I awoke one recent Saturday morning to an unusual circumstance. Not the hurricane (that was yet to come) but something even rarer for a Washington parent: 24 hours of unscheduled time. As a single working mother of two teenagers, this doesn't happen very often. No ballgames, no social events, no work, no appointments. It was a glorious sunny day and my home deck was begging to be power-washed. What better reasons to escape the city for a quick camping trip in the cool woods of the nearby Appalachian Mountains? We ended up living in a tree for a night. And now, with the power yet to come on in some Washington neighborhoods, I look back at what we found in a new light -- in short, it's way better to live in preindustrial conditions on a voluntary basis.
By noon on that footloose Saturday, my 15-year-old son, Ray, his friend Eric and I had packed the car with our dog, sleeping bags, toothbrushes, swimsuits, tents and a cooler of limited supplies and were heading west. By 2 o'clock we were happily drifting down the Potomac River in giant purple floats (tubes with floors that we rented from a riverside outfitter), basking in the sunshine and pushing each other into the cool, green waters at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers.
Some people pay money to go without electricity. At Maple Tree Campground near Harpers Ferry, W.Va., a colony of 13 treehouses offers better ways to power down.
We had driven only 54 miles northwest of Washington and instantly discovered the joys of a country day. The spontaneity and ease of a trip with absolutely no planning (we pulled off the road at Gapland, Md., when we saw a giant sign that simply advertised "TUBES") was exactly what I needed as an escape from the regimented life of D.C.
By dinnertime we were ready for something other than a couth city restaurant. A diner along Highway 340 called Cindy Dee's lacked many culinary delights, but it had vinyl booths, a jukebox, motorcycle-riding patrons and excellent fried chicken, milkshakes and homemade "red velvet" cake (chocolate cake laced with freshly picked raspberries).
I should have suspected that the only plan I had devised -- to park our car at Gathland State Park, just on the Maryland side of Harpers Ferry, W.Va., and hike a half-mile on the Appalachian Trail to a camping spot at Crampton Gap, Md. -- would change. As we left Cindy Dee's, black clouds rolled in over the looming mountains, bringing cool air and big fat raindrops. I pondered my options: wait to see if this was a fast-moving, short-lived summertime shower; check into a hotel that accepted dogs; or go home. It's just an hour from home; people in Los Angeles regularly drive this distance just to go to a favorite restaurant.
But I was determined to camp, and luckily I was with two teenage boys who, like me, were game for anything. I drove toward the trailhead, hoping the rains might subside. A half-mile before we reached Gathland, the rain stiffened and a bolt of lightning flashed across the sky. I spied a handwritten sign directing visitors to turn onto a small lane to "Maple Tree Campground -- No RVS," and I suggested we check it out as an option. I was particularly attracted to the prohibition of RVs because I am a nature snob and would just as soon sleep in a motel than pitch my tent between walls of trailers.
As soon as we turned the corner into the campground, I felt the calendar slip into reverse. A long, circular gravel road led to the office where another hand-scrawled sign read: "Camp in a Tree House." Here were 20 acres of beautiful woodlands on South Mountain, where the historic Civil War Battle of South Mountain brought the end of Gen. Robert E. Lee's Maryland campaign in 1862. More than 6,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or went missing here. And although the campground is eerily close to the filming location of "The Blair Witch Project," a dry treehouse in this wooded haven suddenly looked more appealing than hiking with gear in the pouring rain and pitching a tent on the soggy ground.
Luckily, one treehouse remained available, and I paid $32 for the privilege of living like the Swiss Family Robinson for the evening. The camp features 13 secluded and well-spaced treehouses. Four of them -- insulated, woodstove-heated and good for late fall and winter -- were built by camp owner Phyllis Soroko and her friends 26 years ago. These year-round tree "cottages" sleep up to six people each and feature mattresses, a wood stove, table and benches.
Nine summer treehouses, with screens and no heat, perch seven feet off the ground on sturdy pilings -- among the trees but not technically in them. They have staircases to the entrances and are named for birds, animals or trees. The largest treehouses sleep up to 10 people, and the Eagle Tree House has a 70-foot maple tree growing through its center. There are also 14 campsites that accommodate one to four tents two tepees; a log cabin; and field sites for up to 60 people.
