By Jerry Waxler
The one and only time I was on a white water rafting trip I was on business. We were wooing an important customer who insisted we join him on the water. Never a big fan of risky behavior, I found myself paddling a boat in water moving so fast it could kill me. My heart was pounding from more than exertion. As we steered our craft around yet another area where the surging river was trying to smash us against rocks my experienced raft partner screamed above the roar of the water, “Paddle, Paddle, Paddle.” The river is the Youghiogheny, a well known watering hole for whitewater enthusiasts located in southwest Pennsylvania in the town of Ohiopyle. Later, while the rest of the group slept in tents, I retired to a bed and breakfast, the Quiet House. It was comfortable, and lived up to its name.
One of the things I like about Bed and Breakfasts is that the owners are locals, and can offer insider tourist information. But I wasn’t in the market for Ohiopyle tourist information that day. I had already seen quite a bit of this area on other trips, and didn’t think I had much more to learn. I knew about the five star resort, the Nemacolin, former home to a PGA tour golf course. In fact, last year, I had a massage at their spa. And I had visited the nearby Frank Lloyd Wright house, the famous Falling Water museum. What more could there be in this backwoods town in Pennsylvania?
As I was saying goodbye, I mentioned that I had been boating on the Youghiogheny and asked my host if he goes out on the river much. Marty, said he goes out in February, when the river has been quiet, undisturbed by visitors. I caught a reverential glint in his eye. People fascinate me. You can walk past them in the supermarket and not give them a glance, and yet they may have lived complex, rich, and entertaining lives that could fill volumes. Standing up from breakfast, ready to head to the car, it occurred to me that this man had a profound connection with the area. I said, “You must know a lot about the history of this place.” That got him started and he told me the whole story.
When Marty first moved here, he was managing a family farm. There was no commercial interest in boating on the river, until a couple of guys recognized its potential. Soon people started paying them to lead rafting trips. These guys bought a piece of land in Ohiopyle, and that was the beginning of the whitewater tourism in the area. Their rafting customers needed lodging, so the brothers approached Marty. He rose to the occasion, started a campground and turned it into a successful business. Marty has watched the river go from being just a river to becoming a thriving sports and nature destination.
Then we got onto a subject that completely surprised me. It turns out George Washington not only slept here. He fought here. A couple of miles away was the site of his first military operation. In a fascinating twist of fate, in 1754, when George Washington was a 22 year old soldier in the Virginia Colonial army, he attacked some French soldiers a couple of miles away from where Marty and I were standing. This attack on the French was one of the triggers that started the French and Indian War. For you non-history buffs, this is the war featured in the movie The Last of the Mohicans with Daniel Day Lewis. In those days, this area was considered the western frontier, fought over by the French and the English to gain control of the interior of the vast continent.
To gain more insights, I visited ,Fort Necessity National Park and Museum a couple of miles from the Quiet House Bed and Breakfast, and learned a boatload of background about how the area figured into the prelude to the American Revolution. Beyond the French and Indian war, the museum also exhibited artifacts and information about the National Road, which started out as a rough path along which settlers trudged on their journey west. Of course it also played a role in the tragic destruction of the indigenous people. When the United States was born, the National Road, which looks like little more than a country highway across the southwestern corner of Pennsylvania, was the first federally funded road in the new country.
Such material seems at first glance more like a regional history than a memoir. But if Marty were to write about it, he could intertwine his entrepreneurial pursuits and his friendships with other entrepreneurs, his love for the river, and his knowledge of the history of the area. By using his life journey as the framework, the reader could see this part of the world through his knowledgeable eyes. And for me, this conversation was yet another proof that memoirs are everywhere. Here, tucked away in a little bed and breakfast in rural southwestern Pennsylvania, I saw a series of life events start to take the shape of a story. How many times has Marty told these stories? And how much more could he share if they were written?