Rubber duckies and the road ahead

Several years ago I wrote a column about rubber duckies, discussing the pervasive fascination with that familiar childhood bathtub toy. Who doesn’t love a rubber duck?

A personalized rubber duckie was one of the first gifts I bought for my grandson — that turned into a progression (and a collection) of rubber duckies of various colors and costumes. The obsession spilled over into gifts for my then high-school-teacher son (Professor Duck) and various other family members, and ducks for each succeeding holiday. Then, like other enthusiasms, my duck-gifting phase ran its course to echoes of “Enough, Mom, enough.” 3478249785_bc1b8b1ae5_z

Rubber Duckies are available in all sizes, a few varied shapes, numerous colors and with all sorts of “costumes” and personalities.  However, the perennial favorite is still the yellow version, with bright orange bill and black eyes. Many collections feature “one of a kind” or limited-edition duckies; Stories are circulated about duck adventures, and tales are told of lost or rescued ducks.  Ducks are used in NASA glacier-tracking experiments, and there are still sightings of some of the group of “globe-trotting” ducks that “jumped ship” in the Pacific in January of 1992.  Really.

Rubber Duck Races, generally to benefit local charities, are held from Seattle to the Ozarks, from Washington, D.C., to Crested Butte, from Texas to Tahoe.  One of the largest duck races is in Hawaii, and some of the most informal are held in small town creeks, canals and swimming pools.

I am still tempted when I see an especially appealing little duck in a store window. And I gasped with delight at news photographs of the giant rubber duck “paddling” its way through Lake Superior at the recent Tall Ships Festival in Duluth, Minn.

So, imagine my surprise when I encountered a stylized rubber “duckie” with mane and tail in the middle of Virginia horse country during this summer’s road trip.

20160610_072309I was immediately smitten, not only with the little rubber horsie that perched on the edge of the Lexington motel room bathtub, but with the motel itself. After the whoops and the grins — and the picture-taking — I thought about the marketing genius that played to the playfulness of tired travelers.

The clerk was accommodating, more than willing to let us pick a mate for our little rubber traveling companion, only exacting a promise that we would honor the commitment to snap pictures as we traveled on. That we did, and the little horsie-ducks happily sat on the dashboard — a pair of cute mascots — for the next 3,000 or so miles of our journey. They traveled through city traffic, along country roads, into Quebec and Ontario, skirted along several of the Great Lakes and sat under the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. It proved, I think, that we are never too old for a little silliness in our lives.

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Our little companions abandoned their perch on the dashboard when the temperature soared regularly above 100 degrees back home in Texas. But you can be sure that they will accompany us once again when we take to the road for another adventure.

Rubber duckies don’t take up much space or make a mess; they are exceedingly patient and compliant travelers, requiring no food or special accommodations. But they did, do and will continue to make us smile!

*Multicolored duck photo by Jo Naylor/Flickr; others by Adrienne Cohen; Motel is Comfort Inn Virginia Horse Center, Lexington, Va.

The dream dies hard, but the memories live on

It looms large on the horizon, the hulk of the S.S. United States, as she lies in port in Philadelphia. Her stacks rise above the neighboring dock buildings, and it’s possible to use them as landmarks rather than following GPS directions as you chart a course to see the once grand ship in her current forlorn and decrepit state.

This ship — and the search for a traditional Philly cheesesteak — took us to the city of brotherly love this summer.

We found our ship with ease, and we lingered there. Remembering our first encounter with this vessel, my husband and I didn’t speak. We just gazed through the chain links at this once gleaming passenger liner with a history that is irrevocably intertwined with ours.

We met the S.S. United States, and one another, on the same day in August 50 years ago at the port in Le Havre, France. The ship was just a teenager at the time. We were young as  well, and impressionable.

She was a looker, massive and shiny and silent, but aswarm with crew going about their duties. We were impressed by her presence and by her glamor; she took our breath away. We had some other experiences with her, but her days at sea came to an end barely three years later.

Our story continues.

This summer, as we mapped our road trip north, it became a priority for us to see the grand old ship. Philadelphia was miles out of the way, but we took the detour. Our hearts were in our throats as we first spied those distinctive smokestacks. We were buoyed by the hope that this old lady might actually sail the seas once again.

