Archive for December, 2009

Also Not Resolutions

The road ahead leads deeper into America.

Oh boy, I knew exactly what Jenna was talking about when she described gatherings of travel writers.  I call it the Commander McBragg syndrome. I always lose that game. I’ve never even been to Nepal.

I’ve seen more places than many people but not nearly as many as others. I hope to see more of the world before I’m done.

But something funny (not funny haha) happened to me earlier this year. As my husband merged our rented PT Cruiser onto the highway in Albuquerque at the start of a week-long road trip, I had a thrill of anticipation and realized that nothing makes me happier than hitting the road to look for America. That’s how my travel life started and I have come full circle back to it. I see my road ahead in the new decade winding ever more deeply into the geography and psyche of America.

I’ve seen a lot of our nation, more than many Americans, but I’ve only just begun. I hardly know the deep South (an upcoming trip to Savannah will help). Much of the middle of America remains mysterious to me. I yearn to know Nebraska and I’m consumed with curiosity about North Dakota.

And I’m ready to move on to some deep cuts. I’ve seen the Grand Canyon many times from the rim; now I want to raft it. I once spent about an hour in Baxter State Park in Maine (after a verrrrry long day of driving) and long to return and really see it. I’ve been to West Virginia twice; it’s a diamond in the rough that I need to know better.

I’m not making resolutions about where I’ll go and what I’ll see this year. Life has been complicated and stressful for several years and I’m not putting any unnecessary pressure on myself right now. My resolution is to permit myself to focus on the U.S.A.—which feels both exciting and like a relief. The world is so big … I probably won’t ever make it into the Century Club or come out on top with the Commander McBragg contingent. But I can get to know one place well, from sea to shining sea.

I look forward to having a fresh, shiny new decade in which to do it.

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It's a gaping hole in my U.S. travel experiences. Photo of Grand Canyon National Park courtesy of the National Park Service.

It's a gaping hole in my U.S. travel experiences. Photo of Grand Canyon National Park courtesy of the National Park Service.

Last week I had drinks with a bunch of other travelish types. On the way there, the old nerves cropped up a bit. Get a gaggle of travel writers together and the conversation can turn competitive. Most know exactly how many countries and states and counties and tributaries they’ve visited and, yes, we do sit around discussing the oddest things we ever ate. (Mine: fried vein of cow udder in Sonora, Mexico. VERY bouncy.) I was feeling a bit off my game, hadn’t traveled all that much recently, and didn’t feel like playing what amounts to Travel Writer Risk.

But a funny thing happened on the way to my second bourbon. (Maker’s rocks. Thanks.) A bunch of us started talking about the places we hadn’t been in the U.S. The giant gaping holes in our closer-to-home travel experiences. It was fun. It felt like we were all admitting something a little dirty. I mean, a whole bunch of us hadn’t ever been to…wait for it…the Grand Canyon.

Thinking back on that conversation, I decided to make some travel resolutions. Normally, the whole New Year’s resolutions thing makes me cranky. I’m not a big fan of setting oneself up for failure. I’m perfectly capable of racking up failures without giving everybody I know advance notice of my plans. But with January just days away and my cross-country drive plans far from moving ahead, I might as well put a New Year’s resolutions spin on the whole shebang and, oh hell, toss in a few more.

So, my all-American travel resolutions for 2010:

1. Visit New Orleans. (Nope. Haven’t been. But I will admit that putting this on the list is pretty much like putting something on a to-do list after you’ve done it. My plane takes off for Louisiana at 6:30 a.m. on the 5th.)

2. Drive across the U.S. Live in Alaska for the summer. Drive back. (I will make this happen, dagnabit!)

3. Go to the Grand Canyon.

4. Go camping. (My family was not a camping family. But I think I could be a camping person. It’s time I got started. Got a tent I could borrow?)

5. Start my State Fair collection. I want to go to every State Fair. I haven’t been to any yet. (Yes. I know. I should be ashamed. Blah blah blah.)

6. See The Godfather. (OK, it’s not a travel resolution. But, really, a viewing is ridiculously overdue.)

OK, that’s enough for now. Any all-American travel resolutions on your list?

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Hope on the Boardwalk

I met Ojenga last January on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. On winter days, the seagulls outnumber the people wandering the boardwalk by about 1000 to one. But Ojenga’s out there drumming, day in day out, unless it’s really really freezing. When I met him, he’d just logged his 17th year on the boardwalk. Business had been pretty bad but Ojenga was hopeful. He was, easily, one of the most memorable people I met in 2009. His drumming, his hope, they made me feel better. So, with a new year approaching, I thought you might need a dose of Ojenga in your own life.

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On Saturday, my friend Cathy posted on Facebook this photo of her Pennsylvania neighborhood.

