The last evening (June 26) in Loveland Colorado after a week visiting family in this small Rocky Mountain Front Range town--enjoying the sunsets over the Rockies, quiet strolls down back streets, chats in cafes, writing in the library, biking down country roads to see horses (and bison) lolling in green pastures (see more photos in my FLICKR albums) and, unfortunately, observing with alarm and concern the social, economic and even ecological distress brought on by the Great Recession we are all living through--particularly in the small towns “left behind”.
Read more in my earlier blog of June 28 about the impacts of the “real estate crisis” on many of us personally and other towns we’ve visited—see “Sold our house and can now move on with life”. Later I share my some speculative thoughts on the stresses “tearing at our national social and economic fabric” at this time in America. This has become a major theme of my thinking on this trip--I ask, who or what institutions will be the Roosevelt for this era and would we even give him/them the chance of fixing things? The way both extremes (liberal and conservative) are going after each other right now—and President Obama--I would wonder if even the “Angel Gabriel” could get people to come together and find practical solutions for America instead of seeking individual or party-political gain!
Are these feelings just reverse “culture shock” from someone just back from a truly poor and troubled country—the DRC (Congo)—or is it part of the normal process of mental rebalancing that must take place with any major life change, i.e. moving cross-country, becoming a grandparent and “empty-nester”, changing jobs or careers, retiring, losing a pet or losing a lot of money in the residential real estate crisis? Or is there more happening today in America that I (and maybe all of you) should think about? Maybe all of the above…more later!
On the Road Again:
Great Overland Trail--a branch of the Great Platte River Road that parallels the South Platte River from Denver to eventually join-up with what is now Interstate 80 near Julesburg and North Platte, Nebraska where the north and south branches of the Platte River meet.
This is a route that closely parallels the famous Oregon Trail and is central, in my view, to understanding who we have become today in America—these are the “core roots” of our nation of emigrants! Our intermediate destination was to be Lincoln Nebraska (again to visit family) then eventually to Ontario Canada where we planned to attend the Toronto Festival of Tall Ships that was to occur over the 4th of July weekend, and to meet old friends and colleagues from Rwanda Africa (more on this later)—see Mudende Kids Reunion Album on Facebook. But first, back to our road trip and my experiences, impressions, and speculations…please bear with me and feel free to critique and suggest improvements!
The Fine Arts and Coping with Life’s Bitter Lemons on the High Plains:
Now, as I promised myself (and my readers) we’ve been taking the “byways and side-roads” off-the-Interstate whenever possible. The first such foray after leaving Loveland was into the small town of Sterling Colorado on the High Plains where we visited the Overland Trail Museum. It reminded me how much the technology of agriculture and everything else in America has changed in the last century and particularly the last sixty years since World War II and the Korean War--how many even recognize that it has been sixty years since that latter conflict started.
One reason for choosing Sterling was because over twenty years ago we had driven through this town and remembered the wonderful wooden carvings made out of old elm tree-stumps we had seen there. We wondered if they still exist and were pleasantly surprised to find that some of those wood carvings still remain—but in the public library and city hall. Furthermore several of the sculptors have become quite famous, but now use bronze castings as their medium, e.g. Bradford Rhea.
In our search to find the carvings we encountered a single mother and daughter—out mowing their front yard lawn along a typical quiet tree-lined street--who were recent migrants from the Los Angeles. They told us how and where to find the bronze statues today, and they cued us to the pros and cons of “life in small town Colorado”—particularly as “outsiders”. Things have not changed much in these places—it is always hard to be accepted unless you’ve been there for generations! Nevertheless, it was consoling to find another wanderlust Californian building a life in this small place--and we found the sculptures as well.
See the photo of the four giraffes (left)—this work particularly attracted me because of my recent return from doing conservation work with real animals—Grauer’s and Mountain Gorillas--in East/Central Africa and where I had enjoyed the pleasure of seeing giraffes in the wild, i.e. Murchison Falls National Park Uganda (see FLICKR Photo Album - Uganda)—see photos below.
By the way, we had also found great sculpture in Loveland Colorado the week before where annually the Loveland High Plains Arts Council’s organizes an internationally acclaimed Sculpture in the Park Show. The winning submissions become part of the “townscape” and thus add a level of beauty, culture, and fine art to this small town that is amazing and gratifying--see the sculpture in front of the Loveland City Library (below)--there are many others in the Benson Sculpture Garden. Who would have known? And it is one of the prime reasons I will return to Loveland on the next leg of my road trip to attend the contest (August 7-8, 2010).
