Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Subway

Florida’s Water Table

Florida has no basements, no tunnels, and no subways.  The water table, the level at which water is present underground, makes these subterranean constructs impossible.  Most office complexes and housing developments include retaining ponds to collect the water that otherwise sits on the property.  The first time Son #1 rode the subway in Washington, DC, he found the process of moving below ground unnerving and unlike any he had experienced.  Eventually, the “bing bing” chiming of the signals as the doors opened and closed brought enough amusement to distract him.

My first solo experience without a rental car, also courtesy of the DC public transportation system, included a bus from Baltimore-Washington Airport, the Green Line into the center of the nation’s capital and then a swap onto the Blue Line under the Potomac into Arlington.  It’s not that I never used public transportation (I used to ride the city bus to and from high school), but combining air travel, shuttle buses, and multi-colored subways without any previous frame of reference seemed gutsy for a suburbanite like me.  In hindsight, the rest of the world calls my adventure “commuting.”  Florida’s water table does not garner any points with the rest of the country’s metropolis populations.

Uniforms and Anthems

So now I feel confident to bust a move in other major cities.  In Chicago Son #2 and I also use the EL to get from Midway to the Loop.  Other than the stairs being a bit of a huff and puff for us with our luggage in tow, we manage to switch through the rainbow of stations that get us across the street from our hotel.  But on each train, we notice a theme: peacoats.  As if the entire city of Chicago has a uniform; everyone wears them, with relatively few trench coats interspersed and virtually no color to be seen.  Clearly my magenta double-breasted ensemble identified me as a tourist even more than my suitcase.  And just to show my comfort level with my public transportation skills, I am less concerned with the stops and more concerned with the attire.  I am easing into this subway flow.

By the time I traverse Boston’s subway system, I ride like a pro.  Before I even get to the subway station at Logan, my fellow shuttle passenger asks for route assistance.  Of course, I don’t find it too difficult to discern that the bus to the subway is not the Blue Line, so consider the source.  Nevertheless, I find myself already on the train while he still navigates the purchase of his fare.  But the final proof of my mastery of the big-city travel comes after the Red Sox loss when thousands of loyal fans cheerfully wait for the three single-lane stalls through which each person must pass.  Singing “Sweet Caroline” in chorus and enjoying their commute as if they were still downing a brew in Fenway, I sing along because DC, Chicago, and Boston help me earn my cross-town commuter stripes.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Just Passing Through

Not a Destination

I own a refrigerator magnet with the simple expression that reads, “Life is a journey, not a destination,” but that is not the only place I have seen this cliché.  Not that I would have any first-hand experience (wink, wink), but it often appears on online dating sites as a mantra for the “Live, Love, Laugh” singles.  It accompanies a lone hiker on the peak of a breath-taking mountain view on a t-shirt in a gift shop.  Sometimes, it is just mass-marketed on refrigerator magnets.  Nonetheless, for as overused as the thought is, it is also entirely accurate, and a truth I believe.

As children, or for some of us as late-in-life college students, we spend time contemplating what we want to be when we grow us as if once we actually perform that task or occupy that profession, we can put a check in a box that we have achieved what we set out to do.  I like to think that the end goal is always in flux and it morphs based on our changing perspective of our life story.  The more we write into our narrative, the longer and more exciting our journey, and our story, becomes.

More Clichés

Despite what another tired expression tells us, “You can never go back,” I want my journey to include encore performances of several states.  Often as part of a longer road trip, places like South Carolina and New Hampshire were part of the journey, but never the destination.  I would like to return to Oklahoma and have the experience be more than highway along my relocation from Arizona to the Midwest.  I would like to visit Chattanooga or Nashville or Memphis and see the details and learn the history of the Volunteer State.  I’d like Kentucky to mean more to me than the airport gateway to Cincinnati.

