Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A Shenandoah Odyssey: Act 5

So, I'm writing this one from home.  The trip back was very quick, Interstate-y, and uneventful.  My only bit of editorial about the whole thing:  Pennsylvania, 45 mph on I-70?  Really? 

Anyway, this is the final post on our little journey.  I'm not really sticking to a theme on this one, just wrapping up loose ends, and maybe using the space to share some reflections.  You know, boring crap that I'm allowed to put here because it's mine.  And by some coincidence, it's also my 100th post!  Yay!

Our last full day we sort of took it easy (the horseback riding/hiking day was a monster), and didn't even really get out of the Inn until 1:00.  Though I did use the time to nearly finish "The Machine" by Joe Posnanski, about the 1975 Reds.  I'm just getting to the last innings of Game 6 in the World Series...nobody spoil it for me!  Anyway, we decided to check out the Belle Grove Plantation estate in Middletown, VA.  It's a true Antebellum plantation house, finished in 1797, with a substantial addition later when the builder, Isaac Hite, married a second, much younger wife who had 10 kids.  They needed the extra bunks.

Quick, see if you can pick out the addition!
The house is magnificent, and drips with historical circumstance.  The Hite's first wife (not of the ten kids, she just had 3) was the sister of Dolly Madison, who honeymooned in the Valley with her husband, future president James Madison.  This made Hite what historians refer to as "connected."  When designing the house, he asked his brother-in-law James if he had anyone in mind who could help him with some of the architecture.  Madison sent the plans to Thomas Jefferson.  Yes, that Thomas Jefferson.  According to our volunteer docent John, you can see lots of Jeffersonian influences on the house--that semicircular window over the front door, tall ceilings, symmetrical floor plan, etc.  Some more views of the grounds and some what turned out to be rule-dodging shots of the interior by the wife.  Rule-breaker...


I had to take his word for it, but it was a little tough at first because John is a dead ringer for "Curb Your Enthusiasm"'s Larry David, and it was distracting.  Right down to the accent, at least to hear it through my Midwestern ears.  The big surprise is that he is in fact a Southern sympathizer, despite being from New Jersey.  I didn’t really get a good answer from him when I asked why, but I suppose it’s a healthy assessment of the country that he can be.

The plantation house is really the only one that shows up on tour guides of the area, which struck me as a little odd, until John mentioned that it was one of the few made of stone (local limestone quarried on the property), which made it very difficult for the Yankees to burn.  See, the property is also the site of the Battle of Cedar Creek, wherein General Sheridan’s troops, relaxing after a long campaign of completely obliterating everything of edible value in the Valley so the Confederates wouldn’t have it, were surprised by a force of rebels who had reformed on the other side of the mountain.  The victorious Rebels, who were also nearly starving by this point (see “edible value, obliterating” above), celebrated their rout by sitting down and digging in to the Union troops’ breakfast.  This, instead of fortifying the position against counterattack…which Sheridan did later that afternoon and retook the ground.  The house has a few bullet holes and at least one large gouge from of spent cannon ball to show around to the other plantations and brag about. 

That’s a notable one, but stories like that are everywhere in the Shenandoah Valley.  History, and Civil War history in particular, is infused in this place.  Everywhere we go we learn something new about what happened here, and without going deep diving into Civil War scholarship, there’s no way to know it all.  Sitting around the breakfast table with Ed and a few other guests, he mentioned that the Inn changed hands something like 70 times over the course of the war.  The most important person there during that time wasn’t the innkeeper, but the young slave boy who had the job of keeping a lookout for who was coming up the road or the river, and hoisting the correct flag.  You can see it in everyday objects wherever you go.  Specific spots of the landscape that are known to have had strategic import, like Signal Knob on the north slope of Mt. Massanutten, which bisects the Valley.  Log or rough stone buildings like the Inn at Narrow Passage, that predate the war, were used as military facilities out of necessity, and were lucky to survive it.  There is a tree in the front yard of the Inn that was clearly there when it was used as a hospital for the Union, witnessing “operations” that while brutal, revolutionized the way doctors approached surgery. 

I’m a history buff, but I just don’t know Civil War history that well.  It’s such a towering subject, and so dependent on the point of view of the presenter, that I’ve just not been able to dig in to it.  I’ve seen Ken Burns’ documentary, which is a piece of art, but that barely skims the surface.  The point is, I felt a little overwhelmed while on this trip, simply unable to grasp everything that transpired there.  But I’m glad I was there.

