Into The Woods (Accidentally-On-Purpose)
Trip Start May 05, 2011
19Trip End Sep 08, 2011
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Where I stayed
What I did
Hit up a Shakespeare play, WALKED, threw myself on the mercy of strangers, got historical, got back to nature, got arty
Ok, last time I left off I had *just* arrived in Washington D.C., possibly the most monumental of all American cities. Hey, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that it is probably THE most monumental city on earth, and if Mount Rushmore was a couple of thousand miles Southeast in Washington, then the gravitational pull of all of these epic monuments would probably pull the rest of the earth into an impossibly dense American marble-hole. Thank God for South Dakota's remoteness (!) But all of that said, Washington really is a beautiful city (if a little overwhelming for an historian who heralds from a country that never totally aspired to recreate Ancient Rome in municipal form).
On my first full day in D.C., I hit the street quite early, and continued my epic, heroic mission: it was legislature-time! Although I actually had a bit of trouble getting into the Capitol (it's free to go inside, but they are REALLY strict about prohibiting any liquids - and I wasn't about to chuck a whole bottle of sun-tan lotion) I found a way around this dilemma by checking my bag in the Library of Congress and sneaking into the Capitol via a little-known underground tunnel (that I accidentally discovered). The Capitol - the home of the US Congress - is a massive, spectacular building, and the tour was interesting (even if the welcome-video was a little disney-does-government). Our tour guide clearly wasn't keen (though she took the trouble to point out the statue of one of her personal heroes - the man who invented air-conditioning) but after a zip around the buildings I got the chance to go and watch debates in the House of Representatives and the Senate (the latter is by far the more interesting chamber) with less difficulty than my American tourmates, so I was happy. And there were a few traditional 'God bless America' and 'Yah boo to you, Republicans' speeches - which made for an interesting hour or so, whiled away in the birthplace of democracy. Long live legislative-inspired travelling!
After a politically-heavyweight afternoon, I felt in need of some culture, so I headed to a Shakespeare play at the Washington Shakespeare Theatre (billed as one of the three best Shakespeare companies in the world. Ah, bless (RSC rules OK!)). I saw a production of The Merchant of Venice set in the Lower East Side of New York City in the 1930s, which really worked surprisingly well, and was played for laughs, without ignoring the elements of racism inherent in the play (Italian and Jewish communities fitted well). High-Culture rolled on to the next day, with an epic museum-and-monument-a-thon, beginning with a quick glance at the Declaration of Independence and The Constiitution in the National Archives, continuing with a trip to the altogether too-interactive Air and Space Museum, reaching a pinnacle with a marathon trip around all of the government monuments in Washington (including the White House), and finishing with a trip to the American History Museum (featuring THE Star-Spangled-Banner, C3PO's costume, ruby slippers and General Cornwallis's Sword - the historian's equivalent of a sweet-shop). The monuments were probably the best bits. And though I wasn't overly keen on Washington's obelisk, gladius, pointy-thing monument, I warmed much more to the FDR Monument - a set of beautiful 'garden-rooms' that acknowledged the Great Depression and celebrated a great liberal-thinker.
That evening, I enjoyed a quiet, fun night in around the kitchen table in the hostel with my fellow guests, that was only slightly spoiled by the arrival of a genuinely certifiably insane Iranian woman who loudly and angrily proclaimed that I was looking at her funny. I apologised and said that was just the way my face looked. Her angry response was 'Well - change your face'. Seriously. All of the rest of the guests in the hostel thought the situation was hilarious, as did I, at first. But then, after she discovered I was British (and she did not like that), and after she informed me that I personally had ruined her country, and after she told me that I would be stabbed if I ever went to Iran, I began to worry just a smidgeon. It was infinitely worse, I suppose, because she was sleeping in my room, and went to bed after me. In anticipation of a good stabbing, I refused to sleep with my back to the room, and had a slightly less than comfortable night. Nonetheless, on the bright side, I was happy to be alive when I awoke the next morning.
I was sad to leave Washington behind (although quite pleased to get away from any potential crazies and assassins), but as I jumped on the Greyhound bus the next morning I was beginning a whole new adventure in a totally different world - the South. As with all true adventures, I was totally unprepared for the challenges, and the outrageous, friendly, and sometimes totally insane cast of characters that the South was about to catapult in my direction. But if I had known, I don't suppose I would have changed it for the world. The last week has been AN EDUCATION - and this, truly, is what I came to the States for.
