The open road: Traveling tips

101_2217Fast food isn’t particularly good for the waistline or the pocketbook! And, no matter how familiar, most of it is nothing to write home about.

So, this summer, why not slow down a little to nurture your spirit as well as your body? Whether you take a quick weekend jaunt or an extended trip across the country, here are some good ways to make your next driving trip a memorable one:

Pack a picnic basket

Seriously. There was a time when a wicker basket was a staple in the back seat or the trunk of almost every vehicle. Those were the days when people planned a day’s journey based on the distance between gas stations, and pulled off the road to enjoy a field of flowers or a lakeside vista. Today, with conveniences available at every highway exit, it’s not so necessary to plan ahead, but having a picnic basket full of good food still makes sense.

Fill yours with hard boiled eggs, a package of mini carrots or sugar snap peas, cans of sardines and packets of tuna, a jar of peanut butter, a loaf of crusty French bread, crackers, and homemade granola or trail mix. Bring along either a round of Brie, a wedge of blue, or some string cheese that can stand being out of the refrigerator for a few hours. Include apples, oranges and dried fruit, and maybe some homemade cookies. Pack plastic plates, glasses and silverware, a roll of paper towels and a plastic tablecloth. Include a blanket or quilt for sitting on the ground.

If you’re taking a long trip, restock at a local grocery store; forego the chain restaurants. Forget the cooler full of soda, but bring a large thermos filled with iced tea or lemonade. In cooler weather, fill the thermos with hot chocolate, tomato soup or chicken bouillon. Invest in refillable personal water bottles and fill them with tap water. When you get hungry, get off the road and get out of the car. Park by a stream or find a city park: Walk around, lounge on the grass, walk the dog, and let the kids run!

Get off the road – go local

Turn off the interstate occasionally. Even if you want to make good time getting to your destination, you’ll be surprised how invigorating it can be to take a scenic route or venture onto a back road. Forget the GPS and the app, and buy an old-fashioned road map, the paper accordion-folding kind that you spread out on the hood of the car, the kind that shows small towns, county roads, twisting dirt paths, historical sites and topographical features. Then make time to explore.

Leave the smart phone in your pocket and teach your children map-reading skills; get lost on purpose, just so you can find an alternative way back to the highway. Cultivate spontaneity! Take a few chances. Laugh a lot!

The highways were built to move goods and people quickly from place to place, and they do that well. But, any journey can be as interesting as the destination if you take a turn through the countryside and small towns along the way. It’s a whole different world view and one you don’t want to miss. Stop to photograph wild flowers, historical markers, spectacular views, a herd of longhorns, or an old barn. Look for the unusual. Stop at farm stands and “pick your own” orchards. Buy freshly-squeezed orange juice in Florida, fresh shelled pecans in Texas, cherries in Washington or just tapped maple syrup in Vermont. WP_20160508_007 (1)

Keep a travel journal

Don’t worry about the literary quality; just make it personal and it will be memorable. Simply write quick notes to keep in an old three-ring binder and punctuate with doodles, postcards, snapshots or restaurant business cards. Or take notes on your digital device to accompany the pictures you snap: Transfer the notes and photos to an online journal when you return home. Just be sure to date (and place) the entries so that you can look through actual or virtual pages later to recall specific events.

Your kids will love reliving this part of their history, and you can tell friends and relatives about your experiences.  Write about the wild flowers or the weather; the long, boring miles of highway, or the squabbles in the back seat; add anything that describes the moment! And don’t wait for an epic two-week vacation to Europe to begin journaling. You don’t have to be born with a sense of adventure to enjoy travel. You simply have to keep your mind open to possibilities, your heart open to fun and your eyes focused on the new sights all around you.

Slow down and look around

Take advantage of state tourist information centers as you cross state lines. Great sources of information,  they are staffed with knowledgeable volunteers, and often offer snacks, coffee and cool drinks. They also provide a welcome break from sitting! Many states also have upscale, modern rest stops with clean rest rooms, playgrounds and picnic tables.

Turn off the highway and head for a small town square. Look for a local café, or a diner with lots of cars parked outside. Chances are you’ll discover friendly people, good food and good times. Strike up a conversation with your server; ask questions about the area if it’s new to you.

Travel without reservations if you don’t have a deadline, and look for local hotels in small towns rather than chain motels along the highway. Consider it a bonus if you find a charming country inn, a lakeside cottage at a state park, or a historic hotel in the heart of a Midwest city. Another way: Take day trips to other towns in your area. You’ll be surprised at the things you discover!

