USA

Our Time with Tomo

Before I share our experiences in Japan with our friend, Tomo, let me tell you how we became friends. Jim and I were at a fundraiser in the summer of 2018 when a former colleague asked me if I knew anyone who might be willing to house a Japanese student who was attending the local community college. I immediately responded we might be willing and dragged him over to share the story with Jim. He told us Tomo arrived at the Mason City airport on a bitterly cold evening in January 2018 looking for public transportation to the dorms at North Iowa Area Community College. A local architect explained there was no public transportation to the college at that hour but in the tradition of Iowa Nice, Randy offered him a ride which began their friendship. Tomo lived in the dorms for a bit, then shared an apartment with another international student but what he really wanted was to experience living with an American family. Well, Randy told Mark who told us and the rest, as they say, is history.

In a brief interview with Tomo he explained he chose NIACC because his research revealed it to be a high quality program at a relatively low cost. We explained our kids were grown and live in Des Moines so it wouldn’t be a family experience in the sense of parents with children at home, and we had a young political staffer currently staying with us. I’m not sure how much of this information Tomo understood as his English was limited and our Japanese was non-existent, but I’m sure we were the only offer on the table so we arranged for him to join our household in July.

Tomo told us he had a strong desire to see the world and he took several trips during the six months he stayed with us. Jim and I are also travelers (or we were in the Before Times, before COVID, that is) so we were gone part of the time, too. When our schedules permitted, however, we tried to share as many experiences with Tomo as possible and he seemed to enjoy most of them except maybe watching the TV show Ozark which he soon gave up on.

He insisted Jim let him mow the lawn and when I asked him about his mask, he explained it kept out contaminants. Wise pre-COVID lesson… Our 20 X 40 garden impressed him and he willingly helped Jim harvest our abundant crops. He even seemed to like shoveling snow but I suspect that enjoyment may have worn off after one winter.

Jim and I have always eaten dinner at the table together and we welcomed Tomo to join us. We cooked our usual fare and Tomo seemed to appreciate everything he ate. He introduced us to the polite Japanese customs of saying “Itadakimasu” (Let’s eat) before meals and “Gochisosama deshita” (thank you for the meal) following the meal. To hear the correct pronunciation, just click on the word. Tomo also took his turn at cooking and we enjoyed many memorable meals together. The sushi was exceptional!!

Of course, we went out to a number of restaurants as well. Tomo especially liked Mexican food so the Pastime Gardens in Mason City was an obvious choice. Kate even taught him how to cook some of her specialties and shared some culinary secrets with him but, try as we might, we couldn’t get him to spill the beans with us. The iconic Northwestern Steak House in Mason City was another definite favorite.

We took a couple of short excursions around Iowa. Friends near St Ansgar hosted a musical concert in their home so he accompanied us there and we stopped at a historic site, Fort Severson, on the way.

Tomo at Fort Severson in St Ansgar

In Des Moines we visited the State Capitol, the Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens, the New Oriental Food Store, and Fong’s Pizza.

When Tomo wasn’t attending school, traveling, or performing volunteer work locally, we introduced him to leisure activities including my mahjong group (they loved him), tailgating at Iowa State football games, and Friday night wine drinking with my girlfriends although he didn’t drink. He accompanied us to a Christmas party hosted by friends and Jim even took him to a volleyball game at NIACC and they joined our sons in Ames for a wrestling meet at Iowa State.

But this rendition of Happy Birthday performed by Tomo and our neighbor, Brian, ranks right up at the top of memorable experiences.

Brian and Tomo perform Happy Birthday

Arigato gozaimasu, Tomo and Brian.

We enjoyed our time with Tomo so much that when he left in January 2019 to return to Japan, saying goodbye was difficult. It was made easier, however, knowing we would travel to Japan in March on our way home from a cruise around Australia, Indonesia, and Singapore. Tomo even helped me find our hotel in Tokyo. When I asked him about a hotel I was looking at, he laughed and said, “You don’t want to stay in that area. That’s where the yakuza and red light district are.” Yakuza are Japanese organized crime or gangsters and you know what red light district is. Thankfully, I had Tomo to steer us in the right direction!

Saying sayonara

We took Tomo to the airport on a bitterly cold morning one year after he had arrived in Mason City, Iowa. I hope he found his experience valuable. I know we did.

In my next several posts, I’ll share our experiences with Tomo in Japan.

Based on events in July 2018 – January 2019.

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A Bridge Far Enough

The Mackinac Bridge is the longest suspension bridge in the western hemisphere and the fifth longest in the world. The suspension section is 8614 feet long and the overall length of the bridge is 26,372 feet. Opened to traffic on November 1, 1957, today over 600,000 vehicles cross the bridge during the peak month of July. Built to withstand heavy winds, the bridge only closes 3-4 times per year, but I did see travel was restricted recently and the photo showing the weather conditions terrified me.

