Hit the road, Jack!

Jack Rabbit

Although our recent road trip (see this post and that post) included visits to several spectacular national parks and some family time spent with mid-west relatives, we also enjoyed stopping at interesting and often amusing roadside attractions along the way.

The era of America’s roadside attractions exploded in the 1930s, with the expansion of the highway system. Often marketed to the newly mobile public with flashy billboards and unique architecture, they were designed to attract attention and encourage travelers to stop and spend some money. Early entrepreneurs came up with crazy ideas like Mexican restaurants topped with huge sombreros, motel rooms shaped like tepees, and countless “world’s largest” just about anything you can imagine.

Unfortunately, the 1956 Federal Highway Act and subsequent development of the interstate superhighways doomed many of these attractions. Some were completely demolished, leaving no trace. Others were closed years ago and only their run-down, boarded-up shells can be seen. A lucky few, though, have somehow managed to survive and can be visited and enjoyed today.

Wall Drug

Wall Drug in Wall, South Dakota
Wall Drug in Wall, South Dakota

We were told about this (apparently) world-famous drug store by a hotel owner in eastern Wyoming. He not only gave us great pointers about the best routes for us to take on our journey across South Dakota, he said that a stop at Wall Drug was pretty much mandatory.

We began to spot billboards advertising Wall Drug (“120 Miles to Wall Drug,” “Free Ice Water,” “5¢ Coffee,” “Entering Wall Drug Country”) as soon as we hit I-90 and headed east across the prairie. Even if we hadn’t heard about the place, I think the billboards would have lured us in.

Wall Board

Opened in 1931, when Wall, South Dakota was a 231-person town, Wall Drug is now less of a drug store and more of a shopping mall of kitsch. It has been featured on travel shows and in international magazines and purports to take in over $10 million and attract over two million visitors annually.

Corn Palace

Cornelius, the Corn Palace Mascot
Cornelius, the Corn Palace Mascot

Soon after leaving Wall, we began to see billboards for another small-town attraction: the Corn Palace located in Mitchell, South Dakota. Since we both vaguely remembered hearing about the attraction (and, since who could pass up seeing a palace made of corn?), we decided to stop and check it out.

The Corn Palace was originally built in 1892 as a way to showcase South Dakota’s farming community and lure settlers. It was rebuilt in 1905 when the city of Mitchell attempted to be designated as the state capitol. In the 1920s, the Palace was rebuilt once again, this time to lure tourists, not farmers, to the area.

One of the murals made out of corn
One of the murals made out of corn

Although we arrived too late to go inside, we enjoyed wandering around the exterior and admiring the beautiful murals made of corn. The murals, designed by local artists, are reconstructed each year. This year’s theme is the 125th anniversary of South Dakota.

After our visit we did a quick Google search to find out why the Corn Palace sounded so familiar to us.  Following 9/11, when grants were being distributed by the Department of Homeland Security to beef up security at various sites deemed to be at risk, some fiscally responsible politicians felt that protecting the Corn Palace deserved a portion of the funds. In 2004, the Corn Palace gained unwanted notoriety from Jon Stewart on the Daily Show in the ensuing controversy. In 2012, the Corn Palace was featured on the Stephen Colbert Show (“A Shucking Disaster: Nightmare at the Mitchell Corn Palace”).

These are just two of the roadside attractions we enjoyed on our 5,161 mile road trip. We visited many more as our trip took us west out of St. Louis, through Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and back to California. I hope you’ll follow along with us to see some of the attractions made famous by travelers past and present, as we made our way home along portions of old Route 66.

Awe Creators

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With today’s thinly veiled political-speak, anytime the term “job creator” is attached to a proposal, I’m pretty sure some billionaire is going to get richer, a corporation will see their profits soar, a politician’s slush fund will grow, and at least one regulation designed to protect the environment or worker rights will be overlooked or trashed. Decisions that promote short-term gains (for a select few) are too often made at the expense of long-term consequences (for all of us).

Fortunately, beginning more than 140 years ago, there were visionaries and influencers willing to stand up to those who wanted to develop and exploit the wilderness. Instead, they proposed that the government act as a protector of vast swatches of unspoiled nature and spectacular beauty. This idea, which began with the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, has now grown to include over 450 national parks, national monuments, national historical sites, national scenic trails, and other wonders which are protected and preserved for future generations.

