Our first clue that Thorn Run Inn is not your typical bed and breakfast was the menagerie of animals milling about the front yard. A goat nuzzled the ground for edibles, a sheep slumped languorously beneath a shade tree, a chicken fled in fear and a hyperkinetic puppy bounced at the end of a taut chain. From across the street, a cow tossed us a deep bellow.
"This must be the place!" my wife announced.
We pulled into the driveway with anticipation, about to embark on a stay at a bed and breakfast that is setting the course for tourism in the next millennium. Thorn Run Inn is one of the first in the region to tout itself as "eco-friendly," and use the phrase "ecotourism" in its marketing literature. It lies in the Potomac Highlands section of northern West Virginia, among waves of steel-blue mountains. Hosts Peter and Robin Maille provide each guest a bed and a meal -- and a new way of thinking.
The Ecotourism Society defines the concept as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people." Economic development and environmental conservation are generally regarded as opposing principles that often polarize regions and their people. But the Mailles have successfully managed to dovetail the two with the finesse of a tightrope walker.
Thorn Run's innkeepers take great measures to minimize their imprints on the environment. Each item used at the inn is scrutinized as to its origin, its material composition and its possible impact on the environment. The Mailles prepare meals with organic foods, many grown on the premises. They line-dry the linens and use biodegradable detergents. They perform extensive composting and recycling programs and drive a gas-stingy car. They avoid the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, and go as far as to use pump soap instead of bar soap.
And Sweetpea the sheep serves as groundskeeper, nibbling the grass to a manageable height. What she can't get, a reel mower finishes.
The Mailles also promote, in a conscientious manner, economic development of a region that has become downtrodden with time. Logging opportunities have waned and viable coal deposits have diminished, and many West Virginians have turned to agriculture or other means such as carpentry or plumbing to get by. Thorn Run Inn considers itself a small but vital cornerstone to re-invigorate the region. Guests tend to come from Eastern Seaboard metropolitan areas, and many bring with them deep pockets and a willingness to spend; and when they do, the Mailles point guests toward local businesses. The inn also employs local labor and relies on local suppliers and small businesses for its consumables.
"You need three things to successfully develop ecotourism: an interesting lodging, a beautiful landscape that's worth visiting, and hospitality," says Peter Maille, explaining his model for manageable ecotourism. "And if you're located near interesting natural areas, that's all the better. We have all three. And so do lots of other folks who live around here."
Madagascar to Thorn Run
Thorn Run Inn opened for business in 1997, but was conceived of many years before and many longitude lines away. Peter and Robin Maille served as Peace Corps volunteers in Africa in the early 1980s, teaching Senegalese villagers how to use their precious forest resources in an environmentally and economically sound manner. Later, while in Madagascar, they stumbled upon the concept of ecotourism. It was there that they began exploring how tourism through small-scale inns could promote local economic development and environmental conservation -- their two priorities.
And it was there that the idea of running an inn like Thorn Run was conceived.
The inn is a vintage Georgian-style brick farmhouse with a modest front portico and spacious windows. It's enveloped by strategically placed gardens filled with colorful -- and often purposeful -- flowers and vegetables. The inn rests neatly in a furrow of Knobley Mountain, where the trickle of water known as Thorn Run emerges and begins its search for the Potomac River. The back of the inn is shadowed by mountains, but the front opens to miles of rambling, pastoral hills laid out in mosaics of gold and brown. No other house is visible across the expanse.
The inn shares its 20 acres of rolling woodland and pasture with several outbuildings. Two barns flank the gravel driveway. A former chicken coop has been converted to a nature learning center, and another is being converted to a two-room cabin. An in-ground swimming pool and hot tub are available for guest use. Groomed trails snake about the property and lead guests to interesting niches of woodland, a brook and a puddle of a pond crammed full of bluegill and largemouth bass.
The alternating mix of woodland and pasture creates many edge rows, which provide excellent bird habitat. A pair of experienced birders recently cataloged 43 species on or around the premises during one weekend. I was able to add the 209th bird to my life list -- a scarlet and black orchard oriole nesting in a sugar maple by the front porch.
