Friday, October 30, 2009

Niagara Falls

Notes from Margo:

When we first started making a list of the must-see people and places for our Victory Lap, Niagara Falls pretty much topped my list. I’ve wanted to see it for most of my life, and just never made it happen. So I knew there was a good chance that I’d be disappointed when I finally saw it – just because of its reputation, the build-up, the anticipation.

Didn’t happen that way. The falls are spectacular, completely deserving of their iconic place in the list of American and Canadian scenic wonders.

Our visit didn’t start out so great. Once again we ended up driving after dark, so I was driving and Lynn was navigating. Lynn’s night vision is not particularly good, especially if he’s tired or if it’s raining, so I’m the night driver on our crew. Lynn is, to stay within polite discourse, a careless navigator. So, as expected, we got off course and ended up on the American side of the falls, not the Canadian side that had been our goal. It was dark and late, and we were tired and not exactly sure where we were. We found a motel and sacked out for the night.

In the morning, following the motel clerk’s directions, we rolled through Niagara Falls, New York: down about three miles of dull, ugly, industrial zoning and then strip zoning and then just plain tired-and-ugly zoning. We were thinking that if your city contains one of the world’s great scenic wonders, you don’t have to try very hard. The city was pretty drab until the edge of the Niagara River, where we entered a lovely, narrow park now in just-past-prime fall foliage, still very beautiful. We walked across a bridge over wild, churning waters a few hundred feet above the American Falls. (We couldn’t see the waterfall, except for a bit of mist). I don’t know why I thought the river would be quiet and tranquil just above the huge drop-off, but I was surprised by the tumult.

We walked downriver a quarter-mile or so and then had a spectacular view from Luna Island of the most amazing falls ever. Whew!! If I looked over at the edge, where the water hurls itself into the abyss, I got dizzy right away. Lynn said it was the sound of the jet engines when you’re on a long plane ride. The roar is deafening, but it almost immediately becomes background noise. Drops of water are cold and misty on your skin. And the falls take up your whole visual field. So the experience is visual, aural, tactile and visceral.

We were Niagara-saturated already when we drove to the Canadian side, where we had intended to be anyway. Well! That was really something!! Way bigger, even louder and generating even more thick mist than the American side. The iconic photo that we’ve all seen a thousand times is in Canada, called the Horseshoe Falls, about three times as wide as the American Falls. We walked along part of the mile-long walkway. If it had directions, they would be: “Take your time. There’s an incredible view of both the American and Canadian falls from anywhere along here, and it’s way better than any view from the American side. So walk as far as you like, get as wet as you want, and then turn back. Enjoy.” So we did.

Notable: Some maple leaves from trees below the Canadian walkway fell up, not down. The draft from the falls across the river was strong enough that the multi-colored leaves drifted up over the walkway and then down on us. Unexpected and charming.

Also notable: Lots of gulls flew around the falls, but my favorite bird sighting was a pair of mallards, male and female, paddling hard against the current at the top of the American Falls, dunking their heads for food. I said to Lynn: “They really should find a safer place to feed.” And he looks at me like I’m crazy, and says, “Honey, they can fly.” Oh. Yeah.

Also also notable: We saw a black squirrel. Very cute. That’s a new one for me.

Notes from Lynn:

As we motored through Niagara Falls (U.S.), we saw the honeymoon city of the past is now a municipal version of the portrait of Dorian Gray: Wrinkled, blowsy and disheveled by civic dissipation. When we crossed over to Niagara Falls (Canada), the promenade along the river suggested a tidy little city adorned with flowers, dull but nice. Then I steered the Guppy away from the river and up the street into what a sign called Clifton Hill, a tourist district.

Margo screamed with laughter.

We saw a street transformed into something like a nine-ring circus with a dozen sideshows, each with enormous marquees and neon promises of great adventure. In three short blocks and a couple of side streets, dinosaurs compete for attention with the Great Canadian Midway and a score of other clamoring attractions that would have impressed the hell out of P.T.Barnum. King Kong roars on the Empire State Building, which is on its side, a colossal advertisement for Ripley’s Believe It or Not (700 bizarre exhibits!) … A ghoul carries a smirking witch from the portcullis of the Haunted House (“a skeleton in every closet!”) … Albert Einstein and Marilyn Monroe, Lucy and Desi, Dorothy and Batman await tourists at Louis Tussard’s Waxworks.

Looming over Clifton Hill is the Niagara SkyWheel, a 175-foot ferris wheel with dozens of bubble-shaped, fully enclosed, climate-controlled gondolas so that tourists can view from 175 feet the vistas of the two great waterfalls that everyone else sees for free.

So much for the image of tidy, dull Canada. Somehow the drab indifference of Niagara Falls (U.S.) is preferable to the gaudy carnival of Niagara Falls (Canada). Margo disagrees. She has a soft spot for the visual chaos and excesses of Clifton Hill. But, as we left, she said: “I’ll never criticize Fishermans Wharf again.”

Notable: Seeking carnival-free entertainment, we visited the Lundy's Lane Historical Museum, in honor of our dear friends, the Gold family, who live on Lundys Lane in San Francisco's Bernal Hill. There we learned more than anyone needs to know about the 1814 battle of Lundy's Lane, which holds the distinction of being the bloodiest battle of the War of 1812 in which no ground was gained or lost, about 800 soldiers on each side were killed, and neither side really won or lost. Canadians consider it a great victory.

Mileage from Niagara Falls, New York, to Lockport: 35 (by way of Lake Ontario)

Total mileage so far: 6,552

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Carmel of Lake Michigan

Notes from Lynn:

When I knew him in Illinois many years ago, young Art Lane was a mild-mannered newspaperman given to understatement and laughter. He never struck me as a serious art lover, zealous historian, talented harmony singer or the future editor, publisher and co-owner of a weekly newspaper in one of the most attractive towns in the Midwest. He was a dedicated bachelor. And he looked like a typical copy editor – far more comfortable wielding a No. 2 pencil than, say, a golf club.

I was wrong on every count.

When we visited my old friend the other day in Saugatuck, western Michigan’s answer to Carmel, Art was preparing a talk for the local historical society: “Golf and Other Passions – The History of Golf in Saugatuck.”

It had been more than half a century since we worked together at the late, very lamented Champaign-Urbana Courier, but the news and gossip could wait. He took us on a guided tour of his personal art gallery. The walls of his home are covered with paintings, watercolors and line drawings, mostly by local artists, and each with a vision of Art’s adopted town.

He’s been busy, he said, with the Barbershop Harmony Society (it’s still the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America). He was honored by the society in 1999 with an international award for his public relations work, and he sings bass at least once a week to practice with a 35-man chorus for competitions and local performances. Who knew?

Art’s days of singlehood ended when he left the Courier for Carbondale in the 1960s to become news editor at another daily in the Lindsey-Schaub chain, the Southern Illinoisian. There he met and fell in love with one of the writers, a refugee (like him) from the Detroit area.

For Art and Kit Lane, the happy results included a family of four sons and a risky decision to leave the paycheck life and become their own bosses. They managed to buy the Commercial Record, a weekly newspaper since 1869 for Saugatuck and its next-door neighbor, Douglas. Although the year-round population of the two villages and the nearby countryside is only about 5,000, the number is multiplied in summertime by thousands of tourists and vacationers. Art and Kit pasted up the weekly themselves and instituted something new – regular coverage of local government sessions. In the meantime, Kit wrote and published more than a dozen books of local and regional history. (We missed seeing her by a day as she winged her way back from a birdwatching trip in Brazil.)

The newspaper prospered over the next three decades until Art and Kit decided to sell to Kaechele Publications, leave the news to somebody else and work on their own projects in their home next to the local golf course. From time to time, Art drives down to Champaign-Urbana for reunions with that dwindling group of newspapermen from that magic era of the Courier’s face-to-face competition with the News-Gazette. They gather to tell stories about their late editor, the unforgettable Robert W. Sink Jr. Included are Bob Gold, Stan Slusher, George Wilhite and Bob and Jeannine Schaub (A report on our visit with the Schaubs in Boone, Iowa, is in the blog entry “Brownville”.)

For Art, it’s back to Saugatuck and a round of golf, a new arrangement for a song in four-part harmony, another exploration into the resort town’s history, more searches for art work and continuous proof that assumptions can be dead wrong.

