By MARSHA MERCER
I have it on good authority that the economy is improving. Auto sales are the best they’ve been in five years. House sales over the last year have jumped by double digits. And the entire American population is on vacation.
OK, I made up that last one, but, seriously, doesn’t it feel like August in France?
My neighbors are staying cool on the Maine coast, meeting Mickey at Disney World and nibbling croissants in Paris. Facebook friends post endless pictures of their road trips out west, mountain vistas, celebrity-sightings in London and bridges in Rome.
I’m home, and I’m OK with that. Really.
I’m glad my friends are having fun, and their absence makes driving on the Beltway if not fonder, at least more bearable.
I too made summer plans: I’d garden and lose myself in “War and Peace,” finally. I researched translations in May but haven’t actually gotten the book. To whet my whistle, I ordered the 1956 movie starring Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda. Get this: It’s 3 ½ hours long. People’s attention spans must have been longer back then. I’ll just return it and reorder when the nights are long.
Gardening has been more pain than pleasure because a low pressure system has held the East Coast in its grasp for weeks, breeding heat, humidity, monsoon rains, ginormous mushrooms and a bumper crop of weeds. The weather is demoralizing, and don’t get me started on Congress, the president and the Supreme Court.
To escape the full monty of Washington malaise, a friend and I dodged raindrops Sunday and got in the car with a map of Virginia’s scenic byways. We drove into the summer afternoon, destination unknown.
Less than 40 minutes from the nation’s dysfunctional capital, the skies lightened and we found winding roads, green rolling hills, stone walls, rail fences, canopies of trees, horses, black angus cattle and more historic markers than you could want.
While others fought the crowds at the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, we drove the nearly deserted Snickersville Turnpike, State Route 734, a road that hasn’t changed much since George Washington traveled it as a lad. We stopped atop a quiet hill at a monument to the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry that suffered grievous losses on June 17, 1863, in the Battle of Aldie, a fight on the armies’ march to Gettysburg.
Visitors today see a drowsy field and barn and a stone wall. But behind that wall, Confederate sharpshooters knelt and fired on an approaching Union cavalry column. Massachusetts lost 198 of 294 men, and the names of the fallen are inscribed on the granite marker, erected in 1891 by the First Massachusetts Cavalry Association.
It’s easy to overlook the history in your own backyard, but close to home you can change your perspective without worrying about the exchange rate. A road taken can lead to learning new things.
I looked up the Battle of Aldie later and found this sad description of the battle’s toll. Confederate Col. Thomas Munford wrote, “I do not hesitate to say that I have never seen as many Yankees killed at the same space of ground in any fight I have ever seen, or on any battlefield in Virginia that I have been over.”
Back on the road, we stopped in the city of Winchester, with its magnificent library. We wandered the newly renovated Old Town pedestrian mall, where kids cooled off in a splash pad, a young man played guitar and sang Beatles tunes, his guitar case open for contributions, and in true American fashion diners enjoyed sushi, Thai and Mexican food.
We followed our noses to a barbecue joint – the aroma from the two BBQ smokers out front was irresistible -- and washed down smoked pork with sweet tea at a communal table.
At the city’s visitor center, I mentioned our delicious lunch to one of the friendly women behind the counter.
“Did you have dessert?” she asked. We had not. She shook her head.
“The chocolate cake,” she said with a sigh, “is the best I’ve ever had out.”
Summer may be running away, but it’s not gone yet. We can go back. That’s the virtue of staying close to home.
© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.