Fall travels, 1998

Text by Michael Broschat, with Melissa Meier

We learned during our cross-country trip that it serves no useful purpose to delay writing about one’s day (or night). You gain a bit in the aspect of “reflection,” but you lose much in “observation.” Turns out, all anyone’s interested in is the observation. Except you, yourself, for whom reflection is the all and end all.

Anyway, this is to warn you that we failed to keep up-to-date notes on our latest trip, mostly because we didn’t feel prepared for either of our two talks. We were en route to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina for the annual American Translators Association (ATA) convention, and were giving a pre-conference workshop on general computer technology, as well as a regular session talk on Microsoft Word for translators.

We made it a long trip. Melissa wanted to use the time to travel the Blue Ridge Mountains on the way down south. It’s more or less Fall here, and the promise of great leaves was attractive.

Friday, 30 October 1998

We left DC in mid afternoon, too late (on a Friday) for a clean break, so we suffered along with everyone else, as we made our way to Route 66. As nothing is very far from anything else, here in the East Coast, we were soon enough at our first destination—the beginning of Skyline Drive in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park. The object was observation of Fall leaves. It was quickly clear that the last days of October are among the last days you’ll see any leaves on the trees, so wiser travelers are advised to try this in mid-month. Still, it was beautiful. With dark before 6 this time of year, we had only a couple hours of driving time in daylight, and we made the most of it. Lovely curving two-lane road theoretically limited to 35 mph. A fair number of cars, but virtually empty compared to the height of the season. The road appears to run along the crest of a decent mountain range (for the East Coast). We saw one altitude marking of 3,500 feet, so that’s not bad. The views were spectacular.

Darkness hit quickly, and we scrambled to find some place to stay. Turns out, there are several lodges within the national park. All full, of course. We found the first exit from Skyline Drive (you pay to get on this highway—it’s a National Park), and began looking for a place to stay. You have to remember we’re in rural Virginia. We found a strip of more or less commercial buildings on the way to the first town, with one motel on each side of the road. Tried the best looking one—full. Drove across the street to the other—one room left. Not only that, but the entire motel (all 8 rooms) is smoke-free! In rural Virginia! The keeper of keys remarked that when most people see the No-Smoking Rooms Only sign, they drive on. Melissa was ecstatic. To top that off, the entire place had been remodeled within, oh, the last year or so. Very, very clean, and with a kitchen! Good thing, because we saw no sign of anything remotely like a restaurant. $35 a night.

So, we’re here working on our upcoming presentation, happy as the dozens of deer we passed while on Skyline Drive, each of us in our own element. Tomorrow—the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Saturday, 31 October

Got up early (Melissa wanted to see the sun rise over the mountain highway—we didn’t quite make it), and spent about 10 hours on the road. Not 10 hours at 65 mph, of course, being on a two-lane road (often behind the area’s old folks out to see the leaves).

Our main road today was the Blue Ridge Parkway. Essentially, it continues the Skyline Highway we were on the day before. It runs along a mountain range, with incredible vistas on either side of the road when you’re on the very crest of the mountain, as you often are. The roadway is well forested, as is much of the valley area on either side.

The original plan was to head for Asheville. Ardent readers of this travel journal will undoubtedly recall that a year ago these two intrepid travelers made it to the Thomas Wolfe memorial in Asheville 5 minutes after closing. They let us in to buy a book or two, but not to see the author’s boyhood home (the scene of most of his otherwise fiction). We resolved to come back some day. Fortunately for us, we read some months ago that the house had burned down (or badly), and funds were being sought to rebuild. Obviously, even if they found them it wouldn’t be back together yet. So, we diverted our destination to Charlotte, North Carolina. Melissa found a business-oriented motel in her AAA book, so we aimed for that. AmeriSuites, just south of Charlotte. Amazing. $80 for Saturday night [Michael charmed the receptionist]. A suite including office with two phone lines, kitchen, etc. A couple walked in a few minutes later, and was quoted $110 for the same type of room. “Fine,” they said, and it was. Just not as fine as our rate.

So, we’re back to work. Went out for Chinese, seeing a good stretch of the suburb business area on the way. As we noted in our trip across the US, you haven’t a clue as to where you are by what you see in such developments. Same here. Could have been Bellevue or Scranton or Fargo. Chinese food’s the same. So are the people. I’ve seen a part of France you couldn’t tell from that area (except for their insistence on using French for the signs that aren’t McDonald’s, etc.), so I suppose China itself is on the way.

