Random Moments From Three Great Days

sunset on the beach
Tori shot this gorgeous picture of the beach at sunset.

Tori and I took off for a mini-vacation last week, Wednesday through Friday at the Gulf Coast in Alabama. We had driven through the area two years ago after missing a freeway entrance and deciding to see what lay down the road. We liked what we saw. I wrote about it here.

 

on the beach
On the beach shortly after sunrise.

We ended up staying last week in Orange Beach, Alabama. In retrospect, we should have gone on down the road a bit to Gulf Shores. Nothing against Orange Beach, it had a beach and that’s what we wanted. But it was all huge condos on the beach side of the main drag, all strip malls on the other. There was a lot of that in Gulf Shores, but there was also some of that “funky beach town” air. Lesson learned.

 

Still, we woke up to the sound of waves, and were on the beach Thursday and Friday as the sun rose. That was the whole point, so we’re not complaining.

There’s Something about Tori

I don’t know what it is about Tori. People just come up and start talking to her, telling her their life stories. It happened both mornings on the beach.

The first was an older guy (older than me, even) who was walking purposefully up the beach, clearly getting a workout. And he stopped to explain to us why he was using cross country ski poles.

It’s not like we were the only people on the beach. There were scores of folk up and down the sand he could have stopped to chat with, but he chose us. They always do.

He was visiting from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (or ooper-land, as the residents call it.) There were 300 inches of snow on the ground in the UP, and he and his wife were enjoying the sunshine.

The ski poles were because he has bad knees, he explained, and they help take a little of the weight off them as he walks. He’d had his knees scoped and knows they’re not in good shape, but he doesn’t want knee replacement surgery. A friend of his had that procedure and has never been quite the same. See what I mean? People just start spilling their guts.

His doctor – “a foreigner,” he told us – had kidded him about the problem. “He told me ‘I know what the problem with your knees is,’ and then started poking my stomach.” So, yeah, he as carrying excess weight that put extra stress on the knees. Point taken. I’m working on that same issue myself.

But you get the point. Out of nowhere this guy stops to give us his medical history.

The next day a couple roughly my age walked by with a handful of debris. “We’re picking up trash,” they said. The husband walked on. She stopped to chat.

She was from Franklin, Tennessee, she said, and they were down for a while visiting the beach before spring break brought a load of drunk college kids. I mentioned that when I was a kid I had lived near there in Nashville, while dad worked at a factory in Franklin.

That set us off on a discussion of how much the area had changed since she had moved there with her husband to work at the nearby Saturn plant in Springhill. They were originally from Detroit. And we went on for another 15 minutes or so.

I think it’s Tori. There’s just something about the woman I married that draws strangers to her to tell their life stories.

You Could Feel the Ghosts

fort morgan arch
You could feel the ghosts in Fort Morgan’s brick-lined vaults.

The weather on the Gulf Coast was warm and bright Friday, a sparkling day, but as we walked through the tunnel, a brick-lined vaulted passageway into Fort Morgan, and stepped out into the sunny parade ground, I felt a chill. You could feel the ghosts.

 

Fort Morgan is at the eastern point guarding the entrance to Mobile Bay. The fort actually goes back to the war of 1812, and it played an important role in that conflict. But its pivotal moment came during the Civil War, when Mobile was the only port on the gulf still open to Confederate blockade runners. In August 1864 the Union decided it was time to shut it down.

It wasn’t a huge military action, nothing like Antietam or Gettysburg or even Shiloh or Stones River. But the port was vital to the Confederacy, and thus vital to the Union. It is best remembered, when it’s remembered at all, for the words of Union Admiral David Farragut. When warned by a subordinate of the Confederate “torpedoes” (really floating mines) that had just blown up the ironclad USS Tecumseh as it tried to enter Mobile Bay, he replied, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”

fort morgan parade ground
The sun-filled parade ground of Fort Morgan.

And as we walked into the fort through that long tunnel, I could imagine what it felt like being a Confederate soldier, marching into the fort and not knowing if you’d get the chance to march out. Inside, the fort’s outer wall was lined with large chambers, dark and gloomy. And like I said, I could feel the presence of the men who had fought to defend the place. Standing on the wall looking out into the bay, it didn’t take too strong an imagination to see the Union ships moving into place to blast the fort into submission.

