Vintage postcard of Nebraska

Vintage postcard of Nebraska

“The only thing very noticeable about Nebraska was that it was still, all day long, Nebraska.”
—  Willa Cather, My Antonia

I decided to stray from my alphabetical journey across America through books.  Having read my way through Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, and Arkansas, today I am making a detour to Nebraska in preparation for an upcoming trip to see the sandhill crane migration along the Platte River.

I can remember traveling to Nebraska only once before on a car trip with my parents.  We drove from Minnesota to Colorado, and the one memory I have of Nebraska is that it was flat, seemingly endless, and rather boring.  The Willa Cather quote that opens this post gave me a chuckle because it resonated with my recollection of the state.

Map of Nebraska

Map of Nebraska

Vintage postcard

Vintage postcard

I consulted with Rita, a reference librarian at the Kearney Public Library, for book recommendations for my pre-trip reading.  I asked for books by Nebraska authors or books that take place in Nebraska.  Here is the list of suggestions from this local expert:

Adult Fiction:

  • Echo Maker by Richard Powers
  • Any of the Alex Kava mysteries
  • Any of Willa Cather’s novels, but especially O Pioneers and My Antonia.  Cather was born in Virginia but moved to Nebraska when she was 9 years old.  She graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Adult Nonfiction:

  • Any books by Paul Johnsgard, a professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and an internationally renowned ornithologist and crane expert
  • The Great Platte River Road: The Covered Wagon Mainline via Fort Kearney to Fort Laramie by Merrill Mattes
  • A Prairie Mosaic by Steven Rothenberger and Susanne George-Bloomfield
  • The Platte River: An Atlas of the Big Bend Region by Allan Jenkins
  • The Immense Journey by Loren Eiseley


  • Have You Seen Mary by Jeff Kurrus
  • The Nebraska Adventure by Jean Lukesh

Nebraska Photographers:

  • Michael Forsberg  (My library has one of Forsberg’s books, Great Plains: America’s Lingering Wild, but unfortunately it was checked out by another patron, and I was not able to read it before my trip.  I did look at his online photographs, however.  Spectacular!
  • Solomon Butcher (including Sod Walls: The Story of the Nebraska Sod House and Photographing the American Dream)

Nebraska Poets:

  • Ted Kooser, U.S. Poet Laureate 2004 – 2006
  • Twyla Hansen, Nebraska’s current Poet Laureate

And these are the books I actually read on my armchair travels to Nebraska:

Adult Fiction:

My Antonia by Willa Cather.  This novel is told through the voice of Jim Quayle Burden, who at age 10 becomes orphaned and is sent to live with his grandparents in Nebraska.  Antonia is the daughter of immigrants who homestead on a neighboring farm.  Even after Jim and his grandparents move to town, he keeps in touch with Antonia while he goes to high school.  Antonia moves to town, too, as a “working out” girl, hired as a housekeeper for a town family.  She runs away to get married, but is abandoned unmarried and with child.

Eventually Jim moves away for college and law school, and 20 years later he returns for a visit.  He finds Antonia — who had returned in disgrace — now married, mother to a houseful of kids, living a hard-working life on a farm. . . but joyful and filled with life and strong ties to the land.  She says, “I like to be where I know every stick and tree, and where all the ground is friendly.  I want to live and die here.”

Jim gives some vivid descriptions of the Nebraska landscape of his childhood:  “Between that earth and that sky I felt erased . . .”  And he also felt ” . . . buried in wheat and corn, under stimulating extremes of climate:  burning summers when the world lies green and billowy beneath a brilliant sky, when one is fairly stifled in vegetation, in the color and smell of strong weeds and heavy harvest; blustery winters with little snow, when the whole country is stripped bare and gray as sheet-iron.”

Jim lived in a wooden, not sod, house with a windmill, sunflower-bordered roads, with rattlesnakes, and shaggy red grass “as far as the eye could reach.”  It was a wide open landscape.  “As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. . . . And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.”

“Trees were so rare in that country, and they had to make such a hard fight to grow, that we used to feel anxious about them, and visit them as if they were persons.”

And the sunsets were glorious:  “The whole prairie was like the bush that burned with fire and was not consumed.  That hour always had the exultation of victory, of triumphant ending. . . It was a sudden transfiguration, a lifting-up of day.”

