cool places

Coming Home

Hey, it’s good to be back home again.

                             Sometimes this old farm feels like a long lost friend.

               Yes, and hey, it’s good to be back home again.

                               John Denver, refrain from “Back Home Again”



November 3, 2016: The Odyssey is finished, and Odysseus has returned to Ithaca. This was not the 10-year journey that Homer wrote of so many, many years ago, but it was a grand trip for Laura and me, nonetheless. In pursuing this endeavor, we heeded Mark Twain’s advice to, “…throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor.” It had been almost two and a half years since we left Chicago, having sold our downtown condominium and placing everything in storage. We moved into our motorhome that we named Charley, after the Steinbeck novel, Travels With Charley: In Search of America, hooked up our small Subaru that we called Toad, and hit the open road in search of America ourselves. Actually, our primary objective in undertaking this trip was to see and experience all 59 of our country’s national parks, which we accomplished when we visited our last park, National Park of American Samoa, in October 2016. In addition to the 59 national parks, we also visited another 126 national park units such as, monuments, memorials, battlefields and historic sites. But as it turned out, visiting the parks was just one element of our own, incredible, 30-month odyssey.

When we were Out There I liked to say that we tried to allow life to just wash over us, and we certainly did our best to immerse ourselves in it. We lifted off with 400 other balloons during opening ceremonies at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta; attended Garrison Keillor’s last A Prairie Home Companion show at the Hollywood Bowl; marveled at the Milky Way sweeping across the night sky above us; were there for Games 4, 5, 6 and 7 of the World Series and saw the Cubs finally win it all; watched a Little League World Series championship game in PA; walked the route of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg with a young man in a Confederate Army uniform at sunrise; whitewater rafted down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon; hiked rim to rim across the same canyon to commemorate my 60th; attended a festival of nothing but twins and other multiples; strolled around Thoreau’s Walden Pond; kayaked and camped in pristine wilderness above the Arctic Circle; celebrated New Year’s Eve with former Navy shipmates whom I had not seen in 35 years; stood where Washington crossed the Delaware; watched a lunar eclipse from a mountain top away from the rest of the world; snorkeled in water that was so full of life that it was like swimming in an aquarium; watched stock car races at a dirt track on a Saturday evening in small-town Colorado; met folks who will be lifelong friends; walked our daughter down the aisle; and through Charley’s picture-window windshield watched our awe-inspiring country sweep past us as we drove around this great nation. In truth, there was all of this, and so much more.

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American Samoa – Travel Logistics

We struggled to find a lot of information on visiting American Samoa, so in an effort to help other people who also plan to make the journey to this remote place, we are happy to share some travel logistics here.

Flights — Flights to American Samoa are limited, departing the U.S. only a couple of times each week.  We flew American/Hawaiian Air from Los Angeles [LAX] to Honolulu [HNL] to Pago Pago [PPG].  We chose to spend a full week here but would have happily stayed longer if our schedule had permitted.  Given our limited time, we got to the island of ‘Aunu’u — more about this below — but we didn’t have the time to venture to the islands further away.  It should be noted that visits to these really remote islands are dependent on the local plane at PPG being operational, which was not the case when we were there, so in the end I’m rather glad we hadn’t booked lodging on Ta’ū or Ofu!

View from our balcony at Sadie's by the Sea
View from our balcony at Sadie’s by the Sea

Lodging — There are only a couple of hotels on the island.  We chose Sadie’s by the Sea because of its beautiful location next to the harbor and the additional amenities we saw on the website, and we were very happy with our decision.  Hosts Tee & Tom were incredibly kind, gracious and accommodating, making suggestions for us and helping us get to places we otherwise wouldn’t have known to visit.  The little lagoon was a wonderful place to swim and relax, and the swimming pool was nice, as well.  From here it was an easy walk into town [2k; about 20 minutes] which we made pretty much daily.

Tom & Tee also own and operate the Sadie Thompson Inn which offers lower priced rooms but doesn’t have the amenities of Sadie’s by the Sea.  This hotel is a few minutes closer to the town area, but it’s not on the water which is what we wanted.  The Tradewinds Hotel appeared newer and fancier and convenient to the airport, but this area is a 25-minute drive from what we wanted to do and see and I’m glad we didn’t choose that one.

