Paw Paw

Paw Paw

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George set out for a long run at dawn. For many years he had been thinking about this particular challenge. Everything was in order: a new pair of Brooks shoes, backpack with a 3-liter pouch of electrolyte-infused water, small spaces jammed with power snacks, a roll-up tent squeezed inside, an iPhone in a waterproof case, Advil and other odds and ends all meticulously considered. Tightly strapped for the jarring motions of a lumbering jog.

Point zero was Thompson’s Boat House, Georgetown, the start of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal trail. The Uber car dropped him off and he found the 0-mile “watergate” marker, looked out at the summer mist hovering on the surface of the Potomac. His goal: 184.5 miles to Cumberland, Maryland, the other end. He set off at a walk, pausing at the William O. Douglas bust at Lock 3.

Here the private ultra-run began, unfolding as he squinted up at the university buildings, the window of his old dorm room. Raised in Chevy Chase, Maryland—his parents now passed, his siblings on the West Coast—George holds down the homestead. He was drawn to the cross-country team after watching Frank Shorter win Olympic Marathon Gold in 1972. George has run many races over the years, from the old Georgetown 10K, which went around the reservoir, to the Tokyo Marathon. At 58, he can still hold a 9-minute pace. He sustains a busy securities litigation practice and the extracurriculars of the cloistered world of Catholic Chevy Chase: Columbia Country Club, Gonzaga College High School alumni events, the artistic causes of his wife, Laura.

The C&O Canal took 60 years to build, dating back to General Washington’s beloved Patowmak Company—men dug, worked stopped, disease spread, costs ran over, companies went bankrupt and finally, in 1850, the long stretch was complete, lined with locks. After all the failures and setbacks, it was an impressive achievement. And immediately it became obsolete, with the B&O railroad opened that same year. By 1954, the water mostly dried up and the trail half eroded away from periodic floods, Congress planned to pave it over for a highway. Justice Douglas turned the tide on an eight-day hike, with The Post reporting and the public howling with approval. George remembers his dad talking about it, how he knew one of the hikers that accompanied Douglas, an old government man living over on Leland Street.

This is George’s church, an endless nave with no altar. He has biked the trail’s length a dozen times. He has run the lower sections a hundred times on many long training runs. Sometimes on the way driving home from Pittsburgh, where he has several banking clients, George stops in Hancock and runs the empty path beside the mostly dried up canal, out to old Fort Frederick from the French and Indian War.

On this 80-degree July morning, at 15 miles he passed Great Falls, where the river poured fast in the rocky narrows. There were a few frolickers out early on a Tuesday. A 9-year-old boy darting along the trail, far out ahead of his mother, or was it a nanny? George felt dizzy from lowering blood sugar, sat, ate an energy bar.

The sun well up now, the turtles climbed up on logs to bake in rows in the middle of the water ditch. Ducks, flies, snakes hidden in the tall grass between canal and river. A blue dragonfly darted in front of George, almost as if it meant to lead him along momentarily. Another one, the same one? The fluttering dragons took turns and George thanked them aloud for their guidance.

Locks, lockhouses, old sheds, and hint of a road or a house off to the right. For miles on end, nothing but a long dirt trail with the river on the left and the canal on the right, with varying amounts of water or none at all. Sometimes straight for miles, sometimes curving right and left and back around again in long loops. George has an old habit of counting his steps in groups of 33. He relishes the old cement mile markers. Mile marker 34, lunch, stretching and a nap at the Turtle Run campsite near Ball’s Bluff, site of Union carnage in October 1861. Captain Oliver Wendell Holmes was shot twice, recovered, onward to become the Great Dissenter.

Ten more miles, mostly walking, and time to make camp, 15 miles shy of Harpers Ferry in an empty campsite beside the river. An old pump supplied iodine. George had tested the tent and it worked as planned, and he was pleased to place it onto a bed of soft leaves in the tall grass. He had packed just enough food to qualify as dinner. Sleep came before the sun slipped down.

Coyote, raccoon, fox? Something incessantly rustling stirred George’s mind. Four a.m. was too early to break camp and head out. There was nothing to do but lie flat and ponder. By 6 a.m. he had enough of tossing, packed up, strapped tight and carried off at a slow pace, maybe 11-minute miles. No GPS watch, and barely a glance at the lifeless iPhone, and hardly any music at all. The left-brain was shut off: meditate on details.

