The first president of the United States laid his body down on many a mattress. So many in fact that the saying “George Washington slept here” soon became a useful publicity tool in colonial America and the early years of the United States. We also know the famous river he crossed, the Delaware. But what’s less known but equally fascinating is the location for a daring youthful climb.
Hidden in the magnificent landscape of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley is the 215-foot high “Natural Bridge,” a limestone gorge carved out by Cedar Creek. It was here that the future president scaled up one of its sides to carve his name into the rocks – a bit of historic graffiti preserved to this day. The area is now Natural Bridge State Park and has miles of hiking trails. Nearby is Natural Bridge Caverns where visitors can venture into the earth’s surface on guided tours to see an underground landscape of stalactites and stalagmites.
To explore both the natural and cultural history of the area I based myself in the town of Lexington at The Georges, an elegant boutique hotel offering the epitome of Southern hospitality.
Within walking distance of the hotel are a number of historic sites including the Stonewall Jackson House, the only home that Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson ever owned. Jackson and his second wife, Mary Anna Morrison, lived in this brick and stone house before the Civil War. Since 1954, the structure has been a museum and historic site. In 1979, the house was restored to its appearance at the time of the Jacksons’ occupancy, furnished with period pieces including many of Jackson’s personal possessions. Tours of the house focus on Jackson’s civilian life as a professor, businessman, and husband.
Before the Civil War Jackson taught Natural and Experimental Philosophy as well as Artillery Tactics at the Virginia Military Institute, the oldest state-funded military college in the U.S. The school has two fascinating museums focusing on different aspects of history, the Virginia Military Institute Museum which collects, interprets, and exhibits the heritage of VMI ranging from a Revolutionary War musket to the mounted hide of “Little Sorrel,” “Stonewall” Jackson’s favorite horse. Nearby, the George C. Marshall Museum tells the story of Virginia’s first 5-star general during World War II and its aftermath.
Lexington is also home to Washington and Lee University, a private, four-year liberal arts college where another general, Robert E. Lee, became president (when it was still Washington University) at the end of the Civil War. Lee is buried on the campus grounds underneath Lee Chapel. The school also has the unique distinction for being the location for student George William Crump’s naked campus run, making it into the history books as America’s first recorded streaker in 1804.
Visitors to Lexington have a number of options for escorted tours of the town and its environs. Lexington Carriage Company offers a narrated horse drawn tour through its historic downtown and residential areas while Mark Cline offers his Haunting Tales Ghost Tours inspired by London’s Jack the Ripper tours.
Since one cannot live by history alone, Lexington offers a number of great culinary options and explorations ranging from tastings at the Great Valley Farm Brewery and the Lexington Valley Vineyard to homemade ice cream and hand-rolled waffle cones at Sweet Things Ice Cream and artisan creations at the Cocoa Mill Chocolate Company, as well as casual and upscale restaurants including Rocca Bar Ristorante, Bistro on Main, JJ’s Meat Shak, The Sheridan Livery Inn and Restaurant, The Red Hen, and Haywood.
A visit to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley with Lexington as its cultural epicenter will leave visitors full of great memories, historical knowledge, and great cuisine.
Please visit Lexington Virginia
All Photographs Are © Mark Edward Harris
Mark Edward Harris Photographer Bio
Mark Edward Harris’ assignments have taken him to 97 countries on six continents. His editorial work has appeared in publications such as Vanity Fair, LIFE, Time, GEO, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, AFAR, Wallpaper, Casa Vogue, GQ Thailand, Money Magazine, Architectural Digest, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, and The London Sunday Times Travel Magazine as well as all the major photography and in-flight magazines. His commercial clients range from The Gap to Coca-Cola. He is the recipient of numerous awards including a CLIO, ACE, Aurora Gold, and Photographer of the Year at the Black & White Spider Awards. His books include Faces of the Twentieth Century: Master Photographers and Their Work, The Way of the Japanese Bath, Wanderlust, North Korea, South Korea, and Inside Iran. North Korea was named Photography Book of the Year at the International Photography Awards. Mark’s latest book, The Travel Photo Essay: Describing a Journey Through Images was released by Focal Press/Routledge in the fall of 2017.
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