Love them or hate them, I can’t deny Train of their bewitching way with words.
Now that she’s back from that soul vacation, tracing her way through the constellation…
Tell me, did the wind sweep you off your feet? Did you finally get the chance to dance along the light of day, and head back to the Milky Way? And, tell me, did Venus blow your mind? Was it everything you wanted to find? And then you missed me while you were looking for yourself out there.
I woke up the other morning with excitement tingling in my toes. I had to use my floating holiday at work before the company’s fiscal year ended on March 30, so I made the decision earlier in the month to take off Friday the 23rd and leave town on a solo trip, or, as the above song would classify it, a soul vacation. I wanted the wind to sweep me off my feet. I wanted to dance along the light of day. I wanted to go find myself, the pieces of myself, that I believe are hiding in quaint, small towns and succulent, people-packed cities throughout the world.
The past month, I’ve felt like I haven’t been able to just be alone. This hasn’t necessarily been a bad thing, as it means that I’ve been filling my nights and weekends with delightful friends, warm love, and treasured moments. However, ingrained in my chromosomes lies the temperamental Bishop gene that must be nursed with cherished “me” time to prevent it from exploding off the rocky ledge. Explosion results in bouts of grumpiness, existential crisis, and loss of appetite. The past couple of weeks, the Bishop gene has been sending me warnings through smoke signals.
The problem is that even during times when I have been alone this past month, I haven’t been able to feel alone. And, just to clarify, feeling alone is much different than feeling lonely. Two different concepts, entirely. The world has gotten so reliant upon electronic screens, rapid communication, and instant gratification that I can’t go anywhere without being connected to everyone. Some days my cell phone feels like a ball and chain. It’s hard to live fully in the present moment when you’re too busy being programmed to “check-in” all the time to some other reality. The point is that not only was I feeling the need to be physically alone, but I was also craving being psychically alone as well — no cell phone to distract my mind. I decided that this soul vacation would be my opportunity to fully disconnect. I was going to turn off my phone upon arriving at my destination and spend the entire weekend fully immersed in my present environment.
I picked my destination randomly from a Google search for “quaint, small towns outside of D.C.” and on Friday morning let the travel endorphins pump through my blood as I prepared to drive out to Berkeley Springs, West Virginia. This blog is about my trip, but also about the coexisting difficulty to and importance of truly disconnecting. I will always need to travel and I will always need to travel solo. Two different concepts, entirely.
It was a summer’s day in March went I packed up my Chevy and left town. It felt good to hit the open road, although it took my Chevy a little bit of time to come out of her pseudo-retirement life as an “around town” car. She hadn’t hit that freeing 70mph in a while, but once she remembered how it felt, she remembered why she loved it and the engine steadily smoothed out. I rolled down the window and let the toasted air rush in and out in a highway frenzy. I put on some music rich in good string pickin’ and belted the songs out to my interstate audience. The moment felt like barefoot memories under a hot and humid Georgia sun — my hair in a permanent fluffed out frizz, the sound of men strumming guitars, a hand-built wooden bridge running over a dried up creek bed, drunkenly sharing sad dog stories. It would appear that no matter how far you run, your memories will always catch up with you.
I saw a sign reading, “Scenic View,” and thought to myself, “Why not?” I pulled over and got out of my car. I stood in front of — grass. There were some farmhouses in the distance and the interstate was plastered through the middle of it all. It wasn’t until I started reading some of the informational signs at the point that I was able to actually see the “Scenic View.” I was standing on the site of a battle during the Civil War that determined who took control of D.C. — “the battle that saved Washington,” as the sign described it. It surely wasn’t “scenic” in the way the pull-offs are back home with bluffs plunging into a crashing ocean, but it was much richer in historic scenery. So much so, in fact, that it was beautifully eerie to stand in its presence. I commenced driving, periodically squealing over the sheer quaintness of rolling farmland.
Pulling into the small town of Berkeley Springs was like tucking myself into a blanket of mountains. Let me just get all snuggled up for a while. I had a bit of time to kill before I could check-in to my room, so I got out of my car and began to walk down the town’s main strip in search of lunch. Temptations Café sounded all too tempting, so I sat myself right down.
