Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A Shenandoah Odyssey: Act 5

So, I'm writing this one from home.  The trip back was very quick, Interstate-y, and uneventful.  My only bit of editorial about the whole thing:  Pennsylvania, 45 mph on I-70?  Really? 

Anyway, this is the final post on our little journey.  I'm not really sticking to a theme on this one, just wrapping up loose ends, and maybe using the space to share some reflections.  You know, boring crap that I'm allowed to put here because it's mine.  And by some coincidence, it's also my 100th post!  Yay!

Our last full day we sort of took it easy (the horseback riding/hiking day was a monster), and didn't even really get out of the Inn until 1:00.  Though I did use the time to nearly finish "The Machine" by Joe Posnanski, about the 1975 Reds.  I'm just getting to the last innings of Game 6 in the World Series...nobody spoil it for me!  Anyway, we decided to check out the Belle Grove Plantation estate in Middletown, VA.  It's a true Antebellum plantation house, finished in 1797, with a substantial addition later when the builder, Isaac Hite, married a second, much younger wife who had 10 kids.  They needed the extra bunks.


Quick, see if you can pick out the addition!
The house is magnificent, and drips with historical circumstance.  The Hite's first wife (not of the ten kids, she just had 3) was the sister of Dolly Madison, who honeymooned in the Valley with her husband, future president James Madison.  This made Hite what historians refer to as "connected."  When designing the house, he asked his brother-in-law James if he had anyone in mind who could help him with some of the architecture.  Madison sent the plans to Thomas Jefferson.  Yes, that Thomas Jefferson.  According to our volunteer docent John, you can see lots of Jeffersonian influences on the house--that semicircular window over the front door, tall ceilings, symmetrical floor plan, etc.  Some more views of the grounds and some what turned out to be rule-dodging shots of the interior by the wife.  Rule-breaker...






I...want...this...desk.


I had to take his word for it, but it was a little tough at first because John is a dead ringer for "Curb Your Enthusiasm"'s Larry David, and it was distracting.  Right down to the accent, at least to hear it through my Midwestern ears.  The big surprise is that he is in fact a Southern sympathizer, despite being from New Jersey.  I didn’t really get a good answer from him when I asked why, but I suppose it’s a healthy assessment of the country that he can be.

The plantation house is really the only one that shows up on tour guides of the area, which struck me as a little odd, until John mentioned that it was one of the few made of stone (local limestone quarried on the property), which made it very difficult for the Yankees to burn.  See, the property is also the site of the Battle of Cedar Creek, wherein General Sheridan’s troops, relaxing after a long campaign of completely obliterating everything of edible value in the Valley so the Confederates wouldn’t have it, were surprised by a force of rebels who had reformed on the other side of the mountain.  The victorious Rebels, who were also nearly starving by this point (see “edible value, obliterating” above), celebrated their rout by sitting down and digging in to the Union troops’ breakfast.  This, instead of fortifying the position against counterattack…which Sheridan did later that afternoon and retook the ground.  The house has a few bullet holes and at least one large gouge from of spent cannon ball to show around to the other plantations and brag about. 

That’s a notable one, but stories like that are everywhere in the Shenandoah Valley.  History, and Civil War history in particular, is infused in this place.  Everywhere we go we learn something new about what happened here, and without going deep diving into Civil War scholarship, there’s no way to know it all.  Sitting around the breakfast table with Ed and a few other guests, he mentioned that the Inn changed hands something like 70 times over the course of the war.  The most important person there during that time wasn’t the innkeeper, but the young slave boy who had the job of keeping a lookout for who was coming up the road or the river, and hoisting the correct flag.  You can see it in everyday objects wherever you go.  Specific spots of the landscape that are known to have had strategic import, like Signal Knob on the north slope of Mt. Massanutten, which bisects the Valley.  Log or rough stone buildings like the Inn at Narrow Passage, that predate the war, were used as military facilities out of necessity, and were lucky to survive it.  There is a tree in the front yard of the Inn that was clearly there when it was used as a hospital for the Union, witnessing “operations” that while brutal, revolutionized the way doctors approached surgery. 

I’m a history buff, but I just don’t know Civil War history that well.  It’s such a towering subject, and so dependent on the point of view of the presenter, that I’ve just not been able to dig in to it.  I’ve seen Ken Burns’ documentary, which is a piece of art, but that barely skims the surface.  The point is, I felt a little overwhelmed while on this trip, simply unable to grasp everything that transpired there.  But I’m glad I was there.

Now, loose ends.  This morning as we sat down to breakfast, Ed came over and asked us “now that you’re checking out, I wanted to ask if you’d seen any of the ghosts?”  So this place was haunted, too.  I’m 2-for-2 on this trip.  We said no, though Emily had heard the door rattling one night while I was in another part of the Inn, but Ed said that was probably just “groundhogs.”  Anyway, I won’t dwell on it, because we did have a really wonderful stay, and I didn’t see anything worse than I’ve seen living in my haunted fraternity house.

To run down a few of the great places we ate while there, let me say that dining in the area is varied and really high quality.  While the Valley is still very country-esque, there is also a distinct subversive flair to the area, with older hippie types and that most peculiar of beings, the long-range hiker.  The Woodstock Café and Shops is a nice place to get a well-made coffee drink or loose-leaf tea, and has an Etsy-style consignment shop for local artists and craftspeople to sell their wares.  Great sandwiches, too.  Gathering Grounds in Luray (about 30 minutes away) is spectacular, with the Greatest Cinnamon Bun in the World I mentioned earlier, and just great care taken with their gourmet, but reasonably priced, menu. 

The Shenandoah Valley is also thriving, if rather young, wine country.  There are at least a half-dozen vineyards within the Valley, taking advantage of relatively mild winters and dry summers to grow some very flavorful and interesting grape varieties.  We stopped at Wolf Gap Vineyards outside Edinburg for a tasting, and walked out with a few bottles (some are gifts, I swear).  The place sits in what I can only describe as a small bit of heaven at the end of a series of twisty, gradually narrowing roads, with breathtaking views from the tasting deck.  Makes a man thirsty…

I don’t know too many people who’ve been to the Shenandoah Valley, unless they really wanted to get there, but that really needs to change.  I’m telling you, you want to get there.  It’s really an amazing place to spend a few days, or just a night. 

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