Tag Archives: Road Trips

Eternal Road Trip

Bedtime at the Paddlesteamer Motel.  The name makes it sound quaint, which is wasn’t. However, the décor was updated and it was very clean.

Heidi sat hunched over the guide book on the edge of the king-sized bed she would share with Danielle.  I had already crawled into my rollaway twin.  We were all testy after the long day on the road.

“We’ll need to leave here no later than 7am,” said Heidi firmly, not looking at Danielle.

“Yes, Miss bossy boots,” Danielle responded to no one.

Siblings. Heidi and Danielle got along remarkably well, considering the strains they were under.

I put in my earplugs, rolled over, and went to sleep.

We were up and out by 7am, Heidi stood at the open boot of the car and Danielle and I threw our bags over the balcony while the resident cat tried to trip us by threading our legs as we dashed in and out.

Our objective this morning was the Healesville Wildlife Sanctuary just outside of Melbourne.

“The platypus show is at 11:15,” Heidi had read, “and it shouldn’t be missed.”

“We should be able to just make it, if we run from the entrance gate,” she went on.  “It’ll be close; I reckon it’s a three and a half hour drive with no stops.”

From my bolthole in the back seat, I panicked and leaned forward to get my head through the seats for maximum impact and whined, “But we will stop for coffee, right?”

“Eeyehsss,” Heidi confirmed, in that drawn-out way Australians say “yes.”

We stopped at a truck stop somewhere—Wodonga?  Wangaratta?  Benalla?  There were also English names along the route: Glenrowan, Swan Pool, Winton, Merton.

It was a truck stop like in rural America, with a couple fast food restaurants, a convenience store and petrol station, and showers and maybe nap cubicles. We had passed innumerable road signs that warned, “Trouble Concentrating?  Power Nap Now” And “Stop, Revive, Survive.” A couple of groggy, grungy truckers in baggy jeans, heavy boots, and filthy t-shirts stared blearily at the menus.

One moved ahead to place his order and I could tell he was speaking Aussie English but I couldn’t understand a word.

“What’s with the chicken schnitzel on every menu?” I asked Heidi as we gazed up at the board.

“I don’t know … isn’t that normal?  Don’t they serve chicken schnitzel at MacDonald’s?”

“No.” I replied. The undecipherable guy had left with his order and I asked Heidi, “Could you understand him?”

“Yes, but barely.  He had a real proper country accent.”

“Ah, it’s similar in Minnesota.  The farther from the cities people grow up, the more pronounced their Mee’-nah-soda accent is.”

We were up.  “What’ll ya have, doll?” asked the cashier.

I ordered a coffee and toast with butter.

The guy who was stocking the cooler nearby mimicked my pronunciation: buh’-der.  Aussies would say buh-ter’, I think.

Back on the road, and we listened to more Australian music.  “This one’s about the Vietnam War,” explained Heidi.

“Great!”

I was Only 19,” by Redgum, could win the “Most Depressing Song” contest.  The refrain is:

And can you tell me, doctor, why I still can’t get to sleep?
And night time’s just a jungle dark and a barking M.16?
And what’s this rash that comes and goes, can you tell me what it means?
God help me
I was only nineteen

It’s important, though, to listen and learn and it might sound Pollyanna-ish, but I’ve got four nephews and two nieces to think about, since women can now serve in combat.

Don’t think it could never happen again.

We made one more pit stop, at a road house that was frozen in the 50s and run by a wizened Indian guy who was muttering to himself in front of a wood burning stove.  I bought a box of Shapes which I imagined would be his only sale of the day and hoped they wouldn’t be stale.

We wound along the Maroondah Highway, passing Yarck and Alexandra, then entered the Dandenong mountain range.  Heidi was asleep in the backseat.

“We have to wake her,” Danielle urged. But we couldn’t, and we couldn’t do justice to describing the scenery later.

The Band Played Waltzing Matilda

We would make a detour to Wagga Wagga, where Heidi had attended Charles Sturt University.

“Wagga Wagga,” she said, “So nice they named it twice.”

We mosied around a riverside park.  Of course it had public barbeque stations, and the landscaping was lovely, with the wisteria and forsythia and other trellises in full spring bloom.  It was lovely until I got to the Sandakan Prisoner of War Memorial.

In 1942, 1,800 Australian soldiers were defending Malaya and Singapore from the Japanese.  When the Japanese took Singapore, they transported the Aussies to Sandakan, an island which is part of what is now Borneo. Borneo, a place I would love to go on vacation.

