We drove through the mountains on a narrow two lane road. The long ride from Memphis had placed us in the Smokey mountains at dusk and then night. We came into Bryson City and after finding a room for the night, went out for Mexican food. The whole mountain town is built on the sides of ridges. Driving up several switch backs, we were really high above the road we had come in on.  We were here to ride on Great Smokey Mountain Railroad in the morning.

The train left the station at precisely at 10:30 am. We were comfortly seated in a climate controlled car with a meal served on the way. Shortly after leaving the station, a banjo player and guitar player entertained us with some blue grass.

Then there was Tim. He billed himself as a story teller and a mountain man. He talked about how many mountain peaks he had climbed. He had white hair and a white beard,  that would have made Santa lust. His voice was that of a prophet. He roamed from car to car keeping the passengers amused. One rant was passionate about ginseng and how greedy people are stripping and depleting the forest of of such a powerful root.

The train stopped for an hour break at a park consisting of several restaurants, and a couple of wilderness outfitters. One hour later the whistle sounded and we all gathered for the return trip.  At 3pm the train arrived back at the station and all passengers got off the train and funneled into a gift store.

As I was walking to retrieve my car, I saw Tim one last time. He was sitting in front of a storefront with the name, “Storytelling Center” sign behind him. I nodded and he nodded in return. Later I looked him up online. He is a man who is on a mission to keep alive the culture of the people of the Appalachia. He is located in the small mountain town of Bryson City and he works to make the world a better place. On the train he told stories with passion and a deep love for the mountains and the people there.  He is a teacher, working to create grea
te understanding with every person he meets. What he is working on in is to make the world a better place one person at a time. So he hitched a ride on a tourist train and shared what he knew with people he didn’t know and created deeper understanding of the world we live in. I doubt I will ever be able to see ginseng again without seeing the fiery and wounded eyes of the story teller talking about the cost of greed.

Our daughter graduated from college today, from Concordia Moorhead. What an achievement! Her brothers, her sister, and their two kids. We drove into Fargo to find a place to celebrate. The first place we came to was an Irish pub theme to it. We all sat do
wn and then were informed that no one under 21 could be in the pub. Management refused to serve our party because we had a 3 year old and a 1 year old. The pub wasn’t even that full.

We left, frustrated but ready to find someplace else. Which we did. Turns out that it is the company you keep more than the place itself that makes for a good time.

 

Memphis is a city of contrasts. In the morning we made our way to Beale Street. Rock and roll is a night time affair so even at 11m congregants  wandering the street didn’t seem quite awake yet. A band was setting up, but it took a while so we missed them.

We made our way to the Peabody Hotel where watching ducks was a spectator sport. Five ducks live on the top floor of the hotel. Every day  at 11am they march into an elevator on the top floor and when they emerge on the first floor, they waddle down to a fountain located in the main lobby. They entertain themselves there until 5 pm where they are observed shaking their tail feathers and marching back to the elevator to take them back to their penthouse suite. There is some jostling for position from the tourists in the lobby as they awaited the advent of the ducks.

Ducks are not very complicated. People are. We visited the NationalIMG_0932.JPG Civil Rights Museum. It is built around the Lorraine Motel, the very same building where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated by a sniper. Having seen it in pictures, now to see it in real life brought the past to the present. So much has been done, so much remains . As we walked the plaza, a Caucasian family of four gathered close to where MLK was gunned down. The mother pulled out a selfie stick and extended it. They all pressed their faces close and smiled for the camera, because that’s what you do when you take a picture. Smile!  At such a sacred site? Is it sacred? I guess each of us have to answer that question for ourselves.

The trailer was packed, our car was packed and our daughter’s car was packed. She was headed to Memphis to start a Master’s program to become a licensed dietitian. We left our home around 8 am. We realized that it was going to be a long drive, an optimistic 12 hours.  All told, it turned into 18 hours, between the weather and the trailer.

The first part of the trip went smoothly. By lunchtime rain developed and for the rest of the day we drove through bands of showers that poured so fiercely that you couldn’t see the road ahead, and the large trucks were a faint outline ahead. After about 10 minutes the storms would pass, and the road would continued.

The sunset came and it got harder to navigate. Hazard lights, rain, and dark made the drive more difficult. To break up the drive we agreed to stop for dinner. Because of deitary needs we headed for a restaurant called St. Louis Bread Company. It looked similar to a Panera Bread, diet issues solved.

On my way to the restaurant a fire engine came barreling out of the station in front of me, lights flashing. Colors exploded in my face and I jammed my foot on the brake until the truck passed and night had returned.

It turned out that St. Louis Bread Company was a Panera Bread right down to the header on the receipt.  Broccoli cheddar soup never tasted so good. We as red-eyed travelers, convened on what to do next. After a short deliberation it was decided that it would be best to spend the night and head out in the daylight hours. We were all fast asleep soon after entering hotel for the night. The next day traffic cones and shifting lanes confirmed that we had made a good choice, a very good choice.