It was heartwarming to find that even in hard times people of all socio-economic levels, political persuasions, religions--and fortunes or misfortunes—can unite around great art and remind themselves that the finer things of the spirit are even more enduring and important in our lives than the temporary setbacks we all experience related to money, adjustments to human failings of all types, and coping with human-created calamities such as “under-water” mortgages, rising taxes, and the “downers” of the “business cycle”!
In my follow-up research online about Bradford Rhea I found a great quote by him that really touched me and which has stimulated a lot of thought and reflection—it has helped me adjust and cope better.
He said: “…the process of sculpture, particularly the subtractive method, is similar to the irrevocability of our daily lives. Every decision you make, you must live with. It is this unforgiving nature of the sculpting process that intensifies my passion for sculpture-Bradford Rhea
That statement is so true! I just hope I can learn to reconcile with all the decisions (good and bad) I’ve made in life—and what others have made that impact my life particularly those I have no control over-- and learn to live with them, and be as happy as I can—then move on! Hopefully this road trip and blogging will help me to sort through some of the difficult issues and events we all encounter!
The story of the sculptures reminded me of an important “lesson for these times”--recall that the original sculptures by Bradford and others in Sterling were first carved out of old Elm tree stumps along the streets of Sterling when they had to be cut down after Dutch Elm disease decimated many stately tree-lined streets across North America a few years back.
But instead of lamenting that catastrophe some were able to “carve beauty out of tree stumps” and could help become part of the healing community experience needed for our times--it remind us all that even the most difficult of times will pass and we can “either make lemonade from lemons” or carve great art from dying trees!
Traversing through the Great American Desert to the Heartland and East Coast:
I’ve taken this route over twenty years ago in a U-Haul truck--so did my great-great-Grandfather Nineveh Ford back in 1843 but in a covered wagon. And like the early pioneers and many travelers today there is so much to see for those who are observant, though the cues can be subtle. This landscape is best seen and experienced from the ground, in my opinion, taking time to stop and absorb it--not whizzing through on Interstate 80 or worse jetting over at night through this much maligned flyover country.
As previously stated (June 28 Blog) I love taking the “slow road” through these wide-open spaces where the sky extends forever; there is time for thought and reflection except for the real threats of bodily harm coming from the hordes of MAMMOTH semi tractor-trailer trucks that now dominate traffic on interstate highways.
Yet on the open plains it was fun to again look for the clues to indicators of the lands' resources, its geological history, and human transformations expressed in settlement and land tenure patterns and even architecture, e.g. seeing where the water points are, noting the gridded layout of streets, farms, country roads, townships, —all the “human artifacts--that explain how both the Native Americans and the later sodbusters survived in this hostile environment!
For the earliest Anglo pioneers--including Nineveh Ford--the shortgrass prairies or “steppes” of western Nebraska and eastern Colorado were the Great American Desert—a swath of territory to be avoided at all costs—but there was no getting around it so they “rushed” though--in Nineveh’s day that trip took months! My ancestor’s goal was to get to Walla Walla Washington with Marcus Whitman which became part of the Oregon Territory (see more on the virtual tour entitled: Land and Life on the North American Prairie).
Today’s rushed interstate traveler can speed through this region in a few hours also trying to avoid experiencing the drier portions of the High Plains—a boring, arid wasteland to the untrained eye and thanks to “air conditioning” which keeps most travelers from experiencing what they are seeing! But, if one bothers to look more perceptively they might see beyond the few range cattle clustering around the cute old-fashioned windmills or huddled under the scattered trees in the river bottomlands seeking relief from the heat and dry desiccating winds—they would see that there is a very compelling history here that explains a lot about us!
Platte River which today’s roughly parallels Interstate 80 as did the earlier Oregon Trail--was famously described by the early “49ers” as being “too thick to drink, too thin to plow” and the short-grass prairies or steppes were largely ignored by most settlers until well after the Civil War—in the 1870-80s. This was largely due to mis-perceptions of its value--the Great American Desert idea--and fear of the Indians as well as lack of services such as railroads, banks, schools, energy, and other essentials of a vibrant rural economy.
