Weekending: Lexington, VA + Natural Bridge Edition

All apologies to Purcellville, Charlottesville, and any other town my excitable brain previously declared to be my favorite small town in Virginia. There’s a new kid in town: Lexington. This one’s definitely my favorite small town in Virginia. I’m sure of it. Until I find the next one, but for right now, it’s the winner.

The timing for a weekend trip this past weekend initially did not seem so great- I had just wrapped up the last week of spring semester for my grad program and an auction I had chaired and spent 8 months working on took place Friday night, so my brain was essentially non-functioning and my zest for life was at nil. The forecast was also a weekend full of cool temps and rain. But we had months ago purchased a Certifikid voucher for a night at the Natural Bridge hotel with admission to the bridge and the caverns included, and the last day to use it was April 30, so the trip was on no matter what.

And wouldn’t you know it, I found it to be the perfect little two day getaway. Some friends of ours bought the same voucher and joined us down in Lexington and we had a blast. The drive couldn’t be easier- a relatively quick 3 hours down I-81 through the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We decided to be leisurely about it since we weren’t in a huge rush and stopped in Staunton for some frozen custard from Kline’s Dairy Bar, which has been operating in Harrisonburg since 1943.

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Our voucher was good for a night at the Natural Bridge Hotel (right next to the Natural Bridge itself) with admission for four to the Natural Bridge AND the caverns right next door. We paid $109 for all that and so I was mentally prepared for a rundown, dark and dank hotel that had not been updated since the 1970s. NOT SO AT ALL, although I do think the road leading to the Natural Bridge hotel may be haunted. I base this completely on the fact that on one side suddenly loomed a giant baby head inside what was a graveyard of strange giant props. The sign indicated it was a place called Enchanted Castle Studios that offered “tours” though who gives them, I’m not sure, because it looked abandoned. Look, I’m not saying you’ll go into that place on a “tour” and never come out and that the Scooby Doo crew is going to have to come in and find you. I am not saying that. Just think about it is all.

The Natural Bridge Hotel was recently updated with nicely furnished rooms and a very pleasant staff. If you’re looking for proximity to the bridge, it’s great. If you would prefer to be closer to Lexington, you may want to stay elsewhere, but if this deal is ever offered by Certifikid again, snatch it up, because for two days of admission the attractions and a night in a perfectly pleasant hotel, it was a steal.

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After settling in and meeting up with our friends we grabbed dinner at Foothill Momma’s BBQ Juke Joint (recommend) and then headed back to the bridge for the nightly light show.

Now look.

I’m from Georgia, and down there, one thing that everyone does growing up is go to Stone Mountain to watch the laser show, which is extravaganza of the highest order. Lights and lasers shoots around the mountain and give the illusion the carved figures are riding their horses and Dixie is played as well as The Devil Went Down to Georgia. It is definitely one of those things that only when you grow up and move away from the Deep South do you go, “Huh, yeah, that is a bit weird.” BUT IT’S AWESOME. So you can perhaps see what I expected from the Natural Bridge light show. Maybe some Van Halen? Lots of zooming light rays and strobe lights.

That is decidedly not at all what the Natural Bridge light show is like.

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So here’s the story of the Natural Bridge, which is told to you by the recording at the Natural Bridge: it took 3-4 million years to evolve naturally through the gentle erosion process of the stream that flows beneath it. It was originally discovered by the Monocan Indians as they were evading an enemy and considered by them to be a sacred site, and later Thomas Jefferson “bought” it for his own pleasure because, well, aint that just the way history tends to go. (My husband and I quibbled all weekend over whether a person can truly own something like the Natural Bridge; call me Pocahontas, I just really don’t think so. I don’t even care if you’re Thomas Jefferson, you can’t own that stuff, dude, it’s for all mankind.)

