Friday, December 28, 2012

Playing Defense

Two Kinds of Defense

Anyone familiar with basketball knows there are two kinds of defense: one-on-one and zone.  The former occurs exactly as described, with each player being covered individually.  The latter casts a net designed to be impenetrable.  I find similarities between civil defense and national defense; one covers town by town and the other protects the whole country.  Whether applying to sports or security, all of the players practice and drill and know their position.

Not being a basketball aficionado, I’ll admit that my awareness of the one-on-one coverage in a particular small town needed additional practice metaphorically.  While visiting a small Illinois town, I joined others in our rental car, secured our lap belts, started the engine, and then stopped when a shrill moan began to stir and gain in volume.  My first instinct to check the car proved unnecessary.  The seasoned veterans of Midwest civil defense recognized the whining alarm as the monthly test of the civil defense sirens on the first Tuesday of the month.  We don’t really have those kinds of drills where my team plays.

Knowing All The Parts

On my recent expedition across South Dakota, I stumbled upon the tiniest of historic sites with one of the longest of names: The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.  Housed in a single-wide mobile home, the visitor center informs the casual spectator on the history of the massive rockets (all to the soundtrack from Last of the Mohicans) and then sends visitors to one of two sites: an underground command center or a former missile silo.  As a child of the Cold War and the arms race, I recall the threatening realities when Matthew Broderick’s computer asked him if he wanted to play a game.  But this former missile site, now featuring a glass dome, allows visitors the chance to peer inside the underground über-reinforced tube.  I learned about each element at the rocket site, from the antenna tower, to the blast door, to the self-contained generator, all within the sightline of the Interstate 90.  If you didn’t know the various parts and pieces, you would never identify this innocuous station and realize the firepower just beneath the surface.

Several days later, while skirting along a two-lane road in Montana, as I am blown harshly by the autumn wind, I come upon what appears to be a pumping station or well in the middle of the ranchland.  As I drive closer, I notice the fenced area contains every identical part from the Minuteman missile site.  But this collection serves not as a historic marker; this location serves as an active point guard in the zone defense casting an impenetrable deterrent across a national court.  This time, I elect not to wait for a siren to serve as a drill, nor do I tour around the site educating myself.  Instead, I keep driving and don’t even slow down.  Even with my limited basketball skills, I know the best offense is a good defense.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Chicken Coupe

Glühwein und Volksmarching
Living “on the economy” meant surrounding myself with the lifestyle of the German people, quietly rising and sleeping, shopping and strolling in their 800-year-old towns.  Routines never changed: daily walking to the local market, sweeping the sidewalks and stoops, and shrugging at the silly Americans.  Their self-contained towns, which resembled islands surrounded by farmland, some less than a klick from “Willkommen” to “Auf Wiedersehen,” may not have exuded hospitality, but they offered quaintness in abundance.  From tulips on the street corners in the springtime to the giant sunflowers reaching skyward at the edge of town in the summer, these little villages offered a simple glimpse at German life.
A common winter tradition, many of these little towns open their central squares to its residents, and a few nearby country folk, and celebrate the Christmas season with nighttime street fairs for the children and warm glühwein in souvenir brown clay mugs for the parents.  The hot, spiced wine sufficiently numbs the adults while the children squeal in delight at the December carnivals.  In warmer weather, when the volkmarchers come to town, the beer flows as ten- and twenty-kilometer hikers return from their countryside strolls to join in the merriment in the center of the cozy villages.  While the traditions may be different, the close clusters of brick and modern homes unite as communities celebrating their culture, living their lives nearly identically to Americans.  Nearly.
During my stint in the Rhineland, I delivered subscriptions of the Stars and Stripes to my fellow expats starting at o’dark thirty and continuing until the predawn light began to filter through the sky.  But as summer’s longer days began to sneak into my early morning delivery window, I witnessed far more in the quiet mornings throughout the small-town German life.  Hexennacht involves innocent pranks being played upon neighbors in celebration of the longer days pushing out the evil winter spirits.  This would explain the bicycle I saw one morning dangling from the sign post.  In other neighborhoods, farms abutted homes and the yard in front of one house included a chicken coop, whose presence eluded me until as the light appeared earlier and earlier, I could hear the chickens coo-cooing with each other waiting for the lone male of the roost to announce his morning doodle-doo.
And then one morning, the sun’s light illuminated the tiny hamlet and the coop displayed itself for its true identity.  The cozy home of the domesticated fowl included four tires, a steering wheel and partially lowered side windows.  Yes, this family of German hühner lived out their daily routine of clucking and scratching in the interior of a BMW.  Imagine the engineer who designed, the laborer who built, and the salesman who watched the rollout of this vehicle from its initial drawing board, to its European assembly line and then across the showroom floor.  Their work culminated in this final resting place for their modern marvel, now serving out its illustrious life as a bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom for a band of German poultry.  I love life on the economy.  Cluck.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Soundtrack

The Theme Song

Since the epic vacation of 2007, every voyage comes complete with a theme song.   When planning a new travel itinerary, often the selection of the primary musical accompaniment happens within days of the selection of the destination, sometimes even before booking a hotel, selecting flights, or asking for time off work.  A single song title may make the choice inevitable, or a wide range of songs could fit the profile, such as when I planned my trip to Cooperstown, New York.  Certainly a baseball theme would be most obvious, but between soundtracks from The Natural and Field of Dreams, and classics like the Troggs and Terry Cashman, narrowing down the choices became as difficult as deciding when to pull a seasoned opener when the team holds a one-run lead and the cleanup batters are on deck.