Recall the story portrayed so well by Kevin Kostner in the movie Dances with Wolves; the Plains Indians’ way of life was inextricably linked with the necessity for unimpeded access to the free ranging buffalo (bison) roaming the prairies up to the 1880s. Eventually, when the Indians were seen by outsiders as impeding progress--a deliberate policy to eradicate the buffalo began which had its intended effect—the destruction of their free-ranging way of life. This was by any point of view today a truly dark deed perpetuated by men on all sides during the Indian Wars of the 1880-90s i.e. remember Custer’s Last Stand and Wounded Knee. It is easy for us in our “PC-conscious way” to say we would not behave that way today.
But I wonder if we’d really do better? How many of us are willing to “get our way” over the backs of the less powerful, more vulnerable members of society when our own perceived interests are at stake? It might be worth trying to avoid the smugness that comes with making judgments about past events and the actors involved—by even our own ancestors! It was enlightening and humbling to me personally to learn a few years back that my own ancestor (Nineveh Ford) participated in the posse that tracked down and attacked Chief Joseph—leader of the Nez Perce Indians--in their famous 1877 retreat to Canada. In fact, his obituary is very telling of that period--it was said of him at his death in 1897 - ”Nineveh Ford was a good Democrat and no ‘injun’-lover”!
What do I learn from this dark episode for today? As I listen to talk radio on my road trip (see my blog entitled “The Role of Radio in Flyover Country”—June 28) I also hear sharp, divisive, discordant and discomfiting discussions about “who is to blame” for our current economic crisis--that makes me wonder if we could also “behave badly today”? I hope not for all our sakes!
But, in spite of the “downsides” of the westward expansion and its history, there are also great stories of heroism, hard work, by peoples from all over the world—Chinese, Irish, freed slaves and many others--who “worked on the railroads” and staked-out the homesteads made possible by the Homestead Act of President Lincoln in 1862. It was through their herculean efforts that finally put in place the framework for connecting the Great Plains “desert” region to the rest of the US, as well as establishing the famous gridded settlement pattern that is so obvious as one crosses the plains today—something not seen anywhere else in the world.
But before the Civil War interrupted the final settling of this region, there was another historic episode worth recounting--particularly since this year commemorates its 150th Anniversary—that of the Pony Express. We did stop briefly in Gothenberg, Nebraska on our road trip to see one of the original Pony Express stations. Unfortunately, we barely missed the “re-enactment” by the National Pony Express Association’s annual Re-Ride over the 1,966 mile route from California to Missouri, June 6 to 26, 2010. This very ingenious entrepreneurial attempt to open-up the west with communications—creating “connectivity” as we would say today--unfortunately coincided with the beginning of the Civil War. So the attempt failed from a business perspective though it was a brilliant success as a source of legend and myth in our culture history and it laid the foundation for other innovations that did finally succeed.
North Platte Nebraska) we also learned about the exploits of probably the Pony Express’ most famous rider—Buffalo Bill Cody--and later entrepreneur, teller-of-tall-tales, giant-killer of the buffalo, mythic western scout for the cavalry, Indian fighter, and later entertainer, i.e. co-founder of the Ringling Brothers’ Greatest Show on Earth. In many respects Buffalo Bill was the quintessential American of his era!
Visiting the Fort Cody Museum in North Platte (as I mentioned in my blog of June 28) was a fascinating distraction though it has become in some respects a classic “tourist trap”—see photos below. Unfortunately, one of the very sad commentaries about Buffalo Bill Cody was evident in some of the exhibits, i.e. his role in both killing-off the Buffalo and retributions carried out in the name of avenging “Custer’s Last Stand on the Little Big Horn” against the Sioux Indians led by Chief Sitting Bull.
See photo of the book cover extolling Buffalo Bill’s taking scalps to avenge Custer; in later years he did reconcile with Chief Sitting Bull another legend of the Indian Wars who fought on the opposition side.
The story of Buffalo Bill Cody and others like him, should remind us that even our greatest icons—and all of us--are flawed human beings and ours (and their actions) must be interpreted in the light of time and place!
