Friday, March 30, 2012

One Hundred Years

Belated Birthday

Even for a mildly obsessive calendar watcher, birthdays sometimes sneak up on me, and in my Hallmark stash, I keep a couple belated greetings in case of forgetfulness on my part.  But a landmark birthday – 100 years – surprised me without my preparing for the big day.  The state of Arizona, the last of the contiguous states, just marked its 100th anniversary of statehood.  Compared to the east coast states, it is just a pup; compared to Europe, the Grand Canyon State just completed its infancy; when measured against the advancement of mankind, the formation of the planet, or the creation of the solar system, a century of existence represents a mere blip on the evolutionary radar screen.  But nevertheless, it’s a blip worth recognizing since in a tiny way, my childhood fell somewhere in the middle of Arizona’s history as a state.

Growing up in this Sonoran oasis provided a similar experience to most childhoods, but our education may have experienced some regional modifications. In science we studied the botany of cacti; as part of our
state government class we learned desert survival skills, and geography included memorizing the names of all the counties and county seats – all fifteen of them.  At home we knew how to secure our property as a dust storm blew up from the south darkening the sky and erasing the mountains from our view – a great fete since mountains could be viewed in every direction.  The powerful desert also delivered an explosion of saguaro and prickly pear and ocotillo blooms in yellow and orange and red, and sunsets that swept across the sky coloring our lives.  After all it gave me, how could I have forgotten Arizona’s birthday?

Century Plants

The legends of the southwest – the cowboys, the drifters, the outlaws – seemed like a remnant of a distant past lost to the closing of the American frontier.  Those characters, mostly real but with legendary amplification, lived in the New Mexico territory after the Gadsden Purchase and before the nation added the 47th and 48th states.  Credit goes to the unique cast of characters that built Arizona over its century, and witnessed its maturation.  When drawing a timeline of Arizona’s statehood, note a hash mark about two-thirds of the way through its rich history when I intersected its development.  The giant metropolis of Phoenix, still a growing city, felt more cozy back then, and we followed the annexations of the city limits by moving to the edge of town.  Before the first drops of water trickled through the Central Arizona Project, before Lake Powell finished filling, before the supermarkets and supermalls became connected by the concrete commuter loop around the city, I watched the state change like the bundled blossom of the Agave Americana, or “century plants,” growing throughout the region.  What an appropriate flora with a fitting nickname!

During the years after I moved away, people told me I wouldn’t recognize it if I went back.  I remember when Sky Harbor airport had one brown, brick building, when Hughes Airwest was the top banana in the west, and Pioneer Village felt a world away.  After two decades of living in other parts of the country and the world, I finally return possessing only a fractional connection to the state on the verge of its centennial, but with an exponential enthusiasm to revisit my roots.  Overlooking its obvious increase in size,
the state’s vibe feels like it has not just grown, but grown up, and finally fits into its big-boy boots.  The surprising joy of returning to Arizona bubbles in me as I reach the edges of the now-expansive city, as I drive through the dramatic changes in scenery above the Mogollon Rim, and as I watch the landscape change from fields of saguaros to forests of pines.  I am reminded not only of my youth, but that I still possess, however microscopic, a footnote in the American West.  And although Arizona’s history affected me far more than I affected Arizona’s history, I am woven into its 20th century adolescence.  Happy Birthday, Arizona, and welcome to adulthood!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

My Dashing Parents

Award Night

Even before the events of 9-11, the company belt-tightening began, so by the time the fall of 2011 arrived, the number of families getting away to our corner of the world completely plummeted.  In a town dominated by tourism, every company and household felt the pinch when Americans quit vacationing en masse.  The annual awards dinner recognizing excellence in our all-day, everyday contributions to our company vanished and I took my once-in-a-lifetime trophy home and set it on a shelf where I could admire my hard work and recognition alone.  A cake without icing is sweeter than no cake at all.