The thought process in selecting the theme song (or songs for longer vacations) occasionally happens when random music plays that has hovered in the baffles of my favorite playlist selections.  Just as often the final selection blossoms from a new song with which I have suddenly fallen in love.  A song may be representative of the geographical destination leading me down the road or a wistful emotional destination driving me to my escapism.  Collectively the songs provide a ribbon tying my vacation together and they serve as a bungee cord keeping my loose ends bound together when I completely desire to vanish into the scenery that surrounds me.  And once a song connects me to a place, a time, an adventure, and a memory, it stays with me forever.

The Collection

I describe my iTunes devices as my ultimate traveling companions loaded with a soundtrack that I adore intimately.  They rank as my most critical travel must-have and I prioritize the music as holding the most pivotal role in my travels.  Anything else – clothes, shampoo, atlas, rental car – may be obtained along the way, but my collection of musical oxygen remains irreplaceable.  Once when I had forgotten to pack the necessary car charger, I applauded myself for packing an iShuffle to carry on when my iPod had given its last full measure of musical devotion somewhere between Sioux Falls and Brookings.  More than once I have purchased the necessary cable to connect these devices to the car’s audio system, thinking that I had tossed one of the many I own into my suitcase.  Once I forgot my glasses and was forced to wear my contacts from morning until bedtime, but never has the music been left behind.  It illuminates every voyage and during my solo outings serves as the closest resemblance to a traveling companion.

Any one song of the one hundred fifty hand-picked selections reminds me of a specific trip, or lingers in me as a mental photograph of the sites I have visually savored, or captures a moment in time when I felt absolute tranquility.  Neil Diamond’s tribute to Richard Bach spoke volumes inside another nameless-faceless rental car climbing through the rocky snow-capped cliffs on my way up to Logan’s Pass.  During any given commute to the office, my mind drifts through the litany of recollections from that day’s spectacular, memorable experience, and others like it from across the United States, all in thanks to the playlist of tunes that I appropriately title “Travel.”

Below is an audio snapshot of the Travel playlist

America by Simon and Garfunkel
Anthem by Neil Diamond
Breathe Me by Sia
Classic Gas by Mason Williams and Mannheim Steamroller
Come Sail Away by Styx
(Ghost) Riders in the Sky by The Outlaws
Hallelujah by Jeff Buckley
In The Hall Of The Mountain King by Edvard Grieg
The Masterplan by Stop the Clocks
Soarin’ by Jerry Goldsmith
Trip The Light (feat. Alicia Lemke) by Garry Schyman
Where the Streets Have No Name by U2

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

One-Trip Wonder

The Must-Want Travel Accessory

Yes, I over packed.  Of the four-page list of items needed for my epic three-point-five-week vacation, I clearly could have survived without several items.  Did I need to bring my iShuffle and my iPhone?  No, but since that impromptu trip to North Dakota (see “North Dakota on a Napkin” from November 2011), I find a way to fit them both in my bag.  Did I need my pom-pom scarf?  No.  Did I bring it anyway?  Yes.  Did I need five pairs of shoes?  My sons would say, no, I, however, feel differently.  And what about the eight-inch-square pieces of taffeta that I brought along as a craft project?  Critical, no, but the fabric laid flat and took up almost no space.  The pink pirate hat for 'Talk Like A Pirate' Day?  Okay, maybe that was an extravagance, but c’mon, our ship was The Pearl.

In a slightly impromptu moment as the “To Be Packed” list grew, I decided it would behoove such a traveler as myself to have a new, and larger, suitcase.  The store I selected offered a lovely array of non-traditional luggage and when it came down to the two best choices, both hard sides, I had to decide between the case featuring a photograph of the only state of the fifty I have yet to check off the “Go, See, Do” list (see “Forty-Nine” from August 2012) which would undoubtedly be perfect for a future vacation, or an obnoxiously loud print of palm trees along a Floridian Causeway that resembled a cross between Miami Vice and Piet Mondrian.  Plenty of space, smooth rolling wheels, several sleek pouches, and an orange fabric lining made the bag lovely and practical, but the outside screamed, “I’ll look sensational on the airport baggage carousel.”  So I opted for the artsy choice and when she slid down the conveyor as my plane load of passengers waited for their luggage, did she look fabulous!

