What Did You Do On Your Summer Vacation?

G.K. Chesterton once said that travel should combine amusement with instruction. While I have a basic desire to see the world with my own eyes, simply seeing the world is a pointless endeavor if it does not effect change and growth in my mind and soul. Like Thoreau on Walden Pond, I took to the road in order to live deliberately and figure out what is truly important in life. Over the course of four months this summer, I drove more than 20,000 miles of roads throughout North America. I drove on freeways, back roads, and occasionally on long stretches of dirt and gravel. I drove through forty-four US states and three Canadian provinces (and one territory). I stood on the shores of three separate oceans. I saw forests and deserts, mountains and plains, big cities and small towns, and enough animals to fill a zoo. I saw many old friends, and made a few new ones.

Even the middle of nowhere.

I even visited the middle of nowhere.

What did I learn? Well, I learned that our big continent is all part of the same land. In this age of air travel, each region can seem far removed from the others. Flying to Alaska or to Florida can seem like entering a completely different world. When I drove from one end of the continent to the other, however, I saw how connected we all are. The tundra of northern Alaska, the marble edifices of the national capital, and the lonely dry plains of Texas and Oklahoma are all part of each other. I visited them all, without leaving the ground.

Reaching toward the edge of the world.

Reaching toward the edge of the world.

Something more profound, I think, is how much I wanted to share some of the things that I saw. As my tour went on, I found myself increasingly thinking about how I want to someday take my children to see the things that I saw. As much fun as I had, having other people experience it with me may have been even better. Unlike Christopher McCandless, however, I do not have to die alone to learn that lesson.

All the fun of the fair.

All the fun of the fair.

So my summer journey comes to an end, with a thousand new sights and experiences to ponder for the near future. The tour never ends, though, and no matter where I am I will continue to see, learn, and understand new things about the world and the people who came before me.

The road goes ever on and on...

The road goes ever on and on…

Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me, leading wherever I choose.

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Rocky Mountain Highs

I continued my northwestward journey through Wyoming and into Montana. Though sparsely populated, these states are still much more crowded than Alaska, where I could drive for hours without coming across a single built structure. I stopped to visit the monument at Little Bighorn, where General George Custer’s 7th Cavalry was surrounded and destroyed by a combined force of Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe tribes. Though a major victory for Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and other Sioux leaders, Custer’s Last Stand was the beginning of the end for them, as the US government ordered a larger reinforced army to pacify the region.


Headstones mark where soldiers fell. General Custer’s is marked in black.


A ranger gives a talk at the visitor’s center, with I-90 in the distance.

The rolling plains of America’s heartland gave way to the greener foothills of the Rocky Mountains. The landscapes seemed to mirror the more familiar ones of Washington, where the lands just east of the mountains were dry and brown, sitting in the rain shadow of the tall peaks.


US-2 climbs into the foothills.

Before I knew it, I was surrounded by green forests and rushing waters. The climb into the mountains from the east was not very severe, as the seemingly flat plains actually sat several thousand feet above sea level. I stopped to capture the moment as I crossed the continental divide that separates the Atlantic and Gulf watersheds from the Pacific.


Several months ago I crossed another divide into the Arctic watershed.

US-2 wound its way through the mountains of Montana. (Fun fact: “Montaña is the Spanish word for mountain.) With Labor Day in the past, I found the highway mostly free of traffic, though several road construction projects turned my silver car into a dirty muddy mess. Having crossed the continental divide, the rivers now flowed parallel to my journey.


The middle fork of the Flathead River streams quietly beneath US-2.

My journey through Idaho was as brief as my tour through Montana was long. The Panhandle may not be very wide, but it did not lack in the same wonderful sights of mountains, trees, and rivers that add such beauty to the northwestern corner of the country.


US-2 crosses over the steep cliffs of the Moyie River Canyon.

