Great Falls

Yesterday we hiked at Great Falls National Park. It was a lovely autumn day to walk the trails along the rocky heights of the upper Potomac river. I think the Falls and its environs burst the seams of the word beautiful and flood the mind with a visage of something bordering on sublime. It is one of nature’s great works of art.

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A Stop Over in Charlottesville, Va

My wife and I traveled to Charlottesville, Va, this past weekend to do some sighting-seeing, wine tasting, a little bookshop browsing, some restauranting, and other general touristy things that probably annoy some of the locals. We’ve been here before but only to visit Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello. We hadn’t really taken in the town itself.

From the Washington D.C. area we headed south down route 29 through the beautiful undulating hills of the early autumn Virginia countryside. It’s a nice ride. It’s only about 2 hours from the Washington D.C. area. We didn’t have time to stop but I can say from the number of signs, there were a number of wineries along the route. An area with apparently so many wineries there are companies that specialize in busing people around on tasting tours of various wineries in the area. We actually passed a wine tour bus along the route.

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200 South Street Inn

Charlottesville is labeled a city but it feels more like a big town. Its claim to notoriety is that it’s the home of our 3rd president, Thomas Jefferson, and the college he founded: The University of Virginia. My wife and I were headed south to stay at a resort for our 25th wedding anniversary and planned this one night stay over in Charlottesville. We chose to stay at the 200 South Street Inn, which is located in the downtown area within 2 blocks of Charlottesville’s renown outdoor pedestrian mall. It was the perfect spot.

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The Inn’s Library

The main Inn is a large 4 story building (guessing early 20th century construction) with a large wrap around porch. The inside is absolutely charming, with a mostly mid 19th century decor. The library, where they serve wine and finger foods (cheese, crackers, grapes, nuts, etc) in the late afternoon for all guests, is the dream of any book collector. For tourism it happened to be the slow season—what luck!—so the Inn wasn’t near full. The Inn has 24 rooms and I’m guessing maybe 5 or 6 rooms were taken the (Thursday) night we stayed. So we had just about all the wine to ourselves! Another reason you want to stay at this Inn is because you can walk just about everywhere—because you need too. Okay, so we actually had only one glass of wine and headed out.

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Pedestrian Mall

Charlottesville’s famous pedestrian mall is 2 short blocks away. We emerged into it from a side alley street. The mall is 8 blocks of paved brick walking area, nice and wide, with a number of boutiques, a lot of nice restaurants and pubs, a lot of outdoor seating (“community living room”), a number of art galleries, a fair number of bookstores, and in general I’d describe the whole feel, people and environs, as being “artsy.” I love the smell of civilization in the morning.

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Bookshops on the Mall

So I browsed through 3 bookshops. A proper vetting of these shops would take a weekend dedicated to it, but with other sights to see and dinner reservations, I quickly browsed—giving each shop maybe 10 minutes—and moved on. My catch, for various reasons, was small. I ended up with a special edition of Mark Twain’s Roughing it, so I upped my Twain collection again. And I found a nice paperback edition of Tom Wolf’s Pump House Gang which I’ve been wanting to read. Believe me there was a lot more there waiting to be found, but hardcore book browsing takes some time which was limited this particular evening. That was it for this trip. I’m thinking a trip next autumn for a weekend of just booking and wining in Charlottesville! What a great town!

The next morning we checked out and headed south toward our weekend destination…after a stop at Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyard for wine of course.

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Our Lunchtime View

The Calvert Cliffs at Brownie’s Beach

After paying a modest fee we headed up the path, loaded up with beach bags, cooler, towels, chairs, and water float. Brownie’s Beach is a small beach (part of Bay Front Park) on the southern end of the town of Chesapeake Beach, Maryland. We live down the road from the town.

The walk from the small parking lot is not over sand or through dunes but along a blacktop path through a thick of woods. All along the path are educational plaques naming particular flora. The only other sign which attracts notice (I paused briefly) is a warning sign nailed to a tree. There are cliffs near by so “by order of the town council” you’re told not to enter the “cliff area.” Directly under the warning sign is a well worn path leading toward the cliff area revealing just what people think about the town council’s order.

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Warning Sign

As we approached the beach area we could hear the faint sound of boat motors off in the distance and the muted voices of fellow beach goers. The thick canopy of trees had dimmed the sun light, and along with the surrounding thick woods, marsh and brush, it had made the path feel almost like an entry point between two worlds. Walking behind my youngest son and his friend, I snapped the following picture of them about to emerge from the entry path.

