Thursday, July 28, 2011

Miles from Nowhere

We first visited the Keweenaw Peninsula when we were near-newlyweds, almost 39 years ago, and we always said we'd go back again someday. But we were foiled by time and circumstance and by the knowledge that it is a place that is absolutely on the way to nowhere. It is a wilderness of water and deep woods that pokes straight upwards into Lake Superior on the western end of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. You can get there from here, but you can't get anywhere else once you've arrived. You can only turn around and head home again.
And while its existential beauty and magnificent ruggedness made it a place we've yearned to see and experience again, its sheer remoteness has always made it a tough call in a life filled with other responsibilities, desires and opportunities.
In the past couple of years, though, we've started making a little more effort to revisit some of those special places and people we've known in the past. It's not exactly a "bucket list," because we are re-experiencing rather than trying something new. I guess I like to think of it more as a reunion tour, where we, like a pair of "experienced" rock-and-rollers, go and revisit our greatest hits of the past.
But anyway...
We found ourselves with a little time on our hands last week. It was too hot to do some of the outdoor chores that have been tweaking my conscience, especially those involving tall ladders, brushes and oil-based exterior paint. We had been wanting to visit my sister and her family, who live further east and south along the Superior shore, so we packed the little red tent and the small mountain of gear that accompanies it and hit the road north.
Our first camping stop was at the south edge of the Keweenaw, in the aptly named Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, a 60,000-acre old-growth forest that includes endless stands of ancient trees, rivers, hidden lakes and waterfalls, plus a bevy of wild critters like moose, deer, porcupines (naturally), beaver, coyotes, foxes and wolves. Oh yeah, and lots and lots of black bears.
"Rats," I thought. "I was going to invite them over for s'mores."
We didn't encounter any big furry mammals first-hand, but were lucky enough to do the next best thing.
We met Ranger Bob.
Ranger Bob is a big, good-natured, bear-loving naturalist who took a bunch of us campers on a "bear hike" through a rough-cut wooded trail that featured an actual winter den and some visible bear tracks.
"Go ahead, stick yer head in dere," said Ranger Bob in his hearty north country accent. "Dat's his tracks."
These bits of information sort of alarmed me, as it was starting to get a little dark and we were, after all, in what Mr. Bear might well have considered his living room. But Ranger Bob seemed confident that all was well, so I stayed calm and bear-free. While we were all taken with his knowledge regarding the local bruins and their activities, we were even more impressed by Ranger Bob's ability to ignore the clouds of mosquitoes and biting flies that attacked the rest of us as soon as we entered the woods.
Me: Say, (slap) Ranger Bob, don't these (bzzzz) bugs kinda (ouch) get to you after awhile?
Later on, my nephew Jamie, who has spent considerable time in the deep woods himself, shared the secret.
"Most of those guys have some kind of special bug dope going for them," he explained. "And it helps not to bathe too much."...which goes a long ways towards explaining Ranger Bob's mostly solitary life in the deep woods.
After a glorious Lake Superior sunset, we fixed a quick campfire meal and set about getting ready for bed.
The heat wave that was broiling central Illinois had wandered into the north woods, too, so I wasn't anxious to mount the rain-resistant fly on the top of the tent, preferring to sleep under the open air mesh that forms the domed roof.
She: Do you think it will rain?
Me: Naaa, look at that sky.
She: Do you need to put that pole thing in the rain fly, just in case?
Me: Naaa, that thing just gets in the way.
The first rumble of thunder woke me up at about 3 a.m.
Cursing softly as the rain began to hit the mesh, I crawled out of the tent and searched around for the rain fly. The aforementioned "pole thing" was nowhere to be found, so I slipped the fly over the tent, crawled back inside and drifted off to sleep.
The tent started leaking in earnest at about 4 a.m.
In a humorous bit of circumstance that I totally failed to appreciate at the time, it was only dripping on my side. This was only fair, as it was the lack of "that pole thing" that was allowing the water to pool up on top of the tent before dripping in on me. Cursing a little louder, I scooched her way in an effort to stay at least partly dry until morning.
