Stone of Remembrance

August 30, 2007

Summer Vacation 2007 Summary

Filed under: Commentary — admin @ 08:39

I’ve added a page with links to all of the parts of the trip report. It also includes links to the many places we ate, some of which didn’t get mentioned in the text.

I’ll update this as I go.

August 29, 2007

What I Did On My Summer Vacation – Part 10

Filed under: Commentary, Travel — admin @ 20:05

And then, A. and I headed for home in easy stages. Well, it’s probably a bit of an exaggeration to designate all of them as easy, but at least there were stops in between.

We took our leave of Indianapolis on the Monday after NASFiC, after driving a few hundred miles the previous day and staying up late to play games with the great guys from The Spiel. Our first leg was actually the easiest, since we had less distance to cover and an entire day to explore. On the other end of the convenience spectrum, since we’d already removed one stop from the itinerary (New York City – unfortunately, the contracts for the new books weren’t ready yet, so there was less motivation to go into the city), we made a hard push on Thursday to get all the way home from Buffalo.

So. Here we go.

Indiana – Countryside

With a day to spend, we headed south from Indianapolis and avoided the big main highway, I-65. My original plan was to et us to a period ice-cream and sweet shop named Zaharako’s, recommended highly by Roadfood; it is – or, rather, was located in the small city of Columbus, Indiana. Zaharako’s, however, had been closed a few months earlier – apparently the last family member had died, and the new owner was planning a major renovation. It sounded like just the sort of place we would have liked: soda fountain, grilled sandwiches, homemade ice cream. But it was not to be.

But Columbus turned out to be a very interesting little city. I.M. Pei, among others, designed buildings that are located there; after getting the news about Zaharako’s, we spent a little time looking at stuff in the Visitor’s Center, then went to a small drive-in burger place called Musillami’s on the southern edge of town. We had some drive-in food that was good, but stopped short of memorable; but rather than my usual choice of beverage, I tried something that was advertised as a local version of Big Red. Never heard of Big Red? Me neither. Our server was, shall we say, taken aback by that – I imagine it would be like being in Rhode Island and never knowing about coffee milk. It’s sort of a spicy cream soda, not something I’d go out of my way to stock in my fridge, but an interesting local concoction.

Pizzaburger and “Big Red”.

Thwarted in Columbus, we used our trusty book to locate an alternate source of sucrose – this time we headed for JWI Confectionery in Madison, Indiana, a locally-owned candy shop and ice cream / soda fountain that opened originally in 1917.

Monday was another amazingly hot day of travel – it was clearly at or over 100° during that day (and the next few as well), so we spent a lot of time with the windows up and the car A/C on, watching flat Indiana go by. As we reached the southernmost part of the state, though, the terrain changed (though, I’m sorry to say, the temperature did not.) Our route took us down through a long crevasse with tall, rocky sides, all the way to the Ohio River; it was one of those “Trucks Test Brakes” kind of roads, one I’d prefer not to ever drive at night (especially going uphill).

And then, finally, Madison. As small-town-Main-Street a place as you might imagine; and right in the middle of it was JWI, also the home of Mundt’s Candies, famous for these little hard “fish” candies. (Tried, weren’t impressed.) But the sodas, and the ice-cream, and the dark wood-panelled cool ambience, were just the thing for a hot day.

From there, it was on to visit our friends in Guilford, at the place where Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio all meet.

I haven’t spent too much time talking about the people we visited (as opposed to the places); this blog was never planned as a diary-type journal, but rather one consisting of commentary and writing experience – what I saw and did, what I was writing and reading. Making it personal would tend to move me away from what I was trying to do: observe, experience, learn, and share it with the unknown audience that might be reading.

I didn’t, and don’t, expect most people to care much about our Harrisburg friends J. and P., our Asheville friends M. and D., or indeed our Guilford, Indiana friends M. and T. But from our point of view, it made the trip far more interesting and compelling. A. met a number of people, including some cousins she’d never seen (and I hadn’t seen in years) – and I hope she’ll remember them when she meets them again.

By the time our blistering hot day had reached blistering hot evening, we were in Lawrenceburg, a river town that’s doing its best to recollect the good old steamboat days. We had dinner in view of the Ohio River,

A. and the Ohio River.

and spent the evening with our friends at their house in the country – more than an acre of land, a nice rambling house, and what my friend M. calls “the best view in the world.”

It’s true. They moved back out to Indiana toward the end of M.’s term as Master of my Masonic lodge, and we miss him – and they miss Massachusetts: they traded up in real estate, and enjoy being back in Indiana (from which both M. and T. hail) . . . but M. could be a tremendous asset to a local lodge out there.

Two guys; Bright sun

M. is the guy on the right. Both of us should’ve had our sunglasses on.

Next: Onward into Ohio.

August 27, 2007

What I Did On My Summer Vacation – Part 9

Filed under: Commentary — admin @ 13:24

Back On the Road

“Now,” I told A., “the real adventure begins.”

