Friday, May 31, 2013

The St. Louis Chronicles - Day 4

This conference thing has been a pretty good gig so far.  I went to a session on Wednesday morning, put in some time at the booth, and then met up for lunch with a person I worked with in South Africa.  We went and had St. Louis style pizza.  They have deep dish here too. Here is the difference: cornmeal in the crust.  Instead of just using the cornmeal to keep the dough from sticking to the pizza stone in the oven, the cornmeal goes into the crust and gives it this extra sweetness and crunch.  Also, in their deep dish they put the sauce on top and they use Provel cheese, which I can't really explain except to say that it's not provolone and it's not mozzarella.  My pizza though, was delicious, and I plan on eating it again.  

I had such a good time with my former colleague that I got locked out of my afternoon session because I got there too late and there were too many people already.  Since I didn't have anything else scheduled for the afternoon and the booth was covered, I headed out to do see the City Museum at long last.  

In all my research before coming to St. Louis, the City Museum was at the top of everyone's list.  Each person I talked to that had been here said do not miss this place.  I can see why now.  Walking into the space is like walking into a petri dish of creativity.  I always wonder how things like this get started.  Did someone just have a leftover school bus, some oil drills, a jet plane, and lots of pieces of buildings and thing, hey, this could be a museum!  If that's how it happened, then I am in awe.  I am still in awe though because it seems to me that the museum is made of entirely recycled materials. In one room they have a collection of old doorknobs.  In another room, old opera posters are on display, along with the door of a bank vault leading to a hall of mirrors.  There are kid sized tunnels and slides connecting all the rooms that make it so that only the little ones can spelunk between rooms.  They have ball pits and ropes to climb on.  An enchanted forest maze that is big enough for adults, an aquarium, a ten-story slide, an adult-sized ball pit, and so many other things to climb and play in.  The rooftop is particularly awesome.  They have a chute that you climb up and slide down, they have a birdcage that you can climb up that overlooks the whole city.  

I would counsel anyone going to the city museum not to wear a dress, as I did.  I had to get creative to avoid flashing people as I climbed, crawled, slid and hopped my way through the tunnels, chutes, and ladders.  Conferencing and the required attire do not lend themselves well to playtime but if you only have a few hours, you have to make the most of them.  Thanks to stretchy fabric and some strategic knots, I was able to enjoy the museum and not be forcibly removed for exposing myself to minors.  I was absolutely the oldest person in the museum who was not a parent.

After the city museum I had about 2 hours before I had to be at the reception our co-op of Gulf Coast countries was throwing for our partners that evening.  I had heard good things about the Missouri Botanical gardens and since it was halfway to my destination already, I decided to go for it.  

A word about public transport in St. Louis: it is very easy to use but is based on most people having cars, therefore it does not run very frequently.  Even during rush hours, the buses come every 40 minutes.  But everyone who uses it is very nice and it provides a look into the city I don't think I would have ever gotten otherwise.   I took a bus to the brewery on Monday and witnessed a very interesting interaction.  A young guy had been sitting all the way at the back of the bus and moved to the front of the bus after an older woman sat down.  He immediately started hitting on her.  He couldn't have been more than 22, she was at least 40.  She sat down, we sat down, he immediately moved up and struck up conversation with her.   They engaged in pretty lively conversation from what I could tell.  She sounded like she has been chain smoking for at least 20 years.  My stop came up before theirs so I don't know how they left it, but props for boldness!  I've been conversing with security guards and housekeeping staff about how to get here and there and they have without exception been so kind and helpful.  St. Louis has hospitality down and some of the best evidence of that is in the public transport system.  Everyone seemed excited to have the conference in town.

So I took the bus to the botanical gardens.  Even though I have only been off my feet to sleep for the last three days, the walk twisting through the gardens and the "Climatron" were an oasis of calm and restorative.  Botanical gardens have turned out to be some of my favorite stops in many of the cities in which I have found them.  St. Louis's is no exception and is one of the most impressive I have seen, complete with community vegetable garden and many different kinds of climates represented.  The Ottoman Garden was one of my favorite parts.  Spending some time by ponds, waterfalls, and beautiful natural things was really lovely and necessary to recover from the crush of being in close quarters with 8000 people for days on end.

