Thursday, October 28, 2010

Just when you thought I wasn't paying attention

“Are you listening?”
I’ve noticed that the other half of my spousal team often seems to think I miss a lot, probably because I don’t always hear what she’s saying or see what she’s seeing. But while she no doubt thinks I oughta have my eyes and ears (and head) examined, I take shelter in the fact that it’s a gender-based thing that’s out of my control. The hearing part is just selective deafness that prevents me from catching chore assignments and criticism as to my mode of dress or social deportment, while the seeing thing is simply Male Pattern Blindness, a chronic malady that strikes virtually every man once he gets married.
But I am paying attention, sometimes, at least. And as I’ve recently collected a few observations and revelations, it seems only fair to share.

•See how they run.
I gained a renewed respect for a brand of high school athlete last weekend when I covered the Sherrard IHSA Regional Cross County championships. 139 participants bravely. determinedly and spectacularly charged through wet, cold conditions in a sport that seems somehow foreign and way too tough to those of us who generally run only when chased by large, furry animals with big teeth.
Even the coaches log some miles, as they run from spot to spot on the course to cheer on their runners.
Heck, I got a little winded just watching them.
But in a day and time when some adults feel all kids are lacking in ambition, energy, drive and focus, it’s great to see just the opposite in these special athletes.
Kudos to all those kids who run hard to win...or just run hard to run.

•That’s how the ball bounces
Speaking of sports, I was covering a volleyball match the other evening when something occurred to me. Why is it that volleyball is the only sport where the ball can ricochet off the gym ceiling or rattle around in the girders and heating ducts up there and still be considered “live” and playable? I’m not objecting, mind you, as it’s pretty interesting to watch the girls maneuver themselves to be ready for the darn thing when it comes back down. In fact, I’d like to see that rule extended to a few other sports. Imagine how much more exciting basketball would be if you could bounce a pass off the ceiling or an air conditioner. And think about a football pass play that includes a rebound off the score board or goal post. It sort of reminds me of when my kids and friends used to play a brand of front-yard baseball that featured a huge hard maple and a giant fir tree as essential parts of the in-play field. A ball that got stuck in the branches could still be coaxed out, either by the wind or another thrown object, then caught for an out.
Sure made it interesting.
Just saying.

*Ditto on those political ads
Regarding another field of play, the political arena, Star Courier Associate Editor Mike Berry hit the nail squarely on the head in his column last week when he decried the negative brand of political advertising we’ve been subjected to recently. It’s not just a local thing, as opponent-bashing was in full swing in all the states we visited recently. Back in my days as an advertising agency guy, my company handled campaigns for a couple of U.S. Congressmen and several local and regional candidates. We consistently--and successfully--put a positive, truthful, informative spin on things, with ads that touted the accomplishments and ideas of our candidates, while all but ignoring the person on the other side of the fence.
So what happened?
I spent an hour watching the morning news segment today, and unfortunately, the vast majority of the on-air advertising was political. I should have kept track of the number of negative ads that were filled with misleading, out-of-context “facts,” but didn’t think of it before the number was too vast to recall. I can, however, tell you how many problem-solving, truly factual and informative messages there were:
Zero. Nada. Zip.
Are we really that dumb?
Are they?

•By the way, you can blame me
For those wondering about the period of high winds we’ve experienced this week, blame me. I recently raked and piled leaves. Twice.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Homecoming

