The Old Bike-In-A-Bag Trick

If you’re trying to sneak stuff onto public transportation, there are certainly many ways to do it—I mean, not that I would know about most of them. I’ve just heard of people, you know, smuggling drugs in various body cavities, or clandestinely bringing liquor in special bottles designed to look like tubes of sunscreen, stuff like that. But a bicycle is a little different. You can’t just shove it down the front of your pants as you board a train. If you could, this would not be much of a story.

By the time fall of 2018 rolled around, Forest and I had spent almost seven weeks of the year together working on our camping book project, traveling and in the field. We scouted out more than a dozen locations, asked friends to join us, and had backpacked, car camped, skied, kayaked, and done just about everything over the course of the year, all across the country. By September, we only had two photo shoots/trips left: a quick bikepacking trip on the C&O Canal Towpath and a couple days at a yurt in upstate New York.

I had been looking forward to the trip as sort of a final, mellow adventure at the end of our long year. The C&O Canal is kind of a dream of a bike route: a non-motorized path along the Potomac River, starting in Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood and running 184.5 miles to its terminus in Cumberland Maryland, with campsites every five miles along the way. (And in Cumberland, it meets up with the Great Allegheny Passage for another 150 miles of bike paths to Pittsburgh). It sounded logistically easy, we wouldn’t have to carry heavy backpacks, and the biking was pretty much flat.

We had been fairly fast and loose with planning for the trip, recruiting two friends who didn’t know each other: No. 1 being Forest’s friend Brett, a charming and enthusiastic lifelong vagabond whose story sounds something like Tangled Up In Blue, and who Forest had described to me as “an old family friend” and also “probably the person in my life who could most accurately call themselves ‘homeless.’” Brett had hiked all over the world and bicycle toured on a collapsible Bike Friday, which he would sometimes just ride to an airport, put the bike in a trash bag, and stash in some bushes for when he came back from his trip. No. 2 was my friend Will, also a storyteller and lifelong bicycle evangelist, at that time working as the transportation director for the Georgetown Business Improvement District and living in D.C. with his wife Karen and their three kids.

Will arranged for the local REI Outdoor Programs to loan us a couple bikes so Forest and I wouldn’t have to fly to D.C. with bikes, and we planned on four-ish days and three nights on the C&O to get a nice sample of the scenery. We figured that would put us pretty close to one of a few Amtrak stops that basically parallel the C&O, so we could just hop on the train back into D.C. when we’d had enough.

Before we started pedaling, Brett had wisely purchased an Amtrak ticket for himself leaving the Martinsburg, West Virginia, station, which turned out to be a very good guess of where we’d be on Day 4 of our trip. Forest and I had procrastinated the decision, treating the train more like the NYC subway system than Amtrak, figuring we’d just hop on at the last minute. This was a bad plan.

At our final campsite of the trip on the evening of Day 3, we found ourselves a very short bike ride from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, and a slightly longer ride to Martinsburg. Since Will was a busy family guy and didn’t get a lot of chances for a big day on his bike, Forest and I offered to carry all his stuff back to D.C. on the train so he could pedal the 63 miles back into town by himself.

I had a couple bars of LTE service on my phone, and decided I had put off buying our train tickets for long enough, and walked along the bike path to see if I could get a little bit better service before trying to access the Amtrak website. I was able to buy two tickets leaving from Harpers Ferry, but when I tried to buy tickets for our bicycles, I could only buy one. I figured it was some sort of glitch in the system, and crawled into our tent and went to sleep.

The next day, Brett left early to get to Martinsburg in time for the train, and we said goodbye, figuring we’d see him on the train or at the station in D.C. Forest and I rode our final miles to Harpers Ferry, got coffees, got a couple donuts, and waited for the train. I called Amtrak to see if I could buy one more bike ticket for the train, and the customer service representative informed me that it wasn’t a glitch on the website, and that there were no more bike tickets available.

This, although completely preventable had we actually planned in advance, was not ideal. I ran the logistics in my head: One of us could take our bike on the train into D.C., rent a UHaul van, drive out to Harpers Ferry, pick up the other person and their bike, and drive back into D.C. to return the bikes to REI. We had planned on having a nice relaxing dinner at Busboys and Poets with Will and Karen and the kids, but with the extra driving time, that probably wouldn’t happen.

Or maybe not. I called Amtrak back and asked: “Could we pay for one piece of oversized baggage?”

Customer service representative: “There’s no charge for one piece of oversized baggage on that train.”

Me: “Oh, OK, great, thank you.”

As I hung up the phone, we had about 10 minutes before the train arrived. I have for years carried pretty much the same small bag of bike repair stuff: a patch kit, an extra tube, a Crank Brothers M17 multitool, and a very basic and cheap Leatherman that the can opener attachment broke off maybe eight years ago.

leatherman and Crank Brothers M17 tool

Forest and I looked at both our bikes and decided that his looked easier to disassemble. We popped both wheels off, pulled the seat and seatpost out of the seat tube, and I wrenched the pedals off with the Leatherman pliers. Forest pulled his still quite damp bivy sack out of his bike bags while I used my multitool to loosen the hex screws on his handlebars and fork and pull them out of the headtube. Then we started cramming the whole pile into his inside-out bivy sack, not wanting to get chain lube all over the inside of the bivy sack. Then I got a text notification that our train was running a few minutes late. Hallelujah.

The frame, fork, handlebars, and pedals fit in the bivy sack, and we stuffed the front wheel in as well, but that was the limit. We would have to carry one wheel, which was definitely something that would be weird enough to arouse suspicion from the train attendants and maybe to also derail our admittedly not-great plan.

Fortunately for us: The train was late, which meant the attendants were in a hurry to get everyone on board and the train moving again—like you could feel them counting the seconds it took everyone to shuffle down the platform and onto the train cars. Forest tried to look as natural as a person carrying a bag filled with a disassembled bicycle can look, and the attendants guided us to quickly, quickly, thank you, take the bike into the bike car and then find a seat. We dumped my bike and Forest’s bike-in-a-bivy-sack in the bike car, popped back out onto the platform, and hustled to the nearest car. I wasn’t sure we’d fooled anyone, and as I heard an attendant ask, “why does he have a bike wheel but no bike?” For a few seconds, I felt the tiniest bit like Billy Hayes in the opening scene of Midnight Express, nervously waiting to get on the plane with all that hashish strapped to his chest. Except instead of years in prison we’d probably just a brief scolding. Thankfully, no one said anything else, and we hopped up the steps into the first car, looking for seats.

I looked up to see a white-haired man in an aisle seat staring at us and smiling. It was Brett, who had gotten on the train in Martinsburg, and then watched out the train window as Forest and I sneaked our “oversize baggage item” in and had a good laugh. “I thought, ‘Is that what I think it is?’” he said.

We sat down and watched the scenery roll by our windows. After a relaxing train ride into the city, covering our multi-day leisurely bike ride in a matter of minutes, we arrived at Union Station in D.C. Forest and I hauled everything onto the platform, and reassembled the bike right there, stopping for a coffee in the terminal before riding away.

Now, I’m not advocating this as a method of saving money, or sticking it to the man, or something like that, because it’s not cool, and it’s also a giant pain in the ass to disassemble and reassemble a bike. I’d definitely have preferred to just be able to buy a ticket for the bike. But it did work, in a very specific pinch.

[bike photo by Forest Woodward]

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