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Feature Story: Wide Open Spaces

Part I: SPERRYVILLE; At Home in the Valley

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The advice was sound. Soon after 9 a.m., cars had already started filling the parking lot at the foot of the mountain. Horse riders in chaps and families with walking sticks were buying their passes to the Shenandoah National Park, eyes on conquering the nearly eight-mile circuit. I grabbed a map for the easier climb to Corbin Cabin, and set off.

By 11, the flat, rocky trail that led into the woods was far below, parallel to its companion, the Hughes River. The midmorning sun warmed the leaves, and the climb became steeper. Trickles of sweat appeared, but so did a sense of peace. Car horns and cell phones were far away. Only two other people had passed by. Up here, I was alone.

With the bear.

I'd hit my stride when I looked up to see the black fur of the big guy about 30 yards ahead, lumbering along the trail. Perfect. A bear. Well, I'd wanted to be close to nature. Still, I couldn't help but feel a pang in my stomach. I stopped, and searched my mind for the rules about such encounters. Where was Beau when I needed him?



A day earlier, Beau, a friendly, white Labrador, had been the first to greet me, a welcome to the farm where I'd reserved one of two cottages for the weekend. His fellow vineyard dogs — Emma, Shadow and Trever — were oblivious to my arrival, keeled over, asleep, in the hot, heavy air. Beau had been on alert, sitting at the foot of the stairs to the winery's tasting room. That's where I found East.



The rich globes of fruit ready for harvest were brimming in the fields beside Jim East's house. By sundown in the valley, the humid afternoon seemed long past. And the cool night air was settling in. It was the kind of temperature combination that's "good for the grapes," noted East, co-owner of Sharp Rock Vineyards. It was good for sleeping with the windows open too.

By the next morning, the Sunday air in Sperryville was clear and quiet. Perfect for a hike. East, my host for the weekend, had suggested Nicholson Hollow Trail. It was an alternative to the more popular — and sometimes crowded — Old Rag Mountain nearby, a destination an online guide had called a "pilgrimage" for Virginia hikers.

The advice was sound. Soon after 9 a.m., cars had already started filling the parking lot at the foot of the mountain. Horse riders in chaps and families with walking sticks were buying their passes to the Shenandoah National Park, eyes on conquering the nearly eight-mile circuit. I grabbed a map for the easier climb to Corbin Cabin, and set off.

By 11, the flat, rocky trail that led into the woods was far below, parallel to its companion, the Hughes River. The midmorning sun warmed the leaves, and the climb became steeper. Trickles of sweat appeared, but so did a sense of peace. Car horns and cell phones were far away. Only two other people had passed by. Up here, I was alone.

With the bear.

I'd hit my stride when I looked up to see the black fur of the big guy about 30 yards ahead, lumbering along the trail. Perfect. A bear. Well, I'd wanted to be close to nature. Still, I couldn't help but feel a pang in my stomach. I stopped, and searched my mind for the rules about such encounters. Where was Beau when I needed him?



A day earlier, Beau, a friendly, white Labrador, had been the first to greet me, a welcome to the farm where I'd reserved one of two cottages for the weekend. His fellow vineyard dogs — Emma, Shadow and Trever — were oblivious to my arrival, keeled over, asleep, in the hot, heavy air. Beau had been on alert, sitting at the foot of the stairs to the winery's tasting room. That's where I found East.

He'd worked at Sharp Rock for years, and when the owner decided to sell the place a couple of years ago, East watched a string of potential buyers putting in bids. He figured the farm, established by Johannes Yowell and his family in the late 18th century, would be best in his hands. So he took the plunge.

The boutique winery on the 25-acre farm is seven years old, and includes a tasting room open Fridays through Sundays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Guests were there, talking and sipping — perhaps trying the 2004 Chamois Blanc or the 2002 Chardonnay Reserve, which had earned some medals for Sharp Rock.

East left them to their tasting on the upstairs porch, and came down to check me in. His wife, Kathy, paused to say hello on her way out back, camera in hand to snap some photos of her horses. While they talked, Beau offered his paws to shake before collapsing on the ground to roll over for a rub.

Jim took me to the two-story, two-bedroom restored cottage, the farm's oldest building, where I'd be staying. Built around 1790, it had its original pine floors, along with a front porch for watching the mountains and a roomy kitchen. Through the windows, you could see rows of vines, grapes bound for the bottle.

