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(Y)Ahn

There was one more experience from the Torino Olympics that I wanted to share – the time that I saw Apolo Anton Ohno skate to a gold medal, complete with one of those weird moments of drama that seem to only happen in the Olympic Games.  However, life inserted a pause in my blogging, and in the meantime I came across a few references to some of the less traditional athletes in the Sochi Winter Olympic Games.  These are the ones who are competing for a country that they have only a tenuous relationship to, whether due to a relative’s birth status, timely marriage, or financial incentive.  The BBC did a fun job of summing them up for us here (along with a couple athletes who are competing with genuine passion for their home countries that also happen to lack facilities (i.e. snow) for winter sport training).

Among these, perhaps the weirdest is the Dominican cross-country ski team.  I say “perhaps” because a new strange fact could easily emerge about any of the others, but this couple seems to be winning so far… though they didn’t come anywhere near a podium, we are all still talking about them – and who here can name the actual gold medalist in that event (what event, even?)?

Gary di Silvestri and Angela Morone are US residents who skied for the small island nation nation of Dominica (not to be confused with the Dominican Republic) in Sochi.  When I say “skied” I mean “signed up to ski” – neither of them finished their races (only one even started).  Deadspin has a long and involved analysis of their citizenship, past exploits, and athletic prowess here.  Is this tale of scamming the system true?  I can’t know, but even if only the most basic details, available to every one of us, is factual, this husband and wife clearly don’t get what the Olympics is really about.

What are the Games about?  This afternoon I finally got around to listening to a podcast from the crew at Pop Culture Happy Hour wherein these critics had a go at the whole concept of watching sports.  They made some good observations, but I would say that they missed some of the most important points in the function of the Olympics.  Is the system corrupt, the event over-commercialized?  Do we spend too much time talking about the back story on the athletes versus showing the competition?  Yes, yes, and yes.  However, this is also the only time, every four years, that these high-level athletes get to show off their skills, and we get to watch this extreme athleticism.

Everyone wants to know the star of the football team, has opinions on their MLB team’s manager, lists their favorite basketball stars.  How many of you could have named a skier, luger, or skater one month ago?  These athletes work and train hard their entire lives.  They go through a rigorous competition season of local, regional, and international races, culminating in a World Cup circuit of some sort.  Every four years, they get a chance to compete in events that the whole world is watching, a place where one run, race, or performance will determine whether they get a big chunk of metal to hang around their necks.  They get to skate under the flag of their country, alongside their teammates who may have been rivals just weeks before.  In some ways, it may make no difference in their overall standings in their World Cup or equivalent – it is a huge celebration of athletics and sportsmanship that is a break from their usual routine.  On the other hand, they may have only one shot at the Olympic Games, and their performances there could make a huge difference in sponsorships and other income, which could in turn determine whether they are able to continue their athletic careers.  When folks make up an athletic past, buy a place on an Olympic team, and then fail to even try to complete a race, they not only mock those individuals who have worked incredibly hard to get there, but they take the spotlight away from them as well, perhaps at what could have been fifteen minutes of well-deserved fame.

Ahn Hyun-Soo, dejected, stands next to Apolo Anton Ohno after his gold medal win in Torino, Italy

Ahn Hyun-Soo, dejected, stands next to Apolo Anton Ohno after his gold medal win in Torino, Italy

Of course, some of the athletes are competing under flags other than their native ones, for completely different reasons.  One that was left out of the BBC’s list above, presumably because it has been so high-profile, is the case of Viktor Ahn, formerly known as Ahn Hyun-Soo.  This guy was the top medalist in both Torino and Vancouver, for South Korea. However, he was injured last season, and was unable to compete in events which served as qualifiers for the Korean Olympic team.  So, he decided to move to Russia, gain citizenship there, and compete as a Russian.  This is also known as defecting.  Some fans lowered their opinion of Ahn as a result, but that didn’t stop him from medaling in Sochi, too.  Personally, I got a little tired of hearing his story over and over.

I saw Ahn compete in Torino, saw him come in second to Apolo

On the starting line in Torino '06

On the starting line in Torino ’06

Anton Ohno in the men’s 500 meter, and lead South Korea’s relay team to gold.  There were 7 initial heats in the competition, followed by 4 quarterfinals, 2 semifinals, and 2 final runs (one for 1st through 5th place, and one for 6th and 7th).  The semifinals and finals took place the day I was there.  In addition, the Men’s 5000 meter relay was also competed that day.  The relay looks pretty confusing on television, or even at some points in person.  However, once you get a handle on what you’re looking at, it is a beautiful sight, and remarkable that more skaters don’t get injured!  What a great experience to see these races in person.  I keep meaning to go to one of our local Midwestern tracks (such as the Petit Center in Milwaukee) to watch some short-track speed skating.

