Bowl Game: Another Road Trip from Hell

I wrote about one road trip from hell—a 2007 trip to New Orleans for my daughter’s law school graduation that involved Southern heat without air conditioning, floods, and a broken bone (mine). Over New Year’s weekend from 2009 crossing over to 2010, I took another road trip from hell—this one to Houston.

The planning began a few weeks earlier, when we learned that the University of Missouri football team would be playing Navy on December 31, 2009, in the Texas Bowl in Houston. Wouldn’t it be great, someone suggested, if my husband and I took his mother to see the game? She is an avid Mizzou fan, and my husband is an alum of the Naval Academy. It seemed to others that these alliances would lead to a good time being had by all.

Well, it might have been a good time, if either my husband or I liked football. I grew up watching football games on television with my father and brothers—that was all there was to do on weekends during my childhood. I understand the rudiments of the game. One team of big, burly men tries to get the slippery, odd-shaped ball across the goal line while the other team of big, burly men tries to stop them. The players fall down a lot. Flags on the field are bad, unless they are timed strategically to magically transform fifteen minutes into an hour.

One problem with football is that it is played when the weather is cold. I managed to never attend a football game during high school, and only passed through the stands briefly during one game at college. I don’t like being outside in the cold—at least hockey is played inside.

My husband was forced to attend football games when he was a student at the Naval Academy. In uniform. And often marching. He didn’t mind marching, but he didn’t care about the football games themselves, and he did not follow his alma mater’s standings after he graduated. People would ask him about the Army/Navy game, and he had no clue when it was or who had won.

Nevertheless, on December 30, 2009, we found ourselves on I-35 South driving from Kansas City to Houston. I was retired by then, but my husband was still practicing law, and he wanted to make a quick trip of it. So we planned to make the drive in one day.

The three of us—husband, his mother, and me—left our house in her car at 8:00 am. We arrived in Houston at 11:00 pm. Fifteen hours on the road, which alone made it a trip from hell. My husband and I don’t do well on long car trips together, not when there is any time pressure involved. He stops too frequently and drives too slowly for my taste. And his mother travels faster than I do.

I had anticipated we would arrive at our hotel around 9:00 pm, but by Oklahoma City it was clear we wouldn’t make that. We ate dinner somewhere around Dallas (which we reached during rush hour) and still had hours to go. But we got there and went straight to bed.

The Texas Bowl itself was on December 31, 2009, which was a cold day for Houston. As a Navy alum, my husband had tickets to a Navy tailgate party where we ate lunch, then we found our seats in the stadium. It was colder than I had anticipated, and I spent quite a bit of time in the concession area where I could warm up.

Surprisingly, once the game started, my husband got interested and rooted for Navy. His mother, of course, rooted for Mizzou. Navy won decisively—35 to 13. The Mizzou players seemed as uninvolved in the game as I was, while Navy displayed a solid, workmanlike approach to scoring. However pleased my husband was by the result, his mother was about twice as disappointed. Since the trip was a present for her, it would have been nice if she had seen her team win.

On New Year’s Day, we played tourist at the Johnson Space Center, the U.S.S. Texas, and the San Jacinto Memorial. I enjoyed learning something of Texas history, but wished I had brought a heavier coat as I shivered in the wind.

We ended the day at a pizza joint somewhere near our hotel—the only restaurant we could find open on the holiday. That’s when the trip turned to hell. As with the New Orleans trip, I seemed to be the weak link in our family chain.

I became deathly ill that night—upset stomach, shakes and chills. Whether it was the pizza or a virus, I have no idea. I didn’t care then, and I don’t care now. I just know I felt bad. Too sick to eat, too sick to drive, too sick to do anything but moan.

Regardless how I felt, I had to endure a fifteen-hour car ride back home on January 2, 2010. I curled up in the back seat and tried to ignore everything—the conversation, the terrain, the world. All I ate that day was hot tea and a couple of saltines.

About Wichita, we hit a snowstorm. We had heavy snow all the way from Wichita to Kansas City—a three- hour drive in the dark. Every time a truck went by it threw snow across our windshield.

Once again, our travels ended about 11:00 pm, when we arrived at our house. At least by then I was feeling better.

