When I set out for Hatteras Island the weather was overcast and a bit drizzly, which meant no sun in my eyes as I drove due east. I was grateful for that. I imagine the route I took, which is only two lanes for a good part of the drive, can be hellish with beachgoing traffic on a summer Friday afternoon, but on an early autumn Monday morning it was quiet and calming. I cranked the windows down and listened to some quiet music and craved some breakfast, but I’d already told myself I’d stop for a good lunch once I crossed the Croatan and Roanoke Sounds into the Outer Banks. Three hours later, right at lunchtime, I arrived. I knew I wanted to go to Sam and Omie’s to dine, and only had a vague idea of its location, but like a homing pigeon I went right to it. I was just ahead of the lunch rush and had my shrimp burger and onion rings in no time flat (a continuation of the ruinous eating choices I made in Raleigh). Then I got back in the car, pointed it south on NC 12 and crossed the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge onto Hatteras Island.
The northernmost part of Hatteras Island is occupied by the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, and once you get past it and the towns of Rodanthe and Salvo, the view gives way to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. There’s not much to see but dunes, ponds and the occasional sound or sea view. There was a fair amount of repair work being done on NC 12, partly as a result of Hurricane Arthur’s drive-by back in July, and I had to keep my eyes open to the many, often rapidly-changing speed limits as I headed toward Buxton and the Cape Hatteras Motel, my ultimate destination. After another hour’s drive (and a stop at a grocery store in Avon to pick up a few supplies), I arrived, checked in and got my key to my second-floor oceanfront room from Dave, the friendly manager.
If you look at the photos of the property from the website link above, you’ll see a big dune and a boardwalk to the beach from the oceanfront rooms. Both dune and boardwalk are gone – casualties, I’m told, of Hurricane Isabel more than ten years ago. Beach erosion here has been quite bad, as you can see from this photo of a property right next to the hotel (note the big sandbags at the foot of the property). I’m sure the guys fishing off the deck thought it was great, but the waves breaking around the property’s foundations would have spooked me a bit, particularly at high tide. At said high tide, the porch outside my room was literally a stone’s throw from the water, and you wouldn’t need to throw that stone very hard.
That said, the view from my room was delicious, and once I opened the windows, so was the sea breeze and the sound of the waves crashing. I hauled my stuff from the car up to my room (a bit of a workout, since the motel is a typical Outer Banks mom-and-pop place and has no elevators) and put everything away. The Cape Hatteras Motel isn’t luxe by any stretch – one of my two dresser drawers was stuck shut and an armchair was so seat-sprung you couldn’t sit in it – but it was the end of the season and I was willing to put up with it for the location. There was a long counter with coffee-maker and toaster where I could prep food, as well as a small refrigerator and a microwave, so I made a pact with myself that I would eat two meals “in” each day to try to get my eating habits back on track.
HAH. I was in the land of fried and broiled seafood, not to mention HUSH PUPPIES, which are like crack to me. I stayed in the first night, creating a nutritionally-responsible dinner from my personal stores and enjoying the experience of writing right by the window with the waves roaring just outside (it was a particularly windy night). I was also a good girl the next day and made breakfast and lunch in my room, since I mostly hung around on the motel’s beach, although I did make a short jaunt to Hatteras Lighthouse in its new location. I’m well-acquainted with the structure, having visited it many times in the past and climbed it with John and Margaret on my last visit (when it was still perilously close to the surf line due to beach erosion), but it was nice to see the old girl in a safe place. I drove out to the lighthouse’s previous location and did a little birdwatching (a Double-Crested Cormorant and a Great Egret, neither of which were new to me but were nice to observe all the same) then headed back to the hotel, showered, changed clothes and went to The Captain’s Table for dinner. I don’t remember what I had – a glass of wine and a broiled seafood dinner of some kind which was good – but I made a pig of myself on the hush puppies and then waddled back to my hotel room and wrote for a while, with another glass of wine and some totally unnecessary munchies to keep me company. I went to bed early as I hadn’t slept well the night before (never do, in a new place) and because I was getting up early to go to Ocracoke Island in the morning.
