The Long and Winding Road Towards Leaving on a Jet Plane

We interrupt your regularly scheduled road trip to bring you a wedding.

I’ve known Shannon for many years and have had the chance to work on some terrific theatrical projects with her. She’s helped me through my relationship woes, and I’ve watched as she systematically narrowed down the field of available men until she found one she wanted to spend her life with. I’ve been excited to see Shannon get married since long before she was engaged. Since long before she was dating her would-be husband, in fact.

So when she announced her wedding date earlier in the year and I realized it would be smack in the middle of my trip, it took me all of five seconds to respond with a shrug: “I’ll just have to fly back then.”

Trip EstimateMy plans started, as they so often do, with math. I looked up the distance between each of my 24 benchmark cities and used them to calculate the overall milage of the trip. Then I took that estimate and split it up into milage markers by percentage in intervals of 10 percent. I then matched up those milage marks with the matching cities, and with a corresponding set of percentage markers for calendar dates. It sounds like a lot of work until you realize how much I love making referential fields in Excel. The end result was a date for every city on my list. As I traveled I would know if I was running ahead or behind my goal of getting back home in four months. This list was helpful for a lot of planning on my trip, but it was crucial for the wedding. It showed me that to stay on track, I should be near the mid-atlantic coast by the weekend of Shannon’s wedding.

I looked up flights online, utilizing my years of practice as a personal assistant booking flights for my boss. I tried a selection of major airports in the area, and all signs pointed to Baltimore. Every flight I could find was cheaper flying out of Baltimore. This included one flight that went from Baltimore to New York and then to Seattle, but was still cheaper than taking that same plane straight from New York. I guess they have trouble selling those Baltimore flights. The wedding was on Saturday, so I booked a flight for Friday evening. Because the time change would be on my side, I could leave at around 6PM and still get to Seattle before midnight. For the flight back, a red-eye was my only option. Nothing left during the day on Sunday, and I knew I didn’t want to try to fly out the night of the wedding. So I would leave Seattle late Sunday night and arrive back in Baltimore early Monday morning.

Now for my car. I knew several people who lived in the greater D.C./Baltimore area, so I considered asking one of them if I could park at their place. But I figured it couldn’t hurt to look up airport parking and I found that at the Baltimore airport, long-term parking is only $8 a day. They really want people to fly out of Baltimore.

Before I left I explained my plans to my boyfriend Rob. After I said everything he repeated it back to me to make sure he had it correct.

“So you fly out of Baltimore on Friday evening and get to Seattle that night. You’ll have the morning to rest and then we’ll go down to Tacoma for the wedding – ”

“Wait,” I said, “How will we get to the wedding?”

“Drive?” he said, a bit confused.

“In whose car?” I asked him.

There was a brief pause as we both realized that out primary means of transportation would be 3000 miles away on the day that we had to dress in fancy clothes and travel an hour out of town. Luckily we had plenty of friends who would be making the same drive from Seattle to the wedding that day, and before long we had managed to secure two spots in my friend Carrie’s car.

In packing for the trip, I had to decide ahead of time what I would wear to the wedding. If I knew what I was wearing, I could bring back any needed purses/jewelry/shoes I had brought with me on my trip. This isn’t the first time I’ve done this. The last time I went to Europe I had to fly straight from Rome to L.A. in order to be at my cousin’s wedding. I had to choose my outfit and give it to my mother two months in advance so she could bring it down with her and I wouldn’t have to lug it around the European continent. But these are the things you do when important stuff is happening to those who are important to you.

By what could be described as either luck or misfortune, four days before my flight I caught my tire on the sharp end of a curb while pulling off at a viewpoint on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The scrape wasn’t severe and didn’t seem to be leaking air, but it wasn’t pretty and it made me nervous. At the same time, I was about to hit another 5,000 mile mark on my odometer and felt like an oil change and checkup might be in order. As I drove through Virginia I tried to figure out when might be a good time to take my car in to the shop. Ideally I would do it while staying with friends who had a vehicle, which would allow me to drop it off and not worry about timing. Alternatively I considered trying to schedule an appointment on a day when I didn’t have much planned, and I could hang out at the shop while they did the work. And then it hit me: I could have them fix my car while I went to the wedding.

I found a Volkswagen dealership not far from the Baltimore airport, and I looked on their website to see if they offered a shuttle service. They did, provided you were within 15 miles of the dealer. The airport was 13 miles away. I called to make my appointment and confirmed that it would be okay if I wasn’t able to pick up the car until Monday. And that’s how I managed to get free parking at a secure location and complimentary transportation to and from the airport while not allowing vehicle maintenance to take away from my other travel experiences. I felt like an absolute genius.

The wedding was beautiful and Rob and I were there for a full eight hours. The event was at a friend’s private home, which meant the couple could invite people to show up early as well as stay late. It was nice to have a somewhat accidental chance to say hello to all my friends in the middle of my trip. And it allowed me to finally answer a different question when talking about the journey: “So where are you right now?”

