Tag: travel

On the Road with Stoker and Ebert

A little over a week ago we hit the road for our holiday vacation. All of the preparations were done. At 7 am, as planning, I pulled the car out of our driveway for the 560 mile drive to our hotel on the I-95 corridor in Savannah, Georgia. We have been doing these holiday road trips since 2012, driving the approximately 1,000 miles from our house in Virginia to Kelly’s mom’s house in the southern gulf coast of Florida. We didn’t do the holiday trip last year because of Covid–the first time we’d not gone down to Florida for the holidays since 2009, when Zach was an infant.

We generally do drives like these in two days, with the first day being the longer day. Back when the kids were younger, we did them in 3 days, but now, we like getting to our destination as quickly as possible. It was unseasonably warm when we left the house, the temperature right around 50°F. I prefer it to be cold with a light snow flurry when we leave. It makes it that much more fun when we cross the St. Mary’s river from Georgia into Florida the following morning, and I roll down the window and feel the warm air in December.

The first day’s drive takes about 9 hours, depending on traffic. I drive the whole way. Kelly acts as “cabin resource management.” The kids have their phones and iPads and plenty to entertain themselves. Over the years, we’ve taken to packing food with us on the initial day so that we can minimize stops. I look forward to these drives because it means I can get in a lot of reading–audio books, of course. Indeed I got nearly 7 hours of listening time in on the first day, with just over 5 hours on the second.

There are a number of books I’d planned on reading while on vacation. I’ve already written how I planned to spend some time in Florida with Mel Brooks. For the drive, I decided to go back to the early days of my audio book reading, way back in February 2013, and look at books that I’d obtained but never read, or never finished. I picked two to get me down to Florida: Life Itself by Roger Ebert and Dracula by Bram Stoker. The latter I had read back in 2013, but it was a blur in my mind and I felt I needed to read it again for clarity.

I actually started Life Itself a day or two before we left for our vacation. I remember ordering it–it had to be one of the first 10 audio books I’d ever gotten–back in 2013, but for some reason, after ordering it, I never got around to reading it. I’m so glad that I did. Ebert’s memoir is wonder and insightful, especially in light of the illness that plagued him in the final years of his life. I love reading books about journalists (for instance, Ida Tarbell, Ben Bradley) and Ebert was a newspaperman through and through. I loved his descriptions of the people he knew, and especially enjoyed his descriptions of travel all over the world. I also picked out some of the advice he gave by way of example. For instance, writing about his newspaper days, Ebert said,

Lyon watched as I ripped one sheet of copy paper after another out of my typewriter and finally gave me the most useful advice I have ever received as a writer: “One, don’t wait for inspiration, just start the damned thing. Two, once you begin, keep on until the end. How do you know how the story should begin until you find out where it’s going?”

The first of these confirmed for me what I do here on the blog. It is impossible (for me at least) to have new inspiration every day. Some day, I feel like I have no good ideas to write about. But the show must go on, so I pick a less inspired idea, and set about writing. In summing up this advice, Ebert writes,

These rules save me half a career’s worth of time and gained me a reputation as the fastest writer in town. I’m not faster. I spent less time not writing.

That last is pure gold, especially in these days of distractions and the accompanying distraction-free writing tools. If there is a single explanation to how I manage to write every day on the blog, and to produce well over 300,000 words a year here it is this: I try to spend less time not writing.

I finished Roger Ebert’s memoir somewhere in northern North Carolina, and almost without pause, started listening to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The edition that I am listening to has an “all star” cast that includes Alan Cumming, Tim Curry, Simon Vance, Katherine Kellgren, Susan Duerden, John Lee, Graeme Malcolm, and Steven Crossley. Normally, I’m not fond of “full cast” audio book performances, but Dracula‘s epistolary form lends itself to this perfectly. It is a joy just to listen to.

It also reads as a remarkably modern novel with suspenseful story-telling, and engaging characters. There are things that are still not entirely clear to me, a how Van Helsing knows so much about vampires in the first place, but I can set that aside as unessential in favor of the story itself. It is not a monster story, it is not the stories portrayed in the Christopher Lee movies I used to watch on Saturday afternoons on Creature Double Feature in the early 1980s. Instead, it is the story of science and technology overcoming darkness

The book took me through North Carolina. Our brief stop in Fayetteville for gas and a restroom break was rushed because I wanted to get back to the story. South Carolina was a blur, for I had by then left Transylvania and made my way back to London. The following morning, a we crossed from Georgia into Florida, I witnessed the sad demise and destruction of Lucy Westenra and the chilling scene in the crypt.

We arrived at our destination with just over 2 hours left in the book. I was tired from two days and 1,000 miles of driving, but as I went to sleep, I drifted off looking forward to how Mina and Jonathan Harker, Van Helsing, Seward, Morris and the others would ultimately defeat the Count.

These were great road trips books. Not all of them are. And since the drive home always seems longer than the drive down, I am already trying to figure out what books would make good companions for our return.

