Even among wide-eyed philosophers, Dr. George Miller is way out there.
In early May, Dr. Miller walked the 184.5 mile Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath in 9 days. During the past decade, Dr. Miller has explored how exercise brings mind and body together for better learning experiences. His long walk was a way of gaining first-hand experience of that relationship.
His walk started in Cumberland Maryland on May 2nd and ended in Georgetown on Mother’s Day, May 9th. He took photographs along the way with his iPhone and also compiled a journal. The journal and photographs he has complied compiled into a short book.
Operating from 1831-1924, the C&O Canal ran along the Potomac River and spanned from Washington, D.C. to the western Maryland town of Cumberland. Dr. Miller walked on gravelly path that once was the towpath on which mules pulled barges filled with coal from western Maryland. While many of the locks to this day retain water, others are dry. With its proximity to Antietam (the bloodiest one-day battle in American history), Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia (where abolitionist John Brown raided the federal armory to try to start a slave revolt), and Williamsport, Maryland (where Confederate General Robert Lee and his troops retreated after the Battle of Gettysburg), the C&O Canal is replete with history.
But it was even a more personal history that motivated Dr. Miller to take this walk.
“I wanted to spend some time with my oldest daughter Laura before she moved out,” Dr. Miller explained. “I had this master plan that we’d walk 20 miles and day and then afterwards sit around the campfire and talk a little philosophy. We’d endure the elements, maybe even taunt them.”
The master plan also included taking their newly adopted Border Collie, Kaye, for protection on a towpath that can be quite remote at times. Dr. Miller’s admittedly romantic notions quickly crumbled after just three days on the towpath. The heavy backpacks full of camping gear reduced their legs to jelly and the gravel tore up Laura’s feet and Kaye’s paws. They had also not anticipated that the temperature at night could drop down in the 30s. Father, daughter, and dog (if she could talk) were ready to throw in the towel. But then another plan was hatched that suited all parties.
“In retrospect, the fact that Laura and Kaye couldn’t go on was a blessing in disguise,” Dr. Miller asserted, “because both desperately needed rest and I know I would not have been able to complete the towpath lugging 30 pounds on my back. The revised plan called for me to walk the towpath and Laura to meet me at for lunch and at night at various access points. Instead of camping on the hard cold ground, we stayed at a dog-friendly hotel and my parents’ nearby condo. Only with these amenities was I able to complete the journey.”
On the C&O towpath, there are few opportunities for getting a meal. So after that first night, when the party reached Old Town, Maryland at 6:30 A.M., they waited for 90 minutes for the School House Kitchen (a high school converted into a restaurant), the only restaurant in town, to open. In Paw Paw, West Virginia, they had to walk over a mile off the towpath to get something to eat.
“The Liberty Convenience Store was a godsend,” Dr. Miller sighed. “The attendants were really nice, let us hang out there for a while, and charged my phone.”
But Dr. Miller could not always depend upon the kindness of strangers. In the general store in one town (which will remain anonymous), they refused to charge cell phones, even though they had plenty of outlets. In one town, around dinnertime, the proprietor had inexplicably left the premises, which they discovered later was a rule rather than an exception.
At the Paw Paw Tunnel Campsite, they met up with Dr. Miller’s sister-in-law, an avid hiker, and on Day 3 at daybreak made their way through one of the marvels of 19th century engineering, the 3,118-foot-long Paw Paw Tunnel. Dr. Miller reports that while Kaye, aflutter with all the new sounds and odors, yanked him most of the time, she was perfectly good on the tunnel walkway, which was uneven and wet. If she wasn’t obedient, both of them would have fallen over the guardrail and into the water.
“I was not trying to make his journey a quest for the meaning of life or some kind of spiritual bonding with nature. Don’t confuse me with Hank Thoreau. I’m not one who is overwhelmed by walking into a forest, as if it’s a holy place, since I have never made the distinction between nature and myself. I am not compelled to run around naked and howl at the moon. Nature is everywhere, and if you don’t think just take a look at yourself in the mirror.”
Not that Dr. Miller didn’t try to come up with something interesting.
“I was trying to come up with something halfway interesting along the way,” Dr. Miller laughs. “During the 9-day trip, the thing that stood out the most was the gravel scratching under my feet. You’re not going to be hearing a lot of how this trip changed my life or gain any access to the deep, dark parts of my psyche. You probably wouldn’t to go there anyway: they’ve been condemned long ago.”
Did he every think he wouldn’t make it?
“On the last day, I walked 27.2 miles. Five miles from the end I had to take some Aleve for swollen ankles. If I were a betting man, I would have bet against myself at that moment.”
Dr. Miller insists that he was not walking as homage to his father, who walked the C&O Canal 25 years earlier.
“I’ve already told my father I love him,” Dr. Miller replied. “I don’t have to walk 184.5 miles to prove that.”
But he did call his father and asked him to walk the final mile with him.
“He liked that,” Dr. Miller smiled.
While he almost stepped on snake (which he later photographed), Dr. Miller says there wasn’t anything “epic about the trip. There were no near-death experiences or encounters with Big Foot, zombies, extraterrestrials, ghosts, vicious animals, or serial killers. Nor was I inspired to utter any prophecies or have any revelations other than feet can really hurt if you walk 11 hours a day.”
Dr. Miller downplayed his walk.
“This is not something extraordinary for someone who runs regularly. My wife agrees. She pointed out to me that a woman in her 70s walked the Appalachian Trial, which is something like 11 times as long as the C&O Canal. There are many people who run Iron Man events or accomplish more than I have who have challenging disabilities.”
But he found out something about himself on the way.
“As much as I am not a people person,” Dr. Miller confessed, “I found out I don’t like being out in the middle of nowhere by myself either. Which is why I was talking to wife or mother all the time and constantly posting pictures on Facebook. I needed some kind of contact. I guess the ancient Greeks were right: we are social beings.”
And about this thesis about how mind and body are affected by exercise.
“I was inspired, partly because it’s a new thing, but also partly because I was constantly energized by moving,” Dr. Miller explained. “Despite the effects of walking 11 hours per day, I felt completely energized. By the end, my ankles were swollen and I had enough of eating energy bars and drinking iodine-laced well water. But my thinking was as clear and pure as it ever has been. Exercise definitely that makes people more open and creative.”
Dr. Miller will continue to explore his thesis when he journeys to India in fall 2015, where he intends to practice yoga for a month during his sabbatical.