Monday, November 21, 2016

Day 3: Meet the Stroller!

July 7: I woke up at the ungodly hour of 3:00 AM, so Amanda could drop me off at the metro stop by 4:00 AM, so she could get to the airport and return the rental car and catch her flight by the time it left. It's an awful time of morning to have to get up.

I packed up and Amanda dropped me off at the metro stop at 4:00--an hour before the first train was expected to arrive. I pulled out my pack from the back of the car, and a stroller out from the trunk. Yes, a stroller.

Amanda threw me out at 4:00 in the morning with
nothing but the clothes on my back and the gear
in my stroller!

A couple of weeks earlier, I'd gotten an idea in my head to thru-hike the C&O Canal and GAP while pushing my gear in a stroller. I can blame Blueberry for this idea--in part, at least. He had posted a photo on Facebook of a hiker he had met the year before on the Appalachian Trail who was walking around America, and he was pushing his pack in a stroller along the shoulders of a long, straight road on his way to Glacier National Park. I saw the photo and was a little envious. I want to hike with a stroller! I thought. Then I remembered in just a couple of weeks, I'd be hiking the C&O Canal and GAP--both of which are immensely flat. The first being a canal tow-path that mules would pull barges up and downstream, and the second being a rails-to-trail system that had initially been built for railroads. The trails might not be paved, but they were wide and flat. I could push a stroller along that, right?

Of course, I couldn't be certain if a stroller would hold up along 350-or-so miles of gravel road, and I didn't really want to be out of a lot of money if the whole system didn't really work out well. But Amanda found a stroller on Craigslist for $10 which we thought might do the trick. I walked over to the guy's place and kicked the proverbial tires. I didn't see anything obviously wrong with it, and the stroller had cup holders! Cup holders! I could go into town, buy a Big Gulp and sip it all the way down the trail! =) I purchased the stroller.

I didn't tell the guy what I had in mind for it. I didn't know if the stroller had any sentimental value for him since he had used it to push his own kid around in it for who knows how many years, and basically, I expected to destroy the thing in the next few weeks then junk it. He didn't ask what I intended to do with it (although he probably had assumptions!), and I didn't offer to tell him. We were both happy. =)

To date, I hadn't actually pushed the stroller with any of my gear in it. Walking around Washington DC, I figured it was easier just to carry a light day pack. Going through security or up and down stairs was a lot easier without a stroller. And I had a hunch that security would look extra close at a stroller that didn't actually have a baby in it!

So I pulled out the stroller from the trunk of the car where we had stored it, then plopped my pack down into it. Amanda took a few photos before driving off to the airport, never to be seen again. (Just kidding--we'll be seeing her again in a couple of weeks!)

It was 4:00 in the morning, but temperatures were already comfortably warm. It didn't bode well for the rest of the day. I'd also have to sit around and wait for an hour before the first train of the day arrived, which I used chatting with a couple of sisters on their way to New York City. They were amused at my stroller idea, but not at all judgemental about it. =)

Crossing the Potomac on Key Bridge shortly before sunrise.
At around 5:00, the first train of the day finally arrived, and I boarded pushing the stroller in front of me. I exited at the Rosslyn stop where I had left the trail two days earlier, then proceeded to push the stroller through town, over the Key Bridge and to where I left the C&O Canal. I was back on the trail by 6:00 AM. I was sweating bullets already, and the sun wasn't even up yet. It was gonna be a hot day.... I took off my long-sleeved shirt. I typically wear a long-sleeved shirt as a "jacket" to stay warm in cool weather or to keep the sun off my skin when I'm outside, but the sun wasn't up yet and it was way too hot to be wearing it, so I took it off.

Although the sun wasn't up, it had gotten just light enough that I could start taking photos and didn't have to delay my walk any further. It was time to get some miles done! The first campsite of the trail was about 16 miles away. I would have preferred something a little shorter for my first day on the trail, but I guess the Washington, DC, area was too developed to squeeze in a campsite along the trail. Most of the rest of the trail had campsites every five miles or so.

At my arrival to the trail, I had to navigate about a half-dozen steps, and I picked up the stroller in its entirety to get down them. They were the only steps I had to deal with the entire day, though.

Although the trail was largely flat, there would be a fairly steep rise of about 8 feet at each of the locks. The locks were used to raise and lower boats through the canal--about 70 locks in all--and they typically lifted or lowered the boats about 8 feet at a time, and the trail would curve up a slope to the new level. I had to really get behind the stroller and push quite aggressively to get the stroller up the slope, but just for a few seconds before the trail leveled out again.

