Riding the Mount Vernon Trail

I have been doing some pretty long bike rides (at least in my opinion!) recently in preparation of the six day Pittsburgh to DC area ride with my high-school classmates that is happening at the end of August.  I can pretty much do the maximum one-day distance that we will have to cover during that ride, but doing this kind of a ride consistently for a few days is going to be my challenge.  After riding a few times I have found that it is possible to get into a rhythm with riding, and that my somewhat weaker left knee is getting stronger and more used to the effort.  I am getting less concerned about getting cramps in the leg muscles.  I am also learning how to tackle slopes, most of which we will encounter during the section of the ride from Pittsburgh into Cumberland, the halfway point.

I have been riding primarily on the C&O Canal towpath with one diversion a few weeks ago on to The Capital Crescent Trail towards Bethesda.  A couple of weeks ago I ventured across the Potomac River on the Key Bridge into Virginia and biked on the Mt. Vernon Trail towards National Airport.  I rode to the other side of the airport and during the return stopped at Gravelly Point to take pictures of the planes landing at the airport.
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That little venture into Virginia tempted me to attempt to cover the entire distance of the Mt. Vernon Trail all the way from Arlington to Mt. Vernon, a distance of 18 miles.  I planned the ride so that I would start off somewhere along the C&O canal, and transfer over to the Virginia side and ride to the end of the trail, finally returning to where I had started so that I could do my required quota for the ride.  I started off at Anglers Inn.

Approaching DC, I saw this.  I had to stop and take a picture of the black rat snake crossing the trail.
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It had been a while since I had seen one these snakes.  As I approached the snake with my camera, it appeared to pause on its journey across the trail to look at me (just my imagination, I guess 🙂 ).  It eventually made its way into the bushes on the other side of the trail.
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I crossed over the river on the Key Bridge at Georgetown on a very pleasant morning.  The commuter traffic was headed inbound into DC while I was headed out of town.  I descended to the Mt Vernon trail near Roosevelt Island and started to ride. Things  were going smoothly.  The wind seemed to be blowing against me, but the riding was easy.  The trail ran along the George Washington Memorial Parkway, and after riding under a few of the bridges crossing the Potomac into DC, I soon passed National Airport.  I was now entering new territory.

Th parkland that I had been riding through after I passed the airport soon ended at the outskirts of the town of Alexandria.  I found my way through the city streets to Union Street.  I rode through the touristy downtown area with its shops and restaurants.  There was a bike lane on the road and the riding was comfortable.   Just before the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, the trail detoured away from the road and ran under the bridge.  When I came up on the other side, I found myself at the section of George Washington Parkway on the other side of Alexandria.  I found the biking trail once again running by the roadway.

The trail ran though parks, crossed swamps over boardwalks,  , meandered through wooded areas with streams, bridges, and ups and downs, and even diverted through affluent suburban neighborhoods where a trail could not be laid.  The Potomac flowed beside the trail, sometimes close by, and sometimes in the distance.  I finally made it to Mt. Vernon and mile zero of the trail in time to park myself on a park bench and have my lunch.  The last half mile of the ride was a particular challenge up a hill.
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The ride back seemed to be easier on the legs, probably because of the direction of the wind, but it was also getting warmer and I was beginning to drink more of the water I was carrying.  Instead on focusing on completing the ride as efficiently as possible, I took more time stopping and taking pictures along the way.  Here are some samples.
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I was still feeling strong as I crossed back into Maryland.  I was able to ride up from the pathway next to Roosevelt Island on to the bridge over the George Washington Parkway and then on to the Key Bridge.  I felt good because I had to get off the bike the previous time I had to cover this section.

Back on the Maryland side I crossed the bridge over the canal and started my return back to Anglers Inn.
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I stopped at Fletcher’s Cove along the way to replenish the water bottles.  It was getting quite humid and I was drinking more water than I had expected.  (I even demolished the bottle of water that I had left in the car after I got back!) The rest of the ride was uneventful.

Hushinish, Scotland

Hushinish, a little village on the Isle of Harris, was one of our destinations during the trip to the Outer Hebrides in Scotland.  We had started the morning with a big breakfast at the Garybuie B&B on the Isle of Skye and driven quickly to Uig to catch a ferry to the village of Tarbert in Harris.  Unfortunately the day had started with bad weather, and it looked like this was going to continue at our destination and through the day.  This was what it looked like at Tarbert just as we were docking.
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We were determined to continue with our adventures come what may.  We started out driving to the southern tip of Harris.    It was clear that driving through the rains would be made more of an adventure than usual because the narrow and winding roads through the stark rocky landscape were for the most part one-way affairs.  There was no place for cars to pass each other other than at the occasional passing lanes.  When two cars approached each other, the first one that got to the the passing lane waited for the other one to to get to it and pass it before proceeding.  It was a process that took some getting used to, and was easier said than done.  There were places where I had to back up, and doing that in a car with a manual gear shift that I had not used for many years made it more interesting.  If you steered incorrectly your wheels could go off the road, and in the worst case you could hit something and/or fall off the side of a hill!

