Travel that involves the consultation of maps, avid sightseeing and strenuous culture-vulture activity is enough like work that it absorbs the mind and waylays introspection and despond. It’s the “mindless” vacation, the idyll, that poses a problem. I can endure unalloyed pleasure for only a few days, and then the alloy begins to creep in-the guilt, the queasiness at being pampered. It could be that part of the “pleasure” is the alloy and the apprehension it induces: What form will misery take? How will I manage to spoil the perfect vacation? How long before I introduce a fly into the ointment?
Such was the situation on a recent three-day jaunt, when I “took the waters” with my husband, brother and sister-in-law at the Homestead-the grande dame of hotels-in the vernal mountains of western Virginia. The oldest continuously operating resort in the U.S., built (in 1766) near bubbling hot sulfur springs which fill the spa pool and calm the nerves; a golfing paradise of Presidents and royalty-the place casts a long and enticing shadow over my childhood. Once a wooden hotel built by a friend of George Washington’s from the Virginia militia, and now a huge brick structure (the same that I knew in my youth), it was a magical kingdom. It wasn’t just that it was too pricey for my family (though it was). In those days, only the very rich took their children to expensive resorts, where the kids could be palmed off on swimming teachers and tennis pros, or sequestered in special nurseries and playgrounds-gilt-edged ghettos of noise and hyperactivity that allowed the golden rule of silence to maintain elsewhere. It’s no longer that way; children are ubiquitous-a fly in the ointment?
Now an attentive staff was serving us tea in the great hall, off the plantation-like porte-cochere. But at least there were no personal servants (the Duke and Duchess of Windsor came with 12) to unpack our suitcases, lay out our clothes. (Though I could have used some in New York when I went through a frenzy of decision-making over what to bring.) The place is loaded with history: Thomas Edison was responsible for the hotel’s first electric-power plant, the theater was built in 1922 to show silent movies, and the golf course sported the
oldest first tee in the country. Wilson honey-mooned here, and McKinley and Eisenhower trod the links. A special gallery houses portraits of the 20 Presidents who’ve visited. (Bush I and II were missing, as was J.F.K.; but the Bouviers came with little Jackie.) At the fabulous breakfast buffet one
morning, the Virginia governor was piling high his plate, as were other members of the Democratic Caucus.
On the second evening, the four of us took a champagne-sipping, horse-driven carriage ride around the grounds at the speed (5 m.p.h.) with which the plutocracy of old had hightailed it from one resort to another. Our tobacco-chewing driver was out of a Cormac McCarthy novel. Almost unintelligible when he spoke, he nevertheless picked up every word we said, and interrupted our conversation about movies.
“I saw that movie The Horse Whisperer,” he said, curling
his lip. “That Robert Redford-he didn’t know how to talk-whisper to horses. He only knew how to flirt-whisper to women.”
By the end of the second day, as our muscles were forced to relax under the ministrations of body whisperers, Weltschmerz threatened to engulf us. Desperate for something to enable us, in David Lodge’s phrase, “to keep abreast of the global gloom,” my husband and I turned to CNN, where experts were gleefully dissecting the Utah teen snatch-a story that hadn’t even made the Virginia papers-pondering the significance of the age of the child (14) and her sister (9), and declaring the culprit a “preferential molester” rather than a pedophile.
Perhaps, I hoped, a book from the hotel’s extensive stock would both soothe and stimulate. My heart had leapt when, walking down the endless corridor to our room, we’d come upon bookcases stuffed with offerings. But on closer inspection, there wasn’t an author or title I recognized-not even on the more copious shelves of the Washington Library. The books had probably been bought by the yard sometime in the 50’s. I investigated the newspaper boutique and found in its cramped space, along with Alka Seltzer, Band-Aids, deodorant and a smattering of best-sellers, 33 books about golf! There were also golf puzzles, souvenirs and assorted golfabilia. Now I’ve nothing against golf-it draws people to the courses and away from my chosen recreation areas (hot pool, cold pool)-but at some of these places the sport borders on a cult, with menus listing items like Eggs Hole in One and T-bone in the Rough.
In an attempt to relieve my anxiety, I headed for the pool. In my harried packing, I hadn’t brought my bathing cap. I went to one shop after another without success. Partly as an antidote to inertia, I turned the search for a replacement into research into the disappearance of what I discovered is an ancient form of aquatic headgear. I’m not speaking of those little rubber Speedos, contraceptives for the head that pull your hair and pinch your scalp but produce the androgynous and bullet-headed look of a professional swimmer. I’m talking thick white caps with under-the-chin straps that snap and come in assorted colors, sometimes with pert little rubber flowers that come off with the first big wave.
I’d noticed for a few years that I was having a hard time buying the things, but I thought each drugstore had simply run out of stock. It wasn’t until the 20-year-old daughter of a swimming friend told her mother that we looked like two old ladies in our bathing caps that I realized the truth: The bathing cap as I knew it was an extinct species, a 50’s artifact, as out-of-date as the hair maintenance that went with it. (We had hairdos and, when we weren’t at the beauty parlor, we were spending hours frying our roller-bedecked heads under drying bonnets.)
So, capless, I went to the Jefferson Pool and, for the first time that week, felt truly and sublimely at one, body and mind-immersed in watery history, adrift in time. The pool, or pools (there’s an adjacent men’s pool, and the two are still segregated), is filled continually by body-temperature water from the sulfur springs (yes, there’s a slight whiff of fertilizer when you enter) and housed inside a primitive wooden structure that has a ramp and minimalist dressing rooms, sort of like Girl Scout camp. The water is four feet deep, clear aquamarine in color, with stones on the bottom, as it was when a 75-year-old Thomas Jefferson came in 1818 to take the waters for his rheumatism and, celebrity that he was, put the pool on the spa map. Now you lie on a Styrofoam “noodle” and feel a gentle breeze from the partially opened roof skylight. I blissed out in a way I’ve never done in yoga or at a spa. It only costs $12, as opposed to a hundred here and there for various forms of being “done” to. There, in the pool, I realized that it was the being done to that made me nervous-not the pampering, per se. I loved floating entirely my own, in complete silence, in a tiny world that hadn’t changed an iota since 1818. Did Jefferson remove his wig, don a cap or dunk the peruke? For one precious hour, I felt closer to T.J. than to J. Lo.