Stories from the Road: Chasing Barges and Otherness


For a brief respite between drab winter and frenzied garden preparations, my family and I headed up to the North Shore on Lake Superior. We visited the local high points: Split Rock Lighthouse, Glensheen Mansion, an aquarium, a maritime museum. It was relaxing and enjoyable when we were together. Alone, I found moments to do what I do best. I recognized my Otherness.

It’s hard not to feel apart and isolated these days. My disconnect from the political those who scramble to represent us, overpower us, quiet us, is becoming palpable. I am scared of many of my fellow voters. I don’t understand your placards or your mindless hooting. These politicians are not your friends. They want power. Stop throwing them parties.

Culturally, all the latest stars look like kids. The celebrities I grew up with are beginning to die, one by one. I have a low tolerance for television shows or commercials these days. It all seems like extraneous noise. Most nights on vacation, I’m down in the lobby reading while my family unwinds to reality TV involving children crying during junior chef competitions or grown men finding out what happens when they crush things.

Hidden behind a column, I sat in a comfortable chair looking out onto the lake. To the right and back of me, a group of young lawyers discussed witness prep for an upcoming trial. Gaiman lost me at that point and the words of my book blurred as I listened with fascination. Everything becomes material. Part of me feels a predatory thrill. To observe without being observed. I am voyeur.

canstockphoto2064089I wake up at 4am every morning, vacation or not. Sometimes I lie there, listening to the soft snuffling of my family. We paid for a view on the lake. I bundled up and sat on the balcony, listening to the waves crash on the shore. When the sun came up, I saw a large ship on the horizon. It was coming towards the aerial lift bridge. I dashed out of the room, down several flights of stairs and out onto the lake boardwalk, walking quickly towards the monolithic barge. It slid into the harbor and out of sight. And then I was alone, feeling slightly foolish.

Otherness came over me. It happens to me more and more frequently, as I get older and slip out of synch with the rushing, constantly updating world. I’m becoming invisible. My otherness is no longer quirky or weird or even interesting. It’s unseen.

canstockphoto0033418Sitting on a bench, I watched the ring-billed gulls doing their acrobatic swoops. A cold wind blew off the lake. Sporadic joggers passed by. I remembered other park benches and rocks and stone walls where my legs dangled. Listening to the bark of sea lions on Monterey Bay, drinking beer on a grassy hill at the Festung Marienberg, sitting on a Mediterranean beach as fishermen gathered up lines and nets, in a park next to a group of WWI German soldiers memorialized in stone, carrying a fallen comrade.

As a child, I spent a lot of time in my head, escaping less than edifying circumstances. I found secret places to be alone – in the back corner of a library, in a tree, on a rock by the lake. I became a watcher. Distance became necessary armor against assaults on hypersensitivity. It was a way to be safe. To heal quickly from the bruising nature of life.

Whether I was already a writer or laying fertile ground for becoming one, I think this is a thing that happens. While life is happening all around me, sentences are being formed, dulling the intensity of the moment. A story emerges. What ifs override what is. Curiosity drives an overwhelming need to chase barges, to see what happens next, to find oneself in the middle of a deserted boardwalk, feeling all at once foolish and delighted.


Stories from the Road: The Search for Narrative

After a vacation in Montana, I’ve returned home, a head full of unorganized thoughts and a vague sense that I’m on the right path again. For months, I’ve been languishing in a purgatory of writer impotence and flailing about for some sense of purpose.

canstockphoto4003992We took the Amtrak train from St. Paul to Glacier National Park, staying in a century-old lodge with few amenities and scant Wi-fi. We paid for a view and a convenient walk from the train station. Following our arrival, we spent our days hiking and horseback riding and our evenings playing board games.

The Glacier Park Lodge is an attempt to hold onto and faintly mimic a complicated history of land and people. Displays of old photos, both in the lodge and at the railway station reflect a pride in that history. They didn’t tell the whole story.

Sometimes I get told that I have a negative perspective, but I have learned to deflect this purported insult. It intends to shut me up, but nearly always fails. This trip reminded me of one the reasons I’m a writer. I always have questions and I’m always in search of a true narrative.

I couldn’t look at photos of railway executives and Blackfoot Indians and not wonder about the dynamics of those relationships. There were pictures of Indians performing ceremonies on the lodge’s lawn for upper-middle class white families in the 1920s. Not a half century earlier, the US Army, led by a drunken major, killed 173 Blackfoot women, children and elderly men in the worst Indian massacre in Montana history, about 70 miles away.

This idea that we should just embrace the positive rankles me. It seems endemic to the contemptuous schooling of conquering nations. Human history is populated by millions of stories and many of them are not happy ones. It is sometimes said, to pompously quote Churchill, that “History is written by the victors.” I grew up with those magical history books of American history and was disappointed to see in my daughter’s lessons, that not much has changed, except a sprinkling in of a few minority figures.

