Blue Highway Blues?

Many years ago I enjoyed reading Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon. Even before I had read that book, the idea of traveling on the back roads of America had seemed to me a romantic and wistful way of travel. Today our destination was less than 200 miles down the road, and we didn’t have any rush to get there, so it seemed a perfect time to try the “blue highways” approach to things. The journey is the destination, and all that. I set GoogleMaps to the “avoid highways” setting, and off we went.


Almost immediately she was telling me that she had found a faster route, and I would have to press “no thanks” to avoid having her re-route me to it. Indeed. The default is to a faster pace. I get that. But not today.


“Drive ¾ mile, then turn left on McAdam Road.”
“Drive 2 miles, then turn right on Shelly Lane.”


The scenery was pretty nice, and E really enjoyed the ride. (She hates interstates.) It seemed a bit round-about to me, but it was OK. I had asked for it. At one point we were told to turn left, while just ahead I could see signs for a numbered North Carolina road. We made our turn and traveled about a half mile, and then she turned us onto that numbered road. We had managed to avoid about a half mile of a “major? highway.” It was at that point that I began to wonder about the wisdom of my selection. Maybe GoogleMaps wasn’t smart enough to figure out a reasonable way to avoid major highways.


“Drive 10 miles, then turn right on North 32.”


Wait a minute! Our destination is south, southwest. She wants me to go north??


After two hours in which we had only registered 75 miles, I began to talk with E about bailing out on this blue highways plan. What would have been nice would have been non-interstate, or even non-divided highways that actually take you in more-or-less the direction you want to go. Back in the day, when we plotted our own course using actual maps, we did this sort of thing. I guess if we want to travel that way we’ll have to do it that way again. We re-programmed the device, got ourselves to I95 S, and finished up the last 80 miles in fairly short order.


Our destination was a farm in Gable, SC. We had had hopes of getting some fresh strawberries. When I called ahead, Jay Willard, the farmer, told me that they wouldn’t be selling strawberries over the weekend, because they were just getting started, and they had sold out of what they had. However, he told us today that we could pick some. Awesome! He told us that he had a new variety that were large, firm and great-tasting. We picked a four-quart basket in no time.

Picking Strawberries at Willards.jpg

Four Quarts.jpg

We enjoyed talking with Jay and his family and learning a little about farming in South Carolina.

Jay Sue Kaylie Willard.jpg
Kaylie, Sue, and Jay Willard

Two Big Things in Atlanta

We last visited Atlanta in the fall of 2013 when Elaine and I were on a tour of Civil Rights sites. At that time, due to a government shut-down (grrr), most of the Martin Luther King National Historic Site was closed. Today we chose to return. We especially wanted to see MLK’s birth home and the old Ebenezer Baptist Church where both he and his father had served as pastor.

Ebenezer Church.JPG

We spent the morning touring these sites, and all the memories from that fall 2013 sabbatical trip and blogging project came flooding back. Back then I deduced that MLK had come from a fairly well-to-do family, and those initial impressions were confirmed by our tour guide for the family home. I was particularly impressed to see that the neighborhood of the home included affluent as well as working-class homes. Unlike today’s neighborhoods, MLK’s childhood neighborhood gave him an economically diverse experience. Sometimes I think the divisions within our society today are much more economic than racial.

King Home.jpg

We have 2 members of our party who are in the medical profession, so for the afternoon we headed off to explore the museum at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Wow, what a fascinating stop that was! We learned a ton about the Ebola outbreak of 2014 and the CDC’s response to it. Then we could have learned a ton about just about every infectious disease known to man … if we had had unlimited time to explore. We wore ourselves out and still didn’t uncover all that they had to offer.

CDC Museum.jpg
The CDC Museum

One of the coolest things there were two different artistic renderings of microbes. One was just 3-D large models of dozens of different germs. It was in a stairwell.

E with Microbes.jpg

The other was a rendering of a couple of different types of microbes being dispersed. This was on a wall.

Microbe Dispersal.jpg

After this we learned about typical rush-hour Atlanta traffic as we made our way to our hosts’ home in Rome, GA.


I Finally Learn (Some) Flatfooting!

The Mts. of Music Homecoming event that was close to us today was a flatfooting workshop at the Blue Ridge Music Center. Even though we have been to this location a few times now, the prospect of learning flatfooting was an irresistible draw. I’ve been watching people dance for the past couple of weeks, and I really want the mystery of what they are doing to be removed. (I tried a flatfooting workshop at a festival a couple years ago and got absolutely nothing out of it. But hope springs eternal, and I once again thought it would be worth trying.) So we headed out to the Blue Ridge Music Center again, prepared to learn dancing, and prepared to enjoy music by the Buck Mountain Band.




