So there we were, once again on the open road, driving into a cloudbank from hell. The rains that we drove through that Thursday in June killed 20 people, destroying homes and families alike. The weather is capricious – many people were devastated, while the biggest impact to us was a cleaner car, proving that there is no justice to be found in this world. It also resulted in a more full hotel, but we would only find that out later.
We were driving into the Homestead, which bills itself as the oldest resort in the country and has the provenance – and sense of antiquity – to back it up. Celebrating 250 years in business this year, it boasts 15,000 acres of fields and forests, with activities ranging from wading and swimming pools to hot springs and warm springs where Thomas Jefferson used to “take the waters” for his health and welfare, from horseback riding and falconry to archery and skeet, from hiking the gorge to just sitting back on the veranda and watching the world go by. Sitting, typing this from the veranda, I present my view.
I can easily imagine my friend Mark Twain sitting on this same veranda. Mind you, this particular building wasn’t completed until the 1920s, so he certainly didn’t, but he would have enjoyed it.
Thursday dinner was at their Casino restaurant, with a table that couldn’t stop moving. While the table was loose from the base, and the base was not stable on the floor, we still knew it was actually the Reigning Queen of Pink causing our dinners to bounce – the table was rocking in rhythm. Any of the rest of us and it would have been rocking asymmetrically; with her at the helm, our dinners were executing a perfect sine wave. The restaurant at the Casino (which turns out of be a word used in its original meaning, which has to do with indoor sports and has nothing, to my regret, to do with gambling) had a small army of staff milling about, which was odd because none of them seemed to be able to find our table. I mean, the movement might have been throwing them off, but still.
As the Homestead is celebrating 250 in business this year, they are setting off fireworks each Friday in the summer. To further commemorate this 250th anniversary, they’re serving a different cake every day of the year, in the lobby with tea from 3-4pm. Friday’s was lemon blueberry – most excellent! I can’t imagine more than about 100 ways to do cake; hats off to their chef.
Speaking of Anniversaries: allow me to digress a moment on the reason for the trip. My parents this June celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. The same month saw my mother turn 70 a few days later. They are amazing! (For those of you doing the math at home, yes, my father plays up the fact that she was a teen-aged bride.)
My father, having been a math major, added 50 with 70 and declared it a 120 celebration – and celebrate we did, with them and the Very Clever Aunt and Her Michael. We are, at least on my side, new to the “resort” scene. In this case, certainly, I could get used to this in a hurry.
Friday we were joined by the aforementioned Very Clever Aunt and Her Michael; dinner was at Jefferson’s. There any number of amazing restaurants at the Homestead, plus four bars. In point of fact, dinner was preceded by drinks with Kipling, who went out of his way to ensure that we had excellent seating and an excellent time. Jefferson’s was a great dinner; I enjoyed braised lamb to die for with gnocchi and sage. One of the funniest bits was actually a few hours before dinner; I got a call from the restaurant confirming our dinner reservations – they had meant to reach my father. I decided that I might not be “the” Lang, but I was “a” Lang, and I was qualified to confirm our reservation. The RQOP, who’s first name starts begins the alphabet, stepped out of the shadows and announced that no, SHE was “A. Lang,” by god. I stood corrected, but I confirmed the reservations anyway.
Following dinner and the fireworks, we retired to the Very Clever Grandparent’s room. We had all been carefully instructed: “no presents.” We decided that “no presents” didn’t count if the presents were consumable and stood a good chance of not leaving the grounds.
During the course of the trip, I posted a postcard or two – and found a wonder. I have always wanted to drop a letter into one of those old-fashioned “mail your letters here in this box on the wall” boxes; the old Cutler Mailing System letterboxes. As a former letter carrier, those things were cool – a blend of art and function, usually with old art-deco styling to them. I doublechecked first, since many times you see them and they’re no longer being serviced or checked on, but the Homestead confirmed that theirs is still in use, and if you’re on the upper floor, you can still drop your letter in the upper box and it will slide into this one.