Skaters give each other a push...

Skaters give each other a push…

... during the men's 5000m relay in the Torino Olympics

… during the men’s 5000m relay in the Torino Olympics

The Koreans were great, but the personality and athleticism of Ohno won the day for me.  Seeing his passion when he won the finals of the 500 m was amazing, and witnessing his emotion during the medal ceremony was something I will never forget.  I am not usually a particularly patriotic person, but I even got a little choked up as I watched our flag rise to the strains of the Star-Spangled Banner, in that packed stadium.

Drama... this guy thought he deserved to parade his South Korean flag around the stadium... but it turned out that he had been disqualified, so Ohno carried the US flag around, instead!

Drama… this guy thought he deserved to parade his South Korean flag around the stadium… but it turned out that he had been disqualified, so Ohno carried the US flag around, instead!

 

Apolo Anton Ohno after skating to victory in the Men's 500 m, Torino 2006

Apolo Anton Ohno after skating to victory in the Men’s 500 m, Torino 2006

Medal ceremony of the Men's 500 m short track event, Torino '06 Olympic Games

Medal ceremony of the Men’s 500 m short track event, Torino ’06 Olympic Games

 

 

A Delectable History Lesson

When planning this road trip to Tennessee, I soon came to the conclusion that a stop at a historic whisky distillery would have to be on the itinerary.   It turns out that one could plan an entire vacation around top-of-the-line bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey.  I’m partial to bourbon, but Jack Daniels is…well…Jack. The trip wound up including two separate visits – one to Jack Daniels in Lynchburg TN and the other to Buffalo Trace in Frankfort KY.  Both were excellent, though different.  And I’m looking forward to that whisk(e)y-centric tour someday!

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IMG-20131026-00676_2The Jack Daniels distillery is located in historic Lynchburg, TN, at the south-eastern end of the farm country that extends between Nashville and the Cumberland Plateau. It is in Moore County, which was originally part of Lincoln County.  All of this geography matters more than you might think.  I won’t give everything away, just put it in context.  The fine whiskey produced by “Mr. Jack” was a result of having an excellent source of water from the limestone spring coming out of the hills, a ready source of grain nearby, white oak and sugar maple trees for the barrels and charcoal-filtering, and temperature fluctuations to mature (or “season!”) the spirits.  Of course, there were plenty of stills, legal and otherwise, in these hills, and they all used the “Lincoln County Process” of filtering the raw whisky through charcoal before barreling.  What really made JD into the brand it is today was the pride of its founder and subsequent owners and master distillers.  It all started in 1866 when Jack Daniels became the first man to register a distillery in the United States.

I had originally planned to visit Jack Daniels on a Sunday, but plans changed and I wound up arriving there late Saturday morning.  On a typical October weekend, this might not have been a problem, but this particular day was the annual meeting of the World Barbeque Invitational.  Everything took a little (or a lot) longer than would be typical.  Word to the wise: check the events calendar before you go!  I got registered for a “sampling” tour, then walked around the historic town square, fighting my way through crowds in the gift shops, for a while.  Moore County is a dry county.  According to the story we were told, the population of the county was too low to achieve the minimum number of votes needed to vote themselves “wet” after Prohibition ended.  When, a few years back, the law was changed to allow a percentage vote, residents decided to maintain the status quo, in order to keep Lynchburg and its surroundings a family-friendly environment (aka tourist trap).  Nonetheless, a small amount of whiskey may be consumed during the sampling tour, in the interest of educating visitors about the aging process.  Other stops included the fermenting vats (wow, that mash smells strong!), seeing the original stills, witnessing the filtration process, and a small barrel warehouse.  Most of these are also included on the standard tour, which probably would have been sufficiently informative.  In either case, it is definitely worth the trip.

The tour started with a visit to the "Rickyard" where white oak is cut, dried, and turned into charcoal for the filtering process.

The tour started with a visit to the “Rickyard” where sugar maple is cut, dried, and turned into charcoal for the filtering process.

