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Finding Low Air

No Passing

By William E. Welsh
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 17, 2000


    Snickersville Turnpike, Loudoun County, Va. A Civil War marker along Snickersville Turnpike. Photo by William E. Welsh
When I heard that the citizens of Loudoun County were fighting to preserve Snickersville Turnpike, I set off to see for myself what makes this old road worth the fight.

To reach the pike, I head due west across Loudoun from a friend's house in Sterling. Driving through the eastern half of the county, I find scarred earth where developers are busying themselves stenciling the once-rural landscape with acres of mini-mansions. I pass a farmer on his tractor, harvesting not crops but sod that I suspect is intended for the new subdivisions I am passing through.

The 14-mile Snickersville Turnpike begins its ascent through the Virginia piedmont just west of Aldie on U.S. 50. Unlike U.S. 50 to the south and Route 7 to the north, which run east to west, the Snickersville Turnpike runs southeast to northwest. Passing through Aldie, I turn right onto the pike. The roadway is suddenly much narrower.

Throughout the last decade, the Snickersville Turnpike Association, a group of preservation-minded citizens, has successfully resisted the state's efforts to improve the road to meet uniform highway safety standards. The traffic engineers want to widen it for safety's sake, but the residents won't hear of it. They won't sacrifice the pike's charm for what they believe are nefarious bureaucratic standards.

Although the state has designated the pike as a scenic byway, it is not afforded any special protection from state projects. While in states such as Maryland this status also spawns protective measures, this is not so in Virginia.

It didn't take long for me to understand why this particular country road is worth saving.

I came upon the first of its many steep charms just below the crest of a hill. Honoring its soldiers who fought here in the Civil War, the First Massachusetts Cavalry erected the stone monument alongside the pike in 1880. On June 17, 1863, the Federals rode up the pike and ran headlong into Confederate cavalry and artillery under Jeb Stuart, which was screening Robert E. Lee's army as it made its way up the Shenandoah Valley to invade the North. Looking at the outcroppings, I could easily imagine dismounted troopers waiting for the attack behind rock walls still standing in the fields along the pike.

At the southern end of the pike, these low rock walls line the narrow road for miles on each side. As I drive along, I glance back and forth for a break or tear in the near-perfect walls. I finally spot a break in the wall where the stones have fallen; it looks like a missing tooth in an otherwise perfect set of teeth. As rising terrain begins to level off, I get my first view of Loudoun Valley -- to the east bordered by the Bull Run Mountains and to the west by the Blue Ridge Mountains. My car bounces along rippling, worn pavement. So far, the state has repaired only the first section of the road. I slow down to blunt the roller-coaster-stomach-sinking effect that the road gives as it twists and turns, dips and rises with each change in elevation and contour. The descents from hill to valley are swift and often made around blind turns.

As I drive farther down the pike, I sense a pattern emerging. The older homes, many of which were built in the 18th and 19th centuries, are all sited on hilltops. Place names like "Creek Hill" bear out my theory. I discover before I reach the end of the pike that the same holds true for the four villages -- Mountville, Philomont, Airmont and Bluemont -- located along the pike. Practically all of the estate homes have names on the roadside. Despite their considerable affluence, or maybe because of it, the owners' sense of humor is apparent in the names they've chosen. One of the estates is named "Wit's End."

Several noteworthy fishing streams, including Goose Creek and Beaverdam Creek, traverse the pike. Hibbs Bridge over Beaverdam Creek is a double-arched stone structure estimated to have been built sometime before 1830. Locals strongly objected when the state suggested relocating and widening this masonry masterpiece. It's worth noting that Hibbs Bridge is one of the four remaining original stone bridges in the state, three of which are in Loudoun.

Thinking that this might be one of the high points of my driving tour, I park on the north side of the bridge and walk back to it. A local resident passing in his pickup truck slows down, clearly checking out my license plate. What was he thinking? Perhaps "Is this guy from around here?"

