Israel Embassy A River Runs Through Them From Embassy site, 1998
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Independence Day on the Gunpowder Trail

Bent Lorentzen

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 in Gettysburg.

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 railroad.

Emerging from a dark, misty overhang of trees, I came upon a startling view from a bridge. Below spread a farmfield of parked cars.

"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 me."

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 eleven."

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 Pennsylvania...."

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 everyone."

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 is."

"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 mare.

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, though--"

"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 in 1898."

"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 black spandex.

"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 invited anywhere..."

"We do it every Sunday," he said.

"Too bad it doesn't keep going in Pennsylvania," she reflected.

"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 there."

"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 hundred."

"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 asked.

"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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