The four of us (Doug, Arlene, Leah and I) have been hiking together for nearly 15 years.
We bonded as regulars of Harriman Hikers–a 45 year-old organization of singles from New York and New Jersey who continue to gather every Sunday, year-round, rain or shine at Ramapo College to hike Harriman State Park, along with other trails in Wawayanda State Park, Norvin Green State Forest, Ramapo Reservation and the southern Hudson Valley.
I met the Harriman Hikers through Leah just a few months into our courtship, and accepted an invitation to hike with her group. I felt confident that sufficient time had passed after rehabilitating a broken leg and torn knee caused by a Kamakazi snowboader 6 months earlier.
Big mistake! These were dedicated hikers who had mapped out a grueling 12-mile hike of steep ascents and descents, leaving me noticeably lame at the end of 6 hours in the woods. I thought that Leah might have to carry me out.
As time passed, my stamina improved, as did my personal relationships within the group. Over time, Leah and I strayed from the pack and blazed our own trail, hiking different destinations at our own convenience with Doug and Arlene, who initially met through Harriman Hikers and eventually married.
Since moving from New Jersey to St. Augustine, Leah and I have maintained a long distance relationship with Doug and Arlene, and we were eager to reprise our traditional Thanksgiving hike together…especially after over-eating with family the night before!
It was time to return to Harriman. We arranged to meet at the Lake Skannatati parking lot located off Seven Lakes Drive. Fortunately, the temperature was more conducive to hiking than the prior year (see Becoming My Parents).
As always, it was great catching up with familiar faces in familiar places. We leisurely looped around the mounds of granite…
…traveling 5.66 miles over 3:42:26,
and reached the ridgeline approximately one hour into the hike. The wind was brisk at the clearing, but the view from the top of the hill was worthy of the chill.
And the warmth of our friendship carried us the rest of the way.
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.
Leah and I were yearning for a satisfying hike through the mountains of New Mexico that we’d yet to explore. While we were happy hiking the Tecolote Trail in the Sandia Mountains–which offered pleasant panoramas of the desert floor stretching nine miles to South Mountain, and views of Sandia Crest that had us wishing we could stay longer–
…the whipping wind that swept across the overlook killed any notion of lingering along the mesa top to enjoy the spots of fall color that recently dotted the evergreen terrain.
However, the following day, a stroll through Albuquerque’s Old Town…
brought us to a photography gallery that showcased Southwestern landscapes and introduced us to Tent Rocks.
“That place looks cool. We should go there,” I asserted.
“I agree, but how do you know if we can even get there from here?” Leah questioned.
After consulting Google, I learned that Tent Rocks was a National Monument located within the Pueblo of Cochiti, only an hour north of Albuquerque.
The following day, riding north on NM-14 (part of the scenic and historic Turquise Trail National Scenic Byway), we took a left turn onto NM-301, a rutted, dusty road connecting to NM-22.
We approached the earthen wall of the Cochiti Dam, a controversial water management project approved by Congress in 1960, and finished in 1975 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Stretching 5 miles across the desert, and rising 250 feet above the Rio Grande, the resultant lake flooded sacred lands and fields belonging to local tribes for centuries.
We continued west on NM-22 for two miles before arriving at Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument. We pulled up behind seven parked cars–each one waiting to pay five bucks to the BLM park ranger stretching his legs beside the fee station. Our SUV idled a minute or two, but the line was at a standstill.
The sign post beside us forecasted a 30-minute wait-time from our current position.
“I’m gonna take a walk,” and Leah was out of the car, working her way to the front of the line.
The news arrived in under a minute…offering a Trail Guide.
“All 94 parking spaces are taken,” Leah explains with a hint of exasperation. “They probably arrived when the gates opened at 8am.”
“Okay. So that was two hours ago,” I respond, admitting the obvious. “It says here on the map that the trail is 1.5 miles in and out, so hopefully, a lot of people should be on their way out by now.”
“How long do you think we’ll have to wait here?” asks Leah.