Sperryville, a true "ville" of a place in the Shenandoah Valley, is a two-hour drive northwest of Richmond. I thought I knew Sperryville. It had always been a time-marker for me. On trips back to Luray, where I grew up, it meant only 20 more minutes and I'd be home — just up the mountain to Skyline Drive, and over. Instead of passing through this time, I'd decided to stop.

Full of orchards and wineries, and with only one gas station, Sperryville holds up as more than a pass-through. It can be a destination, a retreat.

Hicksville it's not — despite the now-defunct roadside attraction formerly run by Ben Jones, aka "Cooter" from "Dukes of Hazzard." No, Sperryville's inhabitants are well aware of their proximity to Washington, D.C., and Skyline Drive, and they've capitalized on the traffic. There may be rickety stands selling apples and apple cider and apple butter, and stuff more suitable as fair souvenirs. But they coexist with the area's comfortable bed and breakfasts offering fancy menus and reiki treatments. The town's polishing its Web site, one shopkeeper said. Flint Hill Public House is a few minutes away, and of course there's the famed Inn at Little Washington just up the road, for languishing in luxurious dining.



"I decided where I wanted to live at 9," said Eric Kvarnes, who was greeting visitors to the Glassworks Gallery in town. His family moved here when he was young, and he knew he wanted to stay. Now he's a glassblower and owner of the gallery, a 20-year-old outlet for the Oldway Art Center.

To get to the center, visitors walk across a swaying, red bridge. A salamander scurried across with me, up and over a plank. Inside the center, bold patterns, swirls and colors swam around and into glass vases and sculptures on display. Kvarnes offers his creations with other local artists, who rent out space in the center behind the gallery. Marbles, at 10 cents apiece, were on hand for children to buy.

In downtown Sperryville (which you must say with a grin), life seems to run at a slow but steady pace. On two consecutive afternoons, a man relaxed on the front porch of his home, Christmas lights hanging in wait for the season to roll around again. His police scanner crackled in the background, and he threw up a hand when I walked by.

"It's always good to come back to the mountains," said a woman working on pottery in a studio down the street.

Next door, Andrew J. Haley, who owns the Long View Gallery, took me on a tour of the place. Paintings, sculpture and jewelry — and two of Haley's photographs — filled the first floor of the 215-year-old, restored Amiss House.

Across the street, a shopkeeper checked new inventory at Bioholistic Store, a store owned by Elizabeth Lee, who calls herself a Bioholistic practitioner. The store touts its all-natural philosophy, along with such lines of merchandise as the Dr. Hauschka Organic and BioDynamic Skin Care Products.

Sperryville is a natural place. Even hamburgers aren't just hamburgers here — they're a kind of kobe beef, raised on Sunnyside Farms. Visitors line up for the burgers at this relatively new market, an outpost of Sunnyside, near the Sperryville Antiques Market. Other than burgers, there's all-natural hot sauce, ice cream and a number of other organic foodstuffs.

Speaking of food, the Thornton River Grille offers meals that are priced at the high end, and worth slowing down for. Beef tenderloin was cooked in an open kitchen to perfection, and fellow diners who sampled grilled shrimp and tuna declared it the best they'd had in a long time. A dessert of coconut and chocolate spoonbread was so rich it took three of us to eat it.

There are plenty of options for visitors who drive to Washington or Flint Hill. The Griffin Tavern & Restaurant, located in a restored, Victorian home circa 1890, seemed suited for business-lunchers or tourists on motorcycles, on the porch or in the pub. A watermelon soup was creamy and sweet; traditional shepherd's pie hinted at the British flair, in case people missed the flags.

After the meals, and the slow walks through Sperryville, just when you think it couldn't get any calmer, Sharp Rock Vineyards proved I could relax even more. A book and a sunrise, with coffee cake made fresh by the Easts, was all I needed to wrap up the weekend. That, and a hike.

Which brings me back to the bear. I'd been hiking about 90 minutes when I encountered it. I figured that was as good a time as any to turn around, and head back down the mountain. For the record, park rangers say you should talk, or clap, if you see a bear. Just don't leave food for it — and don't surprise it. No bear has attacked a visitor to Shenandoah National Park, they said.

It's always good to come back to the mountains. Bears and all.

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