Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Crispy Cook is Let Loose in Virginia and West Virginia

We are back at the Crispy Casa having been sprung for a week to tour parts of Virginia and West Virginia. Dan and I had a blast seeking out sites of historic interest, natural beauty and quirkiness. And of course, we were hunting for books and good food along the way, kicking it old-school without a GPS or smart phone to guide us (though I did plenty of guidebook and internet research ahead of time, and we did have a laptop that plugged into our hotels at night).

Here's the highlight of Days 1 (and 7!), the long driving days of our trip: the most awesome Latin food at La Isla in West
Hazelton, PA. We were in need of a mid-afternoon lunch and just pulled randomly off Interstate 81 into this town. We're not much for the zoo food of chain restaurants and fast food eateries, so we prowled for more miles off the exit than we wanted in search of deliciousness. Just as we were about to turn around we stumbled into the triangular intersection of two streets lured by what appeared to be many contractors' trucks (those guys can nose out good eats) parked at a renovated gas station turned eatery.
It was La Isla, which was a bustling Latin restaurant filled with delicious smells and lots of folks both dining in and taking out. We waited until the crowd died down and then peppered the counter guy with tons of questions about the food, which he was most gracious about. 
Dan's gluten-free, so he was told that he could eat anything on the menu that day that wasn't fried. We each got a plate of two main dishes with plantains, rice and bean soup. I had the most delicious baked chicken, while Dan feasted on roast pork. We were stuffed and happy as we hit the road again, and it was truthfully the best meal we've had in a long time. It was so good, that we made sure to stop back on our return drive and order up twice as much to go (stewed goat and chicken!), which we've been depleting in the last several days since we've been back.  
We spent Night #1 in Winchester, VA, which has a great stock of 18th century architecture, a lively pedestrian mall and an amazing Beaux Arts public library gem: The Handley Library. From the curved and gilded radiators to the window seat bench nooks to the interior rotunda, every little nook in this jewel is so inviting and luxuriously detailed. They also have a little used book room, but it was closed when we arrived as the (only?) volunteer had gone home for the day.

We stayed at the historic George Washington Hotel with a great old-fashioned lobby and the biggest walk-in granite-lined shower stall I've ever seen. Bodacious amounts of hot water and water pressure and no plastic shower curtain clinging to my legs We scooped up jerk chicken from a local Jamaican restaurant and feasted like kings in our comfy hotel room while watching the Cards unfortunately lose Game 5 of the World Series.

One thing that was really strange about our day in
Winchester was the birds. We were strolling around at night and heard some enchanting birdsong up in a tree. Then we noticed the unbelievable encrustation of bird guano on the sidewalk and quite a layering all over a car parked next to the tree and we quickly scooted away. We saw this same guano phenomenon on several other sidewalks and wonder what kind of Hitchcock birds are making this mess and whether it's just migrating flocks or a constant avian population.

We devoted the whole next day to tooling down the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park and it wasn't nearly enough time to soak it all in. The Skyline Drive takes you along the Blue Ridge Mountain tops for 75 miles or so, with some 90 overlooks among its twists and turns. I had an old edition of Henry Heatwole's Skyline Drive Guide with us and this was a great reference as we approached the mile markers and learned about the historical or geographical significance of each spot. 
We were past autumn leaf peak, but there were still lots of gorgeous muted foliage west through the Shenandoah Valley and east toward the Piedmont Valley. We got out for one short hike at Fox Hollow and saw some remnants of mountain settler homes and grave sites and had a mountaintop picnic of the rest of our Jamaican delights. Hazel Ridge and the Big Meadow were particularly memorable Skyline sites.

Day 3: Fulfilling a long-time dream to see Thomas Jefferson's self-designed home and farm, Monticello, we joined a large number of other history buffs who received timed tickets to view the house and grounds. A bus takes you atop the Little Mountain (Monticello in Italian) and then a tour guide takes small groups through various rooms of the downstairs. The home is exquisite: perfectly proportioned, filled with historic treasures, fossils, books and scientific instruments. 

Though it was late October, there were still plenty of flowers and vegetables in the expansive gardens that cascade down the terraced hills. A couple of gardeners were tending the heirloom vegetables and herbs, which contained many exotic items like cardoons and elecampane, and we were surprised to see an abundance of hot peppers. We lingered for a long while, examining the wine cellars (
Jefferson preferred wine shipped in individual glass bottles rather than wooden casks as they were less likely to be watered down by "rascally boatmen") and then made our way downhill past Jefferson's gravesite and through a sun-dappled forest. 

The museum back at the
Monticello base camp focuses on the architectural designs and building construction details of Monticello, but I was left wondering how the initial site preparation was undertaken. Jefferson had 150 slaves, but the logistics of getting them, provisions and supplies up a steep mountain in the late 1700s-early 1800s and how on earth they leveled the top of the mountain, improved the rocky soil and removed tree stumps without power equipment seems a monumental task. Dan was squinting up close to see the fabulous books from Jefferson's library (these are replacements since Jefferson sold his volumes to the Library of Congress after they were burned in a fire during the War of 1812).