“According to the sign, it’s a 30-minute wait,” I assert.
“Smartass!” she hurls.
After 20 minutes of anticipation, I noticed movement in the ranks! Two cars in front gave up the wait and U-turned, leaving us in sixth place.
Silly people. If only they had waited a few minutes longer. Soon after, a rash of cars passed us on the way out, and we were on our way, cruising through four miles of dip-after-dip, tribal land road, before reaching the parking zone.
While Leah and Carrie (Leah’s daughter) waited in line for the only outhouse in the vicinity, I caught up on my reading at the trailhead.
As interested as I was to learn about New Mexico’s volcanic eruptions and its pyroclastic flows, I was itching to get on the trail and weave through the slot canyon.
The canyon walls were so narrow in places, that only one person could navigate the labyrinth at a time.
It reminded me of the way that road crews monitor traffic on a one way road…
…and it was vaguely reminiscent of a similar protocol at the fee station and toilet.
Of course, with so many early hikers already on the trail and now turning back, it made for several occasional stops, and many pleasant exchanges along the way.
However, when the canyon finally opened up, we were greeted with a greater appreciation of what seven million years had done to the place.
Even the trees seemed magical, managing to stand in the shadow of such uncertain footing.
Once we reached a clearing in the trail, we began our 630-foot ascent to the mesa top, giving us a better perspective of our lair,
and freeing us from all obstructions,
until we could gaze across the Jemez Mountains,
and remind ourselves, once again, why it’s always a good idea to wait one’s turn in line.
“$450 for a balloon ride?! You’ve got to be kidding” I exclaim to the Rainbow Ryder rep on the phone.
“That’s the price, sir. We are the exclusive balloon ride provider for Balloon Fiesta, unless you’re willing to fly outside the ‘Albuquerque Box’,”she managed.
“What’s the ‘Albuquerque Box’?“I ask.
“It’s a weather phenomenon peculiar to Albuquerque,” she points out, “where the lowest winds move in one direction, while the higher winds are moving in the opposite direction. That way, our pilots can take advantage of the different air currents–by floating higher or lower, and returning you close to your original launch point.
“Uh, Ohh-kay,” I shrug, “and that’s worth $450?”
“That’s the rate for a balloon ride during Balloon Fiesta, sir. And I only have a few openings left for Saturday and Sunday,” she warns.
“Your price is sky high,” I offer, “so I’m gonna have to think about it.”
And the call is over.
I turned to Leah. “Looks like my balloon ride went from bucket list to “fuck-it” list.”
And that was a drag, since Balloon Fiesta is the largest gathering of hot-air balloons in the world, with more balloons lifting off together (mass ascension) than anywhere.
Leah sensed my disappointment. “Maybe it’s cheaper if you found an outfitter outside the box. Would you still be interested?
“I think I could manage to get excited,” I lamented.
After a flurry of phoning and pricing, I secured a dawn launch on Saturday for $250 with World Balloon, albeit on the northwest side of town, miles away from the Fiesta.
Launch day bears all the markings for a picture-perfect take-off: early air temperature hovers in the mid-40’s; the wind is streaming from the north at 8 mph; and the sky is clear as shimmering water.
A group of fifty men, women, and children are sub-divided into five, and assigned to a pilot and his balloon crew. Each chase van carries two wranglers, ten passengers, and a trailer packed with gear. We congregate at a barren football-sized lot, and watch as five balloons are prepared for flight.
Baskets are unloaded,
The burners are tested.
With dawn breaking over the horizon, the balloon is unfurled, and rigged to the basket.
An industrial fan blows cold air into the mouth of limp polyester, and behold, the balloon takes shape.
Roy aims the burner flame into the mouth to heat the air,
and eventually expands the envelope to fullness.
The buoyant balloon rights itself,
and the six of us scramble inside to bid adieu to terra firma, and gently float away…
…one step ahead of a second balloon.
All the while, balloons below…
…are preparing to follow our Airstream (wink wink, nod nod).
