I was hoping to find a bike shop open, just so I could pop in and thank them for being open, but they weren't so I didn't. So much for utility cycling - but where to next? Even just returning home would have been a sufficient adventure, but due to other life events I both felt no pressure to be anywhere and a need to be nowhere in particular. I thought perhaps up CCT or C&O, both of which would have certainly given me plenty of nowhere to ride through, but opted for the loopier loop down Mount Vernon Trail so I wouldn't have to double back.
Crossing the Key Bridge almost convinced me otherwise. Plowed snow and ice and frozen footprints had my back end skittering around like crazy and I worried this would be a terrible trek. I turned left at the Rosslyn entry to the MVT (following lots of footprints and one bike track) where I quickly figured out that trying to say on pavement was silly and difficult. Things calmed down a lot once I shifted to the side, as the other bike's track had. My brakes had somehow returned to light duty service, so it wasn't hard to control my slowness as I power-slid down the ramp to the Roosevelt Island parking lot, then blasted straight across virgin powder all the way to the end.
The boardwalk, often dangerous in wet or icy conditions, wasn't a problem at all with deeper snow. This encouraged me to skip the always-terrible TR Bridge and to continue down MVT, still following the single bike track and hardly any footprints. Nearing the end of the boardwalk I encountered a photographer, so I put on my best "I'm having the most incredible ride!!!" face and hoped not to give him the action shot of a prideful cyclist tumbling.
The path then curves to follow the river, onto Columbia Island and away from the GW Parkway, so wind and snow worked to hide footprints and bike tracks and I got my first taste of "back country" riding with only subtle landmarks to guide me - a small scrub of grass, a signpost for a sign facing the other way, a slightly familiar bench facing the trail. A few times I realized I was certainly far off-trail, but the snow and ice masked the feeling. I really hope I didn't hurt the grass.
Other places where the terrain rose I could see bare ice on the trail, the remnants of the sleet and freezing rain that had fallen ahead of the snow. I was concerned at first that my bike would immediately lose all traction on this surface, but as it turned out the hard frozen layer was hollow, floating over the asphalt. My tires buzzed as they crunched through this crust, and it seemed like my traction was just as good on it as it was everywhere else. Where it was snow covered, I reveled in the near-silence, and I totally stopped worrying about my "footing".
I stopped under the Memorial Bridge to adjust clothing and take in the wonderful isolation. The last really heavy band of snow, the one I saw gathering near Frederick on radar before I started, had arrived and had reduced visibility so much that I couldn't see the other side of the Potomac at all. The stone underpass, with icicles hanging from the high points of the arch, became a remote cavern - an illusion only broken slightly by the cars blasting up the snow-covered GW Parkway.
Emerging better dressed for the conditions - which is to say, wearing less than before - I spotted the bike track again. Despite the increased snowfall, the track seemed sharper than it had been and I wondered just how far ahead the other rider may have been. But as I approached the troublesome point where the trail spur to Arlington National Cemetery crosses the Parkway I noticed the track departed the MVT. I saw no more footprints in the snow either. From here on, the things I would see had perhaps never exactly been seen before.
Speed was not my goal, and I spent most of this ride in my lowest few gears for best traction and control. I took in how thick the snowdrifts were in the low spots. I noticed little crocus shoots barely peeking through by the side of bare high spots on the trail. My rear wheel often slipped a bit, and the bike was yawing slightly sideways for much of the ride, but it didn't require lots of concentration to keep it upright and moving generally forward. Every now and then I could see across the river some hints of the memorials and parks, but usually I saw only the trees on my side and heard only the drone of my own progress.
The Merchant Marine Memorial took shape ahead of me, too soon. It sits just north of the Humpback Bridge, at the southern end of Columbia Island. The trail meanders and wraps around the Memorial, somewhat confusing even in good conditions and a wayfinding challenge in these. I paused to read a direction sign, which might have looked silly to the geese that were patrolling the area but had no other witnesses. "Thataway", the sign might as well have said, since there was no more sign of a trail in any one direction than any other. I headed more or less directly to the bridge.
As I came alongside the Memorial I spotted signs of what seemed to be another bike track, this time a very wide one. Mostly covered in new snow it could have been made by a fatbike, or a mountain bike, or even a snow blower from early in the morning. Riding up the trail toward the bridge I decided it must have been a mountain bike - just as I ran into a snow drift and completely lost forward progress. My skinny tire spun futilely uphill as I pedaled faster, then stopped as I caught myself from falling. I caught my breath and took in the view while I analyzed the route. I had gotten caught in a snow ridge at the edge of the trail, so I moved the bike just a few inches over and set my pedals to try starting again - and somehow managed to regain progress. The pavement near the crest of the bridge was only coated in crusty sleet, and as I prepared for the ride down I spotted another huge snow ridge, saw the track of the other bike around the edge of it.
I had dabbed my foot down many times on this ride, and once or twice caught myself from falling, but seeing the ramp back up toward the 14th Street Bridge inspired me to push a bit more: I sped up and aimed straight for the deepest part of the ridge. I expected to perhaps tumble over my handlebars, or maybe for the bike to finally squirt out to the side, but the snow was so light and fluffy that I hardly noticed - even though it was as deep as my hubs. Oh well.
More drift fencing just before the 14th Street (George Mason) bridge had made another pretty deep finger of snow, but the previous rider had apparently wiped out there so it wasn't as much fun. Plus, it was uphill.
The 14th Street Bridge was a lot like Key Bridge except longer - lots of footprint craters, drifts, and the single bike track from the rider that wiped out, so I went back to sitting lightly on the seat and heavy on the bars so the bike could jump and crab in the ruts and yet keep going straight. Halfway across I spotted an approaching plow train throwing gobs of slushy, dirty snow onto the footpath, so I stopped and pressed up against the river side while they passed. Made it to the Jefferson Memorial just fine, and on around the Tidal Basin while the snowfall eased.
Heading back to reality - but not quite arriving yet - at the base of 15h Street more plow and blower activity had really packed snow onto the sidewalks and I had to walk a bit. I got back on at the light to cross Maine Avenue and spotted a couple more bike tracks that looked like they had trouble making it uphill to the Holocaust Museum. Looking at the tracks, it really seemed like the bikes that couldn't make it through were the ones with fatter tires - my CX tires could cut through and steer through the snow like rudders while the fatter tires could only slide on top of it. I especially noticed this as I approached the Washington Monument and while crossing 14th where the slush and ice was starting to harden as the temperatures continued to cool.
Heading onto Jefferson St along the mall put me back into untouched snow, but this again had car and truck tire ruts to watch for. At 12th a plow joined me, though he didn't seem to be trying to clear the road as much as to find the right curb. I stayed far to the left, and passed him easily at the Smithsonian Castle. Crossing 7th I reached the only Mall museum that was open, the National Air and Space Museum, where buses lined both sides of the road waiting for children to board. Maryland Ave past the Botanic Garden was mushy and slushy. Heading up Capitol Hill I opted to ride on the sidewalk to avoid any vehicle conflicts. I watched kids sledding down the Capitol West lawn, others hiking up the sidewalk with me as the last snowflakes tapered off.
Quick stop at the beer store, quick chat with a neighbor, and then it was time to head home.