Written by Bob Woelk Tuesday, 18 August 2009 14:13
For the third time in the past 12 months, wife Kathy and I headed east…way out east. Last year when we loaded up the van, we were taking our daughter to college in Harrisonburg, Va., about 1,200 miles due east.
We left home early on an August Thursday morning and returned the following Tuesday afternoon. That felt like a quick turnaround until this April, when we left late Thursday afternoon and returned late Sunday that same weekend as we retrieved Anna at the end of her first year at Eastern Mennonite University.
So, this time, starting in late July, we were determined to slow the pace a bit and see more of the country.
Our initial task was to tow Anna’s car to Harrisonburg. Ironically, she needed to stay at home in Kansas and finish her summer job obligations. So, Kathy and I hooked up the VW Bug on a two-wheel dolly and set off for Virginia early on a Sunday morning. We successfully achieved that delivery goal within 48 hours.
Actually, we arrived at the home of some friends in Harrisonburg by Monday afternoon. It was an uneventful first leg, which is exactly what we had hoped for.
The biggest obstacle was maneuvering through traffic in cities such as Kansas City, St. Louis, Mo., Louisville, Ky., and Charleston, Va. It certainly commands the driver’s utmost attention when he has to be thinking about road space for two cars instead of just one. Other drivers seemed a bit more courteous and helpful, especially those behind the wheels of the big trucks.
Once we arrived at our first destination and had delivered the Beetle, we were free to do some exploring, and we took full advantage of the opportunity.
One of our first stops was New Market Battlefield north of Harrisonburg. This Civil War site featured an interpretive center and original buildings from 1864. We learned that 60 percent of all Civil War battles were fought on Virginia soil.
In this particular skirmish, a group of cadets from Virginia Military Institute, most of them only teenagers, were thrown into the bloody and muddy fray. The site came to be known as the Field of Shoes because many of the soldiers had theirs sucked off by the clay as they retreated. Four of the teens were killed by Union forces in one of the last battles of the war.
Another Civil War battlefield we visited was on the far end of our trip near Franklin, Tenn. Kathy had read “The Widow of the South” by Robert Hicks.
Carnton Plantation was not typical of the South in the 1860s. The McGavocks raised hogs and corn instead of cotton and tobacco. Their house, built in 1826, was more practical than showy. In short, it had the feel and look of a modest farmstead.
Mrs. Carrie McGavock woke up one morning in late October 1864 to witness an estimated 30,000 Confederate and 20,000 Union soldiers converging on her land. In the ensuing battle that evening, more than 8,500 men were killed or wounded, a large majority of them clad in gray.
The house was turned into a field hospital, and the blood stains can still be seen on the floor throughout the home. By morning, the farm grounds were littered with the dead and dying.
The Union troops had escaped to Nashville, and the Confederate soldiers were left to bury their deceased comrades. They dug shallow graves on the McGavock property. Later, more than 1,500 were moved to a private cemetery on the edge of the farm.
Remember, this was a hog farm, and we all know what pigs like to do—root around in the soil. That behavior necessitated the moving of the fallen soldiers to the cemetery, which, by the way, has never been officially recognized as a military site by the government.
As recently as last spring, a body was unearthed from the battlefield during area road construction. Many of those who died at the Battle of Franklin have never been identified or even found. It was fascinating to be walking those very grounds.
We took in other sites of historical significance on our trip as well. We stopped at Monticello in Charlottesville, Va., the home of Thomas Jefferson. It is a beautiful spread in the hills and red clay of Albermarle County.
We also visited the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C., home of the Vanderbilts, the richest family in America at the turn of the century. In addition to the huge mansion, the grounds include a winery in the former dairy, an agricultural history center and more gardens than can be visited in one day.
We also spent the better part of a day in Williamsburg, Va., at Jamestown, the site of the first permanent English settlement in America in 1607. It was there that we learned the true stories of Capt. John Smith and Pocahontas and their relationship.
As it turns out, their lives were not as intertwined as we were led to believe in elementary school or Disney movies.
We marveled at the feat of Wilbur and Orville Wright, two bicycle repairmen who changed the world forever by achieving the first powered flight in the hills south of Kitty Hawk, N.C.
True to form, it was a windy day, even by Kansas standards. The constant breeze was one reason the brothers chose the site.
The main reason, however, involved a bit of old-fashioned luck. The Wrights sent many letters out to locations they thought might be suitable. The postmaster at Kitty Hawk not only was the first to respond positively, he offered to house the Ohio brothers free of charge. The rest, as they say, is history.
As we covered more than 3,500 miles of the country east of Kansas, we observed more than just historical sites, though there are many more must-see spots than we could begin to visit in one journey.
Here are some random thoughts and moments from our voyage:
We saw many, many tree-covered hills and mountains. We also saw where humans have intervened in attempts to manipulate forests. Some, such as areas that have been clear cut by lumber companies, are readily visible because all the new growth is the same height.
In other areas, such as Biltmore, the forest looks natural. The Vanderbilts hired the designer of New York’s Central Park to do the landscaping. His goal was to allow the vegetation to evolve naturally. Today, the grounds are said to resemble an English countryside.
Signs, signs, everywhere signs. We made note of some interesting ones: “Bridges ice before roads” (most seen sign in the southeast); “Low-flying airplanes” (what are we supposed to do about it?); “Buckle up, Enforcement up, Arrive alive (is that remotely grammatical?); “Watch for bears” (we did, but we didn’t see any wild ones).
Many car lots for both new and used vehicles seemed emptier than a person would expect. I guess it is a sign of the economic times.
The weather has been cool in many areas east of here. Some towns were setting records for going the entire month of July without breaking 90 degrees.
In order to save a bit of money, we had a picnic lunch almost every day. Many were in parks and rest areas. One memorable meal, however, took place between cars in the parking lot of the Biltmore. We couldn’t help but wonder what the founding family would have thought of that.
Everywhere I went, I talked to people. It’s one of my favorite hobbies. More than once, after conversing for a while, the person I was speaking with would say, “You’re a teacher, aren’t you?”
One gentleman asked me if my classes went overtime. What can I say? I guess I am just naturally curious. It’s how I find out all the worthless bits of information I know.
Since this was our third trip on the stretch of road going out to Virginia, one woman at the West Virginia welcome center already knows us. We got to talking with Barbara about our plans for the week, including a stop in Franklin, the home of many contemporary Christian music artists.
Barbara then said she used to be a baby sitter for singer Michael W. Smith, and one of her daily tasks was to make sure Michael practiced the piano every day. She said he was a real pistol.
During one stretch of highway from North Carolina to Tennessee, we drove through the similarly named towns of Greenville, Asheville, Knoxville, Nashville and Clarksville.
People who have never left Kansas have no concept of traffic. The worst spot (and there were several bad ones) was the Virginia Beach area.
The entire metropolitan complex must travel through two bridge and tunnel routes when entering from or leaving to the west. Both highways are constantly clogged, with the worst times at 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. The first jam we encountered was 3½ miles long, and it took us more than an hour to extricate ourselves. St. Louis is also a rough drive during rush hours.
In my opinion, a live navigator reading a map is still more valuable than a GPS…at least when your navigator is as skilled as mine. At one point, my GPS sent me to the middle of nowhere as I searched for a motel in the rain.
We finally ended up calling to ask for directions. The girl at the desk said the problem occurred often, and the motel chain had been trying for quite a while to get the issue corrected with no success. At that point, I pulled the plug on my electronic unit.
As one gentleman later told us, he didn’t like his GPS because he didn’t appreciate having two women telling him where to go all the time.