Margie and I proved once again this weekend that the fun isn’t always in the destination, it’s in the going. We took a run over to Alderson, W. Va. by way of Blacksburg (that’s like going from Richmond to Roanoke through Greensboro) and wound up with some pretty dang good stories, seeing the unexpected, eating the wondrous and generally enjoying each other and the people we met.
That’s a mid-winter luxury–getting away from cabin fever–that few of us take advantage of and these short trips to nowhere often pay off far better than we imagine.
Alderson is a tiny town (1,200 people) just west of Lewisburg (The Coolest Town in the U.S., according to one magazine) whose claim to fame is its July 4 celebration, the largest in the Mountain State. We stayed in the Old Victorian Inn hard by the Greenbrier River (nestled quietly in the middle of the flood zone and a few feet away from the C&O railroad track). It was noisy, wet, beautiful, gray and full of stuff that begged questions.
Our host, a 60-ish rumpled and bright-eyed woman named Judy Lewallen, owns the 13-room rental house that’s a bit more than 100 years and another home of 16 rooms up the road a bit. She cleans them both and prepares a superb “cowboy breakfast,” as my mother would have termed the overdone table. She’s also full of stories.
Alderson is the home of the federal women’s prison, the one that housed Martha Stewart for eight months, Tokyo Rose and Axis Sally of WWII infame, as well as the Manson Girls and Squeeky Fromme, who tried to kill President Gerald Ford. Martha Stewart took part in an Alderson cell decorating contest and–gulp–didn’t win it. Judy’s husband, who was mayor of Alderson at the time, judged the contest. He said Mrs. Stewart’s cell, “Just wasn’t the best.” Period.
Judy says the inmates at the prison are primarily white collar federal prisoners and don’t pose a substantial danger to anybody. In the past, they have worked with the community in one way or another, she says.
Alderson is the home for a bunch of lion statues, all inspired because a circus accidentally let loose a couple of lions in the 1880s and Alderson adopted them and their offspring. The lions often wandered around town, scaring the hell out of visitors, but were basically harmless. Alderson still has a lion leash law, one of the few in our part of the world, says Judy.
One of the real pleasures of our little trip was the food. We ate at a little tree-hugger cafe in Lewisburg Saturday at noon and had an expensive, but quite good (and quite small) lunch. I ate my first olive-sized capers and loved them atop a salad of arugula, roast peppers, red onions, smoked trout and pomegranate vinaigrette. The good meal, though, came at Stuart’s, a blue plate special restaurant that features all-you-can eat days with shrimp, barbecue and the like. Margie and I had a taste for barbecue and she went for pulled pork and I for ribs. We scored big. I thought the side dishes (cole slaw and corn on the cob, were pedestrian), but the barbecue was so good that it compensated for any shortcoming.
We were also treated to the world class performance by the woman who may be my favorite waitress of all time, a middle-aged (and quite youthful looking) blonde with an airplane landing light smile and the energy of a kindergarten class. Her name is Kami and even if the food had been awful, the trip to Stuart’s would have been a high point.
I didn’t get my screw-up–and every trip has at least one–but I drove more than 100 miles out of our way to get to Alderson because of my refusal to read directions and the planted notion that Alderson was south of Roanoke. That’s because I used to white water raft in West By God and in order to get to the Lower New, we went by Blacksburg and west. Alderson is closer to Covington (north of Roanoke) than it is to Blacksburg (by a lot). But it turned out to be a fun drive on a day when we didn’t have a damn thing else to do anyway.
On the way back, we tried to get into the Greenbrier Hotel in White Sulphur Springs, but were denied admission (my car is not a Cadillac), so we went over to the old railroad terminal, which is now a Christmas store and Margie loved that. Great stuff inside.
At Clifton Forge, we were treated to the parked steam engine 614, which carries passenders and is apparently owned by the Greenbrier, since its lettering says so and since it’s dark green. One of the prettiest trains ever, I’d say.
Good trip at a good time.