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Journey to the East; or, Exploring the American Dream (summer 2012)

Our 37-day trip had three objectives: visit friends and relatives, “see the U.S.A.”, and choose a city for transition to retirement.

May 25-27. Drive to St. Louis (in our Toyota Camry, not a Chevrolet). Two days looking at houses in various neighborhoods within St. Louis City and in University City and other nearby cities within St. Louis County. Had a terrific time with a warm and very musical synagogue congregation at Shaare Zedek in U City, including Shavuot. A spirited, Conservative, and (gender) egalitarian synagogue is one of our three top criteria for choosing a new home, along with an interesting (and affordable and accessible) older home and as temperate as possible a climate. St. Louis was not on our original list of candidate cities, but it was on our route, and we took up colleague Bill Tannenbaum’s suggestion that we might like Shaare Zedek’s spirit and music. We did.

May 28-29. Drive to Indianapolis. Spend pleasant day and a half with friends Rich and Silvia Schneirov. Good (Lilly pharmaceutical company-funded) art museum, good conversation (including some spirited-but-friendly political sparring), and great Sichuan-style Chinese food at a diner.

May 30. Drive to Athens, Ohio. Along the way, tasty lunch at an Italian restaurant in the Germantown neighborhood of Columbus. A pleasant dinner in Athens, followed by a downtown stroll in this university town.

May 31-June 3. Drive to Elkins, West Virginia. Three and a half pleasant days with sister (-in-law) Becky and brother-in-law Gordon. As usual, we stayed in the cottage down the hill from their big house in the woods. Good food, drink, companionship, and the first of many forays into American history. At nearby Beverly Heritage Center, we learned about the significant role of the Battle of [nearby] Rich Hill in the first year of the Civil War. Pro-Union sentiment in western Virginia was strong from the outset of the war, culminating in the secession of West Virginia from the Confederacy in 1863.

June 4. Drive to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Along the way, a two-hour (mostly) driving tour of Gettysburg – with our own terrific guide. Looking out from the various hills and ridges, along with our guide’s narrative, really brought to life the dynamics of this pivotal battle in the Civil War. While in Elkins, I had received the first proofs of my book, but Elkins had no place to print the document. After a bizarre experience with our new GPS, in which “Louise” guided us up, down, and around the streets of Steelton (adjacent to Harrisburg and with many similarly-named streets), we finally arrived at The Original Copy Shop, which provided terrific short-notice service. I spent much free time over the remainder of the trip reviewing and correcting the proofs. Then, a delightful dinner at our motel’s Indian restaurant, courtesy of ever-ebullient friend Marty Sklar. Again, spirited political discourse was part of the social mix.

June 5-6. Drive to Philadelphia to see historical sites and stay with cousins Sam and Jean Jacobson. Along the way, we had a fun tour of Hershey, including a bus tour (with entertaining commentary) around the city and a mini-train tour of a mock factory. Hershey’s history is quintessentially American – entrepreneurialism, civic initiative (Hershey school for orphans), exclusionary practices (the school was initially for white boys only), overcoming exclusion (racial restrictions dropped in 1968-70, gender restrictions in 1976-77), consumption of enjoyable products as one dimension of the pursuit of happiness. In Philadelphia, enjoyed evening meals and conversation with Sam and Jean. During the day, took in many of the standard historical sites – Ben Franklin’s Post Office (still operating!), site of the first presidential house (great exhibit on Washington’s slaves, including cook Hercules, who escaped), Independence Hall, Liberty Bell, National Portrait Gallery. The portraits inside the latter were impressive, but the building itself was somewhat disappointing. The former Second National Bank Building (rich with history because of Andrew Jackson’s fight against it) seemed to be decaying externally and had long since had “Second National Bank” markings removed. On the other hand, the American Philosophical Society (another Franklin creation) was a pleasant surprise. We happened to visit a few hours before the (roughly) twice-a-century “transit of Venus” (across the sun). While Philadelphia was overcast, evening visitors would watch the transit on closed-circuit television. We enjoyed an indoor exhibit about David Rittenhouse, the colonial astronomer who observed the 1769 transit, as well as a humorous outdoor skit about Rittenhouse’s rumored fainting during the event (“The Astronomer Collapses”). Other highlights: a couple of hours at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, courtesy of Jean’s guest passes (with a focus on European art this time, since we had focused on American art thus far on the trip); a parking system out of the 1950s, where one folds dollar bills to one-half inch width and pushes them through a slot (I overpaid, accidentally pushing my first five-dollar bill into the wrong slot). Missed: Could not get into the new National Constitution Center, because Michelle Obama was giving a talk there that day. Forgot to go to the Edgar Allen Poe National Historic Site. So, we’ll have to go back sometime.

