Thursday, August 26, 2010

History on Two Wheels

It started with a wart. On my wife.
Some might define a wart as a pesky addition to one’s life that serves no useful purpose, stubbornly hanging on unless something specific and drastic is done to remove it.
Based on that definition, some might also say that I’m the wart in her life, but she assures me that I’m only mildly annoying and require no immediate action or removal.
In fact, the wart, in this case, was a plantar wart on her heel; mildly painful and flat-out annoying to my active spouse.
She had the thing taken off via some simple doctor’s-office surgery, leaving her with a slow-healing hole in her heel. After some learned suggestions from some friends while I was gratefully sitting out the dancing at a wedding reception, I did a little late research on some alternate methods of plantar wart removal. I was sorry I missed the chance to experiment on her unsuspecting foot, as sources listed a whole homeopathic plethora of do-it-yourself treatments, including the application of papya or pineapple or banana peel or aloe vera or apple cider vinegar or a paste of castor oil and baking soda. But my favorite was the one our friends suggested in the first place--Duct tape, that universal solution for virtually any need. I sometimes can’t help thinking the Genesis creation story is missing an important part, like “And God said, ‘Let there be duct tape and vice grip pliers, so all you guys can rest on Sunday, too.’”
But my real reason for telling you the tale of the wart is not to bring undue attention to my wife’s lovely feet, nor is it even an effort to extol the wonderful, multi-faceted qualities of duct tape.
It is, instead, a preamble to what came next.
It was a lazy Sunday, with no big plans in sight. We wanted to get out and enjoy the sunny day, but, thanks to the “hole in the heel” situation, a hike was out of the question. So was a tippy trip in our kayaks, since she had expressed a disinclination to dip her wounded foot into the muddy water that inevitably sloshes around in the bottom of the boats.
Me: “How about a bike ride on the Hennepin Canal?”
She: “Who are you and what have you done with my husband?”
It’s not that I’m lazy.
Well, maybe I am.
But it’s just that most of our hyperactive “let’s go out and...” ideas come from her lips, while I’m generally more inclined to suggest car trips that end up at an ice cream social or pie eating contest. Thinking this would be a good, active, foot-friendly way to spend the afternoon, she jumped at the idea before I had a chance to change my mind. We strapped the bikes to the rack on the back, then headed for the Hennepin Canal Parkway State Park visitors’ center outside of Sheffield.
For those not up on the history of the canal, it’s a fascinating story of when obsolescence meets advanced technology. Put simply, the canal, which was to provide a commercial shortcut between the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers, was both ahead and behind the times when it was completed in 1907 after a 37-year construction process. During that time, the locks on the two big rivers had been expanded, allowing for larger barges than could be accomodated by the canal’s 33 locks. Moreover, the cost of other methods of transportation, including railroad, had fallen, in part, because of the threat of competition from the new canal.
The Hennepin was the first American canal built of concrete without stone cut facings. Although it had only limited success as a commercial waterway, engineering ideas used in its construction marked real advances, with the canal becoming a training ground for engineers that later worked on the Panama Canal.
We headed east along the little gravel path that was first established as a tow path for pulling barges. While we could occasionally hear distant traffic from the highways and byways that make their way near and across the canal, we were, for all intents, transported to a landscape and slice of countryside that has remained unaltered by man since it was created along a natural depression that roughly follows the course of the ancient Mississippi River.
There were things to see.
We traveled across a now-dry peat bog some 65 to 70 feet deep, that is left over from the retreat of the glaciers over 9000 years ago. We viewed the site of a fish hatchery once used to breed fish for the canal, that is now home to muskrats, frogs and wood ducks. We wondered about concrete slabs that were used as “boat ways,” where barges could be hauled out of the water for repair. We saw gliding Great Blue Herons of prehistoric size. We coasted across a lift bridge, built to give farmers access to their fields, that could be lifted by one person via the use of a large wheel and counterweights to make way for canal traffic. We sighted one of the many lockkeepers houses established for the men who maintained the canal in its short heyday.
We pedaled under bridges and along locks that featured technology that was unique to the Hennepin. We went, in fact, further than we had intended, always wanting to see what was after the next hill or winding stretch. And finally, we turned around and saw it all again from a different perspective.
I spend a lot of time in these pages talking about the things you can see if you stray off the beaten path. It never fails to stir me somehow when I witness the remains of those who have gone those ways before. I never get tired of seeing all there is to see. I never get tired of remembering.
I hope I never do.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