Now, loose ends.  This morning as we sat down to breakfast, Ed came over and asked us “now that you’re checking out, I wanted to ask if you’d seen any of the ghosts?”  So this place was haunted, too.  I’m 2-for-2 on this trip.  We said no, though Emily had heard the door rattling one night while I was in another part of the Inn, but Ed said that was probably just “groundhogs.”  Anyway, I won’t dwell on it, because we did have a really wonderful stay, and I didn’t see anything worse than I’ve seen living in my haunted fraternity house.

To run down a few of the great places we ate while there, let me say that dining in the area is varied and really high quality.  While the Valley is still very country-esque, there is also a distinct subversive flair to the area, with older hippie types and that most peculiar of beings, the long-range hiker.  The Woodstock CafĂ© and Shops is a nice place to get a well-made coffee drink or loose-leaf tea, and has an Etsy-style consignment shop for local artists and craftspeople to sell their wares.  Great sandwiches, too.  Gathering Grounds in Luray (about 30 minutes away) is spectacular, with the Greatest Cinnamon Bun in the World I mentioned earlier, and just great care taken with their gourmet, but reasonably priced, menu. 

The Shenandoah Valley is also thriving, if rather young, wine country.  There are at least a half-dozen vineyards within the Valley, taking advantage of relatively mild winters and dry summers to grow some very flavorful and interesting grape varieties.  We stopped at Wolf Gap Vineyards outside Edinburg for a tasting, and walked out with a few bottles (some are gifts, I swear).  The place sits in what I can only describe as a small bit of heaven at the end of a series of twisty, gradually narrowing roads, with breathtaking views from the tasting deck.  Makes a man thirsty…

I don’t know too many people who’ve been to the Shenandoah Valley, unless they really wanted to get there, but that really needs to change.  I’m telling you, you want to get there.  It’s really an amazing place to spend a few days, or just a night. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A Shenandoah Odyssey: Act 4

One of the things we try to accomplish each vacation is to do as many things as possible we've either never done before or are specific to the area we're visiting.  In that spirit, we decided to go horseback riding on this trip.

This isn't completely out of left field; the wife has always loved horses and rode some as a kid, and I actually owned a pony as a child, though I didn't ride him nearly as often as I probably should have.  At any rate, neither of us had actually been on a horse-like creature in at least 20 years, and certainly not since aquiring that most adult of emotions, fear.  Fear of falling off.  Fear of looking like an idiot.  Fear of smelling like a horse for the rest of the day.  I don't know when this kicks in, but it's certainly present for me in places it never was before.  Like roller coasters.  I love roller coasters, the faster and twistier the better, but I've found I simply cannot look around on the way up the first hill anymore.  I'm stomach-clinching terrified of the height on the boring part of the ride.  Not even the anticipation of the first free-fall, just the fact that the ground is far away now.  How screwed up is that?

Anyway, we drove out through the hills to the Fort Valley Ranch, just outside Edinburg, VA.  Arriving well before our appointed departure time, we noticed a lack of crowd, despite the fact that the website noted that "reservations strongly recommended."  In fact, the only person we saw anywhere was in the paddock with about 20 horses, snapping a bullwhip, and swearing in a drawl somewhere between Marlboro Man and NASCAR Woo Guy.  This man, it turned out, would be our guide, Shane.

We made our way to the office (after dutifully bug-spraying, sunscreening, and taking a few pictures, like good city-fied tourists would), and hung out a few minutes until Shane entered and handed us some very pointed release waivers.  BTW, horseback riding is considered an "adventure sport," and requires us to tell the state of Virginia what our medical insurance company is.  Anyway, while filling out the paperwork we chatted about, what else, the storms that had done the area some damage.  When the storm had hit, he was on top of a nearby mountain (for an unmentioned purpose), with his way blocked by several downed trees.  He had to hike down the mountain, in the rain and wind, to get a chainsaw to cut his way out.  Let me repeat that:  he walked down the mountain to safety, then got a chainsaw and went back to free his truck...right away.  When he got back he found some hikers who'd been planning to camp on the mountain trying to get down.  "Then I thought the mee-en would help me clear the road, but they sat there in the coar and watched, to stay out of the rain.  Pissed me awff."  As this statement concluded, I frantically played the scenario in my mind to determine if I would have stayed in the car too.  I decided finally that I'd have helped (it's a hypothetical, right?), and agreed with Shane that those hikers were pussies. 