We got to our destination of Rodel at the tip of Harris and visited St. Clements Church.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter quickly taking in the view beyond the southern tip of the Outer Hebrides (in the rain), we drove back to Tarbert using a smaller country road.  This drive was even more awesome and thrilling, with the narrow path winding between rocky outcrops and little lochs,  and through little villages by the coast.

After getting back to Tarbert, we continued on to our next stop.  In addition to the destination of the village of Hushinish at the western end of a country road going across the island, we had read that we could also visit the remains of a whaling station at Bun Abhainn Eadarra, and perhaps see some white tailed sea eagles at the North Harris Eagle Observatory.  Unfortunately none of the secondary objectives were met due to the time factor and due to the weather.

Shortly out of Tarbert we had to turn off the main road between Tarbert and Stornoway (A859) to get on to the one-lane country road  (B887) to take us to Hushinish.  This was even more of an adventure than what we had experienced before.  It took a long while to negotiate the 13 mile stretch of roadway to its terminus. The road wound its way through the rocky landscape with plenty of twists and turns and switchbacks. And it continued to rain.  There was enough tension in the passenger seat beside the driver during the ride that we had to switch riders, but I was enjoying myself!
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We passed a tennis court in the middle of nowhere during the early part of the ride.  Since Andy Murray is from Scotland, we were wondering if he had anything to do with it.  Apparently not.  We  encountered cows that refused to move from the road.  The side of the car might have actually touched a big one with a nose-ring when I attempted to get past. The cows kept going about their business. These guys seems to think that they owned the road.  Perhaps they do.  Fortunately, they are most docile.  We saw Highland cows (also called Hairy Coos by the Scots) at some point.   This was a moment of much celebration in the car since we had been on the lookout for these unique animals ever since the beginning of the ride!
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We saw people getting ready for a walk at a place that appeared to be the start of the trail to the eagle observatory. It seems that they were well prepared for the rain and were determined to get to their destination in spite of the weather. They were not to be deterred by it. (We actually saw walkers in many areas, including a couple in Hushinish itself, who had the same attitude when it came to walking.)  We passed the Amhuinnsuidhe Castle.  And then the road got worse for the last few miles.
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When we arrived at Hushinish it was pouring.  I could see the beach and about three or four houses on the other side of the beach.   There was a small parking area and one other vehicle.   We made sure we had our raincoats all zippered up before we opened the car doors.  I put a plastic bag over my camera when I stepped out.  The wind was howling.  The adults walked just a little bit, bracing themselves against the gusts of wind, while the young ones climbed  the cliff to get a view of the ocean in the distance.  (You can barely make the kids out in the top left corner of the second picture.)
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We waited beside a rock for the kids to come back.  You could see the island of Scarp in the distance.  The island was last permanently inhabited in 1971, and you can barely see the remains of the settlement in the picture below.
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The sheep watched us with amusement undeterred by the weather.
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The clothes on our lower extremities were completely wet by the time we got back to the car.  It was time to move on.

As we drove away I stopped to take this picture of the beach.  You can see the few houses that remain.
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We drove back to the main road to Stornoway and proceeded north.  Before we got to Stornoway, we stopped to see the Callanish Stones and the Dun Carloway broch.  The stones are from the neolithic age, while the broch is most likely from the first century AD.  There is indeed a lot of old history on the islands.
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The rain was beginning subside by the time we got to Stornoway.  After checking into our room we found our way to a table at the pub to conclude the evening with some fine food and drink.  We raised a toast to the end of yet another memorable day of our vacation in Scotland.

Ullapool, Scotland

I am not sure if there is anything really special about Ullapool up in the highlands of mainland Scotland, on its western coast, that that makes it more notable than other towns in the highlands.  In a sense, all of these towns and villages are notable just because of where they happen to be, and what you can do in these places.  But we did happen to spend an evening in Ullapool and came to appreciate it a little more than some of the other places that we simply drove through.