I have seen some lovely places on this tour. The Shenendoah Valley of Virginia made me want to stay. The wild lands of Alaska and Yukon called to my soul. The friendly plains of South Dakota and Wyoming were welcoming. The quaint villages of upstate New York told the stories of centuries past. But there is something about the evergreen forests of the Pacific Northwest that make me feel at home. Sure, my wanderlust knows no bounds; just look through the archives of this site for proof of that. Maybe I have just lived here so long that I could not imagine living anywhere else. Whatever the reason, when I see the pine and fir trees covering the green mountainsides, I know that I am where I belong.


Welcome home.

Categories: 2013: Looking For America | 1 Comment

Into the West

After reaching the Atlantic coast of Maine and then driving down to Florida, I only had one direction left to go. I followed the Gulf Coast to Mobile and then began zigzagging my way north and west, west and north. As I cross the time zones, I regain the hours that I lost when I was driving eastward. As I move north, the sun reaches the horizon earlier and earlier each day. I reached Old Man River in Vicksburg, Mississippi and savored the last few moments before I set foot in my fiftieth US state, Louisiana.


Left a good job in the city…

I continued my zigzag pattern, and after spending a few days visiting family in Oklahoma I returned to the Great Plains. It was nice to leave the crowded cities of the east for the wide open plains of middle America. I drove through cornfields, hayfields, cow pastures, and lots of other empty fields too. I found myself in Nebraska once again, cutting through the southwestern corners of the state this time.


Horses out to pasture in Nebraska. They seem to enjoy the wide open spaces.

Today I took the back roads through eastern Wyoming. I drove past wide open fields and rolling hills that were so amber golden they could inspire a song. As I write this, I am only an hour west of the route I took into South Dakota when I was heading toward Mt. Rushmore, well over a month ago. However, it is not yet time to close my loop. Tomorrow I will cross into Montana and challenge the mighty Rocky Mountains.


Another thing I like about the plains: the horizon seems to go on forever.

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The American southeast is little more than a punch line for New York-based media, but this land has an old and noble cultural tradition. Mountains and forests dominate the central areas, with rolling hills and pastures in between. The southeast has a wide variety of food, vocabulary, architecture, and history. In some ways it is like Scotland, a nation that has tried to hang on to its traditions and way of life long after an old defeat.


The shadow of slavery haunts the legacy of a proud culture.

I left drove through the back roads of West Virginia and crossed the Appalachians into Kentucky. Once upon a time this area was the western frontier of a young nation. It was in this state that a man, at an age when most others would be settling into retirement, set upon the venture that would make his name live forever. At age 65, Harland Sanders began traveling the country with his secret recipe for fried chicken.


Designed by his daughter, this bronze bust of Colonel Sanders is in the museum at the Sanders Cafe in Corbin, Kentucky.

The Tennessee Valley was hit hard during the Great Depression, but has rebounded well since then. The highway wove through deep green forests and rolling hillsides. Tennessee shares a border with more states than any other in the union, which makes color-coded maps a challenge.


A bridge crosses the Tennessee River with Coolidge Park below.

I left Tennessee and traveled a winding road through the Great Smoky Mountains of Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. At times it felt like I was driving through a tropical rain forest, as the misty rain fell through a dark green canopy. At times I felt so remote that I may well have been a thousand miles away from civilization.


I can see why they are called the Smoky Mountains.


Deep in the Pisgah National Forest, Looking Glass Falls roars and mists.

In late autumn 1864, General William Tecumsah Sherman led his Union army on a march through Georgia, splitting the Confederacy in half and destroying their ability to maintain an army. He ended up in Savannah, capturing the port and effectively breaking the Confederate back. I followed his route from Augusta, and there in Savannah I met my third ocean in the past three months.


The shore of the Atlantic Ocean at Tybee Island, Georgia.


Swamplands just inland from Tybee Island.

From there I went south into the swampy and humid land of Florida. Here, the days are hot and the nights are warm, and there are thunderstorms around every corner. I spent some time with my cousin, checked out a wild animal park, and ran for cover in a massive monsoon. I am told this is an authentic Florida experience.


An alligator climbing out of his pond.


River otters play in their own pond.


A black bear begs for food in his habitat.


A great horned owl, wisely examining his surroundings.

