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THE LONG HOT SUMMER VACATION
September 21, 2009 - 8:06pm — Gerry Barnes
Summer 2009 Wrap Up -- by Gerry Barnes
Okay. I admit it... I hate summer... Even as a kid (aside from the fact that I got three whole months off from school), I loathed summer.
Nary had a single one passed wherein I didn’t end up sun burnt and blistered, mosquito-bitten, and covered with poison ivy. When the temperature hit 97 degrees and the humidity turned the state of Pennsylvania into one colossal sweat lodge, I always felt like I was trapped in Dante’s inferno. (Don't forget to checkout the wonderful photos by Mark May that accompany this story!!!)
I still feel this way.
So you can imagine my feelings about taking this year’s vacation in August down south.
It couldn’t be helped, of course.
The Indirect Route South
My long-standing travel buddies, Mark May and his teenage son, Nathan, were bent on seeing the historic east coast. And Mark would be competing in the USRowing Masters National Championships on Camden’s Cooper River.
This intrepid duo took a red-eye from Los Angeles into JFK airport, and then shuttled to Penn Station, where I met them.
The original plan was to spend the first day touring New York City, but the Big Apple was more like a Big Oven, and so we scaled our plans way back. Dropping our bags off at the luggage check-in station at Penn Station, we headed out to Times Square, Central Park, Rockefeller Center, and Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. By this point, we were covered in sweat. Mark and Nathan lit a few candles in the vestibule of the cathedral and prayed for cooler weather. When their prayers went unanswered, we decided to head off to Camden directly.
We caught the New Jersey transit line to Trenton, then the River line to Camden, which obliging deposited us directly in front of Rutgers University, Camden.
More than a Scarlet Thermometer
When searching for hotel rooms, Mark had discovered that the going rates were far above anything we wanted to afford. Instead, I contacted an angel named Amanda Holloway in Rutgers University’s Campus Center, and for $75 a night, we got a two bedroom student suite complete with kitchen, bath and living room, and access to the Student Dining Hall, wherein we breakfasted very inexpensively (and deliciously). Thank you, Amanda!
Mark’s sister, Laura, drove over the river from Philly to join us in cheering him on. There were 1500 competitors competing for national rowing titles in about 200 boat classes. Mark placed first in his heat, scored center-place in his events, and walked away happy.
A Touch of Halloween in Summertime
We celebrated in jail. No lie. We actually paid call on historic Eastern State Penitentiary, at 22nd and Fairmount, in Philadelphia. Nathan had seen the place on Ghosthunters, which deemed it one of America’s most haunted edifices, and he was dying (excuse the pun) to take the tour. We arrived in the rain—a perfect condition for what must surely be one of the creepiest places on earth.
The prison is immense, surrounded by thick stone walls, and kept in a state of arrested decay. Tour guides provide visitors with a recorded history of the jail, but Laura May is an architectural preservationist, and she was happy to give us the rundown on this jailhouse version of Dracula’s castle: how many prisoners went insane here because of the strict isolation…how gangster Al Capone was treated to his own private cell complete with radio, rocking chair and other amenities…stuff like this.
Ghosthunters got it right. You can actually feel the tortured spirits in this place.
For me, the highlight (low point?) of the tour came when I stood inside a crumbling cell and cried out, “I can feel a dark presence in here! Something black and frightening is very close by!” –and a damn raven darted up from the floor and bolted past my head!
Eastern State will never know how close it came to getting one more ghost!
We followed this excursion with a short trip to Edgar Allan Poe’s house where the only ravens were literary, thank God. Nathan and I also made a short trip to the Camden Aquarium, where we’d hoped to suit up and swim in the shark tank. Alas, we hadn’t made advance reservations, so it was a no-go. On our final night in the north, we repaired to Dave & Buster’s and finished our excursion shooting death rays at marauding zombies whilst munching on pizza fries.
It was Laura who drove us south to Richmond, Virginia where Mark’s parents would put us up for the week.
