The first time I visited my friend Tristan's childhood home in Louisa, a small town in central Virginia, back in 2006, I was intimidated by the prospect of meeting his dad, David. I don't remember what Tristan told me about his dad to fill me with fear, but David wasn't like any other dad I'd met before. He seemed to be the opposite of my dad: a straight shooter, a bit gruff with hints of jokey, sage, humble, not exactly reserved but not chatty either, impressively mustachioed. We didn't talk much; I mostly watched from the sidelines as he picked on his sons. (Good entertainment, that is.)
My most memorable exchange with him during the trip came the morning I was leaving. Before getting in the car with Tristan, I spotted David sitting on a chair on the front porch. I moseyed over to give David a goodbye hug; in return, I received a warm, intimidation-obliterating hug, the kind that made me realize David was, in addition to everything else I already mentioned, a big ol' teddy bear of a guy. A teddy bear with an impressive mustache. If David had been testing me during the trip, the hug made me think I had passed. He definitely passed my hug test.
David Jones died of a heart attack on May 30. He was 66 years old—he should've had a few more decades of peaceful farm living to go. If there's to be a silver lining, judging from the full-capacity turnout at his funeral and the heartfelt speeches given by family and friends, he lived a full, happy life.
Even though I didn't know David very well, his death has rattled me more than any other. It took me a while to realize the sting of his death isn't just a product of his absence, but the devastating effect it has on the family who lost a husband and a father. David and I may not have had much in common, but one thing I'm sure about is that we loved the same family. There's no other family besides my own that I'm closer to than the Joneses, and it's hard to imagine any other family could take that role. During the few days before and after the funeral, thinking about the pain they were all going through—Tristan, his younger brother, Fletcher, and his mom, Kris—would send me into tears. Realizing I'd never see David again just felt cosmically wrong.
I headed down to Louisa about a month ago for David's funeral. From 2006 to 2011, I visited the Joneses' home once every year. (Regretfully, I haven't blogged about my trips there since 2009, although I doubt this surprises anyone because I'm the embodiment of slow.) I wish it hadn't taken David's funeral to get me down to Louisa for the first time in two years, but I'm grateful I got to see old friends and be a welcome presence, even if I couldn't do much to help besides be there. (Tristan's childhood friend Nathan, on the other hand, is a saint. He flew in from California, gave a moving speech at the service, and was an all-around dependable, comforting friend. Tristan better stay friends with him forever and beyond.) This most recent visit just cemented the status of the Joneses' home as one of my favorite places on earth. The Jones family is a uniquely warm, welcoming, fun family, with the house, farm, and animals to match. I'm incredibly lucky to know them.
In remembrance of David, I'm recounting some of my favorite places and activities from my visits to Louisa over the last seven years. They're mostly not related to David, but I'll fondly remember him as a part of every visit.
The Joneses' Kitchen
If I had a kitchen as cozy and homey as the Joneses' kitchen—aka my favorite kitchen ever—maybe I'd feel compelled to cook more often. (And then maybe my cooking would be elevated past its current level of, "I'll eat it, but I wouldn't feed it to anyone whose respect I want to retain.") Preparing food with David (the chef of the house) and friends in the kitchen—erm, ok, watching David and my friends prepare food in the kitchen—was always a highlight. During David's funeral, home cooking took a backseat to the deluge of pies and lasagnas donated by friends and all the ham biscuits you could ever want from Obrigado.
But the kitchen isn't just for cooking and eating; it's the social hub of the house. Some of my favorite kitchen memories are small things—hobbling downstairs in the morning, pajama-clad, wondering if I was the last one to wake up (answer: probably); getting valuable chatting-with-Kris time at the dining table; petting Hoppy, always eager for attention; watching the cats zip through, eager to avoid my attention; listening to an impromptu serenade from Tristan; just staring out the window and thinking what a lovely place I was in.
Farm Fresh Food
If you're visiting a sheep farm, you've gotta taste the goods. And the goods, they are tasty—some of the most tender, flavorful lamb I've ever had.
The Joneses also grow vegetables and raise chickens for eggs. Simple dishes like salads or scrambled eggs are nothing exciting my home, but here, they're a treat.
Campfire / S'mores Time
I wish more late night hang-out sessions could be as peaceful as sitting around a crackling fire in the Joneses' yard. With s'mores, of course. (I'm not a huge s'mores fan, but gathering 'round a campfire doesn't feel right without them. Also, I like lighting marshmallows on fire and watching them blister and burn as their innards turn into the best sweet goo ever.) And maybe Toto as the soundtrack. That's how we—Tristan and Fletcher surrounded by friends—capped off the night of David's funeral.
As someone who didn't grow up with pets, a home of aloof cats and one loving dog is exciting stuff. The cats mostly stay outdoors and do their independent cat thing, but Hoppy...oh Hoppy. She's one of the friendliest dogs I've ever met—calm-friendly, not hyperactive-"CAN I JUMP ON YOUR FACE HUH CAN I"-friendly. (Not that the latter is bad; I just don't know how to handle hyperactive dogs.)
