Staying In A Historic Cottage Near D.C.

A brief history

Consistently listed among the most expensive counties in the United States to live in, Montgomery County hugs the west side of Washington, D.C. and is home to many industry leaders, especially in the biotech field. You can find city shopping centers that rival any large metropolitan area and awe-inspiring skyscrapers that don’t just look like pick-and-place rectangles. But for all of the modern conveniences and allure, the area has a lot of misunderstood history ready to be explored.

Public education in America often starts its US history lesson with “the shot heard ’round the world” and ends around the shot from John Wilkes Booth’s gun. Unless we use our own time to research, we miss out on the gritty, labor-heavy endeavors that existed outside of our many wars.

Our home for the weekend.

In an effort to connect the eastern shore with the Ohio River Valley, President George Washington advocated for a canal system to be built around the Potomac River to help boats traverse its several waterfalls. 50 years and several leadership changes later, and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal (C&O) finally opened in 1830. It held on for almost 100 years, finally connecting as far as Georgetown to Cumberland, but due to some bad flooding and the rise in popularity of the automobile, had to close in 1924. Today, an organization seeks to maintain the parkland that the C&O Canal and its towpath exist on. Among the attractions are several lockhouses, where keepers would live to raise and lower the locks at moment’s notice for boats traveling by. We had the chance to stay in one of the houses, Lockhouse 6, for a weekend.

Getting there

Our lockhouse sat on the side of the Clara Barton Parkway, which runs one way during parts of the day, and both ways during other parts of the day. This is fine, because it enabled us to arrive later in the evening and avoid rush hour on the Beltway. Siri took us into a turn too early and that caused us to revert all the way back to I-495 before revisiting the map and seeing our stop was only a few minutes past where she originally told us to turn left. This would come back to annoy us once or twice more as the only way to get to that side of the road was to drive fifteen minutes out of the way just to get on the correct side of the barrier. By the end of the weekend, I had started from further down the road and just popped a U-ey in the middle of the street before we got to the barrier.

The cottage sits almost directly on the canal with a lock on one side and a small stream on the other. Back on the opposite side of the Clara Barton Parkway, atop a hill were large, eccentric houses, pretentiously looking down on us common folk (we ended up on top of the hill during one of our drives and passed one of the houses that had an armada of Teslas pouring out of their driveway.) We checked ourselves in with a lockbox and checked out our home for the weekend. It was cozy, clean, and decorated like the 1950s never ended (seriously, there was chinaware with Dwight D. Eisenhower’s face on it.) There was one downside, however; it looked 100% like the set of a movie where a young couple would be killed by a ghost during a weekend getaway. The bathroom was downstairs in the dungeon basement. Other than having to doublecheck behind every door before bed for the lingering spirit of the former lock keeper, it was nice.

I held it all weekend so I didn’t have to find the bathroom down there…
What to do

The area doesn’t have a shortage of things to do, but staying here in the winter and during a COVID-lockdown makes things a bit difficult. With everything within 15 minutes driving, we drove over to Bethesda Row to look for a late night dinner before things were all closed and had to revert to cooking after a day of work, packing, and driving. We grabbed a delicious Mexican meal at Uncle Julio’s, a multi-state chain-restaurant, before retiring back to the cottage to catch up on some reading and grab some Zzz’s for the next day.

The lockhouse sits along the towpath.

The C&O towpath is a great place for an easy nature walk; it is flat and topped with soft dirt. We bundled up (it was about 30°F) and started to trek north, encountering a group of kayakers coming out of the nearby Potomac River. None of them seemed happy or satisfied with their feat. They just had a look on their face like “why did I do that?”

The dirt had frozen over and we shuffled along at a leisurely pace pointing out pairs of ducks and generally taking it easy. After an hour-or-so long walk, we lounged around the lockhouse a bit longer, catching up on more reading and I turned on our 50s-style radio to listen to the Capitals hockey game and some Tony Bennet.

The vibe inside.

We never really got hungry again, but were worried we might, so we headed back into the city to do some mild shopping. The whole area was very COVID-conscious, everyone wore their masks with regard to others and there was plenty of hand sanitizer available at each establishment. I’ve been reading a book about a family’s venture through Japan and its culinary history, so naturally I had a predisposition towards sushi that evening. A quick Google search, and we found a highly-recommended place to make reservations. I waited a little longer than I should have, so our wait time was pushed a little further than expected. No worries, I came across a mezcal bar that we could check out in the mean time.

