After Scott picked me up at Keys Gap at the VA-WV border, he drove me back to Hampton Inn in Charles Town, located a stone’s throw from Harpers Ferry. En route to the hotel, we stopped at Jimmy John’s since I was almost faint with hunger. A gargantuan-sized Philly cheese sub immediately put an end to my spell of weakness. At the hotel, I conducted what is known in hiker-speak as a “packsplosion,” whereby a hiker empties all the contents of his backpack such that the gear is strewn out in a most unorganized fashion. Next, I jumped in the bathroom to remove the stratified layers of caked-on dirt that had accumulated over the last several showerless days. After running steaming hot water over my battered feet and overworked leg muscles, I was feeling restored. With puffy clean skin and squeaky hair, I was anxious to enjoy some time off and check out the historic scenes of Harpers Ferry National Historic Park. Scott and I spent the remainder of the day in Harpers Ferry where I’d be passing through the following night while on the “Four-State Challenge.”
The town of Harpers Ferry is situated where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers converge, called “The Point,” whence one has commanding views of Virginia and Maryland. Walking from a peripheral parking lot to the town center, historic ruins immediately came into view. The remains of the Shenandoah Canal were remarkable. This particular skirting channel, excavated between 1806-1807, enabled cargo vessels to bypass or “skirt” the turbulent rapids of the Shenandoah River. Driving across the Shenandoah River Bridge on the way into Harpers Ferry, Scott and I observed the fast-moving waters of the Shenandoah crashing onto the rocks. One can appreciate the practical need to circumnavigate such a tumultuous river. The channel, linked with numerous other canals to Washington D.C., became part of the Potowmack Canal system founded by George Washington. In fact, the town of Harpers Ferry itself was strategically selected by George Washington as the site of the federal arsenal. Nineteenth- century buildings dotted the town’s hilly grid with which I became acquainted during my visit.
In October of 1859, John Brown, a northern abolitionist, attempted to capture the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. The facility was formally known as the United States Armory and Arsenal. During the Civil War, the complex became a site of tremendous strategic importance since it was located near the Mason-Dixon Line (i.e., the border between free and slave-holding states). At its greatest extent prior to the Civil War, the Armory-Arsenal facility employed an estimated 400 workers and housed the largest collection of weapons in the South, stockpiling some twenty thousand muskets, rifles, and pistols.
In his vehemence against slavery, Brown, his five sons, and a small group of men sought to lead a slave rebellion by arming southern slaves with the huge stock of weapons kept at the Armory. Brown had hoped that by seizing the complex and capturing the weapons, he could then distribute the them to enslaved people who would join his rebellion and go on to establish free colonies. Brown’s raid depended upon the uprising of local slave reinforcements; however, few, if any slaves at all, joined Brown’s cause.
In the dead of night, Brown and a small band of nineteen men crossed the Potomac from Maryland into Harpers Ferry and seized the national armory, which had been poorly defended. Although trying to inspire a slave revolt in the South, Brown’s raid abruptly ended as he and his men became entrapped in the fire engine house (part of the original armory complex), known today as “John Brown’s Fort.” Soldiers, at the command of Lt. Colonel Robert E. Lee, stormed the edifice and overwhelmed Brown and his team of revolters. His sons were killed in the skirmish. John Brown’s zealous crusade had come to a decisive end, but not without a fight. Brown, the radical abolitionist, was put on trial, convicted of treason, and sentenced to death. He was executed by hanging on December 2, 1859 in Charles Town. Upheld as a deranged terrorist and mad man in the South and a heroic martyr in parts of the North, Brown’s raid inflamed the issue of slavery.
