Captain Terje Nilsen of the Viking Star personally delivered the unfortunate news over the ship’s PA system during breakfast.
“Because of high winds, we will be cruising past the port of Bodø, and continuing onto Tromsø. I apologize for the inconvenience, but the weather is just not safe for us to make a landing.”
Of course, we were disappointed.
Bodø is a charming alpine village north of the Arctic Circle and home to Saltstraumen, the world’s largest maelstrom. Additionally, Leah and I had booked an excursion to Kjerringøy, and would have enjoyed hiking through this preserved trading post dating back to the 1800s.
But Captain Nilsen wasn’t kidding. If the gusting winds and pounding seas were any indication of what was witnessed as the Hurtigruten ferry attempted docking in Bodø, then I couldn’t imagine the Viking Star following suit–certainly not with so many passengers unable to handle the rough crossing from Tilbury, England.
Nevertheless, passengers were invited to the pool deck following breakfast to celebrate a longtime maritime tradition of crossing the Arctic Circle.
While Paulo serenaded us with folk classics and Beatles covers of Here Comes the Sun, and I’ll Follow the Sun, (ironic, don’t you think),
the crew assembled to initiate each of us into the Order of the Blue Nose.
Our Cruise Director, Brensley Pope took the microphone to give some background:
Good afternoon Ladies & Gentlemen and welcome! We have entered through the Arctic Circle, and it is time to make our journey official by welcoming you to the Order of the Blue Nose! First, a little history.
The word “arctic” comes from the Greek word arktikos: “near the Bear, northern” The name refers to the constellation Ursa Major, the “Great Bear”, which is prominent in the northern sky.
The region north of the Circle, known as the “Arctic” covers roughly 4% of the Earth’s surface.
The position of the Arctic Circle coincides with the southernmost latitude in the Northern Hemisphere at which the sun can remain continuously above or below the horizon for a full twenty-four hours; hence the “Land of the Midnight Sun.” This position depends on the tilt of the earth’s axis, and therefore is not a “fixed” latitude. The Arctic circle is moving north at a rate of 15 meters per year, and is currently located at 66 degrees 33 minutes North latitude.
Captain Terje Nilsen interupted, “I believe that’s enough history for now…”
The crowd responded with laughter. And then it became official with his declaration…
Hear ye… hear ye….
Whereas by official consension, our most honorable and well-beloved Guests have completed successful passage through the Arctic Domain. We do hereby declare to all in attendance and that those who possess the courage to take the Aquavit cleanse shall be marked accordingly, with the prestigious Order of the Blue Nose.
Captain Nilsen continued…
This is to certify that you all have been formally and officially initiated into the Solemn Mysteries of the Ancient Order of the Chilly Deep, and should wear your blue noses proudly! With the order of myself, the Captain, I command all subjects to Honor and Respect those onboard Viking Star as one of our Trusty Blue Nose family.
We officially welcome you to the Blue Nose Order! Skol!
I got my blue nose and drained my shot glass of chilled Aquavit. Was I now a proud member of a society of alcoholics and sun worshippers?
But I wasn’t alone.
Lines formed from both sides of the pool deck for distinguished crew members to efficiently annoint all worthy passangers with a blue-tinted dab of meringue.
What follows is a small sample of inductee’s portraits–some more enthusiastic than others…
United in singular purpose, we now shared a common bond.
To validate our accomplishment, each of us received a certificate of achievement validated by Captain Nilsen.
Soon after, while walking about the jogging track in whipping winds after a filling lunch, I caught a glimpse of what made this affair so special.
Having pre-booked Rødne’s 3-hour scenic cruise through Lysefjord–Western Norway’s most picturesque passage–
Leah and I were on an impossible mission to view Preikestolen (Pulpit Rock), considering the current gray skies and dismal forecast. Reknown for its views, and famous for its cliffhanger scene in Mission: Impossible–Fallout, we considered Preikestolen a must-see.
On the bright side, there was plenty of legroom aboard Rødne’sRygerdronningen, a 297-passenger, high-speed catamaran that carried only 24 guests this particular day, many with camera lenses as long as my arm.
We pushed off at 11:00 am sharp,
easing out of the harbor’s protected waters,
and beyond the bridge,
where it became perfectly clear to us that this was a perfect day for seabirds,
but less so for Leah–who required a double dose of dramimine to deal with the swells propagating across the horizon.
Along the journey, we passed scores of coastline cottages,
whose owners regulary commute to town by boat during the summer months…
unless they have the means to vacation in Rogaland all summer long.
Midway through our voyage we passed under the Lysefjord Bridge–gateway to Lysefjord–
connecting Forsand with Oanes, a small farming village on the coastline,
that’s dwarfed by an imposing edifice.
We eased into the fjord,
flanked by looming walls of granite…
until the captain navigated the bow of the ship within a hair’s breath of the Vagabond’s Cave.
Legend has it that the cave was named after a group of vagabonds who used the shelter as a hideout for months, trying to escape the police.
As we backed out of the grotto to pursue a course to Pulpit Rock, the weather turned to sleet and snow, shrouding the cliff’s signature square flat top, 604 meters above the fjord, and driving most of the passengers indoors.
But there were some intrepid sailors who were undeterred, because they had little choice in their RIB (rigid inflatable boat).
We followed at our own pace…
until we reached Hengjane Waterfall, cascading 400 meters (1312 ft) into the fjord.
Soon after, we U-turned to retrace our wake before returning to Skavanger.
Marie-Charlotte van Kerckhoven was among the few passengers on board. While nursing a hot coffee, Leah and I heard about her hiking expedition to the top of Pulpit Rock the day before. Braving freezing temperatures and two feet of snow, she and her hiking buddy made the ascent to the 25 by 25 meters flat top in 4 hours.
She was happy to share her view,
and even happier to report that here was no trace of Tom Cruise ever being there.
Leah and I crossed a rocky North Sea from Tilbury, England aboard Viking Star (more on this Viking ocean liner later),
and docked at Stavanger Port on an overcast morning.
Stavanger is Norway’s third largest region, and best known as the European capital for the oil and gas industry–which explains the town’s Norwegian Petroleum Museum, and its unusual derrick-like design on the city’s waterfront.