The best picture I have of Shane, at right.  I would've asked for a better portrait, but frankly the thought scared the bejesus out of me.  There's that fear again. 
You tended to agree with Shane often, because Shane speaks the truth.  He has a definite opinion on life, and how it should work.  He would periodically stop his horse on the trail and turn him side-on to sermonize us a bit (I suspect this was partially to fill out the 90-minute ride time).  For instance, hiking is not a worthy past time.  Why would you walk over a mountain, with a 150 lb pack, and sticks, when a perfectly good road goes around or over it?  Also, the winds that tore up the woods we were riding through were, in his opinion, a tornado.  Our response that the news was reporting that is was some sort of straight-line, land hurricane (with the delightfully exotic name "derecho."  Say it with me...duh-RAAAAAY-cho...) was met with disbelief, and the insistence that the tree tops were "swirlin' around.  Straight lahn wi-ends don't do that."  He did relent a bit when he realized we were from the Midwest and had some real tornado experience, but only so far as to say that maybe it was just short of becoming a tornado.  You're right Shane, that's probably it. 

His opinions on the wildfires were spot-on, though.  Only a complete and utter jackass would throw a cigarette butt out the window in a forest in summer.

I'm making him sound like an oaf, and I'm regretting that because it was an entertaining and informative ride through some very peaceful and beautiful woodland on the mountainside.  The horses were the kind you might expect on a tourist-driven riding ranch, docile and more or less on autopilot along the trail.  The wife's was a slow, thoughtful flea-bitten gray unoriginally named Flea.  His main vice was stopping to eat whatever foliage happened to be near the trailside, and was forever being snapped back to reality to keep moving.  This was a problem, because I was bringing up the rear on my trusty bay gelding, Buddy.  Buddy is a tailgater.  He was not happy with walking at the appropriate plodding pace, and the green tourist wearing the baseball cap tugging on the reigns to slow him down was not helping his patience.  Periodically, Buddy would stop dead in the trail to take a dump or leak.  The other horses did this on the fly...not Buddy.  Once, though, he stopped not to pee, but to panic at the horsefly on his rump that he couldn't reach.  This was right on the edge of a ravine, which was twitching up the roller coaster fears for me a bit, and Buddy started to buck.  The thought I specifically remember is "Oh, God, this is happening!  This is happening!  I should've checked the 'yes' box on the helmet!"  Shane said simply "slap the fly." 

Above:  Rider's-eye view of Buddy, plotting his next move.
Below:  Buddy's rider, putting on a good face for the camera.

And now, let's talk about Chicks, man.

You the man, Joel.

 Another major part of every vacation is finding the perfect local eatery.  This is very important.  We can have Bob Evans or Wendy's anywhere, so we shoot for the local favorites.  The best one we've found so far should be featured on Food Network's Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives.

Southern Kitchen in New Market, VA is one of those little local diner spots that looks like it was transported straight from 1955.  And I'm not talking about stupid pastel Johnny Rockets 50's, but the real deal.  Take a look:

That's DeeDee, our waitress.  She was perfectly friendly and efficient, not theatrically mean like we're supposed to expect from diner waitresses in a post Ed Debevic's world.
It reminded me so much of places I used to go with my mom and dad.  Institutional mint green paint, oceans of Formica with the classic spirograph pattern, backlit menu board above the counter, appropriately yellowed with age and old cigarette smoke (though not a lot of places, there's no smoking in most buildings in Virginia).  There's a juke box, but nobody put a quarter in, so it wasn't playing some BS doo-wop on a loop.  No, this place was just about feeding people who go there often and know everyone else.  I'd guess we were the only people in the place that didn't live within 20 miles.

The menu was enormous, full of country home-cooking like meatloaf, open-faced hot sandwiches smothered in gravy, and Virginia country ham steak.  But a special box announced that fried chicken was their specialty.  I'm going to eat that.  Oh yes...I will eat that.

