Monday, August 22, 2011

Washington Social Diary

The year 1927 marked the worst flood ever on the Mississippi, until spring of 2011.
By Carol Joynt

A week earlier we drove the 1500 miles to Texas and now, with the visit over, it seemed to make sense to drive home. We had a rental and it could be dropped anywhere, but the idea of more road tripping was appealing – at the outset. My plan was to drive from Austin to Shreveport, stop in Vicksburg, meander through the Deep South, into the mid-Atlantic toward Washington and home. There would be many opportunities to buy lottery tickets in small rural towns, which is where the winners always seem to come from.

But when I got to Shreveport and measured the miles ahead, and realized I’d be driving through tornado country in bad weather, my plan changed. Still, I didn’t want to rush, preferring to relax and see the countryside. A call to Amtrak revealed the “The City of New Orleans” would pass through Jackson, MS., the next afternoon, and had available exactly one sleeper with a bathroom. I booked it.
Leaving Texas, Louisiana up ahead.
Back into the green.
Trains can be worthy travel, as anyone who’s read Ian Fleming knows. I grew up an Air Force brat in Germany; our family went everywhere on trains and I loved them. My parents would have one cabin, my brothers and sister and I would share two others, sometimes connecting. Wood paneling, bunks, crisp sheets, attentive porters, elegant dining cars, and gazing out the cabin window at passing quaint villages. For a child it was pure excitement, especially crossing borders in the wee hours, when officials would come aboard to check passports. European trains and Amtrak don’t have a lot in common, but I keep hoping.

Nonetheless, I looked forward to a day of exploring and then ditching the car in Jackson, boarding the train, and letting someone else do the driving.
An overnight stop in Shreveport. A hotel that's not also a casino and offers Bible study in the lobby.
In Shreveport I stayed at the Remington Hotel, recommended because it was downtown, family owned, not on the highway, and not a casino. There are a lot of casinos in Shreveport. At night it looks like a mini-Vegas. I arrived late. Hungry. Tired. On the street it was sultry, hazy and Hopperesque in the empty quiet. The bar next door, The Stray Cat, was still serving pizza but one look inside and I sensed too many stray cats to only one of me, shades of “Mr. Goodbar.” A sign in the hotel elevator offered Bible readings in the lobby. I watched the late local news – heat and crime – and caught some zzz’s.

Next to the Remington, the Stray Cat.
In the morning, headed to Vicksburg, the Shreveport FM news and talk station with the strongest signal featured two men who did mocking voices of lisping, fem gays and slow-witted blacks, called President Obama a “Communist,” a “criminal” and, over and over, a “jack ass.” 

They swore he conspired to have the helicopter carrying Navy SEALS shot down in Afghanistan, as a thank you to the Taliban for letting him get Osama bin Laden. “We know this is true because it’s on the Internet,” one of the hosts proclaimed. They also assured listeners Barack Obama was to blame for the Texas heat wave, the bad economy and legalized gay marriage.

Everyone is entitled to an opinion, and these are opinionated times, but for a 100,000-watt radio station this was a troubling low. Having just been in Dallas, and at Dealey Plaza, the risks of an inflamed populace were still fresh. I switched to country music and lyrics of broken hearts and busted dreams.

My base is Washington, where it’s impossible to live and not be connected to The Civil War. Its history is all around, especially in nearby Manassas, VA., where there’s a beautiful park that commemorates the first land battle of the war. I’ve visited for years.