With end of the Civil War and the enactment of the Homestead Act by President Lincoln the Great American Desert was finally settled by the so-called Sod-busters. Yet, even with the advent of the railroads, telegraph, and the end of the Indian Wars, life in this region was no picnic! Daily survival of homesteaders in the late 1880-90s on the short-grass prairie was at its best a humbling, backbreaking, heart-wrenching struggle with loneliness, sickness, heat, freakish weather, economic panics, and constant threats to life and limb from man, beast and tornadoes—and later the Dustbowl of the 1930s.
Lillian (Shafer) Ford's family were German immigrants to central Kansas in the 1890s—part of the “last great wave" of European migration. Typical of the period and economic necessity they had to raise their own labor. So it was no surprise Lillian was 14th of fifteen children and one of the first of her family to make it to college. She attended Walla Walla College around 1913 in eastern Washington where she met and married my Grandfather Orley Ford in 1917--grandson of Nineveh Ford.
Palouse grasslands of eastern Washington (south of Pullman WA) still exists—but the old grain elevator is now gone. And most of my ancestors--like so many sodbusters after the disastrous Dustbowl of the 1930’s and in some cases earlier—left once thriving settlements to the cities, i.e. Lincoln and Omaha Nebraska or even as far away as Bakersfield California. One of the sights that saddens me most as I travel the Interstate today is to see so many old farms, barns, schools and even whole communities disappearing into the grasslands—the vestiges of our past settlement history is rapidly being swallowed up by 21st century restructuring of both how we work and live and where!
Thankfully in today’s energy-starved economy—the devil winds of the Dust bowl that drove out thousands of the Okies--find their corny windmills being replaced by industrial-scale wind turbine farms that suggest the opening of a new era of economic progress for this erstwhile desert region. May this trend prosper and continue! Yet even this change is seen by some as something to fight over--see the photo below of a political bumper sticker I saw in Toronto basically saying NIMBY—“Not In My Back Yard”! Where is the spirit of those early pioneers today who believed first in “working for the common good” and solving their problems together even when it wasn’t “their personal preference”?
But it is no easy task to learn to as a community cooperate across ideological, political, ethnic, and even class and religious barriers that separate us. Though the choices often can be difficult to work through it is always better when we do it in a collaborative manner—as many of our forefathers were forced to do!
Will the new wind turbine economy of the future—and other changes that will surely come--renew both the economy and revive the social structure of these small places on the Great Plains? I hope so!
On this leg of our trip we were not able to visit the Homestead National Monument of America—but it is on my agenda for the return trip later this summer. Every American needs to take their kid there and learn--we’re all “pansies” compared to what the sodbusters endured.
Remembering some of the Iconic Movies, Actors, and Literature of the Great Plains:
The saga of the early pioneers who settled the Great American Desert along the Platte River—instead of going on to Oregon--is the source of some of our greatest literature and even movies and TV series—some have become classics. The prairies were, in my view, the crucible that explains our American character and history—it is who we really are—both the good and bad. Let’s take time to remember and not forget the difficult but important lessons of that past?
Some of the most enduring examples of literary attempts to understand and explain us as an emigrant people—all of us including the Native Americans--include: Little House on the Prairie a loose adaptation of Laura Ingalls Wilder's best-selling series of Little House books and Centennial--first a novel by American author James A. Michener published in 1974 and later a TV movie miniseries. Centennial traces the history of the plains of northeast Colorado and is based on a fictional town by the same name but which was in actuality based on the real town of Greeley Colorado.
But, my all time favorite romantic film set in the Great Plains is The Bridges of Madison County—directed by Clint Eastwood. The plot and storyline and even the landscape reflect closely where I find myself at this point in life. So taking the “byway”—County Road G31--past classic old barns and schoolhouses and taking pictures of the enduring, beautiful covered bridges was the highpoint of my trip so far! Again, one can see in their engineering the ingenuity and communal effort necessary to solve a common problem…that is the important lesson for even today!
I’m not Clint Eastwood of course, but we’re all allowed to daydream—right? Clint has become, in my opinion, patron saint to all “would be and wanna-be” wanderlust footloose photographers, geographers, and writers. And of course in real life and fiction, the hero was a real photographer for non-other than the National Geographic Magazine—how COOL is that!
