Down a river and back in time

THE BALTIMORE SUN

This is where the Shenandoah meets the Potomac, where the Appalachian Trail joins the C&O; Canal path, where past and present converge as well.

A lot of things come together in the misty, mystic hamlet of Harpers Ferry, W.Va. - often, in its history, tragically so.

Here, abolitionists led by John Brown clashed with backers of slavery in an ill-fated attempt to take over an arsenal and launch a slave revolt.

Here, north meets south, as the two sides did repeatedly - less than two years after Brown's attack - during the Civil War. Control of the town changed hands eight times.

And here, two rivers become one, forming a boundary between three states. The rivers led to the town's settlement, to its name (Robert Harper ran a ferry linking Maryland to what was then Virginia) and to the floods that have both erased and revealed pieces of its past.

Harpers Ferry is a study in confluence, a testament to survival, a wellspring of well-kept history and an undulating masterpiece of nature that can be hiked, biked, camped, rafted, kayaked, tubed or simply gazed at from a mountaintop.

Just over an hour from Baltimore, it's an easy day trip, but it's also ideal for a weekend escape: Getting there won't chew up most of the time or most of the gas money.

And best of all, it's not a mob scene. While thousands pass through every weekend, most drawn by whitewater rafting and tubing, Harpers Ferry has managed to balance capitalism and conservation - they converge here, too - largely because most of the town is owned by the National Park Service.

Within two days, and a limit of $500, I managed to flow with the rivers; climb with the mountains; step back in time through historic sites, demonstrations and museums; spend two nights in hotels, including an inn where Mark Twain once slept; and throw away $100 at nearby Charles Town Races & Slots.

My plan was to drive to West Virginia's eastern panhandle, take an afternoon whitewater rafting trip for which I had reservations (both kinds), and then enjoy a night on the town.

Rafting the river

Except for the night on the town, things went according to plan. I arrived in Harpers Ferry in time for a quick lunch before reporting to River Riders, which I had chosen online from five outfits that offer to send you down the river, whether it be by tube (the most popular), raft or kayak. Most operate trips into October.

As instructed, I did not bring anything that couldn't get wet. I left my car keys behind, wore old shoes (water shoes, and most other necessities, can be purchased in the store) and arrived early to sign a liability release.

Joining the crowd outside, I watched a safety video, which warned of such hazards as "foot entrapment," which can occur when one tries to stand up in whitewater. Your foot can get lodged between rocks and the rushing water can force you underwater. Good to know. Better yet was learning to avoid it - by floating on your back with your feet in front of you. Sharp rocks will tear up only your rear end, as opposed to more vital body parts.

Issued life jackets, paddles and helmets, we boarded the bus for the ride to the starting point, during which the guides told jokes, mostly about West Virginians.

At the river, we were assigned to rafts. I got placed with a family of five, Nancy and Greg Pekala of Ellicott City, and their three children. Our guide was "Deliverance" - the bus-ride comic - a three-year veteran from Kentucky whose real name is Brian Lyons. He told us where to sit and gave us a quick lesson in paddling.

It being summer, and not a particularly wet one, the water was low - meaning the rapids would be a little less rapid, the rocks a little more protruding.

As we set off down the Shenandoah - an Indian name locals say means "daughter of the stars"- the river was smooth, but not long into the seven-mile, three-hour trip we hit the first of a half-dozen decent rapids.

Deliverance guided us through the whitewater ably (and did most of the work), keeping us right-side up and avoiding getting stuck on the rocks.

After a couple of hours filled with horseplay, paddling and peaceful drifting, we floated past Harpers Ferry and into the Potomac. Needing to cool off, I tried taunting the Pekala children into pushing me overboard, but they were too polite. So I rolled off the raft and floated downriver a while on my own, managing to bang one knee and scrape two fingers on rocks. (What good is a whitewater experience if you don't emerge with at least one boo-boo?)

The National Park Service, which regulates the outfitters (and most anything else that goes on in Harpers Ferry), doesn't recommend swimming in the river - they don't monitor it for pollution - but it seems safe enough to float in.

Back on shore, I checked into the Quality Inn, just up the road, and, after a much-needed shower, drove the two miles to Harpers Ferry for dinner.

At the Armory Pub, I took a seat on the downstairs patio and waited for my waitress, who was sitting on a bench singing The Lion Sleeps Tonight in an eastern European accent. What she lacked in promptness she made up for in personality, and by the end of my meal she had taken a seat at my table and told me about life in Romania and her summer in the U.S.

By 9:30 p.m. the restaurant was closing, and the streets of Harpers Ferry - except for a ghost tour - were empty.

Other than the ghosts - or like them - Harpers Ferry is dead at night, maybe because visitors are worn out from hiking, biking or rafting. Merchants say they don't stay open because nobody comes to town, but one wonders if that's because nobody stays open.

Seeing few other options, I headed to my car. (Note: Don't leave your wet tennis shoes and bathing suit in the back of your car for an extended period of time. Foul odors result.)

Back at the hotel, the bar was open and a band was finishing up. I had gone looking for nightlife when the only nightlife in town was where I was.

Seeing Harpers Ferry

After a free continental breakfast at the hotel, I checked out Sunday and was lucky enough to get a parking space in Harpers Ferry.

Parking is limited and, after noon, chances are you will be redirected to the park visitor center, two miles away, to board a shuttle bus into town.

I got a space by the railroad station, and set off on the first of two planned hikes.