Postscript: Art is still given to understatement and laughter, lots of it.

Notable: We had heard all our lives about the beauty of autumn leaves in New England and the Midwest, but nothing prepared me for the foliage fireworks of dark crimson, bright scarlet, burnt orange and yellow hues of impossible brilliance. Just as the flames of a campfire can’t be described, I can’t find the right words for the explosions of color that turned our October highways into a kaleidoscope of burning embers. I would like to say that such-and-such a roadside grove is painted in, say, old gold. But I have never seen old gold. If I did, I would say that it looks like a Michigan maple tree in October.

Mileage from Oberlin, Ohio, to Niagara Falls, New York: 247 miles

Total mileage so far: 6,517

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Oberlin and Ishpeming

Notes from Margo:

A bit of a time warp for me, visiting Kenny in Oberlin. She’s the student now, and seems to be having something of the same intellectual experience that I had here 30 years ago. She felt over her head at first, now she’s starting to get her land legs, seeing a huge world of knowledge and thinking opening up for her. She’s very happy with her roommate, her friends, her classes. Could it better? Maybe not.

In fact, as Lynn pointed out when we took Kenny and three friends out to dinner, there didn’t seem to be one whiner or griper in the place. All of them are thrilled to be here, loving their classes, happy with their teachers, just happy all around. If Lynn was looking for teenage angst, he wasn’t finding it here.

This is Lynn’s first look at Oberlin, and what a good job the college is doing on making a good first impression! Our first day was a magical fall day, warm, sunny, trees in full fall foliage, with leaves drifting down in all their brilliant colors. Groups of kids were studying in the sunlight out in the Wilder Bowl quad. The cross-country team ran past us on a workout. A little band of student musicians was jamming under a tree in a corner of one of the quads. The students were out in force, studying, enjoying the good weather. We dropped in on Tom Van Nortwick, who was my Latin professor when I was here, and we had a congenial talk ranging from reading Harry Potter in Latin and Greek to the Battle of the Big Hole. So Lynn got to see why we all love our Oberlin teachers.

It didn’t hurt any that when we drove into town, it was about 30 degrees warmer than it had been two days before on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The snow and scary driving conditions were gone. The sun was out and the skies were clear. We had rolled across three states, from Western Michigan to eastern Ohio on the Interstate – our first real sustained stretch on an Interstate in the whole trip. It was fine for what it was: We needed to cover some mileage fast. But it was pretty dull, except for a whole charter bus full of Amish people stopped at one of the “travel plazas.” Men, women and children were clustered at the tables outside McDonald’s, eating out of straw picnic baskets. The mothers of babies were in the modern tiled restrooms, changing cloth diapers on babies in old-fashioned plain blue woolen dresses. Even the small children looked terribly serious and 19th century in their black suits and long dresses. To me, it was a visual oxymoron to see them gathered under the red and yellow neon McDonald’s sign.

Arriving in Oberlin was just what you’d think: Cue the soundtrack for the joyful reunions with Kenny and Anabel, her dear friend and ours. We found Kenny at the school where she tutors second-grade kids. We waited outside till she was done, and surprised her at the door. Man! Some good hugs!

We’re staying with Maryann and Clyde Hohn. Anabel’s mom, Katherine, and I stayed with them during new student orientation in September. They live in a 100-year-old rambling frame house with a wrap-around porch. Maryann and Clyde were high-powered folks in Los Angeles who decided to leave the rat race. They sold out their life in L.A. and retired here about 17 years ago, at age 45 or so. Clyde helps in organizing the local bike club, and takes music lessons and plays bluegrass with friends. Maryann does wonderfully beautiful and original needlepoint projects (like the one above) and helps with an animal rescue organization. After Katherine and I stayed here during orientation, we told Lynn about Clyde’s music, and Lynn had asked to play some tunes with Clyde. So our second night here, Clyde invited over his friend Keith Tarven, a biology professor at the college who plays guitar and sings. Anabel, Kenny and Lynn sat in with them for a little evening musicale. Will Rubenstein, our dear friend who went to preschool with Kenny and Anabel, dropped by, and it felt like a Miraloma preschool reunion. Anabel sang the song she wrote about her father, Toshio. And Kenny sang the Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye, Earl.” If I were the sentimental type, I might have gotten all teary. Well, yeah. I got all teary.

It’s great to see Kenny, Anabel and Will so well settled here. They are working hard, loving it, growing fast.

Notable: I asked Kenny if there was anywhere she needed a ride to, since she doesn’t have access to a car. So Kenny, her roommate Britt, and I drove to the nearest Trader Joe’s, where we stocked up on food for their dorm room. The store is only about 25 miles away, but we got lost at least three times on the way there, and then again on the way back. So… Kenny has a skewed idea of how Lynn and I have navigated our way across the country. We’ve actually done pretty well, only gotten lost a few times. Really.

Notes from Lynn:

Fred Braastad, a vigorous Norwegian who liked to plan ahead, commissioned an impressive family monument for his family plot in the crowded cemetery in Ishpeming, Michigan. Big as a mining cart, it’s a three-tier cake of granite blocks. The top block is engraved with “Father 1847-1917”; the middle block, with the family surname (in Norski, Braastad sounds like “BROAstad,” but in the Upper Peninsula it morphed into “braysted” when people talked a century ago about his fabulous department store).

The monument is bracketed by two parallel rows of 11 headstones, each about a foot high. All but two bear names of some of Fred’s children, grandchildren and a couple of spouses. The exceptions are “Mother, 1855-1942,” and again, “Father, 1847-1917.”

Missing is my grandmother, Ida. I put my hand on the cold monument. I wanted to ask my great-grandfather why he disinherited his oldest child.

It’s what the late Norris Alfred called a Great Truth: By the time you come up with questions about family mysteries, nobody is left to supply the answers.

Fredrik Braastad grew up on a farm near the Norway village of Ringebo in the Guldbrandsdalen Valley near Lillehammer, where at age 16 he began to work for five years as a store clerk. He arrived in the U.S. in October 1868 and got a job as a laborer just as winter began in the Upper Peninsula’s booming iron mines. Wisely, he switched to clerking in a store in Negaunee. Four years later he moved next door to Ishpeming, then a growing city on a former cedar swamp covered with cartloads of rocks from a half-dozen mines. “Ishpeming followed the classic pattern of iron-range cities everywhere,” writes Stewart Holbrook in “Iron Brew.” “It budded and grew out of a hodgepodge of mine ‘locations.’ … For 40 years, this range of hills was the biggest producer of iron in this country.” The miners came from Cornwall, Finland, Italy, Sweden, Norway, Poland and almost everywhere but the U.S.

At 26, the clerk-turned-entrepreneur opened the doors for what would become F. Braastad & Co., Dealer in Dry Goods, Groceries, Crockery and General Merchandise. In 1880, he purchased the entire stock and fixtures of his rival. Within 10 years, his store was described as the most extensive in the U.P. He married a girl from Norway, Ingeborg Knutson, and in due course his family grew as fast as his businesses. A Democrat, he was elected to a term as Michigan's state treasurer in 1891. He organized a streetcar system for his adopted city. He was a key force behind the formation of an association to promote the Norway sports of ski jumping and cross-country skiing. It would become in 1904 the National Ski Association (he was the founding vice president). In the 1894 city directory, he is listed as proprietor of his mercantile store, as vice president-general manager of the Winthrop Mining Co. and as owner of Ames Mine (“Hematite Iron Ore of Superior Quality”). His big but not ostentatious five-bedroom home was built across Cleveland Avenue from his stores.

The only other Braastad in the directory is Ida, my grandmother, at the same address. Three years later, she was married to Ernest Talma Ludlow. He grew up in Benton Harbor, Mich., and is variously described as a salesman, a YMCA director, an organizer of service clubs like Rotary and the Lions, a would-be actor and, most significantly, as an employee of his father-in-law. Family photographs show the new grandfather with Ida’s little sons, including my father, John Ludlow.

