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A B&B and a Tree
One Man's Quest for Comfort and a Conifer Leads to the Evergreen Charms of Berkeley Springs

By Joe Yonan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 12, 2007

I have a confession. You know that trip to West Virginia I took the first week in December, the one whose purpose was to cut down my own Christmas tree? Well, that's not exactly what ended up happening.

My intentions were good. They started with a hunt for tree farms near bed-and-breakfasts, a hunt that hit pay dirt when I found a winter twofer: a tree farm that is a bed-and-breakfast. Better yet, it's near the quirky town of Berkeley Springs, known for its mineral-spring baths and spas but with a decidedly unfabulous vibe. The perfect place for a complete change of pace from Washington: some soaking, some eating, some shopping and some chopping. And not necessarily in that order.

When the day arrives, eating comes first. It always does. Berkeley Springs's shopping district is basically one street with a couple of offshoots, and I'm only halfway through the first loop before I spot the Oasis Cafe in the downstairs of a porch-wrapped Victorian. Inside, smiling owner Jody Gill is taking orders for vegetarian and (mostly) organic sandwiches, quiche slices and cookies. The place, open since June 1, has a hippie feel, with colorful fabrics on the wall and counter, spelt pretzels on the menu and a bandanna wrapped around Gill's forehead.

She gets most of her ingredients from the Community Garden Market down the road, including the raw-milk cheddar that, along with dill horseradish mayo and veggies, enlivens my Northern Lights Pita.

After lunch, I check in at Sleepy Creek Tree Farm Bed and Breakfast, a few miles outside town. When I pull up, owner Kerry Noon is bagging trees for customers -- the first sales of the season -- and helping load them onto pickup beds. Then she shows me around. The two-story place, with two comfortable guest rooms, a sunroom and a shared bathroom, is more countrified than fancy. But it's incredibly sunny, which makes sense given its passive-solar construction, and has nice views of a field, pond and creek. My dog, Gromit, and I are the only guests.

I don't have long to look around because my jampacked Berkeley Springs evening awaits. After a walk-through, I decide to skip the mineral-spring baths at the state park in the center of town and instead sign up for some treatments at a day spa across the street. At the Bath House, I get an efficient deep-tissue massage and a strangely effective ear candling.

With time to kill before dinner at Lot 12 Public House, I stop by the rambling Country Inn, whose halls are decked, along with everything else. Inside the Morgan Tavern, the blond bartender is wearing a Santa hat, and when I ask for a wine list, she says, "Our house wine is this Barefoot merlot," only she pronounces it "mer-LOTT."

I get a beer.

It's a different scene at Lot 12, a few blocks from downtown, which everyone has assured me has the best food in town. Since I'm traveling alone, I've made a reservation at the bar, and when I walk in, three guys sitting there turn and smile. They're regulars, from Washington (at least one of them has a second home here), and they're in full banter mode with the bartender. "I used to be married," one says, to which another adds: "To a woman, believe it or not."

I take satisfying spoonfuls of a sweet sunchoke-puree soup and sip my pinot noir, and they strike up conversation before long. Where do I live in D.C.? It's an obscure neighborhood tucked between other, more popular areas; they probably haven't heard of it; and it has a difficult-to-pronounce name. It's called "Du-pohn." That gets a big laugh.

Back at Sleepy Creek the next morning, I wake to the sound of microwave beeps and the smell of maple sausage and coffee. Over breakfast (chocolate chip muffins, fruit salad and two eggs over easy), Noon tells me about the tree-farming life while Gromit stares down one of her cats. She has lived here for more than 20 years, and one field was planted with young Christmas trees when she bought it, answering her question about how to make a rural living: "It was a sign."

The couple of hundred trees she plants every year take from a half-dozen to a dozen or more years to grow to marketable size, and she sells only about 50 a season. "A friend recently asked me why I keep planting, since in 10 years I'll be 70 and probably won't want to harvest any more by that point," she says. "I figure I can always just let it go to forest. I can't not plant. It's such a sign of renewal."

She grabs her saw, and we head out onto her eight acres and the small fields of blue spruce, Norway spruce, white pine. She shows me the leaves of a Nordman fir, green on the top side and silvery underneath, then rubs her hands through a concolor fir and holds them up so I can smell the citrusy aroma.

Which do I want? Some customers settle on a tree immediately, she says, while others pace endlessly. I'm somewhere in between: We take one winding path through and then make a beeline for my favorite, an eight-foot white pine with soft, feathery branches.

As I take pictures, Noon crouches and starts sawing. Shouldn't I help? Sure, she responds: "Can you reach in and pull the tree back toward you?" A few more strokes and the deed is done.

That's my confession: I didn't make a single cut. At least not there. As we bag it and she helps me stuff it in the back of my Honda Element, Noon instructs me on the important task that remains. As soon as I get home, I must remove another inch or two from the base of the trunk so the tree can take a nice long drink.

When I do, it takes me at least four times as long as it took Noon to cut the thing down in the first place. The difference was the saw, I'm sure.

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