It’s been a banner year for tomatoes in my vegetable garden this year. I’ve made tomato sauce, tomato jam, tomato chutney and tomato soup, and still the tomatoes keep on coming. Even the squirrels and chipmunks seem to have reached the point of satiety and are no longer robbing me of my crop. At this writing (early October 2013) my remaining plants are producing about a half-dozen tomatoes a week.
Since I only have a small freezer, and since it’s just my husband and me to eat all this bounty (and he really only likes tomatoes as sauce), I was running out of ideas to use up and/or preserve so much goodness. As an experiment, I made a batch of oven-dried tomatoes, but while they tasted good, they turned somewhat brown and unattractive and I didn’t like running my oven all day long, either. I started to wonder about dehydrators.
I spent several days researching recipes and looking up reviews on various models, and eventually ordered a Nesco 600-watt dehydrator. According to Amazon, it would ship within a week, so I began to stow away tomatoes like a squirrel hoarding nuts. For some reason shipping occurred later than anticipated, so by the time the Nesco arrived, on a Friday afternoon, I had a refrigerator bin full of lovely ‘maters ready to go.
I tore into the box, eager to get going. Amused, John cautioned me to test the equipment first and retired to his basement workshop to tinker. I read the instructions carefully (pretty simple), assembled the dehydrator (even simpler) and set to work cutting up tomatoes. I had mostly Beefmasters, Lemon Boys and one or two Old Germans (an heirloom that produces lovely yellow and orange- striped beauties), and I quickly filled two of the dehydrator’s five racks with tomato slices about a quarter-inch thick. I gave each a shot of vegetable spray and a scattering of Penzey’s Sandwich Sprinkle, then stacked the racks into the unit and plugged it in.
The dehydrator let out a racheting whine that sounded like someone running a power saw. John hollered up from the basement: “Is that the dehydrator?” “Yes,” I yelled back. “Is something stuck in it?” “No, I don’t think so.” “Unplug it and bring it here.”
So I trotted the top of the unit (that’s where the heating coils and the fan live) down to the workshop. John examined it, and I guess he could tell from my expression how disappointed I was. “Some of the reviews said it was noisy, but that seems really excessive,” I said. “I guess I’ll have to send it back.” John said nothing, but he got out a screwdriver and began to take the top of the Nesco apart. “Something is rubbing in here,” he said, but the innards of the machine revealed only a little plastic fan and the heating coils. After examining everything, he determined that a piece of metal shielding the wiring was slightly bent, throwing everything out of true. “Bring down the rest of it,” he said, bending the metal back into place, and I brought down the base, the three empty racks and the two full ones. John eyeballed the prepped racks and shook his head. “I thought you were going to test it first,” he said. “This IS a test,” I answered. “Yellow tomatoes and red tomatoes.” (I really am a bit of a dullard at times.)
We reassembled the stack and turned the dehydrator on. It whirred breathily, like a box fan – a rather pleasant sound. I took everything back upstairs, filled the other three racks, set the temperature on the unit for 135 degrees and plugged it in. I set a kitchen timer for 30 minutes and went off to do something else. When the timer buzzed, I reversed the order of the racks in the unit, set the timer for an hour and left the Nesco to do its thing.
I knew it was going to take anywhere from 6-12 hours to dehydrate the tomatoes completely. Every hour or so I’d unplug the Nesco and rearrange the racks, so they all got a turn being nearest the fan and heat. By bedtime, the tomatoes smelled wonderful, but most of them were still moist to the touch – which meant they still had a ways to go. A few of the smaller slices were nearly dry, though, and I sacrificed them to the God of Testing – delicious. I’m not comfortable running appliances through the night, so I turned the Nesco off and put the racks in the refrigerator for the night.
John had to leave quite early the next morning and was gone by the time I rolled out of bed, but when I went into the kitchen to make my morning tea I discovered that he’d gotten the racks out of the refrigerator and started the Nesco for me. Within two hours about half of the tomatoes were dry; I took those out, set them aside and continued the dehydration process with the remainder. One or two of the newly dried tomatoes had moist patches, so I ate them. Did I mention that they were delicious? Dried tomatoes have a wonderful tang, and the little bit of seasoning made them even more delightful. Every time I checked on the dehydrator, I’d have myself a little taste. It’s a wonder any of them made it into storage, but eventually I had a sandwich-sized baggie full of yummy treats. They were really pretty, too – none of the browning I’d experienced with the oven-dried version.
