Stories along the Way: The final leg of the 7 week, 7000 mile journey

Pennsylvania October 24

Jim has great fondness for parts of PA where he spent his youth and we find the Ohioyke campground. It is open all year and  a popular spot for rafters. We select a site and settle in. Once again it is peaceful with few campers and we seem alone in the woods. Jim is intent on finding the river and the falls he white-river rafted down with the Boys Scouts. It is a wonderful memory for him.

Tonight, after a Maine crab salad dinner, I’ll tuck in with a book about FallingWaters or “Loving Frank” while Jim dreams he is 17 again in a raft going down the rapids.

The next morning we go to town and park the Sprinter and walk down to the river and the falls. We pause at a placard talking about the river. Behind us Mr. Marmalade Cat walks down the switchback path with intent. He is well collared and tagged. He barely pauses as Jim tries to pet him before continuing to some appointment down the path. Jim shows me the spot where the Boy Scouts jumped off the falls into the water before rafting. He is convinced it is much smaller than it was when he was 17years.

The town and the Falls were once a tourist area with large hotels for people that came down by train from Pittsburgh for $1. As the automobile took over transportation, the hotels and other buildings were torn down. In 1948, clear-cutting started on the Ferncliff Peninsula. A local resident, Lillian McCahan, began writing letters to protect it. Mrs. Albert Keister worked for years to gather 589 acres from distant relatives to be preserved as a state park and saved Cucumber Falls. Edgar Kaufmann, from FallingRiver became aware of the fight to save the area, purchased several acres and donated them to the Western Conservancy.  Since tthen, thousands and thousands continue to enjoy the natural beauty because of the hard work of these forward thinking citizens

We drive on, searching for another boyhood lake, Crooked Lake,  following the GPS directions. Ironically, as we turn onto a narrow road we see a sign on a small hill be

“Not the way to Crooked Lake”.

Obviously we aren’t the only ones tricked by the GPS. We find the Lake and Jim points out various spots and wanders with his memories. His family often came here for a day trip of canoeing, swimming and picnicking .

October 26

We book a hotel for two nights near Jim’s boyhood home. He shows me the house, the ice skating arena, school and the long hill they climbed each day.

On Friday we visit Jim’s oldest sibling, Judy and husband Bob. At almost 70 years, Judy, an RN, still teaches a 5 month long certified nursing assistant class. It is for the nursing home she has worked at for many years. The course is far longer than required. If I had to go to a nursing home, I would want a “Judy graduate” to take care of me.


Energizer Bunny Judy is busy this Friday morning. The table is spread with small round shortbread cookies she made for Jim. It’s their grandmother’s recipe. She took the bus down from Montreal to Pittsburgh once a year laden with toys and boxes of shortbread cookies for her six grandchildren. She came from England at 21 years to be a nanny in Montreal.v%mMNsgbS5SmKSqWEd+OhQ

The shortbread is made of salt, flour, butter and sugar. The secret lies in the 20 minute hand kneading.  Grandma taught Judy the technique and they are Jim’s favorite. Judy came to Seattle to care for Jim for a week during cancer treatment bringing him his favorite cookies. It probably worked as well as the chemo. Judy hoped to take me to downtown historic Harmony, but my mischievous right leg nerves had a merry time the previous night so I didn’t want to push it. Instead she went to the bakery, and brought back lovely things for dinner.

Saturday 11:30. Shooting at nearby Pittsburgh synagogue, multiple casualties, an hour ago. Suspect in custody. This past week all the mailed bombs. Suspect captured in Plantation, FL, close to my grandsons home. Violence grows closer… all of us. 

The Pennslvania Turnpike is fast and straight, a boon to Jim who finds the winding lesser roads hard on his neck and shoulders. Me, I’m not so fond of the highways. We decide to sleep at the service plaza and its horrid, Lots of trucks and highway noise.

On we go into Indiana. I search for a campground. Many campgrounds close in September or mid-October and it varies between states. I find one campground but it’s just for tents. I found another one near Marseille IN. We drive into the park at dark, tired and not sure of what is in the  but it’s only $10 for the night. The next morning we awake to a beautiful fall morning, warm and glowing with bright tree leaves. There are a few other campers, but no one near our Sprinter. There is a nice path to walk on around the camp site and people and dogs took advantage of it.I could stay all day.

Sadly my meditation and exercise program suffers on these trips. But in the campground in the warm morning, I step outside to do QiJong in the woods, standing in a pile of rustling leaves and looking up to a blue sky through bright leaves.  Or standing at the edge of the lake. I’m so close to nature as I slowly complete the moves looking around me. Any thought of a bad mood quickly departs.

Driving through the small town of Marseille we come across a number of memorials for local men and women who died in Wars. A relatively new memorial is for those that died in the Middle East—Iraq and Afghanistan. It is erected by the Illinois Motorcycle Association. Banners on light posts name individuals who died during their military service.

Now that Jim is taking to the major highways, I find at least one special spot to stop in each state we whisk through. Today it is Starved Rock State Park, Illinois, on the banks of the Illinois River. Once quite shallow, it is now a series of canals with locks that allow boats laden with goods to travel to Lake Michigan and onto the St Lawrence Seaway in Montreal and down to Louisiana on the Mississippi.  Even on this late Fall Tuesday, there are many cars in the huge parking lot.

