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Friday, November 1, 2013

Monkey See Monkey Do: Or Get New Monkeys

Psychology 101
If you start with a cage containing five monkeys and inside the cage, hang a banana on a string from the top and then you place a set of stairs under the banana, before long a monkey will go to the stairs and climb toward the banana.

As soon as he touches the stairs, you spray all the other monkeys with cold water.

After a while another monkey makes an attempt with same result ... all the other monkeys are sprayed with cold water.

Pretty soon when another monkey tries to climb the stairs, the other monkeys will try to prevent it.

Now, put the cold water away.

Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one.

The new monkey sees the banana and attempts to climb the stairs. To his shock, all of the other monkeys beat the "tar" out of him. After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs he will be assaulted.

Next, remove another of the original five monkeys, replacing it with a new one.

The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment...... with enthusiasm, because he is now part of the "team".

Then, replace a third original monkey with a new one, followed by the fourth, then the fifth. Every time the newest monkey takes to the stairs he is attacked.

Now, the monkeys that are beating him up have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs.

Neither do they know why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey.

Finally, having replaced all of the original monkeys, none of the remaining monkeys will have ever been sprayed with cold water. Nevertheless, not one of the monkeys will try to climb the stairway for the banana.

Why, you ask? Because in their minds...that is the way it has always been!

This, my friends, is how Congress operates... and this is why, from time to time: ALL of the monkeys need to be REPLACED AT THE SAME TIME.

Your Congressional Representative?

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Should The United States Use Military Force Against Syria?

I have not met, or heard, very many people who quickly answer this question "yes" or "no," myself included.  There are many, many variables as to whether the United States should engage in some sort of military action against the Syrian government and President Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons against Syrian citizens which killed hundreds of women and children in addition many more men.

When the allegations of chemical weapons being used in the Syrian civil war first arose my immediate thoughts went to something I have said often in the past.  It is in answer to a question no one in the press seems to be asking, "where did Assad get the sarin nerve gas?"

My answer is the same answer I had when no chemical or biological weapons were found in Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003: from Saddam Hussein.  Separating oneself from the vitriolic emotions that many experience regarding President George W. Bush and the Iraq War and just looking at times lines and past history there is a strong case to be made that Hussein supplied Assad.  With months, even years, to prepare for some sort of international action against him for biological and chemical weapons (WMD or weapons of mass destruction), Saddam had plenty of time to move weapons across the Iraqi-Syrian border.

Without delving into intense detail, those with a good sense of recall will remember that Hussein had used chemical weapons against Iranians and Kurds during the Iran-Iraq war, told the United Nations after the first Gulf War that he had stockpiles of biological and chemical agents that were weaponized, later when UN inspectors went into the country they were often stalled or refused the ability to inspect sights for weeks or months if at all, and several foreign intelligence agencies besides our own reported that Hussein had chemical and biological weapons.

So how did an arsenal of WMD agents that Hussein acknowledged having, that several countries confirmed him having and that he had previously used suddenly disappear?  Suddenly is not the right word as Hussein had months between the UN passing a resolution calling for inspections and that Hussein better comply or else.  Or else was Congress voting to give Bush the authority to invade Iraq.  There was plenty of time between the UN debates and vote, the debate in the U.S. and subsequent Congressional vote and the invasion for a man who controlled every aspect of his nation to move weapons across the border to a very friendly and receptive dictator in Syria.

So back to the question at hand: Should the United States use military force against Syria?  My answer is yes. But...

I firmly believe that the United States has a moral imperative to strike against anyone who uses chemical and/or biological weapons.  While many Americans are uncomfortable with the idea, we are the world's "policeman."  I see no other nation in the world with our moral compass and our power to ensure everyone plays nice, and for those who don't impose penalties.  While nice to have support from other nations when undergoing our duties enforcing moral imperatives, I do not feel it is necessary. Because of this I strongly feel the United States must act against Bashar al-Assad and his military for the chemical attack(s).

What complicates the answer to this question is the recent history, i.e. since Obama has been President, in the Middle East.  In 2002 then Senator Obama spoke out against the Iraq War, not because Hussein may or may not have had WMD, but because he felt it was "a dumb war."  Saying Hussein " a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power" Obama also acknowledged Hussein's possession and use of WMD.  His argument against the war was that Hussein "...poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States or to his neighbors." 

Since becoming President the threshold for military force (which in my opinion is the same as war) has loosened considerably.  Obama called for bombing in Lybia to assist rebels in deposing dictator Muammar Gaddafi--there was no imminent and direct threat to the United States or Lybia's neighbors.  While using bombs to get rid of one rogue government, Obama did nothing to assist a growing revolution in Iran, a government that does pose a threat to the United States with its funding of terrorists.  Obama cheered from the sidelines while Egypt's long term ruler Hosni Mubarek was toppled and refused to express concern when the Muslim Brotherhood came to power.  Later when elected President Mohamed Morsi was deposed by the Egyptian military the Administration issued a fairly meek protest.  Syria has been engaged in a civil war with three parties vying for power and until earlier this year when the United States began supplying weapons and training to some rebel forces there was no effort to unseat Assad.

What is the filter through which Obama picks and chooses who to assist in deposing and who to let fight it out?  How is Assad any less worthy of being ousted with strong and direct military assistance than Gaddafi?  Perhaps the answer lies to the north of Syria and Assad's ally Vladimir Putin.  If only Gaddafi had stronger alliances with other dictators he may still be alive and in power.

