If Virginia is for Lovers, Count Me In!

Photo Credit: Virginia Tourism Corporation virginia.org
Photo Credit: Virginia Tourism Corporation virginia.org

Sandwiched in between marathon weekend in Chicago, Illinois and a work conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, I had a free weekend. Typically, I’m such an introvert that usually I really need two days to recoup after a busy week at work and another upcoming busy week at work to just be alone and do my thing, except maybe with the guy I’m dating or a close friend or the occasional group outing. I don’t make huge weekend plans that often; partially because it seems like I am always training for something so I need one of my two weekend evenings free so I can turn in early and wake up early to conquer the sunrise with a long run of some kind. But I left my office on Friday evening with a stark realization: I had a COMPLETELY free weekend and I didn’t really like it. I didn’t have a long training run planned, I wasn’t flying anywhere, my time was all my own. I might be an introvert or whatever, but two days free of social events spent holed up in my studio apartment without the excuse of a raging blizzard or hurricane to keep me indoors was even too much for me. Besides, I had all winter to hibernate– why start early when this weekend’s weather was expected to be nothing short of beautiful? So, I texted a friend to accompany me on a road trip two hours west of our nation’s capital to a world away: the Appalachian Mountains in the heart of Virginia. Time to check out some leaves.

Sunday morning, I drove out of Arlington (I love having a car here!) to Manassas Park to pick up my friend Jami, the sister of one of my college friends, Stefanie. Jami and I only just met through Stefanie some time before I moved away from DC last year but I can really count on her not only for a spontaneous road trip or outing but as a true woman of faith and wisdom even beyond her years. Jami is also a budding photographer with a real talent for the art, so I knew she’d be game to photographing the crap out of the fall foliage. There are very few things that are treasured in this world amongst friendship and the joy of spontaneity and one of those things is having a travel buddy who is up for changes in plans and who can turn a wide open, agenda-less day into a great memory. Even better, a story, and Jami and I were definitely in agreement that we needed some good stories in our lives.

Front Royal, Virginia
Front Royal, Virginia

Our plan for the day was to drive out to Front Royal, Virginia, which is one of the National Park Service’s gates into Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive, the main thoroughfare that runs all the way down to roughly Charlottesville where it becomes the Blue Ridge Parkway. From Skyline Drive, you can detour onto one of several campsites, overlook points, and hiking trails  that make the park one of the best places for wilderness exploration, camping, and nature appreciation along the East Coast. Hiking and camping in Shenandoah is practically a rite of passage when you move to DC; it’s the best place to go if you need to be away from the Beltway for the weekend (besides the beach, of course, in my opinion). The park itself has a lot of history to it and, in fact, when I was serving as a legislative aide on U.S. Senator Jim Webb’s staff in the U.S. Senate in 2011, I helped navigate my boss’s resolution to recognize the 75th anniversary of the dedication of Shenandoah National Park through the Senate and into passage, so it was great to see that the park had reached such an important milestone in its existence as a national park and that it was still going strong. Shenandoah is such a huge part of Virginia.

My attempt at photography
My attempt at photography

As part of our adventures, Jami and I first started out our afternoon in Front Royal where we grabbed lunch at a tiny café downtown that I don’t think either of us left with a full understanding of its theme. The place was called “Soul Mountain,” and the overwhelming scent of patchouli incense greeted us as we walked in. Seriously, it was really strong. The place was painted terra cotta and goldenrod with random Caribbean/Creole decorations hanging up but yet it had a strange dive bar atmosphere, too. The menu didn’t have a theme coherence either– I almost ordered a jerk chicken wrap but decided on Southern-style pulled BBQ chicken and baked beans. Overhead, the music ranged from 90’s gangster rap to UB40 reggae to Frank Sinatra and “Mambo No. 5.” Jami had just finished suggesting the restaurant was a “hippie” restaurant, which gave me skepticism, until a group of….well, hippies…walked in and took the table next to the plant where we had identified was home to the patchouli incense. It was almost uncanny. We stopped next door at an antique shop that suited both her self-dubbed “industrial chic” style and my “tailored shabby chic” tastes— I swear, I am stopping back in the spring when I decide how to decorate my apartment for this gorgeous set-up. After another stop for cappuccino and an apple pie muffin cookie (what is it with compound foods?) for me and a bag of chocolate-covered espresso beans and an English toffee coffee for Jami, we decided we were ready to explore the park.

Gorgeous antiques. My idea of my so-called "tailored shabby chic" style.
Gorgeous antiques. My idea of my so-called “tailored shabby chic” style.

One thing I find completely interesting about life in the DC metro area is that everyone within the Beltway’s reach is very career-focused and takes life seriously; however, all of us yearn for a taste of “the simple life” as we remember it from our pre-DC lives. Maybe that’s just me, but I personally find it so refreshing to leave stuffy ol’ Washington, DC to escape to quiet towns in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains with wineries and sustainable farms and feel almost like I am back home in Nebraska and at least a world away from marble colonnades and static bureaucracy (redundant) and still be within reach of our high-powered, fast-moving lives. So, when I saw the line into Shenandoah National Park was at least a mile long, I knew that everyone else was as interested in seeing fall’s splendor while we had the option as both Jami and I were. We knew we were on to something special here.

