The Rail Trail and Towpath at Hancock, Maryland

An ironic effect of the stay-at-home orders in place this spring is that Sue and I have had a harder time getting away from people.

Nearby walking and biking paths are much more crowded than in pre-pandemic days. The National Park Service closed large parking lots along the C&O Canal towpath at Carderock and Great Falls, Maryland, so people crowded into other places. Parking areas along the canal as far away as the Monocacy Aqueduct (Milepost 42) now fill up as they never have before.

We normally strive to do things out of synch with others. That’s harder now in the areas we frequent most. So we’ve started to range farther afield to get away from the crowds, especially on weekends.

One Sunday near the end of May, we drove to Hancock, Maryland, about an hour and half from home via I-270 and I-70. Hancock is situated along both the C&O Canal (Milepost 124) and the Western Maryland Rail Trail, a 26-mile paved path that parallels the canal. Hancock lies midway along the rail trail, at about Mile 10.

The parking lot beside the trail at the center of town has meters that take quarters and charge a nostalgically low rate of 25¢ an hour. Weaver’s Restaurant, a popular diner and bakery, is a short walk up the street.

On previous visits, we’ve always biked west from Hancock, where the Western Maryland Rail Trail offers diverse and dramatic views of the Potomac River and nearby mountains, and passes through shady forests and alongside rocky cliffs. Along this stretch, we once spotted the smallest fawn I’d ever seen, and another time a black bear crossed the trail ahead of us.

This time we decided to ride east from Hancock along the less scenic section of the rail trail to its terminus, just so we could say we’d now biked the entire trail. We made it a round trip by returning via the canal towpath.

For much of the way, this section of the trail is within sight or sound of I-70, so it doesn’t feel as remote and rural as the trail west of Hancock. On the whole, it was also less smooth. In some places, the dappled shade hid bumps caused by tree roots. Where the trail veers away from the interstate, the riding becomes more pleasant. You pass right by a couple of farms and beside the lengthy pond called Little Pool.

When we reached the parking lot at Mile 0, we turned around. Had we wanted to extend our ride, we could have biked about another 3½ miles via road and canal towpath to Fort Frederick State Park, which preserves a large and impressive stone fort built in 1756 during the French and Indian War.

We decided to ride back on the C&O Canal towpath. There are only a few places where you can switch between the rail trail and towpath. We took the first one we came to, just east of canal Milepost 117. For the next three miles, the towpath surface consisted of fine gravel and was surprisingly smooth. The fine gravel abruptly ended at Milepost 120. The riding got a little bumpier, but still not bad for the towpath.

The 7-mile stretch of towpath we rode proved to be a bonanza of interesting sights: two aqueducts, two locks, lock house ruins and other canal structures, along with fine views of the Potomac River and Little Pool. Entering Hancock, we passed by the National Park Service visitor center (closed for now) housed in a handsome brick Colonial-style house dating from 1785.

In short, it turned out to be a surprisingly enjoyable 21-mile ride. On our drive home, just before the road out of Hancock merges onto the interstate, we stopped at the Blue Goose Market for some tasty treats: a slice of freshly made peach and berry pie to eat there and a rum cake to bring home. A few miles east of Hancock, we exited the interstate speedway and took US 40 through Indian Springs and Clear Spring, then Route 68 to Williamsport and Booneville, and finally US Alt. 40 to Frederick—a far more scenic and relaxing route than I-70.

So if you’re looking to get away from the crowded trails near Washington, D.C., Hancock makes a good daytrip destination. The parallel paths of the Western Maryland Rail Trail and C&O Canal towpath offer an impressive range of sights and scenery and many options for roundtrip routes. And a slice of freshly baked pie at the Blue Goose or Weaver’s provides the perfect finish.

Other posts about the Western Maryland Rail Trail:

Biking the Western Maryland Rail Trail, 2015

Exciting Changes to Trail and Towpath, 2019

David Romanowski, 2020

Back to the Florida Keys for Bubba Fest

When you come across a breathtaking aerial view of the Florida Keys, it almost always shows the Seven Mile Bridge, the longest by far in the Keys. About four times longer than the Golden Gate Bridge, it spans the blended blue-green waters of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico near the middle of this 126-mile-long island chain.