She must've been hurting during David's funeral, but maybe being showered with attention from all the visitors made her feel a little better. After the funeral she hung out on the porch with us and we showered her with a good dose of attention. One of the cats, Logan, joined in, too. (At least I think that's his name. I don't remember the names of all the cats. No wonder they don't love me.) If you've never hung out on a sunny porch while swaying in a rocking chair and facing a cornfield with loyal pets by your side, I do recommend it. It's bucolic to the extreme.
And let's not forget about the sheep, chickens, and turkeys, even though they're more for eating than petting.
The Louisa County Agricultural Fair
Each year, the biggest event in Louisa is the annual three-day Agricultural Fair. There you'll find beautiful prize-winning local produce, livestock raised by kids from around the county, live music, quirky contests (Watermelon Seed Spitting Contest, Hay Bale Toss Contest, Corn Hole Tournament, etc.), the two major fair food groups of funnel cake and pulled pork, and more.
The last time I went to the Ag Fair was in 2009, Fletcher's final year presenting his sheep before heading to college. Four years didn't feel that long ago until I realized Fletcher just graduated college last month, which makes those four years seem far more significant. Jeez, time, you've gotta slow the hell down, I AM NOT READY FOR THE FUTURE [frantically swats at the air].
Cedar Run Hike / Rock Slide
Despite that my sedentary body doesn't take well to hiking or any other form of strenuous activity (I'm rather slow and prone to wheezing), I do look forward to the ritual of hiking a section of the Cedar Run trail. My favorite part of the hike is when, after about an hour of bathing in my own sweat and not at all absorbing the lush, verdant surroundings because I'm too busy focusing on putting my feet in the right spots and maintaining oxygen intake, we stop at the rock slide and I can proceed to do nothing. Including not slide down the smooth, sloping rock that everyone else is clamoring to do so they can wash off their outer layers of sweat and grime.
It wasn't until my fourth visit in 2011 that I finally experienced the slide's wrath. It wasn't as scary as it looked, but I only did it once because being thrown into a pool of icy water just doesn't fall under my list of "Stuff I Want To Be Subjected To Repeatedly." Yup, I know I'm a wuss. But I'm happy to go back on the trail so I can relax in Mother Nature's peaceful, sun-dappled bosom while watching my friends slide down the rock, screech as they hit the water, and emerge shocked and shivering.
Doughnuts from Spudnut
Spudnut in Charlottesville is the best old school doughnut shop I've ever been to. The potato flour-enhanced doughnuts (hence the potato-themed name) are light, fluffy, soft as an angel's bum, and unhindered by grease. Couple those qualities with the cheap price tag (as low as 50¢ each if you buy a dozen, as of two years ago, a price I'm guessing hasn't risen much since) and you have no reason to not eat a boatload of them. Just make sure to get there early—before noon, but ideally earlier—because they sell out quickly.
309 Avon St, Charlottesville, VA 22902 (map)
Jinx's Pit's Top Barbecue
Jinx's Pit's Top Barbecue is where I've eaten the most fat- and juice-dripping, rich, floppily tender pulled pork ever, made by a most eccentric pitmaster, James "Jinx" Kern. It's a rare, soul-enriching combination of amazing food and amazing host at far too reasonable prices. Don't be fooled by the ramshackle exterior. (Actually, that's the sort of thing that attracts me. Maybe you, too.) Inside it's a welcoming burst of retro flair and tchochkes...and smoky, slow-cooked pork.
If you're in Charlottesville, you must visit Jinx's. But you should call first, lest you encounter this:
I'm so thankful that Chichi wrote about Jinx's when we first visited it back in 2010. READ HER POST; I could never do Jinx's as much justice. Chichi captured everything perfectly, then magnified the perfection to super extra perfectionness, thus requiring me to use a made-up word.
After that, read C-Ville Weekly's excellent feature on James.
Louisa Trip, Day 3 and 4: The Agricultural Fair, and Awesome Lamb (Then Back to NYC)
Louisa Trip, Day 2: Hiking, Soft Serve, and a Giant Frittata
Charlottesville, Day 4: Donuts, Jumping, and Runaway Lamb Nubbins
Charlottesville, Day 3: Mexican, Hot Chocolate Break, and Vietnamese
Virginia, Day 4: My Favorite Kitchen and Obrigado
Virginia, Day 3: Part 2, Polyface Farm and Water Ice
Virginia, Day 3: Part 1, Camping and the Louisa County Agricultural Fair
Virginia, Day 2: Part 2, with Korean Food and Gelato
Virginia, Day 2: Part 1, with a Rock Slide
Virginia Trip, Day 1: Touchdown in Louisa
A belly full of Virginia love