Favorite Travel Quotes

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts."
-- Mark Twain
Innocents Abroad

"Stop worrying about the potholes in the road and celebrate the journey." -- Fitzhugh Mullan

"A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving." -- Lao Tzu

Harper’s Ferry, Where History Reigns

Bert Gildart: Several days ago, Janie and I stopped in at the Chesapeake and Ohio Visitor Center, located not far from the Hagerstown-Antietam KOA, and as we began visiting with the two volunteers, something triggered recognition. Almost simultaneously, we realized that we had met one another in Virginia in the Dismal Swamp several years ago. I recalled that Jack was a photographer and he recalled I had given him a copy of Airstream Life Magazine, a magazine produced by Rich Luhr, another friend of mine in the writing field.

Jack said he still had the magazine, and then he began to tell us a bit about the life he and his wife, Carla, had been leading. This winter, they said they would be volunteering once again at Big Cypress, just north of the Everglades, and we agreed we would try and rendezvous. To reinforce the thought, that evening Jack and Carla Rupert stopped by our Airstream—bringing with them the copy of Airstream Life (See, Rich, that further demonstrates how much people cherish your magazine!). We talked more about what we might see along the banks of the C&O Canal at Harper’s Ferry, where we’ve now relocated…

And so it was yesterday that we found ourselves biking a trail that quickly had us passing not only along the C&O Canal, but as well through Harper’s Ferry, the Appalachian Trail, and over a footbridge that crossed the Shenandoah River—where it immediately converged with the Potomac, near a series of rapids.

Each, of the major features, of course, has its own story, and we’ve spent the last two days attempting to learn something about each. And, now, after a few days and several meetings with various interpreters, I believe I am beginning to understand a little about the significance of Harpers Ferry and its contribution to the start of the Civil War.

In part, my information came from a Volunteer in the Park, who was sitting in the reception room in Harper’s Ferry just off to the side of a huge painting of John Brown. The mural-size painting shows John Brown with a Bible in one hand and rifle in the other. A hard wind has his ragged beard blown to one side, and in his eye there is the crazed look of a fanatic. (Ranger John Powell pointed out some of these features to me.)

“Brown was an abolitionist,” said Anne Short, the VIP. “He came to Harper’s Ferry with the intention of freeing the slaves, but he went about it in the wrong way. Philosophically, he was joined by the Transcendentalists, a group that consisted of such writers as Thoreau and Emerson, men who believed in the individual worth of man in the spiritual sense. The only problem with Brown is that he took his beliefs too far, murdering people who did not agree with him regarding the abolition of slavery.”

That we learned, is what happened at Harper’ Ferry, and in fact, during our walk we entered the armory fire engine house, where an ultimate irony occurred. Brown was wounded in battle with a detachment commanded on that day in October of 1859 by Robert E. Lee. At the time, of course, Lee was an officer in the Union Army.

One week later, Brown was hanged, and as the film we watched in the Visitor Center said, “Brown failed.” Then, a moment later the film’s narrator asks rhetorically, “Or did he?”

With time, Brown’s fervor became almost contagious, and according to Mrs. Short, the Abolition movement grew. Concurrent with the movement was the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the power of the Transcendentalists. “Remember,” said Mrs. Short, “Thoreau believed in Civil Disobedience. He just didn’t carry it to the extreme that John Brown did.”

In a nutshell, that is the rationale for the existence of Harper’s Ferry as a historic park, but the town is worthy of a visit regardless of your interest in Civil War history. From the Visitor Center overlooking the old town, a shuttle bus takes you down the steep hill to a parking lot, and then to an old, old town.

From the parking lot, we walked the streets and saw homes built in 1799. For awhile, the town was prosperous, but the periodic flooding of the Shenandoah discouraged real growth. Nevertheless, the C&O Canal passed through the area, and one day, we hopped onto the seats of our bicycles and followed the old canal for a distance of about five miles. The canal starts near Washington, D.C., and if you wanted to do so, you could bike the old canal for a distance of 184 miles to its terminus in Cumberland, Maryland.

About ten years ago, I rode a portion of the old canal from Washington, D.C. past the station at the Great Falls of the Potomac, and it was here that I saw a pair of mules pulling one of the old barges bound, I imaged for a moment, to Harper’s Ferry, and then beyond to Cumberland. Yesterday, as Janie and I rode our bikes I could still see in my mind’s eye the mules and the barge. And as Janie and I passed Lock 31 about three miles south of Harper’s Ferry, I could picture the barge waiting until water filled the now dried-up canal. After that the barge would continue transporting its cargo.

That sense of the bygone is, of course, a part of what historic parks attempt to provide.

That evening Janie and I returned to Harper’s Ferry, where we locked our bikes in a rack, then walked through town on the Appalachian Trail. We followed the AT a short distance until it came to the Jefferson Rock. Once, Thomas Jefferson stood here, absorbed the beauty and later wrote:

“The passage of the Patowmac through the Blue Ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature…”

He was talking, of course, about the beauty of Harper’s Ferry, which sits at the confluence of the Shenandoah and the Potomac Rivers, paralleled in part by the old C&O Canal. For Jefferson, it was too soon to think about history; though that has certainly been his legacy, as well as that of this entire region. In part, we can thank Jack and Carla for pointing us in the right direction.

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