Monday, 15 September 2014

Blue Ridges & White Houses - America Part Six

John's father lives in Virginia, so we drive from state to state in a way that would get you halfway across Europe. The scale of things is something I have not yet grasped, as an eight hour drive where I grew up could leave you in another country, with another language and completely different way of life. In fact, if you are willing to get on a ferry you can be on another continent.

To drive and drive and still see the same stores, the same culture is astounding. As we make our way to John Sr.'s house we are greeted with such a beautiful view we stop the car to take the look. The mountains are sweeping and sparsely inhabited. You could get lost in them forever and that is something equally terrifying and tempting.

There's this idea of sanctuary, and one of those places for me is now Virginia. You almost don't want to live there, because if you do there would be nowhere to escape to in your mind when daily life gets too much. Or perhaps living there means daily life won't get too much, maybe one day I'll find out.

John Sr.'s house is almost a secret, surrounded by trees so green there's nothing to compare them to but themselves. The home itself is the way Tolkien described hobbit homes, warm and dry and intensely comforting. Maybe it's the tiredeness from the travelling, but I can melt into the sofa and feel entirely at home.

The back of the house opens out into a porch on a hill, looking out onto a pond, vegetable patches and sweeping up into the Blue Ridge mountains, which look very blue against the sky as we drink wine all evening, and I am fed chocolate by John Sr., who has discovered my sweet tooth weakness. John's brother Matt joins us for dinner and tells us about his farm. If he lived in London he'd have hipster girls queuing up to date him, it delights me to be presented with the real thing, and not some moustached graduate drinking out of mason jars and keeping a patch of organic sustainable pop-up artisanal potatoes in Hackney.

The next morning we head out through very winding roads to Chateau Morrisette, where Matt works and we are to have brunch. The place is a solid building reminiscent of the Overlook Hotel, providing a restaurant and winery. I'm glad to have dressed up a little, it's the type of place you'd have a fancy and expensive wedding. The brunch is exquisite, and I am sure that if we ever move to Virginia I will get very, very fat.

Later, Matt shows us his work-in-progress farm in Meadows Of Dan, which sounds like the name of a 90's alternative rock band. There's a sense of pioneering and possibility here like nowhere else I've been. When we arrived, we presented John Sr. with a woodcut print of St. Paul's Cathedral from the 1800's, and he was blown away by something from such a long time ago. IN context, The United States was barely a century old. Yet, for all it's sense of newness, there's something else in the air that anywhere else seems worn. I don't know that there are very many people in the United Kingdom in their 30's who are buying a piece of land and putting a farm together bit by bit. There are pipe dreams, and then the people who work hard and literally rub the sweat from their brows to make dreams reality, without the aid of a dozen Polish workers to renovate the farmhouse and build a koi pond to look exotic. It makes me realise I should give my own dreams a little kick up the rear.

We stop by what used to be a mill, and there are a few people walking around the stunningly green grass and admiring the tools workers used to use to make flour and to farm the land. In a clearing, what looks like an amateur bluegrass group have joined together to play some music, while families sit around on blankets and eat their lunch. After the nightmarish music patriotism rally at Dollywood, I am delighted to hear some real bluegrass. It feels like cotton sheets and woven blankets, sweet tea and fireflies. I'm glad that on a Sunday afternoon, a handful of people can get together and make some wonderful music.

We leave the next morning, and I am sad to not be staying longer. This is the last stretch in our silver Mustang, and on the last leg into Washington DC we are jolted harshly back into city life, with lanes and lanes and traffic jams. We pass Arlington Cemetery and The Pentagon. By the time I see the Washington Monument I am ready to get out of the car and explore this city.

Travelling is exhausting, and I have no idea why because all I am doing is sitting in a car and watching scenery. I don't know how John does it, driving and focusing for hours on end, but we get into the city and find our hotel then take our car to the airport and ride the subway, by which point I am ready to drop Washington DC into a box and leave it until the next day.

Everywhere we walk feels like forever, and although it's not as hot as Atlanta the air is still like inhaling steam. We walk to to John's old neighbourhood and I am suddenly very much in love with this city. Our hotel is next to tall buildings and busy traffic, more than America it reminds me very much of Spain. The only other American city I've seen is Atlanta, which has no soul, but John mentions that Washington DC always reminds him of European cities. The tall buildings lead into smaller brownstones, a neighbourhood that looks like Frank Underwood's from House Of Cards. It stands to reason that at the seat of government, this would be an opulent town, although we already passed all the homeless by a square next to the hotel.

We go to what John refers to as the Social Safeway, a supermarket notable for being a place where people went to chat and hook up, of course it's at the heart of Washington's gaybourhood, and it reminds me of the supermarket in San Francisco that Armistead Maupin uses in Tales Of The City. Or Allen Ginsberg's poem A Supermarket In California, with the pervy old bard sneaking a peek of the teenage grocery boys behind the fruit. When I worked in Brighton for a few weeks I frequented a supermarket in Brighton's gay village. It amused me greatly to see leather daddies with their pug doing something as mundane as choosing between cornflakes and Frosties. There's more of the same here, and the last thing I remember is we are served by the hipster staff, who bag our groceries.

I guess we must have gotten back to the hotel, had a hotel room picnic and fallen asleep, with the First Family doing much of the same (minus the hotel picnic I am sure) only a few miles from our room.

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