C&O Canal Redux

Back in 2009 I rode the C&O Canal Towpath from Washington, DC to Cumberland, MD. This was my first of many treks on the C&O trail. Since that ride, I ride the towpath every year from PawPaw to DC. I do this as a charity ride raising money to help hemophiliac families. For more info on my annual charity ride, checkout this post: healthywealthytribe.com/gears-for-good-2013

Next year, Andrew and I will ride the entire 185 miles, from Cumberland to DC, in a single day’s ride. We’re planning to get some of our craziest friends to join us. While training for my ride this year I started thinking about that epic day that is coming next Summer… Then, I started reminiscing about our first ride up the C&O. Today I decided to share the story of our ride… Let’s go back in time some… This is my original blog article from four years ago:

“Behind us lay the whole of America and everything Dean and I had previously known about life, and life on the road. We had finally found the magic land at the end of the road and we never dreamed the extent of the magic.”
— Jack Kerouac, On the Road

Friday, September 19, 2009 at 6:31 a.m. Andrew and I started loading our bicycles on my truck. We packed tons of Gu, power bars, and bottles of water. We piled into my FJ Cruiser and headed to Pete’s house. Our plan was simple (they always start that way)… We would drive down to DC, park my truck, and my buddy, Jerry, would pick it up that evening and drive it home for me. From there, we would ride 184.5 miles up the C&O Canal Towpath on our bicycles. Months of training had culminated to this event.

We picked up Pete and drove downtown. Once there we searched for parking near the Thompson Boat Center, which is mile zero on the canal. Downtown parking is hard for my FJ, because I need 6’9” of clearance. Most garages down there are under 6’6”. We finally found the perfect garage at the Kennedy Center. It was 7’ tall!! Tallest one I have ever seen in DC. Parking was solved… Ahhhhh.

We each had bike racks and medium sized bags back there behind our seats. Pete and I also carried camelbacks with water and paraphernalia. We rode out of the Kennedy Center parking garage and into the gorgeous morning with grins on our faces!

We got to the mile zero marker and took a photo. Then a couple rode up on a tandem bicycle. They told us that they had ridden all the way down from Pittsburgh, PA. Hearing this made us feel weak. Then I thought, Meh… It’s downhill the whole way from Pittsburgh! This is how I justify and console myself.

I digress.

We took off quickly and were in Great Falls before I knew it. The ride was easy. However, I had already developed a cramp in my left calf. We weren’t riding faster than our training and we hadn’t gone that far, so I chalked it up to nerves… I took a couple of photos of the falls, ate a snack, and moved on.

The rest of the day was uneventful (for the most part) and relatively easy. Just before home, Pete realized that he had been riding on a broken spoke. It warped his rim and the rear brakes had been on for nearly fifteen miles! Holy dump! We rode 57 miles total that day.

Here is the Monacacy Aquaduct

At home, we tracked down a local bicycle shop, called the Bike Doctor. It’s located on Buckeystown Pike in Frederick. Awesome shop! The owner and his mechanic stayed past closing time, fixing and truing Pete’s rim. Then they gave him new brakes and tightened up his bike. Fantastic group there and very concerned about our safe trip. I absolutely recommend them to anyone in the Frederick area who needs repairs or bicycle parts and so on.

Kristine had put together a delectable meal that consisted of salad, pasta, and steak. It was FANTASTIC! We talked about the day and encouraged each other.

Andrew stayed next door at his house and Pete stayed as a guest at my place. During the night I had to wake up and do some updates on databases for work… It was a challenge and wore me out mentally. I only got a few hours of sleep and worried how I would perform on our longest day. We were scheduled to ride about 72 miles on day two. Yikers!

Here you can see that we are still happy about our adventure… Fools!

Day two started well. My right knee was a touch sore on the outside, but nothing I couldn’t ride through. I packed three Advil and promised not to use them. We got underway around 9:15 a.m. and rode strong for most of the day.

This is us posed below the Maryland Heights rock wall (which I have climbed) at Harper’s Ferry.

This photo is me standing outside a hidden cave that women, children, and ex-slaves used to hide in during the Civil War. Very COo.oOL

Along the way, we ran into a section of the canal that was closed due to flood damage… We had to ride on the road for a bit. This was tough for me, because it was a bunch of moderate hills. Pete and Andrew made it look easy. As we passed a pasture full of cows, I thought to myself, “I sure am hungry.”

This was a nice milestone… Our century along the path! Notice that for some reason, we are still happy… What is wrong with us??

About 20 miles before our stop in Hancock, my knee sang out with excruciating pain. With twelve miles left, I didn’t think I would make it to our hotel in Hancock. I stopped and writhed in pain. I popped three Advil and gritted my teeth. I tried walking beside my bike for a minute to stretch it out and I couldn’t even do that. I was considering calling Kristine and throwing in the towel. I literally could not walk without severe pain shooting through my knee and up to the base of my spine.