The primary source of my hesitancy for the United States striking against Assad is my concern the scope of our action will be too limited and inconsequential.  Will the action be akin to bombing an aspirin factory, a la President Clinton in the Sudan?  Unless our military action is strong, severe and has a lasting negative impact on Assad's ability to wage war against his own people then I feel any action we take will be to prop up Obama's "red line" statement.  Anything less than an plan of action that takes out Assad's air force, significantly damages his army and/or takes out Assad and/or his top military officials to me bombing just to bomb.  

A limited missile strike against a few targets is akin to spanking your grown drug addicted son in hopes it will change his behavior.  Assad needs more than a swat on the butt, and does the world community.  Slapping Assad on the wrist by killing a few members of his military, who he sees as expendable anyway, gives tacit consent to future despots who want to use chemical or biological weapons. 

Assad needs to be removed from power, either by terminating him or capturing him and putting him on trial.

As for the power vacuum this would create, from all I have ingested over the past few years on the Syrian civil war there are three factions: Assad and the government, Al-Qaeda and a "Free Syrian" or secular faction.  It is the latter group that the United States should support and act accordingly.

The financial cost to the United States, how the Arab street or other dictators will "feel" about the United States and threats from Putin should not factor in our decision to punish, convincingly, Bashar al-Assad.  What makes the decision to engage militarily in Syria is the moral principles of our nation, using chemical weapons on civilians, whether with missiles or as part of ethnic cleansing is wrong and anyone who engages in such murder needs to be eliminated.

My hope is that very soon President Obama personally lays out the imperative as well as Secretary of State Kerry did in part of his statement on Sunday.  My hope is that President Obama will provide a clear objective as to the intended result of military action in Syria and that the objective is nothing short of removing Bashar al-Assad from power.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013


By the numbers:

4965 miles on the Summer Road Trip III
12 nights Leslie and I were on the road
7 nights Blaire and Jenna were on the road with us
33 nights Jenna was "on the road" including her nights at camp
19 nights Blaire was away from home
10 states Leslie and I travelled through
7 states Blaire and Jenna travelled through (missing Nevada, Arizona, Utah)

A couple of impressions from SRTIII that will linger for a long time.

First, how well everyone got along despite being in close quarters for literally 24-7.  Every mile, every meal, every hotel at night and in the morning we were together.  A few very minor spats, but the key words being "few" and "minor spats."  I am very proud of the girls for their road-princess attitudes, and not princess in the "she's a princess" negative type way.

Second, how social media added to the enjoyment of our trip.  As many know Leslie and I were posting often on Facebook, and the girls were putting pictures up on their Instagram accounts.  The comments from a wide range of friends and acquaintances from their having been where we are travelling to and sharing their experiences to positive comments enjoying our photos and travels.  It seems like quite a few people were on our trip with us as their vicarious travels brought us pleasure that we could drive them around the country.  Added to this are the numerous positive comments to me directly from those who have waded through my grammatical and spelling errors in this blog updating our progress. Thank you to everyone for our support and at times cheering us on.

Third, here's the sappy part, how blessed I am to have the perfect travel companion for this and every journey.  If any young couple asks me for advice before they get married I think I will suggest they take a very long road trip, by car, and see how well they spend so much time together without a break or a place to go be by themselves.  That Leslie and I can do this year after year says everything about our marriage, our compatibility and our love for each other and many of the same things in life.

We ended our journey driving from Medford, Oregon to San Francisco to see Dad, Ankie and sister Sharon.  It was a beautiful day out on Dad's deck, sunny, slight breeze and about 65 degrees.  We visited for a while and then it was back into the Honda Odyssey for a short hop to Novato and Sharon and her husband Bob's home for our final night of the trip.  A fantastic dinner of grilled tri-tip, baked potatoes and salad with some wine from George Lucas' vineyard and we were well nourished for our final leg.

For the first time we drove south from Northern California to Long Beach on Highway 99 instead of I-5.  It may have taken longer but it was a much easier and enjoyable drive.  There are multiple stretches with three lanes, the agriculture diversity is better than I-5 and most importantly the drivers are far less aggressive.

Of course what made the drive more enjoyable for me was having satellite radio and listening to the final round of the PGA Championship from 9:00 to its conclusion just before we pulled to the curb around 4:30.  Yes, golf on the radio--thankfully my travel companions were okay with it, the girls watching videos on my laptop and Leslie engrossed in a book.

At 4:30 we turned off the van and unloaded for the last time, on this trip.  Already thinking of next year's trip.  The girls haven't been to Colorado.  And of course we were so close to the Canadian border this year, what about heading north and driving home through our northern neighbor?  Hmmmm, decisions.....

The girls with their Aunt Sharon who spent many years
at Camp Birchwood as a camper and counselor

Dad, aka Opa, with his girls on his deck in San Francisco

Almost home! Just before we climb in for the final leg
from Sharon's in Novato to Long Beach

Friday, August 9, 2013

Emerald City

In January Leslie and I went to Seattle for a weekend, it was my first visit there and we had a great time.  It was cold (low thirty degrees, high forty), foggy (we had dinner at the top of the Space Needle and the only thing we could see was the bright pink neon elephant sign for the car wash right below the needle) and windy.  I loved it and told her that if we ever win the lottery (make that when we win the lottery) we are buying a condo in the Emerald City for when we visit frequently.