Meals — We ate most of our meals at the restaurant at Sadie’s — the Goat Island Cafe — where we enjoyed delicious food (fresh tuna & fruit to die for!) and drinks and wonderful island service.  Another popular place is the DDW Beach Cafe which an easy 5-minute walk from the hotel and we had a nice lunch there one day.  The Sadie Thompson Inn does house Sadie’s Restaurant, arguably the best restaurant in the whole of the region, and dinner here one evening was a delicious treat.  There are a few other restaurants on the island [including two McDonalds which we did not frequent] but we were quite happy with Goat Island Cafe for the views, flavors, variety, hospitality and convenience, so didn’t feel the need to go find something else.

 

Tisa’s Barefoot Bar — This place deserves a special shout out because it’s such a wonderfully cool place.  If we had a car we would likely have frequented it every day, but because it’s 12k east of Pago Pago and the harbor — it’s in the little village of Alega — it took a fair amount of effort to get to.  Still, as the photos show, this place is dreamy and relaxing; Gilligan’s Island has nothing on Tisa’s!

 

Tisa’s Umu – An umu is an earth oven, and this is the traditional island way to cook.  Tisa’s Barefoot Bar features a Samoan feast cooked in an umu once a week and it is not to be missed!  Once you get to the island, find out what night Tisa’s Umu is and make your reservation to be treated to delicious food in an idyllic setting on an evening you won’t soon forget.

 

‘Aunu’u [ow-NOO-oo] — About a mile southeast of Tutuila’s eastern tip is the volcanic island of ‘Aunu’u, the smallest inhabited island of American Samoa.  A chance meeting of Pica “Peter” Taliva’a in the barber shop lead to an invitation for us to join him and his family at his home on ‘Aunu’u where we had the honor of sharing the morning with him, his son Sam, and a few other members of his family.  Peter is the chief of his village so the experience we had with him showing us his island and preparing us local foods in an umu (our second umu experience of the week) was uniquely special; one we still think about and cherish.

 

Navigating the Island —  As there is really only one primary road [Route 1] that winds east-west and sticks mostly to the southern edge of the island, navigating the island of Tutuila isn’t too difficult.  The airport is about one third of the way in from the western end of the island; the city center of Pago Pago and the National Park are about two thirds in; you access ‘Aunu’u from the eastern end — check out a Google Map.  There are a few other inward roads [Route 5, Route 6] that lead up into more remote little villages up from the coastal road, but these felt almost private and there was really no good reason to go up into them other than to see what life in those little villages is like — i.e. no cafes, shops, restaurants anywhere other than along Route 1.  We are walkers so found the ~2k|20-minute walk into Pago Pago very easy from our hotel.  Sadie’s has a shuttle van that took us to/from the airport, and when available (which it mostly was), to other destinations like the park’s trail head and some coastline destinations.

Aigas are the little buses that help islanders get around the island.  They are not really buses as we know them; they’re actually locally-converted trucks with a cab & some seats atop the truck bed area, but they’re great fun and island visitors need to experience at least one ride in them.  Some aigas are fancier and nicer than others, but all will take you “somewhere” on the island.  There’s no printed schedule or map of where each goes — just the village name on the front windshield [but that didn’t really help us as we had no idea of where these small villages were!] — and it didn’t appear that they were on a set time schedule.  We’d simply go stand by the sign that indicated a stop, and when a bus pulled over that was heading in the general direction of where we were going (basically east-ish on Route 1 or west-ish on Route 1), we’d pay the nominal fee and hop on.  We felt very safe on the few we took, if not all that entirely comfortable as some of them were pretty old and didn’t have much padding!  But they were, indeed, fun, and everyone was very nice to us and helped us get to our destination, for we clearly stood out as tourists!  Aigas were a really fun way to observe the locals riding with us.

 

Overall — We really enjoyed our time in American Samoa!  We researched in advance as best as we could, but unlike many of our other JollyOutThere adventures, we didn’t have very many of our logistics nailed down when we arrived at this far-away place.  But from the moment we were greeted by our driver following a very long flight and late-night arrival at the airport to the time we were dropped off to fly back a week later, we had a most wonderful experience.  We enjoyed the laid-back island atmosphere.  We always felt safe.  We enjoyed meeting and interacting with all those who were helping us enjoy their island.  We appreciated the kind hospitality of everyone, particularly Tee and Tom of Sadie’s, the NPS rangers, and Pica/ Peter a village chief on ‘Aunu’u.  We loved the food and the weather and the views and the hiking and the island tales and everything else.  We approached our stay with a sense of adventure and with an “explorer’s spirit” as instructed, and because of this we were most genuinely rewarded with an awesome experience!