The route from St. Louis to Indianapolis is long and flat. When I drive stretches of long and flat, my mind wanders to considering what’s going on in the places we pass – the exits we never take, the town centers we never visit, the people we never meet. The interstate highway system has done for drivers what inexpensive air travel has done for flyers: created vast stretches of land that most people never visit.

That was part of the motivation for making use of Roadfood on this trip. We like some restaurant chains: our local favorite is Longhorn; it’s a long way from Delmonico’s, but we like it well enough. But every one of these chains seek to provide the same experience wherever you go. Not only is the menu the same, and the service the same – the decor is the same. If you were yanked out of a canvas bag and dropped into a Longhorn or Cracker Barrel, you’d have no idea where the hell you were.

Roadfood was no help to us on this leg of the trip, but after a few hundred miles we decided that we had to eat. Accordingly, just short of the Illinois/Indiana state line I took an exit, filled the gas tank, and took us into Culver’s for a quick bite.

We didn’t even get to sample the frozen custard which, I’m told, is marvelous – but our burgers were absolutely delicious. Culver’s speciality is the Butterburger – the bun is buttered on top and lightly toasted. The fries and other stuff was very good, not greasy at all.

The most surprising thing about the Culver’s shop in Effingham, Illinois turned out to be what happened when I opened up my laptop to look at the PDF of our hotel reservation. I picked up a wireless hub. No logging in, no WEP key; it was just there. I had a brief chat with my nephew in California, who recommends Culver’s highly from visits to his grandfather in Wisconsin. But there aren’t any in the eastern part of the United States. Here’s hopin’ that changes.

Find one near you by clicking the map.


As it happened, I’d been in Indianapolis a few times for GenCon, but I was there for a different reason this time – to meet up with Stephen Conway and David Coleson, who are responsible for a fine gaming podcast called The Spiel. I’ve mentioned them on the blog previously; I own some fine Spiel dice (I sent David, a dice-collector, a pair of TBL dice in exchange), and I listen to their broadcasts. (I made a contribution and earned a nickname: Walter “Merchant of Venus” Hunt. One of my favorite games, by the way.)

A few months ago, when I was planning the trip and realized that A. and I would be covering a lot of mileage coming home, I got in touch with Stephen and asked about the possibility of meeting up with them on our trip back. Other than their convention visits, most of their listeners rarely get a chance to meet these two characters, much less game with them; this was an excellent opportunity to do both.

Gaming – boardgaming (or roleplaying), I mean – involves actual interaction between actual humans. Unlike video games, you don’t need excellent eyesight, good reflexes, or expensive electronic equipment. The Spiel’s motto is: “Whether it’s the roll of a die . . . the turn of a card . . . or the flip of a tile, you don’t have to play to win, you just have to play.” (Our Unity Games motto used to be “Friendship Through Gaming”, until some hotheaded nitwit with the initials W.H. uttered the infamous line “Friendship Through Gaming My A**”. Oh well.) These guys love to play games. I knew that when I first began to listen to their podcast; their enthusiasm comes through. Their tastes are more catholic than mine, I daresay: I won’t touch party games or trivia games, and (surprisingly to some of my friends) word games annoy or bore me. They’ll play anything, from a brief look at Stephen’s collection.

I wish we’d had two or three days to play games with the Spielers. We only played two games before calling it a night, and A. sat out the second game in favor of her Nintendo DS. But we did record a short excerpt that will debut on The Spiel sometime this month; I’ll put up a short blog entry when it does.

Direct From the Padded Cell

David’s on the left; Stephen is on the right. (Francie, Stephen’s self-described “partner in crime”, is not pictured.) It was mentioned on the GenCon podcast that there was someone at the con who had attached a large number of 4-sided dice to his (shaven) head, giving it the appearance of a large, multicolored mace; Mr. Coleson foolishly offered that if 500 people sent in a request he might have to do it himself. Well now we get to see how many of your listeners read my blog. :-)

We went back to our hotel room well after midnight. I hope the Spielers can come out to a future Unity event – and I can return their hospitality. In the meanwhile, I’ll keep listening – and you should too.

Next: A tour of Southern Indiana.

What I Did On My Summer Vacation – Part 8

Filed under: Commentary, Travel — admin @ 09:16

And Now a Word From Our Sponsor

Sorry for the delay in continuing our saga. The laptop’s hard disk died the true death over the last week and it’s taken a little time and effort to get my world (and work) organized again.

in “A Song In Stone”, a computer programmer is described as a helpless slave of technology. Sometimes I feel that way myself: maybe I’ve become too dependent on cell phone, internet access, laptop, TV. (Then I realize how much work it is to write without a computer and use a typewriter instead; I depend on the net for my baseball info . . . and I set my concerns aside.)

Anyway, on we go.


