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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Searching for Lost Years at Tefft Junior High School

Tefft-1Through a social media grapevine, my wife learned that Tefft Middle School would hold its golden anniversary rededication on September 26, 2015. Would I be interested in an overnight road trip to Streamwood, Illinois, to explore its hallways? Before I could reply, she started recounting a series of ready memories from her years in seventh, eighth, and ninth grade years in vivid detail, complete with the first and last names of her classmates and teachers.

All I could remember is that I attended what was then a junior high school. Most of my ready memories were outside the two-story brick structure that faces Illinois Route 19. Most days during the school year I enjoyed the one-mile walk to and from home. During the summer I flew my control-line model airplanes in the pea gravel parking lot that backed into vast farm fields. My search for memories from inside the building were interrupted by my wife, who again asked, “Do you want to go?”

Why couldn’t I recall any inside memories? I suffered no trauma, unless I counted the summer before I started seventh grade, when my feet grew from size 10 to 13 and my overall elevation remained the same. And other than walking to and from school, and flying my model airplanes – and crashing a few of them – in the parking lot, there resided in memory no happy memories either. Where did they go? Maybe a visit would resurrect some of the. “Sure, let’s go,” I said.


The school’s front doors lead into the cafeteria and common area, and it was teaming with five decades of former students. My wife immediately spotted several she knew. As she turned to catch up with them, I said I catch up with her later. The building wasn’t that big, with parallel hallways on its first and second levels, so I started upstairs, home to the classrooms and the library. Making a complete circuit, including all the connecting cross hallways sparked not one flicker of memory.

Certainly my elementary school friends were my classmates. But junior high memories of Gary Keller, Tom Duddy, Scott Fitzwater, Tom Holtz, Marjorie Schmidt, and Bruce Dahm and Lorraine Trudy (who were a couple from their first meeting in Miss Heilman’s sixth-grade classroom at Woodland Heights Elementary through their graduation from Larkin High School), were unsummonable ghosts. Only Mike Jenkins, a gifted trombonist, appeared in the mental mist.

Tefft-4Walking down the stairs at the east end, I remembered that the cross hallway led to the band room. At that intersection, outside the woodshop, I met Dean Curtis, who I did not recognize. Flummoxed, I realized that he was a junior high classmate. In memory, our first meeting will forever be in Meredith Machin’s sixth period English class during our junior year at Larkin High. His memories were clearly more durable and refined, because he was headed to his old locker in the upstairs hallway. At hearing this, it occurred to me that everyday I go for my swim at the Y, I use the American combination lock I got in gym class at the start of seventh grade.

Sticking my head in the band room’s open door, folding chairs lined the descending tiers in wavering semicircles. Before each of them was a music stand, its design and matte black wrinkle finish unchanged for a half century. Nowhere on the top tier did I see a white fiberglass Sousaphone like the one I played. Nor was there another of brass.

Across the hall was the office of Pat Neuman, the band director, its door and blinds closed. Between my ears I heard the pure, crystalline tones that flowed from his silver trumpet with staccato precision. Now, more than then, I appreciated his patient tutelage as he turned a sixth-grade coronet player into a tuba player. Attracted by its larger mouthpiece and its more soothing bass notes, I’d originally wanted to trade the coronet for a baritone, but the band already had enough; it needed someone to lay a foundation of oom-pa-pa.

Around the corner was the backdoor to the auditorium. Walking onto the stage and looking at the sea of empty seats, I met my mother. The band was performing in conjunction with a school board meeting. What year this was escapes me, so it was sometime between 1965, when I entered the seventh grade, and 1968, when I completed the ninth grade.

tefft-5From the time I entered school, my mother organized community support for the bond issues that built Streamwood’s schools, including Tefft. At the meeting, while the band was still on stage, someone on the board said something my mother took exception to, and she stood up from the audience to discuss it with him in her usual direct, straightforward way. Someone sitting next to me on stage, I don’t remember who, asked, “Isn’t that your mom?”

In the opposite hallway, the home ec room was still dedicated to that subject. In it I saw my younger self, a member of the AV club, called out of gym class to change the bulb in a blue Bell & Howell 16-mm projector. Attired in my official School District U-46 t-shirt and shorts, the girls who surrounded me still twitter and giggle.

The art room was one classroom closer to the cafeteria. There, under the guidance of Roger Moore, I carved an Easter Island-like tiki head out of a white firebrick. In our library display case, it towers over my dad’s wood carvings. One is a battery, a model of the ones sold by the family’s Depression-era garage, and the other is me. My dad would take my elementary school friends and me to Johnson’s Mound to play army, and to pass the time, he carved it from a block of wood he found there.

