A baseball trip filled with family, friends, food and fun

From left: Mike, me, Joe and Tom beyond the left-field fountains before Sunday's game.

From left: Mike, me, Joe and Tom beyond the left-field fountains before Sunday’s game.

I’ve had my share of bad timing, but sometimes the timing works perfectly on a trip.

My visit to Kansas City this past weekend was ideal in nearly every respect – except that I didn’t bring my usual traveling companion along. When we planned this trip, she decided to go visit our granddaughters in Minnesota the following weekend, so Mimi passed on the KC trip. But we didn’t book her trip right away, then some pending medical tests for me ended up canceling her plans altogether. But we’d already bought baseball tickets just for our sons and me, and wouldn’t be able to add a ticket that would allow her to sit together. So she stayed home and wrote while I headed off for a weekend of baseball and barbecue with the boys.

The baseball and barbecue were great, but we piled lots more family and friends into this trip, some by planning and some by luck. And more great food in addition to the barbecue and more fun than just the baseball.

Here’s how the trip took shape and just continued to grow:

Mike, Tom, Joe and me, Game Two of the 2014 World Series, back in our old seats.

Readers of my baseball blog, Hated Yankees, know that we lived in KC from 1985 to 1991, and I took the boys to lots of Royals games (they really were boys back then, though they’ll always be my boys, especially when we’re watching baseball together). We met in Kansas City for a World Series game in 2014 and reveled in last year’s championship run by text messages, scattered around the country. So when someone suggested a KC weekend this summer, we all quickly signed on. So we bought our tickets for last Saturday’s and Sunday’s games, made our airline reservations and began looking forward to it.

Given my history of flight delays, I usually like to fly into a city the day before an event. My mother lives in a nursing home in the Kansas City area, so I planned to arrive Friday afternoon to allow plenty of time to visit Mom. My younger brother Don lives in Shenandoah, Iowa, a couple hours north of KC, so I figured I’d drive up there after the Sunday game, then drive back down to catch a Monday evening flight.

That made for a pretty full weekend: Two ballgames, at least a couple barbecue dinners and time to visit three generations of family: three sons, a brother and Mom, plus however many of Don’s large family happened to be around.

Well, that was just a start. A few weeks ago, in an email exchange about how Mom was doing (she has Alzheimer’s), my older brother Dan or I mentioned that we’d be seeing Mom in June, and the other chimed in that he would, too, so of course we pledged to connect around our schedules (Dan, a missionary who lives in Hamtramck, Mich., would be visiting some Kansas churches).

So now we’re up to a trip that includes both of my brothers (if we’d actually planned this, rather than learning fairly late about Dan’s and my coincidental plans, we’d have included our sister Carol), all three of my sons, Mom and Don’s family.

Because I had booked an evening flight home, I took a long shot that my friend Chuck Offenburger, a fellow lymphoma survivor who gave me my first job in journalism 45 years ago, would be back in Shenandoah that weekend. I figured it was unlikely, but I’d hate to learn after the fact that he’d been there. Well, he wasn’t planning a trip, but said he’d come down to see me, so we made plans for Monday lunch.

So I added a longtime friend to all that list of family on the agenda.

I also have a cousin, Doug Worgul, who lives in the Kansas City area, so I messaged him, too, and he said he’d join us for barbecue (Doug’s a leading expert on Kansas City barbecue).

That brings the tally to three sons, two brothers, Mom, a cousin and a friend, plus Don’s assorted family.

The week of the trip, I posted on CaringBridge about my plans to travel to Houston this week and next for medical tests and consultations. Steve Fehr, a friend from my Kansas City Times days, responded with encouragement. Steve shares the Buttrys’ passion for the Royals, and appeared in Hated Yankees three times last year. In addition to wishing me well in Houston, Steve mentioned that he was going to be attending a reunion of Topeka capital correspondents, then heading to the ballpark for Saturday’s game. Well, I had to tell him I was going to be there, too. He also was going to be connecting at the game with a mutual friend, Yael Abouhalkah, a Kansas City Star editorial writer since my days in KC in the ‘80s.

So now serendipity has added a brother and two friends to the plans. That seemed like plenty of family and friends for a single trip, right?

Well, I arrived first and headed to Mom’s nursing home, where I met Dan and we visited with Mom. Any visit with an Alzheimer’s patient, especially a parent, is tough, but we had some really nice moments and took her out of her unit to the ice cream parlor down the hall. I would visit later in the weekend with each of my sons (too many visitors at once can be overwhelming for her).

After a while at the nursing home, it was time to head back to the airport and pick up Joe, my middle son, flying in from Las Vegas. We went out to one of our favorite barbecue joints, Joe’s Kansas City, in an old gas station. After we chowed down on legendary barbecue (food joins family, friends and fun as themes of this F-ing post). While at Joe’s we watched the first inning of the Royals-Astros game, as KC fell behind 9-0. We congratulated ourselves on not including the Friday night game in the weekend plans.

Then we headed back to the airport to pick up Tom, my youngest son, flying in from Washington. We got Tom a Z-Man sandwich to go from Joe’s.

We had no breakfast plans and might have visited some fast-food chain near our lodging in Mom’s retirement community. But Tom quickly found a nearby diner with good reviews. So instead we headed to Ginger Sue’s in Lee’s Summit for biscuits and gravy.

After visits to Mom, we headed to the historic 18th and Vine district for my belated first visits to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the American Jazz Museum (I’ll post separately about the Negro Leagues Museum, possibly next week).

BBBBQ postOldest son Mike was driving down from the Twin Cities. He met us at our rooms a little before it was time to head to Jack Stack in Martin City, our favorite KC barbecue joint back in the day. Dan and Doug met us there for a lot of ribs, burnt ends, cheesy corn and old and new family stories.

Dan and Doug weren’t going to the game, so we said our farewells and headed out to the ballpark. When we got there, I posted photos of the six of us at Jack Stack and the four of us at Kauffman Stadium to Facebook.

One highlight of the game was seeing Alex Gordon’s return from two months on the disabled list with a broken wrist. He delighted the home fans with a sixth-inning homer. Another highlight was seeing backup catcher Drew Butera pitch (retiring his final three batters, one of them on a strikeout). And, if the backup catcher pitches, you know most of the night’s highlights were for the other team. The Astros followed Friday’s 13-4 win with a 13-5 Saturday win.

But I’ve always told my sons a bad night at the ballpark is still a good night. That goes double if you’re spending the evening with your three sons. And a 13-5 game means you don’t miss a lot of action if you head up to Section 420 to connect with some old friends. I spent most of the fourth inning catching up with Steve and Yael. (To my chagrin, I later realized that I had forgotten both to take a picture and to thank Steve in person for the candy bars he sent me back in December when I was struggling to get my appetite back after my stem-cell transplant. Thanks, Steve!)

CurleyIn a 13-5 game, you also have some time to check Facebook (hey, there were a few pitching changes). And I noticed on Facebook that another journalism friend, Rob Curley, until recently editor of the Orange County Register, had commented on my photos that he also was in the ballpark. Rob’s from Kansas and spending the summer back in the area, and he had brought his son to the ballpark. So I told him where we were and he spent the last couple innings with us in Section 146 (some seats also open up in a 13-5 game). Again, I forgot to shoot a picture.

If you’re keeping score (no, not of the Royals-Astros action, I already told you that was 13-5 and that’s plenty of scorekeeping for that), I enjoyed this game with sons from Minnesota, Las Vegas and Washington and friends from Washington, Kansas City and California. After dinner with those sons and a brother from Michigan and a cousin from KC.

Pre-game meal at Stroud's.

Sunday morning started with a visit to Mom, then the boys, and I headed to our favorite non-barbecue Kansas City restaurant, Stroud’s, for some fried chicken, awesome gravy and frightening cinnamon rolls. Just as we rushed into the restaurant, a downpour started. Joe had bought Royals ponchos, just in case, and we wondered if we might be in for a rain delay.

But the rain stopped before we left the restaurant. Clouds hid the sun for most of the game and some of them looked threatening, but the brief downpour during dinner was the only rain.

From left: Mike, Tom, me and Joe with the Royals' 2015 World Series trophy.

We made it to the ballpark in time for a quick visit to the Royals Hall of Fame and a picture with the 2015 World Series trophy. Then we watched the first few pitches from beyond the outfield fountains before heading to our seats.

The Royals played much better on Sunday. Starter Ian Kennedy struck out 11 Astros in seven innings, giving up just one run and three hits. Kendrys Morales, usually the designated hitter, started at first base and belted two solo homers in a 6-1 Royals victory.

A mark of a good trip is when even your screwups work out well. Mike forgot that he had told me he wouldn’t be able to make the Sunday game, so he had to go online and buy a ticket away from the rest of us. But his ticket was in the first row, down by a second dugout where fans sit, just past first base. And he texted us that the seats next to him were empty. So, not only did we all sit together again, we upgraded from good seats to great seats.

Shockingly, no friends connected with us during the Sunday game, but the Buttrys seated in the front row exchanged a lot of jubilant high fives.

