Stepping into History: Pictures from London and Edinburgh

One year ago I packed my bag and my laptop and hopped a plane to London, and from there, traveled by train to Edinburgh, Scotland. My journey allowed me to retrace the footsteps of Katherine Cochrane, whose story is at the center of my forthcoming novel, The Admiral’s Wife.  I walked in Regents’ Park, the London neighborhood where she lived for a time, read her letters at the National Records of Scotland, and visited Culross Abbey House, the Scottish estate where her husband had lived as a boy and which she visited with him many years later. These pictures capture the places I visited and provided a thrilling opportunity to step into Kate and Thomas’ world.

Follow along on the trip through my post on World Travelers’ Today: Books, Bagpipes, and Muddy Boots.

P.S. The slideshow also includes images from Keats House, home of the poet John Keats, a contemporary of the Cochranes.

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Whose History Is It?

Carnton Plantation stands 20 miles south of Nashville. Its proportions are elegant, its gardens filled with rare varieties of heirloom flowers, and its wide porch is stately and inviting. Visitors can wander the rooms and gaze at family portraits, look in awe at the family silver enshrined in a glass case and stamped with elegant monograms, and climb the stairs that lead to rooms whose windows offer views of sweeping lawns and boxwood hedges.

Photo of Carnton Plantation, which served as a field hospital during the Battle of Franklin.
Carnton Plantation, Franklin, TN.

The slave cabins stood in the back, alongside the woods. And in the opposite direction, you will find the largest military cemetery in private hands in the Unites States. Nearly 1,500 graves hold the remains of men who fought and died at the Battle of Franklin. They are Confederates.

I visited Carnton earlier this spring. It was not the first time I had come to the site, but I was back again with more questions and an uneasy curiosity.

Carnton had been home to Carrie McGavock, a local legend whose story gained a wider audience with the release of the New York Times bestseller, The Widow of the South. During the Battle of Franklin and for months afterward, Carnton served as a field hospital where hundreds of wounded and dying men either succumbed or made slow recovery. Bloodstains mark the floors of makeshift operating rooms set up in the childrens’ bedrooms – tracing them will show where piles of amputated limbs were likely stacked, or where the cans of ether had been placed for primitive anesthesia.

The story goes that Carrie tore her petticoats into bandages after the household linens had been depleted. She personally nursed casualties and after the war, she and her husband arranged for bodies to be interred on family land –a book containing handwritten records of the names and information for each man can still be seen.

The place has the feel of a shrine, and walking through it on that bright spring morning, I bristled. Our tour guide noted that most of the household slaves had been sent to the Deep South once the war started to prevent their running away to Union lines. The McGavocks wanted to “protect their investment.” Lives and labor could be owned and bought and sold – and even now, in 2016, this was explained in terms that would have been perfectly at home in 1865. It was a matter of finance, and not morality – and the fact that the moral side of it was never addressed during that talk hangs with me even now.

For in the story we were given, Carrie’s compassion extended only to those who looked like her, and not to those whose endless servitude made her existence possible. The lost cause of the South still controls the Carnton narrative, making Carrie a heroine and leaving the uncomfortable questions unasked.

I left Carnton that day unsettled, and that feeling stays with me now. What do we make of Carrie McGavock? What do we make of the teenage soldiers who died on her porch that cold November night? Slavery is a hideous institution. The racism that was used to justify it equally ugly. I wonder if I can see the people in the Carnton story apart from their cause. Can I separate “good” behavior – compassion on the suffering – from a “bad” motivation – supporting a war justified by bigotry and exploitation? Can an act be judged apart from its context? Can I even truly know what drove Carrie and her family and the soldiers whose pieces lay scattered across the grounds?

Grass grows over the graves and the McGavocks are long gone, but it is still Carrie’s story that drives the place. It is one we should know, but it is not the only one. And at least for me, it is not all of the truth.

For more on my Nashville travels, please see my post Getting a Taste of Nashville at World Traveler’s Today.

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Nashville: Past and Present


Refrigerator magnet reading "Elvis Presley for President."
Elvis for President, 2016.

Isn’t it always interesting to revisit places we’ve known at different junctures in our lives? This spring I paid a return trip to Nashville, TN – after not seeing the city at all for more than a decade – and chronicled my experiences for World Travelers Today.

I would love to know which return trip has been the most surprising for you – please share your story in the comments! Then come along with me and discover a growing, gentrifying Southern city whose food reflects its changing identity in “A Taste of Nashville.”

