Clay, hard packed limestone, gravel, dual tracks with grass, and mud when it rains! For the longtime roadie that I am, satisfied only with the smoothest of pavements, a bicycle tour of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath, which follows the winding course of the Potomac River, will be an exercise in patience.
My bicycle is ready: a Waterford touring frame, fenders, and 700 by 32 randonneur tires. The challenge is for me, the rider, to adapt a lifetime of habits to the unique characteristics of this remarkable passage through the eastern mountains.
For inspiration, I am depending upon George Washington, my spiritual companion on this journey, whose travels along the Potomac River led to its development for commercial and industrial purposes. In 1784, when George made the trip, he was fifty-two and, says biographer Joel Achenbach, “on the cusp of a period of life when deterioration takes hold, when the power fades from the grip, the joints ache, and a strict daily routine becomes appealing.” His military career behind him and the presidency still to come, the patrician master of Mount Vernon headed west to promote his grand idea for his Potomac River.
Since the bicycle had not yet been invented, George had to do the next best thing. He was a superb horseman, having spent his lifetime traveling through the mountainous wilderness to the west—as surveyor, military genius, land speculator, and now as business entrepreneur.
“He traveled light,” Achenbach reports, “with only the provisions that any gentleman would require for a frontier expedition: two kegs of West Indian rum, tea, seven pounds of sugar, a fruity spirit called Cherry Bounce, Madeira and Port wine, oil, mustard, vinegar, and ‘Spices of all sorts.’” He also carried a tent, extra horseshoes, water, fine sheets, and silver cups and spoons. The baggage he sent ahead with three servants and three horses, while he and James Craik, his friend and companion for part of the journey, traveled together.
Their first miles were through tired tidewater land, ravaged and wasted by a century of tobacco culture, with many of its fields reverting back to forestland. The scattered dwellings they passed were primitive, and the taverns and public places little better. Although the population was growing and commerce was increasing, there were many signs of decay, which George would see. “He had to wonder, in his moments of doubt” Achenbach suggests, “if the world would improve over time—if order would eventually trump chaos.”
It is hard for modern travelers to imagine what passed for roads. Achenbach’s description notes that often they were tunnels in the vegetation, “diabolical combinations of holes, mires, and tree stumps…The more a road was traveled by horses and wagons, the more the surface became chewed up and rutted, and eventually the whole track would be lower than the surrounding terrain, ensuring that water would flow into it…Roads were not self-healing, and eventually the track through the woods would not really be a road at all, just a linear bog.”
During the 1800s, canals and their towpaths promised improved routes for travel. Water levels could be kept consistent and towpaths made it possible to use animal power to keep the boats moving through most of the year and in both directions. It is our good fortune that some of these routes through difficult terrain—such as the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal—have been preserved. They help us understand how America’s industrial prowess developed and why there was such a constant push for better roads throughout these early years of our nation’s rapid spread across the continent.
A bicycle journey along the C & O Canal can provide one more lesson for all who travel this quiet passage through the eastern mountains. It can increase our gratitude that sometimes the entrepreneurs and politicians lose the battle with Nature. Despite everything that he could do, the Father of our country and one of its wisest statesmen, misjudged what the Potomac could become. Its contorted course through the mountains and its sylvan topography were too much to overcome. Here, Nature’s passive resistance persisted and even yet, nearly four hundred years after early settlement, we still can see some of our world a lot like it used to be.
Bibliographical note: Quotations and the map of George Washington’s 1784 tour are taken from The Grand Idea: George Washington’s Potomac and the Race to the West by Joel Achenbach (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004).