SPRING TRIP, PART 1: The Agony and the Excedrin

by Pat Branyan

Today is the last day of our first stop on the six week western half of a two part RV journey spanning three time zones, two countries, eleven states, seven famous national parks, and 6,000 miles. I’m tired just thinking about it and re-reading that first sentence didn’t help any. Unlike the last 6,000 miler to Nova Scotia, we’re trying something new, in our feeble way, to make long distance trailer travel easier and better and less taxing on Patty, our steadfast house sitter.

This new notion consists of two main parts. First, drive a good way farther on travel day in order to be able to spend more time in fewer sites along the way. You get to know each place better, and you significantly reduce the set up and break down hassles which can be pretty frustrating. No matter how tiring travel day is, you’ll still have plenty of time to recover and see the sights before you hit it again.

Secondly, instead of spending three months on the road, break the odyssey up into two, six-week segments. Store the camper for several months where you end Segment 1 and quickly drive home sans camper, staying in motels. Get some rest, catch up around the house, relieve Patty and go back when you’re ready. You pick up the camper where you left it and begin Segment 2. This saves Patty the expense of three weeks in therapy from going stir crazy in Comanche, Texas after too many months of outpost duty. It puts more miles on the truck but less on us, at least that’s the theory.

I call the first segment Spring Trip and the second segment Fall Trip. Dahna likes to squeeze my hand and tell me how creative I am.

Davis Mountains State Park (Taken by Travis K. Witt – Wikimedia Commons) The white building in the distance is the Indian Lodge built by the CCC in the 1930’s.
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We began the new experiment on April 1st, about the time,”…showers pierce to the root,” as Geoffrey C. said to me from the 14th Century in Ms. Rummel’s senior English Class. We did a good job preparing, having gotten better and better, but there’s always a rub. This time it was bad back spasms for us both at the outset and they dogged us like nasty little stilettos each time we moved a certain way. We did make the 375 miles to our first campsite in Texas’ incredible Davis Mountains, but the first two days were spent on the tenderest of light duty.

Say’s Phoebe – These little flycatchers can be seen all over the park. They tend to perch low, jump on a bug and return to the same perch.
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Our little town Comanche is pretty much in the middle of nowhere, as Patty knows too well, and to get to the Davis Mountains, also in the middle of nowhere, you have to go through Bum @#$%, Egypt. Out past San Angelo on the Concho River going southwest, the Chihuahuan  desert starts to announce itself as the mesquites get shorter and thinner. The grass hangs around for awhile to keep the dust down, but we know we have sand storms in our future further west. I love the way it happens. It makes me relax, and I always get a kick out of Conductor Dahna when she happily cribs a line from the Firesign Theater, “All out for Fort Stinking Desert!”

Davis Mountains – Formed 35 million years ago from volcanic activity in the region, they form a sky island in the Chihuahuan Desert. Sky islands are isolated  mountains surrounded by lowlands with a vastly different environment. Renamed for Jefferson Davis, we prefer to think of them by their previous name the Limpia Mountains, so named for the creek than runs through them as a place of spiritual cleansing.
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This was our second visit to the Davis Mountains, a favorite place for us and anybody who’s ever been there. It pairs nicely with Big Bend National Park to its south which I think is Texas’ only park owned by Uncle Sam. Almost all Texas land is private, enforced in the Lone Star imagination with barbed wire, big-wheeled pickups, and Model 94 30-30s.” Our friend Ron gets animated just thinking about these desert parks and says there’s no place like them. Of course, no place in Texas is like any other place because Texas long ago slipped the surly bonds of “place.”

Go to Outer Mongolia and tell the guy you’re from any other state or country, and he’ll probably scowl and take a little step toward you. Tell him you’re a Texan, and he’s liable to offer you his daughter. I like the way all other Americans, possibly excepting Alaskans, hate us with a passion. I’m pretty sure it runs the way they hate the NY Yankees—so it’s good. You can’t see Russia from Texas because all you can see from Texas is more Texas and that’s good too. Especially the Davis Mountains and Big Bend. Ron and Lorey are mulling over another trip out there in their little pop up camper. I can just see Ron straining to keep Lorey’s blonde head in sight as she charges over hill and dale on Mission: See Everything.

Black-headed Grosbeak – Stopping Over In the Davis Mountains to Refuel Before Heading Home to mate (to the west and northwest) This handsome feminist shares egg sitting and feeding with his mate.
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Months before our visit, we made reservations to go to the Star Party at McDonalds Observatory. The cosmologists there set up several outdoor telescopes and give a presentation to orient us rubes to our stellar position, thus our insignificance as if we needed any more evidence. Unfortunately, it happened the first night of our arrival and our aching backs forced our genteel southern upbringing to cancel on our behalf. It didn’t want us yelping through the talk much less screaming as we bent down to look through the scopes, probably knocking them over. Dahna smiled bravely through the disappointment and said, “I guess we’ll have to come back,” “Yeah,” I said, “The horror,” and we had a little laugh.  

I don’t remember much of the second day since I slept through most of it. I was vaguely aware of Dahna “woofing” as the spasms knocked the breath out of her while she got ready for a bit of light birding. The third day I remained motionless and finished off the fourth of Raymond Chandler’s most famous noir novels and typed the first draft of the title of this piece. Dahna meanwhile ranged out further and longer on her birding trips and got some great shots including a Scott’s Oriole, a Townsend Solitaire, and a Black Headed Grosbeak, all new to her. The spasms were losing their grip.

Townsend Solitaire – Although he’s a thrush, who normally spend their time close to the ground, these birds sing prettily and defend their territory from the treetops.
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The fourth day was my second favorite. It was Thursday, the best time to go to Cueva de Leon Mexican Restaurant in Ft, Davis. On that day, each week, five old codgers like me, except with talent, come out to play nifty sets of old, well-written country rock songs on the big covered dog- friendly patio. We caught them on our last visit with Sacha tied to our table next to a big and sweet old German Shepherd female tied to hers. For once our also sweet, but alpha, Siberian Husky/Akita mix rescue didn’t attack, so we ate our fine enchiladas in peace to the songs of John Prine and Townes van Zandt sung live, if barely.

This time Dahna had the Chili Relleno platter while I stuck with my enchiladas because I am a child. This is a fine restaurant and you should stop by, especially on Thursdays. We puttered around town and went back to the park to laze around, especially in my case. Dahna disappeared into an avian wonderland while I kicked back with Wallace Stegner’s  Angle of Repose, one of Dahna’s favorites. I wrote a little too, napped and took Sacha out so she could jump at a darting lizard or two. We just sort of breathed it all in until the sun set down beyond our next stop.j

Big Bend Tree Lizard slinking out of the shadows for this little noir moment.
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Our last full day was my favorite. We remembered that we had forgotten to bring any cash on the trip, so after a long leisurely morning we headed to Ft. Davis to get some. We got to the bank at 12:50 PM and it was closed, no doubt for lunch. So, we waited across the parking lot at a little fenced-in memorial built and maintained by the Daughters of the Confederacy. Along with a few benches and trees, it had a small two-sided wall engraved with the names of all the local boys who took up arms to defend whatever country their leaders said they were citizens of. It didn’t discriminate and included everybody up to the present. There were a lot of names on it, and I thought it nice you didn’t have to get killed to be listed on it like on some walls.

About 1:04 PM with no tellers in sight, a long-lapsed little Catholic girl, the kind I wasn’t allowed to hold hands with back in the 50s, clicked a little gear into place and practically shouted, “Jesus Christ! It’s Good Friday!” I sort of groaned, “Ahhh…damn.” Finally, I said, “We got a lot of gas in the truck. Let’s go get lost in the Davis Mountains,” and that’s what we did.

We headed back toward the park and beyond up toward the observatory. As we went by, Dahna said, “I can’t believe we’ve been here twice and never looked through a telescope.” I said, “We gotta come back.” We looked at each other, “Yesss,” she said. The little two lane took us through it for a hundred miles nearly. I rolled the windows down to let in the cool air and set the cruise to 45. It was all up and down, over and around with the desert all over everything, the granite and the sand. Finally, we settled into a long slope that wound down into the flat, and I just let the whole thing wash over me. God, I love Texas.

Scott’s Orioles thrive on the yuccas that abound in the park. They drink the nectar from the flowers and eat bugs that also feed on the plant. Their nest bags, built from woven dead yucca leaves, are often found hanging from the yucca itself.
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“You’re really getting sentimental in your old age,” Dahna said. “You tear up all the time now,” she tittered, “I remember the tough Marine I married.” I said, “You only married me because I was rich and good looking.” “You’re still cute,” she said. “I’d rather be rich,” I said, “But thanks just the same, Four Eyes.” “Hey!” She barked.

We pulled into Ft. Davis a little after three and I gassed up. We started thinking about heading out to New Mexico and got up way too early the next day for us night owls. We had a new theory to test, and that meant a long, long travel day ahead.

Lazuli Bunting  – migrating through the mountains. Like all buntings they make their nests in thickets and dense chaparral. I had just enough time to get a single photo before he flitted away.
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My First Trip to Europe

by David Williams

When I was a young man and a recent college graduate, I went to Europe for the first time. It was 1976, the bicentennial year here in the United States. On the foreign language bulletin board at school I had noticed a small card telling of an organization, SIA Interchange, that would find temporary jobs in Europe for young people.

SIA Interchange turned out to be, surprisingly, a one-man organization based in Amsterdam. Murray Platt was that man. Murray had come from New Zealand, where he had worked in the textile business. He was a personable man of about fifty-five, already quite bald, always willing to help, and quite the diplomat, which must have helped him a lot as he negotiated, often over the phone, and sometimes through the post, with prospective employers across Western Europe.

We corresponded through the mail several times over the course of three or four months, and finally Murray told me in a brief letter to come on to Amsterdam and he would find me a place to work. He also furnished information about cheap charter flights from New York City to Brussels, and with less than two  hundred dollars I took off.

True to his word, Murray found a job for me in Brienz, Switzerland. It was at the Hotel Sternen, a small twelve-room hotel with a restaurant and small staff. I worked there for two months, joined after a few days by two young American women from New Jersey (Diane) and New York (Denise), who worked as chambermaid and waitress.

Brienz was a small town in the middle of the Alps–towering mountains all around–and flanked on its southern edge by a gorgeous lake, the Brienzee. The town was the center of a small wood-carving industry and attracted a lot of tourists; buses filled with them came and went regularly.

My job consisted of kitchen cleanup and whatever else in the way of dull, menial work my boss, Vreni Michel, gave me. We were obligated to stay for two months, and when my two months were done, I was ready to go, the equivalent of about $500 in my pocket and a desire to see as much of Europe as possible. Diane was ready to leave, too, and we set off together.

The Church of St. Eustache, Paris 
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Our money lasted about six weeks, and through a combination of hitching rides and using the bus and train systems, we made our way from Brienz to Geneva, then on to Paris, back to Amsterdam, across the English Channel to London and Oxford. In this last place Diane and I parted, with plans to reunite a few weeks later in Barcelona. She had bought a Eurorail pass and wanted to go to Greece, and I decided to hitch north to Scotland.

During our first two or three weeks of travel we had been fortunate to spend several nights, at no cost to us, in apartments with locals. In Brienz, a Swiss waitress working with us at the hotel restaurant gave Diane and me an introduction to friends in Geneva, who put us up on a pallet in the living room for one night. In Paris we had shared travel stories and plans with a young man who had recommended a friend in London, who provided a thin mattress and bedding on the floor of a tiny, odd-shaped room in his apartment. We passed several days in London, and this humble room saved us money, helping us to stretch our travel budget a bit further.

Eiffel Tower
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These first few weeks had also given us a chance to see some wonderful things. In Paris we went to the Louvre and spent a few hours, also to the diminutive Jeu de Paume, which at that time housed a small collection of Impressionistic art, later moved to the Musee de Orsay. And can you spend any time in Paris without seeing the beautiful Notre Dame cathedral and the Eiffel tower? We couldn’t. We visited more art museums in London and saw masterpieces everywhere we went. At Albert Hall we attended a concert of classical music with full symphony orchestra, and in Oxford we saw a semi-professional production of one of Shakespeare’s plays.