I still had plenty of tomatoes, so I decided to slice up another batch. By the time John came home, they were nearly done, and I was quite smug about my accomplishment and was already planning Phase Two of the Great Dehydrator Experiment: fruit.
Thirty days ago I decided I needed a new exercise to get my writing going in the morning. Normally I can sit down in the a.m. and start hammering away, but I just started the third book in my series and a lot of my writing time seems to degenerate into staring-into-space time while I sort out how to get Character A to Point B while picking up Subplot C along the way. I wasn’t getting any actual writing done, and while I didn’t exactly feel blocked, I did feel as if I was getting out of the habit of writing. And that’s no good.
So I decided that every morning I’d write from a prompt and get myself going that way. Now, I have several books of writing prompts – ones that I’ve purchased or that have been given to me – but my tendency is to spend my time flipping through them to find one that I feel like writing about, and ending up writing none of them. Also no good. (I have the same problem with books of crossword puzzles.) So I said to myself, “Self, there are bound to be some good prompts on the Interwebs; go ye and find some, fer cryin’ out loud.”
Turns out there are a lot of websites with writing prompts. None of them really spoke to me. Some were too general; others too specific; still more gave long scenarios that weren’t interesting. At last I found WritersWrite, which has a lot of prompts geared toward writers with works in progress. Even better, they give just a single prompt per day – no choosing. I told myself that for one month, I would visit the site and read the Daily Prompt. I would set myself a time limit, anywhere from five to fifteen minutes. And then I would write.
I confess that I didn’t do the prompt exercise every single day. I couldn’t get myself into the habit at first. Some days I was too busy with life and other things. Some days I read the prompt and came up dry. Some days I plain forgot. And some days (thank God) I was actually writing on my own and didn’t want to interrupt the flow. A lot of what I did write was crap – forced and pompous. Some wasn’t. And some was actually useful. Here’s yesterday’s prompt, and my response to it:
Your antagonist is making tea for his mother. What is he thinking?
Daazna sifted the dried herbs through his fingers, examining the mixture. The tea was a combination of many mundane plants, but there were a few – a very few – that, consumed by themselves or in simple combinations, could have interesting effects. Valerian, he thought; that might do the trick. Perhaps with a little pennyroyal. A bit of dried mushroom. I could do whatever I wanted.
With the crumbled herbs poised over the pot, he hesitated. Or I could use none at all. I don’t need herbs. I have the spells to do what I want. I have that power. If I wanted to. Do I want to?
He glanced at Ariphele. She was gazing into the fire, her chin propped on one fist. His grandparents sat at the table with their backs to him, to their daughter. The two of them against the two of us, he thought. It’s always been the two of them against the two of us. A slight movement caught his eye; his mother had shifted position and was looking at him now. A little smile tightened her mouth, and he wondered, as he often did, if she could read his thoughts.
“Grandmother,” he said aloud. “Grandfather. Would you like some tea?”
The nice thing about this prompt is that it allowed me to write a little backstory on my series’ antagonist as well as his mother Ariphele, who is an important character in Book 1 and Book 2.
It’s only been in the last two weeks that writing from the prompts has begun to feel more natural, so I think I’ll continue the exercise. It may be tough to do for a while – my theatrical schedule is very full for the next thirty days – but I’m going to give it the old college try. About a week ago I stumbled across (literally; I was using StumbleUpon) another writing prompt website. Oneword is another daily prompt site, but it’s a 60-second, single-word prompt, which makes it a quick challenge – more like a game. Today’s word was neon and here’s what I wrote in the allotted minute:
Blue, yellow, red, green. Blue yellow red green. Blueyellowredgreen. The neon lights flickered in their endless pattern through her hotel window. Bet lay quiet, hoping the man next to her would not wake up.
