Friday, July 15, 2011

What a trip!

This promises to be a long read, so sit back.  I've italicized some place names in case you want to scroll through to things that interest you more, and I've also linked the places either to a corresponding Picasa album, or to websites about them.  Click on anything underlined to find some kind of link.

We returned from our big road trip this past Tuesday, July 12.  We put 2500 miles on my little 2001 Prizm and it's still running like a top.  First, we traveled from here, in the extreme northeast corner of North Carolina, to Raleigh, in the middle of the state, and from there to Asheville and Hendersonville in the far west.  (If we were to go directly from here to Asheville, it would be the equivalent in miles to the distance between here and New York City.  That's how long North Carolina is.)  And we went on from there.

We visited our friend Ann in Raleigh who, even after all the times we'd been there, managed to come up with new things to show us.  The North Carolina Museum of Art there is a cutting-edge design second to none, affording me, at least, one of the most satisfying museum experiences of any kind I've ever had.  The stark white, rectangular simplicity of its exterior almost hides the fact that its sides are actually a series of louvers, set to open and close automatically depending on the intensity of the sun.  The interior is also full of subtle but cutting-edge technological advances, all in exclusive service, like the space itself, to the art on display; there is nothing to draw the eye elsewhere.  The collection is big and representative of every art form or era you can think of, from Egyptian sarcophagi to Greek sculpture to Roman glass, on through Meso-American, all the stages of Eurpoean, and on and on.  If you are ever in Raleigh, visit this museum.  You won't be disappointed; I've merely skimmed the surface of its features.  Also in Raleigh, we visited the arboretum at NC State--useful for us to see what grows best here.

We had several revelations on this trip.  The next was Asheville, North Carolina.  If it were nearer the coast, and despite all the love and hard work we've put into where we are now, we'd move there in a heartbeat.  What a fun, funky place!  A mid-sized city of about 70,000, it's nestled beautifully in various valleys of the Blue Ridge and has as many fun things to look at and do as cities twice its size, only it's better, precisely because it is smaller and very accessible.  Our hosts were Frank and Rick, old friends from Arlington--the guys who were the surrogate parents for our cats and kept us looking decent with good haircuts--who up and decided to move to North Carolina (but too far away!) about a year after we did.  Features:  restaurants, restaurants and more restaurants.  We counted three Thai restaurants in as many blocks on one street.  Architecture:  Asheville crashed hard in 1929, after being home to the Vanderbilts and their ilk.  It could never afford urban renewal; as a result, it is a city where, architecturally, time stood still.  It has one of the highest concentrations of authentic art deco design in the country, buildings have been restored to their original luster, and are not mere museum pieces but are full of bustling life.  Street life:  the Friday night drumming circle must be experienced.  It starts out simply enough in the main park downtown.  As the evening progresses, it becomes more and more crowded, until towards midnight people are grooving shoulder-to-shoulder to the constantly-evolving beat.  Sheer joy.  On top of all that general grooviness, there are street musicians and performance artists on every corner.  It's New York, it's New Orleans, and it's in the middle of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  What a place!  (And I dare not forget to mention The Grove Park Inn, a fabulous stone-faced structure built into the side of a mountain in 1913 and serving only the most elite clientele ever since.  We were allowed in to avail ourselves of the buffet there--our first major pig-out of the trip.  You simply couldn't stop yourself from going back for more, the dishes were so varied and so well-prepared.)

While in Asheville, we also took two major tours of Biltmore, the summer retreat built by George Vanderbilt.  It's a beautiful place worth the time (and considerable expense to get in).  Not only is it architecturally interesting, the reforestation of the surrounding land required post-construction gave birth to the American forestry movement.  The "Cradle of Forestry" museum is nearby.

From Asheville we traveled about 20 miles down I-26 to the small city of Hendersonville, NC, where Peace Corps buddy Chuck and his wife Sandy hosted us in their gorgeous log home high on a wooded hill, and gave us a big dose of the mountains we had only looked at while in Asheville.  We hiked to various waterfalls and peaks (in particular Chimney Rock) and got the workouts we were beginning to need after that Grove Park Inn orgy.  All in all these two stops gave us a welcome megadose of Western North Carolina, causing us to marvel at the diversity of this state, from the flat, hot coastal plain we call home to the beautiful, green and rolling countryside out west.

