Weekly Photo Challenge: A Good Match

The outdoors and us!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe made it to Sugarloaf Mountain once again this weekend and did roughly the same distance on the trails as last weekend.  It was quite cold this time, and quite a change after the balmy weather that we experienced during the previous hike.  Winter has returned!

See other interpretations of the theme here.

A Trip to Sugarloaf Mountain

We are in the middle of winter.  It is the time of year when it is usually quite cold in this part of the world.  But it has been unusually warm during the last few days, with the temperature threatening to reach the upper 70s (Fahrenheit, that is) later on this week.  We hiked up Sugarloaf Mountain, just across the border of Montgomery county in the neighboring Frederick county, last weekend.  It has been a long time since we visited Sugarloaf even though it is quite close to home.  We have been dissuaded by the crowds that are attracted to the location because of its proximity to the high population area of Washington DC and its suburbs.  The crowds are especially overwhelming during the other seasons when families come in large numbers to picnic on the mountainside.  The place is littered with cars, adults, children, and dogs when this happens.  It is not the kind of place one would go to if you were hoping for a little bit of quiet and solitude.  We saw more people than we expected last weekend because of the nice weather,  but we had fortunately gotten to the park early enough to avoid the biggest crowds.

It was a beautiful day for a hike and we ended up walking over 8 miles.  We got to some areas of the park that are less accessible and therefore quieter. Here are some pictures from the hike.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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The Passage of Time (10/5/2009)

Not sure if this fits into the weekly category, but since life is a quest for something or the other, I decided to post this old letter from 2009 with a few pictures I took at that time…

img_1612The leaf dropped out of the tree and was caught by the gentle Autumn breeze as it fell from the sky.   I swung my arm lazily as I ran by, as the leaf drifted across the trail.  Amazingly I made contact and the leaf ended up in my hand.  Alright!, I said to myself. At least that is what I thought I was doing.   But these days I am sometimes not sure if I am speaking to myself, or if I have said something out aloud without realizing it.  But it did not matter in this instance since I was all by myself.   I could behave like an happy two year old without having to worry about somebody looking at me in a strange way because I was not “acting my age”.
img_1602img_1652Perhaps, this is one reason I enjoy being out there on the trail.  I can scream out loud with a sense of wonder every time the heavy locomotives of the freight trains power past me.  I can even sing loudly to myself with only the flowers, the birds, and the occasional curious squirrel hanging around to hear the cacophony.  I can drop the burden of “expected” behavior and be myself.  I can take unplanned diversions from the trails into the unmarked woods if I want.  I can follow the butterfly or dragonfly as it flitters from flower to flower, hoping it settles down long enough at one location without flying away at my approach, so that I can take its picture.  (It does require a lot of patience!)  It is truly a healing process to get away from “civilization”.  Maybe I have a stupid smile on my face when I am out in the woods, and this why the few people I encounter seem to respond to me with a pleasant Good Morning.  Maybe they are all as crazy as I am.

The heat of summer is behind us and the cooler days of Autumn have arrived.  There are the cool and crisp Fall mornings – with the clear and bright blue skies, with the occasional fluffy wisps of clouds floating by – looking like light cotton balls that are being gently pulled apart by some unseen hand in the sky.  There are the cold and gloomy mornings, when the clammy feeling penetrates your jacket, and even your skin, when the heavens are filled with dark ominous clouds that block the sun and scurry across the sky, as if in a hurry, eager to get somewhere.
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The leaves are just beginning drop from the trees and there are already a few spots of reds and yellows in our neighborhood and on the trail.  The Frittilary that I saw in large numbers at the beginning of summer in Black Hill park have long since gone, and so have the somewhat rarer Monarchs.  There is still the occasional Tiger Swallowtail to be seen, but other than a few Skippers, this really seems to be the season for the Sulphurs.
img_1587The unidentified dragonflies and damselflies are still around in smaller numbers, occasionally flying around in pairs as if they were indulging in some sort of mating ritual (perhaps they are!), but they will also disappear as surely as the butterflies and the leaves on the trees.