Stavanger is also a popular tourist hub, as it’s the gateway to the fjords. To that end, Leah and I had booked an off-ship excursion to Rogaland to cruise through Lysefjord in search of Preikestolen, better known as Pulpit Rock.
But with some time to kill before our departure, we disembarked early to stroll along the harbor plaza to find our bearings, and regain our sea legs after a day and a half of cruising.
The plaza was sleepy for an early Wednesday morning, but it was refreshing to have the place to ourselves.
We could enjoy the local art (that celebrates the shrimping industry)…
without concern for another’s footsteps.
We opted to tour the Gamle Stravanger (Old Town), where 173 wooden buildings from the turn of the 18th century have been preserved…
down to the cast bronze utility plate covers.
A casual walk along Old Town’s winding roads of white cottages…
Our time in London was limited–only two days to explore the sights. With so much to see and so little time, Leah and I buckled down for a tour of London’s greatest hits, which easily includes a visit to Westminster Abbey, England’s Gothic royal church, and familiar site for British coronations and weddings, and national celebrations dating back to the 11th century.
We walked around the massive structure until we found the gate entry. Signage informed us that access to this London landmark would set us back 23£ ($30 with current exchange rates), but seniors were entitled to a 3£ discount.
The price seemed steep, but the opportunity to walk through history doesn’t come along every day.
There is a strict NO PHOTOGRAPHY policy inside, which the church keepers will tell you is for the benefit of giving their guests an experience without distraction, and to perserve the solemnity of a working house of worship.
Nevertheless, we walked through the transepts and chapels listening to interactive video recordings while admiring the captivating architecture and memorials, and reflecting on the notion that Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton lie beneath our feet.
But with a newly purchased camera dangling around my neck (Sony RX10 IV), I couldn’t resist the urge.
I had to see what this camera could reproduce in low light…
using advanced stabilization software for hand-held shots…
until I was admonished by an Abbey marshal in Henry VII’s Lady Chapel while capturing an overhead view from a polished mirror.
My bad! He wouldn’t leave my side until I reversed the shade and capped my lens. Even then, I could feel his eyes trained on me as I walked around the royal tombs acting as contrite as I could possibly be.
Fortunately, photography IS allowed in the College Garden,
and the Chapter House.
As we prepared to leave through the Great West Door, Leah and I walked past the Grave of the Unknown Warrior toward the Coronation Chair behind glass, I was so tempted to surreptitiously point and shoot…but thought better of it. Lesson learned.
As serendipity would have it, the Marshal and I reunited outside, and all was forgiven.
We parted as friends, and I believe I was absolved for my vainglory sin. He used our final moments together to tell us the tale of Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna, his favorite modern martyr, whose ediface adorns the Abbey’s Great West Door.
According to Marshal John…
Elizabeth of Hesse-Darmstadt was born on 1st November 1864. She was named after Elizabeth of Hungary (1207-1231), a Catholic saint of her own family. Her mother died when she was a child, and she came to England to live under the protection of her grandmother, Queen Victoria. If her childhood was Lutheran, the religious culture of her adolescence was distinctively Anglican. In 1884 Elizabeth married Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, the fifth son of Tsar Alexander II of Russia. Elizabeth found Orthodoxy increasingly absorbing, and in 1891 she adopted the faith.
Although her life had assurance and all the comforts of eminence, it rested on fragile foundations. The Tsarist state maintained its grip over a changing society by repression. Talk of revolution persisted, and grew louder. Acts of terrorism mounted. On 18th February 1905, the Grand Duke Sergei was assassinated.
This marked a turning point in Elizabeth’s life. Now she gave away her jewellery and sold her most luxurious possessions, and with the proceeds she opened the Martha and Mary home in Moscow, to foster the prayer and charity of devout women. Here there arose a new vision of a diaconate for women, one that combined intercession and action in the heart of a disordered world. In April 1909 Elizabeth and seventeen women were dedicated as Sisters of Love and Mercy. Their work flourished: soon they opened a hospital and a variety of other philanthropic ventures arose.
In March 1917 the Tsarist state, fatally damaged by the war with Germany, collapsed. In October, a revolutionary party, the Bolsheviks, seized power. Civil war followed. The Bolshevik party was avowedly atheistic, and it saw in the Orthodox Church a pillar of the old regime. In power, it persecuted the Church with terrible force. In time, hundreds of priests and nuns were imprisoned, taken away to distant labour camps, and killed. Churches were closed or destroyed. On 7th May 1918 Elizabeth was arrested with two sisters from her convent, and transported across country to Perm, then to Ekatarinburg, and finally to Alapaevsk. On 17th July the Tsar and his family were shot dead. During the following night Elizabeth, a sister from SS Mary and Martha named Varvara, and members of the royal family were murdered in a mineshaft.
In the Soviet Union Christianity survived in the face of periodic persecution and sustained oppression. But Elizabeth was remembered. In 1984 she was recognized as a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, and then by the Moscow Patriarchate in 1992.
I’m certain that Saint Elizabeth, in her charity, would have pardoned me too.
GPS was set to Zona Arqueológica de Tulum, but upon arrival, the crossover was still under construction. Following signs to the next Retorno, I backtracked to a bustling turnoff. This looked nothing like the Tulum I remembered from 5 years back. Heck, Tulum used to be all jungle 20 years ago!
But now, it resembled a spider web of agents in uniformed shirts carrying clipboards and shouting directions in Spanglish. Our rental car was stopped short of the road to the ruins, where we were met by Freddy, a representative for Santa Fe Beach Club, whose job it was to redirect us to his business.
According to Freddy, my choices were limited since cars could no longer advance. Either I could park nearby for $20 and walk 1 km to the ruins, or pay $40 a head, granting us: closer parking; National Park entrance passes; access to the Beach Club–including toilet and shower provisions, one drink (choice of water, soda, or cerveza), and a half-hour water tour, followed by reef snorkeling (all gear provided).
“No way!” everyone voiced emphatically.
All of us were content to walk to the ruins for a fraction of the cost. As I prepared to park in an already overcrowded lot, Freddy offered us a winning alternative: the same all-inclusive package reduced to $27 per person–a 33% discount–traditionally offered to Mexican residents. Score! and lesson learned. Always negogiate the price!
