Friday, January 14, 2011

Horsing Around in Aiken

Aiken, South Carolina

January 7-9, 2011
Aiken, South Carolina is about three hours northwest of Savannah, and we had never considered it worth a visit until we heard that Ysaye Barnwell would be conducting an all day vocal workshop there. Dr. Barnwell is a talented composer, musician, and long-time member of the highly acclaimed a capella group Sweet Honey in the Rock. I couldn't resist the opportunity to spend the day singing under her direction. Dick wasn't so wild about spending a whole day singing, but a little internet research convinced him he could keep himself occupied around town while I was singing. We decided to make a long weekend of it.

We drove the back roads to Aiken, but found very little along the way that tempted us to stop and explore. The poor rural landscapes and small town main streets with lots of vacant store fronts were uninspiring, if not downright depressing. After hours of somewhat dismal driving, Aiken spread before us as a welcome oasis.

The town's most unique feature is its parkways—streets built with very wide park-like medians running down their centers. Over 175 of Aiken's streets are parkways--totaling about fifteen miles. The entire town is an arboretum, and somewhere (we never found the spot) a map exists that you can use to locate all the different varieties of trees throughout town.

While I was attending my workshop, Dick took the once weekly two hour trolley tour around town, and discovered a lot of other unique and interesting things about Aiken.

Around the turn of the last century it was the winter playground of the wealthy horsey set. Prince Edward and Wallis Simpson were frequent visitors to Rye Patch, where their friends Edmund and Dorothy Rogers build an addition to their house and bricked up arches in their brick perimeter wall to assure the Duke and Duchess of Windsor's comfort and privacy.

The train almost always had an unscheduled stop here when Franklin Delano Roosevelt rode in his private car to his therapy sessions in Warm Springs, Georgia. It is rumored that he slipped from his rail car into the back door of the Willcox Hotel for "private meetings" with Lucy Mercer Rutherford, Eleanor's social secretary, who maintained a winter home in Aiken.

The Willcox also has hosted Astors, Vanderbilts, Mellons, Winston Churchill, and us. We enjoyed Sunday Brunch in the somewhat shabbily elegant dining room of the hotel (overlooking a leaf-strewn terrace with pots of dead plants beside the rail road tracks where we imagine Roosevelt's train sat idling while he was otherwise occupied). While lounging in the lobby, paneled in beautiful curly pine (a wood that cannot be replaced because the tree is extinct), we overheard a woman swathed in a generous full-length fur talking on her cell phone, assuring a friend that she had procured their table at "The Willy." The tradition continues. . . .

As does Aiken's appeal to elite equestrians. Home to the oldest Polo Club in the country, Aiken boasts over fifty polo fields in and around town. The two top-ranked polo players in the world live here.

Aiken's 2100 acre Hitchcock Park--one of the largest urban parks in the country--only allows pedestrians, horses and horse-drawn carriages on its grounds. The 65 miles of paths through the park are a special mixture of sand and clay for ultimate horse hoof comfort. Around the perimeter of town, where the Sultan of Brunei and other wealthy polo aficionados, fox hunters and thoroughbred trainers have their luxurious spreads, the roads are also sandy dirt for the benefit of strolling horses.

We were enchanted by Aiken, but, frankly, with gray skies and temperatures in the high forties it was just too darn cold to be our winter playground. We'll be back in polo season.

As for the reason we were in Aiken in the first place, the workshop, Building a Vocal Community, was a tremendous exploration of music as metaphor, tracing African American history through rhythms, words and harmonies, while revealing higher meanings and the power of coalition as our eighty voices joined to build music together.

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