Since Ocracoke is only accessible by air or boat, I did what most folks do and took the ferry. Since I love ferries and was still feeling nutritionally reckless, I stopped at the Orange Blossom Bakery and Cafe and bought one of their famous Apple Uglies, a ginormous apple fritter which cost, I think, all of $3.50. I put it aside while I drove to the ferry station at the very end of Hatteras Island, although the urge to pick at it during the trip was almost more than I could stand. I pulled into the line for the ferry and with about twenty minutes to kill, chowed down on the Ugly. IT WAS DELICIOUS. Kind of insanely delicious, and every bit the size of my whole hand, fingers and all. I ate two-thirds of it and forced myself to wrap up the rest of it up. I washed it down with a Diet Pepsi (OF COURSE) and fortunately had some water to wash the sticky goodness from my greedy digits. About then the folks running the ferry starting directing us aboard, and I was lucky enough to get a front-row position. As instructed, I put the emergency brake on, shut off the ignition and watched as they chocked my wheels.
It was a gorgeous morning for a ferry ride, but I was glad I’d brought my jacket as it was windy on the water. It was a bit too rough to birdwatch – my binoculars kept jiggling from the chop – but I saw the usual Brown Pelicans and Herring Gulls and more cormorants and lots of other seabirds, and just contented myself leaning on the rail and looking. Other ferry passengers came up to enjoy the view and several of them got splashed when the occasional wave broke over the ferry’s nose. The trip took about 55 splendid minutes – if one could travel in a straight line it would take a fraction of that time, but because of the shoals the ferries have to describe a route that’s like an inverted U – and then we were landing at Ocracoke. There’s not much besides the ferry station at that end of Ocracoke Island; you have to drive another dozen miles to get to Ocracoke Village, passing through more of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
Ocracoke Village is quaint and rather charming, particularly in the off-season when many of the tourist-y places have closed for the season. Many people park their cars and rent golf carts to get around, but as the village isn’t that big and I have two perfectly functional legs, I didn’t see the point. I parked near the southern ferry docks (where you can take a ferry to Cedar Island or Swan’s Landing), paid a quick visit to the Ocracoke Preservation Museum (where I learned, to my surprise, that figs are HUGE in Ocracoke – another thing to love about it) and then set out walking to the Ocracoke Lighthouse.
It’s a squatty little structure, nothing like its towering cousin on Hatteras, and you can’t climb it, but it still looked pretty in the morning light. Did I mention it was a beautiful day? As it got warmer, I stripped off my jacket to enjoy the sun, but nearly put it back on as I made a side trip through Springer’s Point Preserve, which is a maritime forest and reputedly once a hangout of the pirate Teach (better known as “Blackbeard”). I was beset by mosquitoes a short way down the trail and was grateful I’d brought bug spray, although I wished I’d had the foresight to apply it before starting my walk. The trail empties out onto a soundside beach, and I sat on one of the thoughtfully-provided benches and took in the view before heading back.
I walked back through the village, finally ending up at Books to Be Red and Deepwater Pottery, where I indulged myself in two books about local history, two bars of scented soap, a pretty cuff bracelet and a nice conversation about Snowy Owls with the lady running the shop. Apparently two of the birds visited Ocracoke during the winter and were quite the media sensation. The lady was kind enough to invite me behind the counter to look at the shop’s Facebook page on her computer, where some wonderful photos of the owls were posted.
By the time I finished at the bookstore, it was just after the lunch hour and I thought I’d better find myself something to eat. Many restaurants were closed for the season, but I stumbled upon Dajio, which was open, lucky me. I had one of the best grilled cheese sandwiches of my life there: manchego and Vermont cheddar on country white bread with bacon and green chile chutney. It was so good I could have eaten it twice.
Lunch devoured, I went back to my car and headed back to the northern ferry dock. Along the way I stopped at the Ocracoke Wild Pony pasture viewing site and was treated to a view of a half-dozen or so of the horses, one of which came to a nearby pond for a drink while three Killdeer squawked in the grass close by, as if upset about the pony’s incursion on their turf. Back at the dock, I forced myself to toss away the remains of the Apple Ugly (stale or no, I would have continued noshing on it Because It Was There) and then enjoyed another ride back over the waves to Hatteras. I had dinner in the room, along with more wine, and then enjoyed a solid night’s sleep after so much fresh sea air and sunshine.
