Virginia and Maryland: On the trail of the lonesome pine
From fried pork mush in the Blue Ridge Mountains to blue crabs in Chesapeake bay, Ian Birrell tastes the highs and lows of Virginia and Maryland
Saturday 24 September 2005
First there was the twang of country music, which turned out to be an apposite version of "Take Me Home, Country Roads". Then, as we walked along the track, an encampment came into view beneath the shade of the trees. T-shirts had been hung out to dry on a line between the tents, a couple of fishing rods drooped into the brown waters of the Shenandoah river and some hefty steaks were sizzling on a barbecue. The cook smiled as we went by. "How y'all doing?" he asked the three of us, slugging back some beer.
"Fine," I replied. "And you?"
"Can't be doing no better," he drawled. "Ah just can't be doing no better."
We felt much the same. After the bombs and tensions of London it really did seem, to quote John Denver, almost heaven in (West) Virginia. The sun was beating down, and after a morning of rafting, we were planning to spend a couple of hours swimming and sunbathing. Ahead of us lay plates of deep-fried oysters and grilled chicken, followed by the big match - a clash between the Luray Wranglers and New Market Rebels, two table-topping local baseball teams.
We had headed west after 24 sweaty hours in a Washington heatwave. The thermometer was touching 100F, the humidity was off the scale and even the Lincoln Memorial looked unimpressive compared with an ice-cold bottle of beer. We sprinted round the shops of Georgetown, took in a superb display of Iraqi artifacts round the corner from the White House - they turned out to be loaned from the British Museum, rather than looted from Baghdad - and gawped at the lunar modules and nuclear missiles in the air and space museum. But for all the wealth of historic sights and the Smithsonian splendours, we were relieved to leave the baking city behind us.
Having splashed out on a convertible car, there was an air of disappointment when we were handed the keys to a topless Chrysler PT Cruiser. "It looks like a snail," laughed my wife. True, the retro-styling was rather different from the sleek sports car pictured on the net and in our dreams. Never mind. All was forgiven as it chugged along the freeways: the radio was blaring reggaeton, the wind was blowing in our hair and we were oblivious to the sun hammering down on our pasty skins.
The garish instant towns of the capital's suburbs quickly fell away, replaced by the farms, fields and hills of rural Virginia. Instead of posters advertising homes in the booming American property market, there were handmade signs for antiques, apple syrup, peaches and quilts.
We stopped to eat at an organic farm shop, mainly because I was intrigued by a sign over the premises next door promising "Antique tables - made daily". The shopkeeper seemed unembarrassed as he explained the techniques used to age the oak, maple and cedar tables that were made locally.
A couple of hours later we pulled up at Big Meadows Lodge, at the heart of the Shenandoah National Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains. A relic of Franklin D Roosevelt's New Deal, the simple hotel and campground, built at 3,500ft from local mountain stone and chestnut wood by teams of men from the Civilian Conservation Corps, was used to promote the president's depression cure in the early Thirties. Despite a smattering of modern amenities, it retained a curious echo of austerity and community from that age.
As my wife bathed, I went to the shop with my son and ran into a rather shaggy black bear. It was ambling around the wooden cabins, turning over stones and ripping up stumps in search of a snack. It seemed oblivious to us as we followed it around for a couple of minutes, before another guest's flash gun sent it scarpering off into the trees. Although all the bins had bear-guards, it turned out to be the first to visit the hotel grounds for several months.
Everything was shrouded in mist and rain the next morning, so we thought we'd drop into the valley for breakfast. We meandered along the Skyline Drive, another legacy of the New Deal that twists and turns through the stunning mountain scenery for nearly 100 miles, before turning off the ridge at the first chance and arriving in a one-horse town called Luray.
Sitting in Uncle Buck's diner, we debated what "scrapple" was likely to be; it seemed pretty popular on the menu. I decided it was probably scrambled egg, so was about to order it with some fried green tomatoes and potatoes when I thought I'd better check it out with the waitress. "It's the bits of a pig left over, even after the hot dogs," she told me.
What's it like, I asked. "You kidding - you think I'd eat that? I've never tried it." Later, she confided that it was basically fried pork mush, which possibly explained her vegetarianism. I settled for fried eggs instead.
