In 1954, U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas learned of a plan to build a highway over the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) canal. The canal had stopped operations about 30 years earlier and Justice Douglas was upset that the natural beauty of that route might be obliterated and paved over. So he invited a group of reporters to walk the length of the canal with him, hoping to convince them of the value of preserving the unique character and sheer splendor of the path. It worked. The C&O Canal is now a National Historic Park, and the full 184.5 mile tow path (where the mules once trod, pulling the specially designed canal boats) is just about the best test route for planning The Long Walk Home that I could imagine. So, last Saturday I started at milestone 80 on the path, with the intent of walking about 100 miles in one week.
And I did it. So, thanks, Bill … I couldn’t have done it without you! Oh, yes, one other thing. Justice Douglas was also smart enough to marry a girl from Oregon. Now I’m definitely feeling a kindred spirit with this guy!
The walk was something of an experiment. We were testing several “concepts of operations”. For example, at day’s end Alanna was to pick me up at predesignated sites, each carefully labeled on a paper map, with coordinates entered into the car GPS system. So, the first day, after a good hike of 15 miles, I end up at our rendezvous point. No Alanna. No other cars. No people. Just a single winding road going straight up, perpendicular to the trail. Fortunately, we had decent cell service, and I learned that Alanna was waiting for me at the gate to a private rod and gun club, on whose property I was trespassing! Oh well, nothing ventured, nothing gained. I walked the last half mile up the hill, on a private road, waiting for some itchy-fingered gun club enthusiast to mistake me for a backpack-wearing deer. Safely back at the car, I agreed that we’d do a little more research on the future meeting points!
We also tested all of our communications and navigation systems and protocols. Never one to trust any single technology, and convinced I was going to end up writhing in the throes of a massive heart attack on the trail, with no other living soul within miles, I wanted to make sure we had ways of communicating wherever we were. Cell phone service stopped, for all intents and purposes, about 20 miles into the hike. But my Delorme GPS/Iridium communicator was great. Limited to short text messages, we could keep each other apprised of status from anywhere. We soon learned, however, that this system had anywhere from a 5 to 30 minute lag in message transmission. Not a problem if you’re just notifying each other that all is good, but potentially an issue with a more serious communication (“No bears yet, but hearing banjo music!”). And finally, we had, as a last resort, a new device called a GoTenna: a very clever creation of a small startup company. The GoTenna turns your cell phone into a text walkie-talkie. In the absence of cell service, you can still communicate between cell phones which are connected to their respective GoTennas. The challenge of course is knowing when each of you is without cell service, and being within about 2-3 miles of each other. At that distance one could probably just scream loudly and be equally effective at communicating. We only tried the GoTennas once … well, Alanna hooked up hers, thinking I would do the same. I, of course, was obliviously hiking along, without a worry in the world. I was 15 minutes late arriving at our meeting point, and Alanna was convinced I had probably fallen into a ravine, where a pack of hungry dogs were devouring the last of my remains. She gave up on the GoTenna and started walking down the trail, only to find me about ten minutes later. I was whistling “Hi Ho, Hi Ho” and she was spitting nails. We agreed after that on a regimen of regular status updates every few hours.
The hike was a delight. After the second day (about 30 miles in), I barely saw anyone else. In fact, on days 3,4,5 and 6 I only saw one other person on the trail. He was the kind of guy my dad would have called a hobo. He had a beat up bike with a two-wheeled trailer, which I suspect he used as his mobile sleeping quarters. I passed him at one of the rest areas on the trail (sites with a picnic table, a fire pit and a port-a-potty). It was early in the morning and he had a fire going, but no tent. We didn’t speak, but exchanged head nods. A lot gets communicated with a head nod. His said, “Only a homicidal maniac would be hiking this trail at this time of year … please don’t kill me”. My nod said, “Only a homicidal maniac would be camping on this trail at this time of year … please don’t kill me”. Never saw him again. Four more days of pure tranquility, with perfect hiking weather. The mornings were cool and a bit foggy, and the afternoons warmed up just a bit.
The trail was gorgeous.
Encouragingly, my body handled the walk better than I expected, and there was really only one surprise. It happened to be a surprise that lasted a full week: each morning some different part of my body expressed its displeasure in a unique and effective manner. I’m convinced that as I slept each night my body parts convened a meeting and elected that part which was to inflict more pain than the others in the coming day. Not unlike the current Republican party, there was no shortage of candidates for the top honor each day. The first two days it was the little toes of each foot. They formed a coalition and arguing that they represented a plurality of 20% of the toe constituency, they would express some discomfort on behalf of all the other toes. By day 3 they conceded to the right fifth metatarsal … clearly a minority candidate, but one who could easily control the direction of the rest of the body (literally!). That pain gone by mid-walk, the calves and thighs united in a major muscle movement and were content with a low and slow burn, culminating with the threat of cramps on day six, but never really living up to that threat. Finally, by the last day, one heel, in a particularly desperate motion voted for a blister, and was barely noticeable in the final polls. By week’s end, all the parts agreed that there was nothing more they could do, and I marched on almost as good as new.
Walking for 6 hours a day can get somewhat monotonous if not for the scenery (like the photos above) and the wildlife. I ran into, jumped, and was startled by hundreds of deer (including one albino yearling … I hadn’t seen one of those in at least 10 years),
lots of ducks
one surly raccoon
surprisingly frequent beaver sign,
and, in one particularly exciting moment, a river otter
River otters were virtually gone from this area until the 1980s when they were reintroduced. This fellow had some choice comments for me and my kind. I asked him not to profile me in such general terms, but he was not willing to debate and shortly after this photo, he submerged not to be seen again.
I also had a rare treat in the Paw Paw tunnel. This is a magnificent engineering marvel, built from 1834-1850 by thousands of immigrants. The tunnel, 0.6 miles in length, was part of the canal system, and allowed commerce to bypass many miles of the winding Potomac river. The tunnel itself is arrow-straight, unlit, and early in the morning, eerily echoing of the voices of 19th century workers. It’s also home to a thriving colony of bats – I think they were Eastern Small Footed bats (Myotis leibii), and as you can see from this picture, they don’t seem to be suffering from White Nose Syndrome, which is devastating much of the globe’s bat populations. The tunnel was such an interesting walk that after I finished the hike on Friday, Alanna and I walked back through the Tunnel so she’d get a chance to enjoy it
Like I said in a previous post, this was certainly not any kind of grueling march. By the time I’d finished I’d gone a bit over 109 miles. My GPS Tracks app shows the final stats:
I averaged about 2.9 miles per hour. Total elevation gain was a whopping 231 feet (not a whole lot more than the Washington Monument at 179 feet). With all of the minor ascents and descents, I climbed an aggregate 16,857 feet, and descended an aggregate 16,626 feet. My longest day was just short of 18 miles, and the lightest was about 11.5. The weather was fine (as predicted … thank you, NWS!) and the trail conditions couldn’t have been better.
As I close this blog, I thought I’d share some important observations. Maybe these will help others; my top lessons learned were as follows
- Beef jerky can go bad
- Don’t try a new brand of socks during a long hike … it offends your toes!
- There is no thermos that can keep coffee warm for 6 hours
- Ducks (the actual birds, not my beloved University of Oregon fans!) are stupid
- The National Park Service is the taxpayers’ greatest bargain
- Hotels without hot tubs should be illegal
- Free breakfasts can have a price
- When your wife expresses interest in becoming a massage therapist, say “yes”
- New Years Eve is overrated
- And finally … Bill was right!
See you on the trail!