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Mackinac Bridge

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Mackinac Bridge

As we crossed the Straits of Mackinac on the Mighty Mac, to our left we got our first glimpse of Lake Michigan, our fifth and final great lake on our Great Lakes Road Trip of 2017. After some discussion, we decided to continue along the shore of Lake Michigan and head to my hometown of Wausau, Wisconsin just 318 miles away. We were homeward bound, not in a hurry to get there, but headed that direction. Mackinac Bridge was our bridge far enough.

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First view of Lake Michigan from Mighty Mac

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Mackinaw City, MI to Wausau, WI

Jim drove, I checked for lighthouses along the shore of Lake Michigan, found several, and we stopped to check them out.

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Manistique East Breakwater

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Manistique East Breakwater Lighthouse

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Menominee North Pier Lighthouse

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Lake Michigan

As the sun was setting, we headed west along 2-lane back roads through Wisconsin, enjoying the scenery and feeling satisfied that we’d accomplished our goal to see all five Great Lakes on another epic road trip.

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After spending the night with my brother and sister-in-law followed by a visit with my dad and his wife the next morning, we began the last leg of our journey back to Iowa. Near Warrens, Wisconsin I spotted a sign announcing the Warrens Cranberry Festival that weekend. What luck! I’ve always wanted to attend so we made a slight detour to check it out. Fortunately for us, we noticed some activity at a farm outside the town and pulled in. We learned we should have purchased a ticket in town for a bus tour to the cranberry bog but a kind woman working there allowed us to sidestep that requirement and listen to the tour since we were already there.

The number 1 fruit crop in Wisconsin, the state produces over 60% of the cranberries consumed in the U.S. While the berries grow in sandy marshes or bogs, they do not grow under water. In fall, when the berries are ripe, some berries are harvested using a dry method with a machine that combs the berries from the vines. Using the wet method, bogs are flooded with 6-18 inches of water, then berries are shaken from the vines with an eggbeater tractor. The berries float in the water and are corralled and scooped up. The water is then recycled through other fields in the same process.

To me, possibly the most interesting fact about cranberry production is that every acre of cranberry bog is supported by 6-10 acres of natural and man-made wetlands, woodlands, and uplands that provide habitat for bald eagles, loons, wolves, trumpeter swans, sandhill cranes, and other wildlife.

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Jim with a bag of fresh cranberries inspecting an applicator boom for fertilizing cranberries and other equipment. Note the school bus in the background to transport visitors.

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Cranberry marsh

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Close-up of cranberries on the vine

We were fortunate to happen upon the cranberry marsh tour because we never would have experienced it if we had gone into Warrens first. It was a total madhouse! Imagine a village of 363 inhabitants flooded by over 100,000 visitors in a 3 day period with 1000 vendors selling arts and crafts, flea market items, and food. This is one of the largest craft fairs in the country and people take it very seriously. They actually arrive with carts to carry their purchases as you can see in the photo below.

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Warrens Cranberry Festival

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After enjoying some free samples of cranberry items, cheese, sausage and other foodstuffs, we tried to “get the hell out of Dodge” which was easier said than done.  By the time we were finally out of there, we were definitely ready to head for home.

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Based on events from September 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Categories: Road Trips, Uncategorized, USA | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Welcome to Mackinac Island

I fell in love with Mackinac Island on my first visit as a child in the 1960’s with my parents, brothers, and a great aunt and uncle. Everything about it charmed me including the ferry ride on Lake Huron to the island, the use of horse-drawn rather than motorized vehicles, and the gingerbread Victorian architecture. When my husband and I visited in 1976 and again with our children in 1991, it seemed as if nothing had changed. In September 2017, on the surface at least, the island still appeared to be stuck in time. In today’s fast-paced world, this quality is comforting.

Fun facts about Mackinac Island:

  1. Whether spelled Mackinac or Mackinaw, the pronunciation is Mackinaw.
  2. From 1875-1895, Mackinac Island was the nation’s second national park. (The first was Yellowstone National Park.)
  3. Mackinac Island State Park was established in 1895 as the first state park in Michigan.
  4. Over 80% of the island is within the state park.
  5. Automobiles were banned in 1898 because they were loud and scared the horses.

Planning to take an early ferry to the island, we stayed at the Best Western Plus Dockside Waterfront in Mackinaw City, just down the road from Shepler’s Mackinac Island Ferry. While the hotel was somewhat tired and dated, its proximity to the ferry sold us. After an outstanding complimentary breakfast, we hustled down the road to the ferry only to discover we could purchase the tickets cheaper at the hotel. Always ready to save a couple bucks, we returned the several blocks to the hotel, bought our roundtrip tickets for $21.59 each rather than $26 at the dock, and we were still among the first in line for the 8:30 ferry.

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Our ride

Our goals for our visit were modest. As history nerds, we wanted to revisit Fort Mackinac; I was keen to visit the Grand Hotel which met with eye-rolling from my husband; and last, but not least, we planned to purchase some famous Murdick’s fudge to take home.

