Canal non plus: Paw Paw to Frostburg

Wednesday’s ride would not be long, but it would involve a climb at the end, so I left Paw Paw relatively early after a big breakfast prepared by my host. I snapped a photo of my lodging on the way out. I crossed the river back onto the towpath and turned west, the weather and visibility a marked improvement over the previous day’s rain. With the moon still visible in the morning sky I hit a long section where the canal is spring-fed, allowing for serene riding with even more flora and fauna than usual: with the locks long out of commission there are very long stretches where the canal bed is just a dry ditch. I found myself at Lock 75, the last one on my map. There I spoke to a man walking his dog and asked if he could take a picture of me at the lock; he obliged but covered the lens with his fingers each time and I ended up tempting fate and setting my phone on the opposite bridge railing. A bit further on and I reached the final aqueduct as well, and then the towpath began its emergence into a valley, passing through some small neighborhoods and then opening up with a view towards the terminus at Cumberland, MD. There was a bar, open but empty, at the terminus. I stopped in for a quick celebratory lunch and Natty Bo. I had made it end-to-end of the C & O Canal.

After lunch I still had about 16 miles to go: a bit ago I had arranged a Couchsurfing stay in Frostburg so I could tackle the small matter of getting over the Big Savage Tunnel first thing the next day. I followed the signs from the canal to the start of the Great Allegheny Passage, which from Cumberland begins with a long but gradual climb. The GAP is a rail trail so the surface was generally pavement or fine gravel and much more consistent than the bumpy, rutted towpath. From Cumberland to Frostburg one line of the old Western Maryland railway is still in place for historic train rides and cyclists have been known to try to pace themselves alongside the steam locomotive. No historic trains were running on weekdays, though, so I made the ascent alone. I did pass by an idling Mack trackwork vehicle, both its windshields covered in spiderweb cracks, but my hopes of trying my luck against its pace were dashed when the nearby trackworker climbed inside and shut off the engine rather than sending it up the hill.

When the trail hit Frostburg it was clear that my climbing was not over for the day and that the way up to town would be much steeper than the trail. I considered making a run straight up an aggressively-inclined road but was dissuaded when I saw a schoolbus head downhill, engine braking deliriously down the embankment. I opted for the set of switchbacks that meander up a sculpture garden towards town. They made things easier but I still had to take my time on the roads going up beyond. My accommodations were very well-appointed: apparently in addition to hosting spots on Couchsurfing the owner, Wesley, also operates the space as a paid guesthouse, and it showed.

After two days of riding that ended with detours and darkness it was refreshing to have a bit of daylight with which to walk around town. Frostburg has a state university branch so there were a few places to choose from (including, yes, something called Frostburgers). At Wesley’s recommendation I had tacos and a burrito at the inspiringly-named A Place to Eat. When I got back I sipped some tea and talked to Wesley for a bit and then settled in for another early night, glad to have had a relatively easy ride knowing that the next day would be an adventure and probably the most physically demanding part of the trip.

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