Wednesday, December 26, 2018

I Believe in Santa Claus. And Santa Trains, too!

Until a few years ago, I didn’t know that Santa Trains were a thing. But they are; there are tons of them. Every scenic railroad and some not so scenic railroads have one.

They're simple really: add Santa Claus to a train ride, you’ve got a Santa Train.

Unlike flying, train travel is still fun; there's no TSA, no tray tables in the upright and locked position, and no possibility of sitting next to someone toting an emotional support peacock.

And who doesn’t like Santa Claus?

A couple of years ago when my brother Jim invited me along with the rest of the family to take a ride on the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad with Santa and maybe an elf or two, I had my Santa Train baptism.

That particular train—an old locomotive--chugs from Cumberland to Frostburg, Maryland. There the engine is put on a turntable and turned around to take the train back to Cumberland.

Santa, with a comely elf in tow, walks through the train ho ho ho-ing, and gladhanding, having the time of his life as he takes a day off from supervising the toy-making elves at the North Pole.

It was fun and the scenery was beautiful, but doing it once seemed like enough. Trust me, I do believe in Santa and I like trains. It just wasn’t a one plus one equals three sort of experience.

A few weeks ago Jim offered me a spot on the 2018 family Santa train trip. This version was fancier than the earlier trip. The trip was from Ashland, Virginia to Williamsburg via a private train car. Visions of Cornelius Vanderbilt danced in my head. We were moving from the minors to the bigs!

So there we were, almost the entire east-of-the-Mississippi edition of the Bryant family on a Saturday morning on a train platform in Ashland, Virginia. We were on the platform plenty early, as Bryants tend to be, though neither Amtrak nor Santa Claus ever arrive early.

The platform was crowded with lots of Moms and Dads with little kids, some in strollers.

I think we were the only family with coolers of hors d’oeuvres and champagne, and a case of beer glasses my brother purchased at the last minute in case the train didn't have enough glasses.

After what seemed like an eternity (i.e. at least 20 minutes), Santa arrived by fire truck. I’m not sure why Santa arrives just about everywhere in a fire truck, but that seems to be his thing. Surely he could come in a stretch limo, Megabus, Segway, or even a used Popemobile. (I don’t know why the Catholic church doesn’t raise a little money by selling a few…)

Once he stepped down from the firetruck, I saw that Santa’s helper wasn’t an elf, but a little boy dressed as a train conductor. He was cute, but when I see a little kid in a costume so well done nice that it makes him (or her) look like a miniature adult, I’m creeped out just a bit. I suppose this is a result of reading too many People magazine articles about Jon Benet Ramsey.

Unlike the standard-issue Santa, this one carried a staff, an accessory right out of The Ten Commandments starring Charleton Heston and Yul Brynner. Moses would have loved this particular model since it came with an attached GoPro camera. I can only imagine the viral sensation a YouTube video of parting the Red Sea would have been.

Santa's posse include an elf who made some interesting fashion choices, right down to the shoes...

...Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, complete with blinking nose....

 ...and a couple of large bears, the American version of Japanese kabuki figure.

Santa's main squeeze was a lounge singer named Christmas Carol, a woman who probably never said, "Does this crinoline make my ass look fat?"

Since the train was so late, there was plenty of time for a quick walk through the nearby campus of Randolph-Macon University, not to be confused with the former Randolph-Macon Woman's College, which is in Lynchburg. The student union was quite handsome and, even better, there was no line in its coffee shop.

Finally our train arrived and we could get on with our day.

According to the internet, our car, named the Salisbury Beach, was a Pullman sleeper with six roomettes, four bedrooms, and six sections. It was built in 1954 for Boston and Maine Railroad for service between Concord, New Hampshire and New York City on the "State of Maine Express".  The car subsequently was assigned to first class trains throughout the United States until it was sold to the Canadian National Railway in 1966. In 1982, the car was put out to pasture, but it’s now restored and for the right amount of money, you can charter it. Santa, of course, costs extra.

We were in the “open section” of the car. We sat in the rail car equivalent of a restaurant booth—benches facing each other with a table—covered in a jolly holiday plastic tablecloth—in between. Back in the day, these booths could be converted to bunk beds.