When I neared my goal of seeing all fifty states (see “Forty-Nine” from August 2012), I may have been just passing through Connecticut, but places along the road stuck with me, despite it being just a spot between New York and Rhode Island.  I recall the myriad of pumpkin patches and the autumn leaves dancing in the road (see “Ad Placement” from November 2011).  I noted the yard signs of importance to the residents of this in-between point in my travels (see “Breathing Windmills” from December 2011) and remembered more than my itinerary referenced.  I believe I owe the same consideration and insight to the five other states that were less of a destination and more of a blur in my journeys.  I’ll be back.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

In The Shadow Of A Tower

Bragging Rights

As mentioned, traveling with boys becomes a unique adventure of its own (see “Traveling with
Boys” from November 2011) and excursions with little people, especially boys, require an extra level of preparation.  Inevitably, the left hook parents never see coming can waylay a family vacation, an entire tour group, or the memories of springtime in Paris.  In my case, Son #1 rocks as a travel companion, and even at the age of four, he appreciated the loveliness of each new place or activity.  So when he came at me with his right hook, it did not pack too much of a punch since four-year-olds don’t qualify as heavy hitters.  Nonetheless, I didn’t see this coming.

I deem certain structures and sites in the world as iconic: the Grand Canyon, the Great Sphinx, the Great Wall of China, and Big Ben – even their names identify them as being extraordinary.  Amazing sites worthy of travel across an ocean include the Coliseum, Mount Kilimanjaro, the Acropolis, the Sydney Opera House, Machu Pichu, and the Statue of Liberty.  Son #1 has tagged along through a half dozen countries, passed through nearly thirty states, swam in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, posed in front of all five Great Lakes (see “The 5th Lake” from March 2012) and the Gulf of Mexico.  He only made it to Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore, and Niagara Falls once, but he has gazed upon the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and posed in front of the Washington Monument twice.

In The Eyes Of A Child

The one-day bus tour of the City of Light begins at the Arc de Triomphe followed by a drop-off at Notre Dame with, “Sanctuary!”screaming through my head, since it probably would not be Americanly appropriate to yell it out loud. The gargoyles, the flying buttresses, and the magnificence of the building inspire a circumnavigation of the structure, and the Rose stained-glass windows illuminate any art aficionado’s heart simply because the interior is too dark to truly appreciate anything else.  What better way to soak in the southern end of the Parisian island than a boat ride along the Seine.
Disembarking near the foot of the world’s most noteworthy structure, the sun peeks out from the clouds behind which it has been hiding.  On the nearby hilltop Sacre Coure gleams in the sunlight.  Just a few minutes’ walk and we will ride to the lower risers and see the city from the finest vantage point on the most famous tower on the planet.  But then a right hook swings at us and delays our plans because, with just four years of experience, Son #1 does not realize the magnitude of the place where we land.  No, through the eyes of a child he sees the most perfectly wonderful site ever: a merry-go-round.  Sorry, Mr. Eiffel, your structure just doesn’t hold a candle to a couple dozen painted horses and the melody of a calliope in the eyes of a child.

Friday, January 18, 2013

El Paso, El Paso

Bee Sting

Travelling on business implies frequent-flyer miles and expense reports, but my father’s regional accounts just as often meant driving from one college campus to another persuading academic scholars and research fellows that the scientific equipment his company offered superseded any other current technology.  In the twentieth century, top-of-the-line technology changes daily, but in the mid-seventies, when criminology could be branded closer to “Quincy” than to “CSI,” my Dad knew his stuff and his Southwestern road trips sustained our family and occasionally served as the back drop to our summer vacations.

When his traveling road show took our family to the western tip of the Lone Star State, we visited Carlsbad Caverns National Park (see “Hidden Beauty” from March 2012), and several other places that I recall savored of beauty and adventure, places where the sites provided more than ample reward for the time in the car, and places that I would visit again with my own children.  And then there was El Paso, Texas.  I have one vivid memory of the town across the Rio Grande from Juarez: my first bee sting.  Let’s just say the sting of El Paso stayed in my memory for quite a while.

Smoke Across the Border
I admit there are cities I plan to see, but flight schedules and itineraries often negate the opportunities, like Oakland and Spokane, Pittsburgh and San Antonio.  And to get to Carlsbad Caverns, El Paso or Midland would have to serve as the rental car pick-up and drop-off point and little else.  Recalling my first experience in El Paso, I site, just  seriously contemplated Midland, but price trumped memory and so my flight touched down hours from my final destination. Once I exited the plane in this 600K+ city, I was refreshingly surprised to find rental cars on out the doorway of a delightfully small, yet fully-functional, well-themed terminal, and a charming place from which to depart on my three-day adventure.
Across the river into Ciudad Juarez, smoke from a distant fire rose into the smoggy horizon, yet to the east, I drove past a dozen landmarks I had eyed from my airplane window: wind turbines, and mountain peaks, green pastures and sharp bends in the road. As I approached El Capitan of Texas and the highest points deep in the heart of
Guadalupe Mountains National Park, I witnessed and recorded an entirely unique view of this corner of the oversized state, and carried away a distinctly altered view of the city with which I often associated unhappiness as a child.  And when I returned to the border city forty-eight hours later, the smoke still rose on the horizon beyond the Big River.  Perhaps some things linger longer than they ought.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Crossing The Rivers

