Life’s Trial Run

The Hillbrook Inn

The Hillbrook Inn, Charles Town, W. Va.

By Emily Rosenthal

Are my wheels shaking?  My wheels are shaking and my heart is racing.  My heart would continue to race throughout my trip, worried that something would go wrong.  I kept driving anyway—west on I-70 at 70 miles per hour.  By myself.

“You’re going alone?” I could sense the anxiety in my mom’s voice.  The tone suggested that she was disappointed—all of the attempts she had made to try to keep me close to her in every way were failing.  I tried to reassure her that this trip I was taking by myself would be fine, but she persisted.  “You don’t want me to come?  Do you want to take Ben?”

I didn’t want to take my mom, or my boyfriend, or my dad, or my sister, or my best friend.  I wanted to go by myself.  I was an extroverted college senior who hated going to Target alone, and yet I had the desire to take a solo journey.  I wondered how I could ever live on my own. Taking a trip could serve as a trial run for an independent life.  I wanted to take advantage of this feeling before it disappeared, even if my anxiety of traveling alone was running wild.

Recently I had been overwhelmed by the reality that come December 19th, college would be a thing of the past, and life would suddenly be upon me. Life was a mysterious time period for which teachers since third grade had been preparing me, and now it had arrived.  I had to start doing things on my own, so I needed to travel somewhere new by myself.

My parents are two amazing people.  Their story began somewhat like an office romantic comedy: brainiac Jewish spine surgeon falls in love with his down-to-earth Catholic secretary.  Both of my parents were divorcees, and my mom had a daughter, my then-thirteen-year-old sister.  Their ability to work extremely well together in an office environment translated into a solid relationship.  To this day, though innately different people from different backgrounds, my parents can work on a project together like no other couple.

The decision to marry was made pretty quickly.  My dad asked, “So, do you want to get married?”  My mom replied, “Well, I don’t know if it will work out, but I think we need to see how this plays out.”


My parents’ wedding ceremony, January 30, 1993.

They were married in a small ceremony six weeks later.  This January, they will celebrate their 24th anniversary.  Each milestone anniversary that passes, one of them will always quip, “Someone lost a lot of money today.”

Wanting a simple, non-religious ceremony, my parents decided to be married by a judge.  My dad used to spend his weekends whitewater kayaking in West Virginia, and his kayaking friend Bob happened to be a judge.

The catch was that Bob was a West Virginia resident, so he could only marry them in his West Virginia jurisdiction.  Wanting nothing more than a quiet ceremony and reception for their close family and friends, my parents chose a beautiful inn near Charles Town, W. Va., for their wedding—the Hillbrook Inn.

Fascinated by romantic nature of their quiet wedding, I considered taking my fall break and treating myself to a night at the inn.  I could spare $100.  After further investigation, I determined that I could not spare the $260 that a room at the Hillbrook Inn commanded for a weeknight during peak season.  Still wanting to visit, I reached out to the inn owners to arrange a time to explore the property.

A sweet woman named Marcy replied to me, and offered a free night’s stay at the inn, along with a $25 discount to dine at their fancy five-course evening dinner.  Without much explanation as to why, she said they would like to have me stay as their guest.  Maybe the employees at the inn thought it was romantic, too.

I needed no other encouragement.  My journey began.

After an uneventful drive, I switched on “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” the anthem of West Virginians, who love the song that praises their home’s mountains, rivers and dedicated industries.  It seemed obligatory.

Thirty minutes later, I arrived to the outskirts of Charles Town, the county seat for Jefferson County, W. Va., brought to fame by being the location John Brown was tried after his arrest at Harpers Ferry, just a few miles away.

Ranchers and small, two-story houses lined the road.  Lawns peppered with varying candidate signs foreshadowed the upcoming election.  A red KFC logo followed quickly by the McDonald’s arches popped up on my left; on my right, an unusual amount of banks started to appear.  I let out a chuckle when I saw the Charles Town Casino on my right.  Obviously.

As I pulled into downtown, it was quaint and cute, but nothing out of the ordinary.  Certainly not the most charming small town I have ever seen.  Construction on the corner next to the courthouse provided an annoying din over the entire town.

Thankfully, a brown sign indicated that a visitor center was to my right.  I circled three times as I scoped out the area and decided on the best place to park.  My heart raced as I finally got the courage to get out of my car.  I grabbed just my purse and my camera.  The camera would give me a prop, an excuse to be busy if something awkward or uncomfortable were to come up.

A nice, but quiet young man greeted me at the Visitor Center, where I was given a brochure for a walking tour of the town.

“Be sure to go down the side streets and see all of the historic homes,” he said.  Side streets?  No, definitely not doing that.  That sounds like a place for trouble.  I could see the headline on the news now: Missing college student.  Last spotted walking down a side street.

I would stay on the beaten path, surrounded by witnesses.


