Route 66 Connections: No Expectations, No Focus

When traveling without expectations, a journey is at first a series of disconnected experiences because it occurs organically, not in a series of marketing meetings that plan it from start to finish. That’s where I’ve been for the past two days, trying to make sense of disparate experiences whose only coherence is the road, Route 66, that connects them.

Day5-6It started yesterday with the round barn in Arcadia, Oklahoma. Other than its shape and free admission, there’s nothing exceptional about it. The first floor gives the history of the structure, and it was interesting to see how the mounted flat pictures to the curved walls. The center of the barn is a gift shop filled with t-shirts and related tourist items. Upstairs, the lost, said several signs, was available for parties, meetings, weddings, and receptions. Figuring that it was an empty space that made these activities possible, we didn’t climb the stairs. Instead we stopped by the bathroom, in a separate building, and it was air conditioned.

Day5-51That afternoon we stopped at the Route 66 Museum in Clinton, Oklahoma. After walking the exhibits, which were segregated by decades, what I learned seem worth the $5 admission, but I was vaguely disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, the museum was well organized, researched, and staged. But it didn’t offer any surprises, bits of information or artifacts that surprised me. Nor did I get a feeling for the museum’s personality or the character of the people who shared their histories with 66 on video. It reminded me of a well done high school term paper, researched for basic facts and formatted to appeal to the lowest common commercial denominator.

Day6-3This morning we crossed into Texas, and between Shamrock and Leila, at the corner of Texas 453, we came across what appeared to be an 1980s-era Phillips 66 station. Centered in the welded-wire fence that surrounded it was a For Sale sign. Inside the fence were an empty building and a collection of old cars, a VW bug, a T-Bird, and several old and older pickup trucks. It was the sad, forlorn reality of someone’s dreams for a successful business. What made it surreal was the Suburban parked in the gravel lot on the roadside. Its engine was running and inside a family was fast asleep, except for the blond youngster playing a video game in the front passenger seat. The air was certainly on full because slumped back in the driver’s seat, dad had a blanket pulled up to this chin.

Day6-14Cresting a rise I saw a water tower, on old one with four legs, a center standpipe, and a conical top. Black outline letters name the town McLean. At the corner beneath it was a boarded up gas station, a hint of things to come, I’m afraid. Main St. crossed the old 66 at a right angle, and looking down its length both ways as we slowly rolled by revealed no signs of life. No open stores. No parked cars. No people on the sidewalk. The movie theater’s marquee was a tabula rasa.

Day6-21At a gas station and convenience store in Groom, Texas, not unlike the one for sale, we stopped for a fill-up. Inside was the minimum essentials for small Interstate wayside in the middle of almost nowhere. Perched on folding chairs at one of the three folding tables with white plastic tops were three good ole boys talking about goings on in Amarillo, down the Interstate to the west. One was wearing an unusual long-round bag slung on a rainbow strap across his chest. Getting the bike ready to resume the journey, I heard an excellent trumpet rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. So that is what was in the bag. And underneath it was a Trump for President t-shirt. A trumpeter for trump in Groom, Texas, and with a good set of chops, too.

Stopping at the Cadillac Ranch, also known as Carhenge, was on Ed’s bucket list. Seeking directions at the t-shirt shop (it had all sizes up to 5X) behind a few pristine Caddies set at an angle, the surly blonde woman behind the counter pointed and said it was a half-mile that way. Cars parked on both sides of the road marked our destination a half-mile down the frontage road.

Day6-43After walking through an unusual gate that kept cattle in and fat people out, Carhenge was at the end of a quarter-mile walk down wide dirt path through a sorghum field. A good sized crowd of all ages was working busily with cans of spray paint tagging the cars and recording their creations for digital posterity with cameras and phones. And when they were finished, their handiwork was quickly covered up by someone else. About half the cars were surrounded by a mud puddle, so dry working area was in demand. 

I get the founding point of careenage, but its transition to a destination canvas for people to leave a digital image of their mark eludes me. As they walked back to the gate, a trio of 30-somethings with British accents was busily discussion not the automotive sculpture they had just tagged, it was how to post both stills and videos on Facebook at the same time.

Day6-54As we rolled across the Texas Panhandle, Route 66 jumps on and off I-40, which parallels it. Ready for lunch, a billboard for the Wildorado’s Windy Cow Café caught our eye. The food was good, but the people were better. This is Trudy, our waitress. The back of her orange t-shirt asked, “Got Wind?” Life has clearly distilled Trudy to sinew and leather that is forever fed by a positive outlook on life. “Where you from?” she asked. Learning that Ed and I were separated by two-thirds of the continent, she asked, “How’d you get together?” After explaining the roots of our 20-year friendship and how we periodically get together for a ride, Trudy said, “That’s good! It’s better than sitting around the house.”

