Saturday, October 26: After our hike at Douthat State Park, we head to the town of Lexington to see the two universities that sit side by side in the town, and to celebrate my birthday with wine and dinner at Bistro on Main.
We make our first stop at Virginia Military Institute (VMI). Founded in 1839, VMI is the nation’s first state-supported military college.
According to VMI: Historical Development of VMI: Early in VMI history, Colonel Preston declared that the Institute’s unique program would produce “fair specimens of citizen-soldiers,” and this observation has been substantiated by the service of VMI graduates in peace and war. Since the Institute was founded, VMI alumni have fought in every war involving the United States, starting with the Mexican War just four years after VMI graduated its first class.
VMI alumni continue to serve their nation with 266 having achieved the rank of General or Flag officer in the Armed Forces of the United States and several foreign countries, most notably Thailand and the Republic of China. During World Wars I and II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, over 300 alumni gave the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country, and two alumni were killed during Operation Desert Storm. Two VMI alumni were among those killed on September 11, 2001 in the terrorist attacks on America and 12 alumni have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
After leaving VMI, we go right next door to the private Washington and Lee University. Though the campuses are neighbors, they are as dissimilar as two places can be.
Founded in 1749, Washington & Lee University is named for two of the most influential men in American history: George Washington, whose generous endowment of $20,000 in 1796 helped the fledgling school (then known as Liberty Hall Academy) survive, and Robert E. Lee, whose presidency and innovative leadership brought the University into the national limelight.
On the campus grounds is the R.E. Lee Memorial Church, founded in 1840. It’s part of the Episcopal Diocese of SW Virginia. It has a labyrinth for meditation, something that has always fascinated me.
According to a pamphlet available beside the labyrinth: The labyrinth is a form of walking meditation, introspection, prayer, contemplation, and even stress management. It is important to know that no two experiences are the same. The Labyrinth is not a maze. There are not choices to make; every turn is a part of the path. The path leads steadily to the center even though from time to time, you will appear to be moving away from it. Some people find the walk consists of three stages: first, releasing or letting go of the details of your life, which quiets the mind. Second, receiving insights and discernment, which usually happens at the center, a place of reflection, meditation and prayer. Third, returning, with new understanding to the world.
I don’t walk the labyrinth this evening as it’s getting dark. But I have walked labyrinths before in various Episcopal churches and I’ve always found it a very powerful experience.
Surprisingly, we come across the grave of Traveller, Robert E. Lee’s most famous horse during the Civil War. Traveller was a horse of great stamina who was difficult to frighten. However, during the Second Battle of Bull Run, he was frightened and lunged, causing Lee to fall and break both of his hands (Wikipedia: Traveller (horse)).
In 1870, during Lee’s funeral procession, Traveller was led behind the caisson bearing the General’s casket, his saddle and bridle draped with black crepe. Not long after Lee’s death, in 1871, Traveller stepped on a nail and developed tetanus. There was no cure, and he was shot to relieve his suffering.
Traveller’s bones went from being buried behind the main buildings of the college to being bleached and displayed in Rochester, New York. Later, they were moved back to the college and displayed in the Brooks Museum, now Robinson Hall on the campus; there, they were vandalized by students who carved their names in the bones for good luck. They were moved in 1929 to Lee Chapel’s basement, where they stood for 30 years, deteriorating from exposure.
Finally in 1971, Traveller’s remains were buried in a wooden box encased in concrete next to the Lee Chapel on the campus, a few feet away from the Lee family crypt inside, where his master’s body rests. The stable where he lived his last days, directly connected to the Lee House on campus, traditionally stands with its doors left open; this is said to allow his spirit to wander freely.
We head into the charming town of Lexington, where we take a little drive through the streets.
At Bistro on Main, we find a reservation is necessary, and we don’t have one. No tables are available, so we sit at the bar, where it’s much more lively and convivial than a private table. I order a glass of wine and Mike and Alex order special microbrew beers. I order Shrimp and Grits – cheddar grits, mushrooms, scallions, garlic, & white wine cream sauce. Yum! Mike orders Four Cheese Spinach Lasagna – with a tomato basil cream sauce, and garlic crustini. Alex order his first ever Duck Breast – pan seared, blackberry sauce, Parmesan roasted potatoes and vegetable of the day.
The bartender, who is very charming, tells Alex that he better to be prepared to join Duck-lovers Anonymous, a special group for people who get hopelessly addicted to duck. We talk later about the waiter; Alex and I both wish we were more like him. I point out that Alex himself seemed quite charming while the waiter was in our company. We agreed that some people we meet in life naturally bring out the best in us. 🙂