Washington in Winter: Cool Mount Vernon

Mount Vernon, George Washington's impressive Virginia estate, was never on a short list of things to see. But working near the area it seemed like a reasonable way to spend a Sunday afternoon. I went with few expectations - I’m sure it’s “interesting” and filled with dry historical information, right? - but I came away with a deeper, more profound appreciation for the turbulent times our country faced when it was founded; not to mention a huge amount of respect for what our fore-bearers had to contend with, and how they overcame obstacles and created success – and by today’s accounting of humanity, well, I doubt many people now would have succeeded then.

There is a surprising amount of things to do at Mount Vernon, quite frankly a terrific value for the standard $17 admission fee including the grounds, the museum, the rotating exhibits, and the house itself. There’s also a restaurant on site which, though not spectacular, does provide good food at decent prices. If you’re the kind of person who likes to spend money, the extensive gift shop has everything Washington: from kitschy refrigerator magnets to high end tableware and books: lots and lots of books about the man.

I visited in the cool of February when the spectacular gardens were not leafed out, an elegant desolateness to the place, perched on a hill above the Potomac River as if God himself had decreed it should be so. The estate has large wide paths for walking and strolling with plenty of room for strollers and wheelchairs. It's peaceful out here; a softness in the brisk winter breeze when the summer crowds are not yet in full force.
The Slave Cabin

The Potomac opens up before you a vast shimmering soft patch of blue and it’s clear why Washington would have made this patch of heaven his patch of heaven. You can head down to the wharf and stand on the banks of the Potomac, imagining how this river might have been over 200 years ago. Nearby is a slave cabin (Washington had many slaves who were only set free after his death) a small dirt floored cabin holding on average a family of 6. Though this is a replica, it will give you a good feel of the tight, uncomfortable quarters slaves had to live in, all while serving our first president.

Originally at about 8,000 acres, the estate was a land grant from the King of England to the Washington family in 1674 - must be nice to have those kinds of connections, which ironically failed the King ‘round about 1776. The property Washington inherited from his father was a small house which George added to considerably creating the house you visit today, close to what it was like in the 1790s. The parlor, kitchen, Washington’s office, and bedrooms are all on display. Outside there is the smoke house, greenhouse, coach house, farms, livestock, orchards and plantings…well, it goes on and on. In essence Mount Vernon in its day was run like a small corporation: lots of people, lots of buildings, and lots of management of a multitude of businesses including his distillery and farming and fishing operations. Much like today’s presidents, he had money, and lived quite well.

That aside, the best of travel is that unexpected moment when you're blindsided by a stunning sight, the taste of a certain food, a spiritual encounter, or an emotional moment.
At one point while in the last room on the tour - Washington’s office, just after my tour group had filed out - a docent described the transition from Washington’s presidency into actual democracy. Rather than a succession of kings and kingdoms and tedious run-on rule he desired a new form of government. As she mentioned that Washington did not seek absolute power but was concerned about the transition of that power, I became so moved by the simplicity of this altruism, which is the basis for our democracy that I became teary eyed. I told the docent she was making me cry. The docent too gets teary-eyed, as does my wife; three people impacted by the potential of humanity some 200+ years after it occurred. It is one of those moments you cannot script and you cannot expect. Such is the power of visiting a place: the ability of a moment to transcend a mere tourist attraction and embed in you a lasting memory. Washington died in 1799, too young as it turns out, a mere 67, yet leaving a legacy which we hold invaluable if not perhaps a little idolized.
The Liquor Box - empty!

Photos of the interiors are forbidden (yeah, well except for the shot I took of the liquor cabinet - I’m a travel writer, damn it!) but you can shoot anything outside. This is not a high-energy visit, you won’t be slammed with overload and stimulation – this is low key. Your kids can run around on George Washington’s lawn while you sit in a rocking chair pondering the Potomac. The house tours move quickly: 20 minutes when busy, a relaxed 30 minutes when it’s not busy.

But taken in its totality, Mount Vernon is a remarkable experience, one which, if you’re like me, took decades to attend to, but one which I’m glad I finally did.


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