We just made a 17-day trip across the U.S. to Alaska, driving from Bangor, Maine to Bellingham, Washington, then by ferry to Haines, Alaska.
It was a journey across a continent, through vast farmlands turned a lush brown by the recent passage of the tilling machines. Interstate highways.
Along the way, we visited friends and relatives and squeezed in a bit of sightseeing.
Margo and John, our sibling and in-laws, put us up for three nights in Minneapolis in their hip downtown loft.
In South Dakota, our home state, we dropped by to see Mount Rushmore and the four presidents enshrined there, Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt. and Lincoln.
We climbed around in the Badlands…
…and re-visited the drama of the U.S.-Soviet Cold War at the Minuteman Missile Historic Site. (Read my post here about The Man Who Saved the World during the Cold War.)
The Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming are sacred to people of the Great Sioux Nation who were forced from their land by the U.S., then defeated after the Battle of Little Bighorn. We visited the battlefield and walked the hills where Custer’s men made their last stand…
And where Sioux Nation now celebrates what was to be their last victory.
Further north, through undulating brown hills in each direction, we crossed Montana. A three-hour traffic backup in the Snoqualmie Pass in Washington state let us know that we were approaching a major city. We spent the night at Roaring River B & B where we could hear the water flow.
One night in Seattle gave us a chance to visit with our niece, Molly and her wife, Allegra, who are converting their own vans so they can enjoy time on the road.
Our stay was marred by thieves who broke into our car and stole all of our clothes and jewelry. The thought of it still makes me ill.
Our old friends Jill and Alan helped us recover from this catastrophe with their warm hospitality in their new home in Port Townsend.
A dash to Bellingham, Washington then a long wait for a departure on the Alaska Marine Transportation ferry to Haines, Alaska.
For three days we wove through the Inner Passage, once a stronghold of Northwest Native American culture, always a lush haven for foliage and wildlife, including the white Spirit Bear.
From Haines we drove north through the spectacular heights of the Kluane Mountains, past Kluane Lake, where steam arose from below the earth’s surface. The ice is only now melting from the shores.
Finally, we descended into Alaska, our home for the next three months.
It’s impossible to get a fair view of a city in 14 hours, and that is my disclaimer. When we decided to stop for the night in Janesville, Wisconsin, I remembered that Paul Ryan hailed from there, but everything else was a blank. Industrial warehouses dotted the roadside and trucks rumbled by.
On a brief walk the next morning through sprawling housing developments, I kept my eyes open and found a few clues to the local culture and history.
I. DWINDLING DAIRYLAND
First, I came across a plaque on a rock at the edge of a tiny meadow and pond. It recorded the story of a couple who ran a farm there during much of the 1900s. The inscription evoked nostalgia for Wisconsin’s glory days as “America’s Dairyland.”
"In summer months, their dairy herd grazed in the woodlands beyond and every afternoon gathered at this pond to drink. Homes and streets have replaced the farm, but this park remnant preserves a special place, when, in days gone by, the sounds of frogs, cows and birds filled the air.”
Behind me, a quiet neighborhood of houses spread out. Jarringly close, the Interstate created an inescapable wave of noise.
I thought of the words, “in days gone by, the sounds of frogs, cows and birds filled the air” and could only regret that nature is so often subsumed by industry and progress.
But within the neighborhood I found activity: a man raking leaves on the second warm day of spring, young wives jogging, dogs chirping at every passer-by.
II. POLITICAL FISSURES
Outside one house, a sticker demanding the recall of conservative Governor Scott Walker reminded me of the harsh measures the governor had taken several years ago to strip state employees of their unions. I can see now that the high-stakes drama between union members and the governor should have been a bell weather of the ideological warfare now pushing our country to new extremes.
III. IMMIGRANT AMERICA
Before we left, I saw a different side of Janesville, a side that revealed the diversity of America’s heartland. I knew that Puritan New Englanders and German immigrants had settled the area and guessed that their descendants still predominate. Yet when I returned to our hotel, I found three or four women from India, one middle-aged and the others barely out of high school, cleaning the rooms. A grandfatherly man carried towels slowly, moving with a stiff gait. Two young men in tight t-shirts worked their smart phones.
They stood together in a group and I was certain they were a family and the hotel owners, their success another example of immigrants who are realizing a new life in America.
Check out a version of this essay on Medium.com
Where else but in New Orleans would people decorate their clothes with beans and parade through town?
We never knew that Mardi Gras was not just one day but many until we kept running into New Orleans residents in small parades around our neighborhood beginning on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6. Where we are living in the Bywater, every afternoon we heard the local high school bands marching around the neighborhood and often ran out to see them pass by.
