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The Other Washington. . . District of Columbia + Philly

In front of the White House!

Days 69 – 78; August 25 – September 4

We arrived outside of Washington D.C. late in the afternoon on a Saturday – and found our hotel – just outside of the city proper, in Camp Springs, Maryland, very close to Andrew’s Air Force Base.  We loaded into our room and went about the task of organizing our time in D.C.  So much to see – hard to know where to begin!  We knew we didn’t want to try to tour D.C. in the RV – so – after sorting through the myriad tour options – decided on a guided seven hour bus tour of monuments, which also included a one hour boat ride on the Potomac.

We also knew that we would spend some of our Sunday attending Mass and visiting the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

Helen, Olivia, Kelly on the steps of the Basilica of the National Shrine

The Basilica is located just next to the campus of the Catholic University of America and is the largest Roman Catholic Church in the United States – each year hosting over one million visitors and pilgrims from around the world.  Dedicated to the Blessed Mary, the Basilica is home to over 70 shrines and chapels that honor a host of Marian images and devotions.  In addition to attending Sunday Mass there, we spent several hours visiting many of the Shrine’s chapels and viewing the tremendous art located throughout the Cathedral.  The chapels were extraordinary and in spite of the very large numbers of people visiting, very peaceful.  After exploring, we even had lunch and did some shopping there – a large cafeteria is located in the basement between the bookstore and gift shop.  It actually was a bit strange – the basement of the Basilica, with its shops and large cafeteria, felt a little like a pious version of a shopping mall.

Though art holy women . . .

I especially appreciated all the many ways Mary was depicted and honored.  In this beautiful place, it is impossible to forget the many gifts that women have brought to our Church and what an important role women have played in the foundation and ongoing life of our tradition.  My mother, like many mothers, had a special devotion to Mary and I thought of Nona often during our time at the Basilica.

Lighting candles for teachers and students at St. Anne School – may it be a good year for all!

Also while there, we were very aware that school would soon be starting in Seattle, so the girls lit candles in honor of their teachers and classmates, and said a prayer that everyone has a G R E A T year at school.  We took photos and sent them to their teacher, Ms. Dempsey, so she can share them with the fifth graders on the first day of school – a nice way for the girls to feel connected to their classmates.

The next morning, our tour day dawned somewhat hot and very muggy.  I have to say – until this trip – I never really understood the “at least it’s dry heat” caveat regarding high temperatures.  Hot is hot – right?  No!  Not right!!  Humidity is a killer.  110 in the dry desert is miserable but manageable; 99 in the muggy city is just torturous and by the late afternoon we’d be feeling it!

To get into the city, we started early, jumping aboard the complimentary and much appreciated free motel shuttle to the Metro station.  Though Steven and I have both ridden the D.C. Metro before, it took us several minutes standing in front of the ticket dispensers and maps to figure out where we were, where we wanted to be, and how to get there.  A kind station attendant lent us a hand and we soon joined the ranks of the myriad commuters heading into D.C.  We met up with our tour group in front of the very elegant and official looking Old Post Office Building, and right off the bat learned quite a bit about Benjamin Franklin and his role in starting the Federal Postal system.  I wish the ghost of Ben Franklin could come back and, once again, lend the Post Office some expertise.  Mr. Franklin, great innovator that he was, might be just what the Post Office needs right now to put itself to rights!

The Capitol Building – a great place to discuss the three branches of government!

Once on board the bus, we headed out for the White House and the Capitol Building.  Fun picture opps and some good commentary from our guide at both.  Steven also offered the girls an impromptu lesson on the three branches of government.  Great to share that while having real visual aids right there in front of us!  As impressive as it was to see the White House, it was also great to see the President’s neighbor, Concepcion Picciotto.  While taking up residence in Lafayette Square is no longer legal (at one time protesters could make camp in the park) through a series of loopholes and via a lawsuit, Concepcion has won the right to maintain her protest site as long as it is generally maintained in its original form and Concepcion or one of her compatriots is on site 24 hours a day.  So, since 1981, Concepcion, together with her supporters, has been demonstrating against war of any kind, demonstrating against nuclear proliferation, and advocating for the United States to use its political clout around the globe to promote peace.  What a powerful witness!

Concepcion Picciotto. Directly across from the President in his White House – this woman in her own humble ‘White House’ is advocating that our nation uses its power for peace.

It was now late morning and the heat rose and the humidity grew.  We moved on to the Washington Monument and the World War II monument.  Although I’ve read about it – I hadn’t seen the World War II monument – and was glad to have the opportunity.  The monument is a large circle formed by fifty-six tall granite pillars reaching to the sky.  Each pillar represents one state or territory of the United States.  A stately and august memorial to those who served our country in the Second World War.  The WWII Monument is located just below the Washington Monument.  The Washington Monument was closed for repairs, so we couldn’t get inside, but the girls were both wowed with how tall and impressive it is, even from a distance.

Olivia, Helen and Steven at the World War II Memorial – just down the path from the Washington Monument.

From the World War II Memorial and Washington Monument, we clambered back onto the bus and headed to the water to board our boat tour.  It was perfect to be out on a boat, enjoying a light lunch and a cool breeze, taking in the impressive city views from the Potomac.  The boat’s tour guide also treated passengers to a multitude of interesting facts about the history of the Potomac, though I have to confess, by the time we got onto the boat, we were more interested in catching the breeze than the history!

A view of the Potomac shoreline with the Washington Monument in the background.

Our first stop after the boat ride was the Jefferson Memorial.  For security reasons, the entrance to the memorial was closed, so we had a long walk behind barriers and down the path to get in – but our guide didn’t factor in any extra tour time.  So after a fast paced walk down the path and up the stairs to say hi to President Jefferson, we had to turn around and trek back as quickly as possible, despite the climbing heat and humidity. We were disappointed not to have had a bit more time – and apparently we weren’t the only ones.  A family of our tourist mates were apparently so hot, humid and unhappy, they decided that, though they were late returning to the bus, they needed to stop at a vendor’s cart along the path and indulge in some ice cream.  They then sauntered back to the bus, unapologetically slurping their cold treats.  This, despite the fact that there was, sitting and waiting, an entire bus full of fellow tourists – also hot and humid – who had made it back to the bus on time!  We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [women and children] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Well – I wholeheartedly agree with President Jefferson.  But I think even Jefferson would have concurred that a person does NOT have an inalienable right to purchase ice cream, no matter how happy it made said person, if it involves keeping an entire bus of people waiting in the heat!  Harumph!

At the Jefferson Memorial – at least President Jefferson is in the shade!

From the Jefferson Memorial, our tour group made its way to the Franklin Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, Junior Memorials. I had not been to either memorial, and they were at the top of my ‘must-see’ monuments in D.C.  After a stern reminder to all of us to get back to the bus on time – our tour guide sent us on our way.

Olivia and Helen sitting on President Roosevelt’s lap.

The Roosevelt memorial is created by the placement of granite walls formed to give visitors a sense of separate but connected rooms – each room depicting a scene from Roosevelt’s life.  As we turned from room to room, we were surprised and delighted by the bronze monuments we found.  FDR sitting in his wheelchair is the first.  Ironic that this is the first image of him the public sees, when he spent so much of his public life hiding his chair and his ‘weakness’ from the people he served.  Further into the monument, another bronze depicts him sitting on a bench beside his beloved Scottish Terrier, Fala.  The park also contains a wonderful bronze of Eleanor, one of my heroes!  There, too, are bronzes of the people Roosevelt was committed to serving – a man leaning into the radio, not wanting to miss a word of one of FDR’s famous fireside chats; another of folks waiting in line at the door of a soup kitchen.  Water features are also scattered throughout the memorial.  A pond and several cascading fountains add to the secluded and park-like feel and honor Roosevelt’s deep attraction to water as a source of healing and rejuvenation.  Additionally, there are more than 20 FDR quotations – handsomely carved into the granite.  My favorite quote – words that are as prophetic today as they were then: In these days of difficulty, we Americans everywhere must and shall choose a path of social justice. . . the path of faith, the path of hope, and the path of love toward our fellow man.

The whoosh of the water, together with the bronze likenesses of FDR and his people, and the granite, carved with his words, created a strong Rooseveltian presence.  I think FDR would recognize the spirit of his service lingering at this memorial and be pleased with how he is represented.

We left the FDR Memorial to walk the short path to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, the second of my two “must see” monuments.  I was stopped in my tracks by the starkness and the elegance of this monument.

Inspired!  Standing with Martin Luther King, Jr. at his monument in D.C.  “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”

I found the memorial to be strong and  hope filled – yet not the least bit sentimental.  MLK is standing, unyielding and firm – still looking toward the day . . . when people will not be judged by the color  of their skin, but by the content of their character.  This monument was opened to the public almost exactly one year prior to our visit – and it was filled with people there to honor this great leader.  I was determined not to leave until we had an opportunity to wind our way through the crowd and really take in the memorial as well as get a photo there.

We decided then and there to leave the tour.  We had the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Memorial still to go – both impressive and important – but we wanted to appreciate our experience at MLK.  We were also done in by the humidity.  That and we certainly couldn’t keep our fellow bus passengers waiting!  So – we flagged down our tour guide and let her know that we were going to linger and the group should move on without us – we would see the other two monuments on our own if we could fit them in.  So after more time spent appreciating the enduring wisdom and spirit represented by the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, we found our way back to our motel to swab ourselves off, cool ourselves down, and try to absorb all that we had seen.

This was also the night of the August Blue Moon.   We got to see it in D.C. hours ahead of our West Coast family and friends – so we took a photo and sent it off to everyone via Facebook, giving them an early look at this magical icon of all things rare and wonder-filled.

Blue Moon – August 31, 2012 – from Washington, D.C.

The next day the girls and Steven went off to pick up a couple of the Smithsonian Museums while I stayed at our hotel to write.  Another (this time much easier) trip on the Metro got them all into D.C. easily and the weather was a bit cooler and less humid – so they enjoyed their day a great deal – spending most of it in the National Museum of Natural History digging the dinosaur bones, exploring the concept of evolution,  and hanging out in the Hall of Mammals examining all manner of once warm-blooded, now stuffed, creatures – from giraffes to jaguars.

Mount Vernon – George and Martha Washington’s Plantation

Following a day off of sightseeing to catch our breath and for Steven to do some work, we went to Mount Vernon.  George and Martha Washington’s plantation is located on 50 lush acres on the banks of the Potomac River.  The back verandah is home to a legion of green chairs that provided the perfect place to sit and enjoy the view.  What a lovely way to spend a few moments breathing in the view – and fun to imagine George and Martha once doing the same!

Catching some shade on the veranda at George and Martha Washington’s home.

