With the weekend drawing nearer, the weather forecast started to become much more foremost in my mind. When we planned this, the 10 day outlook was calling for a low of just under 30 overnight. That's only a couple of degrees cooler than when the Pickle and I went. Plus, we were taking a fleece blanket that I got for Christmas and also planned on zipping the bags together. That should easily make a nice warm bed for around 28F.
Science is a funny thing. You can learn everything there is to conceivably know about how something works; you can go to school, master your craft, even bring in expensive computers to crunch all the numbers. However, regardless of your level of education, experience, or deal you've made with Lucifer, when you're a meteorologist, let's be honest...you're just fucking guessing.
The forecast for Sunday, and Monday, started to alter wildly, hour to hour and across different 'authoritative' sources. Two days out, The Weather Channel's website was showing a low of 19, the National Weather Service was showing 26, and the local news for the area was showing 30. One day before we ride, they all pretty much just looked at each other and traded. Not knowing who to really believe, we planned for the worst of the three and subtract 5 degrees... which, by Saturday afternoon was an overnight low of 24 and a Sunday high around 35.
We got on the bikes at about 10:30A.M. Sunday morning. It was 26 degrees with a 30mph headwind. The temperature never really went up from there.
My biggest concern had been Big D's fingers and toes. Because she, like many other women, possesses a vagina, and is therefore always colder than me. I think the vagina acts as some sort of primitive radiator... . I don't know. That said, she was tricked out with chemical toe warmers, wool socks, and wind proof booties over her shoes. She had these gargantuan split mitten glove like contraptions called lobster claws that make her look like a Sleestack from the “Land of the Lost” and a second pair of gloves inside of those.
About 2 miles in, I was the one having the problem. The gloves I had bought for colder (that's 'colder', not 'cold') weren't working. We were going to have to either solve the problem now, or turn back. Fortunately, D had a different pair of gloves she could put under the Sleestacks and gave me what she had been using that barely squeezed into my gloves as a liner. That seemed to fix the issue and we pressed on.
Everything was frozen and pretty barren. We had hoped for this for one reason: Mud abatement. The Pickle and I discovered the collective suck that is a muddy C&O two weeks early, and D and I were not looking for a repeat. The puddles were frozen over, but my 100lb bike would crunch through to the little bit of liquid water below. While this gave me a satisfaction similar to what you get from popping bubble wrap, it would come back to haunt me later. The headwind (sometimes a side-ish head wind) kept slowing us down and trying to push us off the trail. The bikes, when loaded, are a lot like driving a loaded lorry. They have a tendency to go where they want, and you have to kind of ride it out, especially over the puddles.
We stopped for lunch in the ruins of an old Lock House. It gave us the chance to get out of the wind and soak up some sun. It was about the 12 mile point, so it also gave us a chance to discuss our options and check our status. 12 miles was any easy ride back if we wanted to call it off, and heading forward was going to be a commitment. Point of Rocks was about 18 miles up the trail and, and I knew there was a solid convenience store there that would be open and have coffee. We decided to press.
We continued crunching along the trail, over and through the iced-over puddles for a couple more hours, taking breaks here and there. It was really quiet. Even near the access points there wasn't really a soul to be seen, accept for the occasional bird watcher. No one really wanted to be outside I guess. It's rare to find that kind of quiet in MD. The trail has a character all its own. Sometimes it's a friendly, smooth hard-packed surface that almost helps you along. Then its mood changes and it's a soggy, rutted, unfriendly bitch. The Park's Service Vehicles leave just enough of an imprint that in locations less frequently used, it's a clearly defined double snake trail. You have to choose between the tire tracks, which are littered with iced or partly iced puddles, or the middle, which has weeds and grass and tends to be pretty choppy.
We came to a placed devoid of tree cover and the Sun had been on it. Even in the low temperatures, the ice had melted under the Sun and the double snake trail became an angry sloth. Our tires flipped muddy water up onto everything (we don't have fenders...yet), and the going was slow for a bit. We were glad to get back to the shade. We had no idea that that section of trail was put there by the trail gods as a warning. We would find out soon enough the harbinger it was.
At about 25 miles in we started to notice dragging sounds on our wheels. The funny thing about riding a long distance in sub-freezing temperatures. Get this: Shit freezes. What shit freezes? All...shit...freezes. We had anticipated our caged water bottles freezing (which they had), but we didn't think about all the water and mud that had been flipping up onto our bikes freezing. Yeah, it was cathartic like bubble wrap to pop those puddles, but now we were paying for it mechanically. Every drop of water and splatteration of mud had frozen to wherever it had landed. D hadn't used her front derailleur to change gears yet, and that’s good, because she wasn't going to. We had cement-hard stalagmites growing under the breaks, between the frame and the tires, on the pulley wheels, cables, derailleurs—everything. We had to make repeated stops to whack mud out of critical components and the tires to keep things moving. Mud even grew up from my bottom water bottle until it rubbed the tire. But it didn't stop our fun, we kept calm, and Chived on.
About 3miles from Point of Rocks, D's feet started to get cold. The toe warmer had quit her. We pulled into POR at the convenience store and took about a 30 minute break. The sun was beating down on the store front, so I let the bikes thaw a bit and took the opportunity to knock off some of the goofy mud formations. The shop keeper and a couple of customers were interested in what we were doing, so we had some fun conversations while we drank our coffee.
A rewarding aspect of traveling off the beaten path, and in a manner that people find unique, is that everyone wants to be part of it a little bit. It's interesting and different. When people see the loaded bikes, they are curious and want to know everything you'll tell them about what you're doing, where you came from and what you plans are. I look forward to a lot more of that in the future. I imagine I'm going to meet some pretty interesting folks doing this.
We made it to camp about 4:15p.m. It was 28F when we stopped pedaling. We were between Point of Rocks and Brunswick at a hiker/biker campsite called “Bald Eagle Island”. It wasn't an island. I couldn’t even see an island. And of course, it was next to the train tracks—again. At least there weren't any track crossings nearby, and hence, no requirement for trains to blow their horns as they passed.
The temperature was dropping pretty quickly so we didn't mess around. After throwing the tent up, D set to putting our bed together and organizing our belongings while I gathered a metric ass-load of firewood. I had prepared some cotton balls with petroleum jelly in a bag before we left as a fire starter. If you've never done that, try it. One cotton ball will burn a 3 inch tall flame for over 5 minutes. I used 3. I wanted a fire and I didn't want a discussion about it.
We ended up having a pretty kick ass fire, which was great while we made dinner. We had backpacker food like the last time. We had planned on cooking but decided the cold weather was something we'd rather not do dishes in. Once the Sun had been down about 30 minutes, we figured there was no sense burning up the rest of our wood to stay warm and headed to the tent.
After being in the bags for about 30 minutes. D started getting cold. That is never a good sign when you have a long night ahead of you and it's not even 8 o'clock. I got her warmed up again with body heat, but I didn't want to deal with this at 2 in the morning, and decided to just go get the space blanket. The space blanket (if you've never used one) is a piece of Mylar impregnated with magic ferry dust or something that makes it reflect 90% of incoming heat. It's crinkly like tin foil, but stupid warm. We started out with it on top of our bags, but it kept running away, so we pinned it between our bags and out fleece blanket. There were no more issues with cold that night.
The overnight low was 16F, and the winds blew almost constantly. Aside from a couple VERY quick bathroom outings, we slept pretty well.