The State of Washington

I chased a setting sun into Washington state, the hanging smoke from the area forest fires making for an unusual sunset, and seeming to hastening the darkness.  I try not to drive too much after dark; I prefer to use the daylight for road scenery and to keep moving, then try to find a place to eat or park and sleep when it gets dark and thus get sufficient sleep such that I can get up at first light and be on my way without drawing any attention to myself.  After dark, I had dinner at a downtown saloon in Coleville and found a quiet place to park/sleep at a boat ramp park area overlooking the Columbia River at Kettle Falls.

I had originally thought I would try to visit my Uncle JC in Okanagan, but I tuned into the local AM radio for updates on the forest fires and learned the road I’d planned to take there was closed.  I had breakfast at a wonderful German bakery in downtown Kettle Falls; while I studied my maps for a new route, and caught up on some blog writing, local people popped in and out and the friendly German lady welcomed them all by name and with cheer.  It made me feel warm inside to be among the locals as I continue on my way – taking minor highways, largely empty, flanking the forest fire road closures.  I passed Grand Coulee Dam and the Sun Lakes carved out by ice age melt.  Central Washington felt like the great plains and the southwest mixed together.  I eventually made it to Yakima and stayed a night with my cousin Nick and his family who live on the outskirts surrounded by huge apple orchards.  He’s the oldest cousin on my mom’s side and we really hadn’t spent any time together as “grown-ups” so it was nice again to become more “familiar” with family.

There was an objective that was making me keep a pace as I crossed the country.  A number of trail-running friends of mine from NC were running the Wonderland Trail that circumnavigates Mt. Rainier.  I wanted to join them for some of it.  Since dogs are not allowed on NP trails, I would have to find a place to board El Gaupo if I was to do any distance on the trails.  As I entered the park and got orientated, I decided it would be too much hassle to leave the park and drive 1.5 hours to Enumclaw to the only boarding place I could find.  So I just kept El Guapo with me and did short/run hikes from numerous parking areas.  I did connect with my running friends for a few meals, and enjoyed a nice respite from my abundant “alone” time.

Road Trip 2015 - WA - 4 of 10I ended up seeing an impressive amount of Rainier even with my dog and time limitations.  I’d been there once before as a youth, but was probably more impressed now.  While it’s not the highest mountain in the lower 48, it’s very close, and considering how close it is sea level and big cities, its statue is unmatched for miles and miles.  It still boasts many glaciers surrounding its cone, and the valleys, waterfalls, lakes and flowering meadows they created around the perimeter are wonders in their own right.  It was also impressive to see how many international visitors come to admire our national parks.  At the parking areas, I might have heard other languages more often than English.  I agree with Ken Burns, that the National Parks are America’s best idea, and their preservation and protection for public enjoyment is an example of the democratic ideal.

After a few days in Rainier, I headed toward Seattle.  I had also been there before decades ago on a Mosteller Family Reunion.  We visited the monorail, space needle, Pike’s market and the waterfront piers.  Memories of that 1984 vacation kept flashing back to me as I seemed to be retracing Daddy’s route (I recall getting free meals at McDonald’s when the US kept winning medals at the LA Summer Olympics that were boycotted by the Soviets).  The most memorable thing hit me when I saw the Old Curiosity Shop on the pier.  that’s where I bought two of my prized possessions of my youth: a very realistic looking pile of rubber dog poop, and a plastic knife where the blade springs down into the handle so it looks like you’re really stabbing people.  I made a short obligatory stop downtown again to see those same sites, but my tastes and maturity have evolved.

Road Trip 2015 - WA - 5 of 10I spent more time checking out more of the creative non-downtown districts, similar to the places I enjoy in Asheville.  I walked around the funky old warehouse district of Georgetown, ashamed of myself that I had stopped only an hour earlier to eat breakfast at McDonalds – my excuse was to use the free wi-fi in order to research where the “cool” dog-friendly places were around Seattle that I should visit.  I also had dinner in Fremont at an explicitly dog-themed restaurant (Norm’s) and then sampled some local microbrews at some nearby breweries.  I could definitely see that Seattle is a very cool city to live in, and I’m sure it has a number of other interesting neighborhoods and streets that I could explore if I took more time.

I headed north of Seattle to visit my Uncle Terry and his family.  Like my other family visits, it gave me a chance to re-connect and become more familiar with family that I don’t see very often, but I’ve always been a fan of Uncle Terry, one of my dad’s younger brothers.  All of my Mosteller Aunts and Uncles have that quality that I love – simple and perhaps unrefined, but down-to-earth good natured, sincere, friendly, honest, resourceful, and kind hearted.  I don’t know if it was growing up in a Kansas family that had 15 kids over the span of the roaring 20’s, Great Depression and WWII, but they all have that quality.  I would say that Uncle Terry typifies it best of all.  I recall at a family gathering years ago, when my attention focused mostly on goofing off with my cousins, Uncle Terry sat down with me at a meal and spoke to me like a peer, rather than the typical what grade are you in? or what do you want to be when you grow up?  I remember thinking, that it was pretty cool to just talk with my Aunts and Uncles, and Terry is the same today – a salt-of-the earth peer in life.

El Guapo also enjoyed getting some canine company with Uncle Terry’s two dogs.  And though he never actually chased their cat, they kept a wary eye on one another, and that dang cat left us the most “un-welcome” signal.  It snuck into the room where I was staying and peed in the middle of the bed and pooped on my jacket.  Terry and his family had their own distractions as Aunt Claudia had some health issues, but the two nights I spent there worked out well for me, as I got a lot of down time to get caught up on some work on the computer and do a load of laundry and clean/air out my car.  We also went up to visit Aunt Barbara who is now widowed and living in a rest home in attractive Lynden near the Canadian border.  From there I went on my way via ferry across the Puget Sound to Port Townsend and Port Angeles.

I spend a full day visiting Olympic National Park, which is not very much time considering its size and variety, and that its roads are reverse tentacles that dead-end inside the parks interior, requiring you to drive long miles around the exterior to get to different sections.  I drove up near Hurricane Ridge before realizing I was out of gas, coasted back down to get gas and dinner at Port Angeles.  I slept, ran, and swam at Lake Crescent, drove up to Sol Duc area, Hoh Rain Forrest, and to Ruby Beach where I got my first sight of the Pacific Ocean on this trip.  It was El Guapo’s first taste of salt water and he had a great time sniffing unusual smells running in the sand along the shore line; he was very happy.

I continued around the Olympic Peninsula as night fell and more rains came into the area.  I parked and slept at the Mt. Saint Helens visitor center.  As heavier rains came on throughout the night, it struck me how the domed cavity of my Prius was very much like a tent, but I was grateful to be cozy and dry inside the car rather than in a tent, which might keep the rains out, but would be a mess to fold up and pack in the morning.  I found a spot to take a cool river bath on the banks of the Cowlitz River as I wanted to get a clean-up in before heading across the Columbia into Portland’s eclectic social scene.   As the cool wind dried me off and rustled the browning leaves in the trees, I got the distinct feeling it was fall.  Really?  It’s still August.

