Tag Archives: travel

Public Transport Limbo

“They told me to take a street-car named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at – Elysian Fields!”

– Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire

And, you know, once upon a time you really could take all those streetcars – from sin to death to the afterlife – one right after another. Now they’ve mostly been replaced by buses, and if you’re me, they’ll likely leave you stranded somewhere along the way. To be fair, the last time I was stranded, I was actually on Elysian Fields, and my destination was Metairie which in many ways is a kind of suburban hell, so… I think I’ve stretched the metaphor too far already.

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Voyages

“Shortly before leaving, he was introduced to the famous Georg Forster, a thin man with a cough and an unhealthy pallor. He had circumnavigated the globe with Cook and seen more than any German had ever seen; now he was a legend, his book was world famous, and he worked as the librarian in Mainz. He told tales of dragons and the living dead, of supremely well-mannered cannibals, of days when the sea was so clear that one seemed to be rocking over an abyss, of storms so fierce that one didn’t even dare pray. Melancholy enveloped him like a fine mist. He had seen too much, he said. That was the meaning of the simile about Odysseus and the Sirens. It was no good tying oneself to the mast; even when one escaped, one couldn’t recover from the brush with the unknown. He could hardly sleep any more, he said, his memories were too strong. Recently he had had the news that his captain, the great saturnine Cook, had been boiled and eaten on Hawaii. He rubbed his forehead and looked at the buckles on his shoes. Boiled and eaten, he said again.

“He too wanted to go on voyages, said Humboldt.

“Forster nodded. Quite a few had that wish. And everyone of them regretted it later.

“Why?

“Because one could never come back.”

– Daniel Kehlmann, “Measuring the World”

I’ll Rochambeau Ya For It Part 3: Mount Vernon

At long last, the final installment of my Revolutionary trek across Virginia! And it has been so long since I started this (mini) series that I barely remember what I wanted to say… But I promise at least the pictures will be pretty.

In 1781, Washington really, really, really wanted to take back New York. In classic Freudian repetition George was ready to make another hopeless go at what had become an all-too-willing British stronghold. This time, however, he had a few boatloads of French soldiers to back him up, and he stood a real chance.

The problem was that those French soldiers had someplace to be, and that someplace was France. They were less interested in a New York City bloodbath than in getting things over as quickly as possible and getting on the boat back home. The fastest route to achieve that end was south, where French ships were already swarming their territory in the Caribbean lest the British navy try to extend its reach after pummeling the sorry American forces. General Rochambeau, a grizzled veteran of political and military battles alike for decades, gently prodded Washington in the direction he wanted to go. When word came that Admiral De Grasse just happened to swing by the Chesapeake Bay on holiday from his more lucrative tropical battles and beat a few holes in the British Navy’s line, Washington’s decision was made for him. He had to strike where the British were weakest, and that meant a long ride south to Virginia for all.

Washington had not been home in six years of fighting, but this would hardly be a relaxing homecoming. Upon nearing Mount Vernon, Washington rode ahead to arrive a day early and help Martha and the servants prepare for hundreds of houseguests with barely a day’s notice. Washington and Rochambeau would then meet in the mansion’s unfinished dining room while tents and troops were pitched everywhere on the grounds outside. Then they would ride to Yorktown, to their southern generals (including Lafayette, of course), and to victory.

Two hundred thirty years later on September 10-11, 2011, Mount Vernon, a ton of reenactors, and some French ambassadors decided to made a thing of it. They threw a big reenactment of the encampment to commemorate the event and the opening of a trail marking the route taken from New York. Mount Vernon is one of my favorite places on Earth, and I had to go.

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Even wore my tri-cornered hat and (this is the only time in my life I’ll probably ever say this) wasn’t out of place at all.

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For a super-sekrit military maneuver, there sure was a huge crowd of onlookers. The day started with Washington, Rochambeau, and Rochambeau’s translator explaining their plans to move on Yorktown. I think maybe the nation’s first spymaster needs a reminder about the definition of “clandestine service.”

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Seriously. They even provided a sign language interpreter so no one would miss details of the plan.

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I kid, I kid. But to make up for their lack of discretion, they were very snappy dressers!

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And well-armed:

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Mmm, provisions.

