Tuesday, June 29, 2010


Too many cities with too many attractions…

Watching the weather as we traveled west. It sounds ridiculous, but we need a break!  Just yesterday, walking with Odel on the bike trail through the beautiful small town where we are currently parked, I said “I want to stay long enough somewhere to get bored.”  And, I meant it!

From sightseeing in Cleveland, we went to Detroit (with a one-day break to allow the heavy weather to pass).  We could have spent a week in Detroit and still had plenty to do, but knew we didn’t have the stamina to do it all.   Mostly, we wanted to see our friend Gloria, which we planned for our second day in Detroit.

That left one day for another attraction, and we chose the Henry Ford Museum.  It was fascinating, and I’d like to go back someday – but, this trip, we were burned out on being “vacationers”, simply too overwhelmed to enjoy all there was to see.  Two hours were all we could manage.

Rosa Parks sat here!However, one fabulous highlight: we sat on the actual bus, in the actual seat, where Rosa Parks had refused to move to the back of the bus. 

On that day, in 1955, four non-white riders sat in the four seats of this row.  As more white folk boarded the bus, the driver told the row of non-white passengers to move to make room for a white passenger (white and non-white passengers never shared a row, so the entire row was to be vacated for any white passenger).  Three of the non-white passengers moved; Rosa Parks, sitting where I am in the photo, simply slid to the window seat and refused to give it up.  The police were called, and she was arrested, sparking the year-long Montgomery Bus Boycott.  I loved sitting in that seat, thinking about that brave, brave woman.

Downtown Detroit looked great! Next day, we were off to visit our friend.  We met Gloria and her husband Tom just over a year ago, in Sacramento, and when we parted a few days ago in Detroit, none of us could believe how much has changed in that short year.  

About six months after we met, fit, healthy Tom died of a stroke.  We have continued to follow Gloria’s life through her daily blog, with a visit in Texas and now again in Detroit.  She is open and straightforward about her struggles to move on with her life, and about the value of family and friends as she does so.  Still, she has the wanderlust that strikes so many of us who have the good fortune to travel extensively, and is planning her next cross-country trip.

I love being in her energetic company, and it was the highlight of the stop in Detroit.  We met at the Eastern Market (forgive me, it deserves its own blog… but we’re moving on!) for a tour, shared lunch at a delicious Thai restaurant, and got a driving tour of downtown Detroit and the surrounding area.  It was a great day for us.

Setting sail out into Lake Michigan. Next day, we were on the move again, dodging thunderstorms with the help of the laptop computer, aircard, and the NOAA website’s live radar.  Just one downpour on our way west…

Now we’re on the west coast of Michigan, bordered by Lake Michigan… and it feels like our summer vacation has begun!  Everything here is sparkling and bright – the blue lakes, the green grass, the brightly painted shops, the pennants flying, the flowers blooming.  We’ve (at least temporarily) left the humidity and heat behind.  Odel is on the golf course as I write this, and I’m ready to head out to explore the small town (Montague) just outside our door.  I’m so ready to kick back and do…. nothing!

Friday, June 25, 2010


Storm clouds gathering.We’ve had our share of bad weather this spring, but reading Outside Our Bubble’s post describing their recent brush with a tornado (on the same night we had severe weather in Ohio) reminded me of our first similar event, during our first year of travel.  Hearing the tornado siren gets your attention! 

On June 24, 2003, three months into our new lives as full time RV’ers, Odel and I camped at the fairgrounds in Sioux Falls, SD.  That day came to be known in South Dakota as “Tornado Tuesday”, when 67 tornadoes were reported in southeastern and central South Dakota, tying what was at that time the record for the most tornado touchdowns in a single day for one state (which has since been surpassed, in Kansas).  We heard tornado sirens 3 times, and went to the shelter 4 times that night.  For Californians, it was a shocking eye opener about the true meaning of “heavy weather”!

Over the years, we have developed a plan for dealing with heavy weather.  Here is what we do – and have – for those infrequent, scary times when weather threatens us.

Tornado Shelter sign over the restrooom doors at Camping WorldFirst, when checking into our campground, we ask where we should shelter in the case of bad weather.  Once we set up, we check this building out and make sure we know how we would get there.

Next, we check a map to find out which county we’re in, and the names of surrounding counties.  Weather watches and warnings are given by county, so we need to know the name of ours – and we feel more comfortable if we know those around us, too.

We make sure our NOAA weather radio is receiving a signal and stocked with fresh batteries (ours runs on both 110 v and battery power).  I tune it to the local channel (ours tunes automatically when I push a button).  The blaring is an annoyance, but it will awaken us from a sound sleep, giving the warning we need if a tornado is on the way (it also alerts us while we are on the road).