I found myself silently thanking these courageous “awe creators” many times during the three-week road trip my husband I just returned from. If these proactive private citizens, government employees (including presidents), and even an industrialist* hadn’t embraced and promoted the concept of long-term preservation, many of our national treasures would be lost to us today.

That’s not to say we all can breathe easy thinking that the national – and state – parks are safe.  Underfunding, inattention, and political and corporate meddling are all very real threats, as are some of the very people the parks are set aside for. Through our taxes, entrance fees and in-park behavior, we all must diligently protect these wonders to ensure they will be around for generations to come.

 

Zion National Park in southern Utah
Zion National Park in southern Utah

Bryce Canyon Nation Park in southern Utah

Bryce Canyon Nation Park in southern Utah

 

 

Arches National Park in eastern Utah

Arches National Park in eastern Utah

 

 

Painted Desert/Petrified National Park in eastern Arizona

Painted Desert/Petrified National Park in eastern Arizona

 

 

Petrified-ForestWeb

Painted Desert/Petrified National Park in eastern Arizona

 

 

Grand Canyon National Park in northern Arizona
Grand Canyon National Park in northern Arizona

 

*Stephen Tyng Mather, conservationist and president of the Thorkildsen-Mather Borax Company promoted the creation of a federal agency to oversee the national parks. He later became the first director of the National Park Service.

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The plaque reads: “He laid the foundation of the national park service, defining and establishing the policies under which its areas shall be developed and conserved unimpaired for future generations. There will never come an end to the good that he has done.”

0 to 5161 in three weeks

Last night, my husband and I arrived back home after being on the road for three weeks.  We took off from Southern California on April 24 with a rough itinerary that included a couple of hard dates but also a lot of flexibility. We had family and calendared events waiting for us in Omaha and later in St. Louis, but, other than that, we were on our own.

A quiet walk among the the red rocks in Capitol Reef National Park
A quiet walk among the the red rocks in Capitol Reef National Park

The 5,161 miles we traveled took us through 14 states and to 11 national parks and monuments, several state parks, and quite a few museums. We had days when there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, days full of ice and snow, and just about every weather pattern in between. We experienced the majesty of nature in the red rocks of Utah and Arizona and the audacity of men whose dreams led them to carve the likenesses of four presidents and an Indian chief on the sides of mountains. We saw a giant depression in the earth where a meteorite landed 50,000 years ago and we enjoyed the kitsch of visiting a giant rocking chair and sleeping in a motel room shaped like a teepee along the route made famous in the 1920s and 1930s.

My husband, best friend, and traveling buddy (I’m fortunate to have all three wrapped in one person) indulged my photographic whims by happily stopping whenever I asked him to. Our tastes are similar enough so that we usually easily agreed on attractions to stop for as well as food and lodging choices, but we are flexible enough so that we could change plans to accommodate each other’s interests.

Today is the one-year anniversary of my retirement. Over the past twelve months we’ve taken two driving trips and two trips that have required getting on a plane. Planes allow us to get to far-off destinations, but there is nothing like a road trip to best explore this country and build a greater understanding of ourselves and others.

As I do on every one of our travels, I kept a journal of our day-to-day activities and adventures. I also jot down inspirations, insights, and possible blog topics as they occur to me. I will share some of these over the next several posts.

Bears Sighted in Cuba

“We have to get to know each other better, it makes us understand one another better, trust each other more, and live together more peacefully”

– Motto for the United Buddy Bears, an international art exhibition promoting peace among nations.

Buddy Bears in San Francisco de Asis Plaza
Buddy Bears in Havana’s San Francisco de Asis Plaza

We were very fortunate to be in Cuba when the United Buddy Bears were being displayed at the San Francisco de Asis Plaza in Havana. The brightly painted fiberglass bears represent the over 140 countries recognized by the United Nations and are designed to promote peace, tolerance, and international understanding. They stand hand to hand to represent the people, culture, history, and landscape of the different countries, not the political systems.

The design on each bear was created by an artist from the individual countries and, no matter how large or small, or rich or poor each country is, they have the same size bear and are equal in standing. It was interesting to see how the various artists choose to represent their country – many were quite beautiful, some (including Cuba’s) were a little humorous, and others inspiring. All were fascinating.

The bears were first exhibited in Berlin in 2002/2003, before moving on to Austria in 2004. They have now been shown in over 23 countries, including Hong Kong, Japan, Australia, Egypt, Israel, Argentina, and India.