The various types of ducks that I used to observe at Black Hill have long since gone, and I am looking forward to Spring when I hope to see the somewhat rarer migratory species once again.  The Canada Geese that are supposed to be migratory never left, and they dominate the lake and the river these days.   The cardinals are still around, but the robin will only return in spring.  My good friends, the blue heron, can very frequently be seen in certain sections of the canal fishing.  (Yesterday I saw a whole bunch of cormorants perched on some rocks in the middle of the Potomac near Harpers Ferry.  I was even fortunate to capture the picture of a raptor, perhaps it was an eagle or a osprey, diving into the waters of the Potomac to come up with a fish that it had caught!)
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The last flowers of summer can still be seen in the woods of Black Hill and along the towpath – the purple chicory, some white and purple fleabane, some asters, a few goldenrods, and some others that I still cannot identify.  I wish I had more time!img_1597
img_1649img_1668I cannot wait to experience the vast expanses of the fields of Virginia bluebell on the towpath in Spring.

And thus the days, the seasons, and the years go by, and one finds that one has survived to reach the age of 50!  (Teresa had arranged a great surprise Birthday party!  Thanks to John from arranging his trip from Bangalore so that he could spend the evening with us.)  The times seem to rush by in a hurry, and before I knew it, over 20 years of marriage have gone by and the kids have all grown up.   In just a few years the next generation will be ready to take over the reins from us, and eventually we will also be consigned to the dust.  The cycle of life will continue. I have to remind myself constantly that we need to do our best while we are here, and that we also need to make the best of what we have without being greedy.  In tough times I have to try to remember that I am one of the fortunate ones, and that the present will eventually become the past.  In the short time that we have here on Planet Earth, perhaps we can try to leave our mark by doing something positive for others, and we can also try to leave the world in a better shape than we found it.  Maybe, just maybe, this could be The Meaning of Human Life.

Life goes on.   Keep on Truckin…
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Weekly Photo Challenge: Morning

This is my more conventional submission for the week’s challenge.  Since a majority of my pictures have been taken during my numerous morning outings, I have tons of possible candidates for submission even if I were to eliminate what I would consider “the usual” sunrise pictures.  I have already shared many such pictures. So I tried to be extra careful when picking the ones below.

The picture below tries to capture the mood of a typical morning outing in the woods.  The quiet and the solitude have a healing effect on the mind.

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It is only in the early morning that I can get moody pictures like the ones below through the mist and the fog. (I note that the sun is actually visible in the first two pictures below.)100_2982

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Then, there was this picture that I thought captured a nice mood early in the morning over the waters of the Bay of Islands. I have this feeling of anticipation of what the new day is going to bring, especially to people who are going to use the ferry to start their day.

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Finally there are these pictures taken in the San Francisco Bay area.  The first one is not in black and white.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis last picture (which ought to be viewed in its original size by clicking through) shows the morning cloud cover over San Francisco airport, while the sun, rising in the east (actually south-east), lights up the red and white tower and the departing aircraft .

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Narrow

This week’s response to the challenge is a tale of three travels.

We saw a “Close” for the first time during our most recent trip to Edinburgh in Scotland .  Basically, these are narrow passageways between buildings, or small streets that are dead-ended.  A lot of the closes in Edinburgh are found on the Royal Mile.  Here are pictures of a couple of closes.

Last year, my sister, older daughter, and I, hiked the Little Haystack-Lincoln-Lafayette section of the Appalachian Trail in the Franconia Ridge section the White Mountains of New Hampshire.  The trail running along the mountain ridge looks narrow enough to be scary, but they are OK to traverse on a day with good weather.  This hike was one for the ages, at least as far as I was concerned, and something that I realistically hope to able to revisit at least a couple of more times while the body is still able.

Finally, these pictures are from a hike in Ditinn during our trip to Guinea in 2012 to meet up with our daughter (who was a Peace Corps Volunteer in that country at that time).  I think every picture in the sequence below talks to the theme of this week’s challenge, perhaps in different ways.

Mud!

I recently wrote a blog called Splattered Mud where I talked about having fallen off my bike while riding the C&O Canal towpath.  This happened a few days after it had rained, when  I was trying to dodge a puddle that had formed on the trail.  I did not have a picture to show at that time since I was not carrying my camera.  But I did find a picture taken a few weeks earlier under similar circumstances when we were taking a walk.  It is a pain to get past these stretches on your bike.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Ullapool, Scotland

I am not sure if there is anything really special about Ullapool up in the highlands of mainland Scotland, on its western coast, that that makes it more notable than other towns in the highlands.  In a sense, all of these towns and villages are notable just because of where they happen to be, and what you can do in these places.  But we did happen to spend an evening in Ullapool and came to appreciate it a little more than some of the other places that we simply drove through.