 

We spent more than two hours in the fort and on the grounds outside. It was time well spent. Then we took the ferry across the mouth of the bay to Dauphin Island, spent a little while at Fort Morgan’s twin, Fort Gaines, on the western entrance to the harbor, and headed home.

The thing that stopped us at Fort Gaines wasn’t the fort itself. Out on the lawn there was large wooden “thing.” That’s all I can come up with to describe what it looked like. Maybe 20 feet long, four feet high and almost that wide. It was obviously made up of many timbers.

Turns out in 1998, when Hurricane Georges blew through the area, this thing had been dredged up from the deep and washed ashore. Examination showed it to be a section of the keel of a wooden sailing ship from around the 1800s. There was no way to tell what ship, where it as from, how it ended up at the bottom, or whatever happened to the crew.

(I know we took a couple of pictures of it, and I’ll post it as soon as I can find it.)

You could see the places where ship’s ribs were attached, how it was pieced together. A timber eight to ten inches square was perpendicular to the main piece, and you could see how it had been cut and shaped by a long-dead hand. There was only one way to do it in the 1800s, no power tools.

It was another set of ghosts. The craftsmen who built the ship, the unknown crew who sailed on her. It doesn’t take much to wake them. All you have to do is be open to them.

Get Lost!

Like I said, we had first found ourselves down on Alabama’s Gulf coast by accident. And that paid off again, in a small way, last week. We had left Orange Beach heading west, planning to catch the ferry. We weren’t in a hurry, just ambling west. And we ambled just a little too far.

In Gulf Shores, the coastal highway jogs north, and I missed the turn. Not a problem. I could (and did) jog around a couple of blocks to backtrack, then get back on the route.

But what I saw stopped us in our tracks.

souvenir city
A pirate ship that turned out to be the back entrance to Souvenir City.

Built into the side of a building was a pirate ship! I assumed, incorrectly as it turned out, that it was the entrance to a restaurant. We stopped. Pictures were taken. Then we got back in the car. And as we drove up the road on the other side of the building, we saw what it was – Souvenir City. A really big shop featuring what I assume are T-shirts, postcards and every plastic geegaw a vacationer could want to remember their trip to the shore. I mean big. I’ve never seen a place that big dedicated solely to the sale of coastal tchotchkes.

 

What we had seen, made up as a pirate ship, was the rear entrance. The front was a giant shark, and to get in to buy a set of Gulf Shores placemats and a “Roll Tide” backscratcher you have to enter through the shark’s gaping, tooth-lined mouth! Pretty cool, eh? We didn’t go in, we have all the bric-a-brac* we need, but I’m glad we saw it. And we wouldn’t have if I’d have made the right turn in the first place.

Similarly, on Thursday we were exploring to the east. We missed Flora-Bama completely, apparently it’s not so much a town as just a line on a map separating the two states. We ended up on Perdido Key, south of Pensacola, where we pulled into a parking lot to take a break.

nina pinta
The Nina and Pinta (replicas) tied up on Perdido Key.

And there, down on the pier, two sailing ships were tied up. Not just any ships. These were replicas of Nina and Pinta, two of the three ships that were part of Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas. Why there wasn’t also a Santa Maria replica I cant say. But they were fun to take a look at. And later that day as we lay on Orange Beach we looked up and there was one of them cruising by, then turning slowly and heading back into the sunset.

Anyway, those were some of the highlights of the get away. The best part, of course, as spending the time on the road with Tori. When we married we already both had children, then had more right away. So we never got a whole lot of “us time” until the last couple of years. So it’s always nice to get away, just the two of us.

 

* Reminds me of one of my all-time favorite reporter quotes. A woman I worked with in Oregon came back from interviewing a little old lady and, to give us an idea of how crowded with a lifetime of souvenirs her home was, commented “The knick knack shelves were choc-a-block with bric-a-brac.” Sheer genius!

New Year Resolutions? No, I’ve Got Something Better

I don’t do resolutions, not per se.

