To Harlem and Connecticut

The Hudson Valley above West Point

 

 

Above Chesapeake Bay

On Thursday, October 21, when I hopped the Metro to National Airport and flew north to New York LaGuardia, 215 miles, a brief leap in the air, but still wonderful, and exciting, to take wing; was bound for Bethel, Connecticut, for a long weekend with son Jack and his girlfriend Reed.

On arrival, in a city that I tend to think is full of people focused on “me,” I opted to work for the common good, first, by picking up a dog turd in the middle of the AA concourse and wiping the floor (as I was hustling to get toilet paper a well-dressed man nearly put his foot in it); and second, by helping a visitor find his way, just as my bus was departing. It left without me, but I wasn’t in a hurry and I felt better for helping.

Above and below, a brand-new LaGuardia Airport is slowly taking shape, dismantling the dumpy old terminals to make way for gleaming new ones — for someone like me used to almost five decades of decrepitude, the new spaces are jarring, and most welcome.

 

Jumped on the M60 bus across two bridges and into Harlem, down 125th Street to the suburban railway station.  Made fast for lunch at Sylvia’s, a legendary soul-food place since 1962.  Tucked into a huge lunch.  Walked back, slower than before, absorbing the street scene in this historically African-American district in the grips of the pandemic.  A lot of people were hurting; the word that came to mind was “teetering”: some literally, many financially, emotionally, spiritually.  I had a long wait for the 2:12 train north to Connecticut, passing the time on the elevated station platform, watching trains of the Metro North Railroad.

Above, street art on 125th St. At left, a 1990 ceramic relief by Nigerian artist Adebisi Akanji; right, homage to Malcolm X. Below, my lunch venue and the huge repast.

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Above left, a common Harlem pastime, sitting on the sidewalk; right and below, typical streetscapes. At bottom, two works on the Metro North Railroad platform at the Harlem station, “Copacetic,” in laminated glass (2018), and “Hear the Lone Whistle Blow” bronze (1991), both by Alison Saar.

Changed trains at South Norwalk, CT, onto a branch line that ran north in the Saugatuck River valley.  It was a blue-sky fall day, and the fall foliage was close to peak, just lovely.  Got off at Bethel; I had been there once before, and knew the way from the station to Jack’s and Reed’s place, half-a-mile or so.  Keys were in hiding, and in no time had Reed’s swell Husky Kora on a leash for a good walk.  I don’t know that she remembered my face (last time she saw me was June), but she was happy to head out.

Above, brilliant fall color along the branch line to Danbury. Below left, statue of Bethel’s most famous son, circus entrepreneur and showman P.T. Barnum, across from Jack’s and Reed’s apartment. Right, Reed trying out her new Cuisinart to make the pie.

Reed got home from work about 4:45, and we had a good catch-up visit while she made an apple pie.  Jack got back a bit later, and had to do a Zoom call, so we ate burritos from a nearby craft brewery, Broken Symmetry, then tucked into the way-good pie.  Was asleep by 9:30.

The youngsters left for work Friday and I headed out on Jack’s bike, north and east to Newtown (yes, the site of the horrific and totally preventable massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012).  As prep for the ride, I watched on YouTube President Obama’s speech to that community after the tragedy; his empathy, articulacy, and authenticity contrasted, like night and day, with the current officeholder.

Above left, classic New England barn in Newtown; right, cow pasture across from the Ferris Acres Farm Creamery, scenes below, including the stone walls that are another, but fading, feature of the New England farmscape. At bottom, the reward for the slog in the rain.

It was misty, not a good day for a ride, but I slogged along a state highway, up and down some pretty serious hills.  A few miles out of Newtown on the way home I spotted the Ferris Acres Farm Creamery, open for take-out ice cream.  I fancied a chocolate malt, but they were unavailable in the pandemic, so settled for a caramel apple pie cone (some assembly required, as in kids’ toys, with ice cream in a lidded cup and wafer cone plopped on top, in a paper bag, all apparently because of local health rules.  So delicious.  On the way out of the parking lot, I paused to read a sign that told me that in 2007 the Town of Newtown and State of Connecticut purchased the 76 acres of the farm, paying $500,000, to preserve the agricultural Heritage of Fairfield County (it’s one of the last remaining dairy farms in the county).  The family still milks the cows and churns the ice cream, and will for years to come.  Got home, took Kora out for a walk, spent an hour cleaning dirt off the bike from a messy ride, showered, took a short nap, worked a bit.

A curious name; if the weather were better that day, I might have looked for the tilted swamp!

Reed, Jack, and I hopped in his car at six and motored southwest to Ridgefield, a seriously affluent place, and dinner at Gallo, a wonderful Italian restaurant.  Great meal, great conversation.  Next stop was dessert at a gelato place, homemade daily, yum.  Asleep early again.

Left, the shoulder of varying width on Highway 58 south of Bethel, contrasting markedly with the separate bike path I rode a month earlier in rural Germany; we are in many ways a poor country, with little regard for collective safety. At right, another fine New England barn.

Weather Saturday morning was much the same as the day before, but I was keen to ride Jack’s orange bike, so headed out, ten miles on a busy highway; a less than pleasant pedal.  Showered, and at 10:30 Jack and I hopped in his Toyota and headed west to the Hudson Valley, bound for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.  The drive was pleasant, and when we got to the river totally spectacular.  I had seen many photos and paintings of that part of the valley (indeed, in the early- to mid-19th Century, an art movement was called the Hudson River School), but didn’t know the hills on either side were to high, up to 1000 feet.  Dramatic scenery, even on a gloomy day.

Reed, what a sweetie, packed lunches for our outing!

The campus was closed to visitors, but the nearby Visitors’ Center, quite new, was open and interesting.  We ambled through, then ate lunch on a bench outside.  Hopped back in the car and drove up the west bank, more ups and downs, to Newburgh.  Zipped onto Interstate 84 and were home fast.  A great outing.

Above, the Hudson Valley. Below, West Point scenes. At bottom, the Visitors’ Centre was themed around the lives of cadets in their four years at the academy, and included some fine images of famous graduates, like General Eisenhower.

At 4:30 we three got back in the car and drove 20 miles for dinner with Reed’s mom Heather, twin sister Linley, husband Sean, and their way-cute 14-month-old son Daniel.  A fun evening, the tot providing lots of entertainment, and a superb dinner: crab cakes, baked salmon, Boston cream pie.  Yum.  It finally cleared off, and the temperature was dropping fast.

Left, Reed’s nephew Daniel, and right, her swell dog (and my bedmate) Kora.

Sunday morning, finally clear skies, 37 degrees, a cool but dry bike ride, superb fall leaf color, flocks of wild turkeys, and not much traffic on the roads.  Back home, I hugged Reed (who is working on a M.S. at Fordham and takes classes on weekends), and Jack and I hopped in his RAV4 and headed south to New York City.

I had driven into the Big Apple only two previous times, both from Newark Airport, and the approach from the north, through Westchester County and the Bronx, across the Whitestone Bridge into Queens, and south was excellent.  Destination was a tiny Japanese ramen shop on a side street in Brooklyn, not far from where Matt, a long friend of Jack’s used to live.  We parked on Ainslie St. in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, I ambled a few hundred feet to pick up lunch, and we ate in the car.  The street was quiet, leafy, almost serene – not what one expects in a huge metropolis.  We drove past Matt’s former building (he’s in L.A. now), then headed back onto the freeway for LaGuardia.

Above, Okonomi Yuji Ramen, Brooklyn, and my bowl of spicy curry donburi. Below, today more diverse and trending young and hip, East Williamsburg was long steadfastly Italian; the Nunziata family lives in the house.

Hugged Jack, flew back to DCA, then onto the Metro toward home.  A great trip.

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Postscript: as part of the LaGuardia renovation, three historic American Airlines hangars from the 1930s (and the era of the DC-3) were being razed.

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Europe, Part 2: Denmark, then Back to Germany

The harbor at Dragør, Denmark, less than five kilometers from Scandinavia’s biggest airport, CPH.

 

I was up early Monday, September 21, and out the door, headed to the airport and Copenhagen to see long friends Susan and Michael Beckmann and their swell kids Niklas and Annika.  Before leaving Germany (I would be back in four days) just a few indicators of how (well) the Germans are managing the COVID crisis:

  • Guests are required to register (name, address, contact info) at restaurants
  • Disinfectant dispensers are everywhere
  • Temporary sinks with running water, soap, and paper towels at entry to busy subway stations
  • Bins for unused and used pens at hotel reception desks

At the airport I breezed through security, bought a big cup of Starbucks, and ate a sandwich and fruit the hotel had prepared in lieu of the buffet breakfast.  Hopped on Eurowings north to Denmark, right on time, landing at 9:25.  No border controls, zipped right through. I debated getting cash, (the Danes are not in the Eurozone), but opted for an experiment, cashless in Denmark, using my cool new tap-and-pay debit card.  Zipped onto a suburban train one stop, then a mile walk to the Beckmanns’ house (I know that neighborhood well).  Nice to be back in Scandinavia, not least because the Danes I saw on the street that day – and the next two – looked a lot like people I grew up with in Minnesota!

More proof of capable pandemic management: left, orderly Eurowings exit from the Copenhagen flight, right, CPH airport signs indicating which toilet stalls are free. “Welcome to the toilet facilities” indeed!

 

Michael Beckmann, friend for more than 20 years, welcomed me with a hug, the first embrace from a non-family member in six months.  Felt so good.  He has a big job with the DSB, the Danish State Railways, so he went back to work and I did a bit, too.  He thawed a homemade quiche for lunch, and dessert was a sample of apples from their four backyard trees.

Took a nap.  Niklas, now 11, came home from school (by himself, on a city bus, normal in Europe, but likely to get an American parent reported to the child-protection authorities).  Another hug. He had stopped at a fine bakery near school for some pastries (well, yes, what Americans call Danish!), and we ate those.  His dad was hard at work, but paused to get bikes out of their backyard shed.  Niklas had planned a nice ride, around the airport, stopping briefly at a little village called Dragør.  Since I last saw him 18 months earlier, he became much more confident with his English, and jabbered as we rode along.  A nice ride, flat and entirely on the separate bike lanes that are everywhere in Denmark.

We paused at Dragør.  Niklas ate a little snack, and we set off.  A block on, I looked behind and didn’t see him, so I circled back. “Something is wrong with my bike,” he said.  “Yep,” I replied, “a flat tire in the back.”  Well, shit.  I asked a woman about my age if there was a bike shop in the village.  No, it was two kilometers out of town.  She gave Nikki directions in Danish, then called the shop; they were open until five, 30 minutes away.  We walked briskly, and then some more.  I asked another person, and she said, “next traffic light, to the right.”  We got there; no bike shop.  Asked a jogger, who pointed the way to Troels Cykler.  A young guy appeared, and I explained the predicament.  He had time to fix it.  “We’re in deep shit, and you, my friend, have the shovel,” I said as he wheeled the bike into the repair area.  Eight minutes and the equivalent of $23 and we were back on the road.  Quite an adventure!

Separate bike lanes are a way of life, all the way to the airport. At right, the helpful Dane phoning to make sure the bike shop would still be open.

Back home, Annika appeared, another hug, then Susan from her new job, a fourth hug.  Michael grilled chicken outside, with French fries and salad, a nice dinner.  I read the kids a bedtime story (it’s a long tradition for “Onkel Rob”).  Annika’s English is improving, too, and the parents were delighted with how comfy the kids were speaking my language.  Nice!

After the kids were in bed, we sat at the table and yakked, with a glass of schnapps.  Lots of interesting discussion, learning more about Susan’s new job with a start-up that makes a wearable electrocardiogram monitor, way cool.  We got onto the topic of food, and I remembered that Michael’s grandmother was resourceful and self-sufficient.  That led to Michael telling me that she had been living in the eastern part of the country during World War II, and when it was over she fled west in the summer of 1945 (her husband, Michael’s grandfather, was a prisoner of war in France until the early 1950s) in part because Russian soldiers were raping woman indiscriminately.  At one point, she handed Michael’s dad to a German fellow, and the two adults swam across a river.  They ate weeds, and were cold that winter.  Let’s not go back to that, I thought.  Whew.