After the game, we did farewell hugs and headed our separate ways. I drove north to Shenandoah. Don told me that we were going out to dinner when I arrived, so I didn’t grab anything light to eat on the road (wouldn’t have needed much still four hours after lunch).

Don and Tina

I knew I’d run into a crowd at Don and Pam’s house, but that also was bigger than anticipated. Pam’s mother was visiting for an 80th-birthday celebration the night before, and she was still there. The adult children with families had visited for that, and my niece, Missy Rock, was still there with her husband, Andrew, and their four children. It was my first chance to meet their 6-year-old daughter, Tina, who’d just been adopted from the Democratic Republic of the Congo earlier this year. With the comings and goings and running around, I might have missed someone, but I think my tally of family seen on this trip grew by a brother, a sister-in-law, three nephews, six nieces, a nephew-in-law, two great-nieces, two great-nephews and my brother’s mother-in-law.

And the good eating continued, with some ceviche at El Porton (Shen didn’t have a Mexican restaurant when I was there as a teen and young adult). And more the next morning: Pam made bacon, eggs and biscuits for breakfast, not that long before I headed to town for lunch with Chuck at the Depot Deli. I had some chili there and a high school classmate, Bill Hillman, who owns the deli, dropped by for a chat.

Chuck and me at Jay Drug.

Next we went to Jay Drug to pay off a baseball bet. Actually, I think we were square, since my TCU Horned Frogs and Chuck’s Vanderbilt Commodores had split big baseball games last year. But the bets had raised expectations of malts and Jay Drug. So Chuck paid for the malts after I picked up lunch.

As great as the malts were, the conversation was even better. We talked about Jay’s and how cool it is that Shen still has a drug store with a soda fountain (Chuck wrote more about that in 2013, a lot more). We also talked about our mutual friend Evelyn Birkby, who hasn’t missed a week in 66 years of writing her newspaper column.

We talked about a lot more as well. The time passed too quickly, and soon I was headed back to KC to fly home. But here’s the weekend box score:

Mom: 1

Brothers: 2

Sons: 3

Other family: 16 or so

Friends: 5

Ball games: 2

Museums: 2

Restaurants: 6

Soda fountain: 1

That’s a grand-slam weekend right there.

Since this post is about baseball as well as travel, I’ve cross-posted it on Hated Yankees.

My trip down Memory Highway(s)

The first hundred or so times I drove Interstate 80 in western Iowa and Interstate 29 in northwest Missouri, farmers weren't harvesting the wind. On last weekend's trip, I saw more windmills than I could count while driving safely.

The first hundred or so times I drove Interstate 80 in western Iowa and Interstate 29 in northwest Missouri, farmers weren’t harvesting the wind. On last weekend’s trip, I saw more windmills than I could count while driving safely.

My visit to the Midwest last weekend involved nearly 700 miles of driving, most of it along routes that have been familiar for decades.

But even an oft-traveled road changes over the years. As I drove these habitual highways Saturday and Sunday, my first time on any of them in over a year, I noted new sights and some I had seen countless times before. Some probably aren’t new, but I noticed them for the first time. Others I’ve noticed as new on previous drives. But they weren’t there when I started driving that route, so some of them still feel “new” two years later. Or four years. Or 10.

My plans

I always planned this to be a quick trip. I finished my treatment for lymphoma just two months ago, and was always planning to make my first trip, after allowing time for recovery, to Kansas City to visit my mother, whom I hadn’t seen in over a year. I figured I’d run up to Shenandoah, Iowa, about a two-hour drive, and also visit my brother, Don, and his family on the same trip. I could do it easily in a weekend.

Two developments changed plans for my trip. A source from a long-ago story reconnected. After talking with her, I wanted to update her story, so I decided to add a vacation day to my plans and interview her in Omaha. Then I learned last Thursday of the death in Pella, Iowa, of Don’s grandson, Keaton Poulter. So instead of visiting Don’s family in Shenandoah on Sunday, I decided to join them in Pella for the visitation at Keaton’s family’s church.

Some observations on the roads I traveled (mostly from memory, rather than notes, since I was driving):

KC to Omaha

I bet I’ve driven some or all of this road, mostly Interstate 29, a hundred times or more. When we lived in Kansas City (1985-91), we drove the first stretch several times a year, visiting Don’s family and my father-in-law, who lived in Essex, just six miles from Shen. When we lived in Omaha (1993-2005), we’d drive the northern part of this route frequently to visit the same Iowa relatives. After my mother retired to Lee’s Summit, Mo., we’d drive the whole route multiple times a year to visit her or to watch the Royals or Chiefs play. I drove some or all of the I-29 route many times as a Kansas City editor and reporter or as an Omaha reporter, covering stories in Kansas, Missouri, southwest Iowa or southeast Nebraska, and visiting a Kansas City Times bureau in St. Joseph.

Along this route, I know each exit in order by heart. When I hit St. Joe, I know I have the first leg of the trip behind me. As many times as I’ve driven this route, I have never stopped to see the Pony Express or Jesse James museums. It’s too early in the trip, and I’m trying to put the miles behind me. I recall a billboard years ago proclaiming St. Joe as the town where the Pony Express began and Jesse James ended. (I think it’s long gone; didn’t notice it this time and couldn’t find it on Google Images.)

Except when our sons were young and failed to heed our admonitions about going to the bathroom before departing, I seldom stopped in St. Joe.

The Walter Cronkite Memorial in St. Joe has a banner echoing the broadcaster's famous sign-off line.

The Walter Cronkite Memorial in St. Joe has a banner echoing the broadcaster’s famous sign-off line.

In November 2014, my last time down this highway, St. Joe was actually my destination for the first time since the 1980s, when the Times had its bureau there. I was a panelist at a journalism ethics conference at Missouri Western State University. I did finally visit a St. Joe museum, at the Walter Cronkite Memorial on campus, a new tribute to the famed broadcaster who was born in St. Joe. I just smiled at the memory as I zipped past the campus Saturday.

I stopped, as I have dozens of times, at the Rulo exit to grab a soda and a snack at a gas station that’s collected a lot of my money over the years.

North of Mound City, I always check the spot where, in covering floods in 1993, I saw water gushing through a breach perhaps 50 yards long in a levee along Squaw Creek. For years after, the different shade of grass would show clearly in the spring and summer where the levee had been rebuilt. Mostly brown in February (I was fortunate to travel on warm winter days with no snow on the ground or falling), the repaired stretch of levee draws no attention now. But I could still see it. Faintly. Or maybe I just know where the rupture was and will always see it in my mind.

Several exits brought memories of reporting assignments: one for a story about a prison, another for a murder, two or three for those ’93 floods.

The change that most drew my attention on this drive was the water tower in Craig, Mo., at the exit for U.S. Highway 59, our most direct route to Shen and Essex. We could always spot our exit by the water tower (I recall is as a blue bulb-shaped tower, though I don’t guarantee the accuracy of the memory, and couldn’t find a photo on Google or Flickr). It was a milestone on our trip north, well over halfway, and our shift from Interstate highway to country roads. The tower was visible on the horizon before we approached the exit sign for Craig. Well, water towers don’t last forever, and now Craig’s is white and flat-topped, with an American flag painted on the side you see as you approach from the south, left of the town’s name. In the only photo of the current water tower that I could find online, the stripes of the flag are barely visible. To the right of the name is another painting I missed Saturday, perhaps a high-school sports mascot.

I can’t drive past the Rock Port exit without recalling my youthful days working summers for a Shenandoah ice company. Construction on the last stretch of I-29 finished in the mid-1970s, and the crews would come to a Rock Port gas station each morning to put 15-pound blocks of ice in their huge water coolers. My job was to have the ice there early. I usually zip past Rock Port without stopping now, but seldom without thinking of my days delivering ice.

As I approached the Iowa line, windmills reminded me how agriculture and energy have changed in this region. More about that when I get to Sunday’s leg of this journey.

Just north of Rock Port, I entered Iowa. Here every exit has a memory. At Hamburg, Sidney, Tabor and Glenwood, I recall sporting events I covered in the high-school beginnings of my journalism career. I also recall a traffic ticket when passing Glenwood. Other exits bring memories of still more news stories.

Driving alone last weekend, I had to call my usual traveling companion when I passed the exit for the tiny towns of Thurman (population 213) and McPaul (no longer incorporated, not even on the official state map, but still on the exit sign). The volunteer fire chief in the fictional Iowa town of Lindsborg in my companion’s novel, Gathering String, is Thurman McPaul, taken from this very Interstate exit. (He’s not the only character in the novel, or drafts of future novels, to be named after a highway sign.)

Not far north of Glenwood, I-29 merges briefly with Interstate 80 in Council Bluffs. I stayed on I-80 when I-29 branched north and headed into Omaha for my interview and later for dinner with friends from my days at the Omaha World-Herald. I should note here that Omaha, Des Moines and Kansas City, metro areas where I used to live and work, all had similar mixes of new and familiar sights. But my focus here will stay on the rural highways I drove.