There were lots of switches and stainless steel fittings whose purpose is still a mystery to me. Our car was the epitome of railroad technology of the 1950s, but except for the bathroom, the technology was as unfamiliar as that of a clipper ship.

In the unlikely event that we got peckish during the ride, the steward had a tray of Christmas cookies for us.

Santa and his light up staff, complete with GoPro, came by to press the flesh. He carried a chest containing a reindeer antler that you could rub for good luck, or perhaps to improve your virility. Why he thought this was a good idea is beyond me.

The ride went quickly as we enjoyed the traditional view from a train of the back of everything. Greater Richmond covered more area than I expected, and as we neared Williamsburg we went through lots of swampy forests.

When the train stopped in Williamsburg, special buses were waiting at the train station to take all the Santa Train passengers to the historic district. The everyday Amtrak passengers stayed on the train as it continued on to Newport News.

We’d already decided that as far as the historic district was concerned, it was every family for itself, so once the bus stopped near the Capitol building, we were all free to explore. We were to meet the train at 5:45 for the return trip.

My first stop was Basset Hall, the home of Williamsburg’s founding benefactor, John D Rockefeller, Jr. and his wife Abby. The docent ushered me into the tiny theatre to watch a short video about the Rockefellers—it wasn’t too long before I realized that I’d seen it on YouTube.

At the end of the video, we went over to the house; there were just two of us, I was the only one on the tour. I should have taken a photo of the docent’s nametag, since she really was topnotch. She was informative, engaging, and even humorous. She took the time to figure out what I was interested in and customized the tour on the spot to accommodate my interests.

By today’s standards Basset Hall would be a middling McMansion at 7,000-ish square feet, but compared to the Rockefellers’ usual digs, this was camping. As you might expect, the place is decorated in a 1930s Colonial Revival style. The Rockefellers were hardly minimalists. At his wife's death, Mr. Rockefeller took an inventory of the contents at Bassett Hall: it was 50 pages long.

The house reminded me of a nicer version of my grandparents’ house.

One of the most remarkable things the docent told me was that the Rockefellers would arrive in Williamsburg with only their chauffeur. Their household help consisted of a Swedish couple who lived in Basset Hall year-round. That was it. No chief of staff, no security men, no hangers on, no nothing. Today Santa, Congressmen, and even the lesser Kardashians have larger entourages.

For people of their social stature and wealth, the Rockefellers were a good approximation of just plain folks. They went to a different church in Williamsburg each week and often invited folks from church over to dinner, followed by a movie in the theatre—air conditioned!—that Mr. R had built in downtown Williamsburg.

I especially liked the dining table and bowls of plastic cream of mushroom soup representing the first course at one of the Rockefellers' holiday dinners (Yes, they have written documentation of the menu.) The pineapple salad—which reminded me of something my grandmother would have served—was ready to go on the counter in the butler’s pantry.
The tour ended in the comfortable apartment of the Swedish live-in couple. The docent explained to me that at their retirement, Mr. Rockefeller matched the Swedish couple's savings in sort of a primitive 401-k plan.

After wandering around the garden at Basset Hall, I walked to the Capitol building to learn about Colonial government. The guide there, who I think would have made a kick-ass drag queen, was great, but perhaps not quite as good as the guide at Basset Hall. Then again, he didn’t have plastic cream of mushroom soup to work with.

There were five people on the tour. Perhaps the crowd was sparse since the fife and drum corps was mustering a few blocks away at the same time.

I’ve read I don’t know how many times that visitation at historic sites is declining. Here was the proof right before my very eyes. Williamsburg in its Christmas finery used to be a hot ticket. It wasn’t the day we were there. Living history doesn’t stand a chance when competing with the trifecta of over scheduled kids, the instant gratification offered by a device screen, and the idea that history and civic education isn’t important. Argh.

After doing the Capitol, I walked into a couple of shoppes, and took a selfie in front of R. Bryant, Ltd., the traditional clothing store. I walked in, browsed, and loitered, but no one waited on me.

