The C&O Canal National Park - Better Than I Ever Imagined
I never liked the C&O Canal. For 30 years, I avoided it, had disdain for it, and thought it was a misguided idea. As a boy, I failed to get the point of a trail as a park. My mother, a journalist and active member of her community, seemed to find all the town-hall type meetings honoring people around the canal, slide shows of its past, and anything else that adults contrive to bore a young bore to his wit’s end. In my mind, to walk on a trail, you just went out and walked until you found a deer trail or an old horse trail, or an old logging road, none of which required lots of boring meetings, covered dish dinners, and fundraisers that the C&O Canal required.
Now I understand how amazing this world is! What I think and believe are not what others think and do, and for this I am grateful. It is with humble gratitude I recognize this form of diversity, of how one perceives the world and thinks about what future generations will need and or benefit from. This experience has fostered a deep appreciation for people who see and experience things differently than I do. Some of these people answer the call to put their vision forth into the world, open to the critique, opposition, and support of their fellow humans.
As a young child, my brain was patterned on large areas of land and wild water, virtually uninterrupted except for the occasional remains of decaying fencing, stone foundations, and some dirt roads (Edwards 152-153). Where I grew up, it was possible to spend a day, a week, or more in wild places and the only other human I would see would be my reflection in the stream when I leaned over for a drink. These places were “the wilderness” (Gress and Hall 114-134); they lacked the visual traces and audible noise of masses of people wandering aimlessly, pretending that they and their friends or family are the only ones there.
My previous viewpoints of the National Parks were that they are designed to collect people who appreciate nature and are organized to enable people to consume the natural areas; people using nature as a backdrop for their activities rather than blending with the natural world. I was brought up in the understanding that I am merely a guest, a passing visitor in the wildlife’s home when I am in the nearby woods or in the backcountry. The other impression I had involved my limited experience within the populated areas of a park, and my strong disdain for the “attentional bias” that people exercised while using the park and simultaneously attempting to pretend that no one other than their group was there at the points of interest such as a waterfall, seashore, or a Vista (Choi, Soo-Hee, et al 31-40).
The C&O Canal, a National Historical Park, winds 184.5 miles (Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park) through inhabited areas and disturbed land areas (Mladenoff et al. 294). Human activity, development, and alteration of the landscape, waterways, soil, and air, precluded it from having the wilderness feeling and sanctity I sought in a natural place. Hosting prescribed trails designed to move through nature rather than with it, and so little peak wilderness like experiences of a quieter slower variety like tracking, baseline, and momentary retreats.
Three years ago, my family and I sought a place with access to the city that did not involve the madness of the restless morning commute on the interstate, a rural lifestyle, and the ability to see at least one horizon uninterrupted by human architecture. This was the threshold of staying in contact with the natural world, ease of access to it and reliable access to employment for my wife, that in this case, was a two-hour commute each way via train. We chose a rural bedroom community called Brunswick.
Brunswick gives us access to the commuter train, the Potomac River, views of South Mountain, and easy access to the C&O Canal National Historical Park. Our first day together in Brunswick was on Christmas Day. It was cold and windy, but the sun was shining, erasing the shadows as it often does in Brunswick. We went down to the C&O Canal Towpath. No one was around. The parking lot was empty. The weather and the holiday were both contributors, I was imagining, to the absence of human activity along the trail. Within minutes of starting on the towpath, I was connecting to the welcoming sounds of black-capped chickadees, tufted titmouse, and nuthatches as they foraged in the canopy.
Over to our left was a drain coming into the forest like a long and rusty straw reaching out of the ground and spitting out water from the area of the lumber yard and train tracks. I saw the familiar rainbow colored swirls on the water surface, common around rusty pipes and areas with petroleum runoff. A pileated woodpecker called from the distance, and a Cooper's hawk slid through the shadowy trees like a brown ribbon. We walked down a side path to the water’s edge, the river was a deep rich blue from the (Morris 11-21), I heard the distant call of a bald eagle and within a few moments, a second eagle echoed a response. The steep mountain treescape (Townsend, Ilvento, and Barton 146-159) went from river’s edge to the top of each of the mountain slopes. The mixed hardwood and evergreen trees formed both texture and habitat as they filled in the rough-hewn terrain along the sides of these deep and ancient gorges dug by this persistent river (Peck ).