Omaha to Des Moines

I’m certain that I’ve driven I-80 between Omaha and Des Moines more than 100 times. Could be 200 or more. When we lived in Des Moines in the 1980s, we had family living in Omaha. When we lived in Omaha, the same relatives lived in Des Moines. When I worked both places, I traveled that highway countless times for stories. From 1998 to 2000, I worked for the Des Moines Register a second time, while the family stayed in Omaha. So I commuted this route each way weekly. I used to joke that I could drive the route in my sleep. To my knowledge, I never proved that.

Before I decided in 2000 to return to the World-Herald, my companion and I briefly did some house-hunting in the little towns along I-80 between Omaha and Des Moines, primarily Avoca and Harlan. We actually made an offer on a house we called “Pinkie,” for its not-understated shade of paint. I texted her from an Avoca gas station Sunday morning and we agreed we were glad that offer wasn’t accepted and we didn’t take on those long commutes in opposite directions.

My companion grew up in the rolling farmland of southwest Iowa and when we return to those green fields in the spring or summer, she waxes nostalgic about the beauty of the Iowa countryside. On a warm February day, though, Iowa’s rolling hills are 50 shades of brown.

Windmills wave from across the horizon as you drive I-80 in western Iowa.

Windmills wave from across the horizon as you drive I-80 in western Iowa.

Along I-80, especially in the winter, the horizon is dominated the last decade or so not by waving fields of corn and soybeans, but by waving turbines harvesting Iowa’s year-round cash crop: wind energy. Looking right, left and straight ahead, you can see 50 or more gigantic sets of propeller blades at a time spinning in the wind at several points along I-80.

The turbines, mostly seen from a distance as you drive past have become such a staple of the Iowa landscape that the westbound rest area between Adair and Casey now features a single huge turbine blade, a bit of rural sculpture standing erect so you can see up close how massive the blades are. I was heading east, though, so I sped past without stopping.

The idea for this post didn’t occur to me until I started out Sunday morning, so I had taken no photos Saturday. But I started early enough that I had plenty of time Sunday, so I stopped for a few photos, starting with the turbines.

I love the signs advertising tourist attractions in western Iowa: Elk Horn’s Danish Windmill not a modern turbine, but a tribute to the town’s immigrant heritage; the Bob Feller Museum in Van Meter, a tribute to the hometown baseball legend; Walnut proclaiming itself “Antique City.”

A billboard touting an attraction I didn’t remember beckons drivers to visit the Iowa Aviation Museum in Greenfield, home of the Iowa Aviation Hall of Fame. I chuckled, wondering who could be in such a Hall of Fame, the pilots of the planes that crashed in Iowa, killing Rocky Marciano in 1969 and Buddy Holly (along with Ritchie Valens and J.J. “The Big Bopper” Richardson) in 1959? As I drove along, I ran through famous aviators mentally and couldn’t think of any from Iowa: the Wright Brothers were from Ohio (along with Eddie Rickenbacker, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong); Amelia Earhart was born in Kansas and started flying in California; Sally Ride was from California, Chuck Yeager from West Virginia, Jimmy Doolittle from California and Alaska. I spent a decade at the Des Moines Register, where even a brief stay within the state’s borders qualified you as a “former Iowan” worthy of coverage, and could not think of a single famed aviator from Iowa. But now the state has an Aviation Hall of Fame, claiming to be worthy of a stop for I-80 travelers.

After getting home, I checked, and I didn’t forget any household-name aviators who were truly from Iowa, but the museum honors members of the Doolittle’s Raiders and Tuskegee Airmen from Iowa, as well as Neta Snook, who taught Earhart to fly. I was chagrined to realize I had forgotten that the Wright Brothers spent three childhood years in Cedar Rapids, and they’re in Iowa’s Hall of Fame. But really, they’re from Ohio. I also had forgotten former Register photographer/pilot Don Ultang, whom I featured last year in my journalism blog.

Neither the museum’s home page nor its Wikipedia page tells when the museum opened, just that the Hall of Fame started in 1990, preceding the museum’s founding. If you know when it opened, fill me in and I’ll update. If it was open from 1998 to 2000, when I was making my weekly commute down this highway, I swear it didn’t have a billboard.

I’m a sucker for an aviation museum and might stop at that one some day.

But Sunday I stopped for only two tourist attractions, one of which doesn’t even merit an I-80 sign.

The tip of the plow blade protrudes from one side of this oak tree in a roadside park south of Exira, Iowa.

The tip of the plow blade protrudes from one side of this oak tree in a roadside park south of Exira, Iowa.

From several yards away, you may not even notice the plow blade protruding from this oak tree, but it's there, a little more than a foot above the ground.

From several yards away, you may not even notice the plow blade protruding from this oak tree, but it’s there, a little more than a foot above the ground, a bit left of center here.

My companion told me years ago about the plow-in-the-oak park, along Highway 71 between Brayton and Exira, less than 10 minutes north of I-80. The local legend is that a young farmer leaned his plow against the tree and went off to join the Union Army in the Civil War. He never returned and the growing oak tree enveloped the plow. My companion remembered her grandparents telling her the legend and showing her the tree when she was a little girl.

I had visited the tree only once, 20 or so years ago. The blade barely poked out one end and only the handle was visible on the other end. I wondered then how long until the plow disappears entirely into the oak.

Running ahead of schedule Sunday, I decided to take the 15-minute detour to check. I can report that both ends of the plow remain visible in the roadside park. I think you’ll be able to see both ends of the plow for another 20 years at least, maybe 50. I also think that farmer-soldier and his plow deserve a sign along I-80.

From the other side of the tree, the plow handles are easily visible up close.

From the other side of the tree, the plow handles are easily visible up close.

Though a historic tree doesn’t get an I-80 sign to entice travelers to stop, a painted rock does. The Freedom Rock, just over a mile south of the Greenfield exit, is a 60-ton boulder, unearthed from the Iowa soil by a farmer and repainted each May before Memorial Day by artist Bubba Sorenson with a different tribute to America’s veterans. As a son of an Air Force chaplain, I was pleased to see this year’s tribute to the four chaplains who gave up their life jackets to others after their transport ship, the Dorchester was torpedoed and sunk by German submarines in 1943.

Freedom Rock, painted by Bubba Sorenson.

Freedom Rock, painted by Bubba Sorenson.

Freedom Rock, just a minute or so south of I-80.

Freedom Rock, just a minute or so south of I-80.

Freedom Rock

Freedom Rock

After stopping to see the plow in the oak tree and Freedom Rock, I didn’t have time to detour for one of Iowa’s most famous tourist attractions, the Covered Bridges of Madison County, which were a popular place to visit even before the book by Robert Waller and movie by Clint Eastwood (I see that it’s also now a musical). My usual traveling companion and I spent a romantic weekend in the area years ago that included a tour of the bridges. I’d rather visit with her anyway, if we’re going to return.

Not long after zipping past the exit for the bridges, I was having lunch in Des Moines with my in-laws.

Des Moines to Pella

This route was the commute to my first teaching job, at Central College in Pella, for two winter quarters back in the 1980s. My commute took roughly an hour each way, twice a week in 1980-81, three times a week in ’83-’84. That’s 60 or so round trips. And my traveling companion and I celebrated more than one wedding anniversary at the Strawtown Inn, a charming restaurant and bed-and-breakfast in Pella. I came to town a few other times working on news stories or visiting my niece whose family lives there. Or, if a story took me through town, I’d stop for a Dutch letter at the Jaarsma Bakery. I won’t claim a hundred times down this route, but it’s several dozen.

And I must confess: I wasn’t driving the same route Sunday that I commuted in the ’80s. Highway 163 was a two-lane highway back in the day, meaning I slowed down (a bit) going through Prairie City, Monroe and Otley. Sunday I zipped past them on a four-lane divided highway. Would have made the commute to class much easier. I might have been stopped by police a time or two on old 163 back when I was teaching at Central. Some memories fade deliberately. My companion tried to clarify when reading a draft of this post, but I think her memory is equally faulty, in the other direction.

I don’t know whether it was the higher speed, the fact that this was the shortest leg of the trip or my reflection on the tragedy that brought me to Pella Sunday, but fewer roadside sights caught my attention. Still, I think Prairie City, Monroe and Otley might all have new water towers since my commute of the ’80s. Or maybe they just painted them.

Pella to Osceola

After spending a couple hours with grieving relatives at the church in Pella, I wanted to get headed to Kansas City early enough that I could reach Interstate 35 before dark. This was the only leg of the weekend trip I hadn’t driven before. I’d driven stretches of it, but I don’t think I ever drove Pella to Osceola, a back-roads route that included U.S. and state highways and two county roads.

I started off driving across Red Rock Dam, then turned south at the outskirts of Knoxville. I wondered if Knoxville was the largest Iowa town from which I never got a dateline (and I wouldn’t guarantee that I never did, but I don’t recall one). It might be. Signs pointing out turns to other towns reminded me of other datelines, though: A small-town murder in one town, a sheriff who threatened a photojournalist and me with a hammer outside another, a winter assignment so cold my company car needed a jump.

One sign I had never seen before (that I recall) in my Iowa travels pointed to the Stephens State Forest. Yes, Iowa has a “state forest” (a few, actually). From the highway, it looked kinda like a grove to me.