Our pilot, Roy pulls on the burners,
carrying us to 5000 ft. above the treetops,
where a birds-eye view of the valley below,
reveals a cityscape punctuated by fantastic dots of floating colors.
Yet closer inspection reveals the full dimension of a multi-colored mushroom gliding through an azure sky.
After forty-five minutes of soaring and dipping through neighborhoods–arousing excitable dogs,
and adoring children–
Roy is tasked with finding a landing site along our flight path–wide open and away from wires–and accessible to the chase team who’s been following us since our launch. After a few false starts, we locate a large house devoid of landscaping, and gently settle back to earth.
However, a chain-link fence lines the perimeter, and a locked gate gives us no way out. A woman from Birmingham, AL vaults over the side of the basket and runs to the front door to alert the owners to unlock the gate, but nobody’s home.
So it’s back in the air, with the van in pursuit, until we mobilize at a strip mall.
After a quick exchange of passengers (six out and four in), our balloon is re-released with its second set of aeronauts,
drifting higher into the blue yonder.
Fifty minutes later, the vacant parking lot beside the church provides the perfect setting for a second re-entry.
Whereupon, the balloon is quickly collapsed,
and packed away, until next time.
Back at base camp, it was time for a champagne toast, and a recitation of the balloonist’s prayer:
I loved it, and I’d do it again. I guess that makes me a balloonatic.
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.
While camping alongside the Airstream factory in Jackson Center (seeBuilding Airstreams), Leah and I wondered how we would kill time during our weekend stopover. There wasn’t much to do in town, although we were within walking distance of the Elder Theatre, a one-screen cinema showcasing Dora and the Lost City of Gold and the Heidout Restaurant, serving bar food backed by a roadhouse jukebox.
We took a pass on both, and drove to Bellefontaine, 20 miles east of our location. How fortuitous, because high atop Campbell Hill–overlooking a scenic parking lot, and peaks of grasslands beyond, as far as the eye can see–
sits the Ohio Hi-Point Career Center, a two-year career-technical high school campus that also doubles as the highest point in Ohio, at 1549 feet elevation.
Once upon a Cold War time, this site was home to Bellefontaine Air Force Station, providing radar surveillance to NORAD in the event of a Soviet invasion from the North Pole.
Leah and I were giddy with excitement. It could have been the altitude, but the notion that we were standing at the highest point in Ohio nearly took our breath away.
However, we are seasoned travelers who have Airstreamed through most of America (seeTop of the World), and we refused to be intimidated by the height of Campbell Hill.
Admittedly, we were weak-kneed.
We took a deep breath to clear our heads, and took a seat on a strategically placed bench by the geodetic survey marker.
After a snack to raise our blood sugar, we managed to trek to the parking lot a short distance away. As I regained my composure inside the F-150, I realized that we were brought here for a reason. I figured that given our vantage point and strategic positioning, the military may be interested in recommissioning this location as a secure listening post as we approach the 2020 presidential elections.
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!
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…
At first glance, the large number of vacant lots between derelict buildings on Heidelberg Street in Detroit, MI resembles a crooked smile through a handful of broken teeth. The gaps are filled with collections of discarded remnants from everyday life that could easily be mistaken for a flea market on crack. But first impressions are completely unjustified, and there is a purpose to the madness…to be discovered over time.
In 1986, Tyree Guyton returned to his childhood neighborhood in Detroit’s East Side, only to find a ghetto ravaged by drugs and poverty so severe that it touched his soul and roused his spirit. With encouragement from Grandpa Sam Mackey, he vowed to fight back with a paintbrush and a broom, which would eventually carry him on a celebrated journey–fighting his way through local partisan politics to national prominence.
To his credit, Guyton recruited sympathetic volunteers to change the face of their community, and after a massive clean-up, he incorporated the wreckage gathered from vacant lots, converting his neighborhood into an urban sculpture installation that has garnered world-wide attention.
For 30 years, Heidelberg Street has been a grass roots, work-in-progress. The HP (r)evolution continues today through personal donations and strong foundation support–providing funding for transformative paint-overs, and the acquisition of border properties to replace the homes lost to arson.
