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Germ Bag

Mountain Highs, Valley Lows

By Suz Redfearn | Posted 9/18/2002

Like marriage itself, my one-year anniversary weekend was a study in contrasts, a veritable painter's palette of incongruities and weird juxtapositions, marked with tiny disappointments but larger joys.

The weekend encompassed the very, very lowbrow and the very, very high brow, and also some medium brow. This is the way Marty and I like our world and so it was only right that our celebration would unfold as such.

Neither one of us had ever had a wedding anniversary before, so this was big. We wanted the weekend's centerpiece to be something mind-blowing, so we chose the Inn at Little Washington, a much-heralded country inn at the base of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. This culinary Mecca, nestled in a tiny town George Washington laid out in 1749, inspires celebrities, world-class chefs and the planet's other big wigs to fall all over themselves to get there. Since opening 24 years ago, the joint had been named best restaurant in the world by several guides. We'd been advised to be prepared: the experience would constitute the absolute zenith of our lives -- well, the eating part of our lives. We'd also been told to save up, as the privilege of eating at the Inn cost wads. Absolute wads.

In order to afford that, we had to stay someplace crappy in the mountains. Not a nice B&B, which would have been our normal choice, and certainly not at the Inn itself, which offers rooms from $350 to $900 a night. But rather, we needed a flea bag motel along a lonesome highway. Perhaps one with mites. I called the Inn at Little Washington to inquire about such a place. Too embarrassed to make the request flat out, I lied.

"Um, we're playing a joke on a friend and well, can you direct me to a gross little hotel near you?" Unfazed, the woman told me there was no such thing in those parts. She said she'd like to help, but the nearest thing to nasty was the Days Inn 20 miles away.

A few days later, Marty's dad suggested we stay at a grand old hotel where he and Marty's mom stayed right after they got married. At the time -- 1969 -- they couldn't afford a honeymoon; they simply grabbed her cat, got in her car, and drove back to Kentucky, where he was in college. Along the way, though, they treated themselves and stayed at the Mimslyn. I was intrigued. I called.

The call began with disappointment. The rooms, the front desk woman said, were $90.

I slumped. "Well, ok. Can you direct me to a shabby little motel nearby?"

"What?"

"Well, here's my story. . ." I told her about it being our 1st anniversary, about how we were planning to gut our bank account to go to the Inn at Little Washington and thus couldn't afford a nice room. I told her Marty's parents had stayed there as newlyweds. But that well, we just needed a cheap place and could she tell me about one nearby? Maybe we'd come by the Mimslyn for tea or something.

"Ok, I'll give you a room for $60," she said real quick, as though her better judgment might take hold if she didn't speak fast.

I hadn't meant to manipulate the woman. But apparently I had. Either that or she was just really altruistic and romantic, a good combination to have in a front desk clerk. I thanked her profusely, asking for her name so I could track her down and make all over her once we got there. She was Michelle.

Saturday morning, Marty and I drove up and over the mountains, starting the weekend by visiting Luray Caverns, the largest such cave in the East. Feeling very much like middle Americans, we paid $16 and followed an overweight teenage tour guide through one mile of dripping stalactites and stalagmites. It was a good place to ponder time. The odd spikes, some of them giant, took 350 million years to form, growing at a rate of once inch every 120 years. And it's only taken a year to get Marty to take out the garbage regularly. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Next we headed for the hotel located in the depressed little town of Luray. Pulling into the winding driveway, the Mimslyn looked grand indeed -- a red brick plantation with vaulted, regal white columns surveying a giant, multi-acre front yard. But when we swung open the doors on the estate, it was clear the place hadn't been fiddled with in 30 or 40 years. The check-in desk, as well as the lobby furniture and art was musty and dusty and outdated. So were the waitresses. The place seemed almost deserted. And kind of creepy.

Clearly the Mimslyn hadn't been touched since before Marty's parents were here, which lent a real authentic feel to why we were visiting. But it also made us itch. Were there mites? Probably.