I have done them, and like everyone else I have had indifferent success. I think it was 1996 that I figured out the reasons for that.

a) We always make it something huge – I’m going to quit smoking this year, lose 25 pounds, learn how to sculpt or knit or perform brain surgery.

b) We always think making this huge thing a resolution for the new year will somehow make us more likely to achieve the goal, when in reality it just ups the pressure. Failed new year resolutions are legendary. I decided that if I want to lose weight or learn Italian or take up pottery, I’ll do it because I want to, not because the words occurred to me on Dec. 31 or Jan. 1.

So on Jan. 1, 1996, I made a resolution I knew I could keep. I promised I would not wear a tie all year.

And I kept the resolution! All year! First time I’d ever done that. My wife, Tori, commented at the time, “You need better problems.” She was probably right, she usually is, but I thought I’d come up with a winning formula. The next year I made myself a stiffer challenge, one that would require a bit of effort. I resolved that when I went grocery shopping, after loading the groceries into the car I would always take my cart all the way back into the store, every time, rain or shine. Not only did I keep that resolution for the whole year, it actually became a habit that I still follow today.

But that’s been it for me for resolutions. I don’t have any new year resolutions for 2017.

What I have is a schedule.

I know what I need to do this year, know what I want to accomplish. And I know about how long it ought to take to do it, if I’m serious. Which I am, so I’ve got a schedule.

I will finish project 1 in the next two weeks. Project 2 (I’m not ready to discuss most of them in any kind of detail) I think has terrific potential. I’ll finish the first draft by April 1. Then project 3, the movie treatment for “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter.” That shouldn’t take more than a couple of months – just a matter of adapting the story I know so well to a different medium. That’ll give me the summer to revise the first draft of the project 2. Finally, when fall arrives I’ll get to work on project 4, the sequel to “Chrissie,” which with a little hard work, luck and concentration I should be able to finish by the end of the year.

Ambitious? Probably. Written in stone? No, but I’m going to try to keep on that pace. I’m not getting any younger, and I’ve got a lot of writing to do. I don’t have time for a lot of navel gazing. It’s just a matter of that old adage, apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair and keep it there until you’re done.

I’ll have some other things going on – a book festival in March, any other readings and events I can muster. And a trip out west this fall, which will be for family but there’s no rule that says I can’t try to sell a few books while I’m there.

If you made a resolution – more power to you! Keep it up. If, like me, you take a different approach, get cracking.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some work to do.

 

A Terrific Book

My family knows me.

My Christmas presents included four books. They all look good, but there was no question which one I was going to dive into first – head first. It was Bruce Springsteen’s memoir, “Born to Run.” In fact, I started reading it as soon as I opened it. I was hooked immediately.

My god! The man can write!

It’s not a surprise, of course, because he’s written some of the best songs of the last 40 years. But this is so much more – deeply personal, wry, open and often self-deprecating, colorful, sometimes hilarious. The words crackle and dance off the page. I’m still only about 80 pages in, he’s a teenager forming his first band. After teaching himself to play guitar, he started a band and, after their first disastrous gig, his fellow bandmates voted him out. Wouldn’t you love to find those guys now and ask them how they feel about being the guys who fired Bruce Springsteen from his own band?

“Writing about yourself is a funny business,” Springsteen says. “But in a project like this, the writer has made one promise, to show the reader his mind. In these pages, I’ve tried to do this.” Oh boy, does he! There are moments so poignant, so steeped in personal triumph and tragedy, longing and regret, that they cut right through the bone and into your soul.

In reviewing Springsteen’s first album, “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.,” rock critic William Ruhlmann said the album “painted a portrait of teenagers cocksure of themselves, yet bowled over by their discovery of the world. It was saved from pretentiousness … by its sense of humor and by the careful eye for detail … that kept even the most high-flown language rooted.”

And that absolutely describes the book as well, at least as far as I’ve read so far. Since I started writing this I have gotten to the point where he’s given up on community college and is now a 19-year-old, on his own in the world and burning with a passion to make it in music. (Gosh, he’s such a likable character, I sure hope he makes it.)

As I said, I got four books for Christmas, and I will certainly be reading and enjoying the others. But “Born to Run” is the best book I’ve read in years.

Happy Pie Day, Everyone

Thursday is Thanksgiving. And around our house, that means today – Wednesday – is Pie Day.