Next stop:  five hours west to Nashville.  We fell in love with the place.  It has great energy, almost entirely devoted to show business.  We did the obligatory tours of the Country Music Hall of Fame and the home of the Grand Ole Opry, Ryman Auditorium.  (Even if you aren't a country music fan, these places are iconic parts of the American cultural landscape and deserve attention.  And some of the huge names associated with them--Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Conway Twitty--really transcend genre and are simply great in their own right.)  Both these places were amazingly tourist-friendly, with photographs allowed everywhere, even inside the Ryman.  The Hall of Fame tour included RCA's Studio B, where Elvis and other pop music legends created the sound tracks of most of our lives.  The very Steinway grand on which Floyd Cramer played "Last Date" stands there in the middle of the room, and anyone is free to sit at it and doodle.  There's no telling how many times the strings on that baby have been replaced, but the warm sound was familiar.

Aside from the expected tourist haunts we were also lucky enough to have had a real, live honky-tonk recommended to us in the beating heart of the city, on Broadway.  Broadway in Nashville is a combination of Bourbon Street and Times Square, crammed by night with rowdy people rubbing shoulders as they snake up and down the sidewalks lined with storefronts.  From every one of these doorways pours the sound of the best of the young musicians who've made their way to this music mecca, reaching for the brass ring, singing and playing their hearts out.  We found our way to Robert's Western World, where the Don Kelley Band and an incredible 24-year-old guitarist, JD Simo, play.  (The last song in the set in the linked video features him playing a "Ghost Riders in the Sky" the likes of which you won't see anywhere else.)  Without question, Simo is the current generation's answer to Clapton, Richards and Hendrix.  He is mesmerizing; we'll be hearing much more from him.  Robert's Western World charges no minimum and provides free refills of non-alcoholic drinks.  They serve burgers and fries; the bands make money there literally by passing the tip jar.  (They all have regular, paying jobs in music--they just come to Robert's to keep their performing mojo in shape.)   Our only complaint about Robert's was the volume.  It's a tiny room but it is amped for an arena.  The musicians were wearing ear plugs; they should have been provided for the audience, too.  For a while there I was half expecting my ears to start bleeding, but they didn't, and we stayed because the band, and especially JD, was so damn good!

We loved Nashville and will be back, but July 4 beckoned, so we headed north to Cincinnati, to be with still more dear friends, Michele and John   John's the cook; Michele, who was a Peace Corps volunteer with me in the same city in Ghana, is the hostess with the mostess.  We had a relaxing and well-fed sojourn there, with just a couple of outings.  One day was spent on a drive in the countryside along the Ohio River, where we saw Ulysses Grant's birthplace (it was closed) and then took a ferry across the river into Kentucky and the quaint waterfront town of Augusta, where a shrine to Rosemary Clooney has been erected.  Clooney was originally from down the road in Maysville, but toward the end of her life she used this little house in Augusta as a retreat.  Sad to say that aside from being able to say we've seen it, there isn't much to recommend this place.  The house is entirely filled with Clooney's career memorabilia, with no attempt at all to re-create how it looked when she was in it.  There are some rather yummy pictures of nephew Georgie as a very young man, and the docent has some interesting stories to tell.   But in our opinion this attraction is not all it could be and would take second place to any other diversion you may have in mind.

Our next took stop took us across Ohio and just over the Pennsylvania line to Pittsburgh, and the nearby, iconic attraction of the Frank Lloyd Wright house, Fallingwater.  Pittsburgh itself was another revelation, with hilltop views to rival those of San Francisco, looking down on gleaming, adventurous new architecture along its three rivers.  Andy Warhol was from Pittsburgh, and the museum there devoted to his life and work is definitely worth the time it takes to explore its seven easily-navigated floors.  And you must take the Monongahela Incline, a tram that carries you up the side of Mount Washington to Grandview Avenue and a series of breathtaking views of the city.  It's hard to believe that with its smoke and coal dust (the U.S. bituminous coal industry got its start here) Pittsburgh was until recently one of the darkest and most unhealthy places in the country; those Grandview Avenue sights were barely visible. 

And then there is Fallingwater.  Brilliantly conceived and engineered outside, it is downright uncomfortable inside for anyone over 5'10" tall, and dark, to boot.  Wright was 5'8" on a good day and built to his own scale (which he modestly referred to as "human"), right down to installing permanent benches in the great room that are so low to the floor they would present difficulties climbing off of for anyone of average height.  He liked rooms to be havens of space and light, so he constructed the hallways between them to resemble caves, creating rooms that would seem to burst open as they were entered.  In the guest room, my 6'4" frame literally could not extend itself to its full height.  Fallingwater is far off the usually trodden path, a good hour southeast of Pittsburgh, beautifully situated in rhododendron-strewn hills.  Despite this remoteness, its fame and the Wright mystique draw thousands yearly; we experienced it as a very busy place.  Reservations are required; children under 6 years of age are not allowed.  We were disappointed--Wright's hubris is evident throughout--but still recommend it as a destination, if only to see it in person and, if you are of a certain limited stature, actually enjoy being inside it.