We both ordered more than we should (dietary restrictions tend to be left at home on vacations, too), and it took a while because they cook it to order here.  No big piles of pre-fried chicken parts hanging around under heat lamps at Southern Kitchen, by God.  They broke down a chicken and fried it only after we asked them to.  And the sides...there must have been 15 classics to choose from.  We got a combination of mashed potatoes and gravy, home fries, green beans, and buttered beets, the last of which pleased the wife.  Just take a look.

Dessert was necessarily a to-go order, because come on, man.  I was fighting the meat sweats as it was.  So we picked from the selection of approximately 1,000 pies (several of which were sold out by this point), with peanut butter meringue (that's getting pretty damn Southern there) and blackberry.  The PB pie, for your enjoyment:

I know I promised something about a cinnamon bun, but I'm out of space here.  We're heading home tomorrow, but I'll make some time to talk about that, as well as bore you all with some more reflections about history and why a New Jersey native who bears a strong resemblance to Larry David would root for the wrong side.  Later!

Monday, July 2, 2012

A Shenandoah Odyssey: Act 3

Okay, I'm going to play around with the timeline a little here.  Why?  Well, for one, I could say that I can't seem to catch up with the trip here (I'll again nod to the 1300 words about a gas station from yesterday).  Another optional answer is that some days weren't exactly as full of high drama as that first 20 hours was.  Oh yes, those first two posts covered just about exactly 20 hrs...mercy.  But I'll give the most pretentious answer instead:  this is an "odyssey," and of course everyone who's everyone knows that Homer played with chronology in the Odyssey, telling large chunks of the story via flashback...a true innovation in Western literature.  Then I'll remove my tweed jacket, set down my calabash pipe, and give a little "harumph" before settling in to a nice brandy.

The rest of the journey was pretty mundane by comparison.  The drive down the final 200 or so miles of U.S. 50 was as expected, and made for a lovely drive on what turned out to be a beautiful afternoon.  There were significant power outages all the way through West Virginia, but by the time we got closer to the eastern end of the state things started looking more normal.  We managed to get our first real meal in 24 hours in Clarksburg (a Panera Bread with functional lights never looked so good), and neurotically topped off the tank again in Romney, WV.  The town was very acommodating to whatever we believed in at the

A couple of things I'd like to illustrate about the trip along 50 into Virginia:

1.)  None of the civil engineers working that job took a college course with the word "linear" in the title:

The speedometer plus the faint green line on the GPS (old "Maybe You'll Get There" Magellan) should tell the story here.

2.)  Maryland--which our path took us into for about ten miles--has pink roads.  I don't understand why, but there it is.  If anyone out there knows, I'm all ears, but that is decidedly rosy.

Not much more needs to be said about the trek in...I think I've covered that pretty well.  Wait, here's a quick parting view of the Blennerhassett...much creepier at night, but she's an elegant old pile in the daylight.

At last, right around dinner time on June 30th, we reached our home base for the trip, the charming Inn at Narrow Passage, in "the other Woodstock."  The oldest parts of the place were built in 1740, at the "narrow passage" point on the Great Wagon Road, now Route 11, and Stonewall Jackson used it as his headquarters during the 1862 Valley campaign.  Ed, the innkeeper, is the easiest man in the world to talk to, and is a valuable source of information about the area...but his iphone photography skills could use some work.  Those shots of us near the fireplace will not be appearing here, but I won't hold that against him.  Some nice mood-setters of the Inn.

 If I can double back on the Stonewall Jackson thing, as anyone with a mild case of Civil War buffery (buffoonery?) knows, the Shenandoah Valley played an enormous role in the war.  It was one of the South's breadbaskets, and also a strategic highway straight into the North.  The campaign that ultimately led to Gettysburg got there after months of skirmishing up and down the Valley.  Everywhere you go here, you see those brown "attraction of historical significance" signs with the site of a battle or a memorial or other important reminder of the war.  But they all tend to run, at least outwardly, toward a simple and solemn commemoration of the conflict.  This differs dramatically from other places I've visited in the South, most notably Charleston, SC, where it seems like every street corner and park takes to chance to honor the glorious rebel dead, and give a sound F-you to the Yankee aggressors.  It's a nice change, and makes us Yankee aggressors feel much more welcome.