Our treehouse, which was called Wren and slept six snugly, resembled something teenage boys might have constructed in their back yard. "I feel like I'm sleeping in a birdhouse," Ray said. The 10-by-12-foot plywood structure was a wooden box with screen walls, just large enough to accommodate wooden bunks. A small covered porch protected our firewood from the rain and sloping eaves kept our sleeping bags dry throughout the night. Our site also featured a picnic table, grill and fire circle where we managed to start a meager fire between rain showers to toast marshmallows before bed. (The next morning we had a raging fire and cooked bacon and eggs.)
We made more than our share of flashlight-guided trips to the communal bathhouse, and although the campground office sells limited provisions, such as Coleman lanterns, candy and bug spray, the accommodations are essentially bare.
While the camp has virtually no entertainment short of catching fireflies and watching birds, there is an array of activities within a 10-minute drive of the campground. Greenbriar State Park, Weverton Cliffs, Elk Mountain, Washington Monument State Park, Devil's Backbone Park and Gathland offer numerous hiking trails, horseback riding, museums and swimming holes. Harpers Ferry National Park, run by the National Park Service, is a renovated pre-Civil War town nestled on a hillside that features shops, restaurants, historical museums and weekend nighttime ghost tours. Antietam National Battlefield, Crystal Grotto Caverns and Brunswick Railroad Museum are also just miles away.
But we were content to remain perched in our nest. As I lay on the hard, plywood bed in my dry sleeping bag, boys laughing above me, a dog at my feet, I reveled in feeling like a child again. This campground is no place for pampered, testy adults who are uncomfortable without, well, comfort. Other than finding myself without electricity in the wake of a Washington hurricane, this was one of the few ways that an adult can pretend to be the young boy or girl who spent summer nights camping with neighborhood friends and relatives in a backyard treehouse.
GETTING THERE: Maple Tree Campground is in Gapland, Md., near Harpers Ferry, W.Va., and the converging borders of Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. From the Beltway, go north on I-270 and follow signs to I-70 west in Frederick. Take Exit 52 onto Route 340 west and proceed 15 miles to Route 67 north toward Boonsboro. Go five miles and turn right on Gapland Road, then turn left onto Townsend Road. The camp entrance is the third lane on the right.
STAYING THERE: The campground has indoor bathrooms with hot and cold water and two private outdoor showers with hot water -- making it better equipped at this moment than some Washington homes. Firewood can be purchased for $5 per sack. Pets are allowed but must be kept on a leash. Tree cottages rent for $45 a night for up to four people, and treehouses rent for $32 a night for up to four people. Each additional person costs $8 more a night. Wooded tent sites are $8 per person a night, and field tent sites are $7 per person per night. A screened-in eating pavilion with a capacity for 96 people rents for $100 a day on weekends and $50 per day from Monday to Thursday. Reservations are recommended (301-432-5585, www.thetreehousecamp.com).
THINGS TO DO: Tubes, canoes, kayaks and shuttle service are available from area outfitters including River & Trails (604 Valley Rd., Knoxville, Md., 888-446-7529, www.rivertrail.com), Butts Tubes (671 Harpers Ferry Rd., Loudoun Heights, Va., 800-836-9911, www.buttstubes.com) and River Riders (off Route 340 in Harpers Ferry, 800-326-7238, www.riverriders.com). Tube rental and shuttle prices range from $12 to $21. Walking distance from the campground is the 50-foot-tall War Correspondent Monument, built by Civil War journalist George Alfred Townsend. Info: 301-791-4767, www.dnr.state.md.us/publiclands/ western/gathland.html.
EATING THERE: Besides Cindy Dee's Restaurant (Keep Tryst Road at Highway 340, Knoxville), you might go into nearby Harpers Ferry and try Little Ponderosa BBQ (201 Potomac St.), which is in an old train car and specializes in barbecue platters and hefty breakfast specials.
INFO: Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau, 301-791-3246, www.marylandmemories.org.