It was a cold, bright day in January when we left Charlottesville and made the short drive back to Washington. Along the way, for no other reason than it was there, we decided to stop at the home of James Madison, Montpelier.
The first part of the drive was easy enough, a standard highway lined with the normal, run of the mill, generic stores. I never knew central Virginia had such a demand for Target stores and Petsmart, but apparently they need reasonably priced goods and pet food in copious amounts. The real adventure began when we turned off onto a rural road promising to lead us to the home of America’s fourth President.
Turns out rural roads are pretty aptly named. We had left the normal hustle and bustle of modern highway travel and were now entering into a land of rolling hills, farms and not a car in sight. I expected to see signs warning city slickers to turn back immediately or run the risk of hearing dueling banjos. It was the middle of January, it was freezing, we were in the middle of nowhere Virginia and hadn’t passed a car at all. Not a one. I couldn’t believe that we would be the only ones paying homage to our former great President, the author of the Constitution and one of the great intellects of his time. Actually, I could.
While visiting historical markers of dubious interest is fine if you’re in a city, or in Colonial Williamsburg, surrounded by reenactors that sneak out for a quick smoke or to text their boyfriend, it’s an entirely different matter to actually seek out these small sites on your own.
Yes, millions of people travel every year to Washington, DC, Mount Rushmore and even the Nixon Library. But what about those poor, almost forgotten places that aren’t even conveniently located near a Wal-Mart?
Keeping our bourgeois pessimism about the pitiful state of the American educational system at bay for at least a while, we finally trundled up the long driveway to the estate. The first introduction to Madison was, frankly, a little off-putting. As you drive up, even before you are allowed to enter the large, sprawling estate, a pound of flesh is demanded from an oddly chipper woman, in her midlife, announcing proudly that she’ll take credit cards for the lofty $17 fee per person.
The pessimism was creeping around the corner, I could feel it, and even sensed its hipster Steve Madden shoes sneaking around. I managed to ignore it though as we made our way into the gift shop, which also served as the official tour gathering spot.
To my shock, and pleasure, there were others there to join us in celebrating the life and times of James Madison and his wife Dolly who, as it turns out, did NOT invent the cinnamon bun. I was disappointed, hoping for a free sample or at least a lick of frosting.
It was a small, somewhat motley crew joining us. There was Scott and I, two gay, urban professionals touring the countryside of Virginia calling everything quaint. Then you had a very posh couple who told anyone who looked at them that they live in the DISTRICT, thank you very much. In Washington, we have several strata of society, most of which I am oblivious to, but have learned about from Bravo. At the pinnacle of this social sphere of influence are the people who can afford to live in some of the most expensive areas of the city, and they make sure to make that fact known. (We live way off in the ‘burbs, where the closest thing to culture is watching the local teens tip cows) These upscale hipsters, probably in their late thirties, were dressed in what I call “Let’s pretend we like being in the country” attire. The gentleman wore a pair of the most wrinkle-free pair of jeans I have every seen, even on a mannequin. He also looked clearly miserable in them, or maybe it was the feeble attempt to wear flannel that made him cranky.
The other members of our group included a nice, mild mannered father and son, and a lovely older couple. After spending more than enough time browsing around the Madison ornaments, Madison books, Madison coozies, Madison t-shirts, and the “Dolly aint’ just a sheep” bumper stickers, it was announced that we could proceed to the house. The docent came directly from central casting and was a true Virginia Gentleman if any existed.
He was dressed impeccably, with a vest and pocket square and had a soft, rolling accent that instantly reminded me of a country lawyer. As he spoke he would occasionally pause mid sentence, as if trying to recollect his thoughts of a speech given hundreds of times, the effect of which was very much like being a student in one of the old lecture halls at the University of Virginia.
As we walked down the dirt path, the posh Washingtonians looking positively fearful in the presence of trees and horses, the vast mansion rose into view. It was stunning, and had apparently just finished a massive, multi-year remodel to restore it to its original glory. Not that it had been in disrepair, mind you. As it turns out, after the house passed out of the Madison family, it made its way, through a circuitous route, into the real estate portfolio of the DuPonts. That’s right, up until the 1990s, this house was still occupied by one of the wealthiest families in the country.
It’s a little weird thinking of plasma TVs occupying the space that presented itself on the tour, and Super Bowl parties happening in the now Federalist dining room. The house was, in no uncertain terms, empty. Well, not totally, there were some pieces of furniture, but there wasn’t much and almost none of it belonged to Madison. What made up for this lack of historical, well, anything really, was an obviously committed, and passionate tour guide. His tour around the mansion was masterful, and his ability to answer any question impressive.
We concluded the tour and made our way back to the car, desperate to escape the bitter cold, but stopping to marvel at the breathtaking views of the Blue Ridge Mountains all around us. More importantly, rather than being sadly alone at the house, by the time we left the estate was teeming with tourists, all of whom had driven to the middle of nowhere, in the middle of nowhere, to see and learn about the great history of America. Maybe that will keep that nasty pessimism at bay for a while.