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Prepping for the Holidays

red and brown fruits wreath
Photo by Luna Lovegood on Pexels.com

Since 2010 we head down to Florida every December to spend the holidays with family, and to have a vacation away from home. Since 2012, we’ve driven so that we avoid the stress of airports, canceled flights, luggage limits. It saves money because we don’t have to buy airline tickets for the five of us, and we don’t have to rent a car, since we bring our car with us. We spent most of the time away staying with family. We are generally away for 2-3 weeks, and beginning in early December each year, I begin to really look forward to the day we head out. Last year, COVID prevented us from taking our usual trip for the first time in a decade. This year, however, since the we are all fully vaccinated and boosted, we are now prepping for the holidays, getting ready to resume our trip. We leave on Saturday.

There is a lot of prep work involved. In addition to completing all of the usual holiday shopping (which is now done, I am happy to say), we have had to arrange for people to take care of the house while we are gone–something we do when we will be gone for more than a week or so. Thanks to friends and neighbors, we finally have that piece out of the way. Then there is the usual checklist of things we go through for any trip. Planning what to bring, how we will load up the car, how we will keep the kids entertained for the 16 hours of actual driving time spread over two days.

To top it all off, I want to be able to relax and not stress about anything on this trip. While I love writing here on the blog, there are days when I just won’t have time to write because I’ll be doing things with the family. I don’t want to neglect the blog and I don’t want to stress about writing. To that end, I have been pre-writing posts for the blog to ensure I have at least one post per day scheduled for every day we are gone. That way, if I don’t get to write, I don’t have to stress: I know there will be a post each day.

This isn’t easy. First, I had to come up with ideas for three weeks worth of posts. Normally, I try to stay two to three days ahead of things here. I avoid scheduling much further than that because I know new ideas will pop up in the meantime. But I had to come up with a couple dozen post ideas that seemed both interesting, and also that would be fun to write about. I planned this all out on a 2-page spread in my Field Notes notebook. With that done, I had to actually write those posts. To manage this, I’ve been writing about 3 posts per day and scheduling them out based on a schedule that I came up with. It covers our entire time away, and a few days after we are back in case things are hectic when I return to work after being away for so long.

At this point, I’ve got post ideas for all but 6 days that we’ll be on vacation and I’ve got about a third of those written. The rest of this week will see me trying to get the rest of those posts written. And I’m not worried about those 6 unscheduled days at this point. The first “empty” day happens to be New Year’s Day so if I don’t get something scheduled before I leave, I’ve got plenty of time on vacation to get these posts written.

Planning posts in my Field Notes notebook. Blurred to maintain the surprise of the posts when they go live.

This is not to say I won’t write more posts while on vacation. It’s just that I want to make sure I’ve got things covered so I can rest and relax and enjoy my time with the family. More than likely, you’ll end up seeing several days with multiple posts simply because I enjoy writing and won’t be able to resist.

Meanwhile, there is still a lot to do:

  • I have to clear out the car. I do this before every major road trip. I vacuum out the car, clean the interior and windows, and begin setting things up for the trip: making sure all of the device cables are plugged in; making sure I’ve got the things I need while driving within reach. That usually takes a while, and I do it the day before we leave so that the car isn’t a mess when we leave.
  • Packing. Fortunately, since it is cold here and warm in Florida, I can pack most of my stuff now–shorts and t-shirts. Kelly handles the other packing.
  • Wrapping up things that are going on at work. I keep a web page with links to common questions I get and the answers and this goes in my email signature and in my out of office message. This probably prevents quite a few calls to me while I am away.
  • Looking at all of the stuff we plan on bringing with us and figuring out the best way to get it loaded into the car. For the holidays, Kelly and I gave ourselves an early present: new luggage. We are testing it out on this trip to see how well it works. It is modern luggage and an order of magnitude better than the battered ancient suitcases we have so it should make loading the car easier.
  • Making sure that the folks taking care of the house have everything they need, stocking the pantry and fridge, cleaning sheets, and generally trying to make the house look less cluttered than it is.
  • Figuring out what books I’ll listen to on the drive. I think I’ve already got this covered.
  • Posting my semi-annual “I’m on vacation!” photo, which you can expect to see sometime Friday evening.

We are all really looking forward to this trip. It will be nice to have a solid chunk of time off work, but also, it will be nice to get away for a while, and feel no pressure during the days. It will be especially nice resuming our traditions after COVID prevented us from doing it last year.

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Thoughts on Travels With George by Nathaniel Philbrick

One subset of travel books that I enjoy are those that mix travel with some theme of discovery. John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley is the model from which many of these books have taken their example, and Nathaniel Philbrick is quick to admit that Steinbeck served as a model for his entry in this sub-genre, Travels with George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy. I like books like these because they mix history with travelogue in a way that often makes a stark comparison between then and now.

Books in this sub-genre are often attempts at taking the temperature of the general public on some topic. In his wonderful book The Longest Road, Philip Caputo was asking the question: what held the country together? In their book Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America (my favorite book of 2020) James and Deborah Fallows travel the country by air in a single-engine plane learning how, despite problems, people are finding solutions.

Nathaniel Philbrick sets out to follow the route George Washington took just before and after his inauguration, when he visited each of the new states to get a sense of the country for which he had just fought for independence, and for which he has just been elected President. This captured my interest in colonial history, in presidential history, and in travel, and I enjoyed the book. I listened to the audiobook, narrated by the author and it was a delight.

