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Forty-six years after Associate Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas had walked the 184-1/2-mile length of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal towpath on a mission to change the minds of Washington Post editors who had endorsed a plan to turn it into a highway, my husband, Scott, and I decided to retrace his footsteps on bicycles. As athletes and lovers of the outdoors, we’d spent numerous hours on the towpath, walking, running, biking, and photographing. We favor the towpath for many of the same reasons Douglas did. In his book “My Wilderness: East to Katahdin,” Douglas wrote: “The din of the city, the roar of its traffic, was behind me. … The schemes and machinations of the little men who possess the place seemed far away. I did not have to go far … to reach this wilderness of solitude and quiet.” What better way to experience the wonders of the entire path, we thought, than on a three-day bike ride. Douglas had set out on his trip accompanied by a motley crew of 36, including outdoorsmen, journalists, photographers, and, of course, the two Washington Post editors who accepted the challenge that Douglas had posed to them in his letter of Jan. 19, 1954: “I wish the man who wrote your editorial … approving the parkway would take time off and come with me. … 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.” We were but two, not 37, and our 10:30 a.m. start was a far cry from their pre-dawn departure. Still, we had our advantages. Douglas had walked 23 miles a day for eight days. On bikes, our 65 to 70 miles a day for three days wouldn’t prove as difficult. The justice and company, dining at the Cumberland Country Club on March 18, 1954, the night before they embarked didn’t have any understanding of the benefits of carbo-loading. The hikers ate shrimp cocktail, Lobster Newburg or roast beef, and chocolate cream puffs. The night before our adventure began, Scott and I knew we would need all the energy we could get and thus downed heaping bowls of pasta with mushrooms and artichoke hearts. Our advantages ended there. Gracious volunteers from the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club had hauled all the food and supplies the justice and his party needed. Yet, we had to tote our own gear, which, even when pared down to the basics, was not unsubstantial. We learned quickly that the food, clothing, cameras, and tools stored in bags (known as panniers) that were attached to racks on our bikes would be a constant source of irritation. Bumps in the terrain meant constant readjustment of the panniers, which would shift and rub against the wheels. So even on bikes, we probably advanced the first five miles at the same pace that the justice and his followers had achieved on foot. That this first stretch was particularly beautiful only hindered our pace: I couldn’t help but stop often to take photos of such scenes as ducks sitting beside turtles on branches resting in the iridescent green film of canal algae and overheated cows wallowing knee-deep in the cool canal water. When we realized we weren’t going much faster than the turtles I was photographing, my incessant picture-taking came to a quick halt. At some point in this early leg, the group of men and boys that we later dubbed Tubby and the Boy Scouts noiselessly pedaled past us with surprising speed and grace, especially given the heft of said Tubby. We assured each other that at such a pace there was no way they were going the whole length of the towpath. Our first planned stop was Paw-Paw Tunnel, a beautiful arch of bricks marking its entrance. The tunnel burrows through a mountain for six-tenths of a mile, and it’s one of three spots along the path where the Douglas party was met by friendly locals with trailside luncheons. We snacked here as well, but I’m guessing our midday meal of Gu, a pudding-like, high-carbohydrate glop, was not the same fare the much-feted hiking party feasted on. Even if we hadn’t planned on resting here, we would have been forced off our bikes. The tunnel is so dark, we needed flashlights to traverse it, and thus were required to walk our bikes through. But the damp darkness was a welcome relief from the steamy summer day. As we emerged from the tunnel, we spotted six travelers on baggage-laden bikes with the same somewhat fitful look I imagined we reflected. I then realized that the day was more than half over and that we were only halfway to our night’s destination — Hancock, Md. Thus began our game of tag with the group we would later label the Donner Party. Because this was the first stretch of the canal where we encountered groups of walkers, I had a chance to test the bell I had installed on my bike to save us from repeatedly shouting, “Passing on your left.” The doughnut-sized steel Schwinn noisemaker looks like 1954 vintage, so I thought it appropriate for the trip, although it added another pound to my already heavy load. Little did I know that its combination foghorn/cowbell resonance would send kids scurrying behind their parents and nearly induce cardiac arrest in several oldsters. Our next scheduled stop was one where Justice Douglas and company, according to a Post article, “quenched its thirst and rested its collective feet for a few hours.” Now known simply as Bill’s to the locals, the combination mayor’s office, bar, restaurant, pool hall, grocery store, boat rental agency, and deer-checking station is a destination de rigueur for anyone riding this section of the towpath. By the time we reached Bill’s, it was nearing 3:30 p.m., and we were starving and mud-soaked. Post Paw-Paw, the previously dry, albeit rocky, path, had transformed into a mud pit. Large pockets