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather.  The protagonist of this novel, Alexandra Bergson, is the daughter of Swedish immigrants homesteading in Nebraska.  She is the strongest, smartest, and most industrious of her parents’ children, so when her father dies, Alexandra takes over the farm.  With her smart business sense, she risks going into debt to expand the family’s holdings against the reluctance of her more staid brothers.  Years later, the brothers have been set up on land of their own, and Alexandra is one of the wealthiest farmers in the area.

Cather depicts the challenges and hardships of farming on the prairie.  “Our lives are like the years, all made up of weather and crops and cows.”  And she also shows the dark side of relationships turned sour, lonely souls, and unrequited love.

Echo Maker by Richard Powers.  This novel explores the mysteries of the brain.  Mark suffers brain damage from an accident, and when he starts recovering, he believes that his sister Karen is an imposter, that someone is impersonating her.  Meanwhile he is also trying to recover his memories of the accident — where were his friends that night?  Was someone in the truck with him?

The backdrop for this novel is the sandhill crane habitat near Kearney, a seemingly wide open landscape, but really one with dark secrets.  “She felt all over again, as she had as a child, the vicious treelessness of this place.  Not a scrap of cover in sight.  Do anything at all, and God would spy you out.”

“It seemed to him, as he drove, one of the last places left in the country where you would have to face down the conflicts of your own soul, stripped of all packaging.”

When those secrets are lifted to the light of day, the confusion over Mark’s accident starts to lift, too.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell.  This young adult novel by an Omaha author was one of my favorites.  It is a story of first love, a universal theme that really could have taken place anywhere.  I was drawn to Eleanor, who feels herself something of a misfit after moving to a new school midway through her high school experience.  She is subject to bullying at the school, but is also struggling with an abusive stepfather.  Her slowly evolving friendship with Park and budding love give her strength to persevere through life’s challenges.  The writing is excellent and the relationship feels authentic.

A Perfect Evil by Alex Kava.  This is the first in a series of eleven novels about FBI profiler Maggie O’Dell.  And although this book is by a Nebraska writer, the Nebraska setting is not essential to the story.  Maggie is called to assist the sheriff of Platte City, Nick Morrelli, in solving the murders of three boys.  The murder’s identity is pretty clear about one third of the way through the book, but there is a twist at the end and some loose ends that I imagine are designed to keep readers interested in the next books in the series.  Alas, I will not be one of those readers!

Adult Nonfiction:

Map showing the trails west along the Platte River from Platte River Narratives by Merrill J. Mattes

Map showing the trails west along the Platte River from Platte River Narratives by Merrill J. Mattes

Happy as a Big Sunflower:  Adventures in the West, 1876 – 1880 by Rolf Johnson.  This is the diary of a man who, at age 20, emigrated with his parents and siblings to Nebraska.  They were part of a group of families of Swedish descent who travelled by train to Kearney and then by wagon to Phelps County to establish homesteads.   Included are some descriptions of the Nebraska landscape:  “Leaving Omaha we soon crossed the Elkhorn and found ourselves on the plains, which stretched away to the horizon, a treeless waste covered with brown and russet wild grass. . . . Occasionally a stream with a fringe of trees along the banks broke the monotony of the scene.”

Later in summer, Johnson talks about a walk amidst the sandhills:  “We had a pleasant walk over the prairie, which is carpeted with a soft velvety coat of buffalo grass and many varieties of prairie flowers.

From the top of one of the hills we had a fine view of the surrounding country.  To the east stretched a thousand hills with green grass; to the north the broad valley of the Platte, with the river like a  belt of silver with its emerald isles. . . ”

Conditions in the early days were very harsh and uncomfortable.  They first arrived in March, and March in the prairie was still unforgiving winter:  “A snow storm is now raging the like of which I have never seen before.  The snow is falling about with its blinding force and it is about as much as a man’s life is worth to go out to the well after a bucket of water.”

“Last evening we had to bring the horses into the house for fear they’d perish outside and they kept stamping overhead all night so we could not sleep, fearing they would come through the floor.”

“A snow storm has been raging all day and we have been crowded into the dark cellar like so many rats in a hole.”

