B&B offers breath of fresh air

West Virginia: Organic food, recycling and even Sweetpea the grass-eating sheep make Thorn Run Inn a great getaway for the ecotourist.

Short Hop

October 31, 1999|By Mike Strzelecki | Mike Strzelecki,Special to the Sun

Our first clue that Thorn Run Inn is not your typical bed and breakfast was the menagerie of animals milling about the front yard. A goat nuzzled the ground for edibles, a sheep slumped languorously beneath a shade tree, a chicken fled in fear and a hyperkinetic puppy bounced at the end of a taut chain. From across the street, a cow tossed us a deep bellow.

"This must be the place!" my wife announced.

We pulled into the driveway with anticipation, about to embark on a stay at a bed and breakfast that is setting the course for tourism in the next millennium. Thorn Run Inn is one of the first in the region to tout itself as "eco-friendly," and use the phrase "ecotourism" in its marketing literature. It lies in the Potomac Highlands section of northern West Virginia, among waves of steel-blue mountains. Hosts Peter and Robin Maille provide each guest a bed and a meal -- and a new way of thinking.

The Ecotourism Society defines the concept as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people." Economic development and environmental conservation are generally regarded as opposing principles that often polarize regions and their people. But the Mailles have successfully managed to dovetail the two with the finesse of a tightrope walker.

Thorn Run's innkeepers take great measures to minimize their imprints on the environment. Each item used at the inn is scrutinized as to its origin, its material composition and its possible impact on the environment. The Mailles prepare meals with organic foods, many grown on the premises. They line-dry the linens and use biodegradable detergents. They perform extensive composting and recycling programs and drive a gas-stingy car. They avoid the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, and go as far as to use pump soap instead of bar soap.

And Sweetpea the sheep serves as groundskeeper, nibbling the grass to a manageable height. What she can't get, a reel mower finishes.

The Mailles also promote, in a conscientious manner, economic development of a region that has become downtrodden with time. Logging opportunities have waned and viable coal deposits have diminished, and many West Virginians have turned to agriculture or other means such as carpentry or plumbing to get by. Thorn Run Inn considers itself a small but vital cornerstone to re-invigorate the region. Guests tend to come from Eastern Seaboard metropolitan areas, and many bring with them deep pockets and a willingness to spend; and when they do, the Mailles point guests toward local businesses. The inn also employs local labor and relies on local suppliers and small businesses for its consumables.

"You need three things to successfully develop ecotourism: an interesting lodging, a beautiful landscape that's worth visiting, and hospitality," says Peter Maille, explaining his model for manageable ecotourism. "And if you're located near interesting natural areas, that's all the better. We have all three. And so do lots of other folks who live around here."

Madagascar to Thorn Run

Thorn Run Inn opened for business in 1997, but was conceived of many years before and many longitude lines away. Peter and Robin Maille served as Peace Corps volunteers in Africa in the early 1980s, teaching Senegalese villagers how to use their precious forest resources in an environmentally and economically sound manner. Later, while in Madagascar, they stumbled upon the concept of ecotourism. It was there that they began exploring how tourism through small-scale inns could promote local economic development and environmental conservation -- their two priorities.

And it was there that the idea of running an inn like Thorn Run was conceived.

The inn is a vintage Georgian-style brick farmhouse with a modest front portico and spacious windows. It's enveloped by strategically placed gardens filled with colorful -- and often purposeful -- flowers and vegetables. The inn rests neatly in a furrow of Knobley Mountain, where the trickle of water known as Thorn Run emerges and begins its search for the Potomac River. The back of the inn is shadowed by mountains, but the front opens to miles of rambling, pastoral hills laid out in mosaics of gold and brown. No other house is visible across the expanse.

The inn shares its 20 acres of rolling woodland and pasture with several outbuildings. Two barns flank the gravel driveway. A former chicken coop has been converted to a nature learning center, and another is being converted to a two-room cabin. An in-ground swimming pool and hot tub are available for guest use. Groomed trails snake about the property and lead guests to interesting niches of woodland, a brook and a puddle of a pond crammed full of bluegill and largemouth bass.

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