By Ed Staskus
We went on a 16-day car trip at the end of summer, first south to West Virginia, then North Carolina, then back north to Philadelphia, and finally Vermont, afterwards circling southwest to home by way of Iris and Wolfgang’s Bavarian-style inn on Lake Placid.
Before leaving home I called an exterminator about yellow jackets nesting in our eaves. Every morning it sounded like the Bee Gees, as they came and went, always humming, as though they had forgotten the words.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll put a spell on them. Those bees will be bewitched by the time I’m done with them.”
Unlike earlier in the summer, when we ran into bad weather the week we spent in the Adirondacks, rain was as scarce as hen’s teeth on our late season trip. We spent considerable time outdoors, hiking in parks, sprawling on beaches, and getting lost on sidewalks. We had different kinds of good weather, from the Cheat River to the Au Sable Chasm, which was white on rice.
The wettest we got was when Vanessa slipped on a patch of slime and fell on her butt crossing a rocky stream in Vermont. There’s no wading a river with dry breeches. And I went swimming in the Atlantic off Nag’s Head. The Spanish movie director Pedro Almodovar splashed us in Lake Placid, but that was different.
We left on a Friday afternoon for a bluegrass and gospel music festival in Elkins, West Virginia, 325 miles from home. Our weekend reservation was at the Cheat River Lodge. We had a hard time finding it, relying on a Rand McNally road atlas, in the solitary countryside, in the middle of nowhere, on the edge of the Monongahela National Forest. It was out of town on a dark road, up a big hill, then down a steep, even darker road, until Vanessa suddenly spotted it as easily as sliding off a greasy log backwards.
It wasn’t a lodge, but it was on the Cheat River.
On Saturday morning we drove down the mountain into Elkins to a crafts, arts, and music fair at the Elkins City Park, on 9 acres dotted with 300-year-old oaks. As I searched for parking Vanessa’s stomach began to grumble, and she quickly spied a run-down-looking diner called Scotty’s.
“There’s a parking spot,” she said, pointing.
Scotty’s was full of people eating breakfast. We got the last Formica-topped table in a back corner. Across from us a Metallica tee-shirted teenager wearing a backpack was explaining to his girlfriend and her mother how nice his new apartment was. I overheard the mother say, “What do you mean ‘we’? You got a mouse in your pocket?”
Three large and sweaty women were doing the cooking in an open kitchen and one woman was doing all the waiting. She was quicker than grease off a b-b-q biscuit. “Ya’ll ain’t from around here, are ya?” she asked, tossing menus down on the table and pouring us coffee without breaking stride.
Vanessa ordered a plate of grits, a plate of gravy biscuits, and a plate of chicken-fried steak, which came with a plate of mashed potatoes. Nevertheless, I was able to get my plate of eggs and home fries safely on the table, too. By the time she was done she was fuller than a tick on a 10-year-old dog.
Afterwards at the craft fair, while talking to a fiddle-maker at one of the booths, we mentioned eating at Scotty’s and how good it was. “If that ain’t true,” he said, “grits ain’t groceries, eggs ain’t poultry, and Mona Lisa was a man.”
We saw two bands at a show later that night at the Harmanson Center on the hillside campus of the Davis and Elkins College. The opening act was the Sweetback Sisters and the main show was Blue Highway. Both were good bands, but what we really liked was the young lady who came on stage before Blue Highway and whistled five songs. She didn’t sing or play a musical instrument. She just whistled. Introducing her last tune she invited everyone to whistle along with her.
I didn’t even try. It would have been like trying to nail jelly to a wall.
On Sunday morning we stopped at a small chapel in town that was hosting a workshop of Appalachian gospel songs. There were 60 or 70 people in attendance, guided by a conductor of sorts, a man who introduced the songs and led us by hand. We had been provided with a printout of the songs, and so prompted sang 18th and 19th century gospel truths for an hour-and-a half.
