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Monday, July 22, 2019

Scotland 2019

"Travel isn't always pretty.  It isn't always comfortable.
Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that's 
okay. The journey changes you; it should change you.
It leaves marks on  your memory, on your consciousness,
on your heart, and on your body.  You take something with you.
Hopefully, you leave something good behind."
Anthony Bourdain 

I don't know why I have this strange desire to go ride a bicycle in Scotland.  There are so many places here in this country that I have not seen.  They would be cheaper and easier to visit. There are so many other countries that I have not visited. I have been to Scotland before. My first memory of Scotland is from when I was a child visiting a farm on holiday with my parents.  The memory is not a pleasant one but one of cold, indifference from the farm wife when I became ill (the woman would not give me so much as a slice of bread since I was ill at supper time and missed the meal) and of fear when the next day a goose scared that dickens out of me, chasing and pecking me with her bill.  The second visit was as a mother when I did a quick drive through visit with the children. We did get to see some of Edinburgh and watch the Tattoo.  Perhaps it is the breathtaking scenery during this drive that draws me.  But for whatever odd reason, I want to return.

I have been through Hospice  three times since the end of 2014.   I have lost my husband, my mother, and my brother. I don't complain.  There are those that have lost more.  Death, inevitably, is a part of life.  But as I tell a friend, the loss that has laced my life has taught me that if there are things I want to do, I need to begin doing them and doing them now.  Time is a thief, illness pounces unexpectedly,  and I suspect that as the end nears and our abilities diminish, the biggest regrets are those things that we did not do as well as those things we did that caused others pain rather than joy.  During last moments with my husband, mother, and brother some themes from each were constant despite their varying lives, and one of the strongest was regret for things that had caused pain to others. 

Somehow I know Lloyd would be happy that I am doing this, venturing forth and exploring. He was the one who urged me to go to France for Paris-Brest-Paris. He was the one who came to my first road race. He was the one who sat waiting when I completed my first triathlon.  He was the one who bought me my first bike as an adult and urged me to try new things.  Even in death, memories of things he said encourage and support me though he can no longer hold me or pick me up when I make the wrong decision and fail, something that happens quite regularly I might add. Yes, I have lost many of those I love, but I am grateful for each of them and what they meant to me.  I am grateful for the memories with which they laced my life and of the lessons that they helped me learn.

Instead of Scotland, there are balconies overlooking oceans in warm lands where I could go and sit with a glass of wine in hand and read a novel, another favorite passtime.  There are beaches that beg for bare feet to leave an imprint and shells waiting to be found and examined. There are cruises to exotic places with strange names geared to tourists and pleasure.   But there it is, weird as always,  I  have the desire to go to Scotland, the land of Mary, Queen of Scots, and her Lord Bothwell, characters that have intrigued me since I was a child and read how she was outsmarted by Queen Elizabeth.  I fear my father was right and I am a dreamer.  I don't forget the look of disgust on his face when he said this, but I forgive him.  I can't help who I am, but he could not help who he was. And yet, death has taught me that for all our differences, we are kin. "Blood is a sacred poison."  (I can't remember who to attribute that quote to) And no, so far as I know having never done genetic testing,  I have not one drop of Scot blood in my veins. Native American, Italian, German, and English, or so I have been told from family lore.

During the cold of the Indiana winter, I begin delving into information on the internet on bicycling in Scotland and tentatively decide on a company:  Wilderness Scotland.  They have numerous options to choose from and I actually contemplate the possibility of a walking tour rather than a bicycling tour. Originally I even toy with the idea of just going unsupported, using a company for routes to follow but riding on my own; however, I am concerned about whether I would have cell service and whether I would feel safe traveling alone. What if I have a serious mechanical that I can't fix?  What if I get hopelessly lost?  What if I take a tumble and get injured and there is nobody there to help? All of the anxieties that  haunt me when I diverge from my familiar paths. All of the fears that have conscripted my life at various points and against which I have had to fight relentlessly. At some point in this process, I don't really remember when, Amelia Dauer expresses some interest in going with me.  I do know it is before I have paid any money or made any travel arrangements as she actually does most of the work in that area. And perhaps, despite my  trepidation at having a traveling companion and the obligations that brings along with it, that spurs me onward.  Dreams do, indeed, need foundations to become more than dreams.

Amelia truly does most of the work arranging flights and places to stay.  Apparently, we have waited rather longer than is recommended for planning such an adventure.  Buying an airline ticket appears to be much like buying a car.  There is never just a price.  This is what we will take for that car or that flight. We get a better deal on a flight by renting a car that we will never pick up or use along with the flight, something that still makes no sense to me. Eventually, however,  it is planned out.  We both are going to London for a couple of days, then to Inverness where we will spend a day before the ride starts, and then the bicycle ride with Wilderness Scotland from Inverness to Edinburgh.   We then will fly back to London and I will fly home from there while Amelia will remain to do additional touring for a few days.

When we arrive in Inverness after a brief stay in London and awaken to go exploring, one of the first things that happens is that a bird decides to poop on me getting both my sweat shirt and my jeans.  Luckily, much of it misses me, but there is enough on me that I  go back to the room and change.  The inn keeper laughs as I tell him and then informs me I need to buy a lottery ticket, something I don't quite understand as he seems quite serious.  I later Google it and find it is a Russian belief, or at least that is what the internet says.  My daughter-in-law is from Siberia and did not mention it when I e-mailed what had happened, but who knows?  She may have been too busy laughing.  In other words, yes, a bird pooping on you is supposed to mean good luck is coming your way.  I don't buy a lottery ticket, but I hope that good luck finds me.

