Sometimes people are weird. Sometimes nature is weird. Sometimes it is a bit of both.
Walking along Factory Road and inside the state park lands we’ve found some weird shit. The weirdest we have no photographic evidence of. One day WPT and I were having an intense conversation, as one does in the woods, when two people on an ATV drove up and began dumping a body. We looked at each other and then back at the brazen body dumpers. 2020 has reached a point where very little surprises us anymore.
Turned out they were setting up a National Guard training exercise with a life-size body to be located and recovered. We lived to tell the tale, but regretfully did not get a photo of the body in situ. We also didn’t get a photo of the pregnancy test discarded on the roadside, but we did speculate. Much of what we find tells a story, even if utter fiction…
Booze, that is; the outdated measurement itself – embossed on the heels of the innumerable bottles we have plucked from the tree line along Factory Road – when taken into account alongside its more modern metric counterpart (750 mL), hints that this area has been a popular drinking spot since long before Old Grand-Dad was a twinkle in your father’s eye.
Even today, the winding little Baltimore County byway – bordered by private and state-owned forest, as well as the handful of homes clustered near Factory’s southern terminus – is an anomalous throwback to an earlier, pre-code time. It’s a two-way street, though its oddly narrow, unmarked width might lead one to reasonably conclude otherwise. A rural cousin of the now-congested horse-and-buggy routes of old east coast cities like Boston and Philadelphia – now paved, but never built with cars in mind. Much like a pre-pandemic world forced to retrofit to a new reality…
Directly or indirectly, COVID-19 has informed almost every decision we’ve made since mid-March 2020: staying home as much as possible, to minimize our chances of exposure; thoroughly cleaning anything that comes into the house; taking regular walks, to counter the inertia of daily teleworking; ordering a reach extender to more safely bag the litter we find along our favorite route – Factory Road. Sometimes, as we collect the trash, I wonder how often (if ever) it crosses the minds of those who so casually toss their half-smoked butts, Wendy’s wrappers, and empty White Claws out their windows, at speed. Also in the regular mix: dental floss picks; used latex gloves; home pregnancy tests; and spent shotgun shells.
Then there are the anomalies, like the rusting cylinder of nitrous oxide in the drainage ditch beside the road, or the pay phone in the nearby woods. Their origins – a great source of speculation – don’t really matter, as these items are today as much fixtures of the surrounding landscape as the gentle hills, the rocks and trees.
Some three dozen trash bags later, and with the roadside now clean enough to draw the occasional encouraging honk from passing cars, we turned our attention inward, beyond the tree line, into the woods. More fifths, and four-fifths, gallons and full pints – the cast-off bones of clandestine late-night benders. The more interesting ones – embossed or easily identified brands; unique shapes, sizes, and colors; unfamiliar names – come home with us.
The rest get recycled.
Digging glass from the forest floor led us to discover several old trash pits – most likely the detritus from a couple of overgrown foundations in the woods and their one-time occupants. I spent a few college summers working for a South Jersey DPW, where I learned to build amateur forensic profiles of people based on what they threw away, how much of it, and how often. Stacks of well-read Sunday papers. A neatly polished-off handle of Myers’s – just like last week’s, and the one from the week before that. Bag upon bag of meticulously landscaped brush.
The glass bones that litter these lonely woods tell their own story. Heavy, green Coke bottles. Car polish. Zinc-lidded Mason jars. A Depression-era knockoff Vaseline. Amber Clorox bottles. Turpentine. A 1940s hair crème. Mustard. Ketchup. Soft drinks. Booze, of course (and nearly as much aspirin). And hundred-year-old bottles from breweries killed by Prohibition. Together with midcentury license plates, a rust-flaked Radio Flyer, and the odd horseshoe, they comprise the long-forgotten ruins of a routine that one day, not so very long ago, left home and never came back.
We’ve resurrected several items from the forest floor. Much of the glass has cleaned up beautifully. Apothecary bottles of all colors, shapes, and sizes now line our kitchen sills like the usual snake-oil suspects. Beside a blue-tinted Ball Perfect Mason jar, a King Syrup bottle holds freshly cut flowers from the yard. Even an ordinary glass salt shaker that would have been at home on any Cold War kitchen table once again fulfills its intended purpose.
Like a flood of cheap, single-use plastic, COVID-19 has upped the ante for our disposable culture. Bits of the old normal will eventually be recycled, repurposed, to be sure. But I sometimes wonder, as I stand at the kitchen sink, scrubbing off the latest haul, what those who will kick about the woods, the riverbeds, and shorelines a hundred years hence will make of what we threw away…
People travel to experience different cultures, learn about history, watch wildlife, and meet new people. When COVID-19 hit, I had thousands of miles of work-related travel stretching in front of me. All canceled. Suddenly my days were spent in one room, mostly in one small space, huddled in front of a camera and monitor. Our travel days were over.
The first few weeks were both still and chaotic, everything happen all at once and then waiting for the next scary thing to happen. The March weather and pandemic emotions surged up and down. WPT and I began taking walks in the late afternoon, our commutes now reduced to feet instead of miles. Our usual walk wasn’t enough. We had too much energy to burn, too much to talk about. We tried walking to the post office, but with no shoulder and cars zipping by it wasn’t fun. The walk to the main road was boring. One day we tried Factory Road.