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View of Mackinac Bridge from Shepler’s Miss Margy

We enjoyed the 16-minute scenic ferry ride on a pleasant sunny morning in late September on day 11 of our Great Lakes Road Trip of 2017. Upon our arrival, not much was open on Main Street but, fortunately for us, the Visitor’s Center was ready for business and staffed by friendly, helpful workers. Armed with the map they highlighted to show our route, we set off for Fort Mackinac. The fort opened at 9:30 and we were early so we checked out Marquette Park, the Missionary Bark Chapel, and Trinity Church while we waited.

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Marquette Park with Missionary Bark Chapel to the left and Ft Mackinac above

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View of Haldimand Bay from Marquette Park

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Trinity Church

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Interior of Trinity Church

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Entrance to the Fort

During the American Revolutionary War, the British believed Ft. Michilimackinac on the mainland was vulnerable to attack by the American rebels. In 1780, they dismantled it and moved it, lock, stock, and barrel, to Mackinac Island, renaming it Ft. Mackinac. In 1796, the British departed and the Americans took over but in the War of 1812, the British surprised the American forces who surrendered without a fight. At the end of the war, the fort was returned once again to the Americans. The film shown every 20 minutes in the fort commissary provided this history and other interesting facts as a great introduction to our self-guided tour.

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The Commissary at Ft. Mackinac

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Interior of the Commissary

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Ft. Mackinac

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Officer’s Quarters

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View of the harbor from the fort

After a thorough exploration of the fort, we proceeded up Garrison Road to the highest point on the island, Ft. Holmes. Built during the War of 1812 by the British as a redoubt and originally named Ft. George, the Americans renamed it Ft. Holmes to honor Major Holmes who died in battle there. The current structure is a reconstruction.

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Ft. Holmes

From nearby Point Lookout, we enjoyed a view of Sugar Loaf, a natural limestone breccia formation that rises 75 feet.

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Sugar Loaf

As we continued our hike, we made a few wrong turns but finally found our way to the Grand Hotel Stables.

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I believe this is Carriage Road

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Grand Hotel Stables

I have never seen such a clean, well-maintained stable. The horses that reside here are lucky animals.

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Grand Hotel Stables

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A couple of the well-cared-for horses

The highpoint of my day was definitely our visit to the Grand Hotel. Possessing a vivid imagination, I’ve dreamed of staying at the Grand Hotel ever since I first glimpsed it as a child. While I have no desire to pay the minimum $199 per PERSON per day for the best deal the hotel offers, I was delighted to learn we could tour the public areas for a mere $10 each. My husband grumbled a bit (he’s an “eat the rich” kind of guy) but I told him to think of it as a museum tour. The historical value of this famous landmark built in 1887 is undeniable.

Reviews of the hotel are mixed. Looking at the virtual tour on their website, the standard rooms appear small and cramped and I’m certain the 19th-century style doesn’t suit all 21st-century tourists. Most complaints I read, however, centered around the staff stopping visitors to inquire whether they were guests of the hotel. No one asked us but I visibly gripped my brochure indicating I paid to wander around and pretend I was a guest.

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The Grand Hotel

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Relaxing on the porch

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Sadie’s Ice Cream Parlor at the Grand Hotel

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View from inside Sadie’s Ice Cream Parlor

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The Grand Hotel

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Lobby at the Grand Hotel

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The Grand Hotel Lobby

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Cupola Bar at the Grand Hotel

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What a great view

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A sign outside the hotel with 19th -century expectations of guests

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The Grand Hotel

Our last stop on the island was at The Original Murdick’s Fudge, a Mackinac Island tradition since 1887. Although we’re not big candy consumers, I wanted to take some of this iconic confection home to our adult children.

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Murdick’s Fudge on the marble slab where it’s prepared

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Murdick’s Fudge

After a last look around Main Street, we boarded the ferry for the return trip to Mackinaw City.

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Main Street

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Sail away from Mackinac Island

If you’ve never visited Mackinac Island, you’ve missed one of the top destinations in the  Midwest. With more time, a bike rental would have topped my list of fun things to do. It’s just an 8-mile ride around the island with lots of amazing views and a good escape from the crush of tourists. Many visitors take a carriage tour and I recommend that as well. While we barely scratched the surface this visit, we were satisfied with our day.

 

Based on events from September 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Uncategorized, USA | Tags: , , | 4 Comments

Michigan: Beacon for Lighthouse Enthusiasts

Leaving Niagara Falls in Ontario, Canada, we drove along the scenic Niagara Parkway to Fort Erie where we enjoyed our first view of Lake Erie, the fourth Great Lake on our Great Lakes Road Trip.

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Site of Fort Erie

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Lake Erie flows into the Niagara River

As we continued onto highway 3, at Dunnville we stumbled upon a bed and breakfast bearing the same name as my husband. We knew relatives of Jim’s grandmother likely lived in this region of Canada but we were unprepared to encounter the Lalor surname. While an overnight there may have proved enlightening, we wanted to travel more miles on day 9 so we drove on.

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Jim at Lalor Estate Inn

We stopped for the evening in the village of Birch Run, Michigan (pop. 1555). Its only claim to fame as far as I could tell was a fast food joint called Halo Burger that bills itself as the home of “Michigan’s best burger since 1923.”