During my visit, I crossed paths with several photographers who felt as I did–that we had walked into someone’s wild dream, and we were there to interpret his dream through our cameras.
However, should the art critics and cognescenti remain unmoved, or the public dismisses Guyten’s art as junk, there is more to the story at the end of the day. When all the visitors return to their homes, the residents of Heidelberg Street stay behind knowing that their plight has been replaced by pride and opportunity.
Leah and I had set up camp near Muskegon, MI with plans to visit Grand Rapids for an evening concert with “Weird Al” Yankovic. Being one hour away, we decided to make a day of it and explore the Grand Rapids area, but we needed an activity to keep us occupied until late afternoon, and it had to be captivating. After an internet search, all roads led to Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park.
Not knowing what to expect, we packed a lunch and set a course for what Trip Adviser informed us was the #1 attraction in Grand Rapids. With over 2800 reviews, who were we to argue with such a consensus. Upon arrival, our first impression was the immensity of the property (158 acres), And the bigness was becoming bigger with new construction all around us.
Apparently, Frederik Meijer was a big success. Who knew? Turns out, Fred was a supermarket magnate worth billions, and this park was to be his legacy–with an endowment fit for a world-class museum, and subsequent listing by 1,000 Places to See before You Die as one of the “30 Must-See Museums” in the world.
There is an impressive conservatory on the grounds with flora from every climate and environment, including a trove of carniverous plants,
but it was a beautiful day and we were there to walk the Japanese gardens…
and celebrate Meijer’s devotion to outdoor sculpture.
These are a few of my favorite things…listed alphabetically by artist:
Our time through the park went quickly. We walked over 2 miles, and returned to the parking lot to find hundreds of people tailgating behind the amphitheater, awaiting Lyle Lovett’s evening performance. Had we not made previous plans to see “Weird Al,” it would have been the perfect venue for another songfest from Lyle (seeMusic City, USA).
We must return some other day…after checking the concert calendar first.
While historians continue to debate the impact of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 on the city’s future development, architects continue to reach for the sky along Chicago’s iconic shoreline. Out of the ashes rose a shimmering town of glass and steel and stone whose identity is forever associated with its reputation as a innovation laboratory for American design and engineering.
As home to the Home Insurance Building–the world’s first steel-framed skyscraper, completed in 1885–Chicago is generally regarded as the birthplace of the skyscaper. And while the city’s status has been diminshed since the Petronas Towers overtook the Sears Tower in 1998 as the world’s tallest building, Chicago still retains its title as one of the great architectural cities of the world.
Leah and I started our journey by foot to gaze at the Water Tower landmark,
and its companion Pumping Station–two castellated structures of ornate limestone that miraculously survived the deadly fire, and presently anchor Chicago’s Magnificent Mile.
We continued to Millennium Park to reflect on Sir Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate (or The Bean as its known to locals),
and admire Frank Gehry’s twisted bandshell at Pritzker’s Pavilion.
From there we spiraled down Gehry’s aluminum-clad BP Bridge…
to reach Lake Michigan, where we traipsed over Lawrence Weiner’s Out of Sight installation…
on our way to the spray of Grant Park’s Buckingham Fountain.
Yet, with so much to see along the Chicago Riverwalk, we opted for a guided boat tour through the Chicago River…
to gain a better understanding of Chicago’s architectural history and diversity–
where art deco…
intersects with post-modernism…
to deliver modernism…
with a flourish.
And while each of the buildings in Chicago’s loop is worthy of a traditional photographic portrait,
sometimes it’s necessary to examine the details more closely…
to see things from a different perspective…
as it may reflect a new reality.
Or sometimes, just looking at things upside-down…
forces us to appreciate the beauty of an architect’s play of form and function.
There’s very little to write about Frank Lloyd Wright that scholars haven’t already written.