A tower of the Southern Iowa Rural Water Association

Again, the water towers stood out to me, not town water towers that had changed, but rural water towers reminding me of visiting some of these tiny towns for a story about the formation and growth of rural water associations bringing treated water to farm homes that previously relied on private wells. (That might have been the story when my car needed a jump.)

We don’t need to go into the missed turn that added a minute or so to Sunday’s trip. Or the wrong turn that added five to 10 minutes. Those also were brief trips down memory lane. Not that I had missed or made these same wrong turns before. But my reporting travels along Iowa’s back roads involved more missed and wrong turns than I will confess more specifically than this.

Osceola to Kansas City

Again, I was back on familiar ground. When I started at the Kansas City Times in 1985, it took 2-3 months to sell our home, so I commuted weekly between Des Moines and Kansas City, with Osceola marking the first or last leg of the trip, depending which way I was heading. For a few Kansas City reporting trips in Iowa, I also took this route. When I lived in Cedar Rapids for two years, this was the final (or first) leg of the trip to or from Mom’s home. I’ve probably driven it as many times as the Des Moines-Pella route, but fewer than the routes to and from Omaha.

Darkness was falling as I approached the exit for Lamoni, a small college town where my usual traveling companion had applied for a job when we were considering that she would move to Iowa in 2000. I was as pleased that she didn’t take on this long commute as I was that we hadn’t bought a home in western Iowa. As nostalgic as this trip was, I had no regrets about the roads not taken.

One of the best places to sell fireworks is right south of the Iowa state line.

The sight that greeted me at the first Missouri exits was familiar not just from all my trips up and down this highway, but it mirrored what I had seen Saturday, traveling up I-29: Missouri fireworks stands. They are permanent buildings, but I don’t know if they’re open year-round. Fireworks are illegal in Iowa and firework stands are plentiful just south of the state line. And the parking lots are full in late June and early July.

I was amused to see that Iowa’s ban on fireworks has endured over the decades I’ve been driving these roads. The Missouri fireworks vendors probably pay their Des Moines lobbyist well.

The sun was setting about the time I was driving past the fireworks stands. So the Missouri sights I saw on that trip were those with lights. Again, the exit signs reminded me of stories from years past. And some familiar restaurants and gas stations reminded me of times when my stomach, bladder or gas tank couldn’t make the trip without stopping.

Finally I made it to Kansas City for dinner with a cousin at my favorite barbecue joint, which I still often call by its name from 30 years ago, when I first fell in love with it.

Lee’s Summit

Monday morning I visited Mom at her nursing home in Lee’s Summit. Before long, it was time for the final leg of my trip, another I have taken many times. I won’t guess how many times I’ve flown in and out of Kansas City International Airport. Not a hundred, but certainly dozens. Since Mom moved to Lee’s Summit more than 20 years ago, most of the visits have involved driving I-435 along the east and north sides of the metro area to the airport. But somehow I took the wrong turn Monday, adding a few more minutes to the trip (fortunately I’d allowed plenty of time).

Sometimes, however familiar a route is, it still has surprises in store.

Our roads not taken, 2015

This blog has been pretty quiet in 2015. We haven’t been able to do much traveling because of my yearlong (and successful!) treatment for lymphoma.

This is just our fifth post of the year. I posted on short trips in Louisiana to St. Francisville and Breaux Bridge (our first Louisiana swamp tour), plus one whimsical post on national parks we’ve visited, plus our annual holiday letter.

I’ll close out the year with a map showing where we could have gone (and a few that we did get to) in 2015, along with a little about each would-be or actual destination. My treatment is done, though. My recovery will take a few months, but we’re already starting to make 2016 travel plans. Can’t wait to tell you about them. We expect lots more travel in 2016.

Mimi and Steve’s holiday letter, 2015

We had the whole family together for Ashley's wedding.

We had the whole family together for Ashley’s wedding.

I want to start our holiday letter with the highlight of the year: Mimi and I made it to Maryland in October for Tom and Ashley’s wedding. We’ll get eventually to the story that dominated the year, my lymphoma treatment (which is part of the wedding story anyway).

The wedding would have been a highlight of any year under any circumstances. It was a lovely day and a beautiful ceremony, presided over by Mary and Jim Head, Mimi’s sister and brother-in-law. All branches of both Mimi’s and my families were represented (30, including some boyfriends who accompanied nieces), and we just lapped up the time with them all before, during and after the wedding. Most important, we had our full family there: sons Mike, Joe and Tom, their wives Susie, Kim and Ashley, and granddaughters Julia and Madeline.

I also managed to work in a lovely lunch with some cherished Washington friends the day before the wedding.

Of course, the story that dominated the year also made the highlight more special. At one point, it looked as though my treatment for lymphoma could conflict with the wedding. Tom and Ashley discussed changing the date, but eventually stayed the course (at our urging). And the wedding actually came at a perfect time in my treatment. I was nearly full strength and not vulnerable to infections from flying (as I was for much of the year).

When I announced my diagnosis last December, I promised to dance at Tom and Ashley’s wedding, and I did. (Here’s hoping there’s no video.) I had saved a childhood treasure of Tom’s for more than 25 years, to give to his bride someday, and I’d worked all year on my toast. Delivering both, and seeing so many family there so full of joy, made 2015 a really special year.

Bubble girls Julia, left, and Madeline.

Bubble girls Julia, left, and Madeline.

The wedding was very much a family project: Mike was the best man and Joe a groom’s man (each of our sons was the best man at a brother’s wedding). Joe and Kim set up spectacular lighting for the reception at Rockwood Manor. When planning the rehearsal dinner became a burden for Mimi at a tough time in my treatment, Mike, Susie, Kim and Joe just took it all over. They did a spectacular job (especially deciding to go with the tent, since we had a downpour during the dinner, on a lovely patio outside the Angler’s Inn). Julia and Madeline led the way down the aisle, shooting bubbles from guns.

A Royal October

Mike and Susie at Kauffman Stadium for Game Two

Mike and Susie at Kauffman Stadium for Game Two

I’ll get to the cancer, but one more highlight first: The Buttry boys, lifelong fans of the Kansas City Royals, and their Yankee-fan Dad (who also loves the Royals) celebrated a wonderful October that delivered the Royals’ first world championship in 30 years. You might recall that I took the boys to Game Two of last year’s World Series. Well, that wasn’t possible this year, because the World Series came during my second stem-cell harvest.

But Mike made it to Game Two in Kansas City, Tom made it to Game Four in New York and all four of us texted like crazy through all five games and beyond. It was a wonderful culmination of many nights spent at the ballpark in Kansas City with one or all three of my sons. For many years, it seemed as though making them Royals fans might have been some form of child abuse. (In my defense, I tried to make them Yankee fans, but they fell in love with the team they were watching on the field, not the team Dad was prattling on about between innings.) But this year’s joy was worth the wait.

Lymphoma treatment

So let’s deal with the cancer. Treatment has been grueling: Six rounds of chemotherapy, each involving five days in the hospital followed by several days feeling like crap. Low platelet counts, caused by the previous round’s treatment, delayed at least a couple of treatments. Two infections (chemo damaged my immune system) caused further delays, one of them during the final round of chemo and one causing a nine-day hospitalization and later an outpatient surgery.

Treatment is concluding with a stem-cell transplant, which started Dec. 1 with high-dose chemotherapy to kill what was left of my bone marrow. Then I received my stem cells back and after a couple weeks of bedridden misery, I started my recovery. My white cells are almost back to normal, but my platelets have dropped the last two days. So I’m still in the hospital on Christmas Eve. I may get out sometime this weekend.

The stem-cell transplant was originally supposed to happen in June. Dec. 1 was my sixth scheduled start date. In between I had two stem-cell harvests (each a week of full-day outpatient treatment) and a brain surgery (because of my low platelets, a bump on the head caused a brain bleed that needed to be drained in August).

If that all sounds pretty awful, it has been. But even lymphoma treatment turned out in many ways to be a wonderful experience:

  • I received a wide array of hats and caps from family and friends.

    I received a wide array of hats and caps from family and friends.

    I’m cancer-free and almost ready to get on with life.

  • I love Mimi even more than I thought was possible. Her patience, prodding, humor, determination and love got me through the year. I think the year was harder on her than on me, but she was a rock.
  • We had amazing family support. All of Mimi’s siblings and mine visited at least once, three of them with spouses. Each of our sons visited multiple times and each of their wives once. All were helpful beyond belief.
  • I had wonderful health care. My oncologists, Dr. Vince Cataldo and Dr, Patrick Stagg, were outstanding in handling the many twists and turns of this case, confident they would get me to the finish line (almost there). Other doctors, dozens of nurses and technicians at Baton Rouge General Hospital, Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center and the NeuroMedical Center tended to my needs with great skill, patience and care.
  • I was honored, humbled and amazed by the outpouring of support from friends, family and strangers on social media, CaringBridge and a delightful stream of gifts (mostly hats to cover my frequently bare or shedding head).