On the C&O Canal and ready to go!

Because I was pushing my gear in a stroller and not carrying it on my back, I took a couple of luxury items I didn't really need. One thing I bought was a bear canister. I didn't expect to see any bears, but I figured a busy trail like this one likely had campsites stuffed with people and the rodent problems that often came with people. I wanted to use the bear canister to protect my food from squirrels, mice and other vermin. And since I didn't have to carry it, why not?! I also had my laptop, although I could have lived without it.

I also brought my new backpack. Although I didn't plan to carry it, I wanted it for two reasons: First, to have an easy way to keep all my gear together in the stroller, and two, just in case the stroller broke or didn't work, I wanted a back-up system to continue my hike.

I wasn't sure exactly how fast I'd travel with a stroller, so I made a note of the mile markers and my time to pass them, quickly settling on the fact that I was covering about 2.5 miles per hour. On flat terrain like this, I'd probably walk marginally faster carrying my gear in a pack--perhaps about 3 mph--but it was wonderful not having a heavy pack on my back! I could live with that. I also didn't have to set my pack down or pick it up when I wanted to stop and take a break which was also nice. =)

The trail had a lot of other people using it--I wasn't alone by any stretch of the imagination. Huge numbers of joggers and bicyclists early on. The further I got away from the DC core, the more the people thinned out. I met one older gentleman, on foot and carrying a large heavy pack walking in the other direction. "Are you a thru-hiker?!" I asked, excited to stumble on another one so early.

But no, he wasn't. He had only been out for a few days, doing an out-and-back that covered a mere 20 miles or so of trail. He asked about my stroller, though, and said I was by far the coolest person on the trail. *nodding* Yes, I could see how he might think that. =)

At two points during the day, I took hour long breaks. I lay down in shady areas and try to take a nap on a bench. I was so tired. Not just the relentless heat and humidity, but the 2 1/2 hours of sleep the night before was wearing on me.

The heat and humidity were so bad, I never did put my long-sleeved shirt back on, even after the sun came out. Most of the trail is shaded from the trees that line it, and while I had no trouble wearing those long-sleeved shirts in 100-degree weather through deserts in direct sunlight, it was insufferable in the shaded humidity of this area despite temperatures barely reaching 90 degrees. Enough of the trail was exposed to sunlight, though, that I knew I'd likely be getting a sunburn without applying sunscreen.

Looking back towards the Key bridge and Rosslyn
Let me give you a little background about the C&O Canal--just so you know a little something about the trail. C&O is short for Chesapeake and Ohio--the Ohio River at Pittsburgh being the ultimate destination that they wanted the canal to reach. It was never completed to Ohio, however, and only extended as far as Cumberland, MD, about 185 miles away. It was built in stages from 1828 to 1850 and followed alongside the Potomac River the entire distance, rising 605 feet (184 m) from end-to-end. Imagine that--a 185-mile trail that rises, on average, about 3 feet per mile. Very flat and easy trail! The canal used 74 locks to raise and lower boats, 11 aqueducts to cross major streams, more 240 culverts to cross smaller streams, and a 3118 foot (950 m) tunnel.

The canal was severely damaged from floods multiple times over its history and primarily carried coal downstream during its history. Almost immediately, the B&O Railroad competed against it for shipping, and as trains became larger and more powerful, the C&O Canal became less and less competitive. After a devastating flood in 1924, the canal was finally abandoned.

In 1938, the United States obtained the abandoned canal and has since been turned into the C&O Canal National Historic Park which is why it's now a hiking and biking trail with regular campsites located along its length. Boats used to be pulled up and down the canal by mules on the towpath, and the towpath is now the hiking and biking trail.

As the trail approached Little and Great Falls, the number of people on the trail picked up dramatically--a lot more day hikers and bicyclists. I took the 1/2-mile detour off the C&O Canal to see Great Falls--a wondrous sight that I had never seen before. A sign warned that bikes weren't allowed on that side trail and I wondered if I'd have trouble taking my stroller along it. Were there steps or other issues that prohibited strollers too? I didn't want to leave it unattended back on the C&O Canal--it had all of my worldly possessions in it! So I pushed on with the stroller, prepared to turn back if necessary before reaching the viewpoint. But no, I made it to the viewpoint, although the trail was marginally more challenging to navigate with a stroller than the C&O Canal towpath had been.