Half of Aussies died of “ill treatment” in the first year.  But wait, it gets worse! As the allies closed in, the Japanese marched the prisoners through the jungle toward the center, executing anyone who fell, then massacred all that survived except for six men who escaped.

There was a second memorial, this one for the Wagga Wagga Kangaroo March during World War I.  It details the way recruits were rounded up and marched from town to town, with stirring speeches and music—as if they were going off to a festival, not a war.  The plaque didn’t mention how many of the recruits survived.

We drove on, subdued, and Heidi and Danielle played a mix of patriotic Australian music.  There was the beloved “I am Australian,” written and popularized by The Seekers.  Here’s one version, and here are the lyrics.

It acknowledges everyone who has contributed to making Australia Australia, including Aboriginals, convicts, and farmer’s wives.  The refrain is:

We are one, but we are many
And from all the lands on earth we come
We’ll share a dream and sing with one voice
I am, you are, we are Australian

Even the lyrics to the official anthem, “Advance Australia Fair,” are quite mild, extolling the beauty and bounty of the land—sort of like “America the Beautiful.”

Why does our American anthem have to be the very-difficult-to-sing, self-congratulatory ode to war, the “Star Spangled Banner” (rockets red glare, bombs bursting in air)?

“This one is about the kangaroo marches,” Heidi DJ’d as the next tune began.  “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” by The Pogues, has to be the most depressing song of all time.  These are the first two verses; there are three more that get progressively darker.

When I was a young man I carried my pack
And I lived the free life of a rover
From the Murrays green basin to the dusty outback
I waltzed my Matilda all over
Then in nineteen fifteen my country said Son
It’s time to stop rambling ’cause there’s work to be done
So they gave me a tin hat and they gave me a gun
And they sent me away to the war
And the band played Waltzing Matilda
As we sailed away from the quay
And amidst all the tears and the shouts and the cheers
We sailed off to Gallipoli

How well I remember that terrible day
How the blood stained the sand and the water
And how in that hell that they called Suvla Bay
We were butchered like lambs at the slaughter
Johnny Turk he was ready, he primed himself well
He chased us with bullets, he rained us with shells
And in five minutes flat he’d blown us all to hell
Nearly blew us right back to Australia
But the band played Waltzing Matilda
As we stopped to bury our slain
We buried ours and the Turks buried theirs
Then we started all over again

“Whoa!” cried Heidi, “Let’s switch gears!” and she popped on the actual old folksong, “Waltzing Matilda,” followed by “Down Under” by Men at Work, then a really stupid rendition of the Twelve Days of Christmas, Australian style.

It was dark now.  We stopped in central Wagga, got a pizza, and were eating it off the trunk of the car when all the power went out.

On the way to Albury, Heidi managed to find and book a motel on her phone, and at 10pm we pulled up in front of the Paddlesteamer Motel for the night.

Hoppers and Hunters and Kookas

The plan was to leave by 8am for Melbourne so we wouldn’t be driving in the dark.  However as things sometimes happen, we didn’t leave until 1:00pm so I had time to nose around the farm while Heidi and Danielle made sure Des and Hedy would be okay during the girls’ brief absence.

I ambled down the lane to the main road.  I gazed over the fields and thought, “This looks just like Minnesota.”

Except for the kangaroos.

I spotted this mother and her joey, and a couple other adults, and was entranced by the way they hopped.  It looks so inefficient and tiring.

Back in the house I reported my sightings to Hedy.  “They’re coming in closer and closer to towns and houses because of the drought,” she said.  “Last week I opened the blind on the kitchen door and there was a joey napping on the patio.  He looked up at me as if to say, ‘What are you looking at?’”

“There’s a Huntsman in the hall,” Danielle said casually, “If you want to see some proper Australian wildlife.”

Thankfully I am not afraid of spiders.

“Do you kill them?” I asked.

“Nah, we just let ‘em be,” replied Danielle.  “They’re good for hunting bugs, as their name implies.  That one’s been hanging around for a couple days.”

I walked around the house and noted the boxes of photo albums and strongboxes stored by the front door, ready to load into the car and spirit away in case of a bushfire.

“We keep the grass cut really short,” Heidi had told me.  “It’s not for appearances. It’s a fire deterrent.”

