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The Tentacle


June 29, 2004

A Trip to Smithsburg

Joe Volz

The customers at the "Eatery" seemed to come in one size - extra large. The corpulent young women were shoveling freedom fries down the gullets of their young and it wasn't even lunchtime.

I had discovered Smithsburg, a two-block long town straddling Route 64, just 75 miles west of Washington. But it could have been in the middle of Montana.

Of course, it was all a terrible mistake. I was actually heading to Thurmont Tattoos, near Camp David, when I made a wrong turn. (Let me make one thing perfectly clear: I was not out to get tattooed; I had ripped my genuine black leather motorcycle jacket and my haberdasher said that the best place to get it fixed was a tattoo parlor.)

I arrived in Smithsburg in mid-morning and discovered that there was only one eating establishment in town, "The Eatery" - and no tattoo parlor. Main Street consisted of an auto parts store, a saloon, a general store and a school.

So, why not stop for a while?

Who says I should spend all of my time in tourist traps? Why not get off the beaten path once in a while and meet some real Americans like William Least Heat-Moon did in his travel classic, "Blue Highways." Moon only traveled on the back roads (the blue roads on the state highway maps).

I don't think he has ever been to Smithsburg but he would love it

The Eatery is clearly where the action is. Now, don't expect fancy cuisine. It's not that kind of town. The dining elitists can wander up the road to Gettysburg - and all those tourists.

As far as I could tell, I was the only tourist in town. I just had a hunch. I was the only customer who wasn't wearing a Caterpillar Diesel baseball cap.

The Eatery believed in modesty. No fancy interior decorations. A fake Christmas wreath was still on the front door months after the holidays and the plastic flowers must have been in their beer bottle vases indefinitely.

The restaurant was clearly segregated.

The men sat at the lunch counter and those fat mothers and mewling babies were in the booths. The males seemed to fit into two categories. The sun baked carpenters and farmers sat at one end and the retirees at the other. The retirees weren't too hard to spot. Not only were they older, but they were counting their change before they ordered anything.

I soon learned why the men didn't take booths near the women. Those kids could set decibel records. The place seemed to be an informal day care center for bored mothers and angry toddlers.

I ordered a steak salad (hold the fries). The steak must have been shipped in from U.S. Rubber. You could bounce it off the plastic tabletops. But heck, nothing like a little honest toughness in life.

The only slender person in the place was our teenaged waitress, who didn't have time to talk. When I dallied over whether I wanted my coffee now or later, she asked? "Yes or no?" before scurrying off.

That surprised me. People in small town America are supposed to have all the time in the world. They are supposed to be extra friendly. However, I soon realized that the staff was not going to fawn over me just because I looked like a big shot from the city in my old blue and gold Washington Star T-shirt.

Actually, they had me all wrong. I love small towns, particularly in the scenic Catoctin Mountains.

There is something restful about the place. The nearest town of any size is Frederick which proudly bills itself as the "second largest" city in Maryland. Baltimore is a tad larger.

As far as I could tell, Smithsburg wasn't making any boasts.

There are no tourist shops, which is a plus. No parking problem, another advantage. I pulled up right in front of the restaurant.

And there is not a lot of obsessive fuss with details. The waitress never bothered to put the coffee on my bill because I asked for it after she had filled out the menu. It was too much bother.

The specials were scribbled on the back of a receipt and handed to me. That day it was meatloaf and mashed potatoes for $4.49.

The town got going pretty late in the game, around 1814, and it took another hundred years to put up the existing village. The town website, www.wc-link.org/smithsburg, calls the place "an excellent example of a community relatively untouched by modern 20th century architectural trends."

They got that right.

I don't want you to get the wrong impression. I was impressed by the town. Really! Its simplicity; its open spaces; its slowness.

But it is not as sleepy as it appears. I am sorry to report that I missed the Motorcycle Poker Run last June. Sounded like a blast. Motorcyclists paid $15 and then drove around town picking up a playing card at each of five stops. The rider with the best five card poker hand won $100.

Later in the month, the firemen held their five-day carnival and the big event was the "possum hollar." I missed that, too, but I think I can figure out what happened.

So, when things get a little too hectic in the state's second largest city, I am going to head out to Smithsburg.

Next time, I'll order the meat loaf special.

E mail Joe Volz at jvolz2003@adelphia.net



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