The next day I mostly loafed on the beach, reading, taking photos, strolling around and watching the surf roll in and out. I didn’t see any dolphins, which was a wee bit disappointing, and most of the shore bird life was comprised of Sanderlings, Sand Pipers and Willets – all familiar to me. In my rambles I stumbled across the remains of someone’s sand castle, which made a nice photo.
After a shower and change of clothes, I went to dinner at Diamond Shoals Restaurant, which was so close I could have walked to it (but I drove, lazy me). I had a delicious broiled grouper filet with a side of very good green beans and MORE hush puppies, and I was such a pig that I asked for seconds of those. I went back to the motel and packed up most of my gear so I wouldn’t disturb anyone when I left in the morning – the motel, which had been largely empty through most of my stay, was starting to fill up with weekend fisherfolk. I got the car partially loaded and then read for a while before turning off the light and enjoying my last ocean lullaby before I dropped off.
I woke up before my alarm went off and was able to catch a final shot of the beach at sunrise (I’ll share it with you to conclude this post). I dropped off my key at the motel’s still-closed office and drove north back over the Bonner Bridge. I stopped at the Charles Kuralt trail at the Pea Island National Refuge and did a little birdwatching, where I saw a White Ibis, Louisiana Heron, White Egret (all familiar to me) and a Lesser Yellowlegs (which was not, and got added to my birding Life List). I also got chewed up by mosquitoes and had a near encounter with a confident young racoon when I got off the main trail. I stopped for a few minutes at the Bodie Island Lighthouse on Nags Head and then continued on home, refreshed and rejuvenated, my little ten-day solo jaunt a rousing success.
On Friday morning I set off from The Porches for Raleigh, North Carolina, by way of Appomattox Court House. I got away just after 11 AM, but seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time driving sort of west down strange little back roads (some of them gravel) and over a few one-lane bridges before I finally puked out onto US 29. Appomattox is almost due south of The Porches but I use the Waze app for my navigational needs and I guess it wanted me to be on main roads. An hour later I arrived in the Appomattox area, but since I was hungry and it was lunchtime I stopped at a diner-y place and had a BLT with a side of collards and some peach cobbler to finish up. The BLT and the cobbler were nothing special but the collards…mmm! Thus fortified, I drove on to the Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, where General Robert E. Lee, of the Confederacy surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant of the Federal army, thus effectively ending the War Between the States.
It’s a pretty place, Appomattox, and I had a beautiful day in which to enjoy it and not too many people around to crowd things up. The largest single group was comprised of tourists from the UK, and it was kind of sweet watching them try to sort out our coinage with the help of friendly clerks and other Park employees.
I didn’t spend a lot of time inside the restored buildings – to be honest, restored historical building don’t generally do much for me – but I did like wandering around the grounds and enjoying the fresh air and sunshine. I was basically killing time since I was going to be meeting my sister Margaret when she got off work at Duke University, and even with a three-hour drive ahead of me, I’d be early if I left much before 2:30. So until then, I just loitered and read all the historical markers and pretty much had myself a nice time.
I got back in the car, set Waze for my sister’s workplace and continued southeast. The trip was relatively uneventful UNTIL I was about 15 minutes out from the exit for Duke and my phone died. I had always known Waze was a major battery eater but I figured since I had the phone plugged into a recharging deck, I’d be okay. Well, no. So there I was coming into Durham and environs and the only thing I knew was the exit number, and not even the right direction to go once I was off the freeway. Well, I figured, I can read signs. Once upon a time we all navigated without GPS. No problem.
Well…yes, problem. I got off at the correct exit and there were NO signs saying THIS WAY TO THE COLLEGE, Y’ALL. There were signs pointing left to the Duke Medical Center and/or Trauma Unit but I turned right because there were Signs in Stone that said DUKE but it turned out they were for some development named Duke Gardens or Duke Park or Fair Duke Lakes or something like that. About then I had enough of a charge in the phone to activate Waze again and before it shut down I was able to scribble out the directions, which turned out to lead me right back to the freeway just before the same damned exit. So I got off at the exit AGAIN and this time I turned left and after a mile or so it suddenly started to look like a college campus and I drove around looking for Margaret’s building, which I knew was called Gross Hall. I remembered the street names from her directions and found myself by sheer dumb luck on one of the streets, and then stumbled onto the cross street, but I could not find Gross Hall. I pulled into a parking lot and got enough of a charge to call Margaret, and then I drove around a bit more trying to find the right parking lot for Gross Hall and finally FOUND Gross Hall but not the parking lot and ended up back in the first parking lot and LO AND BEHOLD there was Margaret’s car. I’d been staring at it when I called her the first time and didn’t even realize it.
