Saturday, April 3, 2010

Visiting 'Ol Virginny

We were in the Virginia mountain-top retreat for six days. We arrived on Sunday afternoon in the fog, seeing the sign for Wintergreen in the mist only because it was huge and green. Otherwise, all we saw was white. I felt like I was in Heaven Can Wait, except Warren Beatty wasn’t with us. Darn.

We struggled to see the street signs that would tell us we had arrived at Ridges Road. Once there, unloading in the windstorm, our friends promised the view out of the many windows that now looked upon clouds and rain would open up, when the weather cleared, onto a spectacular mountain range. We weren’t sure how long we would have to wait. Luckily, it was only until the next morning, when the fog lifted slowly to reveal layers of mountain ridges the likes of which even I, an Arizona girl, have never seen. There were likenesses of the view in paintings all over the house but, of course, they couldn’t capture even nearly what it looked like to stare straight out at the waves of blue outlining, it seemed, the universe.

We have loved the people of Western Virginia. Their hospitality has been unparalleled and our expectations have been exceeded in terms of service and quality of goods every time, which is saying a lot for a group of spoiled New Yorkers. I gave a gold star to our waitress at the brewery we visited at the base of the mountain. Skiers having skied their last day, summer hikers not yet arrived, business was slow. But the sweet smiling girl didn’t show any upset, she just explained the different beer varieties with expertise and gave us great tips on where to go and what to do in this area from which she so proudly hailed.

“It’s beautiful here,” I said, looking out the restaurant’s big picture windows onto the valley and the green hills beyond on which picturesque houses sat shadowed by tall budding trees.

She smiled warmly, not tired herself of the views after 20-some-odd years. “It is beautiful,” she said. If she’s anything like my father or others like him in my native state, she will never tire of it. Looking at the mountains, for many, offers a solace that little else does. I can see that, for sure.

We went to Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson. We had been warned it would be stuffy, that our loud kids might be shushed. But we went anyway. Eli is obsessed with presidents, and was happy to impart his learned wisdom, correcting misinformation an adult had given me about Jefferson and Monroe having died on the same day.

“No, Mommy,” he said, reciting from the Book of Presidents he checked out three separate times from his school library. “It was Jefferson and Adams who died on the same day, on the fourth of July…” Turns out, Monroe also died on July 4, only in a different year. I might have learned all this once, many moons ago, but I did not recall any of it. That’s what’s nice about having no memory. Everything old is new again.

We eschewed the shuttle bus to hit the trail from the visitor’s center to the grounds of Monticello, hitting first upon Jefferson’s family cemetery in which he and his children and grandchildren are buried. A movie had told us that many of his children had died early, that only two had survived. Oscar pointed at little gravestones behind Jefferson’s own.

Quietly he said, “Those must be his children…”

As we walked up the hill, to the gardens, we stopped to chat with the gardener, who tended lovingly to a new weeping willow tree, planted to replace others that had been eroded by pests. Deer, too, are a problem, he said, because of the bountiful buffet laid out for them in the samples of the kinds of fruits and vegetables a household in the 1800s, high on a hill, had to grow to feed its many mouths, including 140 slaves that Jefferson wanted to free but felt he couldn’t. Dogs are placed next to the house to chase off the deer and one man is allowed to hunt them. Last year, he killed 66, the gardener said sheepishly. He was awesome. He said he wished he could follow us up over the hill to see our reaction to the amazing house. Like our waitress, like seemingly everyone in the area, he was so proud of what he did, the grounds he worked to preserve. He definitely deserved his gold star, he wore it proudly.

We wandered around among the newly planted vegetables and then into the underground rooms that house Jefferson’s ingenious modern-for-the-time kitchen, ice house, and wine-bottling and beer-brewing rooms. The kids wrote their names with a feather and ink.

As we toured the house with our inspired smiling guide, a woman who said over and over again how much there was to learn about Jefferson and Monticello, how much she herself learned every day, a picture of the president emerged clearly: he was curious. He wanted, obviously, to figure answers to everything. The guide told a story as we walked through his private apartment, past a little windowed solarium filled with flowers that I could happily have sat in forever. She said he had brought mockingbirds with him to France and noticed, once there, that the birds were making a strange new sound, a creaking kind of sound. He determined, with much figuring I imagine, that the new sound was a mocking of the sound of the ship they had taken to cross the Atlantic, the back-and-forth creaking of the ship’s planks. So cool. He wanted answers to everything and he solved a lot of problems by thinking of how things might be done differently. Eli’s favorite example was Jefferson’s creation of the swivel chair.

Sadly, Jefferson couldn’t solve the slave issue, left it, the film had told us, to future generations to fix. But he set the stage for personal freedom with the Declaration of Independence and with philosophies such as the separation of church and state that sought to end tyranny over thought, to leave people alone to ponder their own God. He was not wise in the ways of money, signing for others’ loans, often helping others at the expense of himself and his own family, developing debts that his grandchildren apparently paid off. He was a major thinker, Jefferson, money was just a tool, a means rather than an end. Our guide, who Oscar whispered to me to give a gold star, was mesmerized by the many ways in which Jefferson’s brilliant mind created solutions for societal ills we still deal with today.

We sometimes eschew these solutions, like personal freedoms, because we are afraid, because we don’t know how to inspire people to want to work hard, to believe in themselves. But Jefferson obviously believed in people and empowered them. He started the University of Virginia, which we saw in the distance from the decks he built off the sides of his house, probably decks he built on which to ponder. It is obvious here, in this area, that Jefferson’s legacy of pride and curiosity still lives strong. It is impressive. A big gold star for Virginia, at least these parts.

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