The girls met on an electronic message board devoted to the "X-Files." Howlett recalls posting a message about David Duchovny, one of the show's stars. McDanolds vigorously agreed, and the two said they now send almost daily e-mail messages.
At first, they said, their correspondence centered on the television show, but as they got to know each other better, their conversations have broadened to their home countries, music and the daily events of their lives.
"Just everyday things, really," Howlett said.
When Howlett wrote that she was planning a trip to the United States, McDanolds said she thought it was a perfect opportunity to meet her pen-pal for the first time. She invited her to spend Thanksgiving at her family's home on Heather Ridge Road northwest of Hagerstown.
Howlett, who visited Los Angeles about four years ago but has never been to the East Coast, said she was excited to learn more about the uniquely American holiday. Her only exposure to Thanksgiving was from a "Beverly Hills 90210" TV show, she said.
Arriving on Saturday after a 24-hour flight, Howlett said the first thing she noticed was the weather. In Australia, where seasons are the opposite of America's, it is summer.
"I left on quite a warm day. It was quite a shock," she said.
International correspondence is hardly new. Indeed, Howlett said her great-aunt wrote regularly to a pen-pal in England years ago.
But the Internet, the freewheeling computer network that instantaneously connects users to millions of places all over the world, has given modern pen-pals flexibility that their counterparts from previous generations never had.
First of all, it allows computer users to select their own partners. In the past, letter-writers often needed a third-party organization to match them with someone from another country.
"I think the computer has given these girls a cultural and friendship experience that never would have happened without it," said McDanolds's mother, Brenda.
Howlett and McDanolds said the medium is also far more convenient. They don't have to wait for a letter to arrive by mail and can send messages at any time.
McDanolds said e-mail is the perfect cross between the telephone and letters. The Internet provides the immediacy of phones without the enormous cost of calling Australia. McDanolds said writing gives them an intimacy they could not have over the phone.
The 15-hour time difference between Washington County and Melbourne would make phone calls impractical anyway, she said.
The two got an idea of what traditional letter-writing is like when their mothers exchanged notes to plan the trip. Brenda McDanolds said her air-mail letter took 12 days to arrive in Australia.
McDanolds said she is not as comfortable with the technology as her daughter, but she insisted she is a convert. While the Internet has received bad publicity for its dangers and potential abuses, she said it all depends on how it is used.
Howlett said her parents were wary at first.
"They hear stories about weirdos on the Internet," she said. "You have to be aware of that. But it's the same as a pen-pal. It's just a new technology."
Brenda McDanolds said she plans to take an Internet course at Hagerstown Junior College.
"I don't like not knowing what my daughter knows," she said.
Howlett said her mother, too, is beginning to use the computer.
"She used to be afraid to dust it," she said.