Sometimes, the reservation Gods smile on you. As my wife, Jane, and I leafed through the brochure of 28 cabins owned and leased at rock-bottom rates by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, we saw that nearly all were categorized as "primitive" or "semi-primitive." At these places, you bring your own candles, use an outhouse, collect and chop wood to replenish the woodpile and haul your own water from nearby springs.
No problem, we thought. That's what a weekend of family camping is all about. We were charmed by the description of tiny Sugar Knob, a stone hut built in 1920 as a forest ranger's outpost in the George Washington National Forest and now a PATC favorite ("the consumate backpackers' sanctuary"). Then we realized that, at 10 feet square, it would be a bit too cozy for two adults, a 16-month-old baby, a 15-year-old daughter and her friend.
Rock Spring, a cabin on the western slope of Hawksbill Mountain that may soon be listed in the National Register of Historic Places, was described as a square-timbered, stone-floored beauty that easily sleeps eight. Unfortunately, it also featured a precipitous drop-off right in front of the cabin, not a safe and sane choice for Emma, a toddler with a serious adrenaline habit.
Then we chanced upon Highacre, one of the four "modern" PATC properties, a three-story Victorian house built in 1887. The place boasts four bedrooms, a bathroom, electricity, oil heat, running water, a refrigerator and range, a porch stretching around two sides of the house and a view overlooking two rivers and three states at Harpers Ferry, W.Va. "Look," said Jane, her voice deepening. "Why couldn't we get this one?" I recognized this tone instantly. It was the one she gets when she is reading about a particularly juicy piece of real estate in the Sunday paper and is about to have an episode of Early Onset House Lust. A woman affected by this syndrome is not to be trifled with. I read the copy and considered all we would be giving up. Boiling our drinking water to fend off giardia. Cold sponge baths in the dark. Drama-in-real-life moments as we raced to foil the baby's attempts to plunge headfirst down the outhouse. "Okay," I said. "It's probably impossible to get. But we'll shoot for it."
Long story short, we got it.
Harpers Ferry is one of those places that are so popular with Washingtonians that nobody goes there anymore. You do it once after you first get here, then never visit again unless you have out-of-town guests who want to see it. Walking down High Street, one of the town's main drags, past the many small museums in restored period buildings that make up Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, is oddly like walking down M Street in Georgetown on a Saturday: You are likely to hear nearly as many tourists speaking foreign languages as English. Climbing the short, steep path above the town to the overlook at Jefferson Rock, I heard a man tell his companion, "You know, I drive past here every day and haven't been up here in 25 years. It's really a heck of a nice view." As a native Washingtonian, I can tell you that this is precisely my own relationship to the Washington Monument.
Harpers Ferry is, of course, best known as the site of abolitionist John Brown's raid on the U.S. Armory and Arsenal in 1859 with a 21-member force that included five black men. The raid was quickly put down and Brown was hanged up the road in Charles Town. But Brown -- who had failed at a number of businesses in four states, who had seen his first wife and nine children die before him, and who once sank so low that he confided to a friend that he wished he were dead -- went to the gallows believing he had succeeded. In a speech to the court that had just sentenced him to death, Brown was utterly composed. "I believe that to have interfered as I have done, as I have always freely admitted I have done, in behalf of His despised poor, I did not wrong but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I say let it be done."
As one journalist from the time is said to have remarked, it was fairly easy to put John Brown up on a scaffold; it would be much harder to take him down. His death created a martyr for abolitionists, worsened the already strained relations between the North and South and is credited with hastening the start of the Civil War. And if you are one of those naive souls who believe that conflict was resolved long ago, you need only check out two competing memorials in the town. One is a large granite boulder bearing one of the more twisted pieces of rhetoric you will ever read, placed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans. It commemorates the death of Heyward Shepherd, "an industrious and respected colored freeman" who, ironically, was the first man killed by Brown's raiders. It reads, in part:
Memorial To Heyward Shepherd
Exemplifying the Character And
Faithfulness Of Thousands Of
Negroes Who Under Many