I raise the TV antenna and find whatever local stations are available.  Satellite TV won’t help much with local weather conditions, especially once we lose the satellite signal as heavy storms develop! 

Doppler Radar on the Weather Channel on 6/24/2003. If a tornado watch is issued (meaning conditions are favorable for possible tornadoes), we prepare our “tornado bag”.  In this bag, we want the minimum amount of weight and bulk with the maximum ability to help us put our life back together if we step out of the shelter and find Scoopy demolished:

* Money, credit cards, and ID’s.

* Computer information, including all of our important logins/passwords.  These are saved on a password protected flash drive that we can plug into any computer, should ours be damaged or lost (another plug here for Roboform and Roboform2Go, the programs we use to manage our passwords and personal information).

*  A small, old-fashioned AM/FM, AA powered transistor radio – if a tornado comes though, this might be the easiest (or only way to get information.

* An AA powered flashlight.

* Cell phones chargers, both 110 v and 12 v., and cell phones - either in the bag or our pockets.

* Important prescription drugs.

* One laptop – the one with the longest battery life – and a power cord.  I also backup both computers to a small, lightweight external hard drive which goes into the bag.

* A couple of energy bars and a bottle of water.

* Extra AA batteries.

* UPDATE:  Oops, one thing I forgot to mention when I originally posted this – insurance cards, both for our health insurance (in our wallets) and for our rig (our Jeep is insured with the same company)!  Be sure you have the number for your insurer on the insurance card/information.

This fits in 2 bags, one for each of us, and they go on the seat by the door.

After the first storm passed; many more came after dark. If the weather at night seems okay, we put the bags by the door, put sturdy shoes and another flashlight nearby, and go to sleep (if we can) in comfortable clothes.  If the NOAA radio awakens us with a tornado warning, we can flip on the TV to a local station while we put on our shoes. 

If the weather is too iffy, we don’t go to bed, but stay awake monitoring the local TV reports and radar on the computer.  If lightening is striking in the area, we sometimes unplug and roll up our power cord so a nearby strike won’t fry our appliances (we should do this all the time, but tend not to if rain is already pouring down).  We DON’T have the computers plugged in during lightening storms – we run off the computer batteries.  In heavy winds, we retract the large, more vulnerable, front slide, and have all the awnings stowed.

By watching local TV and the internet, we’ve been able to stay “home” while tornados passed within a couple of miles… but with clothes and shoes on and our emergency bags ready to go should we need to evacuate, which we HAVE done several times.  Grab the bags, grab the NOAA radio, and off to the shelter.

I took this picture of the Weather Channel the next morning, watching the news of the historic tornado outbtreak. IF the worst happens, we want to come out alive and uninjured, with those things that will help us get back to "normal": our cell phones and the ability to charge them, a radio to hear the news, money, and access to the internet.

The more we travel in tornado country, the more we realize that our chances of being injured by a tornado are very slim – and we work to keep them that way.  Still, my adrenaline runs very high when the weather radio names “towns in the path” of a possible or suspected tornado and we hear a name we recognize!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Cleveland's West Side Market The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum – that is what drew us to Cleveland.  It didn’t take much research, though, to find enough to keep a visitor to this appealing city busy for at least a week! 

Since we got a late start on our day yesterday, we chose another attraction as our first destination, the West Side Market, Cleveland’s oldest public market, housed in the same location for almost a century.  As soon as we entered, we both immediately thought of the mercado in Mazatlan, though the vendors at the West Side Market are limited to selling only food – and abide by considerably stricter sanitation standards.

Although the adjacent produce arcade was appealing, the older, central marketplace was absolutely eye-popping!  The building itself is spectacular, a huge, well lit space with an arched ceiling made of brick.  In its shelter, dozens of small stalls sold an amazing variety of foodstuffs: coffee, herbs and spices, fresh and smoked meats, cheeses, fish, fresh pasta.  Several stalls sold only poultry.  Bakery stalls specialized either in bread or desserts.  Salads.  One of the cheese stalls sold peanut butter – nothing but ground peanuts, no sugar, no salt.  Of course, we came home with (too) many purchases!

Today was reserved for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, where we spent five hours.  Photo opportunities are limited, as photographs are not allowed in any of the exhibit halls.  We walked through the Science Museum on the way to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame from the parking garage – it was a swirl of kids, and noise… which made it even more noticeable that most of the patrons of the Rock and Roll museum had gray hair and sensible shoes! 

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (left) with the Cleveland Skyline, on Lake Erie. It’s hard to put into words how this museum touched me, but the exhibits brought back – with feeling – many experiences that rarely seem like part of my life any longer.  For me, the “rock and roll” years described here were a time of great freedom, much experimentation, and general tumult.  I enjoyed those years – not as the best times of my life, but as good times, interesting times, and what we saw and heard today awakened many of those feelings.