Up Tuesday morning, see the kids off to school, Susan leaves for work (she’s in an office two or three ways a week and home the rest; Michael is home the whole time).  I scoop up a bowl of muesli and hop on Michael’s bike to the post office branch in a nearby supermarket.   Doing ordinary things overseas is fun, so mailing travel receipts to Germany was a small adventure.  Unlike Germany, Denmark did not require masks in stores, which seemed dumb.  About 4 bucks to mail 1 ounce 300 miles, welcome to Denmark!  Hopped back on the bike and rode in bike rush hour (smaller than on previous visits) into the city, around some familiar areas, then over to the sea, the district called Amager (but pronounced “A-ma,” no “ger”).

Above left, rush hour, Tuesday morning; right, a nice bit of friendly push-back on e-bikes (“100% Pedal Power”). Below, scenes in central Copenhagen. At bottom left, an anchor as street furniture, and right, my Beckmann-backyard reward for a good bike ride.

From 11:15 to 12:45 I delivered a lecture to MBA students at the University of St. Gallen, another talk that was supposed to be in the classroom.  Ate a nice sandwich lunch with Michael, took a nap, then a short bike ride, and from 4:00 to 5:30 did another talk at St. Gallen, to grad students in international management.  Michael and I hopped on the bikes and rode a couple of kilometers to the Speed Rugby Club, oldest in Denmark, where Nikki is learning the sport.  The little clubhouse had beer, and we grabbed a couple of glasses, then headed out to the field.  Enjoyed a long chat with one of the coaches, had another beer, and rode home.  A simple dinner of pasta and salad, more bedtime stories (two that night), some conversation with my hosts.

After breakfast Wednesday morning, Michael and I biked to Taarnby station, hopped on the train, then another train, west to Roskilde, a freestanding historic city 20 miles west of Copenhagen.  Michael left me and rode back two stops to his office to get some IT stuff sorted in person, agreeing to meet up at five that afternoon at an agreeable little bar/café right by the train station.  Susan loaned me a thorough tourist guide with a Roskilde walking tour, and off I went.  It was another sunny day, warm but not hot, perfect for touring.  Ambled through the old town, past an abbey, to the enormous Dom, Denmark’s biggest cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, built 1280.  As you’d expect, it was spotless and very well preserved.  It also held the tombs of most of Denmark’s monarchs, and most of those were in elaborate vaults above the floor.   In 1536 it changed from Catholic to Lutheran, the result of a short civil war that the monarch, Christian 3, won (his elaborate crypt is below, next to the carved angel). 

Next stop was the Viking ship museum, a smaller version of the one in Oslo, but still pretty cool; much of the collection was outside, and free to view.  

Above left, a big warship; right, smaller commercial vessels based on Viking designs from as recently as a 110 years ago. Below left, the Helge Ask, reconstruction of a smaller 11th Century warship; crew of 30, max speed 14 knots with sails, 5.5 with oars (“harder, Knut, row harder . . .”). At right, an outdoor workshop with boatbuilder slicing wood for a hull.

I ambled on, through a very pleasant residential area, many houses with thatched roofs.  I had hoped to go up into the bell tower of the Catholic church for a view around town, but the pandemic closed it.  Found the Brugsen supermarket, bought fixings for a picnic lunch, and ate on the grounds of the Roskilde Abbey.  I needed to connect for a client call in mid-afternoon, so ambled back to a small cafe in the railway station, bought a Faxe Kondi, popular Danish soft drink, and linked to a strong wireless signal.

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Met Michael at 5:00 at Skänk, a little cafe a few hundred feet from the station.  Danes love lager from Carlsberg and another big brewery group, but craft brews are rising, and the bar had six great ones on tap.  We sampled a couple, and tucked into an enormous meat and cheese platter.  Yum!  Hopped two trains back to Taarnby, arriving in time to read Nikki and Annika a bedtime story.  After finishing the book, Niklas gave me a little present, a snegel  (Danish cinammon pastry) in a bag.  “Uncle Rob, this is for your trip tomorrow morning. Thank you for fixing my bike.”  I thanked him, but added that I didn’t fix the flat.  After he went to bed, Michael told me it was all Nikki’s idea to stop at the bakery after school and buy me the treat.  A sweet boy, raised right!

Your scribe and host; another COVID still life; and salmon from the Faeroe Islands — in a can, but still seriously good.

Woke at 5:00 Thursday morning, 20 minutes before the alarm.  Feeling right at home, brewed a pot of coffee, showered, dressed.  At 5:40, Michael appeared with bad news: the Germans had declared the Copenhagen metropolitan area a “risk zone” and would impose border controls.  I was headed back to Germany for three days of touring before heading home.  Would I get in?  We discussed alternatives, and I built Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C.  Michael expressed doubt that the border control people would have their act together overnight, so Plan A was keep to plan, train to Hamburg, then east to an interesting town, Wismar, for a couple of hours, then on to Rostock for two nights.  If the authorities said no to Plan A, but allowed me to enter, Plan B was to take an afternoon train from Hamburg to Frankfurt, stay overnight at the airport, and fly home Thursday.  If they denied entry, Plan C was to return to Copenhagen and fly home, either via Frankfurt or standby Sunday on SAS nonstop to Washington Dulles.  So a bit of stress to start the day.

I hugged Michael, hopped in the car, and Susan drove me to the Taarnby station for the short ride to Copenhagen central station.  Hugged her, promised updates, and rode into the city.  As the crow flies, Rostock, on the Baltic, is 100 miles, but I went the long way (there’s a ferry from south of Copenhagen, but Michael said it’s hard to reach, and actually quicker to make a big arc).  By rail, it was 325 miles to Rostock.

Bought a big cup of 7-Eleven coffee for the equivalent of $5 and waited for the 6:45 express to Hamburg.  The train was fairly full, with two friendly Danish women facing me and the adjacent seat open.  I was counting on wi-fi, to send some client emails,  but it was not working.  Sigh.  We left late but made up time, rolling through a rain storm, across the water to the island of Fyn, then across another bridge into Jutland, the peninsular part of Denmark.  We stopped in Odense, on Fyn, for about 10 minutes (the train divided there), and I was able to hitchhike on a wi-fi signal from a train on an adjacent platform, sending emails and downloading a bunch.  At least that problem was fixed.

My gift from Niklas!

At the last Danish station before Germany, the two Danes (headed for a long weekend in Berlin) and I thought officials would board the train, and perhaps make us all get off when we reached the first German station, Flensburg.  Nope.  No police, no passport inspection, nothing.  Woo hoo!  Plan A rocks!  As I often do when I arrive in Germany, I cued their national anthem, “Deutschlandlied.”  I was glad to be back.  We rolled through pleasant country in the state of Schleswig-Holstein, a place that once belonged to the Danes.  Lots of renewable energy, both wind turbines and solar farms.  And, of course, the black-and-white cows that are called Holsteins worldwide.  Nice!

At Hamburg, bought lunch, changed to a local train and headed east.  Not long after leaving Hamburg, we rolled into the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the 14th German state I’ve visited (only two to go, and #15 would come in two days).  This was the former East Germany, evident in the huge fields that were once collective farms.

Above, the big fields that were collective farms from 1945 to about 1990. Below left, a piece of the marvelous polychrome brick railway station in Schwerin, and a nice jog to my memory: the upper deck of the Schwerin-Wismar train reminded my of the glass-topped “Vista-Dome” cars on the Zephyr fast train we took in the 1950s and ’60s to visit grandparents in Chicago. I thought of how much brother Jim and I loved sitting up there.

Changed trains again in Schwerin, and at 2:37 was in Wismar, a former member of the Hanseatic League, the group of cities that began trading in the 12th Century and dominated Baltic commerce (and a bit beyond – there were affiliates in Amsterdam and London) for more than 300 years.  I’ve visited a bunch of these Hansestädte, most recently the league’s capital, Lübeck, in 2018, and they are always fascinating, prosperity evident in the houses, commercial buildings, and churches.   There were no lockers in the small station, so I dragged my suitcase and backpack around town.   Wismar belonged to Sweden from 1648 to 1803.

Wismar was teeming with tourists.  I was a bit surprised, but happy that things seemed sort of normal.  The place was seriously interesting, especially the many buildings with gable facades.  Wandered the center, around the main square, and made fast for St. George, a brick church built 1404 and mostly destroyed just a month before the end of World War II.  The church tower was open, woo hoo.  The kind cashier let me put my stuff behind his desk, and up I went; I was expecting stairs, but they had an elevator.  Woo hoo!   Great views from the top, and floating in the harbor was a cruise ship, the source of all the visitors.  Wismar was photogenic on steroids, half-timbered houses, stately buildings with step gables and bell gables, whew:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wandered around for another hour, and at 4:42 hopped on the train to Rostock, another Hanseatic city.  The ride was pleasant, on a small branch line, announcements in German and Polish – I didn’t think we were that close to Poland, but I later learned that the language was programmed into the trains, and that one often rolled east from Rostock to Polski.

Arrived on time, got a tram, and was in my Airbnb on Dobener Strasse by 6:15.  Christine the host was friendly.  It was, like so many other places around the world, renovated (last year) expressly for Airbnb business; it was really more like a boarding house (without a plump cook serving meals!).  The place was spotless and my room large and well-appointed.  I worked a bit, soon discovering that I could receive but not send emails.  I encountered this problem in the past in Germany, and tried the remedies I recalled.  Nope.

Headed out for a much-needed hot meal at a place I found a few weeks earlier, Zum Alten Fritz, right on the River Warnow (more an estuary of the Baltic at Rostow).  Tucked into a plate of zander, a farmed freshwater fish similar to my beloved Minnesota walleye.  Yum.  Walked back along the water, admiring the many sailboats and some big yachts that were clear indicators of prosperity – I suspect in the bad old days of the GDR, East Germany, there were only a couple of little dinghies. Clocked out just after nine, a long day that started badly but ended well.  Hooray for that!

The forecast was rain, and it was coming down steadily Friday morning.  I opted not to bring my Gore-Tex jacket or coat, oops, but I did have a good, new travel umbrella.  Bought a day ticket for the local trams and trains, and hopped on the #5 streetcar into the center.  Ambled around the Neuer Markt (new market, a square lined with gabled buildings), then into the old town.  At St. Nikolai Church, had a nice T-t-S with a young mother who lived in the church.  Back in the GDR, the anticlerical Commies appropriated parts or all of churches to alleviate local housing shortages – “all for the workers,” as she said auf Deutsch.

Above, in the shopping part of the center, where colonnades like the one at right provided respite from morning rain. Below, in the old town.

The Lonely Planet travel guide wrote, “Rostock will never win a beauty contest and for good reason – the town was devastated in WWII and later pummeled by socialist architectural ‘ideals.’”  But much war damage had been rebuilt, wiederaufbau, and 30 years after the collapse of East Germany the only vestiges of their goofy styles were some clumsy attempts at downtown office buildings that combined new and old, and drab high-rise apartments away from the center.  Moreover, there were lots of new buildings along the water and on the edges of the center, signs of vitality.

I needed coffee and breakfast, and to get out of the rain.  Found a little café, dry and warm, and sat for an hour with coffee and a big sweet roll.  At ten I bought a little more, a big tub of yogurt, drained it in the supermarket parking ramp, and headed up the hill to St. Peter’s Church, then up steps and steps to the bell tower and great views of the city, even in the rain.  Took the elevator down (better on the knees!), wandered around the sanctuary a bit, and headed back to the main station.

Above, St. Peter’s and part of the ancient wall surrounding the city. Below, views from the church bell tower. Bottom, another section of the wall, and socially-distanced chairs in St. Peter’s.

Next stop, Warnemünde, a beach resort town eight miles north, right on the Baltic.  The rain had stopped, woo hoo, and I ambled along the piers.  Working fishing boats were docked, fishers cleaning and sorting their catch, gulls jockeying to snag morsels.  On a whim, hopped on a tour boat, and once underway was delighted with impulse: a way-cool loop around the inner harbor, past shipyards (they’re still building, which is good), industrial facilities, and the ferry terminal (boats to Poland, Sweden, and Denmark).  Stood the whole hour on the top deck and snapped lots of pictures.  Scenes from the harbor and cruise:

Bought a herring sandwich (more on that below), walked back to the station, and headed south to Rostock.  Walked the center some more, past the old university buildings, an abbey, and more, then back to my room.  Chilled for a couple of hours, and at 5:45  headed out for a walk, then dinner.  It had cleared, and the late-afternoon light was superb.  Saw more cool old buildings, and at 6:30 walked down a flight of stairs to the Ratskeller (most town halls in Germany have a basement restaurant and beer hall).  Super-friendly staff, way cool room, a nice dark beer from the local brewery, then another plate of matjes and roast potatoes.  Asleep again about nine.  Another day that started hard and ended happily.

