West of the Blue Ridge Mountains
Stone Cabin Nestled in Virginia's Picturesque Foothills
Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake. Henry David Thoreau
A long-time dream of hiking on the Appalachian Trail with my grandchildren became a reality in late July. A few months earlier I had hinted to Nathan, 26, and Natalie 20, that it's time to go - while I still have my wits and energy.
It was late morning when we arrived at the Stone School House - perched in the rolling hills of Purcellville, Virginia, and just a few miles from the Appalachian Trail and other outdoor adventures. As we unpacked the car, the heat and humidity welcomed us with a firm grip. No matter, I had been imagining this trip for several years, and a pool of sweat at its doorstep wasn't going to dampen my dreams.
We settled into the 19th century school, our home for the next few days. It has been transformed into a lovely four-level cabin that offers modern conveniences while the overall aesthetics echo its rustic origin. Ah! The simple luxury of air conditioning! I thought about the young students who once squirmed in their seats here at the close of the school year.
Our host, Mark Abbot, left a basket of fruit, cheese, chocolates, and other goodies on the kitchen table - just below a "Welcome to our Dacha" (country home) sign. A vintage cook stove graces a fireplace that harkens back to the old days. Still, I was happy to see that the updated kitchen is well equipped to fix everything from a microwave breakfast to a gourmet feast.
The second-floor comfy lounge features a cathedral ceiling and huge windows with inviting views of the lush green countryside in the heart of Loudoun Valley - "The poetry of earth..." as John Keats once wrote. This was our go-to room after adventure-packed days. We played old-fashioned Rummy and also challenged ourselves to a newer game, Fluxx, with its ever-changing rules. Scrabble and other board games are tucked in a cubbyhole below the dry bar.
History buffs will enjoy the Civil War books that line the shelves throughout the cabin. Mark shared some history of the surrounding grounds where squirmishes took place during the Civil War. John Singleton Mosby, Confederate commander of Virginia's 43rd Battalion, was known for his quick raids in the surrounding grounds and then eluding the Union army. When the war ended, Mosby was a fugitive until President Ulysses S. Grant pardoned him. Mosby then helped to repair the splintered Union. Books on the Appalachian Trail are also available. While thumbing through one of them, I read about Emma "Grandma" Gatewood, who was the first female to hike the 2,168 mile trail in one season - at age 68!
The cabin has three bedrooms. Nathan chose the spacious third floor master bedroom with a private bath; Natalie and I took the two cozy fourth-floor bedrooms with a shared bath. The cabin also has a handy half-bath and laundry facilities as well as two working fireplaces.
Guests can dine outdoors where lights are strung above the patio to illuminate the country setting. They can also chill on Adirondack chairs, stretch out in a hammock, or relax in a snug loveseat and listen to the evening's soundtrack of chirping cicadas. A bean bag toss game is available for those who want to test their skills.
We looked forward to experiencing the Finnish sauna which is just up a hill from the cabin and also planned to grill some burgers and indulge in s'mores around the firepit. But by time the scorching July sun set in the evening, we had no desire to face more heat.
For me, one of life's simplest blessings is waking up to the chorus of Mother Nature, especially in the wooded seclusion of a cabin. While enjoying my coffee, I was entertained by the vocal repertoire of birds as water cascaded over the rocks in the creek. Surrounded by this calming peace, I pondered the contrast of battles once fought around these grounds as brothers spilled each other's blood and the sorrow of a mother's heart.
A Tiger Swallowtail glided to a wildflower; I thought about its transformation and the struggles it went through to fly. Our country came to mind, both past and present. I was on my second cup of coffee when a white-tailed doe and her fawn strutted onto the dew-kissed lawn and nosed for breakfast. This morning held no sorrow.
About Our Host
Mark is great at communicating and extremely accommodating. Prior to our visit, he sent information about the area's history and also mentioned nearby wineries and other activities offered in the area. I would highly recommend a stay at this picturesque cabin, especially for travelers who love the outdoors but want to be close to town. The Stone School House is only an hour's drive from Washington, DC and Baltimore, but it's worth the drive from anywhere!
Mark purchased the cabin in 2007 as a weekend get away for his family. When he discovered the Airbnb community, he made the cabin available for guests. He is the founder and CEO of a FarmRaiser.com, a technology company which lets farmers and food artisans make their products available for school and non-profit fundraisers. "Our platform works much the same way as Airbnb with buys and sellers connecting online. We're a social impact company working on helping grow local food systems while providing a healthy fundraising option for schools," he said.