Trip Two: eBay

She rolled smoothly through MCO and STL.  She held the iShuffle, both pairs of boots and my beloved atlas (see “Traveling with Boys” from November 2011).  The taffeta stayed flat until day eight when I finally drew them from their cozy pouch.  And on September 19 I embraced the pink pirate hat festively because my spectacular luggage offered room enough for me to indulge my inner child and pack savvily.  I imagined the adventures my crazy suitcase and I would have in the future – pirates were just the beginning.  But then, when we arrived home, I saw it: cracked plastic around two of the wheels.  Thank goodness I saved the receipt and the warranty information.

On a far less glorious adventure, my suitcase departed on its second trip without me, back to its home to be repaired, or even replaced.  If the former, we would vacation again soon.  If the latter, it would be like the family goldfish – swapped out but looking so nearly identical that I could get away with it.  A month later when the box arrived at my door, I neatly sliced the tape open with a single scissor blade, and my breath caught in my throat at the site: a cross between Piet Mondrian and FTD.  It undoubtedly had the same features, the same smoothing rolling wheels, the sleek pouches, the lovely lining, and plenty of space, but it just wasn’t the same.  My truly unique traveling companion had suddenly become a one-trip wonder and its distant cousin just wasn’t going to get to experience the same future journeys that my vibrant palm trees had known.  I slid the wacky bouquets of red roses and little white daisies back into the box and listed the brand-new bag on eBay for someone else to make it a part of her travel adventures.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

My Muse

My Right Hand

With apologies for the hiatus, but my right hand has been severed metaphorically.  On a scale from Pong to launching a Global Positioning Satellite, my comfort and reliance upon technology falls in the mid-level range.  At work, a computer shut down means I am dead in the water.  At home, my list of television shows saved to my DVR hovers consistently at zero, since I find the technology to be of little interest to me.  In my car, I love tapping Pandora to identify new songs that I might enjoy, but a spiral-bound map is always preferred to a Garmin (see “Traveling With Boys,” November 2011).

I love the conveniences technology brings to my life, and besides my professional dependence, I never defined myself by the hardware and software around me until my beloved netbook unexpectedly died three days into my epic vacation.  Lost to virtual inner space are three days of photographs and videos full of memories, and while I found ways to manage moving forward (new SD card, borrowed hotel business centers, etc), I found my greatest loss in the Hard-Drive Catastrophe of 2012 became how much my little electronic friend suited my blogging.  Suddenly, sitting at another screen felt less creative, less inspiring, and less like my fading friend.


Consider the feeling when a common cold begins to take hold: a little achy, maybe a bit feverish, and notably more sluggish as the first day wanes and a collection of microscopic viruses burrow into your system.  That is how my beloved Ray must have felt as I prodded him on his final day to download the first wave of pictures snapped inside the gates of Yellowstone National Park.  Maybe I had missed that signs that his performance was lagging, until suddenly, he just sputtered and whimpered and failed to respond; and then, nothing.  I used my digital camera to grasp an image of his faintly illuminated MS-DOS screen.  Nearly a week later, realizing my neglect and accepting my loss, did I take my little buddy to a walk-in clinic for ill hardware; a twenty-first century computer witch doctor, whom I affectionately refer to as my knight in shining pre-formed casement.

Poor Ray, I pushed him too hard, and I failed to appreciate that he had become more than a laptop of convenience.  Perching lightly on my lap, he became an extension of the thought process as I scribed.   Like an inkwell to Jane Austin, like Jack Kerouac pecking at his typewriter, Ray translated my mind’s visions.  He worked as the tool that transferred the dialogue in my head into the written word and uploaded these recollections to the world.  But now, thanks to the wonders of 21st century technology, an email on my smart phone links me to a website notifying me that a package tracking towards my home is allowing me to monitor the journey of Ray on his way home to me.  My muse, my magical keyboard, my phoenix returns to bring forth new life and new posting, and will arrive in less than twenty-four hours.  Travel swiftly my friend, I await your homecoming and promise I will never take you for granted again.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

On The Trail Of Family and Friends

Crab Risotto

On a quiet Saturday afternoon, I joined my friend for a drink and conversation to just make sure we were both keeping our heads above water.  The challenges of parenthood, of marriage, of employment, and of life melt away over a pomegranate martini and a pinot noir raised in a toast to friendship.  And upon the recommendation that we should try the crab risotto, we order the appetizer with slices of asparagus, colorful orange edges, decoratively sliced scallions, and tender bit of crab.  And when the waitress thoughtfully brings the creamy delight to our us in two bowls, she correctly guessed that the two friends would share the fare in the same way they share the stories of their lives.  And all too soon, the risotto and the afternoon were gone.

To Kill A Mockingbird

Using the “piddly roads,” as my father calls them, I sneak among the corn fields to reach the outdoor theater at New Salem, Illinois.  Tonight a dear friend takes the stage as Atticus Finch, and clock counts down to the raising of the curtain as I turn off one county road and down another empty lane to reach the theater.  Vacation sometimes is about cramming in as much as possible during a short amount of time, and while I am feeling the crunch on this drive, I cannot imagine not including this friend, this performance, and this evening in this vacation.  With apologies for entering the theater a few minutes late, I watch a southern gentleman on stage, and know that passing row upon endless row of withering corn in a maze of unknown roads is worth the drive to enjoy his final performance.

