Thursday, October 18, 2012

It’s All Downhill From Here

            I thought I had planned the trip so well but it started out very badly. My sister Lila and I had driven from Charleston to Abingdon, Virginia stopping along the way in Charlotte to pick up our third sister Barbara. A long drive. When we arrived at the hotel I’d booked, it was full of Little League teams. Carousing boys jumping in the swimming pool and dashing through the lobby. Adult “chaperones” drinking beer in the hallways. The room was too small for the three of us. “Don’t unpack.” I said. “We’re not staying.” In the small charming downtown, the regal Martha Washington Inn beaconed. Against all odds and budget constraints we asked for a tour. Built in 1932 as a huge private residence (for the grand sum of $15,000!), “The Martha”, as it’s affectionately known by locals, has a rich history. It’s been a women’s college, a training barracks for riflemen, a hospital during the Civil War and a rooming house for actors. Its renovated Victorian splendor has attracted such illustrious guests as Eleanor Roosevelt, President Harry Truman, Lady Bird Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Elizabeth Taylor. The room rates were much higher than “Little League Lodge” of course. “Can’t you find us one room that we could afford for three nights?” I asked the manager somewhat pleadingly. “Well, there is one room on the top floor. The elevator doesn’t go there so you’d have to use the stairs.” We did some creative math, divided the cost among the three of us and went to get our luggage which was promptly carried upstairs by waiting valets. A huge suite with king sized bed; daybed and view overlooking the garden immediately put me back into my sisters’ good graces. 
     We had come to Abingdon to bike ride the Virginia Creeper Trail. It’s billed as one of the “easiest, prettiest mountain bike rides..and the most popular biking destination in the Eastern United States.” But what really sold us on it is that it’s downhill the entire 34 miles. Popular is right. This town has transformed itself by creating this Rails-to-Trails adventure and the 200,000 people who ride it each year have brought an influx of economic prosperity. Eight bike rental outfitters shuttle van-loads of riders on and off the trail continuously every day of the year. After fitting us with new Trek bikes and helmets, we were dropped off seventeen miles away and spent the day leisurely riding back into town. Because it used to be a railroad line, the route stretches across farm land, past lakes, houses and campgrounds and over 47 scenic trestles. Entrepreneurial locals have opened cafes along the route where we enjoyed hearty country lunches. A jewelry maker nearby the trail provided beautiful souvenirs. 
        After refreshing ourselves in our grand suite, we headed next door to the Barter Theatre. When it began in 1933, patrons who couldn’t afford the 40 cent admission could barter produce and chickens to see a show. "With vegetables you cannot sell, you can buy a good laugh." was their slogan. The scheme of “ham for Hamlet” proved successful and many prominent actors began their careers there including Gregory Peck, Patricia Neal, Ernest Borgnine, Hume Cronyn, Ned Beatty and Gary Collins. The entertaining evening was a perfect cap to our active day.
            After a second day of biking, we relaxed in the gorgeous cascading pools at “The Martha”. A bride was having wedding photos made in the nearby flowering gardens. We were amused to see her duck into the shrubbery to sneak a cigarette between shots and also that her mother kept dabbing make-up onto the bride’s arm to cover her extensive tattoos. That evening, the thumping bass from the wedding reception drew us to the hotel ballroom to peak. Suddenly the bride came up behind us and said “Do you want to see my centerpieces? I made them myself. It’s a gangster wedding theme!” The groomsmen were wearing black suits, black shirts, red ties, dark sunglasses and black hats. They were carrying plastic Tommy guns. The tables were named “Scarface”, “Bugsy Malone” and “Al Capone”. What a concept. “Fabulous centerpieces!” we gushed as we admired the vases of huge red and black ostrich plumes and silver skeletons. We tried to mosey out inconspicuously since we were dressed in shorts and t-shirts but gangsters kept asking us to dance. We were afraid to say no. And then we had to try the cake. Black Forest of course.  
By the end of the trip we could brag that we’d ridden 34 miles (no need to mention that it was all downhill), seen a great play, stayed in a luxurious suite, escaped from Little League, crashed a wedding and danced with gangsters. Not a bad weekend.                                                                             If You Go:
Barter Theater:
Virginia Creeper Trail information:
The Martha Washington Inn  

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