For more information, see Mark's site HERE
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
On our first day, we arrived at the cabin too late to set off exploring trails. Instead, we chose an afternoon of flat-water tubing at Harpers Ferry Adventure Center, just a few miles away. The quaint village is brimming with Civil War history and has been restored to that era. This is where the infamous abolitionist John Brown raided the U.S. Armory on October 6, 1859 in an effort to arm Virginia's slaves and start a rebellion. Brown received little support and the raid failed. A month later, he was found guilty of murder, treason, and conspiring to incite slaves. Brown was hanged in nearby Charles Town. His death drew attention to the injustice of slavery and eventually sparked the Civil War. Today, Harper's Ferry is considered a symbol of freedom.
The Potomac and Shenandoah rivers meet and slice through the Blue Ridge Mountains in the village's "Lower Town." During our visit, several hikers lingered about - either ready to join the Appalachian Trail or take a break from it. We grabbed a quick bite at Almost Heaven Pub & Grill and then drove to the Adventure Center.
Tubing on the Potomac
I've never been a water sports buff but was all for dangling my feet and soaking up the sun during a lazy float through scenic river views with my grandchildren. Before purchasing our tickets for flat-water tubing, we picked up a brochure that boasted the thrills of white-water tubing which includes different ranges of rapids - from class 1 to 3. A fellow tuber explained that class 1 has small waves with few obstacles while class 3 usually has strong rapids and often requires some quick maneuvering.
I was a bit hesitant about the rough-water thrill, but the kids were so enthusiastic that I was inspired to take the challenge. Besides, the lady at the ticket counter said the river was low, so most of the rapids rated a mere class 1. After signing waivers to assure our fitness, we were given life vests and yellow, open bottom tubes. What, no helmets? We were advised not to take cell phones or cameras unless they were waterproof. No pictures? A shuttle bus soon arrived to take us to the starting point on the banks of the Potomac. During the ride, I heard someone talking about the scenery we'd experience, including the grand Baltimore & Ohio that spans the Potomac. Later, I learned that John Brown's raid began when he crossed that bridge.
When we arrived, our driver gave us safety tips for negotiating the rapids, talked about possible dangers, and cautioned us about "moving sticks that may not be sticks." And off we went.
Nathan and Natalie let me go first in case I needed help getting started, which I did after slipping off the tube a time or two. They showed me how to navigate the water by paddling my arms. The river's mild current carried us along for a few minutes. Ahead, I could see huge rocks towering from the river in every direction. Having the kids close by reduced my anxiety. But before long, Nathan was here, Natalie was there, and I was spinning everywhere!
The first set of rapids ruthlessly drug my rump across a boulder hidden just below the surface. Ouch! Most of the rocks, though, were visible and my tube bounced off of them like a bumper car ride!
When Natalie noticed some strong rapids rolling towards me, she yelled "Hold on tight Grandma!" I braced myself as they hit with force. Water flew over my head and lifted me off the tube. I held on tight and rode it through. It was exhilarating! "Yahoo!" I shouted, waiting for the next surge.
But the environment can fluctuate quite rapidly, and the next surge wasn't as much fun. It pushed me in the direction of a rusted heap of metal jutting a few feet from the river. A capsized tuber said it was iron works from the old bridge. "Just stay clear of it!" he warned. My tube kept drifting closer; I paddled faster. Natalie noticed my distress. "Grandma, you're paddling backwards!" she yelled. I imagined myself being impaled in the history of an old bridge and panicked with a bone-chilling scream. Nathan headed toward me. "Grab my foot Grandma," he said, and then swiftly paddled me out of danger.
He stayed close by for the rest of the ride, but we lost sight of Natalie when she paddled through rapids on the other side of a maze of huge rock formations. On the last leg, where the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers converge, I was drifting toward the Shenandoah. No matter how fast I paddled, I couldn't maneuver it back on course. Once again, Nathan came to my rescue. He pushed (and pushed) my tube to our final destination and helped me onto dry land. We looked for Natalie; she wasn't there. Needless to say, we were quite relieved to see her floating towards us! A 5-ton military vehicle was waiting to take us for the short, dusty ride back to the Adventure Center.
For sure, I wasn't the most nimble paddler on the river that afternoon, but I'll always have fond memories of sharing the adrenaline-packed adventure on the Potomac with my grandchildren. And I hope they will too!
We returned to the cabin early evening; the day had ended too soon. The kids headed inside to take showers, but I chose to scrub the dust and sweat off in the refreshing, ice-cold shower by the sauna shed.