As the 20th century began, F. Braastad & Co. changed from a small-town emporium into a glittering department store. In 1903, the Miners Journal published a breathless story about the demolition of the old buildings and construction of “a fine three-story block which will be a credit to the town and and a source of much pleasure to Mr. Braastad.” It would become a landmark with a clock tower jutting above the thick walls of pressed brick. The bells would ring every 15 minutes, audible reminders of the glories of merchandise on Cleveland Avenue. The store opened in November. More than 5,000 people came to gawk and shop. Each was handed a free carnation. It may have been the most satisfying moment in the career of Frederick Braastad (who had long since added an “e” to his name). He was 66. After that, things began to be less joyful. In Norwegian-speak, the operative phrase can stand for overwhelming dismay or "oh, my": “Uff da,” they mumble. “Uff da.”

One year later, the grand new store burned down. It was rebuilt and restocked in a year but at a heavy cost in money and hard work. A year later, Braastad persuaded his son, Arvid Conrad Braastad, to take over as general manager. What became of that we know not, but in 1906 the old man announced that all his holdings were for sale. The Miners Journal commented, “He has long worked in this city, has practically taken no vacation in 35 years and he feels he is entitled to a rest and the reward that such service should give.” He must have changed his mind, because a few years later he ordered carpenters to begin work on expansion of the department store to provide space for increasing business. He gave many an uplifting statement about the future prosperity of Ishpeming and the iron mines because, as he put it, “the country needs ore.”

At some point not recorded in the newspaper or ever explained by my father, Ida and
Ernest Ludlow left Ishpeming for Eugene, Oregon. They took the costly furniture, gold-trimmed dinner service and other wedding gifts, mostly gifts from her father. But something dreadful must have happened to sever the relationship between an independent-minded young woman and an Old World father accustomed to obedience. She was disinherited.

Did his son-in-law (my grandfather) try to take over the family business? Worse, did he NOT try? Did his wife (my grandmother) have such a showdown with her father that she forced her husband to leave? I guess we’ll never know. (For the story of our search for her home in McKenzie Bridge, Oregon, see the blog entry, “Roadside Attractions,” from September.)

In the meantime, the iron mines began to play out. Ishpeming’s population dropped dramatically from a high of 13,255 in 1900. (It was 9,238 in 1930 and 6,700 in 2000.)
Then came the chains. The Woolworth company opened a branch store in 1915. J.C.Penney arrived in 1917.

By then, the Braastad family had begun to scatter. The children gathered again when Fred Braastad died in 1917. Ida didn’t come to the funeral. F. Braastad & Co. closed its doors two years later.

H.W. Gossard Co. took over the building in 1920 as a factory for women’s intimate apparel. It pulled out in the 1970s. The clock tower was torn down in 1959. A developer renovated much of the building in 1986 and named it Pioneer Square, but the few tenants today include a company that makes bows and arrows, a travel agency, a typing service and a preschool called “Mini Miracles.” The only evidence of 1903 affluence are the stamped-metal ceilings now covered with a burgundy paint job.

Ishpeming isn’t close yet to ghost-town status, but the movie theater is for sale and many a downtown shop is vacant. The only flourishing retail businesses seem to be thrift stores, and one of them is on the ground floor of what was once Fred Braastad’s proudest achievement – his three-story department store.

Across the street is the old Braastad home, built in 1900 and preserved for generations by family members. Now it’s for sale. Five bedrooms, 5,300 square feet, two fireplaces, good condition: $99,500.

At the Ishpeming Carnegie Public Library, front desk librarian Cindy Mack helpfully went into the basement archives to come up with city directories, local histories and squibs from the Mining Journal that somebody had typed and pasted into folders. When asked about my distinguished pioneer great-grandfather, she said, “Braysted? Sorry. Never heard of him.”

Uff da.

Notable: San Franciscans who think they’ve seen everything should visit the Ishpeming restaurant where we had a light lunch. “Don’t look now,” I warned Margo, “but in the corner you’ll see something you won’t see in Frisco.” It was true. Two women in a booth were smoking cigarettes. When we asked about it, the waitress said, “It’s discretionary.” … Another memorable name for a tavern: Tee Pee Bar (“We bring you happiness”).

Mileage from St. Ignace, Michigan, to Saugatuck: 281

From Saugatuck to Oberlin, Ohio: 302

Total mileage so far: 6,270

Monday, October 26, 2009

Appleton and Big Mileage Days

Notes from Margo:

In Appleton, Wisconsin, we sat down for dinner with our old friend and colleague from the newspapers, Judy Canter, who retired back to her hometown about about four years ago. She had suggested that we go to Fratello’s, an old paper mill that has been remodeled into a restaurant with huge windows overlooking the Fox River. The river was so close it felt we could touch it. During dinner, a huge heron floated right past us and landed about 25 feet away on a stone wall. I think it was a tri-colored heron, even though my birdbook says that it shouldn’t be here this time of year. (The same could be said about us. We have no snow tires. We have no idea how to drive in a bad storm. If the weather gets nasty, we’ll just have to wait it out.)

Anyway, the heron took no note of us, just stood regally for a while outside the window and then flew away as we talked for several hours about our lives at the newspapers and old friends. Judy later posted on Facebook a note about our visit: “If you worked at the old Ex, we talked about you.” And that’s about right. Delicious. The restaurant, the visit, the talk.

The old paper mill was a stone and brick building on the picturesque river in the middle of Appleton. The newer paper mills, which we passed on the freeway, are not particularly picturesque, although they’re pretty impressive. They are huge gray structures, with huge gray smokestacks. I can’t really condemn them, since Lynn and I both made such a good living for so long working on the dead-tree version of newspapers. And we still love newspapers so much that we buy the local papers wherever we go (two the next day – the Mining Journal of Ishpeming and the Iron Mountain Daily News.) The paper mill was and is a necessary part of that, and the trees that are chewed up in the mills are farmed trees, for the most part, not trees plucked from pristine wilderness.

We’re zigzagging up and down the Midwest the past week or so, because there was no logical path connecting the people and places we wanted to see. We jogged east to Boone, Iowa, and then drove nearly 11 hours north to see Lynn’s cousin, and then about 10 hours south and east to see Judy. Then we rolled about five hours north to Ishpeming, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where Lynn’s great-grandfather landed when he immigrated from Norway. (Lynn will write about this later.) Now, a bit spooked by a spot of snowy weather, we are high-tailing our pansy Left Coast selves south and east as fast as we can.

In the Upper Peninsula today, we drove through two completely different forest systems, both in the midst of dramatic fall foliage color shows. On the way north in the morning, gentle hills (very gentle, not so much different from flat) were covered with mixed deciduous forests – oaks, maple, sycamore, you name it – and showed the color changes you’d expect: browns, reds, oranges, yellows, pale greens, and all shades between. It was what you’d expect in the Northeast, but we enjoyed it in southern Iowa, and now we’re being treated to it again in Upper Michigan.

In the afternoon, coming east along the shore of Lake Superior and then inland in the peninsula, the mixed conifer forests appeared to contain a good portion of what I’m guessing are larch trees. They are clearly conifers, but they are turning all shades of brilliant gold and yellow.With the other conifers providing a rich background of dark forest green, the bright goldish-yellow of the larch was stark and surprising. The effect was basically a two-toned forest, dark green and bright yellow, going on and on for miles.

What a show!

Notable: Mute swans by the dozen floated on the edge of the lake as we crossed the Mackinac Bridge from the Upper Peninsula to Michigan proper. And I spotted my first cardinal, a bright red bird flitting around in bright red foliage, as we took a short walk along the shore of Lake Michigan.

Extra notable: Today we continue our big mileage days, launching ourselves toward the supreme highlight of the whole Victory Lap: visiting Kenny at Oberlin.

Mileage from Ishpeming, Michigan, to St. Ignace: 176

Total mileage so far: 5,687

Saturday, October 24, 2009


Notes from Margo:

Karen Mallea lives in about the most isolated place where she could still get the U.S. mail delivered daily.

Directions to her house were like this: Turn east at the Seven Clans Casino. The first stop sign is in 20 miles. Turn south. Go four miles. Turn west on the gravel road, and go a mile until you see the Dead End sign. That’s the driveway.

Karen is one of Lynn’s long-lost first cousins. She owns a 480-acre organic farm about 12 miles from tiny Trail, Minnesota, which turned out to be about 11 hours drive north of Ames, Iowa. The distances are vast. Highways are flat, mostly deserted and mostly two-lane. Even on four-lane highways, sometimes there are no other cars in sight.

