Monday, December 20, 2010

CHRISTMAS AT ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY

Rest ye once merry Gentlemen

Every year, since 1992, Merill Worchester, owner of the WorchesterWreath Company has brought wreaths to Arlington Cemetery.
Until a few years ago, no one but the workers at the cemetery knew his name. He got the idea when he was 12 years old and a paperboy for The Bangor Daily News and won a contest and a trip to Washington. When he had extra, unsold wreaths one year he brought them to Washington and placed them in a small section on the cold granite headstones.
The project has grown, been publized and now everyione wants to help. Yet for many years Merrill bore all the expeneses and his family did all the labor.The truck arrived at dawn, they did their work and were gone.
"I just seemed like the right thing to do," said Worchester.

Indeed.







Rest easy, sleep well my brothers and sisters.


All is well, God is nigh....



Tuesday, November 9, 2010

THE OLD DEAR
1988-2010




Time is everything. A time to live, a time to enjoy, and a time to die.

In the spring, nearly 21 years ago, a one-year old cat established an outpost on the fence in my yard. She seemed to like the yard and stayed all day and on into evening, finally convincing someone to feed her.

Yesterday she left for good. After insinuating herself into the lives of all who live here, slowly at first and then for so long a time I feared she might well outlive me and I would have to put her in my Will, she went to sleep for the last time.

After a month of exceedingly good behavior and unusal energy, she came to a near full stop last Monday. She ate nothing, her gait became unsteady and by yesterday, her mentation as well. She never had an agreed upon proper name here---she was known to the Veternary as "Kitt" with the second "t" added so that the computer would accept it as a name. As the years went by, so many years, since she first arrived unbidden on the fencepost, she became "Dear One," and in the end, "The Old Dear."

Her Vitae became known in a telephone call on July 4th, some three months after she decided she liked it here despite the dog. A woman's voice asked if the cat that we had found and posted the signs about answered to the name "Cleo." My answer was simple and abrupt. "How the hell should I know? She wandered in here three months ago and didn't bother to introduce herself."

Presently, an elderly woman who, we were to learn, left her outside her home to de-mouse the yard while she was in Israel arrived. She explained that the neighbors were to keep an eye on her cat. Apparently the hadn't. She claimed her "Cleo," and we assumed that was that. Three days later, the woman drove into the driveway as we were leaving. She annouced that the cat was setting off the alarms in the house trying  get out and otherwise annoying her. She had taken her to the vet who pronounced her fit but "depressed." She was on the way to the shelter to exchange her but if we wanted her we could have her. While she summarized this state of affairs a cardboard box rolled back and forth in near silence in the back seat as if it had life . Sending the creature back seem a bad choice to the members of our household. So she opened the door of the car, the box rolled onto the drive, and "Cleo" ran from it into  our garage and the rest is history.

For the next 20 years she saw me off to work in the morning, walked over me on the way to bed each night, and stood on my chest on Sundays purring or snorting loudly because I had not arisen before dark. She seemed puzzled about why she had not    been fed and never grasped what was different about weekends. She did not cuddle, barely tolerated petting, although would permit her ears to be rubbed.  She never went from point A to point B without first visting point C. She taught me much about the Type C personality. 

She was sure of her own way and made it without much fuss. On occassion she would find us if she thought she had been neglected or her biological clock told her that a meal was late. She never weighed more than nine pounds but had the constitution of the energizer bunny.  Her vet rhapsodized about her "perfect" blood work and said she had the body of a 6 year old at her last check-up four months ago.

Goodbye Old Dear. Thanks for the memories.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

FALL COMES TO THE SISKIYOS AND THE ROAD POINTS HOME

A lot has happened. A lot that was scheduled to happen did not. We are now on the road home. The sheer size of the storm that was predicted for last weekend was enough to make this southern Californian decide that this had been a very lucky year and it was time to start south.


Unfortunately the start was about three days sooner than I had anticipated so two visits to see friends had to be forsaken for the journey out in fog and rain.

Last weekend brought the first significant storm of the season to Oregon. It went from major to scary Saturday when 4.0 inches of rain had fallen by 4PM on the coast and it was actually getting worse and the wind was 40 kts. and climbing in gusts. My plan had been to spend a day catching up on housekeeping matters in the Siskiyou National Forest and then head south, seeing friends along the way. At six that morning, all that changed. Water started to seep through a seal on the roof. It has happened before and I intuited that it wasn’t going to get better on its own. The immediate problem was solved by getting out of bed. The leak was directly over it. Now the choices were to find someone to fix it on a very rainy Saturday or try to control it and move right away to get ahead of the worst of the impending rain. The first has always proved the less favorable option, particularly on a weekend, when of course things like this always happen.

Apologies were made to my potential hosts and I hurried up through the passes and down into the central valley of California. The drive was not without its moments of beauty but mostly it was reminiscent of the cross country nightmare of two years ago. Fog was a near constant companion as was rain, very heavy rain. The good news is that the seal doesn’t leak when La Coachasita is moving. After a brutal 650 miles, we reached a place called Patterson, Ca and the “Kit Fox” RV park. It was seven o’clock, very dark and still raining, albeit with less force.

The Kit Fox is what I call an “out and in” park, a very large slab of cement meant to house those passing through and no reservations are needed. They are proprietary parks that charge a good deal for a one night stay, and range widely in amenities. RV parks in general never close. The offices do, however, so one must use the “after hours” check-in. There is no uniform system of after hours check-in, and the Kit Fox had an elaborate one. Without benefit of the feeble mental faculties I had possessed that morning, I noted that the bottom line of the directions was that the office would re-open at nine in the morning, so I dropped my name and the space number I was taking in the late arrival box and groped around until I managed to get in the space, got electricity to the camper, ate something, and went to bed in the hope that the “diverting” work I had done would suceed. It rained most of the night. I stayed dry, paid  in the morning, and headed further down Interstate 5 still looking for dry air. It was getting better for about two hours and then it got worse. It stayed worse for another 400 miles until I was south of Monterrey. I moved back to the coast route at Gilroy, known as the “Garlic Capital of the World.” If you have a sense of smell, you can’t miss it. I stopped often, ate often, and checked the weather every chance I could. When I found only scattered showers near San Luis Obispo my spirits lifted. The wind was still harsh, however, so I decided to continued on to Lake Cachuma in the St. Yenez Mountains west of Santa Barbara where I assumed it would be better quicker and I could count on some warmth and less moisture. After the first night, when the showers were more than forecast, the weather turned warm and sunny. There are few campers here in this enormous park that I have written of before. The help is friendly and there is a bass tournament this weekend so more people will come in by the weekend.

In the end, a week planned further north exploring new things that will have to wait for another time and two visits were lost. Yet that is the nature of nomadic travel. I am enjoying watching the migrating birds and wintering hawks, eagles, ducks, geese, herons and all manner of woodpeckers  here on the more than 1000 acres of park. The huge lake here supplies water for irrigation of the vegetables to the west and the drinking water to Santa Barbara and surroundings as the wells go dry in the summer months. The lake is high now due to the odd rain pattern and cool summer—down only sixteen feet by the testimony of the storekeeper. It is, as always, a peaceful place. A place I often try to make the last stop of a trip north, perhaps further set apart this year by the weather and the time.

Home is 350 miles away. The drive is easy enough and will be made when the food runs low or the clocks change. It has been a good trip taken all together and, since both La Coachasita and I have survived, will go down as another successful one.

Spring will come soon enough,  new plans will be made, and we will be off again. I still am curious about what is over the next hill and, as Charles Kuralt used to say, around the bend up there.

Thanks for coming along.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

CHARCTERS AND CREATURES ALONG THE EMERALD HIGHWAY

The weather has stayed so lovely here it has been impossible to leave. Yesterday was the first true fog day we have had in two weeks. It is often been foggy here at night and in the early morning but rarely has lasted long. It is a rare year, not likely to be repeated soon. There has been some rain north of here, but the state from the midpoint down has remained dry and unseasonably warm. This weekend marks the first cold nights and truly grey days. It is the announcement that it is time to move on, inland perhaps, where the temperatures are higher in the daytime and the sun will be shining next week assuming the weather remains as the prognosticators suggest.