While on vacation, I finished reading Weep Not, Child by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, a Kenyan writer. The novel is about a Kikuyu family decimated by the attempts to overthrow Britain’s colonial rule and regain native lands in the 1960s. The hope we humans cling to, sometimes blinds us to the reality, both as victims and perpetrators of atrocity. I was struck by these sentences from the book: “He would reduce everything to his will. That was the settler’s way.”

It isn’t white guilt or a need to revel in misery that appeals. It is painting a whole picture. It is avoiding simplistic thinking of good and evil. It’s recognizing the immense suffering expansionism, colonialism and war can cause. It’s understanding that human relations are complex, mired in personal ambition, revenge, fear, greed, as well as noble intention and bravery.

In the railway station, a native American man bent down looking at the photos on display. I watched him, this giant covered in tattoos. Part of me expected him to rise up, angry and disgusted. Instead, he said quietly to the older woman next to him, “They took down his picture. See? They put that one up instead.” Oh, how I wanted to ask him so many questions, but the softness and sadness in his voice prevented me from intruding. The story began writing itself.

As I watched the North Dakota and Montana plains roll by from the train window, I was reminded of my own story. I remember traveling as a kid, watching the endless miles slide by from the backseat of a Buick. My eyes would follow the power lines as they rose and fell. I’d rest my head against the window, drifting off to sleep with the comforting thump-thump of the road beneath us.

I was a born observer. And every observation is only a few minutes from a surrounding narrative, my mind filling in the details. I often go to sleep in the middle of a story, which may explain why the ending of my novel eludes me.

Being an observer means that the natural world is a feast. Initially, I was disappointed at Glacier. It’s early in the season, the lake waters are cold, flowers aren’t in full bloom and the animal youngsters have yet to be born. I felt this hunger, getting up at the crack of dawn with my binoculars, searching for birds or deer, anything to fill the landscape’s narrative.

canstockphoto25706984I waited and I searched. Bear spottings are down this year, one of the guides told us. Another swore he’d seen several on the bank of Two Medicine Lake. Instead, we were discovered by very insistent and entertaining Columbian ground squirrels at a picnic table by the lake. They knew their audience.

canstockphoto15014062On the second day of early morning watching, I was rewarded with a couple of Black-billed Magpies who, despite being members of the crow family, were not happy with the crows that came near their nest. I got a version of an aerial show, magpies v. crows. I’m happy to say the magpies won and I watched for them each morning.

I looked everywhere for stories and I found them. So often we get mired in the day-to-day that we forget our nature. Mine is that of an observer and storyteller. It’s a lovely thing to go away on vacation and to come back to one’s self.

Stories from the Road: Walking with Ghosts

canstockphoto2357655We visited the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, spending most of the day there. It was the last day of our two week August road trip and I was already done before we hit the front door. After being gobsmacked by the fees, tolls, tickets, taxes and tips that saturate Chicago, I just wanted to get home without having to give up my firstborn. And I’d already reached museum brain glaze after seeing 10 or 20 on the road.

You’d think I’d be delighted, as a parent, by all the kid-friendly interactive displays, but I am usually insanely bored. My daughter enjoys them, but she’s been to places like this so many times, that even her responses are lukewarm. Then we arrived at the submarine exhibit, a combination of video and oral histories, pictures, reconstructions and most of all, a full submarine, located in the lower level of the museum.

As a veteran and history lover with an active imagination, military stories, exhibits and memorials transport me to another time. War is preserved as horrifying and hauntingly beautiful. We don’t want to believe all the devastation and death was for nothing. World history shows us that humans are part of a giant Risk game – war is accepted as inevitable and supposedly winnable.

canstockphoto11787485My daughter asked me “Is this the good guys’ sub or the bad guys’ sub?” Being a conscientious parent means that you have to take a moment. A reflexive answer “the bad guys” is too simple and sometimes wrong. It was a German submarine, a U-505, that had been captured off the coast of western Africa, near Rio de Oro in 1944. In Allied terms, it would be considered an enemy sub, captured by the USS Guadalcanal, Hunter-Killer Task Group 22.3.

I can imagine the frantic efforts of the men as they tried to save themselves from the sinking sub. Pictures show how very young the men were on both sides. Fortunately, in the case of this sub, all but one of the crew were rescued. The sub crew was put in a prisoner of war camp, a camp not covered by the Geneva Convention. The sub capture was to be kept secret.

While their sons worked on Louisiana farms and in logging camps, the families of the POWs were informed by the German navy that their children were dead. One can only imagine what that reunion must have been like, when the last of the POWs was returned home in 1947.