She talked us into strawberry lemonade, which was perfect on this hot and humid day. When she returned from waiting on the café’s eclectic lunchtime clientele (cowboys with spurs, members of the school board, and some workers speaking some unknown Eastern European language) she refilled our glassed with a warning: “It’s the same stuff, but they might of made it with different measurements.” She was right. It was pucker worthy, but still refreshing.

And refreshing might be the most apt description for the surprises the exploration of this new (to me) territory. If Mother Nature allows—we watched thunderstorms bubble up to the west and north of us as we rode today—tomorrow we’ll ride the Santa Fe loop and, we hope, end up in Albuquerque. The only thing we now for sure is that the road will provide some more twists and turns that we’ve so far enjoyed on this leg of our journey.

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Route 66: There Will be Serendiculous Wrong Turns

Day4-1With a multitude of cutoff towns and rerouted roads, there is not one true path for Route 66. You pick an era and hope for the best. For the most part, Ed and I have been following the 1926-30 route because that has taken us to the most interesting places. But some of the things we’d hoped to see were on 66’s route in other eras. Those paths and turns are not so well marked, so there will be wrong turns on any 66 adventure. But that’s not something to mourn with a U-turn because something just as interesting may be around the next corner. It happened with such reliability today, we united serendipity and ridiculous into a unnatural union whose offspring is that strange looking word in the headline.

Day4-9It started when we met George Turner, a retired Marine who runs the Gary’s Gar Parita Sinclair Station on Old 66 in Ash Grove, Missouri, with his wife, Barb Turner Barnes. Her dad, Gary Turner, ran the station from 1944 to 2015, when he passed away, George said. One thing led to the next, he said, and he and his wife packed up and moved to Missouri from South Carolina. Apparently he’s an automotive collector, because he said half the stuff on display was already there, and he brought the other half with him. In the cluttered office is a memorial to Gary.

Day4-13The stone walled garage was amazing, and George is an unappreciated curator of Americana. The yellow Ford truck is perfectly situated in the garage. It is surrounded by uncountable items that you would find in any garage of the era. And George explained every item in detail to a couple of guys who were visiting at the same time. He not only explained what the item was, what it was used for, he could also recount some of the history of the company that made it. The gentlemen he was talking to must have been car guys because they were all geeking out. The only real clue that it was not a working garage was its cleanliness. It was more museum than busted knuckle grease emporium.

Day4-14What was most clear and ultimately enjoyable was how much George honestly loved what he was doing. He had a practiced but genuine patter that greeted every guest that walked through the gate. He encouraged everyone to wander around and explore the garage, office and grounds, “and if you want, I’ve got a little gift shop over there.” On post by the gas pump was a small unobtrusive box for donations. As we got ready to leave, George gave each of us two post cards, because “We live in a two-fisted world.” He urged us to keep one, and to “Send the other one home, to make folks jealous, so they’ll come visit. The postcard was a black & white photo of the station, with this quote: Folks from all over the world say it’s the dream of their life to travel historic Route 66. It’s the dream of my life to meet those folks. Friends for Life. Thank you!” Given the “Friends for Life” that graced the memorial in the office, I’m guessing that Gary Turner was this saying’s author. But George is carrying it into the future. And as we were leaving, a carload of four Spaniards, two hipster couples complete with beards and ink, pulled up, and I took three of their cameras to capture their visit while they held up a black flag with a white Route 66 logo on it. As we were pulling on our helmets, George said that yesterday a group of 30 bikers from Spain had visited.

Kansas has the shortest stretch of Route 66, just 13 miles. With the temperature climbing into triple digits, we impulsively turned right, away from the pink line on Ed’s GPS, with the idea of stopping to dehelmet and dejacket and dehumidify. That’s how we found the Rainbow Curve Bridge (and met up again with the Spanish hipsters, when they arrived shortly after us.

Day4-25Located west of Galina, Kansas, the bridge was built over Brush Creek  in 1923 and served Route 66 daily from the route’s birth in 1926 until 1960. The only surviving marsh arch bridge on 66, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. In 1994, as a joint project between the Cherokee  County Commission and the Kansas Historic Route 66 Association restored it, and you can drive across it—one way—today.

Minutes later after crossing the bridge we were in Oklahoma. And we were hungry. Rolling into Vinitia, the temperature on the bank sign read 102, and a big vertical neon sign ahead said EAT. That meant food and, more importantly, ice water and air conditioning.  And, it turned out, a bit big serving of Route 66 history.