The time here has fallen into a pleasant pattern. The routine has allowed me to meet more characters and observe more of the creatures here. There are so many characters among these travelers and vacationers too and then there are the drifters, grifters, and townsfolk. There is so little time to chronicle them all.

As always, the bikers are fascinating. Two groups were here a few nights, resting up for the rest of their journeys. One, a young couple from Seattle who had made it this far in sixteen days was headed for “somewhere in California”. They showed me the topography maps that showed more hilly sections yet ahead in California than they had thought. I suggested the maps were likely right. I believe I saw Becky recalculating their turn around point before my eyes. Two others, young fellows who seemed more used to all this, told me as they munched power bars at my favorite local mini-mart one morning that they would be in Los Angeles in 20 days. It seemed short to me, but they moved with the grace of ones who should know their limits, so who was I question either their math or their determination?


The last week has seen a large influx of British Columbians headed for warmer climes or just finishing long trips and on their way home. Two ladies with delightful accents and a most noble “westie,” which walked as if he was king of the campground spent a night in the next site. They were headed home for the winter after having crossed Canada to Halifax and Prince Edward Island, and then “sort of wound their way back across the States” as they put it. They had been out six months, which seemed to me too short for such a trip. We shared dinner and a fire and they explained that they only lingered in the places they either found interesting or had never seen. This is for them an annual event although the route may be altered. They rent their house, fire up the camper and are gone a half a year. Their wit and wisdom was refreshing and, as with all such people on the road, they were gone too soon.


Denny is a drifter, in the best sense of the term. He has a camper on his pickup and had been on the road for several months just figuring out what he was going to do next. Half way through his stay, his brother joined him and yesterday they were off to Salem, his brothers “summer” quarters to sell the small rig for one that they both would be comfortable in and then they would go on the road. Denny was returning to Oregon where he had grown up and wanted to spend time here. Hosting at campsites was a possibility. I was impressed by his ability to be open to whatever the future might bring. He was a man of possibilities but not of expectations. I spent less time with his brother, but he seemed surer of what he wanted to do, and while time in the beautiful campgrounds of his home state appealed to him, I had the impression that by next winter, Tucson would be calling him back. They were nice, amiable men, well read and informed, different from many of the more parochial characters I meet on the road.


The drifters and grifters are here too. They always are. Some drift up and down this emerald highway, part beach, part forest, all year. Some do it for good reason. Work at seasonal jobs they hitchhike to every year. Or they go to see family. They are a comfortable bunch, hiking and camping as they wish, with no clock except the inner one that permits them to meet their personal timetables.


A few are just old hands at talking the money out of tourist’s pockets with a variety of stories that stretch the imagination. Often now they are couples and they have a world of trouble. Denny and I ran into one sweet pair in separate places on the same day. He heard the story up to the point where both had lost their jobs, she had lost a baby, and he was a “disabled vet.” By the time they found me, all these things were so and more. Her father had died recently and her mother now lay ill somewhere in Washington and they really only needed gas money to get there so she could care for her Dear One. He had no explanation why he had no disability check for his “war injury.” They moved off when questioned and the inconsistencies arouse. There would be a revised version for the next approach. Could it all be true? Perhaps. Yet in most cases it is unlikely. That is the scam you see, make it seem real enough and a few dollars change hands and they are on to the next mark. When directions to a shelter from a friendly store keeper were ignored, the case was made for me. Being inquisitive works best for me, as it had the day before at the mini-mart when “Billy” (his adorable dog Flash in tow) vouchsafed that he had to have lost his truck keys (he said he was a truck driver) and all he had in it the day before. When I asked him for a picture, he obliged. He sported a VA Hospital Bremerton hat and was about to tell me more about his seven tours as a combat marine in Vietnam when I found a reason to leave. He sat and finished his spiked energy drink as I headed back to camp with my newspaper and sent Flash into his act for a lady just entering. No hard feelings. Just a touch he didn’t make.


The town characters begin to appear when you ride a bike to town for more than a week. Some I had seen before on other trips, yet they seemed to be out more this trip, just like the sun. The dog walker, Florence, is a pleasant if loud woman who seems to know everyone. She appears about nine o’clock with ten dogs, all on separate leashes. As she moves up the parking lots to the convenience store lot in order to circle the gas pumps and begin the trip back, she orders them all to stop or start as the traffic requires. They obey her after several shouts in what I was told is a ritual a few years old. They are hers. She is not, as I has initially thought, a professional walker. She just brings them all out every day, rain or shine for their morning exercise. Since my trips to the store were limited to mornings, I cannot confirm that it is repeated in the afternoon.


There is a type of hat I have sought for some time. Common in the rural west, it is fine for wear in the van as a rain hat. It is made of a stiff cotton oilcloth that makes it impervious to water. It is just the thing for waiting about for the used water to empty at the camp dumpsite, or while unhooking the water and electric from the van. Its wide brim keeps the rain off both the face and the neck while not blocking the vision as a hood. I happened on a small strip mall that yielded a small tack shop that sold them. It was manned by a dapper man dressed in the style reminiscent of my father’s business attire. Harold had the hats, although only a few. I was fortunate to find my size. I asked if I could look around some more and he allowed he would be delighted for me to do so but hoped I could another time. He was waiting for, in his words “a younger woman.” She still drove, he explained so she was taking him to the senior center for lunch. Harold explained to his surprised customer that he was 95 years old, the younger woman was a mere 92, a “lovely” lady, and he was closing because his daughter (I never did get her age) was in Eugene for a show yesterday and had car trouble. He was most gentlemanly and apologetic and said I should come back again after I admired the collage of pictures on his wall of he and his wife as well has his graduation pictures from the “Teacher’s College” in Corvallis , where he had been born and raised.(now Oregon State University). He last worked for a pay from anyone but himself in 1943. He remembers U.S. 101 when it was barely more than a dirt track, paved as it was in gravel. Men of a certain age enjoy being told of thee “past” by men such as these. He explained patiently each picture of him and his wife of 65 years and those of his college days. He told of the eccentricities of all the horses he had owned and shown and how he came to own this shop, a place to be “retired” he said. He was a charming a courtly fellow and I glad I met him. I hope can be that gracious, alert and informative should I live to such an age. Oddly, after all the explanations, he did not want me to take his picture. He said he was getting to old for that.

Early the next day, I dropped my laundry two stores down and as I passed his store, I saw him sitting reading the newspaper avidly and with such focus he did not notice me pass. He looked every bit the gentleman I believe him to be.


The weekend fog and colder nights is the harbinger of the deepening fall in this magic place. The creatures now burrow in for warmth, the “snowbirds” move south, the drifters go on to the next place of interest or employment, the towns people begin to slow their pace for winter, and the grifters continue to tell their stories, bilking who they may, and life continues up and down this gloriously verdant emerald road.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

IT WAS JUST IN TIME

Carlsbad was in the mirror before five o’clock on that Sunday morning two weeks ago. The reason, in theory at least, was to outsmart the road warriors in the Los Angeles combat zone by first, travelling on a Sunday and second, going early enough before everyone jumped in their car and headed for the beach, Grandmother’s condominium or other important places. While this had been the plan for a week, it became an urgent need as the forecast for the weekend and week thereafter became clear. It was going to be summer, finally, for at least a week and while they were hedging their bets, most of the weather persons were beginning to believe it was going to more than just warm.



The benefits of an early Sunday departure are many. There were downsides. The first being “CALTRANS”, aka The California Department of Transportation, which takes advantage of the light traffic by closing lanes on the Interstates for “overnights.” Loosely translated, the term means that it shuts lanes down around midnight and works on them until after five in the morning. At the moment they are involved in a monstrous project to extend carpool lanes on the Interstate that I use most often. This involves demolishing two overpass roads in order to make room for the new lanes so that through the summer there have been weekends when the Interstate was closed completely.


The second reason it may be a bad idea is that Sunday is generally a day of rest for some business. Auto mechanics and dealers service departments being two. If you are going on Sunday then it is a good idea not to have any vehicle trouble that day. When the objective is 200 miles away, one rarely gives this much thought. In my case, I had the ambitious goal of reaching San Francisco in my brave but aging companion, more than 600 hard miles from home. While it gave me pause for perhaps a moment, my nature is to go for it. I did, and except for the brutal heat that was beginning to come upon the land even well to the north, it was a successful strategy.
Just short of the San Francisco, my brain cramped for the last time, I found an unremarkable and nearly full RV park that had a surprising four spaces left, got one of them, and crashed in the heat of the early evening until morning.