Margaret actually needed to stay late after all so all’s well that ends well. We ended up at Lucky 32 for a delicious dinner and then went back to her house and played with Margaret’s dog Kali and her cat Tippi, and then went to bed because in the morning we were going to meet up with some of Margaret’s friends and go to a Beer Festival, because it was Margaret’s birthday and she likes her beer.
We had a leisurely morning and then put on our comfy shoes and clothes and went off to meet Jennifer and Diane at Jennifer’s house. They were busy making pretzel necklaces which are apparently de rigueur apparel for beer tasting – sort of like water crackers for wine tasting but with plenty of handy holes for Stringing Purposes. I made a modest 12-pretzel strand and then we piled into Jen’s car and took off for Beericana. We got there just as things were getting into full swing (and someone wanted to know immediately where we’d gotten our pretzel necklaces, giving the other ladies the idea of selling them at next year’s festival). Diane, Jennifer and Margaret are serious about their beer and were making notes in some kind of beer app, plus there was an app for the festival, too. I’m not much of a beer drinker so I generally just had a sip or two of my 2 oz. samples and tossed the rest on the numerous fire ant hills that dotted the festival site (someone had kindly spray painted white rings around the colonies to alert the unwary). There were a number of interesting food trucks providing lunches, and Diane treated Margaret to a sausage-stuffed baguette as a birthday treat. Then we tasted some more, and finally went back to Jen’s for a little chat before calling it a day.
Margaret wanted Mexican food for her birthday dinner so we went out to Dos Taquitos, which was kitschy and fun and the food surprisingly good. And then we went home to bed.
We had another leisurely morning which was capped by a delicious brunch at the Busy Bee Cafe (if it sounds like all we did was go out to eat during my visit, you wouldn’t be far off). Then we went home to nap it off because Margaret had a hockey game that evening. She plays goal for a loosely-organized women’s league, so about 5:30 we piled all her stuff in the car (goalies have a LOT of gear) and went off to the game. I was glad Margaret had loaned me a fleece because I had forgotten how COLD ice hockey rinks are. I could have stayed in the snack bar where it was warm, but I wanted to be by the action; i.e. by Margaret and her goal. I stayed warm by filming the action and jiggling from foot to foot and occasionally yelling “YEAH MARGARET!”
Margaret stayed pretty busy throughout the game and had some rather spectacular saves. Her team won, 4-3, and Margaret was named the MVP and given the game puck, which I don’t think was just because it was her birthday weekend and her big sister was watching. Here’s some footage of Margaret in action:
The next morning Margaret went off to work again and I headed due east, headed for the third and final phase of The Pause That Refreshes: Hatteras Island.
The old mill wheel is silent and has fallen down
The old oak tree has withered and lies there on the ground
– lyrics from “Down By The Old Mill Stream” by Tell Taylor
For years I’ve driven past an intriguing stone building located just off I-66 near Haymarket, Virginia. Nope, not just years – decades. Every time I’d drive by I’d think, “Man, that’s an interesting old building. I wonder what it is? Maybe one day I should stop.” And yet I never did. One day I drove past and was astonished to see that the building had been gutted by fire. That time I may have actually pulled over on the shoulder and taken a photo – I have a memory of doing so at one time or another – but I still knew nothing more about the mysterious building.
In February of this year I drove past the ruin again, and this time I thought, “enough of this procrastinating; I’m going to find out about that place.” I was fairly certain what I was seeing was the ruin of a mill, so I Googled “mill ruin I-66” and bingo! I had my answer. What I’d been looking at were the remains of a gristmill, built by the Chapman family in 1742, enlarged in 1758, enlarged again a century later, burned during the Civil War, restored in 1876 by the Beverley (or Beverly) family, closed in 1951 and burned again in an arson fire in 1998. At eighty-three feet (seven stories), it’s believed to be the tallest stacked stone building in the United States.
(Most of my information about the site comes from the Turn The Mill Around Campaign’s website. The non-profit, which now owns the site, is raising funds to preserve and restore the mill.)
