If you're planning a trip into the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah Valley , you won't find a more proud or historic town than Lexington, Va. Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. (Stonewall) Jackson chose Lexington as their final residences, and the presence of the South's two favorite heroes still influences the atmosphere and spirit of this small community.
Named for the Revolutionary Massachusetts village, Lexington actually resembles a Berkshires town with its old inns, parklike residential streets, and two traditional colleges. This is not the South of the Cavalier planter, but that of the hardworking Scots-Irish frontiersman. The townsfolk are proud of native-sons Cyrus McCormick, James Gibbs, and Matthew Maury, inventors respectively of the reaper, the sewing machine, and oceanography. But they cherish more the two Confederate leaders who made Lexington home.
There are plenty of motels on nearby Interstate 81, but it's more fun to stay at downtown places like the 1809 McCampbell Inn or the 1789 Alexander-Withrow House. You can walk to all the sights, beginning with the Lexington Visitor Center at 107 East Washington Street to obtain free guides.
Just up the hill is Stonewall Jackson's home. The general came to Lexington in 1851 to teach physics at the neighboring Virginia Military Institute. The three-story brick house has been restored with such authenticity that Jackson's razor rests on the bedroom night stand, which he put there after promising not to shave until the war was won. It is a simple home except for the parlor piano, an exorbitant honeymoon gift, considering his meager teacher's salary.
Winding footpaths climb the hills to Washington & Lee University's Front Campus, an impressive succession of columned and pilastered buildings. George Washington endowed this oldest inland college in the nation, and George's wooden image in a Roman toga tops the highest cupola. The campus, however, belongs to Robert E. Lee, who chose to finish his life rebuilding the school after the Civil War.
Facing the campus buildings all alone is Lee Chapel, planned by the general as a student church, but now an unpretentious shrine and museum. The upstairs chapel features the inspiring ''Recumbent Statue of Lee,'' by Edward Valentine, but equally emotional is the basement office left exactly as it was on the day of Lee's death.
The West Point of the South, Virginia Military Institute, is a short walk and a life style away. The massive treeless parade ground is surrounded by the Gen. George C. Marshall Library, the Jackson Memorial Hall, and the institutional caverns of the vast dormitories.
The public heads first to the memorial's rustic assembly hall, where an enormous painting honoring the 257 student cadets at the 1864 Battle of New Market hangs before a sea of military flags. The downstairs VMI Museum exhibits Jackson's Little Sorrel, saddled and ready, and the bullet-torn rubber raincoat worn by Jackson that fatal night at Chancellorsville. The Marshall Library honors not just the career of the American chief of staff during World War II, but also the American soldier.
Lexington is not just history: Two of Virginia's most scenic natural wonders, Natural Bridge and Goshen Gorge, are nearby. The 215-foot-high limestone arch, once purchased by Thomas Jefferson for 20 shillings, is one of the most photographed attractions in the nation. On a shady walk under the bridge, you can look up the wall at the ''G.W.'' carved by an enthusiastic young surveyor who went on to be President.
Twenty miles northwest, Route 39 cuts into mountainous Goshen Gorge, where the Maury River cascades through George Washington National Forest. In the fall, the picnic grounds overlooking the gorge is a beautiful spot. For hikers, Chessie Nature Trail provides a 20-mile footpath along Lexington's old C&O railbed into the Blue Ridge.
Nature has endowed Lexington with an attractive setting, but it has been the dedication to tradition and honor by its favorite sons that makes this small town such an interesting place to visit.
Robert E. Lee once told a new student who wanted the campus rule book, ''We have but one rule here, and it is that every student must be a gentleman.'' Lexington's institutions and people still embody this belief.