Walking the Walk

William O. Douglas was the longest-serving justice on the US Supreme Court. He’s also the only Supreme Court justice to lead a 185-mile hike through a national park.

Whenever he needed to think deeply about a case before the Supreme Court, Associate Justice Douglas would take a long walk on the towpath of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.

For Douglas, the C&O was a haven from the trappings of life in Washington, D.C., and a place to uplift his spirit amid the forests and falls of the Potomac River. To maintain his health, which had been poor during his childhood, he was accustomed to walking 15 or 20 miles on the towpath on a Sunday afternoon. So he was incensed to read, in the Jan. 3, 1954, edition of The Washington Post, an editorial in support of a proposal to pave over the canal — “no longer a commercial or scenic asset,” the paper claimed — and turn it into a parkway.

Douglas, however, was of the opinion that zooming by those beauties at 60 miles per hour was pointless. The wonders of the canal’s landscape were to be enjoyed slowly and intimately, he believed, and he penned his own letter, which ran on Jan. 19, 1954, in response.

“It is a refuge, a place of retreat, a long stretch of quiet and peace at the Capitol’s back door — a wilderness where man can be alone with his thoughts, a sanctuary where he can commune with God and with nature, a place not yet marred by the roar of wheels and the sound of horns,” he wrote.

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