It started a little more than 20 years ago, when we were in Oregon. We started hosting what we called the “Theater Orphans Thanksgiving.” Virtually all our friends were people we knew from Albany Civic Theater, they were in many ways our family. And a lot of them, not all but a lot, were either single or on their own in way way or another, with no definite plans for the holiday.

So we invited everyone over. We hosted it for three or four years, then it worked its way around the group. We made a turkey (until we started making two) and everyone brought the thing without which it wouldn’t be Thanksgiving for them. Greg brought a ham to go with the turkey. Pat always brought “the pink stuff,” a cranberry and horseradish concoction. Sandy learned how to use the end of the potato peeler to dig out the eyes – he was amazed! Reed brought those candied yams – the sweet potatoes with marshmallows melted on them. I would be happy if I never saw those on my table again, but for Reed it just wouldn’t have been Thanksgiving without them. And that was the point.

It was always a great crowd and a great time. I think the biggest crowd was right around 30 people.

And Tori spent the day before making pies. Not a pie. Many, many pies. All kinds. Apple, cherry, pumpkin (of course,) pecan, chocolate, even for a couple of years, mince meat – which no one ever ate but her mother, but that was OK, because that was the thing that made it Thanksgiving for her.

It was always at least nine pies, and the biggest year, she made thirteen. Thirteen pies laid out in our kitchen to cool. That’s a lot of pie!

We don’t live in Oregon any more. I assume the theater orphans still gather somewhere, still share the holiday and their personal traditions “without which it wouldn’t be …”

And for us, now, it wouldn’t be Thanksgiving if Wednesday weren’t Pie Day. Tori isn’t making as many – Thank god! I’m supposed to be losing weight! – but she’s got more than a couple in mind. An apple, a couple of pumpkin, a pecan (or maybe two!)

We actually are expecting one of the old crowd for dinner tomorrow, Cam, the son of a theater friend and a theater friend himself, is coming by to share the holiday with us. And beside the turkey and the potatoes, there will be pie. Plenty of it.

A Night of Theater at the Movies

Last night (Tuesday) we went to the movie theater for the one-time showing of the National Theatre’s production of Hamlet with Benedict Cumberbatch. It was a stage version, with multiple cameras. And my god, it made you wish you had been in the theater!

As we were leaving, a middle school aged girl we were with asked, When was this set? Was it supposed to be today, or Shakespeare’s time or what? When was it. And I smiled and said, “It just was.” Every Hamlet is different, brings something different to the stage. I am not and never have been one who adheres to the idea of an “authentic” interpretation of Shakespeare, that if it’s not done exactly like it was 400 years ago it’s wrong. Theater is live – it happens NOW, right in front of you, and good theater is, at root, about you.

A great cast. Cumberbatch is amazing – and far and away the funniest Hamlet I’ve seen. Just little things, a turn of the head, a different inflection than you’d have expected. That whole England thing. Really very good Claudius, solid Gertrude, Laertes, Polonius, Horatio. (Very nerdy Horatio, very different than I’ve seen him before.) Rozencrantz and Guildenstern – Rosencrantz is hilarious – very good. And the grave digger is always a highlight, just one of those little scenes where you get to see an old pro do his thing, almost effortlessly.

Ophelia? In the first half, she’s OK but very “acty.” You can see her acting, see her thinking. A little better after she goes nuts. She was the weakest character, but she always is. You DID really feel for how she was being used, caught in the middle, but that’s more about the people around her than her. Ophelia is always a problematic character. I’ve never seen one I really bought. So she was definitely the weakest link, but she always is so I didn’t worry about that.

But as good as the cast is, as amazing as the acting is, it’s really the staging that just blows you away. And it did. It just blew us away. The “slow motion” was really effective, pulling Hamlet away from the picture for his soliloquies while the action seemed to be continuing, creating the sense of this all being an inner monologue. And some of the big stage effects were really surprising. Not sure how they could do that every night.

One interesting choice they made. They cut the whole first scene, the “Who goes there?” “For this relief much thanks” scene. Started it with Horatio finding Hamlet for the “Thrift, thrift” scene. And it totally works. Turns out here’s not one thing in the first scene that you need as an audience. So there’s almost 10 minutes trimmed right off the top.