An Early Fall and a Season of Hope

It kind of snuck up on us.
It surely hasn’t felt like fall, though we have finally experienced a bit of a respite from last week’s blazing heat. Nonetheless, the cool, crisp days of autumn are probably still weeks and weeks away.
For me, the thought of hot, stuffy classrooms, back-to-school sweaters and the brand new, stiff-as-a-board blue jeans my mother used to subject me to just makes me sweat.
Because, yes, school is starting.
Things have changed since we used to finish the school year before Memorial Day and then enjoyed three full months of sweet freedom before heading back to the classroom after Labor Day. Part of it, I guess, had to do with the greater number of smaller farms still in operation back in the day. Spring and fall were busy times, and farm kids were a big part of the agricultural workforce. Like many things, that’s changed, too, with fewer family farms, more mechanization and later harvest times to boot.
Our local school districts operate under the auspices of regulations approved by state legislators that mandate longer school calendars to, I suppose, balance out the crazy collection of school holidays that pop up through the fall, winter and spring. But, despite the preparation and best efforts of our teachers, I’m not sure much real education occurs during the first heat-soaked days of late August.
One of us (the smart, pretty one) is experiencing something new this year. As a newly retired teacher, she is NOT going back to school for the first time since she toddled off to kindergarten sometime back in the last century.
Is she sorry?
Well, she says she’ll miss the kids and her co-workers. But she woke up with a smile on her face when the school bell rang this week.
An interesting feature on Tuesday morning’s Today Show told about cash-strapped schools that are requiring parents to provide non-traditional items like ziplock bags, paper towels, bleach...and toilet paper. This added financial burden is in addition to “normal” school supply lists that read like the shipping manifest for the invasion of Normandy. In addition, an Indiana-based friend recently lamented a set of school-required, non-insured inoculations for her kids that will run around $700.
Yikes. I guess free education isn’t always so free after all.
Galva marked last weekend and the end of summer in its own special way. Galva Day, which got its start as a Friday men’s-only golf play day back in the 50’s, now includes both men and women at two area courses. The event is still held on Friday, and is, often enough, a tribute to the patience of golf course superintendents, committee members and more-accomplished linksters, as a significant number of career duffers choose that Friday to tee it up for the only time during the season. The day kicks off a weekend filled with fun and memories, as many past high school classes celebrate their reunions. My sister pried herself away from her Lake Superior beach home to come to Galva for her 50th, but my younger son was unable to make the trip for his 10th, because--you guessed it--school and football practice were already on tap in North Carolina.
Another annual event happening this past weekend was the Kewanee-based Henry/Stark Relay for Life, which was held on Saturday and Sunday at beautiful Windmont Park. It’s truly a season of hope, as Relays all across the nation raise much-needed funds for the American Cancer Society and its cancer research, plus remember those who have lost their lives to the disease and celebrate the lives of those who survive.
I’m one of them. And I celebrate every year.
It’s been seven years since a doctor said, “I’m sorry,” because he felt I would probably die soon from an aggressive kind of cancer.
It’s been six years since another doctor prescribed a last-ditch drug treatment and said, “all we can do is try to buy you some time,” after surgery failed and the disease spread.
And while there have been additional surgeries and treatments, and times of frustration and pain, it has, in many ways, been the best six years of my life.
Without wanting it to sound too dramatic, the life-changing aspects of my disease have helped to lead me to a new way of living; of doing things, seeing things and feeling things. I have enjoyed the freedom and will to cherish every day as it comes.
Statistically, my cancer is apt to come back some day. But it’s not something that gnaws at me or even worries me very often. Not long after I was diagnosed, I stumbled on a little poem that I quickly printed and put where I could see it during those early, scary days:

Cancer Is so limited
It cannot cripple love.
It cannot shatter hope.
It cannot corrode faith.
It cannot eat away peace.
It cannot destroy confidence.
It cannot shut out memories.
It cannot silence courage.
It cannot invade the soul.
It cannot steal eternal life.
It cannot conquer the spirit.