The story of the South really centres around a series of protagonists - drifters, hippies, preachers, fools - that I was lucky enough to encounter as I wandered. There has been no preponderance of exposition - the moment I headed southward, I found myself chatting to truly lovely or weird folk who did not fail to live up to the traditional southern reputation for friendliness. First up, on the bus next to me, was Bridie (a brilliant name, I'm sure you'll all agree), a forty-something foster-mother of many who had just married her girlfriend in New York City on July 2nd (they've just passed a law there allowed civil unions). Bridie was kind enough to lend me her laptop and help me to get my bearings when I got to Richmond. Her kind offer of some of her medicinal marijuana (which I turned down) was less appreciated! Bridie was extremely helpful, but I felt the need to move on pretty swiftly when I (somehow - and I genuinely don't understand how) elicited an unhealthy amount of jealousy in her new wife (I mean, I'm the wrong gender, for goodness sake! and WAY too young).
Next up were Sam and Heather, a really fantastic, almost benevolent couple, who took me in to their home as a guest in Richmond. The reason I stayed with Sam and Heather is simple: I rocked up to Richmond, expecting to find a hostel (or at least a cheap motel). I discovered that hostels do not exist in the South. In a flurry of desperation (and feeling guilty, because I had just caused Bridie's first phone marital spat), I joined Couchsurfers, a web-based community that allows travellers to find places to stay (for free) with likeminded hosts worldwide. And - although this was an act of desperation; and although my request to Heather ran like this: ' Please host me or I'll be on the streets!'; and although it was Heather's birthday the next day, they were kind enough to respond to my pleas with generosity, and more than a little bit of good humour. Thank sweet bejesus for friendly southerners!
Now, I should probably qualify my fantastic stay with this disclaimer: all southerners are not innately friendly. This I quickly learned on my way to Sam and Heather's house, when I had to change buses in the centre of Richmond. Whilst waiting for my bus, I spoke to two lovely elderly black ladies. One told me that I should be careful, and that she never usually caught the bus in that spot, due to the dealers and the gang members (who were of course standing about 20 yards away). The other informed me of a police shoot out at the Greyhound station (where I had been 2 hours previously) that had happened two days before. Yikes. In fact, I was pretty glad to get to Sam and Heather's house (even though I had to run through a tropical rainstorm to get there). But from then on, I had nothing but good food, delightful company, my own double bed, and a couple of brilliant hosts.
Heather and Sam even took me out to a restaurant with them to celebrate her birthday, and afterwards, gave me a guided tour of the Virginia State Legislature (designed by Thomas Jefferson) and the surrounding area. I had a wonderful time, but most of all I enjoyed kicking back and relaxing (and exploring their neighbourhood). And to make matters even better, they were anglophile enough to ask me if I minded whether we all watched Tennant-era episodes of Doctor Who whilst we ate our Chinese food. I love Virginians.
On Sunday, I was just about able to tear myself away, and head down to Williamsburg, home to Colonial Williamsburg, a perfectly recreated town from the pre-Revolutionary era. Obviously, this was pretty high up on my list of things to do, even though I knew it would make me a MAHUSIVE tourist. Colonial Williamsburg itself was great - it was baking hot, and I was able to wander up and down an eighteenth century street, making the occasional beeline for the printer's workshop, or the post office, or the basketmakers, or the arsenal, or the governor's palace. The historical actors really knew their stuff, and manufactured a whole load of produce on site, as well as encouraging slightly bewildered tourists to march with the militia, explore this ballroom, or head in for a gingerbread biscuit. So, objectively, as a historian, I thought it was great.
But Williamsburg will be memorable for me for another reason too. For in Williamsburg, l vacillated between the divine and the ridiculous; between the beautiful historical town, and my motel (which was apparently drug-dealer, gang central). I stayed pretty out of this; nonetheless, in the words of some new friends that I made whilst wandering lost through the campus of William and Mary University, I was right on the edge of a bit of a 'sketchy' world. The level of dodginess became apparent when a car pulled up at midnight and started blasting gangster rap for an hour or so; and when, the next morning, I had a nice chat at the bus stop to a sixteen year old who knew way too much of the drug and gang culture (and who had taken heroin for the first time the night before - despite being taken from his junkie mother as a child. Freakishly, he showed me the track-marks on his arm). At no time was I in danger, but it all just taught me that the South - far from being a homogenous, clean, or even traditional world - is a complex, occasionally wretched, mixed-up place.
