Rubber Duckies: Back at Sea

Note: This post was first published as “Rubber Duckies and the Road Ahead” in August 2016; it has been revised slightly and updated to reflect new information about the continuing duck craze!

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?

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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.” 

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 even in 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 a giant rubber duck making its way through Lake Superior at a Tall Ships Festival in Duluth, Minn. In August of this year, a 25-foot-tall mystery duck with the word “JOY” emblazoned on its chest appeared mysteriously, to the delight of local residents, in the harbor in Belfast, Me. Then, just as mysteriously, it disappeared.

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

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I 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.

Our little companions abandoned their perch on the dashboard when the temperature soared regularly above 100 degrees back home in Texas. But they accompanied us on several other adventures; today they spend most of their time perched happily on a shelf in my office, joined by a sizable “paddling” of ducks collected from many places over the years.

Just recently, during a quick weekend visit to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, The Bridgeford House, a charming B&B, had a pair of ducks perched on the edge of the jetted tub in our bathroom. I was delighted, but I allowed them to stay to greet future guests.

Rubber ducks on cruise ships, some with “passports” and others with “tickets” and messages from previous owners were regularly hidden on cruise ships prior to the cessation of cruising in early 2020 due to the pandemic. They had gained a large following aboard major cruise lines. Now, we understand, the craze has gained new life, and there are numerous cruising ducks pages on Facebook. It’s a phenomenon of the times, with a number of spinoffs — crocheted ducks, duck jewelry and key chains, duck towels and duck art — for fun-loving “adult children” at sea and on land.

Some cruise lines have embraced the fun, selling ducks and duck-themed gifts in onboard shops. And some crew members are enthusiastic collectors as well! Rubber duckies don’t take up much space or make a mess; they are exceedingly patient and compliant travelers, requiring no special accommodations or food. But they did, do and will continue to make us smile! So, if you come across a duck in your travels, feel free to to befriend it and take it home. Or let it remain in its hiding place to bring a smile to another face. Post a photo on one of the online groups, if you choose, or rehide it to give someone else the pleasure of finding it. Release your inner child, and just enjoy the experience. I have only found one duck on board a ship, but you can bet I’ll be keeping my eyes open next time I sail.

*Multicolored duck photo by Jo Naylor/Flickr; others by Adrienne Cohen; The motel was the Comfort Inn Virginia Horse Center, Lexington, VA, and The Bridgeford House B&B is located at 263 Spring St., Eureka Springs, AR.

Long may it wave. . .

 

Today is a day for waving the flag. It always has been. On this most American of American holidays, Old Glory — the red, white and blue — is displayed prominently everywhere. Along with the fireworks, the hot dogs and brats, sauerkraut and beans, potato salad and beer, it is a quintessential American holiday. I love it, and so do most people I know.

Other countries also have national holidays, and they’re wonderful as well. But this one is mine. I am an American, above all, and I celebrate the history of my country and the heritage of my forebears who worked to build and preserve this nation.

This weekend I will celebrate! With outdoor concerts and picnics, with old friends and new acquaintances, on the lake and in the park, I will celebrate. Here in Hot Springs Village, the celebration has continued since Friday, culminating in a “beach party” and fireworks over Lake Balboa tonight. I have enjoyed it all, but at some point in the celebration, I will pause to remember why.

I will celebrate the freedom that was proclaimed for us all 255 years ago, and won anew in skirmishes that extended for years, until a decisive battle was won against the British in September of 1814. It was the battle that led to the penning of the poem that was to become our National Anthem.

And it was the tattered American flag flying over Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor “in the dawn’s early light,” that inspired Francis Scott Key to write those words. How different history would have been had it been the Union Jack that he saw.  However, it was not until 1931 that The Star-Spangled Banner was adopted as our national anthem.

Have a wonderful Fourth of July everyone.

 

 

 

 

Taking to the seas, skies and roadways once again: Be smart, and enjoy the trip!

More people today travel to more places more often than ever before in history. At least they did, before the world came grinding to a halt due to the COVID pandemic. When restrictions are lifted once again for worldwide leisure travel, the experience will undoubtedly be changed.

What will it look like? As yet, we’re all a bit uncertain. What is certain, however, is that Americans and other nationalities will continue to travel, very probably in record numbers.

It’s not just the numbers, but also the percentages of people traveling that has skyrocketed in recent years. More than 28.5 million people took to the seas in 2018, according to Cruise Lines International Association, the world’s largest cruise industry trade association, and 2019 was expected to reach or exceed 30 million, once all numbers were tallied. Cruises regularly discharged passengers into crowded ports around the globe for visits that spanned only a few hours.

