Thorny branches grasp at my arms as I try to penetrate the thick forest along the Potomac River. The mud sucks my flip-flop deep into the muck, threatening to drag my leg into the center of the Earth.
“This is not good,” I shout to my boyfriend, David, who clambers ahead of me, struggling with his own puddles of muck. I alternate between screams—brought on by fear (of snakes and leeches) and frustration—and (I hate to admit) bursts of tears, as I forge onward.
We are in the District of Columbia and on a quest—the final step in our search for the 37 remaining boundary stones that marked the 100-square-mile perimeter of America’s new capital city in the late 1700s, laid out under George Washington’s personal direction.
The nation’s oldest federal monuments, these two-foot-tall, square-foot sandstone markers—most protected by iron bars, many reduced to a stub over time—remain sprinkled around the Washington metro area.
It all started when I was first getting to know David. At the time, I lived in Alexandria, Virginia, and he lived on Capitol Hill in D.C. He liked to make fun of me for living outside “the District.” When I suggested that, ahem, I lived within the capital city’s original bounds, he balked.
“I don’t believe you,” he said.
When I found a website devoted to the historic marker stones, David studied the material with interest.
“Let’s visit all of them,” he proposed. “By bike.”
Admittedly, I had developed a small crush on this guy whom I had met in spin class at the downtown Y. And so, I agreed.
Our first target lay about a mile from my house in Alexandria. On a steely gray day we headed out to a random intersection on King Street, about two miles from the city’s historic heart, Old Town. Not exactly sure what we were looking for, we searched high and low for a decrepit boulder on one of the four corners, or something that looked halfway historic. Nothing.
“Let’s try to find the next one,” David said.
We pedaled down King Street, to the First Baptist Church of Alexandria, and there we spotted our first stone: a weathered monument surrounded by a squared-off iron cage. If I didn’t know better, I would have taken it for a public utility structure of some sort. Faint inscriptions covered the marker; “Virginia” on one side, “Jurisdiction of the United States” on the opposite. A third side read 1791, the date the marker was set, with the final face indicating its position in a grander scheme. Voila, this was SW3—the marker lying in the southwest quadrant, the third from the South stone.
Fueled by our discovery, our search was on.
From SW3, we headed a mile down King Street into Old Town Alexandria, where the next stone, SW2, was reported to be. And just like that, we found it, on Russell Road just north of King Street, near a Masonic temple. We found another, SW1, in the front yard of a brick house where a young couple and their son were gardening. And the next, the South cornerstone, huddling beneath the seawall of the Jones Point Lighthouse, which debuted in 1855 on the Potomac’s wooded shores.
So it went. Each weekend was devoted to finding more stones. Soon enough we were pedaling through Anacostia in Southeast Washington—down Martin Luther King Avenue, past small churches, bustling markets, and pretty parks.
At SE7, at the junction of Southern Avenue and Indian Head Road in southeast D.C., we met Lee. The young man has been selling bottled water on the corner there for many years, and had often wondered about the caged mystery mound and what it might signify. Trash was scattered all about, a black T-shirt draped across a corner of the cage, and a chessboard sat on the wall nearby, ready for play.
“I promise to take care of it,” Lee told us, handing us free bottles of water as we pedaled away with a wave.
We found stones along the wall of an old Jewish cemetery, near a hermit’s bicycle-tire-bedecked shack in a wooded area, in front of an Ethiopian bakery, near tony shops of Washington’s more affluent Northwest neighborhoods.
At long last, only one stone remained.
SE9, the marker that had eluded us a year earlier.
According to boundarystones.org, it’s located somewhere in the forest along the Potomac: If you see a sandy beach with car tires and debris, “you are in the right place.” Under a penetrating sun and leaving our bikes behind, we had slogged across litter-strewn, algae-smothered shoreline, scrambled over boulders, ducked under the I-295 bridge, and fought through a jungle of foliage so untamed that, at long last, we had to give up.
So on a blue-sky October Sunday, on our second attempt, we figure the only way we were going to reach the son-of-a-gun is by water. We rent a kayak at Belle Haven Marina, in Alexandria, and paddle upstream about a mile, to a place known to locals as the Spoils.
“It has to be in there,” I say, pointing into the dense woodlands, and we take the plunge. Yet again, we narrowly escape being sucked into the Earth’s core. By the time we back our way out, I am ready to give up for the second time.
But David has other ideas. He starts walking upstream, while I stop to check my iPhone GPS to give the search one last chance.
It’s then that David shouts. I turn to see him waving his arms and giving the two-thumbs up sign. Rushing to his side, I search the trees. The marker glows about 100 feet in amid dark foliage.
Excited, we cross a trickling stream and use a trashed cooler lid to get across an iffy piece of swamp. And at long last, mud-strewn and feeling emotionally wrought, we stand on high ground, face-to-face with SE9. We take selfies and congratulate ourselves. Mission accomplished. Or is it?
David starts fumbling around in his pack, and slowly turns to me, box in hand.
“Will you marry me?” he asks.
Our boundary stone quest had nurtured our first year together, as we struggled through navigational challenges, rejoiced in happy discoveries, working together to find the next stone. If that’s not the framework of a strong relationship, I don’t know what is.
All of a sudden, that dark ugly forest turns fairy-tale gorgeous. We sit with our backs to the cage, newly engaged, watching the sunlight pour through the trees, the sparkling Potomac flowing past, serenaded by singing birds, and we talk about our next quest: our exhilarating future together.
Thank goodness we found that last stone!
Barbara A. Noe is senior editor at National Geographic Travel Books.