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Trip Report An Appalachian Spring Break

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Here in Seattle, winter is clinging to life in spite of the calendar. It was the coldest April on record, and the fourth wettest, which is saying something considering where I'm talking about. Snow pack in the mountains is enormous and evidently continuing to grow - this morning's news said there's over 20 feet of snow on the ground at the Paradise Inn on Mount Rainier (visible from our living room this morning - look fast) and the nearby Crystal Mountain ski resort has no foreseeable closing date set. The tulips are just now blooming on our block, the rhodies are sitting there saying, "Uh, I don't think so."

So it was with a sigh (or a wet burble) of relief that a month ago I committed myself to a one-day conference in Washington DC that was held last week. Ordinarily I don't cherish conferences on the east coast; the benefits seldom match the costs, but then herself announced that she was in one of her if-we-don't-go-somewhere-warm-I'm-going-to-have-a-psychotic-episode moods. Thus okey dokey, it's off to the District.

So let's go a few days ahead of the conference, and then afterward let's run up to New Jersey and see the kids (son and daughter in law in central NJ while she's in medical school.) Plan, done.

Where to go before the conference? A short peruse of various travel boards and sites (present company included) and we land upon something of a Thomas Jefferson - Blue Ridge Parkway itinerary that sounds just fine. Too early for bad bugs or high humidity, but probably warm enough to allow some walks in the woods or even a roadside picnic. We'll go to Monticello, Poplar Forest, the University, maybe see some Civil War sites as the sesquicentennial begins, see Dogwoods and maybe a late-blooming cherry tree next to the Tidal Basin. Tornadoes? Nah.

Then she says she's always wanted to see (but not necessarily stay at) Greenbrier - one of those mega-resorts-with-golf that seem of another age, so I investigate but am somewhat put off by the prominence of place given by the resort's website to the details of the dress code as it applies to dining, common areas, blah blah.

So then I look at the Greenbrier's nearby competition in the mother-ship resort class and land upon the Homestead, in Virginia rather than West Virginia (albeit just in the case of the Greenbrier.) The Homestead seems just as luxe and old fashioned, but doesn't seem to have the same dress code restrictions nor the same all-inclusive pricing as the Greenbrier, plus it seems a little closer to things.

So I book us in for 3 nights, thinking she'll have a massage or two, maybe use the hot springs; maybe I'll look at the driving range. (Golf and I have a 50-year love/hate relationship. Actually, not so much love as… okay, hate. But I feel like I should love it more. Where else can portly older men drive around through a park in a motorized cart and call it "sports?")

Then we'll go into DC, I'll go to my meeting while she Smithsonians something-or-other, then we'll drive up to NJ for the weekend, and fly home from Newark. Done, tickets bought, hotels and car booked, off we go.

* * *

Day 1 (4/21) - We fly from Seattle to Reagan National Airport, arriving at 10 PM, so it's just to a nearby Courtyard in Arlington.

Day 2 (4/22) - We get up late as we're still on west coast time; I go off to the airport to pick up our rental car, then return to the hotel for wife and luggage. When we get back to DC after our tour of the Old Dominion we'll be staying at a Holiday Inn in some part of Arlington I'm not familiar with, so before we hit the road I drive us up to the other area so I can navigate on our return. Done and done, so we head out of town to the south, first stop Fredericksburg.

Because Fredericksburg is relatively close to DC, I elect to take surface streets so we can intercept some place for a late breakfast/early lunch en route. See, it's still Passover and we're trying to remain relatively observant, so while we've packed a box of Matzos we're not too keen on having to put together ad hoc dining on the first day. So I (reluctantly) select US 1 for our route. For the uninitiated, US 1 is basically a strip mall running from Maine to Miami. It ought to be historic and iconic; but it's not. But I figure we can find someplace - even a glorified coffee shop - where we'll be happy with eggs and potatoes, no toast, thanks. What we encounter instead is an overwhelmingly Hispanic (mainly Mexican I think) US 1 strip mall, punctuated with places like McDonalds and Jiffy-Lubes, but darn few Gringo coffee shops. Plenty of places for (what I suspect will be excellent) tamales and rellenos (which we love on all other nights) but nothing very Pesach-friendly. So we make do with an Old Country Buffet somewhere in the sprawl. She's never been to one before, and won't be going back, but baked chicken and mashed potatoes manage to fill the voids.

