Monday, March 09, 2009

Points south

Five p.m. on Friday we were informed that a guest house was available on Saturday. We had been wanting to get out of town and all the parks' cabins were full or far away, so we jumped at the opportunity to spend the night in Spottsylvania County.

Saturday morning we got up, made coffee and egg and brie sandwiches on rye, packed up, then started heading south. The drive on 95 was a dream--no one seemed to be up yet, or something, because we encountered no slow-downs. Our first stop was the Fredericksburg Tourist Information office to pick up some maps and pamphlets. We wandered towards the river, where there were masses of boxelder bugs hanging out on all the structures. They looked harmless enough, but I think opening up my screen door one fine spring morning and discovering the wall on either side coated with these things would still give me the heebie-jeebies.

10 a.m. on a Saturday in a college town is a great thing. Students are busy working off the previous night's drunk, and the streets are relatively free from their element. We walked back up to the shopping drag, which contained antique shops and not much else. Jack was hoping to buy a magazine, but we didn't encounter any normal stores that would carry such an item. We did manage to acquire a piece of a chocolate-covered digestive biscuit, though.

As the town began to retreat from its somnolence, we headed south and sought out the Blue and Gray Brewing Company, which was in an industrial park that upon entry was an exact replica of the one where Old Dominion did its thing, with the exception of one of the facilities having a Mary statue in front of it. The older part was where the brewery was actually located, however, and that section looked like it had been there for a good while.

It was a fairly warm morning, causing me to regret at intervals having worn a long-sleeve shirt when a breeze wasn't going, but the temperature dropped 15-20 degrees when we entered the dank, cavernous red-brick historic warehouse space where the brewery set up shop. There was a small bar for tastings and we got to try all of their standard beers plus an oak-barrel pale ale, which had an intense buttery-caramel-y aroma. We then took a tour that went around the inner perimeter where all the tanks were located and got a couple more samples right out of the tanks. We were bummed that we were going to miss the St. Patrick's Day parade that the brewers put on every year in the industrial park the following week...can't imagine who all would come out for that.

On the way out of the park, which was crisscrossed by train tracks, we saw some people in an open boxcar doing something with model trains. I, being me, pulled over and asked if we could take a look. Perhaps a mistake, given that it took us nearly a half hour to get back out again due to an enthusiastic soliloquist from the Rappahannock Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society (Current Chapter priority #1: to get an address from the county!). They too were getting ready for the biggest event of their year--next week's parade at the brewery, at which they'd put out a whole slew of model trains and open up some of the other train cars to the public, as well as have small trains to ride on. ("Do you know any kids? They might want to come!") Jack got in the only non-train-related question, which was if they knew what industry formerly occupied the site. It was a manufacturer of cellophane, we were informed, which closed in the 70s. Then it was more train talk, about themes of models and the speed of setting them up and how they're operated ("We stand back here and work the buttons!"). By this point we were famished and all full o' train information, and started backing towards the boxcar steps to escape. It was tough, but we managed to extricate ourselves. It was all I could do not to peel out of the lot.

Lunch found us in Spotsylvania Courthouse, the county seat and not much more than a crossroads road surrounded by outsized justice-related buildings. We had lunch at the Courthouse Cafe, which was uncrowded except for a couple winding up their meal over coffee and smokes and a young man unrequitedly hitting on the teen-age waitress. We both had a tasty patty melt as we perused sections of the Free Lance-Star and as the waitresses hung tacky St. Patrick's Day decorations around.

We then crossed the street and went to the Spotsylvania County Museum, housed in a gothic revival church. It contained a motley collection of gewgaws from county residents, including some dumbbells manufactured in the 21st century in a case next to some artifacts from area Indian tribes and the last cellophane manufactured at the aforementioned factory. Anything goes, apparently. The museum minder sat behind her desk and scolded her daughter repeatedly while we were there: "Serenity, get out of there!" while her son Autumn sat on her lap. We thanked her for staying open for us and picked up some pamphlets of area attractions, then walked back across the street to check out the old jail, with its three-foot thick walls, next to the new detention center. We failed to find the old Confederate graveyard due to the map being not to scale, but I'm sure we looked suspicious to all the justices of the peace and whatever in all the many buildings as we slowly walked around the campus.

