If it were anywhere but Loudoun County, the scene would have been truly bizarre. Here, where reminders are everywhere that marching suburbia has only overlaid and not replaced a rural and older world, the sight was merely surreal.
The girl was just past the Starbucks on Route 7 in Leesburg, not far from the Dunkin' Donuts and a tae kwon do studio, across the street and a wide expanse of parking from the Giant, plodding down the sidewalk on a horse. Girl and horse clopped along, seemingly oblivious to the whizzing cars, until, reaching Plaza Street, they turned the corner and trotted out of sight.
Loudoun has become a place of juxtapositions. Above: A coach holds up traffic on Route 50 during a fall fundraiser.
(Tracy Woodward -- The Washington Post)
Once upon a time, the sight of a person on horseback smack dab in the center of town would not have been at all out of the ordinary. Virginia's General Assembly established Leesburg as Loudoun's county seat in 1758, exactly because Colonial lawmakers figured that a citizen living anywhere in the far-flung county could reach the courthouse there and get home again in a one-day ride.
But these days, a girl on a horse amid the strip malls that line a major thoroughfare was a sight that seemed to encapsulate the place. Change has whooshed in so fast that bits of what was once here can sometimes be stumbled upon, surprisingly, in the midst of all that has come since. Here old and new share the same space, the rich history and natural beauty providing the very charm that brings thousands of new residents and new homes.
Like much of Virginia, Loudoun boasts a proud past that stretches to the nation's earliest days. The county was named for John Campbell, fourth Earl of Loudoun and commander of British forces in North America, after splitting from Fairfax in the mid-18th century. When the British were about to burn the nation's capital in 1814, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were evacuated to Leesburg. The town was close enough to make in a mad dash with the precious documents, but far enough to feel safe from the danger in Washington.
That geography is still one of the major reasons families flock to Loudoun, bearing cargo even more precious, their children. It is far from the dangers and inconveniences of city life, but close enough to work there, enjoy cultural events and now even catch a baseball game.
People move by the thousands because they are entranced by the same rolling hills and taste of slower, country life that greeted their forefathers. But they know, too, they will find the most modern amenities -- clean, new schools, outlet shopping, subdivisions preequipped with high-speed Internet access and gourmet food at Wegmans.
Even so, there are still unpaved roads in Loudoun, and not just in the west. In Ashburn, too, low-slung houses line old gravel roads, wedged in on all sides by broad new avenues lined by houses eagerly awaited by those who want to become the newest residents of one of the nation's fastest-growing counties. Many move in even as construction crews work feverishly to complete their neighbors' houses. There are still family farms, where a few head of cattle graze within eyesight of a fence line and the townhouses behind.
This is a county changing so fast that the road map stuffed under the car's front seat can be hopelessly out of date, even if printed just a few years ago. Even mapquest.com, the indispensable tool of the directionless that is supposed to move at the speed of the Internet, can't keep up. If the online program shows two roads linking up that no longer do, that's not surprising. That's just Loudoun.
How fast the county should keep growing has been the subject of intense debate, driving local elections, rallies and, recently, even a secessionist movement in the west. That clash, however, is hardly new. Loudoun was the first rural county in Virginia to adopt a zoning ordinance in 1942 -- but only after the Board of Supervisors experienced five months of persistent lobbying by resident Vinton Liddell Pickens.
The county's motto, borrowed from the Earl of Loudoun's family coat of arms and plastered on every government document, is "I byde my time." But, in fact, nobody does, any more than anyone spells bide with a 'y' or really uses the word "bide" anyways. In fact, it's the opposite. Loudoun residents speed their time, rushing between soccer games and PTA meetings, neighborhood get-togethers, Bible study and the office, with some hefty time scheduled in for the commute.
Every year, the newcomers and the old-timers come together with a sprinkling of tourists to celebrate Loudoun history at Leesburg's August Court Days. The festival is meant to recall the monthly meeting of the county's only courthouse in Colonial times. Because of the pace of planting and harvesting, August was a time residents could come together and gossip and relax on the town green. These days, people do the same, taking in reenactors in Colonial garb and crafts sold by street vendors.
But look at the faces of those who come to enjoy Court Days. If it seems like more of those you encounter at the summer festival or at the Ashburn Ice House or at any of the county's parks or libraries are young -- young parents and their young children -- it's because they are. People in Loudoun are younger than elsewhere. The median age here is 33.5 compared with 35.9 nationally. The birth rate, which peaked nationally in 1992, is now 54 percent higher in Loudoun than in the rest of Virginia and is still rising. Almost half of all Loudoun households include children younger than 19.
What does it all mean? We're a very young people in this very old county.