"If you enjoy life's simpler pleasures," says the brochure for Graves Mountain Lodge. We do, so we did.
While Washington sweltered in the hottest days of summer last weekend, my wife and I sat rocking on the porch of a 175-year-old log cabin overlooking the Rose River, watching stars emerge and listening to a night breeze rustle the trees. In wetter times we might have heard the river chuckling over rocks, but dry as it has been, we were happy to have water at all.
Fortunately, Wild Wind Cabin, our whitewashed weekend abode, sits just above one of the Rose's deep holes, which always has water for a swim and a rope swing dangling from a tree. Locals came by all day for a dip.
"I just finished mowing the lawn," said a gray-haired gent who arrived, sweating, with teenage daughter in tow. "I remember this place from when I was a boy and I wanted to see if it was still here."
"I guess things don't change much in the mountains," I said.
"No," he said, "it'd be a shame if they did."
To get to Graves, you drive west two hours from Washington past places that once were green but now are gray, shimmering and overheated. There's a place in Fairfax where I once watched a wild gobbler soar across Interstate 66 when the highway was first built. That turkey would have a hard time now, soaring from a townhouse development to a shopping mall.
But turkeys still gobble in spring at Graves Mountain and wildflowers still bloom in the meadows. In the morning you wake to the screech of a pileated woodpecker arcing through the woods and even on the hottest days, wild brook trout find a cool, shady hole in the river to hide, as they have for 10,000 years.
We took an afternoon drive past the lodge and up a gravel road that parallels the Rose, looking for Rose River Vineyards, home of a crisp, dry white wine called Green Hungarian. The river came and went in deep pools interspersed with rocky stretches of dry creek bed.
At one crossing the water stood deep and clear. My wife saw movement and reined in the Jeep. A rusty head poked up in the greenery, then another.
Eyeing us were two trophy whitetail bucks, both with tall racks of antlers still decked in summer velvet. In the next few months the antlers will go from gentle crowns to weapons. The bucks will scrape the soft velvet off, then sharpen the tines on saplings. By November they'll be locking horns in their annual battle for does.
In late winter the survivors will shed their armor and in spring grow a new set. We find cast-off antlers from years past in the woods when we hike. But to see a buck in velvet is rare, and a pair rarer still.
Graves Mountain Lodge lies on the east face of the Blue Ridge, south of Sperryville. The Graves family came to Virginia in the early 1600s, to the Blue Ridge in the 1700s, and started accommodating guests in the mid-1800s when folks stopped over for dinner and a bed on a horse route called the Blue Ridge Turnpike that ran from Gordonsville to New Market.
The Lodge is still known for its food, which is fresh, simple and abundant. Guests are seated family-style so you never know whom you will be next to. The first night we plopped down alongside a young grocery store produce manager from Richmond and his wife on one side and a retired British naval officer and his lady friend from the D.C. area on the other. It was rainbow trout, summer squash, fresh green beans, baked potatoes, salad, homemade biscuits and fresh peach cobbler, all you can eat.
The peaches come from Jimmy Graves's orchards and are particularly sweet this year. "As dry as it's been, it concentrates the juice," said Graves, a burly man in a T-shirt, shorts and work boots. The drought is great for peach flavor but not so great for yield. Plus, black bears have been poaching peaches at his upper orchard, he said. But we had them at every meal and bought a half-bushel to take home. Those peaches are so ripe they just about explode when you bite.
Several of the usual activities at Graves were curtailed by heat. The horses weren't fit to ride after noon, the trout fishing pond was closed and the tennis courts looked unappealing in the midday torpor. But the pool was inviting, nestled in the shadow of the mountains, and Shenandoah National Park next door offered shady trails.
We picked the one up White Oak Canyon, where a string of five waterfalls tumbles down the mountains. It's on national park land, so naturally the Park Service stationed a ranger at the parking area to extract his pound of flesh -- $5 a person to wander public woods.
But there was no charge for Kramer the Wonder Dog, who covered four miles for our every one chasing chipmunks, squirrels and anything else that moved. We started early, winding up through oaks and hemlocks, and were perched on the banks of the biggest waterfall long before the sun hit its peak.
Then it was downhill in loping, easy strides past the sweaty late-risers plodding uphill, and back to Graves in plenty of time for lunch of barbecue, fresh chicken salad, fried apples and peach cobbler.
For tablemates this time we had four ladies from Tidewater who had been coming to Graves for years. They knew exactly where the barbecue came from. "I met Jimmy at the state fair years ago," said the lady next to me. "We were 15 years old and both showing pigs."
"I did," said the lady with a smile. "We've been coming here ever since."
Graves Mountain Lodge has motel-style rooms and cabins on 3,000 acres of valley land. Cost, including three meals, is $75-$100 a day per person. Call 540-923-4231.