When Bubba Barron, founder of the Bubba Fest Florida Keys bicycle tour, hypes the Seven Mile Bridge as “the most beautiful 7 miles you have ever biked,” he exaggerates only a little. The midpoint may be the farthest out to sea you can get on a bicycle. The view from the top may be one of the most sublime you will ever see on bicycle. But what Bubba doesn’t tell you is that, especially for a first timer, the Seven Mile Bridge may be the most unnerving 7 miles you have ever biked.

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There is a not quite high enough concrete barrier between you and a gracefully long fall into some of the loveliest waters you have ever seen. There is a not quite wide enough shoulder separating you from all the cars and trucks blowing past just a few feet away. You need to focus ahead of you, scanning for obstacles and sharp debris on that seemingly endless shoulder, while praying that you don’t get a flat. Please God, not here.

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You get major bragging rights for biking across it twice: once on the way from Key Largo to Key West, with a fine subtropical breeze at your back, and again on your return, with a gusty make-my-day wind in your face.

My First Bubba Fest

Once described by someone as a rolling party, Bubba Fest Florida Keys is a week-long bicycle tour that begins and ends in Key Largo, the northernmost of the chain of keys (islands) that extend southwest like drips of coral and limestone from the tip of the Florida mainland. Over two days, you bike from Key Largo to the end-of-the-road city and island of Key West, about 100 miles away. You spend a couple of layover days at Key West and then retrace your route. I rode Bubba Fest in November 2009. It was my first bike trip in the Florida Keys, and a very mixed experience.

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Me at Boyd’s Key West Campground in 2009.

I got off to a bad start. The reasons for this involved the timing of the trip, high winds and threatening weather, feeling like I was crashing a party where I didn’t belong, and an anxiety-roiled sleepless night just before the first day’s ride. By morning, sleep deprived and paralyzed by panic, I nearly decided to drop out of the tour.

But once underway on my bike, I cycled out of the panic and ended up having a great time exploring the Keys. They were among the most beautiful places I’d ever biked. But I biked alone for almost the entire trip. I never warmed up to the group, the festivities irritated me, and I ended up isolating myself. I was the first to leave the farewell party on the last night and the first to leave camp the next morning. I reached Key Largo before anyone else and quickly packed up and left.

Now 10 years later, I began thinking the time had come to bike the Florida Keys again. And I thought perhaps it was time to give Bubba Fest another try.

Back to Bubba

For my first Bubba Fest, I had flown down to Florida alone. This time I hoped to rustle up a companion to make the tour more enjoyable. I contacted my Michigan friend Bob, whom I met a couple of years ago on a Bike Florida bicycle tour. Even though this was something of a last-minute proposal, Bob was game. We considered various options for a Keys cycling trip (an Adventure Cycling tour, a trip with Keys cycling guide Earl Stine, and going it on our own) and concluded that Bubba Fest seemed the best fit. Surprisingly, registration was still open with the tour only weeks away. Because of a late-breaking dental issue I had to contend with, we registered only two weeks before the tour was set to begin.

Bob rendezvoused with me at my home in Maryland. We drove down to Key Largo in his minivan, taking just over two days and bringing with us his new motor assisted e-bike and my trusty touring bike.

Bubba Fest, Then and Now

The tour format had changed a bit. Last time, after a first night in a Key Largo hotel, we camped for the rest of the trip, at the town of Marathon (the midpoint of the Keys) and just outside Key West. We had one layover day in Marathon and two in Key West. This time, there was no layover in Marathon, which was still recovering from Irma, a Category 4 hurricane that struck the middle Keys in 2017.

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Many things remain the same.

Nearby Pigeon Key, a nice day trip by bicycle from Marathon via the old highway bridge, was now accessible only by boat tour. The campground in Marathon was gone, developed into a resort. So this time, we stayed in a hotel in Marathon on the trip down and back. Like last time, we spent three nights at Boyd’s Campground near Key West.

Bubba’s Pampered Pedalers provided everyone with roomy tents, air mattresses, and other amenities. Most breakfasts and dinners were included, along with the mechanical and emergency support you expect on a fully supported tour.

The Cult of Bubba

One of the reasons I felt like an outsider at some stranger’s week-long party 10 years ago was because, in a sense, I was. Bubba has a devoted following. Many of the riders on Bubba Fest have done Bubba tours before. While this comradery can make Bubba Fest feel just a bit clannish at times, everyone welcomes newcomers. This time around, knowing what to expect, I felt much more relaxed and sociable. I really enjoyed meeting and talking with people, and that made a huge difference in how much more I enjoyed the tour this time.

