Linda Lander canal community story

A friend and I biked the entire length of the C&O Canal towpath in 1974. We started in Cumberland, MD and went to DC. The towpath was part of a cycling trip that took us from Minneapolis, MN to Chicago, Cumberland to DC, and then Pennsylvania and Cape Cod, MA.

Historic Hurricane Agnes had gone through Maryland in 1972 so the towpath had been flooded, leaving roots and rocks exposed. It was in very poor condition and terribly muddy in the summer of 1974.

Photo Credit: Brian Rimm

When we arrived in Cumberland, no one we asked was familiar with the towpath and we became very concerned. We were certain it existed, but why didn't anyone know about it? We eventually found the towpath with a very small marker noting its existence. We were glad we found it, but why was there such an understated sign when this was one of our prime destinations?

The poor condition of the towpath, with exposed roots, rocks, and mud, was immediately obvious. I soon had to take off my brakes because the deep mud clogged the brake mechanism. We were sometimes in inches of mud. One time, I got stuck in the mud and tipped over exactly like the old man on the tricycle in the TV show Laugh-In. What a sight and a great source of embarrassment!

We did 1 mph for the first couple of days because of the very muddy conditions. There were mile markers every mile so we could calculate our mph. Given the distance, we had initially planned to take 3 days to ride the entire towpath and visit attractions. Because of the poor conditions, it took 7 days. At one point, we considered getting off the towpath because going 1 mph in the mud was taking too long. However, we decided to continue with our goal of biking the entire distance of the towpath. If the conditions had been better, it would have been a very enjoyable route.

We stayed at the Hiker Biker Overnighter campsites and were the only ones at the campsites. In fact, we didn't see anyone else on the towpath the entire time until we were close to Georgetown. The weather was extremely hot (90+ temperatures) and humid during our journey. We rinsed out our sweaty clothing at night but it never dried because of the high humidity. Eventually, the mud problem of the trail improved as we got much farther east. However, at one point we had to portage our bikes across a body of water because the towpath had been wiped out by the flooding caused by the hurricane.

Photo Credit: Craig Little

After being alone on the towpath for so many days, we were excited to see a group of Boy Scouts on an outing near Georgetown. When we arrived in Georgetown, we stopped at a bike shop to get something. They looked at us and our bikes and asked "Where have you been?" We were sweaty, our clothes were wet, and our bikes were caked in mud. We told them we rode the towpath from Cumberland and they couldn't believe it. They said, "No one rides the towpath from Cumberland." They felt sorry for us and told us to sit down and that they were going to overhaul our bikes for free. We were stunned but they were insistent, so we let them clean up our bikes. That was a kindness that has never been forgotten.

Our visit to Antietam remains a touching memory of our trip along the towpath. It was an exceptionally foggy day, so there were very few visitors and we essentially had the battlefield to ourselves. We stood in heavy fog at the bloody Sunken Road and could not imagine the tragedy of that battle.

Despite the conditions, our trip on the C&O towpath remains a wonderful memory.