“How about right here, sweetie?” said my waitress (who could not have been much older than me), pointing to a table near the window, “Sweetheart, is there something I can get you to drink?”
There’s something innately charming about someone your own age calling you “sweetie” and “sweetheart” in a country mountain twang. Fish and chips were the special of the day, so I went ahead and ordered them. My meal soon arrived in a heaping golden brown pile with coleslaw on the side never looking more like a vegetable. It was one big piece of battered and fried fish that looked like after it had been battered and fried, they had taken it and battered and fried it. It was delicious, if not overwhelmingly so. I soon learned of the trend this style of food had in the town, as fried pickles, potatoes, bacon, eggs, pancakes, donuts, and more country favorites soon found their way to my heart — quite literally. By the time Berkeley Springs was done with me, my arteries were on overload, begging for me to take them home.
Berkeley Springs is the epitome of “quaint mountain town.” Its tiny town center is lined with bed and breakfasts, local shops and restaurants, a theater that plays one movie once a day, and a green patch the size of a city block that makes up the nation’s smallest state park. Officially incorporated as the Town of Bath in 1776, Berkeley Springs has long been known for its natural warm springs that call the mini state park home. I quickly learned that I wasn’t the only Washingtonian with the idea of escaping to Berkeley Springs for a weekend of relaxation and healing. George Washington was a Berkeley Springs regular to the point that he had his own bathtub outside next to one of the springs. As I looked at his bath, still there, I started thinking about George Washington climbing in there. And then I decided that there was no reason I should be thinking of George Washington that intimately.
Eventually, it was time to check in to my weekend home. I chose my weekend home based on its remarkably low price, its center of town location, and its alluring quirkiness. The website for Tari’s Premier Inn and Café frankly states, “My rooms ain’t the Ritz, but they’re clean and cozy. I make up for it in food and service.” There were four rooms advertised that lived above the restaurant and bar.
I entered the restaurant with my bag that was packed far too heavily for just two nights. In my defense, this bag was predominantly filled with journals, inspiring reads, crafts, and spiritual knick-knacks, rather than the typical shoes. I found it entirely necessary to pack one of my Buddhas, my Tibetan singing bowl, and my Virgen de Guadalupe candle. I was met by one friendly face that led me to another friendly face at the bar. I assume this second friendly-faced woman might have been Tari. She was very thin with leathered skin and bleach blonde hair. She knew everyone in town. “Hello, darlin’!” she exclaimed, as she handed me my key and walked me back outside to show me how to find my room.
There was a little door hidden to the left of the bar entrance that led up to the rooms. “Now, I think they just put the air conditioner in for ya today, so you’ll keep nice and cool. Enjoy, honey, and there’s a bucket right in your room. If you need ice, bring it down to the bar, we’ll fill it right up for ya, darlin’!”
The hidden door creaked open and the doily-like fabric covering the window rustled. The door opened to a steep flight of stairs covered in old, old, dark green carpet. It had some kind of floral print splotched within it. You really had to squint to see that it was floral print and not just weathered carpet. It smelled musty and rough around the edges. The walls were painted white with some of the paint beginning to peel. I walked up the stairs and turned right, as instructed. There was another door with eight small windows at the top of four more steps. The white paint remained, but now there was a magenta trim. It was a shade of magenta that looked as though it might be having an identity crisis with itself over whether it would really like to just be purple instead. I opened the next door and turned right again. At the end of the hallway, I opened the weathered door of room number three. The room was perfect. It was just old enough with a mishmash of furniture. The windows looked right out over the town. The bed’s mattress was humorously the squeakiest mattress I could have imagined. The slightest movement on it could wake up the whole town. I loved the room. It immediately felt like my personal writer’s/artist’s studio where I could escape to create.
Throughout the weekend, I spent my time exploring the town by foot. I’d read historical signs and get giddy over spring blossoms. Throughout my exploration, I’d sporadically throw myself into a variety of shops — ones that sold antiques, herbal remedies, local artwork, and an array of other earthy gift ideas. Berkeley Spring’s culture seemed to be one of a cheerful southern town with an odd West Coast fetish. I also spent the weekend what seemed like continuously writing, although I did stop to teach myself the art of felting by lamplight one night. I got a luscious amount of me time, but I didn’t entirely cut myself off from the world. After all, one of the most beautiful things about travel is the people you meet.