I spent a whole week in Washington. I think it was economic opportunities that brought some of my family there decades ago, out of Kansas and Arkansas.  It seems like a higher cost of living now, so I wouldn’t do it for economic reasons, but I could see doing it for social and recreational reasons.  I was very impressed with everything within its borders.  There’s more variety of landscapes and human occupation than I had even realized.  I see the appeal of living in Washington, but at the same time that I saw the Pacific Ocean, the very real boundary of how far West I could go, I also felt a bit of pleasure knowing that soon I would be heading back the other way, going East toward home, and that I would be there in the land of deciduous forest mountains before October, the most sensible time to do fall.

Idaho beckons…

In the middle of my sophomore year at Bible college, 1989 Oklahoma City, I’m not sure where it came from, but I was suddenly inspired by Idaho.  It was a late night, balancing work and studies, and I was feeling restless.  I wasn’t inspired by Idaho’s familiarity or probability, but by its mystery and irrationality.  All I knew was that it was a funny shaped mountain state beyond anywhere I’d been, completely different from where I was, and the unfounded idea that I could go to school there invigorated me as a young man who felt like the trajectory of his life was as mundane as the surrounding plains.

I followed up the inspiration with some practical research, checking out colleges in Idaho, and the vision just wasn’t logistically feasible, but what it did do was plant in me the belief that I had other options; I could create new options; I could take a different path.  I didn’t make it to Idaho, but the idea of it opened door such that I sure went to a lot of other places even more extraordinary.

So until now, some 25 years later, Idaho has remained more of an idea than a destination.  Part of me didn’t want to go to Idaho because I knew now that the actual place wouldn’t compare to the metaphorical meaning I’ve attached to it in my life.  I almost preferred to keep it a mystery.  But there it was, right ahead of me on my route West.  As I came upon the border at Lookout Pass, I pulled over and took some photos to commemorate the occasion dreamed about so long ago.

This was the northern panhandle of Idaho, a relatively skinny stretch of geography.  I could have passed through it quickly if I stuck to interstate 90, but I wanted none of that.  I studied my atlas for a more creative route to fill my day.  Unlike the rest of my trip so far, where it was pretty easy to find flanking highways that pass through small towns and open land, the roads off the interstate were mysterious backroads that couldn’t make up their mind which direction to go.

So I promptly got off the interstate at Wallace and took a walk around the historic – now touristy mining town and had a pint at the local dog-friendly microbrewery, before hitting the road into the winding interior of Coeur d’Alene National Forest.  One specific fantasy I had as part of my vision of Idaho was that I would have a jeep where you can take the top off, and I would drive through mountain highways with Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” blaring.  Every vehicle I’ve owned has thus been named a Valkyrie: Vinnie, Vivian, van Jeep, Vicente, Vern, and now Val the Valkyrie, my Prius.  So I rolled down the windows, pulled up “Ride of the Valkyries” from my Classical Power playlist and blasted it as I drove through the mountains.

It was a beautiful drive, first over ridges, and then along a beautiful river valley.  But then I turned onto a road that cut north through the forest, just a thin line on my map.  It started out as paved, but soon turned to wide gravel, and as it got further it narrowed and turned to bumpy gravel in places.  My map showed me that it would eventually drop me off in a town on the other side, but I began to doubt it as I seemed to be in a remote area.  The mountain scenery was very nice, but it was a much longer and slower drive than I had expected and the few vehicles that passed me, stirring up the dust, were NOT Priuses.  They were trucks and SUVs and I think some of them were in service to contain the forest fires in the area.  The road did eventually lead me back to pavement and discernable towns and highways, but Val had taken a dirty beating and my day was nearly spent.

I did cursory drive-thrus of Bayview and Sandpoint and picked up my pace on more direct highways headed west.  I wanted to make it into Washington and the Columbia River before I found a place to park and sleep.  I was only in Idaho for around 7 hours.  I do plan to get a more thorough Idaho experience when I pass back through the southern part on my return trip, but for this initial crossing of the upper panhandle, I got what I wanted, and more – A scenic drive through the mysterious mountains of Idaho, to say I’d finally been there.

Some years after my initial Idaho vision, when I was living in the Marshall Islands as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I often asked myself, “How is it that a small town Oklahoma boy ended up in a place that could only seem like a fantasy to my youth?”  Of course, many decisions and variables send a person on their course, but thinking back, I did see a moment above the others that I could pinpoint as when I hopped off the conveyor belt and started a new and different direction that has led to everything since.  The night I had a vision of Idaho.  There on that remote Pacific island, I wrote this song to commemorate what it meant to me:

“Idaho” 1996

The mid-western plains seem all the same, and this student’s life blends in.

I gave my time, my funds, to stay safe in the old ways.  Alas, I’ve seen it all before.

I look down the conveyor belt, the assemblance of me.

The end’s too easily imagined, the way, formality.

I need a change, please make it strange, non-sense feels good on me.

 

Then the mystery of Idaho whispered my name.

Like a vision of the promised land yet seen.

Where the landscape and my battle cry echo I’m not the same,

In the liberty that the old slate’s now clean.

Oh Idaho…. Beckons I to go.

 

So I made haste to have a taste of this kinetic energy.

I found open doors to distant shores I thought I’d never see.

But greater than all I’ve seen and done.

Is to know and smile, of this child, the Lord made only one.

And I look up into the heavens, my God smile back warmly.

‘Cause I bear witness to his creation by simply being me.

Oh when life’s scenes are bland routines, his nudge can set me free.

 

When the mystery of Idaho whispers my name,

Like a vision of the promised land yet seen.

Where my spirit longs to celebrate the pristine private fame,

To sing and dance through secret scapes of green.

Oh Idaho…. Beckons I to go.

 

Well, wouldn’t you know that Idaho’s a place I’ve yet to be.

And I don’t know if I’ll ever go and ruin the mystery.

See, Idaho, it’s a state of mind.

Where passions peak amid the seek, not so much in the find.

And the call is not riches to claim, but to enrich the world ‘round me.

‘Cause I have faith that all our lives hold more than what we see.

I’ll quest for change, out on the range, and I’ll take some company.

 

‘Cause the mystery of Idaho still calls out my name,

Like a vision of the promised land yet seen.

It’s a song for the deaf, a view for the blind, and dancing for the lame.

Come sacrifice your borders for the dream.

Oh Idaho…. Beckons I to go.