The pure water used in the Jack Daniel's distilling process is drawn from the creek emanating from this cave.  The dam and channel were built to control water levels in times of flood and drought.

The pure water used in the Jack Daniel’s distilling process is drawn from the creek emanating from this cave. The dam and channel were built to control water levels in times of flood and drought.

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The Jack Daniel’s grounds are on a hill, with buildings on different levels, overseen by the Sugar Maples that give Tennessee whiskey its distinctive flavor.

Music City

NASHVILLE!

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A place I’ve never been, and always wanted to go – but I almost forgot to plan it into the trip!  Good thing I didn’t, because in many ways it was the highlight of the vacation.

Historic and modern, Nashville is full of striking architecture

Historic and modern, Nashville is full of striking architecture

 

 

 

 

 

 

As you may remember, the object of this journey was to see mountains, and I had decided to spend Monday afternoon in Nashville on my way back home.  At the last minute, I re-arranged the itinerary, putting me in the Music City on Thursday and Friday instead – all the better for music appreciation.

In all, I was in, I think, six different music venues, and heard more bands play than that, which right there made it all worth it – living as I do in an area where you’re hard pressed to find one band playing on a Friday night!  I highly recommend both Roberts’ Western World on Broadway

Robert's Western World is a classic dive honky-tonk on Broadway, still specializing in PBR and hotdogs, and the classic country offerings on their small stage add to the ambience.  We came here first, tried a couple other spots, and then came back for their foot-tapping sounds and unpretentious style.

Robert’s Western World is a classic dive honky-tonk on Broadway, still specializing in PBR and hotdogs, and the classic country offerings on their small stage add to the ambience. We came here first, tried a couple other spots, and then came back for their foot-tapping sounds and unpretentious style.

and the Grand Ole Opry, if you want the classic country experience.  If you want more modern country, or don’t like country at all, the city still has plenty to offer.  Nashville is without doubt a musical destination, its tunes suiting its geography, nestled between the hip towns of the south-east, the old-time Appalachians, the deep south, and the rural Midwest.  I barely scratched the surface, and look forward to going back to hear more!

Langhorne Slim and the Law was one of the smaller, not-really-country bands that I checked out, in this case in an upstairs bar packed full of college students.

Langhorne Slim and the Law was one of the smaller, not-really-country bands that I checked out, in this case in an upstairs bar packed full of college students.

The Grand Ole Opry live radio performance was a wonderful experience - even better than I expected it to be!  We saw about ten acts in two hours, and they each included some personal anecdotes of their musical career.  Act more quickly than I did, and you won't wind up with this obstructed view...

The Grand Ole Opry live radio performance was a wonderful experience – even better than I expected it to be! We saw about ten acts in two hours, and they each included some personal anecdotes of their musical career. Lady Antebellum “headlined,” but I loved the oldest performers the best! Act more quickly than I did, and you won’t wind up with this obstructed view…

There is plenty to do in Nashville if you don’t want to listen to live tunes (but… why would you go there if you don’t like music?).  Historic buildings, sports teams, a lovely river, shopping, plenty of bars, barbecue joints (or hot chicken – that’s a big thing down there).  The downtown area is very walk-able; the touristy area is really only a few blocks square, but outside of that are some fun shops and restaurants, too.  Looking at all of the offerings, I was struck that it would be a fun place to visit with children, though in mid-October we saw more bachelorette parties, family reunions, and anniversaries.  However, remember that I was only there for 36 hours – and everything I saw had to do with music!

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The Johnny Cash Museum had only opened months before we went, and although it was well-done, I didn’t feel that it was worth the hype… or the price of admission.  If  you’ve read or heard much about Johnny Cash (heck, even liner notes would be enough), you’re not going to learn too much here.  I did think it was neat to see his IMG_1402hand-written letters, his official papers, and his stage costumes.  They also went a little more in-depth on his later, less-public life, which was interesting.  There were multiple kiosks with mini screens and headphones, so that you could watch videos of some of his stage or television appearances.  We got in there in the morning, before there were many others inside, and within a half hour it had gotten too crowded to be comfortable, which leads me to believe that it would not be any fun at a busier time of year.

Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

 

The Country Music Hall of Fame has been on my list for some time, and the museum attached to it is really amazing.  It takes the visitor from the very beginnings of “country” music, with folks coming out of the hills singing harmonies, dancing to jug bands, or strumming true folk songs on guitars, though the modern day with its diversity of sub-genres.   It does a great job of balancing the evolving music, the social forces that popularized or altered it, the distinctive showmanship of the genre, and the values espoused by its performers IMG_1416(whether the gold-plated automobiles or their pious devotion).  It combines text, videos and recordings, glass-case displays, and beautiful architecture.  My only critique is that there is not much that is interactive, so kids may get bored before you do.  The ticket is good all day, so if I had it to do over again, I would go in the morning for an hour or so, then walk around and eat lunch, and come back to digest the rest.  As it was, it was tough to take it all in at once, and I almost missed checking out the Hall itself.

IMG_1423Though the city was busy for the weekend, I found crowds to be mostly manageable, in the middle of October.  It is possible that I wouldn’t want to be there in a weekend in a more popular travel season.  Another lesson learned was to make my hotel reservations online as soon as I found something I wanted.  Waiting only made it too late to reserve the place I wanted online, and when I got there in person I had to pay almost twice as much for the same room.  On a positive note, I did make sure to get tickets to some shows, so I had some entertainment planned out, and I recommend that, as well.  I can’t wait to get back to Nashville again, and would love to hear your thoughts on not-to-miss sights and sounds in town!

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On the Road Again

IMG_1356Recently, I’ve been yearning to get out on the road again, see some new sights, and just generally get out of “Dodge” for a while.  I wanted to experience mountains again, and as the year wore on figured that a warmer climate wouldn’t hurt any.   The solution, I decided was a road trip to Tennessee!  Since I am trying to act like a responsible adult, I had to squeeze this in around workplace and extra-curricular commitments, and I wound up traveling from one Tuesday to the next, during the last week in October.

Crossing the Ohio in Lousiville

Crossing the Ohio in Lousiville

As with any good driving adventure, some of the expedient stops turned out to be more valuable than the planned destinations.  I never got to the Smoky Mountains, where I’d hoped to spend three days, but instead extended some other parts of the trip.  Purely by accident, I saw the tallest waterfall east of the Rockies and the World Championship Invitational Barbeque.  More on those later.  Natural sights made up a large portion of the trip, but historic sites, museums, music, and tasty diversions balanced it out.  I sampled just enough of everything to make me want to go back and try them some more!

For me, the trip really began when I passed through Chicago.  It may have been a year since I was last in the Windy City, and driving in and out at 9:30 on a Tuesday night is a wonderful way to be reminded of its beauty and excitement without any frustration.  I love seeing downtown all lit up at night, and am looking forward to a visit at Christmas time!

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I drove down through Indiana and Kentucky, which held some of the most interesting sites of the trip.  Nashville was the first stop in Tennessee, and as it was shortly after lunch time I looked up the trendiest hole-in-the-wall for a bite to eat, and ended up at Prince’s Hot Chicken IMG_1529Shack, on the north end of town.  Was it worth the hype, and the wait?  Maybe not, but it was pretty good, and certainly nothing like the fried chicken we have in the frozen north!  Two days in Nashville were full of music and culture, then it was on to learning about Tennessee’s natural history, and the tasty whiskies it made possible.   Check out the next few posts for more details!

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Soundtrack

I drove 10,000 miles around the county and saw lots of amazing things – but I could never have done it in silence!  This post is a tribute to all the music and other sounds that emanated from my stereo and carried me through the unending plains, dark nights, and twisting turns along the way.

Top 10  – Soundtrack

1. Trampled by Turtles

On the advice of friends, I had been to a Trampled by Turtles show in Madison the spring before my trip.  It had been “okay,” at least partly due to the fact that the venue it was held in was not my favorite.  However, I accepted a couple second-hand CD’s of the band, and loaded them onto my i-pod for this trip… and soon found myself listening to Trampled almost daily!  Now I’m hooked on the energy, lyrics, and musicianship of this young bluegrass band with all the excitement of their rock ‘n’ roll colleagues.  I bought their newest CD, and I’m looking for a show near me… but the ones in Duluth (their home town) and Madison (new-grass friendly in the extreme) seem to sell out quickly.  Turtles, come to Marquette soon!!!

2. NPR

As anyone who has traveled our great land knows, sometimes the only thing you can pick up is Public Radio – so it’s good that I like it!  I liked being able to grow weary of music, advertisements, or asinine DJs and be able to say things like, “It’s 4 o’clock; I bet I can find All Things Considered somewhere,” or “Oooh, I hope I’ll be able to pick up Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me and This American Life on Saturday!”  It didn’t hurt any that I had recently acquired an i-pod, and an i-trip, and had figured out that free downloads of most NPR shows are available online… so I could listen to some of my favorite shows even when I wasn’t in range.

