PANDEMIC TRAVELOGUE: SHEPHERDSTOWN
Shepherdstown is a nice getaway from the hustle and bustle of whatever city or fresh suburban hell you reside.
Looking to hit the road and trade the views of whizzing concrete structures for trees and rolling hills? There’s a little place in the woods not so far down the road, almost heaven, as they say.
Go to West Virginia, and I know what you’re thinking. I’ve been to West Virginia; I was there last weekend playing slots. Or maybe you hiked the Appalachian Trail or bought a few Harpers Ferry shot glasses after learning more about that fellow from Connecticut. You know the guy that really kicked the wheel of change off a cliff in the middle 1800s.
And don’t get me wrong, I love Harpers Ferry. You should absolutely visit if you haven’t been.
Yet… something tells me you have been, and you thought it might be the best of what Panhandle West Virginia has to offer.
If you were to put aside the absolute stunning beauty and history of the town, and I know that is a hell of a lot to put aside… BUT if you were to put that aside you would be left with a bit of a tourist trap.
Harpers Ferry gives me a very Martha’s Vineyard feel, in a Vineyard Haven on a hill, kinda’ way. With the Life’s Good t-shirt traps, Taffy, albeit not the saltwater variety, and assorted, you’ve been here boutiques, and impossible parking. The only thing really missing is a Black Dog, Harpers Ferry (although WV might be too small for two black dogs, more on that later).
The town in West Virginia, I feel like you should visit is Shepherdstown. And to keep the Vineyard motif going, Shepherdstown would be more like if you dropped Main Street Edgartown onto a college town surrounded by hills and dense trees. It’s got all the expensive shopping and eating, with a slight nose up in the air.
THIS PLACE IS OLD AF
Depending on whom you talk to, Shepherdstown is either the oldest town in West Virginia or Romney is the oldest in West Virginia. Both towns appear to have been established in 1762, I say appear because I wasn’t there and am not a historian.
Obviously, when both towns were established in 1762, they were not established as West Virginia towns, as West Virginia wouldn’t be a state for another hundred years.
Around the birth of West Virginia, the town was providing care for up to 5000 to 8000 wounded and dying Confederate soldiers and would soon witness the bloodiest battle to be fought in (what would become West Virginia) in Mid-September 1862.
SHEPHERDSTOWN HAS SHEPHERDS UNIVERSITY
Shepherds University, was founded about nine years after the battle of Shepherdstown in 1871, to instruct students “in languages, arts, and sciences.”
The school boasts notable alumni such as artist David Plunkert, columnist Matt K. Lewis, my former (I live in VA now) state delegate Sammi Brown (I’m a fan), actor and filmmaker Joey Travolta, and more.
So, it is a college town. Yet, a far tonier one than my own college town of Northfield, VT, a great place btw, just more working class less ritz. It is how I came to assume all small-town Universities engulfed by mountains would be like.
Shepherdstown boasts expensive restaurants, galleries, a hip record store (and I mean actual vinyl), and an opera house for the love of God. Okay, maybe no present-day operas are happening at Opera House (pandemic or otherwise), but they host live music, and the building is oddly beautiful. It was also the first motion picture theater in West Virginia to play sound with the movies, maybe past denizens fancied In Old Arizona?
THROWING STONES FROM SHEPHERDSTOWN
Shepherdstown is a stone’s throw from the state of Maryland. Like, you could literally throw a rock across the Potomac here. Or maybe not. But you could undoubtedly swim across it if you were being chased by aliens.
Yes, the river nearby is the same Potomac you commute over every day. The one that grows to a behemoth just before spilling into the Chesapeake. The Potomac certainly gets smaller as you follow it all the way to its northern branch, where it finally ends near the Fairfax Stone Historical Monument in Eglon, WV. At that point, you can just step across.
The Potomac has a bit of a reputation, especially as you get closer to DC. It’s not an East River reputation to be sure, but I don’t know many folks who would be willing to swim in it.