Scary stuff.  Australia routinely deals with deadly bushfires; the worst was the Black Saturday fire in 2009 that killed 173 people.  Two months after I returned home, we Americans would be watching in shock as the Camp Fire in northern California killed almost 90 people and nearly wiped the city of Paradise off the map.

As an aside, while reading up on fires I learned that the largest one in US history was in Cloquet, Minnesota in 1918—453 people died, 52,000 were injured or displaced, 38 communities were destroyed, and 250,000 acres were burned.

I admired the family photos on the baby grand piano, Hedy’s collection souvenir spoons from her travels, and shelves full of books.  I could easily spend a couple months here, curled up on the couch reading.

The only photo I took of the interior was one which illustrates an Australian oddity.  At least, it’s an oddity to Americans.

Yes, the toilet is in a separate room.  I don’t know what the thinking is behind this.  Entering this room removes any doubt about what activity you may be performing.  You are prevented  from running the water to cover up any awkward sound effects you may need to produce.  [And may I just insert here—Australian toilet paper is really thin.] Then, after you have finished, you have to exit the Toilet Room and into the Bath Room to wash your hands.

It ranks up (or down?) there with the Dutch toilet’s “viewing platform” and the English deep-bowl sound-enhancing toilet.

We made half a dozen stops on the way to Melbourne, but Facebook unhelpfully deleted almost all my photos.

Before exiting Blayneyshire, we cruised through the historic town of Carcour, population 200.  You will have to take my word for it; it was very picturesque.

We stopped at several botanical gardens, since I had clearly established a reputation as someone obsessed with flora.  And why wouldn’t I be?  Here’s another massive tree.

GPS was intermittent, so there were some false starts and turns.  We passed Mandurama, Wattamondara, Koorawatha, Wombat, and Wallendbeen.

We stopped at a park in Cootamundra so I could receive a tutorial in cricket.  Cootamundra is the hometown of Donald Bradman, Australia’s most beloved cricket captain, and the park featured busts of every captain since the dawn of time.

Suddenly I was startled to hear insane laughter coming from the trees.  “My God, what is that!?” I called to Heidi.  It took her a few seconds to realize what I was talking about.  “Oh that?  That’s just kookas.”  Kookaburras.  Here’s a sample from YouTube.

Next stop: Wagga Wagga and the Sandrakan Memorial.

Bally Cotton

In the dark, the car headlights flashed onto a sign: Bally Cotton.  I went back and took a photo of it the next day.

“It was the name of the farm in Ireland Dad’s family came from,” Heidi explained.  Her dad’s family had been in Australia for several generations, while as I wrote before her mother had come as a refugee from Austria after World War II.

Her dad, Des, and her mum, Hedy, had met at work, at Commonwealth Bank.  Hedy had had to quit her job when she got married.  They had lived in a suburb of Sydney while Heidi and her sister Danielle were young, then bought this property and built their dream house. They had had cattle, but then health problems came and most of the land was now leased to a neighboring farmer.

One of the things that binds me with Heidi is that she and I are both supporting aged parents.  After visiting the farm, I will never again complain about having to drive 20 minutes to get to my mother’s assisted living facility, where there are no stairs, she gets three meals a day, someone does her laundry and gives her her medications, and she’s got loads of activities to choose from to keep her occupied.

Heidi makes this drive almost every weekend—it takes her four hours with no stops.  Danielle lives at the farm full time; it’s hard to imagine Des and Hedy being able to stay there otherwise because services just aren’t available—there aren’t enough home care providers and they would spend all day in their cars if there were.

Everything is a long-distance proposition, like getting groceries, going to the doctor, or getting an oil change.  “Blayney’s a dead town,” Heidi said.  “It had a movie theatre and a Chinese restaurant when we were kids, but then everything moved to Orange, another half hour away.”

Heidi pulled the car up into the driveway and we began carrying in our gear.  It was so dark we had to grope along the brick wall to the back door, which led to a gazebo.  Des was eating his supper and Hedy was doing what she had probably always done—cooking, cleaning, washing dishes.  They don’t use a dishwasher because it requires too much water.

I had met Hedy in London years ago and it was nice to now meet Des.  He’s had some serious health challenges uses a walker but his smile lights up the room.  Des and Hedy couldn’t have been more warm and welcoming.

Heidi showed me up to “my” room, which had been hers as a youth.  It was full of photos and mementos from high school and college days.

“But where will you sleep?”

“In with Danielle,” she replied.