Up to this point, I’d only read one full biography of George Washington, Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life. What Philbrick was doing in Travels with George was not writing a biography, but following Washington’s path through the states, and along with way, separating myth from history, and coming face-to-face with the paradox that Washington, in addition to being the first president of a republican democracy founded on the principle that all men are created equal, was also a slave owner.

Where Philbrick delves into separating the myth from the history was among my favorite parts of the book. How many places claim the label “Washington slept here”? Through careful study of source material, Philbrick was able to identify several such claims as impossible. Washington was clearly somewhere else at the time. I was also moved by Washington’s affection for his soldiers, even years afterward. Still, an important thread throughout the book is the struggle to understand Washington the slave-holder versus Washington the defender of liberty.

Philbrick makes much of his journey with his wife, and their dog, meeting interesting people along the way, and occasionally getting snarled in traffic; the routes they take avoid the interstates since those roads didn’t exist when Washington made his grand tour.

This was an enjoyable read that gave additional insight into parts of Washington’s life I hadn’t been acquainted with. But perhaps the most valuable thing I took from the book was Philbrick himself. I enjoyed his writing, his style, and his narration. He’s another writer, like Philip Caputo and James and Deborah Fallows that I can look forward to reading more from. Already, I’m eager to delve into his history of Nantucket Island, Away Offshore, as well as his book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. Sometimes, nothing is more valuable than finding a reliable writer you enjoy reading.

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Book Smart

close up photo of stacked books
Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Pexels.com

Is it cheating if your experience comes from books? Say, you’re chatting with friends and during the course of the conversation, someone comments on the beauty of Westminster Abbey. You jump in and agree to its beauty, but what really astounds you is a certain place in the Nave where you find yourself standing among the final resting place of Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton and Michael Faraday and others. Your friends nod in agreement. Suppose then that one of the friends asks when you’d been to Westminster? You’d calmly say you’d never been there, never even been to London. You’d read about Westminster Abbey in a book and the picture painted with words on the page was so vivid, it was as if you had been standing among those luminaries of the ages. Does it count? Is it cheating?

I have been to Westminster Abbey, but there are plenty of places I haven’t been, and plenty of things that I haven’t seen or done for which I consider myself fairly well-versed from the reading I do. Indeed, it seems to me that nearly every conversation I engage in conjures memories of a book I read that relates to the subject at hand. Last weekend, I was chatting with a group of friends and the conversation veered into pandemics and vaccinations. I mentioned that despite being more technically advanced than we were 250 years ago, the people of Boston at the dawn of the American Revolution were extremely wary of the smallpox vaccine, despite how devestating the disease was. I knew this, not because I lived in Boston in 1776, but because I’d read about it in David McCullough’s John Adams and in Stephen Fried’s Rush: Revolution, Madness, and the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding Father and most recently in Rick Atkinson’s The British Are Coming.

The conversation drifted to masks, and I mentioned how prevalent masks were in San Francisco during the Spanish flu of 1918-19. One the folks turned to me and asked, “Do you know where that flu started?” and without hesitation, I said, “In Kansas.” I knew it, not because I lived in that small Kansas town 103 years ago, but because I read John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza.

I remember a time when I was very young–possibly before I could read–back when my parent’s still read to me, my mother explaining that books could take you anywhere. I took that literally back then and my attitude hasn’t changed much today. People call this “book smart.” Book smart is often seen as derogatory, as in, “that fellow is book smart, but he’s got no street sense.” Of course, there is something to that, but that doesn’t mean that street sense can’t come from a book. When I read nonfiction, I am always on the lookout for practical lessons. One example out of countless: after reading William Manchester’s massive, 3-volume biography of Sir Winston Churchill, I went through my notes and teased out 3 productivity tips from Churchill himself.

I learned why keeping a diary can be useful from Isaac Asimov (via his memoirs). I learned how to keep a diary from John Quincy Adams (reading his diaries and using them as a model). I learned about commonplace books from Thomas Jefferson I didn’t learn any of this in school. It came from reading book, after I was finished with school and my real education began.

I have written before in my belief that grade school taught me how to read well, high school taught me how to think well, and college taught me how to learn well. When I graduated, I was ready to begin learning. Since then, I’ve read 1,102 books. I could read them well because of grade school. I could think about what I was reading thanks to high school. And I’ve learned far, far more than I ever learned in my K-through-college years thanks to college. I feel like I’ve gained a wealth of practical knowledge from the books I’ve read. And so I don’t see being book smart as a bad thing. After all, books have made me smarter than I might otherwise have been. And we can use all the smarts we can get.

The question is: can reading a book ever provide the equivalent experience to doing the real thing? Can you ever know what it is like to wander the Nave of Westminster Abbey and feel the weight of all those who came before? Does it even matter? People sometimes seem offended when I tell them that my experience with some place came not from being there in person, but from reading about it in books. When this happens, I think about the countless people who don’t have the means to travel anywhere, but can walk to their local library and read about places and take pleasure from that reading. Is that experience any less for that person than actually visiting the place?

