A RIVER RUNS THROUGH THEM|
Independence Day on the Gunpowder Trail
Thousands of Baltimoreans escaped the city heat to enjoy a
different kind of Independence Day. Built up over an old railroad
bed, the Northern Central Railroad Trail offers the cyclist and hiker
easy access to one of Maryland's most historic and pristine state
parks. I asked many who walked, cycled or live along the trail what
being here on the Fourth meant to them.
It is curious to know that though construction impacts heavily
locally, on the trail you are completely insulated from this. You
can almost see the Native Americans who walked and traded along the
misty river for thousands of years, or Maryland's freedom fighters
as they campaigned here to gain our independence, or sadly, to hear
the whistle of Lincoln's final train ride, as his body was returned
to Illinois. He'd taken this same train ride to deliver his address
The trail begins in Ashland, and on Sunday morning, the Fourth,
mist from the Loch Raven Reservoir and the Gunpowder River hung
heavy in the air. Bicycling into Sparks, shafts of sunlight have
begun to pierce the green canopy and mist. Passing Glencoe, once a
resort village for Baltimore's affluent (circa 1880), the ivy
shrouded rocks silently tell the story of those who carved out this
Emerging from a dark, misty overhang of trees, I came upon a
startling view from a bridge. Below spread a farmfield of parked
"It started as a wedding party," said Richard Hyatt,
who had walked up from below, "and has evolved into an annual
gig. They call it 'Kool-Aid.' I came last night with a friend from
D.C. and partied all night long, listening to a neat group, the
Oxymorons, on an outdoor grandstand. We all brought along some food
for the homeless. Part of the admission fee, I guess, goes to the
homeless too. I guess that's how the Fourth and this park relates to
I cycled down to an ancient stone house, barn and several hundred
people sleeping in a tent village or out in the open around a
smoldering campfire. "Come back later this afternoon and talk
with 'Stan'," someone suggested.
Cycling north, I entered the Monkton Train Station, now the
park's headquarters and museum. While there, Sergeant Dave Davis,
chief park ranger, rushed to help a dog hit by a motorist. With
thick but tender hands, he gently scooped up the paralyzed dog and
set it in his truck to take it to the vet. "Annie," the
dog, was doing okay at the vet's, I was told.
"That's the Fourth to me," said the ranger later while
arranging several flags along his station. "I've had to
dispatch deer who've been hit by cars, and it's sad, so to be able
to help an animal into recovery makes my day. Come on by later...
we'll be having watermelon. And there's a nature walk at
John Welling, a Towson State University student interning as the Station
attendant, said, "I love this park especially on the Fourth.
It's like a part of me now. I love telling people how this area used
to bustle with the railroad traffic from the Calvert Street Station
in Baltimore to the Sunburg and Harrisburg area of
A two-family group descended on the station in bicycles with
training wheels and high-tech ATBs. James Sands, father of three,
said, "Coming here for the Fourth was a convenient thing to do
for the whole family without argument--" His younger daughter
shuffled uncomfortably. "Well," he admitted, "almost
Judith Wantz, mother of three girls, said, "It's a nice
family trail. My husband is going all the way to Pennsylvania. We'll
be picnicking half way there sometime. Whenever they," and she
gave her brood a nod, "get tired."
"Mom!" cried out little Melissa Wantz.
"Oh yes," said Judith. "Tell the man what your job
"I push," she said matter-of-factly.
"Push?" I asked.
Smiling her mother said, "She means, she helps her daddy
along by pushing him."
"How old are you?" I asked.
She slowly unfurled four fingers.
Travelling north again and passing the crumbling relics to the
old gunpowder-related industry, I come behind a beautiful Arabian
States Barbara Marcus of White Hall as we stopped: "For me
to ride Mellodi--that's two Ls and an i--on this trail on the Fourth
is a part of my every day life as an artist. I come here not only to
work out and exercise my horse, but also to find painting
inspirations. There's something about the early morning lighting
here... haunting shafts of light..."
I was now following the smaller, Little Falls River, which
empties into the Gunpowder. In White Hall, rose a landscaped rock
where Old Glory hung limp in the late morning heat.
Gene Stiffler, the property's owner, squinted his eyes, then said,
"Well, I usually work on the Fourth--"
"He means, around the house or on the grounds," said
his camera-shy sister.
"Err, yup. --Haven't decided what I'll do today. Kind'a
early yet. Might look for some seasonal music and play it for the
folk on the trail... Can't find too much of that patriotic stuff,
"That's because you like Bluegrass..." said his sister.
"How long have you lived here?" I asked.
"Been around here since , oh, 1964. The house here was built
"Do you like being so close to the trail?" I asked.
"It has its advantages and disadvantages," he said.