Above, before the cruise, I noticed the local gulls were not shy, as in this bird grabbing remains from a recent catch; after the cruise, as I was eating my herring sandwich, a gull crashed into the back of my head while aiming for the morsel in my hand! Below, attractive redevelopment of former industrial land in Warnemünde.

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Above, tower gates to the old city. Below left, the old main building of the University of Rostock, and the city library. At bottom, signs of fall, wild and cultivated.

 

Above and below, scenes from the Marienkirche, including the astonishing astronomical clock.

 

Above, law courts; below, as noted, not much of the old East German landscape remains, save for some freshly painted apartments in inner suburbs.

Above, the Rathaus in splendid early-evening light; below, the griffon, symbol of the city, above the entrance to the building.

Up Saturday morning at 5:15 for the last day of European touring, hopped the tram to the main station, bought a coffee and a huge poppyseed sweet roll, as big as my head, and climbed onto the 6:25 fast train to Schwerin, where I had changed trains two days earlier.  I had 45 minutes to my next train, and went for a little walk.  Was glad I did.  One of Schwerin’s seven lakes was a block away, with great views.  I spotted a sign for Landtag, German for a state parliament.  A man was walking along, so in true T-t-S fashion I bade him Guten morgen and asked if he spoke English.  “A little,” the standard reply, so I asked him if Schwerin was the capital of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.  Yes, he replied, and the Landtag was a couple of kilometers away, in the castle.  I said I didn’t have time to visit, and we chatted a bit more.  Like many Germans who are not fluent, he moved to German, and I caught most of what he told me, about Schwerin being a popular leisure destination for people from Hamburg, an hour west by car or train.  The walk was a nice reminder of what for years I’ve told Americans: Europe’s charm and beauty is at its best in smaller places, not in Paris and Rome.

The Pfaffenteich, one of seven lakes in and around Schwerin, capital of the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern

Ambled back to the station.  On the way in, found a 10-Euro bill on the floor, woo hoo.  Bought a coffee and got on a local train, south an hour to Wittenberge on the Elbe River, then yet another local east Magdeburg, capital of the state of Saxony-Anhalt, my 15th German state (one more to go!).  Rain was again in the forecast, and it was drippy on arrival.  Stowed my stuff in a locker, closed the door, and, doh, forgot the umbrella.  Plunked another 3 Euros in the coin slot, got the umbrella, and headed out.

It was not raining hard, good, and I ambled off to see some sights.  First one was Austrian artist and architect Hundertwasser’s last work of whimsy, the Green Citadelle, completed in 2005 (he died five years earlier).  I had seen his stuff in Vienna, Switzerland, and Plotzingen, Germany, but this was by far his coolest and most eccentric work.  You just had to smile at it all.  Next stop was the big cathedral, the Dom.  It was relatively plain inside, but the high point was what seemed to be an audition session, two women singing short pieces from opera and sacred music.  Their voices reverberated to the ceiling far up, just lovely.  Walked across a large plaza and admired the state parliament (Landtag), then doubled back to Qilin, an Asian restaurant I spotted earlier, for a big and much-needed lunch of spring rolls and Thai curry.  So good.

Above left, Soviet-style office buildings in central Magdeburg; right, an East German-era apartment block made whimsical (clearly the people and ladders went up after the Wall came down; impossible to imagine humorless Party officials approving such creativity!). Below and bottom, Hundertwasser’s last building design.

 

Fortified, I walked south, past wonderful, large apartment buildings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially on the broad Hegelstrasse.  The rain was getting heavier, ugh.  Ambled along the Elbe River a mile or so north, to the Johanniskirche, oldest in Magdeburg (started in the 12th Century and mostly completed a couple hundred years later); Allied bombers destroyed it in January 1945 and it was rubble until wiederaufbau in 1996 – but as a cultural center, not a church.  A block on, the stately 17th Century town hall.  It was about 2:45, and my train was not until 5:00, but I was cold and little wet, so headed back to a warm waiting room in the station, reading and chilling.

Above, the Magdeburg Dom; below, one of the auditioners. At bottom, the State Parliament of Saxony-Anhalt.

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Above, the former Magdeburg post office, repurposed as law courts; below, stately buildings south of the centre and (right) along Hegelstrasse.

Above, Magdeburg’s city hall; below, famous Magdeburgers from the past rendered on the entry doors to the building, a scientist and a composer. At bottom, reminders of the horrors of war in front of the Johanniskirche: “Mother with Child” and “Rubble Woman” (both 1982).

Hopped on a fast train to Braunschweig, then a faster one (ICE) south to Frankfurt.  I had planned on dinner in the dining car, but COVID closed it.  No food, no beer, drat (happily, a fellow with drinks and snacks on a cart passed an hour into the trip, with cold beer).  Arrived Frankfurt on time at 8:45, and walked through the rain – and seriously shady blocks – to a very nice Holiday Inn for a last night in Europe for awhile.  I had squirreled a big bag of snack mix from the Admirals Club in DFW before departing 12 days earlier, and that was my dinner; I was too tired to head out on a rainy night to forage for a meal.

Up Sunday morning, back out in the rain, train to Frankfurt Airport, a backtrack flight to Dallas/Fort Worth, then east to Washington.  Linda and the two terriers greeted me at the airport.  It was so great to be overseas again!

 

 

Finally, a few snaps for fellow Transport Geeks: vintage VW microbus serving as a wedding limousine in Magdeburg; containers from China that arrived in Europe not on a ship, but on the now-completed “New Silk Road” railway link; and the scourge of e-scooters, completely blocking a sidewalk in downtown Frankfurt. Grrrrrr.

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Europe, Again, At Last | Part 1, Germany

The family farm of my friend Julian Allendorf, near Münster, in the North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state

On September 15, it was finally time to stand and deliver, in person, and in Germany.  When the lockdown began, I kept thinking the next European teaching trip would be in May; but those talks were via Zoom; then June, and that was virtual, too.  As the trip approached, I was pumped, but also a little worried: we had done our homework on various websites of the German government, and it looked like I qualified for admission as an “essential worker.” One of the two schools I would visit, WHU in Düsseldorf, prepared and sent me two (paper) letters of invitation.  And since August, the German Red Cross was doing free COVID testing on arrival at major airports.  But you don’t know until you get there!

Flew “backwards” to DFW, then onto an American Airlines 787 to Frankfurt. It had been almost seven months since I’d been to Europe, the longest hiatus since 1999 (you know I keep track!).  Excitement, and some angst about arrival – would I get into Germany, or sent back to Trumpland?

It’s a long flight, so I got a good sleep, breakfast, and two cups of strong coffee.  As I walked up the jetbridge, I saw a woman holding a sign with my name.  It was Janis, American’s longtime general manager at FRA, and her colleague Rosario.  I had emailed Janis the previous month, asking if she could get someone to say yes or no, but she could not.  I certainly didn’t expect meet-and-greet treatment.  It was so special, and a reminder of my long and wonderful career at AA.  We chatted as we walked to immigration control.  Rosario stepped forward and spoke to the officer, a young woman, in German.  I heard “VIP von American Airlines.”  Whew.  I stepped forward, and presented the two invitation letters.  She glanced at only one of them, then stamped my passport.  Woo hoo!  I was in!

I thanked her profusely, hesitated, then said to her, “I am so glad to be in your wonderful country again.  Glad to be in a country that is run by grown-ups, with a scientist as chancellor.  We have a clown for a leader.”  She smiled and nodded.  Janis and Rosario walked me to the COVID testing site, and said goodbye.  I was so grateful for their help.

The COVID test center at Frankfurt Airport was well signposted; at right, the queue for testing (less than 10 minutes when I was there)

I thought I read on the testing website that results would come quickly, but after a short queue and a quick test, the technician said results would be emailed in 8 to 24 hours.  That presented the first hurdle: the plan was for Martin, an academic host (though not a school visited on this trip), to pick me up and take me to his house near Heidelberg for dinner and overnight.  But Martin and his wife were rightly uncomfortable about me arriving from a high-risk country without a test result. 

So Plan B, a hotel.  I had hoped to hop on a train to Karlsruhe, Mainz, or another city nearby, but Martin said it was illegal to use public transport without a test result, so I booked a room at a hotel a mile from the test site, and walked there on a warm morning.  Happily, a room was ready at 10:30, so I checked in, worked a bit, and took a 30-minute nap.

Top, in the Stadtwald, less than two miles from one of the world’s biggest airports; right, new housing along the River Main. Below left, more new apartments along a former industrial basin east of downtown Frankfurt; right, St. Jacob’s Church in the suburb of Schwanheim. Bottom left, wonderful old-school trail sign in the forest, roughly translated as “Under the Pigs’ Stairs”; right, limited logging to keep the forest healthy.

At 12:15, I hopped on one of the hotel’s two free bright-green bikes. Thanks, Google Maps, I had a route planned: north through the big Stadtwald (City Forest) to the Main River, then east along the south bank bike path, past downtown.  It was a summer day, and lots of people were riding and walking.  It was tonic.  I zipped onto city streets in the Oberrad neighborhood, found a grocery store, and grabbed picnic fixings: ham sandwiches, cole slaw, and flavored milk, which I ate in the shade of a small park.  A nice lunch, save for the bees that insisted on sampling, especially the ham (I thought insects were vegans!).  Pedaled a bit further east, past some nice new housing along the river and dredged basins, then circled back, 26 miles in total. 

Took a shower, worked a bit, and from 6:30 to 8:30 delivered via Zoom what was to have been an in-person talk at the University of St. Gallen, next door in Switzerland.  It was an enthusiastic group, and I fielded questions for almost an hour (and via email the next day).  Before the talk started, I found my fave German supermarket, REWE, had a store a block from the hotel, so wandered over to scoop at their sensational salad bar, for a late dinner after the talk.  I was worn out, and slept hard for about two hours, then fitfully until 6:30.

Brewed a couple of coffees in my room, put on bike shorts and a T-shirt, ate a quick breakfast in the lobby (sadly, COVID has wrecked the buffets that are a hallmark of nice hotels in Germany).  Headed back out on the free hotel bike.  The weather changed overnight, and it was breezy and in the low 60s.  Felt great, though lots of people stared at what seemed scanty dress for a fall day.  Rode west along the river, crossed a bridge, then circled back all the way into downtown Frankfurt, an even longer ride than the day before, 28 miles.  And so delightful to be again in the Stadtwald, a green oasis.

Above, Downtown Frankfurt from the river trail; below, fine old homes in suburban Höchst (not far from the big chemical company with the same name). At bottom, perfect evidence of German care for infrastructure and of excellent signposting: ahead you will find bumps on the bike trail!

Almost 30 hours on, Thursday morning, I still had not received the COVID test results promised in 8 to 24, so returned to the airport testing center, where people were friendly but basically shrugged.  Back in my hotel room, I logged onto the testing company’s website, and sent an email; they replied four hours later, saying, no, the results arrive in 24-48 hours.  Sigh.  Showered and checked out of the hotel.  I’m no fan of airport hotels or long layovers, but the Elements Hotel (now part of Marriott) was really a very pleasant experience, made more so by a friendly and responsive staff.

I circled back to the REWE for lunch from the salad bar, and ate in the hotel lobby.  At one I hopped on the S-Bahn (suburban train) west to Mainz, then onto a fast train north to Münster, familiar after 21 previous visits (back in June, when we thought I would deliver the previous night’s talk in person, I bought a ticket from St. Gallen to Münster, and was able to use part of it that afternoon; I do love efficiency!).  The route followed the path of exactly a year earlier, along the Middle Rhine Valley, past vineyards, castles, and picturesque villages.  I never tire of that scenery.  Passed the decommissioned nuclear power plant north of Koblenz, the huge cathedral in Cologne, the big Bayer factory in Leverkusen, some hollowed-out coal and steel cities, arriving Münster 15 minutes late.  No time to amble to the hotel and drop stuff before meeting my long Münster host Julian Allendorf and his friend Alexandra at 7:45 at the Altes Gasthaus Leve, long a favorite eatery.  Long for many – they’ve been cooking for 413 years!

Since the pandemic began, every public and private organization with physical facilities has promised enhanced cleaning, but this railway employee at Mainz delivered the goods: he wiped this platform recycling bin for several minutes with disinfectant. Hooray for the Deutsche Bahn! At right, a classic scene from the Middle Rhine Valley.