Right after you are told that the Natural Bridge formed naturally, through the course of nature, over millions of years, the light show program begins, and it tells the story of Genesis and how God created the earth in 7 days. It was written and created by Calvin Coolidge back in the 1920s and has been used ever since. There were several times sitting there, somewhere in the middle of the third day of creation, when I realized that this passed for high entertainment in the 1920s. In 2016, well, it seems a bit… antiquated. A musical version of the Lord’s Prayer that my friend aptly described as “a dirge” played in the fifth day of creation. Hey, I got no dog in the hunt when it comes to how the bridge was formed. Maybe you think the stream did it, maybe you think God plopped it there somewhere in the six days he was decorating the earth. It’s just funny how the Natural Bridge show simultaneously suggests it somehow could be both.

The bridge sure is beautiful, though!

Sunday morning we had breakfast down at The Pink Cadillac (insert Springsteen lyrics):

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I’ve mentioned before the “bubble” that extends about 50 miles in any direction from DC and how different life is once you break out of that bubble. At the Pink Cadillac, a plate of three pancakes was $2. TWO DOLLARS. No crushed velvet seats, though, and I really think they missed the mark there.

The rain began to pour after breakfast so we took the opportunity to visit the Natural Bridge Caverns and hide out 340 feet underground and give it a chance to pass. Hey, aren’t caverns cool? At one place in the caverns our guide told us to look up at what appeared to be an opening and said it was called a Murder Hole. Way back when, when people drove around in buggies and such, they would sometimes roll right over one of these Murder Holes and fall ass over teakettle into the caverns. Whoopsie doops! Not a great day.

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Emerging from the Murder Hole we re-entered a world filled with sunshine! The rain had passed so we headed into the town of Lexington to see the sights.

Some things you should know about Lexington:

It’s home to two colleges: Washington and Lee University and Virginia Military Institute (so-called West Point of the South). You can tell the student bodies apart as they mill around town because the Washington and Lee students are wearing clothes nicer than you, a grown adult, typically wear, and the VMI cadets are decked out in their finest military dress. Even to walk into a Sheetz gas station, yes I saw that.

It’s also pretty much Robert E Lee’s town. Everything there revolves around Lee in some way. There’s Lee Highway, the Robert E. Lee hotel, Lee Chapel, a different church named the Robert E Lee Memorial Episcopal church, which is about 200 yards in front of Lee Chapel. Lee died in Lexington after serving as president of (then) Washington University, renamed to include Lee after his time there. Stonewall Jackson also features prominently in Lexington, given the fact he lived there and taught at VMI in the 1850s. Some of his curriculum is still taught there today! He was not a very popular teacher though and students there called him “Tom Fool,” which luckily for him was later replaced by the everlasting nickname he earned on the battlefield at Manassas, and by which we still know him- Stonewall. (I am seriously just beyond tickled that one person, in the span of about fifteen years, can be the recipient of two such diametrically opposed nicknames, and also walk away forever bearing only the really good one.)

The house Stonewall Jackson owned and lived in during his time in Lexington still stands on Washington St., right down the road from Lee Chapel:

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The downtown Lexington area was funny like this- on one corner might be a new shop or popular restaurant, and then a few doors down, the home of a huge Civil War figure. Virginia is so cool.

We paid a visit to the  Robert E. Lee Hotel:

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Eventually we made our way down to the campus of Washington and Lee University to visit Lee Chapel. And WOW, what a campus! My own alma mater is beautifully landscaped and  frequently makes lists of Most Beautiful Campuses, but it must be said that a good chunk of the buildings are from the 1960s/70s and leave something to be desired, aesthetically speaking. Meanwhile, in Lexington, not only is the campus impeccably landscaped, look at this architecture!

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This is known as the Colonnade and faces Lee Chapel. When I mentioned at the beginning of this post I am in a grad program, it’s to receive my Master’s in Education. This means I’m spending chunks of time each semester student teaching in high school English classes. The last two semesters, my students have been seniors, and it’s been very exciting as they get accepted to colleges and decide where they’re going to go. Many of them are going to JMU, a couple to William and Mary, some to UVA, but I realized when I was on W&L campus that none of them had decided to go to Washington and Lee and I wondered why. It was such a nice looking school in such a pleasant little town not terribly far from Northern Virginia. I started thinking, I would encourage my own girls to consider this school when the time comes! When we were on the way home I looked up the university and discovered it is private and costs $47,000 a year to attend as an undergraduate, so that explained that. It also explained why all the students were dressed so nicely and the frat houses were giant antebellum homes on lush wide avenues.

