Riding a bicycle is a great way to explore a battlefield.
And Gettysburg is a wonderful battlefield to explore.
Beautifully preserved as a national treasure, the site is littered with memorials to the men who fought to a standstill there over three brutal days in July 1863, at the height of the American Civil War.
Some places that saw the worst of the fighting are legendary … Little Round Top, Pickett’s Charge, the Wheatfield.
We stood alone in the Wheatfield at sunset, having cycled around the park after the crowds and tour buses had left for the day.
It’s now a peaceful and beautiful spot but it was impossible not to be moved by the imagined horrors of that day.
This small field changed hands four times in a series of confused attacks and counterattacks. By the time they had finished, over 6000 men lay dead and injured on the ground.
Two days later, we came across an even deadlier crop … the Cornfield at Antietam.
Nine months earlier, in September 1862, twenty five thousand men fought backwards and forwards through this field, firing at point blank range through the thick, high stalks of corn.
It seems we picked some of the most brutal civil war sites to visit. Gettysburg was the bloodiest battle of the war. Antietam was the bloodiest single day. Both were important as they fended off Confederate invasions of the north.
Antietam had a wider impact as it gave Lincoln the ‘victory’ he needed to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, extending the objectives of the war to free the slaves as well as to preserve the union.
That proclamation meant that John Browns body was probably spinning in his grave. Spinning with delight that is.
A fireball abolitionist, John Brown led an ill feted raid on the weapons store at Harpers Ferry a few years before the war, hoping to incite a slave rebellion. The raid failed miserably and he was strung up for his trouble but it proved to be one of the catalysts for the war … and for the eventual freedom for the slaves.
Today, Harpers Ferry is one of the main stopovers on the C&O Canal Towpath, a bucket list trip for many American touring cyclists as it’s part of a bike trail that goes all the way to Pittsburgh.
We hadn’t seen a single touring cyclist on the winding roads of New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland or Pennsylvania … but now it became impossible to miss them. On a pleasant Sunday in September the C&O transformed into a pannier clad bicycle super-highway!
Beautifully maintained as a National Park, the canal path led us through an old lowland forest full of American Sycamore, Silver Maple and Box Elder, so thick their branches only offered the occasional tantalising glimpse of the lazy Potomac river beyond.
Most of the trail is made from small pieces of ‘crush and run’ gravel which are then covered in stone dust. It’s smooth as silk.
Closer to Washington the trail became a bit rougher, full of sharp stones and tree roots. We were happy that our new German engineered Ergon saddles kept their promise to dampen down the vibrations.
After a 100km our bottoms were ready to stop, so we were also very happy when the canal dropped us off right in the centre of downtown Washington DC.
Washington is justly famous for many reasons … the White House, the Lincoln Memorial, Capitol Hill. But for tourists it has simply become famous as the capital of “Free-Stuff-To-Do”.
This is mainly down to an English chap called Smithson who died in 1829, leaving some money in his will “to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men.”
He’d never even set foot in the United States so why he did this remains a mystery. To create a legacy? Or from a chip on his shoulder at his treatment by the class-obsessed English?
Whatever the reason, the American President was naturally curious to find out how much dosh was involved, so he sent a diplomat to London who duly returned with 105 sacks stuffed with 104,960 gold sovereigns.
It was worth about half a million dollars at the time, roughly $13bn today. That’s enough for a few museums!
Today the Smithsonian Institute is the worlds largest education and research complex.
Including government buildings, we visited the following …
Capitol Hill, the Library of Congress, the White House Visitor Centre, the Museum of American History, the Museum of African American History & Culture, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Museum of the American Indian.
Plus memorials to Vietnam, Korean and WWII veterans, to Martin Luther King, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant and of course to George Washington himself.
Clare began to think that sightseeing was even more exhausting than cycling.
On Capitol Hill we were lucky enough to see the Senate Chamber in session and to hear them debate the issues of the day. They didn’t hold back … the issues we heard were related to Iran, the war on drugs and abortion.
It was all free! And all a bit mind blowing!
A little exhausted, we cycled each evening past the White House just hoping for a chance to personally thank Joe or Jill.
Sadly, they were busy.
It’s just as well there is so much free stuff to do in Washington DC as America in general is much more expensive than any other country we’ve cycled in.
This is partly due to our $ to £ exchange rate. But we’re also finding the things that cycle tourists typically spend money on (accommodation, food & drink, entrance fees etc) are pretty expensive in $ too.
Fortunately the most important staple of any bike tour, bananas, are still affordable … at about 20 cents each.
Washington is another US city that is super-easy to get around by bike. The streets are quiet and very wide, so traffic isn’t a major problem.
The pavements (sorry, sidewalks) are also wide with cyclists encouraged to use them … which did feel a bit odd at first.
But it’s the National Mall that makes Washington so good for visitors on two wheels … it’s a two-mile bike-friendly paradise that contains all the main attractions.
Apart from legally riding on the sidewalk, there are a few other rules of the road we’ve had to get used to in the US of A …
4-way All Stop Junctions: Cars from all directions have to stop, then they politely take turns. At first we kept stopping too, but most of the drivers waved us through even when it wasn’t our turn. Now we slow down and cruise through, just checking to make sure it’s safe. It seems to work!
Right Turn Lanes: On major roads an extra lane often pops up for traffic that’s about to turn right. This means that we have to hold our breath and move across to the middle lane if we’re going straight ahead. A bit scary!
Right Turn on Red: Cars and bikes are allowed to go through a red light in order to turn right when there’s space. As long there isn’t a sign saying they can’t. Until we learnt about this one, we got tooted at quite a bit while we waited for green. We’re used to it now!
Cycling rules can also be different in each state … so we must remember to check before we ride on the sidewalk in Virginia.
While we were in Washington, we saw the original “Star-Spangled Banner”, carefully preserved in a darkened room. It’s the flag that flew steadfastly over Fort McHenry in Baltimore whilst British warships were pounding it in 1814 and has since become a legendary icon.
A young man called Francis Scott Key witnessed the bombardment, becoming so moved by the defiance and symbolism that he wrote it down in a poem. 117 years later this poem became the American national anthem. You probably know the last few lines …
“O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free
And the home of the brave?
Ironically it’s set to the tune of a popular 18th century English drinking song!
In Gettysburg, an old injury in Clare’s knee began to get quite painful. We decided to stay on for a couple of days to rest it and it seemed much better on the ride down the canal path to Washington DC.
But now we’re turning our handlebars towards Virginia, she has to choose whether to test it again in the hilly country roads of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah Valley as planned. Or to cruise gently down the flat lands of the coast instead?
After enjoying the land of the free, she has of course opted for the home of the brave!
Clare and Andy
1006km pedalled so far (450 miles)
45 hours in the saddle