Normally our fall trip would take us into Canada; sometimes trekking all the way up to Nova Scotia, sometimes just camping at Sleeping Giant Provincial Park. Other times driving to Agawa Bay, or making the full circle around Lake Superior, however 2020 has been everything but a normal a year. The Canadian border was closed, so we would travel a different direction. We opted to head west to Ouray, Colorado, then south for Texas, before returning home.
Colorado has challenges unique to the mountains. Driving from Ouray, to Silverton, takes you along a route known as the Million Dollar Highway. This road offers some of the most spectacular sights in the San Juan Mountains along some of the most dangerous roads. Dangerous in that the narrow road winds and turns following the mountain side. Speeds are often reduced to 10 or 15 MPH to maneuver the multiple switchbacks in the road. Driving this route can raise the hair on your arms and the back of your neck as most of this road has no guardrails.
There are places where the white line marking the edge of the driving lane is literally on the edge of a cliff that falls hundreds – if not thousands – of feet to the valley below. The cliff is so close to the road and so steep, there isn’t room to put up guardrails. With all her beauty, the road is unforgiving and the consequences severe. If you’re one of those drivers who is constantly hearing the rumble strips on the side of the pavement, you should not drive this highway. There is no room for error.
Colorado offers beautiful fall colors and spectacular sights that can easily humble a man. Thousands of acres of brilliant gold aspen leaves and dark green pine trees against the mountain sides and down into the valleys, are a sight to behold – one you’ll never forget. Looking up at rocky cathedrals that reach into the purest of blue skies is humbling. It makes me realize how small I am in the midst of all of this majesty. Water babbling over rocks in the creeks and rivers, along with the sound of the wind, creates a symphony of nature’s best music. It’s absolutely breathtaking – or could it be the altitude?
Our home in Minnesota is at an elevation of 750 feet above sea level. Silverton, Colorado, where we would be camping, sits at 10,505 feet. That difference can make breathing difficult as the air is very thin. Albeit the most important, breathing is just one of the many challenges that come with high altitude. Thin, dry air changes all the rules for baking, too; something I love to do.
One of our destinations in the mountains would be Lake City. We rented a cabin from our new friends (whom we had yet to meet) John and Lynne. Lynne said she had heard many stories about us from her dear friends, Kenny and Gail - Melissa’s aunt and uncle from Texas. Lynne invited us to dinner one night, saying she felt like she already knew us and couldn’t wait to meet in person.
I was flattered to learn they had heard about my pies. I said I would bake a pie for them if I could use their kitchen. Lynne told Melissa she had also heard Gail raving about my dinner rolls but she didn’t want me to be stuck in the kitchen too long. I laughed because I love being in the kitchen, “Tell Lynne she will get the pie and the rolls and she can still order up to two entrees.”
It wasn’t long after I extended my offer that Melissa and I were hiking up the side of a mountain. The path followed the edge of a stream with several little waterfalls. The thin air had me huffing and puffing my way along the trail. We wanted to, or should I say needed to, be off the mountain before the sun went down behind the other mountains across the valley, leaving us in a cold shadow. Still, we wanted to make it to the top of the trail on the Continental Divide, where there was a really cool waterfall. We were both getting tired, although our dog June seemed to be doing just fine with energy to spare.
Each time I wanted to quit and turn around, Melissa would say, “Let’s just go a little further – ten more minutes.” When we had climbed ten more minutes, she would be ready to call it enough and start back down the mountain.
“Let’s go just a little farther.” I would tell her, “I’m pretty sure I can hear the waterfall now.” I’m not really sure if I was hearing the falls or if the sound was like a mirage of an oasis in the desert. Although tired, we eventually encouraged one another to the top of the hill.
Taking deep intentional breaths, we rested on a log alongside the waterfall. I started wondering just how high we were. “We must have climbed about 2,000 feet.” I figured. That’s when it occurred to me that Lynn’s house is at an elevation of 9,200 feet.
I’ve read that anything over 3,000 feet really changes the way baking works – especially when working with yeast and breads. There were high expectations for my pie and rolls. I’d never baked at high altitude. What if they didn’t turn out? Would I be shunned from baking in the San Juan Mountains for the rest of time? It was like driving one of those roads without guardrails; there was nothing there to keep me from falling. I started to feel a little panicky. “Maybe it’s just the thin air.” I justified as we started down the big hill.
Back at our cabin, I immediately got online to research high altitude baking. The article read: Pies aren’t as affected as yeast breads, although there can be differences… “Yeah, yeah. Blah, blah. Blah.” I rebuked the article. “I have my pies down pat. I don’t need any advice on pies – let’s get to the differences in bread making.”
I made notes: Cut the yeast by one third. Use cold water and add a quarter cup. Knead the dough with oiled hands, not floured. Watch the rising time and remember the rolls will bake quicker. “Got it!” I declared with confidence.
When we got to Lynn’s house, she showed me around the kitchen. It’s wasn’t long before I had a peach pie in the oven. I started my dinner rolls. I kept a close eye on the pie baking, as well as the dough while it was rising. Hmm. The pie seemed to take a little longer to bake before the filling boiled. “It must be the high altitude.” I concluded.
Soon, I took the pie from the hot oven. Everyone oohed and aahed at its wonderful appearance and sweet aroma. I was quite proud of the pie, however, I was concerned that it wouldn’t have enough time to fully set up before dessert was to be served. We set the pie outdoors for faster cooling.
I put the rolls in the oven as everyone was sitting down to eat. Again, I kept a close watch on them. When the rolls came out of the oven, I brushed the tops with melted butter and served them. The moment of truth was at hand; I watched for facial expressions as each person bit into their rolls. Everyone complimented how good they were. I tried to remain humble when everyone took a second roll, but inside I was dancing and cheering myself, “Yes! Yes! I did it. Who needs guardrails? Even at high altitude, I nailed the rolls perfectly!” I couldn’t wait to serve the pie.
With a stack of clean dessert plates, I took a knife and cut into my beautiful, perfect pie on the kitchen island. What? Why wasn’t the knife gliding through the crust? In the bottom of the pie pan it felt like I was cutting through a rock and my usual light, flaky top crust was hard and crisp like a cracker. When I lifted the first slice, the bottom crust stayed in the pan and the filling was runny. Suddenly, I felt like I was careening over the white line on the edge of the road and plummeting into the harsh valley below. There was no guardrail to save me.
I’ve always said, “Crust is easy and it will make or break your pie.” If you have a mediocre filling but a good crust, people will say, “The crust was great.” On the other hand, if you have a really good filling but a bad crust, people will note, “The crust was kind of tough.” I took a bite of the pie. The filling was really good, but all I could think is “This crust is lousy.”
“What happened?” I wondered as I retraced every step of making the pie. I did everything the way I always do. Then I remembered before I made the pie, boasting to myself, “I don’t need any advice on pies…” I guess it is true, the mountains do have a way of humbling a man – in many ways.
The heavy dose of humility was well deserved and brought me down a few steps in ways that I needed to be. I took another bite of the lousy pie I had baked, then thanked God that I was in the kitchen and not on the mountain pass as I went arrogantly speeding down a road with no guardrails.
This story began on the North Shore of Lake Superior. My friend of over thirty years, Stu Stetter, came to visit. His friend Martin and Martin’s dad, Marty, came with him. The four of us would enjoy a guy’s get-away, in the north woods.
We set up camp at Esther Lake on the Arrowhead Trail. With only four campsites, it’s really quiet, peaceful and very dark at night. Stu and I stayed in my Scamp; Marty and Martin pitched a tent. Before we set out to paddle on Devilfish, the next lake over, we met Travis. He was set up in the campsite next to us. He came to the north woods to “get away from it all,” relax and do a little fishing.
We learned Travis was from Knoxville, Iowa - about forty-five miles from our hometown of Ottumwa. He did some work in Ottumwa, as well. Names started being dropped and, although we had never met before, it turns out we knew a lot of the same people. Stu asked Travis if he ever listened to TOM-FM when he was Ottumwa. “All the time.” Travis replied.
Stuart pointed at me and said, “That’s Tom.”
Travis laughed, “Well, I guess I have to travel more than a thousand miles from home to find a place where nobody knows me.” We all shared a good laugh about that. We said our farewells and our group got ready to go fishing.
Stu was putting his things away in the Scamp. He came out and told me there was a mouse in the trailer. I assured him there was not. “We don’t have mice in our camper.” Stu showed me his backpack.
“Then what’s this?” There was a small hole chewed in the mesh pocket on the side and another hole chewed through his package of sunflower seeds.
I examined the damage. “It looks like a mouse chewed it.” Then warned him, “You better not have brought mice in your backpack, into my Scamp.”
It was cold and cloudy when we launched the canoes on Devilfish Lake about a mile away. The fish were biting okay but they were mostly little guys, so everything went back in the water. Stu had a few nicer fish on his line, but each popped off the hook before he got them in the boat. Now, as guys will do, we were keeping track of who caught how many fish.