While the ruins piqued their interest, the prospect of snorkeling atop the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef (largest reef system in the Western Hemisphere) sounded especially promising to Noah and Nate. After I revised our initial itinerary–which would have included a stop at Yal-ku in Akumal, with snorkeling in a brackish lagoon surrounded by sculptures–I sensed their enthusiasm to swim in the Caribbean.
I followed Freddy’s directions to Tulum’s Hotel Zone, and turned into a narrow seaside road, offering access to scores of Tulum’s boutique hotels and yoga retreats. Unfortunately, Tulum’s current popularity may prove unsustainable, as it’s recent explosion of tourism and new resort construction have overtaken the town’s current infrastructure capacity, turning it into a eco-nightmare.
Nevertheless, developers continue to exploit the bohemian chic of Tulum. Despite government crackdowns (knowingly rife with corrupt officials), illegal projects continue, laying waste to precious jungle habitats that were once home to endangered jaguars and sea turtles.
We drove to the término, reaching our destination…
and luckily found a coveted parking spot along the mangroves by the beach entrance.
We walked the remaining half mile to the National Park on a rutted lane shared by cyclists, and local vendors selling water and trinkets.
Ordinarily, the surroundings are packed with tour groups and spectators, but we arrived on a calm day, without the usual hubbub.
In fact, the landscape was relatively quiet, and devoid of humanity…
except when I wanted an isolated picture of family.
After meandering through 13th century wreckage for more than an hour, we turned our attention to the beach, where the turquoise water looked so inviting.
Ruins Beach is accessible from the cliffs above, but 500 meters south, lies Sante Fe Beach, one of Tulum’s original hangout spots before the tourism boom…
and that was our next destination.
Per Freddy’s instructions, we sought out Captain Harrison, and lounged on PVC beach chairs under a delapidated canopy, waiting for our excursion on Brenda or half a dozen skiffs just like her.
Leah stayed on land after realizing her bonine fix had worn off, but Noah, Nate and I eagerly climbed aboard.
Our captain motored out to open water,
and offered a summarized history of the Mayans, and importance of Tulum…in Spanish.
Soon, we headed for the reef, where others had formed a floatilla of snorkelers.
Noah and Nathan eagerly jumped overboard for an under-the-sea swim…
while I remained on the surface, shooting pelicans…
and keeping track of my sons.
Once ashore, it was time for a beer and a shower. Despite the primitive outdoor plumbing on the beach, we concluded that $27 a head was a better bargain than any of us could have ever imagined for a family vacation adventure.
It was September 1969, and I was in my senior year at Pittsburgh’s Peabody High School. To my mother’s dismay, my bell-bottom jeans were torn and faded, my hair was too long, and my music was too noisy. The British Invasion was casting Pittsburgh’s favorite sons Bobbie Vinton and Lou Christie aside, although Tommy James and the Shondells were pushing back hard with their psychedelic sound.
I was hooked on rock ‘n roll, and doubled down on my commitment as a record collector by retiring my GE record player and worn 45’s in favor of LPs. Fortunately, my summer job as a yardman at Steel City Lumber funded my new Pioneer SX-1000 receiver and Dual 1219 turntable, complemented by a pair of Advent Loudspeakers. All I needed now was a record that was worthy of blasting.
My weekly allowance was meant to cover my bus transportation and school lunches for the week, but if I scrimped hard enough, I could afford an album, and I knew exactly which one I wanted. The Beatles’ Abbey Road LP had just been released, and I couldn’t wait to listen to it in its entirety, uninterrupted.
However, a weekend trip to National Record Mart’s East Liberty location left me high and dry. Unfortunately, the Beatles’ much anticipated album was already out of stock. Rather than leave the store empty-handed, I took the store clerk’s advice and picked up a record from a display he was building by the store entrance.
Being unfamiliar with the group, I was reassured that this band was unlike any other I may have heard. He said these guys performed at Woodstock, and this was definitely a band to pay close attention to. My interest was piqued. On the surface, I was trading a color photo of the Fab Four stepping through a London crosswalk for a sepia-toned picture of five scruffy guys posing in the woods. The album in question was self-titled, The Band.
I couldn’t wait to get home. I slit the shrink wrap, and carefully placed the record on the turntable platter. From the first track, a romping Across the Great Divide, to the last track, a haunting King Harvest (Has Surely Come), I knew I was hooked. It was completely different from any music playing on the radio at the time. This was a melange of mountain music, blues, and rockabilly mixed with unusual signatures. The music was delightful! How ironic that four of the five players were Canadian, but their expression was pure Americana.
That was 50 years ago. Today, The Band’s iconic album still resonates. While The Band’s songbook is limited to seven studio albums of original material over a ten-year career, their legendary status as consumate musicians was cemented in their final Thanksgiving concert, The Last Waltz (1976)–captured for the big screen by Martin Scorsese–where a string of special guests joined the group on stage to make music history as one of the greatest concerts of all time.
The magic continues this November, as The Last Waltz Tour reprises The Band’s original setlist with fresh arrangements and a steller line-up of musicians. I had admired the film and listened to the original recording, but I had to catch this performance now that it was coming to my newly adopted home town.
It was a chilly evening at St. Augustine’s Amphitheater, but the capacity crowd was warmed up for the event, as a familiar whiff of marijuana wafted through the tiered venue before The Last Waltz Overture signaled the beginning of the show.
Three frontmen took the stage,
and for the next 3½ hours shared lead vocals and guitar riffs, and provided subtle harmonies for a trove of rock ‘n roll gems memorialized 43 years ago. The all-star ensemble also included jazz keyboardist, John Medeski of MedeskiMartin & Wood;
legendary producer and bassist Don Was, and funk-master drummer Terrance Higgins anchoring a solid rhythm section; and a New Orleans-flavored horn section powered by Mark Mullins and the Levee Horns, playing from Alain Toussaint’s original charts.
Guest stars included: Cyril Neville,
and septuagenarian guitarist Bob Margolin, who played with The Band and Muddy Waters at the original Last Waltz in 1976, and reminisced about performing at the concert and jamming at the after-party with Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Ronnie Wood, and Paul Butterfield until 7am.
Such a night!
