Friday, April 27, 2012

In The Footsteps Of My Grandfather

Project Fifty

The Corn Husker State, aptly named, eluded me for too long.  Having visited all of its neighbors (Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Iowa, and Missouri), it takes a freakishly unusual traveler to circle a state, yet never pass through it.  A number of other states fell into this “missed” category (North Dakota, Rhode Island, Oregon, West Virginia) so I developed a plan: Project Fifty.  In theory, an effectively executed plan would ensure I visit all fifty states before my fiftieth birthday.  Phase one of the plan began with Nebraska, but what do tourists do in the Great Plains state along the Missouri River?

A smidgeon of research highlights the must-sees of Omaha, starting with the zoo.  Justin Bieber played a concert the night I arrived.  By less than a week I missed the College World Series.  Gambling riverboats line up along the banks of the Muddy Mo like the paddleboats of a century ago that sailed the agriculture southward.  I skipped all of them (sorry, Beebs), and I didn’t even partake of a steak dinner.  From the scenery I saw between the airport and the hotel, Omaha appeared to be a lovely city, but I missed the vast majority of it.

The Minors

Downtown Omaha mixes century-old history with shiny new office buildings and converted lofts.  Multiple blocks of quaint shops and assorted cafes bring a small-town ambiance to the center of the city, and the location of my hotel affords me the luxury of a stroll through the old city.  As I wander, I imagine the wooden boardwalks in front of the boom-town era shops combining the cowfolk with the merchants doing business and building the West.  A street musician barely older than Son #1 plays “Hallelujah” on his guitar and I stand quietly in front of a storefront ignoring the display and focusing on the ballad.  Eighty years prior, my grandfather, a former resident of the town, may have stood on this same street corner listening to the sounds of his city.

Grandpa, whom I never met, had a minor profession as a baseball player in this island amid the seas of cornfields. Years before he met Grandma, he smacked the leather
around the ball field and made what historically would have been a barely sustainable wage, and probably only a part-time gig, as he would have sought out other employment during the off season.  More than once in my life I traveled for my love of the game (see “Are You Ready for Some Baseball?” from March 2012), but this venture more than kicks off Project Fifty with a trip to Rosenblatt Stadium for a minor league ballgame.  This excursion pays tribute to Ople who loved the game first.  Thanks, Grandpa, for creating a memory for me before I was even born.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Life Is A Highway


I love a good metaphor almost as much as I love a good analogy.  Being the fan that I am, baseball as a metaphor for life ranks as my favorite, and I would wager that has everything to do with my passion for the sport and how baseball has intertwined with my life.  But Tom Cochrane put metaphor to music in 1991 and captured in three minutes my outlook on road trips through the decade.  In fact, I even dubbed it Son #1’s theme song since as a child he so often accompanied me on my traveling adventures across the highways of America.  He tackled thirteen states before his first birthday and left the country before his second birthday.  By his fifth birthday, he visited two continents, eight countries, and twenty states.

Certainly his recollection of many of these early locations remains spotty at best, but that’s why he has me.  I tell him about the Colorado Rockies, the Mona Lisa, Gettysburg, and the Cape Hatteras lighthouse.  Nevertheless, bits and pieces of his childhood clatter around in his head including chasing pigeons in Vatican Square (and a number of other European cities) and riding the subway in DC.  For him, his life truly has been a highway as my number one traveling companion.  Sorry Son #2, but it’s true.


At some point in elementary school, drawing a timeline about themselves becomes a common assignment for kids, and they include important chronological landmarks in their young lives, and the larger world community. Son #1, while creative in many aspects, despises projects involving crayons, scissors, illustrations, glue, and poster board (don’t even get him started on glitter).  Only after he decides to duplicate his theme song in his project does he actually begin working on it. Germany unified the week he was born, the Soviet Union collapsed the night after he visited Mount Rushmore (see “Rapid City, Rapid Change" from November 2011), he lived at Ramstein Air Base when the downed helicopter pilot was rescued from
Somalia, and he watched the space shuttle lift off on its mission to rendezvous with the MIR space station a month before starting kindergarten.

But does his life really compare to a highway with its off ramps, concrete slabs, and bridges that may ice before road?  Does he watch for falling rocks, exit at the next rest stop, and observe the miles tick by quickly some days and exhaustingly slow on others?  Do pushy drivers pass on the right, cut him off and ride his bumper, while some cars also allow him to merge from the on ramp and politely flash their lights to warn of an objective in the roadway?  Life is full of figurative falling rocks, even when we aren’t warned.  Some stretches of life seem mountainous or even moderately bumpy, and sometimes life has long, straight stretches that can bore us, or just as easily bring us tranquility.  Son #1, like all of us, will always encounter people trying to get ahead, while others will kindly let him merge into their lives.  Yes, life is definitely a highway, so metaphorically speaking, be good drivers.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

My Oldest Memory


I have this theory that people are drawn to the types of climates into which they are born.  Granted my theory resembles other less-concrete ideas, like cookie fortunes and paranormal activity – only believable if they apply to you personally.  In my case, my theory applies to me personally.  Born in the sunshine and near the ocean, my ideal environment remains shore side.  I like driving along the ocean, staring at the ocean, listening to the ocean on my white-noise sound machine, and, of course, taking pictures of the ocean.  And to be clear, I am mesmerized by the ocean, but somewhat less delighted by the beach – it’s a sand thing.  But just sitting and looking at the ocean tickles me aquamarine.