You could probably safely wade in the Potomac around Shepherdstown after you manage to climb down to the river’s edge. Shepherdstown is on a bit of a bluff. Although for that kind of splashing fun, it would make more sense to go a bit further south to Harper’s Ferry.
The confluence of the Potomac and the Shenandoah rivers offers a ton of summertime amusement for frolicking and paddling. It is best to arrive early in the day if you want to find parking so you can claim your own giant-ass boulder in the river to sun yourself or drain your Old Milwaukees and listen to “Country Delight.”
THE PEOPLE YOU WILL MEET THAT ARE PROBABLY WEARING MASKS IN SHEPHERDSTOWN
People in Shepherdstown range from college kids to very friendly to live and let live, folks. Not the kinda’ place where you would go looking for trouble or trouble would come looking for you.
Folks around Shepherdstown wear masks, even while outdoors. So, if you are opposed to covering your mouth, you might get some funny looks. Although once you travel back west a bit, you may start getting funny looks for wearing one. A guy at a gas station near Ranson suggested I take the Communism off my face, okay sure thing boss.
I saw very few people walking about without covering up. All of the establishments I entered had a mask policy. So, pack yours and follow the wishes of the friendly shop keepers.
My wife and I have our usual haunts, some of which have unfortunately closed or curtailed their hours. Yet there are still plenty of open businesses to make the Shepherdstown experience your own.
As an in bed by 9pm, if I can help it, non-drinking, comic book-loving, dad; my idea of a good time is assuredly different than yours. So just take this as a bit of an appetizer of what awaits you in the woods.
STOP AT THE PRESSES (COULDN’T RESIST)
Usually, we build our trips around dinner. And there are many excellent places to eat in Shepherdstown. We ate around a bit before deciding the Press Room was the place that buttered our bread. The food is delicious, and it is close to the shops we like to hit before our reservation. BTW reservations are a necessity (even pre-pandemic, we would try to get our reservation in at least a week ahead).
The atmosphere is thoroughly chill, and there’s a 90% chance you will hear a Sinatra number while seated. Their menu is small yet pre-COVID; they would list just as many specials as menu items, including seasonal West Virginia delicacies such as ramps.
If ramps are in the specials, usually mid to late-spring, buy all of it. What’s the big deal about ramps? Outside of being awesome, I’m not entirely sure, but folks threaten bodily harm over that shit. I heard one patron spin a cautionary tale that went like, “I had a friend picking ramps on what she thought was public land, and this guy that looked like Santa Claus approached her with a shotgun and told her to scram.”
When we visited the Press Room recently, they were only serving food that travels well, a to-go menu (as to-go, I assume, is currently the bulk of their orders). Which means their rack of lamb or duck has rarely popped up on their weekly menus. Both of these entrées are absolute food-crack. The duck is served with duck-hash, so it is basically double the duck-crack.
My late father also had a rule; if a restaurant offers duck, you go to that restaurant.
BUY A BOOK
Right across the street is Four Seasons Books, and if you still read books that our majority paper, then you will dig this place.
It is set up, so when you enter, you are face-to-book with newer works and featured books. After the death of George Floyd and subsequent protests, the books prominently displayed were about the Civil Rights Movement.
It becomes nerdier as you continue through the store to the next room. They curate a small but surprisingly eclectic comic-related collection. Finally, ending at the back with a cute space for the littlest ones.
Usually, I head right to the middle room to pick up a graphic novel, collected comic series, or something completely nerdy. For instance, I have picked up the comic adaptation of Harper Lee’s seminal work, To Kill A Mockingbird. Recently I picked up the second installment of Archie Vs. The Predator. I even found a Shakespearean flavored adaptation of Star Wars’ the Phantom Menace, it’s a hoot.
My daughter goes to the backroom to pick up something Unicorn related, usually whichever Phoebe and Her Unicorn book she doesn’t yet have.
It’s not just a place for book fans though, if you’re looking for a souvenir from your trip that you don’t need to read, they have that too—lots of humorous pins, card games, and other assortments.