Of course, one of the primary destinations for this trip is Shenandoah National Park, one of the largest in the East.  The centerpiece of the park is Skyline Drive, which, Cincinnati folks, contains not a SINGLE instance of the thing you're thinking of...what the hell, right?  You can't make that marketing connection?  The road is 105 miles long and bisects the park, while running along the tops of the mountains.  Something like 75 scenic overlooks are dotted along the route, and our first full day here, we stopped at something like 25 of them...


Most of those shots were taken by the wife...she's the expert.  Here's an example of the author trying to Cro Magnon his way to a decent photo:

By the way, those are in fact wildfires you see burning in the background of a few of those shots.  There is one going in the George Washington National Forest (seen in the top photo above) that has burned 5000 acres and was nowhere near contained (started by "some dumbass who threw his cigarette butt out the window," according to our horseback guide Shane...more on him later), and a smaller one in the park itself started a week ago by lightning strikes.  That one is being worked, but was on a difficult slope to get to, so they're bringing in the big guns...

OK, so the picture doesn't necessarily capture the "big" nature in question...
That was our first day in the park, driving a few minutes, getting out to take some pictures, driving some more, lather, rinse, repeat.  It was a great way to capture the immensity of the park, but didn't feel all that "naturey."  So the next day we came back for a little day hiking.  We managed to hike some of the Appalachian Trail, 100 miles or so of which runs through the park.

This much, we hiked just about this much of the Appalachian Trail.  So no, dear, we can't get one of those "AT" stickers for the car.

We took one fairly challenging trail down to Dark Hollow Falls (sounds either sinister or gross, depending on what type of person you are), which helped us feel more like we'd "experienced" the park a little more.

Sorry, these photos are mine...the wife's are better.
Every time I visit one, I relearn the fact that the National Park system is a treasure.  Smooth, well-maintained roads, knowledgeable and available rangers, and some of the most pristine and awe-inspiring places on the continent, for $15.  And that lets you stay there more or less continuously for a week if you want.  Why is it that the NPS always seems to be fighting for funding?

Anyway, that's enough for a day, yes?  Tomorrow, Shane Who Speaks Truth, Buddy the Tailgater, and the greatest fried chicken...and pie...and cinnamon've ever had.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

A Shenandoah Odyssey: Act 2

So where were we?  Ah yes, epic adventure through southeastern Ohio, to land in Parkersburg, WV and the set of the next George Romero masterpiece, the historic Blennerhassett Hotel, in a blackout.

I woke the next morning (very early, since the vacation gods dictate that you can't sleep in when you're allowed to) with the certain knowledge that the problem hasn't been solved while we slept.  The lack of any sort of air conditioning happening from the wall unit told me so before I even opened my eyes.  A quick look out the window to the patio below revealed a chef preparing to boil a massive pot of water on a gas grill.  This seemed like an unlikely normal routine for Saturdays at the Blennerhassett.

June 30th, 2012:  Happy 11th Anniversary, baby!

Showered and dressed, we met another of the army of bellmen stationed in every dark corridor to guide guests around who gave us the rundown:  still no power in the city, except for the hospital circuit just down the road.  The big problem that had already presented itself was fuel.  There were only two functional gas stations that he knew about, and they were already lined up 45 minutes deep (this was at about 8:00 AM).  We continued downstairs to breakfast (the enormous pot of water had transformed into an enormous pot of oatmeal) and to plan our next move, sans coffee, which apparently takes electricity to create. 

Fuel hadn't really occurred to us to this point, as we were in my wife's Prius, which tends to make one forget about gas gauges.  We were sitting on about a quarter tank, which would have been no trouble at all under normal circumstances...117 miles of road left there, per the HAL9000-grade computer system onboard.  But the next major spot of ink on the map was Clarksburg, WV, a good 60 miles down the road, and then not a lot beyond.  Reports we'd gleaned from other travelers and local news suggested the outages were more widespread than we'd even thought:  from as far north as Columbus all the way to Charleston, WV in the south, some 80 miles away, and even as far as Beckley, WV another 50 beyond that.  The odds of happening across a country gas station with juice to run the pumps was slim, and well beyond even my sense of adventure. 

So we checked out, filled our water bottles, got some directions to 7-11, and went to join the fray.

