On the Potomac
Cycling the C& O Canal and the Great Allegheny Passage: Reflections on and of a Little Journey
On July 4, 2010, urgently needing a change of scenery from the toxic reality of teaching in Mike Bloomberg’s New York, the bottomless pit of the BP catastrophe, frightening (perhaps permanent) unemployment rates and two endless wars over God-knows-what, I placed my trusty bicycle as gently as I could in the luggage space beneath a 7 a.m. DC -bound Chinatown bus and set off to cycle the 344 miles of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal and the Great Allegheny Passage.
My desire was to be a pilgrim. Circumstance conspired against me, forcing me to settle for being merely a traveller. What to do, what to do ?
The bus cost all of $20 and all my fears — crazily unprofessional driving, holiday traffic jams, inane or intimate-yet-impossible-not-to-overhear-cell-phone conversations competing with the paralyzing monotony of electronic drum beats seeping out of headphones 2 or 10 and 20 rows away — proved blessedly unfounded. Save the steady hum of the engine, the four-and-a-half-hour passage to the Capital passed in almost blissful silence. It was a most welcome silence.
My little journey would begin in charming little Georgetown (where pretty coffee girls with bizarre enthusiasm ask you your name) and end in dismal, defeated McKeesport (where with rather less enthusiasm no one asks for anything but change). Last summer I cycled from McKeesport to Georgetown but, having no idea what I was doing, had miscalculated the distances between cities and towns and consequently had to rush through places and vistas well worth lingering over, well worth pondering.
This time around I was determined to linger and ponder to my hearts desire and planned accordingly. Over time, I have become a great believer in the wisdom of pilgrimage and try to engage in this practice as often as I can. Even as I knew that by sheer time and space this trip was bound to fall far short of that noble word, I could not help but feel it as such, could not keep myself from the expectation of some sort of transcendence, could not help but imagine.
This may be explained by the fact that I’m Irish.
At any rate, many years ago, more by despair than design, I found myself walking the thousand year old 500-mile pilgrimage trail called El Camino de Santiago de Compostella from Rochenville, France, to the city of Compostella in Galicia, Spain. It was one of the most difficult and rewarding experiences I’ve ever undertaken, alternately terrifying and deeply inspiring. El Camino was terrifying, because removed from all external stimuli — newspapers, books, movies, all of the numberless diversions we employ to hide from life as we entertain ourselves to death— I was forced to look square in the face my of my impoverished existence.
I did not like what I saw but having nowhere to hide had no choice but to see it.
Yet, because of the small but extraordinary kindnesses I repeatedly received from the people of that hard, lovely, living land — I was, truth be told, ridiculously ill prepared to undertake such a journey — my experience was also inspiring and even, at moments, exhilarating. In that journey came unexpected encounters with all manner of experience: intimations of Otherness, epiphanal flashes that told me in no uncertain terms that life is much larger, grander, more wondrous than my little eyes were allowing me to see and thus allowing it to be.
The medieval mind did not know a great deal about, say dentistry or the spreading of disease. Still, it seems to me they knew a tad more than we know about certain needs of a healthy psyche, about certain requirements for a truly lived life. They knew, for example, of the need for solitary reflection, of the space and place to let go of one’s identity from time to time without being destroyed.
They knew about pilgrimage.
We have no such camino in the United States and we are poorer for it — that much more in the age of toxic narcissism in which we are forced to dwell. But we do have the Appalachian Trail and, thanks to organizations like Rails -To- Trails, we also have an increasing number of former railroad lines that are now hiking or bike paths. And, because of the work of the late great Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglass whose efforts saved the trail from being turned into a parkway, we have the C & O Canal Path.
Memories of walking to Santiago de Compostella swanned through my mind as I rode the bus to Georgetown. Too long for a bike ride, too short for a real pilgrimage, I saw my excursion as something in between. I saw it as a kind of small existential adventure with physical and historical components. I saw it as a very welcome challenge and change. Whatever it was to be, it would have to do.
