Vacation Trip Logs 2000 Onward
Richmond July 2000
The first pungent moment of the vacation came in the hotel lobby, walking to room 2105. My Pavlovian response was one of euphoria, my scent glands deeply connected to past experiences of vacation joy. You can't disconnect the thrill of a vacation from the thrill of renting your own piece of real estate. And there's that famous hotel scent, the same cleanish smell that permeates every hotel from Boston to L.A., is a sharp shot of adrenalin to my heart. There is nothing quite like that initial foray into the room - that wide expanse of finely made bed, the initial succor of the TV remote and the obliviousness you feel in making a mess. And so as I eat King Dongs and drink a beer, I flip the wrappers and can from the bed in the general area of a garbage can and feel the rush of knowing I will not be bending over and picking it up. It's the only time in your adult life when you can throw trash guilt-free.
It used to be easier to find good vacation ideas. Vacation ideas don't grow on trees. I read in this morning's newspapers that an out-of-state couple came to Columbus just to see an "artwork" that is five miles from our house but something I wouldn't walk two doors down to see. It's a "field of corn", a field of white statues depicting ears of corn. The couple is obviously in dire need of vacation ideas. My closet is not that empty yet. My idea of a good vacation is tending away from seeing the architecture and dynamism of big cities in favor of a different kind of inspiration - i.e. Civil War battefields and religious shrines. In my 20s, I could walk around New York all day looking at buildings and people-watching. But much of it is show without substance. And yet my need for vacation has not declined, if anything it has increased because the need for awe (a psuedonym for God) never decreases. And so I go on vacation to provoke a sense of awe and wonder that daily life doesn't afford like the wonder of the Grand Canyon, or the awe of the heroics of the Civil War soliders….
But there is no awe when I take the first exit of the ex-Confederate capital of Richmond and see a Shoney's, a Friday's, a Honda, a Subway and a Motel 8. If I took a picture of the street I would have no idea if I was in Dayton or Louisville or Cincinnati or … Places are all starting to look the same, which certainly decreases the value of vacation's currency. Still I was on vacation, and if the mass of men live lives of quiet desperation (and the rest live lives of loud desperation) then I was on furlough. A couple hours before I arrived in Richmond, while driving through the Shenadoah mountains, I located the exit that would lead me to the Appalachain Trail. 90 minutes later, I was quite refreshed by the four mile hike. I saw nary another living soul. I took off again down I-64 and noticed another deer crossing signs. I must've seen at least 12 signs by the end of the trip. The signs do nothing but make me tense up a bit, which is exactly what you don't want to do. Drunk drivers are notorious for surviving wrecks because they are loose enough to roll with it. The deer signs seem a bit silly also because most of the time there is no time to react. It's like having earthquake signs on highways near the San Andreas fault - useful as a reminder to pray. I'm not sure I understand why we, as a country, will not tolerate second hand smoke but we tolerate an army of deer next to major highways such that we require deer signs.
The first morning in Richmond I headed to the Museum of the Confederacy and strolled through the war exhibits. Relics, like Stonewall Jackson's simple cap, remind one of the realness of historical figures. Reading his biography, and of a time so completely different from our own, makes him seem kind of unreal, like some ancient Greek warrior or even some extraterrestial vistor. But to see the cap that he doffed to the cheers of his adulatory troops has a tangibleness that connects. We desire these evidences - like splinters of the True Cross or the Shroud of Turin (assuming it's real). I noticed in the displays that the Southern general uniforms had ornate Celtic-like designs on them while the Union had straight bars. That simple detail is a nice metaphor for the perceived difference in their societies - the south was more fond of ornament, more Celtic and leisurely (due in part, of course, to slave labor), while the North was more materialistic, linear, efficient and straight-to-the-point. The South had a Celtic background since most of the plantation owners were either Irish or Scotch-Irish (no wonder Margaret Mitchell set O'Hara as the family in GWTW). After an hour or so it was time for the next tour of the adjacent White House of the Confederacy, which is where Jefferson Davis and his family lived during the war. This was really out of Gone With the Wind, so over-the-top and opulent that one expected ol' Jeff Davis to walk through those doors again. The gaudy parlor where guests were entertained had more statues and busts per square inch than could be counted. Deep burgundy draperies hung everywhere like Spanish moss, and the wallpaper was a circular-patterned red. Huge gold mirrors attempted (vainly) to reflect light and thus lighten the heavy room. The next event on the schedule was the Edgar Allen Poe museum, set in the oldest existing structure in Richmond but disappointingly not the actual house he lived in. Poe saw a lot of tragedy in his life, and this coupled with the audience's taste for the macabe was what led him to write the way he did. There was nothing eerie about the house or his effects, although the room upstairs displayed drawings of the Raven done by an artist of that time and they were very affecting.
