Alt-Dominion

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By Joel Garreau
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 30, 2006

By any traditional definition, Madison, Va., population 211, is country. Twice as far from Fairfax as it is from Charlottesville, it's a place where, according to Joan Tanner at Feed Store Antiques, a bear came through town the other day and ate two birdhouses and three bird feeders.

The commercial part -- about six blocks long -- has its share of empty buildings, including the former Madison Coin-Op Laundry and the Inspirational Bookstore. Others have needed paint for a generation, maybe two. All of Madison County -- which, like a lot of places in the Virginia Piedmont, hit its peak population in the mid-1800s -- is now so sparsely settled that it can't support its own emergency room.

Until recently, the town's most authentic dining experience arguably was the Mountaineer Cafe. Beneath the Madison Mountaineers high school sports banner, guys in hunting-lodge caps and work boots with big wads of keys hanging from their belts smoke at their tables. Two eggs, toast, coffee, fresh-diced home fries, and a slab of locally cured country ham as big as your hand goes for $5.95.

At the beginning of the year, however, the earth moved a little. Right across the street from the Mountaineer, Sue and Mike Riley opened up the Madison Inn Restaurant. The tables sport damask tablecloths and fresh miniature alstroemeria lilies. On the walls are original paintings that are priced as high as $1,200. The Atalon 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon -- Sue Riley's favorite red -- is described as having "rich aromatics, dense black fruit flavors and opulent mouth feel." Steak and oysters with bearnaise butter, called "The Cow Goes Pearl Diving," is available for $30. The ciabatta flat bread is flown in from California.

Call it the Santa Fe-ing of the Piedmont. Virginia's Blue Ridge from Middleburg to Charlottesville is undergoing a dramatic transformation. It is becoming urbane without the urban. Or even suburban. It is becoming a place where people can make city-quality money, and satisfy city-quality tastes, without the city. Where "viewsheds" are jealously guarded, this change involves the search for a new and distinct authenticity that combines storing your breadmaking flour in an antique Hoosier cabinet while bemoaning the way the rain-laden clouds interfere with your computer's satellite connection.

You can find similar combinations in Santa Fe, N.M., with its blue corn and opera, roasted green peppers and quirky bookstores, and adobe designed by architects. It is exponentially increasing across the country as charming places that once were merely tourist destinations fill up with residents who can make an urban-scale income wherever they can stay connected.

You see it from the Big Sky Country of Montana to the Gold Country of the Sierras, to the Piedmont of North Carolina, to the mountains and coasts of New England. This Santa Fe-ing is marked by a profusion of high-end and inventive food, wineries, shops, restaurants, theater, moviemaking, film festivals, bookstores, music and the arts in landscapes that don't look too different from the way they did a century ago, albeit better kept up. Think of it as Monticello with broadband. It's a combination of the 21st century and the 18th century, the Information Age and the Agrarian Age. It's a place that sees the last two centuries of industrialization as a nightmare from which we are slowly awakening.

This world is loaded with ironic consequences, such as wide-open spaces where the cops, teachers, carpenters and electricians can't afford a place to live. Perhaps the greatest irony is that the very process of this Santa Fe-ing is being hastened by sophisticated technologies, by laptops and cellphones and Web retailers that will deliver anything anywhere overnight. If folks like the combination of round bales, field corn and sushi-grade Hawaiian tuna, they can now have it in the Santa Fe'd Piedmont, which is roughly 2.5 million acres of Clarke, western Loudoun, Fauquier, Rappahannock, Culpeper, Madison, Greene, Orange and Albemarle counties.

The question is what kind of world these immigrants are creating with their new powers.

James McDaniel, the cook at the Mountaineer who is brother to Rose Marie McDaniel, the waitress, who is sister-in-law to Debbi Hensley, the owner, doesn't want to disrespect the Madison Inn and the new ways it represents, but he's proud that at the Mountaineer, folks "complain I give 'em too much food." By contrast, he says, he's "never been real good at eating ambience. Never got full on it. You can stack it up as high as you want, but it's not country."

Invasion of the UPS Trucks

Bellevue Farms is a horse-laden area north of Warrenton with imposing homes on pieces of land large enough that two sport wineries. When Steve Case, the co-founder of AOL, bought his place here, he snapped up a half-dozen neighboring properties to ensure his privacy.

It's quiet living, which is why the community association flap going on there now is instructive. It's about traffic. Nothing bumper-to-bumper, mind you. Some residents find annoying the people in the BMW convertibles visiting a winery to sample the Vidal Blanc. But more interestingly, it's about all the UPS and DHL trucks punctuating the serenity.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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