The beautiful courtyard outside of the Jefferson County Courthouse.

“Do you like to take pictures?”  A man in his early 20s had crept up behind me while I took pictures of the courthouse.  After a few awkwardly exchanged sentences, I realized he was just an awkward kid who didn’t know how to make conversation.  After a couple of minutes, I pulled myself away and kept walking.

The Jefferson County Museum caught my eye.  The exhibits ranged from a letter from George Washington, to John Brown memorabilia, to random Civil War artifacts, to art made by local women.

As I was finishing up my tour of the museum, which was more like a circle around a room the size of my living room, I overheard a conversation between a woman standing at the front desk and a visitor.  I heard her say she was from Summit Point—a little area about five minutes from Charles Town, and the official location of the Hillbrook Inn.

The visitor left, and I wandered up to her desk.  She quickly informed me that I could ask her any questions that I would like, but that she was only a volunteer.  Blonde hair to her chin perfectly accompanied a slightly sweet Southern drawl.

When I expressed my interest in Summit Point, her excitement became visible.  She wanted to give me directions, and so she pulled out a little pile of scrap paper from below the desk.  She asked me if I had GPS on my phone, and I replied that I did. The woman proceeded to draw me a map on the little piece of paper anyway.

The woman started rambling off history of the little area.  Apples were a big industry in Summit Point “back then,” and were the main reason that her grandparents came and decided that this was the place to raise their family.

“Oh!  You should go to White House Spring!” she interjected in the middle of an unrelated thought.  She added a little softer under her breath, “But only if you’re brave.”

“Wait.  Why do I have to be brave?”  I added in a joking manner, but I needed to know.

“Well, you know, snakes and things, and sometimes when you get your car in there you can’t get it back up really easily.”  Snakes and rough roads I can handle, murderers and ghosts I cannot.

We chatted for over an hour.  Throughout, I found myself telling her a made-up story about how I was meeting up with my family in just a little bit.  This was just in case anyone was listening and decided to kidnap me when I walked out of the building.

She recommended that I visit Three Monks Café for lunch.  “There are, you know…monks.”  I nodded and smiled like I knew what she was talking about.

I asked her what her name was, and she extended her hand to me.

“Theresa.  Mother Theresa.”  I had no idea what she meant by adding Mother Teresa into the conversation, but I smiled anyway.

As I was leaving, I faked a call to my dad telling him that I was on my way to meet him.  Just in case.

I wandered down the main street, looking for the Three Monks Café.  I had no idea what she was talking about, but a café with monks had to be worth visiting.

Across the street about two blocks away, I saw a banner hanging over a doorframe: Mad Monks Café.  I went into a clean, new establishment.  There were about five well-made wood tables and a counter.  The woman at the counter had short black hair, and another man making coffees looked to be an authentic hipster.

I placed my order and took a seat, but I knew there would be no monks here.

As I waited for my sandwich, the woman behind the counter began to talk to the man seated at the table next to mine; they were obviously reconnecting friends.  She began to talk about how she was finally using her fashion design degree—she was making church vestments.  My interest was piqued, but I was mainly focused on wrestling with my disappointment over the lack of monks at this café.

Just as I sat there, contemplating my disappointment, a monk walked in the door carrying a hammer (apparently he was doing repair work next door).  It felt like the beginning of a joke: a monk walks into a café holding a hammer.  I noticed that my jaw was hanging open.

After he left, and I finished my sandwich, I went up to the counter and asked the girl what in the world this place was.  The “head monk” of a group of Augustinians had decided that Charles Town lacked a community hangout, so he and his fellow monks decided to open one.  The money helped to support the congregation.  She said monks walked in and out all the time.  She lowered her voice and whispered, “There’s one there.”  She motioned her eyes towards the back where another monk had just entered through the back door.

Excited after my monk encounters and carrying a full stomach, I was eager to wander around the town, but the main drag was pretty small.  Where I had parked there was an interesting junk shop, antique shop and café all combined.  Outside stood four large statues.  Three of them were Peanuts characters: Charlie Brown, Lucy and Snoopy.  The fourth was Charlie Chaplin.

The Chaplin statue reminded me of “Charlie Chaplin’s Venice,” a piece about a woman who travels alone to Venice every year for the Carnival celebration and dresses as Charlie Chaplin.  I was my own Charlie Chaplin, exploring the town unrecognizable.  Alone, anonymous.  I could be anyone I wanted to be.  Charlie Chaplin’s Charles Town.

The short trip down the road took me past fields of dead corn, and the low-lying apple orchards that had brought Theresa’s grandparents to the area. Earlier, Theresa had warned me to go slowly.  She was the only one of her friends in high school not to wreck her car on the sharp turns that lacked a shoulder.

I stopped at White House Spring and the corresponding White House across the road.  Though the properties both had historical markers, a huge sign out front listed the house as for sale.  I later learned that it had been for sale for years.  A place with historical significance was left unwanted.