Theme From The Last Waltz
Up on Cripple Creek
The Shape I’m In
Georgia (On My Mind)
It Makes No Difference
The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show
Down South in New Orleans
Who Do You Love?
This Wheel’s on Fire
King Harvest (Has Surely Come)
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
The Genetic Method
Life Is a Carnival
Rag Mama Rag
Kind Hearted Woman Blues
Further On Up the Road
I Shall Be Released
Such a Night
Baby Don’t You Do It
The Band’s music endures after 50 years, and may it keep us Forever Young.
One hundred and sixty years ago, John Brown and his abolitionist brigade played a pivotal role in American history by raiding the South’s largest federal armory in Harpers Ferry with the intention of fueling a rebellion of slaves from Virginia and North Carolina, and envisioning a subsequent society where all people–regardless of color–would be free and equal.
The initial siege caught U.S. soldiers off guard and the armory and munitions plant were captured with little resistance. Brown’s marauders took sixty townsfolk hostage (including the great grandnephew of George Washington), and slashed the telegraph wires in an attempt to isolate the town from outside communication.
However, a B&O passenger train, originally detained at the bridge, was allowed to continue its journey to Baltimore, where employees sounded the alarm and troops were immediately dispatched to quell the insurrection.
In another of Brown’s miscalculations, the local militia pinned down Brown’s insurgents inside the engine house while awaiting reinforcements,
yet newly freed slaves never came to his rescue.
Ninety U.S. Marines under Colonel Robert E. Lee’s command arrived by train the next evening and successfully stormed the stronghold the following day. When the dust had settled, ten of Brown’s raiders were killed (including two of his sons),
five had escaped, and seven were captured, including John Brown.
John Brown was quickly tried and convicted of treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Just before his hanging on December 2, 1859, Brown prophesied the coming of civil war: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”
How right he was! To the North, Brown was a martyr; to the South, he was a traitor. To a fractured and fragile country, he was the first American to be sentenced and executed for treason.
John Brown’s raid and subsequent trial hardenened the separatism between the country’s abolitionist and pro-slavery factions,
…and advanced the disparate and insurmountable ideologies of the North and the South, until only the Civil War could satisfy the issue and begin healing the nation.
The term treason has been loosely bandied about of late and with tremendous fanfare, albeit little distinction. It’s become a familiar talking point for Donald Trump, whose insulting language and hyperbolic demagoguery continue to rouse his supporters as it diminishes the civility of our national conversation.
Bold and courageous public servants and patriots who are honor bound to defend democracy have been branded as traitors and accused of treasonous behavior because they dare to speak out against corruption and wrongdoing inside the White House.
And the implications are worrisome, for the stakes are high. In a country that values free speech, treason is not about displaced loyalties; it has nothing to do with political dissent; and it has no standing in speaking truth to power. Treason is about pledging allegiance to power and greed instead of American values, like diversity and unity.
As before, politics continues to polarize the nation,
while our Legislative Branch of government seeks a constitutional remedy against the Executive Branch through an impeachment process. And once again, ideological differences have fostered veiled threats of civil war.
If history is to be our guide, then John Brown must be our beacon. During his sentencing he lamented, “…had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends…and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.”
Sounds remarkably familiar.
More than ever, we must steer through political currents, and find our way around deception, obfuscation and misdirection if our democracy is to stay afloat.
“It’s a fine line between nutty and eccentric,” explained docent Jim Masseau of the Bayernhof Museum, “and the difference between the two is money.” Over the next two-plus hours, as Leah and I toured this residential mansion in suburban Pittsburgh, Jim’s definition proved to be an understatement, as we learned more about the behavior of Charles Boyd Brown III, the master of Bayernhof.
We entered the house through heavy double-doors, which opened into an airy vestibule sporting a heavy chandelier–
befitting a man who made his fortune fabricating sand-casted aluminum lanterns.
Along the way, we passed what appeared to be a life-sized Hummel figurine (later identified as bearing a likeness to his great-grandfather),
and gathered in the family room with the other guests, only to stare at Charlie’s portrait while we waited for Jim to begin the tour.
After informal introductions, Jim fed us details about Charlie’s bachelor life (born in 1937) and the house he left behind.
Built high on a hill covering 18 acres, and completed in 1982–after 6 years of construction without blueprints–Charlie’s 19,000 square-foot, Bavarian-styled “castle” overlooks the Alleghany Valley, with views reaching one-hundred miles beyond city limits on a clear day.
However, despite Charlie’s dream of constructing a $4.2 miilion estate with German folk-flourishes–
a rooftop observatory with a 16 inch reflecting telescope…
a basement batcave made of concrete and fiberglass,
a swimming pool with a 10-foot waterfall…
a wine celler with a working copper still…
a billiard room (starring a pool table thought to belong to Jackie Gleason)…
a home office…
and a boardroom (only used twice)–
his house, unfortunately, would never be considered museum-worthy on its own. Charlie would need a gimmick to attract greater attention. And that’s when he started collecting automated music machines from the 19th and 20th century.
Charlie couldn’t carry a tune, and had as much musicality as a bag of bagel holes. But his appreciation for century-old music machines instructed his passion for collecting them, until he acquired nearly 150 working devices (many rare and unusual), now scattered throughout the premises.
A sample of instruments can be viewed in the video below:
As Charlie grew his collection, he loved showing them off, and held lavish parties for 5 to 500 guests at a time–always in charge of the cooking, and always dressed in one of his signature blue Oxford shirts. He owned 283 of them. Whenever he tired of his company, he would magically slip away through one of many secret passages, leaving his guests to fend for themselves.
Before Charlie passed away in 1999, he endowed a foundation valued at $10 million to convert his home into a museum. In 2004, the O’Hara Township zoning board granted his wish, and the Bayernhof Museum was born, with the stipulation that pre-arranged guided tours be limited to 12 people at a time.
Charlie’s Bayernhof got its big break when CBS News did a feature for its Sunday Morning broadcast earlier this year…
Pittsburgh is best known as the “City of Bridges,” boasting a world’s-highest 446 spans.
Its residents have been crossing its rivers and hills before the French built Fort Duquesne at the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers in 1754 to protect their access to the Ohio Valley.