Several of us chose to get hotel rooms in town for the evening, and Shannon invited us back in the morning for a post-wedding breakfast. I don’t think I’ve ever been at a wedding where I had so much bride time, and over breakfast we discussed the various traditions the couple chose not to bother with (first dance, throwing the bouquet, cutting the cake) and how none of those traditions were really missed. Many of my friends are in long term relationships, and we’re getting to the point where we no longer talk about potential wedding plans with embarrassment. It’s funny to think that there is that time during your early twenties when you both want to talk about it but don’t want to let anyone hear you, for fear you’ll accidentally turn on the pressure for both you and your partner. At this point we’ve all survived the pressure, and no one is concerned about complimenting the choice to have bridesmaids match with a color pallet rather than a particular dress.

After breakfast we took it upon ourselves to help clean up the house and yard, which I think made us all feel better about getting such a delicious free meal for the second day in a row. The team of a dozen or so friends and family made quick work of collapsing the tables, gathering the linens, and taking down the couple hundred candle lanterns that were used as light and decoration the night before. Shannon kept insisting that we didn’t have to help, and we kept helping anyway. A good time was had by all.

We drove back home with Carrie and our friend Laurie (also visiting from out of town), and I managed to spend my last remaining hours cleaning up all the junk I had brought home that I decided I didn’t need on the trip. I kissed Rob goodbye, and went to wait for the #40 bus to take me downtown to catch the light rail to the airport. As I stood on the corner waiting for the bus, it occurred to me how ordinary it all felt. There was no sudden jolt with coming home. It was all easy and natural. My home, my neighborhood, my friends – all of them were exactly as I left them, and I felt just as unchanged. As I type that it seems like a negative, but it was a comfort. It was proof that making big choices and having big adventures won’t always require or cause big life changes. Your friends are still your friends, your city is still your city.

There was one part of flying back home that was unsettling. It happened on Friday night on the plane ride to Seattle. I had to change planes in Texas, and I remember looking out the window as we were about to touch down. Texas. It had been so long since Texas. So much had happened even before I got to Texas, and so much had happened since then. And here it was again, right below me. It took me 37 days to get away from Texas and only 3 hours to get back. And soon I would be home, two months and 7,000 miles away.

I suppose it was closer than Rome.

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The Best Laid Plans

Motel ViewYorktown is unabashedly small. I went there with a might-as-well-while-I’m-here attitude after my day at Colonial Williamsburg. I booked a room in a motel overlooking the water, and asked the clerk at the front desk where I could get some dinner. She recommended two places, and I went to the latter of the two. I left my car in the motel lot and started along the road by the water. I wasn’t quite ready for dinner, so I took my time and walked along the boardwalk and out onto the pier to see the boats go by. The music was just starting on the final night of “Shagging on the Riverwalk,” a summer concert series. The sign explained that I could expect local bands playing beach favorites, oldies, and Motown, and that I should bring both my lawn chair and my dancing shoes. The dancing had already begun as I walked by. I watched a selection of baby boomers doing their own slow, shuffling, partner dances. The tune wasn’t anything in particular, which is why one group was doing a West Coast Swing while another seemed to be mid-Foxtrot and a third was giving their own interpretation of what seemed to be a ChaCha.

The General and the AdmiralI walked past the dancers to a statue of General George Washington and Admiral Francois de Grasse greeting each other to make final preparations for the battle at Yorktown. I felt like the statue was deserving of a caption contest, as both men seemed to be on the verge of saying something while simultaneously having something to hide.

I found the restaurant the clerk had recommended and asked the hostess for a table for one. She sat me at a tiny and awkwardly placed table behind the host’s desk and I waited. The hostess hadn’t given me a menu, but I expected to get one from my server when he or she came to fill my water glass. But the server never came. I sat there, first catching up on some reading on my phone, then staring expectedly around in hopes of catching someone’s eye. The two women at the front were busy adjusting things at the host station, and the other servers seemed focused on their own tables. I kept waiting. It was already clear that no one had been alerted to my presence, but that was no big deal. I figured before long the hostess would glimpse over and realize her mistake, or the server who should be taking care of my section would ask if I’d been helped. But nothing happened. I just sat there. No menu. No water. No server.

Sailboat in Yorktown

I looked to the center of the room where tall stools circled the central bar. It’s strange the power that social conventions can have on you. A part of me felt like I couldn’t get up, even though it was clear I had been forgotten. After all, there was a system. The host tells you where to sit, and you follow directions. If I were to just get up and walk away, I would be going outside the system. It’s amazing that such an action still seems wrong even when the system has broken down.

Eventually I had had enough. I walked up to the bartender to confirm that they had full food service at the bar, and I sat down. I didn’t mention the table I had been at or suggest that anyone do anything different, I just asked for a menu. She took my order right away and my food was out in minutes. I left her a generous tip and walked out, having no particular inclination to complain and certain that no one was aware of the mistake.

