Balancing Rest and Exploration
Anniversary trips are one of the few opportunities where Jessica and I can embark on a kid-free getaway. These trips are scarce (once a year, obviously) so we look forward to them like a kid looks forward to Christmas. Last year, we opted for a Denver and Rocky Mountain National Park excursion. The balance of urban and nature suited us well. We accomplished our travel intentions to rest and explore, two things that are hard to do when two toddlers join along for the fun.
We adopted a similar approach this year when deciding to visit Charlottesville, Virginia. Charlottesville is a quaint city rich in history. It also has a nice “city nestled in the mountains” vibe. We balanced our activities to find some rest and renewal in nature, while also quelling our curiosity by learning about the city’s culture.
Small town, large influence
Charlottesville was a great choice for a two-night stay. We were able to see just about everything on our tourist list without feeling rushed or burdened to scramble about. As a history buff and architecture fan, Monticello was one of the top items to see on my list. President Thomas Jefferson’s residence lies just over 10 minutes from downtown Charlottesville.
Once parked at a nearby lot, we approached Monticello by way of the meandering two-mile Saunders-Monticello Trail, hiking up the little mountain* while enjoying the wooded forest views along our route. (*“Monticello” translates to little mountain in Italian.) We got to the house right as our guided tour was starting; our tour guide swiftly moved us through five rooms of the main level while peppering us with factoids and trivia about the house itself or Jefferson’s life. We learned about Tommy Jeff’s knack for inventing, his friendship, beef, and restoration with John Adams, and that construction of Monticello occurred in bits and spurts over a 40-year period. (It’s no Monticello, but now I feel a little more reassured that my own Backyard Renovation project is taking much longer than the 8-months I was expecting. Greatness take time, amirite?) The grounds of the plantation were remarkably dense with activities necessary for the daily life and operations of a planation. It was in these spaces where I learned about Sally Hemmings and Jefferson’s views on slavery… which seemed a bit flawed at best.
A point of pride for Jefferson was apparently the University of Virginia. Its one of the three major life accomplishments he chose to list his tombstone, along with authoring the Declaration of American Independence and the Statue of Virginia for Religious Freedom. We chose to tour UVA’s campus under the cover of darkness, shielded from the blazing heat. The campus had a prestigious and traditional vibe; midsize redbrick buildings jutted out of meticulously maintained lawns.
The place dripped with history and inspirational architecture. Designed by Jefferson and built in 1826, The Rotunda, arguably the campus’ most iconic feature, anchors a Greco-Roman quad “Academical Village.” Contrary to campus centerpieces I’m familiar with, this quad comprises of faculty housing intermixed with student dormitories instead of academic buildings. I have to wonder if Jefferson designed the intermixing of faculty and students as a means for around-the-clock monitoring… or perhaps he simply wanted to promote the ability for faculty to be accessible mentors for students.
Both Monticello and UVA are designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites. Each site, heavily influenced by Jefferson, has in turn influenced architectural design and American ideals in the years that have transpired since their construction.
Civic Preservation <> Civic Evolution
As a city enthusiast, one of my favorite elements of travel is peeling back the layers of context that give a place its unique identity. Charlottesville’s colorful past coupled with its contemporary progress seemed to portray a complex narrative of a city reckoning with past trauma.
At UVA, we paused at the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers that presented a heartbreaking account of injustices suffered by enslaved individuals who contributed to the UVA story. The Unite the Right events of 2017 seem to have left a scar on the city that is currently on display by means of empty statue pedestals. For a city that strives to remain – in part – within a time capsule, the ugly stain of slavery and oppression will likely never be washed clean of Charlottesville’s fabric. But herein lies an opportunity for the city to recognize past injustices as fuel for seeking a more equitable future.
I saw many symbols of the city’s willingness to progress while touring downtown. Well-preserved early 20th century low-rise buildings were punctuated with new development that either hid behind or casually integrated into the historical fabric. The pinked-out Quirk Hotel exemplified these traits magnificently. Its street frontage scaled appropriately while its bulky backside was hidden behind preserved historic houses and shops. Jessica and I soaked in the mountainous views at sunset atop the hotel’s rooftop bar just before a storm rolled in.
Elsewhere, Cville’s Downtown Mall told a story of rebirth; a successful regeneration of downtown amenities when White Flight to the suburbs was in full swing. The mall is a pedestrianized street stretching through about seven blocks of highly active restaurants, bars, and retail space. We stayed out late one night to relieve the nightlife scene from our college days… only to realize that overpriced drinks in loud, cramped spaces isn’t exactly our ideal form of entertainment anymore. But it seemed to be quite popular among those slightly less old and crotchety than ourselves.
Just outside of downtown, the Dairy Market food hall gave us a more chill atmosphere that better suited our tastes. We enjoyed delicious dishes from Maizal Latin American street food, creative drinks from the Milk Bar, and ice cream from Moo Thru. The Market is housed in a historical building that tells a unique story: It was once the home to Monticello Dairy, Inc. and doubled as a community gathering place “popular with locals for it’s ice cream parlor and event room.” Over eighty years later, the building has been re-imagined as a hub for local entrepreneurs and small businesses.
It was only fitting that we spent a weekend celebrating our 9th anniversary in a city that appears to be evolving and reinventing itself. As Charlottesville is proud of its past, so too am I fond of the many memories and experiences Jessica and I have shared together over the years. Things haven’t always been perfect, but we march forward on our adventure together. Our relationship evolves as our life circumstances shift, sometimes abruptly and other times incrementally.
Charlottesville was a time for rest and reflection. Among the monotony and tirelessness of parenting young children, it’s difficult to find time to invest in one another. Constantly caring for young children can be taxing on a marriage relationship. Taking a sabbatical from being primary caregivers is the principal thrill of our anniversary trips, everything else is just gravy. We could be in a Motel 6 eating rubbery bacon and hockey-puck pancakes as part of the continental breakfast and still feel as if we’re livin’ large.
On our way back home, we detoured to hike a short trail on the periphery of Shenandoah National Park. The tranquil setting was the perfect backdrop to dream together about our future endeavors and reminisce over our shared experiences. Simple conversation was enough to reminded ourselves of why we like spending time with each other. Rooted and renewed, we made our way back to Alexandria feeling optimistic about the days ahead.