Day4-36After two big glasses of ice water, and while waiting for our lunch, we read that Clanton’s Café is the oldest family-owned Route 66 restaurant in Oklahoma. It opened at its current location in 1947, and Dennis and Melissa Clanton Patrick are the fourth generation owners. It grew out of the Busy Bee Café that Sweet Tater Clanton opened in 1927. The menu said that it feature hand peeled and cut taters and homemade salad dressings. The pies are made from scratch from recipes little changed since they were developed in 1927. I opted for a club sandwich and more water. Every seat in the house was a booth (and they were proportioned for people with a 1927 stature), and the walls were covered with an eclectic combination of 8-by-10-inch store-bought picture frames that held images of notable Oklahomans. I didn’t recognize any of them.

With the temperature climbing higher, we took I-44 past Tulsa and are now sucking up the air conditioning at a Super 8 in Sapulpa, Oklahoma. Tulsa is as far as I’ve ever traveled on the Spangler’s 1965 adventure on Route 66. From here to LA, it’ll all be new, and were depending on serendiculous decisions to surprise on at least once a day.

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Route 66: Pink Lines & Roads Previously Traveled

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Morning dawned gray and wet in Pacific, Missouri. Waiting it out seemed the best option because riding in the moist contrails of the semis barreling down the road unabated by the weather, seemed the best course of action. The Quality Inn sign out front flashed the time and the humid temperature of 68 degrees, and the canopy kept me dry, so settled in for a cigar with my coffee. It was the perfect combination to ruminate about this trip.

The point of any trip is to go someplace. This adventure will take Ed and me from Chicago to LA on Route 66 and up the coast to his home in the Seattle area. After I do laundry there, I’ll figure out which way I’m coming home, a connect-the-dot journey with the position changes being the several sources I’m seeing for some stories I’m working on. Watching the truck-smashed raindrops define the vortices of the cars and trucks speeding by, their windshield wipers working furiously, I collected and collated my thoughts and impressions so far, and it struck me that I’ve already traveled much of the forthcoming route.

Day1-35Heading into Chicago on US 41, the sign for a cross street said N. Wolcott Ave. A text-message like ping sounded in my head. I spent the first three years of my life on this street, from my arrival in 1953 until the Spangler family moved to Streamwood in 1956. And nine years later we were in the family’s brand new 1965 blue Buick Special station wagon, with its V-6 and automatic transmission, heading following whatever path Route 66 followed that year to Tulsa, Oklahoma. Heading south, none of the roads looked like the ones we were riding, especially the sections here the old route ran parallel to the even older, abandon stretches of pavement.

We were going to visit Art and Jody Johnson, friends and classmates of my father when the all attended the Chicago Art Institute. It just so happens that we passed the school’s iconic lions when we made the left turn from Indiana to Adams, and saw that there was no way we could get a photo of the bikes with the sign that marked the start of westbound Route 66, unless we wanted to get flattened by an articulated CTA bus, that is.

The innkeeper on duty came out front to check the weather and have a smoke. Talking about our trip she thought us demented. But I sensed a tinge a jealously. Her youngest son, 27, was a truck driver, and he’d just returned from a run to Oregon, and “He had pictures of all sorts of animals he saw along the way.” Her oldest boy was a Marine. He was in California, now, after two tours in Afghanistan, and that was someplace she hoped he would never travel to again, “It’s just awful.”

As she finished her smoke, the rain started to abate, and we saddled up, and continued along the general path of Route 66 that I’d traveled in 1965. There isn’t much I remember about that trip, other than long hours of boredom in the back seat with my sister. To break the monotony for our parents, we fought from time to time, mostly about how hot we were and who was encroaching on the other’s backseat space.

Day2-23But visual memories surfaced as we rode today, and the day before. In Springfield, Illinois, we stopped at the final resting place of Abraham Lincoln, and a museum, I don’t remember, where, to rub Abe bronze nose for luck. Following the pink line that led us along the 1926-30 path, Ed and I were surprise to see that it took us past the state capital building. Parking spaces allowed us to take a rest and grab some photos, and a state worker cutting the grass took a break and offered to take our photos.

From there we pretty much followed IL 4, but we took the cutoffs to the small towns that were like points on the saw blade that was the original route. To Ed I explained that the US highway system involved some new road construction, but initially it united existing roads with the numbering system that made getting from place to place easier. As is the driving force of progress, people wanted to get to their destinations more quickly, so the highway commissions started excising the smaller towns from the route in the 1930s. That eventually led to the Interstate system and the retirement of US Highway 66.

But as our peregrinations through rural Illinois proved, these roads, now with different names, are still in service. On the east side of Nilewood, population 300, we rode a segment of Old 66 paved in bricks. And on the west side of town, there it was a narrow (maybe 12-feet wide) strip of concrete with grass growing up through the cracks. The brick road was now named Snell, and the concrete path was Gillespie, and they were still important to the people who lived on either side of them.