This town is small enough that the post office closes before noon on Saturday, and the Homestead doesn’t bother – so any mail that misses on Friday will go out Monday. I am perhaps irrationally excited to have mailed things from a Cutler box.
The next day dawning bright and clear, we hiked the Cascades Gorge. That sounds simple, but it isn’t. The reason it isn’t is named Brian La Fountain, who is the funniest, most well informed, most energetic, most passionate tour guide I have ever encountered. Number One Son, who does NOT want to go outside much, not only expounded on his appreciation for the hike, but gave Brian a hug – a rare compliment from a 16-yr-old boy.
Brian explained a dozen things in a dozen ways, and did so while keeping up a running patter of puns and jokes that jollied even my jaded children into enjoying themselves. He is a terrific guide; making sure people can hear him, making sure we understood the rules and their reasons. I also noticed his quiet attention to the details that he didn’t talk about – he was very careful about counting the group, making sure that everyone was keeping up and doing OK with climbing over the wet bridges and steeper rocks, without making it at all obvious that he was doing so: The mark of a great guide is that you don’t see the attention he’s paying. He’s a great guide. He also has a gift for stand-up comedy to rival Leno. He told us only one lie: He said he was 50 years old. No one with his exuberance, good looks, and joy de vivre could be so old.
The interesting views of nature are not limited to the gorge, however. Right outside our door was a tree. Well, a few dozen trees, really, but one of them stood out – most trees, growing as they do straight up and tall, have a somewhat phallic look to them anyway. Very few have the balls to show for it, though. (The Human Tape Recorder decided this one much be named Johnny One-Nut.) The most embarrassing bit is that I took the picture, then sent it in a text to a good friend, female type.
BUMD: Tree balls – bigger than I thought they’d be!
Her: Wow that’s an interesting tree. That protrusion looks quite phallic.
BUMD: Oh my god, I’m sending you deciduous dick pics. I’m so busted!
So, I’ve joined the ranks of the Bros who send dick pics. I feel so basic!
In addition to the amazing nature scenes, there are outdoor pools and spas and springs, plus there’s an indoor pool – in case it’s raining, or you’re just feeling indoorsy. And when I say indoor pool, I mean This Is What I Want My Basement To Look Like. Is that too much to ask? This pool is larger than my house and would have made the Romans proud. One of the best parts of swimming was seeing Her Michael’s tattoo: It says “#FFFFFF TRASH” – which is funny on a lot of levels, not least that it’s only supported by Netscape 5.0 these days.
We had a terrific time all around. SOBUMD and I were instructed on our golf swings, the girls went horseback riding with FOBUMD, and the ladies took in the wonders of the Spa. We all wound up in the outdoor pool (of course it has a bar, why do you ask?) at one point or another, complete with its massive water slides. Canoeing, however, was cancelled due to the torrential rains that we’d driven through – a good call on the part of the Homestead. There was a delightful dinner at a grill named after Sam Snead, who is famous in the golf world and called this town home. On top of all that, I was very lucky and, with 5 minutes to spare, had the chance to satisfy a life-long interest in falconry with Remington, the Harris Hawk.
Falconry is fascinating. It turns out that while much falconry is in fact accomplished with falcons, much more is done with hawks here in the United States. The Homestead has many birds and trainers; I was introduced to Linda – and Remington. You need 2 and half years of training apprenticeship to receive a falconry license in the US. Linda names some of her birds, such as Remington, after guns – because as far as the US fish and wildlife department is concerned, in her hands, that’s a lethal hunting weapon. This is somewhat incongruous considering that you need practically nothing to own an actual Remington.
