"The real voyage of Discovery lies not in seeking new lands, but in seeing with new eyes"
Marcel Proust

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Labor Day Blues

It’s another Saturday night and in my household that means The Fish Fry is on the radio KCUR- Kansas City. It’s a great program that highlights blues, R&B, soul, jumpin’ jazz, and zydeco music and oftentimes, KC artists. The week of July 6 they were doing a “road songs” theme. Here are a handful of the road songs they played that evening. Listen to the whole show at http://www.kcur.org/fish-fry-archives

Key to the Highway- Muddy Waters

Big Road Blues- Rory Block

T Model Blues- Lightnin’ Hopkins

Long Time to Get There- Betse Ellis

A few more of some country blues for those who are laboring on the highway this Labor Day weekend:

Mobile Blues- Waylon Jennings
Truck Driver’s Blues- Merle Haggard
Long, Lonesome Highway- Dick Curless
Gulf Coast Highway- Nanci Griffith

Friday, August 23, 2013

Get Your Kicks on Route 66 and Enjoy the Drive on I-55

I had a radio interview on WGLT in Bloomington, IL last weekend about our “Traveling Through Illinois” book. They played the Van Halen song, “I Can’t Drive 55” at the beginning of it. Clever. I liked it.

Ted and I started an I-55 song list years ago, actually. We pondered what songs we should have on the soundtrack if this book should ever make it on the big screen. Okay, well, we just thought about all the fun road songs there are out there. So, for the next few blogs we’ll play some road tunes.

Seems respectful to start with this one:
Here’s an encore from his daughter:

Here’s hoping that after you read our book, you won’t ever sing Sammy’s lyrics about I-55:

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Kids Say the Darndest Things On Road Trips

The first week of July 2013 is gone. For some this means that summer vacation is half over. It’s the crest of the hill before rolling towards Christmas. Hopefully most are still enjoying some fun in the sun. For some, this may even be the eve of a family road trip. Some families are triple-checking that they packed their swimming trunks, cancelled the newspaper, and that their children have charged all of their electronic entertainment for the drive. Ah, the glare of hand-held electronic screens has dimmed the games of counting farm animals and playing license plate poker.

I have just come home from a youth mission trip to Benton Harbor, Michigan where none of the teens were allowed to take electronic devices. Poor kids were subjected to my I-55 mile marker stories from our “Traveling Through Illinois” book. It wasn’t through my devious plans that this all happened. The big boss of the youth leaders relayed that kids should take the 9.5 hours to talk and get to know one another.

I was lucky to get the vehicle full of boys. Little boys can be loud in their imaginary play which always includes sound effects of something blowing up, imploding, exploding, or blasting off, while little girls do quiet tea parties. But, age does something to the vocal chords of teens that has nothing to do with puberty. I could see the carload of girls ahead of me. Arms were waving, bodies were swaying, ( I think the entire van was shaking ) and the male youth leader who was driving their vehicle stumbled out at our first stop to gas up the car. Dazed, he mumbled something about a headache.

Long road trips usually offer a few funny comments uttered at just the right level of silence. Those are some of the most memorable moments of the drive. As the boys and I crossed over the Mississippi River from Missouri to Illinois on Highway 36 at Hannibal, I shared one of these funny comments uttered by my daughter who was in the chatty girl vehicle ahead of us.

My family traveled Highway 36 across Missouri about 3 times a year to see family in Illinois. Every time we crossed the bridge over the Mississippi River in Hannibal, we’d point it out to our daughter, Rose, and name it, hoping we could teach her some geography along the way. On one trip across the Mighty Missi-sip, when she was around 4 years old, I once again announced in my best Chevy Chase voice, “Here comes the bridge! We’re about to cross the Mississippi River!” Everything went quiet for a moment in the van as Rose’s unspoken thoughts hung in the air, and then she said, “Mom, why isn’t there a Mr. Issippi?” It took me a minute to get it and then she said that it wasn’t fair to have a Miss Issippi and not a Mr. Issippi. What an equal rights kind of girl!

This little tyke grew up to be a teenager. Just recently she said to me, “When I get a car someday I’m going to buy a (VW) Bug so I can drive by and watch people punch each other.” I am almost too embarrassed to share this story.

The whole “Are we there yet?” phrase springs from the fact that kids have a hard time gauging time. In fact, one story of travel and sense of time (not the same as time travel) is when my younger daughter had no concept of time (or she was just too giddy from finding out we were going on a trip.) On opening a fortune cookie that revealed we’d be going to Disney World just after New Year’s, she blurted out in happy excitement, “Are we gonna stay overnight??”

If you’re traveling with young kids this summer don’t forget to take the baby book, a journal, or a pen and paper. You might just capture some of those darndest things that your kids say as they first see the Grand Canyon, cruise past a wind farm, or find bizarre creatures in the clouds outside the window. Enjoy the ride!