This Labor Day weekend, John was less inclined than I to get out and about, so I decided to make a solo jaunt out to the country to see the mill at last. Although the mill is clearly visible from the highway, you have to know where you’re heading to actually get there – fortunately, I was running a GPS program and found the place without a problem. I was surprised to find that it’s cheek by jowl with the Bull Run Mountains Conservancy, which has a number of nice hikes in the area – as evidenced by the numbers of runners, dog-walkers and day hikers parked in the area. Most of them were headed onto the trails, but I parked right by the mill gates, grabbed my camera and walked about a quarter mile to the ruins.
I was a bit surprised that everything was wide open and unattended (although I did see a police cruiser come through at one point). I was able to stroll around the entire site – nothing was gated off or locked, although there were a few warning signs. I stuck my head into the Stone Mill Store, which was empty but for a couple of busy wasp nests, so I didn’t linger there.
When you step into the ruins, you immediately see two things: a lot of very interesting gears, and overhead, an internal reinforcing framework. The juxtaposition of the steel beams against the stacked stone is surprisingly pretty – almost like modern sculpture – and the rusting gears and other mechanical detritus add interesting textures. Up close the mill doesn’t seem quite so imposing as it does when you pass by on the interstate, but it’s still impressive. I was pleased to see that it hadn’t been trashed or graffiti’d or otherwise defaced. The weeds growing out of cracks in the walls and the vines winding in through windows made an even more picturesque site. Normally ruins like this make me feel a bit melancholy, but the beauty of the day – sunny, with fluffy white clouds – combined with the obvious care that’s going into the restoration, made me happy.
I wasn’t dressed to climb up on things and probably wouldn’t have, anyway – it seemed disrespectful, somehow – but I did poke my camera here and there to get photos. Broad Run, the stream that runs past the mill, seemed very low and muddy, so I didn’t feel the urge to plunge down the embankment and have a look at it (normally I can’t resist running water – I always want to go paddle in it). The oddest part about taking these photos in this rustic setting was hearing the traffic roaring past on the interstate.
There was a lot more gearage and bits of mechanism scattered all around the site. Not far away from the mill ruin was a large, overgrown area where I found a cache of rusted parts that were clearly some of the interior workings of the mill, and there were foundations here and there of what must have been outbuildings. You can’t really get around the back of the mill; it’s fenced off and there’s a railroad track, still in use, that goes right past it, which must have been handy back in the mill’s working days but seems uncomfortably close now.
I headed back out to my car, but the sight of people heading off to hike was enticing. I wasn’t dressed for hiking (jeans and sneakers), but a look at a map at the trailhead kiosk showed me that there was a trail that ran right behind the ruins. I figured I’d get some good views of the mill from behind, so I entered the Conservancy, crossed the railroad tracks and bore west along the Fern Hollow Trail. The trail had a gentle rise, and before long I found myself looking down at the mill again.The ruins looked even smaller from above and had more of a ghostly air. I thought about making my way down closer, but without proper footgear I was afraid I’d fall (the wife of a friend recently took a tumble down a much smaller embankment, resulting in a hospital stay and months of therapy ahead, which made me even more cautious).
I encountered only a few other hikers on Fern Hollow Trail, which surprised me, as there are even more ruins to be seen as you travel this route:
Once the ruins were behind me, the beauty of Fern Hollow Trail kept me moving forward. The trail turned and headed in a more northerly direction and I followed. Before long all the traffic noise had faded away and I was surrounded by woods. I felt like I had the place all to myself; the few hikers I had encountered along the way had either headed back to the trailhead or gotten off the beaten track entirely. I kept on walking but started to get winded. I had grabbed a map from the trailhead kiosk before I’d started my walk, and when I consulted it I realized I’d been walking for nearly a mile on a steady uphill grade. But it was sure pretty:
I thought I might continue north to a scenic overlook, but at the intersection of Fern Hollow Trail and Chestnut Ridge Trail I encountered a couple on their way down. They told me that although the view was pretty, it was a pretty steep hike, so I decided to head back to the car. I took a little different route down, one more populated by hikers, dog-walkers and runners. I was sorry I hadn’t brought a bottle of water with me, and was glad I had left the remains of a fountain drink in my car – it was watery from the melted ice, but still refreshing.
