Sunday, September 6, 2009

Labor Day Weekend in Union City

September 4-6


It's Labor Day Weekend, and the world is beating a path to Atlanta. There is a Black Gay Pride Festival, the Alabama and Virginia Tech football teams are battling it out in the Georgia Dome, Dragon*Con—the biggest sci fi/fantasy/popular culture convention in the country—has lured thousands of trekkies to hear Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner reminiscing about the good old Star Trek Days, there's a 500 mile NASCAR race, the Atlanta Braves are playing a home game, Britney Spears is in town for a concert, and–most important of all, for us, anyway—600 youth soccer teams are using every soccer field in town playing in the Atlanta Cup Tournament. Our Cincinnati granddaughter Meredith is on one of those teams, and we are here to cheer her on.

More on soccer action later. Let's pause for a message from Union City, our Metro Atlanta Labor Day Weekend headquarters. And, really, is there anywhere more appropriate to be celebrating Labor Day than a place called Union City?

Union City was chartered in 1908, not long after the Farmer's Union selected the area for its National Headquarters, and the resulting business gave a big boost to the local economy. The town's name honored the Farmer's Union—the foundation of its prosperity.

Unfortunately, that prosperity was short-lived. By 1915, the boll weevil had devastated cotton fields all across the South, and when cotton collapsed, it took the
Union, and many of Union City's citizens, down with it.

We had dinner at the Historic Green Manor Restaurant, housed in a gracious and generously proportioned home built in 1910 by one of Union City's most prominent citizens. Drewry Carmichael designed and patented farm equipment, and founded a factory to build it. He was instrumental in convincing the Farmer's Union to build its headquarters here—near his home, his 30-acre plantation, and his factory. He rode the tide of Union City's prosperity, investing most of his money in the local bank and serving as Chairman of the bank's Board. The boll weevil was particularly hard on him—when cotton failed, his farm equipment sales foundered. Then, a bank official disappeared with most of the bank's assets, leaving Carmichael to cover the losses to the bank's shareholders by selling his personal assets, including his home. The home he built is now known as Green Manor, referring to Dr. Green, who bought it from Carmichael in 1917, and lived and had his medical office there until the day he died.

The Green Manor Restaurant opened in 1990. We violated my rule against eating at buffet restaurants, because we didn't realize there was no menu until we were being shown to our table. We considered apologizing for our misunderstanding and walking out, but when we saw the good Southern home cooking arrayed on the buffet, we couldn't resist. Of course they offered the usual tender ribs, crispy fried chicken and corn meal-dredged pan-fried catfish, but what really grabbed our attention was the vegetable selection. The best Southern cooks can be counted on to come up with creative ways to prepare vegetables so that all healthful benefits they may have in their raw state are effectively eliminated in the tasty final product. The Green Manor buffet featured one of the finest examples of this style of Southern cooking that we have ever tasted anywhere--a big pan of bite size chunks of sweet potato, soft apple slices and plump raisins suspended in a thick buttery brown sugar cinnamon syrup. We agreed this "vegetable dish" would make a fine pie filling or cobbler. It is always a pleasure to spread one's dessert experiences throughout the meal, especially in the case of buffet dining, when one is so often too full to adequately enjoy a generous helping of desserts at the end of the all-you-can-eat dinner.

Anyway, the food was down-home delicious, the service was friendly, we learned a lot about local history over dinner, and we enjoyed wandering around the house after we were done. They still have Dr. Green's medical diplomas and certificates on the wall in the upstairs hall, along with a recent certificate the Manor was awarded from the Georgia Ghost Society, who checked the place out for spirits and specters back in 2007.

But, on to the real reason we were here—Meredith's soccer tournament.
We watched her team win two games Saturday and one Sunday morning. Meredith called to tell us they won their Sunday afternoon game, so they will play for their division championship tomorrow. The games were exciting, and we enjoyed them immensely, but even more, we treasured spending time with Meredith and her dad, Dick's son, catching up on all the happenings in their busy interesting lives. (We have to drop one more grandparent brag here: Meredith is not only a great soccer player, but also a talented ballerina who recently tried out for a part in the Cincinnati Ballet's "Nutcracker," and has just learned she will be dancing in it for her fourth year in a row!)

Before we headed home, we took a big detour northeast of the soccer field to see Atlanta's White House. At just 16,500 square feet, it is about a third the size of the real thing in Washington, D.C., but there is no mistaking the resemblance.
It is the private residence of local housing developer Fred Milani and his wife Yvonne, so we couldn't go inside, but our Weird Georgia book and Internet research reveal that it has unique versions of the Oval Office and the Lincoln Bedroom, in addition to boasting a dining room that seats eighty.

The interior feature I would really like to see is a bas-relief sculpture of the Last Supper featuring Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Billy Graham, Mother Teresa, and Harriet Tubman playing the parts of Apostles. (If you were to have a Last Supper with any twelve people throughout history, who would you choose?) In a similar religious vein, an entryway ceiling mural pictures Jesus ministering to an ethnically mixed crowd, including a Hispanic man in a sombrero, a Native American man in a full headdress, and Iranian-American Milani kneeling prayerfully at Christ's feet.