Unfortunately, early this month, we learned that the plan to refurbish her as a cruise ship is not feasible. The S.S. United States has been out of service for 47 years; she has languished at the dock in Philadelphia for more than 20 years now, longer than she sailed! And, though she is deemed still structurally sound, the dream that she might again carry passengers has died.

There is still some hope that the S.S. United States will be saved from the scrap heap and turned into a floating “history book.” She is, after all, an engineering marvel; this last American flagship set a world speed record on her maiden voyage. It has never been broken. Is it so hard to believe that others could be inspired by looking up at her towering stacks, standing at her railing, or exploring her labyrinthian interior. Not for us.

The experience certainly stayed with me and my husband throughout our years!

As we again gazed at her with awe, she sat behind locked gates, no longer shiny and glamorous, but impressive nonetheless!

We left the docks finally, and found a Philly cheesesteak at a tiny Tony Luke’s on Oregon Ave., almost in the shadow of Interstate 95 South. There were only seven or eight tables inside, but the line snaked through the building and extended into the parking lot beyond. It took some time to reach the order window, but not long at all for our traditional beef and melted cheese sandwiches to be ready. Miraculously, there were two seats at a table. The wait was worth it; Philadelphia’s signature food treat was the second delight of the day!

We had come to Philly for the memories. And we left well satisfied.

It was an epic road trip and coming home is hard . . .

I am home now — after nearly two months away and never a dull moment. The summer included a path through 22 states and two Canadian provinces, a total of 4,780 highway miles, and almost six weeks in the historic small town of Wiscasset, Maine.

While in Maine, we explored new territory, basked in the sun, breathed the salt air, ate seafood and fresh corn as much as possible, and enjoyed every minute of the time we spent there. It was with regret that we packed up the car when it came time to leave. But the road trip was adventure of a different kind!

Although I’ve been home now for two weeks, I find myself still smiling about the trip just completed and considering the ones yet to come. Several are currently in the planning stages of my mind, waiting to emerge as full-fledged itineraries with dates and reservations.

Is it good to be home? Yes, it’s good to be home. I think so. But, it’s good to be gone. If I stutter and stammer a bit when asked if I’m happy to be home, it’s because the fun of being “on the road,” seeing new sights, eating new foods and meeting new people never seems to grow old. Some would term that a personality disorder.

Coming home seems like an ending somehow; and I haven’t yet gotten used to endings. New beginnings: Yes, those are what I thrive on. Readjusting to the routine of normal life — that’s a chore! But then, I can’t seem to define normal.

While watching the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, I find myself daydreaming about South America and fantasizing about what I hope will be an upcoming trip.

South America is on the horizon. But it will have to wait until after the Panama Canal, already scheduled for fall. And then, maybe,  a winter trip to Florida along with a jaunt to to Cuba? Or, as an alternate, perhaps a quick cruise along the Pacific Coast, or a few days in Cabo. Maybe the urge to travel is, after all, an obsession. It’s only a shame that I don’t have unlimited funds to fuel my desire to see the world.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that the world is shrinking. It is still as large as the mind can imagine. And so many destinations await.

So, my fascination with gauchos and Cape Horn, the southern fjords and Chilean wine (enjoyed at a Chilean vineyard, of course), the rainforest and the Amazon, the icebergs and the Andes, penguins and llamas — has only been heightened as I watch the world’s athletes compete in the games and celebrate their victories!

I guess I’ll have to get serious about getting back to work after the closing ceremony.

Note: Look for additional posts about this summer’s epic journey in coming weeks.

It’s not the Maine state food, but it should be!

Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather!

I was certain that the state food of Maine had to be lobster, but I was wrong! According to all sources, it’s the blueberry, as in “wild blueberry,” which was officially designated the101_3377state fruit in 1991. It is also the “state dessert,” so proclaimed in 2011, more specifically “Blueberry pie made with wild Maine blueberries.”

So, where does that leave the lobster?

Well, as much as I like blueberries and wild blueberry pie, I believe I’d opt for lobster any day. There are many ways and many places to enjoy lobster in Maine, some of them renowned, some far off the beaten track — all of them good!WP_20160716_020

This summer, during a much anticipated, multi-week sojourn in this seacoast state, I did my best to sample as many of those places and ways as possible, often with an ample measure of other seafood added in for variety.

I have to confess I turned down a spoonful of “lobstah ice cream,” but I may have to go back for a sample, just to say I did. (Somehow, I just can’t imagine it — in the same way that I cannot imagine fried clam, jalapeno or barbecued chicken ice cream!)

