Chapter 18: Sooty Snout

A continuation of my 2008 journal of the walk from D.C. to Pittsburgh while memorizing the gospel of John.

It is now Sunday afternoon.  I decide on a short walk of five miles.  My thinking goes this way: an extra five miles today gives more flexibility in the schedule ahead.  Besides, the late afternoon might be a bit cooler to walk in, and the lengthening shadows across the mountains will make more interesting photos.

 This is the last five miles of  sharing the trail with the steam locomotive train that brings tourists from Cumberland to Frostburg.  On Friday, Chester and I left the Potomac River and the canal towpath at  the Cumberland station where the rail trail to Pittsburgh begins.  For the next ten miles we ascended into the mountains while high temperatures and high humidity sucked our energy and left only dogged determination.  In order to accommodate enough room for a train, the rail trail is wider, cleared more carefully, and therefore more exposed to the sun. Any patch of shade that extended across the trail in yesterday’s heat was a brief gift.  Around lunch time we heard the echo of the train whistle somewhere in the valley below.  In a little while a trailing black cloud rose above the trees, and some twenty minutes later it overtook us just before we entered a tunnel.  The sign outside the tunnel cautioned bikers and walkers not to be inside when the train goes through.  The tunnel fills with thick, rolling black smoke, and one would breathe in choking soot and cinders until the breeze could clear it out again. 

When my dog Chester and I return to the trail today, I smell the lingering coal smoke and guess that the train passed by recently on its afternoon run back down to Cumberland.  We turn and walk uphill and west.  I forgot that the lower sun would be directly in my eyes.  Heat waves shimmer off the rails.  So much for it being cooler.  I frequently pour water on my scarf and tie it around my head.  The heat is hard on Chester, and we stop often when his panting becomes like a fast motor.  It looks like it would have been better to have waited another hour before starting.

At the sound of running water, Chester’s ears perk up and words of John are interrupted.  Across the tracks a steep bank of earth and rock glistens with sliding water.  The fresh stream collects in a narrow ditch at the base of the slope, then runs downhill along the tracks. We cross over the rails to inspect it.  The water is clear, and last year’s brown oak leaves line the bottom, a great place for Chester to cool his belly.  He begs, and I let him jump in.  Tail wagging he splashes, gulping water with open jaws, digging and crouching his body to immerse as much of it as possible in the cold wetness.

Very soon I realize that this has been a huge mistake.  With horror I watch an inky blackness swirl in the water, painting his legs, his flanks, his snout.  Years of coal soot has sunk to the bottom of the ditch, and now, stirred by the paws of a white dog, the black gunk clings to its new target.  I yell for Chester to come and we hurry back over the tracks, but the damage is done.  His brown eyes peer out from a black face.  A dripping charcoal tail swings gray droplets into the air.  He stands and energetically shakes and shivers the water over me, but that doesn’t help his appearance (or mine either). I am looking at the most unkempt, ugly colored, mongrel-like canine you can imagine, and I feel like the most neglectful of dog owners.  My small square of a bandanna cannot even attempt to clean this creature up.

When we arrive at the Frostburg station an hour later, some of the soot has dried and slid off his fur, but not enough.  The sight of Chester evokes chuckles of amusement from bikers and groans from Rick who is there to pick us up.  We grab paper towels from the truck, wet them with left-over drinking water, and set to work rubbing him down until he is decent enough to jump onto the blanket-covered back seat.

What a sabbatical Sunday!  Chester has a soot-covered snout,  the sky has been is sullied with train smoke and, in an attempt at worship this morning, I have become more aware of how I’ve sunk into selfish hubris (see previous post).  A bath will clean the dog, a good rain will clear the air, but me?  From what I have learned from the beloved disciple’s words so far, his solution to my condition would seem to be a good dose of light—and he doesn’t mean the afternoon’s sun.  Maybe that is what today has been all about: I am letting in the light that the beloved disciple talks about as I’ve been walking and these words of scripture have been shining mile after mile on those shadowy parts of me.  The shadow that hides the more genuine pastor behind a public face.  The shadow that keeps me self-preoccupied.  The shadow that takes less interest in those around me.  The shadow that overlooks the passing guest in favor of the more “useful.”  The shadow that forgets to join the wood-pewee’s delight in dawn.  Get out into the light, Elaine!

 The beloved disciple tells us:  And this is the judgement, that light has come into the world and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.  For all who  do evil hate the light, and do not come to the light in order that their deeds may not be exposed.  But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds are done in God. (John 3.19-21)