Right now, thunder and lightning are filling the sky, and torrents of rain are falling on the ground. Assuming that Florida does not float away in the night, tomorrow I will begin the long journey back home.

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The Old Dominion

Virginia is the old glory of the United States. English settlers arrived in 1607, and for nearly two centuries it served as the crown jewel of the British colonies in America. The gentlemen farmers of Virginia were some of the earliest proponents of independence from Great Britain, and four of the first five presidents of the United States were Virginians. Yesterday morning I visited the home of the first of these great men: George Washington’s Mount Vernon.


Mt. Vernon was sold in the mid-1800s to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which has preserved the estate ever since.

George Washington inherited Mount Vernon from his brother when he was barely 20 years old. He later married the wealthy widow Martha Custis, and the two set about turning the land into a rich Virginia plantation. Even though he was away from home for many years at a time during the Revolution and his presidency, Washington maintained strict control on the operation and expansion of his estate, writing many letters with instructions on how to manage the home in his absence. He longed for nothing more than to return to his farm and fig trees.


The house was originally just the center. Washington added the wings later. The structure on top is called a “cupola” and is designed for airflow in summertime.

George Washington died in bed in 1799. During the tour of the mansion interior, we walked right by the room where he died. Even before his death, Washington was already the most prominent figure of American mythology. He survived battles that should have killed him, won against all odds, and twice he gave up supreme power to return home, like a modern-day Cincinattus to his farm or Diocletian to his cabbages. He was a singular man in a singular era. Henry Lee eulogized him as “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”


The tombs of George and Martha Washington, on a hill at Mount Vernon.

The entire estate was extensive, covering a large area on the south shore of the Potomac River. In his biography of Washington, historian Joseph J. Ellis wrote that Washington believed that the Potomac was the key to trade and exploration of the lands west of the Appalachians. He turned out to be wrong, but this informed his focus on Mount Vernon as well as his choice of the Potomac for the new national capital, just a few miles upstream.


The view of the Potomac River from Washington’s back porch.

I spent some time walking around the place, seeing the gardens, slave quarters, coach house, and the river wharf. Elsewhere on the estate, an actress brought Martha Washington to life. She did an excellent job with creating an historic atmosphere, and it seemed as if we had stepped through a time portal to visit the original First Lady of the United States.


Mrs. Washington entertained her guests and delighted the children.

This morning I left the freeways to get an up close view of the Shenendoah Valley and the Appalachian Mountains. The land here is lovely, and I could see myself spending some quality time here. I am glad to find rural villages, picturesque farms, and untouched villages in this place where civilization began its encroachment over four centuries ago.


Deer and fawn near Polyface Farm. They were trying to escape from my approach, but fences continually foiled their plans.


Hail to the king.


The heart of the Appalachians, from the Don Ingalls Overlook, off of State Highway 39. There once was a toll booth here for one of the original turnpikes.

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Versailles on the Potomac

I have been continuing my journey along the east coast this week, seeing with my own eyes these places that are so prominent in the history of my country. I added Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, and Maryland to my list, as well as the non-state District of Columbia. Earlier this week, I visited the Delaware River and walked across a bridge to Pennsylvania and then back to New Jersey. It is a quiet park with bikers and joggers now, but on Christmas Day, 1776, it was the site of one of the most daring feats in the American historical imagination.


It is sobering to think about how many battlefields are now quiet parks.

After suffering a disastrous defeat to the British regulars commanded by William Howe in New York, George Washington was in a bind. His own regulars were less professional soldiers and more a motley band of farmers who had enlisted for the year 1776 and were planning to return home at the end of the month. The defeat in New York was turning public opinion against the Patriot cause, and the Continental Army was undersupplied and ravaged by disease. General Washington needed a victory to boost morale and keep the flame of revolution burning. On Christmas night, he ferried his army across the Delaware River and into New Jersey. They advanced southward and surprised a company of Hessian mercenaries in British employ, defeating them soundly. Another victory at Princeton a few days later meant that the war was back on. Enlistments increased, and Washington’s army lived to fight another day.


Leutze’s famous painting gets many details wrong, but definitely captures the heroic spirit of the man and the age.