Walt Whitman said it pretty well:

         “Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road, 

         Healthy, free, the world before me, 

        The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.” 

Fishing in Waxahachie? Oh, yes!

WP_20160410_001

Sometimes the best places are close to home, just undiscovered.

And sometimes all that’s necessary to find great food is to listen to friends.

Both were true this past weekend as my husband and I took a pleasant drive to a small town just 30 minutes south of Dallas.

Getting off the highway is key to discovering the best Texas towns. I have known Waxahachie for many years as the site of the Scarborough Renaissance Festival, and I have been down that road several times. But I had never before gotten “off the road” to get into town.

WP_20160410_022

On this trip, however, the destination was Waxahachie’s downtown square, across the street from the historic Ellis County Courthouse.

The reason? A friend had recommended that we try a newly-opened restaurant. Actually, the friend and a partner own this newly-opened restaurant, and we were only too happy to be invited to sample the fare prior to the grand opening.

Both the restaurant and the town are unexpected treats.

Fresh and Local — and Seafood!

The Fish Grill is a labor of love many months in the making. Open for only seven days when we visited, it is sure to enjoy a long and healthy life. Retired architect Dana Wenzel partnered with Chef Christopher Stanford, a fifth-generation native Texan to bring a beautiful old bank building back to life as a charming and eclectic downtown eatery.

101_2149
The Fish Grill, Waxahachie

The building dates to 1900 when it was Citizens National Bank. It served at one time at the Ellis County Tax Office, but had stood forlorn and empty for a couple of years when Wenzel and Stanford found it. Well-known Dallas developer Jim Lake of Design District and Bishop Arts District fame, had already seen the potential for a restaurant in the space.

Features include the original vault doors, ornate brass 101_2138handrails, stunningly detailed wall and ceiling medallions, and native stone inserts in polished wood floors. A mezzanine and upstairs bar offer patrons spectacular views of the stately courthouse and other historic buildings.101_2147

Large, arched windows let in lots of light, and etched glass doors both lead outdoors and can be closed to provide private dining areas.

There are vibrant red-orange walls, modern art, linen cloths and napkins, and a friendly vibe — it is immediately welcoming. And the menu is as special as the space.

Menu offerings are Stanford’s creation, with a layering of flavors that is at once satisfying and unique. The goal, according to Wenzel, is to produce “good food to get out to the world,” and the governing philosophy is “fresh and local.” All seafood is from the Gulf — none of it arrives frozen. Other menu offerings, including the catfish, pork and beef, vegetables and greens, are locally sourced.

The word is that if it’s not in season, you won’t get it at The Fish Grill — that includes the battered fried oysters and the Grilled Strawberries au vin rouge!

Our lunch began with an impressive Mexican Shrimp Cocktail, highlighted by a piquant tomato sauce  with bits of onion, pepper, avocado and just the right amount of spice. We followed that with Fish Tacos and the ultimate comfort food — Mac and Cheese, served with grilled shrimp.

The only appropriate comment? Delicious! The only downside? No room for dessert, tempting as those grilled strawberries were. The bonus? Enough food in “packed with a smile” to-go boxes for additional taste treats at home.

After leaving the restaurant, we took the time for a walk around the courthouse, a tour of WP_20160410_027the abundant antique shops on the square and its adjacent streets, and a leisurely drive past the impressive gingerbread homes that characterize this town. Waxahachie obviously takes pride in its past and looks toward its future. It has the feel of a gracious, cultured college town; actually it was once the home of Trinity University, but that’s another story.

Because there are other stories to be told about this interesting little Texas town, you can be sure I’ll be returning to Waxahachie, and I look forward to enjoying more — perhaps many more — meals at The Fish Grill.

 

The Old West

20151108_111650It may actually be more a lazy stroll than a “drive,” but the longhorns and the drovers never fail to gather a crowd as they appear for their twice daily parade down Exchange Street. The historic Fort Worth Stockyards District is not exactly the Old West. But when the buildings and the beasts are reflected in the sparkle of children’s eyes,  it does seem almost like the Old West. If only for just a moment.

As they parade down the cobblestone street, herded by “cowboys” on horseback, these impressive animals give us just a glimpse of that past, the time of “beef on the hoof.” Familiar cattle trails stretched like highways across the plains, into the high country and on to railheads and markets throughout the West and Midwest.20151108_113639 - Copy (2)Men and animals, in those days, were both larger than life. At the heart of the legends are the longhorns and the stampedes.