Near this location, a scandalous murder occurred!
Along the way, I read from The C&O Canal Companion, which had all sorts of interesting history about the trail and the area, conveniently labeled with the mile markers I'd be walking past. Much of the history has to do with the canal itself--when the locks were built or where the material for the locks had been quarried. But it also pointed out interesting things that happened along the trail--for instance, murder!

Just a few kilometers into the trail, the book told me about this sordid murder that occurred on the trail:
On Oct 12, 1964, Mary Meyer, the divorced wife of a CIA officer, was shot twice in broad daylight in the head. Meyer had had a brief affair with President Kennedy, and had been intrigued by the possibilities of psychedelic drugs and might have even "dropped acid" with the president, all of which contributed to later speculation that Meyer was assassinated to keep embarrassing information from coming to light.

The hunt for her diary turned interesting as well when James Jesus Angleton, the 'dark eminence' of the CIA's counterespionage department was discovered in her apartment, along with lock-picking tools, and took custody of her diary.

And perhaps the last person to see her alive was her friend, Polly Wisner, the wife of one of the founding fathers of the CIA. Frank Wisner, who had been a spy in Romania, was a target of J. Edgar Hoover and Senator Joseph McCarthy's anticommunist investigations and would commit suicide two and a half weeks later.

It's certainly an interesting case! I can't do a full accounting of it in this space, but if you want to learn more about it, check out the Wikipedia article about Mary Meyer. Or a few Google searches! The case was never officially solved....

Late in the day, I finally arrived at my destination for the night: Swain's Lock (lock #21). There are five walk-in campsites available on a first-come, first-serve basis, and I was somewhat surprised to discover that nobody else was there! Would I have the entire campsite to myself? There's a nearby place for cars to park with other campsites for the car campers, but I figured these walk-in sites by the river would be easy enough for car-campers to walk to as well and it's on the Potomac River! How could all of these sites be empty?! I wasn't complaining, though. Nope, I was quite happy about the situation! =)

One unexpected problem I had was that my hands were very sore by the end of the day from pushing the stroller. I hoped it wouldn't get much worse, and that my hands would harden the way my feet do at the start of a long-distance walk. I wondered if a less gear would have made pushing the stroller easier on my hands, but it's not like I was going to throw out gear on the side of the trail. I was stuck with it now.

Although the weather was currently clear, I set up my tarp since the weather forecast called for a better than 50/50 chance of rain during the night.

About an hour after my arrival, while cooking a meal of Hamburger Helper for dinner, a large group of about a dozen kids showed up taking a nearby campsite. My peace and silence was gone, but they weren't particularly loud or obnoxious kids. Just a large group of them.

After sunset, fireflies popped up all around camp which I enjoyed very much! =)

View by Little Falls, which wasn't as impressive as I had expected....
This kayak run is in the river channel formed by High Island. Some of the best kayakers in the United States train here year-round to take advantage of the temperate weather.
You'll be seeing a lot of the Potomac River on this hike since the canal follows alongside it for its entire 185-mile length. You might not always be able to see the river through the trees, but it's always close....

Lockhouses were were the people who ran the locks lived. Since they were on call 24/7, their houses were typically located adjacent to the lock that they ran.

Lock 7. The lower 20-or-so miles of the canal have been restored and are fully functional.
Lock 8, with the canal towpath to the left.
The American Legion Memorial Bridge, a part of I-495, was opened in 1962 and carries the Beltway over the canal and the Potomac River. It was built directly over lock 13, which is the structure you see under it.

Not only did I push a stroller, I had this flower on it to keep me company. It's wilting a bit in the heat and humidity, but still managing to smile! =)

A side channel on my way to see the viewpoint at Great Falls had its own set of impressive falls!

Great Falls!

The Charles F. Mercer is named after the first president of the canal company, and generally operates from Wednesday through Sunday, spring through fall. So if you actually want to go for a ride through the locks, this is your chance! But it didn't appear to be running when I passed by.... =(

This building served a dual purpose as the lockhouse for Lock 20 as well as an inn for visitors to Great Falls. Now it's a park visitors' center with interpretative displays and a bookshop.
My campsite for the night, overlooking the Potomac River!

View of the Potomac at dusk.


Baqash said...

Stroller comments. A jogger with three more aggressive wheels and longer adjustable handle might have worked better. I'm going to predict your back aches from the slight bend needed to reach the handles and push pavement wheels over dirt and rocks. Interesting idea though.

Kurious Jo said...

If you still plan to use the stroller you could put "Grab-Ons" on it. They are foam tubes that bicyclists use on their handlebars. And/or you could use biking gloves. That stroller idea is interesting!