The relatively new visitor center at Mount Vernon is extremely well done.  After touring the plantation, we spent some time in this wonderful place, getting a further glimpse of the life of one of our nation’s first heroes.  Washington was a strong, demanding, yet compassionate leader who believed deeply in the new republic that had been created.  As our first President, Washington refused a third term of office because he did not want the newly created union to become, in any sense, a monarchy.  He was a staunch and inspired leader of this fledgling nation, devoted to the ideals of ‘freedom and liberty for all.’  At the same time, Washington was also an unapologetic owner of slaves – at one point owning over 300 of them.  While his will did authorize the emancipation of his slaves upon the death of his wife Martha (Martha actually chose to emancipate them shortly after George Washington died) he used slaves to work his plantation and apparently even allowed his slaves to be whipped. Helen and Olivia were both disconcerted to see the slave quarters and to learn this piece of our first President’s history.  They were flabbergasted that a President that was to them a hero and champion of freedom, could support slavery!  As we are discovering through our travels, our heroes and our histories are many layered and there is often more to our nation’s stories than what we learn in our history books.

That evening we had a wonderful visit with our friend Amy Sullivan King, her husband Bill and daughter Helen (yes – another Helen – who’s actually alive and under the age of eighty!).  We also got to meet Maybelle and Jack, the family dogs.  We had a wonderful home cooked meal (only our second of the trip and so tasty!).  Amy is a Queen Anne girl who also attended St. Anne School.  Her brother played ball with mine and her parents were great friends of my mother’s. While the girls played, Steven and Bill indulged Amy and I in our fast and furious conversation about ‘the good ole days.’  A wonderful taste of home.  Thank you Sullivan King family – we look forward to returning the hospitality the next time you’re in Seattle!

We left D.C. the following day – and on our way out – stopped at Arlington National Cemetery to visit the graves of the unknown soldiers and those of President Kennedy, Mrs. Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, their son Patrick and daughter Arabella.

Rows upon rows of markers honoring deceased men and women of the armed services.

As we went out to the Kennedy gravesite, both Olivia and Helen were stunned by the seemingly endless rows of simple white grave markers spread out in every direction (in fact, nearly half a million).   Veterans from every military action from pre-Civil War times through the War in Afghanistan are buried at Arlington.  The vast rows of white grave markers, set against the green of the grass, gave all of us a much greater sense of the immeasurable numbers of women and men who have given their service to protect and defend our freedoms.   I gasped when, with deep and clear insight, Olivia said, “Mom, before anyone ever decides to go to war again, they should come here first.”   She’s right.

We stopped at the Kennedy gravesite to pay our respects.  This prompted a conversation about the fact that President Kennedy was the first ever Roman Catholic President.  Helen and Olivia were puzzled about why a person’s religious affiliation might impact their ability to be President.  Both girls firmly stated that they would want the “best man” or, as Helen chimed in, “woman” to be the President, no matter what their religion.  From their mouths. . .

Finally we stopped at the Grave of the Unknowns, who are “Known but to God.”  We arrived just in time to witness the changing of the guard.  Another sobering moment for both girls.

Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns – Arlington National Cemetery

From D.C. –   we motored on to Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love and also, albeit for a short time, our country’s capital city.  We started by attending morning Mass at the Basilica Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in downtown Philadelphia.  An old and very ornate Cathedral, it is apparently struggling to maintain itself.  By my estimate, there were less than 200 people attending Sunday morning Mass.  In this vast cathedral, more pews were empty than not.  Prior to Mass beginning, the lector made a plea for support – emphasizing the fact that though they were the Cathedral Church, their numbers were quite small and they counted on the generosity of visitors to help them maintain the large Basilica.  With that said, it was interesting to see three priests concelebrate the Mass, two adult men and three boys acting as acolytes, and a male cantor.  Perhaps including more women in leadership roles would help them grow their congregation?!

We were in Philly on a rainy day. OK by us – we don’t mind the rain, it was cool, and not too muggy – a relief from D.C.!

Helen and Olivia in front of Independence Hall – a rainy Sunday.

We started at the Independence Visitor’s Center where we quickly found out we hadn’t done a good job planning.  It was almost noon by the time we got there, and we were too late to get tickets to get into Independence Hall (where the Declaration of Independence was signed).  Who knew we needed tickets?!?  Also, the lines to see the Liberty Bell were very long, and both girls were very uninterested in a 90 minute wait to take a two-minute peak at the bell.  Honestly, I think we were all a bit ‘monumented out’ after our time in D.C.   So – we spent quite a while in the visitor center – which is tremendous – filled with great exhibits and offering several films on the making of a new nation and the writing and signing of the declaration.  At the visitor’s center, we also discovered that, just across the street, we would find The National Museum of Jewish American History.  FABULOUS!!  What a delightful surprise to find this wonderful museum.  And, having spent our morning at the Roman Catholic Cathedral and Basilica, it was a nice balance to end our day with time at the Jewish American History Museum.

As luck would have it, the museum was holding a special exhibit discussing our first President.  Having received a letter of support from the Jewish Community in Newport when he was inaugurated, President George Washington responded to the community, in part, with this:  For happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens. Here we have a President who, just days before we had seen was a slaveholder.  Now we discover he was a progressive thinker in matters of religious freedom, who wrote so eloquently to this Jewish community, stating confidently that we ‘give bigotry no sanction.’  An unexpected bonus for me on this trip has been the many opportunities we have had to understand so much about our country’s moral evolution.

From this important U.S. history to the history of Hollywood, we also found a very fun exhibit regarding the role of Jews in the movie business.  There was an entire floor devoted to the entertainment industry and the influence of Jewish writers, directors, producers, actors and comedians.  Helen and Olivia were especially enthralled with old films showing off the antics of the Three Stooges and the Marx Brothers.  Laughing at old movies stuffed full of these artists’ prat falls and foibles was a great way to end our day in Philadelphia!

On the lookout for the presence of wonder –  and we found so many monument-al (I couldn’t help myself!) wonders in D.C. and Philadelphia.  From Philly to New York so stay tuned:  Start spreading the news – we’re leaving today – we want to be a part of it. . .

Where in the World are the Nolan Shafers?

Days 60 – 70; August 16 to 26

Where in the world are the Nolan Shafers?!?!  We’ve been so busy DOING our adventure – it’s been hard to find time to be WRITING our adventure!  That and a fatal bug took over Steven’s computer – so for a couple of weeks he had to co-opt the laptop I write from to keep up with his work.  Sharing the computer so he could keep working – a small price to pay for the ability for him to continue working from the road (his ability to work from the road is what has made this entire trip possible!).  And – his workmates graciously programmed and FedExed a brand new laptop to him in New York City – so he’s now working on a sleek, very fast new machine and once again I’ve got easy access to a laptop (though we are currently in Canada and the connections are abysmally slow) . . . in any case, here we go.  I’m going to do my best to at least begin to catch you up with where we’ve been and what we’ve seen.

Rainbow under the falls – this beautiful photo was captured by Helen.

Niagara (Canadian Side):  We were wowed by the falls.  Over, under, beside and on top – we saw them from every angle – and from every vantage – they were magnificent.  But first – when we arrived at our hotel, we were offered free tickets to see performer Danny ZZZZ.  Performing at the Niagara Crowne Plaza Ballroom, Danny ZZZZ is a magician and a certified (Olivia was very impressed by the fact that he is certified!) hypnotist.  So – we started our Niagara adventure with a walk down to see the falls and then dinner at the Rainforest Cafe (first time there – the food was basically bleck – but the girls loved the ambience!).

Fun family dinner at the Niagara Rainforest Cafe!

Dinner was followed with the magic show – which was family friendly, fun, funny –  and – magical! We all enjoyed it very much, Danny ZZZZ is a great entertainer, and it turned out to be a magic start to what would be a magic two days at Niagara! Following the magic show, we discovered there was a Friday night fireworks display and light show at the falls.  After the magic show was over, we had some time to wait for the fireworks – so we walked down to the stunning Queen Victoria Park. A perfect place to wait and from which to watch the fireworks.  And, it turned out, also a perfect place to play.  We arrived at twilight.  The park features gorgeously colored sculpted gardens and a deep grass amphitheater in the center.  As the final pink glow of sunset swept the sky, Steven and I perched on the cement steps leading down to the amphitheater and watched the girls roll willy nilly down the hill, climb back up, and do it again and again and again.  As more and more Niagara visitors, many of them families with children, began gathering in the park for the fireworks show, some of the kids started a game of tag.  Pretty soon, more than a dozen assorted children, Helen and Olivia among them, were skittering up and down the grass-green bowl, running fast to escape whoever was “IT.”  It was our absolute delight to witness the spontaneous, joy-filled playing of that universal children’s game – “TAG – You’re It!”

Then. . .  B O O M!

Niagara fireworks!

The fireworks started and all those tagsters scattered around the park to re-join their families and watch the show.  We enjoyed the fireworks and, all tuckered out, walked the hill back to our hotel and had a great night’s sleep knowing the next day we would be IN the falls!

Saturday we walked back down to the edge of the falls and hopped on a double-decker bus that took us around to visit many Niagara tourist sites.  We learned a lot about the area and the history of the falls from our tour guide – and then took a long walk through the tunnels UNDER the falls.  The tunnels at Niagara allow for the hydroelectric works there to be maintained and also offer tourists some prime (and very wet) viewing opportunities.  The tunnels were damp and loud and cave-like, and for me, very claustrophobic.  I cut out early – but Steven and the girls stayed down under to explore – my little spelunkers!  While peering out from under the falls, Helen caught a couple of incredible rainbow-under-the-falls photographs (see above).  Spectacular rainbows – and truly spectacular photos!

We caught up with each other back at the top and headed down to get on The Maid of the Mist boat ride that takes you onto the Niagara River and into the falls.  This is what I had been waiting for!  After lining up with hundreds of fellow tourists, the surprisingly fast-moving line brought us down to the docks and we donned our plastic raincoat hoodies and climbed aboard.  Standing on the main deck on the starboard side of the bow, we headed right for the falls.  Tossing and turning and getting soaked by the roiling waters of the falls – we shouted and cheered, laughed and screamed our way through the ride – hanging onto the railing and each other for dear life.  The boat ride was an exhilarating way to gain a tiny glimmer of understanding regarding how mighty those waters are – the power and glory that is Niagara!

The Maid of the Mist! All slickered up and ready for the falls!

Despite our slickers, we got off our rollicking ride soaked through, water draining off of our ponchos and out of our tennies.  Hungry and tired, we were damp diners in the restaurant where we ate our evening meal.  It was a long, soggy trip back to our room and we were weary.  Once in our room, we all took hot showers and dried off.  The girls looked like elegant Sheba Queens with their hair wrapped up in fluffy white-towel turbans, relaxing for a bit before we all climbed into our soft, snuggly-warm beds and fell to sleep dreaming water fall dreams!