After the British advanced, defeating the French and Native Americans, they established Fort Pitt in 1761.
As Pittsburgh industrialized during the 19th century, so did its transportation network, and the bridges soon followed, connecting many of the elevated neighborhoods scattered throughout the vicinity.
In fact, the “City of Bridges” moniker could easily be replaced with the “City of Hills,” given Pittsburgh’s challenging geography, for there are hills galore (North Hills, East Hills, South Hills, West Hills, Middle Hill, Upper Hill, Spring Hill, Summer Hill, Troy Hill, Polish Hill, Squirrel Hill, and the Hill District); and there are heights aplenty (Northview Heights, Brighton Heights, Crafton Heights, Duquesne Heights, and Stanton Heights); as well as a variety of lofty-sounding communities (Highland Park, Mt. Washington, Southside Slopes, Beechview and Fineview).
For me, growning up in Stanton Heights was a constant cardio workout of hiking and biking in my neighborhood. I still recall schlepping up Greenwood Street’s countless steps on my way home from junior high at Morningside Elementary School. And climbing those hills in an unforgiving winter frequently required fortitude and a layer of thermal underwear, which was sure-fire bait for bullies.
Characteristically, Pittsburgh’s reputation for having the largest collection of steepest streets in the world underscores the importance of living close to a world-class medical center (UPMC)…
whose headquarters, coincidently, occupy the US Steel Building–the tallest tower of Pittsburgh’s skyline.
It had been a long time between visits to Pittsburgh, so Leah and I relocated the Airstream to an RV park north of Pittsburgh for a few days, appropriately named Mountain Top Campground…
and determined that a trip to Mt. Washington was a natural first stop for a lasting look at my hometown from the best possible vantage point.
But rather than drive to the top, we parked in a lot and rode the Duquesne Incline as tourists–
one of two remaining from the original 17 funiculars that Pittsburgers once relied upon to ease their commute to the heights throughout town–
for an unparalleled lookout of the Point.
After an overpriced lunch at The Grandview Saloon (poached pear salad for $14), we followed Jennifer (our GPS) to Canton Street,
in search of America’s steepest street in Beechview.
Although it’s only one block long, climbing the 37% grade behind the wheel of my F-150 was somewhat disconcerting. Aside from the bumpy ride over cobblestones, the angle was so severe, I could barely see the road beyond the windshield.
A 37% grade! I can’t even imagine what it would take to climb Canton Street during a winter storm…unless you’re a mountain goat.
But there was one last road phenomenon I needed to check out before we explored the cultural side of Pittsburgh. I had heard about a gravity hill near North Park that sounded like a too-good-to-be-true myth that needed busting.
When I reached the intersection of Kummer and McKinney, I made a hard left around the STOP sign onto McKinney Road, and passed an Audi that was there to perform the same miracle-manuever.
Leah and I patiently waited off-road, watching the Audi repeat the same experiment… over and over again…until satisfied.
And then it was my turn.
I inched toward the STOP sign, and held the brake till I shifted to neutral. Leah stepped out of the truck to record the event on her iPhone. I hesitated for a moment thinking how crazy this seemed. Of course, the truck can’t possibly roll unhill. It goes against the fundamentals of science!
When I came to my senses, I released the brake, and the truck began rolling backwards. It was not what I expected!
I’m not a civil engineer, and I’m not a geologist, so I don’t have a reasonable explanation why the truck drifted backwards, so I consulted the experts:
According to Wikipedia, “a gravity hill is a place where a slight downhill slope appears to be an uphill slope due to the layout of the surrounding land, creating the optical illusion that water flows uphill or that a car left out of gear will roll uphill.”
So I was on a hill that made down look like up?
How weird…but then it occurred to me that Donald Trump runs the country the very same way, and “the 37%” who follow him, must be living on their own personal “Canton Street,” unable to see the road ahead.
Randy Gilson grew up dirt poor in a small mill town just outside Pittsburgh’s city limits. As one of six children from a “broken” family, he remembers being teased by schoolmates, who called him “dumb, stupid, dadless, welfare boy, and white trash.” But his mother, a minister, advised him to ignore the noise, and instilled in him a commitment to do good for others. Her voice became Randy’s moral compass, and he’s walked the high road ever since.
He recalls a childhood Christmas when there was no money for presents, so he scavanged the neighborhood trashcans in search of discarded toys, and placed a wrapped gift for each of his siblings under the tree. It was a powerful lesson.
He learned that “making others happy made me happy.”
He also discovered that traditional learning was a waste of his time. He was wired differently from others, and blamed his failing school grades on an unofficial diagnosis of “ADHD and OCD, mixed with a little bit of autism,” because he was never formally tested. Rather than depend on his brain, he reminded himself that “my eyes are a tool to see, my ears are a tool to hear, my hands are a tool to work, and my heart is a tool to help.”
Randy’s first money came from mowing neighbors’ lawns, but in a roundabout way. At first, he furtively cut their overgrown grass as a goodwill gesture. The neighbors called Randy out for tresspassing, but eased their anger once they realized the benefit to their properties. Eventually, they hired Randy to tend their yards–where he honed his topiary skills on their hedges and trees.
Additionally, working on family farms over the summers taught him the value of nurturing seeds and the resultant harvest. In later years, Randy’s interest in horticulture blossomed into the Old Allegheny Garden Society, which resulted in planting hundreds of whiskey barrel gardens along the Mexican War Streets of Pittsburgh’s North Side during a risky time of transition and uncertainty.
“Living his life” gave Randy the confidence to gamble on his future. In 1978, he moved to Pittsburgh’s North Side, because it was the best he could do at the time. When long-time residents fled to the suburbs, the gangs moved into the area, and a drug culture took root and held the community hostage. “The neighbors used to shoot off guns in the middle of the night. For them, it was particularly useful in keeping the rents low,” claimed Randy.
But Randy stood his ground. Although planting gardens and painting murals raised eyebrows of derision and suspicion among grown-ups, the children of the streets gave Randy the benefit of the doubt. At first they were confused.
“Why would a stranger be doing all sorts of nice things on their streets?” Randy mused. “When I told them that I was doing it for them, then they wanted to help, too.”