I don’t know where this came from, nor if it could lead somewhere else one day, but I got a kick out of writing it. I’ll keep visiting this website, too, because no matter how busy my life becomes, I know I can always spare sixty seconds.
Of necessity, my decorative gardening work went a lot slower than putting in the annual vegetable patch. As I mentioned in my previous blog post, my husband and I pulled out pretty much everything in my ornamental garden, a fan-shaped plot about fifteen feet across and nearly as deep. Some years ago I made the error of planting a trumpet vine in the garden. I had a clematis growing up a cheap metal arch in the middle of the garden, but the clematis never did that well and I decided to start the trumpet vine up the other side of the arch. Well, the trumpet vine liked where it was so well that it grew and grew and got heavier and heavier until it was almost too much weight for the arch. A windstorm blew it over one day; we managed to jimmy the thing back up but knew it was a matter of time before everything came crashing down. Hurricane Irene in 2011 delivered the coup de grâce. We were out of town due to a family death and came home to the sight of the whole arch crumpled across the garden. I should have pulled everything out then and there, but I didn’t, and the vine kept growing and growing, until it, along with two big patches of sawgrass and a pair of scruffy bushes (species unknown), had pretty much taken over the garden. 2012 flew by and I was too busy/uninspired/lazy to deal with it, but in early spring of this year I had a happy confluence of good weather, unemployment and fresh determination, and started pulling the ornamental garden apart.
I wish I’d taken some photos before I actually began yanking out stuff, but the photo above will give you an idea of the mess. What you’re seeing is mostly the sawgrass and the bushes; I had already pulled out the trumpet vine and the remnants of the metal arch (so rusted that I could snap it apart with my bare hands). Some of the vine is piled in the foreground. I knew I wanted to move the sawgrass to the side of the garden nearest the house, but first they had to get their spring haircuts so they’d be manageable. Then I’d have to dig both plants up – a daunting prospect. Sawgrass plants don’t strike deep roots, but the rooting is thatchy and stubborn, and my plants are quite large. To your left is a photo of the sawgrass plants – one pre-haircut, one post. I used my electric hedge-trimmer for the buzzcuts.
Once the sawgrass were trimmed, I dug them up using a combination of spade and mattock. Yes, boys and girls, I had to chop them out. Once the largest one was uprooted, I actually had to sit down and lever it out of the ground with my feet – it was that massive. Out of the ground, the plants were hard to move; I was able to drag the smaller one (by the short hairs, so to speak) but the larger one had to be turned on its side and rolled, like a barrel.
About the only thing left in the garden at this point were a liriope plant, some daylilies, a bunch of dependable sedum, a bleeding heart (which had already bloomed in spectacular fashion), the two nondescript bushes and an azalea, which had not enjoyed being overwhelmed by the fallen trumpet vine and looked pretty scraggly. The nondescripts, on the other hand, looked positively robust. John has always hated those bushes and we could never agree on how they should be pruned, so when he asked if we could remove them entirely, I saw yes. I bundled and bagged while he chopped, and we had them out in no time. Then we raked all the rubbish out and discovered that the hosta I was certain had been killed by neglect were, in fact, still alive and beginning to push through the soil. I knew I’d have to move them, but I wanted them pop through a little more before I did.
About this time my mother informed me that she was sending me a birthday gift of plants, so I was able to begin planning the garden’s layout. With the nondescript bushes removed, I had a lot more space to deal with. I knew I wanted some kind of small tree in the center of the garden and toyed with the idea of a fig tree, but eventually John and I decided to buy ourselves a 20th anniversary tree, in the form of a dwarf Japanese weeping cherry. We bought a pretty one at our local nursery and planted it carefully, then netted it against the ominous warnings about Brood II cicadas and the damage they can do to young trees. I still wanted a fig three, though, and the ornamental cherry reminded John of the cherry tree he had planted in his family’s yard long ago (and which is still going strong as of this writing). We decided we wanted those, too, although they would get places in the yard rather than in the garden. The bare-root saplings arrived quickly and were planted and netted posthaste.