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Our route on day 9

Back on the road the following morning for day 10 of our Great Lakes Road Trip, we decided to get off the interstate and follow the shore of Lake Huron instead.

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If you, like me, are a lighthouse enthusiast, put Michigan on your bucket list. With more freshwater coastline than any other state (only Alaska has more coastline overall), Michigan claims more lighthouses than any other state. Consequently, opportunities to visit these beacons abound along the Michigan shores of Lake Erie, Lake Huron, Lake Superior, and Lake Michigan. We picked up a Michigan Lighthouse Guide and took our time stopping frequently along the way.

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Our first stop at Tawas Point Lighthouse was especially instructive. We met a couple moving into the lighthouse who were participants in the Lighthouse Keeper Program. After a successful application for the program, these volunteers would provide tours of the lighthouse during their 2-week stay. What a fun experience if you’re looking for a volunteer opportunity in a beautiful location!

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Tawas Point Lighthouse (volunteer lighthouse keeper on far left)

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View of Lake Huron from Alpena, Michigan

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Alpena Light

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New Presque Isle Lighthouse

New Presque Isle Lighthouse replaced the old lighthouse in 1870. We had to hike a distance to reach the Old Presque Isle Lighthouse which was not open but this charming squatty beacon and the grounds were well worth the walk.

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Old Presque Isle Lighthouse

I was initially shocked to see the jockey statue below and assumed it was racist but I was relieved and impressed when I read the explanation.

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Forty Mile Point Lighthouse, named for its location 40 miles southeast of Old Mackinaw Point, opened in 1896. Today, it offers a keeper’s program for volunteers who stay in their own RVs on-site. Our keeper enthusiastically shared his extensive knowledge about the lighthouse and its history.

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40 Mile Point Lighthouse

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Volunteer guide at 40 Mile Light

When we climbed the tower, the views of Lake Huron were incredible with the color of the water and the sandy beaches which looked like we were somewhere in the Caribbean. Take note: You must wear closed shoes to climb this tower. A recent accident involving a girl wearing flip-flops brought about this rule.

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View of Lake Huron from 40 Mile Light

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Selfie with view of Lake Huron

We walked down to the water’s edge to see the location of the shipwreck of the J.S. Fay which occurred on October 19, 1905. The wooden steamer broke up on a sandbar and sank in about 12 feet of water just offshore but a large chunk of her side washed ashore where it can be viewed to this day.

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Shipwreck of the J.S. Fay

In Cheboygan, we visited this rather unassuming lighthouse, Cheboygan Front Range Light, built in 1880. Today, it is owned by the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association and open to the public.

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Cheboygan Front Range Light

Cheboygan Crib Light opened offshore in 1884 but was moved to its present location in Gordon Turner Park in Cheboygan in 1985. Keepers never lived in this facility and had to travel daily by boat to operate the beacon during its period of service. To me, it’s one the most photo-worthy of all the lighthouses we visited.

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Cheboygan Crib Light

The last lighthouse we visited on day 10 was Old Mackinac Point, opened in 1892 and operations ceased in 1957 when Mackinac Bridge opened. The lighthouse closed for the day before our arrival so we didn’t get inside but the outside was impressive.

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Old Mackinac Point

To finish day 10, we dined at the #1 rated restaurant in Mackinaw City, Darrow’s Family Restaurant. I’m always looking for locally sourced items and the parmesan encrusted whitefish met that requirement. Jim selected the roast beef with dressing and gravy.

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Darrow’s doesn’t claim to provide a fine dining experience and there’s nothing pretentious about the place. It’s a brightly-lit family-style restaurant similar to a Perkin’s or Country Kitchen. The line moves rapidly as they serve customers quickly and efficiently and the place was packed with older people who love the comfort food they offer. While we waited in line, we visited with two couples from towns that neighbor ours in North Iowa. (It seems there’s always an Iowa connection on our trips.) Our food was tasty like a home-cooked meal if you’re cooking for an army.

Come back next time and accompany us to Mackinac Island on Day 11 of our Great Lakes Road Trip.

 

Based on events from September 2017.

 

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Categories: Uncategorized, USA | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Kingston, Ontario to Niagara Falls

Disappointed to learn Fort Henry, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Kingston, Ontario, closed for the season on September 3, we, nevertheless, walked around a bit and took a few photos on day 7 of our Great Lakes Road Trip. Built in the 1830’s atop Point Henry and overlooking the St. Lawrence River on a military route from Montreal to Ottawa,  the strategic value was readily apparent and the views were outstanding.

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View from Ft. Henry toward Kingston

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The gate at Ft. Henry at the upper fort

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View of the lower fort

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The lower fort

Kingston is the door to the 1000 Islands, a region located in the St. Lawrence River along the U.S./ Canada border. We drove 20 miles east to Ganonoque for a boat tour of the Thousand Islands with Gananoque Boat Line, billed as the largest and oldest of the cruise companies in the islands.  We decided on the 1-hour Beauty of the Islands cruise departing from Gananoque for $24.95 rather than the 5-hour Boldt Castle Stopover for $48.80.