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Tucked into this little glade right across from the Colonnade is Lee Chapel, where Robert E. Lee is buried and where his beloved horse, Traveller, was buried in 1971 after his bones were disinterred and placed here to be with his master.

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Would you just! Have you ever seen a more perfect little chapel? I got married in what I consider to be a very beautiful and picturesque southern chapel but it really doesn’t compare at all to Lee Chapel. Inside on the pulpit is a statue of Lee known as “Recumbent Lee” which depicts him lying in repose, and the stained-glass windows tell his life story. He and his family are buried in a crypt below the chapel and Traveller is buried just outside:

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Students at the university leave pennies (and sometimes apples) on Traveller’s marker in hopes it will bring them good luck in their studies. Awwww! Traveller is maybe one of the best-known horses of all time, certainly the best known Civil War horse, and the following is written about him in the poem Army of Northern Virginia by Stephen Vincent Benet:

Such horses are
The jewels of the horseman’s hands and thighs,
They go by the word and hardly need the rein.
They bred such horses in Virginia then,
Horses that were remembered after death
And buried not so far from Christian ground
That if their sleeping riders should arise
They could not witch them from the earth again
And ride a printless course along the grass
With the old manage and light ease of hand.

I can’t tell you what a good choice it was that we invited the friends we did, because the husband in that family is a high school history teacher and he and I were nerding out together the whole time.

Other small scenes around Lexington:

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I loved everything about Lexington and really can’t suggest strongly enough that you take a trip down for a night or a weekend and pay it a visit. They bred such horses in Virginia then- and they made such towns in Virginia then.

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Manassas National Battlefield

Where: 6511 Sudley Rd., Manassas, VA
When: Open daily from dawn to dusk- admission is free

Imagine this. You are 85 years old, and very ill, confined to your bed. You’ve heard talk of some big to-do going on in the area but otherwise, you are largely oblivious to the general climate of the country and the inferno steadily building in the now-early days of the Civil War. One morning, there is quite the ruckus going on out in the yard and you are told there will be a battle and you must be moved. But no. You are old. You want to stay in your own bed. So there you stay, even as Confederate sharpshooters enter your home and tuck themselves into niches and nooks and crannies to use as vantage points for shooting at Federal troops out in the field.

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As you are lying helpless in bed, there is suddenly a monstrous noise and a piece of hot, burning metal rips its way through the wall and tears off one of your feet. Yes, one of your feet. Your home has just been shelled in an attempt to rout out the Confederate sharpshooters within. They’re okay. But you have lost a foot. A few hours later, you die from your injuries.

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Such was the plight of Judith Henry, civilian casualty of the first Battle at Manassas during the Civil War. Foot blown off, and death. War is hell, man.

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RIP Judith. And Judith’s foot.

The Civil War is chock-full of stories like that. For the United States, the Civil War is kind of like that one great-great-uncle who is somewhat embarrassing because he’s full of outdated and offensive beliefs, but has some interesting tall tales that are cool to hear when he’s lucid enough to tell them. It’s one of our nation’s strangest episodes, as fascinating as it is ugly. And we are lucky enough here in Virginia to be close to many integral sites featured in some of the most famous stories from the Civil War- including Manassas National Battlefield, home to not one but two battles during the Civil War.

Probably the most important thing you should know about Manassas Battlefield is that it is here where General Thomas Jonathan Jackson earned his legendary and enduring nickname, “Stonewall.” Most likely, this is the only way you know him- Stonewall Jackson, as if it were his given name. It’s not- he was bestowed this nickname by fellow Confederate Army General Barnard E. Bee, who yelled to his troops, “There is Jackson standing like a stone wall! Rally behind the Virginians!”

Unfortunately, Bee died at Manassas as well, shortly after coining one of the most famous nicknames in history. RIP Bee.

