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Archive for September, 2009

I don’t recall where I bought Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey except to say that I’m sure it was on a trip out West. I am frequently inspired to buy books like this when I travel, but unfortunately they don’t always get cracked open.

Well, for some reason, I recently took this off my bookshelf, where it had been neglected for years, and started reading—and was immediately engrossed. Despite the book’s academic tone, its stories of women crossing the continent between 1840 and 1870 are vivid and gripping.

Women–most of whom would rather have stayed back East with friends and family–usually crossed the continent at the insistence of their husbands or fathers. They often had children in tow. Pregnancy and childbirth on the trail were so commonplace that they were barely mentioned in the diaries of women and often not mentioned at all in accounts left by men.

“How these women dealt with the risks of childbirth, how they felt about the prospect of being delivered by the side of the road, in a tent or in a wagon, is untold,” writes author Lillian Schlissel. “The women must have watched the horizon anxiously in the last days of pregnancy, trying to learn if the weather would be calm or threatening, if the wagons were near or far from water, if another woman was at hand, if the road was smooth or rocky.”

The women carefully counted and noted graves they saw along the road (Schlissel found this heartbreakingly common among the accounts), cooked in primitive conditions, had to unpack and pack the wagon at each stop, slept outdoors in rain and mud. Children fell out of wagons, were run over, fell ill and died. Dust storms, mosquitoes, hail storms, sun, snow, dysentery, cholera …

One account of a river crossing, from a fragment of letter written between 1856 and ’57, haunts me.

“…a woman was standing on the bank, she said to mother, do you see that man with the red warmer on well that is my husband and while she spoke the boat struck and went down and she had to stand within call of him and see him drownd. O my heart was sore for that woman and three miles from the river we saw another women with 8 children stand beside the grave of her husband and her oldest son so sick that she could not travel …”

The women formed a sisterhood, caring for each other in childbirth, tending the sick together, helping each other maintain modesty when nature called on barren terrain by holding out long skirts to form a screen, and providing the kind of companionship for each other that only women can. Sad and lonely were the women who traveled with no others for support.

I won’t soon forget the stories I read in this book. It’s a whole different view of America’s Westward expansion.

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womens diaries003I don’t recall where I bought Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey except to say that I’m sure it was on a trip out West. I am frequently inspired to buy books like this when I travel, but unfortunately they don’t always get cracked open.

Well, for some reason, I recently took this off my bookshelf, where it had been neglected for years, and started reading—and was immediately engrossed. Despite the book’s academic tone, its stories of women crossing the continent between 1840 and 1870 are vivid and gripping.

Women–most of whom would rather have stayed back East with friends and family–usually crossed the continent at the insistence of their husbands or fathers. They often had children in tow. Pregnancy and childbirth on the trail were so commonplace that they were barely mentioned in the diaries of women and often not mentioned at all in accounts left by men.

“How these women dealt with the risks of childbirth, how they felt about the prospect of being delivered by the side of the road, in a tent or in a wagon, is untold,” writes author Lillian Schlissel. “The women must have watched the horizon anxiously in the last days of pregnancy, trying to learn if the weather would be calm or threatening, if the wagons were near or far from water, if another woman was at hand, if the road was smooth or rocky.”

The women carefully counted and noted graves they saw along the road (Schlissel found this heartbreakingly common among the accounts), cooked in primitive conditions, had to unpack and pack the wagon at each stop, slept outdoors in rain and mud. Children fell out of wagons, were run over, fell ill and died. Dust storms, mosquitoes, hail storms, sun, snow, dysentery, cholera …

One account of a river crossing, from a fragment of letter written between 1856 and ’57, haunts me.

“…a woman was standing on the bank, she said to mother, do you see that man with the red warmer on well that is my husband and while she spoke the boat struck and went down and she had to stand within call of him and see him drownd. O my heart was sore for that woman and three miles from the river we saw another women with 8 children stand beside the grave of her husband and her oldest son so sick that she could not travel …”

The women formed a sisterhood, caring for each other in childbirth, tending the sick together, helping each other maintain modesty when nature called on barren terrain by holding out long skirts to form a screen, and providing the kind of companionship for each other that only women can. Sad and lonely were the women who traveled with no others for support.

I won’t soon forget the stories I read in this book. It’s a whole different view of America’s Westward expansion.

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It has finally arrived. Yesterday, the first episode of The National Parks: America’s Best Idea provided the best excuse in recent memory to avoid all to-dos, to step away from the musts, to ignore text messages and e-mails.

The show began with a quote from John Muir: “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul.”

I thought back on some of the beauty I’ve experienced in the National Parks. The day at Denali when, with just a few other people around, I watched a moose taking a midday bath with her newborns. The afternoon a foghorn broke through the quiet of a hike in Acadia National Park. And the hundreds of images I focused on during a three-day photography workshop in Yellowstone National Park. Here, some of the photos I settle into when I need to pull back from daily life. I hope you enjoy them.

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It has finally arrived. Yesterday, the first episode of The National Parks: America’s Best Idea provided the best excuse in recent memory to avoid all to-dos, to step away from the musts, to ignore text messages and e-mails.

The show began with a quote from John Muir: “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul.”

I thought back on some of the beauty I’ve experienced in the National Parks. The day at Denali when, with just a few other people around, I watched a moose taking a midday bath with her newborns. The afternoon a foghorn broke through the quiet of a hike in Acadia National Park. And the hundreds of images I focused on during a three-day photography workshop in Yellowstone National Park. Here, some of the photos I settle into when I need to pull back from daily life. I hope you enjoy them.