Once through San Francisco, I had hoped for a peaceful and cooler drive. But while the thermometer didn’t explode as it had in Los Angeles, it was far too hot for the season and for those of us like me who never had a real summer.


In the late afternoon I reached Fortuna, Ca where I was greeted by a westerly ocean breeze and a 75 degree temperature. After another quick stop I made the last leg into Oregon and the friendly confines of Harris State Beach at Brookings. The park was surprisingly crowded for a mid-week, but the weather forecast for the next ten days was magnificent and that for me is reason enough to drive too far in two days to get here. I stayed three days, enjoying the sun and cool weather that seems to have been with me now since I left the Midwest last spring. I made a rudimentary plan while renewing acquaintances with many of the rangers, camp hosts, and local characters I have met here over several years. I found the bike camp quite full, a group that is always interesting. Two were 16 days out of Seattle and two others were hoping to make Los Angeles in 20 days. They are kids, mostly. They are very much fun to talk to, in better shape than I, and interesting no fear types.


I wanted to see some of the river valleys that run from the coast up the coastal range. There isn’t much there but rural—perhaps beyond rural—countryside, a few National Park and county campgrounds but there are spectacular views and wildlife I wouldn’t see along the coast.


OFF THE GRID
I left real life behind for nearly two weeks. I went so far back into the hills and river valleys of coastal Oregon that I couldn’t even hear a radio station. It was a wonderful experience. I had what I carried in and there was no electricity except what I could collect from the sun on my solar panel and produce with my generator. The weather was wonderful and the wildlife everywhere. The humans I saw thought that this fellow in the van from California must be very lost. they even asked that in my few encounters. That was fine. The world I was in for a brief time was all my own. A book, a few crossword puzzles and a sense of wonder at what I saw was all I had with me. I went north from Brookings to the Rogue River and up the valley on the road that parallels the south side and passes through the Siskiyou National Forest. My first objective was the town of Agness. The sign at the town line welcomes you and announces the population as “Small.” I met the man who runs a popular jet boat business. His grandfather started running tourists in boats down to the ocean from Agness (yes, two s’s) with his dog by the same appellation. They are "jet boats" now, still a dog named Agness (the fourth or fifth by his vague count), and a great attraction to the tourists who visit the coast. This day that included three ladies “on holiday” from Australia, who found my “little house” quite charming were part of the group just returning. His staging area is one of about four buildings in Agness, the Post Office being the newest and the only one with a paved parking lot. If you ever wonder why that quasi-government corporation keeps raising the price of postage, you need only roll into a “town” like Agness and see the comparatively palatial place where the locals pick up their mail, the Flag flying proudly above. Peter Fazio, the congressman from the district has been around a long time and knows how to use his “earmarks” to keep his constituents happy. Dwight Eisenhower giving advice to a young man who sought him out to ask what he would do if he were running in his place is reported to have famously said, “Get the money for few Post Office buildings in the towns back home in the appropriations bill, and tell them all about ithow you did it for them" he said, “and be sure you ask for as much Interstate Highway money as you can.” All politics are local they say, but apparently the federal government supplies the cash. Here in Agness is a bit of proof.

The road from there is to Grants Pass, which is to Agness what New York City is to Cooperstown. It is not maintained in the winter which in the argot of the outback means it is hilly, narrow, bumpy and not all paved. Not many people would go to Grants Pass this way. It is only 56 miles, but about four hours I would guess had I done it in one day. One “summits” at a mere 4,300 feet at Bear Camp, then goes down to Gailce, Merlin, and Grants Pass a few miles beyond. I chose to stay on the mountain moving from one rural camp to another.


Five days elapsed before I reached Grants Pass. I thought five more on the Coquille River Valley back to the sea would be lovely if the weather stayed as unseasonably warm and sunny as it was now. It was an easier drive, with smaller camps but the medley of town names were magical and often apt. Dillard, Winston, Tenmile, Reston, Remote, Dora, Bridge, Myrtle Point, Gravelford, Norway, Arago, Coquille, and Riverton, bring you, perhaps five hundred people later, to the tony village of Bandon-by-the-Sea back on the coast. Bandon is a tourist town. Loved by many, nearly always windy and cold when I am there, yet  found that morning when the wind was down, the sun out and I in no hurry. I enjoyed a designer coffee and my first newspaper in a fortnight at an outdoor table while my laundry got done in the laundromat. My phone beeped to remind me that it worked again, yet I had no desire to use it. I already missed my quiet afternoons in the sun, watching and reading and trying to think about life as it is and a five letter word for “turns around, as a mast.” It was a peaceful time, time one can cherish away from a world that seems to move too fast, is far too  complicated, and more or less joyful than we may have once imagined. It was two weeks with no expectations except that day would follow night. There was no disappointment and no one there to disappoint. Just my inanimate steel companion, a book about the denizens of the Chelsea Hotel, scenery so lovely it seemed to hurt one’s eyes, and creatures great and small I could ask rhetorically of their general welfare.


I am back in the "real" world now, better for having left it and sure that I enjoyed my time “off the grid.” I am ambivalent about what it would be like to be gone for long. I believe I would miss the grid, the people, the laughter, and surely talking to someone besides myself. It is a wonderful place to go, that “world” but it seems good to be back in this one. I hope, having left for a time, I will understand it better and appreciate it more for what is here, and perhaps complain less about what is not and how it works.


There is still a month left if all goes well. The coast may see its first real rain this weekend. I am will see if it does and then go from here. It is warm and the morning mist of a Saturday slows the pace but not the activity. Dogs are walked, beaches are visited, and life moves forward, albiet at a slower pace. It is only water after all. If you get wet you go in and dry out. A gentle shower never hurt anyone. It may even be good for the soul.

Friday, September 24, 2010

A PACIFIC COAST REDUX

On Sunday, in the dark of the early morning in an attempt to outwit the Los Angeles traffic, I will launch with my faithful companion, La Coachasita, up El Camino Real (now U.S. 101) for the Redwoods of Humboldt County and the Oregon Coast.

The first stop will be the much visited Morro Bay, one of my favorite places in all these years of running north. The trip to southern Oregon, for a variety of reasons not worth enumerating here, will be swift. After an afternoon and night in Morro, we will hit the road in the hopes of clearing San Francisco and Santa Rosa before stopping somewhere along the way. Then it will be on to Brookings Oregon and Harris Beach State Park, one of my favorites. The ten day forecast for the Oregon Coast is clear and mild and that alone would make the swiftness of the journey worth grinding out all those miles for two days. Once there, the trip will be become leisurely. How far north I go and how long I stay will depend entirely on the weather. If it gets wet on the coast I will go inland as I go north.
I have not even fooled myself with an itinerary this trip. I know the area well and have a rough idea what I want to see—fishing at Coos Bay, cheese factories just south of Portland, an aviation museum somewhere in between I have meant to stop there for several years. Perhaps I will make it as far as the Olympia peninsula and then a Mission or two that remain that the Spanish built along the route thorough California on the return trip.
As ever, it is a trip with endless possibilities, this one with no fixed agenda or time. I will be home by Thanksgiving unless I get a better offer, but expect I will start back when DST ends. It can get cold and dark early after November 1st I know, so we will see what happens along the way.
As always, should you come along, I will try to give you a flavor of the trip. It will be good to be on the road again looking for those things I may have missed or want to see again. It is a road I often travel, but I am certain there is still more to see. This is what we call the “shoulder season” for campers. The crowds of summer are gone. The zealous are out looking for a good hiking place or birds to watch. This is also the time when the “snow birds” begin to stir and move out of their summer lair headed for winter quarters. They are interesting, some of these restless ones. There will too, be a few working a bit as I will, and moving along as the weather and the mood may dictate. All in all, interesting folks. The characters will be there and I will try to tell you their stories.

I am glad to be back on the road and hope you are too. We’ll have an adventure. We always do.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

ADDENDUM

Bob Lindsay played in all three games in Houston. His family was present for all three. He pitch hit the first night and grounded out, played first base the second and struck out both times he appeared.