The teacher of the workshop, Mary Ann Kovach, was excellent. She convinced us that we couldn’t do it wrong, and she broke down several of the steps into their essential elements so that we could imitate her. The band provided great music, and I managed to “get” a couple of the steps. I also took notes on the steps that were a bit beyond me, and maybe I will be able to figure them out on my own.


We also did some square dancing, and we thoroughly enjoyed having a couple of pre-adolescent girls as our square partners.

After the dancing lesson we headed north to camp at Claytor Lake State Park. This park is in the vicinity of several Mts. of Music Homecoming events, and we thought it would be a good place to locate ourselves for a couple of days.

A Worthwhile Investment

In spite of having camped at and visited Letchworth State Park many times over the years, there is one thing I have not done there. I have not taken a tour of the Mt. Morris Dam. Today I remedied that deficit. The US Army Corps of Engineers operates the dam, and every weekday at 2:00PM they offer a free tour. I made sure to plan my day in such a way that I would be there at 2:00. (I actually arrived a couple hours early and took a 4-mile hike on the Finger Lakes Trail while I was waiting.)

Triliums are in bloom in Letchworth in May


Yeah. Mile 24. I only walked four miles, however.

Our tour guide was Lucy (even though her name tag indicated that she was Julia.) Lucy had been on the job for only about a week, and this was only her fifth tour. She was able to give a lot of the basic information without referring to her notes, but she couldn’t answer very many questions. The fact that she grew up in Ohio rather than western New York made it even more difficult for her to respond to questions. She was friendly and nice, however, and I didn’t want to give her grief or challenge her. I enjoyed her tour. (She explained that she was so new to the job that her uniform and nametag had not yet arrived. She had borrowed co-worker Julia’s uniform – with nametag still attached.)

Tour Guide Lucy (aka Julia)

We began the tour by walking down a sloping roadway to the entrance to the dam. At the dam entrance Lucy explained that we could take all the photos we wanted until we got inside the structure. There are a number of security procedures in place to protect the dam from unwelcome visitors, and this restriction on photography was one of them. When we entered the building we immediately took an elevator about 13 floors down into the structure. When we exited the elevator there was a very cool, damp atmosphere, with a strong smell of damp concrete. Lucy explained that we were still above the level of the water. She explained that the moisture we would be seeing is condensation not leaking! We walked through several narrow passageways and came to a long, long stairway leading up from where we were and down to the depths of the dam. This was the “plan B” entry and escape route should access be needed when the elevator was not working. We then proceeded to an exit and were able to stand on a deck slightly above water level on the discharge side of the dam. We were close to the water, and we were able to see the turbulence from the water being released through the internal causeways. The river water was very muddy and brown. We returned to the elevator, then walked back up the sloping roadway to return to our starting point.


Throughout the tour Lucy gave us many facts and figures about the size of the dam, the history of it, the amount of concrete in it, and so on. It might be fun to bring some of the older grandchildren here. There is a nice visitor’s center with a very clear and helpful video telling the story of the dam’s construction. All in all it was a very pleasant way to spend an hour on a rainy Tuesday afternoon.



Traveling Home?

Is it still travel if your destination is a place you used to live? From 1996 to 2003 we lived in Perry, NY, just outside Letchworth State Park. Almost every spring since we moved away I have tried to spend at least a couple of days camping at the Letchworth campground. Today I set out for a 3-day retreat to my favorite place to camp in the month of May. Ordinarily I wouldn’t even think of writing about a visit to Letchworth, because it is sort of like going back home. But it occurred to me today that for you, the reader, Letchworth is not home, and I may just be able to introduce you to a wonderful place that is new to you. So writing about it suddenly made sense.


Letchworth is about an hour west from my home in Canandaigua, NY. It is also about an hour south of Rochester, NY. It is a couple of hours east of Buffalo. Letchworth encompasses a deep gorge on the Genesee River, which flows north from Pennsylvania to Lake Ontario.


I arrived about 1:00PM, and I selected the same campsite that I used last year: site 329. This site is next to a large, open grassy field. At this time of year, that means that the campsite is quiet and offers good solitude. During the busy summer season I’m sure this site would be in a center of activity, because there is a basketball court next to it, and the lawn area is probably a magnet for kids and activities. The campground has 8 “loops,” and each loop has about 30 to 40 campsites. Only three of the loops allow campers to have pets. I took a bike ride through all 8 loops, and each loop has only about 2 or 3 campers in it. Weekdays in May are definitely not a busy time for camping at Letchworth. During the summer I think it’s difficult to get a site, however.


I was pleased to see that there are a couple of organized activities that I can enjoy this week while I am here. On Tuesday evening there is a talk by a naturalist about small mammals. On Wednesday at lunchtime there is a guided hike to an old-growth forest. Each afternoon, tours of the Mount Morris dam are available. I hope to take advantage of some of these activities.