Stu tried to take credit for the three fish that got away but I wasn’t going to let him count them. “It’s catch-and-release.” He insisted.
“Yes, but you have to catch them before you can release them.” I said, “Besides, you didn’t release them, the fish released themselves.” Stu continued to justify that he did catch them. “How many points would you get for those fish in a tournament?” I asked him. Stu mumbled something, then admitted they would not get any points. After a couple hours of fishing, the wind started to pick up and the water was getting choppy. It was a good time to head back to camp.
We feasted on brats, then sat around the campfire having a few beers, telling stories and making our plans for the next day.
We started our day by hiking into the High Falls on the Pigeon River; the border between the United States and Canada. The falls were beautiful as always. From there we visited the trading post at Grand Portage and a few other sites before heading back to camp.
After dinner we were gathered at the campfire. “I got a present for you.” Stu told me. “I set it up in the camper.” He and I walked to the Scamp. Stu bent over and picked up a mouse trap from the floor. There was a mouse in it. “Well, would you look at that?” He said, then picked up a second trap, presenting another mouse.
“Where did you get those?” I asked Stuart.
“I bought the traps at the C-store in Grand Portage, today.”
“No, I meant where did you get real mice to put in your traps?” I insisted, “Because I don’t have mice in my Scamp.” Stu shook his head over my denial and reset the traps before we went out to join the other guys by the fire. A little later he went back to the Scamp for something and returned to the fire with another mouse in a trap. “This is crazy.” I said, “We’ve never had mice in the Scamp.”
I suppose it was around midnight when we finally retired for the night. I gave Stu the bigger bed in the back because he is much taller than me. I took the couch in the front. I pulled the covers up to my chin and fell asleep with my right arm outside the blanket. Shortly after dozing off, I felt something moving on my arm. “Is it a fly?” I wondered, “Maybe a bug? Egads, it better not be a spider.” Still half asleep, I contemplated the possibilities.
It had creepy little feet that gripped my skin like a June bug, but it was too late in the year for beetles. Just then it occurred to me, the feet were spread too far apart to be an insect. “Good God, it’s a mouse!” I whispered with alarm, while remaining perfectly still. “I’ve got a flipping mouse crawling on my bare arm!”
I lifted my arm slowly to turn on the light. The critter hung on for a moment, then I felt it jump off my arm, on to the covers on my chest. Still in the dark, I quickly grabbed the edge of my blanket with both hands. Giving it a good, fast shake, I flung the intruder across the camper. I heard it hit the wall of the Scamp and I quickly turned on the light and jumped out of bed. I grabbed a flashlight and checked both traps. They were empty and I couldn’t find the mouse.
I am not afraid of mice, but I will not, WILL NOT share my bed with them. I crawled back into bed, pulling the covers up to my chin and tried to go back to sleep. Needless to say, I did not sleep soundly.
It was three in the morning when I heard a noise. I awoke and listened. I was pretty sure the mouse was on the counter rustling around. I got up and looked for him, but he wasn’t there. When I laid back down, I heard it again. Again, I got up to investigate but found nothing. As soon as I turned the lights off, the noise resumed. I got up a third time, this time checking the traps. Sure enough, there was a mouse in the trap, trying to get away with it. I put the critter outside by the others. The rest of the night was calm.
The next morning, Stu presented me with yet another catch from overnight. We broke down the campsite and moved to another campground – not that we’re scared by the mice, because we’re not. We are manly men, but because we had a site reserved at the end of the Gunflint trail.
We fished, hiked and explored all through the day, then retired to another evening campfire. I also caught two more mice. In all, seven mice perished during the men’s outing.
Stu pointed out that he caught four mice and I only caught three. “Not so, my friend.” I told him, “There was also the mouse on my arm. So, as I see it, we are tied at four mice each.”
Stu insisted that I did not catch that mouse, while I insisted I did. “How many points would you get for that mouse in a tournament?” Stuart asked. Hmph! He had me using the same logic I used on him. I conceded, Stu caught the most mice.
The next morning, I fixed an egg scramble for breakfast. Marty told me he looked over my Scamp and had a pretty good idea how the mice were getting in. “There’s a gap in the weather stripping at the bottom of your door.” He said, “If you put a new rigid foam seal there, I think it would keep them out.” I thanked him and said I would look into it at home.
Back at my house. Stu, Martin and Marty took hot showers. We said our farewells and they began their long trek home to Iowa. I told Melissa about the mice. “What? I let you guys use the camper for four days and you bring it back infested with mice!”
“It’s not infested,” I argued, “we got them all.” We had two days to get the Scamp ready for our next trip; heading west to Colorado. All the bedding was stripped, curtains were removed, the cabinets were emptied and the Scamp went through an antiseptic sterilization.
In Colorado, we set up camp on the edge of Molas Lake, near Silverton. The elevation was 10,505 feet above sea level. The elevation at our home on the north shore is around 650 feet. Both of us were finding it a little difficult to breath while acclimating to the thinner air. We finally got to sleep well after midnight.
Around three in the morning, there was some sort of ruckus in the camper. Melissa sprang up from her pillows and quickly turned on the light. Our dog June was sitting upright in the dark, pressed hard against the side of the bed trying to stay clear of our black cat, Edgar, who seemed to be possessed.
On the floor in front of Edgar, one mouse had already been slain. He had another in his mouth that wasn’t done yet. I tried to get the mouse from him, but the closer I got, the more Edgar snarled and growled like a wild panther in the woods. It was amazing how our nice, good-natured cat took on a whole new demeanor, that of a great hunter when an intruder encroached upon his territory. I didn’t how to get the mouse from him. I was considering cowering next to June to wait this event out.
Melissa told me, “Hold the mouse by the tail, and gently lift Edgar by the scruff. He’ll let go of the mouse.” I did as she instructed, but first put a heavy leather work glove that I use around the campfires on my right hand. I’m not afraid of mice, but this thing was still kicking and I wasn’t going to be bitten. As soon as I lifted Edgar by the nape, he let go of the mouse. I took the now expired mouse and the other mouse Edgar had caught, outside and placed them next to the fire ring.
Back inside the Scamp, I washed my hands then sat down on the floor next to June. “Man, Edgar looked like a wild cat the way he handled those mice.” June said. “It was kind of scary.”
“Yeah, I know.” I agreed then boasted, “Did you see the way I took that mouse from Edgar? Pretty cool, huh?”
June replied, “How do you suppose Mom knew how to make Edgar let go of that mouse?”
“Mom?” I questioned, “I’m the one who took the mouse away from the vicious hunter.”
“But Mom had to tell you how to do it.” June argued.
“Not so,” I defended, “I just…”
From the mattress top above us came a voice, “Both of you! Turn off the lights and go to bed.” We did as we were told. There were no more incidents the rest of the night.
The next morning, Edgar was his usual charming, goodnatured self. When I checked next to the fire ring, both mice were gone. The same thing happened with the mice Stuart and I caught on the Gunflint and Arrowhead trails. A really cool thing about nature – nothing goes to waste. Something will always come along and consider them an easy meal.
At the end of the camping trips, I tallied and shared the battle results with June. “In the Great Mouse Hunt; defending the Scamp, keeping it safe from pesky intruders; Stu was the main warrior. I came in second and Edgar finished third.”
“Not so fast handing out those awards, my friend.” Edgar said, as he jumped down from the front bunk and moseyed his way to the bed, then asserted, “As I see it, I won.”
“How do you figure that?” June and I both asked.
Edgar paced back and forth like the great detective; Sherlock Holmes in a black trench coat, tied at the waist, a double-billed deerstalker hat and smoking a pipe with a long swooping handle and large bowl. He was about to solve the mystery. Edgar Holmes explained. “It is true, Stu did catch the most with four mice. But more mice came in, allowing Dad to catch three mice. But still more came in. Even though I only caught two, no more mice came into the trailer under my watch. Therefore, it is I who holds the title as the greatest defender of the Scamp.
June said, “But Edgar, this contest was only among the men.”
Edgar gave June a firm look, “I am still one of the men,” then glared my way, “even though there was that most unfortunate ‘snipping incident’ which you initiated.”
I looked the other way, swallowed hard, then told June, “He has a valid point. In the contest of mice and men, Edgar wins.”
A really fun part of any adventure should be the journey to the destination. For worthy reasons, we didn’t get to the campsite until close to midnight. We quietly pulled into our space, got in the Scamp and went right to sleep, so as not to disturb the neighbors by making a ruckus. I could set up our camper in the morning.
It’s nearly the first thing I do when setting up our campsite, sometimes even before the Scamp is unhooked from the van; raising the American flag.
In the cool, fresh morning air in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, I stood, looking up at her, flying on top of the ten-foot pole mounted on my trailer. The red and white stripes rolling slowly like waves, billowing gently in the breeze. The dark blue field of brilliant white stars dancing just like the stars in the sky at night.