“Oh you’re kidding!  Are you sure?  I could happily sleep on the couch. I could never share a bed with my sister—we both have the Restless Legs and we’d be kicking each other over the side all night.”

“Aw, no worries, Annie!  We both sleep like the dead.”

The next day was Heidi’s birthday.  We all went out for breakfast at a café.  When you have a parent who uses a wheelchair, a walker, or just moves slowly, you can’t be impatient or in a hurry.  I know this from transporting my own mother, and in my finer moments I think of the slow-motion process as mindfulness practice.

It was a cold, blustery spring day, but pleasant, sitting near a sunny window and reminiscing about Heidi as a child.

Next up for the birthday girl was wine tasting at Phillip Shaw, just outside of Orange.  We sat near the fireplace and there wasn’t a bad wine in the bunch.  They had a needlessly complicated system of characters and numbers which none of us could make any sense of.  I bought a bottle of champers for Heidi for her birthday, a bottle of red for Des and Hedy, and a bottle for the friends we would stay with in Melbourne.

We topped off the day with homemade stroganoff and a birthday cake, then turned in early.

Tomorrow we would hit the road again for the eight-hour drive to Melbourne.

Sydney to Blayney

Heidi and I would drive Auntie Margaret’s car to Blayney, a three—or five-hour—drive depending on the route.  Well, Heidi did all the driving, and thank goodness.  Someday I will overcome my phobia of driving on the left side of the road.  It’s on my bucket list.

We headed northwest toward the Blue Mountains, passing English-sounding place names like Marsden Park, Liverpool, Londonderry, Windsor, Richmond, and Gros Vale.

Then there were the—presumably—Aboriginal names, like Paramatta, Winmalee, Berambing, Megalong, and Yaramundi.   We stopped in Kurrajong for a cup of coffee, then entered the Blue Mountains.

“If you roll down your window you can hear the Bell birds,” Heidi suggested.  Yes, Auntie Margaret’s car still has crank windows.  The bells echoed near and far in the forest of Blue Gum trees.  I would love to return some day and hike through to hear the bells without wind rushing by.

When I look at the map now, I’m amazed again by the distances.  There were no straight roads, so it didn’t pay to be in a hurry. Our next stop was Katoomba.  The main street was lined with head shops and cafes serving alfalfa sprout sandwiches but most everything was closed because it was late afternoon in the off season.

“Oh, sorry, our toilet is out of order,” said the owner of the one restaurant that was open.  “The public toilet is just down the block,” and he provided complex directions. Thankfully I had not been hydrating.  Heidi braved it, “And it was pretty much as bad as you would expect,” she reported.

There was a church across the street with a tree out front covered in knitting.

I think Katoomba is probably a funky, fun town to visit in the high season.

Just outside of Katoomba was the reason we were there, the Three Sisters overlook.  My first stop was the toilet, and it made me wonder just who my fellow visitors would be.

The Three Sisters is a geological formation overlooking a vast valley.

“Can you imagine?” I commented to Heidi. “The first Europeans crossing that valley?  It reminds me of the great north woods in Minnesota, where the Voyageurs came down through what’s now Canada, portaging their massive canoes, being eaten alive by mosquitoes. And they were just teenagers, basically, from poor farms in France and England and Ireland.”

“Yes,” Heidi replied.  “I think it was pretty much the same story here, except with lots of poisonous snakes and spiders and plants.”

We took a short walk and the lowering sun threw luscious light on the gums and golden rock face.

We checked out another lookout, where a ranger who looked like Rip Van Winkle was being peppered with questions from visitors about the rocks, birds, and animals.  Most of the visitors were teens or 20-somethings from other counties and many were trying to get the perfect Instagram but they were also curious.  I know I will sound condescending when I say I found this heartening.

We drove on and took another scenic hike.  This turned out to be my favorite because the light made it all eerily beautiful.  There were these giant tulip-like flowers.

And these tiny ones.

“And I think these are Scribbly Gums,” Heidi pointed out a funny-looking tree that resembled an old man with scribbles on his skin.

“It’s getting dark,” she said.  “I don’t know how far the lookout is.”

“And it’s cold,” I added.

We turned a corner in the path and came upon a woman sitting on a bench. She was wearing sunglasses, and a parka with the hood pulled up around her face.

“Do you know how far the lookout is?” Heidi inquired.

“Noooot faarrrr,” the woman replied in a zombie voice.

