For years, people have fled the tumult of urban life in pursuit of rural paradise on Bull Run Mountain. But those who think they're cut out for country living had best be warned: This Eden has snakes, too. Big ones.
When Jill Hubbell, who had just moved from Milwaukee to the isolated area in northwestern Prince William County, saw one of the creatures draped across the road near her home last year, it only fanned her fears "that we were living in the sticks."
Imperious serpents are not the only oddities confronting the residents of Bull Run Mountain Estates, where a remote locale and an unusual blend of homes and people constitute what could well be the Washington area's most exotic community.
To survive on the mountain, residents of the estates' 330 homes must become accustomed to dirt and gravel roads that in some places resemble bobsled runs. They must get used to a water supply that regularly shuts off for days at a time. And they must learn to live with a 20-mile trip to the nearest supermarket.
In return, the people of Bull Run Mountain -- a sometimes uneasy mix of professionals and blue-collar workers -- get to spot rabbits and deer in their yards. They get a homeowners association that could not care less whether they trim their shrubs or paint their shutters purple.
And they get The View.
From the top of the mountain, the highest spot in the Washington area -- about 1,300 feet above sea level, according to the U.S. Geological Survey -- residents can peer down on planes taking off at Dulles International Airport 15 miles away and see the office towers of Tysons Corner 20 miles beyond. On very clear nights, they can make out the top of the Washington Monument 50 miles in the distance.
This stunning panorama is what makes occasional hardships seem trivial for many residents of Bull Run Mountain, a place where the last patches of suburban Washington rub at the border of rural Virginia.
Life on the mountain mirrors life elsewhere on the outskirts of the metropolitan area. In places such as western Loudoun and upper Montgomery counties, residents say they have settled for a life of compromise in their choice of homes, setting roots in communities that often are closer -- in distance as well as spirit -- to West Virginia than to West Springfield.
If the housing is cheaper, the commute is longer. And if the pastoral scenes and solitude can stir the soul, the lack of services and amenities that urban residents take for granted can be maddening.
Bull Run Mountain Estates, for example, recently was in the news because of a lawsuit filed by Virginia authorities over the community's privately owned waterworks, whose chronic failures routinely leave homes, quite literally, high and dry. The state is seeking an order forcing the owner of the private system to comply with state regulations or have a court-named trustee take over.
According to longtime residents, Bull Run Mountain Estates began in the 1950s as the brainchild of the late Coleman Gore, a massive, gregarious man who loved the wheeling and dealing of real estate but displayed little interest in administrative detail. Gore bought vast acreage on the mountain with the idea of making it a weekend getaway for affluent city dwellers.
In time, however, most of the people buying Gore's lots were interested in living on the mountain year-round. A big reason was that houses in the new development, most of them custom-built, were far less expensive than the tract houses popping up in Fairfax County and other close-in areas.
It is no different today. American Telephone & Telegraph employe H.C. Morgan and his wife Jane, who works at the community college in Manassas, said they were floored by the price of houses near his office in the Oakton area of central Fairfax. So, instead of a town house there, they took the same money and bought a large house with a deck atop Bull Run in 1980. Their driveway is on the Fauquier County line -- the official border of metropolitan Washington, according to the Census Bureau.
The original vision of the mountain as a place for second homes, combined with Gore's laissez faire approach, have left Bull Run with an eclectic collection of residences as well as residents.
Large homes with graceful, white columns and fancy cars in the driveway are interspersed with boxlike structures with several pickup trucks in the yard. Some houses are built to resemble teepees or geodesic domes.
Real estate agents say values of homes and land on the mountain range from about $40,000 to more than $200,000.
It is taken for granted that Bull Run Mountain Estates is not for everyone. But residents differ sharply over what they can reasonably expect from their community.
Bob Logan, a real estate agent who has lived on the mountain for 20 years, said that many recent arrivals are appalled by, among other things, the condition of the roads and the water system. Often, he said, they become active in the local civic association and crusade to "civilize the mountain."
Some longtime residents chafe at what they see as the newcomers' naivete. According to Logan, many veterans of the mountain believe that these former urbanites should realize that Bull Run will never be Crystal City, nor should it be. In the country, some hardships are to be expected.
Some new residents never accept this, veterans say, and they turn tail after only a year or so on Bull Run. Of those who stay, most learn to revel in the challenges and pleasures of the mountain, they say.
When the Morgans and their children moved to Bull Run Mountain, anxious relatives sent them "care packages" to help them survive the imagined perils. Early on, H.C. Hardships are "part of the fun of living here. It's a challenge, and I guess we've got a pioneering spirit."
-- Jane Morgan
Morgan bought a four-wheel-drive vehicle after he slid down the mountain's 800-foot vertical drop after a snowstorm covered Bull Run's treacherous, wooded roads.
"That's part of the fun of living here," said Jane Morgan. "It's a challenge, and I guess we've got a pioneering spirit."
The Morgans, whose children ride a bus for nearly an hour to get to school in Manassas, said they enjoy their remoteness.
They delight in being able to pick up 35 television stations -- from as far away as Atlantic City, N.J. -- from their perch atop Bull Run. From their deck, they can look down on thunderstorms brewing miles away.
Even Hubbell, who faced off with the snake, said she has come to appreciate parts of the rural life style. She is now vice president of the local homeowners group.
Bull Run's isolated setting and splendid views can attract unwanted visitors, too.
During the 1960s, the community's mostly conservative residents were aghast when the mountain became a favorite of long-haired "flower children" who would congregate there to commune with nature.
Even today, some residents complain, the mountain attracts rowdy youths who drink beer, litter and talk loudly and profanely. When an unruly group gathered in pickup trucks near the Morgans' driveway, they said, county police took nearly 30 minutes to arrive.
Police service is only one sore point that some residents have with the county government, which they say has given western Prince William short shrift historically when it comes to public services. If residents want to go to the county government center to complain, it is a 35-mile drive.
More broadly, some residents of Bull Run Mountain nurse a vague but longstanding sense of grievance that they are looked down on by residents of other parts of Prince William. They suspect that some people hold a stereotype of Bull Run residents as bumpkins who whoop it up in their isolated homes, and probably keep stills running out back.
"Bull Run has always been a stepchild of Prince William," Logan said, adding that the stereotype is inaccurate. "Even today you say the name and some people raise an eyebrow."
But most people on the mountain believe that they have nothing to apologize for, and they are content to live in a refuge from the rampant suburbanization that has come to other parts of Prince William.
"I challenge any of those people to walk out their back door and see three of four deer out there playing," resident Bruce Blackley said of those who are condescending about Bull Run Mountain.
Besides, said Blackley, a construction worker who is helping improve and maintain Bull Run's private roads, little by little the mountain's water system, its roads and its other public services are becoming better all the time.
"It's like eating an elephant," Blackley said of the effort to tame Bull Run. "You don't do it all in one sitting."