Four dudes on a mountain

17 05 2015

Wow. I mean. Wow.

How… monumental. How very… American.

Four white guys on a mountain.

We finally made it to Mount Rushmore, tucked in the Black Hills in southwestern South Dakota. A pain to get to, but worth the effort.

The cockamamie idea to carve massive 60-foot heads of four presidents into the side of a South Dakota mountain was born in the 1920’s in the midst of this continent’s golden age, and it took something like 25 years to actually bring it to completion. Hundreds of workers, hanging from ropes off the side of the mountain, blasted, chiseled, hammered and shaped the granite into the faces we see there today. It was both a sculpting and engineering feat that was pretty impressive for the day and age in which it was done (without computers and sophisticated programs). The memorial was not actually dedicated until 1991.

(Nononono, at the time it never occurred to anyone that there should be anything other than four white guys… Women, Native Americans and people of color were not up for nomination. Come on. It was the 1920’s.)

For those of you not versed in U.S. presidential history, the four dudes are (from left to right): George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln – all presidents who did something monumentally positive for the life of this country for which they will be remembered. Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, Washington kind of pulled it all together right after his army kicked the Brits out, Lincoln freed the slaves and Roosevelt was an early voice in conservation and established the National Parks System.

And these creatures here were the main beneficiaries of that. Aren’t they spectacular?

Aren't they spectacular?

MMMMHHH… munchmunchmunchmunch…

Two buddies just chilling out.

Two buddies just chilling out.

Thank GOD there were wise people around back then who literally saved the bison from extinction.

Welcome to the great wide nothingness

15 05 2015

It’s only when you try to drive across this continent that you realize just how darn big it really is. And if all you are doing is watching the miles tick down on your GPS, you will truly go nuts. Or fall asleep.

(Unless you are driving in South Dakota, where the speed limit is an unbelievable 80 mph/128 kmh. It is wise to pay a little more attention to the road when traveling at that speed plus 10%…)

Lots and lots of space.

Lots and lots of nothing.

So it’s lots of fun to look out for the sign along the side of the highway that tells you that you are about to cross into a new state. They are quirky, colorful and tell you a little something about the place you’ll be spending the next few hours of your life in.

At the outset of our road-trip, we planned to cross into 16 states and one Canadian province (which could easily be a state as far as I am concerned…). Here are a couple of these “Welcome to…” signs we found so far, not necessarily in the order in which we passed them.

Didn’t it used to be “Yours to discover”?

And Mount Rushmore was indeed a highlight.

Maybe a little too much information to digest while speeding by at 65mph?

Simple, straightforward. Kind of like Kansans.

Everyone’s claiming rights to Lincoln now??


There’s a river and a sun in Missouri.

It says something about independence but it was the middle of the night and we were already exhausted.

Sweet. The good life.

Yes it is.

Wow… the people of Iowa welcome me personally! Imagine that!

From the Persian Gulf to Omaha, Nebraska

14 05 2015

I rarely get to bring all of my worlds together.

Growing up as a third culture kid in Europe and Asia, then leaving the homeland again after graduate school, there are few times when all of the important people in my life can gather in one place. My wedding in 2008 was one of those rare and precious moments… folks came from near and far, 8 countries were represented, and my many lives finally intersected.

But beyond something like that, it’s hard. Everyone has their lives and their priorities, their kids and their careers. That’s not bad, it’s just the way it is. It’s kind of part of growing up.

So on our trip across this vast and varied continent, we decided to take the opportunity to see some folks that we haven’t seen in a very, very long time… or in my husband’s case, ever. One could argue that we were just in the neighborhood… and a few hundred extra miles is no good reason not to stop and say hello.

I first met Jeff many years ago, on a floating city in the middle of the Persian Gulf, amid the winds of war. We had taken very different paths to the moment of our first handshake on the steel deck of USS Abraham Lincoln, but we both had come from the same place.

USS Abraham Lincoln: My home away from home for two months in early 2003.

USS Abraham Lincoln: My home away from home for two months in early 2003.

After he graduated college, Jeff joined the Navy and saw the world. I had had the privilege of studying Journalism at Columbia University, and working for a global news agency which gave me the opportunity for adventure. He was the press officer on board, I was the eager and curious reporter covering a massive, globally relevant story.

Though we were each firmly seated on opposite sides of the traditionally adversarial journalism-PR divide, Jeff and I quickly became friends when we realized that we both grew up in southern New Jersey, two towns apart. (What were the odds…?) And we only found out much, much later that our fathers worked for the same company, in the same plant, at the same time, and could also have been friends, or at least colleagues. They have both passed on, so we will never know.

On ship back in those heady days of early 2003, Jeff’s red hair earned him the nickname “Mr. Strawberry”, I quickly became “Ms. Vanilla”, and a third south Jersey kid on board, Billy Ray, who is black, was “Mr. Chocolate”. We were unlikely buddies in an unreal place at a crazy time.

