Back in 1984, John Strickland and I worked together as painters for Johns Hopkins University. One Friday, he asked me if I’d be interested in going camping over the weekend. I told him yes, but I’d have to check with my wife (since she would be going with us). John said he was taking his girlfriend (Kathy Singer) along with her son, and his son, Lucas. So, it was going to be a family affair.
Well, my ex-wife and I used to go camping a lot and she liked it. So, it wasn’t that hard to convince her to go. John said he knew of this place that was the BEST CAMPSITE EVER…and it was FREE! So, we agreed to go along. We threw some things into the car, met up with John and Kathy, and their boys. They were fairly young. I didn’t ask John exactly where this place was. He said it was along the C & O Canal. So I told him to take it easy driving and I would follow him,
After about 2 1/2 hours of driving, John pulled over to the side of a road, in the middle of nowhere. I noticed railroad tracks and rock cliffs on either side of the road. Well, I probably forgot to mention this. But my ex wife was about 6 months pregnant! John and I get out of the cars and I ask him what the matter is. I figured he was having car trouble, or something. He says, “This is it! We are here!” I said, “What are you talking about? You see, I was expecting a campground-type of setting. So was my wife.
John says, “No man. This is real camping!” He then proceeded to walk across the tracks, down a hill, across a footbridge that was traversing the C&O Canal! Then he keeps walking until we are standing on the top of some BIG rocks…looking down at about what looks like 10 feet of sand between the base of the rock cliffs, and the Potomac River! And, to make it even more interesting, there were about a half dozen men sitting around a small campfire that looked way too much like hobos! John yelled down, “Are you guys gonna be much longer?” They replied, “No…not too much longer.” So John said to me, “Let’s go for a little ride and we’ll come back later.”
Well, I’m thinking about my pregnant wife and those rock cliffs that must be climbed, and all the stuff we brought, and ask John one more time, “Are you kidding me, John?” He assured me he was serious about this campsite. So, as we got into our cars, I began a tremendous sales pitch about how great this campsite is, and what fun we’re going to have.
After killing some time, waiting for the hobos to leave, we came back to the roadside. We had to park between railroad tracks and these rock walls… You know, when they blast through solid-rock mountains to build roads or railroad tracks? Anyway, I had my 6-month pregnant wife convinced this was going to be a great camping experience. We all grabbed as much as we could carry and headed toward the footbridge over the C&O Canal. Kathy had her son, Danny and John had Lucas. When we crossed the footbridge, we only had to walk another 25 yards, or so to get to the edge of the cliff. It wasn’t that far down to the “beach”…about 25-30 feet down.
As I was climbing down (I had to help my wife down), we chose our spots to set up our tents…and it was getting dark fast! I went back to the car for the rest of our stuff. I came back and John and Kathy had their tent almost set up. It only took a few minutes to set up ours. Suddenly, I look up river (the Potomac) and there is a storm coming! And it’s coming fast! That portion of the Potomac is bound on both sides by steep, high (in most places) mountains. So the storm is coming toward us, just like it is in a funnel. I throw as much of our stuff into the tent as quickly as I can. And we all take cover ASAP!
In the tent with my pregnant wife, I don’t have a clue what is in store for me…It starts raining SOOO HARD! In less than 5 minutes a stream forms INSIDE our tent! I’m on one side…she’s on the other. You see, the tent is sitting at the base of the rock cliffs. And all the storm water that hits those rocks flows down hard and fast. We just happened to be smack-dab in the middle of one of the major streams. This couldn’t really be helped since the whole “beach” is only about 25 feet wide and 50 feet long. Speaking of which, I begin to realize that, with heavy rain, the river is bound to be rising. I stick my head out of the tent, and the river is less than 10 feet from me! It is running 3 times faster than before. And it is almost 10 feet closer! I am beginning to be alarmed at this point.
Then, about as quickly as it all started…it stopped. I and my pregnant wife crawl out of our tent (complete with a water feature we didn’t bargain on), and we notice that we forgot 1 paper bag…the one that is full of food. Well, it all got ruined. At this point, the river is about 8 feet from our tent and running fast. I look to my left and can see the thunderstorm moving away. I look to my right and see a cloud of something…I’m not sure what it is…that is, until mosquitoes by the millions are swarming all around us! Well, we barely had time to grab the bag of wet food, throw it in the tent, than dive in after it!