Yesterday I visited the city named for the victorious general. When the 1st Congress was debating where to place the new national capital, they left the choice of location and design of the city to President Washington. He chose a point at the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, not far from his estate at Mount Vernon. At the time is was a marshy swamp, but designers and carpenters began transforming it into the majestic city of marble that it is today. John Adams was the first president to live in the city, and over time it has become the home of politicians, bureaucrats, and endless armies of lobbyists. As a city of palaces and monuments that is a haven for rent-seekers and upper-class sinecurists, Washington reminds me of Versailles during the last days of Bourbon France.


Even the wildlife comes here expecting a handout.

On the other hand, walking amongst the monuments and palatial buildings of the city reminded me more of my visit to Rome. Perhaps in a few more centuries, the marble castles that house our government will be hollow shells like the Colosseum, or the sparse ruins of the Forum. For now, they serve dual purposes as centers of politics as well as tourist attractions.


Augustus said that he found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble. Among the bricks of the east coast cities, marbled Washington stands out.

Since I was already thinking about Rome, I remembered the strict rules of respect at the Victor Emmanuel II monument. Signs there forbade sitting on the steps, as well as eating and drinking. A security guard zealously enforced these rules, and I saw him eject more than one person for violating this level of civility. In Washington, there were several signs advising tourists to respect the monuments and to be quiet and civil… but they were ignored. On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial I saw people sitting, people eating, and even people taking a nap. I suppose the fact that people are paying homage to the great men of American history is a start.


On the other hand, this scaffolding remains as a reminder of the recent graffiti vandalism of the Memorial.

The two sides of the Lincoln Memorial were engraved with the words of the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural, respectively. It is amazing how clear and high spoken the statesmen of old were. President Lincoln had a command of the English language that is well beyond any politician of TV soundbite generation. Lincoln reminded the nation of the the barbarity of two and a half centuries of slavery as he explained the four years of brutal war that had pitted brother against brother. Lincoln did not claim that the Union cause was a righteous crusade, blessed by God. Both North and South prayed to the same God, but Lincoln believed that preserving the Union and ending slavery were both just causes. Less than six weeks after making this speech, Lincoln would be shot dead.


Lincoln was more erudite in his brevity than modern politicians in their long-windedness.

I walked past the White House fence, which kept the public a long distance away from the president and anyone else of such a class that they can enter the Presidential Mansion. It is a far cry from the days of Adams and Jefferson, who entertained impromptu visitors in the Peoples’ House.


Beyond that fence is a completely different world.

Speaking of Jefferson, I visited his monument as well. Thomas Jefferson was a brilliant man, shy and quiet in person but an absolute master of rhetoric and the written word. He was more idealistic than his friend and opponent John Adams, believing that the American Revolution portended a worldwide explosion of personal liberty at the expense of the kings and priests of old. He was severely disappointed in the way the French Revolution devolved into anarchy and murder, eventually replacing a king with an emperor. The battle between Adams’ pragmatism and Jefferson’s idealism still takes places every day in the halls of the city they inaugurated together.


The exterior of the Jefferson Memorial, near the shore of the Potomac River tidal basin.


Inside the Jefferson Memorial. The dome above was fitted with numerous surveillance cameras.

I returned to the Metro and followed the Green Line back to where I parked my car. Fun fact: The DC Metro was my first subway system in the United States, after having experienced them in Sydney, Madrid, Lisbon, and Rome. In all of these places, the metro subway is pretty much exactly the same. Washington is a world class city, with all the grandeur and decadence of any city that has ever been. George Washington once said that his city would someday take its place among the great capitals of Europe. In this, at least, he was right. Washington of 2013 is not entirely dissimilar to Rome in AD 79, or Versailles in 1789.


The Washington Monument looks over the National Mall in the center of Washington.

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The New England

The northeastern United States are miniature. In the past three days I have added Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island to my list of states visited. I drove up north to the Canadian border and stopped just short of crossing into Quebec. Someday I would like to visit northeastern Canada and see New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland, but I am content saving something for another day. Instead, I turned eastward one last time, crossing Lake Champlain into the Green Mountain State.