I’ve also toured Gettysburg more than once. The battle there in the summer of 1863, when the Union stopped the Confederate move north, is considered one of the two major turning points of the war. The other was the battle for control of the Mississippi River, which happened in Vicksburg at the same time. It took weeks, but by July 4th, Ulysses S. Grant and his federal troops prevailed.  I looked forward to a first visit to Vicksburg.
Vicksburg National Military park is filled with state and regimental markers, monuments and tablets that commemorate a Union defear of the Confederacy that was a turning point in the Civil War.
Retired cannons where they may have been posted on the Union side.
Every marker is a piece of history on the Vicksburg battlefield.
The Vicksburg National Military Park, close to the Mississippi River, is shaped like Italy. Visitors tour on a 16 mile drive, highlighted in blue.
Like Italy, the Vicksburg National Military Park looks like a long boot. The tour is self-guided, a 16 mile drive, with as many stops as you want along the way. It’s beautiful and, understandably, quiet as a cemetery.

More than 19,000 men died on this land during the fighting.  There are markers and monuments everywhere, blue signs to note the Union campaign, red to note Confederate lines or emplacements.
The Mississippi River at the Vicksburg waterfront.
Needing uplift after the battlefield, I visited the pretty town of Vicksburg, high on a hill above the Mississippi, with many period buildings intact and an attractive main street. Here something remarkable happened: I got to indulge in the bliss of a real Coke.

True lovers of Coca-Cola know that 30 years ago, at least in the U.S., the company stopped making Coke with cane sugar and switched to corn syrup. For me, it ruined the taste, taking it from sweet and refreshing to sweet and cloying. 

A rare bottle of real Coca Cola, made the old-fashioned way, with cane sugar.
Vicksburg is home to the first Coca-Cola bottling plant, now the charming Biedenham Coca-Cola Museum. In a cooler there they have perfectly chilled cane sugar Coke, shipped in from Mexico. It was sensational, stirring childhood memories of tall, cold, glass bottles of Coke enjoyed on so many summer days. 

My last stop in Vicksburg was for a good southern lunch at the family-owned Walnut Hills Restaurant, which offers “plantation cuisine.”  The building dates to 1880, the “chief cook” is Herdcine Williams and the owner is Joyce May, who says her restaurant is about “good cooks, no graduates of the Culinary Institute of America, just good old-fashioned Southern cooks and servers who are proud to be a part of Walnut Hills’ history.” Touché.

The menu is a splendid array of regional food, with the specialties being gumbo, catfish, shrimp, pork chops and “the best” fried chicken. I got the fried chicken “to go,” for dinner on the train (with yampone and mustard greens as the sides), and for lunch enjoyed the Walnut Hills “summer salad,” which was shrimp in a scooped tomato, accompanied by watermelon and grapes, tomato aspic and olive and egg sandwiches. Also, iced tea, with enough caffeine to launch a rocket, and blueberry cobbler for dessert. Lunch cost about $20.
The porch of the circa 1881 Walnut Hills Restaurant in Vicksburg.
Walnut Hills lunch specials. A southern staple: iced tea.
Walnut Hills is famous for its fried chicken and its round tables.
The Walnut Hills "summer salad" with watermelon, shrimp-stuffed tomato, tomato aspic and olive and egg sandwiches. And iced tea, of course.
Seen on Vicksburg's main street, reflecting both the economy and the temperature.
It’s unfortunate my time in Jackson, MS., preceded seeing the film “The Help.” I found the film so good I probably would have spent time tracking down relevant locations. Instead, I hung out in the downtown neighborhood of the railroad station, where the ticket clerk advised “I wouldn’t walk anywhere but across the street to the hotel.” As if on cue the police arrived, disappeared to some other part of the station, and reappeared with a young man whose hands were cuffed behind his back. 
The Amtrak station in Jackson, MS. Very nicely renovated and up to date on the inside, unlike its neighborhood.
Around the corner from the Amtrak building, the buildings are vacant, some boarded up.
On the other corner is the newly renovated King Edward Hotel, now a Hilton.
The King Edward Hotel, in the first half of the 20th century, was a hub of Jackson social and political activity. Then it closed and sat empty for 40 years, even with National Historic Landmark status. A $90 million renovation got it reopened in 2009 as a Hilton. Jackson’s leaders hope the hotel’s revival will be the vanguard of a renewed downtown, but its neighbors for the moment are mostly empty buildings. The lobby is handsome. I sat in the welcomed air-conditioning and read Larry McMurtry while a worker mopped the marble floor. It beat being out in the 100-degree heat or having to watch my back.