The Kootenai River – Idaho

The Tuolumne River – California

The Snake River – Washington

The Clearwater River – Idaho

The Lewis River – Wyoming

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Crossing the Mississippi

End of the Semester

For sixteen weeks, I focused on my academics, and by “focused,” I mean mostly focused on my academics.  The second half of freshmen year, quite possibly the most worthless of my college studies, became an exercise in minimalism: what was the absolute least I could possibly do to get fifteen more credits under my belt?  Of course, I sometimes missed class for unusual circumstances, like it was snowing, or it was Tuesday.  Three of my classes met just once a week.  My strongest effort for the duration, an entire term paper in one week, happened to be completed during spring break, and then I just hung on to it until the semester ended.  And on top of everything else, I saved money by not buying any text books.  The semester ended when my father drove the three hours to the campus to pick me up.  I had a mega-fun summer job lined up in a sunny, warm climate, and I was delighted to put the monotonous semester behind me.

Parents can be tedious (I know, I am one) so taking the time to stop at the Decatur Public Library on the way home from college to do research sounds like the continuation of my academic nightmare that I thought had passed.  Yes, after sixteen repetitively dull weeks, I had the privilege of beginning my summer in a library in Central Illinois with my father researching a distant grandfather in the Army of the Republic and his regional regiments.  And as an added bonus, we routed through a small town near the heart of the Land of Lincoln – a town with a coincidentally identical last name to ours – to check on any connection to that same relative who may have marched through Atlanta with Sherman.  Welcome to summer break.

When History Wakes Up

As we decelerate to the posted, ridiculously low speed limit, we pass the miniature community church bearing the town’s name.  (For months thereafter, my father jokes that he started his own religion.)  But the dearth of residents slows our progress in learning more about the history of the town, so when we spy an elderly gentleman tending to his garden, we pull into his dirt driveway.  And like most small towns, the man warmly welcomes us to his little hamlet.  Within moments, he erases any possible notion that the town’s founders have a connection to our ancestors.

But then he shares a story about his family’s history in the region.  As a small boy he recalls his grandparents describing their journey crossing the nearby Mississippi River with their wagons, horses and livestock.  As he describes their passage through waist-high water, I think of the current breadth of the dammed Mighty Mississip, making a comparable modern-day voyage completely impossible.  Considering this storyteller dates back two generations, and his river-crossing family members two more generations beyond that, his story nears the middle of the 1800s, the Civil War, and the very timeframe of my ancestors, which my father and I searched for in the library.  And in this simple recollection of an old man, for the first time, history wakes up, leaps to life, and sparks an entirely new academic interest for me.  If only college proved as interesting as this senior citizen in dirty overalls.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Learning To Drive

On The Open Road

I think my passion for driving stems from my pent up years when driving was just out of my reach.  When I turned sixteen, my parents owned a standard transmission automobile, and despite my father’s occasional weekend efforts in the Intel parking lot, the car knew I had no business driving with two feet.  After I turned eighteen they finally purchased an automatic, and then proceeded to drive our entire family to the Midwest for our exile in the snow.  Using one foot made the process easier; the snow, however, took me out.  This happened just after they purchased a brand new car for my older sibling; my regards to any fellow second-born siblings.

On the drive from southern California to Illinois, I had my first chance behind the wheel on the open highway from Tucumcari, New Mexico.  For the first time in family history, neither of my parental units sat behind the wheel.  Dad took the navigator’s bucket seat, and for the benefits of legroom, Mom took the center position in the back seat.  From her perch in what I more commonly refer to as the, “Oh Shit Seat,” she gaped straight out the window at the semi-trailers and experienced drivers with whom I shared the two east-bound lanes of Interstate 40.  And as one of my favorite movie lines quotes, “I do not believe she drew breath,” from the time she climbed in the back seat until I brought the vehicle to a stop in Amarillo, Texas.