“Oooh, Montana, Give this child a home…”

I had prepared myself for driving across the great plains; in fact, was looking forward to it as a real American experience.  But when I crossed into Montana, much of my fascination with the flatlands had been already reserved and spent in North Dakota.  Plus, my previous visit to Montana –Glacier National Park and driving the western highways 10 years ago – was more of a “mountain top experience.”  Geographically, I knew a large eastern swath of the state was NOT mountains, but as I marked my progress on my map on Hywy 2 across the northern stretch of the state through forgettable towns, it felt like I was moving like a glacier, and I was eager to just cover the miles.

The landscape didn’t change much, a continuum of rolling plains, but the use of the land seemed to change from North Dakota.  Cattle and horses were more common and while farming was still a visible enterprise, it felt less like a modern industrial complex.  The “Big Sky” was ever-present.  The towns all seemed fairly devoid of charms.  I hate to say it, but the addition of a fast food franchise might have made some of the towns more charming.  I mean, I hate what’s happened to America how chain stores and eateries have displaced local businesses, but it’s even worse when there’s not even a surviving local business around to displace.  One thing that does seem to thrive in Montana, is casinos.  I don’t mean the big resort type.  Just a little nook in every gas station or restaurant will suffice.

I stopped for dinner in Havre, one of the bigger towns.  I skipped the chain restaurants on the fringe and went to a main street Mexican restaurant that adjoined a small casino.  The restaurant half was entirely empty.  Some young boys on skateboards watched me park and recognized me as being from somewhere else.  “What are you doing in this lousy town?”  It’s true that I wouldn’t want to live there and already had no interest in passing through it again, but I thought of the “Hometown Tour Guide” video contest I created for Academic Expeditions, based on the ideal that every town has a heritage to be proud of, so I tried to be positive.  I replied, “Well, it’s not bad, better than the previous towns I just passed through.”  This was true.  “You should try living here for a while; you’ll see.”  I told them to have a good night, and as I walked away I imagined that somewhere in the future that boy will be working in an office in some metropolis, and Merle Haggard’s “Big City” will pop up on his lunch break playlist and he’ll say to himself, “Those were the days, when I could ride my skateboard with my friends down main street.”

I put in long hours driving to hasten my trip across Montana and killed a million headlight lured bugs on the front of my car.  I stopped to sleep at a wayside in Chester.  Directly across the road in the lamplight, I could see a diner and it looked every bit the quintessential roadside diner.  An enterprising hipster would drool to have that small building.  I slept a quiet and solid night dreaming of the breakfast I would have there in the morning.  Even after the sun rose, there was a quiet to the place and very little traffic on the road.  I woke up and walked across the street to the diner and looked through through the large window.  I could tell by some of the things stored inside that it was no longer in operation.  The only business going on was a large rock out front that had a hand written sign taped to it that said “Free” above a small pile of clothes and nick-nacks.

When I was little and our family drove from Oklahoma to the Rockies, we’d play a game with each other to see who would be the first to spot a mountain on the horizon as we headed west, and we’d all be amazed at how long it took to actually get to that mountain as it slowly grew larger and larger in our windshield.  I played this game with myself as I eyed the map and saw I was nearing Glacier National Park.  I was thinking I should have already seen one as the rolling plains I had grown tired of kept persisting.  Then all at once a mountain came into view.  Not as a peak on a distant horizon, but a fully formed mountain that was actually quite near as it revealed itself through a fog.  That’s when I realized that the smoke I had smelt was not from a nearby campfire, but from a pervasive drifting haze from regional wildfires.  I knew there were fires in the area, but as the fires are localized, I thought the smoke would be too.  No, the smoke blanketed everything – not in a thick, suffocating way arising directly from flames, but in a more general amplified way like a settling fog or mist that limited visibility to only a handful of miles.

And thus Glacier National Park actually took on the appearance of Smoky Mountain National Park where the further away the ridge line was, the more it blended into the light blue of the sky.  It was still a very impressive scene, and fortunately I had been here before to see it with the clear vistas.  My previous trip was a 5 day backpacking trip into the interior trails.  This time, I stuck to the roads mostly (El Guapo is not allowed on the trails in National Parks) and visited parts of the park I didn’t see before.  I went to Two Medicine lake and Running Eagle Falls in the south part.

When I read that the Canadian side of the park (Waterton Lakes) DOES allow dogs on the trail, I decided to make an impromptu hop across the border.  The circuit roads to get there, along with some delays at the border meant that we spent more time in the car than we did on the trails.  Still, we got to see the impressive Prince of Wales hotel perched above the Waterton community and the lakes below, and hike up the Bears Hump trail to a rocky overlook.

We returned back into the US and spent a short night on a road side pull off in GNP.  I got an early start at sunrise to drive up the famous “Going to the Sun” Road that crosses the continental divide.  It was nice to be one of only a few vehicles on an otherwise busy road, but it felt like a ghost world near St. Mary’s lake where you could see the charred trees from recent fires.  Up near Logan Pass, there was no fire damage, but the hazy smoke was still all around, such that the mid-morning sun glowed orange through the haze like it had just risen.  I left El Guapo in the car while I did a quick run over the pass down to Hidden Lake.  He certainly would have tried to chase the mountain goats I passed, as he has with all the other animals we’ve seen from the car:  prairie dogs, buffalo, cows, a black bear, a moose.  The lake was surprisingly not as frigid as I thought it would be, so I took a brief swim in its super clear waters before running back.

The previous day, though impressive in scenery, had felt tiresome because I felt I was rushing and staying inside the car too much.  So when we got to the other side of the park, I inflated my SUP and took El Guapo out on Lake McDonald.  The waters were very placid and neither of us got wet at all as we floated/paddled to the other side and back.   I also just floated in the middle of the lake for a while and enjoyed a picnic lunch and some wine I had packed up.  Even with the limited visibility in the haze, Glacier is a special place.  Not the easiest place to get to, but I think it’s worthy of its label as the “Crown Jewel” of the NPS.

Leaving Glacier to the west, I rather expected the chain of mountains to just continue, but the landscape reverted back to rolling plains interspersed with lower elevation mountains.  As I thought about what route I wanted to continue west, I took stock of my trip thus far.  Scenery.  The silent observer.  Keeping on the move.  More scenery.  I was feeling disconnected socially.  When I conceived the trip originally, it was not my purpose to visit family or friends I already knew, but to enjoy the serendipity of strangers.  But I was not really meeting anybody; nor giving the time or energy to it.  As I updated my Mom and Dad on my progress in Montana, they told me I had cousins that lived near there and gave me their numbers.  I figured I wouldn’t go that route, but last minute, I decided to give them a call, and they promptly invited me to come stay.

A few hours later, I was in St. Regis at their house.  Now even though I was visiting “cousins” they could qualify as strangers, as I only met them a few times decades ago.  This may seem surprising to anyone who knows the Mostellers and how dedicated we are to family reunions, but you also have to know that my dad was the 12th of 15 kids.  These cousins were just a few of many cousins I have, and their mom was Aunt Edith, the oldest of my dad’s siblings.  So apart from being a generation older than me, they also have lived their lives in the Pacific Northwest.  So separated by geography and generations, we had a good bit to catch up on.  I enjoyed hearing some of their stories of the family from the early days and of Grandpa Pappy who died before I was born.  I’ve been a family archivist for while and I surprised them by showing them some old photos on my laptop that they hadn’t seen before.  I also enjoyed the comforts of home – a cozy bed, meals and a real shower for a night before hitting the road again.  Special thanks to cousin Russ, his wife Margie, and cousin Gary for welcoming me on short notice.

