Thursday, November 18, 2010

Prince William Forest Park

We had our first-ever camping encounter back in the late 1970’s, when a friend introduced us to the notion on an overnight trip to Prince William Forest Park. I remember we bought a Montgomery Ward’s pup tent for the occasion, and that breakfast came from a Dunkin’ Donuts in Triangle. After that, we took quite a few car-camping trips, and even a few backbacking excursions, but once the kids came along, we could never get them all that interested in spending unplugged time with their parents in the woods. Our camping equipment sat on a basement shelf for over a decade, but this year (after a couple of good experiences camping at bluegrass festivals), we decided to dust off the gear and give camping another try with a simple overnight trip back to PWFP.

The park is lovely: 15,000 forested acres, with a bicycle-friendly scenic drive of over 20 miles, and 37 miles of well-maintained hiking trails. And it’s incredibly close to home, just a 45 min. trip up the interstate, perfect for an overnight trip.

Scenic drive through the park:

Stop at the Visitor Center to pick up your parking pass ($5) and check out the displays on the park's history:

The campground is tucked at the very back of the park, about 5 miles from the Visitor Center at the park’s entrance. There are 100 pristine campsites, some close to the small paved loop road, some farther back. Of the three sections, one is reserved for tents only, and while RV’s are allowed in two sections, there are no hook-ups and no generators allowed, which keeps things pretty quiet (well, except for the occasional barking dog or squealing child). We had such a good time that we took three overnight trips this fall, all in the space of one month, and had wonderful experiences each time.

One of the campsites on the C loop:

The more we camped, the easier it got. I tweaked the packing list, we kept most of the little stuff all together in a large plastic bin, ready to go at a moment’s notice, and we fine-tuned our menu. Because we’re retired, we were able to go without much prior planning (just a check of the weather to make sure there was no rain in the forecast), and to go on weekdays, when the park is quietest. We figured out which tent-sites were our favorites (back from the road, with fire rings rather than grills), and got practiced enough that we could erect our tent in about five minutes.

Our campsite, tucked back in the woods:

Our trip in early October was so much fun that we went back a few weeks later, and then did a third trip just last week, when we had the park almost to ourselves. Our routine was pretty much the same on all three trips: set up camp, hike for an hour or two, eat lunch, and then spend the rest of the afternoon tending our campfire, reading, playing a little backgammon, cooking dinner over the fire, toasting a few marshmallows, and then trying very hard to stay up to an hour late enough that it could, by some stretch of the imagination, be called bedtime.

A hike down to Quantico Creek...

followed by an afternoon of reading by the fire (coincidentally, I'm reading When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris).

We've perfected the campfire dinner: sausages on the grill, some homemade potato salad, good beer.

We found the whole experience to be very soothing, almost meditative. I suspect it’s a combination of being outdoors in a serene natural environment, and being completely cut off from technology. No TV to watch, no email to write, no Facebook to check. And a phone too dumb to help me out with any of it. Plus there’s something about tending a fire, with the rhythmic movement of the flames, the smoky smell, the crackles and pops, that I found addicting. The fall is the perfect time for camping, with relatively few bugs, and temperatures cool enough to enjoy a fire.

This week, the tents-only section closed down for the winter and won’t reopen until April 15, although the other two sections remain open through the year. But I think we’ll stow the gear away for awhile, and look forward to our next trip in the spring.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Rally to Restore Sanity

I’m a big fan of both Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. I watch their shows whenever they’re on, or as long as I can keep my eyes open. So I was excited about their “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” coming to D.C. Ordinarily, I would stay away from something that promised to be a logistical nightmare: the traffic tie-ups, the lack of parking, the overcrowded Metro, the hordes of people. But when I had the opportunity to join a chartered bus of Fredericksburgers, I decided I couldn’t pass up the adventure.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. There wasn’t much advance publicity about what the show would actually entail. I wasn’t sure if the crowd would be so big that I wouldn’t be able to see or hear much. But as it turns out, I had a fantastic time. The ride up was easy, we were dropped off within a short walk of the mall, and from the outset, the crowd was in good spirits, with plenty of creative signs and funny costumes on display. We maneuvered our way within one Jumbotron of the stage, where we could hear and see perfectly well. And the show was a lot of fun: doing the wave with a couple hundred thousand people, jumping in unison, listening to some good music, and enjoying a solid Stewart/Colbert comedy show. Best of all, everyone around us seemed to be very relaxed, just there to enjoy a good time--no stress, no problems.