Today, Fort Worth’s herd probably couldn’t even be prodded to take off running, but it’s still quite impressive to see the big beasts with their six-foot horn-spans up close and personal. It’s even possible to climb on the back of a tethered longhorn in order to pose for a snapshot.  It was a beautiful day — crisp, clear and sunny. In the stockyards district, the towering buildings of modern, downtown Fort Worth fade away.

It’s the spectacle that draws people, and although it bears little resemblance to the running of the bulls in Pamplona, to cattle drives of old, or to a working ranch, it does transport spectators back to the day when Fort Worth truly was “where the West begins.” 20151108_111447

It’s the spirit of the place, as well as its heritage.

I, for one, am very happy to stand on the sidewalk, admire the architecture, speak with the patient horsemen and smile at the children who are excited equally by the horses and the “cows.” In a period of about four years from 1866 to 1870 more than four million head of cattle passed through Fort Worth, and were “driven” along the Chisholm Trail to Abilene, Kan. Then, other trails developed, as did other markets. The range was open, and beef was a diet staple.

Those days, however, actually did not last long. The growth of settlements, the arrival of the railroads and westward expansion all took their toll. The long cattle drives were hard on the cowboys and hard on the cattle, and they were over by about 1890.20151108_113946

As a product of the American West, I am aware of other cowtowns: Miles City, Mont., Medora, N.D., Las Vegas, N.M. Some have played prominently in my past. I know the names — Abilene, Dodge and Wichita, Cheyenne, Greeley and Prescott; Amarillo and Wichita Falls back in Texas. I know the stories. I grew up with the lore. They all retain some of the spirit of the frontier. So, too, does Fort Worth. And that is comforting.

Even though Fort Worth is not a frontier town today, it is protective of its cowtown past and personality. These urban longhorns live on here, and they get their daily exercise by parading along a route that played such an important part in the development of the country, the taming of the West and the feeding of the nation. 20151108_114431 (3)

Driving around Texas, it’s still possible to spot longhorns grazing on private land. After many years, the breed is today making a comeback, not only for sentimental reasons, but also because lean beef is much in demand. Only in Fort Worth, though, is it possible to see them in this way, on twice-daily cattle drives, close enough to reach out and touch!

Not only is it worth a trip to see the Fort Worth herd; it’s a trip back in time, one that is highly recommended and fun for old and young alike.

Note: The history of the Fort Worth Stockyards is fascinating, and special events, including rodeos and livestock auctions, are still held here. Read More. In 1976, the area was designated a National Historical District.

Photograph of longhorn pair via Flickr by Amy the Nurse; all others by author.

4686916667_c6bbdcf9a6_b

Let’s all remember our veterans this November 11

Poppy by Jenny Downing via Flickr
Poppy by Jenny Downing via Flickr

Today we are a long way in both space and time from the beaches at Normandy, the air fields of England and the islands of the Pacific, from the Gallipolli Campaign and the battlefields of Verdun, and from Gettysburg and Appomattox. We are also, too often, emotionally distant from the world’s current hot spots.

We have come a long way from those “great wars” that so gripped the spirit and the determination of a people. In the intervening century and a half, Americans have become war-weary, uncertain about the “just” causes we embark upon, and tired of it all. Today, fewer than one half of one percent (that’s 0.4%) of the population get up in the morning to dress in a uniform of the armed services. We still have troops around the world, however, and some of them are still dying for their country.

Veterans Day is November 11 and, because it falls on a Wednesday this year, I can’t help but wonder how many Americans will even think of its significance, or consider the millions of veterans who have served in our nation’s military services. At 11 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month, how many of us will stop what we are doing to give a moment’s thought or a silent prayer for those who serve in the military. It’s not a long weekend, after all, not really a holiday, and it’s easy to forget. But those who daily don a uniform, whether they serve at home or in a war zone, cannot forget.

At the World War I Memorial in Kansas City, an Assyrian Sphinx shields its eyes from the war horrors.
At the World War I Memorial in Kansas City, an Assyrian Sphinx shields its eyes from the horrors of war.

The date and time commemorate the World War I armistice that was signed in a rail car in the forest of Compiegne, east of Paris, at 5 a.m. on a cold morning in 1918. It became effective six hours later — at 11 a.m. local time — and was for a period of 30 days, subsequently renewed many times. It represented a “ragged” peace, made even more so because the final peace treaty was not actually negotiated and agreed upon by all parties to the Great War until June of the following year.