We had a splendid meal (salted herring, matjes, for me) and great conversation.  As I wrote last December (when we had lunch in Münster), Julian is a super-interesting fellow.  He’s active in politics, with the CDU, the Christian Democrats (which would likely be my party if I lived in Germany), and just five days earlier won a seat on the county (kreis) council.  Naturally, chatter shifted to the U.S. elections.  They were happy to hear my view that the orange-haired embarrassment is “one and done.”  It was a long dinner and I was worn out.  Said goodbye with elbow bumps, and walked to the hotel.

On the way to the hotel: Erbdrostenhof Palace, and Münster’s famous shopping street, the Prinzipalmarkt.

Rise and shine Friday morning, after a solid sleep.  The Stadthotel was still offering a fabulous buffet breakfast, asking guests to disinfect their hands when entering and when returning to the buffet.  Ate a big breakfast, a solid foundation for the morning bike ride.  Bikes were not free, but was happy to pay €11 for a great city bike with outstanding gears and brakes.  I was off at 8:30, pedaling south, then west, destination Nottuln, 15 miles.  It was a lovely morning, sunny and cool, perfect biking weather.  The entire way was on a bike path along a secondary highway.  Rode through several small towns to Nottuln, then beyond it a mile or two to the farm where Julian grew up.  Had we planned it better, his mom or dad might have given me a quick tour, but I was still able to admire the goats, horses, and deer (farmed, not wild), then turned around, back to Münster with a steady headwind.  Only three cyclists passed me in 33 miles, and all three had e-bikes!

Above, a common scene in Germany, solar panels across the entire south-facing roofs of two barns; right, the mixed farm and forest landscape west of Münster. Below left and right, the farmers were expressive, the sign on the barn, in English, “No Farmers, No Food, No Future, and next to the “pig” made of plastic-wrapped hay, “We think in terms of generations, not election cycles,” Amen to both! At bottom, the entire route to Nottuln, 16 miles, was on a separate bike trail, not the highway; at right “Bicycle Street” in Münster, where (in German) “Cars are guests.”

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Showered and suited up.  Finally got the COVID result, 52 hours after the test. The lab never did send an e-mail with the result, as they promised.  I logged into my lab account, and the good news was there — the result was actually done 33 hours after the test, but, as they say, “Who knew?”  Not German efficiency.  Ate a small, quick supermarket lunch in the hotel room, and at 1:15 met my host, Valentin Clemens.  I was pumped: my first classroom preso since March 10 in Montreal.  Woo hoo.  Had a good chat with Valentin as we walked to campus and a large classroom in the law school.  Fifteen students attended, with twenty more watching the streamed version.  It was a wonderful 2.5 hours, lots of good questions at the end.  Applause, in person, felt really fine.  Plenty of emotion flowing through me.

The socially-distanced classroom, and Valentin wiping down after the talk

Walked back to the hotel, changed into jeans, worked a bit, and at six walked across town the Kiepenkerl, one of Münster’s many traditional restaurants, old-school dishes from the region.  The little square outside the restaurant was bustling, and it was so nice to see all those people, properly separated.  It seemed “normal.”  At seven, met Valentin and two colleagues, Christopher and David.  We had a lot of fun at dinner, yakking about studies, Valentin’s new job with a manufacturer nearby, and of course U.S. politics.  As I did the night before, I presented the optimistic view that Biden would win, with reasons why.  Peeled off, walked back to the hotel, done with a splendid day.

Above, old and new in town; Below, the Münster Dom in golden afternoon light, and the lively beer garden in front of Kiepenkerl. At bottom, two edible rewards for the lecture: left, Kasseler (smoked pork chop), the ubiquitous but always welcome fried potatoes, and a big bowl of white beans; right, a bag of apples and pears from the Allendorf farm. Yum!

 

Slept in on Saturday, 7:15.  Worked a bit, ate a leisurely big breakfast with plenty of coffee, and ambled to the train station.  Another sunny and crisp morning.  Bought some fragrant soap (from 4711, the makers of the original Eau de Cologne) for face-washing at home, and a big tube of Voltaren, the wonderful gel for pain relief in my creaky knees – although more biking during the pandemic has, curiously, lessened the need for it.  Still nice to have the help if needed.

Left, the stolpersteine Holocaust memorials on sidewalks usually read “Here lived,” but this one, in front of a high school on a quiet side street memorialized a student. Right, the wonderful Promenade that rings the historic center of Münster, separate baths for pedestrians and cyclists.

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Caught a fast train south to my next teaching stop in Düsseldorf.  It’s a big city, and the train station was crowded (though no one sat next to me).  Hopped on the U-Bahn (subway) and rode one stop to my hotel, the NH City, a familiar place right above a subway station.  Washed my hands and face and hopped back on the U-Bahn, riding across town, then back on a faster suburban train.  At 4:00, I met Thijs Geerts, a young Dutchman I first met in 2015 at the South American Business Forum in Buenos Aires.  Venue was the venerable Uerige beer garden in the Altstadt, the old town.  The garden spans both sides of a street, but there was not a table to be had, so we sat on a low stone wall on the edge of the building and had a great yak.  Thijs, who now lives in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, is full of ideas and innovation, and a lot of will (I like will).  He’s just about to move into his first house, brand new, and he built parts of it himself.  It’s got rooftop solar panels (net contributor to the power grid), geothermal heat, wow.  He suggested an “Eindhoven Innovation Tour” in 2021, and I’m already signed up.  Just a delightful 90 minutes.

Headed back to the hotel on a seriously crowded subway.  Zero social distancing.  I’m not fearful, but am careful, so rather than head back into the center for dinner, I walked a couple of blocks to Uerige am Markt, the same outfit in a different location.  Tucked into one of my favorite regional dishes, Himmel und Erd, and walked home.  Slept hard, a long time.

Above, managing the pandemic with plenty of space in the Uerige am Markt beer garden, and the ubiquitous disinfectant dispensers, here at a subway station. Below, the seating plan for my WHU classroom, done with German precision, and students gathering for my talk.

Up Sunday morning, time to stand and deliver again.  Walked a mile to the Düsseldorf campus of WHU, the private German business school I’ve visited many, many times for 20 years.  Got there early, and had a great chat with one of the MBA students, Alex, a teacher looking to reinvent himself.  We talked a lot about the similarities between the Ruhr, Germany’s traditional industrial heartland, and Rust Belt regions in the U.S.  At 9:15, I met Jane, my WHU host, and her assistant, another Jane (who grew up in Pennsylvania before marrying a German fellow).  Delivered back-to-back talks from 9:45 to 1:00 to a very engaged group of 15, with 30 attending virtually.  Great questions, a fine session.

Walked back to the hotel, changed clothes, and hopped on Nextbike, a bikeshare, riding five miles out of the center, and up a big hill, to the home of Christine and Jochen Menges.  I was sweaty when I got there, but so glad to see them, and meet their three kids, 10, 8, and 3.  We had coffee and cake in the backyard and a great chat.  Henry, 3, was a little confused about my not speaking English and German (everyone else in the house is at least bilingual).  It was wonderful to be around kids, and with a family.  The warm afternoon went quickly.  Hopped back on the sharebike, and coasted down the hill, wheeeeeee!  Back to the hotel, washed face, cooled off.  I was tired, and opted not to head into the city, but back across the street to Uerige am Markt, for a giant wiener schnitzel and salad.  Asleep early.

Above left, a colorful facade on Kiefernstrasse, long a bastion of counterculture in Düsseldorf; right, a city park turned Sunday cricket pitch for Indian players. Below left, the Menges kids, and right, a zeppelin hovering above my hotel, advertising the local savings bank.

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Home to Minnesota

Lake Superior, Gichigami in the language of the Ojibwe people who lived around it, has long been a wonder to me. It holds 10% of the world’s surface freshwater.

 

On Sunday, August 30, I flew home to Minnesota for five days with friends and familiar landscapes.  As I have written many times before, the place where I lived for almost all the first half of my life will always be home.  Many times over the next five days I recalled a memorable quote about place from a book I read recently, Montana author Ivan Doig’s memoir Heart Earth: “But earth and heart don’t have much of a membrane between them. Sometimes decided on grounds as elusive as that single transposable h, this matter of siting ourselves.”

Shortly after landing at Minneapolis/St. Paul, I hopped into in a cool Toyota Prius rental car (the car would be mine for the next 740 miles, and averaged an eye-popping 64 MPG), and drove west to Edina, the suburb where I grew up, and to the home of Rick and Murph Dow, long and dear friends.  We had a great yak before, during, and after a fine dinner (Murph is a wonderful cook).  Our view of the world is aligned.

The splendid view from the guest room at the Dows

Was up early Monday morning for a day of meeting friends.  Friend 1 was Mark Lacek, a buddy back to my first corporate job with Republic Airlines in 1984.  Mark has one of the most fertile and imaginative minds ever, and we spent most of 90 minutes talking about his new (and ninth) business venture.  It’s likely to be his most successful.  An idea that’s bigger than big.

Friend 2, or rather friends, were Jim and Dana Arnold; I’ve known Jim since 1963, 7th Grade, but have not seen him much since college days.  Although Jim did not attend Edina High School, they were both at the 50th reunion a year before.  We sat in their front yard, properly distanced, and yakked for quite awhile.

Left, Mark Lacek; right, Dana and Jim Arnold

Friend 3 was ad hoc, not arranged in advance, and didn’t quite work; I expected another Republic Airlines pal, Steve Elkins, to be working from home, but when no one answered the door at their house in Bloomington, I rang his mobile.  Alas, he was at his office at the State Capitol – since 2018, he’s been a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives.  We had a short but productive yak, mainly about the upcoming election.

I picked up Friend 4, Jinny Jensen, at her house nearby at one, and we motored a few miles for an outdoor lunch.  Jinny is the widow of my long friend and mentor Bud Jensen, my 12th Grade English teacher (Bud died in 2017).  Jinny and I keep a good email exchange, mainly with book recommendations, and it was great to catch up in person.

Headed back to the Dows for my usual afternoon nap and a bit of work, then at 4:20 drove west to Excelsior, on the shore of the large Lake Minnetonka, meeting Friend 5, another pal since 1963, Tim McGlynn, in his new condo right on the water.  We grabbed some takeout tacos (walleye, Minnesota’s state fish, for me) and beer, picked up his friend Diane, and hopped on his boat.  I had not been on that lake for more than 30 years, and it was great fun.  We dropped Diane at her yoga class on a small island, then cruised a few hundred yards into a bay, dropped anchor, ate dinner, and had a great yak across business and politics.  Got back to the Dows in time for a cookie.  Whew, a full day.

Up early Tuesday morning, and onto Rick’s bike, cycling east through Edina, past some old neighborhoods (we moved around a lot), and to breakfast with nephew Evan.  Was great to see him twice in a year (he flew out to Washington in January).  Tucked into French toast, back on the bike to his new workplace, a gold and coin store in an adjacent suburb.  Got a quick tour and pedaled on, around two of the lakes that make Minneapolis such a pleasant place to live (especially on a cool, sunny day).  At noon, tucked into lunch with friends-since-1970 Deb and Phil Ford, who in normal Octobers host me when I’m guest teaching at the University of Minnesota.  We ate on their swell porch and had a great, quick yak before Dr. Deb had to resume her job as a psychologist/therapist, now counseling via Zoom.   Rode back to the Dows, total ride of 26 miles.  Along the ride, it was encouraging to see many “Black Lives Matter” yard signs, especially remarkable in affluent neighborhoods.

Above left, my childhood hockey rink on Arden Ave. that sent two skaters to the NHL; right, a brand-new rec center and “warming house”; when I was a kid it was a crude shack with a barrel as a wood stove! Below left, nephew Evan at his store, and at right samples of collectibles for sale there. At bottom, squatters at Lake Harriet; none of the juveniles who currently run the city seem to think this is a bad idea. Deep sigh.

At 3:50, Rick and I hopped in his cool BMW convertible and zoomed across town to the grounds of the Minnesota State Fair.  The pandemic axed the 2020 fair, but the annual juried art show was on, with timed admission and plenty of social distance.  We met fair regular Bob Woehrle (another 57-years-long friend) at the show; it was not as good as some previous years, so we left a bit early and headed to dinner at my fave German place, the Black Forest Inn.  Their beer garden was open, and we had a great meal, cold local brews, and a lot of chatter.  Rick and Bob were both English majors, and a lot of the conversation went toward books and movies.  Fun and lively.  As I have written before, Bob has always been good at turning a phrase, and that night it was this: “Moral certainty is a meat grinder.”  So true.