3. Bob Dylan

I don’t actually remember specifically listening to Dylan on this trip, except that I’m sure that I couldn’t have lasted very long without his music.  My favorite album is Freewheelin’, which I only have on cassette, though I was recently introduced to Blood on the Tracks and I know that I had that along with me, too.  His newest, Together through Life is also pretty darn good.  Now that I think about it, I am sure that I listened to a lot of Telltale Signs: The Bootleg Series, Vol.8, which I got for my dad for Christmas a couple years ago. I would recommend that album of ulreleased acoustic recordings to anyone, whether you think you like Dylan or not.  I, for one, think that he’s among the best!

4. Lou Harrison

A friend introduced me to Lou Harrison’s musical style years ago, when I was living in California, and although it took me a while to get into that “weird music,” I came to appreciate it.  Then, a few years back, my parents told me about this great new CD they had bought – and Harrison surfaced again.  The music is very easy to listen to, as a result of the “just intonation” scales used, as well as the instrumentation and relaxed tempo.  I wouldn’t call it “easy listening,” though.  Some might consider it “new age” or “classical,” but I tend to steer clear of those genres, so I personally wouldn’t.  All I know is that it came in very handy on my journey… though I’m a little ashamed to admit the reason.

So, I’ve already mentioned… several times… that I had an i-pod along with me.  It was a tiny one, only 2 MB, and weighs almost nothing.  So, contrary to my usual practice, I decided to bring some music along with me when I took my week-long backpacking trip to Isle Royale.  Normally, back in the days of the Walkman, I would simply relish the sounds of nature… and besides that carrying a heavy electronic device and bulky recordings just doesn’t work.  The i-pod has now revolutionized my solo camping experience: I used to lie awake at night, worrying about moose or wolves or bears or raccoons or goodness knows what until I’m cold and sore from lying on the ground and ultimately never get enough sleep for the walking I have to do the next day.  Now, though, I can put on some music and fall asleep in 45 minutes to a night of sound slumber… as long as nothing rustles the leaves too close to me!  Lou Harrison’s Serenado helped me do that on Isle Royale, and across the country.  Thank you, Lou!

5. Ito-Ale-Lises-Zay

This is another album that I usually only listen to when I’m taking a nap, because it is so beautifully relaxing, but it rarely puts me all the way to sleep.  It is a traditional-style band from Easter Island, which a friend in Chile introduced me to, and which I’ve listened to every since.   They have this instrument that’s kind-of a cross between a ukelele and a mandolin which I find completely awesome!

6. Mix CD’s from friends

Well, of course I had some of these along!  Not only do my friends have great taste in music, and I get to learn about bands or even musical genres that I never knew existed, but I get to think about the wonderful people I know at the same time.  There was one in particular that I always put on when I was in an amazing new situation, such as a national park or a spectacular sunset, because it was just the right combination of subtle and exciting.  I wish I could show you all a video I took, driving past cows and antelope into the sunset and over Lemhi Pass – it actually looks like this inspiring music is the soundtrack for my adventure!

7. Amazon Free Music

I don’t like to “pirate” music, not only because it’s illegal but also because I think it’s important to support the art that makes my life more pleasant and exciting.  However, if it’s being given away free, I won’t sneer at it!  Amazon.com offers a lot of free mp3 downloads of all genres, mostly new artists who want to get some exposure, and compilations that smaller record companies put out so that people buy their artists’ albums.  It’s a great way to get to hear new music that doesn’t get played on the radio and I’ve found some hits in there (some duds, too, but that’s why it’s free, right?).  Check it out yourself!

8. Country Radio

It’s pretty hard to get around the country without listening to a lot of “Country” music.  Good thing I (mostly) enjoy it.  It’s best when I can find a station that plays a good smattering of Classic County, up through the Outlaw Country phase, but I do also enjoy singing along with some “Top 40” Country… for about 2 hours, that is, until they’ve played all 40 songs in their playlist and start over again!

9. Telepath

This was a cool band that I discovered through the aforementioned Amazon giveaways… and their plan worked, because I wound up buying the whole album.  Some of their music is listed as “acid jazz,” other as “electronic,” or “electronica” or “dance.”  I would call it kind of jazzy electronica.  I’m not sure how good it would be to dance to.  But it is fun to listen to!