A year later, true to its word, the company brought two years’ worth of recipients together for a celebratory night, and true to form, kept the special guest speaker a surprise until the moment she appeared on stage.  When the applause faded and the award winners took their seats, Barbara Walters spoke from a lifetime of experience on the remarkable individuals she had interviewed - those who epitomized excellence: world leaders, unlikely heroes, and us.  A triumphant night, albeit more than a year in the making, culminated with a joyful call to my parents to share with them the excitement of my career highlight and the outstanding speaker who completed an exceptional evening.  “Oh, I’ve never liked her,” my mother opened her rebuttal to my night of recognition, and specifically our guest speaker.  I ended the call as swiftly as possible and returned home to fall asleep in the company of my trophy to again admire my hard work and recognition alone.

Regret #2

After becoming an empty nester, the tendency to pack up and go often gets the best of me, and since I depend on no one but myself for my travel planning, my vacation style tends to be secretive until my return.  (In truth, how often are others excited by vacations other than their own?)  And on this particular western excursion, I keep my destination entirely to myself and relish in the prospect that my get-away fits its definition perfectly, and the isolation of my drive rewards my furtiveness.  While waiting in the Salt
Lake City airport for my flight home, I place a quick phone call to share my vacation highlights with my father.  His reaction?  He muses about an unfortunate incident on US Highway 50 years before my birth, “Did you go through Fallon?  I once bought a tank of gas there in 1957 and it was god-awful.”  Why, yes, Dad, my vacation is absolutely lovely, thanks for asking.

I often say that I have three regrets in life and they have taught me my three greatest life lessons.  Life lesson number two: only include those people in the best moments of your life who will enhance the moment, not minimize it.  More than a decade and a half ago my moment of regret continues to teach me a lesson I cannot learn often enough.  My parents notoriously and unknowingly dash my moments of victory and excitement with the tunnel vision of their own lives.  Nevertheless, my secretive solo adventure across the desolation of Central Nevada ranks among the most inspiring drives and the keynote speech by Barbara Walters continues to give me words of inspiration.  And my prized trophy still sits in a place of honor in my home, regardless of my parents’ patterned perceptions.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012



I have acrophobia, too (see “Hidden Beauty” from March 2012) and I would like to think that I am working on overcoming it (see “Leap Day” from February 2012).  Nevertheless, crossing bridges that exceed a reasonable height from which a person could accidentally drive over the side and survive envelopes me in trepidation.  My sight line barely wavers from the painted lines on the pavement, which is disappointing considering the view over the edge is most likely spectacular, and at the very least, grand.  Monitoring the correct travel lanes dominated my focus on the Bay Bridge and I missed out on the Chesapeake Bay.  Focusing on taking a few glimpses of the remarkable scenery bridges afford has become one of the goals of my travels. 

Like most of my shortcomings, I blame my parents when they laughed at my concerns while crossing Royal Gorge.  Skip the Google, here are the highlights: built in 1929 for only $350,000, its wooden walkway allows pedestrians to look down the nearly 1,000 feet to the Arkansas River between the slats of wood.  As a suspension bridge, it sways in the wind and bounces as cars drive over it, so the height coupled with the movement did not appeal to me as a child.  Rather than educate me about the structure’s magnificent architecture, the geologic development of the canyon, or the benefits the span brought to its earliest passengers once completed, my parents laughed at me.  Hmm, I wonder what Dr. Spock would have said about that.

I Still Love Them

Despite my anxiety, I do love bridges.  When driving, if I catch a glimpse of one in the distance, I eagerly drive toward it (see “Jumping Off Point” from January 2012).  I like to know what waterway passes under it and when horses or pedestrians or automobiles first crossed it.  If there is a vantage point before or after its approach, it’s a safe bet that I will stop for photos.  Some bridges are boring along the span, but their height will take your breath away, like the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge on US Highway 64 west of Taos, New Mexico.  Others have artistic symmetry, and on a beautiful day, contrast a bright blue Florida sky, like the Sunshine Skyway Bridge across Tampa Bay.  And with some bridges, size matters, just ask any Michigander taking a gander at Big Mac, which might be more aptly named, Long Mac, since its ability to stretch across the Straits of Mackinac ranks it the third longest suspension bridge in the world.  Of course, it’s not as catchy of a name, as pop-cultured, or covered in sesame seeds.