Heading back from Wyoming, we spent the night in Wall, South Dakota, home of the infamous Wall Drug. This town proves  that with enough signage anything can be turned into a cash dropping destination. Monopoly is the game played here. The only businesses in town are shops, motels, and restaurants, all in the Wall Drug motif. A case in point were the motels. They all looked the same, and all were priced the same.  The only differences we could tell were their distinctively  familiar signage and the size of their breakfast bar. What we struggled to comprehend was why Motel 6 cost over $100 a night. Inquiring at the Best Western, which looked a lot like Motel 6, we were quoted a similar price. It became clear that we were going to pay up or drive a distance for a better price.

After a pricey night’s sleep, we set off for the Badlands. Heading East on Interstate 90, we turned onto the loop drive. We paid our entrance fee and received a map to the National Park. Opening the material Barb noticed that the map and Siri were not on in agreement. We pressed on, Siri’s protestations falling on deaf ears.

For the next several hours we drove by lookouts and buildings that were on the map, but in the wrong location. As a result of this condition we drove deeper into the park with a increasing sense of confused wonder. The sights were breathtaking. One minute we were driving through green high plains grass. The  next moment the landscape would bottom out with deep impassable canyons. Over the eons wind and water had carved out breathtaking pinnacles, cliffs, and crevasses. High above, the green high plains grass ended abruptly resembling verdant toupees covering naked Mother Earth.

As we wandered, we speculated what Siri’ knew’ all along. The visitor’s center and the overlooks were not where the map said they would be. Deep in the park we encountered a road marked ‘Exit’. An arrow pointed the way out the park. We looked for that road on the map, and finding it, Badlandsallowed us to regain our bearings. We realized that we had entered the second exit to the park rather than the first. Siri and the map were correct.

I feel foolish admitting how turned around we were.  And yet, we were. Our disorientation was as unsettling as the Badlands themselves.

And with all that confusion we never did check out dinosaur fossils. We were just happy to get out of the park with our senses and perspectives intact. In the future if Siri and I are not in agreement, I promise to spend a little more time getting into Siri’s virtual head.

 

 We have passed the city of Mitchell, South Dakota many times while heading to other destinations. Signs for the palace along highway 90 have enticed us to stop. Well, actually not. But having seen the signs for enough times over the  y’ears’, I guess we were just worn down.

Driving through downtown, we followed signs, directing us deep’ear’ into the city. When we arrived, I have to be honest, it didn’t feel like a palace. It had a rather large storefront, with onion shaped spires on the roof, reminiscent  of a Russian orthodox church. The large mural designs on the side of the building were made out of  corn, the cobs sawn in two. It is said that when winter comes, the corn in the murals feed the birds and the squirrels throughout the long cold season.

The 125 year old building, hosts different venues during the year. They have announced  they have started ‘corn’struction this y’ear’ with plans created by an ‘ear’chitect to upgrade the palace. Entering the palace,  there was a reverential focus on corn, the founder of the feast.

Having a daughter who attends Concordia Moorhead, we have had our fill of Corn-laced slogans. The mascot for the college is the fighting Cobber. Their battle cry is “FEAR THE EAR!” (Not that I have felt f’ear’ in the presence of cobs, either with or without kernels.)  Students assert that they are part of the ‘Cobb’ernation.  School events like parents weekend and Homecoming, have been promoted as “Join the Cornspiracy,” and “Born to be Corn”.

Being inside the palace, it felt like we were walking the halls of Concordia Moorhead. The style of the inside of the building, as well as the seating looked very similar. In the center of the arena on wood floors, a make shift gift shop had been set up. There was the opportunity to purchase  a multitude of corn related novelties.  There were exhibits extolling the properties of produce that had sustained them for years.

We left the palace with the knowledge that we could cross that off our list with no need  to return. In the end we took a selfie with ‘Corn’elius. All in all the experience was just, well… ‘corn’y! 


We arrived at the monument as part of a never ending line of vehicles. The parking lot wound around the base of the site. We found a spot across from the visitor’s center. We waited 10 minutes for a grey haired gent to decide he was ready to leave. Sometimes it is amazing to see people who are so clueless of what others needed.

A hike around the tower allowed us to view the monument from many different angles. It was breathtaking. It could be seen from miles away, a chub of rock rising out of the surrounding forest. Up close the we had a better sense of how massive it was. The cracked rock soared to about 1200 feet. If you looked close you could see climbers as small as ladybugs halfway up, scaling the surface of the wall.
Signs were posted along the path, requesting that we respect this sacred site by staying on the trail. Brightly colored prayer cloths fluttered from branches in the light breeze, God’s to-do list.
There are many stories told about the origin of this monument. Science and myth collide. For more information follow this link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Devils_Tower

In the last month the monument has been in the news. Native people want to change the name back to Bear’s Lodge. Others want to keep the Devil’s Tower moniker. The argument reminds us that there is hell to pay when relationships are forged by force, and falsehood.