On September 13th, he got his first major league base hit. The Astro outfielder retrieved the ball and it weas given to him as is the custom of the game. He said later, " I tried not to smile too much out there, I didn't want everyone to think I was some kid."

After nearly 16 years of trying, Robert Lindsay is a Major Leaguer. The team in Los Angeles is so woeful, that he has become the talk of the sports bars. He sees it as nothing special, but maybe a chance for a real tryout in the spring.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

THE GAMER

John Lindsay was born in Hattiesburg Mississippi. He was an excellent baseball player and someday he, his coaches, and family all believed he would be a Major League star. In 1995, when he finished high school The Colorado Rockies acquired his rights in the 13th round of that year’s player draft and he eagerly signed and reported.At 18, he was  a professional baseball player. He went to the rookie league anticipating the day he would be playing in the “Big Show.”



This month, 15 years later, at the age of 34, the 225 pound, six foot two, first baseman reached the major leagues for the very first time as a September "call up" for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Under the arcane rules of this game, teams are allowed to expand their rosters on September 1st. There is a limit, and most teams only add those they want to evaluate against the better pitching in the Major Leagues, or may help win a Division Title. In the case of teams that are no longer in contention to reach the play-offs, the number is usually greater. The Dodgers, who as of last night were 11 games out of first place have not conceded it is over, but as the saying goes in the clubhouse, “you can pretty much stick a fork in them, ‘cause they’re done.”


Enter John Lindsay. Last night, with the Dodgers trailing the San Diego Padres by 4 runs he was called off the bench to pinch hit. He is a right handed batter and statistically, right handed batters hit better against left-handed pitchers. The conventional wisdom of baseball then is that you “do it by the book,” that is, since a left-handed pitcher was at that moment standing on the pitcher’s mound for the Padres, “the book” says, you don’t let the scheduled batter hit if the game may still be in doubt and he is a left-handed batter. Rather, you “lift” him for a right-hander. The “book,” by the way, is the way managers and coaches explain moves such as this. No one has ever seen the book. It is the way in the strange world that is baseball, it has always been done, so that is what is expected. We are not supposed to understand these obscure things, only to appreciate that the manager is “smart” enough to know it.


A player officially enters a game when the umpire acknowledges him, and the public address announcer  “Announces him into the game,” another obscure ritual appreciated only by the rule makers and not well understood by casual fans. The umpire saw John Lindsay approach and both signaled him into the game and made note on his line-up card that he was batting and in what position in the batting order. Once this was done, Mr. Lindsay was "officially" in his first major league game. The man, who  spent 15 years as a career minor leaguer had a huge smile on his face and took his practice swings preparing to do battle.

Unfortunately, the Manager of the Padres decided, as is his option under the rules, that he did not want his left-handed pitcher to pitch to any more batters this night and proceeded from his dugout to the mound, signaled with his right hand, as is the custom, to send in the pitcher currently tossing baseballs in the home bullpen from that side of his body. While John Lindsay watched, the left-hander departed and a gaggle of infielders and the manger awaited the arrival of the new pitcher.

The “book” of course now produces a conundrum. Mr. Lindsay bats right. He is, statically, less able to achieve success against a pitcher who throws with his right hand. The Dodger manager therefore is faced with the dilemma of “burning a player’ by replacing Lindsay and removing him from ever participating further in this game and sending another player to bat who bats left, or simply taking his chances that Lindsay will beat the statistical odds, which is not what the “book” says he should do. Mr. Lindsay will be listed as having been sent to bat and thus appeared in his first game even though he never stepped into the batter’s box or saw a pitch thrown in anger. Joe Torre, The Dodger manager did what the "book" told him and not what his heart knew was right. 

In good humor and a huge smile, Lindsay later said he tried not to look back at the Dodger dugout in hopes that he would not see someone summoning him back. Then he heard a voice call his name and knew what had happened. He returned to the bench, took off his helmet and batting glove, and sat down while a man named Loney made the same walk through all of the ritual blessing  bestowed on Lindsay but moments before.

Mr. Loney hit the second pitch on the ground to the shortstop and was the last out of the inning.


John Lindsay was seen laughing in the dugout and was reported to have said to his manager and teammates with more good humor and bonhomie than I would ever had been able to muster after 15 years of waiting that at least he didn’t strike out in his first Major League batting appearance. Torre gave hime the lineup card on which his name appeared. He says he will frame it. The batting coach said in jest, "see they would rather pitch to Loney (the regular first baseman) than you, you scare'em Bob."

If John Lindsay never enters a game again, he is now officially in the Major League Record Book as having made one appearance, no hits, made no outs, scored no runs, committed no errors and never struck out. He is, for now, the statistical anomaly: A man who has “played” in a Major League game, but never swung his bat nor fielded a ball. Perhaps, as his smile seemed to indicate, after 14 years that  was enough for him tonight. I doubt it.

The Dodgers continue their long reluctant march to the end of their season in Houston tonight. Several left-handed starting pitchers are scheduled to pitch for the Houston team and it is believed that he will start a game or two there at first base. Since Houston is closer to Mississippi, much of his family is already en route hoping that is true and the statistical line on this man, one who has followed his dream well beyond when most have decided it is over, will grow a great deal longer. All true baseball fans can only hope that he will flourish and the smile on his face will grow even larger than it was when he heard his name on the public address system in a Major League stadium for the very first time.

Postscript: Robert Lindsey played his first full game on in the major leagues September 11th against the Houston Astros. He was the starting first baseman. He batted three times and struck out twice. On September 12th he pinch hit (the Dodgers were losing badly after the first inning) again, and had his first base hit after nearly 16 years in the minors. The Houston outfieder retrieved the ball and it was given to him, another baseball ritual. He said he tried not to smile too hugely, because, "I didn't want to look like some young kid out there."

Thursday, July 29, 2010

MR. AYERS GOES TO WASHINGTON

On Monday, the White House held a ceremony commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act commonly known as the ADA.


It was a Rose Garden Ceremony of the type that happens nearly daily where the President greets those responsible for one thing or another, gives a short speech, does the ritual “grip and grin” in the crowd for a bit and then returns to the Oval Office and other business.


On this occasion it was accompanied by picture taking. When that is on the agenda, people wait in the Blue Room until each can have a moment with the President and a picture taken in remembrance of the occasion.


I am a veteran of these mini dramas so I am cynical about them. The people who have the opportunity to participate come from all over the country. They are awed by them. I understand that and happy that they are.


This one was different, for reasons even a cynic could appreciate.


Five and a half years ago, a columnist for the LA Times, Steve Lopez, decided to know more about a small and seedy combat zone near his office and blocks from the magnificent new Concert Hall. It is Los Angeles’ Skid Row. He met a man named Nathaniel Ayers, a profoundly mentally ill man, a dreamer, who slept on the streets, trusted no one, yet stood near an overpass each day, at the foot of the statute of Beethoven, and played passionate classical music on a battered violin with two stings missing next to his shopping cart that contained all his belongings.


The story of their odd, ever evolving and moving friendship was chronicled in Mr. Lopez’s columns and then in his bestselling book, THE SOLOIST, A Lost Dream, An Unlikely Friendship, and The Redemptive Power of Music (Berkley Books,2008). It is a remarkable story. It continues as Mr. Ayers---as he has always been called by Mr. Lopez---still fights his demons down the long corridors of unexplained behaviors and emotional outbursts. He now lives off the street but still is most comfortable in the small cruel world of LA’s Skid Row. He has also made the decision to take the drugs which he so long mistrusted that help let him function in his societal structure thanks to is unlikely friend. It has modified his behavior, but has not “cured” his disease nor completely made over his personality. He is still profoundly schizophrenic and is capable of uncontrolled behavior. He stills stands by the overpass most days, now with his new violin, viola, and trumpet, entertaining those passing, lost in his own world as he tries to interpret and understand the music of his hero, Ludwig van Beethoven.


Nathanial Ayers grew up in Ohio. His extraordinary musical gifts took him to The Julliard School in New York. His lost is way there, although no one is sure precisely how or why. The pressures of performing at that level or some other force made him lose his sense of balance and appropriate behavior. Besides being a magnificent musician then, by his second year he developed serious social problems and left. Where he has been since is still a part of his vague story but when Mr. Lopez found him at the overpass, competing with the sound of traffic while he played the music he loved hoping he could find a way to replace the two broken strings on his violin.


