Setting aside my bike for the time being on Saturday, I headed to the Lawrenceville neighborhood and slowly walked back to my hotel near the train station with a few stops for food and drink along the way. The train on Sunday was scheduled for 5:20 a.m., but I ended up falling asleep before 8 so the early hour was not a problem. Pittsburgh has an impressive-looking train station but it’s largely been converted to apartments and rail customers now access the tracks through a grim entrance on the side past a dumpster. I rolled my bike onto the baggage compartment and hung it up before finding a seat.
For anyone considering the C&O/GAP ride I would highly recommend taking the return trip by train. For one, it’s probably the nicest Amtrak train I’ve ever been on: the ticket was the least expensive, the seat reclined quite a bit and had a leg and foot rest, bike accommodations were straightforward, and there was an “observation car” with swiveled chairs and curved windows above allowing expansive views of the train’s path.
Once the darkness outside receded I spent most of my time in the observation car: much of the route is on the opposite side of the river from the GAP and then, after Cumberland, from the canal and you can usually see the trail from the train. It was a peaceful and moving way to reflect back upon the trip and to get another perspective on the ground I had covered: free from the burden of mostly concentrating straight ahead on the bike, I could now fully take in all the mountains and rapids along the way (in a heated setting while sipping tea, no less).
On tour in February and March a lot of my reflection concerned borders and similar constructs and the general idea of freedom of movement. Again I hesitate to say much about my thoughts on what’s mainly a glib travel blog, but on this trip a lot of my thoughts centered on the history of violence that runs through the country. It is inescapable on the route: that inflicted upon the workers who dug the ditches and built the routes, for one, and the surrounding societal conditions throughout history. The lockhouse I stayed in had several examples of local newspaper ads regarding the return of escaped slaves. Harpers Ferry remains a potent metonym for uprising against the violence and subjugation of slaveholding. The Potomac was a major point of conflict during the Civil War and the canal itself was subject to multiple Confederate raids. It passes near the fields of Antietam. There is also, of course, the sense of a violence against nature, inseparable from the canal and railway projects: the unfettered mining and transport of minerals that wreaked havoc on the rivers. There has been progress regarding all of these fronts, but also many reminders of its always fragile and sometimes illusory nature. The trails make this history less remote and offer a framework for learning new details and perspectives, a starting point for further exploration.
On arrival in D.C. I made my way to a regional MARC train, which had a bicycle car that made boarding easy. There was not a convenient way to go from Pittsburgh to New York in one day with the bicycle, so I stayed with friends in Baltimore for the night, stopping to watch the sun set from Druid Park en route. The next morning I took an Amtrak Vermonter train, with its awkward bike storage system requiring removing the bike’s front wheel and hanging it from a converted luggage rack. Still better than removing the handlebars and pedals and putting it in a box, though.
There was news about an explosion in the Port Authority tunnel that morning but the train ran normally. A K-9 boarded at Newark and made a sweep through the cars as we headed into the city. At Penn Station I put the bike back together on the platform and headed up. Moments after I started riding I let out a “Yo!” at an Uber driver drifting into the bike lane towards the curb to keep him from cutting me off: home again, home again.
Because of all the roadblocks near Port Authority I headed due west for the Hudson River Greenway. Periodic sets of parallel jersey barriers, ends painted bright orange, served as reminders of the violence that happened further downtown on the path not long ago. As I rode uptown towards home the George Washington Bridge grew slightly closer in the distance. Crossing it could take a bicycle rider up Bicycle Route 9 past the Palisades and then on to Albany, where a rider could begin following the Erie Canal.