Michelle wasn't at the front desk, but the woman who was told us we'd been given a suite, and for $50, not $60. The continued unexpected generosity made me warm and tingly in the chest as we climbed the curving, red-carpet staircase to our room. So as not to be out of step with the lobby, clearly room 222 hadn't been touched since 1956 either. The wooden table that held the old Zenith in place had been bashed and not fixed, leaving a significant piece missing from it. Paint crumbled all around the windowsills. There were bleach stains on the blue-gray carpet and mold stains on the ceiling. The clock was an hour fast (not reset since the Eisenhower Administration?) and the bed, when you laid in it, pulled you insistently toward its center. Ah, the downward vortex common to worn-out mattresses.

And we loved it in all its delightful unlikeliness. How many grand old Virginia inns offer such un-selfconscious dilapidation? So regal yet so rank? None that I know of. The other upside was that, from the back, the place resembled an old asylum -- heavy red brick, chipped paint on the trim, crepe myrtle trees shielding the windows, a feel of loneliness, neglect and unintentional eccentricity in the air. This was accentuated by feral cats out back, along with a row of tall trees that someone long ago had attempted to shape into a maze, just like the one where Jack chases Wendy then dies in The Shining.

After soaking this in, Marty and I popped a bottle of champagne -- one we bought for his parents on their anniversary but forgot to give to them -- and got dressed for dinner. To be both goofy and nostalgic, we wore our wedding outfits. For Marty that meant brown linen pants, a white linen shirt, a purple tie, and European-looking guy sandals. Then he threw in a navy blazer. I wore my wedding dress, plain and sheath-y, its only extravagance being thin straps made of crystal beads. I don't believe it stands out as a wedding dress. At least that's what I kept telling myself that night so I wouldn't feel like a goob. Nevermind that it's off-white and full-length.

The Inn at Little Washington, we found, is a fairly unassuming two-story former general store at a corner in the little town of Washington, Va., population 192. But once you get inside, you see great care has been taken with even the tiniest details. Every surface is covered with elaborate silks. A large spooky bust of a curly-headed woman sits precariously over a fireplace, opposite an 18th century painting of a famous chef. Heavy velvet curtains separate rooms from each other. It's an English mansion mated with a French country inn. And there happens to be dalmatians wandering around with pearl neckalces on.

Marty and I were asked if we'd like to relax in the "monkey lounge" before dinner. Of course we would, we said. The small room, we soon discovered, is painted to give you the sense you're in a white gazebo in the jungle and you're watching sassy monkeys frolic about in pants and shirts. Some of them look evil; others are filled with mirth. One is smoking something; another is swinging in a hammock. Kookier even than the monkeys were the blue suede walls in the entranceway to the bathrooms, just off the monkey room. With heavy gold tacks studding the walls, all I could think of was Elvis in bondage.

Soon, we were escorted to the main dining room and put at a table so close to others that private conversation was going to be impossible. But the Inn quickly redeemed itself when we opened our menus and saw, "Happy Anniversary to the Kadys." I'm not a Kady; I kept my name. But that didn't stop me from going giddy from the charming gesture.

Soon a waiter showed up with a tray of tiny, gorgeous hors d'oevres. The first one I bit into actually was mind-blowing. It looked like a tiny (a good size for a marionette) croissant and was filled with barbecued rabbit. I swooned. Marty fancied the fried risotto balls.

Then it was time to focus on the price-fixe menu. With so much cash (credit, really) at stake, we didn't want to slip up and make the wrong choices. That would be tantamount to buying the wrong car or house and being saddled with that bad decision for the rest of your life, or at least the next few years. I knew we probably wouldn't be back to this lush, decadent place unless we won the lottery; we had to choose well. Really well.

After several tense moments of negotiation and coordination, I ordered the grilled, chilled figs with country ham and lime cream for my first course, the pecan-crusted soft-shell crab tempura for my second, and the lamb chop with chanterelle mushrooms and carrot ginger essence for my main course. Marty ordered roasted loin of veal; fricassee of Maine lobster and gnocchi; and one of the house's most heralded dishes: the braised rabbit in apple cider. When conversation went idle here and there, we had a hoot staring at the host and part owner who was dressed in an all-white suit with white alligator shoes.

