The first entry in a series of stories detailing my experiences and encounters in Plains, GA, birthplace and current residence of one James Earl Carter, Jr. To be followed up when I have access to wifi, electrical outlets, and maybe even both at the same time—a rare occurrence since Hurricane Irate.
First things first, Plains (pop. 637) is not convenient. Not a convenient place to live, not a convenient place to visit, certainly not a convenient place from which to run your presidential campaign. Three hours south of Atlanta, two and a half east of Montgomery, Al, two and a half north of Talahassee, with peanut farms extending as far as you can see in every direction—
What I am saying is this: you are going to be traveling for a while.
Driving a thousand miles home from West Branch, Iowa, only to head to Newark International Airport and board a flight to Orange County would have once seemed to me some surreal joke. Today, it has been woven seamlessly into the fabric of My Summer Vacation.
Yes, the rumors are true: after ten days on the road—about 2,998 miles total, according to Mapquest—Rachel and I returned in one piece from July’s Great Midwestern Odyssey. We saw eleven presidential birthplaces total (twelve if you count Jefferson Davis’s), a handful of presidential tombs and other pertinent sites, and more evangelical–themed billboards than I could shake a stick at. (I was too busy driving.) We pilgrimaged to Ohio Wesleyan (well…), trolled Jefferson Davis’s supremely phallic birthplace (sort of?), and met a Kentucky preacher. We took a Reagan Coloring Book from Tampico, a cornstalk from Iowa. We made it as far west as West Branch, IA; as far south as Fairview, KY; as far north as the Chicago suburbs. We traveled alongside an Amish wanderer in Kentucky, a Hells Angels herd in Pennsylvania, a gargantuan inflatable dinosaur in Ohio. We spent a night in Niles, OH; in Beachwood, OH; in Beachwood again; in Cincinnati; in Louisville; in Evansville, IN; in Springfield, IL; in West Branch, IA; in Schaumburg, IL; in Beachwood again; and, finally, back home in Chappaqua.
I spent my Fourth of July parading, silent and solemn, through the street (there is no plural) of Plymouth Notch, Vermont—birthplace of Calvin Coolidge, birthplace of this project. We began by the village green. We arrived at the grave. There I paid respects—and wished the late Vermonter a happy and healthy 139th. Coolidge, ever silent, said nothing in return.
I spent my Fourth of July traversing 160 miles of dotted white line. I followed I-91 south from central Vermont to New Haven, Connecticut: from the president who spoke too little (who remains still among the most articulate conservatives in presidential history) to he who talked too much (who ranks easily as the least articulate conservative in presidential history). I stopped at the Vermont Country Store for free samples, at Starbucks for free Wi-Fi, free outlet access, free restrooms. I paid for gas.
I spent my Fourth of July lurking sketchily outside an inner-city hospital complex, backpack and camera in tow, doctors swarming by like ants to bread. I must have appeared on some security camera, suspicious and lost. By some miracle of God, I was not detained.
In which I stumble upon my first presidential site by accident, and don’t know how to feel about it.
It’s been a month—a few days more, if you’re keeping track—and this project has officially become a parody of this project.
Let me explain. I made the drive yesterday from Middletown to Vermont, where I expect to see birthplaces of Presidents Arthur, Coolidge (where it all started, and where I plan to attend this birthday parade), and Pierce (in Hillsborough, New Hampshire). I’m blogging from Winhall, population 702.
But even on the road, I can’t get away. Presidential history is tailing me, relentless and wild, through the scenic trails of southern Vermont.
Happy birthday, Stan!
Rest assured: despite car trouble in Staunton, navigation trouble by the Lincoln Tunnel, and State Identity Crisis in Delaware, I have made it safely home from Virginia—just in time for my grandpa Stanley’s swinging 85th birthday bash (not pictured: Stan, swinging birthday bash). What a relief to spend time with living relatives rather than dead presidents! (Shockingly, they all want to hear about dead presidents.)
Stan was never president, but hell if he hasn’t lived enough history for two terms and more. He was born in the summer of 1926, during the second administration of my main man “Silent Cal,” whose post-apocalyptic Plymouth, VT, farm more or less spawned this unfathomable series of exploits whose genesis I still strive to understand. That places Stan just two years behind Carter and Bush I, if you’re keeping score. Speaking of birthday parties, here’s some prime info on Calvin Coolidge’s, which I certainly hope to attend next month, because what the hell else would I be celebrating on July 4?