Washington's surprise attack set a match to the timber. As we all know, the eventual outcome of the French and Indian war was the oust of the French from the northern continent. But, just imagine for a moment if the French had won. Our whole course of history would be so different.

It's interesting to imagine what war must have been like in those days. Everything must have seemed to happen in slow motion compared to today. Every musket had to be reloaded after each and every shot, orders from the chain of command were sent by runners on foot or horse back, messages took days or weeks to get back to Philidelphia, and the king back in England wouldn't know the results for months. Troop movements would take days and even weeks to execute. Today war is much more instantaneous, happening right before our eyes on TV special reports. As evidenced by the English conflict in the Fauklands and the US conflict in Saudi Arabia, todays wars can start and be over before the soldiers of old would even get into position. There's no saying that one method is superior to the other. War seems to be an unavoidable by product of civilization and people get killed either way. But as long as one society has something that is desired by another there will be attempts to take it and a need to protect it.

But, enough about that. Later, during the presidential term of Jefferson, 1811, the government funded the construction of the first national road extending from Cumberland, Md to Illinois. This began our wonderful system of national roads that today allows us to ride our bikes from one coast to the other. The modern route 40 now follows much of this original road and many of the original mile markers, toll houses, and stone bridges are in evidence.

Our final night at the New Germany State Park was filled with some unusual excitement. Temperatures were dipping toward freezing and we had already given up the rented car. So, after dinner Brian retired to the tent to read and I headed to the heated bathrooms to give a bathroom flute concert to an audience of toilets and sinks. Our cookware was in the tent with Brian and before long so was a skunk. I'm not kidding, it was complete with black fur and white stripes. This was the strangest acting skunk I've every seen. Brian yelled at it, it didn't move. He threw a shoe at it, it finally left but didn't spray. Yet in the middle of the night I was jolted awake when Brian starts yelling again. It was back. Finally, while I moved everything that touched our food into the bathroom, Brian ran around the campground chasing the skunk and throwing large rocks at it. That seemed to have finally convinced it to go away for good. Yet through all this it never sprayed.

After a short ride over four pretty good sized hills, actually labeled mountains, we had a wonderful 1900 ft descent into Cumberland, Md where we rode onto the Cheasapeake and Ohio (C&O) canal tow path, right into bicycle heaven. The tow path is a flat, secluded trail that runs 184.5 miles to Georgetown. As we rode along the leaf covered trail my legs pumped in a regular rythem maintaining a smooth 10 to 12 mph. The sun filtered through the remaining leaves giving us a perfect riding temperature of about 70 in the midday. We encountered a few hikers, bikers, and canoers. But no cars. It was glorious and we took our time trying to relish each and every mile. But the miles of this biking extasy ticked away all too fast as it seemed like in no time we were past the half way point. But all good things must eventually come to an end.

The old C&O canal runs from Georgetown to Cumberland following the Patomac. It was started in 1824 and originally was to go all the way to Pittsburgh. But competition from the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, labor disputes, and other troubles convinced the company to end the canal at Cumberland in 1850. At its peak the canal boasted about 500 boats running mostly cargo and coal through its waters. But major floods in 1898 and 1924 along with diminished boat traffic caused its final closure. Somehow the residents managed to resist having a road put over the canal and tow path and in 1971 it was made into a national park. With remains of the 74 lift locks, 11 aqueducts, and a 3118 ft long tunnel is an absolute joy for two engineers to explore.

The tow path proved to be a great place to meet people, especially since we tended to stir up a lot of interest as we rode by. Sort of like a cloud of dust kicked up by our tires, we'd hear all sorts of comments as we passed. We had to chuckle because the most asked question we heard was, "Are you going the way?" "Sure, and a little bit more besides."

There was Ernest Green, the retired college prof who, after taking a sebatacle to research his book about south minor league baseball, "Diamonds in Dixie", decided to retire early. He was now walking the C&O to prepare for his next book. I was attracted to talk to him because he was sitting outside the C&O visitor center and had this aurora of an incredibly patient person. His external frame pack formed his chair as he sat quietly reading a book waiting for the center to reopen in an hour or so. He looked well prepared to wait for as long as necessary.