The Cool Aunt
I finally met my nephew.  The role of the aunt is non-defined, and in my family, I, myself, have more than a half dozen of them.  Each aunt is different, not too mom-like, sometimes a little goofy, sometimes a little more fun, and sometimes more cool.  One of my aunts, Marie, fits that bill.  She has mannerisms like my Mom, but she’s certainly more fun and definitely cooler.  I wonder if my nephew will see me this way.  I’ll certainly be the aunt that lives far away and pops in from time to time.  I’ll be the aunt that he visits when he vacations in the Sunshine State.  I’ll be the aunt that tells him the stories about his Dad that make him see he was once a kid, too.  And hopefully, I’ll be his Aunt Marie.
A Mentor and A Friend
I devoted today to seeing a former boss.  She is also my friend, but mostly she is amazing.  She lives privately, but beautifully.  She enjoys good food and good people.  She strives for greatness and wants to see it in others.  Her value to me is certainly worth a three-hour drive across the Mississippi River, through the Biodiesel Capital of the World, along the Lewis and Clark Trail, and into the heart of Mizzou Tiger country.  For a bite of beautiful salad and a couple hours of conversation, this day of my vacation reminds me of the kind of person I ought to be.

Sunday, September 2, 2012


In the moment when the plane revs its engines and begins its forced acceleration from a dead stop at the far end of the runway, the passengers feel the excitement of takeoff.  Glancing out the window, the queue of planes waiting to depart rush past, followed by the terminals and the flock of planes gathered around its edges like ducks at a pond. Then comes the moment where the plane lifts away from the pavement and is airborne.  Like the moment of birth, this forward rush, both literally and figuratively is the moment when the adventure begins.  The months of preparations and planning and excitement and anticipation before this actual moment arrives become real in less than sixty seconds of forward thrust.  The moment when the plane effortlessly releases its connection to the runway and ascends into the sky marks the moment when vacation is truly underway.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Night Before

Packed and Ready

As I liberally advertised my upcoming vacation around the office, the customary close-in questions revolved around the status of my packing.  In truth, besides itinerary planning, there is little else about which to inquire, so we engage in a casual conversation about the open-face suitcase sandwich in the corner of my bedroom.  I have loosely tossed a handful of gifts for nephews, clothes that I can go without for a few days, and the few things that I fear I will forget if I wait until the final twenty-four hours before travel, so in answer to their inquiries, yes, I have begun packing.

This pre-vacation preparation excites me and I find it to be a self-reward after all the pre-travel housework is finished, almost like vacation foreplay.  And unlike packing to move, which is a punishment to be paid for getting a new home, the process of strategically squeezing my most playful and comfortable outfits into a colorful bag allows me to take a manageable amount of my favorite possessions to a new and fun place.  The thrill of what lies in the near future makes the mundane act of folding clothes deliciously enjoyable.  And besides my hairbrush and the power cables to my laptop, when I crawl in bed for the final night of sleep before my vacation, everything that will accompany me on my adventure is snugly stuffed into the bright bags with miniature locks completely oblivious of what tomorrow holds.  I, however, while equally prepared and ready to depart, lack the patience of the inanimate objects silently standing near the door.


And now I am tucked in my sheets, waiting for the adventure to begin and falling asleep is nearly impossible.  Like a child on Christmas Eve waiting for Santa to arrive and listening for reindeer hooves on the roof or sleigh bells outside the window, I think about what the morning will bring.  In my head I am running through the remaining items to be packed and hoping I didn’t forget anything.  I triple check my alarm clock to be sure I set both alarms correctly – a.m. not p.m. – and that I remember the correct flight times.  In my somewhat sleepy head I contemplate the transition from traveling to the airport, passing through security, getting to the gate, boarding the plane, and how much time it all totals from the moment the alarm rings until the plane finally pushes away from the gate.  Perhaps part of my last-minute insomnia is based in worry rather than excitement.

But then I begin to relax and think about what happens once the plane is airborne ad I am on my way to my destination.  For weeks, or even months, I have counted backwards to the day when I would visit someplace different, meet someone new, see an amazing site, and have my breath taken away by spectacular settings.  Tomorrow it all begins, and for day after day after tantalizing day, I will absorb beauty, experiences thrills, and revel in the excitement of my months of planning, preparing, and packing.  Now go to sleep, because tomorrow it all begins.

Saturday, August 18, 2012


The Countdown

When I decided to initiate Project 50, I found myself ten states shy of seeing all fifty and I planned to visit the last twenty percent before I reached the half-century mark.  At first I thought I would knock out a couple each year, by regions, and eventually make my way to the newest of them all floating out there in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.  But pretty soon the travel bug bit me and for the Independence Day weekend I took off to Omaha and suddenly found myself knocking off the other Dakota (see “North Dakota On A Napkin” from November 2011).  By the end of the month, I ticked off the entire American Northwest and cut my list down to four.