Back to work….

Saturday, 14 Nov 98

OK, now we’re at the stage of trying to remember what we did then. We had reason to think fondly of that AmeriSuites room, the next several days. It’s awfully nice to have an office with your bedroom. Anyway, we made it to Charleston easily enough. Melissa picked a Westin Hotel from her AAA book, and it proved to be on the edge of what we could call the “redeveloped” part of downtown Charleston. It lay along King Street, and we made the walking trip down King Street toward the river and past the Starbucks and back, oh, about 100 times (or so it seemed). Remember that.

Charleston was rather disappointing. I think we had some romantic idea of Spanish Moss-laden trees looking over sleepy old mansions on lovely streets, etc. That we were virtually the only guests in this relatively large, deathly silent three-star hotel may have contributed to our perception. King Street was King Street, but all the shops (in the redeveloped section) are new since, oh, the last ten years. There is a nice real section around the end of King Street, a lot of old churches, including the only active Huguenot Church in this country (they claim that about a third of all US presidents have some Huguenot blood in them), and the second oldest Jewish synagogue in the US, the birthplace of Reform Judaism. Had a nice visit there, and chatted with one of the members, who looked a bit as if she been there from the beginning. We also toured a “mansion,” which was nice but hardly as impressive as one might have presumed.

Our overall feeling while in Charleston was that we were about the only people there. A couple other tourists showed themselves every now and again, and shopkeepers (isn’t that a lovely word?) would often show up before noon to open their businesses, but any other population of the town evidently does something else during the day (and night). One interesting exception. We decided on a nice dinner for our last night there, and found a few recommendations all on the same street. Based on our observations, we felt no need to make a reservation, and leisurely made our way down King Street to our destination. Alone, of course. As we walked by the restaurants, we saw quite a bit more activity than we were used to. In the end, after being turned away by a couple places, we finally decided to wait at one of the bigger places. A promise of a 30 minute wait turned into an hour, but we passed it sitting in a lovely patio area in a warm southern evening. Humidity, by the way, was a very real presence during our South Carolina stay. Quite a surprise, because we thought we get all there is here in DC, and we hadn’t felt it for a while.

So, we left Charleston rather thankfully, and headed down toward the coast. The land turns quite flat and low (in fact, the local name for the whole area is Lowcountry), and you feel as if you’re always just a few inches above some kind of water. Charleston has a couple big rivers around it, and the island nature of the coastline quickly showed itself.

You come into Hilton Head rather unspectacularly. There’s a bridge across whatever body of water makes it an island, and then you’re there. It’s pure resort, and there’s a good dose of “retirement” feeling about it. Scads of golf courses (sure signs of age), and dozens of malls (little and big) with old folks walking about. There’s a main road, and then everything else on the island is tucked away behind trees and bushes. You motor along the main road, keeping a careful eye open for some sign that your turn-off is nigh. Getting into the Hyatt the first time was hilariously difficult, but we got used to it after a few times.

We finished preparations for our first session, and that came and went without incident. It was nice seeing old acquaintances (not a few of whom receive these travel notes), and even being part of the convention. We feel like fakes, sometimes, because we don’t do translation anymore, and most of the people there are either very successfully doing so, or trying to be. But, we do spend a bit of time with computer technology, and are well versed in “teaching” it to others, so we rationalize. I hesitate with ‘teaching’ because we often learn more than we teach. A participant in our pre-conference workshop asked me why she couldn’t get Russian on one of her machines while it worked perfectly on another. I met with her later, with the attitude of “Well, little lady, you’ll just see what a silly mistake you’ve made with your fonts….” An hour later, she’d shown me that I was the fool, and I learned of the rather remarkable abilities Windows 98 has to handle foreign languages. She claimed to have learned something, too, so we saved some face.

Our last session was in the Tech series, and like the other Tech session I attended had way too many people for the number of available seats. Technology (of a sort, I suppose) continues to draw enormous crowds at ATA. I admire those who leaned against walls or sat on the floor in whatever aisle space was available, and we just prayed that no one in the room worked for the Fire Department.