After several bouts of skin cancer, Karen stopped working the farm. But there’s a lot to keep her there. She heads outside at every opportunity to check on the wildlife: In the morning we woke up to white-tail deer feeding in the yard. Later, two grouse stripped crabapples from the tree by the farmhouse. They were fat birds, looking too round and clumsy to be off the ground, but somehow they kept their balance as branches bent and swayed under their weight.

Karen quilts and knits, sending much of her production to charities. She makes blankets for newborn babies and for children needing comfort. Her house is softened and warmed by quilts she’s made and collected. On a wooden work basket is an old-fashioned “friendship” quilt she made, with a white background and pastel colors in the pieced blocks. Her cabinets and armoires are stuffed with multi-colored fabrics by the bolt and by the yard, with yarn by the skein, with wool by the pound and batting by the bushel.

She taught on the nearby Red Lake Indian Reservation for many years, and the fabric arts club was a favorite activity. The kids loved it, she said. She clearly was able to convey her love of old crafts to a young generation. Karen and I quilted and knitted together in her living room for part of the afternoon. It could have been a century ago – no cell phones, no high-speed Internet, the sunlight fading on the dark gold wintering fields out the window, a wood-burning heater in the basement.

We drove away from the warmth of Karen’s house into the icy morning air of northwestern Minnesota. We rolled for 11 miles before we met another car. Two bald eagles soared overhead before we saw our first person.

Notes from Lynn:

Before she decided to take up farming, Karen Mallea took graduate courses in Arkansas. That’s typical for brainy intellectuals, but most farmers scoff at book learning. Most of them can tell many a story about back-to-the-land ex-urbanites who could expound at length about sustainable agriculture but didn’t know a hoe from a hoedown. My father never lost a game of anagrams, for example, but incurred the lifelong contempt of his farmer father-in-law because he didn’t know how to chop kindling for the kitchen range. Henry David Thoreau ended his famous year at Walden Pond with a profit of $8.71. But Karen managed to grow and harvest 130 varieties of fruits and vegetables (all organic) on her 480 acres of mixed forests and fields. She invested in a hothouse with a plastic roof. She raised hogs, sheep, cattle, ducks, turkeys and as many as 500 chickens. She plowed with her three Percherons, Rose, Barney and Bill. She grew so many gladioli that neighbors started calling her the Flower Lady. She made money, bought more land and had enough time to teach school as a regular substitute.

Except for about five years when her son Erik or daughter Amahia joined in, Karen did all the farm work by herself. She loved it. But from dawn to sunset she was outdoors for the planting, cultivating and harvesting. And like so many farmers, she got skin cancer.

After 16 years of farming, she doesn’t want to quit.

“What would I do all day? Go shopping?”

The doctors had their way. Her fields are now farmed by neighbors. The Percherons were boarded, but they died. Gale-force winds ripped up the roof off the hothouse.

It’s a difficult time for my newly discovered first cousin, who likes the isolation of her farmhouse in a pretty grove of aspens and burr oak. It gives her plenty of time to make quilts and travel to see her daughter Amahia, a visiting professor of environmental history at Drake; her son Erik, an Oberlin graduate now working and studying viticulture in Santa Barbara, and her daughter Nikane, who studied to became a city planner while involved in professional bicyle racing in Europe.

Think about it: 130 varieties of fruits and vegetables. Most farmers nowadays plant one or two crops. Most don’t even bother to cultivate a garden. Most look askance at dabblers. Karen proved them wrong.

Notable: Added to our list of great placenames: Lake Winnibigoshish.

Mileage from Thorp, Wisconsin, to Appleton: 198

From Appleton to Ishpeming, Michigan: 187

Mileage so far: 5,511

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Mainstreeters

Notes from Lynn:

Main Street Auto greeted us as we left U.S. Highway 94 for our first stop in Minnesota. Next came Main Street Real Estate, Main Street Theatre, Main Street Printing, Main Street Café and Main Street Coffee, all on Original Main Street.

Our minivan had entered Sauk Centre (population 3,980), home of the Sinclair Lewis Museum, Sinclair Lewis Park, Sinclair Lewis Foundation, Sinclair Lewis Boyhood Home, Sinclair Lewis Writers Conference, Sinclair Lewis Interpretive Center and Sinclair Lewis Days, a week-long celebration every July that culminates in a beauty contest and a parade on Original Main Street.

This was the same city, thinly disguised as Gopher Prairie, that Harry Sinclair “Red” Lewis excoriated with eloquent realism in his 1920 novel, “Main Street.” It wasn’t just a best seller. It sold more than 2 million books, generated a score of translations and was the first work cited in 1930 when the author was anointed as the first American writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In the prologue, Lewis made sure that people back home got the message. The town is called Gopher Prairie, Minn., he wrote, “but its main street is the continuation of main streets everywhere.” The book indicted small-town life, then regaled by politicans and preachers as a cornerstone of American virtues. One appraisal of “Main Street” says Lewis wrote about “its cruelties, its well-nourished prejudices and cultural bleakness.”

Insulted, a good many Sauk Centrists protested at the time that “Main Street” should kept out of the city’s Bryant Library. They were heard to comment that Harry Sinclair may have grown up in Sauk Centre, but the bookish redhead left town for Yale at age 17 and didn’t come back.

The novelist Pearl Buck, who visited the “sober, comfortable, middle-class house” where Harry grew up, is quoted in a Chamber of Commerce brochure: “I could only see him bursting out of those walls, and out of the town it stood for, loving it so much that he hated it for not being all he wanted it to be and knew it could be.”

We should never underestimate the power of tourism.

I was in a Dublin pub in 1982 when I heard a 24-hour radio reading to celebrate Bloomsday. It was the anniversary of the day enshrined in James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” which had been banned in Ireland for many years.

John Steinbeck is a tourist attraction in his home town, Salinas, where a furious citizenry once tried to keep the town library untainted by “Grapes of Wrath.”

Sauk Centre has long since forgiven the home town boy who made good, even if he made the home town look bad. And he must have changed his mind about Main Street as he went on to write “Elmer Gantry,” “Dodsworth,” “Babbitt” and 20 others. He returned to Sauk Centre twice. In 1947, welcomed by the chamber of commerce and leading citizens, he stood outside the Main Street Theatre for a photograph that documented his redemption. In 1951, the famous writer died in Italy and, as he had requested, the remains were transported 14,000 miles back to Sauk Centre. In the cemetery outside of town, a simple tombstone marks the homecoming of Main Street’s native son.

Life goes on. We learned that on Friday night the town’s high school footballers will take the field with a name that honors the famous book written by a bespectacled, embittered young man who shunned athletics. It’s the nation’s only team called the Mainstreeters.

Notable: Lewis was 17 when let go after he made too many mistakes as an extraordinarily incompetent night clerk at Sauk Centre’s leading hotel. The job lasted only two weeks. The old hotel is now refurbished as the Historic Palmer House, trading on the historic association with historic Sinclair Lewis.... As a boy, Lewis was called by his first name, Harry. His middle name was reserved for his books. As a grownup with thinning hair, bowties and a reputation as a bad drunk, he was called Red.

Notes from Margo:

In Bemidji, Minnesota, home of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, we stopped to see the larger-than-life statues we’d been alerted to by the AAA guide. We were a bit disappointed, because we’ve seen larger statues of them at a roadside attraction in California, and the myths were created by an adman right here in Minnesota. But further down the road, near Bena, we were cheered up by an unadvertised roadside attraction: the biggest trout we’ve ever seen. (Editor's note: An outsize "Thank You" to Todd, for pointing out that the monster fish is a pike, not a trout.)

We crossed the Mississippi River in upper Minnesota – it's really just a small stream. We slammed on the brakes, because really, where else could you jump over the Mississippi if you took a good running start??

Mileage from Trail, Minnesota, to Thorp, Wisconsin: 438 miles

Total mileage: 5,126

Thursday, October 22, 2009


Notes from Lynn:

The toots blatted as noisily as gunshots when the minivan’s car alarm went off in downtown Brownville. It had been a quiet night in Nebraska’s first city, the onetime riverport boomtown crowded back in 1880 with about 2,000 inhabitants, ten stores, three banks, two newspapers, an opera house, 12 churches, 17 saloons and a calaboose.

