Funky trip into rural Virginia’s past

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By Victor Block

MADISON COUNTY, VA

The intersection of two narrow roads that is the closest thing to the center of Syria, Virginia— population about 370 — is the site of the Syria Mercantile Company. It was there that my recent journey into the countryside, as well as the past, began.

Three men rocked on the front porch dishing the local dirt. Tacked to a bulletin board beside them were hand-written notices advertising chain saw repairs, fishing and hunting guides and “Jessie’s Equisport Therapy  — Therapeutic massage for horses.” Inside, aisles are lined with hunting and fishing gear, bib overalls and a mish-mash of other goods not seen at your local supermarket.

At a tiny cubicle near the front of the store that serves as the Post Office, I asked the woman sorting mail what she does about lunch. She replied that she takes a half-hour break, then added, “I used to take an hour, but what can you do here for an hour?”

After spending a long weekend in the area, I have an answer to that. As a visitor seeking a bit of rest and recreation, I found all that I could have wished for.

Much of Madison County, VA, about a two-hour drive from Washington, D.C., is characterized by rolling fields and valleys that lead to the Blue Ridge Mountains. A large portion of its western region is within the Shenandoah National Park, where the dramatic Skyline Drive follows the crest of the mountain chain.

The tiny town of Madison, which serves as the county seat, offers interesting historical tidbits along with some fun and funky attractions. A number of houses built during the 18th and 19th centuries line a five-block stretch of Main Street. Even more intriguing to me were businesses with deep roots in the past.

At the Madison Drug Company, established in 1856, I paid 10 cents for a Coca Cola and the same for a cup of coffee. While agreeing that she loses money charging those prices, storeowner Margie Lamar insisted that she’s not going to raise them.

Housed in a somewhat rickety building dating back to 1925, the nearby Farmers Service Center provides an equally colorful trip back to the past in terms of atmosphere.

The establishment sells a variety of animal food and other farming supplies, along with what a sign describes as “Antiques & Collectibles.” That refers to a clutter of items hanging from rafters, stacked on tables and jammed into every nook and cranny. Bits and pieces of antique decorative glass share space with old-fashioned toys. Clocks and oil lamps stand near a unique hand-carved cider press bearing a $1,500 price tag.

If Madison epitomizes the image of a sleepy small town, the surrounding countryside combines a bucolic air with an enticing choice of sightseeing and activities. Within a convenient car commute are well-known destinations like Skyline Drive, Luray Caverns, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello home and Montpelier, the home of James Madison.

Oenophiles have an equally inviting selection, with three wineries that offer tours and tastings. For those seeking more active pursuits, both casual walkers and experienced hikers find scenic trails that wind through hemlock forests, pass rushing waterfalls and lead to spectacular mountain views. The Rose River trail passes three waterfalls and the remains of an early settler’s cabin. Still more exercise, and more dramatic scenery, await hikers in White Oak Canyon who pass by six waterfalls.

Wading rather than walking, or simply casting a line from shore, is likely to appeal to those for whom fishing is exercise enough. Mountain streams are home to both native and stocked trout. Fish-and-pay and catch-and-release ponds teem with trout, bass and bream.

Those who prefer other ways to experience the outdoors also have choices. Several public golf courses welcome players from low-handicap to duffers. Bird watchers may look for a variety of nesters such as bluebirds, or sight bald eagles perched near riverbanks or flying overhead. Rock hounds can uncover samples of unakite (pyrite), jasper, and blue and rose quartz along the banks of rivers.

A perfect place to use as home base is Graves Mountain Lodge, a rustic family owned resort. If you’re looking for full-service luxury with television, a telephone and other in-room amenities, this may not be for you. Instead, it’s a place where you can fill your time with an enticing choice of activities or, as some prefer, simply rocking, reading and relaxing.

Even those who limit their exploration and activities to the resort itself find plenty to fill the hours and days. Guided hourly or full-day horseback rides begin at stables on the property. During warm weather, guests may swim in the large pool or perhaps recapture youthful memories with a dip in a swimming hole in the Rose River.

Views from the setting look out over expansive groomed lawns, apple orchards and gentle hills. Seasonal apple picking, hayrides and other rural recreation increase the sense of times past.

An educational farm holds interest for city slickers of all ages. Accommodations become part of the experience. Some houses and cabins that augment traditional motel rooms are perfect for guests who prefer to stay in a bit of history. Pete’s House is an early 1800s two-story cabin, Boxwood is a two-story house built in 1856, and Wild Wind Cottage, perched on a hilltop, was expanded from a one-room schoolhouse.

If you go …

Nightly rates at Graves Mountain Lodge begin at $79 per person for motel rooms, and range from $85 to $135 a person for cabins, both including three meals. Some cabins have a full kitchen and can accommodate as many as 18 guests. For more information call 540-923-4231 or log onto gravesmountain.com.