As the days passed more and more people donned elaborate costumes and handmade floats in large and small parades through the local streets. In January, the Krewe du Vieux marked the city's 300th anniversary in its very irreverent style.
On Lundi Gras, that’s Fat Monday for you non-French speakers, the Red Bean Parade got underway with people wearing clothes they decorated with elaborate patterns of beans. A couple of brass bands heavy on the drums kept the party moving. The fun started at the the Marigny Opera House then paraded across town.
The parade snaked through the Marigney toward the French Quarter...
accompanied by a bean-encrusted buggy.
Could they be outdone in their creativity on the actual Mardi Gras day? You bet. We opened our front door in the morning to find hundreds of locals ready to have some fun.
Happy Mardi Gras!
Our first month in New Orleans hasn’t turned out exactly like we had expected, but taking life in stride is essential to enjoy living on the road. We left our van in Alaska in September and have been living in short-term furnished rentals until we return there in May.
Most surprising has been the cold weather, culminating (I hope) with the snow and ice that is on the sidewalk outside my window as I write. The Interstate was shut down last night and black ice has been causing accidents all day in the area. We’ve got a new heating system where we are living, thank goodness, but the lack of insulation in this early 20th century cottage doesn’t keep the heat in.
We’re living in the Bywater section of town, a hip district where historic single- and double-wide houses are still cheap enough for artists and musicians to live there. Street art is everywhere. We live just two streets from an abandoned warehouse that the graffiti artist bmike2c has turned into an art gallery.
When it is warm enough to go out, and yes, despite the freezing temperatures, the majority of the days here have been mild, Mark and I roam the streets on foot from the Lower Ninth Ward to the Garden District. Before Christmas, the houses were decorated, New Orleans-style.
On Christmas Eve we went out to the levees along the Mississippi river to take part in a Cajun ritual, the burning of bonfires. Teams of men and women build these towering pyres lined with firecrackers that explode in a noisy burst of flame when it is first lit. Fireworks add to the festivities in the dark.
New Year’s Eve is marked by a parade through the Marigney and the French Quarter, with high school bands from around the country that come to play. This color guard led the band twirling wooden guns.
Mardi Gras season kicked off the next weekend on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany. Purple, yellow and green beads started appearing on neighboring doorsteps and the photos of the Kings & Queens at Masque Balls of the Krewes filled the news each day.
In our neighborhood, Mardi Gras preparations mean that the local high school band takes it to the street. Every afternoon, at the end of classes, the students grab their instruments and batons and march around. Here’s a peek at one of the beautiful aspects of New Orleans outside our front door.
Stay tuned for the next two months while we explore the Crescent City close up.
Some of you may have noticed that I have not posted here for many weeks. A few knew I had headed to Bangor, Maine, to spend time with my mother and help celebrate her 100th birthday. For three months we visited, making small talk in her antique-filled room or cruising the assisted living residence she calls home.
If you have never experienced someone with memory loss, let me say that it forces one to practice patience like never before. I had to stop my own annoyance from mounting when every minute or two my mother asked for the date and time. My job, and that of her aides, was to distract her from what she doesn’t know and to focus on enjoying the here and now. That was easy with my mother who propels herself through life with a relentless cheerfulness, determined to deny the complicated emotions that rivet the rest of us.
My mother loves to do crossword puzzles and would try to engage anyone who enters her room. She remembers the old stars and literary names and solved all of the Latin clues. She and I did the New York Times crossword and together we dissected the tricky clues in search of double entendres. One of her aides makes crossword a social activity, gathering a group of elderly women to solve the puzzles from a paperback book.
Some days, I pulled out boxes of old photographs and described the people and scenes that her failed eyes could no longer see. We laughed as I read old diaries written when she was a young girl in Augusta and Portland, then looked up her old friends to see if any of them survived (none had).
My mother’s 100th birthday celebration stretched over several days starting with a shared birthday cake in the assisted living dining room, then a small party put on by the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and one arranged by a former students and teachers at Waterville High School.
The major get-together for family and friends was held at Lucerne Inn, a place first settled by her ancestors in 1810.
My mother talked endlessly about her birthday for the weeks leading up to it and thoroughly enjoyed each of the parties that honored her but when they were over, she forgot it all. I printed a large photo of the attendees and would name each of the people standing behind her on that day and she agreed that it was a ‘wonderful event,’ speaking from habit rather than actual memory.
Throughout my visit, my mother always knew who I was, drawing on her still vivid old memories. She recognized my dear friend Lizzie and recalled our experiences together as teenagers 48 years ago.
When not with my mother, I lived in Orrington, across the Penobscot river from Bangor. For the first time in 25 years, I was living alone. To stay busy, I volunteered with a solidarity project to purchase food from farmers and donate them to laid off workers and others who have fallen on hard times. I served as the liaison with the small farmers and helped to publicize a benefit concert by Noel Paul Stookey, of Peter, Paul and Mary.