The bridge crossing Lake Champlain, just south of the Canadian border.

I continued through the northeastern states, stopping in Augusta for the night and then meeting a friend for brunch. It rained hard that day, with thunder and lightning shaking things up. The roads of Augusta were apparently not designed for such torrents of water, and at times I saw cars pushing through over a foot of standing water. I looked around, sure that I would find a line of animals walking two by two toward some unseen boat. The rain passed as I traveled south, though, and by the time I stopped here in Rhode Island it was calm again. Today reverted to the warm sunny weather that has followed me for most of the summer.


A bridge crossing a small lake in the back woods of Maine.

Today I headed back toward Boston and spent the day in the city of Quincy, birthplace of Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams. By the way, “Quincy” in both cases is pronounced “Quin-zee”. I visited the Unitarian church that both Adamses attended, and found both first couples buried in its basement. Next door to the church was the visitors center to the Adams National Historical Park, which encompasses the houses in which both presidents were born, as well as Peacefield, the farm that served as home for four generations of the Adams family.


The tombs of John and Abigail Adams, beneath the United First Parish Church. John Quincy and Louisa Catherine Adams are in the other chamber.


John Adams was born in this little house.

Though Peacefield was once in the center of farmlands and prairies, today it is a park nestled within the busy city of Quincy, which by now is a commuter town of Boston itself. The Adams house was purchased by John and Abigail upon their return from England and remained in the family well into the 20th century, when it was donated to the National Park Service with the stipulation that no changes be made to the house, inside or out. It remains as it did a century ago when Brooks Adams passed away. I joined a tour of the inside of the house, where no photographs are allowed. I could have spent hours just looking at the portraits and documents that remain locked away within those walls. In the kitchen, a grandfather clock quietly ticked away the seconds, just as it has been doing for over three centuries.


Despite some additions over the years, the house at Peacefield retains the same charm imbued by Abigail Adams as she turned it into a home.


The Stone Library, home to the John Quincy Adams Presidential Library. His son Charles Frederick Adams built and dedicated it. I was not allowed to touch the books.

This was the first presidential birthplace I have visited. With any luck I will add Monticello and Mount Vernon to the list before too long. Onward!

Categories: 2013: Looking For America | 1 Comment

Memento Mori

This weekend I found myself in upstate New York. I have noticed before how history grows older as I travel eastward. Buildings are older, grave markers are older, and memory is older. This land remembers the Revolution, the French and Indian War, and the long history of settlers and Indian tribes before that. The land is smaller as well. In Alaska, I could drive for hours without crossing a border or even coming across a city. Here, I was surprised to learn that I was only a day’s drive from George Washington’s home of Mount Vernon, Virginia.


Cherry Valley was established over a century before any European descendants began settling in Western Washington.

Driving through western Pennsylvania I passed the old lands of the Myers family, on my mother’s father’s side of the family. Coming out of Germany and Switzerland, the Myers settled in Pennsylvania and ran a gristmill for several generations. John Henry Myers, a veteran of the Civil War, brought his family out to Washington in the late 19th century, but many more relatives remained behind. I visited several cemeteries that were chock full of Myers.


My 5th-great-grandmother Nancy Burns Myers grew up here. She was a touch of Ireland in the mostly-German Myers family.

I drove north toward Lake Erie, which was once inhabited by the Dickson family, on my mother’s mother’s side. The Dicksons were farmers. The two sides did not meet until the 1950s in Washington, so it is fun to think about how close they were in ages past. The town of North East, Pennsylvania and Ripley, New York are both on the shores of the lake, separated by only a mile or two. My 5th-great-grandfather James Dickson moved out here after the Revolution, and I found his grave marker in Ripley.


The Dicksons were Patriots through and through.