The NASFiC took place this year in beautiful Collinsville, Illinois. Collinsville is a suburb of St. Louis, a big sprawling thing on the Mississippi River that was invisible from the anonymous place on the outskirts. It could’ve been anywhere – well, anywhere hot. And it was: close to, or over, 100° every day we were there. That much was obvious because some events were held in the main convention hotel and some in the convention center; unlike other venues, you had to go outside to go from one to the other – a few hundred yards across a parking lot, up and down two sets of steps (a bridge crossed a drainage ditch), and across another parking lots. Scooters and wheelchairs and such had to use the sidewalk, a bit longer trip. It’s a wonder there weren’t regular visits from EMTs.

But back to the con. The convention had originally planned to honor one of the greatest living science fiction fans, Wilson “Bob” Tucker, who had been a part of fandom and professional sf/f publishing almost since the beginning of time. As it happened, Bob passed away in October 2006 – so Archon became “Tuckercon”, a memorial to him, his work and his impact on fandom and publishing.

I never met Bob Tucker, but I have The Year of the Quiet Sun on my shelf – it won the Campbell in 1976, when I was still in my formative phase as a pretentious high school writer. But he had a lot of fans, and a programming track in his memory at the con.


L. told me as soon as we’d settled in our room: “you’re at work; we’ll find something to do.” Accordingly, we picked up my packet and our badges, and set about orienting myself. Programming at Archon apparently doesn’t leave off in middle evening as it does at some other cons; my first panel was scheduled for 9 PM on the evening of my arrival.

One of the first people I encountered was my friend and colleague, Jack McDevitt. In addition to being a fellow baseball fan – he once named an alien race the “Goliats” – Jack is an amazingly personable guy, and a prolific and talented science fiction writer. His novel Seeker won this year’s Nebula – and that’s just his most recent accolade. You can’t go wrong with a McDevitt book (almost all of them grace our shelves.) At his suggestion we walked over to a local barbecue place where the two of us talked writing, working through plot points in our current projects.

Once back on campus, I participated in the first of two astronomy panels. Both panels featured heavier hitters than me – among others John Strickland, an amateur astronomer from Texas, and fellow Tor writer Mike Brotherton. Mike’s a real hard SF writer and teaches astronomy at the University of Wyoming, where the skies are bigger.

The panels – the Thursday one on “The Search For Extrasolar Planets” and the Saturday one, “Solar System v2.0″ – had a chance to be highly technical astronomy discussions between panelists and a handful of audience members, but Jack and I tried our best on Thursday night to bring the discussion back to where writers like ourselves could make use of them. (On Saturday I was on my own, so I did my best to keep tech talk from overwhelming the conversation.


On the first full day of the con, I did a panel on magic in writing with Carol Berg, Nick Pollotta, Kelly McCullough (all of whom I’d previously met) and Barbara Hodges (who I hadn’t). As is always the case, Nick is the most . . . interesting of the panel. He has non-stop energy and an unusual sense of humor (all of these statements are understatements, by the way.) We first met at Windycon in Chicago in 2006, his home stomping grounds.

The magic panel was followed immediately by a young-adult one with myself, Jack McDevitt again, and two writers I’d not yet met – Deborah Chester and Alison Stein. We held forth for an hour about science fiction to a small group of young’uns, who turned out to be a trifle more precocious than Jack was expecting: I think we held our own. At least they didn’t walk out on us.

And then there was the encounter with Elizabeth Moon.

I’d been added to two panels in the late afternoon, which endeared me a bit to the con committee: there’d been some cancellations. (It should be pointed out that this is a good thing. I always consider that the convention is doing me the favor by having me on the program, not the other way around: I despise it when someone is on a panel and comes out with the line, “I’m Joe Foobar, and I don’t know why I’m here.” You’re here to sell books, you nitwit.)

So. The first panel was on alternate history, the second was entitled “History is Hell.” Both were intriguing and well-attended. Ms. Moon is a talented and well respected author; she took charge of each panel with the practiced ease of a squad leader (considering that she lists USMC in her biography, one should not be surprised). As a devoted medievalist, my next book was of interest to her; I tried to avoid censure, somewhat successfully, for stepping on other people’s lines. Still, Elizabeth Moon is a formidable presence, projecting just the air of authority and knowledge that she wishes. It’s all right, though – she’s earned it, and she backs it up.

The second panel was even more packed than the first, in part because it featured (along with Ms. Moon and myself) Gene Wolfe and P.C. Hodgell. Since my background is in history (though there is no Ph.D. after my name, an honor Ms. Hodgell enjoys), I felt more at home in these panels than at the astronomy ones. Overall, I think they went very well. (No reproaches in the Moon LiveJournal, at least . . .)

Friday dinner was with writer and movie critic Dan Kimmel at an Italian restaurant. This is this Dan Kimmel, not that Dan Kimmel. I wonder if the movie critic and bass angler have ever met, and whether they would annihilate each other if they did.

And then at 11 P.M., I appeared for a panel over at the convention center with a wide array of denizens. (Non-denizens were keeping to themselves or had gone to bed.) The panel was ostensibly about beer, but it was most fun for me trading witticisms with Wombat and Lee Martindale, who seemed to enjoy it. After the panel I had a chance to make an “elevator pitch” to an editor whose name you’d recognize; out of courtesy to the editor, and in deference to the integrity of the pitch, I’ll not say more, except to note that it was well received. This is one of the other reasons pros go to cons.


