Posted: Sunday, July 21, 2013 12:00 am | Updated: 6:24 am, Mon Jul 22, 2013.

Richmond Times-Dispatch

As he pondered the meaning of life on a bench in Staunton's Gypsy Hill Park - which, for the record, is just a few blocks west of U.S. 11 - Mark Cline decided he didn't want to grow up to be a bum.

That's not the most momentous resolution ever made, but for a rudderless kid just out of high school it was big. He visited an employment office where he was directed to a summer job that taught him about plaster, fiberglass and molds, which, combined with creativity, humor and a deep reservoir of dreams, ultimately led to this:

Enchanted Castle Studios, a madly mirthful place on the side of U.S. 11, between Lexington and Natural Bridge, that behind the wooden privacy fence looks more like a wacky scientist's boneyard inhabited with creatures that, in some cases, defy description. Frankenchicken?! You know you've come to the right place when you spot, parked on the side of a road, a red pickup with a dinosaur in the back.

Cline, 52, has made a home for himself and his creations along U.S. 11: not only monsters and dinosaurs, but also King Kong, Stonewall Jackson and Foamhenge, the plastic foam reproduction of Stonehenge he constructed on a nearby hillside in 2004 as an April Fools' joke. It became so popular he couldn't take it down.

"Route 11 has presented itself as a canvas to me," Cline said.

RT 11 section from Harrisonburg to Roanoke, VA.

When we last left you, we were "headed down the road" from Harrisonburg toward Staunton and beyond following our first installment. As several readers pointed out, when it comes to traveling the Valley Road you're actually going "up" when you venture south because of the valley's rise in elevation from north to south.

So, we went up the valley. The 30-mile ride between Harrisonburg and Staunton is quiet and pretty. You can jump off the road at Mount Crawford, cross over Interstate 81 and drive a couple of miles to the Green Valley Bookfair, a massive discount book outlet on an old family farm that is a delightful way to spend a few hours.

There's additional impressive commerce on U.S. 11 near Weyers Cave, where we stopped at Rocky's Gold & Silver, and met Rocky himself. Rocky Simonetti has been in business since 1969, though he believes his true start came in 1958 when he founded the Shenandoah Valley Coin Club at age 14.

We eased through the communities of Mount Sidney, Fort Defiance and Verona before reaching Staunton, a lovely city of 24,000 where you find not only history and a down-home vibe but also a magnificent public park - the aforementioned Gypsy Hill Park that one native suggested is "as key to Staunton as Central Park is to New York City" - and Shakespeare.

The Blackfriars Playhouse, designed by Richmond architect Tom McLaughlin, now deceased, is the world's only re-creation of Shakespeare's indoor playhouse. Opened in 2001, it attracts theatergoers and scholars from around the world.

"If Shakespeare really was a genius, he was writing his plays for a particular kind of theatrical environment, so we thought if we could go back and re-create those staging conditions we could uncover some of the magic in the plays that sometimes gets lost when you play with all the technology and tricks we've invented in the last 400 years," said Jim Warren, artistic director and co-founder of the American Shakespeare Center, which calls Blackfriars home and is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

The playhouse is surrounded by Staunton's historic downtown. The renovated Stonewall Jackson Hotel is next door, and just around the corner is Beverly Street, a nice stroll with its collection of shops and restaurants.

Staunton also offers the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum and the Frontier Culture Museum. As you head south from downtown, you pass local sculptor Willy Ferguson's giant watering can and flowerpots, the old Western State Hospital that's been transformed into condos, and a Staunton tradition: Wright's Dairy-Rite, an old drive-in with curb service. A little farther south, we came to Kathy's Restaurant, at the intersection of U.S. 11 and Statler Boulevard (the Statler Brothers, of course, being another Staunton institution) where the pancakes are famous and breakfast is served all day. We met owner Kathy Lacey, who opened the place in 1986, and her 88-year-old mom, Ellen Anderson, who had stopped by to drop off a few apple pies she'd baked that morning.

Walter and Ingrid Moore came way west - she from Germany, he from Austria - to operate the Edelweiss German Restaurant at the intersection of U.S. 11 and state Route 340, just south of Staunton. It's appropriate cuisine for this part of Virginia, which was settled in the 18th and 19th centuries largely by German and Scots-Irish immigrants.

Ingrid opened the restaurant with her first husband, and in 1990, she married Walter, a retired school teacher who came to America in 1957 at age 13 with his Austrian mother and American stepfather who was in the military and stationed at Fort Lee.

On the way to Lexington, just before crossing I-81 again, we passed Timber Ridge Presbyterian Church, a stone structure built in 1756, and a historic marker noting the birthplace of Sam Houston, who found fame as commander in chief of the Texas army that won Texan independence in 1836.

Before reaching downtown, you will find the Devils Backbone brewery on a hillside above the road. The craft-beer company originated in Nelson County but opened the Lexington operation in early 2012. Already, earth-movers are clearing land for an expansion.

