The Grand and Final Dam

I stayed too long at a Starbucks outside Spokane trying to get a post done. As I left the sun was setting, and I didn’t have much time to make it to the Grand Coulee Dam. My parents were in their RV and parked at a campground not far from Grand Coulee, and we were hoping to catch the evening laser show at the dam. I knew I didn’t have time to get to the campground, so I called to tell them I’d meet them at the park itself.

SunsetI made good time and arrived a few minutes before my folks. I walked around the visitor’s center playing with the exhibits meant to teach kids how dams work. I already knew how dams worked of course. I’d learned the last time I was at the Columbia River, on Day Two of my trip when I stopped at Bonneville Dam in Oregon.

My folks arrived and we grabbed some warm gear out of the cars. We knew the laser show was a good half hour long, and it was getting chilly. I wore my sleeping blanket around my shoulder like a shawl. I was getting used to being prepared for anything.

Colorful lasers shot across the flat cement faces on the dam and the show began. It was narrated by the low, booming male voice of the Columbia River itself. He spoke at length about his own power, wildness, and might. He told us the history of the region, and how it was once used by natives before the white farmers came. Then the top soil dried up. He explained how the huge Columbia Basin Project, which built over a dozen dams along the Columbia River, also helped the country get through World War Two. Most of the story was told with a slow, authoritative pace, but he sped up when he started to talk about how the dam was built and how it worked. This was a shame because these were the parts that sounded most fascinating to me. Did I hear him say something about hand polishing the granite bedrock so they could lay the original concrete? I’ll never know.

Near the end of the show there was the obligatory homage to American prosperity and ingenuity. The song “They’re Coming to America” played over the speakers and the laser images showed famous American symbols and landmarks.

“Far,” Neil sang, “we’ve been traveling far.”

The first thing shown in the montage was Mount Rushmore, where I’d been just ten days earlier.

“They’re Coming to America.”

Next up was the Lincoln memorial in Washington D.C., and I thought about standing in the spot in Pennsylvania where Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address.

“Oh, we’re traveling light today.”

There was the Liberty Bell, whose Wisconsin replica sits in the Madison Capitol Building and looks down on the labor protestors who sing there every afternoon.

“They’re coming to America.”Liberty and Propane

There was the striking image of the Statue of Liberty, and I thought about seeing that same statue in Las Vegas, in Birmingham, and on the side of a lonely highway in Nebraska.

“Home, to a new and shiny place.”

A bald eagle flew across the screen, like the pair my parents and I had seen that afternoon flying over Kootenai Falls, or that one perched on the side of the road in Minnesota, or in that birdcage in Dubuque.

“They’re coming to America.”

It took me four months to see America and here it was, flashing before my eyes.

Today. Today. Today.

After the show I joined my parents back at the campground. I pondered the significance of spending the first and last nights of my trip near the banks of the mighty Columbia River. I closed my eyes thinking, “This is my last night on the road. Tomorrow I will sleep in my own bed again.”


Honesty on Uncle Tom’s Trail

Stairs in the TreesI first heard about Uncle Tom’s Trail during a ranger hike along the south rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Our guide told us that it was named after Tom Richardson, a ranger from the early 1900s who used to take visitors on a treacherous journey to get the best view of the Lower Falls. Tom would row them across the river and take them down a rickety, 500 step robe and ladder climb.

Today Uncle Tom’s Trail is a 300 step steel staircase, and while it’s much more stable, it’s still quite a trek. The ranger warned that it wasn’t for anyone easily winded or afraid of heights. When the ranger hike was over and the group was walking back, she pointed the interested parties towards the trailhead for Uncle Tom’s. The interested parties turned out to be me and two others, a middle-aged woman and her husband. We started down the trail but hadn’t gotten far before the woman abruptly stopped.

Photo of Stairs“I think I’ll stay here,” she told us.

The man and I continued down, exchanging basic info as we walked. I learned that his name was Chris, and he and his wife were from Colorado. He explained how she is terrified of heights, but had wanted to try anyway. Not long after we left her behind, the dirt dropped off from below the staircase and I saw 50 feet of open air under my feet. The staircase was the industrial kind, woven and open to allow rain to fall through easily. I’m not generally afraid of heights, but even I felt queasy for a moment.

“It’s a good thing she stayed,” Chris told me.

At the bottom of the staircase we stopped to take in the beautiful view of the falls. Chris insisted on taking a picture of me in front of the view, something strangers often insist upon. People back home always complain about how few pictures I’m in, so it seems I’m the only one who isn’t the least bit interested in photos of myself. I suppose it’s because I think I look like a goofball in any picture where I’m standing and smiling rather than trying to look like a goofball.

Me and the Lower FallsChris and I headed back up the stairs, and I told him about my hike up the Grand Canyon in Arizona. He told me about his work as a therapist, and somehow it came up that his wife smokes. A while back they talked about how she needed to stop, and she promised to do so. Now she smokes and lies about it.

“But that’s what addicts do,” he said, “So I don’t ask anymore, because I don’t want to be lied to.” Funny, it still seems like being lied to if you ask me.