I might have pressed on to tour two more nearby presidential abodes Chez James Monroe/Madison, but Dan was a hungry man and wanted to check out downtown Charlottesville, so we headed in that direction and had a restorative meal at Eppie's. They were gracious enough to allow Dan to have the day before's Carolina Salad special which was gluten-free and I had a tasty pulled pork sandwich with great collard greens with a peppery vinegar accompaniment. 

Note shelf title for the Civil War books
Thus revitalized, we sought out Daedalus Books, where three floors of used and rare books awaited our perusal. The prices are very reasonable and I saw many unusual and interesting titles. Dan and I bought some Adirondack history for the store and a first edition of Russell Banks' early novel "The Sweet Hereafter" for ourselves. We had a nice chat with Sandy, the affable owner, and teased him about labeling his Civil War books as The War of Yankee Aggression, as well as commiserating about how the poetry shelves suffer the most from customer's "creative reshelving" (Sandy says that comes from poets having their heads in the clouds). He advised us to be sure not to leave his city without walking around some of the surrounding historic streets so we took his suggestion and had a nice stroll around the courthouse, some churches and old hotels. One the way back to our hotel we passed by the SPCA Thrift Store, and had a nice half hour before they closed admiring their homeless kitties and interesting wares before leaving with an armload of art and music titles.

Days 4-7: Exploring
West Virginia

We left Charlottesville the next morning and began our days in West Virginia. The central attraction of this trip was our daughter’s college soccer games in the USCAA national tournament in Charleston, WV on Friday and Saturday with her Albany College of Pharmacy team, but we tacked on some other days to make this a week long vacation. 

Albany College of Pharmacy 2013  Women's Soccer Team
I must say West Virginia was a state I had never thought about visiting before. Here’s what I knew about the Mountain State before our trip: 1) Hatfield and McCoy feuds; 2) Homer Hickam and the Rocket Boys from the 1999 movie “October Sky”; 3) WV is the state most likely to be used as a horror film setting; 4) self-styled “hellbillies” in the 2009 documentary “The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia”; 5) John Denver’s “Country Roads” hit song; 6) Appalachian poverty. 

So I did some research about the history and potential sites before we made the decision to go and found out that it is a state of great natural beauty and historical interest. After visiting and talking with the interesting folks of this great state, I am excited to visit again some day. This state has a lot of personality and its ruggedly beautiful landscape was a treat after seeing so many other American small towns gobbled up by homogenous commercial strip malls. 

After crossing the border in WV got off the highway and onto the scenic Midland Trail byway. What beautiful mountain vistas we saw as we followed the Kanawha River towards Charleston! We headed up gorgeous mountaintops, including a delightful overlook and rest stop in the middle of Hawk’s Nest State Park

and threaded our way through interesting coal, lumber and industrial towns snuggled up next to the riverside in the valleys. We had a few stops at thrift shops and convenience stores and marveled at how quickly the languid Virginia accents had given way to more twangy speech (West Virginians actually use the word “reckon”). My head was turned 180 degrees after spying a homemade sign for a cornhole tournament tacked outside of a bar in Rupert, WV and wouldn’t let Dan stop the car and turn around. A little Internet research later that night revealed this activity to be nothing more than a souped up game of beanbag toss rather than a backdoor sex orgy.

Cornhole board and bags spied at a WV antique shop.
 That night we rooted for our soccer team on top of a mountain outside of Charleston. It was windy and rainy, and the game was a hard-fought battle that ultimately got a Final Four berth for our lower-seeded Albany Panthers the next day.

We had time before that semi-final soccer game on Day 5 to explore Charleston and started off with a visit to the State Museum, located right in the Capitol complex of buildings. It was a great introduction to West Virginia history and culture and I would recommend it as a launching pad for visitors. Admission to the museum was free (just had to feed the parking meters outside) and I gained a lot of insights about different aspects of West Virginia, from coal mining and other industries, mountain music and arts, and how the state’s history was shaped. West Virginia was a slave-holding state that was carved off from Virginia and admitted to the Union during the height of the Civil War. West Virginia and Virginia seem to have many distinct differences -much like Upstate versus downstate New York- with the steep, isolating geography forging a more independent-minded, frontier mentality among West Virginians. 

I saw this interesting flavor a few times among our trip with the state seeming like a 50/50 blend of Northern (weather and terrain) and Southern state (I was never called ma'am so much in my life); progressive in some ways (Mass transit guy I met at the soccer field told me that the neighborhoods without a supermarket are added to the tourist trolley route so folks can go to the Capitol Market daily farmer's market) and conservative (nothing open Sundays til after the Baptist church lets out). 

 And man, do West Virginians take their football seriously! Friday and Saturday is devoted to high school and college football. I saw boatloads of people sporting their Mountaineer (WVU) and Thundering Herd (Marshall College) regalia over the weekend, and this was at a women's soccer tournament!  We caught lunch at a Mexican place in the town of Eleanor, WV (a New Deal homestead community named after Eleanor Roosevelt - inexplicable City motto: "Cleanest town in West Virginia") on Saturday and were thankful that we got there fifteen minutes before what seemed like the entire swarm of the George Washington High School Blue Devils football team, their parents, fans, dance team, cheerleaders and anyone who ever even looked at a Blue Devil strode in, completely outfitted in their Blue Devil team apparel.

