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Travelogue: Tour of the near-South, Easter 2010

April 13th, 2010 by admin

Easter Road Trip 2010

Who: Erin Welch and Mike Varley

When: March, 31 – April 7, 2010

Where: Washington, DC, Maryland, West Virginia, Shenandoah Valley, Richmond and Gettysburg.

Why: To see the road and visit friends.

Day 1

March 31st was a work and travel day.  I left Long Island at 8pm after working 11 hours at Carillon, picked up Erin at my apartment and drove straight through to Washington, DC.  Those first late night Cherry Blossoms driving through a quiet capital were a sign of things to come the following day.  We made it to Kristine’s house in Cleveland Park at 1:30 AM and went almost immediately to sleep on her pullout couch.

Day 2

Erin and I got a late start to the next day, not leaving the house until 1 or so.  We decided to walk to the Mall instead of taking the Metro because of the lovely weather.  The city has its charms, with its fine row houses, impressive architecture and political flavor.  Erin and I took to stopping along the walk to take pictures of various embassies hidden on side streets.  In naturally comparing it to my home city, I found the greater portion of it distinct from New York – too squat to resemble Manhattan, too broad to approximate Brooklyn.  Erin likened it more to Paris in its wide, ungridded streets and set-back buildings.

Crossing over K Street, I spotted the first of my two souvenir items of the trip: A glitter-glazed, iron-on tee-shirt depicting the Capitol building wreathed in pink Cherry Blossoms.  I took five steps past the shirt vendor and was unable to move further, trapped in irony’s orbit.  Erin and I had 9 dollars between us.  The shirts were one for $5, two for $9.  We bought them and posed in front of the White House.

After our White House photo op, we took advantage of the Smithsonian’s open door policy and stopped into the craft museum.  I was expecting quilts and painted furniture, but there was a wide variety of work with no discernible theme.  We were walking around the second floor when Erin told me my phone was ringing.   I had heard the ring to which she was referring, but it was a foreign tone so I told her it wasn’t mine.  She replied the noise was coming from my pants.  I took out my phone to find it had completely released its bowels: no settings, no service and no contacts.  I hadn’t walked through a metal detector or anything like that and it was only three weeks old.  It did not work for the rest of the trip.

After the museum we went down to the Mall to see the tourist sites: the Washington Monument, the Reflecting Pool and the Lincoln Memorial.  Lincoln looked burdened and bothered by his visitors.  We stood on the spot where MLK gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, then hung out under the Cherry Blossoms, which had just reached peak bloom the day before.

I observed all the cameras as we took in these sites, capturing private Washington’s.   It all seemed so mortal, wanting to stretch the present moment into the future, beyond its means.  As you can tell from my videos I’m just another culprit, but it speaks to our culture’s craving of framing experience rather than experiencing it directly – LCD screens as security blankets.  I daydreamed what it would look like if each recording device had a red cone extending out thirty feet from its viewfinder, making us cognizant of the soul-stealing crossfire.

That evening, we had a mini-Geneseo reunion for dinner company.  Kristine, Brian Sweeting and Russell Lake joined us at Mama Ayesha’s in Woodley Park, with Kristine’s friend Wendy filling out the table.  We had wonderful discussion,continued at Dan’s Café in Adam’s Morgan over DIY Jack and Cokes, where you get a few glasses, a can of soda, a bucket of ice and a pint of whiskey.  We debated the artistic merits of Lady Gaga (my opinion: talented musician and master pop culture manipulator whose artistic contributions are all flash and no fuel) and the hypnotic power stickers have over small children.  The night was beautiful and perfumed with flowers.  Before sleep, Erin and I sat under the blossoms in front of Kristine’s for a spell, staring up and admiring the golden back glow the streetlight provided.


Day 3

We made a point of going to the zoo before we left for West Virginia, as it was two blocks away from Kristine’s house.  It was a bit of a let down, as most animals were either sleeping or MIA, but we did see the pandas which were Erin’s main concern.  After an hour of animals, we made our way to Morgantown.

Most of the day’s drive took us through the width of Maryland.   I’d never been beyond the Maryland seaboard and was surprised by the hilliness and rural nature of the state.   We scaled mountains with names like “Big Savage” and “Negro Mountain” before making it through to Morgantown, where Erin’s friend Gretchen awaited us.  Driving through the hills near her home we were struck by the wanton growth of the area.  Hundreds of condos stood propped up on hills, seemingly vulnerable to every natural disaster imaginable.  Gretchen told us there were no zoning laws, so buildings went up without regard to reason or landscape in order to match the town’s robust housing demands.  To see that many homes stacked and tiered, their porches on stilts of unpainted lumber, with the knowledge that eighteen months ago the hillsides were untouched was a surreal experience.