He has one living relative, a sister Jennifer, from whom he learned a few weeks ago of his improbable trip to the White House. Mr. Lopez admits to being skeptical. Mr. Ayers does not react well to pressure or new situations and he worried for his friend. Yet the dreamer already had the scene firmly in his head and pleaded with Mr. Lopez to go with him.


In the end he agreed but warned he would need new clothes. A longtime friend helped him pick out a new suit. He knew exactly what he wanted. A white suit, white shoes, and a white derby hat and bow tie.


Of course. What else? He was going to the White House.


On that bright and brutally hot Monday morning following a pounding storm, this large man in his splendid vanilla outfit, a nylon wrap keeping his long hair under his new derby and white garden gloves with the fingers cut off, waited to meet the President of the United States. He was awed by the experience. When asked, he said he knew what he would say when they met.


“I’m going to tell him to have a good day and a blessed presidency,” he said.


Soon, he had his private moment and he was beaming when he returned. He said the President greeted him with, “Hello, Nathanial.” He said he was “flabbergasted,” and then mused, “The President of the United States of America. Praise the Lord!”


There were 300 government officials gathered on the lawn outside as well as so many others who had helped make this landmark legislation a reality. They know that there is still much progress to be made in access and employment rights, but this was a day of celebration with performances by Patti La Belle and Mr. Ayers. His longtime friend from Julliard, Joseph Russo would accompany him on piano. After the speeches, Mr. Ayers was introduced and emerged in his dandy suit and walked under the Presidential Seal. Mr. Lopez had told the staff at the White House that you could not always be sure what you would get from Mr. Ayers musically in such circumstances except passion, but they thought it worth the risk.




After an inordinate amount time tuning his violin when Mr. Lopez worried whether he would be able to play after all, Mr. Ayers began to play, found a groove, the audience swayed, and Mr. Ayers lifted their spirits as his music soared, that passion very much on display.


After the President spoke, Mr. Ayers shook his hand again and darted in and out of the White House as if he were a resident. On the lawn, he accepted congratulations and posed for pictures. He would later admit that it was not one of his best performances, but the fact that this man who had made the journey from skid row to the White House was here at all may have been the real performance and triumph his audience understood and applauded.


Later that same night, he returned to his now indoor home on the strip of mean street he knows so well, the White House seemed a million miles away. When Mr. Lopez asked him how he would ever top this trip to Washington, Mr. Ayers had a ready answer.


“We can go to Rome and see the Pope.”


Yes We Can.

Note: Some of the information, and the direct quotes of Mr. Ayers in this piece are taken from copyrighted material in the Los Angeles Times of July 27,2010.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A VOICE OF DISTINCTION

Millions heard his voice. For fifty-one years he was the voice of Yankee Stadium, and now, at 99 years of age, he is gone. Robert Leo Sheppard was the gold standard for anyone who aspired to be a stadium announcer. I have never heard anyone like him and may never again.

Reggie Jackson, the wonderfully talented, often irreverent Hall of Fame outfielder who was known, to himself at least, as “the straw that stirred the drink” and to the rest of us as “Mr. October,” referred to him as Mr. Sheppard and named him “The Voice of God.” His marvelous distinct, polite, and proper speech pattern became a fixture in Yankee Stadium on April 17, 1951 when he debuted as the public address announcer for the New York Yankees. There he remained until 2007. No baseball player who was ever introduced by him will ever forget it. He was that much of a legend, heard by millions, seen by a few, yet known to nearly all who follow the game.

George Steinbrenner, the flamboyant and legendary owner of the Yankees whose own death came  days after Sheppard’s, said, “His death leaves a lasting silence.” He may have been the only employee of the Yankees that Steinbrenner never criticized.

Fifty-one years is a long time to have one job. Yet Bob Sheppard never thought of it as his most important one. He was first a speech teacher at St. John’s High School in New York and later a Professor at St. John’s University. Those were the ones of which he was most proud. Announcing was something he did besides that and perhaps because he saw it that way it was never about him. He believed it was his job at the ballpark to report what was happening and announce what was important. He did so in the same tone as he taught his classes, distinctly and with respect.

A New York Times’ Columnist, Clyde Haberman once wrote of him “he could read Eminem lyrics and make them sound like the Magna Carta.” In his career, he announced more than 4,000 games, 62 World Series Games and two All Star Games. Over the years, he announced the names of more than 70 members of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

When I was a boy sitting in the centerfield bleachers of the old Yankee Stadium, I  heard him and never forgot his voice. He brought composure and a dignity to the mere act of informing the crowd who the next batter was. It was a pleasure to listen to him. His tone never changed. The enthusiasm and drama of the moment--which he said he appreciated--never entered his voice. He was not a cheerleader or a circus barker, he said, just a reporter. He would introduce each player in the same unique way with the same intonation. The first time they came to bat, in deference to those who might be using a score book and had arrived too late to hear him announce the starting lineups, he would include the name, number, position, and place in the batting order the first time the player appeared. After the first time, he would state, in that professional, cadenced style of his, the player’s position, number, last name, and  repeat the number. Whether a Yankee or visiting player, all were introduced the same. He told an interviewer that he came to the stadium, studied the names before the game, called the visiting clubhouse for the correct pronunciation if there was a question, write it phonetically, and practice it again. He particularly enjoyed saying the names of the Latin players, he said, they were more musical. His favorite name, however, was Mantle, he admitted, because he both loved the player and the way the syllables sounded. No one remembers a name he mis-pronounced. 

He never missed an Opening Day until he dislocated his artificial hip in 2006. He had a bronchial infection at the end of the 2007 season, missed the Divisional Series that year, and never returned to work. He was retired when the Yankees left the old stadium for the “new” Yankee Stadium across the street in 2009.

It seems fitting that he never announced there. He was the voice of the “House that Ruth Built” as the old one was known, and not the one built by the Steinbrenner family that replaced it.

On a warm evening in the 1990’s, I sat in a place then known as Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego and much to my surprise, I heard The Voice again. Bob Sheppard’s vacations' were what my father would have called “a busman’s holiday.” When he visited friends in San Diego he always announced at least one game for the Padres.

The Padres had a pitcher in those days that had been special in his early career with them by the name of Andy Hawkins. When he became free to negotiate with other teams he signed a very lucrative contract with the Yankees. A country boy from the south, Andy had thrived in the player friendly confines of San Diego. His stay in New York was both brief and brutal. He was bewildered by the press attention, the pressure cooker atmosphere, and the expectations of the big city fans. His performance mirrored his confusion. Soon, he moved on, traded away as so many have been that failed to thrive in that way of life they found so alien. After a time he came back to the Padres, no longer a star but a serviceable extra starter and relief pitcher who could, as  managers say, "give you innings" on the days when the starter faltered early. One night, he was scheduled to start, and Bob Sheppard was in town and at the ballpark with friends. Through a series of machinations only his teammates and coaches could appreciate, Bob was convinced to announce the starting lineups for the two teams. Andy was in the bullpen warming up for his start when he heard the stentorian tones of the voice of the Yankee Stadium announcer issue his signature command:
“Your attention please, Ladies and Gentlemen,”
Hawkins--it was later gleefully reported by the bullpen staff--stopped in mid-delivery, turned violently as if he heard a shot and looked to the press area, stunned by the sound of “The Voice.” He would later tell reporters, amid the laughter in the clubhouse, that somehow he feared he had been transported back to New York. He enjoyed the joke, but not nearly as much as Bob.

The Voice is still now, another of the great ones of baseball gone. Remembered for his quiet dignity, his grace, and dry wit, he enhanced the games he announced and the “Game” he gave those fifty-one precious years  just as Harry Carey, Mel Allen, Red Barber, and Ernie Harwell and a few others have with just the sound of their voice.

Yet, unlike the others, he can still be heard. In 2006, the shortstop for the Yankees and team captain, Derek Jeter, who has been a Yankee his entire long and very talented career, said, “When you think of Yankee Stadium, he’s the first thing that comes to mind. It’s not right playing here unless he’s the one announcing.” On hearing that, Bob recorded his introduction of Jeter and those going to a Yankee home game still hear “The Voice” say these words whenever he comes to bat:
“Now batting for the Yankees, the shortstop, No. 2, Jeter, No. 2.”