Only recently was the C & O Canal Path and the Great Allegheny Passage wed so as to be a single entity. The C & O begins in the center of Georgetown and runs 184 or so miles to the little city of Cumberland, Maryland. (Where, I assure you the spires of that city are a most welcome site, that much the more so after 60 miles of cycling on unpaved paths in 95-degree heat when you have run out of water.) If you leave from Washington, you will find the Potomac, glorious and rushing, flowing with history, always on your left. The Great Allegheny Passage begins shortly after the C & O ends when one crosses the mountains into Pennsylvania. The Passage plows through forest and mountain almost to Pittsburgh. Along it I met the Youghiogheny River (pronounced Yock-a gain-ee) and its many, many tributaries. The sound and sight of lapping water was often near.
Throughout the ride, I came upon all manner of things, cultural and natural, historical and not, mundane and sublime. But again and again and again I encountered memorials or vestiges of two epic struggles: the American Civil War and the rise of the American Labor movement.
Two major episodes pf the Civil War (and countless lesser ones) took place along or very, very close to the C & O. The first night of my trip I slept in Harper’s Ferry, site of one of the great catalysts of the great war: abolitionist John Brown’s October 16, 1859 raid on the Federal Arsenal in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). The arsenal, which still stands, contained 100,000 muskets and rifles. Brown’s “army” consisted of 16 white men, three freed blacks, one freed slave and one fugitive slave.
Brown hoped in vain that his act would spark an armed slave revolt that would spread throughout the increasingly divided nation and bring an end to the abomination of slavery. Instead, on October 18th, Brown was met by a detachment of U.S. Marines under the command of Brevet Colonel Robert E. Lee of the 2nd U.S. Calvary — he who would soon command the Confederate Army against Lincoln’s Union Army a few miles down the road at Antietam. Lee quickly overtook the arsenal, wounding Brown and several other raiders in the process, and the insurrection was over. Brown was tried for treason in nearby Charles Town. He was found guilty, hanged and instantly immortalized in legend and song. Across the Union abolitionists and later soldiers would sing as they marched:
“John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
But his soul goes marching on.”
Witnessing Brown’s hanging was future assassin John Wilkes Booth. On the morning of his execution Brown wrote what time proved a horrific prophecy: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but by blood.”
Less than 20 miles south of the insurrection, in the fields of the sleepy little town of Sharpsburg, Maryland, in the second major event of the war to be taking place along the trail, Brown’s purge would come to pass in a heretofore-unimaginable fashion. We know it as the battle of Antietam, a name that gives pause to all those who know what occurred there. On September 17, 1862, in a 12-hour encounter between 100,000 Union and Confederate soldiers (led by the same Robert E. Lee who captured John Brown) that began at dawn and ended at dusk, 23,000 men were killed, wounded, or went missing. Lee’s army retreated over the nearby Potomac. The Union prevailed. Victory allowed Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and thus reshape the war, freeing slaves in states in rebellion and providing the war effort with two goals: preserving the union and ending slavery. It remains the bloodiest day in American history.
The killing fields have been preserved. They are green now and spread out for miles. Monuments to battalions mark various battles. Cannons sit perched on hills. Above all there is silence. Miles and miles of silence.
It is humbling and disquieting to walk among these fields.
I came across many other sites of import to the Civil War but none as jarring as Harper’s Ferry and Antietam. I also came across signs that seemed to show for some, the Civil War has never really ended. In rural Maryland, indeed on the very road that led to Antietam, I passed homes flying both American flag and Confederate flags. In Virginia, I saw several bumper stickers bearing the “Stars and Bars” with the legend, “IF THIS OFFENDS YOU IT JUST SHOWS YOUR IGNORANCE.”
These were sandwiched in between others that read ”YOU LIE !” and “GUN CONTROL MEANS BEING ABLE TO KILL YOUR TARGET” and “SOCIALISM IS DEATH!”
I took note and pedaled on.
Along the Great Allegheny Passage one finds sites and vestiges of a second epic struggle (albeit one barely remembered) where horrific human suffering and loss of life led in time to the triumph of another kind of union: that of the American Labor movement. On the Passage I passed through ghost-towns and near ghost-towns — Confluence, Connellsville, Dawson, Smithton, West Newton, Suterville, – where mining disaster after mining disaster, death upon death, gave rise to the union.
