This past Saturday I went to Sperryville with my family, a tiny town (population 342) just outside Shenandoah National Park. I like this town because it doesn’t let its small size get in the way of fancy-sounding attractions. This is a town with aspirations. For example, it has a “River Arts District,” which sounds quite sophisticated and cosmopolitan and denotes a much larger town with multiple districts. In fact, the River Arts District is actually a small collection of both well-preserved and not-so-well-preserved buildings where the intrepid visitor will find not only a grass-fed beef shop, a whisky distillery and a brewery, but an antiques shop and arts center, all charmingly surrounding a dusty gravel parking lot. As for the river part of the district, Sperryville outdoes itself here too…the “river” is a somewhat dried up creek (maybe it’s more river-like when it rains?) framed by overgrown, unruly vegetation.
Moving on to the “Downtown” district, visitors will find that Sperryville is home to an art gallery selling $4,000 hand-crafted wooden tables and a kitschy shop that sells colorful, artsy-craftsy things you really don’t need. You know what I mean…one of those shops that somehow, inexplicably and perhaps even miraculously manages to stay in business despite the fact that no one actually seems to buy the $75 hand-knitted ridiculously colorful sweater shawls. There is a pizza place and a grill (I have nothing negative to say about these places – the pizza smells great and the grill is actually quite good) and there is a general store that smells like pizza (because it’s right next to the pizza shop) with a concrete floor, a small produce section, a large section of locally produced chips and rather pricey artsy-fartsy craft beer. There is a tiny bakery, a yoga studio (a yoga studio!) a couple real estate offices and a volunteer fire fighter department.
The pre-Victorian B&B has huge wrap-around porches, a red roof and slightly rococo flourishes on its columns, and would exude southern sultriness and gentility if it weren’t located on a sleepy, one-street mountain town that always seems to have heavy cloud cover. The town is framed by the gently sloping, strangely blue Appalachian Mountains and enveloped in a heavy and moderately oppressive layer of dewy Virginia humidity. On summer weekends, there is Lester Diehl, an 84-year-old World War II Vet who sells local honey and produce from a tiny garage right off main street. I fast walker could explore the entire downtown area in approximately three minutes. I imagine this is the kind of place that can feel dreary or heavenly, depending on your financial situation and whether you’re here by choice or not.
If you drive out of downtown toward Shenandoah National Park, you’ll drive past the BBQ/Ice Cream joint, half a dozen local preserve and honey stands (at least one decorated with Confederate flags), story-book farm scenes, a coffee roaster and another bakery. On the winding road traveling higher and higher toward the park entrance, you’ll pass several pull-offs with trails that lead to oak-maple forests with moss-strewn rocks and clear mountain streams. There’s also an orchard or two and half a dozen cabins that may or may not be abandoned. You’ll feel like you’ve arrived at a place unconcerned with time or technology (there’s very poor cell phone service), the kind of place where it could be 2015 or 1975 or 1915. This is one of my favorite places to visit when I’m looking for a short day trip — country flair, a few worthy establishments (Central Coffee Roasters, Thornton River Grill, Copper Fox Distillery and others I haven’t yet visited) and great access to hiking trails at Shenandoah National Park. There aren’t many places like this left in northern Virginia and it’s nice to unplug for a while and remember what the world was like before cell phones. Even if you’re only unplugging because you can’t get any cell service.