It is never my intention to go out into the world and focus on “being black.” When I participate in the world, it is not with the sole objective of doing it and observing as a “black person.” In my eyes, I am an individual first and want to be considered and treated as such. Therefore, distinguishing myself as one particular type is not necessarily something I seek. The country, on the other hand, does not let me go one day without being reminded of our deep and troubling history in regards to race. Another thing that is never my intention is to interrupt the chronology of a trip posting by interjecting posts about current events. Organizing and writing my thoughts is time consuming enough and I have self-imposed deadlines I am trying to maintain. This might be hard to believe, but I am only on page 23 of 46 of draft pages for posts. There are only 3 more days of the trip to post, leaving the remaining posts about life after the trip. Technically, I could wait to fill these current events in their proper chronological order and talk about them in the past tense, however, they are hot topics and things that I want to express sooner than later.
This weekend was an extended one. Thursday through Sunday was spent away “glamping” in the woods near Shenandoah Valley to celebrate my sister’s birthday. It was the entire group, her husband and children and my parents. Months ago this was planned and I never asked what we were going to do there. It wouldn’t have mattered to me. The facts were that I was going and it was with some of my favorite people in one of my favorite settings. It wouldn’t be until both parties arrived that a few activity suggestions were confirmed and/or thrown into the mix. On the property itself were several activities to keep us occupied, but the surrounding location provided more interesting alternatives. Spending a good portion of the day on the road and settling in, the remains of the first night were a relaxed evening with a walk and a round of mini golf after. That night when we rounded the corner of the road, we were welcomed warmly by a sunset that was indescribably more unbelievable than believable.
Friday, we were going to Thomas Jefferson’s estate, Monticello. Online, the website for Monticello offered many different tours along with the descriptions and suggested audience age. This ruled out several options because of the age of my niece and nephew. I could see how some of the tour topics and lengths could be over their head or too long. The guided tour of the first floor of the estate seemed best. For a beautiful Autumn Friday, there were as many people as to be expected. The shuttle bus takes us to the mountaintop where Jefferson’s grand estate commands the land. Here we were greeted by the tour guide and taken back in time. I would not venture to say that my knowledge of Jefferson goes beyond the basic American History curriculum in school. Most of what I learned on the tour was new information. Jefferson was an inventive, highly intelligent individual with many of his clever ideas showcased in his home, a few before you walk in the front door.
Following the house tour, we went on the Slavery Tour that is included in the entry fee. Our guide for this tour was enlightened and very knowledgeable. The tone in which he spoke made it clear that he was empathetic to the enslaved residents of Monticello and wanted to emphasize the intertwined, yet disparate lives of the owners and the slaves. Standing there listening to the documented accounts of the enslaved residents and the institution that they were forced to live within, including that of Jefferson’s mistress, Sally Hemmings, I realized that this was their home, either way you cut it. Consumed with this thought, I asked the tour guide if any of the descendants of the slaves have come back, since he had also stated that Jefferson kept meticulous notes about everything, including the names of the slaves. He said that they do come often, because this is, for them, indeed their home. Many people can not say they know exactly what land their roots are connected and certainly not many that are descendants of slaves.
There is much to be said about Monticello and of my experience on the tours. To be able to walk the hallowed ground of slaves is stirring. Moved by this, trying to explain to children under 10 years of age how and why people were forced into inhumane conditions because of the color of their skin, because of the color of our skin, was the most challenging and significant part of the day. Each generation has the benefit of distance and time. A black and female president have been and are a possibility in this generation’s lifetime,all at the tail of one that thought that they would never live to see either. We all must keep our history close when it still holds a tight thread to our present, if for no other reason, to be informed and mindful of how much of it is deeply rooted in the racial disparity still present. Visiting Monticello was worthwhile and I would highly recommend it, no matter where the significance of history Jefferson may fall for an individual. All aspects of his life are worth learning more about, the good and the ugly. On a last note about Monticello, as I was doing some further research on their website after our trip, I felt completely late to the party with my question about the descendants returning to visit. Just two months ago, they held their 6th annual event that allows descendants of Jefferson’s slaves to visit and stay overnight in the buildings that their ancestors once slept. This invitation preceded a summit last month on the property, “Memory, Mourning, Mobilization: Legacies of Slavery and Freedom in America,” attended by high profile members of academia to discuss the issues of race, past and present. There is a wealth of information on their site about Monticello, these events and the organizations and this topic. I have highlighted a few direct links here:
