Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Smokies: the Final Leg of the GRT

On Saturday, I was in the Harrison County Fair Parade (Harrison County, IA). I sat in the back of a pickup truck throwing shirts and pencils to the people who lined the street. Riding on a float in the Harrison County Fair Parade was a strange throwback to my life growing up. Living in a small Midwestern town in the fall often meant staking out a spot on the sidewalk lining Main Street and collecting as much candy as I could from the passing floats. I remember how exciting it was to hear the drums of the marching band and the blast of the horn on the fire engine. Then, as a member of the high school marching band, I was often a part of small parades. We'd march in our matching summer uniforms of shorts and polo shirts, or sweat like crazy in our wool uniforms, walking sort-of-close-to-in-step with one another past the grins of proud parents and children who wished we could produce candy out of our instruments instead of music. I had forgotten how much I liked parades.

From there, A and I drove across Iowa to visit her hometown, which I have heard about for years. She is the "heiress to the feed store" in her tiny Iowa town, and it was really fun for me to see the places she'd talked about and glimpse what life might have been like for her growing up in a town even smaller than the one I grew up in.

Then it was on across the country, past the world's largest truck stop, down through the hills of Kentucky to Great Smokey Mountain National Park. A's parents have a gorgeous cabin just outside the park, and they welcomed us warmly. We spent a couple days exploring the park, having picnics and going hiking, and driving down the windy roads looking for animals. It was fun to join in their family vacation, and I felt almost like one of the family as we ate together and talked about their small town and shared stories of family vacations past.

On Wednesday morning, A and I spotted a two-year bear cub while hiking around Cades Cove. We were only about thirty feet away, so I got some great shots of the bear:

Then, after nearly two weeks and more than 2,300 miles of travel, I made my way back to the city. Too bad my air conditioning was broken when I got back to my apartment...

Friday, July 25, 2008

Wineries in Iowa? and Other Lessons of the GRT

After a lovely visit in Indiana, I went up to the great state of Missouri. There, I got to have lunch and catch up briefly with Bear, a friend from college who I hadn't seen in two years. Bear has the same sense of humor, kindness, and love of hot wings that I first cherished in our friendship, but he also seems to have gained some wisdom since I saw him last. I can't explain how I gained that impression, and perhaps it was just seeing him through two years of separation, but I was impressed by his self-assurance and acceptance of the situations around him. It made me proud to be his friend.

From there I went on to Kansas City, where I visited art museums with an artist friend of mine, C. I had seen C's work before, but I'd never heard him explain other people's works. He is not only well-versed in art history and knowledgeable about the pieces we viewed in the two Kansas City art museums, he's also very skilled at explaining the works in ways that ordinary people can understand. He likened the different methods and movements to food and music, helping me to understand the pieces in new ways. I could almost taste and smell the paintings as well as see them.

Along the way, I drove through the city where I went to school. It was strange to see the exits again, to recognize the signs for restaurants and stores where I once ate and drank with friends, places that shaped my life for four years. Most of all, I was amazed at the feelings that washed over me as I spotted the smokestack on the horizon that always, to me, signaled that I had returned to school. As I sped across the pavement, I though of the small brick residence hall near the base of that smokestack where I learned so many lessons. That building was once a cherished haven for me, the place where I could return when I felt torn between my childhood self and the adult I knew I had to become. I remembered all the deep conversations and self-revelations I uncovered in those cinder-block rooms, and my vision was blurred with the faces of people who challenged me to be myself, many of whom I have failed to maintain contact with. I learned so much on that campus. I transformed from a high school caterpillar to a world-ready butterfly in that academic cocoon. And, as I watched that city fade in my rearview mirror, I knew that the city held memories, but no future for me.

I drove on to Iowa, where my friend A has chased her dream to a Wildlife Refuge. She is one of the brave people in my acquaintance who know what they want and throw their whole selves into achieving that. We spent several days catching up, making small road trips around the region to the Omaha Zoo and to Pipestone National Monument in Minnesota. And she revealed to me that there is a fledgling wine industry in Iowa, so we had wine-tasting adventures in the Midwest. While she works, I get to explore the prairies, wetlands, and expansive farms that make up the landscapes here. And even this slightly hilly land, cut by rivers, where most people just see endless cornfields, is beautiful to me.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The GRT: My Great American Road Trip

"Where all are you guys going?"
"Who do you mean, 'you guys'? It's just me."
"Wait, you're going on a two week road trip alone?"
"Because I can. Because I want to."
"Oh. Wow."

