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THE ERIE CANAL UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL BY TAMI ROOT SPECIAL TO NEXT

"Obviously you guys didn't come by car," the woman behind the counter of the Towpath Grocery said to my father and me as she eyed our backpacks.

"No," replied my father, "we've been walking along the canal path."

Walking along the canal path? That's right -- the Erie Canal's towpath, where my father and I walked for 50 miles over three days.

It all began when I read the book "A Walk Across America" by Peter Jenkins. In his book, Jenkins leaves his hometown of Alfred in order to learn more about the people of America, and in the end, more about himself.

After reading his intriguing tale, I decided I wanted a taste of his adventures. So when I was presented with the task of completing an open-ended assignment in one of my elective classes called "A Walkabout Through Literature," I began to develop my idea of walking along the Erie Canal.

It wasn't long before all my planning turned into reality, and before I knew it, I found myself walking along the canal path next to my father.

Sometimes you just get ideas, ones you can't leave alone, ones that ferment until finally they turn into something that's real. That's when you realize there's no turning back.

There certainly was no turning back for us! When my mother dropped us off on that chilly March morning next to the canal in the town of Middleport, there was nothing for us to do but walk.

The first day was the day I learned the most I've ever learned in my life. I'd always felt my elementary school teachers had taken the subject of the Erie Canal and wrung it dry. But I was wrong. I only knew the facts (and the first verse of the song, "I've got an old mule and her name is Sal, 15 miles on the Erie Canal ..."). Until I really got out onto the towpath along the canal, I had virtually no idea what it was all about.

First of all, I was surprised how different every inch of the canal is. I had expected everything about it to be like one long snake -- the same from the tip of its tongue to the end of its tail. But it isn't like that, of course. There are different buildings, different animals, different people and different kinds of pollution.

One of the structures along the canal resembles the remnants of an old stone cottage. It intrigued me so that I conjured up imaginative stories about it. If I hadn't taken this walk I would never have found it.

I hadn't expected to see many people along the canal, but it turned out that my father and I met up with quite a few. And they were all kind and generous to us.

I remember one day when we took a break to eat lunch at a place called KK Food Mart in the Village of Holley. In KK, I felt as though the people thought my father and I were crazy -- dressed in layer upon layer of clothing, toting backpacks and bearing red cheeks (which were becoming increasingly freckled from the sun). From that experience, I realized we judge each other too much on appearance, and I promised myself I would always try walking in others' shoes before mentally judging them.

I had expected everything to be as pretty and perfect along the canal as the pictures on television and textbooks implied. But, of course, that is not what we found. There are rusty cars, old tire hubcaps, and sunken boats abandoned in the bottom of the canal. Not to mention the papers, rags, old tubes of lip gloss, tennis ball cores, and crumpled baseball caps scattered along the towpath.

All the litter aside, the canal is quite beautiful. It just needs a little cleaning up.

Each day we walked 16 or 18 miles, and each evening we stumbled exhausted into a hotel room where my mother would meet us. Walking all day was particularly grueling on our muscles, yet for all the work we did, we were rewarded.

On our last day, we neared our destination city, Rochester. I felt almost jubilant -- I had done it! Even though I had thought of giving up and staying in my warm hotel bed some mornings, I was glad I hadn't.

After this adventure, I had something to talk about -- something to tell. I had lived something that most people would have brushed off in the beginning as "just an idea."

The whole experience made me realize how far I can go. I've always heard people say, "Anything's possible," but now I believe it. There are plenty of opportunities out there. Sometimes you just have to dig to find them.

Tami Root will be a junior at Clarence Central Senior High School.

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