Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Field of Dreams

“Is This Heaven?”

As a baseball aficionado, films about America’s pastime rank among my favorites.  Even my baseball genre DVDs are separated from the rest of my films.  Along one wall of my living room is my meager baseball exhibit: my World Series ticket from 2008, an autographed ball from the Robinsons (Brooks and Frank), a miniature commemorative bat from the 1931 World Series Cardinals victory, and a photo of my boys running the bases at the Field of Dreams.  The corn may have only been just above knee high at the end of May, but the white farm house, the simple wooden bleachers, and the winding road through Iowa all held the same appearance as they did when Kevin Costner and Ray Liotta first put bat to ball and book to celluloid.

I have driven through Iowa more than once, and certainly never likened it much to heaven.  As we often joked, Iowa positioned itself as the land between Missouri and Minnesota with poor cellular service.  Often I think of Robert Preston stepping off the train and giving it a try, but for most of my childhood, I knew very little else about the Hawkeye State.  In fact, I always associated Hawkeye with Crabapple Cove, Maine.  So on a return trip through the heartland, we stopped outside the flat landscape of Dyersville to see the former cornfield turned movie set, turned roadside attraction that finds itself terribly far from the Hollywood Hills.  With no one else in sight, we certainly aren’t in Los Angeles anymore.

Reenactment

From the time they were young, I brought my sons to the ballpark.  The day I found out I was expecting Son #2, Son #1 and I watched the Marlins at Spring Training.  I recall a cold double-header that finished with more people on the field than in the stands.  Winning a contest off the radio, my son sat in the announcer’s box for an entire minor league game.  Spring Break at Wrigley, summer in Busch Stadium, and the fall classic all spread throughout various years, stadiums, and memories.  But the Field of Dreams evokes different recollections from having been played and replayed in our home.  And with just three of us and no one else for miles, we only recreate a handful of scenes on this unseasonably cool late May afternoon.

The boys walk into the corn fields, hoping to disappear into the stalks.  The boys reverse their course and walk out of the rows of ears, but with its height being a mere eighteen inches, they stand high above the budding tassels.  Lacking gloves or balls or Louisville sluggers, the boys run the bases, clutch the chain link back stop and perch on the sturdy, small stands as if watching the memories of ball players they had witnessed in the past games we enjoyed together, much like the movie’s characters marveled in the gamesmanship of the historic players mysteriously appearing on the field.  We stop here in Iowa for reasons we can't even fathom. We turn up the driveway not knowing for sure why we're doing it. We arrive at the field as innocent as children, longing for the past.  And in the most distant moments of everyday life I sometimes recall our brief time on the Field of Dreams and wish to myself, “I’d like to be there now.”

Sunday, February 24, 2013

I Owe Oregon

Just a Number

When I first conceived Project 50 (see “Forty-Nine,” August 2012), my zest to reach the finish line occasionally superseded my desire to see the beauty associated with each number.  So was the case with Oregon.  I knew I did not have enough time to explore thoroughly the middle state on the Pacific shore, so I planned instead for a short jaunt into the northeast corner, just a swift drive from Washington State to add to my final tally.  And according to my beloved atlas, Flora, Oregon lay just across the state line and it would give me a quick terminus at which I would turn around, retrace my tread, and continue on my way through the Bitterroot Mountains before sunset.

Pulling into Flora could be equated to pulling into a driveway.  Only a handful of structures, mostly agricultural, made up the tiny community.  Quite possibly, two families may have resided in the town, to use the term liberally, but such a guess would have been only a hypothesis.  Nothing outwardly confirmed any residents at all, nor did the rural village reflect any apparent dilapidation.  No postcards would be obtained, no credit card purchases, no validation that I had even visited the state besides the simple sign upon leaving Washington not as a welcome to but to distinguish where each state’s work crews ought to end their respective basic services.  So I pulled into a dirt path, put the rental car in reverse and looked in my rear view mirror before proceeding, and framed in the reflective glass I saw the first glimpse of snow-capped mountains on this voyage, beckoning me to keep moving southward.  And so I detoured from my planned course, just barely a dozen hours into my current expedition.  “The mountains are calling and I must go.”

