Enter what's possibly the most isolated part of the trail. There is almost nothing in Appalachian Maryland. The remnants of what old canal towns used to be, for the most part. It's lovely, but do forget about contact with the outside world. The fifth day started great; a little cold, but the forecast was in the mid 60s so it was easy to forget about that. Had a peanut butter sandwich, my trail staple, and rode my 7 miles to actual breakfast. Stopped in this town named Oldtown where there was a restaurant, Schoolhouse Kitchen. In retrospect, the food wasn't all that great, but it was plenty good enough for an empty stomach. I did have my first real sweet tea since I last traveled back down south though, that was definitely a treat. This restaurant was actually located in the town's school. It had class portraits dating back to the 1920s. I spent some time looking at them; two things stood out to me: the same names coming back in cycles and the generational style changes, especially those from in between the 20s, 50s, 70s, and 90s. Some people at the restaurant told me I was the third cyclist of the season, only beaten by a day by some Virginia folks. Of course, my competitive alter ego had to come out and yell for a couple of seconds. In all reality it was reasonable since the previous day had been such a slow one.
I had my breakfast and set out to the next town. Not before long, I had the first eerie moment of the trip. There is a few tunnels in these two trails, but, of all those I crossed, worth noting is Paw-Paw tunnel. This one is a bit longer than half a mile. The light at the other side is dim and distant. It's damp and pitch black. The path is narrow. The walls are covered in brick and leak mountain juice, slowly dripping into puddles. It's not quite a scary place, but the perfect setting for a good prank. Just... eerie. I crossed it on foot; took about 10 minutes. Led to an in part man-carved valley that went for another mile before the canal crossed paths with the Potomac again.
Soon thereafter I had my trip's only flat. This was bad news at the time because, in my experience, when the flats start coming they don't stop coming. Luckily for me, this was not the case. I did my due diligence though; inspected the tire, removed all embedded sharps, and was careful enough to place the tube the way it was before patching it. Most cyclists I know usually swap tubes when they have flats, using patches as a temporary solution until they can get something better. I found over the years that patches act as a great buffer between the tire at the tear and the tube, protecting the latter against further objects lodging in if they are lined up properly. Alas, I didn't have a pressure gauge on me and I'm pretty sure my hand pump is only 60 PSI rated. Ideally, I would have liked to fall in the 80 to 90 range. I had a couple of CO2 cartridges, but figured an under-pressured tire was better than a blown up tire, so I just took it and continued biking. The takeout here is to carry a small gauge with me the next time.
I eventually made it to this town named Little Orleans. Stopped at a bar, Bill's Place. Pretty cool place. Hoping to get me a second taste of the south, I ordered some cole slaw. Unfortunately, the server got back to me with an "oh, honey, you ain't getting any cole slaw, I didn't make any today." JACKPOT! I thought. The server is the cook and makes the food daily. This is the kind of place I like, and I gotta say, the food didn't disappoint. I totally recommend this place to anyone doing this trail. Hope rebel flags and Trump signs don't bother ya though 😂
I managed to log another 15 miles before it got dark enough. I got to a campsite, but I was looking at my maps to figure out whether I wanted to attempt to make it to the next site. There were some people in this campsite already, and one of them must have thought I was hesitant because of it because she said it'd be fine if I wanted to stay. I did decide on staying... and also on starting a conversation after I had set up my tent. The weather was beautiful in this particular night. I didn't feel the need to go back in. I joined these peeps for dinner... they were ready for war... had cooking supplies, tons of food, the water supply figured out... I was getting my sad jar of PB out when they offered some food. They had cooked chili and I hadn't had any in a long time, so this I was definitely not hesitant to accept 😁. They even provided a bowl and everything! After talking for a bit, they told me they were from VCU in Richmond. "Huh, interesting..." I said. "I just met two lads from Virginia close to Pittsburgh a few of days back..." They all kind of stopped for a hot second in disbelief. "Victor and (jeez, and I still can't remember her name...)!" So yeah, small world. They confirmed they managed to pull off the century they were talking about; they crossed paths at Paw-Paw when they were headed to Cumberland (this group was doing a there and back from DC). They were seven out of which I can only remember three names: Kristen (Kristin?), Brenner, and Ava. They were in a leadership training program, so they were doing all sorts of funky exercises I thought were pretty funny. We all shot the shit for a bit and went to sleep.
