AT VIRGINIA'S Explore Park in Roanoke, a good pair of 21st-century sneakers can carry you through three centuries of regional history. You can explore a Native American village, tromp through a frontier cabin and kick back with long-skirted ladies eager to share news of Big Lick, their valley town known now as Roanoke.
And when your tour of the past is done, those same sneakers can zip through hours of contemporary fun. You can hike, bike, canoe and fish at this 1,100-acre historical, recreational and environmental park, located 238 miles southwest of Washington.
This combination of learning and leisure activities makes Virginia's Explore Park unique. "Most places separate the historic from the recreational," said Debbie Pitts, interim executive director. "But we find the two integrate in interesting ways [to fulfill] our mission of education, preservation, conservation and recreation."
Those eager to beat the Washington heat may find here a slightly cooler mountainous clime as well as summer entertainment. This year the park celebrates its 10th anniversary with regular bluegrass concerts and special activities. The birthday bash falls on Independence Day weekend, with cake, music, and children's crafts and games. The park even plans a huge present for itself: a replicated 18th-century frontier fort, opening July 3.
At this time, the fort's finishing touches are being overseen by Eddie Goode, coordinator of the 18th-century section. My family met Goode on a visit last fall when he interpreted the 1740s log house on site. Friendly and knowledgeable, Goode aptly demonstrated the many talents of the typical 18th-century settler. He showed us how he tanned the deerskin for his homemade breeches, cooked jerky over embers and called wild turkeys. He whittled quill pens for four young visitors and invited their help with period children's chores, namely fetching water with a yoke and two wooden pails. (All the kids said no thanks.) And lest we think a settler's life was all work and no play, Goode blew a lively tune on his penny whistle while my 5-year-old daughter, Christy, made a wooden doll dance. The 18th-century house and fort are nestled in wooded areas along a mile loop that includes a 17th-century Totero Indian village and 19th-century Virginia Valley community. (Assistance is available for those unable to walk the path.) Visitors begin their journey at the Arthur Taubman Welcome Center, where they can purchase tickets for the historic section, view an orientation film and exhibits, and rent mountain bikes, canoes and kayaks. They also can get a literal taste of the past by lunching at the nearby Brugh Tavern.
On the Sunday we visited last fall, we could hear chants and drums well before we reached the re-created Totero village. Interpreter Barbara Bowser, dressed in deerskin, introduced us to the history of these area natives, who by 1676 had moved from this area to the Piedmont part of Virginia largely because of disease and raiding Northern Iroquois nations. She took us inside a hut big enough to sleep an extended family of 18 on cozy fox skins, and let us hold the cattail dolls that were favorite children's toys. Interpreter Clark Sage showed us the dugout canoe he was burning out.
We also had a chance to listen to Native American tracking songs and prayers by the Red Fire Singers, a group of professors and students from nearby universities. With family ties to tribes across the United States, these men gather regularly to celebrate and share their culture.
Guitar music greeted us when we reached the 19th-century section. At the Hofauger farmstead, Leslie Barger strummed and sang "Amazing Grace" with fellow interpreter Anita Gazaway. The two proudly pointed out the homemade ketchup and drying herbs in the kitchen and the period vegetable garden in the back. At the nearby one-room schoolhouse, we wiggled on hard benches as Dave Smoot interpreted student life in Big Lick, as Roanoke was called until 1882.
Because we had strolled rather than speed-walked, my family missed seeing the 19th-century grist mill, historic barns and livestock, blacksmith shop and batteau, a flat-bottomed cargo boat used on regional rivers. But we hope to return soon. According to the Benjamins, a Roanoke family we chatted with, you can enjoy something new with each visit.
The Robinson kids eagerly related their favorite experiences of the day. Ryan, 12, gave a thumbs up to the blacksmith shop, and Lisa, 8, liked "everything." Lauren, 13, chose the quill-pen demonstration and the special brush interpreter Goode had whittled for her. For a young painter like Lauren, this brush could be every bit as useful today as it was 250 years ago.
VIRGINIA'S EXPLORE PARK -- Milepost 115 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, Roanoke. From Washington, take Interstate 66 west to I-81 south to I-581/U.S. 220 south to Roanoke (exit 143). Turn right onto entrance of Blue Ridge Parkway, then turn north. Turn right onto Roanoke River Parkway. 540-427-1800 or 800-842-9163. www.explorepark.org. Open April through October, Wednesday through Saturday from 10 to 5, Sundays from noon to 5. (In April, open only on weekends.) $8 adults, $6 ages 60 and older, $4.50 ages 3 to 11, free for those under 2. Group rates available; call 540-427-1800, Ext. 333. Recreational venues only: $3. Assistance available for visitors unable to walk through historic areas; inquire at Arthur Taubman Welcome Center. Brugh Tavern open for lunch on days park is open. Located 238 miles southwest of Washington, this park includes 13 miles of mountain bike trails, six miles of hiking trails and opportunities to canoe, kayak and fish (Virginia fishing license required). Mountain bikes, helmets, canoes and kayaks can be rented at the welcome center for an hour, three hours or daily. Equipment available on a first-come, first-served basis.
Bluegrass Concert -- 2 to 4 on Saturdays from April through October on Brugh Tavern lawn. In case of rain, held at nearby Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center theater.
Scots-Irish Eve -- June 19 at 6. Dinner at Brugh Tavern, music and 19th-century festivities. Limited seating. $65 per person. Reservations required by June 10 by calling 540-427-1800, Ext. 327.
Father's Day Hot Rods and Reels/Kids' BugFest -- June 20. Antique automobile show. Dad admitted to park free when accompanied by fee-paying child of any age. Bug-related activities for kids.
10th Anniversary Celebration -- July 2, evening bluegrass concert in 19th-century historical section (ticket information available by calling 540-427-1800, Ext. 327, or visiting www.explorepark.org); July 3, birthday activities include cake, music, children's programs and, at 2, dedication of new frontier fort; July 4, sack races, games, watermelon, music (no fireworks).
Appalachian Folk Festival -- Sept. 4-6. Storytelling, music and games.