Slowly, fitfully and against tremendous resistance and officially sanctioned violence, thousands of coal miners and steel workers who laboring and dying under the unspeakable polices of Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick (among others) forged into being those institutions the rest of us can thank for the eight-hour day. (That and pensions, health care, contracts and so on.)
For 50 years, the labor policies of Frick and Carnegie were crystal clear and perfectly legal: Human beings are nothing but economic units to be paid as little as you can get away with, worked a minimum of 12 hours a day six days a weeks and summarily fired at the first whiff of dissent or dignity. With no thought to worker safety, horrific and deadly accidents were regular occurrences. That was the pre-union reality just as sure as it is now becoming the post-union reality.
All that remain now are the forgotten ruins of refineries and scattered memorials to the dead. These, too, are humbling and disquieting, no less so to me, than those of Antietam.
As for partners Carnegie and Frick, outside of historians as conscious and humane as Howard Zinn, both have largely escaped condemnation as the slow-motion mass murderers they surely were. In fact, both are now fondly remembered as titans of industry, benefactors of society and great philanthropists who in their later role endowed hospitals, art museums, parks and libraries. Indeed, I’ve been haunting Carnegie-built libraries since as far back as I can remember. But does that mean I need to somehow rationalize the fact the Andrew Carnegie made a 200-percent profit on steel, 25 million dollars a year, while the men actually making the steel made 15 cents an hour and died of old age at 40? I think not. Apparently, and to his credit, neither did the dying Frick. In Henry Clay Frick, An Intimate Portrait, author Martha Sanger relates the following. After their partnership ended acrimoniously, Carnegie sent a mutual friend to the dying Frick to see if Frick would shake Carnegie’s hand one last time before the lights went out. Frick responded that he would “see Carnegie in hell, which is where we are both going.”
Hard to argue with the man given all the facts.
Along the Passage, the ghosts of the industrial past abound. But in between these two wars much beauty is to be found.
The small, once thriving, now impoverished ghost towns along the Passage are both depressing and comforting. Somehow they keep going. Their children leave to fight our wars – signs to that affect are all over the place — but everyone in the town, it seems, knows where they are and await their safe return.
And then there is nature.
There is something wondrous in an empty road. There is something sublime in witnessing a forest awakening with the sun. There is something deeply, deeply calming in the subtle sounds of a river, of unseen birds chirping, first one, then many, of crushed leaves as deer, chip monks, beaver and who knows what kind of animal set out for their morning strolls through their pristine morning kingdoms.
Such moments invite reverie and our souls need reverie as much as our hearts need love as much as our bodies need oxygen. In one such moment, looking in 6 a.m. silence at an open, empty road and trying to see, words of Yeats, long ago encountered, ever since elusive, flowed from somewhere in my memory into my mind:
“And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings.”
I was a child when I first heard those perfectly metered lyrics to life.
Such moments are moments of grace.
Such moments are tiny pilgrimages in themselves.
Such moments are life.
I tried to capture some semblance of my little journey in the photographs below. I hope you might enjoy them.
(Thanks to K.O. )
Notes: My journey was greatly enriched and enhanced by Mike High’s The C & O Companion ( Johns Hopkins University Press ), and Bill Metzger’s Great Allegheny Passage Companion ( The Local History Company.) Labors of love, both, any one undertaking this passage would be well advised to read them before setting out and hold them near throughout.
The words above are taken from “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” by William Butler Yeats.
Along the way
On the C & O.
The bridge to Harper's Ferry.
The arsenal seized by John Brown and his followers.
Lower Harper's Ferry.
Prize of War
Site of John Brown's Last Stand
Lewis and Clark Were Here
The Potomac River
Antietam: Where 23,000 died in a single day.
Antietam: a road in the killing fields.
Antietam: Hallowed ground.
The Mighty Potomac
A bank in Williamsport, MD
Somewhere In Maryland
"One thought fills immensity."
Entrance to the Paw Paw Tunnel
Inside the Paw Paw: 3,118 feet and 14 years in the making
A canal man's home
Allegheny Court House, Cumberland, MD.
The 10 The 10 Commandments on the lawn of the Allegheny Courthouse, Cumberland, MD.
Masonic Temple, Cumberland, MD.
Lock and Canal man's home
Ghost of a Lock