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Guest Feature: Travel as Therapy – West Virginia!

June 13, 2010

This post is a continuation of the Guest Feature Series I started 8 lightyears ago, and comes to you from friend of the blog Rob! He sent it to me ages ago, but of course this Cupcake was too busy to even guest post. Lame, I know.

Rob is published already, and I just love his writing style. He also got some press recently for the hard work he’s doing at the Spotsylvania Regional Medical Center. Rob’s a bright shining beacon of fun in a world all too full of grumplestiltskins, so I wanted to share his warm, sunny nature with you guys. Enjoy! –Cupcake

Let’s admit it. We’ve all had those times where we’ve been at wits end, where we wanted to escape it all and head for something or someplace more relaxing and more tranquil, the polar opposite of what is dragging us down. The problem is that airfare is expensive and spa treatments are expensive and therapy is expensive and those restorative health products are expensive and for the most part, unproven. What’s a stressed-out, cashed-out adult to do in order to regain a sense of sanity?

Well, to borrow an opening from John Denver, almost heaven. That’s right, I’m telling you to go to West Virginia. West Virginia? Yes, West Virginia, that cute little panhandled parcel of land that was squired away from Virginia in a constitutionally questionable chain of events back in 1863. Why West Virginia? Let’s just start by saying there’s a place there that is close to Washington, D.C., entirely inexpensive, has been proven to restore your health, and will vanquish your troubles much as any day spa. We’re heading to Berkeley Springs.

Starting in Washington, D.C., you can get to Berkeley Springs in less than two hours. Take 495 to 270 to 70 West. Just as Pennsylvania and West Virginia do their best to squeeze out Maryland (this is actually the thinnest part of any state, anywhere), take exit 1, head south on U.S. 522 and find the little town that locals have been swearing about for centuries. Yes, centuries.

Berkeley Springs has been a health retreat since the 1750s, but the Native Americans were aware of the healing powers of its springs long before that. You see, in the center of Berkeley Springs sits a natural mineral spring at the base of Warm Springs Ridge. Into these ancient stone pools, crystal clear water flows at a rate of 2,000 gallons per minute at a constant 74.3 degrees. Untainted, untouched and untreated, it is the purest, cleanest water that can every touch your soul.

Washington first came here in 1748 and his first trip was anything but his last. Lord Fairfax made Berkeley Springs a stop on many of his journeys*. Soon word spread far and wide about the medicinal and healing powers of the spring. When the Virginia legislature formed the town of Bath in 1776**, the body made a move light years ahead of its time. Afraid that enterprising individuals would buy the land and take the healing powers of the spring out of public reach, the legislature declared that the water of Berkeley Springs must remain free for the public. Hence, for the last 233 years, visitors have been permitted to wade in the ancient stone pools, drink or fill water jugs at Lord Fairfax’s public tap and enjoy the medicinal properties of the water without charge.

Not much has changed since then. The waters and pools are still free for dipping and healing. The fountains are still free***. The park, which covers only a city block, became part of the West Virginia State Park system in 1925, when it became the smallest state park in the nation, a title it retains to this day. In 1930, a few bathhouses were built on the site, including areas where visitors can take in mineral baths, spa treatments and massages on site (these services are, sadly, not free). But you won’t need them. A few soaking moments and sips of water later and you’ll be healed.

Don’t just take my word for it. Advertised a local hotel brochure in 1885,
“It is classed among the temperate waters and is therefore milder than the ordinary cold bath and better suited to invalids, ladies and those suffering from overwork, exhaustion and too long confinement in offices and counting rooms. To those who bathe only for pleasure, it is a safe and unrivaled luxury.”

Dr. William Burke wrote of the Berkeley Springs waters in 1853,
“They combine with soap to leave the skin soft…”

And if that isn’t enough, Dr. John Moorman wrote in 1854,
“This water is… so light in its character…when cooled it is a delightful beverage.”

But the springs aren’t all that Berkeley Springs has to offer the stressed city escapee. Once you’ve de-stressed at the springs here in the county seat of Morgan County, you can see a movie in the Star Theater for $4. You can shop along its main street of quaint shops. You can enjoy a great meal delivered by friendly waitstaff and pay as much for two people as you would for less than one in Washington. Oh, and the ice cream shop just off Berkeley Springs Park that offers the “Best Ice Cream in Town”? The sign isn’t lying.

Now refreshed and relaxed, you could drive straight back home to the same environment that took you down in the first place. But if you want to prolong the pleasure and do something with the light and airy disposition you attained in Berkeley Springs, my suggestion would be continue west to the Paw Paw Tunnel.

In this day and age, everything claims to be one of the wonders of the world. The difference is that this one almost assuredly is. An engineering feat that has been standing for more than a century and a half, the Paw Paw Tunnel makes for a perfect hike – flat, mysterious and different on the leg out, strenuous and full of nature on the way back.

