Monday, November 25, 2013


The Red Earth of Tara
Atlanta sidewalks elude the average pedestrian, and those in existence could be considered an adventure in putting one foot in front of the other.  Along the few streets I have strolled on the outskirts of the southern city, wide swaths of uneven terrain serve as the only pedestrian thoroughfare.  One concrete walkway that I attempted to navigate banked at nearly thirty degrees and my ability to stay on the path took on more challenges that the alternative rugged version.  Stairs would serve as an easier ascension than the options provided by the Georgian capital.
At one intersection, where the sidewalks extend no more than twenty feet from the crosswalks and then transition to grass, the dirt beneath the dying winter brush had washed out from under the minimal growth and clumps clinging to the edge of the curbs leaving a low pile of reddish sludge along the edge of the crossings.  As I watched my step to avoid the muddy pile, I considered Scarlett O’Hara’s testament and loyalty to the plantation that may have stood on similar soil.  The familiar color of the southern soil streaked its way into the busy street and if it were not for the occasional pedestrian like me willing to dodge the bustling cars and trucks, no one might notice or ever give credit to the former red earth of Tara draining away into the city sewers.
Melting Away
Clearly I am not afraid to tackle a metropolis by foot, and as I pull up to the city center in a suburb west of St. Louis, I discover a noticeably large quantity of available parking that might not be available on a weekday.  One of the restaurants in the vicinity displays an a-frame sign to notify the minimal number of passers by that a private event eliminates the opportunity for any random tourists such as myself to enjoy its offerings.  I determine by my brilliant powers of observation that the event has already concluded as the centerpiece of its decor lay melting near the storm drain below the sidewalk.
When zipping past in a motor vehicle, such sculptures easily avoid attention, but as I wait for my lunch companion, I realize that somewhere the artwork of a craftsman has been kicked to the curb by those who briefly have enjoyed its presence.  In defense of the revelers, where would an ice sculpture meet its demise and return to its liquid state?  Where else would the remnants of an agrarian society drain away when its usefulness has gone with the wind?  The streets of busy cities carry traffic - vehicles rushing to their destinations - and occasionally a wayward pedestrian exploring on foot, but also the earth and water of the planet flowing towards a forgotten end.  Often a collection of footsteps captures a moment lost to history.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Dodging A Bullet

Counting History
I love celebrating a landmark date in time, but I prefer to dodge the crowds that follow the course of history.  It’s the sesquicentennial of the Civil War’s greatest battles, not just this year, but last year and next year and all of the early teens of this century.  As a nation, we celebrate each of the two hundred seventy-two words that President Abraham Lincoln spoke in remembrance of the more than fifty thousand people who fell victim to the shelling and shooting across the Pennsylvania acreage.  On average, each word represents one hundred eighty-eight soldiers who fell upon the hallowed ground of Gettysburg.  In fact, even the current population of the Adams county seat could multiply by six times and still not equal that number of soldiers who fell on the battlefield between July 1 through 3, 1863.  The small town grew twenty times its size during the conflict and forty times its size during the 150th commemoration of the event.
For me, I do not do well with crowds of that size.  Not that I mind Generals McClellan and Lee showing up with the number of troops they did, but to soak in the solemnity of the massive tragedy and the scale of despair during this year’s memorial of the circumstances of the bloodiest battle on American soil, I wanted solitude, tranquility, and silence.  No doubt, so do many others, but thousands of Civil War reenactors stomp across the Peach Orchard, across the Emmitsburg Road, and across the High Water Mark with cannon fire recreating the smoky haze of the original fog of war.  Plus the throngs of historical tourists raise the amount of congestion, the price of hotel rooms, and the wait times at every viewpoint, vista, and vantage point around the battlefield.  I just see the experience (and want to see the experience) differently.
Perfect Planning
When I plan to visit Gettysburg National Battlefield, I keep in mind my financial parameters and patience for mobs, both of which are low.  My first decision, besides the desire to just be there in person, keeps me away from the key reenactment weekends on either side of the sesquicentennial.  In so doing, I meet the expectation of obtaining a reasonable rate at nearby lodging.  I arrive on Monday and depart on Wednesday and spend from just after sunrise to just after sunset exploring nearly every crevice of the terrain.  Mother Nature understands my expectations for an ideal experience and keeps enough clouds in the sky to keep me cool, yet holds off on the afternoon rain shower until I am tucked inside the Visitor’s Center for a late lunch.  I subsequently miss the packs of bikers who will arrive on Thursday, and the sequester that impacts the National Park System allows a reprieve at the numerically date-significant site.  I did it, though, I dodged them all.