The train was on time, just before 6 p.m. My cabin was basic but fine, with windows on both sides and a bathroom. The handsome, blue-eyed, corn-rowed porter greeted me and I asked his name. “Porter,” he said. “You’re a porter named Porter?” Yes, ma’am. When he learned I had fried chicken from Vicksburg he asked if I would share. Haha. I feasted on the chicken and a glass of whiskey as we rolled north through Mississippi. Periodically the train stopped long enough for everyone to get off, inhale the sweet, warm and humid air, or have a cigarette. The longest break was for about 20 minutes in Memphis, where it felt I was saying good-bye to the south. It was late, dark and haunting, the city skyline glowed in the distance.
Sunset out the cabin window on "The City of New Orleans."
A Superliner bed on "The City of New Orleans." The cabin ran the width of the car, had a window on the other side, too, and a private bathroom.
Nearing 11 pm, smokers get a cigarette break in Memphis.
Do I need to say Chicago is a great city? I think everyone knows that. Easterners tend to focus on Chicago’s winter, when it’s windy and bitter cold, but Chicago’s summer is a revelation. We arrived early, 8:30 in the morning, and the temp in the low 70s was practically chilly, especially coming off a week in the southern heat wave. It was dry and breezy, too, with blue sky and puffy clouds.

I had a day, a full day, until my 6 p.m. “Capitol Limited” train to Washington. It was exhilarating. A luxurious indulgence seemed in order. It would be The Peninsula Hotel for breakfast. A Chicago friend wrote, “The Peninsula is the prettiest hotel now,” and she was right. The lobby restaurant offered good coffee and pancakes, lots of newspapers, free WiFi. She also urged me to check out its Shanghai Terrace, which I did.
Chicago's Union Station in the early morning light.
Crossing the river, in search of breakfast.
The breakfast room at the Chicago Peninsula Hotel.
A breakfast worthy of a great city: coffee, bacon, buckwheat pancakes with syrup and fruit.
The Peninsula's popular Shanghai Terrace, an urban aerie. Another view of the Shanghai Terrace, which kicks into gear at night.
Then to the lakefront. The Art Institute of Chicago beckoned but the sun and breeze kept me outside. Oh my, the lake is so special, particularly in summer, with the beach, with sailboats dotting the horizon, with the swimming lanes marked by buoys. Yes, Chicagoans swim laps in the lake. They have lifeguards, too. I wished I had a swimsuit in my pocket.

I walked the lakefront to the Navy Pier, and veered away toward North Clark Street to meet Daniel Falato for a late lunch at Frontera Grill, one of the several acclaimed restaurants owned by “Top Chef Master” winner Rick Bayless.
The spectacular Chicago lakefront.
Summer fun for the kids on the Chicago lakefront. Starting a lake swim.
A woman swims laps in the lake, one of many people taking advantage of the cool water, a marked swimming area and lifeguards.
A Chicago park on a summer day. Scenes like this one make it possible to forget -- for a moment -- that Chicago has a fierce winter.
The popular Navy Pier.
Another view of the Navy Pier. The cruise ships ply the lake and the Chicago River.
At the start of a cruise. The "architecture" cruises are among Chicago's most popular attractions.
The windy city loves alfresco dining.
The Baton was closed at lunchtime but promised "the most professional & glamorous female impersonators in the world."
Dan is a legendary radio producer and good friend of mutual friends Harry Shearer, Judith Owen and Drew Hayes. We sipped margaritas, ate enchiladas, taquitos and quesadillas, and talked about our friends, politics and Chicago.