Instead of a crowded restaurant, I ate in the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum's café. The art museum was great, even though I lost my warm hat there. However, the lovely ladies of the museum shop let me charge my nearly dead phone behind the counter while I browsed the museum galleries. You don’t come by that customer service just anywhere.

After the museum, I went to the George Wythe House. In my memory docents showed you through the place, today you wander through on your own. It felt little forlorn without a woman in a long dress sharing the story of how Mr. Wythe was probably poisoned with arsenic by his wastrel great nephew.

I would have done the Governor’s Palace had I not lost my ticket someplace between the Wythe House and the Palace.  Apparently losing my hat at the art museum wasn’t enough! Oh well, I can go there on the next trip.

Unfortunately the axe range was closed. I could have lost some fingers to go with my lost hat and ticket. 

At the appointed hour I walked back to the train station, which had filled up with Santa train passengers tuckered out by their day in Williamsburg.

I waited outside, enjoying some peace and quiet, and attempting not to lose my gloves. 

Our Christmas elf and his co-worker in holiday merriment passed out Christmas eyeglasses to all the passengers. Lots of families wore them for photos; we’d already done our first family photo in a billion years, we weren’t going to try our luck with another.

The train was late, but that wasn’t so bad, everyone was too tired to be cranky, and on his or her best behavior.

On the ride home, we got out the champagne to celebrate my niece-in-law Marcy’s recent doctoral degree. With chilled champagne to hand out, it was easy to make friends with the family across the aisle. Yes, we appalled them just a bit, but they did their share of laughing, too.

Christmas Carol and came by to sing some carols. We couldn’t have been a less enthusiastic audience, but after some joking about which of the musical instruments she handed out could be used as sex toys (Correct answer: All of them), we were singing along enthusiastically. It was a Christmas miracle.

Soon enough, we were back in Ashland, filled with the Christmas spirit and at least a soupçon of American history.

There was still time for me to lose something else. I left my favorite fleece on the train.

But the guy who owned the railroad car mailed it back--the second miracle of the Christmas season.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

A Link Not Worth Missing

Earlier this month, my sister and I drove to North Carolina since my niece-in-law was receiving her doctoral degree from UNC. Even if academic robes and Elgar’s Pomp & Circumstance No. 1  were not on the menu--I'm a big fan of both--I would be celebrating Marcy’s accomplishment.

If you’re married to a guy who is at least 50% Bryant, hold down a full-time job, and a mother to two teenagers (yikes!), AND in graduate school (rather than the Advertised on a Matchbook Academy for Long Haul Truckers and Country Songwriters), my hat is off to you. Yay Marcy!

But I'm getting ahead of myself. 

On the way to the graduation in the Tar Heel state Carolyn and I made an unplanned stop in Roanoke at the O. Winston Link Museum. We were ahead of schedule and the museum was conveniently located near the interstate highway for e-z on and off.

O. (which stands for Ogle, quite appropriate for a photographer) Winston was a commercial photographer from New York City. He’s famous among people who like train photos (and beyond) for his photos of the Norfolk and Western Railway. He's the guy on the left in the above photo.

In 1955, the Norfolk and Western was the last major railway in the US using coal-fired steam locomotives.  Link, on his own dime and in his own time, spent five years shooting the railway in Virginia and West Virginia as it was transitioning to diesel engines. He had some support from the railroad—not just the executives but the working stiffs as well—but it wasn’t as if they commissioned him to do the project.

Link liked to photograph at night, and this required him to figure how to light the images---a much more complicated process than turning on the flash on an iPhone. Link’s academic background as an engineer helped him to work through serious technological and logistical problems night photography caused. 

On its face, the idea of taking photos of enormous locomotives—enormous black locomotives, belching black smoke—at night is pretty crazy. But Link was more than up to the task.

He not only shot the trains, but shot the people working on the railroad, from its president to the men working on the trains and in the shops.  The people watching and waiting for the railroad didn’t escape Link’s camera. Bystanders are often an integral part of his photographic compositions. 