I have been told that the "Great American Road Trip" is dying out. People are saying that high gas prices, the increased availability of flying, and the fragmenting of the American family are causing road trips to become a thing of the past. Maybe I'm just behind the times, but I don't buy it. When I was a kid, my family took road trips with relative frequency, and many of my favorite family memories are of things that happened on those trips.

I remember going to Washington D.C. for the first time, listening to my dad describe historical events as we toured the places where they happened. I remember getting ice cream sundaes in the basement of the Smithsonian and gazing at the planes suspended from the ceiling of the Air and Space Museum. I was awe-struck by being able to see history in concrete form before me. I remember Mom navigating the Metro, and Dad keeping his head on a swivel and his hand on his wallet as my sister and I, small-town girls at heart, stared around us with eyes like saucers.

I remember driving down to New Orleans and staying with my uncle there. I was fascinated by the smells and dirt of the French Quarter. I recall my parents hustling us past shop fronts that they deemed inappropriate, but letting us explore the stores that featured ceramic theater masks. I even recall trying on a huge, antique sapphire ring in a pawn shop, being amazed that such a huge stone even existed.

I remember going to Mammoth Cave and being fascinated with the idea of spelunking. We ran into an old science teacher of my sister's at the park, where he was working as a ranger, and I remember climbing around on the young cavers tour, exploring tiny spaces and getting covered in cave mud.

But probably most memorable of all was our trip out west. On that trek, my dad's mother joined our family of four, so we took her minivan and started our venture from Denver. We drove up through the Black Hills to Mt. Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Monument, then on to Yellowstone. In my mind's eye I can still see the colors of the hot springs, and the lush green of the hills. I can remember my mad excitement when I saw Old Faithful blow the first time. And, when I really focus, I can remember the smell of the NutriGrain bars I'd eat when I started to get carsick.

Perhaps those fond memories are the reason that I love road trips so much. I love the idea of exploring and having an adventure, and I get excited about the chance to see friends and family who are usually far away. I love the feel of stretching after a long car ride, and of the hugs and smiles of the people at your destination when you finally arrive on their doorsteps. I love the freedom of traveling, of being able to go down the road, to see the world out my window and sing at the top of my lungs in the car.

So, to commemorate what will probably be my last free summer, I am taking a road trip. I'm loading my remarkably reliable car, Jack, and setting out on an adventure. When I first mentioned my plans, some of my friends were surprised that I would want to travel several thousand miles and take on a two-week trip by myself. But my family and those who know me best recognize that it's pretty typical of me. I'm pretty independent and have no qualms about going out on my own. I love the open road, the freedom of a flexible itinerary, and the knowledge that I get to see people I care about along the way. I love singing in the car and finding fun restaurants where I can eat along the way.

That is why, this morning, I lugged my duffel bag downstairs, set my iPod for some tunes, and Jack and I set off down the road. I drove through Tennessee and Kentucky, through beautiful green hills and gently rolling farmland toward the flat plains of the midwest. I finally stopped in the small city of Evansville, Indiana, a place I where I had once visited when a friend went to college here. I recalled a small, indie coffee shop here that my friend had taken me to and, with a little help from my GPS, found it: Penny Lane Coffee House. I stopped in for an Italian Soda and got a little work done in the afternoon.

Then I met up with a friend from grad. school, Rachel, who is working here for the summer, and we went to a New York-style lounge called to catch a little dinner. After dinner we met up with the local dance group for a lesson in salsa dancing and an evening of salsa and swing. I'm not a great dancer, but the teachers were good and, with the help of some excellent leads, I managed to dance both salsa and swing. It was great to move that much after a day of driving, and I thoroughly enjoyed the music. I had learned a few salsa and swing moves in my showchoir days, but there's something totally different about the improvisational style of swing dancing outside showchoir choreography. In addition, the communities of swing dancers are really diverse, and I love the chance to meet people I otherwise might never get to talk to. Rachel has definitely persuaded me to take up dancing more in my everyday life, so I may have to look up the local swing dancers in my future locations. In the meantime, I'll try not to forget how to do the basic salsa and the triple-Lindy as I drive on down the road.