Self Teaching

I do believe every driver should be able to drive a stick shift, myself included.  Once I mastered the
automatic (“mastered” being a relative term), I decide the best way to learn to drive a standard transmission involves a simple two-step process: buy a standard transmission car and sell my automatic.  I call this approach, “Forced Stick-Shift Driving 101.”  I do not recommend it.  I make the smart choice and purchase my brand new car in the middle of the Michigan summer so that I do not have to learn to drive with two feet and navigate that evil, white substance that Mother Nature throws down upon me.

Much like my experience across the Texas Panhandle, I climb behind the wheel and hit the road to teach myself my latest skill.  I begin with a short excursion to Lake Superior (see “The 5th Lake” from March 2012) and continue adding on the miles until I see all five.  Just to be absolutely certain of my ability with the stick shift, I drive a little farther past Niagara Falls.  And on to Gettysburg.  Then I swing through the District of Columbia, and on to Norfolk Naval Station.  I opt for the Outer Banks and use my new skill to drive onto the Okracoke Ferry.  By the time I reach the Florida shoreline I think I may have the two-foot maneuver under control.  Just to be sure, I drive back to Michigan by way of Springfield, Illinois.  Maybe my passion for driving is less about driving, and more about learning.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Changes In Rank

My Favorite National Park

Knowing that I am a national parks junkie, from time to time friends inquire what national park tops
my “most favorite” list.  Of course, since I recently gave up making lists (see “Forgotten,” August 2012), I rarely have a ready answer.  Sometimes the most recent park I have visited gets special billing, other times I consider which has been the most impactful to me, or to the country, or to history, or is most photogenic, or I have spent the most time, or with whom I experienced the site, or, or, or.  Then, also, the nomenclature of ‘parks’ may not be entirely accurate for the purposes of my sharing my favorites because I have equal affinity for national monuments, battlefields, historic sites, preserves, and memorials.

Truthfully, I never bothered to rank the various entities of the National Parks Service as favorites because each provides such unique experiences, offers spectacular and varied vistas, and holds special places in my mind and my heart.  Some I have seen only once, but I desperately want to return.  Others I have visited more than once, and the second time I have felt unbelievably fortunate to experience the places twice.  Still others I know I will adore, but I have yet to see them for myself.  Asking me for a favorite national park may be like asking parents who is their favorite child – I love them all for different reasons.

If Such A List Existed

I begin to rethink the question now that I am visiting Dry Tortugas National Park.  Such history, such remoteness, such tranquility – it all reminds me of what I love most about the national park system.  “Maybe,” I think, “maybe this is my new favorite site.”  And no sooner do the words cross my mind than I realize I have never really declared my favorite, so how could this amazing location unseat that which has not yet been established?  The time has come to select a favorite.  And within moments, some of my most beloved sites in America scroll through my mind: Grand Canyon, Glacier, Glacier Bay, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Carlsbad Caverns, Golden Spike, Gettysburg, Everglades, Channel Islands, the National Mall, North Cascades, Lewis and Clark Trail – oh, I cannot even think of them all as I stand in this idyllic setting.

So rather than think about one, I think about two and decide which one ranks higher; for example, Glacier Bay versus Channel Islands.  I have visited Glacier Bay twice and Channel Islands once, so Glacier Bay earns a theoretical hash mark.  Both involve riding a boat, so each gets a nod.  Glacier Bay takes more effort to reach, but I enjoyed the Channel Islands with Son #2, and I observed far more wildlife at the Channel Islands, so they are still pretty close.  On and on I go until my rankings take shape: 1) Carlsbad Caverns (see “Hidden Beauty” from March 2012), and then 2) Glacier National Park (see “Went-To-The-Sun Road” from February 2012), followed by my new favorite, Dry Tortugas National Park, although it nearly ties with 4) Grand Canyon National Park.  Next is Yellowstone National Park followed by Yosemite National Park – oh, wait, no, switch those – Yosemite and then Yellowstone.  And here I pause and remind myself this is why I gave up making lists: I cannot even count higher than four without being utterly confused.