When we left West Virginia it was on a twisting, mountainous state road that crossed the Appalachian Plateau and wound up and over the Blue Ridge Mountains. Later in the day we drove onto the coastal plain and made our way through the Outer Banks, passing Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, and finally arriving at Nag’s Head.
There are only two up-and-down roads on the Outer Banks, which are the beach road and Route 12, which is also the ‘Hurricane Evacuation Route’. We drove in on Route 12. It was new to us, it was dark, our Rand McNally was already looking dog-eared, and I was sure we were going to have a hard time finding our inn. But, again, Vanessa saw it in a flash. I don’t know how in the Sam Hill she did it.
We stayed four days at the First Colony Inn, a 28-room, 2-story roadhouse built in 1930, and re-built several times after hurricane disasters. It was a 2-minute walk from the ocean. We started every morning in the John White Breakfast Room and then retired to hammock chairs on the upper floor breezeway to read. Vanessa read books about Mesopotamia and I read books.
The weather at Nag’s Head was in the high 90s every day beneath a clear blue sky. It was hotter than a goat’s butt in a pepper patch and as humid as a prostitute in church. The constant ocean breeze tempered the heat and humidity a little, as did the shade of the veranda at mid-day. We went to the beach across the street and then down a narrow sand trail every afternoon, laying on our blankets in the sun and walking along the surf line.
We found a small yoga studio in Kitty Hawk and took classes, and at night went out to eat seafood. One night we stopped at a fish camp down the beach road called Owens, a family place that’s been there for more than 60 years and is still owned by the same founding family.
There was a crowd and we had to wait, but once seated and served I exclaimed, “Well, I swaney!” We had a basket of hush puppies, Carolina Jambalaya, Yellowfin Tuna, grits, and pecan pie. The portions were so enormous and so good it’d make you slap your mama. While walking back to our inn we agreed it was a great day in the morning.
Another night we drove to Roanoke Island, had catfish and wild rice on the outdoors patio of the Blue Moon, and were as happy as clams at high tide. Afterwards we saw ‘The Lost Colony’ at the Waterside Theater in the Fort Raleigh National Historical Park. It was a musical, of all things, about the first English settlement in the Americas.
The show has been at the Waterside every summer since 1937. A man and wife well into their 50s who were sitting behind us talked about how the show hadn’t changed much since they had seen it as teenagers. The theater was under the stars. It had been rebuilt twice, once after it burned down in 1947, and again after a hurricane demolished it in the 60s. The only things saved in the 1947 fire were the costumes, which the actors threw into the water of the sound behind the main stage.
The story of ‘The Lost Colony’ concerned Walter Raleigh and Queen Elizabeth, the motley colonists, and the still mysterious fate that befell them. To this day no one knows what happened. They all simply disappeared. The show itself was a bag of nails. The uncertainty and danger of the American wilderness in the 1580s was delivered in Disneyesque song-and-dance. On top of that, even though the expedition was English, a land that had broken with Rome, the narrative was by a Franciscan friar, of all people. I didn’t know whether to scratch my watch or wind my butt.
On the Friday afternoon we left Nag’s Head thunderstorms loomed in an uncertain sky. One of the ladies on the cleaning staff of the First Colony Inn, standing on the veranda with her hands on her hips, said, “ That sure nuff looks like a frog strangler comin’ in.”
Instead of taking I-95 to Philadelphia we decided to go around our elbows to get to our thumbs by taking Route 13, a state road that traces its way north to Norfolk, Virginia, up through the tidal flats of Delaware, and finally into Pennsylvania. It was the long way round, but worth the drive. There’s scenery everywhere, but it’s hard to see from the interstate. “Bless your pea picking heart,” I said to Vanessa for suggesting the local roads.
We traversed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel, which are three bridges and two tunnels, linked together by four man-made islands and spanning more than 17 miles. We lost sight of land for a few miles driving over the middle of the complex. It was like a drive over the open ocean.
The bridges and tunnels have to be inspected, according to federal law, every five years. It takes inspectors five years to do the job. The job never ends. Ain’t that the berries!
