I-66 may be the fastest route from Beltway to Blue Ridge, but by mixing in a bit of Route 55, you can get a feel for what's beyond the interstate blur between here and there. And when it's time to return to the fast lane, I-66 is always close by.
Here are seven slow-down suggestions along Route 55 between U.S. 15 in Haymarket and I-81 at Strasburg.
1 Feel the Blur Gap. At U.S. 15, exit south and at the next traffic light, where a right turn puts you on 55 west, make this Mile Zero for the day. For the next four miles, practice breathing slowly and not passing anyone. Then pull over at the cluster of historic markers on your right. Ignore the traffic on nearby I-66 and concentrate on the gap in the mountains to the west--Thoroughfare Gap. Imagine yourself standing here on Aug. 28, 1862. Maybe you were a Yankee soldier trying to stop Gen. Robert E. Lee from joining up with Stonewall Jackson. Maybe you're a Rebel eager to push through and defeat the Yanks a second time at Manassas.
Keep your head down. Across I-66 stand the starkly picturesque ruins of Chapman's Mill (aka Beverley Mill). Both Yankee and Rebel sharpshooters used the five-story mill to pick off the enemy trying to cross this gap.
2 Robert Duvall Hunt Country. If the sharpshooters got you jumpy, try talking to an old Texas Ranger. He used to go by the name of Gus McCrae and rode with the Lonesome Dove bunch. Now he calls himself Robert Duvall and runs a fancy little eating place, the Rail Stop, in the center of The Plains, Va. (Mile 8.6, if you paid attention and reset the trip odometer back at U.S. 15). I'm told that when he's not away doing acting stuff, Duvall drops in several times a week. That gives you about a 1-in-40 chance of seeing him. You can try improving your odds by lingering over coffee or going out to check the town's hunt-country shops.
Next door is Peyton Place, with everything from live parakeets to frog-shaped zinc door knockers. The other next door, the Blue Peach, displays artwork and crafts, all from hands that live within 30 miles of where you're standing. Behind the Rail Stop is the blacksmith (White Oak Forge).
3 Everyone a pumper! Anybody who has never pumped water by hand should stop at the Marshall Cemetery (a dangerous left at Mile 12.1, just east of Marshall). A working hand pump stands midway along the narrow first lane.
Not sure if the water is safe for human consumption, but on a hot day, it provides a good cold splash in the face and a water break for the dog. Pump with respect, of course--for those who thirst no more as well as for the water itself, which has moved through the ground slowly, for years or decades, waiting for your hand to lift it to the surface and start its travels all over again.
If you're feeling creative, try turning some tombstones back into people. Who was Annie Eliza Sudduth and why does her tombstone proclaim "She Was Faithful Unto Death"? And what about husband Albert, the Confederate soldier now resting faithfully, or is it fitfully, beside her?
4 A Glass of Wine, a Loafing Thou . . . And a view that will make you want to linger the afternoon away at Linden Vineyards, just 2.2 winding miles south of Linden, on narrow Route 638 (turn south at Mile 28). Start with a free tasting of some of the vineyard's best. Then order a glass of your new favorite wine and a light lunch, pick a table--inside, on the deck, or scattered about the grounds--and start soaking in the slow-down view.
West of Linden, just past where Route 79 tries to lure you back onto I-66, is the Apple House (Mile 29.5), the home of Alpen Glow sparkling apple cider. Many consider this a mandatory fun stop for cider and doughnuts. They may be right. Me, I take my Alpen to go.
5 Canoe Capital. Front Royal is the northern gateway to Skyline Drive and Shenandoah National Park. Now it's also Canoe Capital, a title just granted by the state to recognize the more than 40,000 people who explore the Shenandoah River, its north and south forks, from here each year.
There's still plenty of river unsplashed. We drove three miles south on U.S. 340 to Front Royal Canoe Company (1-800-270-8808), where owner Don Roberts eventually dropped us, our guide/head paddler Stuart Wilson and a canoe in the state's newest park (Andy Guest Shenandoah River State Park).