We rejoined his wife on the way back up. She had made it a little further down before stopping. Chris and I assured her that she made the right choice, the stairs would have scared anyone. The three of us walked back to the parking lot together, but something felt heightened in me. Somehow I was part of the wife’s lie now. I was an accessory to her smoking when she says she’s not. And I was a part of Chris’s lie too, pretending I don’t know so we don’t have to talk about it.

Chris and I at Uncle Tom'sI’ve been a part of lies before. Every family and group of friends has secrets, and I’ve had several jobs where I was in charge of sensitive information. But I expect to hear secrets from my boss or my best friend. I don’t expect to hear them from strangers. The funny thing is, it happens all the time. On the road, you’re everyone’s sounding board. There’s no reason to keep anything from you, because in 20 minutes you’ll be out of their lives forever. I did the same thing with the strangers I met, telling stories in an open and honest way I know I wouldn’t have done for most people back home.

I’m starting to wonder if we’d all do better with a few more strangers in our lives.


Buffalo Bill Dam

I never thought I’d find a place that was windier than Bandon, Oregon. But such a place exists. It’s nestled in the canyons of Wyoming, just out of Cody on the road to Yellowstone National Park. And it’s on that spot that in 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt thought there ought to be a dam.

Clouds AheadI park my car in the lot for the Buffalo Bill Dam visitor’s center and am immediately thrown back by the wind. The sun is out and the air is bitter. An old man pulls up in a golf cart and asks me if I want a ride. He takes me and a few other recently arrived visitors over to the main center. On the way he warns me of a coming snowstorm.

“Look behind you,” he says. “That’s not rain.”

I look to the west and see the clouds he’s talking about. They do look like storm clouds but I’m not sure how he knows they’ll bring snow. I don’t say anything, but I secretly hope he is wrong. I have to drive that direction tonight.

The visitor’s center is small, and I cozy up to a few other guests to watch a short film about the making of the dam. At the time of completion it was the tallest dam in the world. Three contractors came and went over the course of construction, and the final cost was twice the original estimate. The Shoshone River floods every spring, meaning most work had to be done during the winter. The various contractors faced constant labor disputes over the horrendous conditions.

View DownI walk out onto the dam and it’s windier than before. I look across the beautiful lake and then down to the river punching out below. Somehow I find Buffalo Bill Dam to be more impressive than the Hoover Dam, despite being half the size. Perhaps it’s because the canyon is so narrow and the walls are so tall and steep. My fingers are freezing and the wind is bearing down. I can’t imagine trying to construct anything in such a place. I can barely hold on to my camera.

I hitch a ride on the cart and I see the storm clouds again. I sprint from the cart into my car. The wind has been pounding hard on my head and smacking my hair into face, and the stillness of the cab is a relief. I look towards the clouds on the horizon. They don’t seem so bad. All day I’d seen the beautiful and strange weather of the Wyoming landscape. I’d driven through sun and rain, and seen a dozen different storms on the horizon. This was just one more patch of gray rain.


Storym Wide Angle

Murder in Deadwood

Outside of the Old Saloon #10 a man dressed in stereotypical cowboy gear is sitting on a bench. He suggests I come inside, as they are about to do a reenactment of the death of Wild Bill Hickok. I take his advice, mostly because that is exactly what I have come to see. Prior to my arrival in town some 20 minutes earlier, all I knew about Deadwood, South Dakota was that Stephen Tobolosky was once in a TV show of the same name. With about an hour to kill in town, I figure I might as well find out what killed Wild Bill.

Saloon No 10Inside the bar a waitress directs me to the back room and I take a seat at an empty table. She asks what I want to drink. The true answer is “nothing,” but that seems rude.

“I’ll have a Roy Rogers,” I tell her.

A crowd starts to form and the tables began to fill up. The cowboy comes in and asks for four volunteers. Two people raise their hands. Slowly a third joins. I don’t want to volunteer, but I can’t stand to see a presenter try to work a dead crowd. I raise my hand.

The cowboy takes the four of us behind a curtain to put on our oversized costumes. The only man in the group is given the job of bartender and told to stand in the back of the scene pretending to fix drinks. The cowboy turns to the rest of us and asks if we know how to play poker. I say I know a little. The short brunette shakes her head no, and the skinny blonde seems terrified by the question. The cowboy tells us it doesn’t matter, we just have to pretend. The blonde is turned into a steamboat captain and told she should pretend to get shot in the arm when the gun is fired. The brunette is appointed saloon owner. My character has an actual name and a line to say at the end, which I assume is given to me because I am the only one who isn’t staring blankly like she’s about to be hit by a bus.

The cowboy leaves to do the intro, and both women turn to me with fear in their eyes.

“So you know how to play poker?” the brunette asks.

“We can just pretend,” I tell them. “We’ll pull cards and when you get a bunch that match you can lay them down like you won.” I know it’s not accurate, but I figure it will be easier to do than learn poker in 30 seconds, and it should look good on stage. The women nod.