While headed to Washington State, the nice airline folks offered me a lovely voucher to afford me a few extra steps towards my goal.  Suddenly Labor Day arrived and I found myself in West Virginia and within three months I have passed through nineteen states, including the last remaining newbies.  Suddenly I close in on the final few.  What I expected to be a decade-long experience suddenly landed me in the driver’s seat putting a lot more miles on a myriad of new rental cars.  My beloved atlas took a beating that summer (see “Traveling With Boys, November 2011).

Almost There

The final leg begins with a flight into Connecticut, a drive through the Catskills of New York and a rise to the highest point in New Jersey – state number forty-eight.  As I drive through High Point State Park, I listen to Simon and Garfunkel sing about the way to pass time is by counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, but the breathtaking view at High Point State Park seems like a pretty spectacular way to experience the Garden State.  From atop the Veteran’s Monument, 291 butt-kicking steps upward, I glance to the west at Pennsylvania and to the east at New York, both of which I first visited in 1992, and now nearly two decades later, I finally visit the slice of mountainous beauty in between the two.  And then I hit the road the reach the last contiguous state.

Project Fifty is nearly complete, and from end to end, I have visited the United States, from my first state out west to this, my forty-ninth, and all the dozens in between.  My travels may be circuitous, sometimes years in between each state, sometimes coming all at once, like the past three months.  Sometimes, within a matter of minutes, I cross a sliver, or a corner, or sometimes an entire state.  And so here at number forty-nine I stop to tally my geographical and mathematical feat at the state line between Connecticut and Rhode Island.  At the entrance to the Ocean State, I pose with my camera’s self-timer and congratulate on myself on my self-navigation, my self-sufficiency and my self-determination.  Next stop: Hawaii.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012


Making A List

One of the hardest traits for me to give up is list making.  I truly like lists and I use them for a variety of tasks: organizing an office relocation, developing ideas and topics for future blog posts, and preparing for my upcoming vacations.  Someone once wrote of me that I am, “…terrifically responsible and well organized…” and the lists are my secret.   The people in my business life expect a level of performance, of quality, of perfection, of follow-through that columns of tasks enhance.  Whether or not my boss, my coworkers and my counterparts know that these simple catalogs exist proves inconsequential.  The results solely matter.  As for my blog posts, it may be years before every topic materializes online, and my cerebral skills cannot survive more than a couple weeks unaided.  Besides, just reviewing the inventory of ideas revives my passions for writing and travel.  My pre-travel rosters of clothing, sundries, electronics, and miscellaneous suitcase contents, once a staple, have vanished into a conscious yet challenging effort to loosen, release, and relinquish my organizational dependencies.

The result of my surrendering sometimes impacts me little, such as the cable that connects my iPod to the stereo in the rental car.  I find stores that sell this simple wired device and I know I have purchased one in Missouri and another in Nebraska when needed.  I now have several, which allows me to always have one stashed in my suitcase.  More challenging is stepping out of a refreshing shower before bedtime to discover the nagging feeling that I may have forgotten something held validity.  I question my relinquishing when the hotel heater lacks promise and my suitcase lacks pajamas.

Acknowledging My Shortcomings

On a business trip slammed into the middle of a hectic spring semester, I continue my efforts at packing from memory.  From textbooks to business requirements, I tick off the myriad of items I need for the three days across the continent.  From toothbrush to documents to child care, I confidently take flight to the west coast knowing I successfully manage my personal, professional and academic obligations.  As I settle into my hotel room, I discover the single missing item: my eyeglasses.  My contact lenses pull double-duty for nearly sixteen hours a day and keep me humble.

I do feel a sense of pride in my ability to let go of my lists.  Imagine a smoker giving up cigarettes or a barista giving up caffeine.  An accomplishment that others do not witness, but one with which I struggle, my willingness to find small ways to become less compulsive, less structured, and more accepting of my possible forgetfulness.  Even typing the “f” word irks me, frustrates me, and opens me to internal condemnation.  Nevertheless, it humanizes me in a way I have never before chosen to be careless, and graces me with fallibility of which I benefit from embracing.  I now travel listless.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012


Their Departure

Carlsbad Caverns rank as my most favorite caves, partly because they are the first caves I ever explored, but mostly because they are grand and open and completely unclaustrophobically enjoyable (see “Hidden Beauty” from March 2012).  When I had the body of teenager, I squeezed through some much tighter openings to see caverns in northern Arizona, but on my road trip to the American Southwest, I chose to skip reliving that childhood experience.  Instead, I drove Son #1 and Son #2 near the Texas border to descend into my favorite caves.  And in advance of our day below the earth, I convinced the boys to drive out the night before to see the bats take flight into the darkening night.

We sat in an open amphitheater on historic and uncomfortable stone benches curving toward the entrance of the cavern.  We listened to a park ranger who seemed more of an angry, rule-follower than any park ranger I have ever met.  (Pun intended, I have to believe he was bat-shit crazy the way he treated us simple tourists, to use my brother’s terminology.)  We turned off every electronic device we carried – our cell phones, our cameras, everything – so as to not distract the audio-stupendous bats from finding their way to the river where the mosquitos foolishly gathered to be dinner for a million hungry flying mammals.  And we waited, watching for the first early birds to lead the rest of their relatives out for their midnight adventure.  And we waited, sitting nearly silent so as to not to disturb the swirling, spiraling pattern that would soon rise above us.  And we waited, wondering if they were ever going to make an appearance.