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A Visit to Niagara Falls

The centerpiece of our recent road trip was Niagara Falls. When we were trying to figure out where to go, we determined that none of us had ever been to Niagara Falls before, and that would make a good destination. We drove to Albany, New York, to visit friends, and then began a drive west across the state, mostly on blue highways. We stopped in Coopertown, New York and visited the National Baseball Hall of Fame. We spent a night in Auburn, a town which is more or less closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. We detoured to Seneca Falls to visit the It’s a Wonderful Life Museum. And from there, we drove to Niagara Falls, the only place on our trip where we stayed two nights.

Prior to my visit, nearly everything I knew about Niagara Falls came from Superman II. There is that scene where a kid is standing on the wrong side of the railing, loses his grip, and falls into the falls. (This was the early 1980s, and I guess parents didn’t really care if their kids were doing ridiculously dangerous things.) Fortunately, Clark Kent was in the vicinity and rescued the falling boy, in his Superman guise.

Our hotel was just on the edge of the Niagara Falls state park. From our room on the top floor, we could see the top of the American falls. We couldn’t see the falls themselves, just where the water goes over the edge into the gorge. Still, it was nice to be within a short walk of the falls. We arrived early in the afternoon, and while we waited for our room to be ready, we walked to the falls.

My first look at the American falls was a little underwhelming. Superman II made them seem so much bigger. They are big, but as I learned the next day, they look much bigger from below than from above.

the american falls
The American falls

As we wandered around, I tried to find the spot where the kid in the movie fell from the railing. Nothing seemed to match what I remembered from the movie. Maybe things had moved? I learned that the falls can erode as much as 6 feet per year, pulling back further and further. At some point in the future, the falls won’t be in the vicinity of the city and people will wonder why either the falls or the city is called Niagara.

That first afternoon was spent wandering. After taking in the American falls, we walked over to the Horseshoe falls, which seemed more impressive to me, but which generated much more mist. That was okay though. It was hot and the mist was refreshing.

The Horseshoe falls, through the mist
The Horseshoe falls, through the mist

After we got our fill, we wandered back past the hotel in order to have dinner at The Rainforest Cafe. We’d eaten at a Rainforest Cafe once before at Disney World, and the Little Man was keen to eat there again. Our hotel room faced west, and in the evening the Falls are illuminated from below. You can see them (the top anyway) toward the center of the photo below.

The next day was our big day to take tours. We’d arrived on a Tuesday and heard that Wednesdays and Thursdays are less crowded. That definitely seemed to be the case. I think the Cave of the Winds tours opened at 9 am and there was no line, not even a line for tickets. After watching a short film about the falls, we were led to an elevator that took us down 190 feet to the base of the gorge. From there, we walked through a long tunnel and outdoors to a boardwalk. We were given ponchos to provide some protection from the mist. With those on, we headed along the boardwalk, which took us incredibly close to the base of the American falls.

There were warnings that we’d get wet, and we did, but the ponchos helped. I was a little disappointed with the tour, however. I thought we were going into a cave: it is called the Cave of the Winds, after all. But the cave collapsed a long, long time ago, as I learned, and so we simply pass by where it once was. It is actually a very short tour over all and before long, we were back at the elevators waiting for a ride back up.

American falls from below
The American falls from below.

I was wearing my “Writer” hat and on the elevator ride up, the park employee who ran the elevator said, “Hey, I like your hat. Are you a writer?”

I told him I was and he told me that he wanted to be a writer. I never know what to say in these situations. I said something, but I can’t remember what it was. After we climbed the 190 feet up, we maneuvered our way back over to where the Maid of the Mist tickets were sold. This is the famous boat ride that takes you into the heart of the Horseshoe falls. Once again, there was no line. This time, an elevator took us down 200 feet. Once again, we were given ponchos, this time blue instead of yellow. We were toward the front of the line for boarding the next boat, and managed to find a good space on the port side toward the bow, which gave us a good view of the falls on the way out. These boats, incidentally, are completely electrical.

We got much wetter on the boat than on the hike. The boat goes past the American falls, but not particularly close. Instead, it moves deep into the cup of the Horseshoe falls until you feel as if you are surrounded by cinematic, disaster movie-sized tidal waves that are somehow held back from crashing down on you. At times, the mist is so thick you can’t see anything. I didn’t even try to pull out my phone to take a photo. Later, however, I did manage to get a nice photo, and it was right near the place I remembered from Superman II (I finally found it near the Honeymoon falls). Rainbows are a dime a dozen in misty water like this, but I still think it was kind of lucky to managed to capture this photo.

By the time we’d finished our two tours, it wasn’t quite noon. We found a restaurant near our hotel to have lunch and then we spent a while wandering the town, popping in and out of tourist shops. Niagara Falls was bustling near the hotel, but a few blocks north and west, the town seemed dead. I walked an entire block with boarded up shops, except for a corner bar. As you move away from the falls, things seem increasingly run down. To the northwest, a hotel casino towers over everything else in the city, but it seems surrounded by desolation. I was envious of the Canadian side, which looked more appealing, but which we couldn’t visit due to COVID restrictions.