We began by watching the hour long “multi-media presentation” introducing all of the Hall of Fame inductees.  As Odel and I sat side by side watching and listening, we exchanged frequent elbow jabs as the opening notes of favorite songs played.  We laughed at some of the costumes and dance moves… then listened and ached for those talented, creative musicians who left us way before their time.  

Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Mama Cass… Jim Morrison was born the same year as Odel, Jimi Hendrix was a year older!  It’s hard to imagine them on Medicare, that’s for certain.  It probably would have been equally difficult for them to imagine us, their contemporaries - marked by several decades of experience -  movin’, groovin’, and tapping our feet to the sounds of classic rock and roll coming through the headphones we donned at various exhibits in the museum.  :)

The permanent exhibits, 60% of what there is to see in the museum, are located in a giant space on the bottom floor.  Some of the area is devoted to a timeline of the development of Rock and Roll, with sections for each of the geographic centers and the different musical styles produced in each: London, Detroit, Memphis, San Francisco, L.A...  Other areas are devoted to specific musicians or musical groups.  Personal letters, photographs, costumes, sketches, handwritten lyrics, contracts – its all there, in bold colors and musical accompaniment.

Big guitars, with Cleveland out the window. Given the pyramidal shape of the museum, the upper floors are successively smaller.  We had a sandwich at the cafe – and suggest you eat elsewhere first, or just bring your own sandwich from home… the food is best described as forgettable, but the view from the cafe’s tables is interesting and appealing.

Another of my favorite exhibits is on the third floor (I think) - a wall display of covers of Rolling Stone magazine, along with letters from well-known names:  an argumentative exchange between Annie Leibovitz and Jann Wenner concerning the terms of her contact, a letter from Charles Manson responding to the cover story about him featured in the magazine (offering a written interview in return for a free subscription), correspondence with John Lennon.

Our energy ran out before we saw everything, or maybe we were simply overwhelmed by reviewing so much of our history and so many memories.  Stepping back outside, we admired the skyline of Cleveland, the design of the museum, and the beautiful setting on the shoreline of Lake Erie… then hit the road just at what would seem to be the peak of rush hour, 5 pm. 

Well, surprise!  We drove right through downtown Cleveland, back to our campground at the Cuyahoga County Fairgrounds, in 20 minutes – the same amount of time it took us to navigate the distance at 11 am.  What a difference from our daunting experience in Pittsburgh!

Tomorrow we’ve lined up a visit from a mobile RV repair service to replace the electric heating element in our water heater, burned out when our water pump malfunctioned last week, then we’re off to Detroit for a visit with our friend Gloria, last seen in Kerrville, TX.  Safe travels, all.

Saturday, June 19, 2010


Our view from the mountain top It’s our last night in Pennsylvania, up on top of a “mountain” at Mountain Top Campground (click here to read our review), 25 miles northeast of Pittsburgh.  Up until a hour ago, we’ve had great views of the lush green hillsides, but the heavy rains of a thunderstorm have erased our view for the time being.

We came here to see Pittsburgh.  Why, you ask?  Good question!

During the past 6 months, I’ve heard/read several reports of Pittsburgh’s beauty.  It was so surprising that I picked up the AAA Tour Book… and they raved about Pittsburgh, too.  Okay then!

On the map, downtown Pittsburgh appeared to be fairly small and walkable, on a peninsula where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers come together to form the Ohio.  This area is called the “Golden Triangle”, with the very tip of the peninsula set aside as Point State Park, site of an historic fort, a lovely fountain, and riverside walkways.  Our agenda for Friday?  Drive into the Golden Triangle, visit a farmer’s market (downtown), walk to Point State Park and along the riverfront walkways.

The prettiest spot we saw in Pittsburgh, near where we ate lunch. Our reality?  Get lost, cross all three rivers more than once, get hopelessly snarled in downtown road construction.  View the tiny (4 booths) farmer’s market as we rolled past, looking for parking – and decide to skip it.  Dodge the pedestrians who pay ABSOLUTELY NO attention to signals. 

We eventually turned into a parking garage that seemed to be near the state park (our GPS had lost the signal in the canyons of downtown several blocks earlier), oriented ourselves, and headed to the park.  Undergoing renovation, it is the only place we have seen in all of Pennsylvania where the grass was dry and brown, the earth cracked.   The fountain was turned off, and the riverbank walkways were fenced off from the public.  Grim!

By then, we were hungry and discouraged.  We had seen a small outdoor kiosk/cafe in a shaded spot in a pretty plaza, so returned there to get a sandwich.   They were disorganized and out of several menu items, but at last we had our food and cold drinks (not alcoholic, unfortunately!), found a bench and dug in.  Halfway through our meal, the door of a nearby high-rise office building opened – smoke break!