We spent the afternoon with Gretchen taking in the local sites and local color.  At the local state park we hiked to Henry Clay’s furnace and saw a shirtless man in bib overalls.  We went on a quest for Johnny Walker Green Label to buy for a friend, as it’s only sold by tradition south of the Mason-Dixon line.  We saw West Virginia University’s basketball stadium, nicknamed “The Spaceship,” a 100% concrete structure that looks like a UFO crossed with an oyster.   We also went to dinner and spotted a car with homemade detailing painted to look like a Bengal tiger.

Then there was Sheetz, which is not unique to West Virginia but was first introduced to me there and would recur throughout the trip.  Sheetz is part gas station, part food court and destined to rule the world like Wal-Mart before it.  It is the first gas station I’ve seen that can legitimately call itself a destination, and with Main Street ever evaporating a chain of clean gas stations with decent food would fill an important community niche.  Plus there’s the name, which gave me endless joy throughout the trip.   One day, Erin got some coffee from there and I asked her if it tasted like Sheetz.  Another time, we were in a parking lot that appeared connected to Sheetz but wasn’t and we were Sheetz out of luck.  And while we couldn’t find one anywhere near the dairy farms of northern Virginia, Erin and I were in agreement that the surrounding pastures smelled like Sheetz.


Day 4

We left Gretchen’s at 9:30 AM for what would be the longest part of our trip, a seven-hour drive to Richmond, VA by way of Shenandoah Valley’s Skyline Drive, the main feature of Shenandoah National Park.  But first was the drive through the mountains of West Virginia, notable for its old towns and neglected buildings, each place with its own claim to fame like “Birthplace of Mother’s Day” or “First Land Shots of the Civil War.”  We’d drive through one pastoral scene after another, the hillsides alternating between herds of grazing animals and old, wooden billboards for upcoming churches.  Every so often we’d stumble across a geologic phenomena like Seneca Rocks or climb a mountain and see the whole of creation below us.  It’s a kind of America not contained in the city, where change comes slow and skeptical and nature climbs into your character.  I’ll not estimate which life holds higher value, but coming from the city I was parched for these sights.

It was on reaching the summit of a particularly steep mountain that our expedition ran into trouble.  We had stopped at a scenic overlook when I noticed a faint yet familiar smell coming from my car.   It was a burning smell I remembered from six weeks previous, when a hole had rusted through my radiator.  Sure enough, when we started the car back up the temperature gauge went straight to red.  Fortunately we had already climbed the mountain, but after coasting down its eastern side we still had 10 miles to Harrisonberg, VA.  The temperature started creeping up with any acceleration and we were forced to turn the heat to full blast on an already 88-degree day.  We stopped 5 miles from town when the needle topped out and I feared damaging the engine.  We had just passed a chicken plant, and even a quarter of a mile away feathers littered the shoulder and surrounding fields.

After twenty minutes we resumed driving and slid into Harrisonberg, home of James Madison University.  We were hoping the car just needed a break after climbing so many mountains and decided to let it sit for an hour.

I was despondent.  Erin tried to buy me a milkshake to cheer me up but I was too sick to eat anything.  I was nine hours from home, halfway into our vacation and I had no idea what was going on with my car.  I had asked the mechanic to make sure everything was good before the trip, especially the cooling system, and was steaming at the possibility that he had done a half-assed job before a 1,200-mile trip.  But I couldn’t do anything but wait in the meantime, so we took a walk down to JMU’s campus.  It was attractive enough, but the buildings felt too new while striving for a distinguished look.  The place was empty for spring break, so my assessment is incomplete and tainted with visions of a shattered vacation.

After an hour and a half we got back in the car and said a prayer that the problem was solved.   Within two miles, though, the needle rose to red and we were forced to find a service station.  A local Jiffy Lube pointed us to Speedy’s Auto Body.  By that point, it was 4:15 on the Saturday before Easter.  I spoke with the head mechanic, a true Southern gentlemen.   We discussed the car’s recent radiator replacement and potential other issues like a busted thermostat.  He said he’d look at it but told me the reality: if it was anything the least bit major, he’d be unable to help me given the lateness of the day. They finished servicing the other cars and put mine on the lift at 4:30.  A crew of four hurriedly went to work on the problem.  They identified the issue as the thermostat, then had the desk attendant quickly call up the parts store.  Five minutes later, with the attendant still on hold, the mechanic came back into the waiting room.   He told us that when they were replacing the antifreeze, the cars thermostat magically repaired itself.  To paraphrase the gentleman’s explanation:

“If you’ll pardon my language, miss, sometimes us men get a little bit, well…gassy.  And the same thing happened with this here car.  The thermostat was all blocked up and couldn’t get coolant to the radiator.  The damn thing just needed to be burped.”

I had heard of cars needing to be “burped” if new coolant was not properly added, but the mechanic had never heard of a car going over a thousand miles after the new coolant before having the “gas problems” my car had.  He took it for a test ride and it worked like a charm, and we were discharged before 5:00 pm with a mere twenty dollar bill for new coolant.  Stunned at the turn of fortune after an afternoon of inconsolable depression and anxiety, only one thing came to mind as I got in the driver’s seat.

“Well, I guess all the car had was a case of the Sheetz.”