After the gardens I hussled over to the reception.  All the GCC countries get together at every NAFSA to host an event and this year we had it at a fantastic Syrian restaurant in The Loop.  The food was incredible and the people who ran the restaurant were from the hometown of the organizer and my colleague.  It was great to meet so many different people and hear about different impressions of NAFSA conferencing from first timers and seasoned attendees alike.  After the reception I was so exhausted I couldn't muster the strength to join some people for drinks.  Apparently the 360 bar at their hotel provides one of the best views of the city, second maybe only to the Arch (and the rooftop of the City Museum!).

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The St. Louis Chronicles Day 3 - NAFSA begins and The Brazil Party

I realize that my field is pretty specialized.  But internationalization in education actually is a priority on most college and university campuses.   Since the world is getting smaller, cross cultural communication more critical, and wanderlust is intensifying, it's a good time to be in the business of increasing student mobility and knowledge exchange.

NAFSA national conference is the big dance.  I've been to a regional conference before but never to this;  at 8000+ attendees, it's a gargantuan event.  I've enjoyed being with my delegation and meeting the people they know from going to this conference so many times.  Many of them know presenters, partners, and purveyors alike, no matter if they are involved with our students or not.

I was a bit overwhelmed when I first walked into the palatial expo hall filled with colorful booths of people vying for each other's students, services and solutions.  Also, the "SWAG" as Michael Scott would say (Stuff We All Get!).  This year's giveaway of choice: the recycled tote bag. Before I left to come to this conference, I was shocked to find that my office is accustomed to receiving these spoils as consolation for not being able to have attended the conference themselves.  I was approached from several different members of my office with requests for pens, totes, toys, etc.  I was also given specific instructions by several people about what kind of pens they wanted, what colors would be best (bright ones), please no wooden pens (they splinter, you see) and what kinds of toys would be preferable.

In situations like this it's hard for me to engage because I clearly see the people with the best toys/giveaways, but we really have nothing to talk about other than my desire to have their hackysack colored like a map of the world.  Can I walk up and say "hi.  um, that's a pretty cool balsa wood airplane you have there.... sooo.... can I have one?" My colleague who has been to NAFSA so many times said that I shouldn't make eye contact, just grab and go.  I am not comfortable with that either but I did take a pen from one table because I was heading to a session and realized I had lost mine.

So I did a first-timers orientation which was semi-helpful.  Mostly though it's just a way for you to figure out how involved you want to be with the organization and all aspects of the conference.  After the orientation, I went to the booth the GCC countries have and started meeting people and universities who are interested in hosting Kuwaiti students, that is, everyone.  I went to a session that afternoon and then heard Kofi Annan as the opening plenary speaker.  The big platform for NAFSA this year is immigration reform and Mr. Annan did speak to that and the benefits of international education and studying away from his home country which opened the doors for him to do the great work he has done and continues to do.

After that I walked to the Arch.  I had seen it at night but during the day it's prettier I think.  Maybe going up to the top at night is better, to see the lights of the city.  But it's very beautiful in its simplicity, probably because a Finnish guy designed it.

My boss insisted on taking us all to dinner which was so nice.  We ate at one of those classic italian places with the pictures of the famous people on the wall and where the maitre d' knows everyone and has been working there for 35 years.  The owner, Tony, came out to greet us and he was lovely as well.  You can see why this place has been around for so long.  Also, the food was incredible.

For as long as I have known about NAFSA I have been hearing about the Brazil Party.  Every year there is this party that is much talked about and everyone says is an amazing time.  The Brazil pavilion in the expo hall is huge and the first day of the conference they don't even talk to you about business.  I went up because I was legitimately interested in Brazil-sponsored students, but they said "tomorrow we work, today we promote the party!"  Priorities, people!

So after dinner my colleagues and I piled in a cab and headed a bit south of downtown to this large old building, which could have been a large art gallery.  The music was going, there was dancing and tons of people.  They had a live band and a DJ and I danced for an hour non-stop.  They had two girls in Carnavale costumes (read: sequined bikinis with large headdresses and feather boas) who were leading the crowd in dancing.  It was hard not to watch them.  They were so sparkly and beautiful.  The movement of latin dance is all in the hips and once you get the rhythm it sucks you in!  This was after 14 hours of conference events, networking, schmoozing, meetings and walking etc.  Latin music is THAT good.     The Brazil party lived up to its name.  I went home completely exhausted and wishing I listened to Alt Latino on NPR more.  Perhaps that podcast is worth a subscription.

Monday, May 27, 2013

The St. Louis Chronicles - Day 2

I am learning that not having a car in St. Louis doesn't limit your options so much as it makes everything take a lot longer.