Above and below left, select images from the art show; below right, the eerily abandoned State Fair, that in normal times would be teeming with people.

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Above, English majors Rick and Bob yakking at the Black Forest Inn; below, some COVID updating of a classic photo by Richard Avedon that adorns a wall inside the Black Forest.

Slept in on Wednesday morning, 6:30, then coffee and breakfast with the Dows, and out the door at eight.  First stop was to see, briefly, some of the damage from the riots that followed the murder of George Floyd three months earlier.  I didn’t need to tarry, just snap a couple of pictures and move on, north toward Duluth and the glorious North Shore of Lake Superior.  Halfway there, stopped at Tobie’s, a famous bakery-café, and picked up one of their big-as-your-head caramel rolls.  Twenty-five miles north, on a splendid, less traveled road, Minnesota Highway 23, I paused at a little rest area in the hamlet of Bruno and ate the roll, sitting at a picnic table beneath a stand of pines.  That sound: wind in the pines, one of nature’s loveliest.  A few miles further on, two bald eagles were tucking into an early lunch of roadkill; it was magnificent to see them take flight a few hundred yards in front of the Toyota.

Above, aftermath of the riots following the murder of George Floyd; just stupid destruction that helps no effort to reform all the things that are broken. Below, a triptych from Minnesota Highway 23.

Continued on into Duluth, dropped my suitcase with Pamela, my Airbnb host, and motored across town to lunch with another friend, Bob Ryan.  Bob was my cousin’s roommate at Notre Dame in the 1970s, and we became friends on many trips to Duluth and Lake Superior (he developed a resort where we briefly owned a log house for a few years in the late 1990s, when the airline business was soaring).  Was great to catch up with him.

The eatery was right across from the University of Minnesota Duluth, so I ambled across the pleasant campus and set up a “corner office” in the lobby of the business school, connected to Eduroam, the wonderful wi-fi network for academics.  Worked a bit, then brought this journal up to date.  Got in the car and drove into downtown, then south on Minnesota Point, a spit of land that runs almost five miles toward Wisconsin.  At the end of the point, I parked and walked over low dunes to a lovely sandy beach.  It was the mid-70s and sunny, and people were lying on the beach, a few brave souls swimming (Superior is much warmer than it was when I was a kid, but still only about 65F).

Left, the business school at the University of Minnesota Duluth; right, an icon o the port city, the Aerial Lift Bridge at the entrance to the harbor.

At 4:30, I met Bruce Carlson, a former sales manager for Republic Airlines in Duluth.  I hadn’t seen Bruce since I worked for Northwest in 1987, after the latter bought our plucky little airline.  It was great to catch up.  We sat on the patio of the Fitger’s Brewhouse, one of Minnesota’s oldest breweries, revived more than 30 years ago as one of the nation’s first craft beermakers.  Enjoyed a couple of glasses of apricot wheat.  Bruce peeled off.  I wandered along the shore in a pleasant park east of downtown.  I had arranged dinner with another Duluth friend, Martha, who I met when skiing in Zermatt in 1974, but she got the date wrong, so circled back to Fitger’s, tucked into a smoked-fish salad, and headed back to the Airbnb.

A tourist train that runs from Duluth 20 miles to Two Harbors. The first coach made me smile — a “Vista-Dome” like brother Jim and I loved when we were kids, riding from Minneapolis to visit kin in Chicago.

 

My Airbnb host Pamela invited me to help myself to breakfast, and I foraged a bit Thursday morning, then hopped in the car for a drive up the North Shore.  I was excited.  Not only is it some of the finest scenery in the Midwest, but it is a landscape I have known all my life, back to the first visit there with my parents and brother Jim in 1957.  The emotional pull, that sense of place Ivan Doig described so well (a few paragraphs above), has long been strong.

Almost 40 miles up the shore from Duluth, I pulled onto a gravel county road, perpendicular to the lake, and drove a few miles up the hill to a trailhead of the Superior Hiking Trail, a wonderful path that leads more than 200 miles from west of Duluth to the Canadian border, parallel to the big lake.  I’ve hiked many sections of the trail during the past 30 years, and that morning was retracing steps from about 20 years earlier.  It was a short walk, two miles round-trip, but tonic.  So nice to be in the North Woods.  Drove a few more miles up the shore to Gooseberry Falls State Park.  More memories here: it was the first park we visited on our first trip in 1957, and I can remember how much a five-year-old loved the waterfalls and cascades.  Normally teeming, the park was empty, a plus.  Snapped some pictures and hopped back in the car.

I had a phone conference at 11, and needed a solid wireless connection, so at Bluefin Bay, a pleasant lakeside resort where Linda, the kids, and I stayed in 1989, I politely inquired at the office about hitchhiking on their wi-fi in the lobby.  The young clerk was super-kind and welcoming, and at the appointed moment I was connected to prospects in Canada and my client in London.

There was more business: two weeks earlier, a late offer of a Zoom lecture to London Business School arrived.  Where to connect?  Happily, Bob Ryan has good contacts from a career developing and operating resorts along the lake, and he arranged a free guest room for a couple of hours at another resort we had visited, Caribou Highlands, right below Lutsen Mountain, Minnesota’s biggest ski hill.  Chuck, the accommodating manager, even laid on a splendid box lunch, so when the talk began at one I was ready.  In my introduction, I showed the class photos of where I was, virtually London but actually by the big lake.

Slide 2 from my lecture to London Business School

I was done by 2:30, but lacked a firm plan for the rest of the afternoon.  Driving north toward Grand Marais, a long fave and familiar town, I hit on the idea of driving up to Greenwood Lake, where we fished and swam a week each summer as kids.  Enroute, paused at the overlook at Good Harbor Bay, the same spot we stopped one August afternoon 63 years earlier.  I cued “Heart of the Heartland,” a soulful tune from mandolinist Peter Ostroushko, and admired the view, with joy and melancholy.  My last stop there was two years earlier, when I consigned a small part of my brother’s ashes to the wind.

Headed out of Grand Marais on the paved Gunflint Trail, up the escarpment, past the familiar big pines that hug the road about 15 miles inland.  Forest Service road 309 off the Gunflint was smooth and wide, and I quickly got to a small bay on Greenwood Lake a couple miles south of my destination.  Admired the view, took a pic, and headed on.

Above left, Good Harbor Bay and a scene familiar to me for more than six decades; right, a beaver’s house on a pond off the Gunflint Trail. Below, a wonderful view of a small bay on Greenwood Lake.

The old resort was long gone; I knew that the area around it had been redeveloped as cabins and cottages.  I wanted to see them, but the track from the Forest Service “superhighway” was really bad, rocky.  I immediately flashed back to summer 1960, when dad tore the oil pan and part of the transmission on our 1959 Mercury in his haste to get on vacation (the family literally ran out of money on that trip).  I wisely turned around!

Zipped through Grand Marais, east to my Airbnb digs, the Hungry Hippie Hostel, where I stayed a night four years earlier.  Cheap, friendly, and with a great view of the lake.  Dropped my stuff, worked my email a bit, and at 5:30 headed back into town, and to the Voyageur Brewing Company, which I toured in 2018.  The place was hopping, but I managed to get a table outside, under a big tarp, which was handy when it poured for 25 minutes.  It felt like winter was coming.

The boys at the next table provided ample entertainment, a handful of locals from the nearby hospital, Thursday regulars.  They were a little noisy, but in good humor, and snippets wafted my way, like “The one who was talking about his testes being tickled,” and “We had that week in July, remember? It was 80 degrees.”  Tucked into a couple of pints and my second walleye tacos of the week.  Walked around town a bit, more memories raining from by-then blue skies.  Grabbed a large chocolate shake at the Dairy Queen, drove back to the Airbnb, read for an hour, and clocked out.  A long, splendid day.

Above left, my trusty Prius rental car, and a good view of the big lake, from the Airbnb; right, a COVID still life from the Voyageur brewery in Grand Marais — the rock kept the mask from sailing away in the gusts that evening. Below left, a nice rainbow after dinner, the scene taken from a rocky beach my brother and I always enjoyed; right, a dessert from Dairy Queen that in previous years would have been from the store in Comanche, Texas, when Jack and I were headed to and from judging in the World Championship Goat Barbecue.

Was up early Friday morning.  Brewed three cups of free coffee in the Airbnb communal kitchen, chatted briefly with another guest, then drove down the hill, and a few miles west to the trailhead of another nice section of the Superior Hiking Trail, along the valley of Devil Track River.  Knees creaked, but the scenery was superb, as was the sound of the rushing river in the small canyon below the trail.  The bear turds along the trail told me I was far from civilization!

Motored into Grand Marais, and was first in line for breakfast at the Blue Water Café.  Tucked into an enormous chili-and-cheese omelet that would last me all day.  Just before leaving town, I went for a walk out by Artists’ Point and the Coast Guard station, and fell into a combination Talking-to-Strangers and Small World moment.  I engaged a couple some years older than me, and learned they were from Cumberland, Wisconsin.  “I knew a fellow from there, Vern Jensen [my 12th Grade English teacher].”  “We called him Bud,” he replied.  “Yes, Bud,” I said.  Turned out the fellow was a childhood friend of Bud’s older brother, and Bud’s mom was his wife’s English teacher.  Whew.

Pointed the car back toward Minneapolis/St. Paul, pausing along the way to admire the views and to snap some more pictures, including the first ones ever at the cascade on the Cross River at Schroeder.  Zipped through Duluth, no stops.  I was sorry to say goodbye to Superior.  Drove up the escarpment that extends the length of the North Shore, and stopped at a rest area near the top of the hill for one last glimpse of the vast inland sea (so big and so deep, it holds 10 percent of the world’s surface freshwater!).

When I look back at the big lake, time compresses:  it’s 1957 and we’re on our first trip.  It’s ’66, the last time brother Jim came with us to Greenwood, the year we portaged to Stump Lake and reeled in fish after fish, Northern Pikes.  It’s ’73, way below zero, and Linda is with me for the first time, enroute to ski in Ontario.  It’s 1982, and newborn Robin, Linda, and I are hiking near Lutsen.  It’s ’99, and we’re hosting friends in the log house we owned.  It’s 2010, when Jack, Linda, and I came up in early October to see the leaves, billeting in Grand Marais.  More than 30 trips across a lifetime.  It’s no wonder I love the place.

I was in the suburbs of St. Paul by 1:20, time to stop for a short visit with Bob Woehrle and his wife Paula.  In retrospect, the stop was ill-advised, because I got caught in a long detour around the airport.  I returned the rental car with 40 minutes before my flight.  Stress.   Just before the aircraft door closed, I realized I didn’t have my digital camera and sunglasses, which were last seen three hours earlier in the Toyota center console.  I briefly considered hopping off, but in the past had always been able to retrieve lost items from rental cars. Budget Rent-a-Car didn’t find the items, and I couldn’t track down a live human being to speak with — and offer a reward.  But 1o days after, another thought crept in: while shaving at Bob’s, I left the driver-side window open.  Bob confirmed that cars on his street were targets, even in broad daylight.  And it would have taken less than 10 seconds to grab the camera.

It was a great camera, hardly new, and not really expensive, but what I really missed – as I did after hundreds of photos of Europe and Africa disappeared when Linda’s car was stolen in 1977 – were the pics of the trip that were in the camera: the scene from the beach at Minnesota Point, shots from the hikes, and some nice snaps of waterfalls on the Gooseberry and Cross rivers.  But all those images are still in my head.

Flew to Chicago, then on to Washington.  Just a great trip home.

Left, the folks from Cumberland; right, tomatoes from the Woehrles’ garden.

 

 

 

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The Annual Beach Vacation, Hooray

Coastal South Carolina in the summertime is a land of dramatic skies. A storm had passed just before I snapped this.

 

On Saturday, August 8, it was vacation time.  COVID be damned, we were flying right into a hotspot.  But we Brittons are an intrepid lot, and reckoned that with proper precautions we would be just fine (and we were).  Robin, her long friend Courtney, and granddaughters Dylan and Carson, drove the roughly 500 miles south to our annual and now long traditional vacation venue, Kiawah Island, South Carolina.  Linda and I flew down, as did Jack.  We rented a minivan at the airport, then all met up on the island, had some lunch, and checked into a big, almost new house.  It had a great view, but lots of maintenance and housekeeping problems, so the next day we relocated to an even bigger and slightly older place, but still super-fancy – and everything worked.