The Park includes 18 canyons formed by glacial meltwater and stream erosion.They slice dramatically through tree-covered, sandstone bluffs for four miles through the Park. At one time a fort stood on Starving Rock. It is an area that switched hands between the French, the British and finally the U.S. after the War of 1812. 

The name comes from an unproven legend of injustice and retribution. Pontiac, chief of the Ottawa Indian tribe was killed by an Illiniwek. The killing was revenged by the Potawontomi, an ally of the Ottawa. The Illiniwek sought refuge atop a 125 foot sandstone butte. The other tribes surrounded them until they died of starvation.

We climb the wooden staircase to Starving Rock. Below is a brilliant colour quilt of leaves reaching for miles. A huge, long barge begins its slow journey through the locks below us.

The Park is full of magnificent old trees, dropping their colorful leaves. Something  that delights me is that many of the trees have a “memorial” a stone engraved in front of them telling about the virtues of the tree. In other spots, where trees died, a figure is carved in the remaining trunk.

We drive to the Lodge, surrounded by small log cabins. A large part of the lodge and cabins were built by CCC workers from the area who also worked on the canal. Looking at their memorabilia, they were typical 19-23 year old single men who pined for local girls and complained about the heat while working diligently to complete their work.

We enjoy lunch in the lodge, seated in chairs and a table made by young CCC workers in the 1930’s. It is a popular place and people wander in and out of the dining room and Great Hall. It is a well known venue for weddings and other events with sleeping rooms decorated in traditional furniture  connected to the main lodge.

As we stand near the bottom of the steps up to the large visitors’ information center for Starved Rock State Park on the Illinois River, I notice a woman with a walker at the bottom of the ramp. She is well dressed and walks slower than a tortoise up the long ramp. Someone opens the door for her and she walks in. It is obvious that this trip many people complete without much of a thought is hard for her.fullsizeoutput_1203 Unlike others, she won’t go on to hike the trails on the beautiful day. The visitor center is her outing.But she did get to stand outside and smell the fall air and listen to the rustling leaves on the many trees. I am humbled. I’m sometimes frustrated as I find my own travel  annoyingly restricted with rearranged body parts—but if we really want to travel and expand our world—we will find a way. 

Noting that the Indiana Turnpike is just below MI, I make a quick call to friends in Western Michigan who urge us to come and stay for the night. It was a good visit and catch-up time. Alas other friends on the side trip had a sudden family medical emergency so we contacted another couple west of Kalamazoo, Ed and Debbie, and enjoy a happy, but too short visit. I’m glad that longtime friends allow spontaneous visits from Jim and me who happen to be in the neighborhood from Alaska. I mean Deb even cancelled her ice cream date with girl friends!

On I-80 again, we whisk through Illinois and into Iowa.

Iowa November 1

Last night was a beautiful night as we pulled into the Prairie Rose State Park campground. No one is here, except us on a beautiful lake. Of course we never know until morning as we arrive just past sunset. This morning we awoke to blue skies and a warming, windless morning.  Flocks of geese landed on the lake for a rest for their journey south.

Jim wants go to a town for a local breakfast but I insist on a short walk in the sunshine. He stops at the park office to pay the camping fee— $6 . Prices vary significantly between states. We continue on a, scenic byway without mountains and curves. We reach the town of Harlan that the two lane highway swings around. 

“We have to go downtown for a local restaurant,” I say as we pass chains that we dislike. “Let’s see whose right,” I add and we drive to the center of Harlan with its town square and county courthouse squarely in the middle. We park and start to walk around the sidewalks and I spot the “Milk and Honey” restaurant serving breakfast and lunch. While housed in the corner of an old hotel, the small restaurant boasts about its relationship with local farms listed on the wall. We order at the counter and help ourselves to silverware and glasses of water.  I grab a tea bag, add the water and milk but it seems to curdle. I learn that it is minimally homogenized and that is just the cream from the top. The owner and his cook work nonstop preparing large takeout orders and serving customers that arrive sporadically. Thankfully breakfast is an all day offering. The old tin ceilings painted gold are in good shape. There is an old switchboard sitting on top of an old safe. It’s a good breakfast. 

A man from the restaurant comes up to me as I stand outside taking photos. He asks if I would like a brochure about the original uses of the buildings. Some of the buildings around the square are being remolded. We follow him to his real estate/title office and he gives us a nicely done booklet. The prices of real estate listings are extremely low compared to Alaska.  I decide to go into a gift store and Jim goes in search of a bank. I find him sitting in the sun on a bench in front of the court building.He talks about the friendliness of the bank employee who helps him find the ATM. There is definite pride in this community. As usual, walking back to the Sprinter, Jim explains to me the construction of the old buildings we pass and how they are renovated.

Amana is intriguing and we drive into town early in the morning. There are several “Amana’s including West, high, middle, east and “plain Amana.” They were founded by German descendants to practice their religion. Originally it was a “co-op” model with private dwellings and common areas for eating. Separation happened and individual houses and businesses sprung up. It is the home of Amana appliances and Westinghouse.

