Category Archives: USA

In Kentucky, It’s all About Horses and Bourbon

I didn’t know much about Kentucky other than a vague school-days’ recollection that it was Daniel Boone country. But then my son graduated from college and took his first job at Eastern Kentucky University, south of Lexington. I’ve visited him several times and am struck by the state’s natural beauty. But what mostly caught my attention is that in Kentucky, it’s all about horses and bourbon.

The Horses

The first thing you notice are the horse farms that surround Lexington, with their big barns, bucolic rolling hills, lines of fences and trees and horses that look like they might have the most privileged life in the world. Turns out, the water that percolates through underground limestone adds mineral content to Kentucky’s fabled bluegrass pastures, which in turn helps produce horses strong in bone and durability. There are more than 400 horse farms in the Bluegrass region, so it’s little wonder that many of the world’s most famous racing horses come from here, too, including Man o’ War. Lexington is proud to call itself the Horse Capital of the World. So while Louisville, about 80 miles away, is home to the Kentucky Derby, Lexington lays claim as the best place to breed, raise and train race horses. Many champions also spend their retirement years here.

Visitors can experience Kentucky’s horse traditions at many places in and around Lexington, including Keeneland Race Course and the Thoroughbred Center. But one of the comprehensive destinations concerning all things horse is the 1,200-acre Kentucky Horse Park, boasting 21 barns that can house more than 2,000 horses. Because it’s a working farm dedicated to all breeds of horses, it’s one of the best places on earth to see and learn about the world’s various breeds, each with its own history and characteristics. Both the Parade of Breeds Show and the Breeds Barn showcase magnificent horses, including the Tennessee Walking Horse, Black Arabian, Appaloosa, Lipizzaner, American Saddlebred, Norwegian Fjord and American Quarter Horse. I learned all kinds of astounding facts, including that the American Miniature Horse, a crossbreed of Dartmoor and Shetland ponies, was imported from Europe to work in Appalachia’s coal mines and that the rare Marwari, of which only 1,000 remain, is an ancient breed from India bred specifically for battle.

Parade of Breeds Show

You can also visit the Horse Park’s Hall of Champions with its retired champion race horses, board a trolley pulled by draft horses for a tour of the expansive grounds, and visit the Big Barn, home to mighty draft horses. I now have a newfound admiration for draft horses, which played a huge role in the development of our country, from the laying of our railroads to the powering of stagecoaches and streetcars to the plowing of our fields. In 1900, there were 27,000 draft horses in the United States, including the Percheron, Clydesdale and Belgian. I’ve got two hitching posts in front of my 1890 Folk Victorian house; I can just picture draft horses tied up there.

Trolley tours pulled by draft horses

There are also museums, including the American Saddlebred Museum, the Wheeler Museum with its collection of equestrian memorabilia focusing mostly on show jumping horses, and, most importantly, the International Museum of the Horse. A Smithsonian Affiliate, it is the largest museum in the world dedicated to the history of horses and their impact on human development. Exhibits present the history of the horse, from its evolution and uses in ancient times to horses used in modern sports. I learned that although horses originated in North America, none survived prehistoric times except those that traveled to Asia via overland bridges. The Spanish reintroduced the horse to the Americas, where Native Americans were at first forbidden to ride them and so usually ate them if they could. Eventually, of course, many tribes became adept at riding and training Paint Horses, Appaloosas and other breeds. The American Quarter Horse is our country’s most recognizable breed, used by pioneers as they traveled west and later used also for sport racing. But it was the Thoroughbred that made horse racing what it is today. Horse racing began in Kentucky in the 1700s, and after the Civil War, Kentucky emerged as a breeding center for Thoroughbreds. The first Kentucky Derby was held in 1875.