The cowboy has us come out one by one, each time introducing our characters and explaining what brought us to Deadwood. I don’t hear much because I’m focused on getting to the right spot and setting out our newly acquired props. I sit at the table with the two women and shuffle the cards. They are still confused and nervous, and I keep having to point at them to get them to draw more cards or throw in chips. I look at my hand, slowly replacing good cards with bad. Before long I lay down a flush, and we shuffle again. The cowboy is still talking, setting the scene and telling the crowd about his character: Wild Bill Hickok. I don’t hear anything he says because I’m trying to get the girls to keep moving cards and chips around. I get a straight and lay down my cards again.

Me and Bill“You’re good at this,” the blonde steamboat captain whispers to me.

Thanks. I made up the rules myself.

The cowboy leaves for a moment to switch from narrator to Bill. The same waitress who took my order comes up to the table.

“Anyone wanna buy me a drink?” she asks in character.

The two girls don’t even look up, they’re so focused on our mythical version of Gin Rummy. The cowboy didn’t say anything about the waitress, so I shake my head no.

“Really?” she says, “No one wants to buy me a drink?”

I can hear it in her voice. Something is supposed to happen here, and she needs one of us to give her the cue.

“Okay, I’ll buy you one,” I say. There’s an awkward pause.

“Can I have one of your chips then?” she presses, pointing at the table. Ah, so that’s what she’s after. I hand her a chip and she takes it to our fake bartender to buy a fake drink.

The real show starts when Wild Bill walks into the scene and joins us for a round of cards. His assassin, Jack McCall, enters a short time later. The two have something of an altercation, but I’m not paying attention because a saloon owner and a sea captain keep looking at me to know what they should do next. I can hear the tension mounting between the two real actors, and Wild Bill turns his back to the future killer. The blonde chooses this moment to finally lay down a flush. Wild Bill whispers to her to keep her cards up, and she looks at me confused, as she was pretty sure this was a winning hand. I nod in agreement but motion that she should keep going anyway. She pulls her cards back up.

JB Hickok MonumentWild Bill Hickok is shot in the back. As the actor falls to the floor the three of us jump out of our seats. I say my line and we all run after the murderer. Backstage the sea captain remembers she was supposed to get shot. Both girls are smiling and jittery, and I smugly consider the underrated benefits of my $60,000 theater degree.

We walk back out to take our bows. The waitress has thankfully forgotten to get my Roy Rogers. I leave the bar and head over to my car, ready to get back out on the open road. I still have no idea why Wild Bill Hickok was shot.

Crazy Horse Dreams

I first saw the Crazy Horse Memorial when I was nine years old. I was on vacation with my grandparents, and we went to it right after seeing Mount Rushmore. Crazy Horse is only a few minutes from Rushmore, and is intended as a mountain memorial to the great Crazy Horse, the war leader who lead the Lakota people to victory at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. I remember being so excited as a little kid. Mount Rushmore was a permanent symbol of the greatness of the past. It represented the hard work of men from decades before my time, most of whom were long dead. But Crazy Horse was a mountain in progress. I imagined being an old woman and taking young kids to go see it. I would tell them about the day I first laid eyes on crazy horse, and how back then only a bit of the face and arm had been completed. They would marvel in the way that little kids do, amazed that I could remember something so far in the past. Visiting Crazy Horse, I felt like a part of history.

I was excited to come back and see it again 18 years later. I was excited to see how it had changed. I hoped that the visitor’s center was still laid out in roughly the same way, so I could remake photos that I had taken as a child.

Posing with Crazy HorseI paid my entrance fee at the gate and drove up to the parking lot. From the lot a person can get their first glimpse of the mountain, and that’s where I got mine. My heart sank. It looked exactly the same. Though work had been going on the whole time, the progress was virtually undetectable. I was filed with shame. The white presidents had their mountain made in less than 15 years, but Crazy Horse was permanently stalled. Where were the funds to remember the people who were here first? No where, it seemed. No one cared about Crazy Horse.

I went into the Visitor’s Center to see the collection of local Native American artwork, and to watch the introductory video. The video told the story of one man, Korczak Ziolkowski, who started the project in 1948. When he first began his work, Ziolkowski was completely alone. He built a log cabin near the mountain to live in, and constructed over 700 wooden stairs to get him to the top of the mountain to begin blasting. He worked alone for years before marrying a much younger woman and having 10 kids. The whole family became involved in the project.

Ziolkowski’s wife was interviewed for the video, and mentioned how he had been offered federal funds of more than $10 million on two occasions, but turned them both down. “He believed you don’t stand around with your hand out waiting for the government to give you money.” I did some research online later that suggested he was also suspicious that any federal money would mean federal control, and he didn’t want to risk his larger vision.

The full plan of the Crazy Horse Memorial was something my nine-year-old brain had tuned out. You can see the grand idea in a series of scale models inside the visitor’s center. In the shadow of the great mountain they hope to construct a university campus, a medical center, and a museum. The visitor’s center already includes the museum’s introductory artifacts, but one look at the site plans and you can see how huge the sculpture’s dream really was.