It is just too much to talk about London or much about Inverness, but I have to mention it because of being pooped upon. I must really be lucky.  You see, after we meet our guides for the tour, Tim and Scott,  and go to the Culloden battlefield to have bikes fitted, I find that my assigned bike also has been pooped upon.  I am beginning to feel targeted;-) They don't have wet wipes.  Luckily, I do normally carry some and that day was no exception.  I clean my handlebars and try it out.  The rental bike is a black Trek, a 49c rather than the 50c I normally ride, but it shifts flawlessly and feels feather light after my bike which is always packed with all the tools and repair items I think I might need while exploring on my own.  Amelia, who actually normally rides a smaller bike then me, is assigned a larger bike.  I offer to trade but she says that she will be fine and, as it turns out, she is. The bikes are equipped with a large front bag as well as a water proof carrier that one can put wallets and cameras and phones in to keep them dry.  We are told by the guides, Tim and Scott, that we also will have opportunities to place things into the van or get them out of the van throughout the day.  Briefly I think that it was, perhaps, a mistake not to bring my own saddle, but with the shorter mileage it turns out okay.  Another rider suffers a saddle sore, but my own butt remains fine throughout.

The first days ride is from the Culloden Battlefield to Grantown-on-Spey.  The strange names of the towns we visit and pass through are hard to remember, unfamiliar, slightly exotic.  Amelia and I almost miss the lunch stop.  Two other riders do miss the stop and the guides scramble to find them. I find I do best if I have them spell the town names, but still I forget and could easily have ridden by a stop. It is hard to get used to riding on a different side of the road, and this is particularly apparent at turns and round abouts. 

The Scottish scenery does not disappoint.   I find I can't get enough of it and even before the ride ends I know I would love to return. We ride for seven days through the Highlands down to the Lowlands and into Edinburgh.  The oldness impresses me.  For some reason, I normally prefer the old to the new.  I have a spoon my grandmother cooked with that I treasure.  My mother's silver hair brush and comb with the broken tooth. Stone cottages, walls, and bridges are everywhere.  Growth is lush and green from the wet and cooler temperatures. Some vegetation seems familiar, but some does not.  I learn that the yellow flowers are eggs and bacon enduring Tim's chuckle when I mistakenly call them bacon and eggs. Scott later laughs after telling us about faffing when I call if falafeling.  Their grins make me smile because they are kindly. 

  One day, before we leave the Highlands, we face an 8 mile climb with some 20 per cent grades.  I stop repeatedly throughout the rides to take photos, though not during the climb because of the dense fog and wanting to climb without stopping.  It would just seem wrong to stop, as if I were cheating.  It is a delicious climb and despite the length and grade, I am glad I have a wool base layer.  It is raining  and the mist is so thick that I can't see how far it is to the top.  I worry a bit about safety because of the density of the mist. Scott is waiting at the top and laughs when I giggle and ask if we can do the same climb tomorrow.  What a glorious feeling it is cresting a tough climb! I feel cheated on the winding descent, taken at a snail's pace due to the fog and the switch backs.  The climb itself reminds me of night riding during brevets where you climb and your light does not extend far enough ahead to tell if you have a little or lot of climb left or where you judge by the little red light from someone else's bike in front of you but I swear I have descended faster even in pitch blackness.  Near the bottom we turn into a quaint restaurant in the middle of nowhere to have lunch.  Everyone jokes about the short steep climb up to the restaurant.  Again I am reminded of brevets.  The Kentucky brevets start at a motel that has a very short hill that seems mountainous at the end of a 600K.  There are egg salad sandwiches and ham sandwiches with butter, dishes I remember from my youth.  The hot chocolate is rich and filling.  I switch to the dry socks I stowed in my handlebar bag to warm my feet. It feels nice when Tim compliments Amelia and me saying we are strong riders.

While I have worried about whether I was fit enough for the ride, Amelia and I are among the fittest riders and it is not a problem to stop for photos and then catch up.  Amelia tells me she never worried about whether she was fit enough, and I think of Lloyd telling me that if I said I was good at something, he knows to call the Olympics committee. Indeed, even if we were not as fit as we currently are, the guides repeatedly remind us that it is not a race and that we should stop when we like and take photos.  At one point, Scott and I do have a good romp where I was able to stretch my legs, but by that time we have left the Highlands and I am not so concerned about the scenery.  It felt good to use my legs and my lungs and to ride hard.  It is pretty at places in the Lowlands, but not breathtaking like the Highlands.  In the Highlands, I can believe in fairies and ogres and dwarfs, and  unicorns. I can see Lord Bothwell galloping, his horse's mane and tail streaking wildly behind in the wind. I see old backs, bent with years, faces carved by wind and rain, carrying hay to feed the Scottish cattle with their long forelocks or toiling in fields.  As we enter the lowlands, we see potato field after potato field: a crop I had not associated with Scotland. 

The guides, Tim and Scott, take turns.  Each rides a day or two then drives a day or two. At the start of each day, the plans and roads for the day are discussed.  I never have trouble understanding Scott and only had trouble understanding Tim once when he was talking with someone at a tea stop and they were conversing at a rapid pace.  Amelia said she struggles with the accents.  Perhaps because I spent a year living in England as a child and did visit Scotland?  I have heard that the brain screens language sounds that we don't hear or use as we age.  Indeed, I find the sound of both the Scottish and British accents soothing and melodic, almost comforting.  But remembering the names and spellings of the places we pass through is almost impossible for me. My memory, however, is becoming increasingly problematic, even at home.  Nothing to be done about it for I am growing old.

There are times when I stop and talk to people who are out in their  yards because it interests me to see how other people live.  The one man compliments the American Women's Soccer Team.  He makes me laugh when he said that if the men get hurt, they lay on the ground and cry, but  the women suck it  up and keep playing.  I learn he and his wife are staying there in his son's cottage for awhile helping out.  He is unable to help me with my mortaring question as it is not his home and he does not do the maintenance.  Another time, during a stop to photograph a Scottish cow,  I meet someone from Iceland who responds to my teasing by saying the door to his house is open if I want to visit.  Another man I talk to has three rescue dogs and has just moved to this part of Scotland.  He explained that the plastic tubes I see have trees inside and the tubing is to protect the trees from the deer.  He said he has not yet seen any deer, but he suspects they will come down from the mountains in the fall for the rut.  He talks about the many birds and he and I discuss the seagulls living so far from the sea.  Like me, he is a bit bewildered. He says that this has amazed him and his wife. Earlier that day I had spied a whole flock of them in a hay feet that had been recently bailed.  Crows and other birds also abound.  He and his wife enjoy feeding the birds and have numerous feeders handing.  I would have like to have talked more, but do not want to hold the group up so I move on.

