January 04, 2010

Rimey River

January 02, 2010

C&O Camping Trip No. 2: This One Ends in Failure

Over the next year, I'm going to try to camp at as many of the bike-in campgrounds at the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park as I possibly can. I already went once but didn't write about it.

There were plenty of reasons not to go camping today. Good reasons. Like the wind advisory that warned of "REPEATED SURGES OF ARCTIC ORIGIN AIR" or the Capital Weather Gang's forecast of "wind chills in the teens or 20s." Or the fact that I spent yesterday flying home from Scotland, where it was warmer.

But the thing is, I had planned this.

One of my worst attributes at home is one of my best attributes at work: If I plan something long enough, I have to get it done. Not done well, necessarily.

At 8:30 I headed out with about 25 pounds of gear on my bike, all on the rear wheel, because I still haven't managed to commit to a front rack. This is a stupid way to go on long rides under the best of conditions, but it's particularly moronic when there are patches of ice on the ground. Not only do you increase your risk of flat tires, but under the right conditions the back of your bike can fishtail. Whatever. My wife and kids are still overseas, and another chance to do something utterly selfish and stupid might not present itself for many months.

But there were only two patches of ice on the Virginia portion of my ride, which takes me along the Four Mile Run trail, then up the Mount Vernon trail to Memorial Bridge. I just walked along them, ringing my bell so the dozens of Canada geese that have laid claim to the area would scatter.

Far less manageable was the wind. This led me to an epiphany!

Cold is something you can deal with. I was exquisitely layered and even a little warm for the first 10 miles of my trip. There's not a lot you can do about wind though except hope for the best. Since I didn't make a New Year's resolution, I thought that a fine one would be to do a better job discerning which problems I could address and which I had to just try to muddle through.

A few minutes later I realized I'd just pedaled my way into the Alcoholics Anonymous Serenity Prayer.


I stopped at Fletcher's Boat House for a snack, then rode off the smooth and lovely Capital Crescent Trail and onto the C&O towpath. The hardpack gravel on the towpath is just one of the signs that this is a park that celebrates anachronism. Originally a trade route linking Cumberland, Md., to Washington, the canal lost what remained of its barge traffic in 1924. Flooding and disuse returned the canal to nature, but in 1938 the federal government bought the canal from B&O Railroad (which acquired the land through the bankruptcy of the C&O Canal Company) and began rehabilitating the area, a project that lost momentum during World War II.

The park's second great anachronism was that it was saved, in a roundabout way, by an editorial in the Washington Post. On Jan. 3, 1954, the paper threw its support to a plan to turn the land into a highway. (I haven't been able to dig up the item yet but will throw it up after I hit the microfiche.)

United States Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas took exception.

"It is a refuge, a place of retreat, a long stretch of quiet and peace at the Capitol's back door-a wilderness area where we can commune with God and with nature, a place not yet marred by the roar of wheels and the sound of horns," he wrote the paper. Then it got interesting.

"I wish the man who wrote your editorial of January 3, 1954, approving the parkway would take time off and come with me," Douglas wrote. "We would go with packs on our backs and walk the 185 miles to Cumberland."

Two months later, the author of the editorial, whose name I stupidly didn't write down when I saw it on a historical marker, and his editor (ditto) accompanied Douglas, the environmentalist Sigur F. Olson (who'd later help write the Wilderness Act), and 50 others on a trek through the canal grounds. They left Cumberland on March 20 and emerged in Georgetown eight days later.

Douglas was hardly John Muir--of his opinions, a 2003 Post book review that I found on an Arlington Cemetery fan site (don't laugh! Not every city has movie stars!) said "it's often hard to avoid the suspicion that they were scribbled on the back of a cocktail napkin." Douglas was a drinking man, but he was also a fabulist and a womanizer who kept secretary-and-flight-attendant-bonking quarters near the court. In another anachronism, it never seemed to occur to him that this behavior might menace his presidential ambitions.

But the hike worked. The Post turned, and in 1971, the strip of land that Douglas called "a refuge, a place of retreat, a long stretch of quiet and peace at the Capitol's back door" in his letter became a national park.

It's just over 30 square miles in total area but 185 miles long, and in almost every part of it I've been in you can see its east and west borders. Certainly in the lower portions at least, Douglas' reverie about a place "not yet marred by the roar of wheels and the sound of horns" is undercut by cars hauling ass on MacArthur Boulevard NW and later the Clara Barton Parkway a few hundred feet away.