Most of the people who set up the tents, drive the support vehicles, and help out in many other ways are volunteers and veterans of Bubba bicycle tours. Bubba himself, a retired police detective from St. Louis, remains a commanding yet jovial presence throughout the trip. He began running Keys tours in the early 2000s and has since branched out and added a few others, including a fully supported cross-country bicycle tour. Bubba’s Pampered Pedalers also provides tent rentals and pampering service for several other bicycle tours around the country.

Bubba clearly relishes running these trips. His “pirates trolley tour” of Key West—required if you want a ride to that night’s catered dinner at a restaurant near Mallory Square—remains unapologetically juvenile and tacky, unless perhaps you’ve indulged in a couple of his pink and potent “Bubbaritas” in camp before heading out. You have to wonder how much all that pirate paraphernalia (bag, shirt, bandana, and a plastic sword you are encouraged to wave threateningly), along with all the other Bubba branded stuff he gives out, adds to the tour cost. But I did appreciate the stainless steel mug he provided each of us to fill at the coffee stand thoughtfully set up for us in camp by 6:30 each morning.

Biking the Florida Keys

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The bike ride follows the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail, a multiuse trail that, when completed, will extend 106 miles from Key Largo to Key West. The trail website states that over 90 miles have been finished. Indeed, comparing the trail maps I have from 2009 and 2019 reveals great progress. Some of that progress was undone in 2017 by Hurricane Irma, which damaged trail sections in the middle Keys.

Note that “trail” does not always mean “bike path.” Lengthy sections of the Overseas Trail consist of paved paths separate from US 1, the main (and only) highway through the Keys. This is especially true in the Upper Keys. Many other sections consist of bike lanes alongside the highway, sometimes generously wide and separated from the traffic lane by rumble strips, and sometimes not. In a few places, you ride on narrow shoulders or sidewalks. Here and there, the trail switches sides of the highway. It’s not always clear which side of the road you should be on. There was little directional signage for the trail; we had to follow the small pink arrows Bubba laid down on the pavement to show where to turn or cross. But you can’t really get lost.

Through the Upper Keys, the trail is not especially scenic. But then you start crossing bridges. More than 40 of them link the islands of the Florida Keys. Some you barely notice. About 20 range from nearly 1,000 feet to over 2 miles long. And then there’s the aforementioned Seven Mile Bridge. Some are modern highway bridges completed in the decades after World War II. Many are historic railroad bridges later converted to highway bridges, relics of the short-lived railway built in the early 1900s that linked mainland Florida with Key West.

Many of the historic bridges are only open to bicycles and pedestrians; it’s just you and the folks fishing from them. A few in bad shape are closed altogether. Many are still active highway bridges, and you bike along the shoulder. In some places, as on the Seven Mile Bridge, you bike on the newer bridge, with the abandoned historic bridge a ghostly presence beside you.

It is from these bridges that you enjoy the most exquisite views in the Florida Keys: of the stunning range of colors in the waters around you, of the endless expanse of ocean and gulf extending to the horizon on either side of you, of the magnificent tropical cloudscape painted across the sky above and beyond you. There is no place I have ever been that is anything like it.

And at the end of the trail is Key West. We had two days to explore that compact city, and a bicycle is the best way to do it. The Overseas Trail splits into two when it reaches Key West. The upper branch runs past a long, generic commercial strip. The more scenic lower branch runs along the Atlantic shore, past the airport and several seaside resorts, and leads you into the heart of old Key West. From there you can cycle up and down the streets and past all the areas to which tourists and locals flock.

Throughout the trip, the winds were mostly gentle, and the temperature each day ranged only a few degrees, from the upper 70s at night to the mid-80s by day. Other than a refreshing sprinkle, we never got rained on while riding. Only on the last day, as we biked from Marathon back to Key Largo, was there any real threat of rain, but it held off. The headwinds grew stronger and gustier as the morning wore on. Along with many other riders, Bob and I decided to take the shorter riding option that day. We let Bubba’s helpers shuttle us by car for the last 18 miles to Key Largo, so we could get an earlier start for home.

The Future of Bubba Fest

Bob and I joke that we jinx bicycle tours. After we signed up for the 2018 Rails to Trails Pennsylvania Sojourn, the Rails to Trails Conservancy announced it was ending its popular series of rail trail tours. After we joined Bike Florida’s 25th anniversary spring tour this past year, Bike Florida announced it would not hold the tour in 2020. Now it appears there are changes in store for Bubba Fest too.

