2012 Road Trip Catch-Up: Poplar Forest and Home

Poplar Forest, Rear View

Friday, 27 July 2012

After a fancy breakfast at the B&B (omelets, fruit and coffee served from a silver service), we get the heck out of Appomattox. A sleepy town? No, more like a dying one. We make a detour to stop at Poplar Forest, Jefferson’s retreat and wow, am I glad we did. The location is beautiful, up on a hill, surrounded by trees.

Approaching Poplar ForestWe take a fascinating guided tour, learning the history of the house (designed by Jefferson and thought to be the epitome of his design talents) and getting a glimpse of the in-progress restoration. The octagonal house is filled with natural light, comfortably-sized rooms are centered around a tall central dining room with a skylight above. There’s a sunken garden in the back and the house is centered between two small man-made hills, covered with willow and poplar trees, which provide symmetry, connected to the structure by two rows of paper myrtle trees on either side.

We spend a couple of hours at Poplar Forest before getting back in the car for the eight hour drive back to Georgetown, KY. We squeeze in an hour’s drive on the beautiful, twisting, turning Blue Ridge Highway. I can imagine how gorgeous it must be in the fall.
Poplar Forest Grounds

The drive back is quick and fun, up until the very last hour when we run directly into a wicked thunderstorm with pounding rain and frightening bolts of lightening scratching horizontally across the sky. Near-zero visibility at times makes for white-knuckle driving.

We finally arrive as the third wave of the storm passes over and we drag our stuff into the house in between cloud bursts. I collapse on the couch with a well-earned beer. Over a dinner of take-out and laughter, we recall our Virginia adventures.

2012 Road Trip Catch-Up: Monticello

Monticello Vegetable Garden

Sunday, 22 July 2012

A fantastic day, filled with American presidential history.

After breakfast in the hotel, we hop in the car for the 15-minute drive to Monticello, climbing the hill to the visitors’ center where we wait for a shuttle bus to take us the final leg up to the house and grounds. To finally see Thomas Jefferson’s masterpiece, a repository of so much history, is thrilling.

View from the DomeWe begin with the house tour, led by a very personable UVA student; the highlight for me is seeing Jefferson’s bedroom and library. After the standard tour, which includes the main rooms on the first floor and the immediate grounds, we kill a bit of time looking around in the basement (work areas, store rooms, wine cellar, slave quarters) before the start of the “back stage tour,” which takes us through the second floor of Monticello. We see a few bedrooms (none of which were furnished with Jefferson items but you get the idea) and it’s nice to see the view from above. We also get to climb the incredibly narrow winding staircases to the second floor, spending time in the dome room and the hidden alcove over the porch.

The Hidden Alcove Over the Porch
Double doors open onto the hidden alcove over the porch.
Monticello Interior
From the upstairs hallway, looking into the main entry way.
Monticello Kitchen
A big kitchen needs multiple burners.
Monticello Vineyard
The Monticello vineyard.

Afterward, we take the Slavery at Monticello and garden tours, both of which are chock-full of information. I’m impressed that at no point do they shy away from the subject of slavery, Thomas Jefferson’s complicated relationship with the institution and, of course, Sally Hemmings. All the tour guides are excellent and really know their stuff. On the day we were there, Monticello was busy, but not insanely crowded, and I marveled at the impressive volunteer army on hand. Five hours later, we’ve seen it all, and wrap-up or visit with lunch at the visitors’ center.

Monticello Vegetable Garden
Monticello vegetable garden.

View From the Garden

Monticello Slave Quarters
Slave quarters.
Monticello Worshipers
I quickly snapped this photo when a group of young girls ran up to the base of the steps (you can just make them out above the tree stump) and began worshiping the house with full flailing arm movements.

Next, we’re off for a quick visit to James Monroe’s abode, conveniently located about a five minutes drive away. Quite a stark contrast between these homes. Ash Lawn-Highland is smaller, humbler, less impressive but no less interesting. Monroe’s home is notably different from when he lived there (the second floor was added later) and the later time period is quite apparent by the different style in architectural style, furnishing and decor.

Ash Lawn

We take a quick house tour, given by a young man dressed in a sports coat on a very warm day. I take a photo of a 300-plus-year-old tree on the grounds and we call it a day. Montpelier, James Madison’s home, would have to wait until tomorrow.


Back in Charlottesville, we take a dusk walk around the UVA campus. Much of the historic Jefferson-era section is under restoration, looking less than its best. It’s still fun to see after hearing and reading so much about the place. Dinner is at The Virginian, a local university hangout. So far, Virginia’s craft beer scene is nothing to write home about.


Review: American Sphinx

American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas JeffersonAmerican Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph J. Ellis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In just a few days, I’ll be hitting the road, bound for Virginia. The ultimate destination is Monticello and this book is very much the reason.

After reading a lackluster biography of Thomas Jefferson (by R. B. Bernstein), I decided to tackle American Sphinx in hopes of gaining more insight into the enigma that is Jefferson, third President of the United States, author of the Declaration of Independence, creator of the University of Virginia, and all-around Founding Father Supreme.

I found Joseph Ellis’ meditation on “the character of Thomas Jefferson” endlessly fascinating, full of interesting information, and a pleasure to read. Rather than worshipping at the shrine of Virginia’s favorite son, Ellis brings Jefferson (and his legacy) down to earth, revealing the man, flaws and all, behind the myth.

Rather than working as a straight biography, Ellis examines major periods in Jefferson’s life, beginning with the drafting of the Declaration of Independence and concluding with his retirement to Monticello after a second term as President. Ellis goes beyond the hero-worship and the recitation of historical facts to get inside Jefferson’s head, as much as any historian can.

I came away from this book with a greater appreciation of Jefferson and a better understanding of how his ideals and mythology have been adopted (and twisted) by politicians over time. I was intrigued to learn about the utopian ideals that were central to Jefferson’s beliefs, and how this dream of an ideal society informed among other things, his composition of the most famous work of American prose, The Declaration of Independence.

It was the vision of a young man projecting his personal cravings for a world in which all behavior was voluntary and therefore all coercion unnecessary, where independence and equality never collided, where the sources of all authority were invisible because they had already been internalized. Efforts on the part of scholars to determine whether Jefferson’s prescriptive society was fundamentally individualistic or communal can never reach closure, because within the Jeffersonian utopia such choices do not need to be made. They reconcile themselves naturally.

Wishful thinking. As Ellis points out, the Declaration of Independence, a reflection of Jefferson’s philosophy, is at once a source of inspiration and an unattainable dream. From the very beginning, we’ve been set up to fail. In addition, his world view allowed him to avoid conflict and maintain that the natural order would make it right. He didn’t account for human nature getting in the way and mucking things up.

Time and again, Jefferson aspired to an idealistic world, while ignoring the reality around him. While serving as a diplomat in Paris from 1784-89, he romanticized the French Revolution, which was ascending to its bloody peak during his stay. Most troubling, President Jefferson’s way of selectively looking at the world enabled him to avoid the issue of slavery, kicking the thorny issue down the road for future generations to wrestle with.

Additional interesting items gleaned from this book:

  • Much of the language of Declaration of Independence was borrowed from other sources, including Jefferson’s own writing of Virginia state constitution. I’d naively thought it was 100% original material drafted especially for the occasion.
  • Jefferson was a lousy farmer, Monticello was a terrible site for a farm, and for all his talk, he didn’t get his hands in the dirt much. His dream of retiring to an agrarian life at Monticello was always just that, a dream.
  • Jefferson’s first inauguration as President was a truly momentous occasion, as he was inheriting a fledgling nation at a precarious time, previously run by Federalists and now led by the Republican party.
  • His term came with built-in opposition and simmering distrust that would foment into hatred between Jefferson and his Vice President Aaron Burr and Chief Justice John Marshall.
  • Aaron Burr plotted to secede a portion of the United States as an independent nation, with himself as leader! (I definitely need to read more about this guy.)
  • According to Ellis, Jefferson’s first inaugural address was “one of the two or three most significant inaugural addresses in American history and, apart from the hallowed Declaration, the most artful and eloquent public document that Jefferson ever crafted.”
  • Jefferson was one of “the most secluded and publicly invisible presidents in American history.” All that alone time spent writing left us with an invaluable paper trail and insight into his presidential decision-making process.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in a well-rounded portrait of one of the most important figures in U.S. history, whose genius and idealism served the country so well at a most critical juncture.