At 9 a.m., George made Harpers Ferry. He ate a breakfast for two and drank more coffee than he could hold inside. He strolled the stone streets, nodded at a few shopkeepers out on their porches, admired a few AT hikers cutting through on their own long journeys, north-south, more loaded than George. A bench by the armory where fiery John Brown launched his raid in 1858. A place to stretch out, George slept hard for two hours, drifting in and out of a dream. His brother was in it, digging a ditch, a blue dragonfly, his daughter, he was trying to untie a knot to unfold his tent. A boy’s prattling awoke George and he felt anger, saw the father’s eyes on him, came to his senses. He was still in town for lunch and he stocked up on provisions, and that was enough of a town for one day.

He crossed back over the Potomac and headed north, running in a state of half-consciousness, the river close up against him on his left. Makeshift falls, short bridges over old locks, the occasional bikers passing him in both directions, his mind empty for 20 more miles. Now 80 miles into his run, George’s near 60-year-old body was breaking down. There would be no detour to Antietam up the road, no bloody lane for today. He collapsed at the Big Woods campsite, unable to make camp as the dusk crept into the sky.

It looked like a young couple in a tent across the field, their bike trailers well stocked for what must be the full ride from Pittsburgh on the Great Alleghany Passage. He smelled their pot, which jarred his memory as only smells can, and he wished he was that young man, stoned, with a girlfriend’s warm skin by his side at night. George finally mustered enough energy to pop his tent, eat the ham sandwich he had bought in Harpers Ferry, read some Seneca on his iPhone (On the Shortness of Life), and then drift off with the setting sun.

Laughter from the tent across the field, the early light through the blue tent. But all he could feel was ache and spasm after a second night sleeping on the ground, his head impossibly set on an inflated blob. This is where the run should end. Call Laura to come get him, take a long hot bath in Epsom salts, sip two bourbons, nap and recover. She was probably doing the crossword right now. George said it out loud: I am a damn idiot.

George always had an uncanny ability to punish himself. Marathons, ultra runs, the annual climbs up Pikes Peak, the “guys bike trips” out West. George gained a wandering wisdom generated by these journeys, and carried an energy through the corridors of his established Washington law firm where he had toiled hard for his spot in the order of counselors. George was an old school Washingtonian: the Skins at RFK, the Orioles at Memorial Stadium, long-gone Georgetown bars, all parts Upper Northwest, ignorant of vast parts of his own city.

George grimaced in pain as he hobble-jogged northwest on the trail. The river looped back and forth, and he avoided any shortcut across a peninsula of land in order to stay true to the journey. Even in his agony, George was back in a trance at every glimpse of a turtle, a lockhouse, a culvert, a weir, a railroad bridge, an old barn and the sound of cicadas.

 

In 25 miles’ time, George came to a familiar crossroad and turned up a few hundred yards to see Fort Frederick, a large, stone, star fort. The entrance gate was open and George went inside for the first time. There was mostly grass, mounds of earth almost like gravesites, hinting at the outlines of some long-decayed buildings. A family was there, the father dutifully reading the brochure, showing his wife and young son a map. The boy was cutting up, running about and randomly flopping into the grass with a full belly laugh. The father locked eyes with George across the field. George turned and left.

A dozen more miles and George crawled into Hancock, one of only a few small towns along the trail. He ate an early dinner at a dingy diner, and only on the way out did he notice a confederate flag outside. He looked around and spat up on it. With his vest repacked with food, he scurried back to the canal and in just a mile was back into solitude. George lumbered with an emptiness of mind, absent of observation. At some point consciousness crept back in, triggering the burning need for a rest, which George took on a grassy clearing. George marveled at how many mature trees stood in the middle of what briefly was one of the chief corridors of American commerce. Across were some cabins and boathouses on the West Virginia side and they seemed as if from another civilization. A few more miles and he collapsed at the Leopards Mill campsite. Some bikers passed but this place belonged to George alone. He pitched his tent and for the first time he lit a fire in the designated pit circle, except he could barely stay awake to see it in the dark. He treated himself to two miniatures of Dewar’s that he had tucked away, equally happy with the taste as with the thought that his load had just been slightly lightened. Funny thing about sleeping on the ground, by the third night it seems natural.

An intense cramp in the middle of the night, a complete disorientation as to time and place and identity. Where was he, what was happening? Where is it that I am pissing, he asked himself. Hyperventilation, sweat, more cramping. The feeling of dread, death closing in, an unraveling. George regained his bearings, spent the next half hour recounting the details of his journey until finally, somewhere just shy of John Brown’s fire, he fell back asleep.

Day four. Something was not right in George’s left arm, and left leg, and his lower abdomen. Despite copious applications of body glide, there was chafing in the folds of his body. George rubbed his eyes, dutifully smothering the ashes of the fire with pump water. His camelback bladder refilled, George tightened up. “F— it,” he said out loud to nobody, tried a run, then stopped. It was going to be a day of walking interspersed with contorted trots, nearly alone in the upper stretches of the long trail.