International Museum of the Horse

The Bourbon

Turns out, limestone-infused water is also great for producing bourbon. In fact, bourbon was born in Kentucky, when farmers discovered that converting corn and other grains into whiskey made transportation much easier, not to mention more fun. Today, more than 95% of the world’s bourbon is produced here. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail is a group of 10 distilleries operating in and around Lexington offering tours and tastings. Pick up a free Kentucky Bourbon Trail Passport at any of the participating distilleries, which include Town Branch, Maker’s Mark, Wild Turkey and Evan Williams, and if you visit all of them you’ll be rewarded with a free T-shirt. My son, a new convert, is working his way slowly (I hope) along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

Although it’s not part of the Bourbon Trail, one of my favorites is the Buffalo Trace Distillery for its attractive historic grounds and instructive tours. Although its name has changed over the centuries, it can trace its beginnings to the late 1700s and is the oldest continuously operating distillery in the United States. Its 700-plus acres of grounds, including more than 300 acres for growing corn, boasts more than 120 buildings, including a one-story stone house built in 1792 and warehouses from the 1880s. It operated even during Prohibition, as one of only a few distilleries permitted to produce “medicinal” whiskey. The most popular tour is a free one-tour tour that culminates in free tastings of its products. But there are also four other one-hour complimentary tours including samplings (reservations required) that focus on the distillery’s history, everything you always wanted to know about oak barrels or an in-depth look at its facilities. There’s even a ghost tour.

But the highlight of my afternoon with my son was our return to his home in Richmond, when we saw on our map the designation of a ferry. Remembering many such ferry crossings as a kid on family trips, I suggested we head that way, not sure it was even still functioning. But the Valley View Ferry, in operation since 1780, was seemingly waiting just for us. It was easy to picture its olden days, when passengers with horses were probably its biggest customers. Even Daniel Boone is said to have used this ferry. A renowned frontiersman and trapper turned politician and businessman, Boone was also a horse trader and once owned a Kentucky tavern. It should come as no surprise that he introduced a bill for “improving the breed of horses.” It’s my guess he swilled a lot of bourbon as well.

Valley View Ferry

 

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Legs Inn a Must for its quirky architecture, Polish food and Lake Michigan Views

You don’t just happen to be driving by Legs Inn and decide spontaneously to pop in for Polish sausage. That’s not to say the restaurant doesn’t catch your eye. The unusual stone  structure is renowned for its rows of upended cast-iron stove legs that serve as a kind of rooftop railing (hence it’s name). But the inside, too, is a curious mishmash of handmade wooden furniture, driftwood re-purposed as art, totem poles, a giant bar fashioned from the trunk of a hemlock tree and taxidermic bears, deer, raccoons and other native species.

But Legs Inn is so off Michigan’s beaten path, that unless you’re also visiting Mackinac Island, are driving the nearby scenic  “Tunnel of Trees” or heading to Headlands International Dark Sky Park to gaze at the stars, you probably won’t be passing through the tiny community of Cross Village. Unless, of course, Legs Inn is your destination, which applies to almost everyone who comes here to dine.

Opened in the 1920s by a Polish immigrant and owned by the same family for almost 90 years, Legs Inn is now in its third generation of restaurauteurs. It still specializes in Polish cuisine, including pierogi (dumpings), Polish sausage and a very delicious bigos (a hunter’s stew of various meats, sausage, sauerkraut and vegetables), all made from scratch. It also offers the local Great Lakes whitefish, sandwiches, goulash, potato pancakes and other fare, not to mention more than 100 varieties of beer from around the world, including Polish beer. The staff includes students from other countries who come here to work and study.

But the best part? Legs Inn is located on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan, with both indoor and outdoor dining offering great views. Open from about mid-May to mid-October, this restaurant is worth the detour no matter where you’re heading, or even if you’re heading nowhere at all.

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Rocky Mountain High

Becoming a national park in 2015, Rocky Mountain National Park boasts the highest major highway in North America (12,183 ft. above sea level) and 72 named peaks above 12,000 ft.

Becoming a national park in 1915, Rocky Mountain National Park boasts the highest major highway in North America (12,183 ft. above sea level) and 72 named peaks above 12,000 ft.

My earliest memory of the winding road to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park is from when I was a kid, on a family road trip courtesy of our station wagon. It was summer, but as often happens in the mountains (at least back then), snow was falling unexpectedly, making the winding road slick and visibility poor. There were no guardrails to prevent us from catapulting us to our deaths. My parents, of course, were terrified, but we kids in the back seat thought it was a grand adventure. Although other memories from that trip have long disappeared, that snowy day sticks out because of a song my siblings and I composed as we were inching alongside the mountain, sung to the tune of On Top of Old Smokey:

“It snows in the Rockies, in June and July, and sometimes in August, and that’s not a lie. And if you don’t believe us, as we certainly know, just go to the Rockies, and wait til it snows.”

