Reaching Harper’s Ferry was yet another milestone on our journey west. Sitting right around the 60-mile marker of the C&O canal towpath, this famous crossroads has long been a haven for those hiking the Appalachian Trail. In fact, for a few miles our path joined with the AT as we approached Harper’s Ferry. That was also the day we started to get a real idea of what we would be facing when we finally left the towpath and headed deep into West Virginia.
Every hiker we have spoken with warned us that West Virginia would be the toughest part of our trip. The terrain, the weather, and often the people can be less than welcoming, to say the least. As we neared mile marker 60, the hills and mountains grew quite suddenly on the other side of the mighty Potomac. They seemed to loom, ancient and mocking, daring us to cross them.
We made it into Harper’s Ferry just in time to catch the famous Outfitters before they closed, and snagged some fresh pieces of gear. We stayed the night in the Town’s Inn next door, and spent the next morning plotting our moves over biscuits and gravy. Because we chose to get our pushcart early, we had to figure out how to manage it over steep terrain – a brake was the only solution to prevent a runaway cart.
We asked a local-looking man with a substantial beard if he knew of a good bike shop. He looked at our cart, and recommended the Pedal and Paddle in Shepherdstown, WV, just another 12 miles up the towpath and across a bridge. He introduced himself as Timothy, and told us to tell the shop that the Bike Monks had sent us – he said they would know what that meant. We pressed on.
Before we left Harper’s Ferry, we crossed paths with a school group from Virgina. They asked question after question about our trip, and it was a pleasure to watch them overflow with excitement and enthusiasm about the Walk.
We pushed hard to make it to Shepherdstown before the bike shop closed, and springing our first flat tire didn’t help the process. As I was pumping the flat back up, Timothy rode by on his way home. He offered to let the shop know we were on our way, and offered to give us a place to sleep for the night. We pulled into Shepherdstown just in time.
Jamie and Eddy kept the Peddle and Paddle open for two extra hours, working to put together a custom mount for a brake. Thanks to some brilliant “meatball mechanics” on Jamie’s part, we had all the right pieces to help us through West Virginia.
After an awesome dinner at the Blue Moon Cafe, Timothy came to pick us up with his brother, Benjamin. This is where things got interesting. I mentioned Timothy’s beard earlier….Benjamin had one of equal stature. Coincidence, perhaps…
It turns out that Timothy belonged to a group of missionaries, who subscribe to their own denomination of the Christian faith. When we got to the house, we were greeted by 8 or so brothers and sisters of the faith, all dressed in modest tunics and speaking in quiet, reverent voices. They opened their home to us and offered us everything they had in the way of food and comfort. They were all very camera-shy, and out of respect I did not sneak any photos – so words will have to suffice.
We spent the next day with the Fellowship, learning about their way of life. They live a mostly nomadic life, travelling by bicycle to do missionary work all across the country. We were lucky to catch them in a stationary period, and there were as many as 15 people living in the house. All of the brothers wore long beards – “beards of Biblical proportions” – and the sisters grew their hair long. They fed us generous meals, and treated us as brother and sister.
The Fellowship choose not to align themselves with any denomination, but their faith is at the heart of their daily lives. They believe that Christ came, not to preach and found churches, but to simply show us how to live. He lived by example, and they strive to follow his example. Thus, they practice modesty, generosity, honesty, reverence, hard work, and service to their God and fellow man. While they were hesitant to refer to themselves as Christians, they seem to have heard the message more clearly than any self-proclaimed Christian I have ever met.
It was amazing to see a group of people living and working together so harmoniously. The living arrangement was largely communal, with everyone gladly sharing in the responsibilities of the household. They took turns cooking and cleaning, and were very selfless in how they managed conflicts. It became clear to me that for a communal home to work, everyone must be ready to sacrifice a lot of themselves for the greater good. Egos must be checked at the door, and one must have a desire to put the home and the group before their own petty personal desires. That initial sacrifice, however, will yield a home that overflows with positivity and abundance. It was a marvel to see, and somehow Kait and I fit into the routine effortlessly. They even let us help with cooking and dishes, which was a treat after having so many host families give and give, without us having a way to repay them.
I spent much of the day working with Glen, who offered to help me refine the brake mount for our cart. As we worked, we talked of life, faith, love, and bicycles. By the end of the day I understood the components and how to service them when the time came. That night, we joined them for dinner and listened as they sang hymns and gospel songs. In the morning, they gave so much food that I thought our cart wouldn’t carry it all – but we found a way. Timothy and I spoke by the fire, and he left me with a piece of advice: “Don’t make your treasure in the material world.” With that, another brother, Jerry, drove us back across the Potomac to Maryland, where we picked up the C&O again.
I wish I could find more words to describe this wondrous group of people. Their dedication to their beliefs, to each other, and to the common good was an inspiration and an example to be learned from. So often, the institutions of religion get the messages wrong, or twist them with greed and hatred. I admit that I have little faith in churches, or mosques, or temples – it is too easy for institutions to miss the messages they should be embracing, and pit their congregations against one another. But at the heart of those religions was once compassion, responsibility, and understanding. The Fellowship reminded me that even in a world that has lost its way, faith can still be used for good.