Keeping It Simple

In Maine, especially in the summer, it’s hard to escape lobster specials. There are 2 and 3-lobster dinners with all the trimmings served by uniformed waiters at fine restaurants. And there are lobster rolls at Red’s Eats in Wiscasset, with long lines and periodic traffic101_3355 jams at all hours, no matter what the weather. A person can buy lobsters from friendly vendors along the road who will steam them so you can take them home and add the sides yourself, your choice.

In Maine, McDonald’sWP_20160709_028 even serves lobster. For a quick bite, it’s not at all bad! Honest.

But the best way? Again, it’s personal choice, of course, but lobster fresh off the boat and straight from the tank, eaten at a picnic table on a pier overlooking a local working harbor is really about as close to “wonderful” as it gets. At most of the local lobster piers, it’s perfectly acceptable to pack a picnic basket with your own favorite appetizers, sides and beverages and make an afternoon or an evening of it.

In Midcoast Maine, locals have their own preferences; co-ops and waterside restaurants do a brisk business even when the tourist trade is off. Some of the local hangouts serve lobster, steamers (clams) and corn only. Others have a full menu that might include burgers, coleslaw and potato salad, grilled cheese sandwiches, clams, mussels, scallops, shrimp, crab and haddock. French fries and onion rings tempt adults and children alike. And then there’s dessert. Ice cream stands are at least as popular as lobster shacks!

All About Food

About that state food — there really is no officially designated “state food” in Maine. That would take an action by the state legislature, and we’ll just trust that these days they have better things to do!  101_3107However, just in case you’re interested, Moxie is the official state drink and the whoopie pie is the “state treat.” Don’t know about whoopie pies? Ask any Mainer!

There are other people, by the way, who think lobster should be Maine’s special food. There are at least several lists, and that crusty little crustacean is on every one I found, in one form or another.

Maybe we should start lobbying for that “official” designation after all! It’ll get my vote!

 

 

 

 

 

Mainely good: Up country, Down East

Maine in the summer is full of good things: salt air, brisk nights, bright sun, wispy clouds, lobster, ice cream parlors seemingly on every corner, breathtaking scenery, a lazy way of taking one day at a time and putting aside the rush.

There’s also traffic; getting anywhere by car is apt to take twice as long as anyone thinks it should, with distances measured in time rather than in miles. And, yes, it’s easy to spend a lot of time in the car in order to see it all.

But Maine is the kind of place that gets under your skin. It’s hard to resist coming back — and the more one returns, the longer one wants to stay.

Yesterday’s excursion took us along the back roads of Midcoast Maine from Wiscasset, the self-proclaimed “prettiest village,” northeast to Belfast, another old seafaring village about 50 miles distant. 101_3156Then we clung to the seacoast to reach Camden, where Mount Battie stretches to the sky along one side of scenic Route 1 and the surf crashes against the rocks on the other side.101_3149

It was a leisurely drive, interspersed with frequent stops for photos, some “on purpose” wrong turns, and a drive up the bluff to view storied offshore islands from the heights at Point Lookout in Lincolnville.

Summer is alive with color — vibrant flowers, lobster buoys glistening in the sun, colorful sails silhouetted against the sky, canoes and kayaks forming their own artistic displays in their racks.101_3015

Farm stands and roadside booths abound — offering everything from fresh strawberries and blueberries to ever present lobster rolls, fried clams, and whoopie pies (definitely a Maine thing!) 101_3107We even found ice cold Moxie for sale by the bottle. Yes, it still has a medicinal taste, but apparently it has never lost its appeal.

We made a stop at Beth’s Farm Market in Warren, and were thunderstruck by the beauty of huge floral hanging baskets. Alas, it’s still a bit too early for Maine sweet corn. But that’s another story; instead we stocked up on fresh strawberries, tomatoes — both red and green, and on purple carrots!

Make no mistake: Eating your way through Maine is half the fun.

Our lunch destination, and one of the main reasons for the trip, is an unassuming eatery with a loyal following in Belfast. Behind bright yellow doors at 96 Main St. is a thriving vegetarian lunch spot (open for dinner one night a week) that also has an in-house produce market, bakery and flower shop. The owners are all family, and their history in Maine dates to 1969; Chase’s Daily opened its doors in 2000.

