Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A Shenandoah Odyssey: Act 4

One of the things we try to accomplish each vacation is to do as many things as possible we've either never done before or are specific to the area we're visiting.  In that spirit, we decided to go horseback riding on this trip.

This isn't completely out of left field; the wife has always loved horses and rode some as a kid, and I actually owned a pony as a child, though I didn't ride him nearly as often as I probably should have.  At any rate, neither of us had actually been on a horse-like creature in at least 20 years, and certainly not since aquiring that most adult of emotions, fear.  Fear of falling off.  Fear of looking like an idiot.  Fear of smelling like a horse for the rest of the day.  I don't know when this kicks in, but it's certainly present for me in places it never was before.  Like roller coasters.  I love roller coasters, the faster and twistier the better, but I've found I simply cannot look around on the way up the first hill anymore.  I'm stomach-clinching terrified of the height on the boring part of the ride.  Not even the anticipation of the first free-fall, just the fact that the ground is far away now.  How screwed up is that?

Anyway, we drove out through the hills to the Fort Valley Ranch, just outside Edinburg, VA.  Arriving well before our appointed departure time, we noticed a lack of crowd, despite the fact that the website noted that "reservations strongly recommended."  In fact, the only person we saw anywhere was in the paddock with about 20 horses, snapping a bullwhip, and swearing in a drawl somewhere between Marlboro Man and NASCAR Woo Guy.  This man, it turned out, would be our guide, Shane.

We made our way to the office (after dutifully bug-spraying, sunscreening, and taking a few pictures, like good city-fied tourists would), and hung out a few minutes until Shane entered and handed us some very pointed release waivers.  BTW, horseback riding is considered an "adventure sport," and requires us to tell the state of Virginia what our medical insurance company is.  Anyway, while filling out the paperwork we chatted about, what else, the storms that had done the area some damage.  When the storm had hit, he was on top of a nearby mountain (for an unmentioned purpose), with his way blocked by several downed trees.  He had to hike down the mountain, in the rain and wind, to get a chainsaw to cut his way out.  Let me repeat that:  he walked down the mountain to safety, then got a chainsaw and went back to free his truck...right away.  When he got back he found some hikers who'd been planning to camp on the mountain trying to get down.  "Then I thought the mee-en would help me clear the road, but they sat there in the coar and watched, to stay out of the rain.  Pissed me awff."  As this statement concluded, I frantically played the scenario in my mind to determine if I would have stayed in the car too.  I decided finally that I'd have helped (it's a hypothetical, right?), and agreed with Shane that those hikers were pussies. 

The best picture I have of Shane, at right.  I would've asked for a better portrait, but frankly the thought scared the bejesus out of me.  There's that fear again. 
You tended to agree with Shane often, because Shane speaks the truth.  He has a definite opinion on life, and how it should work.  He would periodically stop his horse on the trail and turn him side-on to sermonize us a bit (I suspect this was partially to fill out the 90-minute ride time).  For instance, hiking is not a worthy past time.  Why would you walk over a mountain, with a 150 lb pack, and sticks, when a perfectly good road goes around or over it?  Also, the winds that tore up the woods we were riding through were, in his opinion, a tornado.  Our response that the news was reporting that is was some sort of straight-line, land hurricane (with the delightfully exotic name "derecho."  Say it with me...duh-RAAAAAY-cho...) was met with disbelief, and the insistence that the tree tops were "swirlin' around.  Straight lahn wi-ends don't do that."  He did relent a bit when he realized we were from the Midwest and had some real tornado experience, but only so far as to say that maybe it was just short of becoming a tornado.  You're right Shane, that's probably it. 

His opinions on the wildfires were spot-on, though.  Only a complete and utter jackass would throw a cigarette butt out the window in a forest in summer.

I'm making him sound like an oaf, and I'm regretting that because it was an entertaining and informative ride through some very peaceful and beautiful woodland on the mountainside.  The horses were the kind you might expect on a tourist-driven riding ranch, docile and more or less on autopilot along the trail.  The wife's was a slow, thoughtful flea-bitten gray unoriginally named Flea.  His main vice was stopping to eat whatever foliage happened to be near the trailside, and was forever being snapped back to reality to keep moving.  This was a problem, because I was bringing up the rear on my trusty bay gelding, Buddy.  Buddy is a tailgater.  He was not happy with walking at the appropriate plodding pace, and the green tourist wearing the baseball cap tugging on the reigns to slow him down was not helping his patience.  Periodically, Buddy would stop dead in the trail to take a dump or leak.  The other horses did this on the fly...not Buddy.  Once, though, he stopped not to pee, but to panic at the horsefly on his rump that he couldn't reach.  This was right on the edge of a ravine, which was twitching up the roller coaster fears for me a bit, and Buddy started to buck.  The thought I specifically remember is "Oh, God, this is happening!  This is happening!  I should've checked the 'yes' box on the helmet!"  Shane said simply "slap the fly." 

Above:  Rider's-eye view of Buddy, plotting his next move.
Below:  Buddy's rider, putting on a good face for the camera.

And now, let's talk about Chicks, man.

You the man, Joel.

 Another major part of every vacation is finding the perfect local eatery.  This is very important.  We can have Bob Evans or Wendy's anywhere, so we shoot for the local favorites.  The best one we've found so far should be featured on Food Network's Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives.

Southern Kitchen in New Market, VA is one of those little local diner spots that looks like it was transported straight from 1955.  And I'm not talking about stupid pastel Johnny Rockets 50's, but the real deal.  Take a look:

That's DeeDee, our waitress.  She was perfectly friendly and efficient, not theatrically mean like we're supposed to expect from diner waitresses in a post Ed Debevic's world.
It reminded me so much of places I used to go with my mom and dad.  Institutional mint green paint, oceans of Formica with the classic spirograph pattern, backlit menu board above the counter, appropriately yellowed with age and old cigarette smoke (though not now...like a lot of places, there's no smoking in most buildings in Virginia).  There's a juke box, but nobody put a quarter in, so it wasn't playing some BS doo-wop on a loop.  No, this place was just about feeding people who go there often and know everyone else.  I'd guess we were the only people in the place that didn't live within 20 miles.

The menu was enormous, full of country home-cooking like meatloaf, open-faced hot sandwiches smothered in gravy, and Virginia country ham steak.  But a special box announced that fried chicken was their specialty.  I'm going to eat that.  Oh yes...I will eat that.

We both ordered more than we should (dietary restrictions tend to be left at home on vacations, too), and it took a while because they cook it to order here.  No big piles of pre-fried chicken parts hanging around under heat lamps at Southern Kitchen, by God.  They broke down a chicken and fried it only after we asked them to.  And the sides...there must have been 15 classics to choose from.  We got a combination of mashed potatoes and gravy, home fries, green beans, and buttered beets, the last of which pleased the wife.  Just take a look.

Dessert was necessarily a to-go order, because come on, man.  I was fighting the meat sweats as it was.  So we picked from the selection of approximately 1,000 pies (several of which were sold out by this point), with peanut butter meringue (that's getting pretty damn Southern there) and blackberry.  The PB pie, for your enjoyment:

I know I promised something about a cinnamon bun, but I'm out of space here.  We're heading home tomorrow, but I'll make some time to talk about that, as well as bore you all with some more reflections about history and why a New Jersey native who bears a strong resemblance to Larry David would root for the wrong side.  Later!

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