The heroine, of course, “Franchesca” played by Meryl Streep is the epitome of the “displaced emigrant”—all from somewhere else with links to “Old Countries” everywhere and never totally at home with “here” in America. But, for the fortunes of history, war, and love people like Francesca everywhere often find themselves “in love all over again” in and with the Heartland of America—in a small Prairie town in Iowa. But sad elements always intrude—we can late at night wonder and dream about “what could have been” if life’s little decisions had taken them down a different road. It is the stuff of dreaming that for most of us only plays out in our innermost thoughts—thankfully! Thanks Meryl—for bringing those feelings and thoughts to life that is the stuff our own modern mythology is made of.
Even more amazing and satisfying--when I visited the Madison County seat Winterset Iowa—was to learn that John Wayne another great “All-American movie icon” was born right there in Winterset as well. It was almost too good to be true! And while taking a photo of John’s statue a younger man walked up behind me saying: “Isn’t this great! My dad would kill me if I had not stopped by to pay homage to the man and legend”. He was another soul willing to get off the Interstate and explore—good for him!
Exploring the streets of Winterset helped me understand better who John Wayne was and why--even though politically I disagreed with much of his philosophy. But if you are an American at heart and birth--or by adoption--one cannot help but admire his love of country, the core values he lived by which informed his art and acting in ways that deeply impacted our culture. At heart John Wayne was always the boy from Winterset Iowa—an icon of small town “Main Street America”—not Wall Street!
So learning about three of our greatest American movie icons: John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep—all on the same day and in the same place—how lucky and fulfilling was that side trip!
Now I’m not saying we need to go back to that “Main Street Middle America” as if that was a "golden age". Rather, we need to apply those values to our own era—a new century for sure and new economic realities—but building on the past with confidence that we can go through this rough patch in American history.
tallgrass prairie” left in America—the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge and Prairie Learning Center near Prairie City Iowa just east of Des Moines—again on a side road.
We arrived late afternoon when the visitor center was closed, but were still able to drive through the refuge watching the setting-sun over the western prairie and observe up close some of the great bison that once roamed these prairies by the thousands! It was so peaceful and beautiful, and the flowers and grasses were at their peak after a wet spring…fantastic! Don’t miss this place if you can do it—it will take you back to what once was like nothing else could!
This time--going from west to east and stopping periodically to get away from the off-ramp gas stations, motel rows and other “tourist traps”—several impressions have begun to gel in my mind. Whether these are true for you or me probably depends on your view of this great land, your understanding of this time in our nation’s history, how you feel about these wide-open spaces, and what you think our interaction with these landscapes has done to form the very core of what it means to be an American. Here in brief are some interim conclusions—please feel free to critique my assessment.
On Technology and Co-existence with Nature—will it be Peaceful or Contentious?
Those of our non-Native American ancestors who traversed and then settled this great heartland, at first saw it as a “desert” or intractable wilderness to be conquered through the application of “modern” agricultural, road-building, and communications technology. They often failed or learned by mistake as during the Great Dustbowl Years what it takes to live “sustainably” on this landscape. Several generations have attempted--sometimes successfully but frequently tenuously--to impose human control over the forces of Mother Nature by tapping the deep Ogallala Aquifer with the great center-pivot irrigation wells and sprinkler systems, channelizing and damming the rivers, building mammoth grain silos, creating the great Eisenhower Interstate Highway System, and even trying to change the weather or at least monitor its worst aspects, e.g. chasing tornadoes.
Much of this immense human effort and ingenuity has built into our American psyche a feeling of well-deserved pride in our ability to “conquer anything”—a quintessential American pioneer character trait that is laudable when appropriately targeted. But I believe it has also led us to arrogantly assume we can ignore Mother Nature in ways that I believe are now beginning to push the limits of scientific rationality, economic sense, and ethical responsibility. And it often makes us insufferable collaborators with others around the world we need to learn to live and share the Planet with!
This summer, as I crossed the prairies—the radios were constantly updating us on the depressing and frustrating news about the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Disaster on the Gulf Coast—in my view a “wake-up” call about the “limits of unbridled and unregulated technology and capitalism”. As someone who had just returned from trying to “save gorillas” and the rainforest in the Congo Basin (more on this later) the news from the Gulf has been truly demoralizing and heart-wrenching. It’s made me NOT want to watch the news! Worse, as I went through the region where some of my own earlier generations struggled through the Great Dustbowl—I found myself asking:
Haven’t we learned from our early forefathers about the limits of technology when done without a strong sense of environmental ethics coupled with the practice of “stewardship” of the land and resources we inherit to pass on to our kids? Why can’t we “co-exist” in a mutually respectful manner?