DancersAs I made my way back to the motel I passed by the dancers, still in full figurative swing. I stayed for awhile to enjoy the scene, until the singer stopped in between songs to make an announcement. He explained that it looked like the weather might turn soon, and that they would have to pack it up if it started to rain. As I walked up the small hill to my motel I turned back to see the clouds had covered up the sun and the scene had turned dark. I walked up to my room. From the balcony I watched as the rain started, and I could hear the announcement that the musicians would have to stop for the night. The summer music series was finished. Over the next hour the sky went completely black and the rain pounded down on Yorktown.

BridgeMy short visit to Yorktown got me thinking a lot about agency. Sometimes during this trip I show up at recommended restaurants only to find them closed. Occasionally I’ll plan to see a national park, only to have the weather turn on me. Sometimes I get lost. Sometimes I make bad estimates. Sometimes things don’t go according to plan. And none of it really bothers me, because there is no plan. All of it, in fact, is the plan. When your only travel goal is experience, it becomes almost impossible for things to go truly wrong. And in fact, having things go wrong makes for better storytelling. I haven’t told many people about the times I showed up at a museum and everything was fine, or instances when the food at a restaurant was pretty good. I might mention in passing that the weather was perfect at a particular location, but I’ll go into detail about how I had to pull over on the gulf coast because the rain was so bad.

While conflict is always the key to a good story, I think the reason we don’t normally see the good in such small misfortunes is that we were planning on things to go well. I doubt the people at “Shagging on the Riverwalk” enjoyed getting rained on. I’ve watched many an unhappy vacationer storm off upon seeing a particular attraction is closed. But on this trip I’m not planning nearly as much as I might on a typical vacation. So when the restaurant is closed I think, “Well, I could have looked up the hours before I got here. That was my choice.” And I start to realize that everything is my choice, even when things are without a doubt not my fault. I didn’t want to sit alone and ignored at a rickety table when I went to get dinner. And had I continued to do so I imagine I would have been pretty upset by the time someone noticed me. But because I made the decision to get up and sit at the bar, my evening changed. I wasn’t waiting for someone else to acknowledge me, I was making myself known.

Woman on the Beach

And so it goes. I get worn out from hikes and I eat bad food and sometimes I’m just bored. But I chose all of it. Every minute of my trip feels proactive because I took the initiative to go in the first place. Nothing merely happens to me anymore. I am not regular Katrina going through her everyday life, hoping nothing will go wrong. I am a Katrina full of agency, who sees each misfortune as the wages of chance, paid out in exchange for adventure and a story worth telling.

Toby Israel on the Difference Between Fear and Danger

I’m still not feeling great so no blog post today, but I thought I’d share this article a friend showed me:

Tales of a Female Hitchhiker

I feel like almost everything she says runs parallel to my own thoughts and experiences, especially how being a young white woman traveling alone tends to bring out the best in people because they feel the need to help and protect you. It’s a good read, and a good reminder that the things that are most likely to kill us are not necessarily the things we a deathly afraid of.

The American Revolution, Open 9AM to 5PM

The closest you will ever get to being in a Star Trek holodeck is Colonial Williamsburg.

Mixed CrowdWhen I first arrived, a young woman in period clothing told me that I should hurry, something seemed to be happening on the lawn in front of the Governor’s house. Apparently, last night all of the gunpowder was taken out of the public magazine, and a few of the local boys were quite upset about it. A crowd gathered around a man as he shouted that the governor had no right to take gunpowder that belonged to the people. The actor looked straight at the spectators, trying to get some sort of rise out of them. Most were stunned into awkward silence. A few of the other actors in the crowd occasionally chimed in with shouts of protest or agreement. The man next to me yelled, “I disagree with that petition sir!” and I couldn’t help but giggle at such formal language being used in a mob scene. I wished my improv friends from back home were with me. They would have had an absolute ball.

Improvised Militia

The instigator put together a small band of men that included both costumed actors and unlucky tourists, and they marched towards the governor’s house. The rest of us walked behind them, and I spoke with the nearest actor on his opinion of the matter.

“Do you think it was right for him to take the gunpowder? I asked.

“It’s his gunpowder, he can do with it what he pleases,” he told me. “Besides, he may have a very good reason.”

Governor's ThreatsWhen they were almost to the gate the militia was met by Governor Dunmore himself. The Governor threatened to free and arm the town’s slaves if the crowd didn’t disperse, after which he stomped off into his house. The actors left in a huff and the tourists left to wander the streets and historic buildings.

I walked through the old church, one of the oldest in the country. Every church of note in this part of the country seems to be an Episcopal one, which is comforting to a girl who grew up having to remind the other kids in school how to pronounce the word correctly. On the back of my town map was a schedule of events, and I saw that the next scene, “The Gale from the North,” was about to happen in front of the tavern. I ran over and caught the action already in progress. The characters were arguing about the news they’d been hearing from the colonies up north. Time had passed in Williamsburg, and it was months since the gunpowder incident. Once again a few angry actors tried to get a rise out of the crowd, and once again the visitors looked at each other, unsure how to be both audience and participant. Eventually calmer heads called for order, and once again the crowd dispersed.