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Beauty of the Islands cruise route

The 1000 Islands are rich with history, beginning with First Nations people who inhabited the area before French explorer Jacques Cartier discovered the area in the 1500s followed by Samuel de Champlain in the 1600s. By the late 1800s, the area became the summer vacation destination for millionaires during the Gilded Age. George Boldt, the wealthy owner of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City, built Boldt Castle for his wife, Louise, who died before its completion without ever seeing it.

Incidentally, Thousand Island salad dressing was created here. One version of the story says George Boldt’s chef created the recipe but another version says it was created by Sophia Lalonde, the wife of a fishing guide. Whichever story you believe, when George Boldt got ahold of the recipe, he put it on the menu at the Waldorf Astoria, and the rest is history.

Today, the archipelago of 1864 islands in the St. Lawrence River remains a vacation paradise for outdoor enthusiasts. Only a few islands are reachable by ferry; otherwise private watercraft are required with plenty of boat rentals available throughout the area. Twenty-one islands comprise the 1000 Island National Park of Canada with docks, trails, and camping facilities.

As we embarked our cruise boat, the day was warm and sunny. We enjoyed the ride with commentary to accompany the close-up views of many small islands and cottages.

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I have no idea which ferry we saw in the photo below but if you look carefully, you can see it’s cable-driven. This method is safer on a river with a strong current. We were lucky to have gotten a look at this one in action.

IMG_7257Many of the islands are small enough to accommodate just one cottage. In fact, on our cruise they told us to be considered an island, it must be at least 6 square feet of land with at least 2 trees. I read on various websites, however, that the requirement is one tree and the land must be fully above water 365 days a year. Either way, some of these islands are very small and could easily be submerged by a high wake.

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Note the sign “PLEASE NO WAKE”

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Following our cruise, we crossed the Thousand Islands International Bridge to re-enter the United States.

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Thousand Island International Bridge

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View of the St. Lawrence River from the Thousand Island International Bridge

We had planned to follow the shore of Lake Ontario to Niagara Falls but when I saw Seneca Falls, NY on the map, I was keen to visit the site of the first women’s rights convention in the U.S. and Jim was willing.

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In July 1848, over 300 women and men gathered in the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, NY to discuss the rights of women. Led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, on the first day only women were allowed to attend and discuss principles. On the second day, 100 women and men discussed and signed the Declaration of Sentiments which expanded on the sentiments expressed in the Declaration of Independence and began with, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal.”

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Restored Wesleyan Chapel where the convention was held

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Interior of Wesleyan Chapel

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Sign outside Wesleyan Chapel

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Outside the Visitor Center at Women’s Rights National Historical Park

For me, the most moving exhibits inside the Visitor Center were the First Wave Statue and an exact replica of the suffrage banner. The First Wave Statues represent the first wave of women’s rights activists including the 5 organizers of the convention, the men who supported their efforts, and others who did not sign the Declaration of Sentiments.

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The suffrage banner celebrated the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920 granting women the right to vote. The colors in the banner are purple for justice, white for purity of intent, and gold for courage. The stars represent the 36 states that ratified the amendment.

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In 1980, the Women’s Rights Historical Park was established as part of the National Park Service. It’s easy to forget the struggles of those who led the way to establish the rights of women. It took another 72 years after the convention to secure the right to vote for women. Today, we have enjoyed that right for fewer than 100 years. This national park serves as an important reminder.

We finished day 7 in Niagara Falls to celebrate our wedding anniversary which I’ll share in my next post.

 

Based on events from September 2017.

 

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Categories: Canada, National Parks, Uncategorized, UNESCO, USA | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Great Lakes Road Trip 2017

We like to take a road trip in the fall. The kids are back in school so there are fewer tourists competing for views, roads, hotels, etc. The weather is usually pleasant. We try to plan our trip around our anniversary in September but we also have to work around home football games at Iowa State where we’ve held season tickets for over 30 years. We had planned to circle the Great Lakes in late September 2016 but when a good deal on a river cruise in France came up, we canceled the Great Lakes trip. We rescheduled the Great Lakes for 2017 when we had a 2-week window of opportunity in September.

I’m normally a careful trip planner but frankly, very little advance planning went into this trip. Here’s what we knew: we would begin by heading north to Duluth; we wanted to see all five Great Lakes; we wanted to drive along the lakes whenever possible; we wanted to stop at Jim’s former fishing spot in Canada and visit Niagra Falls and Mackinac Island; we wanted to avoid Toronto having read about the traffic; we also wanted to avoid Chicago traffic. Beyond those parameters, we had no plan. We weren’t sure how far we would travel each day or how many stops we’d make so we didn’t want to reserve lodging ahead and we had not even plotted the route.

With maps, AAA Tour Books, and my smartphone, we planned as we went. We didn’t use my phone for the internet while driving in Canada, however, because data charges through my provider are high. (We did have wifi in hotels at night.) While Jim drove, we watched signs and I studied the AAA books or internet to find places of interest and we stopped at anything that struck our fancy. When we were tired or just felt like stopping, we found a hotel for the night.