Today Joanna and I started off with a workout, then ate the hotel's AMAZING breakfast buffet.  Included in the room rate are made-to-order omelets and waffles, hot buffet with biscuits and gravy, I could go on.  I'm still in disbelief at how much further money goes here though.

So we left and headed to agenda item #1 for both of us - The Budweiser Brewery tour in Soulard, south of downtown.  Joanna's husband loves beer and she took so many pictures and called him at several points on the tour to help him feel like he was there.  He was jealous.  We bought him some beer-themed merch at the ridiculous gift shop so hopefully he'll be appeased.

The Budweiser brewery tour, as you can imagine, is a masterful mix of information and marketing.  Every word you've ever heard associated with Budweiser, or its affiliates is woven seamlessly into the tour when speaking about the brewing process, the history of the brewery, even when talking about the horses.  These words will sound very familiar: crisp, pure, select, hand-crafted, smooth.  The scripts the guides use might as well just be one long commercial.  I guess that's really what any major industry brewery tour would be though.  I remember going to the Coors Brewery in Golden, CO and that wasn't given by a real person, just an audio tour.  My favorite part of that was at various intervals, you'd be listening about the brewery process or the kettles or some other part of the operation and a sexy woman's voice would just randomly interject "Cooooors liiiiiiiiiight" like you're deep into a 1-900 number call.

So the tour was overrun with people.  Memorial day and all, it's understandable.  It took a lot longer than expected but it was interesting.  The brewery itself is pristine and very pretty.  I've done lots of brewery tours but this is by far the most ornate, most well-orchestrated tour I've been on.  There were trolley rides, escalators, numbered displays on the bottling floor for easier sight reference, holding rooms for up to 100 guests, microphones to help the guides project, and they anticipated every question before we asked it.

I got to try a few beers at the end that I had never tried before.  The "Wild Black" is a blackberry lager that's basically blackberry cider.  It was pretty good but too sweet to drink much of.  I also tried Bud Light Platinum, which tasted pretty much like Bud light.  It was a fun but tiring tour.  Too many people made it a bit too hectic.

The clydesdales were probably my favorite part.  They live in stalls bigger than my apartment.  And I guess I didn't realize just HOW gigantic they are.  I stood about 10 feet away from one and was bowled over by just how massive they are.  They are truly magnificent animals.  Their stable is more like a rod and gun club.  It had wood paneling and stained glass windows, their harnesses are polished and hung in wooden and glass cases.  It must be nice to be a Budweiser Clydesdale.

After the tour, we tried to get lunch in the surrounding neighborhood but it was a ghost town.  Everything was closed.  So we headed back downtown and thankfully found out that there's a Flying Saucer here right by the stadium.  They also, even more happily, had pretzels on their menu.  I ordered them and they were about 1000 times better than the ones I had the night before.

A big storm cell was headed towards the city so I walked briskly to the City Museum to see if I could squeeze in a visit but I decided to go another day when I got there and found out the roof was closed because of the weather about to hit.  But the brief glimpse I got was enough to whet my appetite considerably for the fun in store when I do make it.   I decided to see if I could race the storm to the metro stop and just chill for the evening.  I barely made it to the stop and the downpour began.  The hotel picked me up at the metro stop and it's been a nice quiet night before the insanity of the conference starts tomorrow.  I'll be looking forward to more free time and have lots more to explore.

The St. Louis Chronicles - Day 1

Somehow I got selected by my office to go to a conference in St. Louis this year.  How it happened, I couldn't say but I'm excited to be here.  We are here for almost a whole week, which is sort of unheard of for a conference but I'm not complaining. I've never been to St. Louis and have spent the better part of May pumping all my friends on Facebook and even directly e-mailing a few people for the best things to do in the city.  I think my colleague and I have come up with a pretty good list.  My colleague will also be my roommate and partner in crime this week so let's call her Joanna.  We arrived today, Sunday, and got settled in our hotel.  The conference is huge and our employer, in it's usual fashion, approved us about a week ago to go.  Fortunately, our boss had told us she was recommending us about three weeks ago so we had been working on hotels since early May.  But most people who go to the conference start planning, oh, 6-8 months in advance.  So our hotel pickin's were... slim, at best.  We're staying in a quiet Western suburb of St. Louis and so far, it's pretty nice here.