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Back in the camp, I spent some time with some geographers where I learned how to, er, tell if a circle is round. Yeah, well, I guess science has to start somewhere, doesn’t it? Seriously, though, these guys were amazing.

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These guys are awfully proud of their cannon. And… what’s that? A Spaniard?

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These two were a hoot. They totally schooled me about Spanish involvement in the American Revolution, which I knew to some degree but not in so much detail. Spain, like France, would take any shot at Britain they could get, but unlike France, they weren’t about to give any crazy ideas to their own colonists that they were trying to beat down. Instead, they let Louis Seize run out in front and threw money and guns at the French effort from behind.

Unfortunately these guys also tried to convince me that King Carlos paid Lafayette’s salary, which I don’t think can be true. At least it wasn’t at the start of the War. Lafayette was an American major-general, meaning that whatever money Spain gave to France, it didn’t go to him. No, you don’t lose as much money as Lafayette did by taking a cut of the Spanish goods. You lose it by blowing it on your own ship and a crapload of guns so you can go play soldier without the King knowing. Continental Army doesn’t have enough money to pay or arm you? No prob! You just bring your own!

All this so a couple hundred years later you can be commemorated with your own pastry kiosk.

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Washington was not fond of war. His letters from the front read like 18th century emo rock. When things were at their bleakest, I wonder that he didn’t throw himself off one of those sandstone cliffs in Virginia. But he always hoped for peace, and he always served when called even when it would have taken a mental patient to believe he could win. He was a reluctant leader who, unlike most other revolutionary generals, gladly relinquished power as soon as the country had legs enough to stand on its own, and in his late 60s, he died astonishingly young. (Those paintings were all made decades after his death. He never really looked that old.) So, I take solace in his choice of a wind-vane, especially now that I have moved to New Orleans.

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And that’s all for that trip, kids. Now that I have moved allll the way down here, you’ll be hearing more about that soon.

I’ll Rochambeau Ya For It Part 2a: Mea culpa

It has come to my attention that my last installment in this series may have made it sound like I meant to encourage visitors to sneak into Colonial Williamsburg without paying admission. This is certainly not the case. The actors involved in the Revolutionary City performances (and all day long, really) are amazing. Pay them! The only problem is that, if you’re only there for a half-day or less as I was, you can’t see them all plus the buildings and the museum. So, if you’re pinched for cash and you think there’s a chance you might go back, save your money until then, walk the streets for the experience, and buy a ticket to the evening events if you have time. The evening events are cheaper and perfect for late arrivals.

As for me, I have no idea when or if I will ever make it back, and I didn’t want to die without seeing it proper, so I bit the bullet. I just wish I’d been able to spend more time!

Now, here: Have a sneak preview of part three:

Washington Rochambeau Encampment Reenactment 2011 - Opening

“I’ll Rochambeau Ya For It” Part 2: Colonial Williamsburg

It has now been so long since I wrote the first installment that I barely remember what I wanted to say in this one. (Thanks, holidays, seasonal job, and cross-country move for a new job!) Fortunately, I only had a half-day at Williamsburg, so there is not really much to remember!

The highlight of my day was that I got to tell Benedict Arnold to suck it. I don’t think he heard me, which is a real shame. I imagine that actor gets that a lot.

It all works like this: there are loads of shops and demonstrations all day long, but the real fun comes in the late afternoon when the actors come out to put on a show. There were four sessions which, disturbingly, took place several years apart. These change from day to day. On the day I was there, I got 1) a Continental Army recruitment event, 2) a handful of slaves contemplating escape to join with the British who “promised freedom” (um hmm), 3) new British officer Benedict Arnold coming straight off sacking Richmond to sit on Williamsburg and shut its Revolutionary mouth, and 4) a pep rally with the Marquis de Lafayette who was on his way to victory at Yorktown.

Let me backtrack a bit to the phrase “sacking Richmond.” This was something I hadn’t heard of. Sometime between penning the Declaration of Independence and the end of the Revolutionary War, Thomas Jefferson was elected Governor of Virginia. He moved the capital from Williamsburg to Richmond and, feeling British heat down south, moved all the state guns and things that went boom to a building outside of town. This is always a good idea. Especially when your enemy is a traitor with a friend or two still on your side to tell him where to find the basket with all your eggs.