Some of the new settlers lived in a dugout, “which is partly a cave and partly built of log and mud.  They are perched here and there on the steep banks and hidden away in crevices like so many swallows nests.”  Others lived in sod houses.  Johnson describes how to build a sod house starting with breaking sod with a plow and cutting it into bricks about 12 inches long and 4 inches wide.  The walls on his family’s sod house were two feet thick, enclosing an interior 16 x 21 feet.   “Building sod houses, especially when the wind blows, is not quite as pleasant as being out buggy riding with a girl.  One’s nose, eyes, mouth, ears, and hair gets full of loose dirt.  OK! its bad!”

Johnson writes about other challenges of homesteading in Nebraska:  mishaps with oxen, equipment breakdowns, losing crops to grasshoppers, prairie fires, encounters with rattle snakes, the drought.  “Sadly in want of rain.  The ground is so dry and hard it is almost impossible to plow.”  Sometimes they scavenged buffalo bones to sell at $6 a ton for needed cash.

Still, it was a surprisingly social place, especially for a young single man.  Johnson talked about breaking bees (similar to quilting bees but gathered for the purpose of breaking the sod prairie), hiring out during harvest times, going on a buffalo hunt, and visiting friends.

All in all, the diary entries paint a realistic picture of Nebraska life during the homestead years.  A nice pairing with Cather’s novels.

An Immense Journey: An Imaginative Naturalist Explores the Mysteries of Man and Nature by Loren Eiseley.  Eiseley was born in Lincoln, Nebraska and he writes as a naturalist and anthropologist.  He discusses how scientists and philosophers place man in the evolutionary scheme of things.  And he muses about how the development of consciousness in humans fits with the succession of life on this planet.  He believes that the rapidity of change in the human brain, a surge in growth, seems to be a unique modification and adaptation story in history:  “In the first year of life, its brain trebles in size.  It is this peculiar leap, unlike anything else we know in the animal world, which gives to man his uniquely human qualities.”

I like how Eiseley wove personal stories into his more scholarly essays.  Here he describes the Platte River:  “As it leaves the Rockies and moves downward over the high plains towards the Missouri, the Platte River is a curious stream.  In the spring floods, on occasion, it can be a mile-wide roaring torrent of destruction, gulping farms and bridges.  Normally, however, it is a rambling, dispersed series of streamlets flowing erratically over great sand and gravel fans that are, in part, the remnants of a mightier Ice Age stream bed.  Quicksands and shifting islands haunt its waters.”  And here is the Platt River in winter:  “The land was stark and ice-locked.  The rivulets were frozen, and over the marshlands the willow thickets made such an array of vertical lines against the snow that tramping through them produced strange optical illusions and dizziness.”

I will soon be seeing the Platte River in winter, and I am curious to see how it compares today to Eiseley’s experience of it.

Flying at Night:  Poems 1965 – 1985 by Ted Kooser.  I liked quite a few of the poems in this collection because the images of farmhouses, Midwestern folk, and the countryside rang true to my memories of growing up on a farm in Minnesota.  Here is one of Kooser’s poems about his state:

“So This Is Nebraska”

The gravel road rides with a slow gallop
over the fields, the telephone lines
streaming behind, its billow of dust
full of the sparks of redwing blackbirds.

On either side, those dear old ladies,
the loosening barns, their little windows
dulled by cataracts of hay and cobwebs
hide broken tractors under their skirts.

So this is Nebraska.  A Sunday
afternoon; July.  Driving along
with your hand out squeezing the air,
a meadowlark waiting on every post.

Behind the shelterbelt of cedars,
top-deep in hollyhocks, pollen and bees,
a pickup kicks its fenders off
and settles back to read the clouds.

You feel like that; you feel like letting
your tires go flat, like letting the mice
build a nest in your muffler, like being
no more than a truck in the weeds,

clucking with chickens or sticky with honey
or holding a skinny old man in your lap
while he watches the road, waiting
for someone to wave to.  You feel like

waving.  You feel like stopping the car
and dancing around the road.  You wave
instead and leave your hand out gliding
larklike over the wheat, over the houses.