And I’m happy to report that this was the last road trip from hell I’ve made. There was the time in 2013 that I drove my daughter from Vancouver, B.C., to Seattle after she broke her leg. But that was a shorter trip, and I wasn’t the one suffering.

When was your last road trip from hell?

Mother’s Silver Souvenir Spoons

My mother collected silver souvenir spoons from foreign countries. Some showed national symbols and some were specific to a major city. There didn’t seem to be any particular theme to the spoons. Their purchase was more opportunistic.

I think my mother’s parents started the tradition when they traveled in Europe in the early 1960s. When my father went on business trips a few years later, he brought her back spoons as well. She made her first European trip with my father in about 1968 and found a couple more spoons for herself. All in all, she collected about fifteen of them, maybe more.

For years, they hung on a rack in a corner of the dining room in the house my parents owned from 1962 until 1980. We never used the spoons, not even on holidays. They simply hung, mementos of various trips taken by family members.

Some of the spoons I liked better than others. The Dutch spoon sported little wooden shoes (actually, they were made of ceramic) on its handle. The spoon from Ireland had a shamrock on it made of real blarney stone. Some of them I didn’t care for, though I can’t remember now where those were from.

When I went to Europe on a People to People trip during high school in 1970, I looked for a spoon to buy my mother. But either buying such a memento wasn’t in my limited budget for gifts, or I didn’t see any spoons from new places not already represented in her collection.

My parents dining room hutch, where we found the spoons

After my parents died, my sister, brother, and I cleaned out their house. It was February or March 2015. We came across the spoons, now hidden in a drawer in my parents’ dining room hutch.

“Do you want them?” I asked my siblings.

My sister and brother shook their heads. “What would we do with them?”

I didn’t want the spoons either. I didn’t care to hang them on a rack in my dining room, as my mother had. They would just end up in a drawer somewhere.

So we left the spoons where we’d found them, ready for the estate sale agent to price and try to sell.

A couple days later on that house-cleaning trip, as I was packing up the things I wanted to ship to my home in Kansas City, I went through all the drawers in my parents’ house one more time. I came across the souvenir spoons again. I still had no use for them.

The six spoons I kept

But I kept six. The ones from London, Ireland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Heidelberg, and Switzerland. The ones I liked the most.

They are stashed in a cupboard in my dining room now, and I doubt I will ever use them. In fact, I’ll probably rarely look at them.

I wish I’d kept the spoon from Scotland also. It had a thistle on the handle.

What useless family mementos do you treasure?

The Development of Time Zones in the Nineteenth Century

One of my challenges in writing about the 19th century has been trying to determine how to account for time of day. In my descriptions of travel along the Oregon Trail, I mostly refer to time in generalities—midmorning, noon, sunset, and the like. I rarely give a precise hour.

My grandfather’s pocket watch

The captain of my fictional wagon train has a pocket watch, and he occasionally refers to it. But, of course, as the emigrants travel west across the continent, the captain and others with watches would have to adjust their timepieces so they continue to read 12:00 pm when the sun is directly overhead. That’s how time was kept in the 19th century—each community set its clocks so noon coincided with when the sun was at its highest point.

In my novels, I don’t depict the captain or any other character changing a watch, and as I write this post, I wonder how often the emigrants bothered. They moved an average of about fifteen miles per day, so it probably took them a few weeks of travel for the discrepancy between a watch and the sun to be noticeable.

Clock in Union Station, Kansas City (clock is 6 feet in diameter)

But as railroads developed and the pace of travel speeded up, the need for a uniform system of setting the time became more important. Railroads needed to develop a uniform schedule. Before they did, their timetables were a nightmare to maintain—each station abided by its local time, and therefore each station needed its own printed version of the railroad timetable. But many railroads published their schedules based on where their main office was.

Great Britain set a standard time across that nation in December 1847. (Note that this was two months after my fictional wagon train arrived in Oregon City.) But although the clocks were mostly standardized, England did not legally adopt Greenwich Mean Time until 1880.

Great Britain was relatively easy—one time zone sufficed. The problem was more acute across vast spaces, such as the continent of North America.

Time zones in the United States and Canada were not standardized until 1883. The major railroads of North America facilitated the process of setting those standard zones. Having a common time across a latitude of several hundred miles was not as precise as setting noon at the sun’s apex at every locality, but the time zones were a compromise that allowed wider regions to follow a common schedule.