It is that combination of hope, faith, peace, memories, spirit and, most of all, love, that has made the difference to me, as it does for so many of those who have survived, and for the families and friends of those who haven’t.
Cancer ain’t no big thing.
Because, truly, love conquers all.
And where there’s love, there’s always hope.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Home by Another Way

And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi left for their own country by another way.
-Matthew 2:12

The magi described in St. Matthew’s Gospel showed they were wise men, indeed, when they dodged King Herod and went “home by another way” after visiting the new-born Christ child.
I’d like to say there’s some kind of wisdom afoot in our choice of routes to and from the places we go, but, often enough, it just sort of happens. Like many travelers, the road we take to a place is sometimes based on a ‘shortest and fastest” criteria, while our return very often involves a little more scenery, a bigger bit of history and local color, and even some on-the-road adventure from time to time. On our most recent outbound drive, a visit to our younger son and family in coastal North Carolina, we chose a mainstream route, traveling via interstate highways through the green hills of Kentucky and Tennessee and crossing the breathtaking Great Smoky Mountains at Knoxville as we headed into Asheville, North Carolina and on to the coast. But heading back, we wandered north on a two-lane highway, moving into Virginia at Mount Airy, the boyhood home of actor Andy Griffith, which was the inspiration for the TV-town of Mayberry. After looking in vain for Andy, Opie and Aunt Bea, we rolled through the winding hills and mountainsides of West Virginia, experiencing a gullywasher thunderstorm that featured high-velocity, sideways winds that had our rooftop-mounted kayaks begging to fly free into the abysses below.
No matter where we’ve been, it seems that our journeys back to Galva are likely those that involve the most off-the-beaten-track travel, probably because we’re no longer in an “anxious to see kids, grandkids or other family and friends” mode.
Instead, we’re heading home, and there’s not always the same sense of urgency, so “home by another way” is often our theme.
She: “Have we been this way before?”
Me: “I’ve been pretty much lost since about nine this morning. Isn’t it great?”
But we’re always happy to finally get there.
“I’m glad to go, but I’m always glad to come home,” she said to me the other night as we rolled into our darkened driveway at the end of our most recent outing.
And I agree, because while there are a lot of fun, exciting, memorable trips to be made, a return to the town where I grew up and where we raised our family together is truly a treat as well.
While we kinda keep in touch by reading the Star Courier online, and via Facebook and email, there’s always something waiting for us in the place where we hang our hats. Sometimes it’s as simple as the notes left by our friendly, neighborhood cat-watcher, who regales me with what I like to call the “Tom Cat Chronicles,” her day-to-day recounting of the various bad attitudes displayed by the surly Max while under her care. I look, hopefully, to see that the lawn hasn’t gotten too out of hand in my absence, while laughing to see what has sprung up in our crazy, out-of-control flower beds while we’ve been gone. Most recently, the wisteria vine that grows on the south side of our house snuck in through the window that houses the air conditioner and wrapped itself around the pole lamp next to my favorite chair, greeting me, as it were, with its out-of-place, leafy presence.
Even after a short jaunt, it’s good to greet neighbors and friends, getting the lowdown on what’s new and what’s not, while basking in the glow of friendly faces and a warm welcome home. We go to church in our own parish after visiting both country chapels and big city cathedrals and realize the ongoing love and faithfulness we can always find in our own small-town niche.
We answer questions...
“Was the weather good?”
“How were those grandkids?”
“Did the kayaks blow off the roof?”
...and we ask questions of our own, hearing both wonderful news, like the birth of a friend’s long-anticipated baby girl, and sad tidings, like the death of a neighbor’s beloved pet.
We laugh and dream and plan and remember and think about the next time we’ll go and come home again by another way.
But for now, we’re just glad to be here.
Because home, by any way we choose, is one place we’ll always want to be.