Sunday, June 20, 2010

A LONG AND WINDING ROAD

It was a perfect afternoon and evening for a ball game. I watched two and a half of them as the Wheatland Lobos took on the Laramie Rangers.




I am not sure that this is the way they do it all the time, but given the distances between towns in Wyoming it makes some sense. It had rained here a great deal this spring so they may have been making up for lost time.


I should back up here a bit. Wheatland Wyoming is north of Cheyenne and an exit down from Fort Laramie which is the way I like to leave the pandemonium of the Black Hills souvenir world behind. The route is quiet and populated more by Elk, Bison, and Llamas all grazing together than people.


When I left you last I was exiting Minnesota into South Dakota. The plan had been to spend a week or so in the Black Hills after the obligatory stop at the infamous Wall’s Drug store in Wall, both named for Mr. Wall, who offered early travelers a free glass of ice water to slake their considerable thirst after traveling the plains of the Dakota Territory. It is now a scene of madness with everything for sale from lunch to Levi’s and all manner of cheesy souvenirs. One still can collect that glass of water for free, but finding parking is a problem.


It was still raining. NOAA seemed unsure how far west and north the front would reach, so I decided to look around South Dakota a little and stopped the weekend in Mitchell at the public park. Mitchell is a sizeable city. It is largest I have encountered that has a “town” campground. There is a small lake there and swimming is allowed so it can be a busy place on weekends. When I arrived on Friday it was pleasant, by the time I left on Sunday it had rained more than 7 inches, which qualified as the 100 year record in a 48 hour period, and a sinkhole had begun to appear in the campsites across from me of sufficient size to require one trailer to be pulled out. I left at six on Sunday morning in fog and rain heading north where, NOAA now assured me, there were only partly cloudy skies and less humid temperatures.


The roads in the nearly flat, square states are straight and nearly true to the major compass headings most of the time, so I was headed due north with one eye on the rising James River which would not crest for a few days but was already out of its banks and flooding farms and what are charitably called “secondary roads” here and the other eye on the sky searching for the beak in the gray dullness that had been my companion for far longer than I enjoy. Near the state capital of Pierre in the northwest part of state a light rain fell with some interruptions. It is known to the locals as “Peer” the local Americanization of the French. The State capital building and the governor’s house and the various agency headquarters are in the western part of town. I made a quick tour, noting the remarkable lack of security, which I assumed from my Washington experience, accompanied every public place these days.


I decided clearing weather here seemed out of the question so continued north. When I reached Modoch and the Indian River State Recreation Area I found sun along the Missouri River at this pleasant place where Lewis and Clark’s Corp of Discovery had made camp for a time on their way out in 1802. The prairie rolls here giving the illusion of hills. This year it is very green given all the rain and seemed a different world compared to the grey and foggy dawn I had seen when I left the south eastern part of the state, a mere 150 miles south.


I was tempted to spend some time to scrape moss from me here but still had not given up the idea of more than a cursory look at the Black Hills . During the bicentennial of the Expedition of the Corps of Discovery I had devoted nearly two years to following this route and while this looked pleasant it was too familiar. There was little here left to amuse my twisted sense of imagination except to look at the towns of less than 300 I had been moving through all day and wonder how I would handle the experience of living in one.


So the next day I was off west and south and–despite the forecast—back into the rain and fog. I was tired of this race to beat weather. I rarely mind the rain if it is warm, but there had seemed to be enough of it now, so the Black Hills would get a cursory look and I would go over them and into Wyoming and while doing that, try to decide what would come next.


After “experiencing” Wall and the eponymous drug store, I decided to stop short of the Hills. Given the traffic of trailers and class “A” campers seeming full of people it seemed wise to be sure I had a place to stay if I still was going to spend time in the Black Hills. The campground was proprietary in the town of Hasta which is four blocks square with many abandoned buildings, no business I saw except the campground, an elderly motel, and a service station which doubled as another “express campground” whatever the meaning of that term. I was later assured less than 100 people lived there on a permanent basis. The place I stayed is technically still under construction and had four customers. It was run by a young woman who, with her husband, was building a summer house in the trees nearby. They were both born here, knew each other in the high school which used to be here, went their own way for a number of years, meeting again, marrying, and moving on to Phoenix, a construction partnership, and a job with the Arizona Republic which disappeared with all the other mid level management jobs two years ago. He now drives an over the road truck for the Swift Company and she was here, finishing the house and living with her in-laws while the rain held up the completion of the house and the campground.


I learned all this while hooking the camper up to the utilities and she told me about most of her life which was now, she believed, happier than it had been when it was stressful and the money more plentiful. She was pleasant and interesting and I was impressed how well the couple had coped with the collapse of construction and the red ink bleeding from the newspaper business. Hearing her story made for a pleasant way to spend a gray and drying afternoon.


The next morning it cleared late after a dense fog I only emerged from as I climbed into the hills. It became a cloudless and warm day. The traffic in the Hills near the “attractions” was awful for one used to moving along the farm roads of the plains dodging an occasional truck or tractor. Rapid City was on the way to work as I went through and I wondered idly how I would handle the Los Angeles freeways if I was having trouble with this. I found the crowds an annoyance. Not in what they did, just that they were there. It was a sure sign, experienced before, that it was time to make plans for a way home. Except for the distance that lay between, there were few things I wanted to see or do, so I made a pass at Mount Rushmore, which looked the same of course, and Sitting Bull, which has progressed yet is itself bordering on a trashy sort of tourist attraction, much different than when I first saw it in 2002. I passed on the various caves of wonder, the zoo, and the rattle snake farms and the rest, kept moving and hence reached Wheatland. There are still things in and near the Black Hills I want to see—the Badlands, Custer, and the canyon where Bridal Veil Falls are, but I will do it another time when I can do them all justice and it is either earlier or later in the season.


Wheatland is a small, seemingly prosperous place just south of Fort Laramie and north of Cheyenne. It has a most attractive multiuse park that includes three baseball diamonds, a large picnic area, an outdoor theater stage an enormous swimming pool, tennis courts, a basketball court, and numerous picnic facilities. Many of the denizens here use it to walk in the evening and early morning, some accompanied by dogs, some by neighbors who make the circuit of the large place in good humored conversation and some who have obviously been told to get some exercise and move in a more solitary and plodding way around the road that surrounds the vast green area in the center. On the south side of the park, the city has 10 sites for RV campers and a tenting area. There is electricity available at ten sites. A sign asks for a donation and one is glad to leave one for a chance to watch the activities of the park and stay for the night in a quiet place under the large cottonwood trees.


I was attracted as I always am to the baseball diamond where I found the three teams from Laramie High school here to compete against the hometown Wheatland Lobos. I watched the freshman game, the Junior Varsity, and most of the Varsity game. Baseball, it is well known, is interesting to me at any level. I was struck that the JV game was the most competitive and error free. The freshman game was marred by the fact that the catcher for Wheatland, a boy no larger than 5”3” had a general understanding of the equipment needed and that squatting down was required, but lacked all the other requisite tools needed by a catcher, the most unfortunate being his inability to catch a thrown baseball. By my count eight runs scored as a result of balls that reached the backstop untouched. On this warm day, he may have worked harder and to lesser effect than anyone on the field, to the chagrin of all in the home dugout. He was mercifully removed for the last two innings. The other two games moved faster mainly because the ability levels were markedly better. When the lights came on in the fourth inning with the home nine behind by six and the Rangers clearly the superior team, I repaired to the camper for dinner and a glance at maps to decide on tomorrow’s destination. For the record, the Lobos won one out of three. The chosen destination was Colorado City.


It was time to go south and west which would bring me home. The trip was nearly done, the heat was coming to the desert, and this trip which had started as they all do with great promise, had more serious hiccups than most, felt as if it should be over. La Coachasita remains well but as happy as I to be going home.


We traced a path through the mountains of New Mexico near Taos, through a slice of the Navajo Nation including Shiprock and Window Rock, made famous by the mystery stories of the late and supremely talented novelist, Tony Hillerman, and made a last stop near Winslow Arizona. By tomorrow night I will be home, nearly 6,400 miles later, content with what I saw, pleased that I still enjoyed the places, the people, and the adventure.