After our visit the past two days my plan for lottery money has not changed.

The drive from Bonner's Ferry to Seattle was another great drive with interesting contrasts as we put several hundred miles on our odometer.  We dropped through the wooded mountains and foothills into Spokane and Eastern Washington.  Not long after that the trees melted away and we were once again in the midst of a wheat belt.  Eastern Washington mirrored Western Montana with plains type terrain and fields becoming lush forested mountains--no duh since the northern Rockies separate the two regions.

Slowly the flatlands become more hilly and after lunch we crossed the Columbia River.  We slowly and windily climbed from the river and after cresting one hill I almost jammed on the brakes as looming in the distance was the massive Mount Rainer, covered in snow and visible from more than 150 miles outside Seattle.  It was stunning to have it just appear out of the horizon so suddenly.

The drive into Seattle was slowed by road repair and then traffic into the city but we finally arrived at our Best Western Loyal Inn around 4:00.  The weather was quite different than our trip in January, about 50 degrees different as it was 85 degrees when we arrived, as well it was very clear.  Our hotel was perfectly located and after unloading the Honda Odyssey we walked to the Space Needle, it was about a ten minute walk.

The 360 degree view from the Space Needle on a day like we had on Wednesday afternoon is indescribable.  Seattle's location on the Puget Sound, Lake Union with the islands and mountains plus the city itself make it a very unique setting and the Space Needle maximizes that setting for visitors.  We spent about an hour walking around the outside platform and snapping photos.  One event that was very neat was the helicopter for one of the local television stations taking off from its roof-top landing pad that was several hundred feet below us.

After the Space Needle we went to a sports bar and restaurant nearby for dinner and then walked around a bit, getting the obligatory Starbucks and then headed back to our hotel.

Thursday morning we were up and eschewed the free Best Western breakfast for Top Pot donuts, "hand forged" donuts and a place Leslie and I discovered in January.  The donuts are fantastic and naturally for Seattle the coffee is better than we are used to.  We were meeting Leslie's cousins for lunch around noon by the Pike Place Market so we walked down to the market.  The fish throwers get most of the attention for the market but the totality of the shops and what they have to offer is what makes the place special--and a primary reason for my declaration that lottery money would buy a condo nearby.  The variety and freshness of the fruits, vegetables, fish and meat makes it a must go to place if you like to cook.  Add in the crafty stuff and all the different food purveyors and you have a place that can take your whole day from breakfast to dinner.

We spent quite a while watching the cheese curds being stirred at Beecher's Cheese and even longer watching a woman who I do not think speaks English making piroshkys at Piroshky, Piroshky.  When noon rolled around we met Leslie's cousins Mary and Melinda at Steelhead Diner (I had the manila clams with sofrito and broth--yes they were delicious).

After a very good lunch and the cousins catching up on each other and other members of the family we walked down to the waterfront.  Jenna really wanted to ride the ferris wheel, dad did not.  Dad won.

We went down a few piers and purchased tickets for the ferry to Bainbridge Island. The tickets were cheap ($7.70 for Leslie and I and $6.20 for the girls) and you only pay one-way---the ride back to Seattle is free. Perfect timing as they started boarding the ship right when we showed up.  It was a beautiful day, we stayed out on the deck,  hanging out on the bow, in shorts and shirt sleeves, I imagine that is not something that you can do to many days a year.  The ride is fun and not much more than half an hour.  Once we got to the island we walked about ten minutes into the town and headed right to Mora Iced Creamery.  Yet more delicious food in the Seattle area, some of the best ice cream anywhere.

Looking around we saw there was not much else we wanted to see so we headed back to the ferry and once again had perfect timing as boarding started as soon as we got in line.  We had a fun time watching all the cars load into the hold.

Once we landed in Seattle I took leave of the girls to go back to the hotel room to do some work, a good opportunity as well to avoid the ferris wheel ride they were headed to.

Leslie and the girls walked back to the hotel from the ferris wheel, stopping for some shopping and browsing on the way. After we all gathered in the room we headed out on foot for dinner.  Leslie found an Italian restaurant in one of the guides, La Vita E Bella.  We walked up and there was an elderly gentleman sitting on a stool playing an accordion on the sidewalk where they had tables set up. We sat outside and enjoyed a very good dinner, ambiance with the accordion player next to our table and the incredible summer weather.  After dinner we walked to the Icon Grill, which is across from the Westin where we stayed in January and they have "dessert happy hour" after 9:00 every evening.

A first in Smith Family history, we ordered three desserts to share and none were finished--we were quite full.  On our full stomachs we walked back to our room and I collapsed.  The best day of our trip, long walks, good food and a wonderful city as the setting.

Today we drove to Medford, Oregon.  The drive down I-5 was horrible, after 4100 miles the drivers in Oregon are the worst of anywhere we have been.  No one respects the "Slower Drivers Stay In Right Lane," cut you off when passing a truck and generally made for a very stressful drive for the first two hundred miles.

The last hundred plus miles was gorgeous, even with a huge down pour as we wound through the mountains that had us down to below forty miles an hour and greatly reduce visibility.  We pulled into our hotel about 6:00 and headed across the parking lot to the local diner for a passable and forgettable dinner.  Now we sit in the room having a cocktail, reading, blogging, texting and watching "Shark Tank."