It's best to go home by another way
Home by another way
We got this far to a lucky star
But tomorrow is another day
We can make it another way
Safe home as they used to say
Keep a weather eye to the chart on high
And go home another way

-James Taylor, “Home by Another Way”

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Sea Tales

It’s a hard life.
As I write this column, I am sitting on a small deck outside my bedroom. Just across the way, the Atlantic Ocean shines a bright blue-green in the morning sun. Upstairs, in the kitchen/living room area, my youngest grandsons are eating their Super Crunchy Sugarbombs for breakfast. I have already heard my daughter-in-law caution them not to bother me this morning.
“Grandpa is working,” she said.
Yes. Working.
My younger son and family are spending a few days with us in a beachside condo in an aptly named town called Surf City. It’s nice for them, with Paddy grabbing a couple of days of beachside relaxation between his summer job as a camp director and the fast-approaching football season and teaching year. It’s nice for us, because it’s a beautiful spot shared with the ones we love, with my only real regret being that son Colin and his brood were unable to break away from the annual Large Mosquito Festival that’s now going on in their neighboring city of Fargo, North Dakota, to join us this time.
It occurs to me that both my sons have done a pretty good job in choosing both wives and locales. Both married smart, pretty girls who are good to them and amazingly nice to me. One son lives near the coast, which is an obvious plus, while the other is in northwestern Minnesota, the bridge between the lakes region and the beginning of the great plains. The Atlantic Ocean and Big Sky country. Not a bad pair of places to visit.
We’re both usually kind of willing to try something new, though I’ve been known to draw the line at certain raw and otherwise slimy seafood dishes and she hesitates sometimes when it comes to dips into dark, unknown bodies of water. Both sensible attitudes, if you ask me, so I don’t know what got into us when our niece presented my spouse with a kayak as a retirement gift.
That’s right. A kayak.
While they’ve apparently become the hip new thing in personal water propulsion, my only real knowledge about the little boats is that they’re what shivering Inuit hunters use to bob around the Arctic Ocean while waiting to hoodwink and harpoon a hapless seal.
But Megan was thrilled with the gift and I was confident, thinking my involvement with small, tippy boats and the people who paddle them would end with hauling it up from my sister’s Lake Superior beach. Strapping the thing to the roof of our car wasn’t even too bad. I considered duct tape, the universal tool for all such tasks, but finally settled for something like a gazillion bungee cords and some interesting language to kind of attach the little yellow (yes, yellow) boat sort of securely on top. It was an angst-filled 500 mile drive home as I waited to see if the plastic-hulled craft would catch an extra-strong burst of wind, tear itself loose from its bonds and flutter under the wheels of an 18-wheeler.
But it didn’t, and I guessed I was home free as I slid the little yellow fellow into our backyard storage shed. I figured she wouldn’t want to go alone, plus the murky, muddy waters of our local lakes and rivers would be an additional deterrent.
It didn’t take long to disavow me of my first assumption, as she proposed a trip to a Peoria shopping area just a couple of days later.
“We need another kayak,” she said.
I could feel a sudden shudder beneath my feet as the balance of power shifted.
“Why?” I asked cautiously.
I knew why, of course, and actually began to warm to the idea of an idyllic side-by-side paddle down a sparkling, sun-drenched stream.
I was less enthusiastic about the next direction our new hobby took.
“Let’s take them with us to North Carolina,” she said.
Another gazillion bungee cords and several new swear words later, we were on our way. It took a few along-the-way adjustments to prevent our wind-struck vehicle from taking off in the second-most spectacular experimental flight since the Wright brothers put Kitty Hawk on the map, but we made it through the Great Smoky Mountains, even, and finally launched our maiden voyage in the Intercoastal Waterway, the 3,000-mile stretch of natural inlets, salt-water rivers, bays, sounds and canals that stretch along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts to provide a safe, navigable route without many of the hazards of travel on the open sea.
We shoved off into the sound, enjoying an easy paddle-and-float journey that included stops at sand bars, oyster banks and salt marshes. We saw fish, sea birds and a few other boaters, though, for the most part, the glassy surface of the inlet sea was ours to enjoy. It was a wonderful experience, filled with looks and laughs and lingering memories.
It was not until we finally turned around to head back to port that we realized that easy paddling one way means a tougher, against-the-tide pull on the return trip. We also realized how much one spot on a coastline looks like another, as we worked our way back towards where we thought we had put in. After going much further than we needed to, I finally asked an elderly boater heading out on a morning fishing trip with his grandson.
“Which way to the public marina?” I called out.
“Back the way you came,” he replied. “Look for the water tower.”
I guess some sailors might consider a municipal water tower a pretty good landmark to remember when heading out, but hey, we’re still learning.
“We’ll be back in a couple of hours if you’re still lost,” he added.
Lost? Well I guess so.
But look what we found.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

