The Secret Lives of Parks

A Walk on the Wild Side

Episode Summary

A Supreme Court justice once led a 185-mile trek to save the landscape he loved. Today, park lovers keep that spirit alive through a one-day marathon hike in Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park each spring.

Episode Notes

How far would you go to save a place you love? For Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who was incensed by a proposal to pave his beloved C&O Canal into a parkway, the answer was all the way. Host Todd Christopher explores the media sensation that was the Douglas protest hike of 1954 and speaks with Mike Darzi and Carol Ivory, co-chairs of the epic One Day Hike where a new generation of park enthusiasts now goes the distance every April.

Original theme music by Chad Fischer

“The Canal Song” was performed by Michael Clem

The Secret Lives of Parks is brought to you by: 

Todd Christopher – Producer & Host
Jennifer Errick – Producer & Host
Bev Stanton – Online Producer

The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association. With more than 1.6 million members and supporters, NPCA is the nation’s only independent, nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to protecting national parks. Learn more at

Episode Transcription

The Secret Lives of Parks

Episode 10
A Walk on the Wild Side

Todd Christopher: How far would you go to save a place you love? No, I mean, literally ― how many miles would you walk if you thought it would make a difference? Nearly 70 years ago, advocates trekked 185 miles to save the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, and park lovers today keep their spirit alive through a marathon one-day hike each spring. I'm Todd Christopher, and this is The Secret Lives of Parks.

Todd Christopher: It's a delightful Saturday in late April, the kind of day where scattered morning clouds quietly give way to an unbroken blue sky and warm sunshine, and at White's Ferry, Maryland there's anticipation in the air. White's Ferry is nestled between the banks of the Potomac River and the towpath of the historic Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, midway between Mileposts 35 and 36. It's the site of what was the last operating ferry on the Potomac, a cable-run line that had shuttled travelers across the river since the late 1780s, until a land dispute on the Virginia side shut down the operation for good last summer. But this day is all about travel by foot and spirits are high.

Todd Christopher: On a gravel parking lot about half the size of a soccer pitch, some 200 eager hikers are gathered along with friends and family and assorted well-wishers. They're awaiting the stroke of 10 o'clock, when the participants will set off on the towpath of the C&O Canal for the annual trek known as The One Day Hike. Their destination is the historic town of Harper's Ferry, West Virginia and their goal is to make the finish line before midnight after traveling 50 kilometers ― that is some 31 miles ― on foot. And as hardy as these souls may be, they will be joining others who are doubly so. Far downriver in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC, nearly 100 other hikers have already begun their own trek. Setting off under cover of darkness at 3:00 AM they will have to cover 100 kilometers ― roughly 62 miles ― to reach the end point.

Mike Darzi: The first thing you say, when you finish doing it, you say, "I'm never going to do it again."

Todd Christopher: That's Mike Darzi. He's the co-chair and volunteer coordinator for The One Day Hike, an annual event planned and managed by Sierra Club volunteers in the Potomac region since 1974.

Mike Darzi: But we have a lot of repeats, a lot of multi-year people who come back and back again.

Todd Christopher: He should know. Between the late 90s and 2006, Darzi completed The One Day Hike several times and has been involved with the organizing committee for a little over 20 years now. It's a labor of love he shares with his co-chair, Carol Ivory, who was already a veteran of the hike when Darzi came along. They also share an affection for Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, and the 185-mile-long trail at its heart.

Carol Ivory: I've hiked the whole thing, and it's just amazing.

Todd Christopher: That's Carol Ivory.

Carol Ivory: And it really is a glimpse into the history of our country. I mean the Paw Paw Tunnel has just an amazing history. The whole canal does. I love all the native plants and the beautiful spring wildflowers, to take all that in, along with the history, but the hike itself is amazing. I just love it. I love being immersed in the whole nature and history together. It's just wonderful.

Todd Christopher: More than five million people visited the park last year. And for Mike Darzi, its proximity is part of its charm.

Mike Darzi: The park to me was just an amazing place because it was so close to cities, urban areas. And so it's easy to get to, and it's a real jewel. People often take it for granted, but it's an amazing place.

Todd Christopher: Because the towpath is flat and wide the C&O is also a place that almost everyone can enjoy, whether on foot, on wheels or on horseback. And though The One Day Hike is long ― very long ― the only real requirement is persistence. The hikers are a diverse group, comprising all ages and backgrounds.

Mike Darzi: I love the range of people that we have. We have as young as 13 up to 80s. I believe there was one time where we had four generations on the hike. And yeah, all economic strata, all ethnic groups, all colors, all religions.

Carol Ivory: And people come from quite a distance. We've had people come from California. We have people come from Europe. I mean, it's crazy.

Mike Darzi: I love this: parents taking their kids on a long hike. Both as a personal challenge, but also to connect with them and also to get them involved in nature.

Todd Christopher: Though the event is centered on one marathon day, a real community forms around it, strengthened by the training hikes run by the organizers.

