It was a drizzly September day-- there's been little respite lately from the damp-- and I decided to go for one of my expeditions. This Georgia Avenue trail was not one of the most scenic or fascinating of the Neighborhood Heritage Trails, but its main advantage was that I got to view the campus of Howard University for the first time. As I've lived here longer, I've come to regard Howard with a certain reverence. The campus, too, while not ostentatious, felt dignified and solid and old. A few details, though overall the rain depressed my photographic efforts:
I ate lunch at a Potbelly close to campus and read Bob Woodward's Fear. From Howard, the trail mostly moseys straight up Georgia Avenue, with a brief detour over to parallel Sherman Avenue, only a block away. It's an excellent illustration of the gentrification landscape: Georgia Avenue, mostly, is still lined with small local storefronts that are graffitied, barred, and/or drab and dingy-looking. Down-and-out individuals limp by with regularity. But turn off this main drag onto a side street and the row houses are looking freshly-painted and bright, with many rainbow flags (strangely, often the first sign of DC gentrification), flowers, and arty-looking porches. The businesses along Sherman Avenue are a little more upscale and funky-in-a-cute-way, despite being only one street away from Georgia. Here and there, a block of Georgia Ave. is following suit. It's only a matter of time, it seems, before all of Northwest DC is downright adorable.
It's been a week and a half since we returned from our latest 3-day backpacking trip on the C&O Canal. I love the hiking but my desire to write about it has waned over time. Nevertheless, an instinct for completeness will not let me finish the trail without also finishing this account of it. Also, it gives me an excuse to take and share photos.
The weather from August 23-25 was perfect: highs around 80 degrees, not terribly humid, breezy, sunny. We could not have asked for more perfect conditions, except that a few weeks ago it was really rainy, and the subsequent standing water seems to have led to a bumper crop of tiny, hungry mosquitoes. We had to ration the bug dope. When my kid got home, they tried to count their bug bites, but lost count or got bored after 150. Things were okay in the sunshine and breezes, but there were miles-long tree-shaded passages with boggy, shallow, temporary pools in the depression left on one side by the former canal. I called these "Mosquito Alleys." We itched and got used to it.
We started out from McMahon's Mill on a Thursday morning. It was immediately clear how high the water was everywhere. The little creek that runs through McMahon's Mill was rushing fast and hard. The towpath was muddy and, in some cases, water was streaming down the rock face on our right and crossing the trail on its way to the river. Where the trail verged on the Potomac, water was cresting over the edge.
We grabbed a quick lunch early on at the Opequon Junction campsite, then continued hiking until we reached an unexpected row of vacation (or perhaps even permanent) cabins and mobile homes, as the trail briefly opened out to become a gravel road.
My kid pointed out the tree in the picture above. This is not an actual human house, but a child's drawing somehow drafted into reality.
There were dragonflies, and lovely greenery:
And hikers striking poses.
By the end of the day we had arrived at our destination: the town of Williamsport. The Conococheague Aqueduct, which the trail crosses near the town, was closed for restoration, and the consequent detour through Williamsport would lengthen our hike by a couple of miles. We'd decided to stay at the Red Roof Inn, about half a mile off the trail detour, which was owned by a very nice South Asian couple and was cheap and comfortable. We did have to hike a little way along the shoulder of the highway, though, and a woman carrying too many bags asked us, fellow vagabonds, if we were "heading north." It was a funny town: lots of historic buildings, a few fixed up fancy, and a lot of obvious poverty too. Several people seemed to be scraping by holding permanent flea markets on their lawns.
Exhausted after 12 miles even in nice summer weather, especially the final mile by the roadside, we ate dinner at the Waffle House in front of the Red Roof Inn. It was the saddest Waffle House we'd ever seen: almost no customers, the staff draped in various attitudes of hostility and/or despair, monosyllabic except for a lonely, ostracized fry cook.
We made some phone calls. We slept hard. We took grateful hot showers in the morning as though this weren't the first night of our "camping" trip. Then we hiked back into town to the only available cafe besides the Waffle House, Desert Rose.
Desert Rose, we realized as we approached, was an oasis of rainbows (including the gigantic mug we have at home that reads "NOBODY KNOWS I'M GAY"), featuring a large effusive male employee with a braying laugh and obvious Heart of Gold, Rose herself (quiet and unassuming, but friendly), and a surprising number (considering my experience of the town so far) of gay and/or politically liberal customers. They had interesting local candies. They had hiker supplies. They had really awesome coffee. My kid felt welcomed, which is not always the case in western Maryland. Highly recommended, not that you have a lot of options when you are in Williamsport.
