Road Rules

We were on the last weary legs of our vacation. We'd spent much of the previous day on the road back from Myrtle Beach, S.C., including about two hours searching for a hotel vacancy anywhere in West Virginia. When we finally found a place in Charleston, there was only one king bed. But we were tired, it was late, and the SUV's interior light wouldn't shut off, so two adults and three kids found a way to fit.

We were about three hours from home and right on time for a midafternoon arrival when my wife said, "I want to stop in Marietta. Let's see the river."

Maybe we could stop for an hour or so, I thought. So we pulled off I-77 and parked by the historic Lafayette Hotel, which, we discovered, was built in 1918 and named after Marquis de Lafayette who visited in 1825. We'd been trapped in the car too long, so we strolled through Bicentennial Plaza (the town was the first permanent settlement in the Northwest Territory) and lingered along the edge of the Ohio River. We peered into storefronts along Front Street. Although it was Sunday and many of the shops were closed, the girls were drawn to Twisted Sisters Boutique, a funky shop that would be at home in Tremont. There they found stylish Vera Bradley makeup bags that they decided were perfect back-to-school pencil cases.

Purchases in hand, we took the rusty pedestrian bridge across the Muskingum River to the Harmar Historic District, where the kids played their way through Whipple's Whimsical Toys. Housed in two old train cars, the collection of vintage toys, including retro Barbie dolls and games you last saw in your mother's basement, begs you to be a kid again. But our favorite find was in the window of Wilson Heating: two rows of whimsical recycled lath art — Larry Wilson's brightly painted cows in a slightly American Gothic pose, the little dog from Hey Diddle Diddle and figures that had influences of Picasso. At $15 each, we bought three.

Our few hours in Marietta was the perfect cap to our vacation. It's also a lesson that applies to this month's cover story: There's time left for a great quick trip or long weekend. And sometimes the best moments come when you turn off the GPS and just explore.

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