Notre Dame
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With her train pass, Diane set off from Oxford to Stonehenge, then returned to the continent and continued on to Greece. We were well into October by then, and I began my hitching journey northward. On that first day I learned of the generosity of English drivers. I hardly spent any time on the side of the road, and almost reached Edinburgh in one day. My last ride, as darkness came, was with a man who taught in the public schools. He remarked the time of day–it had been dark for a while–and claimed to know a good pub to get a bite to eat and a bed and breakfast to spend the night at. I was grateful for both.

At breakfast the next morning I met Nigel and his father, Peter. They were on their way to Edinburgh and offered a ride, saying that they planned to stop in at a castle of historical interest to them, if I didn’t mind the slight inconvenience. I was in no hurry and there was no inconvenience, so off we went.

In Edinburgh I didn’t do much. It was a lovely city with a castle on a hill and the fine aroma of breweries, but I had my mind on the Scottish Highlands and soon found a road out of town and stood waiting for a ride. On a narrow blacktop road with little traffic, my hitching luck continued. Two young Scottish women from Edinburgh, both nurses, picked me up on their way to Fort William, where they would hike up Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in England. The two-lane highway had very little traffic, and the heather-covered hills and the lochs were lovely; after a couple of days in Fort William, the Scottish women had to return to Edinburgh, so I did the sensible thing and rode back with them.

From Edinburgh I hitched back to London, then to the ferry and crossed the Channel, returned to Amsterdam and took a bus to Barcelona.

As planned, Diane met me in this splendid northeastern Spanish city, where we passed a few days going to art museums and seeing some of Gaudi’s unusual creations, one being the church of the Sacred Family, which at that time was still not finished. We also splurged on paella at Los Caracoles, still open today after almost two hundred years. Running low on money by then, we were forced to consider an inevitability: returning to the States and home. Soon we were standing by the highway outside of Barcelona with thumbs up for a ride north into southern France.

About this time we had to phone the charter service in Brussels and commit to a departure date. We chose November 6 or 7, about the time that Jimmy Carter won the presidency. Our date confirmed, money and time running low, we had little choice but to move on. Hitching out of Barcelona provided a lesson in futility, and soon we found a train station and traveled the short distance into southern France, where we resumed hitching. The French were more generous than the Spaniards had been and in a short time we were dropped off in Montpelier.

This is where memory failed me. I’ve told this story many times over the past forty-two years, and recently I told it again to friends. A man picked us up after we left the train station just across the Spanish/French border and took us as far as Montpelier. It was getting late in the day by then, so he drove us to the center of town and dropped us off on a sidewalk there, saying that we could find a cheap hotel nearby. Thanking him, we turned up the sidewalk a few steps and around a corner. There in front of us, still in good condition after more than twenty centuries. stood a magnificent Roman coliseum. We were astounded. There were other Roman ruins there as well, including the Maison Carree, sometimes translated as “square house,” considered to have been built in 12BC. Those remnants of the Roman empire seemed so emblematic of Europe, with its rich, varied history.

Arenas de Nimes
Urlaub in der Provence 18. - 21. Maerz 2008
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There was only one problem, a rather significant one: those ruins are not in Monpelier, they are in Nimes, not far away. All these years I’ve been mistaken and have told the story wrong. As I was thinking about writing this, I knew I should verify some facts, so I looked online and learned of my mistake.

And what of Montpelier? This is what I think happened. Diane and I were dropped off in Montpelier at the end of the day, found a hotel and spent the night, and hitched the next morning to Nimes, where we were dropped off on that sidewalk to discover a bit of Roman history in what you might call its hard form. We stayed a few hours to see the other ruins and architecture and, time running out, caught a train north. We arrived in Brussels in time to catch our plane, with only a few dollars left.

Paris Scene of Tuileries Garden  painted by David Williams, 1986
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Our flight took us to New York City–JFK airport–where Diane (from nearby New Jersey) had someone waiting with a car to take her home. We said goodbye at the airport. I called family in Texas to ask for money and a ticket home.

I’ve just finished my fourteenth trip to western Europe. Each time I have visited world-class museums and seen an abundance of great works of art and history–in Paris, Amsterdam, London, Madrid, Barcelona, Florence, Munich. I’ve learned something of the fascinating histories of this places and seen architectural wonders old and new. But that moment–not in Montpelier, but in Nimes–turning the corner on that sidewalk and seeing that marvelous coliseum, was a defining one for me. I’ve been unable to stay away since then.

MAPLE LEAF RAG: Prologue, Epilogue, and Home From the Hill

by Pat Branyan

One year ago we let the real estate contract expire on our Comanche place. We had it listed for six months and priced it sky high. We had some interest but not enough to pay my price, one I hoped would discourage any but the nuttiest buyer. It worked! Nobody bought it and I was happy because I love the place and my crazy neighbor, Ray. He’s well-known locally as Black Bart and, believe me, you don’t want to cross Ray.

[BTW, John Wesley Hardin killed a deputy about two miles from our house on the square in Comanche back in the days long before James Arness. We did, however, have a famous sheriff that never carried a gun. Nobody ever outdrew him. His name was Gaston Boykins and he’s mentioned in “No Country For Old Men”]

Meanwhile, back at the pecan ranch…

Dahna was not pleased at the outcome because she had set her sights on living full time on the road in a Class A motorhome financed by the sale of the property. Her stated rationale made sense whenever I hit the Old Crow a little too hard but I always came to my senses, such that they are.

“Look,” she’d say, “this country’s gone completely off the deep end, and God knows what’s going to happen. If we’re self-contained on the road we can escape to Canada or Mexico if worse comes to worst.”

I’d say, “Sure, let’s go to Canada now that they hate us and freeze our butts off as a bonus. Oh oh! I’m sure we can get by with pidgin sign language in Mexico,” I waved my hand in the air, “Besides it’s too hot there.”

She’d say, “Are you crazy? It’s 108 degrees out there.” pointing at the door. “There are mountains in Mexico and towns like San Juan de Allende where David goes all the time that are nice and cool.” I’d pretend to shiver, “Brrr.”

She’d look at me through slits like I was a pile of Sacha’s poop, “We shoulda’ sailed Alchemy to Europe when we had the chance.” The pitch and amplitude of her voice was rising like a bad following sea, “You know, like we planned! We’d be there now if you hadn’t decided to sell the boat.” And I’d say, “Now whoa there big fella…”

It would go back and forth like this, over and over. The truth is Dahna is really a gypsy and is not comfortable anywhere for long no matter the political climate, or any climate for that matter. We have spent a fairly long string of years in a couple of places, but you really have to look at the averages to get a true picture of the lady. In 46 years we’ve lived in 13 places because she gets bored. If you do the math, you’ll see that holding her back is like restraining a team of huskies in flip flops.

But I won this time. “For now,” she reminds me.

All I had to do was less physical labor, support her deer herd and birds, and travel more–a lot more. Hence the new winter-livable Arctic Fox. I mentioned that we had never traveled east to speak of when she admitted that she’d never been to Ohio.

Covered Bridge – Geneva, OH
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“The hell you say,” I was shocked, “Why, that’s unAmerican!” I was in an expansive mood though so I said, “We can go through Ohio on our way to…Nova Scotia!! She lit up like a Christmas turkey, “Yeah!,” she actually jumped, “Now you’re talking.” “We can visit the Curtoys,” I said. She said, “Yeah, and go up to the Great Lakes… Nova Scotia…” You could almost hear the gears whirring in her head, “Maybe in the Fall. See the colors.” “Yeah, and all the birds you don’t see here,” I added with a greasy Ted Cruz smile.

My nefarious plot worked. She was hooked on the idea. The only problem…excuse me…One of the problems was that I was going to have to haul my fanny up north where it’s cold and shivery. Another was getting my head around the logistics of a three months long excursion which is one of the many things I’m terrible at. Then I remembered…Dahna’s great at logistics along with practically everything else. I was starting to relax when she left the room saying, “You’d better get busy planning this trip.”

I cracked my knuckles and was about to start when I saw a cat video on the internet. Later, I got down to work with Google Maps and a big spreadsheet. Actually, we both worked pretty hard scheduling the big trip.

Starting from Comanche, I’d locate state parks or private parks, if necessary, along the route within a comfortable driving range no longer than 325 miles. Then we’d research each one for the kind of things we like such as dog runs, ease of entry, cost, facilities, etc. Sometimes Dahna would scratch the place I picked out and she’d look for another, even changing the preferred route.

Double Crested Cormorant – Salisbury, MA
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Finally, we had scheduled about 3/4 of the trip, making reservations at 18 different parks along the way up to Cape Breton, NS and back down to Washington DC. We knew it would get cold and rainy up north leaving in September from way down Comanche, Texas. Driving and camping through rain and cold? Why sure…but snow? The prospect of pulling a big trailer through snow and ice scares me almost as much as a combat zone scares Trump. We had to get to Nova Scotia fast, look around, plant the flag, and get the hell out of there pronto.

That meant a whirlwind trek, which it was. You would think you could go just about anywhere at a leisurely pace over a period of three months. That’s true if you don’t go very far. But, we traveled over 6,000 miles stopping at 26 campgrounds through a beautiful, feature-rich North America. In mid-October, when we turned around and headed back, moving south from Cape Breton, we could feel Winter breathing down our necks. Campgrounds were closing for the season right behind us and we felt like Indiana Jones being chased by that huge round boulder.

Our first stop on the return trip was at friendly Ponderosa Pines Campground on Hopewell Cape, New Brunswick. We practically had the nice place by ourselves and the owner gave us a big space for a small price. He also let us wash our rig which was filthy with road grime. When we finished I’m sure it pleased him because the whole park looked better.

The big draw here is the Hopewell Rocks. These are big rocks in the Bay of Fundy that are a little startling at low tide because you hardly ever see big rocks jutting up from a tidal flat with trees growing on top of them. If you’ve never seen these things, you’re not alone because we haven’t either. It was cold, rainy and they charged for the high privilege of seeing them. Plus, there were 101 steps going down, and that added up to 202 steps of “Screw it.” It was also, happily, close enough to our fave little town, Alma, to drive back to for a terrific scallop dinner overlooking the bay.

Hopewell Rocks – (We Settled for the Photo Over the Real Thing)
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Our next stop was at the border where, after a 20 minute wait, we met our friendly American Customs agent. She was very cheerful, even witty, as she searched our RV’s refrigerator and confiscated our precious limes. This played havoc with our house drink later that night making me pine for our pretty and nonintrusive, if grim, Canadian agent with the gun fetish. Try not to think of a sexy East German border guard in braids with a snappy little whip. Maybe that dates me a little.

From there, we stayed at Cold River Campground near Bangor, ME where Stephen King lives. I like Stephen King and I was an English major for two years, so there! Besides claiming the Horror meister, Bangor is a cool New England town with that witchy Wyeth architecture that kind of looms up in your imagination, especially if you grew up around a bunch of flat ranch houses. I’m sure the food there is great too, but I can’t really say because we never ate there. We ate and ate at the Eagle’s Nest, about a mile from our park.

Cold River Campground
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We ate a lobster roll there that was out of sight…literally. You could not see the roll itself for all the lobster piled on top. We were trying to figure out how to eat the thing when a burly waiter delivered a loaded seafood platter as freight to a couple at an adjacent table. The husband gave us a little wink as he dug into the heaps off haddock, oysters, shrimp, and scallops sitting on top of a one foot diameter bed of French fries. Later, after scooping the remainder of the food into several big to-go boxes, he gave me another, slightly different, wink on the way out. I’d like to think their plans for the leftovers ran along the lines of that old “Tom Jones” movie (wink wink).

Whatever, we went back the next night and had the platter. We ate seafood for two more meals from that platter and, at 34 bucks, we probably had a bigger investment in Alka Seltzer than the food. It was great, worth every painful burp.

Seafood Platter at the Eagle’s Nest Restaurant In Brewer,ME
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The morning we left Cold River RV Park, Wayne, the young owner, was out on a backhoe in the cold rain working on the foundation for a music venue for his campers. Big dreams and hard work—I can still remember his cheerful, “Good Morning!” as I walked by with Sacha in her raincoat. He and his wife, Pam, carved several long trails through the woods that Sacha loved to run through at full blast. There were a lot of ticks though, not just there but throughout New England. I easily got one off of Dahna’s back thanks to a tip she picked up somewhere before she picked up the tick: With your finger, lift the tick and spin the little bastard around until he backs out. It works.