Searching for my wife in the cafeteria, a cooler revived images of brown bag lunches, small cartons of ice cold milk from the Borden Dairy, and the special treat of Suzy Qs and the joy that came from lingually extracting the cream filling from between the oblong chocolate cakes.

TefftHeld in the gym, the rededication ceremony introduced a number of teachers, including Robert Kerwin. The name was familiar, and the speaker made the connection. He was my shop teacher, and I think he gave me a good grade for the design and the construction of the bookstand that has, since 1980, held my most often referred to reference books that are always within arm’s reach of my desk.

Playing hide and seek with my past in the hallways at Tefft filled in a few metaphysical black holes, but where – and why – the rest of my junior high memories have secreted themselves eludes me. But in thinking of it now, my memories of high school are not that much more complete.

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Lessons Learned From a Reintroduction to My Former Self

Bike 1974-1Winnowing the detritus collected from early in life when its expiration date was an obtuse reality, I discovered keepsakes from what started as a practical adventure. A timeworn plastic frame surrounded the faded 4×5-inch Polaroid image of an almost 21-year-old me. With a thick helmet of dark hair and encased in blue leather with yellow stripes on my extremities, I sit on my Honda CB-750 in the parking lot of the Naval Air Station Alameda photo lab. Next to it is the green macraméd  parachute cord key fob that once held the key to that Honda. Only the dog tag with my name, license plate number, address, and phone number remains. And there is the spiral bound Memo Notes, between whose hot pink covers are the notes from my August 1974 speed run between Alameda, California, and my parents’ home in suburban Chicago, where my trusty Honda, which I named Pegasus, would slumber when I transferred to my next duty station at the dawn of 1975.

Digging deeper I find the manila envelope with the return address for Road Rider Magazine in the left corner and a brown 20-cent stamp of George C. Marshall, Statesman, Soldier in the other. Inside is the story of my adventure, “The Dream, or Facing the Flood,” the first I’d ever written for submission. And with it is my first rejection, dated “11/18.” Reading it, what comes to mind are not the rememberies of emotions inspired by its original reading but the realization of its unrecognized contribution to my professional editorial pursuits.

In four short paragraphs, Road Rider Editor Bob Carpenter, thanked me for the submission and explained that, while he enjoyed the story, he had to return it for several reasons, primarily because it lacked photographs. In closing, he wrote: “So – in spite of the fact that I personally feel the ‘blue leather sponge’ image is one of the great word pictures of all time –I am forced to return your work. Believe me, this time around it’s with great reluctance.”

Bike 1974-3Rereading the five-page story for the first time since I don’t remember when, and cringing with almost every paragraph, he was being kind. (On the back of the manila envelope, on some unremembered later date, my handwriting lists the story’s deficiencies: punctuation; sentence structure; better definition of idea; stress good points; and better lead-in.” Today, that list would be longer.) But he closed his rejection by encouraging me to keep writing and singled out my “great sense of humor, and even more important, the ability to transmit it. Or, as your dream-hero Bronson put it: ‘Hang in there.’”

His thoughtful rejection of my first work was the structure I unconsciously employed with every note I wrote to every writer who unsuccessfully submitted their work to the magazines I’ve had the good fortune to edit. It was, I realize now, my first lesson in journalism, and for it, Bob, I cannot thank you enough. I never did submit another story to Road Rider or any other magazine because aboard ship, there was no surplus writing time beyond my daily duties at the USS Blue Ridge’s public affairs assistant. And cruising the Western Pacific didn’t leave a lot of time for cross-country trips, so it wasn’t until 2004 that I was able to resume my two-wheeled travels on the BMW I named Blue.

Rereading the words printed  on 15 pages of the hot pink Memo Notes with a Navy-issue black Skilcraft ballpoint was a reintroduction to my former self. While my skills of observation and note taking have improved over the past 42 years, I’m still anally pedantic when it comes to recording each days mileage and expenses. The only difference now is that I use a spreadsheet (because it is better at arithmetic than I am).

Bike 1974-4On each page I shake my head, especially at the gas prices as I followed Interstate 80 East: 3.2 gal $1.85 in Elko, Nevada; 3.2 gal $1.77 in Grand Island, Nebraska (where the Holiday Inn, with eight cars in the parking lot, was “full” and didn’t have a room for a rain-soaked motorcycle rider in blue leathers); and 2.6 gal $1.54 in Morrison, Illinois, my last fill up before reaching my destination. If you do the math (or let the spreadsheet do it), it averaged out around 60 cents a gallon.