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Tree Silhouettes while Traveling Through Illinois

As in any book, there are stories to be cut, and we were sad to cut a few of our tree stories. Other landmarks fought for attention at the same spot or other stories ran beyond the boundaries of their mile. So, we thought we could “re-plant” this story on these cyber pages.

A chapter from “Reading the Landscape of America,” by May Theilgaard Watts and my love for sculpture inspired this story on tree silhouettes.

From the cutting room floor of the Illinois book:

Tree Silhouettes In the distance a row of trees punctuate the skyline with their branching silhouettes.  For half of the year these deciduous trees appear leafless, revealing the patterns of their weaving branches.  While some people may find winter and early spring trees “dead-looking”, others see beautiful black sculptures lining the hillsides on the highways. 
Different species of trees can be identified by their silhouettes.  For example, a weeping willow tree would be easy to identify by its drooping branches that cascade down like long hair. 

Massive Bur Oak trees left in open fields can sprawl horizontally with thick low limbs stretching wide over the plains. 

In contrast, Cottonwoods usually have a very tall straight trunk with few or no lower branches but with upper limbs that weave together vertically in lattice patterns.  These tall straight trunks were often used for canoes as trappers made their way down the Missouri River.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Honk if You Like Trees!

A shade tree is a blessing in the heat of the summer day. With a grassy cushion or soft chair to protect your backside from the bumpy roots, it’s a great place to enjoy a good read.  Shel Silverstein praised the tree in his book, “The Giving Tree” as have many other authors in poetry and essays over the years. 

We, too, felt the need to recognize these earthy friends in our traveling books. We cannot fail to mention the gifts that trees give to landowners, shoppers, sightseers, farmers, and children of all ages.

In our Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas books we talked about the Willows, Oaks, Hickories, Osage-Oranges, Red Cedars, and Cottonwoods.

Here are a few stories to share with you about the diversity and wonderment of those living creatures in which we are surrounded by but rarely acknowledge during our day.

From Traveling Through Illinois
Mile 137 Cottonwood Commerce-- If you are driving along this stretch of the highway in winter, snow may be flying past your windshield, but if you are passing through in June you may also see flurries. The trees in a row on your right are Eastern Cottonwood trees, whose tiny brown seeds are parachuted by cottony hairs that float across the highway like a summer snowstorm. Notice how the heart-shaped Cottonwood leaves seem to be continually moving. Cottonwood leaves constantly flutter because they have flat, rather than round, stems that make them twirl and twist wildly in the slightest breeze. Indian tribes shaped these tree trunks into sturdy canoes for their trips of commerce and companionship across the state. With hot coals, they would first burn the trunk and then scrape out they charred wood to sculpt their dugout canoes. Canadian explorers, Marquette & Joliet, traveled the Illinois and Mississippi River in birch bark canoes, but would have fared better on a Cottonwood craft if they would’ve ventured into turbulent waters. Plains and Prairie Indian tribes found Cottonwood canoes sturdier than the birch bark canoes of the northern woodlands.
Cottonwoods still contribute to commerce. If you stopped for an ice cream treat during your drive today, you may have held a cottonwood stick in your hand. The wood is used for such things as ice cream sticks, kites, veneer, baskets, pulpwood, and fuel. These lively trees are fast-growers, but short-lived. Years from now, this stand may be gone, but most likely, somewhere along I-55, you’ll still see these seed aviators planting products across the prairie.

from Driving Across Kansas
177 Water-loving Willows - Willows and water go together. Old Testament prophets, Shakespeare, and a multitude of writers and artists for centuries have linked willows and water. Unlike some literary linkages, this association is biologically accurate. Willows require an abundance of water and can survive long periods of flooding. These attributes make them the perfect shoreline tree. Willows serve an important function in preventing erosion of banks in ponds and streams. Willow roots form dense mats that hold the soil particles in place instead of being washed away by waves or flowing water.
Native Americans used willow wood and limber willow sprouts to make traps, tent poles and stakes, mats, baskets, drums, meat-drying racks, and many other things. Today willow wood is sometimes used for boxes, crates, and furniture parts. A specialty use of willow wood is for artificial limbs for amputees.
Willows were a living pharmacy for both Native Americans and European settlers. Virtually every potential health problem known was treated with teas or pastes made from parts of the willow tree by some group of people on the Plains. Even “chew-sticks,” the precursor to tooth brushes, often were willow twigs. These willow chew sticks may have provided other dental health benefits from the chemicals in the wood. Salicin, a painkiller used in modern pharmaceuticals, is found in willow bark and leaves. 
The familiar Weeping Willows are not a native species, but rather they originated in China. Weeping Willows were brought to Europe in the 1700s and eventually found their way to North America where now they are popular ornamental tree.

