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A good trip across country, but there's no place like home

November 28, 2021
Elisabeth Sherwin -- ensherwin@gmail dot com

This is a big and beautiful country and over the past seven weeks I have seen a lot of it. Mike and I spent the month of October 2021 on Amelia Island off Jacksonville, Fla., in a town called Fernandina Beach. The beachfront was lined solid with summer homes, condos and vacation cottages. But the little town proper had streets full of gorgeous old homes -- mansions -- and a compact downtown that catered tastefully to tourists.

The beach -- our reason for the trip -- did not disappoint. Imagine sugar-soft sand, warm water, and very few people. We saw dolphins in the water and the dunes were home to huge gopher turtles that lumbered from one patch of vegetation to another.

We were lucky to have sunny weather for nearly the entire month. It was the perfect way to get ready for an Allenspark, Colo. winter, which can sometimes feel too long (like in May when it's still snowing).

We had about 14 extra days when we left Florida. So we made two-day stops in Savannah, Charleston, Richmond and Colonial Williamsburg. Historic Savannah is a walking city with 22 manicured squares surrounded by old homes dripping with Southern charm. Outside Charleston was the amazing Boone Hall Plantation, still a working farm (owned by people in California) and unique for its brick slave cabins. Richmond is home to the White House of the Confederacy where Jefferson Davis and his family lived during the Civil War.

And Colonial Williamsburg, an amazing place, manages to recreate history. I heard that Christmas in Williamsburg is particularly gorgeous and meaningful for history buffs. I hope to go there again.

What a lot of reading I need to do now about Thomas Jefferson, Jeff Davis, the Civil War. I seemed to learn something at every stop that made me want to know more. It's been a long time since I played tourist in so many places, all of which seem to have upped their game (learned, costumed actors appeared in most places) since the days when visitors were merely passive observers.

But it wasn't all tours and history.

We noticed that "help wanted" signs were everywhere, and even Williamsburg cut back on its offerings whether due to Covid or lack of employees I don't know. Only one of its old taverns was open for meals.

It seems that fast-food restaurants across the country are in need of help; both service and food are suffering as a result.

After tossing out the best and worst, I would give the meals we had on our trip a C for average. I am glad we weren't hosting foreign guests because the food overall was not good. We tried to go to local restaurants instead of chains, usually with poor results. My advice to those traveling is this: Go to Mexican restaurants, which we found to be consistently reliable and always had enough help, maybe because they were largely family-run.

Reactions to Covid varied wildly from place to place. The most cautious (masks required, period) were the ubiquitous Walmarts and that's where Mike and I were lucky enough to get our booster shots very soon after they became available.

After we left Williamsburg, we got as far as Lewisburg, West Virginia, before realizing that the Subaru had a serious oil leak. We pulled into a gas station/convenience store where we bumbled around until a pickup truck appeared next to us with two good ole boys, father and son.

"Hillbillies," Mike corrected me. "They were hillbillies."

They could see smoke coming from under the car hood.

"Need some help?" they asked. Boo (for that was his name) crawled under the car to find the leak. He couldn't find it, and referred us to his hunting buddy's garage some miles away. We took his suggestion, drove to the garage and found his friend willing to help us. But he had to order parts, shuffle his client load around, come in early and stay late in order to accommodate us. This he did cheerfully at his buddy's request even on the day that his only helper quit. We were so lucky. He worked quickly, the charge was modest, and in no time at all (well, two days), we were on our way. Salt of the earth.

But I had a question for him. I'd seen this gorgeous red-leafed bush all over the state. What was it?

"Far bush," he said.

"Far bush?" I asked.

"Yeah, far bush," he repeated.

"Oh," I said. "FIRE bush."

"Yeah," he said, perplexed at my lack of understanding. "Far bush!"

We chose to stay off the interstate in order to see more of the country. Sometimes, like in West Virginia, this worked out well. But we also saw a host of small, dying towns in Missouri, Nebraska and eastern Colorado. We made a special trip to Red Cloud, Neb., very close to the exact center of the United States, and hometown of the author Willa Cather. I so looked forward to this visit! Imagine my disappointment when we pulled into Red Cloud at 3 p.m. on a Saturday and found the town deserted, the Cather center locked up tight. It's only open on weekdays.

Once in a while when we were at a restaurant for lunch or dinner and were given a plastic straw with our fountain drinks or sweet tea I tried to raise the server's level of consciousness.

"You know, this straw will take many years to degrade," I would say. "Paper straws are available."

My green remark always received the level of interest it apparently deserved. None. Once, in a college town, we were met with hostility.

"It doesn't matter what we do," the young server said, apparently resigning himself to a garbage-choked world without recycling.

Finally we made it home to Allenspark. We were welcomed by the overjoyed Liz-the-dog who ran up and down the driveway in her excited delirium. That made everything worthwhile. Why Allenspark? That's why.

-- Reach Elisabeth Sherwin at ensherwin@gmail.com

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