Two smokers settled on a bench beside ours, two more on the bench across from us (6 feet away) and lit up their smokes.  We ate faster.  Splat!  One of the smokers across from us hocked a loogie right out on the sidewalk – well, maybe he just spit, but it was totally gross, whatever it was.  Another drag on his smoke, another splat on the sidewalk.  I think my eyes were bugging out of my head.

On the bike trail That was it for us.  A quick plan crystalized: take our last bites, hotfoot it back to the car, and find our bridge back home before rush hour could even think of slowing our getaway.

Back at home, the few rigs in the park all were running their air conditioners trying to stay cool in the 85+ degree sunshine – while the park’s electric grid dropped to an abysimal 102 volts, enough to damage appliances.  We shut down our A/C’s, turned on the fans, and wondered what next.

New plan:  search out the trailhead of a nearby hike/bike trail I had noticed a day earlier.  Before long, we were back in our element.  Another of Pennsylvania’s rails-to-trails projects, the Barton-Freeport trail follows an unused railroad right of way along a small river through leafy green tunnels of trees – cool and quiet, the perfect antidote to our visit downtown.  By the time we returned home at 7 pm, we could eke out enough voltage to run one A/C, sufficient to cool us down after sunset.

Though we had planned two days for sightseeing in Pittsburgh, Day One cooled our interest.  Instead, we revisited Freeport and our leafy green trail, then found a tiny hoagie shop and ordered two sandwiches for lunch.  Riverside Park, along the Allegheny River in the cool shade of giant trees, had picnic tables and a view.  We ate, loitered, and finally returned home, awaiting the arrival of the cooling thunderstorm.

Watching the kayakers while we enjoyed our lunch. So, Pittsburgh is still a mystery to us.  Yes, it is in a beautiful setting – but those hills and rivers make it mighty difficult for visitors to navigate easily.  Yes, downtown appears to have some great amenities – inaccessible to visitors at this particular time.  It appeared to us to be a city much better explored in the company of knowledgeable residents, and I am sure a tour would have greatly increased our appreciation… but we didn’t have the stamina for a return visit!

Tomorrow we are heading over to the outskirts of Cleveland to visit THEIR lakefront state park and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  Here’s hoping for a better urban experience!

Thursday, June 17, 2010


As Rod said in a comment on an earlier post, “I would have never guessed there would be so much to do in Western Penn”.  We agree! 

Recreation of flood debris on the back wall of the museum - notice the leg and foot in the center. Besides our visits to the Flight 93 Memorial site in Shanksville and the Frank Lloyd Wright homes (described in my last two posts), we spent an afternoon in Johnstown, Pennsylvania at the Johnstown Flood Museum.  On May 31, 1889, the neglected South Fork Dam, 14 miles upstream of Johnstown, failed under a torrential rainfall (read the interesting story by clicking on the link above). 

The resulting flood caused the largest loss of civilian lives in the U.S. up until that time, 2,209 people (surpassed by the Galveston Hurricane in 1900 with over 8.000 lives lost).  Both the museum (in Johnstown) and the National Park Service Memorial (at the dam site) were interesting, but if you have time to visit just one site, the Museum is the one.  Their 26-minute documentary film won an Academy Award and is far superior to the lame melodrama shown at the NPS visitor center!

After Jackie and I discovered the appealing little town of Ohiopyle during our explorations of the Wright houses, we went back on Monday with Odel and Buddy.  The town of Ohiopyle is adjacent to (surrounded by) a state park of the same name, known for the Class I-IV whitewater rafting on the Youghiogheny River.  Where parking lots were packed full on Sunday, we found plenty of parking and few hikers on Monday.  It was a great day for hiking and the company couldn’t have been better!

River Rafters 3 friends watching the rafters far below. Jackie and Laure at the falls.

Rafters enjoying the whitewater.

Friends enjoying the rafters.

Jackie, Laurie, and the falls.

Fast forward to today, Thursday, time to move on after 8 fun days exploring the Highlands.  Our drive was short and (mostly) easy.  When we arrived and I turned on the water pump, we noticed water spewing from the pressure relief valve on our hot water heater (outside, fortunately).  Uh-oh. 

After a consultation with the helpful campground owner – who called an RV supply store for us and located a new pressure relief valve – we were on our way.  Back home an hour later, Odel installed the new valve (I know!  I know!  Can you believe it??  He is turning into a major DIY’er) and we turned on the pump.  AACK!  The new valve acted just like the old one, spewing water all over the side of the motorhome. 