The next part of the trip, to the Richmond Battlefield Park, was rather disastrous. I had been surviving on cheese balls and peanuts, so before embarking on a walk to what was formerly a Civil War hospital, I had some of the delicacies formerly mentioned and in my eagerness to eat dropped the keys in the passenger seat. Obviously I then proceeded to exit, while the keys lay in ignorant stupor in the locked car. I called the police who told me to call a locksmith, who came by a jaunty half-hour later and picked the lock in 15 seconds then picked my pocket for $50. I told him I was obviously in the wrong line of work. That unpleasantness behind me, I proceeded to St. John's church, scene of the stirring 1775 words of Patrick Henry, "As for me, I say give me liberty…..or give me death!". I snapped a picture of the large white church but couldn't go in since the last tour ended an hour ago.
Day two was Petersburg day. Another beautiful sunny day, and I could barely believe my eyes for the forecast had been dismal. Set Dig-On-Weathermen to On. Weathermen are, of course, contrarian indicators - I know now more than ever to never go anywhere unless they predict rain. Set Dig-on-weatherman to Off. I traveled to I-95, the route that could take me to Washington D.C. (where I really want to go next) in just over an hour, but traveled south instead. I visited the Petersburg National Battefield Park, and spent a quick half-hour reading about the battle in McPherson's "Battle Cry for Freedom" before visiting this Confederate defensive line just outside the city of Petersburg. The fiery tour guard gave a rousing history of the battle here, and how the North had a golden opportunity to capitalize by going on to take Petersburg and probably shorten the war by a year. Instead, the North after taking this battery (and many others) rested on their laurels while General Lee hurried reinforcements to the city proper. The Confederates were stretched so thin here that there was only a man every ten feet, and the North attacked their position by spreading themselves out also, thus preventing the cannons from being usable (since any cannon fire would hit only one man, making it inefficient). After the battlefield it was on to the Pamplin Park which is sort of a Williamsburg for the Civil War. There were some re-enactors who showed us what camps were like, how to fire a smooth-bore rifle, and how a real cannon was fired (which they proceeded to do - with a half-pound of gunpowder. I asked why they didn't use any rounds of ammunition and they said they would love to but the ATF - Bureau for Alcohol, Tobacco and Fire Arms - would be all over them. Damn guvmint.) I also went through an awesome museum that tried to recreate the feel of battle, by having the ground shake and loud cannon balls whiz by your head. They also showed a very graphic amputation, presumably not a real one but real enough for me. They didn't pull many punches here. The final leg of the trip was rushed to the point of absurdity. I had decided to try to drive 10 hours home while still fitting in trips to the James Monroe house, an Appalachian trail redux and a visit to Gettsyburg. The James Monroe tour was too long, setting everything back an hour. But I wasn't in the mood to give an inch, so I hustled through a run-walk for 45 minutes of trail, and finally arrived in Gettysburg for a lightening tour. I saw the field where Pickett's charge occurred and then climbed Little Round top, arguably the pivotal fight in the pivotal battle. I stood where Lincoln did when giving the famous "Fourscore and seven years ago speech" in what is now the Gettysburg cemetery, and it really takes the massive numbers of graves to make tangible how many did die in this battle, let alone the whole war. It makes the the Concorde tragedy seem small, which seems to lead the news every night this week.
Hilton Head 2001
We mean to live larger lives. I am back from Hilton Head, another week spent, whether for ill or profit I am not sure. Was it exactly what I wanted but least what I needed? Hilton Head weeks invariably become weeks for the body, not the mind or soul. No matter the longing one has to read deeply and pray soulfully, the beach is not the best place for either. And yet I slogged down there with some thirty-five books in tow, as if this were a month long retreat at a Maine winter cabin. I hunkered down in the sole-kissing sands and quaffed beers as the ocean crept forward and I moved back, hugging the shore with crab-like astrological tendencies. The problem with beach vacations, and why they invariably become Club Meds, is that a seering restlessness invades my person. The apparitions of astonishingly lightly-clad females between the ages of 16 and 24 has an effect that is almost mathematical in its surety. And so there were daily 4-mile runs, 10-mile bike rides and hour swims, that eventually led to the predicatable toll - a cold. The eyes see, the body is flaggelated, the body rebells. Like a gerbil on a treadmill.
But it was not entirely a Club Med, there were moments of pureness in reading Walker Percy's "Lancelot" which was lost on a Savannah tour bus and was replaced, somewhat unsuccessfully, by his other novel "The Second Coming". The long rides to and from Hilton Head were idyllic, in that they arrested time and made us slow down for leisurely classical music strolls, long visits via tape with a Dartmouth professor on the Civil War (first 4-lectures), and three long commentaries on the Book of Revelation (Scott Hahn). We traveled along tiny towns like Hartford, West Virginia and Moped, Ohio where tiny pale green cinder block houses wore the reds, blues and whites of the Stars 'n Stripes. We rolled into fast food restaturants where they took our order with the thickest of Southern accents, and into a Virginia 7-11 cast into the mountains, and where a stooped, tanned aged man, looking as old as Methusala, made his way to the restroom and eyed me with clear-eyed distaste. I appreciated the unfeignedness of a Virginia curmugeon. I bought a postcard containing headshots of 10 Civil War generals, and then Soug and I shared a homemade pie of pita-bread stuffed with blueberries. We chased it with Cracker Jacks, having a jolly good time. Pomeroy, Ohio faced out like a bay window over the Ohio River, and we watched as boaters and wave-runners made use of the waters while old men sprawled in their ease in an overlooking gazebo. The town had rowhouses of indeterminate age, but the poverty seemed of the genteel sort. Old classic cars abounded from the 60s and 70s. Time stood still here it seemed, only to an outsider of course. The shining sun seemed to make all things good - tennament or trailer home - at least when set in the manifold groves of trees and hills and rivers.