Over the first few days I’d seen remarkably little of my wife and daughter. On Saturday there was a “children’s masquerade”; I was busy redrawing the solar system with Strickland, Brotherton et. al., but L. got to see our daughter and her new friend from Michigan in costume.

Lookin’ good.

I had an hour respite between the 3 PM panel and my reading, which was fortuitous; readings were scheduled at the far end of a remote fourth-floor hallway in a room where there was a fan going on and off regularly. I followed John Dalmas, and some of his listeners (including John himself) stayed to listen to me. I read from A Song In Stone, and it went over well. I only wish the room hadn’t been located in eastern Oklahoma.

Dinner was late – at a Ponderosa, scheduled after the actual masquerade. I can only be thankful that neither L. nor A. had any taste for sliders from White Castle (there was one nearby, and a big box o’burgers appeared each night at the con suite. We all avoided them.)

I made the rounds of the parties. There are two 2009 Worldcon bids, to be decided in Japan: Kansas City and Montréal. We’ve presupported both, and so have a number of con committee members and supporters from each bid – they are on tremendously good terms, a nice departure from the rather acrimonious proceedings for the 2008 bid.

We’d go to either one. KC has blues music, professional baseball and barbecue; Montréal is a world-class city that L. and I haven’t visited since 1987. A lot of stuff has happened since 1987. As you know.

One party not to be missed was the Yard Dog Press bash. This is a small press operated by the inimitable Selina Rosen, whom I first met in Arizona three years ago. Selina is . . . shall we say . . . unique; she works hard for readers and watches out for her writers too. I’ve met several in my travels; some months ago at Arisia we ran across Margaret Bonham (who wrote this niceness about us; we seem to have been the high point of her visit to Boston, which otherwise didn’t seem to go so well. She’s good people too.) In any case, it was great to see Selina again.

Good lookin’ hat.


It got to be Sunday morning quickly. This was the point at which our vacation plans diverged: L. had to go back to work starting Monday, so she was up and packed early; I drove her to Lambert and got my first look at St. Louis, even spying the Gateway Arch on the way back. (I didn’t take a picture: you know what it looks like. It’s big. Really freaking big.)

Since I’d been up early, we were able to pack the rest of the room in relative calm. Still, there were no carts available to haul our stuff from the room (’way at the back of the hotel) to the car, so it was done in shifts, with A. standing guard while I moved suitcases, tubs, cooler and laptop from room to elevator, elevator to front door, front door to car. We had help from a committee person whose name I didn’t get; whoever it was, thanks a lot.

Then it was just details. I was scheduled for autographing at 2 PM with a few other functionaries of the second rank; I signed two books, and when things hit a lull, A. and I took our leave of Archon. L. was just getting up in the air – thunderstorms in Chicago delayed her flight by two hours, and would eventually cause her to have to take a hotel room in Boston for the night. In the meanwhile, I was preparing for a four-day odyssey across a thousand or so miles with a ten-year-old.

Not crazy at all. (Parenthood already took care of the category. If you make it through ten years, you’re either already crazy, or ready for just about anything. Heh. Adolescence is still ahead. Sure. Anything. Hope my buddy Tee is paying attention.)

Next: Gaming in Indianapolis.

August 23, 2007

What I Did On My Summer Vacation – Part 7

Filed under: Commentary, Games, Travel — admin @ 07:14

Our decision to visit Nashville was based on its location. Asheville NC to Collinsville IL, our ultimate westernmost destination, is really too long a haul for one day – especially for A., who’s being pulled along on the most extensive driving trip of her life so far.

Accordingly, we arranged a Fairfield by Marriott room-night – a free one, since I’d had enough stays to earn it. By arrangement, L. and A. went off to the Country Music Hall of Fame in the afternoon, a visit I studiously chose to avoid.

L’s commentary on the CMHF

I didn’t know what to expect when I went to the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. I was visiting it in spite of my husband, who doesn’t understand my liking for modern country music, and he had chosen to remain behind in the hotel room to update his blog. So A. and I adventured out on the highways of Nashville, finding the weird AT&T skyscraper and the overpriced parking, and finally entering the elegantly curving building.

The CMHF is a 3-story building, arranged so that you take an elevator to the 3rd floor and work your way down. It is a technological marvel, since modern sound technology has been used to allow different displays to be set up just feet from each other without interference: walls that curve in like swiss rolls, so that they act like their own baffles, overhead speakers that define belljar-like sound areas.

The slow walk down the third floor when exiting the elevator takes you past displays that through sound and story tell you of the widely varied roots of country music, as well as the various historical influences that helped expose them to each other, such as radio, and World War II. There is an explanation of how blues and jazz and rock influenced country music, with a section on rockabilly, and of course, a section for Elvis. There are other memorabilia: Gene Jone’s convertible, covered in horses’ heads and pistols; Elvis’s gold- and pearl-painted Cadillac, with its gold-painted TV and record-player, with record-changer.

