Travels in America: Fallingwater and Gettysburg

My husband Joe and I have undertaken three trips to the United States, and have loved our travels there.  In the keeping with the holiday spirit as we all take a well-earned break, I have brushed the dust off our blog written at the time (October 2014), removed excessive cussing and tidied up the grammar for Whaleoil readers.  This is part 2 of 7.

Day Five – Washington to Fallingwater

Early start to the day, up before 6 am to pick up the rental car.  Schlepped all our luggage (and it seems to have increased 20kg even though we haven’t bought anything much) via the Metro to Union Station where the rental car company was located.  Schlepped ourselves and said luggage a block and a half looking for the Avis place, and wouldn’t you know it, it was located inside the train station, up on the second floor in the middle of a bunch of shops.  Just as well J thought to ask one of the local cops or we would never have found it by ourselves.

The car was duly collected, though the pre-drive “check for damage” was farcical on a black car in a dark parking garage.  Then began the “tight right, wiiiiide left” mantra as we headed out into the city, driving in what we hoped was the right direction until Dora caught up with our movements.  (On our last trip Stateside, we named our GPS Dora (the Explorer) and it stuck).  It took us about an hour and a half to make our way out of the city, even though we left the rental car place about 7.30 we seemed to hit peak rush hour traffic.  That combined with our tight-wad choice to avoid toll roads meant it was a long trip.  Still the Steven Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum didn’t open until 10am so we had plenty of time.  And it was worth the wait, a GREAT museum.

As the wife of an aircraft enthusiast, I’ve seen a few in my time – yawn – and even I got excited about this one.  As well as aircraft, it also had some really cool space stuff, including the Space Shuttle Discovery.  The museum is really big but well laid out with elevated walkways so you can view the planes from above as well as below.  We saw the actual Enola Gay that dropped the H Bomb on Hiroshima, which ties in nicely with our last US trip when we went to the West Wendover airfield where the crews trained to do the drop.

After lunch and a return visit by Joe to revisit ‘favourite’ aircraft for one last photo, we headed off towards Fallingwater where we had a tour booked for 8.30am the next morning.

Fallingwater is a Frank Lloyd Wright designed house and you will probably recognise it when you see the photos, it’s iconic.  It is built in the West Pennsylvania countryside at a place called Bear Run, and while I was expecting green rolling hills, we were treated to mile upon mile of spectacular autumn foliage in every shade of green, yellow orange and red you can imagine.  We didn’t realise it at the time, but we had managed to strike what is called “peak week” in Pennsylvania, when the Fall colours are at their finest.

Dora directed us through miles of narrow winding lanes that were totally lined each side and above by this riot of colour, it was stunning.  We eventually found the place, the gates had just closed for the night, but target acquired for the early start next morning, we headed off to find somewhere to stay.  We eventually found a tired but clean place in Connellsville, and felt that we had stepped into a Jack Reacher novel.  Décor from the 70’s, even the handbasin toilet and shower were yellow.  Yes you read that right, yellow.  Hard to tell whether you had flushed or not.  But we slept reasonably well and were up in plenty of time for the drive back to Fallingwater.

Peak week, Fall in Pennsylvania

Day six – Fallingwater

Wow, what a place.  This was even more spectacular than I imagined, when I walked into the lounge I wooow’d out loud.  The photos really don’t do it justice, it’s only visiting the place that you get such a feel for how well it has fitted with the landscape and the owners wishes at the time.  A couple of things stood out, the house is built on rock, and there are boulders that were on-site that remain part of the building.  Very cool.  Then there are the two rooms that are back to back, but to go from one to the other you go out into a hallway, down some stairs, turn the corner, go back up some stairs and you are in the room right next door.  Sounds odd I know, but really gives that sense of separation, and the interest created by views into different rooms as you walk between the two rooms was pretty clever.

