Fifth-Grade Aphorisms

And now for a little whimsy.

As the school year winds down each year, teachers in some districts have to submit grades while school is still in session. They are left with the challenge of keeping their students occupied with academic-related activities those last few days even though they don’t “count.” My teacher-daughter likes to give her elementary language arts students a list of incomplete aphorisms to complete. If they know the saying, fine; if not, they’re to think up something logical to finish the statement.

While the proverbs are common in the adult world, fifth-graders might not always be familiar with them. I had the privilege of reading through some of their worksheets recently.  The responses were often hilarious while simultaneously being clever and pithy in their simple “truthiness.” She gave me permission to share some of them here.

All work and no play . . . can bore you to death.
All that glitters . . . is shiny.
Do as I say . . . and you will be safe.
A man’s home is . . . where his guns are.
Absence makes the heart . . . empty.
Do unto others as . . . you would do to yourself.
Don’t count your chickens . . . by their feathers but by their heads.

Give a man an inch and . . . he’ll walk all over you.
Good fences make . . . safe sheep.
The grass is greener . . . when it rains.
Beggars can’t be . . . givers.
Let sleeping dogs . . . sleep or they will be cranky.
Money is the root of . . . success.
No news is . . . true.

The bigger they are . . . the better.
Every cloud has . . . water.
When a door closes . . . go through the back door.
Enough is as good as . . . too much.
Those who live in glass houses . . . can be seen easily.
Out of the frying pan . . . onto the plate.
What’s good for the goose is . . . laying eggs.

The pen is mightier than . . . iron bars.
A bird in the hand . . . can peck you.
Don’t put all your eggs . . . in the coop.
Early to bed, early to rise . . . makes a man energized.
A friend in need . . . will be with you forever.
Too many cooks . . . eat all the leftovers.
When the cat’s away . . . the dog comes to stay.

You can catch more flies with . . . nets than with jars.
The grass is greener . . . because of chlorophyll.
Money is the root . . . of the tree.
A rolling stone . . . does not stop.
A bird in the hand . . . will make a mess.
All work and no play . . . will make you tired.
You can catch more flies . . . with frogs.

Our Grand Road Trip, Part 4: Colorado to Arkansas

Our Grand Road Trip, Part 4: Colorado to Arkansas

I’m not sure our hearts could have taken much more of Wyoming’s wild wonders, so it’s a good thing our next day’s travel took us to Colorado, where we were greeted with this sign:

I think maybe it’s a double entendre.

We’d spent a little time in Denver before, so this time we only drove through on our way to Pueblo. I’d had my heart set on seeing Pueblo for one reason: the Arkansas River. I knew we’d be crossing that river later in the state where you’d expect it to be—Arkansas—and it seemed so right to see it here in Colorado, too, on the very same trip. (It doesn’t take much to make me happy.) As soon as we checked in to our airbnb, we headed downtown to Pueblo’s Historic Arkansas Riverwalk. I’m glad we did.

The 32-acre waterfront area is sophisticated, yet welcoming. It’s artistic and calming. Just the place for a late afternoon stroll.

The next day we made it to Taos, New Mexico. Along the way, we were stunned by the sight of Blanca Peak. Here we were at a flat-as-could-be 7,000′ elevation, and almost right next to us, soaring out of  the earth like a phoenix, was this mountain that rose to another 7,000+ feet. Just like its name, it was white. We were mesmerized. And we may well have missed it had we not missed our turn. More serendipity.

While we were admiring the majestic mountain, this incredibly beautiful magpie gave us an audience. Magpies had been flirting with us since South Dakota, but were never still long enough for us to get a good look at their striking iridescence. We don’t have magpies at home and we reveled in the opportunity to observe one up close.We stayed just outside of Taos in another airbnb, appropriately enough a casita. It would have been an ideal place to chill out for a few days with a good book and a few glasses of our favorite beverage had we not wanted to see what Taos had to offer.Courtesy of our airbnb host, we were in for another bit of serendipity (by this time, we were almost expecting such moments)—the Rio Grande River and Gorge. We had no idea the Rio Grande was this far north. It was an awesome sight.

A chilling one, too.

Ten of these call boxes were situated strategically along the length of the bridge.

And then this happened: a couple approached us to take their picture. Turns out this is where he’d proposed a year ago, shortly before she was in a serious accident causing a brain injury and memory loss. They were on a mission to relive and record those lost moments. We clicked the camera’s button as he knelt on one knee above that vast canyon. They were deliriously happy. After we’d walked off the bridge to get a view of it from some distance away, we could still hear her laughter. Lots of warm fuzzies that day.