Quite serendipitously, Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac posted another of Kooser’s poems a week before my Nebraska trip.  I could see myself in this particular poem:

“A Person of Limited Palette”
by Ted Kooser, from Splitting an Order. © Copper Canyon Press, 2014

I would love to have lived out my years
in a cottage a few blocks from the sea,
and to have spent my mornings painting
out in the cold, wet rocks, to be known
as “a local artist,” a pleasant old man
who “paints passably well, in a traditional
manner,” though a person of limited
talent, of limited palette: earth tones
and predictable blues, snap-brim cloth cap
and cardigan, baggy old trousers
and comfortable shoes, but none of this
shall come to pass, for every day
the possibilities grow fewer, like swallows
in autumn. If you should come looking
for me, you’ll find me here, in Nebraska,
thirty miles south of the broad Platte River,
right under the flyway of dreams.


Photo by Solomon Butcher from Prairie Visions

Photo by Solomon Butcher from Prairie Visions

Photo by Solomon butcher from Prairie Visions

Photo by Solomon Butcher from Prairie Visions

Prairie Visions: The Life and Times of Solomon Butcher by Pam Conrad.  This book introduced me to Solomon Butcher, a photographer who took pictures of Nebraska pioneers.  The typical setting was outdoors in natural light, in front of a sod home, and including some prized possessions (a piano in one photo!), all designed to show “people set in the drama of their everyday lives.”  Butcher was considered lazy by some of the hard-working settlers because he simply could not settle into homesteading.  Instead he worked odd jobs and set up a photo gallery so that newcomers — farmers and their families — could get portraits to send back to relatives back East.  In 1886 he started a dream project to document the history of Custer County, Nebraska.  He spent 7+ years on the road with a wagon and supplies and took over 1500 photos and collected stories and biographies.  Then his home caught fire and he lost all the narratives.  Thankfully his glass plate negatives were safe in an out building.  Butcher had to start over, reconstructing the text.  Thanks to the patronage of Ephram Swain, his work was compiled into a book that was published in 1901:  Pioneer History of Custer County, Nebraska.

Because this is juvenile nonfiction, the life of Solomon Butcher is described in a very accessible way.  We learn about the 1862 Homestead Act, which gave 160 acres of land free to any adult, citizen, head of household provided they paid an upfront filing fee of $14, built a home on the land (a shack would do), made improvements to the land in the first 6 months, and lived there for five years.  They proved up after five years by paying the remaining $4 of the filing fee and providing testimonials of two witnesses.  Still, many claims were abandoned because the settlers were ill prepared or ill equipped to be farmers, or the conditions were too harsh.

We also learn about sod houses, which were cool in the summer and warm in the winter.  But the roofs leaked, snakes and small animals lived in the walls, and mud fell from the ceiling.

I was also interested to learn that there were black settlers who took advantage of the Homestead Act after the Civil War.

Conrad includes some of Butcher’s pioneer narratives in this book, including the story of a dead frog in a coffeepot, a book-smart judge who carried water for two miles through 2 feet of snow, and a hotel where 15 men slept in one room with six blankets.

The next state on my armchair travels:  California



Map of Alabama

Map of Alabama

Today’s post introduces my newest project, armchair travel to each of the 50 states, journeying alphabetically from Alabama to Wyoming.  My intent is to imbibe the flavor of each state’s landscape, people, and culture through the words and images of a few books.  I hope to read at least one novel, one nonfiction book, and a juvenile title whose story takes place in the state or whose author was born there.  In addition, I hope to discover an artist or photographer or craftsperson who works/worked there.

This project is not intended to represent a comprehensive survey of the states’ literature and letters.  Rather, my reading will give me a peek through the pages of a few open books.  I will ask the advice of a reference librarian from one of the public libraries for each state, and I welcome suggestions from my readers, too.  I may not actually follow through on these suggestions, but I will consider them.

I will call this project Armchair America.  There will be no regularly scheduled posts.  They will appear as time permits — I will fit this reading in among the other demands on my life.

Vintage postcard of Alabama

Vintage postcard of Alabama

Vintage postcard of Alabama

Vintage postcard of Alabama

By my count, I have physically traveled to 31 of the 50 states.  Someday I may get to see them all.  It was a particular pleasure to journey in my mind to Alabama for this first post in the series because I have never been there in person.