Wearing the gauntlet, I had Remington land on my hand and then, with a slight flick of the wrist, sent her aloft again, on her way to the nearby roof. Despite a wingspan of close to 3 feet, she weighs only slightly more than 2 pounds – and can fly through any opening wider than her chestplate. Linda had her demonstrate this by standing us increasing close together and convincing her to fly between us – impressively nearly knocking my phone from my hand in the process. I was wing-whacked a few times – it was an experience I’ve thought about for more than 40 years, and I was thrilled.
That evening was the last, and as fitting of a final dinner at such a place and to commemorate such a 120 celebration, dinner was in the formal dining room. If you’re picturing something from Downton Abby, you’re not too far wrong. We dressed, we all dressed. Even those of us who do not, as a rule, dress for dinner, dressed.
That’s right – the kids cleaned up. Even Number One Son, who looks slightly like Kramer from Seinfeld in this picture. Glamour seems to come more naturally to the girls. I tend to wear business attire pretty much every weekday, so the whole business of getting dressed up wasn’t as traumatic for me as it was for Number One Son – he dressed for the ages, for one of the most formal events of his young life. I dressed for a Tuesday. Hardly seems fair, really. Also, the Very Clever Aunt and Her Michael were not exempt from this! While the caption over their heads states “Birds of North America,” they are from Baltimore, and so technically I think this is a picture of Orioles.
The dinner was sumptuous, with live music, yummy wine, appetizers, and dancing – until SOBUMD took her first bite of her dinner and had an anaphylactic reaction to something in the sauce. She’s highly allergic to cinnamon, and while the staff didn’t think there was any in the dish, there must have been something close enough to it. She had been looking forward to that plate since before we’d arrived, so not being able to eat it was killing her – unfortunately very nearly literally; it took me 20 minutes to get her back to the room, along with several hits from her emergency inhaler and enough Benadryl to stop a horse. (She decided against the epi-pen only because that would have involved an ambulance ride to the nearest ER, and the Benadryl and inhalers were starting to kick in – along with not wanting to further complicate the evening.) The rest of the crew was able to finish dinner (although the prime rib evidently got the better of Number One Son), and we all made it to our respective beds. Luckily, we all woke in the morning as well.
I woke early and took a few pre-dawn pictures of the place for posterity, to compliment the pictures of the previous evenings. The building is too large for any one picture; these only just begin to provide a sense of scale. There are nearly 500 rooms, all of which were full while we were there – largely because The Greenbriar, which is only a few dozen miles away, had flooded in the recent rains and sent a lot of its overflow to The Homestead. Our building itself had taken some water, but nothing compared to the devastation around us. The wet grounds provided morning fog for the sun to burn through, the kind that armature photographers love.
Eventually the sunrise did what it always does to such times, and it was time be under way, back to the open road, and home. We returned to our lives feeling like Muggles, bereft of the magic words that had sustained us for the past days: “Please charge this to room 7155.” It turns out that doesn’t work at my local grocery store at all. We also missed the whole concept of having cocktails served before going through for dinner. This is an inherently civilized thing to do. If I could have brought the redoubtable Kipling home with us, I would have.
The after action report on the 120 celebration and the Homestead Weekend was best summed up in an email exchange between FOBUMD, who organized and funded the entire trip, and the rest of us. A few days after we arrived home and became reacquainted with our more usual standard of living, he sent the entire party a note thanking us for celebrating with them.
For a change, I was speechless. The English language doesn’t have a lot of good words to convey the sense of appreciation we felt, but I was reminded of FOBUMD’s description of an evening he spent, years ago, with his brother George. “A brother is someone who picks you up in the rain with little notice, takes you home, stays up past 2 am while you talk and finish all his Scotch, then drives you back to the airport in the morning and says ‘Great to see you’ – and means it!”
A father, to continue this example, is someone who celebrates a set of anniversaries and birthdays by taking the whole family to an amazing resort, coordinates specific activities for specific people, makes sure the logistics are so seamless as to be invisible, pays for it all, and then thanks US for coming – and means it.
He concluded that we have the best family in the world, a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree. We’re looking forward to the 100th anniversary!