Even in their meagerness, simple bridges inspire me, too.  In the quiet town of Philippi, West Virginia, hidden between ridges of the Appalachian Mountains, across the Tygart Valley River a simple covered bridge might seem expected, but with two lanes and  
roots dating before the Civil War, this roofed street certainly bears crossing; and as the only covered bridge on a US Highway (US 250, also known as Main Street), it earns noteworthy acclaim to a bridge aficionado like me.  Driving across a flat stretch of Interstate 10, hovering above the Mississippi swamps north of Pascagoula Bay amazes me as I consider the time this simple crossing might have taken a hundred years before me.  And no matter how many times I traverse US Highway 67 over the Mississippi River above the locks at Alton, Illinois, I never tire from crossing these spans because I still love them, even if they scare me.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Hidden Beauty


Admittedly, I am claustrophobic.  Riding in the backseat of a Volkswagon bug, using an airplane bathroom, or crawling under a bed are just too close to my face for comfort.  Even getting tangled in my sheets at night unnerves me.  Caves?  I have entered a few, crawling into one west of Flagstaff during my summer as a camp counselor, but the perceived lack of oxygen and actual lack of open space in my personal bubble make exploring significantly challenging.  Carlsbad Caverns, however, allows me the opportunity to climb deep below the earth’s surface without even the tiniest fraction of angst.

The New Mexican landmark, in the portions open to the public, reaches depths of more than 800 feet (244 meters) in which I comfortably stroll through the expansive, humid chambers.  The gently folding path at the main entrance eliminates unnecessary hiking and trekking from my cave exploration, although those opportunities exist for more adventurous spelunkers, but like most tourists I enjoy the ease and openness of the massive underground system.  On my most recent expedition to the national park I get to witness history unseen by most visitors and despite my lack of fear from enclosure, I benefit from the best vantage point possible for a claustrophobe like me: I never descend into the caves.

Filing Cabinets of Wonder

My college degree hinges on one final class: History 309: Introduction to Historical Writing.  Knowing this class will require an inordinate amount of research, I begin preparing five semesters earlier, including planning two trips to the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.  That’s not a challenge, but rather a bonus for a travel junkie like me because in-depth research merely provides an additional excuse to return to New Mexico.  Just like Mammoth Cave and Wind Cave, visitors at Carlsbad Caverns National Park can enjoy nature’s aboveground creations since the forces that created the wonders underground contributed to the visible landscape too.  But for me, I discover a different kind of beauty at ground level.

For two days, I gently turn page after page of historical records, 80-year-old monthly reports, and photographs printed on paper handled decades ago by the park rangers who toured the caves years before the installation of elevators.  Handwritten notes and carbon-imprinted triplicates interspersed with pictures taken with or by Carlsbad Caverns National Park’s first superintendent, Thomas Boles, unfold into a treasure trove of history.  Tucked inside a plain row of filing cabinets, I uncover these historic treasures the same way the Guadalupe Mountains hide the subterranean geologic gems of the Southwest’s caverns.  The fastidious compilation of words and images gathered and saved by the guardians of the national park service over the past century mirrors the laborious drip, drip, drip of water depositing and sculpting the stalagmites over hundreds of thousands of years.  I see beauty in both.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The 5th Lake

Five, Four, Three, Two

In second grade the assignment given to a group of roughly forty seven-year-olds required the memorization of the acronym “HOMES.”  Having been absent the day of the lesson, I missed the homework, and when I asked David, the designated chatterbox sitting next to me, he could barely remember what the class had been instructed.  We had to provide five names of something, but he couldn’t remember what we were to have learned.  One word summed it up, but he could not remember the synonym of “house,” much less the term “acronym.”  In my head I remember wondering how he managed not to walk into walls.  I think the word for which he was searching should have been, “moron.”

As student after student stood to recite their five words, far too many had no recollection of what “HOMES” abbreviated.  When my turn arrived, I stood up and stated all five Great Lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie…  and David still had the same blank stare as if he continued to struggle with remembering the assignment.  When I finished, Mrs. Nelson reminded everyone I had been out sick and I still managed to learn all five names.  (I always liked Mrs. Nelson.)  Yes, I had learned all five Great Lakes, but one lingering thought remained: I wonder where they were and why we were learning them.