National Theatre Live brings some remarkable stage productions to 2,000 movie screens around the world. This was my first, but it won’t be my last.

Their production of Hamlet was really, really good, even better than you’d expect from such an institution. If you get a chance to see it, it’s awfully good.

The Cubs Won? Is That Even Legal? A Son of Chicago Contemplates the Impossible

I’m having a little trouble wrapping my head around the idea that I live in a world where the Chicago Cubs are champions.

I’m from Chicago, born a Cubs fan, the son of a Cubs fan who was himself the son of a Cubs fan. And until last night, the only one of us who had ever seen the Cubs take it all was my grandfather, and he would have been six or seven when they last did it, in 1908. Dad never saw it happen. Until last night I never did.

I came of age in the ’60s and the Cubs were the first team I rooted for, in any sport. The first time I really started following baseball was the cursed 1969 season. There was a chant in Chicago that year – “Beer is great. Whiskey’s fine. The Cubs will shine in ’69.” They were the Cubs of Ernie Banks (my favorite player of all time,) Billy Williams (I still have my Billie Williams model fielder’s mitt,) Ron Santo, Fergie Jenkins, Don Kessinger, Glenn Beckert, Randy Hundley, Ken Holtzman. By late August they had an 8 1/2 game lead over the New York Mets. At that time the Mets, who had been started in the early ’60s, were a joke, a horrible mess. 1969 was the first year they were even respectable.

And then, the unthinkable happened. The Cubs went on a losing streak, the Mets with their great pitching staff started a win streak, the Cubs went into Shea Stadium clinging to the lead and two days later left town in second place. New York never looked back. They went on to win the most improbable World Series ever, routing the mighty Baltimore Orioles in five memorable games. In the space of about three months they had gone from being a joke to the Miracle Mets, the Amazin’ Mets. And the Cubs were an afterthought, just a pathetic punchline in someone else’s story.

I never quite got over that.

My family moved out west and I became a Dodger fan, and eventually was able to enjoy a couple of World Series victories with the teams of Steve Garvey, Ron Cey, Davey Lopes, Dusty Baker. And don’t forget Fernando Valenzuela! Fernandomania swept Los Angeles and took me right along with it. Dodger Stadium was more than a sports complex. It was a holy place, the way Chicago’s Wrigley Field had been. Coming down the tunnel to the stands and seeing that impossibly green field glowing under the lights, it was special.

But my interest in baseball was starting to fade. A player strike didn’t help, but more than that it was the sense that baseball didn’t care about its history, about its traditions. The designated hitter, steroids, interleague play. Free agency in which players that were part of “your” team could switch cities like so many hired guns. (Don’t get me wrong, I support the idea of free agency, I’m all for players’ rights. But it stings when a beloved star flees your town for greener pastures.) When some young player was told he was approaching a record held by some legendary figure from the past, he’d as often as not say, “Who’s that?” I interviewed Dodger pitcher Don Sutton once, which should have been a highlight, and the way he treated the questions I asked made it clear baseball was a silly passion to me, while to him it was a job, nothing more or less.

And if the owners and the players didn’t care about “the game,” why should I? Why should I care and pay for the privilege of caring?

Then, in 1998, the O’Malley family sold the Dodgers. And they didn’t just sell them, they put them in the hands of Rupert Murdoch and the Fox Entertainment Group, where the corporation viewed it not as a sacred trust but as an asset they could use to attract viewers, especially in Asian markets and Mexico.

That was it. I literally have not watched a baseball game from that day until this month. I couldn’t tell you who won last year’s Series or even who played in it, don’t know the names of any players. Anything. I was done.

Until I started hearing this spring that the Cubs were pretty good, in fact the favorites to win it all this year. “Yeah, right,” I thought. “Been there before. Won’t get fooled again.” And if they somehow did make it to the Series, god wouldn’t let them win. It would be the ultimate divine “fuck you” to the city of Chicago. In fact, if they won it might usher in the Apocalypse.