Guide in the Govenor's HouseI ran back to the Governor’s Palace to catch a free tour. The guide introduced himself as a town citizen, and explained that the governor and his family had evacuated. They didn’t know when, or if, they would return. He talked about the various troubles the governor had dealt with ever since the gunpowder incident. However, our guide didn’t seem terribly fond of Dunmore, and made a point to say that he found it overly imposing that the entrance hall of the house had to be lined with such an abundance of rifles. After the tour we were led out the back of the house and I looked at the clock. I had only fifteen minutes to get all the way across town to the Capitol Building where, according the the schedule, there was to be a Declaration of Independence.

A man stood on a high terrace holding a large piece of paper. He announced that the representatives in Philadelphia had declared independence from Great Britain, and he began to read off the famous words, “When in the course of human events…” After a few lines the volume on his microphone was turned down, and the sound switched over to a few characters at street level. Where the previous scenes had a casual, improvisational element, this moment was highly rehearsed and stylized. Two white men on the left discussed the possibility of war. Next, a pair of women on the right complained that the phrase “all men are created equal” seemed to exclude them specifically. Finally a male and female slave standing near the gate argued about whether any of this would have any effect on their lot in life. The sound jumped from one pair to the next. It was a compelling presentation, and it highlighted the idea that a simple declaration can’t change anything unless we make it so. When the man on the terrace concluded his speech, the actors who had been watching in the crowd turned to face the tourists and began giving their own opinions. This was our cue that the main scene was over and we were free to improvise with the actors or go on our way.

As I was looking over my map to find my next destination, I overheard two characters arguing. It was a white man and a black woman. He was trying to convince her of the importance of what had happened, while she was trying to convince him that the words of the declaration were empty unless the slaves were free. As he began to explain that even if individuals weren’t free they were now free to live in a republic, a nearby visitor called over a friend to watch “a guy arguing with a slave.”

Argument

“I’m no slave,” she snapped back at the tourist.

“That’s quite right,” said the male actor, “Edith is a free woman … though at times she likes to abuse that freedom.” The man gave her a sly smile and she shot back with a glare.

A crowd was gathering around the argument, which was becoming heated. It was difficult to watch. We all knew she was right, yet we all knew he would win. What’s more, I got the impression that the actors weren’t supposed to be making such a stationary spectacle. Midway through their fight the man said to his counterpart, “Walk with me, won’t you?” I wasn’t sure if he was trying to get the crowd to disperse, or if he had to go change his costume for the next scene.

I was getting hungry and decided to stop into one of the town restaurants. I was worried when I saw the line out the door, but once inside I was told it would only be a minute or two. The benefits of eating alone.

The hostess sat me, and the waitresses came around to put water on the tables. I couldn’t help but notice that all of the employees were black, and I started to wonder just how far they took their authenticity in Williamsburg. I was a relieved when I saw a white waitress walk in and start talking to a table across the room. I always try to treat servers with a great deal of respect, but I don’t think I’ve ever made such an effort as I did with the black woman who was dressed like an 18th century slave and brought me my chicken pot pie. Welcome to Williamsburg. Allow me to introduce you to our country’s racist legacy.

It’s funny how the different employees maintain different levels of character. Some are like the traditional holodeck characters, and are programed to respond to everything they see as though it belongs in the world they are recreating. Characters often make fun of visitors and their “traveling clothes.” The actors in the scenes are in a play all their own, and never miss a beat or acknowledge anything that is outside the world of Williamsburg. Other employees are programed with the freedom and ability to see beyond the illusion, like the holographic Doctor in Star Trek: Voyager. For example, the waitresses in the restaurants are focused on the job at hand, and don’t pretend to be anything other than a typical service professional. They have to run your credit card, after all.

SilversmithThe craftspeople in the shops are a mix. When you walk into the silversmith’s shop he greets you as guests. The room is arranged to keep him and his tools on one side and you and your grabby tourist hands on the other. He shows you the tools and how they work, and a young man comes out from the back to show off something he’s just finished soldering.

“Excellent,” the silversmith tells the young man, “Polish the outside, but not too much on the inside around the solder.” I can’t tell if they are acting out a quick scene to demonstrate the apprentice system, or if the man in front of me really is a silversmith in charge of a working shop.

It should be pointed out that no matter what, these are working shops. The woman in the wig shop dropped character completely to explain that their shop makes all the wigs for the actors in Colonial Williamsburg, and that handmade wigs like these would normally sell for thousands of dollars. However, the men of the time would have all been wearing handmade wigs, so it is only fitting that the town shop should make them. The children laughed at the idea that men were wearing wigs. The adults laughed when the woman explained that nearly every wig on display in the shop was a man’s wig.

MilleryThe women who worked at the tailor shop did their best to keep in character, until a visitor asked if they used a sewing machine. I saw the wheels turning in the employee’s head as she considered pretending she had never heard of such a machine. She instead opted for honesty.

“I’m going to break character for just a minute,” she told us, lest we were confused or thought we had tricked her, “The sewing machine won’t be popular in the United States until the 1840s, and what time is it now, 2:30?” She looked at the other tailor. “So it’s what, 1779?”

