WE KNEW WE were on the bottom of the Virginia hunt country food chain when we arrived at the Montpelier Races with a Big Mac. You don't bring Big-Macs to the races. You bring Bloody Marys and Rose Marie Bogley's baked beans. Preferably with Rose Marie Bogley perched on the tailgate of your Mercedes station wagon, in Harris tweed jacket holding a Jack Russell.
A Jack Russell is not a drink. It's a dog. A small, white-and-brown dog of the beagle persuasion, which is the canine equivalent of Perrier and lime. When you go to the races, you bring your Jack Russell. In fact, there were so many at the Rappahannock point-to-point races last month we were convinced that a Middleburg matron had opened a thriving new business: Rent-a-Russell.
You wonder why races are called point to point. It's simple; the riders begin at one point, end at another, and at no point can you or your friends see them. Which is a good thing. Because that would distract from the business of parading your rented Jack Russell past Jack Kent Cooke's tailgate.
We know this because we bought a house in Griffinsburg last year. It's in Culpeper County, right next to the Rappahannock County line, which is good. Not as good as being in Rappahannock, Loudoun, Fauquier or Albemarle counties , but better than Greene County or Spotsylvania County or Clarke County.
You don't have to be rich to live in Virginia's hunt country. You can see the Blue Ridge from the balcony of the Culpeper Econo Lodge as well as from Paul Mellon's estate. You can eat at The Frost Diner in Warrenton or The White Palace in Purcellville for a lot less than The Inn at Little Washington. In fact, many of the rich pretend they're poor. You meet a guy in a pickup, wearing a straw cowboy hat and chewing a wad of Skoal and find out two weeks later at Rappahanock's Nature's Food Cafe Friday night happy hour that he's living off his trust fund. At least one friend who drives a Mercedes says he's careful not to keep it too clean.
We don't drive a Mercedes. We don't ride either. Actually, one of us climbed on the back of the pony in a nearby field after three gin and tonics last summer, and rode bareback for several feet. It was quite an accomplishment. We were going to suggest that category be included in the Warrenton Gold Cup.
We do know how to pronounce dressage. It rhymes with massage.
Why did we choose to buy a house in the heart of hunt country? Because it's breathtakingly beautiful. And it's quiet. There are no cockroaches or muggers or buses belching nauseous gasses. Of course, there are bleating cows, tractors and mockingbirds. And the frogs in the pond are in an uproar this time of year.
It wasn't easy finding a place. We looked for two years before we found the house we bought. We originally wanted an old farmhouse tastefully restored with a magnificent view and 20 acres of land for $50,000 with owner financing at 6 percent. The real estate people threw their heads back and laughed fiendishly. Seems everyone wants that kind of place and there aren't any. There are big expensive places with 100 acres for $500,000 and there are log cabins with no land and no view and no heat for $30,000. Many places we looked at had no plumbing. One house was advertised as having a bathtub. We pulled up to the property. The bathtub was sitting on the front lawn.
We finally found a place with a great view and three acres for a reasonable amount of money. At least it's less than it costs to buy lunch in New York.
The spring is a favorite time, when the dogwoods bloom and the grass turns emerald and the fields begin to sprout wildflowers. Summer brings orange day lilies and daisies, pink sunsets and the smell of hay and roses. Autumn is intoxicating, and winter is downright Norman Rockwellian.
The mountains are always different. One day they're blue, the next day washed with gray clouds, the next day tinged with lavender. They can disappear behind a haze for half the day, then emerge at sunset looking like a scene from "Lost Horizon."
We have wild blueberries by the back fence and a pond nearby, where we catch small perch and usually throw them back. A neighbor caught a 15-pound catfish last summer using the pig livers we had bought at Tom's Meat Market for bait .
The country is everything the city isn't. The people are nice, although it does take a good while for them to accept you. We know a woman whose mother has lived in the area for 20 years and is still referred to as a Newcomer.
We're Weekenders, which is slightly below Newcomers. In 20 years, we'll have graduated to Newcomers. Still, Weekenders have more status than Daytrippers who invariably give themselves away by pulling off the country roads to whistle at the cows.
The shopkeepers like Weekenders, who spend a lot of money in the hardware store and usually pay cash. They buy pounds of homemade sausage and brown eggs because Weekenders usually have Daytrippers for brunch.
Which brings us to the social scene. One morning the phone rang. It was Marie Atkins, who writes the social notes for the local newspaper. She asked me if I had anything to contribute to the weekly column. If anyone was coming to call that weekend. How could I possibly compete with my neighbors? I knew I was on the bottom rung again when I noticed a recent Marie Atkins column. It began, "Penny Peyton was a Thursday overnight guest of her grandmother, Mrs. Virginia Baker, at Griffinsburg and on Saturday she attended the District Meeting on Public Speaking in Warrenton."
Sometimes you see real celebrities in Virginia's hunt country. We once saw James Kilpatrick pull into the Bonanza Rib Eye in Warrenton. We knew it was Kilpo because his Mercedes license plate read "Op-Ed."
Of course, we could be wrong. A house near Scrabble was pointed out to us once by a local Realtor. He said it belonged to Kilpatrick. Whenever our friends or family came to visit, we would drive past the red brick farm house and point, "That's where James Kilpatrick lives." Which was fine until we found out that Kilpatrick, in fact, did not live there.
We wanted to be sure with David Brinkley. We found his house after a nice man who charged us an enormous amount of money for planting dogwoods in our driveway said one morning he was going over to Brinkley's place to inspect the grounds. Seems our nice man had also done some work for Brinkley. We hopped in our car and followed him over, through a private road and into a rustic hide-a-way with a pond. It was small and unpretentious. We were disappointed, and tried peeking through the curtains to at least get a good look at the furnishings.
Which brings up another point. Wealthy country people are rarely home. They're in Jamaica or Arizona or Europe. We're never home either. We're at Central Hardware, Jolly Jeff's Bar-B-Q and the landfill.
The only way to distinguish the landfill from a four-family yard sale is a sign that says, "No disposing of dead animals." There are a lot of yard sales in the country. People put everything they own on their front lawn; chairs, bicycles, dishes, clothing, in-laws. One day we were driving around, looking for a particular yard sale. We pulled up to a house, which had geraniums in coffee cans and all sorts of possessions on the front yard, strewn on the grass and a picnic table. There was a young woman standing on the porch.
"This the yard sale?" we asked.
"No. It isn't," she said coolly.
After all, what do they expect from Weekenders?