We knew Taos began life as an artists’ colony and remains a haven for artists, but we were surprised to discover how tiny it is. With a population of 5716, it’s even smaller than Douglas, WY, where we’d been just two days before. Naturally, the shops are heavily focused on art, and outdoor sculptures are common. But in my view, Taos’ best feature is its architecture. A big fan of Pueblo/Spanish/Mission architecture, I was excited to see so much of it.  It must be a challenge for local leaders to hold true to the town’s origins and avoid turning it into a garish strip, like some places I know. They even have an ordinance to protect the night sky. Good for them.

The post office is adobe, banks and grocery stores are adobe, the churches are adobe.

Even McDonald’s is adobe.

We left Taos and New Mexico for the panhandle of Texas and a little stretch of Route 66. I’m a child of the ’60s and a fan of that decade’s TV series featuring the iconic highway, so I had to get me some Route 66 kicks!

Old Route 66, what little there remains of it, is filled with all sorts of quirky kitschiness. Our destination was Cadillac Ranch, just outside of Amarillo. What a hoot!

We especially liked this:As we left Cadillac Ranch, we decided to travel a few miles farther on Route 66. For the most part desolated and decaying, it still has a few unexpected treats, one of which is the Devil’s Rope Museum in McLean, TX. We had a little time; we decided to stop. As we walked up the steps, a woman leaving looked at us and said, “It’s surprisingly interesting.” She was right. The museum (free, by the way) features collections from barbed wire collectors (yes, that’s a thing all across the country, as well as everything related to barbed wire—tools, salesman samples, sculpture, and a library filled with patent information.

In addition, the museum displays Route 66 memorabilia,

Who’s old enough to remember these?

and it contains a poignant Dust Bowl photo exhibit. It’s worth a stop. Really.

In Oklahoma, we stopped in Elk City to visit a superb museum complex: a Blacksmith Museum, the Old Town Museum, the National Route 66 Museum,

and the Farm and Ranch Museum. All for one low price—just $5.00 for adults. Well worth it.

This exhibit put me in mind of my father’s boyhood. His father’s too. (You can read all about it in my book, Boyhood Daze and Other Stories: Growing Up Happy During the Great Depression.

After twenty-some days on the road  and home getting closer with every mile, it was hard to think of the remainder of our trip as anything more than the fastest way to get home. We still had three days to go, though, and we wanted to make the best of it. We’d planned one last big stop: Little Rock, Arkansas. After all, we had to get another look at the Arkansas River.

And we got to visit our first Presidential Library. The Clinton Presidential Library and Museum kept us fascinated for hours. We decided it would be a good idea to visit as many of these libraries (all privately funded, by the way) as possible. Apparently, lots of people do that; the gift shop sold “passports” with space for stamps from each library one visits.

We zipped through Tennessee. Though there are lots of things we’ve not yet seen and done in our neighboring state, it’s just a border away and easy enough to visit another time. As the landscape grew more familiar, we became even more anxious to get home, to see how our garden had fared during our absence. Surprisingly well, it turned out. We still had crops to harvest.

We learned so much on our big fall adventure. Perhaps the biggest lesson of all was that serendipity is what it’s all about. My advice? Give yourself some extra time and space when you travel. Keep your eyes open. Look for the little things, the unexpected. You never know what surprises will be waiting. Savor it all.

(Want to read about our road trip from the beginning? Start here. And stay tuned for episodes detailing our time in National Parks and more.

Our Grand Road Trip, Part Three: Wyoming

Our Grand Road Trip, Part Three: Wyoming

Oh, Wyoming! We had no idea what staggering wonders you hold within your borders. Yes, there are the Grand Tetons. Yes, there is Yellowstone (whose size alone is utterly incomprehensible—and which will get more coverage in another post, I promise). But there is so much more.

We left Yellowstone at deep dusk with fifty miles to go before we reached Cody, our destination for the night.

Yellowstone Lake at dusk

We didn’t know Cody was named for Buffalo Bill or that he was its founder back in 1896. It was just a convenient stopping point. Neither did we know the road we were traveling has been called the fifty most beautiful miles in America—by none other than Teddy Roosevelt. We’ll have to take his word for it; we could barely see a thing in the foggy dark. But we saw enough to believe that a daytime trip through the wilderness of the Shoshone National Forest in the Wapiti Valley with the Shoshone River running alongside the road might be almost too beautiful to bear.

In the morning light, we realized Cody itself might have given us a fun day of adventure, but we had many miles to go before we could rest our heads on pillows that night—Wyoming is one big state! Along the way we passed Thermopolis, which lays claim to the world’s largest mineral hot springs. Wish we’d had time for one of its promised free soaks, courtesy of Hot Springs State Park.

Steam rising from Thermopolis’ hot springs

Hot Springs mineral deposits.

