July 10, 2010
Apologies for the delay in posting but travelling east in the summer inferno of 2012 was enervating to say the least. The single most unforgettable image of the excursion was the alarming 115 on the car’s temperature gauge en route from D.C. to Richmond, Virginia. Sans blague.
We drove from Chicago to Baltimore, cutting the trip in half at Morgantown, West Virginia whose forlorn Lakeview Golf Resort had no soap in the room, scarce grass on the greens, and very drunk patrons in the Legends Tiki Bar. The lone waitress was also looped and spilled balsamic on our white shorts. The next day the high rolling country of Western Maryland, with hills up to 3,000 feet, and the Crepe Myrtle’s perpetual fuchsia, made for a stunning ride –the first of many in this part of the country.
Cumberland, Maryland, named for the county in the English Lake District where the first settlers originated,(there’s also a Westmorland County) was the second largest city in the state at the turn of the 20th century and now has 22,000 souls in the middle of nowhere. Hard Times are here amidst the pre- WWI civic buildings now with boarded up antique shops or coffee houses with bluegrass concert posters (all current) and aging hippies serving Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee at four bucks a pop.
The mid Atlantic states seem like one vast American history theme park with an emphasis on Revolutionary and Civil War battlefields and monuments. Twenty years ago we fought Disney’s efforts to build an artificial history theme park at Manassas but it appears local authorities have done it themselves by designating every downtown or battlefield historic landmarks.
Antietam National Battlefield saw the bloodiest battle of the Civil War where McClellan and Longstreet condemned to death 23,000 men running head first into one another with muskets blasting; the confrontation which commenced at little Dunker Church, still standing, gave the Union the upper hand in the Civil War much to the chagrin of visitors in long beards and overalls – and their motorcycle mates. Melancholy acre after melancholy acre of wooden fences over acres and acres of rolling field — all this memento mori not our cuppa. Besides has history ever taught any country a preventive lesson? Ha!
Baltimore! The beginning of the south. Our boat tour of the Inner Harbor revealed the best waterfront renovation we’ve ever seen and that includes Boston’s. A busy working seaport with trawlers unloading a million tons of raw cane sugar to Domino’s and Fort McHenry where Francis Scott Key wrote the lyrics for the Star Spangled Banner when the English bombarded the fort in 1814. Then there are the new Ritz Carlton condos and other fancy residential developments close by the retired destroyers and oil tankers. Can’t imagine what……oh well. And yes, before Ellis Island Baltimore was the point of entry for immigrants since the end of the 17th century, our’s included.
We headed straight for crab shacks in years past on Chesapeake hols. No more. Alas, local crab fishing in season only a memory with the terribly polluted waters of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, the largest estuary in North America which covers six states. Crabs are now imported from Texas and Louisiana because pollution from farms, waste water facilities, power plants is killing the bay. The beautiful Inn at Perry Cabin in St. Michael’s on the eastern shore of the state was non committal about the source of the crab cakes so we drove to Tighlman Island which is another social and cultural world completely from the manicured neighbor across the wee bridge.
Amtrak cancelled the Baltimore-New York train at the last minute so hopped a bus which rolled through the New Jersey industrial wasteland and stalled in the smoke filled Lincoln Tunnel. Flash of remembrance why we left the crowded East coast. The Fitzpatrick Hotel at Grand Central did have soap and sober tourists and was celtically delightful, a touch of ye old Europe with screaming soccer fans in the Wheel tapper bar.An Irish lass reminded us we should be thankful for the 100 degree/100% humidity compared with the great rainy skies of old Eire and the prospect of ruined crops this year. Something to think about. It is after all summer in the States.
We boarded the LIRR to Rockville Center to see classmates had not seen in 50 years. Yup half a century. They looked happy and prosperous and within minutes we were back in St. Albans, Queens talking about the nuns at St. Pascal’s. New Yorkers are wry and sophisticated and instantly recognizable anywhere. Something to do with the worldly attitude and candor.
Early Sunday morning we walked from 44th to say hello to the Met on 86th. By then it was too hot to even walk up the long steps so went two blocks farther to say another hello to 1040 Fifth Avenue, once the home of Jacqueline Kennedy. All the blather about the comedy shtick writer Nora Ephron as the quintessential New Yorker…. not our New York. It was always Jackie.
Why Bloomberg, the best mayor in America, from his aeries on the Upper East, Southampton or Wellington, Florida permits tacky, dirty street fairs is beyond us. And in front of the Waldorf! Perhaps like us all he figures summer is just for the visiting hicks whose young have a penchant for falling asleep on the sidewalks.
The Central Park Zoo still there with the same old seals and extravagantly long queues since you seems to need a ticket for anything and everything in 2012 which has four times the population of 1960. The world has changed no matter where you go it the same. No tickie. No shirtie.
