Life on the Road
In September, 1995, we began our second season living in our RV and touring North America -- a country we barely knew, having spent precious little time getting first hand experience in our own country's heartland. We kept detailed journals, and produced a monthly (sort of) newsletter for readers around the country. The entries are now more than a decade old -- something to keep in mind. We still spend winters traveling, but home is Alaska where we still work seasonally, own a home, vote, and pay taxes.
On the Road Again
In 1995 we set out again from Fairbanks. This time in a larger RV we'd purchased in Phoenix just days before heading back to Alaska in the spring. The Coachman Santara was a 35' Class A unit with every amenity from washing machine to back up camera, multi-CD player to 7KWH generator. We had room to spread out! The cats were happy too!
More Than a Dirt Road to America:
The Alcan seems like the longest driveway in the world! Last year it seemed a dreary and tortuous drive. The sights were amazing and we learned a great deal about the Yukon Territories and northern British Columbia, but major sections of the road were under repair. This year the repairs seem to have been affected and the drive was pleasant. The weather was good, the RV ran smoothly. It was a jolly good experience. It is unnerving on occasion, however, that highway construction crews send travelers down the road toward the construction, where scrapers, 75-ton dump trucks, and other omnivorous machinery lurks, without so much as a pilot car. I was thinking of asking them about a pilot car but suspected the response would be "What? You must be nuts! We're not sending our equipment down this %$#@ road!"
Rest assured your U.S. dollars are continuing to go into huge permafrost sink holes in the right-of-way near the Canadian border. Ou r hearts go out to the Project Engineer who, unlike his urban counterparts will not get to point to a nice interchange, an elegant bridge spanning crashing waters, or even an overpass, and say "I did that." The engineer on this road will have to know in his heart that he directed the removal of hundreds of yards of prehistoric muck, and back-filled the resulting chasm with foam insulation, fabric, and different dirt, so that it would look and work normally. Too few will appreciate the accomplishment if he is successful; and every road-weary RV-er will know if he was not!
The trip across Canada was worth the effort. Having studied Canadian history in high school while living in Victoria, BC, we enjoyed the vast expanses of the Canadian prairies, small and medium-sized farming towns and the Trans Canada Highway (Yellowhead Route) to Grand Portage, ONT, where, as much as we like Canada, we gratefully reentered the US. We covered hundreds of miles of prairie which was rich with history, lots of quaint farms, too few dump stations, and too much CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corp).
Here we are, once more on the road seeing this wonderful country, and, uhhh... oh yeah! Missing another Alaskan winter!
This year we fancy that we know what we are doing. At the end of last year's trip we traded up, buying a more commodious vehicle, with a few more amenities. Our goals remain the same. We find ourselves facing a window of opportunity which Melody reminds me could close at any moment depending on various socio-geo-economic factors which any Baby Boomer with aging parents, kids in college, and a need to work for a living will understand! Nonetheless, we feel blessed in some manner to have this opportunity, and the chance to share it with friends.
We realize that at this stage in our lives many of our peers and cohorts are still raising families. I t is an act of raw courage, and a huge challenge to raise a family in the 90's! It is perhaps the single most important task anyone can undertake - to prepare the next generation for this brave old world. We stopped in Anchorage to visit my brother, who is busy being Mr. Mom to his oldest daughter while his wife and two youngest are in Oregon completing her graduate studies. A HUGE job for both, to work hard for a future.
Meanwhile, Heather is working at a bank in Fairbanks and rethinking her academic and professional future. She spent part of last spring and summer as a bartender and apparently concluded that while the money was pretty good, the barflies in her particular watering hole generated enough cognitive dissonance that the job was more than a l ittle discomfiting. So, onward to banking. She is enjoying having her own apartment this year, so we have arranged for two bright young business students to house-sit our condo.
With the condo occupied, we moved into the RV a couple of days early - good time for shake down before we set sail south. My employer generously let us camp in their spacious parking lot. It is interesting being a tourist while working in the visitor industry. It reminds me of the days when I owned a business and periodically sat on the other side of my desk in an effort to see what my clients were seeing. Insights abound. We find it fascinating.
