Having figured out a little better how to operate the car’s bizarre keyless ignition (although it still liked to beep uncontrollably and state ‘break in attempt detected’ whenever we attempted to start the car), we headed off bright and early towards Roanoke, Virginia, stopping at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, a country estate (and slave plantation) that Jefferson, founding father and third president of the USA, spent decades constructing.
The house at Monticello is fascinating, filled with old books and Jefferson’s many inventions (my particular favourite was his bookstand, which rotated so he could read multiple books at once). Jefferson himself, however, proved to be something of a paradox. He was certainly impressive, crafting the Declaration of Independence as a young man before taking office as the third president of the new United States. However, despite his inventiveness and commitment to using Monticello as a ‘testbed’ for for innovative, productivity-raising agricultural practices he wanted to embed in the new republic, he died in so much debt that his family had to sell the very estate he’d spent decades building.
Of course, the chief irony is that the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, the man who crafted the phrase ‘all men are created equal’, ran an agricultural plantation that relied principally upon the labour slaves (and yet still ended up broke…). Moreover, the evidence suggests that he fathered the children of his late wife’s enslaved half-sister, Sally Hemings. He was certainly an impressive figure, but an entirely frustrating one. The more I learned about him, the greater my desire to administer a sharp slap to his face became. To state that slavery is a ‘moral depravity’ but to free only five of his own slaves? That takes some serious moral gymnastics.
Thankfully, Monticello is aware of this essential contradiction in the life of its founder, and the tours they offer are far from an uncritical celebration of Jefferson. Our guide to the house tour, Don McCracken, was very knowledgeable, and had a great sense of irony, combined with a unique diction (think long pauses and wonderful, sweeping crescendoes), that all together made for a very engaging tour. Also impressive was the slavery tour, offered every hour, which looked at the lives and stories of the slave workers at Monticello. Unlike at other plantations, Jefferson did not split up families, meaning that a strong community and culture developed on Mulberry Row, where the slaves lived and held smallholdings. The tour highlighted the stories of the families both while Jefferson was at Monticello and afterwards, and didn’t pull any punches or try to exonerate Jefferson. I was particularly struck by the sting in the tail of the freedom Jefferson granted to Joseph Fossett, a skilled blacksmith, on his deathbed – Fossett’s freedom was delayed by a year, meaning that he could not purchase his wife and children, who were to be sold at the dispersal sale. Fortunately, with the help of relatives and ingenuity, Fossett was eventually able to reunite his family, who went on to run a successful catering business in Ohio and were active in the Underground Railroad.
Overall, I felt the place was run very well -and sensitively – and that a tour helped to illuminate some of the central contradictions in US history. Definitely worth a visit!
Blue Ridge Parkway
After leaving Monticello, we drove to Roanoke over the spectacular Blue Ridge Parkway, a winding mountain road that overlooks the Washington and Jefferson National Forest. It was my first time driving in the States, and it was a pretty spectacular way to start, winding along the practically deserted road as misty clouds rolled out over the forests below. With the only non-crackly radio stations playing country, we tuned into the Bobby Bones show, interspersed almost exclusively with competing adverts for car loans (“got spots on your credit history?”, “only 1 dollar down!”) and drove south, stopping only at the many overlooks to admire the breathtaking view and take photos before we eventually rolled into Roanoke.
We didn’t have that much time in Roanoke, as we’d arrived quite late, and feared initially that we would struggle for dinner, as the various restaurants nearby all seemed to close before 10. However, we drove into downtown (which incidentally looked rather cooler than I had perhaps stereotypically expected for southern Virginia), and happened upon Jack Brown’s Beer and Burger Joint, which was very much still open. As well as great burgers and a wide selection of beer, we enjoyed our first ever deep fried Oreos. Definitely much easier to obtain than a deep fried Mars bar in Scotland, and equally delicious!
Highlights: The tours at Monticello, beautiful views over the cloudy forests, deep fried Oreos.
Lowlights: Missing the sunset over the Blue Ridge due to cloud, growing rage at Thomas Jefferson.
Coming next: King Kong, moonshine, Dollywood…