Mr. Milani converted from the Muslim faith to Christianity in 1995, and apparently is very enthusiastic about his adopted religion, as indicated by his interior décor choices, as well as the cross on his front lawn. He claims the design for his house came to him from God, but at least one disgruntled neighbor has complained to the press that God would tell him to do something better with his money than spend it on a gaudy house that is way too big for him and his wife.

I couldn't agree more.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Homeward Bound

August 13-14

We have been home for several days now--so busy catching up with friends, unpacking, doing laundry, and making our way through the very organized piles of mail that our house sitter left for us that writing about the last leg of our journey has fallen to the bottom of my To-Do List.

Our journey from Rochester to Savannah was a thousand miles, and we vowed to do it in two very efficient days—no detours or distractions. We almost succeeded, too.

We enjoyed the beauty of woods, hills and pastures as we sped south through New York and Pennsylvania. We bought sandwiches in one of the little towns where Route 15 spit us out during one of its many morphs from highway to Main Street and back again. Then we stopped for lunch at a roadside picnic area along the wide rocky totally unnavigable Susquehanna River, where the sound of rushing water was so loud it drowned out the noise of traffic. Amish women in fields near the road were picking produce, while their somber colored laundry danced on clotheslines, inviting us to visit Amish country, but we resisted their temptations.

All was going according to plan until after lunch, when Dick was bemoaning the lack of any sweets in the car, and I was looking at the map to be sure we didn't miss our next turn. That was when I noticed that Hershey was very close to Harrisburg, the fast-approaching site of our interchange. Neither one of us had ever been to Hershey before, but we figured that a quick stop there was sure to solve Dick's craving for a sweet treat. Just like that, we switched back to spontaneous detour travel mode.

Chocolate World in Hershey was more crowded than any national park we have visited all summer. Clearly, chocolate trumps nature.
There are a multitude of attractions within Chocolate World—visitors can don a hard hat in the "candy factory" to make their own personalized Hershey candy treats, attend a pricey gourmet chocolate tasting experience, take a trolley tour of the city of Hershey and visit its Chocolate Museum, watch a 3D show featuring dancing Hershey's Kisses, and much more. Conscious of the many miles ahead of us and the fact that we were really just here to buy some candy, we opted for the free fifteen minute Hershey's Great American Chocolate Tour.

Surely Hershey hired Disney to come up with their hilarious substitute for a standard factory tour. Visitors board little cars that turn and twist through a tunnel that passes lots of singing cows interspersed with a simulated chocolate factory production floor. A narrator and the animated cows guide us through all the steps in making milk chocolate--from the quarter million gallons of milk the factory goes through every day along with the beans of responsibly grown cocoa trees, to the moment sixteen million wrapped Kisses get popped into bags and shipped off by day's end. (When we checked the Kiss count at about 3 p.m., the day's production was a little over eleven million.) At the end of the ride, the scent of molten chocolate still fresh in our noses, and visions of millions of Hershey Kisses dancing in our heads, a woman gave us samples of Hershey's newest creation—Meltaway Kisses. We immediately unwrapped one, tasted it, and discerned that the Kiss fully lives up to its name, just as the exit pathway deposited us in the Candy Store, right in front of a huge display of Meltaway Kisses. The store stocked every other product in the Hershey's candy line-up, including some stuff we haven't seen in stores before.

The four bags of candy and the tin of chocolate covered pretzels we bought seemed like a good idea at the time. When we got home and stepped on the scale, we had a tinge of buyer's remorse. Today, we heard a news story about research concluding that eating chocolate two or more times per week lowers a person's probability of having a heart attack. We feel much better about our purchase now. We may be a little overweight, but there will be no heart problems in this household!

Once again, I digress. Let's get back on the road, after leaving Hershey.

We stopped for the night in Staunton, Virginia, and stayed in a chain motel where we could get a room for less than $50, including tax, using a coupon from one of those little booklets they have at highway rest stops. We had dinner in a turn of the century White Star flour mill, where Dick had the best Crab Imperial he can remember—so good that he marked the exit and wrote the restaurant name ( Mill Street Grill) on our map. They lived up to their motto – "There is nothing run of the mill about the Mill Street Grill"—and we are glad that it is on our Rochester route, so we might actually get back there again. We haven't bothered to record the names and locations of most of the fine meals we have enjoyed this trip, figuring we will never pass that way again. (Or, if we do, it will be so many years hence that they will be under new management or defunct.)

We covered over five hundred miles on our last day, and we did it efficiently.
We kept our eyes on the prize, and made it home by dinner time. As we drove over the causeway to our island, the spartina grass glowed a more vibrant green than we could remember—like the color of freshly budding Springtime leaves. We wondered if our perception of the grass was tinged by sentimentality, but soon learned from friends who have stuck around for the past few months that it has been a very rainy summer. They think the grass is greener, too.

After 12,940 miles, home among friends, we know the grass is always greener here.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Rochester Ramblings

August 11-12

We are in familiar territory, my hometown, so vacation rules do not apply. We are not seeking out new experiences, but savoring the familiar. So we are at the Super 8 just down the street from Dad's place, where we always stay when we come to visit. If we weren't operating by habit, we might have noticed that there are a couple 1950s style single story motor lodges that look quite tidy right along the same road as our motel. Dad calls them to our attention—they are the kind of independently owned places we have treasured on this journey. Maybe we will be adventuresome and try one when we are back around Thanksgiving.