We drove on to Shenandoah Valley incident free and enjoyed the views the southern end of Skyline Drive has to offer.  Erin and I both agreed we would have preferred a hike through the area with one or two breathtaking views more than scanning the over forty overlooks, but I was happy to be experiencing any scenery after the afternoon’s events.  We arrived at my sister’s house at 8:00 pm, four hours behind plan, and spent the night stuffing and hiding Easter eggs for her kids to find the next morning.

Day 5

Easter Sunday started at seven, when the kids stormed the living room to look for Easter eggs.  Between the four of them – Luke, 10, Arden, 9, Drew 5 and Taryn, 3 – they must have collected ten pounds of candy and thirty dollars in change.  We followed it up with a buffet breakfast – my first buffet breakfast in two years – and headed to Mass before the day’s big event: the Bon Aire Baptist Church Annual Easter Egg Drop.

Picture if you will a football field covered with roughly five thousand Easter eggs, with five hundred candy-mad kids held back by only police tape.  Add to that the local rescue chopper performing fly-by’s while an announcer pumps us up, then dumping garbage bag after garbage bag of Easter eggs from the chopper to the field below, the cargo dropping like pellets of bird poop.  The chopper leaves and the kids storm the field like biblical locusts, all to the tune of praise music blasting over the PA.  The most amazing Easter of my life was over in less than five minutes.

The rest of the day was calm: napping, eating and playing with the kids.  Taryn, who has the most adorable, permanent held cold you’ll ever hear, introduced me to her pet moose “Murph Lucyson,” a name she coined herself.   Luke, Arden and I played tetherball and Drew whispered secrets to me through her new Easter bunny. It’s so warming to be around children who love you without reason, especially when my job as uncle is to do the same right back.

Day 6

We left Richmond at eleven on the way to Gettysburg, the final stop of our journey.   After traffic we arrived there just before four, the car showing no signs of stress.  We checked into the motel and went to the battlefield, stopping at the visitors center to pick up a map.  It was there I got my second souvenir of the trip: a brass Union belt buckle.  I considered a Stonewall Jackson lithograph, but thought twice about the purchase.  We got back in the Civic for another car tour, which seems to be the way Americans enjoy their national parks – on the move yet sedentary.

We stopped at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery and stood on the spot where Lincoln gave his Gettysburg Address, thereby visiting the locations of the two most famous American speeches in one trip.  We visited the Virginia Memorial, location of Pickett’s Charge, and found a solitary man playing banjo sitting on a tree stump.  He captured the tone of a land fastened in time, kept there not by the trappings of an 1860′s culture but by the unblemished veneration the space elicits in our minds.  We visited Little Round Top, where the South nearly took the North’s flank were it not for Maine’s 20th desperately holding the hill.  The silence of a perfect spring evening supercharged the air where six hundred men died in the space of a parking lot.  We got in the car and drove the park’s remainder, passing too many memorials to count under the blossoming trees.  It felt less a cemetery and more a sculpture garden, a difference of beauty I greatly appreciated.

We made a left turn back into the real world and straight into the parking lot of Pickett’s Charge Buffet.  It was the only thing Erin remembered from her childhood trip to Gettysburg fifteen years earlier and she wanted to relive the experience.  She hoped against hope Robin was still there, the effeminate waiter her grandfather had lampooned all those years ago to the family.  So for the second time in two years I went to a buffet, this one a clear stop for parties of forty or more.  We were walking to the buffet like when lo and behold, Robin appeared, explaining to customers Gettysburg casualty rates while handing out pitchers of soda.  Maybe it’s the desensitization of living in New York, but Robin seemed only about a three on the effemininity scale, to which Erin agreed.  Childhood memories are always seen through the fish eye lens; the food was sub-standard and pricey.

We went back to the motel and watched the Duke-Butler NCAA championship game.  Tucked in the room’s couch cushions I found a wedding band.  When I said to Erin “Oh, I found a wedding ring,” she thought for a second that I was about to propose to her.  I almost wish I had, because pulling an engagement ring out of a Motel 6 couch and popping the question would be the best-worst proposal ever.


Day 7

We left for the city at 11 after eating at Gettysburg Family Restaurant and fueling up at Sheetz.  It had been such a relaxing vacation that I tried to reflect on what made it so.  I figured it had to do with setting aside time to live in the present moment versus living in the eternal future of our everyday lives.  Right now I have two paintings, three songs a move and a screenplay that needed to be finished in my mind.  On vacation, all that preoccupied me were the blossoms and the valleys.  We got back to Erin’s apartment to find that my deranged cell phone was unable to even make calls and I immediately felt the anxiety of everyday life try to take over – all the things that need to be done that seem inescapable without drastic action.  I calmed myself in hopes that the present moment would keep my company a little longer.

The tugboat moves forward despite lamentations, for no one will trust that they’re buoyant in water.


  1. Mike, thank you for sharing this. Your travel stories help me tap into my own travel stories (my childhood) :-)

    April 14th, 2010

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