The courses came quickly, in small, manageable portions. The presentation was top-notch, with colorful sprays of sauce covering items neatly arranged on the plate. But the tastes themselves, I was shocked to find, were not rocking my world. My figs were too sweet and the ham draped atop them got lost in the saccharine overkill. I couldn't taste any lime in the sauce, and it was mealy, like a bad apple. My soft-shell crab was pleasing as soft-shell crabs go, but otherwise unremarkable. The lamb chop was tender and juicy, but a little fatty. I detected little to no ginger essence in the sauce, and the chanterelle mushrooms were cute but not overwhelmingly tasty. Marty's dishes were also lovely, but nothing life-changing.

The pinnacle of my meal was not anything I ordered. Instead, it was a tiny demitasse of duck consommé brought to everyone between the second and third course. It was by far the best broth I'd ever had in my life, bar none. It was life changing. Now I feel like a heroin addict who needs more, more, more. But other than that, our dinner was just your basic fine, high-end meal, stopping short of making your eyes roll back in your head.

I've never, ever heard anyone say this about the Inn at Little Washington and I now fear I might be killed for going public with it, but it wasn't the best meal of my life. I don't know -- maybe it was sensory overload. Maybe it's because living and dining out in Louisiana for 13 years spoiled me for food, or maybe it's that I'm crazy in the head.

Marty and I discussed this until our mouths were sore. Other theories: Perhaps the bar was set too high. Maybe it was like spying a movie star walking down the street and feeling a tad let down because she's not drop-dead stunning from every single angle. Maybe the Inn at Little Washington wasn't really just about just food, but rather the collective experience of the enchanting décor, nearly impeccable service and really inventive cuisine. Maybe it was like marriage in that way -- to experience it in the most fulfilling way possible, you had to focus on the whole, not tiny little parts that may not be absolutely superb at all times. Expect to be blown away at every moment and you will soon be divorced.

Or maybe the Inn is just not as excellent as everyone says, and everyone rants about it because all the reviewers do. Who knows?

Regardless, we paid our giant $400 tab and left the place unable to talk about anything but the Inn. We spoke of its every detail all the next day, and went back to get a tour of the $3 million kitchen, with its imported tile, huge bay window and Gregorian chants piped in at all times to calm the chefs. We ogled the chefs' pants, designed to look like Dalmatian skin. We lingered in the after-dinner lounge, with its blue velvet chairs with backs as high as totem poles. The place truly had a magnetic quality about it, even if the food only registered an 8.7 on the Richter scale.

Leaving the Mimslyn and all its charms on Sunday, we asked again for Michelle. Again, she wasn't here. I inquired as to whether I could leave her a note and a bottle of wine. The desk clerk on duty looked at me funny. "Well, I guess so. But Michelle's not 21." I didn't know what to do, so I just shrugged my shoulders and left, hoping I wasn't making a young alcoholic of someone. Maybe Michelle would give it to her parents. But what if they were Baptists? Oh no ...

It was raining as we left, so Marty and I couldn't hike in the mountains that day. Instead, we wandered slowly home, stopping at "Cooters" along the way. Owned by Ben Jones, the guy who played Cooter on the Dukes of Hazzard, the place is a small, shack-like retail establishment that acts as a shrine to the show. There are clumps of locals, mostly wizened old mountain men in coveralls, loitering near pictures of Daisy Duke's backside and watching old Dukes episodes on a large-screen TV. There are photomontages of Daisy as she looks today, as well as a glass-encased miniature three-D model of the Dukes' farm, as seen on the show. There are $8 glossies of Bo and Duke standing shirtless. There are dumpy teenagers wolfing hamburgers while trying to sell commemorative key chains. But out front is the piece de resistance: the actual General Lee -- or at least one of them they used on the show -- the orange hot rod Dodge the sexy Duke boys would rip around the county in, sending gravel flying on country roads.

After a quick wine tasting up the road at one of the local wineries which resulted in a fine afternoon buzz, we meandered home reveling in the joy that we both appreciate the same weird crap. One year down, 175 to go. Simultaneously, we scratched at our Mimslyn bed-bug bites and our still-full bellies while humming the song that was coursing through both our heads.

Making our way, the only way we know how/But that's just a little bit more than the law will allow.

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New Traditionalists (1/8/2003)
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