We start each morning at the café at Wegman's Grocery Store, with lattes and baked goods and the New York Times, which we have missed terribly. If we get there before 9 a.m., there is a good chance they won't have the Times yet. We have always found it puzzling that we can get the New York Times delivered to our front lawn in Savannah, Georgia before 7 a.m., but it is hard to get the Times in Rochester until mid-morning. As we are looking at all the small print to find a phone number to restart our subscription to coincide with our arrival home, I notice that the New York Times we get in Wegman's is printed in Toronto. After our experience with Toronto traffic yesterday, we now understand why it arrives so late in Rochester.

Dick drops me off at Dad and June's, and takes the car to the Lexus dealership. We have an appointment to have our sagging exhaust system fixed. Somewhere along the way, we lost a part that held our exhaust system snug to the bottom of the car, and it has been sagging low ever since. We aren't sure when it happened, but we can think of lots of possible times dating back to early July. We have used our luxury car as an ATV more times than we would care to admit, should any warranty issues arise. We noticed the droop in Michigan, when we needed every inch of clearance we could get to maneuver the logging roads (and drive over the fallen tree). We need another oil change anyway, so the stop at Lexus works out well.

As always, we enjoy our visit with Dad and June. They regale us with stories of their exploits and observations on life at Baywinde, their independent living community. (Discretion prevents us from repeating the stories here—suffice it to say that the plots of the television show "Bay Watch" were tame compared to the reality of senior living at Baywinde.)

After lunch, Dad suggests that Dick and I ride the Irondequoit Lakeshore Trail, a short paved multi-use trail that runs past some of my favorite places from growing up in the Rochester suburb of Irondequoit. We park the car near the trail's start in Seabreeze, a tiny community on a spit of land between Lake Ontario and Irondequoit Bay. Ducks and mute swans hang out by the parking area, expecting to be fed. We are between a marina and a boat launch on the Bay. A cluster of deluxe hot dog stands that have been here as long as I can remember sits along the Bay side of the road, and a line of little cottages lines the Lake Ontario side.

Up the hill, we pass the Seabreeze amusement park, which is surrounded by a wall now, so I can't see much of the rides, but I spy the Jackrabbit roller coaster, still going strong after what must be well over fifty years of service. It is dwarfed now by a newer roller coaster which offers more thrills, as it spins like a cups and saucers ride while it twists and turns on its hilly rails.

The path continues past a miniature golf course that looks just as I remember it from childhood, then enters Durand Eastman Park. There has been a lot of rain here—the woods are verdant green as we swoop through them, and the marsh is thick with cattails as we ride over it on a wide boardwalk. The trail continues along the shore of Lake Ontario, where there are a string of public beaches, all officially closed today, due to heavy rains which have wreaked havoc with the sewer system, causing high levels of bacteria in the water.
As always at times like this, there are many people swimming, wading and jet skiing in the lake, despite the beach closure—they are just doing it in an area not patrolled by life guards. A couple police officers are sitting in their cars near the largest of the unofficial swimming beaches, but they are doing nothing to interfere with the aquatic recreation; we think they are just hanging around to call for help if someone has a problem in the water.

We ride a little bit past the end of the official Trail, so we can stand atop a bridge over the Genesee River, and take a picture of the muddy brown river water meeting the deep blue lake. I can remember the first time I rode over this bridge (actually, this bridge has had a total make-over since then, but the old bridge was in the same spot as this one). On a Girl Scout bicycle outing to Charlotte Beach, the big beach over the bridge, I was afraid to ride over the metal grate bridge. I hung back to the end of the group, and walked my bicycle slowly and carefully, encouraged every step of the way by the Leader. On the way back, I think I rode my bicycle over the bridge—at least that is how I like to remember it.
Today, I ride both ways. No problem.

We reward ourselves at the end of the ride with cups of frozen custard from Abbott's, a local summer tradition from as far back as I remember. My sister and I went to school with Abbott boys, whom everyone knew would grow up to be in the business. Our nephew Vinnie has a summer job at Abbott's—we learn that now the Abbotts have franchised their ice cream stands, so there are lots of owners, not just the Abbott boys. So, I guess this breaks our vacation rule of not eating at franchise food operations, too.

We have dinner with Dad and June at Baywinde. June has a compression fracture in her back, and hasn't been out and about too much lately. It is wonderful to see so many of her friends and neighbors stopping on the way to dinner to tell June how good it is to see her again, asking about her recovery, and wishing her well. This feels like a very warm and supportive community. And, they eat well, too. Every night they serve soup, salad, a big selection of main courses with vegetables, a starch and rolls, followed by dessert. The food is really good. If we lived here, we would have to develop a little will power (and we wouldn't eat frozen custard shortly before dinner, either).

After dinner we visit my sister Marcia and her family, where we always enjoy catching up on what is going on new in their busy lives, and learning what is new in popular culture. This visit we learn about their internet radio, which uses their wi fi router to bring them 16,000 radio stations from around the world. As they search the dial to sample music from other countries, they have found that many stations around the world are playing American music, which is a little disappointing when they are looking for some cultural diversity.

