Sunday, August 31, 2014

Preview of Coming Attractions

Cumberland, Frostburg, and Beyond 

We are on our way to a Road Scholar Program during which we will ride 100 miles of the Great Allegheny Passage, a rail trail constructed on the bed of defunct rail lines running from Cumberland, Maryland to Pittsburg.  Today, we are getting a head start on the program by riding a fifteen mile section that our Road Scholar group is skipping. 

We have reservations with a Cumberland bike shop to drive us and our bikes up to Frostburg, so that we can ride from there back to Cumberland.   The clouds are hanging low over the mountains, and we are driving in and out of fog and misty rain as we make our way to the bike shop, but by the time the shuttle drops us off at the Frostburg rail station, where we pick up the trail, the rain has stopped and the clouds seem to at least be rising above our 1,832 foot elevation. 

 We hardly have to pedal as we make our way back down to Cumberland, 1,200 feet below. 

We stop to enjoy valley and holler views, to read historic markers and to watch an excursion train pulled by a steam engine puff its way up the hill past us and into the long tunnel we had just ridden through, leaving billows of sooty black smoke pouring out the tunnel behind it.

Wisps of black smoke are still emerging from the tunnel after we can no longer hear the train in the distance.  We understand now why there are signs at the tunnel entrances warning people not to enter if the train is coming.   (And, we are a little disillusioned that a diesel locomotive was at the back of the train, providing extra support to the huffing puffing steam engine. )

Another highlight of the trail is the Cumberland Bone Cave discovered in 1912, where scientists subsequently unearthed the remains of 40 mammals--28 of them extinct--some up to 200 years old.  We couldn’t go in the cave--we could just see the entrance, but it was exciting to think about what a rich fossil discovery lay right here beside the tracks.  There were lots of other caves carved in the limestone along the rail bed--who knows what other bone caves may remain unexplored around here? 

Near the end of our ride, we pass through The Narrows, a passage where tall cliffs rise on both sides of the road.  A trailside marker tells the tale of a Lover’s Leap where a young Indian woman and a white man fall in love and jump to their deaths when her father, the chief of the tribe will not let them marry.  

In our short ride down the mountain, we have enjoyed some art, and learned some natural and social history, geology, and mythology, all in fifteen easy pedaling scenic miles. 

The Cumberland bike shop is located at the point where the GAP Trail ends and the C&O Canal Trail begins, and there is a big park area around the remains of a canal bed near the shop.  The place is hopping--a band is playing on a temporary stage, kids in matching tee shirts are arriving to do some sort of performance, and crowds of people are converging on the field, despite the intermittent misty rain and overcast skies.  We secure out bikes on the back of the car and walk a few blocks to Cumberland’s Main Street, now turned into a pedestrian mall, at least for a few blocks.  We have an outstanding lunch (who knew we could build such an appetite coasting downhill?), then are on the road again.

Our backroads route north takes us through lots of small towns, but when we hit Somerset, PA, the county courthouse is so striking that we have to stop for a closer look.  In front of the courthouse stands this Civil War monument erected in 1888 to honor “those who died defending the Union.” There are separate panels for those killed in battle and those who died of disease.   Those killed in battle outnumber those who died of disease, but not by a very big margin.  We are only a little bit surprised to learn this.  

We get another history lesson in Berlin, PA, where we stop to find a virtual geocache at the home of the leader of the 1794 whiskey rebellion in Berlin PA.  When the still very new Federal Government attempted to raise funds by taxing whiskey in 1794, local merchant Robert Philson raised a liberty pole and encouraged his fellow citizens to join him in not paying the tax.  President Washington responded by sending troops to quell the rebellion and arrest Philson.  His criminal record seems not to have diminished his standing in Berlin--after his release he went on to serve as a county judge for twenty years and be elected to Congress.  And to this day, Berlin honors his memory with an annual Whiskey Rebellion Celebration.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

History Lessons Along the National Road

August 22, 2014

We just have to start with a big shout out to Rise Up Coffee Roasters, Easton's old gas station turned coffee shop, where everyone in town stops in on their way to work for coffee and conversation.  We drank our lattes out front, but there's a big back room where you can sit near the huge roasting machine and big burlap bags of beans for real industrial atmosphere

The most shocking history lesson of this history-rich day was the revelation that George Washington was not our first President. 
This statue of John Hanson on the plaza of the County Courthouse in Frederick, Maryland set us straight.  A bronze plaque on the base states, “The John Hanson National Memorial was donated in 2011…so that the people of Maryland and the United States may at last have a place to pay tribute to their first President.”  For those of us mistakenly thinking that George Washington was our first President, another plaque explains John Hanson’s rightful claim to the honor--he was “the first president of the first United States government, the United States in Congress Assembled, which existed from 1781 until 1788.”