The day was originally known as Armistice Day, and it is celebrated in France and other European nations as well as in Canada and the United Kingdom, where it is also known as Remembrance Day or Poppy Day.

The world was ready for peace. Unfortunately, the peace that seemed so hard won did not last all that long. And there have been, since then, far too few moments of worldwide peace. Perhaps all the more reason to remember those who serve daily in our armed services.

Veterans Day Flag Ceremony - Photo by Loren Javler via Flickr
Veterans Day Flag Ceremony – Photo (2009) by Loren Javler via Flickr

Veterans Day is more than a day to honor the dead — that occurs, in somber tribute, on Memorial Day in the spring. Veterans Day is, rather, the time to think of those who wear the uniform in both peace and war, those currently alive and those who served in the past. Because it falls just after election day, it is a good time to talk to children about the duties and responsibilities of citizenship, and to speak about patriotism and pride.

If you live in a city or town that has any sort of military museum, monument or memorial, November is a good month to visit, to think about the rights and privileges we all enjoy due to the continuing service of our service men and women. It gives us all a chance to think about history, and to forge the future that will become our legacy.

SOS — Saving a Grand Old Ship

By Frederic Logghe [GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

A long-ago time, and in faraway places, the S.S. United States was a bright and shining example of American ingenuity, achievement and spirit. She is still grand and imposing, but her shine has given way to age; her paint is peeling, her interiors are empty; she has suffered greatly from years of sitting still.

There are those of us who would dearly love to see her live on, to enjoy another incarnation so that present and future generations could be awed by the sight, the size and the story of her.

But, I fear that is not to be.

Three news networks this week have told her story. Those who are desperately trying to save her say that the deadline is near – maybe less than two weeks away – when they will be forced to give up the fight. Rent alone at her dock costs $60,000 a month, and before Christmas this year, the money will have run out.

Susan Gibbs, executive director of the conservancy that is seeking a benefactor, says the end of October marks the deadline. After that, she notes, negotiations with a “responsible recycler” will begin. This is not a new development, but it is no less disturbing. The ship has faced the wrecking ball before. But she has, in the past, been granted a “stay.”

For Ms. Gibbs, it’s personal. She is the granddaughter of the ship’s designer, naval architect William Francis Gibbs.

It’s personal for me too.

In a very real sense, the U.S. United States was a matchmaker; she was the reason I met my future husband almost 50 years ago.

At that time, she had been called into service to help move American servicemen and their families out of Europe, and specifically to move them home from France. She was still carrying paying passengers as well, but in some cases, American military families made a five-day passage to New York aboard this swift liner. They ate in the elegant dining rooms, were served by impeccably uniformed staff, and experienced a lifestyle that only a few tourists of the time shared. Luxury ocean liner travel then was the domain, for the most part, of the rich and famous.

But when General DeGaulle of France decreed on March 10, 1966, that foreign military in his country must withdraw or submit to French control, a massive logistical effort began almost immediately to relocate military families. The one-year deadline loomed large; time was of the essence. Even though air travel could accommodate the humans, shipment of household goods and automobiles had to be by sea. At the time, utilizing available staterooms and the cavernous below-deck holds of this great ship made a lot of sense.

So it was that the paths of one young U.S. Army lieutenant and one young working journalist converged one day on a dock in Le Havre, France. He was newly-assigned to help meet the deadline, charged with the responsibility of scheduling military travel and moving belongings. I had a story to write about the huge effort.

No, it wasn’t romantic; we were not her passengers. But she loomed large on the docks in Le Havre as we looked along her more than three-football-fields length and up at her 12-stories above-the-water countenance.

Just a little more than one year later, when there were no military personnel left in France, it was largely due to the S.S. United States and the numbers of people and tons of belongings that she transported back to American shores.

Yes, she was impressive then.

She is still impressive now. Her peeling paint and her empty decks do not detract from her presence and her lines. She still looms larger than life, even though she has sat silent far longer than she ever plied the seas. She was in service only from 1952 through 1969, silenced when she was only 17.

My personal story continues with her. In another tale of endings, my parents considered themselves fortunate to be among her passengers on a scheduled North Atlantic crossing in November 1969. They enjoyed the experience immensely, and they disembarked in New York. The ship was bound for Newport News and a refurbishing “furlough,” but she never returned to service. My father thought it ironic, in his later years, that he had sailed on one of the last troop-carrying voyages of Cunard’s Queen Mary, as it ferried American servicemen home after World War II, as well as on the final crossing of the S.S. United States.

