Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Park

When I first moved to Virginia, I didn’t like it very much. There is a lot to dislike about Northern Virginia: the traffic here is just about as bad as it is in LA; it’s way over-developed; there are creepy developments of ugly, new, cookie-cutter houses – all on top of each other, natch – all over the place; the traffic is terrible; a lot of the people have a disgusting sense of entitlement; there is an annual car tax; the traffic is terrible; sometimes it seems like there’s nothing more here than shopping plaza after shopping plaza after shopping plaza; the traffic laws are draconian (15 mph over the speed limit is considered “reckless driving”…and they’ll arrest you for it if they feel like it); the winters sometimes suck (read: it snows too much); there are always helicopters flying overhead; and did I mention the traffic is terrible? On top of that, in our early years here, voters passed an amendment outlawing same-sex marriage, which is one of my “causes”, and public library hours were drastically shortened due to budget cuts, which just infuriated me. Moreover, I have few friends here and I’m too shy to make any more. So although I don’t think I’d ever classify myself as an unhappy person, I wasn’t too happy about the state we were living in.

But somewhere along the way my perspective changed, and the more I explored the area I live in, the more I grew to love it. I got involved with volunteering, and I started going to parks more often, at first looking for wildlife to photograph, and then just because being outside makes me happy. I came to realize that this area has an amazing number of high quality parks, and all kinds of trails and paths apart from that. There are tons of really awesome things to explore here. Sure, there are still helicopters, and sometimes you can’t even escape traffic noise, and sometimes it takes you five times longer than it should to GET to the park because traffic is so bad, but it’s also hard to go ten miles and not come across a park – if you include little neighborhood parks, you probably can’t even go three miles without hitting at least one park. I haven’t lived in many states: just Maryland, DC, and Virginia, but I know our park system is better than Maryland’s and DC’s (although DC isn’t really a state, of course), and now all of the sudden I find myself wondering if when we do eventually move from Virginia (which has always been the plan), if I’m going to miss it terribly. (And not only that, but thanks to our new Attorney General the same-sex marriage ban was found unconstitutional earlier this year (although it’s still in effect at this time), and a couple years ago Fairfax County restored regular library hours.)

I think most people agree that water, in the form of a river, creek, lake, bay, ocean, or whatever, improves any park experience, and one reason there are so many awesome parks nearby is our proximity to the Potomac River. Because the river is so historic, much of the land that runs along it on both sides is devoted to parks and trails, many of them containing not only beautiful views and abundant wildlife, but both colonial and Civil War-era ruins, Native American artifacts, and ancient geological features. Proof of continuous human use for the past 12,500 years has been found in the site now known as Riverbend Park! Though I am not a history buff, I became interested in some of the history surrounding the Potomac River, so I read a book or two about it, and I’ve started scouting out hikes I can do along the Potomac. One of the most important pieces of history was the Chesapeake & Ohio (C & O) Canal, which ran parallel to the Potomac River on the Maryland side (the Potomac forms the boundary between Maryland and Virginia for those of you not up on your U.S. geography) and which was a very important source of transportation of goods prior to the dominance of railroads.

Today all 184.5 miles of the C & O Canal towpath – from Georgetown in Washington, DC to Cumberland, MD – comprise a very long, very skinny National Park. You may be familiar with the “rails to trails” concept where old railways are converted to biking/pedestrian trials; well this is a “towpath-to-trail”. In many places the canal itself no longer exists, but the towpath remains and is popular with cyclists and hikers. There are stops with restrooms (and often, historical markers and the remains of the old locks), most with parking, every few miles, and designated camping areas every 15 miles or so. On Memorial Day, I decided I wanted to see the Monocacy Aqueduct, which crosses the Monocacy River just before it joins the Potomac, so I hopped in my car and headed to my home state of Maryland. Just over the Rt. 15 bridge and a few miles south, I found:

Both sides of the Civil War loved burning bridges, and the Confederacy tried several times to destroy the Monocacy Aqueduct before eventually admitting it was just too damn strong.

I guess time and neglect are harsher foes than explosives, because a few years ago, the Monocacy Aqueduct was beginning to crumble. Fortunately it has since been restored, though of course it is no longer used as an aqueduct. As part of the C & O Canal towpath trail, bikers and hikers bike and walk over it.

You can also climb up to the sides …

… but be careful: there is no railing on the north side.

(It’s hard to get a perspective here, but it’s a few-story drop to the river.)

Here is the towpath just past the aqueduct: many miles of the trail look very similar to this. As you can see, the canal is no longer there:

After a few miles north on the towpath from the Monocacy, you come to Dickerson Conservation Park, which is mostly used for fishing in the Potomac, but where the towpath actually runs along water (only 25 miles of the 184.5 are watered today):

Keep walking and you’ll come to Nolands Ferry. The towpath goes over this culvert.