Carol Ivory: It is fun to meet people and walk along with them. And it really is an incentive. It helps you maintain a pace. You walk a little bit better when you're walking with someone.

Todd Christopher: But sometimes even that isn't enough. When preparing for what would've been her fourth One Day Hike by doing a training hike with her daughter, Ivory hit the wall.

Carol Ivory: I did it three times and then my daughter and I were going to do it the fourth time. And we both had various physical problems. And then we went out on that 17 mile training hike, and we dropped out and said, "We're not doing this over again. Everything hurts." You just get to the point where everything hurts and that's what makes you drop out.

Todd Christopher: Whether they're doing the 50K or the full 100K, Darzi says hikers need to keep a minimum pace of three miles per hour in order to finish by midnight. And most of them do. In any given year, there might be attrition due to foul weather, but typically half of the 100K hikers and nearly 90% of the 50K hikers will go the distance.

Mike Darzi: You realize that you were able to do it. And most people don't think they can do it until they do the training hikes. And then they realize they can walk a lot farther than they think. And once you've done it, it becomes infectious and you want to do it again.

Todd Christopher: For those walking the farthest, those doing the 100K, it all begins in the wee hours when they gather in Georgetown to check in and get their bibs ahead of the 3:00 AM start time. This year, The One Day Hike is using GPS trackers for the first time, which not only automates the recording of the hikers’ times, but also allows their friends and family to follow along and chart their progress online in real time. Then, for such an ambitious trek, the kickoff itself is almost unceremonious.

Mike Darzi: We give them instructions, tell them where the food stops are, and then they're on their way. So I lead them from the parking lot of Thompson's Boathouse to the canal, and then they go at their own pace. So it's quiet. It's after most people have left Georgetown, which is a party town and bars and stuff are still open or have just closed. So you'll get the occasional... drunk walking around.

Todd Christopher: Upriver at White's Ferry, there's a different vibe.

Carol Ivory: Well, I think that the 50K start couldn't be more different because it's at a very civilized hour of 10:00 in the morning. And people start arriving around 8:30 and a lot of it is reuniting with people we haven't seen for a year. Then everybody gets checked in and Mike blows the whistle and everybody starts, they start down the trail.

Todd Christopher: They may not all realize it, but with every step they take, the hikers are paying homage to what many park lovers still consider to be the mother of all protest hikes. Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park was designated in 1971, protecting the entire 185-mile canal and surrounding lands as a unit of the National Park System. But the canal very nearly met a different fate and it took a grand gesture to help save it. Originally intended to link the Chesapeake Bay and the Ohio River, construction of the C&O Canal began in the 1830s. For much of the 19th century the canal bustled with commercial activity as mule-drawn boats carried coal, food, and building supplies between the nation's capital and developing regions to the west. But with the rise of the railroads, the C&O's days were numbered, and the remaining sections, planned to span another 155 miles, were never completed.

Todd Christopher: By the 1920s, canal operations had ceased. And in 1938, the abandoned canal and its towpath were acquired by the federal government. In the years that followed, various plans for the canal came and went. Then in the 1950s, amid postwar prosperity and a national wave of road building, a National Park Service proposal to pave the C&O gained support and was even approved by Congress. NPCA, still known in those days as the National Parks Association, was unimpressed. A summer 1953 article in National Parks magazine touted the virtues of the C&O and lamented what it called, "The betrayal of its destiny by the park service itself through plans to destroy this priceless historic and recreational park by debasing its status to the level of a mere motor highway."

Todd Christopher: Other organizations, including the Audubon and Wilderness Societies, also expressed their disapproval. On January 3rd, 1954, the debate heated up when the Washington Post published an editorial supporting the proposal to pave the C&O. Judging the canal to be “no longer either a commercial or a scenic asset” it viewed the park service plan as a good way to make the Potomac Valley accessible to sightseers, campers, fishermen, and hikers. "The basic advantage of the parkway," The Post said, "is that it would enable more people to enjoy beauties now seen by very few." One notable Washingtonian, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, was incensed by what he read. Douglas loved the C&O. Whenever he needed to think deeply about a case before the court, he would take a long walk on the towpath. To him, it was a refuge from the trappings of DC, and he was known to cover 15 or 20 miles on Sunday afternoons. The wonders of the canal's landscape, he believed, were best appreciated at a slower, more intimate pace.

Todd Christopher: Two weeks later, the Post published a letter from Justice Douglas in response. "The discussion concerning the construction of a parkway along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal arouses many people," he wrote, "fishermen, hunters, hikers, campers, ornithologists, and others who like to get acquainted with nature firsthand and on their own are opposed to making a highway out of this sanctuary. The stretch of 185 miles of country from Washington, DC to Cumberland, Maryland is one of the most fascinating and picturesque in the Nation. The river and its islands are part of the charm, the cliffs, the streams, the draws, the benches and beaches, the swamps are another part. The birds and game, the blaze of color in the spring and fall the cattails in the swamp, the blush of buds in late winter. These are also some of the glory of the place. It is a refuge, a place of retreat, a long stretch of quiet and peace at the Capitol's back door, a wilderness area where we can commune with God and with nature, a place not yet marred by the roar of wheels and the sound of horns. It is a sanctuary for everybody who loves woods, a sanctuary that would be utterly destroyed by a fine two-lane highway."