A. was fascinated by a 20-minute video narrated by Glen Campbell of how country music was depicted on American TV, from Minnie Pearl on the Tennessee Ernie Ford Show to the Glen Campbell Show to the Beverly Hillbillies to Hee Haw to the Nashville Network. You could also use a computer to design a stage costume for a country song and other activities.

The second floor had the current exhibit, “I Can’t Stop Loving You: Ray Charles and Country Music”. Ray Charles grew up listening to country, gospel, jazz and blues, and recorded, in his own inimitable style, the works of country songwriters during his long lifetime, such as “Modern Sounds in Western and Country Music”, vol 1, which spawned “I Can’t Stop Loving You”, and vol 2, 1962, and “Country and Western Meets Rhythm and Blues”, 1965. I think I’ll be borrowing some Ray Charles from the library now.

As I walked past the cases of gorgeous gowns, the swiss roll walls with their baffles where you could listen to Roy Rogers or Elvis or Tammy Wynette, the southern gospel songs or Appalachian guitar pickers, I realized that what had at first attracted me to modern country was the fusion aspect: the rock country that I hear from Big & Rich, and Trace Adkins and Toby Keith – and the fact that I can hear all the words :-). But then underneath I listen more closely, and in the best songs, I can still hear all those other influences, and the stories, and whether they’re told in rock and roll, or whether they’re told in drawl, whether it’s dressed up in flash with lots of amp and video, or whether it’s the simple guitar and cadence of “Arlington” – they’re all still stories, they’re just being told in a way that appeals to me, and they’re coming out of a broad, rich history of storytelling diversity.

I walked down the last wide curving stair, its bannister a stone channel of running water, happy with my journey, looking forward to more stories.

Back to W’s narrative
In the evening, the ladies stayed at the hotel and enjoyed the pool, while I indulged in my own form of enjoyment: boardgaming.

And yes, this helped me choose Nashville as the intermediate stop :-)

I first heard about it reading this Boardgamegeek thread written by a very active Nashville gamer. The Berry Hill Community Center group meets Wednesdays, though it wasn’t planning to meet that Wednesday. It didn’t take much arm twisting to get them to add a session. I was the special guest that night, and got to play (among other things) Power Grid with a different group; the supposed “shark” didn’t do too well – and I didn’t quite win either, but it was a great, tight game.

Hope I get to go play with the crowd again – thanks to Rick and his fellow gamers. (He appreciated that I drafted Cole Hamels for my Maracaibo Rumrunners this year – he’s a transplanted Phillies fan!)

We will absolutely be visiting Nashville and environs again. It’s actually my second time there – I did a book signing there in 2005 – but I still haven’t seen much of anything. Perhaps if the new book does very well I can make a stop on some sort of book tour. Otherwise, it would be a great vacation destination . . . when we can get to it.

On to the Con

Thus, on the morning of August 2, we were positioned a mere few hundred miles from our primary destination – the 2007 NASFiC, where sf/f fans and pros gather when Japan is out of the question. It wasn’t much of a thematic change in the weather as we headed out from Nashville: it was brutally, painfully hot. Fortunately, the vehicle had A/C, we had cold drinks in the cooler, and there was a full tank of gas after we made a rest stop just into Kentucky.

Roadfood wasn’t even much help on this leg of the trip. The online edition would have been more informative, but we only had the dead-tree version to hand; accordingly, we just kept driving – I-24, then I-57, then I-64 – across flat fields of Tennessee, Kentucky and southern Illinois, punctuated by the occasional hill or bridge across the river (we crossed the Ohio while leaving Kentucky). There was a stop for lunch at St. Louis Bread, which in the rest of the country is called Panera, and then we made our way out to Collinsville, Illinois for the convention.

Next: Four days at a con.

August 18, 2007

What I Did On My Summer Vacation – Part 6

Filed under: Commentary, Freemasonry, Travel — admin @ 21:44

We spent five days visiting M. and D. in Asheville. It was my fourth visit there: I did a book signing in Sylva NC in April 2005, and then participated in two instances of the Smoky Mountains Book Fair in November 2005 and 2006; but this was L. and A.’s first time in the Berkeley of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s an interesting place to say the least: very liberal in a very conservative state, an artists’ haven and college town.

Some of our intended activities were ruled out. Mayfels, a wonderful downtown café that serves fresh made beignets, was closed during our entire stay, and our planned Saturday night game at McCormick Field between the Asheville Tourists and Savannah Sand Gnats was rained out . . . so no Crash Davis Bobblehead for me.

But we did arrive during Bele Chere, a summer festival that filled downtown Asheville with folks looking for a drunken good time. Lots of them found it. The locals tend to avoid all of it. We spent part of Saturday wandering around; the food was good (but overpriced); the trinkets and gewgaws were mostly overpriced as well; and it was seriously hot. A. did some inside-a-building rock climbing; M. and I tried some local beer; and with the cancellation of the Tourists game we were able to enjoy a quiet dinner with our friends.

