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Pedal with Purpose: Facing Insecurities on a Long-Distance Bikepacking Trip

bikepacking c&o canal

As my foot drags through yet another muddy puddle, I struggle to suppress the scream rising up in my throat. My rain jacket is utterly useless by now, and I’ve reached the point where I’ve forgotten what it was like to ever wear dry clothes. Water pours over my helmet visor as I struggle to see more than a foot in front of me. Then, as suddenly as the rainstorm blew in, it’s gone again, leaving behind blue skies and a trail that is now more mud than not. 

Despite the change in weather, the realization that we’re only halfway to our campsite and we still have 30 more miles to bike dampens the elation I feel as the sun once again touches my shoulders. Yet the magic of the trail continues to pull at my sense of wonder, even when I think I can’t possibly pedal another mile.  

C&O and GAP Trails
Ellen and Shannon at the point where the C&O and GAP Trails meet in Cumberland, Md.

When friend and fellow BRO colleague Shannon McGowan and I decided to bike all 184.5 miles of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Towpath, I was nervous I wouldn’t be able to keep up or even finish. Shannon has been gravel and mountain biking for years, building up the muscles and technique needed to get through tough climbs and ride for dozens of miles, day after day, in the saddle. I trained for two months. 

The term “quarter-life crisis” might sound like something made up by those of us who straddle the Millennial-Gen Z line to complain about that period of your 20s when you’re racked by uncertainty, insecurity, and self-doubt. Not that people don’t experience those feelings at every stage in life, but I find myself in early adulthood constantly questioning who I am and who I want to be.

As my 25th birthday approached, I prepared for the most physically taxing trip I’d ever taken on. Deep down, I needed to prove to myself I could get from Georgetown, D.C., to Cumberland, Md., by way of my own physical and mental power.  

Frame of Mind

There was a time in my life I didn’t think I would make it to my 25th birthday. When doctors removed a tumor from my neck and discovered it was cancerous, my 12-year-old self was terrified of what the future might hold. To a pre-teen suddenly face to face with her own mortality while struggling to fit into middle school, 25 felt a whole lifetime away. Now I’m here and I can’t stop wishing I could go back and tell that 12-year-old kid to embrace the uncertainty a little more and to let go of that tightly held control just a smidge. 

campsite along the C&O canal
A campsite by the Potomac River.

That’s what I found out on the C&O Canal. I felt something inside me shift as I did nothing but bike, take in the scenery, and enjoy the company of a friend for four days. With the canal to our right and the Potomac River to our left, we watched the herons take off from their perches in search of food while the turtles were content to rest on their logs. We came to a sudden stop as a mama deer led her fawns across the path in the early morning light. We waved to other cyclists and hikers as we sang along to our favorite songs in order to forget the physical pain of riding all day. 

The canal was never the same for more than a few miles, changing from swampy still water covered in a bright green algae to forested areas devoid of water but teeming with wildlife. Then we’d ride over a canal lock and suddenly there was enough moving water to paddle. We rode through canal towns filled with delicious places to refuel and miles of solitude without any cell service. Even when my legs were tired, my shoulder blades felt like they were on fire, and the cicadas wouldn’t leave my braid alone, the trail had a way of pulling me out of my own discomfort and encouraging me to appreciate the subtle beauty of the movement all around. At this time in early adulthood, that constant change and reminder of life resonated deeply within me. 

the view from on top Paw Paw Tunnel.
Looking out at the Potomac River from on top Paw Paw Tunnel. Photo by Shannon McGowan

For years, I’ve struggled under the weight of guilt that I am alive when so many who took on the same disease are not. It has taken years of therapy, conversations with friends and family, and a lot of personal work to start understanding all the ways in which fear, anxiety, privilege, and luck intersect in my life. I still don’t have it all figured out. I still don’t know what the future holds. Do I have 25 more years, 50 more years? I certainly hope so.

But even if I don’t, I’m going to try my damnedest to pack a full range of human experiences into whatever remaining years I have left. I’m going to hold onto the image of the light peeking through the trees as we rode across the land. And I’m going to start trusting my body again—the same body that betrayed me early on in my life carried me across this trail. 

Learn more about our adventure on the C&O Canal Towpath, including an itinerary and gear list here. 

Cover photo: Big smiles all around as we rode into Cumberland, Md. Photo by Shannon McGowan.

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