By Adrianna Kamosa
Steeples and rooftops peaked out from between trees leaves that were vibrant shades of lush green, orange and yellow. Woooot – Woooot! The lonely train whistle echoed against the mighty mountainsides all around. My boyfriend Jules heard the sound and said, “Lets go!” He bounded up the wooden steps toward the train sound. I stumbled, following in the footsteps of his excitement. We quickly walked along a dirt path that led to a bridge that was split, with train tracks on one side and a place where people could walk across on the other side.
Hikers, bikers, children and other tourists walked around us, and some like us craned their heads toward the tracks in the distance waiting for the train to pass by. “I used to love trains when I was little,” my boyfriend said as a spark of innocence flashed in his eyes. “They were my favorite type of toy.” We stopped near the end of the walkway close to the tunnel that would swallow the train into its rocky depths. “I had one, too, when I was little,” I said with a grin, “the one that chugged around the Christmas tree and where I had to set up the tracks in a circle. Then you could press a little switch, and smoke would come out of the top.” I could almost smell the smoky scent of the fake toy train as the Amtrak train rushed by us. Its wheels squealed, metal against metal, on the sturdy tracks, and almost as soon as it had arrived it was gone.
The town of Harpers Ferry, located in West Virginia, is shimmied up close to the Borders of Maryland and Virginia. The Shenandoah River runs along one side of the town’s peninsula, and the Potomac River runs along the other side. The two rivers meet and run together as one, into the larger expanse of the Potomac River, leaving the town with beautiful views of either water or mountains from all around. Jules and I were hiking along a path that ran along the peninsula closer to the Shenandoah side earlier that morning. The sky was clear and the weather welcomed autumn with a warm smile. Rectangular structures made out of slates of stone piled only a few inches high marked out the places where old buildings used to stand.
The market house, a boarding house, the armory workers’ dwellings, the paymaster’s house and the U.S. musket factory all used to edge the outside of Harpers Ferry Peninsula. I read a few of the visitor signs that were set up next to each of the ghost outlines of the houses. One read, “Harpers Ferry owed its existence principally to the United States Armory, which began producing small arms here in 1801. At its height, this factory produced more than 10,000 weapons a year and employed 400 workers. The armory affected the everyday lives of its workers, both inside and outside the workplace, until its destruction in 1861 during the opening days of the Civil War.” Looking over the remains of the houses, I could tell this town still took pride in this element of history. In my mind, the workers came to life, crafting the metal and wooden pieces of weapons, hammering away and filling crates of supplies. The remains are the simple stones, words that line the historic signs and the people who will pass on the stories.
The town’s pride and existence lies in the people who are part of the town today. Their story is centered on John Brown’s battle against the marines. An older man, looking to be in his mid 50’s, dressed as a marine from the 1800s stood among other younger reenactment marines. A few of the younger marines sat in a row on benches near the old brick arsenal house, conversing or eating. Their uniforms were simple, comprised of a dark blue jacket on top, with a single line of seven golden buttons down the middle. Dark mustard yellow chevron strips outlined in red were on the top portion the uniform sleeves. The number of chevron stripes they wore marked their ranking. They also wore light blue pants, simple black leather shoes and caps with a golden horn on the front and a tight chinstrap.
Jules and I walked inside of the arsenal house, which was empty except for a large information display on the marines from the civil war period to present day. As we exited the arsenal, the oldest marine actor asked if we had any questions. We had some questions about John Brown, so he went into some detail about his history. John Brown hoped that when he led his attack on the town’s arsenal, the local slaves would join him in further raids. His hope was that the attacks on each weaponry arsenal would lead them to collect more weapons and more forces. On October 16, 1859, Brown captured some prominent citizens and seized control of the arsenal. But before long, the militia gained control. The U.S. Marines under control of Robert E. Lee, took charge and captured John Brown. Brown was sentenced for his crimes, which included, murder and treason against the State of Virginia and slave insurrection. Brown was hung on December 2, 1859.
The oldest marine had introduced himself to us as Tom Williams. He was a retired gunnery Sergeant in the Marine Corps. The other younger marine actors were also actual enlisted marines, coming mostly from the Fort Meade base.