The overnight rates at motels are another long lost memory. Elko Holiday Inn $15; I didn’t log the rate at Rawlings Purple Sage Lodge; my notes were more focused on the loss of one of the clips that held the master link of Pegasus’ chain in place. That was when I promised myself that my next bike would be a shaft-driven BMW. Henderson, Nebraska, Best Western $15. At Cedar Rapids I stayed with a friend just out of the Navy.

Reading what my former self paid for meals on this adventure frustrated me at every turn. I recorded what are now unbelievable sums for each breakfast, lunch, and dinner, figures that sometimes approached $3. A not once did it occur to me to make a note of what I was eating. Not once! And the only remembery I can excavate is that while I was rain-soaked for most of the trip, I was never hungry.

What challenges my comprehension  most is that this inaugural adventure took place 42 years ago. But such is the nature of time’s passage. More interesting is the opportunity to repeat the trip on its 50th anniversary. That may be the most beneficial reward of my inadvertent discovery and reintroduction to my former self, the creation of another adventure. What makes me giddy with anticipation is the unique opportunity to compare it through the lens of time.

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One on One with a Windmill

Kregel Windmill MuseumOn my way from Burlington Junction, Missouri, where my great grandpa Spangler died with five others when a tornado in 1903 flattened the Masonic Lodge they’d taken refuge in, and Palmyra, Nebraska, where my grandpa Spangler was born in 1897 in a sod house, I crossed the Missouri River and passed through Nebraska City, population 7,289. Stopping wasn’t my plan, but when I saw a pristine silver windmill standing proudly at the eastern edge of Main Street, curiosity stomped its foot and demanded satisfaction.

Surely, the Spangler homesteads in both states depended on this prairie icon to pump their water. Rare is the farm I’ve passed that doesn’t have a windmill in its dooryard, or at least its four-legged galvanized skeleton with a battered TV antenna taking the place of the wind wheel since supplanted by electricity. So why was there a pristine silver wheel spinning in downtown Nebraska City?

Thick black capitals on its broad sheet-metal tail said ELI, small capitals above and below read “Kregel Windmill Co.” and “Nebraska City, Neb.” And across the street was the factory. Peering in the windows revealed thick belts connecting the overhead drive system to robust cast iron machines. Raw materials rested in neat piles. Finished parts filled wooden bins. It looked as though the workers had gone to lunch, for it was that time this sunny day in June 2014. The door was locked, but a small sign by it said tours of the Kregel Windmill Factory Museum were available next door.

Kregel Windmill MuseumMy $5 admission started a one-on-one tour with Dean Shissler. A history major at nearby Peru State College, an internship led to his becoming the museum’s only full time employee. Instead of a practiced oration that followed a prescribed path through the museum, curiosity led a wandering Q&A conversation.

ELI was the windmill’s brand name. George F. Kregel founded the company in 1879, and it operated in this facility between 1903 and 1991, when his son, Art, closed the doors. “It was named a National Historic Site in 1994, so we couldn’t change anything,” said Dean. It took nearly three years to build a steel building around the original factory that incorporated the HVAC system to preserve the original wooden structure and its contents. Looking at it inside and out, you’d never know it.

Kregel Windmill MuseumThe factory exists today as it did in 1939, Dean said, when two electric motors replaced the single-cylinder putt-putt engine that turned all the machines through the overhead drive and thick buffalo hide belts. The shear, hack saw, drill press and other cast iron behemoths still work, but that rarely happens “because OSHA knows about us.” Video kiosks demonstrate their operation on demand.

Flipping switches, Dean’s demonstration of the museum’s dramatic lighting concluded with the gloom cast by 11 small, clear bulbs connected to their original knob and tube wiring. It’s a 12-volt system now, he said, but the lumens replicate the workers’ 1939 environment.

Kregel Windmill MuseumMore than 81,000 pages of company records still reside in the front corner office. The first ledger is dated 1879; that year they made 16 windmills, all wood, that sold for $90 to $100, depending on the size. When not talking with visitors, Dean is transcribing them for a digital archive. It is slow going, he said. The pages are filled with neat Palmer penmanship in spidery black ink. “On a good day, I can complete two pages.”

Original parts to make a number of 1920-era windmills fill the building. Production stopped with the outbreak of World War II. Metal windmills were not a wartime priority, and Art Kregel often said, “If I’d made one more windmill, I’d go broke,” Dean recounted. The company, whose only heat came from a single potbelly stove, survived until 1991 by repairing the mills already made and other projects.

Kregel Windmill MuseumNot long ago, someone in Denver found the tail of a 131-year-old all-wood Kregel, said Dean, when I asked about the 16-foot wood wheel. It was a replica; like the originals, it was made of ash. “They made mills of wood and metal for a while before going to steel.”