Not far from the spring, I came across the sign for the Hillbrook Inn.  I turned down the dirt road and was thankful that my car has a high clearance.  The road was a bit rough considering how fancy the place was.

I parked and wandered around the outside a bit before I walked inside.  Unable to determine which door was the correct one, I walked into a room that was set up with dining tables.  Though obviously not the check-in area, a wave of familiarity swept over me.


The fireplace that served as the backdrop for my parents’ wedding ceremony.

It was blue instead of red, but the layout was the same as the pictures my parents had given me in their white wedding album.  To my left I saw a fireplace framed by crown molding.  To my right was an L-shaped staircase that led to a tiny room in a loft.  The loft was the room that my mom’s parents stayed in before the wedding.  My mom got ready in that room.  Preceded by my sister, she walked down the staircase and to the hearth across the room, which was the spot where my parents exchanged their vows.

I wandered until I found the registration desk.  I was warmly greeted and given my key to a room upstairs.  The room had an outside entrance, which worried me immensely.  All that would lie between the outside world and me as I slept was a door.  When I called my parents that night, I carefully omitted that detail.

Dinner began at 7 p.m.  As I first ventured downstairs, I was met with three couples; all were above 65 and all were dressed extremely well.  I felt out of place, so I took out a pink receipt from a bridesmaids dress I had purchased a few weeks ago and began scribbling notes, in order to look busy.

A waitress came out and wanted to show me where I would be seated, so she took me to the dining room by myself.  In reality, she wanted to give me a choice.  A baby would be dining with our group that evening.  She wanted to know if I wanted to sit in the fireplace room with the other couples, or on the glass porch where I would have a nice view, but where I would be seated next to a baby.  I thought back to the couples in the waiting area.  I chose the baby.

Admittedly, I was a bit judgmental about whoever would bring a baby to a fine dining restaurant.  The group came in late, and a bit loudly.  A baby, who I assumed was about nine months old; her mother, a fashionable woman in her 20s; and woman whom I assumed was the baby’s grandmother, most likely in her 60s.

Luckily, I did not have to sit through a three-hour dinner by myself.  The family next to me befriended me.  The grandmother was originally from Buffalo, but they all lived in Orlando.  They were on their way back from a trip to visit family.

I learned that the baby, a cute and smiley little redhead, was actually 14 months old.  She was born prematurely.  Throughout dinner, I got to hear two sides of a story as the grandmother and mother alternated time walking around the inn with the baby.

The Hillbrook Inn

The Hillbrook Inn, Charles Town, W. Va.

From the early stages of the mother’s pregnancy, they did not think that the baby would make it.  The parents did not tell anyone except their parents about the pregnancy.  A few days after the baby was born, the mother went into septic shock.  The grandmother truly thought she would lose both her daughter and her granddaughter, and she was thankful for every moment that they could spend together.

I loved getting to know this little family, and I was grateful that I did not have to eat alone.  Traveling alone does not mean you have to be solitary the entire time.  In fact, there lies the beauty of traveling alone: without people around you to keep you occupied, you look to unlikely sources for companionship.

The night went smoothly, even with the thin door protecting me from the outside.  The next morning for breakfast, the family must have picked a different time slot.  This time, although there were six other people in the room, I ate alone.

That day, I spent the morning and early afternoon exploring nearby Shepherdstown, which I heard about from another couple staying at the Hillbrook (they were not talking to me, I just overheard them).

I wandered around the tiny town, talking to shop owners and local college students studying for midterms.  I ventured to a few side streets—they were still well-traveled roads, but at least I made it off of Main Street.

Shepherdstown, W. Va.

Shepherdstown, W. Va.

Walking into a bakery, I was overwhelmed by the choices in the display.  I considered asking the girl behind the counter which flavor to choose, but I stopped myself.  The choice was mine, and it was a decadent red velvet.

Around 2 p.m., I called my mom.  Because it was Yom Kippur (a Jewish fasting holiday where services last all day), my dad would not be home until late.  We decided to meet at our favorite comfort Italian food restaurant; I arrived first and sat in the booth waiting.  A warm feeling rushed over me as soon as she walked in the door.

At least once every week or so, I go home at least for dinner.  I pull my car into the garage, and before I can even shut the door, the garage light turns on.  The door opens and two dogs rush out to meet me, along with my parents.  Many times we are meeting up with my sister and her little family (two adorable kids included) to have dinner.

Nothing will ever beat going home again to my family, to my parents and to the love with which they surround me.  More importantly, the true value of family became apparent throughout my trip.  I was able to make connections and spend the night independent of all security.  Travel is exciting, but for me, home is comforting.  It’s warm, and it’s where I truly belong, even if I was able to travel by myself, and able to choose my flavor of cupcake.


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