We finally returned to Los Angeles last night. Whew, we were gone for so long I was relieved to see that California hadn’t snapped off into the Pacific during our absence. It’s great to be home but we had an incredibly fun time on our August travels. During the last five days of our trip we hit the open road in our beautiful 2010 GMC Acadia (courtesy, once again, of the fabulous folks at General Motors). Similar in many ways to the Buick Enclave we drove last June, the Acadia has won many awards for its elegant design and smooth drive, including one of the Ten Best Engines, a 2010 Consumer Digest Best Buy citation, and a MotorWeek Drivers' Choice Award for Best Crossover Utility Vehicle.
Here is a map of our crazy somewhat circular route. Our ultimate goal was to visit our friends Tom and Lisa in Durham, North Carolina, with a few fun stops there and back. We drove a whopping 2,000 miles during our trip and believe me, if I were to attempt to go that far again, I wouldn’t do it in so short a time period. Some of those 10-hour driving days were a bit grueling.
Still, there ain’t nothing like seeing the changing landscapes of our beautiful country from the ground. I am in awe of America's diverse geography and I think it’s so important to visit new places and meet people who live at different rhythms than the people we see in our personal ghettos every day.
Not surprisingly, several of our pit stops were organized around food. Our first lunch stop occurred outside of Indianapolis where we gorged on the quality spread at the famous Gray Brothers Cafeteria. I’m certainly not used to cafeterias that serve such excellent cuisine and I’m not sure how they manage to keep their crazy volumes of grub so high quality.
Knowing we may never hit these parts again, I’m afraid we over-indulged a bit. This is just MY lunch. Gulp. The fried chicken was exquisite as were all the sides. And the butterscotch pie? Oy. Retro and delicious!
We slogged on through southern Indiana and across the whole state of Kentucky and by nightfall reached our cozy B&B in stunning Charleston, West Virginia, just a block from the gold-domed state capitol. I had not realized that until the Civil War, the counties that now make up West Virginia were part of Virginia proper. After Virginia seceded from the union, these counties that were loyal to the U.S. started the process that would eventually lead to the creation of the state of West Virginia.
We stayed at the Brass Pineapple, a gorgeous 1907 Victorian mansion loaded with stained and leaded glass, Italian tile, and magnificent oak paneling. Oh, what a beautiful, peaceful place to crash for the night.
The next day we loaded back into the Acadia and continued our eastward trek. We stopped for lunch in Winston-Salem, the North Carolina city that for years was dominated by the tobacco industry. In 1940, 60 percent of the residents worked for the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. Even though Winston-Salem is 200 miles inland, the Reynolds Company imported so much French cigarette paper and Turkish tobacco that the city was designated by the federal government as an official port of entry for the United States.
We had one of our best meals of the trip at a restaurant in downtown Winston-Salem called Sweet Potatoes. From the perfect fried green tomatoes and okra to the country ham sandwiches on enormous sweet potato biscuits (forgive me, kosher relatives!), this place had the best Southern food I’d ever tasted. For dessert we had luscious banana pudding and a crazy concoction of bread pudding made out of Krispy Kreme doughnuts. (Krispy Kreme opened its first shop in Winston-Salem in 1937.) Oy, someone call the cholesterol police!
We made it to Durham by mid-afternoon and had a warm reunion with our friends, Tom and Lisa, who moved to North Carolina from L.A. two years ago. They showed us around the town (also put on the map by the tobacco industry) including the stately gardens of Duke University. Because of the heavy presence of academia in Durham, there are probably more PhDs per square foot than in most large cities. Walking around Duke, you could just feel the advanced degrees emanating from the smart-looking pedestrians.
We had such fun with Tom and Lisa and Charlie competed for Tom’s attention with their dog Bitty. Here they are, each laying claim to one of Tom’s legs. Tom is a gifted actor who has appeared in many films and TV shows (he was one of Al Bundy’s pals on “Married…with Children” and played the sleazy lawyer in Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby”) and has been in dozens of wonderful stage productions. We were excited to hear that he will be in a local production next spring and hope to make it back to Durham. Lisa showed us the beautiful synagogue where she works. Though not Jewish herself, she seems to attract interesting Jews wherever she goes—even in North Carolina! On the other hand, Jews have a long history in the region. Before Ellis Island, many immigrant Jews came to the country through shipping ports in the South.
While in Durham, Charlie and I headed over to nearby Chapel Hill to visit blogger extraordinaire, Annie Gottlieb, and her husband Jacques. Annie is the sister of fellow blogger David Gottlieb and I've felt like an honorary sibling of the Chicago Gottlieb clan ever since I "met" them five years ago.
As Annie wrote on her blog just after the visit, Charlie and Jacques felt a special kinship. "Jacques and Charlie Miller have been through more between the two of them than the rest of us put together...They're both miracles—Jacques who survived gangrene and boxed and did road work on his scarred legs; Charlie who came through brain bleeds and intestinal resection and just being born one and a quarter pounds, and claps his hands, laughs, and says 'Da-da' and 'Ca'—cat—not known before today to be in his vocabulary."