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Our campsite at Half Moon

Little did I know that that memorable day would be the start of a long relationship between the Rockies and this Kansas girl and that I would eventually become a parent and bring my own two sons to experience the magic of the mountains. In addition to camping trips when my kids were young, my son Johannes and I camped at what my dad said was his favorite spot in Colorado, Half Moon. The next year we visited Estes Park and RMNP after his soccer tournament in Boulder, even though he was so devastated by his team’s loss that he wanted to cut our trip short and return home to sulk. Luckily, after just a few hours in the mountains, he began to succumb to the healing power of nature.

Johannes in RMNP

Johannes in RMNP

The next trip came when my older son Matthias, 21 at the time, announced he was going on a solo hiking trip in Rocky Mountain National Park and I couldn’t talk him out of going alone for all the obvious reasons—Bears! Lightning! Forest fires! So I said I’d drive and buy the food (he jumped at the prospect of saving money), and because my 80-something-year-old dad loves camping in general and Colorado in particular, I asked him to come along.

I knew the trip would give the three of us valuable time together, allow us to experience the stunning peaks and valleys of Colorado in our own individual ways, and provide Matthias with memories he could cherish for a lifetime if he didn’t fall off that cliff. What I didn’t expect was that our eight days together would bring to light so many similarities among us—our love of nature, the desire to ferret out the absolute best camping site, and the innate drive to strike out on our own. More importantly, the journey carried me to the realization that this stage of my life was about letting go—to support my son’s three-day hike as a coming-of-age experience and, in a broader sense, as a launch into manhood. I also had to acknowledge that because Dad can’t get around as well as he used to, this could possibly be our last Colorado camping trip together and might even be a harbinger of more losses to come. This unspoken recognition made for some teary-eyed moments for me and made our vacation all the more meaningful.

Matthias, Dad and I at our Poudre Canyon campsite

Matthias, Dad and I at our Poudre Canyon campsite

One morning I awoke to find my dad already settled in his chair (to be truthful, he was always up and about before me). “This is my favorite time of day,” he remarked. “It’s lovely. I like to drink coffee, sit and ruminate.” I stole a look at the clock. It was 6:30am. But I knew what he meant. As the sun dappled through slender trees that swayed and rustled with the wind, it struck me that what I love most about camping is being outdoors virtually all day long, being in synch with the sun and the stars and the weather, and living without distractions that devour a big part of our daily lives. We had an easy rhythm, getting up when we wanted, Matthias in charge of campfires, everyone agreeing meals would taste better if I cooked, Dad content to stick around the campsite and “man the fort” whenever the rest of us took off. Dad, who had spent five years of his childhood in Colorado, talked nostalgically about Sunday drives, a summer camp where he learned to ride horses and the cabin his family rented on Grand Lake. And at night we’d look up at the stars and Milky Way, trying to figure out constellations, feeling small and insignificant in the magnitude of the universe.

When it came time for Matthias to set off on his trek, I accompanied him for a while, my heart in my throat when I took a last photo of my son and sent him on his way.

Matthias starting out on his trek

Matthias starting out on his trek

“Mom, I’m just happier in nature when nobody else is there,” Matthias had explained when arguing his reasons for a solo trek. I have to admit I understood, because I too have become almost giddy on day hikes by myself, reaching a spiritual high from the sheer joy of being alone in the woods. We probably get it from my dad, because he has long gone off on camping trips by himself. Although he used to take off for Colorado annually, he has stuck closer to home the past few years. The family worries, of course, that he might fall where no one might see him, and darn if we’ll ever get him to use a cell phone.

So when it came time to head home from our vacation, it probably shouldn’t have surprised me when Dad said he was staying behind to revisit some of his favorite camping spots (we had driven separate cars, because his van is rigged for travel, with the back seats removed and replaced with a bed he built himself). I was concerned, because over the course of the week I’d observed how less steady he’s become on his feet, the result of arthritis and a severed ACL since college that has increasingly taken its toll. And based on what I now knew, he was going to camp as far away from others as possible. But I respected his desire to stay behind, and after a week together I understood why he had to go solo, why, as Matthias put it, he was happiest in nature when no one else was around. I wondered whether Dad thought of this as his farewell trip, too, one last chance to revisit old haunts and, as he likes to say, to ruminate.