I’d like to make a return trip to the mill ruins in the fall, before my theatrical season gets going and I have no time at all. I bet it’ll be pretty with all the autumn colors, and a lot cooler for an uphill trek. If I wear proper hiking clothes, who knows? maybe next time I’ll make it up to the scenic view!
As I headed south through Kentucky, the snow disappeared and the sun played hide and seek with the clouds. Even without the snow it was still cold and blustery as I got off I-65 and turned west on US 68/State Route 80.
I had been on this stretch of road back in August, when I had accompanied John on a trip to Cave City, KY and made a quick side jaunt to visit my mother. The drive is a pretty one, on a good road that passes through rolling farmland and never seems to be heavily traveled. I had noted signs for another Shaker Village on that trip, and that’s where I was headed now.
In the early 1800s this part of the country was a hotbed of religious activity. The Second Great Awakening, a Protestant revival movement, sent evangelical ministers into newly settled regions to enroll new members via camp meetings. Lucy Wright, leader of the Shakers at the time, sent her missionaries to proselytize in Vermont, New York, Ohio, and Kentucky, and it was at this time that several Shaker communities were established. The Pleasant Hill settlement was one, and another was located at South Union, in Logan County.
Like Pleasant Hill, the Shaker community at South Union thrived during the pre-Civil War era and produced furniture, textiles and farm implements and was part of the birth of the seed industry in the area. And like Pleasant Hill, South Union also suffered economic setbacks after the war, resulting in a decrease in membership. (Remember, these folks practiced celibacy, so new members had to come from the outside, rather than being born into the faith.) The South Union community last a few years longer than Pleasant Hill, with its remaining members selling off the settlement’s worldly goods and property at public auction and closing its doors in 1922. Restoration of this site began in 1971.
The South Union site sits about a mile off the main road and consists of five buildings on approximately 500 acres of land. There’s a small visitor center with a gravel parking lot, and that’s where I headed first. The nice young man running the visitors center gave me a dollar off the $8.00 admission fee since I’d visited Pleasant Hill – even though the two organizations aren’t connected. There were no tours that day and I had the place all to myself, but he told me the main building, which houses a museum and gift shop, was open, and that I was free to walk around as I pleased.
So I did.
I bundled up in my gloves and parka and fleece headband and struck off across a nearby field to visit the Shaker Grain Barn. It was wide open and felt just a little eerie; the wind was gusting and making all the loose bits creak and groan. I explored it a little: went up some staircases that were roped off at the top and it would have been easy just to step over the ropes to explore further – but it was just too creepy. In fact, the whole area seemed a bit creepy – maybe it was because I was by myself, or because the wind was blowing so hard or because I keep seeing starling murmurations overhead (I took some videos of my own but they didn’t come out very well). I decided to walk further out into the fields, and that’s when I came upon the Shaker cemetery.
When the few remaining Shakers sold out and left the area in 1922, they left behind a sizeable graveyard with some 425 people buried there. Some of the graves were marked with stone markers, and others with iron “lollipop” markers. A Louisville businessman bought much of the Shaker property, including the burial ground. So what did he do with it? He took down the fence around it, pulled up the stone markers and had them ground up and used to lime the fields. Apparently he also had the iron lollipop markers simply plowed under, because the restoration folks have founds shards of them by the bucketful. The cemetery was built upon and cultivated, and for the longest time no one was exactly certain where the graves were. Eventually a grant allowed the non-profit which runs the site to bring in ground-penetrating radar, and the gravesites were finally located.
Now the cemetery has a fence again, and a single monolithic stone marker serves as a memorial to all the Shakers who rest there. It’s a sobering sight, and with the starlings whirring and wheeling overhead, a little melancholy as well.
I made my way over to the village’s Center House, which houses the museum. It’s an imposing brick building but it smelled wonderful when I walked in: warm and scented with coffee and baked goods. That’s because the gift shop is located on the bottom floor. I decided to save that until last and worked my way up through the museum. It’s beautifully laid out and the exhibits are fascinating. There’s a whole section dedicated to the cemetery, with a case full of those shattered iron lollipop grave markers that have been painstakingly pieced together, along with supporting documents from the settlements’ papers – so much so that the former residents came alive as I read their histories. I was also startled at the amount of artifacts and furniture on display that was ORIGINAL to the site (most of the furniture at Pleasant Hill seemed to be reproduction). Apparently the local folks that came to the South Union auction back in ’22 cherished their Shaker purchases and were kind enough to return pieces when restoration of the site began.