Feelings and emotions moved through me: pride, safety, honor, strength and humility were just a few. Standing alone, I placed my right hand over my heart: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Shortly after, a lady passed on her bike with her little grey schnauzer trotting on its leash ahead of her. She said, “I like your flag.” As she peddled on. Then, a Jeep, with the top down, drove by. The passenger waved; the driver saluted the flag. I saw an Army bumper sticker on the back when they passed. Another lady walking two dogs pointed up and said, “That’s pretty cool.”
I learned an appreciation and respect for our flag starting in kindergarten. I recalled those days at Horace Mann Elementary School, in Ottumwa, Iowa, so many years ago. The first thing in the morning, before class started, the students would gather around the half-circle driveway in front of the two-story brick building; the flagpole stood in the center in a small grassy area. The custodian would raise the flag, then together we would recite the pledge of allegiance.
My family moved to Madison, Wisconsin when I was in the third grade. Frank Allis School was also a brick structure, with an extra tall foundation. It had a Federal style main entrance. About ten steps led up to the porch where four white columns stood two stories tall, to the pitched roof above. Black colonial style lanterns hung on each side of the heavy wooden front doors. From the steps all the way to the street was a wide concrete sidewalk. In the middle was a small circle with a very tall flagpole. I remember the student body gathering around it to say the pledge as well.
In 1975 we moved back to Ottumwa, where I attended Washington Junior High School, it was hands down, the coolest school building of them all. Constructed in the late 1800’s with classic, large cut brownstone, it was a three-story building with a very high, steep pitched roof. The school stood proudly on a hilltop overlooking the Des Moines River valley below. Between the first and second floors across the front, in a band of lighter colored stone or maybe concrete, it read, “Grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference.”
A small limestone retaining wall, about thirty inches high, ran across the front of the property, parallel to the sidewalk. There were four or five steps up to the walkway made of paving blocks that sloped steadily uphill toward the building. It got wider at the top, almost like a martini glass, creating a large area where students could congregate before and after school. At the top there was another retaining wall, about three feet tall, with a staircase on either side leading to the front doors. The flagpole was in the grassy area above that wall.
It was always a good feeling to get off the school bus and see the American flag flying high on the hill in front of my school. I liked watching it wave and flow in the breeze. When the wind was a little stronger, the flag would make a snapping sound; like when you take a towel from the dryer and give it a quick shake and it snaps and cracks like a whip. I liked hearing that.
More than once, I found myself mesmerized in a classroom by the steady metallic clanking sound of the clips holding the flag, slapping rhythmically in the wind against the steel flagpole. Even though I couldn’t see it, I knew the flag was there.
As I stood gazing at the flag on my Scamp, I thought about how blessed I am to live in this country. I reflected on the many places I have been able to visit and how fortunate I am to have the freedom to fly that flag so proudly, wherever my travels take me.
I considered all the schools I attended where I learned the history of this flag and all the things she stands for; the many places it has flown all around the world. I said a prayer for all those who fought for and served our country, under this flag. All these thoughts raised goosebumps on my arms. I did learn to appreciate and respect this flag at a very young age and I always will.
Now, on a cool morning in the San Juan Mountains in Colorado, I found all these years later, the American flag has the same effect on me today. I was taken in, watching Old Glory wave in the breeze. I had work to do. I hadn’t even disconnected the camper from the van yet, but I was completely mesmerized hearing the steady metallic clanking sound of the clips holding the flag, slapping rhythmically in the wind against the steel flagpole.
“Peach.” “Peach.” “Apple,” were the answers I got simultaneously when I asked what kind of pie I should make. Melissa asked her dad, Phil, what kind of pie he wanted. “Oh, I’ll eat anything.” He answered.
Since his was the next birthday coming up, and this was going to be his birthday pie, she pressed for commitment, “Dad, if you were in a restaurant, what kind of pie would you order?”
Phil blushed, “Oh, I would probably order apple.” That’s his favorite.
“Then apple pie it is.” I said. This would require a trip to the store; the pie calls for four or five apples and I didn’t have any.
When we got back to their house, I was trying to find my way around Carol’s kitchen. It’s always a little more challenging to cook or bake in someone else’s kitchen because I don’t know where things are. I found the pie pan. “Carol, where’s your rolling pin? Carol, do you have more flour? Carol, where would I find…” With each call she came to the kitchen, pulling out what I asked for, then returned to the living room to visit with Phil and Melissa.
I looked through the drawer of utensils. “Carol? Where would I find your potato peeler?” Carol asked why I needed one. “To peel the apples.” I replied.
She called back, “Use my paring knife – it’s a real good one.” I told her it was easier for me to use a peeler. “I don’t have a potato peeler.” She said.
“How do you peel potatoes without a potato peeler?” I questioned.
Carol looked at me funny, as if I should have known and said, “With the paring knife. I always use a paring knife, don’t you?”
I confessed, “I can’t tell you the last time I used a paring knife to peel an apple, a potato or a carrot. Come to think of it, I don’t know if I have ever used one for that.” I guess it was time to give it a try.
When I peel apples (with a peeler) I start at the stem then make my way from top to bottom, around the apple, taking the whole skin off in one long curly piece that kind of looks like a stretched-out Slinkey. Sometimes I try to put the coiled piece back together in my cupped palm to reconstruct a hollow apple.
I tried my technique using the paring knife. After hacking three small, individual pieces of apple skin, I said, “This is going to take a long time to do five apples.”
“No, it won’t” Carol assured while walking to the kitchen. “You need to quarter the apple first.” With a large kitchen knife, I cut the apple into four pieces. Using her paring knife, Carol removed the core and seeds, then skillfully cut the skin off each quarter. As she worked, Carol told me how her mom had taught her to use the paring knife. When she was done, I checked out the skins she removed and they might have been even thinner than mine – they certainly weren’t any thicker.
I took two mixing bowls down from the top shelf of the cupboard; Texas Ware bowls. Texas Ware melamine bowls are cool! They were manufactured from the mid-forties, into the eighties. They come in a variety of sizes and colors; each is speckled with various colors making it unique. With the multiple sizes, they are easy to store stacking one inside another. They were often called “garbage bowls” or, “end of the day bowls.” Ladies would set one on the counter while cooking to toss peels, egg shells and other food scraps into the bowl. Then, at the end of the day, take them out to empty on the compost by the garden.
Carol has a large green and a smaller orange Texas Ware bowl. They belonged to her mom; Melissa’s Grandma, Lucille. The bowls are not only very useful, these are family heirlooms and it was certainly a pleasure to use them making Phil’s birthday pie.
After Carol peeled them, I cut the apples into thin slices and put them in the large green bowl. I stirred in my spices and set them off to the side. Using the smaller orange bowl, I mixed the flour and salt, then cut in the shortening. I rolled out the bottom crust and laid it carefully inside the glass pie pan – this was also Lucille’s.
Pie pan sizes are an opinion, if you will. For example: a “nine-inch pan” can range from eight and a half, to almost ten inches – and depths vary, too.
I formed the bottom crust into the pan and poured in the apple mixture. Since the pan was much deeper than most; I was sure glad I got five apples rather than four. I rolled out the top crust and trimmed and fluted the edges. Instead of cutting my usual pattern in the top crust, I used Carol’s sharp paring knife to carefully carve a large P for Phil. I put the pie in the oven and soon the whole house had the wonderful aroma of cinnamon and nutmeg; an apple pie baking.
That evening, after supper, we presented the pie while singing, “Happy Birthday to you. Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday dear Phil...” His pie was still warm when I cut the first slice. Carol added a scoop of vanilla ice cream and handed the plate to Phil, then one to Melissa, me and one for herself.
Watching the family enjoy the pie, sure makes the baker feel warm inside. Using Grandma Lucille’s bowls and pie pan, and, watching Carol peel the apples the way she taught her, I really felt like Lucille was there with us. Even though I never had the pleasure of meeting her, that made me feel even warmer.
I decided when I make my next pie, I would try peeling the apples with a paring knife. I’m sure I could have learned to do it but I didn’t get the chance. You see the next pie I baked was for one of the girls who voted for peach.
There was no particular hurry driving home from northern Iowa to northern Minnesota. I decided to take some old routes; roads we used to take because they were more scenic, but haven’t driven for years because US 63 was faster and easier with less curves.
It was a really hot day. Temperatures were already in the high nineties when we left Waterloo around noon. When driving in an air-conditioned car, it’s easy to forget just how hot it is outside. I pointed out to my wife, the thermometer on the dash board just reached one hundred degrees.
Heading north on US 63, I looked at the fields of corn. The stalks were starting to turn brown. It wouldn’t be long until those fields were full of combines picking corn. With bright lights on the machinery the farmers continue their harvest late into the night.