With all of the stressful factors out of my scope, I absorb every moment on the battlefield.  I feel the wind dabbing at my face as I survey the opposing battle lines across the grassy horizon.  I envision thousands of men shoulder to shoulder approaching, sweating, in the sweltering summer sun, and how blessed I am to be standing in the shade of passing clouds.  As I climb the paved hill towards Little Round Top, I imagine how the nearly exhausted soldiers from Alabama climbed and clamored over boulders as gunfire rained down upon them after marching through the night and into the morning to meet their deaths on the Union left flank.  As the glow of sunset streams through the broken clouds, I wonder how the cannon fire illuminated ahead of the infantry fighting for each step forward, forcing them backwards, or worse, into broken, shredded casualties.  And in the quiet of the crowds I successfully dodge, I imagine the crying, screaming, and moaning of the dying men strewn in all directions, because I don’t want to remember how hard it was for me to navigate these fields, but how hard it was for them to survive them.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Bus To Wal-Mart

What Constitutes A Tourist Attraction
Driving through the streets of downtown Juneau, the driver of the multi-passenger van that carried me to my excursion pointed out the highlights of third largest city in the forty-ninth state.  One might think expected sightings would include whales in Fritz Cove, or bald eagles perched in the treetops along the North Douglas Highway, or the creeks and rivers draining from Mendenhall Glacier.  When travelling to Alaska from the continental United States, the goal to see the breadth and depth of the state during the short time ashore should include these elements of nature, framed by the jagged mountains that surround the state’s capital.
At the helm of a van full of tourist freshly disembarked from their cruise ship, this driver skirting along Egan Drive enlightened his southern guests on what daily life along the northern Pacific coast is really like.  Juneau’s citizens were the first Alaskans to shop in a Wal-Mart Super Center, which they have only been doing for a handful of years.  On another corner, the driver drew our attention to the McDonald’s – one of only five in the over half million square miles of Seward’s Folly.  Surprisingly, the state capitol building didn’t even make the cut of notable structures worth highlighting.
What Constitutes Gorgeous 
When I step off the Norwegian Pearl in Ketchikan, I bypass the shops and sights of Creek Street, I veto the option of seeing Totem Bight Park and I head north of town to paddle around the edges of the Pacific Ocean and see the starfish clinging to the rocks and glistening in the early autumn sun.  I dodge the typical tourist sites to bask in the near silence of the kayak paddle dipping into the water and the seals sniffing their nostrils above the water’s surface.  Were it not for the chill of the walls of ice, the fjords of Glacier Bay would have been the most gorgeous views of all the scenes I enjoy in Alaska, but the perfect temperature and the tranquil scenery around me as I float on the water fill my mind with a myriad of memories in which to relish.
On the drive back to the cruise ship, I listen to the music of my iPod shuffle clipped to my jacket and gaze out the window as we travel down the narrow, pine-lined streets.  Not to brag when I say I have driven through all but one of the fifty states, and for all I have seen and enjoyed, nothing compares to the grandeur and beauty of Alaska.  Truly, nothing compares to the vast, beautiful scenery of the most northern state, and due to its immense size, from the Pacific to the Arctic, from the Bering Sea to the Yukon River, the entire United States is better for having Alaska as one of its fifty.  And in case you did not know how the spectacularly gorgeous the images of Alaska sparkle from nearly every vantage point, the driver of the van brings me back to this ship pointing out one of Ketchikan’s most important landmarks: the corner stop where the cruise ship employees catch the bus to Wal-Mart.  Don’t miss it!