The Eagle has landed.
Or in less obscure and dramatic terms, we’re home.
After a long jaunt up and down the eastern seaboard, we arrived back at our digs late last Wednesday night after a long, lazy drive out of the Smoky Mountains, through the rolling hills of Tennessee, into the flat Amish country of Indiana and southeastern Illinois and, finally, through the Illinois River Valley leading home.
All was well.
The house was still standing, my lawn had been mowed by good neighbor John, and even our cranky cat, Max, was waiting for us as if it had been just four hours instead of four weeks. Under the tutelage of his personal cat whisperer, our neighbor and house-watcher Shannon, he has now learned to actually eat the once-despised dry cat food that he generally ignores in favor of something canned and smelly. The only real sign he knows we were gone is that he insists on sleeping with us instead of going out to stalk in the nighttime neighborhood. On the other hand, it’s been pretty cold.
After weeks of sleeping bags, motels rooms and other borrowed bedsteads, the creaky old berth that once was my grandparents’ bed felt just fine as we began to settle back into life at home. The house was cold, as I had turned the thermostat way down before we left, but I’ve so far resisted the temptation to really warm the place up, as we continue to put off the real beginning of the bank-breaking time we call furnace season in our hard-to-heat old barn.
But it’s warm all the same as we share the beauty of midwest autumn, enjoy the greetings of friends and neighbors, hear all the news, and begin to tell the tales of our travels.
One of the things we’ve always done when we roam is to explore all the other places we could live if we wanted to. This trip was no different, as we looked closely at beachfront bungalows, brick cottages, backwoods shacks, intercoastal houseboats and cute water-view condos that caught our eyes. And while the thought of someplace different and nearer to water and woods and kids and, especially, grandchildren, is a tempting idea that we’ll continue to explore, it’s hard to imagine a life that doesn’t also include our big, old family home, our dear friends and the beautiful sight of Wiley Park on a crisp fall morning.
Home, that is.
We were startled by--and proud of--the sight of son Patrick, whose smiling visage graced the front page of the Jacksonville Daily News the morning after we arrived back in North Carolina after an up-coast swing. Paddy, who teaches English at nearby Richlands High School, is also the offensive line coach for the football team. It seems the O-line was expected to be the weak link on an otherwise talented squad, but after a four-game sweep that saw Richlands average over 50 points, he and his undersized overachievers were being credited with much of the season success so far.
“Coach Sloan has done a great job of pushing us and telling us anything’s possible, no matter how big or small we are,” said one player.
By the way, Richlands shares a nickname (Wildcats) and colors (blue and gold) with the now-defunct Galva football Wildcats. Serendipity, plus all my old Galva stuff is right in style.
“You ought to write a travel column.”
That’s the reaction I’ve received from several readers since arriving home. Yes, I guess that’s kind of what this column has been for the past few weeks, as I’ve tried to tell you a little about where we’ve been and what we’ve seen. And while these pages will now turn to more home-bound topics until the next time we hit the road, I’d probably be amiss if I didn’t include a quasi-comprehensive list of “best” or, at least, memorable things encountered along the way, like the real travel writers do:
•Best beach: North Topsail Island, NC
•Best campsite: Ocracoke Island, Cape Hatteras National Seashore (nestled next to an oceanside dune, with the most incredible moon/stars display ever.)
•Best historic tour: Historic Jamestown, VA archaeological tour
•Best ferry ride (we took lots of them): Ocracoke to Cedar Island (two and a half breathtaking hours across Pamlico Sound)
•Best fall views: (tie) The mountains, streams and valleys of Vermont and Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
•Best fall weather: Galva and Kewanee, from what we hear.
•Best back road: Highway 12 through the Outer Banks,which connects an island with the mainland via ferry.
•Most exciting experience: (tie) Sailing on Lake George; getting lost in the Bronx.
•Most lavish hotel room: Trump Marina in Atlantic City (under $50 with an AARP card!)
•Best meal: The birthday cake I shared with my grandsons.
•Best free stuff: The sample room at Ben & Jerry’s factory
•Best WiFi hotspot: McDonald’s--everywhere.
•Best public restroom (this is important, really.): My Old Kentucky Home State Park, Bardstown, KY
•Best highway sign (state-sponsored): Moose Crossing (Vermont)
•Best highway sign (non-state-sponsored): The word “Virginia” spelled out with pumpkins. (surprisingly, Virginia seems to be the jack o’lantern capital of the world.)
•Best place we had never heard of before but discovered along the way: The National Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in Emmitsburg, MD.
•Best small town we had never heard of before but discovered along the way: Woodstock, VT.
•Best T-shirt: “Don’t ask the locals for directions, they lost an entire colony.” (Roanoke Island)
•Best food I thought I’d never try, but liked anyway: Goat cheese grits. (Really!)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