If looks could kill, I’d be dead. My 6-month pregnant former wife did not find the humor in this situation at all. I mean, we barely got the tent set up when the t-storm came rumbling down the valley. Now we were inundated with voracious insects trying to suck our blood. I peak out of my tent hoping that it is clear for me to put a little distance between myself and my rotund, angry wife. But…no such fortune. I see John Strickland trying to light his cigarette with a Coleman lantern, swatting at hoards of mosquitoes, and saying, “It’s not that bad out here…” No one was buying what he was selling. So I turn to Maria, and she’s giving me the death-stare…but not for long. Because she announces, “I am not sleeping here!” After a couple of hushed attempts to dissuade her, I accepted my fate. It was growing dark so we said our “fair wells”, grabbed our clothes and valuables, said, “Goodnight all,” and climbed up the rocks out of that little piece of paradise.
I can only imagine that, eventually the mosquitoes thinned out to a manageable density, and a normal-type of camping ensued. My bride and I were, I did-not-know-where for awhile. But it turned out that we were across the Potomac River from Harper’s Ferry, West “By God” Virginia. We had made a day trip, or two to Harper’s Ferry. But I had never spent the night there. By the time we found a place to sleep that looked like it was open for business, it was after 10:00 and pitch dark. It was called, “Harper’s Ferry Hotel.” And it was like something from a Twilight Zone episode.
The place looked like it had been several large houses all tied together with additions and hallways. The desk appeared immediately upon entering, and faced the entrance. To the right was a sunken room with a color TV playing. And as my eyes began to adjust to the darkness, I noticed about a half-dozen very strange looking people checking us out. The lady behind the desk was kind and polite. But she looked like she walked right out of the 1950’s and it was 1984… We followed her down these long hallways that seemed to be getting smaller as we went. We finally came to a door that was about 6′-4″ high (a normal door is 7 feet high). She opened it and said that breakfast would be served in the dining hall between 7:00 and 11:00 in the morning. She said, “Goodnight.” The room wasn’t fancy. But it was clean. In fact, all of the furniture, and most of the bedclothes looked to be older than both of us. We each took a hot shower and went to sleep.
We awoke around 7:30, got packed and dressed and went to the dining room. The hotel was transformed in the bright sunlight. It was pretty quaint, really. We went through some very attractive French doors into a brightly-lighted great hall-type of room with large windows along one of the long sides. The far end consisted mainly of large French doors that led to the outside. We were pretty hungry so we sat down and looked at the menu. It was one of the best breakfast menus I had ever seen. I ordered the “Plantation-Style Breakfast” that consisted of scrambled eggs, bacon, pancakes with butter and syrup, home fries with white gravy…the works! By the time we were finished eating, I could barely walk! But, I was determined to walk outside.
It turns out those doors at the far end led to the veranda. We tried to treat this mini-vacation like a 2nd honeymoon. After all, we had been married less than 6 months. So, here I was, 26 years old, with my 6-month pregnant wife (I think we were both waddling a little) out to the veranda to see what we could see. As it turned out, they had those pay-binoculars positioned strategically around the patio. I cannot recall if it cost as dime or a quarter to use. But I gladly paid whatever it was for the chance to spot my best friend in his favorite habitat. It only took me a couple minutes of scanning the banks of the Potomac River to spot my friend…he was lying on the river-bank, on a single white towel. No one else was in sight. It was about 9:00 AM. Of course, I pointed out the campsite to Maria and let her look through the binoculars. It was impossible to distinguish without the binoculars. I think we were about 1 ½ miles distant. I knew we had to go back to deal with our stuff that we left behind.
As we drove back to this “greatest campsite ever” we thought about what we left there…a tent, some food that got wet, maybe a few pots and pans. After discussing it over between ourselves, we decided that we didn’t think anything we left was worth climbing down, then up those rocks again for. So, when we found our parking place between the railroad tracks and the solid rock walls that had been blasted out. Maria said she was going to stay in the car. I got out and walked the 50-75 yards, walked across the C & O Canal footbridge over to the rocks and hollered down, “Hey, John!” He acknowledged my salute and inquired as to our lodgings for the night. I told him where we stayed and how we saw him on his towel just a little while ago. We laughed. I told him he could have our tent if he wanted it, and anything else we had left down there. He was incredulous at first. But he knew I was serious when I said, “Goodbye” and turned to go. I don’t remember speaking to him about the experience we shared. But I imagine we must have discussed it, since we worked together. I am sure that the next time he started talking about “The Best Campsite Ever!” I politely said, “No thanks, Johnny,” and laughed to myself…