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“What are men to rocks and mountains? Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travellers, without being able to give one accurate idea of any thing. We will know where we have gone—we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers, shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations; nor, when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we begin quarreling about its relative situation. Let our first effusions be less insupportable than those of the generality of travellers.” – Elizabeth Bennet, in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Let me attempt to describe the particular scenes we enjoyed on our recent journey from the flat, swampy terrain of southern Texas to the sandy shores of slower-lower (as the locals say) Delaware. The greater part of our first day was spent driving to Hot Springs, Arkansas. Arriving as the sun started sinking in the sky, we were rewarded with stunning views of Lake Hamilton from the road above. We opted to find a restaurant in the historic part of town and were again pleasantly surprised to find a delicious pizza at SQZBX, a place that showcases its origins as a piano store/repair shop. We learned that our friendly waitress was from Memphis, and she reminded us of the bridge closure that we’d have to navigate the next day. For breakfast, we found a diner that seemed popular with locals. We enjoyed the food, hearing the local accents, and taking in the lake view as we ate.
We couldn’t leave Hot Springs without a quick tour of Bathhouse Row and a chance to dip our hands at least into the actual hot springs. While heavy rain completely denied us any views from the top of Hot Springs mountain, we didn’t have time to hike up the trails and truly earn them. Hot Springs National Park is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, although President Andrew Jackson reserved several parcels of land around the springs for government use in 1832. Elegant Victorian bathhouses were built between 1880 and 1888, and those wooden structures were replaced between 1912 and 1923 with brick and stuccos buildings that still stand today. Due to medical advancements and more people vacationing in their own cars, the popularity of the bathhouses and the interest in Hot Springs as a vacation destination declined in the 1960s. The natural beauty of the area remains, but some parts of the town appear worn out and neglected. Still, for the historic character and the chance to hike the park trails, we may return for another trip.
The following day of travel took us all the way to Nashville, so recollecting all the particulars is too much to ask. However, the Mississippi River crossing in Memphis was not nearly as difficult as we feared with only one bridge available. It was slow-going, but the view of the mighty Mississippi made an impression in comparison with other river crossings on the trip. Despite the trucks, many hours of rain, and a few good-natured family disputes over music or audiobooks, we made our way over 700 miles in two days without incident. When my grandfather embarked on a cross-country journey with friends in the 1930s, it took three days just to go about 100 miles due to country roads and flat tires. As much as the changing topography and scenery, the relative ease of the whole trip demands appreciation for modern vehicles and our transportation network.
In Nashville, we explored the downtown from the Cumberland River up Broadway to the Parthenon in Centennial Park. Witnessing the transition of Broadway from a relatively serene street scene in the morning to a rather raucous collection of live music venues and mobile party buses by dinner-time gave us a good sense of the possibilities that the city has to offer. We toured the Country Music Hall of Fame and saw the Ryman Auditorium, but we found The Row restaurant to be a relaxed place for live music and good barbecue. Nashville certainly caters to the over-21 crowd, so our crew was not eligible for experiencing the fullness of its charms. We did see a group of teachers out to celebrate the end of the school year (or perhaps their teaching careers), wearing matching t-shirts with the slogan “Goodbye Tension, Hello Pension!” If they were among those who taught in-person in 2020-2021, I suppose they’ve earned the chance to let loose.
Leaving Nashville, we headed straight to the Biltmore House in Asheville, NC. This destination was a bit out of the way, but the views of forested hills from the twisting road were as gorgeous as the famous Vanderbilt mansion. Biltmore put the Hot Spring bathhouses to shame, and I suspect that the descendants of George and Edith Vanderbilt are more economically invested and therefore, more successful, at preserving and capitalizing on the natural beauty and historic elegance of the Biltmore than the National Park Service at Hot Springs. Built in 1895, Biltmore is much grander than many French chateaux in the Loire Valley. Even the servants bedrooms appear to be lovely accommodations, especially considering their picturesque views of the Blue Ridge mountains. We surely should have taken the time to tour the many gardens designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, but the constraints of heat, hunger and time meant that we would have to be satisfied with the views from the house and the John Singer Sargent portrait of Olmsted in one of the beautifully appointed living rooms.
After a dazzling sunset in Asheville, we departed early for Charlottesville, VA, in order to tour Thomas Jefferson’s home and grounds at Monticello. Although it is perhaps unfair to compare an estate from a hundred years earlier to Biltmore, we couldn’t help that it was fresh in our minds. We preferred the smaller scale of Monticello and its eclectic elements, which reflect the travels and experiences of the man who first brought classical architecture to American home design. In keeping with the purposes of each estate, Monticello would be the better home in which to actually live (with some modern upgrades), while Biltmore would be a lavish retreat in which to relish being a guest.
Until we arrived at Monticello, we were blissfully unengaged in the news or racial strife of modern America. Touring Jefferson’s home, however, means learning again about his relationship to slavery and about the various ways that people were enslaved at Monticello, particularly Sally Hemings. The fact that Sally Hemings bore six of Thomas Jefferson’s children was stated before any discussion of Jefferson as the third U.S. President or author of the Declaration on Independence. We did not dwell on this aspect of Thomas Jefferson’s life, however, as we focused on touring the house and learning about each room and the historical objects contained therein. Then we hurried to find refuge from the heat in the shade of the forested path to the visitors center. Having viewed Jefferson’s gravesite, we returned to the garden path to appreciate the views.
None of us is ignorant about the reality of slavery in American history, and we’ve had previous opportunities to view the living quarters of historical enslaved people. Monticello adds a layer of context to this aspect of American history by really emphasizing the nature of the power dynamics that would have influenced the relationship between Hemings and Jefferson. It’s all presented in a very authoritative manner by the foundation that preserves and honors Jefferson and his home, so who am I to dispute their historical account? However, I have previously read that the DNA evidence of the connection between Jefferson and the male descendants of Sally Hemings is not as conclusive as some would like to believe. Additionally, it appears that the first accusation of the relationship was made in 1802 by an adversary of Jefferson’s with a political axe to grind. Having lived through the Me Too movement, the Trump Presidency, and the controversy over the Mike Pence rule (a rule stating that men should never put themselves in a situation where they can be falsely accused of rape, sexual assault, or fraternization), call me skeptical. Obviously, U.S. presidents, other rich and powerful men, or even not so rich and powerful men, have not always behaved themselves where women are concerned. Still, everyone has his own biases and interests, including the children of Sally Hemings and the foundation at Monticello.
Leaving history and its secrets behind, we traveled east through the rolling hills that stretch out beneath the Blue Ridge Mountains. With fine views of farms and forests, we kept a good pace for several hours. Then we approached the Beltway around Washington, D.C. and had the good fortune to avoid a recent collision involving four cars. On the flip side, we sat in traffic for the first time in a thousand miles and were captive as Brood X cicadas buzzed all around us. Traffic is back in Washington, DC, signaling that the pandemic is finally over. Or rather the government over-reach in response to Covid-19 has loosened its grip on the Capital region.
We completed the seven-day journey on Sunday, arriving at our final destination at the Delaware shore. I can recollect and describe the places we visited, but none has the resonance of the familiar seaside county that I have been visiting my whole life. Each year more people discover it, retire here, or relocate and work from home. The trouble with invigorating a sleepy town by the water is that the crowds detract from the charm that initially invited them. And so the newcomers complain of the traffic and the construction, the disappearance of the bucolic sensibility, and the inevitable change to which they themselves contributed. Some history is preserved and some gives way to renovation or new development, but the bones are still familiar and as beloved as the newly traveled territory that brought us back here.Published in