I had avoided Factory Road for five years. Right after our offer on the house was accepted we drove out to see it. To make sure it was all real. We took Factory Road on the drive back and a fuse melodramatically burned out as we traveled down the dark, isolated road, filling the car with an acrid stench. The road isn’t wide enough for a center line to divide it. It looks like it should be one way. Cars have to slow to pass one another. The exit onto the main road seems fraught with danger with a bend obscuring oncoming traffic.
Walking down Factory Road was different. What was dark and foreboding in a car was now lush and peaceful. What was scary at 40 mph was really rather pleasant on foot. The hills provided a physical release from pent up anxiety and energy. WPT and I had found a perfect quarantine walk. We saw deer, a fox, plants, and once we even watched a bald eagle glide overhead. We also saw a lot of garbage. It was evident that people used the road as a dumping ground, throwing food and bottles from their cars.
After the second or third walk, WPT and I discussed the garbage situation. It bothered both of us. I ordered a grabber online and we started picking up garbage on our walks. We did this methodically, starting on one side of the road and meticulously working our way up one side. We’d haul the bags home and put them into our garbage.
We learned that residents and visitors to Factory Road favored Twisted Ice Tea, Fireball, and by god they loved their Jägermeister. We found a pregnancy test and Christmas lists. We found a whole pay phone.
We’ve also met a few locals and said hello. Garnet, who sometimes bikes the road while we walk, talked to a man who explained the history of a farm implement and how he repurposed it to stop mailbox baseball. A woman in an SUV berated him for existing outside and asked if he wanted to be kidnapped. He called her a Karen and biked away.
One afternoon, Garnet asked to see what was along the ridge inside the section of road that belongs to the state. We plunged into the woods and at the top of the ridge found nothing more interesting than a path for power lines. On our walk back down, we found nests of bottles and other detritus. We had discovered an archeological site worthy of studying semi-rural partying in the 70s and 80s.
Our daily walk led us down more and more paths to research. We looked up pitcher plants, the history of bottle marks, and how to tell the age of Coke and Pepsi cans and bottles. WPT researched the history of Glen Arm, Factory Road, the nearby Copper Works, and the surrounding areas for further clues. Every day brought new spring plants and more old garbage.
We now travel Factory Road much as we have traveled to other states and countries. It had always been here, we just needed the opportunity to slow down enough to see it. We aren’t done exploring Factory Road…and neither are you.
A friend I hadn’t seen in 20 years was coming to Baltimore. Her only tourist request was to see Edgar Allan Poe-related spots. We only had a few hours before her conference started, so the challenge was to put together a 3-hour tour (one that did not strand us on the island). The Poe House is closed until May 2015, so that left the graveyard at Westminster Hall and possibly areas around Fells Point.
I knew of another delightfully macabre site not far from Westminster Hall, which I thought might make for a fun surprise, and asked for a tour. And so it was that early one Saturday morning we arrived at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner for a tour of the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. (Note to self – you should probably tell people why you are taking them to the ME’s office in advance.)
Bruce Goldfarb, Special Assistant to the Medical Examiner, graciously agreed to provide a tour on his day off. The Nutshells are miniatures of crime scenes – essentially dollhouses of death – created in the 1940s by Frances Glessner Lee. She’s one of the founders of forensic science. Each scene shows a corpse in situ and students are expected to deduce if the death is homicide, suicide, accidental, or natural. The answers to the cases are closely guarded and only a few have ever read them.
The 18 diorama dollhouses include barns, bedrooms, living rooms, apartment buildings, suburban homes, a bar, an attic, and more, all done on a 1-inch to 1-foot scale. The craftsmanship and attention to detail are unbelievable, from printed newspapers to blood-spatter and buckshot camouflaged on patterned wallpaper to working light fixtures. The windows open, clothes are aged, and shoes just sitting in a closet are hand-beaded.
Glessner created the scenes to train investigators how to study a room. In addition to the Nutshells, she also created models of bullet wounds – showing the impact on flesh using various distances and calibers. She used her substantial inheritance to not only create these teaching tools, but she also helped fund the creation of a Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard University. It was there the Nutshells were used until the department was disbanded in 1966. They then moved to Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore. They are still used to train investigators.
Highly recommended for lovers of that wondrous combination of history, art, and the macabre. Baltimoreans, next time you have an out-of-town guest, take them here instead of Café Hon.
Tomorrow night, Next Edit Travel’s editors will be reading their Edgar Allan Poe-inspired stories as part of Geo-Poe, a “literary geo-caching adventure.” Fourteen well-known local authors will read at Westminster Hall, a spot that has been called the spookiest place in Baltimore, and the site of Poe’s grave.
