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Virginia's Trail of Wigs

Presidential house hopping in the Old Dominion means four estates in two days.

By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 13, 2005; Page C02

Done right, this trip would take a couple of weeks and we would go on horseback, or at least by bicycle. Or we'd travel entirely off-road, and we'd do it in winter, without heat, power or microfibers.

Margaritas and indoor swimming would be out of the question.

Ash Lawn, the home of James Monroe. (Amy Sancetta -- AP)

Traveling that way, we might viscerally understand that while it is now easy to visit the homes of four of our country's first five presidents in one quick weekend, two centuries ago Thomas Jefferson and James Madison lived a day's ride apart. By taking the rough road, we might get it across to the kids that the Virginians who shaped this nation were good friends in part because when they traveled, they had to stop and spend some days with one another. At that pace, there was time for the conversation and debate that shaped the American experiment.

But we have a weekend, and we've assigned ourselves a mission. In an age when it is somehow unfashionable to teach schoolchildren American history through the stories of great men and their battles of ideas, my wife and I decided to stage an instant civics course in a lightning tour of the homesteads of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe. (If only John Adams were a Virginian, we could have taken care of the nation's first 40 years in a 72-hour marathon.) With Aaron, who is 9 and president-obsessed, and Julia, who is 14 and relishes debating the great constitutional issues, we have ready subjects for our experiment.

The first stop hardly feels like a trip. We slip through Old Town Alexandria and along the Potomac to Mount Vernon, the most heavily theme-parked of the presidential homes, now with food court.

But it's still possible to walk away from the corporate glitz and fall into a fantasy of accompanying George and Martha on a stroll down to the banks of the river, its views still gloriously protected from development. In front, we meet Tobias Lear, Washington's secretary as winningly played by a costumed reenactor, and eagerly sop up the gossipy rumblings of a feud between Washington and Jefferson. Lear is atwitter with fear that his esteemed employer may enter into a duel with his secretary of state.

As we consider Washington and Jefferson's dramatically different styles, and how much we prefer Jefferson's ardor for ideas to Washington's inclination toward action (save it for the comic books, bud), we come upon the first president's tomb, where we learn that neither he nor Jefferson is acknowledged as a president at his grave site. Washington is only "General," while Jefferson ensured that his epitaph describe him only as "Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom and Father of the University of Virginia."

Our opinions of these gents begin to shift about -- they are less the politicians and more the wealthy farmers with, thanks to slavery, plenty of time to pursue their myriad passions.

A two-hour drive brings us to Charlottesville, and Jefferson's Monticello, the most polished of the presidential sites, and the most pastoral. The gentle climb up Jefferson's little mountain leads to his house of exquisite balance, where the kids catalogue Jefferson's pursuits during a guided tour that is more relaxed and more artfully crafted than Mount Vernon's (which unfortunately features a different guide in each room). They love the copying device on his desk, a mechanical wonder he concocted to make a second pen mimic his hand movements as he wrote letters each day. And then there are his clocks, skylights, automatic doors and dumbwaiter, a snazzy lift that hoists a bottle of wine up from the cellar and into the dining room.

Julia is taken by Jefferson's decision to mount a bust of his archenemy, Alexander Hamilton, directly across from his own image. Why would he do that? Our guide, Nini Almy, is ready with a TJ quote: "We will be opposed in death as we were in life."

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