Ullapool lies at the end of the approximately two and a half hour ferry ride from Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides.  Since we were getting there on the ferry in the evening, we decided to spend the night in town before proceeding further north towards Durness.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGetting there was an experience in itself. The ferry boat was huge and carrying a nearly full complement of vehicles and passengers, to the extent that our car was carried on an elevated floor/deck in the ship that was suspended from a roof, a floor/deck that could be retracted when not in use.  This was above the level that vehicles traveled on when the ship was not that full.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAUllapool gave the impression of being a typical village by the waters, with Lock Broom  facing it, its harbor with the fishing boats, and the waterside main street.
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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASince we had enough time before sunset, we decided to find a hiking trail to tackle that evening.  The trail that was selected started behind our hotel and the steep climb started almost immediately.  It was unexpected!  Soon we were on a hillside covered with gorse, with a view into Loch Broom and the little town of Ullapool below us.  Our ferry boat was heading back out of Loch Broom to the Sea of Hebrides and on to Stornoway with the sun beginning its descent in the clouds behind the mountains.
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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe climb continued and did not let up.  We went beyond the initial destination of a bench that we had seen on the mountain from the bottom of the hill.  In the distance we sighted another challenge, the rocky top of Meall Mor.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASome of us could not resist the challenge.  We made it to the top of that hill.  Loch Achall came into view on the other side of the hill, and towards the north stretched a rocky plateau.  One could imagine the Cape Wrath Trail running through this  challenging terrain all the way up to Durness.  Something to consider for another day, perhaps another life.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn the other direction lay the end of Loch Broom.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe stopped for a minute to enjoy the view and add another rock to the cairn at the top.  We then turned to head back to town.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe sun was low in the sky when we got back and we set out to find a place to eat.  The pubs were busy but we did find a place to set our butts down and get a dram of the local nectar, a pint of beer, and some pub food.  After that we walked through town looking for the grocery store that we had seen on the map.  We then headed back to the hotel, enjoying the cool evening and the ice-cream bars that had just been purchased.  Folks settled down for the night to watch a horrendous movie called Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.  Some of us rushed out of the room during the movie and ran through town trying to find a good place to experience the colorful sunset that I had gotten a hint of through the hotel window.  We were not very successful.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe next morning we went down to the hotel’s restaurant for another filling Scottish breakfast (which can include haggis, black pudding, sausage, bacon, eggs and beans). We then packed our bags and headed out.  The only other stop in town before we set ourselves on the road to Durness and our next round of adventure was at the petrol bunk.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Season

Unless I focus on the above topic from the perspective of the seasons in one’s life, I could end up going back to a familiar place and repeating myself in response to the weekly challenge since I have addressed the subject of the seasons in other photo challenges. (You can check our my submissions the past under the topics of Change, and also Happy Place.)

But I have no interest today in really saying anything about myself. Instead I will simply focus on this season of Winter up here in the northeast United States, and our experience of it during a walk we took last weekend on the C&O Canal towpath beside the Potomac.  We drove up to a section near Hagerstown, MD.

We ended up on a section of the trail in the area of Dam 4.
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The swiftly flowing river appears to be clear of ice in these parts.
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There is a still a layer of snow and ice on the trail.
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I suspect that some of the snow on the ground is from the blizzard a few weeks back.  The consistency of the white stuff has turned somewhat hard. There are larger ice crystals on the ground that catch the sunlight, and  we found that the surface was mostly capable of supporting our weight without giving in.  The traffic on the trail has been light before our arrival, and the snow has not compressed to ice (which would have made it a more slippery and dangerous path to traverse).  That having been said, it is still more difficult to walk on the snow than on the dirt.

The surface of the trail is not characterless.  There are the fallen branches that pop out of the ice.
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The dried leaves that have fallen on the ice can stand out.  I thought some of these even looked pretty.
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The leaves can even start a melting process since they seem to absorb the heat of the sun faster than the ice around them.
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The bladdernut pod has even created a cavity in the surface of the ice.
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And there is plenty of other life around.

The snow flies (are they also called stone flies?) are everywhere over the ice.
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There are plenty of bird sounds to be heard all around, from the cry of soaring hawks, to the loud “wuk, wuk” call of the pileated woodpecker.  There are many small birds in the bushes all around the trail.  These are difficult to spot unless one is looking carefully, but this little thrush was very cooperative.  It sat around while I took my time to change lenses to take its picture.
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Winter in our parts can certainly be more challenging than our other seasons, but there is still much to celebrate and enjoy if only you set you mind to it.