We cruised up the eastern shore of Virginia and along the tidal flats of Delaware and Maryland. The small towns looked like the 1940s rather than nowadays. Farms and marshes were spread out in all directions. Everyone, black and white alike, looked more ethnic than back home.
Gassing up at a filling station, I overheard two black men talking at the next pump. There was pepper in the gumbo of their talk. One of them said, “If a bullfrog had wings he wouldn’t bump his ass when he jumped.” When I asked they said they were arguing about the mayor.
We got to Philadelphia, although we later learned from a cabbie it’s really pronounced Fulladulfya, just past ten at night, and from the minute we got there it was yo, supp. When I got off the highway a couple of exits north of the senner siddy and turned left, faster than a knife fight in a phone booth I was stuck on railroad tracks facing the wrong end of a one-way sign.
“What the heck!” Vanessa squealed.
I thrust the CRV, Vanessa’s new Honda, into reverse and backed up, hoping and praying I wouldn’t hit anyone. Sometimes I can throw myself on the ground and miss, but this time I got the car going forward on the right road. After several more wrong turns on Philadelphia’s many one-way streets we finally found our bed-and-breakfast. We stayed at the Shippen Way Inn in the Society Hill neighborhood, the oldest residential area in the city. The inn was built in 1750, expanded in 1810, and again in 1900. After that they decided they had made all the improvements that needed to be made.
We had one of the upstairs 1750s rooms, tiny as a jail cell, under a low raftered ceiling, and slept on a lumpy twin bed. The inn itself was be yoo dee full, with a big communal breakfast room and a tree-shaded brick patio.
“Jeet yet?” our hostess asked us the next morning, pouring coffee.
One day we had breakfast with a couple from the state of Washington and their four children. Another day we ate with a young man and his girlfriend, both from Ireland, who were law students and had spent the summer interning in Chicago. Everyone was in town to see the historic sights, just like us.
We walked around the sites on Saturday afternoon: Independence Hall, Carpenter’s Hall, and Congress Hall. We strolled brick-lined arcades that used to be slave markets, historic churches from back when churches were a vital business, and then spent the rest of the day with Kathy Curnow, one of Vanessa’s idiosyncratic CSU teachers, who was working at the University of Pennsylvania for the summer. She is short and stout, 51-years-old, with a head of crazy thick long black hair, paints her nails purple, and walks really, really slow on very small feet. She doesn’t own or drive a car. She has a boyfriend, a police detective in Philadelphia, with whom she talks by phone every day but hasn’t actually seen in more than nine months.
She leads an imaginary existence on the web site Second Life. Her avatar, which is what she called her alter ego, is a lissome cocktail waitress in a nightclub in Thailand. In real life she is a middle-aged authority on West African art; she had recently returned from London, delivering a lecture there about it. When in Philadelphia she lives with her old parents in the suburbs. She is bothered by loneliness, or at least she said so half-a-dozen times over lunch and a walk afterwards.
On Saturday night Vanessa and I decided to have dinner at Morimoto’s, a swank Japanese fusion restaurant owned by one of the Iron Chefs on the Food Network. Even though it was a mild night, it was slightly too far to walk from our inn, so we took a cab.
“Niceta meechas,“ our driver said.
The streets, some of them cobblestone, were crowded with people and cars. We made our way past blocks of 18th and 19th century homes. While stuck in traffic and idling for a moment at the curb of a narrow one-way street two young women approached our cab.
“Hal ya doin’ ladies,” the cabbie said, leaning over his elbow out the open window. “What youse lookin’ for?”
They were looking for directions to paint the town.
“Deflee,” the cabbie said, and rattled off the names and streets of taverns and clubs.