According to figures from the U.S. Travel Association, “U.S. residents logged 1.8 billion person‐trips* by air for leisure purposes in 2018,” and a record number of Americans, more than 93 million, traveled outside the country that year, according to data supplied by the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Travel and Tourism Office. A fair portion of those flights brought travelers to foreign ports so that they could board cruise ships.

*A person-trip is defined as one person on a trip away from home overnight in paid accommodations or on a day or overnight trip to places 50 miles or more [one-way] away from home.

All Those Ships

The cruise industry had become a major economic factor for many nations, impacting an astonishingly broad spectrum of goods, services and specialties. It is one of the largest worldwide employers, and the shutdown has affected broad segments of the worldwide economy.

The statistics are sobering:

It is estimated that 8.75 million passengers missed their cruises as of October 31, 2020. Between mid-March and the end of September last year, approximately 334,000 cruise-related jobs were lost. In the United States alone, the lost revenue was estimated to reach about $26 billion by the end of October 2020. And those figures don’t begin to count what has happened since.

There’s no doubt that it was “big business,” but there is even less doubt that the number of travelers will continue to increase, according to cruise industry spokespeople. Despite the worrisome statistics, bookings for future travel are up for the coming year, and for succeeding years, pointing to significant future demand. Travel is not expected to return to the “old normal” soon, perhaps not ever. But those who miss traveling and are eager to set off once again, for the most part, will embrace airline and cruise travel no matter what new restrictions may be are imposed.

About 7,000 cruise passengers were quarantined aboard their ships, in Japan, other Asian ports and various other parts of the world, including some ports in the United States in the early days of the pandemic. and other places in Asia. However, bookings for future cruised were not canceled in large numbers until the cruise industry ban on travel became a reality across the globe. Today, based on reports from all cruise lines, bookings are up for 2021, 2022 and already for 2023, even though only a handful of ships have actually begun to carry passengers.

“Stay Nimble!”

The prevailing attitude of passengers booked on a Transpacific sailing scheduled to depart Yokohama, Japan May 10 was “wait and see,” until the final moment. The cruise, of course, was canceled, but a high percentage of those passengers affected by the cancellation immediately transferred their deposits to another sailing on a future date. Refunds and incentives for future bookings were attractive, and most cruisers seem willing to wait it out.

My husband and I are among those who have had multiple cancellations. We are eager to see the return of cruise ship travel. As others in the same boat, we had little idea that the ban would persist for an entire year. We certainly did not foresee longer than a year!

Now we are encouraged not only by recent rulings that will allow ships to travel from U.S. ports to Alaska for a part of the summer, bypassing British Columbia. We are even more encouraged by the news that other U.S. ports will be embarking passengers this summer for short itineraries to Bermuda, the Bahamas, Mexico and the Caribbean.

We currently have deposits on three cruises — one this fall, one for January 2022, and another for June 2022. This is new territory for us to navigate: We seldom plan that far ahead. Typically we are much more spontaneous in our bookings. But by booking early, we have taken advantage of lower prices and additional perks. We still have dreams to hold on to. We have practiced living with hope for far too long.

Fears and Facts

Major concerns still exist. Will the logistics of future travel become more difficult? Will insurance continue to cover financial loss due to a world health scare. Will the spread of Coronavirus finally be contained. Will we be able to travel without masks, but with proof of vaccination? We realize that these concerns may seem frivolous in the face of illness and death, financial woes and the other pain associated with a worldwide pandemic, political unrest and continuing uncertainty about the future.

But for many of us, the ability to meet new people, enjoy new experiences, and explore new ideas through travel is nearly as vital as breathing, eating and sleeping. So, the questions remain.

If you love traveling, are you currently making plans for the future? Where — and how — will you be traveling? When will you deem it safe to leave home, to fly to a destination half a world away, to be on a ship at sea with thousands of other people and no immediate access to comprehensive medical care. Is taking a road trip across the United States now a viable alternative to other forms of travel?

These are important questions that each person and every family must answer from an individual perspective. There are no right answers. What are your thoughts? I would love to hear from you.

Until we can all meet up in some foreign port and share stories around a friendly table, just stay curious and be safe. Be ready to pack up and go when it becomes possible!

Faraway is close at hand . . .

It recently occurred to me that the small town in Texas I now call home is the “faraway” to most of the world’s inhabitants. It’s still true that most places on earth are totally unfamiliar to most of us, even though we refer repeatedly to “the shrinking planet.” There are enough faraway places to keep me occupied for several more lifetimes!