But all went well, and now Dad is talking about returning to Colorado. Regardless of what happens, that trip with my dad and son helped me work through some of the mourning stages of letting go. Matthias proved himself a competent young man, ready to forge his own place in the world. And with my parents, I’ll try to make the most of whatever time we have, with an appreciation for every day we get to spend with the people we love.

But letting go doesn’t mean giving up memories. In fact, it might be the memories that help us let go.

“I love the mountains so much, it makes me feel tingly all over,” Dad had said on our first day in the Rockies.

Many years ago he told me he’d like his ashes scattered in Colorado, including that campground at Half Moon. And when I carry out his wishes, calling on the healing power of nature, those are the words I’ll remember.

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Spain Leaves its Mark at St. Augustine

Castillo de San Marcos fort in St. Augustine

Castillo de San Marcos fort in St. Augustine

When I was a young kid growing up in Bradenton FL, one of the most exciting annual events was a parade honoring Hernando de Soto, who’d landed in the area in 1539. I didn’t care about that, of course. For me, it was the men dressed up as Spanish conquistadores who tossed coin-shaped chocolates wrapped in gold foil to families lined up along the road. We then moved to Tallahassee, where, like all fourth graders across the country, I learned about state history. One of my favorite stories was of Ponce de León, said to have come to Florida in search of the fountain of youth. But although he didn’t find it (and may not have even been looking for it), I was proud of the fact that if it indeed existed, it might be in my own home state. I remember thinking, “Maybe I can find it!”

Of course, the Spanish legacy in Florida is more enduring than parades and childhood fantasies, none more so than St. Augustine, which claims to be the oldest city in the US. Although Ponce de León claimed La Florida for Spain after his arrival in 1513 in hopes that the region might contain some of the riches found in Spain’s other American colonies, Florida turned out to have none of those. It did, however, offer a strategic location for Spanish ships plying the waters between the Americas and Europe.

dscn1204The town of St. Augustine was founded in 1565, 42 years before the English colony at Jamestown VA and 53 years before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. The Spaniards were hopeful that St. Augustine could serve as a potential outpost for turning a profit in agriculture, fisheries, naval stores and ship building. For protection against British colonies, St. Augustine’s Castillo de San Marcos was built in the 1670s and today is the oldest masonry and only extant 17th-century fort in North America. It was constructed of a porous limestone called coquina, which turned out to be the perfect choice for cannon warfare because rather than shattering, the coquina walls absorbed cannonballs, kind of like a bb gun’s bullets might be swallowed by thick Styrofoam. Spain ruled over Florida from 1565 to 1821, except for 20 years (1763-1784) when the British flag flew over the region. In 1821, Florida was purchased by the United States.

In addition to the fort, St. Augustine has another long-time attraction, Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, which recreates the settlement founded by Pedro Menendez de Aviles in 1565. There’s even a fresh-water spring here, said to have quenched Ponce de León’s thirst. Tourists have been visiting the spring since 1868, drinking its waters in hope of eternal youth. If you want, you can even buy a bottle of the spring water with “Fountain of Youth” written on it. I’m not sure whether it works, but it’s possible both of my Floridian grandmothers could have visited what is touted as Florida’s oldest tourist attraction. One lived to 97 and the other to 99. On the other hand, Ponce de León made it only to 47. Sadly, Florida’s natural springs are under siege, with pollution, increased population and rising sea levels all playing a part in their demise. Hope may spring eternal, but the Fountain of Youth’s days may be numbered.

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Mesa Verde Vertigo

DSCN0009I’m sure Star Trek fans would choose differently, but if I had a time machine I would go back in time rather than leap forward into the future. Perhaps it’s because my imagination is limited by what I can imagine. And when I see an ancient place, or even just an abandoned farmhouse, I can’t help but wonder about the people who lived there, their dreams and their disappointments and what for them constituted daily life.

And so I wonder about the Ancestral Pueblo natives who inhabited what we now call Mesa Verde (“Green Table” in Spanish), constructing elaborate stone communities and cliff dwellings in the sheltered outcroppings of canyon walls. A national park and World Heritage Site, it’s a powerful reminder of a people who called this area home from about about 600 to 1300 AD. Some of the cliff dwellings are precariously situated; many require athleticism just to reach. It wasn’t unusual for several generations to live together. Excavations reveal much about what they ate, what they made, what they may have traded with other people. But much about them remains a mystery.

