AT THIS TIME of year the drive along 70 West is beautiful, the green of the grass not yet burned brown by the sun, mountains misty in the distance and the roadside embankments purple and white with clover and the occasional gold of a black-eyed susan. Around Hancock, 522 cuts across the highway, leading south toward Berkeley Springs, a town which could, if it wanted, hand out a sign saying, "George Washington Soaked Here."
Berkeley Springs, W. Va., is the site of the "fam'd warm springs" which the father of our country wrote about in his diary in 1748 and soaked in for many a year thereafter.
In 1777, like other revolutionary leaders, he bought a plot of land and built a summer cottage in the square around the springs, whose title Lord Fairfax had given to the state of Virginia so that, '"These healing waters might be forever free to the publick for the welfare of suffering humanity."
Suffering humanity did come during the Revolutionary War, in the person of sick and wounded soldiers. But after that, the town must have been a jolly place. In 1784 The Maryland Gazette wrote that there were five bathing houses and "an assembly and theater . . . for the innocent and rational amusements of the polite who assemble there."
Innocent indeed, wrote Bishop Francis Asbury, a man who knew the devil when he saw it: "My spirit is grieved at so much vanity as is seen here . . . by the many poor careless sinners around me."
The summer cottages and assembly are gone, and the poor careless sinners with them. The town of Berkeley Springs sleeps under the wing of a mountain, its one movie theater open Thursday through Sunday, and its main street enlivened by a craft shoe or two, a dinette, a dime store.
People do not come to Berkeley Springs to kick up their heels. They come to collapse in a bed at the Country Inn and drift and soak in the Roman baths.
The Country Inn was built in 1932, with the mountain at its back and at its side the small, tree-filled park where the springs are located. Like the men who founded the town, it too is colonial, its pillared porches lined with rockers where people sit and gaze at the white bandstand sitting roundly in the center of the park or at the swimming pool, or perhaps what they are really doing is staring in anticipation at the baths.
If it is too cool, or it is raining, the sitters shift themselves inside to the Country Inn's large and comfortable lobby, where you can buy a bag of homemade chocolate chip cookies ($1.75), a quilt, a christening gown, or a state patch to sew on your blue jeans. Upstairs, the hallways are hung with old prints and here and there are tables piled with books with faded bindings and names like "The Conqueror" or "Our Glad."
The dining room at the Country Inn is old-fashioned too, its menu running to basics like pork chops, steaks, fish--plain food served in quantity and accompanied by warm rolls and scoops of butter so large they look like ice cream. There are homemade soups and such Southern staples as pan-fried ham with red-eye gravy and for breakfast, grits.
It is all very casual, men wearing sports shirts, waitresses taking the time to be friendly, and in the background a piano playing the kind of songs that you know you know but can't remember the name of. No matter. On each table there is a "Request-o-gram." Fill in the name of the song you are longing to hear.
Time slides away and only the large screen of a television set serves to remind that this is 1982, that life is tense and now, more than ever, we need to soothe our nerves with a mineral bath and sleep the dreamless sleep of a country night.
In the squat, cream-colored bathhouse, $14 buys a Roman bath, a shower and a massage. The sunken tub is 8 feet long and hip deep in warm mineral water--74 degrees if you care about things like that, or that the springs have a capacity of about 2,000 gallons a minute. The attendant disappears and for 20 minutes the only sound is a pipe sluicing water into the pool. And then the attendant is back to wrap you in a sheet and lead you to a table where a masseuse spends another 30 minutes rubbing away any tensions the bath has missed.
At this point most people probably declare themselves officially relaxed, get in their cars and drive the 10 miles south on 522 to Cacapon State Park, where they paddle in a paddle boat or enjoy a picnic lunch.
But right across from the park, there is a sign announcing the Loving Light Massage Clinic, open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. A full body masssage, a foot massage, or a head and shoulder massage the sign promises. Since the purpose of the weekend is to relax, it seems only sensible to try all available means. As the afternoon wears on there is first a foot massage and then another 45 minutes making sure that not one tense muscle escapes treatment.
It becomes clear why there are so few surly faces on the people of Berkeley Springs. By late afternoon I am as smooth and as oily as Exxon, as limp as a lettuce leaf, and it is time to go home.