Day2-46Their homes, like their communities, were well neat and well cared for. On Gillespie road we saw a sign for turkey tracks, where the wild birds had left their footprints in the wet concrete. We parked at the side of the road and spent maybe 20 minutes looking around and taking photos. The grass around the sign was neatly trimmed, and not a single car interrupted our exploration. On our way out, the man cutting his lawn at the house not 50 yards from the turkey tracks looked up and waved. We returned the greeting, but with our full face helmets, he could not see our smiles that mirrored his.

One worry about this 66 adventure was that the attractions along the way would be local attempts at creating a Disney view of the past. But so far, that hasn’t been the case. Rather than presenting an idyllic look at the past, the attractions have been a presentation of honest pride in the contributions of their creators to their communities.

Crossing the Mississippi River on I-55, looking north gave us a good view of the Gateway Arch, and on our 1965 trip, I think we stopped for an up-close look. My dad and I rode the the tiny car to the top, but my mom and sister were content to look up.

Day2-32In Rolla we spent our first night in the Holiday Inn, which was a big deal. I remember reading that John Glenn was involved with the company in some way, but my parents wouldn’t let me bring my GI Joe and Mercury capsule to play with in the pool, which was filled with sparking, crystal cold water. That water would feel good now! Gauging the temperatures from the sign Ed and I pass, it is in the upper 80s, and the humidity is even higher. The wind chill of our forward speed doesn’t make the any more comfortable.

At the Missouri Route 66 Welcome Center rest stop, the last one in the state, Ed and I faced the same dilemma posed to the highway commissioners that determined 66’s path, getting to our destination in a reasonable amount of time. Three days in, we’d covered just 700 miles. With limited time to travel the remaining 1,900 miles, we’d have to determine our own cutoffs. Seeing little of interest along the rural route of the past, we opted for the paved over path that was I-44. Relying on the guidebooks, we’ll resume our trek on 66’s historic path course on the west side of Springfield, Missouri, as time and Mother Nature allows.

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Route 66: Following the Pink Line From Chicago to LA

Day1-27As an aficionado of small towns and the people who live in them, there seemed no better  way to explore those not yet visited than by following the path of the road that once connected them: Route 66. The towns still exist, and the pavement that was once called Route 66 still connects them, but the route itself has ceased to exist. The good news is that its small town wanderings west is still known, and my riding partner and traveling companion, Ed, had the software that would show us the way with a pink (or magenta, depending on your color perception) line and the willingness to ride east from his home in Seattle to undertake the quest.

The bad news is that regardless which way you’re going, west or east, Route 66 starts or ends in Chicago. Our goal was to get a photo of our BMW bikes under the signs that noted the end of the route. We were going west, but being a city, we’d call it a win with either sign. The east bound terminus is at Lake Shore Drive and Jackson St. Because it’s a one-way street west, the start of Route 66 is on Adams St. When we got down town, after following US 41 from Oshkosh south until it turned into Lake Shore Drive, we didn’t get a photo with either sign. It wasn’t worth our lives.

A festival was going on, and throngs of people in shorts and t-shirts and sports bras were heading into the fenced off area, that blocked off Jackson and seemed to keep a loud music monster caged. Circling back on Indiana we were hoping for the Adams St. sign, but it was on the corner in a bus only lane. And we’d passed an articulated CTA bus just before turning left. And a cab that wanted by thought he could use part of the lane not filled with motorcycles. Calling it a good attempt and vowing to service as each other’s witness that we’d started Route 66 from the start, we wandered around and finally found our way out of the city.

Round about Joliet we reconnected with the pink line and the brown signs that the mark the historic route. We stopped at the Rich and Cream on Broadway ice cream shop because the fiberglass Blues Brothers were dancing on its roof. We didn’t get ice cream. The line was too long. Around Wilmington we met the Gemini Giant, and not only is he taller than I am, his feet are bigger.

Day1-23It was here that we started to see history of an era passed. The buildings wore engraved names and dates at their cornices. Under one cornice marking the birth of URAD in 1909 was a modern sign over the door that read “Bienvenidos.” On the corner was a building proclaiming the Newlin Block, and it had a turret that allowed people within to look down both streets. It would make an excellent writing room. It was now home to the Cyber Café Latino and the Dental Arts Care office.

While wandering the streets, looking at the past that had survived to the present day by still serving a purpose, Ed and I started to formulate a plan for the rest of our journey. What interested us were the building we were seeing and the people we were meeting there. They had history with the place and could talk about the challenges of progress in their hometowns. This we didn’t find in the city, where the new replaced the old instead of repurposing it. The people were generally from somewhere else. That last part is a guess because striking up a conversation was impossible in traffic, and whether they were driving or walking to a festival, they were too engrossed in their phones to see what was around them.