When the builders of the C&O Canal reached the area just north of Paw Paw, Virginia (now West Virginia), they faced a problem. At this point, the Potomac River lazily curves and meanders through the mountainous terrain, undulating north and south and nearly curling back into itself. Rather than face the expense of building six miles of pathway into mountainsides to mirror the river’s movement, the financiers of the tunnel decided to undertake a bigger challenge. They chose to cut through 3,118 feet of solid rock instead.

The decision to build the one-mile shortcut on the 180-mile path connecting Cumberland, Maryland and Washington, D.C. was made in 1836, with completion expected in 1838. Construction of the tunnel utilized six active digging faces, one each from the north end and south end, and two each from vertical shafts drilled through the top and carried horizontally from there. Not everything went as planned. The work was hard and hazardous, tensions between ethnic groups on the site made things harder and money was in short supply from the start. The tunnel fell well behind schedule and not until 1850 was it finally possible for canal boats to make it through the three-fifths of a mile length.

The completed result, however, was well worth the wait. Standing 17 feet wide with 12 foot radius set on 11 foot vertical walls, the tunnel is 24-1/2 feet high and allowed 17-1/2 feet of clearance above the water. Lined with approximately 6,000,000 bricks, the tunnel features a four-foot towpath along the side, separated from the water by a wooden railing. It is that towpath that can carry hikers, walkers and cyclists from one end to the other.

The three-fifths of a mile walk is safe (the wooden railing is sturdy), but there are a few things you will need if you plan to do it. The first is a flashlight. Other than the two ends of the tunnel, there is no light. The second is footwear that you don’t mind getting wet. Though you will not be fording streams, puddles do form underneath ceiling drips. You can often tiptoe around most of these puddles, but there are exceptions to every rule. If you choose, you can turn around and take the tunnel back.


But for a change of pace, try a different way of return, one that features a taste of nature and some gorgeous views. Once you exit the tunnel on the opposite side, keep walking along the towpath, on the wooden trail sandwiched between the two mountain ridges. Continue on the path once it turns to dirt again, past the mile 155 marker. Soon you will see a trail leading away to the right.

This is a two-mile trail that will take you down the ridge a bit, lift you up and bring you down. It doesn’t require any special hiking skills, but it isn’t as simple as walking in a straight line either. You’ll be following an old dirt path through the woods, getting plenty of views of nature, and toward the end, absolutely exquisite views of the meandering Potomac and gorgeous countryside.

To get to the Paw Paw Tunnel, leave Berkeley Springs and take Route 9 Westbound. Follow Route 9**** through the town of Paw Paw, West Virginia and over the Potomac River into Maryland. Soon after entering Maryland, you will go under an old railroad bridge and find the parking area for the Paw Paw Tunnel and C&O Canal on the right. The Paw Paw Tunnel is approximately 0.6 miles on the towpath from the parking area.

Return via the same route through Berkeley Springs, where you can get an inexpensive dinner and top off your water bottles***** before returning home.

For a few gallons of gas, you’ve now softened your skin in healing mineral water, refreshed yourself with untainted liquid, filled up water bottles and jugs, visited a quaint town, enjoyed inexpensive yet wonderful food, been up close with nature, walked more than four miles******, and become healthier, happier and far less stressed or worried than when you arrived. A few more places like this and the therapy people would be out of business.

* – In honor of Fairfax and Washington, the town’s major north-south street was named Washington, and the main east-west street was named Fairfax. After the Revolutionary War, the town’s population surged as soldiers came to the springs in hopes of a quicker recovery.
** – The Village of Berkeley Springs is actually in the town of Bath. When the Virginia postal system was established in 1802, Berkeley Springs became the name of the local post office, as a Bath, Virginia already existed. The name Berkeley Springs came from the tradition of naming springs in the county in which were located, which at this time was Berkeley County, Virginia.
*** – There are several public taps where one can fill anything from small water bottles to five-gallon water cooler jugs. Free. If you forget to bring a jug, one gallon jugs are available at the visitor’s center at the park for a “contribution” of $1.
**** – The speed limit on nearly all of this portion of Route 9 is 55 MPH. The locals may be able to go 55 MPH on these very hilly and winding roads, but good luck keeping up with them.
***** – You did remember to drink sufficient quantities while hiking, didn’t you?
****** – 0.6 miles to the tunnel, 0.6 miles through the tunnel, 0.4 miles beyond the tunnel, 2.0 miles on the trail, 0.6 miles back to the parking area.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. hthomson permalink
    June 13, 2010 4:26 pm

    I’ve never been to that part of West VA, but it looks really pretty. Thanks for the suggestion!

    My inner nerd has to point out that a lightyear is a measure of distance, not time.

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