By the time we finished, the sun had come out, so we decided to go rafting on the river. And somehow we spent the whole day in Luray, taking in its underground caverns - which, in a typically bizarre American touch, feature an organ carved out of stalactites in the Fifties by a Pentagon mathematician - and ending up at the movies.
So we felt slightly treacherous when, the following night, we went to see Luray in the big game and found ourselves supporting the Rebels, their bitter rivals from down the road in New Market. As we settled into the first empty seats, an elderly woman heard us trying to figure out what was going on and started explaining the rules and tactics. She turned out to be the coach's mum up from Kansas, and in between sudden croaky yells - "Fire and rock, Kenny" and "Go get 'em, JC" were my favourites - provided a running commentary on the match.
It was a thrilling contest, the lead switching several times. And it seemed heartless not to support her boy Blaine's team, especially once we had befriended all our other neighbours in the away stand and been given a T-shirt and frisbee in club colours. For the record, New Market came from behind to win 7-6. And I now understand baseball.
It was certainly better than the entertainment at Big Meadows. Our first night there, we dutifully trooped down to the bar after some ropey clam chowder and burgers to catch the show. A middle-aged man with a guitar round his neck was taking a drink before introducing his next number to the 20-strong audience in armchairs. "This is a song that made me cry when I first heard it," he said, leaving me expecting some fine Virginian bluegrass or country. Instead, there was a mangled rendition of "Puff the Magic Dragon". We decided to skip the next night's promise of patriotic American songs at a nearby hall.
But the main reason people travel this way is the hiking. Shenandoah boasts more species of plants than the whole of Europe, plentiful wildlife and an abundance of well-kept trails. Setting off on what was intended to be a nine-mile hike, we dropped 3,000ft before clambouring back up beside a succession of thundering waterfalls. Despite the shade of the forest, our shirts were soon drenched in the heat as we plodded and scrambled up the paths. We met clusters of white-tailed deer, a copperhead snake sunning itself on a rock, then a timber rattlesnake that slithered into the ferns and orchids. Turkey vultures could be seen overhead as we ate lunch on a rock jutting out from the mountain. After seven hours, we emerged exhausted back onto Skyline, only to discover that our map-reading skills had left us three miles from our car.
After four perfect days of hiking, riding, rafting and swimming - and one disastrous detour to see Thomas Jefferson's home in Charlottesville, only to arrive after closing time - it was time to get back on the road. Having fought our way round Washington's nightmarish ring road, we were soon cruising down the Maryland coast. Entering St Michaels, our next destination, we were greeted by signs proclaiming "The Town That Fooled the British". The story goes that in 1813, learning that the redcoats were about to attack, the townspeople darkened their homes and hung lanterns in the treetops, thus tricking the British into aiming their cannonfire too high. Gratifyingly, there is little evidence to support the tale.
Today, the shops sell Ralph Lauren, gourmet restaurants line the main street and gleaming speedboats throng the harbour. Many of the houses are owned by wealthy Washingtonians. One lobbyist told me over drinks that today's townspeople include Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, who has a holiday home there, while the local paper claimed Dick Cheney, the Vice President, was looking at properties in the area. Presumably, it could then be "The Town That Fooled the World".
For all the money and carefully preserved charm, however, this remains at heart a working, seafaring community, even if the catch is as likely to be tourists these days as it is the crabs and oysters hauled out at dawn from the waters of the huge estuary.
Breakfasting on crumbly apricot muffins and coffee on the lawn at our harbourside inn, we watched a procession of ships sliding in and out of the harbour in front of us. Next door, boats were being lifted out of the water at a shipyard as we chatted to our fellow guests at the table.
It seemed foolish not to go out on the water, so we opted for the Rebbecca T Ruark, the oldest skipjack on the bay. These wooden-masted sailing ships used to crowd Chesapeake in their hundreds, catching eel in spring, crab in the summer and dredging oysters in winter. Only a handful now remain in service, mostly sailing from Dogwood Harbour, 12 miles down the coast on Tilghman Island, where life is lived in the slow lane and fishing boats still outnumber pleasure craft.