Day1-46Riding into Odell, Illinois, a series of signs said, “Odell, a small town with a big heart, where everybody is somebody,” crystalized our decisions to skirt the traffic and crowds and modernity of cities as we followed the pink line. One city looks like any other these days. The really interesting nouns – people, places, and things – were in the small towns. Cities don’t have Standard Oil Stations like this one, built in 1932, with the garage added in 1937, that are on the National Register of Historic Places. It would also save us a huge amount of time. With so many interesting places to explore, we weren’t making much progress on Route 66, which traverses more than 2,600 miles on its way to LA.

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Unrealistic Expectations and Geographic Surprises in Washington, DC

NatGeo-3As all of my past half dozen or so trips to Washington, DC, have been for business, I’ve never had the time—no, I’ve never felt comfortable taking time from my appointed business mission—to visit the headquarters of the magazine that has inspired me ever since I learned to read, National Geographic. Free of such restraints on my latest trip to the nation’s capitol, my wife and I would be there when the doors opened on one early-April Saturday morning. For me it was a pilgrimage to the source of a long revered professional interest, and my wife wanted to see the Photo Ark exhibit of Joel Sartore’s striking eyeball-direct images of the world’s critters before they all go extinct (and before the exhibit completed its run the following week).

In itself, the exhibit was spectacular! Photographed against simple black or white backgrounds, the individual animals’s portraits were striking. In most of them, the animals were looking directly into the camera, making a direct connection with the viewer. They dared each of us to a staring contest that we humans would eventually win because we can better adapt, as least for the time being, to our rapacious consumption of their habitat—the air, the land, and the fresh and salt water that ultimately sustains all of us. As noted on more than a few portraits, the images before us were all that remained of that particular animal.

In the adjacent exhibit spaces were Crocs and Pristine Seas, which reinforced my less than eager desire to see these reptiles in any other form than a photograph and my Midwestern addiction to vast expanses of salt water, especially where it rubs up against any terrestrial island whether it is a mere dot or a continent. But the visit to National Geographic’s galactic headquarters left me decidedly disappointed. It certainly wasn’t the fault of the organization, but I expected more. Thinking about this while staring at the arrangement of granite in the courtyard that separated the old and new wings of the building, the fault was ultimately my own unrealistic expectations, accumulated like a tree’s growth rings through nearly 60 years of reading this magazine with its distinctive yellow border.

NatGeo-8The one image that connected those pages to the buildings through which I had just walked was the large brass society logo inlaid in the floor at the apex between the two exhibit halls. A third, narrower hallway with the blind stainless steel elevator doors that lead to the offices above, separated those halves of the building. In the magazine, the brass disk in the floor filled a grander, airier space. Circling it, imagining different lenses and angles in my photographer’s mind’s eye, intellectually I understood and appreciated how those printed images conveyed the scene that led me astray emotionally.

The rich atmosphere and concisely set scenes in decades of fact-filled articles that nourished my insatiable curiosity and led me to become an autodidactic polymath fed my unrealistic expectations. The writers and photographers who artfully conveyed their particular looks at the world were assembled here in this factory of magazine production. It is, perhaps, more fair to trace the source of my expectations to my grandmother’s library, in the big old house on Fremont Street in Battle Creek, Michigan, than to these exhibit spaces in an office building in Washington, DC.

A member of the National Geographic Society since the early 1900s, she saved every issue, as I used to do, and spending time among them was what I anticipated most during our Christmas visits. From the time I learned to read early in my single digits, I would disappear into this room off the dining room, past the Christmas tree growing from an angular mountain range of colorful presents. With my head resting on my right shoulder I would read the stories listed on the spine of each issue to find my next adventure. And when time ended those seasonal visits, a membership of my own was the Christmas present I most looked forward to each year, a present I give myself still since my parents’s passing.

This disconnect between reality and my expectations was just the first of several such reconciliations this visit required. The next, an unexpected surprise, came as we walked along the reflecting pool toward my inaugural visit to the Lincoln Memorial. Being cherry blossom weekend before Easter, we wove our way slowly through a sea of humanity. My full attention was focused on not trampling someone one ahead of me, or being trampled by someone living their visit through the 4-by-6-inch screen of their phone—until I heard the quack.

DC-27To my right was a Mallard drake. Its green head pointed in the same direction I was walking, it was tippy-toeing its way toward the Lincoln Memorial. Not sure, I was seeing this clearly, I sat to make a closer inspection. Indeed, with every slow stroke of its orange, three-toed palmate feet, the center toe of each was clearly pushing off the bottom. I judged the water’s depth to be about 6 inches, and dipping my rigidly extended right hand into the cool, clear water confirmed my general measurement.