It's also heavily used, at least the portions close to the District, where type-As jog in rain storms and, apparently, wind advisories. But not too many of them--until mile 14.3, where people can park and stroll in to see Great Falls.

By that point I was struggling--the trail was a lot icier than I'd expected, and I had to portage over a lot of it. Miles 10-12 were particularly grim. Getting to mile 26, where I wanted to camp at Horsepen Branch, was looking ever more challenging.

At 1  I stopped to eat lunch near the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center, planting myself on a bench that overlooked a sign warning that there was to be no trespassing on the U.S. government land behind it. On an overlook I saw a dam of some sort behind the sign, but I don't know if that's what was protected. Certainly there are weird little structures in this part of the park, like a concrete box rising like a submarine periscope in one of the parts of the canal that still has water in it, or another that looks suspiciously like a vent for an underground structure closer to D.C.

For the first time,  I thought seriously about turning back. The cough I'd perfected in Scotland wasn't responding to the fresh air the way I'd hoped, and despite the slow pace the trail was forcing on me, I figured I'd get to Horsepen Branch by 3 at the latest, which left what might be an agonizing period of not much to do but lie in my tent reading Don Quixote and hoping the wind didn't blow me into Germantown in the night. Moreover, I'd had an irritating equipment failure--my front derailleur had stopped lifting the chain onto the big ring, so on the rare occasions I encountered a stretch of path I could really wail on, I had to stop and move the chain by hand.

I decided to continue up to Swains Lock, where I'd camped a couple months ago, have a conceptually satisfying cup of coffee, and decide what to do next.

Before I turned into the campground, I peered at the trail ahead, which was covered in ice as far as I could see. I nevertheless went down near the river and set up my camp stove, a tiny Esbit that may not ever cook me a chicken but does a marvelous job heating pans of water and canned chili. When I was waiting for a ride home from Dulles the day before, I'd called REI to see if it was open--I wanted to make sure I had enough fuel for the Esbit. It was, even though it was New Year's Day (USA! USA!), and in a clearance rack I'd found a to-go cup that doubled as a french press. I also bought a sharp orange match case; my strike anywhere matches, I figured, wouldn't need the box, a weight savings of potentially 1 gram.

This was not a smart move. The wind was really picking up by now, and the only non-wet surfaces at Swains Lock were on the iron fire rings, which tended to remove 10-12 match heads for every one it ignited, briefly, only to be gusted out before I could get the Esbit cube going. When I'd blown through all but three of the matches in the orange case, I settled on a new resolution, one I'm more comfortable with as I get older: Plans can change.

September 16, 2008

Cleaning, Overhaul, Pain

Overhaul! It's redneck for "take apart, put back together, and hope to hell it's nearly as good as before you started."

So I took the bike apart. Then I cleaned it using Simple Green and Mother's Mag & Aluminum Polish. You know what? It looked better, but not noticeably.

Next I overhauled the headset. I'd never done it before, but I had a book! This is when the pain started.

You'll notice there are no photos of the overhaul. I was able to clean and lube the headset (that's the part on the front that lets you turn the fork smoothly).

But the problem is I have a cheap bike-repair stand. And you have to put your bike upside down to put the fork back in.

So I'm down in the basement at this point, and my bike is upside down on the repair stand, and the kids are napping, and I'm not BELIEVING how much stuff I'm getting done. I've just put the fork back in, and I hear my oldest son coming down the stairs. I turn to answer his plaintive calls, and as I do the stand loses control. The bike swings down and CLONKS me on the elbow. Blood--EVERYWHERE! OK, mostly on my elbow, but it hurt like the dickens. Ewa thought I should go to the doctor. Doctor!

Nothing a trip to CVS, where the wound-care section is disturbingly large, couldn't handle. And you know, it still kinda hurts sometimes when I lean on it.

I have since finished the bike. But I will try to continue the story first.

July 28, 2008

Stripped Frame

Took almost everything off the Nashbar on Friday while watching Superman Returns. I didn't even know he was gone! Some nice surprises here--I thought I'd have to overhaul the bottom bracket, but it's a sealed one, a Stronglight. The stem is a Nitto Technomic, and the handlebars are the right diameter for the inverse brake levers I want.

Haven't gotten the headset off yet for its overhaul, just due to time. I'm hoping to get the bike finished before Superman returns again.