To get to the smaller rural roads we wanted, I turned off Highway 63 onto Highway 9; headed east toward Cresco, Iowa, home of Featherlite Trailers. Just past town, we turned north. We don’t travel that road very long before Iowa Highway 139 becomes Minnesota 139.
Reaching upward from the far side of a large cornfield was a bright white church steeple, but we never saw a road leading to it. Somewhere along this route, still in Iowa, I passed a private, grass-strip runway between two fields of tall corn. The orange wind sock indicated a light breeze. Not far away was a weathered barn with worn, faded paint and an old windmill stand with vines growing up the legs, all the way to the top. The blades were missing, but I doubt they would have been turning anyway – the overgrowth of vines would have them bound.
For a moment I dreamed of an old yellow Stinson biplane with a blue tail, buzzing the small town of Cresco - a Barnstormer. The pilot, wearing a leather helmet and goggles, with a white scarf trailing in the wind, waved vigorously from the open cockpit at the people on the ground. He was trying to lure them to the tiny airstrip, in hopes of giving them a ride and making a few dollars for the day.
A little farther up the road I smiled, seeing the sign at the state line. It was much older and smaller than those you’ll see on Highway 63 or I-35. It was a stone sign with a warm message; “Welcome to Minnesota.” After traveling for several days and passing that sign, no matter what road I’m on, I instantly feel like I’m almost home – even though we were still 325 miles away. Speaking of warm messages, the thermometer now read one hundred and three. The dog days of summer were here.
Not far into Minnesota, we came around a curve in the road. On the southern end of a field was a small pond. There were a few cows gathered in a narrow line of shade from large trees on the other side of the fence. The smarter cows were standing in the pond to keep cool. These cows knew how to beat the heat. So did the people.
In the small town of Harmony, Minnesota, there was an older man wearing a John Deere cap, sitting in the shade of a covered front porch. A lady sat next to him; each were in an old-fashioned white metal lawn chair. A small round table between them had a pitcher and two glasses. It looked like ice tea. I could imagine the sweat trickling down the cool glasses in the hot air, making puddles of water on the table top. I waved at them, as I wasn’t sure if they were just watching traffic, or the house across the street.
A group of young kids were playing in the front yard. The girls had swimsuits and the boys wore cut off jean shorts. They all ran, laughing and screaming; chasing each other as they charged threw the arch of cool water going back and forth, coming from the lawn sprinkler.
Memories of my own youth came to mind and just the day before, when I took my granddaughters for a walk. A neighbor was watering their lawn. The path of the water was encroaching on the sidewalk. We didn’t mind at all; we ran through the water, turned around as if we had forgotten something and ran through again laughing ourselves silly. Kids (and the young at heart) enjoy the benefits of lawn watering devices – it’s just a natural thing on hot summer days.
Road construction detained us for a few minutes, but we were in no hurry. We passed a farm with a freshly painted red barn. The color contrasted with the shiny, new black asphalt road and the bright yellow and white painted lines. It was beautiful.
In a yard on the right side of the road, clotheslines were weighted down, sagging in the middle, with laundry. All the clothes looked homemade and were shades of blue. Maybe an Amish or Mennonite family lived there. Other lines had bed sheets. When I was a kid, we used to hang laundry out to dry. It saved electricity by not using the clothes dryer. Many times, we had to rush to get the laundry in because it looked like rain was coming. The sheets off the line were never as soft as they are coming out of the dryer, but I don’t think any fabric softener ever matched the fresh smell of linens hung out to dry in the country air.
We turned off on route 52, then 16 and 43. The scenery is amazing and the road is fun to drive as it turns and winds, going up and down hills until it brings us into the small town of Rushford, Minnesota – home of the Creamery Pizza and Ice Cream – quite possibly the best pizza in the state. It was no coincidence our path brought us here. After pizza, we shared a dish of maple nut ice cream, then got back on the road again.
We passed through Winona, driving by houses we used to live in, and talked about a lot of good memories. We saw a lot of fresh fruit and vegetable stands along the road. Watermelon, cantaloupe, tomatoes and more – all a part of summer in the Midwest. Sweet corn seemed to be tapering off, and the strawberry stands were gone but soon it will be apple harvest and Minnesota grows some amazing apples!
We opted for another scenic excursion by going through Fountain City, then through the big hills and valleys into Arcadia, Wisconsin – home of Ashley Furniture. At one point, going up the bluff, the van thermometer peaked at one hundred and eight degrees outside. I questioned if it was really that hot. When I rolled my window down to put my hand out into the wind, it was hot! Hot, humid air gushed into the van. Ick! Some people like that real hot air, but not me. I quickly rolled the window up again.
Cattails were standing in wet ditches and at the edge of ponds. Their tall, thin brown heads were starting to show signs of late summer; looking weathered. Soon, they would burst, turning furry, then blow away. The teardrop shaped milkweed pods also looked close to opening. Light feathery seeds would emerge, floating through the air to plant next year’s crop. The further north we traveled, the milkweed became sparse, then there was none. Waves of delicate pampas grass swayed back and forth in the wind almost as if dancing to the music of the breeze.
As we followed Highway 93, then 53 into Superior, Wisconsin, the temperatures kept falling to the mid-seventies. By the time we turned onto Highway 61, the final stretch home, following the shoreline of Lake Superior, the temps dropped to 63 degrees. Ah…that’s more like it. With the AC shut off we opened the windows, taking advantage of the cool, fresh air coming in off the big lake. If my thermometer in the van is accurate, we went through a forty-five-degree temperature change in about six hours. That’s a lot.
When we got home, I was curious when the actual dog days of summer take place. According to what I read online, they ended about two weeks ago. Hmm. I guess when it comes down to it, Mother Nature has the final say over that Old Farmer’s Almanac.
I spent some time recalling the Labor Day weekend from a few years ago. I got to do some flying Friday night, which allowed me to see something I'd not seen before.
From the air, with the sun setting to the west over Duluth, I watched a large ship enter Superior Harbor. We've watched lots of ships come in through the canal and under the lift bridge at Duluth, but I had never seen one actually entering Superior. It was pretty neat.
Saturday, I spent a full day flying skydivers. I haven't done this for eight or nine years and it was really a blast. I stepped right back into it without missing a beat. My flying was good, the jump runs were into the wind and my altitudes were right where they were supposed to be. I felt very comfortable with the door opening at 10,000 feet above the ground, watching people climb out on the wheel and strut. The lead jumper nods his head, giving a three count, then they fall away from the airplane, tumbling through the air rapidly toward the ground below me. I love that sight!
Sunday, after mass, I went to the Superior airport again, to get checked out in a Cessna 172 at Superior Flying Service. This is an easy plane to fly. The checkout is a standard procedure flight required when a pilot, new to the area, wants to rent airplanes.
Three times round the patch, three landings, one with a simulated "engine out" and my instructor said, "You're good to go!" Cool. Now I have another place I can rent airplanes to take people for rides and maybe get Melissa up to do some aerial photography of the Northwoods.
After checking out in the 172, I drove all the way around the Twin Ports harbor, then out to Park Point where Sky Harbor airport is located. I got to meet John. He owns an impressive Dehaviland Beaver - the most classic icon of all float planes.
I had heard him making several radio-calls the day before when I was flying skydivers, so I came here to find and talk to him. He was having a dish of homemade ice cream a vendor was selling just outside the flying service.
I asked if he gave instruction, that I would like to get my seaplane rating. He said he didn't, but took me into an office area and gave me the name and phone number of a man who does.
We chatted for a few minutes, then he saw two of his passengers coming and he had to go. As a young couple approached, he extended his hand. "I'm John, the pilot and we'll be going up right after I finish my ice cream. You can go out, look, and take pictures, but please don't board the airplane until I am there."
A happy pilot is a good pilot and honestly, everyone is happy after finishing a dish of homemade ice cream. These young people were in for an extra good time - I could tell!
Outside, I stood at the water’s edge watching the plane tied off to the end of the dock. A couple was standing there, each eating a dish of ice cream while watching the Beaver with great interest. "Are you two going for a ride in the seaplane?" I asked.
They answered simultaneously, "I'd sure like to." She said, while he said, "No, not today."
The wife asked me, "Are you going for a ride in it?"
"I don't just want a ride in it, I want to fly it!" I answered. They both looked at me rather oddly. "Let's go stand over there, honey." The man said to his wife, but I think what he really meant was, "Come on wife. Let's take our ice cream and move away from the crazy man."
I stood in awe, watching John maneuver the plane in the water, so smooth and graceful, like...well, a beaver swimming in the water. He taxied to the takeoff area, then turning the nose into the wind, he began easing in the power. The sound of his big radial engine was chilling. More and more, the plane pushed through the water until the floats planed on top just like a boat. Within a few moments, he gently lifted the airplane into the air and away they went.
A seaplane license; that’s the next pilot rating I will work on!
After watching the Beaver disappear into the distant sky, I walked back to my car, daydreaming about flying that airplane. A man and woman were standing near the parking lot, each enjoying a dish of homemade ice cream.