Historical books and articles often portray John Brown as a “hero” because of his activism against slavery, but a closer examination may paint a different picture. Brown’s peaceful activism of his younger years gave way to more militant actions as he grew older. After pro-slavery attacks at Lawrence, Kansas, Brown and his followers of anti-slavery zealots hacked to death five pro-slavery settlers in what became known as the Pottawatomie Massacre of 1856. Over the next several years, pro-slavery settlers captured two of John Brown’s sons and killed a third one. By 1859, Brown was leading raids in different areas to free slaves. In October 1859, Brown and his band of zealots attacked Harpers Ferry, hoping to seize the federal arsenal and kill masses of slaveowners across the South. However, the first casualty of the raid occurred at the train station where a baggage handler was shot in the back for refusing the orders of Brown’s men. The cruel irony was that the victim was a free black man. Brown’s Harpers Ferry attack was condemned even by the nation’s foremost abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator. In his column Anti-Slavery Zealot John Brown Is No Hero, James Bovard notes, “Horace Greeley wrote in the New York Tribune that ‘the way to universal emancipation lies not through insurrection, civil war, and bloodshed, but through peace, discussion, and quiet diffusion of sentiments of humanity and justice.’”
Unfortunately, many people chose to focus on Brown’s willingness to be killed for his antislavery efforts rather than on his willingness to take things in his own hands and kill indiscriminately in his efforts. However, one can see that this was true of many people on both sides of the slavery issue; for it was no other than the actor and pro-slavery activist, John Wilkes Booth, was among the witnesses to the execution of John Brown.
In my estimation, despite his false hopes of sparking a slave liberation movement, John Brown is not a hero and should not be rendered as such. In some limited sense, he may be considered an antihero, doing the right thing by the wrong means or carrying out immoral things for moral reasons. Being on the right side of history does not purge one of wholesale violence against others nor excuse them from the consequences of their zealotry no matter how noble the cause. For this is the great lesson of John Brown.
As a middle school educator with a naturally inquisitive mind, Scott made an effort to read every solitary informational sign and infographic, which I found understandable in light of the historical significance of Harpers Ferry. A blue-shirted docent informed us that the Appalachian Trail (AT) did not originally go through the town. Interestingly, it was Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia who later proposed the AT be rerouted through Harpers Ferry.
Harpers Ferry General Store was one of the numerous fieldstone and wood-clad buildings we passed by on our walk through the old village. The train station, still a listed stop for Amtrak, was intact and had been carefully restored and maintained. A concrete staircase led down to a tunnel beneath the tracks for passengers who want to board or deboard the train from the tracks on the far side. The Meriwether Lewis exhibit was especially interesting to me. Meriwether Lewis traveled to Harpers Ferry in the spring of 1803 to procure weapons and hardware for the transcontinental expedition. The inventory of items obtained by Lewis from the federal Armory and Arsenal included “15 rifles, 15 powder horns, 30 bullet molds, 30 ball screws, extra rifle and musket locks, gunsmith’s repair tools, several dozen tomahawks, 24 large knives, and a collapsible iron boat frame.” This was quite a selection of gear compared to the contents found in the backpacks of thru-hikers!
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) headquarters was a must-see for me as a hiker. Normally, a picture is snapped of each thru-hiker and added to the library of photographic albums housed there. Disappointingly, the headquarters building was closed due to “deep-cleaning.” I peaked in the window but the place had been emptied out and no one was around, which was bizarre. Scott and I posed for the classic picture in front of the all-too-recognizable white stone facade of the ATC; then we proceeded down the hill for a double-scoop cup of ice cream at the parlor.
As the sun was starting to set, Scott captured a picture of me in front of the historic fire engine and guard house (John Brown’s Fort) where Brown’s musket-firing invasion had ended. It was dusk, and I was so captivated by what had ensued at that very spot; however, I still had questions concerning the whole episode and how it unfolded. Trying to envision the extent of the munitions factory was mind-bending. Perhaps the most impressive part of Harpers Ferry is what one does not see and is only understood in artist reconstructions: the firearms manufacturing complex located alongside the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad line on a strip of land right alongside the Potomac. Before being torn down, the Armory was a long, narrow complex of buildings that extended from the firehouse where I had been standing all the way to its entrance near the train station. Appreciative of the visit and the time to absorb the rich history of Harpers Ferry, Scott and I made our way back to the parking lot.