Our elegant ‘Sheba Queen’ Olivia wearing her towel – all showered and warm after a fun and very wet ride on the Maid of the Mist.

Helen – warm, dry and ready to relax after our Niagara Falls adventures.

A tremendous, WONDER-FALL day!

The next morning we got up early and crossed the Rainbow Bridge taking us from Canada into New York State and drove on to our next destination, Pittsburgh, PA.

Pittsburgh:  Steven spent 18 years in Pittsburgh.  First as a PhD student at Carnegie Mellon University, followed by his tenure as a faculty member in the Computer Science Department.  He has many contacts and friends still there – and while we weren’t able to catch up with as many of them as hoped, Steven was able to spend some time at the University reconnecting.  We also had planned a trip to the Robotics Institute there.  I’ve been there once before.  The work they do in that lab turns science fiction into fact.  Steven has shared many stories with the girls about the crazy-interesting innovations that are created there and we were all looking forward to seeing what they’d been doing at the institute most recently.   Unfortunately, this is where we discovered the major computer virus that had taken over Steven’s computer and an afternoon, evening, and most of the next morning were devoted to technical problem solving.  This meant we had to try to re-schedule our Robotics Institute visit.  Sadly, we couldn’t find a time that worked and we were sorry not to be able to have our visit at this phenomenal lab.  Oh well – a reason to come back!

Happily, we were able to catch up with three of Steven’s dearest friends in Pittsburgh.  First, Bob Feller.  Dr. Robert Feller, now in his 90’s, is still considered a leader in the work of art conservation, restoration and preservation.  Since the 1950’s he has held a conservation fellowship with the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. and was the Director of Art Conservation at Mellon Institute where he still holds an emeritus position. His vitae is long and he is recognized internationally in the world of art and art conservation. In our world, he is recognized as a dear friend and wonderfully kind and witty human being.  Bob treated us to a beautiful dinner at Cafe Sam in downtown Pittsburgh (side note – driving an RV anywhere in Pittsburgh is a gargantuan challenge – intrepid Steven accomplished the feat valiantly!).

Our dear friend Bob Feller. Such a wonderful visit – though far too short!

We followed dinner with a visit to Bob’s apartment where he entertained us by sharing many African objets d’art along with fun anecdotes about how the pieces had come to be part of his collection.  We were lucky to also view several works of art Bob himself has created over the years.  Bob also looked over the girls’ sketch books and had many generous and encouraging remarks for both Helen and Olivia about the art they are creating.  The visit was much too short, but every minute we had with this dear and brilliant friend was a joy.  Another reason to make plans for a return visit to Pittsburgh!

The next night we spent with Dr. Jerry and Miri Rabinowitz.  To save us a trip into downtown Pittsburgh in our RV (thank you Jerry and Miri!!!) they came to our hotel and picked us up and took us high up into the hills of Pittsburgh to Bella Vista – a very posh and delicious Italian restaurant.  The view from the restaurant was stunning – overlooking the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio Rivers that come together in downtown Pittsburgh.  From our viewpoint we could see well over a dozen city bridges – all lit up – that cross over those rivers.  Steven hadn’t seen Jerry and Miri in at least a half-dozen years, it had been even more years for me, and they had never met Helen and Olivia in person.  They were pleased to be finally talking to the girls face to face after so many years of holiday photos!  We caught up a bit on Jerry and Miri’s work – Jerry is a family care doc in private practice – Miri is the administrator of a medical research project at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.  They are also very involved in their temple – a Reconstructionist Congregation that they both find to be an enlivening community to call their spiritual home.  I would have loved to have had many more hours (days!) to discuss politics, religion, their good and interesting work. . . Steven shared some about his current work, we shared our adventures parenting, and we all had lots to say about the adventures we’ve had so far on this journey.  After dinner, we rode the Duquesne Incline (pronounced Dew-Kayne – I stumbled over this word several times) from the top of the hill down to the south side of Pittsburgh.

On the incline car and ready to head down the hill on the Duquesne Incline in Pittsburgh after a lovely dinner with Jerry and Miri.

This old wooden cable car, and it’s sister the Monongahela Incline, was once used to take steelworkers up and down the very steep hills (more like cliffs) of Pittsburgh to their work in steel mills.  Today it moves local pedestrians and tourists up and down those same hills.  It was a unique ride – a first for Helen and Olivia – and especially fun to do with the city and river lights at our feet.  Sadly, as with Bob, we had to leave Jerry and Miri far too soon.  Another trip to Pittsburgh is on the top of our someday soon list!

From Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, we had to make another very important stop.

Hershey, PA!  Our time in Hershey can quickly be summed up in the following quote from Olivia:

“The Grand Canyon – Good.  ~  Niagara Falls – Very Good.   ~   Hershey, PA – Most Excellent!”

Hershey, PA – “Most Excellent!”

All four chocolate lovers in the family were happy with this stop.  We had a grand tour of Hershey’s Chocolate World including a trolley ride around the town of Hershey that included a sing-a-long featuring many old-time songs like Bicycle Built for Two, You are My Sunshine, Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree, and Good Ole Summertime. 

It may sound corny, but this little sing-a-long was the best part of the day for me.  People from all over the world, bound together by a shared love for all things chocolate, singing “Daisy, Daisy. . . ” as we rolled through the town of Hershey – where the street lights are shaped like Hershey’s kisses!  The girls’ favorite part (Steven’s too) was the make your own chocolate bar factory tour where we did exactly that – made our own chocolate bars.  We got to pick our own candy ingredients, design the packaging, and walk the assembly line as the chocolate bar was created, cooled, and packaged up.

On the assembly line making their personal, very scrumptious Hershey Bar at Hershey World in Hershey, PA. Who needs Willy Wonka!?!

Very fun – and it left us with enough chocolate to keep us all happy for a long while (OK less than a week – but at least we didn’t eat it all in one day!)  We finished up the day with a long debate about milk chocolate versus dark chocolate.  Steven and Helen could not be swayed from their erroneous assessment that milk chocolate is best.  Olivia and I hold firm in our stance – dark chocolate is superior in every way.  We simply have to agree to disagree (though Olivia and I know for sure that Steven and Helen are mistaken on this issue!).

Lancaster, PA – Amish Country – The day after Hershey we spent touring some of Pennsylvania’s Amish country.  We drove through lush and rolling farmlands in Lancaster County (no signs of drought at all here).  We stopped for what turned out to be an incredibly bountiful afternoon meal at “Good and Plenty,” a restaurant which features Pennsylvania Dutch farm suppers served up family style.  We were seated alongside other guests at long, blue-gingham covered trestle tables and the platters and bowls started coming.  Creamy glass plates of ripe red, fresh off the vine tomatoes and dairy-farm fresh cottage cheese; warm loaves of sliced, baked in-house bread and bowls of newly churned butter (they could have stopped there – I was already happy – the tomatoes alone were so good they made me groan – bright red and so sweet – yummmm); buttermilk fried chicken; mashed potatoes, so creamy and swimming in butter; braised beef; pitchers of milk right from the dairy – it poured like cream.  This is the kind of food that keeps you going if you’ve been up since dawn working hard on a farm – not quite so necessary if you got up at 8:00 and spent the morning rolling around in an RV.  None-the-less, we managed to dig in and do our fair share!  So incredibly fresh and delicious!  And they weren’t finished.  Dessert.  Coffee, handmade apple pie, cookies and two kinds of pudding (rice and chocolate).  I think we paid $35.00 (TOTAL) for this fresh from the farm, eat all you want meal.  And every morsel was served up by the kindest, warmest, most hospitable woman imaginable – all wrapped up in her blue gingham apron.

We went on to explore more of the Amish Country.  We viewed a film, “Jacob’s Choice,” a docudrama about a young man struggling with the decision to stay with his Amish family or go out into the modern world and make his own way.  Given where we were, I was surprised that the film offered what, from my perspective, seemed to be a very fair and honest portrayal of many of the challenging issues a young Amish person must face in making this decision (in the end – Jacob chose to stay with his community – and we later learned that, in fact, a large majority of young adults do make the choice to stay).

We also met Erin Smuckers.  An Amish gentleman himself, Erin was a corn farmer for many years.  Erin is now semi-retired and drives tourists around in his horse-drawn buggy for a living.  Erin, who prefers not to have his photo taken, is average in height and a bit stocky, dressed in every day working Amish garb – dark, sturdy pants, a blue work shirt and suspenders, a long but thin grey beard and dark, wide-brimmed hat, his crinkly blue eyes rimmed with dark glasses.

Waiting our turn to ride with our new Amish friend, Erin Smucker.

We decided to take a ride with Erin (HORSE drawn buggy after all) and he drove us around and through several Amish farms.  Though his community eschews the use of electricity, they do use gas and propane to operate some of their farm and kitchen tools.  Still, horse-drawn machinery remains the primary equipment used in farming.  Each of the farms we rode through were absolutely immaculate and we saw many men, and even youngsters, hard at work in the fields.  I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Erin’s descriptions of family and farm life.  I even elicited a few thoughts from him regarding religion. After sharing a bit about Amish religious practice and their devotion to Christianity, he made a somewhat offhanded comment about not being sure what the Jewish religion could really be about since they didn’t believe in Jesus.  He was, of course, more than a bit chagrined to find out that Steven is Jewish.  I think he was stumped by the fact that I’m Christian, my husband is Jewish, and we are raising children together.  How could we possibly make all that work? (Good question – we’re still figuring it out ourselves!)  It would have been a very interesting conversation to continue, one that I would have loved the opportunity to pursue!

After we left Erin, we stopped at a few handmade arts and crafts sellers we spotted along the way.  Incredibly beautiful handiwork was on display in many places and we purchased a few small gifts as well as a gorgeous, hand-made,  heirloom quality quilt which we shipped home.  I’m already anticipating many winters of coziness nestled  up in our new and beautiful piece of art!

Some of the intricately handcrafted quilts displayed for visitors to view and possibly purchase. Hundreds of hours of treadle-machine sewing and hand stitching go into the creation of these heirloom quilts.

There has been much in the media of late regarding how harsh and unforgiving some members of Amish communities can be.  Like most traditions, it is often conservative zealots who get most noticed.  I realize that the Amish lifestyle cannot possibly be as idyllic as it appeared on our very short visit there.  Still, in this bucolic countryside, I discovered much that was appealing about the Amish way – to be so connected with each other – and to be so disconnected from much of the frenzied mania that comes with the ‘plugged-in’ world most of us live in.  (I’m very aware of the irony of writing this from my very ‘plugged in’ computer while sitting in our very ‘plugged in’ hotel room in a very bustling and frenzied metropolitan city.) I’m not sure I’m ready to give up electricity and move to Lancaster – but I was very intrigued by the beauty of the land, the honest hard work, the strong family ties and the deep faith that, at least from my perch in Erin’s buggy, seemed to bond this community.