And then it happened. We were already in it before we realized we were actually inside a canyon, heading for its floor. We were floored as we drove into and out of Wind River Canyon, which was full of signs like this first one we saw, each pointing out a little slice of geologic time.

Phosphoria Formation from the Permian Period

These signs accompanied us all the way to the canyon floor’s Precambrian era, 2500 feet deep and 2.5 to 3 billion years into prehistory. We were time traveling, y’all!

And another cool thing: as we entered the canyon from its north end, the river’s name changed—from the Wind to the Bighorn. The spot where the change occurs has its own name: Wedding of the Waters. Don’t you just love it? The river, of course, flows through the bottom of the canyon walls. When we entered the canyon from above, it was far, far below us. As we descended, it seemed to rise until we were almost level with it. The canyon with its high rock walls, rapidly flowing river, and railroad running on a narrow ledge between the river and the canyon wall caught us completely off guard. And it became one of the two biggest highlights (other than family, of course) of our entire trip. All in thirty-four miles. They say you can drive it in forty minutes if you don’t stop. But of course we did. We wanted to savor it—both the scenery and the sheer awesomeness of the experience.

Honestly, I don’t know how we ever got to our next destination, the little town of Douglas, population 6,120. Just as with Cody, we’d planned to spend the night in Douglas only because the timing was right to get us where we wanted to go the next day. But Douglas was full of its own treats.

Douglas: home of the jackalope. You know, that mythical half-rabbit, half antelope creature you grew up hearing about? Well, Douglas is where it all started. Legends abound. Like its ability to mimic human voices, or that it mates only when lightning flashes, or its fondness for whiskey. The Chamber of Commerce even dispenses licenses for hunting the rare creature, legal only from midnight to 2:00 am on June 31st. Douglas is full of history. Established in 1867 when Fort Fetterman was built just ten miles away, named for Stephen A. Douglas (Lincoln’s presidential opponent),  a World War II prisoner of war camp that held 5,000 German and Italian soldiers, and home to both the Wyoming Pioneer Memorial Museum and the Wyoming State Fair.Our Douglas lodging was the charming Hotel LaBonte, currently on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s hard not to let your imagination run wild when you stand in the lobby. The place reeks of ranchers, cattle barons, and railroad tycoons.Just as it was closing time, we dropped in on what may be the world’s friendliest Chamber of Commerce where the helpful staff told us about what turned out to be the other biggest highlight of our trip: the Oregon Trail Ruts and Register Cliff, part of the Oregon National Historic Trail. We’d been planning on turning in early, but it didn’t take a nanosecond for us to change our plans and take off for Guernsey, just twenty miles away.

The whole of the Oregon Trail was over 2,000 miles long, beginning in Independence, Missouri, and ending in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. From there, pioneers chose between settling down or spreading out, going either north or south. Most heavily used from 1841-1869, almost half a million people traveled it.

The routes varied somewhat from one wagon train to another, but not here. Because of the topography, almost all of the nearly 500,000 westward-heading folks traveled this very same path near Guernsey with their horses and wagons or their handcarts. Not just to Oregon—this passage was part of the Mormon, California, and Santa Fe Trails, too. In places, their feet, wheels, and hooves wore the sandstone rock down to a depth of five or six feet, still visible today. Imagine!

See the top of these rocks? That’s the level the first pioneers traveled. Four hundred thousand plus people with their horses and wagons and carts wore the rock down this much.

Just a couple of miles away is a place called Register Cliff. Think of it as a pioneer version of a hotel and its accompanying ledger. The sandstone cliff, in those times a day’s journey from their previous night’s stay at Fort Laramie, provided some degree of shelter as well as a place where people could chisel their names and date of arrival. Maybe it was a message to relatives and friends coming in a later caravan. Or maybe it was a way of recording for the ages, “Look, I made it this far!”

What were their fates?

Now, I’ve just got to take a minute here to tell you this was a deeply spiritual experience for me. I felt that I was on sacred ground. Not that it’s personal—my ancestors traveled no farther west than east Tennessee in their search for land and a brighter tomorrow. But they did cross the Atlantic in dangerously rickety boats to face the unknown, knowing they’d never see beloved faces and familiar places again. And some of them did trek across the mountains from Pennsylvania to Virginia to Tennessee to western North Carolina in a time when roads were scarce and hazards were plenty. That particular history and struggle is part of me and I feel it deep in the core of my being. So, seeing these ruts and the names of some of the people who made them moved me.

The Oregon Ruts and Register Cliff touched me in a way I cannot express. If you get a chance, you really should see them. Give yourself time to study the signage, time to examine the names faintly etched into the rock. Time to “see” these people. Time to think on things. Things bigger than yourself. Here is a place where you can immerse yourself in the story, a story of heroism and hope. And a place where you can actually touch history.

