August 21, 2014
All the chattering about Route 66 induced road trip fever and Door County was only five hours away so off we went. In 25 years, nothing much has changed, still the land of Illinois and Wisconsin tourists in moldy cottages, milling around leather hat and moccasin shoppes waiting for the next meal, breakfast, brats, fish boils and something in between. Unless you’re exhausted from grueling factory work and need to regain your strength …you know what we mean….
In Sturgeon Bay with a hotels.com reservation, we drove straight past a peeling white stucco bungalow on 1st Street, nahhhhhh this can’t be it. It was. A stuffed crow on top of the plastic Christmas tree in the lobby of the Holiday Music Hotel on 1st Street said it all. We wrote a tart email to the site and the even more inaccurate trip advisor and repaired to Maxwelton in Bailey’s Harbor, a once fashionable golf resort and now a bit down-in-the-heels though still fadedly- glamorous.It must have been swell in 1936.
Foregoing kayaking, hopefully just a fad unlike the more sociable and even somewhat elegant canoeing, we hiked buggy trails in Peninsula State Park past family campsites, human settlements, ratty tents and tarps, to the American Folklore Theater where on a red bearded preacher exhorted the audience to be all that they could be.
Fish Creek is the liveliest town on the peninsula and we booked a $28 fish boil in a jammed eaterie, dining on laps with paper plates before an iron cauldron that boiled over on cue, transforming whitefish into paper pulp. We asked a bartender what people do off season here? He said, “Drink.”
A car ferry across Death’s Door to Washington Island, a 25 mile gap in the Niagara Escarpment which freezes in winter with shipwrecks and lighthouses created some sense of drama. (Never did we long more for the ferry to Sag Harbor).
On an early Sunday morning there was a fly-in, a mini-Oshkosh, Pipers, Cessnas, for, yes, a fish boil. Only on Washington Island can you find fresh lawyers, the fish, a ‘burbot’ cross between cod and eel. On the drive back to Chicago we stopped at the Island of Herb Kohler, unrepentant snob, for lunch at Whistling Straits and a return to a somewhat more advanced civilization.
Our next road trip was longer,the monotonous interstates between Chicago and Baltimore, 13 long hours of the ghastly industrial landscape of northern Indiana and its dirty unkempt bathrooms, through Ohio, thence the high terror of the Ho Chi Minh trail of the Pennsylvania turnpike which has not upgraded in 50 years.
Who were these people lining up at Hardee’s in the plazas? The truck drivers should be on treadmills (why are they not available?) not killing themselves with Cinnabons. And were we the only ones of our tribe who take road trips? Do the others just fly or perhaps rent old beaters and paste on tattoos for class camouflage?
The Baltimore suburb of Columbia is middle American dog-obsession country for NSA employees at nearby Fort Meade and prosperous Asians. We attended a preseason football match between the local Ravens (Poe lives!) and the 49ers, all fireworks, big screen televisions, and thunderous screaming, forcing us to try Zen once more. Our host said he sat next to George Will at a recent Orioles vs. Padres (baseball) game and he was very grumpy indeed when recognized. Oh dear!
Annapolis, the Naval Academy, 300 acres on the River Severn, 4,000 undergraduates in blinding whites and braced shoulders preparing to be Marines or Navy men. Alums include Jimmy Carter, John McCain, Montel Williams, Jim Lovell, and our left-wing history prof in Madison, William Appleman Williams. Preble Hall’s museum is a shrine to alums, practitioners of sea warfare with memorabilia such as Don’t Give Up the Ship the personal battle flag of Commodore Perry during the war of 1812, which still looms very large in these parts.
Bloody WordPress will not let us upload other photos into the text for some bizarro reason. iPhone takes poor photos anyway so we’ll return to the Canon next time.
The small city of Annapolis with its 18th century human scale is utterly charming and relatively untouched unlike the manicured reconstruction in “colonial” Williamsburg. It takes however some sincere effort of the imagination to get inspired by old buildings such as the Maryland State House, where the first Continental Congress, 1783, took place now the oldest capitol building in use. We recommend the Old Stein Inn in Edgewater where a lecture in the bier garten was about the remaining (only 35) descendants of Germans in the Maroon country in Jamaica live.
Departing Baltimore, forgoing the usual return route north through Hagerstown and Cumberland that tiny northern strip on Maryland, so beautiful, we drove past Harper’s Ferry, through the Shenandoah Valley’s Winchester and Woodstock Virginia, all hunting, cabins, knives, tractor pulls, drag races, lawnmower pulls and demolition derbys. Country roads, take me home to the place I belong, West Virginia mountain momma take me home country roads.
Then we decided to head towards the Monongahela National Forest and Elkins, West Virginia, the county seat of Randolph County and the Mountain Highlands. Maybe it was John Denver, or Dorothea Lange, or The Song Catcher, but we wanted to visit West Virginia in the Allegheny Mountains, the core region of Appalachia, and the only state completely in the Appalachian Mountain Region. The mountain road winds past the Smoke Hole Caverns named for the Seneca Indians who smoked wild game in them before being relocated to reservations. At Seneca Rocks in Germany Valley near Riverton was a climbing school and a few young people convened outside Yokum’s general store before ascending the needle, Gendarme.
West Virginia seceded from Virginia in 1861, joined the Union, and abolished slavery but you wouldn’t know that today here in the High South, the land that time forgot, with the confederate flags still flying on top of log cabins and everything from rivers to restaurants named for Stonewall Jackson. Finally four hours later Elkins, one of Theroux’s “vast number of dying and depopulated towns” in the south. The largest regional municipality it was a boomtown from 1900-20 then died for good sometime in the 1980s.
Though not the Appalachia in last week’s 60 Minutes, poverty stricken southwestern Virginia, in West Virginia you just know that those who remain here, working men, inherit adversity. Elkins is located just a few miles from Sago Mine on the Buckhannon River where 12 miners died in 2006 after grave dancing Palm Beach fancy man Wilbur Ross ignored 21 citations times for toxic gas build up.
West Virginia’s new governor Earl Ray Tomblin is a progressive Democrat and native son who is trying to revitalize a feeble economy. After Wyoming it is the top coal mining state in the country though exports fell 40% in 2013, population radically declined, and the state is last in the Gallup Economic Index, last in employment to population ration with the revenue growth in the country. There are two different Americas, and life is a lot harder in one of them not just in urban slums but in Appalachia.
We stayed in the showpiece of the town, the spotless but empty Holiday Inn Xpress in front of the defunct railway station, across the dusty path from the American Mountain Theater and the Delmonte Hotel where we just missed the Bluegrass and Southern Gospel Fests. The locals are elaborately courteous and mannerly in an ante bellum way or maybe they were just happy to see a tourist or two. The 1863 Grill with portraits of Robert E. Lee in the lobby didn’t serve drinks so we went to a deserted boarded up downtown and ended up in Scottie’s where the wiry chicken under thick white gravy was inedible. Sunday dinner was eight bucks and the parking lot was full.
There’s no obvious starvation here but malnutrition, bad teeth, and wrinkled, resigned demeanors on the faces of the Ulster Scots’ descendants. Passing up the Hatfield McCoy Trails for jeeps and dune buggies and nearby Weston’s tour of the Trans Allegheny Lunatic Asylum we headed north.