 

National Park of American Samoa

National Park of American Samoa our 59th and final national park!
Receiving our 59th park certificates from NPS Ranger Pua Tuaua

Our 59th and final park!If we didn’t save the best for last, we certainly saved one of the best for last!  Nearly two-and-a-half years after we began our journey to visit all of the national parks, we have finally visited our last one — The National Park of American Samoa.

This was our last park primarily because it was the most difficult to get to.  It is south of the equator in the South Pacific Ocean; closer to Australia than to the United States.  Hawaiian Airlines flies there just twice a week from Honolulu, so our routing took us from Los Angeles to Honolulu for an overnight, and then on to Pago Pago [pronounced PAHNG-oh PAHNG-oh] the next day.  Elapsed travel time to reach this island chain was just over 24 hours for us, 12 of which were in the air.  Clearly, traveling to this national park requires commitment!

Because we had some difficulty trying to find out how to best visit this final park, I am going to provide more logistical details in this post for those readers who plan to tackle American Samoa at some point.  In fact, I will write two separate posts — this first one will focus on the geography and our experience in the park itself; the second one will share more of the fun, cultural things we did during our week-long stay in American Samoa, and provide some hopefully helpful information and links for travelers who plan to make the trip here themselves in their own quests to visit all 59 [at the time of this blog post] of our incredible national parks.

Samoa IslandsHistory and Geography — The Samoan Islands are part of Polynesia, and while they have been populated for over 3,000 years, they have only been known to the western world for a little more than two centuries.  Samoa is referred to as the Heart of the South Pacific, and it is believed to be where all Polynesian people originated.

The Samoan archipelago includes the independent nation of Samoa (formerly called Western Samoa) and American Samoa, a US territory approximately 60 miles to the east.  While both share a common language and culture, each has distinct natural features, and fun fact: because the international dateline separates these two nations, American Samoa is one hour earlier than Hawaii and Samoa is one entire day earlier.

Matafao Peak, at 2,142 feet, is the tallest peak on Tutuila
Matafao Peak, at 2,142 feet, is the tallest peak on Tutuila

American Samoa consists of seven primary islands: five rugged, highly eroded volcanic remnants and two uninhabited coral atolls.  Visitors fly in to Pago Pago [airport code PPG] which is located on Tutuila [too-too-EE-lah], the main island, and this is where most of the 70,000 residents of American Samoa make their homes.

The view from atop Mount Alava of Pago Pago Harbor
Pago Pago harbor and the villages of Pago Pago and Fagatogo as seen from the top of Mount Alava (which we climbed!)

Pago Pago Harbor is a collapsed volcanic caldera and it is one of the largest natural harbors in the South Pacific.  A steep mountainous spine runs the 20-mile length of the island with a few notable peaks including Tutuila’s tallest mountain, Matafao Peak (2,142′); Rainmaker Mountain (1,718′); and Mount ‘Alava (1,610’) looming over the harbor.  There are a couple of main villages with hotels (just four on Tutuila), restaurants (maybe a dozen, including two McDonalds that, like in mainland U.S., are a favorite of all the children), markets, office buildings, banks, etc., around the harbor, and then many smaller, more primitive villages scattered around the perimeter of the island.

National Park of American Samoa — The National Park of American Samoa consists of 9,500 acres, virtually all of which is rainforest, on three islands.  Tutuila is where the Visitor Center and the largest tract of park land can be found.  Ta’ū (tah-OO) and Ofu (OH-foo), 60 miles east of Tutuila, are sparsely populated islands where a couple of villages have only a few hundred people.  American Samoa’s tallest peak, Lata Mountain (3,170′) can be found on Ta’ū, and Ofu features sand beaches and coral reefs with a mountain backdrop.  In addition to the steep cliffs and rainforest area, another 4,000 acres of the park are offshore and under water.

Visitors to the National Park of American Samoa see land that is largely undeveloped, and the facilities found in most national parks are lacking here.  A few park information kiosks and placards can be found, but by and large, this park is enjoyed “with a bit of the explorer’s spirit” as the park brochure suggests.

NP of American Samoa Visitor Center
The Visitor Center – closed on this day, but we posed with the poster I made and came back on another day

As is always the case when we visit national parks, we attempted to make the Visitor Center our first stop, but after walking a mile from our hotel (in temperatures in the high 80’s and with lots of humidity) we saw the sign on the door that they were only open Mon-Fri from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.  But not to worry, we took photos of ourselves by the front door, then using our “explorer’s spirit” meandered around the town some and hopped on one of the “aigas” — the unscheduled buses (more about these in my second post) — to go explore around the town.