Tomorrow we return to California, Leslie and I for the first time since July 30th, Blaire since July 22nd and Jenna since July 8th.  We plan on pulling into sister/aunt Sharon and Uncle Bob's place in Marin County sometime in the late afternoon.  Sunday we will stop by my folk's place in San Francisco for a brief visit and then head home to Long Beach via Highway 99 down the valley and gut of California.

Here are the Seattle pics in random order as I'm having some issues with loading pics tonight:

Top Pot donut case--the lemon old fashioneds, mmmmmm......

Mount Rainier looming over the Pugent Sound as seen from the ferry to Bainbridge Island

How close was our hotel to the Space Needle?

Our hotel/room from the Space Needle

Obligatory Space Needle shot--look how beautiful the sky is

Downtown Seattle with Mount Rainier ever present

One of the many flower stalls at Pike Place Market

One of many fresh produce stalls at the market

My beautiful travel companions on the ferry to Bainbridge Island

Tuesday, August 6, 2013


Quite a ride today on the Summer Road Trip III.  Our route was west on Highway 2 until we met Highway 89 which took us north to Glacier National Park, traverse Glacier NP and then hook up again with Highway 2 on the southwestern edge of the park and then continue to Bonner's Ferry, Idaho.  Where I sit, exhausted, looking out our hotel window at the Kootenai River about fifteen yards below us.  The drive showed the contrasts of Montana, the Great Plains and the Northwest.

As we continued our run west on Hwy-2 leaving our hotel in Shelby before 9:00 this morning we continued to be surrounded by vast fields of wheat, hay and ranch land.  About half an hour after we started we crested a hill after a long slow climb and before us mountains sprang out of the prairie land.  It was very apparent where the Great Plains would end and the Rocky Mountains began.  After another half hour we turned north on Hwy-89 at Browning. Soon everything around us began to change.

First the road changed.  We left the sturdy two loan with wide shoulders to a rough two lane road with no shoulders that seemed a lot less wide than what we were used to the past two days.  Trees bordered both sides of the road as we slowly climbed.  We say a sign that said Range Cattle.  "Huh," I thought.

A bit later I said, "hey look those cows are outside the fence."  As about 4-5 cows were right alongside the road.  The girls thought that was pretty neat, I thought that was pretty dangerous.  A few turns on the winding road later there was a cow in the middle of the road and several on the side.  For the next twenty miles we routinely see cows on the side of the road, in the woods and in small pastures.  "Range Cattle" means no fences and cows going where they please.

Around 10:30 we entered Glacier at the St. Mary's gate.  Our plan was to take the Going to the Sun Road through the park to the West Glacier gate, a trip of about 50 miles. With slow downs for road construction, traffic and stops to take a look it took us a little over two and a half hours to go through the park.

What a two and a half hours it was.  The mountain peaks in Glacier don't seem to be connected.  I commented that it looks like a bunch of kids had a mountain making contest and each kid made their own mountain and set it down next to the other kids'.  The distance between the peaks seems much wider than I recall from other mountain ranges and the peaks seemingly jump straight out of the valley floors.

The drive is tight with you either hugging the edge of a cliff dropping hundreds of feet down or you hugging a cliff face dropping to the road side and you are worried about scraping off your mirror.  All the while trying to take in the incredible beauty you are driving through, without hitting anyone driving or walking.

We had brilliant blue skies and sunshine and the temperatures where in the mid-50's.  We climbed as high as just over 6600 feet, when we went through the Logan Pass dropping down to just over 3000 feet when we exited.  We intended to stop at Logan Pass where the Continental Divide is however there was no parking--rangers were waving people along and not letting anyone stop, and the nearest parking roadside was about a mile down the road; no we were not willing to climb one mile at 6000+ feet to get a picture.  Something I learned about this point in the Divide the water flows west to the Pacific or northeast to the Arctic Ocean via Hudson Bay.  Further south in the park is Triple Divide Peak, everything west of this point goes to the Pacific, everything east and north of the point goes to the Arctic via Hudson Bay and everything east and south of the point goes to the Atlantic via the Gulf of Mexico.

After we exited the park we grabbed some lunch in West Glacier at the local diner/restaurant right outside the gate and then headed westward.  The Montana we drove through after Glacier was completely different than the Montana we drove through yesterday and this morning.  No more vast fields, instead dense forests, large valleys, running rivers and large lakes.  No more stretches of one, two even three miles with no turns in the road.  Instead we wound up and down mountain sides, through valleys that were several miles wide and among tall pines.

The mountain, forest, lake, river drive continued as we followed the Kootenai River to the former logging town of Bonner's Ferry, our home for the evening. Tomorrow we will finally leave Hwy-2 after a 1,275 mile run from Cass Lake, Minnesota to Spokane, Washington where we will pick up I-90 for Seattle.