I spent a total of 3 nights in Montana and felt ready to keep heading west.  I sang John Denver’s “Wild Montana Skies” as I headed toward the border of Idaho…

North Dakota, Bust and Boom

North Dakota was one of the states I was looking forward to traveling through, not only because I’d never been there, but it seemed to fit my theme of going to the more neglected, low population regions of our country.  And fittingly so, I entered it with so little fanfare, I didn’t even know it.  Moorhead, MN and Fargo, NC just seem to flow right into one another, and the Red River that divides them just seemed like an indiscernible trench.

When I finally realized I was actually in Fargo, I wasn’t very impressed.  The dated businesses along the highway looked like it could be the town where a used car salesman might hire people to kidnap his wife to collect a ransom.  But when I found the old business street of Broadway, things looked up.  The store-fronts were all in use by a mix of businesses, restaurants and bars, some of them with quite a modern chic look.  And to my surprise, the street was adorned with rainbow flags as it had just finished hosting some sort of ecumenical Pride gathering.  There did seem to be a progressive air to the place.  Also serendipitously (for a city famous for a dark movie), I happened upon a film crew doing an ND tourism shoot – maybe El Guapo and I snuck into the background.  So in the end, I left Fargo giving it props – for a place with little climate, culture or natural draws, it showed a creative energy of making the most of things.

Following the sunset into the North Dakota interior, I expected to see sparseness, but I was struck at how “occupied” the sweeping landscape was.  Sure the towns were small and sparse, but the agriculture industry left very little neglected.  Massive fields of corn, wheat, and sunflowers blanketed the vast horizon like a precise quilt.  Huge modern silo complexes looked like prairie skyscrapers.  Even the grassy buffer zones that flanked Interstate 94 were used to bail hay.  These weren’t family farms with barns and tractors, but the workings of a high-tech industrial complex, and I have to admit it was rather beautiful to behold.  I think late August is probably the ideal time to drive across ND.  Sunflower fields are blooming, crops are high, and the massive combines are combing the wheat fields.

For my second night sleeping in my car, I targeted a rest area in my Rand McNally.  It’s been a long time since I’ve used it, and I certainly do also rely on my iPhone map feature, but I’ve really enjoyed using the old atlas – seeing the whole sweep of a state on a page, with the parks, campgrounds, and rest areas marked; and my favorite green dotted highways to show the scenic routes.  Anyway, the rest area turned out to be closed, so I took the next exit to study my options.  I saw a sign to Crystal Springs Lake at that exit, and decided to check it out.  I ended up finding a gravel lot boat ramp area that was completely vacant, so I parked there and slept a silent night.

After again taking advantage of my lakeside accommodations for a morning bathe, I drove into Bismarck which proved to be a contrast to Fargo in many ways.  While Fargo has the University and an eclectic downtown, Bismarck has the capitol (perhaps the most dull looking government buildings I’ve ever seen) and I couldn’t find a breakfast restaurant after driving several of its central business streets.  All of its commercial creativity has been left to chain stores and franchise restaurants with big parking lots just a few blocks from the old main streets.  Along with an urgent bathroom need, I settled on stopping at McDonalds.  I got a McMuffin combo to go, and not finding any downtown park space, I headed to the Missouri River where I fortunately found a flanking greenway and park system to help redeem the city.

I stayed by the river a few hours catching up on some work and some writing, and learned a few lessons for myself.  Standing where Lewis and Clark collaborated with local Mandan Indians, it reminded me how their epic journey was a mix of experiences.  While some tribes attacked them and stole from them, others were welcoming and generous.  My journey is not so risky, but the lesson is I do need to stick around a bit more to allow for engaging local people, for good or bad.  Also along the banks of the Missouri, I saw my travel companion El Guapo being giddy and playful like I hadn’t seen in a while.  I’ve actually been worried about him on the road as he seems to have lost his appetite, has been a little moody, and just sleeps the whole time in the car.  I was reminded that he still has energy and personality, he just isn’t engaged by landscapes and scenery from the car windows.  I need to make sure that we get out and he has opportunities to run around and smell things and chase things.  Unfortunately, my current timing isn’t allowing much time for either of us to get out and just play.

The landscape began to change west of the Missouri.  The plains were still relatively flat, but began to show more ripples, ravines and buttes.  Industry still blanket the surface, but there began to be more ranching mixed in with the agriculture.  I also got to enjoy something that was a staple of my road trip “idea” on old highways: roadside attractions.  At New Salem, El Guapo and I got to scramble around the summit adorned by Sue, the world’s largest Holstein cow.

Further West, I drove the “Enchanted Highway”, a 30 mile stretch of road that is spotted with the (self-claimed) world’s largest steel sculptures.  Apparently a wealthy farmer / artist made them out of farm scrap in an effort to bring attention to small dying farm towns, like Regent, ND where the highway ends.  It certainly lured me there, though I didn’t patronize the dilapidated museum, trinket shop, or castle motel.  I thought the attraction may have successfully lured other visitors, as I saw the out of state license plates as I went into the only bar/restaurant in town.  I inquired at the table next to me where an aging couple and, I assume, grandkids sat.  “Are you the ones from Oklahoma, I saw the plates outside?”  They were.  They were from the rural western part of the state.  The old man was visibly dirty on his hands and his face.  I told them, “I’m from Chelsea, OK on route 66 east of Tulsa.”  The old lady asked me, “You here for the harvestin’?”  Not sure what she meant, I told her I was just passing through.  Then it hit me, I wasn’t talking to tourists, I was talking to domestic migrant workers.  I wondered what brought more visitors to Regent: roadside attractions or an ag industry that displaced the local populace and has to seasonally replace its workforce.

As rains came and night fell, I began my search for a good place to park and sleep.  I was nearly forced into a permanent place when I got the car stuck in thick mud puddle in a frontage road turn-around.  But with some maneuvering back and forth and placing some tree limbs strategically, I dislodged the Prius and continued down another exit to what ended up being a near perfect place: a national park visitor center with bathrooms and picnic shelters that also double as a 24 hour rest area AND a scenic overlook of the Painted Canyon!

In the morning I did a short loop run on the Painted Canyon and then headed over to the official NPS entrance of Theodore Roosevelt NP.  Before being president, Teddy went on a hunting trip here and eventually invested in a ranch and further developed his rugged man’s man ideal.  I explored both the South and North sections of the park, mainly by vehicle on the scenic drives and was impressed with eroded layers and colors of the ravines and valleys.  We saw a buffalo heard and lots of prairie dogs, both of which El Guapo had never seen and was wigging out in the car wishing he could go chase them.