COFFEE AND POPCORN AND MARIJUANA (IT’S CBD, DON’T WORRY MOM)
My wife loves to shop the German Street Marketplace to peruse the plethora of locally roasted coffees, jellies, and other miscellanies.
And a block further to the east is Mountaineer Popcorn, whose small shop belies what treasures are hidden within. They have buffalo chicken flavored popcorn!! And that’s not all, they have pizza popcorn, pickle popcorn, birthday cake popcorn, a sugary cereal/ popcorn mashup, and way more.
It’s a good thing my school didn’t have a popcorn spot like this, I probably would have never left town…like, ever. Back then I was in my “green,” sure I’ll play devil-sticks and hacky sack while you overplay the Phish, man, Vermont days.
Speaking of Marijuana. A CBD spot opened last year on West German St, called Meditative Medicinals. If CBD or crystals are your things, you should stop in.
I was a Charlotte’s Webb customer for a while, finding that CBD helps some of my rampant stress and anxiety. At the end of last year, I noticed Meditative Medicinals and started buying my CBD stuff there. It’s cheaper, and the shop-owner can answer any of the questions I have. She is very friendly and has a ton of stuff to choose from.
And she has pre-rolls! Which a friend called “O’Doul’s for potheads,” and I was like you can just go to hell with that shit… Where was I?
TAKE A WALK THROUGH SHEPHERDSTOWN
West German street, which is the Main-ish Street for the town, is an excellent place for strolling hand in hand, window shopping as kids bound about ahead. And the town has some hills and inclines to make all that walking a bit of an exercise.
Of course, no visit to this college town is complete without perching on a stone wall below McMurran Hall as kids imagine tight rope walks all about you.
You’ll spot an odd little white building across the street, the Shepherdstown Public Library, which is West Virginia’s longest continuously occupied library building. The library is housed in the Old Market House, which is, you guessed it, old. According to the National Register of Historic places, it was built in 1800 and was later remodeled by “the odd fellows” who somehow secured a 999-year lease.
I mean, it’s probably a good thing these odd fellows didn’t pull that kind’ve shit in Colonial Massachusetts. Geez, if you sneezed wrong in Salem, the town would suddenly be tying you to a cucking-stool.
Speaking of belief structures, a nearby Lutheran Church, Saint Peters, that roosts atop a small hill, the stone building itself is beautiful. And I totally wish I knew it was there when we lived nearby I would have attended. I’m not a religious guy but love to sing, and the sense of community and purpose that I know most Lutherans adhere to, is a draw.
I honestly knew they were Lutherans by the socially progressive signs they display on their lawn. The weekend when we recently visited, there was a “Black Lives Matter” sign displayed.
HAVE A SPIRIT AND THEN FOLLOW THE SPIRITS
But for heaven’s sake don’t let me be your guide, I’m just a fan of the town. Maybe let the spirits guide you, as some have called it the most haunted town in America. Of course, that was in a press release for a TV show featuring stern-looking Gen X paranormal investigators. In marketing, the stern look only seems to work for professional athletes, personal injury lawyers, and paranormal investigators.
I’m a bit dubious on ghosts… After my Mimi passed, I was forced to stay in her old-ass house on the lead-up to the funeral. I was drinking 40s and watching a Lakers playoff games in her good living room that I was never allowed in (28 years) while she was alive, and I had forgotten to kick off my Adidas in the mudroom.
If there was ever a time that deserved admonishment from the great beyond, it was right then. And yet nothing. Or maybe I was too drunk to notice?
But that shouldn’t stop you from throwing on a blazer, getting Martini-drunk, and wander around Shepherdstown provoking evil spirits. Just make sure your designated driver has some bail money and holy water on the standby.
In any case, ghost tours lead off from in front of the library (and from a quick check of their Facebook page, it looks like they are still giving tours). I haven’t joined in on one yet, but I totally want to. The lady rocks a great outfit and has an awesome lantern.
Nothing accentuates historic and fantastical tales like being led by a lady dressed as a goth Mary Poppins.
