I live in a place where people ask me how long it takes to get a half-gallon of milk.
That’s the first thing my father said when he saw my house about 16 years ago. A friend asked the same thing when I waxed on about the joys of living on two wooded acres in suburbia.
We’re five or six minutes from the highway, though it doesn’t seem that way. Once you start climbing the long and winding road lined by stone walls and fields, civilization starts to feel far away. Out here, you need a car to get around, and panic sets in when your battery dies or your car’s in the shop for service.
I’ve got two options for emergency milk runs. The closest convenience store is about a five-minute drive. There’s also a small supermarket about the same distance away. It helps having kind neighbors who lend you butter, eggs or dog food when you run out.
I love living in the boondocks most of the time. But there are times I wish that I lived in a city, and could just walk out the door to get anything I need. There’s a certain joy in opening the door and having everything within walking distance. There’s a certain thrill in being a pedestrian.
I realized this during a brief trip to Old Town Alexandria, VA. Our daughter has started looking at colleges, and a friend suggested staying in the historic city across the Potomac from Washington, D.C. while touring schools.
Unlike most of our quick motel stays off busy commercial strips, we stayed in a red brick Hampton Inn on historic King Street, which could be one of the most charming streets in the country. Dating back to 1749, the downtown features brick sidewalks, black iron street lights, pastel-painted storefronts and townhouses reminiscent of England and a free trolley to the Potomac River waterfront.
Pictured above: the back of Mount Vernon overlooking the Potomac River; some scenes from Old Town Alexandria, and our Mount Vernon ornament.
We planned to sightsee in Washington after our six-hour drive, but reconsidered after checking in. We were exhausted and couldn’t face the car again. Besides, Old Town Alexandria beckoned. It seemed silly to ignore our immediate surroundings, particularly when they were so quaint and appealing.
King Street has over 200 restaurants and shops ranging from the Dust Farm Skateboard Store & Museum and Ethiopian Hand Craft Shop to The Hour, a funky shop specializing in antique bar carts and glassware. In between are a Gap/Banana Republic outlet, Anthropologie, Lily Pulitzer, numerous yoga studios, coffee shops, ice cream parlors and an Orange Theory for good measure.
Seeing all the possibilities just outside the door put me in sensory overload. I suddenly had the feeling you get when you’re starving or really thirsty, but didn’t realize it. I had no idea I’d been craving anything more than sleepy suburbia until I was in a different environment. So this is how the other half lives.
And here’s the thing: we never went to Washington to sightsee. We stayed in Old Town Alexandria for two days, soaking in the sights and flavor of the place. Our car never moved from the parking garage until a spur of the moment trip to Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home overlooking the Potomac.
We decided to make the 20-minute drive on Sunday afternoon because neither I nor the Curmudgeon had ever been there. We failed to remember our visit was smack in the middle of President’s Day Weekend, when Mount Vernon is a mecca for middle school student bus trips.
We spent a good part of our visit trying to stay one step ahead of the boisterous student groups, wondering how we’d ushered two children through that terribly awkward and annoying stage. It was no easy task. The chaperones seemed just as eager to get away from the kids as we were, barely stopping to let them look at various exhibits.
The Curmudgeon is a history buff, the kind of visitor who reads every plaque so he can soak up as much information as possible. I’m more a search and destroy tourist, who likes to take a quick look and then move along.
Our different approaches caused tension at Mount Vernon. In fact, the Curmudgeon and I had a little standoff while waiting to get into George and Martha’s homestead.
The Curmudgeon felt I was too pushy taking my place in line, so he refused to stand next to me for about 20 minutes. I didn’t understand what his problem was. We’d killed about an hour just waiting to get into line for our 2:55 p.m. tour, and I was eager to take my place behind about 300 other people.
I passed the time chatting with a couple and their 10-year-old daughter who were behind me, but ahead of the Curmudgeon. I know they thought we were odd – what married couple refuses to stand together in line? But I thought they were a little strange too. Who doesn’t offer to let a husband join his wife just ahead of them?
I eventually relented and joined the Curmudgeon, listening as guides stationed in various rooms around the 11,000-square-foot estate gave us a brief history. Most striking are the vibrant paint colors in various rooms: teals, greens and blues that make you want to banish your neutral color scheme at home.
Washington envisioned a nation of prosperity and expansion, plastering his ceiling with symbols of agriculture and covering his walls with oil paintings of rivers, the main source of transportation and commerce back then. A sense of hope and promise permeates each room, underscoring how much our homes reveal about our outlook on life.
Though Mount Vernon is most surely a stately and impressive mansion, the rooms are small and modest by today’s standards. About the only evidence of Martha being a tad spoiled was her enormous walk-in closest, which is generous even by today’s standards. She was a bit of a clotheshorse, taking the entire closet for herself and leaving George to stash his clothes in his first-floor study.
Strolling the grounds and touring the mansion reminded me of how hopeful our founding fathers were for this country. An avid farmer, Washington envisioned a country that fed the world with our crops. And though he was offered a lifetime term, he opted to leave office after two terms, keeping only a secretary desk from Philadelphia as a souvenir of his presidency.
Keeping with George’s mindset, we approached the expansive gift shop and began looking for a small souvenir. The Curmudgeon considered a beautiful Mount Vernon Christmas ornament, but put it back when he looked at the price: $22.
As we scanned the shop, a saleswoman in the Christmas section asked us if we needed help.
“Got any bargains?” I asked.
And she did: the official 2012 Mount Vernon Christmas ornament marked down from $18.99 to $3.99. The Curmudgeon was thrilled to escape for less than $5, and I was thrilled to have something to remind me of Mount Vernon.
Best of all, there’s no date on it, so our secret is safe.