I walk over the bridge and down to the edge of the creek. The afternoon sunlight, reflected by the water, flickers like a thousand flames on the bottom of the bridge. The silence of the place is broken only by the splash of a brook pouring through stone into the creek. Walking back to my car, I think, "How much longer can we keep things like this bridge around?"

I stop at the Philomont Store and Post Office to inquire about a winery I had passed outside Mountville. High ceilings, no crowds and half-empty shelves greet me. Inside, I'm haunted by a sense that this road and place are frozen in time. I gather an assortment of unrelated items -- bandanna, newspaper, notebook, soda, water -- from the store's thin stock and take it to the register for purchase.

"I saw a vineyard back there on the road," I say, pointing east, "and I was wondering if it was open."

He shakes his head. "The lady who owns it told me they stopped selling wine a couple of years ago."

"Are there any other vineyards on the pike?"

"No, but you might find some over on Route 50."

That sums it up. There's not a lot of business on Snickersville Turnpike. Altogether, I counted three commercial establishments, all general stores. If you want to visit a winery or B&B, you'll have to go north to Route 7 or back south to Route 50.

But perhaps that is how the pike retains, as the preservationists say, its "historic integrity." The more businesses, the more cars, and we wouldn't want to get the engineers all riled up again about traffic volume and safety, would we?

Ways and Means

GETTING THERE: Take I-66 west to U.S. 50 west to just beyond Aldie. Turn right onto Route 734 (Snickersville Turnpike).

WHERE TO STAY: Fox Lair Vineyards B&B (540-554-8889, doubles $80 to $134) in Bluemont is the closest B&B I found to the Turnpike. Poor House Farm (540-554-2511, $115 to $155) in Round Hill, the county's answer to the homeless problem until the '70s, is now a bed and breakfast. Little River Inn B&B (703-327-6742, $85 to $220) is a short walk from Aldie Mill. Round Hill's Weona Villa Motel (540-338-7000, $42) has been run by the same family since 1954.

WHERE TO EAT: In Middleburg, try the Coach Stop, Mosby's Tavern or the Red Fox Inn. In Purcellville, try the White Palace.

DETAILS: Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce, 800-578-5222, www.visitloudoun.org.

The Escapist: Poetically Correct

Here are the results of Escapes Trivia #11, in which we asked which riverside, mid-Atlantic town was named after a great British poet:

First of all, whether Dickinson, Pa., was named for Emily Dickinson is beside the point. She was an American. Arnold, Md.? Named not for poem-master Matthew Arnold but for postmaster Tom Arnold. Milton, W.Va.? Also named for a long-ago postmaster who may have himself been named after the great British poet John Milton. Scottsville, Va.: local magistrate Edward Scott. His entry chosen randomly from among precious few correct ones, Bill Wallace of Ellicott City, Md., knew that the town of Milton, Del., on the Broadkill River, was named for the poet John Milton. Known earlier by other names, the town was formally renamed in 1807 by its residents. (There are those philistines who argue that Milton is merely a shortened form of Mill Town -- as is Milton, Pa., by the way -- but the tourism folks differ.) Formerly a center of shipbuilding, Milton has nearly 200 Colonial and Victorian homes on the National Register and is 10 minutes from the Lewes beaches. June 9-10 it hosts the Delmarva Hot Air Balloon & Craft Festival. (Call 302-684-4110.)

We move on now, either to become postmaster of a small town that will someday be named after us, or to Escapes Trivia #12:

Where can you hike to the top of the highest sand dune on the East Coast?

Deadline for Contest #12 entries is noon Friday, May 19. Send entries by email (escapist@washpost.com; put the phrase "Escapes Trivia" in the subject field), fax (202-334-1069) or U.S. mail (Escapes Trivia, Washington Post Travel section, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071). Winners, chosen at random from among correct entries, will receive a copy of The Post's "Escape Plans" getaway guide, or other prizes as announced. One entry per person per contest. Employees of The Post are ineligible to win prizes. Entries become the property of The Post, which reserves the right to edit, distribute or republish them in any form, including electronically.

Escapes Trivia questions are compiled, poetically, by Amy Brecount White for The Washington Post.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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