Indeed, Charlie was fascinated by Annie and Jacques' three cats, especially this gigantic feline who Annie got from a junkie in Central Park 14 years ago (this woman is full of fascinating stories!). It was great to see my blogging sister again!
The next morning, after our only day with no driving, we reluctantly said good-bye to our friends and headed north into the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Long-time readers of this blog should know where I was headed. How could I possibly be in this part of the country without visiting the home of my fantasy family from childhood—the Waltons! The fictional family was created by writer Earl Hamner (John-Boy), and though the show was shot in Los Angeles, Hamner’s former school in his home town of Schuyler, Virginia, now houses the Walton’s Mountain Museum, a must-see for Waltons fanatics like me.
I demanded that we play the Walton’s theme song over and over as we headed into the mountains. “It’s starting to look like Burbank,” I said after a few hours, “we must be getting close!” I have no idea if any of the exteriors on the show were shot in Schuyler but it all looked so familiar as we drove into Earl Hamner’s home town.
As I looked at the exhibits in the museum, I was amazed at how closely the actors on “The Waltons” resembled Hamner’s actual siblings. We watched a documentary about the series that included visits by the actors to the museum (Kami Kotler, the actress who played Elizabeth Walton, even moved to the area for several years and taught school). I remembered the letters I received as a kid from Ben (Eric Scott) and Mary Ellen (Judy Norton) and, of course, I had strong feelings for Mama Walton (Patricia Neal in the first Waltons movie and then Michael Learned in the series).
As Charlie spent most of his time flirting with a group of wheelchair-bound senior citizens in the former gymnasium of the school, I slowly walked through perfect recreations of John-Boy’s bedroom and the family’s famous living room and kitchen.
When Kendall and Leah finally pulled me out of the museum, I walked with Charlie a block down the hill and visited Earl Hamner’s childhood home (which looked very much like the TV version). There seemed to be some kind of rivalry between the folks at the museum and the guy who gave tours of Hamner’s home. Ah well, I guess such squabbles have always been common in closed-knit rural communities! Can’t we all just share some of the Baldwin sisters’ infamous “recipe” and get along?
We continued our trek through the Blue Ridge Mountains and experienced some of the most beautiful and terrifying thunderstorms I’ve ever driven through. Thank God for our solid rock of a car—no matter what we drove on or through, the Acadia gave us a smooth, safe ride. Once we hit Pennsylvania we turned to the west and began our crawl back to Chicago.
That night we stayed at one of the most amazing places I’ve ever slept in. The Oak Noggin Bed and Breakfast, about half an hour south of Pittsburgh, was constructed out of two local 18th century log cabins that have been put together and outfitted with a dizzying array of Early American antiques and period touches including tongue-and-groove flooring, an enormous stone hearth, wood-burning fireplaces, an oversized clawfoot bathtub, and a luxurious rope bed in the master bedroom. We had the whole log cabin to ourselves and woke up feeling like we were pioneers (with air conditioning). Seriously, if you are ever in the Pittsburgh area, you have to treat yourself to a night or two in this unique home. After a yummy breakfast served to us in our antique kitchen, we got back into the car for our final day of driving.
It was probably somewhere in Ohio, around our 1,500th mile that our first major dose of travel fatigue set in. True, we had all the comforts of our trusty GMC Acadia, including the XM satellite radio that for the vast majority of the trip was tuned to the “On Broadway” station (the only station the three of us could agree on!) but after endless hours of showtunes, we were all ready to disavow our love of musical theatre and switch to anything else, even if we had to listen to Glenn Beck. (Well, maybe not.) Before we left, in my zeal to experience the best cuisine the road had to offer, I made the misguided decision to detour slightly from our route back to Chicago and stop at the famous Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan. With our nerves on edge, and Charlie finally beginning to lose it strapped into his car seat for hours on end, the extra hour or so this added to our trip was not my best idea.
Not to fault Zingerman’s, though. I did have the best Reuben sandwich I’ve ever tasted, and we bought some amazing Zzang Bars that we enjoyed on the plane ride home.
Finally, just after sunset, we returned to my home town and inched our way on the gridlocked highway back to the welcoming arms of the Tweedy family. We had one last family night with the gang where we witnessed the musical talents of not only Jeff and Spencer, but also Sue and Sammy. As musical families go, I think they give the Von Trapps a run for their money. Sue kept making Jeff play Herman’s Hermits tunes (her own tween obsession) and I laughed as Jeff struggled to play songs such as “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter” and “There’s a Kind of Hush” on his guitar. I wondered if at that moment, somewhere in Sussex, maybe Keith Richards’ wife was making him play “Monkees” songs.
I woke up yesterday to see Charlie learning some guitar moves from Uncle Jeff. We were soon honored with a visit from Connie Burke, our wonderful patron saint of General Motors, who spent several hours with the family.
Connie and Charlie have had a “thing” going on ever since they first met last June. It’s a true love match and makes me wonder if GM’s next big car will be called "The Cougar!"
Finally, it was time to drive our Acadia to O’Hare and head home. Can't wait until next year!
[Photos of cloudy sky and Chicago Skyway courtesy of Leah Miller.]