C&O Ice Capades

Have you ever walked over a field of lard-covered billiard balls?  Me neither, until this past week.  The “BIGGEST SNOWSTORM OF THE YEAR” (yes, it’s only early March!) hit the DC area, and left a coating of snow, ice, rime, hoar, and every other form of frozen water for which the Eskimos have a word, over the whole Eastern Seaboard.  David and I decided a rest day was in order, so we waited about 40 hours before starting our trek through DC.  This time, we were joined by my former NOAA colleague, Dr. Marian Westley.

Marian and me at NOAA in Silver Spring

Marian had been a marathoner some 10 years ago, and was a superb “joiner”.  With little training beforehand, she managed to keep up with us.  She also helped arrange a very touching reunion with some former NOAA colleagues at the agency’s offices in Silver Spring.

Left to right: Barry Reichenbaugh, Sandy Honda, me, Rene Eppi, Rochelle Plutchak, Terry Schaefer, Gary Matlock, and Marian Westley

I did notice that the next day, Marian wrote a Facebook post about how bad children’s ibuprofen tastes.  Apparently, at 3AM, she started paying the painful price for trying to keep up with two old geezers, and the only pain relievers in the house belonged to her 8 year-old son, Jack.

The other remarkable development from our walk through Northern DC was an interview I did with a a reporter for the American Geophysical Union, Randy Showstack.  I’d known Randy for a few years, and several weeks earlier he had asked to interview me about the NOAA budget.  I told him I’d be walking for 7 months, but I was sure we could find a time for a phone interview.  I didn’t hear any more until just a few days before we walked into DC.  Randy asked again for an interview and I told him we could do a phone call late some afternoon.  Then I jokingly added, “Or, you could join me for the walk and do the interview while we hike.”  I was stunned when he asked where we would be on that Wednesday morning, and even more stunned when he jumped in a cab, rode down 16th Street in DC until he found us, just past Massachusetts Avenue.  We walked and talked for a bit and finished the interview in a little coffee shop.  While I don’t think the interview was particularly newsworthy, it was certainly one of the more memorable press engagements I’ve ever had.  I’m dying to see what comes out of the interview, since we covered only about 137 different topics.

The interview went so late that I didn’t even go back to Nomi’s house to join Alanna, but instead, met her at the Metro, and we drove over to Arlington for a great paella dinner with our friends Tim and Karen.  Having spent over 25 years working in DC, it’s hard to sneak back into town, without having lots of terrific friends invite you over.  I really had no intention of inviting ourselves to Tim and Karen’s for dinner, but golly, gee, when they asked, how could we refuse.  We had a great meal, and learned that Karen (a retired Naval Officer and Navy Diver) has been asked to interview for a Navy Federal Credit Union commercial.  We’ll be watching.

The plan for the following day was simple: David and I would meet at the same Farragut West Metro station, and start walking from there.  Simple, of course, until the bumble-fracking, mouth-breathing, knuckle-dragging morons who run the DC Metro screwed up again.  When I showed up at the Friendship Heights station, I knew I was in trouble as soon as I saw over 500 commuters standing on the platform, while an empty train refused to open its doors, and left the station as an announcement was made that a broken train in the system was causing yet another delay.  The DC Metro system is, without a doubt, the most inefficient, unreliable, poorly managed, over-priced subway in the world.  The management team should be lined up, forced to eat bugs, and then have to ride the system while crammed elbow to butthole, for three hours.  Then, when we’ve got their attention, they should be forced to try to translate some dictatorial directive that’s delivered by an illiterate and underpaid worker, who’s speaking through a soggy pillow.  ‘Nuff said.  I and my 2500 new-found and intimately connected new friends arrived at Farragut Square late and fed up.  But as soon as I walked into the Square my spirits were lifted.   There, chatting with David, was my friend DaNa Carlis, a meteorologist from NOAA who worked with me for several months last year.  Apparently, Marian had provided the intel to DaNa on when and where David and I had planned on meeting.

DaNa immediately became a “joiner”, and he walked with us past the White House and downto the corner of 15th and Constitution, where the Commerce Building and NOAA HQ are.  We were received by a small, but boisterous crowd of energetic civil servants, who, I am sure, had much better things to do than just cheer us on.

DaNa and me. I’m the short one.


Lindsey Kraatz was the chief instigator, and she made sure all the signs were spelled right, and the whistles were fully deployed.  It was a very touching welcome back to NOAA.  I felt honored and flattered by the friendship and warmth that was conveyed.  We needed a picture, so we asked a family of tourists from Texas (Mom, Dad, and Daughter) if they’d take some photos of us.  Noticing that they were confused as to why two old guys in reflecting yellow work vests were being greeted by a gaggle of conservatively dressed DC bureaucrats, David volunteered to the Mom (as Daughter was taking the pictures) that he and I were actually escaped convicts who used to work for the Federal Government.  At which point Dad grabbed Daughter and they ran across Constitution Avenue, never looking back.

