Jefferson turns out to be a powerful ad for life on overdrive. The guy wrote the Declaration, bought half the country from France for a song and was an ultra-cool gadget geek to boot. Yet he found time to read deeply and sell his ideas to a nation, a process that continues at the Monticello Visitors Center, a few minutes from the mansion. A film features Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor explaining Jefferson's devotion to the separation of religion and government. The movie also takes a stab at figuring out how the man who pushed for anti-slavery language in the Declaration nonetheless owned slaves all of his life. Jefferson himself bluntly posed the dilemma as "justice" vs. "self-preservation."
If Monticello is about digging through ideas, Montpelier, near Orange, Va., is about digging up the past -- literally. Montpelier -- a pleasant half-hour's drive from Charlottesville, which we made the base of our presidential explorations -- may not be as grand as the homes of the first and third presidents, but James and Dolley Madison's house is just now emerging from a hundred years of hiding, and a tour here is an expedition into the art and science of restoration. A branch of the duPont family bought the fourth president's house in 1901 and turned it into a vast playpen, adding wing upon wing and building two racecourses on the front grounds.
Ash Lawn, the home of James Monroe.
(Amy Sancetta -- AP)
A platoon of preservation experts is now at work demolishing the duPont buildings and rescuing Madison's Montpelier. The house isn't much from the outside, all wrapped in plastic like a Christo event. But inside, our guide, Ann Ferguson, shows us how historians and conservationists have dug into walls and stripped away paper and paint to determine where doorways stood and what colors decorated each wall. Clues are everywhere: A mouse nest discovered under a floorboard turned out to include period wallpaper, newspaper and even writing in Madison's hand.
As Montpelier is revealed, we notice the layers of connections, both political and personal, among Jefferson, who helped his friend design the house; Madison, who served as Jefferson's secretary of state; and James Monroe, who similarly served Madison and was also his secretary of war. Seeing their houses, it was somehow easier to think of them as buds as well as fellow busts in a museum.
On day three, by the time we get to Ash Lawn-Highland, a mountain or two away from Monticello, we've about had it with houses. But we're feeling a bit sorry for Monroe, whose home draws only about a tenth as many visitors as big George's.
So we head on into Ash Lawn and its majestic grounds, and we're invited by the caretaker to visit the shed where two lambs were born just 48 hours ago. We're inspired again, this time by an antidote to the grandeur of the past days. Ash Lawn is refreshingly modest, a timely reminder that America is about mobility and possibility. No grand high ceilings here, no European treasures, none of Jefferson's expensive gadgets. This is a more typical farmhouse.
Our guide reminds us of Monroe's accomplishments and his connections to Jefferson, who invited Monroe -- then a Fredericksburg lawyer -- to come and try his hand at farming. But what the kids take away is a sense that this guy made it on his own.
Oh, and they couldn't get over the baby sheep, almost steady on their feet, already competing to get at their mom, living in the comfort of a president's farm.
We're ready for Nos. 2 and 6 -- John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams -- but alas, the drive to Quincy, Mass., seems a bit much for this weekend.
GETTING THERE: Mount Vernon is a lovely bike ride or 10-minute drive down the George Washington Memorial Parkway from Old Town Alexandria. Montpelier is about 90 minutes from the Beltway, out I-66 west to Route 29 south to Culpeper, then Route 15 south to Orange, Va., and follow signs. Monticello and Ash Lawn are neighbors just south of Charlottesville, about two hours from the Beltway.
WHERE TO STAY: We went for the indoor swimming pool over convenience of location at the Doubletree Charlottesville (434-973-2121, www.doubletree.com), which is several miles outside the city's center but had a $75 Web-only rate for a big room with a view of a vast parking lot (a search now shows $116 minimum for weekends in May and June). The B&B selections in Albemarle County and near Orange are quite attractive; Guesthouses (434-979-7264, www.va-guesthouses.com)is a good booking service for rooms and suites in some lovely old houses.
WHERE TO EAT: On the road to the presidents, Pig 'n Steak barbecue (Washington Street, off Route 29 in Madison, 540-948-3130) is a succulent stop, and the clientele of hunters and locals provides evidence that the Washington area's outer boundary is, for the moment, holding at Culpeper. Downtown Orange, a few minutes from Montpelier, has the usual chains as well as some more interesting fare. For Monticello and Ash Lawn, explore Charlottesville's two clusters of eateries, along Main Street and the downtown mall, and at the university's heart, the Corner.
Continental Divide (811 W. Main St., 434-984-0143) is a busy, fun Tex-Mex joint with good margaritas and a kitchen that hasn't yielded to the forces of blandness; if the spicy shrimp and chorizo is on special, go for the gusto. At Revolutionary Soup (108 Second St. SW, 434-296-7687), we wanted to try everything on the board, but settled, quite happily, for the Tuscan chickpea, garlic potato, lamb curry and lobster chowder soups. Chaps (223 E. Main, 434-977-4139) is a '50s-style ice cream parlor that provides great people-watching along with a thick, creamy product.
INFO: Charlottesville/Albemarle Convention & Visitors Bureau, 877-386-1102, www.charlottesvilletourism.org; Mount Vernon, 703-780-2000, www.mountvernon.org; Monticello, 434-984-9800, www.monticello.org; Montpelier, 540-672-2728, www.montpelier.org; and Ash Lawn-Highland, 434-293-9539, www.ashlawnhighland.org.