West Virginia, USA
I am a little hesitant to write about my favorite place, Shepherdstown, West Virginia. I discovered it many years ago, while looking for a college that would accept me and get me away from the D.C. suburbs where I was born and raised. I hated growing up in the suburbs. It was so flat, so stale. Cookie cutter houses evenly spaced on vanilla bland sidewalks. One maple tree in everyone’s front yard and a dogwood in the back. Now, don’t get me wrong, I recognize that we were blessed with luxuries that many people dream about and strive for. My problem with the suburbs was that they are just plain boring.
Enter Shepherdstown. At the age of 17, I was happy to be two hours from home and attending Shepherd College. This marvelous little town is located on the banks of the Potomac River. Across the river lies Maryland, and the C&O canal. Ride your bike east and 75 miles later, you will find yourself in Washington, DC. Head west and end up in Paw Paw.
Freed from the stifling ‘burbs, I marveled at the crooked brick sidewalks, often bumpy with tree roots growing underneath, like an earthquake frozen in mid-lurch. The Town Run stream meanders throughout the town, under streets, back yards, and the college campus. Houses and shops also date from the eighteenth and nineteenth century, a haven for historical architects. The town was originally called “Mecklenburg” after the number of German immigrants who settled here. As a college freshman, I had not ever lived in a place so unique.
I spent my four years roaming the three block main street, exploring the shops and two (now three) bars in town. There was the Sweet Shop, with spinach and cheese filled croissants (more responsible for my freshman fifteen than beer). The Meck, the “local” pub, with a diverse group of “townies.” There were various “earthy” shops, where I invested in a four-year supply of incense, moccasins, and flowing skirts which came in handy at those Grateful Dead shows. Since then, few of the shops have changed hands and new shops moved in, but the character of the town remains the same. It is easy to mingle through a couple of the local pubs and wonder “what is the ratio of people to body piercings in this town?”
My friends and I would cut classes on sunny days and, with an illegal cooler of beer, head over to the C&O towpath, and sunbathe on the banks of the river. [My belated apologies to Park Service employees. Will you still hire me?] Dark spring nights, we would drive a few short miles to Antietam Battlefield, and with another illegal cooler of beer, play hide and seek among the Civil War ruins. [Again, my belated apologies to Park Service employees. I have realized the errors of my youth. Really.]
Now, I could continue this story as a tour of underage college students’ drinking spots. Instead, I will only comment on why I fear to write any further. The suburbs are encroaching on this tiny town nestled along the Potomac River. Shepherdstown has been written up in the Washington Post several times, especially in the summer when the Contemporary American Theatre Festival is in full swing. Weekends at the Bavarian Inn are discussed over the water cooler at work. Over the past few years, this place has become trendy. It’s one thing to lose your parking spot to weekend tourists; it’s quite another to see aluminum sided “McMansions” built only a few miles away, chilling reminders of my childhood.
I wonder if others feel the same way about this sense of place. Walking down the three blocks of town, it is inspiring to see the full moon rising over the mountains or to view a blanket of stars, serving as a backdrop for the steeple of the Episcopal church, on a cold winter’s night. I want to encapsulate these few historic blocks, the lurching brick sidewalks and Blue Ridge view into a bubble and hope this place can remain untouched by the outside world.