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Interestingly enough, there’s a decent amount of controversy surrounding Bee’s nickname for Jackson. Some say it was a compliment to Jackson’s bravery and discipline and command- that he was figuratively a sturdy, unshakable “stone wall.” Others who were on the field that day claimed that Bee actually meant it as an insult. There’s Jackson, just standing there doing nothing, like a stone wall. It’s possible to see it both ways I suppose, if you subtly adjust your inflection when saying it to yourself:

“There stands Jackson… like a stone wall!!”

“There stands Jackson. Like a stone wall.”

However, because Bee shortly after perished of injuries sustained in this battle, no one knows for sure what his true intent was in calling Jackson “Stonewall” and the nickname became one representing admiration, loyalty, and deep respect. You can be anyone you want to be if people who say bad things about you die before you do.

Here’s another interesting thing about Manassas Battlefield- the two battles fought there are referred to by different names. Depending on where you grew up, you may know these battles to be called the Battle(s) of Bull Run. Or you may know them to be called the Battle(s) of Manassas. The Confederate forces referred to the Battles as occurring at Manassas, whereas the Union forces used Bull Run. Technically either name is correct but the Confederate Army won that bout and we are in Virginia after all, so it is most often referred to around here as Battle of Manassas.

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There are walking trails of varying lengths around Manassas Battlefield- the 1 mile Henry Hill loop which is accessible from the Henry Hill Vistor’s Center, and the longer First and Second Battle Loop Trails. Guided tours are available beginning at the Visitor’s Center, as well as a 45-minute movie detailing the battles and various interactive displays that detail the battles. Although now closed for the season, on weekends beginning in April 2016, you can stop by the Stone House, which was used as a field hospital for the two battles, and the Brawner Farm Interpretive Center, which sits at Brawner Farm, site of the Second Battle at Manassas.

Because we went on a winter day when these auxiliary sites were closed, we settled with a tour around Henry Hill and the site of First Battle at Manassas, and a visit to the GIFT SHOP. I’m a sucker for a gift shop. My kids always say, “Can we go in the gift shop?” and I usually say, “Yes, but we aren’t buying anything,” and then at least 50% of the time I end up buying something. Because I’m a sucker.

I did buy something at the Henry Hill Vistor’s Center gift shop, but hear me out. I decided it was high time my family had their own National Park Passport. Have you heard of these? A company called Eastern National makes them and there’s a space to stick a collector’s stamp (also made by Eastern National each year) and a hand-cancellation from every national park in the U.S. Many parks sell them in their gift shops (including Henry Hill) and they’re just $8.95. We purchased ours and plan to take it along on every national park trip we make in the future. This now gives me even more reason to visit Gift Shops (score).

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At Manassas Battlefield, you get FOUR stamps in your passport: one for the main battlefield at Henry Hill, one for the Stone House, one for Brawner Farm, and one for a somewhat new thing called the Journey Through Hallowed Ground, which is a 180-mile loop through four states (Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia) that includes presidential homes, battle sites, and other sites of historical importance. The sites along the Journey Through Hallowed Ground loop get their own JTHG stamp and I gather this is a very big deal because the JTHG site uses language such as “thrilled” and “most exciting” to reveal their inclusion in the Passport program. It just seems like this might be a deeply felt honor. Actually, the Journey Through Hallowed Ground thing looks pretty neat and I requested a map and will likely plan some trips to follow a couple of their suggested itineraries. 

Make a day of it:

Nearby is The Winery at Bull Run (or, I guess you could call it The Winery at Manassas if you want), open at 11 am-7pm Saturday-Wednesday, and until 8 pm on Thursdays and 9 pm on Fridays.

While we were out in this direction we decided to visit the tiny town of Clifton for lunch. Clifton is a one-street, no-stoplight throwback of a town with an adorable Main Street dotted with wine shops, cupcake bakeries, and several restaurants. We ate at Main Street Pub and then took a stroll up and down Main Street, stopping in to let the kids climb on the red caboose before heading out.