The next morning we ride from the nearby town of Pittsford to Macedon on the Erie Canal Heritage Trail. The trail pretty much parallels the old tow path along the shore of the canal. It is seventy miles in length, and we sample about 15.5 miles of it (round trip, including off-trail diversions = 33 miles). The path is packed gravel and almost absolutely flat, so we have an easy ride. It passes through a couple very quaint port towns which put their best face forward to lure canal boaters to stop awhile.
We pass through some wooded sections where we have to peek through overgrowth to see the canal, and in one segment, our trail is sandwiched between busy railroad tracks and the canal. We watch lots of boats travel by, and think it would be fun to rent a canal boat sometime to combine biking with boating for another great adventure.

We ride to Lock 30, where the chief lock tender is busy painting the metal rails around his lock. His station is spic and span clean and neat, and the metal work gleams in the New York State colors--blue with precisely painted goldenrod trim. He tells us he has been working the locks for thirteen years, ten years at Lock 30. He figures no matter what happens to boat traffic on the canal (and there is very little commercial traffic here anymore), he has job security, because the locks are needed for flood control. While we are chatting, a boat radios him wanting to lock through. We have been through hundreds of locks on Starsong, but appreciate this opportunity to stand on the lock wall watching the big gears at work opening and closing the lock gates and the water valves. We are glad that Homeland Security hasn't gated off the Erie Canal locks from close public access.

On a tip from the lockmaster, we stop at the Macedon Marina on our way back to Pittsford. He told us they made most of the canal boats that are plying the water here, and their boats are well-maintained and dependable. We get information about the boats, tour one, and talk to a family arriving at the dock after spending four days out on what they describe as "one of our best family trips ever." We resolve to rent a canal boat for our own adventure someday.

We lunch at picnic tables along the canal.
The restaurant has white hots, another Rochester tradition, so I can check this delicacy off the list of foods I need to consume before we leave my home town. Yep, it is as good as I remember it; no other hot dog compares.

Our day ends with a family dinner at a terrific Italian restaurant chosen by Marcia's family, who are authentically Italian, and experts in the best Italian cuisine Rochester has to offer. Our two oldest nephews are both working, and June stays home to rest her aching back, but the rest of us enjoy a fine meal and lively conversation. It is good to be together.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Canada: We Liked It Better the Last Time

August 9-10

We leave Jan and Jim's Camp two hours before we need to be at church in Marquette—they usually don't take quite so long to get there, because they drive faster on the dirt and rock roads than we do, and they don't stop at roadside attractions like we do. It is a good thing we left a little extra time, since we come upon a large pine tree in the road. Jan mentions that she thought about putting the chain saw in the station wagon, but forgot to do it. Jim and Dick just rip the branches off the tree, and we gingerly drive over the trunk. Jim and Jan are sure someone else will pass by with a chain saw in their truck bed and have the tree cleared away by the time they return home this afternoon.

Speaking of chain saws,
o we have to stop on the way to church to take a picture of the World's Largest Working Chain Saw and the World's Largest Working Rifle at Da Yooper Tourist Trap (folks from Michigan's Upper Peninsula, abbreviated U.P., sometimes refer to themselves as Yoopers). The Chain Saw (affectionately known as "Big Gus") has a GMC V-8 truck engine and weighs 3,500 lbs. The rifle--"Big Ernie"-- is 35 feet long and weighs 4000 pounds. It is fired with propane, using an electrical igniter. There are many other oddities in the parking lot of the Tourist Trap,
but we have to be on our way to church, so we pass them by.

We make it to Marquette right on time. Dick sits in the car and studies maps for our afternoon travels east while I practice with the choir. Everyone is wonderfully welcoming. The sermon will be given by a Native American professor, and we are singing an anthem based on famous words of Chief Seattle, which align beautifully with one of our seven Unitarian Universalist Principles: "Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part." Chief Seattle's words: "Man did not weave the web of life—he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself."

Only tonight, as I am doing a little internet research on Chief Seattle, do I learn that he never uttered these poetic words, and the rest of the words in our anthem, which are so often attributed to him. They were written by Ted Perry, a screenwriter for Home, a 1972 film about ecology. Chief Seattle is now remembered as a fictional character, rather than the person he was. Hollywood put words in his mouth, and we have lost whatever it was he actually said in his native language, understood by so few of his white listeners. When it comes to the history of Native Americans, our nation often prefers to substitute romanticized fiction for fact, as our reading of historic markers all across America has demonstrated.

After church, we have a farewell lunch with Jan and Jim at a classic north woods roadhouse. Then, we head east and they return to Wolf's Echo. We are already looking forward to their winter migration to Savannah.

Our plan is to cross over to Canada at Sault Ste. Marie (or The Soo, as they say up here), take roads through Canada that follow the north shore of Lake Huron's North Channel and Georgian Bay, then skirt the west side of Toronto, cross into New York at Fort Erie, and end up in Webster, New York. We are looking forward to the trip around Lake Huron, because we spent the summer of 2005 exploring this area aboard Starsong. We have warm enduring memories of the sparkling clear water, the natural beauty of the rocky shores and wild islands, and the charming small towns and isolated areas we visited.