One thing that interests me during rides or on walks through the villages is that not once are we chased by dogs.  I see numerous dogs throughout the trip, often not on leashes.  All appear so well trained, responding immediately when owners call.  I see not one pit bull, the dog that has become so common in the Kentucky/Indiana countryside.  I get the impression that here dogs are family members that provide companionship and love whereas at home the pit bulls are more about protection. For whatever reason, it impresses me.  I do intend to get a dog one day when my traveling is done, and it definitely will NOT be a pit bull.  During one conversation with a local, I ask about his sheep dog and if he works the sheep with them. He tells me that he does not, they are rescue dogs from the shelter and have no training. 

During the rides, we stop at various places for lunch and for tours.  We have drinks and snacks outside a castle.  We stop for a tour of a whiskey making facility  and have a picnic that Scott prepared (I could not participate in the tour as the smell of the malt made me nauseous so my vow to take a sip of whisky for the first time in my life was not fulfilled). To me the smell is an angry, dark smell, absolutely repellent, and I wonder why for others love it.  We tour Balmoral Castle and Glamis and other places. Some I have read about and some not.  I think it is fascinating how interests vary.  One man on the trip, John, says if you have seen one castle you have seen them all.  His interests lie elsewhere.  Me, I could stop at each and every one and go exploring.  I dream about what it must have been like to live here, now and 500 years ago.  At one point, I tell the guides that anyone who lived in the Highlands must have been strong, for the weak would not have survived.  They agree. Even with modern heating, I suspect many of the dwellings are cold, drafty,  and damp in the wintertime. The weather is great for riding as it is so cool, but never really gets hot.  The sun flirts with us, but never truly shines for any length of time.  Rain and mist taunt us throughout. Like home, proper riding clothing is essential for comfort, but the packing list they provided was good and I am never truly cold or hot.

At night we rest at quaint motels where the beds are surprisingly comfortable and, as per my last European visit, I struggle with figuring out the plumbing.  At one inn, you had to turn the shower on from outside of the bathroom.  (By the time we figured this out I had given in and taken a bath instead of a shower, something I don't normally do in hotels).  As I tell Amelia, it is an IQ test and normally I fail.  Meals are taken late.  Normally we were seated at 7:00 or so.  Then the food appears a half hour or so later.  I find I am distressed at the change in my routine.  I don't like to eat so late or to go to bed on a full stomach.  I miss the rhythm of Texas Hell Week where we would spend the day riding, shower, eat, and go to bed to ride again.  If nothing else, this trip makes me realize things about myself:  some good and some bad.  My inflexibility is one of these things and certainly is not a strength.  Amelia is more fluid and adaptable and I admire that trait even while not emulating it, but then she is sleeping well and I am not.  Still, I feel sorry for her having to room with me.  Both of us are used to lots of alone time, and while we get some of that on the bike, we get little in the rooms we briefly stay in.  Perhaps lack of sleep plays a role and perhaps it does not.  Most nights I sleep a mere three or four hours.  This remains an issue throughout my time away from home.  Still, I fear it is my personality more than anything else.  Amelia does point out that it is always light here.  It does not get dark until late, 10 or so, and by 4:00 a.m. it is daylight again.  Indeed, a few days I got up and went out for a walk because I was up and breakfast did not open until 7:00 a.m. or later.

As the trip ends, I realize that there is a beauty in this lifestyle and wish I had been able to develop more of an appreciation.  I am disappointed in myself for not being able to better manage being outside of my comfort zone.  Dinner is, perhaps, supposed to be an experience, a time to relax and share company and stories, for filling the mind as well as the belly.  Shops should, perhaps, close at 5:00 p.m. Different is just different, perhaps, not better and not worse. Perhaps the lack of fast food in the small villages we pass through and stay in account for the lack of litter because I see very little trash alongside the roads.  Sometimes during the trip, however, I feel like all I am doing is eating. Yet somehow, and I truly don't see how it is possible, I don't gain weight during the trip, something I was sure would happen.  Indeed, out of curiosity, once I get home, I google the requirements to immigrate to Scotland, but of course I am old, unskilled, and not rich so would not be wanted there other than as a visitor. But perhaps I did leave something there, a bit of myself, in the remarks I made to our guides and to the random strangers that I stopped to have a conversation with. I certainly brought home memories, many more than I could ever recount in this blog post, memories that will make me smile and make me cry and make me feel.  Hopefully, I also learned a few things and will be a better, more receptive traveler in the future, for I intend to visit more places. Perhaps one day I will even be lucky enough to return to Scotland again.

One thing that surprises me throughout the trip is how much, for some reason, it makes me miss Lloyd.  It is almost as if I just lost him again, as if he is here and if I just turn quickly enough I would see him, hear him making some smart ass remark that would stretch a smile across my face and a giggle to arise from my stomach.  As I ride, he haunts me repeatedly and I ache with longing for the sight, sound, touch, and smell of him.  As I ride I realize that a part of me will die when I am no longer able to do this, to ride roads and feel the wind, to soak up scenery and to dream unfettered and I am so grateful for my health and for bicycles and for Scotland. And again I am thankful to my husband because he bought me my first bicycle, a gift I had no desire for at the time. (Silly me).  And in a sense, he gave me this trip, this adventure, and these new memories.  Thank you, love.  I am going to have so much to tell you about when we meet again. 

Thursday, May 30, 2019

C & O and Gap Trail: A Good Time

"I would rather die of 
passion than of boredom."
Van Gogh

I quiver at the thought of my upcoming adventure for I have been asked to ride the C & O Trail and Allegheny Gap Trail by some friends who were asked by people I have not met.  I decide to go for it. Life has been rather routine and boring lately, and while boring is sometimes good and comfortable it is sometimes not healthy; it will be wonderful to break out of the rut indulging my passion:  bicycling. It appears there will be a group of six, two that I know fairly well and three, including the planner and ride captain,  who are unknown to me.  Jeff Carpenter, someone I have not met before, appears to have done the main planning though others have contributed, renting rooms for us to stay in, arranging side trips.  The arrangement is for Amelia and I to drive to Pittsburgh in one car while the other four drive together in a separate vehicle.  From there, we will take a shuttle Jeff arranged through a bicycle shop to Washington D.C. where our exploration will begin the following morning.  We will ride to our cars in Pittsburgh and then drive home. 