Other highlights

We had some other memorable developments this year:

  • Our sasanqua

    Our sasanqua

    We moved into a new home (I was actually doing pretty well that week, and we had lots of family help). We love it: 7326 Sasanqua Ct., Baton Rouge, LA 70808. A sasanqua, by the way, is a lovely camellia, and Mimi has one in a pot on our patio. It blooms in December and the blossoms came out during the stem-cell transplant. Looks like I’m going to miss the blooms, though. Duffy likes to bark at the feral cats on the other side of one fence (he has a fenced yard to romp in, for the first time). And his first armadillo encounter while walking the neighborhood was most puzzling. Lots of barking and sniffing was involved.

  • I took a new job as LSU’s Director of Student Media, turning my one-year visiting gig into a permanent job with the Manship School of Mass Communication. I enjoy my students and colleagues here, and they could not have been more supportive in working through the disruptions that my treatment caused to my teaching duties.
  • Mimi found needlepoint to be a helpful way of handling the stress and tedium of my health care. And now she just loves doing it. She’s made lovely gifts for our granddaughters and my doctors, as well as some pieces we’ll hang on our walls.
  • The American Copy Editors Society presented me with the Glamann Award for my “contributions to our craft and our colleagues.” I was scheduled to speak at the Pittsburgh conference, one of several speaking engagements I had to cancel because of the unpredictability of my treatment schedule and condition. ACES had planned to surprise me with the award there, but President Teresa Schmedding and Mimi conspired for a Skype presentation that surprised me even more (less than half an hour after I got out of the hospital; Mimi was sweating the timing).
  • Mimi has enjoyed visiting Mike the tiger, the live Bengal/Siberian tiger that prowls in a large enclosure just a block or two from my office. When she was driving me to campus daily after my brain surgery, she would go by in the morning when he was usually active. She would talk to Mike and he would come over and look at her. She thought they might be bonding a little. Well, the weekend before the wedding, she went back with me. Mike was up and prowling around and waded through his pool, lapping up some huge drinks of water. Then he came out and peed a couple places and headed our way as Mimi chatted him up. He came up to the double fence, looked right at us, then turned around and peed on me. I was wiping off my glasses and Mimi said my hair was glistening. It made a good story for the many wedding-weekend conversations.

Visitors welcome

We don’t have quite as many friends visiting as when we were in Washington, but Baton Rouge is still a good place to visit or to catch others passing through. In addition to all the siblings who visited, we enjoyed many other visits during the year:

  • Tailgating before the LSU/Florida game with Greg and Janelle Walker.

    Tailgating before the LSU/Florida game with Greg and Janelle Walker.

    We were pleased that longtime friend Tom O’Donnell’s trip to New Orleans (with son Tommy, visiting son Tony) came when I was strong enough that we could meet them there for lunch.

  • Viktoria Sundkvist and Albie Yuravich were making an east-to-west cross-country trip that took them through Baton Rouge, so they visited me in the hospital.
  • Greg Linch and Mollie Ann met us for coffee on a break from their west-to-east cross-country trip.
  • I had nice visits with old friend Dan Gillmor and new friend Dean Baquet when they visited the Manship School.
  • Daniel Victor subbed for me at an APME NewsTrain program in Monroe, La., that I had to back out on because of my unpredictable treatment schedule. It turned out, though that I was feeling OK that weekend and was able to tailgate with Dan before the LSU game.
  • Niece Meg Head flew down here in June, to help her mother Mary drive Duffy north to Iowa for my stem-cell transplant, long before it actually happened.
  • We also had visits from two-thirds of my brother Dan’s grown children and their spouses: Janelle and Greg Walker visiting in October for the LSU/Florida game (my first Tiger game, a 35-28 win) at the tail end of their honeymoon and Jonathan and Jamie Mayo Buttry visiting in November, also passing through.

If you’re crossing the country on Interstate 10, visiting New Orleans or Baton Rouge or just coming to see us, we’d love to see you in 2016. Our Sasanqua home has a nice guest room (and a den with a pullout couch).

We wish you happiness in whatever holidays you celebrate and look forward to crossing paths in 2016.

Owls, egrets, herons soar past gators as highlights of our swamp tour

My traveling companion and I took our first Louisiana swamp tour.

My traveling companion and I took our first Louisiana swamp tour.

You expect to see alligators on your first Louisiana swamp tour, and we did. You don’t expect the gators to be upstaged by birds. Our gators were upstaged. Easily.

This gator posed for us a while.

This gator posed for us a while.

This isn’t to express disappointment in our gator sightings. One posed for a few minutes on a log. We saw some noses and eyes in the water that were barely distinguishable from floating logs (though one of those “logs” was definitely swimming away from us). We didn’t see an alligator up close, but that would have been a mixed experience at best.

The gators didn’t disappoint, but the birds delighted: Great white egrets, great blue herons, phoebes, kingfishers (hey, it’s Louisiana), ibises, cormorants, great cormorants, cardinals, red-winged blackbirds. And owls.

More on the owls and other birds shortly, but first some context: My traveling companion and I haven’t traveled much this year. My treatment for lymphoma (and for other ailments resulting from chemotherapy) has kept us in Baton Rouge for most of 2015.

We made two day trips to St. Francisville, and our son’s wedding in Maryland came in a break in treatment while I was safe to travel. But mostly we’ve stayed in Baton Rouge, spending several weeks in hospitals and otherwise working or resting (and limiting my exposure to infections). I’m scheduled for a stem-cell transplant starting Dec. 1, and that will mean a few more weeks in the hospital. But I’m feeling fine now, so we decided on an overnight trip to Acadiana.

We’ve lived in Louisiana more than a year now, and it was time for us to visit a swamp. And it was a beautiful weekend for spending some time on the water. By mid-morning Saturday, we were headed west to see and taste Cajun country.

Shawn Guchereau, our swamp tour guide, explains there are hunreds of tiny plants in the green goo on his fingers.

Shawn Guchereau, our swamp tour guide, explains there are hundreds of tiny plants in the green goo on his fingers.

This was such a Louisiana weekend that we enjoyed double doses of both beigneits  (at Old Castillo Bed and Breakfast, where we stayed in St. Martinville, and at Joie de Vivre café in Breaux Bridge) and boudin sausage (boudin sliders on delightful biscuits at Joie de Vivre and straight boudin M & S Grocery in Lafayette).

But the absolute highlight of the weekend was drifting through the Lake Martin swamp in a boat piloted by Shawn Guchereau of Cajun Country Swamp Tours. A third-generation guide in this swamp, Shawn explained the history of the lake and the threats from increased development nearby. He loves this water, loves sharing its sights and fears for its future.

As we floated through the swamp and lake, Shawn’s love for all the life in and on the water came through in his explanations of each of the different types of plants floating on the surface. He told us the names of the flowers and the invasive species and showed us how some little leaves (I can’t recall their name, but he told us) stay afloat with tiny “life jackets,” air pockets on the undersides of the leaves. He explained about the cypress trees standing in the water and about the lichen growing on some of the trees.

Can you spot the owl here? I'll point it out in a photo at the end of this post.

Can you spot the owl here? I’ll point it out in a photo at the end of this post.

And he knew where to watch for the owls. Somewhere high in one of the trees was a huge owl that he pointed out to us early in the tour. We could see its silhouette, but no detail. After just a minute or two of our surveillance, the owl spread its mighty wings and flew away too swiftly for me to snap a picture.

I shot dozens of frames of the next owl, which tolerated our presence for several minutes. We could see the owl clearly once Shawn pointed it out to us, but he almost blended in with the branches and Spanish moss in the tree. Shawn sees the owl often enough to have named him – Harry Potter. For the first few minutes we watched the owl, he was barely identifiable in my photos, though clearly visible to the naked eye. Shawn, knowing we’d get better photos, gently steered our boat under the tree for a better angle (resulting in the shot below).

Shawn positioned our boat perfectly for photos of Harry Potter.

Shawn positioned our boat perfectly for photos of Harry Potter.

A great blue heron posed for us a while but didn't eat an alligator.

A great blue heron posed for us a while but didn’t eat an alligator.

The tour gave us fleeting views of phoebes and blackbirds as they zipped past us, and frequent serenades from birds in nearby trees. Individual egrets and herons attracted our attention, as well as flocks of cormorants. We paused for a while to watch a heron that ignored us completely. Perhaps we looked skeptical (and perhaps most tour groups look the same way) when Shawn told us that herons can eat small alligators. He passed around a rolled-up photograph as proof, and I later found a few more through Google image searches (best one is below).

Great Blue Heron & Baby Gator

Shawn showed us nests of various birds, explaining the “pecking order” and which birds nested high in the trees and which chose lower spots. What we didn’t see were ducks. We saw duck blinds and flocks of floating decoys, but we came to Lake Martin at the wrong time for non-wooden ducks.

Watching the birds roost for the night was a treat. More roosting photos at the end of this post.

Watching the birds roost for the night was a treat. More roosting photos at the end of this post.