Down to Earth in Elmira, NY

After breakfast our first order of business was to find and visit the Arnot Art Museum. It seems really unusual for a town as small as Elmira to have its own art museum. This was a surprising treat. We learned that it originated with a wealthy family in the 19th century and a collection made by one of the sons, Matthias Arnot. The collection has grown and has become a public trust. The building is in the middle of downtown, but it is clear that it once was a mansion with grounds and a beautiful setting. Most of the collection is European oil paintings, and they reflect the collector’s tastes and preferences.


One of Elmira’s claims to fame these days is that it was for, nearly 20 years, the summer home of Mark Twain. The connection came from the fact that Twain married Olivia Langdon, a daughter of a prominent Elmira family. After visiting the art gallery we found our way to the grave of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) and the gravesites of the Clemens and Langdon families.


We made arrangements to see the Mark Twain study and the Mark Twain Exhibit at Elmira College. The study is a small octagonal gazebo-like structure in which Twain wrote many of his most well-known works. It was located originally on East Hill overlooking Elmira, and it was moved to Elmira College in 1953. We were able to see it, go inside it, and hear the story of Twain’s connection to Elmira. Our host was Dr. Joe Lemak, the Director of the Center for Mark Twain Studies. After showing us the study, Joe then took us to the Mark Twain Exhibit. We were able to see some original manuscripts (copies of pages), some furniture and daily use items, several photographs, and a number of other items that came from Twain’s summer home nearby. It was awesome to be able to get this one-on-one treatment from a Twain scholar.


Where Twain Wrote
Note the cigars…
Dr. Joe Lemak – Director of Center for Mark Twain Studies

After we left the Twain center we made a brief visit to the Chemung Valley History Museum. Yes – we really packed in the things-to-do in this short trip to Elmira. I went into this historical museum with one over-riding question: what caused the City of Elmira to become established and to grow? In other words, what was the original economic base for the city’s existence? Believe it or not, it was not easy to find answers to this question in this history museum. In one small exhibit area I found information on this, but the majority of the displays and exhibits seemed to assume that visitors either knew this stuff or it just didn’t matter. It was amazing to me to realize this hole in the presentation of Elmira’s history. There was a lot in the museum about government services, government programs, and government provisions for people. It was clear to me that the people who put this material together had a blind spot for how it is that people actually make a living and why it is that people choose to congregate in an area in order to give rise to a community and eventually a city.


Flight in Elmira, NY

Flight became the theme for the day as we explored the Wings of Eagles Discovery Center and the National Soaring Museum in Elmira, NY.


There was a lot of “new” for us on this mini-vacation. This was our first trip in our new-to-us pickup truck. I’ve never owned a truck before, and we’ve now had this Ford F-150 for a couple of weeks. We decided to use it for this trip because there is still a lot of snow blowing around and we would be on rural roads most of the way. It proved to be a good decision, because there were many times when the 4-wheel drive was a necessity. The truck handled beautifully, and it was a very comfortable ride.


There is quite a lot for tourists to see and do in Elmira. Surprisingly.


Our first stop at the Wings of Eagles Discovery Center was highlighted by the experience of flying a 727 passenger jet. I “took off” from O’Hare airport, flew out over the city and Lake Michigan, and then attempted a landing back at O’Hare. Of course, I crash landed on this, my very first time behind the controls. But it was a fun experience, and one that I had no idea that I would be able to enjoy. This was only one of many flight simulators that are to be found at Wings of Eagles, and as far as I could tell, it was the only functional one. I was pretty surprised that they let me operate it!

Flight Simulator Cockpit of 727 Passenger Jet

The rest of the facility gives an overview of the history of aircraft, with an emphasis on World War II developments. I especially appreciated the opportunity to learn about female flyers, and Eileen Collins in particular. Eileen Collins is an Elmira native, and it is quite obvious that they are proud of her here for becoming the first female NASA commander of the space shuttle.


We spent some time at the Tanglewood Nature Center gawking at the turtles, snakes, geicos, and other caged animals as well as the taxidermy they have on display. It’s too bad there was such heavy snow cover, because it would have been nice to hike on their trails through the woods and meadows.


We ended our touring part of the day by visiting the National Soaring Museum and learning all about non-motorized flight. Harris Hill, outside Elmira, has been a hotbed of gliding for nearly the past 100 years. It is astounding to see the number of gliders that they have on display here. They are very beautiful crafts with their delicacy and balance of design. I would love to come back during the warmer months and actually go for a glider flight at the Harris Hill Soaring Center.


We checked in for an overnight at the Elmira Riverview Holiday Inn. We chose to have dinner at Pietro & Son Italian Restaurant.