When the noise stopped, I silently apologized to the townspeople of 2009.

All 146 of them.

We came here to take a look at the frontier steamboat landing where Cordelia Botkin grew up before the Civil War. I have been puttering around for far too long with a half-written nonfiction book about this histrionic historicity. Arrested in 1898 in San Francisco and charged with murdering her paramour’s wife with arsenic-laden bon bons, she claimed she had been born in England and educated in a convent school in County Kent. She never rhymed “bath” with “path.” She called it a “bawth.”

In reality, she spent her girlhood in a log cabin. On Saturday nights she would have had to wait her turn when her mother would heat up spring water for baths with her half-dozen siblings. Or bawths.

The 18-by-18-foot cabin was built of cottonwood logs by Cordelia’s pro-slavery father, Richard Brown, who with B.B. Frazier had founded Brownville in 1854. He modestly named it for himself and eventually built a proper house up the street (at left). After he gave up on dreams of Nebraska as a slave state, he moved Cordelia and his family to Kansas City and sold the house to the town’s leading banker, John Carson. The Brown-Carson House (admission $2) is now a relic of Brownville’s glory years before a bond debacle in the 1870s followed a botched attempt to replace steamboats with a railroad link. The once-thriving city turned quickly into a ghost town, its brick buildings and empty streets as overgrown with foliage as Mayan temples to forgotten gods.

We had dinner in the Lyceum, the tables surrounded by bookshelves, with local historian Harold Davis, the knowlegeable proprietor of a health food store. It specializes in stone-ground flour. It’s in the former Lone Tree Tavern.

If you have lemons, said the late Howard Gossage in San Francisco, make lemonade. If you have a history, make it interesting. From the ruins of old Brownville, most of its architectural styles frozen by abrupt depopulation in the 1880s, comes a boom in tourists who must be looking for an alternative to all the towns who are losing their civic souls to Walmart, Walgreens, Taco Joe, Days Inn, Denny’s, and so on.

With a nighttime population of 146 and an a daytime summer influx of hundreds, Davis said with pride that Brownville has become an art colony:
• Six art galleries (Antiquarium/Bill Farmer, Chaney, Gallery 119, Palmerton, Handmade Modern and the Schoolhouse Gallery & Nature Center), two folk art museums (Flatwater and Gallery of American Folk Art).
• Six history musems and houses (Brownville Depot and Railroad History, Captain Bailey House, Meriwether Lewis Dredge and Missouri River History Museum, Wheel Museum, Brown/Carson Period Houise, Furnas House and Arboretum).
• Three bookstores (Lyceum, A Novel Idea, Village).
• Several festivals and events (Wine, Writers and Song, in April; Old Time Autumn and Quilt Show, in October; River Rats Reunion (Missouri River history), in August), plus events on Independence Day and the Christmas season. To name a few.
• Miscellaneous: The Spirit of Brownville offers riverboat rides; tasting rooms at the Whiskey Run Creek Vineyard & Winery; cooking school, book publishing, antique shops, flea market, and a shop that makes and sells cornhusk brooms. Perhaps the oddest is a collection of old dental equipment on display in a shop window.
• Performing Arts in former churches (ten concerts in Brownville Concert Hall, 36 productions of five plays in the Brownville Village Theater).
It’s one thing to assert the birth of an art colony and another to prove it. That’s why I burdened the blog with a list. It documents what we learned in Brownville. And it might make up for those toots on a quiet night in the town where Cordelia grew up.

Notes from Margo:

One of the ideas of this victory lap was to fill in gaps in our knowledge of the countryside, and that has certainly happened: As we drove north through Iowa, the rolling hills gradually flattened out, and by the time we crossed into Minnesota, the landscape was flat as a skillet. Clouds textured the sky, making me think: They call Montana the Big Sky State, but how much bigger could the sky be than this? We had big sky and flat land for about five hours, driving north. The deciduous trees were changing color most of the way, and the roads were dotted with picturesque barns, some in service and some falling in on themselves. The barns have to accommodate all the livestock in the winter, so they are huge, with high, rounded tops, some with turret-like things protruding from the roofs, many surrounded by other outbuildings and silos. It looks like hard work to make it through the winter.

But another set of blanks being filled in for me has been the faces that go with the stories Lynn has told all these years. In Oregon, I got to meet the people behind the stories from the wedding in Arizona 50 years ago – the rides in the open cars out into the desert night. And just now I got to meet the faces behind some of Lynn’s tales from the Champaign-Urbana Courier in the early 60s. The players were young then, fresh out of college, learning to write on deadline, sowing some wild oats, falling in love. There was a story about trying to find the highest point in town with a topo map. The spot was called Yankee Ridge, and it turned out to be an imperceptible bump in the road. In fact, as we were trying to describe the Minnesota landscape to each other, Lynn said: This is as flat as downstate Illinois. Back in Champaign, Lynn married the newspaper’s telephone operator, Linda Wakefield, and moved to California. And Jeannine (that's her with Lynn, at right), the women’s editor from Ceres, California, married Bob (Pete) Schaub, the Stanford guy who was the wire editor. (He was also Lynn's roommate.) Bob and Jeannine ended up owning and running the paper in Boone, Iowa, which is where we dropped in on them.

Until yesterday, I knew them from stories of their youth. They are now, like Lynn, in their 70s. Now the most striking thing about them is their courage, and their ability to live day to day. Jeannine has had cancer twice – and a stroke. Bob has multiple myeloma, and was told he had two years to live. That was five years ago. They take their drugs, their treatments, the transfusions and bone marrow transplants, and then go about their lives. They wanted to travel to explore Canada. So they got in the car and went, between medical treatments. They go to an island in a nearby lake to relax, and when Bob needs a transfusion, they go back to town. They laugh at their own cluelessness about gardening – they had tossed a pumpkin in the compost last year, and had no idea what was happening when huge vines with big gourd-like objects emerged from the compost this year. We dined on that serendipitous harvest – baked pumpkin.

We all know we can die anytime. But these folks are living with the thought at much closer quarters than most of us. They just try to enjoy the time they have, in an astoundingly courageous and gentle way.

Mileage from Boone, Iowa to Trail, Minnesota: 535 miles

Mileage so far: 4,688

Monday, October 19, 2009


Notes from Lynn:

Marsha Redman and Poor Ralph (Polk, Nebraska, Chapter II)

More than 20 years ago, I returned from a cross-country trip to attend an awards banquet in Manhattan. On the way back I took a side trip to Polk, Nebraska, to meet my hero, editor-printer Norris Alfred, and his front-page columnist, Marsha Redman. A local housewife, she wrote beguiling humor in the Polk Progress about life’s little adventures, her six kids and, of course, Poor Ralph. When I arrived home, I told my (then) teenage daughter the news: (1) in New York, I had lunch sitting next to the famous and easy-going Walter Cronkite (gazillions of daily TV viewers) and, (2) in Polk, I met Marsha Redman (about 800 subscribers, including our family in San Francisco).

Amy was excited.

She asked: “What’s she like?”

When Margo and I showed up in Polk, we stepped into the Post Office to ask for the site of the Progress office. The newspaper died 20 years ago, but the two women behind the counter didn’t hesitate. It’s just up a few doors on Main Street. When asked if they knew Marsha Redman, the answer came fast: “Right across the street, having coffee at Sportsman's. That’s her car parked outside.” Small towns are different from big cities.

In the coffee shop-restaurant-bar, Marsha introduced us to her friend, Millie, and her son, Matt, and Poor Ralph, her husband, who appeared in her columns as the hapless victim of family complexities. He shrugged. Proudly. (Years ago, when a letter was addressed to “Poor Ralph, Polk, NE,” the postal clerks sent it without hesitation to Ralph Redman.) From the Progress, encouraged by Norris, Marsha landed a regular spot as a free-lance contributor to the Lincoln Journal-Star’s columns. She became a speaker on the lecture/banquet circuit. After the Progress became a fond memory, however, she Italicquit writing. She explained that with all her children grown up she didn’t want to switch to cute stories about her grandchildren. Poor Ralph didn’t seem too depressed over that decision. When he retired, they signed up with the U.S. Park Service as seasonal volunteers at Flaming Gorge National Park in Utah.