He looked quite charming. Gray hair with a distinguished gray beard and glasses under a safari style hat, with the string connected by a single bead coming down under his chin.
I approached him, "Excuse me sir. I was wondering if I might have a bite of your ice cream?"
"Sure!" He said, without hesitation, extending a full spoon of the delicious treat toward me.
I put my hand on his shoulder and said, "I'm just kidding, I just wanted to see how you would react."
"Well you're welcome to try it, I have plenty to share." There was a sincerity in is voice that I really liked, and an accent too! He made me feel good.
"I'm happy to meet people who are friendly and willing to share with a stranger." I told him, then inquired, "May I ask where you're from."
"Chicago." His wife answered.
"Well," I commented, "You have a beautiful accent in your voice, but it doesn't sound like a that of a Midwesterner."
The man explained, "Originally, we are from Russia, now we live in Chicago. We are just visiting here.”
I welcomed them and asked how they liked Chicago. He assured me they like it very much. I wanted to ask if they root for the Cubs or the White Sox, but having just met, I thought prying into their politics would be a bit brash.
We chatted for a bit, then as we said our farewells he again asked, "Are you sure you don't want to try the ice cream? It's really good."
"No thank you. I'm good." I said, waving as I walked away. Then, looking over my shoulder, I called out, "You two enjoy the rest of your day...and that ice cream, too!" I could hear them laughing.
I sat in my car for a bit, watching the harbor where the Beaver had just taken off. I put the car in reverse, then looked over my shoulder to back up. While looking behind me, I saw the ice cream vendor with his big signs, "Homemade Ice Cream."
I put the car in first gear and started to pull away. I smiled, nodded and said, "After I get my seaplane rating, I'm gonna have a dish of that homemade ice cream.”
That fall, I did get my sea plane rating at Sky Harbor Airport and a dish of ice cream too – a double scoop.”
I always seem to have a project, or two, or three, going on someplace. Last week I undertook a new task: re-siding my Aunt Di’s garage. I went over Friday to remove all the old siding and loaded it into my dump truck. Saturday, I went to Duluth to pick up new windows and all the materials to complete the project.
Sunday after church, I started loading my tools into the van. I was pulling a trailer to carry my ladders. As I started stacking my ladders on the flat bed, I said, “Man, I sure have a lot of ladders.” While I was tying the ladders down, I wondered if I may have too many ladders?
I need the four-foot ladder for shorter areas, just out of my reach while standing on the ground. Melissa is helping me with the project, so I needed another four-foot ladder for her. The two six-foot ladders are for areas just beyond the reach for the four-footers. The ten-foot step ladder is necessary for reaching higher areas.
There are a lot of places where I need to work, that call for even taller ladders. So, I brought along my twenty-foot, and thirty-two-foot extension ladders. The ladders can’t be leaning on the building because they would be right in front of the place I’m trying to work. The extension ladders always seem to be too close, or too far from the building; plus, I have to have an open span between ladders, since I am working with twelve-foot long sections of siding. For that, I have ladder jacks.
A ladder jack is a triangular piece with two brackets that will latch onto the back side of a ladder’s rungs. By separating the sections of my thirty-two-foot extension, I end up with two sixteen-foot ladders. I lean them against the building, hang the ladder jacks on the back of each and lay a plank across the jacks. Now I have a nice platform with no obstructions between me and the face of building, upon which to work. Of course, to reach even higher areas, I have two, thirty-two-foot extension ladders and a forty-foot as well.
The ladder jack triangles are adjustable, so depending on the angle of the ladder against the building, I can change the triangles to assure a level working surface. That’s important when you’re working in the air. Still, all these angles and numbers can make your head swim.
I thought back to my days at Ottumwa High School. I sat in geometry class, gazing out the window at my motorcycle in the parking lot across the street. It was a beautiful, sunny, spring day. The classroom windows were open and the breeze was blowing in. It felt good. I was thinking of all the things I could be doing outdoors; the places I could ride my bike – if I wasn’t trapped in this senseless math class.
Mr. Patrick called my name, snapping me out of my daydream, to ask me a question. I had no idea what he was talking about because I wasn’t paying attention. Thus, I answered him, “Why do we have to learn this stuff? I’m never going to use this in the real world.”
“When you get to that stage of life, Mr. Palen, you’ll figure out why you need to know this.” He explained, as he kept drawing lines and numbers on the chalkboard. He quickly caught me up to speed, then we worked out the problem together.
In my driveway, I tightened the last rachet strap across the load. I counted the ladders on the trailer. “Eight ladders, plus one I’m not taking and two that are still in Ottumwa. Do I seriously own eleven ladders? Do I need that many ladders? Does anyone need that many?” I guess I do use them all.
I thought about m(insert your web ay ladders and Mr. Patrick’s geometry class and how today, I actually DO use the things he was teaching me. I recited my high school class call: “The ladder of success we’ll climb, we’re the class of seventy-nine.” I started laughing, “I guess I made it.”
It wasn’t one of the smartest things I ever did. As a matter of fact, today, I would label it as one of the dumbest things I ever did.
I had recently graduated high school and got my first “real job” at Plywood Minnesota, in Ottumwa, Iowa. In junior high school, I had worked at my parent’s restaurant, the Runway Café. In high school I worked at the China Restaurant, then Mr. Munchee’s – a burger joint across the street from the movie theater. I thought I had hit it big time when, as a junior in high school, I got on with Pizza Hut. But, to get hired at Plywood Minnesota, my first job outside the world of food service? That was really something.
At all my restaurant jobs, I lectured any co-workers who smoked. I told them about the health dangers, the high cost of cigarettes and how smoking made them smell badly. But. Now that I was in the big league of employment, I didn’t want to come across as being a smart aleck; a know it all, or self-righteous. In reality, I was eager to fit in with my new colleagues and most of them smoked. So, even though it was one of the dumbest things I ever did, I started to smoke.
In less than a year, most of the guys quit smoking but I continued. They would tell me how bad smoking was. I knew they were right, but I wasn’t going to admit that, so I told them I enjoyed smoking; it was relaxing. I told them those health problems wouldn’t happen to me because I was different. Besides, I would quit before the smoking ever became a problem. The truth is, I have a very addictive personality. I was hooked and to keep smoking was easier than quitting. I eventually did quit smoking – thirty years later.
I’ve always believed anything worth doing is worth doing well. Smoking was no exception. I didn’t want to be one of those people who only smoked two or three cigarettes a day. Why smoke at all? So, I smoked a pack a day for the first ten years. Well, a pack a day until the Marlboro Man started putting those “Marlboro Miles” on the side of each package, then I kicked it up to about two packs a day. I had to have those miles – each one was worth five points! You could redeem the points for some pretty cool stuff. I was especially interested in the camping gear.
I liked camping in the mountains - and winter camping when it gets really cold. Marlboro offered a Zero Degree Sleeping bag. A similar item retailed for over $100. I saved enough miles to get one. It was a “mummy bag,” with bright red nylon on the top, black on the bottom and bright yellow inside. When it arrived, I took a motorcycle trip to the mountains to try it out. I was so impressed with the quality I wanted to get three more; one bag for each person in my family. But that would have required a lot of smoking. Two packs a day was already too much for me, so I solicitated the help of other smokers.
I tapered back to a pack and a half per day, and friends who weren’t going to use their miles, collected them for me. Pretty soon I had all the sleeping bags I wanted. Because it wasn’t cool for the kids to have a cigarette logo on their sleeping bags, I carefully remove the Marlboro patch with a seam ripper. I still had enough points to get the red duffle bag I wanted.
It was really cool and durable. Made of bright red canvas, it had a large space for clothes on top, a separate shoe compartment on the bottom and a pocket for toiletries on the front. The bag had handles on top and a large shoulder strap that made it super easy to carry. The duffle bag had a retail value over $100. It was a well-made piece of luggage – even the zippers were high quality. I’ve had the bag for many years. (decades) It’s traveled with me through all fifty states and Canada!
On one trip to Alaska, visiting my aunt and uncle in Fairbanks, the shoulder strap broke. The bag was heavy when fully loaded and frankly, it wasn’t easy to carry without that strap. Besides, it was over thirteen years old. I told my aunt Di about the damage and said I was going to throw the bag away.
“I can fix that for you.” She said. I explained it was very heavy canvas and I didn’t want her to damage her sewing machine trying to repair it. She laughed at me, “Give me the bag.” That’s when I learned Di had commercial sewing machines that could stich several layers of canvas together at one time. After she repaired it, the bag was better than ever and continued traveling with me for years.
It was on that trip to Alaska when Uncle John and I were way out in the wilderness staying at his cabin, that I ran out of cigarettes. I lasted three days without smoking and when we returned to Fairbanks, I decided to stay off the cigarettes. Just a few days after returning home from that trip, I started smoking again. Sigh. In all, I smoked for thirty years before quitting in 2009.