Manipulating a working model, Dean explained the elegantly simple design. It was a 1:1 direct-drive system; “One full rotation of the wheel is one full pump motion.” A crank plate turns the wheel’s rotation into a vertical 2-foot stroke that raised and lowered the pump’s check-valve piston.

An articulated tail vane regulates the wheel speed by controlling its angle of incidence to the wind. “The stronger the wind the more the tail pulls the wheel to the side. At 35-40 mph, the vane is parallel to the wheel, locking it in place and applying a brake to the crank plate. When the wind slows, the weight of the vane pulls on this drag line to open the hinge and releases the head, unless you lock it manually.”

Kregel Windmill MuseumMost windmills today, like the Aermotor, are geared, Dean said, which is why they have smaller wheels. A 4-5 mph wind will start them turning. “It takes almost twice that to start an ELI, but in Nebraska, we don’t lack for wind.”

Introduced in 1888, Aermotor delivers more lifting power through 3:1 gearing, three revolutions of the wheel equals one pump stroke. Born in Iowa, the company went through several owners before finding a home in San Angelo, Texas.

“We have about a hundred of them, and we’re adding more as the years go by,” said Chris Gentry, who was a student of mine at Missouri Military Academy in the 1980s. He runs grass-fed cattle on 50,000 acres in western Nebraska, an operation the family started in the 1890s with 5,000 acres. Given their remote locations, electric pumps aren’t really an option; windmills are reliable and relatively inexpensive to buy and maintain. “We’ve been using them since 1900. We were green before green was cool.”

Curiosity sated, on my way to Palmyra it occurred to me that windmills are, in a way, related to things aeronautical. Like airplanes, succeeding generations do not replace their evolutionary predecessors, they work alongside and with each other. Windmills, with their century-old technology, still pump water while wind turbines, with slender blades like a sailplane’s wings, face the into the same wind as they work.

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Black & White Life and Legacy at Missouri Military Academy

Bike-41MEXICO, MISSOURI—Missouri Military Academy fills a prominent place in my cranial archive. It was founded in 1889. I was its director of publications and public information from 1982, when I graduated from J-school, until 1989, the school’s centennial year. In those seven years in my first small town, I matured personally and professionally. I met and married the mother of my children there, and the cadet officers formed an arch of sabers as we left the Memorial Chapel. Our first son was born there in 1987.

Over the past quarter century I’ve passed through Mexico, the seat of Audrain County, and rolled down Grand Avenue, which demarks the 288-acre campus’s eastern border. But I never took the time to revisit the stage of past life. Until 2012, keeping current through social media seemed adequate. That’s when MMA razed its iconic administration building and adjoining dormitories built in 1900, and replaced it with a 21st century, LEED certified, replica. Curiosity beckoned.

Taking photographs was one of my duties. Like the prints of my favorite images that surround me as I write, most of my memories are mentally documented in black and white. To my right, Senior Army Instructor Ardie McClure comforts Ray Sutton after Bowling Green beat the 1982 football Colonels 20-0. Jordan Chalden wails on his sax, playing the music reflected in his glasses. More memories and pictures (including this one of a student, Jeff Kays, polishing his boots in the journalism classroom during his free time)  fill my past position’s responsibilities, the college prep boarding school’s yearbook, Taps, and the oldest high school newspaper in Missouri, the Eagle, founded in 1900.

Walking up to the new administration building in June 2014, the clearest difference between old and new is the dome. Always a Mexico landmark, it is now gold, not silver. Walking up the steps and through the front door, I entered a bright, airy atrium that extended up into the dome instead of the originals snug foyer, the start of the maze that led to a warren of small offices. It was quiet and free of the olfactory patina earned in its century of service to the cadets.

After explaining who I was, I asked the receptionist about some of the office staff I’d worked with. They’d all retired, with the bookkeeper, Cathy Brooks, closing her ledger last summer. Then I asked for Erin Chambers, who holds the position I once possessed. She’d be right over; I could wait in the Alumni Visitors Lounge. As it was, trophies and awards cadets have earned for more than a century filled its shelves. What I did not expect to see were all the framed 11-by-14 and 8-by-10 black & white photos of cadet life that I’d captured during my tenure.

A number of them were grouped around the big mahogany desk of Col. Charles Riddle Stribling Jr., in whose honor the trustees named the administration building 1981. Listened to a lot of stories by that desk, how he started at MMA in 1920, how he led the group of five faculty members who bought the school in 1933 and survived the Depression, and served as its superintendent until 1968, when his son, CRS III, succeeded him. Another J-school graduate, III hired me and graded every Eagle with red and green felt tip pens. Eventually green dominated red, and I wish I’d saved a few of them.

