When I first began day dreaming through this adventure, it took a while to unearth exactly where I felt compelled to explore. I had a decent handle on the path I would take – mountains through Virginia, North Carolina and northern Georgia and then south through central Georgia and Florida to the Keys. On the return trip – head north as close to the Atlantic for as long as possible – final stop on the Eastern Shore. Most important rule: no highways.
But past that I just wasn’t sure what I was doing. As in, why was I doing all this? Was I looking for something? A place? A feeling? People? For weeks I muddled along, mostly on my morning runs, trying to work this out in my head. I determined that time would tell, and there was no rush. In fact, those words became some of the most important in the weeks leading up to my trip. Deep breaths. No rush. Time will tell.
In the end, some of my plans were well laid out. But for some reason, I could never nail down where I was headed that second day, though I knew that day #3 would take me to Boone and Blowing Rock, North Carolina. So after my beary interesting morning on Skyline Drive, I headed to Lynchburg to have lunch with my college roommate. I will not recount any of our many tales here as there’s just too much dirt between us. Perhaps that’s a different blog! Suffice it to say our time together was just what we both needed. College friends – 30+ years later – are still the best friends.
But now where? I had felt so much success at my trial run of car-camping that I wanted to do it again. Try as I might, I just couldn’t find a location along the path to make it work. And then inspiration struck mid-afternoon as I pored over the map of southwestern Virginia. There would be no car-camping tonight after all.
Eight summers ago I took on a rare solo trip to Tennessee. I remember this 2-day adventure fondly, and as a mom running a busy household, it was a novel and liberating feeling to drive somewhere far away on my own. I planned to stop for the night along the way, and happened upon the little town of Marion, Virginia, along route 81 not too far south of Blacksburg and Virginia Tech. In the center of this sweet town lay the General Francis Marion Hotel, a recently restored throwback to more interesting architectural times. It seemed out of place somehow – a bit of a grandiose curiosity in this mountain hamlet. The cost was no different than a decent roadside chain, so I stayed. It would remain fondly in my memory as an almost secret escape and charming highlight of that trip.
And now, peering at the messy spread out map on my lap, I spied Marion not far off the path. I’d always thought that I’d return, but it hadn’t crossed my mind in ages. Now, it seemed like the most perfect time and I felt compelled to just go. And yes, they had a room for me. I could be there in 3 hours. I was thrilled and felt as though this was exactly where I was supposed to go.
Returning to a treasured place conjures up feelings of contentment for me. Even though I’d only been there once, it felt quite familiar. The old hotel stands proudly in the center of town, clearly the crown jewel of Main Street. Built in 1927, it had fallen into disrepair and seemed doomed to disappear into the past around the turn of the 21st century. Thankfully, it was purchased by a local family in 2000, and a major restoration ensued. The hotel reopened its doors in 2006.
I arrived in town in time to check in and take a walk in the early twilight. Heading behind the hotel into the more residential streets, it was clear that Marion residents took pride in their homes and yards. Genteel southern mansions surrounded by well-appointed perennial gardens and magnificent old trees gave way to tiny bits of cottages on back streets. The town appeared cared-for and loved. A kindly well-heeled southern gentleman extricated himself from his parked car as I walked past the gate at the edge of his stately home. He kindly apologized for startling me, encouraging me to enjoy my evening as he disappeared into the shady entryway. I imagined him a John Grisham old-school lawyer or judge, his mind on loftier things but happy to be home for the evening.
Heading back towards Main Street, it was clear that even for a mid-week evening, folks were out enjoying the cool summer air, greeting friends at one of several local watering holes. I especially enjoyed the Song of the Mountains mural across the street, splashed across the side of a building, touting the rich musical history of the town, which dated back to the early 20th century. Marion was home to old-time bluegrass musicians and the renowned Lincoln Theater, which has been both movie house and live venue. Apparently even Roy Rogers appeared here, riding his famed horse Trigger across the stage. Thoughts of this horse evoke a personal memory as well. At a fair perhaps, my grandmother famously (so the story goes) cut or pulled a lock of Trigger’s hair from his mane when my dad was a little boy. It remains now, maybe 70 years later, tucked carefully into her Bible by my bedside at home.
I pause in front of what appeared to be a museum of sorts. Proudly displayed in the old-school shop windows are over 100 years worth of military uniforms, mostly men, some women, complete with the recounted tales of local soldiers who served in wars around the world. It’s clear this is a town in part defined by its past. But Marion is more than fulfilling its present as well.
As I saunter up the street to my destination, the Francis Marion sits proudly as if the protector of the town, watching over with pride and fondness. I can’t wait to head back and enjoy my night in the midst of this living history.
This day, with its roots in the cool shadows of the Shenandoah mountains, wandered on with a drive down into the rolling hills of Virginia wineries and breweries into the comforting land of a best friend, ending perfectly in the inviting heart of the most welcoming of hotels in this mountain town. Another good day, indeed.