This year on the road is different from last in several ways. We are exploring what it takes, in the last half of the last decade of the last century of the second millennium, to stay in touch. Our equipment includes a cellular phone, a Macintosh Powerbook 520c with modem, laser quality printer, CD-ROM player with software capable of mapping most US cities down to the city block, HomePhone with 80 million U.S. phone numbers - which can locate and verify an amazing number of lost classmates, relatives, and friends. Once again Remus the Himalayan - now with his grouchy 15-year-old companion, Timmy (Don't-take-my-picture) the Cat -- provide the (very) low-tech counter-point to our exploration.
This is as much a test of things technological as a satiation of my per sonal delight in things gadget. High technology provides the means to stay in touch with everything from the stock market to friends. Information is power, so to speak, and information, like power, comes in many forms.
For instance, we have found a supplier in Tucson, AZ, which provides (for a price, of course) a toll free number (we pay) where we receive messages and place calls from the road. The beauty of the program is that we stay in touch and we do not need a calling card or home phone to do it (We do, however, still maintain our home number). The service charges per minute, itemized on the credit card of our choice. We receive urgent messages by checking our voice mail. The service also provides fax receiving and relay. In addition, we use the Internet Ð see letterhead. (Oh! We use the U.S. Postal Service too!).
We both had busy summers. I worked as Commentator on the Riverboat Discovery III, which continues to be the most exciting and learning experience I have had in a good long while. Melody was once again with the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Administration at the University of Alaska Fairbanks where she brought the new TQM specialist on-line and up to speed. She is also learning HTML - the language used to communicate eloquently and elegantly (and at all) on the Internet.
Summer in Fairbanks was beautiful ... mostly hot and dry which allowed for some bicycling to work - an effort to save our 163,000+ mile Subaru too much wear and tear! We kept the RV at the boat landing so I had a changing room for work right on site!
Numerous friends and relatives visited this summer, including father-in-law, Leon. His grandson, daughter-in-law, and their kids four generations of her family -- were in the Discovery III wheelhouse for a fun evening tour! The season ran long, which was nice. We left Fairbanks for Anchorage and thence to the Alcan and warmer weather on September 22nd. By the second week in September the hills around Fairbanks were gold with the birch and aspen leaves of autumn. By the third week the leaves were almost gone, but the sun stayed - with unseasonably warm temperatures in the high 70's.
-- Big doin's in Cincinnati at the Tall Stacks Festival featuring 18 sternwheelers from the Mississippi and Ohio River
-- A visit to Skanee, Michigan, where Melody's dad haled from about 75 years ago
-- Another visit to Rochester, NY, including wine country and Phil's Aunt Jenni and Uncle Alex The Provisioner!
Wow! We had quite a time at Tall Stacks, a convergence of riverboats from up and down the Mississippi and its tributaries from St. Paul, MN, to New Orleans, LA; Louisville, KY, to Pittsburgh, PA. Tall Stacks is one of those community events which transcends local interests. It involves two states and three communities on opposite sides of the Ohio River: Cincinnati, OH, and Covington & Newport, KY. The boats had stern and sidewheels, colorful captains and crews, period decorations, even steam-powered calliopes, producing a musical racket like a carousel; joyful, yet cacophonous - the steamboat equivalent of bagpipes.
There was history as thick as peanut butter on pilot bread. As Capt. Jim Binkley Sr. reminds me on the job in Alaska, every continent was opened up first by boats. Riverways are highways; and it was riverboat captains and their vessels which brought the numbers of people and amount of equipment and materials necessary to establish civilization as we know it to the Ohio, Mississippi, Columbia and other river systems. Of course the same is also true of such rivers as the Tanana and Yukon in Alaska.