That Bob and I were able to sign up for Bubba Fest only two weeks before the start of the tour is revealing. Just over 70 riders participated in the tour—as I recall, about half as many as 10 years ago. The oldest rider was over 80. A significant number were in their 70s. Only two riders were younger than 40.

Not enough younger people are filling the bicycle touring ranks increasingly vacated by aging baby boomers. But that said, there were many first-timers at Bubba Fest this year. So maybe there’s hope for reversing that demographic trend.

At the farewell party, after handing out awards for oldest and youngest rider (and to Bob and me for being the last to register!), Bubba announced a significant change. Next year, Bubba Fest will be an all-hotel trip with no camping. Many Bubbafesters will cheer this change, given the inevitable discomforts and inconveniences of camping. Maybe this is a concession to Bubba’s aging clientele. Maybe it will attract new riders. It’s likely to change Bubba Fest.

I wonder how this will affect the social nature of the ride. Our camping area was centered on an open air pavilion, where we would hang out, share meals, and get to know one another. Will that be harder to do when everyone has a private, air-conditioned room to retreat to? The group meals at restaurants tended to be in noisy rooms with people seated in small groups at large round tables, where it was often hard to talk to anyone but the person next to you. I much preferred the rows of picnic tables in the campground pavilion.

Despite discomforts and inconveniences, camping has its delights too. Like pouring yourself a mug of hot coffee in the predawn darkness and walking over to the nearby shore to watch the sunrise. Or hanging out with fellow riders and getting to know them because you have nothing better to do. Or helping out a discouraged campmate who could use a pair of earplugs and some empathy. Or just enjoying the small pleasures of living a simpler and less connected life outdoors for a few days on a subtropical island.

Afterglow

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My first Bubba Fest 10 years ago was an experience I swore I would never repeat. This Bubba Fest turned out to be everything for me that the last one was not, a far better time than I expected. Much of that had to do with having Bob along to share the adventure. I was also in a far better frame of mind and therefore enjoyed the social experience more.

Having finally gotten to bike the Keys again, I doubt I’ll be tempted to do another Bubba Fest. But I’m really glad I did this one. Despite the unseasonable chill that greeted us after our return to Maryland two days later, I still felt a lingering warmth.

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David Romanowski, 2019

Exciting Changes to Trail and Towpath

At least once a year, Sue and I drive an hour and half west to Hancock, Maryland, to bike the Western Maryland Rail Trail. It’s never crowded, even on a lovely late summer weekend, and is nicely shaded and scenic. On the way home we often stop to visit one of the more remote sections of the 185-mile-long C&O Canal. Our most recent trip brought us two exciting surprises: a new addition to the rail trail and a newly restored—and rewatered—canal aqueduct at Williamsport.

The Western Maryland Rail Trail Extension

When I wrote about the Western Maryland Rail Trail on this blog four years ago, I knew of plans to extend the 22-mile trail another 14 miles. The new section would cross the Potomac River between Maryland and West Virginia in six places and traverse three tunnels. One of them, the Indigo Tunnel, is about 0.8 miles long, fully two tenths of a mile longer than the Big Savage Tunnel, the longest on the Great Allegheny Passage rail trail in Pennsylvania. Once completed, the extension will be truly spectacular.

Before Sue and I headed out, we were surprised to discover that the first 4 miles of the trail extension had just been completed. The ribbon cutting took place on June 1, 2019.

Rather than parking as usual in Hancock, the midpoint of the trail, we drove to the parking lot in Pearre (PA-ree), near the west end of the trail, so we’d be right near where the new extension picks up. I brought bike lights with us, expecting we might need them in the Indigo Tunnel. I was wrong; we never got to go through it.

The brief announcement we read about the extension didn’t mention that those 4 new miles are divided into two segments. Connecting them is a 2.25-mile detour on the C&O Canal towpath, which closely parallels the entire trail. The detour bypasses the Indigo Tunnel, which the National Park Service has closed to protect colonies of bats living in it. Three of the eight bat species found there are threatened or endangered.

Nonetheless, it was a delightful ride. The extension passes Lock 56 and the Sideling Hill Creek Aqueduct on the canal before diverting you onto the canal towpath itself just short of the Indigo Tunnel. You pass Lock 57 and the remains of its lockhouse and then rejoin the paved rail trail near the other end of the tunnel. The trail runs for another 2 miles and dead ends at an abandoned rail bridge over the Potomac. This last segment passes the tiny town of Little Orleans, home of Bill’s Place (“Beer-Bar-Bait-Boats and Good Food”), well known to towpath through-hikers and bikers.