Benedict ArnoldAt 3PM and the winter of 1780 I found myself back in front of the Capitol Building, but this time things weren’t so cheery. The town had been taken by the British, led by none other than legendary traitor Benedict Arnold. All day the actors had worked to get tourists to participate and engage in the story, but Benedict Arnold didn’t have to work at all. In previous scenes things were morally messy, what with the arguments about slavery, sexism, and what constitutes the rights of the people. But now everything was clear. This was a bad man. We knew it from our history books. The crowd booed and hissed like extras in a movie. Arnold rode in on a huge white horse, and he played the part. The actor kept a stern and judging gaze fixed on the crowd. He told us that we should be happy to be British subjects again. They had given us what we wanted. The taxes were back down, after all. But the crowd wasn’t having it. And so they let him have it instead.

After the great betrayer and his troops rode back down main street, I grabbed a spot in the capitol building tour. The guide told us about the different meeting rooms and what would have happened in them. He wasn’t playing much of a character at all, though like everyone he still looked the part. When the tour ended it was pouring down rain. The next building over was the coffee shop, whose tour included a free cup of hot chocolate. I threw on my hurricane-proof rain jacket and made a run for it. I was completely drenched by the time I got to the coffee house porch. The woman outside told me and the other runners that we’d have to wait, the previous tour was still finishing up. I pulled off my coat to discover I was soaking wet underneath. I pushed at the seems and realized it was coming apart. I pushed a bit more and the whole thing seemed to disintegrate in my arms. I hadn’t brought a purse, so I pulled everything out of the pockets and hung the remains of the coat on a nearby rail. Once the rain let up I would have to find a trash can.

Registar and PensFor the longest time I couldn’t tell if the old woman leading the coffee shop tour was in character or not. There’s a performance personality that you can normally sense from a person, and she didn’t seem to have it. She seemed to be an ordinary tour guide. It was only after a few mentions of “what men talk about” and how women aren’t interested in politics that I realized she was meant to be speaking to us from the 1700s. We were led through the back office and into the main dining room, where everyone was given the option of coffee or hot chocolate. Most, including myself, wisely chose the chocolate. As the old women poured, we were introduced to another worker in the house. She was a young slave woman, and she regaled the customers with a story about a man on trial a few towns over who drank a bit too much and then got the unfortunate luck of having another man accidentally fall on his sword. Twice. We smiled and laughed, but the moment was uncomfortable. She would occasionally make references to her life as a slave. We’d hear her say, “If my master or mistress told me to do something, I do it!” and she would laugh like she was talking about a strict but lovable grandmother. There would be something in her tone that said, “What do you mean this is wrong? This is the world. How could it be any different? He is my master and I am a slave.”

Her skin was very light. While she certainly had African lineage, the Caucasian side was winning out. Her accent was different than the others. All of the actors seemed to have peculiar accents, which made me feel they were probably authentic to the time and place. But the woman in the coffee shop took on a slave accent. I think in the modern world there’s a real disconnect with slavery because we know it was so wrong. It’s hard to understand how anyone, including the slaves, could stomach it. Even when they were more than half the population, slavery persisted. And when you hear this woman casually mention to fellow actors in the street “I’ll have to talk to my Master about that,” you start to realize how the system persists. This is the world. How could it be any different?

I was reminded of a story they told at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home. A young boy had been born into slavery on the plantation a few years before Jefferson’s death. When the estate was being split up and given out to the creditors, the slaves were put up for auction. The boy said he didn’t know he was a slave until that day on the auction block. That was just the way the world was.

The bandThe end of the day was fast approaching, and I made my way towards the final scene location. As I walked I saw the soldiers of the Continental Army in formation and marching down the main road. I followed them, taking pictures and listening to the music of the marching band. When we reached the scene location, the field was roped off to ensure the marchers had plenty of room for their formations. A few actors in character closed the ropes behind the army to allow more space for spectators, and I watched as George Washington himself entered to lead the charge. The war was almost over, and they were on their way to Yorktown.

Two Men Talking

I stood next to a man playing a preacher and another actor I’d seen earlier in the day. They chatted back and forth, just loud enough for me to hear. The priest was complaining about the hyperbole used to describe the greatness of General Washington, and it was clear by their joking that they were both done working and ready for the day to end. I thought about what life was like for these actors, performing the entire Revolutionary War on a daily basis. At five o’clock every day the troops go off to Yorktown, and that means they finally get to take off their wigs and go home. This may be the only place on earth where theatrical improvisation is a nine-to-five gig.

As the band marched away the actors casually trailed behind. Their typical posturing and relationships were gone, and while I’m sure they kept up their in character in some sense, once they were out of earshot I imagine the conversations about the tourists began. Like baristas closing up for the day who complain about their difficult customers, or actors whispering backstage about the man in the back row who doesn’t think anyone can see him texting, the town’s employees probably debrief the troubles of the workday and then leave it behind. Tomorrow is another day, another war. The holodeck program will reset from the beginning. And this is the world. This is life in Colonial Williamsburg.