Once again – the presence of wonder!  Natural wonders – Niagara; the wonders of friendship – Bob, Jerry and Miri; creating and indulging in chocolate wonders – Hershey, PA; and a wonderful new experience of community – the Amish in Lancaster County.

The Presence of Wonder – We Found it in the Rocks

Days 51 – 60; August 7 to August 16

This part of our journey found us enjoying lots of time playing on and in the water, checking out some beautiful islands and being charmed by piles of rocks!

Olivia and Helen fashioned floating chaise lounges out of water noodles. Ahhh – this is the life!

After Chicago, we spent a couple of days in Green Bay – Steven once again needing to spend some dedicated time working, the girls finishing up their summer book reports.  Helen and Olivia also spent an entire day swimming – the swimmers’ ear they had suffered just over a week earlier did not deter them – they L O V E  lounging in the pool!  Having managed to craft personal flotation devices out of water noodles, they leisurely skimmed across the water.  When not floating, they were designing synchronized swimming routines, having been inspired by some of the summer Olympics coverage we had seen.  Such creative little water nymphs!  I spent the day finishing a great book (Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese.  It was my second time through – I highly recommend it), taking photos and watching the girls’ inventive water ballet.  Such a relaxing way to spend a day!

From Green Bay we headed to Mackinaw City.  The Village of Mackinaw City is a resort community located on the shores of the Straits of Mackinac on Michigan’s Lake Huron.  Just across from Mackinaw City is Mackinac Island.  I know.   This is a little tricky – I still barely have it down – but the CITY is Mackinaw – the ISLAND is Mackinac – though both are pronounced exactly the same – Mack-i-Naw.

Our happy beach girls – Mackinaw City

By good fortune, it turned out our room in Mackinaw City was a ground floor room located right on the beach – what a glorious playground!  High, lazy blue sky; long, shallow, warm lake; wide, soft, sandy shore strewn with beach chairs and umbrellas.  Helen and Olivia are beach lovers and upon discovering the sandy lakeside just outside our sliding glass back door – they took off their shoes, stripped off their clothes, donned their swim suits, and were gone to explore.  Several hundred yards out from our beachfront, ferries crossed every twenty minutes or so, taking passengers from Mackinaw City across the lake to Mackinac Island.  The ferries create waves that cross the broad sandbar along the beachfront and it made for great water fun.  Our wave jumpers spent many happy hours chasing the swells.  There was also plenty of time for Helen to cavort with the seagulls – seeing how close she could get before they went screaming away from her; for Olivia, looking like the Queen of Sheba with her wet hair wrapped up in a beach towel, to sit on her lounge chair watching the waves roll by; and for them to bury each other up to their necks in the sand.

Helen buried up to her neck.

We decided almost immediately to add another night to our reservation so that we would have another day of beachside.

As I  mentioned, there are boats that ferry guests from Mackinaw City to Mackinac Island, located just a 20 minute ferry ride across the straits between Lakes Michigan and Huron.  We got up early our second day in Mackinaw to make one of the first boats of the day to cross to the island and explore.

Olivia and Helen – windblown and smiling on the morning ferry to Mackinac Island

The waters along our crossing were dotted with several lighthouses and buoys as well as all manner of pleasure craft.  The sailboats, especially, looked idyllic floating under the sunny skies.  It was a delight to be out on the sparkling water – even for the brief ferry ride.

Entering the picture perfect bay – Mackinac Island.

An important note about Mackinac Island.  In 1898, the City of Mackinac Island prohibited the use of automobiles of any kind on the island.  Since that time, with the exception of emergency vehicles, the only motorized vehicles on the island are snowmobiles which year ’round residents use to get to and from the ferry during the winter months.  There are otherwise three main modes of island transportation.  Self propulsion, bikes – and – HORSES!!  As the ferry docked, the first thing of note to see was a large horse-drawn dray waiting at the dock to haul supplies and luggage off of the boat.

Horse pulled dray ready to load up at the ferry dock.

Horse heaven!! Our first order of business was to find a horse and buggy to take us around Mackinac!

Horses and buggies – just waiting for us!

This scenic island is also home to Fort Mackinac which served as a military outpost (1780 – 1895) for British, and later, American soldiers.  High up on a hill, the Michigan State Parks Department now maintains the fort as a state historical site.  After our lovely and informative driver and guide Sarah trotted us around the island on her horse and buggy, we had her drop us off at the fort.  We spent some time checking out Fort Mackinac, learned a little of its history and even participated in a marching drill!

Marching drill – Fort Mackinac.

Much of the site has been maintained or restored.  The old schoolhouse was there, the infirmary complete with hospital equipment circa 1810, soldiers’ bunkhouses and mess, the elegant officers’ quarters, all of them sitting atop the most spectacular blue bay views you can imagine.  We lunched deck side at the restaurant located on fort grounds, expansive views of the town and the glimmering water below us.  We were atop one of the most picturesque places of the trip!

The Grand Hotel – her name says it all!

On our horse and buggy tour, we also had the chance to drive by the principal landmark on the island, the Grand Hotel.  No Victorian frill or fancy has been spared on this old girl and she oozes romance and elegance.  As our buggy rolled past the gardens and long, sweeping verandah along the hotel’s water side, you couldn’t help but be pulled back in time.  It was easy to visualize bygone days when genteel ladies in their long, beribboned dresses promenaded through the rose gardens on the arms of their handsomely suited beaus.

I’d love to go back someday and stay in the hotel, sit on the verandah, drinking tea from a china cup, pretending, for just a moment, that I’m a genteel lady!

One of many romantic, rose scented promenades at the Grand Hotel.

The film ‘Somewhere in Time’ was filmed at the Grand Hotel.  Starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, the film takes place in 1912 and the Grand Hotel was the perfect set for this Victorian era time-traveling romance.  The island is also home to many old Victorian summer ‘cottages.’  Most adorned with abundantly flowering gardens and boasting amazing views of the bay.

One of the many Victorian ‘cottages’ on Mackinac Island.

To keep everyone from getting too taken with the Victorian splendor of the summer homes and the Grand Hotel, there is the usual spread of t-shirt hawkers and tourist attractions along main street.  We ended our tour of Mackinac Island with a spin through the shops, bought ourselves some handmade fudge (the signature treat in Mackinac) and then caught our ferry back across to Mackinaw City.   It was a memorable day of exploring!

Sunset over Mackinac

We had one last day in Mackinaw City and spent most of it at the beach – but part of it was spent taking care of a long overdue task – washing our motor home.  Who’d have guessed that we would find (finally) a car wash high enough to accommodate our 11 foot motor home in this small resort town.  It was actually the perfect place and time to scrub down the Regal Star because we had all the time we needed to do the job and have some fun.  As tempting as it might be (at least for me – the task master in the group) to make washing the motor home a “get ‘er done” efficiency exercise, there is no way to spend time on a hot day, with two ten-year olds (and Steven), and a giant squirting water wand in your hands, and not have fun.  We watered the RV down, soaped up her sides and down her nose, and proceeded to scrub and squirt the heck out of her, soaking each other in the process.  It took us twice as long and cost us twice as many quarters as it would have if we’d gotten down to serious business – and she ended up only half as clean as she might have!  Wonder-full!

We had a bit of a challenging a.m. start.  The rocky start due to a dead RV battery.  Someone – who shall not be named (a sometimes pre-occupied and forgetful male person)  forgot to turn the headlights off.  Someone else – who shall also not be named (an on-the-ball female person, with loads of good sense) suggested we ask the hotel maintenance guy for help – which he happily and rapidly provided. We left Mackinaw City only a few minutes after we had planned – but we were in a hurry as we didn’t want to miss our scheduled first stop of the day in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan where we were to board a 65 foot tour boat for a two-hour excursion taking us through the Soo Locks.  Fortunately, we made it with minutes to spare.

Boating along the St. Mary River.

The Soo Locks are huge commercial locks passing approximately 10,000 ships through each year. Situated between the State of Michigan and Ontario Province in Canada, the locks allow ships to bypass the rapids of the St. Mary River, moving the ships up and down 21 feet between Lakes Superior and Heron.   After going through the locks, the boat took us underneath the International Bridge into Canada and then back around through the locks again, this time out the Canadian side and returning to U.S. waters.  Along the way we saw a huge steel plant, operating at full speed to provide steel, primarily for car makers in Detroit.  We also saw several large (800 – 900 feet) container ships.

Captain Mary Ann Schallip – the first woman to be a licensed Captain on the St. Mary River.

Our boat was captained by Mary Ann Schallip.  Licensed as a captain in 1995 – Mary Ann is the first woman to work as a licensed Captain on the St. Mary River.  I asked her about her adventures becoming a boat captain and very much enjoyed hearing a bit about her experiences – most of them very positive – about breaking that nautical gender barrier.

We left our tour and had a quick lunch – then drove through to Blind River, Ontario and the next day on to Parry Sound on Georgian Bay. Steven had once before taken a boat ride through Georgian Bay and loved it.  He wanted to share it with us – and someday might like to rent a houseboat for a week or two on the bay.  Yet another gorgeous water tour – we took a three-hour boat cruise through the 30,000 Island area of Georgian Bay.  Though we didn’t actually see 30,000 islands, there are, in fact, multitudes of tiny islands sprouting up throughout the bay.  Many of them teeny tiny, just large enough to support a tree or two – others enough bigger to hold a small summer cabin and a miniature dock with a dinghy alongside.  At two or three of the islands with cottages, the folks living there made it a point to come out and greet us with a welcoming wave as we floated by.  On some of the even bigger islands, and along the mainland shores, we also saw grand summer homes with yachts and seaplanes docked alongside.

One of the myriad tiny islands dotting the waters of Georgian Bay.

What was most breathtaking to me were the trees.  Forests of tall, evergreen white pines mixed together with the ubiquitous Canadian Oaks forming lavish natural tree scapes.  I can’t begin to imagine how brilliantly colorful these islands are in the autumn.  In fact, we learned that the biggest trade in this part of Canada is hunting and fishing together with fall tourism when people come from far and near to check out the island forests showing off their opulent autumn colors.

Also memorable on our cruise was our passage through ‘The Hole in the Wall.”   Hole in the Wall is a granite sculpted, narrow channel with 80+ foot cliffs on both sides.  The passage through was breathtaking, as well as a bit hair-raising, and seemingly miraculous.  A bit like passing an ocean liner through the eye of a needle, the captain expertly chugged us through this passage with little room to spare on either side. In spite of some teasing on my part (“Why the heck are we going so far out of our way just to see Georgian Bay?!?”) it turns out Steven was right (of course!) – this part of the trip was stunning!