Ullapool lies at the end of the approximately two and a half hour ferry ride from Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides.  Since we were getting there on the ferry in the evening, we decided to spend the night in town before proceeding further north towards Durness.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGetting there was an experience in itself. The ferry boat was huge and carrying a nearly full complement of vehicles and passengers, to the extent that our car was carried on an elevated floor/deck in the ship that was suspended from a roof, a floor/deck that could be retracted when not in use.  This was above the level that vehicles traveled on when the ship was not that full.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAUllapool gave the impression of being a typical village by the waters, with Lock Broom  facing it, its harbor with the fishing boats, and the waterside main street.
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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASince we had enough time before sunset, we decided to find a hiking trail to tackle that evening.  The trail that was selected started behind our hotel and the steep climb started almost immediately.  It was unexpected!  Soon we were on a hillside covered with gorse, with a view into Loch Broom and the little town of Ullapool below us.  Our ferry boat was heading back out of Loch Broom to the Sea of Hebrides and on to Stornoway with the sun beginning its descent in the clouds behind the mountains.
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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe climb continued and did not let up.  We went beyond the initial destination of a bench that we had seen on the mountain from the bottom of the hill.  In the distance we sighted another challenge, the rocky top of Meall Mor.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASome of us could not resist the challenge.  We made it to the top of that hill.  Loch Achall came into view on the other side of the hill, and towards the north stretched a rocky plateau.  One could imagine the Cape Wrath Trail running through this  challenging terrain all the way up to Durness.  Something to consider for another day, perhaps another life.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn the other direction lay the end of Loch Broom.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe stopped for a minute to enjoy the view and add another rock to the cairn at the top.  We then turned to head back to town.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe sun was low in the sky when we got back and we set out to find a place to eat.  The pubs were busy but we did find a place to set our butts down and get a dram of the local nectar, a pint of beer, and some pub food.  After that we walked through town looking for the grocery store that we had seen on the map.  We then headed back to the hotel, enjoying the cool evening and the ice-cream bars that had just been purchased.  Folks settled down for the night to watch a horrendous movie called Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.  Some of us rushed out of the room during the movie and ran through town trying to find a good place to experience the colorful sunset that I had gotten a hint of through the hotel window.  We were not very successful.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe next morning we went down to the hotel’s restaurant for another filling Scottish breakfast (which can include haggis, black pudding, sausage, bacon, eggs and beans). We then packed our bags and headed out.  The only other stop in town before we set ourselves on the road to Durness and our next round of adventure was at the petrol bunk.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Spare

My response follows Krista’s interpretation in her blog presenting the challenge.

The following pictures are from our recent trip to Scotland.  I thought the sparse landscape was “elegantly simple”.  You have to immerse yourself in what you are seeing to get an appreciation of the grandness of the somewhat stark landscape.  If you click through these pictures and view them on a screen with sufficient resolution, you might get a better sense of what we felt.

The first picture is of the landscape along the shores of the mainland as we sailed into Ullapool on the mainland from Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe next picture is of the landscape and the road taken during our trip to Hushinish in a remote corner of the Isle of Harris in the Outer Herbrides.  The drive on a single lane road under adverse weather conditions was quite challenging and thrilling.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis last picture was taken when passing through the Cairngorm mountains of the Cairngorms National Park.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI hope one gets a better sense of the rugged beauty of the country of Scotland.

The Sun Rises Early in Scotland These Days

We just returned from a long vacation in Scotland. There were too many highlights for me to try to cover in a single posting.  It all started with our experiences in the vibrant city of Edinburgh.  This was followed by our travels around the country, including the Highlands, the Isle of Skye, and the Outer Hebrides.

Scotland is a beautiful land with a unique landscape including:
Rugged coastlines – with their massive weather-worn cliffs and their lonely lighthouses; beaches of white sand and clear blue waters; and meadows of soft wet grass above the cliffs that your feet sink into, with streams of water running through the meadows, with content sheep, and sometimes cows,  grazing in them;
Impressive rock-faced mountains towering over the landscape, sometimes with their tops in the cloud, their lower levels littered with  patches of yellow gorse at this time of year, and including trails that would  challenge the fittest person;
The numerous streams and rivers flowing through the valleys amidst the hills and mountains;

The landscape inter-spaced with its many lochs and firths lending a unique charm;
The numerous castles and ruins that surprise you at many a turn in the roadway;
and so on and so forth….

I should not leave out:
Walks and challenging hikes taken in our beautiful surroundings;
The thrill of the challenging drives through the narrow winding roads of the highlands, with single lane roads, timing yourself to pass cars going the other way in the occasional passing areas;

The experience of being at the Gordon Castle Highland Games.

