C&O Canal path turns 40 thanks to Douglas' long walk

January 08, 2011

It's hard to imagine a two-lane layer of asphalt smothering the ribbon of dirt that is the C&O Canal towpath.

It's even harder to imagine a present-day Supreme Court justice using the power of shoe leather over the bully pulpit of the bench to cow journalists and editorial writers into making a 180-degree course change.

But because William O. Douglas did just that more than a half-century ago, we can wish a happy 40th birthday this weekend to the national historic park that stretches 184.5 miles from Cumberland to Georgetown.

More than 4 million visitors enjoy the park each year — walkers, peddlers, paddlers, birders, runners, equestrians — taking advantage of the fresh air and stunning views along a footpath so close to one of the nation's largest population centers.

One of my family's more memorable walks involved a Georgetown-to-Great Falls jaunt that took us past historic Fletcher's Boathouse, under I-495 from inside to outside the Beltway, and into the visitor center parking lot, where we had left a gigantic cooler filled with picnic foods in the bed of my pick-up truck.

Our 14-mile hike pales when placed next to the annual One Day Hike, which attracts scads of people who lace up their shoes each spring to tackle 100 km or 50 km (62.14 or 31.07 miles) of the towpath. The 100K began in 1974, and the 50K was added in 2000. This year, the event is set for April 30.

Organized training for the hike began yesterday, but ODH veterans say getting in shape can be done anywhere, as long as it involves walks of progressively longer distances to prepare the mind and the feet for the task ahead.

The hike, which is supported by water and first-aid stations along the way and bike patrols, is limited to the first 350 registrants. All the details are at http://www.onedayhike.org.

How hard is it? Last year, 99 hikers started the 100K and 63 finished. In the 50K, 164 started and 143 finished.

Douglas stepped off for his longer end-to-end walk on March 20, 1954, determined to stop plans to turn the dirt path into a parkway.

Two weeks earlier, he took exception to a pro-parkway editorial in the Washington Post in a letter to the editor: "It is a refuge, a place of retreat, a long stretch of quiet and peace at the Capitol's back door — a wilderness area where man can be alone with his thoughts, a sanctuary where he can commune with God and nature, a place not yet marred by the roar of wheels and the sound of horns."

Then the 55-year-old justice invited the Post editorial writer, Robert Estabrook, 35, and Pulitzer Prize-winning associate editor Merlo Pusey, 52, to join him. To their regret, they accepted.

Setting a 4-mph pace, Douglas led a foot patrol of five journalists and 30 local men east from Cumberland. Most of the scribes dropped out on day two. "I'm ready to die any time now," wrote George Kennedy of the Washington Star.

Estabrook disappeared from all news accounts and Pusey took to horseback.

The "Immortal Nine" hikers — Douglas in the lead — arrived in Washington to the cheers of 5,000 people a week and a day after they started. Three days later, the Post reversed its editorial position. President Eisenhower gave the towpath federal protection in 1961 when he named it a national monument. A decade later, President Nixon named it a national historic park.

I'm not saying you have to do the whole thing, although I plan to do so this year because it's my job and sadly I've only walked about a fourth of it. But snap off a piece and give it a try.

The C&O Canal Trust website has downloads and podcasts about history, geology and human and critter life along the towpath to get you started down your own path at http://www.canaltrust.org.

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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