Coincidentally, I discovered a thing worth knowing about Cumberland, the western terminus of our 185-mile C&O Canal and the historic western gateway of steep, narrow, ruggedly handsome Allegany County: It's not a bad place to wait.
I waited about 20 minutes at the railroad crossing on a sunny, blessedly balmy late-winter Saturday. The first 10 minutes involved watching the endless Conrail boxcars, CSX flatbeds, Burlington Northern tankers and Union Pacific stock cars creep through the middle of town, past the flashing signals at Baltimore Street and Queen City Boulevard on their way to Ohio, where surely the locomotive by now had arrived.
And then it stopped. A tall, yellow, steel special-purpose car stood before me; a sign up high read "Warning! Car Can Fall Over," with a helpful diagram showing how. The car behind it was a shiny black tanker with "Contains Phosphoric Acid" stenciled on the side. Elderly folks with shopping carts began to line up on the sidewalk.
I noticed a little one-chair barbershop on the corner, backed up, parked and got my hair cut. Before the train had fully passed, the guys in the barbershop had covered interstate traffic, intestinal disorders, Potomac water quality in the shadow of the Westvaco paper plant upriver, deer hunting, Caribbean travel and enlisted-personnel salaries.
Unless you're adventurous, impetuous, subsidized or lost -- or all of the above, in which case you could have a future as a Professional Travel Writer -- you might have to wait a bit longer for some things in Cumberland. Trust me, though. People have been waiting happily here for centuries.
You'll have to wait until 2005, for instance, to see the C&O Canal terminus -- now just a wide, grassy area beside the tracks and beneath eight lanes of a towering Interstate 68 overpass -- be magically transformed into Canal Place, a $45 million scheme to re-water the canal and offer barge rides, restaurants, shops, festival grounds, a museum and a boatyard.
For now, you can visit the antiques, craft and gift shops and small restaurants of the pedestrian Downtown Mall. Or especially the restored Western Maryland Station Center, a 1913 brick Victorian masterpiece, where you'll find the National Park Service's C&O Canal Visitors Center, the Allegany County Visitors Center and a restaurant open daily.
Also in Station Center are the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad -- offering rides on an authentic steam train through the 1,000-foot sheer-faced Narrows just upriver and on, along the mountainside, to Frostburg -- and the Transportation and Industrial Museum, which traces Cumberland's 250-year history as a crossroads (the C&O Canal, the B&O Railroad and the old National Road all met here), supply depot and once-prosperous coal-mining center. But you'll have to wait till May, when both of them reopen for the season.
Meanwhile, you can relax amid the wall-mounted beer trays and union-local regulars at such cheeringly '70s-like restaurant-lounges as When Pigs Fly. Or, at fancier spots such as the Bourbon Street Cafe and City Lights, dine amid the small evening meetings of various Women for More Home Renovation chapters.
Or head out to Rocky Gap for an introductory hike over ridge and stream, or to the Green River State Forest for the serious high-forest stuff.
Amid the soaring hilltop spires of the 1864 county courthouse and Emmanuel Episcopal Church -- this, plus a sudden run of roller-coaster dips and curves, is how the I-68 driver knows it's Cumberland -- the Washington Street Historic District has a 28-stop walking tour of what was once pre-Revolutionary Fort Cumberland.
This tour works year-round, assuming the plaques aren't snow-covered, and includes a look through the plexiglass of the one-room cabin that was young George Washington's first command post, back when Virginia forces answered to the king, and the French and Indians were terrorizing settlers hereabouts. It's the fort's last remaining building.
But if you want to get any closer to that Father of Our Country manikin inside, posing with his sword, bugle and chamber pot, you'll have to wait till June. That's when the Heritage Arts and Crafts Festival happens along Washington Street. And the music and crafts of Canalfest? That's in May. The big drum-and-bugle draw of Drumfest? Wait till July. The big-name country stars of the Rocky Gap Music Festival? August.
You'll find something to do in the meantime. The Inn at Walnut Bottom, for instance: crisp sheets, great breakfasts, gracious owners, walkable streets nearby. And if it's a really long freight train, you can ask about extended stays.
GETTING THERE: Cumberland is about three hours from the Beltway. Take I-270 to I-70 to I-68, all of them west. If sightseeing at 65 mph tires you, take the old National Road, now U.S. 40 and Alt-40, at least the last part of the way. You can also try working your visit around Amtrak's Capitol Limited (with emphasis on Limited, as it passes only once a day in each direction; 1-800-872-7245 or www.amtrak.com for details).
