There are five high schools in my county, and every spring the juniors at each one develop a very particular kind of restlessness. As their glorious last year — and the reality of college and the future — approaches, they all make the same passionate declaration.
“I can’t wait to get out of Stafford,” they say.
And who can blame them? At seventeen, almost everybody is more than ready to leave home to see some of the wide-open world — and Stafford County doesn’t seem, at first glance, to offer up an embarrassment of regional riches. This is a suburb only recently grown out of real country. It’s a land of subdivisions and strip malls and second-tier chain restaurants. We don’t have an Olive Garden, but by gosh we have a Chile’s and an Applebee’s!
Now add to this the fact that very few people seem to be from Stafford, in the conventional sense. Plenty of people live here, and plenty of people grow up here, but there’s a strong sense that your average resident is really just based here. Their family’s stationed at Quantico, or they’ve decided to make their increasingly lengthy and traffic-plagued commutes to DC from here. Stafford is a place they live, but it isn’t really their home.
For better or for worse, it happens to be mine. I’ve lived here since I was three, in the same townhouse that’s walking distance from a library and every public school I’ve ever attended. My family was here before most of the housing developments, almost all of the retail establishments, and eight of the schools. Our roots may not sink deeply into the history of this place, but here they are.
Depending on your relationship with American history, everyone’s roots are here — George Washington and George Mason both grew up in Stafford, and Pocahontas lived here for a while. Aquia Harbour, today a subdivision (go figure), saw one of the Civil War’s earliest naval battles. This is a place not at all far from Chancellorsville, Manassas, Spotsylvania, and the Wilderness. I spent large chunks of my childhood weekends driving out to one battlefield or another, staring at historical markers and empty meadows and the living past.
Fredericksburg, with its own abundantly varied history and modern attractions, is only half an hour’s drive south. I’m especially fond of wandering around Old Town and watching the antiquers and tourists; you can always tell the visitors by the conventional way they say Sophia Street (the “i” is pronounced like the first-person pronoun. No one seems to know why).
DC, of course, is entirely its own self — but it’s close enough for familiarity, and that’s something to appreciate. I’ve never seen the Pacific Ocean or Mount Rushmore (or even Disney World), but before I was ten I had a favorite museum (American History) and a favorite monument (Jefferson’s). There are people who go decades or even their whole lives without seeing the nation’s capital, but I’ve always known it as a neighbor.
Stafford seems cursed by its proximity to these cities. We never have been, and never will be, as dynamic or exciting or important as they are. But we are not without our own distinct — if often hidden — charms.
Stafford Marketplace is, in my opinion, probably the best thing that ever happened to this county. I remember the days when you had to drive to Fredericksburg to shop at Target or drink a Frappaccino. Call me a slave to the modern commercial machine, but it’s the closest thing we have to a community center — and even people in a place where no one’s from still want somewhere to go.
There also happen to be plenty of independent businesses that help show a more local side of Stafford. I’ve had gallons of excellent coffee at Before and After, and Lin’s Gourmet is the perfect cheap Chinese place (some of us even had junior prom dinner there). Bella Cafe is famous for its live music scene, and Smyrna Mediterranean Cafe serves the most delicious food in the county, hands down (try their authentically Turkish falafel or the patlican — you only think you don’t like chickpeas and eggplant).
It isn’t as if eating and shopping are your only recreational options here. There are more than ten parks in Stafford, and even in the growing sprawl it’s not difficult to find them. Government Island makes an especially good hike and photo shoot location; Pratt Park has an 18-basket disc golf course, which lets you traipse around the woods while also flinging Frisbees at targets. What’s not to love?
We have a dinner theater that puts on Broadway-style shows, and a full-blown art museum in what was once the artist’s own house. In one small shopping center off Route 1 north, you can eat gelato, build a toy, and buy quilting supplies without re-parking your car. There are two flourishing farmer’s markets, an indoor shooting range, and no real reason to condemn the county as “boring.”
True confessions: I too was ready to shake the dust of Stafford from my feet in high school, and I’ve never been exactly thrilled by the prospect of
living here again — even between semesters.
Everyone goes home for the summer, though.