The first decision to make, other than tagging along, is which bicycle to take:  the Surly or my mountain bike.  Amelia is taking her mountain bike, but I decide I have ridden my Surly on some pretty significant gravel with no problems and I handle it better than my mountain bike so I will take it.  I depend upon Bob Peters at Clarksville Schwinn to help me with a rack after reading that the Surly I have is a bit difficult to put a rack on due to the disc brakes.  He also helps me to decide which panniers will best suit my needs though I decline his first suggestion due to their diminutive size and am later very glad I did.  Michael Ragan or Mark Phillips, I can't remember which, offer to loan me some panniers, but I heed the advice of  old Polonius, "Neither a borrower nor a lender be."  I think I will use them for more than this journey and I also don't want to worry that I might ruin them, particularly since I don't really know Michael or Mark.  This is followed by the decision on what to take, and I find that I really don't take much that I don't end up using at some point.  Score one for me, the over-packer.  At one point, Michael tells me that this is his weakness as well. 

I do worry about the gearing for any climbs as I know my bicycle will be much heavier than normal and I don't know the route and I also worry about my ability to keep up for I don't know Michael, Mark, or Jeff and how they ride.  I do know that Michael is coming off of a bike accident that involved a broken rib so has not been able to ride as much as he might have liked to prepare.  I hope that I am not a burden, and as it turns out the gearing is fine and keeping up is not an issue.  That being said, it may be at the end of the ride they were saying, "Dear God, we are so glad to get rid of her."  I'll never know.  But on Saturday, May 18th, 2019 I get up very early, drive to Amelia's home as we are taking her car, and the adventure begins.  After a long drive, including getting slightly lost in Pittsburgh and thus avoiding traffic we might otherwise have faced, we arrive at the garage just a few minutes prior to the guys.  The driver is waiting.  All of us grab our bags and our bikes to load for the trip to D.C.  The loading itself is problematic but the conundrum is solved and we are on our way.

I am keen for the adventure to begin and to be free of a gas powered vehicle, but the drive from Pittsburgh to Washington D.C. is not bad and gives all of us a chance to get to know each other a bit.  Jeff White, Jeff Carpenter, Amelia Dauer, Mark Phillips, and I met once previously to discuss the trip, but this is the first time I remember meeting Michael Ragan face to face.  Meeting people is difficult for me as I am not particularly vocal and always feel rather socially awkward, but before the end of the van ride the teasing has started and I begin to relax a bit. They tell a funny tale of a misunderstanding based on Mark's accent and the word hall and I am laughing. 

"I hope," I think, "that they like me or at least do not dislike me."  "I hope," I think,"that I like them or at least do not dislike any of them." I know I have a strong personality and that there are some who don't care for me because of this.  Paul says I can be bossy at times and I know he is right.  But as my mom often told me, "Not everyone is going to like you. Accept it and go on."  In fact, she herself did not care for the strength of my personality and tried, unsuccessfully, to change me into the lady she hoped I would become. By my age, however, most people have come to accept their personalities while still trying to be better people.  We rein ourselves in as best we can, but we cannot change our essence.  Are we more or less forgiving of ourselves with age?  This question haunts me as I have sat with those I loved and lost as they readied for and then moved onto the next plane.  The questions they ask?  The similarities in feelings and regrets.  Often, I think, in emphasizing our differences, our need to be special, we forget our similarities or that others are special as well. 

We arrive at the hotel and there is a large wedding reception taking place.  Guests mill about in fancy dresses.  It emphasizes my slovenliness as I have brought nothing I did not anticipate wearing on the trip, but at least I am not alone. We check in and wait for what seems to be ages prior to snagging an elevator for our ride up to our rooms.  We then meet for dinner and to discuss our morning plans, a trend that will continue throughout the trip.  We decide to leave early for "The Tour de Mark" as Mark has put together a route through the National Mall in D.C. before we head to the trail.  Four of us take a short walk after a rather mediocre dinner and then head to bed.

In the morning, prior to heading out, Michael starts his day with a flat tire.  Trying to insert air into his tire, he instead lets it all out.  But we are not delayed long before we begin.  It will not be the first mechanical we run into during our journey and is easily fixed.  He then finds that the camera he brought is not working.  I am disappointed for him.

I am interested to see how I ride with the panniers as I have always ridden with a carradice or a rear rack bag.  I did a short trial run at home, but it was very short.  Time just sneaked by me while I was engaged in other things.  I am surprised to find that I really think it is easier than either the carradice or the rear rack bag despite weighing so much more, I assume because the load is evenly balanced and has a lower center of gravity.  If I ever do PBP or a 1200 K brevet again, something I find unlikely though possible, I will consider panniers.  My bike is heavy though, so heavy that it is difficult to pick it up off the ground. Standing while riding still requires a bit of adjustment as I grasp for handling familiarity.  But gradually I become comfortable with the set up and how it rides.  With the weight, despite some beastly squeaking, I am glad I have disc brakes.  I remember touring on my road bike with a loaded carradice and how it was difficult to stop on descents.  That being said, I expect there will be little descending on this route and I am correct. Other than the detour, it is essentially a flat ride. 

As we leave, I think how this reminds me of when Steve Rice, Dave King, Bill Pustow, and I would ride into Paris a couple of days before PBP to have lunch and just to look around.  There are many times during the trip when I think of the trips I have done with other friends:  not better, not worse, just different.  I still see Dave at club centuries, but I have not seen Steve or Bill for the longest time. I miss them, but know that our paths have diverged and may or may not join together again in the future. Things change. As Narayana Murthy says, "Growth is painful. Change is painful. But nothing is as painful as staying stuck where you do not belong." I know Jeff is doing the same when he later talks about his travels with Mike "Sparky" Pitt and Jim "Grizzly" Moore.

