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The Grass Is Always Bluer . . .

But if you stay on 219, you eventually wind up in Thomas, a pretty much forgotten hamlet (pop. 813) on the banks of the Blackwater River. The Purple Fiddle, in the old DePollo General Store, stands on the riverside drag along with a few other operative enterprises, including an insurance company, Picket Patch antiques, Miners & Merchants Bank (est. 1902) and Tantrums, a frisky little shop offering "wearable art for headstrong folks." A pink purse hangs in the window.

There is also activity at the Valley Ridge Theatre, where actors are performing a Shakespeare tribute. It's that kind of hamlet.


The Tennessee bluegrass band Ducktown Station plays last Saturday at the Purple Fiddle, an eclectic mountain roadhouse in Thomas, W.Va. (John Bright)

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Founded in Wisconsin in 1970, the theater moved to West Virginia in the early 1990s. The 2004 season will conclude with "A Tuna Christmas" on a couple of weekends in December.

On this night, the Purple Fiddle is high-strung.

It's a great-looking three-story joint. On one side of the building, two huge wooden bears -- each with a cub crawling up a leg -- flank church-like wood-and-stained-glass doors. On the other side, a little sign reads: "Hippies Use Side Door." Owners John and Kate Bright live on the top two floors of the Fiddle.

There is a foosball table out front where people smoke and play. There is also a huge black metal safe covered with refrigerator-magnet poetry and chalk-written announcements -- "Thursday, Movie Nite, Rashomon, 8 p.m." Step inside the swinging screen front doors and you're greeted by an eclectic range of things.

For sale: handmade soaps. Purple Fiddle lip balm. Various types of tea. Jams. Jellies. Hiking guides. Old-fashioned greeting cards. Tie-dyed shirts. And magnetic poetry.

Not for sale: Old musical instruments. Antique skis. A washboard. A beautiful quilt.

Jan and I order a beer from the more than four dozen brew choices on the menu. Holt calls for a cookies-and-cream milkshake. Jan orders a salad, I ask for a beau Thai chicken wrap and Holt goes for the special: a smoked-trout cake sandwich, made with West Virginia fish, chipotle sauce, coleslaw, lettuce and tomato. The chicken wrap and the trout sandwich are subtly outstanding. Jan's salad is reasonably priced.

There is live music on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.

Holt again says he likes the place. But I'm not sure he really likes it.

Sometime during the first set, banjoist Jon Cornatzer and guitarist Ty Bennett tell the full house that if they have come to hear bluegrass, they won't like the next song. "We might chase you away," says one of the band members.

Nobody flees. The song turns out to be a rollicking banjo-guitar-mandolin version of Boston's "Peace of Mind."

Then, later in the evening, Ty Bennett steps up to the microphone and says they want to push the bluegrass envelope even further. People start clapping and stomping as the band breaks into two of Holt's very favorite songs -- "Owner of a Lonely Heart" and "Roundabout" by Yes. On acoustic strings, the songs are challenging and oddly affective and effective.

Clapping with the beat and nodding his head, Holt turns around and smiles.

Now I know. He really likes it.

Escape Keys

GETTING THERE: To get to Thomas, W.Va., go north on I-270 from the Beltway. Around Frederick, bear left onto I-70 and head west toward Hagerstown. When you come to I-68, go west through Cumberland. At Route 219, go south through Oakland, Md. The highway leads you, eventually, to Thomas.

WHERE TO STAY: One of the nights we were at the Purple Fiddle (21 East Ave., 304-463-4040, www.purplefiddle.com) a University of Maryland student was taking a survey of Fiddle-goers because she's thinking of opening up a bed-and-breakfast nearby. There are a few. The most logical place is Fiddler's Roost, which is right next door (same phone and Web site). It's a low-key place also run by John and Kate Bright. Rooms are basic and down-home. There's a bunk room for the visiting bluegrass band, and a parlor for chatting and playing games but no television. You would expect to run into traveling salesman Willie Loman, except he's dead and he's fictional. On the weekend, rooms start at $69. You can also try the Ladybug Bed & Breakfast in Thomas (304-463-3362, www.ladybugbandb.bizland.com). It advertises a $100-a-night package that includes art lessons. The lodge at Blackwater Falls State Park, with reasonable rooms and suites, is only three miles away. Info: 304-259-5216, www.blackwaterfalls.com.

WHERE TO EAT: The Purple Fiddle kitchen is open 10 a.m. to midnight on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and to 6 p.m. weekdays. If you want to get away from the fine Fiddle victuals, the restaurant at Blackwater Falls State Park lodge is open year-round. Dinner entrees, such as steak, ham, meatloaf, chicken and lasagna, fall in the $10 to $15 range. The Blue Ridge Restaurant (Route 32, Thomas, 304-463-4291) at the Tally Ho Mountain Lodge is open all day.

WHAT TO DO: If you're looking to get physical, call the folks at Blackwater Outdoor Adventures in St. George, W.Va., about 30 minutes from Thomas. They can point you to the sickest canoeing, kayaking, mountain biking and caving spots in the area. Info: 304-478-3775, www.blackwateroutdoors.com. For hiking, the Purple Fiddle is at the head of a 30-mile rail trail along Blackwater Canyon, between Thomas and Elkins, W.Va. You may want to catch a weekend perfomance at the Valley Ridge Theatre on Front Street. Call ahead for curtain times (304-463-3365, www.valleyridgetheatre.org).

INFO: Canaan Valley and Tucker County Convention and Visitors Bureau, 800-782-2775, www.canaanvalley.org.


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