So, Benedict Arnold rode to Richmond to get the guns and, the cherry on top, Thomas Jefferson. Being a lover not a fighter, Jefferson ran, thus setting the stage for generations of liberal hate in Virginia. Arnold then burned all the weapons and a whole lot of Richmond to the ground on the way through. I like to imagine that Arnold sat on the pile of ashes like a dragon stroking its treasure until Our Hero the Marquis de Lafayette rode in to chase him out and rescue damsel Jefferson. In reality, Arnold moved on to loot a few more towns while Lafayette slipped in behind, took Richmond, and tracked Arnold south until Arnold left for New York due to a gout flare-up. Sexy, Benedict. This left Lafayette to hold off Cornwallis until the Washington-Rochambeau party made its way into town. This is significantly less awesome than the Jefferson-Arnold-Lafayette chain of events that I imagined, but it does bring us back to the story at hand.

Since I went to Williamsburg in early September, I have the feeling that I missed most of the activities that probably go on during the summer. There was also the annoyance that everything seemed to cost extra, and the restaurants didn’t have much in the way of vegetarian fare. The things that “cost extra” might have been a blessing in disguise if I’d realized beforehand. If you don’t go in any of the buildings, you can walk the streets for free, and the evening events are almost as good as the stuff during the day. Had I realized this, I might have skipped general admission and just bought my evening ticket since I got there so late in the day.

But then I would have missed getting a tour of the capitol with “Patrick Henry” and telling “Benedict Arnold” to suck it.

The capitol building is, unfortunately, a reconstruction due to fire. Apparently it’s also a reconstruction of an earlier version of the building and not the Revolutionary era structure.

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Still, “Patrick Henry” did a really good job of telling us where things would have happened anyway, and that actor was so completely immersed in character that it was a whole lot of fun. Occasionally, he would go off on a philosophical tangent, raise his voice, and get this crazy little gleam in his eye, but then a moment later he would be mild mannered and gentlemanly again. Bravo.

(I don’t think I was supposed to take this picture, but I post this here because “Patrick Henry” was awesome.)

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In other news, I don’t know who this guy is, but I like the (18th century) cut of his jib.

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And here is “Benedict Arnold” on horseback moments before the redcoats in front of him threatened to bayonet me for standing in his way.

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I need to just take a minute here and wax poetic over how great this actor was. His goons rounded up all the tourists and forced us to listen to his spiel, and he was actually convincing. He told some sob story about how he did what he did because he loved America, and he made a good enough case that it was really hard to hate him afterward (but no less fun to do so).

Now for a corps of Continental Army drummers.

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These guys were just pretty. Everyone was. I wish I had more photos of the costumes. They were all really nice. The problem with 18th century clothing in America, though, is that it all kind of looks the same after a while, and the women’s clothing is so plain as to be boring. I promise I’ll have some really nice period costume porn when I post about the next day at Mount Vernon, though. Patience!

I can’t wrap up this installment without a mention of Lafayette. His act was the day’s big finale, and as you can see below, Gil brings all the ladies to the yard (and one awkward-looking dude).

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I don’t know who these two soldiers were, but I like to imagine that they were trying to work out Lafayette’s broken English amongst themselves:

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And then we have the actor playing the Marquis, who, appropriately, I caught with his mouth open shouting about something or other and swinging a sword. That’s my Lafayette. I don’t know who this guy is, but he really seemed to enjoy himself. Also, he was really loud. I have to believe that that was an accurate portrayal.

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The night’s activity was a ghost tour, which wasn’t like any ghost tour I’ve ever seen. We were taken into several buildings, which were all dark and lit only by candlelight. Once we were seated and quiet, an actor would come in who was “the ghost” and who would pretend to be the spirit of a real person who had lived and died in the town. There was some powerful stuff in that tour and some legitimately creepy stuff. Lot of crazy crime and broken hearts in Williamsburg’s history. I highly recommend this if you find yourself in Williamsburg when they’re doing one.

And that wraps up Williamsburg. It’ll probably take me another three months to get installment #3 (Mount Vernon!) up, so hold tight!

Ladies Love George and Gil: the Virginia State Capitol

Bonus post before bed!

Another quick side trip on the way to someplace else: the Virginia State Capitol.

Sadly, I don’t have much to show or say about the capitol itself. For this visit, I was on a mission, and since I drove to Richmond, Va., from Tennessee this time, I had only 30 minutes before closing to complete it.

