Chapter 14: Signs

From the journal on the long walk from D.C. to Pittsburgh while memorizing the gospel of John. The story continues.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008:  Hancock to Cohill Station

Signs can be important. There are different kinds of signs along this towpath.  There are brown, square wooden posts, one every mile along the trail, with the mileage carved into them and the indented numerals painted white: 32…55…91…113.  I match up the mile marker to the trail map I carry in my pocket, because it can be handy to know how far I’ve come, how many miles to the next trailside campsite (as in portable toilet), and how far one has to go to the destination (a comfortable seat in the pick-up truck).

Sometimes I miss the mile posts when I am absorbed in learning John, or when I am looking around at something else like the pawpaw trees, so I have gotten the bright idea of trying to train Chester to notice them for me.    So today I try placing hot dog bits on the top square surface of every mile post we pass; Chester immediately stands on his hind legs and gobbles it down.    I figure if I am absorbed staring at turtles or muskrats in the canal, I won’t miss mile posts if he pulls me to them in anticipation of eating hot dog bits. That is as far as the training goes.  From his perspective, mile markers are pretty indistinguishable from the rest of the scenery, unless, of course, another canine has peed on it.  For him to notice the mile post first, then drag me over to put a treat on it…well, that seems to be either beyond him or, more likely, beyond my patience to train him right now.  So much for Chester helping me out with mileage signs.

There are the occasional campsite signs.  Each primitive campsite along the towpath is marked by a sign that gives a name, such as Huckleberry Hill or Killiansburg Cave, followed by how many miles east and west to the next campsite.  These signs catch the attention of swiftly moving bikers and help them plan whether to stop for the day or continue on.  For a walker these signs are rather superfluous.  I am moving slow enough that I don’t need a signs help to see the picnic table in the clearing over there, the campfire pit, the portable toilet and the hand pump for water.  The sign’s information about mileage to the next campsite is irrelevant, since it is usually six to ten miles away and I probably won’t pass it until tomorrow.  I do, however, enjoy reading the campsite names that trigger my curiosity about what might be nearby.  Huckleberries?  Too early in the spring.  A cave?  I start watching the bluffs on my right.

There are signs posted in the major parking lots which serve as the popular entrance points to the towpath.  These signs are helpful for people traveling in vehicles trying to find the trail.  “Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park”  the large wooden signs read,  noting the specific location underneath: Edwards Ferry, or Hancock, or Great Falls.

However, at the less frequented access points to the canal trail, there are occasionally no signs at all.  When Rick and I go searching for the location of the next pick-up point, we often must rely, not on a sign, but on maps, GPS navigation, and the river, of course, to ascertain exactly where we are.

And so it is there are no C & O signs for Cohill Station when I arrive here this afternoon.  Lately Rick and I have become lax about investigating the pick-up points in advance, little realizing how much of a problem that will turn out to be.  With the mountain ridges always blocking the way, it is a time consuming, round-about drive to check things out.  A dozen mile trail walk can easily be accessed only by a twenty-five mile circuitous route by truck.  After a long day’s, I usually am more interested in getting back to the campground for a shower rather than figuring out where the next day’s access points.

Now it is only because of the previous mile post I just passed, that I suspect that Cohill Station must be near.  I pause to check my trail guide and then look all around me.  I see a road on the other side of the canal through some trees.  Sure enough, not much farther on the trail there is a wooden foot bridge that leads over the empty canal to the road.   I walk across.  There is nothing here to indicate to a driver on the road that the cleared dirt area twenty yards way is anything more than a farm turn-around.  It certainly does not look like a parking lot for the trail.  There are no buildings around; no abandoned station.  Nor is there any C&O sign that would notify Rick that this is Cohill Station.

Well, he won’t need a sign, I think to myself.  I will sit here right on the foot bridge, the road within  four feet of me.  I myself will be the sign that he cannot miss.

I slip my pack off my shoulders, tie Chester to the wooden rail, and pull out snacks and water for both of us.  This has been a shorter walk today and it is only 2:00 pm.  Lounging on the smooth bridge boards, I try to call Rick on my cell phone to tell him I am done walking, but there is no cell phone coverage out here.  Ever since we have entered the mountains, cell phone service has been spotty on the trail.  Geologically the Potomac has done its hard work of carving through soil and rock, ridge after ridge, as it flows east, and here it lies deep in the shadows of the bluffs, cliffs and worn mountains it has gashed.

I don’t mind waiting awhile.  I have been wistfully aware that this is my last day walking the trail in early spring.  Tomorrow we pack up, store the trailer in the campground and head back home to prepare for our three week trip to the Pacific Northwest.  When I return to this bridge next month, the wild flowers that have become familiar will be long gone. The tree leaves will no longer be tiny and tender green.  Magenta pawpaw blossoms will have dried and disappeared, exposing green fruit.  Ducklings will have lost their fuzzy down.  Spring floods will have waned.   Part of me laments leaving these signs of young, unfolding spring.

I have been learning about signs in John’s gospel.  Jesus is often doing “signs” that are supposed to point to who he is.  In the chapter I’ve been working on the past few days, Jesus feeds the crowd of five thousand people with five loaves and two fish, and, when he leaves in a boat, the crowd chases after him along the shore.  When they find him the next day, they ask, “Rabbi, when did you come here?”

Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.  Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”  (John 6.25-27)

When the crowd realizes that Jesus is not going to give them another free meal right away, they try a different angle.  They said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing?  Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to  eat.'”

(Everybody likes a good show, a free meal, an entertaining sign one can’t miss.)

Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.  For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”  They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”  Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”  John 6.30-35

Most of the crowd  had trouble understanding the spiritual nature of what Jesus was saying.  They didn’t get the sign.  When Jesus starts talking about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, that does it.  Even some of his regular followers end up abandoning him, thinking his words are either ridiculous or that he is talking about some sort of cannibalism.  Jesus’ signs seem  turning people away  in another direction.

I am soon to have a small taste of what that is like.  I have been waiting for about an hour now, and in that time only a few cars have passed by. Some horses.  A few bikers on the trail.  Otherwise it has been very still in this comfortably warm sunshine with the minutes drifting by.  Then I see it: a shiny black truck heading up the road toward me.

“Chester, here comes our ride.”  I begin to get up slowly, I admit, since my tired body does not move quickly from ground position.  I offer a big smile as the truck approaches.  But truck is moving too fast and whizzes past.  My smile vanishes.  He must not have seen me.  I run into the road, start waving and yelling.  The shouting is a  futile endeavor since the windows of the air-conditioned truck are up, but somehow the energy of shouting into the dusty, deaf air makes me feel like I am doing something useful.  I thought I was the sign impossible to miss.  How could Rick not have seen me?

I am soon to ask that question of myself many times as I suddenly realize I am quite alone in the middle of nowhere.

To be continued…