Despite having seen many of the D.C. monuments and such while visiting my son who lives in Annapolis, I find myself thoroughly enjoying the sights Mark has put together.  At one point, it becomes hysterically amusing when two young, lovely, Chinese women grab Jeff White and begin taking selfies with him, pertly chattering and smiling the entire time, posing one on each side. My amusement fades a bit as I find I am their next victim, (odd how things are sometimes funnier when they happen to other people) but it is all in good fun and I find I am laughing, deeply laughing, for the first time in what seems to be eons.   They then move on to Amelia.

 I can't wipe this smile from my face as Jeff gets teased and the tour continues.  All of us seem to be eagerly anticipating the next few days and what they will bring. There is a graduation going on and we pass an attractive girl wearing a figure hugging white dress that has a triangle missing from the back with the tip reaching up to the middle of her bottom.  This dress shouts "SEX" and I think how my mother would have locked me in my bedroom before she let me out of the house wearing something like this despite my growing up in the age of short shorts and halter tops.  Plus, I never was built like that.  Music is playing and the mood is festive, but it is time to get our on way for we have miles to cover to get to Leesburg, Virginia, our first stop. I try to remember if that is where the 1000K Brevet I did in Virginia started.  I "think" so, but I remain unsure.  My memory does not hold to names of cities and the like, but I could tell you about the excitement in the air as we lined up outside waiting for the event to start, darkness still laying claim to the world.  I could tell you about the sounds and the smells.  But I could not tell you the name of the city.

I find it is beautiful along the canal though the trail is rougher and not as well maintained as I expected.  The water is still but for some reason does not smell.  Green moss covers it in patchily in places and heavily in others and I think how it is like a green, Chantilly lace tablecloth that is no longer serviceable yet somehow retains its beauty.  We pass a lock house, white washed and solitary, alone alongside the canal.    This is the first of many lock houses, though only at the start are they consistently white washed.  Some of the lock houses later in the ride are a beautiful, rich red.  I am told that the stones came from a nearby quarry and that we will pass the quarry, but somehow I miss it.  One lock house is open and the people who stayed there the previous night allow us to look around and tell us briefly about their night there:  no electricity, bed mattresses pulled off rope supports to the bottom floor as it was cooler on that level. 

At one point I see a white crane or egret, lazily standing one legged in the murky waters.  I wonder how one tells the difference between the two and learn that it is in the beak, neck, and legs, but I am not observant enough to remember.  Egrets symbolize strength and patience while cranes represent happiness.  I wish for both strength and happiness on this trip, and my prayer is answered.   I pass turtles drowsily sunning themselves on rocks, occasionally slipping into the water as we pass leaving only a slight ripple in the water to mark their passage.  What looks to be yellow Japanese iris is growing on the banks in spots. Later in the ride it is joined by purple. Everything is green, lusciously and richly green.  The blackberries are in bloom and in places their delicate, tiny white pedals have settled across the path. An elusive floral scent haunts the trail, and I don't know if it is from the blackberries or some other vegetation that is in bloom. Honeysuckle is surprisingly absent. My mind likes the smell, but my allergies don't. I ask if mules pulled the barges remembering a song from elementary school, "I've got a mule and her name is Sal, 15 miles on the Erie canal."  I am told yes. I soon learn to ask the man from New Zealand, Mark, if I have a question about American history.

What would it have been like to be the lock keeper or the lock keeper's wife?  Would you be isolated and alone like the light house keeper and his mate if he was lucky enough to find someone to share his lonesome solitude, or was there more human interaction for the lock keeper and his wife due to the barge traffic?  Did they worry about the children falling into the canal as they ran in the front yard, little legs pumping, breath steaming, laughter trailing like a melody in the breeze behind them, engaged in a serious game of chase, intent on eluding each others touch and becoming "it."  I don't know.  I will never know.  But still I wonder. The only thing that disturbs my day dreaming is the interactions with other riders and the need to keep my eyes on the trail for there are sticks and mud puddles and bumps that could potentially cause a fall or a mechanical.  I am not a mountain biker like Jeff Carpenter and don't have the handling skills of a mountain biker, so I try to be extra cautious.  I find it is wise to leave myself a bit of room and time to react, to pick lines, rather than riding up close and personal as I often do while road biking. One thing I do know is that each of us is responsible for our own front wheel and if I would touch and go down, it would be nobody's fault but my own.  Luckily, this is never an issue.  I remain upright throughout the ride.

One thing that plagues all of us throughout our time on the C & O is the cottonwood.  Despite concentrating on keeping my mouth closed and nose breathing, it sneaks into my wind pipe and fluffs up almost causing me to puke on a couple of occasions.  All of us fight it at times.  But still, it is lovely in places where it has delicately settled on top of the water.   I do find that if I can force myself to breath deeply through my nose and relax my throat while sipping water, the irritation does not last as long and is not as severe. 

We stop to have lunch and the man at the food stand is nice enough to take our trash despite the fact that everyone is expected to take trash with them.  The park even provides bags for this, though they are plastic, one use plastic, the worst kind. Is the cure worse than the disease?  Still, there is remarkably little trash along our way. 

Pedaling off, we reach the falls, and as always not only the sight of water but the sound mesmerizes me. The power of water and wind, the elements, is truly astonishing.  We are lucky that normally it is so gentle with us despite our continuous efforts to tame and make use of it.  Throughout the trail, I remain amazed at the stonework and wonder about the men capable not only of designing the canal, but capable of building it.  Large stones in intricate patterns piled highly and evenly.  Amazing. And the sound of the water:  throughout this adventure there is the occasional sound of running, untamed water, thundering on and over and around rocks and boulders for we often have river on one side and canal on the other.  So unlike the lazy, meandering Ohio River. I think of the irony:  on one side a tame canal with motionless water and directly opposite, a roaring river full of strength and bravado. And of course there is the railroad running endless beside us, persistent and enduring.  I think of Gordon Lightfoot's song, "For they looked in the future and what did they see, they saw an iron road running from the sea to the sea. Bringing the goods to a young growing land all up from the seaports and into their hands."  (Gordon Lightfoot:  Canadian Trilogy)