In addition to taking photos, Link also made audio recordings of trains and released them as LPs—that people actually bought! Proceeds of record sales helped finance the larger photography project. Presumably, someone, somewhere, preferred the sounds of Train 42 'The Pelican' headed by Norfolk & Western 4-8-4 Class J No.603 arrives at Rural Retreat, VA on Christmas Eve 1957 to Mele Kalikimaka by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters. Crazy.

The Link Museum is located in the Roanoke’s former Norfolk and Western passenger station. The building was redesigned in 1949 by Raymond Loewy, the industrial designer. He’s responsible for the Coca-Cola bottle, the Exxon logo, the Air Force One paint scheme, and lots of other objects and brand images we still see in daily life—he’s been dead since 1986.

The moment we walked into the building we realized we weren’t in any old train station. It’s bright and airy, with terrazzo floors, a domed ceiling, and handsome and age appropriate san serif aluminum letters naming each gallery. In addition to housing the O. Winston Link Museum, the building also contains The History Museum of Western Virginia and the Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge and the Roanoke Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau. My guess is that no one even tries to fit all that onto a business card.

We walked in and the woman at the front desk directed us to the O. Winston Link galleries.  A courtly gent at the counter sold us tickets but warned us that Santa would be in the galleries on the lower level. Who knew that Santa was an O. Winston Link fan?  I wished I’d brought my Christmas list; I could have used some face time with Jolly Old St. Nick.

Some of the galleries were decorated in the style of Macy’s Santaland, but for the most part, the Elf on a Shelf-ness was kept on the downlow. As for Santa, he was totally top notch, worthy of a high-end department store gig in New York or Chicago when he’s not supervising the elves at the North Pole. My guess is that he’d never had a pants-dropping wardrobe malfunction the way I did when I subbed for Santa at St Paul’s Christian Pre-School.

The museum was just the right size for someone like me, with the attention span of a gnat. There were some video screens, and a couple of displays of equipment and so on, but for the most part, the museum galleries were filled with large prints of Link’s photos, generously described in the accompanying text.

There were images I was familiar with, and lots I’d never seen before.

In fact, I thought he only photographed trains, so his images of the men working on the railroad were quite a surprise.

The museum was old fashioned, yes, but I’m old fashioned. I don’t need any new-fangled QR codes to read with my phone, an audio tour, or worst of all, an event aimed at millennials, like a live-streamed bachelorette party, to make a museum enjoyable for me.

After the obligatory trip through the gift shop—where the courtly gent told us that he actually knew Mr. Link, I did the jiffy tour of the Raymond Loewy exhibit before we got back on the road.

While I’m not going to replace the Mele Kalikimaka on my phone with Train 42 'The Pelican' headed by Norfolk & Western 4-8-4 Class J No.603 arrives at Rural Retreat, VA on Christmas Eve 1957 anytime soon, I did my part in the gift shop. Santa looked pretty busy; I thought I'd save him a little work.

And with that, practically as fast as the Norfolk and Western's Powhatan Arrow, we were back on the road, in awe of a guy who captured a moment on black and white film.

O. Winston Link Museum and History Museum of Western Virginia
101 Shenandoah Ave, NE
Roanoke, VA 24016

Open Tuesday-Saturday, 10:00 to 5:00

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Alabama Trifecta: Motorcycles, Wright, and the Coon Dog Cemetery

While Martha was giving her paper at her conference, Bruce and I went to the Barber Motorsports Museum. It bills itself as the world’s largest collection of motorcycles.

While the photos in the brochure were remarkable, I wasn’t super excited about going. Motorcycles… I didn’t understand how they could be alluring in the same way that a car, train, airplane, boat, or Kitchen Aid mixer could be alluring. As they say, different strokes. But I was wrong.

Except for one ride on a 125cc trail bike, my motorcycling was limited to the Honda 50s my brother and I had when we were kids. We spent hours playing mini-bike polo in the backyard with croquet mallets, a sport only slightly safer than lawn darts. I thought it was the best thing ever.

Although the Barber Museum is within the city limits of Birmingham it was quite a drive from our hotel. It’s at one of those Interstate exits that doesn’t have much going on, just a gas station or two. We turned onto the grounds and then drove for maybe a half a mile through a well-raked forest until we came to the museum.