Pulling Me Inward, Onward, Upward

A scenic landscape sucks me in like nature’s vacuum (see “From A Distance,” February 2013) and the peaks ahead of me set my spirit on autopilot and I irresistibly press onward.  At each new vista, around each new bend in the road, at the base of every meadow, the mountains frame themselves and I keep pressing onward.  I justify the delay without realizing that this additional mileage should be added on an equal par with the planned routes and destinations.  Adding a new location more than fills a box on a list, it ought to leave its mark on me.  Yet I thoughtlessly commit fully to the lofty vision that guides me deeper into the Beaver State.  I finally stop in Enterprise to pause and regroup.  This drive pays off in spades, all for the good fortune of looking in my rear-view mirror.

I regret neglecting Oregon.  I knew it would be beautiful.  Of course it would be beautiful.  A century and a half ago tens of thousands of people journeyed across the rugged mountain to its east for the sole purpose of reaching the coast.  A trail named for this end of a spectacular journey pulled these early settlers westward, and now it pulls me into the state’s beauty, even with just the smallest glimpse.  I owe Oregon another visit. I owe this scenery a moment all its own.  I should return and crisscross its width and breadth and value it for the spectacular morning it offers me.  And just two years later, I would return to see even more of the sights that blew me away the first time.  It’s just a shame that my second visit happened to be on a whim, a lark, and spontaneous impulse.  Really, Oregon, I will do it right.  I will.  I promise.  You are too damn tempting to resist.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Ocracoke Nachos

Close, But Not Close Enough

Driving southward through the Outer Banks of North Carolina inevitably leads to a ferry.  I knew this.  My beloved atlas (see “Traveling With Boys” from November 2011) told me so, and I was ready to set sail with Son #1 and my little car for the Tarheel mainland.  Imagine my surprise when I learned the island road leads to two ferries.  That put a kink in my travel plans.  I had hoped to drive from Virginia Beach to Wilmington, and I had called ahead to reserve my spot on the Ocracoke ferry back to the mainland.  I just hadn’t counted on this additional vessel at Hatteras.

In terms of a boat ride, the free ferry did not take long at all, but it did make me miss my reservation for the next floating leg of our voyage.  When I pulled into the loading area at Okracoke, I proudly parked in the first slot to drive across the gangplank, but my scheduled ship had already sailed past the horizon.  I sat patiently in my car for a spell, hoping to see a car-laden vessel pulling up to the dock, reassuring me that the ship had been tardy, not me, but the view across the inlet remained vacant.  Shame on me for not knowing there were two ferries I would need to board on this day.

Making the Best of It

At less than two years of age, passing time with a little boy requires a plan, and clearly from my error in Hatteras, my plan had set sail without me.  Once aboard the second leg of our watery route, my car parked front and center on the boat, and in front of my hood I spread out a blanket for my young passenger to stretch out for an afternoon nap in the sun.  A better planner would have brought a blanket large enough for both of us, but still being in my early days of mobile adventure, I felt relieved just to be setting sail.  I also neglected my sunscreen – an error I would regret for the next several days, too.

And although the first ferry lacked the lengthy duration of the second voyage, I still needed a way to entertain a little boy until we could get back in the car.  And then, a brilliant passenger had the most simple of solutions: feed the birds.  For nearly the entire voyage, with a full-size bag of tortilla chips in hand, one by one the man would reach into the bag, select a snack, and reach skyward, challenging the floating terns following our route to swoop closer and closer to snatch the complimentary snack gently from his hand.  For a small boy obsessed with chasing birds, the simple activity mesmerized him.  Note for future travelers: there are two ferries at the end of the North Carolina barrier islands; be sure to come prepared with a large blanket, sunscreen, and a bag of Tostitos.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Just Sitting

With Gratitude

Thank goodness for the Rockefellers.  Unless a student of philanthropy, the general connotation of the name may only imply oil-baron wealth or the occasional contribution to cultural antiquity.  Actually bathing in the gifts bestowed by the family of Standard Oil, may seem a distant relic of the monopolies and generosities of the early twentieth century.  Unless living near the world’s most famous Christmas tree, or working for the National Broadcasting Company in the Big Apple, perhaps those days of bygone gift-giving elude the general public.  Not true!
 