It seems but a short time before we reach White's Ferry where we need to cross to stay the night.  I am not really tired in a sense, but in another sense I am so there is a relief in nearing our night's destination. We are asked to allow the cars to board first.   We patiently wait though by this time we are all eager to get a shower and to fill our bellies.  I long for a cool drink.  Laughter floats in the air, warm and bright, familiar voices mingle with those that are not yet but will become familiar, a medley, and I briefly close my eyes and enjoy  the chatter as I begin to pair sound with rider, each voice and laugh individual and unique.  Will I come to love them as I have come to love Steve, Bill, and Dave, a love borne of the time spent together, wheels turning, difficulties faced?  It is strange, this caring, because I know their faults as well or better than my own as they have come to know mine, but still I care as if they were family to me.  I suppose in a sense they are.  But this is just a short trip and most of these people do not ride with me regularly.  My reverie is interrupted by the call to get on.  After we board, I brace myself for the start expecting a jolt, but the leaving is the same as the landing will be, smooth as silk.  After landing we ride to the motel that will be our home for the night. The short climb up from the river tests our legs which have grown lazy with the continuous flat.

When we head out the next morning for one of my favorite days, we again cross the ferry.  Today is one of my favorite days, a mix of the path and a detour around the washout at Catoctin Aqueduct.  Early in the ride Jeff has a rear flat. While we all have bicycle pumps in our bags, pump after pump fails to work until Mark produces his.  I find this quite amusing.  Jeff later remembers that his pump has to be changed from Presta to Schrader valves, but at the time that thought did not hit. We all laugh at the pump dilemma and I think of the brevet I rode with Grasshopper where pumps and CO2 inflators failed after I flatted on the rise of a metal bridge. And a lesson is learned.  Before I travel alone, I need to check whatever pump I am taking and ensure that it works.  So many lessons I am learning, lessons that I may take into the future with me for other journeys. 

There is some discussion about which detour to take, but the decision is to go through Virginia and what a decision it is.  Yes, there is climbing, but the views are absolutely spectacular.  Some of the roads are paved and some are gravel, but all are lovely and have very little traffic.  I find myself softly singing to myself as I climb, content with the world. I decide that I will return here, drive to a small town, ride a day or two, load my bike, and move on.  It is just too lovely here.  Once back on the trail, we stop at one point and a few of us soak our feet in the river.  The water is frigid but feels so good on the feet.  I am glad Mark has this idea.  I thought the water too cold for swimming, but Amelia later laments that she did not swim and only soaked her feet.  Early on at Brunswick we stop at a coffee shop that used to be a church. It was not originally our intent to stop at that place, but it was the only source of food open in the town and it turns out to be great though a tad pricey. 

 While at Brunswick, I have my first mechanical issue of the trip. No, it couldn't be something simple like a flat tire.  I have to try to move my bike by the saddle.  The metal support pops out of its holder and nobody seems to be able to put it back.  I think I could ride with it like that, but I suspect it would quickly cause the plastic frame at the back of the saddle to break.  So, since we are already at a bike store, I ask about getting it fixed.  The mechanics struggle because they lack the basic tools they need to do the job, but the man works trying different things until it is fixed.  I hate it that I am holding the group up, but I still think it is the right decision. If they had not been able to fix it, I would have bought and carried another saddle, but I am very sensitive to what saddle I use and get sores with many of them.  My friend, Greg Smith, helped me discover the saddle I currently use at a time when I was near despair at finding a saddle I could use on longer rides.  

This is also the day, I believe, that we stop to visit Harper's Ferry.   Because our bikes are so heavy, the men help Amelia and I get them up the steps.  As we cross the bridge to the town, I notice that along the top of the wire at the side of the bridge, there are padlocks of various sizes and shapes. I ask about it and am told that lovers clasp their locks there together and throw the keys into the water below, thus pledging their undying love for each other.  Evidently, in some places, because of the weight, they have to be removed. I wish I would fall in love again and feel that my heart was locked to another, but  I know it would be extremely difficult for me to give up the lifestyle that I have become accustomed to after my husband's passing.  I think how grateful I am that I had him and how I still miss him so much and suspect I always will. We just are not as flexible when we age as we are during our youth, but I remind myself that this is not a good thing. 

When we reach Harper's Ferry, some of us have ice cream and others a sandwich.  The ice cream is rich and cool, sliding easily down the throat.  Jeff W. laments breaking his vow not to have ice cream as he eats ice cream. How easily we lapse from good intentions, and not just those about food. We then explore a bit before heading back down to the trail.  A man introduces himself as being from Amsterdam and ends up helping me down with my bike before we part wishing each other safe travels.  He tells me he bicycles at home, but not during his visit here. As we pass bridge after bridge during the ride where railroad bridges have been turned into bridges used for pedestrians and bicycles, I wonder why the railroad has resisted doing something similar with the bridge in Louisville. Surely the liability issues would be the same?

Leaving Harpers Ferry, we continue on to Shepherdstown where we stay the night.  The days and cities are beginning to run together, so I hope my fellow riders and readers will forgive me if my remembrances begin to blur.  The hotel has laundry facilities next door so we do laundry.  Michael decides that he does not want to talk to dinner, so goes to an Italian restaurant near our hotel while the rest of walk to town to a pub.  I "think" this is the pub that was supposed  to have "bangers" and "cornish pasties," but every time those with me order, the waiter returns saying they don't  have it.  Meanwhile Michael sends a photo of spaghetti and meat balls that looks delicious.  Amelia laughs as she orders spaghetti after they were out of whatever she ordered before and the joke becomes that the meal is "the best we ever had." I think it is interesting how we begin to have jokes that have no meaning to anyone outside of the group and I think how this has happened on my other travels. Humor, one of the best of human traits. 

We leave Shepherdsville the next morning on our way to Hancock.  Jeff and Mark are excited as they are staying at the C & O Bunkhouse.  The rest of us opt for a motel.  After seeing the bunk house, I can't say I am truly sorry that I did not stay there, particularly as it is the or one of the coldest evenings we have and would have meant adding a sleeping bag to what I am carrying, yet a part of me does wish I were staying.  Jeff W. later tells us of the campfire and the man playing the banjo.  But the thought of having to get up and go to the port a pot at night that is located across the gravel lot is not so appealing.  Despite staying in separate places, we do meet for dinner that evening at a local restaurant.  At the start of the trip it was decided that we would avoid fast food and patronize local eateries. And we manage to do this and to eat as a group other than the one night Michael headed off on his own.