But my favourite was “the hatch”.  The house is built over a stream, and in the lounge is a “hatch”.  It is effectively a glass-roofed section slightly higher than the floor, that opens up to provide access to a set of stairs that led down to the stream underneath the house.  It really brings the indoors out and the outdoors in.  In summer it can be opened to provide cooling for the house.  Too clever.  This was all designed and built back in 1936-1939, during the depression when money was tight and technology not quite what it is today.

Fallingwater: the iconic shot

Fallingwater, built around the landscape

The hatch, that opens up to stairs leading down to the stream

We had a very nice lunch, which included Pumpkin roll.  It was like a sponge roll but the cake mix included pumpkin and was filled with a delicious cream cheese mixture.  That was followed by a visit to the gift shop to purchase a book for my nephew who is an architect and also a fan of Mr Wrights work.  I remember him telling me Frank used to wear a top hat a cape because he wanted to take up more space in the world.  Quite the ego.

We headed off to Kentuck Knob, which is another house designed by FLW just a few miles down the road.  We were not allowed to take photos inside this one as we went on the cheap tour.  Quite a different house too, lots of wood and much smaller than Fallingwater, also the location was not as spectacular.  Still a fab house though, surrounded by 8000 trees planted by the owner that were all turning beautiful autumn shades and losing leaves.  We wandered through the sculpture garden and then headed off, stopping on the side of the road a few times to try and capture the colours in photographs.

Next stop was the United 93 Memorial near Shanksville, in the Pennsylvania countryside.  I had read some mixed reviews about this, some people thought the temporary memorial was better, but I thought this was just fine.  A nice way to honour the bravery of the strangers who worked together to bring down the plane, and gave their own lives in doing so, to avoid a much greater tragedy if the plane had reached it’s intended target.  This was either the Capitol building or the White House, which are just 20 minutes by air from where the plane crashed.  Behind the wall is the debris field which covers a huge area, all grassed over now.  This was the site where the most evidence was gathered, they found the cockpit voice recorders and passports of the terrorists, and were able to positively identify everyone on the plane.

911 memorial, near Shanksville Pennsylvania

After this, we carried on to Gettysburg in search of a room for the night.  Lots of places booked up, there is apparently an Apple Harvest Festival on in town at the moment (who knew??)  but we found something that was actually pretty nice after last night’s effort!  We have a tour of the Battlefield booked for Sunday morning, so now have a day of leisure tomorrow to have a look around.  It looks like an interesting place, lots of quaint old shops & buildings and people everywhere in period costume.  We had a lovely meal at the historic Dobbin House Tavern, which is the oldest standing building here in Gettysburg, built in 1776.

Day seven – Gettysburg

Grey and damp this morning, had rained overnight so was wet underfoot but the rain held off for the whole day, and it’s now fined up and the sun is shining again.  We have been really lucky with the weather so far, though were regretting not having more t-shirts in Washington as it was much warmer than we expected.  Mid 20’s most days, and we have packed thermals and layers expecting it to be colder.  I suspect it will be as we get further north, and we certainly needed the layers today as it was pretty cold, especially this morning.  We wandered up to the Soldiers National Cemetery which is just along from where we are staying.  Lots of old canons in place, apparently in the same position as they were when the fighting was taking place back in 1863.

The battle of Gettysburg in the American civil war is a pivotal event. In 1863, the Confederacy invaded Pennsylvania, intending to force the Union to some kind of peace, either a surrender or an armistice of sorts, so that the Confederacy could eventually gain recognition internationally, and had this succeeded, the form of America today could well have been radically different.

Gettysburg is probably best described as a town of living history. As one shops amongst buildings of the time (almost all inscribed with their significance or relevance during the battle), one encounters people that are dressed in period costume, both men and women, who do this, and wander around for no better reason that they simply can. They have a passion for the time and place and express this by ensuring that the events of 1863 are not forgotten.