When they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, she said, they decided to give it another 50 years and see if it works out.

Notes from Margo:

I know you’re supposed to go to upstate New York and the Northeast to see the foliage change colors in the fall. But I don’t know how much more spectacular that could be than what we see here in southern Iowa. Corn fields stretch as far as the eye can see, which is what you’d expect. But in the late fall, corn is drying on the stalk. The fields are pale gold for miles, the rows sculpting lines on the gentle hills, sometimes following the contours, sometimes crossing them. And any uncultivated land with bit of water is overgrown with thick groves of mature deciduous trees turning all shades of yellow, orange, red, tans and browns. The effect is a textured pale gold landscape with highlights of brilliant autumn colors. Whew!! I’m loving it.

Surprises continue: We cut through a tiny corner of northwest Missouri as we drove local roads from Nebraska to our first stop in Iowa. Windmills topped every hill (above). Not old-fashioned pump-some-water-up wells. We saw dozens of those huge futuristic three-bladed power generators that back in California dominate the Altamont Pass. We saw the first ones turning slowly and majestically in the distance as we crossed the darkly powerful Missouri River. We saw the last ones as we approached the sign reading “The People of Iowa Welcome You.” We’re speculating that Missouri has tax incentives that Nebraska and Iowa don’t. Or the Missouri power company has an agenda that the neighboring companies don’t. Or something. (Note from later: Wrong again. There are windmills in Iowa, too. We just didn’t see them right away.)

We camped on the Missouri River at tiny Brownville, which Lynn wanted to see as part of research for the book he’s been working on (and not working on) for about five years now. (More from Lynn later on this.) But for me, one of the highlights was a bike ride on the “Steamboat Trace” path, which follows the river for about 25 miles. I rode only a few miles up and down the fine crushed limestone gravel path. It runs a bit away from the river, well away from traffic, through the multi-colored foliage, past fields, along levees. At a creek crossing, some rowdy woodpeckers called attention to themselves. They had the coolest flight pattern: They gave a few wingbeats and then coasted in a roller-coaster, up-and-down path. I checked the iPhone’s birdbook. It has a search function like this: I’m in Nebraska. There’s a woodpecker I don’t know. It gives me four choices. Based on the flight pattern, there’s only one it can be. Red-bellied woodpeckers. My first.

We had started reading ahead in the AAA tourist guide after we realized in Washington state that we had driven right through a town that had the country’s only bridge built just for squirrels. So anyway, Lynn was reading ahead and found the world’s largest collection of quilts – more than 2,300 – in Lincoln, Nebraska. A must-see for me.

And a lovely visit it was, starting with the view from the parking lot. The exterior of the International Quilt Study Center and Museum is sheathed in bricks laid in patterns like quilting blocks. Also the bathroom tiles, the marble-block flooring and the pattern in the window panes – all quiltish. The collections on display are relatively small, probably only a few dozen, but each of the works has detailed descriptions of the times they reflect, the women who made them, the dyes and the the fabric showing the technology of the times. That was a rewarding hour or two, but another really cool bit was that they have more than 800 of their quilts in digital images that you can search in their “virtual gallery.” So, for instance, I’m interested in the red and white quilts of the early 1900s, and strip quilting as a technique. (One of the strip quilts is pictured.) So, I could search for those quilts and then project them, larger-than-life-size, on a huge screen.

Amahia Mallea, whom we stopped to visit in Des Moines, is a visiting professor of history, especially of the environment, at Drake University. She met us at the Mars Coffee Shop, where she likes to hang out to grade papers. Like the other members of Lynn’s newfound cousin’s family, she is amazed by how much Lynn looks like her uncle, Mark Ludlow. She is a long-distance cyclist, who has made a project of cycling the whole length of the Missouri River. We had enjoyed her blog about that adventure. She’s also done long-distance cycling in China, but her next trip is to go all the way to the headwaters of the Missouri and hike, kayak and bike downstream to the point where she ended her previous journey. The tiny bit of the Steamboat Trace that I had biked the day before had been part of her thousand-mile journey. As we drove away from the coffee shop, Lynn and I wished we could have visited with her for a week – which just keeps happening on this trip.

Notable: We also bypassed a new tourist attraction in northwest Nebraska, a long way from our path. It's a replica of Stonehenge created from old cars stacked on top of each other and painted gray. It's called Carhenge.

Mileage from Emerald, Nebraska, to Brownville: 91

From Brownville through Des Moines to Boone, Iowa: 222

Mileage so far: 4,153

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Progress to Polk

Notes from Margo:

We’ve really cranked out the mileage, running through a state a day the past two days – Colorado to Kansas, Kansas to Nebraska. And we got all literary, too. Highlights were the childhood home of Willa Cather, and a visit to the home of the late Norris Alfred and his late weekly newspaper, the Polk Progress, in Polk, Nebraska (See Lynn’s notes about this).

In Nebraska, Willa Cather’s hometown of Red Cloud looked a lot more prosperous than the towns we rolled through on our way there on Highway 136. We had camped on Harlan County Lake near Alma, where we had a spectacular sunset while Lynn tried unsuccessfully to light a campfire. He finally admitted defeat and decided to enjoy the fire in the sky, and its reflection in the lake. We hit the road in the morning, looking for a cup of coffee. Republican City, Franklin, Riverton – towns, like so many here, that reached their peak populations in the 1920s or '30s. The two- or three-block-long downtowns were asleep at 9 a.m. and still asleep at 10. Maybe we missed the morning rush, but we couldn’t find an open café to coffee ourselves up in three straight towns.

(A side note: Most of these small towns where we stopped, even though they are shrinking, slowly dying with no tax base, somehow maintain small, but tidy public parks or rest areas. The rest rooms are clean. Overnight camping is allowed in some city parks. Even Polk, Nebraska, population about 800, had two places where you could camp overnight. It’s as I remembered from my bike trip through here 25 years ago: this part of the high plains takes hospitality seriously.)

Red Cloud, as we suspected, has made a little industry from Willa Cather, so the downtown was alive. We saw a few B&Bs, an open restaurant and a general store selling boots and jeans – and renting tuxedos. A bookstore is open by appointment. At the Cather Foundation, we were treated to a tour by Angela. She gave us a private $5 tour of Cather’s childhood home, even though no tour was scheduled just then, the latest in our string of lucky breaks. Cather’s home (at right), a few blocks from downtown, accommodated the seven Cather children, mom, dad, grandma and a live-in maid, all in pretty close quarters. (When the Cathers moved from Virginia to Nebraska in the 1870s, they packed their plates and china in Confederate money.) Willa had papered her attic room in a rose-patterned wallpaper, now of course very faded. But I love that being a future great writer didn’t keep her from being good and handy, too.

Her father’s office and the doctor’s office where she worked as a youth were, like most of the downtown buildings, red brick. The streets were also paved in red brick – dating, according to Angela, from the early 1900s. So the streets were muddy when Cather was here, but now they are truly lovely. And how often can you say that about pavement?

We also saw red brick streets in Oberlin, Kansas, where we stopped just to be able to tell Kenny we had. We called her at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, just to say: “Hi, honey. We’re in Oberlin. (Pause). Kansas.” It took a few seconds before she laughed. She’s in the middle of midterms.

I saw prairie falcons on Norris Alfred’s “birding road” on the Platte River near Polk. My bird book describes them as “medium-sized falcons,” but they look huge to me. They perched on the crosspieces of telephone poles and calmly looked around for prey with their yellow and black eyes.

Notes from Lynn:

“A future world of people, who will long have been conditioned to doing with less, may also read about life in the 20th century and wonder at our greed: ‘They had so much. Why couldn’t some of it have been saved?’ ” This comment, at once so simple and complex, appeared March 28, 1974, in the Polk Progress, a tiny Nebraska weekly that was written, edited, printed and produced by a shy, gentle, self-effacing prairie genius of the Linotype.