So here they are – our four little trees. I realize some of them hardly look like trees at all – more like sticks covered with black cotton candy – but all of them are budding and leafing and showing every sign that they’re trying to get established. I am praying that the Brood II cicadas (which have yet to appear in our area – thank you, long cool spring) will leave them alone, but I know we’ll have to be vigilant.
The gifts from my mother arrived in dribs and drabs – in fact, I’m still awaiting a shipment of crocosmia – but I ended up with doubles of some plants, so I guess I can’t complain. Instead of a single hydrangea, I got two – a pair of Snow Queen Oakleaf Hydrangeas. This entailed a certain amount of replanning in the ornamental garden, which entailed having to shift the liriope yet again – the poor thing had already been moved twice and wasn’t happy about it. I got everything planted and the garden finally has a shape to it, although because so many of the new plants are quite young and small, it looks rather empty at the moment. I’m sure with time and care, everything will expand to fill its place. Yesterday we weeded yet again and then laid down some mulch, and I’m giving some thought to how I want to fill in the gaps until everything gets established. Until then, it’s weed, feed, water and watch – and cross fingers that the cicadas won’t be as awful as everyone predicts.
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.
I hauled out my battered copy of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King last night to look up a particular quote, one I had been thinking about using as a signature for emails and such. I hadn’t read the book in some time, and it took me a few minutes to locate it. I have a large and not terribly well organized personal library, and things tend to get shifted around when I get new acquisitions or attempt to cull a few books from the mass.
I finally found the book on a top shelf with my few treasured fantasy novels, cheek by jowl with J.R.R. Tolkien and Ursula K. LeGuin and Douglas Adams. I stood thumbing through the pages for a while, enjoying the sensation of rediscovery, like seeing an old friend after a long time apart. I knew the quote occurred in “The Sword in the Stone,” the first section of the book, but I dawdled a while before getting down to the actual search.
I do so love White’s narrative voice: whimsical, wry and yet wistful. When I was a child, the animated Disney version of “The Sword in the Stone” was one of my favorite movies, but after I read the book I found it difficult to watch the film again. Compared to White’s prose, the movie’s tone seems all wrong – raucous and coarse.
Eventually I got down to business and found the quote I was seeking. It’s in the latter part of “The Sword in the Stone,” where Merlyn has informed The Wart that the time has come for them to part ways. I was startled to see that during some previous reading of the book, I had circled the page number and drawn a star next to one of the paragraphs. Clearly, the section had spoken to me before. The starred graph is actually earlier than the quote I was seeking, and with a genuflection to the gods of Fair Use and Proper Attribution, here is the paragraph:
“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then – to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.”
Dear old Merlyn goes on at some length about what one can learn, and how long one can spend learning it. The Wart is feeling low because he has already been cast aside by his childhood companion Kay, who is about to be made a knight, and he feels worse knowing that Merlyn is leaving and he will lose the two people closest to him at the same time.
I stood re-reading the paragraph and wondering what circumstances in my own life had driven me to circle that page number so I could find it again. It had to have been at some time of major upheaval which no doubt caused me a lot of sorrow, but I’ll be damned if I can remember what it was now. But I think I must have gone off with the lesson ringing in my head, because I am a learning fool when I get curious about a topic. That’s the beautiful part about writing and acting both: research is a huge part of both crafts, and there is nothing more satisfying than packing your brain full of wonderful information that, while it may never find its way onto either the page or the stage, can still inform the choices you make.
A few paragraphs below the one I marked lies the quote I wanted. Merlyn asks The Wart if, in all the years he has been under Merlyn’s tutelage, The Wart has learned anything. The Wart responds:
“I have learned, and been happy.”
Something about those words makes my heart leap every time I see them. I’ve underlined them now, so I can find them more easily. If I was ever to have an epitaph, that is what I would want it to be – but since I plan to be cremated and scattered (along with a generous libation from a really good bottle of Pinot Noir), I have engraved the words on my heart instead. A cure for cancer or world peace may be beyond the scope of my ability or skill, but to be able to look back at the end of my life and say those words truthfully – for me, that would be a life well lived, and more than enough.