As we parked, we figured that something was up since we heard the high-pitched scream of race cars. We walked over to the edge of the parking lot and where we had a great view of a dell and what looked like a grand prix race track in a park. It reminded me of photos of English Grand Prix racing from the 1950s. There was a racetrack alright, but no grandstands, hospitality tents, big billboards, and especially no Jumbrotrons. A bunch of Porsches were racing around the track like the proverbial bats out of hell. Clearly this was unlike any museum I’d been to.

From the exterior, the Barber Museum could be the headquarters of a flush defense contractor in an anonymous office park near the Washington Beltway.  The building was a sleek modernist thing, the grounds were immaculately cared for, and there was a particularly hideous sculpture in the lawn near the entrance.  Nothing says Military Industrial Complex like a modern building in an office park punctuated by hideous sculpture.

Since I intermittently subscribe to my father’s dictum that “you don’t go on vacation to save money” Bruce and I opted for the “Premium Museum Tour” for an extra $15. This mean that we would be on a docent-led tour and would also get to visit the museum’s restoration shop. We had a few minutes to walk around before our tour started. I had no idea that there were so many different kinds of motorcycles. Yowza!

The museum is enormous. It’s seriously huge, with a great multistory atrium at its center. Curving ramps connect the floors. It felt like a giant riff on the Guggenheim Museum’s famous Art of the Motorcycle Show. (The Barber Museum lent a bunch of motorcycles to that show.)

I’m not sure if it was a slow day at the museum, or if this is normal, but there were only five others on the tour. There was a Mr. Peepers-ish retired professor, his wife, and thirty something daughter, who, if you were pitching her as a blind date, you’d lead with her good personality. There was also a young Asian couple who didn’t say much and wandered off regularly to take photos. I had the impression that they didn’t understand a whole lot of what the docent was saying.

Our docent, a courtly gent named Coffee—yes that was his first name—did a great job showing us around the place.  Did I mention that it’s enormous?  There are floors and floors of motorcycles. Almost all of them shinier than the day they came out of the factory, workshop, or the Mother Ship.

The tour wasn’t in chronological order. Coffee treated us as if we were his new best friends and showing us his personal favorites. He was a motorcycle savant and born raconteur so treated us to non-stop patter.

The tour went like this: Coffee would come up to some bike, looked just like a motorcycle to me. He’d say:

This is a rare 250cc Finkelbein-Widgeon. I know what you’re thinking, that it looks like any 250cc Finkelbein-Widgeon, and you’d be right, except that this one has an external gonkulator and the only other example of one is in the Smithsonian. And the one in the Smithsonian has the gonkulator from the 500cc Widgeon-Finkelbein; I’ve even gone to Washington to look at it.

Then there would be dramatic pause. 

This one is the real deal.

And then there would be oohing and aahing from the Mr. Peepers family. Bruce would smile and stroke his beard.

The Asian couple would be taking a photo of another bike and not listening. I’d say to myself “WTF is a gonkulator?” 

Just when the oohing and aah-ing had subsided, Coffee would go on to say that this particular motorcycle was the first one to complete a counterclockwise circumnavigation of both North and South Dakota and that the driver was Olle Neilson Johnson Olsen Anderson, Lawrence Welk’s accordion teacher. Then there would be even more wonderment, especially from the Mr. Peepers family.  My guess is that they downloaded a lot of Lawrence Welk tunes. As they say, one man’s schmaltz is another’s zipper music.

And then we’d move across the floor to another motorcycle, this one with a cam-powered centrifugal exhaust framistan, typically seen only on early Boeing biplanes and only effective in months containing the letter R. There would be lots more oohing and aah-ing and even, on occasion, knowing looks. 

This went on for quite some time and was all very entertaining even if the combination of his accent and the motorcycle chat meant that I didn’t have any idea what he was talking about.

I did notice that the Japanese woman had some whack shoes.

The Barber is spotless. In fact, it makes the Metropolitan Museum look as if it’s been on an episode of Hoarders. There were 1,600 motorcycles, in addition to perhaps 50 cars, and they mostly sparkle except for the few that are, for whatever reason are keep in non-sparkly condition.