So I really don’t know how the season played out. Was it an exciting pennant race, or an inexorable march to the pennant by a team that wouldn’t be denied? I have no idea. All I know is I woke up one day and heard on the news that the Cubs had beaten the Dodgers (a little irony there for me) and would be in the Series against the Indians, another cursed franchise. Not as cursed as the Cubs. The Indians last won the Series in 1949. The Cubs in 1908. Cleveland fans are neophytes, rank amateurs in the art of suffering for your team. Plus the Cavs had just won the NBA title, so it just didn’t seem fair.

But I actually watched a good portion of the series. Not all of it, but I did find myself falling back into the rhythms of the game. I actually enjoyed it. It didn’t seem possible that the Cubs would win, down three games to one. But they scrapped their way back into it and forced a seventh game.

Still, I wasn’t fooled, even when they were up 5-1. When the Indians tied it in the eighth, I thought, “Ah! Here we go again. I know how this story ends.” Then it went to extra innings and there was a rain delay and I laughed. It looked as if the baseball gods weren’t going to let either team win.

But the Cubs used the delay to pull themselves together. And with me watching, and feeling my dad’s presence, I watched as they pushed a couple of runs across the plate, then withstood a final Cleveland rally and won.

So it seems as if I now live in a world where the Cubs are champions. And that means almost anything is possible.

Wrapping Up a Great Road Trip

What a great trip! Two weeks on the road pirating, geeking out at roadside history, seeing friends and family and making new friends and family, and of course – selling books.

We had a blast!

File Jun 06, 6 19 17 PM
Tori and a cannon at Jamestown.

And all in the company of my best friend, my wife Tori. Even on long stretches of road, late at night in odd places, we amused ourselves and just had a good time together. I always knew I made the right decision when I went up the stairs in 1988.

I’ve written about some of the things we encountered, including two posts (here and here) about what I’ve learned handling some of the book sales events. So this will be more a scattered collection of events, a last look back on some times on the road, before I get back to work moving forward.

PEOPLE

Highlight of the whole trip was the three and a half days we got with our daughter Millie. Millie lives in New York, and though we talk to her on the phone almost weekly and trade texts with her often, we hadn’t seen her in two years. That’s way too long.

We picked her up in Baltimore and headed back down the road toward Knoxville. She had brought her ukulele with her and it was great listening to her. We also met up with the granddaughter of an old friend, someone Millie had shared time with growing up, so it was a bonus.

Can’t thank enough our friends Robyn and Daniel for their hospitality. They live in Knoxville, a one-day drive from our home in New Orleans, which was the perfect staging point for our jaunt into the mid-Atlantic states. So we spent a day with them on the way out and several (including two with Millie) on the way back. They have a lovely home they’re performing miracles with. It was a relaxing way to end the trip, sitting out on the patio watching birds take turn in the bird bath, watching scores of fireflies at night.

pirate wth Chrissie
Wait! What’s that book the pirate is reading? Why, that’s “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter”

Talk about hospitality! Spending three days in Hampton with the pirates of the Blackbeard Festival was nothing but fun, a great honor. Constable Heartless, Damon, Mr. Willis, Hope, Rattanne, Greg of the Motley Tunes, all of Blackbeard’s Crew, of course – they were excellent hosts – and the crew of the Vigilant (real life lifesavers, as it turned out) and the Loose Cannon Company and so many more.

Hampton’s Blackbeard Pirate Festival is one of the big ones in the U.S. It’s not just a community festival with a little pirate panache thrown in. It’s got some of that, of course. But the crews are serious about both pirate re-enacting and about having a good time, especially after the fireworks, when the festival is over for the day and the pirate camps come to life.

Singing, stories, more than a little drinking. Good times.

If you’ve been thinking “Maybe I’d like to go to a pirate festival” put this one on your list.

Had a great day in Frostburg, Maryland, with me niece Jenny and her husband Brian. They showed us all the sites of Frostburg, which takes most of a day and you actually have to leave Frostburg for most of it. But they’re such a great couple, it was a really nice day. But two things:

– We left Virginia Tuesday morning and the temperature was upper 80s. We got to the aptly named Frostburg that night, elevation just over 2,000 feet, and it was 52! We had not thought to bring a single long sleeved shirt! First item of business was stopping at a thrift store and getting some flannel, Don’t think it topped 62 the entire time we were there.