I decided to save for later the half-mile hike to Jefferson Rock. It takes you up a steep path, past St. Peter's Catholic Church, the only church in Harpers Ferry to survive the Civil War, to the rocky bluff that Thomas Jefferson - on his way to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia - proclaimed "perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature."

Instead, I crossed the Potomac River Footbridge into Maryland, following the C&O; Canal path to the Maryland Heights trail, which ends atop a cliff overlooking Harpers Ferry. There is a birds-eye view of the town, which is what made Maryland Heights a vital piece of real estate in the Civil War.

Up on the ridge there were few other hikers, and the silence was broken only by chirping birds, whistling trains and the pealing of church bells below.

Hiking back into town, I walked past docents in period garb, demonstrating laundry-washing and musket-firing, 1860's style.

After lunch, I was off to the John Brown Wax Museum, opened in 1964 by Dixie Kilham, a Baltimore attorney who hired a Baltimore wax-figure maker to make the statues. When Kilham died seven years ago, the museum was purchased by another Baltimore attorney, Stephen Brown - no relation to John.

"It's the only wax museum I'm aware of anywhere in the world that tells the story of one individual," said Brown, who, growing up in Harpers Ferry, worked next door to the museum.

Paying my $6 admission, I followed the hallways and stairs, looking at the glassed-in displays, many of them featuring audio:

John Brown as a boy, witnessing a young slave friend being whipped for displeasing his master - said to have been the beginning of his hatred of slavery; Brown watching as a slave family is auctioned off to different owners; Brown operating his station on the Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania; Brown preparing for the raid on the 100,000-weapon armory at Harpers Ferry; Brown's capture, trial, last visit with his wife.

The last scene shows Brown walking up the steps of the gallows, where, the moderator intones, he waited with "majestic serenity for the drop into eternity." The music swells - the Battle Hymn of the Republic, aka John Brown's Body - then stops, and in the silence, Brown slowly raises his head and stares up at visitors.

Eccentric hotel

At the Hilltop House Hotel, the desk clerk, noticing I'd been sweating, recommended I drink some V-8 juice (for the potassium), told me West Virginia is 32nd in per capita income (I have no idea why) and handed me my room key - not a card, but an actual key.

Right off the bat, I liked this place - not just for its spectacular views, not just for being easy walking distance (downhill at least) to town, but for its eccentricities. And they are many.

It took a firm shoulder push to open the door of my room. The carpeting was stained. The mini blinds looked like they'd been through a tornado and the window itself, while maybe once rectangular, was now a right-leaning parallelogram. All the room's lines were slanted. But considering the hotel's heritage and its modest room price, it was perfect.

The first Hilltop House Hotel was built in 1888 by Thomas Lovett, an African-American whose parents worked at Storer College, a school designed primarily to educate former slaves. The school served in 1906 as the site of the second conference of the Niagara Movement, which sought to ensure that the promises of freedom and equality for blacks were fulfilled, and led to the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Lovett's hotel burned down, twice, but each time he rebuilt. In 1955, it was bought by Dixie Kilham, who installed plumbing in every room and brought live theater to Harpers Ferry.

William Stanhagen bought the hotel in 1986 with a group of investors who have since died or withdrawn. Now 87, he's planning to take on new investors and make extensive renovations.

I, meanwhile, even after buying a souvenir T-shirt, had a budget surplus. Fortunately, there was an institution eight miles down the road custom-made to address that problem.

After dinner at Secret Six Tavern, named after the group of men who financially supported John Brown, I drove to Charles Town Races & Slots.

There, I withdrew $100 from a cash machine that charged me $2.50 and flashed a phone number for an organization that helps with gambling problems.

I slipped a $20 bill into one of the casino's 3,500 slots and, 25 cents at a time, spent it in 10 minutes. In about two hours, my $100 was gone. With $8 of my budgeted $500 left - just enough for breakfast - I went back to my crooked room and fell asleep.

The plan was to drive straight from Harpers Ferry to Baltimore in time for work Monday.

But my legs were sore from all the hills. and it's possible that I drifted back to sleep a bit.

And, once I got up, there was this mist hanging over the river, making me linger a little too long over my first cup of coffee from the lobby, which I carried outside to a bench on the bluff.

And perhaps, during breakfast, I got lost in my thoughts - about all the history that converges here, and all the nature that converges here.

You see, once you get caught up in all that convergence, it's hard to extricate yourself.

And that's why I was a little late.

Sorry, boss.

john.woestendiek@baltsun.com

Where the money went

Lodging

One night at Quality Inn (304-535-6302; cliffside.com): $101.90 One night at Hilltop House Hotel (304-535-2132; hilltophousehotel.com): $76.30

Meals

Lunch at Country Cafe: $8 Dinner at Armory Pub: $25 Lunch at Iron Horse Grill: $15 Dinner at Secret Six Tavern: $23.17 Breakfast at Hilltop House: $8

Activities

Rafting with River Riders (800-326-7238; riverriders.com): $63.60 Tip to raft guide: $10 Harpers Ferry National Park parking/entrance fee (304-535-6298; nps.gov/hafe): $6 Admission to wax museum (304-535-6342; johnbrownwaxmuseum.com): $6 Gambling in Charles Town (includes ATM fee): $102.50

Miscellaneous

Bottled water: $5; other beverages: $18, Souvenir T-shirt: $16

Transportation

Gas: $15

The total tab$499.47

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