The Big Trip, Part 13

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Charleston, SC – Hendersonville, NC

We’re on the road again. Hendersonville, North Carolina is in the western part of the state south of Ashville. We’d never come here before and wouldn’t be here now were it not that my friend Pat had recently relocated here with her husband from Chicago’s North Shore. Pat and Jim are now retired. They love to play golf and wanted to escape the harsh Chicago winters. Sound familiar?

Like other relationships I’ve written about in these chapters, Pat and mine is the story of a friendship interrupted. We knew each other as teens in small-town Onarga, Illinois where I was a cadet at the Onarga Military School. Pat tells me that I was her date for her high-school prom. I remember the excitement of sharing ideas about books and other cultural matters.

Forty years after Onarga, Pat and I reconnected via the Internet and have been corresponding regularly since.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Hendersonville, North Carolina

This is hill country. The Smokey Mountains are within sight. As we drove down the winding road from Champion Hills to Hendersonville, the bare trees afforded views across the valley to large homes in the hills beyond.

Downtown Hendersonville has a welcoming appearance. Both sides of its main street are lined with historic buildings containing appealing shops and restaurants.

One of the former, the Mast General Store, has been there for ages. We spent time within and came away with some purchases. I bought a very nice Pendleton woolen shirt, expensive but long-lived. I guess the winter weather (cool again in these mountains) put me in the mood to buy wool.

As its name suggests, Mast sells general merchandise, some of it old-fashioned brands we thought had long ago disappeared from the market.

Sanburg’s Connemara

Another highlight of our day was a late-afternoon visit to Connemara, Carl Sandburg’s home in Hendersonville. Sandburg was in his late 60s when he moved to this large, white house set high on a hill overlooking a large pond and the blue line of the “Smokies” in the far distance.

Sanburg’s Connemara

At Connemara Sandburg continued to write daily while his wife of many years raised prize-winning goats in a barn on the property. We watched two videos about Sandburg, whose accomplishments included biography (He wrote a six-volume life of Lincoln), poetry, novel writing and folk singing,

It is days of discovery like today, especially in the company of old friends that have given this long trip such value for us. We’re very grateful for the opportunity.

Friday, December 7th, 2012

Hendersonville – Durham, NC

As I drove along with nothing particular to do or think about except how to keep the Beast on the road, I reflected on the vicissitudes of this RV adventure now that it is drawing to a close. Although I have no regrets about our itinerary or the people and places we’ve visited, it might have been wiser to have simply rented a roomy van or SUV and stayed in motels on those days we weren’t visiting friends.

RVs make more sense for those who stay longer in one place or who travel with children or pets. They are also more suited for travel during the warmer seasons. Many camps close when RV traffic falls off in the autumn or when there is a chance that the water pipes might freeze. Then, there is the cost. Cruise America charges mileage on top of a daily rental fee. The Beast got only between nine and ten miles to the gallon, which made fuel at today’s prices quite expensive.

On the positive side, we’ve experienced a mode of travel new to us.  The convenience of carrying our own food and drink has made camping after a long day of driving very pleasant. Almost all the campgrounds where we’ve stayed have free Wi-Fi and clean, well-maintained shower and restroom facilities. We certainly learned a lot about RV travel. That, in itself, is a good thing. It has been quite an experience.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Durham, NC

We’ve come to Durham to visit with Kay’s cousin Bill, his wife, Linda, and her mother. Maia is nearly ninety and sharp as a tack. She exercises daily and belongs to two book clubs.

Maia & Kay

Originally, from Estonia, she left her country long ago and has lived a rich life in different parts of the world. What is astonishing is that she reads everything we write about our travels and remembers the details.

After lunch, Bill drove us to the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. Starting in 1905, the Cone Sisters, Claribel and Etta, began buying art directly from the studios of Paris’ avant-garde artists, especially Matisse and Picasso.

Slowly at first, and then much more rapidly during the 1920s, they amassed one of the world’s great art collections.

What is surprising is that the Cone sisters, who never married and who possessed almost Victorian notions of propriety, became champions of art reviled by the establishment of the day.

They saw into the future and supported artists who would one day become among of the greatest figures of the 20th century.

Again, we have to appreciate how rich our country is in its art collections, much of it contained in the kind of small, regional museums we have visited on this trip.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Pinehurst, NC

C’est la vie, say the old folks. It goes to show you never can tell.”

Chuck Berry

To you, our golfing friends, it might seem strange that Kay and I were ignorant of the town of Pinehurst before today. As non-golfers, we hadn’t known what a distinguished history this town in the North Carolina Sandhills has as a golfing center.  It’s steeped in tradition, and, for Kay and me, the day’s activities were mostly about discovering it.

Skip & Gale

I’ve known Skip since we were children on Chicago’s far South Side. We went through all the elementary school years together, and although I went elsewhere for high school, we were reunited at Wabash College where we lived in the same fraternity house.