Old Man’s Beard (Clematis drummondii) at Schondack Island State Park
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Next, we pushed on to the Hudson River at Schondack Island S.P. near Albany. We planned to visit FDR’s Hyde Park, but the day we had for it was killer windy, cold and rainy. Perfect pneumonia weather, so…no thanks. We mostly huddled in our cozy camper reading and arguing over whose turn it was to walk Sacha. It was a nice park with plenty to do, but our timing was lousy and we were glad to get out of there. We were anxious to visit our old friends, the Zelmans, in D.C. but first we had to make it through Pennsylvania, Dahna’s least favorite place.

Father & Son Fishing on the Hudson River at Schondack Island State Park
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When you drive through a state, stopping in a park or two for a few days, you really don’t get a very good idea of its charms. You only have a fleeting impression of the place gained by the tiny sliver you saw as you zipped through. It’s unfair and inaccurate, but there it is. We make judgments about things by what we know of them even if what we know of them is squat. Dahna knew squat about Pennsylvania except that she hated it.

Coming out of Upstate New York into rural Pennsylvania, slanting down through Scranton toward Lebanon, was a stark contrast. Where New York seemed neat and trim and lushly forested, Pennsylvania seemed neglected, a little bare and thatchy, kind of like my poor little pecan orchard during the lazy season. Dahna said, “This place looks like hell.” I said, “Yeah, but working people live here like Pasadena and it’s tough.” Dahna grew up in tough Pasadena, Texas and she knows all about rough and tough and can be that way herself if need be but still…she just didn’t like it there.

Things didn’t get any better when we pulled into our spot at Twin Grove RV Park near Lebanon. I couldn’t believe it, but the pad was almost 6” out of level side-to-side. That meant I had to jack one side of the camper up almost twice the height of the leveling boards I had with me. I was starting to hate Pennsylvania too.

Dahna was already in a bad mood, and you could almost hear her grinding her teeth as she stomped off toward the office way over in yonder glen. I was pretty pissed off too as I walked around with the level looking for another site that wouldn’t send our camper sliding down the hill. I finally found one that was only 3” out by the time Dahna got back with the good news that it was still unreserved. So I backed around and took it. After getting set up, we discovered that the park’s WiFi was out. That meant we only had our iPhone hotspot that AT@T had just throttled back to Slug Speed. Great. Just great.

Dahna started to hyperventilate like Yosemite Sam, steam and all, and was about to lift off when we noticed a guy in slacks(!) walking around with some kind of gadget. BAM, suddenly we had high speed Internet. Dahna’s mood improved to the point that she conceded that the park was at least a nice place for kids while noting that she was glad they were in school far, far away. The owners did manage to link into that chain of competent officials and private citizens who continuously forwarded our ballots to us giving us a chance to shiv You Know Who. Overall, it wasn’t that bad.

The highlight of our Pennsylvania experience was hiking the Appalachian Trail near Lebanon. From the highway, Dahna decided to strike out south, so down the narrow trail the three of us went, that-a-way. About 100 yards in, we came to a little clearing in the trees with a posted sign warning: WORKERS SPRAYING INVASIVE PLANTS. We put on the world weary look that’s so attractive on older faces and I said, “Not today,” and we turned around, “Let’s go north.”

Back at the highway, we met a young athletic woman wearing a big backpack struggling to catch her breath. We told her about the spraying and she waved, ‘Thank you’ and forged on anyway. Crossing the highway, we took about 20 steps down the trail where suddenly it dropped precipitously into a deep ravine, the same one that took the woman’s breath away. Looking down, I said, “No steps.” Dahna looked too and said, “No problem,” and headed back to the highway with me in tow and Sacha left behind with a ‘What the…’ look on her face.

Dahna took a picture of me and Sacha at a sign marking the trail and I’m very proud of it.

A Very Short Hike on the Appalachian Trail
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Looking back, our return trip from Nova Scotia to Comanche was really not much more than a hasty retreat from Winter with only three significant stops; Washington D.C. with the Zelmans, Chattanooga, TN and finally Tupelo and my father’s nearby hometown in Mississippi where he, my grandparents, and an old childhood friend are buried. Leaving Pennsylvania, we were road tired to the bone and weather blown but, luckily, we had the prior good sense to schedule a full week near D.C. to rest, see the city, and, mostly, visit our friends.

We stayed at Ft. Meade Army Base in their terrific, full service RV park. Those services include access to the base exchange and commissary plus restaurants, golf course and other facilities you would associate with an actual town. It was really upscale compared to my old Marine hangout, Camp Pendleton back in ’67. Back then we were tough as nails and could live on John Wayne crackers that were as old as we were and wash ‘em down with paddy water. We hated the Army and all its works, but now that I’m a lot older and fatter it’s, “Lead me to the food court, Sergeant!”

We spent the first couple of days hanging around the base doing chores like laundry, grocery shopping, and letting Sacha run wild in one of the spacious greenbelts that fronted Burba Lake which was full of Canada geese and mallards. The birds were gorgeous, but nothing’s better than watching a happy red Siberian run hell-for leather with her ears flattened back in the pure pleasure of being young and on the loose. Of course, she’d usually take a crap afterward but almost always next to a trash can. Perfect Dog you are pretty girl. Yes you are.

Domestic Blue Swedish at Burba Pond
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Unfortunately, the RV park, though very nice, wasn’t perfect like Sacha. There was no WiFi for Chrissakes! Back to our slow iPhone hotspot and Dahna’s increasingly bitchiness about her glitchy $150.00 refurbed Apple MacBook Pro. You can buy an Apple laptop for $150.00 and you can also buy a BMW for $2000.00, but you probably shouldn’t. If you’re used to BMWs and Chevys leave you cold, that $2000.00 Beemer might sound attractive. It’s the same with Apples. That cheap refurb sounds good until it goes south which it’s bound to do before you know it.

Anyway, it was “Time For a New Computer“. That phrase is relatively new in the lexicon. Not so long ago it was just, “Time for a new water heater,” or, “Time for a new Timex.” Well, times change. Finally though, along with the process of buying a new computer (which is becoming more like buying a new car), doing our chores and taking a couple of long naps, our batteries were finally recharged enough for the main attraction—getting together with the Zs.

You might not know Pat and Don Zelman, but I’ll bet you a cookie you know somebody who does. These two came to Texas as young zealots nearly 50 years ago on a mission to raise the IQ of the state a few points by turning goat roper Tarleton State University into a hotbed of rationality. If you think Texas is a dumb place now, you should’ve seen it before they got here. It’s true they had other plotters in on the conspiracy like the aforementioned Curtoys and a few other brilliant professors like Allan Nelson. But, if you see a really stupid yard sign or reactionary billboard defaced with a slashing Z, it’s probably not Zorro that did it.

They retired near D.C. to be with their two granddaughters and their own singular daughter, Julie. I use the word singular not only because she’s an only child, but because she’s brilliant and beautiful in an eerie Elizabeth Taylor type way. We first met Julie when, as a little girl, she came to our house in tow with her friend and the girl’s mom for a short visit. Julie sat at Dahna’s piano like Lily Tomlin’s Edith Ann and banged out an awful racket.

Over the years watching her grow up, it occurred to me that she might have been banging out a little Bartok. Who knows? I wouldn’t know Bartok if he bit me on the butt, but I bet Julie does. Well, now she’s a senior official at the SEC. If you still have faith in our political institutions, you might want to raise your glass to people like Julie. Pat and Don are enormously proud of their girl as are all of us who know her. And that’s a lot of people.

The Zs live in Collington, a full service planned community of mostly retired government officials and other professionals. They fit in perfectly since both Pat and Don are historians and political scientists. These days Pat is presiding over a foreign policy discussion group of State Department types and other smarty pantses.

Pat and Don Zelman – MLK Memorial
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One time long ago, Pat had a little fun with me when I said something stupid. I can’t remember what I said, but suddenly she had me in a Socratic logic trap that Houdini couldn’t have escaped. I learned an important lesson: When you’re lucky enough to hang out with people like that, it’s a good idea to know what you’re talking about. Otherwise, keep quiet and just listen or you might find yourself at the Little Big Horn hiding behind your dead horse of an argument.

I used to love it back then when Pat would tilt her head and say, “Let’s go smoke.” We’d go out to the little table in their backyard and light up, enjoying one of life’s greatest guilty pleasures. Actually neither of them were “real” smokers. But, when people like me and Dahna were around, they’d bum a cigarette in self defense. Finally though, when almost everybody wised up and quit for good, Pat rang the bell for all former smokers when she said, “The worst part about quitting is being a nonsmoker.” If you have to think about that…

When we approached the part of of the complex where they lived, Pat was out on the sidewalk to meet us. Don, in his inimitable way, went the wrong direction. I posited awhile back that there are few absolutes in this world, but one of them is that no one is more fun to be around than Don Zelman except, possibly, Pat. Okay it’s a tossup. Anyway, there are a million funny stories that revolve around Don, and a big part of the fun is the pleasure he takes in his own absent-minded predicaments. There’s a famous photo of Don’s feet propped up on his desk at work wearing one brown and one black shoe. Don’t get the wrong idea though. He retired as the Dean of Arts and Sciences.

After visiting for awhile, we walked over to their swanky dining hall and were immediately surrounded by a thick knot of their friends. After wading through successive knots, we finally had a great lunch. Along with a couple of Pat’s foreign policy nerds, we also met one of Don’s bandmates. They play in Collington’s jazz band. When Pat gave us a tour of their stylish “cottage,” I noticed a clarinet next to some sheet music in Don’s office. I had no idea he was a musician, but there you go. We recently sneaked a peek at their newsletter and there was Don’s picture featuring him as a soloist, the big ham.

We continued to get caught up since our last time together a couple of years ago at their going-away party in Stephenville, and planned the next day’s trip by Metro to the Washington Mall. We wanted to see the memorials and especially, in my case, The Wall where the names of Pat’s younger brother Bill and some of my buddies are engraved in black granite.

Going to that place with me was a burden for her, and I’ll always appreciate having her there beside me. The date April 4, 1968 is a hard one for all good-hearted people, but it is more than doubly hard for Pat.

Don said something that Dahna and I both felt as we stood near the spot where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his great speech at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, “You know, I love everything all this is supposed to stand for,” his hand swept the expanse, “but now it seems so degraded, so small somehow.” He shook his head, “I can’t believe what’s happened in this country.”

Don is an incurable optimist and I never heard him say anything even remotely that somber. We all stood silent for a moment, frozen right there in the sunshine.

With The Zelmans at the MLK Memorial
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We walked a long way that day because The Mall is a big place with a lot to see and our feet were getting bigger than our shoes. We were getting hungry too when Dahna spotted a cab parked on the other side of a wide playing field. He seemed to be waiting for us to cross over and it turned out he really was. He could tell just by looking that we would gladly crawl on our hands and knees to get to him, so he waited for us with a little grin. Fly, meet spider.

He was from some exotic country that I can’t remember, and we had a really neat ride with him. Don sat up front and had the cabbie going pretty good, making the guy’s day. I forked over the 12 bucks for our ride to the Agriculture Department which was the bargain of the day considering my sore feet. Pat wanted to eat lunch there because the food’s really good.

Before heading to its cavernous dining room, we had to pass through a metal detector and my big belt buckle set it off. The guard wanted me to take my belt off but I told him my pants might fall down. You could almost hear him thinking, ‘Old fart…fat gut …tighty whities…don’t wanna see that.’ He changed his mind pretty quick, reached under the counter and said, “Sir, if you’ll just step over here I’ll wand you down,” which he did. I passed and soon we were all headed down the big hall for lunch like we owned the place which, actually, we did until we let it go back to the bank.

Later, back in their home, we had a last cup of coffee and said our goodbyes. They were leaving in a few days for Vietnam and a trip up the Mekong to Cambodia in yet another one of their globetrotting adventures. In an earlier email I warned them to stay off of the trails, and I guess they did because they got home safely from that little jaunt.

Don wrote to say the heat and humidity were ferocious and hard to take and it gave him a new appreciation for what we went through during the war, climate-wise. That’s for sure. I’ll never forget stepping off that air-conditioned Braniff plane in Da Nang in July and feeling like I walked into an blast furnace. I wasn’t sure I’d survive it, forget the gunfire, and I grew up in Houston in the 50s without air conditioning!

On the last day before we left Ft. Meade, we did some last minute provisioning which consisted mostly of buying another bottle of Old Crow. When we stepped out into the food court, Dahna announced she didn’t want to fix lunch, so we looked around at our fast food choices. About all we wanted that day was pizza, but unfortunately it had to be Dominos. You might remember when they almost went out of business because their pizzas tasted worse than the box they came in.

