Friday, 17 February 2012

The First Three Days

I’ll start with New Jersey, since I wouldn’t know where else to begin.

Brahna and I set off from my house at around 8:30 a.m., waving goodbye to my mother, who was standing in the garage wiping tears away, and pulling out of the cul-de-sac. Driving through my neighborhood and toward the highway was as weird as I had imagined it would be. Instead of driving five minutes to high school, or 20 minutes into the city, or even the seven hours to Montreal, we would be driving for four months and across the entire country and back before finally returning to those familiar streets.

Leaving New Jersey.

It was as I imagined, but also different, because it was real. We listened to NPR and drove south. I missed the exit for the New Jersey Turnpike and had to double back—the first of what will surely be many thousands of travel boners.

We first stopped in Susquehanna State Park in northern Maryland, on the shore of the river of the same name. It was on the site of a pre-industrial hamlet, with a mill, a few outlying buildings, and a canal. There once was a long, double-barreled covered bridge stretching the length of the river, the old posts of which can still be seen in the river. The park preserves the small white house that served as the bridge-keeper’s residence while the span still stood. In exchange for the house and a small garden, he had only to oversee the bridge’s maintenance and repairs. While such an arrangement certainly captures my imagination, so does the idea of travel and constant movement. If I lived in the house, I would constantly envy the peddlers, doctors, and other travelers crossing the bridge and passing me by. We drove on.

Bypassing the nation’s capital, which we spent a few days in last August, we stopped next in Fredericksburg, Virginia—an area featuring several Civil War battlefields, together comprising what the National Parks brochure calls “the bloodiest landscape on the continent.” The intense research—I prefer that word to “planning”—we did before this trip yielded a few interesting things to see there, including the grave of the arm of Stonewall Jackson. Gravely injured by friendly fire at the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville, Jackson had his left arm amputated, but he died anyway a few days later. Jackson’s chaplain, seeing the arm, buried it in the cemetery of his brother-in-law’s estate, the nearby Ellwood Manor, in the middle of yet another battlefield. Jackson himself was buried in Lexington, Virginia, several hundred miles away. We needed a special permit to enter the grounds, and were alone there, among the bloody hills, the drooping trees, and Stonewall Jackson’s missing arm.

Brahna at the grave of Stonewall Jackson's arm.

We continued into Richmond, our first real destination. There, we sought out the White House of the Confederacy, the official home of President Jefferson Davis during the Civil War, and the church where the revolutionary orator Patrick Henry spoke the famous words, “Give me liberty or give me death!” We had to satisfy ourselves with an outside view of these sites, since it was already dark and we had allotted ourselves limited time in Richmond, knowing that meant more time in places further from home. We got back in the car and drove 20 minutes down I-95 to the America’s Best Value Inn in Richmond South. After rearranging the sparse furniture in the room, we had a pleasant picnic of Korean take-out and wine, and tried to plan—research—for the next day.

In the morning we sought out two things I heard about from, a great site for cataloguing and looking through the odd things to be found all around the U.S. First, we drove to Petersburg to see a house built entirely from over 2,000 tombstones for Union war dead. The man who built it, one Mr. Young, purchased the graves from a nearby battlefield cemetery in the 1930s. Next, in Colonial Heights we went to see the house of a man whose life goal is to rebuild Noah’s Ark for the impending second Flood. He and a friend were sitting on the porch of the house watching us photograph it; they didn’t respond particularly warmly to our wave, so we didn’t have a chance to ask the thousand questions we would have wanted to.

A modern Noah's Ark.

Back in Richmond for a few hours in the morning, we walked next to the James River and Kanawha Canal and did a driving tour of the Hollywood Cemetery, recommended by Bonnie, the Lancaster County B&B cook. Perched on a hill overlooking the river, the cemetery hosts the eternal resting places of Presidents John Tyler, James Monroe, and Jefferson Davis, and is itself a beautiful Southern landscape. After that we went to the Beth Ahaba Synagogue, which has a small museum on the history of Jews in Richmond. I found this particularly interesting because I wrote a paper at McGill a few years ago about Jewish abolitionists in the 19th century, and am fascinated by the entire question of Jews and slavery. One thing I was surprised to read at the museum was an excerpt from a Southern Jewish mother to her son, who decided to lead a civilian life in Philadelphia rather than fight for the Confederacy. She wrote that he had never disappointed her—“until now.”

We drove out of Richmond on State Route 5, a scenic byway passing the James River Plantations—most of which were built shortly after the establishment of Jamestown as the first permanent English colony in the New World, and are where tobacco was first developed here as a profitable crop. That led us to Jamestown, our first stop in the Colonial National Historical Park, where we toured the site of the first settlement and the first fort, and quickly made our way through the fascinating Archaearium, a museum displaying only some of the millions of objects that have been uncovered on the site. Included were several skeletons, one of which was mysteriously shot in the leg by a bullet meant to tear ferociously through the skin. Political intrigue? An Indian ambush? It was our job, as visitors, to solve the 400 year old case.


We had to hurry, because the day was disappearing and our intended goal for the night—the Covered Wagon Motel in Washington, North Carolina—was still four hours away. We did a brief drive-by of Williamsburg, which has little to offer the strictly budgeted traveler, and paused meditatively at Yorktown’s Surrender Field, where Britain’s Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington in 1781, all but ending the Revolutionary War and winning independence for the colonies. We figured we had satisfied whatever symbolism we were striving for in visiting those formative spots in American history before embarking on the bulk of our trip; deciding not to stay in Virginia, we sped across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel and into North Carolina.

I could not understand a word spoken by Joseph, the man at the front desk of the Covered Wagon. Only because Brahna seemed to understand, and occasionally translated for me, did I realize he was actually speaking at all. We chose the corner room of an otherwise completely empty motel. It was wood-paneled and had a heater on the floor that seemed to emit an actual flame as we turned the radiator up. We slept well, and survived until morning.

 Covered Wagon Motel in Washington, North Carolina.

We started the next morning with a few brief walk in Goose Creek State Park outside Washington—which, by the way, is the first locality in the U.S. named after the then-future president: the name appears on municipal documents dating back to 1775. Much of the park was decimated by Hurricane Irene, though we took a nice walk along the Pamlico River. Again, we seemed to be in the park alone.
We drove through intense rain until reaching South Carolina, where we went for a stroll on the completed deserted Myrtle Beach boardwalk. Being in such a beach-oriented place in winter—and on such foggy day—seemed a particularly “us” thing to do, and was actually rather pleasant.

 Stretching at Myrtle Beach.

We ended the night at a motel in the tiny town of St. Stephen, about a mile outside Charleston and just on the border of the Francis Marion National Forest. Even though we were using both the GPS and, for back-up, Brahna’s iPhone to guide us through the forest and to the motel, we passed the building twice, and would have done so even more times had we not realized that the motel was not a building at all, but a set of converted trailers we had overlooked. It was well off the main road.


Featuring such luxuries as four walls, a roof, and even a bed, the St. Stephen Motel did, in fact, keep us sheltered through the night. Freight tracks passed directly behind the lot, which I found soothing. Brahna says she’ll write an entry starting with this morning, when we started the day by visiting a monastery. Right now, here in Charleston, I have to do some research on Savannah and Atlanta, and then, I hope, we’ll go to bed…I mean, the tent.

1 comment:

  1. I think Brahna should hold onto the wallet and not let Ricky do anything other than look good