Oh, by the way, those clouds that were missing earlier in our trip? We found ’em.Wyoming, you stirred my soul and stole my heart.

(More of Our Grand Road Trip still to come. Stay tuned.  Want to read about our trip from the beginning? Start here.)

Our Grand Road Trip, Part Two: South Dakota, Montana, Idaho

Our Grand Road Trip, Part Two: South Dakota, Montana, Idaho

In my last travel blog post, we traveled to Louisville, through Illinois, across Minnesota and into South Dakota’s Badlands. Today we’ll visit more of South Dakota and three states farther west.

Here’s where our journey started to take a serendipitous turn. Over and over we found ourselves in the midst of something unexpected. And that unexpectedness never failed to wow us. Just the idea of falling into so much amazingness almost entirely by accident was enough to take our breath away.

We’d almost become inured to the massive fields of corn and soybeans when we spotted something a little different. Ever wondered where all the sunflower seed you buy for your songbirds comes from? Well, we found out. They were well past flowering—wouldn’t that have been something to see—but the seeds were still busy preparing for their destiny.


As far as the eye can see and then some

On our way across South Dakota we pulled in at a rest area that turned into a happy surprise. How many rest stops do you know that house a museum? Yeah, that’s what I thought. But just off Interstate 90 near Chamberlain, that’s exactly what we found with the Lewis and Clark Interpretive and Keelboat Center. We were excited to be standing on ground where Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery explorers set up camp. They picked quite the spot—a bucolic bluff overlooking the scenic Missouri River. (We’d soon discover that much of our journey passed along the Lewis and Clark Trail—another unexpected treat.)

That was only the beginning of the excitement we felt at this rest area. Just days before our arrival, the fifty-foot tall, stainless steel sculpture named Dignity had been installed. Dignity, with outstretched arms holding a multi-hued blue-star quilt, was designed by South Dakota artist Dale Lamphere to honor the culture of the state’s indigenous Lakota and Dakota peoples. He used several Lakota models from fourteen to fifty-five years of age to give the statue a universal feel.

She was magnificent!

Gives me chills, even now

This was a stop we had not planned, knew nothing about. We certainly didn’t anticipate spending well over an hour there, but it was worth a late arrival in the Black Hills that evening to experience this moment.

Then came the pronghorn antelopes. They appeared from nowhere, then they were everywhere, sometimes outnumbering the cattle whose pastures they shared with apparent impunity—a real peaceable kingdom. I couldn’t get enough of them: their stature, their gracefulness, their markings.

Where the antelope play

DSCF1738 - CopyWe really didn’t know what to expect in the Black Hills, other than that we’d see Mount Rushmore and hopefully a few bison or other wildlife blocking our path somewhere or other. Were we ever in for a treat! Driving the Loop Road in Custer State Park, not only did we get close-up (as close as is safe) views of the bison; we got real up close and personal with some pretty brazen donkeys.

Where the buffalo roam

I thought they looked like a bunch of teenage hoodlums up to no good or maybe a gang of gunslingers itching for a fight.

The Gnome makes a friend. (But this guy would be happier if that hand held an apple!)

It was the many unusual and massive rock formations, though, that captured our imagination. Sort of like finding cloud pictures in the sky. We’re definitely returning for a longer stay, probably right smack in Custer State Park. What do you see in these images?

As we crossed into Montana, we understood the state’s Big Sky moniker (though South Dakota and Minnesota could vie for that title as well, in my book). We couldn’t pass up a day trip to Glacier National Park where we went up, up, up the Going-to-the-Sun Road. How romantic a name is that? And such an astonishing engineering feat, especially given that it was built in the early 20th century.

I really wish we could have spent more time in the park. Like so much else on this whirlwind trip, it only got a lick and a promise, but even that was pretty amazing. Yet, it was again the unexpected that really got to us. Driving to Glacier meant passing Flathead Lake in the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Flathead Reservation. With over 185 miles of shoreline, it’s huge! On the way up, we oohed and aahed over the lake’s crystal blue surface glistening in the sun. Our return coincided with twilight, giving us an equally dramatic perspective.

Leaving our final “cousin destination” in western Montana, we opted for a more southerly route home so we could see more new-to-us parts of the country—a very good idea, it turned out. One of the many unexpected and spectacular sights we encountered was Mt. Borah. Located in the Challis National Forest in eastern Custer County, Mt. Borah is Idaho’s highest mountain. Though it was only rainy down where we were, way up at 12, 667 feet above sea level, snow was beginning to cover the peaks.We stopped to learn about the 6.9 magnitude earthquake that shook the mountain in 1983, raising the peak about a foot and lowering the valley floor by eight feet. We could even see the quake’s scar on the side of the mountain. (All very intriguing, but absolutely as close as I ever want to get to an earthquake!)

