Chapter 12: Between a rock and a water place

This is a continuation from my journal of on sabbatical pilgrimage on the canal trail from D.C. to Pittsburgh while memorizing the gospel of John.  It is April 2008.

Last night our camping trailer was pounded by a  rain storm, so today I am resigned to slosh through puddles and muck.  I will be working on John 5…still.  The last part of this chapter is not easy to learn by heart.  A wet walk and a fuzzy memory will make for a great challenge.  I drink an extra cup of morning tea before leaving.

Chester and I are skipping over a short section of the towpath, several miles in length, which is impassible.  This portion of the towpath has been totally washed away after years of flooding, and the park service has not tried to rebuild it.  The bikes now use a road detour which Rick and I checked out yesterday.  The detour road is winding and narrow with unmowed shoulders and is frequented by fast cars that whip the tall grass.  Concerned about safety, we have decided that Chester and I won’t walk the detour, and this morning I start at a location where a sign announces the C&O towpath again.  However, along with the posted sign comes a warning: this section is partially restored but is still unsafe for bicycles.  The sign advises all bikers to continue on another extended road detour.  There is also a  warning for hikers: the trail is impassible in high water.

So, I wonder, how high is “high water?”  This morning the Potomac, a stone’s throw from the sign, is still running high from all the rain of the previous week.  I listen to its swift, swishing currents and look across its muddy swirls and flooded banks to the far side.  It is formidable in its present condition.  Drifting quickly by, a cormorant stands at attention a floating log.  In the rush of the river, his makeshift raft will arrive back at Dam 4 in only about ten minutes, and then his ride will be over in a tumbling splash.

In spite of the sign’s warning about the danger of the trail in high water, Chester and I start out.  I know if the trail goes under water, I can always turn back since I am leaving my car parked here at this entrance.  Yet I find it hard to believe there could be a problem.  For the last eighty miles the towpath  has always been raised well above the Potomac’s flood line.  Besides, I’ve done enough hiking to know that whenever there is a major obstacle on a main trail, undeterred hikers usually have worn  their own unauthorized path around the problem in spite of signs.  I ignore the warning in spite of the flooded river and start out.

After five minutes on the trail, however, I grow increasingly uneasy.  Here there is no canal on my right anymore because for these next few miles, as the guide book points out, the boats use to switch over and travel in the river itself since this section is deep with no rapids and rocks.  The boats, however, were still towed from the towpath.  So that means on my near left the towpath has to hug closer to the surging, rain-choked river than it ever has in the previous miles.  The river, in fact, is fingering the very brim of the path, no trees or bushes in between.  Meanwhile, instead of an abandoned canal ditch on my right, there is now a  sheer rock face that is unclimbable.  The trail has become so narrow in this spot that Chester could stand on the trail and drink from the raging river while I lean against the wet-slick cliff on the other side.  I dare not let him near the strong current, so he must content himself with licking at puddles. The sound of the river’s groaning echoes off the rocks, and the rock wall then whispers its hissing fury back into my other ear.  The river’s roar in stereo!

Walking around a bend, it gets worse.  There is a thick silt covering large patches of the stone path.  The towpath must have flooded here only a few days earlier during the worst of the rains.

I stop to consider the situation and stare at the utter power of the river within inches of my feet.  Because of the rain last night, the river is surely on the rise again.  If it rises any more this morning, an educated guess says the towpath will be under water.  With the cliff on my right, there is nowhere to climb out to safe ground.  In looking through the trail guides last night, I could not find any information  about the trail for these next seven miles.  What is up ahead?  I don’t know?  Will the cliff continue the whole way like this?  Will the path stay low, dipping within inches of the Potomac?  If so, the trail will be too dangerous to continue in another hour.  That means if I then come to another spot where the towpath is flooded and have to turn around, I may not be able to get back across this silty spot either and could be stranded.

I do not have the gift of flying like the cormorant, and I would rather not risk floating on a log.  So this, I must now admit, is why the sign warned hikers about high water.  Common sense finally wins the day, and I decide to turn around, feeling defeated, like I have failed some kind of  test.  But first, I bargain with myself, give me five more minutes.  Give me enough time to walk just a little farther, my stubbornness complains.  In spite of the globs of mud on the path,  I’ve been noticing interesting caves (which I can’t get to) in the crevices of the rocks up above.  If nothing else, with the flood and the cliffs and the caves, it is a fascinating stretch of towpath, and I am busy snatching images with my camera in spite of my nervousness.

Four minutes and 45 seconds later, I am rounding what I intend to be my last bend of rock and am skating through one last stretch of river clay, when a man and a dog come walking toward me.  He is coming from the direction of whatever dark unknown lies ahead.  Chester’s ears perk up and his body tenses.  He is suspicious of male strangers and particularly of black dogs, and here are both in one package.  I distract Chester with a treat in my hand.  This is my opportunity to get some information, so with our dogs barking at each other, I ask the walker about the trail he has just come from.  He smiles and says that we are definitely in the worst part of the trail right here.  He has walked four miles in, and in only another half mile the walking improves greatly.  The towpath, he tells me, rises again well above the river. This is the worst part, he assures me again.   I thank him with a sense of relief and return to treading silt, but now with a determination to keep going.

 As I struggle for balance, I remember how Joyce Rupp wrote in Walking in a Relaxed Manner about unexpected “angels” who, in the guise of strangers, show up just when needed to give pilgrims direction along the way.  Is it a  mere coincidence that this man and dog come just when I need guidance about what is up ahead?  How  encouraging his words are, enough to take away my anxiety and fear of the unknown, enough to give me good reason not to turn back.  So is it luck?  Or were they unwitting messengers of God?  I murmur a prayer of thanks, assuming the latter, and Chester and I continue.  My shoes and his paws are coated in clay by now, but the mess seems an insignificant inconvenience for the opportunity to experience the wildness of this river, sucking at anything unanchored, so deadly in flood stage, but so beautifully mesmerizing.  Soon, as the stranger informed us, the towpath climbs again well above the river, and the remnants of the canal return on the right.

In the evening, I reflect on the day.  I needed the stranger’s words to tell me I could keep walking safely.  In the gospel of John today, the lame man by the pool was also changed by the words of a stranger.  In his case the stranger was Jesus telling him to get up; take up his mat and walk.  In my case I am grateful for what I suspect is the Lord’s timing in sending someone to point the way to walk safely.  After all, while reading John it certainly has felt like the risen Christ has been silently walking with me as an unseen, ever-present guide.  Who’s to say the stranger couldn’t be God’s messenger in disguise!