That racetrack we saw, it’s a 2.38 16 turn thing, this weekend rented to the Alabama Porsche club.

There are all sorts of races at the track, including some featuring vintage cars.  Vintage being before the invention of anything having to do with safety, I think. 

Since we were scheduled to pick up M at the end of her conference session, we had to tear ourselves away from the museum before all sorts of other two wheeled treasures passed before our eyes. However, it’s on my list to return to, right after I learn what an external gonkulator is.

We were trying to stay on sort of a schedule since we needed to drive 117 miles to Florence (hometown of designer Billy Reid) to see the Rosenbaum House, the only Frank Lloyd Wright house in the state of Alabama.

But on the highway we saw a Toyota Prius sporting a TRUMP bumper sticker. That’s something I never thought I’d see.

Because we were pressed for time, we did not go to the Jesse Owens Museum in Oakville, the Helen Keller Home Gardens & Museum in Tuscumbia, nor any of the 32 “revered sites celebrating the cultural and spiritual heritage” of northern Alabama on the Hallelujah Trail.  In other words, 14 Methodist churches, 4 Presbyterian churches, not to mention a smattering of Episcopal, Baptist, non-denominational places, one Roman Catholic church, and even a synagogue. Sounds like a real barrel of laughs.

It’s my guess that the tour promoters did not know The Hallelujah Trail is a 1965 comedy/westernrevered by certain members of my family. It starred Burt Lancaster, Lee Remick, Jim Hutton, and Brian Keith. The movie is the story of a wagon train of whiskey en route to the parched miners of Denver. Chaos, chuckles, and a tuneful soundtrack are the order of the day as the Temperance League, the US Cavalry, the miners, and the local Indians all try to take control of the hooch. It’s not all PC but that shouldn’t come as a surprise given its subject and the era when the film was made.

So, without being distracted by those other cool spots (not to mention 14 different Methodist churches) we found the Rosenbaum House without too much trouble. We checked in at the visitor’s center, a mid-century modern former school building across the street from the house. A docent took us in a group of 8 over to the house.

The house was built by Stanley and Mildred Rosenbaum with a generous wedding gift ($7,500 plus a city lot) from his father, Louis. Mr. Rosenbaum senior owned a chain of movie theatres but his son was a Harvard man, spoke five languages, and taught English at the local university.  The Roenbaums were part of Florence’s small Jewish community.

Instead of building a house in revival style like the other houses in the neighborhood, Stanley and Mildred contacted Frank Lloyd Wright who agreed to build a house for them. It was Wright’s second low-ish cost Usonian house.  I say low-ish, since Wright homes rarely—if ever—cost what the architect said they’d cost.

The house started out as 1,500 square feet, but in 1948 Wright added an addition of approximately 1,100 square feet.

As with many Wright homes, it’s more art object than live-able by today’s standards. The original kitchen and baths are tiny even when judged against New York City apartment standards. Wright’s chairs were uncomfortable and prone to falling over if the user didn’t have the posture of a ballet dancer. And of course, the roof leaked. The Rosenbaums' four sons shared a bedroom with two sets of bunk beds. Sounds grim to me, but the Rosenbaums loved it.

The docent was knowledgeable if not warm (on a 0 to Coffee at the Barber scale, he was a .5) but didn’t make facts up out of whole cloth the way some house museum docents do. And there was, thankfully, no talk of gonkulators.

Like many house museums, we saw a staged version of the Rosenbaum’s domestic bliss rather than a snapshot of the real deal. Our guide was quite clear about that. Even so, it looked like a real 1950 ish home, just one that had been staged for a shelter magazine. (We weren’t permitted to take interior photographs, which in the age of camera phones seems a tad old fashioned, so thank you Mr. Google for these interior shots.)

The Rosenbaums were the only family to live in the house. As they grew up, the Rosenbaum boys scattered (no doubt due psychological scarring due to no private space in which to check out contraband Playboy mags). After Stanley’s death, Mrs. R. eventually went into a retirement home.