It is somewhat interesting to see the varied responses to this challenge.  Some of you in lower hemisphere are in the midst of summer (and a hot one in some places), while others in the northern hemisphere seem to be experiencing weather indicating that spring is on its way.  We are still in the throes of the winter season in our part of the world!

Unexpected Pleasures (Sept 10th, 2014)

One of the conversations I had with a high-school classmate during a reunion trip to New Mexico was regarding how much more accessible the outdoors have become here in the US since the days of our your youth when we came over from India.  It seems like there are many more parks and many more marked trails everywhere, created by all kinds of government and private entities, exposing us to more of the wonders of nature in the country.  It is a great thing!

But sometimes it is the unexpected that thrills the senses.  I was on my way to Cloudcroft, out of Alamagordo, driving up into the mountains on Route 82 from the high plains, when I came to a lookout point just before a tunnel.  This was a few miles away from Cloudcroft.  I could see White Sands behind me.
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The parking lot was empty except for this older couple who had come to the location on a motorbike.  The couple looked like a rough sort, and my first thought was caution.  (I was guilty of stereotyping!) But the woman was friendly.  She wished me hello and asked me if I had been on the trail.  I said I was not aware of the existence of a trail at this spot.  The gentleman then came up and told me about a trail that led from the lookout point down into the gorge between the hills where there was a stream flowing.  He said there were waterfalls.  He said that most people did not know about the trail, which was the best thing about this spot, and that he brought his grandchildren to the stream regularly.  Since I was being flexible in my schedule I decided that I would try the trail.  The gentleman told me that it started just beyond the lookout point, nearer to the tunnel, at a place where a black water pipe ran beside the road.  He then offered to walk up with me to show me the exact spot.  I grabbed my camera bag and followed.  When we arrived at the location of the pipe all I could see was a steep slope going down from the location of the pipe. I told myself that I was not going to give that slope a try today.  The gentleman laughed, saying that he would not attempt something like that at his age himself,  and then showed me a somewhat hidden trail leading off to the right, beside the road, on the other side of the guide rail.  He pointed to a cliff in the distance that the trail would pass and told me that there was a cave-like structure over there.  The cliff looked steep.  I was not convinced that would be passable but I was going to give it a shot.  I climbed over the guide rail and followed the unmarked trail.  Pretty soon I arrived at the cliff.  Indeed there was passable trail.
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Pretty soon I had descended the cliff and this is what I could see behind me.
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The parking lot seemed quite far away at the top of the cliffs, but in fact it had not taken me too long to get to this point.  Immediately in front of me was an opening into a shady wooded area.
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And there was indeed a stream flowing in the wooded area between the hills.
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I followed the stream to a series of very small waterfalls at the end of the trail.  I thought it was quite pretty.
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On the way back I took this picture.   It looked quite peaceful.
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During the walk back I also took my time to look at the flowers along the trail. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This was just the beginning of a wonderful (though tiring) day.

And here is another picture of White Sands, a place I was was going to visit later that day.
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Here is another blog I wrote during the trip to New Mexico.

Into The Morning

It was still dark when I left home at about 6:30am on Sunday morning to head out for the C&O Canal towpath trail at Brunswick, MD.  The morning star and the crescent moon were still visible above the darkened homes, while a faint glow was beginning to show up in the sky just above the  horizon.

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I was about to get back to doing something that I had not been able to do for over a year.   I was heading out to a distant location on the towpath all by myself for a very early morning run.  And I had not been to Brunswick specifically for a much longer time.  And at this point I was actually missing the experience.  The change from my older weekend routine was made so that others could come out with me for walks in the parks on Sunday mornings. It was all for a good cause and a greater good, and something that I was (and still am) happy to be able to do.

It was 29° Fahrenheit when, following my old habits, I drove out to the nearby Starbucks for a breakfast sandwich and coffee.  Surprisingly, they still served the spinach and egg white sandwich that had been my staple in the past.  I picked up my food and drink and headed back to the car.  It was a familiar routine.

In the distance, from the parking lot, one could see the faint outlines of the sunrise.  The colors were beginning to change on the horizon.  I got into my car and on the road to the highway as the diffused light from the sun began the process of gradually replacing the darkness with light.