Fredericksburg is ultimately reached, in the - wait for it - cold rain. WTF?? We check into our hotel, a Residence Inn this time, picked for its kitchen units, then go off to explore the old town center. It's very historic and picturesque, dominated by a big university which I confess neither of us had ever heard of - Mary Washington University (George's mum.) Nice campus, nice residential areas of town. But the rain is coming down harder, so we decide we'll find something to take back for dinner, watch Friday Night Lights and hope for a sunnier Saturday. Items for dinner are acquired at a Wal-Mart that seems to have sucked out the souls of other, lesser, markets in the Fredericksburg area, curtain. In all, kind of a "meh" day, truth be told.

Day 3 (4/23) - Herself has discovered she's left key wardrobe elements sitting safely on her dresser in Seattle, so first stop is at a mall near the Residence Inn (there is never a shortage of malls near Residence Inns, across America) where we prevail in the wardrobe replenishment quest. Then it's off (still on back roads) toward Charlottesville, home of various Jeffersonian edifices including much of the original campus of the University of Virginia, and, of course, Monticello, which neither of us has visited.

In sunshine and 70+ degree weather we take the Constitution Highway toward Charlottesville. The increasingly-beautiful road takes us past the Chancellorsville battlefield, where Stonewall Jackson was killed by friendly fire, and past James Madison's Montpelier mansion, which we choose not to visit when confronted by rather high admission charges. Nearby, however, is a restored cottage formerly occupied by one of Madison's freed slaves. It's a humble little cottage set in a beautiful field. The juxtaposition shacks and mansions, battlefields and wildflowers - is just a taste of sights to come. We nearly hit a bald eagle that swoops in front of our car while trying to harvest some sort of squished varmint in the middle of the road. Hitting a bald eagle in front of James Madison's house… now wouldn't that be a great start to a trip down Constitution Highway?

By and by we arrive at Charlottesville, find our hotel, and head into town to explore the first of our T. Jefferson masterworks, the University of Virginia.

And a masterwork is truly is. Jefferson's infatuation with Palladian architectural style, inflamed by his stay in Paris as Washington's minister, reached its peak with the UVA Rotunda, which is evidently regarded as one of the finest neoclassical buildings in North America, and who am I to argue? What really takes the cake, however, is the set-piece "Lawn" - a quadrangle bordered by the Rotunda on one end and faced by student housing, still in use 200 years after development by Jefferson as an "academic village" (and showing its present life through countless posters and notices stuck on the doors of the student rooms facing the quad. It's definitely 2011 inside the doors even if it's 1811 outside.) The setting is glorious, the buildings gracious and homey at the same time… in all, a remarkable place. One of the student halls has hung a 13-star flag off the balcony. Just so.

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We retire from the University campus to downtown Charlottesville for a stroll through the pedestrian zone and an early meal at a good place called Bizou - salads and meat loaf, and if there are breadcrumbs in the meatloaf please don't tell God. A much better day than the previous. Charlottesville seems one of those college towns (like Eugene, in my own background, or Cambridge Mass. In my wife's) where I imagine a great many college graduates don't ever want to leave. Beautiful, cozy, stimulating.

Day 4 (4/24) - It's Easter but Monticello is open as usual, so we make our way out of Charlottesville a few miles to the twisty road that leads to Jefferson's estate (and which continues a few miles to Ash Lawn, President Monroe's home) through bright sunshine, flowering dogwoods, and light traffic.

The mansion and grounds are everything they're supposed to be. Jefferson was a genius, a visionary, a scholar. Also an aristocrat, a slave owner, a despot, probably a rapist, and a spendthrift. The building itself is, of course, remarkable, idiosyncratic, and surprisingly small - we often forget, it seems, that the American nobility of the 18th Century were mainly farmers, and in Virginia, that meant tobacco and wheat. Cotton, and the cotton slave culture of the deep South, was still decades and an industrial revolution away from Jefferson and his peers.

Still, the grounds are in their springtime glory, the docent is wonderfully well-informed and fairly funny (but tap dances around the Hemings story) and it's a very worthwhile morning spent in the hills above Charlottesville.