And then we came to Wyoming. Now, there’s a big state! And it graced us with so many unexpected wonders that it deserves an entry of its own.

Until next time . . .

More About Rhubarb: Growing It, Harvesting It, Eating It, and More

Rhubarb stalks can be green, red, or in between. Victoria (pictured here) has strong growth and yield habits and produces some of the sweetest stalks.

Yes, I’m on a rhubarb kick. After all, it’s that time of year, and I think rhubarb is the cat’s meow. Just when you think winter will never end, rhubarb proves you wrong. A harbinger of spring, rhubarb has lots of virtues. In addition to its colorful stalks and massive leaves, rhubarb is an easy-to-maintain perennial; it’s loaded with important vitamins (C, K, B complex), minerals (calcium, potassium, manganese, magnesium), flavonoids (beta carotene, lutein), and fiber; it has a long growing season; you can eat it fresh, canned, or frozen.

Growing Rhubarb

The sight of a young rhubarb plant in early spring is a special treat after a long, harsh winter.

If you live in the right climate (dormancy temps under 40°F and average summer temps below 75), look for rhubarb crowns in your favorite garden store or catalog. Early spring is the best time to plant. Find a well-drained spot in the edge of your garden or yard and get rid of any weeds growing there. Dig a large hole (at least a foot wide and a foot deep), fill it with aged compost or well-rotted manure, and place the rhubarb crown in the center with its top no more than two inches below the soil’s surface. Then water it in. Give each plant about one square yard—it will expand to fill that space over time. Add a thick layer of mulch or newsprint around (but not on top of) the crown—like most of us, rhubarb does not like weeds. Voilá! You’ve done it. Your rhubarb plant(s) should last a decade or more with little to no additional effort from you.

Maintaining Rhubarb

One, two, three and you’ll have rhubarb for years to come. First, keep weeds out—a thick layer of mulch will save your aching back. Second, keep a watch on your plants for those pesky flower heads; as soon as you spot one, snip its stalk to keep the flower from robbing the plant of its nutrients. You want all that energy to focus on growing more and stronger stalks. Rhubarb doesn’t like drought so water during dry spells. That’s about it. It doesn’t hurt to add some organic fertilizer each spring, but your rhubarb should do just fine without it.

Even though your rhubarb should give you good harvests for ten or more years, it’s best to divide it after four or five. Now, you have even more rhubarb for those wonderful cakes, pies, and breads. Or you can give extra crowns to your favorite friends.

Harvesting Rhubarb

Remember that virtue, Patience? It will come in handy during your first year or two growing rhubarb. As much as you may want a thick slice of juicy rhubarb pie, keep your hands off during its first growing season. It needs all the energy it can get to establish itself well. Even in its second year, you should harvest only lightly—just a couple of stems off each plant. After that, you can pretty much have your way with rhubarb. You can harvest it all at once, but better to leave a few stalks on each plant so it will keep producing. Although spring is rhubarb’s peak season, you can harvest all summer as long as you remember to begin reducing the number of stalks you pick after June.

To gather rhubarb, you can use a knife to cut the stalk at ground level, or you can grab hold at that same point and give it a gentle yank while simultaneously twisting the stalk.

Cut off the leaves of your harvested stalks. They’re poisonous. But don’t throw them out. Toss them on your compost pile, instead. Don’t worry. The toxic oxalic acid breaks down as it composts.

Eating Rhubarb

Bebop-a-rebop, rhubarb pie!

Pie: Of course, pie is the first thing most of us think of when rhubarb is mentioned. And why not? Baking a rhubarb pie is as easy as . . . well, pie. It’s a kindness to say my luck with making from-scratch pie crusts has been erratic, so I rely on frozen or refrigerated. I find them just as tasty as homemade. With a refrigerated crust, I can use my own pan so my guests never know my secret—I can trust you not to tell, right? Frozen crusts come with a disposable pan. Perfect if you’re giving your pie to some lucky person.

Making your crust decision may be the hardest part about this pie. All you need to do is remember this standard ratio: four parts rhubarb to one part sugar. In other words, chop four cups of rhubarb into ½-inch slices; place into a bowl and mix in one cup of sugar to coat. For a heaping filling or deep dish pie, add another cup of rhubarb with an additional quarter cup of sugar. (To be honest, I like my pie a little less sweet than this, so I usually cut back on the sugar—maybe 3 ½ cups.)

Mix in about 4 tablespoons (¼ cup) of flour or cornstarch to thicken the juice and ½ teaspoon of cinnamon for a richer, more complex flavor profile. (To make your rhubarb pie baking even simple, slip an index card with this easy recipe/formula inside a kitchen cabinet for easy reference.)