Morimoto’s was a narrow and deep space with a curving, undulating wood ceiling that sloped down to an open kitchen. There were odd phallic-shaped lamps on the forty-or-so booths and tables. The seats were chic and illuminated and tube lights were embedded in the tables. The lights glowed and ever so slowly continually changed colors. We shared a fish appetizer. After a delicious chicken broth soup, Vanessa had Kobe beef and I had seafood, each of us sampling the other’s plate, and we split a bottle of red wine.
After dessert and coffee we rolled out of the restaurant jolly as bessy bugs and thought we would try walking back to the inn, finally finding it a few hours later and falling exhausted into our little bed.
The next morning following a light breakfast we headed for Stowe, driving as fast as possible through the horrible state of New Jersey, where God made the food but the devil made the cook. We stopped in Albany at an Einstein’s for coffee and bagels, and then crossed into Vermont, which we knew when we started seeing guyascutas, or cows whose legs are shorter on one side than they are on the other so they can walk comfortably along the steep hillsides.
Stowe is a small one-main-road town. We hung a Ralph at the mountain road that dead-ends at the base of Mt. Mansfield, where the skiing is. Every few miles a swamp donkey sign warned us to watch out for the beasts. We stayed at the Grey Fox Inn, in a sizable room with a balcony. It was very nice because of the Range Rover set, but affordable because it wasn’t winter, yet, although the Dairy Queens were closing in a few weeks.
The weather was refreshing, mild and sunny during the day, crisp and dry at dusk. The forecast for the nights was for darkness. We camped out at the pool every day after breakfast. We went on hikes on successive afternoons partway up Mt. Mansfield, one on the Long Trail, and the other on an unnamed branch trail. The trails were both steep and rocky. After a few hours on them we were both like toads in a tar bucket, wondering why we ever thought hiking in the woods would be fun.
In the evening my prayer handles were wicked achy.
One night we saw ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ at the local movie house, which was action-packed, derivative, and dim-witted, and another night we saw ‘Urinetown’ at the Stowe Community Center, which was funny, original, and loaded with engaging tunes. A 2001 Broadway musical, half the cast was high school students and the other half were adults who had once acted in high school, which goes to show it don’t make knee-odds the talent.
On our last night in Stowe we made a pizza and packie run and watched ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ on TMC.
The next day we drove to Burlington and took the car ferry across Lake Champlain to Port Kent, and from the landing through the Keene Valley made it to Lake Placid. We stayed at the Town House Motor Lodge, which is on Lake Placid, while the town of Lake Placid is actually on Mirror Lake. We read and sun-tanned at the 1960’s-style pool surrounded by cypress hedges and 100-foot-high white pines. Even the four bottom burping Quebecois men didn’t bother Vanessa overly much the one afternoon they were taking a break at the pool from their daily golf outings.
We went on two long hikes in the ADK wilderness area, more rolling than up-and-down paths, and had dinner one night at the Caribbean Cowboy, where there was a Caribbean waitress, but no cowboys. Another night we wandered into Nicola’s on Main, where we ate gobs of pasta and split a jug of Chianti. The best policy on pasta and wine is pro-eating it and pro-drinking it.
Friday evening we had Portuguese bread from the Price Chopper supermarket at a table beside the pool and then walked to the Lake Placid Center for the Arts, seeing an affecting but disturbing Spanish movie called ‘Volver’. It was like a fountain of magical tragicomedy, including a mother who comes back from the dead to tie up loose ends. We got wet.
They say the weather in New England is nine months of winter and three months of poor sledding. It was already into September, so when Saturday rolled around, even though we weren’t really ready to go home, we went home. We took the old road, through Tupper Lake, Blue Mountain Lake, and Racquette Lake, stopped in Old Forge at the Pied Piper ice cream stand, by-passed Utica, and made the rest of the long drive back to Lakewood on I-90.
It was late when we got home and after rubbing up our cat Snapper we threw ourselves into bed. We were tuckered out. The next morning we unpacked the car, I mowed the lawn, and we went through the mail. I found the bug man’s bill tucked into our front door. It said, “I have made the yellow jackets bee-gone.”
When I checked they were, indeed, gone.
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.