Of course, technology or capitalism itself is not the problem—it is us and how we use these tools! Later in this Blog I discuss more after what was for me another highlight of the road trip so far--a visit to the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Park--which is a monument to the historical evolution of the American “land stewardship ethic” which grew out of earlier depredations against nature and which led some of our early leaders to create the beginnings of the modern environmental movement. In his seminal book—Man and Nature published first in 1864—George Perkins Marsh started asking questions that are still relevant today, i.e. why do we continue to think humans are bigger than nature? Why can’t we be more aware of and take responsibility for our technology and economic assets? Will it take a global calamity to truly wake us up”?
Through the efforts of men like Marsh and others such as Frederick Billings and Laurance S. Rockefeller (more later) we have survived so far the 21st Century and have in some welcome cases helped restored some of the damage done from earlier generations.
But we now have to do that for the whole planet! Are we up to it? I still think we can, IF we rediscover the ethics and morality of some of the early pioneers who thought of ways to preserve their land, rather than see the land as a never-ending “piggy-bank” to exploit for short-term gain.
Why are Food Servings not BIG Enough Unless they are JUMBO, GRANDE or WHOPPERS!
A second impression that may be trite but is disturbing to me--as someone recently back from dealing with the poverty, chaos, hunger, political instability, ecological degradation, and economic trauma affecting places such as DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo)—was to be made aware again of the GIANT size of all food servings in America today! In my travel essay of June 16 I decried the great number of VERY FAT (BIG) Americans seen sitting around even in our great Zion National Park and not getting out to walk or bike and see the REAL park away from the shops, lodges, and parking lots! I asked:
“…most of America is now fat and out-of-shape! What does this portend for the future?”
I’ve thought more about this as I crossed the plains and ate at self-styled family restaurants such as the Cracker Barrel—there I relearned that “food servings” in America are now TRULY OVERSIZED! Even a small plate of veggies left me stuffed and uncomfortable! And even famous fast-food” joints such as Amigos/Kings restaurant (like the one we visited in North Platte Nebraska) renown for its “Frencies”—deep-fat-fried cheese sandwiches that are literally an artery “clogger” par excellence—left me aghast!
Before we left Loveland Colorado, a friend had told me: “you can’t miss having a 'Frenchy' in North Platte". We did and I felt FULL all night! It was delicious but I wondered how many days closer to a heart attack I was from the experience. I felt I must eat one in order to be friendly and courteous. I also stopped at gas stations and cafes to get soda drinks (or an occasional coffee or smoothie) and was amazed when asked if I wanted it “medium, large, JUMBO or GRANDE--small was rarely an option!
And once, when I stopped at a Burger King at a place not to be named on the Great Plains (see “Burger Pilgrimage”) I couldn’t help being amazed by a poster extolling me to literally “worship at the shrine” to the TRIPLE WHOPPER BURGER. I almost took a picture but decided against it because of the nice manager who helped us get “veggie BK burgers” instead though they were not on the menu visibly.. Nevertheless, I was eyed suspiciously by the youthful cashier as someone way out of left field. I could see the mental wheels turning and saying:
“who are these people who don’t eat American beef in the Heartland? They MUST be crazy”!
One of the biggest “downers” of my coming back to America from working abroad—every time I do it—is the sense that our eating habits are out of control; it is almost as if our generation is making up for all the lost meals and near famine our ancestors experienced! One or two of our meals today could feed a family for several days in Congo or Haiti or Honduras…it has appalled me more this time than any other time before! Unfortunately, we’re exporting abroad these indulgences—the habit of overeating and little-exercise is now becoming a world-wide plague affecting many societies—not just America. But it is still worse here than anywhere else!
Renewing ties to the Icons of Americana in the Eastern Heartland:
As mentioned earlier, one of the highpoints of my trip has been exploring what for me are the true shrines of Americana, e.g. Presidential Birthplaces and Libraries, National Historical Parks, Wildlife Refuges, and other special places that track our literary, movie, social, and ecological history—the “roots” of our natural and cultural heritage. It was a pleasure and an inspiration to talk with the dedicated volunteers and under-paid professional custodians who continue to try and manage our historic and natural assets for future generations in this down economy where foundations and public funds for “libraries, parks, and preserves” have been hit the worst! Bless them all who continue with ingenuity and dedication to do the essential work of keeping alive our physical and cultural links with the past!