Completing her second year, Erin took me on a tour of the airy offices in Stribling Hall, or as she called it, “the Strib.” She used the same moniker when I asked about my boss, whom we referred to as “Charlie” when he was out of earshot and “Colonel” when he was. Now wheelchair bound, she said, he visits campus from time to time, mostly during the school’s special events. For a moment, I thought about finding my way to his home to say thank-you but decided it wouldn’t be polite to arrive without an appointment.

Bike-32Physically, the campus footprint was unchanged. New buildings occupied the old footprints. In the atrium of Barnard Hall, the “addition” to the academic building it dwarfs, was the main portal to the red brick barracks it replaced in 2008, Alpha Company, and one of the small field pieces that stood guard outside the old Stribling Hall. Built in 1917, the three-story redbrick Alpha Company stacked two layers of cadet rooms on a foundation of classrooms. Unlike the buildings we toured, the floors didn’t creak and moan, and door jams were smooth steel rather than oft painted wood burnished by passing books and uniform sleeves. The air-conditioned atmosphere was sterile, filtered free of the essence of chalk and high schools boys living two to a room.

For as much as it had changed, I took comfort in one similarity. As mine was, Erin’s office was in a basement, hers in B Barracks, and mine in the Cadet Hospital. (Unlike mine, she had carpeting, air conditioning, and energy efficient lights; I had a window and buzzing fluorescents.) And MMA still has little appreciation for its history. Scattered about the floor and on folding tables were haphazard stacks of green, yellow, and white boxes that once held photographic paper. On the end of many of them was my handwriting, indicating the school year of the prints and proof sheets they held.

They had just transported all of them from their forgotten back corner of E Barracks, and Erin said that they’d not come across the thick three-ring binders that held of the negatives that went with the proof sheets. In case she found them, I explained the code on the pack of every print and proof sheet that led to its negative. She apologized, but I expected nothing less, and I told her about the months of spare time I spent rooting underneath the steps of the old Stribling Hall, salvaging school catalogs, photographs, and ephemeral documents chucked there for more than half a century. There’s no telling where all that went.

Bike-33Heading to the Cadet Hospital to look at my old office I met another surprise, Greg Morton, the director of buildings, grounds, and security. When I greeted him by name, he looked puzzled and asked, “alum or faculty?” While the faculty face didn’t register, my name brought an instant smile of remembcognition. “You want to see your old office?” he asked, unlocking the double glass doors where my window used to be.

Now a cadet canteen, Greg said the computer-equipped cadets didn’t use it much. A dozen or so of my black & white memories lined the walls, staring at the empty pedestal stools standing at attention before the soda bar. After we caught up on the ensuring 25 years, Greg went back to work and I wandered around the back half of the front campus that had changed little. There was the field house, stables, Natatorium, and Centennial Gymtorium, smiling to myself about the discussions we’d had about that conflated moniker. And there was the swinging bridge that crossed the creek that separated the 88-acre front campus from the 200 acres behind it, not counting Lake Mismilaca. I used to cross that bridge on the nice spring and fall days that I’d walk to work.

Bike-36Checking off campus with the receptionist I returned for a moment to the photos arranged around the old Colonel’s desk. Legacy is not something that I’d ever thought of before, but it seemed I had one, albeit uncredited. And I’m fine with that. I was witness to a seven-year segment of life important to all of who shared it, and returning to the grounds I’d once walked recalled more memory unremembered for a quarter century. It was good to look back, to return and compare past to present because it reunited seemingly disconnected chapters of life.

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Zumo Wrestling: Trial & Error for the Win

IMG_3179Garmin GPS units have been showing me the way since the company came to life in Olathe, south of Kansas City and my home in Parkville, a small town just across the Missouri River. I started with their aviation unit, the GPS 55, a handheld that introduced the joys of flying direct to my destination.

When Garmin expanded into the outdoor market, I was there. Its eTrex Legend has guided and tracked uncountable hiking and kayaking trips. It proved its worth in the Apostle Islands several years ago when it guided our party to the dock on Devil’s Island on a 4-mile fogbound crossing on Lake Superior. Open sky or water, there’s no better way to find your way than GPS.

When it comes to the open road, however, I wasn’t so quick to navigate by satellite. For six decades, maps have suited my needs. But my wife and four-wheeled navigator wanted a GPS, and like a stone in the constant current of her desire, I surrendered. And then my son got married in San Diego. We loaded the Garmin Nuvi with the addresses of all the places we needed to be, and it got our rental car to each of them without a worry or wrong turn. I was sold. So I got the Garmin Zumo 390LM for Ole Blue.