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The rest of the day is spent meandering through the hills of west-central Virginia toward Hot Springs and the Homestead. We arrive in time for afternoon tea in the hotel's vast foyer, surrounded by late-leaving families having spent Easter in the grip of Old South gentility, of which there is ample evidence, from the fine china cups to being called "suh" as my tea is served. There are, roughly, ten thousand children making unhappy noises about car rides and school in the morning. Buh-bye.

After checking in we eat dinner - deciding to end Passover a few hours early (don't tell you-know-who) at the Sam Snead Tavern, one of the Homestead's several restaurants. (Sam Snead was the golf pro here, and everything is Sam Snead this or that, from roads to bars.) The food is excellent, the price is astonishing, and we settle in for our three nights in a hotel originally opened in colonial days.

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Days 5-6 (4/25-26)

We spend the next two days exploring the countryside of western Virginia and eastern West Virginia, including forays throughout the Allegheny mountains (The Homestead and Greenbrier) and over to a couple of stints on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the extraordinary linear national park that runs along the entire crest of the Blue Ridge - from Georgia to Pennsylvania. More of that in a minute.

On one of the days we travel to Lynchburg to visit Thomas Jefferson's "other" house, his retreat/farm at Poplar Forest. I confess I frankly was unaware of this other house until a friend with Virginia roots mentioned it in passing recently. Well, glad he did, because this is a real gem of a site for people interested in architecture and the history of this part of the country.

Poplar Forest was built after Monticello, and by all accounts best exhibits Jefferson's views of design at their most mature stage. It's octagonal, as are parts (or all) of his other buildings, with a good deal of interior symmetry. Domed, of course, and full of Jeffersonian touches like triple-hung windows that can double as doorways out to the portico, or dumb waiters, or sleeping alcoves, etc. It's nowhere as big as Monticello, but that's not to its detriment - it has a much more human scale, and even comes close to being "cozy" (or as cozy as one can be when one is dependent on slaves and servants to feed you, farm for you, and otherwise maintain you in your chosen lifestyle.)

The building and lands were sold off after Jefferson's death in order to pay down the huge debts with which he died (took the better part of two generations to clear them) and went through a series of owners who modified, set fire to, or otherwise goofed it up over the following two centuries. The property was acquired by a nonprofit 20 or 30 years ago, and they're slowly restoring it to Jeffersonian condition, using only materials and tools that would have been available in the early 1800s. The interior walls are still open, the floors are in, so they're still several years (and I presume several million dollars) away from completion, but it's a very worthy project.

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The rest of the time we just explored the countryside, reveling in the warm (getting hot and humid) weather. Visited Greenbrier (glad we didn't choose it) and a couple of country parks in the region, but mostly enjoyed the Blue Ridge Parkway and the various valleys and hills in this stunning country. Throughout, we were smitten with the landscape - steep hills with twisty snake roads, plunging into deep valleys with fast-running streams and little waterfalls at the bottoms. Dogwood, Redbud and other trees painting the hillsides pink and white, new-leaf green everywhere else.

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And then there are the settlements. Thousands of churches, everywhere. Old log cabins chinked with yellow mud next to tornado-magnet trailer encampments. Mill towns (like Covington, the closest major community to The Homestead) with poverty written all over the vacant main streets. Virtually no restaurants, because who has money to eat out? And then the big mansion on the hill - maybe old, maybe not, but definitely not your working-class digs. A fair number of Confederate flags flying, still jarring to this member of a generation who remembers Selma and Wallace.

…And then back to the Homestead. A cruise ship in a valley, Grossinger's without the Jews (definitely.) Still elegant, still genteel, but one wonders…

Data point: An overheard young waiter saying he's a third generation employee of the Homestead, but is going off to college in the fall, studying biology. "There's not much future here."