Here are pictures from our day:

Rockies rise from the Plains as we drive Hwy-2

The peaks of Glacier as we approach from the southeast
on Hwy-89

Still outside of Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park

A normal site at Glacier NP

You can see the road cut into the hillside
on the right

Looking up a rock face, water constantly drips,
not runs but drips, down this formation

The Kootenai River looking east, we are about
30 miles south of Canada

Kootenai River looking west

Main Street (yes it is Main Street) Bonner's Ferry, Idaho

Monday, August 5, 2013

Sky Ice Tastes Good

Today was a day of wide openness and weather.  We left our Microtel by Wyndham around 9:30 this morning and headed to the WalMart next door to replenish our case of bottled water.  Leslie and the girls were very amused by
WalMart Escargot with shells!
some of the items for sale in the Williston, North Dakota WalMart.  Items such as canned escargots with shells--the shells were empty and in a tube attached to the can of snails.  Also available at WalMart in Williston which we have not seen at home are some interesting flavors of Lays potato chips. Such as dill pickle or chicken and waffles.  Yes, chicken and waffle flavored potato chips--with a pickle potato chip as a side?

The trip out of Williston heading west on Hwy-2 was
Montana Big Sky Clouds
a bit stressful given the fog that limited vision to about 100 yards.  With all the construction and trucks pulling onto and off of the highway from the fields my biggest concern was not ramming someone from behind or getting rammed but a trucker pulling out in front of us not being able to see us coming through the fog.  Thankfully not long after we crossed the border into Montana the fog began to clear and we had beautiful skies.  Various shades of blue and various shapes and types of clouds.  Big puffy clouds wrapped in whispy thin streaks of clouds for as far as we could see in all directions.

From just outside of Williston all the way to our destination of Shelby, Montana, Hwy-2 is a two lane road that parallels the BNSF railway line along the "High Line."  Trains that stretch to the horizon with hundreds of cars for hauling grain travel the High Line.  We never went too long without seeing grain silo complexes for transferring grain from the trucks bringing it from the fields to the railway cars that pull up to the silos on sidings for loading.  Fields of growing grain surrounded the highway, and stretched off into the horizon for much of the drive.  At one point I measured one field to be about two and a half miles along the highway and it appeared to be equally deep.  Montana is not only Big Sky country but big field country as well.

Highway 2 is not an interstate, it is a highway and as such it goes through towns, not around or over them.  Our route had us slowing down to 25 miles per hour quite frequently to go through a town of 200 people, at one town, I can't recall the name, a sign painted on the side of a building said, "Home to 526 very friendly people" going through the town we passed five or six buildings, half vacant.  Highway 2 towns are littered with old and empty buildings that were hotels, restaurants, bars, small town offices.  You can see that the highway at one time was a lifeline connecting all these towns and their commerce, today it connects one destination to another with all the towns acting to slow down traffic as it passes through to somewhere else.

One of the towns on the High Line that still has quite a bit of commerce is Havre, where Leslie and I stayed during Summer Road Trip II last year on our way to Minnesota.  This year we stopped for gas and a stretch.  On our way out of town (25 miles per hour) the wind picked up considerably to a very strong headwind, dust blowing down the main street. The sky darkened rapidly and I noticed on the Odyssey temperature gauge that outside it had dropped from about 75 degrees to 65 in a few minutes.  Thunderstorm definitely on its way.  Big huge drops of rain started hitting the windshield.  "That's some wet rain," Leslie said.  The girls laughed and Blaire said, "That sounds like something DonPa (Leslie's dad who is a farm boy from Iowa) would say."

"It is something he does say."

Then the clouds opened up and the rain restricted vision to about three car lengths and the noise level became very loud.  With the drop in temperature it was no surprise that hail followed.  Just little pea size at first and then it became very intense with large marble size hailstones pelting the car.  I pulled over into a
The girls with "sky ice"
restaurant parking lot downwind from a large SUV to protect the van.  At one point the hail got so large and was hitting the van so hard I told Blaire, who was on the windward side of the van, to crawl into the back on the leeward side--I had some serious concern if the hail would get even bigger and break a window.  Having seen shows on summer hail storms in the Dakotas and midwest I was aware that hail has that power. After about five minutes--though it seemed longer--the hail stopped and the sun came out.  The girls jumped out of the van to check out the hail and Jenna (who loves to eat ice) said she wanted to eat some.  Blaire told her "that's just gross" but Jenna grabbed some and chewed away.

"Sky ice tastes good!" High praise from an ice connoisseur.

As we left Havre and the hail storm behind we saw huge storm clouds and dark gray rain off in the distance to the south and west of us.  We plotted their path and our own wondering if we would skirt to the north of the huge storm of get hit by it.  Thankfully we passed north and just had a few drops from the edges.  It did provide some good lightening flashes for us however.

When we were about fifteen miles outside of Shelby late in the afternoon another storm approached from the north.  I watched our outside thermometer drop from 75 degrees to 60 and the wind from the north was blowing the van hard to the south. I was concerned we might be in for another large hail storm and soon the rain began.  The wind was blowing so hard the windshield wipers slowed noticeably on their return to the bottom of the windshield.  Gauging our path and speed and that of the storm it became evident we would just get hit by the edge of the storm.  "Just the edge" necessitated the "whiplash" setting on the wipers and visibility declined tremendously.  Thankfully we only had about ten minutes of the rain and by the time we drove into Shelby the sun was out and the storm was passing to the east and south.

Huge clouds are across the northern horizon and to the northwest, the direction we head tomorrow as we go up to and through Glacier National Park and then to northern Idaho for the night.  I am hoping the storm clouds make their way south tonight to give us some rain and storm free driving tomorrow.

