Search This Blog

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A 60th Anniversary Thru-Hike of the C&O Canal: The Legacy of Justice William O. Douglas

This past summer I thought a lot about my love for this country. I love the preservation of open space, the diverse beauty of the land, the generosity of its people, our freedoms and wide variety of cultures. And when I find myself getting bogged down in pessimistic analysis of our convoluted political machine, it's time to go for a long walk.

Through these long walks I've developed an intimate relationship with the land that brings sensory understanding to political philosophy. I've often dreamt about what decisions our political leaders would make if they experienced just one thru-hike.

John Muir seemed to catch the ear of many powerful politicians like President Theodore Roosevelt, and journalists like 
the influential associate editor of Century magazine, Robert Underwood Johnson. On my PCT thru-hike last summer I perused a collection of Muir's writings and conservation accomplishments posted near soda spring in Yosemite. His eloquent passages inspired dreams of taking a walk with President Obama through the High Sierra. We'd drink directly from alpine lakes and touch the last of the spring snow before it melted off into the Owens Valley. Weaving our way through the ancient foxtail pines, we'd eventually clear the treeline and climb to the summit of Mt. Whitney. There, below us, we'd look down on that magnificent valley to the east. Full of history and less full of water than in previous years, the Owens Valley hydrates our international image by giving Hollywood what it needs to survive. How many residents of LA understand that they are drinking Sierran snow melt that collects in a lake adjacent to Manzanar, a WWII Japanese Internment camp?

The Summit of Mt. Whitney

Next, I'd invite the President to join me on the long descent into the valley. Upon our arrival in the town of Independence we'd be hard pressed not to get an earful from the locals about a wide array of power, water and historical management issues. The lessons and experiences would continue on and on. We'd walk the aqueduct towards LA, passing through the heart of the Mojave Desert. We would witness huge stretches of colossal wind farms whirling alongside us for days on end and eventually, the lights of the LA Basin would greet us as we traversed the Angeles Crest. The President and I would finish our journey by walking through the heart of LA until we reached the Pacific Ocean.

Sounds fanciful I know. What top level politician today would take on such a journey? Would you believe me if I told you that a Supreme Court Justice once thru-hiked the C&O canal towpath in order to preserve this crucial riparian corridor? 

Justice William O. Douglas thru-hiking the C&O Canal

Almost exactly 60 years ago, this letter to the editor, written by Justice William O. Douglas, appeared in the Washington Post:

The discussion concerning the construction of a parkway along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal arouses many people. Fishermen, hunters, hikers, campers, ornithologists, and others who like to get acquainted with nature first-hand and on their own are opposed to making a highway out of this sanctuary.
The stretch of 185 miles from Washington, D.C. to Cumberland, Md., is one of the most fascinating and picturesque in the Nation. The river and its islands are part of the charm. The cliffs, the streams, the draws, the beaches, the swamps are another part. The birds and game, the blaze of color in the spring and fall, the cattails in the swamp, the blush of buds in late winter-these are also some of the glory of the place.
In the early 20's Mr. Justice (Louis D.) Brandeis traveled the canal and river by canoe to Cumberland. It was for him exciting adventure and recreation. Hundreds of us still use this sanctuary for hiking and camping. It is a refuge, a place of retreat, a long stretch of quiet and peace at the Capitol's back door-a wilderness area where we can commune with God and with nature, a place not yet marred by the roar of wheels and the sound of horns.
It is a place for boys and girls, men and women. One can hike 15 or 20 miles on a Sunday afternoon, or sleep on high dry ground in the quiet of a forest, or just go and sit with no sound except water lapping at one's feet. It is a sanctuary for everyone who loves woods a sanctuary that would be utterly destroyed by a fine two-lane highway.
I wish the man who wrote your editorial of January 3, 1954, approving the parkway would take time off and come with me. We would go with packs on our backs and walk the 185 miles to Cumberland. I feel that if your editor did, he would return a new man and use the power of your great editorial page to help keep this sanctuary untouched.
One who walked the canal its full length could plead that cause with the eloquence of a John Muir. He would get to know muskrats, badgers, and fox; he would hear the roar of wind in thickets; He would see strange islands and promontories through the fantasy of fog; he would discover the glory there is in the first flower of spring, the glory there is even in a blade of grass; the whistling wings of ducks would make silence have new values for him. Certain it is that he could never acquire that understanding going 60, or even 25, miles an hour.
From the National Park service website:
The editors of the Washington Post accepted his challenge to hike the entire length of the canal. Justice Douglas assumed the hike would consist of three or four people simply backpacking along the canal. However, news of the walk spread and many other conservationists asked to join the hiking party.
The hiking group grew to 58 by the time it left Cumberland on March 20. The group included Dr. Olaus Murie, president of the Wilderness Society, and Sigurd Olson, president of the National Parks Association. The group also included experts on geology, geography, ecology, history, ornithology, and mammalogy. Each night the group was treated to lectures on what it had seen and would see the next day. Sporting clubs along the route hosted the group in the evenings, various organizations prepared and served meals, and a trail club transported the gear so the hikers wouldn't have to carry it.
Although these additions made the trip more enjoyable, it was still a difficult hike. The hikers averaged 23 miles a day, and Justice Douglas set a brisk four mile per hour pace. They even had to contend with a driving snow storm on the second day of the eight day hike. In fact, only nine men, including the 55 year old justice, completed the entire hike.
Douglas also went on to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. Respect.
Who will be the next John Muir? Theodore Roosevelt? William O. Douglas? Is it possible for hikertrash to be respected and heard on the national stage if they are eloquent and compelling enough? How can long distance hiking be used to make the biggest positive impact on the earth and its inhabitants?
I'm not saying that thru-hiking produces enlightenment but I will argue that people who make decisions about a country should get to know it. A sense of place is an imperative part of education. Muir even went as far to say, "I never for a moment thought of giving up God's big show for a mere profship!"
Don't get me wrong, I believe that academic education is incredibly important but so is the education of the land. They are partners in an inspirational cycle. 
On January 1, 2014, I plan to thru-hike the C&O canal from Cumberland to Washington D.C. in celebration of the 60th Anniversary of William O. Douglas's historic thru-hike. While I walk the 184.5 miles of the canal I'll be thinking about the following:
Late in life, someone asked the justice how he would like to be remembered. Although he was involved in many landmark decisions while serving on the Supreme Court, he replied as someone who tried to make the earth a little more beautiful. (

No comments:

Post a Comment