The Nickel View

Like many historic attractions, you can’t just pull up in front of Thomas Jefferson’s house. You have to park at the visitor’s center and buy a ticket in order to get your assigned tour time and a spot on the bus. Once at the top, tours enter the house at ten minute intervals, giving almost no room for delay. It seemed like every employee is a white woman, usually over 50.

Vineyard

The first stop was the front porch, where the guide explained how the weather vane was attached to an arrow on the ceiling, allowing Jefferson to see which way the wind was blowing without having to leave the porch. She told us he tracked the weather every day for years, which is the sort of hobby I assumed a founding father would have. Inside the front door is the room in which guests would have spent most of their time. Apparently some visitors waited for Mr. Jefferson for hours before he was able to see them. He felt that this would be an excellent time to educate the public, so he decorated the foyer like a museum. The space is filled with art and artifacts, the idea being that people could learn while they waited. The tour guide was explaining which pieces were original and which were brought in after the home was restored. Then she pointed out the bust of Alexander Hamilton.

“Wait, really?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied. Several members of the tour seemed confused by my incredulity, and I was still confused by the sculpture, so she explained. “Hamilton and Jefferson were fierce political rivals, but Jefferson always said that he respected Hamilton, even if they disagreed.” She turned to face another pedestal on the opposite side of the room, which held up the head of some ancient philosopher. “Had you been here during Jefferson’s time, you would have seen a bust of Jefferson over here, so that the two men could always be facing in each from opposite sides of the room.”

Nickel ViewThe guide took us through the rest of the house, showing us the unique design elements created by Jefferson, such as hiding the slave passageways under the decks, and collecting the rain that drained off those decks for drinking water. The rooms were painted in assaulting shades of yellow and green, which was surprisingly the style at the time. We saw the special device that allowed Thomas Jefferson to keep copies of all his correspondence. It was a sort of double pen system, which made a secondary pen follow the movements of the first. After we left the house I went to the back end of the lawn for what the guide affectionately called “the nickel view.”

Outside I joined the optional garden tour, where we learned about Jefferson’s passion for agricultural experimentation. The entire property still functions as a working plantation, and the garden has been restored to the original layout that existed in Jefferson’s time. Only one tree remains from that time, though as the guide explained it isn’t exactly a “Kodak Moment.” It’s a stick of a thing off to the side, barely noticeable and not terribly attractive. It was so uninsteresting I didn’t even think to take a picture, but we’ll see how I look when I’m 200 years old.

CockscombMy last stop for the day was with the Slave Tour, which talked about slave life at Monticello and was led by yet another learned white woman of retirement age. None of the slave housing still exists. Not only were slave residences made of lower quality materials, there would have been no interest in preserving them until recently. The guide pointed to outlines on the ground that showed the foundations of little one-room huts the families lived in. She explained that they worked from dawn until dusk, with maybe one day off a week. On Sundays they might be able to sell their own vegetables at the market to earn a bit of money to buy small pleasantries, such as an additional layer of clothing for winter. These vegetables would have been planted, cared for, and harvested late at night, after the slaves had come in from working the plantation. They might find other work to do, such as mending. It’s a funny thing that we don’t often think about – the idea of a slave having a part-time job. The guide said the Jefferson family reported hearing the slaves singing and dancing late at night. “You’ll find spare time, no matter what your life demands,” the guide told us. I suppose that even when pressed into the horror of slavery, humans will always reach for what little agency they have. Be it selling veggies for a penny or singing at the fire after hours of brutal work.

The tour was stopped near the ruins of one of the slave homes when a 13-year-old boy raised his hand. The guide had been explaining Jefferson’s political opinions regarding slavery, and the boy had a question.

“If Thomas Jefferson didn’t like slavery, why did he have so many slaves?”

The crowd shifted in uncomfortable unison. The guide nodded her head.

“That’s the real question, isn’t it?” she said. She told us there was a short answer and a long answer. “The short answer is: He didn’t know what to do with them, and he didn’t know what to do without them.” As the guide explained it, Jefferson felt that the racism against blacks was so strong that it would probably never go away. He wasn’t sure what ought to happen to freed slaves, since he felt certain that equality in society was impossible. He also owned a lot of land that was managed by slaves, and he wasn’t sure how plantation owners like himself could stay in business without slave labor. While it seems that on an ideological level Jefferson would have loved to get rid of slavery from day one, he didn’t see a way around the practical problems of the day. As the guides at Monticello tell it, he felt that slavery was a problem for the next generation to solve.

In his will, Jefferson only freed five slaves, and even then they were only to be free once his wife passed as well. Many have pointed out that while Jefferson certainly could have “freed” all his slaves in his will, the estate was in debt and the creditors would have been able to lay claim to the slaves no matter what Jefferson had requested.