His affinty for nature, his indefatigable energy, his genius for design, his eagerness to experiment, his immense ego, his appetite for women, his dedication to family–it’s all been revealed and discussed in numerous books and lectures. But it’s also apparent from walking through his Taliesin estate in Spring Green, Wisconsin.
Leah and I would have preferred the immersive, 4-hr Estate Tour, but when I checked on-line for tickets, only one ticket was available when I needed two. It seems that no tour exceeds 21 people, matching the number of seats on the shuttle. Instead, we opted for the 2-hr Highlights Tour.
We boarded the bus at the Visitor Center–
orginally designed by Wright in 1953 as a restaurant and “gateway” to Taliesin, but Wright’s death in 1959 stalled any further construction until his former apprentices completed the building in 1967.
The ride took us past Midway Barn, Uncle John’s farming complex,
on the way to Hillside, the site of the home school he built for his Aunts Jane and Ellen Lloyd Jones.
Currently, the building is occupied by a time-shared architecture “Fellowship”–funded by the Taliesin Foundation–that occaisionally gathers in the Assembly Hall,
and takes meals in the Fellowship Dining Room,
before returning to the 5,000 sq. ft. “abstract forest” Drafting Studio.
We finished up at Wright’s intimate, 120-seat Hillside Theater–originally intended as a gymnasium, but converted by Wright to a cultural space after determining that the arts were more important than sports–
and reboarded the bus for a brief blast of air conditioning and quick trip to Wright’s home studio,
where we browsed through a drafting room filled with “Usonian” models, like the Willey House from 1934,
and assorted personal artifacts.
The house was noticably cooler, thanks to geothermal plumbing installed during the third re-build. We rounded the studio from the outside,
walked across a mound with views of the restored Romeo and Juliet windmill,
and traversed the gardens,
before re-entering the house through the expansive living room,
filled with wonderful flourishes, like glass-cornered windows (which Wright would ultimately perfect at Fallingwater)…
built-in table lamps,
and integration of sculptures that survived the previous two house fires.
Roaming through Wright’s personal bedroom (because he was an insomniac), we discovered no door, a wall of windows without window treatments, and original electric- blue shag carpeting.
The terrace offered glorious views of the Wisconsin River and Tower Hill State Park,
and Unity Chapel in the distance–
the site of Wright’s maternal family’s burial plots, his stone marker, and his empty grave.
As our driver passed Wright’s man-made falls,
our docent passed along a local story of intrigue and scandal:
During March 25, 1985, under cover of darkness, Frank Lloyd Wright’s body was exhumed from his Unity Chapel resting place by his oldest granddaughter, Elizabeth Wright Ingraham, and moved to a burial site at Taliesin West, in Scottsdale, Arizona.
She claimed to be fulfilling the dying wishes of her grandmother and Wright’s widow, Olgivanna Lloyd Wright, whose ashes were united with her husband’s within a memorial wall overlooking Paradise Valley. The event sparked outrage around the globe from associates and friends who argued that the architect would have desired to spend eternity at Unity Church with his family.
Even now, Spring Green residents hope that one day their favorite son will get his ash back to Wisconsin.
Long before kitsch and water parks ruled the region, visitors from around the world traveled to the Dells to marvel at the iconic sandstone formations carved by a glacier that plowed through Wisconsin approximately 15,000 years ago–leaving behind a 5-mile gorge struck from rock that’s older than anything on earth.
Word of this discovery spread quickly, attracting Leroy Gates, a lumber rafter with a notion that promotion would bring tourism to the river he loved, and earn him a buck or two to boot. In 1856, Gates offered the first guided boat tours of the Dells of Wisconsin, and made sure everyone knew it.
Supposedly, Gates and his associate guides would sit under umbrellas sipping lemonade, while the guests would paddle their boats up river to destined attractions…
until steamboats took over in 1873.
Fortunately, landscape photographer H.H. Bennett was there to capture it all–taking souvenir photos of the tourists, and landing a place in history as “the man who made the Wisconsin Dells famous.”
Today, Dells Boat Tours continues the tradition on the river…
with a fleet of 17 vessels that carry half a million passengers year after year.