BEING THERE: History goes back far along the C&O Canal; start at the canal's Western Terminus Visitor Center (301-722-8226, closed Sunday-Monday in winter). It continues amid the re-created Victorian settings of History House (301-777-8678, reopens today) and in Frostburg at the terrific Thrasher Carriage Museum (301-689-3380), whose season coincides with that of the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad (800-872-4650, www.wmsr.com), meaning: May-October, weekends into December. Other useful numbers: Cumberland Theatre (301-759-4990), Spruce Forest Artisan Village (301-895-3332) and hiking/kayaking outfitters Allegany Expeditions (1-800-819-5170) and Adventure Sports (301-689-0345).
WHERE TO EAT: It was an excellent Creole-spiced pasta dinner at the downtown Bourbon Street Cafe (301-722-1116), which serves New Orleans-style seafood, chicken and other dishes in an elegant upstairs dining room or a cozier bar below. Ditto for lunch at When Pigs Fly (301-722-7447) in low-rise North Cumberland, a local favorite for its ribs, chicken, homemade soups, microbrews, daily specials worth asking about and waitresses who tend to whiz by but not without calling you "hon" and dropping off the soft drink refill you hadn't thought to order yet. For the moment, Cumberland's best coffee shop and vegetarian restaurant seems to be down the road in Frostburg, where Cafe 101 (301-689-1243) maintains the requisite animal-rights bulletin board and college-town casualness. And if you're looking for a place on the way, save your pit stop for Hancock, where I-68 begins, and where the venerable Park-n-Dine (301-678-5242) is open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. to meet all your pork-chop, mashed-potato and pie needs.
WHERE TO STAY: Cumberland's Inn at Walnut Bottom (1-800-286-9718, www.iwbinfo.com) has tasteful, comfortable rooms close to the canal, the train station and the historic district, plus helpful hosts and rates from $84 to $183. (The inn's Oxford House restaurant, one of the better places to eat in town, was closed for renovations during my visit though still producing the usual full breakfasts for guests.) Other interesting stays: the unique stone-walled and -terraced Castle at Mount Savage (301-264-4645, doubles start at $95, including breakfast), a storied mansion in the quieter hills northwest of Cumberland; and the lovingly if not luxuriously restored 1896 Failinger's Hotel Gunter (301-689-6511, doubles start at $65), which served as a jail during Prohibition and could feel like one if your open window faces Main Street on a Saturday night in May. There's also a well-run 130-room Holiday Inn (1-877-426-4672) with a pool and restaurant in downtown Cumberland, but peace-seekers might veer from I-68 at Exit 50 for the Holiday-Inn-on-Lake-Habeeb, which is just my surly way of expressing disappointment with the generic decor and Alpine footlocker design of the otherwise solicitous and beautifully situated Rocky Gap Lodge & Golf Resort (1-800-724-0828, doubles start at $110, golf and weekend packages available). The 220-room, $54 million lodge is adjacent to the high-valley swimming, boating, hiking, camping and horseback riding opportunities of 3,200-acre Rocky Gap State Park. It also has a restaurant with a hard-to-beat lakefront view, a small indoor-outdoor pool and fitness center and a gorgeous 7,100-yard, Jack Nicklaus-designed public golf course that alone is worth the drive and even two or three nights amid the laminated hardwood dressers and polyester bedspreads.
DETAILS: Allegany County Visitors Center, 301-777-5132, www.mdmountainside.com.
Certainly we travel to "get away from it all" -- it all becoming ever more worth escaping, it seems. Hence "Escapes."
But we also go places to . . . well, learn things. Become more interesting dinner guests. Hence "Escapes Trivia."
Every week in this space, we'll ask a question to test your knowledge of regional history, culture and other things you'd know if you got out more. The following week, we'll have the winner and the answer. And some details for those who might like to know more.
So. Escapes Trivia Contest #1 begins:
At which historic Virginia home did a young woman, who -- as the family story goes -- was less than thrilled with her impending nuptials, carve her married initials in a pane of glass with her diamond engagement ring?
Deadline for Contest #1 entries is Monday, March 6, at 10 a.m. Send entries by email (email@example.com; put the word "Escapes Trivia" in the subject field), fax (202-334-1069) or U.S. mail (Escapes Trivia, Washington Post Travel section, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071). Winners, chosen at random from among correct entries, receive a copy of The Post's "Escape Plans" getaway guide, or other prizes to be announced. One entry per person per contest. Employees of The Washington Post are ineligible to win prizes. Entries become the property of The Post, which may edit, distribute or republish them, including electronically.
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