LITTLE ORLEANS -- For Carl Linden and others like him, it's hard to imagine the well-traveled footpath they're hiking
alongside the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal as a multi-lane river of concrete carrying speeding cars.
Mr. Linden and about 40 other hikers are caught up this week in the beauty of the canal, its towpath, Western Maryland's mountains and the nearby Potomac River.
They're walking and camping the canal's full 185 miles from Cumberland to Georgetown in Washington, D.C., to commemorate the 40th anniversary of a now-famous hike that ultimately converted a 1950s highway concept into a national park -- and Maryland treasure.
"This park walked into existence -- the only national park that walked into existence," said Mr. Linden, president of the C & O Canal Association, a nonprofit group that works to preserve the canal and is sponsoring the hike.
In 1954, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas led a hike the length of the towpath, intent on preventing the canal from becoming a concrete parkway similar to Skyline Drive in Virginia.
The Washington Post had supported the highway idea editorially, and Mr. Douglas invited newspaper editors to hike with him -- hoping the towpath's beauty and serenity would dissuade them from their stance. Post editors accepted the challenge and after the hike, conceded the justice's point.
Mr. Douglas, who was an avid outdoorsman, and others continued to hike stretches of the towpath for 17 more years until Congress designated the canal as a national historical park. C & O Canal Association members mark the anniversary of Mr. Douglas' first hike with a similar trek every five years.
The C & O Canal, heir to George Washington's dream of making the Potomac River navigable with a series of canals and locks, was begun in 1828 and completed in Cumberland in 1850. The new-fangled railroad reached Cumberland first, however, making certain its role as the future in east-west transportation. Even so, the canal operated for nearly 100 years, floating coal, lumber and grains to markets.
For this year's commemoration, 40 people paid the association $275 to hike all 185 miles. Ten others will join the group for day hikes. The hikers -- from nine states and the District of Columbia -- left Cumberland Sunday and plan to reach Georgetown April 30.
Their registration fee covers food, bus transportation and motel rooms in Cumberland and Williamsport, the halfway mark. The rest of the way, hikers camp -- often where the Douglas party camped.
But then, nothing much has changed along the canal in 40 years. Many landmarks remain, including canal locks and the PawPaw Tunnel -- which carries the canal and its towpath, complete with handrails said to be the original timbers, a mile through a mountain.
People still complain of sore feet and backs after miles of walking.
Mr. Linden said this year's commemorative group has hiked from nine to 16 miles a day. The Douglas group was faster -- averaging 21 miles a day, finishing the hike in nine days. Only nine of 38 people finished the original hike, however.
"We re-evaluate that original hike and what the canal meant to Mr. Douglas," Mr. Linden said. "He used to come out here to collect his thoughts, which were quite eloquent when he expressed them."
Trees were bare when hikers left Cumberland on Sunday. But as the hikers move east, they are finding themselves under canopies of budding hickories and sycamores and amid a countryside blooming with wildflowers.
"We're walking into spring," said Mr. Linden, a political philosophy professor at George Washington University.
The group reached Little Orleans, a canal-side hamlet in a lovely setting, at noon Wednesday. There, beside a bend in the Potomac River, many ventured off the towpath to eat hot dogs, hamburgers and down draft beer at Bill's Place, an old general store in Allegany County that sells everything from groceries and beer to hunting and fishing licenses.
Camp for Wednesday night, though, was another seven miles east. Some hikers walked briskly. Others strolled, enjoying nature and wildlife. They've seen beavers, muskrats and deer. Someone counted 460 turtles sunning themselves on logs and along the banks the day before.
"It's been great," said Charlie Ayres, perched on the lock house's rock foundation, where he lunched with hiking buddy Ed Miller, of Hagerstown. "We've had good weather and good hiking companions."
Mr. Ayres, 49, a paint chemist from Forest Hill in Harford County, has hiked stretches of the towpath before, but this is the first time he has set out to hike the whole path.
Like Mr. Miller, many hikers are retirees who have dreamed for years of walking the towpath's length.
"It just so happens this 40th anniversary hike is the first since my retirement," said Mr. Miller, 67, a retired real estate supervisor for Potomac Edison Co. "I would recommend this hike to anyone. People in Western Maryland and other adjoining states don't realize what a fine park this is. It's in the same classification as Yosemite or Mount Rushmore. It's fantastic."