We ate dinner that evening at the Anchor Bar, which was connected to our hotel. It is a chain out of Buffalo, supposedly where buffalo-style chicken wings were invented. I had buffalo mac & cheese with chicken. What surprised me more than anything was the price of the liquor. I ordered a beer and a shot of tequila at the bar. It was happy hour. The beer was $6 and the shot, $5, and that was a for Don Julio Silver. In the D.C. area, that shot would cost $15 easily.

In the evening, Kelly took the kids to the falls one more time to see them illuminated. I was too tired so I stayed back at the hotel. It was probably for the best; she said the illuminations were nothing to write home about.

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Welcome to Bedford Seneca Falls

When I was a teenager, we would spend several weeks each summer visiting my grandparents in New York. For some of the time, they would take us on road trips. We visited Cooperstown, the Catskill Game Farm (which no longer exists, so far as I can tell), Howe’s Caverns. Sometimes we’d venture into New Hampshire or other New England states. This was in the 1980s, before the Internet, before smart phones (or any cell phones, for that matter), and before I was driving. To entertain myself, I looked out the window.

I loved it when we passed through farm country. I grew up in mostly urban areas: New York, New Jersey, Los Angeles. My 4-year stint in Rhode Island was more suburban, but it was certainly not rural. So driving into upstate New York always fascinated me. A few hours outside New York City and here was all of this farm land. In my fourteen year old’s memory, all of the colors were bright. I would watch fields of corn pass by, and couldn’t imagine people eating that much corn. There were cows and horses in the fields. There were great bit red barns–how I loved those barns!

This is why, when we took our recent road trip, I stuck to the blue highways. I wanted to see these things all over again. I thought it might be nice for our kids to see them, too, but it wasn’t the same for them. They took their eyes off their device for a few seconds if I pointed out some grazing cows, or a particularly beautiful barn, but that was about it. I didn’t try to convince them otherwise. Scenery like that either resonates with you or it doesn’t. Alas, since I was driving, I didn’t snap any photos of the scenery along the way that I can post here. But I’ve got those pictures in my head and when I close my eyes, I can still see them.

The day after we visited Cooperstown, we headed across the state of New York for Niagara Falls. But on the way, we detoured to a small town in the Fingers Lakes region, called Seneca Falls. We picked the town because it is believed to be the model that inspired the fictional town of Bedford Falls in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Indeed, the fact that there was an “It’s a Wonderful Life” museum in the town seemed like a fun place to stop.

The town is set along Cayuga Lake and the Seneca River runs through the town. We drove directly from our hotel, about 20 miles away in Auburn, to Cafe 19 for breakfast. I indulged in a Monte Cristo sandwich which was delicious, filled as it was with strawberry jam. We sat outdoors and the weather was perfect. It turned out that the parking lot for the restaurant, which was across the river on the edge of town, served as one of the town lots, and so we walked from the restaurant into town to find the It’s A Wonderful Life museum. When we got there, around 10 am, we learned they didn’t open until 11. That was fine because it meant we had an hour to wander the town.

We visited the Visitor Center, which also served as museum of waterways and industry. From there, we walked along the river to the “It’s a Wonderful Life Bridge” that spans the river.

the "it's a wonderful life bridge" in seneca falls, ny

From the bridge, we wander back to the town and toward the Women’s Right National Historical Park, which is a National Park unto itself. Much of the movement for women’s suffrage started here.

The Littlest Miss and the Little Miss at the Women’s Rights corner. The Little Man is across the street in the background.

At 11 am, we headed to the It’s a Wonderful Life museum. It was a wonderful place. They have an incredible amount of memorabilia from the movie. It’s not a big museum (yet) but they are looking to expand. As a project manager, I am fascinated by the complexity involved in making movies, and they had several original call sheets from the films which illustrate just how complex a single day of filming can be.

Call sheet from a day of filming on It’s a Wonderful Life

Outside the museum is a sign that reads: “Welcome to Bedford Falls” and it seemed as if all of the visitors (and there were quite a few) wanted there pictures taken in front of it.

We spent a couple of hours in the town, before we headed back to the car for the 2 hour drive to Niagara Falls. It was a delightful town and I’m really glad we decided to stop for a visit. When my cousin said they’d be doing a road trip across New York the week after we did and asked for recommendations, Seneca Falls was at the top of my list.

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No Good Route Home

The worst part of a vacation is returning home. The worst part about where we live is that there are no good routes home. Having recently spent seven days on a road trip, driving blue highways and visiting more rural areas, coming back to a major metropolitan area like ours is a drag.

There are two major airports in our area. Washington Dulles is the largest and is usually the easiest route home thanks to the airport access road. But once you get inside the Beltway that loops around the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area, all bets are off and you are likely to hit some kind of traffic. Reagan/National Airport is a little closer to us than Dulles, but it takes about takes about the same amount of time to navigate the surface streets, the endless string of stoplights, the stop-and-go traffic.

We were on a road trip, however, and had no need for airports. Still, there is no good route home. If we are returning from the north (New York, New England, etc.), we drive down I-95 and either take the Baltimore-Washington Parkway into the District and cut through web of highways and city traffic and across the bridge into Virginia; or, we stay on I-95 to the Beltway and then loop around to Route 66 and take that in toward our house. Neither of these options are appealing, and once we pass south of Baltimore, I grow slightly grumpy at the thought of dealing with the approach to our house and the traffic that will inevitably slow our arrival.