That's all for now, but stay tuned for the next installment of my GRT: Missouri Loves Company.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Did They Know?

Benjamin Franklin: "Don't worry, the history books will clean it up."
John Adams: "I won't be remembered by the history books. It will all be 'Franklin did this, and Franklin did that, and Franklin did some other damn thing. Franklin smote the ground and out popped George Washington, fully grown and on his horse. He then electrified him with his amazing lightning rod and the three of them, Franklin, Washington, and the horse, conducted the entire revolution by themselves."

I watched the movie 1776 today, as is becoming my habit on Independence Day. As I watched it, I began to wonder: did our forebears realize what kind of legacy they would have? Did John Adams know, when he pushed and pushed for independence, that over two hundred years later people would still be talking about and celebrating what he did? Did Benjamin Franklin realize when he had his portrait painted that hundreds of years later people would walk around with his picture on their money? Moreover, did he have any idea what that the electricity that he began playing with then would be absolutely essential to the way many people live their lives now, so many years later? Did Thomas Jefferson know that his words would be quoted for centuries to come? I doubt it. I think they probably knew what they were doing was important, probably realized that it would have long-term consequences, but did they realize they were creating a new nation that would thrive and become a world power?

It got me thinking about the consequences of our actions, and about what people will think about our generation two hundred years in the future. Is it possible that, centuries from now, people will be quoting things my friends and colleagues have written? Could it be that our inventions, our ideas, our creations will endure?

I remember the giant stone ruins I saw in the Middle East, the enormous pillars that have remained standing for thousands of years. I wonder if the lowly stone cutter and the engineers and well-muscled workers who put up those pillars knew that thousands of years later people would travel from around the globe (another concept they could not have grasped) to see their work. Will our buildings last that long? Will they endure the weathering and time to stand as a testament to our existence thousands of years in the future?

I've been contemplating time a lot lately. I've been thinking about the four thousands years of worship that have taken place at Palmyra in Syria, and about the period of time that people have been continuously dwelling in the city of Damascus. I thought about how, despite the fact that they're practically newborns in the grand scheme of history, how much impact the founders of the U.S. have had on the world. Understood philosophically, time is both a force and a social construction. Time is a force in that it is something that exists in the realm of nature, and which is beyond our control. Time passes, the sun rises and sets, the seasons change, organisms grow, die, and decompose, ad nauseum et infinitum. But time is also a social construction. Humans created calendars and clocks, defined years, months, hours, minutes, and seconds. We are the only creations, so far as I can tell, that actually keep track of time. Animals perhaps keep track of seasons for hibernation and food storage. Plants grow as the seasons set forth, but they do not count the hours and minutes, they don't set deadlines, and they certainly don't keep concrete schedules.

So, what is it about our humanity that makes us want to keep track of time? Why do we count the days of our lives, numbering the days and the years, ticking off hours and minutes? Is it our sense of looming mortality? Are we trying to keep track of our time so that we can make the most of it? Or is have we created calendars and timepieces so that we can live better together? Our time-tracking certainly makes it more possible for us to arrange to meet one another, to make working and traveling together a possibility. Keeping track of time allows us to have commerce and communication, to organize our interaction. Yet, does it really serve us? When we worry about wasting time or losing time, when we allow our calendars and clocks to limit us or dictate how we live, is that healthy? When we forget that we have created time and instead allow it to rule us, what does that do to our freedom? Do we realize how small we are in the grand scheme of things? Do we recognize the possible consequences of our actions in the long run? Or are we so trapped in our keeping track of seconds that we forget to think in terms of centuries? And how would we act or live differently if we thought with a longer frame of reference?

As I write this, I doubt that anyone will read this a month from now, much less in two hundred years. I know that I've spent minutes typing this that I will never get back. But I care a lot less about the minutes I've lost and a lot more about the possibility of making a positive change for the people two hundred years from now. So I guess I'll keep writing.