And so the railroads established four time zones for the contiguous United States and Canada. Those time zones survive today—Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific—though there have been some changes at the edges over the years.

Once the zones were communicated, on November 18, 1883, telegraph lines transmitted time signals to all major cities across the nation. And from that point on, the continent has had standardized time settings, even if they were not universally or legally recognized.

A year later in October 1884, Greenwich Mean Time was set as the world’s time standard. GMT lasted until 1960, when it was superseded by the more precise (but almost identical) Coordinated Universal Time (or UTC).

Congress did not legally adopt the time zones until 1918. (The 1918 Calder Act that established legal time in the United States also established Daylight Savings Time, but the debate over Daylight Savings Time is a topic for another post.) Other nations took even longer to legally set their time zones.

I have always set my watch a few minutes fast so that I can avoid being late. Now that I rely primarily on a cell phone and other web-based clocks for the time, I don’t have that crutch. I must get myself ready with a few minutes to spare.

Are you someone who is regularly early or late? Why?

Anniversary in Aruba

For our 25th wedding anniversary in 2002, my husband and I went to Aruba. First, we celebrated Thanksgiving at home with our two children—I think that was the only year we have ever had just the four of us for a holiday. We cooked turkey and all the trimmings, and at the end of that weekend, we sent our son back to college and made arrangements for the neighbors to watch out for our high-school-age daughter while we went to Aruba.

Our daughter was a good student, a good driver, and I trusted her. Still, I wanted someone to know she’d be by herself at home for a week.

“If we hear music, we’ll call the cops,” our neighbor across the street said with a deadpan face.

I must have looked appalled at this possibility, because he laughed. “Don’t worry,” he said. “We have teenage girls. We know what to watch for.”

Then, in the first week of December, we set out on our adventure.

What I remember most about Aruba is the wind. My husband and I stayed at a lovely resort on the northwest coast of the Caribbean Island, one of a series of resorts along that shore. As soon as we arrived, we walked to the beach, and the wind whipped my hair about my face.

View from our hotel room

Our tiny rental car

After a day or so near the resort, we wanted to explore more of the island and rented a car. Over the rest of our stay, we toured much of Aruba. We drove all along the southern shore, did touristy things in the capital of Oranjestad, snorkeled on a reef in shallow water near the Citgo Oil Refinery, viewed the lighthouse on the northern tip of the island and the natural bridge on its north-central coast, toured an aloe plantation and factory, and hiked a corner of Arikok National Park.

Rocky beach on Aruba

Reef where we snorkeled, with refinery in the background

Natural bridge on Aruba

Through all of it, the wind blew, hot and drying. It wasn’t really unpleasant—I was used to wind from my childhood in Richland, Washington, where the wind came through the Columbia River Gorge and east toward Richland.

But Aruba was a far different Caribbean experience than our trip to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands for our tenth anniversary. St. Thomas was a more typically humid Caribbean climate. The vegetation in St. Thomas was lusher, the beaches whiter, and the water a deeper blue.

Still, our trip to Aruba was a memorable week in our lives and a delightful change from early winter in Kansas City and the madness of Christmas preparations.

On our last day in Aruba, we headed to the airport and learned our flight was delayed by snow in Charlotte, North Carolina—our transfer point. We made it to Charlotte late that night, but not back to Kansas City. We got one of the last hotel rooms near the airport and made the final leg of the trip home the next day.

Our daughter had managed fine without us. And we’d had a wonderful trip, until the journey home.

What memorable vacations have you taken?

The Luck of the Early California Gold Miners

Most of my historical posts this year have been about the Oregon Trail, because I’m working on another novel about an emigrant wagon train to Oregon. But this post is about the Gold Rush, the subject of my last novel, Now I’m Found.

Gold prospector, 1850, photograph from Wikimedia Commons

In April 2016, I wrote a post entitled “How Much Gold Was Enough in the California Gold Rush Years?” in which I wrote about what it took for the early prospectors to be successful in California.  Most of the early miners did not gain fortunes by picking nuggets off the ground, but a few did. And others made money by slowly panning flakes from streams or by digging ore out of the ground. Many of the most successful men (and women) were merchants and others who made their money off the prospectors, rather than those who mined the gold themselves.