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Met, shmet. Those fancy museum are fine, but Flyover Americans never met an oddball museum they didn’t love. So much so, we had trouble choosing among the gajillions we’ve visited.

Today’s threefer guest writer is our buddy Eva Holland, senior editor of World Hum, swell writer, cool chick, and ’60s soul junkie, which explains her detour to western Alabama on a trip from Nashville to Memphis.

Jenna and I totally understand. An oddball museum is always worth a detour. (Oh, and BTW–we do like the Met, too. But in a different way.)

Photo by Eva Holland

Photo by Eva Holland

My visit to Muscle Shoals, Alabama remains the greatest detour I’ve ever taken. Why? Thanks to the unexpected delights of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. Don’t laugh: Alabama packs some serious star power. Nat King Cole, The Temptations, Lionel Richie, Hank Williams and — of course — Alabama all hail from the Yellowhammer State, just for a start. And the Hall of Fame honors that talent with neon light displays, vintage jukeboxes, original lyrics written on scraps of napkins and old 45s in glass cases. It’s a music geek’s kitschy playground.
Eva Holland

Photo courtesy of the Chattanooga Area Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB)

Photo courtesy of the Chattanooga Area Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB)

I hadn’t ever given tow trucks much thought. But, in a fit of well, what the hell is that all about?, I decided to visit the International Towing and Recovery Museum in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Step inside the ho-hum building and you get blasted with color. The collection features brightly painted classic tow trucks that date back to the early 1900s; toy trucks I imagine my grandfathers rolled around when they were wee; and, my favorite, dioramas of need-a-tow events. Just like that, a formerly invisible industry went Technicolor.–Jenna

Photo by Sophia Dembling

Photo by Sophia Dembling

The Texas Prison Museum? Oh my, yes please! It’s in Huntsville, home to Texas’ oldest state prison. We spotted it from the highway driving to Galveston (look for the guard tower) and simply had to stop en route home. Fascinating. Not only Old Sparky (an electric chair in which 361 men died–chills!) but also inmate art, including “Death Row Dolls,” made by female death row inmates, and a “Prisonopoly” game; info on famous inmates (including Leadbelly, David Crosby, and Henry Lee Lucas); weapons made by and confiscated from inmates; and prison “hardware” (leg irons, ball and chain). Totally wow. —Sophia Dembling

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flagI suffer from event blindness. It’s a rare condition wherein excitement about an event upends the sufferer’s research skills and stops them from checking out the location of said event. So, when an invite to the Plano Balloon Festival arrived, I said yes without delving deep into the destination: Plano, Texas. I’m a little bonkers for all things that fly. Since it’s been several years since I’d spent time around things that sailed via wicker, fabric, and fire, I was excited for the event.

burnBut before the balloons, I had a chance to visit with Plano. As Sophie mentioned the other day, Plano is “a hard sell as a tourist destination.” A corporate community, Plano features restaurants and stores a-plenty but, for the most part, not all that much that I couldn’t find in a suburb of New Jersey or Illinois. There was a tasty selection of vino at Cru, the local wine bar, and a great makeup artist at the Super Target in neighboring Frisco but…

I felt a bit silly. Nothing was fully offsetting the thought of my at-home to-do list. I couldn’t just relax (and enjoy the beds at the Marriott Dallas/Plano at Legacy Town Center).

I settled down when I finally stepped onto that field. The roar of the giant fans used to inflate the balloons would put a fleet of lawnmowers to shame. Once the balloons started to rise, everything else dulled. And, once night took over and the glows began, I wanted to stay put forever. My anxiety about my angry to-do list faded away.

glowWhile I agree with Sophie that Plano isn’t necessarily a tourist destination in its own right, timing a Dallas trip to coincide with next year’s Plano Balloon Festival wouldn’t, in any way, be a mistake. Hot air balloons are magic. The Target really is that super. The pizza at Urban Crust made this New Yorker kvell. (Chef, I bow to your creativity–and your fig and prosciutto pizza.) And I got to hang with Sophie. So, looking back, not too bad. Not too bad at all. Turns out it was Plano enjoyable.

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Plano's Beautiful Balloons

I had a little staycation this weekend (and I use the word just to annoy Jenna), spending a night in Plano, a suburb of Dallas, to attend the Plano Balloon Festival–and, not incidentally, to hang out with Jenna, who was in town for the same event and will tell you her side of the story later.

Even with my affection for B-list cities Plano itself is a hard sell as a tourist destination–though it would make a fine base for a visit to the Metroplex, as we like to call it. As far as attractions go, it has Southfork Ranch (you know, J.R. and all); a little historic downtown, home to the Interurban Railway Museum; the Heritage Farmstead Museum (which I didn’t have a chance to visit) and the Cockroach Hall of Fame (ditto–and surprisingly this is not included in the list of attractions on the Plano CVB website). It has lots of swell new hotels and restaurants and lots and lots of shopping. It is perhaps better for a staycation than vacation–I had an exceptional lunch at the Urban Crust, a lovely room at the Marriott, and a pleasant time in general. But I only had to drive 50 minutes to get there.

The highlight of the “trip” was definitely the balloon fest. This was my first, and since I was there as a journalist (and I use the term loosely), I was allowed out on the field to wander among the balloons and insane people who go up in them. (No, I did not go up and never will. I don’t do heights.) That was pretty exciting so I thought I’d share some images here with you–balloons and skydivers and stirring patriotic moments. (I included The Dallas Morning News balloon as a shout-out to my former employer, but I gotta say, the limp sign seems to speak directly to the state of the newspaper industry today.) How ’bout those giant flamethrowers? Yikes.

Staycation, staycation, staycation.

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