in the path were filled with mucky water that splattered our arms, legs, and faces, not to mention our bikes and baggage. For most of the day, I’d had one camera hanging around my neck — similar to the way Justice Douglas had in all the photos of him walking the canal — for ease of access, but as the mud began splattering haphazardly, it got tucked away in the pannier and made much less frequent appearances. Inside Bill’s, once our eyes adjusted to its darkness, we took in the sights: assorted stuffed and mounted animals propped up behind bar stools upon which sat men drinking cans of Budweiser; walls lined with canned goods; and the Donner Party seated to our right, inhaling fried food. After chugging a lemonade, I gobbled down the best $3 crab cake of my life. The crispy, fat-laden exterior gave way to mushy succulent crabmeat that melted in my mouth. Fat never tasted so good. At this point, we were more than ready to be done for the day, but we pushed on. During the remaining 16 miles, the mudfest continued, and we realized that it might well take us eight to nine hours each day to reach our destinations. The light was waning, and the canopy of trees that covered the path, while comforting and beautiful, made it seem later than it was. But it was plenty late by the time we’d climbed the mile uphill to our lodging for the night in Hancock, Md. Douglas would have approved, I believe, of the natural wonder surrounding Cohill Manor, the bed and breakfast on 11 acres of land, scattered with goats, geese, cats, and other creatures, where we spent the night. His night in Hancock was spent at the Woodmont Rod & Gun Club, which our hosts, Debbie and John Cohill, had had the chance to visit during an open house a couple years ago. Based on their description, the sportsmen’s club sounded rustic and spartan, but certainly a place where I could imagine the hikers sitting around the fireplace and recounting the day’s highlights over their buffet dinner complete with champagne. The closest we could come to a buffet was the all-you-can-eat salad bar at Pizza Hut, one of only two restaurants in Hancock still open by the time we had showered, met the Cohill’s menagerie, and driven back downhill into town in the Jeep they so kindly lent us. Not surprisingly, the Donner Party arrived at the Pizza Hut not long after we’d sat down. Our bellies full with eggs, sausage, biscuits, fruit, juice and coffee, we began Day 2 much refreshed. It was overcast and humid as we re-entered the towpath. I couldn’t help but laugh out loud when I saw the Donner Party just in front of us. Twelve miles down the path from Hancock was Fort Frederick, a restored stone fort built during the French and Indian War and, more important, the place where the Douglas party encamped their third night out. The men slept under the stars in subfreezing temperatures, where, according to Jack Durham, writing in the spring 1954 edition of the Wilderness Society’s publication “The Living Wilderness,” they “looked like a Civil War detachment in bivouac.” Whether they slept inside the comforting protection of the tall stone walls of the fort or outside on the acres of adjacent open fields is unclear, but either way, it looked to be a perfect camping spot. Back on the dirt path, we battled again with muddy patches, but were thankful that the gray skies had not yet produced rain. At two attractions — a 700-foot-long dam and a three-arch aqueduct — where we stopped to admire the sights and to snack, we were again reunited with our fellow cyclists. The Donner Party stopped for lunch at Williamsport, the town near the aqueduct, and our competitive spirits couldn’t help but see this as an opportunity for us to be done with them for the day. We set off at a steady clip on the path that was now winding along right beside the majestic Potomac. The sights and sounds of the river, however, were marred in stretches by the incessant roar of jet skis and power boats. Nonetheless, we made occasional stops to admire caves and waterfalls in the cliffs to our left. The skies were beginning to darken and rumble with the low gurgling of distant thunder as we approached Taylor’s Landing, another spot where the Douglas party was met with lunch, and where we, too, had planned to eat. Unfortunately, the store just opposite the canal that taunted us with the sign “Ice Cold Pepsi Inside” was closed. Sweaty, muddy, hungry, and fearing rain, we pushed on to Shepherdstown, nine miles away, where we knew food would be found in abundance. The Ammonia Cokes advertised on the Old Pharmacy Cafe and Soda Fountain’s menu as curing “vapors and other ills” sounded like just what we needed. At this point, we definitely felt like we possessed the vapors — whatever they are — and other ills. Like a cola with extra effervescence, the drink (and accompanying sandwich) did the trick. We now had enough fuel to finish off the 12 miles to Harper’s Ferry, W.Va., our second night’s goal. These remaining miles further tested our fortitude as more mud impeded our progress, at one point so miring Scott that he fell over with a resounding “thwop” (and a few other unprintable noises) into a thick puddle of muck. We noticed that the path and vegetation surrounding it had the glossy sheen left by a very recent hard rain, but apparently the justice’s luck was with us. In “My Wilderness,” he notes that while it sometimes rained in torrents during his eight-day journey, he never got rained on. When we made our reservations at the Briscoe House B&B in Harper’s Ferry, our hostess volunteered to pick us up at the base of the hill on which the house sat. But we decided to tough it out and make the half-mile climb ourselves. The cheery Victorian house was a welcome sight. Its even cheerier