The reference librarian at the Birmingham Public Library responded to my query about good books on Alabama, such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Up from Slavery, with these additional recommendations:

  • Alabama: The History of a Deep South State by Wayne Flint
  • Carry Me Home by Diane McWhorter
  • Forrest Gump by Winston Groom
  • Rocket Boys by Homer Hickham
  • and anything by Rick Bragg

But these are the books I actually read on my armchair travels to Alabama:

Up from Slavery: An Autobiography by Booker T. Washington.  Washington was born a slave on a Virginia plantation in 1858 or 59, so he would have been 4 or 5 years old when the Emancipation Proclamation was announced, and 6 or 7 years old when slaves were actually freed at the close of the Civil War.  He lived through the rough period of the Reconstruction, a time of poverty and hardship.  But through hard work, dedication and focus, and resilience, Washington put himself through school and eventually founded the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

His experiences shaped his educational philosophy, that every student should be required to do manual labor along with academics.  He said, “Our greatest danger is that in the great leap from slavery to freedom we may overlook the fact that the masses of us are to live by the production of our hands, and fail to keep in mind that we shall prosper in proportion as we learn to dignify and glorify common labour and put brains and skill into the common occupations of life; shall prosper in proportion as we learn to draw the line between the superficial and the substantial, the ornamental gewgaws of life and the useful.  No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.  It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top.”

In Washington’s time, about one-third of the population of Alabama was African-American.  Today it is about 26 percent black.  (In my own state of Washington, blacks represent about 4 percent of the population.)

To Kill a Mockingbird
by Harper Lee.  I consider this novel one of my all-time favorites.  It is the story of Atticus Finch’s defense of Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman, in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama, and the effects of this trial on his children and neighbors.

Lee is masterful at creating the ambiance of southern life — if I were to go to Alabama I would expect to see johnson grass and rabbit tobacco, smilex and scuppernongs (I had to look these things up.)  Lee describes her Alabama in passages like these:

“People moved slowly then.  They ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything.  A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer.”

“There are no clearly defined seasons in South Alabama; summer drifts into autumn, and autumn is sometimes never followed by winter, but turns to a days-old spring that melts into summer again.”

The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee by Marja Mills.  This is a memoir by a journalist who lived for a year next door to the elderly Harper Lee and her sister Alice in Monroeville, Alabama.  While Mills considered herself their friend, this is not an authorized biography.  Mills is careful to stay on the side of memoir — her own personal experiences — which did not require the Lees’ approval.  Mills is from the north, so it was interesting to read her impressions of Alabama, land of red dirt and Piggly Wiggly grocery stores:

” . . . kudzu drapes over hundred-year-old oak trees.  It crawls up ravines.  It creeps across the caved-in tin roofs of abandoned country shacks.  It forms an intricate web of green so dense it seems to be hiding something.”

“We passed the occasional gas station and general store with ‘Coca Cola’ in fading white script on peeling red paint.”

“Around every other bend was a redbrick church or tiny white one with a steeple stabbing blue sky and a cemetery out back.  Most of the churches were Baptist, but we also saw ones that were Methodist, First Assembly, and Pentecostal.”

“Football was second only to God in inspiring devotion around here . . .”

The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis.  This award-winning juvenile novel is about a black family growing up in Flint, Michigan in 1963.  When the older son starts acting out, his parents decide to take him to stay with his strict grandmother in Birmingham, Alabama.  The family’s road trip points out the issues of blacks traveling in the segregated south.  While in Birmingham, the family witnesses the aftermath of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.  I loved how the Watsons used warmth and humor and love in facing life’s challenges.

The Poet of Tolstoy Park by Sonny Brewer.  A man diagnosed with terminal tuberculosis decides to leave his family and friends in Idaho and live out his last days in Fairhope, Alabama.  I have written about this book before (link here).  I enjoyed rereading this novel, and this time I paid more attention to the descriptions of things I might see in Alabama:  piney woods, live oaks, water oaks, etc.  Brewer touches on hurricanes and their effects, and he says, ” . . . if you’re going to live in Alabama, you are going to eat grits for breakfast.”





Picture Taker: Photographs by Ken Elkins.  Elkins was the chief photographer of the Anniston Star for many years, and I was pleased to have I discovered his work through my research for this project.  Here is how he is described by Rick Bragg in the introduction to this book of photos:  “He rejects the stereotypes of despair and ignorance often depicted by big city photographers on safari, and reveals his subjects as individuals who have endured hard lives but have found humor, dignity and faith.”