Master PlanI don’t mean to mock Ziolkowski’s belief in private enterprise, but it’s hard to see something remain stagnate for so long knowing the funding was there all along. The great monument to Crazy Horse looks no different now than it did 18 years ago. I even checked my memory against old photos in the gallery to be sure. While Ziolkowski is long gone, his wife, his children, and so many individuals who have become passionate about the project are forced to fight for it, and fight for it using his ideals. Outside of the occasional wealthy philanthropist, the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation must raise all its money through ticket sales and gift shop purchases.

Before leaving Crazy Horse I bought a souvenir shot glass – my small donation to the cause. Perhaps the lesson I was supposed to take away from Crazy Horse is that sometimes worthwhile work outlives those who know it to be worthwhile. At the current rate, it’s unlikely that anyone working on Crazy Horse today will live to see it’s completion. Like the pyramid builders, they must have faith that future generations will benefit from their efforts.

As I walked out the door I saw a small, laminated sign printed out on plain printer paper. It was given a place of honor right under the sign that says, “Push.” It proclaimed the line Ziolkowski is most well known for, and the one true take away visitors get at Crazy Horse:

Never Forget Your Dreams


The Only Lira de Braccio in South Dakota

National Music MuseumI wasn’t sure what to do for most of South Dakota. All I knew of it was Wall Drug, the Badlands, and the Black Hills. While at least two of those things are well worth the trip, there’s a lot more area to cover when crossing South Dakota. I was worried about being stuck on I-90, watching the blood slowly drain from my veins as I mentally ticked off the mile markers. in Minneapolis I met a member of a tribe located in southern South Dakota, and he assured me that there was more to see if I knew where to look – especially if I got off the interstate. He told me I was better off on highway 18, which runs parallel to I-90 but near the state’s southern border. He also told me to check out the music museum.

StradavariVermillion, South Dakota is not a large town, and the University of South Dakota is not a large school. But tucked away in a smooth stone building on the south edge of the campus, you’ll find the National Music Museum. I walked up to the front counter on a Friday morning, ready to pay my admission fee. The woman said the museum was free on Fridays, and offered me an iPod with which to listen to the audio tour (also free). I took my museum map and iPod and thanked her. I walked into the first room, which was filled with old stringed instruments, including many rare pieces from Europe. And there was a Stradivarius. Like, a real Stradivarius. The kind that sell for millions of dollars. There were several, in fact. As I listened to the audio guide tell me about the most famous violin maker in all of human history, I looked up and around, trying to see if anyone else was as flabbergasted as me to find such a thing in this little corner of South Dakota.

PhysharmonikaAfter checking out the only Lira de Braccio in the Western Hemisphere, I moved onto the next room, which featured members from the most unusual branches of the piano family. There were large organs and tiny keyboards. A few of them were so adorable and compact I wanted to take them home with me. I learned the origin of the phrase “pull out all the stops.” It comes from the organ, which has a numbers of pegs known as stops that control the air moving through the pipes. You would get a very powerful sound if you were to pull out all the stops.

Glass ArmonicaUpstairs I saw horns with no keys, whose sounds were made by the player’s embouchure alone. I learned that the saxophone was, in fact, invented by Mr. Sax of Belgium. I even got to see a Glass Armonica, one of the many things invented by Benjamin Franklin. Inspired by the sound of a wet finger on the rim of a water glass, Franklin designed and built an instrument made of glass bowls, which the musician would play using a moist finger. There was even a tiny metal bowl built in to keep some water nearby.

As my time was running short, I only had a few minutes to check out the player piano, the Indonesian gamelan, and the original heart-shaped trumpet from St. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. On my way out I stopped to look through a few postcards and the woman at the counter handed me a stack of extras for free. The cards had black and white images of unusual music-related scenes, such as a baby inside of a tuba or Mr. Rogers holding a double bell cornet.

Sgt Pepper HornIt’s no secret that the world is filled with tiny surprises like these, and that you’re most likely to find them when you’re not looking. But most travel surprises are valued simply because of their oddity, their contrast to the expected. The National Music Museum certainly falls into that category, but it’s also an objectively interesting and valuable place. It’s a fascinating, well-curated collection of rare and valuable pieces. It’s cheap most days and occasionally free. It’s the kind of place many cities would love to feature as part of their downtown tourist area. But it’s not in a big city. It’s not even on the main road of the small town of Vermillion. The National Music Museum is the most impressive place I’ve ever found on such an unimpressive street. And it is a long way off of the interstate.


Rocks and Oracles

StreamI got to Pipestone National Monument 20 minutes before the visitor’s center was supposed to close.  I had never heard of it before, but I was looking to take a break from driving and I saw a sign on the highway with an arrow pointing off to the side. National Monuments tend to be pretty interesting, and they’re almost always worth the stop. The ranger behind the counter told me that the monument was there to preserve the quarry where Native Americans get the traditional stone for their pipes. Now that it’s a National Monument, only the local tribes are allowed to take rock from the quarries, and even then they must have special permits. The stone itself is seen as sacred.