We landed at the airport after a smooth flight and were picked up by Mike, a St. Louis native, the shuttle driver for our hotel, who chatted with us on the ride.  A very friendly guy, he basically just confirmed with us all the things our research and friends had told us.  So we felt pretty good.  Joanna is a resourceful researcher and, like me, looking to make the most of her time in St. Louis on somebody else's dime.  So she had figured out that there was a Blues festival ending tonight in the downtown area.  We decided to get settled, take the train into downtown, get dinner in Laclede's Landing right by the Arch, and then head to the blues festival.  

All of that happened without any significant directional mishaps.  Our dinner at Morgan Street Brewery wasn't great.  I saw beer pretzels on the menu and compulsively ordered them because soft pretzels with mustard are one of my most favorite things on the planet.  But when they came they were basically just the Super Pretzels you will find in your neighborhood grocer's freezer case.  The mustard was pretty good.  Our waitress was a bit rude as well.  But our dinners with drinks and an appetizer, were less than $15. Unheard of. 

After that Joanna and I walked to the Arch, a few blocks away and it really is a beautiful structure.  It has a nice big surrounding park and this night it almost blended in perfectly with the sky.  Seeing the park, the Arch and the river in the daytime will be lovely.

Next we walked through the downtown area to the blues festival.  It's a Sunday night on a holiday weekend.  We did see some ladies at Laclede's dressed to kill (literally, their stilettos could kill someone easily) but other than that just seemed like a normal night.  But the downtown area was so quiet.  Eerily quiet.  We could cross major thoroughfares without a thought for oncoming traffic with no other people in sight.

My first impressions of the city are that its people are very kind, it's more relaxed, kinder, quieter, and more spread out than DC.  I look forward to learning more.  

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Seryn at Hamilton Live - 5/23/13

I believe that words have a beautiful power behind them that can convey things in a way that nothing else can.  But when it comes time to use words to convey true art, anyone would struggle. If words are not the art themselves, simply a means to share that art, or contextualize it, then something is almost always lost in the translation.  I fear that tonight's concert-going experience cannot be adequately described in words yet here I am, unable to go anywhere else than my laptop.

Concerts are a special thing for me.  They are communal and revealing about me, about the music I hear, about the people who are hearing it with me, and the people who are playing it.  I've come away from shows genuinely heartbroken, exuberant, exhausted and sweaty, bored, sour, sore, mind-boggled, and ecstatic.  I don't think I've ever come away speechless.  After the show my friend kept talking about how these guys are going to be huge in two years, or how it's crazy that this show wasn't at the 9:30 Club.  I could barely hear him.  I was trying to hold on and rewind moments before time and distance blurred them.

There is some movie where someone talks about this.  I wish I had a research assistant to do insane google searches and figure it out, but the character in the movie asks a question something like this: Have you ever been in a moment so beautiful it's almost sad because you know the moment has to pass? Even if I had recorded the whole show it would never sound like it did sitting 10 feet from the stage in a small club in Northwest DC on a muggy May night.

There is no member of this band that plays less than 4 instruments, and all of them play with a creativity and genius that comes from genuine love, talent and dedication.  I want everyone in American to hear Seryn play live because they are doing amazing things and people should know about it.

At one point the lead singer was either blowing into his guitar or using his teeth on the strings and making a wailing/groaning, eerie sound that was still somehow beautiful. They passed their instruments off to one another like people shaking hands.  The bass player during one song played the trumpet with one hand and harmonized on the frets of his bass with the other.  Incredible musicality shone forth from this stage.

But the other thing that shone forth was the spirit of this band.  Moments of their songs sound like Native American chants with a wind blowing through them.  There was a spirit that descended on the room that was beautiful and touched everyone in it.  Seryn will move you, even if you can't feel what they bring to any room where their music is played, only a person who is completely closed off will not at least appreciate the brilliant musicianship they display.  In short, GO SEE THIS BAND!

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

You can't triple stamp the double stamp, Lloyd!

I'm sitting at my cubicle processing some expense reports and my cube mate, who is, admittedly, a little crazy, is REALLY selling it today.

Cubemate sleeps at her desk, regularly plays games on her iPad, keeps a personal journal of my internet activity and that of my colleagues, and comes in at least 20 minutes late every day.  She knows people, and teaches the Qur'an to the diplomats' kids, so she's got impunity.  In this culture, it's all about who you know, or "wasta" in Arabic.  I have heard it jokingly referred to as "Vitamin W" in interactions with authorities all too familiar with the power of this vitamin and how rules disintegrate in its presence.