When I first decided to go on this trip, I “jokingly” told people that I was going on a spiritual journey. During this journey, I was going to go on a hunger strike and fervently dance until I passed out in an exhausted/hallucinogenic state. It would be at this moment that my spirit guide would present itself to me with valuable wisdom for the next leg of the journey (that leg being my return to general life). Once in Berkeley Springs, I decided I wouldn’t go into this trance, but that I would have a few beers. Same difference, right?
These beers had the good company of a musician. He was an older man with a guitar, a microphone, and a tip jar that read, “For Viagra Research.” He assured the audience that all of the funds stayed in the local community. I enjoyed his string pickin’. The truth is that I think I could bury myself in a good bluegrass song for all eternity and it would keep my soul nice and warm. A few beers later, an audience member put in a request for “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” and was soon up there singing by his side. I wanted to discuss with the musician my longing to learn how to pick a mean banjo and how I saw that in relation to my want to become a writer, but I decided to skip the deepness and head for one more beer back at Tari’s. The bar staff and frequenters of Tari’s were my favorite. Tari was right that she made up for the lack of fanciness with friendly service.
My last night in Berkeley Springs, I sat and thought for a while about why I had gone on this trip and what I had learned from it. I had gone in an attempt to reconnect with my busy self, to quiet my chatty mind, and to see if I could truly escape from the routine of daily habits. I hadn’t used my cell phone all weekend, which quickly revealed to me how much I rely on it. I got used to letting go of the desire to know what time it was. I used one of those old-fashioned beeping alarm clocks if I needed to wake up by a certain time. During moments when I found myself alone and could actually feel the mild discomfort, the sensation of being exposed, that this can bring, I couldn’t temporarily hide myself by looking at my phone, pretending I was in the midst of important communications with other important people. There were habits, patterns that had to be broken.
Cell phone aside, I realized that my weekend of disconnecting had also disclosed to me how much I love the individuals I hold close in my life. There were so many moments I experienced that I wanted to share with them. I was starkly aware at moments of their absence. There were activities that I knew I’d love to enjoy with the company of certain people, parts I knew I could laugh about with that particular someone, and ideas I encountered that I wanted to analyze with like-minded pals (and the pals that push back a little, giving me the opportunity to stretch my mind further and develop more meaningful responses). Being alone made me more appreciative of the relationships I have that connect me to the greater picture of life, the ones who put up with me/know me well enough to know that sometimes I have to run away from them all to get back to feeling like myself.
The morning of my departure, I put on my Sunday best, since hitting the open road, I think, is kind of like going to church. I walked downstairs to load my Chevy back up. Outside of Tari’s, sitting on a bench, was Randy. Randy looked like he had been in Berkeley Springs a good long while and that at times it had chewed him up and spit him out. He sat there strumming his guitar. Randy and I ended up chatting for a while and I finally got to tell someone in the town of my obsession with the imagery of playing a stringed instrument. Randy taught me the “G” and “C” chords on his guitar, a guitar that was held together in places by duck tape. I tend to think the duck tape gave it a special sound.
“When are you heading back to California?” Randy asked, noting my license plates.
“Wish I knew. Just moved out to D.C. not too long ago. But someday,” I replied.
“I hear ya,” Randy said from what seemed like a great place of knowing.
I told Randy goodbye and headed off for one more cup of coffee in Berkeley Springs. I sat in the café, reflecting on it all, and becoming so appreciative of the tiny town’s role in wrapping me up with the desire to write and to investigate new regions of my lone self. How simple life could be, I thought, if I just lived in a little town like this. I think it would drive me nuts.
I grabbed a nearby napkin and my favorite pen and composed a letter to Berkley Springs on it. I left it on the table and hit the road home to see if I could hold on to what I’d found once back in my suburban life.
Dear Berkeley Springs,
You’ve done me well this weekend. I felt like I was home while I was here. I could relax and feel at ease. My mind was finally able to focus on the important things. If ever I do become a published writer, it will be because the writer in me was birthed here. My pen couldn’t stop. You’re quirky and quaint. You’re small and splendid. You’re great. It must be something in the water.