In addition to getting this history lesson in Frederick, we enjoyed a stroll through a linear park there with stone pathways along both sides of Carroll Creek, which has been transformed from little more than a drainage ditch to a water garden full of and colorful water lilies, lotus, and other aquatic plants, with koi swimming lazily below and pedestrian bridges crossing above. 

There are fountains, waterfalls, and little gardens with places to sit and enjoy the views along the way.  

One notable bridge began as a generic cement utility structure carrying two lanes of traffic over the creek.  A talented local artist transformed it into a trompe l’oeil masterpiece, painting it to appear to be constructed of stones with many elaborately carved sculptural insets and spots where vines trailed over the stonework.  The subjects of the inset pieces were ideas that local people offered in response to the question, "What does community mean to you?"  Truly, this park is a community project, and a cornerstone of community pride.

A faux bird bath painted on the bridge
 We spent the afternoon on another historic quest, traveling the national road, our country’s first federally financed infrastructure project, authorized in 1806 to connect Cumberland, Maryland with Wheeling, West Virginia.  Portions of the national road date back to even earlier times, when British General Edward Braddock blazed a road to secure the frontier during the French and Indian War.  

There are lots of historic markers and sites along the road, and we stopped a lot to look and learn. Some of our picturesque stops along the way included:


The Dahlgren Chapel, built in 1881 by Madeline Vinton Dahlgren, the widowed wife of the inventor of the gun the warship Monitor used against the Merrimack.   The small stone chapel sits in a small mowed segment of a vast field of wildflowers. 

The First Washington Monument
Across the road is the Old South Mountain Inn, which has been in virtually continuous operation as a travelers’ rest since 1790.  We have dined here on past travels in the area, and have also visited the state park nearby that houses our nation’s first Washington Monument, completed in 1827, predating the famous one in Washington D.C. by 58 years.


Down the road in Wilson, we stopped in at the Wilson General Store, which contains both historic exhibit items and real items for sale.  The two are sometimes hard to tell apart, and there was nothing that tempted us to pull out our wallets, including the old-fashioned candy, which may well have been around for quite a few years gathering dust.
This place is promoted as “The Store of Three Wonders,” and surely one of those wonders is  that it has managed to stay in business so long.


Not far from the store is the oldest stone bridge in Washington County, built in 1819--a beauty!

 Our national road is lightly traveled, and heavy with history--our kind of drive. 


Peak Experiences Around the Chesapeake

August 21, 2014

Our first goal for the day was to enjoy a leisurely ride along the Baltimore and Annapolis Trail, an  abandoned  railroad line that has been paved and turned into a scenic multi-use trail, much like the much longer Great Appalachian Passage we will be riding in a few days.   It turned out we got way more riding than we bargained for, since the ride from the hotel to the trailhead turned out to be four mostly uphill miles, and by uphill, we mean a far steeper grade than the 2% maximum grade that is the norm for rail beds.   This unforeseen challenge came with some positive attributes--great scenic views from the top of the tall Naval Academy Bridge spanning  the Severn River and a scenic overlook of Annapolis two thirds of the way up the steep road we climbed to get to the trail. 

We were also delighted to find that almost all the roads we traversed to get to the trail had very wide clearly marked bike lanes and signs reminding cars to yield to bikes when turning.  Even more awe-inspiring was the behavior of motorists, who gave us the right of way every time we reached an intersection, even when we had a stop sign and they did not. 

The trail was wonderful, passing through woods and wildflower meadows, suburban backyards and beside a few lightly traveled streets.  There were historic markers to read along the way, and places we could have stopped for a bite or beverage.  We would have loved to ride the whole length of the trail, but we had to get back to the hotel, clean up and check out, because we still had two more goals to achieve.