Edge of a storm

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Feels Like Home

Leslie and I had a leisurely morning in  Bismark, stopping by the local mall for an extension cord (be prepared, always have one on a Summer Road Trip) and saw some interesting sites (prior post here).

The drive across the remainder of North Dakota was beautiful as we expected.  Similar to eastern Montana, the run across North Dakota alternates between rolling hills and pool table flat. The state has about 2% unemployment with the
Not an unusual site driving across the Northern Plains
a lake, river, creek or marsh land.
oil and gas extraction, and where that isn't going on the land is filled with agriculture production.  From what I could tell ranching, wheat, corn, alfalfa dominate the farmland.

What would surprise most, as it did me with my preconceived notions of the Northern Plain States before driving them for three years now, is the abundance of lakes, streams, marshes.

We cleared Fargo a little after 2:00 and entered Minnesota.  Almost immediately the rolling fields along the roadside were replaced by towering trees.  Pines, aspens and varieties I won't pretend to know.  We were in the land of 10,000 lakes (which Blaire told us later was false and that Minnesota has 15,000 lakes.  Fire the guy who counted for the license plates, he was off by 50%).

Word of caution when driving in Minnesota, especially driving east from North Dakota--go the speed limit.  This is our third year making the drive from the border eastward and we see more highway patrol on the two and a half hour drive than the rest of our trip combined (exception being 395 through California, but most Californians already know about that state money maker road).

Finally about 4:30 we reached our destination for part one of Summer Road Trip III: Camp Birchwood on the north shore of Steamboat Lake.  Not too long after our arrival Jenna came by our cabin as we were unloading to say hello and get/give hugs with some friends.  We saw Blaire later in the dining hall, with perfect teenage angst, she semi-ignored us while being happy to see us--anyone who has or has had girls over the age of twelve know this talent, those with younger girls will have an "ah-ha moment" when their sweet little girl hits the age range.

Driving into Birchwood always feels like driving home.  It has been part of our family's heritage for three generations.  My Dad physically helped build many of the structures and my brother, sister and I have spent parts of many summers there.  Bucolic could describe the setting, fun the environment of the camp.  With 120 girl campers in residence there is a precision to getting them fed, to activities and ensuring camp stays clean and safe.  Throughout the day peels of laughter, cheers and encouragement is heard from every corner of the grounds and water front.

For Leslie and I we take our place on chairs on the lakeside deck ("Yeah Lakeside Deck" is the cheer the girls give in unison whenever the words are said) to relax, watch the sail boats and interact with those coming and going to the mess hall and between cabins.  It is a great place to hang out and the idea of having a nice
Words are inadequate
cocktail or glass of wine in hand as the sun slips lower, clouds wander across the sky and the breeze swirls.

No alcohol is needed however to enjoy the moment and the view.  A great spot to contemplate, meditate and conversate. As the pictures shows, words are somewhat inadequate to convey the scene.

Looking east from the deck
While the pictures show the lake at the end of the day, during the day the lake side is full of activity with girls swimming, playing on the "Mountain" slide that is two stories high, kayaking, windsurfing, tubing, water skiing, and sailing.  Four periods a day, every day there are girls and their counselors taking full advantage of the activities available.

As the sun sets boats from across the lake start to appear as the fisherman troll for the walleye, bass and northern pike that are found in the waters.

Friday night a production of "Wicked" was presented by several of the campers, including our Jenna who had a fun role utilizing her innate sarcasm.  Over the
Jenna (left) delivering on cue
course of the evening and the next day it came out that I have seen "Wicked" twice, once on Broadway and again at the Pantages in Los Angeles.  Slept through most of both.  Jenna was glad her crew's performance managed to keep me awake through the show.

Saturday before end of session starts with the traditional donuts on the Lakeside Deck (all together, "yeah Lakeside Deck") as the cabins come down one
Jenna (Oklahoma sweatshirt (naturally) third from right)
and cabin mates enjoying Saturday breakfast.
at a time to sign a paddle that will hang in their cabin and then eat donuts, eggs, potatoes and fruit on the deck.  While the donuts are a treat, they are really not that special as the food at Birchwood is really very good--and consistently good. They bake a lot of their own breads and goodies and for putting out three meals a day for anywhere from 150 to 200 campers and staff daily there is rarely a complaint, in fact our girls always comment on how good the food is at camp.

Saturday Leslie and I lounged in the deck chairs in the morning watching the sail boats and other water activities.  After lunch the girls had to get their bags packed and brought to a central area so they could be loaded for travel early the next morning.  Want a logistical problem to solve?  One hundred twenty girls leaving on one morning, about six or seven will be picked up by parents, the rest leave by bus.  Some of them will be dropped off at a school parking lot in Minneapolis (about three hours away) to be picked up by their parents.  The rest are flying all around the world on several different airlines.  How do you manage two bags per girl, five or six airlines, departure times from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m. the following morning?

The easy bags are for those being picked up at the school and the kids flying to St. Louis (about twenty-thirty girls). They get their own two piles and loaded into their buses.  What about the other 200 bags?  Every girl is given a number depending on their airline and departure time.  Then the bags are loaded in reverse order into a big U-Haul truck so the last two bags are for the girl with number one.  The U-haul leaves for the airport at 5:00 a.m. Sunday and heads to the airlines and checks in all the bags, last in - first out.  Amazingly it works session after session, year after year.  Several hundred bags. Multiple flights and airlines.  No lost bags.