Fast forward a couple decades and I finally get the opportunity to put faces with the names.  The first glimpse of the Fab Five appears as I climb the hills west of Duluth and see the big lake they call Gitchigumi.  On a road trip to the bustling city of Green Bay, Wisconsin, I sneak along the northern bays of Lake Michigan.  I catch a snippet of its neighbor when crossing the Big Mac, suspended across the upper and lower peninsulas, but it wouldn’t be until our road trip to Sudbury that I would see the entire northern length of Lake
Huron.  Surrounded by trash and nearly lifeless flora, Lake Erie reminds me of the dirty, industrial seventies that changed the lifeblood canal connecting the prosperous Atlantic Ocean to the blossoming Ohio Territory into a lifeless, murky pond.  Perhaps I shortchange myself by driving through Toronto without stopping, but its skyline in the northern distance above the calm blue waters of the final waterway offers the payoff view of tiny, yet splendid, Lake Ontario – the last one of the five upon which I gaze.

In truth, I get to see a little bit of every lake from more than one angle: park side in Marquette on Superior’s southern shore as the ice chucks bang into the rocks, Michigan bumping up against the Windy City, Huron in the cold mist and Erie pouring into Ontario at Niagara.  Children recite their names in the simple five-word mnemonic device, but from Duluth to Cleveland, from Buffalo to Chicago, cities thrive on the waters of the Great Lakes carrying ships and supplies, freezing and flowing, and inspiring a second grader to make a plan to see them all, even if it takes twenty years – one more checkmark on the bucket list.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Are You Ready for Some Baseball?

Becoming A Fan

Periodically someone will ask how I became a sports fan because I do not fit the sports fan stereotype.  The answer is remarkably simple: I have no idea.  But I do know when I could first trace my sports interest – inside the pages of Scholastic School News, Middle School Edition.  In an attempt to quiet the noisy and rather odoriferous tweens, Mrs. Travis handed out the monthly magazines and asked everyone to complete the geography puzzle – name all twenty-eight cities represented in the National Football League.  Primarily, my strength in this competition lied in my photographic memory of the United States map, but nonetheless I bested every boy in my class because I did know every team name to accompany the major American cities from Florida to Seattle.  I blew those boys away because I knew the Browns played in Cleveland.

In the autumn of 1994, History 316 (United States History 1896-1919) piqued my interest in a quirky and under-studied period of Americana.  From post-reconstruction to The Great War, the course covered heavily significant and momentous events such as the Spanish-American war and World War I, but the class also brought modern American culture to life during the Progressive era.  During that semester, with Major League Baseball threatening to take away my beloved October Classic to a labor dispute, I poured my love of the game into a term paper on the transition of baseball to the modern era, as well as my overall academic effort.  In my own words, I proclaimed my fandom and confirmed my passion for the boys of summer, and garnered an A for the effort.

Baseball Heaven

On the three-hour drive from Melbourne to Miami, after surprising my boys with tickets to the Dolphins v. Jets on Christmas night, we play Hank Williams Jr. on continuous repeat to make undeniably sure that we are ready for some football – a Monday Night party.  A line of damaging thunderstorms drives through Dolphin Stadium just after we sit down with our food and passes by game time.  Of course the Dolphins’ last game of the season falls in the “L” column and the passing weather turned the dirt parking lot into a mud bog, but the presence of Dan Marino and Don Shula at halftime captures our football fanaticism.

But my heart belongs to baseball and the crown jewel: The World Series.  The uncertainty of the yet-to-be-determined playoff sites challenges my travel-planning skills unlike my pilgrimage to Cooperstown (see “The Mile High Club” from December 2011).  After four years of preparing, with a round-trip, frequent-flyer ticket in my virtual pocket, and a landmark birthday just around the river bend, I begin watching every play of the ALDS, the NLDS, the ALCS, the NLCS.  I enter every team's ticket lottery just for the opportunity to buy the one
golden ticket that will admit me to baseball heaven.  By the end of the pennant race, the baseball gods smile down upon me and place the World Series in my own backyard.  Sitting behind home plate, cheering my team on its own albeit-AstroTurf, sipping my beer and nibbling my hot dog, checking the top box off my bucket list, and getting chills throughout every moment of the experience undoubtedly confirms I am a fan.