Ride into History

Story by Ron Keys// Photos by Ron Keys
July 1 2013

Our intrepid traveller Ron Keys, with his trusty Wing, takes flight to explore some of Maryland’s Appalachian Mountains and to satisfy his penchant for history by visiting a few of the state’s most significant Civil War battlegrounds, places that helped to shape a nation.

It is a hot and sticky September morning in Maryland as I roll along with the traffic heading into Baltimore. The calm serenity of my surroundings belies its violent history. I exit I-95 into Baltimore’s historical district, and following my GPS, I find my way to the grounds of Fort McHenry.

Two hundred years ago, after a rain-soaked night of exchanging cannon fire with the might of the British Navy, the Stars and Stripes were still flying in the morning’s first light, high above the fort. As the British sailed out of Baltimore’s harbour, a mighty roar of voices in celebration was heard. American lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key, while negotiating a prisoner exchange aboard one of those British ships, began to pen the poem “The Defence of Fort McHenry.” Eventually it would come to be “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Happy to leave the city, I make my way back to Silver Spring, thinking of tomorrow’s adventure into the bulwarks of the American Civil War and some of the wonderful roads that will take me there.

U.S National Cemetery Blessed with another lovely sunny day, I ride along I-495, then 270, and finally onto MA 355. Everywhere, the green mountains and hills of Maryland are laced with great motorcycle roads. I crest a small knoll and dive down across a bridge over the Monocacy River, passing a monument to the fallen. Up a long hill, I stop at the former headquarters of Generals Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet. This is where Lee wrote the famous “Lost Order” so detrimental to the cause of the south.

I stop for a tour of the Monocacy National Battlefield Visitor Center and then retrace my path down the hill toward the river, where I follow a long laneway to the Best Farm, another battle site. I then head across Baker Valley Road to Worthington Farm and down to the Thomas farm, all sites of storied bloodshed. On that day so long ago, the Monocacy River flowed red with the blood of dead soldiers. I listen in the quiet of the countryside to the flow of traffic along I-270 and wonder if those drivers realize how many souls perished on either side of them.

Leaving the battlefield, I follow the ridge along Baker Valley Road, engulfed in breathtaking scenery, with beautiful family farms nestled in the verdant valleys, back-dropped by the green of oak-blanketed hills in the distance. At Fingerboard Road I climb upward, winding between stone fences. The curvy road parallels I-270 over to I-70, and I head back to my lodgings in Silver Spring. As I ride along, many thoughts race through my mind about war and the cruel ways that we settle our differences. After all is said and done, we erect monuments to memorialize our innocent dead, and we carry on until another difference arises, which we settle once again by leading our innocent youth to slaughter. I am reminded of the words of the Spanish-American philosopher, George Santayana: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”

Maryland 734 LocomotiveAfter a great breakfast on day three, my wife, who is here on business, joins me. We pass Monocacy again and catch 40A, winding our way along the Civil War Trail and up South Mountain to Mountain House. This is a wonderful motorcycle road that takes us through Turner’s Gap. A stop at the Mountain Inn fills us with great food and enough Civil War history to keep us nourished for a long time. The battles that took place along South Mountain were a prelude to the bloody carnage at Antietam a few days later.

Returning from South Mountain, we arrive in Boonsboro, home of celebrated American author Nora Roberts. In 1823, a 10-mile section of the National Pike through Boonsboro was the first to be surfaced with macadam. Named after John Loudon McAdam, the surface was actually crushed limestone, not asphalt. Just up the hill, in Washington Monument State Park, stands the first monument dedicated to George Washington. This stone tower, built by residents of Boonsboro, was constructed in a single day on July 4, 1827.

As we ride past the cemetery for Union soldiers and through Sharpsburg, my attention is drawn to a small stone step at the corner of Main and Church Streets. Between 1800 and 1865, slaves would climb this step to be inspected and auctioned off. Emotions surface as I silently witness this reminder of a scourge on American history. Just up the hill, the site of the Battle of Antietam, where 23,000 soldiers died in just 12 hours of fighting, proves a sobering experience. Quietly, we retrace our route back to Boonsboro.

