Every week, the #ThrowbackThursday meme fills my Twitter and Instagram feeds with photos of friends’ childhoods, drunken college antics, and old vacations and adventures. That stream of remembrance got me thinking about some of my own past bike adventures. I decided to do my own version of Throwback Thursday and tell the story of my first time camping by bike.
I took my first bike camping trip in May of 2009. I’d built up a Long Haul Trucker the previous winter and spent the spring commuting on it between Silver Spring, Maryland where I was living at the time and my newspaper internship in Bethesda. No less prone to daydreaming about bike adventurers then than I am now, I often passed time at my internship thinking up potential trips and chatting about them with my fellow intern and would-be bike tourist, Jeff.
It was Jeff who inspired me to finally make one of those proposed bike adventures a reality. A few days before Memorial Day Weekend, he told me he and his girlfriend Ava were planning an overnight bike trip along the C&O Canal and invited me to come along. Their plan was to ride to the hiker-biker site nearest the White’s Ferry crossing, camp, take the ferry across to Virginia the next morning, then ride back to DC on the Washington & Old Dominion trail. I was on board and set about borrowing a tent from a friend in DC and a decades-old foam sleeping pad from my roommate so that I could join the ride.
Since Jeff and Ava lived in DC and I lived in Maryland, we decided to just meet up enroute to the campground, or at worst, at the campground itself. I started an hour later than expected on Saturday morning, eliminating the possibility of catching my riding partners on the trail. I was undeterred. There are far worse things than 50 miles of solo riding on a warm, sunny Spring day in Maryland.
I wound my way through the suburban streets of Silver Spring and Chevy Chase on my way to the Capital Crescent Trail. The Washington DC area is filled with great multi-use paths. The Cap Crescent arcs southwest through Bethesda, eventually ending in DC’s Georgetown neighborhood, where the C&O Canal towpath trail begins. As with pretty much all multi-use trails on sunny days, the Cap Crescent was brimming with bikers, joggers, families with strollers and dogs. A man passing me on his brakeless track bike struck up a conversation, curious what I was doing with so much gear on such a beefy bike on a suburban bike path. He was surprised to learn that the C&O path had free campsites for hikers and bikers every five to 10 miles along the river.
A little over an hour after leaving my house, I made it to the C&O. The crushed gravel towpath parallels the entire length of the 185 mile canal. In the C&O’s heyday, the paths were used by the mules and horses to pull boats through the canal. Today it’s open to hikers and bikers. It passes through several landmarks and attractions, such as the Potomac River’s Great Falls, where I stopped for lunch on my way to the campsite. It was there that I met a group of folks with similar bike camping plans for the weekend (and with whom I’d end up camping that night). They’d made themselves panniers out of hardware store 5-gallon buckets and strapped them to their hybrid bikes. The adage “run what you brung” really lends itself to bike camping.
The towpath winds north with the Potomac River to its left and the canal to its right. I rode through forests and fields and past crumbling canal lock houses. And though I was only about a mile or two from one of DC’s sprawling suburban developments at any given time, I felt like I was deep in the woods, far away from civilization. It’s amazing what a few hours of riding in the woods by yourself can do for the imagination.
I rolled into the Turtle Run hiker biker site in late afternoon and saw what I assumed was Jeff and Ava’s tent already set up. Not seeing them anywhere nearby, I gave Jeff a call. It turned out that was not, in fact, their tent. They’d gotten to the campsite a few hours earlier, realized they hadn’t packed enough food to satisfy the hunger generated by their ride, and had taken the ferry across the river to nearby Leesburg, Virginia to get dinner. Not wanting to ride back to camp in the dark, they decided to just get a motel room for the night. We made new plans to meet in Leesburg in the morning to ride back to DC together.
The campsite I’d chosen consisted of a big grassy clearing, a fire pit, a water pump with potable water, and a picnic table (amenities most, if not all of the C&O sites have). I set up camp on the opposite side of the field from the other tent, ate some dinner, then settled in next to the Potomac with the book I’d brought. I was a little nervous about camping without my friends. Thoughts of rabid wildlife and deranged woodsmen raced through my overactive imagination. Or, perhaps likelier, what if the person I was sharing my campsite with turned out to be a total asshole?
An hour later the tent owners returned and, unsurprisingly, my fears turned out to be for naught. The group sharing my campsite consisted of a grandfather, father, and two sons who were spending the long weekend on an intergenerational bonding trip. They’d hiked back to their car a few miles up the towpath to grab extra food and a second tent they’d accidentally left in the trunk. Later in the evening they built a fire and invited me to join them for s’mores. As we roasted marshmallows and chatted around the fire, the bucket-pannier group I’d passed at Great Falls rolled into camp and set up shop. Tired from the ride, I turned in shortly after the sunset for a night of mediocre sleep on my thin foam pad.
I woke up early and packed up quickly, eager to get across the river and meet up with my friends and eat a proper breakfast since all I had left for food was a few Clif bars. I rode a mile north to White’s Ferry, the cable operated ferry that takes cars and passengers across the Potomac River from Maryland to Virginia. I believe it was just a dollar for me and my bike to cross. After the short crossing, I pedaled my way towards Leesburg on suburban highways, quite and nearly traffic free so early on a Sunday morning.
I found my way to the Leesburg Restaurant, a homey diner that sits in one of the town’s many historic colonial brick buildings. The front of their menu claims “The Best Breakfast in Town,” but just about any stack of pancakes and eggs tastes amazing to a hungry and tired cyclist, so it’s hard to verify the claim.
Stuffed with a proper diner breakfast and buzzing from the bottomless refills of cheap coffee, I met up with Jeff and Ava to begin our ride home. The 40 mile ride from Leesburg to DC can be done entirely by bike trail. The W&OD Trail gets you most of the way there. The Curtis Trail gets you the last few miles across the river from Virginia. With sunny skies and no real need to get back in a timely fashion, we took our time on the ride home. At one point we came across a street fair and spent an hour walking around the booths. At another we stopped for lunch along the trail. It wasn’t a conscious decision to ride with an open-ended plan the way we did that day. In the years of bike camping and touring I’ve done since, I’ve enjoyed myself most when I keep my itinerary loose and let myself enjoy whatever lake or vista or cafe or roadside stand I happen across along the way. It still takes work to turn off the part of my brain that wants to motor through to reach the day’s destination, but it’s always worth it when I do.
We eventually made our way across the Key Bridge and into DC in the late afternoon. Jeff and Ava peeled off and said their goodbyes when we reached their apartment near the National Zoo. I continued solo through Rock Creek Park back to my suburban rental house in Silver Spring.
A small part of me wishes that first trip inspired me to sell my possessions, pack my bags, and head out on a tour across the country or Europe or around the world. It did not. But it did give rise to many more overnight trips and 3-5 day tours over the past five years and helped solidify a desire to explore that will inspire many bike camping trips and bike tours in the years to come.