We walked a few more yards, then turned back because it was getting too dark.  The woman was gone, and we never passed her even though we were hoofing it to keep warm.

One more stop in the Blue Mountains: The Hydro Majestic Hotel and Ballroom.

It was … well, deco-majestic.

Next time, I would stay the night.  We were tired and I worried about Heidi driving another two hours in the dark.

The Road to Alice

Google maps will not plot a route from Kings Canyon to Alice Springs. There is no direct road unless you have a four-wheel drive vehicle and want to go 40 mph (64kph) over corrugated surfaces for six hours.  The only place to see along the way is an Aboriginal community called Hermannsburg, population 600.  It’s the birthplace of Australia’s most famous Aboriginal painter, Albert Namatjira.  This is the monument to him; I was okay with not stopping to see it.

We took an indirect but smooth route.  In five and a half hours, there were no towns and no landmarks, only sand and spinifex and a few scrubby trees in a landscape that varied from flat to undulating.

This is a photo from an Australian Broadcasting Company promo for the “Secret Sex Life of Spinifex.”  That must be fascinating.  I’ll be sure to watch it someday.

There was no Internet.  The Canadian guy, who was sitting diagonally from me, finished his novel after an hour and I could feel him eyeing my New Yorker magazine. I felt his pain.  I had another issue in my backpack and I handed it over.  Heidi snoozed while I read a very long article about Rudy Giuliani.  Yawn.  I read one of my Somerset Maugham short stories and tore it out of the 800-page book to lighten my load. Four more hours.  I took out my souvenir kangaroo-themed notepad and jotted some notes to jog my memory for blog posts later.  Usually I can kill time by making lists.  To-do lists, to-buy lists, people-to-call lists; but I couldn’t summon the energy.

It may sound excruciating, but this was one of the highlights of the trip for me.  How often are you cut off from outside communications, and from anything to do except read or write—and even those are challenging due to the slight vibration of the bus, and because I felt brain dead as the bus soared monotonously through the desert like a plane flying over the Pacific.

“Brain dead” sounds bad.  I like to think of it as my computer being shut down—for the first time in months or maybe years.  For a few hours I had nothing to say, do, or think.  This ennui somehow felt good and right and overdue.

After four hours we reached the one human-built place to stop, Eldunda Roadhouse, which bills itself as the “Centre of the Centre.”

It was a Wild West place, and I don’t mean in a Disneyworld kind of way.  This was the real thing—a barely-stocked grocery with uninteresting souvenir t-shirts that looked like they’d been there since 1972 and a petrol station peopled with Wicked Campers, whatever that meant.

There was a bar.  I would have loved to have a cold beer because it was a million degrees outside, but there wouldn’t be a bathroom until Alice.  There was a barefoot group of Aboriginals roaming around, hollering at each other in Pitjantjara.  Were they loaded, or just bantering, in high spirits?

There was a motel; I’m sure it was worth whatever it cost if you were in danger of nodding off behind the wheel.

Of course there was an Emu farm.

As in most other places that advertised free wifi, I couldn’t connect to it by the time we had to leave.  Was it a slow connection, or my iphone?  Heidi let me connect to her hotspot so I could see how many people had liked my photos on Facebook.  So important.  When we first arrived I noticed my sense of desperation to connect.  Now it had decreased to a mild curiosity, and I was okay as we drove off into the desert again and the connection vaporized.

Meg pulled into Alice and began dropping us off at our accommodations, which ranged from luxury hotels (for the British Aussie family) to a backpackers hostel (for the German girls and Swiss couple) to a three-star motel (for Heidi and me).  We had only spent one full day and two nights together, but it felt like a week.  Nonetheless, there were no lingering farewells as we tumbled out of the bus to seek hot showers, AC, and clean white sheets.

Thank You

In real time, Happy Thanksgiving, if you are American.  Happy Thursday, if you are not.  I have some news items to share at the end of this post.

Day four in Australia.  Day four?!  It felt like I’d been here forever, in a good way.

We alighted from our bus for sunset viewing of Ularu.  I walked around snapping photos of other tourist vehicles. I have spent many hours in these heavy-duty Toyotas in Kenya and Ethiopia.

There was this crazy sardine-mobile, some kind of motel on wheels.  I’m all for budget accommodations, but this beat even the bunkhouse for the claustrophobia factor.

There was this dusty, Mad Max BMW motorcycle.