Thanks for riding along.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

GOODBYE MINNESOTA

It seems at once yesterday and three week ago since I came up the road to New Ulm and began a long wander through Minnesota. I went as far as one can to the Lake of the Woods and then turned around and returned on the western side of the state, more famous for its prairie than the familiar white and red pines of the north.


There were new places, surprises, an old favorite, bugs and lots of rain as part of that but as I left Thursday I felt I knew it better now. Readers with me last year will remember that I came barging out of Canada from my trip around Lake Superior to discover the wonderful area north of Duluth, then on to St. Cloud and on south in the quest to find warmth and a lack of precipitation, the Lincoln Highway, and thus missing attractions along the way in my haste.

Several years ago as part of the great adventure of following the Mississippi River from the end to the beginning, I ended the trip at the headwaters at Lake Itasca and exited stage left to follow Route 2 across the roof of the rest of the northern tier of states on U.S. 2. Both of those trips into the state seem too short.

New Ulm was a short trip from Clear Lake Iowa. An annual park pass at their State Park seemed wise since it was a reasonably guess that I would stay in more than five parks, thus making the one visit, five dollar version a bad investment. As it happens I was in seven by the time I left on Wednesday in a truly epic thunderstorm that was doing a good job of taking the leaves off the trees art Blue Mounds State Park in the far south western corner of the state. It seemed a fitting send off. There was more to come in South Dakota since that is where the weather came from, but I hoped it would moderate.

Minnesota is a marvelous and diverse place. While most of my time was spent in the more rural environs, I did pass through a number of places with populations greater than 20,000, a fairly urban experience for me. Weather was a driving decision. The weather north was better than near “The Cities” as the natives refer to Minneapolis and St. Paul, located cheek by jowl on the Mississippi River. Following a central route, wandering through New Ulm and on to Mille de Lac and northward, we reached Bemidj. I paused for a mandatory cleaning, laundry, and shopping stop. The hotel I stay at there is on the lake and hosts many of wedding receptions. This trip an actual wedding occurred on the lawn facing the lake. It is a lovely spot, albeit a bit windy. Kris and Mandy whoever exchanged their vows just one floor below my windows and I was entertained by piped in violins, a live guitarist, and the sonorous sounds of the good Reverend as he discomforted the bride by telling anecdotes about her early years—which would have been the ones prior to her 19th birthday which she had  celebrated a week before.

I like Bemidji. This is the second time I have been there in the spring. It may be that the joy of sun and a 70 degree temperature is such that natives are incapable of ill humor. They are fond of running, skating, bicycling and walking along the lakefront. I was struck by the lack of obesity in Bemidji. It exists, but seems less prevalent here than in the population as a whole. The University (Bemidji State) there means that many of the clerks in the business are young, cheerful, and less jaded than most. Glad to be working and happy to help.

This trip, I spent two days in the Lake Itasca State Park which is the oldest one in the state and the “home” of the headwaters of the mighty Mississippi. It is a remarkably large place with more than 100 lakes within its boundaries. One can drive a 17 mile loop in the most rural part and find beaver dams and visit many of these small lakes. It rained of course, but lightly and the weather was warm enough to make up for it. The campground is rustic and enormous, a favored spot for natives to spend a week in summer.Here, as in all the places I have been this year, the number of tent campers are more numerous than in past trips. No one has an adequate explanation. They are usually younger and often same sexed and seem to enjoy the experience. Some of the campgrounds have length limits few more than electricity at the site which explains perhaps why some of the larger road warrior trailers and motor homes are absent.

Continuing north, as far as I could go, I reached the edge of the Lake of the Woods at a primitive campground known as Zippel Bay. It is rural there. No, perhaps beyond rural, but the best chance to see eagles, owls, and bears. They were all there but my attempts at photography thwarted at every turn by birds far more wise than I. I saw a fair number, but never when I was in a position to get a picture. No matter, they are in my mind and they are wonderful. A couple from Oregon and I set off one morning to see if we could find the bears we had been warned to avoid and came across a small black bear, which we concluded was a cub and if so momma was likely to be nearby so we hastily retreated. We did see some larger ones fishing, but only through binoculars. In the evening the deer came to the meadows as they did at dawn, just before full light. They were skittish. I am sure the lack of human contact is the reason. We enjoyed them as the firelight took hold and the very late sunsets here in the high latitudes faded into the gloaming.

The trip down the western side of the state was slow and meandering. Never one to use an Interstate when there is an alternative. I found lots of them and lots of small parks to spend a night or two. The rains returned as did the fog. Time at the wheel was contemplative. The state road speed limit is 50 MPH so there was time to look about and enjoy the scenery that so fascinates me.

As in many places there are small but interesting National Monuments here about which one knows nothing unless you take the time to get off the road. One such this time was in the town of Pipestone in the far south western corner of the state. The town takes its name from the quarry just outside of town. It is considered a holy place by many Indian tribes for it is here that the stone for the ceremonial pipe is found. It is in fact one of the few places in North America where it is found. Specimens of peace pipes, as they became known to whites, have been found that were quarried here as far away as Ohio. There is evidence that the red stone—said to be red with the blood of the ancestors---has been quarried here for more than 2,000 years. While there is a long and tortured history of control of the quarries, it was always sacred ground. When members of different tribes would come to quarry the stone, they left their weapons and gathered the stone peaceably. The Yankton Sioux had exclusive control given them by the US government in 1858 and were then moved 150 miles away shortly thereafter making it difficult to exercise it. They reached a settlement in 1928 which ended their claim. In 1937, Congress established the National Monument and gave only Indians exclusive quarrying rights.

Today, a member of any tribe, recognized by the U.S.  government, may quarry here. Some have been doing so for years. Some come once or twice a year. There is a five year waiting list. It is done only with hand tools. The vain of stone they wish to reach is deep under the quartzite of the surface. It is not easy work but it is a connection to their ancestry that many Indians cherish. Each of them leaves gifts for the gods they believe inhabit this place near the great boulders at the entrance known as the Three Sisters. It is a quiet and peaceful place with a beautiful stream fed from springs. I am glad I found it and had time to explore. It is complicated, as I have found most Indian sites to be, but once one understands the reasoning of the natives as to why this place is holy and necessary, it is easier to understand why the pipe is used at all.

A white man named George Catlin came here in 1836 to live among the Indians. He wrote extensively in journals and made maps of much of the area that the Plains Indian Tribes inhabited. His true talent was painting and many of the hundreds he did are now a part of the Smithsonian Institution’s American Indian collection and found in museums in states throughout the Mississippi River basin. Catlin was a remarkable man who came here first with General Lewis and published a number of books about the Indians of North America traveled as far as Florida and Canada to paint and worked for the Smithsonian near the end of his life.

The peace of the countryside and the warmth the people I met along the way has made this trip through Minnesota  most pleasant. I do not know when I will be back, but now at least I can say I have taken the time to look at much of it for more than a fleeting moment.

Thank you Minnesota.

Friday, June 4, 2010

AMERICAN PIE

Happenstance is all it was.

It had been a long day, it was about to rain and, from what NOAA radio said, it would be very hard and soon, so rather than continue on to Minnesota this day, I stopped. The state park was empty of people but full of Memorial Day trash and I wasn’t in the mood for a mess. I found a useful, if not charming, full service proprietary RV Park down the road and around the lake a bit further on, so I took the opportunity to run all the water I wanted and enjoy the luxury of knowing it was not coming from my internal tank and in the morning I could refill that nearly empty vessel with well water soft and pure.

A chatty and kind host met me and a bit later her husband walked over to the site to tell me of the pleasures of being a full time RV dweller (and one of the few without a dog). As he was departing, he said casually enough “Don’t leave without seeing the Surf Ballroom.” “The what?” replied the sleepy and now wet me now clambering back into the van when I suddenly remembered. This was Clear Lake. This was the place they sang their last songs.

I had seen the town on the map when picking the route. I knew it meant something but not what. If senility truly is the remembering vividly things long past better than yesterday, then I am happy to report I do not have it yet.

