Keeping confusion, noise, irritants at bay
Large sycamores sway and creak in their jousting with the wind.
The sky is such a pure blue it’s as if it came from Leonardo’s palette.
Surface waters of the Potomac River are rhythmically roiled by the downdrafts of the constant breeze.
The only sounds come from nature and not vehicles or their engines grinding through the tranquility.
You are on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal towpath, just across from Shepherdstown and hard by the age-old river itself.
It’s not a little bit of heaven, but the solitude and glories of a late fall walk make the crushed stone path a close second.
Fallen leaves – the largest ones from the untiring sycamores, and others from the softwood maples, scattered oaks and ash trees – are strewn across the towpath as if their aim is to blot the surface from view.
With the trees and hardy shrubs bare from winter’s approach, the river and its chilly charms are in the limelight.
Summer’s birds are gone to someplace warmer. But the blue jays, ravenous crows, occasional song bird and soaring buzzards are both heard and seen.
Off in the distance near a gentle bend in the river are a few ducks. They are just paddling along, not bothered by any intense hunger or work schedule that should find them elsewhere.
Before too long, a stray hawk is quickly moving through his feeding routine in search of a meal.
It’s too early for the ground to be frozen or the days to be so short that the sun has little say in what nature wants, so the shrill calls of a chipmunk are heard. A squirrel and the non-stop motion of his twitching tail is rustling leaves on a hillside.
No rabbits, no foxes, no daylight-roaming raccoon, no muskrats or nocturnal possums are around. If only a deer could be spied, the towpath walk would near perfection. But the deer are much too educated to let us see them in the noontime light.
History is in the air. It can’t be sniffed or seen, but with the canal next to the path all it takes is to close one’s eyes and project the barges, mules, loads of coal or sand or Civil War doings in the technicolor of a charged imagination.
The canal actually ceased operating in 1924, nearly 100 years ago now.
The “Grand Old Ditch” and its countless locks, aqueducts, houses for the workers and way stations first opened in 1831 and is now maintained by the National Park Service that tries to stay ahead of the floods, Father Time and weedy growth that is usually too competitive to be completely overcome.
Turning around from our stroll up the Potomac, the river is on the right. Too soon, the James Rumsey bridge comes back into sight. The shallow cliffs have trees that mask Shepherd’s cafeteria, dorms and Erma Ora Byrd nursing building.
It’s been a short, wind-down trip back through the rubble of modern society to a more peaceful space whose value can’t be measured by any stock market, wages per hour existence or by any mechanized or electronic invention.
There were no deer on this day.
But there was everything else needed to exchange a “hurry-up,” unprofitable pace for a tiny bit of sanity-preserving, casual bliss.