We said our goodbyes, turned to the West and started out for the iconic Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal towpath, which starts in Georgetown and continues unbroken as one of America’s prettiest parks for almost 185 miles up to Cumberland, MD.

Milepost 0 on the C&O Canal Towpath, in Georgetown


But, alas, there would be no smooth going for us.  The snow and ice that had fallen two days before had morphed into a godforsaken lunar landscape of gnarly ice clots and snow mounds.

Looking like the last survivors of Scott’s South Pole Expedition, David and I tried our best to navigate over this unearthly terrain, without breaking our ankles or shattering our knees.  That’s when it really felt like we were walking over lard-covered billiard balls.  We only made about 11 miles that day, and as soon as we quit, I drove over to REI (where my paycheck had been direct-deposited for the last two years) and purchased a pair of YakTraks.  Now, if you’ve never used these most wonderful of man’s creations, let me tell you that they are heaven-sent.  They’re like tire chains for your feet.  You strap them onto your shoes and now the ice-covered trail is no more difficult to traverse than a gravel road.  And sure enough, the next day (still very cold) we virtually tripped the light fantastic down the C&O Canal, at our normal pace of about 15 miles per day.  God bless YakTraks!

Our next stop was with a good friend of David’s named Mary Lou.  Mary Lou retired after over forty years working at a private girls’ boarding school in Northern Virginia, the last several years as the Head of School.  She is a wonderful host, fascinating story-teller, and a nonpareil conversationalist.  We stayed in Mary Lou’s beautiful home in Purcellville, VA, for three days, while we walked the C&O Canal from Carderock to Brunswick (about 45 miles).

We also were treated to several more joiners over the next several days.  First, we met up with Bryan and Jennifer, two new friends who will retire to Bend, OR next year.

Me, Jennifer, Bryan, and David

She’s a lawyer, he’s a chemist, and both are great hiking partners.  We talked and hiked and the mileposts flew by.  Before we knew it, we’d hiked 5.5 miles, and Jennifer and Bryan, realizing they needed to go back to get their car, decided that 11 miles was plenty for the day.  I look forward to reconnecting with them when they move to Bend.  We ended that day near Dickerson, where there’s a huge coal-fired power plant, fed several times a day by long coal trains coming down the tracks from the west.  You can’t really get a sense of how important coal is to the American energy economy, until you see a train with 100 cars hauling nothing but coal, to fire up just one medium-sized power plant that powers only one relatively small area of the country.  I firmly believe that every member of Congress and student in America should spend one hour just watching that train rattle down the tracks, to get some sense of how much coal is being used in this country.  Our next joiners were Phil and Carroll and their wives Bryn and Ginnie.
Recall Phil and Carroll had joined us back around Annapolis.  They also brought Luca, the German Shepherd, so my daily need for a doggy fix was accommodated.

Phil, Bryn, me, Ginnie, Carroll, and Luca

The 7 of us walked about 3 miles together, then they all decided it was time to head over to the local brewpubs, so we said our goodbyes.

We also met David’s daughter, Nicky, and her kids, Sam, Ella and Emma (and pup, Lola) at Point of Rocks, for a quick lunch break.

David, with (from left) Emma, Sam, Nicole, Ella, and Lola the dog

In subsequent days the sun came out and David and I made great progress.  When we passed Harper’s Ferry, I was delighted to see that Alanna had rounded up our old friends, Steve and Betsy.  Steve and I worked together at the Office of Naval Research 30 years ago.  Now they are both retired, and are raising hell in the Harper’s Ferry city council, where Betsy is an elected member.  I think they officially qualified as joiners, but Steve clearly defined the lower limits of what is required to meet the minimum distance to be called a joiner; he walked about 100 yards with us.  Betsy at least had the decency to dress for the role, bringing a pair of walking sticks.  We agreed to meet for dinner that night, and had a great time at the Bavarian Inn in Shepherdstown, where we are now firmly ensconced in the first hotel of our walk.  It’s pretty amazing that we’ve gone for over two weeks, already, and have stayed with friends and family every night until now.  Our hotel is perfectly adequate.  It’s got the minimum required elements: clean bed, bathtub, free wifi, and free breakfast.  It even comes with a standard-issue grouchy old lady at the front desk.  What could be better?

So, we’re about 225 miles into the walk, and we’re doing okay.  We’ve still got almost 3000 miles to go, but I’m beginning to think this might work!  We’ll see …

Here are a few random shots from the last week.

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