Written for, but not included in Driving Across Missouri
Sycamores - You can easily identify sycamores from the highway because they have white, tan, and greenish mottled bark. Sycamores grow where there is plenty of water so they are found along streams and rivers. Notice this tree is sitting in a damp low spot. Sycamores are the largest trees east of the Rockies. They can stand 150 feet tall and their crowns can be more than 100 feet across. Sycamore wood is hard, but it often rots from the inside so only the outer trunk supports the tree. Hollow trunks and branches become wildlife apartment complex for raccoons, opossums, bats, owls and other cavity-nesting birds. Settlers used huge trunk cavities, some as big as 125 square feet, as storage rooms and even homes. Sycamore wood has been used for dugout canoes, wagon wheels, barrels, and furniture.

How many trees do you think you pass on a day’s drive? Amazing how easily we overlook them, isn’t it?

Monday, June 3, 2013

Tornadoes on the Interstate

Our thoughts go out to all those who were affected by this past weekend's tornado outbreak in Oklahoma, Missouri, and Illinois. Ted and I have friends and relatives whose communities were affected by these storms, but luckily none of them were injured. In "Traveling Through Illinois" we have a story about a deadly F-3 tornado that crossed the interstate on June 1, 1999. The tornado hit the rest area at mile 65 and overturned six tractor-trailer trucks and killed one driver and injured four others before it traveled farther northeast for ten miles.

It's difficult to know what to do when you are on the road and then caught in the midst of a twister. Some have found refuge under an overpass while for others this has proved deadly. Some stay in their cars and others get out and hide in a ditch or low-lying area. Here's some information we got from the National Weather Service on what might help you survive is you face a twister on the road.

from "Traveling Through Illinois"

Meteorologists advise that when drivers on highways spot a tornado, they
shouldn’t attempt to outdrive the unpredictable twisting mass of debris.
Tornadoes can weave back and forth over a road and change directions
quickly. They suggest that if it is visible and far away, you should drive at
right angles to avoid it. Drivers shouldn’t park under bridges or overpasses
since the winds can actually be more severe as they rush under these spots.
Rather, you should look for a nearby business where you could take shelter.
If no businesses are nearby, park your car, move away from it so it doesn’t
roll over on you, lie facedown in any low-lying area like a ditch or culvert and
cross your arms over your head for protection from flying debris.

Accounts from Oklahoma http://newsok.com/fatalities-reported-after-massive-storm-system-moves-through-central-oklahoma/article/3840694 reported an array of different accidents on I-40 and other roads. Tornadoes can touch down in any season, but most especially the spring and summer. We wish you safe travels on the road this summer!

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Traveling Through Illinois

This week, The History Press will release our latest book, “Traveling Through Illinois: Stories of I-55 Landmarks and Landscapes Between Chicago & St. Louis” (you can call it “ttisoilalbcasl” for short—okay, maybe that’s not much shorter really, but I do like that it has the word “soil” in it. You’ll see a lot of that on your drive through Illinois!) Ted and I hope to help travelers see more than soil out there, though. More than corn (did you know that over 4,200 supermarket products and by-products are made from corn?). More than sky (although it is vastly fascinating on the prairie). More than semi-trucks (I personally like the lowboys). More than flat (On trips to Normal I thought I wasn’t normal because I felt the front of my car tilting like I was climbing a hill, even though it looked as flat as a pancake out my window. I finally found out that I had been climbing a moraine and realized I wasn’t abnormal after-all. Well, not about that anyway.)

You have the drive all planned out. Take A highway to B highway and stop for lunch at that place with the great horseshoe sandwiches; but, when one of your stops is not at all what you planned, sometimes those are the best memories. Ted and I thought that one of our stories should be about what life is like in a small town (I have now invited the John Mellencamp song into my head for the rest of the night. “Had myself a ball in a small town…”) but it didn’t turn out at all like we thought it would—it was better.

We had to find an appropriate town in a spot where we didn’t already have a story. The little town of Waggoner seemed perfect. From the highway you can see this old gray wooden sign that looked like it could have been made at Lincoln’s New Salem village and says, “Welcome to Waggoner—Established 1886--  ‘From prairie to farm with pride’.” Well if that don’t beat all.

What’s interesting is that there is absolutely no sign of life anywhere near that sign. It is in front of a crop field next to a gravel road that just disappears far on the horizon. Where was the town? I wasn’t sure it even existed, but they seemed friendly enough to put that sign right next to the Interstate, welcoming all city slickers and other travelers into their little town. I couldn’t help but love this invisible non-existent town! So we chose Waggoner as our poster-child small town.

