USA Trip Part 2: Charlottesville, VA

The second part of our USA trip was probably the part I most anticipated.  We got up early on Saturday morning and drove to Charlottesville, Virginia, a city that holds a special place in my heart. Charlottesville is a relatively small town, nestled at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and home to the University of Virginia, a place where I spent four wonderful years.  It truly is one of my favorite places on earth, and I think it is a great example of small-town America.  As Willem can attest, I talk about my love for “Cville” and UVA constantly, so I was beyond excited to finally show him everything I had been telling him about for the past two years.

We timed our visit to coincide with the first UVA football game of the season, and I got my brother (who is a student there now) to get us guest tickets for the game.  We arrived in Charlottesville a few hours before the game, so I took Willem on a walking tour of Grounds.  We wandered up the lawn, around the rotunda and the pavilion gardens, and down the Corner, where we got lunch at Little John’s, a deli that is always a favorite with students.

UVA, Rotunda, University of Virginia

The Rotunda

UVA, Serpentine walls, University of Virginia

Playing tour guide for Willem at UVA. On either side of me are the famous “serpentine” brick garden walls, designed by Jefferson himself

After lunch we walked to the stadium. The game was set to start at 3:30pm, but it was so unbearably hot outside that we took refuge in the air-conditioned Aquatic & Fitness Center next to the stadium for a while before going in.  In fact, it was so hot that the University had to put its “heat management plan” in effect, meaning they made free water available to all students and had mist tents up on the concourse for anyone feeling ill from the heat.

All decked out in orange and blue for Willem’s first college football game!

The most exciting part of the game is the beginning.  I love when the stadium anthems get everyone pumped up, and when the team bursts out of the locker rooms behind the Virginia cavalier who rides out onto the field on his horse.

The cavalier riding out on the field on his horse

It is an amazing experience to be in a stadium with 60,000+ other people, all brimming with optimism for a new season and ready to go wild cheering for their team.  And despite an intense 2.5 hour thunderstorm delay, we stuck it out and were there to see UVA beat Brigham Young University in a down-to-the-wire finish. I freaking LOVE college football!

UVA, Football, Virginia Cavaliers, Scoot Stadium

The rain pours down in the stadium

The next day, we planned to do some more of my favorite Charlottesville activities—all of which involve the great outdoors.  Charlottesville’s proximity to the Blue Ridge Mountains is one of its nicest features.  In less than 20 minutes, you can be out of the city, driving on Skyline Drive or the Blue Ridge Parkway.  There are plenty of places to hike, secret picnic spots and swimming holes to discover, and during the wintertime, places to ski and snowboard.

Charlottesville, Monticello, Mountain View, Thomas Jefferson, Blue Ridge Parkway

Country roads…take me home…to the place…..I belong

We tried to begin our day by visiting Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, but the place was so crowded already we had to buy our tickets to tour the estate for later in the afternoon and plan to come back. So instead, we drove to Mile 5 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the starting point for a hike to a place called Humpback Rocks. The trail most people take up the mountain is short (only about a mile each way), but it is extremely strenuous. The trail gains over 800ft in elevation in that short distance. Close to the top, the gravel and dirt trail becomes pure boulders that you have to scramble over to reach the end.  If you aren’t in shape or are unused to hiking, you will be sucking some serious wind by the time you reach the top!  When you reach the top though, you will be rewarded with some incredible 360-degree views of the mountains and valleys in the distance.  It doesn’t matter what time of year you visit, the views will be different (and equally worth the hike) every time.

Charlottesville, Hiking, Humpback Rocks, Blue Ridge Parkway

The trail marker at the beginning of the hike

Charlottesville, Hiking, Humpback Rocks, Blue Ridge Parkway

The first view from the top

Charlottesville, Hiking, Humpback Rocks, Blue Ridge Parkway

Willem playing monkey on the rocks

Charlottesville, Hiking, Humpback Rocks, Blue Ridge Parkway

You can see why these mountains are called the “Blue Ridge”

Charlottesville, Hiking, Humpback Rocks, Blue Ridge Parkway

Victorious hikers!