It isn’t often that John and I have free days that coincide, but when that happens, we like to drive out somewhere and just get lost. Our jaunts usually have a destination, but once we get there and have done whatever it was we drove out there to do, then it’s time to just get in the car and noodle around to see what we can see. What with onboard GPS and cellphone navigation apps, it’s hard to actually “get lost,” but we try our hardest.
Yesterday we drove west to the Sperryville area to visit the Copper Fox Distillery and learn about making whiskey. Neither of us drink whiskey, but we’re curious about the recent uptick in boutique distilleries in the area. Some months back we visited Catoctin Creek Distillery and found it interesting, so we thought it might be fun to see another distillery in action. It was a beautiful day and we drove the whole way with the windows down, enjoying a taste of early autumn while Betty in the Box (our name for the onboard GPS system) gave us the directions. We got there just in time to take the distillery tour, which was free but did not include samples – which was fine because neither of us drink whiskey.
We got to see big bags of barley. We got to see barley being sprouted and barley being smoked. We got to see barley fermenting in great big vats, which makes the mash that makes the whiskey and also gets fed to happy area cows, who apparently knock each other down to get to the mash when it’s delivered (we were assured that this is only because the barley mash tastes nice – the alcohol has been cooked out by the time the cows get to it. We actually tasted some of the sprouted barley and it ain’t bad). And then we got to see the distilling setup, which was not nearly as complicated as I thought it would be. We got to see the whiskey in its charred white oak barrels, sitting on shelves aging quietly except for the occasional break in routine when the distillers roll the barrels around the floor to shake things up a bit. And we got to smell but not taste the finished single malt whiskey and the rye and compare the two, which was fine because we don’t drink whiskey. And then we bought a bottle of the single malt. Don’t ask me why – we don’t drink whiskey.
And then we got back in the car and looked at each other and said “let’s go noodle.” This means we’re just going to drive until we see something that interests us enough to stop, and it’s my favorite part of our little jaunts. This time, however, we were also looking for a place to eat dinner. We bypassed a couple of likely-looking spots in Sperryville because John had a hankering for barbeque. We drove south past Culpeper and saw a small-town parking lot flea market where someone was serving barbeque from a truck, but we passed that, too. We noodled further south to Mineral but didn’t find anyplace that looked exciting, so I did a little cellphone survey and found a ‘que place back in Culpeper that got high marks on Yelp. It seemed a wee bit pricey for ‘que, but we were hungry so we plugged the address of The Culpeper Cattle Company into Betty and pointed our nose north once more.
Culpeper is one of those towns that has a couple of refurbished historic blocks in its downtown area featuring shops and restaurants with names like It’s About Thyme and Green Roost and Hazel River Inn and Miss Minerva’s Tea Room & Gifts, and we figured a ‘que place with a name like Culpeper Cattle Company and three dollar-bill signs on its Yelp reviews (meaning “Pricey”) would be located in this district. We weren’t wrong, and the signage on the restaurant, with added “at the Stable” language (which gave it an even more gentrified sound, sort of like like Stratford-upon-Avon) was in keeping with the overall appearance of the area. There was an outside deck that seemed pretty busy, so we opted to go inside and check with the host/hostess to see if there was a wait.
When we stepped inside, we discovered that the fancy sign is as fancy as this place gets. The dining area was small – only eleven tables (mostly booths) – and the kitchen/service area opened right onto it. I suppose we looked confused; someone in a booth hollered, “Sit anywhere!” and so we did – at the only available table, which was dead in the middle of the only path to the kitchen. We were greeted almost immediately by a kinda-punky, kinda-pregnant but very self-assured young server who gave us menus and brought us a drink orders: two diet cokes. We acquainted ourselves with the menu and had a look around. I was a wee bit startled to see that there was apparently no place for the waitstaff to put their personal belongings – purses were stowed between the soft drink fountain and the only two-person table in the place, which was occupied by a biker-y looking dude. He seemed right at home, though – he got up a couple of times to refill his own drink and actually disappeared from the restaurant for about 15 minutes, but he also assured us that the food was good. I ordered a brisket and sausage sandwich with a side of collard greens; John asked for a half-rack platter, and we settled back to wait for our food. I was thirsty so I’d already sucked down most of my diet, and it was about that time that I noticed the waitstaff struggling with the soda dispenser.