We took a 15-minute walk over to Gringos and Mariachis. This place had a cool, trendy vibe to it – a mural-coated brick wall, antique liquor cabinets, and rustic wood décor. Our server was super nice and very knowledgeable about their cocktails. We talked briefly about how chartreuse liqueur balances perfectly with a clean mezcal in drinks and understood our ask to adjust the amount of agave syrup in a margarita to make it a little less sweet. I 100% recommend checking out this place if you’re in the area.

Few things better than a nice cocktail.

As our reservation time came closer, we strolled back towards Raku, where we were now getting excited to eat because our bellies were starting to wake up by now. Again, remarkable service and delicious sushi were a perfect nightcap to the evening.

The next morning, before returning home, we stopped by Praline Bakery & Bistro, and picked up a couple danishes and some macaroons with the most perfect shell I’ve ever had.

The drive back wasn’t bad at all. Traffic was pretty fluid and non-troublesome the whole weekend, which made getting home a piece of cake. Or a piece of apricot pistachio danish, if you prefer.

One last selfie to thank her brother for gifting us the reservation.

Taking A Road Trip To Toronto – Pt. 2

Continued from Pt. 1

Despite dorming with seven other guys, it was pretty easy to get access to the bathroom. I took a shower, got dressed, and set off for some breakfast. The first thing I got excited about (I was a little too visibly happy about this) was all of the black squirrels running around. In the mid-Atlantic, where I’m from, all of our squirrels are brownish grey. It was cool, okay…

Now, I’m one of those people that will walk a million miles to get somewhere. “It’s not that far.” Sorry to those of whom I’ve traveled with. Mapquest has a really neat feature where you can put in the addresses of a bunch of places you want to go and it’ll route you the most efficient path. So I plugged in a bunch of landmarks I was interested in and got a little map to use. Two of the places – the Art Gallery of Toronto and the Royal Ontario Museum were a little out of the way, so they were going to be “if there’s enough time afterwards” places to check out.

Strolled by this fountain in Berczy Park on my way to the CN Tower.

I headed towards CN Tower to see about doing the Edgewalk around the top of the building, but at around $200, it was out of my budget. Nonetheless, it was a cool and there were banners around celebrating Canada’s 150th anniversary of Confederation. Nearby were the Rogers Centre and Air Canada Centre (since renamed to Scotiabank Arena,) home to the Blue Jays, Raptors, and Maple Leafs sports teams. Just around the corner was my next stop, the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Entry was $20 plus the program I got with it. I don’t remember how much extra that was and I’ve since lost it, so we’re going to pretend like that just didn’t happen. This place is a must for any hardcore hockey fan and still really fun for the casual fan too. Between the displays of equipment through the ages, memorabilia from the Olympics and Miracle on Ice, and of course a few Wayne Gretzsky shrines, there was plenty of stories and stats to get lost in. My favorite section was the temporary exhibit of goalie masks even if they didn’t have a display for Olaf Kölzig, the Washington Capitals goalie I grew up watching. Towards the end, you come into a room that displays the trophies won by the best defenseman, best goal scorer, and the coveted Stanley Cup.

By the time I left, it was the afternoon, which means a socially acceptable time to have a drink. Outside of Steam Whistle Brewing is a pretty neat train display and a lot of people wandering around. A middle-aged gentlemen with a walker asked me to help him get across the train tracks that were running through the sidewalk. I gave him a quick assist while I listened to him speak in the most stereotypical Canadian accent I have ever heard. He was incredibly polite and spouted out a few “eh” and “aboot”s during our brief walk together. We wished each other a good day and I headed inside the brewery for a tall pilsner. Despite it being a Saturday, most of the people in there looked like they were coming right after work, dressed up a little and chatting like colleagues more than friends.

They made the grey/green aesthetic work.

After my mid-day cap, I continued on to check out Old City Hall and (new) City Hall to get a picture of the Toronto sign. I passed through St. James Park where I saw a bunch of people walking their dogs around with little boots on their feet. I somehow managed to arrive at the Toronto sign and snap some pictures just moments before two tour buses rolled up and a few dozen people poured out to take over the area. Somewhere in the mix of things I had strolled into St. Lawrence Market. I didn’t get anything to eat, but I did enjoy a lot of people watching and the sights and smells of the market. Just observing is one of my favorite things to do when traveling.

Around dusk, I took a walk along the waterfront and stopped for dinner at The Goodman Pub. It was pretty empty so I sat at the bar and I had a much better experience than the reviews for the place suggested. The only weird thing was a woman at the end of the bar ordered a beer with ice cubes (since going to Thailand, I’ve learned that it’s not completely uncommon.)

My late night exploring took me through the shopping district, back around the CN Tower, which was lit up with various colors, and back towards my hostel. I had put some mileage on my pedometer so going to bed was welcomed. Remember my normal looking bunk mate from last night, well now it’s a short, chubby, older guy that has decided to get ready for bed wearing nothing but a very revealing set of briefs. Please don’t have nightmares about that image…

I was able to snap a few pictures before the tour buses unloaded.