But today, Cubemate has decided that she needs people to know that she is sick.  I mean really suffering -  infested, even.  Generally I have found her sickness to be most pronounced on the eve of a holiday weekend, or perhaps around a vacation she is taking.  The severity of her illness display at work is rooted in, I opine, the amount of incredulity she would have to overcome were she not to show up for work the next day.  I see her flagrant sneezes and operatic nose blowing as a way of setting up a sick day.  To make the call to HR the morning of that much easier to send through the uprights.  Look at that! She left early for the day... It's GOOOOOD!

Her sneezes and the other sounds coming from her cube today are enough to drown out even Phoenix's new album which I am trying desperately to use as a sound baffle. I found solace in this piece of knowledge:  there have to be things that sound worse than this.  So, here is a list of the most annoying sounds in the world, according to a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience in their October 2012 issue (source: Smithsonian science blog, October 16, 2012

Their top ten most irritating sounds, with links to audio files for the worst five:

1. A knife on a bottle

2. A fork on a glass

3. Chalk on a blackboard

4. A ruler on a bottle

5. Nails on a blackboard
6. A female scream
7. An anglegrinder (a power tool)
8. Squealing brakes on a bicycle
9. A baby crying
10. An electric drill

And the four they rated as the least irritating:

1. Applause
2. A baby laughing
3. Thunder
4. Water flowing

Read more here.

I don't know if Cubemate's sneezing (she actually stamps her foot with each sneeze) and manual expectoration would be as bad if they weren't SO LOUD.  I took the liberty of recording a few nose blows with my phone in the hopes of being able to share what I'm up against.  I recorded it from my desk thinking this will provide an accurate sample of what we heard from her afflicted 10am arrival to her tragicomic departure at 1pm when she just couldn't take the suffering any longer.  

And to tie it all together, I have to post 2 of possibly the best minutes of on-screen comedy of all time from one of my favorite movies: 
The noise that Jim Carrey came up with for this scene is one of the funniest things on planet earth.   Hope your Tuesdays are less mucus-filled than mine!  

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

What April in the Country taught me.

I can't remember the last time I was so looking forward to the open road.  Generally a 700 mile road trip alone would be discomforting, but as this trip started taking shape, I yearned for it.

A few months back my older brother suggested that we go to Merlefest, an annual bluegrass festival held in Wilkesboro, NC in the far western part of the state.  My brother and father are both avid Doc Watson fans, and this festival was started by Doc to honor his son, Merle, who died in a tractor accident about 25 years ago.  Doc himself just died last year.  A beautiful blues/bluegrass singer, he is remembered for his generosity, encouragement of other musicians, and dry humor.

This isn't something I would normally do, but the location of the festival made it more attractive because it would lead me past Charlottesville and Blacksburg, where two of my favorite people from my life in Williamsburg are now in school.  I decided it would be fun to bond with my brother and father at the festival and I'd get in good visits with friends along the way.  So I committed.

I left work early on Friday and slogged through Friday afternoon rush down to Charlottesville, Virginia.  This is possibly one of my favorite places on the planet.  The drive down there is beautiful in any season, they have great music, food and people, and excellent running paths.  Recipe for winning my heart, right there.  I immediately went to campus to retrieve Allison and we spent the afternoon walking on the downtown mall, catching up, and then lounging at Lambeth Field watching all the Friday afternoon pickup games of soccer, lacrosse, and volleyball.  Oh college.  It was sunny and warm and whenever I think of moments like that one, I think of the Better Than Ezra song, "This time of year" which goes like this:

Well, there's a feeling in the air
Just like a Friday afternoon.
Yeah, you can go there if you want
Though it fades too soon.

So go on, let it be.

If there's a feeling coming over me,
Seems like it's always understood this time of year.

Well, I know there's a reason to change.
Well, I know there's a time for us.
You think about the good times
And you live with all the bad.
You can feel it in the air,
Feeling right this time of year.

I love that song so much.  It always reminds me of the bliss of Friday afternoons in college when it felt like your whole life was in front of you - and it is! right? - and all is possibility.  So Allison helped me remember what that felt like, and we got to spend it together, which was great.  She came to dinner with me and a William and Mary friend who lives and works in C-ville now at Continental Divide.  We waited over an hour for a table because it was Foxfield weekend.  This is the day at the horse races that the entire college and lots of alumni show up for in the spring wearing their preppy finest.  Gentlemen in pastels and seersucker, ladies in their sundresses and big hats.  C-ville was humming.  It was hard to wait an hour for the table but we sort of passed the point where we felt like we could cut and run.  I was so invested, it was like winning a battle. It only has 12 tables to begin with and people tend to camp out for the margaritas all night.  The delicious food and mediocre, at best, service, are memorable.  