I feel like I must explain all the crap in the background. We're trying to move some stuff out of our basement via Craigslist. I sold my Bianchi Avenue yesterday. It was bittersweet. I realize that's coming close to showing emotion, about a bike of all things, so I'll just leave it at that.

July 25, 2008

Nashbar Treasure

All I wanted was a Brooks saddle for my Surly. My friend Joe had one, attached to a bike he wasn't using, and he offered to sell me the whole thing. Because I am an idiot, I bought it. Because I am an idiot, I thought I'd try to turn everything but the Brooks into a fixed-gear bike.

Yes, it's a Nashbar. Contain your envy. That's one of my favorite things about the bike. I figure the only way this could be less fashionable is if it had been handed out as swag at the 1976 Republican convention.

I'm naming this bike's aesthetic "false moustache" after the knockoff handlebars. It is what will guide me while choosing components. I've already made a couple decisions. The frame's too big for me anyway, so I bought some 700cc wheels on eBay and am ditching the 27-inchers. Riding a frame that's too big for you is never a good idea, but, with few exceptions, neither is a false moustache.

These dropouts are gonna work perfectly.



It's a pretty nice frame. The flash makes it look like it's rusted through, but it's really just in need of a good clean and polish. I've ridden it to and from work a couple times, and I'm enjoying the dirty looks I've been getting from lobbyists on carbon-fiber Treks. I'm going to try to make this an all-around city bike, with a singlespeed freewheel on one side of the rear hub so I can tow my kids around in the Burley without worrying about killing us all. So, the brakes, which will fit the smaller wheels, will stay.

Tomorrow I'm gonna strip it down and start cleaning and overhauling the lucky parts that are staying.

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May 17, 2008

2K on the Surly

This past October, a month after my second son was born, I bought a new bike. The Bianchi was a great start, but I wanted more and finally settled on a touring bike. I didn't know much about the mechanics of bikes at the time, so I decided to buy a complete bike. I thought about the Trek 520 and a couple others, but I finally decided on the Surly Long Haul Trucker because my bike shop actually had one in stock to try. Most touring bikes you need to special order, and then if you don't like it, things could get awkward.

I love the Surly. It has 26-inch wheels, so when you load it up with panniers or a kid in a seat or a trailer or what-have-you, it feels even better. Under the tutelage of my coworker Darrow Montgomery, I've moved away from what I guess you could call an REI aesthetic (hideous rain jacket in this photo aside) to one more informed by people like Chris Kulczycki at Velo Orange, who sells bike parts that invoke a golden age of touring cycles. That may or may not be real; I'm always suspicious of nostalgia but the important thing is that he sells really nice stuff.

One frustration with the Long Haul Trucker is its extreme geometry. I bought some fenders a few months ago from Wallingford Bicycle Parts, and they're just beautiful, a key component of my transformation to gentleman cyclist. And I cannot get the goddamn things on to save my life. I've spent God knows what on brackets, etc., and countless hours trying to get them right. I know a lot more about how bikes work and can perform basic maintenance but these freakin' fenders were way beyond my weight class. I should have just bought the plastic ones from Rivendell, but now pride is involved and I am going to pay someone to install them.

Last weekend I changed the handlebar tape to cork, which I whipped with hemp twine at the ends and then shellacked. It came out pretty nice.

And yesterday I rode my 2000th mile on the Surly. You can see here the beautiful spot where this occurred.

I ride pretty much every day, no matter the weather, though I make exceptions for snow and ice, which I'm not comfortable with yet, and high winds, which are depressing. Since I started riding a year and a half ago, I've lost weight, developed legs like bridge cables, and started eating better. It's the best thing that's happened to me since I met Ewa and the births of our two kids.

In the next year I hope to start doing some long-distance touring. My buddy Mark Nelson and I have talked about riding to Richmond next time he's back East, and I'd really like to ride from one end of Britain to the other. Time, time, time. Maybe someday. But the corollary of time is distance, and at least I can achieve that, albeit in 20-mile bursts.

April 30, 2008

The Long View

I hate working late. Unfortunately, I've chosen a career that often requires me to be at work at unreasonable hours. Fortunately, I ride my bike to work. And some nights I remember to stop after I cross Memorial Bridge and take in the view. It's really quite remarkable to see this vista every day. I hope I never stop appreciating it.

(I mostly blog at work these days. Here's where to find me.)