The street became Randy’s parish, and he preached a gospel of stewardship and goodness. Soon after, his Pied Piper nature won over the rest of the community, and he was accepted as their resident eccentric (or eccentric resident).
An opportunity presented itself in 1995. An abandoned building on Arch Street, earmarked for the wrecking ball, was saved from demolition when Randy bought the property from the bank with a $10,000 credit card loan covered by the bank.
Immediately, he began collecting litter, planting gardens and painting wall murals.
That was the genesis of Randyland…
a candy-coated, pie-in-the-sky habitat of repurposed whimsy and soul,
People travel to Randyland from around the world, and prepare destination arrows to indicate their country of origin.
They stop by for the novelty…
for the vibe and the energy…
and to remember the child still trapped inside us all.
Randy doesn’t pretend to be an artist. In fact, he disagrees with the characterization. “I’m not an artist. I’m a gay hippie that smokes pot, and believes in sharing my vision.”
Randy’s charm is infectious; his energy is contagious;
and his message is inspirational. His mother would be proud of him.
What started out as a typical tour of a colorful outdoor habitat, turned into a surprisingly deep and endearing conversation with Randy, once Leah and I introduced ourselves.
Passerby cars with follow-up horn toots were a constant interruption, but Randy always had a quick response for them:
“Hey, pretty mama…”
“I love your weave…”
“Lookin’ good in the neighborhood.”
Randy is eager to tell his story and have his story told. He is also unabashed about his upbringing and background. Few people I know are so accepting of themselves. He easily shares the details of his life normally reserved for confidants or therapists. But then I realize that Randy’s candor is probably an ongoing part of his therapy…where he plays the therapist.
Randy placed a wad of business cards in my hand, and like a butterfly in search of its next flower nectar, he flew off to be photographed with his next best friends.
It’s easy spotting a rainbow, but following him to his pot of gold is a greater reward.
Originally, our itinerary would have taken us directly from Cleveland to Pittsburgh, but after phoning Airstream’s Factory Service Center, and learning of an available repair appointment, we redirected Jennifer (our GPS avatar) to plot a course for the western border of Ohio.
Although we were headed in the opposite direction, it was a small price to pay to fix the damage sutained to the right-side wheel well from a blown Goodyear Marathon tire in Sault Ste Marie, Ontario (see Blowout!).
Located between Ft. Wayne, IN and Columbus, OH at the intersection of State Routes 274 and 65 sits the village of Jackson Center with a population of nearly 1,500 people, whose largest employer is Airstream with 730 workers.
In 1952, founder Wally Byam, migrated to Jackson Center from Los Angeles with visions of expanding the output of his iconic brand.
Sixty-seven years later, Airstream continues its hand-built tradition of America’s longest tenured travel trailer, and now awaits completion of its state-of-the-art 750,000 sq-ft eco-friendly facility by year’s end, which should help correct the current 2,400 trailer shortfall.
When Leah and I arrived, we were overwhelmed by dozens of Airstreams–from its earliest incarnation,
to several vintage varities,
to newest production models–
all towed across America with a wide array of boo boos,
and lining the parking lot in need of attention and TLC.
After confirming my appointment with Amica Insurance Company–who contracted for an adjuster to appraise the damage upon our arrival on Friday morning–I checked in with Customer Service, and registered for the afternoon tour of Airstream’s currrent manufacturing facility.
We were joined by 50 additional visitors and Don Ambos, a 60-year veteran of Airstream who retired as a line worker, but currently curates the 2-hour tour–from components to assembly.
Currently, Airstream builds 72 travel trailers every week…
…and 13 Class B Motorhomes every week.
By the time the tour had ended, our trailer had already been towed to the on-site Terraport, where we stayed the next two nights with full hook-up at no extra charge ($10/day for visitors)!
The Airstream factory tour runs every day at 2pm from Monday through Friday, although on Friday, the production cycle only runs half a day, so goggles and eye protection are not required.
After traveling over 50,000 miles behind the wheel of my F-150, with my Flying Cloud 27-FB hitched behind me, I can’t image a better tandem for comfort, performance, and durability.
And having witnessed the assembly of both truck and trailer (in Dearborn, MI and Jackson Center, OH, respectively) I am reassured that Made in America matters.
The sole reason Leah and I traveled to Cleveland was to visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, period…
and it didn’t disappoint.
Classic rock music filled the cavernous lobby…
and lighter-than-air concert props hung from cables…
It was a crusty carnival atmosphere on the outside, but we were there for the gooey goodness of the center.
Inside was like a multi-media circus. There was so much information and memorabilia organized on the walls, on the ceilings, and inside floating kiosks that whiplash seemed inevitable. And the Hall was buzzing: with so many tourists, campers, musicians, and music enthusiasts, that at times it felt like a mosh pit, as I moved from one area to another.
To be expected, there was a tribute to Woodstock…
and Dick Clark…
a salute to the 2019 inductees…
and the icons of rock: Elvis,
The Rolling Stones,
and Jimi Hendrix, to name a few.
There was plenty of concert apparel to gush about…
And there were interactivities to capture one’s creativity, like Garage Band.
Most importantly, when the last lyric was sung and the last chord was strummed, it was time to shop!
Henry Ford and Thomas Edison–the two men are inextricably linked in so many ways that it defies kismet. Both were iconic inventors and visionaries with a twist of genius; both were titans of industry; they were best friends; they were neighbors; they were presidents of each other’s mutual admiration society; and they were both anti-Semitic.
On October 21, 1929–two days before the stock market crash–invitees arrived at Greenfield Village to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the electric light, and Ford’s dedication of Greenfield Village to Edison.
The event was a who’s who of dignitaries and celebrities, with the likes of Will Rogers, Marie Curie, Charles Schwab, Adolph Ochs, Walter Chrysler, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., J.P. Morgan, George Eastman and Orville Wright, etc.
All gathered inside Edison’s reconstructed Menlo Park laboratory…
to witness the symbolic relighting of an incandescent lamp made famous a half century earlier, and credited with changing the world.
Later, Ford ordered the armchair where Edison sat during the ceremony to be nailed in place for all time, and never to be sat in again.
It remains in the exact same place, today.
Greenfield Village was dedicated to Edison that evening as the Edison Institute of Technology. Henry Ford had prepared all year for this public relations bonanza by bringing Menlo Park, NJ to Dearborn, MI.