If you are in the city to visit Poe’s grave and other literary landmarks, there are many additional bookish spots worthy of your attention. Here are a few:
Baltimore’s largest antiquarian bookseller is located at 34 W. 25th Street (near Charles and 25th Streets) on what was once “Bookstore Row.” The name of the store is a nod to William Morris and it specializes in Arts and Crafts-related books, including books about books. With 30,000 books in inventory – from the 1600s to present – the shop offers many temptations for the bibliophile. I found an affordable signed mystery just last week. The store also has genuine bookstore cats who provide security and greet customers.
The Enoch Pratt Free Library began serving the citizens of Baltimore in 1886, making it one of the oldest free public library systems in the U.S. The Central Library, located at 400 Cathedral Street (near Cathedral and Mulberry Streets), is also Maryland’s State Library Resource Center. It is a beautiful building with an open floor plan in the entryway that extends to galleries on the second floor. They offer patrons a children’s room, exhibits (Maurice Sendak is up now), classes for kids and adults, author events, and special collections. The library also hosts the annual City Lit Festival in April. Next time you are in there, explore the building.
The Peabody Library is near the Washington Monument in Mount Vernon (17 East Mount Vernon Place). Started in 1860, a few decades before the Enoch Pratt Library, the Peabody’s collection of more than 300,000 books is mostly from the 18th and 19th century with a focus on the humanities, as well as maps. Much of their collection is online, including the library’s printed catalog, Catalog of the Library of the Peabody Institute, from 1883 and 1896. If you like books, this is an incredibly beautiful space.
Many bicyclists thrive on adrenaline-fueled treks across rocky or wooded terrain, or long-distance hauls of a hundred miles or more. Not me. While I do not shun physical exertion or breaking a sweat, I’m a walker, not a runner; my workaday life offers enough white-knuckle adventure for my taste. Come the weekend, I prefer pedaling through nature at a more leisurely pace. Maryland’s Kent Island – just east of the Bay Bridge (Route 50), about an hour’s drive south of Baltimore – provides just that. (En route, Wawa store #569, off Route 50 Exit 29A, makes an ideal pit stop, offering clean restrooms, reasonably priced fuel, food ranging from prepared sandwiches to fresh fruit to every kind of processed junk, and, of course, top-notch coffee.)
Unlike some of the state’s more congested bike trails, Kent Island’s Cross Island Trail, an east-west route running between Stevensville and Kent Narrows, is never crowded. The paved six-mile asphalt trail is open to skating, walking, running, and biking. Its consistently flat terrain makes it ideal for families with young children, older users looking to avoid high-traffic areas, and anyone simply out to enjoy the scent of salt air and the island’s towering pines.
We favor setting out from Terrapin Nature Park, at the Trail’s western terminus, as the Chesapeake Exploration Center, at the eastern end, makes for an excellent mid-ride break (more on that later). A playground near Kent Island High School, about a mile out, is a welcome pit stop for small children. Farther along, the Trail wends its way through alternating patches of forest and wetlands. Use caution at the handful of highway crossings; while many drivers will stop to allow trail-users to pass, some do not.
Upon reaching Kent Narrows, grab your water and snacks and climb the spiral stairs of the three-story outdoor observation platform at the aforementioned Exploration Center for a marvelous view of the Narrows, the Chester River, and their attendant varieties of marine traffic. Downstairs, visit the indoor interpretive center, offering all manner of island life and history ranging from the ice age to recent work by local artisans (not to mention very clean restrooms). The friendly staff will be happy to chat and answer any questions.
Of approximately equal length, the nearby South Island Trail, running from Matapeake Park to Romancoke Pier, provides a north-south alternative to the Cross Island Trail. However, but for the fishing pier at its southern end, this trail features little else of interest, especially for children.
While there is no charge for using either trail, it should be noted that, in 2014, Queen Anne’s County instituted paid permit parking for public spots like Matapeake Beach and Terrapin Nature Park. Seasonal ($35) and daily ($5) permits are available, however, they must be purchased from certain local businesses, which may or may not be open during park hours. While I have no problem paying a fee, especially if it benefits trail maintenance and patrols, having onsite purchase points would be infinitely more convenient and practical.
Situated in the unassuming office park just across the street from the entrance to Terrapin Nature Park is Blackwater Distilling, makers of the fabulously smooth Sloop Betty vodka. Maryland’s first fully-licensed distillery in more than 40 years, Blackwater offers free tours and tastings Friday through Sunday. Staples like Sloop Betty Honey utilize local, organic ingredients, while the distillery also produces various seasonal infusions throughout the year.
No bathtub hooch, Sloop Betty has won three Gold Medals, including the Gold Medal and “Best in Show” distinction at the New York World Wine & Spirit Competition, while The Tasting Panel magazine awarded the vodka a 94-point rating in its July 2011 issue. So take a bottle home, and keep your drinking money local!
WAWA STORE #569 321 Buschs Frontage Road, Annapolis, MD 21401 Hours: Open 24 hours Phone: (410) 757-2328
CHESAPEAKE EXPLORATION CENTER 425 Piney Narrows Road, Chester, MD 21619 Hours: Open year-round 7 days/week (closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day and Easter); Monday – Friday 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m., weekends 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. Phone: (410) 604-2100 Admission: Free Web: http://www.baygateways.net/general.cfm?id=74