A group of barefoot Aboriginal women sat on the pavement selling paintings.  I felt a sharp, uncomfortable contrast as Meg poured sparkling wine.

But then I was distracted by food.  “This is kangaroo jerky,” she indicated, “this one’s emu pâté  and this here’s croc dip.”

“The kangaroo is delicious!” I commented.  “It’s like venison.”

Heidi didn’t touch it.  “I can’t eat it. The kangaroo and the emu—they’re our national animals.”

“They’re animals that can only go forward,” explained Heidi.  “Like our country, I reckon is the idea?”

“I guess I wouldn’t want to eat a bald eagle,” I replied.  Well, all the more emu and kangaroo for me!

The members of our group began introducing ourselves.  Trevor and Gwen had immigrated to Australia from Nottingham, England, 20 years ago.  They were here with their 14-year-old daughter, Tiffany.  Kris and Melanie, a young Swiss couple, never spoke unless spoken to, so I didn’t get to know them at all.  Brenden and Stefanie were another young couple, from Canada.  Johannes and Sandra were a middle-aged German couple who took elaborate tripod-assisted selfies of themselves jumping for joy in front of every landmark.  Mia and Nora were also German; both were around 22 and they were student teachers in a German school in Melbourne.  There was a Chinese couple—father and daughter?  Lovers?  They stood apart and avoided all eye contact.  Another couple, Darren and Kylie, were also a May-December pair.  They said their names and that they were from Melbourne, then also kept to themselves.

I spoke with James, a 30-something Korean guy who spoke confident but almost-impossible-to-understand English. He was an out-of-work cook from Adelaide, blowing all his savings on a last hurrah in Australia before going home to an uncertain future.  He reminded me of Vince.  Because he was a cook, but mostly because there was a soulfulness about him.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because it doesn’t involve decorating the house inside and out, buying presents, or any Christmas/Hanuka dilemmas.  You just eat a lot with your family or friends, then fall asleep in front of the TV watching The Hobbit for the millionth time.

Thanksgiving is about—as the name implies—giving thanks, and I have a lot to be grateful for this year.  As I sit here at my writing desk and look out the window at the grey sky and freezing drizzle, I am grateful for a warm home.  I am healthy.  I have friends and family.  I got to spend a month in Australia!  I wish I was there now.

And, some big news: I quit my job last week.  More on that later, but I already feel 10 years younger.

And another big development: Vince and I started this blog together four years ago.  We just published the first year of the blog as an e-book.  It chronicles his time in prison, his recovery, and my ride along with him.

Besides providing insight into why people turn out the way they are, we’ve been told by many readers that it’s just a good read, a page turner.  So if you’re looking for something to binge read over the weekend, or holidays, consider buying a copy.  Only $3.99!

Breaking Free: A Mother And Son Journey From Addiction, To Prison, To Redemption https://www.amazon.com/…/B…/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_apa_AbI9Bb9K1SXQM

Please feel free to share this on social media, and thanks for reading—we know it can be difficult stuff but addiction and all its consequences, including imprisonment, are a reality for hundreds of thousands of people every day.

Road Trips, Fireworks, and Kittens

I’ve written about snorkeling in Belize, hiking in Petra, learning Spanish in Mexico, working in Istanbul and Ramallah, and the biggest adventure of all, visiting my son in prison.

But I’m also a proponent of finding adventure closer to home.  After all, you can’t travel internationally 365 days a year, although I’d like to test that assumption.

So on Tuesday I drove 260 miles (418 kilometers) to Madison, Wisconsin to visit my cousin.  The speed limit for most of the route is 70MPH (113KPH).  On the plus side, the road is smooth, the scenery is pretty, and I just found out I have cruise control—after owning my car for over a year.  I set it to 76 in honor of the Independence Day holiday.

I90 was congested with semi trucks.  There are a lot of disturbing billboards for truck stop porno shops along the way.  Is that all truckers do when they don’t have their hands on a steering wheel?  Ugh.

This was the route Lynn and I took two years ago on our way to New Orleans.  This post describes some of the exciting places we visited, like the Cranberry Discovery Center and Jellystone Park.

I stopped at a wayside rest and learned about sphagnum moss, including how to spell it.

I somehow tore myself away from this fascinating info-plaque and drove on.