Pinehurst is fortunate in that most of its century-old buildings have been preserved. These include the giant Carolina, a, 250-room hotel, whose formal approach and entrance reminded me vaguely of the Grand Hotel on Michigan’s Mackinac Island.

At the end of the 19th century the land that is now Pinehurst had been despoiled by logging and pitch, tar, and turpentine production. When James Tufts acquired 6,000 acres of it for $1.25 an acre, locals thought he had been cheated. But Tufts, who had made his fortune inventing and selling soda-fountain equipment and supplies, had a vision. In his day, many northerners suffered from tuberculosis, and this region of North Carolina was reputed to benefit them. Tuft’s idea was to build a resort where the consumptive could stay and recover. He also envisioned it as a way station for wealthy New Englanders who, more and more, were traveling south to escape the harsh northern winters. The fact that TB is so contagious seemed at first to have escaped him.

Early Pinehurst Cottage

The earliest Pinehurst buildings rose quickly, and by the turn of the century, guests were populating the Carolina, the Holly Inn, and the cottages that had built around them. The early developers noticed that people were bringing golf clubs and balls with them and organizing primitive matches in a nearby pasture. The idea of Pinehurst as a golf resort had begun. Today, the town has eight courses, including Pinehurst Number 2 where both the Men and Women’s U.S. Opens are played every few years.

Pinehurst Country Club

But Pinehurst is not entirely about golf. Our friends took me for a look at the Pinehurst Country Club where in front there are manicured grounds for serious croquet and Bocce competition. We watched players, dressed in obligatory ‘whites’, playing as we arrived. This was not the same croquet we played as children with wooden mallets and wire hoops on our neighborhood lawns back in Chicago.


Pinehurst is a semi-formal place. To eat in the Carolina’s dining room, men must wear jackets and ties. In the hotel’s long corridors, display cases contain the entire history of Pinehurst golf, its course architects and greatest players. There is an air of stately tradition about the place.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Roanoke, VA – Natural Bridge – Manassas, VA

I had written earlier to Malcolm, a former teaching buddy, saying we would be traveling through his town, and since I had gotten no reply, I assumed he and Susan would not be available. In fact, they were in town, where, until today, the whole family had been ill with a stomach virus.

Tourists to the end, Kay and I did spend the morning hours in downtown Roanoke. This turned out to be a happy choice. (Thank you, Malcolm.)

Taubman Museum of Art

The modern structure that houses the Taubman Museum of Art stands in giant contrast to the historic buildings around it. Randall Stout, its architect, is said to be a student and disciple of Frank Gehry. So closely does the Taubman resemble a Gehry building that even if we hadn’t been told of their relationship, it would have been obvious.

Taubman Museum of Art

Inside the museum’s large, sky-lit lobby, the morning sun made dazzling shadow patterns on the floor. There was no entrance fee thanks to the generosity of Nicholas Frank Taubman, the retired Chairman and CEO of Advance Auto Parts.

The Taubman has a small permanent collection featuring American Impressionists, some unusual outsider art, and a group of splendid etchings and paintings by local artist Harold Little (1940-2011).

Upon entering, what really caught our attention was a temporary exhibit of large-scale photos entitled Oil done by a contemporary photographer named Edward Burtynsky. These photos, painstakingly taken in locations as far apart as Tucson, Arizona and Bangladesh, are of the extraction, transportation, and refining of oil and its impact on our societies and on our planet. This is conceptual art on a magnified scale. The photography is so clearly detailed that it gives its extraordinary subjects iconic significance.


Outside the museum we walked the streets of the market district, taking in commercial signs and buildings that recalled a different age.

By early afternoon it was time to hit the road if we were to get to lodgings in Manassas near where we are to return the Beast tomorrow morning. Interstate 81 through Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley is a beautiful drive, even with its winter landscape.

Natural Bridge

Forty miles from Roanoke we made a stop to look at the Natural Bridge, an overly hyped tourist attraction that we might easily have skipped. By-passing the Natural Bridge Hotel, a small zoo, the Haunted Monster House and the Wax Museum, both closed for the season, we left the Beast in a gigantic parking lot and entered an oversize gift shop where we paid $15 apiece to descend 135 steps to the floor of a gorge along Cedar Creek to see the natural wonder.

Natural Bridge

Two hundred and fifteen feet above us was a mass of limestone bridging the walls of the gorge. Forty feet thick and 100 wide, it was first surveyed by young George Washington and was later owned by Thomas Jefferson, who found its surroundings appealing enough to build a cabin there. Washington is said to have carved his initials high up on the wall under the bridge, and indeed, we saw a patch of highlighted graffiti unreadable by us in the dim winter light.

The extent to which this privately owned bit of nature has been exploited makes us glad that most of the remarkable natural sites in America are located in National Parks where, with a one-time $10 pass, entrance is free and tourism is managed in less obnoxious ways. We did enjoy our walk around the Natural Bridge, though, especially as we were the only tourists there.