What I learned walking along the Erie Canal

For several months, I’ve been wanting to do a pilgrimage of some sort. I tried scheduling a multi-day pilgrimage at various locations, but the logistics never seemed to work out. I took it as a sign that these official pilgrimages were not what I was supposed to do. So I created my own.

I created a “pilgrimage” without any official religious sites. I decided to walk along the Erie Canal.

Why the Canal? I grew up in Western NY, in a small village called Spencerport. It’s right along the canal. My parents still live there and so it was quite literally home base for the journey. My wife and I went up to Spencerport on Sunday. And on Monday morning, my parents drove us an hour east to the village of Lyons – another small village along the Erie Canal.

This would be a three day walk, covering a total of 50 miles. We’d stay at bed and breakfasts for two nights.

I chose some sites of interest for us to potentially stop at, but wasn’t super committed to stopping. We’d just go with how things were moving each day and be open to what other things caught our attention. But we had to keep moving too – 14 miles on day 1, 18 miles on day 2, and 19 miles on day 3.

We carried a hiker’s backpack and a smaller day hiking backpack. This carried clothing, medications, snacks, and a couple of other items for the trip. And off we went.

Here’s what I learned along the way.

  1. The Canal looks very different in different areas. I didn’t realize that the path along the canal changed so much. I’m not sure why this surprised me though. There are parts where the path is crushed stone (that’s what I was most used to seeing before I went on the journey). There were also paved parts. We learned quickly that the paved parts were more difficult on our feet. And there were parts where we had to walk on roads (which is not fun at all). Sometimes the path was right along the canal and sometimes we couldn’t see the canal because the path was no adjacent to the canal, or there were trees in the way, or the canal was deep down while we were much higher up. We crossed over bridges back and forth over the canal. The lesson I keep learning is that life is like the canal it looks different at different points. Sometimes it’s sparse and sometimes it’s full. Sometimes it’s a bit empty and sometimes there are lots of people around. Sometimes you feel all alone and other times you can’t find privacy. Sometimes you aren’t sure you are on the right path, and other times the markers are obvious. And it’s all there along the Canal and in our lives too.
  2. The Canal has both natural beauty and amazing human created beauty. All along the path we encountered nature – not hard to do when you are outside for that long. We saw animals of all sorts – birds, critters, snails, deer. We were walking through their yard and home and they would watch us. I’m not sure who was more interested in the other sometimes. The trees were not yet in bloom, but you can’t help but look. There were grasslands that looked like the savannah. And the water – when still it reflected beauty. When moving, it looks like a force to be reconned with. Along with this were the amazing human engineering achievements. The Canal is an engineering marvel – first built in the 1800’s, then expanded in the late 1800’s, and then parts redone and expanded further to its current state completed in 1918. Think about the technology that was available in all of those times and then look at what is standing. It’s amazing. The mere concept of someone thinking they could stop the flow of water, change the level of the water, and they figured out how to do it and then did it amazes me. The locks along the Canal are places that you feel compelled to stop and look at – even if nothing is going on. The lesson is simple – we are part of nature, we impact it and it impacts us. When we work with nature, amazing things happen. When we view nature as a partner, there is wonder. One of the more interesting conversations we had was with a lock worker who told us that the Canal has been staying full longer in the year (it gets drained for winter) because the water in the canal feeds off into streams and they have noticed that this has been helpful for the salmon who can get farther because of the increased water supply. How beautiful.
  3. We experienced a variety of weather. Day 1 and 2 had a similar weather pattern. Sun, clouds, wind, light rain, hail. And then start over again. And again. And again. We had ponchos with us to wear for inclement weather. The benefit is that the ponchos covered our backpacks too. We put them on and off multiple times a day. Day 3 was just drizzly over all. And we had temperatures in the 40’s each day. It was actually great for walking – just throw a few layers on and off you go. No overheating. The weather was out of our control, so we adapted as we needed to. Complaining about it was pointless. We were glad for the bridges that we came upon from time to time when it was raining – we could stay under them to rest and stay dry. The lesson is simple – there is very little in life that we have control over. But for the few things that we, control doesn’t mean we are in charge. Maybe control isn’t the right word. We had the ability to adapt. We remembered how small we are as humans compared to everything around us and how we are not in control. We humans are limited. This is a good reminder.
  4. I learned that 50 miles is a long distance. That may sound silly and obvious. But remember – it was only an hour drive away. It took us three days of walking to cover the same distance. It wasn’t that long ago in human history in which walking or utilizing an animal for forward propulsion was the only way to travel. There are paths along the canal for a reason. The original paths were for mules and the people directing the mules to walk along the canal and pull the barges along. The barges carried products and materials as well as people. The canal runs across the state of NY and up and down the East border. It’s a total of over 500 miles of canal now connecting major waterways that were used for commerce and transport. The canal saved people tons of time and money connecting Buffalo and Lake Erie with New York City and access to the Atlantic Ocean. The only alternative route before that was do travel up through Lake Ontario and through the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Atlantic – which is much further and out of the way. 50 miles is a long distance on foot and it is tiring. You get blisters, not matter what the marketing on those great socks tells you. You learn how to walk differently – especially carrying everything in your backpacks. And when you arrive at your destination for the night – you are grateful for a time to rest. The life lesson is about relativity. It’s a relative. Remember, there’s always someone faster than you, or smarter, or taller, or stronger, or whatever else. So don’t compare yourself to other – just be you. Be fully you.
  5. Taking a long walk generates questions. And the canal did not disappoint. When you walk, even when you walk with others, you have lots of time to think, contemplate, do self-examination, talk things out, and ponder. And what I learned rather quickly was that I don’t think we are asking the right questions. Too often we are focused on the how’s and the what’s of life. But those are simple and easy. What should I pack is an easy question. But you’ll get the wrong answers if that’s all you ask. The more important questions begin with why. And that’s the questions we aren’t asking ourselves and our culture, institutions, nation, communities, and loved ones. I’m not sure why we aren’t asking why questions. Maybe because so often there aren’t answers to the why questions – just more questions. It’s not the answers that matter the most anyway. Answers don’t give us the insights we are seeking. They just lead us to believe we are in control and that we know. We don’t usually though. That’s probably why we don’t ask why very much – I think we are afraid of the answer, or rather the question. We’re afraid of revealing how little we actually know and how we are not in control. If you are going to ask why, you had better be prepared to hear unpleasant answers and disconcerting follow-up questions and embrace your limitations. Why reminds us of our humanness. Why reminds us that we are not in control and we that we don’t know. Why is a dangerous question that unsettles the status quo. The lesson – ask why.

These are the major lessons from the walk along the canal. I don’t know exactly what I was searching for when I went. I just knew I had to go.   

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