After dinner, I parted ways with Allison, as she started to prep for her day at the races with her sorority the next day, and I went down to the bars on the mall to meet another friend.  We dove into a lively discussion about religion and relationships and before we knew it, it was last call.  I crashed on this friend's couch, woke up early the next morning and went for a run along the Rivanna trail.  

I think it's no coincidence that Rivanna's name looks a lot like Rivendell.  It is certainly not pronounced similarly though (Rye-VA-nuh).  I learned that on an earlier trip where a local corrected me through a guffaw when I said "REE-vah-nah".   There was that same golden light along the path that there is in the movies in that hallowed Elven dwelling.  Is there anything better than clean spring air in your lungs, sunlight on your face, and a rolling river by your side?  To quote Edna St. Vincent Millay, 

...Lord, I do fear
Thou'st made the world too beautiful this year.  

After a glorious run, I went to the grocery store for some breakfast while waiting for my cousin's family to return home from swimming lessons so I could visit with them.  This was one of my better decisions all weekend.  The grocery store on the morning of Foxfield is AMAZING.  Here is what you will find: 

  1. Sorority girls in sundresses and huge hats buying sunblock, water, and snacks. 
  2. Scads of fraternity guys with neon sunglasses, traveling in packs no fewer than four across, wearing pastel chino shorts, seersucker or nautical sport coats, boat shoes and bowties.  
  3. Drinking from solo cups IN THE STORE.
  4. 9:30 am purchases of 6 cases of Natty Light and fruit juice as a mixer for liquor already procured elsewhere.  
  5.  At least 5 of these dandies packed into a 1992 Honda Accord, those in the back holding either a case of beer or a cup of "energy" to start the day.  
  6. 40 year old men in the same uniform, doing the exact same things, except sub in a BMW 5 series for the Honda accord.  
  7. Serious discussion about what chips go best with what beer and what quantities will be needed of both, in terms of cans per person, per hour, plus "barnacles" which I take to mean moochers.  
I could hardly contain my glee.  What a fantastic people experience that was.   Moving on, I spent the morning at my cousin's house where visited their little ones, played in the yard and had Bodo's bagels for lunch.  Feeling full of love for Charlottesville and loathe to leave as always, the open road was calling.  I was headed to Roanoke.  

I was supposed to be headed to Blacksburg to visit another Williamsburg friend who is in school there.  Sadly, our signals got crossed and she ended up not being in town.  So, I had already booked a nice non-refundable hotel and got a little personal retreat in Roanoke, VA.  In between Charlottesville and my final stop for the day though, I decided to detour in Natural Bridge, VA.  This actually was the best decision I made all weekend, because it led me straight into the Natural Bridge Wax Museum.  Before I arrived at that though, I came across a few other pieces of western Virginia tourism gold: 

Foamhenge - exactly what it sounds like.   
Natural Bridge Zoo - I drove past this and it was a 100'x30' fenced in area with a donkey, two ostriches, a pig, a llama and two chickens.  
Safari Park - this place apparently boasts a camel and some goats in addition to more donkeys and some chickens.
Smiley's BBQ - near Raphine, Virginia I saw a billboard that said "Best Dang BBQ in VA" and advertised this place.  For sure the best dang billboard I've ever seen, dagummit. 

So I finally arrive at the main event, after passing all the various tourist traps leading up to it.  Natural Bridge!  I go inside to purchase my ticket.  $21!!!  What? How could you charge me that much when I can go see the Grand Canyon for free? What's that you say?  The price of admission includes the Natural Bridge Wax Museum and Factory Tour? Well now, that's a whole different story.  I had to walk right past the door to the museum to actually get to the access path for the natural bridge anyway, so I figured why not.  It did not disappoint.