A couple of days later when we came back to the Visitor Center, we were very impressed with the educational content on display, and very pleased that a school with 5th – 8th graders had come on this day to learn more about the park on their island.  We engaged a bit with the students, and the teacher,  Faia’i Vaeao, and made a plan to stay in contact with all of them at the Peteli Academy.  And as a very nice surprise, once the rangers knew that this was our 59th park, they asked us if we could come back the next day as they would have something for us.  We obliged and were absolutely thrilled when Rangers Pua Tuaua and Pai Aukuso-Reopoamo presented us with special certificates proclaiming that we had been to all of the national parks!

I’ll conclude this first post by sharing some of the photos we took while hiking on one of the few trails in the park area; this one took us 3-1/2 miles up through the rainforest and along the ridge line to the top of Mount ‘Alava where we enjoyed incredible views of the island before hiking the 3-1/2 miles back down.  We were joined by several new friends we made at our hotel, Sadie’s By The Sea — I’ll be writing more about that in my next post; this one is long enough!

Unplanned Adventure in the Backcountry — a.k.a. “The Alaska Factor”

Disclaimer on the AAA website:   *While Alaska Alpine Adventures endeavors to follow our itineraries as written, odds are in fact slim that you actually will.  The expeditionary factors at play quite often compel our guides to deviate from the written itinerary.  Guide considerations could include weather conditions, group preference, individual ability, specific safety considerations, or unforeseeable circumstances; collectively what many have called “The Alaska Factor.”  Therefore we strongly suggest that you approach any adventure in Alaska with an open mind.

Open mind, indeed.  To adventure in Alaska.  We were certainly open to — in fact, looking forward to! — adventure when we signed up for our 12-day combination paddling/hiking trip with Alaska Alpine Adventures to visit our final two national parks in Alaska; Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve and Kobuk Valley National Park, both of which are above the Arctic Circle.  But so it started… with a bit of unplanned adventure that was more harrowing and heart-stopping than many might term “adventure.”

On Day 1 of our trip, our group of 12 — two very capable AAA guides plus 10 gung-ho guests, most of whom are endeavoring to see all of the national parks like we are which is undoubtedly why we all chose this more challenging trip — boarded three bush planes in Fairbanks and traveled 35 miles north of the Arctic Circle to Bettles, Alaska.  [When I say challenging, I do mean this is not for everyone.  Take the rigors of 80+ miles of paddling in Class II/II+/III whitewater (28 miles in one day was impressive for us novices if we do say so ourselves!), hiking on the semi-soft tundra, schlepping gear, nightly tent set-up and morning tent take-down, sleeping in a cozy tent on a thin pad when it doesn’t get dark and most of the nights what’s underneath that thin pad is a rock bar along the river, morning and evening kayak packing & unpacking, good food (thanks AAA, Nick and Sean!) but all served out of the same bowl and eaten with a spork which isn’t for everyone… and bundle all that up with rain showers for the first seven days but no bathing showers for 10 days which, for some, like me, is definitely a hardship and certainly a challenge!  Oh, and don’t even ask about the steps you take when nature calls!!]

But back to Bettles… with a population of 12; seemingly a few more during the summer “tourist” (HA!) season, Bettles is just a little airstrip left behind after World War II that is now used as a commercial air strip.  From here folks launch into the backcountry of the Brooks Range above the Arctic Circle.  It is also home to the Gates of the Arctic NP Visitor Center and backcountry check-in office, so NP passport stamps for all of us in our books plus permits to be in the backcountry and route filed with the park service in case of any emergencies — so far, so good.

Our itinerary called for us to get to Bettles on wheel planes, then truck about a mile over to the lake and board float planes to continue our journey on to Pingo Lake.  Pingo is at the headwaters of the Noatak River on the east side of the park and serves as the place from which we launch the paddling part of our journey.  But recall AAA’s note about itineraries… odds are, in fact, slim that you [will actually follow the itinerary.] Continue reading

The True Northernmost Extreme Point: Barrow, Alaska

Barrow, the top of the worldWhen we started planning our return visit to Alaska, we knew that in addition to visiting our final two national parks up there we also had to trek to Barrow, Alaska.  Why?  Because our visit to the previous “northernmost city” in Minnesota [see Northwest Angle post] had an asterisks behind it — it was only the northernmost city in the contiguous United States.  If we wanted to make the claim that we visited the true northernmost place in the whole of the U.S. on this road trip (which we did/do!) then we had to trek all the way up to Barrow, Alaska; for Barrow is the true northernmost north point — the ‘Top of the World’ as they claim.