Before leaving North Dakota, I happened upon another unusual sight – Waterford Town.  Along with other ND towns, it has become an oil boom town with our nation’s push toward oil independence and fracking technology.  As I approached the town there were several large RV trailer parks, not for tourists but for make shift housing for the population boom.  The real houses that were built in hasty communities were bland pre-fab.  It had the feel of an economic refugee compound.  The downtown however was an odd mix of old town buildings and extremely new buildings and restaurants that looked like they belonged in a manicured business park or suburb.  Money was obviously being made and people appeared to be moving there to capitalize faster than the town can keep up.

Getting tired of the FM country and Christian radio stations, I tuned into local AM radio as my time in North Dakota came to a close.  The talk shows confirmed what I had witnessed as I drove the highways across the plains:  towns trying to keep up with the oil boom while trying to avoid it going bust.  Farmers worried about rain and crop markets.  Insecticide technology and veterinarian suggestions.  North Dakota may be remote and not thought of on a national scale, but its industries keep the country running.

Minnesota: Land of 10,000 Glances

When I dropped off Kim at MSP airport to fly back to Asheville, thus began my road trip as I had originally conceived it:  me and El Guapo across the open highway, unfettered, unscheduled, sniffing out America; living out of and sleeping inside of my car.  It was also my first time in Minnesota.  But when I said good-bye, I wasn’t filled with excitement, but a bit unsure of my long mysterious road ahead.

Before actually heading out of the city onto the “open” road, I wanted to see Minneapolis.  I had heard a number of times that it was a really cool city with a lot of park space and active people.  My drive up along West River Drive was indeed impressive.  For miles, nice homes to one side, greenways and bike paths on the other side flanking the Mississippi River.  These trails fed right into downtown and several historic industrial mill sites.  It was a sunny Saturday so the whole city seemed to be out enjoying the day and the recreation resources.

I had decided before the trip that I wanted serendipity and face to face recommendations to guide me along the way.  I didn’t want to use Yelp or TripAdvisor to find out what the cool and trendy spots were; I wanted the cities, towns, and people themselves to show me.  But when El Guapo and I were snubbed at an East River row restaurant that had an outdoor patio I assumed would be dog-friendly, I decided to consult the internet.  The website, BringFido.com is a good resource for dog-friendly lodging, restaurants, and activities.  I looked up Minneapolis and one place stood out:  Psycho Suzi’s Motor Lounge.  This led me to the Northeast Arts District with a somewhat similar vibe as Asheville’s RAD.  Suzi’s is a quirky place- on old motor lounge with a deck overlooking the Mississippi.  Thought the place was very busy, the prime seats overlooking the river were empty and plentiful because the sun was so hot, no one wanted to sit there.  I endured it for the sake of the view.  After eating, we headed out of the city through pleasant looking suburbs.

Not only does Minneapolis have a great biking culture, but the whole state seems to be on board.  As I drove north up into lake country, it was impressive to see organized, labeled, and paved bike routes that connected even smaller towns.  I’ll have to say that I also noticed this in Indiana, Illinois, & Wisconsin – the prevalence of maintained bike baths in both urban and rural settings.  In Asheville, we certainly have a “bike culture” and a lot of people advocating for developing more greenways, but it’s pretty clear we are behind the curve.

Maybe AVL’s delay in bike infrastructure is due to our topography making it more difficult.  Or it might be that we’re so blessed with outdoor activities on the outskirts of the city that officials didn’t see the need to foster it as much inside the city.  But things are changing in a very positive direction and momentum seems to be picking up.  Maybe one day soon, we’ll have that Greenway that links my Bent Creek neighborhood with the trail network in RAD / downtown.

All the time leading up to the road trip, one of the things I touted as both convenient and in the character of the trip, was that I could lay down the seats in the back of my Prius such that I could make it a bed and sleep anywhere at random.  But until Minnesota, I had never actually tried it.  Inflating the air mattress and rearranging my things to make room for it were not that difficult, but laying on it in a way that was comfortable for both El Guapo and I took some experimenting and frequent adjustments.  I think the thing that was perhaps most uncomfortable and may have cost me sound sleep, was the constant awareness that I was sleeping in my car in a public area.  At any moment someone could drive up and shine their lights, or even walk up, see my out-of-state plats, and peek in.  The place I found was on a little used pull off on Mille Lacs Lake by Garrison.  It was very private, but that’s a bit of a catch 22 – I’m much less likely to bee seen when I pull off at an obscure place, but if I do get visited by anyone in the night, the chances are greater that they’re up to no good, or that they think I’m up to no good.

I woke up at sunrise; took a bath in the lake (here’s a plug for Dr. Bronner’s all-purpose biodegradable soap) and drove to Brainerd.  Brainerd is sort of tourist hub for the surrounding lakes, golf courses, bike routes, and even skiing though I barely saw a hill.  It was a big timber town and has a lot of Paul Bunyan themed tourism.  I ate my fill at the Sawmill Cate’s breakfast buffet before heading westward, using back roads and local highways to get to Fargo, ND.

I was only in Minnesota for a day and a half.  I didn’t stick around any one place too long, even though my original idea of the trip was to take more time and explore more of the northern lakes and get out my inflatable SUP.  I’d still like to do that one day, but from all the quick scenic rubber-necking I did, I think I’d most enjoy returning to MN with a bike.

Another conceived idea of the road trip that I’m not living up to very well is to mingle and interact with the local people.  I thought with El Guapo as a wing man, I’d be getting myself into lots of fascinating conversations.  But in Minnesota, I don’t think I spoke to anyone who wasn’t bringing me food.  I guess I need to slow down and allow for it; initiate it myself rather than hope a dog and Midwestern friendliness  does it for me.  Maybe I need to spend less time “blogging” about my experiences as the silent observer, and take time to be part of an experience.

On, Wisconsin! On, Wisconsin!

The nudge to do an extended cross country road trip began well over a year ago.  I talked a lot about the “idea” of it, but was never quite committed to it enough to firmly take it from the idea realm to the reality realm.  I intended to do it summer a year ago, but other opportunities and distractions put it off.  Beginning with 2015, I felt compelled to set a number of goals for the year, one of the big ones being “Take the Road Trip” and not just talk about it, or let other things going on in Asheville cause me to put it off again.

Just as I put that goal to ink, other factors were starting to present themselves, most notably a new friend, who is a “girl”, who has since become my “girl-friend”.  I actually met Kim as part of the trip to Costa Rica in February that I lead in cooperation with LEAF International.  And so we met by way of traveling together, and we eased into dating amidst my busy travel season when I was frequently gone for tour work and other personal travels.  As we entered the summer in Asheville, it was really our first chance to put some extended time into the relationship.  When I discussed my plans of a long road trip at the end of summer, Kim was supportive but justifiably concerned about my pattern of always scheming the “next” trip, and those trips typically being solo endeavors.