Then there was the retired fisherman who gave us directions to the 4 1/2 mile detour around a bad section of the tow path. He grumbled about how government resources seem to never go for the right things, like fixing the trail. "But if the government didn't take over this tow path, privat peoplle would put up fences, no tresspassing signs, and have cows eating there." He told us that Justice William O. Douglas almost single hanndedly got the feds to take over he tow path by challenging the press corps to hike the length with him. At the end of the hike the press was on his side. We are so grateful he took up the cause.

Finally there was the park service maintenance man who we met both at Antietam and a day later near Whites Ferry. Boy, could he complain about the government. "I don't believe anything they tell me. Even if it's in writing they're still lying." He'd been with the Park Service for 27 years and was looking for an additional 4 years for retirement. Even though he had a lot to say about his employer he did keep saying, "This is the best job I've ever had."

No cars, essentially downhill all the way, reasonably uncrowded, interesting locks and other canal artifacts, good people to talk to. What more could we ask for. The canal was wonderful.

Along the way we stopped at Harpers Ferry, location of the John Brown attempted revolt back in 1862. We'd visited this park about 9 years ago and it was interesting to see the many changes that had taken place. For instance, there was a brand new visitor center out of town where you were expected to catch a bus down to the old town. I guess the number of tourists have increased to the point where the old roads simply could not support the traffic. Also, they created several small museums dedicated to four themes, John Brown the Civil War, Tranportation through the valley, and the town's industry.

We happened to drop into the industry museum, a tiny room devoted mostly to those antique belt driven wonders that use water power to turn wood into beautiful furniture. They were being meticulously attended by a man who seemed to step right out of a Charles Dickens novel. Shoulder length, fly away hair that was black but now mostly gray with a very much receding hairline, a rather large paunch stomach, black pants and suspenders, and tiny round silver wire rimmed glasses precariously perched at the end of his nose. He carefully watched a wood lathe turning about a gun stock blank and answered questions. He was delighted to demonstrate the function of an antique drill press, or shall I call it drill push. The belts turn the drill while a foot pedal brings the table up to the drill bit. Reverse of what is used today.

We also stopped at the Antietam National Battlefield. The battle took place back in September 17, 1862 and is renowned as being the bloodiest single day battle of the war. Over 23,000 men were killed, wounded, or missing. Even though Gen. Mclelen of the north claimed the battle was a victory, in reality it was more of a draw. The south retreated during the night while the north hesitated. Mclelen was not a great general. He continued to hesitate when he had the upper hand rather than advancing. Rather than ending the war and defeating Lee right then and there, the war continued on. The best outcome of this battle was that it gave Lincoln the opportunity to give his Emancipation Proclimation which freed the slaves in all states. This action prevented several European countries from giving aid to the south and probably resulted in the North eventual win. But, Lincoln definitly needed to find a much better and agressive general.

We stopped in at the visitor center to get an overview of the battle field and then attempted to ride around and read all the various plaques. However, we found that they would talk about this brigade moving here and there, camping there, etc. But without a good map we simply couldn't get much out of it. It'd be great for a war historian, but for us the detailed descriptions were too much. We gave up and headed back to the tow path.

Well, after a full week of glorious riding on the tow path we finally rode into Washington, D.C. and on to Alexandria. We'd spend a full week to two weeks relaxing and enjoying the benefits of a real house. Just imagine, a bed, central heat, a bathroom right next door, refrigerator, easy water access. We'll quickly get spoiled but will probably be anxious to get on the road headed south. In the meantime, I'll take a break from newsletter writing. We'll be back with more after we hit the road again. Stay tuned.

Appendix A - Route


Rt 40 New Germany St Park to Cumberland C&O Canal to Georgetown Mt Vernon Trail to Alexandria

Appendix B - Camp sites


New Germany Sate Park in Grantsville ($), Various free campsites along the C&O 3 nights, Harpers Ferry AYH ($), Campsites along the C&O

($) indicates fee camping

Harry Baldwin (San Diego)


Copyright 1995-2011 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.



We'd like to thank my father, Charles Johnson, whose diligent mail forwarding and other logistical support make this journey far easier than it could be otherwise.


Wendy Strutin Riedy for archiving the newsletters on her WWW site,

Return to Out There Living