Hancock to Paw-Paw - The woman who sat on the toilet too long (and other odd American tales) - CycleBlaze

May 7, 2014

Hancock to Paw-Paw

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BOY, IT RAINED today. I didn't stay actually in Hancock last night but at a campground up in the hills near Warfordsburg. This is Pennyslvania. And my limited experience of Pennsylvania is that it has been laid out to annoy me. It is just a series of unreasonably steep ridges arranged so that I have to ride over each only to descend to and then grovel over the next. You'll understand that my eyes were operating independently by the time I got there.

But no matter, I thought, I'll be fresher this morning and I'll barely notice them. Which was true up to a point but repaid by an apocalypse sky and rain and lightning by the time I left Hancock once more.

And it rained, and it rained.

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For a while it made no difference. Maryland, which has the richest population of all the states, has laid an icing-smooth bike path on its side of the canal so that it can scoff at the folk on the other. But in the end the money ran out and a self-consciously understated sign pushes you back to the left and the paupers' trail you left 30km earlier. And it was soggy, swamped with long puddles and an unhappy ride.

I was impressed by the attractive signs. You too?
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I crossed with a group riding the other way on hired bikes. Their brochure had never pictured this. They'd signed on for sunshine and the gentle rustle of deer in the undergrowth.

I made a point of wishing each of them a good morning. Hardly anyone replied. The one who did just said "Isn't" and struggled grimly on.

If all else fails, get a lift back to the start from here
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Now, this is surely the prettiest stretch of the canal, all trees and flooded woods and the horizon never more than an angel's sigh away.

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The path turns constantly through mountains that lie on each side. That alone is reason to ride it. But you never know where you are. My notes said to look out for Little Orleans, but I never saw it. I was still 18km from Paw-Paw when I expected to reach it at any moment.

Canal calm
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And then, at last, came the tunnel. Everyone who has ridden this way remembers Paw-Paw tunnel, dark but my moment's relief from the returning showers.

It's 850m long and they reckoned it would take 18 months to dig. It took 14 years and cost five times more than they thought. You can still see the heaps of slag pulled out of the digging back in 1836... and the 14 years that followed. And even then they hadn't decided who'd have priority. Usually there weren't enough boats to matter. All it took was sending a boy down to hang a lantern at the other end. That showed there was a boat in the tunnel and anyone coming the other way would wait.

But it didn't always work. Folk here still talk of the day two boats met in the middle. Normally boatmen sorted out things like this with a lot of argument and grumbling and one would then go back the way he'd come. But one day neither would give in. They stayed nose to nose like bickering dogs for days. Queues of boats built up at both ends.

In the end the man in charge of the tunnel walked down to the end from which the wind was blowing. He lit a fire of corn stalks and literally smoked both boats out.

Nice to know it's not just car drivers who can be bloody-minded.

The canal path was filthy after all the rain - but provided its own bike-washing solutions
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Paw-Paw tunnel: two canal boats got stuck in here while each denied the other right of passage. They had to be smoked out.
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Hallo darkness my old friend...
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...I've come to be with you again
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And from the darkness, let there be light...
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Today's ride: 60 km (37 miles)
Total: 322 km (200 miles)

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