Today I made my second visit to the village of Cherry Valley, which was founded by, among others, my 6th-great-grandfather William Dickson and his father-in-law James Campbell. The little town was mostly the same, though it may look a little better to you due to a better camera. Susan, the town historian and Celtic gift shop owner, was still there, so we continued our chat from seven years ago. She knows everything there is to know about the history of this village and of the Scots-Irish families that settled here. I returned to the cemetery and took some more pictures. It is amazing what a good camera, a tripod, and a few less pounds will do for a photograph.


Elizabeth Campbell Dickson was scalped by Seneca and Mohawk Indians when they massacred the town on November 11, 1778.


This monument was erected in 1878 to commemorate the massacre. On the reverse side are the names of all who died. Posing beside it is a family tradition.

In the past few days I have visited a lot of graveyards. As I walk the rows of stones, I tend to feel somewhat melancholy as I think about the people represented by these chunks of rock. History can sometimes feel very clinical and detached, but these monuments are a reminder of the human beings who wrote the history that I read. Every one of them was a person like me, with hopes and dreams and fears. I feel sad when I read of childhood deaths, or of young men and women who pass away too early. Yet each one is a part of history. Elizabeth Campbell Dickson was taken from her family in a wartime massacre, but today everyone who lived in that time is gone as well. Someday I too will be a name on a wall somewhere, and my story will be just another part of someone else’s history. Walking amidst the stones, I often remember the old medieval rhyme: Remember me as you pass by, as you are now, so once was I, as I am now, so you will be, prepare for death and follow me.

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Urban Jungles

I have left the corn belt and entered the rust belt. Most of my travel the past few days has been via freeway, so there have not been many interesting things to take pictures of. Tomorrow I am heading into Pennsylvania to visit more cemeteries (a strange habit, I know) and by tomorrow evening I will be in upstate New York. Google Maps has been very good at taking me around toll booths thus far, so I am leaving the busiest part of the beaten path, at least. Now that I am across the Mississippi, I am visiting new states seemingly every day.


My second visit to the Land of Lincoln.


My 30th state.


My 31st state.


My 32nd state. Eighteen to go!

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King Corn

I have spent much of the last week in the corn belt of Nebraska, Iowa, and Illinois. My ancestors lived here a century ago, so I have been taking the opportunity to visit the small towns that my great-great-grandparents called home. I have had the chance to visit several graveyards, looking over the memorials of relatives who died over a hundred years before I was born. I also made the time to visit a living relative. Bob Dickson is my cousin twice removed, that is, his father and my great-grandfather were brothers. I initially met him and his wife Mary on the very first trip chronicled on this site. Well past the age when a city-dweller will have retired, Bob continues to farm corn and soybeans on several hundred acres in Menlo.


He said that the corn is looking good this year.

The town of Menlo is in the midst of a decline, unfortunately. The school is closed, and students go to a consolidated school that serves four different communities. Several businesses and houses have been abandoned or torn down. Everything is becoming corn fields. Where once there were hundreds of small family farms, with not only corn but hay, hogs, cattle, and horses, there are no a few dozen large corn plots. Bob pointed across his corn field and reminisced about taking a .22 with his friend and camping in the woods. Today, there are few woods left. Corn is king in Iowa.


As long as they are corn fields, of course.

I have read about the reasons for the proliferation of corn at the expense of all else. Federal subsidies and increasing demand for corn-based additives has created a cycle of expansion. In Menlo, just down the road from Bob’s farm, a new ethanol plant has been installed. Ethanol is just one of the many non-obvious uses for corn. The hybrid seeds that farmers such as Bob plant are genetically engineered to be resistant to the weed-killer Round Up. This means that rather than planting corn in neat rows that leave room for men and machinery to come through to take out weeds, the corn is planted in extremely close quarters and the entire field is sprayed with Round Up. A tour guide at the museum in Winterset recalled helping his grandfather plant corn several feet apart. Bob said that when he was younger, the most expensive combines could do four or eight rows at a time. Today, they do forty.


This is all I have seen for the past week.

From Nebraska to Illinois, every open space has been filled with corn and soybeans. The beans, as far as I can tell, are only planted to replenish the nitrogen that is leached out by growing corn. If not for the nitrogen problem, I imagine that it would be cornfields all the way down.

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