So, to see a collection of the kinds of vessels which were a part of that pioneering time was breathtaking. Imagine seeing boats representing the pioneering efforts of people with imagination and spirit enough to open up this continent. It is hard to describe. Beautiful, graceful, historic. Featured boats were the American Queen, largest sternwheeler (418') ever built (1995); and an excursion and wheelhouse tour on the Belle of Louisville, one of only five steam-powered sternwheelers still operating.
The boats' whistles offered a mournful cry and a distinctive call to adventure. Over a dozen of these voices, played simultaneously at 10 A.M. is a dissonant song reaching directly for our pioneer souls. It was wondrous. Hundreds of thousands of people attend. 10,000 volunteers help out. Highlights for everyone: power grazing the food booths, boat tours, sharing Tom Sawyerville with kids, and the music. There were six concert stages with performances including jazz, Dixieland, old standards with Rosemary Cluny, contemporary country with Confederate Railroad, genuine American folk from John Hartford (a part time riverboat captain and successful songsmith) and Jay Unger who wrote the haunting violin music in the 6-hour John Burns PBS Civil War special. Musical highlights: a duet featuring Hartford and Unger and a Hartford solo of his signature song "Gentle on My Mind." A 5-day passport to Tall Stacks: $15 ...Such a deal!
Yoopers: And We Never Knew
Note: A Yooper is someone from the Upper Peninsula (U.P.) of Michigan. A U-Per, get it? Heeeere's Melody: Our search for Erickson family roots led us to Skanee, MI, and the quiet remnants of a (U.P.) town nestled along the south shore of Huron Bay on Lake Superior. We knew we were getting close to the family tree when we dropped anchor at Witz Marina. The owner told us there were "Erickson's everywhere" in that area. In the next two days we linked up with an uncle, five cousins, and tons of rich heritage.
Skanee's heyday spanned approximately 60 years. Established in the late 1800's, it grew into a thriving town based on fishing, lumber and farming. Like so many small towns, the economic base gradually disappeared, the depression took its toll, and most young people, including my dad, moved away. Today Skanee's population is approximately 350, one-tenth of its former self.
My great-grandparents, Swedish immigrants Charles and Louise Erickson ventured into Ska nee and purchased an established homestead in 1889. The farmhouse still stands. Through the heroic efforts of Ethel and Ron Kovala (Ethel is my cousin) it is being restored board by board. Also remaining is a nearby house where my grandparents lived, my father was born, and Uncle Irvin still resides. Stories about The Axel Erickson Hardware Store, from which granddad is alleged to have bootlegged booze during prohibition; Aunt Mary's hotel; and relatives now represented by headstones at the Skanee Cemetery, are shadows of another time. They come alive through artifacts in the Skanee Museum (the old parsonage) and an advertisement for Axel's stor e on the Town Hall stage curtain.
The residents of Skanee, Arvon Township (1871), have done much to preserve the history of the area. As an extension of searching for Erickson kin, we visited Aunt Bernice and family in Coleman, MI, too. Bernice, Amanda, Joe, Jr. and his three lovely daughters all welcomed the "Alaskan black sheep" to the fold!
The entire Michigan discovery was like being wrapped in a warm blanket. I'm proud to have a Yooper heritage. We could not absorb it all during our short visit. Next year we'll uncover more links between the Erickson homesteaders of Gold Creek, Alaska, and Erickson pioneers from Skanee, Michigan.
Driving across the Land
Anticipating Tall Stacks, we took Highway 127 along the western edge of Ohio to Cincinnati. This is the farm belt. 127 cuts south like a dull but effective scalpel through endless corn and dairy farms with clusters of buildings every thousand yards or so - a home or two, barns, corn cribs, and silos. Once again church steeples, silos, and water towers dominated the horizon of the flat, fertile land.
Old barns; large gray buildings with hundreds of cubic yards of storage space teeter precariously, it would seem, still managing to shelter the grain, the equipment, the animals. Such structures seem like shrines on the farm lands. They either have function, still serving their builders/owners, or they are left to weather and fall, a natural demise. Never have we seen them being torn down. Barns are characters on the landscape, often in various stages of collapse, like revered friends dying slow, natural, deaths. Euthanasia is not an option.