"Did it rain last night?" she said in the cheery-dreamy tones of one who has enjoyed a dry, comfortable night's sleep.
"Not so YOU'D know it," I muttered, as I headed to the bath house for my second shower of the new day.
After exploring some more of the trails and upland hills of the mountain forest, we packed up and headed further north into the actual peninsula--the region known as the "Copper Country," so named because the area was the world's greatest producer of copper from its heyday beginning in the 1840s well into the 20th century. Despite its remote location and hard, lengthy winters, the area boomed, becoming one of the first western destinations for easterners looking for work, fortune and a new life.
Eventually, most of the copper petered out, and the northern extremes of the region became a thinly populated area again, where the highest man-made structures are the old stone chimneys from the steam engines that powered the mines and the Keweenaw Snow-mometer that helps to measure an annual snowfall that can easily average over 250 inches.
"You live here, you're making a real commitment," she said as we traveled the winding, wooded highway.
We camped again. It rained again; this time with a ferocity that had us huddling in our car until it settled into a long night of wind and rain that finally broke the unnatural heat and humidity for good. We stayed dry that night, and in the morning we explored the army post established way back when copper was king and an army presence was thought to be needed to keep the peace between the miners, the settlers and the Native Americans who lived there first.
We drove a little further north along U.S. 41, a historic north-south route that goes all the way to Miami and has always been one of my favorites to drive.
Then it ended.
The highway just stops in the middle of the woods, with a simple turnaround and sign that announces the fact that you've come to the end (or beginning) of a 2000 mile stretch of highway.
There's just a woods road path leading to the big lake at the tip of the land.
"I guess we're here," she said.
And we were.
Miles from nowhere.
But it felt like home.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Smarter than a smartphone

Make no mistake about it, there are plenty of technological advances that I've embraced completely and enthusiastically over the years. I've been computer literate--and pretty darn savvy when it comes to the internet--for quite awhile now. Even more impressively, I once successfully programmed my VCR, plus I remain the only person in the entire universe who can set the clocks in both our cars and our microwave oven without having to refer to an instruction manual or ask a teenager for help.
But this whole phone thing kind of zipped past me when I wasn't looking.
Bear in mind, I grew up in a generation where a single phone was enough for a household, while using it--especially to make a LONG DISTANCE CALL--was almost a kind of a ceremony.
But somehow, attitudes changed. So did phones.
Suddenly, it seems like every woman, man, boy, girl and cocker spaniel on the planet has his or her or its own phone, many of them so-called "smartphones" that allow the user to surf the internet, play music and games, send and receive emails and take advantage of a whole gunnysack full of applications that range from kinda handy to sorta quirky to flat-out dumb. There's even a rumor going around that they can make and receive calls, but I'm not sure they're often put to such mundane use.
That last function--talking to others--is about all the old geezer of a phone that I sometimes remember to carry can manage. That's generally fine with me, though I have to admit I was pretty impressed when a friend I was talking to recently used his to both find the best gasoline prices in the area and look up the beginning and end points of the upcoming Ragbrai bicycle ride across Iowa.
My spouse, however, has been a trifle more adventurous than me, starting with the bright red model she used her upgrade on last year that featured a pull-out QWERTY keyboard, which kind of made me wonder if she was planning on exchanging texts regarding the hunky quarterback in third period study hall. Despite its glamorous color and modern features, though, that phone turned out to be a bright-red lemon. She missed more calls than she received as the messed-up phone often sucked up its own battery reserves and died over and over and over again. I figured I was about due for a free upgrade of my own this year, so I invited her to try again, thinking this time she'd choose something dull and dependable like me, er, my phone. So I was a little surprised when she turned up her nose at a bare-bones flip phone like mine and went the bells-and-whistles route again. I guess it's not quite a full-fledged smartphone, but it has a touch screen and quite a few extra features and functions that she seems to be learning as needed or desired. I felt a little left out, in fact, as she, once again, leapt boldly into the 21st century, while I glumly lagged behind in a technological funk.
It was not until she encountered her first real problem with the phone that I was able to recover some self-esteem.
She: I can barely hear on this new phone when someone calls me.