Thanks to John Junior, I enjoyed a spectacular afternoon among the most breathtaking thirty-five thousand acres ever bestowed to the United States.  As a gift to the
National Park Service, and indeed to the world, and on a late summer afternoon to me personally, John Rockefeller, youngest child of the original oil tycoon, turned over some of the most breathtaking, inspiring, and spectacular scenery just down the street from the world’s first national park.  With beer in hand, I toast this wondrous gift, and say, “Thank You, Mr. Rockefeller,” for giving it to me.
 
In Awe

Thousands of adventures await the visitors of the National Park Service.  Driving, diving, hiking, camping, canoeing, kayaking, exploring, spelunking, skiing, sailing, painting, picnicking and partaking in hundreds of unique settings besiege each visitor, fulfilling the interests of each unique observer.  My favorite, and most fulfilling activity: sitting.  Just sitting.  Yes, it is far from glamorous, or even adventurous, but it is worth every second.  Taking advantage of this school ending early for the year, we head to the Grand Canyon State for just that reason.  At the edge of the colorful abyss, on the benches of the Grand Canyon Lodge, I rest my feet on a low stone wall.  I want for nothing.

Sketching nearby, Son #2 recreates the passing clouds blowing eastward sprinkled with tiny figments of color barely noticeable against the blue sky.  In the distance on the jutting vista, Son #1 captures the moment on film, securing the passing image on a fading medium.  I still plan to raft down the canyon’s creating force in the future.  Hiking from peak to valley will someday be checked off my bucket list.  On the canyon floor I will pop a tent and gaze up the tall walls to the shimmering stars.  But for this day, this beautiful, fleeting day, I choose to sit and spend every breathing moment I am able to savor with a view I never want to forget.  Sometimes I like to spend my time just sitting in awe.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

In-Flight Homework

Variables

It’s a long flight to Germany from the U.S. and inevitably passengers travel on the red-eye to arrive in Europe at daybreak.  The vast majority of wise passengers settle in for a restful slumber to deplane as refreshed as possible.  Ideally, those sitting in first class are quite well rested, but when sitting in the center of the five seats across the middle of the plane, sleep is a relative term.  For the fortunate, there is Ambien; for the less fortunate, there is algebra.

I resumed my college studies after a far longer hiatus than anticipated.  Motivated by the desire to change my circumstances and escape the struggles of dying dysfunction, college math became the first step towards an alternate life path.  My first college held little appeal, although a degree required no courses in the mathematics department.  Now my life held many variables, including an unexpected trip stateside, and if I had to study a few of them in textbook form to get to a better life, I would suck up the long flight and the pages of Xs and Ys to land somewhere better, and definitely with a better seat assignment.

Bibliography

More than a decade later, I again find myself completing homework in flight.  Thankful for the aisle seat, I must remind myself to tolerate the noise as the adjacent, sideways galley challenges my concentration.  And the oblivious passenger ahead of me fully reclines the seat against my laptop as I busily try to finish my research paper.  Another unexpected business trip lands during the last week of the semester, and the final term paper, scribed in between west-coast appointments, needs only complete, specifically formatted reference pages to meet the submission deadline when I return to the east coast.

As I struggle to type in the most awkwardly repetitive-stress-injury posture, I keep my focus on my deadline, not just for the paper, but for my degree.  It has taken, almost to the day, fifteen years of sporadic study, mixed with child-rearing, single-parenting, bi-coastal juggling, and career-hopping to reach the end of the academic road.  But with the bibliography complete, wheels touch down on the aspiration to raise my boys, complete my degree, and step into a better life.  Only now do I realize that the road I have been following for all these semesters didn’t lead me to the escape I needed, it became the change of scenario I had been pursuing.  And all without the benefit of a window seat.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

What Would You Do For The Klondike?

The Gateway

Many cities may consider themselves the gateway to something even bigger.  Ellis Island served as the front door to millions of immigrants.  Clusters of “gateway cities” hover near the metropolises of Boston and Los Angeles.  St. Louis’ skyline screams “Gateway to the West.”  And just a few underground bus stops away from the Pike Street Market, teeming with purple jerseys headed towards CenturyLink Field, on an autumn afternoon I meander my way to a small, square, two-story display inside the converted old Cadillac Hotel that serves as the historic gateway to the Great White North: The Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park.  This ├╝ber-progressive, sleek city on Puget Sound became the jumping-off point for the gold seekers of the late 19th century.