It would be easier to explain why humans kill each other in campaign after campaign if there were clearly demarcated lines between good and bad. They aren’t always obvious when you look into the face of an 18 year old soldier or sailor on either side of the line. I was 17 when I joined the Army and the majority of my fellow recruits were under the age of 21. We were oblivious to what our service could boil down to – killing other soldiers as young and foolish as we. It was near the end of the Cold War and the Soviets, who were eating themselves from within, seemed a shadow of an enemy.

Now there is war after war after war, as our museums fill with uniforms and weapons and walls with engraved names. The Germans have monuments, as do the Russians, as do most modern countries and societies. There are whispers of those who died young, afraid, some calling out for their parents or their buddies. Some who blinked and it went black. Some who lived, but broken in pieces, the ghosts of men and women before war ate them alive. Some who lived and moved on, willing the memories to be adventures they retell with relish.

I have no hope that there will be a “war to end all wars”.  What I do hope is to teach my daughter how to listen for the whispers of women and men and children asking us to take a moment, to understand all the facts, to choose wisely when choosing our battles, especially when they are for others to fight.

I wish I could impart to her that military resources and collateral damage are all euphemisms for people on the ground and in the air and on the seas. As they write letters to their loved ones and sit around and laugh with their buddies, their lives could be over in seconds. I feel the weight of their sacrifice, imagining the pounding of their hearts as they rush to do what they are trained to do.

I wish to teach my child all this – the gray gravity of war. But not this trip – she’s off playing with the interactive periscope display. It allows me a moment for somber reflection, as I stare into the eerie blue lights at the base of the sub. And then, with a sigh, the weight of history slips away from me. A small hand tugs mine to move on to the next exhibit.

Stories from the Road: There’s Something About Larry…

canstockphoto0438807After a two week road trip around the Great Lakes, I’m making a quiet re-entry into the blogging world – homeward bound in more ways than one.

My family and I take different vacations together. I’m often up at the crack of dawn hitting the hotel fitness room or fumbling about in the dark making coffee or off on a walkabout. They sleep in unscheduled bliss. I love them and I love my mornings alone.

In Mackinaw City, Michigan, I wandered down the street near our hotel on Lake Huron, finding a locally sourced, organic coffee shop (I jest – it was a Starbucks). After ordering a luxurious, high maintenance coffee, I headed down to the pier. The concrete promenade was empty, save for the gulls swooping and diving along the shore and the occasional blare from a boat horn.

The footsteps behind me were soft and unhurried. Quiet morning, isn’t it? he said. My jaw tightened in anticipation of unwanted conversation. Or worse, some other intrusive maneuver that might require a ninja smack down. I needed coffee first.

I turned to see an elderly man wearing a Navy cap with veterans’ pins attached to it. He smiled pleasantly and I exhaled. I have a soft spot for old men, especially when they remind me of my grandpa. More often than not, they have stories and have never lost the art of conversation. We joked about being early birds. He commented that he rarely saw “young people” out at this hour.

His wife died five years back and he had been ‘adopted’ by family friends. They took him on trips and outings. It’d been nearly 30 years since he’d visited Mackinaw City. He was a retired machinist, after 38 years of working for General Motors in Flint, Michigan. Like me, he joined the military right out of high school because he didn’t have a plan. He loved to take things apart and tinker with them, which led to a job and eventual career working for GM.

He pointed to the Mackinac Bridge, remembering aloud when his parents crossed by ferry in the late 1940s, having waited for hours in their vehicle. With awe in his voice, he said “It’s really a wondrous thing.” We had driven it the day before, during high wind warnings and thought it was wondrous we had survived.

He talked about his strange career path and interest in learning more. In his 40s, GM decided to send him to a engine manufacturing plant in Australia for a couple of weeks. “Who would have ever thought that something like that could happen to a guy like me?” He shook his head in wonder.

At the age of 83, he took community college courses and chuckled about what a challenge it was, but he said he wanted to keep learning new things to fend off dementia. It seemed to have been working pretty well so far – he was a little sharper than I at that hour.

By the way, my name is Larry. We shook hands, as I introduced myself. As we strolled along the railed walk, we talked about curiosity and learning and how it makes all the difference in a person’s life. He laughed and said “You know, I look at this old mug in the mirror every morning and I wonder how I became him. I feel the same as I always have.”

I joked about my impending birthday and how every day some new ailment seemed to crop up. I told him how my husband and I were just talking about this very thing – how the road out of this life is made up of moments in between aches and pains. He nodded in agreement. “It’s the moments that count.”

We parted ways with good wishes for the rest of our journeys. At night, I slept through forgettable dreams, waking with a sense of loss. I missed my grandfather all over again. He was a man who understood that life was about the moments and the stories and the chance encounters with fellow travelers.