Buddy Bears

In March, the United Buddy Bears leave Cuba for their next destination, Santiago de Chile. I tried to determine if they were scheduled for a stop in the United States, but was unable to find anything. I hope they will not only be displayed here, but will also be embraced with the same generous, open-hearted spirit they have found elsewhere.

Cuba's Buddy Bear
Cuba’s Buddy Bear

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

U.S. Buddy Bear
U.S. Buddy Bear

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Cuba: A Nation Rich in History

On the morning of our second day in Cuba, we were treated to an unexpected scene in downtown Havana. In celebration of Jose Marti’s birth date, hundreds of school children paraded down the avenue next to our hotel. Many of them were in costume, some held signs or flags, and all participated in vigorous chants led by their adult supervisors. It was the first of many times on our trip that I wished that my Spanish was better but even so, the pageantry and the sweet, earnest faces of the children was a joy to watch.

School children celebrating Jose Marti's birthday
School children celebrating Jose Marti’s birthday
Statue of Jose Marti in Havana's main square
Statue of Jose Marti in Havana’s main square

Jose Marti is a Cuban national hero for his role in the struggle for independence from Spain in the 19th century. His writings, including poems and essays, promoted liberty and political freedom. His dedication to Cuban independence – including sovereignty from the United States — and his fight against slavery and racial discrimination is honored throughout Cuba with statues and celebrations like we were fortunate to witness.

After watching the parade, we took off on foot to discover other sights of Havana, including the capitol dome (currently undergoing renovations), magnificent old buildings in various stages of decay, and the entrance arch to a long-gone Chinatown.

The rest of the day included a tour of the Necropolis de Colon, one of the largest cemeteries in the world, a private talk given by Roberto Salas’ about his stint as Fidel Castro’s private photographer in the 1960s, and a tour of ceramic artist Fuster’s amazing compound in which he has created a spectacular and joyful “Homenate a Gaudi” (“Homage to Gaudi”).

Havana is a photographer's dream
Havana is a photographer’s dream

Colorful buildings in Havana

Entrance to Chinatown
Entrance to Chinatown

 

The capitol building under repair
The capitol building under repair
Necropolis de Colon cemetary
Necropolis de Colon cemetery
It is easy to see how the artist Fuster was inspired by Antoni Gaudi
It is easy to see how the artist Fuster was inspired by Antoni Gaudi
No day in Cuba is complete without a cool dude and an even cooler car
No day in Cuba is complete without a cool dude and an even cooler car

 

Cuba: Separated from the U.S. by 90 miles and 50 years

There are many reasons why the tiny nation of Cuba had such a huge hold on my imagination for so many years. Some of the lure was the image I had of a country frozen in time; most of the buildings, infrastructure, and automobiles pre-date 1961, when the United States began its trade embargo. What I knew of the culture and the people was also appealing; I’ve always been attracted to the Latin ethos, perhaps because it contrasted so strongly with my plain vanilla self. And then there’s the arts – especially the music and the dancing – which had a special hold over me.

The beauty of Salsa
The beauty of Salsa

Just a few years ago, traveling to Cuba as a U.S. citizen would mean breaking the law. The travel ban was relaxed somewhat in 2009, which allowed Cuban-Americans to travel freely to Cuba. When, in 2011, “people-to-people” visits were sanctioned so other U.S. citizens were able to travel to Cuba, albeit with certain restrictions, I started to research my options. I hoped to find a tour that had a good mix of organized excursions and unstructured free time so we could explore our surroundings on our own. Last October, when I found one that fit my requirements, I signed up for the next planned trip without hesitation.

Very early on the morning of our departure, a group of 18 mostly strangers gathered together, visas in hand, in the Charter Airline terminal at Miami airport. Exhausted but excited, we began the process of getting to know one another as we made our way through the series of steps necessary for U.S. citizens to travel legally to Cuba. About 2 1/5 hours after we arrived at the airport we boarded our plane for the short flight to Havana’s Jose Marti Airport.

My first glimpse of Cuba!
My first glimpse of Cuba!

When we landed and I stepped off the plane onto the tarmac, I could barely contain my emotions. I had dreamed of this moment for so long it was hard to believe that I had finally made it. I was in Cuba!

After making our way through immigration, retrieving our bags, and going through customs, we exchanged dollars for CUCs and we were on our way. Our first day’s agenda included a short orientation walk in Old Havana, lunch, and a tour of the Havana Club Rum Museum before checking into our hotel in downtown Havana.

