Crossing the road

There was a street running down the center of Pleasant Hill, Kentucky that divided the world from the Kingdom of God. The Shakers that lived there in the 19th century invited the “people of the world” to trade goods, pass, or even watch their spirited and heavily symbolic worship on one side, but they were not allowed across the road. On their side, the Community of the True Believers as they called themselves lived in almost monastic separation, celebrating work and the quality of that work in a deep belief that God was literally in the details.

We are on an educational family vacation. It started with hotel reward points and the desire to drive in the opposite direction of our usual extended family-palooza in the West. We have been traveling back through time—20th, 19th, 18th century; socio-economic stratus—from Kentucky coal miners to Virginia gentry; and exhibitions of varying interest—Revolutionary reenactments are cool, the 1957 introduction-to-Williamsburg movie starring Jack Lord in a wig, not so much. We pull over exit to exit, dragging two intermittently comatose teenagers who wake up and frantically click their heels in a vain attempt to get back to their Play Station.

In each place we notice curious divisions reminiscent of what the Shakers managed with a gravel line—the public display and intended message overlays a private, perhaps unintentional reality. Like perverse detectives we search for clues to stories more real and certainly more like our own. We look, listen and, what is not obvious, we of course, embellish.

Churchill Downs, Kentucky: We go to the horse races and learn how to bet. More payoff for more exact guesses, less payoff but more of a chance to win by choosing a few horses that might place in the top spots. We are intrigued by the names—Black Bottom, Free-Thinker, Lake Monster, Dancing for the Green—and by the intricate layers and rules of the seating “boxes.” We descend to the paddock and watch as each horse—coats lacquered black, thick veins crisscrossing in relief—parades with an entourage. The jockeys, also dark (mostly from South America) and impossibly small and pinched, sit like brightly colored hood ornaments on the star attractions. These horses are royalty; their pedigrees ensure a randy retirement. I wonder about jockeys.

Pleasant Hill, Kentucky: The Shaker Village. I listen to two lectures on Shaker religion and history; the rest of the family discovers vending machines in the barn and cookie cutters in the shape of orphan children and take about 136 pictures of their own interpretive Shaker “dances.” We learn that the demise of the Shaker community had little to do with their belief in celibacy (“no wonder they died out” is the common witty call-out), and everything to do with their egalitarian economic system—holding all things in common. Apparently people were more willing to give up sex than money.

Beckley, West Virginia: We go to an outdoor pageant celebrating the birth of West Virginia during the Civil War. Early Virginians from the western part of the state resented the uppity, slave powered culture of the “Easterners” and prided themselves on being a hard-workin’, self-sustainin’ mountain people. The musical, written in 1961, is both fascinatingly topical in its anti-war/ government-gone-astray rhetoric and numbingly kitschy in its sentimentality. The boys focus on a particularly flamboyant dancer named “Dane Tony.” Clearly the most fabulously out-of-place person on stage, he becomes their hero amid the manufactured heroics of the other characters. Later, after a juggling act at Williamsburg, they lean to one another—“He was O.K., but he was no Dane Tony.”

Outside Beckley, West Virginia: We visit an exhibition Coal Mine and cross off that job from future career possibilities. My husband chats with the guide in a miner’s shanty. She shares a story: “I don’t like to talk about customers, but this woman comes in here complaining how the mine was disgusting, so wet and cold and dirty. I said, ‘Well, honey, what did you think, that you were going to the beach?’”

White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia: We decide to go to a famous and exclusive hotel for lunch. We walk into the pink stripe and green frond café and are ignored. We leave without eating and stop at “Granny’s” down the way a piece. We order fried okra, corn nuggets, apple fritters, fried squash, honey stung chicken, French fries, hush puppies, bacon and butter spinach and fried green tomatoes. We dip everything in caramel sauce. My husband, always concerned about cholesterol and fat, looks over the landscape of brown batter and says, “I am going to die after this trip.” We eat everything and buy t-shirts.

Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia (day 1): I talk to every costumed person, including grilling them about their costumes. My family takes more pictures to get away from me—in the stocks, in front of buildings, practicing more interpretive “shaking.” We attend the Governor’s Palace Picnic for the 4th of July with fancy boxed lunches and entertainment like a Russian contortionist. We learn that 18th century urban Virginians were highly dependent on imports and driven by economic foreign politics eerily similar to the 21st century. The country was founded by consumers looking for the best prices. Still, when a group of men and women, black and white, perform the Declaration of Independence at the capitol building, I cry.

Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia (day 2): My family ditches me and spends most of the day at a water park. I interview every tradesperson in town. I find out that in Williamsburg most of the books sold were blank, bought primarily for financial ledgers. I am told that only the very rich have time to journal—rich, white, male and uncharacteristically for the time, idle. These are the voices that survive to guide the restoration of the city. In the crowd coming home from the fireworks my kid says in his outside voice, “Look mom, that guy’s t-shirt says he is a ‘master baiter.’” “Shhhhhhh, that is fifth time both of you have mentioned that shirt,” I hiss. A woman surrounded by three towering boy-men turns around and smiles. “I have to laugh, I have three boys and it never changes.”

Busch Gardens at Williamsburg, Virginia: More contrived photos, and many, many roller coasters throughout simulated European villages. I don’t ride roller coasters and spend my day waiting, wandering, jotting down things I hear people say and describing what they are wearing. I see a young girl in a t-shirt bearing a color photo of Jesus with his bleeding, flogged back to us. The caption reads, “Read between the lines.” The boys try and cajole me on to the rides. I feel guilty and then not. A perk of being grown-up. I hold their stuff and cheer when they whirl by.

Tomorrow Monticello, Virginia: Then home. We will read in the paper or hear on NPR how tourism is down because of gas prices. We will hear about trends in vacationing. We will see the Weather Channel tracking patterns. All of these generalities will amount to a history that someone will almanac along with every other summer. But on our side of the road we will tell stories with just the right accent, look at pictures of arms waving and know exactly what that dance meant, and we will say a million times, remember when we went . . . ? The history of our trip will be in the details, the difference between what other people would find important and what we think is essential, between what we notice now and what will be remembered later.

4 responses to “Crossing the road”

  1. bryan says:

    so how guilty do i feel for not being able to post from the road last monday? what an awesome travelog, pandora. i hope you turn it into a book.

    i think i’m going to look up something quirky and fun to do in long beach today. thanks for the example.

  2. celia says:

    Wow. Great post.

  3. bryan says:

    well, screw quirky. we went to the beach and then to see Pirates. a good time was had by all.

  4. PB says:

    quirky is as quirlky does. Johnny Depp always counts. Thought of you today–toured the Woodman’s Reserve Distillery– drank and ate bourbon balls (yes LOTS! and LOVED! them, all naughty references fully intended). best vaca, hiccup, ever.