DSCN0004No one knows, for example, exactly why they left, whether it was drought, war, famine or simply the human desire to pick up and move on. But having lived here for some 700 years, the Ancestral Pueblo people must have felt the close presence of past generations who had come before, wondering too, perhaps, about their lives, dreams and disappointments.

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Florida History Museum in Need of an Update

IMG_1214I enjoy visiting history museums because I like history and I find it a relatively painless way to learn about the past and how it influences today. So it was a given that I would stop by the Museum of Florida History during a long weekend in Tallahassee, especially because I’d spent much of my childhood living in Florida, including fourth grade, when students learn about their state’s history.

So I was looking forward to a refresher course on some of the things I’d learned as a child or remembered–Ponce de Leon and his search for the Fountain of Youth, Seminole Indians and the Trail of Tears, oranges, the Everglades, 1950s tourism, the beaches and Florida’s phenomenal growth throughout the 1900s that brought Northerners, including my parents’ families, to the Sunshine State.

What I found was a museum that concentrated largely on the Spanish presence in the region, admittedly a long time, from 1513 when Ponce de Leon claimed it for Spain to 1763 and again from 1783 to 1821, due mostly to Florida’s location as a safeguard for ships sailing between Central and South America and Spain. St. Augustine, of course, is Florida’s most obvious relic from those times, constructed as a military town to protect Spain’s fleet carrying mostly silver.

A Tin Can Camper, popular among tourists in the early 1900s

A Tin Can Camper, popular among tourists in the early 1900s

I also learned about the mastodons and other big mammals that died out or were hunted to extinction, about the estimated 350,000 to one million Native Americans who were living here when Ponce de Leon arrived but whose numbers dwindled due to hostilities, disease brought by settlers and captivity as slaves. The museum chronicles Florida’s Confederate role during the Civil War, its rise as the world’s largest producer of citrus, and the waves of tourists following the construction of roads and the completion of Henry Flagler’s railway all the way to Key West in 1912. I also enjoyed the display case of tourist souvenirs from the early 1900s.

But it wasn’t so much what was in the museum as what was conspicuously missing. The museum ends shortly after World War II, thereby missing out on more 70 years of recent history. While there were mentions of the forced removal of the Seminoles, there was no mention of the heartbreaking Trail of Tears. The Everglades, quite possibly Florida’s most impressive physical sight, doesn’t merit more than a passing comment. Neither does Florida’s beaches, its cities like Miami and Orlando, or its nearly 500 native species, such as gators, manatees or the Florida panther.

And the museum certainly doesn’t talk about climate change and how that might affect what is already a water-logged state. Maybe that’s due to Florida’s governor, Rick Scott, who, according to this article in the New Yorker, forbade state workers to discuss climate change or even use those words. Leonard Pitts, a columnist for the Miami Herald, wrote an open letter to Scott on March 15, 2016, about a study that projects as many as 13 million Americans, nearly half of them living in Florida, will be forced to flee or deal with seawater floods by 2100.

So it was with interest that I noticed a map in the Museum of Florida History showing the state’s landmass as it stands today, compared to how it looked more than 12,000 years ago. Back then, the sea level was more than 100 feet lower due to the last Ice Age, making Florida almost twice as large as it is now.

No doubt that map will eventually have to be revised, showing a shrinking shoreline no matter what you call it, at which time it might also be a good idea to bring Florida’s history museum into the 21st century.

 

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Austin Texas–Then and Now

The Texas State Capitol is taller than the US Capitol in Washington, D.C.Except, perhaps, for the newcomers who have just arrived (give them a year), everyone in Austin complains about how fast and how much the city is growing. That’s not a new phenomenon, however, as I’m reminded by an article I wrote about Austin that was published in the Chicago Tribune (Jan. 9, 1983), Miami Herald (Oct. 30, 1983) and Los Angeles Times (January 22, 1984).

Here’s a link to the Chicago Tribune archives for my “Laid-back Austin occupies a special place deep in the heart of hearts of Texans.”  When I wrote it, 357,200 people lived in Austin. Now there are an estimated 843,000; it’s reportedly the fastest-growing large city in the U.S.

Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum

Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum

Having seen many of Austin’s sights on previous trips, on a recent visit I decided to spend an afternoon at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum to learn more about Texas then and now (actually, I knew almost nothing). The first thing I learned is that Texas wants us to pay for our knowledge–$12 for an adult interested in Texas history, compared with $7 for the Oklahoma History Center, $8 for the Kansas Museum of History and free admission to the Missouri History Museum.