We didn't see the hoped-for ospreys and bald eagles, but the river provided three hours of peace and scenery, spiced with a few mild rapids, wildlife and bits of history ranging from Indian fish traps to the boatmen who once floated cargoes of iron and flour down these wild waters and cursed the rock ledges that our canoe skimmed over. Bring a fishing rod.
6 Almost Valley Forge. George Washington surveyed this enclosed valley as a young man and, according to local legend, once considered Fort Valley as a final winter retreat during the darkest days of the Revolutionary War. Now its narrow canyon entrance and babbling stream offer a retreat for trout fishermen, hikers, campers and we who just picnic in this closest piece of the George Washington National Forest. (To enter Fort Valley, turn south on Route 678 at Mile 48.5.)
7 Pottown, Frogtown . . . Strasburg. "You can see why Strasburg was called Pottown," said my volunteer guide at the Strasburg Museum, pointing to a pottery exhibit. "But I'll bet you don't know why it was called Frogtown." From the twinkle in the old man's eye, he seemed ready to take me to the clay pits and catch a few.
This is not the Smithsonian, which is part of the charm, but more grandma's attic--if we had about a hundred grandmas who kept a picture scrapbook of local people, homes and events and carefully wrote labels on dusty paper to explain the surviving tools and artifacts. Little Strasburg is proud and picturesque enough to fill three museums, as well as the Emporium (billed as "Virginia's largest antiques center"). Amazing how much stuff Gen. Sheridan didn't burn.
Speaking of which, a good start for understanding the mood of the Shenandoah Valley is the Stonewall Jackson Museum (540-465-5884) on Hupp's Hill, north of Strasburg on U.S. 11. Everything here is touched by the Civil War. Or, as one resident whose family has been in the valley for 250 years quietly corrected me, the "War Against Northern Aggression."
As I said at the start, relax. But maybe keep your Yankee head down.
WAYS & MEANS
WHERE TO STAY: Hotel Strasburg (1-800-348-8327) has Victorian-ish style and dining. In Front Royal, canoeing friends recommended Chester House B&B (1-800-621-0441), Super 8 (540-636-4888) and Skymont Riverside Cabins (540-636-1853).
WHERE TO EAT: Tiny Lauder's, west of Front Royal on Route 55, is Coleslaw Heaven on the official crummy-but-good restaurant circuit. The outdoor dining at Dean's Steakhouse in Front Royal suits many tired canoers and hikers. Antiquers should try Hotel Strasburg, whose Depot Lounge is a fine relaxed place to eat and sip should you be so foolish as to miss the Sunday buffet. Also: Linden Vineyards (540-635-2118), with typical light lunches including local or imported cheese or venison sausage ($5) and a glass of wine ($5); the Rail Stop (540-253-5644); and the Apple House (540-636-6329).
DETAILS: Contact the Front Royal/Warren County Chamber (540-635-3185 or www.frontroyalchamber.com); Shenandoah Valley Travel Association (540-740-3132 or www.shenandoah.org); George Washington National Forest (1-888-265-0019 or www.fs.fed.us/gwjnf). Current Shenandoah River boating and fishing conditions at www.frontroyalcanoe.com.
So maybe one of you is content to ramble aimlessly down country roads, and the other isn't? For the destination-oriented, then, one of several excellent reasons to head out Route 55 (or, if you must, I-66 west to I-81 south to Mount Jackson, and turn right) is the Shenandoah Valley Music Festival (1-800-459-3396, www.musicfest.org). The 37th annual fest--actually a series of weekend music performances at the rustic open-air pavilion of the old Orkney Springs Hotel, not far from Bryce Resort--includes shows by the Fairfax Symphony (July 23-24 and 30-31), the Dukes of Dixieland (Aug. 13), a Latino Music Fest (with Sol y Canto and others, Aug. 14), a folk fest (with Janis Ian, Susan Werner and Trapezoid's Paul Reisler and Leslie Ritter, Sept. 4) and big-band/swing night with theTom Cunningham Orchestra on Sept. 5. (Aside to the destination addict: The symphony dates are each preceded by two-day craft shows. Whoa.)
CAPTION: The eerie remnants of Beverley Mill.
CAPTION: A well-timed meal at the Rail Stop may result in a Duvall sighting.
CAPTION: The trout are biting at Fort Valley.