The early morning light shone through the apartment windows. I re-packed my external frame hiking pack, tied on my boots, and headed out the door. The crisp D.C. air breezed past as I walked down New Hampshire Avenue. About a mile later I made it to Georgetown Waterfront Park. Little did I know, I had passed the Thompson Boat Center where the 185-mile towpath trail starts. I walked along the boardwalk and smiled as people jogged by.
"You hiking the C&O?" A man said as he stretched in the shade.
"I most definitely am!" I said.
"Enjoy the peace of mind, man. It's really something." He gave me a thumbs up.
When I arrived to the trailhead I saw a sign that read "Capital Crescent Trail." I thought nothing of it. Maybe they just start in the same place? I rationalized. I didn't take into consideration two glaring details: there was no canal on either side of the trail and this was obviously not the beginning of the C&O — there would have been a sign or a mile marker.
When I started down the trail I assumed that since there were groups of joggers and bikers that I was headed in the right direction. According to the C&O IPhone App, I was on the right course. Two miles in, I stopped at a map board on the side of the trail. Again, I did not take note of the obvious fact that the Capital Crescent Trail led straight into Bethesda and did not follow the Potomac River which the C&O follows. At the same time, I realized the mile markers were counting down from 11. Odd, I thought, the trail should have started at 0 and worked its way up. I continued onward, unaffected.
Between milepost 8 and 7.5, the Capital Crescent Trail crossed over a long, narrow body of water on the Arizona Ave Trestle. Another pathway followed along the water beneath the trestle. Should I follow the sunny path that goes along the canal-looking body of water, or should I continue on this well-populated, shaded trail? I ignored the blatant sign the world had sent me that the crossing trail was in fact the C&O Canal.
Several comfortable miles later I made it to a rest station at mile post 3.5. I filled my water bottles, laid down my 35-pound hiking pack, and stared at the map. I thought more about the signs. Then it hit me. I had walked 5 miles in the wrong direction. "Shit," I said a little too loudly. I looked around me to figure out what to do next.
"What's wrong?" A couple noticed my frustration."I'm supposed to be on the C&O. But I'm definitely not on that right now.”
"Oh, yeah, you are in Bethesda. You're several miles from the canal.”
"Oh well." I shrugged, picked up my hiking pack, and planned a course to join back with the C&O Canal.
After two hours of backpacking through suburban D.C. along the scorching roadways, I found my way to Glen Echo where I could reconnect with the towpath. I bought a Snickers bar at a gas station and slumped over to some shade. Covered in sweat from the ninety-degree weather that day, I walked into the Verizon Store next door to the gas station. "You mind if I sit here?" I asked the employee.
"Go right ahead," he said. A mother and her post-grad school daughter were fixing the daughter’s phone.
"Where ya headed?" the mother asked.
"I'm hiking from D.C. to Pittsburgh, but I've hiked in the wrong direction for most of the day. I'm headed to Swain's Lock #21.”.
"Do you want us to drive you there?" she asked.
"Anywhere between here and there would be fantastic.”
It was one in the afternoon, my feet were sore, my back ached. I lobbed my hiking pack into the back of their SUV and got in along with it. It had not occurred to me to ask their names or learn anything about them until the car zoomed away with me in it. Safety apparently isn't always the first thing that comes to mind.
"I'm an FBI agent," the mom said. Could I get any luckier? The daughter was a pharmacist and had just graduated college. For the next 30 minutes they asked me about my life, who I was, and how long I planned on hiking for.
We pulled up to Swain's Lock #21, the first campsite on the C&O Canal. It was technically 16 miles from the start of the C&O. I thanked them and offered to reimburse them for gas. They declined. "You'll need the money."
I lugged the hiking pack out of the car, hobbled to the campsite, and waved as they drove away. I set up camp and relaxed as cool breezes from the Potomac River blew over the campground. It had been one hell of a first day for a backpacking trip.
Jeromy Slaby is the founder and project manager of Sonderers Magazine. He is also a freelance writer and photographer who specializes in travel and politics. He is currently working on receiving a BA in adventure education from Fort Lewis College in Durango, CO. See more of his work here.