What appealed to me most about the motorcycle guidance was the ability to plan a route on my laptop with Garmin’s Base Camp software and then send it to the Zumo. For each route I could choose what roads it would avoid, Interstates, toll roads, gravel roads, and residential streets. Aces! Before Vagabondage 2014 I spend hours planning my way from Omro to Portland and, ultimately, Seattle. (My riding buddy, Ed, was planning our way back east.)

The Zumo wrestling match began when I tried to use those routes. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t get this feature to work. The user manual said Zumo would default to the route when I selected each route’s ultimate destination. But it didn’t. As a result, I missed a good section of the Great River Road in Illinois and other paths seemingly made for two-wheeled travel.

From the start, the logic of Garmin’s user’s manuals has escaped me. It’s gotten better over the decades, but my Zumo wrestling matches continued to illuminate the disparity of what I and the manual’s authors see as a clear and concise description of how its many features work. In the past, trial and error has shown me what buttons to push to get what I was after. This time I didn’t figure it out until I’d returned home.

Looking for “work” that would further delay my return to the daily routine, to free up Zumo’s memory I decided to delete the destinations and routes I’d loaded on the device. My thought was that this would be a simple process: connect Zumo to my laptop, fire up Base Camp, and delete that information it no longer needed. Exploring all the options I found no joy. I’d have to do it on the unit, entry by entry.

With all my destinations deleted and not eager to dive into the several hundred e-mail awaiting my attention, I touched the Apps button. Many of them, such as the compass and service log, were self-explanatory. I thought the same about the Trips app, which I’d read about in the manual. When I opened it up, I found all of my routes, times six for the  number of times I’d downloaded them to Zumo in my attempts to make this feature work.

Putting Zumo in simulator mode, the Trips app navigated me through each of my carefully planned routes exactly as I had entered them. And then I deleted each of them. Once I’d calmed down a bit, and still not eager to dive into the e-mail pool, I turned next to the user manual. Despite reading every word about routes and trips, I never saw a direct connection between them. But that doesn’t matter now. I know the secret now, and I plan to exercise it soon. But I do still have one unanswered question: What’s behind the unit’s name? Google was of no help at all.

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Lessons Learned by Vagabondage’s Penultimate Evening

IMG_3571DUBUQUE, IOWA—Sitting on a concrete point poking into the Mississippi River, with a cigar and rye whiskey in hand, I’m sure Sam Clemons would approve of how I’m spent my last night on the road. Watching the moon rise and a tug chug under the Julien Dubuque Bridge, which will take me home tomorrow, I assessed the lessons learned on this vagabondage adventure.

On the self-improvement to-do list, my reward for overcoming my introverted tendencies were rich conversations with Lloyd Pitt, Dean at the Kregel Windmill Factory Museum, Richard Dean the retired nuclear worker in Arco, Idaho, and rekindling my friendship with my childhood buddy, Scott, now living in Portland, and making a new friend, his wife, Karla.

Pulling my belt tight strangled the penchant for over eating, and ordering the most interesting thing on the menu brought me memorable meals. First among them was shrimp and grits with Andouille sausage. And today I happily confronted an Angry Tenderloin at GG-Ma’s in Dike, Iowa. With a name like that, how could I not order it with everything: pepper jack cheese, grilled onions, tomatoes, lettuce, jalapeños, and horseradish sauce. Surpassing the circumference of the 4-inch bun by a good 2 or three inches on all aides, it was the finest tenderloin sandwich I’ve ever masticated.

IMG_3564An unexpected and more poignant reaffirmation of a lesson learned long ago came with the live music that was the evening’s soundtrack. At the top of the steps at my concrete point was a trio of 20-something musicians sharing a guitar. They were playing more current tunes, trying to figure out why the music in Disney’s Frozen has been so successful, and working on their own songs. Eavesdropping on their conversation recalled many long-ago discussions with friends and peers who, just starting our careers, were likewise united by shared journalistic and literary aspirations. 

Playing on the patio at Tony Roma’s, the restaurant at the Grand Harbor Resort, where Ed and I are spending the night, was a trio of older musicians who were, most likely, like those kids in the 1980s, which was the musical era there were covering this evening. And I identified with them as well because they represent my life today.

IMG_3568Whether we’re musicians or writers, when we’re young life is filled with promise and daydreams of success. Now 60, there’s not so much promise left in my life, and the reality of the intervening years have taught their own lessons about daydream fruition. The kids didn’t mention the older musicians playing across the way, and maybe they didn’t give them a second thought. Surely they didn’t see themselves there in 30 years, and if they are lucky enough to get that gig, they should consider themselves successful because they are still satisfying their creative urges and living realistic dreams.