While we didn’t see a bear crossing the Western Maryland Rail Trail this time, the new miles on the trail extension were scenic, smooth, and delightful.

The Restored Conocoheague Aqueduct

Williamsport is an interesting site on the C&O Canal. The town itself appears to be thriving, with many shops and eateries, and it is one of the few places where the canal is still filled with water and continually maintained. You can visit several historical structures within just a short distance here. Beside the Cushwa Basin along Conocoheague Creek is the Cushwa Warehouse, which now houses a National Park Service visitor center. Nearby is an old trolley barn power station, which now has exhibits on the canal. Along the canal are two unique bridges, a working lock and a lockhouse, and the newly reopened Conocoheague Aqueduct.

At 196 feet long, the triple-arch Conocoheague Aqueduct is the second longest of the C&O Canal’s 11 aqueducts (the Monocacy Aqueduct is 516 feet long) and the only one now fully restored. The aqueduct was once the site of a rather spectacular accident. In 1920 a canal boat passing through the aqueduct struck the upstream wall and broke through, plunging into the creek below and causing the canal to be shut down for over four months while the breach was being repaired.

A 2½-year restoration has returned the aqueduct to an operational state. A ribbon-cutting ceremony marking its reopening took place on August 8, 2019, just three days before we visited. The structure is still being assessed for leaks, but Park Service tour boats are now traversing it. This is now the only place in North America where you can ride a boat across a historical aqueduct and then through a working canal lock. For C&O Canal lovers, it’s quite an exciting development.

The railroad lift bridge now carries people rather than trains.

A short distance from the aqueduct are two other unique structures. Where a railroad track crosses the canal, a lift bridge was built to raise that section of track when canal boats had to pass. No longer functional, it now serves as a footbridge over the canal. Just beyond it is a rare example of a Bollman Bridge, named for the civil engineer who pioneered cast iron bridges in the late 1800s. It is the only Bollman Bridge on the canal and one of only a few still standing. (Two others are in Savage, Maryland, and on the Great Allegheny Passage rail trail near Meyersdale, Pennsylvania.)

Stop by the visitor center and pick up the walking tour brochure, which maps out a mile-and-a-half route connecting all these features.

Restored Canal Locks at Great Falls

Over the past couple of years, multiple repair and restoration projects have been taking place along the C&O Canal. Sections of towpath are being resurfaced and flood damage repaired. Locks in Georgetown and at Great Falls in Maryland are being rebuilt or restored. The canal bed is being repaired in several places so the 22-mile section from Violet’s Lock to Georgetown can be rewatered again. Several of these projects are nearing completion.

At Great Falls, three of the four locks closest to Great Falls Tavern, the park visitor center, are being restored to working order. Locks 17, 18, and 19 now have newly constructed wooden gates meticulously crafted to replicate the deteriorated original ones. As I walked by recently, I saw water beginning to flow through the locks again for the first time in many years.

A Park Service worker turns a lock key to adjust a sluice valve in the gate, which controls the flow of water when the gates are closed.

Even as these major projects were wrapping up, recent floods damaged other sections of the towpath and filled parts of the canal bed with rubble and debris. The canal will always be a maintenance challenge. But I’m glad to see so much money and effort finally being applied to restoring critical parts of it.

David Romanowski, 2019

Mucked in Pennsylvania

Rails to Trails Conservancy’s 2018 Pennsylvania Sojourn

I’m having a beer and a burger at a bar and grill in Easton, Pennsylvania, and checking tomorrow’s weather forecast on my cell phone again. The chance of rain keeps increasing; it could rain most of the day. Not good, but at least the forecast improves in the following days.

My cycling friend Bob from Michigan will arrive soon. Tomorrow morning we will drive from our motel to nearby Hugh Moore Park to join the Pennsylvania Sojourn, a five-day bicycle tour organized by the Rails to Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a nationwide network of trails from former rail lines.

We will travel on the Delaware and Lehigh Trail on rail trails and canal towpaths through the Lehigh Gorge and to the towns of Jim Thorpe, Easton, and New Hope. Our route will follow a system of railroads and canals developed in the 1800s to transport vital anthracite coal from the mines near Wilkes-Barre to Philadelphia. We will also cross the Delaware River and ride along New Jersey’s Delaware and Raritan Canal, part of a similar system built to transport freight between Philadelphia and New York City.