– Why is that whole northwestern corner of the state even IN Maryland? It has nothing in common with the rest of the state, the locals no doubt spend all their time complaining about how state government never pays any attention to them. I’m sure everyone involved would be much happier if the area were part of West Virginia, or possibly Pennsylvania. It’d be a no-lose situation.

Met with a lot of folks in front of my table full of books and I always enjoy talking with them. Some had never heard in International Talk Like a Pirate Day, others were surprised to be meeting one of the two people who started the ersatz holiday.

My two favorite were both young girls, about 14 or so, who showed up separately at the Knoxville Barnes & Noble. They both were shy, but with much coaxing from their mothers, they each allowed as how they wanted to be authors, to write stories. They asked for tips.

I didn’t give them tips, they didn’t need them. They got a pep talk, instead. Go for it. Finish what you start. You can’t fix it if you don’t write it down. Write for fun, there’s nothing like the feeling when you create characters that are as real to you as anyone you know, and put them to work telling the story you see in your head. Create great characters and then abuse them – get them in trouble, make the trouble worse, then get them out of it.

They both got copies of “Chrissie,” and I pointed out my email address on the copyright page. I want to hear from them, I told them. I want to know what they thought of the book, and how their writing is going. Because writers stick together.

AND MILES TO GO BEFORE I SLEEP

gunter staircase
The Hotel Gunter lobby.

A lot of miles. From start to finish we traveled 3,572 miles, passing through nine states and just glancing off the side of the District of Columbia (getting snared in the Beltway travel at rush hour, easily the worst traffic of the trip.) Big disappointment – getting out of Baltimore we took the wrong exit and missed passing through the corner of Delaware. The route we took was actually shorter, but how many times do you get the chance to say, “Hi. We’re in Delaware?” (Wayne’s World” reference.) Not many. It’s one of those places where, if you don’t have a good reason to go there, you’re almost certainly never going to. And we just missed by maybe ten miles. Chances like that don’t come around that often.

gunter animals
A few of the many stuffed animals.

And we stayed at a wide variety of lodgings – a very wide variety. Most of them were pretty standard motels, nothing special. Three stand out, each for very different reasons.

In Frostburg, Maryland, we stayed at Failinger’s Hotel Gunter. Let me just say, if life ever takes you to Frostburg, Hotel Gunter is a MUST. It was built in 1897, has this beautiful lobby with a sweeping staircase. The whole place kind of went to the dogs and was falling down, when the Failinger family bought it in the 1980s and remodeled They found all kinds of “stuff,” and I mean every kind of stuff you could imagine – and put it on

gunter display
Another random display at Hotel Gunter.

display from the basement to the fourth floor. It’s not curated, it’s just sort of there, mostly behind plexiglas. A bunch of pictures of Shirley Temple on one wall, next to a display about the Titanic. Old kitchen implements, including two cast iron stoves, a roomful of old clothes, and my favorite – the taxidermy display. Couple of dozen stuffed game animals, wild turkeys and owls and foxes and rabbits and all kinds of critters. My favorite (by far) was the dead fox carrying a dead squirrel in its mouth. Something sort of meta about that. And then, stuck in a corner as if it were almost embarrassed to be there, a stuffed toy polar bear.

Oh, and we stayed in the “Roy Clark Room.” The country music and “Hee Haw” star had stayed in the room back in 1990, and there was a picture and plaque at the door to prove it.

Hotel Gunter is such a wonderfully interesting place, bordering on the weird. The staff was friendly and proud of the place, but it was odd, like a cross between a doll house and the Hotel Overlook in “The Shining.” It was quaint and cozy and comfortable, but it would not have been a surprise to turn a corner and see a spooky pair of young twins chanting, “Come play with us.”

The Ramada in Tuscaloosa on the way home was a different story. I don’t know I’ve ever been to a motel where the staff was friendlier – it must be that Alabama thing; people in Alabama, as a group, are just the friendliest people I’ve ever met – but the hotel was in the midst of a total renovation. Our room had already been redone and was quite nice, but almost everywhere else in the building seemed to be under construction. Still, the pool was very nice, and since we’d only stopped to get off the road because we’d gotten a late start the morning before and it was starting to storm, that seemed like a huge perk.