Downtown Gettysburg

We had a good stroll around the town today. There is a great mix of shops from contemporary art and design to, naturally, civil war antiques and memorabilia. Joe managed to find the one shop that sells plastic kits (!) but the icing on the cake was a place that sold genuine civil war antiques and collectables. And oh my, what collectables there were! A Union forage cap sold for a mere A$4500 USD whilst items that belonged to the generals and officers were available on application.

We couldn’t afford $4500 for as forage cap, so Joe had to settle for a replica cap from a milliners called Dirty Billy’s J  This cap was made as per the original so was a real treat to find.

After a lot of mooching around, we decided to head out for dinner and so picked O’Rorkes bar. It’s what you can only describe as a typical American pub and we settled in to watch the maniacal activity on both sides of the bar! We could almost have been in a movie as there was even a guy watching “the game” on the bar TV and yelling at the TV each time a play went against his team (or clapping loudly at each success).   During the evening a chap walked in wearing full Union soldier regalia, even down to the dirt & grime on his face. We got talking and it turns out he was an ex-US marine, now a history teacher, that participated in civil war & revolutionary war re-enactments three weekends a month. All this and only 27 years old. The man was a pleasure to talk with and has a real passion to keep historical interest alive for that period of time.

We were also treated to some really great live music. One guy, a guitar, a pretty good sound system and a great voice, it was excellent. He covered a whole range of songs (Crowded house to Pink Floyd to Neil Young and all points in between) and was a real pleasure to listen to. He had a jar next to his setup that people put tips into. I hope he did well.

Day eight – Gettysburg battlefields tour

Today we had booked a tour of the battlefield where you are driven around the whole site of the battle, where all three days are covered, by a guide who goes with you in your car. We checked out of our motel at 7:45 and drove up to the Gettysburg Visitor centre and museum to get our ticket and meet our guide.

Our tour was at 08:30 am, and on time our guide arrived, a very pleasant chap named Chuck Burkell. He’s a licensed tour guide and had spent about 15 years in Federal service before becoming a guide.  He has to undergo a test to qualify, as he has to be able to authoritatively inform guests and answer almost any question asked of him.

So we got in our car, and started off to the north of the town. We were very lucky to get a perfect day and it could not have been better for our tour.

We started where the Confederate soldiers and the union line first skirmished, on the Chambersburg road into Gettysburg (almost all the towns around here are suffixed with –burg!) In fact all around the town and site there are monuments and markers, not just where an action took place but right down to regiment or company level, so almost all sites are marked where a unit stood and fought. It’s incredibly well recorded.

From there we drove down past the Lutheran seminary (that gives Seminary Ridge its name) past where the Confederate armies were camped in the treelines and to the famous peach orchard, devils den, and Little Round Top where Day 2 saw some of the most desperate fighting take place.

Then we drove to the angle and saw the ground across where what is now knows as ‘Pickett’s charge’ took place on Day 3, and which saw the end of the Confederate hopes to win or force a negotiated settlement.  One can hardly imagine what took place as thousands of Confederate troops marched across wide open ground into the waiting guns of the Union defenders.

This was a really great experience – having Chuck describe the events and the actions, as well as give deep historical background to the characters involved really brought this to life, and it was a real treat and privilege to see and walk the same ground as those troops did all those years ago. In fact, last year was the 150th anniversary of the battle and this was still being noted around the place. As I mentioned before, almost all parts of the battlefield, all around the town, are marked with monuments or markers showing where individual units stood and fought. All the cannon pieces are arranged as they would have been at that time of the battle, so the attention to accuracy is astounding. In fact, the US National Parks services are even buying land to try and restore it to the condition it was in 1863!

So after the tour was over, we bid our farewells to Chuck and went into Gettysburg for one final look around and a quick lunch before we started on the road to Washington DC.

These fences really fascinated me.

The drive to Washington was quick, only about an hour and a half, and we found our Hotel (Phoenix Park Hotel) quickly. There were some roadworks and a bit of congestion, but nothing that took us off our track.