Pour mixture in pie pan, cover with top crust, crimp the edges, and make four slits in the top crust with a sharp knife. Bake in 425° (preheated) oven for fifteen minutes. Reduce heat to 350 and cook for an additional 20-30 minutes. Check in occasionally to be sure edge isn’t overbrowning. If it is, cover edge with a silicone shield ring or strips of aluminum foil.

Let cool for at least fifteen minutes. Eat plain or with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

(If you’d rather have cake, check out this recipe for a skillet rhubarb upside-down cake.)

Stew: Rhubarb stew is just pie without the calorie-laden crust and can be served either as a side dish or dessert. Using he same four to one ratio measurement (or whatever proportions seem right to your palate), place rhubarb, sugar, and a couple tablespoons of water into a saucepan. Simmer for 8-10 minutes or until rhubarb is soft. Serve warm or cold in individual bowls.

Syrup: See this post for a great syrup recipe. The things you can use rhubarb syrup for are limited only by your imagination: mixed with carbonated water for soda, poured over ice cream, drizzled over pound cake, added to lemonade, mixed with cocktails.

For more ways to use rhubarb,visit the Rhubarb Compendium or

Preserving Rhubarb

It’s ridiculously easy to freeze rhubarb. No blanching needed. Simply wash and thoroughly dry the stalks, cut them into ½ or ¾ inch pieces, and place into your preferred freezer container. I use FoodSaver bags to vacuum seal mine—it prevents freezer burn. I also to measure and label my bags. That way when I want to, say, bake a pie, I can use the entire pre-measured bag, No need to thaw, either. Just mix with other ingredients and prepare as usual. Bringing the taste of spring into the kitchen on a frigid January day is one of the best pick-me-ups I can imagine for a winter-weary soul.




The Grand Road Trip, Part I: Kentucky to South Dakota

The Grand Road Trip, Part I: Kentucky to South Dakota

The Gnome and I have never been big travelers. It’s not that we don’t enjoy seeing more of the world—it’s just that we’re always so busy with can’t-wait projects around here. (Not to mention the many years when money for travel was an extravagance we couldn’t consider.)

The past year has been a rare exception. Not only have we traveled more, but circumstances conspired in such a way that we took two major trips in just six months’ time. As I wrote here and here, we recently returned from visiting long-time friends in California. It was quite the trip. But last fall, we headed out on an even bigger journey, a 24-day road trip of more than 6,000 miles (and 4,000 photos—really!)—another long-promised trip both to ourselves and to close-in-heart but far flung cousins and other family.

That trip, too, took us through previously unexplored territory. On our travels, we wound through fifteen states, seven of them new to us. We got to spend time (oh, so little) in Glacier, Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and Badlands National Parks and too many national forests to count.

Of course, the best parts of the trip were the good times we spent with our relatives—not to mention the gourmet meals they prepared for us! They treated us like royalty. But that was family time, private time, so it won’t get any further mention here. But the incredible scenery and the history we encountered along the way was pretty phenomenal too. That I do want to share with the world. And there was so much of it, I realize this story has to be serialized.

First things first. Our driving on Day One ended in Louisville, Kentucky. Louisville will always hold a special place in our hearts. It’s where we moved following our wedding and honeymoon, and we stayed for twelve years. Both of our children were born there. Except for the humid summer heat, we loved everything about Louisville and nothing—except wanting a mountain home nearer our families could have driven us away.

It’s been years since we’d been back, and while much is the same, lots of changes have come to River City since we left, too. Sometimes it was hard to get our bearings, but we had to check out a few of our favorite old haunts. Our first home-of-our-own is still there (minus a couple of special dogwoods), but barely. A church parking lot expansion has taken all but a few houses on that block.We sat on the banks of the Ohio munching on Kingfish Restaurant’s onion rings while the Belle of Louisville graced us with her presence.And then there’s Plehn’s Bakery—A Louisville staple for almost a hundred years and one of our favorite weekend destinations back in the day. We couldn’t say goodbye to Louisville without dropping in for our favorite butter kuchen. I wish they shipped!

We didn’t have time to take in any of Louisville’s many tourist and cultural venues, but it’s chock full of them, from Churchill Downs to the Muhammed Ali Center to Actor’s Theatre. I highly recommend Louisville as a vacation destination. You’d never get bored.

Louisville already had a phenomenal park system (eighteen parks and six parkways designed by the father of American landscape design, Frederick Law Olmstead). Now, the city has added 85 acres of waterfront green space and walking paths. A great place for family frolicking. The mighty Ohio itself has become a haven for paddlers. We were delighted to discover that the old Big Four railroad bridge has been transformed into a walking bridge that will take you across the state line into Indiana. It’s clearly a popular walking and cycling spot. Lit up at night, it’s all about romance. We had a terrific view of the bridge from our riverside restaurant terrace. I could have stayed for hours.