June 7-11. Drove to Leesburg, Virginia to spend a few days with Travis, Karen, Elliot and Allison. On the way, stopped for an hour and a half in Frederick, Maryland. Wanted to see the Roger Taney House; how would it present the public career of the Jacksonian politician best known for, as chief justice of the Supreme Court, authoring the infamous 1857 Dred Scott Decision? Turns out the home is open only on weekends, so we settled for a external photo and spent an hour in antique stores. Had a lovely time with kids and grandkids – and did laundry. Enjoyed reading bedtime stories, attending end-of-school-year picnic, etc. One morning in a park/farmers market, we encountered a friend of Becky’s, who was mentoring a group of dulcimer players. Went back to Frederick with Travis and the kids and were able to get into Taney House. Turns out: a) he owned it but never lived in it; b) the exhibit highlights early 19th century home life, rather than Taney’s career – though there are photos of Taney and Dred Scott at the greeting desk. We ate lunch in a converted-church restaurant called Beans in the Belfry and toured a railroad museum, where Elliot and Allison enjoyed pushing sound-and-motion-generating buttons. On the way back, we met Sam and Jean’s daughter Maxine (in D.C. on a summer internship) for pizza dinner. On Monday (6/11) we were actually useful, as Karen and Travis both had to work, but Allison couldn’t go to pre-school because she had run a little fever (apparently from the heat) the previous day in Frederick. We took the kids to the neighborhood park, then to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center / Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (SFUH was apparently a big donor), then to lunch at the kid-friendly Greene Turtle. Elliot and Allison were underwhelmed by the adult-content exhibits and commentary, but they were interested in the Space Shuttle and, especially, in a simulated ride in a shuttle.

June 11. Mid-afternoon, drove south to Luray Caverns. Fascinating structures inside. Continued south to Charlottesville, where we had a tasty Mexican dinner and spent the night.

June 12. Fascinating tours of Thomas Jefferson’s home (Monticello) and Monroe’s home (Ash Lawn). Monticello had some amazing architectural features, like accordion glass-pane interior doors and a triple-pane window in the guest room that could also serve as a private door to the outside. Monroe’s home was more modest, but interesting for the insights it yielded about a less-well-known president – e.g., his friendships in France, evidenced by portraits and gifts. Both tours integrate the story of slavery in historically appropriate ways. Monroe comes off better (at least in the comparative docent narratives), having taken practical steps to support African colonization – thus, Monrovia as the capital of Liberia. The Monticello docents accept the popular (but hardly unanimous) view that Jefferson likely fathered slave Sally Hemmings’s children, all of who he eventually freed or allowed to escape. The docent at Monticello told an interesting story about portraits of Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and John Locke. Allegedly, Jefferson once referred to them as his “trinity” of great men, and Alexander Hamilton shot back that Julius Caesar was the greatest man who ever lived. Missed: James Madison’s home, Montpelier; George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon. Next time.

June 13. Had our sole bed-and-breakfast for the trip in Williamsburg on June 12 and 13. Spent the morning of the 13th at the fascinating Jamestown site, where recent archaeological work has yielded considerable new information about the original settlers there in the early 1600s. Our group docent was a member of the archeological team. We spent a couple hours in the afternoon at a nearby historical exhibit, including replicas of original buildings, based largely on the work of the aforementioned archaeologists. In the evening, we attended an audience-participation play in an old church in Williamsburg. “Courage or Cowardice?” was a trial of a patriot officer during the Revolutionary War who was charged with negligence for retreating in anticipation of a British assault on Portsmouth. The audience asks questions and votes as a jury. We joined the majority of our group in voting to acquit, which was also the actual historical verdict. Another couple at our B&B, though, voted with their majority in an earlier performance to convict. Great food in Williamsburg –good Indian food the first night and best ever Italian cuisine the second.

June 14-17. Drove to Asheville, N. Carolina. On the way, dropped five boxes of journals off with a bookseller in Rural Retreat, VA. (Happily, this event transpired before we got to Nashville.) No historical sites in Asheville, just investigation of housing and the synagogue. Friday night services at the synagogue were of the New Age variety, but Saturday morning was lively and more familiar. Saturday was also a treat, in that a young woman who has been blind from birth gave an impassioned and moving performance as she celebrated her bat mitzvah. The cool-temperate climate is what attracted us to Asheville. It has apparently attracted many other people recently, to the point that most of the houses we could afford are either far out from the city and/or have a steep street approach and/or have a steep drive (not to mention so-called “flag lots” that have an access drive to a house behind someone else’s house). Second “small world” event: At a lunch spot in neighboring Weaverville, we ran into a friend of Gordon and Becky’s, at whose home we had attended a brunch the previous week.

June 18-19. Drove to Nashville. Tried to have an Ethiopian dinner the first evening, but the restaurant is closed on Mondays, so we settled for a pretty good Middle Eastern meal. The next morning we resumed our presidential tour at the Hermitage, Andrew Jackson’s home. Much of interest to see, including a tour of the grounds, where archaeologists have apparently completed some pretty extensive work in and around the slave quarters. On the way back to the Ethiopian restaurant for lunch, we got caught in a car accident. We were stopped behind a new Range Rover, when a driver crashed into us from behind. Everyone was civil and friendly and insured, the rear driver accepted responsibility, and the policemen (when he finally arrived after an hour) was courteous and helpful. We were able to drive our car another half mile to the restaurant, but did not want to chance drive it further, since the hood was engaged only by its safety latch. The Ethiopian food was terrific, and after a couple of hours a tow truck took us and our car to a full-service Travelers Insurance facility (insurance office, repair shop, and Enterprise car rental agency all under one roof). Everyone involved was pleasant and cooperative, but this episode replaced a nap as our afternoon activity. We made it back to our hotel (now driving a Ford Fusion) just in time to change clothes and head out to the Grand Ole Opry, where we thoroughly enjoyed the performance. Little Jimmy Dickens, in his early 90s, is still performing. He did an inspired rendition of “Out Behind the Barn.”

