An American-Pantheon Road Trip
Great writers have a tendency to look larger than life once they have passed into history. Some seem downright godlike. In France, the writers Emile Zola and Victor Hugo’s remains are housed in a monument called Le Pantheon, named for Rome’s Pantheon, which was built in honor of the Ancient Roman gods. It’s easy to forget that the authors of great works like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, For Whom the Bell Tolls and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” put their pants on one leg at a time just like us.
A good reminder of both great writers’ ordinariness and their extraordinariness is a visit to the humble homes where their great work was realized. The homes of some canonical American authors have been preserved for posterity—among them Mark Twain’s in Hartford, Connecticut; Ernest Hemingway’s in Key West, Florida; and Washington Irving’s in Tarrytown, New York.
The Mark Twain House and Museum
Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain) built his Victorian gothic home in what was at the time the bucolic town of Hartford in order to be close to the publishing industry and friends like fellow-author Harriet Beecher Stowe. Here he wrote, late at night in the house’s billiard room, all of the works that would earn him his lasting reputation— including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and the timeless Huck Finn.
Two exhibits that explore Twain’s thinking concerning African Americans, which evolved from racism to abolitionism, and the depiction of African Americans in popular culture during his day are on display through September 3, 2012.
The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum
Ernest Hemingway, who said that of all texts he owed the biggest debt to Huck Finn, was much more of a rambler during his literary peak than Twain was during his. One constant for Hemingway in the late 20s and 30s, though, was that he wintered in Key West, where he acquired a Spanish Colonial house in 1931.
The Hemingway Home runs tours, which are informative and charming, every half hour. As the furnishings are original (many of the pieces were acquired by Ernest’s wife, Pauline, in Paris in the 20s), you will get to see the house as it was when Hemingway composed great works like Death in the Afternoon and To Have and Have Not. Keep an eye out for the six-toed cats, descendants of a polydactyl cat that one of Hemingway’s ship-captain friends gave him.
Washington Irving’s Sunnyside
Washington Irving, the creator of the timeless characters Rip Van Winkle, Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman and the first internationally-lauded American literary figure, started designing his own Dutch-and-Spanish-style mansion on the Hudson River in 1835. The mansion was purchased by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in 1945 and turned into a museum. The museum has preserved Irving’s writing room as it was when he wrote his stories in it (by longhand, of course). Sunnyside offers forty-five minute tours by knowledgeable guides dressed in period costume. Appropriately for an author whose stories continue to be a favorite with kids, especially at at Halloween, the tours include games for kids and a scavenger hunt.
The Perfect Cure for Homesickness
After a day of looking at other people’s homes, you’ll likely be a little homesick for your own. The best way to cure homesickness on the road is at a hotel that has all the amenities of home—like a kitchen, Wi-Fi and a laundry room.
Getting Jazzy This Summer at Jazz Festivals
Summer’s here. The bees are buzzing. The birds are chirping, and the jazz musicians are jamming. Summer is the season of festivities and of festivals, of barbeques and of inspired versions of Louis Armstrong’s “Struttin’ with Some Barbeque.” It’s the time of the year when everybody takes to the road—jazz musicians, jazz fans and general seekers of a good time. It’s no coincidence that one of the main jazz standards, some would say the standard of all standards, is George and Ira Gershwin’s “Summertime.” Jazz, no matter how sophisticated it gets, is at base still that good-time, summertime music that was born in New Orleans over 100 years ago.
Newport Jazz Festival 2012: August 3-5
The granddaddy of the annual jazz festivals is the Newport Jazz Festival—the festival responsible for re-launching Duke Ellington’s career in 1956. The ’58 festival is documented in the great film Jazz on a Summer’s Day, which features performances by Thelonious Monk, Anita O’Day and Louis Armstrong. In this film, one gets to see the historicalness and the greatness of the festival—as well as what Keith Richards has called the passing of the torch from jazz to rock-and-roll. The one non-jazz performance in the film is Chuck Berry’s show-stopping set. Richards has a point.
By ’58, jazz, the pop music of the Greatest Generation, was no longer what the kids danced to. The burgeoning baby boom wanted duck-walking Chuck and his fellow-rockers. The Newport Jazz Festival is still going strong and is still proving Richards right. This year’s line-up is by no means pure jazz. Jazz stalwarts like Joe Lovano and Vince Giordano are booked cheek by jowl with rockers (of the blues and swamp boogie variety, respectively) like Derek Trucks and Dr. John.