Day five's breakfast was closer. I stopped in Hancock after the first three miles and after that enjoyed the first 10 miles of pavement. See, right along the C&O runs the Western Maryland Rail Trail for about 20 miles. I didn't know this at the time, but I happened to see it when I stopped and decided that I was going to enjoy smooth for a little bit before hitting the gravel again. Yeah, that might be cheating, but bear in mind that the goal was getting to DC by bike, and that I did. Trail was still pretty natural, but I started to see more and more history information signs as I got closer to DC, typically about the canal or the Civil War. One particularly caught my attention: the dam lieutenant general Stonewall Jackson tried to blow up to cut off the coal supply to DC.
I eventually made it to Williamsport for dinner. I walked into an Italian restaurant as the words "I declare a state of emergency" came out of President Trump's mouth. By this point I knew about class cancellations at Pitt, but I hadn't really been plugged in closely enough to know things had gotten this bad over the last few days. Before data started taking shape, I thought this... well, plague... wouldn't be a big deal outside of China after all. I actually didn't want to believe it, as I had summer travel plans to Japan and around half of the continent. Plans that are very likely going to have to be cancelled. At any rate, I was wrong. But life goes on. Had my dinner and hit the trail. I saw last night's folks one more time. They had run out of time and were making it back to one of the road accesses to meet their instructors to go back to Richmond. Talked to them for a few minutes before we said our farewells and continued on to what I thought was the next campsite.
It got cold that night. It took me a hot minute to get out of the sac in the morning of day six. At some point I did and, as I was packing up my tent, this cop showed up to tell me that I wasn't supposed to camp there, that it was actually a day use. I had actually got there pretty late, so I didn't pay all that much attention. The guy was nice enough to just let me know. It's funny though; there was no reason whatsoever for this guy to be there, in a day use in the middle of Nowhere, MD at that particular time. I'll leave it at that. This is the day I wanted to see the Antietam battlefield, but couldn't because I prioritized getting past it to get breakfast. This is the day I wanted to go see Harpers Ferry but couldn't because a derailed cargo train wrecked the foot bridge across the Potomac a couple of months prior. But, this is the day I got to ride on the Appalachian Trail for a bit (which I'm totally intending to walk all the way from Georgia to Maine one day). That counts for something, I'm sure.
Day seven started cold too. I had decided to camp at a place about a mile past Point of Rocks just because I had seen a small shop by the trail the night before. I backtracked a bit but learned that the place wouldn't open until 11. Waited though because there was almost nothing else in between Point of rocks and DC. Had a lot of food, some more to go after having a few conversations with the owner. I made it to Potomac (the town) at some point in the evening and camped close by. Nothing eventful happened in this day. I was planning to take an Amtrak Back to the Burgh™ the next day, so I tried to book an Airbnb to take a shower or otherwise get cleaned up before boarding, but I couldn't. Apparently everyone was freaking out about the sick down in DC, which added to the weirdness.
Day eight was a relatively short one. There is this thing people say some place I once belonged to. When something good is brief, it's twice as good. I can be okay with short, especially because the day didn't disappoint. I still had some leftover sandwich from the day prior, so I munched on that and got going. I did see something I set out to see in this leg, Great Falls. Great Falls is a section of the Potomac having rapids and waterfalls in short succession, much like the Yough does in Ohiopyle, but outside of Appalachia. This is what got me. There is some geography in this part of the country, but nothing other than what Denverites would call mounds at best. Nothing in the way of big ridges, monster hills, or gorgeous valleys like you would find in Pennsylvania or West Virginia. I learned this park sits on top of the Atlantic Seaboard Fall Line, the place where the Piedmont meets the coastal plain. The former is made up of bedrock and the latter of sedimentary rock, which is significantly softer. Over the years, the river eroded the sedimentary rock away, carving a lower course right outside of the fall line. Cool stuff. Olmsted island was an interesting ecosystem as well, worth spending an hour or two looking around.
In this last leg, no longer than 18 miles, is where I started seeing more people on trail. Puts things into perspective, as I never really though about DC as being in the middle of nowhere, but it definitely feels like that when you burn your own fuel to get there. Most people in this section where almost cheerleading my effort, as I visibly came from (at least) as far as Cumberland, given all the gear I was carrying. A few peeps engaged in conversation on my sandwich breaks. I was brought up to speed on the state of affairs in DC, learning that this was my last day to potentially eat at a restaurant. The city was shutting down because of Coronavirus outbreaks, much like most of the country would follow. I got to the Lincoln memorial right around noon. There was some people there, but not nearly as many as I would have expected to see under normal circumstances, bringing about the trip's second and final eerie moment. Being in the capital and it being empty surely feels like the apocalypse had happened in the eight days I was removed from civilization. Again, life goes on; I did a limited amount of tourism, lost my helmet, and caught my Amtrak, concluding my own personal Odyssey.