After assisting with the sorting and loading of luggage, Leslie and I hung out.  I wandered over to the archery range where Blaire was shooting in the afternoon. I
Teenage ennui on the archery range
Blaire showing good form
before she lets loos
didn't hang around long, the teenager was reluctant to acknowledge my presence in front of her friends (one camper asked in front of the invisible dad, "do you like having your parents here?"  "It is so weird.").  I watched her loose a few arrows, impressed with her form and scoring--she moved up through two levels in her two
weeks at camp showing some proficiency and improvement.  After watching another round of girls shoot I wandered back to our cabin where we cleaned up and did some reading prior to dinner and the main events.

The last Saturday at the end of the combined two and four week session has two major events.  First is the banquet that is put on by senior campers--girls in high school who must apply to be admitted to the senior program.  These girls are held to a different standard than the rest of the campers, not quite campers but also not counselors. They are in what amounts to a leadership training and development program.  For the last dinner of the session they host a dinner with
Sign and part of display at banquet
a theme and decorate the dining hall and plan the menu around the theme.  This year two senior girls planned and coordinated the whole banquet with the theme of "Dream."  As different counselors came forward after the meal to hand out the top awards for their disciplines (example one girl in riflery won awards for scoring scores from a standing position---it looks easy on television but stand with a ten pound rifle that is maybe twenty years old shooting a small .22 caliber bullet at a target a little bigger than a half-dollar fifty feet down range that is blowing in the wind).  All the girls dress up for the banquet and it is a great celebration of achievement and camaraderie as screams of congratulations peel through the dining hall as awardees are announced.

After the banquet there is a large campfire.  Awards are handed out to girls who earned them, proud to see Jenna get a sailing award she was working on.  Campfire songs are sung and as the evening winds down the songs become more maudlin and the sounds of sniffles and sobs spread as the girls get ready to
say good-bye to their friends they have lived with for the past four or two weeks. One tradition is the senior girls capping off the evening with small speeches about what Birchwood means to them, many of them have been attending for more than five years, one sixteen year old has been every summer since she was eight. The common themes are their appreciation to be at camp, away from the pressures and expectations from others and themselves "in the real world," the strong friendships they have developed and will continue to nurture until next summer--or if they are not coming back will stay in touch through the years, and the personal growth they have achieved through the years at camp.  As much as I know the benefits my daughters get from attending Birchwood every summer, that knowledge is strongly reinforced witnessing the statements from these girls jumping off into womanhood with tools, confidence and wisdom gained through their experiences at Birchwood.  Someday each of my girls will stand in front of one hundred or so other campers, most younger then they will be, and offer their words of advice, wisdom and appreciation.  When they do they will be proud of what they have accomplished and the path to those accomplishments.

The campfire broke up pretty late, around 11:00, and Leslie and I headed off to our little cabin.  As we fell asleep we could faintly hear the songs and the laughter fade as the exhausted campers and staff fell asleep.  Sleep for long was not on the schedule as the bell rang at 6:10 to call the "hoppers" (girls from each cabin who help set up the tables for their cabin mates and then clear the tables after the meal) to the dining hall for the last meal.  Then the exodus begins with the camp congregating around saying good-bye to the first girls to leave on the 7:00 bus.

After the bus left we gathered up Blaire and Jenna, said our good-byes and thank yous and climbed into the Honda Odyssey for the second half of the Summer Road Trip III.

With the girls being quite talkative throughout the day we wandered through the
Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox
in Bemidji, Minnesota
woods finding Hwy 2 through Bemidji and headed east to Grand Forks and the North Dakota border and then staying on Hwy 2 across the state.  The big event of the day was early on when Jenna finally got her first phone--for years we have heard "I don't have a tablet or a phone, I'm the only one I know..." but with her going to middle school in the fall we felt it was time.  Plus it keeps her occupied and not once do we hear "are we there yet?"

A perfect day for driving, high clouds keeping down the bright sunshine and glare, helped us reach our destination of Williston, about twenty miles from Montana to the east and thirty miles from Canada to the north.  We
The girls at the Geographical Center
of North America, Rugby, ND
arrived around 5:00 and checked into our hotel--like most in the area it caters to the oil and gas field crowds and the hundreds of thousands of workers in the state who are working far from home. This means a washer and dryer and Leslie ran two loads of the girls stuff so we are somewhat clean smelling for the remaining 2400 miles or so before we get home on Sunday.

A nice fun dinner at a local pizzeria and we are spread throughout the hotel room, writing, reading, "face-timing" (look it up you old timers) and checking emails.  We are the modern family on a road trip.

Tomorrow we drive most the way across Montana to Shelby, just outside Glacier National Park.

Some Images from our trip as I catch up

Here are some different images as I catch up after we traveled from Bismark to Camp Birchwood on Friday, spent Saturday at camp and then left this morning (Sunday) driving across North Dakota to Williston, North Dakota--a 21st Century oil and gas boomtown.

Sign in lobby at out hotel in Bismarck, they wouldn't let Leslie and I in
with our cocktails.  Pffffft, we're on a ROAD trip assess that!
Something you don't see in a California mall, carpeting!
The entire mall is carpeted.  Oh and rider mowers and tractors on display....

