The pictures are loaded (only 108 out of 400 made the blog list) and I’m ready to take you on a trip back in time—for those who dare brave heavy doses of whimsy and a relentless camera trigger finger. I’m clearly a bit of a travel writer manqué, but that’s the beauty of blogging. I can do whatever the hell I want, so climb up on my buggy and let’s go for a ride!
So, the title of this blog post, “Gettysburg, Day 1,” is sort of a take-off of all the maps and books about the famous battle itself, the first day being an appetizer of skirmishes for the butchery to come. But I really want to start with the night before my first day in the town, when we arrived at Dulles Airport around nine in the evening, picked up our rental car, and headed through the countryside to the field of battle.
Now, I knew on an intellectual level that this vacation was going to be a trip into my own personal past, since all of the stops were places I’d either lived or visited often as a child. But I wasn’t really prepared for the flood of feelings and memories that came when I actually traveled along roads I hadn’t seen in ten years or more. The first such rush came as we glided through the night along route 15 from Maryland to Pennsylvania, a trip I must have made dozens, if not a hundred times in my youth. My mother visited my grandparents at least once a month when we lived in Rockville, MD during my high school years. The countryside around us was hidden in the darkness, but many of the neon signs for motels and restaurants were still familiar, throbbing against a blank, black background. It gave the car trip a surreal quality, as if I really were burrowing back into my own memory--a Disneyland dark ride called “Donna’s Life” (pretty scary, that, so you have to be “as tall as Mickey” to ride).
A little before midnight, we arrived at the Courtyard by Marriot a few miles outside of Gettysburg, basically in the middle of a field and parking lot. I would have preferred a charming bed and breakfast in town, but the kids wanted a pool, and I figured that was fair given they’d be subject to plenty of my museums and family gatherings. The boys approved of our spacious room, and I noticed since my last vacation that at this hotel and most of the others (the one exception being the quaint place in Amish Country), those never-laundered, germ-ridden bedspreads have been replaced by a thin, decorative “bed runner” across the bottom of the bed that is easily tossed aside. A seemingly minor detail, but you know, this could be useful information for your next hotel erotica story, right?
Since we were all on West Coast time, we stayed up for another hour or so, unpacking and finishing up some of the snacks I’d brought for dinner, although part of the goodies were sacrificed when I spilled an open bag of peanuts all over the rug. I raked up the nuts, but a visible sprinkling of salt remained on the carpet. I assured everyone the maid would vacuum it up in the morning, but she never did during our four days at the hotel! We still tipped her, though.
We finally got everyone to bed and I had one of my recurring anxiety dreams where I’m suddenly back at college, wandering around trying to find my dorm room and wondering why I still have to live like this with bunkbeds and roommates and vaguely resenting my demotion. I was so busy dealing with my second college career, I didn’t wake up until about 10 in the morning or so, thanks to the thick curtains at the hotel. So much for an early start—I tend to be a bit of a drill sergeant on sightseeing vacations—but our first day was just a get-acquainted schedule, like the battle itself. We managed to get ourselves over to The Avenue restaurant on Steinwehr Avenue (Their ad offers “Casual Home-Style Dining” with a picture of a Union soldier dining with a Confederate at a booth, no doubt to mend fences over pancakes and bacon) just in time to put in a last order for breakfast.
The drive through the center of the town was a trip back in time indeed because this area has certain features you just don’t find in the west—brick houses with porches sitting right against the sidewalk, alleyways between the blocks, thick armed trees lush with greenery. The Avenue was even more of a time warp. Gettysburg itself tries its best to take visitors back to 1863, but this place took me straight back to 1968 with its bar and booths and Gettysburg memorabilia on the walls. The waitress who seated and served us looked like one of my cousins, and since my mother had six brothers and sisters and most of them had six kids, it was in fact likely we were actually related!
There are going to be a lot of food descriptions on this vacation—would you expect less?—so of course I have to tell you about the sweet potato pancakes I ordered that first day. An order for a short stack gives you two fluffy orangish cakes on a plate, faintly fragrant of brown sugar. And they sure were flavorful, even without syrup. I did not try the house specialty of fried dill pickles with Ranch Dip, though. On my next trip perhaps? But only if you dare me. And the old-fashioned menu over the cash register definitely got the nostalgia juices flowing. You can order red beet eggs as a side-dish (see my recipe in Cooking Up a Storey)—something you will find only in Pennsylvania Dutch Country!