Jose Marti International Airport
Jose Marti International Airport
Taxis wait for passengers in front of the airport
Taxis wait for passengers in front of the airport
The first of many government-sponsored billboards and murals we saw
The first of many government-sponsored billboards and murals we saw
Catholic church in Old Havana
Catholic church in Old Havana
The Havana Club Rum Museum
The Havana Club Rum Museum
The view from our hotel room in Havana
The view from our hotel room in Havana

Stringing Together the Florida Keys

Because our journey to Cuba would be launched from Miami, my husband and I had an opportunity to fulfill another long-held desire: to drive the scenic coastal highway along the Florida Keys. Although we had been to Florida several times before, we had never tacked the time onto our vacation necessary to make the journey. This visit though, we added a few days to explore the area, which had the additional benefit of allowing us to acclimate ourselves to the three-hour time zone difference before we reached our main destination.

Although I was aware that the Keys – and especially Key West – had become a bit of a tourist trap, I still wanted to see them for myself. I was intrigued by pictures of turquoise waters and distinctive architecture, fascinated to read about the time Hemmingway spent in Key West, and inspired by the romance of the many songs written about this beautiful necklace of islands along the coral archipelago.

42 overseas bridges span the islands from Key Largo to Key West
42 overseas bridges span the islands from Key Largo to Key West

There are more than 800 islands that make up the Keys but fewer than 50 of these are inhabited (“Key” is derived from the Spanish word Cayo which means small island).  The Overseas Highway that stretches from Key Largo to Key West is a series of causeways and bridges — including the spectacular Seven Mile Bridge – and provides plenty of vistas along the way. It was built to replace the Overseas Railway that was constructed in the early 1910s and then destroyed by a category 5 hurricane in 1935. It takes about 3 – 4 hours to drive the 110 mile route, depending on traffic and the number of stops needed to admire the scenery and, of course, to grab a cheeseburger in paradise.

We only had two days set aside for our visit and, looking back, we should have allowed for more. There is a lot to see and do on these beautiful and captivating little islands.

Hemmingway's house and museum is home to 40 - 50 polydactyl (six-toed) cats
Hemingway’s house and museum is home to 40 – 50 polydactyl (six-toed) cats. If you look closely, you can see Truman’s “thumb”
The study in Hemmingway's Key West home
The study in Hemingway’s home, where it is said that he wrote “To Have and Have Not,” a novel about Key West during the Great Depression
In Key West a marker indicates the southernmost point in the continental U.S. (just 90 miles from Cuba!)
In Key West a marker indicates the southernmost point in the continental U.S. (just 90 miles from Cuba!)
Sailing into the sunset
Sailing into the sunset off the shores of Key West
The crowd at Mallory Square gathers to watch the sunset
The crowds at Mallory Square gather each night to watch the sunset
After the sun set, the crowd applauded and disbursed, unaware that the best part of the sunset occurs several minutes after it disappears below the horizon
After the sun set, the crowd applauded and disbursed, unaware that the best part of the sunset occurs several minutes after it disappears below the horizon

Kicking the Bucket List

Ever since the film “The Bucket List” came out in 2007, the phrase has become a part of the American vernacular. Whether or not the term pre-dates the movie, I have no idea, but it seems that now just about everyone has made some type of bucket list. It might be a list of things they want to do before they “kick the bucket” or it could be a list of places to visit or goals to achieve before a specific end time (going off to college or getting married, for instance).

List

When I first heard the term I thought it was a clever, light-hearted way to describe a list of experiences to be had and dreams to fulfill. I’ve used the phrase many times myself but, lately, what used to sound clever now strikes me as trite. In many cases, “Bucket List” trivializes the passion, desire, and curiosity that helped to create the collection of destinations and dreams I would like to pursue while I am still able to do so. These are not merely items on a to-do list to be checked off as I flit from one to the next, but real experiences to be lived and savored.

Recently, I was able to fulfill a dream I have had for as long as I can remember: travel to Cuba. I’m not sure what planted the seed of desire in me, but I have fed and nurtured it for many years. I’ve collected articles, accumulated books, and closely charted the political winds as they have raged, then calmed, then raged again, carrying my hopes with them. As close as Cuba is – just 90 miles from the tip of Florida – it might as well have been on another planet because of the travel restrictions placed on U.S. citizens.