When I woke up, I checked out and grabbed a chai latte and muffin from Starbucks. Carlton was written on the cup. I chuckled. When I got to my car, my GPS wouldn’t turn on after a few minutes of trying. No big deal, I had just arrived two days prior so I just used memory to get back to Queen Elizabeth Way – a straight shot back to Niagara Falls.

I wanted to spend some time on the Canadian side of the Falls, so I found some parking and started walking around. This side was much better than the American side. There were tons of restaurants, bars, arcades, things to do, and people venturing around. Was it because it’s a weekend day or is this all the time? Let me know in the comments if you’ve had the same experience. The Canadian side also affords you a visit of the horseshoe falls, the most famous of the falls here. I got a few pictures in and stood in awe at the amount of water that dumped over the falls, it’s incredible.

My phone still wasn’t working, so I stopped in a café to pull up their Wi-Fi and try to map my way home. I put together a plan to get me back one city at a time, using Wi-Fi at the different stops. This plan was going to add 2-3 hours to my former plan, but there was no way I’d get back through countryside New York and Pennsylvania without Apple Maps. As I approached the border guard, he asked me the standard questions and after I answered them all, he told me to turn off the car and pop the trunk. I complied and this guy took a solid few minutes to rip apart my trunk. It was empty, save for a few tools, a blanket, and my spare tire. He let me go without much of a courtesy. Eventually, when I got near the NY/PA border, my service came back. Turns out, the phone bill was past due so once I got that situated, everything went back to normal.

I was a little grumpy because of the phone situation and border guard leaving my trunk a mess, otherwise I would have spent some more time on the Canadian side of the falls and probably more time in Toronto before leaving. I’ll be back sometime, hopefully sooner than later.

Taking A Road Trip To Toronto – Pt. 1

Having just returned from two multi-week trips to Europe, I was in full-on wanderlust mode and ready for more. I was binging some travel channels on YouTube one day when I stumbled across a few solo travel videos. I had never traveled alone before, mostly because of my innate introverted personality. Looking back at this trip, I have to say that solo trips are some of the most important ones you can take.

I took off a Friday at the end of September and already had the weekend off. Living in Maryland, I had a few places in mind to travel to but I wanted to make it an international trip, so Canada was the only realistic option (read as: cheaper). I woke up at the crack of dawn, around 6:45, got ready and set off. My GPS took me the length of the Maryland pan handle until I turned north towards Pittsburgh and beyond. I was about an hour into my trip when I realized I was still tired. Like really tired. My eyes got to the point where they were so heavy I started fighting to keep them open so I pulled off the highway into a lot where contractors met in the morning before going off to a job site. I tilted my seat back and nodded off to get some more sleep before I continued the drive.

The drive through Pennsylvania was tough. I was signed into a friend’s Spotify account at the time, but it could only be used by one device at a time and they were using it all day. I was left with radio music, which in western PA is country music, bible talk, or static. Static it is.

The views are ridiculously beautiful

Eventually, I made it to Niagara Falls and stopped on the American side. It was Friday around 5pm and the place was dead. I had parked in a little mall lot, found the nearest restroom, and walked down to the falls. They are epic! The power is awesome and the views are great. I recently purchased an external lens from Olloclip for my iPhone and found it made a decent improvement in my photos of the falls. One restaurant was prepping for live music later and provided a good burger. Across the street on the way back to the car was a little alley way covered in really cool graffiti art. Onward to Canada.

Graffiti walls in Niagara Falls

As I approached the border, the traffic looked busy, but it was incredibly efficient. I was asked the standard “What are you doing?” “Why are you here?” “How long are you staying?” questions in fourteen different ways before getting the nod of approval. As soon as I got out of the traffic, there was a sign welcoming you to Ontario. I had just driven to a different country by myself. This was exciting.

You’re going to spend the next hour and a half finishing the drive to Toronto on one road – the Queen Elizabeth Way. It’s not a bad drive, and you pass a bunch of signs for wineries that might peak your interest. But it’s the evening at this point and I just want to be done driving.

My GPS navigates the streets easily and an email exchange with my hostel (the Hi Hostel Toronto) shared an easy to find, nearby parking garage. I walk up the block to where I’m staying, check in and lay down to settle down. I’m in an 8-person all guys dorm room and I’m top bunk on the bed at the end of the room. Shortly after I gather my things and lay down, my bunk mate walks in – slightly taller, my age, red hair, normal looking. We exchange acknowledgments and I fall asleep pretty quickly.

Continued in Pt. 2.