Side Trip

At the beginning of the following week, we decided to take a side trip to South Carolina – with another Roadfood recommendation: the Beacon Drive-In, located in Spartanburg – about an hour from Asheville. Beacon is known for lunch plates with “a-plenty” added, meaning a heap o’ sides – hush puppies, fries, onion rings, cole slaw. When you step into the place you join a line of folks who know what they want and order it – and an old fellow (similar to the pictured one in the sign below) calls it out in Southern and asks that you move along.

They have a different word for everything.

The Beacon has great food. It’s comfort food, as my wife L. is fond of calling it: but it’s good tasting and very filling, and worth the trip. The Beacon is easy to find: just look for the big lighthouse sign.

Just look for the lighthouse.

After we ate our fine lunch, we took an overland trip back toward Sylva, so that I could show the wonderful City Lights Bookstore to L. This took us north and west across the southern Blue Ridge Mountains, and our route brought us to Caesar’s Head State Park – though it was a tad too foggy to see much of anything. M. and I found a nice overlook accessible through a narrow stone crevice called Devil’s Kitchen.

But . . . why Caesar’s Head?

I should also mention two things we found in Brevard, NC. By chance the door was open at Dunns Rock Lodge Masonic hall, and got a nice tour from the soon-to-be-Master, Keith Mann. My friend M. walked in with me and (I think) was impressed with the friendly reception: but Masons are friends with each other even if they haven’t met. The other highlight of Brevard was O. P. Taylor’s – “the coolest toy store on the planet” – which was a great place to visit. I love toy stores, and wish it was closer to . . . well, somewhere else.

We reached Sylva late in the afternoon and visited the bookstore; I spoke with Joyce, the wonderful proprietor, and she said that the book fair would have a bunch of different people this year . . . I have no new book to sell, so I’m just as happy to skip a year and go to Philcon instead.

Asheville . . . the Rest

Our remaining time in Asheville gave us a chance to visit the wonderful Asiana Oriental buffet, where we ate enough for three or four meals on the road. With a little regret we left Asheville and its beautiful art-deco buildings (like the Grove Street Arcade, pictured below) behind and undertook the next leg of our trip.

The Arcade.

On to Music City

There’s little to say about our drive from Asheville to Nashville Wednesday morning. We drove I-40 over the mountains and then straight west through Knoxville; mid-morning we took a Cracker Barrel break – one of our few exceptions to our desire to stick to non-chain restaurants during our trip. Cracker Barrel is about the same everywhere you go: good, solid food, faux quaint decor, and a gift shop (though this one featured University of Tennessee merchandise as well as the usual candy and guess-where-I-bought-this-crap gifts.)

We reached our hotel – another Fairfield Marriott – about 1 in the afternoon. I settled down to write and surf the net, since I was going to be out that evening; the ladies went off to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Next: Nashville for a day.

August 17, 2007

What I Did On My Summer Vacation – Part 5

Filed under: Commentary, Travel — admin @ 10:31

Despite the superficiality of the Anheuser-Busch theme parks, I suspect that we could have easily enjoyed a few more days in the Williamsburg area. But more adventure awaited, and we got underway on Friday morning, headed for North Carolina.

A few years ago I began to prefer the Marriott hotel chain when I traveled. There are good reasons to pick one chain or another; most have a rewards program that gives you airline miles or free hotel nights. There’s also the idea that you get a consistent level of service and amenities. Marriott has a number of different hotel types; I most often use the Fairfield, which is on the low end – but their rooms are comfortable, they have free wireless, there’s usually a swimming pool and hot tub, and a decent free breakfast. Our stay in Williamsburg was very nice, and a manager took the time to talk to us in the breakfast room (and helped me book a Marriott Rewards night in Indianapolis for the following week – more on that to come.) I’ve never had a problem at a Marriott and intend to stick with them when possible.

Our route to Asheville led us back to Richmond and then south along Interstate 95 and then Interstate 85. L. took the wheel and I gave A. the shotgun seat so I could sit in back and fire up the laptop, giving me the first chance to write in a few days.

I-85 in Virginia and North Carolina is miles of rural, wooded emptiness. This is no place to break down; I’d driven this route during my Tour of the Middle Colonies last fall (and done it in the dark, after a fair number of miles was behind me); it was more pleasant this time, cruising along with less fatigue and better weather.

It took us a few hours to reach the border of North Carolina near Henderson. At that point I-85 turns west, and there’s a crossover dance with I-40 (which crosses the state from east to west). There wasn’t a lot to see, though we did stop off at J•R, a cigar/discount store – a sort of cleaned-up Building 19 with a tobacco store inside it.

Our lunch stop was at Stameys, just off I-40 near the stadium in Greensboro, NC. This is another recommendation from Roadfood, and it didn’t steer us wrong. I had a small bowl of Brunswick Stew, and we all enjoyed barbeque pork. The picture from Roadfood is pretty much how things are served; the menu is about 5″x7″ and has maybe a dozen items on it.