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The sun was rising behind me as I headed north and west on Interstate 270 towards Frederick.  I had this strange feeling of familiarity, of going back to to an old place in my mind, and it felt good.   I first stopped at the scenic overlook outside of Frederick to observe the colorful sky over the still shaded valley as the sun attempted to climb above the hills behind me.

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Heading west out of Frederick, I continued to enjoy the experience of the sun rising into the heavens – as it lit up the sides of the houses with a golden light, a light that invited people to wake up and pay homage to a new day. I was lost in a pleasantly blissful state of mind when I made a mistake and took a wrong exit from the highway, and got on the road towards Point of Rocks, another location on the towpath.  Feeling quite unperturbed by this unexpected turn of events, I exited this new road at a random intersection with country road whose name I did not even attempt to read, and then proceeded west along this local byway.  After all, how lost could one get with the Potomac river to one side of me and the original highway that I had been traveling on to the other side.  The winding road took me up a hill from which I got an unexpectedly grand view of a broad valley below me partially lit up the sun.  This was the valley through which the Potomac flowed.  I could see a distant water tower, perhaps at Brunswick, my destination by car; and also a hint of my ultimate destination on the trail,  Harpers Ferry, the place where the Shenandoah river joins the Potomac to become a single flow, cutting though and creating a gap in the ridges of the Appalachian mountain range.  It was an unexpected treat, but I could not stop to take pictures on the narrow road.  Before I knew it the road descended the hill and I had found my way back to the road to Brunswick.

Crossing the railroad tracks at the train station at Brunswick the sun appeared to be struggling to rise above the treeline, but the railroad station was lit up in a weird shade of red.

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A coal train stood in the shadows, waiting for clearance to head onward towards Point of Rocks and perhaps the power generating plant at Dickerson.

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The view of the Potomac from the parking lot at the boat ramp below the bridge across the river was gorgeous.

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I made my way from the parking lot on to the towpath and headed west towards Harper’s Ferry.  The cold and brisk air, and the tall misshapen trunks of the leafless trees reaching for the skies all around me, triggered something in the brain.  I was once again in my happy place.

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Before long I heard the lonesome whistle of a freight train from further out west, probably miles away in the area of Harpers Ferry.  I was quite sure it was headed my way.  Within a few minutes the twin engines of the freight train appeared through the trees on my right as the sun lit up the trees beyond the railroad track.

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The sun began to light up the trail as it rose, while my body began to react to the exercise by building up a sweat in spite of the cold.  The numb feeling in the extremities began to vanish.

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After about 3 miles, the lock house at Weverton appeared to my right, still partially in the shadows.

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As I ran through this section of the trail, I peered through the trees on my left, the side of the trail where the river flowed, searching for the remains of the old town of Weverton  that had been washed away by floods in times past.  I did not see anything remarkable. I then passed through a section of the trail that was still completely shaded by the tall hills that rose across the river in Virginia.  The birds were still waiting for the sunrise.  I eventually broke out into an section of the trail lit up by bright sunshine.  The bridge for the highway across the Potomac appeared in front of me in the distance through the trees.

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Approaching Harper’s Ferry, I noticed that the steeple of St. Peters Catholic church was still in the shadows while other parts of the town were beginning to experience the direct rays of the sun.  The Shenandoah river still lay in the shadows of the hills on one side of the town, while the Potomac flowed on its other side in bright sunlight, reflecting the clear blue of the cloudless sky above it.

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As I turned to head back towards Brunswick, the sun had ascended high enough into the sky to be able to light up the entire area, including the trail.  While it was still cold, and I was occasionally passing people who were all bundled up for protection, I was not feeling any of it.  It was time now for me to focus on the “running” aspect of this outing. I needed to try to put my camera away into the backpack and set a more regular pace for the the trip back.

Having not run this kind of distance in quite a while, I was also beginning to feel the effects of the effort on the system.  My heart indicated that it was still fine with the pace I was setting (which for some reason was becoming faster and faster according to my GPS device), but the muscles in my legs were beginning to complain.  “Dude, we need some more oxygen, and why the heck did you leave the water behind in the car?!”  My tracksuit was soaked in sweat. But I was also getting into a rhythm as my feet beat a tattoo on the towpath. I picked up steam heading east.  I was in the zone!

I huffed and puffed my way back into Brunswick where the coal trail was still waiting to depart.

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The tiredness did not matter at this point as the mind was in a very different place from the sore muscles.  I got into my car and was soon heading back home after my Sunday morning visit to the Church of the C&O Canal.  Alleluia anybody?!