If we are returning from the south (typically coming back from Florida), we generally have a smooth drive up the entire length of I-95 until we hit Richmond, Virginia. In rare conditions (say, early in the morning, or late at night) when there is no traffic, it takes just under 2 hours to get from Richmond to our house. I can’t remember the last time we did it that quickly. As we approach Richmond, I glance at the GPS to see what it has to say about traffic. It is never good. It is not unheard of for it to take three hours to get from Richmond to our house. It is a rotten route home, but there is nothing much better. I can easily drive 7 hours without breaking a sweat. But those last few hours between Richmond and home can leave me completely worn out.

On the final leg of our recent road trip, we drove from Youngstown, Ohio, straight through to home. This is a mostly pleasant drive through mountains, but once we got onto I-270, some 40+ miles from home, the traffic thickened. Coming home from this direction (call it northwest) means coming down I-270 to merge into the Beltway. This is no better than coming down I-95, although we emerge a little further along the Beltway. But the traffic is no less since I-270 is just as bad.

I know from experience that no all destinations are like this. Arriving at my mother-in-law’s place in Florida is pleasant. There’s never traffic. Once we are off the highway, there is an easy drive along clear surface streets. It’s a nice approach. Driving to my parent’s place on the opposite coast of Florida is almost as pleasant. It is a little busier on that coast, but there is rarely traffic.

On our trip we visited friends in Albany, and getting to their house from the Thruway is easy, and traffic free. Outside of Albany, Niagara Falls was the largest city we visited on our road trip and even that was easy to get into.

The one exception is my sister’s house. She lives in Westchester County and it means crossing the George Washington Bridge (or occasionally, the Tappan-Zee Bridge1) and then following a gnarled web of highways that gradually spiral in toward her house. That is not a particularly pleasant arrival.

I keep a list of questions to ask a realtor about a house should we ever find ourselves house hunting again. Among these are: how is the water pressure in the shower? How loud (or quiet) is it with the windows open at night? And to these I’ve added a new one: are there any good routes home?

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  1. Yes, I know they took it down and replaced it with another bridge, but it will always be the Tappan-Zee to me.

A Few Hours in Cooperstown

A big part of our recent road trip vacation took us through central New York. Over a period of two days, we drove from Albany, where we visited friends, to Niagara Falls. On the way, we stopped in several places, the first of which was Cooperstown, New York, home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. I’d been to the Hall on three previous occasions, twice as kid, and once, 15 years ago with my brother. As not just a baseball fan, but an aficionado of the history of the game, it is a great place to visit.

My family humored me on this stop. I’m not sure any of them were excited to visit the Hall of Fame.

From Albany, we tried to stay off the interstate highways, sticking to the blue highways, and driving through some beautiful farm country. It always amazes me how quickly the urban turns into the rural. There were long stretches of two lane highway where we didn’t see another vehicle in either direction. Occasionally, we were slowed down by a truck, but this was good because it forced me to slow my pace and get a better look at the country we passed through.

We arrived in Cooperstown around 11 am and after failing in our first attempt to find parking, we realized that there are parking lots on the outskirts of the town from which a trolley will take you in. We are all walkers and the free lot we parked in (the Red Lot) was only half a mile from the Hall of Fame, so rather than wait for the trolley, we walked. Currently, the Hall of Fame has timed entrances and our tickets were for 11:30 am. I figured a Monday was a good day to visit since I couldn’t imagine it would be crowded. It never had been on my previous visits. But I was wrong. The place was packed. I mean really packed.

The Hall of Fame has a scavenger hunt game for kids and so I felt like I spent much of my time helping our youngest daughter find the things she needed to complete her scavenger hunt. I tried to focus on the displays when I could, but there were so many people there, it was difficult. I felt rushed. I was also disappointed that my favorite exhibit no longer exists: this was a wall that contained baseballs from every no-hitter (and perfect game) ever thrown. I asked a museum staff member about it and he told me that they occasionally change exhibits to keep things fresh. I was sorry to see that one go.

The Littlest Miss really seemed to get into the exhibits. She was particularly taken with displays of prizes: medals, silver bats, bronzed baseballs. She also enjoyed the old baseball gloves and catchers mitts.

Throughout the museum, touchscreens were setup to poll visitors on various questions. Two stand out in my mind. The first had to do with the way the game was changing and if those changes were good or not. My response to the poll indicated that I was a “baseball purist,” which no doubt I am. Interestingly, the same was true of more than 70% of the visitors to the Hall of Fame. A second poll asked about gambling in baseball and PEDs (performance-enhancing drugs, e.g. steroids). A final question asked whether the all-time hit king, Pete Rose, deserved to be in the Hall of Fame (he was banned for life from baseball because he gambled while he was as player/manager). I think it is time he should be let into the Hall, and I said so on the poll. 79% of Hall of Fame visitors agreed with me:

results of a hall of fame poll

This is a good example of a selection bias. It seems to me that (a) people who take the time and money to visit the Hall of Fame are real fans of the game and more likely to be baseball purists than the general population; and (b) they also probably know more about the history of the game, how the game was tainted by the Black Sox scandal and steroids. Many probably came to the same conclusions that I did about Pete Rose. Comparing these poll results to similar polls of the general population would probably look a bit different.