You can tour the brewery and, in the tap room, taste the results, including DB's flagship beers: Eight Point IPA and the award-winning Vienna Lager, both of which are available across Virginia.

Lexington has a wonderful downtown, fine neighborhoods and, of course, two colleges - next-door neighbors Virginia Military Institute and Washington and Lee University - to boost the economy and public discourse.

Headed for a late-afternoon treat at Sweet Things Ice Cream Shoppe, we encountered our old friend Mike Strickler. We have known Strickler for years in his various roles at VMI: from sports information director to secretary to the board of visitors. He told us he was about to retire after 38 years at the school. Throw in his four years as a VMI student, and he's spent serious time in Lexington.

"My wife and I simply love the area," said Strickler, a native of Virginia Beach. "Its sheer beauty is enough reason to live here. We raised our two children in Rockbridge County and Lexington. It is a throwback to the ‘50s. Crime is almost nonexistent, churches thrive, and parents either drop children off or they walk to a downtown movie. There is a considerable diversity among area residents, and people just seem to get along well."

The pears won't start coming in until later this summer, but Paul and YoungSuk Estabrook were home when we stopped at their Virginia Gold Orchard, just north of Natural Bridge. The Estabrooks raise Asian pears, a rare variety in Virginia, but popular among those who know to seek them out.

Paul Estabrook learned about the fruit while working in Korea as an engineer on a power-plant project.

YoungSuk Estabrook's family had pear orchards for generations, but she wasn't involved in the farming until she married Paul and they came to the United States and started an orchard in New Hampshire. After a couple of crops, the Estabrooks determined the growing season was too short in New Hampshire, so in 1990 they relocated to Rockbridge County. Now they have about 2,500 trees, selling pears on-site and through mail order.

Just south of the Estabrooks is Natural Bridge, a privately owned landmark that recently was put up for sale. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-6th, has asked the National Park Service to study whether it would be possible to add Natural Bridge to the park system. U.S. 11 actually runs across the top of Natural Bridge, though there's no great sensation attached to driving over it since fences on each side of the road limit the view.

A cloudburst had just moved through Buchanan when we arrived in the town a dozen miles south of Natural Bridge. You have to excuse local residents who get a little nervous when a hard rain falls. Buchanan, on a horseshoe bend in the James River, was devastated in November 1985 by a flood caused by the remnants of Hurricane Juan.

"It really just destroyed the people's spirit," said Harry Gleason, Buchanan's Downtown Revitalization Program manager who was hired in 1995 and has overseen the town's rebirth.

In the almost three decades since the flood, buildings have been renovated, and people and businesses have moved back into the historic downtown. The town of 1,200 boasts a grand old movie house from a bygone era that's been restored and a soda fountain at Ransone's Drug Store. Any resemblance to fictional Mayberry is purely coincidental, though Mayor Larry Hall's cellphone ringtone is the theme from "The Andy Griffith Show."

Buchanan gained prominence in the late 1800s as the western terminus of the James River and Kanawha Canal. The river still plays an important role in the life of the town, now as a place for kayaking and canoeing. Buchanan's signature attraction is the 366-foot swinging bridge that spans the James. Portions of the stone pillars date to the original 1851 covered bridge of the old Valley Road.

Oh, and the town's name is pronounced BUCK-cannon.

We arrived in Roanoke in the evening, so we headed directly to Mill Mountain, where we found the famous 100-foot-tall illuminated star and an unparalleled view of the city at sunset.

The next morning, we went downtown for a quick stop at the Virginia Museum of Transportation, which seemed appropriate since Roanoke grew up around the railroad (though it no longer has passenger rail service). The museum has a terrific collection, including steam locomotives that leave you in awe.

We wandered through the farmers market and stepped into Sunnyside Barber Shop where I.C. Harris has been cutting hair since 1959. Back then, the shop had four chairs, but now he works alone.

He's lived through downtown's glory days as a shopping destination, its decline when outlying shopping malls came along and now its rebirth. Business has picked up in recent times as people move back downtown, and he expects things to get only better "now that they've finished Center in the Square. It's something else."

Center in the Square opened in 1983 as a downtown cultural center, a home for arts and science organizations in a revitalized old building. It reopened again in May after a $30 million renovation that changed not only the face of the five-story building but also added two floors, providing one of the best views in downtown from the new "green" rooftop.

Center is home to a history museum, a science museum, a museum of African-American culture, a theater, opera, fish, turtles, butterflies and a soaring atrium that is far more welcoming than in the past.

"The atrium was a gray carpeted area with a reception desk with a guard, so you didn't know if you were in a bank building or a hospital," said Jim Sears, Center's president and general manager. "It was quiet. Now when kids hit the door they take off screaming and yelling because they see things (such as aquariums) to become involved in. It's great."

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