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The beach area is a slim strip of sea sand and the various accretions from the eroding cliffs—shale, sandstone, clay, and fallen trees. Dropping our bags and looking south we see parts of the rock face of Calvert Cliffs. The Cliffs start at Brownie’s Beach and extend about 25 miles south, ending in the Drum Point area of Calvert County. The cliffs at Brownie’s Beach are at the lower end in height. They get much higher (130 feet in some places) as you head south. (See this search stack of photos.)

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The mind is definitely a mysterious thing…it’s also an associative thing. So, to be candid, my immediate thoughts weren’t of the beauties of nature (those were a close second) but were actually, oddly enough, of Julius Caesar and his Roman invasion fleet as it approached the Dover Cliffs off the coast of southern England in 55 BC. Though the White Cliffs of Dover are far more imposing, I couldn’t help but wonder what the sight of the Calvert bluffs might have meant to the various minds observing them from sea for the first time over the centuries.

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The nature lover sees bleached rock, a sandy beach, green trees and the natural beauty of it all. The scientist sees geological formations, tectonics, and flora. The historical mind sees the beauty and the science but with the added dimension of how geography has played a big part in the course of human history. I’m not a scientist or historian, but having read a small library of history, especially classical history, has obviously stamped my associative mind. So my imagination tends to randomly dart across time, historical events, and the scenes of famous characters.

The boys and I started walking down the beach toward the cliffs. This beach, and all up and down the Calvert Cliffs, is well known for its fossils. It’s a paleontological heaven. One of the first people I talked to was a young lady, who appeared to be a college student, hunting for fossils in the surf. In particular, there are a lot of fossilized shark teeth along these beaches that in some cases belong to sharks from hundreds. My wife and I have friends who’s home fireplace was inlaid with hundreds of shark teeth collected from the Calvert Cliff’s beaches. My friend’s house was located (they’ve since sold it) in a community along these cliffs, called, appropriately enough, Scientist Cliffs. It’s a beautiful community where all the homes have a log cabin exterior.

The water along Brownie’s Beach is surprisingly clear for Chesapeake Bay water. You can see the rippled sandy bottom and schools of fish swimming by. The water is not deep in this area either, making it good for younger kids and for those just wanting to enjoy wading in the water. I can also report that Brownie’s Beach is rarely ever crowded. A big plus.

Typically, here in the east, the summer ritual of beach going involves trips to the large beaches along the Atlantic coast line, with large expansive beach areas, dunes, and the touristy beach town near by. Well you won’t get that here. Here you get a slim beach, calm shallow waters, the soothing sounds of a sea shore, no crowds, and the beautiful view of the Calvert Cliffs.

This trip to the Brownie’s Beach took place on Sunday, July 2, 2017.

A Visit to Charleston

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Photo Credit: Jeff Wills

Like so many of you, I suspect, my bucket list is getting pretty long. I think I added Charleston, South Carolina, many years ago after listening to a Kempsville High School history teacher talk dramatically about the opening battle of the civil war, which was the bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. The southerners in 1861 had had enough of the tyrant Lincoln, so they started hurling cannon balls at the federal outpost sitting atop an island in the harbor. And so the war was on. Well, being a southerner and a student of history and culture and seeing a good opportunity to travel, I decided last weekend was a good time to explore the city of Charleston with my family. 

We visited Charleston over the President’s Day holiday weekend. That was last weekend. So the semitropical heat wasn’t an issue for us. February isn’t typically very cold in Charleston, but during our trip we were accompanied by a massive polar vortex that was sweeping through the south, pushing temperatures below norms for this time of year. While we were there, the temperature ranged from the low 30s (in the morning) to about the mid 50s in the afternoon, to as high as 60 during the peak of the day.     

“Lowcountry.” You read this term in brochures, see it on menus and hear people banter it about while talking about various cultural things, especially food in the Charleston area. Well, the term is very fitting and in a lot more than just a culinary or cultural way. The first thing you notice about Charleston, especially from a hotel balcony, is just how low Charleston and the surrounding area really is. It’s marsh land.

My first thought, as I stepped out onto my hotel balcony and began looking out over the Charleston area, was “floods.” My inner geographer couldn’t avoid the obvious. To the naked eye the sea and the land seem to be at the exact same level. Charleston is a city that rests on marsh land, that’s just above sea level — at least for now in geological time — to allow the Holy City to exist. Roughly 40% of the current city sits on landfill that has been used to expand the city’s land mass over its history.  