Fillmore Jazz Festival 2012: July 7-8
The Fillmore section of San Francisco was known in the 30s, 40s, and 50s as the “Harlem of the West.” It drew high-caliber jazz players as much as New York City’s Harlem did. It’s marquee jazz club, Jimbo’s Bop City, which fell to “urban renewal” in the ’60s and today, is memorialized by a plaque on the sidewalk, hosted every big name in the jazz world—Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon and many, many others.
Today, the neighborhood is honoring and celebrating its past. There is a new jazz club named Yoshi’s San Francisco, and every year it hosts the Fillmore Jazz Festival. A great thing about the Fillmore Festival, which can’t be said of the big name festivals, like Newport and the Monterey Jazz Festival, is this: It’s totally free. It’s the largest free jazz fest on the left coast.
This year’s line-up is delightfully diverse and still quite jazzy. It features the sophisticated and swinging Contemporary Jazz Orchestra—nominally and musically in the tradition of the very-popular Modern Jazz Quartet and the sadly rather overlooked Charles Bell Contemporary Jazz Quartet. Also on the bill is the eccentric singer-songwriter outfit Foxtails Brigade.
Even in the Fillmore, the walls separating jazz from the rest of the world are gone. And that’s a good thing. Jazz never was a pure music anyway. As it began as a combination of European and African dance music, it’s been a fusion genre from the start.
After getting a full day’s “jazzercise,” you’re going to want to take it easy—just kick back with your family. The perfect place to do this is at an Extended Stay Hotel—conveniently equipped with all the conveniences of home.
The Road Warrior Takes to the Rails
The giant network of trains that the U.S. had in the nineteenth century made us who we are today—the world’s preeminent economy spread out over a vast mass of land. American trains running on American coal shipped raw goods like cotton, gold and cattle to locales were they were turned into finished goods, which generated American wealth. And passenger trains brought whole towns of people west. A nostalgia for this rough-hewn yet proto-modern period in American history (which really came into its own following the Civil War), a period that overlaps with that mythologized in cowboy films and literature and that has plenty of its own mythology, has resulted in the rehabilitation of many period steam locomotives and passenger and freight cars. These trains offer nostalgic trips through the country that they shaped.
A Train Trip through Amish Country
The Strasburg Rail Road, in Strasburg, Pennsylvania, operates the country’s oldest short-run rail line. They offer forty-five minute trips on genuine steam trains through Lancaster County, home to more than 15,000 Amish people. It’s the Amish who provide the charm that this trip has through agrarian Pennsylvania. You will see Amish farmers working in their fields, riding in horses and buggies and studying in one-room schoolhouses. This feature of the trip adds another anachronistic element to the Strasburg Rail Road’s trip back in time.
Get in the Driver’s Seat in Nevada
The Nevada Northern Railway Museum, in Ely, Nevada, offers the visitor the experience of working on the railroad all the live-long day. They will train you to be the engineer on an actual nineteenth-century steam train and let you drive it on a fourteen-mile route. For a fee, you will get to be a real nineteenth-century rail worker—doing machine shop work, fixing track and working on the train crew.
In the winter, the museum hosts photographers. You get the opportunity to photograph nineteenth-century steam trains pulling period passenger and freight cars in an environment that does not betray the fact that we’re living in the 21st century. If you make your photos sepia, you will appear to have taken pictures during the early days of railroading.
A Trip through Gold and Silver Country and Back in Time
Explore gold and silver country on the Georgetown Loop Railroad. The line runs atop the Rocky Mountains and through majestic Clear Creek Valley for two miles between the towns of Georgetown and Silver Plume, Colorado. You can disembark from the train halfway through the route in order to take a guided tour of the Lebanon Silver Mine. You get to walk a whole five hundred feet into a mine passageway that dates from the 1870s. A guide will inform you about the interesting and somewhat romantic early days of mining, and you will be shown places where riches were extracted. In addition, you will be shown the changing room that the miners used and the office of the boss. The Georgetown Loop Railroad is a thorough trip back in time. You learn about both the machines and the people of the past.
A Modern Hotel Room after a Day on Antique Trains
Even the most nostalgic rail fan does not want a hotel room out of the 19th century. After a day spent knocking around on nineteenth-century stream-engine trains, you will want to take it easy at a hotel with all of the available modern amenities. An Extended Stay Hotel, where you can cook your own dinner and surf the web with free in-room Wi-Fi, fits the bill at the right price.