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Biking 335 miles with my family took a whole lot of planning — and a little bit of magic

The author's husband and two sons on the C&O Canal Towpath, June 2022. (Courtesy Mandy Syers)
The author's husband and two sons on the C&O Canal Towpath, June 2022. (Courtesy Mandy Syers)

When I was 20, some friends and I decided to ride bikes across the United States. I bought panniers, a sleeping bag and a camping stove, and that was it. I didn't bring a tent because I thought it would be cool to sleep under the stars. Our first night, at a campground in Seattle, I woke up drenched with rain. I moved under the bathroom overhang for shelter — and in the morning lay in a puddle that smelled like sewage.

Thirty-two years later, I'm a bit more forward-thinking. I have a husband and two kids, and this was the summer I decided we were ready for our first fully loaded bike tour. I was so excited to introduce my family to the adventures of the road!

In 1990, it was enough to stick a road atlas in my panniers and start pedaling. But that was before cell phones, and we lost each other all the time. We hit construction and had to backtrack for miles. Our bikes broke in the middle of nowhere. We ran out of water, of money, of daylight. I laugh at those things now, but they were not fun at the time, and they'd be even less fun as a family. I wanted my kids to have a good first experience, so I got to planning.

Safety first, of course. For our route I chose the C&O Canal Towpath and the Great Allegheny Passage, 335 miles of gravel trail — no roads, no cars. I hate bike paths, actually, but it would be safe and mostly flat. Plus, we could learn about the towpath’s history as a trade route: how the mules pulled the boats in the canal along the Potomac River.

I’d decided not to camp since the extra gear would weigh down the bikes and make work. We’d stay at inns. But traveling by bike, you have to be flexible. Mechanical problems or bad weather can keep you from reaching your destination. In truth, it wouldn't even be a bike trip without setbacks, but I hoped to limit ours to minor ones. A flat tire or getting caught in the rain would be discouraging, but nothing we couldn’t overcome with patch kits and rain covers. We'd be self-reliant and prepared for anything. We had bike tools. A first-aid kit. Zip ties.

335 miles biked from Washington, D.C., to Pittsburgh, and the author's beloved panniers with patches from states through which she's biked -- two more added for this trip. June 2022. (Courtesy Mandy Syers)
335 miles biked from Washington, D.C., to Pittsburgh, and the author's beloved panniers with patches from states through which she's biked -- two more added for this trip. June 2022. (Courtesy Mandy Syers)

Because so many people ride this trail, there's a handy trip planner that shows not only the mileage between towns, but which ones have lodging, groceries and bike shops. I poured over the planner, balancing the mileage across our six riding days, making reservations at inns and confirming that they could be canceled if our plans changed (which they did). One inn was just 0.2 miles off the bike path. Perfect! I booked it. But further research showed it was across the river, with no bridge, and a ferry that hadn't run since COVID. Know what's not fun on a bike trip? Rolling into town at the end of the day — hungry and saddle sore — only to learn you have to ride 20 more miles to the next town.

Velcro rubbing your leg? I had sewing scissors. Mosquito bites? I had itch cream. If you needed it, I'd reduced it to its minimum weight and divided it among our panniers. My younger son didn't even carry panniers, only a handlebar bag with his music and an obscene amount of candy. I don't know if the mule drivers used the carrot-and-stick method on the towpath, but I did.

The trip went off without a hitch. It was amazing. We were doing it! The scenery was beautiful. We saw the Lincoln Memorial, swam in the Potomac, crossed the Mason-Dixon line. But as the days went on, it felt like something was missing.

In 1990, we had a lot of problems, but every day we experienced a certain kind of road magic: the kindness of strangers who invited us to camp on their land, use their washer and dryer, join their pig roast. In Bath, New York, we took our waitress "home" to camp with us. In an electrical storm, a family insisted we sleep in their living room. The next morning, I woke to their child asking, "Mom, why are you up so early?" and soon the house filled with the smell of coffee and fresh-baked muffins.

Nothing like that happened on the well-worn bike path, where even the restaurants sold spare tubes, and you couldn’t go an hour without waving to cyclists doing the same trip in the opposite direction. We stayed in Airbnbs and never saw the owners. We went from point A to point B without problems. But we were missing the very best part: the people in between.

The four bikes that took the author, her husband and two sons from Washington, D.C., to Pittsburgh -- along with panniers, water bottles and an untold number of snacks. (Courtesy Mandy Syers)
The four bikes that took the author, her husband and two sons from Washington, D.C., to Pittsburgh -- along with panniers, water bottles and an untold number of snacks. (Courtesy Mandy Syers)

From Cumberland, Maryland, to the top of the Continental Divide is a gradual but relentless 25-mile climb. It was hot, and we'd been warned not to miss a crucial water stop in a small town with a 7-Eleven. But when we got there, we saw no town. A man in a pickup truck told us it was “just up the hill.” My younger son looked at the long, steep hill, got off his bike, and — like the mules of old — refused to budge.

If I'd known about the hill I'd have planned around it. Carried more water. Something. But, of course, you can't plan everything.

And that’s when the road magic happened. The man in the pickup, observing our standoff, offered to drive my son and husband up the hill. They loaded their bikes in his truck, and when I next saw my son, he was joyously mixing red and blue at the Slurpee machine. The man was gone, having refused a six-pack or even a soda.

Rejuvenated, my son peaked the Continental Divide and flew down the long descent, shouting out the mile markers as he whizzed past them. To the man in the pickup, thank you. With a little road magic at my back, I felt rejuvenated too.

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Mandy Syers Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Mandy Syers is a writer and volunteer EMT in Providence, Rhode Island.

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