Come Friday, the neighbors usually give up the battle against crab grass to fight each other for a spot of sand at the beach. If the outing succeeds, they can always show off that red badge of weekend courage, the sunburn, at the office on Monday.
So, in such competitive days as these, it is refreshing to turn around and point the car the other way. And, if you happen to be lucky and wheeling west out I-270, about 90 minutes out of Washington you will fall upon the quaint 40-room Country Inn, find lodging and enjoy the quiet, indoor pursuits of Berkeley Springs, W. Va. - the baths.
Sunburned friends may regard you oddly when they ask how you spent the weekend and you say, "in the bathtub." But a serene soak in the mineral springs, followed by a brisk rubdown at what was once George Washington's favorite getaway, is guaranteed to boil out the poisons, a no-proof intoxicant. Come Monday, you may appear paler than when you left, yet the baths should leave you with sufficient clarity and vigor to withstand sunbathers' taunts.
Just out the side door to the Inn, the springs gush forth about 2,000 gallons of clear, sparkling water every minute, at a uniform 74.3 degrees Fahrenheit. And, for $4-$9, depending on the treatment, visitors can soak aching backs in a walk-down Roman bath, simmer in a heat cabinet, stand under a needle-sharp shower and submit to nimble-fingered attendants. They like nothing better than to douse you with olive oil and rubbing alcohol and toss you like a human salad.
In this heyday of parlors that have given massage a bad name, the park's masseuses and masseurs are, naturally, quite sensitive about their image. To avoid rubbing them the wrong way, visitors are requested to refer to them as "massagers." And although a naked women oversees the men's rubdowns, from a photographic perch on the wall, it is considered impolitic to comment on her endowments.
There are two buildings and they are staffed by the state park service. The Main Bath House is yellow brick and open year-round for same-day reservations. You are advised to reserve in advance and a tub will be held five minutes past the appointed hour.
Once inside, couples must go their separate ways.
But at the Old Bath House, a few steps across the park, whole families can rub-a-dub-dub together. The OBH takes no reservations, holds eight 750-gallon Roman baths but no showers, opens June 1 and closes up shop soon after Labor Day. Asked if such kink as communal tubbing au naturel was allowed, an attendant left it up to bathers' discretion.
Berkeley Springs State Park offers clean, no-frills baptisms.
Its possible, of course, to drive up for a bath and return home the same day, but few feel like driving afterwards. Far more civilized to stay over at the Country Inn ($16-$35 a night), where, after a soak, it is de rigeur to tramp back to the room for a nap. Many waterlogged guests can be found stretched out in the lobby, looking about as alert as Muhammad Ali did after offering his head to Leon Spinks as punching bag.
Their is little else to do in this sleepy hamlet of 2,500 West Virginians except eat, sleep, bathe and breathe free, clean country air. Newcomers are encouraged to practice the art of doing nothing.
One favorite pastime is rocking on the porch (in a chair, that is), and grinning at new arrivals like a sated Cheshire cat. Which is how you feel after a down-home meal in the dining room, furnished in neo-davey Crockett with muskets, hatchets, duck decoys and old clocks.
After the crisp salad bar, try the delicate, wafer-thin filets of rainbow trout, or the spicy, hand-packed crab cakes, turkey with dressing, or the New York strip and fresh vegetables. Top it off with flaky homemade apple pie a la mode.Waitresses radiate country warmth and hospitality, and dinner for two runs a modest $13, plus drinks. Saturday nights, a fiesty pianist with black bangs (White House guards would surely mistake her for Midge Costanza) plunks such showtunes as "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face."
A lady at the pharmacy also recommended the Warm Springs Restaurant, a squat, one-room brick affair, but, sadly, it was closed for dinner.
For the energetic, there is golf, tennis and horseback riding 10 miles up the road at the Cacapon State Park, browsing for Chippendales at Arwood's Antique Barn, jodding the C & O Canal and cruising mountain roads. A fine, dusty hardware store sells Burpee seeds and red Caterpiller hats. The Star theater offers first-run films for $1.75. And race tracks, Charles Town and Shenandoah Downs, or the sights at Harpers Ferry are just one-hour drives away.