Ted gave a call to City Hall. They directed him to one woman who then directed him to another and after about 3 phone calls around the neighborhood, his small town story became a Hollywood set. Well, it involved Steven Spielberg, at least. One woman mentioned all the mandatory small town things that small town people do—have dinners at the American Legion Hall, play BINGO, and take afternoon walks on the country roads-- then she completely spins our tidy small town story out of control by mentioning that, “Oh, yes, and Steven Spielberg has visited here.”


She went on to tell the story of how he accompanied his wife, Kate Capshaw, to her grandfather’s 100th birthday party right here in Waggoner. The story took a twist—a different route than we had programmed into our GPS (Game Plan Story)—but through the local citizens better stories poured forth than the ones we had planned. 

The best part of writing these books is talking with the people living along our interpretive route. They are the stories. An interview turns into friendly conversation, laughter, and an emotional connection.

As we were writing a book to help travelers see more than cornfields in Illinois on I-55, we were finding unexpected stories ourselves. Each interview humanized that journey a bit more. It wasn’t merely a highway for traveling, it was the front yard of many hardworking, funny, and interesting people who gave their time to tell a few ex-natives their stories. We’re passing them along.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Hawk Highway

To most travelers, Texas State Highway 100 from Los Fresnos to South Padre Island is a rather nondescript stretch of road. The short 24-mile highway is straight and flat as it courses across the coastal grasslands of Deep South Texas. However, more observant travelers might notice that the fences and power poles paralleling the highway between Los Fresnos and Laguna Heights are adorned with an amazing number and variety of hawks.  In this 11- mile stretch it is not uncommon to see seven or eight different kinds of hawks as well as closely related Black and Turkey Vultures and the stunning Crested Caracara. Many of these birds will be close enough to the road to identify without binoculars as folks drive down the highway.

On a recent trip along this raptor-lined road, I observed several individuals of each of the following species perched on fence posts and power poles: Red-tailed Hawks, Red-shouldered Hawks, Ospreys, and the small but colorful American Kestrels.  Around these perched hawks, slender Northern Harriers fluttered like gigantic butterflies above the grasslands. At times they seemed to bounce along the top of the grass. Each of these species can be found throughout much of the United States.  However, this corridor is also home to some south Texas specialties.  

White-tailed Kite
White-tailed Hawk
I saw a half dozen White-tailed Kites hovering along the roadside; their wings beating fast, holding the bird in place while they searched the fields below for their dinner. The gorgeous White-tailed Hawk, found only in south Texas, was even more common.  Their gleaming white breasts and tails stood out from great distances. Upon closer inspection you could see their rusty shoulder patches.  At the other end of the color spectrum were the mostly black Harris’s Hawks. These social hawks are black with reddish shoulders, white rump and white-tipped tail. Unlike most hawks, they are often seen in small groups.  I could see four of five together on the electric wires or in small trees that dotted the landscape. It occurred to me that in light of the impressive number of hawks seen per mile, I would not want to be a mouse traveling along Highway 100!

Aplomado Falcon
The avian star of this highway is the rare and endangered Aplomado Falcon. This medium-sized falcon was extirpated from the U.S. -- another victim of the widespread use of DDT and excessive grazing by ranchers in the early and mid-20th century. By the 1940s, Aplomado Falcons were wiped out in this area. They were added to the U.S. Endangered Species List in 1986. In 1993, a non-profit organization called The Peregrine Fund began large scale releases of these falcons back into the coastal prairies of south Texas. 

This falcon is a bird worth slowing down and even slamming on the brakes for.  Indeed, I did stop at the intersection of Old Port Isabel Road (Buena Vista Road on Google Maps) and Texas Highway 100. Old Port Isabel Road is famous among bird watchers as a place to see this elegant falcon but it was too muddy to drive, so I scanned the flat open landscape from the edge of the highway with a spotting scope focusing on the tops of poles, posts, and palms. Aplomados are readily recognized at a long distance because they have a dramatically marked plumage of gray backs (Aplomado means “lead colored” in Spanish.), black and white heads, and varying amounts buffy orange (young) or cinnamon (adults) on their undersides.  It was a rather tedious task to sort through the many raptors perched and soaring in all directions. After having scanned about 180 degrees, I happened to look up from the scope to see this zephyr of a bird flying fast towards me. Immediately I knew it was the Aplomado with its sleek missile shape and long pointed wings. It shot past and gracefully swooped up and landed on a fencepost across the highway. There it afforded beautiful views through the scope. While looking at this bird I could not help but consider that this individual was one of only about 80 living in south Texas. 

It is a wonderful thing that this species once again flies the bluebonnet south Texas skies. And it is a wonderful thing to be, like these roadside raptors, at the top end of the food chain!
 -- Posted by Birder Man, Ted
(photos courtesy of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)