PLEASANT VALLEY -- A worn country store well off the highway beckons without even a sign out front. But who needs a sign when the dazzling Dot Himes is behind the counter?
The sprightly woman of 70 has presided at Himes Store in Washington County since 1940, serving as matriarch and monitor of this rural community for more than half a century.
"I really don't know why people think this is so different," Mrs. Himes says in response to a question about her longevity. "It's home, you know. This has been my life."
Only outsiders seem to think this is someplace special.
"It's just a part of you, part of your life," says Juanita Clem, a regular at the store. "You city people can't understand it."
So come along, city people, for an educational excursion into the soul of Pleasant Valley, snug between Elk Ridge and South Mountain at the southern tip of Washington County, stretching along Route 67 from Harpers Ferry to about Gapland or Rohrersville, more or less.
But enter at your own risk: Kindness Ahead.
"If people in this community voted for the outstanding citizen, Dot Himes would win hands down," says the Rev. Tom Fralin of the Brownsville Church of the Brethren, about a mile and a half up the road.
"Any cause in the community, Dot's willing to help out.
"This is the one place in the community where you can find out what's happening. If I'm gone for a week, I can come in here and find out what's happened while I was away. I can even find out whose dog had pups."
Mrs. Himes also will know whose child needs pants. Customers drop off clothes at the store, and she hangs them on a clothesline outside for the needy families or delivers them herself.
"If somebody owes Dot $400 and hasn't paid on it for six months, but they come in here and need food for their children, she'll let them have it," Mr. Fralin says.
Mr. Fralin sits at the table in Mrs. Himes' kitchen as he says this. Sitting in her kitchen is like being in the store, because she lives in this building, and the door between the store and her kitchen is always open.
She walks into the kitchen to make another pot of coffee and hears him.
"Won't you give them the food?" he asks her.
"Oh yes, if it's for the children," she says with a puzzled expression that seems to say: What kind of silly question is that?
That's the expression she has carried all day, because all these questions seem silly to her. What she has done here at the store seems just as natural to her as the overstuffed sandwiches she makes for her customers.
"This is not work," she says. "This is entertainment."
And so it is, as the steady parade of regulars shuffles through the front door on this heavenly spring day -- only to find Juanita Clem already here.
Mrs. Clem, 71, was a secretary for the National Institutes of Health. When she worked, she caught the train each morning in Brunswick. Now that she's retired, she stops in at Himes Store two or three times a day.
"My mother and father came here," she says. "I've known the Himeses since I opened my eyes. We're all a group that knows each other."
Mrs. Himes' father-in-law, Joe Himes, built this store about 1930, expanding from a one-room general store down the road. When Mrs. Himes married one of Joe's boys, Roger, in 1940, she married the store as well.
Joe died in 1962, Roger in 1972. Now Gary Himes, one of Mrs. Himes' three sons, owns it and works alongside his mother. His wife, Martha, also works here. They live in this same building with Mrs. Himes.
"All three of her children were born here -- on a Sunday," Gary Himes says of his mother. "That's because we're closed on Sunday."
He laughs, and so does his mother, but she can't remember the last time she took a vacation.
She'll even open on Sundays if somebody needs something badly enough. And she'll open early during the week if the children out front waiting for the school bus need shelter from the cold.
"People come in here with cinders in their eyes, and she takes themout," Gary Himes says. "A fellow who lives about five miles away fell off a ladder and banged his shins up. What'd he do? Came in here and she bandaged him up."
People come in for everything imaginable, from beer to seeds, from spark plugs for lawn mowers to kits for mounting deer.
Out back, Gary Himes changes oil and sells tires, and he also delivers coal.
On Christmas Eve, the Himes family holds an open house, setting up tables in the living room and kitchen piled high with food. Santa Claus visits, and Gary Himes takes pictures of all the children -- and some of the grown-ups-- on Santa's lap.
Then he hangs the pictures in the front window for one week. After that, parents can have them for free.
Except for the visitor in the red suit, that open house isn't much different from any other day of the year.
Mrs. Himes motions customers into her kitchen for free coffee from her bottomless pot. It's self-serve -- help yourself to the milk in her fridge.
She offers Nutter Butter cookies all around, then says in no uncertain terms: "You'll have a sandwich a little bit later."
A little bit later, she serves ham and cheese sandwiches thicker than you'd make for yourself.
One of her sons, Joe, passes around his own deer jerky and sliced deer bologna.
"This is just the way it is here," Mrs. Clem says. "If she has dinner, people sit down with her and eat."
Dolores Rickerds, who has spent the morning in her flower bed, ambles in and reports that Rhoda Tritapoe fell and broke her pelvis. You city people might also like to know that there are six bluebird eggs in the nest on Mrs. Rickerds' clothesline pole.
She says there's no greater place in the world than Pleasant Valley.
"We have been all over, everywhere Amtrak goes," Mrs. Rickerds says. "But whenever I turn that corner and come up 67, I could kiss the road."
And first thing, she'll stop in at Himes Store for the news, camaraderie and Dot Himes' coffee.
"I don't know how to describe it," Mrs. Clem says. "We're just country people. "And I'll speak for myself, I'm glad to be one."
That's something everybody can understand.