My recent visit to the Black Hills Mining Museum in Lead, South Dakota, showed me how lucky the few early Gold Rush prospectors who earned their fortunes from panning for gold were. The town of Lead (pronounced LEED) is in the gold mining region of the Black Hills. Gold was discovered there in 1876, and the Homestake Mining Company ran a mining operation there for over a century until it closed its operations in 2002.

The early Dakota prospectors engaged in placer mining, using pans and rockers and sluices, like the California Gold Rush prospectors. However, larger mining companies soon moved into the Black Hills, and the industry became mechanized.

The Black Hills Mining Museum has a few displays of the early mining techniques, but focuses primarily on the underground machinery of large-scale gold and silver mines. The tour guide at the museum did an excellent job of explaining how mining was done through the 20th Century. The Homestake Mining Company operated its mine for 125 years, then closed when the price of gold could no longer cover the increasing cost of extracting the ore from the earth.

That yellow metal bin holds one ton of rock. On average, it took four of those bins for the Homestake Mining Company to obtain 1 ounce of gold.

One statistic impressed me the most: Throughout the Homestake Mining Company’s 125-year operating history, on average it took four tons of ore to produce one ounce of gold. That’s 8,000 pounds of rock to yield one ounce of gold.

My earlier post on “How Much Gold Was Enough in the California Gold Rush Years?” was written in terms of dollars. So after my visit to the Black Hills Mining Museum, I translated the dollars of those early miners’ success into ounces. The price of gold in 1850 was $20.67 per ounce. In the early Gold Rush years, $10,000 was a decent fortune. Therefore, at 1850 prices it took a little less than 500 ounces of gold to have $10,000.

Five hundred ounces doesn’t sound like a lot. That’s less than 32 pounds. There are many stories of miners toting around 100-pound bags of gold dust.

But at the average yield of the Homestake Mining Company (8000 pounds of ore to find one ounce of gold), that’s 4 million pounds of ore (or 2000 tons)!

And some of the early California miners made more than $50,000, equivalent to 2500 ounces of gold . . . or 20 million pounds of ore at the Homestake rate of production.

It’s a good thing that in the early Gold Rush years in California, some lucky prospectors could simply pick nearly pure gold nuggets off the ground or out of the streams. They didn’t have to move anywhere near 4 million pounds of ore to find their fortunes. They were in the right place at the right time, and California—and the United States—changed as a result.

What odd facts of history impress you?

Reflections on Mount Rushmore

My husband and I recently returned from a trip to South Dakota. I’d never been to the state before, and I wanted to see attractions such as Mount Rushmore, the Badlands, and the scenic roads and towns in the Black Hills.

My daughter scoffed when I told her we were going to Mount Rushmore. “I spent twenty minutes there,” she said. “That’s all you’ll need.”

But it took my husband and me two days to see it. Well, portions of two days. And we enjoyed every minute of the three or four hours total it took us to view the exhibits and memorial.

The first day we went, it was so overcast we could not see anything from the main observation deck. Not even George Washington’s prominent nose.

I overheard one tourist shout to someone else in her group, “Take my picture. You don’t get a view like this every day!” You certainly don’t—I’m told most days you can see something, but that day all we saw were clouds.

Still, we enjoyed the history of the place. We learned who conceived the monument, why these four presidents were chosen, how the sculptor Gutzon Borglum prepared his models and supervised the construction, how the workers did the blasting and jackhammering and finishing touches to create the presidential visages, and how the monument is preserved today.

The fog and mist persisted that day, through our leisurely exploration of the visitor’s center and even through lunch. So we decided we’d come back later in the week. After all, our parking pass was good for the rest of the year, and we were early in our trip to South Dakota.

The next morning was cool but sunny, so we returned to Mount Rushmore. As we drove back to the memorial, however, clouds rolled in and we couldn’t see the tops of the hills around us. “If we can’t see anything, we’ll move on to Custer State Park,” I said. I was hopeful we’d be able to see the memorial, but the morning grew more and more dismal.

We approached the parking area. “There!” I shouted, pointing at the four presidents’ faces. Though there was gray sky behind the memorial, the sculpture was clearly visible. My husband pulled into the line of cars waiting to park.

Approaching the observation deck, while the sky was still gray

Since we’d already seen the museum, we went straight to the observation deck, where we oohed and aahed and took pictures with all the other tourists.