Getting ready to enter “The Hole in the Wall,” Georgian Bay. It’s the very narrow passage to the left of the waterway. Still not sure how our Captain managed to float us through!

Another thing I loved about the Parry Sound area:  as we drove through this part of Canada, we kept seeing the most unusual thing.  On rock walls, cliffs and outcroppings all along the freeway, we saw stones piled up on top of each other creating a figure like formation.  At first I thought I was imagining it, but soon it became clear that someone (or many someones) was forming these stone structures for a purpose.  For most of a day we would see one of these cairns at least every mile – and it wasn’t unusual to see them even closer together,  side by side, as we motored down the freeway.

Stones and shale stacked on the walls beside the portion of the Trans-Canada Highway heading into Parry Sound.

I was mystified.  Clearly there was some kind of meaning here.  I recalled the symbol for the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games – and that gave me a clue.

I did a little googling and looked for information about the Vancouver Olympic symbol.  Sure enough – I was getting somewhere.   Inukshuk (pronounced in-ook-shook) originally believed to have been used by the Inuit, are stone monuments erected to serve as a directional marker as well as a greeting or sign that others have passed by.  While original inukshuk formations were likely one or two stones placed upright beside each other, in more modern times, they have come to be formed as human figures and their original purpose has evolved to mean Godspeed – safe passage to all who pass by this place.  Inukshuks were the inspiration for the 2010 Olympic logo.  So now I had some good back story on the 2010 Olympic character I hadn’t had before, and clearly these cairns were similar – but how the heck did so many of them get there?  Googling away with all my fingering might – I still couldn’t figure it out (and found out later that I had run up my data bill like crazy – oops – had to turn my phone off!!).

Fast forward to the next evening.  I finally had my curiosity satisfied while sitting in, of course, the laundromat.  (Side note:  I think I’ve said before, I could write an entire blog about the people I have met, the interesting experiences I have had, and the wisdom I have gained in laundromats.  I’m telling you – if you want to discover what’s really going on in a place – the folks in the laundromat know.  And most of them are eager to tell you – might as well spin a good tale while running your clothes through the spin cycle!).  So I start visiting with a fellow washer-woman as we were each doing our laundry.  I told her how much we enjoyed our boat ride and her beautiful part of the world.  I asked her if she is a permanent resident (yes); how she felt about tourism (great – it keeps money coming in); if she has kids and how old they are (yes – grown and moved away – one grand baby on the way).  I share all of my family stats with her and where we’re from.  Then I told her the story of seeing all these rock formations and that I googled it and found inukshuk but still couldn’t quite figure out how they all got there.

Well – she of course knows.  They are, indeed, inushshuks, usually built by locals.  For some time, high school and college kids, as well as local hikers and hunters, have been building these inukshuks to leave a mark of their passing.  They also serve to welcome newcomers into town.  Apparently teens often go out together to find places along the freeway to leave them – competing with each other for the highest and most daring placement (we did see some that were placed on precarious and very high perches!).  Rock graffiti saying how-do-you-do and welcome – I love it!  So, so glad to know how and why all these charming stone bearers of good tidings came to be there.  And they did feel very welcoming.  When we moved onto a new stretch of highway and my little rock buddies disappeared – I truly missed them!

Wishing you Godspeed as, wherever you travel, you seek the presence of wonder!

On the lookout for the presence of wonder – found it in so many places – even in the rocks!  Where are your finding it?

From Shabbat in Milwaukee to Mass at Notre Dame – Our Judeo Christian Journey

Days 44 – 50; July 31 to August 6

As most of you know, my husband Steven is Jewish.  I am Roman Catholic.  Our girls have been Baptized in the Roman Catholic Church and attend the local parish elementary school – St. Anne.  This is the same school that I attended, with all six of my younger siblings and many cousins; and where several next generation cousins now attend along with Helen and Olivia.  St. Anne is our primary place of worship, is the place we invest a significant portion of our volunteer and service hours and is at the center of a great deal of our socializing.  Our parish participation is woven tightly into the fabric of our family’s life.

As involved as we are in our Roman Catholic community, we also treasure and honor Steven’s Jewish heritage and have mindfully incorporated Jewish tradition into our religious and social observances as well.  When the girls were baptized, we followed their Baptismal Mass with an invitation for our guests to then gather at our home where we held a Jewish naming ceremony for the girls.  Helen received the Hebrew name Eliana – which means G-d has answered.  Olivia received the Hebrew name Livyah – or Lioness.  Both girls treasure their Hebrew names.  We spend Passover with family, and with Steven as our teacher and leader, our family, together with several community volunteers, prepares and celebrates a Passover Seder with the students and staff at St. Anne School each year (300+ guests!).  We celebrate Rosh HaShana (the Jewish New Year) with Steven’s cousins and our whole family looks forward each year to Chanukah – the celebration of light – which we celebrate right along with our Christmas festivities.

It’s a patchwork of religious practices for sure – some would surely call it unorthodox (and in more orthodox Jewish traditions it surely is).  But for us it is a way to weave together and honor both religious traditions in a manner that enriches our family life as well as our faith.

So – this week our trip found us with many opportunities to do more weaving – celebrating Shabbat in Milwaukee and then traveling to South Bend, Indiana to visit Notre Dame and the Basilica of the Sacred Heart – all part of our family’s Judeo Christian journey.

Our time in Milwaukee was spent with family, visiting, sharing good meals, playing cards and games, the girls running through Uncle Neil and Aunt Edie’s beautiful back yard, laughing with their cousins and having a ball.  But we also did some important and sobering learning about the Holocaust and some of our family’s story during that darkest of chapters in human history.  We also celebrated Shabbat.

But first – we had to celebrate with Rachel Nortman.  Our cousin Rachel is 14, and possessed of a mighty voice talent.  She has begun formal voice training with  a classical voice teacher and though she has only been working with her teacher for a short time, was offered the opportunity to perform at the Italian American Community Club in Milwaukee with others from her voice school.  We arrived in the city just in the nick of time to make it to her performance. We dusted ourselves off, put on clean shirts, and showed up at the community center to greet our family, and then sit down and hear the music.  Rachel was wonderful.  So poised and so much voice talent!

Beautiful Rachel with the beautiful voice. We loved seeing her perform.

We felt very proud to be there to hear her sing!  The bonus was that the performance was held at the club’s outside patio where the temperatures were just right for night dining (mid-80’s with a light breeze) so we put together several tables and enjoyed a wonderful Italian meal – al fresco – while catching up with each other.  Buona fortuna!

On Thursday – along with Aunt Edie and Uncle Neil – we took the girls to the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie, Illinois (about a one hour drive from Uncle Neil and Aunt Edie’s home in Milwaukee). We had been to Eisenhower, Truman and Churchill museums just a few weeks prior – so the girls had been introduced to the term ‘holocaust’ – but they didn’t really have a true grasp on what the holocaust was or how it impacted the world.  How much of that history to share with 10 year olds is tricky.

Fortunately we had some really good help from Aunt Edie.  Aunt Edie Shafer’s family had fled Germany to the safety of Shanghai, China to escape the Nazi’s.  Edie was born in Shanghai and lived there with her family until she was seven, when her family was brought to America by a generous Milwaukee doctor who himself had escaped the Nazis and made it his mission to save as many refugees as he could.  In recent years Edie has begun sharing her family’s story with students in the greater Milwaukee area and beyond.  She is also diligently at work organizing all of her family’s papers and writing a history of what they experienced:  the fear and desperation among Jews in Germany; the nearly miraculous opportunity that allowed Edie’s family to flee Germany to safety in Shanghai; their subsequent internment in Shanghai when the Japanese invaded China; and ultimately, their final flight to sanctuary and Democracy in America.

Edie is an elegant and emotional teller of this important history.  And while much of her story is very personal, it is ultimately a universal story that highlights the triumph of resilience, courage and kindness, generosity, hope and tremendous faith over evil.  Her message to everyone she shares her story with:  It is up to each one of us to always extend a hand of compassion and kindness to another – even – or especially – in the face of hatred and hostility; and to stand up to and speak out against discrimination and bullying of any kind, wherever it is found.  The girls had not heard Edie’s story before – and it was an intimate and very personal way for them to begin to understand the devastation of the holocaust and how it changed their ancestor’s, and the world’s, history forever.

On Friday Steven worked, I did laundry, the girls did some school work; then we spent the afternoon and evening with the Shafers – celebrating Shabbat.  Aunt Edie had spent the day in her kosher kitchen, preparing a beautiful Shabbat meal for the extended family (we had 18 for dinner).  As this and many families do every Friday night, the Sabbath candles were lit, ritual hand washing was completed, the family shared bread and grape juice – while throughout, saying the ancient, vibrant, abidingly relevant Sabbath prayers that call down G-d’s blessings on the family, the world,  the food; and giving thanks for all the abundance G-d showers on G-d’s people.

Lighting the Sabbath candles.

The meal we shared was wonderful.  The conversation and laughter even better.  After two months of travel – it felt so good to be around a family table – sharing a meal with loved ones.  Listening to the voices of young and old blending together was music to my ears!!  It was especially comforting to be with family that day – as I had just gotten a call early Friday morning that a dear and beautiful woman and friend, Liz Fisher, had just died, less than a year after a devastating cancer diagnosis.  I was sad not to be at home with family and friends to remember and celebrate Liz – but was comforted by being with our own extended family – especially knowing that faith and family were the two absolutely most important things in Liz’s life.  God bless you Liz.  May you rest in peace and may perpetual light shine upon you!

We were sorry to leave our dear Aunt and Uncle and cousins – but look forward to seeing them again at our earliest opportunity.  We left them also feeling deep gratitude for the wonderful history and tradition they continue to share with us.

Saturday afternoon we arrived in South Bend, Indiana, the home of Notre Dame University and the Basilica of the Sacred Heart.  I was struck by a certain symmetry in the direction our travels had taken us.  First being immersed in the rich Jewish tradition of Steven’s family in Milwaukee – followed with a visit to one of the most beautiful and prestigious Catholic Universities in the United States!

But before we could get to the Notre Dame campus or the Basilica, we had to brave our way through a storm.  A big one!  Just a few hours after we arrived in South Bend, we encountered a tornado warning.  Sirens blared, the wind kicked up, rain came down in torrents.  We called down to the front desk from our hotel room – but in spite of the warning sirens – everyone seemed fairly nonchalant.  The staff did offer us the opportunity to wait in a  hotel space designated as a storm shelter – so  we bundled up a bag with water, books, cell phones and jackets.  But when we got downstairs, no one else seemed at all concerned and no one was moving to the storm shelter.  OK – we could be nonchalant too!  We decided to stay at the hotel for dinner and watch the storm go by – it got pretty loud at a couple of points – and there was a lot of wind and rain – but after a bit more than an hour – things calmed down considerably.  Later that evening, we watched the local news to see what the storm report was and found that a rest stop we had been to just hours before was the place where the tornado had briefly touched down.  Yikes!