Barrow is 330 miles above the Arctic Circle; it’s right on the edge of the Arctic Ocean where the Chukchi and Beaufort seas meet.  It’s the undisputed northernmost city in the U.S.; the ninth northernmost city in the entire world.

Barrow is so far north that trees can’t grow up here.  One of the photos I’ve shared below shows an interesting perspective of this native village as we approached it from the air, and you can see how flat all of this land on the North Slope is — it’s permafrost underneath tundra that’s covered with snow for much of the year.  Barrow is not on the road system; the only way to get up here is via plane, barge, or an ice road in the wintertime.  Incidentally, said barge (also in the photo mosaic below) makes just one trip per year, bringing goods people order and need to have shipped up here in shipping containers — trucks, 4-wheelers, non-perishable food, etc.  Then once the natives empty out their containers, they use them for additional storage for their households.  Photos also show a lot of re-purposed shipping containers dotting the village.

Nighttime in Barrow, AK
11 o’clock at night in Barrow and still lots of light.  Note the lack of grass and trees.  See also the roads — asphalt would get too warm in the summertime and destroy the permafrost just below the surface, so roads are gravel and kick up a lot of dirt.

Locals all seem to bring their cargo limit of three 50# containers every time they come up here
Locals bring their cargo limit of 150# every time they come up to Barrow

As we checked in at the Anchorage airport for our flight up to Barrow, we were a bit befuddled when we first observed everyone with coolers and boxes of cold/frozen food that they were checking as their baggage.  My initial thought was why would they be coming down to Anchorage to fish and ship that all back up to their village which is right on the ocean?, for the Anchorage airport is full of people flying freshly-caught Alaskan fish back to the Lower 48.  But then we learned that it’s cheaper for Barrow residents to fly from Barrow to Anchorage when Alaska Airlines offers cheap fares, purchase food there (there are two Costco’s in Anchorage that are wildly popular), then bring their limit of 150 pounds of cargo (three 50# containers are allowed per person) with them on their flight back to Barrow.  And that now makes sense to us after a visit to the AC Co. store, which carries everything from basic groceries to Carhartts, from sofas to housewares.  Let me tell you, food up there is E-X-P-E-N-S-I-V-E!  Transportation costs are the primary drivers, and short-shelf-life items are particularly pricey.  A gallon of milk will run you about $16; a very small pineapple flashed a price of $10.39; a 5-pound bag of carrots will set you back $14.39; and 1.75 gallons of Tide detergent (slightly bigger than what Costco offers) costs a whopping $58.99!  We wondered how people could afford to live up here and pondered the paradoxical notion that these Iñupiat natives, of all folks, could arguably least afford such outlandish prices.

Laura & Fred at Whale Bone Arch in Barrow, AKOur Top of the World hotel offered a 4-hour tour, lead by a lovely Iñupiat native.  Seven of us joined in, stopping to see the icons of Barrow including the Whale Bone Arch, the school, the Iñupiat Heritage Center, the big blue football field [made possible because of a very generous benefactor from Florida who saw that this eager team had no field and instead was having to play on the rocky, sandy Arctic road; ESPN profiled this story – check it out:  E-Ticket: Save The Whalers], and several other spots.  We had the opportunity to take a true Polar Bear Plunge in the Arctic Ocean, but passed — I was happy enough just feeling the cold water with my hand; Fred braved a short wade in the waters for a photo op then quickly got out of the frigid sea.

Fun fact: when the sun sets here in just a couple of months (around the 18th or 19th of November), it doesn’t rise again for 65 days.

Here are a few more facts about Barrow:

§  Barrow is the 8th coldest place in the world to live — the lowest recorded temperature is -56ºF

§  On average, Barrow’s high temperature is above freezing only 120 days per year, while temperatures are at or below zero 160 days per year

§  Barrow has around 4,200 residents, most of them native Iñupiat whose ancestors have lived here for over 1,500 years

§  Native Iñupiat survive largely by hunting whales, seals, polar bears, walrus, waterfowl, caribou, and catching fish from the Arctic Ocean

§  Scientists say the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, and Barrow has been called “ground zero” for climate-change science

Here are some photos from our visit to the very unique place that is Barrow, Alaska:

If you click on a photo, you can see a larger version of it.  You can also use the arrows at the bottom (click on the photo if they disappear on you) to scroll through all the photos in the photo series.  To close the series, click on the ‘X’ in the top right corner.