10. Lewis and Clark Journals

I had listened to most of these over the summer, before my trip began, along with my work crew, and we had all enjoyed them then.  However, once I started crossing the same landscape that the Corps of Discovery had, and eventually began visiting their historical sites, I ran through all 6 discs again.  While I listened to several audio books along the way, this remained my favorite.  I would highly recommend this edited version of their journals, whether in a regular old bound book or as I experienced them – though Tom Wopat as Clark makes a convincing case for the audio version! The Essential Lewis And Clark edited by Landon Jones.  Enjoy!

Favorites

Shortly after returning from my big trip a year and a half ago, I took a new job and moved to the northeast corner of Wisconsin – a land of tall pine trees, clear waters, and primal predators.  Living in the land of wolves, Wild Rivers, and old-growth hemlock has its perks, but I alternated between exploring my new territory and missing the cows, prairies, and delectable local brews (and cheeses) of the southern portion of the state.  I’ve had a lot of questions about what I’ve been doing up here (and, from the skeptics, what there is to do up here), but new friends have also been asking me about the trip I took, and one of the first questions out of everyone’s mouth is, “So, what was your favorite part?”  In light of that, before I jump into my “new” adventures, I thought that I would present a post on my “Favorites” from the cross-country travels that inspired this blog.

That proved to be a little more difficult than I thought.  There are a few places that stand out as #1 or #2 on my list, but when I try to expand that to a Top 5 or Top 10, I find myself asking, “Well, Favorite what?”  Places, people, and things might be highly memorable for only one reason, but not qualify for the overall “Favorite” distinction.  Since they say that people today like easily-digestible, prescriptive information, I thought that I would provide a few different summaries of such things as my favorite foods and beverages, wildlife and plant experiences, music and radio stations, and of course the overall cream of the crop.

I’ll start with a list of places that may or may not have made my overall favorite list, but that might have if I’d given them a better fighting chance.  I call it:

Top 5 Places I Want to Go Back to and Explore More

1. Salmon River/Idaho Rockies

Some of the other places on this list might think that it isn’t fair to include this, since I’ve been hoping to plan a trip out here ever since I first saw the area in 2001, moving between Alaska and California.  I made a conscious choice not to spend time in the Rockies on this last advenure, because I felt like a week-long backpacking trip needed more specific planning.  I wasn’t even planning to go to Idaho, until I made the spur-of-the-moment decision to follow Louis and Clark’s tracks over Lemhi Pass.  My one night on the Salmon River was not only a breath of cool air between the heat of central Montana and that of the coastal Central Valley, but the babble of the blue river was a relaxing break between two long and winding days of driving.  I’m hoping to get back to the general vicinity sometime in the next two years for a more in-depth experience.

2. Sonoran Desert/Tucson, AZ/Saguaro National Park

I also decided not to spend a significant amount of time in the desert Southwest, since I had spent over a week there in 2003, moving back from California.  I did, however, take a more southern route, and the plants of the desert astounded me more than the red rocks of northern AZ and NM had years before.  I dragged my feet a little bit through Arizona, trying to take it all in, but I never had a chance to spend much time in any one place.  Specifically, I would have liked to spend more than 18 hours in Tucson, visiting family and getting to see some of the artistic side of the town.  I would also get slightly out of town to get to see the more wild and undisturbed portion of Saguaro National Park, and to get a better understanding of desert ecology and plant life.  I hope to get back there sometime in the next five years, maybe for a springtime blooming of the desert.

3.  Gulf Coast

When planning my travels in Texas, I didn’t even think of the ocean and beaches, so the time I spent there was short, but enjoyable.  I wouldn’t mind spending a couple days lounging on a beach, eating oysters on the half-shell, and learning about the coastal ecology that is so valuable to the healthy function of our hemisphere.  A couple years back I went to New Orleans for a weekend, and I remember thinking that, if I had scheduled it better, I would have saved some time for the coastal bayous, as well.  I’ll probably get down to somewhere along the Gulf coast in the next few years for an informative, tasty, and relaxing few days!