Captain Bob piloted our riverboat north through the Upper Dells,
while First Mate Abby called out the names of rock sculptures famously characterized by H. H. Bennett:
After manuevering through the Devil’s Elbow…
Captain Bob turned into a slot canyon discovered–and affectionately named Witches Gulch by Bennett. Apparently, the name was intended to be sinister and provocative. His strategy was reinforced by similar names inside the canyon, such as:
Eventually, Bennett built a tie-up dock, threaded a boardwalk through the canyon walls, and created a photography concession at the terminus. We were about to see why, as Captain Bob eased toward the mooring.
Abby tied up the riverboat,
and we walked the boards,
for a closer look at the beauty of ancient splittered sandstone turned emerald,
and the waves of light and darkness.
Next, we cruised across the Wisconsin River to the western shoreline to visit the Dells’ most precious formation,
made famous by H.H. Bennett’s photograph of his 17-year old son, Ashley leaping onto the column from a neighboring cliff in 1886.
We gathered under the rock for an equally impressive demonstration by a trained German Shepherd from Juneau County…
that jumped the 5-foot gap without hesitation.
We completed the trail back to the boat, passing other impressive formations along the way…
until it was time to reboard the Marquette and return to the tour operator’s dock. As we cruised back under sunny skies, boat traffic on the river had blossomed.
Locals were enjoying the river to beat the heat,
which was way better than any water park would ever be.
After searching for an escape from the plethora of water parks and souvenir shops in Wisconsin Dells, we settled on a hike around the quartzite cliffs overlooking Devil’s Lake. With temperatures climbing through the 90s amid an epic upper midwest heat wave, the lake was a winning getaway for hundreds of families cooling off in the water, but not for us. Reports of swimmers itch concerned us, and we scratched it off our list.
We sought hiking guidance from the Visitor’s Center, and learned of a steep trek up the southern end of the east bluff that would lead us to a flat ridge loop. The hike was demanding, stepping up and over a talus field of rock-hewn steps cut from car-sized boulders that crumbled in the wake of a glacier that shaped Wisconsin 30,000 years ago.
Miraculously, the moraine was raked and solidified by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, and a trail was born.
The heat and humidity was taking its toll on us, and we were feeling our age. It was disconcerting to see millenials ambling up the bluff at twice our pace, but we perservered with patience and caution. Halfway up, our first reward was Balanced Rock…
which offered spendid views of the beach.
Continuing our climb to 500 ft above the lake, we reached a forested plateau with trails running in multiple directions. We carried on toward Devil’s Doorway, the park’s signature rock formation…
forged from Cambrian sandstone as old as 1.6 billion years,
and today, an irresistable climb for teens with mountain goat skills.
It was a mad scramble during the descent, and the perfect place for forgotten walking sticks.
Although the loop was under 2 miles, terra firma never felt better under our weary legs.
One of Door County’s time-honored traditions is the fish boil, originally brought to Wisconsin by Scandinavian settlers over 100 years ago. It was a simple method for feeding scores of hungry fishermen and lumberjacks after a long day on the water. And today, it’s a timeless recipe for rustic fare that’s still practiced by a handful of restaurants around the peninsula. Part history lesson, and part pyrotechnics, the fish boil is a theatrical dining experience that doesn’t disappoint.
We chose the Old Post Office Restaurant in the village of Ephraim as our dinner destination, because of its home-style, country flavors,
and its front row proximity to an anticipated Lake Michigan sunset overlooking Eagle Harbor.
We made 7:45 pm reservations for the last fish boil of the evening, but the hostess urged us to show up a half-hour before service to experience the magic of the cook.
When we arrived at the Old Post Office, we were directed to a ring of benches behind the restaurant, with a bubbling cauldren in the center. Grown-ups were drinking adult beverages (now possible after Ephaim became a wet town in 2016), and children were staring intently into a roaring fire, dispelling the literal intepretation of a watched pot that never boils.