After I’d spent an hour or so in the museum, I went downstairs to the gift shop. The prices seemed far more reasonable than at Pleasant Hill, and I bought some soaps and tea and herb mixtures, the latter from Sabbathday Lake in Maine, the last active Shaker community in the United States. I also bought an unusual “turkey wing” whisk broom to use on my potting bench, which turned out to have been made by the young man running the visitors center (he stopped in to help the lady in the gift store with a computer issue). He told me he had taught himself how to make them by studying pictures, and invited me to stop back by the visitors center to see some hawk-wing whisks he’d been working on.
From the museum I pottered around on the grounds for a while, but the afternoon was starting to wane, I still had another hour or so to drive and I knew my mother was waiting for me. I stopped back by the visitors center to look at the hawk-wing whisks, but the young man wasn’t there although the whisks were. I had a look at them, admiring the handiwork and the patience that they must have taken. I was charmed at the thought of that earnest young man, greeting visitors on a cold February morning and using his spare time to make by hand a utilitarian item that could be mass-produced in a matter of seconds by machine – but where’s the beauty in that? As the Shakers said:
“Don’t make something unless it is both necessary and useful; but if it is both necessary and useful, don’t hesitate to make it beautiful.”
My mother’s birthday is in early February. Since that usually coincides with the end of the run of whatever holiday show I’ve booked, my practice is to take a few days and drive down to northwest Tennessee. I celebrate Mom’s birthday with her, visit my sister Joan and her kids, maybe see my Aunt Julia who lives a few hours away. I always enjoy the trip except for the drive, which involves about ten and a half solid hours in the car, mostly on interstates, with very little scenery and no time to stop even if there was something to see.
This year I decided to shake things up a little and go a different route. Normally I go south through Virginia and then west through Tennessee to get to my mom’s, but this time I decided to go through West Virginia and Kentucky. I knew it would add another hour to my travel time, but I thought it might be fun to break the trip halfway and stop overnight someplace. That would give me time to do a little sightseeing on the way. I started doing a little internet research but kept coming up with chain hotels and the same old/same old B&Bs.
Then I stumbled on the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill. It’s in Harrodsburg, KY and was a little further down the road than I had originally planned to go on my first travel day, but the more I read about it, the more intrigued I became.
The Shakers, or as they call themselves, the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, is a religious sect started in the mid-1700s with an emphasis on ecstatic worship services, a celibate communal life, equality of the races and sexes, hard work and craftmanship, and the belief that doing something well was, in itself, an act of prayer. The settlement at Pleasant Hill was established in 1805 and thrived for nearly fifty years before the post-Civil War industrial revolution changed both society and the economy. After a long, slow decline, the settlement closed its doors in 1910, but restoration work began in 1961 and the site today features 36 of the original 260 structures built by the Pleasant Hill Shakers.
As one might expect, Pleasant Hill is most popular in warmer months, but even in February one can stay in one of the restored buildings. I was able to book a room in the West Family Dwelling (with private bath) for a single night at a cost that was in line with rates at chain hotels in the nearby Lexington area. The Winter Kitchen, located in the basement of the building, is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, so I made a dinner reservation as well, packed my stuff in the car and on a cold and blustery morning, headed out.
I had some delays along the way and ended up driving the final miles of the trip down a winding back road in the dark, so I was grateful when I arrived at the village entrance. I had to drive to the Trustees’ Building to check in, then drive to the West Family Dwelling. I’d asked for a quiet room with a pretty view, which meant I was on the third floor, but I knew this in advance and had packed an overnight bag just for this leg of the trip. I hurried up all the pretty staircases, stashed stuff in my room and then ran downstairs just in time for my 7:30 dinner reservation. The cozy Winter Kitchen serves a limited menu – only about three or four choices – so I decided on the country tart, which turned out to be a sort of vegetable quiche. I like quiche, they had some nice wines to choose from and my little table was near the hearth with a good fire, so I was happy. A dozen or so Mary Kay ladies had a large table near me and their makeup chatter didn’t really go with the ambiance of the place, but I was still in a good mood when I climbed the steps to my room once more. There was a little TV in a Shaker-style cabinet in one corner of the room and a little rocking chair to watch it from, but I opted to unpack the travel laptop and try to get some work done before I went to bed. Unfortunately the wi-fi reception in the room was spotty so I gave up after a while. I wanted to get in some sightseeing time in the village before I left in the morning, so I had a shower, set my alarm (I had an 8 AM breakfast reservation), read for a while and then turned out the lights. In addition to the Mary Kay ladies, there was some meeting of college-age girls going on in the building and I heard the occasional outburst from them, but by and large the place was lovely and quiet and I slept well.