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How AirBnB Helped Me Write

Virginia Woolf famously wrote that in order to write, a woman needs a room of her own. I’m lucky enough to have two – a cozy office with bookshelves that reach to the ceiling, and a sunroom that looks onto a tangled green backyard surrounded by trees. These are the places I feel at peace, where I can shut out the world for a time and focus on bringing my inner world, my writing world, out into life.

Unfortunately, neither are portable. While I have written in hotel rooms, on Amtrak trains, at writers’ retreats, in campgrounds, and even in bars, a rooted place has always felt most natural to me, most like home. So when I put together a research trip to Scotland for my upcoming novel, I went searching for a base camp, too.

View from windows showing old buildings in Edinburgh, Scotland.
View of Edinburgh from my AirBnB flat.

Within seconds of launching into my first AirBnB search, it was love at first sight. A perfect, snug little hideaway of a flat just steps off of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. From here, I could easily walk to both the National Records of Scotland and the National Library of Scotland, two key sites for my research. There was a tiny galley kitchen, a comfortable bedroom, books and DVDs to keep myself entertained should I need them. Shops and restaurants stood within easy reach. The building itself had stood for over a century, and looked likely to stand for several more. I booked it straightaway.

The feeling I had when I stepped through the door went beyond “charm” and “character.” Yes, the flat had both, with its large windows of antique glass, thick stone walls, and utter lack of elevator (the flat stood on the 5th floor). But the appeal went beyond mere aesthetics.

Here, the space was mine, and mine alone – there was no schedule, no set times when coffee would be available or breakfast served. I could write and order my days as I pleased, breakfasting in my pajamas if I so desired on whatever lovely foods I brought up from the local market. (Scottish sausages, coffee, toast, and fresh eggs most mornings.)

I had a sense of space that was not sterile, but would be filled with the day’s rhythm of activities and the city around me. I had solitude and independence, but not isolation. If it wasn’t home, it was the next best thing. And I wrote and dreamt and pondered and wrote some more.

When I returned home, I finished the first draft of my novel within the month. I can’t say it was all due to AirBnB magic, but having a room of my own in what’s become one of my favorite cities certainly helped.

Disclaimer: This post is a statement of personal opinion, and is not an official endorsement of AirBnB services. No financial compensation, goods, or services have been received in exchange for this post.

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Offbeat London: 5 Unusual Gems

Think of London and think of Big Ben, red telephone booths, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London. Or perhaps Claridge’s Hotel, Harrod’s, Hyde Park, and bespoke shops along Savile Road. Or there are the theaters, Notting Hill, Piccadilly, Carnaby Street, and the Beatles, and Wembley Arena. London is a shapeshifter, offering a seemingly infinite number of incarnations – just which city will you experience?

No matter how many times I visit, London always finds a way to surprise me. Many of my favorite places are those I found by accident.

Big Ben clock tower.
Big Ben, London.

The Crypt of St Martin in the Field

The Church of St. Martin in the Field is hard to miss, sitting smack in the midst of Trafalgar Square and within a stone’s throw of the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery. Both are well worth a visit. The church, however, contains a crypt which, in the midst of bustling, modern London, seems to offer a portal back into another world. Memorial tablets cover the walls and floor. The walls are hewn stone and brick, and you can easily read the names of the dead. A tiny café offers coffee, snacks and sandwiches – some nights, jazz musicians perform in the centuries-old space. I love it because instead of burying history, St. Martin in the Fields embraces it, build on it, and keeps both old and new alive.

The Thames

Where would London be without the River Thames? The Thames helped to give birth to London, offering the city a gateway to the sea – and in time, the world. A morning jog alongside the river, with the Houses of Parliament and Lambeth Palace visible in the distance, took me away from the crowds and showed me an experience of the city I could have found in no other way.

Interior of the British Museum, London.
British Museum, London.


Chic Bloomsbury, once the haunt of Virginia Woolf and others in the “Bloomsbury Group,” offers a glimpse of London at its loveliest and most refined. The neighborhood is home to the British Museum, and its proximity to the university creates an intellectual vibe. Bookstores are still in plentiful supply, and my shelves are home to happy treasures found here – one shop even allowed me to climb a ladder to reach a particularly tantalizing title! Russell Square gives residents and tourists alike a taste of nature; bring a lunch and take in the fountains, and don’t be surprised if the squirrels approach you for a treat.

Deck Chairs in St. James Park

St. James Park runs up to the gates of Buckingham Palace, so if you’re stopping by Buckingham, you’re stopping by St. James as well. From March to October, you can rest your weary feet by plopping into a deck chair. (Rented for a small fee – the service is also available in many other royal parks.) It’s relaxing. It’s lovely. For 8 quid, you can sit in the chair for an entire day. But why would you want to? It’s London, and the city beckons.