My mission: to see the Houdon bust of the Marquis de Lafayette (commissioned by the state of Virginia and based on a life mask of Lafayette).

(Of course, there was also the full-sized Houdon statue of Washington, also based on a life mask, and yeah, I saw that too, but MISSION, you guys. I was on one.)

And I saw it. Now you can, too.

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I didn’t have a lot of time to be picky about the photos by the time I got there, but by this angle, you may note that the bust was way up high off the ground in an alcove. You know. To keep the ladies off of it.

Here’s as good of a close-up as I could get given that I only had a few minutes, I was in the state capitol, and I didn’t want to come off as a terrorist:

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The Houdon busts that I’ve seen done from life masks always seem like the face is pasted on the head, thus making the head seem longer from front to back than it otherwise should. Given that all the portraits I’ve seen of Lafayette give him an frighteningly receding hairline and a nose that seems to start behind his ears (adorable though it may be), this may not be entirely inaccurate here. Also, it’s not as pronounced from this side as it is from the other.

Houdon also did a life mask of Washington from which he sculpted a full-length statue (also here in the Virginia State Capitol) and some busts. I like the way that the Washington statue is positioned as though it’s looking out to Lafayette’s bust on the wall almost at his eye level. For those not in the know, Washington considered Lafayette as an adopted son, so I find this very sweet.

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You’ll note that little fence around George. Also for the ladies. (As evidenced by this letter in which George gives Lafayette some crap threatens to steal the Marquise Adrienne from our good friend the Marquis:)

But at present must pray your patience a while longer, till I can make a tender of my most respectful compliments to the Marchioness. Tell her (if you have not made  a mistake, and offered your own love instead of hers to me) that I have a heart susceptable of the tenderest passion, and that it is already so strongly impressed with the most favourable ideas of her, that she must be cautious of putting loves torch to it; as you must be in fanning the flame. But here again methinks I hear you say, I am not apprehensive of danger. My wife is young, you are growing old and the atlantic is between you. All this is true, but know my good friend that no distance can keep anxious lovers long asunder, and that the Wonders of former ages may be revived in this. But alas! will you not remark that amidst all the wonders recorded in holy writ no instance can be produced where a young Woman from real inclination has prefered an old man. This is so much against me that I shall not be able I fear to contest the prize with you, yet, under the encouragement you have given me I shall enter the list for so inestimable a Jewell.

George Washington to the Marquis de Lafayette, September 30, 1779

Before I go, I should give the Washington statue it’s due. It’s based on this life mask, and I always find it stunning to look at Washington’s true face in comparison to the multitudes of less accurate portraits with which Americans are bombarded throughout their lives. In that life mask is a very real face that I could imagine seeing somewhere on the street today.

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So, it is little surprise to me that Lafayette declared this statue the most accurate likeness of Washington upon his return visit to the States in 1824.

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Bonne nuit!

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Virginia State Capitol
1000 Bank Street; Richmond, VA
Hours and Tour Information
Free admission (though parking is a pain)
Capitol Tour Desk: (804) 698-1788 or capitoltourguides@house.virginia.gov

“I’ll Rochambeau Ya For It” Part 1: Yorktown Battlefield

Finally, finally sorted through my Washington-Rochambeau weekend (with a later side-trip to Richmond) photos. Hoped to get these up by the anniversary of the Cornwallis’s surrender (230th anniversary this year!), but it didn’t work out that way. Let’s just say I’m early for next year.

Since the last couple of posts have been text-heavy, let’s start this one with a photographic bang:

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KA-BOOM!

That’s an English gun that Lafayette recognized on his 1824 “victory lap” as one he took during the big fight thanks to this cannonball dent on the side:

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The gun was also used to fire the half hour salute at Lafayette’s death ten years after.

The “Lafayette Gun” is in the welcome center at the Yorktown battlefield, which is now a national park and a sad, sad monument to diminishing park funding. There is a small museum inside that looks like it was last updated in the 1970s. The same can be said of the grainy film in the welcome center theater. There’s also a shocking $10 entry fee to the park which struck me as exceedingly high and made the condition of the welcome center and some parts of the park all the more frustrating. It does include admission to Jamestowne, though. Although I couldn’t take advantage of the dual admission, knowing this takes a little sting out of the sticker shock.