Our Departure

First one or two, so swift and darting, that I do not even see them swoop and swirl.  And with a reprimand from the ranger, the onslaught of little black creatures forms an exodus from the dark depths of the cavern over our heads.  And in the dark, moonless sky, in the middle of the New Mexican desert, we squint our eyes to see the never-ending stream of creatures faintly silhouetting themselves against the last light of dusk.  Their collective flapping and high-pitched squeaking emit far less sound than a million of any other creature might generate.  And they continue to pour forth from their deep recesses disappearing into the darkness.

Families with small children, who manage to keep them still as long as imaginably possible (despite the admonitions from the rotten ranger) are the first to follow the bats and depart into the night.  And much like the bats, once one departs, a continuous wave of tourists take flight in their minivans and rented campers.  But we wait, to see how long the bats continue, and I plan to stick it out until they have headed southward.  And we wait as more people depart, vacating their cold perches on the hard stones for the luxury of their car seats, and later their warm beds.  So we wait, watching the dark swirls seemingly dissipate, but in truth, against the black sky, the flying rodents are nearly invisible and may still be overhead, but we cannot tell.  We wait no more, and we succumb to the darkness of a late summer evening, leaving the bats to their night of frolicking and feeding.

Saturday, July 28, 2012


Two Northern Towns

My first trip through New England involved two distinct and contrasting views of life in autumn.  The company I joined for the weekend arrived at night so I enjoyed my first glimpse of my surroundings when I awoke.  Outside the borrowed cabin, the tranquil serenity of rural Maine tucked in the mountains standing low in the foreground masked the distance, the nearest town, the distant coast, and the rest of the world.  The same cozy exteriors of West Virginia two decades later reminded me of this scenery in Maine not too far from the Canadian border.  Every year, Rangeley triples in size when the snow melts and returns to its true size when its loyal residents brave the dark, cold winter.

Alternatively, the brief weekend ended with a return flight through Logan airport.  Unlike the peacefulness of my host town, the construction, the population, and the congestion of Boston contrasted the bucolic landscape.  In Beantown, the glass, concrete, brick, and steel structures blocked the view of the harbor scenery in the same way the Maine mountains hid the outside world.  The one quick glimpse out the car window at “Old Ironside” provided all the sightseeing afforded to me in the Massachusetts capital.  On my next voyage to Boston, I saw about the same amount of the historic city.  One of these days I’ll stay for more than a few hours.

Think Smaller

In Franklin County, Maine, the petite grocery store stocks just enough of the most essential items to provide a plethora of consumable options to a snow-bound resident’s pantry, but with just four or five aisles, the shop easily ranks just a step above big city corner market attached to a gas stations.  I purchase bread and condiments to serve as a handful of supplies to prepare breakfasts and lunchesfor the weekend. I know to keep it simple both to avoid wasteful leftovers and to stay within 
my travel budget due to more expensive wares in this more remote location.  The quaint general store offers just enough provisions for the weekend.

Having grown up in the suburbs, and having lived in a time of considerable choice, I rarely shop in bodega-sized stores, but even I know that this town of just over a thousand residents cannot provide every delicacy, brand, or selection.  So while I walk the handful of aisles in this little store in this little town, I forego my favorite peanut butter and I make do with the most simple of breakfast cereals.  And yet a woman three times my age asks the cashier at the store’s single register if the store has O’Boises potato chips – a brand limited to a brief period of time in a smaller segment of the country.  From a woman born before the Great Depression, whose family rationed its food during World War II, and who only knew a generation of excess in her later years, perhaps she should choose another brand of snack in this meager market.  Sorry, they just don’t have Super Wal-Marts in Rangeley; maybe you can pick some up in Boston.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

An Old Roll Of Film

Don’t Throw That Away

In the battle of hoarder versus purger, I will throw away just about everything.  I like the material goods around me that brighten my world, but if I had to give them all up, say for a lifetime driving around the country basking in the natural beauty of the fifty states, I wouldn’t blink an eye.  Everything would go.  So during a recent move, I pat myself on the back for not throwing away four old rolls of film that I expensively dropped off at the local camera and hobby store – the last vestige of celluloid transfer from image to negative to prints.  And all four rolls could not have been more different.

During his sophomore year of high school (yes, high school), Son #1 took a band trip to Dallas, Texas, including Six Flags Over Texas (see “My Son’s Mecca” from February 2012).  Faces, some of which the names have faded, appeared on the variety of images from one canister of 35mm memories.  Son #2 used a disposable camera on his trip to Grandma and Grandpa’s house and the second roll of film from his solo Midwestern adventure proves my parents were caught red-handed in their spoiling with an outing to the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.