The Quilts of Gee’s Bend.  This book showcases the handmade quilts by the women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama.  It includes historical photos and narratives from 200 years.  As a quilter, I find these graphic quilts to be beautiful as well as practical.

Next State on My Armchair Journey:  Alaska





GPS driving app vs. the paper map

GPS driving app vs. the paper map

I prepared for our California road trip by getting maps from AAA and printing some driving directions off of  My husband brought his phone.

Typically on a road trip, I am the navigator and my husband is the driver.  Inevitably, we argue at least once about the proper course, which lane he should be in, when he should start slowing down for an upcoming exit, etc.  After missing a turn in San Francisco, my husband turned on his smart phone and fired up the app with directions given in voice commands.  He wanted to show me how effective this new technology is and take the stress of navigating strange roads from me.  (I also noticed that he had no problem following the voice commands of the pleasant, well modulated, non-judgmental voice of the virtual female whereas he sometimes bristles taking directions from me!)

Well, I can see the benefits of using the smart phone.  You don’t have the clutter of paper maps and printed directions, if you make a “wrong” turn it automatically finds a way to get you back on track (without yelling), and if you come up with a new destination at the last minute, you can easily key that in on the spot.  I think it is extremely helpful when you are driving the streets of a strange city and you lose track of north, south, east and west and are totally unfamiliar with the layout.

Inasmuch as these devices do get you to your final destination, you arrive without a good sense of where you are physically situated.  I would miss knowing that.  I feel more grounded with a picture in my mind that plots me in place.

Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker in Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas speak about navigating with maps vs. using the new digital tools:  “Most people don’t use paper maps anymore.  Instead, they use digital data services — their smart phones, GPS devices that issue voice commands, or various versions of MapQuest and Google maps that generate specific directions.  The problem with these technologies is that though they help get you where you’re going, that’s all they do.  With a proper map, you take charge; with these other means, you take orders and don’t learn your way around, any more than you learn math using a calculator.  A map shows countless possible routes; a computer-generated itinerary shows one.  Using the new navigational aids, you remain dependent, and your trajectory requires obedience to the technology — some GPS devices literally dictate voice commands you are meant to obey.  When you navigate with a paper map, tracing your own route rather than having it issued as a line, a list, or a set of commands, you incrementally learn the lay of the land. . . . The map is then no longer on paper in front of you but inside you. . .”

“A great map should stir up wonder and curiosity, prompt revelation, and deepen orientation.  It should make the strange familiar and the familiar strange.”

Solnit revisited this theme from an earlier book, Hollow City:  The Siege of San Francisco and the Crisis of American Urbanism.  She sees the possibility of encounter and participation as one of the primary virtues of city life, where your smaller private spaces “force” you to go out into the shared amenities — parks, libraries, streets, cafes, plazas, transit, etc.  Sharing experiences builds community.  She says, “And this brings us to the most pernicious effect of the new technology:  its hostility to public life.  The rhetoric of the new technology constantly celebrates liberation from the need to leave the house, or if we do leave the house, to learn to navigate, to ask strangers for directions or other acts of connection made obsolete by GPS and cell phones . . .”

Traveling and tourism, though, still require getting out into the world.  Solnit says, ” . . . tourism is still about public life: about walking around, encountering the unknown, feeling the textures that make places distinctive.”  My husband says that one of his most favorite things to do on a trip is talk with people, and I saw that on this trip — from the surfers on the Santa Cruz beaches, to the docents at the monarch butterfly groves, and the two ladies painting outdoors in the Baylands Nature Reserve, etc. — these encounters make his journeys worthwhile.  He would say that the time saved by using his smart phone to navigate gives him more time out of the car with people.  That makes sense, too.

“On the very backs of our hands, just under the skin, lie veins looking ever so much like little road maps, and as we age, those charts grow more pronounced as if to jog a memory of the journey we unceasingly undertake in our decision to continue to live.”
— William Least Heat Moon, Here, There, Elsewhere:  Stories from the Road

My Dad's 94-year-old hands

My Dad’s 94-year-old hands

Self-portrait of 59-year-old hand

Self-portrait of 59-year-old hand

Eyes may be the windows of the soul, but hands can be equally expressive and evocative.  I think that babies’ hands look like tiny sea stars.  But old hands reflect the character and experience of the passing years.





Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge toward Manhattan

Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge toward Manhattan

“The art of drifting was an antimapping experience and the idea was to wander, to meander around a city, at every moment being alive to whatever drew you.  You were in thrall to the spirit of place, rather than having place under your thumb, on a map, on a plan.”
— Jay Griffiths, Wild: An Elemental Journey

Planning vs. anti-mapping

Planning vs. anti-mapping

New York City is a walker’s paradise.  And although we did walk a lot, and sometimes even meander, I was glad that I had taken the time to do some trip planning before arrival.  My research resulted in a list of things I wanted to see and do during our short, first visit to this metropolis, and by plotting their locations on my AAA map of Manhattan, I was able to get a better sense for planning our days so as not to miss anything.  Perhaps if we had more time, we would have been able to practice the art of drifting.

New York is a city of skyscrapers, bridges, benches, garbage, eateries, distinct neighborhoods . . . Today’s post is about first impressions.

Looking up -- one way to appreciate NYC's skyscrapers

Looking up — one way to appreciate NYC’s skyscrapers

Street viewed from the Roosevelt Island tram

Street viewed from the Roosevelt Island tram

The skyscrapers formed deep canyons.  Depending on the light, they threw interesting reflections on neighboring buildings and traffic.

“It is by all odds the loftiest of cities . . . Manhattan has been compelled to expand skyward because of the absence of any other direction in which to grow.  This, more than any other thing, is responsible for its physical majesty.”
— E. B. White, Here is New York

The traffic was nonstop, but we quickly learned to jaywalk like native New Yorkers.  (In Seattle we are not used to jaywalking!)

Reflections on the windows of cars and taxis

Reflections on the windows of cars and taxis

Skyscraper reflections

Skyscraper reflections

The city’s inhabitants create a prodigious amount of garbage, as you can imagine.  There was quite a bit of litter, and every day piles of garbage bags and garbage containers lined the streets — in every neighborhood.

Garbage lining the street in the Upper East Side

Garbage lining the street in the Upper East Side

We expected to see fire escapes in the multi-story buildings — an iconic NY architectural feature.  But we were surprised to see wooden water tanks on the roof tops of tall buildings.  We could see a dozen or more water tanks just from the 17th story window of our Mid-town hotel.  New York is a mix of old and new — sometimes a shorter (older) building survived between tall high rises.

Fire escapes -- interesting patterns of dark and light

Fire escapes — interesting patterns of dark and light

Two round, wooden water tanks on the rooftops

Two round, wooden water tanks on the rooftops

Shoulder to shoulder with its taller neighbors, this "little" building survives!

Shoulder to shoulder with its taller neighbors, this “little” building survives!

Often, in the narrow spaces between tall buildings, we’d find gated community gardens and “pocket” parks.  They looked scraggly in winter, but I could imagine them as vibrant, green spaces in summer.

Folk-art sculpture in a tiny community space

Folk-art sculpture in a tiny community space

Another little fenced in park in a small space between buildings

Another little fenced in park in a small space between buildings

We loved seeing the old row houses on the side streets leading off West 4th between 7th Avenue and West 12th in Greenwich Village.  Frommer’s named this “the most beautiful street” in New York City.

Historic row houses

Historic row houses

Mason's Row

Mason’s Row

We tried (twice, on two different evenings) to win discount tickets to The Book of Mormon play, but alas, our names were not drawn.  The lottery awards about 20 deeply discounted tickets to each sold-out performance about 2 hours before showtime.  Despite the cold, there were about 200 – 300 intrepid souls vying for the few tickets.

Crowd awaiting lottery for Book of Mormon tickets

Crowd awaiting lottery for Book of Mormon tickets

“If you think of doing something in New York City, you can be certain that at least two thousand other people have that same thought.  And of the two thousand who do, about one thousand will be standing in line waiting to do it.”
— E. L. Konigsburg, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiller, 1967

So, of all of the things on our list of things to experience in NYC, we did not make it to a Broadway or off-Broadway play on this trip.  I guess we will have to return someday.