Once we were off the mountain, Willem and I drove over to Carter Mountain, an orchard popular with Charlottesville residents and visitors alike.  The orchard is located on the top of a ridge, and has gorgeous views of Charlottesville down below. Depending on the time of year, you can pick your own peaches, apples, and other varieties of fruits.  There is also a traditional country store where you can buy all kinds of products made right there at Carter Mountain.  They are famous for their hot apple cider donuts, homemade pies, and fresh peach ice cream.  My mouth is watering just thinking about the food there.

Charlottesville, Hiking, Carter Mountain, Blue Ridge Parkway

Fresh picked peaches!

We brought a picnic lunch we had made earlier and ate it at the wooden tables they have scattered around.

Charlottesville, Hiking, Carter Mountain, Blue Ridge Parkway

Willem and his squinty-sun-face enjoying lunch

Sitting in the breeze at the top of the mountain, listening to bluegrass music in the background, enjoying melt-in-your-mouth apple cider donuts…that is pretty close to how I imagine the perfect afternoon.

With our bellies full and the car loaded up with apples, we drove back to Monticello for our 4pm tour.  Monticello was Thomas Jefferson’s home, and is now (along with UVA, which he founded) a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Every schoolchild in America knows Jefferson as the author of the Declaration of Independence and one of our first presidents, but few people know that Monticello was his true pride and joy.  Jefferson designed every detail of Monticello himself, and it is considered a masterpiece of neoclassical architecture.  He named the plantation Monticello (Italian for “little mount”) due to its beautiful location on the top of a hill.

Charlottesville, Monticello, Mountain View, Thomas Jefferson, Blue Ridge Parkway

Monticello

Charlottesville, Monticello, Mountain View, Thomas Jefferson, Blue Ridge Parkway

Monticello

Charlottesville, Monticello, Mountain View, Thomas Jefferson, Blue Ridge Parkway

Pretty from all angles

Charlottesville, Monticello, Mountain View, Thomas Jefferson, Blue Ridge Parkway

Not a bad view…

Charlottesville, Monticello, Mountain View, Thomas Jefferson, Blue Ridge Parkway

Jefferson knew how to pick a nice vista!

The inside of the house is incredible, and the tour of the site is well worth the cost of admission.  I know my history, and I still learned things from the guide.  No matter how much or little you already know, you will come out of a trip to Monticello with an appreciation for the genius of the man that was our 3rd president.  I know when I build my dream house one day I am definitely going to be stealing some of his ideas for my own masterpiece!

Falling for Fall

In seventh grade English class, one of our class assignments was to read S.E. Hinton’s 1967 classic novel, The OutsidersI would be lying if I professed to remember much of the plot of the book, but there is one scene that has stuck with me ever since.  When Ponyboy and Johnny are hiding out in an abandoned church, Ponyboy recites Robert Frost’s poem Nothing Gold Can Stay:

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leafs a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

I have never particularly enjoyed poetry, and am certainly no expert on the subject, so it is hard for me to figure out why that poem continues to resonate with me.  Every year though, when the leaves start to change and the weather turns crisp and cool, I am reminded of it.  Maybe it is the perfect harmony of bright colors in fall, as if the trees are channeling every last bit of energy into one transient splendor before shedding their leaves for the winter.  Or perhaps it is the mountain air while hiking on fall mornings, so crystal clear that you feel as if a single restoring breath could propel you above the clouds.  Or the fact that fall represents a refreshing hint of the winter to come after an interminably hot and muggy Virginia summer, when it finally becomes cold enough to break out the sweaters, sip a mug of apple cider, and curl up in front of a wood-burning fireplace. All of these things make fall one of my favorite times of year, even more so because of the knowledge that perfect fall days are fleeting.  Perhaps it is true that “nothing gold can stay”, and the beauty of fall will soon give way to the dark, freezing days of winter, but that very fact is what makes the season so beautiful.  And Robert Frost forgot that the golds of fall return every year.

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Fall in full swing on the grounds of UVA in Charlottesville, VA.

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The Chapel at UVA

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Fall colors in the afternoon sunlight

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Driving in the Blue Ridge Mountains on a clear fall day