Traffic stopped in the right lane of a busy thoroughfare about a quarter mile from the station.  Riding shotgun, I got out to reconnoiter the situation (pretending to be on a spec-ops mission sometimes helps my frame of mind in stressful situations...don't judge me).  Basically, we were a Sam's Club parking lot away from the station, with a solid line of cars approaching from all directions.  Conversations with a few people waiting closer to the pumps revealed that they'd only been in line 15 minutes or so, which sounded like good news.  I went back to the car, and we settled in to wait.

And wait.

Aaaaaand wait some more.

As we waited, we noticed a lot of people walking up to the station with gas cans to stand in line, which was not a plan most of the motorists in line were particularly happy with.  Adding problems, it's a pre-pay cash system, so anyone without a credit or debit card had to go queue up inside to pay first, which added a layer of inefficiency frosting to the top of the catastrophe cake (and some shouting sprinkles for a little bit of "sparkle").  A very frazzled woman in a 7-11 smock was doing her level best to impose order on the situation, but was clearly exhausted and only barely holding things together.  Hats off to her for not just pulling the plug and pleading power loss.

One of the people we noticed walking the sidewalk up and down the line was a portly red headed kid of about 12, who first drew our notice because he was wearing shower shoes, and scuffing his feet with every step.  This being a pet peeve of ours (independently gained before we met...we were made for each other!), we remembered him...and then felt really guilty when he came back along the line of cars with a box of Chips Ahoy cookies from the 7-11, offering them to anyone who wanted a pick-me-up.  God, what a perfectly nice little gentleman...but pick up your feet anyway.  Oh, and the same goes for every teenage girl who owns a pair of Uggs.

Shortly after we assuaged our guilt with a chocolate chip cookie, and as we approached the turn into the actual station (this is about 2 hours into the wait, for reference), I noticed a guy carrying a case of Natural Ice on his shoulder and jokingly asked if he was passing those out like the kid with the cookies.  This caused him to seriously answer "no," and to volunteer the information that the tanks were almost empty, and the attendants inside were about to shut off the pumps.  Thanks, buddy.  Enjoy your diarrhea beer.

My indomitable spouse, who to this point had been pretty well focused on the mission at hand--Step 1) 7 gallons of gas; Step 2) get the hell out of Parkersburg--absorbed this information, and almost immediately began to have an episode of what over the years I've come to think of as "The Frets."  They'd popped up briefly and with justification as the storm was chasing us down the previous day, but had really not emerged again since.  Now as we entered the wild west of the station lot, it became a very important game of "choose the correct checkout line."  Avoid the ones with trucks, count the cars in line, etc.  We made our choice, and after a few minutes it looked like maybe the wrong one.  The Frets intensified.  Suddenly she said "You drive, I'm going to the bathroom."  And she was gone. 

This, as it turned out, was what she needed.  She didn't actually get back in the car.  On her way back from the station only minutes later (for some reason the bathrooms were the ONLY thing about the 7-11 that day that no one wanted), she just stopped by the pump and started to make friends.  She chatted with the people in line ahead of us, helped with guiding traffic out, and struck up a conversation with the man behind us in line, who'd actually grown up in Wapakoneta, OH (birthplace of Neil Armstrong and one "So You Think You Can Dance" contestant!  Choose the fact that's most important to you!), relatively close to our childhood homes.  That natural ability to relate to people saved our day.  And like most disaster-related rumors, this one was not as bad as it sounded.  We filled up a lot faster than most, owing to the tiny tank on a Prius and the lack of multiple gas cans, and left the station with an enormous sense of relief.  And convenience.  People are just rainbows and unicorn farts when you're trying to weave a path OUT of a crowded gas station. 

But I'm thinking that place was going to start looking like the river-crossing scene in War of the Worlds a few minutes after we left (Tom Cruise fighting aliens?  Seems like a natural fit!).

Our trip to fuel up had taken just shy of 3 hrs.  After fighting a city-full of drivers with a breathtaking ignorance of 4-way stop etiquette, we made it back to U.S. 50 and on to more Americana.  That story comes with a few pictures, and a beautiful destination.  Besides, I just wrote 1300 words about getting gas, what more do you want from me?