We drive for a couple hours through Michigan's north woods, and cross the bridge between the U.S. Soo and the Canadian Soo at 4 p.m. No worries about rush hour here—the towns are small and far flung. We get a few peeks at the North Channel as we pass through tiny lakefront settlements. Most of the handful of motels we see in the first hundred miles or so look like no one has run a paint brush over them in about twenty years. All the motels seem to have an on-premises restaurant, since they can't depend on any other restaurant within an hour's drive to stay in business to serve their clientele.

We stop at the first big town along the North Channel, Blind River (pop. 3,280). When we try to make our way to the lakefront, we find that the town is cut off from the lake by railroad tracks, and all the houses near the lake look like they are on the wrong side of the tracks. Our motel, the Auberge Eldo Inn, is along the highway and has a restaurant, like the other motels in town. The restaurant is about 90 degrees and empty, so we decide to try elsewhere. We eat at the most popular of the three motel restaurants in town, where the food is okay, but the service is interminably slow, because just one server has to cover the whole restaurant and help out in the kitchen.

In the morning, our motel serves a complimentary full hot breakfast in its restaurant. The same man who checked us in last night prepares us excellent breakfasts to order in the little restaurant galley this morning, clears our table, collects our room keys and checks us out. We hope he at least has some help cleaning the rooms!

Although the highway looks like it runs along the lakeshore on the map, our views of the North Channel turn out to be few. And we realize that, come to think of it, our favorite parts of the North Channel were the isolated island towns, the wild rocky anchorages with no civilization in sight, and the camaraderie we shared with our boating friends. So, doing the North Channel by car falls short of our expectations,
because, well, a car is not a boat, and the mainland is not an island.

We make the turn and head down the east shore of the lake, glimpsing Georgian Bay. We stop for lunch in Parry Sound, one of our favorite ports of call during that magic summer of 2005. We lunch on the porch at the Bay Street Café, across the street from the marina where we docked back then, and nothing here has changed, from the menu to the hanging pots of petunias, so thick with blooms that they almost block our view of the lake. The trains are still clattering across the high trestle that passes over the marina, waking other boaters in the wee hours of the morning, no doubt. The town rises from the lake on hills so steep that walking its streets makes your legs feel like you are mountain climbing. Dick recalls exactly where to find a bookstore we loved, and it is still there. The streets are full of vacationers with ice cream cones and shopping bags. We are happy to reclaim at least a little piece of our Georgian Bay memories.

Our ebullient spirits do not last long. By the time we get to the far outskirts of Toronto, it is 4 p.m., and rush hour is in full swing. Complicating the traffic tangles, the Queen Elizabeth Way super highway is in the middle of a construction process that eventually merges its twelve lanes of traffic into two. It takes us 45 minutes to go half a mile, and when we get off the expressway to seek a road that has less traffic, we make a couple bad decisions, and are in a worse traffic tie-up going the wrong way. Dick goes ballistic for the first time of the entire trip (and only the third time I can recall in the past ten years or so). Everything about our three hour odyssey traversing the far outskirts of Toronto is bad, very bad, including the gas station rest room. All hopes of getting to Rochester in time for dinner evaporate, as we subsist on our Diet Pepsis and dark chocolate M&Ms.

Eventually we find our way clear, there is no line at the border crossing, and once we get on the New York State Thruway, we can practically put the car on autopilot, since we have done this drive so often. Fortunately, Dad and June are night owls, so we can get in a quick visit at 9:30, after we finally make it to Webster.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

We Go to Camp

Wolf's Echo, Shank Lake

August 5-9
We are in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, visiting friends Jan and Jim (and their lovable dog Morgan and schizoid cat Electra) at their wilderness retreat, Wolf's Echo. To get here, we left civilization behind in Crystal Falls (pop.1,649), and traveled a 13 mile long maze of dirt logging roads that became rockier and rougher with each turn. (We were amazed to see these roads show up, by name, on our GPS, even though most did not have street signs.)

Wolf's Echo is tucked in the woods overlooking tranquil Shank Lake.
Jim and Jan's home, which they call a "camp," was built using lumber Jim harvested from their eighty acre forest. Even though it is surrounded by trees, their home is remarkably bright, due to a dramatic wall of windows two stories tall overlooking the lake that lies through the trees to the west. The walls inside are lined with a wood people around here call "popple," from aspen trees, and the floors are a mix of maple and birch. All the wood inside is sealed unstained, its light color adding to the bright beauty of this camp that lies so comfortably in its natural setting.

We are staying for four nights—the longest we have been in any one spot all summer. So, our time here feels like a special vacation within our vacation—just like going away to summer camp. Jan and Jim even give us Wolf's Echo camp tee shirts!

On our first full day here, we all hop on ATVs for a jouncing tour around the lake on logging roads and woodland trails, with frequent stops to check out the camps of neighbors and to learn about the logging history and natural history of the area. We pick a few raspberries at the edge of a clear cut that was planted in larch trees just nine years ago, and marvel that the trees are already over twenty feet tall. We meet Jan and Jim's across-the-lake neighbor, who graciously gives us a tour of his luxurious log cabin (complete with hunting trophy animal heads lining the walls) and his lakeside sauna. Later that day we take kayaks out on the lake for a long quiet paddle. There are no other boats out on the lake, as we paddle along the shore, into a windless cove, around an island, and home again, just in time to pick up our cameras and attempt to capture the beauty of the sunset.