Ford incorporated Edison’s machine shop…
and years later, he built a facsimile of Edison’s first power plant.
Although Ford was 16 years Edison’s junior, and Edison had been Ford’s employer for a time, they became bossom buddies by the time World War I erupted. Ford’s acceptance of a 1914 invitation to Edison’s winter retreat in Ft. Myers sealed the deal.
Two years later, Ford purchased The Mangoes beside Edison’s SeminoleLodge, and they became Floridian neighbors.
They took public vacations together, inviting John Burroughs and Harvey Firestone along for the ride–usually to the mountains or parts of rural America. The press corps were encouraged to follow their every move, dubbing them “The Vagabonds.”
While roaming the country, Ford was always eager to share his anti-Semitic views around the campfire, blaming the Shylock bankers in Germany as the root cause of the war, and Jews in America as the source of economic anxiety–all of which was propagandized in the Dearborn Independent, a newspaper published by Ford and used to expose his “truths” about the Jewish threat.
While Edison’s anti-Semitism was never as overt as Ford, it became clear that he harbored similar sentiments, and used his motion picture company to propagate Jewish myths and stereotypes. Cohen was a recurring dislikeable character in his early short films…
While Jean Farrell Edison, the granddaughter and heiress of Thomas Edison’s fortune was funding the Institute for Historical Review (an organization that promotes Holocaust denial), Henry Ford II had distanced himself from his grandfather’s vitriol by offering philanthropic support for Detroit’s Jewish community, as well as renouncing the Arab League’s boycott of Israel after Israel achieved statehood in 1948.
And how would Henry Ford react to Mark Fields’ appointment as Ford Motor Company’s CEO in 2014, or Bill Ford’s dedication of Ford’s first technology research center opening in Tel Aviv this year?
Likewise, Edison might pale upon discovering that the motion picture industry exploded in Hollywood with studios founded by: Carl Laemmle, Sam and Jack Warner, Sam Goldwyn and Louis B. Mayer, William Fox, and Adolf Zukor.
Paradoxically, in 1997, the Israeli Postal Authority memorialized Edison with a stamp.
Yet, a bigger question remains… How is it that we live in a world that continues to embrace an ancient hatred that modern-day leaders are unwilling to disavow?
Typically, most people with a predilection for collecting turn to everyday items, such as stamps, figurines, sports memorabilia, books, shoes, or records to name just a few obsessions. But not Henry Ford. By virtue of Ford’s bottomless budget, and his insatiable curiosity, his path to collecting took him through time itself, because Henry Ford collected significant relics of history and personal sentiment, and planted them across 80 acres in Dearborn, Michigan.
He called it Greenfield Village, making it the largest museum of its kind in the world.
Greenfield Village originally operated as an experimental school known as Edison Institute in 1929 (as a nod to his dearest friend) before opening to the public as an outdoor museum in 1933.
Ford, mused, “I am collecting the history of our people as written into things their hands made and used…. When we are through, we shall have reproduced American life as lived, and that, I think, is the best way of preserving at least a part of our history and tradition…”
There are over 100 original or replicated buildings filled with hundreds of thousands of artifacts and Americana intended to preserve authenticity. Additionally, costumed spokespeople throughout the complex tell antecdotes of historical nature, fully re-enacting an experience that captures an earlier time in America.
If there was a homestead that had historical value or childhood sentiment to Henry Ford, and it stood in the way of progress, then Henry seized the moment and had the house razed and moved to Michigan for restoration.
As excerpted from Telling America’s Story–A History of the Henry Ford:
In 1919, a road improvement project in Ford’s hometown of Springwells Township, Michigan (now the city of Dearborn), meant his birthplace would need to be either moved 200 yards from its original location – or destroyed.
Ford decided to move the house and restore it to the way it looked at the time of his mother’s death in 1876, when he was 13 years old. Ford personally took charge of the birthplace restoration, meticulously recreating the details of the house down to the original or similar furnishings.
For example, Ford remembered sitting by a Starlight stove in the dining room as a child. After 18 months of searching, he discovered the exact make and model on a porch in Stockbridge, Michigan, which he purchased for $25 and loaded into his car for the journey back to Dearborn. And when he couldn’t find the precise pattern of dishes his mother had used, he had the original site of his birthplace excavated and had replicas made from the pottery shards found.
Ford dedicated the restoration of his childhood home to his mother’s memory and her teachings, particularly noting her love of family, her belief in the value of hard work, in learning “not from the school books but from life,” and her belief in trusting one’s intuition. His mother had encouraged his early tinkering and youthful inventions, and he felt sure she had set him on his unique path in life.
The rest is history…
And it’s all organized into seven historic districts: Working Farms;
Henry Ford’s Model T;
Porches & Parlors;
and Edison at Work, which is a future subject unto itself.
As one might expect, walking through history can be exhausting. Leah’s iPhone calculated that we hiked nearly 5 miles around the village in 3 hours, although there was still so much more to see and do. However, it was a hot and humid day, and apropos to Henry Ford, we simply ran out of gas and steam.
Or, to bastardize a famous Edison quote, we were inspired while we perspired!
Every 52 seconds, another Ford F-150 rolls off the line at The Rouge Complex in Dearborn, Michigan, making it the world’s best selling truck, and generating over $28 million in daily revenue. The Henry Ford Museum offers an elective tour of the Rouge as part of its a la carte admission package.
For Leah and me, it was never a consideration. We elected to take the tour to see how our beloved truck was assembled.
The self-guided tour consists of five parts:
The Legacy Theater, offering a short film charting the Rouge’s 100-year history–from Model A to present.
The Manufacturing Innovation Theater, a special effects homage to Ford’s F-150 truck, from vision to conception;
The Observation Deck Tour, with views of Ford’s 10-acre living roof of sedum and associated rainwater reclamation system, which provides a cost-savings of $50 million in annual maintenance.
The Assembly Walking Plant Tour, which carries observers along a catwalk above the production floor for a birds-eye view of the final assembly of an F-150;
and, The Legacy Gallery, which showcases some of the legendary cars manufactured at the Rouge.