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Clifton was so charming that I came home, got a babysitter, and made reservations for my husband and me to return Friday evening for dinner at Trummer’s on Main. I’ll be celebrating January 1st with one of their signature cocktails, The Titanic. Cheers!

Wild and Wonderful: Harpers Ferry, West Virginia

I know West Virginia is the red-headed stepchild of, well, the country, but it gets such an unfair shake. West Virginia is flat-out gorgeous and I get a kick out of the state slogan, “Wild and Wonderful.” West Virginia is just gonna let you know right up front they’re here for a good time. Compare that to Indiana’s slogan- “Honest to Goodness Indiana.” Or Nevada- “Wide Open.” That sounds… fun. Give me the West Virginia rabble-rousers any day.

Harpers Ferry is just over the state line from Virginia, an easy drive from NoVa along beautiful route 9. We went to Harpers Ferry recently to pick flowers at Ridgefield Farm, but this trip was to visit the historic town of Harpers Ferry located in Harpers Ferry National Park.

Harpers Ferry sits at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers and is the sight of John Brown’s raid, an event that essentially precipitated and kicked off the Civil War. We’re going to get into that some more in a bit.

To get to the town of Harpers Ferry, you enter the national park itself (physical address is 171 Shoreline Dr., Harpers Ferry, WV) and ride a shuttle bus from the parking lot down to the Lower Town (with a stop in Bolivar Heights for a Civil War walk if you so choose but it was 95 degrees on Sunday so nobody on my shuttle bus chose). Parking is $10 a day per car and the shuttle is included in this price. The shuttles do not run precisely on a schedule but I’ve never waited more than 10 minutes for one; they run constantly starting at 9 am going until the last shuttle that leaves Lower Town at 6:45 pm.

The shuttle bus deposits you directly on the bank of the Shenandoah River, and it’s essential that you dip beneath the railroad trestle and walk down to the edge of the river. Is there a finer river than the Shenandoah? It’s so peaceful, so languorous. It’s technically a tributary to the Potomac, but if you’re asking me, the Shenandoah is the superior river.

We spent some time on the bank of the Shenandoah, selecting shells to add to our seashell collection and teaching the girls to skip rocks. The river is so placid and shallow at this point that it’s possible to walk out to larger rocks in the middle of the river and wade around. Several people had their small children and dogs playing in the water. 

When you’re done fiddle faddling around in the Shenandoah, head up into the Lower Town and take a look around. The main attraction is the bridge that crosses the rivers at the confluence and ends in Maryland Heights with a 300 foot cliff overlooking the water and city. It is, in a word, scenic. Don’t even take my word for it; Thomas Jefferson famously stood on a rock in what is now Lower Town and, upon viewing the scene below, declared it NOT ONLY “perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature” but “worth a voyage across the Atlantic.” So yes, you should definitely make the trip from DC/Maryland/Virginia to take in this sight. You may have to grapple with 495/66/267 but it’s at least not a voyage across the Atlantic.

Looking out at the Potomac from the bridge you can see people engaging in various water activities, which is one of the most popular things to do in Harpers Ferry. Harpers Ferry Adventure Center offers kayaking and tubing and my husband has gone river rafting with the River Riders and had a great time.

I sort of mused aloud that wouldn’t it be fun to be doing the tubing and maybe we should go down there and do it right now! My 6 year old kind of wigged out at the idea. I say “my” 6 year old but honestly, if she doesn’t think sitting in a tube and floating down a river with a tube cooler filled with tasty cold beverages floating alongside sounds like the best thing ever, the amount of genetic material we have in common is in question.

Harpers Ferry also happens to be the headquarters of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (which you can visit daily from 9 am- 5 pm) and Harpers Ferry is one of the few places on the trail where the trail actually runs through a town.

You can technically say, if you walk through Harpers Ferry, that you have hiked the Appalachian Trail. Hey, I’m not going to argue with you. At this point, you are very nearly at the halfway point of the trail (actual halfway point is at Pine Grove Furnace in Cumberland County, PA). This marks our second time in a week being on the Appalachian Trail- just call me Bill Bryson.