Saturday, June 30, 2012

A Shenandoah Odyssey: Act 1

So, my wife and I have something of a tradition regarding our anniversary.  In the last few years, we've started taking little trips around the fateful day, just an overnight or a long weekend, just the two of us.  The interesting part--she has no idea where we're going.  Sometimes she doesn't even KNOW we're going, like last year when she came home from work to just me telling her to pack a bag and put on a fancy dress.  And it's always great, because my wife is a details person...she likes to know things.  "Control freak" is far too strong a term, but still, uncertainty does not play well with her.  She's a software engineer, maybe that serves as an explanation.

Anyway, there's a point to this bit of potentially relationship-straining exposition.  This year the super-secret trip is a little more involved in terms of planning:  driving from our home in Cincinnati to the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia.  Historical B&B, hiking and horseback riding in the national park, antebellum plantation tours...should be great.  You see, instead of taking Google's first choice for route, a somewhat roundabout but very dependable all-interstate trek, I opted for the more geographically direct U.S. 50 basically the whole way.  Why not?  It was 40 miles shorter, and actually clocked in at a minute faster.  And besides, think of all the great scenic opportunities that we'd miss out on if we took the boring old "safe" interstate!  Too often we miss real Americana when we travel, and it's disappearing.  And the convenient halfway point was what appeared, again on Google maps, to be a charming river town called Parkersburg, WV, only 3 1/2 hours down the road.

If you'll permit me a momentary baseball metaphor, I may have been jumping for a first-pitch fastball, and nature threw a curve. 

With an adventurous spirit, at around 4:15 PM on Friday, June 29th, we headed east.  At around 4:20 PM, we noticed a storm rolling in from the  At 4:45 we were huddled in the basement of the Lebanon Public Library, with the electricity out, waiting for the raging winds and rain to lighten up enough to keep from getting blown off the road.  While there, we met some nice people also looking for refuge, and some very patient library employees trying to close the place up and get the hell home.  The library director, a very nice lady whose name I unfortunately did not get (and whose nametag was obscured by the storm-induced darkness), chatted with us a while about her 22 years in Lebanon, and gave a ringing endorsement of the small town nature it’s managed to retain even while doubling in size over that time. 

So there you have it folks, Lebanon, OH:  great place to cower in fear.

An hour later, and only twenty minutes into our trip, we were once again on our way.  The storm we let pass, it should now be noted, was a whopper.  We didn't really grasp this at the time, but as we traveled generally east-southeast, it became more and more apparent.  A plan to stop in Chillicothe, OH (Ohio's first capital!) was waylaid by a lack of electricity.  No matter, let's push on, there are plenty of places to get a quick bite, and we've already lost a lot of time.  We were still saying that an hour or so later, passing through McArthur, OH (Vinton County seat and named for War of 1812 General Duncan McArthur!), looking in vain for a working stop light that would indicate modern civilization.  And we'd really started to notice the debris.  U.S. 50 passes through or near several notable national and state forests, and all of them tend to drop large branches and even whole member trees in big storms.  One of these happened to fall across a power line over the road just east of McArthur and stopped traffic.  After a series of GPS arguments, fruitless detour attempts on some truly frightening "roads," and one desperate roadside peepee stop, we decided to wait out the road crew to clear the tree.  They succeeded just around sunset. 

As darkness was now falling, we really became aware of the problem.  We would learn the next day that approximately 2 million people in the Eastern U.S. lost power to this storm, and our path took us conveniently right down the middle of its wake.  On either side of the road, nothing but darkness.  Athens, OH (home to Ohio University, The Princeton Review's #1 party school in the U.S.!  Go Bobcats!) was conspicuously lit up like nothing happened, which just makes me think the party school reputation is a cover for something much more sinister.  By this point, we were thinking of nothing but getting to our hotel, but calls to confirm a later checkin were met with ominous busy signals...uh-oh.  After passing what appeared to be the world's most popular gas station (RED FLAG!) in the oddly named Coolville, 20 miles down the road from the hilariously-named Guysville--I'm thinking a historical pissing match may be to blame--we continued on into the now-resumed blackness.

As we crossed the Ohio River into West Virginia, we were met with the sight of massive gas flares from a darkened factory along the river.  Safety measures, of course, to burn off excess gas, but in the foggy evening it looked like the fires of the apocalypse.  This was our frame of mind by this point in our "relaxed sojourn through Americana."