The leathery captain, Wade Murphy, was straight out of central casting - a third-generation waterman whose gift of the gab betrayed his Irish heritage. He immediately got my son hauling up the huge sails, and soon had me steering the vessel. Meanwhile, he told his life story while cracking jokes and raging at the politicians - both national and local - who were destroying the ecology of his beloved bay.
Chesapeake is derived from a Native American phrase meaning "great shellfish bay". Last year, only 30,000 bushels of oysters were pulled out of the Chesapeake waters, compared with 80,000 a * * decade earlier and 15 million in the 19th- century glory days. The beds have been destroyed by water extraction, pollution, parasites and over-fishing. To demonstrate the problem, the captain threw his oyster bucket overboard and, a few minutes later, dredged up a sorry-looking collection of diseased and stunted creatures.
When we docked back in Tilghman Island, Wade's son was there to collect his father. Determined to be a waterman himself, Billy had bought his own boat in his teens, and after graduating from school tried to earn a living from the sea. Today, aged 25, he works as a carpenter.
There are signs for hope, however. We rented kayaks one night, and as dusk fell we paddled out from the reeds at the water's edge. Every marking post and buoy seemed to have an osprey nest perched on top, with up to five birds glowering down at us as we sploshed past. Others swooped and soared overhead, searching for fish to feed their offspring. Osprey numbers have risen fivefold in the past two decades, we later learned.
And then there are the ubiquitous blue crabs, still thriving at sea only to be bashed to bits by the thousand when hauled onto land. At the Crab Claw restaurant opposite our inn, paper mats carried complicated graphics explaining how to extract the succulent meat. Waiters swept by with trays piled high with crustaceans, and the room was filled with the sound of hammering as diners fought for their dinner. My son, playing safe, went for a crab sandwich, and was surprised to see legs sticking out from the bread when it arrived; stacked inside were four deep-fried soft-shell crabs.
It is a quirky area. The most popular school sport, a teacher told me, is lacrosse. The names of the towns reveal an obvious English heritage - Oxford, Cambridge, Salisbury - but most of the people we met seemed to have Welsh ancestors.
Oxford is renowned as one of America's more perfect colonial towns. Arriving on the elderly car ferry, a small sign implores visitors to slow down to 25mph. So we crawled around the idyllic hamlet, its streets lined with immaculate clapboard houses and manicured gardens. There didn't seem to be any people actually living there, however - or at least, none that we saw. Perhaps it was the heat, but it felt like a town preserved in aspic.
After Oxford, it seemed logical to go to Cambridge. So the next day, we drove an hour down the coast to go cycling at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. As we arrived at the disused Bucktown village store to collect our bikes, Jay Meredith, the owner, told us about the second bomb attacks on London. The details were scant, but - a perfect southern gentleman - he spent time on the internet to give us full details on our return.
In the meantime, he told of his determination to renovate the perfectly preserved store, an important historical landmark that sits in this isolated corner of Maryland amid the cornfields, wetlands and woods. We looked blankly at him. "You mean you don't know about Harriet Tubman? Or the Underground Railroad?" he asked in amazement, as a load of black schoolkids drew up in a minibus.
He proceeded to tell us how the slave Harriet Tubman was attacked in the store at the age of 12 by a white overseer for refusing to help to tie up another slave. Tubman, left permanently injured, was exiled from the main camp, thus learning the skills that led to her escape and subsequent establishment of the Underground Railroad, which helped hundreds more slaves to freedom.
After this unexpected history lesson, we set off on our bikes. There was no one else around as we cycled round the beautiful refuge. The heat was so intense many of the birds had beaks splayed open in a bid to stay cool. We watched blue heron striding out over the mudflats, cormorants out fishing and bald eagles wheeling in the blue skies above us. We took our time, searching for muskrats and savouring this magical end to our holiday.
That evening, we had dinner at Bistro St Michaels, a few minutes walk from our inn. We ate at the bar, chatting to the chef as he served up sublime seafood - scallops ceviche, mussels cooked in chilli-infused wine, perfect prawns and, best of all, the juicy oysters. It was the best food she had ever eaten, my wife told me as we walked home. It was just a shame it had to come from Alaska, rather than the waters we could see from our hotel bedroom.
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