Shawn called our cruise, which began at 3:15 p.m., the sunset tour, and the sun was dropping toward the horizon throughout, providing shimmering reflections across Lake Martin. The fading sun also told the birds it was time to roost for the night, and Shawn steered us toward a favored roosting area. While our owl observation was a close-up view of a single magnificent bird, roosting was a time to watch hundreds of magnificent birds roosting in equally magnificent trees. Pardon the repetition, but it was a magnificent sight and sound.

Flock after flock of ibises and egrets and cormorants found branches for the night, the flapping of their wings and their calling to each other filling the air with wondrous noise. We watched the roosting at two groves of trees. Each new flock arriving caused a stirring of wings from the birds that had already claimed their perches.

The sun was almost gone as we returned to the shore. We’ll be back next year, perhaps with family visitors. In the meantime, we have lots of memories and photos of birds and trees — and yes, a gator — to lighten the next hospital stay.

More photos from our swamp tour:

The only ducks we saw were decoys. One of the more elaborate duck blinds we saw is at the right in this photo.

The only ducks we saw were decoys. One of the more elaborate duck blinds we saw is at the right in this photo.

An egret takes an evening flight across the swamp.

An egret takes an evening flight across the swamp.

Whether they are standing or flying, I can't resist shooting photos of egrets in the swamp.

Whether they are standing or flying, I can’t resist shooting photos of egrets in the swamp.

These two trees are Shawn's favorites in the swamp. He thinks they look like a married couple.

These two trees are Shawn’s favorites in the swamp. He thinks they look like a married couple.

This tree is covered with red lichen.

This tree is covered with red lichen.

Spanish moss is part of the swamp's beauty.

Spanish moss is part of the swamp’s beauty.

Some of the trees have massive trunks, especially at the base.

Some of the trees have massive trunks, especially at the base.

A lovely swamp view.

A lovely swamp view.

The setting sun gave the swamp beautiful highlights.

The setting sun gave the swamp beautiful highlights.

Roosting birds fill the high branches as well as the low branches of their favored trees.

Roosting birds fill the high branches as well as the low branches of their favored trees.

Bedtime for the swamp birds.

Bedtime for the swamp birds.

My traveling companion and I plan to return to the swamp.

My traveling companion and I plan to return to the swamp.

As for the owl hiding in the photo earlier in the story, he's inside the red oval here.

As for the owl hiding in the photo earlier in the story, he’s inside the red oval here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oakley Plantation: Audubon painted birds here; I photographed spiders

I found the spiders at Oakley Plantation fascinating.

I found the spiders at Oakley Plantation fascinating.

After recovering at home four days following brain surgery, I was ready to get out of the house for a day trip.

The home where John James Audubon did some of his paintings for Birds of America sounded like a good choice. Mimi and I had visited St. Francisville a couple weeks ago, but didn’t make it to Oakley Plantation, Audubon’s home briefly in 1821.

We returned Sunday with visiting son Tom and enjoyed a tour of the house. We saw lots of prints of his paintings and a few actual pretty birds. But I was most taken with the spiders:

Judging from the web, I think this spider is highly deceptive.

Judging from the web, I think this spider is highly deceptive.

Even from a distance, these spiders were huge.

Even from a distance, these spiders were huge.

I couldn't quite catch this spider in silhouette without leaves behind it. The web limited my maneuvering. But it was nearly as big a Tom's head. You can see two of its long legs stretched in front of his forehead.

I couldn’t quite catch this spider in silhouette without leaves behind it. The web limited my maneuvering. But it was nearly as big as Tom’s head. You can see two of its long legs stretched in front of his forehead.

Walkways around the plantation are lovely.

Walkways around the plantation are lovely.

Views with two spiders, such as the one in the foreground here and one farther away behind it, are common at Oakley Plantation.

Views with two spiders, such as the one in the foreground here and one farther away behind it, are common at Oakley Plantation.

Again and again the spiders demanded my attention.

Again and again the spiders demanded my attention.

 

 

 

 

My one-star reviews of national parks

This blog has grown dormant during my treatment for lymphoma. Mimi and I have traveled little. Even when I felt like traveling, chemotherapy left me vulnerable to infections and getting on a plane wasn’t a good idea. But I got an idea for a travel post when I read Tim Murphy’s I Can’t Stop Reading One-Star Yelp Reviews of National Parks in Mother Jones.

They are hilarious and I won’t try to do them justice here. Really crabby people missed out on the grandeur of our national parks and didn’t have the sense to keep their whining to themselves. I have never not enjoyed a national park. I thank Teddy Roosevelt profoundly for the foresight to protect these national treasures and consider myself privileged every time I visit.

But I decided I should try to do some one-star reviews of national parks and a few other sites I have visited, with links in a few places to my less-grumpy actual posts on some parks (most of my National Park travels predate this blog). I had some family help on this:

Denali

The guides here don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. Our guide warned us that most visitors don’t get clear views of Denali (also called Mt. McKinley) because it’s often covered by clouds. That stupid bimbo! It was a beautiful day and we got several spectacular views. Then she warned us that we’d probably only see two or three of the large types of wildlife in the park. But we saw all five: wolves, grizzly bears, caribou, moose and Dall sheep. They should get guides who know what they’re talking about.

Glacier Bay

They told us we’d get to see glaciers “calve,” but that’s total BS. This doesn’t involve cattle at all. “Calving” sounds cute, but it’s really loud. You just watch huge chunks of the glacier thunderously break apart and fall into the bay as new icebergs. Why do they even call that “calving”?

Redwoods

This park is just too damn dark. You can barely get a glimpse of the sun. They should cut down some of the trees and let a little light in.

Zion Canyon

WTF? You go visit a canyon and you expect to look down into it. This one is all backwards. You’re down in the canyon, looking up at the spectacular scenery. C’mon, Zion, learn what a canyon is.

Bryce Canyon

This place really needs something like a ski lift so you can ride down into the canyon and look up at the hoodoos.

Arches

Why are these arches scattered all across the park? It would take a lot less time to see them if they had thought of locating them closer together.

Canyonlands

Why do the canyons have to be so big? It would take days to visit all the canyons in this park. And you could lose an arm or something hiking them by yourself.

Goblin Valley State Park

Really not all that scary.

Grand Canyon

We visited in February and it was freezing! C’mon, this is Arizona. Is it too much to expect some warm weather to enjoy the canyon?

Shenandoah

We tried to take our dog for a walk, and a bear walked out onto the path ahead of us. Rangers should restrict the bears to certain areas for safe viewing.

National Mall

Pretty cool, but no Gap.

Gettysburg

We went to hear an Abe Lincoln impersonator do the Gettysburg Address. He was good, but the speech was way too short.

Great Falls

This place is so noisy! My wife and I could barely hear each other talk over all the racket of the falls.

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge

They won’t even let you ride the horses.

Carlsbad Caverns

They didn’t even have the bat show when we were there. If something is that cool, you need to figure out how to offer it year-round. They say they are migratory, but really, where do they go that is cooler than the caverns. I think they should find a way to keep them there permanently.

Mammoth Cave

I was expecting some mammoth bones, but this place didn’t live up to expectations at all. Besides, it’s just too damned big.

Teddy Roosevelt

Our horseback ride through the park took about three hours. They should put in a train or something so you can see all the wildlife much faster.

Badlands

Wall Drug has cooler stuff to buy than the park. Unless you care about actual badlands you can just skip the park and buy stuff at Wall Drug.

Wind Cave

Totally overblown. It wasn’t that windy.

Everglades

They wouldn’t let us feed the alligators, even though they looked hungry.

Yellowstone

Same thing as Everglades. Everywhere you look, they had signs “Don’t feed the bears.” Think how much the federal government could save of our hard-earned tax dollars if they’d just let visitors to parks feed the animals.

 

 

Mimi and Steve’s 2014 holiday letter

We had our whole family together in August for an Alaska cruise.

We had our whole family together in August for an Alaska cruise.

Mimi and I celebrated a milestone anniversary with the trip of a lifetime with our family this year. And two months later, I shared an experience with my sons that we had been anticipating for 29 years.

Family tops work and health for us, so those two family experiences get top billing in our reflections on 2014. The new job and cancer diagnosis were big developments too. You’ll read about them, if you haven’t already, toward the end. But these were bigger:

Grizzlies were a highlight of our Denali visit.

Grizzlies were a highlight of our Denali visit.

To celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary (Aug. 3), our wonderful sons and their families took us on an Alaska cruise, (Alaska being not only a spectacular destination but the 50th state I’ve visited). It was a delightful week with all three sons, two daughters-in-law, a fiancée and two granddaughters. The shipboard activities were fun (Gramps won the egg drop and Julia and Madeline enjoyed the swimming pool). The glaciers were awesome. The port excursions were adventurous (Mimi and Susie saw a whale breach, Joe and I landed on a glacier in a helicopter, Mimi and I drove a Jeep up into the Yukon Territory). When the cruise was finished, the sons and their families flew home, and Mimi and I continued on to more adventures at Denali National Park (we saw four wolves and heard one of them howl and saw three grizzly bears at pretty close range (but safe in our tour bus). I could go on and on about the Alaska trip, but I already did that.