Sign reading "Foundling Museum."
Foundling Museum, London.

Foundling Museum

Back in Bloomsbury, the Founding Museum is one of London’s most poignant attractions. A small group of philanthropists established the Foundling Hospital in 1739 to care for abandoned children and the children of parents who were unable to care for them. The painter William Hogarth and composer George Frederick Handel played fascinating roles in supporting this institution. Most of these babies were given new names, and trained for servitude or military service. Mothers often surrendered a trinket or token along with their child – sometimes a keepsake, sometimes an item with information about the child’s father – for the purpose of identifying him or her should they be able to be reunited. You can still see some of these tokens today.

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Thunder Road

There’s a great saying from the film Back to the Future, in which Dr. Emmett Brown says to a baffled Marty McFly, “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads!”
I traveled a lot of roads in the summer of 2010: more than 6,000 miles worth. Without Dr. Brown’s time travel capabilities, I did need the roads to take me where I wanted to go. 
But I’m convinced I did catch a few moments where the lines between the past and the present blurred: standing on the summit of the Cahokia Mounds in the heat of the late afternoon sunshine; reading letters exchanged over a century ago between two Texas lovers; walking through the long grass that covers the hills of the Little Bighorn battlefield; catching Al Swearengen’s name in documents held at the South Dakota state archives.
In the years since, I’ve covered ground in other ways – gotten married, changed “day jobs,” moved homes, and continued to write.
I never expected this blog to last more than a few weeks, let alone four years. If this is your first visit here, I encourage you to visit the entries from 2010, starting with the oldest ones first, to get a taste of the original trip. If you like those, the 2011 posts chronicle my experiences on a cattle drive in Nevada. But now, in my final post, I’ve decided its time to close shop here, and move into other projects.
I’ve had ideas germinating that haven’t had the chance to develop further, and I need to take some time to see where those paths take me.
Thanks for dropping in! It’s been a good ride.

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Back to the Future

When I got in the car to leave Montana on July 12, 2010, it felt like a breakup. It was a goodbye I did not want. And as the car moved further east, into the Dakotas and Minnesota and Wisconsin, I kept hoping that somehow, I’d be able to get back to this place that had carved its way so deeply into my heart.

I did. In late April, my boyfriend and I flew out to Bozeman. We saw the mountains from the plane window, their tops dusted in thick snow. We had reached a different latitude, and a different season altogether. One night dumped 6″, which we scraped from the rental car and I was grateful for. If I could love Montana even when it didn’t cooperate, then it must be true love.

Walking around Bozeman felt familiar enough, and in a town that size, it was easy to revisit the bookstores, coffeeshops, and restaurants that had been part of my sightseeing last summer. But what I really wanted to get back to lay outside of the city.

Lava Lake trail. In my mind, it beckons in perpetual summer, the slopes of the mountain covered in lush green and the stream trickling trailside. In late April, freak snowfalls cast the mountain in a wintry shroud. We layered up, pulled yaktraks onto our boots, and headed onto the trail.

As we hiked, my mind kept flickering between what I remembered and what I was seeing. There were no wild roses, just conifers still drenched in snow. The stream was still flowing, but its waters were frigid, its banks crusted in ice. Piles of elk droppings peppered the trail. And the woods were very quiet. We hiked alone.

Would I feel anything when we reached the top? This placed pulled me. In absence, perhaps it had grown bigger and deeper in my mind. It was my totem, as surely as any shrine that ever served as a point of pilgrimage.

Walking out of the trees to the lakeshore took my breath away. It was not the breathlessness of surprise that I’d felt when I first caught sight of the top. But I was breathless with recognition, breathless with gratitude that this place had waited. Some places we only visit once, and that is enough. Others, we find our way back to.

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P.S.: The Playlist

Driving out West this summer I had many hours in the car to listen to music. I found myself thinking about which songs I’d pair up with the people and places on my journey. This is the playlist I came up with. Some choices are pretty obvious; others have an explanatory note.

1. Where’s a Sunset (When You Need One) – Lane Turner
For Jack Bailey
Reading Jack’s c. 1868 trail log at the Library of Congress was one of the catalysts for getting me started on this trek. At the end of the diary there is a poem Jack wrote to his wife, and this song seems fitting. Plus, both Jack and Lane are from Texas, and Texans stick together.

