As I slide into a parking spot in downtown Lexington, a welcoming wave from a local reminds me of Tolstoy’s chestnut regarding plot lines: “All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.”
A stranger comes to town
At first glance, the undulating, but walkable historic county seat, named for the Revolutionary War battle of Lexington-Concord in Massachusetts, doesn’t look as if it has crossed into the 21st century. Utility lines have been hidden under brick sidewalks running by Victorian, Antebellum and Georgian-style houses. Take a closer look at those walkways and you’ll notice they’re fitted with pavers honoring famous past residents, including musician Patsy Cline and George Crumb, the first documented streaker in North America.
The Righteous and Rascals of Rockbridge tour — dozens of histories mapped throughout downtown — is accessible via cell phone. Or, do as I did, and follow artist and actor Mark Cline on his nightly Haunting Tales, Lexington’s Ghost Tour.
Photo courtesy Lexington and Rockbridge Area Tourism
After checking into one of the 39 Art Deco rooms in the luxurious Robert E. Lee Hotel, (540-461-8484) fully renovated in 2014 after years spent as city-subsidized housing, I scouted the grounds and found a fitness center and the Rocca Bar Ristorante’s flossy, second floor patio overlooking Main Street boutiques. Owner Ugo Benincasa’s Italian heritage shows on the menu; I earmarked the ricotta cheese zeppoli with dark chocolate for later. The Benincasa family also owns Pronto, a gelateria and sandwich café, a few doors from the hotel. The property is in walking distance from the city’s two colleges, Washington and Lee University and Virginia Military Institute, but I skipped over higher education to South Main Street and happy hour at the neon-lighted Southern Inn Restaurant (540-463-3612). VMI’s Friday afternoon full-dress parade had just ended, so the cozy diner booths were filling with cadets in starched greys ordering pimento cheese with skillet cornbread and red pepper jelly.
VMI cadets on parade in full dress. (Photo courtesy Lexington and Rockbridge Area Tourism)
A mint julep from the pre-Prohibition cocktail list spoke to me, but there were just as many chocolate martinis and cosmopolitans served as craft cocktails.
The Red Hen in Lexington. (Photo courtesy Lexington and Rockbridge Area Tourism)
For the main course, I headed to Washington Street and the quaint, gingerbread trimmed dining room of The Red Hen (540-464-4401), Lexington’s first farm-to-table restaurant. Chefs Matt Adams and Becca Norris took over the kitchen in 2013. Their five-course tasting menu included a racy jalapeño-laced rockfish ceviche on my visit. Across Washington Street, the modest Stonewall Jackson House (540-464-7704) offered a glimpse of how the general lived with his family (and slaves) before the Civil War. After a spicy cup of Red Hen tea, mixed for the restaurant by Lexington’s Soothing Herbals Apothecary, I set out for the 90-minute walking tour.
“Professor” Cline’s droll (and far from scary) lantern-lighted impersonations ended in the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery with illusion, as he levitated a match in front of a looming statue of Stonewall Jackson, one of two statues in town designed by Richmond sculptor Edward Valentine. The other, a bust of Robert E. Lee, adorns the Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee. Jackson and Lee are buried in Lexington.
Most of the shops had closed for the night, but I admired vintage jewelry and furnishings at Wolf & Co. and Lexington Antiques, and vowed to visit the crammed-to-bursting bookstore, The Bookery.
A man goes on a journey
After gratis breakfast in the Rocca bar, I embarked for two of U.S. Route 11’s roadside attractions, Foamhenge and Natural Bridge, recommended by Cline. After typing “Foamhenge” into Google Maps, I approached the unmarked curiosity erected by Cline on April Fools’ Day 2004 and climbed a grassy bluff to a life-size, foam, trompe l’oeil — an exact reproduction of Stonehenge — filling the sky.
Minutes away, Natural Bridge (800-533-1410) waited.
Natural Bridge. (Photo courtesy Lexington and Rockbridge Area Tourism)
Once owned by Thomas Jefferson, it was graffitied by George Washington and the first president’s initials are visible on the Cedar Creek Trail. A dusk performance, the Drama of Creation, illuminates Natural Bridge to classical music, and has been running since Calvin Coolidge opened the display in 1927.
Two other walking trails are behind the Natural Bridge Hotel. There’s the Monacan Trail, a three-mile hike through wetlands with Blue Ridge Mountain views, and the Buck Hill Trail, a stroll by the caverns at Natural Bridge.
On a cavern tour, I caught a lucky “cave kiss” (a water droplet falling from weeping, underground rock), before ending the day with a blackberry moonshine at the hunt-themed Red Fox Tavern inside the hotel. When I return in June, for the opening of Cline’s kitschy theme park, Dinosaur Kingdom 2, across from the Natural Bridge Zoo, I will no longer be a stranger.