As if that wasn’t enough special family time for one year, the Kansas City Royals went on an exciting post-season run that prompted a smaller, shorter but still spectacular family gathering just two months later. Back in 1985, when I took Mimi to Game 2 of the World Series between the Royals and St. Louis Cardinals, I promised to take Mike the next time the Royals were in the World Series. Well, he remembered. And the Royals finally made it back. And I delivered, not just for Mike but for Joe and Tom, too. We went to Game 2 again, and the Royals came through for us (they lost Game 2 in ’85). Alas, the World Series didn’t end as well for the Royals as it did in ’85.

From left, Mike, Tom, Joe and I converged on Kansas City for Game 2 of the World Series.

From left, Mike, Tom, Joe and I converged on Kansas City for Game 2 of the World Series.

Mimi and I really enjoyed Venice.

Mimi and I really enjoyed Venice.

Those two trips were so special that they pushed a lovely visit to Venice and Perugia, Italy, down to third place on the year’s travel highlights.

Our sons are doing well: Mike was recognized in the Twin Cities Business Journal’s 40 Under 40 project. Joe and Kim are enjoying growth in their business, Moxie Event Lighting, and hosted the whole family in Las Vegas for Thanksgiving (Joe smoked some scrumptious turkey). Tom worked on Senator Tom Harkin’s successful nomination of Kailash Satyarthi for the Nobel Peace Prize, and wrapped up his work for Harkin last week as the senator retired. Tom has a good lead on what we hope will be his next job. And our granddaughters steal our hearts at every opportunity. In addition to the cruise, Granny and Gramps got to dote on Julia and Madeline in an Easter visit to the Twin Cities and that Thanksgiving family gathering in Las Vegas.

We also gathered with Mimi’s family in Michigan in September to celebrate the wedding of David and Rachel Johnson.

Another family highlight of the year was that I was able to get two pieces of family history converted to digital video, an 8mm silent color film from the 1950s that includes my parents’ wedding day (and an aunt and uncle’s) and a TV station videotape from 1976 with my father preaching in his military uniform (he was retired then, but wore it to preach at a community Veterans Day service).

steve in LSU shirtAs for that job change: The hedge funds that own Digital First Media began exploring options to sell the company, so they decided my job and many more were expendable. I found my next opportunity teaching at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication. I’ve enjoyed my new challenges, which include coordinating students’ work in the Social Media News Challenge, funded by the Knight Foundation, and teaching an honors class of Introduction to Mass Media.

Mimi found a nice townhouse for us, with two extra bedrooms, so we hope you’ll come visit us in Baton Rouge (you can fly into here or New Orleans; we have easy access to both airports). Mimi works at home on her next novel and watches out for water moccasins as she walks Duffy around the pond outside our home. If you have cause to send snail mail, the address is 809 Summer Breeze Dr. #1007, Baton Rouge, LA 70810.

That cancer diagnosis is mantle-cell lymphoma, and chemotherapy started Dec. 20 (Mimi’s birthday, but she insisted we start ASAP). The chemo will be grueling, but chances for full remission are very good (87% in the study my oncologist showed me). As you may know, I kicked cancer’s ass back in 1999 and I’m planning to kick it again. If you’re not already following our updates on Caring Bridge, we’ll keep you posted there.

I’m not burying the lead or sugar-coating anything here. It sucks to lose your job and it sucks to have cancer. But I’ve changed jobs several times and I’ve had cancer before. The Alaska trip and the World Series game with my sons were once-in-a-lifetime treats and those blessings are what we will remember 2014 for. And even the disappointments brought great joy. The reluctant farewells to DFM colleagues quickly gave way to excitement about teaching and a warm embrace from LSU colleagues and students. And we will always cherish the outpouring of support from family and friends when I lost my job and learned about the cancer. Your prayers, emails, calls, texts, tweets, Facebook messages and in-person hugs lifted our spirits more than we can say, and we are deeply grateful.

I have a daunting chemo course ahead of me, followed by a stem-cell transplant. But by the time Tom and Ashley get married in October, lymphoma and chemo should be in the rear-view mirror. I will raise a toast to the happy couple, looking to the future, as you should on a wedding day.

We wish you all the joy of whatever holidays you celebrate and thank you for sharing in this special year!

Steve and Mimi

Our Alaska voyage: Fabulous time with family, wildlife and glaciers

Our family sails to Alaska aboard the Coral Princess. Back, from left, Madeline, Joe, Kim, Ashley, Tom, my traveling companion, me, Mike. In front are Susie with Julia, showing off the back of the shirt.

Our family sails to Alaska aboard the Coral Princess. Back, from left, Madeline holding Joe’s hand, Kim, Ashley, Tom, my traveling companion, me, Mike. In front are Susie with Julia, showing off the back of the shirt.

We had looked forward to the Alaska trip so long that my expectations for it were perhaps unreasonable. But the trip exceeded them completely.

This post is coming later than I intended. During the trip, I was too busy enjoying it to blog about it. And we immediately started our move to Baton Rouge upon returning (unfortunate timing, but we were not missing this trip and we couldn’t manage to move earlier).

I will recount highlights of the trip, mostly in photos, in three primary categories: family, glaciers and wildlife. Then I’ll share a few miscellaneous highlights.

Family

The math on our shirts

The math on our shirts

As spectacular as Alaska was, this trip was rooted in family, and sharing it with our wonderful family magnified the thrill of every amazing sight. Our three sons and their families cooked up this trip as a celebration of two milestones: We would celebrate my companion’s and my 40th wedding anniversary by visiting my 50th state. They not only gave us the trip as a gift, they all came along on the cruise, which multiplied our pleasure.

The time spent with them, as a group, individually and in various combinations, made for special memories I won’t detail here. But I’ll acknowledge them all: Mike and Susie and our granddaughters, Julia and Madeline; Joe and Kim; Tom and Ashley. Throw in Granny and Gramps, and we had 10 of us altogether. So I had t-shirts made up for us all to wear for a photo our first day on the water.

Simple family time together, lots of it, was an important part of the trip. Our sons each live more than 1,000 miles from each other -- and now more than 1,000 miles from us -- so a lunch with all three of them is pretty special.

Simple family time together, lots of it, was an important part of the trip. Our sons each live more than 1,000 miles from each other — and now more than 1,000 miles from us — so a lunch with all three of them is pretty special.

Glaciers

We had numerous excursion options at each port. In Juneau, our second port, Joe and I opted to visit the Mendenhall Glacier by helicopter.

“Spectacular” doesn’t begin to describe it. The short flight in provided spectacular aerial views. We flew up the glacier around a bend and got a look at a tributary, then turned around and landed on a relatively flat area between two icefalls. We had about 20-30 minutes there, with a guide giving us a brief tour.

You gotta take a selfie in the helicopter.

You gotta take a selfie in the helicopter.

An aerial view as we approach Mendenhall Glacier.

An aerial view as we approach Mendenhall Glacier.

Mendenhall Glacier from our helicopter.

A closer view shows the ripples and crevasses from the glacier’s current.

We approach the landing site.

We approach the landing site.

Our helicopter on the glacier.

Our helicopter on the glacier.

Joe poses by the Alaska flag on the windy glacier surface.

Joe poses by the Alaska flag on the windy glacier surface. I was surprised at how blue the glacier was. We wore special boots over our shoes to give us traction on the surface, which is alternately crunchy and slick.

Surprises on the glacier's surface included the massive chunks of jagged ice and the countless boulders swept up in the glacier's downward movement. Most of them will fall into crevasses and be crushed into silt.

Surprises on the glacier’s surface included the massive chunks of jagged ice and the countless boulders swept up in the glacier’s downward movement. Most of them will fall into crevasses and be crushed into silt.

Another surprise was the river of melted ice running through the surface of the glacier. Ice-cold, of course. And clear and pure. Our guide did push-ups to dip her face into the water for a drink. Joe and I settled for scooping some up into our hands. Very refreshing.

Another surprise was the river of melted ice running through the surface of the glacier. Ice-cold, of course. And clear and pure. Our guide did push-ups to dip her face into the water for a drink. Joe and I settled for scooping some up into our hands. Extremely refreshing.

The guide shot a photo of Joe and me in front of an ice fall. The yellow things we wore are life vests, required for the helicopter flight.

The guide shot a photo of Joe and me in front of an ice fall. The yellow things we wore are life vests, required for the helicopter flight.

Thursday and Friday, we cruised by still more glaciers, first in Glacier Bay, then in College Fjord. We saw Margerie Glacier calving as huge chunks of ice would break away and fall into Glacier Bay as icebergs. The rumble as a piece cracked away is called “white thunder” and we heard it several times as the ship stopped for about an hour in front of the glacier.

Margery glacier

Margerie glacier

A closer view of Margery, though I was never quick enough to catch an iceberg "calving."

A closer view of Margerie, though I was never quick enough to catch an iceberg “calving.”

The last glacier we got a long look at. I didn't catch its name. We watched it from our balcony cabin, rather than from the deck, where a guide told about the glacier on loudspekers.

The last glacier we got a long look at. I didn’t catch its name. We watched it from our balcony cabin, rather than from the deck, where a guide told about the glacier on loudspeakers.