Incoming!! Tornado!!

Happily, the next morning the ground was wet, but the skies were clear blue and cloudless and the humidity was low.  We were off to Notre Dame for Sunday Mass and a tour.  We easily found the campus and after a short haggle with campus security, found a place to park our RV (they don’t generally allow them on University grounds).  We first walked to the beautiful Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes.  Tucked at the bottom of a small hill below campus housing, the rockery grotto was incredibly lovely.  Greenery flourished there, and it was shaded and cool.  Candle stands held row upon row of white votives – many lit – still others waiting for a flame and a prayer.  Helen, Olivia and I all lit candles.  I was glad to be there so soon after Liz’s death to offer a moment of silence in her honor.

The Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes.

Hundreds of candles lit for so many special intentions. We lit one for dear Liz – rest in peace!

We then went up to the Basilica for Mass.  The church is stunning and we found the greeters and ushers to be very welcoming.  The rector said the Mass and shared a warm and thoughtful homily.

In front of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart – Notre Dame Campus

Having just celebrated  Shabbat with the Shafers, throughout the service I was especially aware of so many of the ritual actions in the Catholic Mass that come directly from our Jewish roots – the first reading proclaimed was from the Hebrew prophets (a portion of the Jewish Tanakh), the ritual hand washing, the blessing of bread and wine.  From Shabbat at the Shafers to Mass at Notre Dame – the path of our family’s Judeo Christian journey together grows ever longer.

Sunday morning Mass at Notre Dame is streamed live on television – so they begin and end right on time – one hour exactly.  Both girls were pleased that the Mass was only an hour long – they wanted to get out and explore more of the campus.  They were especially interested in investigating the university because their fourth grade teacher, Mr. Haffey, was a student at Notre Dame and they had heard much Notre Dame lore from him throughout their past school year. They were delighted to discover the cute and feisty looking ‘Fighting-Irish-Mini-Mobile’ – just their size don’t you think!  I have no doubt if they’d had a clue how to hot-wire that little car, they would have hopped aboard, started her up and taken her for a wild spin across the campus!

Olivia and Helen – just the right size for the Fighting-Irish-Mini-Mobile we found on campus!

We walked around the campus quite a bit – so much to admire!  I’ve never been on such a grand campus before.  Regal without being stuffy – the buildings were splendid, the grounds lavish – everything was pristine and so handsome.  Abundant greenery, long grassy lawns, paths wreathed with vibrant flowers.  I imagine when filled with students hustling to and from classes, there is a very different feel on campus – but it was a charming parkland on the Sunday morning we were there.

So serene on a summer Sunday – a park-like campus.

We also stopped at Walsh Hall where our friends Rich and Jeanne (both ND alum) spent many of their college nights smooching on the front porch.  They asked us to have a kiss at Walsh Hall for them.  So we did.  The girls took a picture.  This photo is for you Jeanne and Rich!

Kissing on the porch of Walsh Hall!

We finished up our tour with a visit to the Notre Dame bookstore where we had fun spending souvenir money on Notre Dame swag.   Though I had never been there before this trip – I long ago dreamt of attending school at Notre Dame.  I think I would have loved being a student there – I certainly loved the opportunity to visit!

From South Bend to Chicago for just one quick day.

Admiring the boats along Lakeshore Drive – Chicago.

The highlights in Chicago:  time on Lake Michigan at Lincoln Park; picnic lunch at Belmont Harbor on Lakeshore Drive; and best of all, sharing burgers out on the deck of a little neighborhood tavern with our sister-in-law Lisa and nephew Christopher.  Our time with Lisa and Christopher was way too short – but we were so glad to see them and enjoy a few hours hearing about their lives in the Windy City.  Auntie Lisa managed, in the mere two hours we were with her, to spoil the girls with compliments, hugs, kisses, and presents.  Our few hours slipped by much too quickly!

Olivia and Helen loved being spoiled by Auntie Lisa!!

Onward – and as always – we remain – on the lookout for the presence of wonder!

Sweet Bluegrass

Days 40 – 44; July 27 to July 31

Sweet bluegrass pastures in Lexington.

Friday, late afternoon, after a long day’s drive from St. Louis. We rolled into Lexington, Kentucky, and it was like balm.  So cool (low-80’s and a breeze) and lush, blue-green, bare-foot-walking grass everywhere.  As we headed off the freeway and into the heart of Lexington, the roads unwound around acres of fenced pasture lands and pristinely maintained stables.  These were not dirt corrals alongside timber-patched barns with one or two horses keeping company.  These were vast, long, softly rolling hills of pasture lands that looked as if they had been freshly mown and then watered to a glistening green.  The many grazing horses glistened as well.  Groomed to perfection, even my untrained eye recognized these as thoroughbreds.  Not a nag in the bunch.  We had arrived in a place where horse is king!  No doubt about it, as boasted, Lexington is “The Horse Capital of the World.”

We had also landed in the place that our niece, Candace Reichbach, has made her home.  We hadn’t seen Candace since a Thanksgiving 2010 reunion of Steve’s family in Florida. Young, creative, super hardworking and uber-bright, Candace, a talented hairstylist is the owner and proprietress of her own salon, “Fleet Street Hair Shoppe”.   We were eager to see her, see her salon and catch up on everything new in her fast paced world.

Knowing we had a big day in Lexington the next day, we had a quick dinner (at the Waffle House – apparently a well known favorite in the South) and went back to our motel and hunkered down to watch the opening of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, England.

Friday night in Lexington Kentucky after a long day of driving. All tucked in at our motel – watching the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

We loved watching the festivities.  Over 10,000 Olympians from all over the world – each one on their own epic journey!  Fun to watch them while we – four Nolan Shafers from Seattle, Washington – are on an epic journey of our own!  So many wonder-filled things to capture our imaginations on this day!

Our first full day in Lexington, the girls and Steven started the morning with a 7:00 a.m. breakfast at Keeneland Racetrack where they got to see the horses out on their morning training runs.  The trainers and jockeys were gracious to visitors and the girls loved hanging on the fences watching the horses trotting and cantering through their warm up circuits – and then galloping by at whip speed.

Helen took this great photo.  A thoroughbred and his jockey on a training ride at Keeneland Racetrack.

They (Steve and the girls, not the horses and jockeys) came back to our motel late morning to scoop me up – the girls (Helen especially) wide-eyed and with so many stories to tell!  We all went off to meet Candace for lunch.  We met up and shared warm greetings all around and then sat down to the enjoyable task of catching up.  The visiting was great – so fabulous to see Candace and hear about all she’s been up to!

The beautiful Candace – making faces WITH the girls – not AT the girls.

Our lunch venue turned out to be fabulous too.  We had gathered at a place called “Willie’s Locally Known.”  The “Willie’s” part of the name refers to the owner, Willie.  The “Locally Known” part of the name refers to the locally known Bluegrass, Country, and Folk musicians that are regularly featured performers at Willie’s.  Also regularly featured, down home southern cooking like catfish po’ boys and fried green tomatoes.  The food was delicious and plentiful – even more plentiful – the hospitality that was served up with the meal.  We quickly found ourselves in conversation with Willie himself, as well as some of his staff, and before we knew it, we were invited to come back for dinner the next night to experience a real, down home, Bluegrass jam.  Just as we were getting ready to pay our tab, Willie asked us if we might want to meet a Kentucky Derby winning jockey who happened to be sitting in the bar eating his lunch.  Well – of course we did!  And so we met Chris McCarron.

Chris McCarron – horse racing royalty! We met him at the same restaurant we were lunching in – our first day in Kentucky!

Chris McCarron (Who?).  I looked him up.  He really is horse racing royalty – just a small sample of his pedigree: 6 wins in triple crown venues; multiple wins at the Breeders Cup; 264 million dollars in purse-winnings; American Thoroughbred Hall of Fame jockey.  And, most of all, a truly nice man.  He was so humble and down to earth.  He took the time to speak with both girls and was more than willing to take a photo!  He sized up Helen real quick and told her she was probably going to be too tall to be a jockey (fine with her – that’s not her ambition) but that he could tell she had the temperament to be a good trainer (smiles all around – taking care of those big animals is her dream!).  Right there, in Willie’s, we had our very own, impromptu, winners-circle, red-rose-blanket, blue-ribbon kind of moment.  And we hadn’t been in Lexington for 24 hours yet.  Incredible!

And it just got better.  We went from our private winner’s circle moment at Willie’s to our own private hair party at the Fleet Street Hair Shoppe.  A few days earlier I had made arrangements with Candace for all four of us to get our hair trimmed.  Between Candace and three of her expert colleagues, we each got absolutely lovely haircuts.  We L O V E D Candace’s charming shoppe, which she has designed and crafted with chic style and vision plus a lot of blood, sweat and tears.  Together with the help of her kind and handy boyfriend Josh, and a cadre of friends, she has created THE place to be to get good hair!  Also L O V E D meeting Jack, the Rabbit – The Fleet Street Hair Shoppe’s official mascot.  SO proud of all Candace has accomplished!

Rabbit, Jack. The fluffy white mascot of The Fleet Street Hair Shoppe.

We left the shoppe and went to Saturday night Mass at the local St. Peter’s Parish (the church is right next door to the house that Mary Lincoln Todd grew up in).  Mass was followed by a quick dinner with Candace, and then our tired family went back to our motel to crash and watch a bit more of the Olympics.  More horsey stuff during the day on Sunday at the incredibly beautiful and exceedingly informative Kentucky Horse Park.  Then back again to Willie’s for dinner and music, joined by Candace and her sweetheart, the kind and handy (and, as we came to find out, awfully good humored) Josh.

The beginning of the Bluegrass jam at Willie’s – before the night was over – more than 15 musicians would share the stage and the fun!

On Sunday night at Willie’s, local Bluegrass musicians  are invited to show up and join a come-as-you-are, play-what-you-want, Bluegrass jam.  Woo hoo.  What fun we had!!  The musicians improvised together, making great toe-tapping, finger-snapping, hum-along music that ranged from traditional Kentucky Bluegrass to Country to Rock-a-Billy.  At one point I counted over 15 musicians singing and playing a combination of five guitars, a dobro, 2 acoustic basses, an electric bass, a fiddle, mandolin, keyboard and harmonica.  I gave up keeping track – I was too busy hand-clapping my way through the music!  This, my friends, is exactly what I was hoping we would find along the way on this trip.  Those serendipitous moments when the people, the sounds, the tastes, the landscapes of a place all conspire together to give you a moment that you couldn’t have in any other place but the very place you are in.  The presence of wonder!