THE CIVIL WAR’S GOT THE GHOSTS
If you believe in ghosts, you won’t have trouble imagining them hiding everywhere, as mentioned the town is Moses-old and was basically a giant hospital during the Civil War. “Old” combined with “Civil War hospital” always equals a shit-ton of ghosts, right?
I had a friend in college (whom I totally had a crush on) that transferred from a school in Virginia. Her dorm was also once a Civil War hospital, and one night while she was studying alone, her tin of sardines started moving on its (their?) own across her desk.
I’m not sure if I was more frightened of her ghostly encounter or that she openly admitted to eating sardines.
Nevertheless, if the dead aren’t talking to you or that’s not your thing, there are plenty of alive folks with great info to rely on. Take the folks over at the Historic Shepherdstown and Museum, they have a walking tour for your phone, so you could get your history and marching orders on the fly.
GETTING THERE FROM HERE
We usually arrive in Shepherdstown from the west on Kearneysville Pike, having come over the mountain from Virginia on route 9, then north through Charlestown. Hillsboro has been closed due to roadwork, so we traveled over the mountain further south nearish to Mount Weather on Route 7 towards Winchester, VA, and turning north in the Berryville area.
Whether you pick 9 or 7, the road itself decompresses you as you watch suburban and box store hell disappear in the rear-view.
And by the way, there are good places to stop on either route. We love Nalls Farm Market near Berryville for fresh veggies, fruits, plants, and fantastic baked goods. My wife loves to look at their flowers, and I love to look at their pie.
We sometimes stop near Ranson at The Black Dog Coffee Company, which I alluded to earlier is no relation to the Black Dog behemoth from Massachusetts. The Black Dog Coffee Company offers excellent drinks and friendly staff. And you can pick up some local honey or music while there.
OR FROM MARYLAND
The drive from Frederick, MD, is also lovely, even when taking it at 65 mph on US 340 or at a snail’s pace on the local roads just to the south.
If you were to come up from the DC area, I would suggest you take River Road all the way into the Poolesville area, then find Maryland route 28 and follow it to Point of Rocks. On the way, Sugarloaf Mountain is an almost mandatory detour with a road that offers unprecedented views of Montgomery County and beyond.
Also, you must pick up an ice cream cone at Rocky Point Creamery in Point of Rocks and thank me later (their Mint Chocolate Chip is lovely stuff).
Plus, if you like old ghost movies, you can make a stop nearby at the gas station where a fictitiously doomed film crew stopped for supplies. And if you want more Blair Witch, you can make your way to Shepherdstown via Burkittsville.
I wouldn’t suggest trying to get lost in the woods or find any witches while there, that shit has been done ad nauseam. Although I would suggest making a trip to the esoteric War Correspondents Memorial Arch while there. It is such a large and odd-looking memorial that it defies explanation, you really have to see it for yourself.
With the world being in such flux, I feel like it’s important to shop small and support local businesses. The box stores will survive far longer than your local restaurants. And you can do all of this surrounded by history and fresh air with a trip to Shepherdstown.
Shepherdstown has a special place in my history-loving heart.
It is also the first choice for my wife and me when we have a rare date night, we have celebrated many anniversaries there. My oldest daughter learned to swim at the university’s aquatic center (highly recommend if it’s open).
It also recently provided me personal solace from the stress and anxiety at the beginning of the pandemic. During quarantine, I was working a sometimes demanding job and finishing graduate school, and oh yeah, we had just had a tornado a month before, and my daughter still had a wooden plank where her window should have been.
I returned to my own clumsy digital painting of German St at the end of virtual workdays. Workdays in the basement that, due to the playroom’s proximity next door, were all shouting and crying (mostly from me).
So, Shepherdstown was a consistent refuge for me at the end of the day.
What are your Shepherdstown haunts? Have you seen a ghost and are you sure it wasn’t because you had eaten some bad mushrooms or something? What else did I miss? Do operas still happen at the Opera House? Let me know below!