In the morning I had a surprise – snow! (See the first picture above.) It was so pretty, but I could tell it was going to be a cold, blustery morning and was glad I’d packed warm clothes in my overnight bag. I got dressed and went downstairs for breakfast and was just about the first one there, so I got my pick of tables. Of course, I chose the one right by the hearth and it was delicious to sit there sipping tea and eating biscuits with the crackling fire so warm and close. Breakfast itself was nothing to write home about; on the weekends they do a buffet-style thing and the reconstituted eggs and bacon in warming trays weren’t very appetizing. They also had pastries and oatmeal and cold cereal, just like any chain hotel’s free breakfast. I filled up on biscuits with butter and jam and lots of hot tea, then ran up to my room for my luggage. I packed the car and brushed about two inches of soft, pretty snow off the windshield, et al, and then drove over to the main parking lot and left the car there. It was snowing pretty hard but I was warm and full of breakfast so I walked over to the Trustees’ Building to check out – maybe a quarter of a mile. The nice lady who checked me out seemed surprised that I wanted to buy a ticket to tour the village, but she assured me that many of the buildings would be open at 10 AM and I was free to stroll around as I liked until then.
So I did.
Pleasant Hill has a kind of Colonial Williamsburg vibe going on, but I expect that even on busy days it’s nowhere near as crowded as C.V., and this was definitely NOT a busy day. In fact, I had the whole place pretty much to myself. I’m not all that hepped on the insides of old buildings but I do enjoy the outsides and it was fun to trudge down the deserted village streets with the snow scrunching under my boots and the wind whipping around my face. I had a fleece headband as well as my jacket hood to keep me dry and relatively warm, and I also had a map of the place the nice lady had given me. I discovered that there were working farm buildings in the eastern half of the village, so I hiked off in that direction. Soon I saw a large black barn in the distance and as I got closer, saw a pen full of frisky goats having their morning constitutional. I went over for a visit and was joined by a large and insistent cat.
Everyone was covered in snow but still friendly enough; the goats kicked and capered and tried to nibble my coat through the fence and the cat positively yowled until I petted it (and then got so excited that it tried to bite me, fickle creature). I spent a good long while playing with the goats and then moved down the road to a turkey pen, with a single large tom turkey in dignified residence, and then further still to snow-covered pastures lined with stone walls, where a lot of cattle were standing patiently, their hides frosted white.
It was nearly 10 AM by then so I mushed back to the Visitors’ Center. The gift shop was just opening so I had a look in there – the prices were jaw-droppingly high – and then strolled down the village’s main drag to the Centre Family dwelling, which is used as a museum. A pair of lovely elderly ladies in Shaker garb were doing the docent thing while ironing shirts and doing other picturesque things. They were pleasant enough but seemed content to leave me to my own devices, so I went up and down the staircases, snapping pictures to my heart’s delight.
I went back outside and noodled around some more. Signs led me to the eastern section of the village and the little Shaker graveyard, which was particularly poignant in the snow. I saw some geese in a half-frozen pond, many more cattle and some donkeys sharing some hay with a few sheep. I also finally began to see other people; a few brave folks were out wandering like me, but mostly people seemed to be shuttling between their cars and the West Family Dwelling. The snow was letting up but it was still blustery. I knew I had another three or four hours to travel to my mother’s house, and I also knew there was another Shaker village I wanted to visit along the way, so reluctantly I went back to my car, brushed off the fresh accumulation of snow, and pointed my nose to the southwest.
I’d like to go back to Pleasant Hill one day – maybe in the autumn. I bet it’s gorgeous in the autumn. But Pleasant Hill in an early February snowfall is pretty darned magical.