These photos are from the wonderful Iñupiat Heritage Center, one of the stops along our Barrow tour:

While our visit to Barrow was a short 24 hours, I think we packed in all that we could, short of joining one of the more than 40 whale crews to pursue a Bowhead whale or row out to the ice floats to see polar bears.  [For the record, the ice was still 10+ miles off the shoreline, and so, too, the polar bears.]  Happily, we can now claim unequivocally that we have been to the true northernmost north of the United States!

North Dakota, our 50th State!

Nebraska - our 50th state!

Yesterday was a milestone for us — we made it to our 50th state!  As I mentioned on my Facebook post, it’s been 2 years, 1 month and 18 days of life on the road for us, and finally we tallied our 50th and last state.  We’re getting very close to completing our goal of visiting all 59 national parks.  We’re currently at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the Badlands of North Dakota which is park #53 — just six more to go!

The Last Show

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That’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.          

Garrison Keillor – A Prairie Home Companion

The memories sometimes find their way out…I am five years old lying on a sofa in the front room of my grandparents’ farm house drifting off to sleep and faintly hear my grandmother mention her friend Verna and that they would be going to the church bizarre on Saturday…I am playing in the barn with my brothers at the homestead making believe that an old furnace that is stored in the barn is a submarine…I am singing Silent Night at the end of the Christmas Eve service at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church…I sit in the baseball stands at the Chenoa Park watching my father walk across the infield toward the Crosley that he will drive in the 4th of July parade for the last time later that day…my mother is frosting chocolate drop cookies in the kitchen of our farm house…I’m looking at a photo of my grandfather and my uncles standing in front of a team of horses pulling a wagon full of corn…I think of my grandfather right before he died drifting in and out of consciousness mumbling about his two Belgian workhorses, Brownie and Jack…As I listen to the show on the radio, the memories sometimes find their way out.  

I think that it is mostly the stories and the voice. Oh, there is certainly a wonderful variety of music: folk, bluegrass, blues, classical and others. There is also a great deal of humor, none of which is off-color, just good, clean comedy. Sometimes there is poetry. In a throwback to times gone by, there are even sound effects generated by a single individual working frantically at a small table. But it is the stories and the voice that draw out the memories and take me back to moments now residing in the deep recesses of my mind.

On July 1, 2016 Garrison Keillor made his final appearance as host of the radio program, A Prairie Home Companion. Normally broadcast live on Saturday evening, this show was actually performed and recorded on Friday night and was then broadcast on Saturday evening at its usual time. After 42 years of writing and hosting the show that he created so many years ago he is turning the show over to the next generation and freeing up his weekends. For those who have not listened to the show, A Prairie Home Companion, and Keillor’s weekly monologue in particular, is about my hometown, Chenoa, Illinois. OK, not really, but it could be about Chenoa or just about any other small Midwest town.

The show is performed live and is like an old-time variety radio program with various types of music, comedy skits, poetry every now and then, and Keillor’s monologue about life in a fictitious town in Minnesota called Lake Wobegon. He talks about the quirky personalities who reside in the small town, about those who gather at the Chatterbox Café, the Sidetrack Tap, the local Lutheran Church, potlucks, school plays, farmers and farming, and just about everything that you might experience in a town like my hometown. While the various characters in his monologues tend to be Norwegian, they could just as easily be of German ancestry with names like Jacobs, Rhoda and Wahls. If you can imagine a radio program from the 1940’s, then you have a pretty good sense of what the show is like. Keillor’s inspiration for the show was a Grand Ole Opry performance in 1973 that he listened to through a window of the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville because he could not get a ticket to the show.

I have listened to the radio program on Saturday evenings on various NPR stations since the early 80’s, but had never seen it live, something that I always wanted to do. And so I would have one last chance and decided that the one show that I would see in person would be his last show, the one at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. Just a few minor hitches: we did not have tickets for what would be a much anticipated show; we did not have a place to stay in LA; and we were currently in Arizona and would have to somehow get to LA for the show, while making our way into Colorado where our next stops would be.

