memorable hikes | then & now
My plan was to take a 50-mile walk following the same path Robert F. Kennedy chose for his historic 50 mile walk in 1963 at this same time that year. I was motivated to see how this hike would have felt for him and also as a way to try and relive my attempt at a 50 mile walk in the summer of 1963. (Click here to learn more about the 50-Mile Hike Phenomenon back then)
According to the news of February 9, 1963, Robert F. Kennedy chose to walk along the banks of the Potomac on the towpath of the C&O Canal National Park in 20 degree weather. He started his walk at 5:00 a.m. at the Great Falls Tavern Visitors Center (Potomac, Maryland) which is at milepost 13.2 and ended at or near Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. The C&O is unique in that its towpath follows the Potomac for 135 continuous miles and has a well maintained, 7’ wide, flat gravely surface.
I wisely scouted out the basic access to the park and towpath on Friday afternoon stopping at several access points and traveling by car all the way to Harper’s Ferry to see our destination and to get a sense of the terrain and distance.
For gear, it looked like good weather was ahead but it was cold early on. I had a short sleeve mesh undershirt, a light polyester turtleneck, sleeveless fleece vest, and my shell jacket. I used light insulated underwear bottom under light trail pants. Shoes were my Vasque trail shoes with 2 pair of socks - light biking socks and walking socks. I used a biking cap for headgear. Plenty of sport bars, Amanda’s homemade granola, and two bottles of water to drink. Accessories included camera, iPod, cell phone, lumbar carrying pack and headlamp.
I started my walk two miles ahead at milepost 11 (Angler’s Inn) parking area, due to the fact that the visitor’s center area would not be opened until sunrise. I arrived at the towpath at 5:30 a.m., temperature at 27 degrees, being dropped off by Mary Ann in the middle of total darkness. The headlamp immediately became a valuable tool to get me going in the right direction. While I was uncertain in the beginning, I soon adjusted to this great beam of light in front of me and walking soon became almost normal.
There were patches of ice on the walk, but mostly the ground was hard due to the cold weather with hardly any traces of snow. The towpath is like others of this kind that were used to by a team of mules or horses to help tow barges up and down the river assisted by a series of locks along the canal.The locks are mostly preserved and the canal is a popular recreational area, especially in warmer weather.
One of the first things you notice in the pitch black is that you are often walking on a sort of 7 foot wide island, often with water on both sides. The canal is always on your right side. It would be hard to fall into the water, but not impossible, especially in the dark and where the road becomes covered with slick ice. On the other hand, the trail is so distinctive it would be pretty hard to get lost, even in the dark.
I approached the roar of the Great Falls and some dark ghostly images of the Great Falls Tavern at about 6:00 a.m., This was too early for any signs of light or life. You could not even get a visual sense of the falls, it being too dark and too cold to explore any further. So, I continued on quickly.
At this early stage I was keeping a fairly fast pace of about 4-4 ½ miles per hour. My heartrate was at about 120 which is about what I was expecting. Not trying too hard but trying to take advantage of the energy and enthusiasm I had. Everything looked good at this point. Sunrise came about 6:45 after I passed a couple of locks but my thermometer was reading 25 degrees and my arms were feeling a little cold.
At about 7:30 or so, I came to the Seneca Creek Aqueduct where I saw the first sign of life as some joggers and dog-walkers appeared. I felt like taking a casual break at the recreational center building but everything was still shut so I decided to continue on. There were some strange sounds from ducks and loons in the early morning with gunshots coming from duck hunters and a few people ice skating in the canal. Overall, there were maybe 30 people I encountered on the trail that day.
I was sending status messages out pretty often in the early stages using Jott.com's voice service which transcribes your voice to text. It has a feature that lets you connect messages directly to Twitter or Facebook, so I was able to talk into my cell phone and get out short Twitter messages (Tweets). I also had my Twitter messages connected to Facebook so my Tweets were then sent to Facebook as Status messages. The only problem with this is that translations can vary and sometimes they come out real funny. Overall, the Jott thing was a great way to keep many people in touch with my whereabouts and status. My stops for messages were quick and easy and didnt involved keying in messages on keys smaller than tic-tacs in the cold! Sorry, if there were some crazy translations they probably were half-asleep in Bangalor too.
The entire morning was a good experience as I felt I was making good time and progress. At 11:30 I had finished 20 miles averaging about 3.3 miles per hour, my heart rate dropping to around 110-115. Then around noon I started to notice some pain and a little exhaustion Edwards Ferry. My feet began to feel more tender in spots and I had to make some adjustments to my shoes. Looking back, part of my problem was that I was running out of water and needed some substantial food. I pulled out the iPod shuttle which the gang had burned a playlist with songs about walking. Just the inspiration I needed!
Justin, Megan, Ali and John had figured to meet me and join with me at milepost 36, White's Ferry, (for me 25 miles and the half-way point) and join with me on the next 13 mile leg of the trip to Point of Rocks, Maryland. One of the problems with the course is that it snakes along the Potomac in mostly undeveloped or farm land. There are probably 15 or so access roads that go to the trail in the 50 mile area I was walking, most either lead to a lock or to a small car ferry that takes a few cars at a time over to Virginia. So, there are many stretches of 5-10 miles where there is no sign of civilization. It is amazing that there is such country a short 1/2 hour drive out of DC.
I was fading a bit by 2:30-3:00 p.m. when I met with J,M,A & J so they were a real welcome site. Justin had brought a sandwich and they had a fresh supply of water, which I was sorely lacking. Frankly, due to this time of year and the semi remoteness of the trail, the water and more food supplies I carried were only enough to get me through 1/2 the trip, which I didn't factor in. I might have dropped some supplies along the path the day before if I had thought about this. In warmer weather there are plenty of water pumps, fountains and at least one snack bar at milepost 36.
On we walked for another 13 miles with my 4 new companions. To be honest, I was preparing to do this whole 50 miles myself, but the kids and Mary Ann insisted on getting involved. I soon realized that support was necessary for this hike and the companionship and energy they brought helped give me a big boost. Most of the walk after about 30 miles seemed more mentally challenging as your mind goes a little dull and you start questioning your assumptions and confidence. This leg of the walk was in the late afternoon and I started to think about the next 12 miles ahead after the group would be leaving. My heart rate had dropped to about 100. The temperature was in the low 60s. My feet were aching and my hands swollen from hanging down in stride all day.
At about a mile before milepost 49 at Point of Rocks, I decided that I was not going to go any further. The walk lasted about 12 hours and we finished about 5:30 p.m., 12 hours after I started. I reckoned that the next 12 miles would require walking 5 hours in the dark of the night in a very exhausted state with my feet swollen and hurting. But, my biggest concern was the next leg was even more remote than the last 38 miles and it would be hard to get to me in case I needed help.
Mary Ann, met all five of us at Point of Rocks and we shared a glory moment having finished what we did. The funny thing is that 38 miles is probably as far as I walked when I last tried 50 miles in 1963. And, I kind of felt the same way about giving up before reaching the ultimate goal. There was plenty of satisfaction in doing what I did and a great feeling of relief that it was done. The best part was to be able to share it with friends and family.
But I still wonder if I can walk the 50... Hummm....?
I think I'll give myself some time to contemplate the whole experience and reflect on the future of the "50-Mile Hike." Is this the end of the line...or is it the beginning?