After breakfast, I popped into an intriguing-looking shop right next door called Abraham’s Lady. Now, one of my many fantasies is to own my own Victorian outfit--not unlike corset-loving Claire in my story, “Fezziwig’s Balls,” in Alison Tyler’s Naughty or Nice: Christmas Erotica Stories. This store was definitely a serious place to shop for such a costume, not to mention do research for Victorian porn. Donna Abraham provides all the necessary items for the authentic Civil War look for ladies—you don’t want to be given the dreaded label “Farbie” for wearing a ballgown in the woods--including the split drawers. Yep, 19th century ladies' underwear had this great big gaping hole, a necessity for the necessities when you’re wearing a hoop skirt.
Also a handy detail for an erotic story, don’t you think?
As much as I coveted a properly un-Farbie, matronly day dress with chemise, corset, petticoats and those naughty underpants, it would be a lot to carry home, so I contented myself with a pair of black cotton stockings and a small book on prostitution in the 19th century. Feigning nonchalance with my potentially disreputable purchases (all tax deductible) I had a nice chat with the owner and asked her who the best “old tyme” photographer in town was as I’d noticed several ads for these services. She immediately pointed to a brochure for R.J. Gibson, a photographer who advertised appearances on the History Channel, PBS and other impressive places. “He’s the very best, no question. He’s also my brother. But I’m not biased,” she said with a laugh.
Nepotism aside, I’m very glad I took her advice, but more on that in the next installment.
After our brunch, we headed over to the new visitor’s center at the battlefield, which truly deserved all the great reviews I’d heard. We spent most of the rest of the afternoon there, first watching the introductory film—which made me teary—and then ascending to the newly restored Cyclorama.
This 360 degree painting of Pickett’s Charge was painted in 1884 by French artist Paul Philippoteaux. The artist did a lot of research for accuracy and some of the veterans of the battle claimed they felt like they were back in the thick of it. At any rate, in spite of the summer crowds, it was pretty cool to stand in the darkened center of the viewing area and see the battle unfold all around as various parts were illuminated.
Other highlights of the museum were General Lee’s actual gauntlets—I mean, jeez, he wore these things while riding around on Traveller!—and an interactive display of the things the soldiers carried. My older son claimed the backpack he took to school was just as heavy, although I’d like to think we made some progress in terms of what we lug around in a century or so! I also picked up interesting bits such as the appeal of the beautiful countryside to the soldiers on both sides. (It really is beautiful country). One Confederate from Georgia wrote in his diary that he wished he could buy a farm here. The Union general who commanded troops at the peach orchard actually did buy the same land after the war. And General Pickett, he of one of military history's worst job assignments, apparently replied to a question of why his charge failed with these wise words: “I think the Yankees had something to do with it.”
Glad he kept his sense of humor in spite of it all.
The real highlight of the day came at dinner when we went over to the town’s central square to meet Craig, DeDe and Cyn Sorensen at The Plaza Restaurant for dinner. I’d “met” Craig early in 2008 at one of my cyber-tour stops to promote Amorous Woman, and when we decided to come to town for my family reunion, I made sure to set up an in the flesh meeting with Craig and our families to continue our chats about writing, the artist’s life, “the next level” and other such topics.
Food first, though. The Plaza made great gyros sandwiches, even providing a tasty feta-rich vegetarian version, which I highly recommend. For dessert, we walked down to the Olde Tyme Malt Shop right around the corner where I had my first opportunity to get reacquainted with a favorite local specialty—black raspberry ice cream. Back in the day, there used to be a place called “The Dairy” a few blocks from my grandmother’s house and I remember heading straight over there when we arrived on Friday nights, no doubt at my insistence. I always ordered a double scoop dish of black raspberry and chocolate chip, served in a paper cone tucked inside a metal stand, usually by one of my many cousins. Raspberry seems like an odd choice for a kid, but in these parts that flavor is truly delicious, a rich, intense distillation of the deep purple berry flavor. Herr Doktor ordered cherry, which was also excellent—like a French vanilla with lots and lots of whole, plump, fresh cherries mixed in.
All the good food was the perfect accompaniment to the delightful conversation. It’s always a pleasure to talk shop with people who “get” it, and Dede and Cyn, both visual artists, were full of wise and inspiring words that crossed genres. As for Craig, there were no surprises. He is as cool and kind and funny as you’d guess from his blogland presence. Oh, I guess there was one surprise—I hope you don’t mind if I spill the beans, Craig—but he has a discreet ponytail, which I hadn’t realized from those Carlos Santana-esque pics online. I find it the perfect accessory for a writer who pushes the limits in so many interesting ways, always with subtlety and elegant understatement!
We returned to the hotel, and the boys dashed off to the pool, capering happily for three full hours until they closed the place down at 11. But there would be no sleeping in the next day. I had plans to get us all up bright and early for a jaunt to yet another decade lost to time.
Care to join me there after breakfast on Day 2?