View from the Presidents’ Trail, now the sky is blue

Then we walked the Presidential Trail under the memorial to the Sculptor’s Studio. Lots of stairs, but also lots of opportunities for pictures. As we walked, the sky cleared even more. The day remained cool, but we could see the memorial from many vantage points, blue sky behind it, as I’m sure Borglum envisioned.

Me at the Sculptor’s Studio, with Mount Rushmore in the background

I was impressed by the artistry of the sculpture and the monumental (pun intended) nature of the project. These four presidents were worthy of commemoration—George Washington as the father of our nation, Thomas Jefferson as a prime drafter of our core documents and architect of the Louisiana Purchase, Theodore Roosevelt as protector of the nation’s wilderness, and Abraham Lincoln as the leader who held the nation together through its darkest hours.

Borglum’s model, at the Sculptor’s Studio

Nevertheless, as I pondered the history of our nation and the difficulties of creating the memorial on Mount Rushmore, I wondered whether carving up a mountainside was the appropriate way to recognize these individuals. Why destroy a lovely granite cliff that nature etched over eons? Is human handiwork—even as majestic a project as these four figures—worthy of displacing what it took earth and wind and water millennia to form?

I don’t know the answer.

At some point, earth and wind and water will eat away this masterpiece of human artistic chutzpah. The National Park Service fills the cracks that develop today. But eventually they will lose the battle. It may take several more millennia, but over time our memorial to these four men will come to mean no more than the Great Pyramids of Egypt or Machu Picchu or the heads on Easter Island mean today. The significance of the memorial will fade with time.

Until then, however, tourists will ooh and aah and take their pictures with these four great men.

Weather permitting.

What National Park treasures do you like best?

P.S. Later we saw Mount Rushmore from a distance. The perspective changes—the memorial seems impressive, but no more so than the granite cliffs and forest.

Mount Rushmore, from Needles Highway

Blue-Tarped Roofs After Hurricane Katrina

As the news reports have shown pictures of the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma over the last few weeks, I’ve thought about my experience with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. I wasn’t in New Orleans during that hurricane nor for over a year after it occurred, but what I did see taught me how long it takes for a community to recover from a natural disaster of that scope.

My daughter attended Tulane Law School from 2007 until 2010. She and I first visited New Orleans to check out the school in April 2007—over a year and a half after Katrina destroyed much of the city. We returned in June of that year to find her an apartment, and in August 2007 we moved her to New Orleans. We visited her a couple of times during her three years there, and our last visit was for her graduation in May 2010—by then it had been almost five years since Katrina.

Blue Tarp City, by Gail Williams, taken on December 20, 2005, available on Flickr

On my first visit in April 2007, my daughter and I drove all around the city, trying to get a feel for the community. In every neighborhood we passed through, there were dumpsters in the driveways and blue tarps on the roofs.

“But this neighborhood’s fine,” my daughter said as we drove near the Tulane campus. “Check out the cars.”

Sure enough, there were late-model cars parked on the streets, indicating that the nearby houses would be repaired, even if they were in bad shape at that time.

In other neighborhoods, where the cars were older, there were more homes still boarded up, fewer dumpsters showing active rehabilitation, and more blue roofs that hadn’t been touched since the hurricane. Those neighborhoods still showed the storm’s destruction.

Blue Tarp Roofs Across the Street, by Bart Everson, taken on December 5, 2005, available on Flickr

With each visit to New Orleans, I saw fewer blue tarps and more repaired homes. The more affluent neighborhoods returned faster, the poorer neighborhoods continued to have many abandoned and boarded-up houses. But slowly the community fought its way toward normalcy.

What I saw in New Orleans taught me that Texas, Puerto Rico, Florida, and the other areas hit by storms this year have a long battle ahead. The immensity of the reconstruction must be overwhelming to residents at this stage.

But what I saw also tells me that Houston and the many other cities and towns devastated this year will come back.

The same drive to rebuild has been true after other hurricanes, after tornadoes and floods in the Midwest, and after mudslides on the West Coast. The restored communities won’t look exactly the same, and not all the same people will return. But the human resolve to reconstruct their lives will prevail. Again and again, if need be.

What experience have you had with natural disasters?