Rails to Trails has been running Sojourns since 2002, mostly in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. Meant to celebrate existing rail trails and draw attention to gaps in trail systems, the multiday rides have been very popular. This year’s Sojourn has drawn some 300 cyclists from 30 states.

This is my first Sojourn, and Bob’s too. It will also be our last. Rails to Trails just announced that, despite the popularity of the tours, the organization is shifting its priorities and will no longer run Sojourns. I am bummed to hear this.

Day One: Rain, Grit, and Grief

We arrive at Hugh Moore Park on Sunday morning before 7:00 a.m., park our cars, unload our bikes, and register for the event. We load our luggage onto one truck and our bikes onto another. We load ourselves into one of the waiting school buses, which transports us an hour and a half north to the starting point of the ride in Lehigh Gorge State Park, somewhere in the remote hills of northeastern Pennsylvania.

It is raining lightly but steadily when we arrive at Black Diamond Trailhead and retrieve our bikes. It feels chilly for mid-June, and we are eager to start pedaling to warm up. We head off down the trail through the rain toward Jim Thorpe.

Today’s ride is only 35 miles, all gently downhill or flat. It should be easy, but the trail is saturated and messy. It varies from a single track to a double-track path, and the surface ranges from packed dirt to fine loose gravel. We veer from one side of the trail to the other, trying to find the best way through the puddles and muck.

We stop for a welcome lunch break in White Haven, 10 miles down the trail. Lots of wet, grimy, and cold cyclists pile into Antonio’s Pizza, where we order slices and sandwiches. I warm up with coffee and a hot slice of pepperoni pizza. Before Bob and I head out into the rain again, I add a long-sleeved shirt beneath my rain jacket, which has already soaked through.

The trail widens a bit, and the rain eases for a while. By now I’ve gotten used to being wet and dirty, but our bikes are taking a beating. Bob and I stop twice to squirt water from our bottles onto our derailleurs and chains to wash off the accumulating gunk. Our bikes make an awful grinding sound when we brake. My chain skips now and then, but otherwise my Trek 520 touring bike, which I’ve ridden some 30,000 miles over 15 years, is doing okay. It has weathered drenching rain and mucky paths before.

But about 10 miles from Jim Thorpe, my rear wheel suddenly locks up and I skid to a stop. I get off the bike to see if maybe the chain has fallen off. Instead I find that the lower part of the derailleur has somehow pulled sideways and jammed into the spokes. I have no idea how this could even happen. I tug and pull and finally wrench the derailleur free. I discover that the lower of its two rotating cogs is completely locked up with grit.

I squirt the rest of my water onto the cog and manage to wash off enough grit to get it rotating again. I’m finally able to continue pedaling. But when I shift gears a while later, the derailleur slides sideways and jams into the spokes again. This time it’s even harder to extricate. I pedal on again, but now I avoid shifting at all. I count down the miles to Jim Thorpe.

Farther down the trail, I and some other riders stop to try to help a woman who is also having bike problems. The bearings in the bottom bracket—the “axle” that the pedal arms attach to—have ground to a halt. She can no longer pedal. We can’t fix her bike, so she calls the tour’s rider support number to summon one of the roving mechanics riding somewhere along the trail. As we head off, she begins to walk her bike toward town.

Screw It—Let’s Get a Room

We finally straggle into Jim Thorpe, with Bob’s disc brakes grinding badly and my 27-speed bike reduced to a single speed. We join the crowd of fellow cyclists milling around in front of Pocono Biking, which is providing mechanical support for the tour. Many have lined up to hose off their bikes and themselves, creating a beach of gray grit on the sidewalk. The shop’s mechanics are performing triage on dozens of crippled bicycles.

As we wait for them to assess ours, I start shivering again. Our campground is a half-mile walk from here up a steep hill. Dinner is not provided on the tour tonight, so after setting up our tents in the soggy campground we are supposed to head down the hill into town to find a restaurant, and then trek back up the hill again. As we mull over that thought, the mechanics’ verdicts come in: both our bikes are unrepairable with the parts and tools at hand. Bob’s brake pads have been ground away, and my derailleur mishap has bent part of my bike frame.