He followed this Bataan routine for 25 death march miles, until he finally came, in the afternoon slumber, to the entrance of the Paw Paw Tunnel. Ten thousand men worked 10 years to build the tunnel through the rock, carving a three-quarter-mile tunnel wide enough to accommodate a canal and adjacent mule trail, all to avoid seven winding river turns of about 10 miles length. With massive delays and cost overruns, the tunnel was one of the largest and most corrupt projects in U.S. history. Poor Irish and German immigrant workers fought and killed each other. Men died of disease. The project was finally completed in 1850, allowing for the full journey to Cumberland to open—only to be rendered obsolete immediately by the powerful locomotive that ran alongside the canal.

George stood long outside the semicircle entrance to the tunnel, able to see the other side through the darkness. A tightness gripped his chest, much like it had in the night. As he entered, he cramped up and doubled over every few yards. For all the runs and challenges George had ever met, this felt the hardest. Each step was like lifting a bag of lead. The light grew translucent, the condensation dripped off the brick ceiling into the shallow canal beside the towpath, each drip the devil’s sweat. He stepped farther into the darkness. At some point three cheerful bikers—a dad and two teenagers—passed him and he could not muster a return hello. At the mid-point total darkness, except the dizzying orientation of two semicircles of light distant on either side. A claw gripped his sides. He stopped and leaned over the half-rotted wooden rail and threw up half his lunch, a rancid energy bar lining the inside of his mouth. Lights from two more bikers ahead stirred him to action. There was no way but forward. He used his iPhone to dimly light the puddle-pocked path below him and did not look up until he emerged back into the full light of the northern side of the Paw Paw Tunnel.

Two miles up the trail he found it. A small path leading 300 yards up to a clearing where there was an old barn, seemingly nowhere near a farm house. Far enough from the trail to be unseen, and far enough from the road north to be unknown. George could barely believe that after 40 years, the barn looked the same, still abandoned, still decaying in just the same way. When he was there 40 years ago, he did not go inside the barn. This time he did. It was black and empty, with swirls of black dust coating every surface, the ground a muck of old boards and bits of metal and dried animal droppings.

George came out into the noon light of late July. He walked 100 more yards uphill into the woods past the barn. He was not entirely sure of the spot.

July 31, 1975. George and Tom and Ed were recent graduates sporting their purple jackets. Destined for Georgetown, Bucknell and the Naval Academy in the fall. Hank Dietles’s Tavern on Rockville Pike, near closing time. Tom wanted to drive by the house of a Stone Ridge girl he knew in Gaithersburg—just drive by the house, that’s all. Tom’s uncle’s 1965 dark green Mercury Meteor. The long dark stretch of road through Rockville. Talk of the Orioles. Marvin Gaye on the AM radio, “Let’s Get It On.” Somebody hurled a beer bottle at a mailbox.

The boy came out of nowhere and it was over in a second. George was riding shotgun. Tom slammed the brakes, pulled over. The young body lay in a ditch ahead, next to the side of the road, his neck bent sideways. No bike, no clue where he had come from. George jumped out and could only glimpse at the carnage. The head caved in from the grill of the car, a black pool of blood, no movement. George climbed back into the car, unable to breath.

They turned off the lights, sat in silence several yards away from the body still faintly visible. A unison of incoherent expletives, grasping panic like three sailors drowning inside the hull of a capsized ship. Ed said, We have to go get the cops. Tom said, Wait we have to think. George turned gray as stone. Ed said, What the hell, this isn’t right. Tom shouted, Do you want to go to jail? We’re drunk and there’s a dead kid. George shouted for silence to think. This went on for many minutes. Ed and Tom switched opinions and came to blows across the bench without headrests.

George took charge: Listen, this is what we are doing. They did it.

They covered the boy’s body as best they could—a found towel, a shirt, anything to keep from seeing his face. They loaded the body in the trunk. Three cars passed and did not slow down as they ducked down. They kicked dirt and anything they could to cover the blood stains, stomp away any sign of anyone having been here. They drove out Rockville Pike far past Gaithersburg, past midnight, past Hancock. They exited at 15-Mile Creek Road, not knowing where it would lead. Then they were lost in the dead night on a high ridge road. The road came to the river. Unsure about their next turn, George commanded Tom to turn off at the “Paw Paw campground,” whatever that was. Tom idled the car quietly into the empty lot that connected to the “C&O Trail.” George remembered a Cub Scout trip to the trail but that was in Seneca Falls, but he had no idea what this was 100 miles out. George directed the team to carry the body north up the trail and find a place to bury it. A novice plan. They had no idea there was a long tunnel to the south.