Time has been good to Louisville.From Louisville we traveled across Indiana and up to northwestern Illinois. We know this route, but the dramatic change from flat plains to rolling hills always catches us off guard. When we visited the museum in charming Galena, we learned a little more about the landscape and its history. The Driftless, an area encompassing parts of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois, escaped the flattening effect of glacial ice fields way back when. As a result, the region is graced with millions of bluffs and valleys with elevation changes of up to 1100 feet. Right in America’s heartland. Driving through the pastoral Driftless is not only beautiful, it’s calming. Good for what ails you.Something we hadn’t seen before in our travels through this area was the silver glint of massive wind farms. Wind turbines filled nearby fields and faded into the distance. Far too many to count. Farther than the eye could see. Watching the blades turn while listening to a classical piece on the car radio nearly put me into a hypnotic trance.DSCF1271Of course, we drove past miles and miles of corn. It was higher than the proverbial elephant’s eye. I wondered if any of it was being grown for human consumption.

Not a cloud in the sky

After a couple of days in southeastern Minnesota, we traveled across that state on our way to South Dakota and then Montana, passing even more massive wind farms and even more corn. I know people make jokes about how boring the flat landscape of the plains states is, but we found it to be soothing. Three (big) states’ worth of soothing. The thing is that with all that flatness—and fewer and fewer trees along the way—the sky seems to grow ever larger. So much space. So blue. So cloudless. Honestly, we hardly ever saw even the smallest trace of a cloud all the way across those three states.  And the landscape is ever-changing.  I was afraid to blink for fear of missing something. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Back to South Dakota—-we had only given ourselves a few hours to spend in the Badlands, but every minute was magnificent, and it took no time for us to know for certain that we’ll be coming back here for an extended stay. We could barely stand upright against the strong wind gusts, and the glaringly bright sun made it impossible to catch the nuanced but striking shades of color in the rock.

Looking out across the canyons and the vast expanse of land with buttes rising from the plains, we were transported to the movie and TV westerns of our youth, imagining the black-hatted bad guys firing off shots from behind some unknown rock deep in a canyon. It was hard to believe we were looking at something real.This sign kept us on our toes—especially me with my sandal-exposed tootsies.

Again, no clouds. Not anywhere.

And our trip was just beginning.

(Stay tuned for Part II of The Grand Road Trip, full of unexpected discoveries. Coming soon.)

Secret Name

My writing tends to lean toward essays, especially personal or descriptive ones. Occasionally, though, something comes to me in poetic form, or at least something akin to it.  In honor of Poetry Month (yes, I know I’m a few weeks late, but I had other things to write about in April—besides, every month should be Poetry Month) I send you this offering.

Secret Name

They used to call me Earth Mother
in our ’70s consciousness raising group.
I sat like a cat curled up on the floor
in long flowing skirt and macrame belt,
almost always wearing earth tones,
comfortable in my own skin
still sagging from giving birth.

Today, I’m growing back into that old metaphor—
poking bare toes in warm garden soil,
hair wild around me like branches of a gnarled old tree;
or wandering the woods seeking nature’s treasures
to dress up my home.
I still curl up, but in a soft old chair—
I can’t get up from the floor these days.

Signs of Spring

Signs of Spring

In these parts, it’s a sure sign of spring when the white, pink-tinged flowers of the native serviceberry trees come into bloom. Those delicate blossoms burst open in our corner of the world a couple of weeks ago. Everywhere. All at once.


Almost as dainty as snowflakes

So even though almost everything else is bare and we were immediately plunged into yet another cold snap (so often our mountain springtime fate), it’s comforting that the serviceberry knows spring is here.

See how bare all the other trees are?

There are more than two dozen species of the serviceberry tree. Most all are native to the U. S., and they grow in practically every state. Depending on where you live, you may know them by another name. Maybe shadbush, juneberry, shadblow, or their Native American name, saskatoon. In the east, it’s just plain serviceberry, or sarvisberry in our southern mountain dialect.

There are lots of stories about how the serviceberry came by its name. The one I’m particularly fond of says that back in the day, the tree came into flower just as the roads in the Appalachian mountains became passable enough that a circuit-riding preacher could finally travel this way again to hold service—or sarvis. Time for marrying and burying to resume. That explanation may be a bit fanciful, but isn’t it a lovely notion?

