Can you recommend a place, I asked my friend Paul, maybe a state park with cabins, somewhere in the middle of nowhere, someplace far from TVs and Senate hearings and the eternal buzz of the Beltway, someplace where the kids can run screaming through the woods, where we can read and walk and breathe and not bump into a single presidential hopeful?
Paul, a trout-stream addict and seeker of solitude himself, didn't bat an eye. He, like me, has two young boys, a suburban schedule of soccer practices, swim lessons and forays to the Natural History Museum, and he knows the value of an agenda-free weekend. He jotted this down on a piece of scratch paper: Lost River State Park in Mathias, W. Va. It's only 2 1/2 hours from Washington, he said, and it's the perfect place to do nothing.
He was right on both counts.
Now don't misunderstand. For those who crave activity, Lost River is a fine place. The most popular time to go is during the park's summer season, which runs from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend. For the athlete, there's a swimming pool, a couple of tennis courts, a volleyball court, an archery range and designated plots for horseshoes and badminton. For the equestrian, there are stables offering rental horses. For the kid, there's an impressive playground. For the history lover, there's a late-18th-century cabin built by Revolutionary War hero "Light-Horse Harry" Lee that is preserved as a museum.
But somebody who doesn't want to do much of anything -- even during peak season -- needs to know only this: Each cabin has a rocking chair, and a front porch.
We packed up the car early one Saturday on a recent off-peak weekend and took the Beltway to Interstate 66 west. We stopped for midmorning cinnamon rolls in Front Royal, then went up and over Great North Mountain, the point at which Virginia miraculously becomes West Virginia -- you can tell a difference. At Baker, we turned south on Route 259 and followed the Lost River -- so named because it vanishes for a few miles as it flows under Sandy Ridge Mountain and emerges with a new title, the Cacapon River -- until we came to Mathias and the state park.
It was somewhere along the West Virginia back roads -- maybe it was when we saw the purple birdbath, or the dead opossum, or the ad for the taxidermy studio, or when we rolled into Lost City, named for the river -- that we sensed a change of influence, that we knew we were no longer in the Greater Washington area, but somewhere else. In Lost City! And we felt something akin to what astronauts must when they reach escape velocity.
Set in a hollow among steep, tree-studded ridges, the state park offers accommodations that are rustic, but not ridiculously retro. Each of the two dozen sparely decorated cabins has a stone fireplace, a few beds, a fully appointed kitchen -- with classic State of West Virginia dishes -- and a bathroom with a shower. Towels, sheets and firewood are provided.
The park takes in more than 3,700 acres and is crisscrossed by 17 color-coded trails for hiking and horseback riding. The longest, Miller's Rock Trail, twists and turns up a slope to Cranny Crow Lookout some 3,200 feet above sea level.
We stayed in Cabin No. 18, about 50 yards from the intersection of Loblolly and Staghorn trails. During the days we catnapped and read and walked along a trail or two. We didn't hike, exactly. We sauntered, dawdled, tarried -- committed all those work-ethic infidelities. And when one of our sons got a little wild, he could dart into the forest and terrorize a tree or roll down a hill or practice his yodeling. At night, we built a hellish fire, drank hot cocoa, played chess and gin rummy and Crazy 8s.
Folks in the know said we were smart to go during the off season. Laurel Look, who works in the park's office taking reservations, said that during many summer weeks it's difficult to rent a cabin, unless there are cancellations. Certain cabins, she said, are booked months in advance by families who return year after year.
John and Adelle Dassoulas of Silver Spring, for instance, have been making an annual midsummer's pilgrimage to the park for the last 20 years or so. They like Cabin 16. Adelle told me that they enjoy the fellowship with other families -- from all over -- who also are regular patrons. Through the decades, their kids have played with the kids of other guests. Now the children's children swim and roast marshmallows and hike Razor Ridge Trail together. "Our son Mark met his wife there," she said, explaining that her daughter-in-law's family had been driving down from Pittsburgh each summer for more than two decades. "That gives you a little twist to the story."
I asked her about the quality of the food at the park's restaurant -- which is open on weekends in May and then daily through the summer season -- and she hesitated a minute. "It's pretty good," she said, drawing out the word "pretty." "Course then, it depends on which one of them is doing the cooking."
While we were there, we dined on hot dogs, Ritz crackers and chicken soup pulled off the shelves of the nearby Misty Valley grocery store and gas station. We reaffirmed our belief that any food, even trashy food, tastes better in the woods, and sleep is deeper.
When the time came, it was hard to leave. The fire was inviting. The moon was in the trees. There was a rubber game of chess yet to be played. The city seemed far away.
From the second Monday in June through Labor Day, cabins are rented by the week only. Rates vary from $290 to $565 a week, depending on the cabin. Otherwise, daily rates range from about $50 to $100, depending on the cabin and time of year. For information, write to Lost River State Park, Rte. 2, Box 24, Mathias, W. Va. 26812. The telephone number is 1-800-CALL-WVA