Here are more words of acuity from the late Norris Alfred:

“Our observations have confirmed the Great Truth – where there are humans there is change, and not necessarily for the better. We are not thinking about changes we can see in the mirror. The process of aging is a natural one which is hastened by the worries and anxieties of weekly newspaper publishing. The furrowed brow, twitching ears, slack jaw, reddened nose, watery eyes, thinned hair, stooped posture and limping step are the rewards of our work which we accept with the usual amount of necessary groaning.” (Oct. 7, 1971)

“Converting Nebraska sandhill land to row-crop agriculture has been the most disastrous development of contemporary industrialized agriculture and its high-cost efficiency.” (Feb. 27, 1986)

“There are moments memorable when the conjunction of time, place and activity are harmonious; when the psychic is sensitive to soothing stimuli; another way of describing the pleasure and contentment we felt while fishing at the Polk County Wildlife Club’s sandpit, north and west of Hordville Wednesday evening.” June 17, 1971)

Excerpts from the Norris file explain our pilgrimage Friday to the nice little village of Polk, population about 800, in the field-corn farmlands of south-central Nebraska. Norris Alfred, like many of the farm folk in these parts, came from a Swedish family but was named for the Cornhusker state’s progressive senator, George W. Norris. His namesake had hoped to become a serious artist, but he returned from Kansas City to his birthplace to look after his elderly parents.

As a kid, he had helped out in the Progress backshop. When the owner quit, Norris took over. He could set type on the 1906 model Linotype, find what he needed in a California Job Case and operate the hand-fed Big Drum Babcock Press. He never studied journalism. Besides, his subscribers turned first to what in a non-corporate age were known as the “personals”or "locals”: Lars Larsen quit farming and is moving to Omaha … Emily Peterson and children visited her parents, the J.W. Thorwalds, in Central City … The sixth birthday of little Sam Mitchell was celebrated at the Lutheran Church on Saturday; the guests were … etc. His favorite subscriber was a pig farmer who once told the editor, “I like your paper, Norris, because I can sit right down and read like hell about people I know.”

I became a subscriber, the personals notwithstanding, when Examiner reporter George Williamson gave me a copy. He got it from Norris Alfred’s brother, Oren Alfred, a printer for the San Francisco Newspaper Agency when it produced the Examiner and Chronicle. I sent copies to several friends. In the end, his subscribers in 49 states outnumbered the population of Polk. I had a devious plan to enhance Norris’s standing at home among the (mostly) conservative townspeople, farmers and businessmen of Polk. Because of the Academy Awards, “nomination” of the five finalists has become a magic word. For the Pulitizer Prize, anyone can nominate anyone. So I clipped out a selection of Norris’s gems and sent the package to the judges at Columbia Univcrsity, mostly big-shot editors and renowned academics. It fell like a rock in a deep well. I never heard back. But I sent word to the Lincoln Journal and the Omaha News Herald that this quiet iconoclast at a very small newspaper had been “nominated” for journalism’s biggest award. Both papers did stories on Norris. Then the parasites of television sent crews down to Polk, which confirmed for the local folk that their kindly editor was a celebrity.

Norris died in 1989, and the Progress died with him. Some of his epistles have been collected in a book by Prairie Fire: “Butterfly Against the Gale.” Copies of the Progress have been filed and preserved in the city library. When we walked up Main Street in Polk, we saw the boarded-up newspaper office and printing plant. He had bequeathed his backshop to someone interested in turning it into an old-time newspaper museum, but nothing happened. (Norris said once, after viewing a Print Museum as a roadside attraction in another Nebraska town: “I guess that I … am … a … museum myself.”) He decorated the boards across the Progress window with bits and parts of his printshop, a sort of machine-shop collage. (at right) Through the window curtain we could see the old Linotype, shrouded and dead.

“Nearly everyone exits this life in a prone position, or hopes to (we have never heard of a head-first or feet-first burial) and as long as they can stay awake, they fight stretching out on their back for fear someone will put a lily in their hand and read an obituary.” (March 2, 1972)

Next: Marsha Redman and Poor Ralph in Polk

Mileage from Boulder, Colorado to Alma, Nebraska: 378

From Alma, through Polk, to Emerald (near Lincolon): 177

Total mileage so far: 3,850

Price of gas in Red Cloud, Nebraska: $2.39

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Pine Beetles

Notes from Margo:

Two days of driving from Dinosaur to Boulder, through desert bleakness and Rocky Mountain drama. I’m obviously not a biologist, but I’d guess we rolled through about a dozen ecosystems. At times, we could see three or four of them simultaneously. In eastern Utah, we were in a sort of sage and tumbleweed desert (predominant colors gray and grayish green). But in the distant hills where it is a bit cooler and maybe a bit more moist, you could see minature juniper forests (darker green trees on darker soil). Creeks and rivers are visible for miles because of lanky, leafy cottonwoods that crowd the riverbanks. These trees are in the midst of changing colors now, so we had pale greenish-yellows, oranges, reds, tans and browns. For the final few hours of the desert, the snowy tops of the Rockies were visible in the distance.

The most remarkable thing, sadly, was how devastated most of the conifer forests are with the pine beetle infestation. Some forests seemed about 80 percent dead. Some areas look like all the mature trees are dead or dying, leaving just smaller trees, maybe 10 years old or younger. Other areas are less wiped out. But just about everywhere, the forests are much less green than they used to be, and showing a lot of the dead gray color of bare conifers. (See Lynn’s notes, below.)

We stopped for the night in a Forest Service campground on Lake Granby, near the ghost of Camp Chief Ouray. It’s gone now, but my older sister and I went to YMCA sleepaway camp there decades ago. The landscape of gently rolling mountains and thick forests was still very familiar.

In the morning, we woke up to a misty fog that concealed the peaks. We had hoped to spend the day in the spectacular alpine scenery of Trail Ridge Road, the winding highway through Rocky Mountain National Park. It was closed for “severe weather,” whatever that is. So we turned back and went over the Front Range at Berthoud Pass, which was plenty spectacular. Mist veiled most of the peaks around us. We drove through a very light snow for about an hour. Then the clouds partially lifted, and we were treated to a show of peaks playing hide-and-seek. The snow-dusted mountain tops around there are rounded and muscular-looking rather than pointed. They appeared and disappeared as the clouds moved and we followed the twists of the mountain highway. And then suddenly, brilliant blue sky opened up. It’s what I remember from my childhood here. It will storm for a few hours, and then -- bang! -- the sun comes out.

Coming out of the mountains at Golden, near Boulder, we stopped for coffee. When we came out, the car wouldn’t start. The battery was completely dead. So we waited for the AAA guy, and then took a short drive to the nearest Toyota dealer, in Boulder, and got a new battery. As Lynn pointed out, it could have been a lot worse. In the morning, when it was really cold, snow was on the way, we were about 50 miles from the nearest gas station with only sketchy cell phone service, the car had started right up. The battery only went dead when we were with cell phone service, near the AAA guy, the sun was out and we were well coffeed up. It screwed up the day’s schedule, but really, the Guppy is taking care of us.

We returned the favor by getting her a oil change and lube, got the brakes checked, tried replacing some burned out bulbs… just doing a bit of maintenance that was due.

Now we’re visiting with my mother, Rebekka, in Boulder, at the retirement community, Frasier Meadows, where she’s lived since April. She seems healthy, happy, and seems to like her new home a lot. It’s great to see her, and it’s great to be out of the cold again. She’s remained involved in her many political and social activities concerning health care, politics, women’s issues and bicycling issues. She also knits for several good causes: booties for babies at the community hospital, squares for afghans, caps for soldiers in Afghanistan to wear under their helmets. On the weekends, she goes to the Shabbat service here at Frasier Meadows, as well as the Unitarian service that she always went to, and then finishes out the round of religious observance with a Bible study group led by a Lutheran minister.

Last night we had dinner with my old friend Linda, from high school, and her husband, Kevin. Linda teaches old-style, darkroom photography to high-school students, all of whom, she said, have computers and digital cameras and other easier ways to make images. They still want to learn how to use a darkroom. Go figure. She thinks it’s because they want to make things with their hands, and because it’s magic watching the images appear in the trays under the red light.

Kevin had been running his own business for years, machining parts for pinhole cameras. He was knocked out of business a few years ago by cheaper parts being shipped from China. He had been looking for a job and had just landed one. So we were in on the celebration for that!