Well, we remembered but went for it anyway. We ordered their super duper pepperoni or whatever the hell they called it and sat down at our table in a blue funk. When the pimply-faced kid rudely plunked the box down on the table, I almost flung the thing as far as my partially torn rotator cuff would let me. However, I managed to control myself just long enough to take a bite and damn if it wasn’t one of the best pizzas I ever bit into. HEY AT@T!! If Dominos can fix their lousy product, maybe you can too. Give it a try, MFers.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker near Roanoke, VA
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We left Ft. Meade early on November 1st headed south through rural Virginia toward Knoxville. I was looking forward to a pretty country drive and getting a look at the region my mother’s family came from. Patty loves Virginia and Dahna was starting to like it too…just about the time I started hating it. The Fall colors were still radiant, but there was something about the hills. They were too close together or sloped the wrong way or some damn thing, I don’t know. Shiver me timbers, they were like a steep chop that was pounding my little boat to pieces, they were.

It’s not you Virginia, it’s me.

White-breasted Nuthatch, Roanoke, VA
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I had to get to Tennessee to recover and by the time we got to Chattanooga I was feeling pretty good, especially when I saw the Russell Stovers billboard with an arrow pointing up ahead. The only thing better than a kid in a candy store is a kid in a candy store with a credit card. Dahna doesn’t have many weaknesses but when it comes to chocolate, let’s just say she’s an easy date. Even so, she tried to hold me back as I raced around the store dropping fifty bucks worth of boxes into the basket. She was okay with it later.

Black-crowned Night Herons near Knoxville, Tn
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I like Tennessee, especially Chattanooga and Russell Stovers has nothing to do with it. Well, maybe a little. I really like the smart cookies they elected to run the place who decided to actually serve the citizens. They pushed aside the big telecom monopolies and installed their own super fast, fiber-optic broadband municipal system as a utility. You know, of, by, and for the people—the people who live there and now own it. Last I heard, the telecoms took the city to court so they can destroy the whole wondrous thing and muscle back in with their sorry junk, the bastards.

Pie-Billed Grebe – Harrison Bay State Park
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While we were there, we had by far the fastest internet we’ve ever experienced in this dumb country—or even in Canada where it’s also great. Dahna’s new Mac nearly jumped out of its case with the speed. They don’t call it “Gig City” for nothing.

I could write about this place all night but I’ll spare you the heavy sighs. I will say that if we ever move to another town, Chattanooga is high on a very short list. Go to Wiki and read about the museums and the music, the nifty and historic downtown tucked into a fold of the mighty Tennessee River. Pay your respects to the bloody Civil War battles fought there and how they helped blaze the improbable path of U.S. Grant to final victory and the White House. He didn’t brag and he didn’t whine. You might have heard of Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, and Lookout Mountain. There’s a lot to see and do and learn about in Chattanooga, a special place.

Chattanooga from Atop Lookout Mountain
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If you really want to experience the history surrounding the great general, you should read Ron Chernow’s biography, Grant. It’s very good, but keep in mind the fact that you can zip through War and Peace a lot quicker and I’m speaking from experience. He also wrote acclaimed biographies of Washington and, famously, Hamilton—the book Lin-Manuel Miranda adapted for his smash Broadway musical. “Smash” is the operative word here because that’s what’ll happen if you drop the thing on your foot.

I got my own copy of Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton from Linda Curtoys when we visited her and Jeremy near Dayton. Jeremy liked it, so she gave it a try but she couldn’t get through it any more than a .357 Magnum bullet could punch through it. She said something about having a life to lead. Jeremy gave me a little cat-that-ate-the-canary smile when she handed it to me. I get it now because that book stares me down every time I look at it. I’m a slow reader and not getting any younger.

If you go to Chattanooga, don’t miss Lookout Mountain unless you suffer from vertigo. Parked right next to the city, it juts almost straight up and it’s really high. Looking down from the top the people don’t look like ants, the buildings do. I’m not afraid of heights, but I’ll admit I got a little lightheaded when I looked over the edge and I even had that sinking feeling you get when your elevator drops too fast. Still, one helluva view.

When we saddled up and headed to Tupelo, we were a little wistful in the leaving. Chattanooga was an unexpected pleasure for us road weary old salts, and we filed a mental note to go back someday and stay longer.

Tupelo has a presence in the American mind because Elvis was born and mostly raised there. Tupelo honey went international with the Van Morrison song and you might think the stuff comes from there but it doesn’t. It only comes from Florida. They made a serviceable movie about it called “Ulee’s Gold” with Peter Fonda in the title role. If you go to Tupelo, they’ll sell you some “Tupelo” honey, but it ain’t the real deal.

Like any sane Boomer, I like Elvis just fine. The boy could sing, but my real interest in the place concerned a couple of personal matters. First, My biological father and grandparents are buried down the road in the small town of New Albany. Second, I wanted to see if I could find the big house in Tupelo where I once spent an enchanted night as a little boy with Minrose, the little girl whose family owned it.

I couldn’t have been much older than five when my recently widowed mother took me with her to the big house to visit her friends, Erin Taylor, Minrose’s mother and Dan, her stepfather. Mother’s connection was through Dan, a Navy carrier pilot in WWII and my father’s best friend growing up in New Albany in the ‘20s and ‘30s.

Minrose was a little older than me and that night she took me out in the front yard where she taught me how to catch fireflies in a jar and keep them alive by poking holes in the lid with a sharp icepick. Back in those days we were allowed to play with matches and run with knives, maybe even encouraged. Somehow, we survived and Minrose grew up to become a writer as well as a professor at The University of North Carolina and is now retired. That night and that house have remained vivid almost all my life.

The last time I saw Minrose, I was a teenager when she and her family visited us in Houston. That’s when I lost touch until a couple of years ago when my cousin Ginny called to say that Minrose wrote a book about her life growing up, and that she read it and would mail it to me. Ginny is the daughter of my father’s brother and they knew Minrose and her family too.

The memoir, Wishing for Snow by Minrose Gwin, is a fine study in Southern Gothic ala Flannery O’Connor with a healthy dose of The Liar’s Club by Mary Carr. If you haven’t read any of the latter two authors, you can catch up quick with Minrose’s book. Unknown to me, she was living in a bizarre world of dysfunction created by the disaster of Dan and Erin Taylor’s marriage—one that led to real madness.

Minrose’s mom was a Southern Belle with a confident aristocratic bearing. She was also a fine and published poetess. She would seem familiar to those who knew my own mother, Dorothy. Dan, the villain in the book, was referred to only as “the salesman.” He was, in fact, a freelance salesman of heavy industrial valves and such.

He visited our home often on his rounds in the ‘50s and ‘60s and, as a kid, I liked hanging around with him and my folks in the little dining room after dinner. He would talk with my parents of a more interesting and larger world in his quiet voice. He was slim and handsome, very taciturn and, as Minrose says, a ringer for Alan Ladd. I liked him, but through all that blue smoke I never saw him smile. Not once I can remember.

I suppose we all suffer through significant dangers and soul-crushing indignities growing up, but I think reading a book like that makes most of us grateful for the childhoods we had, full of fond memories like my long ago night in Tupelo and parents that protected us. For those like Minrose who, in spite of the odds, not only make it in the world but flourish, we should celebrate. If you buy her book, you’ll like the part about the fireflies in Tupelo even though, sadly, I’m not mentioned. She still obviously loves those little “devils.” [see luciferin]

I didn’t look for Minrose, but I did find the house of my 65 year old remembrance. She mentioned its location in the book and on the first day in town, Dahna punched “Church Street” into AppleMaps on the iPhone that was plugged into the truck’s touch screen. About 30 minutes after we left our site in beautiful Tombigbee State Park, there it was in all its evocative glory; two large brick storeys, the full length paved front porch we played on, and the elevated corner lot with concrete steps leading down to the street.

The trees were there too and, like the great philosopher once said, it was déjà vu all over again. I was pretty pleased the rest of the day, but that night I thought about visiting the graves in New Albany the next morning. I’m not often spotted in graveyards because I don’t think the dead are there. Just the markers really. I agree with Lincoln that it’s for the living we honor the dead, and it’s only for myself that I go there at all. I hadn’t been to this cemetery in 35 years when last my grandmother died and I felt it was about time to go back.

The day was appropriately gloomy; overcast, misty and biting cold with a hard north wind. The small cemetery was cut in half by the highway and I thought the part up on the hill was where my folks were buried. I pulled into the narrow gravel lane and quickly came face to face with the driver of another pickup truck. We rolled our windows down and started a conversation, country style like Ray and I do out on our road when we meet.

He was a retired stock broker, native to New Albany, and he knew my family name but not the people. Since he was about my age, I asked him if he knew Doug Pannell, my childhood buddy who lived next door to my grandparents. I spent a number of Huck Finn summers there, and in the mornings I’d grab my illicit BB gun (secretly stored by my Daddy Doyle and unknown to my parents) and head out to meet Doug. We’d wander barefoot through the apple trees and fields and plink around. Then we’d walk along the tracks and shoot the breeze. The smell of creosote always reminds me of the rail sleepers from those days.

The guy in the truck was named Jerry, I think, and he answered my question with a big smile, “Yeah, Doug was my best friend.” We talked for around ten minutes about the Pannells and Doug’s short unhappy life until I said, “Well, he was a good kid.” Jerry brightened a little and he agreed, “Yeah, you know? He really was a good kid.” He nodded to me, “Well, good luck finding your people,” and with that he drove out.

I was wrong about the cemetery. We buttoned up our heavy hooded coats, left Sacha in the truck, and started searching. We split up but came back to the truck about 45 minutes later empty handed and frozen stiff. That meant they were across the highway somewhere in the five or six acres of the low side. Jesus!

We drove the short distance to the nearby Subway to warm up and eat lunch when another customer saw our Texas plates and came over to our table to visit. Southerners! What’re ya’ gonna do? It so happened that one of his teachers had been Doug’s wife. And like Jerry, he’d heard of my name but didn’t know my folks. He filled us in a little more on Doug’s story while we ate and he talked kindly about his small town.

We were full and defrosted when we got back to the cemetery’s low side. I parked halfway up the lane, bisecting the long thin strip of grassy plots, some curbed but others in the open. We walked Sacha first along the little road and back and then started hunting again.

James Holloway Branyan, RIP
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After we covered almost every square foot, damp and chilled to the bone, I yelled at Dahna, “That’s Enough! Let’s go home!” I was very close to the truck when I walked up on Doug’s grave. There were the others too of his parents and grandparents. The last time I saw him was when we were about 30 at my grandfather’s funeral. He was vice president of the local bank and a lot fatter than the skinny kid I remembered. If he was happy, it didn’t show and it didn’t last.

Some time after that, Doug embezzled money from the bank to cover his losses to some shady characters he got mixed up with in a bad buy of an auto dealership. He had oversold shares to too many investors in something like Mel Brooks, “The Producers.” He got caught but it wasn’t funny like the movie. With the law closing in and his reputation shot, he took his own life. He was 42. At least that’s the pieced-together story I got that day and back over the years from my family.

As Dahna walked up, she spotted my family’s marker beside that of the Pannells. We looked at every practically grave in that whole cemetery and finally found it in the last place left—right next to the truck! It’s fitting that the two families are buried together because they were all close friends.

My father was a young reporter for one of our town’s big dailies, The Houston Post. He was their fair haired boy, hired on due to the quality of his earlier reporting of the Texas City disaster for the Beaumont paper. He was given the plum assignment of traveling to Indonesia with a group of other journalists from around the country to interview a number of Dutch vs. Indonesian officials, including President Sukarno. The issue was Sukarno’s push for independence, the Dutch pushing back and their their effort to seek American support for their side through favorable reporting.

The Dutch lost their colony and my father and his colleagues lost their lives returning home when the charter KLM Constellation crashed on approach to Bombay’s (Mumbai) airport in bad weather. “Lousy Irish Luck…” the big Post headline said. It was July 12, 1949, and my father was 31.

His short life was certainly more interesting than most, including mine, and I’ve often thought of doing the research necessary to write about it with some justice. But it’s a big subject and, like Dylan said, the hour’s getting late. His Indonesian story is one of the long links in our chain of postwar successes and failures that encompassed Soviet and Sino containment policy including, in this particular case, its notorious Domino Theory and my own subsequent experience in Vietnam.