With side dishes of red potatoes and golf ball-sized onions nearly ready, Jeremy, master boiler from Door County appeared with a basket of whitefish steaks that he claimed to have personally prepped from this morning’s local catch. Having prepared thousands of fish boils over the years, he figures that he has gutted and scaled over 20 tons of Lake Michigan whitefish to date.
After adding more water,
and stoking the fire to achieve a high boil, Jeremy waited for fish oils to rise to the top (assisted by the one-pound of salt for every two gallons of water ratio),
finally signaling the moment we’d been waiting for–dousing the fire with a can of kerosene.
The fire ball brought the heat to all of us in the circle. It was enough to cause the resultant boil over–clearing the broth of ash, foam and fish oil.
When the flames subsided,
the fish was cooked perfectly…
and it was time to eat.
We gathered at the restaurant entrance and lined up–buffet style–to receive our dinner, topped by a ladle of melted butter and a wedge of lemon.
Servers came around to offer drinks and expertly debone our fish…
giving us a plate of food that tasted as good as it looked…
and we ate until the sun went down before us.
Homemade dessert followed–a tart cherry pie from local orchards.
Many in the tourism industry descibe Door County as the mid-western equivalent of Cape Cod, and they make a valid point. If Cape Cod is the crooked finger beckoning the Atlantic Ocean, then Door County is Wisconsin’s thumb poking the western side of Lake Michigan. Both peninsulas offer a laid-back vibe, with historic beachtown pearls bordering sandy, rocky beaches.
We began our tour by exploring our home base in Kewaunee, a southern border town below the county line.
We knew nothing about the clock, so it took us by surprise. At noon, it chimed over and over again, then played a “bell” rendition of Amazing Grace.
A short walk to the waterfront brought us to the Ludington. Retired in 1998, the tug saw action during the D-Day invasion at Normandy by pushing barges of ammunition across the English Channel, and later as a construction tow for the Army Corps of Engineers.
Like most newcomers, we got our coastal orientation by walking out to Pierhead Light,
but following the path was like a twisted game of minefield hopscotch.
Ellis Street was closed to traffic for a smallish classic car show that appealed to locals, auto enthusiasts from Green Bay, and bloggers…
with plenty of space for antique tractors and snowmobiles in the parking lot.
Further up the coast sits Algoma, a town with a Crescent Beach Boardwalk that parallels an arc of sand and polished stones, and the Algoma Pierhead light that welcomes hundreds of roosting gulls at any time.
With so much ground to cover and little time to spare, we detoured along the coastal county roads to Sturgeon Bay, a town with a rich ship-building legacy and a lust for shopping. While not my favorite activity, we parked the F-150 and strolled the sidewalks, passing through galleries and home furnishing boutiques.
Local artists brought their imagination and decorating prowess to town, converting plain Adirondack-style chairs (or created a chair/bench of their own) for the inaugural CHAIRies, a public art project on display at most downtown corners, and a nod to the bountiful cherry groves scattered throughout the peninsula.
Continuing north, Jennifer (GPS) directed us to Cave Point County Park, the only county park within a state park (White Dunes State Natural Area).
Diving into Cave Point’s roiling water is a well-known proving ground and badge of courage for daring teenagers…
who are fortunate to clear the cliffs or avoid the crashing waves.
Riding north on WI-57, we cut through the middle of Door County’s thumbnail, and headed for Northport, known for ferry service to Washington Island at the tip of the peninsula. and the gateway to Death’s Door, a legendary passageway with a washing- machine turbulence that has shipwrecked many 19th century schooners.
We rushed along WI-42 from Northport down Green Bay’s sidelines, needing to reach the Airstream end zone after a long day of driving, but deliberately slowing around a bendy stretch of road nearby.
Then we were dodging and weaving our way through a variety of pedestian-rich towns at 10 mph, absorbing the downtown charm of Ellison Bay, Sister Bay, Ephraim, and Fish Creek from the front seat of our truck.
We vowed that we would return the following day for a glorious sunset dinner, as we settled on leftover pizza and samosas under a cloudy sky.