Register Cliff

A few hours north of Cheyenne near the town of Guernsey, Wyoming is Register Cliff. It is about a 30 minute drive off of I-25.

Meandering through town, we arrived at  the historical site. There were no park rangers . Our entrance fee was the dust we breathed from the vehicle ahead of us.

The site was a mound of limestone rising over 100 feet.  The air was warm and still. Birds had nested in the underside of rock crags that looked like beehives. There was constant movement as tiny birds flew around defensively, returning occasionally to inspect their nests.

Along the base of the cliff  were the names of emigrants. Heading West in the mid 1800s , their names were scratched into the the soft stone. We had to look closely to identify the carvings of the settlers, from visitors who felt they needed to add their name and date. I guess everyone who carved their names into the face of the rock were travelers of one sort or another.

Close to the cliff site were ruts from the wagons heading west. They were about five feet wide and looked like troughs. It was the visible path of hopes, dreams, and adventure.

Barb and I  attempted to imagine the life of these nomads. It was difficult to do with our electronic gadgets and the level of comfort we enjoyed. Google was always there to show us the way (as long as there was a cell signal). We drove a vehicle that softened the jolts with shock absorbers,  stayed in hotels that promised comfort.  Even if one is an outdoor enthusiast, hiking gear has advanced to levels of functionality, not dreamed of by these emigrants.

Settlers, with the prospect of a promise, headed west, facing dangers. They needed  to make sure they had ample food for their family and livestock. Infections could kill them. Wild animals stalked them. Native Americans struggled on how to respond to these intruders traversing their lands. Forts were set up to protect the travelers, mainly from the Native Americans. Treaties were made and broken, there was conflict and massacres. Ultimately they were herded into reservations and forgotten.

Stories were told by the victor and the vanquished. Like everything in history, nothing can be explained or fixed by a sound bites. There is no road back. There is only the opportunity, going forward, to treat others as you wish to be treated.

Name etched in limestone

 

Ruts from wagon wheels


Barb and I have decided, in our retirement that we would like to visit every state in the U.S. There will be a series of blogs chronicling our progress towards our goal, and some sights we saw there.

As a child my family traveled a lot. We settled down in Hawaii, living there longer than any other location. I believed I was an Island boy. I ate exotic foods and spoke pigeon english.  Moving to Minnesota for school I was introduced to a foreign place with temperature extremes I had never experienced before. It was hard for me to embrace this region as home.

Much of my life has been lived in limbo, not able to declare where home was. Before getting married I asked Barb where she would like to live when we got married. There was only one place for her. Minnesota. I would tell people that I lived here for love and the day I stopped loving my wife, would be the day my taillights could be seen headed south.

Children were born and we set about raising them. In time our children had children and they have all freely embraced Minnesota as their home. I still was reluctant to call Minnesota home.

We decided to dip into Barb’s bucket list. She had always wanted to go to Hawaii. So we went. Everything was new to her. For me there were places I recognized, and places I didn’t. Driving down the street I grew up on, I realized that I didn’t recognize the house of my youth. I could have identified it with a bit more persistence. What I realized was that, not only did I not recognize the house, I didn’t recognize the child that grew up in that house.

What I came away with was a deep understanding that Minnesota is my home.  I’m not an island boy, I haven’t spoken pigeon english in fifty years. I am  a Minnesotan. This is where my heart is. This is home.  

IMG_3341Christmas comes like a whirlwind. It starts with the arrival of one family,  then through the morning more families show up. Relatives arrive as well. With each family, there is more chaos. Empty car seats are lined up near the door, like road racers at the starting line.  The couches strain under the weight of winter coats, mounded high, with a few sliding to the floor as the kids fly by.

All the seats are used up and people are sitting on the floor. Chatter and laughter rings through the house. Those who are here are grazing the finger foods, swapping stories and laughing. There is a strong impulse from the toddlers to go down to the basement because that is where Grandma has the big kid toys. It is also where presents like mountain boulders wrapped in Christmas paper and glitter, are piled high around the Christmas tree. The suspense continues as we wait for the rest of the family to arrive.

When all are here, the toddlers, knowing what to expect and not knowing what to expect, stampede down the stairs. What happens next is a cacophony of sights, sounds, and laughter. Time stops as the gift giving continues. I don’t know what time it is. There were excited children, excited parents, excited grandparents.

In my mind I step back and marvel at the gifts I have been given. I have been given the gift of my wife. What an amazing partner she is. As the children have come along, they have taught me how to be a father. Then there are the grandkids. We are just on the cusp of understanding what that means. To have so many little ones so quickly is truly overwhelming in the the best of ways.  I am touched by the thoughtfulness of my children in the gifts they give. I see my children happy, I see their children happy. I see my wife happy.  These are the presents I treasure under our tree.