The ranger pointed towards the back of the visitor’s center and told me that there was usually a craftsperson back there working on a pipe. I followed where he pointed and saw a middle-aged Native American man sitting on a stool and fashioning a pipe by hand. There was another couple already standing there watching him, a husband and wife on the early side of retirement. The man asked the artist if he was part of one of the local tribes, and the artist recited his quarter lineage through an impressive string of vowels I can neither remember nor pronounce. The man laughed out loud at the absurdity of having a name so strange and long.

“So you work and live around here?” the man asked.

“Yes,” replied the artist.

“And where’s your casino?” the man said, chuckling at his own joke. I cringed.

“Up in North Dakota,” the artist replied, without anger, offense, or joy. He was used to it by now. It wasn’t worth correcting the man.

“Oh,” the man nodded. He hadn’t expected an actual answer.

Oracle SignI looked around the pipe museum and gallery until it closed for the evening. Upon the suggestion of the ranger I set out on the 3/4 mile walk to see the quarries. The path was easy and the prairies were calming. The walk occasionally followed along a small creek, and I watched the water forming its path over the rocks. In one corner of the walk I came upon a small waterfall where the members of the J. N. Nicollet Expedition of 1838 stopped to rest for three days, carving their initials into the rock. Nicollet and his men were mapping the upper Mississippi, and I can see why they stopped. The little waterfall is surrounded by full trees that provide shade, and smooth rocks that make for comfortable sitting. The prairies are more hospitable than the desert, but they still benefit from the occasional oasis.

The OracleI continued my walk, coming across unusual formations that had been given names and histories by the local natives. Most of the named rocks were ones that seemed to form faces. Some were endowed with prestige, such as The Oracle. I hadn’t walked far when I got to The Oracle, but I was far enough that I couldn’t see the visitor’s center anymore. No one else was on the path, and I did my best to travel back in time for a moment. I thought about being one of those early settlers, coming across a form of rock so highly valued that the locals made pilgrimages to obtain it. I thought about being one of those natives, and seeing The Oracle formed in the rock. It must have felt like destiny – seeing a face in the sacred stone. I thought about being in my car just an hour earlier, turning off the highway because of a sign and an arrow, and seeing the face of a thousand-year history. I like to think I’m closer to the artist than the tourist, but that’s just my vanity. Perhaps I turned off the road to be reminded of that. Destiny comes in all sizes.

The Shipwreck Coast

Museum SignYou don’t have to look at Lake Superior for very long before you realize what it really is: a siren. It’s beautiful. It’s endless. It’s enchanting. It will lure you in and swallow you whole. I guess that’s why they call its southern shore “The Shipwreck Coast.”

On the very end of Whitefish Point and far away from everything and everyone is the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. The museum grounds include the entire Whitefish Point Light Station, which is still under the control of the Coast Guard. Most of the buildings are no longer needed for official use, and they have been renovated to tell the history of the station and the many shipwrecks that happened nearby. One building is filled with rescue equipment. Another has mannequins and old furniture and is set up to look like the old light house manager’s home.

The actual museum building has artifacts of past wrecks. Some are recreations, some are reminders, and some came straight from the bottom of Lake Superior. The museum’s pride and joy is the recovered bell of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, the most recent and largest ship to wreck off this tragic coast.


It was one o’clock in the morning on November 10th, 1975 when the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, commanded by Captain Ernest McSorley, first encountered a heavy storm on its way from Superior, Wisconsin. The ship had been sailing within range of another large ship, the Arthur M. Anderson, since 5PM the day before. The two ships battled the storm all night and through the next day, until the Fitzgerald lost her radar. The Anderson tried to get closer to provide guidance to the Fitzgerald, which was now sailing blind. The winds had reached 67 miles per hour, and the waves were as high as 25 feet. The light house at Whitefish Point was down, and the mighty Fitzgerald began to list. At 7:10PM, some 18 hours after the storm had started, the Anderson radioed the Fitzgerald asking how she was doing. “We are holding our own,” McSorley reported. Less than ten minutes later, the Fitzgerald disappeared from radar. The ship’s bell was recovered many years later, and brought to the museum as a tribute. The rest of the ship remains on the lake floor along with its entire 29 man crew.

Rescue BoatThe Whitefish Point Lighthouse is still in operation, and visitors to the museum can get a private tour up to the top for a small extra fee. I was the only person who had purchased at ticket for the 1PM tour. The guide was a man in his late 40s, and I met him at the base of the lighthouse. An older woman stopped us and asked about joining the tour. He told her the number of stairs involved and asked if it sounded like something she could do. She hesitated.

“If you have to think about it you probably shouldn’t do it,” he told her.

He wasn’t joking. The stairs were steep and small and bound up tight in a spiral. They’d be hard to climb no matter how fit you were. As we got close to the top, he warned me not to hit my head on the ledge, explaining that there was a mesh bag of rubber ducks there to catch my eye. I was thinking about the silliness of the ducks when I hit my head sharply on the ledge.

View from the topWe made it up to the observation deck and my guide explained that visitors aren’t allowed up alone by order of the Coast Guard. He recited the handful of facts he knew about the place and told me to take as many pictures as I wanted. I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to know about the lighthouse, so I started to ask him questions about his own life. He lives only a few miles away from the station, which makes him 70 miles away from civilization.