Another noted writer from New Albany, MS
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We were still a long way from Comanche and had to stop two more times to keep from killing ourselves. Those stops were brief and unremarkable. On the morning of our last day, we got the trailer hooked up after breakfast and had a good light check. Dahna walked back up and got in the cab.

“Home James,” she said with a little brush of her hand.

Brown Creeper, near Longview, Tx on the Road Home
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MAPLE LEAF RAG Part 5: Planting the Flag and Hauling the Mail

by Pat Branyan

I can’t remember a thing about the ride up to Grand Island where we camped just south of Niagara Falls. Even though I’ve surprised myself by becoming an old coot and memory is becoming a sometimes thing, I don’t worry about it. A whirlwind trip like this would muddy the memory of almost anyone. In any case I can rely on Dahna to remind me where we stayed yesterday because she sees distinguishing details where I see blobs that run together into clumps.

I do remember the Branches of Niagara campground and our happy neighbor Brian, computer analyst and Buffalo native. The campground is privately owned and one of the few that capably caters to adults and children. The kids have plenty of playgrounds and games plus their own zip line. The adults have one too along with a pretty lake and lots of room to walk or jog. We were even able to let Sacha off her leash so she could run off some of the treats we’re helpless to stop giving her.

Mallard at Branches of Niagara
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As a general rule, private campgrounds are more expensive than state parks and tend to put the sites closer together so as to maximize profits. They offset these drawbacks by offering more amenities like cable TV and WiFi internet and complete hookups including water taps, power and sewer. We prefer state parks because they’re always beautiful, much larger, the sites are more spread out, and they’re cheap.

It might be my imagination, but I think the campers at the state parks are happier and friendlier. Cost might be a factor, but it is undeniable that the campers in the state parks run the gamut of economic class and I think that eases everything out a bit for everybody. Too, the natural beauty surely helps to put everybody in a good, hobnobbing mood. Letting Sacha go and watching her run through the woods chasing out her almost boundless energy is pure pleasure for us and helps us forget the news for awhile.

On the road we get our news on the internet, usually provided by our new iPhone. We bought an “unlimited” data plan to go with it which works fairly well as an internet hotspot for three out of the four weeks per month we use it. AT@T then tells us we’ve been greedy and slows the speed down to a dial up crawl. I get a kick out of AT@T telling me how greedy I am. Anyway, I asked my neighbor Brian why this was happening. He said that automatic upgrades of the phone’s apps eat up a lot of data, and that you could turn the updates off. When I told Dahna about this, she was her usual step ahead of me and said that she already had turned them off. AT@T…what’s not to like?

Brian also told us about the Erie Canal town of Lockport and a boat ride you can take through a manmade cave. The cave was designed to complement the Erie lock gates in moving water faster down the canal to speed passage of the barges through the system. It was painstakingly excavated by placing small gunpowder charges in drilled holes by young, nimble and, presumably, replaceable boys and blasting out small chunks at a time. The cave produced a “hydraulic raceway” of rushing water that also mechanically powered a series of factories up above that mostly burned down to the ground either accidentally or by design.

We learned about all this and more from our perky tour guide who was a sweet young woman of about twenty. She was surprised by her sister who had just driven in on the sly from California to see her and we were all delighted by the affection they had for each other. Our little group would tag along from point to point as they led, holding hands, and excitedly whispered to each other. They both loved their historic little town in an endearing, wry kind of way. The whole thing put everybody in a jolly good mood.

We watched a large tour boat full of passengers move through one of the many locks that stair-step the nearly 600 foot elevation difference from the Hudson river in Albany to Lake Erie near Buffalo. The original canal itself was dug by shovel, wheelbarrow and oxen-pulled scrapers in one of the greatest engineering feats of the early 19th Century. It linked the Great Lakes and much of the continent’s system of rivers to New York City’s harbor and was essential to the development of the midwest and the western expansion. New York City did okay too, and you can, and should, read all about it. We used to do big things back in the day of American Exceptionalism.

Tour Boat Waiting for the Lock to Fill
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Oh! I almost forgot Niagara Falls. But what really impressed me was the Niagara River itself. In fact, most of the rivers we crossed on this trip have been impressive. These monsters are huge compared to the dinky streams we call rivers in Texas. In spite of the Austin Lounge Lizards singing about Texas rattlesnakes being the coil-i-est and our beaches being the oil-i-est, our rivers aren’t the anything-i-est…maybe the mud-i-est. You want water? Go East young man! Seriously.

Niagara Falls
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Niagara Falls is impressive as you no doubt know since you’ve probably seen it if you’re like most of the people on the planet. If you haven’t been there, a word of warning. Never get in the way of a Japanese man and his camera, especially at elevated landmarks where you can fall to your death. I know that sounds racist and you could credibly accuse me of this particular sin if I hadn’t restrained my natural impulse to slug the guy when he shoved me out of his way to get a shot of his family at the rail.

The same thing happened to Dahna twice: once a little later on at Acadia National Park and once a long time ago at the Grand Canyon. I’m working on the idea that photographic shoving is not considered rude in some cultures, and I hope to internalize the notion more in order to remain out of jail in my golden years. Let me add in my defense that 50 years ago I had a great time on R & R in Tokyo. Loved the place and the people.

From Niagara our next stop was at a nice private park on the Mohawk River near Schenectady. Our three days at that park confirmed what we suspected about the big trip as we headed north and east and deeper into Fall. It was going to get colder and wetter. I wondered if they made raincoats for dogs which is a pretty dumb question if you’ve ever been in a big Pet Smart. Before you knew it, we were standing on the Mohawk’s bank with Sacha in her new Day-Glo lime green raincoat looking at the sailboats transiting our part of the modern Erie Canal system.

Pat and Sacha Just Walking In The Rain on the Mohawk River
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A steady parade of sailboats motored by, masts lowered and carried in deck cradles. They were traveling from the Great Lakes to points east, up to and including New York’s harbor. From there it’s the world if you choose and have the boat for it and we had the boat, almost—her deep keel drew 6’, a little too much for some rivers, but great for oceans. Back when we were sailing Alchemy out in the Gulf, we sometimes entertained the idea of tackling the “Great Loop.” This is a roughly 6,000 mile circumnavigation of the eastern U.S. and part of Canada using interconnecting rivers, lakes, canals and various waterways like the Intercoastal. Oh well. Mice and men.

The cold rain followed us up to Old Orchard Beach, ME on Saco Bay just south of Portland and has stayed with us ever since. We have been very lucky to have enough beautiful days to keep our spirits up and see most of the sights we had in mind. Best of all we were lucky in our timing vis-a-vis the fall colors. Almost from the beginning it’s as if the trees decided to explode in their fieriest colors just as we arrived to see them. I understand now why the peak fall colors in New England and Canada are so famous. It’s unreal. Some of the trees actually looked as if they were on fire. For hundreds of miles, Dahna took shot after shot of the trees in a jerky series of dangerous roadside swerves and stops.

Marsh Grass Saco Bay, Maine
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The biggest downside of driving way up north in the Fall is the decrease in camaraderie with the people you’re camping amongst. Hell, everybody’s tucked inside their heated RV. This isn’t entirely true because some of the people who live up north think drizzly 40 degree weather is perfect for sitting around a smokey, wet-wood campfire. We think it’s perfect for giving these people a wide berth. But, sadly, you meet a lot less people when it’s wet and cold, loony or not.

We didn’t get to know anyone at Old Orchard Beach, but we did have our first, and best, lobster roll near there in Saco at the Sea ’N Salt Restaurant. Getting to eat a lot of lobster was one of the prime attractions for me and I wasn’t disappointed—neither was Dahna. We ate our weight in lobster (mostly rolls) up and down again from New Hampshire to Nova Scotia. In our minds, the quality of a lobster roll depends on the ratio of tail meat to claw meat, and you always want to go with the higher number. Another thing is making the right choice of other stuff to put on it.

If you forget to specify you’re liable to get your not-cheap lobster roll slathered in mayonnaise or some other cheap crap. You want to order them “naked.” The lobster roll, I mean. That’s when they grudgingly break out the good stuff—drawn butter, the only thing that justifies taking the lobster’s life. Now, I know there’s no small controversy about the pain a lobster feels when it’s being boiled to death, but I also know that its “brain” is just a small ganglia mass.

So, do they feel pain when cooked? Probably. Did Marie Antoinette wince when her head face-planted in the basket? Again probably, but I’m sure she forgot all about it soon enough. The thing is, you don’t know if it hurts or not for sure. You’d have to ask them and they ain’t talkin’ are they? That gives us the moral wiggle room we need to happily eat lobster and humanely whack off heads from time to time. The mind is a marvelous thing. Voting Republican can even make sense to a Christian.

We generally have good natures even though they do slide up and down the scale a little. I consider myself to be a “very fine fellow” every time I don’t tip a Japanese photographer over the railing. On the other hand, to be honest, I worry that I’m only “basically a good person” when the butter sauce is flying. But, that’s good enough when it comes to lobster, so dig in!

Our next stop was at famed Acadia National Park up along Maine’s rocky coast. This park is one of America’s headline attractions on the order of Yellowstone or Yosemite. Mostly we remember the rugged shoreline with its big jutting rocks, the prevalent cold rain and the huge wet trees that seemed to whisper, “Kill yourself.” That’s a little unfair because you shouldn’t judge a place solely by its weather at the moment. Actually, the sun would come out periodically and the peak leaf color would smash into your retina like a freight train making everything groovy all over again. It also smelled great there, like Christmas trees and all the Rawlings ball gloves and WHAM-O slingshots that go along with it. I bought a hat.

Rocky Coast at Acadia National Park
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Four-Masted Schooner Off of Bar Harbor, Maine from Atop Cadillac Mountain, ACADIA NP
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The Rockefellers and Dahna’s dad have an interesting history with the place involving Naval Intelligence during WWII. Because of the site’s lack of background clutter, Schoodic Point at Acadia, donated by John D. Jr, was used a a radio direction finder station serving to locate enemy ships, especially U-Boats, in the North Atlantic. Then, U.S. hunter aircraft could launch from carriers, find and sink them with bombs or torpedoes.

Schoodic Institute Campus includes the former Naval Observation Station
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Dahna’s decorated dad was a turret gunner on one of the planes. His job on the bombing run was to keep German gunners away from their deck guns with his electrically-operated twin .50 caliber machine guns as they flew away. Occasionally the hunter became the prey, and he was shot down into the drink twice. His main bitch was that certain assholes, I mean Assholes, would steal the chocolate bars from the life raft rations. Dahna had no idea about her dad’s combat experience and was shocked when she overheard Sid and I telling war stories. Like most WWII vets, he didn’t talk much about the war.

Sid liked to fish for perch from the bank. He wasn’t much of a boater.

Greater Yellowlegs – Schoodic Point Acadia National Park
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We only stayed three days at Acadia which doesn’t begin to do it justice even in perfect weather. When we planned this northy trip we knew time wasn’t on our side considering the distance involved. In order to get to Nova Scotia and back without jackknifing into a snowbank, we had to really scoot along and we did. Before we knew it we were at the Canadian border.

The Canadian Trees Greet Us at the Border Wearing Their Best Fall Colors
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The traffic was oddly heavy coming back into the U.S. but we were the only vehicle going into Canada. I thought, ‘Huh, what the…?’ That made no sense to me considering…well, you know…but that’s the way it was. When I pulled up to the booth the young, unsmiling woman asked for our passports and drivers licenses. I gave them to her and then she asked me to recite our address and destination which I did. I can’t say that being from a place called Comanche, Texas had anything to do with it but the rest of the conversation was very close to that below, in its entirety:

She: “Did you bring your guns?”
Me: “No, I didn’t bring any guns.”
She: “So, there are no guns in the RV or in the truck, is that correct?”
Me: “There are no guns aboard, that’s correct.”
She: “You left your guns at home?”
Me: “Yes Ma’am, I left my guns at home.”

That was it. She let us through after about one minute of our little gun minuet. We were on our way to Canada’s Fundy National Park and teeny tiny Alma, the New Brunswick town now of fond memory.

I’ve wanted to see the Bay of Fundy since learning about its enormous tides which can measure up to 40 feet. The low tides produce vast sloping tidal flats which should be great to explore, but the one at Alma resembled more of a desert than a chock-full-o’-life seabed suddenly exposed. We wondered about that as we unhooked Sacha from her leash in the gentle drizzle. Since we’re not Bay of Fundy experts, we could only speculate as to why.

