Sunday, August 3, 2008

Biking Through History - The Civil War Northern Campaign on a Bike

I arrived nearly 150 years too late for the battle of Antietam. The signs of war however were still evident across the Maryland landscape. Burnside Bridge still crosses Antietam creek, General Stonewall Jackson’s artillery pieces still stand and the soldiers, they’re still there too. Being an armchair historian and a weekend bike rider, I signed up for the five day bike ride across Virginia and Maryland billed as the Civil War Odyssey. This ride through history would give me some insight about the people that traveled through this part of the country in the 1860’s.

The journey was also a personal test of my mental and physical fitness. Could I at midlife, a desk jockey and never much of an athlete, complete a journey of nearly 250 miles in five days? As I biked past the now deserted artillery, memorials, and gravestones, I couldn’t help but compare the heat of this June day with what it must have been like for the soldiers wearing wool uniforms and carrying their weapons and gear.

I joined 1800 other riders for the Bike Virginia tour several years ago. Each day we would ride more than I had ever ridden. The journey was more than I expected in many ways, from the physical demands to the mental challenge of conquering miles of hills and heat.
On the first day out it was crowded. A nice warm morning that that would heat up to about 92 degrees as we headed for the far off Blue Ridge mountains. Pedaling uphill, just before the rest stop, I was on my knees in the middle of the road. I had cramps in my thighs so bad my left leg went straight and wouldn’t bend at the knee. I had to hobble off my bike, while other riders swerved around me. I pounded the back of my leg with my fist several times to make it bend, and then I slumped to my knees and some relief. Many bikers asked if I needed help or encouraged me that the rest area was just over the next hill. I finally made it to the first official rest stop at the Oasis Winery. I wanted to stay there. Only twenty miles from the morning start and I was ready to go home.

After a refreshing rest I was ready to get back on my bike. I was wondering if I had made the right choice when I heard the sound of an ambulance coming our way. As I departed the rest area, I discovered that a fellow biker had hit a large pothole in the middle of a downhill run sending him flying into a nearby ditch with a concussion and neck injuries. This was just the beginning, as a number of other accidents would happen throughout the next few days sending some people home or to the hospital with heat stroke, dislocated shoulders or minor scrapes. At times, I wondered why I was doing this to myself.

As I began 1,350-foot climb over the Chester Gap I thought of the marching soldiers and men on horses who traveled this same area with Lee, Longstreet and Hill. During the first few hours of my journey, I learned some lessons that weren’t written in the brochure. Lessons that only experience can provide. Being a photographer for much of my life, I figured I would document my adventure and the scenic beauty of Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. On my first day out I loaded my new, removable bike pack, with a few items for the trip. My packing list included a much too heavy camera, zoom lens, 20mm wide angle lens, rain jacket, Band-Aids, map, 2 power bars, patch kit, power inflator, spare inner tube, and a hand pump. I also loaded up with two bottles of water and a 70-ounce camel back to keep me hydrated. Obviously, I had never ridden with all this gear or I wouldn’t be contemplating burying it near the roadside after fifteen miles.

My feelings of getting rid of my precious gear made me think of the soldiers who came this way carrying water, guns and ammo in this heat. Moreover, I wasn't wearing a wook uniform and didn’t have an enemy firing at me, although at times I thought the road and heat were out to kill me. I also jammed a few other items into the pack, a spare t-shirt and of course sunblock and lip balm. For the second day of biking, I only carried the water and spare tube. This experience helped me to understand the stories I read about soldiers leaving their equipment and packs along fencerows or just dropping them in the field. There comes a time, I realized, that material things just don’t seem so important when faced with exhaustion and heat stress.
Our organizers were like an army of logisticians. The entire trip was the most well planned and executed sport event I have attended. Rest stops were provided every ten or fifteen miles with Gatorade, water, snacks and fruit. There was constant monitoring of the course by the organizers with vans that would pick up or assist anyone having bike problems, injuries or just too tired. Seeing someone in distress the volunteers would pick them up, put the bike on the roof and take them to the next rest stop. At each stop, there would be bicycle repair trailers for adjustments or overhauls.

The average age of the riders was 45. The youngest rider was 8 and the oldest 78. Although there were a few younger riders being pulled along in custom carts as families came out to enjoy the countryside. One couple with a newborn would split the days’ ride in half. One would ride 20 or 30 miles in the morning while the other would take care of the baby. There was even a blind rider, who passed me - He was riding with a friend on a tandem bike.

I finished each day in total exhaustion but with a feeling of satisfaction, having moved closer to completing a goal that at one time seemed insurmountable. I gained a new appreciation for those who lived through the Civil War and look forward to riding with the people from Bike Virginia in the future.