We overhear another cyclist asking about nearby hotels. One is right behind the bike shop, just steps away. Cold, wet, and demoralized, Bob and I agree we should look into it—and quickly, before the place fills up. As he waits to hose off, I dash around the corner. Tiny Hotel Switzerland has just a few rooms left. I reserve our best option: a room with a queen bed and private bath. It will beat setting up camp in the rain at the top of that hill. Lots other cyclists who had planned to camp opt for hotel rooms too. We will be the most comfortable campers on the trip that night.

Bob and I lock up our bikes and arrange for a tour staff member with a minivan to shuttle us up to the campsite, where our luggage awaits, and back. We lug our duffle bags upstairs to our tiny hotel room—just large enough to walk around the bed, but with a roomy, private bathroom. Bob offers to sleep on the floor. We shower and change into dry, clean clothes; hang our dirty, soppy ones wherever we can; and go to the restaurant downstairs to eat dinner and consider our options.

By now I am in full emotional response mode. I’m ready to quit the tour. I want to find a way to get me and my damaged bike back to Easton, load up the car, and go home. But the weather forecast for the next couple of days is good, and Bob, in a more calm and rational mode, wants to try to find a way to continue the trip. After dinner we drop by Pocono Biking and ask about rentals. We also arrange to have our own bikes transported with our luggage back to Easton, tomorrow’s campsite and where our cars are parked. With the logistics figured out, I calm down. We decide to continue the tour, at least for now.

Days Two and Three: Back in the Saddle Again

The next two days are everything the first day wasn’t: sunny, warm, and dry. The riding is mostly carefree and easy. The rental bikes are adequate. I enjoy examining the canal structures we pass, visiting the National Canal Museum in Easton, and comparing these canals to those I’m more familiar with, the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal and the Erie Canal.

At our second night’s campsite in Hugh Moore Park, I retrieve my bike and lock it onto the rack on my car. Bob calls around and finds the brake pads he needs at a bike shop in Easton. The mechanics in camp are able to get his bike repaired, and he turns in his rental bike to them.

The campground for the next two nights is at the upper unit of Washington Crossing State Park, a couple of miles beyond New Hope. I am not happy to discover that our camping area is rife with poison ivy, to which I am extremely sensitive. I step carefully and manage to avoid contact.

Day four will be a layover day. Some riders had preregistered for a kayaking trip or a tour of the state park, which preserves the area where General George Washington and his troops crossed the Delaware River on Christmas night in 1776 to surprise and defeat the Hessian forces at Trenton. I plan to explore the park and New Hope on my own. But once again, weather comes into play.

Day Four: Let’s Call It a Tour

Rain is forecast for later today, the last thing we want to deal with again. And neither of us is looking forward to largely retracing our route back to Easton tomorrow. Now it is Bob who favors cutting the tour short. He has made up his mind; he’s ready to leave. I am conflicted. But I’m also looking forward to driving up to Albany, New York, to visit friends after the tour. I call and they tell me I’m welcome to show up a day early. I make up my mind.

With the sky overcast but the rain holding off for now, we pack up our tents and gear. We learn from some tech-savvier campmates how to use Uber, our best option for getting ourselves back to Easton. I turn in my rental bike to the mechanics. After some difficulty due to our remote location, we finally book an Uber to Easton. We load up and depart. Bob heads back to Michigan. I head for New York State. Our Pennsylvania Sojourn is over.

Afterward

A few days after I returned home, I took my bike to REI for service and repair. Its mechanics managed to straighten the bent and twisted derailleur hanger on the frame. The frame could have broken during that process; if it had, the bike would have been a total loss. They will replace the derailleur, cassette, chain, crankset, and possibly the bottom bracket, which was full of grit when they took it apart—basically the entire drive train. It will be expensive, but I’ll have my bike back soon, ready to roll again with brand new components.

I’m not inclined to provide a detailed critique of a tour that won’t happen again, especially one so different in nature from others I’ve taken. Touring on trails and towpaths presents unique challenges, including lack of access to roving sag vehicles for aiding riders who need assistance. And anyone who has gone on enough bicycle tours knows that stuff happens. You get caught in the rain. It gets colder than you expected. The shower truck breaks down. There are not enough sinks and restrooms. The caterer runs late or runs out of coffee or food. Information is inadequate, inaccurate, untimely, or poorly relayed. Every tour has its snafus. Some are unavoidable; others reflect shortcomings in planning or preparation. This tour, in my opinion, had more than its share of these issues.