How did it turn out? We visited the places on our list, we discovered some amazing places, and we missed a few due to lack of advance planning. We saw all five Great Lakes, we have a new appreciation for them, and we definitely want to return to some areas for further exploration. We got off the beaten path and drove a lot of two-lane roads with little traffic, beautiful views, and road construction. One night we did have a problem finding lodging but we’d brought an air mattress and sleeping bag in case we had to sleep in the car and didn’t use them in the end. Not having internet access in the car while in Canada was a mistake I’ll not repeat. We have these and many more stories to tell about our experience so watch this space.

Would we do it again? Absolutely! The sense of adventure and freedom it gave us was priceless.

 

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Embarking on our road trip

 

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Our route

 

 

 

Based on events from September 2017.

 

 

Categories: Canada, Uncategorized, USA | Tags: , | 9 Comments

American Gothic Visited

Tiny Eldon, Iowa (population 916) is home to the backdrop of one of America’s most famous paintings. The artist, Grant Wood, visited the town in 1930 and sketched the Dibble farmhouse which would later appear in the painting, American Gothic. Today the original painting resides at the Art Institute of Chicago but Eldon is worth a visit to see the inspiration that led Grant Wood to create this iconic piece.

We’ve passed nearby many times on our way to and from St. Louis via Des Moines. Eldon is just 6 miles off highway 34 between Ottumwa and Fairfield. Once you reach Eldon, signs direct you quite easily to the American Gothic House.

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The center contains an informative collection of exhibits about the house, Grant Wood, and Art Regionalism. Charles and Catherine Dibble built the house in 1881-1882. The style, called Carpenter Gothic, used somewhat incongruous fancy details on a plain farmhouse. The gothic windows in the gables of the house would normally be used in a church but were chosen from the Sears catalog to grace the Dibble home. Incidentally, my husband’s mother’s maiden name was Dibble and the Dibbles came from New York state as did my mother-in-law’s relatives. That, however, is a subject for future research and possibly another blog post.

 

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American Gothic House

 

According to information at the center, the couple never posed together for the painting and didn’t actually meet until 12 years later when the photograph below was taken. The woman was Grant Wood’s sister, Nan Wood Graham, and the man was his dentist, Dr. B.H. McKeeby. The artist assured them they wouldn’t be recognized in his painting but that turned out to be incorrect and caused some hard feelings especially with his dentist.

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Photograph of Nan Wood Graham and Dr. B.H. McKeeby at the American Gothic House Center

 

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This is our dour look

 

Grant Wood was an Iowa native, born in 1891 on a farm outside Anamosa where he lived until his father died when he was 10. His mother then moved the family to Cedar Rapids where he won third place in his first art contest at the age of 14. Following graduation, he spent a short time studying art in Minneapolis but returned to the Cedar Rapids area to teach school and lived in that area most of his short life. During a trip to Munich, he came to the realization that he needed to paint from his own experience. In 1929, he painted a portrait of his mother called Woman with Plants, launching his new style and taking his place in the Regionalist movement. The following year he painted American Gothic and, as they say, the rest is history.

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Except for one more interesting side note: Grant Wood spent the summer of 1941 painting in Clear Lake, Iowa (which is 8 miles west of our home). I found this article in our local paper written in 2008 about the artist’s stay in Clear Lake.

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Information at American Gothic House Center

Grant Wood died the following February of cancer at the age of 50.

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References: All information was found in displays at the American Gothic House Center.

Based on events from July 2017.

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Virginia Beach Family Tradition

Both my love of travel and my love of history stem from childhood travels. My maternal grandparents lived in Virginia so in the summer my parents piled us four kids into the station wagon and Dad drove from Wisconsin to the Blue Ridge Mountains in southern Virginia for a 2-week visit. Along the way, my mother, an avid antique collector, offered us kids a nickel for every antique shop we spotted and a full quarter if my father stopped. I loved poking around the musty old shops with my mother who could always be convinced to buy me an old book for a quarter, often a Nancy Drew mystery. We didn’t eat in many restaurants but my mother pulled an endless supply of pimento cheese sandwiches, fried chicken, and cold milk from the battered green Coleman cooler. After three days in the car squabbling with three of my four brothers, (the fourth came along after I was grown) we’d pull into Roanoke for an idyllic summer vacation, free to roam my grandparents’ neighborhood with little adult interference. This was heaven to me with the smell of boxwood wafting through the air, the soft sound of southern accents, and as much Dr. Pepper as we wanted to drink.   As a bonus during our stay, we’d sometimes take day trips to the Blue Ridge Parkway, Appomattox, Williamsburg, Yorktown, Jamestown, and Virginia Beach. I have fond memories of all these places and the history I learned there.

After a long absence, in 1984, I was pregnant with my first child and I returned to Virginia with my husband to visit the Williamsburg area and Washington, DC, and introduce him to relatives in Richmond and Arlington. It was the beginning of a new family tradition.