I don’t think this rally is going to change the tenor of political discourse in our country (but wouldn’t that be nice?). But I was happy to go and be counted, to enjoy the laughs and the camaraderie of friends and strangers, to meet and chat with some new people, and to enjoy the experience of the peaceable gathering.

In his closing words, Jon sums up the point of the rally very eloquently.

Our bus arrives near the Mall:

Gathering before showtime:

The trees were the perfect perch, even for Santa:

Just a couple of typical rally-goers:

My favorite sign:

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Virginia State Fair

I’ve been in love with the Fredericksburg Fair since I moved to the area (and by “in love,” I mean in the way you love your goofy, embarrassing yet ultimately endearing uncle), but I’d never been to the state fair. But a couple of years ago, the fair moved from Richmond to Doswell, conveniently located about a 45 min. drive from home, so I decided the time was right for a visit.

The state fair was actually smaller than I expected. Larger than the local fair, but somehow I was expecting some huge, ten-times-as-big extravaganza like I’ve seen in movies. Maybe that’s true of the state fairs in places like Minnesota, Texas and Iowa, but Virginia’s is definitely a more modest event. Still, it was worth the trip for the agricultural area alone, definitely my favorite part. Here the animal exhibits were more varied than what I see at the Fredericksburg fair, with the usual cows, chickens, rabbits and goats, but also pigeons, guinea pigs, and alpacas, plus baby animals of all kinds, including calves, piglets, lambs, goslings, and freshly-hatched chicks. The exhibit halls were much more spacious and less smelly than the local fair. And there was plenty of educational information on animal husbandry, a variety of crops, and produced-in-Virginia products.

The sheep judging:

Mama and baby cow:

Mama pig gets no rest:

We watched baby chicks hatching:

A lot of pumpkin:

With the exception of a fairly nice quilt show (nothing ground-breaking, though), the arts & crafts hall was the same exact collection of frankly amateurish stuff you see at the local fair. Somehow I figured if a fair draws from a much larger area, the quality would be much better, but not really. And fairs have so many different categories (not just “photography” but “adult black & white photography, floral” not to be confused with “adult black & white photography, garden”), with first, second, third place and honorable mentions awarded, that the craft hall is littered with ribbons.

Lots of mediocre crafts, with plenty of ribbons:

Some very nice chainsaw carving:

The commercial vendors were the usual assortment of products I’m unlikely to purchase at all, let alone from a pitchman hawking his wares from a booth at the fair. Does anyone really make a high-priced purchase or choose a contractor this way? We saw demos for the same “waterless cookware” in at least 3 places, plus vendors of replacement windows, shower liners, hot tubs, sunglasses, footwear, gutter guards, cleaning products, Tupperware, jewelry...all the usual suspects. My favorite was probably the candy corner, where for a few dollars a pound, you could buy every kind of penny candy you wanted, including stuff I hadn’t seen since my childhood (wax soda bottle candy, anyone?).

We didn’t spend the money on a ride ticket (a fairly hefty price tag), but enjoyed strolling the midway, a kaleidoscope of colors, smells and sounds. All of the classic rides were there: Ferris wheels, Tilt-a-Whirl, Scrambler, carousel, tea cups, plus enough newer, more extreme rides to keep everyone happy. I was amazed at the number of “freak show” tents, which seem like such a throwback to an earlier time (and all guaranteed to disappoint) that I’m surprised people are still willing to pay for this type of thing. Plus so much fair food (and not a bite of anything healthy to be found). Maybe years of relatively healthy eating and an appreciation for well-prepared foods has spoiled me, but I don’t find fair food really all that appealing. It smells great, and seems like it would be such a treat, but a few bites into that candy apple or funnel cake or deep-fried whatever, and the thrill is gone. Next year, I think I’ll pack a lunch.

