Early one morning I went online in search of a route for a bicycle trip from Leesburg, Virginia, to Indianapolis. Already committed to mid-June responsibilities in the Hoosier city, and interested in attending Le Cirque du Cyclism in Leesburg earlier in the month, I was considering the possibility of a solo bicycle tour from one location to the other. Is old U.S. 40—the National Road of long ago—the best way to make the trip, I wondered, or is there a better route through the Alleghenies and across the open lands of Ohio and Indiana?
Taking advantage of a developing feature of Google Maps, I clicked on the bicycle logo. The result was a full set of instructions, eighteen pages long, that would take me all the way—665 miles in two days and thirteen hours (that’s how it read). As with all of Google’s cycling maps, the instructions stitched together a multitude of short sections—226 ft, 0.3 mi, 4.2 mi, 85 ft—resulting in a route card so distracting that it would quickly force me to find the closest, shortest, fastest arterial.
After a few minutes of close study, I discovered that the multitudinous detail obscured the basic route for the first half of the journey. I could travel from Leesburg to McKeesport on the southern outskirts of Pittsburgh on off-road bicycle trails. Hard to believe! 279 miles (335 if you started in Washington) with no motor vehicles. On this easy passage through the Alleghenies no grade was steeper than 2%, and all along the way there was a richly detailed story from our nation’s history.
From Leesburg to Cumberland, Maryland, the route would be the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath, now preserved as a national park. From Cumberland to McKeesport, I would be cycling on the GAP, The Great Allegheny Passage, which consists of railroad rights of way transfigured into a bicycle trail. I soon discovered a considerable body of literature about these trails and their earlier history. Beginning in the 1600s and continuing into modern times, as Mike High points out, Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania have struggled over “boundaries, canals, and railroads, and many of the disputes [have involved] the Potomac River valley.”
During the colonial period, struggles for domination over this mountainous territory pitted French against English and European against Native American. During the Civil War, the Potomac River was virtually the boundary between North and South, and some of the bloodiest fighting took place along its banks. Throughout much of the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth, this same region was the focus of attention as New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia vied for mastery of transportation routes between the seaboard and the territories that were developing west of the mountains.
The more I read, the more I knew that this was a journey I had to make. To read the rest of the story, click George Washington’s Rivers.