The long, unseasonably warm autumn allowed me to take long walks around Fields Pond or in City Forest.
A couple of times I made it down to Acadia, to feel the flung spray and the blown spume and hear the seagulls cry (thank you, John Masefield).
I also had a chance to research the local history of my ancestors, including Thomas and Martha Cowing, two children of Revolutionary War soldiers who settled nearby.
My most precious time, however, was spent each day with my mother, days that washed over me, erasing any lingering grievance or guilt about my long absences roaming the world. I was thankful that I was able to take care of my mother, knowing that it healed a damaged part of me.
When the snow started falling and in the chill set in, I hid my tears to say good bye. I knew my mother was in good hands, tended to by caring aides, but I could have easily stayed by her side.
As I drove south, I decided to give my mother a call. I knew immediately that she had forgotten that I had been there. She sounded surprised to hear my voice and acted like it had been a long time since she had heard from me. I told her I had just left Bangor after three months there and she said ‘oh,’ embarrassed by her loss of memory. Within seconds she had forgotten again and moved on to her favorite subject: when she would see me again.
Before I left Alaska to return to Maine, we had the chance to revel in the spirit of Alaska at the state fair. Our friends Doug and Lynn were visiting from New York and we wanted to show them a good time.
I knew I was in luck within minutes of arriving when I came face-to-face with Miss Alaska, her white satin band sparkling and her crown towering on the top of her head.
A Tlingit native, Miss Alaska 2017 created her own tradition at the Miss America pageant when she strode onto the runway during the evening gown competition draped in a brilliant red and black Native blanket. (Watch her here.) I saw her later at the stage where the Native peoples told stories, made music and danced.
Much of the spirit of Alaska was expressed in stage performances throughout the fair. First up was the gunslinger, spinning his revolvers and a mean lasso. Here’s a glimpse:
The battle of the lumberjacks, a comedy show, really, with a feisty blonde mistress of ceremony and strapping competitors played to a packed audience throughout the day. With 129 million acres of forest in the state of Alaska, lumberjack skills are always in demand. Mark caught the action on his iPhone. Don't miss it!
In the exhibit halls we found floral and vegetable arrangements inspired by the theme “Better Together.” Love that kale!
In the handcraft hall, women demonstrated weaving and spinning. A handmade hooked rug and a wreath made from bird feathers caught my eye.
The animals were few, though healthy, with chickens and rabbits by the score. One lusty fellow crowed at us as we exited the State Fair halls. (Yeah, I know the video is lopsided, but he still sounds good!)
I’m in Maine now and Mark is wrapping up his stay at Janis and Jerome’s in Alaska and will soon drive cross country with our son Sam.
When we are not out climbing new peaks in Alaska, we are happily living with my brother- and sister-in-law, Jerome and Janis at their home on a hillside outside Anchorage. They have welcomed us to share there homestead here, with chickens, gardens and greenhouses, along with a pizza oven where they first started to bake bread.
When we arrived here in early May, it was still too chilly to plant seedlings in the ground but the two greenhouses provided a perfect environment. The tomato plants that Jerome grew from seed are now heavy with fruit.
It has been chilly and overcast this summer and it seemed like it took a long time for seeds to take root. By early July, the lettuce, carrots, potatoes, kale, beans, radishes and peas were thriving.
We eat salads daily, trying to keep up with the produce in the garden beds.
The kale and carrots came from the garden and the artful Romanesco broccoli was grown in Alaska, too (but not by us).
The garden is also home to three beehives and thousands and thousands of buzzing bees. Janis and Jerome recently opened the hives to pull out the honeycombs within.
Dinnertime can be serious, as we sample new creations prepared by Jerome, whose baking skills led him and Janis to open the Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop. As you can see, Jerome and Janis take pies and cakes very seriously.
But largely, we have food to gather family at the table and enjoy the richness of an Alaskan summer day
Not every corner of Alaska features snow-covered mountains and glaciers like the one pictured above. However, you can feel the chill blowing down from the peaks and, even in summer, Alaskans must be prepared for a blast of cold air.
At the end of May, we attended a three-day music festival at a roadside lodge in Mendeltna where performers could barely play their instruments because their hands were so cold.
The small audience, many bundled inside their sleeping bags, dwindled as the day wore on.
Living in a cold rural environment shapes the personalities of the locals, an independent lot who take pride in their survival tactics. At the Mendeltna Creek Lodge, the fireplace was burning day and night and, in the kitchen, co-owner Mabel baked a thousand cookies for musicians who jammed inside for hours every day of the festival.