Laura, the Chief Logistics Officer on this trip, was not terribly happy with me for changing our itinerary, as she had made reservations at Rocky Mountain National Park over the very popular Fourth of July weekend months in advance, and now I was not just going to throw a monkey wrench into the works, but the whole darn toolbox. After some major cajoling, I got her to buy in on a plan that would take us to the Denver area where we could leave Charley and fly to LA for the show. I was also able to find a couple of tickets on a secondary market and secured a hotel room at a place that is a 10-minute walk from the Hollywood Bowl. We were set.       

Attending the show that evening at the Hollywood Bowl with more than 17,000 other fans was indeed worth the 30+ year wait. Our seats were close to the stage so we could see everything that went into the live performance, and Keillor does indeed wear many hats. Besides creating the show and hosting it, he writes it each week, is a humorist, sings beautifully, is a political commentator, and writes original songs for most shows and then sings them. Wearing a somewhat rumpled linen suit, his trademark red shoes and red tie, it was fascinating to watch how intently he focused on the task at hand, glasses sliding down to the very end of his nose and haphazardly dropping pages of the script to the stage floor after he read them.

He is also a combination of director and conductor, roaming around the stage as others perform and occasionally stepping in to provide harmony; gesturing to two fiddle players that he wants them to play an impromptu duet; talking to the technician on the sound board during a fellow performer’s solo. The man without a baton keeps the swirl of activity moving so seamlessly, that listening to the show and not seeing it one might think that everyone is fixed in their position on stage and simply waits for their turn to perform.

With a few exceptions, Keillor’s final show was pretty much void of sentimentality and a long goodbye. In listening to or watching the program, if you were not aware of the significance of the evening, you would think that this were just another Saturday evening production. There was no string of stars who would appear in the final show, only his usual cast. There were no elaborate gifts like a motorcycle, or a car, or some exotic trip that we have come to expect when sports stars or entertainment personalities retire. There were only a couple of nods to the specialness of the event: Keillor wrote a wonderful farewell note that was distributed to those in attendance; and the other acknowledgement was a call from President Obama during the show. Even then Keillor kept turning the conversation back to the President and appeared uncomfortable hearing the kind things that the President was saying about him.

When his longtime cast members attempted to convey their sentiments, he politely brushed the compliments aside and moved on. There were no hugs or handshakes, just the show. Finally, after the show had concluded and they were no longer doing the radio program, he came back from the wings, walked to the front of the stage for a curtain call of sorts, and began to sing a collection of six songs acapella with the audience singing along that seemed to be chosen in the moment, that ranged from “Happy Trails” to “The Doxology” to “Can’t Help Falling In Love.” He appropriately finished with the Amen Chorus, took a shallow bow, said thank you, and then walked off into the darkness at the edge of the stage.

I will miss him on Saturday nights. While the show will continue with another host, it will be much more musically oriented and we will no longer hear the voice or the stories. The voice that is so perfect for radio: a wonderful baritone, smoooooth, evenly paced delivery, but most importantly, calming. When I listen to the show the voice resonates deep within me and I can actually feel myself relax. And his stories about life in a small Midwest farming community so perfectly lend themselves to the easy way in which they are told. These stories about local farmers, or the Lutheran Church, or the 4th of July parade, or his aunts and uncles, draw out of me wonderful memories of family, friends and growing up in Chenoa. Regardless of where I might be, when I listened to the show I am back there again, on the family farm outside of a small town in central Illinois, playing with my brothers in the barn, sitting outside on a warm summer’s eve talking with Mom and Dad, or having dinner with my grandparents.

With all of the craziness whirling around us in today’s world, it was nice every now and then to step out of life and transport myself to Lake Wobegon. A place on the edge of the prairie, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and the children are above average.” Yes, I will miss him.

Photos from our evening with Garrison Keillor and A Prairie Home Companion at the Hollywood Bowl are below.

If you click on a photo, you can see a larger version of it.  You can also use the arrows at the bottom (click on the photo if they disappear on you) to scroll through all the photos in a photo set.  The sets are arranged to be viewed from the upper left corner across. To close a photo set, click on the ‘X’ in the top right corner.


GARRISON KEILLOR’S LAST SHOW



A Night At The Races

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Every son quotes his father, in words and in deeds.

                Terri Guillemets

It is as Americana as apple pie, weekend football games and election cycles that never really end. At this time of year roll through almost any small town with a dirt track on a Friday or Saturday evening and you will almost certainly hear the screaming sound of race cars tearing around a tight oval. That is what folks do for entertainment when the Friday night lights of football are dim. You load up the car with the family, drive to the local track, which is typically at the fairgrounds, pay a nominal admission fee, settle into the stands, and prepare to be entertained for the next three to four hours. All in all, one of the best deals going.

