I have a favorite place along the Potomac River where I sit on a rock in the shadow of paw paw trees. There I listen to the sound of running water and think and reflect. People who love nature regard such places natural shrines.
But how about people who don’t particularly like the natural world? Does the Potomac offer them a shrine as well?
Yes it does, but it’s not for the timid.
I chose to make my visit on the afternoon of the earthquake. Like all pilgrimages, it would be a search for answers. I didn’t yet have any questions, but that would soon change.
My trailhead was the parking area at Lock 10, on the Clara Barton Parkway in Maryland. From there I followed the towpath upstream.
In the distance I could hear a faint roar, like a powerful wind in distant trees. As I drew closer the roar grew louder, now punctuated by shrieks and growls. It was the Beltway nearing rush hour, just approaching the American Legion Bridge.
At the concrete bridge support I found a faint trail that led toward the river. I followed as it skirted around rocks and thorny tangles.
Just as the path was about to enter the sanctuary under the bridge, I saw something in the shadows. It was a painting, massive and mysterious. Its fluid forms crawled over a slab of concrete. What did they mean?
It would be the first of many questions. I was entering the unknown.
Under the bridge, I picked my way across a bed of stones to where I could peer down the sloping hillside. My eye followed a succession of bridge supports, each one framing the other like archways in a cathedral. At the end shone a burst of light where the sun reflected off the river.
My eyes adjusted to the gloom. At the base of one of the bridge supports I spotted another monumental painting, and then many more. Some were abstract. Others portrayed animals or faces with menacing eyes.
Who were these artists? What was the purpose of their art? Were they transmitting information to other members of their group through symbols that I could not understand? I imagined that they came here at night. Spray cans in hand, they worked by the light of flickering electric torches.
Scholars of the Paleolithic caves of France and Spain speculate that the fabulous art that covers those walls might have served in rituals to teach youth important lessons. The darkness, the drumming, the chants of the shamans all heightened the initiate’s senses and made the lessons unforgettable.
Did these paintings have a similar purpose? Or were they just an outlet for some guy with talent and a spray can?
I examined the paintings for clues about the minds of the artists and the world in which they live. The words they formed on the walls were familiar, but they made no apparent sense. The animals they portrayed were similar to the animals we know, but different.
I found the remains of a stone hearth with a few pieces of charcoal. Nearby were a couple of brown bottles and a plastic cup. Were they brought here by the same people who produced the paintings? Or were they perhaps deposited by floodwaters? A classic question for disputatious archaeologists.
I made my way towards the river. By now the overhead roar had begun to diminish. It was about 5:30 p.m. The Beltway had reached its capacity and traffic was practically at a standstill.
At the river’s edge, I walked a few yards down the shoreline and then climbed an altar-like rock. The sun, still hidden behind the bridge above, would soon dip below the steel girder and shine on this very spot. I’ve seen similar altars, such as Machu Picchu’s Temple of the Sun, which marks the summer solstice. Here, the sun’s first rays would probably mark the height of the rush hour.
Close by grew a stand of big plants with lily-like flowers. It was jimson weed, aka Datura stramonium. The plant’s toxic hallucinogens and have long been used in witches’ brews, sometimes with deadly consequences. In some parts of the Amazon, people coming out of trances would draw their visions on the sides of their lodges. Were the Datura plants a pathway to understanding the meaning of the paintings?
Now I turned toward the river itself. At this point it narrows and becomes extremely deep, up to 70 feet in some places. The current sweeps around rocks, slowly, ominously.
What secrets does the river hold? In the Yucatan Peninsula, the ancient Maya people performed religious rituals on the shores of deep sinkholes called cenotes. In some of them, divers have found objects of gold and jade, and skeletons of children and adults.
What objects could we imagine in these murky depths? Tires, certainly. Also golf balls and bottles. Maybe criminal evidence, a hot handgun perhaps.
It was getting dark and I was in a hurry to leave. Along the river at nightfall I often hear a barred owl make its syncopated call, “who cooks for you.” Instead, from somewhere above came the distinctive “potatopotato” rumble of a Harley Davidson.