Me: (wisely) Hmmmm.
She: I've tried turning up the volume on the earpiece, but that doesn't help.
Me: (wiser still) Hmmmm. Well, let me take a look. Maybe I can fix it.
Disgusted, she gave me the phone and stalked out of the room. I handled the thing gingerly and sort of clumsily, too, sort of like a chimpanzee who's been handed a six shooter. I was pretty sure that my usual methods for fixing things, which generally involve copious amounts of duct tape or a sharp rap with a ball-peen hammer, weren't quite what was called for.
Then, something caught my eye.
The little plastic sheet that is supposed to protect the touch screen from scratches and smudges had slid a little bit out of place. It had, in fact, slid right over the tiny ear hole on the listening end of the phone.
I slipped the sheet back into its proper position went to find her.
Me: Here, try this. I'll call you. See if it's better.
She: Why, that's MUCH better. What did you do? How did you fix it?
Me: Ah, just adjusted the transmogrifier. Brought 'er up to spec. Let me know if you need more help.
Quickly, I made my way out of the room before she could ask for any additional demonstrations of my new-found technical abilities.
I guess someday I'll have to give up and upgrade to something newer, fancier and more up-to-date myself.
And eventually, I guess I'll have to be smart enough for a smartphone.
But for now, I'm just glad I was smart enough--just this once--to fix one.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

And what a week it was

One of the biggest reasons we said goodbye to our youngest grandsons and our beautiful North Carolina beachfront to come back to the midwest for awhile was the chance to celebrate--as we always have--the Fourth of July with our friends and neighbors in Galva. It's a great day in my hometown, chocked full with events ranging from the early morning 5K race and pancake breakfast (most people don't run and eat at the same time) in the park across from our house, and continuing with highlights that conclude with Galva's amazing fireworks display, but also include the Arts Council's Art Jam and photo show, an antique tractor show and a favorite among many of our big-city friends--cow chip bingo. It's usually a big day for us, with our wraparound front porch and yard a good spot for viewing the lavish Freedom Fest parade and visiting with the many friends who find the time to stop by and say hello.
I'm usually pretty involved with the goings-on that day, with my main responsibilities being the parade, for which I have been the emcee for a number of years, and the talent show, where I've helped with announcing the contestants and setting up and running the sound system.
But this year was different.
We had discussed the fact that it might be just about time for me to back off a bit and let someone new try their hand at those duties. It's a long, pretty physical day, with equipment to move and lengthy periods spent standing in the hot July sun. My combination of creaky knees and chronic anemia relating to the cancer treatments I've undergone leave me pretty done in at the end of it, plus I've pretty much proved that I'm a washout when it comes to identifying the vintage tractors that make up a good part of the parade, and the jokes I tell between acts at the talent show have gotten sort of stale. But I didn't get around to discussing my feelings with the members of the festival committee, so I wasn't surprised when a message from parade organizer Lynda Anderson was waiting for me when we got back to Illinois.
"It's too late to bail out now," I said to my spouse. "One more year."
I called Lynda, and got some surprising news.
"We'd like you to do a different job this year," she said. "We'd like you to be Grand Marshall of the parade."
Now, according to Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, a Grand Marshall is "a ceremonial, military, or political office of very high rank."
Who, me?
It was pretty humbling. There are any number of smart, giving, hard-working members of the Galva community who deserve that kind of honor. But having served on a few committees myself, I knew I would be doing no favors for the Freedom Fest folks if I insisted they scurry to find another honoree at the last minute.
So there I was. The Grand Marshall.
"Hello, Marshall," became a frequent greeting as the big day approached and the announcement of my upcoming honor appeared in an ultra-flattering article in The Galva News.
My spouse/fashion advisor picked out a red, white and blue plaid shirt that made me look, well, bright, and I even found some online advice on the proper way to greet the crowds along the parade route from an online source: "The Queen Wave: A hand gesture made consisting of a brief twist in the wrist, whilst the hands are neatly cupped."
It was not until the pre-Fourth pork chop supper put on by the Lutheran Church that I was reminded of the most important thing.
