How the C&O Canal Taught Me a Life Lesson

I live just about two blocks from the C&O Canal’s towpath. (If you don’t know what it is, click the link.) On most days, I cover anywhere from two to six miles on it, as part of my semi-regular exercise regime. I did this even before I lived right next door to it. For the last 3 years I suppose, I have been a regular visitor to “The Canal”.

Lots of people use it. And lots of people make a mess out of it buy littering. Rare is the hike that I take where I don’t find some sort of detritus from lazy-ass people who just drop shit wherever they stand. Some of the worst offenders are the health nuts that are obsessed with their body’s health, but not that of the ecosystem through which they run or bike. I see many a protein bar wrapper.

Litter pisses me off anyway. Litter in a National Park is worse. And for a time, I used to take a bag with me and pick up everything I saw, no matter what it was. That, as you can imagine, got tiring sometimes, to the point of ruining the walk for me. So, I didn’t do that anymore. But the litter still bugged the hell out of me, and I wanted to give back to a park that provided me with a service. So I came up with a plan that allowed me to both give back to The Canal, (and the National Park Service), while also still being able to enjoy it.

I decided, first and foremost, that I would designate certain days to picking up any trash. There will always be trash there because there will always be lazy, selfish bastards. I can’t stop it, but I can play a part, and I can go into a walk knowing that it’s a “pick-up” walk.

Second, in order not to be overwhelmed, even on a “pick-up” day, I made an agreement with myself that I would only pick up that litter which fell directly in, or slightly off of, my personal path. Both walking up, and walking home. No more delving into the sometimes thick woods, or mosquito infested swamp ponds to pick up a few cans. I figured if I stuck with what presented itself to me directly, there would still be plenty of trash to pick up. I would still be playing my part as custodian of that which I personally used.

Finally, I put limits on what I was willing to pick up, even if it crossed my path. An apple core, for instance, I know will decompose back into the earth. Might even feed a hungry creature. So I leave such things.

I do not touch cigar or cigarette butts, or anything that appears to have been directly in someone’s mouth. I avoid used tissues as well. (Such things are harder to pick up with anything other than my hand, and though I could wash my hands later, there are some places I don’t need to go.)

And so now, I have a more balanced, enjoyable, and hence effective way to play my small part in cleaning up the canal. (Well, the towpath, technically.)

Another thing one does a lot when walking the C&O alone is thinking. Sometimes the monotony of that “tunnel of trees” through which a person walks, sometimes in near silence, brings about automatic meditation. And one day it occurred to me that my new system for picking up trash on the Canal was sort of what I did in other areas of life. At least, it could be applicable to same.


There are many problems out there in our world. (All the litter on the whole path.) Some tend to take care of themselves. (apple cores). Some do not. (cans, plastic bags.) And some problems are just too deep, or problematic, or beyond us. (snot rags. cigarette butts.)

So we can’t possibly spend all of our time trying to solve every problem. But if we set aside some specific time (my pick-up days) to do our best to solve some problems that are within our reach (picking up the litter that lie in my direct path), we can get a lot more done, and feel less burned out in the process.

Sometimes my walks are just for me. Just as sometimes our time, no matter how brief, needs to be just for us. But to be grateful, and to acknowledge my place in the world, I put forth effort to make better that which crosses my path. A friend in need. An old man going into the same store as I. There will be plenty of that in a given lifetime, without having to get ourselves buried in the weeds everyday trying to solve all of the world’s problems every time we leave the house.

So go forth, friends, and as you walk this long canal of life on earth, take some time for yourself, some time for others, and if something comes into your life that you think you can make better, do so.

And maybe, once in a great while, you can still delve deep into the woods, and pick up everything you see, just for good measure. Just don’t get lost, and always come back to the towpath before dark. (It closes at dark, after all.)

I’ll see you on the C&O…


  1. I like the world according to Ty-we should all subscribe to your advce and I think I will.

  2. Thank you, Heather. If you think that, I must be on to something. =)

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