The other things in the picture are hush puppies and vinegary cole slaw. It was completely unpretentious, fairly inexpensive and delicious. Thumbs up for Roadfood again.

Late in the afternoon, while we were making our way up the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains to Asheville, the rain started to come down – it would cost us our visit to McCormick Field the next day – but we were still afforded a nice view of the mountains ahead. We arrived in Asheville at the home of our friends M. and D.; they hadn’t seen A. for a couple of years – and A. had never seen their cute spaniel Jemima, who acts much more like a cat than a dog . . . but is irrepressibly, drive-by cute.

Two cuties

Next: Asheville and its summer festival.

August 14, 2007

But It Passed The Spell Checker

Filed under: Commentary, Writing — admin @ 18:31

So. New book advertised in the History Book Club flier, Susan Dunn’s Dominion of Memories, about post-Revolutionary Virginia. Reviewed by Lucas A Powe, Jr, whose intelligentsia-butt is planted in the Anne Green Regents Chair at the University of Texas Law School. He writes the following sentence, faithfully reproduced online:

Virginia’s problems were multifold. Above all was slavery and its dedication to a rural plantation economy. The Tidewater elite, along with Jefferson, could not continence a world without slaves.


I can only hope that was the work of a wanton copy editor. The word is countenance. The other word is a word, yes, and gets past spell check, but it means something, ahem, quite different.

His own countenance

I proofread my copy, Dr. Powe, and don’t trust spell checkers. How about you?

What I Did On My Summer Vacation – Part 4

Filed under: Commentary, Travel — admin @ 15:26

Busch Gardens

I grew up within a half an hour of Canobie Lake Park in Salem, New Hampshire. When I was a kid, Canobie was your typical amusement park – food, rides, Skee-Ball, and a lake nearby. There was no theme to this park: no real coherent story, just a bunch of stuff to do and waste money on. We didn’t go up there very often, though one of my former employers held a park day there (on my birthday, in fact, some time in the early 1980s.) It was run down at the time – it’s more than 100 years old, after all – but it had amusement-park charm, the kind that usually gives out after you’ve stepped in your fourth puddle of melted bubblegum, or worse.

Amusement parks seem to be unable to restrain themselves from theme these days. Busch Gardens Europe is no exception. It’s divided into a handful of faux lands – France, England, Scotland, Italy and so forth – with equally fake music, gift shops, decor and food. Walk through what purports to be a French village one direction, and you wind up in fake Ireland. Go down across a bridge and you find yourself in what’s supposed to be Italy. (With young people from Virginia singing Mack the Knife. I’m sure those old Marxists Weill and Brecht would be spinning in their graves.)

EPCOT does this too, to be fair. Around the lagoon there are “countries” with architecture, sights and sounds, and appropriately-dressed people to give you the experience you might have imagined if you actually visited these places. We were last there in 2000, when there was an extra building with 20-odd nations represented in small, with no pretension to anything more than a floor display of art, culture, food – it was nice, like auditioning for the next spot at the lagoon. But overall, the Disney presentation is a lot more evocative. Still Busch, like Disney, is committed to cleanliness at their parks – nice. And their customer service is great: we missed a rendezvous with A., and she was able to immediately find a park employee who called my cel phone. That’s reassuring as well.

But overall this nations theme was merely annoying, as if it was what the average American imagined when he/she thought about Germany, or France, or Britain. Maybe it’s snobbery on my part, having visited every represented country other than Ireland. Maybe it’s the dim view I take of Anheuser-Busch beverages, which were proudly served every 30 feet and were much in evidence among park goers (very different from Florida Disney, where you can’t get an alcoholic drink other than inside a restaurant, and not many of those outside Pleasure Island.)

The high points were the rides, which A. certainly enjoyed, though again they were top-heavy with theme (”pasted on”, as we say in Eurogaming. Consider “Escape From Pompeii” in fake Italy: you’re on a tourist ride through Pompeii while the lava comes back to try and engulf you. But it’s a water ride, with a powerful drop at the end.

I escaped from Pompeii and all I got was this wet t-shirt.

And then there’s “Big Bad Wolf”, which somehow has something to do with lycanthropes attacking the small German village in the park. Just the thing if you have back pain (I did that day) or if you like whiplash. Naturally, there’s a prodigious drop right near the end and lots of swinging about. Again, fun ride, but not sure what the point of the theme was. “Enjoy traveling,” the voiceover says, “at the speed of fright.” Sure.

Watch that prodigious drop.

I did, however, get to do something adult that couldn’t be found at Disney; I sat in on a beer tasting at the Brewmasters’ Club in fake Ireland. This is set up adjacent to the supposed Irish pub; they let you select four taster-sized samples from more than 20 varieties, and provide you with cheese, chocolate and fruit as accompaniments. The server was very knowledgeable during the process, making suggestions and comments: all part of the training. I got a little card on each sample:

  • Peels, a fruity malt beverage. Hardly tasted like a brewed thing at all.
  • Stone Hill Pale Ale, a hoppy, yeasty ale with a good head. Not bad.
  • Michelob Amber Bock, a malty, dark ale that tasted like, well, burnt Michelob.
  • Bare Knuckle Stout, which they claim is as good as Guinness. As if, but I did buy a pint in the bar afterward.