I made the whole trip the week of September 11. While the rest of the country was self-flagellating over the anniversary of the attacks 10 years ago, I thought it would be more constructive to celebrate Washington and Rochambeau’s ride south in reverse, ending with a reenactment in celebration of their Mount Vernon encampment anniversary on Sept. 10-11. (I’ve also been nursing an inexplicable obsession with the Marquis de Lafayette this year, and I had to see all these places while I was still in the area.) So, I started where it all ended at the Yorktown battlefield.

(I was also stupid enough to try doing Yorktown and Colonial Williamsburg on the same day after driving down from Washington, D.C. It CAN be done, but there’s lots you won’t see. Unless you’re like me, and you have no other choice, I don’t recommend it.)

The ranger at the welcome center front desk had his spiel down so well that he couldn’t really deviate from it. I listened to him give the same robotic speech to the visitors in line before me, and he couldn’t be convinced that I didn’t need to hear it again when I got to the counter. When I stopped him to ask if he could just tell me where Lafayette’s troops had been, I swear I heard the record skip while he stopped, thought a second, told me he had no idea, and then finished the spiel.

He did give me a driving map, though, that lacked any mention of Lafayette but did have all the major beats of the story and their locations.

Emphasis on the words “driving map.” I thought I’d be able to walk, which tells you how ill-planned this trip was.

I was on a schedule, and I was already late, so I didn’t get out or get any good photos at any of the weed-covered redoubts. Also, I always fail to realize how battlefields will affect me emotionally. I had an unexpected dread at the idea of walking out where so many died so painfully, so I took advantage of my tight schedule and cruised on past to the battlefield’s famous warm fuzzy: the surrender field.

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It’s here where Cornwallis sent an underling to deliver his surrender to Washington either out of shame at the loss or pride that wouldn’t allow him to deliver the surrender in person to a rebel general. George took it in stride by sending his own underling to accept it in his stead.

Love that man.

It’s not a suprise to me that my favorite part of the whole park was Washington’s headquarters.

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No idea how it looked then, but today it’s a small cul-de-sac off the main drag in the middle of a copse of trees. Even with the shade, it was the brightest, most beautiful, best-situated spot in the entire park. Typical Mason.

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Despite my hurry I had to get out of the car and stand in the sun for a bit, and I saw what looked like a picnic area.

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I can’t help but think that it would make George very, very happy to see what’s become of this space.

I’m not so sure I can say the same about the French cemetery, though, and I have to say it was the low point of my visit. When I saw it on the map, I didn’t really know what to expect.

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From a distance, the single, simple cross is striking and makes me think more than a little of the American cemetery at Colleville sur Mer in Lower Normandy.

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Up close? Not so much.

You’ll note a few things about the cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer and this unknown American’s tomb: its beauty, its impeccable upkeep, its decided lack of satanic graffiti.

Oh no. I’ve given away the surprise. Well, anyway, let’s get closer to that grave at Yorktown.

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Translated:

Here Lie Fifty Unknown French Soldiers, Dead at Yorktown for American Independance, 1781

Let’s have a look at that tombstone.

[I’ve freed up the rights on these two so you can view large versions of them on Flickr and read the graffiti for your own groans and giggles.]

FRONT:

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BACK:

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“Mike Loves Hope” (front). Aww. Well, they were Frenchmen, and they were probably all about the love. But the back with “Lucifer” and all the X’s? Somebody’s been watching too much Supernatural. Classy, Park Service. Would it be possible to sand down the stone and get rid of that stuff? (Or would it damage something special? I honestly don’t know anything about the marker or its history.)

At this point, I have to wonder if the French troops are actually still “resting” there or if they were dug up for nefarious purposes by some jackass long ago. I doubt anyone knows, and if they can’t be cared for better than this, it might be best to exhume what’s left and move it to someplace that I can point out to my French friends with a little less shame.

After that, I decided it was high time I get to Williamsburg and get some lunch. (Being a vegetarian, I was more successful with the first than the second task, but more about Williamsburg in a later post.)

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Yorktown Battlefield, part of Colonial National Historical Park
$10 for Seven-Day Park Entrance Pass
(Includes Historic Jamestowne, which I sadly couldn’t visit, in addition to Yorktown.)
See website for dates and hours of operation.