“If I wanna buy blue jeans,” he explained, “it’s a two hour drive.”

He told me about a time he got all the way down to St. Ignace to go shopping, only to realize he’d forgotten his wallet. “You learn to make lists,” he said. “You can’t afford to forget anything.”

He only lives near the museum during the summer months, though he’s considering moving there full time. He told me the biggest hurdle was that no one comes to plow the roads near him, so he’d have to invest in his own snow removal equipment. It was, as he put it, “a big commitment.”

Great LampIn the museum I had seen a huge, beautiful, reflective lamp that was once used in the lighthouse. My guide explained that it had been replaced with a modern one, prompting me to ask if I could see the new light. From the observation level there was a small but steep set of stairs leading up to where the lamp was. My guide told me that we weren’t allowed up there. I nodded with disappointed acceptance. He looked around, first at me, then at the absence of everyone else.

“I bet it’d be okay just to poke your head up,” he told me.

My guess is he’d never had a tour of one before, so it was never possible to let just one person take a look. In my travels I’ve found that being alone grants me a certain amount of trust with everyone I meet, and a strange amount of freedom and opportunity.

Modern LampI stepped up onto the second staircase, going just far enough to see the light. Compared to the beautiful beast in the museum, it was very small – maybe the size of a watermelon. It was dwarfed by the room it was in, which was built to house a much bigger lamp. It was black and dull and mounted on top of an overly industrial-looking black canister. I remarked on its surprising appearance on my way back down the steps. My guide told me that he’d never actually looked at it himself, and started up the steps to take a peek. We were both amused by the underwhelming nature of the lamp.

Considering the presence of modern navigation on even the smallest vessels, we don’t often think about advances in lighthouse technology. We assume every ship knows where it is by the blinking lights on its dash. What use is there for lighthouses in a world like that?

I suppose on a great sea like Lake Superior, there is still a reason for this very old and undeniable sign of the shore. When the water stretches farther than the eye can see, there’s comfort in finding both your literal and figurative bearings.


The Boston Challenge: Part Two

Harvard GatesFor my second day in Boston I wanted to visit Harvard. I looked up the tour times and caught a train I thought would get me there just in time for the 10AM tour. When I arrived at Harvard Square Station I only had a few minutes to find the Harvard Info Center where the tours were supposed to take place. I took off immediately in one direction, but quickly realized I was going the wrong way. I began to speed-walk the other way and had gone a good four blocks before realizing that I was right the first time. I turned around and picked up the pace. I caught sight of the Info Center and practically ran through the doors and up to the woman at the counter as the clock struck ten.

“Unfortunately all our guides are students and we’re between quarters right now,” she told me. “Our summer tours ended yesterday.”


“Do you have a smart phone?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said out of breath and masking my disappointment.

“There’s a free audio tour you can download if you’d like,” she said with a smile. “It will take you all over Harvard Yard.” I thanked her and ducked into the hall to download the guide.

Harvard ChapelI followed my phone as it led me from building to building in the area I had so quickly ran past just a few minutes earlier. I listened as the polite voice explained the history of the structures and their uses. I couldn’t go inside any of the buildings, but the yard itself was littered with chairs for the tired student and/or tourist. As a professional tour group went by I overheard a young women explaining that the chairs were Harvard’s solution to the fact that they don’t really have a student lounge anywhere. My audio guide told me I could go inside the chapel, but there was a funeral going on and the place was surrounded by security guards tasked with keeping out lookie-loos like me. I found a set of steps nearby and took a few minutes to rest in the sunshine.

Big ChessI’m not really sure what I was hoping to get out of a visit to Harvard, but whatever is was I didn’t find it. I suppose it holds some strange Ivy League mystique, as through you will show up and magically look through the past at the hundreds of brilliant people who have passed through its gates. But in the end, it’s just a school. The same old buildings that undoubtably feel too far apart in the winter when it’s cold and you’re rushing to class. The same prospective student tours parading through. The same silence inside buildings when you’re in between academic quarters. And while I’m sure the education one gets at Harvard lives up to the reputation, in the end, the reputation is what it’s all about. That’s why it’s in our consciousness. That’s why you’ve heard of it. But you can’t really visit a reputation. You can’t get off the train and take a look at renown. Harvard is just a collection of buildings, the sort you might find at any old and decently-funded institution. I went to a public school on the West Coast. There was ivy growing on our walls, too.

By recommendation I went to Mr. Bartley’s for lunch. I sat at the counter and, like at lunch the day before, I was served by a man who seemed to own the place. The logo in the window was a clover leaf, and a sign above the cooking areas said “Irish NEED NOT Apply.”