"It's convenient for my bicycling and you meet the nicest
people. But some people trespass, or their dogs run loose in my
yard. I'd like for the DNR to definitely enforce some of the leash
laws on the trail." He smiled reflectively: "But there's
no rowdy people to speak of on the trail. It's just that late at
night... bikers talking to each other kind'a spook the night quiet."
"Sunday mornings, too," complained his sister.
"Yup. Sunday mornings is a nice time for quiet. But I'm glad
the trail is here, especially on the Fourth, so I can show off my
garden and flag."
The trail was now busy with cyclists, joggers and picnickers.
Just south of Parkton, Little Falls cascades into a large pool from
an overlook with picnic tables.
Parkton once served as the northernmost point of the Baltimore
commuter line. About a half mile north of Parkton, the trail leaves
the Little Falls River and follows Beetree Run, a prime trout
fishing stream. It also boasts an active beaver colony. The nearby
Bently Springs once served as a health resort. Here also,
blackberries and raspberries hang heavy.
The trail begins to ascend more steeply. To the seasoned cyclist,
this slope feels absolutely flat. To a child who has been cycling
for ten miles, it might be murder.
Freeland is the last outpost before the Mason-Dixie line.
Crossing Freeland Road, I asked a pair of brightly attired cyclists
how far I was from Pennsylvania.
"A little over a mile," said the one in orange and
"And it's all uphill," said the lady in red.
"But it feels great coming down," said the other.
I found it a relaxing climb, with ever more dairy farms coming
into view among gently rolling hills.
At the state line the trail instantly changed into a horrible bed
of rocks for a hundred yards, then into complete disarray, and
seemed to disappear into the local farming scene.
Back in Freedom I stopped at the FLOWER CAFE, on the west bank of
the Beetree. Vera Simmons, proprietor, said, "For the sake of
thirsty hikers and bicyclists, the Fourth for me means we're open...
"We came to this area twelve years ago," she continued,
"to be a part of something more peaceful than what we had
before. Now I feel I'm a permanent fixture of the trail."
Sitting beneath the shade listening to the stream, a
forty-something couple dismounted and sat beside me. "Well,"
said Philip Gillum, "we're here on the trail for the Fourth
because..." he paused.
Bonnie Dunn, smiled as she said, "It's because we weren't
"We do it every Sunday," he said.
"Too bad it doesn't keep going in Pennsylvania," she
"Yeah," he said. "I hear it's because the farmers
up there have been farming the railroad property for so long now
that they don't want to part with it."
Southbound, I come upon a cycling accident in Parkton. A woman
bleeding from the head was surrounded by cyclists.
A young girl approached and said, "That's my mommy over
"The one who got hit?" I asked.
"She didn't get hit!" she said like I was supposed to
know absolutely everything. "She ran into that pole... Anyways,
that's not my mommy. My mom's helping the girl. My mommy is a doctor."
"Do you like being here on the Fourth?" I asked her.
"Yeah... but now my mommy's working."
Back in Monkton, Sergeant Davis motioned me over to a
flag-adorned table full of cold, sliced watermelon. "Dig
in," he said heartily. "It's free."
Suddenly, he sprang up and lectured a cyclist who failed to walk
his bike across Monkton Road. After the warning had sunk in, he said,
"Want some melon?"
I returned to the Kool-Aid fest along the Gunpowder to interview
the landowner. Sporting a distinguished salt-and-pepper beard, Stan
Dorman explained: "This all started as a wedding anniversary
eight years ago in D.C. Somehow it grew--"
Tim McGuinnis of D.C., continued: "We're all friends of
friends of family. Last year there was two hundred--"
"And this year," said Stan, "it grew to five
"That's too many," reflected Tim.
Stan nodded in agreement but said, "But you know, when these
people leave here, the farm is spotless. These are a remarkably
responsible group of people. And we want to keep it that way. We had
many kegs of beer, lots of good partying. There's a river over there
where we tube, and the live music... We didn't have one brawl."
"It's not open to the public," explained Tim.
"So don't reveal our location, please," stated Stan.
"What's this I hear about helping the homeless?" I
"Together with the groom, I'm in charge of the donations
thing," said Tim. "We decided to have lots of fun while
also helping our fellow man. The food will go to the Capitol or
Baltimore food bank."
"That's the Fourth for us," said Stan. Proudly, he
pointed to his home. "That was built in 1857... I've been here
for seventeen years, and enjoy my proximity to the Trail."
Southbound, near Phoenix, I come upon a young couple with a child
sitting in the water who were gently talking. The scene was ever so peaceful... ever so Biblical.
Thus I left the trail and headed for the hustle and bustle of the
hot city with a warm feeling about America stirring in my heart.
Bent Lorentzen is a Danish American writer. A more in-depth version of this article, with dozens of his photos, first appeared as a cover story in the Baltimore Sun.
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