Peaceful Youghiogheny River scene Hmmmmm.  To the computers!  A message thread on the Escapees forum described the exact problem, with an important clue… it only happened when the writer was using their water pump.  Blink! The light went on!  We hooked up to the water faucet, and the spewing stopped.

A “temperature and pressure relief valve” opens, releasing water, in one of two conditions: either the water temperature reaches 210 degrees (which we KNEW was not the case) or the pressure reaches 150 pounds (which we never dreamed was the case, running our water pump).  Apparently our water pump is malfunctioning (again!), running at too high a pressure. 

By the time we had driven to the RV supply store, installed the new valve, and figured all of this out, it was after 7 pm; we were tired of working on it, and hungry.  Odel fired up the grill, I nuked some fresh corn on the cob, and dinner was soon on the table. 

Tomorrow we’ll tackle the water pump problem.  Meanwhile, we’re an a wide open, mountain top campground we know we will enjoy, have just watched a beautiful sunset, and are ready to enjoy a restful evening.  All is well.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


Two of the homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright are within an easy drive of Hickory Hollow campground (click here to read our review) in Rockwood, PA.  Buddy and Odel declined our invitation to tour the homes, so Jackie and I set off together on Sunday morning to visit Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob, just six miles apart.

I’d heard of many times of Fallingwater, considered to be Wright’s “masterwork” of residential design.  I’d never heard of Kentuck Knob.   Both homes are now designated National Historic Landmarks.  Visiting both on the same day was a stroke of serendipitous planning, as the two illustrate the opposite ends of Wright’s approach to home design and provided wonderful insights into the character of this unyielding, controlling, minimalist visionary.

Fallingwater was designed in 1935, and built over the next three years as a vacation home for the Edgar Kaufmann family at a cost of $155,000 – essentially an unlimited budget.  Wright described the Kaufmanns as “nesters”, and designed a ground-breaking, light-filled, open-to-the-outdoors home nestled over a waterfall on Mill Run, deep in a forested canyon.  It is easy to find photos of this incredible home on the internet - and visitors are prohibited from taking interior photographs.  

Fallingwater 1 Stairway to Creek

Cantilevered decks over the waterfall.

Steps leading down to Mill Run

Photo of the postcard of the living room with its built-in furniture, all designed by Wright.

The untreated, unheated, swimming pool, filled spring water and draining into Mill Run.

Fallingwater postcard Fallingwater Swimming Pool

Visitors to Fallingwater can pay $8 each to tour the grounds and exterior of the home, or $18 each for a tour of the interior.  We declined the interior tour, but walked all the trails on the grounds and peered inside through the huge windows as we toured the exterior.  Since interior photos are prohibited, I photographed the postcard I purchased for inclusion here.  :)

Kentuck Knob, designed and built in the early 1950’s, was built on a much tighter budget by I.N. and Bernardine Hagen – a total eventual cost of $93,000.  Wright described the Hagans as “perchers”, as they had selected the top of a bald “knob” (hill) as their building site, with distant vistas into the gorge of a nearby river.  Because the Hagans put all their money into their new home, they furnished it with their outdoor furniture until they saved enough money to construct the plywood furniture designed by Wright.

Porch at Kentuck Knob Kentuck Knob from yard

Gorgeous porch and French doors facing view.

View from the rear, downhill side of the house.

The graveled “Zen” Driveway, to be raked daily!

Subdued front entrance to Kentuck Knob.

Zen driveway area Kentuck Knob Entrance

Unlike Fallingwater, Kentuck Knob photographs poorly.  It is not possible to tour the grounds and exterior, then peer inside.  Built on top of the knob, windows on two sides are accessible only standing on tiptoes; the broad windows and French doors opening onto the porch facing the view on the downhill side are 18 feet off the ground! 

We took the tour, and were glad we did.  Kentuck Knob is an example of Wright's Usonian architecture, designs for low-cost homes without attics or basements, small, one-story structures set on concrete slabs with piping for radiant heat beneath. Wright imagined that homeowners could save on costs by building their own home following his plans, but few did – could you?

Minimalist Carport According to our tour guide, Wright “invented” the carport – garages were simply storerooms for “stuff”, offending his minimalist sensibility.  

In these photos, you might notice that Kentuck Knob is no longer bald.  In the 1950’s, the knob had been completely deforested by blight.  After completing their home, the Hagans planted 10,000 trees.  Now, 50+ years later, the forest is fully grown, shady and full of birdsong.  Most of the trees are deciduous, affording the original long views in winter and cool shade in summer.

What a great way to spend the day, especially in the company of my friend Jackie.  Taking a different route home, we cruised the small town of Ohiopyle, adjacent to Ohiopyle State Park on the Youghiogheny River, known for its white water rafting.  Next day, we were back – with the guys – for a hike in this beautiful area.

