C&O Canal Winter Walk

What to do in a “Big Town, Small City” on a sunny but chilly Winter afternoon?

 

In a town I know, you go to “Beans” for a latte and a muffin served by Anthony who has been there for ever, or Melanie herself, founder and owner, who has been there even longer.

Yes, that’s my idea of a really nice afternoon, hot beverage in pleasing café with a fresh, warm muffin and a conversation with my wife.  That could consume most of the limited daylight hours we get in January.

My dear spouse is made of more ambitious stuff:  “Dear, you know the C&O Canal Towpath is just about a block (two actually) from Beans.” 

I’m not really the type of guy who goes out for a cup of coffee and ends up taking an hour-an-a-half hike.  On the other hand, I can read the handwriting on the wall so we took a nice little walk.  And it actually was quite nice.

I’m not a Brunswick Insider but I am a fan of the town and of my favorite Café, Beans in the Belfry. I know a few shortcuts.  There are two ways to get to the Towpath from Beans, one goes through town, down West Potomac Street to Maple Avenue, turn right, across both sets of railroad tracks, turn right again and follow the signs.  Taking my short cut, you get to see some of Brunswick’s less heralded attractions.  You cross the parking area behind Beans along the New Hope United Methodist Church and take the pedestrian passageway (narrow little alley) to South Maryland Avenue.  Across the street and a little downhill is Railroad Square (looks like a parking area) with a relatively recently acquired caboose, donated to the city by CSX.  It is, as tradition demands, bright red and it’s magnificently restored.  Kids love it and so do railroad buffs.

A few steps further, just before the Railroad Station, brings you to a sad but fascinating memorial, a locomotive bell and a marker stone to three Brunswick Railroaders, “heroes of the P#286”, an engineer, a conductor and an assistant conductor, who died in a terrible railroad crash in 1996, not so long ago, while running the Brunswick to Washington DC commuter train.

Right next to the Station you will surely notice something familiar yet somewhat strange.  Truly, a God send for a velocipedist with tire or gear problems.  An air pump and a very clever set of wrenches and other “bike tools” available for emergency repair or adjustments, each on a steel tether long enough to be useful but short enough to keep them from “walking away”.  All this just a short walk (even by my standards) from my latte and muffin and a shorter distance yet from the towpath.

Not on the towpath, but close and probably familiar to many or most residents of Brunswick, is a spacious picnic area, right next to the boat landing area along the Potomac River.  It was not getting much use as we walked by in late January.  But the actual towpath is simplicity itself, a long, straight level, wooded free place to walk, talk (through your mask) and to breath fresh, non-urban air. 

On a wintery walk, look to your left and you can see the skeletons behind the trees whose lush foliage block the view in the summer. Broken tree casualties, giant trees felled by storms years past that recycle on the ground.  Your gaze reaches all the way to the Potomac River, obscured in the summer, a silvery band that has its origin in the Pennsylvania mountains and crosses the land all the way to the Chesapeake Bay. On the right side, the winter bleakness exposes invasive climbers with a few leaves still hanging on, drawing nourishment from the stagnant waters in the remnants of the canal.  My lady wishes we could clip them, tear them out, releasing their strangle hold on the trees and allow them to breath as we do, reaching out in Spring, unobstructed by the invasive vines.  It’s a bleak yet fascinating winter scape out there, fallen dormant and awaiting an enchanted prince’s kiss to awaken it back to life. 

There is a café in Paris of which it is said if you sit there long enough you’ll meet everyone you know.  I think the towpath is like that.  You walk long enough, you’ll meet everyone from Brunswick. 

Even when your Towpath sejour is over, there are yet sights to see and things to ponder, like the brick remnants of the old Lock that was used to adjust the water level on the Canal.

As one returns to climb Maple Avenue, there is the uncertainty factor.  Not the Heissenberg principle from nuclear physics, but the one imposed by the undisputable fact that Brunswick is a railroad town.  Trains; long trains; long slow trains; may command and demand your route.  No one I know messes with or has any way around a CSX freight train with a hundred cars.  You just stand and wait, or sit and wait for the train to go through, unless you are a five-year old.  In that case, you hold on to the hand of your grandfather for security and gaze in wonder at the behemoth, and try to decipher the cryptic artwork on the cars created by a street artist maybe from far away, California, Chicago?

The last thing we noticed on our hurry-up and wait excursion were the smart, maintained with military precision, grounds and building of the American Legion on Maple Avenue.  On its retaining walls is the exhortation not to loiter in  fairly standard language.  But this property adds the incentive to obey with a 50 caliber machine gun to its warning! 

These are some of the things you can do on a sunny but chilly winter day in a historic railroad town like Brunswick, a ”Big Town, Small City”.