4. Oregon

Unlike every other place on this list, Oregon was an integral part of the planning for this cross-country journey.  I had never been there, and wanted to see what all the fuss was about.  During my week there, I had the opportunity to look at most of the more exciting parts of the state, but each portion only briefly.  I could spend a lot more time in the mountains of the Cascades and the Coast Range, exploring the neighborhoods of Portland, and dipping my feet in the Pacific.  It would be fascinating to give myself a rigorous course in volcanic geology while driving around the state.  Most of all, however, I’d like to do a focused survey of the fresh-hop beers that are tapped late every summer.  I got a small sampling when I was there, but I was a little late for the peak season, and I hadn’t planned on touring brew houses.  Next time I go back, I’ll make sure to be better organized and have a clearer direction to my visit.  It might be a good idea to trek the mountains before I start the beer tour, though!

5.  Big Thicket

If you recall my recent post on the Big Thicket National Park, you’ll remember that I was very excited about this ecological melting pot, but didn’t even have time to enter the park proper.  I’d like to spend several days in this north Texas/north-western Louisiana area with a few good field guides and maybe even a local naturalist to lead the way.  Not sure when I’ll get back there, but there’ll be some good botanizing when I do!

To all my fellow adventurers out there – have you been to any of these places or done any of these things?  Do you have suggestions for off-the-beaten-path exploration when I finally get a chance to return?

Last Day on the Road

November 5-6, 2010   

Miles 9133 – 9836

Mountain View, AR – Chicago, IL

After leaving the awesome Blanchard Springs Caverns, I headed over to nearby Mountain View, Arkansas for some culture.  The Ozarks are known for three things, at least in my mind: beautiful scenery (check), hillbillies (er, check), and music.  The first two are shared pretty closely with lots of places, among them southwestern Wisconsin.  The last makes the area unique, and in a lot of different ways.  Most people have heard of Branson, MO, and a lot have been there.  That’s one example of the excellent country music available in the Ozarks, but Mountain View shows off another side of things.

In warm weather, visitors to historic downtown Mountain View, “The folk music capitol of the world,” can listen to accomplished musicians picking guitars, banjos, mandolins, and bass on porch stoops all over town, and even join in if they had the foresight to bring an instrument along.  Nightly concerts at multiple locations around town bring in sell-out crowds, and several museums of mountain music and crafts round out the experience.

In November, though, most of those places are shuttered up tight, along with the ice cream shops, fudge factories, and t-shirt dealers.  In late fall, I was left with a few die-hard music stores, a luthier’s studio, and a small post office from which to mail the last of my postcards.  I nearly bought a mandolin in town, just to say that I had, but settled on just a few picks, instead (after all, I’d barely played the mandolin I’d just dragged over 9,000 miles around the country with me).  I walked around town in the chill, and drank a hot tea in lieu of the ice cream before heading over to the Ozark Folk Center.  Of course, even that closes early in the off-season, and I got there just as the doors were shutting.  Instead of displays of heirloom crafts and musical artistry, all I got was the gift shop… but even that was full of high-quality, handmade items.  Plus, it gave me the opportunity to look for some last-minute gifts from my long travel – and even a couple Christmas presents!

I left Mountain View with a determination to head back on some warm summer day in the future, and headed north.  I crossed into Missouri just before sunset, drove straight east, and a few hours later crossed into the southern tip of Illinois.  I meandered around, generally northward, for a few hours before finally finding a spot to spend the night in the Shawnee National Forest.

I woke up in the morning to a towering cliff topped with brilliant fall leaves  – I couldn’t have picked a better campsite if I had tried! 

I headed up from Cairo towards Carbondale, with a short detour to go through Anna, IL, which I had always wanted to see.  Around mid-morning I got to a park near Carbondale that had been recommended to me by a friend (thanks, Jared!) for one last hike.  The Little Grand Canyon is a favorite among college students and families alike, and on this beautiful fall day I could see why.  Not only was the scenery itself beautiful, but I had the chance to look out on the flat Mississippi River floodplain and realize that these were the last hills for many, many miles.

My drive north confirmed that fact, as I got on the interstate and zoomed my way north through cornfields and concrete for another 6 hours until I hit the urban sprawl of the Chicagoland area.  I threaded my way through it until I could smell Lake Michigan, see familiar store fronts, and make second-nature turns through narrow city streets.   I rang a familiar bell, and my mom opened the door and welcomed me in to the fragrant meal they had been keeping warm all evening.  Home at last!  And ready for the next adventure…

Looking westward towards the Mississippi River from the peaks of the Shawnee National Forest in Illinois.