It had been a long day on the mountaintop and we were getting peckish. I think a friend of my brother-in-law recommended Michie Tavern, as a place to eat down the road from Monticello. We were too hungry to take the time to look around the grounds. Michie Tavern was established in 1784 and although relocated from 20 miles away, served and lodged travelers in the area. The menu is simple sturdy southern cuisine and is served in a mix between buffet and family style. There are about 8 items on the menu and two of those are biscuits and cornbread. At the top of the protein list is fried chicken and plenty of it that gets brought around the tables by the minute for second helpings. Here is a fact about me that I don’t know if I have disclosed yet. If I have not, it is either because of the shame that has been cast upon me when I mention it or it may have been irrelevant until now; I do not like fried chicken. Yes, this is true. I do not like any fried parts, I don’t like any baked parts, not the leg, the thigh, the breast or the wing. This is not new. I have felt strongly about this since I was a child and have adamantly defended my right to not be forced to eat it. Even though I am not a vegetarian, I do not want to be reminded in great detail that whatever I am eating was walking the earth as I gnaw on its carcass and as unthinkable as it might be, I do not like the taste of the skin, or the fat. Beef, pork or chicken on my plate is lean, skin free, with no ribbons of fat that I can see and no bones. If not, it will get re-butchered by me and a fork and knife and any remaining meat would be squandered. To the right of me however is my nephew who has never met a chicken wing he hasn’t liked. He is a young boy and somehow he has learned how to dismantle a chicken like a person at least twice his age. Watching him eat fried chicken tickles me. I started asking him recently if he is mad at the chicken; he eats it with such fury, it is like he is fighting the chicken. As we had a good laugh about him being a chicken fighter, I was informed that he comes from a long line of fighters. My parents told me that there is a picture of his mother on her first birthday proudly holding a piece of chicken in her hand. I guess it is genetic. I am still not going to change my mind about fried chicken.
Another popular thing to do in the area is wine tasting. This part of Virginia is dotted by vineyards. We stopped briefly at one on the way back that was small and off the beaten path. I was so blown away by the glass angular structure that I made a decision. If my next home is not in the heartbeat of a concrete city, I would consider the tiny house craze and get a place made just like this, in the woods and all. There was a nice seating area outside where we planted ourselves and the friendly wet nose of the vineyard dog, Tradesy was an unexpected delight. She was definitely the hostess with the mostess. She kept us company every now and again as we tried a few tastings. The woman who was helping us was French and her accent was heavy. I had to lean in from the comfort of my chair to listen to her as closely as possible as she described the details of the wine. The last one was perfect and I purchased a few bottles. I wanted to take the dog too. Dinner that night was not even a meal. We had all overdone it at lunch and weren’t thinking of food for rest of the day. Cheese and apples cut any dregs of hunger. Card games were played and the typical group shenanigans ensued for the night. I know for me, between the long day and heavy food, I was feeling a little run over and holding out trying not to crawl into bed too early.
Saturday morning we head out to Shenandoah National Park after breakfast. Our drive was about an hour. The park was running over with people and cars. When we pull up to the entrance, the sandwich board of camp info posts that almost all of the spots were full. This is a huge park and it is a popular tourist destination in the fall. Changing, colorful autumn leaves are the draw for most visitors. For this reason, our trip down Skyline Drive turned into a dodgem ride in and out of the overlooks, cars pull in and cars pull out. Sadly, the trees are not close to their peak color because of the amount of precipitation, but the views are still breathtaking, nonetheless. At one overlook, there was steep path down that takes you to large, rock perch where you can peer out into to sea of green trees. It never fails, I always draw a crowd. As soon as we begin to submerge ourselves in the majesty of our surroundings, at least 10 - 15 people come trudging down the hill and onto the perch, practically running into each other. I know I want people to come out to the parks, but I guess we have to be careful what we ask for or be specific, like, please come to the parks, but don’t crowd me to the point that I am going to fall off the side of the mountain.
Eventually we arrive at Byrd Visitor Center near Big Meadows. Finding a parking space took quite the sharking. All the lots were full and we end up parking on the grass across the street. In this area, they were smart to have a gas station. Skyline Drive cuts through 105 miles of the park. Once you are up here you are up here. Inside the center we watch a brief film about the park. When it was over, we decide to grab food next door and enjoy a picnic lunch outside. Again, with the spill of people, it took a while to find our own table. I spot a couple leaving a table and my father commandeers it, otherwise we would have had to continue to share with people that had kindly allowed the kids to join while we stood. Did I say it was crowded? Yikes! Was it crowded. Great for the parks. Every demographic across the board was accounted for, race, nationality, age and religion. I have been to quite a few national and state parks and I think to date, this has been the most visitors per square foot I have witnessed. It was truly remarkable.