Highway 127 connects county seats, all spaced like beads on a chain about a day's buggy-ride apart, from a simpler time. Typical is Paulding: Buildings of red brick, an oasis in the farm country with auto and farm equipment dealerships, hardware stores and other services. Downtown still seems alive, an apothecary, retail stores, and service stations. After winding streets through old neighborhoods, and a stop light or two downtown the farm lands open up again and 127 finishes its jagged cut through the artifice of a small town, to continue its race south.
Trucks pull carts high with corn; mounds of golden corn. Tractors pull trailers with up to 14 sets of dual tires carrying corn, beans, and other produce from field to market, or processing centers.
127 is a main street to a community running from the Michigan border to the Ohio River. The small centers of civilization support churches with spires rising to the heavens. Seen anywhere, but especially in these settlements, they are magnificent edifices raised out of respect for their god. There are small homes, too, and Victorian style family residences in what were, and sometimes still are, old neighborhoods. Ancient trees overhang the roads and drape the air with brilliant fall colors.
In these vast farmlands it is hard to imagine how neighbors have time to gather socially. Yet, there are Kiwanis, Ro tarys, Elks, and other civic organizations throughout the area. The communities have friendly rivalries, high school wrestling, basketball and other sports. At the edge of towns signs boast of each athletic triumph: "Home to the 1987 Little League Champions", and the like.
At a rest stop a young truck driver notices our Alaska plates. His brother, father and he drive shiny 18-wheel tankers from farm to farm all morning, picking up raw milk. He meets another driver at the rest stop, who takes that load to Indianapolis while the fellow we met returns to make the afternoon rounds and pick up another load.
Life in farm country. Hard work turning raw materials into consumables to feed millions upon millions of people.
Culture, Industry and Goff
Driving through America I am taken almost daily by productivity. In Cincinnati we saw the headquarters for Proctor & Gambel (HUGE), and Chiquita Banana. At Niagara Falls, NY, it was Nabisco; at Duluth it was grain elevators which would hold the entire output of the Alaska Delta Barley Project since its inception. In Rochester, NY, we learned a little about the social and industrial contributions of my retired uncle's previous employer - Eastman Kodak.
Elsewhere we have seen petrochemical plants and other manufacturing facilities on a scale that only reinforce the colonial aspect of our home state as a supplier of raw materials, a consumer of finished products, and a producer of so little. Something to think about - value added processing. It makes me appreciate the visitor industry and the product we generate.
Meanwhile through the graces of my Aunt Jinni and Uncle Alex we were treated to great community theater (a one-man show call The Working Man, which was hilarious and insightful), a tour of the PBS station in Rochester, a trip to the museum, and what was, for us, a whole new "athletic" horizon.
The horizon was not all that far away, as the ball flies. See, we tried Goff. By more skilled players, it is pronounced "Golf" - a form of ritual humiliation invented by the people who brought us bagpipes and kilts! The object: hit a small sphere with a specialized club, to send it further than the turf (called divots) under it; to get said ball into a distant hole in the ground while avoiding traps of sand, water, tall grass (rough), trees, other goffers, and squirrels the size of small dogs. I am unexpectedly moved by a game where the ball 1) holds still during the swinging portion of the game, 2) was not thrown toward/at/by me, 3) was not required to hit multiple targets, 4) was not being caught by me, or anyone else.
We enjoyed thoroughly that the experience was with Jinni and Alex whose own approach to the game was as "aggressive" as ours (Hit the ball, drag Phil, hit the ball, drag Phil - the punch line to my only golf joke). They are patient people!
Cousin David, wife Sue and three great kids were there. We visited cousin Barb and her great kids in New Jersey; and cousin Lynn and her family are on tap in Texas (Yep!). Alex also reprovisioned us (!) for our trip "beyond the fabled East", south to the Carolinas, Georgia, then I-10 to Texas.