And I love the moon.  In all its phases, when hiding in the brightest daylight or illuminating a dark road, when it is waxing or waning, when it saddles up to a planet to make a smiley face, when it dominates the skylight upon rising, and during the less-frequent occasions when I get to see it set, I absolutely adore it.  I often wonder if the correlation between the moon and the tide create a sort of bi-fortnight parallel in my brain.  Most likely, I love the size or distance each represents and how small I feel in comparison to both.

The Turtle

At some point in every person’s mind, when reaching back into the deepest consciousness, a thousand memories of the experiences of a life time are stored.  The brain – the world’s greatest hard drive – categorizes these memories and can cross reference them by date or time or place or people or emotions.  Say, for example, that I wanted to gather all of my great memories of the ocean.  I would retrieve a mental picture of a recent excursion with friends to Vero Beach, I would recall the boat ride to the Channel Islands with Son #2, I would think about the view of the Atlantic between Europe and North America from 30,000 feet, and I would reach all the way down to the bottom of the stack of memories and pull out my earliest recollection.

At less than two years of age, filed under both “beach” and “California,” the image of a moment exists in my mind when I try fervently to make sand fit into the shape of a plastic, yellow turtle mold about the size of a saucer.  For the life of me, every time I remove the turtle, the sand falls away from the mold and looks nothing like the shape in my hands.  In hindsight, I do not know if I feel frustration at the dry sand remaining faithful to its physical properties, or that an adult does not assist with the activity by adding water to my sculpting.  And so the pile of loose grains remains every time I lift the yellow plastic shell to my toddleresque dismay.  Perhaps my lack of success in creating the shape of the turtle in the sand explains my lack of excitement about the beach.  More likely this oldest memory resembles my fascination with the ocean, because whether two or twenty-two or forty-two, I try to wrap my head around how small I really am.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Antelope Island

Get Me to the Island on Time

I didn’t make time.  Like most of my travels, two or three highlights per day break the journey into memorable portions and today I have already enjoyed five outings: comparing an AT&T mural to the Norway attraction at Epcot, crossing the Pony Express, finding the Idiot Tree (see “The Idiot Tree” from December 2011), passing Promontory Point, and exploring the rocket garden at the ATK test range.  But I still want to squeeze in one more stop today, and considering this one ranks on my lifetime bucket list, it is surprising that I did not allow more time to get here, but the sun still hangs high enough on this early autumn day that I give it a shot and drive a bit harried through Salt Lake City’s early rush-hour traffic.

West of the city, as far west as one can drive and not be submerged in salty water, a toll booth and a digital display of the hours and prices marks the entrance to Antelope Island State Park.  The hills at the end of the long, low causeway seem too far away to make by the time the sun begins to set, but with ninety minutes to spare, I arrive in time, pay my fee and continue westward.  In my rearview mirror, the clouds mist and borrow the fading day’s light to create a pale rainbow.  But I focus on the inhabitants of the approaching island and getting to them while they still have shadows to cast.

Buffalo Only

So named for its residents, I never find the antelope hiding in their favorite spots, and I instead drive to the top of the first hill, and stand alone on a full-deck lookout on the northwest end of the island.  From this empty spot on Buffalo Point, I glance back towards their pens, and see the overlook’s namesakes in the valley between me and highest hill.  Tiny dark dots in the distance, these animals remind me of the final few fragments of the American West before the frontier shuttered, just specs of the massive herds from centuries ago.  Having seen the American bison up close before, I have met these loud, slow-moving, content-to-eat-grass grazers, but from a distance, these heavy-hoofed creatures appear as the handful of remnants of a nation’s history that it virtually destroyed.

So on the deck of this empty lot I stand, with the color streaks in the eastern sky stemming from the low clouds near the mountain tops; to the west, the sinking sun spreads its illumination and reflection across the salty waters; below me, the remains of America’s splendid herds slowly meandering across the island valley’s floor; and to the north, the joining point of the nineteenth century’s progress (see “Ponies and Locomotives” from January 2012).  I descend the hills, knowing I still need to cross the causeway before the gates drop for the night, but I take time to pull up and stop my car next to one of the historic beasts.  I take time – I make time – to speak with him, tapping his anthropomorphic qualities that I imagine he possesses, and I thank him for being here with me.  And then I drive away into the falling night.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Chocolate World

Unaccompanied Minor

I recall the first time Son #1 flew solo on an airplane.  Well-traveled and independent, no anxiety preceded his flight (well, maybe a little on my part) and he boarded his flight in Baltimore headed to St. Louis where his grandparents would sign for him like a fine piece of carry-on luggage.  Over the years, he would travel without me many times, and Son #2 would follow with an equal lack of trepidation.  My expert travelers moved through security seamlessly even when they reached the age that they didn’t need their mom slowing them down.  How I miss their childish outlook.