In late June we found ourselves in Cortez, Colorado, in the southwest part of the state, with nothing really to do on a warm Friday evening, but that would soon change. You see there are county fairgrounds located on the outskirts of Cortez with a 3/8th of a mile dirt track just waiting to accommodate drivers who wish to prove that they are the fastest in the land, or at least the fastest in this part of Colorado. Laura decided to take a pass on the races, but I loaded up some camera equipment and made my way to the track in advance of the start to the racing at sunset.

My late father loved watching racing, any kind of racing: stock cars, Indy cars, dragsters, sprint cars, sports cars, motorcycles – like I said, any kind of racing. When I was growing up in central Illinois, my father would often load up my three brothers and me in our station wagon on a Saturday evening and we would head to the nearby Fairbury Fairgrounds where there resided a quarter mile of dirt oval that drew some of the best drivers from the area. Sometimes my Uncle Cappie would come with us. Mom would typically stay at home, needing a break from the aforementioned four young boys.

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Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde NPMesa Verde National Park was established in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt as our nation’s seventh national park.  It was created to preserve ancient Ancestral Pueblo culture and prehistoric architecture that dates back from A.D. 550 to A.D. 1300.  As I mentioned in my last post, we have seen a lot of ancient Native American dwellings lately, but none hold a candle to Mesa Verde — it’s a very special national park, indeed.

Fred & Laura at Long House
Fred and I touring Long House while trying to avoid the sun

There are some 4,500 archaeological sites that are known to exist within Mesa Verde including pithouses, pueblos, masonry towers, and farming structures, but it is the large, beautiful cliff dwellings that are the big draw to this park.  Most of the smaller sites aren’t even visible with a typical visit to Mesa Verde (the exception being some pit houses that have been excavated and are featured along one of the scenic routes), but drives across the two main accessible mesas take visitors down to the five main attractions.  Cliff House, Long House, and Balcony House are accessible only via ranger-led tours; Step House is visited on a self-guided tour.  Spruce Tree House can presently only be viewed from across the canyon as a rock slide has forced this normally self-guided area to be closed for safety concerns.

Laura & Fred in Long House
Laura & Fred in Long House

While there is some hiking in this park, it is limited to protect the fragile archaeological sights from damage, thus all our hiking was done through the ranger-led and permissible self-guided tours.  That turned out alright, though, because the scorching heat that was present every day we were here was a big deterrent for wanting to take a big long hike anyway.

The ancient dwellings protected here in the national park represent over 700 years of life in Mesa Verde (Spanish translation: “green table” — a reference to the forested flat-topped part of the larger Colorado Plateau) and there is most certainly evidence of evolution in the ancestral Puebloan peoples’ time here.  From the early period of the “basketmakers” who lived in pithouses for the first 200 or so years through to the final 100 years when the large cliff dwellings were built, advancements clearly came about over time.  Pithouses evolved to kivas, then multi-story brick structures.  Building materials evolved from mud to stone and brick.

If you click on a photo, you can see a larger version of it.  You can also use the arrows at the bottom (click on the photo if they disappear on you) to scroll through all the photos in the photo series.  To close the series, click on the ‘X’ in the top right corner.

Developmental Pueblo people diaorama - wonderful!
Incredible diorama – one of five in the museum – created in the 1930s/40s by WPA workers

In addition to visiting the pithouses and cliff dwellings, the [air-conditioned!] Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum was a wonderful place to take in the park movie and learn more about the history and culture of these peoples who built their homes in the cliffs and lived off the mesas.  Through some wonderful older exhibits and displays, we learned all about how they planted their corn, squash and beans atop the mesas, gathered a variety of edible and useful plants nearby, and hunted their wild animals in the surrounding areas.  They made ingenious tools from stone, wood, and bone, and over time they became prolific potters.  Over time, too, they acquired the bow and arrow which was more efficient for hunting and replaced the old atlatl, an ancient type of spear thrower.

Also in the museum was an incredible set of five dioramas depicting the evolution of these ancient Puebloan peoples.  These detailed scenes were made back in the 1930s and ’40s by participants in the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the artist in me particularly liked seeing these marvelous works of art made so long ago.  I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Visitor Center at the entrance to the park.  That one, too, housed more modern displays of the life and times of the ancient Puebloan people who are remembered and admired here in Mesa Verde National Park.