Good food and sustainability are hallmarks of the operation; the owners and operators are down to earth, realistic and nothing if not approachable. The food is good, with unexpected layers of flavor and unusual ingredients; the ambience is pleasant, the wait staff congenial and the history heartwarming.

Maine has changed over the years, but in important ways this state remains the same as it was decades ago when I first visited. It’s still a little foreign, perhaps a little provincial, and rough around the edges at times. Portland, the largest city, is a cosmopolitan 101_3181center today, full of fine restaurants, hotels, shops, museums and galleries.

But, get out to the country and there’s still a whole wide world to explore. That’s part of the delight, and that’s the reason for the traffic on the coastal highway. You need to get out of the city and away from the resorts to really experience Maine. As a state slogan proclaims: It is “the way life should be.”

Up country and Down East are not only destinations; they are states of mind.

Along the road: The giggles are gone

The road goes on foreverIt’s hard to know just what will trigger a long-forgotten memory; it’s harder still to know just where that memory will lead. A small piece in last Sunday’s paper mentioned that the Highway Beautification Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on October 22 — 50 years ago. Of course, here in Texas we all credit Lady Bird Johnson with the impressive expanses of bluebonnets and wildflowers along our highways. That’s all good.

But highway beautification as a national mandate — Wow, I missed that one, I guess, in my youth. Actually, now that I think about it, I was living in Europe at the time — billboard proliferation along American highways was not something I concerned myself with then. But, on Sunday, that little news story suddenly brought back the memory of red and white Burma-Shave signs — and the realization that the act signed into law that long ago October day most likely spelled the end of a long tradition. Those clever advertising messages sometimes contained important messages; they certainly prompted adult smiles and kept young minds occupied for almost 40 years.

The 1965 Outdoor Advertising Control Program did not actually mandate the removal of signs, and it really didn’t force states to control those massive billboards. It was designed to discourage excessive signage along the Interstates, and stipulated that development funds could be withheld for non-compliance by the states. In that way, it was effective. And the Interstate highway system soon supplanted most of the older highways.

You had to be there: Missing one of the signs could sometimes be the cause of tears; more often, an attempt to fill in the missing word or phrase spawned uncontrollable giggles. It was, for generations of kids, one of the few fun things about road trips — often long, hot, dusty treks along not-so-good highways. Towns in most of this United States at that time were far apart, usually small, and boasted no readily available “fast food.” Gas station and rest room stops were the result of advance planning, for the most part.

Summer or winter, travel could be iffy — heat, cold, mechanical problems, flat tires, boredom, seemingly endless stretches of blacktop. Radio station signals made news and music unreliable across vast distances. But the signs — oh, those signs! We all looked forward to them. The “game” became who spotted the first sign first. Then, everyone “won” as the message was revealed across the miles. At the height of their campaign, Burma-Shave had 7,000 signs in all but four of the Lower 48 states.

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Yes, the occasional giant billboard may have ruined the view, distracted drivers and “polluted” the landscape. But, Burma-Shave signs? Although I haven’t thought about them for decades, I miss them. I’m also sorry  I  couldn’t play the game with my own child; I have trouble even explaining the concept to my grandchildren. But, then, today we travel on smoother Interstate highways — and the kids are plugged in to their own virtual world of movies, music or audio books.

The times have changed — but, the “road goes on forever.” I’ll just spend the rest of the day humming that tune and laughing about those verses! There’s currently a new interest in Route 66 and its associated memorabilia. Sadly, though, Burma-Shave signs seem to have disappeared forever.

Some of them were totally about the shaving cream. In 1932:

You’ll love your wife

You’ll love her paw

You’ll even love

Your mother-in-law

If you use

Burma-Shave

Others were just plain clever! From 1945:

‘Twould be

More fun

To go by air

If we could put

These signs up there

Burma-Shave

Sometimes they had important messages. Here’s a good one from 1949:

When frisky

with whiskey

Don’t drive

‘Cause it’s

Risky

Burma-Shave

Another:

Ashes to Ashes

Forests to Dust

Keep Minnesota Green

Or we’ll ‘

All go Bust

Burma-Shave

They could also be a little risque. This one’s from 1959:

Baby your skin

Keep it fitter

Or “baby”

Will get

Another sitter

Burma-Shave

You can read more of the iconic road-sign jingles, indexed by year at Burma-Shave.org.