At this Seattle unit, the importance of the city’s role in the expansion of the forty-ninth state shines like the bullion bars stacked in the front window.  Seattle can rightly take credit for being the best place to gather and prepare for the journey northward, but just as rewarding, the boom in Seward’s Folly and the Yukon fields beyond it, brought growth, energy, and excitement to the Emerald City.  Nordstrom, the man, not the store, set off for the frozen ice fields and the fortune and glory they promised, and then he brought his fortune and glory back to Seattle.  As Erastus Brainerd of the Seattle of Chamber of Commerce professed, Seattle was the point of departure.

All That Glitters

The path to riches in the Klondike gold fields required more manpower than most men possessed.  Dozens of hikes up and down the Golden Stairs of the Chilkoot Trail broke the backs of men trying to enter Canada with a thousand pounds of goods strapped to their spines.  Likewise, the horse power of three thousand horses failed as these beasts of burden fell to their deaths along the lower, but narrow and harrowing hike over the White Pass summit.  Seeking gold in the Klondike truly fit the adage of the desire to succeed, “…or die trying.”

Unfathomable to me, as I stand in the cozy shelter of this most southern piece of the Klondike historic tour, may be among the scores and scores and bustling bodies that crowded into Seattle, then Skagway, then the Yukon just before the turn of the century.  Battling the stinging, wretched, blistering cold, only a small percentage of these prospectors actually found their richest dreams realized when they finished sailing downstream on the Yukon River.  An epic journey’s inspiration and steely-cold ambition must have driven these hearty souls to pursue an adventure full of peril and only minimal possibility.  I adore a great adventure, but witnessing the passion and endurance they mustered to reach the western edge of the Canadian territory, I flatly admit I would have not braved what they braved, embraced the struggles they embraced, or pushed myself as they pushed themselves for a Klondike bar – no matter how it glimmered and glistened and glittered.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

From A Distance

The Matterhorn

As a child, I recall driving across the Sonoran desert through the booming town of Blythe, California, for what seemed to be an eternity to arrive at the Happiest Place on Earth.  And the best indicator of when our drive neared its completion appeared in the shape of a fake snow-covered mountain on the edge of Fantasyland.  To this day, I adore the site of a tall structure off in the distance looming ahead for who knows how many miles, whether a bridge, or a monument, a geological formation, or a recreation of the Matterhorn.  It’s the excitement of what’s coming that always tantalizes me.

Arched over the St. Louis skyline, the Jefferson Expansion Memorial served in this harkening capacity.  Descending towards the Straits of Mackinac, Bic Mac straddles the Upper Peninsula and the bottom oven mitt of the Wolverine State, encouraging me to leave the frozen tundra behind me (see “The UP” from July 2012).  Perhaps it’s the excitement of anticipation, but seeing a goal in the distance inspires me to drive onward towards my destination.  And with each passing minute, the towering object grows taller and more defined along the path I am headed.

Spires and Prairies

I recall our drive through the south German state of Baden-W├╝rttemberg towards the majestic, misnamed Ulm cathedral with its massive spire. Pausing for lunch seemed almost insulting to the gothic points reaching skyward, beckoning me to climb upward, to glance down over the Danube River.  When we finally began our ascent up the seven hundred sixty-eight steps to the peak, rather than railings we steady ourselves against the stone walls that took over five hundred years from foundation to finish.  And in comparison, the two hundred and twenty stairs to the top of the New Jersey Veteran’s Memorial may have paled in age and height, but yet, as I drove through the New Jersey hills, I found it difficult to take my eyes off the obelisk I approached.

Across a flowing road of the eastern Wyoming prairie, Devil’s Tower looms ominously over the myriad of green rolling hills.  From more than a dozen miles away, it catches my eye.  From a half dozen miles away, it appears to dwarf its surroundings.  From its foothills and border of fallen boulders, only the prairie dogs seem impervious to its might.  Nearly circumnavigating the structure, the road creates a near circle of distance to peer out the moon roof and be blown away by its stature.  For as massive as these structures appear from a distance, beckoning me forward, their height reminds me of my smallness in all the most humble ways.