Madison is half the size of St. Paul-Minneapolis.  It has a Top 10 public university where I met one of my nieces for happy hour.  She’s always been a great person and she’s even better now because she’s doing what young adults are supposed to do in college.  I don’t mean studying.  I mean figuring out how to be an adult.  How to manage friendships, romantic relationships, inner turmoil, outer turmoil, etc.

A few hours later, my cousin and I went to Hyvee for dinner because his wife, who was exhausted from her work as a physical therapist, wanted to rest and asked him to bring her a to-go Cobb salad.

When Hyvee opened in St. Paul, people acted as if it was the second coming of Christ.  I don’t get it.  It’s just another grocery store with all the same processed food but presented beautifully. We had the all-you-can-eat “Chinese” buffet and I can tell you, they should have paid me $8.99 to eat the execrable crap they passed off as Chicken Stir Fry.  The chicken was rubbery and looked suspiciously as if it had been extruded from a machine.  But I wolfed it down because I hadn’t eaten since happy hour, where I had ordered a large basket of deep-friend cauliflower. It was terrible.  I ate every crumb.

Back at his house, my cousin and I sat on the porch in the dark, slapping mosquitoes and talking about politics and our childhoods—we grew up three houses apart so we feel more like siblings than cousins. He’s a radio journalist and just about ready to hang it up in this political climate.  “Working at Hyvee looked really appealing,” he remarked.

The next day we drove through the arboretum, had breakfast at a place called Barriques and a few hours later lunch at Monty’s Blue Plate Diner. Then we spent an hour at Olbrich Botanical Gardens.  How had I never been there?  I’ve been to many botanical gardens around the world, and this was one of the best.

Then it was back on the road, just in time to arrive home for 4th of July fireworks.  You may have read that people who have lived through war can be re-traumatized by the sounds of fireworks. Well I live in a neighborhood of many Southeast Asian immigrants and last night it was like trying to sleep through the Vietnam war.  I could hear my neighbors yelling and shouting in Hmong in between what sounded like cannon blasts until 1:30 am.

I finally gave up on sleep and got up, only to find an animal adventure under my dining room table, where my latest foster cat was in the process of giving birth.  I sat with her, stroking her head.  It was a rough night, but here they are this morning, six in a pile.  Worth it.

In Eton, In DC

From Shaftsbury, Lynn and I drove to Eton where I would house sit for a month.  But first we had to find it.  It looked so easy on the map but as usual we got terribly lost and since Sam was expecting me at 12:30 I got panicky and may have been a bit short with Lynn.  Well, I know I was, but as a Minnesotan this took the form of hinting about what I thought she should do.

The map wasn’t detailed enough. We didn’t have a GPS.  I couldn’t call Sam with my phone because I didn’t have international service and I couldn’t message him because I had let my data plan lapse because I “never needed it.”

“Use my phone,” Lynn offered.  I managed to switch it to airplane mode and it took me 20 minutes to figure that out, with Lynn trying to assist while driving 80MPH.  I got Sam’s voice mail.  We drove in circles around Windsor, the town across the Thames from Eton.  Looking back, I don’t know why we didn’t try to find it using Google maps on Lynn’s phone, but we didn’t.

Finally I glimpsed a cathedral-like building in the distance. “That must have something to do with Eton College,” I said.  “It looks like one of the colleges at Oxford.”

“Well spotted!” Lynn cried with relief.  “Now what’s the address?”

“123 High Street,” I said confidently from memory.  We paced the high street, and Lynn declared, “There is no 123!”  She burst out laughing when I checked and said weakly, ‘Oops, it’s 321.”

Five minutes later Sam was greeting us at the door.  Greeting me, I should say.  He gave Lynn directions to Heathrow, waved her off, and ushered me in.  Poor Lynn, I later learned, had had hopes of using the bathroom but she kept a stiff upper lip until she got to the airport.

In real time, I just returned from Washington, DC and I’ll write a few posts about that before returning to my summer in the UK.

I went for a workshop for grantees of the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, or DRL.  Don’t ask me why it’s not BDHRL, but I’m okay with that.

I won’t go into the content of the workshop because then I’d have to kill you.  Just kidding, you would die of boredom before I could kill you.

The building in which the workshop was held does not have an address and is not on Google maps.  Really.  I don’t know if this is intentional—for security purposes?—or just part and parcel of the crazy patchwork of streets that is DC.