Over the years, we returned again and again to Virginia with our children in tow to spend a week at Virginia Beach with my extended family and various friends, as well as visiting the historic sites, museums, and monuments in Washington, DC; Williamsburg; Yorktown; Jamestown; and numerous Civil War battlefields. I hope my children remember these childhood experiences as fondly as I do.

Last summer my older brother’s kids and their spouses organized a reunion of sorts. They are now married with children of their own and it was time for another generation to experience the beach. My youngest brother wanted to rent a house rather than our usual suites in the beachfront hotel area of Virginia Beach, so we searched across Rudee Inlet at Croatan Beach where we found two large houses across the street from the beach that would accommodate all 27 of us.

Jim and I headed south, picked up one son in Des Moines, (the other and his wife couldn’t make the trip this time), and stopped first in St. Louis to caravan with my youngest brother and his family. A stop in Louisville, Kentucky at the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory broke up the trip and was great fun for all of us.

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Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory

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Leah at the Louisville Slugger

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3 J’s: Jonah, Jackie, and Jim.  Jackie Robinson was the first African-American to play major league baseball.

We also found Mrs. Rowe’s Restaurant and Bakery for lunch the second day on the road in Staunton, Virginia, which fed my nostalgia with a pimento cheese sandwich.

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Mrs. Rowe’s in Staunton, Va

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You can’t take these people anywhere

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Pimento cheese sandwich YUM!

We were thrilled with our lodging choice on quiet Croatan Beach. With four bedrooms and 3 1/2 baths, there were plenty of beds for the 13 of us and enough bathrooms, too. The other house, a couple blocks south, was also outstanding with plenty of space for 14. Between the two houses and 8 nuclear families, we divided into teams to cook dinner on 6 nights for the entire group. The seventh night we all went out to dinner en masse to Captain George’s Seafood Restaurant, another family tradition.

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Our place at the beach

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Living room with two sofa beds

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Kitchen

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Back of the house with balconies for each bedroom

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Backyard pool with the kids

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Wisconsin brat night at the other house

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My brother, Paul, shucking oysters for dinner on his night

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Sister-in-law Sarah, grilling the oysters

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The finished product–DELISH

Sadly, two of my brothers are already deceased but they loved the beach, too, so we brought them along in spirit.

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My brothers, Bill and Collier, with their daughters, two of whom were on this trip with their families

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My brothers, Stafford and Paul, at the beach

We had plenty to celebrate with Gavin’s birthday and the 4th of July.

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Gavin’s birthday party

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My son (in the middle) and nephews celebrating the 4th of July

Several mornings my brother, Stafford, and I rode our bikes about 3 miles north over the Rudee Inlet on General Booth Boulevard to the beachfront hotel area. We missed the action along the boardwalk and we ended up renting a suite at the Comfort Inn in addition to the houses on Croatan Beach.

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Bike trail from Croatan Beach to Virginia Beach

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View from the Comfort Inn

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Virginia Beach morning view

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Enjoying the view from our hotel

For this group of beach lovers, the real draw is catching the big waves for a great ride on a boogie board.

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Watching for the right wave

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Boogie Boarding

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Riding the waves

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Sand time

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My son, Michael

The week went by way too fast and before we knew it, it was time to head for home. When we left, my brother, Paul, and his family decided to visit Jamestown Settlement, just 66 miles from Virginia Beach. We hadn’t been there since our own kids were small and we were eager to go again.

For anyone not familiar with Jamestown, Virginia, this was the first permanent English colony in America founded in 1607. The outdoor living history exhibits, including the Powhatan Indian Village, James Fort, and the Jamestown Settlement Ships were there when we last visited but they have since added a large museum with many exhibits incorporating authentic artifacts from the period. Both the museum and the outdoor living history exhibits are very child-friendly with demonstrations that appeal to kids and engage them in the presentations.

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Replica dugout canoe the kids are encouraged to try in the museum at Jamestown Settlement

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Filling their bags with corn for bartering at Powhatan Village

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Trading their corn for goods at James Fort

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They even have armor for visitors to try but you can’t shoot the cannon

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Jamestown Settlement replica ships

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Jonah trying out the bilge pump on one of the ships

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Leah checking out a small bunk on the ship

After our visit to Jamestown Settlement, we headed for home in earnest. Until next time.

 

Based on events from July 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Siesta Key and Beyond

At the end of my four-day solo travel experiment, my long-time friend Gail joined me on Siesta Key. The slow pace quickened immediately to a flurry of activity. Morning walks, paddleboarding, dinner at different restaurants each night, boating, visits with various friends in the area, and a trip to urgent care for Gail’s bronchial infection interrupted our number 1 priority, beach time. Here are the highlights.

Siesta Beach is my clear all-time favorite with a wide beach and soft, fine, white quartz sand that stays cool under the feet. Most mornings we joined other walkers getting their exercise in this beautiful setting directly across the street from our condo.

