An occasional journal of the Life of Reilly

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Clay, PA to Washington Grove, MD: The Final Six Nights

The simplicity of bike touring is that there are only three main priorities: where to find food, where to sleep, and how to get there. The relative importance of any of these changes continuously based on quantity and quality, and distractions such as politics and popular culture become irrelevant in comparison. On our final week accommodations became the greatest challenge.  We were crossing a stretch where there were few camping and hotel options off the ACA route. We would experience the worst hotel, the oddest B&B, and the warmest hospitality of the trip.

Given a choice, we would have stayed in the yurt a third night.  It was pouring rain starting at dawn.  But the hut was reserved for the weekend, and our appeal for sympathy didn't succeed -- the park management insisted we be gone by 10am so they could clean the place.  So we loaded the bikes and gazed out the plastic windows at the torrents coming down, counting down until the designated time.  And like a miracle, the rain stopped, the clouds lifted, and we made a break for it.

The rain-slicked roads required cautious progress.  Within an hour it started to rain again, and at one point I looked down and saw my front wheel slicing through flowing water.  We stopped for lunch in a small town restaurant.  We entered the place dripping wet, but no one batted an eye as we hung our clothes on chairs and hooks.  The place was sparsely decorated -- white walls, simple tables and chairs.  Beautiful quilts for sale hung on racks covered by plastic sheeting and the waitresses wore the headdresses and plain clothing of the Mennonite.  Soon there were steaming bowls of bean chowder in front of us.  By the time the rain outside finally ended, we were nourished and dry and ready to take on the rest of the day.

From our hotel that night we made telephone contact with Jean-Phillipe and Nathalie.  They were also in a hotel, some 10 miles from us.  We were both surfing the internet for the next night's options.  We found a B&B in the town of Manheim, in the heart of Amish country, that sounded ideal -- a suite with two bedrooms and a kitchen and living room, for just $140 per night.  We called and made reservations, and planned to meet there the next day.

It was quite an international party that night -- The Americans cooked Mexican food, the French-Canadians made Indian, the meal accompanied by wine from Australia.  The suite was comfortable, if you got past the faux Victorian decor, the preponderance of religious pamphlets, and a library with that included the autobiography of Dan Quayle.  But the experience was marred by the surprise that the suite was actually $30 more than the internet price, and our hostess was unyielding in honoring the advertised price.  Breakfast was part of the deal, and we let her know that we did not eat pork and Nathalie could not eat eggs.  The next morning we arrived to a lavishly set table, consisting of an egg and ham casserole, two cakes with whip cream, and pickled eggs.  We were told exactly where to sit ("tea drinkers here, coffee drinkers there"), informed that she would not be offended if we picked out the ham, and that in Pennsylvania Dutch dictates we pass the dishes from right to left.  The conversation was strained, the four of us having nothing in common with our fellow guests and hosts.  Poor Nathalie could eat nothing, and it was with great reluctance that some yogurt and bread was offered.  We could not wait to get out of there, leaving only empty bottles of wine and Scotch behind for the proprietress to ponder.

The antidote to that frilly guesthouse was a quiet wooded campground on the Susquehanna River. We wouldn't believe the previous night was reality had we not experienced it with our traveling companions.

We soon left Pennsylvania and entered rural Maryland.

Through WarmShowers we hooked up with Steve and Frann for a night.  Steve has done a number of tours, including a ride through the Blue Ridge Mountains, where Jean-Phillipe and Nathalie were heading.  Maps and photos were spread out everywhere.  And they showed the greatest generosity -- a hearty meal, laundry, soft beds, and good company.  Steve stuffed foil wrapped brownies into our packs the next morning and rode with us the first ten miles out of town.

From the highest highs we plunged into the lowest lows.  The following night, not wanting to stray too far off route, we opted for the Scenic View Motel -- both scenic and motel were questionable descriptors.  Marginally sanitary, reeking of smoke , and with the sound of constant traffic, we endured the best we could. We couldn't drink the tap water because of excessive nitrates.  The memory of that place lived on for a few days by the stale stench that permeated our clothes.

But Warmshowers saved us again for our final night together as a group.  We contacted Hutch earlier, and over the phone he offered to give us a ride the last few miles to his house -- terrible traffic, and their place is hard to find.  But Jean-Phillipe programmed the GPS, and it led us right to the most amazing oasis of a neighborhood in suburbs of Gaithersburg.  In pedestrian mode, the device led us down residential streets, along gradually narrowing roads, and finally to gravel-lined paths that wound by the most quaint storybook houses.  We pulled in front of our host's house, and through the open door we saw Linda, who confirmed that, yes, this was the place, and that she knew we were on our way because a friend had called to report that this bike caravan was just down the road.
 
Washington Grove is a community evolved from a former Methodist camp.  The homes that line the perimeter around the former "Sacred Circle" have been lovingly maintained and embellished.  Hutch took us on a strolling tour of the neighborhood he has called home for over thirty years.  Surrounded by nearly 50 acres of forest that buffers it from the metropolis that envelopes it, paths rather than roads provide access.  One resident has painted representations of local flowers on the street signs, with the scientific names as captions.  The residents are eclectic, and there is no doubt of the political leanings as evidenced by the bumper stickers like "Wouldn't it be great if our schools had all the money they need, and the Army had to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber?"  The place felt so right, and the only place in we have seen on the East Coast that we could envision ourselves living (needs some big mountains nearby, though).

Thanks, Hutch and Linda, for the comfort and hospitality.  You are true friends to bike tourists.  It made our last night truly memorable (in a good way).
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