In preparation for the next getaway, I have lately been googling “best things to do in . . .” as an attempt to separate “must do’s” from “possibles.” I’m trying, as always, to jumpstart trip-planning. It’s a task I never finish in advance, but half the fun of going is facing the unexpected. The other half is the anticipation of what’s already decided!

Learning about home . . .

On a whim, I plugged in “best things to do in Burleson, TX.” It was more than just interesting, just short of enlightening. I have started a new mini-list of places to go and things to do right here in my own faraway place. I still qualify as a new arrival, at least in the eyes of born-and-bred local friends.

There are plenty of newcomers to Burleson, drawn by proximity to Fort Worth, reasonable prices, good schools and a distinctive small-town aura. There is a unique vibe — a progressive attitude with pervasive ties to the past — and no shortage of friendly people. This dot on the map was established in the early 1880s as an interim stop for the railroad running south out of Fort Worth.

Later, in 1912, an interurban rail line from Fort Worth to Cleburne also operated a station in Burleson. That depot still stands today. It is, in fact, a cornerstone of the town’s historic district, the focus of a cosmetic redevelopment plan that extends several blocks in each direction from city hall. The historic depot and two early interurban passenger cars will figure as prominently in the city’s future as they did in its past, when trains rumbled through 10 times each day.

Freight trains still run twice daily, sounding mournful whistles and stopping traffic at local crossings. I like that, because I’ve been a lifelong fan of trains and train whistles. (Can you guess why? Because they take people to faraway places, of course!)

Where commonplace and uncommon meet

During my online search, I learned:

There is a periodic ghost tour that makes at least five stops at local “haunts.” There may be no regular schedule, but that tour is on my list!

There is a Coldstone Creamery — how I’ve missed that, I do not know, but I am no stranger to other ice cream shops and numerous pizza parlors!

In 1920, the population was 241. The 2010 census reported 36,690 residents, and next year’s count is likely to exceed 50,000. Whether that is good or not depends largely on one’s point of view.

There’s at least one popular sports bar that features karaoke nights. I will probably continue to miss that attraction, a decision regulars there will surely applaud!

Learning new things about the place I call home made me stop and think about the other places I’ve been recently, those with histories that span many centuries. Burleson is only a child on the world stage.

But my small Texas city is charging forward, growing and taking giant steps to build a sound, healthy, connected community that is good for business, good for residents, supportive of its students and its seniors, welcoming to newcomers, and attuned to citizen wants and needs. It is progressive in all the best ways, and still manages to cherish its past.

It is comfortable.

Reality is the intruder . . .

There are still working farms within Burleson’s borders, along with golf courses and city parks, a creek-size tributary of the Trinity River, a stocked fishing pond, and two local wineries. Its previous rural character is still evident, and getting anywhere in town takes only minutes.

It remains small-town enough to boast large turnouts for summer music and movies on a blocked-off downtown street, for local holiday parades, and for patriotic observances at the city’s Veterans Plaza. It is a place where one can stumble upon painted rocks, left in public places by the volunteer artists of Burleson Rocks. They are meant to be found and treasured by passers-by. And several of its buildings are enlivened by colorful, larger-than-life murals.

It is a place where friends can meet for a spontaneous dinner out without making reservations, and where the sounds of live music drift from a local craft brewery/eatery’s rooftop deck on pleasant evenings. The drumbeat of high school marching band practice punctuates early mornings in the early fall, and local high school football games attract Friday night crowds.

Rabbits and possums are regular backyard visitors, and finding Texas longhorns, horses, donkeys, and even young camels grazing in a field is not entirely unusual.

Even though a busy Interstate runs through it, my city is not a tourist destination by any stretch of the imagination. But if you find yourself in Fort Worth for business or pleasure, Burleson is only about 20 minutes south of the high-rise office buildings and hotels, and it beckons to visitors with the promise of an entirely different Texas experience.

Old Salts, Salt Licks and Pretzels . . .

They may not actually have much in common, but there is a common thread — Salt constitutes a ribbon of continuity from ancient times to the present, and beyond. It is essential for life. Luckily, salt in its various forms is abundant on earth. Processing techniques have been employed for millennia, and salt as a commodity was once prized as much by nations as by individuals.

Today, the love of salt extends to specialty varieties, including Himalayan sea salt, black salt, Celtic salt, smoked salt,  and rare, expensive Fleur de Sel from Brittany, among others. Every type of salt has its dedicated advocates. 100_2120

But who knew that pretzel salt comes from a small East Texas town?

It’s true. Every pretzel consumed all across the United States has salt crystals extracted from the massive salt dome situated deep below the Texas prairie about 75 miles east of Dallas.