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Siesta Beach

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Morning walkers

When our walks took us off the beach, we twice succumbed to the temptation to stop for breakfast. Sun Garden in the village and Toasted Mango Cafe on Midnight Pass Road both got high marks from us.

My daughter-in-law’s mother, Tricia, kindly invited us to Ft. Meyers for a day of boating. A sunny day on the water was irresistible. I hadn’t been to the Ft. Meyers area previously so seeing more of this part of Florida by water was fun and Tricia and Gary were excellent hosts.

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Our hosts, Tricia and Gary

 

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Tricia and me- the mothers

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Gail and me at lunch

Another day we drove north from Sarasota to Anna Maria Island, stopping at several beaches along the way.  As we drove through Sarasota, I snapped a photo of the 25-foot tall sculpture by Seward Johnson, Unconditional Surrender, based on a photo taken on V-J Day in Times Square.

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Unconditional Surrender sculpture

Following lunch at the Sand Bar on Anna Maria, we relaxed on the beach for awhile and then checked out several of the piers in the area.

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Lunch at the Sand Bar

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My beach umbrella and Gail’s beach blanket at Anna Maria Beach

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Anna Maria Beach

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Rod and Reel Pier

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Anna Maria City Pier

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View from Anna Maria Pier toward the Sunshine Skyway Bridge

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Anna Maria Pier

Ever since we discovered Dan at Siesta Key Paddleboards, we rent boards from him each year. He delivers the boards to us at Turtle Beach and we paddle through the canals to a secluded beach that only boaters frequent. Recently, a friend asked me if there are alligators in the canals. This is salt water and the gators prefer brackish water so no, we have never seen an alligator here…thankfully. We did see a dolphin in the canal, however.

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Our man, Dan, setting us up with paddleboards

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Paddleboarding fun

It’s always fun to see friends from home while we’re in Florida. We visited Gail’s friends, Jenny and Jeff, who now live full-time in Venice and my friends, Nancy and Jamie, who winter at a golf community just south of Siesta Key. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to visit our friends, Deb and Dan, in Naples this year but we hope to see them soon.

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Jenny and Jeff

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Nancy and Jamie

Finally, we had some outstanding meals during our stay.  Casey Key Fish House and Indigenous were my favorites.

 

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Gail and I have been friends for over 50 years. Check back in the next 50 for more of our adventures together on Siesta Key and beyond.

Based on events from March 2016.

 

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Solo on Siesta Key

My friend, Gail, and I have spent a week together in Florida at Sarasota or on Siesta Key in March for the past 5 years. In 2016, in order to extend my stay to two weeks, I planned to spend the first 4 days alone. Most condos in Siesta Key rent by the week from Saturday to Saturday and Gail couldn’t get there until Wednesday. I’ve never particularly aspired to solo traveling but my husband consistently declines to join us on this trip. Regarding the opportunity as a growth experience, I was willing to give it a try to get out of the winter cold in north Iowa for a little longer.

In the past, I’ve flown into Tampa, met Gail at the airport, picked up our rental car, and Gail drove the 72 miles south to Siesta Key. This time, I flew into St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport where I found a cheaper flight and picked up my rental car and faced my first challenge with trepidation: driving the Sunshine Skyway Bridge across Tampa Bay. As a recovering acrophobe, I knew this would be a definite test. Frankly, I was very nervous and I talked out loud to myself to calm my fears. Meanwhile, Siri was also talking out loud to give me directions on my I-phone. Safely taking a photo under those conditions  would have been totally impossible for me so the pic below was taken 2 weeks later on the way back to the airport with Gail driving. (As you can see, it was also raining so it was a good time to leave.)

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I made it! The worst part was in my head– seeing it and thinking about it. Actually doing it wasn’t nearly as bad.

After a stop at the grocery store in Sarasota, I headed out to the island to check into La Siesta Condominiums. Aah…that view. Yes, I know there’s a pool, a clubhouse, a street, and a parking lot between me and the Gulf but it’s heaven to me.

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Our view

I planned to return my rental car the following morning in Sarasota and walk back to Siesta Key. Until Gail arrived I would relax on the island, walk the beach, eat my meals on the lanai with a view, read a little and write a lot.

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Our condo

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Kitchen at the condo

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My workspace

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Siesta Key Beach

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Breakfast at the beach

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Beautiful Siesta Key Beach

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Gulf view from Siesta Key Beach

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Day’s end on Siesta Key

So how do I feel about solo traveling? It’s definitely not my preference. Although I’m perfectly capable of entertaining myself and I love to spend time alone especially in the morning, I tend to do less when I’m alone. That’s probably because I’m kind of a scaredy cat and somewhat shy. So I did the things I enjoy doing alone like walking the beach, meditating, reading, and writing, but I didn’t go out to eat or socialize. If I traveled alone more often or for longer periods, I’d have to make a greater effort to plan activities to prevent feeling isolated. Fortunately, I have several great travel partners so, at least at this stage of my life, I won’t be traveling solo too often.

 

Based on events from March 2016.

Categories: Uncategorized, USA | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

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