Lobster Boats High & Dry During Low Tide at Bay of Fundy in Alma, New Brunswick
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Our best guess is that the critters that live in the water have adapted over the many ages to not be caught high and dry like they would be immediately before the arrival of a tsunami. All that was left was a bare sweep of compact sand that was nice to walk out on and it gave Sacha plenty of traction for her high speed jukes and jives. We were scanning the retreating bay when we noticed a solitary, red-haired woman walking toward us under a bright yellow umbrella, about 1,000 feet away.

Sacha Makes a New Friend, Irish Kate!
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My first paranoid thought was that she must be some pompous ass coming to insist we get Sacha back on her leash. Some say that people like that exist in great numbers, like fraudulent voters, and I’m sure that’s true since they say so even though I’ve personally never met such a jerk type person. It turned out that my fears were, as usual, misplaced. It was Kate, a citizen of Northern Ireland, domiciled since 1971 in the U.S. in various places like California but now living in Alma, N.B. where she owns a home. Like any sensible person, she beats a retreat in winter and goes down to Florida near Daytona to kick back until it’s over.

I said, “Hey, I’m Irish,” and told her my name. She thought for a moment and slowly shook her head, “I don’t know any family name of Branyan. There are similar names though…maybe your name is derived from one of them.” So much for my fantasy of being being warmly welcomed home by my long lost kin of the Emerald Isle. Maybe the good island folk forced my family to flee to America for hoarding the only good potatoes left from the blight or something. If our name is derivative, it’s probably for our own protection.

This is a delightful lady and we got to know her over a dinner later that evening of lobster and chowder at one of the little restaurants on the main, and only, drag. Irish Kate, as she’s known about town, is an artist. As soon as we found that out, Dahna got out the iPhone and, using Canada’s excellent wifi internet, hosted by the cafe, brought up the some of the paintings by our friends, Paul and Enid of South Carolina. They spent a good while looking at them and conversed in some arcane art lingo leaving me, mercifully, out of it.

Then Kate dug her own phone out of her purse and fiddled with it while telling us the story of her “Fish Head” painting. There is apparently a healthy international trade in fish heads from Iceland that the Canadian lobstermen use for bait in their traps. Kate is close to the owners of one of the restaurants in Alma, the Lobster Store, and they showed her the heads once on one of their boats.

When she got the picture of her painting on the screen and showed it to us, we both let out a little squeak of pleasure. You might not think a painting of a bunch of fish heads can have much impact but it did. The triangular heads were arranged in a beautiful mosaic of color, tightly fitted together and the whole idea of it really jumped out at you. She laughed when she rotated the picture electronically and said, “See? You can look at it from any position…up or down or sideways.” That was true, and it was also true the heads could look at you from any position as well.

I could still kick myself for not asking if any prints were available but, at least, I have the image seared permanently, and happily, in the forefront part of my brain. In addition to that gift, she gave us a CD of the Chieftans. Her cousin was a member of the band and played the harp. She told us that he was the only Protestant in the group. That brief touch on religion led us to a shared view on politics to the discreet relief of everyone.

We had a nice leisurely visit with her and when we parted company, she gave us a hug and that same smile you see in the photo. Sacha loved her and, as Kate said, (They had) “the same hair color.” So Dahna took the shot capturing her smile and a panoramic view of mutt butt in the foreground. Dahna cropped that last part out in a nod to decency and to spare Sacha embarrassment.

Common Loon – Bay of Fundy
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Kate was headed up somewhere in Nova Scotia the next day and so were we. She was going to see friends for Canadian Thanksgiving, and we were going to Cape Breton, specifically a park near Baddeck. It was a long drive through several towns, including St. John, complicated by being unschooled in the national signage system. So, there were a few missteps and anxious moments and neither of us would deny there was an accusation or two, but we made it. The roads, like the internet, are great in Canada and we miss them both now, now that we’re back, back in the U.S.A.

Iconic Owl’s Head – Fundy National Park, New Brunswick
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Caribou Plain Bog – Fundy National Park
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We only spent four days in Nova Scotia. If we had it to do over again, we would have left Comanche earlier and spent the extra time there because we loved it even though the crappy weather still dogged us. Four days doesn’t even scratch the surface of a place like that, so we’ve resolved to go back sometime for a much longer stay. There are plenty of logistical problems considering the distance and shiver factor, but we liked everything about it. Maybe the best plan would be to buy or rent a little place for the summer like Kate, and bail out around mid October for points south. Well, grist for the mill.

I mentioned in an earlier piece that the little town of Baddeck is the birthplace of Canadian aviation which occurred only a few years after the Wright Brothers’ Kitty Hawk flight. The first flight by the Silver Dart took off and landed on the frozen waters of Baddeck Bay in the winter of 1909. The plane’s construction was a joint American/Canadian effort partly financed and designed by Alexander Graham Bell. Bell loved the place so much he spent much of his life there on his large summer estate, complete with genius inventor laboratory. He messed around with fast boats too, apparently enjoying himself like a kid in his later years. You can get the whole story at his museum in Baddeck which, unfortunately, we missed.

We did get a very good look at Cape Breton’s world famous Cabot Trail. We allocated a whole day for the big Cabot Trail loop that begins and ends near Dahna’s perfectly-chosen camp near Baddeck and runs for nearly 200 miles. We were again lucky with the weather for that day because it stopped raining and cleared off. The sun came out and once again fired up the bright Day-Glo red, yellow and orange leaves to set against the deep blue Atlantic ringing most of the course. What a Maxwell Parrish day!

The Land Views of the Cabot Trail
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And the Atlantic View of the Cabot Trail
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I probably couldn’t describe it better for you even if I tried. Much better for you to see it for yourself. Sure, it’s a bit of trouble to get there, but that’s part of my point. Go to Nova Scotia because it’s there and if you’re there, you’ll see what I mean. It’s an extraordinarily beautiful and friendly place.

From Baddeck you can take the trail either clockwise or counterclockwise. I have to give myself a great deal of credit for taking the counterclockwise direction instead of the stupidly “preferred” clockwise one. Any moron could see that the counterclockwise motion offered easy access to the many ocean-side pull outs along the way instead of having to cross the heavy traffic going the other way. Any moron could see that…Well, I’m sure we all can think of one moron who couldn’t.

Cabot Trail – North Side of the Island
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Each year for nine days in the fall, the natives get all up for the Celtic Colours music festival on the Ceilidh (“kildee”-means party) Trail where Celtic bands perform all over the island. After eating yet another killer lobster roll at the Yellow Cello, we walked across the street and down to the bay to the Baddeck Yacht Club for a free performance. A girl set the up tempo beat with a couple of spoons tapping against her leg while the other musicians came in with a little hand drum called a bodhran, a guitar and two fiddles. We listened to them play a nice set of Irish favorites until a lady walked in with a tambourine as we, regretfully, walked back out into the rain.

Ceilidh at Baddeck Yacht Club
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We had to leave early before the Post Office closed in the vain hope our vote-by-mail ballots had arrived. Even though Patty had forwarded them to us a couple of weeks earlier, they got hung up at U.S. Customs for some reason, no doubt BENGHAZI! Those damn things chased us for about three more weeks until we finally got to Ft. Meade near Washington D.C. We did manage to get our vote in barely on time to help improve our dire political situation a little. Maybe. Who knows? Texas is pretty bad but at least it’s not Georgia, so maybe they got counted.

The rain let up overnight giving us a chance to get hooked up comfortably the next morning for the long trip home. When everything was all done and Sacha, the perfect dog, was settled in I started the truck. Dahna said, “Why can’t we just stay here?” I said, “We can come back. We know how to get here.” She said, “All right then,” a tad emphatically. A few minutes later it started to rain and didn’t let up for a long way. Finally, the sun came out again and so did the magnificent color of the maple leaves as they shook themselves dry in the wind. They look good on the flags too.

Rain Can’t Quench The Flames as We Depart Cape Breton
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The Ride Of A Lifetime

by Linda Curtoys

When Jeremy and I have related the story of our meeting to people over the 42 years of our marriage, many have directly said or intimated that I was looking for a man to marry in order to get out of the convent and Jeremy came along at the right time. I have always felt insulted and angry by that assessment, so I have decided to tell my side of the story.

For nearly ten years I was a member of a Roman Catholic order of women religious. I joined when I was 17 years old, fulfilling an urge that I had first felt at 12 years of age. I was advised at the time to complete high school, put my whole heart and soul into both the academic and social life, and then see if I still felt an urge to enter religious life. High school was a wonderful experience! It expanded my horizons both academically and socially and I was passionate about both. Nevertheless I entered the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, Ohio in 1961, with the belief that I was fulfilling a lifelong dream as well as answering the call to become “the bride of Christ”, the highest calling one could have as a woman in the Roman Catholic Church.

By the time 1968 began, I was no longer sure I was on the right track. Most of all I had become disillusioned with the strictures convent life imposed on me. As a young nun I was naturally sought after by the teenage girls I taught, yet was told often to leave them in the middle of their tales of the crises in their lives in order to make sure I was on time for prayers. Tell a girl in the middle of her tears over the divorce of her parents that I would pray for her rather than listen to her? I just couldn’t do that, so spent quite a bit of time in the superior’s office and doing various penances, like extra time at prayer.This was not what I had expected when I joined! With much prayer and soul searching, I argued with myself for the next two years. Sometimes I would convince myself that I must stay in the convent to fulfill the promises I had made. Then I would find just as strong an argument to leave and pursue my destiny elsewhere. To put it mildly, I was an indecisive mess! I didn’t really know what I was looking for, I couldn’t put it into words; I just knew that where I was and what I was doing did not fit who I was.

Struggling to resolve the dilemma, in 1969 I applied for and got a summer grant for a social studies seminar offered at Utah State University. I hoped the distance from home would give me mental and physical space for my rambling mind. At the end of the summer I was certain that staying in the convent was my life’s work and I returned feeling settled. However the unrest returned as soon as I got back. So this time I applied for and received a summer grant at Utah State for the summer of 1970. But I also asked for a scholarship to work on a Master’s degree in Political Science for the 1970-1971 academic year. Much to my surprise and relief, my request for financial aid was granted; I was on my way. Little did I know what consequences that decision would have!

Once I left Dayton I decided to discontinue dressing in my religious habit. I purchased some clothes at Deseret Industries and borrowed a nurse’s cape my sister had used during her training. Thus outfitted I attended classes, took on a few extra jobs on campus to augment my scholarship money and went out with friends, often to the Bistro for an evening of talking and drinking beer. I told myself that everyone saw me as just simply Linda Hungling. So when I got in Jeremy’s car that day in December, I thought I was traveling incognito. Therefore it was a huge letdown when Jeremy responded to my question “What do you know about me?” with “Well, I know you’re a nun!” My heart sunk immediately, because I had been fascinated with the tale of his life in so many different countries. It was so exotic to me since I had never traveled out of the state of Ohio until now. And his description of the dilemma he was facing made me feel like I had met someone who understood what it was like to stand at a fork in the road, not knowing which way to turn. And though I had no romantic feeling at that time, I was fearful that being a nun would be an impediment to any friendship that might develop. What man was going to waste time with a nun? Lucky for me the man was Jeremy!

The day after I arrived at their house, my friend Mary invited Jeremy to accompany us to visit some friends I had made the previous summer. It was also Mary who invited Jeremy to stay the night before he left for Berkeley, so that he could get to UCLA early and get on the road. We had become very comfortable in each other’s company and I felt as though I had met a person who understood and was willing to listen to what I was thinking and feeling about life at that time. In addition, I was coming to the realization that the future would hold risks if I was going to come to a decision, so traveling to Berkeley together just felt like a part of that risk and one I was willing to take.

As we traveled we continued the conversation we had been engaged in over the past three days, sharing our past lives as well as our struggles with knowing what direction life was taking each of us. And somehow, even though neither of us can remember just how it happened, we arrived at the same conclusion. We would work out the future together! We simply started planning the future as though we were one rather than two. No bells rang; no romantic dinner; no Jeremy on his knees to propose or offer me an engagement ring. What had evidently been in each of our subconscious minds became conscious to us both at the same time. We needed nothing else!

