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.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Through the Ocala National Forest

The Pace Car

I am notorious for driving the speed limit.  Most days, I will drive a precarious three miles over the posted speed making me the exception to the rule.  In fact, I will always engage the cruise control through any posted zone over twenty miles-per-hour, even if it is just a neighborhood street.  Why risk losing track of the pace I am driving when my car can responsibly hover on its own?  As I motor along the interstate, I often discover I am alone in a “bubble” with no other cars around me.  The faster drivers travel in clumps trying to get around or ahead of one another and soon they have all pulled away leaving me isolated on the road, with another pack of hounds coming up behind me.  It’s an odd study in the sociology of American drivers.

In Germany, however, driving takes on an entirely different perspective, and despite the speeds of the Autobahn, the highway environment flows more safely.  Drivers politely pass to the left (and only the left) and return to the right line.  Granted they may be traveling well over one hundred miles-per-hour, but they are mindful that someone cruising along at two hundred kilometers-per-hour appears swiftly in the rear-view mirror.  I once coaxed my American-made mobile to get itself all the way to ninety MPH before it shimmied frightfully among its European compadres.

We Got A Fast Car

Before settling into a nine-to-five work life, mid-week breaks often replaced true weekends, and during one such stretch, I voyage on a weekend away to the excitement of Gainesville, Florida.  During the school year, this college town pulses around the activities of Gator Nation, and at times even manages to educate a few minds, but during a mid-week in the summer, a sleepier pale covers the streets.  At a mom-and-pop restaurant, homemade friend chicken pops and sizzles in a skillet as the most vibrancy apparent during my outing.

Away from the Turnpike, through the Ocala National Forest, empty straight-aways tempt drivers to experiment with their motor vehicles.  As navigator in a Ford Mustang I relinquish my conservative driving style to a young man easily succumbing to the uninterrupted route through the Florida woods.  Released just a few months earlier, Tracy Chapman’s slow ballad seems like an improper fit to the accelerating velocity at which I am traveling.  But in those moments traveling faster than I would ever drive myself, even on the German roadways in the years ahead, I have a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

You Go, Girl

Don’t Count Your Chickens

An evening flight into St. Louis – that’s all I want.  I have flown over the Gateway Arch at dusk several times, but I imagine the airline has changed its itineraries since my last evening arrival.  My final destination lies across the Mississippi River, so I opt for a flight to Chicago with an early morning train the next day.  Having experienced Amtrak (see “Overnight On The Amtrak” from April 2012), I am game for a three-hour ride on the Lincoln Service to the Illinois capital, and a good night’s sleep in the City of the Big Shoulders couldn’t hurt either.

But after three hours in the airport waiting for a possible departure time, I eagerly board the last flight of the night.  The pilot brags that the airplane has been loaded with just enough fuel for an expeditious flight after an evening of delays courtesy of summer storms in the Windy City.  She even counts the flight out to the exact number of minutes ensuring her signing our jinx warrant.  About two-thirds of the way towards our destination, the flight attendants serve a big slice of humble pie to the passengers on behalf of the captain announcing the flight needs to swing out west of Chicago to avoid the weather heading eastward, but the plane does not have enough fuel to make that happen.  Instead, we are going to fuel up in St. Louis.

Where I Want To Be 

To be frank, I have no business piloting any aircraft because wind speed, lift, yaw, and all those other aerospace terms do not sink into my head, and the advanced algebra needed to figure out those high-tech equations are too much for me.  But I do know it is advisable to have enough fuel to circle an airport just in case of situations like this.  I expect the eager flight crew, quite possibly based in Chicago, hoped to be home on a Friday night, too.  In fact, the flight would not make it to Chicago for another five hours after touching down in St. Louis.  My skills as a driver and the simple math required to operate an automobile tell me that the driving distance to
Chicago from St. Louis equals roughly five hours.  Irony makes me chuckle.

When we land at Lambert Field, I expect a fuel truck to meet us near the terminal, and then send us on our way, so when we taxi to a gate and the plane doors open, I see the writing on the fuselage that this would be a longer stop than originally communicated.  The flight attendants, most likely still embarrassed at having to cover for the pilot’s shortsightedness, hide around the bulkhead just peeking out when they absolutely must, like when I press my call button for example.  The look of irritation as the flight attendant approaches seems obvious.  When I explain that I really want to be in St. Louis, but the airline had no evening flights, she asks if I want to get off the plane.  I jump at the chance.  After confirming I have no checked luggage, she lets me exit the aircraft to the dismay of every other passenger.  I unbuckle my seat belt with a less-than-official, “You go, girl,” from the flight attendant.  And I do, since this is where I want to be anyway.