There’s more to the serviceberry than its early blooms or the tales associated with it. A member of the rose family, the serviceberry is a good landscaping choice with its pretty spring flowers and its striking fall foliage. In the summer, the tree bears berries that turn from red to purplish-blue as summer wears on. Bird love them. So do humans who’ve had the good fortune to discover them (and the good luck to beat the birds to them). The ripe berries both look and taste a lot like blueberries and are eaten raw or used for jelly- and pie-making. They can be added to breads, dried like raisins, or turned into juice or syrup. Like blueberries, they’re also highly nutritious.

Most of the serviceberries around here are natives, twenty to sixty feet tall. With their upward-stretching limbs, it’s hard to get at those berries. But you can purchase shrub-sized ones, which makes berry collecting ever so much easier. We have a young serviceberry down our road (courtesy of the birds, no doubt), so we’ve been able to sample some berries. Delicious!

If you see a serviceberry in bloom, make a note of it. Then check back in July or so for some tasty—and free—eating. You won’t be sorry.

Recipes: Rhubarb Syrup and Rhubarb Soda

Recipes: Rhubarb Syrup and Rhubarb Soda

Maybe you’re already seeing ruby-red stalks of rhubarb in the produce section of your favorite grocery store. If so, you need to grab them up and rush home to make your favorite rhubarb dish—in my experience, stores stock the stalks for only a few short weeks in springtime.

For this reason, I used to think rhubarb’s season was short-lived, but if you grow it, you know the plant continues to grow all summer long. If you’re like me, you have more rhubarb than you know what to do with, yet you don’t want any food source to go to waste—especially one that’s so chock full of important vitamins and other nutrients.

Making rhubarb syrup for soda (and other uses) is one quick, easy, and delicious way to use up a fair supply of your abundant crop. Yes, it’s sugary,  but much better for you than that bottled high-fructose-corn-laden stuff that comes off the grocery shelf. It’s simple to make, too—just three ingredients.

I first discovered this recipe in John Ivanko and Lisa Kivirist’s excellent Farmstead Chef. More than a cookbook, it’s about real food, sustainability, community. But it’s a darned good cookbook, too, with plenty of vegetarian and vegan recipes (and a  few that aren’t) that take their cue from what’s in season, so if you grow your own or frequent your local farmers’ market, Farmstead Chef is going to be right up your alley.

Their recipes aren’t just tasty; they’re simple and sensible, too—you won’t have to go searching in specialty stores for ingredients you’d likely never use again for any of these recipes. Besides, Lisa and John are the coolest!  You never know what they’re going to be up to next. I highly recommend this book (as well as their books on sustainability).

I’ve tweaked the instructions a tad to suit my tastes and food prep style.

Rhubarb Syrup and Soda

Put twelve cups of fresh, chopped rhubarb and 2 cups of water in a large nonreactive pot. Bring to boil, then reduce heat to low. Cook until the rhubarb is soft and pulpy (approximately 20-30 minutes). Alternatively, you can cook on low in a slow cooker for a couple of hours.

Place a fine mesh sieve over a large bowl and drain the juice into it. Use the back of a large spoon to press out as much liquid as you can without forcing the pulp through the sieve. (You’re done with the pulp now, so you can add it to your compost,okay?)

Return the liquid to the pot and place over very low heat. Add 3 cups of sugar, stirring constantly until it’s dissolved.

At this point you have rhubarb syrup, which you could use in any number of applications, but since this is a recipe for soda, we’ll stick to that plan for now.

Let syrup cool to room temperature. Now you have three choices. Refrigerate it or freeze* it for later use or enjoy it right this minute. Here’s how.

Lightly mix 1 part syrup to 2 parts unflavored seltzer water.** So, for a 12-oz. glass, 1/4 cup syrup and 1/2 cup seltzer. At this point, you’ll need to do a little taste-testing and, if needed, either add more syrup or seltzer to suit your taste buds. Be sure to make a note of your final proportions for future reference. Pour mixture into an an ice-filled glass (a 12 oz. glass is the perfect size) for some lovely, blush-pink bubbly. If you’re serving a crowd, you can mix up a bigger batch and serve immediately from a pitcher—you don’t want to lose the fizz factor.

* You can freeze your syrup in wide-mouth Mason jars. They’re freezer proof as long as you leave an inch or two of head space. I prefer using these white plastic lids rather than the two-piece contraptions that come with the jars. These days you can find the lids in most stores that carry canning supplies.

Because of the sugar content, the mixture doesn’t freeze solid, so when you find yourself in a winter funk and need a pick-me-up, it’s easy to dish a few spoonfuls of this magical elixir into a glass and top it off with seltzer. Spring in a glass.


**I’ve also tried this with lemon-lime flavored seltzer, and really liked the extra flavor complexity.

(Check back next week for more on versatile rhubarb.  Click here for my easy skillet rhubarb upside-down cake.)