Shannon, 10, actually wanted to stay home and play stickball. This is his standard reaction to any and all suggestions of a trip, no matter how short: He may like where you're going, but he hates the getting here.
In the next day and a half, however he discovered that the ride can be more than half the fun. We traveled into the Potomac Highlands by motorcycle.
If you take up motorcycle touring at a ripening 37, it's as though you'd personally invented the wheel. What began as a matter of financial necessity has since become a refined hobby, a supreme luxury, a delight. With two boys who, once forced onto the road, take some joy from the marvels of modern machinery, I am doubly blessed. r
One of the singular pleasures of life in The Nation's Capital is the relative proximity of fascinating and contrasting destinations. The sailing mecca of Annapolis lies one hour to the east; the Blue Ridge Mountains are only two hours westward. Our vague destination (it was a hastily organzied, end-of-summer excursion) was Berkeley Springs, West Virginia. I didn't even know Berkeley Springs lay in the Potomac Highlands, that it was on a parallel course to the storied C&O Canal or that we would touch so much history along the way. All I knew was that a friend had said there was a confortable old inn and a Roman Bath there.
He was right, but that gets ahead of the story.
It was the week after Labor Day and hardly a car was on the road. Shannon and I struck out on the all-comfort Suzuki 750 -- at high speeds, it merely whines like greased silk -- along a zig-zag course up the Potomac River.
Weekdays are a motorcyclist's delight because traffic is light in tourist areas. But it was also the day after the remains of Hurricane David had passed through, dumping six inches of rain and toppling tons of tree limbs onto the area. So our first surprise, after a 40-minute run up River Road, past Seneca Creek and through the colonial town of Poolesville, was finding White's Ferry closed down.
White's Ferry -- one of only two of three provately operated river crossings between Washington where the C&O Canal begins, and Cumberland, where it ends 185 miles later -- is a cable-held affair that can accommodate four cars with a motorcycle or two squeezed in.
Besides a small general store that sells beer and sandwhiches, White's Ferry also has a verdant, broadly shaded picnic lawn sweeping down to the banks for people who come not to cross the Potomac but just to watch for a while. They do this in droves on Sundays.
But no cable ferry can handle that river when a hurricane has pushed it up to near flood-level. The Potomac was swollen artery bearing the detritus of mountainside riverbanks for a hundred miles. We found the store closed, the picnic grounds deserted and the old ironbed ferry secured to land by a heavy tow-tractor.
It was just as well, for we were forced up a series of narrow back roads that are one of Maryland's best-kept secrets: Nearby Interstates 270 and 70 fortunately keep most traffic off them. Shannon and I and the Suzuki literally had the world of back-country Maryland -- cornfields, apple orchards, logcabin farmhouses -- to ourselves as we rode north toward the next bridge, at Point of Rocks. Still, the pleasures of the back country take their toll on the tail, and we soon welcomed an ice-cream-and-gas stop at a classic old filling station-cum-grocery-cum-gossip center in tiny Tuscarora, Maryland.
By now I had set Harpers Ferry as an intermediate destination. By dead reckoning, I figured thre river crossings represented the shortest way to get there without using the Interstate or leaving the Potomac Valley. We crossed the river on a disgustingly modern bridge at Point of Rocks -- so called, it seems, because of twin islands flanking the bridge on either side at mid-stream -- then hung a sharp right along a road so obscure that we missed it the first time. This finally brought us to Lovettsville, where we headed back northward over another Potomac bridge into Brunswick, Maryland. There we changed course again to reach U.s. 340, which crosses the Potomac smack on the Virginia-West Virginia line, just south of Harpers Ferry. When the events that first made Harpers Ferry famous took place in 1859 -- John Brown's il-fated slave uprising -- the Virginias, east and West, were still one.
Because of the fine bridge nearby, Harpers no longer boasts a ferry. It does, however, have a functioning little railroad station on the Baltimore & Ohio Line (Amtrak). Train-borne visitors from Washington can visit the hillside town, which is a National Historical Park and a bit of a Disneyized set piece, and see a wax museum that chillingly depicts John Brown's raid and his demise on a gallows in Harpers Ferry.