One day, about two and a half years after I quit, one of the girls at work came in from outside; she had been on a cigarette break. When she walked up to the front desk, I told her. “You really stink.” She returned the sentiment. “No, I mean it. You really stink like cigarettes.” She walked away a bit offended.
I asked another girl who was there (a non-smoker) if I smelled that bad when I was still smoking. She smiled, “Yes. You did.” It surprised me that it took so long after I quit before I became sensitive to the smell. It was awful, but years later I discovered something that smells even worse!
Just the other day, I was working in Ottumwa. I was cutting down trees with the chainsaw while my helpers hauled the branches to a trailer. When we were finished, I loaded my chainsaws, gas, oil and tools into the van and started to head out of town. I was going to my daughter’s house in Waterloo. Before I got out of town, I started to small gasoline – it was strong. Is there anything that smells worse than gasoline? I stopped the van to investigate.
It seems the cap on my gas can had split. The can tipped over and leaked gasoline all over the floor of my van. My red bag was back there. The gasoline soaked into the bag; mostly into the bottom compartment, but it didn’t seem to get to my clothes in the top section. I rushed into a grocery store to buy a package of paper towels and some Windex.
I removed my clothes from the duffle bag, placing them in plastic grocery sacks. The red bag itself was soaked with gasoline dripping from it. I put it inside a separate plastic sack, setting it outside, then began cleaning up the gas with paper towels. I cleaned the floor the best I could with Windex. It seemed to have removed the gas from the rubber floor mat – but, the smell was still strong!
Outside the van, I picked up my red bag. It was really a mess. It broke my heart to admit it, but after thirty years together - it was time. I threw my red bag away. It was a long drive back to Waterloo. I reminisced about all the places we had been together – me and that red bag. I kept the windows open, hoping to air out the van.
It was 10:30 p.m., when I arrived. Before going in the house, I smelled my clothes in the sacks. They didn’t smell like gas so I went inside. My daughter walked over toward the front door to greet me. About ten feet away, she wrinkled her nose, then pointed to the front door with a stiff arm. “Out! Now!” Apparently, I had become immune to the stench of gasoline.
I took my clothes to the laundromat. Before washing my clothes, I told a lady they were clean and asked if they smelled. “They smell like gasoline.” She said, “You better wash them in hot water.”
“You’re the first women who ever told me to wash colors in hot water.” I told her and we shared a good laugh about that.
When the washer was done, I put my clothes in a roller basket and started wheeling them to the dryer. The same lady approached me. Taking a damp T-shirt from my basket, she sniffed it. “Did you use hot water like I told you?” I assured her I did. “Did you use soap?” Again, I said I did. “You’re going to have to wash them again and make sure you set the machine for hot water.” I did as I was told.
As the lady was folding her clothes, a friend of hers walked in with a few baskets of clothing. The two started chatting. Before the first lady left, she brought her friend to me. “Brenda, this man got gasoline on his clothes and the smell was still there after he washed them, so I made him wash them again. Before he puts them in the dryer, will you make sure he got the smell out?”
Brenda assured her, “I’ll keep an eye on him.” Then she looked at me, asking, “Did you wash them in hot water?”
The first lady left and about ten minutes later my machine was done. I put my clothes in a basket and started wheeling them toward the dryer. Brenda walked up and took a damp shirt from my basket giving it the sniff test. “Did you use hot water?” I assured her I did. “And did you use soap?” Again, I assured her I did. “Honey, you’re going to have to wash them again.”
She led me to the soap vending machine, pointing to a particular box, “Use this Gain with bleach and a box of this Oxy Clean. That’ll take the smell away.” I bought the products she recommended and returned to the washing machine. She followed me, looking over my shoulder, “Now make sure you use hot water or you’ll never get that gas smell out of your clothes.”
When the load was done, she smelled another of my T-shirts. She smiled, extending the damp garment toward me, “Now doesn’t that smell clean and fresh?” I agreed it did and proceeded to the dryer. “Now you dry those on medium, not high heat. You don’t want to shrink your cotton shirts.”
I was grateful to both ladies for their help. Thirty-seven dollars and almost four hours later, I left the laundromat with clean clothes. It was just after 2 a.m. when I got to Sydney’s house.
The next day, after doing a little online research, I spent a couple hours cleaning the inside of the van with a solution of vinegar, baking soda and water. It worked. The gasoline smell is gone. Fortunately, the van came along many years after I quit smoking, so that’s a stench I didn’t have to deal with.
I smoked for thirty years and I had that red duffle bag for thirty years. I still have two of the sleeping bags, thirty years later. It almost seemed like a fair trade off until I considered, the four sleeping bags and the duffle bag would have cost me $500. I can’t even fathom the real cost of getting those items “FREE.”
I thought about the demise of my Marlboro duffle bag and chuckled out loud, “I guess cigarettes and gasoline never have mixed well.”
I have always loved waterfalls with the adventure and serenity they offer. As a little kid, while visiting Grampy and Grammy in Mason City, Iowa, we would walk to East Park. My brother, sisters and I would fish and play in Willow Creek, which winds through the park and flows into the much bigger Winnebago River. We were to stay away from that river unless an adult was with us.
There were man-made concrete spillways along the creek, dropping about three feet. We called them waterfalls. On the bank, upstream from the falls, we would cast stones trying to make them skip across the water’s surface. If you were any good at all, you could make your stone jump the dam and continue into the water below.
Sometimes, when visiting our Minnesota cousins, we went to Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis. A much higher and far more impressive falls, but we weren’t allowed to play in them.
When my wife and I started coming to the North Shore of Lake Superior, abundant with waterfalls, I became spoiled: Gooseberry, the Beaver and Cross Rivers, Devil’s Kettle on the Brule River, Kakabeka Falls in Canada; they were all part of the lure for us to move north. Now we can hear the roar of High Falls, Illgen and Two Step Falls, along the Baptism River, from our house.
The High Falls on the Pigeon River, create a natural boundary line between the United States and Canada, as do the Niagara Falls in New York. Both are spectacular, although Niagara Falls is a bit too touristy for me. The lines you wait in to see them remind me of an amusement park. From the very large and powerful, to the small and tranquil falls, I love them all.
Just the other day, I was traveling along Highway 28 in northern Michigan, working my way toward home. It was getting late in the night and I was getting tired, when I came upon a lot of emergency vehicles at the scene of a bad accident.
I knew I wasn’t going to make it all the way home and the accident served as reminder to me of what can happen when driving while fatigued. I pulled into the next wayside park along Highway 28 to catch a few hours of sleep.
Tioga Wayside Park, is a place I often stop to rest. At night, with the windows open, I can hear the soothing sound of a waterfall somewhere off in the woods. When I awoke in the morning, I thought about walking into the woods to find the waterfall I often hear – but have never seen.
Not far from the parking lot is a small walk bridge where water rushed through large rocks on the little Tioga River below. I met a nice couple there and we enjoyed some conversation. They told me it was only a short walk into the woods to the Tioga Falls, so I started walking the trail.
The falls were small dropping only a few feet, but they certainly create a large, comforting sound. I stayed there for a few moments thinking about life and wondered how much more peaceful the world could be if more people were able to spend time near waterfalls? I took in the serenity for a few more minutes then went back to my van.
Traveling west on Michigan 28, nearing Bergland, by Lake Gogebic, I came upon an orange sign that read, “Road Work Ahead.” Another said, “One Lane Traffic” and a third had a picture indicating there would be a flagman. Great! Not only was I going to be delayed, but they were putting tar in the cracks on the road and then sand over the tar. You know, the stuff that gets on your car, shows really bad on white paint and is really hard to remove? I know they’re just preparing the road for winter, but come on – isn’t there another way?
Luckily, I was the first car in line at the stop sign. I pulled up to the man holding the sign and rolled down my window to tell him exactly what I thought of his tar business. He walked up to the passenger side. I pointed my finger right at him and said, “You guys are doing a great job!”
He smiled, “Thanks man!” He said, “I’m used to people yelling at me about the tar getting on their cars.” He pushed the button on the side of his little walkie-talkie and said, “Hey, I got a pedestrian stopped over here who just told me we’re doing a great job.” He said it with a lot of pride.
A voice came back over the radio, “Uh, a pedestrian would mean they’re walking.”
We shared a good laugh about that. The man blushed. He seemed flustered, then spoke into the radio. “He is a pedestrian, but he’s driving a van right now.”
The voice on the radio laughed, then said, “I’m sending three your way. The last one is a red Ford truck pulling a camper.” Once that truck cleared, the man turned his sign to read SLOW. He wished me a good day and waved me on.
On the other end of the work zone, I hollered out my window to two men with the stop sign, “You guys are doing a great job!”
They waved their hands high in the air and yelled back, “Thank you!” followed by a good ole “Woo Hoo!” Their reaction made me happy.