Mary and Lou were ecstatic when we relayed our intention to marry. My friend in Logan, who had labored with me over the “leaving”, “staying” dilemmas of the past months, was also delighted. Even the Superior of the Sisters of Charity, from whom I needed permission to leave the order, was very supportive once I assured her that I had not made a snap decision and we both knew what we were doing. My parents proved the biggest hurdle. In letters that should have been written on asbestos rather than ordinary paper, they let me know that I was a great disappointment to them. I was taking away from them the pride they had in my being a nun. I was also breaking a fundamental rule in our family, that no matter what the personal cost, you do your duty and do not break your word. However, in this instance I chose to break my word and follow a different duty, one to myself and to the road that gave me the opportunity to be the person I really was. And forty-two years later I would do it all over again!


	

MAPLE LEAF RAG Part 4: Really Erie Lakes and Canals

When you’re traveling between one location and another while transporting nearly eight tons of steel, plastic, explosive liquids and gasses, mileage concerns displace your normal thoughts of wealth, fame and glory. The distance from Dayton to Geneva State Park up on Lake Erie just past Cleveland is about 25 miles less than the range of the rig per tank. In situations like that I always think, ‘Yea, I don’t have to stop for gas.’

It’s always lovely to think we can just hook up our long, extra wide, heavy trailer and drag it several hundred miles without having to creep into a gas station with it looming up back there. Sidling up to a pump in an unfamiliar and always busy station with the huge thing in tow requires an in and out strategy rivaling a complex military maneuver.

Since I didn’t go to West Point, I always try to comfort myself by thinking of it as a challenge, ‘You know kid, enjoy it.’ Yeah, right. It’s always a white knuckle thing and I’ll never get used to it. I almost always have to stop even when the new park up ahead is within range. Why on earth? Why, fear of course…unbridled, stampeding fear.

I start to worry about running out of gas anyway on some shoulderless two lane in the middle of Bum(f word) Egypt with no cell phone service. That’s worse than the torture of stopping for gas isn’t it? Or is it? All I know at this point is that Dahna better find me a gas station on the GPS pretty damn quick which she always does. So far I’ve managed to gas up without knocking over any pumps and making the national news. I always feel great when I pull out with a full tank and get back on the road close to my destination. Top of the world, Ma! In this case it was Geneva S.P.

You would expect a park on Lake Erie to have a marina and it does, a very nice one with sailboats after our hearts. We went there first because I took my usual wrong turn and ended up in its parking lot, camper and all. Like Buck Creek the park had no individual water taps or sewer hookups so we had to be nearly self-contained except for electrical power which it did provide. It meant relying entirely on our water and storage tanks for the four days we were there. No problem if you don’t mind navy showers, hardly the worst thing that ever happened to you.

We had an easy time setting up and I was starting to think we were getting good at it. After three years of doing this we are getting better. Good? That’s relative. Anyway, we finished up, tossed Sacha into the truck by her “lifting harness,” and headed for little Great Lake Erie. That’s relative too, heh heh.

I like the word, “relative.” Dahna and I are relativists, political correctness be damned. Science will do that to you. That said,there are some things in the universe that approach absolutism, simple things. Gas laws for instance. Another might be Newton’s Laws of Motion which inform the inherent stability of speeding bicycles.

I even think evolutionary biology can be understood as couplet that approaches absolutism in its contrast with mankind’s vanity:

Mankind: The form of his works will follow function (lasts several thousand years)
Nature: The function of her works will follow form (lasts eons, literally)

Yea Nature! Like Sara Lee, nobody doesn’t like Nature. Really though, do we all don’t not like it? Vote.

Along with little dogs, Sacha does not like water and the lake was not her thing at all. She regarded it like she does her water bowl. She drinks water but only because she’s vastly out of place living down south with us and, as a husky, would certainly prefer melting snow in her mouth for that particular nutrient.

She did like some of the nasty stuff washed up on the beach and Dahna kept a firm hand on the leash to keep her from rolling. Get distracted for just a second and you’ll turn to see Sacha flat on her back, legs in the air, doing the doggy twist on some horrible putrescence straight out of H.P. Lovecraft. Sacha aside (but only for a moment), Dahna and I loved the lake since we love all bodies of water and the bigger the better.

There are plenty of lakes you can’t see across, but one the size of Lake Erie registers as oceanic in your mind even on a calm day like that one. On that day it didn’t have the deep power rumble of the ocean and so it felt like a lake, an oceanic lake. Apparently, I can’t describe it, but I will say that it shared with the ocean a sense of the earth’s curvature in the mind’s eye.

Dredge and Sailboat Share Lake ErieDSCN6892 (1)

I can’t remember the ocean ever being quiet at the shore, even after living there for several years. I was once becalmed on our sailboat on a Gulf crossing and it was very quiet, like the big lake that day. On the shore of Lake Ontario during a windy day near Niagara Falls, we “heard” the ocean once again as big waves raised by the long fetch crashed against the shore. Power and beauty like Beethoven or Serena Williams.

Without doubt, one of Nature’s most beautiful productions are the little dinosaurs we live with today—birds. Instead of just piddling around solely with Chemistry and Mathematics, Dahna should have picked up a degree in Ornithology. It doesn’t really matter though because she’s well on the way to mastering the subject as an avocation. She usually leaves me and Sacha asleep in the camper while she braves the elements at first light in pursuit of the flitty folk. She often meets earthbound folk with cameras who are also afflicted with the same obsessive compulsive disorder.

She ran into a retired Brooklynite at nearby Arcola Creek Park who was on a special mission. He was scarecrowing the crows away from a select group of blackbirds he was feeding. These birds had lost their tail feathers and couldn’t fly south. He was feeding them until they grew back and could then make the trip. Like Dahna at home, he was able to call his birds to him. They roosted near the creek that formed a small estuary near the lake where she later met a young couple fishing for bait.

Tailfeatherless Red-Winged Blackbird at Arcola Creek ParkVersion 2

They were kind and friendly, anxious to share with Dahna some points of interest in their community of Madison and its environs. She was struck by their love of their home and a healthy outdoor life. Dahna took a picture of the pretty little golden shiner they caught and several more of a hungry juvenile bald eagle nearby. She came back to the camper all happy and smiley and made me almost wish I’d gotten up and gone with her.

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Juvenile Bald Eagle at Arcola Creek ParkDSCN7031 (1)

In another wetland area in our park, Dahna got a good picture of a Reddish Egret, a new “lifer.” A lifer bird is birding talk for any bird successfully identified to the Life List of a birder. I asked her how many birds she has so far but she didn’t know. She thought maybe she’d count them when we got home, but I don’t think she’s keeping score. She’s pretty solid about the value of things.

Reddish Egret Geneva State ParkDSCN7075

One of the things we both value is a good cafe. In a strange place it’s sometimes hard to find one, but the town of Geneva has a great one, Honeybees. It reminded us of another great find way over in Grants Pass, Oregon—the Powderhorn. Anyhow, we walked into Honeybees about 10:30 AM and started to pass a little sign by the door. Dahna glanced at it and almost broke her neck doing a double take. It said, “Eggs Benedict—$5.95.” Dahna jabbed her finger at the sign and said a bit loudly, “That’s what I’m having.”

When we got to the table, I looked around and told her that $6.00 Eggs Benedict might not be a good idea, know what I mean, Vern? She said, “I’m having $6.00 Eggs Benedict and you can have whatever you like, little man.” When our dynamite Filipino waitress came to take our order, they both made me feel like a fool for sticking with my usual plain jane breakfast which I’m here to say was damn good. Of course, Dahna smiled across the table at me with every bite of her $6.00 Eggs Benedict and when she finished, patted her lips with her napkin and said, “Best breakfast ever!” I should have had what she had, and I was relieved when she held off doing her “Meg Ryan in the Restaurant” imitation.

Afterward, we did a little sightseeing in the town and some more birding not far away back at Arcola Creek Park. We only saw a few cormorants and crows but Sacha had a good time charging around and doing her sniffery. When we got back to our camper, the  huge 5th wheel trailer was gone and in its place was a tiny pup tent with a motorcycle parked beside it. The contrast was good enough for me to snipe, “Riches to rags.”

I’ve noticed in my life that every time I make a snotty comment like that, it always comes back to bite me in the butt. You’d think I’d learn but…not so much. It turns out that the guy in that tent was not poor in any respect. We started our conversation across the way about Sacha or his bike or something—I can’t remember. As we talked and moved closer together, I wondered about his accent and since we were close enough to Quebec I asked if he was Canadian. I wasn’t far off. He was Iranian.

[With autocratic governments murdering their own citizens all over the world and our own government, if not supportive, at least looking the other way, I’m not going to use his real name.]

I had enough sense not to offer him a drink but, rather, coffee. He declined as he sat down at our picnic table, “I just finished my tea,” he said. BZ was almost 60 years old and was on his way to Montreal via Niagara Falls. We also were headed to the Falls a couple of days after he planned to leave on the morrow. Dahna said that maybe we’d meet up again there, but he doubted it. “It probably depends. Sometimes you go to a place like that and you look at it for a little while and you go, ‘eh’, and,” he shrugged,  “then you go someplace else.”

Dahna laughed, “I know what you mean. Like when we went to the Grand Canyon, you see it and then it’s back in the car and you’re off. Next place, please. Peggy Lee had a song about it.” That confused BZ a little and it didn’t help when I mentioned Leonard Cohen. He didn’t know the name but he knew Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” I mentioned that he was from Montreal and created a large and exceptional body of work, and Dahna added that he was officially a Canadian National Treasure.

I was ready to change the subject so I said, “Well, he’s dead now. He had the infinite good sense to die the day before Trump got elected.” That opened the door to a lengthy and intimate discussion that lasted several hours. BZ shook his head and said, “You can’t go backwards, you can’t do it. That’s what my country did and now look. You go back and it’s war, and all war is bad. ALL WAR! “ He was almost shouting.

BZ teaches certain pediatric surgical procedures at a state university since recently closing his practice. His wife and children live several hundred miles away, and he commutes home on weekends to see them. They attend a good public school and he refuses to move them until the last one graduates next year. His trip to Montreal was his last big road trip by motorcycle and because of that it had a special resonance, a last salute to his youth.

I said, “Yeah, it is. I lost my arm in Vietnam.”

He nodded and touched the table several times with his finger, “Then you know what I mean. You were a soldier too.”

“Marine,” I couldn’t let that ride, “You’re right, it’s all bad but it never stops does it?”

“No”, he said, “I’ll tell you how I got to this country.”

“It wasn’t too long after high school when the revolution came, and I was getting ready to go to college. In the first year they arrested and executed my older brother. He was a lawyer and he was carrying a banned newspaper. So, they killed him.”

Dahna couldn’t believe it, “They killed your brother because he had a newspaper?”

“Yes. They killed many people for trivial reasons. No reason. I knew people, students, who were in the United States studying and that’s where I wanted to go too. But, the Iraqis had invaded our country. They knew we were weak because the shah was gone and, by then, I could not get a passport. I could only get one by joining the army for two years first.”

I looked at him, “You fought in that war for two years to get a passport?”

“Yes,” he answered, “and I knew the first day I was sent to the front I would be killed. I got there with a group of guys, but I was the only one with a drivers license. They assigned me to transport and gave me a truck but an officer was interested in me and started talking. So, he made another guy take the truck. It hit a mine and blew up and killed the driver who should have been me. The first day.”

I kind of smiled a little, “I was too dumb to think I’d be killed even though there were a lot of close calls, a lot of firefights. One time my canteen got hit and a corporal came over and told me how lucky I was. About a half hour later, he was dead. There were a lot of twists of fate.”

He shook his head, “Yeah, you know about it. There were times when I had to walk on bodies. It was unbelievable that I survived. But I’ve had a good life in this country. Many times I think about what happened to my country and how glad I am to be here. Here with you!

Dahna and I both laughed and she said, “We’re glad you’re here with us too.”

We talked about the Islamic Revolution and the war and his country under the shah until the mosquitos won out. The next morning Dahna had a big cup of coffee for him and we spent almost an hour talking about our present lives and plans. Then he returned to the subject of Iran. He talked about how his country was modern then with a growing professional class. When I expressed some doubts and mentioned SAVAK, the shah’s secret police, he brushed it aside. It was much better then he said.

He was surprised when Dahna mentioned our overthrow of Mossadegh in the coup that installed the shah.

