ErieCanal8_12_AP
Towpath
“I’ve got a mule; her name is Sal, fifteen miles on the Erie Canal”
                                                                      –Thomas S. Allen, 1906
by Julie A. Dickson

Along the water’s edge, the canal, the locks
cutting a swathe through towns and farms,
water glistening in the sun, I sing beneath my breath
a song about Sal, walking the towpath, pulling barges
along the Erie Canal to the next lock, water rising or falling
to allow the barge passage, weighed down with cargo.

Sal had a job, walking the towpath, perhaps fifteen miles
as the song describes, with a man leading her, long rope
tethered to a heavy loaded vessel, her burden to bear.
Did Sal mind her position in life? Did she live long?
Did Sal yearn for pastures and freedom to run and graze,
instead of spending her days on the towpath?

The canal is visible from many roads along New York State,
locks appear as bridges to nowhere, I often gazed at them
from the back seat of my father’s car, singing about Sal.
The towpath of our lives is a tether to responsibility, focused
as Sal was, on the task in front of us, not on the beauty of the canal
alongside, water reflecting old factories, birds feeding on its banks.

The song, made famous by Pete Seeger and others, taught children
about early life on the canal but we didn’t know its meaning,
plodding along, making a living, fulfilling a purpose in a small niche,
Sal led barges loaded down with goods to the next town, her mind
on walking, but thinking perhaps of the hay waiting in her stall.
Tethered to tasks, we don’t see the canal, eyes only on the towpath.

PAINTING: “Erie Canal” by John Henry Hopkins (1825) via William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan.

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NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: I am a lakes girl, a New York State girl, having been raised around Lake Ontario and Lake Erie; water is in my blood, and I would drive the length of the state just to view the canal and farmland. The bridges to nowhere were a mystery to me throughout my childhood.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Julie A. Dickson is a New Hampshire poet whose work addresses nature, current events, animal welfare, elephants in captivity. Her poetry has appeared in various journals, including Ekphrastic Review, Poetry Quarterly, Blue Heron Review, The Avocet and The Harvard Press. She is a member of the Poetry Society of New Hampshire, and has coordinated workshops as well as 100 Thousand Poets for Change. Her full-length works of poetry and Young Adult fiction can be found on Amazon.

PHOTO: The author along a stretch of the Erie Canal.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: When completed in 1825, the Erie Canal, which spans 363 miles, was the second longest canal in the world (after the Grand Canal in China) and greatly enhanced the development and economy of New York, New York City, and the United States. (Source: Wikipedia.)

IMAGE: “Current route of Erie Canal,” map by Rosemary Wardley. (Credits on this page.)