Then, last fall, the right opportunity presented itself and we immediately said “yes”! The person putting the trip together had experience, passion, and a great sense of fun and adventure. We’ve never been interested in traveling with tour group before, but this one promised just the right combination of group time and free time. It would give us the opportunity to see parts of the country, learn about its culture and history, and have experiences that we would find very difficult to realize on our own.

All of the arrangements were made before President Obama’s December 17 announcement of the beginning of normalizing relations between Cuba and the United States. When we heard of the impending thaw, we were so grateful that we would see Cuba before the travel restrictions were lifted. We wanted to see Cuba before it is irreversibly altered by the deluge of American tourists that are sure to come once diplomatic relations are reestablished.

A few weeks ago, my husband and I flew to Miami to begin what would feel like a journey on a time machine, back to the late 1950s, before the U.S. imposed a trade embargo on this tiny island nation.

Next:

Key West: Separated from Cuba by 90 miles and 50 years

Greetings From the Top of the World

Mauna Kea, one of the five volcanos that form the island of Hawaii, stands 13,796 feet above sea level. From its base, which in 17,000 feet below sea level, to its peak, Mauna Kea rises over 30,000 feet – more than twice the height of Mount Everest.

The volcano’s last eruption occurred over 4600 years ago. It is currently dormant but scientists expect there is another eruption in its future. Although all of us will be long gone when this happens (it could be tens of thousands of years from now) it should be quite a show!

Because of Mauna Kea’s high altitude, dry climate, and stable airflow, its summit is home to over a dozen telescopes. It is considered one of the best locations in the world for astronomical observation.

Other than from an airplane, we don’t usually get to observe clouds from above. The view from the summit of Mauna Kea is incredible – the vista, the clouds, the sunset, and then the amazing night sky filled with stars – and I will always be grateful to have had the opportunity to see it for myself.

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Planning for Spontaneity

My husband and I just returned from our first post-retirement road trip. Even though we mostly stuck to our planned schedule, it was very freeing to know that, because neither of us have a job to dictate our return date, we could stay away as long as we wanted… or at least until the money ran out.

We had a terrific several weeks in northern California; in Monterey at a car club “convention,” visiting my brother and sister-in-law in the Bay Area, and spending time in Santa Cruz with my husband’s family. In fact, we had such a good time we started to plan our next trip as we drove home. Yep, I think we could get used to this!

Monterey coastline
Monterey coastline
Tasting champagne in Napa
Tasting champagne in Napa

In addition to planning our next escape, we’ve been talking about what we can do to make it easier for us to just pack and go. We want to put a few things in place now so that, when the spontaneity spark hits us or a can’t-miss-it opportunity arises, we can take off at a moment’s notice.

We’ve already made the conscious decision not to have pets because of travel. Although I miss having a dog or a cat, the freedom has been a positive tradeoff.

Our landscaping is – by design – fairly low maintenance, so we don’t need to arrange for upkeep while we were gone as long as our plants don’t have to go more than a couple of weeks without water.

Seasoned travelers have told us that it’s best not to put a vacation stop on mail and newspaper delivery because it is an alert that we will be out of town. Because of this, we have a neighbor pick up our mail and paper while we are gone. Since we provide the same service to her when she’s on vacation, it doesn’t seem like an imposition. To make things simpler and to avoid overlapping vacations, we are considering cancelling the paper completely. Our mailbox is attached to the garage wall so we want to create an opening that will allow the mail to drop directly from the box into a container inside the garage.

Ideally, we’d like to have someone stay at our house for absences lasting longer than a week or so. Not much would be required beyond simple watering and generally keeping an eye on things, but having a presence in the home would make us more comfortable while away. Although we live in a pretty safe neighborhood, this is a big city and we’d be naive to think nothing could happen.

When I was younger, single, and living in a condo with my cat, I had plenty of friends who were happy to stay in my home while I was out of town. They either lived with their parents or with roommates and welcomed the opportunity to have their own space for awhile. They enjoyed the quiet and privacy and I received cat feeding, plant watering, and house watching services. Win-win.

Fast forward a few decades and circumstances have changed. Married or not, our friends tend to be happy with their living situations so are not available to house-sit.

House swapping is something we might explore in the future, especially for longer stays, but for now—and for shorter stays—we are looking for that perfect match; someone who is pet-free, trustworthy, responsible, and who would welcome the opportunity “get way” for awhile in our home.

Hopefully we can find someone before we take off again.