Photo by Cathy Gaines Mifsud

Photo by Cathy Gaines Mifsud

This is what it looked like in my Texas neighborhood. The temperature was about 55 degrees.

Photo by Sophia Dembling

Photo by Sophia Dembling

I’d rather be where Cathy is.

Golly, her photo made me homesick for the East Coast. It stirred in me a deep pang of recollection of hunkering down indoors while the world outside transforms. You wear the cuddliest clothes you have, curl up on the couch, watch movies, eat too much. The light through the windows is blue, you can practically feel the snow muffling the house and streets. You go out for a tromp through the pristine white, then retreat back to the warm womb of home.

I love Texas winters. I really do. Especially in February, the cruelest month in New York City, when it seems all the world has turned to slush and the last vestiges of summer warmth in your blood has long since been chilled.

But up there, the first snow is always a novel thrill. You fall in love with it all over again and forget how beaten down you’ll be by February.

Or maybe it’s just me. I’ve never spent a winter in a really cold, snowy place other than NYC. I’ve only visited. My friend Helen in Vermont posted this on her status line the other day: “Winter is finally here–four below this morning, colder tonight as the polar air digs in. I’m at the acceptance stage, but maybe should go back to being pissed.”

I wonder how people in North Dakota or Buffalo, New York feel about the first snowfall.

Well, at least Dallas isn’t as bad a New Orleans, Miami, and San Diego. December should not be sultry. That’s just wrong. We get a little snow. It doesn’t last, but it’s nice when it falls. We get temperatures cold enough to justify a fire. (Sometimes we build fires even when the temperature doesn’t justify it, leaving the door so the house doesn’t get too hot.) We get to wear sweaters, sometimes even jackets and gloves. So that’s nice.

But not as nice as this.

Photo by Cathy Gaines Mifsud

Photo by Cathy Gaines Mifsud

We’ll be skipping Three-fer Friday this week, what with Christmas and all, so Jenna will check in on Wednesday and I’ll see you next week. I wish you all lots of warm fuzzies for the holiday.

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Home for the holidays? After that’s all wrapped up, how about decompressing with a trip through one of our favorite historic houses? Though some people believe I’ll go to hell for this, you might even want to play one of my favorite historic house tour games: What’s that? Just pick some random item in a room–there’s usually good stuff sitting on the mantel–and ask the guide what it was used for. (It’s not really mean mean. I always smile when I ask the questions and I apologize when I ask a stumper.)

Joining us for this Three-fer Friday trip through America’s historic homes is Caroline Tiger, a Philadelphia-based freelance writer who writes about quite the wide range of topics but really loves writing about design, France, and Philadelphia. Do yourself a favor and give her super stylish blog, design-phan, a read.

The slightly overstated droop in its roof and deliberately exaggerated tapering of its sandstone walls give the structure a cartoonish look. Photo by barnyardbbs via Flickr (Creative Commons license).

The slightly overstated droop in its roof and deliberately exaggerated tapering of its sandstone walls give the structure a cartoonish look. Photo by barnyardbbs via Flickr (Creative Commons license).

The Wharton Esherick Museum on a forested hilltop in Valley Forge, PA, resembles a fairytale cottage. Esherick, a pioneer of the Studio Furniture movement, thought buildings should appear to grow from their surroundings.  His walls taper like trees.

Every beam, shelf, and piece of sculpture–gleaming from years and layers of boiled linseed oil–was crafted by Esherick while he lived and worked here from the 1920s till his death in 1970. The man had a sense of humor. A docent told me the sculpture of a young woman sheepishly covering her crotch (“Adolescence”) immortalizes his daughter’s embarrassment over her parents’clothing-optional lifestyle. His kids, who turned their father’s home into a museum, left everything as it was. A dogeared copy of Walden still occupies the bookshelf over his bed.–Caroline Tiger

Photo by Sophia Dembling.

Imagine yourself here. Photo by Sophia Dembling.

How do I choose a favorite? The glorious mansions of Newport, Rhode Island? New York’s Tenement Museum, where my great-uncle Sam Jaffe was born? (Cool, right?) Or back to Oklahoma and the Selman Guest Ranch, where I had breakfast one day last year. The cozy 1920s ranch house, set on 14,000 spectacular acres is filled with unpretentious memorabilia from 100 years of Selman ranchers (Sue Selman and her progeny currently run it). It is among the most evocative houses I’ve ever visited, redolent of Oklahoma history as lived by one family. I wandered the rooms while breakfast sizzled fragrantly on the griddle and snapshots from an imagined past flitted through my mind.–Sophia

One of the Biltmore's 43 bathrooms. Photo courtesty of southerntabitha via Flickr (Creative Commons license).