In my three hours at the museum, I also learned that newcomers have been pouring into Texas a lot longer than it’s been a state, much to the chagrin of the people who came before them. Native Americans, of course, were the first, followed by the French and Spanish.

But it was after 1821, when Mexico won its independence from Spain and included

The Texas history museum has three floors of displays

The Texas history museum has three floors of displays

Texas as part of its new country, that the population really took off. In a move Mexico surely later regretted, it allowed U.S. colonists to settle in Texas, where they were given land for ranging and farming. Already by the late 1820s Anglo immigrants in Texas outnumbered Mexicans and residents of Spanish descent. By 1835, there were 30,000 Anglo Americans here, 3,500 Tejanos (who had lived here more than a century), about 14,000 Indians and 5,000 African slaves. So although the majority Anglos were either invited here or living illegally, they chafed under their Mexican hosts and fought for independence in the Texas Revolution (1935-1936), after which the Republic of Texas flew its own flag, drafted its own constitution and grew by leaps and bounds.

Texas became the 28th state in 1845 and by 1847 it had a population of 142,000. But astonishingly, by 1860 the population had swelled to 600,000, mostly because of the cotton industry fueled by slavery. So it’s no surprise that Texas, which produced more cotton than any other state, joined the Confederate States of America. After the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan found a tremendous following in Texas, gaining a majority in the Texas House of Representatives after the 1922 elections and controlling many city governments (Dallas alone had 13,000 members). To the museum’s credit, it doesn’t gloss over the state’s unsavory past.

Other major events in Texas history include the cattle drives from 1866 to 1890 and that biggest one of all–the discovery of oil at the turn of the 20th century and the explosion of boom towns (Beaumont alone grew from 9,000 residents in January 1901 to 30,000 by March that same year).

But best of all, naturally, is awesome Austin City Limits, which opened in 1974 and is the longest-running music program in TV history. A small theater shows highlights. I felt like I was seeing my life flash before my eyes as I watched Willie Nelson (who starred in the 1974 pilot show), Tom Waits, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, Foo Fighters and the many other musicians who have provided music to my personal melodramas over the decades.

IMG_1195Back in 1983, I began my story with a scene from the Texas Chili Parlor (“Woe to the preppie who should mistakenly wander into this Texas saloon”), and I’m happy to report that although much has changed in Austin, that establishment is as casual and laid-back as ever. In fact, I would list food as one of the main draws for newcomers relocating to the capital. Time was short, but in addition to the Texas Chili Parlor, my travel companion and I had gut-busting Mexican fare at Polvos, split lasagna and a bottle of red wine at classy Vespaio’s, enjoyed burgers and creek views at Ino’z Brew and Chew in Wimberley, and ate what’s probably the best ribs I’ve ever had at Smitty’s Market in Lockhart.

In any case, this is how I ended my article all those years ago:

“Austin is the only place in Texas,”  said one man who sat in front of his homemade cabin, pulling absent-mindedly at his long beard.

I waited patiently for him to continue, but he didn’t. As far as he was concerned, that was all that needed to be said.

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Smitty’s Market

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Riding the Amtrak Rails

The observation car on the Southwest Chief

The observation car on the Southwest Chief

I’ve ridden trains around the world–Europe on a rail pass too many times to count (especially while working on Frommer’s Europe by Train), Shinkansen bullet and commuter trains throughout Japan, in India through the desert to Jaisalmer, on old-fashioned steam-engine trains in Switzerland and Japan, and many other trips–but I recently took my very first long-distance train ride in my own country. I don’t know why it took me so long.

I boarded the Southwest Chief in my hometown of Lawrence KS for the nine-hour trip to Chicago for a family reunion. The

One of many small-town stations on the way

One of many small-town stations on the way

train was more than two hours late, which would cause apoplectic fits in Japan and Germany. But the good thing is that I could follow the actual status of my train on a mobile app, which meant I could enjoy another cup of coffee from the comfort of my home instead of waiting fitfully at the station before dawn.