“What sort of things did you do in marines?” I asked. Both my boyfriend and I were interested to know, because Jules was interested in entering the marines after he graduated from the United States Naval Academy.
“I’m retired from the marines now. I used to be enlisted; I worked as a gunnery Sergeant, worked on planes and was a firefighter.” His voice was gruff and confident. “Now I’m here and I work in the Development and History departments for Harpers Ferry and Quantico. I even was involved in the making of the costumes and molds of the mannequins in each of the locations museums.”
He talked to us about how he hikes around the mountains and hills around Harpers Ferry often and enjoys scaling down them as well. He pointed to the mountainside in the direction of the bridge with the train tracks. “You see those people up there on the ledge? I hike up to that spot with all my gear and I scale down the side. It’s a good time especially with a group of people.”
“That sounds fun. I did some scaling in my training for marines,” Jules said.
“What is that outline of?” I asked pointing to the same mountainside, but off to the right of where most the people were standing, where there looked to be a white painting or outline of something.
“That right there was an old advertisement for baby powder. Not sure when it originated, but it’s interesting that it’s still there today,” Tom Williams said with a smile.
We thanked him for his time, and when I asked for a picture with him, he said, “Sure thing, who wouldn’t wanna take a picture with a beautiful young lady.”
Tom also took part in a large reenactment with other characters from the historical moment of John Brown’s attack. This included characters in full costume dressed as John Brown, the mayor, other citizens of Harpers Ferry and all of the young Marines. The first weekend I visited Harpers Ferry was right before the anniversary eve that John Brown’s attack took place. Each character took turns speaking, telling the historic story through their perspectives. Hikers, tourists and families gathered around the reenactment listening to the stories that have stretched throughout time.
Night Time, Night Life?
“If you’re looking for bar scenes and night life, Harpers Ferry isn’t the place to go,” Brandon, the man who worked at the front desk of the Clarion Inn said. “Most shops are open until 8 and a majority of places downtown are based on the park which closes around 5 and the last shuttle leaves downtown at 5:45.”
The town became sleepy as the night fell and dusty pink and orange hues filled the mountain-lined sky. Although there is not much nightlife in downtown Harpers Ferry, a drive just a few miles down the road and down a dirt driveway in the woods, lands you at Bloomery SweetShine. The evening light was beginning to fade. A few cars were parked outside of the large yellow house like structure. Another small yellow shed with a porch sat close to the house, fairy lights were strung underneath the roof and a ukulele sat untouched, leaning up against the porch post. A washer board also was propped up on a table outside of the small porch. Inside the porch area sat a podium with a moon carved into the wood, resembling the old outhouse logo.
“Welcome to Bloomery SweetShine Distillery. What are y’all here for?” an older lady said as she emerged from the larger yellow house. She had a welcoming smile and bright florescent pink dyed hair in a neat bob; large warts dotted her face and hands. I said that I had not made a reservation, but explained to her how I was writing an article on Harpers Ferry and I had come across their distillery and would like to try it out. “Well you can join our free tasting around the other side. I’ll just have to see your IDs, hold on a sec!” She disappeared back into the house and emerged again, this time with a man who had a wild beard, a baseball cap on and a jokingly jolly demeanor. He introduced himself as Rob and he checked our IDs, signed us in and led us to the back of the house.
A tasting was already in session, but we hadn’t missed much. The bartenders name was also Rob. Rob the bartender was younger, had orange-brown hair and an oval shaped face, he wore an unbuttoned flannel shirt with a t- shirt underneath. Older Rob and younger Rob were not related, but they were both a part of the Sweetshine family that didn’t take themselves too seriously. He welcomed us, telling us to have a seat on the different styled and sized stools that were lined up next to the bar.
The bar had an open back that lead out to the back yard where a live band played just around the corner. Guitar chords were strummed as Rob poured into small plastic cups each flavor of Sweetshine for us to try. Trinkets and leaf sculptures were nailed to the walls behind the wooden structured the bar. Skinny dark olive green bottles sat in a display line behind Rob. He explained to us, “ Each is a specialized flavor based off of limoncello. My family originally went to Italy and loved the limoncello there. Lemoncello is strong Italian liquor, and is in some ways similar to moonshine. They couldn’t find any good limoncello here in America, so after a few years they decided to open their own distillery right here in good ol’ West Virginia!”
