On the C&O Canal, History Meets the Wild
A father and daughter bike 184.5 miles through U.S. history
It’s day two of a relentless, cold rain. My bike’s kickstand sinks precariously deep into the muddy ground under the weight of my panniers. I stare through the rain at a National Park Service sign describing workers’ struggles building the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, or the C&O as it’s been known for nearly 200 years.
“Laborers worked 12 to 15 hour days in all kinds of weather, beginning at sunup and continuing to sundown,” the NPS narrative says. “The workers would spend much of their day in the ditches, mired in mud or water up to the waist. Injuries were common on the line, and maiming and death far from rare.”
I look at the sign’s drawn reenactment of violence that would break out between workers under these harsh conditions. In my state of discomfort, I wonder how my dad and I will fair this trip—especially since we have more than 100 miles and four more nights to go.
My dad flew from California to join me in biking the 184.5-mile, car-free route along the C&O Canal towpath from Cumberland, Maryland to Washington, D.C. We chose late April assuming we’d hit a sweet spot between winter’s chill and summer’s heat. Instead, the trip is teaching us that nature always has her own plans.
George Washington long dreamed of making the Potomac River a navigable route for moving harvests from the Ohio River Valley through the Appalachian Mountains and to the markets of the east. His dream was partly realized when President John Quincy Adams turned the first shovelful of dirt for the C&O Canal in 1828. It was a portentous ceremony: On Quincy Adams’s first try, the shovel pinged off rocks and roots, foreshadowing the construction difficulties ahead. Originally planned to stretch from D.C. to Pittsburgh, construction stopped in Cumberland in 1850 as expanding railroad networks made the whole effort obsolete. Commercial use of the canal ceased in 1924 after severe flood damage to infrastructure. The land was placed under NPS jurisdiction in 1938 for the bargain price of $2 million.
After the government’s acquisition, Congress presented a proposal to turn the canal right-of-way into a parkway for automobiles. The Washington Post supported the idea, but Associate Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, one of the most influential conservationists of the time, had another proposal:
"I wish the man who wrote your editorial of January 3, 1954, approving the Parkway, would take time off and come with me,” Douglas wrote in a letter to the editors of the Post. “We would go with packs on our backs and walk the 185 miles to Cumberland. I feel that if your editor did, he would return a new man and use the power of your great editorial page to help keep this sanctuary untouched.
Two editors took him up on the challenge, as well as several conservationists, including Dr. Olaus Murie, president of the Wilderness Society, and Sigurd Olson, president of the National Parks Association. They left from Cumberland, reaching a cheering crowd of 50,000 in Georgetown eight days later. The land was declared a national monument in 1961, and in 1971 President Nixon signed a bill creating the C&O Canal National Historical Park that exists today.
On day three of our journey, my dad and I awake at the Licking Creek Aqueduct campsite. We unzip the tent’s front door to meet the Mid-Atlantic region’s lush greenery. Everything is still wet, but it’s no longer raining. We sip coffee in the tent until we’re alive enough to face it all again.
Hardships can heighten the beauty of a place. On this day, the sun comes out, and nature shows off her glory. Indigo blue, bright white, and warm magenta—Virginia bluebells, flowering dogwoods, and eastern redbuds—speckle our trail. Heavy with rain, the Potomac sings alongside us as the wild river it is, widening and narrowing as it sees fit, forever moving seaward. Peace is the reflection of puffy clouds on the water’s still surface at Big Slackwater, a dammed pool where canal boats once entered the natural river for a stretch.
As we pedal along, relics of a past era are interspersed along the forested path. The canal’s intricate stonework bows in submission to tree roots. Lock houses are distinguishable in tall grasses only by the mossy foundations left behind. It’s at once spooky and spectacular, seeing the earth reclaim these old human structures, to watch nature’s resiliency in action. I feel grateful for the voices of people like Justice Douglas.
That afternoon we set up camp at Antietam Creek. As the sun goes down, the campsite comes to life. Soon it’s hard to discern fireflies from stars. Hundreds of earthworms slink back into the soggy ground with the sweep of my flashlight. Growling fights of unknown nighttime denizens wake us. Monkey-like calls of barred owls wake us again. The feel of a jungle is tempered only by knowing that the town of Sharpsburg, Maryland is just beyond the tree line. The night’s raucous melody is almost enough to drown out the reliable sawing of my father’s snores.
As we approach D.C. on our last day, the abundant vegetation of floodplains gives way to the bare gorges of Great Falls National Park. The mighty Potomac smashes over jagged rocks on its path to the sea.
We roll into the capital just before rush hour. I feel a bit of psychic vertigo as I think about the range of ecological, historical, and personal landscapes traversed the previous five days. Through rain and sun and every mood, my dad and I traveled our public lands together, writing some of our own history of the place. I am grateful for the opportunity to leave behind only bike-tread marks, and take with me new family stories.