ON THE ROAD TO LEXINGTON
Almost any route from Washington to Lexington is a pretty one, but the best way to dodge the traffic is probably I-66 west to Gainesville, then Route 55 and various side roads (marked)
Like my grandfather, who'd glare out his window at the rust leaves against the Midwest's galvanized gray sky, I hate to see the fall come. The edge in the air that some people say quickens their blood just turns mine all to sludge, and a brooding gloom settles in to stay until the jonquils and the groundhogs are strong enough to drive it off.
But there are, Lord knows, people who frolic in the fall, who sing a song of crispness, who like to trek out to watch the leaves die. One or more of these people may seize hold of you, and if it happens you'll need some advice fast. Here it is:
Fight hard to avoid being on the road Sunday evening, when everyone else with a gallon of gas is out there and the long creep home over dark, unfamiliar roads will squash any happy memories you might have accumulated over the weekend.
And steer clear of the places everybody else is flocking to, such as the Blue Ridge Parkway or Skyline Drive. Remind all hands that one place there won't be a crowd of strangers is at home -- and it's cheap and warm there besides.
That may not work; it didn't work for me, either. So:
Not Lexington, Kentucky, but Lexington, Rockbridge County, Virginia, about 180 miles down the Blue Ridge from D.C. -- a bit more than half a tank each way, for most cars. It's a picture-postcard town in a beautiful mountain setting, charming old streets with flaming trees all around, and two colleges, each with its own Civil War hero (Confederate, of course).
In order of appearance, Thomas Jonathan Jackson was a professor at the Virginia Military Institute for 10 years before he went off to defend the South and win the nickname "Stonewall"; and, after what is still called, in those parts, the War Between the States, Robert Edward Lee rode in on his famed horse Traveller to become president of what was then called Washington College -- now, sir, Washington and Lee University.
Besides the glory reflected from its gallant man in gray, VMI's rather stern-looking campus prides itself on the George C. Marshall library, which holds -- besides the papers of the man who engineered Europe's recovery after World War II -- large collections on the military and diplomatic history of this century and cryptography, which had a lot to do with that history.
For its part, Washington and Lee has, in the crypt beneath Lee Chapel, the famous recumbent statue of the general and, nearby, his body and those of his family. (Outside one of the chapel's doors is Traveller's grave, too: Good service must not go unrewarded.) Beneath the chapel is Lee's office as it was when he used it, and a museum of Lee memorabilia -- including a pair of boots remarkably small for a man who left such large footprints.
One attraction the two colleges share is football, and this Saturday both teams will be playing at home -- VMI against Connecticut, Washington and Lee against Marryville. November 10 Washington and Lee has the only game in town, against Georgetown. All games are at 1:30, so if college football isn't your game you can avoid the crowds by doing your strolling and lunching while the various elevens are battling it out.
Off campus, there are a few buildings that can brag of having survived the great fire of 1796, which leveled the town:
The oldest, called "the castle," may antedate Lexington itself. Originally used as law offices, it now houses an insurance office and an apartment. It's on Randolph Street, around the corner from the visitor center.
On the town's principal corner -- Main and Washington Streets -- sits a building that was, over the years, the first school, first post office, first bank and a variety of other stores, many of them undoubtedly firsts as well. More interesting than this string of firsts, though, are the intricate brickwork and the iron balcony, originally the porch. Now called the Alexander-Withrow House, it holds a bookstore and seven guest-suites, which rent for $35 a night ( $5 extra for each additional person). Autumn weekends are booked well in advance; for information or reservations call 703/463-2044.
And then, on Washington between Randolph and Main, stands the only house Stonewall Jackson ever owned -- and he didn't get to enjoy home ownership very long, either. He and his second wife moved in in January 1859, and in April 1861 he left it to go off to war, and never returned.
In 1904 the house passed out of the family -- to the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which isn't so far out of the family -- and was turned into a hospital. Half a century later it was bought for restoration as a memorial museum, and this Saturday it will finally open to the public. There are guided tours, hours are 9 to 4:30 Monday through Saturday and 1 to 4:30 Sunday, and you can visit it for $1.50 if they call you an adult, 75 cents if you qualify as a kid. v
Not far away is a house in which Jackson and Lee lived, though not at the same time. There Jackson married his first wife, the daughter of the president of Washington College, and the couple lived there with her parents and her sister until she died in childbirth a year later.
In 1865, when Lee became president of the college, he lived in the house for about three years, until the larger one he'd designed for himself was built next door. Now called the Lee-Jackson House (rank outranks chronology, apparently), the place is used as university administrative offices.
Nothing in Lexington is very far from anything else in Lexington, and all these places are listed in the walking-tour brochures available at the visitor center.
And, only a couple of blocks away, at 30 North Main Street, is the White Column Inn (no telling which of its almost-white columns it's named for". It has the kind of atmosphere that Georgetown and Capitol Hill places imitate. The food is good and the menu varied; service is cheerful, willing and slightly haphazard; prices are reasonable; and you can get a drink there -- outside Lexington's city limits, it's beer and wine only. All in all, it's a lovely place to spend your afternoon reading the visitor center brochures. Hours are 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.
Nonetheless, somebody might insist on dragging you out to the nearby mountainsides; and, truth to tell, there are worse mountainsides you could get dragged out to.
Still presuming that you want to duck the crowds, your best bet, especially for the year's last leaf-looking, is Goshen Pass, about 15 miles northwest of town via U.S. 11 and Route 39 (a Virginia byway). The gorge was carved by the same Maury River than meanders through town; in the summer, VMI Key-dets float down the river on inner tubes, towing six-packs. Away from town, the road winds along next to the cascading river, and there are picnic areas all along the way. Goshen Pass is the Skyline Drive in miniature, with spectacular colored leaves contrasting with dark pines and mountain laurel.
But if you look about for something other than leaves, you'll see firebreaks up into the woods and streams feeding down into the Maury; and if you pull off the road and wander up one of these trails you'll find delights hidden from the tourist-choked drives -- not wilderness, but close enough. There are streams clear enough to drink from, though their noise, to city ears, sounds remarkably like traffic; waterfalls that look like a rustic version of the 22nd Street steps in Washington, daring you to know that nature did this engineering work all by itself; and, from time to time, empty soft-drink and beer cans to remind you that you're not the first modern American to pass by here. Where we went, the sign said that the path was "open for spring gobbler season [we all know when that is right?] and October 15 through December 31."
If this doesn't tire out your trekkers, go on through the pass, turn around and go back to U.S. 11; then turn left (north) and in 20 minutes or less you'll find the farm and workshop where Cyrus McCormick invented the reaper that probably made a greater difference in our grandparetns' lives than Thomas Edison's lightbulb ever did.
If farming isn't your thing, turn right (south) instead and you'll find Virginia's natural limestone bridge -- which, according to the literature, Thomas Jefferson coveted and finally bought from King George III in 1774 for "twenty shillings of good and lawful money." Earlier, according to the same literature, a surveyor (one G. W., later to father a country) carved his initials into the soft stone.
During the Revolution, it's said, molten lead was poured the 250 feet from the bridge's arch into the creek below to make shot for Washington's troops. The promoters list a string of notables -- from Patrick Henry to William MeKinley -- who have come to marvel at the site. There are also limestone caverns and a wax museum.
Now, there's all an autumn-lover could want, without ever setting tire on the Skyline Drive or Blue Ridge Parkway, noted for their views and their throngs.
It's probably too much to ask that people would leave us back at the White Column Inn while they tramp the woods and hills and come back to report on what they've seen.
Yes, it probably is.