Having only seen the reflecting pool in movies, I’d always thought it was deeper. Immediately my mind played the scene were Forrest Gump left the speaker’s stand at the Lincoln Memorial, jumped into the pool, and waded his way to meet Jenny. As the scene played in memory, the water was clearly reached to Forrest’s knees; maybe Tom Hanks is shorter than I thought. That, or the computer graphic artists thought deeper water looked more dramatic. (Either way, it is good enough reason to watch the movie again to answer the question for sure.)

DC-23Climbing the stairs to the Lincoln Memorial I complimented its designers for their perfect rise and tread. Inside, a solid human gyre adorned with smart phone sequins slowly circulated around his seated figure. He would have been pleased with the diversity of humans as his feet, and at their gracious good manners as they shuffled about for a closer look.

Working my with half-steps back to the stairs the crowd parted for a moment, when some Asian newlyweds stepped aside from a few set into the…is it marble? “I have a dream…,” they said, where Martin Luther King stood for his civil right proclamation in 1963. Standing in the same spot, I looked out over the diverse ocean of people who lined the stone shoreline of the Reflecting Pool with its visual echo of the Washington Monument. Their numbers were clearly shy of the quarter million people who heard King’s speech that sweltering August day in 1963, but it was close. The panoramic connection to history sobered me and dispelled my lingering pontification of unrealized expectations planted in my youth. What I saw faded from color to a grainy black and white image seen in the other magazines of my youth, and that moment fixed itself in my mind as the singular memory of this visit, and all that came before it.

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Community and Culture Survives and Thrives at Camp Lejeune

BCS-20It has been 40 years since I was last immersed in the culture and community of the United States Marine Corps. At the time, I was a Navy photojournalist stationed on the USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19), an amphibious command and control ship that was the command post for a number of their Western Pacific exercises. Curiosity of what changes time had wrought was an undercurrent of my recent visit with my son Braden, a Navy critical care nurse working in the emergency room at Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

As I approached the main gate, I expected a dramatic difference between the Marine communities at Camp Hansen and Camp Foster in Okinawa (where I learned that the Quonset huts are long gone and the gravel streets are now paved). Established in 1941, Camp Lejeune is the Marine’s largest East Coast facility, covering 246 square miles with a 14-mile oceanfront view, perfect for amphibious operations, a Marine Corps specialty. Little did I know that the paperwork I filled out for a temporary vehicle pass was a ticket to the past, to a community and culture that Americans who live outside the gate haven’t enjoyed since the days of President Eisenhower.

My son and his wife, Carrie, also a Navy nurse, and their three kids live in a trim two-story white house that was built in the 1950s. He wasn’t there when my wife and I arrived. He was still in intensive care. An overachiever, he was recovering from almost every post-surgical complication possible following an appendectomy. Without this unhappy situation, I would have never learned about the time shift. With his wife leading the way, when we arrived at their base housing home, stacked on the back porch were plastic containers and pans covered with aluminum foil. It was dinner, for all of us, provided by one of the neighbors, in the family’s time of need.

It was, said Carrie, standard operating procedure, an effort coordinated by the street’s Facebook page. The neighbors provide similar support for those being deployed, packing a household for transfer, unpacking upon arrival at their new duty station, bringing home a new baby, and celebrations from birthday to promotions. The hospital set Braden free the next morning, but dinner was on the back stoop every night during our four-day visit. And it would continue until their lives resumed their normal daily routine. “It’s just what we do,” said Carrie.

But that wasn’t all. At the workday’s end, when all the husbands returned home from their duty day, with their wives they congregated in one of the driveways while the kids ran freely through the unfenced yards in boisterous clusters. Each in turn, kids flew across the grass on tire swings dangling from tall and sturdy front yard trees. The slow, pendulum flights modulated their laugher and screams of joy with the Doppler Effect. “Again!” punctuated the glee of those whistling to and fro.

Watching quietly from a comfy chair near the head of my son’s driveway, the carefree panorama across the street recalled my free-range childhood youth in Chicago’s northwest suburbs in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Unrestricted by fences or over-protective parents we played ball and army and built tree houses and underground forts in the woods that was our refuge at the end a long narrow park, the leafy dot on a lowercase i. During the summer, our only unbreakable responsibility was to be home before dark.

Streamwood-017Several years ago, I returned to the neighborhood of my youth for a summertime stroll. Rare was a yard not defined by a chain-link perimeter. The grass grew long in the park and the base lanes that defined the ball field were smooth and footprint free. Our beloved woods was a shadow of its former expanse, halved by a car wash and 7/11 that faced Irving Park Road. Our youthful adventures there challenged the undergrowth and cut paths that were the shortest distances between our forts and tree houses. During my visit, I circumnavigated this leafy island in a sea of sprawl and found its undergrowth impenetrable. Most noticeable by their absence was the current generation of youngsters. I knew they existed because many of the empty yards I passed fenced off accumulations of playtime detritus dropped wherever boredom dictated.