Then there was that place in Frackville, Pennsylvania. Yes, I said Frackville. We’d finished the Wilkes-Barre signing and decided to hit the road and drive towards Baltimore until we were too tired to drive anymore that night. We should have decided to rest one stop earlier, or else soldiered on. Everything about the Frackville Econo-Lodge was dodgy, except the parts that were downright skeezy. Kind of room that reminds you of an episode of “The X-Files” or “Criminal Minds.” Still, there was a bed and a shower, it was cheap, and we were tired. It wasn’t until the next morning that we noticed that nasty stain, which we hoped and prayed was rust, running down the side of the bed’s box springs.

Anyway, we got to Baltimore in plenty of time, so I guess a motel room you don’t want to stay in – let alone sleep in – has its benefits.

GEEKING OUT AT HISTORY

tori at the spot
Tori on the exact spot where Pocahontas married John Rolfe.

I’ve mentioned this in previous posts, but we are both history geeks. It’s hard for us to drive by a historical marker without stopping to read it. And what a gold mine. Basically, if it happened in American history, some vital part of it probably happened in Virginia. And Maryland and Pennsylvania are right behind. (Not so much Delaware.)

The highlight on that side was Jamestown, the first successful English settlement in what became the U.S. When I was a kid, about 13 or 14, we went to Jamestown as part of a vacation – except it turns out we didn’t. “Jamestown Settlement” is a recreation based on historical records, and it’s a good, educational attraction. But it’s not Jamestown. It was built a couple of miles from where the colony actually was. Until 1994 everyone assumed the land where the colonists settled had washed away a couple of hundred years ago.

jamestown dice
Tiny dice at Jamestown.

Then a very smart archaeologist looked at the clues, looked at the terrain and said, “Wait a minute? Why are we looking there? It ought to be over here.” Turned out he was right. The actual Jamestown site is now a working archaeological dig and we got to tour it, watching college interns painstakingly lift layers of dirt from a trench and sift it for clues. We got to stand in the exact spot where Pocahontas married John Rolfe, and look at the artifacts – tools, toys, weapons and more – that tell the story of life in the settlement in the very earliest days of our country. Wow.

Jane cellar
The remains of “Jane” were found in this excavation.

We also learned the story of “Jane” – real name and identity known but to god – a 14-year-old girl who died and was cannibalized during the “time of the great starving.” It’s a sad story and a fascinating bit of scientific/historical detective work. Tori will be using it in her sixth-grade science classes from now on. She teaches kids who are the same age Jane was when she died and was eaten. If that doesn’t get their attention and focus them on science, I don’t know what will.

Other historical stops included Harpers Ferry (where John Brown lit the fuse for the Civil War,) Yorktown, a drive-by of Williamsburg-ing (you can’t do Williamsburg in less than a day, it can’t be done. Maybe next time) and a couple of Civil War battlefields. Missed Antietam and Gettysburg, and kept groaning as we drove by Sharpsburg, Cold Harbor, Manassas, Chancellorsville and so many other names redolent with our country’s past.

And there was so much more. I didn’t even mention seeing a bear at the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, or some great meals.

NOW I LAY ME DOWN TO SLEEP

After we drove Millie to the airport Tuesday, Tori and I looked at each other and said, “Home? … Home.” We had planned to finish out the week on the road, attending a pirate concert by our friends Tom Mason and Blue Buccaneer in Nashville. It would have been a great cap to the trip. But we were tired. I looked at a picture of myself from the second day of the trip, and glanced in the mirror, and I was not the same guy. At some point you want to be surrounded by your own stuff, sleep in your own bed, use your own shower. The time had come.

Besides, we still had Max and Kate at home, and even though they kept telling us on the phone that everything was fine, that they had plenty of food still, that there were no problems and they’d been cleaning the house, we wanted to get back to them. A parent worries. And besides. We like them.

So we had one more lovely day with Robyn and Daniel and headed south.

Now it’s time to get to work. Because there’s two more road trips to plan this year, plus two more book projects to finish and receipts to organize and lots more business to take care of.

But not without saying again, what a great trip that was. We had a blast!

another cannon
Tori and a cannon at Jamestown.