The actually Hall for which the Hall of Fame is named is a place of reverence for baseball fans, and I looked forward to wandering its quiet spaces, reading the plaques. But even the Hall was crowded and noisy. Still, I managed to see where Derek Jeter’s plaque would be installed in about a month. Still, I found a few of the plaques I was interested in looking at, and I made due with those.

This was the first time I’d been back to the Hall of Fame since I’d written a story that took place there. It was also the first time I’d been back since reading dozens of books on the history of the game. I was looking forward to browsing the library, but it was closed to the public on the day we were there. I did manage to get myself a new hat and t-shirt from the Hall of Fame gift shop, however.

I knew that the family was humoring me for this particular stop, and I didn’t want to keep them there longer than necessary, so we left the Hall after two hours. Fortunately, it was a beautiful day in Cooperstown, and we spent some time wandering the streets, dipping into and out of various shops. The small town is like many tourist towns, with one twist: most of the shops are geared toward baseball.

looking north from the shore of Otsego lake.

I bought the only book I purchased on this road trip in a shop called Willis Monie Books. What an amazing shop. They had narrow aisles just packed to the gills with used books. I could have spent hours in there. They even had a wall of baseball books, and I could have spent an hour just browsing those titles. Rushed, as I felt, I picked out just one book, The Haldeman Diaries: Inside the Nixon White House by H. R. Haldeman. It was the “diaries” that attracted me to that one. It would be worth a trip back to Cooperstown just to spend a day browsing the shelves in that store.

We had ice cream, did a little more window shopping, and then departed for Auburn, New York, which is where we were staying that night. I’m glad we got to go to the Hall of Fame. I just wish it wasn’t as crowded as it was.

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Adding Pins to the Map

Later this summer we will be heading on our annual summer road trip, or what I like to call “adding pins to the map.” For our tenth anniversary, Kelly got me a framed map of the United States that came with a tin of pins. The title at the bottom of the map is “The Adventures of Jamie and Kelly.” I decided that I would only put pins in places that Kelly and I have been together, either with or without our kids. Over the years since we’ve added pins here and there, and I’m excited to be able to add some more pins later this summer.

The Adventures of Jamie and Kelly
The Adventures of Jamie and Kelly

The map hangs on the wall of our dining room. When people see it, they often ask, “What do the colors mean?” I have to explain that they don’t mean anything. They were the colors that came in the tin of pins that accompanied the map. I’ve had to explain this enough times to where I’ve been tempted to put a label in one corner of the map with a legend, “Pin colors carry no meaning.”

We’ve done a good job covering much of the east coast together and with the kids. We’ve been to L.A. together, and to Seattle with the Little Man. We’ve also been to San Antonio with the Little Man. I’ve been wanting to gradually make our way west on our road trips. We drive down to Florida several times a years and I’ve used string to measure out the distance from our house to southern Florida, and then mapped out a circumference to show that same distance spread out to the west. We’ve gone as far as Nashville in our road trips.

Usually, we will head up to Maine in the summer, but every few years we decided to do something different. This year we are planning a trip up to Niagara Falls. Neither of us have been there before, and the kids should enjoy it as well. On our way up, we’ll stop to see friends in Albany, NY. We may hit Cooperstown and the National Baseball Hall of Fame. As it is mapped out so far, our trip is a kind of circle around central New York, eastern Ohio, and Pennsylvania, so we will definitely be adding pins to the map, which is always fun.

I sometimes wonder what this map will look like by the time all of our kids head off for college. I hope that we can fill more of it up before then. Traveling the roads together, going to interesting places, getting the kids out to see things they might not otherwise see is a real treat, and something I am always grateful that we can do. Most of our vacations are road trip vacations of one form or another, and I like that because it frees us to up go at our own pace, and change our minds along the way if something of interest catches our eye. (This happened on the way to Nashville a few years back, when we detoured to the Hermitage, to see the home of Andrew Jackson.)

Another thing I like about this map is it quickly answers the kids’ question, “Have I ever been to…?” All they have to do is glance at the map to know if we’ve been to a place.

Next year, we may need to add a world map, as we are planning to head to Europe with the kids. Then we can look forward to adding pins to that map as well.

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Coda: On Standing All Day with an Ear Ache

Today was my first full work day with the new sit/stand desk. I needed a benchmark to gauge how much I should stand and how much I should sit. I decided that, for today, I would stand while working and sit when I wasn’t working. Since I consider my writing work, and since I write as part of my morning routine, I had my standing desk in x-wing formation (this is how I think of my desk when it is in standing formation) beginning at about 7am until a few minutes ago, at 4:30 pm: that’s about 9 hours, with a 25 minute break for lunch, when I sat down.

So how was it? Let me put it this way: the last time I was in Hawaii (some 16 years ago), my friends and I went on a hike on the north shore of Kauai, on the Kalalau Trail. The trail goes to a waterfall, and the hike is 4 hours in each direction. Before we set out, we stopped at a grocery store in Princeville and picked up some sandwiches from the deli. The hike itself was amazing, but incredibly muddy. Two hours into our hike, we reached a beach, and we sat down and fell on our sandwiches. I content to this day that it was the best sandwich I’ve ever tasted. We decided on that beach that we’d had enough, and that the two hour hike back would be sufficient, waterfall or not. When we arrived back at the trail head, I remember walking across the parking lot to the beach, and with clothes and shoes still on, I walked into the ocean. My feet felt completely worn out.