Now about this museum, I need to post a few pictures to adequately convey how horrifying and hilarious this museum was.  I entered through the turnstile and was greeted by a wax figurine scene of the Garden of Eden.  I wondered if I was going to see a retelling of the bible through wax figures.  In the Natural Bridge Welcome Center/Truck stop, they sell a lot of things like t-shirts, mugs, maps, you know, normal truck stop stuff, but they also have a religious book section.  Not so normal, well maybe not so normal for anywhere that's not southwestern VA.  And who knows, maybe "Jesus is Alive!" is a great title to have on hand when people are driving the long stretches of I-81.

They did not retell the whole bible, they retold SOME of the bible, and some select moments in Virginia/American history, with a loose grip on the context and facts of each event.  Some of my favorite things are below:

This eerie swinging man greets you when you first see the museum. Sets the tone.    

This crazy scene is supposed to be about digging for buried treasure, which is somehow a key event in Virginia's history that needed to be commemorated in wax.  Also, check out the possessed-looking kid in the cage thing. 

This is a poor photo of a scene depicting Virginia wildman "Bar" Trolley.  Bar doesn't mean the place where you drink, or the thing lawyers have to pass.  No no, it's this man's nickname because that's how they say the word "bear" this far south.  So a stuffed bear strangling a man nicknamed "Bar" because he fought said creature.  Note the crazy eyes on "Bar".  Could this be any more fantastic?  No.  

President Barack Obama?  Or Ceasar Chavez?

Ahhh, the piece de resistance.  They have a whole separate room for this scene, as well as an 8-minute narration which is a not-so-thinly-veiled gospel message.  They have a disclaimer on the door outside where you wait to go in for the show that says "this contains religious perspectives that you may not share" etc...  So it's the Last Supper, with a side of evangelism.  

Um, Thomas, I know you doubted, but is that gesture really necessary? WHAT  IS THIS?? 

That is really the question I kept asking myself.  Is this real?  Am I actually seeing what I'm seeing and hearing what I'm hearing?  At one point in the museum, as you turn a corner, they have a fake security guard who is supposed to scare you, but he would only do that if you were mostly blind.  And then a few more steps down the hall you hear a screeching sound and a spotlight shines on a stuffed bobcat above you.  Then a few more steps down the hall and you see a mountain man light up with his rifle aimed at the bobcat who yells something like "Git 'im" and then fires.  Then the bobcat screeches again.  I ask you, friends, how is this not on every Top Ten Things To Do in America list? 

Oh but there's more!  After getting my Gospel handed to me on a wax platter, I got to do the Factory tour on the basement level.   I thought the museum was pretty strange but the Factory was another level.  

No big deal.  Just some floating wax heads to greet you as you begin your tour.  

I don't even know what this is.  But it felt like it should be in a horror movie.  

As you leave, the gift shop displays partial thumbs and other imperfect wax body parts as souvenirs for sale.  Wow.  

Moving on, and wanting to cleanse my palate of what I had just seen, I headed down the stone steps to see the Natural Bridge, the whole reason for being in this interesting little corner of the world at all.  The lush spring green welcomed me back into its arms.  It's a short walk down to the bridge and you are greeted with a grand vista. 

There was actually a wedding going on at the base of the bridge on the far side.  Pretty neat idea.  I got to congratulate the bride and groom on my way to the Indian Village and Nature trail.  

Indian village arsenal. 

Waterfall reward for those who brave the .75 mile nature trail. 

So after finishing up my nature walk, I got in the car and pulled back on to 81 only about an hour from Roanoke.  Once I got to my hotel and cleaned up,  I went to the Fresh Market, bought supplies for the festival the next day, walked around the downtown area a bit, then fell asleep to a terrible Bruce Willis movie which was somehow exactly what I wanted.  King size beds are amazing! I don't even take up 1/3 of them but it's so luxurious to know that I could if I wanted to.  

I woke up very early the next morning to a steady rain.  I knew what the day would hold: bad weather and great music.  I had 2.5 hours in the car before I got to the festival.  My brother and dad were meeting me there.  It wasn't warm, but it wasn't cold and the rain was pretty light.  I had packed accordingly, with my best rain jacket and layers beneath it, a chair, snacks and water.  Getting to the festival site, I met up with the other two attendees, and we all boarded the school bus shuttle with our tennis shoes squeaking against the floor and the windows fogging up against the rain.

We arrived early to see the Avett Family Gospel hour.  My dad said he felt like he was back in Sunday school.  They sang things like "When the Roll is Called Up Yonder" and "Battle of Jericho".  It was a great family tribute and Scott and Seth joined their dad and sister on stage for a few songs.  The rain came down harder.    

Jim Avett et al.  