Located in Lower Town are several options for lunch (or dinner). Although I’m normally a champion for packing a picnic lunch and bringing it along, and you could absolutely do that, I advise against it only because with so much walking, and being a shuttle ride away from your car, it’s unlikely you’re going to want to tote around a picnic blanket and/or picnic bag while you explore the town. We ate lunch at The Coffee Mill and got soft serve ice cream next door at Swiss Miss (which used to serve incredible frozen custard but evidently switched at some point to ice cream).

Just around the corner from these spots is a plain building with a sign on it that says JOHN BROWN. This is a small museum that tells the story of John Brown, a man you really just need to get to know. Here’s what you’re greeted with when you walk into the museum:

So there’s John Brown. This is who we’re working with here.

John Brown was a radical abolitionist who had the idea he could incite a great slave rebellion, starting by commandeering the Federal Arsenal in Harpers Ferry, taking control of all the weapons and ammunition within, then moving south attracting slaves to his army as he went. Here’s how that went down:

John Brown: Okay men. We’re going to break into this armory and seize all the weapons. Once we do, you go out to neighboring farms and plantations and tell the slaves we’re gonna take care of things from now on and they can come join us so we can free all of them! We’ll raid the WHOLE SOUTH!
John Brown’s men: Sounds good.
[Takeover of armory is successful]
John Brown: Well that was easy. Now, go tell the slaves we’ve engineered their escape and to come join us!! I’ll wait here.
John Brown’s men: Slaves, gather round. John Brown has secured the path to your escape. Join us as we march through the south freeing slaves far and wide. Trust us, this can’t go wrong.
Slaves: How’s he going to get out of the town? Does he have a plan? How’s he going to make it all the way down south with people after him for this?
John Brown’s men: Yeah, that’s what you guys are for. He’s gonna give you guns and spears and have you fight people off! The rest he’ll figure out later.
Slaves: We’re just gonna stay here then, thanks.

Although he had a vision, John Brown lacked planning and foresight (and possibly sanity) and the whole endeavor fell apart rather quickly. He was put on trial and hanged after being found guilty of treason. However, this did serve to deepen the divide between North and South as the North cheered the actions of John Brown and the South decried them as the workings of a madman. The rift between North and South eventually culminated in the Civil War beginning in 1861. I am from Georgia and my senior year of high school we took a seminar class called History of the South (because if there’s one thing Southerners never tire of talking about, it’s the South and being from it) and John Brown and his raid were perhaps the highlight of the course for my classmates and me, who found him highly entertaining.

While we were in the John Brown museum, a woman who was there asked us about our visit to Harpers Ferry and the museum. It turns out her great-grandfather was Alexander Murphy, owner of Murphy Farm, which abuts Harpers Ferry and housed the engine-house (pictured above) that served as John Brown’s fort during his failed raid. W.E.B DuBois and the group he formed that later became the NAACP made a barefoot pilgrimage to the Murphy Farm in 1906 to visit the engine-house that held the sparks of the abolitionist movement.The Murphy family had sought for years to get Congress to purchase the farm land so that it could be preserved as part of Harpers Ferry National Park but not until the early 2000s did Congress approve $2 million to purchase the land from the Murphy family for preservation. Before that it was very nearly turned into a housing subdivision! Two gates are on display within the museum, and these gates were located at the armory that John Brown raided in 1859; the woman I spoke with said her great-grandfather, Alexander Murphy, hid and preserved those gates on his farm in order to donate them to the United States. She was very, very proud of her family’s history and their role in Harpers Ferry. More than once she told me her great-grandfather was a visionary. She took great umbrage with the placement of a placard detailing her forebear’s contribution to Harpers Ferry history and she seemed quite a spitfire (she claimed “I’m not done with them yet”) so if I one day return to the John Brown Museum and see the Alexander Murphy placard has been moved from beside a window to beside the gate he donated, I will know she finally got her way.

There is also a John Brown Wax Museum in Lower Town which tells the story of John Brown in wax figures but John Brown is a little intense even in the form of a painting so a freaky-deaky wax figurine of a maniacal abolitionist may not be the most fun thing for small kids to see. I’ve never made it that to museum but if you do, let me know how it is!