The next morning dawns clear and cool, so after breakfast we don our fleece jackets and ride off on another ATV adventure.
Today, I drive, which increases the adventure level for both me and my passenger, Dick, who whispers helpful hints in my ear, like "It would be good to avoid going over a big rock between the wheels that might scrape bottom." If fifteen miles per hour felt fast when riding behind Dick yesterday, it feels absolutely meteoric when I am at the controls.

After lunch we head to the Iron County Museum in nearby Caspian (pop. 914) to learn more about local history and culture. Jan and Jim have had property in Iron Country for about a decade, but this is their first visit to the Museum, which, it turns out, has over twenty buildings to explore. We have underestimated the time necessary to do it justice, but try to take in as many of the highlights as possible in the two hours we have until closing time.

The museum is built on the site of the Caspian Mine, which opened in 1903. The mine's engine house is the core of its indoor exhibit area, and its headframe, built in 1921, rises high above the outdoor settlement complex. An octogenarian woman working the front desk gets us started on the history and culture exhibits inside, then turns us loose to wander a rabbit warren of little rooms with an awesome variety of exhibits drawn from the attics, basements, out buildings and failed businesses of people all across the county. There is a large mining hall, where we learn about ore mining through thoroughly labeled artifacts provided by retired locals, all recognized by name next to the items they donated. A memorial panel contains the names of 562 miners who lost their lives in local mines in less than 100 years time. This miner mortality rate seems disturbingly high.

We are fascinated by the Monigal Miniature Logging Camp. Believed to be the largest work of its kind, the camp is populated by at least a hundred tiny lumberjacks. All the little men, their horses, the buildings and logging equipment in the camp are carved from cedar telephone poles. They are arranged to illustrate life and work in a 1920s winter logging camp, and to show how logs were floated to the mills in spring. Mr. Monigal spent eight years creating the camp after he was disabled in a saw mill accident in 1931.

A large gallery is dedicated solely to displaying the work of Lee LeBlanc, a 1931 Iron River High School graduate who went on to become an animator for Loonie Tunes and an artist for Twentieth Century Fox and MGM. He retired in the 1960s, only to begin another career—as a wildlife artist. He won numerous awards for his work--one of his ducks was chosen to be the federal duck stamp in 1973-74, he was National Ducks Unlimited Artist of the Year in 1980, and his state and regional awards are far too numerous to mention. We stroll the gallery admiring his depictions of birds and the natural beauty of this area during every season of the year.

Outside, there is a whole settlement of buildings with farm machinery and tools, a firehouse with vintage engines, a blacksmith shop, a school, and so on. The most unique building we visit is the home and studio of now deceased local artist and school teacher Brandon Giovanelli. It looks like an unassuming little 1950s ranch house from the outside, but is described as "the Museum Jewel" in our directory and a "must see" by our octogenarian guide, so we seek her out to unlock the door and let us in.

Our jaws drop as she closes the front door behind us and shines a light to illuminate the tooled copper sheet that Giavanelli fashioned to cover the door. The copper door facing is etched with amply endowed nude figures cavorting in a most lively fashion. Our guide admits she is "a bit embarrassed" when she brings school groups through the house. We proceed to the dining room which has an eight foot ceiling which Giovanelli painted with Renaissance-style murals featuring about twenty cherubs and at least that many naked revelers. The women are more busty than Botticelli's (think gas station calendar girl), the men more lusty than Leonardo's. We imagine the Bacchanalian dinner parties that Giavanelli must have hoped to inspire by those classically rendered ceiling murals. Next we see his studio, featuring beautiful stained glass he collected, as well as a photo album of the house as it looked fully furnished in all its over the top Italian Baroque splendor. As it is, unfurnished, every inch of wall space seems to be covered with murals or framed artwork in a variety of media. We see his mother's room next, adding a new wrinkle to the story. (He lived with his mother? What did she think of his art?) All Brandon did to decorate her room was to sculpt two Grecian columns onto one wall. Brandon's room features more naked murals, as we guessed it would. (We bet you wish we included a photograph here, but unfortunately Dick took the request that he not photograph artwork in the galleries a bit too seriously, and failed to document this home tour.)

We end our Museum visit with a stop at the Catholic Church which has been placed next door to Giovanelli's house, an intriguing contrast. The basement of the church houses a gallery filled with the eclectic art collection of one couple who donated it to the museum. They like twentieth century representational art in a variety of styles, and we like looking at their collection. We stay until after closing time, then reluctantly leave, knowing we probably missed some really good stuff.

Our next stop is an old Iron River railroad station which has found a new use as a neighborhood bar, where we have a drink and chat with the locals, before driving on to Crystal Falls, where they are celebrating their annual Humongous Fungus Fest.
The organism for which this festival is named covers 38 acres beneath a nearby forest, and is believed to be somewhere between 1,500 and 10,000 years old. Festival promotional literature claims it is "perhaps the largest and oldest living organism in the world."