But I also have to say that much went very well, that all the Rails to Trails staff and volunteers I dealt with were unfailingly genial and tried to be helpful, and that the Pocono Biking staff did a commendable job dealing with the effects of that disastrous first day.

Even so, I am no longer so disappointed about the decision by Rails to Trails to end the Sojourn series. Many participants will likely disagree, but my sense is that bicycle tours are not the organization’s forte. I’m glad they offered these unique tours, and I’m glad I got to experience one. And I wish them well as they redirect their efforts and continue their noble mission of creating and promoting the use of trails across the nation.

David Romanowski, 2018

Alligator Alley: Florida’s Van Fleet Trail

A rather large alligator along the Van Fleet Trail.

Alligators are about as common in Florida as white-tailed deer in Maryland. But no matter how many times I visit, I’m always thrilled to see one. On my trip to Florida this past March, I saw more—many more—than I ever had before.

I spotted one while bicycling on Jekyll Island in Georgia with Sue. In Florida we saw two more from a lakeside boardwalk in Inverness, one swimming by just below us. I counted five as I bicycled around Chain of Lakes Park in Titusville; three I could have walked up to and touched, had I been so foolish. I saw several—a couple quite large—while cycling through Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and Canaveral National Seashore. But I lost count of how many I saw while cycling with friends Tad and Lea along the General James A. Van Fleet State Trail in central Florida.

Tad and Lea relaxing in the shade along the trail.

The Van Fleet Trail extends about 29 miles, from Mabel south to Polk City, through a large blank spot in the map west to southwest of Orlando. Smoothly paved and well maintained, it is one of the longest and most secluded rail trails in the state. Only two rural roads cross it, dividing the trail neatly into thirds.

If you could roll a bowling ball straight and far enough from the northern trailhead, it wouldn’t veer off into the grass until it reached the trail’s one and only bend almost two dozen miles away. We joked that we could see oncoming cyclists rising up from the horizon, helmet-first, like the masts of tall ships at sea.

Unlike many rail trails, straight here doesn’t mean boring. After heading south from the parking area at Mabel, we immediately entered a cypress swamp. This northern third of the trail is nicely shaded. To the left you can see fields and farms; to the right, trees with knees poking above dark waters. We passed the relics of an old settlement: two rusted vehicles and the remains of a house. We saw lots of gopher tortoises, large burrowing critters who quickly ducked back into their holes beside the trail or lumbered off into the brush when we drew close. They moved pretty quickly for turtles.

The middle third of the trail, which runs through the Green Swamp, was more open and less shaded. It looked surprisingly less like a swamp than the northern section. Alerted by other cyclists, we soon began spotting alligators resting in the waters and wooded areas beside the trail, and especially below the three bridges the trail crosses over.

At one place, we came across a large alligator and, close by, nine baby alligators, no more than 18 inches long. I had only seen one baby alligator in the wild, years ago, swimming in the Everglades. So to see nine in one spot was quite a thrill.

Unlike their mother, basking nearby in the sun, they crawled around, snapped at tempting snacks hidden in the grasses, and provoked a nearby turtle into sudden escape. They were fun to watch. I even saw one or two seize something and twist into what looked to me like the start of an “alligator roll”—the deadly maneuver by which alligators drown their prey.

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Can you spot all nine baby alligators? One is less than a foot long.

Farther along, below one of the bridges, we came across another gator gathering, a mother and babies, a couple of juveniles (3 feet or so long) and a couple of other larger ones nearby. I repeatedly (they kept moving around) counted 13 babies spread through the water and grasses, ranging in size from perhaps 18 inches to less than a foot. There may have been even more hidden from my view.

There are at least a dozen alligators here. How many can you count?

We turned around at the second road crossing, after cycling 19 miles. We didn’t bike down the southern-most third of the trail, the one with that single bend. We had ridden that section a few years ago, and I don’t recall it as being especially interesting.

Other than restrooms at the parking areas, shaded benches, and some bicycle repair stations, there are no other amenities along the trail. Bring plenty of water and some snacks. On many stretches, there is no shelter from the sun. Park rangers do patrol the trail in cars, and cyclists watch out for each other, but it is always a good idea to be prepared with a basic tire repair kit and a pump.

A final word of caution: Some of the parking areas are quite remote, and vehicles have been broken into there. So avoid leaving anything valuable or tempting in your car.

See the TrailLink entry on the Van Fleet Trail for more information and interesting comments from visitors.

Bonus Feature! More Florida Wildlife Photos

David Romanowski, 2018