One of the themes of The Gentle Art of Wandering is that you can even find the natural world in a densely populated urban area by seeking out the many creases and corridors that exist there. My dog Petey and I had a chance to do this when we visited Washington, D.C. in July.
This particular adventure actually started over 48 years ago in 1965 when a friend and I visited Washington when we were in high school. We were traveling on our own, and, after spending several days of doing what you are supposed to do in Washington, we decided to take a walk.
Our walk started by following a set of streetcar tracks to see where they went. Streetcars were no longer running in Washington in 1965, but many of the streets still had tracks. We followed a set of tracks that were near the White House and headed west.
The route took us through the Georgetown neighborhood. At the edge of Georgetown, the tracks left the street and entered a private right-of-way. The tracks were still on the ground even though it had been a few years since the last streetcar had run on them. We followed the tracks as they ran along the top of a bluff overlooking the Potomac River.
The tracks finally ended at an old fashioned amusement park in Glen Echo, Maryland. From there we kept the walk going by following the nearby tow path of the old C & O Canal. We stopped walking when we reached the Great Falls of the Potomac and took a bus back to Washington.
Since that walk I have often wondered if the old right-of-way to Glen Echo was still there. I had been to Washington many times since that first walk but always had other things to do and never took the time to check it out. This time I made the right-of-way the reason for the visit.
Our adventure began by parking our car on P Street in Georgetown. Surprisingly on this section of P Street, there was still a streetcar track. But rather than immediately following the track, we made a brief detour to the main street (M Street) of Georgetown to climb the Georgetown stairs.
If you have seen the movie The Exorcist, you have seen these stairs. Ironically the stairs are adjacent to an old streetcar barn. You can even see the tracks on the floor of the barn. We climbed the stairs and walked back to P Street to start following the old streetcar track.
The old streetcar track ended after a couple of blocks at the campus of Georgetown University. From there we walked across the campus and found a footpath that eventually went through a gate in the fence. The footpath connected to a network of trails in a wooded gulch.
As we followed one of the trails we passed under an old iron viaduct. It was from the old streetcar right-of-way. We found a way to climb up the embankment to get to the old right-of-way. The tracks were gone, but the right-of-way was clear of brush and had a faint trail through the middle.
Although we were still within the limits of DC, it felt like being in a country meadow. We were able to follow the trail until we reached a deep gulch. At that point we had to find a way to get through the gulch and back to the right-of-way on the other side. We had to go through this process more than once. The gulches too were interesting. It was like being in a forest with a rushing creek running through the middle.
Eventually the right-of-way became a street meridian. We finally lost the right-of-way when we reached a large waterworks. Fortunately we found another trail along the waterworks fence line. That trail took us to the Capital Crescent Trail, a popular rail-trail running on a former B & O branch line. We followed the rail-trail until we found a footpath running through the woods.
And without saying too much more, we were able to link that trail with other trails and bike paths. We eventually passed under another old iron viaduct from the abandoned streetcar line and found some stairs to take us down to the C & O Canal towpath.
Because a bus ride is not an option when walking with a dog, we followed the towpath back to Georgetown rather than continue on to the Great Falls of the Potomac. As it was we still walked somewhere between twelve and fifteen miles.
More importantly, we were able to discover that much of the old right-of-way from 1965 is still intact and that it can be used as a link in an all-day adventure walk in one of busiest and largest metropolitan areas in the country. It was a walk where we spent most of our time with nature rather than cars. If you live in this area, I am sure that you could come up with dozens of variations to keep you walking for months. If you don’t live in this area, I’m sure you can find something similar where you live.