Funky food vendors:

I doubt this show actually features a terrifying gorilla girl by any stretch of the imagination:

Pig racing, definitely not PETA-approved:

We spent some time in the Heritage Village, with its emphasis on Virginia history, checked out the lumberjack show, and watched the Chincoteague pony demonstration in one of several large equestrian rings. There were a couple of concert venues with entertainment scheduled throughout the day, and we finished out our fair visit enjoying the Kings of Swing on the festival stage. All in all, we had a lovely day. We may not go every year, but I think we’ll be return visitors.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Via Colori

This past weekend, we checked out the city’s first annual Via Colori street art festival, an event that brought together artists and performers in a weekend devoted to creating chalk artwork on the street. Unlike most art exhibits, this event focuses on the process, with visitors getting to watch the artists in action. With a slate of performers scheduled on two stages throughout two days, including a rock band, jazz trio, acoustic singers, a magician, and the Rappahannock Pops Orchestra, plus a number of food vendors, the festival was a lively celebration of arts in the community. The event was a fundraiser for the Fredericksburg Arts Commission, with donors paying a fee to sponsor an artist’s square.

Featured artist Curtis Goldstein at work on Saturday morning...

and here is his work at the end of the day:

Many artists used a grid system to enlarge their artwork from a small sketch to street-size:

Some artists worked more loosely:

I love this happy cow:

There were several works that included the Rappahannock River train trestle:

Despite a great start on Saturday, the festival was cut short by rain on Sunday morning, and the rest of the event cancelled. But by midday, the sun was shining, so we headed back downtown to see if any of the artists had returned to finish their work. We were happy to find lots of folks walking around looking at the rain-washed, but still visible artwork, and several artists back at work on their squares.

Signature artist Gabriel Pons returned on Sunday to finish his large-scale piece:

I'm sorry the artist didn't get to finish this version of Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring." It's striking nonetheless.

The rain couldn't diminish the beauty of this piece:

I’m hoping Via Colori catches on, with greater attendance, and more participants and sponsorship each year. I’m also hoping next year brings drier weather.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Into the Woods at Riverside

Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods has been one of my favorite musicals ever since I saw a filmed performance of the Broadway show on public television, and I’ve listened to the Broadway soundtrack dozens of times. So I was thrilled when a friend was cast in a starring role as the witch in Riverside Dinner Theater’s production of the musical, and was excited to see the show last weekend.

The story weaves a number of traditional fairy tales together into a classic quest fable. But it’s not really a children’s story, certainly not appropriate for very young children. After the “happily ever afters” of Act I, the story explores what happens when reality intrudes on the happy endings, wishes that once seemed so simple become complicated, and decisions can have painful consequences.

I thought the Riverside troupe did an amazing job. I have to admit that when I heard the opening notes, the first “Once upon a time” spoken by the narrator, the “I wish...” of the first song, I was delighted, because it matched the soundtrack perfectly. In fact, because Riverside uses recorded music, there’s no slightly amateurish orchestra to distract from the songs. Every singer was first rate...not a weak voice in the bunch. I met up with several friends who’ve seen many Riverside performances, and learned that this isn’t always the case. They all agreed that this show is one of the finest musical productions they’d seen there. Inventive set design and lovely costuming were a bonus.

So if you’ve never been to the Riverside Dinner Theater, this show is the perfect one to try. For me, this was my first return after attending a couple of shows over 10 years ago, and it’s still true that the evening is more theater than dinner, so don’t go expecting a fine dining experience. But while the food is merely adequate, the show is a real treat, and well worth the price of admission. Into the Woods runs through Sept. 19; for ticket info, visit the theater's website.