 We scored some good WV barbecue from a roadside truck at the corner of Virginia Street W and Central Avenue in Charleston (Charleston's nickname is "Charlie West", which is kinda cool, and the city motto is "Hip, Historic, Almost Heaven", which is sorta too much of a mouthful and kind of just inscrutable) and ate in the afternoon sunshine at the riverfront amphitheatre.

Back on the mountaintop, our team lost their semi-final game to Daeman college, so it was back on the road for the two Jags the next morning of Day 5. We headed to nearby Madison, in Boone County, WV, as it was only a short drive and we wanted to see if that Wild and Wonderful White clan was up and about. They weren't in evidence, but we did score some great souvenirs at three great local thrift shops, from a lovely framed bird lithograph to some awesome WV-themed T-shirts.

Boone County Courthouse, a frequent White Clan siting spot

The afternoon was spent trekking northwest to Point Pleasant, WV to visit the Mothman Museum. I had never heard of the Mothman, but when I told my kids we would be going they were familiar with this urban legend. Back in 1966, some locals touring around an old factory nearby claimed to have seen a 6 foot tall feathery dude with glowing red eyes fly around. Then there was the disastrous Silver Bridge collapse in December 15, 1967 which claimed many lives, and folks starting talking about links between the sitings of this supposedly supernatural creature and this tragedy.

It's a kind of kitschy but amusing museum, full of yellowed newspaper clippings about the sightings of this cryptid creature (I buy the theory that the possibly inebriated couples that first spied him actually saw a sandhill crane) 

The Mothman statue is a fun photo op. I was intrigued to see his plethora of metallic chest hair. 

The museum is a fun way to spend a half hour, but we spent a lot more time in the Mason Jar Antiques Center just across the street which had great prices compared to the antique stores back home. Got a few items to strew around the house, and am kicking myself for not buying a $5 Shriner's fez when I had the chance.

A blanket which "came in contact with" Richard Gere and Debra Messing during the filming of the Mothman Prophecies". Gimme a break!
We were at the Ohio-WV border, and this was the furthest point west in our journey. We circled back east to head into Parkersburg, WV, for pampering overnight at the historic Blennerhasset Hotel.

It was by far the most luxurious and enjoyable lodging of our trip. The place is beautifully renovated and our room had every amenity: deliciously soft his and hers bathrobes, acres of pillows and comfy cotton sheets and a live jazz trio in the restaurant/lounge downstairs. It was Saturday night and the place was packed, so while it wasn't an intimate romantic dinner for us, it was an enjoyable and lively event. We lingered over a bottle of Gewurztraminer, a Caesar salad for me and a Tuna Napoleon for Dan, made specially gluten-free for him by the chef by substituting wonton skins for homemade potato chips. 

We wanted to check out the beautiful used bookstore we saw on the drive into Parkersburg the next morning, but the Trans Allegheny Bookstore, housed in a former Carnegie Library, is, alas, closed. Apparently the previous owner died and there are some estate problems, so the 500,000 books inside are just rotting away. 

Open basement window. Wonder what creatures get inside here.
From Parkersburg we traveled some highway miles to Clarksburg, where we had learned of the fabled West Virginia magical food: The Pepperoni Roll!  We stopped off the highway to take in the ornate stonework of the downtown architecture when we noticed a whole lot of cars signalling to park at the curb. I looked up and saw a small sign for Tomaro's, an Italian bakery that was noted in one of our tourist pamphlets as having the most amazing Pepperoni rolls in the state. I stood in line where the counter ladies were doing a brisk business and just had time to glance along the bakery menu. There was no hope of scoring a gluten-free version for Dan, but I sampled two of these awesome little snacks, still warm from the oven, (and only $1.40 each!) and tried to suppress my whimpers in front of Dan. 

They are not the little strombolis I had pictured in my mind, but a very soft, pillowy roll studded in the center with several rods of pepperoni. I have purchased a stick of pepperoni upon our return and will try to duplicate this WV road food awesomeness in a gluten-free semblance for my wonderful husband sometime soon. He did get a great Indian lunch further on down the road in the hilliest college town in America, Morgantown, so you don't have to feel too sorry for him.

That pretty much wraps it up for our On the Road adventures in VA and WV. I know I want to go back to West Virginia again. There were so many beautiful things to see and unusual places to explore. Yes, I saw some poverty and some faded industrial towns, but we have that too in upstate New York. Certainly I saw a lot of personality and not much of the homogenized strip mall morass that engulfs so much of the American landscape. I was amazed when I asked some of the other soccer parents that traveled to the Charleston tournament what they had done in town. Universally, they said they checked out the downtown mall or went out to dinner at Chili's or somesuch. Reminds me of the protagonist in Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist, who writes soothing travel reviews for people who don't want any unexpectedness in their travel plans. Can't wait to get sprung again for our next road trip!