Dan’s wife, Elizabeth, owned Bon Bon, a chocolate shop now closed due to the rent doubling, which is a shame. They were the best American artisan chocolates and her clever “Kama Sutra Chocolates” were a popular gift among rock stars and regular folk alike. Over dessert, including a Bayless chocolate creation, we lamented Bon Bon as, coincidentally, the chef himself had his lunch a few tables over.
"Top Chef" winner Rick Bayless' Frontera Grill and Topolobampo on North Clark Street.
Inside the entrance.
In dim light, the bar at Frontera Grill.
Tortilla Soup.
The lunchtime mixed appetizer platter of cheesy quesadillas, chicken taquitos with crema, ceviche tostadas, jicama salad and guacamole.
Enchiladas de Mole Poblano.
Empanada de Cereza y Chocolate.
Torta de Elota crowned with caramel corn.
Dan and I had two important stops before returning to Chicago’s Union Station. One was a tour of the famous Millennium Park, which is a world class visual pleasure, whether experienced on the lawn of the Frank Gehry-designed Pritzker Pavilion, playing with mirror reflections in “The Bean,” or splashing in the broad flat Crown fountain, which sprawls between two towers of interactive video sculpture that most often feature random faces of locals.

Dan explained how the Park was the result of former Mayor Richard Daley sitting in his dentist’s chair, looking down on what was an old railroad yard, eager to transform it into something more, something great and special. “And then Penny Pritzker got involved, and together they got it started,” he said of the Hyatt heiress and business executive who is also high up in the Obama re-election campaign. Interestingly, beside the art museum is a relic of the old railroad yard.
The stunning and acclaimed Millennium Park, a legacy, in part, of Richard Daley's era as Mayor.
In the distance, artist Anish Kapoor's "Cloud Gate," which Chicagoans call simply "The Bean."
A beautiful day is enhanced by its reflection in "The Bean."
Under "The Bean."
The Jay Pritzker Pavilion designed by Frank Gehry, who also designed the surrounding walkways. The Gehry-designed walkway at Millennium Park.
The Pritzker Pavilion, essentially a bandshell, viewed from the lawn.
Adjacent to the art museum, a relic of what Millennium Park looked like before it got transformed into an urban masterpiece.
The Crown Fountain, designed by Spanish artist and sculptor Jaume Plensa, features a pair of glass and brick towers that display digital images of faces, that become fountains, book-ending a family-friendly reflecting pool.
In fountain mode. The other tower.
The last stop was Pastoral Artisan Cheese, Bread & Wine, where Dan took me to forage for what would be my dinner on the train. I got the “Blue Pig n’Fig” sandwich: Serrano ham, blue cheese, fig and black tea preserve, whole grain mustard and field greens on a baguette.

Had I been able to give them more notice Pastoral could have prepared one of their famous picnics. Next time.
Pastoral market, an ideal destination for a simple lunch sandwich or an elaborate picnic basket.
Inside Pastoral in the late afternoon.
Just some of the cheeses offered at Pastoral.
The evening train was on schedule. I tucked into my cabin with dinner and books, watched the sunset as we headed east, woke to a hot breakfast in the dining car, and great views of Harper’s Ferry, WV.
Heading home to Washington on The Capitol Limited.
Chicago rush hour at 6:15 pm, viewed from The Capitol Limited.
The dining car at breakfast.
Breakfast on The Capitol Limited: scrambled eggs, bacon and grits with hot coffee.
Harper's Ferry, W.Va., from a cabin window on The Capitol Limited.
My summer road trip is over and I hope you’ve enjoyed these three diaries. With my business long closed and my book done, I cast about now for where to live and work next. It’s not exactly a robust time for job-hunting. Still, I’m optimistic. And with this trip my eyes were opened to a lot. Wave a magic wand, or a winning lottery ticket, and I could easily live in Austin or Chicago, but it might be Austin in winter and Chicago in summer.
Carol Joynt's new memoir, Innocent Spouse, can be ordered from Amazon, HERE.