Perhaps I should also not fail to mention:
The welcoming and easygoing people that populate this unique country;
Evenings at Bed and Breakfast establishments with their gracious hosts;
The family dinners at the pubs after long tiring days, accompanied by a pint of beer and/or a dram or two of scotch whisky;
Falling into a state of deep slumber at night that nobody could disturb, knowing that there was more to be experienced the next day;

Waking up early in the morning to start your explorations once again, only because the sun rises early in Scotland these days.

It all comes back to me in an jumbled and perhaps incoherent flow of thought.  Words will fail in any attempt to present a more organized picture of what we experienced unless I take a long time going about it.  So, for now, I will just show a sample of some of my pictures, with the hope that I will continue to feel the glow of the experience and am able to talk more about Scotland in future blogs.  Life will now return back to its regular pace, but the memories will not go away.

This picture of Edinburgh Castle taken from Holyrood Park. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
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The following are from Cairngorms National Park.
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This is the Eilean Donan, reputed to be the castle most photographed. The weather did not cooperate for the picture.
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This one is from our walk at the Butt of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.
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This is from Hushinish in the Other Hebrides.
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We climbed Meall Mor outside Ullapool.
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Early morning in Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides. (I awoke at 4am that morning because I could not sleep!)
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People awaiting the sunset on Calton hill in Edinburgh.
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From the Gordon Castle Highland Games.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
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These are a small sample of pictures taken.  I hope to share more of them in future blogs.

The Young Lady from San Francisco

The sun was out for a change and it was the perfect weather for a walk after a week of constant downpours.  The river and the creek were running high. The puddles along the trail did little to dampen the spirit, perhaps they added a positive element to the experience in spite of our complaints.

We met her on the trail while walking north of Riley’s Lock on the C&O canal towpath.  She overtook us on her bicycle shortly into our walk.  The panniers on the bike were loaded with stuff, and I remember thinking to myself that she must be riding a long way.  She seemed to be riding at a very relaxed pace.

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We found her again when we reached the Horsepen Branch Hiker/Biker campsite where she had stopped for a break.

It was just coincidence that we had decided to leave the trail to try to find a way down to the river side from this campsite. As we were walking by I asked her where she was going.  She informed us that she was headed for Pittsburgh.  We got to talking.

She was from San Francisco and she was doing this ride on her own.  She thought she might complete the ride in 8 days, but she really was not stuck on a schedule.  She was camping out at the Hiker/Biker sites along the towpath during the nights.  She was not clear yet on where she was going to stay along the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP).   Her bike could be folded and she figured that she could pack it up and take a bus if anything went wrong anywhere along the way.  When I spoke about the possible challenge crossing the mountains after Cumberland, she informed us that she covered those kinds of elevations when biking to work in the mornings.  This ride should not be a problem!

We heard that she had just biked from Washington DC to Richmond and Williamsburg in Virginia.  She was really enjoying the experience of riding the trail after having been on the roads during that ride.

We thought she was pretty gutsy to do this kind of a ride on her own, and her mindset in tackling something like this was quite refreshing.  She did not appear to be naive about the kind of risks involved in this kind of an endeavor, but I could not be sure.  In the end we wished her good luck and parted ways.

This encounter was a bonus to the wonderful walk that we had.

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Caught my Attention

Was it…

The spring flowers that lined the trail with different colors in different in sections,
Or the light tinge of green beginning to appear among the branches of the trees;

The big fat bird that I sighted in the distance,
That kept running away from me along the trail as I slowly caught up with it,
That eventually managed to lift its huge and somewhat ungainly body off the ground
and disappear into the woods around a corner;

The small turtle crossing the trail oblivious to the dangers posed by folks like me;

The big turtles perched on the logs in the waters of the canal warming themselves,
Or swimming in the clear waters with their backs sticking out above water level;

The incredibly bright red cardinals zipping across the trail in front of me;

The extremely loud pecking of the woodpecker ringing through the woods;

The fox crossing the trail and the canal as I approached;

The barred owl that rose from a tree just beside the trail as I went by,
Flying off to settle on a tree further away from the trail to stare at me;

The vultures that reluctantly rose from the trail as I approached,
Only to land on the trees above the trail to watch me go by;

The appearance of the two dogs that seemed to have no master,
One approaching me with an awkward and sideways gait,
Seemingly looking at me warily out of the corner of one eye,
And the other running away to the berm side of the canal to stare at me from the distance?

But the overall result was a great time riding my bike even though I did not stop to smell the roses, and even as I covered 20 miles in each direction along the towpath in  preparation for the ride from Pittsburgh to the DC area happening later in the year.