Two other younger couples were there and an older man who stated proudly, “I was born in Germany!” One of the couples had a small light brown puppy that scrambled around our feet, chewing on a fluffy fake toy duck. Rob poured us cup after small cup of each flavor of the SweetShine brews. They had created a unique blend of flavors that could suit anyone’s taste. Rob poured us flavors like cranberry clementine, black walnut, cremma lemma, chocolate raspberry, peach shine and the seasonal pumpkin spice, among others. Often Rob would explain the flavor and after you took a sip the smell would either hit your nose first, or the flavor would leave an often nostalgic aftertaste dancing on the back of your tongue in hints of citrus, spice, chocolate, or which ever flavor it would be. Each bottle showcased a quirky character designed to be wearing whichever fruit or flavor the drink held within. The packaging was colorful and vintage-themed blending well with the environment and the bar. The whole place sang with a casual excitement and with laid back, fun-loving people. Rob explained the amount of alcohol in each bottle and even gave us a few extra samples.
The older Rob poked his head from behind the door inside and joked around with the younger Rob. “What is he saying to you folks in here? Y’all all know I could do this tasting better. Remember we aren’t related even though our names are the same.” The older Rob stated with affirmation. “Get out of here I know what I’m doing!” the younger Rob said with a grin and eye roll. They comically bickered for a few minutes and then went back to their separate bar tastings.
The evening light faded and night had settled in a dark warm blanket all around us; by this time everyone had had enough free tastings to make everyone a little tipsy. Rob welcomed us to walk around and sit and stay while, until we were sure we were good to drive. The strings of fairy lights around the bar sparkled more brightly than before our arrival. Jules and I walked around the backyard and listened to the band play its sweet acoustic melodies into the dark blue, slightly chilled night air. We patted the a golden retriever and black lab that were trotting around the back yard. Then we walked back to the large house and each got a bottle of the famous bottles of Sweetshine, the chocolate raspberry for me and the Cremma Lemma for Jules.
We drove back to downtown Harpers Ferry to a restaurant called Bisou Bistro, a small Cajun food restaurant sheltered in an old Canal house from the 1790s. We were seated outside. A man was seated outside on a lonely stool playing bluesy music that floated into the air and around the small patio area. The air became chilly, so we moved to a table inside. Our waitresses name was Brenda; she had dark brown hair piled into a high large bun on top of her head. Guitar sculptures in a shade of deep orange were hung on the walls. Red roses in blue bottles were placed on each of the tables around us, where more couples of different ages sat. The décor was laidback and there was a bookshelf filled with antique books in the corner. An old stone fireplace sat within one wall. We ordered wine and toasted to the adventures of the day and the adventures that lay ahead. I ordered a fresh seafood gumbo and Jules had pork chops, both delicious and full of flavor. At the end of the night we tipped Brenda and the singer, which they accepted with gratitude.
What may be mundane and an everyday routine may be a new and wondrous world to the passer-by. Travel opens the box of curiosity. That sense of mystery is essential to travel. Even if you think you have planned every element of your trip, make way for the unexpected; it is bound to find its way into even the smallest elements of your trip. There will always be elements of unknown, of mystery, of opportunity waiting in every person, animal, building, character, food, color and around every corner and through every door.
The grandiosity of the unknown is what makes travel so beautiful, scary and intriguing. As I discover the environment and people around me – I also discovered myself more deeply. I let myself feel fear, awe, happiness, wonder, and most of all, I let myself question. I allow my mind to wander and my feet to do the same. Within travel I can be who I want to be, which sometimes is my more brave and adventurous self. I realized that I enjoy traveling with people and alone, but overall I like a good companion to share my experiences with. I saw perspectives from above bridges and mountains. I met people who taught me more about a time in history I had not known about. I fell in love more deeply with the one I love. I learned to be more open to the world and learned to free myself from limiting thoughts. Within travel one must let herself to be pulled to the places she wants to see and to open her own book of renewal. As Hazrat Inayat Khan states, “Some people look for a beautiful place, others make a place beautiful.”