Photo: Culpeper Star Exponent

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Three Short Restaurant Reviews

In the last month or so, we’ve tried 3 new restaurants (well, new to us). I didn’t bring my camera or take notes, but here are some quick impressions.

Bavarian Chef: We loved this place. Great German food, but with a cheffy flair. Pretty expensive, but good value, because the portions are very large. Excellent service, tasty entrees, nice variety of sides (especially loved the red cabbage). The old train station is elegant, and the vintage German travel posters added a nice touch. The place lacks coziness, and the acoustics are lousy, but no matter. This one goes on the regular rotation.

Greene Turtle Sports Bar & Grill: We made the mistake of trying this restaurant on a Saturday night when the Redskins were playing. The place was packed, and we got stuck in the bar where the service was slow. The food was fine, but unless you want to watch sports and drink beer with your buddies, don’t bother. There are many other restaurants with similar food (The Fredericksburg Pub in the same part of the mall, or Ruby Tuesday, Red Robin, Applebees, etc.) but without that wallpapered-in-televisions ambience.

The Melting Pot: We went because we had a coupon (otherwise it can be very expensive), and I was surprised that the place was pretty full—I had no idea it was so popular. The decor is lovely, booths are all mostly very private, and the service was good. We started with a cheese fondue. I used to make cheese fondue regularly, and this one was nothing special. Then we got a mixed platter of meats and seafood with a few veggies to be cooked in oil, accompanied by some batters and sauces for dipping. Finally, a very sweet chocolate fondue, into which you dip equally sweet bites of cake and marshmallow, plus a few fruits. The whole concept of a fondue restaurant is interesting and different, and I can see how for a date, it’s a good conversation starter. But for me, the bottom line is that for my entree, they bring me a bunch of raw meat and make me cook it myself. I’m supposed to time it (no timer is supplied), so you’re either looking at your watch or taking your chances. I want a professional to cook my dinner and be creative. If you go, it’s for the experience, not the food. Not my cup of tea.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Monticello, Behind the Scenes

This week, I had the pleasure of accompanying two good friends to Monticello to take advantage of the new “behind the scenes” tour. The last time I visited was about 15 years ago, and since then, the historic site has undergone major renovations, including the construction of a new $43 million visitor center that opened last year that includes a gallery, a theater, a discovery center, and a large gift shop (one of two on the property, because you just can't have enough souvenirs).

We started our day in the theater, watching the new video, Thomas Jefferson's World, which stresses the importance of freedom as the main theme of Jefferson’s work, tries hard to reconcile Jefferson’s ideals with his dependence on his “enslaved workers” (and for me, fails), and works its way all the way up to the inauguration of Barack Obama.

Our $37 behind-the-scenes ticket gave us access to the private second-floor bedrooms occupied by Jefferson’s extended family (mainly daughter Martha and her 11 children), and to the interior of the third-floor dome, complete with attic space. You climb up the very narrow staircases (the only ones in the house) to reach the upper floors, where unlike in the large rooms of the main floor, you are allowed to take photos. While much of the main floor is devoted to Jefferson’s social life, personal pursuits, and clever gadgets, the upper floors focus on Jefferson’s lively family life.

After our look at the upper levels, we joined the hoi polloi for the main house tour, and spent the rest of the afternoon roaming the grounds, checking out the gardens, and visiting Jefferson’s grave. We ended the day back in the gallery at the visitor center, where more details of the estate’s architecture are revealed. We could have used another hour or so to really explore every nook and cranny of the grounds and all of the exhibits and displays at the visitor center, but our time and stamina on this hot summer day just gave out.

The behind-the-scenes tour is given twice daily, at 10:30 and 2:30. Advance tickets are highly recommended, and can be ordered online. These tours will be available until Oct. 31. For more info, check out

One of the very narrow staircases in the home:

Peering down at visitors from a second floor bedroom:

Inside the dome:

Attic space off the dome room:

View from one of the dome room windows:

One of several skylights:

View from the garden side:

Gallery space at the visitor center:

The new visitor center is beautifully landscaped: