Ben and I wanted to escape the reality that Elliot was leaving for college. So Ben bought a package deal to this old world Virginia hotel called The Homestead in Hot Springs. It included two nights and four free activities. We could enjoy falconry – or fly fishing, or hike the trails. Ben could play golf, and I could go to a spa. Better to spend a few days at a spa, than to slide sadly into the role of empty nesters. That was our thinking as we rolled up for our two-night getaway in the Allegheny Mountains.
First impression: the size of the place! It was a red brick world unto itself, the enormous central tower flanked by multistory wings, and the only real establishment for miles around. Think Emerald City, except in Virginia and made of red brick.
Apparently The Homestead has been around since 1766, and Jefferson came here, as well as many other presidents. Calvin Coolidge visited here, and Woodrow Wilson honeymooned in these parts, and Nixon and Ford played golf. There are miles of trails and rushing rivers and three important golf courses – including The Old Course, made famous by Sam Snead, the Cascades and the Lower Cascades.
We stood on the massive veranda, where southern gents sat with their ladies, and then passed into an enormous cathedral-like hall. It was buzzing with guests – most of them leaving as we arrived. The hall was lined with chairs, lamps and tables. A pianist played soothing melodies and people ate sandwiches with the crusts cut off and sipped iced tea with lemon.
We walked for miles down corridors of trellis patterned carpet in pink, green and chartreuse, past divan after divan, princess chair after wicker chair arrangement, past little tables set with checker boards and wooden jigsaw puzzles, down the long breezeway of endless empty sitting areas.
Finally we located our room on the third floor, down a further length of carpeted corridor, overlooking a wall of green mountains. We sat on the balcony and had a glass or two of wine. I told Ben – as I stepped through the narrow French doors, “I think these doors that are half width are very nice.”
Ben said, “You’re just desperate for something little.”
But enough of relaxation – we had to book our activities! Other guests were walking along brick paths with their swimming things, or being whisked in carts and shuttle buses to various golf courses and other outdoor activities. So off we went to the activity coordinator’s desk. Here we discovered that if Ben was going to play two rounds of golf, our options were limited. How about fly fishing? Well, the clinic counted for one activity – and that didn’t get us near the water. So instead we decided on falconry, sport of kings. Wouldn’t it be amazing to try falconry? When would we ever do that again!
Turned out, after we located the falconry cottage just beyond the gates of the spa, that falconry wasn’t covered by our particular activity coupons. It was an exception to the rule. Instead, it would cost us almost $200 more~ Oh, never mind, we said.
The attendant apologized. Who booked it for you, she asked desperately. It doesn’t matter we said, turning back towards the spa. But evidently the attendants were in constant telephone communication – and they all knew our names – and when Ben got back to the activity coordinator, she’d already had the bad news. What could she do to change it?
Meanwhile, I escaped to the indoor pool. I had an appointment for a reflexology massage in another hour and was determined to enjoy myself. The indoor pool was in a Victorian conservatory, painted in pistachio and cream. It had tall windows, and 19th century tiling, and so many piles of rolled towels it could have accommodated hundreds – except not a single other person was there to enjoy it.
So I swam in the pool by myself, back and forth for half an hour, before Ben joined me. We’d hold onto the activity coupons, he decided. Perhaps we’d visit the Jefferson Pools on our way back home.
It was time for my spa appointment. I entered a world of pan flute music and bird song, was wrapped in terry cloth and padded around with cups of iced water. I lay on a divan, hit the steam room and then had my reflexology massage, where I remembered that sensation can sometimes be a place. It leads you to a different place.
By the time I got back to our room, I had become a warm puddle of nothing at all. I had been brainwashed. I was a Homestead believer. Now I only wanted to lie in bed making love. Let’s not go out. Let’s stay here forever. Let’s order room service.
But Ben, who hadn’t been to the spa, was by this time feeling spooked by The Homestead. “Let’s escape from The Homestead,” he suggested.
Eventually he persuaded me to go for a walk – he was looking for anywhere different to eat – anywhere smaller, that was not connected to the Homestead. At Sam Snead Pub I had snapped out of it somewhat and couldn’t stop marveling over the size of the place.
“What I cannot understand is why is it so big.”
“Why did they think that they should add on an extra wing,” Ben asked. “What were they thinking?”
“They were thinking Titanic,” I said. “It’s like the Titanic. The place feels like the Titantic after it sunk.”
“It’s more like The Shining.”
“I can’t imagine that it could ever operate at capacity…”
“And think of the upkeep!” I was imagining someone’s job – probably a whole crew’s job was to go around changing light bulbs. “And there must be a whole other crew that goes around the bathrooms – and the vacuuming – imagine it – all the polishing that has to be done…”
“And at every turn there’s someone deferential calling you by name – ‘have a good day Mr Duffy.’ You feel like you’re being watched.”
“Because you ARE being watched.”
Even when we went into the village, and walked down the street, we felt they were following us and wondering why we wanted to get away.
We passed the President's Room - a huge dimly lit smoked glass and dark carpeted stretch of clubroom with nobody in it. We went into the pub downstairs for a nightcap.
“Imagine working in this place. It would be a nightmare. The only place around for miles. It’s a world – a whole world. You’d never escape.”
The waitress seemed defensive when I asked her about The Homestead. She said there was also a paper mill that employed more people than the Homestead did. But when they wanted some action they drove to Roanoke.
“What’s in Roanoke?” I asked Ben.
“Nothing. But it’s the nearest place for miles.”
“It’s like the Magic Mountain. I feel like I could turn into Hans Castorp. You’d come here thinking to stay a few days, seeing how strange it all seemed at first, and then you’d end up here for years, unable to get away.”
Both mornings we got up early and went to a golf course- the Old Course which Nixon played, and on the second morning, to the Lower Cascades course. We sat on the enormous veranda with our coffee, before setting out. Why was it so enormous? That’s what we couldn’t understand. Because hardly anyone else was here.
“This place is like a cruise ship.”
“There are some people who take holidays like this all the time.”
“I don’t think we’ll come here again.”
“But it’s good to get away. From home and from the Homestead.”
And it was lots of fun driving a little cart across the beautiful golf courses while Ben played – a truly beautiful setting. The grounds were superbly landscaped and well maintained. And in the early morning, dew sat on the grass and the sunlight was filtered, and the looming green mountains looked as if the day has been polished up all for them.
When we finally checked out, we felt free. Except there was a big lorry following us down the road. “Do you think it’s someone from the Homestead? Do you think they’re following us?”
Anyway, we still had two remaining coupons, good for a visit to Jefferson Pools.
The pools are fed by hot springs that have been visited for two hundred years. We pulled off at the side of the road – in front of some old wooden structures, shacks really, including two circular wooden buildings shaped like circus tents – white and paint chipped, ramshackle, and all the more delightful because of it.
There’s a men’s pool and a women’s pool – but we’d arrived at the end of the family soak time so we could go in together, and opted for the men’s pool which is apparently deeper - seven something feet deep – and containing 43,000 gallons of water.
Inside is a wooden walkway round the pool, with old wooden dressing rooms leading off round the edge. The building has a kind of maypole in the center and the roof is partly open to the sky– with slatted wood, falling to pieces. Several people float around in the pool, holding florescent noodles.
It smells like minerals. We change and step down the rickety, moss covered stairs. The water is warm but it isn’t frothy or fast moving like the hot springs in Italy. And wow, we are taking the waters.
We float around, looking at each other. Ben’s head floats around in front of me. “Is this better, Manda? Do you like it?”
“I do,” I say.
The only sound is of moving water, coming from the overflow – which is a water massage, the attendant informs us.
I go to take a look and discover a little well. You climb inside, as if into a chimney, and there’s this big pipe spewing the run off from the pool at full blast. You sit on a wooden stool in the chimney/well. I tried it for a few minutes, and then went back to the pool itself. People talk in whispers here.
What a strange place. And what’s going to become of us empty nesters? And who really cares?
For now we’ll float silently on our noodles.