I’ve already discussed some of the highlights of my trip in the core of the American Heartland between Colorado and central Iowa, but let me comment now on places visited farther east on our road to Toronto Canada and eventually New Haven Connecticut. Those places that touched me the most were the following:
First, the Birthplace and Presidential Library to the early years of Herbert Hoover—the first president born west of the Mississippi River and founder of UNICEF and other attempts to feed hungry children after the “Great War”—WW-I in Europe. I was impressed by the fact that though he is often blamed—probably unfairly--for the Great Depression he was truly a great humanitarian who did his best to put in place some of the modern institutional and management systems that deal with hunger, child welfare issues, government management functioning, and peace-making. Like Lincoln his roots go deep into the tallgrass prairies—in this case the small town West Branch eastern Iowa—my visit there was a highlight I will always treasure.
Another memorable point on the road trip was attendance at the Tall Ships Festival in Toronto for the 4th of July—there was nothing like experiencing our Independence day with our fellow Canadians—and to find how much we share in history, culture, values, and of course the same continental landmass. The parade of historic “tallships” such as the recreated Bounty, Europa, and the Pride of Baltimore at the Toronto Waterfront Festival—part of Canada Day (July 1) was inspiring.
But more important, I was led to see America a little bit as our closest neighbors the Canadians see us. This portion of my trip through Ontario Canada got me thinking more about “where we’ve come from” and “where we are going” in the 21st century. All has become fodder for serious thought and hopefully some writing and reading over the rest of the summer.
On the way back to the US side of the border, we visited some quaint places along the St Lawrence Seaway—a remarkable example of international cooperation between both our countries and a sample of truly great engineering. Along its banks we also visited some quaint villages, e.g. Rockport and Gananoque 1000 Islands Ontario Canada (this is where “1000 island dressing” comes from)--I didn’t know that before this trip!
Adirondacks of upstate New York to Lake Placid and Westport on Lake Champlain—a region which prides itself in being where the “American summer vacation” was invented. That fact got me thinking about “how leisure has changed” for us all—how many can't even afford that any longer? What has happened to the American vacation?
Next we took the byways along Lake Champlain to Fort Ticonderoga—one of the great historic sites important to the winning of the Revolutionary War’s first major Battle around Boston, and, it was a touch point of conflict between the French and British during the Seven Years or French and Indian War. But staying overnight in Ticonderoga reminded of how many small towns like this are slowly dying in the new economy.
An incident in Ticonderoga stands out: we needed to replace a broken headset for a cassette player; we couldn’t find one initially and in the parking lot of our motel I asked a passerby if there was a Radio Shack in town.
He answered: “they left years ago” there is only the ‘Big Box’ store left… If they don’t have it your choices are to wait until the next big city”!
We went to the “Big-Box” and did find what we needed—but this reminded me again, how this recession and the economic restructuring that started years ago is hurting small business and the low-skilled workers left out of the “islands of prosperity” in these rural landscapes that survive through their links to a national and global economy. When the bad times come the diversity in even shopping options disappear in favor of the biggest corporations—what will happen to many of them—move? Where will they go? Where is the “safety valve” of the American Great Plains for this era?
We then crossed Lake Champlain on a lovely quaint ferry to the Vermont side and went on to Middlebury, Woodstock and later Springfield (more later) through idyllic, pastoral landscapes. But even here, it is clear that except for a few college towns, vacation or ski resorts, or commuter suburbs to places like Boston, the small town and rural economic sector are suffering severely. There are occasionally signs of entrepreneurial and creative vigor, i.e. in local co-ops of the “new farm economy” starting to bloom catering to “sustainable agriculture” and “certified organic” demands of some of the “new elite” and the occasional innovative craft-maker, designer, or exurbanite not “living off" the local economy, i.e. see photos of the wood carver of specialty instruments seen in White Raven Vermont (below).
It was clear to me though that the only ones prospering are better linked to the national and even global internet-connected economy in a more functional and successful way. The question is how will we help the “left behind” places and people to compete effectively in the new global economy that is being rebuilt in front of our very eyes!