S.S. United States, Philadelphia, 2005

The rebirth of cruising vacations came too late.

Today, the irony is that more people than ever before take to the sea for vacations. Cruising ships have grown larger, accommodations more deluxe, and onboard amenities overwhelming. The S.S. United States was the last American-flagged passenger vessel afloat. She was also the largest ship ever to be built in the United States. She is substantial even by today’s standards, although her passenger load was not quite 2,000 in 692 staterooms, with a crew of just over 1,000. But, she had a distinctive look about her, with two stacks towering almost 65 feet above her decks. And she was fast. She remains the Blue Riband-Hales Trophy winner. She set the speed record for crossing the North Atlantic on her maiden voyage in 1952, snatching it away from the Queen Mary. It has not since been broken!

Both Cunard’s Queen Mary and the S.S. United States were known for elegance and speed. Both were designed for passenger comfort, but built to carry troops in case of need. Both served well. Both today are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

View a slideshow of the S.S. United States.

There the similarities, unfortunately, end. The Queen Mary is now a popular hotel and tourist attraction in Long Beach, Calif. The S.S. United States rots at the dock in Philadelphia.

Surely she too has value as a destination resort, a museum, an office building, a shopping center, or a funky condominium development. Or, am I just out of touch with reality?

As Susan Gibbs and others have stated in recent news interviews, “We have never been so close to saving her; and we have never been so close to losing her.” Save Our Ship (SOS) efforts are ongoing. But, hopes are beginning to fade.

I will continue to hope. Yes, it’s very personal.

Exploring the world of fresh food on a road trip through America’s Heartland

A food writers’ conference, “Eating Words” sponsored by the Edible Institute, in Iowa City, Iowa, was ample incentive for a freelancer with that writing specialty; planned visits along the way at innovative restaurants, specialty food stores, farmers markets and a working organic farm with an aquaponics greenhouse promised subject matter for future stories. A brief respite from DFW’s mid-90s temperatures was yet another reason to drive away in early October. It all came together as a six-day road trip that spanned almost 2,000 miles.

There’s something about road trips! Turning off the highway can mean unexpected pleasures, even if it’s just the promise of a different pace. The stiffness that accompanies long hours of sitting seems to vanish quickly with the sight of a glorious sunrise, miles upon miles of golden corn fields, and the bucolic simplicity of cattle grazing on green hillsides. This trip showcased America’s Heartland at its best! And the unexpected pleasures just kept coming!

First dining stop was Anton’s in Kansas City, an unusual eatery that didn’t disappoint in any way. This relatively new taproom and restaurant, in an old brick building that once was Nabisco’s headquarters, began its life as a grocery store in 1898. Between bakery and today, it served for 30 years as Irene’s Restaurant and Lounge, the local “3 Martini” lunch spot. So, its current incarnation is entirely appropriate.

But it’s different.

There’s an aquaponics system in the basement, a great, funky bar and open kitchen on the main level and an art-filled dining room on the second floor. Waiters are friendly, the on-tap and bottled beers should satisfy any palate, the wine list is long and the food is delicious. Best choices, of course, in this beef capital, are the cut-to-size on-site aged steaks, your choice of grain-fed or grass fed.

20151001_204139

Being different, I chose a sampler of smoked salmon served with egg salad, olive tapenade and crostinis, with a side order of potato latkes. It was more than delicious. It was also more than I could eat. But smoked salmon for breakfast isn’t bad!

Following a morning walk to a nearby health food grocery that has been serving residents of the midtown neighborhood for more than 40 years, my “mate” and I drove to the impressive grounds of the World War I Memorial and Museum that dominates the skyline between KC’s Federal Reserve Bank and Union Station.

The site was originally dedicated in 1921, and the Egyptian Revival Liberty Memorial was completed in 1926. An underground museum and research facilities are more recent and the grounds are now designated as the National World War I monument. It was an unexpected surprise. Its grand dimensions, c20151002_095753oupled with its simplicity and its symbolism, combine to make it one of the most impressive monuments I have ever encountered. Visitors to the underground museum enter over a glass bridge spanning a field of red poppies — 9,000 of them, representing one flower for every 1,000 deaths in the “world war.” It boggles the mind. Visitors can also ride an elevator to the top of a 217-foot memorial tower for a spectacular view of the city and surrounding plains.

We left Kansas City then, driving on to Liberty, Missouri, for breakfast. But Kansas City will remain with us for a long time.