By DONNIE JOHNSTON
The Free Lance-Star
FREDERICKSBURG -In the beginning, it was a challenge. In retrospect, it was a hoot.
In reality, however, the decision of three Fredericksburg-area women to bike the length of the C&O Canal in four days proved a test of both character and endurance.
But Paula Wheeler, Susan Brooking and Anita Berry completed the 184.5-mile journey from Cumberland, Md., to the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., as planned.
That the trio braved a weekend of rain, mud and high water is a tribute to their tenacity. That Wheeler has multiple sclerosis, Brooking hadn't ridden a bicycle since the seventh grade and Berry was using a rented bike makes it even more remarkable.
"We're just three gutsy women," said Brooking, 46, an Orange County elementary school teacher.
Berry and Wheeler came up with the idea for the trip while vacationing in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., about a year ago. Brooking decided to go along about a month ago.
Berry, 36, had some long-distance riding experience, but that was it. Brooking knew so little about bicycles that she didn't even realize the new bike she purchased for the trip had a flat tire. And that was just the beginning of her trials and tribulations.
"I fell off that bike five times trying to ride in my driveway," she said.
Meanwhile, the other two members of the group were having troubles, too.
When Berry, who works in her family's automotive business in Culpeper, took her bicycle in for a checkup, she was told it was not in good enough condition and had to rent one.
Then, the night before the trio was to leave, Wheeler, 46, twisted her back and had to get treatment at the Orange Chiropractic and Fitness Center, where she works.
That Thursday morning, though, Berry, Brooking and Wheeler were in the western Maryland town of Cumberland, ready to ride. But more problems awaited them.
First, they couldn't find the 19th-century canal they would follow into Washington.
When they finally did, Brooking had trouble with her bike's handlebars until Berry pointed out that they were backward. That fixed, the journey finally began.
The first day would be a tough one - 60 miles to Hancock, Md.
"After about 25 miles, I was totally exhausted," Brooking said.
The only place the women could get lunch was at a general store in Paw Paw, W.Va., about two miles from the canal. Brooking declined to make the trip to town, and when Wheeler and Berry returned with hamburgers, candy bars and soft drinks, they found Brooking lying on her back, being guarded by a man she had met on the trail.
After lunch, Brooking was able to push on.
The women soon encountered the half-mile-long Paw Paw Tunnel.
"It was really dark, the path was very narrow and it was a long drop down to the water," Berry said. "It was spooky and it was hard to keep our equilibrium. We all got dizzy."
Brooking says she was refreshed by what felt like drops of water coming from the ceiling. But when she reached daylight again, she was covered in bat droppings.
"The smell stayed with us all the way to Washington," Wheeler said.
After 11 hours on the trail, the women stopped for the evening in Hancock, called for a pizza and spent the night taking turns soaking in the tub.
Not used to sitting on a bicycle for long periods of time, Wheeler had developed saddle sores and said when she wasn't in the tub, she was sitting on an ice pack.
But just as Brooking had picked herself up, so did Wheeler that Friday.
"After about five miles, my rear end was numb," she says. "From then on, it was easy."
The second leg of the journey was only about 25 miles to Williamsport, Md. The shorter ride was a relief, but Berry awoke that Saturday with a backache and in a bad mood.
"I really didn't want to get on my bike," she said.
But with Wheeler - who was diagnosed with MS about 10 years ago - encouraging the other two, the bikers braved light rain and mud to pedal 40 miles to Harpers Ferry.
There was a wedding in their hotel that night, and Berry was determined to get a piece of the cake. So she crashed the reception, managed to sample some of the goodies on the buffet table, and even wound up dancing with the groom.
"He didn't have a clue who I was," she said.
Berry never did get any wedding cake.
All three agree that the final day was the toughest. Sunday began cool and damp, and a light drizzle turned into a steady and sometimes hard rain as the day wore on.
The sand-and-clay towpath occasionally turned into a quagmire and often forced the bikers away from the canal. At Great Falls, they had to get off and walk for several hundred yards. Each woman said the 60-mile leg took almost everything she had.
"We counted down the mileposts as we neared Washington," Berry says.
They reached the end of the canal about 6:30 Sunday evening.
"We were so nasty when we pulled in that people ran from us," Wheeler says. There, waiting, was Wheeler's ex-husband, and he held up sheets in the middle of Canal Street to allow the women to change out of their mud-splattered clothes.
After four days and 185 miles, their trip was finally over.
"It was a wonderful
feeling to set a goal and accomplish it," Brooking said.
From The Associated