Data point: The Homestead comprises a large number of properties including the mineral hot springs for which the town (and adjoining town of Warm Springs) was named. One of these springs - the "original" - was the raison d'être for the Homestead's founding in 1766. A famous person built an octagonal bath house over the top of the biggest pool. Can you guess who? But when we asked if we could use the springs, we were informed that they're only open on weekends, and only by arrangement. When we drove up to the springs (a few miles away from the main buildings) we got the sense that "by arrangement" is probably pretty hard to arrange - the buildings are in (IMO) an advanced state of disrepair, full of hornets' nests and evidence of other vermin, nobody on site, and in general - again, just a hunch - that disinvestment is afoot. http://gardyloo.us/20110427_10as.JPG

Who comes to places like The Homestead? The staff said that holidays, in particular Christmas and New Years, are packed. I don't know - it just seems like a style of tourism that's gone, but maybe I'm just over-thinking it. But the contrast between the Homestead and the poverty surrounding it is just too great to ignore. What happens when things really get tough? The Homestead catches cold, Bath County gets pneumonia? I suspect that's the case. It's beautiful, but can these kind of places make it for another century?

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Days 7-8 (4/27-28) - Off to DC and my meeting, while herself spends a (rather muggy) day inside the Smithsonian American History Museum, looking at Julia's kitchen, Old Glory, Nancy's and Michele's dresses and shoes. (She reports that with no disrespect intended, Michele's pumps from the 2009 Inaugural look to be about the same size as George Washington's boots.) I spend the day in a sub-basement of the Grand Hyatt along with a couple thousand fellow conference-goers, drinking jug coffee and consulting "break out" options. The Tao of Conferences overtakes me. You have much to learn, Grasshopper.

The night of the 27th we try to watch TV but the programs keep getting interrupted with very frightening bulletins from the weather people warning residents of XX county to head for the cellar or climb into a bath tub as the "hook" returns from the Doppler radars keep getting stronger and redder. Outside the sky isn't quite yet "tornado green" but it's definitely looking ominous. That night, of course, things go very bad in Alabama and elsewhere, including, we learn, a couple of places we'd passed through just days ago.

Day 9 (4/29) - We drove on I-95 from Washington DC to New Brunswick NJ. What more is there to say? Looking forward to doing it again someday? Er, no. We met our son and his wife, had dinner at a diner on US 1 that we go to every time we're there (3 so far) - the Skylark, http://www.skylarkdiner.com/ - where I could, like, live.

Days 10-11 (4/30-31) - On Saturday the sky was clear, the temperature was climbing through the 60s so we decided to head to the coast. I played pin-the-pin-on the map and we ended up at Sandy Hook, a sand spit that curves away from New Jersey and toward Brooklyn, there in the distance.

Holy cow, what a lucky break. I'm hear to tell you that if you live in the NY/NJ area and haven't visited Sandy Hook, that you should step away from the computer, go to the car, and get on the road. What a cool place, mainly because of the abandoned army base, Fort Hancock, at the tip of the peninsula. Fabulous views over the water to NYC, amazing lighthouse and collection of historic houses, buildings, gun emplacements… a bird sanctuary, clothing-optional beaches, clean sand, wildflowers, a beaver in the bushes (or a muskrat, but I think the tail was beaver-thick.) What a cool place. Do go.

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On Sunday our daughter-in-law had to work, so the three of us went up into the city and went to the Cloisters, where neither my wife nor I had visited. For those who don't know, the Cloisters is a branch of the Metropolitan Museum, set in a park at the very top of Manhattan Island, with views out over the rivers and city. The building is a Romanesque structure built this century but incorporating medieval columns, doors, windows, courtyards and features liberated from Europe by the Rockefellers, Hearst-style (or, more appropriately, Hearst did it Cloisters-style) and filled with medieval art - paintings, sculpture, tapestries, etc.) as part of the Met's collection. Beautiful and impressive, and a great way to spend a sunny Sunday in New York. Oh, free parking too.

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That night, a return to New Brunswick, a final dinner with the kids, and then she and I drive up to Newark, drop the car and overnight in an airport hotel since our flight is at 7:30 in the morning. We go to bed just before the announcement of OBL's death is announced.

Day 12 (5/1) Off into the west we go. It's still raining and 40-something in Seattle. Feh.

In all, a pretty interesting trip into parts of the country we hadn't experienced very much. Thought-provoking and troubling a little, but also inspirational. All those elegant places built by slaves or the sons and daughters of slaves, now within a couple of hours' drive from a White House occupied by a black family. That's America for you.

All the photos - http://gardyloo.us/Spring2011.htm

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