hostess, Jean Hale, quickly dispatched us to our luxurious room, urging us to give her our wet, muddy clothes to wash, and leaving glasses of wine outside our room for our post-shower enjoyment. We wanted to get an early start on our final day because we’d heard from people traveling the towpath in the opposite direction that the upcoming stretch was ridiculously muddy, and we knew it would be a long day. But it was nearing nine by the time we had consumed a lavish breakfast, donned our freshly washed clothes, crossed the bridge over the Potomac that leads to the canal, and stopped to make the necessary adjustments to our baggage for the last leg. We were not at all surprised to see members of the Donner Party on the other side of the bridge similarly preparing. This time, though, only three of the six were present — hence their nickname. For the first time, we exchanged more than pleasantries with them. One freshly lipstick- and mascara-laden maiden inquired, “Where were you when it started pouring yesterday?” “Rain? You guys got caught in the rain yesterday?” we asked with a detectable hint of Schadenfreude. Our competitive nature, which brought us to Harper’s Ferry nearly two hours earlier than the Donner Party, had spared us a drenching. While they speculated about “if” and “when” the rest of their group was coming, we headed off, wishing them luck. They looked like they might need it. Douglas’ original party of 37 was whittled down to 15 after 70 miles, with only nine making it the entire distance. It seemed like this group, too, might finish with reduced numbers. Much of the next 35 miles required all our mental faculties. Constant attention to the trail was necessary to avoid rocks, roots, and, of course, deep crannies of tire-enveloping mud. We eventually realized that pedaling straight through the puddles instead of getting in the thick mud surrounding them seemed to be the best bet for staying upright. Still, Scott took two more spills, and we were forced to walk our bikes several times. By the time we reached White’s Ferry, a convenient stopping point for food and rest, our once-clean clothes and bodies were again speckled brown. We were surprised to see again the large group of men and boys we’d seen on the first day — Tubby and the Boy Scouts. We had told ourselves then that they were surely not riding the entire path, but apparently they were. The continued speed and utter silence of the squadron remained, for us, a curiosity. Also surprising was the sight of the entire Donner Party, gradually trickling into the White’s Ferry rest stop pair by pair, as we were getting ready to resume riding. Having left the Donner Party behind and having recently passed Tubby and the Boy Scouts, we were feeling pretty good by the time we reached Great Falls, a mere 15 miles from the end of the towpath. It was here that the nine remaining hikers were met by a huge crowd of well-wishers. We, however, had to create our own fanfare, a task that was easy to do with my fear-inspiring bell. Men on cell phones and small children walking distractedly in the middle of the path fled to the sides as we came upon them, ringing the bell with abandon. We were on a mission, and no one was going to stop us. Well, except for the snapping turtle. A couple miles later, we noticed that a small group of people were stopped in the path up ahead. As we neared them, we saw the hulking figure of an enormous snapping turtle at their feet. I slowed down and tried to remove my left foot from the pedal, attached by the snap-in cleat on my shoe. After several twists and turns of my foot it failed to release as it was designed to. I cried out and fell over with a thud, creating a spectacle at least as interesting as the large turtle a few feet away. Heads spun and people exclaimed. Scott rushed to my aid. After several minutes of yanking, the shoe finally separated from the pedal, but we soon determined that they would never be able to reconnect. The crowd cleared as the snapper made his way down the bank to the canal. After several fearful minutes wondering if I’d have to walk the remaining miles, I realized the only logical choice was to resume pedaling with my right shoe connected to its pedal and the other resting lightly on the two-inch by two-inch surface of the left pedal. Because this resulted in my pedaling basically one-legged for the rest of the trip, we lost ground and were again passed by Tubby and the Boy Scouts. Our competitive urges abandoned, our goal now was simply to finish. We neared Lock 5 and so wished to see a barge that would carry us the remaining five miles, like the one the nine hikers rode for their finale. No such luck. We were on our own. And neither were there thousands of people to greet us when we finally reached Georgetown. We were, however, overjoyed to see the bust of Justice Douglas, which the Park Service erected in 1977 when the canal was made into a national park. I grew a bit misty-eyed here as a mixture of relief, satisfaction, and appreciation set in. As if on cue, Mother Nature decided to remind us who was in charge. Minutes after we touched Milepost 0, the winds picked up, the sky turned dark gray, and rain poured down in sheets. The trail conditions and desire to complete our goal unfortunately left little time for nature loving. Still, that we could ride on a traffic-free path for 184 miles was truly wonderful, and it was only possible because of Douglas’ efforts. Because of the hike, The Washington Post editors that accompanied Douglas reversed their position on turning the towpath into a highway. Eventually, because of Douglas’ continued persistence, the canal was turned into a national park.

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