Boston Tea PartyHaving completed my short tour of the Harvard area, I caught the train back into town to visit the site of the Boston Tea Party. Like happens sometimes, there is a highly visible area commemorating the event with a museum, a reconstruction of a ship, and plenty of ways for tourists to spend their money. However the actual spot in which the city has erected a plaque (and the site of the real event), is set off to the side and around the corner. In fact it’s a bit difficult to find the Boston Tea Party Plaque. It’s attached to a seemingly arbitrary building with no other stores or signs around it. But I suppose that’s what happens sometimes with historical locations. Simply because the area was important once doesn’t mean it can or will stay that way. In the case of the Boston Tea Party, the actual shipping dock no longer exists at all, having long since been replaced by more useful docks in other locations.

MassacreIn contrast, the site of the Boston Massacre is in the middle of a still busy and thriving intersection. It makes sense, as people rarely form mobs in out-of-the-way locations. The Boston Massacre is marked by a decorative ring on the ground, and is as easy to miss as the Tea Party sign for the complete opposite reason. A person could miss the Tea Party marker because it’s off to the side. A person could miss the Massacre ring because it’s so central. The intersection is packed and moving at all times, and it’s easy to let your eye move onto one of the impressive nearby buildings or an eclectic passerby.

I crossed the city to Newbury Street to see the shops. Shopping holds little interest for me normally, and no interest for me while traveling. Still, it’s sometimes fun to see the ways different stores appeal to different cities. I never miss an opportunity to slip into a comic book shop, and I saw a sign for one on Newbury. To my surprise, there were almost no comics in the entire store. Most comic book stores these days have large selections of related merchandise, and many make more money selling Superman action figures than Superman comics, but I’d never seen such an extreme example. I managed to find an aisle or two of comics in the back, and the rest of the store was music, movies, and clothing. I wondered what kind of transition such a place had to go through to start out as a comic book store but end up selling everything else. I wondered if they ever thought about changing the name.

Leif EricksonWith some effort I managed to find the statue of Leif Erickson on the nearby Commonwealth Avenue Mall. Per instructions from a priest/judge I know, I stood in front of it and sang “I’m a Little Teapot.” I like to think of it as a sign of respect to the first European to land on North American soil.

It seemed a bit early for dinner, but I was too hungry to care. A friend had mentioned the “Daily Catch” in the north end, and I hopped on the train again. The restaurant was very small – there were only five tables. One such table was extra long and had one couple seated at the far end. I took a seat on the opposite end as it was the only space available. The menu was written on the wall in chalk. The one and only waitress said hello and, upon request, endorsed the black pasta with ground squid. By her tone I could tell she got asked the question a lot, and that she rarely had complaints after patrons followed her standard recommendation.

As she went to hand my order to the one and only cook, a family walked up to the restaurant door. The man asked the waitress how long they would have to wait for a table of four. She turned around to look at her five full tables and told him at least a half an hour. In normal circumstances the wait times given at restaurants seem very abstract. I always imagine a series of equations involving the flow of staff and the time it takes to turn over a table. Of course in reality these calculations that are based on guessing how long it takes people to eat dinner. When this waitress said the wait would be 30 minutes, I knew exactly which table she was thinking would be finished around that time. And the people at the table knew, too, since the restaurant was so small we could all hear the conversations she had at the door. I think most people understand intellectually that restaurants know how we eat better than we do, but there’s something strange about seeing a group of people and knowing you are the only reason they are still waiting.

Line out the DoorThe man’s wife took the kids across the street to pick up some pastries for later. More people got in line behind them. By the time I left the Daily Catch, there were more people in line than inside. I walked down the street to pick up a treat from Modern Pastry. They packaged it up in a box and wrapped it in string with the same quick dexterity I had witnessed the day before at Mike’s Pastry. On the train ride back to the hotel I checked my list. I was proud of all that I had managed to see, and mournful of all the things that had been left unseen. Should I have spent more time on the Freedom Trail? Was one scoop of ice cream at JP Licks really enough? Had the New England Aquarium really been worth the two hours I spent there, or should I have spent some time at M.I.T.?

AquariumThe problem with The Boston Challenge is that it goes on forever. Boston is a packed and beautiful city. There’s long history at The Old North Church and short history at Fenway Park. I think of it like Rome and Seattle. Some cities have too many nooks and crannies to ever get old. And even if they do, it’s so easy to find a new favorite park or restaurant or cafe. There’s always somewhere you want to go back to. And I will go back to Boston.

If nothing else, I still need to watch the Red Sox play the Yankees.

By Chance, A Windmill

I am still following the highlights of a National Geographic Road Trip plan when I stop in Chatham, Massachusetts. The tiny town is busy with tourists. I consider not stopping at all, since I can’t see anywhere to park my car and the main entertainment appears to be shopping. However the trip description mentions a park and a windmill, and I figure I will give it a shot.

Mill Arms

I have a hell of a time finding Chase Park. It eludes me in that illogical way certain locations can seem mystifyingly invisible. I drive in circles, crossing by the same streets and getting stuck in dead end roads. Eventually I find the tiny parking lot and the small park sign. In front of me and suddenly towering over the landscape is the old wind-powered gristmill.