Above left, the Cooper River north of Charleston; at right, the splendid marsh view from our first house. Below, samples of flora and fauna — that’s Otto the Alligator; with Otto, social distancing is highly recommended!

The six days passed quickly in routine.  For me, it was up before first light, and onto a rented bike for 20 miles (a serious piece of Chinese steel, twice as heavy as my Italian bikes), then breakfast, then nap, beach, beer, dinner, read, sleep.  On Monday and Tuesday, I accompanied Jack, an increasingly capable and hugely committed golfer, for 18 holes each day at one of the many courses on Kiawah.  It was great fun, and wonderful to see his progress since I “caddied” in 2019.  Although I never took up the sport, I do enjoy rolling along courses that are really like manicured parks.

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Above, no need for social distancing on quiet beaches; below, where marsh meets beach; the photo at right, looking a bit like an abstract painting, is actually a close up of the sand at left, incised by a small flow of water. At bottom left, along the 16th hole, and at right, a fleet of pelicans, a common sight, flying in formation and searching for fish in the ocean.

Because of the virus, the island restaurants only served outdoors, which was fine, and we ate at home two nights.  Courtney is an accomplished cook, and the dinners were really wonderful.  It was a fine week, but passed way too quickly.  I was able to spend a week in June in Montana, but for the rest of the family, and for me, too, just being away from home was splendid.

Above, one of Kiawah’s manifest charms is low-rise construction; at right our rented house. Below, scenes from the front yard.  At bottom, more of the fine scenery.

 

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Two Trips in One Week, But Short Ones

Ceiling, Penn Station, Baltimore, Maryland

Much of July was spent preparing for, then teaching an annual MBA elective on crisis management at Georgetown University.  Plenty to discuss this year, and in the virtual classroom!  With the course concluded and grades sent, on Tuesday, July 28, I headed to Capitol Hill to pay last respects to Rep. John Lewis, a hero of the nonviolent struggle for civil rights from the 1960s forward.  Last year, I read his autobiography, Walking with the Wind, a remarkable — and to any person of good will, disturbing — account of his life’s work.  He hewed to peace and nonviolence for all of his life.  Others, like the Alabama troopers who beat him nearly to death in a march in Selma in 1963, did not.  His commitment touched my deeply, so it made sense to say goodbye, along with many others on a hot and humid morning.  Surely he is in heaven.

His funeral, private, was two days later in his native Alabama.  That day, The New York Times published his last commentary, with these words:

Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.

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Hopped on my bike and rode north to the Capital Area Food Bank for the afternoon shift.  Since the pandemic began, I’ve logged about 80 volunteer hours, and am committed to at least weekly work.  It’s a fulfilling job, meeting a basic human need — and a lot of physical work for a 68-year-old.  I’m plumb wore out when I get home.

The view from the food-box assembly line at the food bank

Two days later, I took the Metro into downtown, then onto the MARC commuter train north 40 miles to Baltimore, for lunch with Charlie, a former colleague at American Airlines.  We reconnected via email in March, and promised to get together once things started to open up.  It was great to see him after 23 years, and we had a lot to talk about.  Motored from Penn Station to Fells Point, right on the Inner Harbor, and tucked into crab cakes and a lot of great conversation.  He had just finished up a 20+ year assignment with an educational testing service, and was looking at new prospects.  After lunch, we took a short walking tour — Baltimore has some troubled neighborhoods, but downtown is positively gleaming.

 

Charlie drove me back to the station, hopped on the train, and headed home.  A nice outing, a little mobility!

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50 Years of Overseas Travel

Laguna del Inca, Portillo, Chile

On July 29, 1970, I began my first overseas trip; flew to New York Kennedy and on to Lima, Peru, with a young woman I met in Montreal earlier that year (strictly platonic!). Many of my college pals headed to Europe that summer, but I wanted to use my nearly-fluent Spanish for most of the trip.

The 16 days in Lima, Santiago, Buenos Aires, and Rio de Janeiro were eye-opening: my first encounters with Third World poverty (I would see lots more in the coming 6 years in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean); Chile on the eve of the election of a Marxist; chatting with Argentine students about martial law; and more.  And a lot of fun, too: five days skiing deep powder in the Andes, tucking into steak and red wine in Buenos Aires, walking the famous Ipanema and Copacabana beaches in Rio.

I returned home with the greater confidence that always follows a long trip to foreign lands. I said to myself, “I like this, I should do more.”  And in the next 5 decades I have, greatly enriching my life.  Mobility is a huge gift, and I look forward to its return.

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To Montana, “The Last Best Place”

The Missouri River, south of Cascade, Montana

 

On Monday, June 22, Linda dropped me at National Airport at six a.m.  I was nearly bouncing in my seat as the Airbus A319 rolled down Runway 19.  Everyone onboard was wearing masks, and the American Airlines’ flight attendant read a friendly but firm warning not to remove them in flight.  Changed planes at Dallas/Fort Worth and headed north on a packed flight to Bozeman, Montana.  An English prof at Montana State University in Bozeman had it right when he described the state as “the last best place” (the title of an anthology he edited), and I was happy to be heading there.

On the 737 north, I was in seat 10A, a window seat without a window.  Staring at the plastic sidewall, I was reminded of a flight with Jack 30 years earlier, home to Minnesota.  We were sitting in last row of a Fokker jet also in a windowless window seat, so we drew one with the crayons and paper from his little plastic briefcase. As I recall, the scene beyond had a beach and palm trees. On this flight, to make things worse, neither the window in the row ahead nor behind was open. I wondered, nearly aloud, what is wrong with people? We’re flying above the Mountain West, some of the most exceptional natural landscapes in the world, and they want dark?  As we descended, I did steal a few glimpses out windows across the aisle: ridgelines and meadows with snow and puffy clouds. The West.

The view from window seats: left, crossing the Red River into Texas, enroute to DFW; at right, what I saw when flying north to Montana.

Imagine my delight when we landed; I walked up the jetbridge, and right out the huge windows, not ten miles away, were the Bridger Mountains.  It was an emotional sight, for I was in Montana, birthplace of my father; as I mentioned to a researcher at the Montana Historical Society two days later, the state is a place woven into me, that feels part of me, and I of it.

Just as we left the concourse, two soldiers from the Montana National Guard were taking everyone’s temperature, with permission.  Nice.  At the Hertz counter, the agent offered an enormous GMC Yukon; I had reserved a small Nissan SUV (2,000 pounds lighter, I checked!), and Hertz said they didn’t have any smaller SUVs, nor even a smaller sedan.  But in the parking lot there were a dozen of those cars, so I returned, got a Dodge Durango (still big, but closer), and headed west on Interstate 90.  I was on the road, and I was pumped, more so as the fuel-burn meter slowly inched above 20 MPG.

Left, I-90 west of Bozeman; right, the Flint Creek Range near Deer Lodge.

First stop was Missoula, 195 miles west.  I skirted Butte, the legendary copper-mining town, then past the huge Anaconda copper smelter smokestack west of town.  It was mid-afternoon, and I was hungry, so I pulled off the highway at Deer Lodge, to a McDonald’s drive-thru, for a chocolate shake.  Time for my first T-t-S with a Montanan, a young woman cashier.  “You’re lucky to live here,” I said.  She agreed.   No one was in line behind me, and she wanted to talk more, about where I was from, where I was going, why I was in Deer Lodge.  She told me about the winter, which had extended into mid-June, a blizzard that dropped 15 inches.

I’ve been on a lot of Interstate highways in my life; I-90 in the Clark Fork Valley was one of the most scenic.  And in no time I was in Missoula, a mile off the highway, ringing the doorbell of Jim Carlson, who was one of six Jims in my third-grade class in 1959.  I saw him a year earlier, at our 50th high-school reunion, and mentioned that I visit Montana from time to time.  “Come see us,” he said.  So there I was, greeting him with an elbow bump.

We sat in his stunning backyard garden and got caught up.  I knew that in 1969, two months after graduating high school together he moved to Missoula and enrolled at the University of Montana, but I really didn’t know much about his life in the half-century since then – nor he of mine.  His girlfriend Tess came over.  We finished our beer.  No one locks their doors in Missoula, he told me.  Hopped in Tess’ car and headed across town to Bayern, a microbrewery and restaurant.  Along the way, a guided tour of the pleasant small city.  Had a nice dinner.  Was asleep by 9:15.

Above, just a small part of Jim’s spectacular garden; below left, my host and a view of Missoula from above town.

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Was up early Tuesday, so excited to be on the ground.  Borrowed Jim’s bike and rode across the Clark Fork River (named for William Clark, who with Meriwether Lewis explored this part of the country on their 1803-06 expedition) and around the U of M campus, leafy and pleasant.  Back home for a quick breakfast and out the door in my car, with Jim as guide.

Above left, “Old Main” on the U of M campus; right, a summer-school student getting early breakfast. Below, a few blocks from Jim’s house was a campsite explorer Lewis used in 1806 on the return trip east. At bottom, contrasting political views on two adjacent cars in Jim’s neighborhood.

We headed north on U.S. Highway 93, into the Flathead Indian Reservation, formally the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation. The rez looked far better than I expected; and big, almost 2,000 square miles.  Down a hill and along the eastern shore of Flathead Lake, the largest lake west of the Mississippi.  Into Bigfork, in the northeast corner of the lake, for an ice cream.  Small, but touristy.  East onto Montana Highway 83, south between the Mission and Swan ranges.  Jim is an environmental scientist, so was a superb interpreter of the natural and cultural landscape.  And we yakked about a lot of other stuff.

Above, mustard fields and Flathead Lake; while snapping this picture, Jim and I chatted with a lady, American Indian, who said she always stops to admire this view, even though she only lives a few miles away! Below, more scenes from the day. The birds at bottom are sandhill cranes.

Picked up sandwiches in the little town of Seeley Lake, and ate them in a state campground on the lake.  Up and then down into the Blackfoot Valley, Jim pointing out the approximate location of the family cabin on a ridgeline to the south.  At Bonner, a former timber milling town, we U-turned into the Kettle House Brewery, right on the river, then back home for a needed shower.

Your scribe on the Blackfoot River

Tess came over, and Jim’s younger child Chris, who lives in California, returned from an overnight camping trip.  A lively conversation before and during dinner.  And what a repast: slow-cooked short ribs in natural gravy, roasted vegetables, yeasty bread.  Before dinner, I pitted a big pile of cherries (my right hand was purple at the end, with juice-stained fingernails) for cobbler with ice cream.  By the time we finished the meal, outdoors in the garden, it was way past my bedtime, in either the Eastern or Mountain time zone.  Wished everyone a good night and clocked out.

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Wednesday morning I was up early again, out on the bike for another 10 miles on a pleasant bike path along Clark Fork.  Home for a shave and quick shower, two cups of strong coffee, half the sandwich from lunch the day before, and out the door.  Jim, Tess, and Chris were still sleeping.

The former Milwaukee Road (railway) tracks are now a pleasant bike path along the Clark Fork; at right, the Milwaukee’s depot in Missoula.

Pedal to the metal toward Helena, but rather than the freeway, I zipped east on Montana Highway 200, up the Blackfoot Valley, then south on another highway, then U.S. 12 over the Continental Divide and down a steep slope to Helena, the state capital, last visited in 1956.

There was ample free parking all around the capitol building.  I ambled in, picked up a self-guided tour flyer, and set off.  The building had been beautifully renovated in 1999-2000, and was a gem.  Also empty, enough to think that I could pop in and say hello to the governor.  But at the entry to his large office was a sign that read no visitors during COVID, so I waved to a receptionist and said “Please wish Governor Steve a good morning from Rob from Virginia. He’s doing a great job.”

Above left, in the capitol rotunda; right, the House chamber; below, famous Montanans Thomas Meagher, an early territorial governor (check out his life story) and Mike and Maureen Mansfield (also worth a read).

Above left, the capitol dome; right, a mural-like painting in one of the halls; below, on my first visit to the capitol in 1956, and 2020.

At noon I met Zoe Ann, the historical society researcher who had helped me a lot with genealogical digging.  I brought sandwiches from a nearby deli, she brought drinks and a tablecloth, which we draped over a bench in front of her building.  Had a great chat, told her the rough outlines of my family story.  I said, “I love this place in part because I believe that some of my dad’s best values, ones that he passed on to me like optimism and persistence, came from his early years here.”  She liked that.  Then I said, “I’ve been talking way too much; over to you . . .”  She was a Montana native, from the eastern part of the state.  Three daughters.  Lots more.  The coolest part was that after her girls left for college, she went back to school, too, accepted at a special program for older women at Mount Holyoke College back East (“The people out there are different, no?” I asked, and that prompted vigorous agreement; yes, different, and not in a good way).