Failure, I’ve learned, is not achieving the fullest measure of your daydreams, is is quitting whatever it is that gives them life when reality intrudes upon unchallenged fantasy. Too many focus on success during the prime of their lives, which is a very small window. More important, I think, is to not peak too early in life because it leaves so little to look, learn, and work forward to.

Tonight, watching the Mississippi River flowing south, I found comfort in being well past my prime. More comforting is the belief that I haven’t peaked yet. Who knows when I’ll reach that point in my life, or what it might look like, but I hope I don’t achieve it until the eve of my expiration date. And I’m learning how to make that happen: pull your belt tight, order the most interesting thing on he menu, say hello to strangers, and never, ever pass up anything that piques your curiosity.

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After Dancing All Day With Mother Nature, She Splits

IMG_3524SIOUX CITY, IOWA—After several good riding days that took us across Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, and most of Nebraska, Mother Nature decided that we’d had enough. Ed awoke first this morning. Seeing gray skies, he iPhoned the weather. A huge green blob with a throbbing heart of yellow and red was crawling toward Valentine, Nebraska. With some urgency in his voice, he said the severe thunderstorm warning included 58 mph winds and 1-inch hail. “If we leave now, we can get out in front of it.” After dressing for wet, we left town at 0800,  just as the storms’ first raindrops started making mud of the dust on our bikes. 

The forecast did not report at what speed the red-hearted monster was moving east, but we did our best to move more quickly in the same direction. It took us more than an hour to outrun the rain, which slowed our progress, but we kept ahead of the ugly darkness that loomed in our rearview mirrors. Normally we’d welcome the sign of fresh blacktop, but not when it is raining…and signs warn that the new pavement is slippery when wet.

When we got far enough ahead of the rain, building a cushion of dry time, we stopped for lunch here in Sioux City. Perkins served us a wonderful breakfast, and Ed ate his eggs and pancakes while studying the map. He was hoping to overnight at Sac City, population 2,179, where he’d found a lovely Mom & Pop motel, appropriately named the Sac City Motel. Not taking any chances with Mother Nature, and because there wasn’t much chance of finding a place to stay until Fort Dodge, another hour or so down the road, he called for a room…and hung up unhappy.

WUNIDS_mapPondering our options, we sought the guidance of another iPhone forecast. The radar confirmed what we saw out the window, a wall of dark clouds that ranged from battleship to deep blue-black steel gray. Then we remembered the trucks that passed us earlier in the day as they plowed west into the wind. With the wet, mist defined their turbulence, a swirling wedge that knifed down our lane. It didn’t take many such encounters before we could predict how badly we’d be buffeted by their passing. And we’d had enough of that. Ed’s iPhone then suggested a number of nearby motels. We settled on the Rodeway Inn. We got to our room just before the rain’s imminent arrival.

Cheated out of her fun, Mother Nature separated her massive green amoeba of rain into two smaller youngsters with yellow and red hearts. One that went north and the other south, so we might be able to walk across the street later for dinner at the Greek restaurant. Maybe. The temperature and humidity are increasing, the makings for another meteorological explosion. Of one thing we are certain; if we’d stayed on the road, the two would have stayed as one, and gained strength and speed.  Some times it is best to let Mother Nature have her way, even when she passes with an unfulfilled promise of malevolence.

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Casper Crossroads: Vagabondage Dinner Options

IMG_3498CASPER, WYOMING—As vagabonds have direction but no daily route or destination, lodging and where to have dinner is always in unknown. Last night, after inquiring at several lodgings, we got two of the last four rooms available in Idaho Falls, which was booked for its annual Independence Day fireworks show (and it was a good show!). For dinner we lucked out. The kind lady at the desk pointed out the Snow Eagle Brewing & Grill, a short quarter-mile stroll away, where I feasted on a good IPA and milk stout and a salmon Thai salad. Tonight we found an affordable room at the Super 8, as luck would have it before the majority of the crowd arrived for the rodeo going on this weekend.

We had hoped to stop at a small town between our rest and stretch stop at a convenience store in Shoshoni, Wyoming, and Casper. The signs we saw rolling out of town didn’t offer much hope. Turning back on to US 26 we passed Main Street, which ran perpendicular to the railroad tracks, where a long line of oil tank cars waited on a siding. There were maybe eight two-story brick buildings there, four on a side. All of them were dressed in faded paint with plywood where their windows once were. Not one car was parked on the street. About halfway to Casper we passed two 1940s-era motor courts, low wooden structures of conjoined rooms, each with one door and one window. One was yellow, the other red. Both hadn’t seen life in decades. Weeds had overtaken their parking lots and were reclaiming the land. 