The next day, Monday, July 30th, was my 52nd birthday.  Steve took Candace and the girls for an early morning horseback ride while I enjoyed a luxurious sleep-in and some oh so sweet solitude (best birthday gift ever).  The girls came back in the afternoon, hot and sweaty from their ride – so we spent a couple of refreshing hours at the pool.  Then Candace and Josh (who had helped Steven find a perfect dinner spot) joined us at Sal’s Chop House where we had a lovely birthday dinner (and I had a lovely glass of Kentucky bourbon – Blanton’s.  So sweet.  So smooth.)  I had enjoyed several birthday calls and messages throughout the day – and dinner with Candace and Josh, Helen and Olivia, and my darling husband, was a perfect way to end the day.  The only down moment, saying goodbye to Candace and Josh (come visit us in Seattle – pleeeease!!).

I expected we’d get a good night’s sleep and get up the next morning to begin a two day drive to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to catch up with more family – Uncle Neil, Aunt Edie and our Shafer cousins.   But not so fast!  At 3:00 in the morning, Olivia Rose woke up in tears.  Poor girlie had a painful ear infection.  I dosed her up with Tylenol and cuddled her back to sleep – but knew we would have to delay our travel plans for a first thing in the morning trip to the local urgent care facility.  Helen had been complaining on and off for a few days about her ears bugging her too.  We had been doing loads of swimming and I suspected swimmer’s ear infections (being the good Google Doc I am – I stayed up and ‘confirmed’ that diagnosis over the internet).  So we set out – first thing in the morning – for the urgent care doctor.  Sure enough, a diagnosis of swimmer’s ear X 2 and prescription antibiotics for both girls.  A long 4 hours, $120.00 (after insurance) and 4 prescriptions later, we were able to head down the road – sorry to say goodbye to Lexington but looking forward to Milwaukee (and a good car nap after a long, ear-achey night!).

On the lookout for the presence of wonder – and despite a short detour for ear infections – found it in our visit with our beautiful niece, many things horesable, and in the sweet Bluegrass hills and music of Lexington!

When in Drought

Days 37 – 40; July 24 to July 27

After several days of travel across the Heartland (what I have come to call the HEAT-land) we arrived, finally, in St. Louis, Missouri.  A little battered but feeling pretty good after having endured, with some level of equanimity, RV keys lost in 106 degrees and a fair bout of homesickness. We were delighted to be in St. Louis and very much looking forward to spending time with Steve’s sister Kathy.

Unbelievably, the heat wave continued.  After traveling through 104 – 106 degree days, we anticipated some cooling, but St. Louis was 104 degrees hot when we arrived.  We walked to dinner the evening of our arrival – and though we only had to walk about five, very flat city blocks, it was blistering.  We actually took a wrong turn along the way, which took us a mere block off of our path, but it felt like we had added 10 miles to our journey.

This seems like a good place to divert to a few paragraphs about the drought.  You’ve certainly heard about it.  The national media – print, television and radio – have been full of reports that the U.S. is in the middle of the most serious drought in over fifty years.  If you are in Seattle, you probably don’t believe it – if you are anywhere else – you’re probably suffering through it.  This is not simply media hype.  Nobody is kidding about the lack of rain or the high temperatures.  All through Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Indiana and Missouri, we were seeing and FEELING the reality of the scorching temperatures and lack of rain.

Beyond the consistently high temperatures along the way (102 – 110 degrees nearly everyday since Idaho) one of our first experiences of the drought was actually in Colorado Springs.  I’ve previously written about seeing the heart wrenching aftermath of the Waldo Canyon fire.  Although reports regarding the cause of the fire have not yet been released, it is believed the fire was likely arson.  Fire-starting is a heinous crime, in this case made even more heinous by the tinder-like conditions created by the drought.  We saw firsthand the devastation this fire caused in the forest through the suburbs and well into the city limits of Colorado Springs.  It’s hard to know how bad the fire would have been given normal weather conditions.  But given this year’s drought and companion hot, dry temperatures, the fires raged, torching down thousands of acres of forest and nearly 400 homes.

Colorado wasn’t the only state with fires. On every road driven, from the Arizona Canyonlands onward, high fire danger warnings were ubiquitous and burning of all kinds banned. Everything, everywhere, was tinder. We didn’t need further evidence – but we continued to find it.  Leaving South Dakota we encountered a wildfire burning just miles ahead on our intended route.  We were actually stopped and diverted by emergency responders.

The freeway was closed – traffic diverted so emergency responders could manage another wildfire – hopefully putting it out before it got out of control.

We saw planes and a helicopter overhead dumping water to douse the flames.  And we were actually stopped in the middle of the freeway as a cattle drive went across – moving stock out of fire danger.

Cattle being rustled across the freeway – out of the path of the fire.

There was even more indication of the drought as we traveled on through Nebraska, into Kansas and then on to Missouri. As we passed through these states, we saw signs posted giving passers-by the names of the local creeks, rivers and lakes; but instead of bodies of water, we saw empty creek beds, rivers reduced to trickles, lakes that had shrunken to ponds.

And field after field of corn.  In some places, “. . . the corn was as high as an elephant’s eye . . . .”  Gorgeous, healthy, tall green stalks I imagined to be full of plump ears of sweet corn.  This corn was growing happily in fully irrigated fields.  But more often, we saw mile upon mile of sad fields full of sickly, skinny, straw-colored stalks – no vibrant green to be seen.

Believe it or not, this is a corn field.  Like many miles of corn fields we passed – cornstalks were straw-colored and thin – these cornstalks should have been lush, tall and vibrant green.

We learned that while all farms have some irrigation capability – most count on Mother Nature’s good graces to provide a good part of the water crops need – and this year – Mother Nature has been very stingy.  No rain and the corn is drying up on the stalks.  The corn is such poor quality, many farmers won’t even harvest it – the harvesting of the corn more costly than any potential financial return the stunted and dry corn could bring.  Still, as dire as things are – everyone is holding out hope and sending up prayers – another sight we often saw – signs imploring everyone to pray for rain!

Church signs everywhere – encouraging everyone – pray for rain!

So – to our Seattle friends – while this is one of the last things you might think to pray for this summer – pray for rain!  Farming communities in the Heartland will be ever grateful for such prayers to be asked –  and even more grateful if answered – as will your pocketbooks be come this fall when food prices begin to rise!

Back to dry and hot St. Louis – still a furnace – but we were so happy to be hanging out with Auntie Kathy who certainly showed us a good time!  After the super hot walk our first night there, we dined in a reasonably cool and outrageously delicious local Italian restaurant and then we went for some cold – a local specialty – Ted Drewes frozen custard.  Delish!

Getting our cold on with famous, St. Louis frozen custard at Ted Drewes. Yum!

Our second day in St. Louis we slept in a bit and met up with Kathy late in the morning (she had a job interview early that morning, fingers crossed for her!).  We spent the entire day hanging out at the City Museum in downtown St. Louis.  If you’ve never been and ever have the chance – go!  The museum bills itself as an “eclectic mixture of children’s playground, funhouse, surrealistic pavilion, and architectural marvel.” Visitors are encouraged to feel, touch, climb on, and play in the multitude of creative and interactive exhibits which have been formed almost exclusively from reclaimed and found industrial scrap. We joined Kathy’s friends Anne and Ellie (Ellie is also ten so the girls had another playmate).  The three girls took full advantage of the fun to be had.  We older visitors had fun at the exhibits too – though as creative and engaging as the museum was – the most fun was watching the three youngsters ‘imagineering’ their way through this giant playhouse.  Some of our favorites at the City Museum:  the ten story slide that went from the roof garden (floor 10) to the bottom floor of the museum (11 flights of stairs to get there – but the girls were game for it – twice!); full on face painting; climbing in the twisting and turning aerial cages that run across the ceilings of the entire first floor;  water play in the myriad and fantastic fountains that were burbling everywhere.

Helen with her face painted at the St. Louis City Museum. This body art would soon become a watercolor abstract following Helen’s water play in one of the many museum fountains.

Olivia climbing with Helen on one of the many City Museum contraptions just made for enthusiastic exploring.

We finished the day with some scrumptious Memphis style barbecue at a joint called Pappy’s Smokehouse.  Pappy himself stopped by to say hey and we assured him his barbecue was award-winning! Steven, especially, is loving the opportunity to try out local barbecue along this journey – I swear by the time we get back to Seattle – he may have determined that he is going to give up his computer science career to start a barbecue joint of his own!

The next day more exploring at the St. Louis Magic House and Children’s Museum.  Auntie Kathy and Steve took the girls out to play while I stayed behind at Kathy’s place to get our laundry done (I ‘sacrificed’ the fun of the Magic House to stay home and do laundry – in the cool AC at Kathy’s house – book at hand to keep me company between laundry loads.  I know, I give up a lot to take care of my family!).  They had a great time and when they got home – Steven and I took off and the girls had a movie night / sleepover with Auntie Kathy and Jasper the cat.  Auntie Kathy got some one on one with the girls; Steven and I got some one on one without the girls; the girls got a reprieve from their parents and had tons of fun spoiling the cat while Auntie was spoiling them!  Wins all around.

The next morning, Friday, July 27th (Day 40 of our trip) we said goodbye to Kathy to travel on to Lexington, Kentucky where we were looking forward to catching up with our niece Candace and to visiting the area around Lexington, “the horse capital of the world.”  WONDER who’s excited about that. . . ?

Temperature – 106; Diagnosis – Homesickness

Days 33 – 37; July 20 to July 24

We left the Black Hills following a rest day – and thank goodness for that!  We had packed a lot into our five days in South Dakota!  We were ready to slow the pace down a bit as we went through the heartland (more aptly named the HEATland)!

We started with a drive from Hill City for a quick overnight in Alliance, Nebraska; from there to another overnight in Kearney, Nebraska; and, from there to Abilene, Kansas to visit the Eisenhower Presidential Museum and Library.  To keep everyone from getting cabin fever (RV fever?) we try to keep our drive times down to somewhere between three and four hours.  Getting across the heartland, however, is a long distance job, so we had some lengthier drive days ahead.  On the second of those longer driving days, from Alliance to Kearney, NE, we were cruising down the road, only about two hours into the day’s drive.  Steven was driving; Olivia reading a book on her Kindle; Helen, I thought, was napping, when all of a sudden, totally out of the blue, she pipes up with, “Why are we even doing this?  Why are we driving around all over the place in this stupid RV!  Our beds and our friends are at home!  I think we should go home – N O W!!”  Olivia, always a bit calmer in her appraisal of situations, lifted her head up from her book and said coolly, “She has a point, mom.”

What are we doing in this stupid RV?!?! I want to go home. NOW! !