Lower Town is built into hills and there are steep walkways and stairways leading up to the “higher” level of Lower Town.

On this next level of Lower Town is the historic St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, the only church in Harpers Ferry to make it intact through the Civil War. Mass is still held there today! Sitting high atop a hill, the church offers sweeping views of the town and rivers below. Visitors are welcome to go inside and take a look around.

Handy tips:

-Wear good walking shoes. You will do LOT of walking at Harpers Ferry, and many of the stairways in the town are simply carved out of the existing rock. The stairs can consequently be uneven and require careful navigation. When you’re not on stairs, you’re still on hills- so come prepared.

-Think twice about bringing strollers. While you can navigate parts of Harpers Ferry with a stroller, many parts will be very difficult- the stairs and paths leading between the two levels of Lower Town would be tough to go up or down with a stroller, and the town sidewalks can be very narrow. Shops and restaurants tend to be quite small. If at all possible, consider leaving the stroller behind to make getting around a bit easier.

-Make time to stop at a winery on the way home! There’s so many gorgeous vineyards located along route 9 and any of them would be a good choice. I’ve written a post about Maggie Malick Wine Caves, but along that road are also local favorites Hillsborough Vineyards, 8 Chains North, and Sunset Hills Vineyards.

Harpers Ferry is the perfect spot for nature lovers and history lovers, a beautiful little gateway town tucked into the foothills of West Virginia. It is absolutely a must-see for anyone in this area and a great destination for kids and adults. Dip your hands in the Shenandoah, take in the view that Thomas Jefferson declared one of the most stupendous in nature, and absorb the history all around you in this wild and wonderful little town.

Old Aldie Mill + Quattro Goomba’s Winery… and John Mosby

It’s been a busy week over here as we try to cram as much as we can into the last 5-ish weeks of summer before school starts. My friends back home in Georgia are all preparing to send their kids back to school in the next 7-10 days and I must say, this is where that Kings Dominion Law comes in real handy- instead of back to school shopping right now, we’re still planning new things to do and hanging out at the pool. Virginia is for lovers slackers.

The other day my kids and I set out to see Old Aldie Mill in Aldie, Virginia. Aldie is a straight shot up US 50/ John Mosby Highway and I want to share something with you about John Mosby and why this highway is named after him. Four or five years ago, before we moved here to Northern Virginia, I bought the book April 1865: The Month That Saved America by Jay Winik. The book discusses April 1865 and the cascade of events that happened during that month that eventually led to the end of the Civil War. I really can’t tell you how entertaining this book is, and once we moved to Virginia it became even moreso because suddenly, so many events and people within the book became real for me, because I’m constantly seeing them or hearing about them living in an area that was so integral to the Civil War. One of those people is John Mosby, a guerrilla leader whose followers were known as “Mosby’s Confederacy.” I’m just going to share a direct quote from the book about John Mosby because I want you to see what kind of character we’re dealing with here:

“His fame rapidly spread with such exploits as the capture of a Northern general, Edwin H. Stoughton, in bed with a hangover- a mere ten miles from Washington, D.C. in March 1863. “Do you know who I am” bellowed the general, upon being so indiscreetly interrupted.” Mosby shot back: “Do you know Mosby, general?” Stoughton harrumphed: “Yes! Have you got the rascal?” Mosby: “No, but he has got you!”

So whenever you drive on John Mosby Highway, or pass a neighborhood like Mosby Woods, now you know who they’re named for. NOVAdventuring: come for the winery trips, stay for the Civil War History.

Anyway, as you go up Hwy 50, you come upon several roundabouts, which my 5 year old thinks are called merry-go-rounds and which I do not correct because that’s adorable. The first of these roundabouts has a sign that indicates if you take the lefthand exit off the roundabout, you’ll end up at Mount Zion Old School Baptist Church. I had some time to spare so I figured why not, and turned into the lot.