Although there are assigned seats, I spent almost the entire day in the light-filled observation car, where large windows provided panoramic views of Midwestern fields and tidy small towns, many with diminutive  and quaint depots. One of the best things about traveling by train is the mobility it provides, especially if you’re traveling with a group. I played Yahtzee with my nieces at one of the tables in the observation car, shared a lunch with my mother at our seats, and visited with my cousin, who had boarded the same train in Flagstaff and had reserved her own sleeper compartment.

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My mother and nieces

A highlight was the dining car, where we had the choice of everything from steak and salmon to chicken and pasta. Diners are assigned tables with strangers, which makes for an enjoyable way to pass the time, especially for solo travelers.

What surprised me was how crowded the train was, filled with students traveling between their hometown and university, grandparents on their way to visit family, and a variety of people who find trains the most effective and economical way to travel in the U.S. And of course there are train fanatics, those who ride trains just for the love of it. One of those self-professed fanatics is Allan Labrozzi, whom I met on Southwest Chief traveling with his wife. Since taking his first train trip in 1975, followed a few years later traveling with an Amtrak rail pass, Labrozzi takes multiple trips every year, meticulously keeping track of each journey in notebook after notebook.

“No two trips are alike,” he told me. “Traveling by train allows you to relax and get away from the stress of life, and there’s always something to see. But the real plus are the people you meet. Everyone has a story. And the memories stay with you.”

Allan Labrozzi enjoying the observation car

Allan Labrozzi enjoying the observation car

There are numerous train trips Labrozzi recommends for the novice or for international travelers wishing to see North America, including runs between Schenectady and Montreal, Seattle and Los Angeles, the California Zephyr between San Francisco and Chicago and the four-night Toronto-Vancouver trip on Rail Canada.

Though we can’t compete with the extensive train networks of other countries, there are many more lines than I’d imagined, and now I’m interested in exploring more of them. Traveling by train is also inexpensive ($112 round trip between Lawrence and Chicago), with discounts given to seniors, children, students, military personnel, veterans and AAA members. For people with time, a USA Rail Pass is available for 15, 30 or 45 days.

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My cousin in her private sleeper

Although there are many freight trains that rumble through Kansas, my international friends are amused to hear that only two passenger trains stop daily in my hometown, one going east and the other going west.

One of the most long-lasting affects of taking the Southwest Chief is that I now hear the whistles of trains passing through, something I had grown too used to since childhood. If I happen to be awake early in the morning (5:47am if it happens to be on time), I listen for the Chief’s plaintive short and long whistles as it comes into town and approaches the station. Pausing just one minute to unload and board passengers, it’s whistle sounds again as it continues on its journey, first loud, then dimmer, dim and gone.

The dining car

The dining car

 

 

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Oklahoma is Oil Country

It’s easy to rave against oil in today’s world–it pollutes, our dependency on it keeps us from developing more environmentally friendly resources, etc.–but the simple fact is that we largely depend on it. While I am hopeful that we can eventually be weaned off oil, it’s useful to remember how it was in the beginning, long before we knew what we know now. It is, after all, a part of our history.

The story of oil in Oklahoma is a good place to start, for it was oil that literally put the region on the map and helped gain OK its statehood. This article I wrote, The Oil Legacy: Oklahoma’s Oil History and Wealth,  for www.gonomad.com is about the northeastern region of the state, where two big names in oil–Frank Phillips and E.W. Marland–struck it rich and built unimaginably huge empires. But as the article shows, success stories don’t always end in happiness.

 

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Rocheport a 1950 Times Capsule

Rocheport's one-block downtown

Rocheport’s one-block downtown

It was 10 years ago that I first visited Rocheport, a sleepy town on the Missouri River. I was astounded to find myself transported to the days of my childhood, with Rocheport a 1950s time capsule. As I walked Rocheport’s wide and mostly deserted streets lined with modest clapboard homes, images of carefree summer days floated up from the murky depths of my memory, calling forth summers filled with kickball, bike rides, novels and lemonade on the front porch. I was entirely smitten.

I recently returned for a third visit, for yet another weekend getaway. With relief IIMG_5188 noticed that Rocheport looked much the same as I remembered it, with a one-block commercial street offering a post office and a handful of businesses ranging from restaurants to antique shops. Scattered in the town of 240 residents are also galleries and about a half-dozen B&Bs and other lodgings. Since my last visit more homes were renovated and spruced up, with flower gardens gracing many front yards. Conspicuously absent from Rocheport, however, are gas stations, grocery stores, convenience stores, or any other businesses integral to most communities. For baby boomers, visiting Rocheport is like walking onto the set of Mayberry, the fictional town of The Andy Griffith Show. Only cars give clue that this is the 21st century.