I could have been a Debbie Downer, complaining about the tar, but honestly, what good would that do? These guys are just doing their job, sealing the pavement; preparing Michigan Highway 28 for the winter months ahead. Instead of bringing them down, I felt like I lifted their spirits. I continued down the road feeling pretty good about that.
About twenty miles farther down the road, Michigan 28 takes a wide sweeping turn to the south coming into the town of Wakefield, then curves back to the west. It wraps around Sunday Lake, following the shoreline, then after one more, smaller curve to the south, 28 comes to an end, intersecting Highway 2 where I would turn right to go home.
Coming into town on the first curve brings me to the northeast corner of Sunday Lake. There is a small man-made dam with a triangular concrete spillway. As I rounded the curve, I spotted a Michigan State Trooper parked on the side of the road. Thinking he was running radar to catch people who didn’t slow down coming into town, I smiled. I was doing the correct speed so there could be no ticket for me today. Then I noticed a trooper climbing around the chain-link fence that surrounds the spillway.
He had a pole of sorts in his hand, with a loop on the end and a rope tied to the fence. He started to rappel down into the spillway. This was too much for an old radio news broadcaster to pass up. I had to stop and see what he was doing. Certainly, there was a news story here. I wondered if he was looking for evidence someone had tried to dispose of by throwing it in the lake, or maybe a body of someone who had an accident.
I parked the van and hurried over to see what he was doing. The pole in his hand turned out to be a fishing net, so that ruled out looking for a body. He wouldn’t be fishing in his uniform, and besides, fishing with a net is illegal. He must be trying to retrieve evidence.
The water spilling over the dam was only a couple inches deep; down in the spillway it was slightly above his feet. The trooper, in his perfectly pressed blue uniform and shiny boots, walked carefully across the slippery concrete to the far side of the dam. A long board, maybe twenty-feet-long, spanned from the dam to the floor of the spillway. It looked like a ramp or something from a construction site. There was a small board fastened perpendicular to the top that caused the plank to get caught on the dam. Maybe he was going in to remove it, but why would a state trooper be doing that instead of someone from public works? The trooper walked around the end of the board to the very far side.
I assumed there was a gate on that end that can be lowered to reduce the water level in the lake if needed. The water seemed to have a little more velocity coming over the gate. The trooper walked closer to the falling water; close enough that the water was splashing up, getting the bottom of his trousers wet. He began pushing the fishing net through the falling water. Whatever he was looking for must have been behind the falls.
I was quietly rooting for the cop. For all his effort to get into the spillway, I hoped he would be successful in finding whatever he was searching for. After the third or fourth attempt, he pulled the net back from the falling water. There was something dark in the net, but from my distance, I couldn’t tell what is was.
He walked with his net around the long board, then got closer to wall of the dam. He lifted the net above and over the wall. “What is he doing?” I asked myself. The trooper lowered the evidence into the water above the dam, then turned the net over and lifted it, releasing the evidence that he had worked so hard to find. The evidence floated on the surface of the water for a moment, then drifted against the current, away from the waterfall. The evidence was... I squinted my eyes. The evidence was a small duck? I started laughing.
The trooper walked carefully back to my side of the spillway. Using the rope, he pulled himself up and walked up the wall like Batman would scale a building. When he reached the top, I walked his way. I reached my arm up and he handed me the net over the top of the fence. While holding onto the fence, he shimmied along the top of the narrow concrete wall and around the end until he was back on dry ground. We had quite an interesting conversation.
He told me there were two ducks. “They got too close to the dam and the current pushed them over the wall, into the spillway.” He said, “They can’t fly for some reason and can’t get out, so they just swim circles in here.”
The trooper told me he came down on his own time and built the wooden ramps. “I put small slats across the top surface so they could get their footing and not slide backwards. They haven’t figured out how to use the ramps yet, so about once a day, I come in and set them free.”
I was impressed. Very impressed by his compassion; taking time daily as well as using his own time (and material) to help a couple of ducks in need. I introduced myself and found out a little more about him. He had only been a State Trooper for about a year and a half. Before that he served in the United States Marine Corps, then he was a police officer in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, before joining the Michigan Highway Patrol.
Michigan State Trooper Paul Maxinoski, you certainly have gone above and beyond your call of duty! I really felt like a better person for having met him. Seeing the example he set through his actions made me want to go out and do good things, too. We said our farewells. He got into his cruiser; I got into my van and we both pulled out onto Michigan Highway 28. He turned into the post headquarters and I continued on.
On the west side of Wakefield, there was a concession truck in a parking lot; “Taco Dan,” was the sign on the side. I was hungry and it was close to noon, so I pulled in for lunch.
A young couple was at the order window ahead of me. The man was handing his cash to the gal inside the window. Still being on a natural high from meeting Trooper Paul, I said, “His money is no good here today.” The lady was confused as was the man. I explained, “I want to get their lunch today.”
“Really. Are you serious?” They both asked. I told her I was serious and she handed his cash back to him. Confused, his girlfriend asked what was going on? “Honey, this man wants to buy our lunch for us.” They thanked me and said, “You really just made our day!”
I placed my order and started to dig in my pocket for my credit card when I noticed the sign on the truck, “CASH ONLY.” Oh my, this could be embarrassing. I never carry much cash with me. I pulled out the cash I had from my pocket. Eleven dollars wasn’t going to cover the bill. Then I remembered before I left town, I took my dog June to the pet wash in Two Harbors, Minnesota.
After a bath, I always drive to the credit union across the street to get a little cash. Actually, it’s just an excuse to take June through the drive up. “I’d like to withdraw twenty-five dollars,” I said to the teller, “and June wants to know if she has any bones in her account.”
The teller laughed, “She has a lot of bones in her account.” The drawer came out with a dog treat and twenty-five bucks in an envelope - plenty to pay for our burritos in Wakefield.
I paid the cashier at Taco Dan’s truck, then ate my meal with the young couple. “What’s the occasion for buying our lunch?” One of them asked.
I explained to them the story about the Michigan State Trooper saving a duck. “You know, it made me feel so good seeing what he did, it inspired me to do something nice for someone else, too. Just paying it forward as they say.” We enjoyed a nice conversation while we ate.
We finished eating and I was getting ready to leave when a State Trooper pulled into the parking lot. He got out of his cruiser and walked toward the Taco Dan truck. “Long time no see.” He said, waving to me. I smiled, noticing the legs of his trousers had time to dry out.
“I was just telling these guys about you and how cool it was that you rescued that little duck.” I said. I wanted to offer to buy the officer’s lunch, but I don’t know if they can accept gifts like that and I only had five dollars left after buying lunch and leaving a tip. We said our farewells and I got in the van to head out.
After thirty-five years in radio broadcasting, I’ve met and worked with a lot of law enforcement officers. People who know me, know I sometimes drive a little too fast, thus I tend to meet even more officers on the side of the road.
I looked at the clock. It was 12:40 – Forty-five minutes since I left Trooper Maxinoski at the spillway on the other side of town. I started laughing out loud. “Forty-five minutes, eh? That’s the longest it’s ever taken a State Trooper to catch up to me.” Still chuckling, I turned onto the highway, “But he’s pretty new on the force – I’ll bet he’s a lot faster next time.”
All in all, it was a real good day on Michigan 28.
…looking for evidence…maybe a body…
Melissa and I took our dog June, for a walk down the road. Passing our neighbor’s yard, I heard a voice call out to me. “Hey Tom, do you want some lettuce?”
“Um, yeah, sure.” I replied to no one there. Then Gene stood up. He was bent over, working in one of his gardens. He has amazing gardens; some with fruits and vegetables and others with the most beautiful flowers.
Gene cut two heads from the garden and handed them to me. It doesn’t get any better than lettuce, right from the garden. After that, we walked around the yard. He was showing us different varieties of flowers they planted. His wife, Lois, joined us. One of the flowerbeds is her project and very beautiful.
Gene started picking and gathering flowers from around the yard. Yellow, deep orange, blue, white – there were even a couple beige flowers I had never seen before. He shuffled the bunch for a moment or two, and then handed them to Melissa. “Here, these are for you.”
Maybe it was because he and Lois grew all the flowers, or perhaps because they were fresh out of the garden, but without a doubt, it was one of the most beautiful flower bouquets I’d ever seen. Melissa absolutely loved them!
Lois invited us in for refreshments. Of course, she always includes June, and had some special treats for her too. We sat and talked until after dark. Melissa thanked Gene again for the flowers. She was so thrilled with them. Gene just blushed. He is rightfully proud of his gardens and was happy to share the spoils.
While Melissa admired the blossoms, I told Gene, “There are two people everyone is always happy to see: the flower delivery guy, and the person with the dessert tray.” We shared a good laugh about that as Gene loves desserts.
I picked up my heads of lettuce from the picnic table and we started the short walk home in the pitch-black night. “We should have brought a headlamp.” Melissa said.
June confidently replied, “Follow me Mom, I know the way.”