"Candy," said one doting grandparent friend. "My grandson wants lots of candy."
Yes, like many politicians and other self-important, so-called celebrities, I had forgotten that it's not enough to smile, wave and look like you know something.
You gotta give with the goods.
So I stocked up with a giant bagful, though I was leery of my ability to smile, wave and accurately toss bon-bons at the same time. Luckily, Jim Anderson's spiffy 1930 Model A convertible came with a valuable accessory--a trio of young ladies that included his daughter and the daughter of Star Courier editor Mike Landis. They quickly agreed to take charge of distribution from the rumble seat, while I settled into the shotgun position.
We proceeded up the Third Avenue parade route, around the park and through downtown Galva.
The girls did the important stuff.
I smiled. I waved.
Hopefully, I did it right.
Thanks, Galva.

Speaking of celebrations, we attended another gathering last week that marked an important milestone.
My cousin, Helen, turned 101.
She's my dad's first cousin, in fact, as their mothers were among the children of a Bishop Hill girl named Sophia Peterson, daughter of one of the first Swedes to reach America and the colony. Helen is the last of my dad's generation still around in my family and has always been a wonderful friend and a valuable source of family information, tales and trivia.
I got to thinking about all she's seen and lived through after we spent a little time with her the other evening.
She's lived through both world wars (and every war that's followed) and the Great Depression, witnessed the early days of cars, airplanes, radio and TV, and saw the introduction of a myriad of modern inventions, including pyrex, the zipper, the toaster, computers and the yo-yo. Chances are, she knew someone who actually heard Abraham Lincoln speak. For sure, she knew men who fought in the American Civil War.
"Be sure to drink the water at her place," said son Patrick when he heard we were going for a visit. "Maybe that's the secret."
But I think not.
Born in 1910, she just missed the Chicago Cubs' last World Series victory in 1908.
She's a big fan.
And I think she's been waiting ever since.
Happy birthday, Helen.

Speaking of grownups (I think Helen qualifies), we pursued some downright adult activities last week, as we attended not one, but two theatrical performances.
Now, while I heartily support all the arts in their various forms, I would be less than honest if I didn't admit that I think most live theatre could be improved vastly if they'd let you take in popcorn and ju-ju beans, like at the movies. So hitting two shows in a week is a tribute to both my growing maturity and the persuasive powers of my spouse.
First off was the Festival 56 production of Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew."
Festival 56 (named after the nearby I-80 mile marker and exit) is a professional theatre festival located in Princeton that "assembles from across the country a team of the most creative and talented artists living and working in professional theatre today." They fill the bill with seven summertime shows that include classic and world premier performances, plus free Shakespeare in the Park on Sunday and Wednesday evenings. I shocked my wife by suggesting that we attend, and we went, lawn chairs and snacks in hand, where we were treated to a fine, funny reprise of the first real live theatre production i ever attended many years ago.
it's free. It's fun.
You should go.
Next up on our whirlwind theatrical tour was the KHS production of "Annie Get Your Gun," the 1946 Irving Berlin musical that featured soon-to-be hit songs like "There's No Business Like Show Business" and "Anything You Can Do."
Now, high school theatre--especially musicals--can sometimes be a little painful, marked by inaudible, off-key singing, flubbed lines and rickety shop-class sets presented to crowds mostly limited to camera-toting grandparents, anxious moms and dozing dads. But the Kewanee kids and the adults who supported them did themselves proud, with a sharp, spirited production that featured some excellent song-and-dance numbers; elaborate, well-designed sets and an audience who really appreciated the hard work and dedication they gave to their craft.
And it, too, was free. And fun.
If you didn't go, you should have. Don't miss the next one.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Bo Came Home

I guess memories are what the Fourth of July is all about in a way. After all, the holiday both commemorates the birth of our nation and celebrates those who have worked and fought to make it free.
But that's not all.
For me, the day resonates with a whole range of childhood remembrances, starting with family picnics and fireworks-watching when I was young, and progressing through those days when I, like all adolescent boys, was determined to blow some portion of my anatomy into smithereens via the injudicious use of death-dealing mini-munitions like cherry bombs and M80s.
