To celebrate the end of my summer class, I convinced one of my best friends to join me in an impromptu to trip to travel an hour away to Harpers Ferry, a small town in West Virginia on Tuesday morning. My first year of the M.F.A. in Creative Writing and Publishing Arts program at the University of Baltimore is complete. I am aware of time, more than most, I think. As a writer and curious individual, I often think about how short a life truly is and how long we pretend them to be. Even so, I blinked this past year away. I wondered briefly what I have done with my minutes and then I remembered the six classes and internship I took. I was teaching. I was bartending. I was doing all sorts of living, even if it all seems like a jumbled dream at the moment. Happy hours on the weekend don’t help to slow down the chaos. No. Champagne only ever makes your days feel like Play-Dough, but whether I understand it or not, the year is done and I deserve a pat or four on my back.
Another, unrelated but actually related part to this is coffee. I love coffee. I love the smell. The taste. How it looks in a cup. How it looks on my white shirts. That last part is a lie. I hate how coffee looks on my clothes but deal with it due to the fact that it is so incredibly tasty and wonderful. I forgive it, even when it burns me because coffee is b.a.e. and it helps me to do the one thing I love more than anyone or anything, writing. Coffee not only helps me in its ability to wake me up, whether that be late at night when I’m making vodka tonics for 1000 strangers or when I’m writing lessons into the early morning or when I’m trying to finish my second novel for the fifteenth damn time, but it also inspires me. It has cute packaging and coffee is held within shrines that some people call coffee shops but I think of them more like creativity hospitals where the broken go to heal.
This is how I was inspired to travel to thirty coffee shops in thirty days. The point is to travel. The point is to adventure and THAT, that is how this relates to my original point of celebration. I wanted to go to Harpers Ferry to pat myself on the back but I also thought I might find some pretty cool coffee shops on the way. Harpers Ferry was always on my to visit list but it has never made it into the travel vault. With a name like Harpers Ferry, there is no way it could be sans charm.
Harpers Ferry is known for its role in the Civil War. I was not visiting for the historical context but rather had my sights set on the aesthetic appeal. We plugged Harpers Ferry, WV into google maps and drove away from Charm City to the town that might as well be straight out of the 1800s. We were starving by the time that we got to our destination and the GPS brings you to the information center, which is about ½ mile from the actual main street and strip of shops. We decided we would eat before we looked for what would become the first coffee shop in my quest to write more and find the best coffee shops on the east coast.
This is how we happened upon The Mountainhouse Café. The entrance isn’t exactly obvious and upon attempting to open the door, you feel like you might be doing something wrong. After fumbling about and walking up and down the road once or five times, we figured it out. You have to go up the stairs that have absolutely no posted directions. Who knew? We made it inside and the dark interior wasn’t exactly inviting but there’s don’t judge a book by its cover and all that, so we kept going, or I did. Kayla was starving at this point and I was trudging ahead, searching for sustenance, considering I had dragged her along. A crudely made sign at the end of the hall boasted café and shop with an arrow pointing to the right. I would not notice the wall of jams or the various eclectic items that cluttered the foyer till we were leaving. The café has potential. It reminded me as a mix between charming and the inside of a gas station. I would go back again, if asked, for the Kombucha and view. As the name suggests, you feel like you are in a mountain house. A woman was positioned in the corner of the patio that we we were directed to sit on. Nobody else was there, which was the theme of the trip. I gave her a 'we come in peace' smile. She gave a genuine smile back and I felt like mine hadn't been kind enough. Kayla scooted in until her rib cage was center with the table because spider webs covered the beam behind her. Free Postcards was written over a pile of soggy squares on the edge on a shelf by the door. Everything definitely felt old and for a while, as we waited for our food, I felt disappointed. This wasn’t exactly the adventure I was hoping for. I understand I was judging a whole town on one café but because of the rain, everything was abandoned and Harpers Ferry was a ghost town, rather than the quaint and beautiful place it had been described to me as.