Nathan then took it easy in the hammock while reading a book on Kindle. Natalie relaxed in the lounge, and I went outside to soak up the scenery. None of us were hungry enough for a big meal, so we snacked on a cheese plate and yummy cotton candy grapes, then retired to the lounge for a few games of Rummy before good-night hugs.
Hiking the Appalachian Mountains
The next morning we were refreshed and ready to embark upon the long-awaited Appalachian Trail hike. Shortly after breakfast, we set off for Harpers Ferry, the midpoint of the 2,168-mile trail which runs from Georgia to Maine.
We parked at the Visitor's Center to check out trail maps and the required skill levels for each trail. The Murphy-Chambers Trail appealed to us, mostly because the easy-to-moderate trail started just across the road, and we were already sizzling in summer's heat. It proved to be a great choice with its extensive vistas, Civil War battle sites, and an overlook with a grand view of the Shenandoah River.
We doused ourselves with sunscreen and insect repellent, and stuffed our backpacks with plenty of water to alleviate dehydration. (Since Grandmas are known for bringing "just-in-case things," my backpack also held energy bars, a ball of string, a first-aid kit, blister Band-Aids, muscle-ache cream, a flashlight with extra batteries, matches, safety pins, superglue, three cooling scarves, extra sunglasses, a small knife, needle and thread, aspirins, tissues, and hand santitizer.)
The log stairs at the trailhead took us along a lengthy tree-lined path, across a footbridge, and into the balmy fragrance of dense woods. A canopy of trees sheltered us from the scorching heat as we made our way up the rocky, gradual ascents. By the time we reached the famed overlook of the Shenandoah River, I was ready for a short rest. I waited on a bench at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains while Nathan and Natalie made the rocky descent to get a closer river view. I munched my way through two energy bars just watching them climb back up!
On we went. After a few lenient descents, the remaining hike included mostly flat stretches through meadows and fields where butterflies flitted around wildflowers. Historical markers along the way informed us that we were walking on "Holy Ground" where John Brown's raid sparked the Civil War and helped to end slavery. It's also the site where black civil right leaders met in 1906 during the Niagara Movement.
Eventually, we reached the path that leads to the Murphy-Chambers farm where the Battle of Harpers Ferry took place in 1862. Ahead, we could see a row of Civil War cannons positioned on the hill, echoing a bloody defeat. Beyond is the farmhouse which was owned by Edmund Chambers, a Union loyalist, until it was taken over by the Confederacy for a strategic operation. Confederate troops dragged several 2,000 pound cannons up the nearby steep slopes and outmaneuvered the Union army. The Union troops surrendered but came back two years later, confiscated the Chambers home, and captured Harpers Ferry.
Although the trail wasn't as challenging as others in the area, its historical significance muscles up emotions. I can see why the National Park Service refers to the trail as "a tour through history from the Civil War to civil rights."
Sadly, Chambers was never paid for his loss. The property was later purchased by Alexander Murphy and stayed in the family for 132 years. Today the grounds are among 3,600 acres of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park which covers parts of West Virginia, Virginia, and Maryland.
By the time we returned to the Visitors Center we were ready for lunch. We caught the guest shuttle to Lower Town in Harpers Ferry and we walked the few blocks to Potomac Grill where air conditioning welcomed us like an old friend.
Maryland Heights Trail
Nathan suggested an afternoon trek on the Maryland Heights Trail - a strenuous 1,650-foot climb through the Blue Ridge Mountains. Hikers are rewarded with an awesome view of Harpers Ferry from Overlook Cliff - but only after tackling several steep, rocky ascents and challenging descents. The trail is rife in Civil War history with signage describing the ruins along the way.
I walked with Nathan and Natalie across the Potomac footbridge and a short distance on the C&O Canal towpath. But when they reached the steep climb, I chose to stay behind and explore the town.
They called my cell phone when they reached the overlook. It was thrilling to see Natalie's bright pink top, a mere dot on the mountain ridge. But it was even more exciting, a few hours later, when they appeared on the towpath where I waited to greet them.
Time to Leave
The next day, we left the cabin around noon, hoping to return for another visit next year. Before heading home, we visited Charles Town to pay respects to the memory of John Brown. During my school years, I read about the abolitionist who raided Harpers Ferry, but the significance of his heroism didn't come to life until following in his footsteps on this trip. Brown was hanged two months after the raid; John Wilkes Booth was among those to witness the hanging that day.
That morning, Brown wrote: "I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think vainly, flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done." In Response to Brown's last testament, Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "John Brown will make the gallows glorious like the Cross."
For more information on activities in the area, check out the following sites:
Harpers Ferry Adventure Center