The situation is similar where I now live, though small town kids do seem to range more freely than those in metropolitan suburbs. But I was sure that the era of a free-range youth was something lost to time, at least until I visited base housing at Camp Lejeune. Discussing this later with my son and his wife, after the kids went to bed, my observation seemed to surprise them. This has always been part of their military family life. Maybe it was because most of the wives don’t work, with my daughter-in-law being the rare exception. Or maybe it was their isolation from the surrounding community and the naturally limited access to a military installation. Perhaps. It certainly has an unusual sound track with the distant thud-whumpf of artillery and the constant thrumming buzz of CH-53 helicopters and sonic rush of the V-22 Osprey.

There has to be something more. What these families enjoy is community, an interdependence nurtured by shared experiences and social needs that have atrophied among those Americans living beyond the main gate who have surrendered neighborly interactions to the narrow, hypnotic view of the world on technology’s LED display. Of no doubt, however, is the benefit of their free-range childhoods to my grandkids and their compatriots. Instead of clicking their way into the deep recesses of technology’s echo chamber of shared perceptions and prejudices, they learn to deal with and peacefully accommodate the variety of life and the challenges posed by others face to face. If this sense of community is, indeed, the rule at most military housing communities rather than the exception, as the experience of my son and his wife portends as true, then those who serve are defending more than the nation’s freedom, they are sustaining an essential element that once defined our nation’s culture.

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Sharing with Angels at Buffalo Trace Distillery

Buffalo-21Ducking through the doorway hidden behind a faux bookshelf, a nod to a prohibition speakeasy, the tour at the Buffalo Trace Distillery stepped into the dim light of a three-story warehouse. It was filled with recumbent white oak virgins with charred souls. The air was cooler, ethereal, lightly scented with the evaporative vapors of fermented and distilled corn, rye, and barley that escaped their charred oak cells by osmosis. Eyes closed, through my nose I inhaled a long, deep, slow lungsful of this heavenly atmosphere, savoring every molecule. This olfactory delight, said Art to the tour clustered around him, was the angel’s share.

Each barrel is filled with 53 gallons of bourbon; what remains after years of aging depends on what floor the barrels rest undisturbed, and for how long. The barrels beside us would slumber here for 10 years or more. In the cool air the bourbon does not cycle through the seasons of evaporation and condensation, which is more pronounced on the warmer floors above. As a result, the spirits maturing in these barrels are smoother on the palate. But the angel’s share increases with time. When they open a barrel after 23 years to bottle Pappy Van Winkle, little more than 5 gallons remain. “And if you wonder about the economics of old whiskey,” said Art, “understand that the state and feds tax each barrel annually.”

Barrels on the second floor mature for up to nine years. The seasonal temperature changes are more pronounced, and the angel’s evaporative inhalations will consume roughly half a barrel in that time. What remains is more robust, Art said, naming the distillery’s flagship brand, Buffalo Trace. Barrels on the top floor, the warehouse’s hottest, age for four years and give the angels just 25 percent of their contents. The bottles from these barrels usually occupy the bottom shelves of liquor stores, he said.

Unlike Jim Beam or Woodford Reserve, Buffalo Trace is not a one-brand distillery. It distills 18 different brands using just three different mash bills. The first two employ different quantities of corn, rye, and barley, with one having more rye than the other. The third replaces rye with wheat, which gives the spirit a softer touch on the tongue. (Maker’s Mark is the best known wheat bourbon, Art said.) What ultimately determines the bottled brand is the length and location of their warehouse maturation. 

Buffalo-29Blanton’s Single Barrel is Buffalo Trace’s premium brand. It is bottled by hand, and on each label the staff handwrites the barrel number and date. Each distinctively shaped vessel is topped by one of eight stoppers that “depict the stages of a horse race we have here every year, from standing gate to winner’s circle,” said Art displaying a barrel stave with all eight in sequence. “If you look closely, you’ll see a small letter on each one that in order, spells out the brand.

Named for a previous owner, Blanton’s is aged in the only metal warehouse, built in 1934, after Prohibition. It’s warmer than the red brick warehouses, so the whiskey ages faster. The distillery introduced Blanton’s in 1984, liked the resulting flavor, and dedicated the metal warehouse to it, Art explained. Expanding on the environment’s role, Art said that several years ago a storm deroofed one of the brick warehouses, exposing the barrels to the elements for about 18 months. “Not a drop was harmed during this time,” said Art, and the whiskey exposed to the elements was some of the best the distillery has ever produced. The master distiller, Harlen Wheatley, has been trying to reproduce it ever since.

