Leaving Washington can sometimes feel like re-entering the real world. This city is so all-consuming that it's easy to get completely wrapped up in what's happening here and forget what it's like "out there." When you finally do venture past the beltway, you remember what life was like before you became a Washingtonian. In general, this involves rediscovering all the wonderful things that don't exist in DC; things that got temporarily erased from your memory for the sake of survival in this alternative universe we call our nation's capital. I recently had the pleasure of becoming reacquainted with reality during a three day stint in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. This tiny, history-rich locale is only an hour and half from DC, but it might as well be on another planet. In addition to making me unable to get that John Denver song out of my head, it also provided just what I needed to remember what life is like on the outside.
For starters, I was overjoyed to have people in Shepherdstown say "Hello!" when they passed me in the hall. They also engaged in simple small talk, offered great customer service, and even (gasp!) smiled. I had forgotten that, in most other parts of the country, people are actually, well, friendly. Then there's the issue of prices. A bottle of wine at the Shepherdstown bar cost as much as just two glasses in DC. My favorite shampoo at the Shepherdstown pharmacy set me back a dollar less than it does at my neighborhood store. As I reacquainted myself with what life used to cost, my wallet did a little happy dance. But the best rediscovery surprise came after sundown. Gazing up at the sky I saw a never-ending sea of bright, twinkling stars. Stars! I had completely forgotten that they exist; that the sky could look so big and wondrous and sparkly. Even in cities like Minneapolis I was always able to spot at least the Big Dipper or Orien, but they're nowhere to be seen in Washington, which makes it easy for them to slip from your memory. Rediscovering that beautiful sight made me literally jump for joy.
While riding the shuttle between the conference site and my hotel, I asked the driver about historic downtown Shepherdstown. What was it like? Did it attract a lot of visitors? "Why don't I just take you there," he said. I gladly accepted, and we chatted about the area as he drove slowly down through downtown to let me look at the adorable shops, homes and restaurants that make up the old part of town. He even stopped to let me get out and take a few pictures before heading back towards the hotel. It was real world overload: friendliness, a free tour, and the stars shining overhead. I loved every minute of it. Shepherdstown, West Virginia wasn't quite what I had in mind for my first trip of the new year, but it turned out to be a perfect choice.