I walk around the mill taking photographs. Behind it I see a rock labyrinth tucked away in a quiet, grassy depression. The large fans of the mill are attached to the roof, which can be rotated around the mill by way of a large pole that reaches to the ground and originally would have been pulled by mule. This, I assume, allowed the mill to stay in operation no matter which way the wind was blowing. As I walk around, I see a small door on the side. I don’t bother trying to open it, as I assume it is only for maintenance. I can’t imagine anything of note inside an old windmill. As I’m getting ready to leave I see an old man carrying a bag.

“If you wait ten minutes you can see the inside,” he tells me, pulling a small waist apron from his bag.

I look at my watch – it’s ten to eleven. The man attaches a name tag to his shirt that identifies him as a docent, and he explains that the other docent is the one with the key. I nod. There’s a brief silence before he realizes he might as well start telling me what he knows. He explains the long history of mill ownership and how the original structure was moved to this location in 1956 after it was given to the town of Chatham. He points to the fans and explains the dangerous way in which they used to change out the cloth sails. He tells me that right now the sails are inside, but they’ll be putting them on for the weekend.

“If you’re here on Saturday you should come by,” he says. “We’ll be firing it up and grinding some cornmeal.”

I explain that I’m actually only in town for about an hour, and another couple walks up to us. They ask him where the labyrinth is, and he raises a hand to point.

“The labyrinth is over there,” he begins, turning to see the other docent walking up the path towards us. “And the windmill will be open in ten … nine … eight … seven …” As he counts down the other docent approaches with the key. The couple laughs and the woman insists, “Oh there’s no need to rush him, we’ll be back up in a moment.” The couple walks down towards the labyrinth. The man opens the door. I look at my phone and see the time tick over to 11AM exactly.

With the door open I walk inside the mill, a docent in front and behind. The gristmill reminds me of the old riddle about a rowboat: You have a rowboat with a leaky board. You replace it. Over time every one of the old boards begins to leak, and one by one you replace them all. Is this still the same boat? And if not, at what point did it change?

The windmill has seen its share of terrific gales, and many of its old boards have had to be replaced over time. Still, the heart of the structure is the same, as is the primary grindstone. The second docent takes me upstairs to the second level, along with a pair of approximately eight-year-old girls and their mother. He shows us the stone and explains how it works. He tells us about its exceptional weight and how difficult it is to move the stone at all, let alone get it up onto the second floor of a windmill.

In explaining how milling works, the docent tells us that the grind stone gets dirty over time, and it must be cleaned. He points to a mechanism that allows the huge stone to swing out to the side for maintenance. Because of the way the stones are positioned in relationship to the floorboards, there is barely a foot of open space below the dirty surface. The docent focuses his eyes on one of the little girls.

The Girl and the Mill

“So what do you think we do?” he asks her.

She shrugs.

“Well I know I’m not going to fit under there, so we’re going to have to get someone small to sit directly under this huge stone.” The docent points to the little girl. “Someone just about your size.”

The girl’s jaw drops in the cartoonish way you assume never happens in real life. She is filled with disgust and horror at the very idea that anyone would make a child do such a thing. Her mother smiles.

“Well,” the docent says, “just in case there’s no one small around, we better have another plan.” He points to the large wooden levers and gears and explains that the entire stone can be rotated sideways, exposing the dirty underside and allowing for safe cleaning. The girls seem relieved.

I thank my guides for the wonderful lessons on the surprisingly interesting world of grinding. As I am leaving I see the couple from before. They are standing next to the folded up sails and learning how to ensure accurate measurement of cornmeal.

Mill GearsMy visit to the mill was short, maybe 45 minutes if you include the ten minute wait at the start. In the course of my whole trip, it was a blip. Nothing life-changing or monumental, just an interesting bit of history and engineering. But the mill is only open for three hours a day, three days a week. A tour would be easy to miss. And if I hadn’t gotten so lost trying to find the park in the first place, I most certainly would have missed it.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had almost a full year before I left. By way of the Listener Mail segment on one of my favorite podcasts, I had been in contact with a pair of fellow travelers, Scott and Edie. They were a married couple with a dog who had decided to travel full time around the United States in their car. I was excited to talk to them since they seemed to already be living the trip I was about to take. When they said they would be driving through Seattle I offered to take them out for Thai food near my house.

During our conversation they asked me what I was most looking forward to on the trip. I told them about the summer I spent living in New York City, and how one day I was wandering around Manhattan and stumbled onto a street festival that only happened once a year. I told them I was excited about the possibility of accidentally encountering big events like that.

“That will certainly happen,” Edie assured me. “For example, what is Seafair?”

Her question made me smile. She was asking because that weekend we were having one of the most well-known and largest annual events we have in Seattle. During Seafair there are pirates and parades and clowns and a fly-over by the Blue Angels. Scott and Edie just happened to be in town while it was going on.

And in Cape Cod, I just happened to be walking by an old man, who just happened to be a volunteer docent, who just happened to be waiting for his associate to come open a 200-year-old building that just happens to be open nine hours a week. And I know for every gristmill there are a hundred other occasions where I didn’t get lost and didn’t run into a docent and didn’t even know I had missed anything. But there’s no use focusing on all the things I have missed out on. Not when there are so many happy accidents left to have.