Seeing no festival activities at the moment, we go to a popular restaurant and order the Friday Walleye Fish Fry, which turns out to be outstanding regional cuisine. Just as we are finishing dinner, the police cars leading a festival parade cruise past the front door, their sirens blaring. We rush out as soon as we can pay the bill, but the parade is over within about fifteen minutes, the biggest attraction being the candy thrown from the emergency vehicles and floats in such prodigious quantities that all the children watching leave with bags that will tide them over until Halloween.

It rains overnight and is overcast in the morning. Heeding warnings of severe hail, we pull our car into the garage, and hunker down indoors with our computers and books. Nothing violent has happened by midday, so we decide to take the kayaks out and explore the end of the lake we didn't visit on our first day's paddle.
We circle an island and startle a kingfisher as we round its point, sending him complaining across the lake to the opposite shore. Then a bald eagle rises from a tall pine, and we follow its flight down the shore. As we approach the tree where it landed, the eagle and its mate rise from the tree and soar far from sight. We agree that while this is not a Great Lake, it is a great lake—secluded, lightly populated, not conducive to jet skis and big boats, and perfect for exploring by kayak or canoe.

We while away the rest of the afternoon on the screened porch, and around the piano, practicing the anthem for church tomorrow morning. We are going to join Jan and Jim at their UU Fellowship in Marquette, have lunch together afterward, then go our separate ways, as we continue our journey, and Jim and Jan return to Wolf's Echo for just a day or two of solitude before their family members start arriving for summer vacations.

Jan has fed us well with her wonderful cooking; Jim has fed our minds with his diabolically twisted mystery story manuscripts. They have guided us on new adventures, and provided us with a perfect place to sit back and relax. We loved the loud bouncy racing about on ATVs, and our quiet paddles in the kayaks.
Wolf's Echo is a beautiful and peaceful place to relax and refresh--now we understand why our friends insist on staying here most of the year, only coming to Savannah after winter sets in hard.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Duluth, Pothole Capital of the U.S.

August 4

Scenic North Shore Drive runs close to the rocky shores of Lake Superior north of downtown Duluth. It has many turn-outs for folks who want to stop and enjoy the view or scrabble down to the water's edge, and its extra wide shoulders are well-used by bicyclists and walkers. There are lots of little motor inns and vacation cottages scattered all along the Drive, and ours is less than twenty minutes from downtown.

We appear to be the only people at the Lake Breeze Motel who are not on a family vacation. This little resort features a heated pool (no one swims in the lake here) and a miniature golf course. When we sit on our front porch to look out at the lake, we notice we are the only ones who do not have beach towels and bathing suits hanging over our porch rails. The families here are cooking burgers on the grills and having campfires in the evening, while we are eating at the local restaurants and catching up on our e-mail.

We decide to begin our sight-seeing day in Duluth with a drive on the Skyline Parkway. Like the Great River Road which we attempted yesterday, the Skyline Parkway is not just one road, but a combination of roads. It is promoted in our travel guides and in several Duluth tourism brochures as a "must do" experience that will take us on a tour of the cliffs and bluffs high above Lake Superior and Duluth, offering breath-taking views, and many roadside parks and paths to explore.

As was the case with the Great River Road,
we find that the route is poorly marked and is interrupted by detours, so that we are often unsure of which way to turn. We are amazed to find that the roads are in the worst condition of any we have encountered--paved or unpaved--in over ten thousand miles of driving this summer. The roads here are paved, but they have been patched many times with materials of different colors and textures, so that they resemble crazy quilts. And, there are quite a few potholes remaining to be patched, as well. So, we bounce, rock, and jiggle along trying to follow the parkway, while our bicycle rack groans under the strain of our heaving bicycles, and the plastic plates in our picnic box clack like castanets.

When we have gotten our fill of aerial views of the city and its impressive inner harbor port areas, we abandon the Skyline Parkway before we reach its end. As the haphazardly patched pavement pattern continues through the charming residential areas we tour on our way down from the heights, we realize that this style of roadwork is a unique characteristic endemic to the city as a whole, earning it our designation "Pothole Capital of the U.S."

The best way to avoid the roads is to explore by boat, so we hop on a Lake and Harbor Tour where we enjoy a beautiful cruise narrated almost non-stop by a terrific guide. We learn far more than we can possibly remember about the lake, the cities of Duluth and Superior along its shores and the busy port area in its sheltered harbor. Lake Superior is the largest, coldest (average surface temperature=39 degrees), cleanest and deepest of our Great Lakes, and it is the world's largest freshwater lake by volume. Its waves are commonly over ten feet, and have been known to rise to forty feet. Weather can blow in quickly, with little warning, but today the sun is shining and the water is flat.

Duluth boasts the world's most inland seaport—it is 2,340 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. It is also the world's most busy inland seaport. Not surprisingly, after all the grain elevators we have passed for the past several days, the largest grain terminal in North America is right here in Duluth Harbor. We also see the fastest coal ship loader in the country in action.
Just one man controls the loading action via remote controls strapped around his waist which move the coal chute around in the boat's cargo bays to balance the load. The train cars on the trestle above are flipped upside-down to dump their load into receiving bins below the tracks. We also see steel docks where they load taconite pellets onto ships. (The most efficient way to transport iron is to pulverize the rock near where it is mined, collect the iron via magnets, and combine it with clay to make taconite pellets.)