June 20-23. On to Chattanooga, another of our candidate cities. We looked at a lot of houses, attended Friday evening and Saturday morning services at the synagogue, and enjoyed the sights, (most of the) sounds, and tastes of the downtown area where we stayed. Chattanooga has a free electric shuttle bus system that stops every five minutes at a dozen or so downtown locations. The downtown is lively and houses most of the city’s good restaurants. The city has a number of water and other recreation sites, but we did not take the time to see them. Chattanooga is in not-too-high mountains and has a warm-temperate climate. It seems to get as hot as elsewhere in the South and Midwest during summer daytime, but cools a little more at night and is not too cold in the winter. Oh, the exceptions to pleasant sounds were the roars of kit cars in the morning and motor cycles in the evening; drivers of both seemed to be having conventions in Chattanooga during our stay.

June 24-25. Drove to Oxford, Mississippi, arriving in time for a late-afternoon tour of William Faulkner’s home, Rowan Oak. It had a pleasant feel, especially the library, which featured (inter alia) a bust of Don Quixote and a portrait of Faulkner’s great-grandfather, the Old Colonel. The home has wooded entrance and grounds with almost the same feel as the presidential homes we visited, but it is located in a pocket within the city. We learned that Faulkner forbade air conditioning in the home and that his wife installed a window air conditioner in the bedroom within a couple of weeks after his funeral. At Ole Miss (U of Mississippi) we saw a prominent statue of James Meredith walking toward an archway with the word “courage” etched into its top, as well as interesting exhibits at the library devoted to blues culture and civil rights, Faulkner, and (temporarily) the 500th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible. I asked the curator of the Faulkner exhibit why there were no artifacts indicating Faulkner’s moderate position (support for integration but not for legal remedies) on the Civil Rights movement, especially since the Faulkner exhibit shares a room with the one on civil rights and blues culture in Mississippi. She allowed that this was a good idea and said she would look into it.

June 26-27. Short drive to Memphis. Checked in at the Graceland Day’s Inn, across the street from Elvis Presley’s former home, Graceland. Spent a couple of hours doing a fun tour of Graceland. Just prior to that, we ate at one of the nearby Elvis-themed diners and feasted on one of his favorite meals, a peanut butter and banana sandwich. There were several related exhibits, including a tour of Elvis’s private airplane – the Lisa Marie, named after his daughter. With the exception of the plane tour, the other exhibits were more like gift shops with attached mini-tours. You could not exit the exhibit without walking past endless racks of Elvis paraphernalia. The next day, we took a bus tour of Memphis. We had our own local blues-singing guide on board, Nancy Apple. We learned more than we previously knew about Beale Street’s history, about a wealthy black man who bought enough land near downtown to donate to the city for an integrated park and jam session venue, about the origins of Fed Ex and self-service grocery shopping in Memphis, and much more. The highlight of the tour was probably a tour of Sun Studios, which nurtured Elvis and many other white and black musicians in the 1950s and 1960s. Terry had a chance to hold the microphone into which Elvis sang. We drove by the homes where Elvis, Johnny Cash, and B.B. King grew up, the hotel where Martin Luther King was assassinated, and much more. All in all, we decided that Memphis is one place where we need to spend more time. For example, we did not take in an evening of live music on Beale Street. We spent only one night in Memphis, and, instead, we opted for another great Ethiopian dinner, located in a non-gentrified warehouse district.

June 28-30. After driving to Little Rock on the 27th, after our afternoon tour of Memphis, we spent three days checking out houses and a synagogue in Little Rock. We fell for the city, especially the old-but-coming-back Quapaw neighborhood one terrific old house. The people at the synagogue were very nice, especially the rabbi, but we ultimately decided that their non-egalitarian policy would not work for us.

July 1. We drove home to Joplin, making a stop in Bentonville to see about one third of the Walton-family-funded Chrystal Bridges Museum of American Art. The exhibits were quite good, and we will eventually return to see the rest.

July 8-10. Drive back to St. Louis. Take another look at three houses. Fly to Nashville (courtesy of the rear-ender’s insurance company), pick up our car, and drive back to Joplin. Through discussions en route, we concluded that St. Louis had the best synagogue, Little Rock the best housing, Asheville the best climate – and Chattanooga the second best of each.

July 11. Make an offer on a 100-year-old house in the Highland Park neighborhood of Chattanooga. All issues resolved within two weeks, September 14 closing

-- Norty