by Shane Mitchell
My husband, Bronson, thinks I swear too much. That's why he presents me with a shellacked-cedar cuss bank at Luray Caverns in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. We can't resist the vivid green billboards announcing nature's hidden treasure at exit 264 off Interstate 81, which cuts through the fertile region that historians call the Breadbasket of the Confederacy. Discovered in 1878, Luray is the largest cavern in the East. Hearing a spooky "stalacpipe" organ there wheeze the notes to "O Shenandoah" in a subterranean chamber is alone worth the price of admission. Aboveground, Bronson spots my keepsake in a gift shop selling pewter spoons and stenciled porcelain bells; it reads "Swearing is bad and just ain't funny, so if you cuss it will cost you money." Frankly, I don't know what the hell he's talking about. (Clink. In goes a quarter.)
Once a year, we load up the Honda, bribe our black Lab, Diva, into the rear, and drive 500 miles south from New York to Charlottesville, Virginia, for an agrarian refresher. It's an exhausting slog, dodging semis until we hit the Old Dominion state line. On rural Route 11, we wind down the valley where, almost 150 years ago, General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson opened up a big can of whup-ass on the Grand Army of the Republic. (Clink.) Sandwiched between the Allegheny and Blue Ridge ranges, this shunpike began as the Great Warrior Path through Cherokee territory. When colonial settlers left for the frontier, it became the Great Wagon Road. By the time Jackson's brigade fought the Valley Campaign of 1861-62, Route 11 had been paved with gravel-and-tar macadam.
We break up our journey at the 103-acre Inn at Vaucluse Spring, outside Stephens City. The stone-and-brick Federal-era manor was originally built by the son of Gabriel Jones, the commonwealth's first regional attorney. According to the family history Defend the Valley, Jones's only fault was "an extremely irritable temper, which when aroused expressed itself in the strongest terms he could command, mingled with very pronounced profanity." (Bet he didn't have a cuss bank.)
In the nearby village of Edinburg, we're browsing through Shenandoah Valley guidebooks in People's Drugs when someone pounds me on the back. "Help you with anything?" It's pharmacist Harry Murray, who also dispenses advice about his true vocation—fishing (the drugstore is stocked with fly-fishing tackle and videos). Recently, a friend said that if I were deathly ill in Murray's store and someone ahead of me in line needed a new rod, I just might have to wait.
Crossing Massanutten Mountain on shady switchbacks through Edinburg Gap, we parallel the broad south fork of the Shenandoah River, which flows north into the Potomac. Diva finally gets her reward for sitting patiently in the back seat. An outfitter rents us a canoe and we glide over gentle ripples shaped by submerged limestone ridges as our pooch scans the shoreline for snapping turtles. At the pullout, Diva splashes in the muddy shallows and for the rest of the day our car smells of wet, happy dog.
Farther south, the breadbasket is being gobbled up by industrial parks and sprawling housing developments. It's heartbreaking to witness centuries-old farmland sprouting prefab McMansions, so we turn east toward 105-mile Skyline Drive. In the 1930's the Civilian Conservation Corps built this twisting road along the crest of Virginia's Blue Ridge. It runs the full length of Shenandoah National Park and has scenic overlooks every few miles. But its speed limit is a poky 35 mph, so we detour to the Thorofare Mountain Overlook, a knockout vantage point above the hickory forest toward the Piedmont (rolling countryside directly beneath the eastern ridge).
Hungry for pulled pork, we head to Cooter's Place in Sperryville. Ben "Cooter" Jones played a mechanic on The Dukes of Hazzard, served two terms in Congress, and currently performs as genial host at his fan museum/barbecue joint. On summer weekends live bluegrass concerts pull in the crowds, and every August the converted garage sponsors its annual DukeFest reunion celebration. Actress Catherine Bach, Daisy Duke herself, once stopped traffic for hours; Bronson wants his picture taken with the road cone-orange General Lee, a 1969 Dodge Charger that jumped a creek or hill almost every episode.(Sadly, Jones closed his place in Sperryville at the end of last year, but he's since set up shop in Gaitlinburg, Tennessee.)
Once Diva finishes her barbecue tidbit, we continue up the road to visit some live porkers. David Cole's pigs dine on vegetable scraps from the Inn at Little Washington (black-truffle pizza, wild mushroom napoleon). Cole, a former America Online exec, is plowing a fortune into an organic agri-venture at Sunnyside Farms, 15 miles north of Sperryville. In exchange for kitchen waste, Cole's farm supplies the nearby inn with free-range eggs, heirloom apples, and the plumpest blackberries I've ever seen.
Over sweet iced tea at Little Washington, chef Patrick O'Connell and I discuss local politics. He tells me about a town hall meeting where a resident, distraught over the transformation of this pastoral corner, asked: "Don't you think we could just postpone the future?" With his partner, Reinhardt Lynch, O'Connell has been a primary source of change in the county, seeding cottage industries, attracting a roster of world-class culinary talent, and, most recently, restoring a manor house to create the Presidential Retreat, a B&B set snug against Old Rag Mountain, just 20 minutes away.
At sundown, a quick dogleg off Route 231 takes us from precious perfection to something a little closer to home—truffle pizza is mighty nice, but country ham suits my Southern upbringing. The Graves' Mountain Lodge in Syria has been serving family-style dinners since 1965. Its pine-paneled dining hall is lined with trencher tables and every few feet, baskets of warm rolls are paired with slabs of margarine and bowls of the lodge's own apple butter. (Apple butter is to Virginia's Piedmont what olive oil is to Tuscany.) As we sit down, huge platters of fried chicken are placed in front of us.
Next morning, we head an hour south on busy Route 29 to Charlottesville. When I was 12, my mother shipped me to Virginia to visit her spinster aunt, who drilled me on etiquette (swearing isn't ladylike) and dragged me to historic landmarks. Thomas Jefferson's Monticello in Charlottesville was my favorite. Never one to postpone the future, Jefferson could gaze down from his Palladian house at his equally elegant university, now a World Heritage Site. Despite his fascination with inventions, our third president's vision of his newborn nation was understandably agrarian. In 1785 he wrote to John Jay: "Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens...they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bands." Jefferson's own garden was a laboratory with more than 400 species of fruits and vegetables. Of course, he didn't envision genetic crop engineering or farm subsidies. Know why so many Virginia fields are now grazed by burly Black Angus?Big hint: tax break.