As I waited for the bus back down to the visitor’s center, I wondered why it is that we always think of Thomas Jefferson when we think of early American slavery. After all, George Washington owned slaves, as did many others. Perhaps it’s because Jefferson’s plantation was so large, or because his letters indicated a personal desire for abolishment. Maybe it’s because of the scandalous tales of his relationship with his slave Sally Hemmings and the paternity rumors surrounding four of her children. It’s probably a little of everything, but I imagine mostly it’s because we think he should have been better than all that. We grew up in school learning about a man who wrote the words “All men are created equal” and we assumed he would know better. And by all accounts he did. But something stood between him and the courage of his convictions. Here was a man that was more than happy to risk being drawn and quartered to stand up against the British Monarchy. Here was a man who served as Secretary of State, Vice President, and President for a brand new country. Here was a man so passionate about education that he forced people to learn in his foyer. And we think with all of that on his resume, he should have at least been able to abolish slavery while he was at it.

Taking a picture

It’s important to be honest about our heroes. We can’t forget their flaws for the sake of keeping them up on a pedestal. But it’s also important to be honest with ourselves. Jefferson could have done more to abolish slavery, but so could Washington, Hamilton, and Adams. So could the hundreds of white voters in the South. So could thousands of politicians and citizens for nearly a hundred years before passing the buck finally became impossible and we resorted to slaughtering each other to make a point. I think maybe we like to give Jefferson a hard time because he reminds us too much of ourselves. We may not be facing slavery, but there are a host of problems in this country and in this world, and there are a whole lot of us who have decided those problems are a bit too difficult and complicated to be worth our time. And we make excuses. I believe in equality, why is it so important that I actually do something about it? I donate to charity, isn’t that enough to prevent poverty? Can’t you just be proud of the fact that I managed to hold down a job and set up a nice home and not get too fat? Why do I also have to go change the world?

After all, the world’s problems are too big for us to fix in just a few years. We have to be practical, like Jefferson. We can’t just stop using fossil fuels or end hunger overnight. We can’t go passing laws willy nilly, taking moral responsibility for every problem we see. We might as well try to get rid of acid rain or put a man on the moon. We’ll have to wait for the next generation to fix things. I hear they’re really good at that.

Scenes from Movies

There is a scene you’ve watched in many movies before. It’s common when your protagonist lives in the real world but his or her character advancement requires a small bit of magic, either real or metaphoric.

If it’s real magic, the scene happens near the beginning of the film, right after we’ve established the protagonist’s day-to-day life and what is wrong with it. The character will accidentally stumble into some dusty old bookshop, or take a wrong turn down an alleyway in the rain. The musical score will change, and the lighting will get darker. A creepy old person will appear, as if from nowhere, and say things to the character that indicate a greater level of personal knowledge than is logical in a stranger. The old person will then do something such as grab tight onto the protagonist’s hand or throw magical dust on her or one of her possessions. She will then leave, confused but seemingly unharmed. The magic charm has been activated, and now the life-changing story begins.

If the magic is metaphorical, the movie is set in the real world and the scene happens near the end of the film. The character has gone through many trials and has reached a low point. She doesn’t know what to do next, or how to solve what seems to be an insurmountable problem. She wanders aimlessly and ends up somewhere common like a park or a bar or small shop of some kind. She meets an ordinary old person who inquires as to what seems to be the problem. The protagonist doesn’t bother with specifics, and sums up her own problem in some short, pithy phrase. The old person takes in this abstract conundrum and offers an equally simple solution whose applicability isn’t entirely clear to the audience, but is a revelation to our hero. The protagonist realizes what she must do and leaves.

I am still trying to figure out which of these scenes happened to me in Asheville.

Athena's ViewI was staying about an hour south of town with some friends of the family and their enthusiastic cat. They have a nice house tucked away in the middle of the woods, the kind where the tap water comes from a well. My first morning in the area I went to visit Biltmore Estate, the grand and beautiful Vanderbilt home. When I visit these big homes I can’t help but imagine what I would do with too much money and a desire to build from scratch. There were so many rooms and so much artwork. I worry sometimes that I would run out of opinions before we reached the second floor. However a giant estate does have certain advantages. During World War II, Vanderbilt offered to store some of the nation’s prized artwork in his home for safekeeping. The art was transported from Washington D.C. in secret in the middle of the night, and few people knew where it was being stored. This includes many of the members of Vanderbilt’s staff. Once a home reaches a certain size, I suppose no one questions why a particular room might be closed off for years at a time.

After Biltmore I drove to downtown Asheville to see what it was like without the spectacle of Bele Chere. I purchased a treat at the local chocolate shop and sat in the park watching a group of school kids run around. Many people in Asheville offered a friendly hello. It was a little strange how many, in fact. I walked past a coffee shop and an attractive young man with Owen Wilson hair was sitting outside, drinking Carrot Apple Celery Lemon Kale Juice and playing a guitar. I leaned against a pole and pretended to play with my phone while surreptitiously trying to write down all the ingredients listed on the drink label.

“What are you doing over there?” he asked me with a smile.

I made up some excuse about writing notes for things I had to do later, and he nodded. “A beautiful day to be outside,” he said, still plucking at the strings of his guitar. I agreed, finished my notes, and bid him farewell. “You have a great day,” he said with absolute sincerity. I smiled back at Asheville.