Picture a clear sapphire sky and golden autumn sunlight covering the entire forest of trees at least as tall as buildings and shining through red, orange, and yellow leaves like pieces of glass in a stained glass window, casting a cathedral-like glow over a forest that, from above, looks like a patchwork quilt (which I only knew because the entire mountainside looked like a patchwork quilt). The forest was immensely beautiful. The day was a cool, yet almost balmy autumn day; just the kind of weather that gives such cozy resonance back to the word “October.” The dirt was fresh, the forest echoed as much as it swallowed up the voices of dozens of admirers pausing to photograph the splashes of fall color against the browns of fallen leaves and dusty logs. Splendid. It wasn’t enough to drive at 10mph along Skyline Drive; you had to get out and see it up close, too. You couldn’t not.

At some point, I realized that I was dying to go for a run. Obviously, I couldn’t because I wasn’t alone on this trip and I was still in post-marathon recovery, but I couldn’t resist asking Jami for an impromptu photo shoot; a few “rave run” pictures of my very own. See? Told ya she had talent. I think she captured my awkward, “trying to look hardcore,” watch-out-for-rocks running face really well. 🙂  (Photos Courtesy of Jami McDowell Photography)

After leaving the park at Thornton Gap, we made our way into Sperryville and stopped at a roadside stand to buy apples. Another fall activity, check. Even though the day was waning and we had about 2 hours to drive back to Manassas and DC to account for, neither of us were ready to stop exploring. Since Jami knew the area pretty well from previous excursions, she recommended something I probably would not have chosen to do if I were on my own: a whiskey distillery tour.

I don’t drink whiskey. Like, at all. The last time I drank whiskey I was actually not drinking it. I was shooting it with a group of Danish tourists who asked for my opinion on a “good American drink” and really, you can’t get any more American than whiskey…or whatever. What did I know? I can handle a Makers bourbon and ginger ginger ale with a splash of Makers and grenadine, but I’m not a hard liquor person. However, I didn’t want to be so cliche as to recommend that we instead go to one of the many wineries in the area after picking apples and gawking at fall leaves– our day needed some grit— so whiskey tour it was!

Considering I have no idea what I am talking about, I will try to write in my best Conde Naste style. Nestled somewhere in between some old schoolhouses and a quiet downtown in Sperryville at the foot of the mountains is a patch of barns that comprise the Copper Fox Whiskey Distillery. Jami and I wandered in right at about 5:20, just in time to catch the last tour of the day. Our tour guide, a born and bred Virginian with sandy blonde Marley dreads and missing some teeth, led us through some of the rooms where they leave barley on the floor to germinate in two massive piles before carrying it to some bins that, through a process of steam and compression and yeast, distill the barley combined with water into something that represents pre-aged liquor. In the far back room of the distillery, there was about a 3-story building’s equivalent of shelves stacked to the edge with barrels that literally looked like they were about to burst any second. The room smelled incredible. Like whiskey, of course, but like aging wood barrels. You couldn’t leave that room without wanting to sample whatever came out of those barrels. Copper Fox uses apple and cherry woods somewhere in the aging process and it was definitely noticeable when you smelled the whiskey before tasting it. One blend had the depth of honey– you know how honey at first tastes sugary-sweet but behind that overwhelming sweetness is something earthy? I ended up buying a bottle of that, but I literally couldn’t get past the sting of alcohol to decide right then and there that I was a whiskey girl. Something to work on, I guess.

After leaving the distillery, me with a bottle of their small batch Belle Grove 1797 and Jami with a bottle for her husband Andy, we decided that we needed dinner before heading back to Virginia. We stopped at a restaurant up the street from Copper Fox and along Main Street after first attempting to get pizza at “the only pizza place in the county” (God bless rural America) that was out of pretty much every ingredient that would make up a sane pizza pie. It turns out we were not the only city peeps wanting a taste of the quiet life that weekend. The restaurant we had chosen (out of lack of options in Where-Are-We-Ville) was a tad out of my price range. Well, not really, but I did just impulse-buy a $50 bottle of local whiskey that I had no idea when or how I would get through it and I wasn’t quite in the mood for a fancy dinner, but Jami and I had waited so long for a table that getting up at the first knowledge that they were out of the burger and pretty much everything except the most expensive items on their menu seemed like it was too much effort to extend just to save (realistically) like $20. So, I decided to just go with it and order “the duck please, medium rare, thank you very much.” Sometimes spontenaity can be inconvenient, but I hardly ever go for the priciest thing on the menu, so why not just enjoy yourself when your first-fifth options for food are out? Why wait for life to force you into enjoyment? The duck was amazing, by the way. I admit I was timid– I’d never really had duck before and I was wary of game after learning that a chili my sister had once made included venison from a deer my brother Joel had shot 2 years ago, but it rounded out a day in the depths of Virginia pretty well.

I rolled back into Arlington around 9PM that night, convinced like never before of one thing: I absolutely love Virginia. No other state can offer the wealth that the Old Dominion can. You get the mountains that offer camping and hiking in the summer with some of the prettiest fall foliage in the country, local wineries that are actually pretty darn good, and a whiskey distellery worthy of the same praise (albeit more eloquent). You have the coastline just a few hours’ drive, there’s apples and peanuts and Virginia ham that has solidified itself in my family’s Christmas dinner tradition. Virginia has some of the richest history in our country– Virginia has been around for 400 years. It’s an infant in world history terms, but an elder in American history. Virginians sometimes complain that Northern Virginia and Washington, DC color outside of the lines when it comes to the whole picture, but truthfully, I adore living on my side of the Potomac and not having a Washington, DC zip code doesn’t bother me at all because I feel at home as a Virginian. There really is no place I’d rather be.


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