We took a break in the tent to let our umbrella rest and be able to eat without having our chips get soaked by the rain.  We then headed back out into the weather, each step my feet sinking deeper and deeper into well-trodden mud paths between the rows of seats.  We sat down under our umbrella and a tarp to hear the Kruger Brothers who played an astoundingly beautiful set.  They had written a piece called "Appalachian Concerto" which combines the best of Copeland-style classical Americana with the best of roots bluegrass.  These two German brothers, raised in Switzerland, have the souls of those born in the backwoods of North Carolina.   Uwe Kruger plays a masterful classical guitar, his brother Jens, an equal in skill, displays his talents on the banjo.  They teamed with a string quartet and through the rain played 4 movements of some of the more beautiful music I've heard in my life.  Maybe it was the setting, maybe it was the spring time, but I think for all those listening, our spirits rising against the rain, it was transcendent.  They also included a few of their own songs after the concerto, including the most gorgeous rendition of Sting's "Fields of Gold" that I have ever heard. And I have heard a lot, because I love that song.  I usually don't subscribe to the theory that covers can be better than the originals (with the big exception of almost any Bob Dylan song) but this breaks that.  I've heard Sting himself perform it on the lute, the LUTE for Pete's sake, and still this was more beautiful.

Excerpt from Appalachian Concerto performed by the Kruger Brothers and the Piedmont String Quartet.  

So after that we took a break and my brother and I went to the square dancing tent.  I was so wet and cold at this point that I could no longer feel my toes.  So being under a tent and moving around a bit was exactly what I needed.  The caller was a fantastic guy who apparently runs a family square dancing camp.  I made a mental note and if I ever have a family of my own, they better look out.  I will straight up recreate the summer from Dirty Dancing so fast they won't know what hit them.  

Then it was back into the rain for Tift Merrit, with a charming voice and an amazing pedal steel backup, she sang her way sweetly into my musical to-do list.  Before her, Blind Boy Paxton on steel guitar, after her, Pokey LaFarge and his sort of klezmer band.  Loved it.  Then the main event:  The Avett Brothers, main stage.  

One of the overwhelming themes of the day was the love that all the performers demonstrated and professed both in their songs and stage banter for the great state of North Carolina.  That's one of the themes for me from this trip too, that Virginia and NC are my roots, where I'm from, where my family is from, and that is important.  It is home.

The Avetts always bring passion and authenticity to every performance. I have given a lot of thought lately to how I would feel if I had to perform the same songs night after night to different people in different towns all wanting a great experience.  To me, the key is that the thing that you've produced, the thing that you are sharing, has to be something that is truly a part of you, that you feel it is necessary to share and that you believe in wholeheartedly.  Otherwise, no one's going to want it, and you'll burn out performing it so quickly.  I don't think this is anything the Avett's will ever struggle with though.  The songs they have written are pieces of their lives, and they believe they need to share them.  Their lyrics are deeply personal and relatable to everyone.  I could see Scott's face on the jumbotron and in close ups on certain songs, when relaying a particularly vivid lyric or detail, you could see that he was singing a part of his own personal story and that maybe it even hurt to sing it.  He was singing about things that caused him shame, but the message is absolutely one of hope, always hope.  I love watching people who are passionate and loving on stage, I love watching people who love what they do.  The Avetts' joy is infectious, and their message of hope undeniably uplifting.  I never leave a show of theirs without taking home good things to think about and joy in my heart.

We cut out a bit early, right after "Kick Drum Heart".  Dad was soaked to the skin and we wanted to beat the traffic out of town anyway.  I had a great day at Merlefest and I would absolutely go again. The performers were warm, personable, and the entire festival atmosphere was very different from what I've experienced up here in the DC area so many times.  There was a noticeable lack of competitive coolness, drunk people, and idiotic behavior.  Maybe it was the rain that kept the crazies either at bay or at home, but it was a really convivial, communal atmosphere.  Maybe next time I'll go to the Tribute Jam session.  The collaborative possibilities are endless and probably wonderful.

Then I headed back to my parent's house in Midlothian and rehashed the day with brother and father, and now mother, who had elected to stay at home but was there waiting for us when we all came back. Home.  What a beautiful thing it is.  After a weekend on the road, it is nice to be back in my little home a bit further north. But I learned a lot this weekend, and have many wonderful memories tucked away that I will revisit often.  Thanks for reading, folks.  See you again real soon.  

Past Entries