Staff Picks

I took a peek inside Malaprop’s Bookstore, which is something of an city landmark. When you stand inside and take a deep breath you can almost hear someone whispering into your ear “…support your local bookstore…” Every book on the shelf of “Staff Picks” was by an author I had recently heard interviewed on NPR. Sometimes I wonder if Asheville has actually managed to out-portland Portland, Oregon. It’s like a tiny, liberal, mountain paradise. Like the sign says, “10,000 Lesbians Can’t Be Wrong.”

Pottery StudioI had been told to check out the River Arts District, where artists’ shops are open for the general public to see creation in action. I walked around one of the pottery buildings, looking at the various pieces for sale on the walls and watching a few of the pottery artists at work. No one is there to greet you, and no one is there to stop you. You are free to walk down the halls and through the offices, with only your personal regard for the privacy of others as your guide. It seems that the district is counting on the general honesty of people to ensure nothing is stolen or vandalized, and that seems to be working well for them.

After the pottery shop I went next door to a studio featuring colorful oils on canvas. I did a loop of the gallery area and found a side hall I wasn’t sure I should go down. It led into the room where the art was made. When I walked inside I saw a young woman and an older man, both at work. She was already on her way out by the time I got up the vocal courage to ask if it was okay for me to come inside. He told me of course, and immediately called me over to talk with him.

“How are you?” he asked in a gentle voice.

“How am I?” I responded, a bit stunned by what felt like a rather intimate and caring inquiry.

“How are you. Who are you. Answer either.”

I told him my name and what I was doing in Asheville. He said his name was Jonas and this was his studio.

“And what do you want?” he asked.

“Oh I was just looking around.”

“I mean what do you want. In life. Out of life. What do you want?” He had white hair and a beard, and his face seemed a bit off, a bit lopsided. I considered his question and came up with the best words I could think of.

“I want freedom without losing security.”

He shook his head and took my hand. “There is no such thing,” he said, “Security, it is an illusion.” He told me that the things we chase after that we call security are not needed. “What would you do if it didn’t matter what you did?”

“I would write,” I told him without hesitation.

BrushesHis eyebrows lifted up. “See? You’re already so sure. If you go after that? Security will follow.” He told me that he always wanted to paint, and that’s all he focused on. He has palsy, but he didn’t let that stop him. He didn’t try to build a studio or be very successful, he just tried to paint all the time. “And now look,” he said. He pointed all around the room, to every painting on the wall. They were all his, the entire building was his. The staff was his. I was surrounded by thousands of dollars worth of artwork and it all belonged to this nice old man with a lopsided face who wouldn’t let go of my hand.

“The Universe will provide,” he said. “I call it the Universe, call it whatever you want … God … whatever. If you do what you are supposed to do, the Universe will provide.”

He pulled his hand around and pushed hard into my upper back. “You’re too young for this,” he said, indicating my constant slouch. He told me to stop crossing my arms, as it crosses the heart. We don’t need to block the heart.

“Remember that you don’t have a soul,” Jonas said. “You are a soul, covered in a body.” I smiled at him and he stared at me unflinching. “You have wonderful eyes,” he told me.

“I get that a lot,” I said.

Paint JarsI thanked him for taking the time to talk with me, and asked if I could take a few pictures of his paints. They looked so lovely lined up next to each other and splattered with color. He nodded and began to walk me over to the paints. He held out his hand, indicating that I should give him the camera. He began taking pictures of everything. The paints, the brushes, the walls. Then he looked at me.

“You have beautiful eyes,” he said again. “Eyes are the windows to the soul, you’ve heard that phrase?”

“Yes, I have.”

He put his hands onto my shoulders and began positioning me in front of a canvas. “Here,” he said, “just stand here and look at me.” I looked up with a smile.

“Let go,” he said. I stared at him. He meant it.

“Okay,” I told him, “Just, gimmie a minute.” I took a deep breath. I stared at the camera.

“Alright,” I said.

He took a picture and paused.

“Did you get it?” I asked him.

“I think so,” he said.

Me and JonasJonas asked one of his employees to take a picture of us together, and then he walked with me out to the front of the shop. I told him I had to go, I was late to meet my friends for dinner. He wished me well, and told me to remember what he had said. I wished I could have recorded the entire conversation.

On my way to dinner I tried to figure out which magical movie scene this was. Was my day in Asheville an example of my normal life that, with a bit of magic, is all about to change? Or is this whole trip my journey, and I am now on the way towards a magnificent revelation?

Time has past since that day in Asheville, and I’m no closer to an answer. I suppose because the real world doesn’t operate on movie time. People don’t often have experiences and then wake up the next day completely changed. Even when they’re on grand adventures. Your story doesn’t take place over a few weeks or months like it does in the movies. Your life is your movie, and there’s no way to know if you are at the beginning or nearing the end. There’s no way to know if the magic you experience is real or metaphoric. The best thing you can do is look straight into the camera, and let go.

Let Go