Nobody wants to buy the camper. Not a single email, text or phone call have I received, here in this fallen on hard times motel. I think I’m slowly starting to go a little mad. I mean, madder than usual.
Or, as my brother hilariously said by text last night, “No one call when exactly Miss Felicity showed up at the Travel Lodge, only that it seemed as if she had been there since time immemorial. For years Miss Felicity wandered the motel halls, muttering about when her camper sold she could go back to Carolina; we would play along of course, “Sure, Miss F., your camper.”
I have been to Colonial Williamsburg or at least I have been to the free part, as you can see above. I have been down Route 5 where the historic plantations lurk. I have driven from one end of Colonial Parkway to the other, which is the reason I have also been to the local Best Buy and purchased myself a by god for real GPS. I have been to the local used bookstore, the Mermaid – it is adorable, skews toward nonfiction and the proprietors are just lovely, go there – and had a vegan sandwich that I wish I could forget at a local smoothie shop. I have had really good soul food at the Cozy Patio Bistro, which doesn’t have a website but I heartily recommend. I’ve eaten an okay omelette at a diner which I don’t recommend because I object to the scanty server uniforms. Yes, I am a joy killing feminazi and proud of it: it’s 20 fucking 17, take your fucking glittery tank top and stretch mini and shove them where the sun don’t shine. Let your servers have some dignity. And, because what trip is complete without it, I have been to the local Trader Joes and Super Wal Mart.
And I’ve haunted the balconies and continental breakfast of this TraveLodge, this motel hell, this 1980s concrete Ozymandian testament to hubris that seems to be run entirely by two tiny Indian ladies. Actually, for the price, it’s really not a bad motel. Everything pretty much works: I’m not sporting any suspicious new bites, the bed is perfectly comfortable and the elevator probably isn’t going to crash to the ground any time soon. There seem to be a fair number of people who actually live here, which is moderately depressing, particularly since quite a few of them are children. How do I know they live here? Most tourists don’t leave their motel rooms in full on fast food uniforms. Yeah, America, you rock so hard these days.
Let’s talk for a minute about what this trip, my crazy year vacation semi retirement mid life crisis photo snapping wine drinking blogging wander year, is about. I haven’t touched on it much yet because of all the logistical challenges, but in a very real sense I am out here to try to get a sense of this country. To be completely chillingly honest and risk exposing myself as a crazy paranoid person, I don’t think the USA as I have known it all my life is going to be around much longer. I think we have been teetering on the brink of civil war since 9/11 and I think the Trump administration’s merry band of liars, thieves, racists, fascists, Nazis, scoundrels and downright absolute villains straight out of Marvel comics is going to push us over the edge. I don’t think we as a union are strong enough to survive them. And I think that, given the stark realities of climate change and global economic shifts and all the other shit that is coming down the pike hard and fast, the world is, yeah, pretty much ending. The American dream, best as I can tell, is already dead. So I thought I would go out and take a look at the country and see what there is to be seen while I still can and while it’s still there. And, while I’m at it, look at what was and what is and just what the hell went wrong.
Just in case you aren’t depressed yet, let me lay on you my trip yesterday to Shirley Plantation, one of the many plantations that line Virginia’s Route 5. You can’t really see most of them from the road (except one, which by my admittedly fleeting appraisal was probably built in the 1880s so not really a plantation in the truest sense of the word but hey, if I lived on that road I’d call my house a plantation too, construction in 1965 be damned) but there is a pamphlet and a website which is exactly the same as the pamphlet. As part of the inexorable process of turning into my mother, over the years I have developed a strong fondness for touring historic houses. I like architectural details and old porcelain, wavy glass, wrought iron and faded, threadbare fabric – I am one of those ladies. So, when an old friend in Richmond proposed visiting on Sunday, I said, let’s do the plantations. And we duly set off down Route 5.
The first one we came to was Sherwood Forest. Sherwood Forest! Yes! Yet I somehow doubt the residents are in the business of robbing the rich and giving to the poor. It was hot as hell yesterday and when we discovered that we couldn’t tour the house without an appointment and $35 each (OK, maybe they are Robin Hooding) we stopped exploring at the pet graveyard. Fun times! Yes, there’s nothing like hanging out in a pet cemetery to set the tone. President Tyler’s horse is buried here and so, under the biggest and most lavish memorial, is the current owner’s miniature poodle. Only 3 generations from President Tyler, the pamphlet says. The pamphlet goes on at some length about how self sustaining the Sherwood Forest was for its, and I quote, community of 150 people. It doesn’t mention that some of those people might not have really wanted, you know, to live at Sherwood Forest.
We went on to Shirley. Shirley Plantation is a step back in time – to about, um, 1962. The house, above, is beautiful. You are allowed to wander freely about the grounds but must buy a ticket ($11 with an AAA discount, huh) to tour the house and, as the current 11th generation Carter Carter Hill Carter descendant lives upstairs, you only get to see four rooms. Fair enough. The four rooms are nice. As an ex South Carolinian I am impelled to point out that the floors are not as nice as any Charleston house of the same period, a lot of the decorations are not period and the ballroom is tiny, but the house is really quite lovely. However. The tour, delivered by a young man, was clearly word for word memorized. Remember, here, that I have given many a museum tour and worked with docents and written tours. I don’t hold with memorization and canned statements. Nobody in the field has, at least for the last 20 years. I asked about the brick the house and outbuildings are made of. “It was all made right here,” he said, and didn’t mention by who. This evasion continued through the tour. Skilled artisans were “imported” to make the molding. Hot and cold running water was added “by the seventh generation.” And so on. The family was explained at great length and I agree that it is super cool to have one house in the same family for almost 400 years. I maybe didn’t need the complete genealogy, but hey, I am a history nerd and I get why it’s interesting.
You know what else would have been super interesting? Anything at all, any mention, of all the other people who lived and died at Shirley Plantation over the last 400 years. Any comments on where all this wealth came from, on whose backs it was amassed and how. And where were the old kitchens? The old quarters? Tastefully disappeared. The only outbuildings you can see near the main house are the storeroom, ice house, dovecote and a little chicken coop. Now it is possible that I just didn’t get far enough, but I doubt it somehow. You know what else I wish? I wish I had had the nerve to say something during the tour but I didn’t say a word. I looked around at the lily white crowd (and it was a surprisingly large crowd, probably 15 people or so, they’re doing fairly well out of this) and I decided not to rock the boat. I am a fucking coward and I apologize. I asked about the bricks. I asked about the china (1950s tacky, IMHO) but I didn’t ask about the slaves. I wish I had.
It is 2017. It is time and beyond time for us to own up to our heritage. Just acting as if slavery never happened, as if that plantation had always been one happy community working together (1770s, 1870s, 1970s, whatever, it’s all a commune!) is bullshit and it advances us as a people nowhere. Only by acknowledging the past can we finally get, well, past it. I am actually really horrified by yesterday’s tour. It’s not acceptable to just glide by the details anymore and you know what? It never actually was. Fine, great, this is the plantation where Robert E. Lee’s grandparents lived. Who made their comfortable lives possible? Who else lived here? Let’s talk, let’s at least acknowledge, that. History is a whole lot more than the exhaustive genealogy of one wealthy white family.