That is how I felt after standing for nearly 9 hours today. Couple that with an ear infection that I’ve been dealing with. I ignored it for a few days, thinking it might go away on its own. But today it decided to call my bluff. The upside was that I was distracted from my aching feet by my aching ear. I finally gave in and went to the doctor and they gave me some antibiotics, but I came home and stood at my desk for the last few hours of meetings of the day. When I finally sat down, it was a great relief. Almost as much as walking into the ocean after that hike back along the Kalalau Trail.

Now that I am sitting, my ear is aching and I think maybe I should stand so that my aching feet will distract me from my aching ear. How long does it take for amoxicillin to start working?

I haven’t yet decided if I will try to stand during my evening routine. I think I need to built up to standing for long duration. Doing so today was merely a test to see how hard it was. Maybe I’ll do something like stand during meetings and sit when I am not in meetings. Or vice versa. I’m still figuring this out.

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On Travel By Train

I have taken three long train rides in my life. I define “long” as being “overnight.” The first long train ride was from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City. The second was from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles. The third, many years later, was from Oxnard, California to Seattle, Washington. None of these train rides involved any particularly luxury: no berth in a sleeper car, for instance. I have taken the train many times between Washington, D.C. and New York City. I have also taken the train from Washington, D.C. to Boston. Those were not what I would consider “long” train rides.

Of all of the modes of travel we have at our disposal, I think trains have the potential of being the best. The coach cars that I sat in on the long train rides were more luxurious than First Class on airlines I’ve flown on. The train to Seattle had a dining car which I took advantage of (I was traveling alone) and which was more comfortable and had better service than any flight I have ever taken. This alone makes trains, for me, at least, a more comfortable means of travel than airplanes.

Trains haven’t done too well, but I think it is because everyone is in such a hurry to get where they are going. Trains force you to slow down a bit. They can travel fast, but not as fast as airplanes. They are better for seeing places, whether it is towns, cities, or open country. Airplanes pass miles overhead and the land below is nothing more than an abstraction, often obscured by clouds. Plane rides feel long because there is often no feeling of forward motion. On a train, you can always tell how quickly you are moving just by looking out the window.

Trains would be a good way of getting people to slow the pace of life a bit. What’s the big hurry anyway?

The main problem with trains, it seems to me, is their infrastructure is outdated. If the infrastructure could be improved, if the technology could be upgraded, if the computing power we had could be put to use normalizing scheduled and making train travel more predictable and reliable, I think they’d give the airlines a run for their money. I don’t think the airlines would like this one bit.

I would love to see a network of high-speed trains that crisscross the country. I would much rather hop on a high-speed train to Los Angeles if I had to travel for work. I could work on the train more comfortably than I could on a plane. I could see more of the country along the way. There is something soothing about the rhythmic clack-clack, clack-clack of the train rolling along the track.

Trains also have great names. At least they used to. Airplanes are anonymously bland in comparison. At best, when listening to air traffic control, you get something like “Cactus 519,” Trains have names like the “Afternoon Twin Cities Zephyr”, the “Katy Flyer”, the “Lone Star”, and the “Meteor”. “I’m taking the Meteor to San Francisco,” sounds so much better than, “I’m flying Southwest to the Bay Area.”

The names alone should put the airlines out of business.

The Extremes of My Travels

Reading Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express has me sitting at my desk at lunch with my Oxford Atlas of the World open so that I can follow along on his travels south. (The book is about the train trip he took from Boston to Patagonia.) Switching between book and maps, I found myself drawn to the maps, noting various features I’d never noted before. It also got me curious. Paul Theroux has traveled all over the world. My travel experience is more limited. By my count, I’ve been in 12 countries (including the U.S.) I wondered what the extremes of my travels were so I decided to lookup the latitudes and longitudes of the further north, east, south, and west places that I’ve been.

Following Paul Theroux through Central America--with my Atlas spread on my desk.
Following Paul Theroux through Central America.
  • Oxford in the U.K. marks the farthest north I have traveled at 51°46N.
  • I thought that Miletus in Turkey would represent the farthest east I have traveled, but it turns out that Rhodes, Greece is further east at 28°10E.
  • Waimea on the island of Kuai’i in Hawai’i represents the farthest west I have traveled at 159°40W.
  • Finally, I thought that Cartegena, Colombia represented the farthest south I’d traveled, but it turns out that Balboa, Panama is further south at 8°57N.

Alas, I have not yet been closer than 8°57′ to the equator, and have not yet ventured south of it.

My east-west range is by far the largest spread, representing about 188° of longitude or a little more than half of the globe. My north-south range is narrower, a range of about 45° of latitude. On a map, the far extremes of my travels look as follows.

A map of the extremes of my travel.
The extremes of my travel.

At some point, when the world returns to normal and travel becomes possible again, it would be nice to see how far I can stretch these boundaries.