Monday, June 14, 2010


Odel studies the makeshift memorial wall. We’ve seen many historic sites this year as we have traveled through the southeast, most of them “interpreted” in ways that caught us up in drama and brought to life these turning points in our history.  Yet because of the vast difference between my life experience and the lives of these long ago generations, I’ve not been able to imagine myself living these events of distant history.

The crash site of United Flight 93 and the current (temporary) memorial there touched me in a much deeper way.  I can understand, and relate to, these people, the 37 passengers and 7 crew aboard Flight 93 when it was the fourth plane hijacked on 9/11/2001.

I can imagine myself innocently boarding a plane, anticipating my upcoming visit to California, happy to see so many empty seats.  I would have brought a good book to read, and maybe moved to a window seat in an empty row.  I would have been annoyed by the 40 minute delay in our departure.

I can imagine the shock of realizing my plane had been hijacked, and I can imagine the fear.  Maybe I would have used the plane’s air phone to call Odel, to hear the unbelievable news of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. 

That is as far as my imagination can take me. 

Memorial marker Individual angel markers

The crash site is in the pasture, close to the trees in the distance.

One angel marker for each person aboard (except the terrorists), some with photos.

It probably didn’t take long for the passengers and crew aboard flight 93 to realize that their plane was intended as another missile in the terrorists’ attack, and to reach the inescapable conclusion that they had precious little time left to live.  How they chose to use that time was heroic, indeed. 

We four drove to the crash site on a gentle June morning, a highway through rolling green hills leading to a smaller road winding past farms with big red barns.  Turn down this lane, over that hill… and there is it, in a rural area, far from any visitor center, gift shops, Starbucks, or tours of any kind.  No tourist services have sprouted.  In the midst of farmland, on a dirt and gravel lot, with a small parking area and a tiny National Park Service shed, is the temporary memorial to the heroic people who changed the course of the terrorists’ plans on September 11th.

More than anything, the memorial reminds me of the roadside shrines and crosses we see so often in the southwest, the visible reminders placed by family and friends at roadside accident sites, reminders that say “a tragedy happened in this place”.  Though the National Park Service now maintains this site, it began spontaneously as visitors left notes, flags, pins, flowers, all sorts of mementos in recognition of the tragedy that happed in this place. 

Flight 93 Memorial site The small area occupied by the memorial site holds around twenty benches, each inscribed with the names of those aboard flight 93 (excluding the terrorists).  We settled into the seats and listened to a somber young NPS ranger interpret what we were seeing.  In her hands, she held a binder with photographs of each of the passengers and crew, and she told us a bit of background on several of the people on board – a crew member who only flew 2-3 times a month so she could be home with her young children, for instance.  Poignant stories of people very much like our friends, our families - people very much like us.

She walked us through their final minutes – the takeover of the plane, their phone calls, the news they received of the three planes that had been used as flying bombs, and their realization that their flight was headed back to the east coast, towards an unknown fourth target. 

And then they made the decision to bring the plane down, minimizing loss of life on the ground to the extent they could.  Waiting until the plane had cleared the Pittsburgh urban area, they rushed the cockpit, struggled, and the hijackers downed the plane.  Flight 93 was traveling over 500 miles per hour, upside down, which it impacted a quiet pasture on a quiet Pennsylvania farm.  Debris was found a mile from the crash site.

I don’t have occasion to use the word “patriotic” often, as it is so frequently co-opted by people with an agenda I can’t support.  These people, though, these 40 people… they were patriotic in the best sense, sparing our country from an even more horrific loss than we suffered on September 11.  To me, it was true heroism, and it made a real difference.

Wall closeup

The National Park Service is undertaking a permanent memorial for Flight 93, and the ranger’s description of the plans sound impressive.  I’m glad, though, that we saw this site as we did: a tribute from the heart, a grassroots reminder that we know what happened, that we care what happened, and that the actions of these people made a memorable difference.

Go, if you have the chance.

Sunday, June 13, 2010


Overnight sites at Hickory Hollow Campground, on the sunny day after we arrived.Leaving Gettysburg, we turned to the west, retracing our route back to the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania, the area where the Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio state lines meet.  We had zoomed through the Highlands a few weeks ago as we made our way quickly from Cincinnati to the Washington, DC area, and wanted to return to spend more time exploring the sights of southeastern PA.

It rained, hard, for most of our travel day – with a break long enough to check in and set up in our site at Hickory Hollow Campground (click here to read our campground review).  We paid for five nights, then sat inside, making lists. 