It is true what I said about the flower delivery guy and the person with the dessert tray.
When I was cooking at the assisted living home, after a meal was served, I always went to the dining room with the dessert tray. It gave me an opportunity to ask the people about their meal. Most were happy, but sometimes I got an earful. “How was your meal?” I asked Will.
“Meal?” He scowled at me. “It was possibly the worst meal I’ve ever had – if that’s what you can call it.”
I smiled as I set his dessert next to his plate. “I’ll try to do better tomorrow.” I told him. His wife, Ruth, was quick to let me have it as well.
One day the steamer in the kitchen quit working. It’s important to serve meals on time because many of the residents are on medications that have to be taken with food. As quickly as I could, I heated the frozen green beans in a pan on the stove and served dinner promptly at 5:00 pm.
Afterwards, I made my rounds through the dining room. “How was your dinner tonight?” Ruth gave me a cold stare.
“The beans weren’t done. They weren’t hot – not even warm. As a matter of fact, they were cold. Just terrible.” She shook her head.
“If I tell you a secret Ruth, can you keep it just between us?” Wanting to hear what I had to say, she agreed. Curious, her husband Will leaned in to listen. “You can eat the beans cold.” I said, “You can eat them raw if you want to. They won’t hurt you.” Will and Ruth both looked at me, appalled. I cracked a smile and said, “But I will try to do better tomorrow.”
We all have our off days, but I know I almost always serve a good meal. I viewed concerns as constructive criticism and never let the few who would complain no matter what I did, bring me down. As a matter of fact, I was now on a mission to win over Will and Ruth – and because I am not a flower delivery guy, I planned to do it with the dessert tray.
After serving a spaghetti dinner, I was making the rounds with the dessert tray. “How was your meal Will?”
“There was too much dressing on the salad and too much butter on the garlic toast.” He complained.
“Will, the dressing comes on the side in a cup.” I justified, “If there was too much dressing on the salad, that was your doing – not mine.”
Will didn’t have anything to say after that, but Ruth spoke up, “I thought the garlic toast was good.”
“Did you leave room for a piece of apple cobbler?” I asked. With each meal I served, Will and Ruth seemed to lighten up a bit.
One night I made a dessert I knew Will was fond of. “Did you leave room for a lemon bar?” I asked each of the four people at Will’s table. They all said they did. I intentionally gave both Will and John a smaller piece. Although he wasn’t going to say anything about it, I caught the expected look of disapproval. “Will, do you by chance have room for two lemon bars?”
“I can certainly make room.” He said pushing the first one over a bit with his fork. I gave him another smaller lemon bar. Then I asked John if he would also like a second piece. He too made room on his plate. I had cut the smaller pieces with exactly this in mind. The two smaller pieces combined gave each of them just a little more than a normal portion, but it sure made them feel special.
“There you go gentlemen.” I said in a secretive tone of voice as if we had just conducted a shady deal. “Now don’t tell anyone else about this or everybody will start asking for two pieces of dessert.” We shared a good laugh about that, then I went back to the kitchen.
From the serving window I watched the two men, both in their nineties, each cutting their additional lemon bar and sharing half of it with their wives. It was one of the sweetest things I’d ever seen and really warmed my heart.
A couple nights later, Will addressed me, “Say Tom, did you prepare the liver and onions yourself?” I told him I had. “Well let me say, that was the best liver I’ve ever had. I was having a hard time deciding if that was beef liver or a very good steak. And you served plenty of onions with it. I like that.”
From the lemon bars incident forward, Will and Ruth were absolutely golden to me.
Another night, Will spoke before I had a chance to ask how he liked his meal. “Say Tom, did you make the lasagna?”
“Indeed, I did.” I replied, “It’s my homemade recipe.”
“That was quite possibly the best meal I’ve ever had. Was there any left over?” I told him there was. “If you could save a piece of that for my lunch tomorrow, I’d sure appreciate it.” I told him I would do that. Will added, “You know, I believe you may be the second best cook I’ve ever met.” He touched his wife’s hand, “Ruth of course being the finest. She’s magnificent in the kitchen.” His compliment made me smile and caused Ruth to blush. Will had a soft, loving side to him and was sure smooth with his diplomacy.
"You probably don't want one of these,” I said presenting a tray full of brownies, “so I'll eat yours for you."
"Oh no you won't. Just put it right here!" Ruth said. Will chimed in, "I left room for two!"
“Sorry, that was a onetime deal my friend - it's one per person tonight.” I said. We all shared a good laugh before I moved on to the next table.
The brownies were a big hit. Very moist and rich with dark chocolate -fudge frosting. Simply delicious. I wished I could say I made them, but I didn't. My boss Gretchen made them the day before, I just had the pleasure of serving them.
Before taking the dessert to the dining room, the head boss reminded me of a resident with a nut allergy, who couldn't have a brownie because of the walnuts. Poor Della looked so sad as I told her, “I brought a special dessert for you.” I had a cup of lime Jell-O cubes with a burst of whipped cream on top attempting to make it look a bit more appealing. Although it was pretty, it was no dark chocolate brownie. "There you go, Della. Cool, refreshing Jell-O with a little something extra on top!" I said as I placed the cup in front of her.
"Thank you." She replied, in a sheepishly polite, but heartbroken tone in her voice. Della watched with wanting eyes, her mouth nearly watering as I went to the next table with my tray full of chocolate goodies.
On the way to the kitchen, I glanced back her way. Della was poking at her Jell-O with a spoon, watching with envy as the others at her table enjoyed a brownie. She looked so left out and forgotten, it made me sad.
After dinner, when the dishes were being cleared, I noticed the cup of green Jell-O came back to the kitchen, nearly untouched. It made me feel awful for dissing her on the brownies, but I wouldn't want her to have an allergic reaction either. As I worked, I thought more about the emptiness in her eyes. Then, I remembered Gretchen telling me a while back, she didn't use nuts in any of her baked goods.
I sent Gretchen a text briefly explaining the situation. She responded, “There are chocolate chunks but no walnuts in the brownies. Della can have one.”
Thrilled with her confirmation, I stopped one of the resident assistants, told her about Gretchen’s text then handed her a plate, asking if she would take a brownie to Della.
The RA returned to the kitchen with a big smile on her face, "You just made her day! Della’s eyes lit up when I told her there were no nuts in the brownies and she could have one." The RA was happy. Della was happy. All this happiness made me happy. It was a great way to wrap up my shift.
I was back in the kitchen the next morning. One of the resident assistants came to the kitchen, telling me again how happy Della was to get the brownie the night before. “She’s still talking about it this morning.” She said. I smiled.
At lunchtime I served a homemade vegetable soup to everyone except Will and a few others who requested left over lasagna. After lunch, I took made my rounds with the dessert tray, stopping at Della’s table first. “Della, I have ginger crack cookies and just one brownie left over from last night. Which would you like?”
“Can I have the brownie?” She asked. While I put the brownie on her plate, she pointed to a small juice glass with a handful of wild yellow flowers (dandelions) setting in the center of the table. “Someone brought me daisies.” She cut the brownie with the edge of her fork, saying “I like daises.” Then taking a bite, she smiled a million-dollar smile. I moved on feeling pretty darn good.
“That lasagna seemed to be even better today. Thank you for saving me a piece.” Will said, “Say Tom, you wouldn’t happen to have any brownies left over from last night, would you?”
“Sorry, Will.” I said, “I just gave the last one to a gal who didn't get one at the dinner table last night. I baked ginger crack cookies this morning. Would you like one?”
“Are those molasses cookies?” Will asked, stretching his neck to peer over the top of the tray. I told him ginger cracks and molasses cookies were pretty much the same thing. “Well a rose by any other name is still a rose.” He said, chuckling. “Molasses cookies are my favorite.” He added, tapping the napkin next to his plate.
“Speaking of flowers,” Will said, “did you see all the dandelions in bloom this morning? They sure are pretty. I went out and gathered some for a couple of the folks who don’t get out much so they could enjoy them too.”
My heart was full. “Will,” I asked, “do you happen to have room for a second cookie?”
“I sure do.” He said, pushing the first cookie over to make room for another.
I gave Will and Ruth, and John and his wife, each a second cookie. Then announced to everyone in the room, “I have extras, would anyone like a second cookie?” Hands went up all around the room. As I handed out the extra cookies, I noticed almost all of the tables had a small juice glass with dandelions in water.
When I got back to the kitchen, I asked two of the resident assistants if they would like a cookie. “Sure!” They said, smiling as they took one from the tray.
“Take two if you’d like.” I said, adding “Come back after I get the kitchen cleaned up and I’ll give you a few in a baggie to take home to your kids.”
“What’s the special occasion?” They wondered.
“You know,” I explained, “There are two people everyone is always happy to see: the flower delivery guy, and the person with the dessert tray.”
a broadcaster, pilot, writer, and our Guest Columnist!