A little further still and you come to Point of Rocks. This is the Route 15 bridge in Point of Rocks, taken from the towpath. Here is a somewhat annoying fact: there are only three ways to drive between Maryland and Virginia: the American Legion bridge on 495 (a.k.a. the Capital Beltway), the Point of Rocks bridge, and White’s Ferry, which is another stop on the towpath, and also literally still a ferry, which means it’s somewhat slow, doesn’t operate at all hours, and incurs a toll. As a Virginia resident whose entire family, and many friends, live in Maryland, it can be pretty frustrating that the only practical way to get to Maryland is 495. (495 is almost always a traffic nightmare.) It’s not practical to take Route 15 to get to Baltimore, but it is a very pretty drive if you are trying to get to some other areas of Maryland, and standing there in Maryland after hours of hiking in the sun, I found myself happy to get into my convertible and drive across the Potomac once again to get to my home in Virginia.

Sigh: “happy”, “home”, “Virginia” – did I really just string all those words together in one sentence??

Comments (5)

You need to go to Fairfax Whole Foods

Attention fellow Northern Virginians! The Fair Lakes Whole Foods in Fairfax has updated their bulk food section and it’s incredible!

I have a few vivid grocery store memories I don’t think I’ll ever forget: the first time I walked into Super H in Fairfax and immediately messaged Mark (on my gen 1 Sidekick to give you an idea how long ago this was), “I want to live in this store;” the first time I walked into Wegmans and saw their produce section (I had been doing a drive-by of the house we are now renting to check out the neighborhood and afterwards stopped down the street at Wegmans, and immediately messaged Mark, “WE ARE RENTING THAT HOUSE BECAUSE THIS STORE IS AWESOME”); the first time I went to a Trader Joe’s in Virginia after moving to DC from Maryland…which meant I was able to buy wine (grocery stores can’t sell wine in Maryland; I probably messaged Mark something full of wonder and awe and warned him he’d have to help me carry 5 cases of wine into house when I got home). I had no idea Whole Foods was remodeling their bulk foods section and I think that the moment I realized what they had done will be another of those enduring memories. (Is it weird to have a collection of favorite memories of grocery stores?)

Just a couple of weeks ago I casually mentioned on this blog that when I go on bulk food buying binges, specifically for my trail mix, I skip the much larger Fairfax store and shop at the Vienna Whole Foods, which despite being much smaller has – HAD – a much better bulk food selection. Well, no more, friends. On what was meant to be a quick breeze through the store tonight to grab some tofu for making jerky, I hustled through the produce section and then was stunned to see THIS:

That’s a huge wall of grains, flour, etc., then bulk spices (yay!!), then dried fruit (which I won’t be buying because I love my new dehydrator!) and mushrooms (which I won’t be buying because mushrooms are gross!), and to the right of the picture is various salts. Be still, my heart!

I was so excited I took those two pictures, then merrily turned around to continue on my quest for tofu, feeling very pleasantly surprised. But wait, the surprise was not over! Not by a long shot! Turning around, I ran right into …

That is one side of one of two beautiful wooden bins of dried beans, varieties of which I’ve never even heard of! And as you continue through the back of the store, there are more and more bins and tables full of all sorts of bulk items! THERE IS A WHOLE TABLE OF BULK GOURMET POPCORNS! I can’t believe I just ordered Mark a couple of popcorns on the internet – I should have just driven down the street! Their granola/trail mix selection, which used to be quite small, is now an entire plaza. There’s a dried pasta station, but it hasn’t been filled yet – it has labels though, and half of them appear to be whole wheat varieties. There’s an entire “sprouts” station, which all sorts of sprouted nuts, cereals, and flours. There’s a table with “liquids”, with lots of different honeys (which I wasn’t interested in), agave, Bragg’s, and tamari – I got some tamari because I needed some. I’ve never seen anything like it! It all looks very nice, too; it’s very well displayed, and the aisles are wide and open. It all gets a huge thumbs up from me. The guy in the check-out line ahead of me and I were gushing over it all; he said, “did you see all the salt?” and I responded, “SEE it? I PHOTOGRAPHED it, I was so excited!”

In addition to the tamari and some turmeric, here’s what I got (and this is me showing extreme restraint, by the way):

Applewood smoked salt. I have been buying Maldon smoked salt, and don’t get me wrong, I adore Maldon, but their smoked salt is not very smoky; I can hardly tell the difference between it and their regular flaked salt. This salt smells heavily of a campfire.

Black barley. Never seen it before!

Steuben yellow eye beans. Never heard of them, but aren’t they GORGEOUS?

Jacob’s cattle beans. Never heard of these either but they are so pretty I couldn’t not get them.

Tongues of fire beans. Okay, how am I possibly supposed to resist a name like that???

I had been getting low on beans and was thinking about placing a Rancho Gordo order soon, but this (and subsequent purchases I know I will be making to check out the tons of other beans they have) will hold me over for a while. These are some of my beans:

I’m so hopped up about this I’m not going to be able to sleep tonight (seriously, does that mean there’s something wrong with me??). Enjoy this picture of a raccoon rubbing his belly; I’m going to gaze at it and hope it calms me down. 🙂

PS If any of you have had any of the items I bought and have cooking suggestions, let me know! I need to pick one of those beans to make tomorrow night!

Comments (9)