A closer look at our last glacier. It was here that we spotted our first bear, a black bear off to the right of the glacier. We got a pretty good look at him through binoculars, lumbering around down by the shore, though he was too far away for photos.

A closer look at our last glacier. It was here that we spotted our first bear, a black bear off to the right of the glacier. We got a pretty good look at him through binoculars, lumbering around down by the shore, though he was too far away for photos.

Wildlife

My companion and I have had many wonderful days traveling. Our Tundra Wilderness Tour of Denali National Park might have been the best.

After the cruise, the kids all flew home and my companion and I took the train up to Denali, about a nine-hour ride. We watched for wildlife along the way, spotting some Dall sheep on a mountainside, one moose and a distant bald eagle (that white head makes them easy to identify). We were just getting warmed up.

The Tundra Wilderness Tour was an upgrade from the park tour that was included in our trip to Denali. Mary Jane, our guide, started the bus ride by giving lots of disclaimers:

  • Only 30 percent of visitors get to see Mt. McKinley (Denali in the Athabasca language), because the massive mountain (North America’s highest point) generates its own weather, and that’s usually lots of clouds.
  • We would likely see some wildlife, but it’s extremely rare to see all of the “big five” of Denali wildlife: grizzly bears, wolves, moose, caribou and Dall sheep.
  • It would be especially rare for us to spot wolves. The wolf pack in Denali is down to 50, fewer wolves than people on our bus. And we’d be traveling on the single road through a park the size of the state of Massachusetts.

Well, we got the “ultimate grand slam”: bears, wolves, moose, caribou and Dall sheep. In abundance. The sheep and moose were too distant for decent photographs, but we got surprisingly close to the grizzlies, wolves and caribou. And we got clear views of Denali (though the clouds had hidden it by the time we reached our tour’s closest point to the massive mountain).

Mt. McKinley, called Denali by the Athabasca.

Mt. McKinley, called Denali by the Athabasca.

We stopped for about 15-20 minutes to watch these three bears by the roadside. The largest is the mother bear with a couple cubs. Cubs stay with the mother for three years, and the guide estimated these cubs as 3-year-olds about ready for independence.

We stopped for about 15-20 minutes to watch these three bears by the roadside. The largest is the mother bear with a couple cubs. Cubs stay with the mother for three years, and the guide estimated these cubs as 3-year-olds about ready for independence.

After foraging for berries on the left side of the road for a while, the bears walked on the road for a while, then foraged some more on the right side.

After foraging for berries on the left side of the road for a while, the bears walked on the road, then foraged some more on the right side.

The other bears we saw were all by themselves and farther from the road.

The other bears we saw were all by themselves and farther from the road.

We didn't see this bear in the wild, just at the heliport. But it gives you an idea how big they can be. Joe's about 6'4".

We didn’t see this bear in the wild, just at the heliport. But it gives you an idea how big they can be. Joe’s about 6’4″.

Our coolest wildlife sighting was four wolves. I couldn't zoom enough to catch them clearly, but we got great views through binoculars and they were visible to the naked eye. You can see them here, though they are fuzzy. The white spot just right of center is an alpha female. When the guide first spotted them, she was with the two cubs you can see to the left with a larger wolf. The larger standing wolf is a male the guide first spotted crossing the road ahead of us, heading toward the other three. I couldn't get a good photo of him there (not as good an angle as I had with the bears), but watched him through the binoculars. When he was a hundred yards or so from the other wolves, he threw back his head and howled. The cubs started yipping and greeted him excitedly, jumping up at him and scampering around him. The guide said he was probably not the alpha male, but a young adult wolf. The female didn't get up to greet him, but he went to her and they licked each other's faces. This photo is the tail end of his homecoming celebration, with the cubs still scampering around him. I don't know if I've ever seen anything cooler.

Our coolest wildlife sighting was four wolves. I couldn’t zoom enough to catch them clearly, but we got great views through binoculars and they were visible to the naked eye. You can see them here, though they are fuzzy. The white spot just right of center is an alpha female. When the guide first spotted them, she was with the two cubs you can see to the left with a larger wolf. The larger standing wolf is a male the guide first spotted crossing the road ahead of us, heading toward the other three. I couldn’t get a good photo of him there (not as good an angle as I had with the bears), but watched him through the binoculars. When he was a hundred yards or so from the other wolves, he threw back his head and howled. The cubs started yipping and greeted him excitedly, jumping up at him and scampering around him. The guide said he was probably not the alpha male, but a young adult wolf. The female didn’t get up to greet him, but he went to her and they licked each other’s faces. This photo is the tail end of his homecoming celebration, with the cubs still scampering around him. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything cooler.

We saw more than a dozen caribou, some in groups, some solitary. This female was probably the closest.

We saw more than a dozen caribou, some in groups, some solitary. This female was probably the closest.

We got a close look at this bull caribou, too, but he was partly hidden.

We got a close look at this bull caribou, too, but he was partly hidden.

Even at a distance, this caribou looked majestic, standing atop the ridge. Mary Jane said they like places like this, where the wind keeps mosquitoes away.

Even at a distance, this caribou looked majestic, standing atop the ridge. Mary Jane said they like places like this, where the wind keeps mosquitoes away.

My companion at Polychrome Pass, named for the many colors of the mountains.

My companion at Polychrome Pass, named for the many colors of the mountains.

While no other wildlife matched what we saw in Denali, we saw plenty of other wildlife on the trip. We watched humpback whales from the deck of the ship as we passed through an area with a pretty heavy whale population, and various members of the party had random sightings throughout the trip. We also saw Dall’s porpoises and sea otters frolicking in the waves. My companion and Susie took a whale-watching tour while Joe and I were visiting the glacier. They saw lots of humpbacks, including one that breached about halfway. Neither of them was fast enough to catch a photo of that one, but Susie caught a nice picture of a fluke as one was diving.

Humpback whale diving off the coast of Juneau.

Humpback whale diving off the coast of Juneau.

In our first stop, Ketchikan, we could see salmon swimming upstream. Watching down from a bridge over rapids, occasionally you’d see a fish leaping above the foam. Above the rapids, if you looked carefully in still areas below, you’d see dozens of salmon resting for their assault on the next rapids. I wish I had a good enough camera and/or skills to catch them in action, but I don’t.

Salmon were leaping in here, just not any time I snapped a photo.

Salmon were leaping in here, just not any time I snapped a photo.

We saw several bald eagles, especially in Juneau. Joe, who was especially good at spotting them, saw a golden eagle, too. Joe shot better eagle photos with his long lens, I’m sure, than I did with my camera. Here was my best:

I wonder why an eagle would hang out around a fishery?

I wonder why an eagle would hang out around a fishery?

 The rest of the trip

We set out from Vancouver on a lovely Saturday evening.

We set out from Vancouver on a lovely Saturday evening.

The sunrise over British Columbia's coast started a lovely first day at sea.

The sunrise over British Columbia’s coast started a lovely first day at sea.

Clouds, sun and water presented spectacular sights throughout the cruise.

Clouds, sun and water presented spectacular sights throughout the cruise.

We found this sign in Ketchikan (where we saw the salmon). I've been hiking this trail 40 years.

We found this sign in Ketchikan (where we saw the salmon). I’ve been hiking this trail 40 years.

From Skagway, my companion and I took the Yukon Jeep Adventure, driving up into the Yukon Territory, including a bumpy off-road drive on Montana Mountain.

From Skagway, my companion and I took the Yukon Jeep Adventure, driving up into the Yukon Territory, including a bumpy off-road drive on Montana Mountain.

Our Yukon adventure took us to Carcross, where a local Tlingit artist's totem had recently been erected.

Our Yukon adventure took us to Carcross, where a local Tlingit artist’s totem had recently been erected.

Our last day on the water, the sun rose over open ocean, with no land in sight.

Our last day on the water, the sun rose over open ocean, with no land in sight.

Our train ride to Denali took us past the Turnagain arm, where glacial silt has filled much of the inlet, and at low tide you see vast expanses of mud.

Our train ride to Denali took us past the Turnagain Arm, where glacial silt has filled much of the inlet, and at low tide you see vast expanses of mud.

The train ride to Denali was nine hours of lovely scenery around every turn.

The train ride to Denali was nine hours of lovely scenery around every turn.

We got glimpses of Denali three days in a row. The day after our tour of Denali National Park, we took a bus a couple hours south to the McKinley Princess Lodge. That day we just got this tiny peek at the peak when the clouds parted briefly.

We got glimpses of Denali three days in a row. The day after our tour of Denali National Park, we took a bus a couple hours south to the McKinley Princess Lodge. That day we just got this tiny peek at the peak when the clouds parted briefly.

We got a better look at Denali the next day, though just briefly.

We got a better look at Denali the next day, though just briefly.

Our last night in Alaska, at the Hotel Captain Cook in Anchorage, we got a nice farewell sunset.

Our last night in Alaska, at the Hotel Captain Cook in Anchorage, we got a nice farewell sunset.

Thanks again to our wonderful family for this gift! We can’t wait to see what you have in mind for our 50th.