After many historic plaques singing the praises of railroads on this trip, we learn from our tour guide that "ships are six times more fuel efficient than trains and sixty times more fuel-efficient than trucks."

Back on land, Dick manages to get us to a restaurant we saw during our boat tour. The restaurant is in an old Fitger's brewery, and sits high on a bluff overlooking the lake. We have a late lunch at a table on the patio, and imagine that the people in the tour boats that pass below us are probably looking up at us and thinking that they, too, would like to figure out how to get up here for dinner after their tour is over.

Minnesota Roadside Attractions

August 3

The grain fields are giving way to wetlands today, hooray! The soil is a deep loamy black as we get to the Minnesota border, and we are seeing trees that look like nature put them there, rather than farmers trying to build a wind break.

Minnesota turns out to be full of larger than life roadside attractions, beginning with the World's Largest Ox Cart in Crookston, Minnesota. The big red cart lures us to stop, and a sign next to it tells us how back in 1842 traders used smaller versions of carts like this one to haul furs and supplies. Each one could carry up to a thousand pounds of goods, and they would often travel in trains of over a hundred ox carts. The sound of their wheels could be heard six miles away, until 1871, when railroad trains led to the ox cart trains' demise.

Not too far down the road we find an ox big enough to pull that Crookston ox cart. An eighteen foot tall statue of Paul Bunyan, his blue ox Babe by his side, stands next to the Bemidji Tourist Information Center, which claims Bemidji as the birthplace of Paul Bunyan. Paul and Babe were constructed in 1937, and are on the National Register of Historic Places. At one time, Babe breathed smoke from her nostrils and blinked her eyes. She rode on a truck bed as a float in many a parade before the wear and tear to her canvas-covered wood-frame body became so great that she retired permanently to stand beside Paul on the shore of Lake Bemidji. They are without a doubt the most photographed spot in Bemidji. We have our doubts about the Chamber of Commerce boast that "Kodak Company claims Paul and Babe are the second most photographed man-made icon in the nation."

Bemidji's nickname is "First City on the Mississippi," since the headwaters of that mighty river are in nearby Lake Itaska. It is theoretically possible to follow the Mississippi River from its headwaters in Lake Itasca all the way to New Orleans by traveling on "The Great River Road," which is not really one road, but a conglomeration of many smaller roads that roughly follow the river's path. We try to drive a section of the Great River Road that runs between Bemidji and Grand Forks, using a map from the Tourist Information Center, and Great River Road signs posted along the route. The map and signs do not match, there are road construction detours, and we get lost several times. Despite all the obstacles to success, we do manage to catch sight of the Mississippi in many incarnations along the mostly dirt back roads through the Minnesota woods. First we see it as a shallow creek barely trickling over a wide dry rocky bed. It passes through several little water lily-edged lakes, and becomes a pleasant canoe route meandering through a marsh. We picnic in a state park campground, where, right next to our picnic table, the Mississippi River flows over a small dam to emerge from Cass Lake and continue on its way to New Orleans.

We abandon the Great River Road, and hop back on Route 2, where we stop in Rena (pop. 116) to get a picture of a 65 foot long tiger muskie with a 14 foot wide mouth at the Big Fish Supper Club.
This roadside attraction proudly proclaims that it was featured in the movie "Chevy Chase National Lampoon Vacation."

Our next stop is in Grand Forks, proud birthplace of Judy Garland, where a yellow brick road winds through a little garden in front of one of the two Judy Garland museums in town. Although there are hundreds of yellow bricks bearing the names of donors to the project, a very special section of the road contains bricks dedicated by movie munchkins still living at the time the road was constructed. One of the munchkin bricks contains a famous line which has new meaning in this context: "She is most sincerely dead. Munchkin Coroner."

Our most intriguing discovery is the only gas station in the world designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The gas station is in Cloquet, a small town about fifteen miles west of Duluth. Wright designed a Usonian house in Cloquet for the Lindholms (currently on the market for less than a million dollars). Mr. Lindholm was in the oil and gas business, and Wright convinced Lindholm to let him design a gas station after he did his house. Wright was appalled with the number of ugly gas stations popping up all over the landscape in the 1950s, and wanted to design a beautiful gas station that would inspire others to follow his lead.

The Frank Lloyd Wright gas station was built in 1958, near the end of Wright's career. At a time when a standard service station cost about $5,000 to build, this one cost $20,000. It has many of Wright's signature elements—a cantilevered copper covered roof extending over the pumps, ornamental copper trim work borders on the roof eaves and edges, and skylights in each of the service bays.
He included an observation bay and lounge with windows that look like an airplane control tower on the second floor. Wright wanted to do away with the pumps on the ground, delivering the gas from overhead pipes, but that plan was nixed, due to safety concerns.

Wright never actually saw his Cloquet gas station. He sent one of his apprentices to supervise its construction, since he was busy in New York supervising the construction of the Guggenhiem Museum, and he died less than a year later. Unfortunately, we don't see much evidence that his gas station design ideas caught on, as he hoped they would.

Our day's journey ends in Duluth. Tomorrow, we'll write about the Lake Breeze Motel, Lake Superior, and beautiful Duluth.