On Monday night, after a really great day at the historical park (and after meeting a number of super-friendly Americans in a diner in immediate succession, who had nothing but respect for travellers), I headed to Savannah, Georgia. My guidebook had informed me that Savannah was a beautiful, antebellum town. And it truly was stunning. Sadly, my guidebook failed to inform me that Savannah was a popular family-holiday place, with motel prices starting from $70. Needless to stay, I wasn't going to stay there, but I spent a day in this deeply bohemian yet old-south town, got a free 'Savannah-rose' from a friendly homeless man, and sunned myself on the beachfront. That evening, I planned (partly through desperation) an overnight trip to Nashville. What happened next totally changed my direction....
Wandering back to the bus station, I ran into an artist, who was asking me about my travels. He asked me whether I had been to The Hostel in the Woods yet. My response was: 'The hostel in the wha?' Overwhelmed with shock at my response, and deeply keen for me to experience this hostel, he called them, and booked me bed for that night. He even gave me a lift to the Greyhound station, and made sure I knew where to go. Now that's keen. Next thing I knew, I was on my was to the small deep south city of Brunswick, Georgia - a place I had never heard of, and indeed somewhere I wouldn't have dreamed of going 24 hours before.
Dropped off in the Brunswick Greyhound station (which was, in truth, a parking lot outside a shut-down hardware store), I soon found a taxi that could just about take me to the Hostel in the Forest. I say 'just about', because no one in the taxi office knew what a hostel was (one guy's helpful suggestion was 'where people go to die'. Great). One man had heard of the hostel, though, so we set off into the wilderness - and for me, into the complete unknown. On the way there, I got another slice of southern life: gospel radio. My. God. For some reason, I thought gospel radio was supposed to be cheery and uplifting, that it was all about finding Jesus and all that jazz. Nope. Here's a typical sample: ' I done had a real trouble with the demon of drink. I wud drink all day long, and beat mah wife black and blue, ah, but then, I found Gawd! Now I am free, and I beat my wife considerably less'. Hooray. Crazy.
But it was all quickly forgotten when we finally made it down the long drive to the hostel. As I said, I didn't really know what to expect (beyond a few hints courtesy of my artist friend), and we arrived as it was growing dark. But, as soon as I got through the door, I was able to unburden myself, and sit down to a delicious vegan meal in a log cabin. The Hostel in the Woods - a small place, set like a jewel in a morass of conservatism deep deep down in the deep south - turned out to be an environmentally friendly, creativity-minded, greenfreak hippie commune. And commune is the right word. Food was shared and open to all comers, no space was 'owned', we were encouraged to meditate on all that we were thankful for...Although the intrinsic cynic in my rebelled against some of the more flowery aspects of the experience, it was certainly a fantastic way of living and a great experience, for a few days. I also met some wonderful people there, and had some brilliant chats (along with some deeply shallow navel-gazing masquerading as deep-and-meaningfuls).
By the end of my first night, I decided that The Hostel in the Woods was essentially the film 'The Beach' - only set in South Georgia, so less Leo DiCaprio, more swamp and mosquito bites. Like in 'The Beach', it was all extremely communal and they grew all their own food, had banned laptops and phones, and sat around after dark regaling each other with stories and music. My opinion of the hostel changed somewhat in the next day or so. As night drew on, and as a group of beautiful and vacuous American girls who had just graduated from college arrived (and insisted on skinny-dipping in the lake by moonlight), I decided that it was rather more like the setup for a slasher movie. Finally, by the end of my three-night stay, I concluded that it was a bit of a mix of both, with a substantial injection of flower power to keep things nice and neat. Whatever it was, it was fantastic. I was able to enjoy good food cooked fresh every night, wander their labyrinth, explore the HUGE grounds and sprawling treehouses around the site, sample delights from the garden, and swim in the lake - where I spent hours, in the sun and in the moonlight, with a couple of English guys and a few Americans who had all somehow found themselves there by accident. By far the best thing, however, was the artist studio, which was set up directly above my treehouse. They had so many paints (of all different types), media, surfaces to work on, cloths and things to sculpt. In the end, I decided to paint a picture on a sheet of tin - a great realisation of all of the creative energy that this continent seems to provoke.
On Friday I finally said goodbye to the hostel and headed off to Atlanta. Shaved, showered clean of slightly smelly lake water, and raring to go, I was ready to hit the streets as soon as I arrived. But then, that's another chapter...