My list?  All the places I would like to visit while we are here:  the Johnstown Flood Museum, the Flight 93 Memorial site in Shanksville; the Great Allegheny Passage (a rails-to-trails bike/hike path); Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob homes; nearby Laurel Ridge State Park to see the blooming Mountain Laurel (the state flower); and a search for one of the stones placed by Mason and Dixon when they first surveyed the Mason/Dixon line in 1767.

Odel’s list?  All the minor repairs he wanted to complete before moving on:  fix or toss our expensive water pressure regulator, corroded beyond belief; craft a handle that would allow him to remove the transmission dipstick (the convenient T-handle detached and disappeared somewhere along the way); drain the air tanks; restring one of the day/night shades before it broke completely; clean the carpets.

An item from Laurie’s List: enjoy the blooming Mountain Laurel (and attendant butterfly).

An item from Odel’s list: repair rusted, corroded water pressure regulator

Butterfuly poses on a Mountain Laurel Corroded regulator

It didn’t take long to decide that our combined lists could be more easily accommodated in a week rather than five days.  We liked the park, our good friends Jackie and Buddy were arriving in two days, and the Passport America weekday rate here, for FHU and cable TV, is a major bargain at just $15/night.  We quickly added two more days to our stay, and sent off an email to have our snail mail forwarded here ASAP. 

At the Rockwood trailhead of the Great Allegheny Passage, a former railroad route.We got to work on Odel’s list immediately.  I received emailed instructions on how to fix the pressure regulator, and my determined husband had it working in no time - then worked out a solution for the missing T-handle.  We spent Friday morning restringing the shade, and our friends pulled into the campground just as we finished lunch. 

Segue to Laurie’s list, and everything has been a blur since then.  We’ve walked on the Great Allegheny Passage, visited the Flight 93 Memorial, relived the horror of the Johnstown flood.  We’ve talked and laughed and eaten too much.  I’ve got days of stories for the blog, but no time to write ‘em (yet).  Jackie and I are off to view the Frank Lloyd Wright homes in an hour…

More to come, later!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010


Soldiers Monument, the site of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address History is a sleeper for me – until I am onsite.  With the exception of a few important dates (hmmm, only 1776 and 1962 come to mind at the moment), history is a blur, including the many now historic events of my own lifetime. 

The Civil War is part of the big black hole of “important US history” that is either inaccessible or non-existent in my memory banks. Battalions, brigades, divisions, regiments, all the ranks of military officers… it all is as forgettable to me as domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species (biology being another mystery to me).  So, when I say Gettysburg knocks me out, you know it’s not coming from a Civil War geek.  If you have even the slightest interest in the Civil War, it likely will knock you out, too.

In case YOU are interested in visiting Gettysburg, here is a summary of what we did, what we considered the highlights, and what we would have done differently.  If your travels take you anywhere near Gettysburg, GO!

A memorial in the woods near Little Round Top Day One: When we checked into Artillery Ridge Camping Resort (click here to read our review), we knew it was close to the battlefield, but didn’t realize it was so close that we could WALK to some of the most interesting battle sites.  That was a huge plus for us.  We would return to this same campground.

We began at the new (2 years old, I think) Gettysburg National Military Park Visitor Center, viewing the orientation film (A New Birth of Freedom, just 22 minutes) and the Gettysburg Cyclorama (se my prior blog post).  It is a great way to begin your education.

Next, we drove most of the battlefield, using the map and driving tour we picked up at the Visitor Center.  It was a simple, relaxing way to see the huge battlefield at our own pace.

Day Two: We walked from our campground into the park, revisiting Little Round Top, Devil’s Den and the Slaughter Pen on foot. 

View to Little Round Top from the Confederate position at Devil's DenThis is one of the two most important battle sites in the park, and even those of us not schooled in military tactics can easily understand the importance of holding the high ground of Little Round Top.  Hand to hand combat, a military blunder by an egotistical military appointee, a forced march through the heat and humidity of July and the valor of troops committed to holding their position at all costs… it is an incredibly heroic story, memorialized with markers, statues, and tablets of all kinds, in all directions.  We walked several miles, but you could walk from the campground to Little Round Top and back in about 2 miles, I think.

Day Three: Our 2 1/2 hour Segway tour covered all the ground we had walked, plus the other “most important” site, the area of Pickett’s Charge and the High Water Mark of the Confederacy.  Along with the Round Top area, the hand-to-hand fighting here marked a crucial point of the battle, when Union troops held Cemetery Ridge and the Confederates withdrew.  On our tour, we heard the recorded narrative of a licensed guide, so learned all the details of both sites, presented with great drama – riveting!

The Wall at High Water Mark, the site of hand-to-hand combat in the struggle to control the ridge.After a rest back at home, we drove through the town of Gettysburg, which we hadn’t even seen yet.  Oh, how I wished we had another day to stay in the area, but our campsite was not available for a longer stay.