Now I have seen it, Now I have seen the place remembered for that awful winter night. The younger among you will not recall the event, but to those anywhere in their teens at the time, it is a day remembered even now.

The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake was hosting its original Winter Dance Party on the night of February 2, 1959. Three of the performers that night, Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and J.P.Richardson, better known as “The Big Bopper” climbed into a small  plane after the performance to go on to Moorhead, MN and the next night’s performance. They were avoiding the icy bus ride the bands would have to make and perhaps have the opportunity to get some extra sleep. Five miles later, they were all dead, no doubt because of ice in a carburetor or on the wings. Great talent lost forever, memorialized in the song “American Pie” and the movie “The Buddy Holly Story.”

The Surf is still as it was then, maintained by a non-profit organization, and hundreds of men and women come back every year to hear other greats play on the stage has become an iconic shrine, especially to Holly, the best known and likely a most talented songwriter. The place is frozen in that moment. It is eerie. It is a step back into another time, another century. The pictures of the greats who have performed in homage on the stage here line the walls and their autographs line the walls backstage. The telephone still hangs on the wall that was used to arrange for the plane. It is still used, this 30,000 square foot entertainment space with the 6,300 foot dance floor, for all sorts of functions in this “resort” town in northern most Iowa.

To those who still come here on cold February nights to remember, it is their Graceland, the place the music died.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

BROUSING THROUGH THE MIDLANDS

My route changed at a point south if Branson when the calculations said that the time available and the destination desired would not match. Dreams of the Smoky Mountain National Park faded for this year with the news that water logged state parks in Tennessee were closing before Memorial Day so they could be cleaned for when most United States residents proclaim it summer for three days and then disappear again until July and the camp grounds become far less crowded. Turning north my destination of choice became The Mississippi Palisades State Park in Savanna Illinois, just south of Galena. Galena is an artsy little town now, but is remembered in earlier times for where President U.S. Grant repaired after what was at the time considered a failed presidency and lived out his years writing his memoir. The memoir is not memorable. Grant’s standing as a President has risen over the last 50 years, however, either because of a new revisionism history or a subtle commentary on the state of politics then and now.

The park in Branson was a small one on Table Rock Lake. If one didn’t have a jet ski or a fishing boat, the most exciting moment every evening was when the paddle wheel gambling boat from Branson came down the lake passed the isthmus the park was on , went two miles further down the lake and turned to return , giving a loud blast on its horn when it passed. The park is one of the many with a total of 210 campsites maintained by the Corps of Engineers that cling to the lake and the underside of Missouri not more than a mile from the Arkansas border. It is beautiful hilly green country. The park I visited was called The “Old Hwy 87 Recreation Area.” It is a pleasant place but on that weekend it was full. Campsites are close together and it was well past warm and by the last night there was humid and hot. The kindly host told me it was the first weekend that was rain free in the past four, which explained the crowd. Following my usual practice of never making reservation, I always arrive early when weekends are involved. I was surprised to find there were only eight sites left. Happy as I was to be living in the van again, it seemed not to matter. I spent a good part of the next day finding routes that would shorten the trip given my three week sojourn in Kansas, ultimately deciding that I wanted to spend Memorial Day camping rather than hiding in a motel somewhere and that the park in Savanna that I had visited before also gave me the opportunity to take day trips from there until the big weekend arrived.

Palisades State park has many wonderful things. The birds and other wildlife are abundant, it is near the River and the people are both fun and interesting. The ratio of tents to monster motor homes clearly favors the tents, a trend I am noticing more this trip. They seem to enjoy the time outdoors more. That is, of course a huge generalization, but about the fourth time you see a 45 foot Class A “building” pull in with windows both heavily tinted and the shades down, the air conditioning on and the satellite television dish in place, you wonder why they left home at all.

The weather has cooperated, a hot Sunday was followed by a few showers but real rain hasn’t been seen since last Tuesday. It is Monday afternoon now as a type this, and the crowds are gone, returned to Chicago and places in between. A few of us remain, enjoying a partly cloudy and much cooler day. It is a peaceful time to pack more carefully than those who left early today and in the smug knowledge that we will enjoy a wonderful night with far less wood smoke and cool enough to perhaps even close a few windows.

Day trips from here included two notable places. Sebula Iowa, just across the bridge here is the only “island city” in the state of Iowa. This is perhaps not remarkable except for the fact that it is in the Mississippi River on the main channel and has never been flooded. How this improbable wonder has occurred remains a mystery to even most of the natives here since the River has been well into this Park many, many times in the past at it is but five miles away. I find it curious, but something I prefer to leave as something curious rather than scour the Internet to know why it is so. There was a music festival there this week end in a field that offered country and folk music, no shade, and camping for $25 dollars a night. There was not a level spot in the field and by the time my neighbors here went over to see what was up, it was as deep in mud as Woodstock must have been only on a much smaller scale.

I have passed the signs for West Branch Iowa enough times to finally be ashamed that I have never gotten off I-80 to see the President Herbert Hoover Museum located there. I spent Wednesday there and was delighted that I did. While “Bert,” the first of three children born to Jesse and Hulda Hoover, lived there only until he was six, when his father who was a blacksmith, died at 36 years old and he was separated from his other siblings and went to live with his Hulda’s, brother in Oregon when she died a mere 18 months later.

During his very distinguished career as an engineer and public servant, he acquired the two room house that he was born in and his father’s blacksmith shop. Over time he restored it and the rest, as they say is history.

He is remembered here for many things. He was the first President born west of the Mississippi River. He was an engineer, a diplomat, organized the relief effort for the devastated countries of Europe after World War I, which became the model for the UN agency, UNICEF as well as the prototype used by President Truman for the Marshall Plan after World War II. Yes, Black Tuesday occurred as the Stock Market crashed and banks closed on his watch, and his engineering and organizational talents left him without the intellectual tools or advisers to fix it. It is not memorialized here. It is his boyhood and the “values’ he took from this place to the first graduating class at Stanford University that is stressed. The Village of West Branch looks much the same in the old Hoover neighborhood. A blacksmith works in the shop. The streets are lined with homes from the same period. Hoover and his wife are buried here on a hill overlooking the restored Friends Meeting House much like the one Bert Hoover attended as a child. It is a charming place. Whatever one’s thoughts of Hoover as a President, it was a nice way to spend a spring afternoon.

West Branch is both quaint but not overcome by the memorial and museum. The blacksmith, a gregarious and knowledgeable man, quizzes the group of sixth graders in the tour group ahead of me as to what other President has a connection to West Branch. When none guess, he hints the he too, was a Quaker and a teacher finally recalls Richard Nixon. I learn then that The Millhouses, Mr. Nixon’s grandparents lived here in a craftsmen style house just three streets over and the young Nixon would visit here often in the summer as a child.

The “neighborhood” in the campground over the weekend was an interesting one. The sites are sufficiently removed that one can chose to ignore each other if that is your choice. To my left in a tent was a remarkably funny fellow with his girlfriend, both from Chicago. She was camping for the first time. He is a veteran and is hoping to take her with him this summer when he goes to a remote small lake in the Michigan where he camps on an island with a group of friends annually. She is a Choir Director. He is a trader on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange with all the sound and fury in his voice that one would assume of that vocation. He was once a profession indoor soccer goalie and a fanatic fan of the Black Hawks who are currently competing for the Stanley Cup with the accent of a true native of South Side Chicago. When they left on Monday, she seemed happy to have been here and he seemed hopeful that there would be more camping in their future. Despite their dispirit backgrounds they seemed remarkably well suited.

Across the road was a man and woman from Minnesota,, who travel with his Harley in a trailer behind a moderate sized RV. He and his companion were equally funny and charming. His son is finishing Medical school. He one of those “bikers” I have met who are sensitive to the noise it makes, moves slowly in the campground, has it because he loved to ride it, and would leave everyday for one of the many local events held around here this weekend. They both came back with funny anecdotes about what they had observed.

My travelling companion appears to have regained full form and strength and is as anxious as I to move on. We will go north and back west tomorrow toward Minnesota. Beyond that is yet to be announced. That is fine. The lack of Internet the past few days has left me without the ability to further plan the route. Soon we will go west to the Black Hills. Until then we will see what there is to see, and surely enjoy it as always.