Katy Trail

Katy Trail

Most visitors come to Rocheport because of the excellent Katy Trail, the longest developed rail-to-trail pathway in the country, which passes right beside the town as it winds its way 264 miles across Missouri. Most cyclists are on a day’s outing–you can rent bicycles in Rocheport and other places along the trail–but there are also those traversing the entire length. I’ve cycled only portions of the Katy Trail, but the limestone bluffs and wide Missouri River just outside Rocheport must account for one of its most impressive segments.

It’s obvious the Katy Trail has had a positive economic impact on Rocheport, but equally obvious is that Rocheport, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, must have strict zoning laws to keep it looking like the time capsule it seems. But what is it like to live here, with no place to shop for necessities? And how has the town changed over the years?

“Oh, no, I just work here,” answered an elderly clerk in an antique shop when I asked whether she had grown up in Rocheport. “I live in Columbia.”

Turns out, most people I met working or owning shops in Rocheport seem to live elsewhere, mostly Columbia, a university town about 15 miles away. And conversely, many Rocheport residents commute to Columbia to work. In other words, Rocheport has become a bedroom community, though retirees are also finding it an attractive place to settle down.

IMG_5088

View from Bourgeois Vineyards A-Frame

Curtis Bourgeois moved to the riverside bluffs outside Rocheport as a child in the early 1970s, when his parents bought a rustic A-frame without electricity or running water and started making wine. Through the years, Les Bourgeois Vineyards has expanded into Missouri’s third-largest winery, with a bistro overlooking the river and a tasting room just off I-70. The A-frame now offers snacks, wine and outdoor seating.

“When we moved here, this was way off the map,” Bourgeois said. “Rocheport had lots of trailers and was run down.”

Although he agrees Rocheport has changed for the better, he’s also disappointed that the town has become a bedroom community for Columbia. And because Rocheport is hemmed in on three sides–by the river, a creek and bluffs—it’s confined to a peninsula-like space.

“There’s no place to expand, so real estate has become more valuable,” Bourgeois said, adding that he’s disappointed Rocheport hasn’t developed more retail. Yet with high property prices and limited housing stock, young entrepreneurs find it difficult to live here.

To learn about Rocheport’s history, I dropped by the small Friends of Rocheport Historical Museum, manned that day by volunteer Sherry Moreau, who grew up in Rocheport and now lives in Columbia, though her parents still live here. First settled in the 1820s, Rocheport thrived as a river town. By 1835 it had eight stores, a steam mill, brickyards and other businesses, and by 1870, it had about 800 residents. But the coming of the railway was the beginning of the end for Rocheport.

“When the steamboats were here, Rocheport was thriving,” Moreau explained. “But the trains reduced the boats and cut jobs. I-70 was the killer.”

Not only did Interstate 70, completed in the 1960s, bypass the town, it also cut down onIMG_5206 the number of trains passing through. After floods damaged tracks in 1986, the route was abandoned. That turned out to be ultimately good news for Rocheport, with the Katy Trail opening in 1996. But the town’s subsequent gentrification has brought mixed feelings.

“Kids can get part-time jobs,” Moreau conceded, noting an improvement from when she attended elementary school in Rocheport, now the Schoolhouse B&B, and there wasn’t much for young people to do. “Older people are not so happy. It’s frightening to see changes.”

The former elementary school is now a bed-and-breakfast

The former elementary school is now a bed-and-breakfast

My own opinion is that the older we get, the more change we see–and we almost never think it’s for the better. Now when I think about Rocheport, I no longer see a rosy picture of a town that miraculously survived intact from my childhood, guided by locals who grew up here with a fierce pride for preservation of their hometown. But like most things, it’s complicated. Rocheport’s newcomers chose restoration over dilapidation, gentrification over low-income living. Although that choice is why I came here, it’s also why children growing up here might someday have to leave.

“In all the places I’ve been, I never felt it was like home,” said William J. Williams, a sculptor who moved to Rocheport in 1992. “This feels like home.”

An old house awaits renovation 10 years ago

On my first visit 10 years ago, this house awaited renovation

 

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