“You know about that? Yes, that was bad, but everything was better under the shah,” he said, “You knew about that.”  He was a little mystified, but pleased and his eyes lit up, “Everyone loved Mossadegh!”

I remembered back, after we sold our farm in the 70s, walking to class one summer at the University of Houston. I often had to make a detour around a large group of Iranian students demonstrating in the parking lot against the shah. One day there was an incredible mackerel sky above us, a sure sign of rain, but I had no idea what either the sky meant or the demonstration. It was just an inconvenience to me.

It’s hard to imagine but about that time, our close friend Lorey lived in Tehran as a young English teacher at a Department of Defense school. Her husband was an U.S. Army officer stationed there and one day they decided to drive to Kabul to buy some carpets, and that’s what they did. It’s almost impossible to imagine that now, isn’t it?

After our coffee, Dahna took Sacha for a birding walk through the park while BZ struck his tent and packed his bike for the trip up to Niagara Falls. I went back in the camper to write a bit at the dinette. I opened the shade when I heard him throttle up the bike and as he passed by he saw me through the window and we waved goodbye.

Several days later when we got to the Falls, we looked for him but he was gone…off to Montreal, I guess. I hope he goes down to the water and sees the chapel where

“…the sun pours down like honey
on our Lady of the Harbor”

Maybe he’ll hear some really fine music before he goes home to his happy family. We both hope so.

My own musical history began with what is now a dim echo of memory of my mother singing me to sleep with a lullaby. Next, and firmly implanted in my consciousness, is Patti Page’s “How Much is That Doggie in the Window?” That thing has much to do with our outlays over the years of thousands of dollars in dog food, vet bills, squeaky toys and the like.

After that, no doubt in Kindergarten, I learned the Erie Canal song, singing:

“I had a mule, her name was Sal
Fifteen years on the Erie Canal”

I’d always thought of that song and the canal itself as somehow exotic, stuck in that Peter Pan part of my brain that never grows up. For almost the entirety of my life, I wanted to see that thing and now my chance was coming up. Our next stop was near Buffalo, NY at one end of the canal. We were camping at Grand Island from which you can almost hear the roar of Niagara Falls.

Last Look at the Lake Erie ShoreDSCN6880

 


Continue reading MAPLE LEAF RAG Part 4: Really Erie Lakes and Canals

MAPLE LEAF RAG Part 3: Ohio Is All That

Right now we are in the singular Acadia National Park in Maine where today’s cold drizzle and grey sky has done nothing to extinguish the flaming Fall foliage or our high spirits. We’re digesting a fabulous scallop, shrimp and haddock sea food platter from Chase Restaurant in Winter Harbor. When our nap is over, we’ll start prepping for the border crossing into New Brunswick tomorrow. But first, back to Ohio.

Kentucky gave way noticeably as we crossed the state line into Ohio. Everything seemed to ease out a bit as we headed north toward Buck Creek State Park near Dayton. It was a little like moving into a larger house. The vistas spread out farther giving us Texans a chance to exhale. “That’s better,” said Dahna. “Kentucky’s nice, but I think I’ll be more comfortable here.” The forested areas were free of the underbrush of Kentucky, and seemed to invite you to cut a stout walking stick and hike among the trees like you might do through an English wood. The cultivated fields were larger and they spread out and away opening up a bigger sky. It just got better and better as we approached the park.

I think state parks are like dogs. Some, like Sacha, are prettier than others but they’re all great and Buck Creek was no exception. Our campsite was fine too, only that it was a blind side back in–the bête noire of middling trailer backer-uppers like me. Still, it was the easiest site to get into park-wide thanks to Dahna’s foresight when she picked it out months earlier. Even so, it took a few tries to get the camper in square and lined up with the electrical box and the…the…”Where the hell’s the frickin’ water faucet?” I asked politely, considering my mounting horror. Dahna’s eyes were like splintered glass (J. Agee), “There isn’t one. I think we have to go back out and find a tap and fill our own freshwater tank.”

Well…shoot.

Buck Creek State Park Marina

Buck Creek Marina

I did a better job backing in the second time and an hour or so after that Bud and Deb brought their drinks over to join ours. They were winding up a months long trip to the Northwest and were headed home the next day to their place in northern Ohio, dead tired. They were recently retired from a lifetime of the kind of honest productive work you probably associate with Ohio and the American ideal. Making things. They helped bring into view the heart of our country where we happened to be sitting.

Bud’s blunt manner of speech reminded me of my neighbor Ray so I looked at his hand curled around a rum and Coke. Sure enough, his hands showed the effects of a lifetime of hard work. It was a little incongruent that he and Deb were driving a large expensive motorhome stereotypically associated with soft-handed, hard-hearted rich people.

There’s a bit of crosstalk among RVers about class differences between fancy motorhome drivers and trailer draggers like us but most of it is bullshit. True, there’s been some examples of Class A snobbery and trailer dragger crassness but, like most stereotyped things, they dissolve into the gooey soup of statistical norm.

At bottom, it’s simple biology. People are pretty much the same if you get the chance to  sit down with them. It’s true that some people tip over into sociopathy, and it’s also true that sometimes they get together in great numbers for the purpose of destroying, say, a nation now known as a “homeland.” But, all of us want pretty much the same things as it turns out, and traveling brings that into high relief. It eases our fears and anxieties, and soothes the savage breast. Except during a blind side back in.

Our brief time with Bud and Deb was a nice Ohio prelude to our visit with Linda and Jeremy, our friends from Texas, now happily living in Bethany Village near Dayton. Jeremy is one of Dahna’s favorite professors, now retired, whom she met as his student in the summer of ’86. Dahna previously determined that since we were in our mid and late 30s, we were finally mature enough to finish school. So, back we went.

Jeremy had pulled the short straw and was teaching a core Texas Government class that summer. I doubt if he was thrilled about it but Dahna sure was. Several years later when she graduated at the top of her class as an organic chemist, Jeremy remained in the small circle of her favorites. A few years after that I taught their son John at our little high school in Hico, Tx.

Bethany Village is an immaculate planned community of retirees that was founded about 70 years ago near Dayton, Linda’s home town. It is a full service campus of everything from independent living in houses or apartments to full nursing care. Absolutely everything inside or outside the home is taken care of by management, and if anything at all goes wrong, all you need is their phone number on speed dial. In Comanche we have thousands of dollars in a tractor, lawn mowers and a shop full of tools and it’s still not enough but hey, we’s “management.”

We intended to board Sacha for the day so we could all tour Dayton dogless. But, friends being friends, they said she could stay in their house. Sacha promptly reciprocated by marking their territory as her own and we all had a big laugh. No we didn’t. But we did have a big day—a real highlight of our trip. In fact, the entire day was a series of highlights thanks to our friends.

Linda had earlier promised to cook for us and she delivered big time with a wonderful lunch followed that evening by fresh sweet corn and a chicken pot pie to kill for. Fortunately, Linda handed over the recipe voluntarily.

After lunch they took us on a perfect tour of Dayton which ended, perfectly, with the ringing out of “As Time Goes By” by the famous Deeds Carillon. Linda asked a guy with a badge if we could pick out a song and he said, “Sure,” and handed us a list to choose from. Dahna and I both said, “That one,” simultaneously and the big bells followed us in our slow walk out to the car. Dooley Wilson would have approved, I think.

Rick and Ilsa might always have had Paris, but Dahna and I will always have Dayton. Linda chauffeured us and Jeremy through much of the city including the parts that were off limits to her strict Catholic upbringing when she was a girl. The streets there were a little twisty and tight with numerous small establishments that once exerted a slightly profane gravitational pull on Dayton’s teenagers in the 1960s. Maybe even for a young girl like Linda destined to become a nun for a time. But as she drove us out into the larger city we saw muscular brick smokestacks adjacent to the huge buildings that once manufactured the products for a confident and increasingly affluent people. Today, these big campuses are largely “re-purposed” to worthy ends but they’re also useful in nefarious ways.

Our political opportunists point to them as artifacts of a vanished Golden Age and promise to return us to those halcyon days. In thrall to the very forces that depopulated those buildings, they intend nothing of the kind nor do they have anything in common with the men and women who built them. In fact, they would have loathed a man like John Patterson, the founder of Dayton’s National Cash Register.

Patterson was a visionary of the late 1800s and early 1900s whose workplace ideas helped seed the labor friendly policies of the New Deal. He opened his buildings to daylight with numerous large windows, established innovative safety and security protocols for his workers plus health care, child care, schools and he paid them well. His long range business strategy built a powerhouse company that produced enormous numbers of high quality business machines, satisfied customers and employees. NCR made a huge positive impact on Dayton’s and Ohio’s and America’s wealth.

This guy not only knew how to run a business to perfection, he also knew how to save a town, literally. Do yourself a big favor and Google this man. Check out how he anticipated the terrible flood of 1913 and instantly converted his factories to boat building and bread baking. His actions saved a lot of people that day and that’s why you see his name everywhere in Dayton. We still have people like that. If you remember Hurricane Katrina, you should also remember the Cajun Navy, the flotilla that saved countless lives in New Orleans in 2005. We met one of those guys a few days ago in Alma, New Brunswick. (We met a lovely Irish lass there too, but that’s another story for later.)

It’s impossible to overstate the impact Dayton’s Wright brothers had. It’s only coincidence, but the town of Baddeck on Cape Breton, Nova Scotia where we camped is actually the birthplace of Canadian aviation. I’ll say more about that later, but you might be interested to know that Alexander Graham Bell was a big part of it. The idea here is that Dayton isn’t the birthplace of American aviation but of aviation itself. Big difference, or as Bernie might say, “YUUGE!”  That other guy might say it too if he knew anything about history.

Wright Brothers Museum

WrightBros

Before the bells of Deeds Carillon personally ushered us out of the Carillon Historical Park, we toured most of the exhibits there including a full-size recreation of the Wright brothers’ shop. It included a mock up of their manufacturing equipment which looked decidedly Dickensian with a touch of Steam Punk. You wouldn’t want to build their bicycles or airplanes wearing a tie or even a ring.

Their first production bicycle was called the Van Cleve after the Wright family’s ancestors. As Jeremy and I took in the lines of an actual Van Cleve, I ventured that they looked a lot like modern bikes. Actually the Wright bike looked a lot more like my 1957 Schwinn Corvette than a modern bike and when I realized that a few weeks later, I winced a little. Jeremy was decently mum on the subject.

The Wright bicycles were early “safety bicycles” with two equal sized wheels that quickly replaced the more dangerous high wheeled types. You’ve seen these pictured with a derby-wearing daredevil sporting a handlebar mustache sitting atop one of the ridiculous things. It occurs to me now that his ‘stache was named after the deathtrap’s handlebars the damn fool was gripping for dear life. Mystery solved. Ah…bicycles.

About 1970, I was riding my Japanese 10 speed bike home in Houston’s Montrose around midnight. I had a strong Gulf breeze at my back and I was young and strong, so I decided to “stand on it” to see just how fast that heavy monster would go. I shifted into 10th gear just about the time a big “cowboy” staggered out from the pool hall up ahead. He saw me coming in the street lights, my long hair flowing. It pissed him off.

He made an unfortunate snap decision that factored out velocity from momentum’s equation: p = mv where p stands for momentum, m for mass and v for velocity. I figure his mass was roughly equal to mine plus the bicycle, but his velocity was negligible compared to my own. When we met he put his shoulder into it and so did I. The impact caused the bike to wobble as if he were a puff of wind, and when I looked back he was on his keister spinning like a top.

It was a perfect example of the conserving and  converting of linear momentum into angular momentum, poor boy. I’m sure whoever held his beer had a good laugh before calling the ambulance. My Physics students got a laugh out of it too. Well, the cowboy lost that night but I guess he won in the long run, or thinks he did. Be sure to vote.

Linda and Jeremy visited us at Buck Creek the next day for dinner. Dahna grilled sweet chili chicken and I fixed them our Old Crow house drink which they politely sipped. We talked past dark, my favorite thing to do with smart, lovely people. They’re well-traveled citizens of the world and we’re lucky to be their friends. Luckier still, they’ve contributed several fine pieces for this new blog to be published soon.

Mute Swan

Version 2

When we left for Geneva State Park the next day it was with a twinge of regret. I said, “This deserved way more than three days.” Dahna said, “Yup, I could live here.” I said, “What? And leave Comanche and the Chicken Express behind?” She said, “Pppth.”

Canada Geese

BCGeese