Monday, July 9, 2012

Mount Vernon, Virginia

Northern Virginia is in essence a suburb of the mighty Nation's Capital, the District of Columbia, the city named for the first President, the General who commanded the Revolutionary Continental Army, the man who embodies the start of the new nation in the New World.

However the reverence one might expect for George Washington's home is hardly in evidence in the hectic traffic of suburban Fairfax County. We saw just two hastily erected little brown signs pointing toward the fabled home.

Once there we found a highly organized reception for the hordes of visitors. I found the bronze statue of the President his wife and grandchildren to be a bit startling. Cheyenne ignored them.

Washington inherited Mount Vernon when he was 22 and enlarged it and worked on it for the next 40 years. He had an 800 acre farm and like Thomas Jefferson listed his profession as farmer in the first census.

Washington was a slave owner of course and maintained an active farm experimenting with various crop growing techniques, harvesting seeds and attempting to grow secure hedgerows around his fields. That heritage is continued today with vegetable gardens and orchards on the fifty acres still surrounding the home.

The crops still grow in orderly rows and animals are kept in fields between the house and the tidal Chesapeake waters on the east side of the home.

It is a living museum too with an active blacksmith, and collections of carriages and farm implements from the era.

It was a baking hot day when we were there and Cheyenne took her usual dunking in a convenient ditch.

She was observed by a curious squirrel, an animal unknown in the Florida Keys but which, also as usual, excited no interest whatsoever in my dog.

The house was bathed in a peculiar heatwave of tropic proportions when I was there with temperatures well above ninety degrees. For those not used to the tropics it was a bit too warm.

But visitors pressed doggedly on touring the out buildings and grounds.

With Cheyenne raising rather too much interest wherever we went I rather felt like pressing on t the main event rather than studying outhouses kitchens and black smith operations among the hordes of young people on vacation field trips.

They were around the grounds all over the place and it did occur to me that Mount Vernon might be better visited in the dead of winter when the industrious little tykes are trapped indoors at their desks.

Mount Vernon is quite the attraction, no longer simply the private residence of the first President.

It is a shrine, a pilgrimage destination.

A place to contemplate.

I had to compare Mount Vernon to Monticello and I came away from the two tours with quite different impressions of the men who called these two ancient Virginia shrines home.

George Washington had a capable wife, money and a stern character and it comes through in the order and well developed property that is still visible and cultivated.

I was surprised to see a banana tree in the garden but apparently they do grow here but they just don't fruit as the do in the tropical Florida Keys.

Aside from the commercial aspects of this operation I preferred Monticello because perhaps Jefferson himself was less accessible and more mysterious, a true genius, flawed and complex and secret where as Washington appears more easily appreciated and understood. A simpler man than Jefferson with his complex ingenuity.

Then there is the fact that Mount Vernon is just 16 miles from the District of Columbia and is thus located nowadays in suburban hell. Monticello is a rural backwater outside the chaos of Northern Virginia.

It was too hot and too crowded to do the place justice but I want to go back with fewer crowds and easier access to the man's tomb, the docks and the extensive grounds. It was a good start seeing this famous place for the first time.

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