Now we were approaching Parkersburg (third largest city in West Virgina!  Population 31,629!), which may as well have been a nameless swamp for all we could tell...the city was almost totally blacked out.  The semi-trusty GPS pulled us up to our destination for the night, the historic and elegant Blennerhassett Hotel, which was of course encased in scaffolding for some sort of massive facade repair, and lit only by candles and gaslights around the foggy courtyard.  Did I mention this hotel is haunted?  No?  Well, I didn't know either until after I'd booked it, but figured how creepy could it be?  In a blacked out, storm-torn city, pretty God-damned creepy, that's how.  I decided to withold this bit of information from the wife for the time being, as her relatively fragile spirit of adventure was beginning to wear thin.  The next day (warning, foreshadowing ahead...) would wear it further.

It must be said, the staff at The Blennerhassett was exceptionally friendly and efficient for the conditions, and the nice kid who hauled our luggage up through the Shining-inspired stairwells and hallways was extremely helpful.  A late dinner of cheese sandwiches (they forgot the ham, but we were too tired to care) was followed by crashing into the very plush, but very dark, accomodations, hoping for the power to be restored overnight.

There, that gets us to Parkersburg, WV: a 3.5 hour trip that ended up taking closer to 6.  Next, I'll tell you about getting back out again...that's a better story, but with a much better ending.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Review of "The New Death and Others" by James Hutchings

The New Death and Others, by James Hutchings
Available from Amazon and Smashwords
The e-reader revolution has done a lot to preserve short form literature as a valid creative outlet for new authors.  For a variety of legitimate business reasons, traditional publishing today tends to favor long-form fiction and series, novels and the like.  Collections of short stories tend to be more limited in availability to anthologies of stories by existing authors (sort of paper-bound “All Star Games”) and maybe the occasional collection of single stories by emerging writers.  And don’t even think about poetry, unless you’re talking “inspirational” stuff, or Maya Angelou.  A writer who’d like to focus on short stories and narrative poetry doesn’t really have much traction with traditional publishers.  But e-books have opened up as a legitimate option for writers to distribute their work, no matter how experimental, in short form to a wide audience.  James Hutchings’ The New Death and Others is a book that can greatly benefit from these conditions, hopefully as much as the reader benefits from reading it.
Hutchings, an Australian indie author, has compiled an eclectic collection of fantasy stories and poems that reads quickly and entertains throughout.  The lengths of the pieces range pretty far around the “flash fiction” spectrum, with the longest being several pages and the shortest little more than tweets.  Subject matter is varied, but Hutchings infuses some element of fantasy into each, often returning to the fictional city of Telelee that much of his other work centers on.   In terms of tone, however, the collection is all over the map.  One will be reading a seriously dark story about the shadowy denizens of Telelee one moment, and immediately move on to a short allegorical tale humorously explaining the birth of reality TV.  Reading the book cover-to-cover is a bit like flipping back and forth between Monty Python’s Flying Circus and The Twilight Zone.  Not that that’s bad, mind you, but I was left wondering if this might have been better served as two separate, shorter books. 
That said, the author’s language is just intricate enough to be engaging without being wearisome.  He often mixes styles and subject matter, describing modern articles with the sort of archaic language found in older fantasy writings, and conversely pulling out modern slang and wordplay in the middle of a decidedly fantastic setting—a trick that works better than you’d think.  Hutchings’ stories exhibit a great love and respect for allegorical figures, humble heroes, and the intelligence of cats, as well as a deep-seated dislike of internet dating, McDonalds (of all things), and fan-fiction.  Although, to be fair, several of his poetic homages to great fantasy writers of the past (Lovecraft, Howard, Dunsany) skirt perilously close to that latter category.  A pop culture reference-heavy parody of classic Sherlock Holmes (“The Adventure of the Murdered Philanthropist”) is one not to be missed.
Among my favorites were the thought-provoking “The God of the City of Dust,” the haunting and contemporary “Todd,” and the delightfully solemn (if that makes sense) poem “The Sailor.”  And for other aspiring and sometimes blocked writers out there, “The Jeweled City” is a hilariously meta surprise.  Several pieces were somewhat disappointing for their lack of any sort of direction…at least a few seemed designed entirely to throw the reader off base like an exceptionally good knock-knock joke.  Again, if that’s what you’re looking for, they’re fine, but it highlights the thought that maybe this really wants to be two collections.   
Rating:  4 out of 5 stars