We ate cookies and drank hot coffee while listening to good ole bluegrass!
Outside, festival Master of Ceremonies Lulu Small kept warm by dancing in front of the stage.
We met a woman named Sue, a woodcarver from the mountains, who drives a pick-up truck with a four-foot-tall blonde doll in the back. The doll travels with a chainsaw in one hand and Sue whipped out her own chainsaw and showed us how she rolls!
Mabel told us that they hold the music festival every year to provide a comfortable place for musicians to play and relax with their families. She doesn’t advertise and in fact had posted a CLOSED sign on the front door of the lodge.
Lulu thanked everyone who “braved the elements” to attend this year’s festival and she set about planning the next event, this one in Anderson, Alaska, starting July 28. Turns out that one of the secrets of summer in Alaska is that you can find a bluegrass jam into the night almost every weekend.
We took a 2-1/2-hour plane trip south from Anchorage to explore Sitka, the capital of Russian America in the early 1800s. The municipality covers most of Barankof Island, which rises from rain forests along the coast to snow-capped mountains in the interior.
For more than a century, from the 1740s until the 1860s, Russian fur traders, priests and settlers plied the coast of Alaska, setting up trading posts from California to the Bering Sea. Despite conflicts with the local native Aleut peoples, the Russian put down roots, creating permanent settlements flush with schools and Russian Orthodox churches and priests
The capital of this tenuous Russian outpost was Sitka, where the Russians repeatedly clashed with the native Tlingit people living there. The Russians brought in their true believers, including Bishop Innocent who oversaw his religious duties from a large house overlooking the bay.
In a replica of the original Russian Orthodox Cathedral, gold- and silver-encrusted icons speak of the glory of the past.
Weakened by the Crimea War, Russia had to sell its territory and, in 1867, held a formal ceremony in Sitka to hand it over to the United States.
The Russian legacy in Sitka, along with its lush rainforest environment, make it an interesting place to spend a few days. A National Historical Park now covers the site of an ancient Tlingit village and native totem poles emerge from the fog-covered forests along the path.
The year-round residents of the city have shown grit and imagination, carving softly sloping trails around the perimeter of town and steeper, stiffer challenges on the mountains that drop into the sea.
My brother-in-law Jerome visits Sitka frequently in his role as a member of the board of the Sitka Fine Arts Camp. The camp has restored several buildings of a former college and runs a vibrant summer program for children and adults with dance, music, painting and pottery.
The marina brings in pleasure boats as well as fishing boats that provide the economic backbone to the place. An occasional cruise ship docks in the waters off-shore and come onshore to view the sights.
In the distance, Mt. Verstovia, a dormant volcano looms.
During four days in Sitka, a notoriously rainy place, we found slivers of sunlight every day on the trails beneath its mountain peaks.
The solstice is fast approaching in Alaska and the days are virtually unending. We took advantage of the sun-filled days to bike across the Denali highway from Paxson to Cantwell, a 135-mile gravel-and-rock road that passed some of the most spectacular mountain vistas I have seen in Alaska. I drove the rig and the car with the bicycle rack, offering a rest and cooked meals along the route for all.
We drove five hours from Anchorage to get to the Denali Highway, determined to get some road time in before sunset. The four set off on the road at 8 p.m., pedaling uphill from forest to tundra until they caught up with me 12 miles ahead.
The intrepid cyclists, Mark, his two sisters, Janis and Margo, and his brother-in-law, Jerome.
The next day we continued west, against a backdrop of the Alaska Range and Amphitheater Mountains. The region was dotted with archeological sites from the hunting grounds of the first people who roamed there 12,000 years ago. Along with the craggy rough peaks, we found graceful trumpet swans swimming in beautiful lakes along the way.
There were a half-dozen or more places to stay overnight or get a meal along the 135-mile trip.This sod-and-horn-covered shelter was one of the places, next to the quaint Sluice Box bar.
We stopped at a couple of places to get water, including the Alpine Creek Lodge, where you can go out hunting and trapping in the wilderness year-round. Mark settled for a ping-pong tournament and handily defeated the father, the son and his best friend.
Bob, the 14-year-old son of the lodge owners, proudly showed off the muskrat and ermine pelts that he had trapped and put up for sale at the lodge.
Back on the road, the gravel got even more rocky and one of the tires blew a persistent hole. Roadside assistance amounted to whatever tools we had.
The isolation and sheer natural beauty all around us made this three-day journey extraordinary.
Unaware that we had busted a tire on our tow car we dragged it for miles down the highway.
As we look back, the busted tire appears as a small calamity on a breathtakingly beautiful road trip.
Listen as Johnny Cash & Lynn Anderson tear it up.
Where we are today.