Hiking theTowpath From Cumberland to Georgetown

Hiking theTowpath From Cumberland to Georgetown

Hiker, mountain climber Paul Blank finds adventure close to his Potomac home.

Paul Blank is a former Outward Bound instructor. Last summer he climbed Mount Kenya and Mount Kilimanjaro—the two highest peaks in Africa. He hiked the mountains of Rwanda in search of gorillas.

Dissecting a chocolate chip muffin in a shop on Seven Locks Road near his Potomac home, Blank reflects on his latest hike, a complete traversal of the 184-mile C&O Canal Towpath, from Cumberland, Md. to Georgetown.

“It’s beautiful where the river bends. … It’s very calm in a lot of places.” Wistfully, he adds, “A lot of ducks.”

Blank, who teaches Judaic Studies and a law class at Jewish Day School in Rockville, did the hike in segments starting on Memorial Day weekend of last year. Over four days he did the first 60 miles—from Cumberland to Hancock. Skipping the hot summer, he resumed in the fall with a 40-mile section and several smaller sections, culminating with a 22-mile hike from Riley’s Ferry into Georgetown earlier this month.

Blank and a friend had contemplated the hike several years ago, and Blank took up the project last year partly in commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas’ 1954 through-hike, which saved the route from being paved over as a scenic highway (see box).

“He was a very inspirational person,” said Blank, who is a member of the Supreme Court Historical Society and takes his law class to meet Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg each year. “This being the 50th anniversary seemed like a perfect time to actually do it myself.”

Another friend planned on joining Blank on his hikes last year, but injured herself the first day the pair set out. Blank ended up making most of the journey alone, exploring Maryland’s rural towns and staying in Bed and Breakfasts along the way.

Going alone posed some logistical issues, since Blank had to be ferried back to his car after each section of the hike. He relied on taxies and a large number of friendly strangers.

“No one ever hesitated. No one ever asked for money for doing it,” he said.

Blank also observes the Jewish Sabbath on Saturdays and coordinated his trips so he never had to drive on that day.

Logistics notwithstanding, Blank found the solo hiking fulfilling.

“What I learned is I can be by myself. ... I’ve done some hiking on my own but most of it I’ve always done in groups and I just never thought I’d really be able to go days just really hiking by myself and not go crazy,” he said.  “I loved it. I really looked forward to being by myself.

“They have a lot of signs along the way that’ll tell you the battles that took place there, the people that crossed the Potomac at one time. A lot of battles took place there. It’s also kind of eerie as you’re walking. You almost imagine, you know, all these dead civil war people. Particularly when you’re by yourself. Ghosts and that kind of thing.”

More than a just being a window in to 18th and 19th century American history, the canal hike was a window into a rural American spirit all but lost to city dwellers and suburbanites. Blank’s journey was colored by country stores and towns built around white churches.

“Just in this Oldtown, we stopped there the first day and there was a little league game going on, a father-son little league game. This little tiny town. It was so nice just to sit there and watch it,” Blank said.

In a nod to the quiet way of life along the trail, Blank deliberately traveled without a cell phone. Making a call was never a problem, though. “I asked people if they would mind if I used their phone and they would give it to me in a second,” he said.

Blank highly recommeneded the through-hike experience and suggested that it might be a good project for families to undertake, perhaps travelling the whole canal in segments over the course of a year.

C&O Canal Association President Christine Cerniglia agreed. She's done the through-hike several times.

"I think it's absolutely wonderful. It's an amazing getaway from the real world. It's hard work and you're tired but you're refreshed and renewed and very much in tune with nature," she said.

Skeptics, Cerniglia said, are likely to be won over by the hike's beauty. "This particular year I dragged my husband along. I dragged him along kicking and screaming. He really didn't want to go at at all. ... And he absolutely loved it. He had a wonderful, wonderful time. "

Cerniglia emphasized that planning is key to a good hike. Hikers, she said, should plan their daily segments in advance as well as planning for their daily food and lodging needs.

Asked if the canal hike seemed easy after having hiked the likes of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Blank replied, “The truth is hiking is hiking. You put one foot in front of the other regardless of where you’re going.

“The thing about hiking is it’s sort of like life,” he said. “You [can] just go through it and look straight ahead and not look all around, not look up, not look to the sides. Or you can spend the time looking around and taking in all there is to see.”