The Hotel was a delightful place, quite an old one, with very small but beautifully appointed rooms – so we dumped our gear then returned the rental car to Union station.

That night we had dinner at the Dubliner, a pub attached to the Hotel that has one of the best ranges of Irish Whiskies I’ve ever seen! In fact, it was so good we nicked one of the menus for future reference.

That marked our last night in Washington in the end of the first stage of our journey – tomorrow it’s catching the Amtrak for a trip to New York.

Day nine – Washington to New York.

We had a re-pack last night to consolidate the luggage, having the car for a couple of days had caused a blow out in terms of not being too worried about fitting everything back into the bags.  But Amtrak rules say you are limited to 2 bags each and it is strictly enforced.  Of course, it isn’t strictly enforced, they just like to mess with you.  We schlepped our two bags each from the Hotel to Union Station with plenty of time to spare, and had breakfast at Pret a Manger, an old haunt from our time in the UK.  When will we learn to order a small coffee, not a medium?

We downed a bacon and egg baguette and our gallon of coffee and then went to queue up at the boarding gate.  Huge queue of people that snaked right around the waiting area and out into the concourse.  I guess this is a popular trip.  Eventually, we were let through the gate and onto the train.  The great thing is that you take your luggage on with you, no faffing to pick your bags up from baggage claim later, but the bad thing is you have to heft it above head height into the luggage compartments above the seats!  Blowed if I know how little old ladies manage, I guess they just have to travel light.  It’s good to keep the luggage compartment in mind as we spend a week in New York, whatever we buy has to be lifted into that overhead compartment.  Sigh.

You mean I have to lift it up there?

We left on time and it was a very pleasant trip, more of the Fall trees we’d seen in Pennsylvania, and a limited number of stops.  Very efficient.  I’ve read train travel described as “America with its pants down” but it actually wasn’t too bad.  Around Philadelphia, it was quite dirty, lots of old abandoned warehouse buildings, and quite a few homes that obviously hurled their rubbish over their back fence onto the area adjoining the train tracks, but for the most part it was pretty trees.

We arrived into New York about 20 minutes late and then had the job of schlepping our two bags each to our new digs for the next week.

Emerging from Penn Station onto 7th Avenue was stepping into chaos.  Horns tooting, traffic snarled, thousands of people pushing and shoving.  It required a steely determination to walk the seven blocks to our motel, which is on 40th Street near Times Square.  Love the street numbering system, makes it super easy to figure out where you are and how much further you have to struggle on.  Found the place with no issues, thankfully we’d sussed it out while we were on the train, and seven blocks is not nearly as bad as it sounds, they are small blocks.  Room not ready yet so we stored our luggage and went out for a wander.

We are staying in the Fashion District, oh dear how sad that I was in charge of booking the accommodation  Walked up Avenue of the America’s (also known as 6th Avenue) as far as Central Park, and then wandered back again via 7th Avenue.  Initial impressions are that it’s a crazy busy place, with a huge amount of construction or repair work going on.  Sidewalks blocked or barriered off and pedestrians diverted, quite a few intersections with lights out and NYPD’s finest directing traffic.

Pedestrians seem to ignore all crossing signals (except us novices!) and people take some crazy risks stepping out into traffic.  Drivers seem very polite and do actually try to not run people over.  So after a couple of hours of having our senses awakened by the cacophony, we returned to our hotel to check in.  Nice room on the 15th floor.  Not much of a view but at least the room and bed is a decent size, not like the postage stamp we had to sleep on in Washington the night before.  All very clean and new, a great place to stay.  And of course on the doorstep is both the Fashion district, Times Square and 5th Avenue is less than two blocks away.  It started raining while we were unpacking and getting settled in, so we wimped with dinner and only went as far as the Mexican place across the road.  It was very nice, good food, cheap and cheerful.  Joe ordered a burrito that turned out to be as large as a two-man submarine. It was delicious though, and washed down with a couple of bourbon’s.

Tune in the same time tomorrow for another day in New York.

 


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