Five Years Later

My friend celebrates his 35th birthday this week [insert appropriate birthday sing-a-long here], but it seems like just yesterday that he turned thirty.  Of course, the fact that I finish developing the photos from the outing five years ago may affect that perception.  My tardiness also reminds me of how swiftly life passes.  And as I thumb through these pictures, part of me reprimands myself for waiting so long to develop these images, but part of me also appreciates that I can see us all as we were half a decade ago and appreciate that the same wonderful people continue to be a part of one another’s lives.

This summer marks the five-year anniversary of our grandest family vacation: a circle tour of the American Southwest including New Mexico and Arizona, culminating at the Grand Canyon National Park.  The final roll of mysterious film, slightly yellowed from age, captures the day we reached the North Rim of the canyon.  Even better, the pictures remind us of a time that has passed, when Son #1 and Son #2 still lived at home, still vacationed with their parental unit, and still posed for photos on demand.  Who would have thought that this Emptied Nest Adventure could be found in a cardboard box?

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Almost Heaven

Hand Selected

Knocking off another state in the quest to see all fifty, I enjoy the views of the West Virginia slopes as I gently sway through the roads over the Labor Day weekend.  Unlike the jagged rocks of the western states, the ancient Appalachian Mountains curve gently over one another, all covered with trees and growth and greenery.  The sun casts down through the leaves, but with the road so close to the narrow valleys, the mountains often block the direct sunlight.

I depart Pennsylvania and scoot through the oddly shaped tip of Maryland, cruising into the cozy hillsides of my destination.  And after peaking over a mountain top, I find myself in the footsteps of a giant wind turbine.  I love these guys (see “Breathing Windmills” from December 2011), so I pull over to take in its enormity and its clever ability to hide behind a mountain.  The tranquil sound of the rhythmic, powerful mechanism touches me, inspires me, and as I glance up toward the sky, blows me away.  When I finally pull my gaze away from the window, I reach down at my side, pick up my iPod and scroll to the last few songs to find “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”  Of course I plan ahead to have this song at hand, but I had no knowledge that I would find such technology on these country roads.    When I pull away continuing down the winding pavement playing the song to fit my surroundings, I think life isn’t so old here.

An Added Bonus

Practically, I rent vehicles in conjunction with the duration and complexity of my expedition, and this single overnight excursion certainly doesn’t merit a high-end vehicle.  But when I pick up my little blue mobile, I delightedly discover the economy car has an extra bonus: a sun roof ideal for the bright, sunlit, weekend drive.  When I leave Pittsburg, I make a point to have the ceiling window open and the midday sun streaming through the car’s roof.  The only previous time I enjoyed a similar perk, a sporty convertible upgrade, I drove it for two days in the Maryland rain and never enjoyed the sunshine on my shoulders.

Back in the car and weaving between the hills, the sun roof loses my affection.  The homes of West Virginia, nearly at the road’s edge due to the deep slopes immediately behind them, dart in and out of my line of vision as the bright sunlight alternately streams in the sunroof and then hides behind the mountain sides.  I squint and lower my sunglasses, then less than a mile later, raise them back into my hair as the sun ducks behind a mountain.  Additionally, the trees blink and flash the sunlight through the sunroof so I finally decide to turn off the natural strobe light and close the extra window to the sky.  If West Virginia is almost heaven, I’ll need to get better sunglasses before judgment day.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Florida's Interior

Not on Vacation

In need of a short-term escape from single parenthood, I planned a drive from the Space Coast past the Treasure Coast, around Lake Okeechobee and on to the Lee Island Coast.  In between the beaches, the non-coastal land contains the inside of Florida, the economic and historic heart and spine of the state.  The space and theme-park industries transformed Florida expanding and exploding into the twenty-first century, but the true tourism of Florida predates themed roller coasters, and the soaking sunshine does more for Florida than simply grace its coastline.

Traveling down the Atlantic shore, vacationers at the beginning of the twentieth century benefitted from the work of Henry Flagler and his railroad into the land of palm trees and resorts.  However, the swampy, mosquito-heavy interior areas didn’t hold the glamour of the beach-front property, so those tracks skipped the portion of the state that worked rather than vacationed.  Even today, Florida bumper stickers read, “Not all of us are on vacation.”

Ft. Pierce to Ft. Myers

But somewhere near Sebastian Inlet, almost literally on the other side of the tracks, lies the eastern edge of Florida’s citrus industry.  Rows of orange and grapefruit trees grow from Indian River County westward, and the history of Florida’s famous crop and its current agricultural economic resources weave through the green groves.  During the blossoming seasons, the fragrant blooms on the trees sweeten the air; and if heaven has a smell, it is orange blossoms – so special!

Cattle ranches behind simple post fences with parallel lines of barbed wire define the simple views of the state’s beef industry.  No longhorns or ten-gallon caricatures here.  As the keepers of the Sunshine State’s livestock livelihood, Florida Crackers identify themselves as historic ranch hands and associate themselves with its inland industry.  Originally known for sound their whips made while corralling their herds, more often the term identifies someone truly born and raised in the Florida culture, like “buckeyes” of Ohio and the “hoosiers” of Indiana.  In the native-Floridian sense, Son #1 and Son #2 both qualify as Crackers.