I had determined that I shouldn’t let the possibility of the relationship – either its success or failure sway whether I go or not.  I should go for my own reasons, but neither should I expect her to just wait amid my wanderings.  I quickly thought about the idea of inviting her to join me for part of the trip.  This may seem like an easy call, but the “idea” of the trip, was that I would travel the back roads of America with El Guapo in the cock-pit, having an unplanned schedule, sleeping in the back of my Prius, eating, bathing, changing clothes as the mood or opportunity struck.  Footloose and fancy free.  Besides the space another person takes up, a girl might not want to “go along for the ride.”

But on the other hand, the way Kim and I enjoy doing things in Asheville is similar to how I would do a road trip – seeking out the local haunts, eating at mom and pop diners, enjoying public park space and local festivals.  She’s very patient and communicative in response to both my indecisiveness and my “beat of your own drum” determination.  She’s very sweet to both me and El Guapo, and she’s pretty low maintenance.  And plus, she’s from Wisconsin, one of the states I know little about and planned to pass through.  Thus determining that Kim would make both a good travel companion and “local” resource on the road, I offered to get her a flight back to Asheville if she would join me for the first stretch of the trip.  She promptly agreed, but had one stipulation.  She did not want to sleep in my car.

And so, let me finally introduce Kim LaViolette as part of the trip.  Kim helped me find dog-friendly hotels and airbnb lodging for our route.  She looked after El Guapo when I visited the Indiana schools, and she took just as much interest in decaying Gary, Indiana as I did.  But when we entered her home state of Wisconsin, that’s when the road trip really became “our trip” and her influence made it a much more involved experience than I ever could have managed on my own.

We first stayed our first Wisconsin night with some of her old friends in Milwaukee.  In addition to having a place to sleep, they gave us a tour for the evening – driving past the Miller Brewery, through downtown, along the Lake Michigan shoreline that’s lined with parks and bike lanes just like Chicago.  We had dinner in the Third Ward, an old warehouse district that is now buzzing with restaurants and nightlife.  Finally, we had some local pints in their eclectic neighborhood Wauwatosa.

Kim and I proceeded to Madison the next day to see the capital city and home to the University of Wisconsin.  I’d heard a number of times that Madison is a cool progressive city, and while I could definitely see that it had a cool vibe, I found myself wishing its local “creative” side or underbelly was more visible.  State Street and around UW had a lot of restaurants and bars, but it felt a bit commercial and touristy and relatively quiet (it lacked the buzz of student life since classes had not yet begun).  It also seemed to be not as dog-friendly as Asheville. Driving around the perimeter of the capitol building, we were hoping to find an old warehouse district akin to the South Slope or River Arts District, but didn’t find anything that similar.  Still, it felt like a nice, healthy city.  We enjoyed dinner and drinks overlooking the lake at the Student Union Terrace, and on Saturday morning, the grounds of the Capitol turned into a huge, impressive farmer’s market.

Road Trip 2015 - Wisconsin - 4 of 13From Madison, we drive some local highways through idyllic corn farms and red barns around Lake Winnebago and entered into Green Bay.  Kim grew up in De Pere, a suburb of Green Bay.  It just so happened that the night we arrived was the Packer’s Family Night – where the Packers scrimmage each other and let their fans enjoy a fun night at Lambeau field.  Kim’s family were able to get tickets for us to go.  I doubt there is another sports team that has a greater connection to their fanatical fans.  There’s little reason that the small city of Green Bay should even have an NFL team, other than tradition.  And tradition they have in spades.  It was amazing to see the turnout for the “family” event, and I was excited to be in Lambeau.  Considering how the Packers totally choked in Seattle the last time they played, and missed the chance to go to another Super Bowl, I hope it’s a good season for them and their fanatical fans.

We had to leave El Guapo back at Kim’s parents house when we went to Family Night, but we made sure to return to Lambeau with him the next day.  Anyone who knows El Guapo knows that he loves to “leap” and I didn’t want him to miss the chance to do his own “Lambeau Leep.”

Apart from the Packers and Lambeau, Green Bay doesn’t have much going on.  Its downtown lacks the marks of a vibrant city.  We barely found a place open to eat on a Sunday afternoon.  But mostly we wanted to see Kim’s hometown of De Pere.  We connected with one of her lifelong friends at a park on the Fox River, and drove around doing a tour of her former homes, schools, neighborhoods.  While it didn’t have the creative vibe of what we enjoy in Asheville, it clearly had a safe and healthy wholesomeness to it.  There weren’t many big fancy houses, but there wasn’t a “poor” side of town either.  All the streets were wide and well kept.  It looked like a great place to grow up.

The time with Kim’s family was very nice.  It was very relaxed and the three nights we spent there gave us a nice break from the road amid a string of nights spent at different places.  Her parents were very welcoming, didn’t make either of us feel like our relationship was on display or being examined.  El Guapo may have faced greater scrutiny since they have NEVER had a pet, inside or outside the house.  Even though their nice house is one of the most spotless I’ve been in, El Gaupo behaved himself well and won them over – particularly Kim’s father who doted on El Guapo and would probably get his own dog if he had permission.

After our relaxing time in Green Bay, Kim and I hit the road again to venture in to regions that even she was not familiar with.  We drove into Michigan’s UP (Upper Peninsula) and saw nice waterfalls near the Porcupine Mountains and Bessemer as the rivers flowed over the steeper ravines leading down into Lake Superior.  This was our one night where we did not have pre-arranged lodging and we agreed to play it by ear.  I began to become concerned when the nearby campgrounds were either full or closed, and all the roadside motels we inquired with were full.  But serendipity smiles on us when we happened upon a free roadside campsite on a back road, with a view of the stars and the sounds of a rippling river.

Before heading back into Wisconsin at Ironwood, we stopped for breakfast at real-deal diner “Ben’s Place” where we seated ourselves on some barstools near some locals with thick accents drinking coffee and talking about whatever was on their mind.  Kim and I quietly winked at each other and knew we’d stopped at the perfect place.  We love hometown diners.

We continued along the shore of Lake Superior toward the Apostle Islands.  We took a car ferry to Madeline Island where we camped at Big Bay Town Park, located along a 1.5 mile street of fresh water sandy beach separating a natural lagoon inland.  After setting up the tent, we inflated my Stand Up Paddle Board and hit the waters with me, her and El Guapo on it.  Winds made it tough to move fast head on, but we explored the inland Lagoon, and then she relaxed on the beach while El Guapo and I paddled along the shore of Lake Superior.  It was a beautiful day, capped of by a beautiful night.  There happened to be a meteor shower that night, and it was a perfectly clear night with little town lights to compete.  The stars were brighter than I’ve ever seen them in NC.  We returned to the beach at night and sat in the sand while counted the falling stars.  Some even left trails of stardust behind them as the zipped by.