I’ve heard that the African Busch Gardens in Florida is more enjoyable, but I wouldn’t return to Virginia just to go to the European one.

Water Country USA

Now as for the other theme park – Water Country USA is a day at the beach, complete with gift shops and food. There’s a locker rental, and on a hot day you stash your stuff and wander around in a bathing suit, stopping only for food or a restroom break. Along with raft rides and sliding through tubes, there were a few relaxation “rides” that were no more than coasting slowly along in an inner tube.

The biggest peril at Water Country in the summer is sunburn, and L., despite warning all of us all the time about wearing sunscreen, managed to get a nice burn all over her back and shoulders. It’s gone to tan now, a few weeks later, but it was an impressive shade of red.

Water Country seemed to have less long waits than Busch Gardens, though the very popular rides – particularly the ones that involved climbing up to the top of a tower to ride down in a raft – did have a fair number of people. But the lines moved quickly; we were there on a weekday; I’m imagining that it would be far worse on a weekend, especially on a day as hot as the one we spent there.

I wouldn’t return to Virginia just for Water Country USA, but it pretended to less – and, for the experience, delivered more – for me. I’d go there again, especially on a very hot day.

Next: we head for North Carolina.

August 13, 2007

What I Did On My Summer Vacation – Part 3

Filed under: Commentary, Travel — admin @ 08:27


Our primary visit to Colonial Williamsburg was on another brutal, humid day, which somewhat reduced the enjoyment. Williamsburg (much more so than, say, Old Sturbridge Village) has a story – three stories, actually, on alternate days: Collapse of the Royal Government, covering May 1774 to May 1776; Citizens at War, from 1776 to 1781; and Nation Builders, after the end of the Revolution. Costumed performers appear at specific times and give insight into their character and some event in the period. You can hear Patrick Henry talk about the new republic, have an audience with George Washington, or (as we did) see the arrival of Governor Benedict Arnold on horseback, reading a proclamation in front of the House of Burgesses.

Heeeere’s . . . Ben!

In addition to meeting folks you do know, there are performances by folks you don’t: there’s a whole subplot with a black Baptist preacher as well as a respected black woman who leaves Williamsburg when the Redcoat army evacuates it. So many camp followers and servants were ejected from Yorktown during the siege, and were left to starve and die between the British and Continentals; those who left often met with tragedy – and yet people of color might well have done better if there had been no Revolution, since America struggled more with race than the British Empire over the next century.

One of the more surprising things you can see at Williamsburg is a famous actor in an unfamiliar role. There’s a 36-minute film to watch called “The Story of a Patriot”, depicting the struggle of a Virginia planter to come to terms with the idea of independence and revolution. He’s played by Jack Lord – whose square jaw and immobile hair introduced everyone in my generation to the Hawaiian Islands. The film was released in 1957, and while it’s a tad bit hokey, Lord does a very good job and carries it off reasonably well.

There’s more to see in Williamsburg than can be done in a single day; we just got a taste of it: a meal at King’s Arms Tavern, some of the live action, visits to some of the shops as well as the magazine and the ubiquitous gift stores. They offer (for a modest fee) Colonial duds for the children; A. dressed up and earned a few tips o’ the hat from folks as she walked by.


While the ladies went off to a theme park, I took myself down to Yorktown near the end of the peninsula. The siege of Yorktown is one of those events that (as it turns out) I had more misinformation than information about. For example, the public perception is of a great conflict that ended the Revolution; wrong – the Treaty of Paris wasn’t signed for almost two years afterward. I believed that Washington, much exaggerated, wasn’t really the architect of the siege – that it was Rochambeau’s work, since he was the Vauban-trained veteran of fourteen sieges. Not quite: Washington’s brilliance was in moving the entire army from New York to Virginia without Clinton coming out of New York to stop him – and then recognizing far sooner than Cornwallis how screwed the Brits were, bottled up in Yorktown, in case the Royal Navy wasn’t able to rescue them. And finally, that Cornwallis surrendered before he had to. That turned out to be wrong as well: it’s a wonder he held on as long as he did, because another few days would have meant significantly more casualties.

The walking tour took about forty minutes; as the park ranger said, it was never more than a few hundred yards from the main building. He knew his material and was passionate about it; comparing Yorktown to Jamestown, the Omega and Alpha of the British experience in America, was an interesting observation – just a handful of miles apart were the first settlers and the final military defeat.

I bought a book (and read it in a couple of days). But Yorktown is a much more complex campaign than I originally thought, so now I have to read ten more, which is typical.

The Yorktown monument was commissioned within a short time of the actual event, but didn’t get built for a century. By that time, the whole world had changed several times. Still, it’s a majestic sight, well worth some digital photography.

Next: Theme Parks.

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