2. Cowboys – Counting Crows
For Dodge City, KS
“Cowboys on the road tonight, crying in their sleep. If I was a hungry man with a gun in my hand there’s some promises to keep…”

3. Truly, Madly, Deeply – Savage Garden
For Clitus Jones and Lily Sutton
Letters exchanged between these two are preserved at Baylor University’s Texas Collection. Sweet, lovely, and romantic.

4. Only Living Boy in New York – Simon and Garfunkel
For Teddy Roosevelt
After his wife Alice died, I can imagine TR walking around Manhattan feeling like this.

5. Lose Yourself – Eminem
For Buck Taylor
The star cowboy of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show might have been able to appreciate Eminem’s sentiments.

6. One – Metallica
For Custer’s 7th Calvary
One YouTube viewer wrote, “If this song was already written in 1944 and iPods were invented, this is what I would listen to while invading Normandy.”

7. Amazing – Kanye West
For George Armstrong Custer

8. Professional Widow – Tori Amos
For Elizabeth Custer
There’s a story that Elizabeth once met Abraham Lincoln and in the course of their conversation, told the president that she supported her husband’s aggressive military campaigns. The president replied, “So you want to be a widow?”

9. Happiness is a Warm Gun – The Beatles
For Wild Bill Hickok

10. Please Don’t Leave Me – Pink
For Calamity Jane
This song about bad behaviors and sour relationships struck a few chords with me as I thought about one of the West’s most notorious women.

11. Time to Pretend – MGMT
For Buffalo Bill
Did anyone package and sell the Western experience more effectively than Buffalo Bill? I think not! There’s even a line about Paris, where the show stopped multiple times.

12. Pokerface – Lady Gaga
For Deadwood, SD

13. Highwayman – The Highwaymen (Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson)
For the drive home.

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The Odyssey

Sunset near Bozeman, MT.

Although I never left America, I feel a hint of culture shock coming back to the East. Yesterday I reached the fields and rolling hills of Pennsylvania, and am spending the day in my hometown before heading back to Washington, DC tomorrow. It feels fitting to be back here in the original frontier west of the Appalachians. Time for some reckoning up.

I didn’t expect to see a pair of cowboy boots made for a child in the 1860s, or George Armstrong Custer’s toothbrush, or the letter James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok wrote to his wife Agnes just three weeks before his death in Deadwood (“We will have A home yet then we will be so happy I am all most shure I will do well here.”] The chair that he died in is still on display at the second iteration of the No. 10 Saloon.

I didn’t think my dad would get pumped when I dropped in Janis Joplins’ greatest hits and that he’d turn it up so we’d both be singing along to “Bobby McGee.” I laughed when I saw how the grasshoppers really do plague South Dakota (just like in the Little House On the Prairie books), and not even incessent Mexican ranchera music at 2am at a campground outside of Dodge City was enough to make me forget how scattered and beautiful the stars were that night.

Coming soon will be a photo montage or some sort of denoument. For now, it’s doing laundry, folding maps, and wondering how often I can get away with wearing my own boots in DC.

PS Photo is not the rosy-fingered dawn of Homer’s Odyssey. This is what the sky looked like the first night I got to Bozeman.

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Soul Food

I embarrassed myself plenty taking food pictures, and felt like I was on some kind of diet plan that required recording everything I ate. One of the best things about traveling is the chance to eat a lot of funky (and hopefully delicious) food. These are a few of the highlight meals. There were plenty of un-highlights as well – way too many fast food burgers, an immoderate amount of trail mix, and even one of those Backpacker’s Pantry meals that you cook in pouch with boiling water and of course never really progresses beyond the lukewarm stage of rehydration.

A Dang Quesadilla

From Foundation Grounds Coffeehouse, St. Louis, MO. Yum! That’s my sister on the other side of the table.

Texas Pit BBQ

Schoepf’s Old Time Pit BBQ serves it up old-style off of I-35 in Belton, TX. Chop beef, pork, sausages, and more, plus plenty of sides and a back porch that seems to cover at least a couple of acres. You can bet that’s sweet tea in the glass.

Cherry-Bourbon French Toast

This French toast and the accompanying coffee did much to restore body and soul after a late night on 6th Street. I asked for extra cherries and got them, and the bourbon-cream sauce was out of this world. From The Old Pecan Street Cafe in Austin, TX.

West 019

I also had “The Best Indian Taco in the West” outside the Little Bighorn battlefield and quite possibly the best coffee ever from Beta Coffee in Cody, WY (no picture or website, but I got a sweatshirt.) It was a robust blend of flavor and caffeine that was the perfect way to start the day. Maybe I could have spent more time analyzing the subtlety of the flavors, but I was too busy enjoying it.

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