Andrew and Pete offered to cut our pace (~14 MPH) in half for a while and see how I did… I decided to bite the bullet and literally gritted my teeth for fifteen or more minutes at about 7 MPH. It slowly warmed up and the pain subsided. I assume the three Advil were kicking in. We made it to Hancock and proceeded to the Triangle Bar and Grill on Main Street. Dinner was awesome… I was STARVING! We had burned more than 5,000 calories during that day’s ride (We burned 14,000 calories total over the three day ride!)

Once we got to our Hotel, we ordered pizza, wings, and cinnamon bread. We ate another dinner. Yum!

The final day was cold! We went outside to a chilly 47 degrees… Burrrr! Mounting up, I realized just how sore my gluteus maximus was. It was swollen and sore and ready to be done with this ride. I had popped some Advil before leaving my hotel room, so the knee was under control. The day promised to be good.

We headed down to Weavers Restaurant and had the best breakfast that I have had in quite some time. I got cream chipped beef (SOS) on biscuits with two poached eggs on top. YUMMY! Everyone was so nice there. Afterward, we mounted up and got under way. It was our final day. A 60-mile ride lay before us. Prior to this three day weekend, I had never ridden further than 40 miles and now I was doing one and half times that or more each day!

The last day went quickly. My pain came and went furiously… Only to return again. My hands had lost all feeling in them, except an incessant tingling that threatened to drive me mad. My neck was tired and worn from supporting my head and helmet. Shoulders and traps were tight. I don’t even wanna talk about my triceps and forearms!

The Paw Paw tunnel is a magnificent and amazing creation. It is 3,118 feet long and took about fourteen years to make. It is wicked cool!

Pete and I climbed up top for some shenanigans…

If you are claustrophobic, you will need to skip this one… It was pitch black in there and I kept feeling like I would simply ride off the trail and into the slimy canal waters. It was a bit freaky in there without headlamps. I had a headlamp with me, but refused to use it, because Andrew and Pete didn’t have one. In the immortal words of the Three Musketeers, “All for one and one for all!”

When we got to Lock number 69 I wanted a photograph. But a guy and girl were there making out. I felt weird about taking a photo with them in it. I considered asking them to “pose” under the Lock 69 sign. Then realized that it would be pointless and invasive. Instead I pedaled on thinking how funny it was that he had invited her to Lock 69 to neck. What a romantic… Actually, I was jealous that I hadn’t thought of it… Heh!

The last ten miles were furious. I had just finished my audio book The Road by Jack Kerouac at mile marker eleven. What a fantastic autobiography straight out of the beat generation written by the king of beat! I dug it immensely and pondered upon the fragility of mankind in a preponderance of heaven and hell that surely came together to single-mindedly stare into my mind’s eye. Yeah man, right-on, ahem and all that stuff! You dig?

After Jack’s lovely book was done, I turned on some John 5 and cranked it. It was my turn to set the pace and I went too fast a couple of times. Was soooo hyper about the finish. I counted each of the last ten miles out loud. Chanted them and/or signaled with my fingers. Excitement forced its way through my body. I was electric and my inner self was on fire!

We rode the last mile three abreast. Three friends, nearly broken by the dirt and gravel trail, finally at our journey’s end. Triumphantly riding into Cumberland with our heads held high!

Standing before us was a group of nine people. Our waiting wives, families and friends! It was a magical moment. They had created a finish line banner for us. We burst through the banner to cheers. It was awesome!

Here’s the remnants of the banner… I wanted a picture of us riding through it, but was too tired to pull out my camera.

It is 184.5 miles to Cumberland via the canal path. Our jaunts off the canal added up to a total trip distance of 190 miles! Here we are at the very end of the canal towpath.

This is me and my son, Xander. He was proud of me and with an enormous smile, said, “Dadda!”

After the celebration, we went to the Manhattan Grill, two blocks away and drank champagne and ate a wonderful meal!

As usual, I must recommend this trip to everyone! Go up hill from DC to Cumberland, if you dig… I had to.

Click Here for our Garmin GPS information from the trip.

To see higher resolution versions of the above photos, click here

I will catch you on my next adventure!


About Vaughn Ripley

Vaughn is a happily married daddy, author, and CIO. He is an HIV+ hemophiliac, and is one of the longest surviving HIV+ people in the universe.
Follow Vaughn on Twitter: @vripley
Like Vaughn's page on the Facebook: www.facebook.com/VaughnFRipley
Read his personal blog: HIVLongevity.com
Visit his web page: www.VaughnRipley.com


  1. We at the C&O Canal Trust, the official nonprofit partner of the C&O Canal National Historical Park, thank you for sharing your adventure and documenting the positive economic impact that the Towpath has on the surrounding businesses. If you are interested in helping us care for this important national treasure, please visit us at http://www.canaltrust.org

    • Hi Mike!

      Thanks for the info… I will definitely look into help care for the path. Me and a bunch of hemophiliac friends ride the towpath every year… I will share your info with everyone I know on the path.

      Thanks again,

Speak Your Mind