Buffalo-7Having incorrectly read or remembered the time of the tour’s commencement on the website, my wife and I had an hour to wander among the 100 buildings situated on Buffalo Trace’s 125 acre campus outside Frankfort, Kentucky. Most of them are on the National Historic Register; 12 are warehouses, home to 400,000 barrels of whiskey. One of them is the world’s smallest bonded whiskey warehouse. It confines the charred soul of one oak virgin. Built in 1952 for the 2 millionth barrel distilled since the end or prohibition, its current resident is the 6 millionth barrel. It will be replaced by the 7 millionth in about six months, said Art. To catch up with the demand, Buffalo Trace has acquired 280 acres on top of the adjacent hill, “and the game plan is to build a new warehouse every seven months for the next 10 years.”

More than 50 people jockeyed for position, waiting for the visitor center to open its door for the day’s first Trace Tour, Sunday’s only exploration of the distillery. Eavesdropping, many families, couples, and bourbon buddies were whiskey aficionados and strangers bonded through shared evaluations of the other distilleries they’d visited in the Louisville area. Their respective admission fees were all $10 or more. By this metric, the Buffalo Trace tour started high on their list even before the door opened. Like the Trace Tour, all of Buffalo Trace’s tours given during the week are complimentary, and each of them concludes with two half-ounce tastings of select distillations. 

Buffalo-3Monday through Saturday the Hard Hat tour follows the birth of bourbon from grain delivery and mashing to fermentation, and distillation in one of two 93,000-gallon stills. Monday through Friday the National Historic Landmark tour explores the one of the rare distilleries in continuous operation before, during, and after Prohibition. (It was one of four authorized to distill medicinal whiskey, which required a doctor’s prescription.) The Bourbon Barrel tour requires a reservation; it explores every aspect of cooperage from staves to the interaction between oak, alcohol, and atmosphere.

After dividing the milling crowd into two more manageable groups, Art began the Trace Tour with a brief history of the fermentation and distillation of cereal grains. When the Scots-Irish brought these skills to America, the replaced barley with rye, which was better suited to the soil of their new homeland. Before the revolution, rum, distilled from sugar cane grown in Britain’s Caribbean colonies, was more popular. With a sly smile, Art said, rum was hard to come by during the Revolutionary War, and rye whiskey became more popular with Americans.

When the bills came due after the war of independence, Alexander Hamilton took a page from his Caribbean colony birthplace and, like the British, imposed a tax on spirits. This didn’t go over well with the Scots-Irish, who stereotypically have a problem with authority, said Art, and a nation that had just finished fighting a war fought in large part over taxation. This led to the Whiskey Rebellion. To evade the too-high tax, many distillers moved west of the Appalachian Mountains, where corn was easier to grow than rye.

Buffalo-23Working with the available ingredients, the distillers cooked a mash of corn, with a smaller measure of rye. They added some barley, which aided the fermentation that followed the addition of yeast, and distilled a new spirit. In its raw form, it’s moonshine. With no market for it east of the Appalachians, they sent oak barrels of it down the Kentucky, Ohio, and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans. By flatboat, the trip took a year. When no one answered Art’s question, How did bourbon get its name?, he explained. Where we now stood was once the western reaches of Virginia. To honor its Revolutionary ally, the stated named its sunset counties for those in France. The county of the whiskey’s birth—Bourbon—was stamped on each barrel above the stamp denoting its contents. 

In the video that preceded our warehouse inhalation of the angel’s share, we learned that the Buffalo Trace Distillery dates to 1792. That’s when Commodore Richard Taylor built a stone house at a spot where buffalo crossed the Kentucky River, which still provides the distillery’s water, on their way to the Great Plains. He added a three-story stone warehouse for goods, including whiskey, in 1811. In 1858 Daniel Swiegert built a small, up-to-date distillery next door. 

Buffalo-1Col. Edmund Haynes Taylor bought the distillery in 1870. Believing that wood warmed copper stills produced the best whiskey, he renamed it OFC, for Old Fire Copper. Taylor built a new distillery on the site in 1872, and then sold it to George T. Stagg in 1878, who renamed it for himself in 1904. In 1881, Stagg built Warehouses A and B, both still in use, as is the steam heating system he added in 1886. Schenley Distillers Corp. bought Stagg in 1929 and began massive expansion program after Prohibition. The Sazerac Company bought the distillery in 1992. The family-owned business completed its renovations in 1999 and rechristened it the Buffalo Trace Distillery, which is how the buffalo crossing at the Kentucky River was originally known.

From the tasting options at the tour’s conclusion I chose Buffalo Trace and Eagle Rare bourbon. Hardy and complex, the former pleased my taste buds more than the latter, They were so happy I bought a big bottle in the gift shop, and I should have gotten another. And I almost got a box of Bourbon Balls, but I could feel the one just consumed during the tasting working on my waistline, so I passed on these yummy chocolate morsels. Maybe next time, when I return for the Hard Hat and Bourbon Barrel tours.

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