After breakfast we hopped back on the trail detour, which went all over including through some brickyards before reconnecting with the towpath.
It was another lovely morning, a bit more humid. We hiked close to the river. Note how muddy the water is, compared to other years.
When it came time for lunch, we sought a spot in full sun in order to deter mosquitoes. I found a small sandy beach on the river shore with space to set up my beloved tiny camp stove. I lighted it and made some rather putrid instant coffee. The stove heated up the sand and rocks around it to a surprising degree, so that it was painful to stand near it in bare feet, and I dropped my first pot of boiling water in the sand in surprise when I tried to pick it up using a rag as I usually do. Hands-on science. Another surprise: the mysterious creatures milling around in manic clusters on the surface of the shallows.
I was not 100% sure whether they were insects or crustaceans, not that there's that much difference. We got very hot during lunch, but we put our feet in the river, and it was worth it to be away from the mosquitoes for a little while.
During the afternoon, we got some relief from mosquito-alley sameness by passing a big dam and then a series of picturesque locks and old mills in quick succession. The trail does lack variety sometimes, but this was a good bit.
Occasionally we met new friends:
Tired and footsore, we arrived at Fort Frederick State Park around 5:30 pm. We'd reserved a campsite, but it was necessary to hike a little way into the park to fill up our water containers and check in with the park ranger. Fort Frederick seemed oddly teeming with people. Most them, even more oddly, were men with complex facial hair wearing drab-colored clothing of an antique style. They gazed curiously at me as if I were the one out-of-place in my hiking clothes and sneakers. They were doing things like pumping water, chopping wood, examining one another's firearms, and setting up similarly undyed tents to sell homemade crafts. This was confusing. Was Fort Frederick a sort of living-history museum?
As it turned out, the ranger said they were "having a muster" that weekend. Apparently there are French-and-Indian War re-enactors. Lots of them. One (white, I think) guy was even dressed as an Indian, with paint and feathers. Hmm. I pretty much just ignored everybody as I passed among their tents and returned to my child, waiting by the water pumps, and our campsite by the beaver pond, rich with mosquitoes.
I didn't take many photographs that night, nor did we indeed do much of anything, except cook dinner as quickly as possible while running about slapping ourselves and having an ongoing meltdown, then eat and hang out inside our tent. I did take some photos from inside the tent.
In the morning, our neighbors from across the campground driveway, a couple of middle-aged women, came over to inquire what we were up to. They'd come for the muster, out of boredom and not any special interest, they seemed to suggest. Not too much to do around here. But one of the women was clearly envious of our adventure, the way we were breaking down our whole camp in a few minutes and neatly stuffing it into our packs (something that never fails to amaze me either!). Where were we going? How long had we been doing it? Maybe she might try something like that too, when her health was better. Why does backpacking so ignite the imaginations of onlookers? I have read so many books about other people's hikes; answered so many questions about my own very modest ones.
This third and last day was more humid still, and blisters were had by all. We were back in the world of startling green, though, and I love that.
There was also a surprising amount of corn in these parts. Blisters were tended to in a nearby cornfield:
And we met even more friends.
Overall we saw our usual variety of wild animals this trip: a doe and her fawn, green and blue herons, pileated woodpeckers, many wild ducks, many turtles, a snake, a few frogs/toads, fish, zillions of butterflies, some caterpillars but not as many as last year, spiders, mystery water bugs, and a really excessive number of mosquitoes. We heard owls but did not see them this time.
By the latter half of the day, kid was limping and having trouble envisioning the last few miles with their painful blisters. Various minor surgeries ensued. Lunch was a purely functional affair eaten plunked down by the edge of the path in a sunny patch. There was still cool stuff, like this culvert, but we were ready to hike to the finish line.
Unfortunately, there was none of that. The building was locked. There were some porta-potties down by the road. Nowhere really to sit except in the grass, which kid did with a blanket wrapped around their whole body to reduce access to their bare skin. The spot itself was very, very pretty:
But we were miserable nevertheless. Eventually I flagged down a young, bearded guy who seemed to be headed down to the river from his truck, carrying a bucket. Did he know how far it was to town and services? We didn't have it in us to walk very far.
Oh, there's a truck stop just down the road, he said. Restaurant, gas and store and everything. How far? About 1000 feet.
It might have been closer. I've rarely been so thrilled to enter a dark, dingy, and barely occupied dining room. Kid ordered a basket of fried shrimp and french fries; I ordered eggs and toast and coffee. We arranged for my husband to pick us up at the restaurant. There were restrooms. We are wimps, but for a few days every year, we get to feel like badasses.