If you want more than Valium-packed thrills, though, first thing you do is stroll on down to the High's Market bulletin board and check out the action. If you're living right, you'll be just in time for a church supper, a tent meeting aroused by some Liberace-look-a-like evangelist, or a big tool auction.
"No one ever overbids because they let you look up the price beforehand in the catalog," says mechanic Randy Busaman, 22, who got a deal on screwdrivers and wrenches last year. He is lounging about a counter display of Red Man chewing tobacco and "Elvis Alive" tabloids across the street at Sandy's Newstand, where a free bag of ice is offered with every case of beer.
Of course, you can always pick up a brochure on town history and wander about, figuring that what was good enough for George Washington is surely good enough for you. Someone might even confide a few town secrets, like the wild parties Rosa Pellam Suit used to throw at the castle, or whisper about the relative of Sen. Bob Dole, an Indiana Republican who, after the Civil War, dealt profitably enough in black market cotton to summer in Berkeley Springs.
Or, you might knock on the door of Fred Newbraugh. He knows it all.
Newbraugh, 68, doesn't relish slandering the dead, as they can't fight back. But there are just so many tales a native historian can sit on when his interest is Berkeley Springs, W. Va., whose life and times were once far more titillating than they are today.
Originally, Berkeley Springs, legally known as Bath, was the whirlpool of wounded Indians, and later George Washington, who first paddled into town as a 16-year-old apprentice to Lord Fairfax's survey team. He marveled at the springs, and, as President, frequently packed off friends and relatives to enjoy their curative powers.
Once, he even paid for his trip out of his step-daughter's trust fund, winks Newbraugh, the town's former postmaster, who has assembled three scholarly books on town lore. The indiscretion, revealed in old, ledgers, was never reported, he says. "George Washington could do whatever he wanted."
Newbraugh likes nothing better than to sit in his cool basement with visitors, surrounded by thick files on his neighbors' roots, and gossip about the ghosts.
By 1800, Berkeley Springs had earned the reputation as the Las Vegas of the East. Southern gentry, writers, artists and thinkers assembled to gamble, race their horses, face off fiesty fighting cocks, watch the ladies sashay about beneath parasols, and take the baths.
Preachers had fundamental reason to call them sinners, and did so with basso profundo regularity. But the visitors were simply attempting to throw off the yoke of stuffy, citified society for the good times European forebears had enjoyed at Bath, England, after which the town was named.
Until the Civil War (and a later fire) changed the clientele, the 500-guest Berkeley Springs Hotel was their Caesar's Palace. It stood where the modest Country Inn stands today. Horse-drawn carriages and the B & O Railroad groaned under the weight of High Society fleeing Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington for Berkeley Springs.
At the hotel, the band adjourned at midnight, but lucky rollers were always invited up the hill to dance and carouse at the castle of Rosa Pellam Suit, the young widow of a Suitland, Md., distiller, who had divorced a second wife to marry his 16-year-old mistress. Rosa wanted her whiskey man to build her a castle, and he obliged. After he died, she had a fine time spending his money.
"The woman was slightly pregnant when he married her, but we don't need to get into dirty linen," Newbraugh says.
The past is what Berkeley Springs is all about, and he doesn't want to see the same "miscarriage of history" befall his town that befell Harpers Ferry, where tourists are served the glories of John Brown and renegade slaves. "Harpers Ferry has a colorful history, but they're obscuring it by pushing John Brown out front," he says. "John Brown was nothing but an insane criminal."
So, Fred Newbraugh keeps his files and writes his books and is quick to defend the good, the bad and the ugly of Berkeley Springs. So much has changed, even since he moved into town back in 1927, when "we had a thriving business community."
"But the very thing that was built to help keep communities like ours alive almost destroyed us - roads. People couldn't get to Hagerstown, so they dealt here. Now, they'll go as far as Tyson's Corner to buy a pair of shoes."
As for Newbraugh, he prefers shopping close to home, where he can be near his passion. The other day, he was so consumed wandering about the hills, trying to make sense out of an old map, he forgot dinner. "I was drinking and eating history," he explains.