Stopping off at Wally World, I loaded up the buggy with supplies for a box that Scott would later drop off at a hostel up trail. In so doing, the food weight of my pack would be reduced during the challenge, which was to begin the following night at midnight. After resupplying, we searched Google Maps for a steakhouse, but all of them were soon closing. We ended up eating at a Mediterranean joint called Alfredo’s, which sounds Italian if you ask me. Places were shutting down for the evening, and the selection of this particular restaurant came out of scarcity and a limitation of alternatives. The establishment offers a most unusual form of entertainment! Apparently, we just missed the weekly traditional belly dance performance whereby Egyptian dancers make hip-and-torso staccato movements or “shimmies” to the tune of Middle Eastern music.
Numerous instruments of the Middle East are used to create such a hip-articulating dance activity, which I found fascinating. The darbuka drum sets the beat of the belly dance while the Arabic oud and qanoon are picked and strummed. Wind instruments such as the ney, mizmar, and Egyptian arghul all make the characteristic Arabic sound. Then, the belly dancer, bedecked in her coin-decorated bedlah costume, wears zills (finger cymbols) to make those occasional metallic jingle sounds. Marriageable women of the Middle East supposedly would dance for coins that were thrown to them. The coins would then be sewn on and kept for the dowry. This made good sense to me but this was West Virginia!
Although the two of us did not get to see the gyrating abdominal movements of the belly dancers, we still managed to have a swell time at the restaurant! The curtain partitions and Persian carpet made for a unique environment to discuss the day’s events. After devouring the complimentary plate of pita bread served with hummus, I ordered the chicken and steak kebobs, although the falafel and lamb gyro looked tempting. Scott wasn’t sure what he was eating, which I thought was humorous. The belly performers and musical entertainers were on one side of the restaurant. Scott and I were the only other people in the restaurant and we were on the other side trying to maintain a straight face! The music was blaring; therefore, trying to hear one another speak was next to impossible. The meal was made complete with a potent cup of Turkish coffee. Notwithstanding the deafening noise and distractions of feminine bellies, the evening was a success, and I came out stuffed to the gills. Back at the hotel, I laundered my sweat-soaked hiker raiment in the coin washer and dryer units and then called it a night. I turned in and was out like a light.
The following morning was Easter. For Christians around the world, it was Resurrection Sunday; for me it was strange not being at church nor at home with my family as I had always been accustomed. Scott and his wife cheered me up by preparing a “hiker Easter basket” full of necessary trail supplies! I’m amazed by their thoughtfulness and am blessed by their capacity to care for another human being.
The kind souls behind the front desk of the hotel permitted me stay well beyond the check-out time. Once the ladies understood that I would not be resuming my hike until midnight on account of the 24-hour Four- State Challenge (FSC), they permitted me to go back up to my room. By this point, Scott had left the hotel since he had a long drive back to Ohio and had to teach the next morning. After preparing my pack for the upcoming challenge, I ordered a stuffed crust pizza from Papa John’s and watched a couple comedy movies on cable television. Around 10pm, I Ubered back to Keyes Gap at the West Virginia border where I commenced the FSC.
Unlike the “60-Mike Shennies Challenge,” which I personally invented, the FSC is an AT tradition that has been around for a number of years. The start of the Four State Challenge is at Keys Gap (mi 1019.8) and ends at Pen Mar Road (mi 1067.4) at the Mason-Dixon Line, amounting to 47.6 miles using the Far Out (formerly Guthooks) app. Some hikers elect to go southbound for the challenge; however, it made good sense for me to continue in my northerly direction torward Canada, which I have consistently done. At the stroke of midnight, after tagging the sign of the trailhead, I departed Keys Gap. After hiking only six miles, I arrived at Harpers Ferry, this time under the cover of darkness. It was surreal to see the same old buildings at nighttime that I’d seen previously during the daytime. I came off the hillside and dropped down toward the town, not to raid it as John Brown once had but to follow the rectangular white blazes and hike through it. It was the middle of the night and I had arrived at the railroad-pedestrian bridge that crossed over the Potomac. West Virginia was by this time complete, and the Four State Challenge was well underway!