Mark has arranged a side trip to Antietam Battlefield and we arrive there early in the morning, even before the welcome center has opened.  A man is there dressed in civil war attire and riding a horse.  He allows me to pet her and I realize how much I miss having a horse to care for, but alas they are too expensive.  He says he is early but is dressed to address children that are coming there on a field trip from school.  After speaking with us, he rides off and there is something poignant and moving about seeing him silhouetted against the morning sky, flag high and gently rippling in the breeze.  At one point, we pass and read about the "bloody lane" where 300 or so died one day and a shiver runs down my back.  I think of how terrible it must have been for them, their wives, mothers, fathers, sweethearts.  Having suffered so much loss in the past few years, this needless waste of life and love bothers me.  I remember my brother saying that America presently has not been so divided since the Civil War, and I am overwhelmed.  I  yank my thoughts away for I don't know these people well enough to muddle through this morass of disordered thoughts with them.  I don't know them well enough, even those I do ride with more often, to cry as I want to at the futility of it all and our failure as a race, including myself, to understand what is really important. 

I could have stayed and explored longer, but time is burning and there are roads to travel, so we set off from the battlefield for Hancock. When with a group, one has to bend because each of us is an individual with different interests and ideas.  At times the canal path becomes monotonous, but the side trips have offset this and it is beautiful.  We begin to see more wildflowers along our route:  white and purple.  I soak in the greenness and take lots of photos so that I can remember this, the sounds, the sights, the companionship, these people.  At times we chatter and at times we ride alone.  Amelia later points out that this has given us each some alone time, something we both have a need for. As I so often do, I think how strong my husband was to tolerate my need for independence and for alone time and I send a thank you up to heaven and once again ask God to give him a hug from me. 

Prior to arriving at our destination, Mark, Jeff C., and I take a detour to see Ft. Frederick while the others ride onward.  The visitor's center is closed, but the fort itself is open though not the rooms.  I peer through the window to see that each room appears to be furnished.  I wonder about the difference from Kentucky forts which are wood while this forts outer walls are stone, but Mark points out the obvious:  this fort was for the Civil War whereas the Kentucky forts were geared for protection from Native Americans. 

After a good night's sleep at Hancock (at least for some of us;-) we head to Cumberland.  The highlight of the day will be the trip through the Paw Paw Tunnel; however, prior to arriving there, Jeff W. unwittingly runs over a stick and shreds his derailleur and derailleur hanger.  The trail has become two ruts in the road and as he crosses the grassy area, he hits it. Chain tools seem to follow the lead of the pumps.  The first two don't work.  I could not find my chain tool and had not purchased one prior to the trip as others said they were carrying them.  Jeff tries to turn his bicycle into a single speed, but as soon as he takes off the chain drops off.  (He later finds that the frame is slightly bent).  He is very patient as everyone gives him advice and I know he would like to duct tape our mouths, particularly those of us who know so little about bicycle mechanics, but being Jeff he doesn't. We feel badly, but we take off leaving him to walk the approximately 7 miles to the closest town while we ride ahead. I see a truck at the side of the road, a State Forest worker, but he says he can't go on the path to get Jeff and he won't be able to give him a ride when he gets to the intersection. We pass through the Paw Paw Tunnel shortly before town. When we reach the closest town, we have lunch and ask the diner owner if she knows of anyone who could sage Jeff to Cumberland.  She does.  All of us text the information to Jeff happy that we have cell service. 

Amazingly, when we reach Cumberland and the Inn we are staying at, Jeff arrives at exactly the same time, bicycle fixed and ready to go.  Cumberland is a nice little town and the place we stay at is one of my favorites of the trip, perhaps because the owner has chocolate for us in the kitchen.

The next day is when we leave the C & O and make the climb to the Mason Dixon Line and the Continental Divide.  I laugh at how I worried about my gearing.  The climb is long but hardly qualifies as a climb despite going on for twenty miles or so.  I find I am using my big ring easily once I realize it is not going to increase in grade.  The vistas are lovely. We pass through another tunnel.  At one point we stop and there is a man who is also cycling but is taking a survey about our thoughts on our President. When we reach the top, the sky begins to threaten rain, something it has not done this entire week.  Jeff W. says he is going to ride anyway and I join him only to be hit by a deluge along with thunder and lightening.  We pull to a covered shelter with picnic tables to wait it out and find the others just behind us following our lead. Everyone is nice about being caught in the storm.  When we take off, we meet Vince and Beki going the other direction.  They warn us of hail and storms ahead and we warn them of sticks.  I urge moving on quickly, leery of the weather, but we stay and chat quite awhile before moving onward.  We hit no more rain the entire trip.  God has blessed us with nice weather.

When we arrive, we stay at the Hostel Bunkhouse.  We laugh when we ask about dining places and the woman says pizza.  Most of us have had so much pizza on this journey that even I am tired of it.  In one town where we stopped for lunch, there were two restaurants:  both pizzerias. We do end up eating there and have the best homemade chicken potpie I have ever eaten. And I am NOT joking. I manage to cram in a sundae for dessert and think how I will have gained weight on this ride.

All of us will be sleeping in the same room.  Everyone wants a bottom bunk, but Mark is a good sport and says he will take a top bunk.  As it turns out, none of end up on the top bunk because one of the private rooms has not been rented out, but I remain grateful.  Jeff W. is relegated to that room because of his snoring and Mark takes his bunk. I don't sleep but a half hour or so at most that night.  Michael has made friends with a man named Joe, who is also sleeping there and will ride with us a bit the next day.  He takes over the common room which made my insomnia all the more annoying.  Everyone else, however, appears to have slept well and I am glad because I worried that my constant tossing and turning would keep them awake. Mark comes across a journal entry from someone who had ridden the trail the previous year and warns people not to ride the "cow path."  Jeff C. and Michael had intended to do this trip last year, but had canceled with the rain.  This entry justifies their cancellation and brings a smile. 