People take more or less advantage of the opportunity for sightseeing at these affairs. We’d decided to give Savannah a try, so dragged our good buddy Tom Clark off Friday afternoon, and first went to Gullah country. The ATA convention had opened with a very impressive talk by representatives of the Gullah community—Emory Shaw Campbell, executive director of the Penn Center, and the Rev. Ervin L. Greene, pastor of the Brick Baptist Church on St. Helena Island. Gullah is a name given to descendents of slaves who settled in this low coastal area, and who were rather isolated over a few generations, because the malaria and general discomfort kept the white folks out. “The Gullah language,” we learn from a brochure produced by the Penn Center, “a Creole blend of European and African tongues, was born in the holding pens of Africa’s slave coast, and matured on the isolated plantations of the coastal South.” A good illustration of it is in the Uncle Remus stories of Br’er Rabbit you might have read or heard. Br’er (or Bo) Rabbit stories are known to be part of Gullah culture, and some feel that what we hear as Black English owes much to that original “language,” too.

Anyway, we finally found our destination (Penn Center, a study center for Gullah culture), after traveling over some very rural roads. We certainly saw “real” coastal South Carolina. Not too many millionaires living in those parts. The center is modest, but run by people with a mission to identify and preserve slave culture to whatever extent is possible. We enjoyed ourselves.

Then, we made our way over more lowcountry into Savannah. It was dark by the time we arrived, so we didn’t attempt much sight-seeing, but did get around the main downtown area a bit (looking for a place to eat, parking, whatever). It was more alive than was Charleston, although not all we saw was what one would call the desirable element. Found a great candy store, but couldn’t enjoy it as much as we’d have liked BD (before diet). Ended up eating at a Greek place in a waterfront area somewhere. Also bought a couple bottles of hot sauce, including one for which I had to sign a waver. I’ve been tired of ordering hot food and getting milktoast, so to speak, so thought I’d try something serious. Didn’t taste any until the other day, and let me just say that I’ve got a bottle of very hot sauce available for anyone who wants it. Turns out, there’s a limit to my tolerance, as far as that might be from anything I’ve had in a restaurant or from the store.

We returned to our hotel in Hilton Head, pleasantly weary travelers. Next morning, I walked on the beach a bit (haven’t done that since California) while Melissa attended a Saturday morning session, and then we were off. Stayed on main roads this time, needing to make some time. Saw signs for a Chinese restaurant at a large truck-stop kind of place, and took a chance. Good enough. I asked about a couple dishes, but was told that “people here wouldn’t understand that kind of food, so we don’t offer it.” There was enough tofu (a key ingredient in our current diet), and because one of us spoke Chinese, we got a bit of special treatment [and amazement and delight]. Off we went. Stayed in another truck-stop-like area, and when I asked why that motel and the many others around it were even there (no town was evident), I was told that the spot was considered halfway between New York and Florida. “Oh,” I realized, suddenly understanding what all the old folks were doing on the road with us. Another East Coast phenomenon I’d only read about before.

We were plumb tired by this time. Melissa remarked she feels like she’s not stopped traveling since May (a series of trips that included more than a month in Europe), so the next goal was questionable. We’d had a wonderful time in Williamsburg, which readers of this journal might remember we visited in early May. It was not in a direct line back home, so should we? We waited until morning to decide. Good thing, because the day was nice, and we headed toward Williamsburg. Stayed in a regular motel this time, but nothing is far from Colonial Williamsburg (or William and Mary College), so we just parked the car and revisited the restored town and its environs, ending up with dinner in one of the old taverns and a story-telling show in the old courthouse. It’s a special place, and attending such events lit by candles is an experience we don’t often have these days. A bad place to try to rush, but we found a reasonable compromise, and had a good time before leaving Monday morning for home and the opera.

Speaking of opera. Last night was yet another cultural event on our calendar. I knew it only as an NSO concert (with Bobby McFerrin), but Melissa informed me at dinner [at Aquarelle, in the infamous Watergate Hotel, to celebrate Michael’s new job] that it was a concert production of Porgy and Bess. “Say,” I mused, “wasn’t Porgy and Bess based on something down south?” The program liner notes told a great deal about how Gershwin had come to write his folk opera, and the material upon which it was based. Sure enough, it derived from observations of Gullah culture by a native white writer. Not only that, but Porgy is based upon a real character who used to earn his living on King Street in Charleston. Inadvertently, our whole SC trip had been in preparation for this performance of Porgy and Bess! We’d both seen the Seattle production a few years ago, and this differed in being arranged for a non-theatrical setting. The singers were opera singers (all black, as is part of the Gershwin copyright provision), and the magnificent chorus (mostly black, arrayed up behind the stage in very colorful shirts) joined the National Symphony for a very impressive production.

What a wonderful way to come full circle and so connect about three weeks of what we thought were disconnected events in our lives.