Heading west, we crossed Lake Anna and then crossed it again on our way to our destination. When we got there, not having received any specific instructions from our host, we parked at the Big House where our hosts lived and went to the back door, which appeared to be the main point of entry. We ascended to the screened-in porch and rang the bell and waited. After a minute or so, the owners, a couple with widely disparate ages, came around the side of the house to meet us--apparently they had been waiting for us at the cottage. Oops! We drove back over to our driveway and re-parked. The husband told us about the 18th century homestead we were staying in and took us on a quick tour of the tiny upstairs, which was normally roped off. The house had been disassembled in Louisa County, moved to this location, and reassembled on the spot of a previous dwelling. The wife, quiet throughout the tour, pointed out the possessions that were owned by her family, who had lived on the property generations ago. This reed-thin woman, swimming in the sport coat she was wearing and dwarfing her husband by a good six inches or more (not including her Fundamentalist-Mormon-chic hairstyle which added another 2 or 3), seemed supremely uncomfortable around us, not really the welcoming hostess one expects at a B&B. But we were just happy to be there to soak up the fresh country air and sunshine, so her aloofness didn't affect us.

Gentry that we now were, we took a tour of the grounds to visit our small stand of grape vines, the headless fake owl that guards the corner of the property, the cows across the pasture, and the lawn tennis court. Back at the cottage, we reviewed the many magazines and pamphlets at our disposal. There was a louvered closet door in our room that was locked, and it seemed that occasionally a small ticking noise would emanate from inside. This added to the weirdness factor of the hosts, and made me imagine we were being spied on. Sunset came and went, and at twilight Jack looked out the window at the Big House. He noted that the only lights that were on over there were in the basement, and just then, lights started flashing on and off upstairs, as if someone had heard us and was trying to show that they were doing things other than paying attention to our every move. Yikes!

We decided to head back towards the lake for a casual dinner. This restaurant was also gearing up for St. Patrick's Day, counting down the days on a dry-erase board. Nothing special food-wise, though, and the lake was invisible in the darkness beyond the plate-glass windows. Back at the house, the mystery about our hosts deepened when Jack found the old guest book in a drawer. The woman's name in this book was not the name of the current hostess. In 2006 there was a gap of a few months in which people addressed their comments only to him, then the new wife's name appeared. I had assumed that since her relations had lived on the property she had had some ongoing connection with the place, but apparently she somehow just got in good with the current owner and was able to return to her ancestral home.

We began a game of Scrabble and opened our Belgian Ale, which resembled a coarse lambic more than anything else due to its unrefined sour bite. Not a favorite. I got oodles of vowels and Jack got an overdose of consonants, such that he was suggesting that I put down some Hawaiian words, and I recommended that he try for "Mxyzptlk" (the rule against proper names notwithstanding). It was a long and thoughtful game. I eventually won only because Jack still had a Q in his pew when I went out.

The next morning dawned warm again, with a thin scrim of clouds moderating the intensity of the sun on our winter-pale skin. I made us some tea while we waited for our breakfast to be carried over from the Big House. We brought the Washington Post Sunday supplement with us, so I read the magazine while Jack did the sudoko. The hosts brought us breakfast consisting of orange juice, coffee, fruit salad, Betty Crocker blueberry muffins and biscuits stuffed with seriously salty ham. It wasn't a very exciting meal, but we were glad for some sustenance before we headed out into the world.

Our next stop was at Montpelier, the former home of members of the du Pont family. And before that, it was owned by some president. The guided tour of the virtually empty house was pretty interesting, but I think it would've been better with at least one room up with a full complement of furnishings, which Jack informs me is indeed the plan. After the tour we visited the ice house/temple, the wood (which included historically-accurate junked cars), the graveyards of the Madisons and the slaves they owned, and the formal du Pont-installed garden, which was still mostly in its winter hibernation mode. The large boxwoods around were wonderfully aromatic, though.

Finally, it was getting on towards mid-afternoon-starvation time so we started off in the direction of home. We had a pleasant lunch on the front porch of a restaurant in Culpeper, enjoying the passing pedestrian traffic and the sounds of people cranking up their car stereo systems with open windows for the first time this year. Jack got a tasty Starr Hill beer from Charlottesville to go with his tasty bison. We took 28 up to Manassas and saw a silo painted as a giant ear of corn on the way.