At the Boonsborough Museum of History, owner Doug Bast proudly guides us through his two-storey home filled with Civil War memorabilia. A large display of bullets, carved into everything from a lice comb to a fishing hook, fills the display cabinets. Another cabinet displays bullets that collided in midair over the Antietam battlefield, witness to the intensity of that battle. This priceless collection of artifacts, which includes a letter from Stonewall Jackson’s men to his wife requesting her permission to erect a monument to their much-loved and deeply respected commander, has been gathered over Doug Bast’s lifetime. After three days of visiting battle sites, I am ready for a mind-cleansing ride through the rural areas of Maryland. With low-lying clouds threatening rain, we wind through Cumberland’s narrow streets. Surrounded by rugged mountains, Cumberland is located at the state’s narrowest point, at the confluence of Wills Creek and the Potomac River. We wind along MD 40, “The Old National Road,” into the Narrows, gateway to the west. With the gnarly limestone cliffs of Lovers Leap high above us on Wills Mountain, I crane left and right while trying to stay within my lane. Lovers Leap is aptly named, as legend has it that a Shawnee warrior who was jilted by his young lover leaped to his death from high above us.

I catch glimpses of thick, black smoke mixed with steam from the Baldwin locomotive billowing through the treetops. Chuffing upward toward Frostburg, the engine will rotate on a turntable and bring tourists back to Cumberland after they’ve experienced some coal soot and a taste of America’s past glory days. The peculiar high pitch of its steam whistle echoes off the cliffs in the morning’s mist. At Jennings Run, the Gold Wing torques its way upward to Mt. Savage, where on September 24, 1845, America’s first iron rail was produced. The road surface is excellent and the twists, turns and changes in elevation make the ride to Frostburg delightful. Several tight bends through the forest give me one last shot of adrenalin before we enter the hamlet of Frostburg. After a short jaunt along MD 40, we turn onto MD 936. The road narrows as we head into the hinterlands, following Mother Nature’s natural terrain, taking the path of least resistance past little alpine farms in misty meadows – a photographer’s delight. The heavy grey clouds threaten rain, and on a distant mountaintop I can see wind turbines, evidence of man’s intentions to spoil another great view of nature. Lining the roadway, weathered gray posts strung with rusting wire keep domestic animals, and me, safe.

At Midland we turn onto MD 36, where the road opens up in the valley to follow Georges Creek through Lonaconing. Just past Barton we turn onto Mill Run, which eventually becomes Westernport Road. Above a distant cliff, hawks catch the thermal updrafts, gliding on outspread wings, silently searching for unwary morsels far below. A light drizzle begins at Monroe Run Vista, where we change into raingear while admiring the fantastic view of the Savage River far below. Towering plumes of mist hang delicately in the warm summer air, suspended by natural forces. Likenesses of bears and eagles have been carved into old stumps, and I take a few moments to enjoy the artistic impressions before moving on. Twin Churches Road takes us up to a scenic lookout from the front steps of two churches, one old and one new, with a panorama of the valley far below and the mountains beyond. We thread our way through New Germany State Park and down to another valley. I take Maryland Mountain Scenic Byway, MD 495, and then Rock Lodge Road. We meander across a short expanse of farmland, and again plunge into the oak and sycamore forest delineated by an old rail fence. Once clear of the forest, the road winds through fertile farmland, and in the distance I see Deer Creek Lake, our dinner destination. On Sang Run Road, just west of McHenry, is the Mountain State Brewing Company and Restaurant. Without a doubt, this place has the best pizza I have ever eaten, baked in a brick oven. After lunch, we begin our afternoon ride south on 219 to Sand Flat Road, then onto MD 135 east to Piedmont, where we catch MD 46 to my namesake, Keyser.

MD 46 takes us across to Fort Ashby. We take MD 28 to CR 1 and turn onto one of the most unique bridges I have ever seen, the Low Water Bridge over the North Potomac River. There are no rails on the bridge, and on the far side is a tollbooth. The window opens, and an old lady reaches out with a ladle to accept a 50-cent toll for using the bridge. How quaint. Winding along MD 51, I follow the C&O Canal National Historic Park eastbound. Just before Paw Paw is the staging area for a one-kilometre hike alongside the aqueduct that was used for boats accessing the Paw Paw Tunnel. Built to bypass five horseshoe bends in the Potomac River, the tunnel is 950 metres long and gets its name from the pawpaw trees that grow along the nearby ridges. Along the edge of the canal is a towpath used by canal horses to tow barges along the waterway. Returning along MD 51 to I-68, we scurry across to 219 and south toward McHenry. Very carefully, we slow down and exert due caution as we ride through Accident. I couldn’t imagine the flack I’d get if I fell off my bike in Accident, Maryland. Back at our log cabin overlooking McHenry and beautiful Deep Creek Lake, a welcome hot shower prepares me for a huge cowboy steak at the Pine Lodge Steakhouse. In a snoozy state, we head back to the cabin and into our comfy log-framed bed. The pleasant natural smell of wood and the silence of the mountain setting is a balm to my soul. With Maryland on my mind, I try to assimilate the pleasant memories of today’s ride, but sleep comes all too quickly.


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