Our second goal to visit Chesapeake Light Craft, purveyor of fine kayak plans and kits.  Dick has been studying artful kayaks for ten years, and this is the year he has resolved to start bringing those kayak dreams to fruition.  He wanted to get a detailed look at the kayaks in the showroom of Chesapeake Light Craft and to talk technicalities with the staff before deciding how to proceed with his kayak project.  The CEO was there, and graciously toured Dick around, answered his questions, made sage suggestions and raised issues that changed Dick’s preconceptions about how he would construct his kayak.  After over an hour, we were on our way out the door when Dick came up with one last question he wanted to go back and ask.  I went to the car to wait, and about forty minutes later decided to go check on him.  I found him at the cash register.  His kayak materials will be delivered this Fall. 

We were on our way to the Tidewater Inn in Easton--a gracious beauty built in 1947.  Our corner room was bright and airy with a windows facing onto the main intersection of downtown Easton.  One of the windows featured an elaborate ornamental wrought iron balcony and the flagpole proudly flying the Maryland state flag.  It is too bad we hardly spent any time there.
Our last goal for the day was crab picking at our favorite crab house from cruising days in St. Michaels.   Dick not only made a reservation for a waterside table, he also reserved the crabs, and it is a good thing he did, because although they were out of large crabs when we got there, they had saved aside our dozen for us. 

Crab Picking--Before

Large crabs are going for $87 a dozen here.  Is this a sign of scarcity of crabs or of the plenitude of money in St. Michaels?
Crab Picking--After

So, to recap, our dozen crabs piled on a paper covered picnic table washed down with one beer in a plastic cup and one lemonade cost us nearly as much as last night’s elegant dinner that included an appetizer, a salad, two main courses, a dessert with two cappuccinos, a martini and a glass of wine.  We wouldn’t change a thing!

Chesapeake Bound

August 20, 2014
Annapolis, Maryland
No boat to call home this time, we are on our way to the Chesapeake by car.  We cheated on our vagabond travel rules yesterday, hopping on I-95, and just zipping north without stopping to appreciate local history or idiosyncrasy. 

Today, we made amends for our rushed start, beginning with our morning lattes at Demolition Coffee in Petersburg, Virginia’s decrepit historic district, which can trace its history back to 1640.
Sad to say, today the majority of the downtown shops are second-hand and antique stores, and every block sports at least one vacant storefront, so this coffee shop is not bustling with business, though it is bursting with personality, and serves an exceptionally tasty latte.
An architecturally unique Farmer's Market building just round the corner from the Demolition dates to 1879, and we are happy to see it is being lovingly renovated.  Looks like this neighborhood is upward bound.
On the way out of town, we stopped to see a massive boat under construction in the side yard of a little bungalow in an otherwise unremarkable suburban neighborhood. 
While I took photos of the monstrous ark that dwarfed all the nearby homes, Dick chatted with a fellow lounging on the porch of the house next door.  He turned out to be the son of the builder of the ark, and explained that his dad has not worked on it in quite some time, and probably wouldn’t finish it.  Its primary utility seems to be attracting stray curiosity seekers like us to relieve the monotony of the son’s porch-sitting days.
Within minutes of crossing the bridge into Maryland, we were on our way down to the Potomac riverfront for a crab picking lunch at Captain Billy’s Crab House, proudly plying the crab trade since 1947.   Sitting at a brown-paper covered table riverside, cracking into a dozen crabs just pulled from traps this morning, now piled on a tray and caked with Old Bay--we were in gastronomic nirvana.
Afterward, we stopped to watch the antics of a pair of osprey squealing from their nest atop a platform in the parking lot, and then noticed three bald eagles lazily circling overhead--visual dessert.
We are staying at the Maryland Inn, near the Maryland State House. The Inn dates back to the late 1700s.  Eleven legislators from the 1786 US congress stayed here, followed by lots of luminaries over the years.  Walking out the front door, we can look down Main Street and see all the way to the Annapolis Harbor anchorage where we stayed last time we visited Annapolis, living aboard Starsong.
We balanced our crab picking lunch with fine dining tonight at one of Main Street’s fanciest restaurants, Osteria 177--tomorrow we will ride off the calories along the Baltimore to Annapolis Trail.