Sigh! Alas! Fifteen years ago we drove up the 760 foot hill on a cool autumnal day to see Monticello atop the Piedmont Hills in Charlottesville, Virginia. After a pint or two at the Michie Tavern where Jefferson’s guests stayed farther down the hill we strolled into the Palladian house and moseyed around the plantation, marveling at the gardens , learning about horticulture, dismayed by the slave’s quarters. Using imagination we entered the spirit of the 18th century, intoxicating, and vowed to return one day to the home of the kindred spirit who could not live without books or wine.
That day came this week but all was different. Very different indeed. We had to wait our turn in the hot crowds which at ten minute intervals were shuttled up to the house where children herded us into roped confines until our 9.20 slot opened. We always always loathed guided tours and balked then learned you could not even see the bloody house without the guided tour so we paid the 24 bucks and joined 25 annoyed strangers in our time slot time to see the tiny rooms (yes, Monticello is very small–and for a family of 14!) for four minutes per room of infantile commentary about Jefferson’s favorite ice cream, commodes etc. Besides all the thousands and thousands continuously stomping on 200 year old floor boards is a preservationist’s nightmare.
There is now a Visitor’s Center, an Education Center with “interactive” exhibits, a theatre, a welcome pavilion, a museum, an information kiosk, a discovery room, a shop – all geared for grammar school or middle school children. On the same trip to Monticello those fifteen or twenty years ago we saw also visited Mount Vernon, Washington’s much grander estate, and had same ghastly experience a year or two ago with the same plethora of educational claptrap in our bafflingly child -centered society.
Jamestown and Williamsburg
In any event we had never visited the first English settlement (given that Roanoke Island disappeared several years before) in America, Jamestown where in May of 1607 104 men and boys disembarked on the James River inlet and declared the land of the Powhatan Indians a colony of King James. What a mellow beautiful sight it must have been after four months on a wooden ship the Susan Constant with miniscule quarters in cavernous depths. What unthinkable courage they must have had – or maybe they were just escaping religious persecution and indentured slavery.
Hard not to hear the cliché “hallowed ground” reverberate on land that was settled years before Plymouth and the Mayflower in 1620. Virginia, named for the Virgin Queen, is where America really begins. An early morning drive down Old Colonial Road is the best approach to the national park with its 50 states memorial and the Powhatan Village replica await after you’ve run through the mandatory brand new educational exhibition building.
Thence to Williamsburg which from 1699 to 1780 was the seat of English power in the colonies. It was too scorching to walk the whole Historic Area so we missed the Governor’s Palace three looooong blocks away from the parking lot but the 18th century buildings were perfectly restored and now house shoppes like Talbot’s or Williams Sonoma and other all the recognizable brands. Dinner at the Shield’s Tavern was however rather wonderful — beef in ale, meat pasties .pork shank and crab-like cakes with mace eaten in cool dark rooms with only candlelight. Now that’s the idea!!
At least we could still drive unfettered and uneducated through the mountains, Nothing much can ruin Nature and we blessed whatever Roosevelt was responsible for the 100 miles of the Shenandoah National Park’s scenic drive where the Blue Ridge Mountains rise to 3600 feet and really are blue. These are the hills that Jefferson saw from Monticello and regretted there was no body of water in the view.
Front Royal at the northern end of the park has a Stonewall Jackson Restaurant if you can believe it with the Confederate quote “If this Valley is lost, Virginia is lost”. This is backwoods Maryland a big theater in the Civil War and it may not be Mississippi but it is still the South, no doubt about it.
Outside the hospitality of Baltimore friends we were forced to stay in lodgings— avoid the Comfort Inn, the even worse Clarion; for the identical cost if not cheaper the Courtyard by Marriott or the Crowne Plaza far far better. The Hiltons are always booked solid so cannot comment. From Hagerstown we headed back north, a grueling 12 hour drive on the Penn Turnpike (the Ho Chi Minh Trail) and Ohio Turnpike, death defying driving on narrow lanes always under construction.
Shocking headlines all over the country about Chicago’s violent crimes rise of 38% in one year. When asked where we’re from we say Illinois never mentioning Chicago which unleashes commentary, still today, about Al Capone, crime, murder. Some things never change. Washington Post’s George Wills comments that the Merchandise Mart looks like a gigantic architectural Stonehenge and laments Rahm’s “roughneck reputation and stevedore’s profanity”. Christ – why doesn’t he just stop swearing? His ideas and actions fine, especially the 7 billion infrastructure privatization so why let style get in the way?
A propose of which this is our blog and we’re allowed a wee rant, no? American productivity was great from 1973-2009 but median wages didn’t come close to matching the gains and today America today is a slow growth entitlement society. FDR style handouts do not address the problem of dynamic growth essential for our economy. Pathetic. If anything it impedes progress. OK that’s it.
Back to travel wrap up, one is getting the decided feeling that there really is no real travel anymore in homogeneous America—maybe not in the whole world for that matter. Travel is simply the much needed psychological necessity of moving about in a static world…not so much what you’re seeing but the fact you’re seeing it and far from home. It is refreshing but addictive as a drug – as soon as you get home you want to move again. And yes, there’s a Birkenstock shoe store, a thousand bucks a night hotel and 12 flights a week to Easter Island. No wonder we have to go to Mars.