After saying goodbye, I went inside for a quick look at two permanent exhibits: works of legendary Montana artist Charlie Russell and a walk through Montana history (wish I had more time for a story very well told); plus a temporary exhibit on Montana Beer.  Woo hoo!

In the MHS museum: a Charlie Russell painting, and diorama

Got in the car and headed onto Interstate 15 north, to the first “roots stop”: my dad’s birthplace, 1914, in the Smith River Valley, east of the town of Cascade.  Onto the first of many miles of dirt road.  I had researched the location of the land my ne’er-do-well grandfather had rented for several years, but still was not 100 percent certain.  I drove back a forth a couple of times, then headed up a narrow dirt road onto a (geological) bench, across Hound Creek from the bench that I reckoned was their home.  As I was snapping pictures, a car approached.  A woman about my age stopped.  She was properly cautious at first, then opened up, and we pretty much agreed that I had found the place.  Check and done.  Back onto pavement, to Ulm, Montana, then back on the freeway to Great Falls.

Above, the rolling land just west of my father’s birthplace. Below, the flat land (bench) just where earth meets sky was where Clifford Britton came into the world, in 1914.

Checked into my free (with loyalty points) room at Staybridge Suites, dropped my stuff, headed into downtown to the Mighty Mo Brewing Company, the third craft brewery of the trip.  I brought my laptop to do some work; asked my server, a cheerful young woman, if it was okay to work and tipple, and she smiled.  Had a splendid New England IPA (NEIPA to beer people), then a superb sour beer, called BB Gun, made with blackberry extract.  The kitchen doubled the order of the young guy next to me (also working his laptop), and the server offered me a bowl of mac and cheese with chicken.  “It’s free,” she said.  “I hate to waste food,” I replied, and tucked into a nice dinner.

Outside, a storm was rolling in, but there was time to drive around downtown, past the Cascade County Court House, then east along the Mighty Missouri, downstream to the first and biggest of the waterfalls that name the city.  Snapped a couple pix just as the skies opened up.

Left, looking upstream at a dam on the Great Falls of the Missouri; right, the downstream view.

Asleep early, determined to catch up, and I did: nine hours, tonic.  Up at 5:45, a little work, pot of coffee in the room, down to breakfast; COVID ended the normal buffet, but a kind woman brought me a factory cheese omelet with plenty of bacon and sausage.  Plus a factory muffin, fruit cup, and juice, and I was set for what would be a long driving day.

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The stormy weather from the night before was mostly, but not completely, gone, and I drove east on U.S. 87 in clouds and clear, 40 miles, then onto a dirt road to Spion Kop, where the family had lived around 1910, before my father was born (1914).  Once there was a post office and train station, long gone.  Britton family place two, check and done.  Reversed course, west to tiny Belt, Montana, then north on Montana Highway 331, and into a Western Great Plains landscape that reminded me of Alberta or Saskatchewan; that made sense, because the border of those two provinces was only about 120 miles north.

Above, wind turbines near Spion Kop. Below, no sign of a settlement, which centered on the railroad. At bottom, scenes from the drive north to Fort Benton.

Drove down a hill and crossed the Missouri River in Fort Benton, a storied place.  After the arrival of the first steamboat from St. Louis in 1869, and before the railroad, the town was a hugely important transportation hub: 75% of the freight headed for the Northwest U.S. was unloaded on the levee.  Paused for pictures, then headed northeast on U.S. 87 to Big Sandy, then south on a dirt road, 55 miles to a place the family may have lived: in 1902, Albert Britton filed a homestead claim on a quarter-section (0.25 square mile, 160 acres) in what is now southern Blaine County, but it’s not clear they ever occupied the land, and certainly never “proved it up,” that is, secured title to the free ground.

Above left, the levee on the Missouri at Fort Benton; right, the Grand Hotel in town, opened 1882 and still serving travelers. Below, on the way to the homestead.

Thanks to Google Earth and GPS, I found the dirt track that led to the parcel; the path looked marginal in a rental car, even my SUV.  It was only 1.1 miles to the homestead, and I considered the walk.  Ambled a few hundred yards to the gate on the track.  The Gasvoda family, proprietors of the Lone Tree Cattle Company, had posted a no-trespassing sign, so I turned around.  Motored about a half-mile south, up a hill, and like the day before, had a perfect vista on the homestead parcel.  That land is a last piece of the family puzzle: did they live there 1911-13, between Spion Kop and Orr?  I still don’t know, but at least saw the land; at about 3900 feet above sea level, hilly, and miles from any transport route (even the Missouri), it didn’t look like a place to build a viable farm.

Above, open range, or fenced, ranchland in Montana. Below, a view toward the homestead. At bottom, scenes heading toward the river.

Motored on, several miles on the flat; then as I approached the Missouri Breaks, passed a yellow caution sign “Road Impassable in Wet Weather.” The road began to descend,  down and down, a steep grade.  When the road flattened along the river, I had dropped 1500 feet.  Whew.  The landscape, often called “badlands,” to me look prehistoric; I sort of expected a T. Rex to jump in front of the car, or a pterodactyl to swoop down and grab the car.  The Transport Geek was pretty excited about crossing the big river, not on a bridge, but on one of only three remaining free ferries in Montana.  Had a brief chat with the pilot (no steering required, it follows a cable).

Above, the Stafford-McLelland Ferry, and the pilot; below, the Durango after 100 miles on dirt roads, with some mud along the river (the next day I hosed ‘er down in White Sulphur). At bottom, theatre in Lewistown, named for a nearby small mountain range, not your friend Judy!

Pulled off the boat and onto another 25 miles of dirt road, south to Winifred, Montana, where I rejoined pavement, on Montana Highway 236.  South to Lewistown, seat of Fergus County.  Stopped for lunch at the Big Spring Brewing Company, soup, salad, and a beer.  Headed south and west to Harlowton. Here was a quintessentially depressed Western town.  It boomed for decades with the Milwaukee Road (one of several transcontinental railways), but never recovered after the Milwaukee tore up the tracks in 1980.

Above, hard times in Harlowton; below, one of the Milwaukee Road’s old (1915) electric locomotives; the line was electrified from Harlowton west 440 miles (and again in Washington state), the only electric rail line in the West.

 

West on U.S. 12.  I had been on it a few days earlier, near Missoula.  It was the same highway that ran past David and Katherine Kelly’s dairy farm east of Hudson, Wisconsin; the same Highway 12 that my traveling-salesman dad and I drove, west from Minneapolis many times in decades past.

Rolled into White Sulphur Springs, seat of Meagher County, at 4:20, after 365 miles of driving that Thursday.  Whew.  Was glad to park the car at the Spa Motel.  The desk clerk was pretty cranky at first, but I brought her around with politeness.  “Yes, ma’am” goes a long way in the West.  Worked my email in a small and very spartan (but clean) room, and at five walked two blocks east to 2 Basset Brewery, last visited with brother Jim in 2017.  Found a stool at the bar and (finally) brought this journal up to date.

The 2 Basset Brewery, White Sulphur Springs

I asked the barmaid about the eponymous hounds.  Sadly, Leroy (born 2012), died in early June, but 11-year-old Stanley is still helping to brew.  I had a nice chat with Barry, the owner.  I remembered some details about his family, and we had a nice yak.  At the end of our conversation, he offered his hand, and I shook it.  What a welcome connection:

the first handshake with a stranger since – yes, I remember – a guy at McGill University in Montreal on March 10.  No handshakes in 107 days.  As he drew my last glass, I gave Barry condolences on the loss of Leroy.  “It’s hard for Stanley,” he said, and a tear came to my eye.  That moment was emblematic of an intense few days, a journey with happy moments and poignant moments.  But after being grounded three months, sitting on a bar stool in a friendly little town it felt like (the joy of mobility)2.  Whew!

The three hours at 2 Basset were supremely relaxing, maybe the calmest since leaving home, and it was a really nice time.  Under Montana law, micro taprooms must close at eight, so I ambled a block to Bar 47 for a pulled-pork sandwich, then back to my room, totally sleepy.

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When I checked into the motel the afternoon before, the desk clerk asked if I planned to use the hot-springs pool.  I demurred, and she became insistent, in a friendly way, so I promised to take a dip Friday morning.  “We open at six,” she said.

By 6:10 a.m., I was immersed in lovely hot water, said to be therapeutic (or as Montanans would say, “good for what ails you”).  Had a couple T-t-S with fellow bathers, a geezer from Missoula whose right-wing pronouncements flew over my head, and a very friendly wallboard contractor from Great Falls.  After a good soak, I repaired to my room (ten feet from one of the pools), showered, and called the McGuires.  Lois answered, and said she was expecting my call, and, yes, they’d like to meet me.  We agreed on 10:30, in a couple of hours, and she gave me their new address.  In between, I drove around town, then north to the huge cattle ranch that my Uncle Harold managed for two decades, and back to town.

The entrance the Castle Mountain Ranch, which Harold Britton managed for years.

Lois and Jack McGuire, 84 and 89, are aunt and uncle of Sue, the wife of a fellow I knew in graduate school 45 years earlier.  A tenuous connection, to be sure, but I long remembered that Sue grew up in White Sulphur Springs, and had emailed her after our 2017 visit.  She replied with contact info for Aunt Lois and Uncle Jack, and I wrote them a paper letter a month earlier (Lois told me that Sue had also called them a few days prior).

I rolled up to their modest house a few miles west of town on the dot at 10:30, and immediately fell into conversation with the oldest True Montanans of the trip.  Lois immediately made a connection to my Uncle Harold, telling me she went to Sunday School with my cousin Sylvia Lou.  Jack had a clear mind (hope I’m as lucid at almost-90) and a great outlook on life.  He grew up on the family ranch, but intended to be a schoolteacher, which is what he was doing when his dad called in 1959 and said he needed him back on the ranch.  Jack said the ranch was “under water” back then, but with hard work they turned it around.  He’s slowing down quite a bit, but still gets around.  The ranch up at Sheep Creek spans about 6,000 acres, with another 3,000 in grazing rights on U.S. Forest Service land.  They’re running about 500 head of cattle.

We yakked about ranching life, about the past, and lots more.  Toward the end of the long conversation in their living room, Jack mentioned that cattle prices have just bounced slightly above average cost of production, a stark fact that perfectly encapsulates the challenge for the tireless people who produce our food.  At about 1:00, Jack suggested we go into town, and he’d like to buy me lunch, so we motored a few miles to the Branding Iron Café (I had been there in 2017).  Their sons Tim (retired Army officer) and Kevin (still ranching) joined us for a lively time.   Lots more memorable quotations from Jack; my fave was this: “The ones that got out of Meagher County agriculture came back in Learjets.”  It was a delightful 4.5 hours.  I thanked them, shook hands all around, and hopped in the car.

Above, Lois and Jack; below, the Big Belt Mountains, and the Swiss-like landscape on the eastern slope of the Bridgers.

Pedal to the metal toward Bozeman, the first 41 miles at 75 mph, then way, way slower on a winding state highway along the eastern slope of the Bridger Mountains, 37 miles into Bozeman, a landscape reminiscent of Switzerland.  It was great to be back, and the town was, on my third visit, familiar.  Motored south and east and was soon hugging my cousin Betty in their split-level just east of the city.  We visited a bit, then hopped in the car for an early dinner.  The plan was for Cousin Cheryl (strictly speaking, a first cousin once removed; her grandmother Constance was my aunt) to join us for dinner, but she was tied up with family matters, so the two of us had a nice meal (I wasn’t too hungry after a patty melt and mound of Tater Tots with the McGuires).  Back home, we visited a bit, and as was the pattern all week, was asleep early.

It was great to sleep with windows wide open, waking occasionally by the lonesome horn of a freight train on the old Northern Pacific Railway main line, just a few blocks away.  Up early Saturday, to prep and deliver a lecture to Imperial College London MBAs via Zoom, from the basement.  As an intro to the talk, I showed a couple of photos from the week, and gave a shout-out to Cousin Betty, who is an aspiring wildlife artist; this work, of a mountain goat, is a fave:

Betty’s husband Dwain returned from his usual summer venue, way up in the Beartooth Range at Cooke City, Montana, to cut the grass on his big orange Husqvarna riding mower (their lot is three acres).  At and after a midday dinner of Montana beef, potatoes, and vegetables, Dwain related experiences at Cooke City; he’s been going up there every summer week for years, mainly to ride ATVs with his buddies.  A lot of adventure for an 80-year-old, and he clearly loves being there; lives in a trailer he drives up every spring.  Like every Western place with scenic amenity, moneyed people are snatching up land.  “Quite a lot of Texans,” Dwain said, “with a lot of money.”  One fella from Dallas bought a 50-acre mining claim, $2 million.  Whew.