The inn has five guest rooms, three with private baths. Its decor is simple and tasteful. Guest rooms are decorated with many antiques purchased locally. A large common room has walls hung with African blankets and paintings, and shelves lined with sculptures and artifacts from the innkeepers' extensive travels. A baby grand piano stands ready to entertain.
My attention was too often drawn to a well-stocked library with floor-to-ceiling shelves, several reading chairs and a fireplace. Edward Abbey books perched next to Danielle Steele novels, which perched next to philosophical tomes by the likes of Nietzsche and Aristotle. I lingered at length in the "we read and recommend" section, and found the shelf devoted to West Virginia natural and cultural history instructive.
Food for relaxed thought
Dinners at Thorn Run Inn are available at a reasonable extra charge. Robin Maille prepared for us a masterful bowl of "mafe," a Senegalese concoction of fresh vegetable chunks in a smooth peanut sauce served over fluffy couscous. All dinners include homemade bread, salad, local wine and dessert. Following one dinner, we retreated to the common room where Robin ceremoniously brewed and served a powerful Senegalese tea called ataya, which packed a caffeinated punch.
As for the meals' formality, Robin says, "Come in slippers or hiking boots or dress shoes. We don't care."
Breakfasts typically consist of baked goods and coffee on the side porch, and a bit later a heartier entree in the dining room. We had blueberry flax flapjacks one morning and Mediterranean frittatas (a tasty commingling of eggs, potatoes, feta cheese and roasted peppers) the next.
Guests at Thorn Run Inn, possibly bound by common ideology, tend to gravitate to one another. One night our group sat in the orchard, beneath the apple and cherry trees, and watched swallows pluck bugs from the sky while deer paced the distant property line. An owl swung from one barn to the next. We talked about ecotourism and local environmental concerns and African culture and how tasty the cherries were. And when darkness set, we marveled at how complex and hypnotic the starry West Virginia sky is.
Finding other pastures
The inn certainly offers sweet tonic to the rigors of life back home, and I could have easily exercised my right to indolence there for days. But at my wife's behest, we ventured out to nearby parks and attractions.
Greenland Gap Nature Preserve is just a few cow pastures down the road and offers rugged hiking trails and a cool and inviting swimming hole. There, we waded the stream with our 2-year-old daughter looking for crayfish and anything slimy and amphibious. About 30 minutes to the south is Dolly Sods Wilderness Area, a more rough-and-tumble wilderness that caters to hikers and mountain bikers and other Lycra-bound troubadours of sweat. Seneca Rocks Natural Recreation Area, another remote playground, lies just beyond Dolly Sods.
To the northeast is the more developed Blackwater Falls State Park, which was congested with sightseers traveling the boardwalk to an overlook vantage. The resorty Canaan Valley lies just past the state park.
Canoeing and fishing are also available in abundance, thanks to the inn's proximity to the North Branch of the Potomac River. Numerous caverns -- many commercial -- are strewn about the area.
Guests more enthralled by local culture -- or less enthused with mud and mountains -- can ramble the countryside and small towns, and experience a region that has done little to impede its character and charm. Some towns have regular antique auctions, and most have diners that serve comfort food.
With its pro-environment tendencies, it's no surprise that Birkenstocks were the footwear of choice at Thorn Run Inn. The guests did seem to tread a bit softer on the earth. But the eco-friendly theme of the inn was in no way pontificated. It didn't tug at you like a riptide, but rather nudged you like a gentle undertow. Supporting the mission of Thorn Run Inn is not necessarily the reason to visit; it's just another great reason.
WHEN YOU GO ...
Getting there: Thorn Run Inn is located near Petersburg, W.Va., about a three-hour drive west of Baltimore. To get there, take Interstate 70 West to Interstate 68. Follow I-68 west to Cumberland where you will pick up Route 220 south. Continue on Route 220 to Route 50 and go east about 1 mile to Knobley Road in Ridgeville. Turn right onto Knobley Road and go 11.8 miles to Thorn Run Inn.
Costs: Rooms for two start at $65 a night and include a full country breakfast. Dinner is $14 a person and lunches are provided for $8 a person.
Information: Call Peter and Robin Maille at 304-749-7733, or visit their Web site at http://members.aol.com/narope/ThornRun.htm