The City of Florence acquired the house, restored and repaired it (it had LOTS of issues), and now it’s open to tourists. I think they said that about 8,000 people visit each year.

Even if you’re not a Wright aficionado, it’s worth the visit. It required a lot of vision on the part of the city to save the structure and it seems to be doing a good job as its steward. You can get a different look at the Rosenbaum House--through the filter of a Billy Reid fashion shoot here.

After the Rosenbaum House, it was time for something a little (ok, a lot) less esoteric, the Key Underwood Coon Dog Cemetery. According to the brochure, it’s a Southern icon.

The Coon Dog Cemetery wasn’t even on my radar until I picked up the brochure at the Alabama Welcome Center.  Whoever wrote that brochure should get the Pulitzer Prize for Tri-Fold Tourism Brochures.

In a small, grassy clearing deep in the rich, thick wilderness of Freedom Hills, Key Underwood sadly buried his faithful coon dog, Troop. They had hunted together for more than fifteen years.
The burial spot was a popular hunting camp where coon hunters from miles around gathered to plot their hunting strategies, tell tall tales, chew tobacco, and compare coon hounds. 

How can you not want to go to a place like that?!?

The cemetery was about 30 miles from the Rosenbaum house—30 miles into the woods. The brochure said that it was in the town of Cherokee, but as far as I could tell, Cherokee was more of an idea than an actual place. Midway through our journey there I concluded that that even Lewis and Clark had better cell service.

But lo and behold, there it was just as promised in the brochure, in a clearing in the forest. The casual visitor might mistake it for a picnic area. It’s perhaps a half an acre, with lots of different kinds of tombstones. They range from slick things from the Rock of Ages quarry in Barre, VT to things that were obviously homemade.  It’s maintained better than plenty of cemeteries in small towns in Pennsylvania.

Someone had put US flags on lots of the graves. I think they were just and expression of patriotism surely all those dogs can’t have been veterans.

The tombstones and epitaphs were quite touching really. They were all shapes and sizes and different materials. Some had leashes and dog collars left on them as offerings to the dog gods.

There was a sign with a number you could call if you wanted to inter your coon dog there. 

But the place is just for coon dogs, no Labradoodle, Goldenoodle, or English Trenchweasel need apply. When it comes to canines, separate and unequal is the order of the day.

We were enjoying the place when another car drove up. I wondered how anyone in his or her right mind would have found the place.

It turns out that our new best friends were Cindy and her daughter Brianna. They were from West Tennessee and on their way to a hair show in Birmingham (no I am not making this up).  They’d seen the coon dog cemetery in the movie Sweet Home Alabama and wanted to see it for themselves. 

Sweet Home Alabama, I said, You mean that movie with Reese Witherspoon and that good looking guy whose name I don’t know? I saw that movie!

That was the one.  Pretty much all I remember is that it’s a RomCom and she’s cute and he’s especially cute, as in so good looking that he’s probably from another planet. Cindy and Brianna remembered the Coon Dog Cemetery.

We yammered up a storm, Yankees and folks from Dixie agreeing that this was just about the choicest place ever. 

We commemorated our fast friendship by doing what modern folks do, by taking a selfie.

We followed the GPS out of the place and it took us over about 8 miles of unpaved road to get back to something approximating the “main road”. There were times when I thought we might get stuck in mud and then we would have been even more up the creek than when we were locked in the Confederate cemetery.

I was under no illusions that a guy as good looking as Reese Witherspoons’s co-star would come out of the hills—or back from another planet--to save us.

The GPS was sort of screwing with us since we went west to go east and passed the sign that said Welcome to Mississippi. Visiting Mississippi was not in the plan. At least not in any plan we discussed.

But perhaps it was in God’s plan since he laid the village of Tremont before us.

Tremont is the birthplace of Tammy Wynette...

...and has a slow church zone...

...not to mention he Tremont Grocery...

..and 178 Wash & Dry.

The next day we flew back home, but not before someone in the hotel elevator asked me if I were going to the hair show. I said no, I wasn’t, but I met a lovely young woman at the coon dog cemetery who said she’d be there.