When my assignment on Lincoln was over and I returned to my home in Berlin in April, 2003, Jeff and I kept in touch, even as the logistics of life took over. He had three kids to raise and a nation to serve. I was just trying to manage a journalism career as the industry began an existential fight for survival.

I invited Jeff to my wedding, hoping he too could come to the place where my many lives would finally meet, but his orders had him deploying to Afghanistan that same week. And while we did manage to meet up for nachos in San Diego in 2004, lunch in Philadelphia in 2011, and drinks in Boston in 2014, there were plenty of other situations in these past 12 years that had us passing like ships in the night… geographically close, but just not close enough. Thankfully, there is Facebook, but it’s not a great replacement for the real thing.

Jeff retired from the Navy two years ago and settled in (land-locked) Omaha. And since we were in the mid-west this week, I finally got the chance to introduce my husband to my friend. Jeff and Monika welcomed us into their home with open arms. It was very special.

From that first handshake on the deck of an aircraft carrier in the middle of a hostile environment, to a heartfelt farewell hug in the middle of downtown Omaha yesterday, I am so thankful for my friends.


Monika, Jeff, R and me.


Hey Dorothy! We’re in Kansas!

11 05 2015

It’s Monday in the mid-west and today we are another almost 1,100 miles older and wiser. We are in Dorothy’s Kansas, and look, there’s even a rest stop along the side of the Interstate reserved for Toto to go do his business!

"Hydrant non-functional"??? But... what if there's a fire?

“Hydrant non-functional”??? But… what if there’s a fire?

So we arrived safe in Topeka after braving weather phenomena rarely seen in parts east. Indiana, Illinois and Missouri (and probably Kansas and Nebraska and Oklahoma) are weather central for powerful forces of nature that – when experienced – make you actually believe a little girl’s weirdo story about a tornado and a place called Oz.

In fact, driving along US36 westbound yesterday into a wall of black, an automated weather report broke into regular radio programming. It warned of tornadoes in Counties X, Y and Z, and that a “severe and damaging thunderstorm” had just passed the town of A, heading northwestward on a direct path to the town of B. Clueless as I was and having never actually set foot in Missouri before, I picked up our Rand Mcnally 2015 Road Atlas (a.k.a. the bible of all road-trips) and attempted to locate the affected areas.

To my shock I realized that we were headed straight through them.


I suppose this should have been a dead giveaway….

What happened next (with the wipers on high speed) looked like this.



So that’s what it feels like when a storm passes through around here. OK, I get it now.

(You know, you sit on your sofa in Boston or Philadelphia or someplace and watch this stuff on the evening TV news and wonder what all the fuss is about. Actually traveling through something like that can be rather unsettling if not downright terrifying.)

But this story has a happy ending. Waiting for us on the other side were….


… a chilled drink…


… and a hot grill.

Nothing like a well-earned pit-stop with great old friends, fantastic local grass-fed beef and some strong liquor to take the edge off.

After all she went through, Dorothy probably also could have used a shot or two.

Cha Gheill, people!

9 05 2015

So this morning I woke up near Cleveland, Ohio. Good thing I know that at least because when we arrived at our hotel just before 4am, I am not sure I would have been capable of spelling my own name.

Yesterday’s leg was a day from hell. Murphy would be proud of the efficacy of his stupid little law.

We decided to change our planned direct westbound route from Utica to Niagara Falls to include a fun diversion of 170 miles / 220 kilometers. (It was a good idea at the time.) We thought we’d add a Canadian province to our itinerary (more on that later), and ended up driving into the back of a 3 1/2-hour traffic jam. The highway was closed and the (not-so-fun) detour led us on an 70-mile goose chase across rural southern Ontario. Don’t you love it when the big orange “Detour” signs that you are following just… end?

We got to Niagara Falls at 10pm, just in time to see the kitchy projected rainbow lightshow.



That was actually very pretty. A highlight of our trip so far.

But our adventures were not over just yet. We had three more hours to drive in order to make it to our pre-paid hotel room in Cleveland. (It was a good idea at the time.) At 12:20am, on the NY Thruway just south of Buffalo, our rental car stopped moving forward. It was something like…. putt putt putt…and….pffffffttt….

We had run out of gas in the middle of the night, in the middle of the Interstate, in the middle of nowhere, seven miles from the nearest gas station. It is moments like these that you thank your wise parents for giving you that AAA membership for your birthday when you started driving 29 years ago.

So an originally-planned six-hour journey turned into 10 hours which ended up turning into 18 hours on the road. Ugh.

But now: The reason for our trip into the great white north? My undergrad alma mater, Queen’s University (where basic gaelic language skills are a requirement for graduation: “Oil thigh na Banrighinn a’Banrighinn gu brath!“), sits right on the border to New York State, and we couldn’t just speed past without stopping by to say hello, buying some tricolour swag and chowing down on a barbecued burger care of the Queen’s Engineering Society.

24 years since I left that place with a degree in my hand, and 14 since I was last in Kingston. Gosh… what has happened to all that time?


Cha Gheill!