Talk radio has been ablaze, of course, about which options for restructuring and reducing the unemployment rate will work. It was all quite depressing actually to listen to the“pundits”—each with their own unique solution, but not listening to the others… When will we learn that ALL must work together to solve big problems like a major economic downturn…
One of the clearest indicators of the trauma affecting places like upstate New York were seen as we spent a night near Watertown and Fort Drum—home of the famous 10th Mountain Division which is carrying heavy burdens of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The papers were filled with the suffering and trauma this economic recession is having not just on the civilian working class—but particularly on our veterans and their families! I noted the Watertown Daily Times headline on the day we went through:
“Layoffs Spreading to Public Sector”! And the physical evidences of a very depressed real estate market were quite apparent (see photo below).
But, it is not totally “doom and gloom” out there—as we continued our journey we made several wonderful stops in quaint small rural places in Vermont that reminded me again of even earlier ancestors of mine (on my mother’s side)—the Standish’s and Fryes—who came from southern New Hampshire. Over the next few weeks I will explore more some of these roots as well while I am visiting family in New Haven Connecticut--these will be themes for later blogs.
President Calvin Coolidge’s birthplace in Plymouth Notch in the Green Mountains of Vermont, and nearby Woodstock were truly great experiences as well—see some of the photos below.
But the climax to this leg of our road trip—was two days exploring the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Park and the environs of Woodstock Vermont--the birthplace of one of my heroes—George Perkins Marsh--father of the American conservation movement. Finding this small place was an accident (serendipity) one of the great things that happens when you travel without a fixed agenda or schedule. And, coincidentally, in the same place (Woodstock Vermont) we found linkages to two other icons of the American conservation movement--that of Frederick Billings (for whom Billings Montana is named), and Laurance S. Rockefeller—the grandson of John D. Rockefeller and --someone greatly involved in preserving many of our critical cultural and natural assets for posterity, e.g. The Virgin Islands National Park.
His link to Woodstock Vermont is fascinating--he married Mary French, granddaughter of Frederick Billings—the financier and conservationist who bought George Perkins-Marsh’s estate in 1869. See some of the photos below from the sites noted above—there are a lot more on my Facebook Album about Woodstock and this wonderful National Historic Park.
The final stop before we headed for New Haven Connecticut was also a case of serendipity. We had gone off Interstate 91 which traverses Vermont north to south down the Connecticut River Valley--to find cheap gasoline. Our off-ramp chosen was Springfield Vermont—one of those former New England “mill towns” now slowly reviving, but often as not suffering seriously from economic hardship during this Great Recession.
We stopped by the Chamber of Commerce to get maps and noted the sign over the door saying—HOME OF THE SIMPSONS. Upon entering town we discovered that this “Springfield”--among the 30-some towns with the same name in the US--had been the winner to be the setting for the film “The Simpsons”!
The answer to this is still an open question in my mind…maybe your feelings about Bart and other TV icons of today give you pause or even fear? Bart is definitely NOT John Wayne, but if you look at Bart and his family I also see the vestiges of “small town America” much like Winterset Iowa (Madison County) or Plymouth Notch Vermont; there is a continuity there that should make us proud and keep us humble and hopeful for the future! Surely, just like Buffalo Bill in the last century, or John Wayne in the WWII generation, or us in the “Boomer era”--Bart Simpson is also a flawed human being--I think that is why we like him! But he also does a lot of things right as well! I think there is hope and if we look for it we’ll find it…
Finally this 3rd leg of our road trip ended in New Haven Connecticut on July 9, 2010—four weeks to the day after leaving Redlands California. Here we are enjoying some family time with our oldest son and daughter-in-law--and my new grandchild—Celeste—it is for her this is all about!
And, for fun, we got to experience the final match of the FIFA World Cup on Sunday July 11 (see more photos in my FLICKR Album). The fact that the whole globe was united around that one sporting event should encourage and remind us—that we are a global village—and we will all need to work and play together to succeed!
I will now take a respite--for a few weeks--from my travel blog and resume writing when I return to Colorado and Wyoming in August for some serious backpacking and hiking in “Grizzly and Wolf Country” as well as attendance at the Annual Sculpture Show (August 7-8, 2010) discussed earlier--in Loveland Colorado.
My focus on this next phase of travel will be the truly “wild places” we have inherited, i.e. the Wind River Range of Wyoming, the Grand Tetons, and Rocky Mountains. Have a great summer!
New Haven Connecticut, July 14, 2010.