IMG_3494Situated at the corner of Wyoming Blvd. and Cy Ave., the dinner options were limited. There was the Pizza Hut, three Mexican restaurants from two blocks to a half mile away, and across the street at the Walmart Superstore Plaza, the usual fast food franchises. Neither of us were in the mood for anything heavy, so Ed opted for Starbucks, where he retired to its air conditioned comforts reminiscent of his Seattle home. Hoping to find something a bit more substantial, with a good beer to wash it all down with, I had a nice mile or so stroll to the Supercenter, where I scored a 6-inch turkey breast Subway and a Foster’s Premium Ale. It paled in comparison to last night’s IPA and Stout, but at least it wasn’t brewed in St. Louis.

IMG_3479Carrying my feast back to the Super 8, I found on the shady side of a building a sturdy plastic bench with a can holder in its arm perfectly sized for the Fosters. Munching and sipping contentedly, I watched the cowboys arrive and others roar down Cy Ave. in their NASCAR sounding pickup trucks with big wheels and patchwork paint jobs of gray, brown, and reddish primer. A couple in jeans and black sneakers walked hand-in-hand to Pizza Hut.

IMG_3481During my after dinner cigar a spotless white Chevy Duramax 3500 HD dualie crew-cab pulled to a stop in front of me. Both of its cowboys were sun beaten. The driver was older and wore a straw cowboy hat. His younger passenger emerged under high visibility green ball cap; and he still had his spurs on. The only dirt on the truck, which they left running while they checked in, was the impacted remains of bugs on the structural steel nose guard. With a room for the night they mounted up and then parked. Mud flaps from Lee Hoffpaur, Marble Falls, Texas, matched the dealer sticker on the tailgate. But the truck wore an Oklahoma plate.

The driver hauled a large wheelie bad from the bed of the truck and a cluster of clean plaid shirts still in their plastic sheaths from the back seat. Spurs hauled a well traveled hockey-sized duffle from the back seat. On the end was an embroidered shield with NFR in block letters. Google says that it’s probably the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. As they passed me, the driver asked, “How ya doin’?” When I answered “Never Better!” He summarized the evening with, “That’s what we like to hear.”

Tomorrow we continue east, and where we’ll spend the night, and what we’ll find for dinner will reveal themselves when we decide our vagabondage is done for the day. It’s always an eagerly anticipated surprise, like the dinner of shrimp and grits, with Andouille sausage, I had at the Wildfin the night before Ed and I started our trip east. It was a unique combination that begged for a chance, and it’s a chance I’ll take whenever I get the opportunity.

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Attack of the Rhino Virus and Surviving to Ride Another Day

IDAHO FALLS, IDAHO—“Spangler, you bastard!” Those were Ed’s first words to me this morning when we awoke in Boise. I couldn’t tell if his invective was good natured because a tissue covered his nose and mouth. Yes, the Rhino Virus that has laid me low the day before had found it’s next victim.

IMG_3388Getting sick while traveling is something that happens to many, but never travel writers, it seems, because I can’t ever remember reading about it. And it is something I’ve never had to deal with before, but falling victim to the rhino is something I suffer infrequently. But it got me on the way to Ed’s Renton home; being tired and going from hot to cool to hot again made me the perfect target.

Rather than the usual sequence of congestion, scratchy throat, watery eyes, and general snottiness, the mauling manifested itself the morning of my day off the road when I awoke with Barry White’s voice. Self-medicating with fluids and rest, I was feeling pretty good when we hit the road. And then yesterday, when we aimed our bikes at US 395, a promising stretch of road between Pendleton, Oregon, and Boise, Idaho, I couldn’t seem to wake up. Even when the road was twisting and turning through some postcard perfect scenery, like this creek-side turnoff. All I wanted to do was lay down in the sun and sleep.

IMG_3426In all the years I’ve been riding bikes, I’ve never before fought to stay awake. And that was my daylong travel challenge. But to meet this challenge I sacrificed everything I travel for, to explore interesting diversions alongside the road, to see and photograph attention getting aspects of a small town’s landscape, and to talk with people willing to share their stories and observations about life in their hometowns. No, all I wanted was a big plate of rabbit food, a gallon or so of cold water, and 10 hours sleep. I got that last night, and today, after a nose-dribbling start, I’m back in passable traveling form, but I’m sticking with the rabbit food and water, with a club sandwich at lunch today at Pickles Place in Arco, Idaho.

Arco is a story in itself, but it will have to wait. Ed, who seems to have recovered more quickly from the attack of the Rhino than I, have just come in from a spectacular 45-minute Independence Day fireworks show, and it’s time for me to climb back into bed, just in case the Rhino is thinking about doing its Phoenix impression.

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