Uh oh.  We were all still a bit tired from our adventures in the Black Hills of South Dakota.  We had also just passed one month on the road (boy that went fast!).  The weather was hot (106 degrees!).  We had just finished one long day of driving and had a second long day in front of us.  It was a perfect storm – a homesickness storm.  My first line of defense was to try diversion tactics.  “Oh honey, do you think you might just be bored right now.  Why don’t you read your book?”  “I don’t want to read my book.”  “Maybe you should write in your journal?  You could write about what it feels like to be missing home?”  “That sounds awful!!”  “Would you like to draw?” (Almost always a winning suggestion.)  “Nope.”  “Maybe you should take a little rest – maybe you’re still tired from all the things we’ve been doing.”  Nope.  “Mom, I don’t need to rest.  I.  Need.  To go.  Home!”

Diversion tactics, absolutely a non-starter.  So, I decided we had better handle this head on.  “Helen, are you feeling homesick?”  “Well, actually, mom, I’m not feeling homesick, I’m just wondering why you and daddy decided we should even do this.  Why would we want to leave home for so long?”  “Helen, that sounds like homesickness to me.”  “Well, if that’s what homesickness sounds like, I definitely have it!”  Olivia, “She’s definitely homesick mom.”  Me to Olivia, “Are you feeling homesick Olivia?”  Olivia, “Uhh. Well – yeah.  Actually mom – I’ve been kind of wondering why we decided to do this – but I decided to indulge you guys.”  I look over at Steven.  Our ten-year old daughter is “indulging” us?!? What’s with the sarcasm?!?!?!!!!  We are taking these two birdbrains darlings on the trip of a lifetime.  A trip they’ve been excited about for two years!  Both girls had been having a truly terrific time on the trip so far, we’d had very few squabbles, we’d had tons of fun and fabulous adventures doing things we’d never have been able to do at home in Seattle.  But – at least on this day – the adventuring was getting old and home was calling.

I have to admit, I was feeling a bit homesick too.  It had been so great to have my friend Karen in Colorado Springs and I was missing her; there were some big events coming up in Seattle that we would be missing (an anniversary party, a birthday, a wedding, a bon voyage gathering at my sister’s); I was missing my friends; I was also starting to really feel the need for a little space that I didn’t have to share with three other people 24 / 7 . . . .  OK – enough of that!  Clearly, in spite of all the ‘presence of wonder’ we had been experiencing, there’s something most wonderful about home – and it was only natural we were feeling homesick.

It was only about 11:30 in the morning at this point.  But I decided we needed to dose the homesickness with some running around (Miss Helen, particularly, needs to move her body – especially when she’s got lots of feelings to work out), some cooling off, and an early lunch.  We all agreed that we would stop as soon as we could find a spot, and with that, the girls perked up just a little bit.  Of course, at this point we’re on US 83 in the middle of nowhere and the temperature is still climbing.  Where were we going to stop?  Well – ask and you shall receive!  The Travel Gods were with us!  About twenty minutes after the homesickness storm cast its dark cloud over us, we drove into the town of North Platte, Nebraska, population 26,000.  We looked left and right, hoping to find a nice shady place, maybe even a park, where we could stop and have our lunch.  And voila!  There it was.  Right in the middle of town, right on US 83 – The North Platte Cody Municipal Park and Wild West Memorial.  The park, dedicated to Buffalo Bill who began his Wild West Extravaganza there in North Platte, was gorgeous!  Exactly what we needed!  They had shade, picnic tables and benches, they had a carousel with an old-time calliope playing fair tunes (you have to pay to ride – 40 cents a ticket – we gladly would have paid ten times that!), they had a concession stand with cool lemonade, they had a zoo (a small zoo – but a zoo nonetheless).

The Entrance to Cody Municipal Park dedicated to Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Extravaganza. The perfect antidote for homesickness!

We hung out and played there for about 90 minutes, had lunch, rode the carousel, cooled down with some yummy lemonade.  It was the perfect antidote for two homesick girls (and their slightly less, but still homesick, mother!).  A musical, carnival ride filled, lemonade oasis in the middle of the hot US Highway desert.  On the lookout for the presence of wonder – and just when we needed it most – there wonder was – surprising us again!

Thankfully, the park provided the curative dosing we needed and the homesickness seemed to have passed.  We drove on to Kearney, NE where the girls enjoyed a cooling swim (just in case you’ve forgotten, the temps were at 106) and we had a good nights sleep.  We left in the morning for Abilene, KS (population 7,000) where we visited the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum.  We arrived at the museum a little after 2:00 in the afternoon and enjoyed over three good hours there.  There was a very interesting film about President Eisenhower at the visitor center, and though Helen and Olivia weren’t super interested in the documentary, the auditorium wasn’t crowded and it was cool, so they were happy.  After the film, we wandered through the visitor center / gift shop and then went to tour the house where Eisenhower grew up (the library and museum are on acres of land surrounding his family’s home in Abilene).  We had fun seeing all of the original furnishings in his childhood home – though it didn’t seem that old-fashioned to me – several of the appliances and furnishings looked familiar from my great-grandmother’s and grandmother’s kitchens, laundry rooms and bathrooms (I guess that dates me!).  Then we went on to the museum where we learned a lot about Eisenhower’s war years and his presidency.

Taking a Presidential stance with President Eisenhower.

My favorite thing from the Eisenhower Museum:

The Chance for Peace

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

This world in arms is not spending money alone.

It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this:  a modern school in more than 30 cities.

It is two electric power plants serving a town of 60,00 population.

It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals.

It is some 50 miles of concrete highway.

We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat.

We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.

This, I repeat, is the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking.

This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense.  Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

An excerpt from “The Chance of Peace” address delivered before the American Society of Newspaper Editors

      by Dwight D. Eisenhower, April 16, 1953

This caution, from a Five Star General who was the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in World War II.  He certainly spoke those words with a deep and personal sense of the cost of war and the military industrial complex that supports it.

As we were getting ready to leave the museum, Steven discovered he couldn’t find his keys.  Argh!!!  It was 106 degrees outside and we were cooking!  Three buildings searched (in 106 degree heat), two bathrooms, and one auditorium searched (in 106 degree heat) – we still hadn’t found the keys.  We walked around the RV twice (in 106 degree heat), and then finally, Steven looked through the window of the locked RV.  We probably should have looked there first – but we obviously weren’t thinking straight.  I think our brains were fried (in 106 degree heat)!  Sure enough – there were the keys – in the ignition.  We called AAA and got patched through to somebody in Kansas City.  Kansas City!!  I panicked.  How long would we have to wait (in 106 degree heat!).  Fortunately they told us they would call someone local to get us out of our mess, there was someone right in Abilene.  The AAA guy was to us in under 20 minutes and once there, it took him less than a minute to get us into the RV.  (God bless the AAA man!!!!)  You can be sure we cranked up the AC once we got back into the cab (we had been waiting in – that’s right – 106 degree heat!)!

Overnight in Abilene and then off to Independence, Missouri, where we spent another night.   Independence seemed like a picture postcard of middle America (and it was only 104 degrees!).  After arriving in Independence and having a quick lunch, we went to the Truman Museum and Library.  Another extensive and interesting display of Presidential memorabilia.  Truman served in World War I and after the war, started a men’s haberdashery business which eventually went bankrupt.  Following his business failure he got involved in local Kansas City politics (he was part of a democratic political machine in Kansas City and likely several of his races were fixed).  He eventually became the Senator from Kansas, and from there, President Roosevelt’s running mate.  When Roosevelt died only three months into his fourth term, Truman became President of the United States.  Not college educated, a bankrupt clothing salesman, and a ‘connected’ politician – he was an unlikely President for sure.   Unlikely he may have been, but he made some of the most significant political decisions in U.S. and world history.  He was the man who made the final decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima; the man who allowed Joe McCarthy to begin his inquisitions into American loyalty; and also the man who led the initiative to create NATO. This “The buck stops here” President was, and remains, a controversial one.  There is still great debate regarding the legacy – positive or negative – that he left behind.

Howard S. Truman Presidential Library, Independence, Missouri

My favorite thing from the Truman Museum:

“All Americans, whatever their job, or whatever their income, wherever they live, whatever their race or creed, are entitled to a good education, good medical care, and a decent place to live.”

President Harry S. Truman, October 26, 1948

Interesting, isn’t it, that many of the themes of these two presidents:  military spending, education, housing, jobs, and quality healthcare for all, are themes which remain at the forefront of our political discourse today!

Whether or not I agree with their political decisions, it is incredibly interesting to learn the history of these men, to see their papers, to learn more about their personal and family lives, to read their personal journals, to see the actual documents that are used to create the stuff we read in history books.  We have several more Presidential museums to visit – and I’m looking forward to them all!

Overnight in Independence, then to Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri to see the National Churchill Museum.   Seems like a funny place to find a Churchill Museum, but there it was!  And the museum was very well done, housed in the ground floor of the Church of St. Mary, which also serves as the Westminster College campus chapel.  The Church of St. Mary is a magnificent Christopher Wren designed building that dates back to the 17th Century.  During the Second World War, the Church of St. Mary was damaged and efforts to rebuild were abandoned to focus repairs on another church in the same London parish.  To save the church, a campaign was mounted to move the church from London, England to the Westminster campus in Fulton, Missouri, U.S.A. where it was reconstructed and repaired, stone-by-stone.  Stunning!  It is the centerpiece of the small but lovely Westminster campus.

Church of St. Mary at Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri.  The Winston Churchill Memorial Museum is housed in the ground floor.

Having been steeped in our World War II history at the Eisenhower and Truman museums, we were ready for the British version of the story.  Steven especially loved prowling through all of the Churchill memorabilia and we all enjoyed seeing old film and listening to old tape of Churchill speaking, hearing his growly voice vigorously encouraging people across Great Britain to believe in the cause of freedom and to work to fight Hitler’s tyranny.

  “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say that this was their finest hour.”

Having seen these three museums, I wish I could go back and do my high school and college world history courses again!  I hope that some of what we saw sifted into Helen and Olivia’s consciousness.  They were most interested in the popular culture displays that each of the three museums incorporated into their exhibits.  They were intrigued by old telephones and typewriters; displays featuring original 50’s TV dinners and a soda fountain counter; television episodes and advertising jingles that played in exhibits featuring some of the first ever television sets. (They both picked up this jingle right away – and have been singing it since we were at the Eisenhower Museum:  “You’ll wonder where the yellow went, when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent. . . !”).  I’m sure the pop culture exhibits are exactly what would have grabbed my attention too, had I been in these museums at ten years of age!

The Pepsodent Sisters!

From the Churchill Museum we are headed into St. Louis – where we meet up with Steve’s sister Kathy!  We’ll let you know what happens there!

On the lookout for the presence of wonder . . . at least we don’t need to . . . wonder where the yellow went – we brush our teeth with Pepsodent!