After the meal, Dwain went out to finish the yard, and Betty and I drove south to Hyalite Lake, a reservoir actually, and source of Bozeman’s water.  The lake was mobbed with people happy to get outdoors after the lockdown.  We drove to the end of the lake and a bit further on, then headed back.  Took my first nap in almost a week, nice.  Had a light supper, yakked more with Dwain and Betty, and climbed into bed to read.  Just before turning out the light, a nice email arrived from Jinny Jensen, widow of my long friend and 12th grade English teacher Bud: “Enjoy your time in Montana! I could just picture you spreading your arms to embrace the landscape and the freedom!”  So true.

Above, Hyalite Lake and a track leading into the mountains; below, an after-dinner visitor.

On Sunday morning, I had a good chat with Dwain, discussing our roles as volunteers, living summers in Cooke City, and winter in Montana.  Betty and I hopped in my rental car at 9:15, west on I-90, retracing the route of six days earlier, over the Continental Divide and down the hill into Butte, “the richest hill on earth” – $45 billion in metals, mostly copper, have been dug up since the 1869.

We were to meet Betty’s daughter Jill (who I had never met) for lunch at 11:30, so had an hour to drive around town. The copper is played out, and the town is down on its luck. Much of the urban landscape is little changed in a century, which makes it seriously interesting, a city “preserved in amber.”  It was reminiscent of Duluth, Minnesota, which boomed about the same time. Duluth is also a bit beat down, but not nearly as much, thanks to tourism. Both cities are seriously overbuilt.

Above, a union office that spoke to the city’s long history of labor organizing; below, lots of ethnicities still visible in the landscape. At bottom, neon signs, mostly in disrepair

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Above left, a “Chicago style” skyscraper and right, a downtown arterial. Below, a smaller nice house in the formerly wealthy part of town and detail from the mansion of a copper “king” (now a B&B). At bottom, a minehead and the former Milwaukee Road railway depot, now a TV station. At very bottom, lots of copper-colored stuff.

Jill lives in Phoenix, but was working the summer in Montana, as an interior designer and expert in faux wall painting. She brought her friend Monica and Monica’s niece Heidi, and we had a nice lunch at a small chain eatery on the south edge of town.  It was raining when we left the restaurant, so we shortened the second half of our Butte tour, then drove through rain back to Bozeman.  More kin to meet: we stopped for an hour to say hello to Jill’s oldest son Justin, wife Katie, and baby Remy, 13 months – the youngest of the many True Montanans I met that week.

It was a delightful visit.  We yakked about Katie’s digital marketing job (the company is in Chicago, and she has been teleworking long before the virus hit).  Her great-uncle was the legendary Montana leader Mike Mansfield, longtime senator then ambassador to Japan.  The kind of man that, sadly, is in short supply in Washington.  Justin is a full-time weightlifter, trying to make the Olympic team; he showed me a couple of videos, and I then suggested that he pick me up with one arm and twirl me a couple of times.  Really nice young people.

The youngest True Montanan I met

We got home about five.  I washed my face and headed out to visit three of Bozeman’s craft breweries and have a light dinner.   First stop was the place brother Jim and I visited on our epic 2017 road trip, Bozeman Brewing Company.  John, a manager we met then, and again when I visited in 2018, had moved back to Kansas City, but I had nice chats with two servers, and enjoyed a pint of sour beer, called Gose in Germany (for non-beerfans, it’s a brewing style that is becoming very popular).  Sour connotes unpleasant, so “tart” might be better.  As I was leaving, Amber, one of the servers, brought me a sample of their newest sour, Sprig and Spritz, which was a collaboration with a local distiller.  She delivered a lot of detail: the brew aged in wine barrels for five months, then steeped in gin botanicals, and more.  Those folks are serious about their beer!  Stop 1 was way fun.  Stop 2, Union Hall right on Main Street, downtown, was just okay, the place clearly trading more on their central location than their beer.

At the “Bozone,” Bozeman Brewing Company; I hoisted a glass in memory of my late brother Jim (we visited in 2017); Amber, a server who really knew her beer.

The last stop, Bridger Brewing Company, adjacent to the Montana State University campus, was the best.  A big, lively two-level taproom, noisy with young people (as usual, I was two to three times older than the average tippler).  Sat at the bar and enjoyed a pint of their coffee stout; the friendly server (wait, wait: when you’re in Montana, that’s redundant, because all servers, and all people, are friendly!) also let me taste a couple of their IPAs.  Enjoyed a salad made with local organic greens and homemade vinaigrette.  Drove home and clocked out.  Another fine day.  I was going to miss Montana, I thought, as I drifted off to sleep.

Up early Monday morning, for a few hours of last visiting with Cousin Betty, showing each other old photos, plus my pictures from this trip.  Ate breakfast, yakked a bit more, and said goodbye.  Drove around Bozeman, filled the gas tank (overall MPG for the trip, 24.3), and stopped for a takeout sandwich at a supermarket adjacent to the Bridger taproom visited the night before.  I sort of collect beer mats (paper coasters), and forgot to get a couple the night before.  They were not yet open, but a keg was propped against the front door and I ambled in.  I politely asked for a few coasters, and an obliging young fellow climbed under a staircase and grabbed 6.  Then he pulled out a gimme cap and asked, “Would you wear this?”  “For sure,” I replied, and thanked him profusely.  The last True Montanan of the trip.

Drove to the airport, worked a bit, and flew to Dallas/Fort Worth, then east to Washington. It was the only trip of the quarter, and it was wonderful.

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Some More Really Short Trips

Spring flowers in the garden at the Capital Area Food Bank; I arrive early for my afternoon shift, and enjoy a little picnic lunch on a bench next to this splendor.

 

Since my first shift in late March, I’ve logged about 60 hours at the Capital Area Food Bank, working on assembly lines, with both moving conveyor and rollers, as well as breaking down, sorting, and re-boxing salvaged food.  It’s been a great experience, and the most mobility for months.  Here are a few more scenes from inside the warehouse:

Above left, salvaged food arrives in banana boxes; right, sometimes we need to do a little surgery to fix broken packages. Below left, once or twice we’ve had to sort and repackage perishables; right, once sorted, foods are reboxed by category — canned beans, baking goods, snacks, etc. At bottom, when the package is compromised, the contents go into huge bins destined for a nearby hog farm (I’m hoping for a farm tour some time soon!).

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Above, building food boxes for local senior citizens. Below, proof of skills development: your correspondent has become quite adept with a pallet jack for moving big loads!

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Almost forgot: a couple of weeks ago, I rode most of the way to the food bank, into downtown Washington, to see the aftermath of the protests.  Here’s a little of what I saw:

Above left, boarding up the glass on a building on Pennsylvania Avenue; at right, even more of a fortress in front of the White House — signs of a small and fearful inhabitant. Below left, the Episcopal church that was the nexus of trouble when the fearful inhabitant staged a photo op; right, painting “Black Lives Matter” on 16th Street, this section renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza.

 

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Wonderful Silver Birds Leave the American Airlines Fleet

The 757, with way powerful Rolls Royce engines

COVID-19 has turned a lot of businesses, and much of the world, upside down, but the airline business – the place where I’ve spent almost my entire working life – is especially under siege.  Passenger demand and thus revenues have dropped, in many places by more than 90%.  If you run an airline, you can’t shrink to survive, because it’s an industry with fixed costs of 70 to 80%.  There’s no demand for a big Boeing to fly across an ocean, but you still have to pay for it when it’s parked in Abilene, Texas, or Pittsburgh, or wherever.  Lots of other fixed expense, too, for airport rents, for skilled people like pilots and mechanics who must be retained, and more.

Without knowing anything about how and when travel demand will return, the hiatus has prompted many airlines to take decisions about their essential assets, airplanes.  So it was a few days ago when American Airlines, the company that provided me an awesome and challenging 22-year career, announced that it was retiring its Boeing 757 and Boeing 767-300 fleets.  These marvelous Silver Birds were an important core of the AA fleet for many years.  In a time when Boeing is being justifiably criticized for bad decisions about the 737 MAX, we might pause to lift up and recognize the “Seven-five” and “Seven-six-three” for their reliability, safety, and performance over more than three decades; the 767-300 entered the fleet in the 1988, and the 757 a year later.

The 767-300 in the new paint job, with added winglets to reduce fuel use

The news that these jets were making their last departures was personal.   Regular readers know how much I celebrate all the good things that the jet airplane enables – economic development, market expansion, tourism, vacations, fresh flowers, educational exchange, hugs, and so much more – so I pause here to remember the many happy rides I had on American’s 757s and 767-300s.  Well, okay, you may know that your scribe is a Transport Geek, and you’re not surprised that I’ve kept records of every flight since the first takeoff in 1966, so I can tell you this:

  • 293 flights on AA 757s, totaling 636,774 miles; first ride was Washington-Dallas/Fort Worth in July 1990, last was Amsterdam-Philadelphia in November 2017 (with a refueling stop in Bangor, Maine)
  • 167 flights on AA 767s (including a few on the slightly smaller 767-200), totaling 636,774 miles; first was San Francisco-DFW, November 1987, a month after I joined American, and the last was also Amsterdam-Philadelphia in May 2019

Ergo, more than a million miles on these two great aircraft.  Scrolling through my flight database, I remembered vividly some nice rides on both types.  Chicago-Milan on a 767-300 at the start of a brilliant family vacation in June 2001, celebrating Robin’s graduation from high school, home from Toronto in August 1998, Jack and I winging back from a spectacular boys’ fishing trip in Labrador, and dozens more.

From 1994 to 2003, in the middle of these ships’ long service to American, I was lucky enough to have what was called FDJ Authorization, permission from the company to sit in the cockpit (flight deck) jumpseat, conditional on the assent of the captain.  I obtained the FDJ after American instituted a variant of its wonderful “Walk a Mile” program that enabled people to learn firsthand about frontline jobs.  In the spring of 1994, groups of us headed a mile or so from our corporate headquarters to the flight academy, the pilot training center.  We sat through a day of orientation, culminating in a short stint in a simulator (I veered off the runway on landing; the instructor didn’t think the real plane would have caught fire, but reckoned repairs would have been north of a million dollars!).  A week after orientation, a chance to sit in a real jumpseat.  I was assigned a two-day sequence in a 757 with Captain Bob Elwell, a wonderful fellow who welcomed me onto the flight deck.  We flew DFW-Washington National-DFW-Austin, then overnight.  Next morning, AUS-DFW-LGA, where I left the crew and reluctantly headed back to the office.  Unforgettable approaches to Washington, south along the Potomac River, and into LaGuardia, through the crowded airspace above metropolitan New York.

In the almost ten years that I had the FDJ card, although I could book a seat (not fly standby), even in First Class, I often chose to sit in the cockpit because it was 1) just so interesting, and 2) a standby passenger could take my seat in the cabin.  In the 757, the absolute best rides were DFW into Eagle-Vail Airport, smack in the high alpine of the Colorado Rockies.  On those flights, I saw professional aviators at their very best, because the approach into Vail is seriously challenging. (In 1998, bound for spring break skiing with the family, we made two approaches in a snowstorm, then diverted to Colorado Springs for overnight; most passengers hopped on a charter bus to Vail, but we stayed with the crew, and barely got in the next morning, way cool.)  I also rode the cockpit in the 767-300.  Returning from a family vacation in Paris in July 1997, the flight was way overbooked, so I gave up my big seat and rode the jumpseat, 10 hours and 15 minutes bolt upright, with no beer.  A couple of months later, about an hour before landing in Frankfurt, I chatted in the galley with the captain, and mentioned my FDJ card.  He invited me up front for the approach and landing.  We descended over the Ruhr, the industrial heart of Germany; I remember that sunny morning vividly: looking down, I thought this was the view that U.S. Army Air Force bombers had 55 years earlier, and was glad that in the intervening decades the awesome technology of flight had mostly been used for good, as it was that day.

So farewell, 757 and 767-300.  Thanks for the rides.

A couple of snaps from the 757 cockpit on approach to Eagle-Vail Airport, Colorado

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