Nine days out of Cumberland, hiking the towpath of the C&O Canal with little company but woodpeckers and twigs, I came upon a hand-lettered sign proclaiming: STORE. Hallelujah!

A trail beaten through deep grass by parched Boy Scouts led across the dry bed of the canal near milepost 77 to Barron's C&O Canal Museum and Country Store, wherein stood a cooler of Dr. Pepper and one of the strangest shelves of trail literature in the Potomac valley.

Solitary hikers savor the distractions of a good book, particularly dialogue and detailed accounts of hot meals. At Barron's, the only commercial establishment for 185 miles that caters expressly to towpath travelers, I was startled to discover what seemed to be the sensibility of a visionary bookseller.

There was a copy of the noted wilderness narrative, "I'm OK--You're OK." There were a couple of backpacking classics: "Dating and Mating by Computer" and the "Handbook of Dogcare." And there was the bible of outdoorsmen and nature lovers the world over, "Gregg's Dictation Simplified"--in hard cover. It seemed no heavier than a mobile home. I was surprised that backpackers, who have been known to snip the strings off teabags to save weight, hadn't snapped it up.

"I got the books at auction," explained Lee Barron, the 50-year-old proprietor of Barron's C&O Canal Museum and Country Store. "This is the last box."

The bookshelf at Barron's is only one of the many curiosities that fill the life of Lee Barron, a bookkeeper by profession who commutes weekdays to Baltimore, and by avocation, a canal buff of the first order. Since the late 1960s, he has written two books about the C&O, hiked the towpath five times, mapped the entire length of the waterway, organized reunions of boatmen, and stored pictures, transcripts, tapes, notes, papers, letters and canal memorabilia in six fireproof filing cabinets.

In one end of his brick ranch house he has combined a small museum that features canalboat planking, hay hooks, dip-up buckets, hinge pins, bilge pumps and a piece of the cable once used to bridge the Potomac at Snyders Landing, with a country store that, in addition to an eclectic selection of books, offers towpath travelers an array of goods from chain rivet extractors and corn cob pipes to fireballs and Alpo Lamb Chunk dogfood.

The store is only open weekends, and depends mainly on the thirst and sweet tooths of Boy Scouts. Lee Barron regrets that traffic isn't what it was before Hurricane Agnes when 500 to 600 people a day streamed down the towpath. "For three months last winter we had no business at all," he said, sighing.

But the operation gives him a chance to show the customers the model canalboat that boatman Ronald Schroeder built for him, to explain how locks work and what life was like on the canal, and to sit for hours surrounded by hay hooks and bilge pumps of a bygone time that he probably knows as well as the people whose time it was.

A few miles away, in Shepherdstown, W.Va., I found Capt. Thomas Hahn, a canal buff of perhaps even greater zeal than Lee Barron, if that is possible.

At 55, Hahn has a Ph.D. in the history of science and four other degrees. He speaks or is familiar with 26 languages and lectures as a professor at the University of West Virginia at Morgantown. He founded the International Canal Society and the American Canal Society; he edits a canal quarterly. He belongs to about 30 canal associations around the world. At one, meetings start when somebody blows a conch shell.

In his passion for canals, Hahn holds a special affection for the Chesapeake and Ohio, which he began to explore 15 years ago. He has taken 10,000 pictures of the C&O and has coauthored a 30-volume study for the National Park Service. He has files on locks, lock tenders, muleskinners, level walkers, boatmen and boats that once had names like Excelsior, Magpie and Little Fred. As a supervisory ranger for the park service he lived in Lockhouse Six near Chain Bridge. He has written eight books on the canal, including a four-part towpath guide that charts every "historic culvert." His coffee mugs bear the C&O seal.

"I wanted to know what was going on," he said matter of factly. "There was nobody to tell me."

In recent years Hahn's interest in psychic phenomena--from dowsing and self-hypnosis to reincarnation--has supplanted his preoccupation with canals and he only devotes a quarter of his time to canaling. He is a medicine man of the Delaware Indian tribe. He plans his work schedule according to biorhythmns. He joined the Navy in 1948, serving in Vietnam as head of naval security and retiring as a captain, but before that he is convinced he once lived as a peasant woman in a medieval village, worked as a miller in the 18th century (which possibly accounts for his interest in mill ruins), and mined coal in Illinois until he was killed in 1910.

"I think I'll come back to the C&O," he speculated. "I've got stuff on the canal stuck around all over the place. It'll take me two years to go through it all."