Mt. Zion was built in 1851 and during the Civil War, served as a hospital for Union soldiers as well as a barracks and a prison. And here is where we meet our friend John Mosby again: on July 6, 1864, there was the Battle of Mt. Zion, right here at Mt. Zion church, which brought Union forces up against John Mosby and his guerrilla fighters. This was an hour-long fight and I don’t want to give too much away, but Mosby’s men won. Game: blouses.

Getting back on the highway, you go through two more merry-go-rounds until you enter the town of Aldie. “Jessica, how damn cute is the town of Aldie?” you might be asking. So damn cute. If you’re just not going to make it out in the summer, try to come back in the fall for the Aldie Harvest Festival which is an arts and crafts festival that also features a duck race where you buy as many numbered rubber duckies as you wish and toss them in Little River. From there I suppose they float on downstream and at some point, someone picks up the first one to reach the designated “finish line” and the person whose name matches that duck’s number wins a million dollars or something. I’m not entirely clear on all the details, it’s just fun to toss a duck in the river. (You can tell I’ve never won the money.)

Old Aldie Mill was a big commercial operation back in the day, grinding wheat into flour for commercial sale. The Mill was powered by waterwheels which still exist today around the back side of the mill:

I have been inside Aldie Mill (during the arts and crafts festival) but right now it is closed for tours on the weekdays and only open for tours and demonstrations on the weekends. My kids were happy just to walk around outside and see the waterwheel, but come back on the weekend if you think you’d like to see all the machinery inside.

Just off to the right of the picture above is a small walking trail that connects the Aldie Mill complex to the Aldie Volunteer Fire Department. The best thing about this trail is it contains two small bridges which cross the Little River, and which in the fall you can toss rubber duckies from, or in the summer, leaves and small twigs. My kids and I spent 15-20 minutes on the bridges tossing leaves into the water and watching them coast downstream. Little kids can be easy to please sometimes, what can I say.

A few miles away from the Aldie Mill is Quattro Goomba’s winery, which is where we met friends for a pizza and wine lunch playdate. We had a discussion while there that to people who don’t live here, it may seem weird that parents here are taking their kids to hang out at wineries. Or that said kids greet their fathers in the evening with a jubilant “We went to a new winery today!” (Just mine?) That’s just one of the great things about living in Virginia wine country though- it is totally acceptable and commonplace to bring your kids to wineries to hang out for the afternoon and play. In fact, Quattro Goomba’s has a small basket of balls they keep on hand specifically for the younger visitors to play with.

The other great thing about Quattro Goomba’s: pizza. No precious little cheese plates here (well, you actually can buy local cheese and freshly made baguette, but you know what I mean). Goomba’s makes their own Sicilian style pizza fresh every day in the Pizza Shop. Don’t know what Sicilian style pizza means? I didn’t either. The best way I can describe it is it looks like Pizza Hut pan pizza but rather than tasting like grease and the unsettling feeling that you’re letting your family down, it tastes light and crispy and perfect. Look, I’m not a food critic, that’s the best I’ve got.

We had three adults + five kids and ordered a full pan of pizza, but you can also order it by the half pan or by the slice (which are squares, not triangles). FRIENDS WITH PEANUT ALLERGIES: THIS PIZZA IS SAFE FOR YOU! My friend’s two daughters are both severely allergic to peanuts, so she did her due diligence and asked about the dough and all ingredients and the cashier and kitchen manager assured her that everything is made on site and there are no peanuts or peanut products anywhere around. Pizza for everyone.

The Piney River rose had just sold out the day before (insert whining/crying face emoji) so I had a glass of the Piney River white which was a solid white wine that is a little on the sweet side. The Sorelle Riesling they offer is actually drier with less residual sugar but because I’m a know it all, I ordered the Piney River white assuming the Riesling would be sweeter. It’s not, because it’s evidently made in the French style vs. the German style. Learn from my mistakes, don’t pretend like you know everything there is to know about residual sugars and just ask.

We’ve got beautiful weather forecasted this weekend so this three-stop trip would be a perfect weekend outing, and although I usually include a “make a day of it” feature at the bottom of each post, these three stops are a day of it and we were thoroughly worn out when we got home. Enjoy the weekend!