Between the Lines: Mule Skinner Blues

Jun 13, 2018

On the trail from Pittsburgh to Washington, DC
Credit Mark Wedel

He refers to himself as an American. A muddy, filthy, cranky American. Kalamazoo resident Mark Wedel got that filthy by riding a bicycle along the trails of the Great Allegheny Passage and Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath in May 2017. He wanted to experience the solo ride but he also wanted to reach Washington D.C. to express his crankiness about the results of the 2016 presidential election. Wedel writes about his journey in Mule Skinner Blues.


“The first part’s from Pittsburgh to Cumberland,” Wedel says. “And then Cumberland to Washington is the muddy part. The second part is my favorite: you really feel like you’re in a different part of the country.”

Describing his mental state while traveling about 50 miles a day on his bike, Wedel says, “I feel like I’m doomed. Like I’m never going to get there, never going to get to that comfy motel. It might be slightly rainy, I might be slightly covered in mud. And then I’ll round a corner and it’s, 'Oh my gosh, look at this scene that I’m front of!' You feel like you’ve gone back into another time.”

Wedel says he began biking in 2012, taking annual journeys, alone or with friends.

“I told my wife I was going to ride to Cadillac and back, and she said "No.' I said, "Why not?' She said, 'If you got a flat, you don’t know how to change an inner tube, you don’t know how to fix that.' She was right. So I learned how to fix a flat, and I got a flat on the road, and I fixed it. I felt really empowered. You don’t feel vulnerable on the road anymore. You feel free. It’s a slow ride, but you can go anywhere.”

With new confidence, Wedel took up ever longer journeys. He decided to take this particular journey when he became disgusted with the results of the 2016 election. Along the way, he writes about eccentric folks and off- the-beaten-path lodgings and other adventures. Having finally reached Washington, he undergoes a bit of culture shock, leaving the trail and entering the big city.

“It’s a shock whenever you’re on a bike and there’s traffic all around you,” Wedel says.

Eventually finding his way to the Watergate Hotel, Wedel checks in, washes the mud off himself and his bike, and experiences a few revelations about the capitol city, the differences in the White House, and the immigrants working throughout the city. With his final ride from hotel to White House, Wedel has the moment he sought on his journey, although not exactly the one he expected to have. He dropped a bit of mud off his bike in front of the Executive Mansion.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist since 1992.

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