“A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature.  It is earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.  The fluviatile trees next to the shore are the slender eyelashes which fringe it, and the wooded hills and cliffs around are its overhanging brows.”
—  Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Crater Lake panorama from three photos, 1998

“The eyes are the window of the soul.”
— Proverb

If eyes are the window of the soul, and lakes are earth’s eyes, then lakes are one of the windows of Nature’s soul.  We cannot live without water.  It is no wonder that we are stirred when we peer into a lake’s depths.  In the words of another proverb, “Still waters run deep.”

“A lake carries you into recesses of feeling otherwise impenetrable.”
— William Wordsworth

“Perhaps truth depends on a walk around the lake.”
— Wallace Stevens

The most beautiful lake I’ve ever seen is Crater Lake in Oregon.  It is the deepest lake in the United States (with a depth of 1,932 feet), and it is the bluest blue in the color spectrum.  Crater Lake is situated in the caldera of a volcano that last erupted about 7,700 years ago.  The waters accumulated from springs, snow melt and rain.  Part of our national park system, Crater Lake is held in trust for everyone’s enjoyment.  In the summer, you can drive around it on a 33-mile rim road.

Wizard Island, a cinder cone in Crater Lake (photo 1998)

Map of Crater Lake National Park rim drive

I’m thankful to Thoreau for reminding me about beautiful lakes.  It’s been a long time since I’ve taken the time to visit Crater Lake.  I think it’s time to plan another road trip there.

Tulips, Soon

April 15, 2011

A little more sun and warmth will bring out the tulips!

Tulip in the morning light

The tulips are late this year.  The ones in my neighborhood are just about ready to bloom.  A little sun and some warmth will help. 

I’m not sure whether I’ll make the drive to the Skagit Valley this year to see the tulip fields in bloom.  The Skagit Valley Tulip Festival runs from April 1st -30th, but the growers’ fields are late, too.  I’ve been keeping my eye on the map showing fields in bloom.  You can link to it here:

Free Time

August 26, 2010

The Seattle Public Libraries are closing for one week starting August 30th in a budget-saving effort, and that means a week of unpaid time off work for me.  I don’t have definite plans this year.  I’d like to take a road trip, but the negatives are weighing in — I hate to be amidst the peak summer crowds and traffic, my husband may not be able to get away from his work commitments, and we’re on a tight budget this year.  I usually like to plan trips far ahead of time, because I enjoy the pre-trip reading, planning, and anticipation almost as much as the actual journey!  If we do get away this week, it will be on the spur of the moment.

Thinking about a road trip

 It’s not like I won’t enjoy my week off if we don’t go on a long road trip.  I’ve got plenty of ideas for spending this time:

  • Take a shorter loop drive on the scenic North Cascades Highway.
  • Take the ferry to Bainbridge Island and have lunch in Winslow.
  • Drive the side roads to Tacoma, staying as close as possible to the Sound; have a picnic at Dash Point State Park, a state park in Seattle’s suburbs, but located right on Puget Sound.  I can’t recall ever spending any time there.
  • Make it a goal to finish my red Bear Paw quilt.  I’ve pieced enough blocks for a wall quilt.  Now I need to sew them together, add a border of Flying Geese blocks, and hand quilt it.  I haven’t done quilting in a long time.  Using this week for a special project like this might help me overcome my inertia.
  • Treat myself to a mini-retreat at home:  sketch and paint every day, and visit museums for inspiration.
  • Clean the basement.
  • Have a reading marathon at home, and then sell the books at a used book store.
  • Edit my archive of online photos


What would you do with a week off?

Hands at Rest

August 9, 2010

Dad's hands at rest

“Rest is the sweet sauce of labor.”
     — Plutarch

Hands are so expressive.  My dad’s hands are a map of his life as a farmer and laboring man.  No stranger to hammers, grease guns, handles of pails, butchering knives, seeds and dirt.  They hold the wisdom of years.

I love looking at my father’s hands.  I captured them at a well-earned moment of rest.  

“And if, in the changing phases of man’s life
I fall in sickness and in misery
my wrists seem broken and my heart seems dead
and strength is gone, and my life
is only the leavings of a life:

and still, among it all, snatches of lovely oblivion, and snatches
of renewal
odd, wintry flowers upon the withered stem, yet new, strange flowers
such as my life has not brought forth before, new blossoms of me

then I must know that still
I am in the hands of the unknown God,
he is breaking me down to his own oblivion
to send me forth on a new morning, a new man.” 
     — from “Shadows” by D. H. Lawrence