We boarded our tour bus in Savannah and got off at the first stop for a bit of home-cooking at a former boarding house named, "Mrs. Wilkes". The 90-year old turned up dressed to the teeth in dark blue dress with spangles, looking every bit the part of a proud Southern woman born twenty years after Reconstruction. She was now the owner of a place that served hundred people at a time, and turned the tables over every half-hour or so. It was all-u-can-eat, served family style, with mashed potatoes, greenbeans, okra, fried chicken, meatloaf, black-eyed peas, and you name it. All for $12. It was all delicious. We grazed at the Savannah afternoon with full bellies while tour guides entertained us and the breeze from the tram braushed our faces. We stopped for drinks at a bar along the river walk and the bar-tender was a fellow bibliophile who recently went to the Strand in New York City and bought so many books he took up half his girlfriend's luggage. She loves books to he explained. He majored in English, which succintly explained his job as a waiter. I stopped at E. Shaver's booksellers and then a rare book store, looking for the already-gone "Lancelot". Before we could tour the ghost house, or hear another tale like the one about the woman who waited 44 years for her fiance to return up the Savannah River from a fishing trip, it was already nearly 5. We bundled our "Midnight in the Garden of Goof and Evil" girl, the one balancing the scales, into the trunk and headed back to the less mysterious world of Hilton Head.
The endlessly beguiling point of the ocean is where ocean meets shore, where the violence of the waves crash the sand. I experimented with different viewing arrangements, at first far from the sea but then growing ever closer. The optimal situation seemed to be in the waves, my feet rhythmically rushed over with water, while a beer or book is cradled in hand. But the warm giving sand on the soles of the feet is not bad either, and you can make a small cavity in which to rest your feet for max leverage. It was of such crucial decisions that vacations are made of. On the way down we stopped at Mount Airy, hometown of Andy Griffith and the model for Mayberry. We checked into the Mayberry Hotel and admired the large, shiny car of Sherriff Andy Taylor hisself. We looked into Aunt Bee's room and saw her personal affects and such. On the way down, we were nearing Coosawhatchie, South Carolina, and I'd been driving for nearly ever and was slowly getting tired. I accidently moved off the road a bit so Soug would note that I was getting tired. It always wakes her up when I hit a rumble strip. Although I could've driven another thirty or forty miles, my eyes had began involuntarily closing. Steph took over and was immediately aggravated to see that the gas indicator needle was far below the red line where it's supposed to be. We were practically running on empty. We knew the drill - we turned off the air conditioning and look for the next exit. We made it, but I was never so glad to be tired as I was then.
A pall hung on Friday, the heavy muggy air foreboding and foreswearing that our vacation was nearing an end. The beach at dusk was like a huge highway with no traffic, one big swath of flat land, ripe for the taking. The long sand avenue looked like freedom - no lines, no lanes, no construction, no speed limits. I ran down it with reckless, mindless abandon in my mind's eye. Likewise the superabundant sky, lit by candles called stars. Stephanie and I laid on the beach looking up at the stars, watching the light turn infintessimally darker. The heavenly dome stretched unencumbered, a huge galaxic bowl without a tree or building to obstruct the perfect blueing horizon. We heard the ocean's call in the mid-distance, tasted and smelt of the salty air, felt the easy breeze and saw stars shoot. The peace of fatigue had settled in our bones and then we pulled them up and cashed in our vacation chips.
Tuesday: Sweet sickness thou hast brought me this day of freedom. Freedom to see again. When was the last time I noticed the Texas bluebonnet painting in the office, the one with the layers of blue splotches signifying the flower's mass groupings? Or when did have I noticed the coyote & cactus statue in the family room? The one I'd gotten in Noglaze, Mexico; the one where the coyote's head is straight-up in a howling (yearning?) posture with the cactus in the same pose. We live in a time of "data smog", where facts and rationalism threaten to swamp us out, to drown us in 'too much information'. Work is good in it's proper perspective (i.e. little and and rare). Since it is supremely rationalistic, must have a counterweight, and as practiced the first four months of this year, it had little. Each night and weekend's healing was crucial during that time, time that should've been spent an arm's length away from politics (way too rational, well, maybe not but that's another story). Night's and weekends during that time should've given priority to exercise (for it's counterweight to brain-thinking) and novel-reading (again, as counterweight). The trick is to be able to turn on a dime, to be able to come home and read Walker Percy and Yeats and dream fables and see the Texas bluebonnet painting again. But one is too shopworn and incapable of wonder. We come home blaise and complaining, our plucking at weeds all day has made us small. The ordinariness and repetitiveness of the everyday bleeds outside of our work time. Seeing again seems to take time, and one is lucky to experience it by Sunday night, let alone on a Wednesday.
Yr 2000 Vacations
Mexico City - Sept. 2000