Happily, I got past that period in my life with all ten toes and fingers intact, though like many reformed criminals, I have become an annoying nag when it comes to the use of fireworks, both legal and otherwise, by others. Even my spouse, who is generally pretty darn safety minded has fallen afoul of my uber-chicken concerns.
She: Here kids, these sparklers are pretty. Just be careful.
...and so on.
Our family Fourth of July celebrations have produced a lot of memories over the years, and a lot of great stories, too. But I was reminded of one extra-special tale just this past weekend when chatting with some old friends and neighbors who had dropped by our front-porch festivities on the Fourth.
It's a story about a dog. A dog named Bo.
Bo was one of those dogs who was simply made for the movies. A little white-and-black terrier of some sort, he was cute, frisky and a friend to every adult, kid and neighborhood dog he met. He had one black-ringed eye that gave him a kind of rakish look, plus an eternal dog-smile that he apparently used to work his way into the hearts of every female dog in a 10-block area, as evidenced by a plentiful group of two-toned puppy-progenies in the southwest part of town where we we used to live and our friends still reside.
The amazing story of Bo's disappearance and return began one snowy January day at least 20 years ago, when he accompanied Dick, his owner and best buddy, outside to shovel the sidewalks. Dick figured Bo had gotten tired of the cold and had simply barked his way back into the house, so it was full dark when the walks were done and the awful truth was discovered.
Bo was missing.
A full-scale dog-hunt ensued, but no dice. No dog.
Dick was heartbroken.
Weeks and months passed.
After a while, we encouraged him to get another dog. After all, there were plenty of Bo's offspring available for adoption in the neighborhood. But Dick would have none of it.
"I don't want another dog," he said. "I want Bo."
And we couldn't blame him, for Bo was truly a remarkable little friend.
A few more months passed until Megan, our young sons and I were invited to an Independence Day party in Peoria, where I worked at the time. It was a cookout on the Illinois River, and we didn't head towards home until well after dark. We were driving through the small town of Laura, just under the railroad underpass on the south end of town, when, suddenly, we saw something.
It was a small, mostly white dog, running along the highway. As we passed him, he turned to look at us, displaying a familiar-looking black-ringed eye and a broad doggy smile.
Me: Whaaa?
ME: That's crazy. We've gotta be 25 miles from Galva. And Bo has been missing since January.
Any experienced husband would easily recognize the loaded silence that greeted my reply. It spoke of hurt feelings, wounded pride and sure reprisal. I recognized it right off, and just before we reach the north end of town, I relented.
Me: O.K. Let's go see.
I pulled a u-turn, and we drove the short distance back to the middle of town, where the little dog was still galloping along for all he was worth.
I stopped the car. She opened the door and called his name, and I'll be darned if the little dog didn't hop in and nestle between our sleeping sons, who had, so far, dozed through the entire search and rescue drama.
We turned around again and headed towards home. We were quiet for awhile, both lost in our thoughts over what had just transpired, when she broke the silence.
She: What if it's not Bo?
She: Well, if he's not, you could just drop him off on your way to work tomorrow. Kinda like one of those alien abduction things.
I glanced back at the little cur, who was happily panting and smiling, pausing only to wriggle a little closer to the now-awakening boys.
"Is that Bo?" said one of them.
I looked again, and I swear the little bugger winked at me.
Turns out, it was Bo. We brought him home, where his dog-pals Claude and Whitey knew him right off. Then came the critical moment. Though it was now after eleven o'clock, we couldn't bear to wait until morning to reunite Bo with his family.
We called first.
"We think we've got a surprise for you," said my spouse, which must have made our friends wonder if we had been standing too close to the fireworks that night. "We'll be right over."
We pulled into their drive, opened the door, and Bo hopped out and ran onto the porch as if he had just been out for ice cream instead of on an epic, seven-month journey.
Dog saw man. Man saw dog.
It was Bo.
We never did figure out how Bo ended up in Laura. I kinda figured someone passing through Galva saw him wandering alone in the snow, picked him up and took him home.
But who knows?
But I do know what happened on that July night those many years ago.
I know how Bo came home.