Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Marietta: confluence of cultures

The first destination on our annual fall pilgrimage, initiated on our honeymoon 32 Octobers ago, was Ohio University (OU) to visit our freshman. The plan is to bookend a swing through eastern Ohio with visits to our student-daughters in Athens and Kent.

For most of the decade of autumns before we had children, we traveled to Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, exchanging Maine for the Adirondacks just about every foliage season. It was magnificent: ambling the golden-leaf strewn pathway to Robert Frost’s cabin in Ripton, Vt.; cutting over Breadloaf mountain where the yellow, Victorian buildings of Middlebury College’s writing mecca glowed against the robust red maples; scarecrows blowing chilly breath into Brandon at every intersection long before it was a thing; paddling the color-drenched shores of Blue Mountain Lake at the Hedges, an Adirondack “camp,” built by Vanderbuilt’s Sagamore Lodge employees; a warm bowl of seafood cioppino quenched with a cold Long Trail ale at White Dog Tavern at the end of a day of leaf peeping.

Two years ago, on our anniversary, we trekked to Dublin, Doolin and Galway in Ireland, touring the Aran Islands after a ferocious ferry crossing. I relished a rather mundane experience: purchasing eyeglasses. On a whim, after finding nothing at home, I packed my prescription. No high-pressure sales, just a very knowledgeable attendant, who actually drew my eye, explaining my need for thicker lenses. Ten days of Guinness, Celtic music and Irish hospitality were a delight. Last year, we ventured to Cape Breton, leaving a charming but cold fishing shack when temperatures dipped and accidentally texting a stranger, who, nevertheless, offered us a warm bed. We rented an artist’s handmade home in the country and concluded with an exhilarating day in Halifax among markets and breweries. Maudie* country is stunning.

This year’s trek is closer to home, revolving around our oldest’s 21st birthday. She actually asked us to take her to a bar – how could we refuse?

On the first leg of the six-day journey, we make a quick stop in Jackson to a funky fabric-garden-Christian-snack outlet (Guhl’s Country Store, where my fashion-design student saves big bucks on bolts of muslin). When I tell the cashier we were headed to OU, she responds that her grandson’s a sophomore and they’d had 14 rapes reported. This was not good news. I googl local police reports and the Columbus Dispatch to discover it’s now 16. Inexcusable. I can not wait to hug my daughter.

We reach her 45 minutes later, unload the fresh mini pumpkin pies I’d baked, her winter coat and boots. She is deliciously happy as we whisk her off to lunch at the worker-owned Casa Nueva, an Athens staple. It’s not somewhere she could afford on a student budget (although with a meal plan at $23 per day for 2 meals, she could). I order the seasonal corn enchilada with Ohio cheddar, roasted red peppers and pulled pork, only I get dry chicken, baked in verde salsa. Before real Mexican street tacos at one-tenth the price spoiled me, I would have been satisfied. They are fine for American tacos. And the ambiance is old-school granola on the restaurant side. It is a great place to catch up with our emerging adult.

After what seems like too-brief a visit, we are back on route 50 headed toward Marietta. We live near 50, but have never traversed this segment. We experience a hauntingly beautiful drive on this steamy, sometimes rainy afternoon. I had hoped to catch a glimpse of Blennerhasset Island, where Araon Burr hatched his foiled coup, but the turn toward Marietta intervened. The Blennerhassets created the American dream, immigrating from Ireland, thriving and leaving behind a stately mansion, now the hub of a West Virginia State Park. You arrive via paddleboat from Parkersburg, W. Va.

I almost miss the drive into town trying to book my next adventure, a BIG one for a BIG birthday, on my phone. The town is village-like until we cross the Muskingham and into the heart of Marietta. The downtown sweeps broad like a frontier with brick former banks, warehouses and theaters abutting feed mills, eclectic shops, restaurants and bars. We spot our hotel, one of the last river accommodations I note somewhere, bending around a corner opposite the Ohio River. I am surprised by its authenticity, as if nothing’s touched. When we check in, I ask if we can have a river view. I am firmly told no, because I booked on Expedia. “Can’t you push that?” I ask. “No.” Her voice has the familiarity of my attempt to book direct. She wouldn’t budge then, either. So the Expedia room it is.

Between the second and third floors, the elaborate staircase vanishes, replaced bya utilitarian set (think Upstair/Downstairs or Downton Abby). So does the air conditioning. Hit with an odor as we enter out floor, it dissipates in our very small room. You can’t open the door and access the bathroom at the same time. This is the charm of another era when we lived within our means and did not seek sprawling spaces. It’s fine for two nights, except getting there through the horribly smelly hallway I realize is mold and mildew. Later I check deeper into reviews that universally report the smell of fish. That smell is confirmed at the front desk when I ask for a room that will not trigger a migraine. “Well, we’ve had lots of floods.” We move up a floor to an almost identical room with a less-pungent entry.

It really is a cool, old hotel, echoing the southern charms of the river, sort of New Orleans meets Chicago. Victorian furniture you sink into (because seats have supported many a derriere) invites visitors to sit and merely watch the river.

We settle in, then head out to explore. We walk the expanse of downtown, surprised by its size and vibrancy, although there are vacant buildings. One is advertised for free. People are friendly and I spy young adults, likely Marietta College students. The waterfront seems almost virginal, refreshingly undeveloped, lined only with a walkway. The humidity brews up a thirst we quench at the most-local bar we uncover, Town House. It’s trivia night with $3 Amstel Lights, cheapest I’ve ever found, and a homegrown-tomato-and-tuna/chicken/egg salad special. Who could resist? We trade history for empty dinner plates with the bartender, pay and head back, full and sleepy.

* Maudie is a movie made in 2016 about Cape Breton folk artist Maude Lewis

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