Richmond, of course, is rich in history, and scarcely half-an-hour from home base in Midlothian was Henricus Historical Park where Pocahontas and friends once dwelled. To see this ancient fort and to hear its tales so expertly told by a guide in 17th century garb was a genuine treat. A brief demonstration on ancient firearms and a tour of the huts, barns and stables on the grounds completed the feel of journeying back in time, and it certainly set us up for a visit to a second Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond. Unlike the Philly Poe Museum, Poe was never actually in residence here. However, this museum contained actual Poe artifacts, which were nowhere to be seen in Philadelphia.
A real highlight of our trip south was visiting with Mark’s parents, Ted and Flora May, and with his brothers and sisters Diane, Michael, John and Tara. (Tara’s son Tyler was a frequent participant in our travels, and this kid was worth the trip south himself!)
It was at John’s place on Lake Gaston, North Carolina, that we all went kneeboarding, skiing, pontooning, or (in my case) just rested on our bottoms under a shady tree and drank beer. This was a welcome reprieve from the relentless sightseeing trek, and it definitely renewed flagging spirits for the days ahead.
Up to this point, I must admit that we had not spent a great deal of money. Our days were filled with fun but they weren’t especially costly. In fact, this trip was by far the least expensive of all our holiday excursions over the years and my insistence on some kind of itinerary helped us to see a whole lot for relatively little.
It was our day in Washington, DC that proved most expensive. Tourmobile tickets from Arlington Cemetery across the river to the historic district cost $27.00 each and it simply wasn’t worth it. My long-held dream of visiting Arlington was pretty much ruined by the ungodly heat, by the fact that we were asked to get off the tour bus three times while it waited and then rerouted for funeral processions, and by the fact that the only place in Arlington Cemetery which sells water is the woman veterans’ memorial (of course, we weren’t told this until the endless stop-and-go tour was over!) Children were getting sick in the heat, old folks were fainting. Thanks to delays, the tour took much, much longer than I’d allowed for. It was not at all what I expected, and it really destroyed the solemnity of the occasion for me.
Travel recommendation: skip the tour bus. Bring water.
We, however, took the Tourmobile over to the Lincoln Memorial, then walked over to the Vietnam War Memorial (truly soul-stirring), then down past the World War II Veterans Monument to the Washington Monument, and then on down to the Smithsonian.
This last was truly impressive, and Nathan and Tyler particularly enjoyed being strapped into a space capsule that revolved 360 degrees while enemy strike forces launched attacks against the on-board video screen (well worth the price of admission!)
Imagine our surprise, however, upon exiting the Smithsonian to discover that the last Tourmobile had already departed for Arlington. (This was only minutes after 4:00!)
We realized that we had, in effect, paid $108.00 for a bus to drive us across a bridge. On our way back to the Cemetery in a taxi (only $9.00), I realized that the sensible way to make this trip was to drive to Arlington and park…to walk around the Cemetery on our own…and to take the train from the Arlington Metro Station down to the Smithsonian. We’d have saved over a hundred dollars (and an enormous amount of frustration!)
Oh well, live and learn.
…Our final day in Virginia was truly the best.
The Luray Caverns, about 2 ½ hours away from Richmond were just spectacular, and for me, the highlight of the whole trip. (I was actually cool for the first time in over a week!) I fell in love with a 1941 Lincoln sedan that was housed in the automobile museum next door. And the Luray Garden Maze is as close to the one in The Shining as any horror fan could possibly hope for.
On the ride home, we passed through beautiful Shenandoah National Park, drove along breathtaking Skyline Drive, and even hiked some of the Appalachian Trail. This was definitely my favorite day.
On our final day in Virginia, we visited Mark’s ancestral manse (“Maymont”) on a large plantation that runs on forever and holds a zoo, an aquarium, and a gorgeous Japanese waterfall.
It was a perfect way to end our trip south.
This trip was unique in so many ways. It was focused on history, friends and family, and for this reason, it was quite memorable. It was modestly budgeted (a real plus in these times) and yet every day brought new adventures. An enormous amount of territory was covered in a short time, and we definitely did not skimp on the sightseeing.
All in all, it was a true success… Now if we could only do something about the heat.