Todd Christopher: And then Douglas threw down the gauntlet. "I wish the man who wrote your editorial approving the parkway would take time off and come with me," he wrote. "We would go with packs on our backs and walk the 185 miles to Cumberland. I feel that if your editor did, he would return a new man and use the power of your great editorial page to help keep this sanctuary untouched." Two days later, The Post published a reply under the two word headline, "We accept." Merlo Pusey, who wrote the original editorial, and Robert Estabrook, the editorial page editor, agreed to join Douglas to walk the length of the canal's towpath. Interest grew and logistics were sorted out, and Douglas and his party, which included several eminent conservationists, arrived in Cumberland, Maryland on March 19th, 1954. Among them were Olaus Murie, President of The Wilderness Society and a trustee of The National Parks Association, and Sigurd Olson, the president of The National Parks Association. They set out the next morning. And while I could recount their adventures for you, why not hear it in their own words?

From Cumberland to Washington
Is one-eight-nine they say;
That doesn't faze this dauntless band
It's downhill all the way.

Todd Christopher: That's the first verse of The Canal Song, the account of their journey that Sigurd Olson and others composed and sang each night, adding verses as daily events unfolded. By its end, the adventure was mythologized by more than 30 verses in all.

Oh, the mercury was dropping
And the snow was coming down
As we stepped out at break of dawn
And strode toward Paw Paw Town

Todd Christopher: 37 walkers began the trek, making their way on the first day through the Paw Paw Tunnel, a remarkable feat of engineering spanning six-tenths of a mile. Soon, the entourage would grow to 58. Douglas and his party spent most nights in sportsmen's clubs along the way, but they also roughed it.

Last night we took to sleeping out
Beneath the open skies;
The ground was hard, the dew was wet
But the stars were in our eyes!

Todd Christopher: The 55-year-old Douglas set a brisk, if not bruising pace, leading the party 22 miles on the first day and never slowing down. Over the eight days of the hike the party averaged well over 20 miles a day through good weather and bad.

The blisters are a'burning
And the tendon's getting sore,
While the shutter-boys from Washington
Keep yelling "Just one more."

Todd Christopher: The hike became a media sensation. Stories appeared everywhere: newspapers like the Washington Post and Evening Star, magazines like Time and Life and network radio and TV news broadcasts. There were even movie newsreels, and they all drew attention to the controversy and built support for preserving the canal.

The miles are rolling right alone,
We're tough as nails by now;
We hold our broken bodies straight
As the Justice takes a bow!

Todd Christopher: But it was not just a walk in the park, as blisters and injuries took their toll. Even Douglas, an experienced outdoorsman, got a bad poison ivy rash along the way. One by one, walkers dropped out until the end of the eighth day when the justice and eight of his companions, the so-called Immortal Nine, made it all the way to Georgetown where they received a hero's welcome. The editors at The Post were moved, as the justice predicted, and they later reversed their positions in a subsequent editorial. The Park Service dropped the parkway proposal in 1956. And while many years of dedicated advocacy were to follow before the C&O would be fully protected, the Douglas hike was unquestionably a galvanizing moment.

And now our journey's ended,
Our aches and troubles gone;
"But blisters heal," so says the Post,
And memories linger on.

Todd Christopher: Back at White's Ferry, the sun is climbing and the skies are clearing. The boots are laced, the backpacks shouldered, the water bottles filled. Everyone seems eager and relaxed when the start time finally arrives. Mike Darzi blows his whistle and the hikers gather for their final instructions before he directs them to the trail.

Mike Darzi: Any questions? Any answers? Any comments? All right.

Hikers: Thank you.

Todd Christopher: Then, they're off. They've got a beautiful day with good company ahead of them. And while it may not end with a tale as epic as the one that inspired this annual event, they'll have a pretty darn good story of their own to tell, too.

Todd Christopher: The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association. Episode 10, A Walk on the Wild Side, was produced by Todd Christopher with moral and technical support from Jennifer Errick, and Bev Stanton. More at Original theme music by Chad Fisher. The Canal Song was performed by Michael Clem. Your support makes this podcast possible. Help us to bring you more episodes by subscribing, sharing and―

Carol Ivory: I just love it. It's just wonderful.

Todd Christopher: ...leaving a review of The Secret Lives of Parks. For more than a century, The National Parks Conservation Association has been protecting and enhancing America's national parks for present and future generations. With more than 1.6 million members and supporters, NPCA is the nation's only independent nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to protecting national parks. Learn more and join us at