Under a half moon, they found a garbage bag to further wrap the body. The three 18-year-olds took turns, in pairs, lugging the boy up the trail. One mile, maybe 2. George spotted a random little side trail and they took it. A few hundred yards later they came to a clearing, the half-moon lit against the side of an old barn. No lights anywhere, no sign of a house, no bark of a dog. Another hundred yards uphill into the woods. Here, said George, just dig. They had no shovel, they clawed at the earth in between two oak trees. Ed went down to the barn and came back with two pieces of flat metal, like old rail tracks or something. They worked for three hours using the metal to lift the dirt, dig the grave. Exhausted, panting, wretched. They put the body down, and its smallness disappeared into the surprisingly large hole they had dug with their nervous energy. They covered it, stomping on the earth every few inches to pack it down.

When they had flattened it out, they argued. Make a mound to allow for the earth to settle, or wait, don’t do that, as a mound might be a clue? Ed and Tom argued, George took charge, yes a mound but layer it with leaves, branches and rocks. Ed and Tom obeyed. Five a.m., they were done. They backtracked slowly, trying to brush up their every step.

Back on the trail, George was a drill sergeant: listen Tom, listen Ed, we must never come back here, none of us. The criminal always returns to the scene of the crime, he mimicked from Dragnet, never come back do you promise. They swore and vowed to not speak of it again. George said: Even talking about it might catch someone’s attention, that’s it, it’s done, if someone figures us out, we’re finished, and there’s nothing else we can do to keep that from happening.

Nobody said a word in the walk back to the car, in the three-hour drive home, when it started to rain. They all had an alibi with their parents: George slept at Tom’s, Tom at Ed’s, Ed at Tom’s, and their half-baked Irish-Catholic parents didn’t know the difference. Nobody had a clue. The downpour washed any remnant of blood on Rockville Pike. It was just another dent in the front bumper of the crappy old Meteor, a car lost to history.

The summer passed, they never saw each other except for a happenstance passing at Magruder’s market or elsewhere, glances averted. George passed August in silence. He spent a lot of time by Rock Creek and in the vacant riverside lots in Georgetown. He never saw a news article about a boy killed on Rockville Pike. There was no internet, no way to see if there was any mention of it. There wasn’t even a photo of a missing kid on a milk carton. There was only silence and time.

George kept to himself in Old North dormitory at Georgetown. Fortunately, his assigned roommate from New Jersey never showed up for college. George settled into the routine, the suppression of memory making progress each month. In his sophomore year, George discovered pot, and then it was 1979. Every so often he would walk off alone, down to the towpath by Key Bridge and set off on a run. He made it a little farther each time. By his senior year once running to Great Falls and back, a full marathon. He knew it was an escape, but it took him years to realize these runs were a punishment, and years more to realize there would be no atonement.

Law school, marriage at Blessed Sacrament Church, two girls, workaholism, partnership, post-alcoholism distance running, the JFK 50 Mile at age 50, middle-age insomnia.

George stood there after 40 years. There was no hint of the burial site. He heard that Tom had died years ago, from cancer. Ed was somewhere out West, Portland he heard. There was no confession to be made other than to a silent god. George felt no redemption, no shame. It was something that happened.

George stood there for an hour thinking. There was nothing else to say or do. Besides, he didn’t even know the boy’s name. Rockville Pike was dense with new development. To confess now would only be cruel to his family. He walked back past the barn, back to the trail, and headed west. He quietly made camp at Potomac Fork’s campsite, scrounged for every last morsel of energy snack he had in his pack. George slept soundly, like an old man from an ancient time asleep on the stone floor of his prison cell.

A rising sun, a lone heron in the shallow water. George packed up, as tired, aching and hungry as he had ever been. He filled his pouch and sucked at his last sports goop packet, the best he could do for breakfast. George limped the last 10 miles toward Cumberland. He noticed every detail on the path—reeds, moss, the swallows, a hawk, two mice scampering into the grass, tractor equipment, rust on a gate, the warm breeze, the slight dip in barometric pressure and the hint of light midday rain.

He slowed to a crawl, the crisp sound of the small river to his left. George felt light. At Cumberland, beside the path was a Fairfield Inn. The desk clerk was not fazed by George’s horrendous appearance. He had seen it all, with bedraggled canal bikers arriving at all hours. George found dinner, took a hot shower and pulled the curtains tight as the sun retreated. He took towels and covered every last trace of LED light inside the room, until he could crawl into bed and experience total darkness with his eyes wide open.

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