Turns out that our two drinks had drained the Diet Coke fountain dry, and there was NO MORE DIET COKE. Our waitress offered to sub some other beverage, so I asked for an unsweetened iced tea and John decided to have a beer and a glass of water. The beer and the tea and the glass of water were duly fetched, but within moments the staff determined that there was also NO MORE UNSWEETENED ICED TEA – that mine was, in fact, the last of it. Our waitress told us she would have to make some more. She was so dry and unembarrassed about the situation that I had to laugh.
About fifteen minutes passed and here came our waitress again, and something in her expression told me she had more news for us. Actually, the news was for John – she clapped him on the shoulder and told him the ribs were still in the smoker and WOULD NOT BE READY FOR ANOTHER FIFTEEN MINUTES. He looked nonplussed; the waitress shrugged; I howled with laughter, so much that everyone else in the restaurant peered over at us. Most of the other patrons merely looked amused, but a woman in a nearby booth began to study us. I told the waitress not to wait my order; I was starving. Off the waitress trotted; over came the woman from the booth, who informed us that she was SURE she knew us from somewhere and were we from Culpeper. We said no, we were from the DC area and were rarely in the Culpeper vicinity. She repeated that she KNEW US FROM SOMEWHERE and that she NEVER FORGETS A FACE and then, barely modulating her voice, told us she was with the Virginia State Troopers and had we EVER BEEN PULLED OVER BY HER? We had to inform her that no, we’d never been pulled over by her or any other State Trooper in the area; so sorry. I made a joke about Bonnie and Clyde but it didn’t go over terribly well and the woman’s smile became a little fixed as she retired to her booth, still giving us strange looks. I was chewing on my lip to keep from laughing and eventually the woman and her companion left, but not without stopping again to tell us she was SURE SHE KNEW US and IT WOULD COME TO HER EVENTUALLY.
We’d been waiting for another fifteen minutes before my food arrived and I have to confess it was a grave disappointment. The collard greens were completely unseasoned – not even salted – although they tasted very fresh. There was no hot sauce or vinegar on the table but there were two squirt bottles of barbeque sauce on the table so I squirted a dollop of sauce from one of them into the greens, which at least gave them a little flavor. My sandwich came with something advertised on the menu as “fresh cut seasoned potato chips,” and they were kind of thick cut and snappy when you bit into them but without any flavor beyond a faint and rather odd sweetness. John and I decided to try the hot sauces on the potato chips to see which one we liked better, but as nearly as we could tell both bottles contained the identical sauce, which was sort of sweet and sort of hot but really not much of either. The first bite of my sausage and brisket sandwich was flavorful, though – the sausage was nice and spicy, the brisket tender and the cole slaw topping it was tasty and fresh. The brisket could have used a rub or something, though – if the sandwich hadn’t contained the spicy sausage, it would have been pretty darned dull.
Right about then one of the servers came in with two two-liter bottles of Diet Coke, and our waitress dryly informed us that she loved us enough to send out for Diet Coke. So mad props to her for that. John’s platter of ribs showed up shortly after. It was served up with corn on the cob and a piece of cornbread, as well as the two sides he ordered with it: french fries and slaw. I sampled the fries; they were quite good. John liked the corn, but when I tried the cornbread it was nearly inedible – hard and flavorless and stick-in-the-throat dry. The waitress offered butter to go with the cornbread, but it would have taken a LOT of butter to soften that cornbread up enough to eat it. We passed. John’s ribs, while very nicely cooked, were also without flavor except for the thin coating of barbeque sauce they’d been slathered with prior to serving. Someone in the kitchen needed to get acquainted with the salt and pepper shakers, at least.
So the food was kind of a bust, but our waitress and the clientele were entertaining enough to make up for it. We even got a senior discount and a free cookie, which took some of the sting out of the bill. We tipped our waitress 25%, which seemed to surprise her Not At All. I had to admit it: she had blasé down to a fine art.
Would we go there again? Probably not, but if you add in the entertainment value, it wasn’t a bad way to end a day of Getting Lost.