The next day, while our gear set out to dry from some surprise overnight rains, we enjoyed some hiking around the lagoon and I took the SUP back out on Lake Superior, in part to “bathe” in the perfect waters rather than putting quarters in the pay showers at the campground.    We packed up at noon and headed to the other side of the peninsula that form the Apostles.  We hiked out along the shoreline trail that takes you to overlooks of the sea caves.  Kayakers visit the caves from the waters below, but the views from the trails above were very impressive.  I kept El Guapo leashed to be safe.  He seems to have a good sense of heights, but all it would take would be the sight of a chipmunk or squirrel and he’d loose all good judgment.

After a couple nights of camping around Lake Superior, we headed south inland and arranged for a couple nights “bedding” via airbnb around Eau Claire.  Our two nights couldn’t have been more different.  At the first place, the guy had written explicitly in his description to expect no comforts or amenities, and that the old family farm where he lived was extreme redneck. But it was dog-friendly and I figured if things were really bad, it would at least be somewhere where we could set up to camp again.  So I booked it for a grand total of $10/night.  We met up with Kenny in Colfax, at the local bar “The Outhouse” which was fairly full of a mix of local folks (and dogs, so we promptly fetched El Guapo from the car and brought him in as well).  When I asked if they had any “craft beer” he said, “Oh you won’t find any of that here.”  After I had a “local” drink (Old Milwaukee’s Best), we learned Kenny was there to meet up with a guy who helped him collect deer ticks so that he could run DNA diagnostics tests on them for his inventions. We followed Kenny out to his place, and I have to say his descriptions were accurate, as his two houses were, one in the process of being built, and the other in the process of deterioration, and the land in between scattered with all manner of house and farm clutter.  But Kenny gave us the best of all – his camper, which was clean and cozy.  Kim and I slept a peaceful night in it, though deferred not to use his open air outdoor shower that he was very proud of.  The next night we were in a manicured home in a manicured suburban neighborhood.  Both experiences were wonderful.

The reason we went to Eau Claire is that’s where Kim went to college (at UWEC).  She hadn’t been back since she graduated 13 years ago, but she had a few friends who were still in the area and she got a chance to meet up with them.  She enjoyed showing me some of her old college haunts, and was also surprised to see how fixed up the downtown, and the campus had become.  Like UW, it was still summer break and classes weren’t in session, so there wasn’t much activity on the streets, but it still made a good impression of both old local joints and a renewed downtown with greenspace and public art.

We were in Wisconsin for a little over a week, and I have to say Kim’s time with me on the trip has really enhanced the experience and I’m very happy she came along and is a flexible and accommodating traveler.  This morning, we drove into Minneapolis and I dropped her off at MSP to fly back to AVL.  It’s now the evening;  Kim is now back in Asheville, and I’m now in central Minnesota preparing for my first night alone with El Guapo, and my first night doing the road trip as I originally envisioned – sleeping on an air mattress in the back of my car.  I think I’ll sleep comfortably, but I’m not sure how well my mind will settle.  Not really feeling the “footloose and fancy freeness” of the road at the moment.  Feeling a bit alone now as I set off westward into a big unknown.

Road Trip: Sometimes you’ve got to stop and smell the…

Roses, yes.  But on this road trip across America, El Guapo and I are planning to smell some buttholes too.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn the world of dogs, the way to get quickly acquainted with one another is to go straight to the pooper and take whiff.  In the “people” kingdom, we’re much more advanced at connecting with one another (or keeping our distances) by the outward facades we faithfully maintain, but we’re not that different from our canine friends.  The people who really know and love us are the ones who know us beyond our facades, and visa versa.  We even have a poop metaphor for it. To say that we know each other’s “****” means that we’ve embraced each other, stinky outflow and all.

I love nature and on any of my travels I try to take in the beautiful landscapes of the region.  I also like to explore how the urban planning and architecture of different cities make them beautiful places to live.  But on this road trip, lest I become a “beauty” snob who only sniffs out the designated scenic routes, I wanted to be intentional to visit the less manicured back sides of America.  Like El Guapo, I wanted to get a whiff of our national butthole.

Like we do now to learn what popular places to visit, I consulted the opinions of the internet to learn what the most unpopular places were.  I googled “Butthole of America.”  As with any internet discussion open to public comment, there was more variety than consensus.  Yet, the places getting the most attention as deserving the unfortunate title were frequently in the “rust belt” – industrial, auto and steel cities on the Great Lakes that globalization has left behind to decay.  One article in particular claimed to be “official” and though I doubted its complete veracity, it made a convincing argument for… Gary, Indiana. (See article: http://www.smthop.com/article.aspx?newsnum=1074)

This caught me off guard.  How could this be?  I really didn’t know much about Gary beyond the lauding song from the “Music Man” with an all-american boy singing “There is just one place, that can light my face… Gary Indiana, not Louisiana, Paris France, New York or Rome, but Gary Indiana, Gary Indiana, Gary Indiana, My home sweet home!”  As for the state of Indiana, I’ve always associated it with Midwestern wholesomeness and work ethic.  I determined to go and see for myself on this road trip how Gary, Indiana could even be in contention as the “The Butthole of America.”

En route to Gary, I made a planned stop at Noblesville, IN, on the outskirts of Indianapolis.  Academic Expeditions works with many schools and students around the country, but our largest number of travelers come from the two middle schools in Noblesville (East and West).  Classes were just getting underway and the lead teachers were beginning to promote the trip which will take place in May 2016.  I spoke to seven different classes between the two schools, showcasing the trip and our “be a hometown tour guide” video contest, but I most enjoyed just being an observer to see how all the teachers promote, lesson plan and fundraise to make sure as many students as possible are able to go and experience our nation’s history as represented in Washington DC.  I look forward to seeing their faces again next May.

The visit to Noblesville schools, having lunch at Rosie’s Place overlooking their attractive town square and courthouse, driving past the corn fields and farms and through nearby quaint small towns, Indiana gave me the impression of down-home America that we like to idealize.  At a number of vantage points, I could imagine Norman Rockwell setting up his easel and canvas to paint the people and scenery.  I appreciated the views, but reminded myself that gritty Gary was my goal.