I appreciate that these guys figured out that the ability to move smoothly from point A in terminal C to point B in terminal A granted them the privilege of seeing more of the world than sometimes I could even show them.  It made Son #1’s five-hour solo flight from Florida to California flawless and the school trip to Italy only natural.  While not quite a jet setter, he knew how to read airport monitors for gate information, how to board smoothly, how to properly stow his carry-on bags (a skill many adults cannot manage), and even coached and counseled other less-courageous unaccompanied minors.  Son #2 mastered the same skills, and learned how to score extra peanuts from the flight attendants.  Little boys grow up fast.

A Little Taste

Safely on his way to St. Louis, Son #2 and I drive on to Hershey, Pennsylvania in our rental car showing a mere fifteen miles on the odometer.  While the town of Hershey offers a myriad of activities and sites, some of which are candy-based and even more of the non-sweet variety, when traveling with a four-year-old, the focus lies strictly in the chocolate.  To keep the experience on par with the attention span of a little boy, we ride through the make-believe factory and receive the complimentary miniature candy bar of the town’s namesake.  As we exit the dark-ride style attraction with our milk-style chocolate, we receive word that Son #1 arrives safely in Missouri.

Like every well-themed attraction, we dump into a gift shop featuring all things Hershey, Reese’s, Kit-Kat and Kisses adorned, as well as plenty of chocolate delights in all sizes and quantities – little boy heaven.  With photo ops, food, and five-year-old fun, there is no reason to explore any additional parts of this adorable town.  Everything a child’s imagination invents exists in this warehouse-sized store.  On the drive back to DC, even the exceptional sugar content couldn’t keep a little person awake after a full three hours of chocolate fantasy overload.  Fully spoiled by his bite-sized adventure, these hours of candied adventure pale in comparison to three-weeks of spoiling Son #1 receives at the hands of his grandparents.  Nevertheless, on this day, I think of my distance from Son #1, while Son #2 remembers Chocolate World as a child’s chocolate nirvana.  And I remember their distant childhood as a parent’s heaven.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Overnight On The Amtrak

Less Than Glamorous

Just to be clear, for those who have never had the pleasure of riding the rail, train travel is less than glamorous.  Even the Orient Express isn’t what it used to be.  Once a luxury, modern-day train travel connects numerous stops and less-than-reliable timetables.  No bartender pours glasses of champagne in the club car while Bing Crosby croons about the upside of snow; in fact, you’ll be lucky to purchase a bowl of overpriced Campbell’s soup.  Most people utilize the tracks as an alternate form of commuting from the city, not a vacation to see the countryside.

Imagine the irritation of drivers stopped at a train crossing especially when the train slows down.  Passengers in their cars sit anxiously waiting for the final car to move its way on down the line to allow crossing traffic to get on its way.  And at the end of the train, how often is there a cute red caboose bringing up the rear?  Never – that era of train travel no longer exists.  In fact, most trains seem to be a mismatched collection of graffiti-tainted box cars strung together like a seemingly endless hodge-podge of tractor trailers not worthy of eighteen wheels of their own.  With unknown contents and mysterious destinations, these hauling bins seem empty of cargo and character, lacking romance and ridership.

No Sleeper Car

We climb the narrow stairs onto the Amtrak in mid-afternoon with barely enough time to snap a photo while boarding to capture the memory.  Away the silver tubes pull from our simple station and we spend the first hour seeing our familiar city from vantage points we miss from our automobile’s limitations of the existing roads.  We peer into backyards, some dumping grounds and some miniature meadows, and we glimpse behind the scenes of our city as we stop periodically in the suburbs and depots near our hometown.  Just when we pick up steam and the train begins its rhythmic clatter, we slow down for another town, another passenger, and another stop on our travels north.  Walking loses any semblance of grace as if every passenger attempts their first steps out of infancy.

And through the night the pattern repeats: depart a station, leave another town behind, fall back asleep to the rocking of the passenger car, awake to the squeal as the train slows into another town, bounce awkwardly as the engine fumbles to a stop, and listen to passengers try to find their
seats as the train lurches again and the passengers attempt to doze until the next application of the brakes.  Somehow, this is not how the song sounded when Professor Harold Hill hopped across the Iowa state line, but at least I can say I’ve ridden the rails.