Monday, July 4, 2011

West Virginia is a little slice of Heaven

Imagine looking out over a beautiful valley punctuated with a flowing river running through the center and seven layers of mountains rising around the valley. There are no lights to be seen except the occasional car winding around one of the far peaks as it weaves its way to the base of the mountain. Now imagine deer grazing lazily, swallows diving past, and fireflies lighting the dark as you look down from your balcony. The temperature is 77 degrees during the hottest part of the day and a wonderfully cool 55 degrees at night. I have just described the scene that I enjoyed all week at the Pipestem Resort in Ghent, West Virginia.

Thursday we left the lodge and drove to White Sulphur Springs to tour the Greenbrier Hotel and the cold war bunker that was completed in the hotel in 1962. Because of the threat of nuclear war, Eisenhower had the bunker started in the 50's to house all of the U.S. Congress and their senior staffs. For 30 years the bunker was kept stocked with food, water, oxygen, medical supplies, physicians, technology personnel, etc needed in the event we were bombed. Think about this...all of the necessary items to accommodate 1200 people for 60 days were kept at the constant ready for 30 years!!! Even the furniture and decor were periodically updated and it was NEVER used! The expense of 30 years of daily upkeep for 1200 people and it was never used! (Of course, it's good that we were never that close to a nuclear threat!) And it was such a secret that the public never knew all of the secrets about the bunker until 1992 when it was exposed by the Washington Post!

One of the most spectacular sights at the Greenbrier is the interior decor which was decorated by the renowned designed Dorothy Draper (1889-1969). She designed long, sweeping hallways that practically burst with color. She was quite heroic for her time. She was born into a wealthy family and was married to a wealthy doctor. However, she wanted to make a name for herself. When her husband divorced her, she began her decorating business in earnest. She used bold colors of red, blue, coral, green, aqua, yellow to accent black and white. All of her patterns are huge and not easily forgotten. She went against all of the decorating norms of the oppressive Victorian era and created light, airy, wonderful spaces for people to enjoy. I loved seeing her designs and I am so glad that even 50 years after her death her designs live on in the company that bears her name.

After Greenbrier we visited a coal mine in Beckley, WVA. You can't imagine the difficult life of a coal miner until you are actually in the dark, damp, rat-infested mine and hear the stories of 12 hour days with men laying on their sides in the wet mud using a pick ax to extract coal. The life was hard and many men died in the mines. My family comes from a long line of miners and we have always heard the stories of the difficult lives of miners. However, the tour was eye-opening to reveal the reality of life in the mines. I loved the tour and we had a colorful character, Marvin, as our guide. However, I was ready to surface when the tour was over. The constant 55 degree temperature was nice, but the dark and the damp air was a little scary.

This vacation occurs every year for a Lilly-Mitchem family reunion. The Lilly family was one of the original settlers in West Virginia and was given land on the frontier in West Virginia in payment for their service during the Revolutionary War. Three years ago, the Lilly's made the Guiness Book of World Records by having the largest family reunion in the world at their original Lilly land in West Virginia. Much of the Lilly land was taken by eminent domain to form the Blue Stone lake and Blue Stone Dam. There are still monuments to the Lilly family throughout the Southeastern part of West Virginia.

This year I attended the reunion with my mom Betty, step dad Doug, sister Lora, and nephew Joshua. We had a big time riding bikes, taking nature hikes, playing cards and watching fireflies. As you may know, we don't seem to have fireflies in South Georgia any more. One theory is that the same pesticide that kills Boll weevils kills fireflies. Sad for me because I love to watch fireflies at dusk. My nephew and I ran into the bigger wild inhabitants of the park when we inadvertently rode the bikes right onto a large black bear. Both of us were terrified. We saw the bear at the same time and stopped our bikes immediately. I told Joshua to turn around slowly and head back to the cabin. That sweet baby couldn't get back on the bike fast enough and his only words to me were "Aunt Tina don't you dare leave me!" Of course, I wasn't going to leave that sweet baby. I would have fought that bear to keep it away from Joshua, but I was certainly glad that the bear ran back into the woods and I didn't have to fight it! Later that night I also saw a coyote running through the park and we saw tons of deer every day. If you love bird watching, you should definitely plan to stay in Pipestem. The birds are magnificent.

On the same day as the bear scare, Joshua, Lora, and I were hanging out at the Blue Stone River Gorge when the Beckley, WVA Channel 59 news team came on the scene to talk to vacationers about the greatness of the WVA parks. Minnesota closed all of its state parks during the 4th of July weekend due to budget restraints. When the reporter asked me if I wanted to be interviewed, I hopped right up there and declared the wonderfulness of West Virginia. I looked like a tourist with my hair pulled back, sunglasses, and my camera at my side.

