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.
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.
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.
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.
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):
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.
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:
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:
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!
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.