Heading back home, we parked in the lot for the Gettysburg Military Cemetery, which encompasses the Soldier’s National Cemetery, burial ground for the Union troops killed at Gettysburg and site of Lincoln’s famous dedication address.  The walk through the cemetery is evocative and sobering, the sense of history overwhelming.  Leaving the cemetery, we walked back through the parking lot, to the west and back to the High Water Mark.  For me, this was the high point of the trip, the crux of the battle.  Envisioning the events described during our tour gave me chills. 

Day Four: Today!  Time to leave.  :(

Three days were not enough – five would have been great.  We had no time to take the historic walking tour of the town, and to enjoy appealing present day Gettysburg.

Odel masters his Segway The Segway tour was great fun – but learning and riding the machine keeps you from focusing fully on the stories playing on your headphones. A tour of some sort is crucial to a real appreciation of the significance of Gettysburg, but I think the open-air, double-decker narrated bus tour would cover more ground while allowing you to give the narration your undivided attention.  I will take it next time we visit.

We were happy with the location of our campground, surely the closest to the sites of greatest interest.  If you go to Gettysburg, be sure you know how to get to your campground without driving through town – I’d hate to drive a big rig through the narrow roads and the roundabout in the center of town.

So, we came, we saw, we learned, we loved it.  See, I just need a field trip to appreciate history.   :)

Monday, June 7, 2010


One of the many, many memorial markers at Gettysburg. Sunday’s travels, a mere 51.5 miles, brought big changes as we crossed the Mason/Dixon line just south of Gettysburg, PA.  Although the line predates the Revolutionary War (click here to read its history), it is most well known as the dividing line between southern slaveholding states and northern free states pre-Civil War, and even now marks the passage from “the South” to “the North”.  After spending the winter in the southern states, we’ve left behind the fried chicken and fried pickles, BBQ pork, greens and gumbo, shrimp, fried catfish, hushpuppies and “meat and three”.  Here, iced tea means unsweetened, and no one asks us obvious Yankees if we want our tea “sweet”. 

To us, the most welcome changes were in our weather and our campsite.  The hot humidity of the past week disappeared as a cooler, dryer front arrived in southern Pennsylvania.  After 9 days of camping in dense forest with 30 amps of electrical power, no water hookup, no sewer hookup, and no cable or satellite TV, we were so ready for our site at Artillery Ridge Campground with full hookups and an unobstructed view of the sky.  As soon as we were settled, the washing machine was chugging away and Odel was busy dumping our holding tanks.  Ah, the luxury of a long shower!

Canon on the ridge overlooking Gettysburg. Gettysburg.  Is there a reader who doesn’t recognize that name?  Nonetheless, due to my inattention in history class, I knew Gettysburg only as yet another Civil War battleground, this one particularly famous because of the eloquence of Lincoln’s address (which Odel begins orating whenever I speak the name Gettysburg) at the dedication of the military cemetery. 

We arrived with no idea of the magnitude of the national park, and no plans other than a reservation for a Segway tour of the battlefield on Tuesday.  To get our bearings, we headed to the National Park Visitor Center yesterday afternoon.

Orientation in the visitor center begins with a 22 minute film highlighting the issues leading up to the war and the significance of the battle at Gettysburg.  After it ended, doors in the back of the theatre opened, leading to escalators moving us upstairs to the Gettysburg Cyclorama (click here to read the interesting details from the NPS site).  Wow!

A scene from the Cyclorama. I’ve never heard of a cyclorama, a not-unusual form of entertainment in those long ago, pre-movie years of the late 1800’s.  Originally completed in 1883, this giant (4 stories high), circular oil painting is one of very few cycloramas remaining (making it an interesting historical artifact on its own).  After a 5 year, $13 million dollar restoration, the Gettysburg Cyclorama opened in its current round building in 2008. 

As we visitors stood on a raised platform in the center of the cyclorama, a narrator described Pickett’s Charge, the final, brutal, bloody battle at Gettysburg.  The lights in the room were dim; spotlights highlighted details of the battle as the narration progressed.  With nothing but narration, music, sound effects and lighting, we were all swept into the heat of the battle, moving from one side of the round platform to another to view the “action”.  Fascinating! 

A house on the battlefield. Thus inspired, we headed out in the car (no air conditioning required!) with a map and driving directions.  We have since driven, walked, and photographed much of the huge battlefield.  The three day battle raged through Gettysburg, the surrounding farms, and up and down valleys and hillsides, now dotted with seemingly hundreds of monuments and markers placed in the late 1800’s.   Yesterday we drove the tour route, today we walked a few miles of it, tomorrow we will take our narrated, guided Segway tour.  Who would have thought it could be so fascinating?