Once again, we had a wonderful West Virginia vacation and plan to attend again next year (Lord willing). If you have never visited Virginia or West Virginia, you should. The land is the birthplace of democracy for the United States and is full of patriots. The terrain is the most beautiful I have ever witnessed and I leave a little part of my heart in that cool, gnat free, low humidity state every time I visit!

Tell me your thoughts on the blog. Thanks for reading and allowing me to write stories that I love.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Alaska: It's quite a journey!

In May 2011, eleven family members, including my mom, went on an excellent adventure to Canada and Alaska. There were many firsts on this trip. Mom's first time flying commercially, her first trip to Canada, and her first trip to Alaska. Most of us on the trip had never been to Canada or Alaska and we were uber excited! The impetus of the trip was to celebrate David and Tammy's 25th wedding anniversary.

The trip began as most fabulous trips do, in the Atlanta airport. We flew into Vancouver, British Columbia and stayed the night before the big cruise to Alaska. I had heard that Vancouver was one of the prettiest cities in North America. Vancouver is beautiful, but it's also full of vagrants and people begging on the streets. Interestingly, on the morning we were to sail, none of us had found a place to have breakfast and were huddled outside the hotel trying to decide where to eat. We had been approached many times by people asking for money, but I was approached by a young, pierced, tattooed fellow who was eating fruit from a clear plastic dish. He stopped and asked me why people always thought he was going to buy drugs when he asked for money. I assured him that I did not know the minds of the people he chose to beg from and could therefore be of no use in answering this burning question. He then asked me if I would give him money. Now, picture this. I am standing outside in the Canadian cold trying to find some food and this young, pierced, tattooed fellow is standing in front of me eating fruit and asking me for money for food. I suggested to him that he give me money since he already had food and I was hungry. He immediately withdrew from our conversation and carried on with his fruit-eating at another locale. Good riddance Mr. young, pierced, tattooed fellow. Try that crazy line of thinking on someone else. My very practical Aunt Lucy suggested that the young man apply for work at the local store with the "help wanted" sign. She loves being helpful. The young man did not find the suggestion as wise and practical as did the rest of us. His loss.

Next I saw a huge Confederate flag flying from one of the boats docked in the bay in Vancouver. In case you are wondering if I am using the words "Confederate Flag" to describe a flag other than the type you see in the American south, I am not. I figure that either some good ole boys from Georgia or Tennessee have moved to Vancouver and taken their cultural heritage with them or some Canadian has entered a time continuum that prevents from them realizing that the American civil war is over by like....146 years. Whatever. Freedom is a beautiful thing even if you choose to express your freedom by flying a Confederate flag from the deck of your Canadian boat!

On the way to the pier to board the boat we had to take a train. This sounds simple, but it's not. You go to the train station, take an elevator to somewhere, an escalator to somewhere else and then try to figure out which train to take to the pier. I am really bad at figuring out which train to take, but it seems that I am quite excellent at falling down escalators while carrying 50-pound suitcases. Yep, fell down the damn escalator. Only a step or two, but the bruises on my shin lasted longer than the cruise. Scared everyone involved and rattled myself just a little. I feel sure that I looked graceful and quite athletic while holding onto the 100 total pounds of suitcases. Luckily, no one had time to get their camera out to record a confirmation that I looked good while falling down. Just take my word for it. I had on my fabulous red hat. I ask you, how bad could I have looked? Now upright, I carried on.

Finally got some breakfast and began the week-long exercise of boarding the boat! Seriously, the lines were crazy long and nothing moved fast. Next time we take a cruise, someone is faking an injury and requiring a wheelchair! And you better bet that I will be the companion of the wheelchair cruiser! As it should be, the good folks in wheel chairs get some sweet accommodations when it comes to avoiding long lines and someone else takes care of their luggage! There were almost 3000 people trying to board the boat in a two hour period. We met a lot of the folks that would be our neighbors for a week. There were people from all over the world in line with us. I recall hearing England, China, Japan, Ireland, Canada and USA as we all chatted.

When mom and I finally boarded, we went directly to the spa and arranged for massages. Because it was Mother's day, mom got an awesome 90 minute massage for her gift from her eldest daughter! Great way to start a cruise. We bought special "limited passes" to use the ultra-exclusive section of the spa that included heated, ceramic lounge chairs, multiple jetted hot tubs, and the most fantastic view of the Alaskan landscape available anywhere on the boat! We lived it up big. We kept saying that we may never have the opportunity to cruise to Alaska again, we wanted to take advantage of everything! Unfortunately, the time difference (three hours most of the time, but 4 hours difference during part of the cruise) had me crazy! It was not until the third day of the cruise that I finally started to adjust!

Mom and I had a wonderful cabin with a balcony. I suggest a balcony for an Alaskan cruise. We saw wonders beyond imagination from that awesome balcony. I have lots and lots more to tell you about the cruise. Since this is my first blog in 10 months, I don't want to overwhelm you. Let me know if you want to hear more details about the cruise. You just can't imagine the beauty of Alaska until you visit. Lots more to come......