It was late afternoon by the time we arrived at the foot of the mountains in Charlestown, home of the famous West Virginia racetrack. The makesshift CB radio rigged to the bike crackled out conversations among some wry-witted locals driving home from work. On request, one of them directed us to a convenience store that had soft drinks and a snack. Back on the road, Shannon discovered that he couldn't sip his canned beverage because of the chin piece on his new full-face helmet. We stopped beside a cornfield, laughing at ourselves, for the rest of our rest stop.
The climb to Berkeley Springs at sunset was the thrill of the day. Winding mountain roads skirted split-rail fences, old women in long dresses rocking away on upainted cabin porches and vistas of high meadows where heifers grazed. We began to have stunning views of deep blue mountain ridges 10 and 20 miles away.
The motorcycle's power and finely tuned centrifugal balance were having a field day on the mountain curves. Going up is, after all a lot more exciting than coming down.
Finally, the road dipped into a valley that, surprisingly, lies only 800 feet above sea level. The place is called Berkeley Springs, though until a hundred years ago it was known by the same name as its rather more grand counterpart in western England: Bath.
Indeed, when he made an entry about his survey party's visit there on March 18, 1748, a 16-year-old diarist named George Washington referred to the place as "Ye fam'd Warm Springs." they say that Washington took the baths himself in the natural stone tub that still exists today at the base of the ridge behind the city.
It would have been chilly bath indeed, for the year-round temperature of the natural mineral waters (which spring from mountain fissures around Berkeley Springs at a constant rate of 2,000 gallons per minute) have a year-round temperature of 74.3* f, Rather chillier than your home bath water, but in George's time it might have seemed warm enough. In any case, Washington the man visited the place frequently in later years.
Incorporated as the town of Bath in 1776, it later met James Rumsey -- inventor of the first successful steamboat -- who built five bathhouses and installed the steam heating system that warms the waters in the old bathhouse still standing in the center of town.
Though afflicted with typical motorcycle fatigue -- sore shoulders, stiff back and a numb you-know-what -- we could not avail ourselves of this most civilized of decompression methods (Roman Bath, shower and massage for $9) because they close early in the day. The last bath begins at 3:30 in the afternoon (7 on Friday evenings). The typical bathhouse client today is not exactly your average motorcyclist or traveling salesman sore from the saddle, but rather a retiree suffering the assorted stiffnesses of age.
This did not make our overnight stay in the simply named Country Inn, hard by the state park where the baths are, any less relaxing. Frequented by an older set, the inn is operated by a young couple who succesfully extricated themselves from the pressures of city living. For $29, Shannon and I shared a twin room with bath and shower. The motorcycle stayed outside.
The Country Inn is exactly as it sounds. The lobby seems more like someone's living room than the center of a small hotel. The bar and dining room are paneled and furnished in dark woods with the paraphernalia of farm life strewn about. Each hallway has a tiny table-top library for the insomniac's entertainment. The front and side porches have rocking chairs and soft lights that are nonetheless bright enough to read by. The only disappointment was a room air-conditioner that made it impossible to open a window for cross ventilation by the cool mountain air.
With another full day ahead we faced a traveler's dilemma: where to go next. One guidebook touted the West Virginia mountains farther west; another the thrill of whitewater rafting near Charlestown; another the brassy charms of Hershey, Pennsylvania, a few hours' ride away. Finally my eyes fixed on a dot on the map called Paw Paw, only 26 miles away and too intriguing to pass up. Paw Paw? With a name like that, there must be something worth visiting.
Again, it turned out that getting there was better than staying. Route 9 to Paw Paw is one of the most beautiful rides. I've ever made. At one point there's an overlook of three states -- West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvinia -- that seems like one of those helicopter shots in National Georgraphic. The meandering Potomac snakes through a lush, corn-planted vally flanked by rich forests and etched with the crossties of a serpentine rail line. The road through cathedrals of conifers and tall hardwoods would be a motorist's delight; on a motorcycle, it was a short visit to heaven.
Paw Paw, it turned out, was mostly a rundown factory and a rail crossing. But just outside of town, and just over the Potomac back into Maryland, was Paw Paw's real claim to fame (besides the unforgettable name): the 3,000-foot Paw Paw Tunnel, which carries the C&O Canal straight through the bottom of a moutain. The tunnel, which took 14 years to build starting in 1836, was the supreme engineering feat of an economically doomed waterway. (The B&O Railroad had made it to Cumberland eight years earlier.) Daunted by the length and darkness of the tunnel, I stood at one end while Shannon proceeded along the narrow towpath that edges the canal. But when he was pelted by drippings from the damp limestone ceiling, he soon came scampering back.