When I went inside to pay, after going to the atm, because they only take cash, I struck up a conversation with the young woman behind the register. She had dark hair and a missing tooth and was as much beautiful as she was interesting to look at. This may be a crude description but she looked like a broken doll. It turns out that she was. When I revealed that I was from Baltimore, she revealed that her mother was in the hospital there and she knows Baltimore well and then in a slew of short sentences she told me that her mother got a sort of weird strange case of pneumonia and it was too late to get her on the lung transplant list because you have to really need them or she just didn’t qualify.
Her mother is dead now.
She told me, "But that's good because she was in pain and going through so much and now she's not."
I didn't miss a beat as I say sorry, like you should when someone talks about their dead mother for more than a minute. I can't empathize. That pain sounds so loud, even to me, who can't begin to know.
The worker, with the dead mother and the missing teeth moved two towns over recently. She laughed when she realized that we weren’t the typical hikers or tourists. We weren’t exactly in Harpers Ferry with a plan. She told me that we should walk over beyond the town, to The Point, where a bridge lines up with the train tracks.
And “Where are you from?” gave us the best part of the day.
After of course, we meandered into Battle Grounds Bakery and Coffee. With a full belly and maybe slightly lowered expectations we went to write a little and fuel up on caffeine. From the outside, 180 High Street is appealing but not overly so. Like the rest of the town, you are a little hesitant about what you may or may not be walking into. OF course, you could open YELP, but as we soon found out, service is not the best there. Anyway, we were trying to adventure and the best adventures are not outlined in detail. Was this going to be the coffee shop that I boasted to be charming or would we have to keep looking?
Battle Grounds Bakery and Coffee is indeed appealing, both the inside and the coffee. A couple sat lackadaisically at the long bar that covers the entirety of the shop. A row of goods covered the other side and it had a modern but rustic décor. I probably breathed a sigh of relief but a good sign is when my camera immediately snaps into action. We wandered around for a bit, looking at all the coffee posters that made us laugh and seeing what was on one of two menus. There was only one worker, maybe the owner and she was busy making the two other patrons food. We used that time to sneak about and really investigate the shop. I ordered black coffee with almond milk. Kayla had a cappuccino with sugar-free vanilla. Both were tasty. It was quiet enough to write and although we were tired from our days adventure I was able to get some work done. It was not the hours of writing that I had planned upon because of our late start to the day but If I had more time, It was the kind of place I could have nestled in for a while. I imagine on busy summer days when children scurry inside for ice cream it would not be the best place to relax but on a rainy day, it suited a writing atmosphere.
Coffee still in hand, we walked through the town, finally arriving at our last stop. With a grey sky, dripping but not raining, we looked out on to what people talk about when they rave about Harpers Ferry. Tracks leading into a tunnel line the river and the water stretches ahead. The Point as it is called, where the Shenandoah and Potomac River meet. You can walk along a metal bridge that lines up perfectly with the railroad and water calls to you below. Kayla and I became fairly giddy because we had found the magic and the adventure that we knew we would, somehow. Locks are fastened to the crossing, carved with sayings like “Me and you against the world.” Since we didn’t exactly dress for hiking I assumed that we wouldn’t cross the whole bridge but newly energized, partly to do with the coffee I’m sure, we did. We were met with a sign for the Appalachian Trail. I wished with everything I had that I was prepared for a hike that would last months, but in my hand was an umbrella and car keys. As the sky darkened, I knew we would have to turn around soon.
“I love kayaking, but I’m terrified of dark water,” Kayla told me as we wandered down a piece of a trek that I have always dreamed of hiking.
We all fear what we cannot see, but maybe if we paddle anyway, we’ll reach all the magic we knew was there all along.
Thirty coffee shops in thirty days is not as brave as hiking the Appalachian Trail or as interesting as running a marathon or even as spectacular as trekking across Europe but I have a feeling I might find what I'm looking for.
About the blog:
Emily Ann Hansen
I'm a writer and teacher living in Baltimore City. I'm originally from Chicago. I graduated from Columbia College Chicago with a BA in Fiction. Instead of babbling, I will list a few of the things in life that make me happy: