Holiday Highlights Reel

Our Grand Tour of the South

Christmas Eve was for my family: decorating cookies (and taking cookies and fudge to neighbors in the rain), gifts and spaghetti with garlic bread.  

On Christmas morning we drove in a chill drizzle to Christmas dinner in a new house in the woods, about an hour north of Fort Worth. We have spent nearly every Christmas with this family, old friends of Gary, who rotate the holiday among siblings. It’s always good to get together with these funny and wonderful friends, especially the mother who, in her late 80s, is fun to talk with about anything, especially her Catholic religion. She must drive the priests crazy.

The hosts had a wood-burning pizza oven that cooks at 800 degrees, so we had do-it-yourself pizzas with every kind of topping from pesto sauce to meats and cheeses and other fresh ingredients. Followed, of course, by cookies and other sweets. On the drive back to Fort Worth it had cleared and we had the first of many beautiful winter sunsets. 

We ate again in the evening with Gary’s brother and sister-in-law, their son and his girlfriend—smoked salmon and paté, red wine, more cookies, candy and fudge.

The day after Christmas we had a great Mexican lunch with friends Linda and Kenneth at El Asadero on Fort Worth’s North Main Street, a little village of Mexican restaurants. Then we saw “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Gary and I are the only two people on the planet who have not read any of the books, and we loved the movie. It was gripping, witty, beautifully performed. We had a light wine and cheese supper at our friends’ house.

On our way out of Texas Tuesday we visited with Gary’s Aunt Mary and Uncle Jack in Trophy Club. I hadn’t seen them in years and really enjoyed the visit. Then we stopped in Plano and had lunch with an old friend of Gary’s, Peggie, who wears and decorates with everything purple. She gave us some delicious sugared pecans, which provided sustenance on our travels (as if we needed it, the way we’d been eating).

Next stop was Bentonville, Arkansas, to visit the Crystal Bridges art museum. We walked the trails on the beautiful wooded site. After the Texas drought, tall trees and bubbling springs were balm for our souls.

This being a holiday week, the museum was very crowded despite our timed tickets. It’s laid out so that one starts in the 18th century and ends in contemporary art, but I wish I had done it backwards, because by the time we got to the end I was too tired to enjoy it.

One fun exercise was listening to a description of a painting and drawing it. I did a still life with an ear of corn, a cucumber, a potato, half a cantaloupe and a brown jug. At the end they show you the work. Mine was quite accurate, but it got tossed along the way.

Alexander Calder nude

The museum café had a long line so we decided to wait till we got to Eureka Springs for lunch, which was a big mistake. We ate apples in the car, and stopped at Thorncrown Chapel on the way. The sign said “closing at 2 p.m. for weddings,” and it was 1:59, so we took pictures of the exterior.

Thorncrown Chapel

Eureka Springs is situated on narrow, winding, hilly streets with mostly kitschy little shops, and many restaurants were closed. We ended up at “the Dog House,” a hot-dog place, for which (along with the apple) I paid with a stomach ache the rest of the day. Eureka Springs will not linger in my memory as a fun place.

Eureka Springs

Friday, December 30, Savannah

After driving from Bentonville to eastern Alabama on Thursday, we got through Atlanta quickly, but south of Atlanta apparently everybody got off at noon for the holiday weekend and they were all trying to head south. We got to Savannah late in the afternoon.

When we pulled into a parking place near the Eliza Thompson Bed and Breakfast, a man came out and put money in our meter and whisked our bags away, which set the tone for service the rest of our stay. The French doors of our room looked out on a beautiful courtyard, with brilliant geraniums blooming everywhere.

Our room is at the upper center behind the red bow

Having being told our parking spot was good for the duration, we struck out on foot while there was still daylight. We were in Savannah in the summer of ’05 and it was sultry and miserable, so seeing it sparkling with Christmas decorations on a lovely clear winter evening was better than I expected. We walked along the river at sunset. A couple of big container ships were coming and going on the river and the river cruise boat was brightly lit.

Savannah City Hall at sunset

After wine and cheese at the B&B and a chance to meet some fellow guests, we had a light meal of shrimp quesadillas and a shrimp/mango wrap at the Kayak Café, then returned to the B&B for dessert. The Eliza Thompson B&B, in the heart of the historic district, is about the best B&B we have ever stayed at. The service, food, location and setting were all exquisite.

Parlor at Eliza Thompson B&B

With favorite son Johnny Mercer


Saturday, New Year’s Eve

In the morning we decided to take a 90-minute trolley tour. Our guide was John, from New Jersey. We learned a lot about Juliette Lowe, the founder of the American Girl Scouts, Oglethorpe and Civil War history. We discovered that the Mercer-Williams house was just a few blocks from our B&B.

After the tour we walked back to places we wanted to see close up: the beautiful fountain at Forsyth park, Savannah’s central park, filled with tourists and locals on a mild winter day.

Forsyth Park fountain

Colonial cemetery, where Union soldiers camped when it was ruined and abandoned. They cleaned it up and filled holes, but not knowing what to do with the gravestones and busy with the war they stuck them along the walls, where they remain. We noticed many of the dead were young people—babies and young adults. One was a doctor who was 45—he probably died in a smallpox epidemic.

Wall with gravestones at Colonial Cemetery

Next we toured the Mercer-Williams House, a must for fans of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” Jim Williams’ taste and talent were amazing. He saved and restored something like 60 houses in Savannah in the 1960s and could be said to have created the historic district and the tourism industry as they are today. He mixed his own paint colors and did faux finishes on baseboards and built furniture. We have started the movie but were not able to finish it, but now that we’ve seen this beautiful and interesting house we may try again. Part of the movie “Glory” was also shot there.

Mercer-Williams House--sadly, photos of the interior and back garden were not allowed

The Bird Girl

On our way to our 5 o’clock dinner reservations we tried to visit the Telfair museum to get a postcard of the iconic Bird Girl, the statue whose picture graced the book’s cover, which now resides in the museum because people were damaging her in her original cemetery location. (Mercer House has replicas in its shop, $100 for a small one about a foot tall and $200 for a larger one, maybe two feet high.) The museum and gift shop were already closed at 4:45 despite a posted Saturday closing time of 5.

So we people-watched in Ellis Square for a few minutes, then showed up for the cattle call at The Lady and Sons. We had seen the Paul Deen store earlier, and Gary joked that they would make us go through the store. When I checked in with the hostess, she told to us to enter through the store and go into the waiting room. We had only a short wait and could have taken photos with a cardboard Paul Deen (but we didn’t). As soon as we sat down a server put a cheese biscuit and a corn cake on each plate. Our waiter was a nice tattooed young man who had an architecture degree from the Savannah College of Art and Design (which amazingly also has sports—he was a swimmer and had been in Austin to swim). Our morning guide told us the college owns 60 buildings in Savannah, and we must have seen at least 10 of them—they’re all over town.

Our dinner at Paula Deen's restaurant

We considered the $15.99 all-you-can eat southern buffet, but the special was blackened prime rib, which I had, and Gary had crab-stuffed shrimp. We had a bottle of Malbec. Service was quick and we were on our way back to the B&B soon after 6. We intended to have dessert at the B&B and then go out to watch the peach drop at midnight, but after the full day and a big meal with wine, I was asleep by 9:30.

I awoke at precisely 12:00 by our clock. I wondered why it was so quiet and went back to bed, soon to hear the booms and crackle of fireworks.

The first day of 2012 was beautiful, with that low winter sun that, along with everything draped in Spanish moss, gives Savannah a dreamlike quality. Gary took a walk before breakfast and recommended I take one too, so after breakfast I walked to Forsyth Square and took more photos of the fountain the early morning light and walked around the neighborhood taking pictures of houses still arrayed in Christmas finery.

Savannah garden, New Year's Day

New Year’s Day, to Florida

A quick trip across the Savannah River to see the bridge took us into South Carolina, then a straight drop down on I-95 to Flagler Beach.

I love staying with my sister and brother-in-law. They used to live a block from the beach, and it was a great house. This house is inland, on a canal, with a variety  of trees and wildlife. They don’t let their cat, B.K. (“Black Kat”) out unattended—it’s on a tether when it’s outside—because neighbor’s dog had been eaten by a ’gator recently. They also have anhingas, the water birds that lack oil in their feathers and have to hang themselves on trees to dry; kingfishers; and on a bike ride one afternoon we saw a huge osprey nest that someone told us was at least 14 years old and was used every year.

Osprey nest

We joined Pat and Harold and friends for their regular Monday morning breakfast in Flagler, then took a long walk on the beach. Flagler Beach is one of my favorites of all the beaches all over the world I have visited. The sand is metallic gold, and stretches for miles in both directions, with no high rises or anything else to impede the view of sea and sky. I stuck one hand in the water because I have to get a salt-water fix periodically. It was surprisingly warm in the cool winter air. We sat on the boardwalk for a while, enjoying the breeze, sunshine and water, watching surfers in wetsuits in the waves near the pier.

My paparazzi moment

Surfers at Flagler Beach

On a previous visit to Florida Gary and I had enjoyed the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum in Winter Park, which holds the most comprehensive collection of the work of Louis Comfort Tiffany in the world. We had heard it had a new addition, including the daffodil terrace and rooms from Tiffany’s estate. One of the major attractions is the chapel Tiffany designed for the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exhibition. It was nearly lost when Tiffany’s estate fell into disrepair after his death, and much of the estate was destroyed in a fire, but it has been restored and built much as Tiffany intended and it’s spectacular. The museum has works in every medium Tiffany worked in: paint, glass, ceramics, metal, and the art and architecture of his estate, as well as some wonderful American painting, pottery, furniture and crafts by other artists. Pat, who said she normally doesn’t like art museums, loved it and plans to go back with a friend.

We had fish and chips in the Blacksheep Pub in Ormond Beach and spent an hour shopping at Pat and Harold’s favorite thrift store, and thrift shopping something everyone in our family likes to do. It’s about the onlykind of shopping I enjoy. Gary got a hilarious hot pink bird puppet that squawks.

Rosie Spoonbill

Chloe has named it Rosie, and Gary calls it Rosie Spoonbill, although roseate spoonbills are much quieter, in both color and sound. Art, food and thrift shopping—a perfect day. In the evenings Pat and I knitted (the apple didn’t fall far from our mother’s tree) and we watched old movies (“Portrait of Jennie,” with Joseph Cotten, Jennifer Jones and Ethel Barrymore, and “Belle Star,” with Gene Tierney, Randolph Scott and Dana Andrews. Stellar casts in some of their lesser-known—for good reason—films.)

Pat, Harold and B.K.

Sisters

When we headed back to Texas, Gary wanted to make it to Baton Rouge the first day so we’d hit Houston on Thursday about midday rather than rush hour, and he outdid himself, getting us to Lafayette, Louisiana, well past dark. I paid my dues with a drive through Mobile as the sun was going down. It was scary because the only thing I could see was the road and cars directly in front of me; I couldn’t look up at signs or in my rearview mirror. The low winter sun gave in Savannah and took away in Alabama. My muscles ached from the stress. Fortunately our room in Lafayette had a Jacuzzi to soak away some of the tension, after sandwiches and beer in Deano’s, a local hangout.

Next day my driving shift included Houston, but at least it was midday, thanks to Gary’s push through the Louisiana night, and traffic wasn’t bad. We were home by 4:30.

Some observations from our tour across the South:

Even from the interstates, the countryside is beautiful, even in winter. Maybe especially in winter, because everything looked swept clean, and in the summer kudzu covers everything in the south. And the highways really are clean. I don’t know if it’s anti-litter laws or adopt-a-highway programs, but the country is a lot cleaner than it used to be.

As pretty as the countryside is, the interstate is the worst possible way to experience the towns and cities. In the short time we had, we just stopped at the nearest hotels, gas stations and restaurants that form clusters at exits along the highways. The restaurants are all chains and mostly fast-food, which we try to avoid. The only consistent sit-down restaurant we found was Cracker Barrel, and boy is it consistent! The menu, the layout, the fireplace, the restrooms and the kitschy store are exactly the same everywhere. The only variations are the faces of the employees. So we ate there a lot, knowing we could get a hot meal brought to us quickly and reasonably priced. A bowl of vegetable soup and corn bread is a good lunch.

I also came to appreciate GPS, which I nicknamed “Gypsy,” for steering us right when, in Memphis, we were headed for Nashville instead of Birmingham, and for my reliable BlackBerry, which holds the GPS, for helping find hotels and make reservations on the fly, as well as keeping up with email and Facebook and even making the occasional phone call.

We listened to the audio book “Team of Rivals,” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It was a great choice, because I learned so much about the Civil War, and since we were traveling through the south it seemed especially relevant. It’s about how Lincoln assembled a cabinet of men who had vied for the presidential nomination, including William Seward and Salmon Chase, and how gifted he was at making them work together. I have gaps in my Civil War history knowledge, and I gained a greater appreciation for Lincoln as a politician and a leader.

For some reason I had not been looking forward to this trip. It seemed like too many miles in too little time, it was winter, and I felt bad about leaving my daughter with Chloe out of school. I emailed other family members asking them to help out with Chloe, and several did, assuaging some guilt. It was surprisingly restful not to have to prepare a meal or watch a child or go to a meeting.

I also realized how much I miss the tall trees east of the Mississippi. We loved northwestern Arkansas and want to go back and spend more time, especially in the spring and fall. I met a woman at Crystal Bridges who moved there from Waco years ago and she and her husband love it. I exchanged contact information with her. Maybe 30 years in Texas will turn out to be enough and in a few more years, when the grandchildren are older and some of our commitments have lessened, we’ll consider relocating where there is water and greenness.

When I travel I always hope for a transformative experience, and this surely was. It was also fun, and reaffirmed that Gary and I are good traveling companions.

A poem:

Midnight in Savannah
(New Year’s 2012)

After a day of walking,
a tour of the Mercer-Williams House
(where Bird Girl replicas are sold in the shop),
rich ribeye and fried asparagus at Paula Deen’s
(and a half-bottle of Malbec),
I’m tucked in soon after nine.

I wake to silence and wonder why:
the clock reads 12:00,
then I hear boom and crackle of fireworks,
greet the new year snug in bed.

I meet the morning
in slanting winter sunlight
made even softer by curtains of Spanish moss
on every tree
and walk to Forsyth Park,
where antebellum houses are still decked out
in garlands, red ribbons and wreaths,
their gardens arrayed in poinsettias, hibiscus
and bougainvillea…

another year in the Garden of Good and Evil.






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