The gravelly canalside towpath is one of the great recreational sites ever taken over by the National Parks system. It's a very skinny parklet 185 miles long, and a favorite of bicyclists and hikers laden with light camping gear. There are more than 30 campsites between Georgetown and Cumberland.
For us on the motorcycle, the towpath was both a trip into history and an exercise outlet. When Shannon emerged from the dripping Paw Paw Tunnel, we got into a foot race, then into a water-throwing contest, Finding one of the many hand pumps standing beside the towpath for the weary wanderer, Shannon took a while to get the hang of pumping hard enough the make water rise from deep in a well pipe until it gushed out of the spout. Each time he raced around from the man-sized handle to the spigot, the water had stopped.
So I pumped and Shannon drank, then we swapped. Then he stuck his whole head under the faucet. I settled for just splashing my face and wetting the bandana I wear around my neck on very hot days.
Then he decided it was fitting to get his father's shirt all wet. So I pumped again and returned the favor. Finally, when it reached the spitting stage, I decided there were some things boys like and men don't. We raced back to the motorcycle. (A tie, natch.)
Lunch was meatloaf and string beans at a truck stop on U.S. 40. South of Cumberland we meandered along strips of roadway barely sandwiched between the moutainside, the B&O railroad, the towpath, the canal and, finally, the still-muddy Potomac. Four levels of transportation were laid out like perfectly tiered rice paddies. In some places, the squeeze was so tight that cliff outcroppings had been painted white to help motorists avoid scraping the sides of their cars.
Dodging intermittent rainshowers, we made for the last attraction on the home-ward run: Antietam National Battlefield.
Though a born Southerner (we called it the Battle of Sharpsburg) with a lifelong interest in the history of the Civil War, I had never visited one of its most famous -- or infamous, I later decided -- battle sites. Antietam is superbly operated by the National Park Service, and our ability to survey and understand what happened on that rather horrible day in 1862 (22,000 Americans died from dawn to dusk, or nearly half as many as died in Vietnam in eight years was heightened by the absence of almost any other visitors. The week after Labor Day seems to be the quiestest time of year for tourists.
Antietam's battlefield tour is simple: You pick up a free brochure (and any number of low-priced other histories and picture books) at the main visitor center, where you also watch a well-written 18-minute slide show. Then you tour the 810-acre site over an eight-mile road system in your own vehicle, with or without a $2 tape-recorded guide. Because the assorted skirmish sites are so well marked along the way, we toured without the tape recorder. While I ran the motorcycle at just over idle, Shannon read aloud from the free brochure and map.
"This is the cornfield where they attacked first," he said.
"Here's the West Woods, Papa," he said, "where Jackson had two divisions."
It was now late afternoon. Darkling clouds scudded across a fading sky. An evening hush had settled across the land around the tiny village of Sharpsburg. By the time we reached and walked through Bloody Lane, a sunken road between a cornfield and a hillock -- where some 4,000 men were wounded in three hours of point-blank crossfire -- it had gotten pretty somber out. All that was missing was Taps.
Our spirits didn't stay down long, though, for we were soon weaving our way again through those marvelous undiscovered Maryland back roads. "Yeah, that's the road to Dargan," said the barmaid of an Antietam tavern where we stopped for refreshment. "It's a bad'un." What she didn't know was that her bad road was our good one, a combination roller coaster and carousal that makes motorcycling fun even at 30 miles an hour. We passed Mennonite farms, crossed one-lane bridges, saw hundred-year-old churches with elegantly carpentered belfries and chatted with country boys who, just like Tom and Huck, were chewing on long weeds.
It was chilly and dark by the time we faced the inevitable wrench of reentry into the urban megalopolis. Washington sprawls gaudily into the Maryland suburbs: We confronted the culture shock head-on by dining under neon at a fast-food joint.
But our maps, brochures nd statistics were a comfort: 400 miles in 30 hours, 200 years of visible almost tangible history, some time alone with my son without a single phone call, all for a grand total of $80, only $9 of which went for gas, since the bike gets 45 miles a gallon.
"Papa," Shannon asked on his way to a stickball game the next morning, "when are we going somewhere on the motorcycle again?"