Hello from Sarah Graves, writing to you again from Eastport, Maine, where I have just returned from a short trip to the outside world. It only took a few days but I feel I got a pretty good dose of what it’s like in a couple of places out there beyond Moose Island, to wit:
We drove with Evelyn the golden retriever to Afton, Virgina, where the southern end of Skyline Drive meets the northern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Near here we visited Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello.
You’ve probably seen pictures of the place, but I’m here to say they don’t do it justice. Outside, acres of tended grounds show how the inhabitants of a huge household could derive a lot of their sustenance from their land if they used every bit of it carefully and well. The gardens have been recreated with the kinds of plants he would have had, and the very extensive cellars show how everything was preserved and stored. Really the place was more like a small village than a house, and the underground sections hive-like in their separate areas for all kinds of domestic industry.
Inside, the downstairs rooms are lovely but unsurprising, with a tiny family sitting room and larger, more formal chambers for dining and entertaining. It’s the upstairs, showing what private life was like here, that got my imagination going. Tiny, sharply- curving stairways lead up and up to narrow halls and small rooms with alcove beds that must have felt smothering in the summer heat. Only on the third floor does the place seem to open up, especially in the dome room, all windows and light.
One third floor room especially caught my eye; called the “cuddy,” it was never meant to be a room at all. Instead it was leftover space after the dome room was built, an unfinished hideaway that was found and furnished by Jefferson’s granddaughters. They managed to get a “sopha” and desk put into it, and used it as their private reading and writing chamber. I want one just like it for myself, and if you do much reading or writing I’ll bet you’d like one, too. Isn’t it perfect? You got down into it by using a pile of boxes for steps, and once the door closed no one would ever know you were there.
This part of Virginia is full of acres and acres of rolling hills, newly mown hayfields, miles of board fences, and old rock walls, plus grand old mansions barely visible behind groves of trees. Of course I imagine dastardly deeds being perpetrated in the mansions and the results of those deeds being buried at midnight on the grounds, preferably by lantern-light. Or the houses might hide operatives guarding spies whose covers have been blown, the dwellings themselves owned by agencies so secret, they don’t have names. But you know, that’s just me.
Winding along the ridgetop of the Shenandoahs, Skyline Drive was built during the Depression by members of the Citizens Conservation Corps, out-of-work men who earned their keep plus money to send home to their families. Well, actually they didn’t build the road itself; that was done by engineers. But they landscaped both sides of it, constructed the rock walls that keep people from flying off into the astonishing views, and put all the land around it back into its natural state. The CCC is a story in itself and one I intend to learn more about; for now I just imagine all of them starting out sad, discouraged and beaten down, but then getting fit and strong, having good work to do, and managing to support the home folks, too, with this excellent project.
After we visited Monticello and the Shenandoahs we went on to Gettysburg, which was a complete revelation to me. I knew vaguely about it, and about Mainer Joshua Chamberlain, the Bowdoin academic who was given a sabbatical to learn some more languages (he already knew nine) so that he would quit talking up the war on campus, but the minute he got the chance he enlisted in the Union Army instead, and ended up pretty much saving everybody’s bacon. But that’s for another time; right now I’ll just say that standing on the very same boulder that somebody once scrambled up onto with a rifle in his hand and a knife clenched between his teeth was an interesting experience.