Monday, June 5, 2017

and a potato chip factory

or, some other things I saw in Virginia

Before my conference, I spent a couple days in the Shenandoah Valley. Mostly because I never had, really; I'd crossed it a few times, but not explored it.

Much of my focus was on the town of Staunton (pron. Stanton1). Staunton was the birthplace of Woodrow Wilson in 1856, though he moved away as an infant when his preacher father was offered a better-paying job in Georgia.2 Nevertheless his birthplace manse, on a hill above downtown, is preserved as a museum of life in those times and classes.3 Next door is a museum of Wilson's life, covering its pluses (he vetoed an immigration restriction) as well as minuses (he maintained segregation).

Downtown Staunton - all within easy walking distance from a sufficiently large parking garage - also has two large and worthwhile used book stores, a hearty restaurant specializing in ribs, and the American Shakespeare Theater, which plays in a small space described as the world's only reproduction of a Shakespearean indoor theater.4 They put on several plays in tightly-cast repertoire seasons; the one on the evening I was there was a basic Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet. The line-reading was intense and invigorating, presenting the play as a bawdy comedy in the first half that then goes wrong.5 Romeo was eager and Juliet was earnest, and everything was good but I felt it would be tiring to see much more like this. Best feature was the costuming: basic Elizabethan, but the families were distinguished by putting the Capulets in reds and the Montagues in something around cyan or teal.

Outside town, the floor of the valley is littered with Civil War battlefields. At the ones still out in countryside, it's possible to figure out what was going on. I equipped myself with topographic maps photocopied from this book, and explored 4 or 5 of the, at last count, 16 that I drove through, victories of Sheridan and Hunter as well as defeats of hapless generals like Fremont. Driving along Sheridan's Ride in the opposite direction from which he rode it is slightly disconcerting.

Also on the floor of the valley, out in an isolated industrial park, at least as interesting as any 150-year-old battlefield, and a lot tastier, was the Route 11 Potato Chips factory. You can stand at large windows that peer into the factory floor and watch the cooking, sorting, seasoning, and bagging of the chips, and, as you do, informative company employees will come up and explain to you what's going on. Then you can munch on a few samples of freshly-cooked chips, and buy 2 or 6 ounce bags of every flavor they make. Really good chips, too.

Winchester is a bustling town with a large museum of Valley history and art, another great used book store, and a downtown pedestrian mall lined with restaurants, of which the only one empty of customers at noon on a Wednesday was Italian. I ate there anyway, making it one person from empty, and enjoyed my fish and sauteed spinach, marred only when what looked like a couple slices of baked apple on the plate turned out to be potato. Chips I'll eat, but that's it for me and potato.

I drove a stretch of Skyline Drive, the Blue Ridge summit road through Shenandoah National Park. Impressive views from the overlooks, particularly west to the valley (the plains to the east were misty), though there isn't much else to do up there unless you have all day to take a couple hikes. The visitor center display on the history of the park informs on how disruptive the 1930s land confiscation was to the mountain people, and of how it took 12 years to get the concessionaire to stop having race-segregated picnic grounds: it may have been "the custom of Virginia," but it was against the law for federal facilities.6

But, as I noted in an earlier post, the Confederacy is still deeply embedded in the Valley. They must be very grateful for Stonewall Jackson around there, because otherwise they wouldn't know who to name anything after. Stonewall Jackson Road. The Stonewall Jackson Highway. Stonewall Jackson High School. The Stonewall Jackson Hotel and the attached Stonewall Jackson Conference Center. u.s.w.

1. There's also a town called Strasburg, pron. Strawsburg; there's no explanation of this.

2. Wilson was one of 2 U.S. Presidents to have lived under the jurisdiction of the Confederacy. Can you guess the other? Jefferson Davis doesn't count.

3. They don't shy away from telling you that the family "servants" would have been slaves. Not their own slaves, but ones rented for their talents at housework from the surplus at large plantations. Contracts would have specified their care, but the owners got all the money.

4. It isn't, actually: the Wanamaker Playhouse in London, part of the Shakespeare's Globe complex, is built to basically the same design, and I've been there too. But it's not as if they're common.

5. It occurs to me that Much Ado is built to the same plan, though it manages to rescue itself at the end, as R&J does not.

6. But if that's so - and I think it was, because the point of the Freedom Riders was that segregated seating was illegal on interstate buses - then why were there segregated restrooms on the NASA base in Hidden Figures, over a dozen years after segregation was ended in the park?

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