Summer ’19: Part 6, Raiding Harper’s Ferry – but NOT the KOA

Leaving Ocean City, it had been a week since we last camped, so we were itching to build a campfire and let the kids run around in the woods. With fresh motor oil, new headlight bulbs, and a middle row of seats in the Westy, we looked for someplace a little less urban. We skirted Baltimore and D.C. and headed for the town of Harper’s Ferry. I didn’t know much about Harper’s Ferry. I knew something about a raid, and frankly, I thought it was in Nebraska (or was it Bleeding Kansas?). In my mind, Harper’s Ferry resided in a mishmash of abolitionist stories that all ran together. Every thing from 1812 to 1865 is kind of glossed over in grade-school history. Sad, but true.

A bit of trivia: Officially, Harper’s Ferry – like many possessive place-names – doesn’t have an apostrophe (See Devils Tower and Pikes Peak.) So it’s really Harpers Ferry, but that just drives me nuts, so I’m giving it an apostrophe in hopes that it’ll start a movement.

Harper’s Ferry is in West Virginia, where the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers meet. Walk a few feet in any direction and you’ll find yourself in Maryland or Virginia. Quick history: The power of the converging rivers made Harper’s Ferry the perfect place for the United States’ gun manufacturing operation. The army made, and stored, hundreds of thousands of guns there in the early days of the nation. John Brown was a rabid abolitionist of great charisma and dubious sanity. He recruited a small band of militant activists (including a few free blacks) and hatched a plan: take over the weapons armory, distribute the weapons to nearby slaves and watch the uprising spread through the south. The first part of the plan worked, when his group seized the armory. But they never got out of the building. A young general named Robert E. Lee happened to be in the area, and showed up in his street clothes and shut down the uprising in short order. John Brown was hanged for treason and became a martyr for the abolitionist movement.

Upon our arrival, we hit the National Park visitor’s center, loaded up on maps and got our passport stamped just before they closed for the day. Then we drove through – and rejected – the last KOA I will ever bother considering. They actually wanted $84 per night for a few square feet in a sea of RVs that were almost touching. It’s our own fault for thinking this is any different from the other KOA’s I’ve seen. Last summer, we tried one out in South Dakota, where $50 got us a patch of soggy grass and pool featuring “Adults only from 8-9pm” (ew!). I didn’t even stop the van before heading to the front desk for a refund. (Seriously, just about the entire state of South Dakota is perfect for camping, except inside the boundaries of the KOA.) The KOA where we live in St. Petersburg is a place where seasonal construction workers live in their fifth wheel RVs – nothing wrong with that, but it isn’t camping… or Kamping. In my experience, KOAs are glorified parking lots for people with big RVs who are too scared to get off the pavement. Last summer we stayed in a private campground in Idaho that was a former KOA. It wasn’t that bad, but it wasn’t that good either. I wouldn’t be so offended by KOAs is they weren’t so tempting with their easy booking, swimming pools and billboard advertising. I honestly wouldn’t mind paying $60 or $70 for a campsite, but I want to be nestled in the trees, not squeezed between two “slide-outs” with their generators running.

It was hard to believe Harper’s Ferry wasn’t overrun with tourists. We were charmed by the place. Half of the old town is a National Park. A line in the sidewalk marks the end of the park and the beginning of the still vibrant little town.

Abandoning our hope of camping, we found a river guide company and booked a “float” down the Shenandoah River for the next day. Then we learned that the outfitter also had a picturesque campground. The girl said “I guarantee you’ll love it.” Ignoring all I know about private campgrounds, we booked a site. The riverside location was nice and the grounds were okay. We pulled in and made dinner. Then, in the “open tent camping” area behind us, a group of five people slowly swelled to more than a dozen, with more on the way. A huge party was brewing. Friends, I’ve been the noisy guy in the campground before, and I’m not proud of it. And I love a good party. But I’ve never come in with 10 or 15 friends and acted like we were the only people in the park. We took a refund and found a Quality Inn for just about the same price.

I know I sound like a grumpy old man – and I’m at peace with that. I suspect no one else would complain because they were lulled by the hum of their generator, watching TV in their Fleetwood. I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater because there are some great private campgrounds out there. Ghost Ranch might be one of my favorite camping spots of all time. We look for three things in a campground: nature, a restroom, and a water spigot. Private campgrounds might have pools, and wifi, electricity and pavement, but they basically attract people who don’t want to camp, but won’t spring for hotel.

As for Harper’s Ferry itself – it’s a fascinating place to visit with great history and a quaint town surrounding by beautiful hiking trails. A perfect combo for our family.

It wasn’t the longest or most exciting tubing trip we’ve ever taken, but we got cooled off.

The great thing about that little Quality Inn is that it sits right on the Appalachian Trail and serves as a place to rest and provision for “thru-hikers” – people attempting to hike from Georgia to Maine. Notice that Monica is holding the map. She’s always holding the map – an important detail later in our trip. 

We enjoyed Harper’s Ferry so much that we stayed two nights. We chatted with some hardcore hikers (including this cool guy who has – as of this writing- reached Vermont) and saw lots of wildlife. For me, our visit to Harper’s Ferry clarified an aspect of our nation’s history that never really gelled. Seeing where the raid took place helped me understand the nature of the story and where it fit (literally) in the context of the coming Civil War. I can’t wait for our kids to study this time period and say, “Yeah, I’ve been there. Don’t stay at the KOA.”

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“Don’t make me turn this van around” is written by Jonathan Kile, and approved by Monica Kile. Jon’s 2014 thriller, The Grandfather Clock, is available free for Kindle on and other eReaders at Smashwords. Reach him at Monica is a marathoner, baker, freelance grant writer, non-profit consultant, tour guide, and prolific bath taker.



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