Also in the mall in Bismark--a party pontoon boat!
When I took the picture an elderly gentleman was sitting at a table next
to the boat quizzically looking at me as I snapped my photo.
"I want her to see what it looks like so she puts the right on in my stocking."
"Good idea," he said.

Paul Bunyan and Babe, his obviously Blue Ox at Bemidji, Minnesota

This is Williston, North Dakota as seen from our hotel room.
By next year I'm betting this sitehas another hotel or some restaurants on it.
(A new Fudruckers being built made the front page of the Sunday paper today)

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Into the Dakotas

After seeing thunderstorms gathering around us the past two day but never having any rain we saw the end of our sunny driving end this morning.  Waking up early in the morning I heard rain outside and throughout the morning the we went through small squalls that put just enough water on the van to turn the dust from yesterday's run along Idaho A-20 into mud.

Before leaving in the rain we had the Best Western complimentary breakfast at Stella's Kitchen and Bakery.  The smell as we approached was pure bakery, being somewhat conscious of the waistlines we eschewed the cinnamon rolls that appeared to be able to enter "best I ever ate..." category as they were the size of catchers' mitts--and not Little League either.  Fueled up we headed out to the east-southeast to the Little Big Horn.

Even those with just a scant knowledge of U.S. history are aware that Little Big Horn is the site of Custer's Last Stand.  The exact location of the Last Stand is very well preserved with an information center, museum of artifacts, a monument and guides and guide books to let you know where you are.

The site also has a national cemetery where United States veterans and their spouses may be buried.  With perfect rows and columns of small granite markers in different areas of the cemetery, one is at once impressed and reverent to be in
National Cemetery at Little Big Horn, Montana
the presence of so many graves of those who served in our nations military and the setting where they are interned.  Our nation has a long history of respecting the service of the men and women of our military when it comes to burial and cemeteries; the national cemetery at Little Big Horn is very impressive.
 The Little Big Horn battlefield site is a spectacular setting.  Walking the hillsides with the prairie wind blowing the tall grass, seeing the undulating hills, the crags and crevices, the Little Big Horn river down the hillsides, I found it easy to
View from Last Stand towards Little Big Horn River (trees in distance)
imagine the battles that took place at the site in 1876.  There is the Lakota village was, here is where Custer led his men to flank the village to try to force a surrender, over there is where the Cheyenne fired on the remaining members of the 7th Cavalry forcing them into their Last Stand defensive position.

The hillside where Custer's men shot their horses to form a circular barricade and fought to the last man has an enclosed cemetery with markers where soldiers were found, a monument under which is buried the remains of soldiers found on the battle field, a small monument where the remains of the horses are buried, markers where the Indians killed in the battle were found,  and a monument to the tribes who were represented at the Battle of Little Big Horn, those who were defending the villages and those who were scouts for the U.S. Army.

Markers for two Cheyenne warriors killed at Little Big Horn

Sculpture at monument to Native Americans who fought at Little Big Horn dedicated in 2003

Markers for the 47 men killed in the Last Stand,  the marker just left of center with black is that of General George Armstrong Custer

Part of the Native  American monument listing the names of warriors and scouts involved in the battle
Monument where remains of horses killed by their riders to serve as barricades

Monument under which is buried the remains of U.S. military and scouts killed at Little Big Horn

After walking the battle site we headed east on highway 212, wandering through the hills and prairie land of southern Montana, cutting north at Lame Deer through Colstrip and joining the I-94 east towards our destination of Bismarck, North Dakota.

It was an interesting drive today, going through the curves and elevations of the hills and valleys of the prairie and then driving for ten, twenty, thirty miles through flat terrain with wheat, alfalfa or grazing land stretching as far as you can see.  There is no rhyme nor reason to the change in terrain, it just happens.  You can be winding down a large hill then climb the next after crossing over a creek or small river, after climbing the hill the land is incredibly flat and goes on seemingly endlessly with only a clump of trees several miles off breaking the horizon.

For most of the day we continued to parallel the Yellowstone River, which has wound its way along our route from yesterday afternoon until today when it left our route and headed north to merge with the Missouri somewhere near Glendive, Montana, just west of the border with North Dakota.

Driving along this afternoon I saw a sign for Hebron, North Dakota and called my brother Michael to let him know we were driving past this little spot on the map. Why? Because in the summer of 1977 during the summer after his junior year in high school Michael and four other campers and a counselor from Gunflint Wilderness Camp (now Camp Birchwood for Boys) were stranded in Hebron for a week when the station wagon they were taking from the camp in the upper northeastern edge of Minnesota to Jackson, Wyoming broke down.  Memories.

The call has some positive results as Michael soon sent us an email with a couple of dinner spots for us to consider in Bismarck.  We took him up on the suggestion of the Peacock Alley American Grill and Bar.  We shared some Walleye Cakes, a dinner salad and a Prime Rib sandwich with fried onions, swiss cheese and horseradish sauce--yummy especially with a few local brews.  We got sprinkled on as we walked to the Peacock, but with the nice high 70's temperatures it felt good.

The half mile or so walk back to our hotel was a good way to settle a good meal and mark the end of the "date" portion of our journey.  Tomorrow we drive to Camp Birchwood and will see the girls, our friends the Bredemuses who run the camp and spend a few days before we start part two of the SRT.