Continuing south of Florida’s central lake, the ranches change to swamps.  Below Okeechobee, the tall grasses benefit from the gradual trickle of water that sloughs its way to the Florida Keys, dragging through the sugar cane fields.   The densely-packed, pancake-flat cane fields offer no distant views, unless driving along one of south Florida’s lengthy canals.  These irrigation waterways, where the true lengths of the sugar fields are visible, parallel the straight roads just outside the busy beach-front cities.  After crossing Alligator Alley and the Tamiami Trail, the water continues to inch its way to the Florida Straits, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic Ocean having nourished the industries up the peninsula.  The tourists splashing in the ocean’s waves don’t think of the fields, the ranches, or the groves upstream feeding the waves; we Crackers keep that beauty to ourselves.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Ice Machine In The River

Preparing for the Storms

Natural disasters come in three categories: fast and furious, drawn out and excruciating, and well-planned.  Earthquakes and tornadoes both qualify in the first category while floods, blizzards and brushfires fit into the second category.  Hurricanes, while equally threatening, at least offer the element of no surprise.  I have watched storms on satellites developing over weeks (I see you out there Ivan) and have prepared for storms that swerved and headed north (Yes, I’m talking about you Floyd) and storms that slowly hovered overhead for days (Really, Frances?  The entire Labor Day weekend?).

The storms that head northward smack into Cape Hatteras or Charleston, sometimes swirling out to sea like a drive-by mooning by Mother Nature. 
Forecasters make these storms more manageable and my sons and I have even enjoyed a round of mini-golf between feeder bands as a last opportunity to get out of the house before the real threat arrives (take that Jeanne).  During the trifecta of storms in 2004, we purchased a medley of disaster films and watched the Poseidon Adventure and Twister during our confinement.

In the Aftermath

Isabel hung around in the late summer, practically autumn, of 2003 plodding across the Atlantic for nearly two weeks and then storming in the front door near the Carolina and Virginia border, but the storm surge to the north forced the waters of Chesapeake Bay much farther inland.  As one of the biggies for the year, her acclaim remains in the mind of the region’s population more than the nation’s because the following year’s hurricane season packed a wallop blowing through the entire alphabet of names.  And the next year Katrina swallowed up New Orleans and most of the central Gulf Coast.

But I remember Isabel.  On my trip to Annapolis, I cross the Bay Bridge and visit southeastern Maryland.  Once I find the outdated hotel, I scavenge for a local restaurant in search of fresh crab because that’s what one does in Maryland.  The waterfront establishment appears surprisingly empty for a Friday night.  My server shares that the entire lower level of the restaurant spent the week prior submerged in the tides of the Chesapeake.  She reappears with photos documenting the high-water mark, the clean-up efforts of the past week, and the ice machine previously chained to the downstairs porch stuck under one of the wooden bridges along the Chesapeake.  Even with advance notice, you cannot plan for everything, including ice machines floating upstream.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The UP

Bunny Bread

A line in a movie finds a boastful naval navigator claiming he can fly through the Alps in a plane with no windows if his map is accurate enough.  That’s me.  With the right map, I can get myself anywhere, even somewhere I really don’t want to be.  The U.S. military, in its infinite wisdom, plopped my Arizona blood into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a portion of the country that has recorded measurable snowfall every month of the year.  So when I arrived in the bustling town of Marquette, the lack of clear directional signs annoyed a traveler like me.  Let’s just hope that the local snow plows received the funding that seems to have been withheld from the city’s sign shop.

When I needed to branch out and find my way around the town away from the air force base, I asked for directions to a few specific locations described in the outdated information packet provided to me.  More than one person told me to follow the road past the old Bunny Bread factory.  To be clear, the Bunny Bread location must have wised up and high-tailed its cotton backside out of that sad, little town because
it wasn’t there anymore.  By its very definition, a landmark is a place that marks the lay of the land.  If it no longer exists, it makes for a poor landmark; please don’t use it when providing directions.

Digging Out

I often describe the U.P. as the place where hell freezes over. The nearest city, Green Bay, can be reached in good weather, but it requires a six-hour round-trip drive. And while I am sure there are many fans, year-round coverage of only one sports team lacks a sense of variety and promotes off-season tedium. In fairness, hunters and winter outdoorsmen make ideal Yoopers, but I am neither a sportsman nor a fan of
winter,  so two frigid cycles of the seasons in the frozen wasteland can really beat a human down.

As an evil farewell gift, less than a month before our May departure from the region, Mother Nature dumps forty-five inches of snow upon us. And in a wicked twist of fate, the snow fall ends just hours after the snow plowing contract terminates for the season. The only hope to free our car from its frozen tomb involves a couple solid hours of digging out from the massive drift that hides it from our view. At our earliest opportunity, we squeeze the door open enough to allow Son #1 to watch us work from the inside of the car. And of all the places I have visited, this is one to which I will never return, not even if you pay me. It’s right up there on the list with Las Vegas.