Just three miles from Gaithersburg's Lakeforest Mall, on a part of Rte. 355 that's still a country lane, a giant red, white, blue and yellow roadside stand in the shape of a barrel signals the entrance to a neighborhood that finds its niche in another era.
They tend to keep to themselves at the Cider Barrel Trailer Court, and they don't put on airs about the living there. It's a place that prizes solitude and the practical comfort of an inexpensive patch of earth.
The cider barrel itself needs a new coat of paint these days, but life among the trailers is not without its satisfactions. There are no lawns or attics or basements here, but there are porches and patios and the occasional decorative whimsy: a plastic duck and ducklings set occupies a patch of grass, pinwheels and exotic plants line the dirt drive. At midday, as many rabbits as people scurry between the quiet, tree-lined rows of mobile homes in Germantown, Md., that sit behind 119 identical metal U.S. mailboxes, arranged in two long rows along Frederick Road.
Many of the residents are loners, and some of them seem to live more in their memories than in the narrow confines of a space 60 feet long and 14 feet wide. Others make no bones about the way they feel about the place, though their blunt words are muted by the obvious care they take to make it look good.
"It's a hole, believe me," says 70-year-old Fanny Walter, a resident since 1967. But her spotless trailer has fancy extras: it's air-conditioned with a paneled ceiling and a tiled bathroom. Four stereo speakers pipe an easy-listening radio station throughout the long, narrow space. According to Walter, who bought it secondhand, the trailer was custom designed by a Midwestern trailer manufacturer as a wedding present for his daughter.
Walter has outlived her husband and son and she rarely talks to her daughter in Rockville. She would like the company of a cat, she says, but it's forbidden by the lease. And she's not thrilled with the solid waste dump site on her property. Still, she says, the trailer is inexpensive and easy to clean. She only ventures outside once a week to grocery shop in Gaithersburg and she can't remember the last time she was in Washington.
Her trailer hums with homey comforts. The candy dish is full of peppermints, a manicure tray rests on the tweed sofa, and "Pop Classics" sheet music sits atop the piano along the living room's long wall. Books line the narrow divider between kitchenette and dinette. Walter, wearing thick glasses and a house dress of pink floral design, says she reads constantly.
"I like Dostoyevsky, the poets, Thoreau, Uris, Baldwin," she says. "Willa Cather is cute and funny . . . . You name 'em, I've read 'em.
"Harold Robbins, too."
Near the park entrance, Howard Shelton sits on the built-on porch of his trailer, smoking a cigarette. He retired four years ago on his 65th birthday, after 16 years as reinforcing superintendent for Blake Construction Co. "It was a Monday. I don't know if it was a good thing or not," he says, shakily lighting another cigarette.
The problem, he says, is persuading his wife and 24-year-old son to move back to North Carolina, where he has "nine acres in the mountains near Boone; beautiful country. The air seems to be a lot better there."
Shelton has lived in the trailer park for 20 years. He stares across Frederick Road at the empty field. "They're putting in town houses down in the holler," he says. "It used to be a big dairy farm."
If he were in North Carolina, he says, he'd "cut every bush or briar that sprouted on the place. There's good hunting, and a lot of trout."
But life is orderly in the two-bedroom Vagabond house trailer, keyed to the rhythms of a placid dailyness. Neat plastic flowers stand in a painted porcelain watering can on the kitchen table. And on Friday nights, Shelton and his wife go out to eat with their neighbors, often to Frederick for country ham.
One row away, Bob Mason is experimenting with the placement of a caladium in front of his trailer, which is surrounded by periwinkle, forsythia, yucca plants, white lilacs, peonies, ivy and bamboo.
Mason, whose white hair makes him look older than his 47 years, works in the display department at Sears in nearby Lakeforest Mall. His trailer reveals a mix of eccentric and traditional tastes. A thick telescope lens stares from above the television, while metal mirrors from a window display try to visually expand the space. A stack of Architectural Digest magazines tops the butler table and hand-colored Wallace Nutting photographs from the turn of the century line the walls.
Mason says he doesn't entertain and he detests the drive to Washington.
"When I get off work, I come home. I should join a monastery," he says. "I visit and cut the lawn of the invalid next door. But you never see anybody here. It's quiet."