A river runs through it

I grew up next to a river of sorts, though the only actual waterway in my childhood neighborhood was a trickling stream we called Chemical Creek. We named it that because of the special qualities it picked up as it burbled through the property shared by the Galva Foundry and the Lily Tulip Cup factory before flowing through the vacant lot at the end of our street. Chemical Creek never froze, no matter how cold it got. It smelled kind of funny, supported no aquatic life, and made your feet tingle if you waded in it for more than a few seconds. We were forbidden to play in the creek, and sometimes we didn't.
The thing that really seemed like a river to me wasn’t a river at all. It was, in fact, a highway made of roughly equal parts of concrete, asphalt, sweat and memories.
Route 34--also known as "the hard road" for its paved surface--was a part of what was once called The Cannonball Trail that ran through our part of Illinois. It now starts as Ogden Avenue in Chicago and goes all the way to Rocky Mountain National Park near Denver, where it climbs to 12,183 feet, making it the highest paved through highway in the United States. For much of its length, it roughly follows the path of what was called the Central Military Tract Railroad, now the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Line, which is part of the system of tracks and trains that run from Chicago to the west coast. Most of the towns along the way--including Kewanee and Galva--sprung up because of that proximity to the railroad.
In the pre-interstate highway days of my childhood, Route 34 saw heavy car and truck traffic day and night. It was an important part of my young life because it represented a border, like a river, that I was absolutely forbidden to cross without express permission and some sort of parent/older sibling supervision. It was a great place to watch for out-of-state license plates and wave at truck drivers who might be convinced to honk their wonderful air horns at me.
The corner of our street and the highway was, for me, the great jumping-off point to the rest of the world.
I still feel that way, despite the fact that old 34 is now pretty much just the choice of locals traveling between towns, and those few travelers who prefer to see something more than mile markers, fast food joints and all-night gas stations the size of small, suburban cities.
We still travel the east end of the old route into Chicago once in awhile, with every trip reminding me of the cautious forays my family used to make to exotic locations like the Prudential Building and Brookfield Zoo. And while traffic might get a little slow through parts of the city, it’s still the most direct route from here to there, if not always the fastest. We’ve worked our way along some of the western parts while traveling in Iowa and Colorado, too.
But we’ve never driven the whole thing from end to end.
I think about it sometimes.
I think about spending a few weeks poking along the full length of highway 34, with stops in both urban neighborhoods and small country towns.
I’d like to take the time to explore the diverse neighborhoods along Ogden Avenue and Chicago’s west side. And I want to visit towns like Wray, Colorado; Max, Nebraska and Red Oak, Iowa just to see what happened to them after the main highway went somewhere else.
I don’t know why that road reminded me so much of a river back then. And I don’t exactly know why it continues to call to me yet today.
Maybe someday, I’ll find out.