Now that we are feeling energized from food, we decide to take a hike on the Dark Hollow Falls trail. This particular trail is one of the most recommended because it is less than 2 miles round trip and the reward is a beautiful waterfall. When we get to the trailhead, seeing 3 EMS, fully uniformed, sitting, should have been a sign. This I have never seen before. Apparently, the trail, although short, is quite rigorous and steep. They are there to collect or revive people if needed. Even still, there was a stream of people starting and finishing the hike. We were prepared for the kids to be upset about the hike, one way or the other. As we walk past the people hiking out of the trail, there are a lot of beet red faces and for every person there was a walking stick, natural or man-made and at almost every turn, there was someone taking a long winded break. After hiking for a few minutes, I could see how the elevation on the trail can turn into a nightmare for some. At a few points on the trail, it was evident that the grade of the decline was going to be too difficult for some of the hikers, making it a question of continuing or not, knowing that they would have to come back up the hill if they decide to go down the hill. I thought that whatever was at the end of this must be worth the trek, all these people can’t be wrong.
Tiny, trickling waterfalls guide you down the trail on the right. At the very end of this hike was the grand waterfall and people standing at its base. Some took pictures, others watched the silly people at the top that had found their way into the falls, and the rest were trying to catch their breath, dreading the return. The view and exercise was worth it all. It was a hard sell, but we had to get the kids motivated to start heading back up the trail. We were proud of them for sticking it out with less complaints than anticipated. Continuous motivation was required, but we all needed it; it was a push. For a trail under 2 miles round trip, there was a lot of sweating on this unseasonably warm day. That is why the EMS said to make sure you had water.
Quick anecdote: I love my niece dearly. She does NOT pay attention. The entire hike, we all told her to pay attention. Her young life has been nothing but walking and looking everywhere else but where she should. My father gets frustrated with us for stifling her individuality, barking orders at her all the time. His philosophy is to not make a big deal and to let her find out the hard way. Considering the possible dangers of the terrain and continuous flow of people using the same narrow path, she needed to listen this time. Miraculously, after all the times of watching her on the verge of a spill, or taking a fellow hiker out with her walking stick, she made it to very end of the trail, near the parking lot and out of thin air, she falls from a standing position and crumbles in a messy heap to the ground. There was nothing we could do except burst into laughter. Besides being slightly bruised, she was upset with us for laughing. How did she manage to escape the harrowing trail unscathed, only to trip over her own feet at the last possible moment?
On the way out, we pass the sign marker for the entrance to Lewis Mountain. I remember a while ago, learning from Teresa Baker’s sight (creator of African American Nature & Parks Experience) about the significance of this particular part of Shenandoah National Park and I shared it with my family. National Parks were not excluded from the country’s design of separating the races by implementing segregation. While planning Shenandoah National Park, there were separate provisions created for Lewis Mountain to be only for people of color, thus making the park separate, but equal, according to the law. Naturally, we decide to drive in once we get to the entrance. Since it was a drive around, there wasn’t an opportunity to get a true sense of it. We did however, see a huge sign that we had yet to see in the park that said Bear Country. Protect Your Property and Food. We said that this was why they chose this location for the black visitors, mockingly, but with some underlying sincerity. For more information about segregation at Lewis Mountain https://www.nps.gov/shen/learn/historyculture/segregation.htm
Another long day was behind us and we head back to the cabin. Tonight my father was on deck for making his world class spaghetti for my sister’s birthday dinner. I join him in the grocery store to purchase the ingredients for the meal and to be sure that a birthday cake is picked up. It took a while, but we resurface with handfuls of bags. Back at the cabin, it is a dance of too many chefs in the kitchen and not all the proper cooking pans. All the dinner prep tasks are assigned and are quickly checked off. For such a simple meal of salad, bread and noodles topped with tomato and meat sauce, we were all quite pleased. Time for the cake and our favorite part of singing too many offside Happy Birthday tunes; it is a Brown tradition to sing more than what is required. The night was fun and good times.
Checkout was early and we all had to get on our way. Today our departing configuration was different than the arrival. There was an event that my sister and brother-in-law had to attend and we would take the kids with us, to get picked up on Monday. There was a lot to pack into both cars but it went pretty smoothly. Our time was up and it was sad to feel like we were leaving that quickly. The kids were knocked out as soon as the rubber hit the road. Apple picking was going to be the last adventure for us for the weekend. In the past, this is another thing that we all like to do together. My parents took my sister and I as kids and we now do it with her kids. It is a great hands on experience for them and most of the orchards have tons of other activities geared towards children. Plus who doesn’t like apples? The drive was tough since we were all pretty tired, which may have made for grumpy family members, like myself, once we arrived. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be there. It was extremely crowded and it looked overwhelming with long lines for everything. This particular orchard was massive. To get to the apple orchards, you have to drive down a stretch of road from the main parking area at the front. Where did all of these people come from? Unfortunately, the early apple picking bird does catch the worm. Bare from arm’s reach down, the trees were picked over by the many people that came before us. At the bottom was the graveyard of apples that had gotten too heavy for the tree and dropped and those that were knocked off by digging pickers. In the end, after closely examining the trees, we did have two large bagfuls, one for the kids that they picked and one that the adults picked. There is something rewarding about picking your own apple. I look forward to the first batch of apple crisp!