The cheapest hotel our travel agent could find was $585 a night.  That wasn’t some 5 star place, just a Marriott.  I found a studio apartment on Air B&B for $182 within walking distance of the venue. My expectations of it were low but when I arrived I had to lower then further.  The studio was in a 40s-era building that had been badly renovated.  It was on the George Washington University campus and in keeping with that was reminiscent of a dorm room.  Not that I’ve ever been in a dorm room, but think: cheap Walmart navy blue bedspreads with pilly grey sheets on twin beds, bare walls, a giant-screen TV, and a window with a view of a brick wall.  Here is a picture of the bathroom “door” from inside the bathroom.

Good thing I wasn’t sharing the room with a coworker.  I was motivated not spend any time here.

I did a recon to ensure I could find the workshop in the morning.  I copied the map from the agenda onto my palm.  There was no signage, but I was pretty sure I’d located the building, so I wandered on and accidentally found the area with the Washington Monument, White House, and other iconic places. There were the usual protesters in front of the White House, but far fewer than I remembered from past visits.

Darkness forced me to return to the room.  I crawled into bed fully dressed so I wouldn’t catch cooties. Thank god I was only here one night.

Getting the Shaft in Shaftsbury

Shaftsbury, England.  I awoke before dawn to the sound of a car driving slowly into the gravel parking lot.  The driver got out and walked to the entrance, crunch, crunch, crunch.  I was just falling back to sleep when he or she must have gone back out to get luggage.  More crunch, crunch, crunch on top of rolling crunchiness.  Another car pulled in, more heavy rolling crunchiness.

Lynn exclaimed from the darkness on her side of the room, “Whoever thought it was a good idea to have a gravel driveway in a hotel?!”

“I know!  Well at least no invading armies are going to sneak up on us.”

“Right.” she replied drily.

There was no going back to sleep now so we went down to breakfast. I ordered kippers, which I’d had never had, and Lynn had a Full English minus the blood sausage.

Blood sausage is just what it sounds like, sausage made of blood.  I think it’s a food that’s traditional and no one really likes it but they keep it on the menu for tradition’s sake.  Most Brits I’ve mentioned it to made a horrid face.  Is it like lutefisk or gefilte fish?  No one likes either one, but people put it out once a year because it’s “tradition.”  Blood sausage is on the menu everywhere, so I don’t know, maybe lots of people love it.  What do you think?

Me, I love fish, so I was happy with the kippers.

The Daily Mail had this cover in regard to the Grenfell Tower fire:

I think the Queen learned some lessons in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death, when she was accused of being cold.  Maybe she can give Theresa May some pointers about getting down with the people.

We walked into town to Shaftsbury Abbey, or what was left of it.

The abbey had been a regional center of power until Henry VIII had it destroyed along with all the other monasteries in the 16th Century. The piles of stones on either side are where the pillars of the nave were.

A small display inside the visitors’ centre featured a few shattered carvings, remnants of painted sculptures, and a diorama of what the abbey had looked like.  It must have been enormous and fantastically beautiful.  Henry VIII was known to appreciate beautiful things, so why destroy the abbey, down to the ground?  Why not just seize the gold candlesticks and leave the building with its gilded arches and ornate carvings?  It was a display of power, of course.  He had half a dozen of his own palaces, so a couple hundred monasteries out in the sticks were no loss.  He was a red-headed megalomaniac who loved his palaces and couldn’t stand for anyone else to … wait, why does that sound familiar?

Here are the names of some of the abbesses.

It was lunchtime  and we picked our way carefully down Gold Hill to find a pub someone had recommended.

I had one of the most memorable meals of the summer at this pub, a fish pie with turmeric.

I tried to replicate it once since I’ve been home but didn’t get it right.

Of course what goes down must come up—no, I didn’t vomit up the fish pie—we had to walk back up the hill.

We walked a few paces, stopped to take photos, then walked some more.

It’s not that we couldn’t have hiked straight up the hill without a break—really.  But it is true that a summer of fish pies and pints means I really need to get back to the gym.  Maybe tomorrow.  Maybe next week.

Next we visited the historical museum.  Shaftsbury was once a center for cottage industries, which just means people sat in their cottages and made things, like buttons. These are the forms and the finished buttons.

In the 17th and 18th Centuries thousands of women and children were employed making “Dorset Buttons.” The button-making machine caused these cottage industries to collapse after 1750, and the gentry “helped the unemployed workers to emigrate to Canada and Australia.” That’s one way to solve your unemployment problem.

FYI, I’m going to DC for work and won’t be blogging for a week or so.