Thursday, March 2, 2017

Discovering Silky Ruins and a Sodden Swamp

On Sunday I wanted to try out Stanley and explore new ground. With poor old Stuart and his high mileage I was too scared to drive more than a couple of hours away in case I broke down, but now my radius has expanded to unlimited miles and I was eager to get out there. Bill came with me and with coffee, empty camera cards and charged batteries we set off.
I had an area in Maryland on my 'to explore' list so we drove northwest up towards Rte 36 where the road followed the Potomac River and would hopefully discover some old and interesting industrial towns. It seemed odd to be driving a new vehicle, especially without having the constant dread of a breakdown, but the guilt of disposing of Stuart was hanging heavy on my shoulders and I know it will take a while to fully accept Stanley as his replacement. But having Bill to chat and laugh with while driving brightened my mood andsoon I was focusing on the emergence of spring in the surrounding countryside. Blossom buds were bursting out, pink, yellow and white peeking out, birds flitted and swooped across the front of the car and alongside us, while wisps of clouds were still clinging to the mountain tops but they would soon be swept away, it was a cold and gusty day.
Out of all the towns we came across, Piedmont,WV, was our favorite. The folks that were remaining were friendly and seemed to have an impressive sense of humor, judging by some of the scenes we saw. We particularly loved the party bus and fervently wished someone had come out of their house to take us on a beer tour around the streets. Piedmont and Westernport, MD are on each side of the Potomac River but feel as though they're the same town. Only a small river and a rail line divides them. Piedmont was like a ghost town though since the coal mines have closed, and research showed that both of its schools have closed, along with stores and entertainment, and its population has dropped to below 900 from 2300 30 years ago. Westernport has suffered the same decline. We drove around empty streets, seeing vehicles but few people, then carried on driving up towards Frostburg.
We came across an old mill in Lonaconing and found a phone number for the owner who told us he charged $25 an hour for people to take photos. Letting us inside, he gave a brief history of the old building and how he'd purchased it, and was now seeking funds for repairs, particularly to the roof. There had been a lot of water damage inside and I wondered how safe it was to be in there.
It was a little embarrassing as the owner had asked where I was from after hearing my accent, then once we met him, he said he couldn't let me go back to England without seeing the mill. I was too embarrassed to tell him I lived here now in case that was the only reason he was allowing us inside, so I kept quiet. We only spent 40 minutes shooting the building and then a further 15 or so talking about the mill's history so I didn't feel we'd underpaid for his time.
My hands were frozen as we walked between the looms. Neither of us had tripods so weren't prepared for the dark interior but the Sony held up pretty well in the low light conditions. The huge sheets of plastic that had been protecting the roof had been blown down the side of the building, and now flapped, crackling loudly, through broken windows. At times it almost sounded like the ghostly clacking of the machines when they had once been working, so noisy that they could be heard a block away on Main Street.
There were a few old radios strategically placed to create atmospheric images for the groups of photographers that came here and there were also a couple of calendars from 1957, the year the mill closed. The machinery was operated by women, most of whom had husbands working in the coal mines, a huge help at keeping many families afloat when the miners were on their numerous strikes. The raw silk was rolled onto spools and then sent to manufacturing and textile industries. It closed due to cheaper production overseas. The current owner purchased it in the late 70's, hoping to lease the building to a clothing manufacturer, but that never happened and the building has gone into decline. Photography groups come here now, helping to put money into a fund to replace the roof, along with other much needed repairs, but there's never enough to get the work completed. I suspect the owner may have to give up his valiant fight unless he can get a large injection of cash.
We gave the owner a hug and took some more photos of the outside as he left. He has plenty of security cameras placed about the factory, because many of the windows are broken. He told us of an incident when a scrapper had been seen, loading up his truck with brass piping from the building, and this prompted the security.
We left and continued heading north, stopping briefly to check out the train turntable in Frostburg, which was unsurprisingly freezing cold. The winds whipped about my face as we took photos and we were soon scuttling towards the car. We decided to warm up in a bar while eating the worst lunch we'd had in ages so I won't name the establishment. Thank God the beer was tolerable. While we shivered at our table perusing maps, wrapped in our jackets, since this lunch stop was also seriously lacking in heat, Bill spotted an interesting swamp area in WV so we decided to make that our last destination this afternoon. The roads would be rural and windy with few opportunities for pit stops so we popped into a gas station in Friendsville. It was a rustic, old fashioned place that we found lived up to the name of its town. We were studying the various flavors of Moonshine, especially the Mississippi mud layered version, and giggling amongst ourselves, not realizing that we were being listened to by the service lady who promptly came over with samples of the flavors we'd been discussing. She chuckled at the surprise on our faces which soon turned to thorough enjoyment once the realization sank in that we were drinking alcoholic beverages in a gas station. Only in West Virginia! But we did decline on a purchase after further scrutiny of the bottles revealed that the alcoholic content was only 17%.
We drove along some of The National Pike, stopping to leap out of the car to snap the Casselman Bridge and then within 5 minutes were jumping back onto our heated car seats again.
We climbed up into the mountains, drove through the Savage River Forest where the terrain was much denser than the Shenandoah Forest, the ground almost covered with rhodendendren bushes, which I'd like to come back and see when they're flowering, and there was also still snow on the ground. We stopped very briefly just to stand outside the car and savor the sweet mountain air and the remote stillness. I jumped out again to catch the sun glinting off old corn stalks in a field and shadows playing through an old abandoned trailer. A little later as we rounded the winding road we saw the swamp in the distance, the water shimmering in the late afternoon sun. There wasn't a soul to be seen, no cars, no people, no animals, it felt like we were at the end of the earth.
 Cranesville Swamp has a small parking lot, room for about 5 vehicles, and I was amazed to see one leaving as we arrived, an older guy who'd been out for a solitary walk.
Stepping over numerous tree roots that reached out to grab our ankles and spread across the path, we entered a pine wooded area, the temperature plummeting with the lack of sunlight, it was like being in a cave.The silence was almost deafening and I was glad I'd not come here alone. There was something about the low slung shadows, the deathly, heavy cold and the tall pine trees that surrounded us, blocking out the sky that was, to me, a little unnerving.
We walked along the boardwalk in a large circle, out into the open swamp, brimming with new plants, mosses, ferns, skunk cabbage and many I couldn't identify, but it looked very healthy and was very squidgy when I rested a boot onto a clump of moss. I'd love to return in the spring when the swamp is likely a riot of color and visitors are serenaded by frisky frogs.
Then we were back into the pines again, but this time heading towards the car, which I was very relieved to climb back into.
Back on the road we headed towards home, stopping in the last light to quickly snap some last photos of icicles and old buildings. We'd crammed a lot in throughout our day, arriving at unexpected and interesting places. I'd enjoyed getting used to Stanley, savoring my newfound freedom, and arrived home later that evening excited as I thought of all the new places I could now explore with a reliable vehicle. But it's going to take a while to bond with Stanley, he's got some very big tire tracks to follow. I miss you, Stuart...

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