To be clear, there is a strict no photography policy during the film presentations and assembly plant portion of the tour. However, being the renegade that I am, I was determined to capture a few frames as I walked the perimeter of the production walkway…but in a covert fashion.
The line never stopped moving with the exception of lunch at noon. It was an industrial pas de deux of human labor and robotic engineering, with components arriving from overhead conveyors and snatched for assembly.
My camera hung casually around my neck as I moved from station to station, where I’d stealthly point my lens in a general direction, always avoiding factory workers, yet hoping to record this dynamic performance. Along the way, I was mindful of patrolling docents, who were fountains of statistical information, but also doubled as picture police.
While I admit to taking a foolish risk, I also confess to the challenge of shooting blindly with the notion that something sublime might materialize.
Somehow, I can’t imagine I’m the only one who sneaks a shot or two! You out there, you know who you are, and you know what I’m talking about.
Nevertheless, I’ll surrender my digital files if I have to, but I will not surrender my ride.
Detroit has been working overtime on a public relations campaign to scrub the grime off its tarnished reputation and buff the rentability of its landmark towers. A downtown resurgence is helping to restore the luster of a once-burgeoning city that grew into an industrial and economic juggernaut during the first half of the 20th century, but became a municipal pariah after accruing $20 billion of debt since the 1950s.
In its heyday, Detroit was a magnet of opportunity, attracting new residents from all American sectors with the promise of manufacturing jobs. Consequently, its population swelled to 2 million.
The collapse of the city’s automobile industry was the catalyst for Detroit’s demise. Racial tensions culminated in riots in 1967 that led to a mass exodus, and Detroit shrank to a third of its size. Vacant lots and abandoned buildings became the norm. Ultimately, the city went bankrupt in 2013–the largest debt of its kind for an American city.
Today, Detroit is rebounding, but not without new growing pains. City leaders hope to strike a balance between renewed economic confidence and building a future that is more inclusive of long-term residents who have suffered the most.
As it’s explained by Pete Saunders for Forbes Magazine:
…A partnership between city and state government, business leaders and the city’s philanthropic community led an innovative effort to restructure the city’s debt, estimated at $19 billion.
Private investment in downtown Detroit, already on the upswing prior to the bankruptcy filing, continued to trend upward. Last fall’s opening of Little Caesar’s Arena, part of the larger District Detroit business and entertainment area, the construction of a landmark mixed use development on a former iconic department store site, and the recent acquisition by Ford Motor Company of Michigan Central Station all demonstrate the accelerated pace of development in the city.
Detroit’s Midtown area, also just north of downtown and home to many of the city’s arts and cultural institutions and Wayne State University, has been the site of dozens of new mixed use developments with hundreds of new units designed to attract Millennial urban dwellers.
Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood, the city’s oldest neighborhood and one that’s grown in trendiness over the last half-decade, is set to receive more investment in commercial and residential development, pushing its recent successes to the next level.
Detroit’s development resurgence is being tied together by a brand-new streetcar line that opened last year, the QLine. The 3-mile streetcar connects downtown with the adjacent neighborhoods where activity is taking place, and there are hopes that the line could expand further outward and gain additional branches.
Leah and I took a walk around downtown to see for ourselves. First, we stopped at an Art Deco-styled landmark building celebrating its 90th anniversary.
A short walk to the Detroit River brought us face to fist with an homage to Joe Louis.
Nearby, the Spirit of Detroit was undergoing a makeover.
We crossed E. Jefferson to arrive at Hart Plaza to gaze at Michigan’s Labor Legacy.
Walking a short distance to the Detroit River brought us views of Windsor, Canada as once imagined by slaves making their escape through the Underground Railroad.
In the distance, stands the Ambassador Bridge–the busiest crossing between U.S. and Canada–with 10,000 commercial vehicles making the trip daily.
Beyond Dodge Fountain, the GM Renaissance Tower rises from the International Riverfront.
A walk along the riverwalk delivered us to the GM Wintergarden, where a life-sized model of a Chevy Silverado was made entirely of Legos.
It took 18 master builders over 2,000 hours and 334,544 “bricks” to complete. At 3,307 lbs., the sculpture stands at half the curb weight of its legitimate counterpart.
Equally as impressive, and no less the engineering feat, the Fisher Building has been referred to as “Detroit’s largest art object.”
Finished in 1928, the 30-story building was financed by the Fisher family from the sale of Fisher Body Company to General Motors.
Albert Kahn’s opulent 3-story barrel vaulted lobby…
decorated in paint…
and marble by Géza Maróti is considered a masterpiece.
Alfred Kahn also spent time up river on Belle Isle (an island park originally designed by Frederick Law Olmstead in the 1880s), where he designed America’s first Aquarium and Conservatory in 1904.
Another part of Detroit’s revitalization effort included the construction of Ford Field, the domed home of NFL’s Detroit Lions,
conjoined with Comerica Park, home to baseball’s Detroit Tigers.
Detroit has been hailed as The Comeback City, emerging from Chapter 9 with a new vibe that seems to be drawing people back to a city that was broke and broken, and considered unliveable only six years ago. With continuing investment and broad community suport, the prospects for Detroit are bright,
Leah and I are winding down our Great Lakes circumnavigation 200 miles south of Lake Erie, where a hundred or more local and distant celebrants have gathered in Ligonier, PA to party with Tiff and Jim on their 25th wedding anniversary.
Appropriately, it was Ligonier and the surrounding Laurel Highlands where Leah and I broke our Airstream cherry. It was the cusp of winter/spring; it was the day after Leah’s 60ish birthday; and it was my first day of retirement.
We dug ourselves out of a major New Jersey snowstorm, and loaded up the Airstream and the F-150 with a year’s worth of gear and courage. Our maiden voyage left us white-knuckled as we precariously cruised the backroads to find Tiff and Jim’s country house in darkness. That was 29 months ago.
Today, we are seasoned road warriors who have grown in confidence, and somehow avoid repeating our original mistakes. Instead, we make new mistakes, which keeps us on our toes.
Circling back to Ligonier after three months of Great Lakes coastal roads has also given me time to reflect on the places I traveled, the things I’ve seen, and the moments I captured.
What follows is a snapshot retrospective along our route:
This is only the beginning for us. Stay tuned for more travel follies…