We start at the visitor center that is housed in a former corn crib. A knowledgeable woman tells  us about the area and the times we can visit the original furniture and clock making shop with a catwalk to watch the workers. By this time, Jim is drooling. She shows us a couple of wooden “compositions” made by the workers.


We walk down the streets and look at the beautifully preserved buildings with different offerings. Jim is soon bored and heads back to the Sprinter while I do a little shopping. We drive over to the Woodworking and Clock shop with its retail store attached. Jim and I go to the enclosed catwalk to watch the craftsmen, naturally Jim stays longer. I linger in the room devoted to clocks including several grandfather clocks with chimes sounding in many tunes. Captain Kangaroo’s grandfather clock is here. Remember when he used to wind it every day and take a note from it?fullsizeoutput_1223

The craftsmen also made a huge walnut rocking chair that Lily Tomlin did her Edith routine in.

While many clocks chimed at the same time, I was surprised it wasn’t a cacophony on noise–it was delightful

 Back on the road again, we head to the true destination of today’s travel—LaMarr  who’s main product is ice cream. The Iowa legislature voted it  the “the best ice cream in the world”. Annoyingly, the ice cream parlor is closed for a few months and no  other place in town sells ice cream. Most of the storefronts are empty.

 It’s time to leave Iowa. We didn’t get to go to the John Wayne museum located in the house where he was born; visit Grant Wood’s studio; or renew our relationship at the covered bridge in Madison County.

We did get to look at the Grant Wood sculpture  painted by a local artist in the Amana visitor center; enjoy a delicious coffee in the Chocolate Haus; buy a few things in the artist co-op in Amana; buy corned beef and dark rye bread for sandwiches at the butcher shop and spend 3 quiet and solitary nights in wonderful state parks for $6-11.

Me: reading a sign at a rest stop: Josiah Grinnell (for whom the town is named) is the young man that Horace Greeley said to” Go West Young Man.”

Jim: Who Cares?

Me: leaning in “How bout a kiss??

Jim looked startled and then laughed. Our hearing problems offer momentary comedy.

South Dakota

We spent time 2 years ago in South Dakota seeing My Rushmore so we spend spend time driving through the Badlands National park. But first, while driving on side roads we notice signs for Wall Drugs.

Along the way are fields and fields of sunflowers their brown  heads drooping in the last direction the sun shone on them. I imagine what it looks like when their happy faces are yellow and in full bloom.

Not sure what it is we follow the signs to Wall, SD, a pseudo western town. Wall Drugs is a huge storefront with many small western style stores inside and a restaurant where the walls are covered with the “largest private collection of Western art.”  The store survived the Depression by offering free ice water to thirsty travelers beginning  in 1931. They still promote their 5 cent coffee. Indeed, one man was reading a book and enjoying his cup of coffee. I’m pretty sure he is a local person.fullsizeoutput_1201

At another table, we watched a group of young 20’s including one dressed in a cannibis sweatshirt another, wearing a NASA patch,  and one who looked like Sergeant Pepper. The 8 group members were  thoroughly enjoying themselves in a fairly quiet, non obnoxious way—they were quite funny. As they got up to leave, one pulled out  the biggest cowboy hat I’ve ever seen, put it on his head and swaggered out. As we started the drive into the Badlands, we ran into them a couple of times at view points, hiking and taking photos with real cameras. As they were leaving I approached them to ask where they were from—they said they were just passing through and were from Kansas, New York, etc. They were enjoying the park and each other. They seem to be involved in various comical skits. Surely they were Theatre majors!!

Monday. Last night in The Grey Panther for this trip. We will soon fly home to Alaska after visiting WY friends, road weary, but with beautiful memories, I want to sleep in a special outdoor place for our last night in the Badlands of South Dakota. But Jim is worried about the weather and we drive in the wind, rain and darkness to the Walmart parking lot in Rapid City. We put the curtains up and settle in for the night. We are in the far corner of the parking lot of the huge 24hour Walmart. This morning we are part of a “square” kind of like wagon trains circling for the night. A huge semi stretches across several parking places and is the first to leave; the driver in a four door pickup is waking up and a young woman with her 10ish son is putting gasoline from a small can in her aging Chevy Blazer with bald tires. They pulled in about 4am.

“You have a low tire,” Jim called to her.

“I know, she said.”

Jim went out to pump up the tire and give her $20. Her son said, “There’s more air at the gas station.” When Jim finished pumping up the tire, they drove away.

I don’t know her story, but I was once a single mother barely getting by.

Our 7000+mile trip from Michigan to the Gaspe Peninsula and Maritime provinces and on to Wyoming from the East coast where the Grey Panther will rest until Spring when the weather allows driving to Alaska is ending. A very special, memorable trip. Now we’re ready to return home after visiting friends in WY. Regardless of the vitriol in the U.S. today, we are heartened by the good people and the good works we saw and shared.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Mark Twain

Stories along the Way: The final leg of the 7 week, 7000 mile journey

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