From Beginning to End

Sometimes it’s hard to know just when a story really starts.
This one probably began nearly a month ago as we pulled out of our driveway on the way to a pair of North Carolina weddings and a long list of places we wanted to try and see that would keep us bouncing on and around the eastern seaboard for the next four weeks. Or maybe it really began on a tree-lined street in a small Indiana town, as we shucked the tyranny of the interstate highway system and began enjoying the trip for the sake of the company and the view. It might have been the first glimpse of the mountains or the first breath of salt sea air; the first sloppy kiss from a grandson or the joyful ones shared by blushing brides and proud grooms. The sight and sound of relatives and friends around tables and trails and beaches and backyards and the water views and mountain majesties we all shared. The real story may have started the night we saw the midnight UFOs from the shores of our beachfront campground, or maybe on the rainy night I sent us hurtling the wrong way on the cross-Bronx expressway. The Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes in Emmitsburg, Maryland and the Trump Marina hotel in Atlantic City both offered stories of their own, as did the battlefields of both the American revolution and the Civil War, the apple orchards and color-drenched mountains of upstate New York and Vermont, and the riptide currents of a hurricane-driven coast that finally gave away to slow, warm, gulf-stream waters. Fall came and came again over these past few weeks, throughout the hummocks and hills of the northeast forests and, finally, in the vast, winding prettiness of Great Smoky Mountain National Park, which had just received its autumn paint job as we traveled through on the last stretch towards home.
But if the places were pretty and varied and worth remembering, they were no more a part of this journey than the people.
We encountered convenience store clerks, waiters and waitresses, toll collectors, ferrymen, rangers, cops and a whole host of other folks who managed to be funny, interesting, happy and helpful in turn, making us realize that people really are ready to be nice if you give them a chance.
It’s been a shakedown cruise of sorts, as we test our wings, our energy, our enthusiasm and our full-time compatibility after years of diverse careers and interests that often made time together more like a series of stolen moments than a ongoing thing. No, it wasn’t all beer and skittles every mile of the way. Much of the on-the-road friction that did occasionally occur was due to my bold, but sometimes foolish navigation style. No doubt, my nighttime appearance, with a headlamp banded around my forehead and two pair of reading glasses stacked together for better map reading, did nothing to increase her confidence in my abilities. But we eventually got where we wanted to go, with well over 5000 miles of highways, backroads, coastal causeways and mountain passes to our credit.
The good news is she’s still speaking to me.
There are almost too many stories to tell, though I’m sure we’ll try over the next days and weeks and months and years, even. Meanwhile, we’ll look at pictures, scour over maps and memories...and dream about the next time.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Green Mountain Dreaming

It all started with a cow.
A bunch of them, in fact, grazing and lazing in a mountainside meadow
in the shadow of the Adirondacks.
“That’s the biggest cow I’ve ever seen,” said my observant,
cow-conscious companion.
“It’s dairy country,” said my brother-in-law, who was driving us on an
apple-picking color tour of his region of upstate New York. “There are
a lot of dairy farms around.”
I’m no cow fancier myself, but there were, I thought, a whole lot of
cows, for sure.
The next day found us in lovely Vermont, which in the words of that
same companion is kind of like “Wisconsin with mountains."
Cows galore, that is. Big black and white Holsteins, along with the
ever-beautiful Green Mountains, now alive with the red-gold hues of
I was glancing at one of those tourist maps that show different places
and events in the area when I saw it.  While it might not be the
raison d'être for every one of those bovine buddies, it surely gives
them something to aspire to as they stand around.
Ben and Jerry’s.
The gentle ice cream giants have a factory just outside Waterbury,
Vermont, where they churn out (pun intended) a quarter million pints a
day.  They also offer factory tours.
It was a cool, cloudy Monday in a state where every city--even the
busy ones like the capital--is kind of in the middle of nowhere. So, I
figured it might be a little slow in ice cream heaven. Heck maybe I’d
get the scoop on B & J’s without much delay. Maybe two scoops, even.
Wrong again.
The combination of the fall foliage season and the lure of lots of ice
cream combined for long lines of fans hoping for a glimpse--and a
taste--of their favorite.
We got our own first taste of Ben and Jerry’s back in the early 80’s,
before they became a nationally-known brand. We were visiting in the
northeast and I had been sent to the local market for ice cream.
Instead of returning with the requested Häagen-Dazs, I showed up with
a bagful of of wacky flavors like Chunky Monkey and Cherry Garcia.
She thought I was a genius, maybe for the first time.
Maybe for the only time, in fact.
We enjoyed the tour, especially the sample room. I even got an answer
about the cows, as the guide noted that the company “employs” 40,000
cows belonging to a family dairy co-op in the northern part of the
“Model employees,” he quipped. “All out standing in their field.”
 But even more enjoyable was experiencing the way the topography and
scenery evolves as you travel across and down through Vermont. From
meadows and cows and distant mountains to close-up mountainsides mixed
with racing streams and deep, deep forests, the state is a back-road
dream. Our sense of adventure was heightened by  repeated “Moose
Crossing” signs, along with one warning that there might even be a
bear here and there.
I’m asked, from time to time, whether there’s a part of the country I
like the best.
I can honestly say I’ve liked them all on this extended east coast
foray. It’s been kids and grandchildren on the beach, American history
lessons in the Chesapeake basin, the warm welcome of a cousin living
on the edge of the Civil War battlefield called the Wilderness, the
excitement of sailing with a sister and brother-in-law on beautiful
Lake George, and some wonderful wandering through the land of maple
syrup and Robert Frost.
But best of all is the fact that we’re doing it. We’re going to some
of the places we always said we’d go, seeing some of what there is to
see, and dreaming of the next time we hit the road together.
Dreaming, too, of the long road ahead and the way home.