As anthropogenic global warming continues at an unchecked rapid pace, it’s likely the God of the sea has already submitted his plans for reclaiming this marsh land. But sinking is for tomorrow, or decades from now, and there are some people with southern accents who’ll deny that Neptune has such nefarious plans for the holy city. They’re well meaning people with good intentions and good hearts, but by all scientific measure are sadly and mathematically wrong. But bless their heart. I’m sure Neptune will consider the wishes of these polite southerners before he sweeps the city out to sea. It would be the only right thing for him to do. It’s the God of Math I’m worried about. I don’t get the impression he really cares about their feelings.

Why is Charleston called “the holy city”? Well, if you’re up high enough and you’re looking out across the cityscape you’ll notice a lot of church steeples and spires. The city was established, according to our tour guide, on two principles: business freedom and religious freedom. (After hearing some of Charleston’s history you can see these two principles were approached in this order too. Business is always before pleasure or religion.) The city has a large number of beautiful churches. As we toured the holy city’s old town area it seemed at just about every turn there was another church in view. 

Besides churches, we were constantly finding graveyards during our walk around the holy city. There seemed to be little graveyards everywhere. And they’re not always part of a churchyard either. Many times while walking down one of the old streets, we’d come across a small graveyard, maybe 5 or 6 tombstones, tucked tightly between two old homes. In old town Charleston, like most old cities, the homes are built very close together. Space is a premium. And because of this, throughout Charleston’s history, fires have ravaged the city. The fire of 1861, which had nothing to do with the War of Northern Aggression, destroyed much of the city. The fire was so intense from being fueled by so many buildings ablaze, that confederate troops 14 miles away could see the flames. And because of these purging fires and restless growth in general, the city has been rebuilt, reorganized and shifted many times. The graveyards were collateral damage in this process.

Our guide informed us that Charleston’s history includes many stories of mass graves, I don’t recall all the reasons, probably war and disease, but many of these mass graves now have structures built over top of them. One of the reasons, our ghost tour guide informed us one evening, that Charleston is so haunted. There is a historical debate as to whether Memorial Day may have begun with the discovery of a mass grave in Charleston at the end of the civil war. The confederate army had a prison in Charleston. When the war ended a mass grave of union troops was found. The local population, mostly freed black slaves by then, put together a tribute and parade to honor the sacrifice of these union troops.

Downtown Charleston is very charming. Beautiful old hotels, old southern homes, churches, old cobblestone streets in some areas, and a well developed business and restaurant section. The homes have a distinctive look to them. Typically the homes sit with the side of the house abutting the road. There is what most of us would call “a porch” along the lower and upper levels of the house that extends the entire length of the house, and faces the back of the house directly next to them. These side porches are actually called a “piazza” by Charlestonians. An official “porch,” as I was informed, is on the front of the house only. A piazza extends outside along the side of the home. And a veranda is a porch that wraps around the house. 

Of course if you visit Charleston you must go to the city market on market street. There you’ll find a unique shopping market or bazaar. The market is housed inside a long building stretching up market street. Its filled with vendors, who must set up their entire little store counter and displays every morning before the market opens. I would suggest taking your time shopping at the city market and the stores along market street and then I recommend you have lunch at Tbonz Gill & Grill where you can taste the best Old Fashioned in the city, if not the entire south. After this, you can head for King Street where you’ll find a lot of upscale shopping. And when dinner time arrives, a lot of great dining choices too.

As a southern port city the food, at least at the restaurants in the old town area, have a lot of seafood on the menus. And of course being southern just about everything, it seems, is fried. At one place, I’m not joking, they had “fried mac-and-cheese” on the menu. I can report that while there’s a lot of seafood and fried food on the menus there is usually enough variety for the non-seafood eater like my wife and I. We’re basically vegetarians and we had no problem finding something we liked. Which brings me to mine and my wife’s favorite culinary experience in Charleston, and that’s at Magnolias.

For a date night my wife and I decided we’d have dinner at the famous Magnolias restaurant on East Bay Street in old town Charleston. The restaurant is polite southern charm and cuisine at its very best. The staff, the food, and environment, and the wine of course, were first class. And if you go you must try the fried green tomatoes as an appetizer. They are served with a spicy sauce on a bed of garlic mash potatoes. Absolute southern deliciousness.

As for the people of Charleston, we experienced nothing but friendliness and southern hospitality. The southern accent of some of the natives had a melodious drawl that made me want to keep asking them questions just to hear them speak.

I really liked Charleston, it’s a great place to visit for so many reasons. We definitely plan on going back one day. There is so much more to see and do.