In the morning, we head out for Connellsville.  As we ride, we discuss the possibility of riding further than originally planned so that our last day will be shorter and we will arrive home earlier, but the motel will not allow us to cancel and some have reservations about riding such a distance.  At this point in the ride, while still enjoying ourselves, most of us if not all are feeling the pull to get home.  Home:  even the word brings thoughts of safety and comfort.  As I ride, I think of the words of Charles Parkhurst, "Home interprets Heaven.  Home is heaven for beginners."  For me, I think, home is home mostly because of the memories.  I hear the voices of the children as they play within the walls and feel the warmth of my husband's embraces.  Their ghosts linger.  I think of  how I should move closer to my daughter to a smaller home, not that mine is use, but how reluctant I am to leave these things despite the fact I know I will carry my memories with me until my mind lets them go.

We stop at Ohiopyle for a bit to use the bathrooms and to see the falls.  It is rather crowded, but lovely.  We cross numerous wooden bridges across the water these days.  During the day, I think about things I have come to learn about the people who are my traveling companions.  I have known Jeff White the longest of any of them though I would never have described us as being close.  Like me, Jeff believes in God and his religion is important to him.  We have a couple of faith based talks during our journey.  Jeff is kind and obviously has restraint or he would have told the lot of us to "bugger off" when he broke his chain and we were making suggestions.  He accepted what happened in good spirits and is not a whiner.  Jeff Carpenter I don't know as nearly as well, but I see a rather wry sense of humor.  He seems to be one of those people who makes a joke and everyone doesn't catch it because he is rather unassuming.  I thank you, Jeff, for putting this trip together.  From that, I also learned that you are a planner, and a very good one.  The GPS course is unfailingly accurate.  Amelia and I have ridden together for a few years, but again I would not describe her as being a close friend.  I wondered how we would do as roommates as usually I get my own room.  We both live alone and are used to privacy.  I learn that she is very thoughtful and goes out of her way to ensure that things run smoothly.  She is kind.  She also has a good sense of humor.  When she has a mishap, she is able to laugh at herself and go on, a quality I admire.  And she is smart. Mark is funny and constantly talking.  He has an interest in history and the area he is passing.  Thank you, Mark, for the side trips that you planned. Mark takes his oldest son on bicycling trips and obviously is committed to his children and spending time with them, something I admire.  Michael is dependable and has interesting stories to tell.  He is determined to complete this ride despite having been injured during the preparation time.  It is hard to spend this much time with people that you don't know well without conflict, but we manage to do just that.

Our last night is at the Melody Lodge.  It is quite a trek from the trail on busy roads, but when we get there a smile crosses my face.  This is obviously a very old motel.  I tease about being disappointed that the beds don't have "Magic Fingers," a machine from my youth where you put in a quarter and the bed would shake.  Still, there is a bed and WI-fi and there are no bugs.  Also, per the signs on the building and the mirror in the bathroom it is protected by a detective agency.  We walk to a restaurant/bar that Michael wants to go with and find we are the only customers.  The cook had not shown up for work and the waitress had never waited tables before.   Jeff C. comments on how so many of the places we have eaten are overwhelmed when a group of six walks in and he is right:  this place is one of them.  After eating, we determine that we will get breakfast from Wal-Mart and eat at the hotel in the morning and take something for our lunch and eat along the trail.  I will miss my coffee, but I buy a coke so as to get some caffeine.  When we awaken, there is no water.  This makes me laugh.  I am laughing to the point where I almost have an accident.  Luckily, Michael had bought a jug of water the evening before, something I guess the others made fun of him for but turned out to be fortuitous.  He is nice and shares and I am able to fill my water bottles knowing that I can't ride over sixty miles, even easy miles, without water.  Without meaning to, Jeff W. has added a wonderful memory to this ride.

While I vowed I would not stop for constant photos this day, I do stop to take a few.  At one point we pass a red waterfall along the trail and then a white one.  The white one looks as if the water is frozen. Mark suggests it is salt.  I stop and cross and taste it but there is no saltiness to it.  Just beyond it, there are some men working on the path.  I stop and ask and find that it is aluminum nitrate and that the red is magnesium nitrate.  He says there is was a coal mine above them and that it gets it colors from the minerals on top and below the vein.  The intensity of the color depends upon the amount of rain.  He says this is the best it has been for three years.  I would like to stop longer, but I need to catch the others and head off.

We stop for our picnic just short of Pittsburg.  There does not appear to be much available in this town along the trail, so we are bemoaning the fact that we are going to need to find a place to fill up bottles when a woman stops and enters the hostel next to the shelter.  She allows us not only to fill up our water bottles but to have an ice cold canned soft drink.  The cold drink is delicious in the heat, like ambrosia, but we need to move on as we want to get  to our cars for the long drive home.  She offers us cupcakes and brownies, but we have already eaten. I think how people like this give me faith:  kindness is still alive.  Alas, Jeff has yet another rear flat.  A rock has punctured his tire.  This time, the pumps work and the fix is quick. Amelia, Jeff C., and I sit in the grass in the shade while he fixes it.  Mark and Michael ride ahead, smelling the barn.
As we near Pittsburg, the trail becomes paved but uglier.  There are a few tiny climbs.  All of us are ready to be done.  It also is more crowded, but it is a holiday week-end.  I think how amazed I have been at the number of people, not just here but all along the trail, who do not wear helmets.  I suppose it is like when seat belts were first introduced. It is then that I have my last mechanical, one that nobody knows about except for Amelia who I tell in the car on the way home.  My bike stops shifting in the front and I am stuck in the small chain ring.  "Could be worse," I think, "it could have happened earlier in the ride or something far worse could have happened."  I can finish.  I've got this.

We finally reach the garage, say our good-byes, and head homewards.  It is nice to arrive home.  I am thankful that I was able to participate in this journey and for new friends that I have made and older friends who my relationship with has deepened along the road.  Here's to future journeys.  Like Van Gogh, I would rather die following my passion than from boredom. May opportunities for shared adventures continue to arise!