Before turning to go, we picked up a few pieces of colored “sea glass” (Sea Glass 101: How Trash Becomes Popular Treasure in the Form of Colorful Stones) and headed back towards the towpath. We noted raccoon scat filled with wild cherry seeds upon an old moss-covered log, the patchwork zigzags of deer trails crossing the side path, and knee-high stumps chiseled by beavers. We smelled the occasional musky scent of grey fox urine as we moved through its brushy hunting ground.
Returning to the main trail we continued heading west towards Harpers Ferry. The chorus of wild birds returned with its saccadic rhythm. Feeling the bumpy, uneven ground under my feet and noting the diversity of trees and shrubs in the area, I walked along soaking up the natural candy for my soul. A few minutes later, I saw it. Off to the south side of the trail reaching up, over it, and beyond the trail was an immense red maple tree. I still feel that moment today. I find describing it now with any clarity as challenging as it was then. Viscerally, I felt connected, anchored, and at home, in this place, within myself, in those moments. I could use phrases such as feeling complete, at ease, in-tune, in my zone.one of them quite get at the sensation, though each try in their own way to convey it. Excitement flooded my body and my mind and I could not hold back the joy I felt from these stimulating experiences. Though simple in form, they equate to a peak experience for me - my brain was wired on a diverse habitat in boggy mountain areas.
Then I experienced gratitude, embarrassment, and grief. I felt reverence for the insight and commitment of the one and many minds and hearts that created this National Park. I felt embarrassed as I recalled how ridiculous such a park seemed, like a faux park. And I felt grief because of seeing my judgments, resistance to and disdain for this park and others that share any resemblance.
Returning to the main trail we continued heading west towards Harpers Ferry. The chorus of wild birds returned with its saccadic rhythm. Feeling the bumpy uneven ground under my feet as we walked and noting the diversity of trees and shrubs in the area I walked along soaking up the natural candy for my soul. A few minutes later, I saw it. Off to the south side of the trail reaching up, over it, and beyond the trail was an immense red maple tree. I still feel that moment today. I find describing it with any clarity as challenging as it was then. Viscerally, I felt connected, anchored, and at home, in this place, within myself, in those moments. I could use phrases such as feeling complete, at ease, in-tune, in my zone, however, none of these quite get at the sensation as I experience it, though each try in their own way to convey it. Excitement flooded my body and my mind and I could not hold back exclaiming my joy in experiencing these stimulating experiences. Though simple in form, they equate to a peak experience for me, my brain was wired on a diverse habitat in boggy mountain areas.
The next sensations that ran through the facet of these experiences were gratitude, embarrassment, and grief. I felt reverence for the insight and commitment of the one and many minds and hearts that created this National Park. I felt embarrassed as I recalled how ridiculous such a park seemed; like a faux park. And, I felt grief from seeing my judgements, my resistance to them and how I clung to my disdain for this park and others that share any resemblance as if it were true.
Today, I enjoy the park regularly. I use it to connect to other-than-human life around me, to tune out of my whirlwind of thoughts, and to tune into the cycles of seasons and times-of-day. Now, I know where the Bald Eagles will teach their offspring how to fish and I anticipate reflecting on the difficulty parenting teenagers can be for any parent. Enjoying the morning commute of great blue herons I watch as they go down one side of the river and pass by me on the other side as they return upstream, sometimes six or seven in a minute. Three years later when I see one of the great trees along this long meandering transition zone, my mind goes back to the first morning when I walked on the canal when I met a giant red maple. The sense of awe I experienced returns to my mind - the beauty, the spectacular vision of preserving this land and marveling at the foresight that others had long before anything like this park was part of the popular heritage.
A park I first knew through the lens of contempt and disdain, I now walk in with reverence. Enabled by the wisdom and the sacrifice of others to connect to my vision, I leave feeling restored and ever more connected to place. Or to borrow words from the powerful Irish poet T.S. Elliot, within the ease of access of this park I connect to our culture and our “Culture may even be described simply as that which makes life worth living.”
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