When you drop names of places in the course of casual conversation, people feel compelled to share their connection or experience with the place.  For example, “Oh you’re from Asheville, we stopped there last summer.” Or “My niece moved there recently.” Telling people in rural Indiana that I was planning to visit Gary garnered interesting, and alarmingly similar responses:  “My aunt’s cousin was murdered in Gary.”  “My uncle got shot in Gary.” And “My sister got car-jacked in Gary, be sure not to get boxed in between cars at a stop.”  I began to feel like Gary should be renamed “Scary” and that my vision of sight-seeing rust belt USA was not such a good idea.  But I thought of El Guapo and decided that I must sniff the worst parts if I was to claim I was off to get to know true America.  So I pressed on, and we pulled into downtown Gary around lunchtime on a weekday.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe drove around the streets of central Gary for a spell before deciding where and when to get out and walk around.  The size of some of the remaining buildings downtown suggested that Gary once held a large population that supported the many store fronts and a handful of convention / performance venues.  The flanking neighborhood streets were lined with houses in various states of sadness: most of them are abandoned to the plundering forces of nature and vagrants.  I was both proud and ashamed for the people who still live there and try to keep things livable.  When we did get out and walk up and down several blocks of the main street, the overwhelming sense was not so much one of danger, but of decay and emptiness.  I had hoped to find a local diner where we might get lunch, but there was only a chinese restaurant and a check-cashing shop with a lady sitting out front trying to sell sodas and candy.  There was  virtually no business activity.  Even the painted plywood panels on the abandoned store fronts failed at their jobs of hiding the broken glass, trash, and collapsing frames within.  I was afraid when I got my camera out to take pictures  – NOT that the handful of people out on the street would see me as a crime target, but that they would see ME for what I was – a gawker, a blogger, a passer-by tourist documenting their daily destitution as a human interest story.

One of the reasons I wanted to visit Gary was for optimism.  In my beloved home of Asheville, NC, most of my favorite hangouts are the old warehouse and brick storefront districts that changing industry had left behind.  Many creative individuals, artists, microbrewers, chefs, and entrepreneurs have come in and revitalized the old buildings into very popular venues to work, live, eat, drink and even visit as a tourist.  I believe it is a trend that is happening around the country and I wanted to bear witness to the creative transformation – to see a city surviving industrial outsourcing and white flight.  Unfortunately, there is scarce evidence of this in Gary, even after a city hall decision to offer up empty Gary homes for $1 to anyone who was willing to fix them up.  Most of what I saw was beyond “fixer-upper” and had deteriorated into the status of “faller-downer” where the land would be more valuable if it were cleared to an empty field.  In Gary, there doesn’t even seem to be enough money to tear things down.

Does Gary, Indiana deserve the moniker “Butthole of America”?  In my opinion, I would have to see more places to compare before making it official, but it certainly is a valid contender.  Signs on the outskirts of town still welcome you to the “City of the Century”.  It would be fair to say that America consumed itself in the 20th Century – behemoth industry, immigration, race relations, globalization – and Gary is one of those vacuous places where the residual waste got left behind.  I don’t blame Gary for that, nor the people who got out while they could, and certainly not its current residents who stick around.  I don’t know who to blame, but as I left Gary toward the skyline of Chicago that can be seen across Lake Michigan and entered the manicured green space along Lakeshore Drive, I felt myself becoming a cheerleader for Gary, and yet unsure who or what to cheer for.  I thought of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow and the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and the World’s Columbian Exposition 20 years later.  May something beautiful rise from the ashes and rubble of Gary, Indiana.

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Interested in learning more about Gary?  I found myself wanting to learn more when I left and discovered this video that is well done by a local trying to showcase Gary then and now:  Stagnant Hope – Gary, Indiana

 

In search of the “America” I keep telling everyone about…

2014NCavlcut - 03When I began working with Academic Expeditions five years ago, I transitioned from a full-time guiding role in student travel, to a more versatile year-round role with a healthier balance between working from home and guiding only a handful of specific schools.  I was elated at the change, and looked forward to getting more rooted in my home community in Asheville, NC.  As a further show of confidence in this new home-based life, I took the plunge:  I walked into a local animal shelter and walked away with a newly adopted dog.  I named him El Guapo.  “The Handsome One”.

In the five years since then, I’ve managed to be a pretty good dog dad.  Sure, I‘ve had to leave El Guapo at home in the care of a housemate many times as my tour work necessitates, but mostly I am home.  And when I’m home, I “work” from home with El Guapo by my side.  And when I’m done working, and want to get out of the house to enjoy all the eclectic things Asheville has to offer, I take El Guapo to about as many things as I can – potlucks at friends houses, dog friendly  microbreweries and music venues, and especially running the surrounding mountain trails.

ElGuapoComputerDuring this time, I would still try to maintain my personal travels to destinations I haven’t been to.  I enjoy researching travel bargains and use my flexible working schedule to find economical and convenient flights to far off places.  El Guapo, as with all dogs, has a keen sense of when I’m about to leave.  Packed bags and loading the car are the dead give-aways, but he seemed additionally tuned into my internet searching, and would often lay his face and sad eyes on my laptop keyboard as if to say “What about me?”

As much as I fondly look back on some of my road trips with friends in college, where it was more about the journey than the destination, the idea of a classic road trip was not on my radar in the last few decades, as I sought out overseas destinations where you get around with public transportation carrying everything on your back.  But I began to reconsider the option of a road trip as the thought of having the company of my faithful dog to explore the back roads of America, seemed more appealing.

Other factors made the idea of a road trip seem all the more timely.  I had recently gotten a new car – a Prius.  Though I’m not fond of the “whole” vehicle all the time, I do certainly enjoy the great fuel economy, and the space in the back with the seats down is actually quite ample, such that I could sleep in it if needed while still carrying a decent amount of gear.  So I felt compelled to take advantage to the car while I had it, and had it under the roadside and maintenance warranty.   I named it “Val.”

I recently got the book “Travels with Charlie” John Steinbeck’s chronical of his 1950’s road trip around America with his dog Charlie and his rigged up cabin truck “Rocinante.”  I fancy the idea of taking a similar journey to rediscover the voice and character of regular “America.”  And like Steinbeck, I have a similar motivation for doing so.  He made a career by writing novels that celebrated America’s common man.  After some years resting on his laurels, he felt compelled to hit the highways and get back in touch with regular folks around the country.

And that brings me to my biggest reason for undertaking my road trip.  My career.  Though I certainly have not achieved the fame or stature of Steinbeck, I have made a career of showing Americans their common heritage as a historical tour guide and travel planner – mostly around Washington DC and the East Coast.  But as anyone knows who has spent any time in these areas, while our nation likes to “represent” our common heritage in its grand monuments and museums, the cities themselves are not very “common” and can actually feel quite isolating from a genuine connection to our heritage.  It’s easy to feel out of touch with real America.

And so I have embarked on this road trip, not like the tours I lead which are meticulously organized, but in an unscheduled manner to allow the “journey” to be my teacher.  El Guapo will be both my companion and my example – following our noses to and fro, and greeting those we meet with a smile.  “Val” is packed for efficiency, versatility, and serendipity.  I’m prepared to camp, float on my stand up paddleboard, hang in my hammock, or even sleep in the back.  The places we visit may not be the stuff of postcards and history books, but that’s exactly why I’m going there.  To see the sights that go unseen and hear the stories that go untold.

El Guapo in the Rear View Mirror, Looking Ahead