Our next stop was a short hop from western Pennsylvania to Reading, in the east-central part of the state, to visit a nephew of Steve's.  Reading is on the fringes of Pennsylvania Dutch country, and one of the main attractions we looked forward to was the Kutztown Folk Festival, hoping to find a Penn-Dutch hex sign to add a splash of color to our house.  We need a big one--3 feet across--and didn't see any in that size that caught our fancy, so we'll end up buying one online anyway.  The festival itself was fun, though, the biggest county fair you've ever seen, on steroids.  It was definitely worth the trip.  The big surprise for us about the Reading area is that it is a haven for antiques.  We stumbled upon the city of Adamstown, which has more antique malls than we'd ever seen in one place.  And that is "malls," not mere single stores.  We did two of these malls and it took us 4 hours to look at everything.  We found a jewel, too:  a beautiful Murano glass bird for only $48.  (But we found another one even cheaper--see below!)

Adamstown and its antique malls must be copying its bigger neighbor, Reading, when it comes to shopping, however.  Reading, in case you didn't know, is the place where outlet malls got their start.  The Vanity Fair Outlet Village sits atop a long rise in Reading, dominating the town like some Acropolis of the commercial.  It must be seen to be believed.

From central Pennsylvania we headed off to our last stop, a very short drive into Sussex County, Delaware, where we visited another dear Peace Corps buddy, Marilyn, and her husband Wayne.  We had a chance to visit our old haunts there, including two favorite antique shops in Millsboro, and the now-vacant lot, part of somebody's front yard, that was once our beloved little postage stamp with its trailer, where we spent 4 glorious summers.  We took a day trip down to Berlin, MD, where we visited yet another couple of antique shops (and we found another Murano bird--this one for only $18!) and had lunch at the Atlantic Hotel--all old, friendly favorites ready for a visit.  Marilyn and Wayne were the perfect hosts, great, relaxing, funny company.  We walked the boardwalk at Bethany, and they sent us off with a wonderful picnic breakfast on the beach.  It was the perfect ending to a perfect trip.


Sam Alden said...

What a terrific trip - truly a summer road trip for the record books. I can't wait to get home, be REALLY retired and do the same, only I will visit you guys.

Minor issues to my OCD-self: aren't you in the northEAST corner of NC? And isn't George Clooney Rosemary's nephew (his father being her brother and all)? Sorry.

Asheville is on my seriously short list for re-retirement - along with Durham and where I am now, in Shepherdstown WV. My younger son and his wife described it, when they visited last fall, as "Morgantown [WV] and Georgetown [DC] had a baby." A college town with the best of the hippie (and earlier) leftovers worth keeping.

I'm also hungry, literally, for good food. Cooking for one is no fun, so I don't do it, and I'm tired of the Same Old Sh*t most of the time. (Normandy in March was sublime - for that reason and a million more.)

Wonderful post and will explore the links more. Welcome back home - it must feel good, even after such a great trip.

Ralph said...

Sam, you're right on both mistakes and I fixed them. Thanks. One pair of eyes is never enough, no matter how hard you try....

Yes, yes, go to Asheville! We are bog boosters now! And if you ever get to these parts, you'll be fed good!

Zoey and Me said...

Boy this makes up for year off from not writing at all. Glad you had fun. I have Asheville on my list as well as Austin, TX and others when ever I can retire and roam the good old U.S. But we keep talking about sizing down. Too much house here even at our age. A condo in Florida would be perfect.

splendid said...

What a delightful read Ralph!
thanks so much for sharing, i missed your voice more than I realized!

nan said...

Wow - what a trip, indeed! Asheville really appeals to me. I have a friend in Kutztown - working at the state university there. Good friends in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh too - all great places. It sounds like you had a great time. (Next time you are in Cincinnati, look up our mutual friend Paula!)

Ralph said...

Nan, only as I was reading your comment did I remember Paula is in Cincinnati! (But I think they're traveling, at the moment.) At least, she hasn't written to upbraid me for ignoring her!) I think she and her husband would really like our friends there and I'm sorry I missed the opportunity to hook them up.

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