An afternoon with Tom Hahn proved to me that the towpath should not be underestimated. What sometimes seemed like an interminable grind along the "C&O Banal" could change in the space of a few hours into an effervescent voyage.

This was never more so than when I stumbled upon a couple of river rats, one named Teabert who lived outside of Williamsport, Md., and the other named Buddy Gifford, whom I found on the last leg of my trip, encamped at Swain's Lock, 16 miles from Washington.

Teabert's real name was Gilbert Litz. "Everybody calls me Teabert," he said, so I called him Teabert. He found me as much as I found him, for he sometimes sits along the towpath greeting passersby near Milepost 96. He told me proudly he'd just had a 20-minute conversation with a man who had a dog and walked with a limp. Teabert was 53, from Johnstown, Pa., an out-of-work coal miner. He was missing more than a few teeth but he had a tremendous smile, and pranced about as if there were never a minute when he regretted his life by the river.

He was always busy, testing the spring where the summer community got its water, watching the skiffs and his cages of crayfish. Sometimes he was called to help pull drowning victims out of the Potomac.

We rode up to his house in his 1946 Jeep. The Litz Hotel, as it was called, was perched on a steep embankment with other trailers and tarpaper shacks. It seemed to be furnished with batteries and tires and nets and appliances that were at least 20 years old. On top of a 1950s television set was a 20-year-old Playboy. (One of the towpath's enduring mysteries are these antediluvian Playboys. Even a couple for sale at Barron's--"for the scoutmasters," Lee Barron said--were two decades out of date.)

Teabert excitedly ushered me into a room. There stood a Grafonola, his prize possession. He wound up the record player, laid down a shellac recording of the "Iron Range Polka" and gingerly set the needle of the hollow tone arm into the groove. Out came a scratchy, tinny polka. While I listened, Teabert beamed.

Then a bunch of pals, coal miners and state cops, showed up and damned if the profanity didn't flow.

Taking time out from jocular expletives, Bob Mazerik, another laid-off Johnstown coal miner, told me that kids all over Johnstown had spent summers along the Potomac with Teabert, learning how to cook turtles and catch fish. "All the kids around there grew up with him," Mazerik said.

"One of them is getting married," said Teabert. "I'm going home Saturday for the wedding." He paused, then speaking like a man who knows his true place, said: "but I'll be back here Saturday night."

There were other river rats, but none quite like Buddy Gifford whom I met on my second-to-last day of walking. Once again the towpath posed a profound contrast. I had just come from chatting with a couple of bird watchers who were lovingly studying some warblers when I met a man who told me one of his favorite foods was robin.

"I kill 'em with rocks," said Buddy Gifford. "You can pop the heads off with your thumb. Put four robins in a frying pan, throw in some wild turnips and wild onions, and you got yourself a helluva meal."

I sat down, shucked my socks and began lancing new blisters. Buddy Gifford urged me to disinfect them and said I could use some of his vodka.

Gifford's camp was pitched along the river near Swain's Lock. It took a $35 cab ride to get him to the woods, and he'd decided to camp because he couldn't find a place to live. He tried to get in a group house, but nobody would take him for a roommate. "Would you want to live with me?" he said.

He had a point. He was a big guy, 35, with a meaty face, and dirt-blackened feet. He said he had served eight years in jail for "stupid spur-of-the-moment things," and that he sometimes punched trees and toughened up his hands with urine (his own).

Two years ago he hiked the towpath over a period of months, making his way to Cumberland on a diet of turtles and fish and robins. As we were talking an inch worm crawled across his blue jeans. He snatched it, and popped it in his craw. "I do that for the girls." He admitted he liked to play Shock the Preppies.

At first I thought he was trying to play Shock the Preppies with me but he turned serious. He said, "I lived 10 years in Louisiana working as a roughneck. One thing I learned is if it crawls or even blinks an eye, you can eat it. People come down from their half-million-dollar homes with their nose in the air, acting like I'm ruining their park. I'm not ruining it, I'm using it. When I came here my blood pressure was so high the doctor said if I didn't settle down I was going to die. Since I've been here I haven't had any headaches or any pain in my chest. My biggest enemy was worrying about what other people thought of me."

Buddy Gifford was planning to break camp the next day, before the weekend's Boy Scouts descended. He wanted to travel light so into the river went unopened bottles of scotch, bourbon and wine. He was returning to Washington to bid on a construction job.

I asked him how he planned to get back.

"Cab," he said.