One of the Biltmore's 43 bathrooms. Photo courtesty of southerntabitha via Flickr (Creative Commons license).

OK, so it stretches the definition of “house” a bit. But, two years after my visit to Asheville, North Carolina‘s Biltmore Estate for Land Rover Experience Driving School, I’m still daydreaming of the parties (some elegant, others raucous) I would love to throw there. As I passed through a few dozen of the house’s 250 rooms, it was easy to picture groups of friends gathered in the library (stocked with 10,000 books), throwing strikes in the bowling alley, or drinking it up in the basement room that Cornelia Vanderbilt and friends painted with crazy murals during their own party. Though, as far as houses go, the Biltmore is planted firmly at massive–it’s America’s largest private home–it felt surprisingly cozy. And, oh, that library.–Jenna

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A Donut Story

There's a reason this statue is so little known.

There's a good reason why this statue is so little known.

Remember that old travel magazine I found?

In it was a two-page spread titled “America’s Little Known Statues” by Frank L. Remington. Among the statues highlighted is this donutty monument, with the caption:

“In Camden, Maine stands a monument to Henry Brewster who invented the hole in the doughnut after he heard his mother remark that the centers never baked through—thus setting a style for America.”

Wow. A statue honoring donuts? How had I missed this in all those summers in Maine? I had to know more, perhaps plan a pilgrimage. I contacted the Camden chamber of commerce to learn if the statue still stands. They connected me with the Walsh History Center at the Camden library where archivist Heather Bilodeau got on the case. And the plot thickened.

Sadly,  Camden has no donut statue. “According to local legend, Captain Hanson Crockett Gregory of Glen Cove, Maine was the inventor of the donut hole in 1847, and there is a plaque on Gregory’s homestead that tells the story,” Heather wrote to me. “One of my favorite locals (sadly now deceased) was Captain Gregory’s direct descendant, by the name of Fred Crockett. He compiled no less than 13 volumes of information on the donut story, and actually debated esteemed Hyannis attorney Henry Ellis at the 1940 World’s Fair at the Hotel Astor in New York City to defend Captain Gregory’s honor as the ‘true inventor’ of the donut hole.”

Interesting. But then, what of the photo? I sent it to Heather and she dug even deeper…

“I just came across an article in the Boston Herald, Oct 26, 1941, titled “Crisis Near in Battle of the Doughnut-Hole!” she soon responded. “ Victor Kahill, a sculptor from Portland, Maine, created the clay model pictured. The plan was to erect a bronze statue of Captain Gregory on top of Mt. Battie here in Camden. Much was made of the plans for this event, attracting the attention of attorney Henry Ellis. He claimed that his grandmother Sally Grenough, who was part Indian, told him the ‘true’ story that an Indian had shot an arrow through a frycake to scare the woman cooking it. Apparently Victor Kahill, seeing his chance of casting Captain Gregory go up in smoke, contacted Henry Ellis for an image of the Indian so he could revise the statue. Ellis replied rather tartly, ‘I can only show you where he is buried. Indians not interested in sculpting, only scalping.’” (With apologies to my Native American readers…)

So, there we have it, friends: The kind of important information you will learn ONLY here, on Flyover America.

And what do we learn from this?

  1. The invention of the donut hole is hotly contested.
  2. It is possible to write 13 volumes on pretty much anything.
  3. Travel writers can’t be trusted

Many thanks to Heather Bilodeau.

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This gaggle of birds thinks you oughta enter the contest. (2009 National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass)

This gaggle of birds thinks you oughta enter the contest. (2010 National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass)

Though I spend a fair bit of my procrastination free time wandering photography websites, the fine print has scared me away from pretty much every amateur photography contest I’ve considered entering. Clause 39 usually features something about your likeness in perpetuity and that they own the back left tire of your car. Or something. But, another, um, hobby is poking around the National Park Service site. On my latest ramble through the NPS internet wilderness, I stopped off to consider the National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass. At 80 bucks, it’s a big-time bargain. It gets you (and whichever three people you take with you in your auto) into all of the parks for the next year. A powerful thing to slip into your wallet, eh?

So, after pondering that bit of beauty for a while, I scrolled down the where-you-buy-it page. There it was: the photography contest of my dreams. I figured you might wanna know about it, too. Win the Share the Experience Official Federal Recreation Lands Photo Contest and they’ll put your photo on the 2011 National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass. Seriously, I think that’s just about the coolest photo contest I’ve ever come across. I don’t even care what the fine print says. They can have my back left tire. Hell, take the whole car. (OK, I don’t own a car.) Oh, the winner also gets a camera and a trip to the federal recreation area of her choice. Deadline for entries is December 31, 2009.

Good stuff, right?

Need inspiration? Check out the past winners.

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