We went by her parents’ house first, and wow!! They are both artists, both in their 80s, and are turning out amazing work. Linda’s father, Al Slobodin, went through a period of three-dimensional work that is somewhere between painting and sculpture, creating figures with found objects, pieces of computers and electronic gear and formed concrete shapes and ceramic art that he made himself. Most of the titles involve some sort of wordplay as well. Very beautiful work. Now he’s doing complicated, precise geometric paintings. Linda’s mother, Jean, does large, lovely, soft-focus landscapes and seascapes with big areas of textured color that make you feel like you’re outside, surrounded by the scenery. And we forgot our camera. What a shame!

Notes from Lynn:

Dendroctonus ponderosae. The ugly name fits the tiny black destroyer of the vast forests of the West. Until we began the journey that would whisk us past conifers beyond counting, the pine beetle was only two words often modifying “infestation.” As city dwellers and admirers of the Sierra Club, we hear a lot about the battles to save old growth forests. We don’t like to see mountains scalped by clear-cutting and the resulting monoculture plantings. Every year on the way to Camp Mather we comment on the regrowth of the immense swaths of Sierra woodlands cut down by fire several years ago near the South Fork of the Tuolumne River. The pine beetle? Never gave it a thought. Until now.

The shock came slowly. In the great forests of Oregon and Washington, we couldn’t help but notice bloomings of red and gray trees amid the oceans of green treetops. In western Montana’s Lolo Pass and the approach to Chief Joseph Pass, we saw whole mountain slopes populated by the skeletons of what had been living lodgepole pines. But in the Rocky Mountains of eastern Colorado, Bard and Vasquez peaks tower at 13,000 feet above forests being annihilated by the voracious larvae of Ma and Pa Pine Beetle. They set up housekeeping by boring into the bark of a ponderosa pine, or a Scotch pine, or a lodgepole. The female lays about 75 eggs in what the beetle people call “galleries.”

When enough pupae turn into larvae in galleries throughout the bark, the tree is probably doomed. Or so we learn from the Internet, but you don’t need a Ph.D in beetlology to look at the growing cemeteries of millions and more millions of dead trees. This year’s crop of pine murder won’t be evident for eight to ten months, when the branches turn into the red and yellow hues we associate with New England in October.

Billions of pines (and an occasional Douglas fir) are already corpses in forests from Mexico to Canada. In the Rocky Mountain counties of eastern Washington, we are told, more than one and a half million acres have been infected. Some can be salvaged for pellets or pulp, but using the dead wood for firewood can spread the infestation to healthy trees. Although householders can usually keep the beetles at bay with a late spring spraying of water mixed with carbaryl (whatever that is), the only way to save a forest of pines is – you won’t like this – is cut it down and/or burn it. The forests will regenerate, according to the helpless tree experts, in about 50 years.

We glimpsed the future at the Arapaho National Forest campground on Lake Granby. No trees. A few seedlings. Lots of new stumps.

Mileage: From Dinosaur National Monument to Lake Granby: 243

From Lake Granby to Boulder: 107

Total mileage so far: 3,285

Monday, October 12, 2009

Old Bones

Notes from Margo:

After three days of being feted, fed and generally treated like royalty by the Salt Lake Ludlows (Joy and Conrad Unit), we knew we’d have to readjust to roughing it. But there are compensations.

Let’s start with the sandhill cranes. And then we’ll talk about the huge uptilted rock formations that have changed colors steadily for the past few hours as the sun dipped down – from a daytime sandy off-white to a strange yellowish-orange at sunset on one side of our campsite, and from a dusky red to a brilliant terra cotta in the other direction.

We’re in Dinosaur National Monument on the Utah-Colorado border. As we approached, looking to see some dinosaur bones at the visitor center, we drove by a freshly mown field of corn – and saw what appeared to be herons, dozens of them, on the field. I asked at the visitors center, because I’ve never seen herons standing anywhere other than in water. Sandhill cranes!

So, before checking out the bones that have been there for eons, and will certainly still be there tomorrow, we headed back to the cornfield. Cranes, almost 100 of them. Through binoculars, we could see their bright red heads and regal high-stepping moves. Then a group took flight. (The group is called a construction of cranes, or a dance of cranes, or a sedge or a swoop of cranes. I love my birdbook.)

Watching them fly with their long slender necks stretched way out in front, and the gorgeous slow flapping of their wings (wingspans can reach 90 inches), well, I was beside myself. Lynn was laughing. He said he thought I was going to pee in my pants. But really! I don’t think I ever thought I’d see sandhill cranes. They migrate from the Arctic through the middle of the continent, so they just don’t show up on the California coast. And that was just the first bonus of the day.

We drove on to our campsite, which must be one of the more beautiful places to sleep in the western United States. We’re at the Green River, next to Split Mountain, which is just what it sounds like – a mountain with a river splitting right through it. Lynn and I were trying to describe the rock formations to each other: Take a Rothko painting, enlarge it 1,000 times, tilt it about 25 degrees and then drive your car through it. Or take an enormous wedding cake with dozens of layers, and knock it off the table, so the layers slip off one another, leaving jagged frosting on top. And then the sun started going down, and the colors started shifting in those jagged layers.

Yesterday, and the two days before, we were in Salt Lake City visiting Conrad and Joy, Lynn’s brother and sister-in-law. Conrad, for 20 years a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, is still teaching ballet as a professor of dance at the University of Utah. He is 74. He’ll retire next June, and let’s say he’s earned a bit of a rest. (That's him, shucking oysters, at right.)

And Joy! Where to begin? She’s a former dancer with the NYCB, where she met Conrad. Her dinner menus made us feel like we had suddenly been mistaken for the Duke and Duchess of the Traveling Minivan. Trout almondine, garlicky spinach soup, heirloom tomato and fresh watercress salad. Babyback ribs with spicy Chinese barbecue sauce, onion rings, roasted baby purple potatoes, fresh corn on the cob. Chicken baked in grits, roasted carrots in dill, broccoli and onion soup. Every time we opened the front door, a delicious aroma welcomed us into the house. I kept telling Conrad what a lucky man he is. And I kept thinking, “If I lived here, I would be waddling around, weighing about 300 pounds.” I couldn’t restrain myself around all that incredible food. (That's Joy, at left.)

Guests for dinner one night were neighbors, a young couple from Romania, an engineer and his wife, a doctor, both working at the university. Really interesting conversation about Romanian politics vis-a-vis the Soviet Union.

Lynn's granddaughters and his great-granddaughter also visited us. (More on this from Lynn, below.)

Notable: The birdbook says that a fossil about 10 million years old that is structurally identical to the sandhill crane, making it the oldest know bird species. So how cool is that, that we saw the cranes near the Dinosaur National Monument?

Notes from Lynn:

Mary Ellen Miner is a former math teacher in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Her specialty was helping kids with learning disabilities. After she and her attorney husband retired, they put on the khaki uniform of volunteers with the National Park Service. That’s why this knowledgeable, outgoing and very patient guide was helping me with my learning disability regarding dinosaur bones.

With Margo and two other tourists, I stumbled up a canyon in the Dinosaur National Monument and marveled at the riot of color in crooked layers of shale gray, purple, yellowish red and dark brown. The guidebook has a name for this banded pattern of the Morrison Formation: Neopolitan ice cream. Mrs. Miner took us past fossilized plants, fish parts (hard to see without a graduate course in paleontology) and the gleaming edge of a dinosaur’s femur that protrudes through the gray wall of the cliff. (At left, Margo takes a look at the femur.) The poor beast was buried about 150 million years ago, we were told by the math teacher, give or take a few million.

I tried to make a joke about my own life in a dinosaur park, the newspaper business. Not a laughing matter. Will someone in the future establish a National Newspaper Monument to display the corporate fossils who were buried in the mud of the Internet epoch along with the daily papers?

During our too-brief visit in Salt Lake, we greeted my beautiful granddaughters and my ultra-beautiful great-granddaughter, Elliot. She’s almost 2 and, according to her mom, intelligent and a bit feisty. Jenna Lynn Ludlow (at right) is working for a high-end clothing store. Her smile is just as lovely as her sister's, but we caught her in a pensive moment. Lauren (at left), is working for Both young women want to emigrate to the Bay Area some day.

Here are snapshots of Elliot (and her pensive mom).

Mileage from Salt Lake City to Dinosaur National Monument: 188

Total mileage: 2,935