24 January 2010

...and on to Monticello

“We have to go to Monticello”, was the first thing my brother said after we’d decided to make the trip to Baltimore for our cousin’s wedding. I know I studied Thomas Jefferson and the family estate way back in elementary school, but I didn’t remember that much about him. Until a friend mentioned it, I had even forgotten that Monticello was on the nickel. I was up for a road trip especially since the bro would be driving.

First though, we had to make our way from Baltimore to Virginia. With maps in hand, we set out in the rain in what we thought would be an easy cruise down to Springfield, VA. My brother is very good at all that map stuff and north/east/south/west. I, on the other hand, have difficulty differentiating between left and right. Nevertheless, I was the designated navigator. And since it looked fairly straight forward, I wasn’t concerned.

We’d been traveling quite a while through steadily increasing foul weather when we realized we still had quite a ways to go. It turns out we had looped around the right side of DC instead of going to the left, neither of us too sure how we managed that, but there was no going back.

Trying to read the road signs and then find things on the map, I became aware of how different everything was laid out and/or marked back in this part of the US. In California, it is pretty straight forward when it comes to numbering freeways and interstates; that didn’t seem to be the case in MD and VA. Sure, there was the well marked 95, and 495, but then there were all these other thoroughfares on the map that had either a small oval or a large oval around them. And then there were the ones with the federal shield. I figure it’s because back here roads are old, older, and prehistoric, and they’ve just kept adding bigger and better highways and adding more numbers to keep up.

Just when we thought we’d made it to Springfield, (we had actually exited the freeway), and could glimpse the Best Western through the fog on the other side, we got skunked yet again. We tried to drive under the freeway but were rudely forced back onto it, going in some other direction. No problem, I told my brother, we’ll get off at the next exit and circle back.

Can’t do that here. It was miles before we could even find an exit and even when we thought we were going into a town so that we could maybe take the city streets back, we’d get pushed onto yet another freeway. It was like a bad nightmare from which you can’t wake up.

Eventually we got there, not at all impressed with the surrounding neighborhood. But it was time to get off the road and get some food and rest. It turned out that the Best Western in Springfield was more than we could ever have hoped for. They had round-the-clock free food down in the non-functioning restaurant. Granted, it was yogurt and cereal and juice and coffee, but what more does one need? The following morning our free continental breakfast, (which I had assumed meant coffee and toast), included eggs and potatoes and waffles and all the other stuff from the night before. And unlike the high-dollar Marriott in Baltimore, they had free Wi-Fi.

That morning, the sun was shining and we were well equipped to handle the insane roadways on our way to Charlottesville and Monticello. I’d carefully plotted it out on the internet while my brother stuck to the AAA maps. We were to take VA-617 S, to VA-644 E, to I-95 S, to VA-3 W via Exit 130B, to VA-20/Constitution Hwy, to US-15 S, to VA-231, to VA-22, to US-250 W, to I-64, to VA-20 exit 121, to VA-20 S, to VA-52, to Thomas Jefferson Parkway. We made it with not one missed exit or merge.

We parked in the visitor’s lot and kept looking around for Monticello which was not in sight. Were we in the right place? Once in the sprawling visitor’s center to buy tickets we found out that you must take the shuttle up the hill to the house, but that you could walk back. Tickets were carefully timed and I was surprised to note that there were quite a few tourists even though it was mid-January. During the summer it must be packed.

Several people who had been to Monticello mentioned that they were surprised at how small it was. It’s not exactly small, but certainly not the grand, sprawling estate that somehow has been inscribed in the collective minds of forth graders studying the presidents.

The docent gave us a wonderful tour which, as always on these things, was too rushed. I’m sure everyone else would also like to spend hours inside asking questions and taking pictures. Questions were answered, but no pictures allowed. That is something I have never understood; why can’t you take pictures in museums? I understand it when you are in a place where camera flashes can cause damage to an ancient cave painting, but not in any other situation.

As intriguing as the house was, my brother’s main reason for being there was the gardens, in particular the fruit and vegetables. He knew that Jefferson was an accomplished agronomist who had developed a strategy to grow plants by creating a micro-climate on the side of the hill below the house. My brother was there to study it first-hand so that he might be able to apply the methodology to his own land.

I walked around the property in utter amazement as I read the placards and leaflets telling how in Jefferson’s “garden laboratory” he grew over 150 varieties of fruit; 250 varieties of vegetables; and an immense number of flowers and ornamental plants from around the world. Everything was planted in a certain spot for a specific reason.

For Jefferson, the vegetable garden was a kind of laboratory where he could experiment with imported squashes and broccoli from Italy, beans and salsify collected by the Lewis and Clark expedition, figs from France, and peppers from Mexico. Although he would grow as many as twenty varieties of bean and fifteen types of English pea, his use of the scientific method selectively eliminated inferior types: "I am curious to select one or two of the best species or variety of every garden vegetable, and to reject all others from the garden to avoid the dangers of mixing or degeneracy." http://www.monticello.org/

I keep going back to the Monticello website. It has to be one of the best sites I have ever seen and the information, which goes on and on is utterly fascinating. I am now totally intrigued by the man and all that he accomplished.

I’m sure my brother would have been happy to walk the entire 5000 acres, were that permitted, but we had a long drive ahead of us. A quick tour through the gift shop, a book and several seed packets later, and we were on our way to Arlington.

We again passed through one Civil war battlefield after the next with my brother, the history man, filling me in on the details. I have never been very interested in such matters; possibly because it was so long ago and California is a world away. But now I found myself hanging onto his every word and feeling a part of what had transpired on all those years ago.

I could definitely see returning to Monticello and also visiting the University of Virginia, (another of Jefferson’s endeavors), and driving through the lanes of our nation’s history.