Salty Travels and Tales

I had heard of Grand Saline, but I never — ever — gave its name much thought until I learned last year that it has been the home of a Morton Salt mine for nearly a century.

In the mid-1990s, I had the privilege of visiting the planned nuclear waste repository (WIPP Site) near Carlsbad, N.M., prior to the time it received its first shipment of  radioactive waste. I treasure a large chunk of salt that I brought up from that salt cavern almost half a mile underground. Now I also have two small rock salt crystals extracted from below the earth’s crust in Texas. They are much harder; and they are clear.

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I also remember sailing around Salt Island, in the British Virgin Islands. My companions and I didn’t dive the wreck of the Rhone, nor did we step ashore on the island, but we were enthralled to learn that current inhabitants still pay an annual rent to the Queen — a one-pound bag of salt.  Traditions die hard!

Then, just a year or so ago, I visited Ston, a small town in Croatia, where salt has been harvested from the shore of the Adriatic for centuries. Of course, I brought home a bag of Croatian salt. I regularly buy unusual salts at the grocery store. We enjoy cooking with them, and sampling the various textures and flavors.

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In addition, my husband and I were recently gifted with a beautiful book, “Salt,” by Mark Bitterman, along with a Himalayan salt slab, designed for grilling; it is supposed to embue meats and vegetables with natural salty flavor. We are eager to test it!

So, it was with a sense of expectation that we took a day trip recently to Grand Saline. Its history extends back in time to about 800 BC, when the local Caddo Indians collected salt from surface marshes. Those same drying flats supplied Confederate soldiers with salt during the Civil War.

The salt flats still exist on the mine property, but are no longer publicly accessible. But evaporative salt is still processed in much the same way, although on a much larger scale than formerly.

To my disappointment, tours of the mine itself were discontinued, because of federal (OSHA) safety regulations, in the 1960s, but visitors to Grand Saline can learn the history of the mine through exhibits and a 14-minute video at the Salt Palace, a funky little building right in the heart of town. It actually boasts salt block siding, but licking it is not really encouraged!

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About that Pretzel Salt

The underground salt dome, said to extend downward at least 20,000 feet from the surface, is vast. It is said that this single salt deposit could supply this country’s needs for many thousands of years. At a level 750 feet below the surface, where mining 100_2124operations take place today, the salt dome measures approximately 1.5 miles in diameter. The “mother bed” of salt is said to be a remnant of an ancient sea. Underground temperature is a constant 75 degrees.

Each underground salt “room” is about 75 feet wide and 25 feet high, with solid salt pillars for support that measure 130 feet square. Future expansion will enlarge existing rooms to 75 feet in height from floor to roof. Trucks and all mining equipment are brought from the surface in pieces and reassembled in the mine. Approximately 100 miles of roadway wind through the caverns, and mining operations continue underground 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The salt deposits are 98.5% pure NaCl. Grand Saline is one of only two Morton Salt plants to produce both rock salt and evaporated salt; it produces all major grades of evaporated salt, including dendritic (flaked) salt, and is the company’s sole producer of shaker products and salt substitute potassium chloride.

Salt, of course, is not just for eating. Because of its purity, the salt extracted from the Grand Saline mine is also earmarked for pharmaceutical use. Salt is, after all, salt — but what is taken from the earth at Grand Saline mine is deemed unsuitable for most industrial uses because it is too pure. Although it could be used to melt snow, that would, in effect, seem wasteful! 

Our visit to the Salt Palace was enlightening. Poking around Grand Saline on a beautiful early spring day was pleasant, although there’s not much there other than the Salt Palace. But it’s an easy day trip from Dallas or Fort Worth, and it’s always fun to get out on the back roads; you never know what you might find!

I will never again take salt for granted, but will instead savor the many varieties that are available. And, for sure, I’ll continue to collect salty stories.

Pushing the Reset Button

I readily admit that I am still not entirely comfortable with wireless technology. I miss long curly telephone cords and purring electric typewriters. They felt solid and grounded, and I felt in control. I still keep track of appointments with a book-like calendar and I make notes on random slips of paper.

Today, I spend undue time worrying that my smart devices will outsmart me. I am uncomfortable with a car that reminds me to buckle my seatbelt, a navigation device that tells me I am not following directions properly, and a cell phone personality that questions my directives.

I am used to being in charge, and I want my technology to obey my commands and respond to my needs without being coddled.

At the very least, I hope to win ongoing battles without the need to call in reinforcements – read “young technicians who make me feel like an idiot because of my inability to solve the problem myself.

I regularly forget that the way to bypass periodic operational hiccups with both my portable devices and my desktop computer is simply to turn them off, wait a few moments and reboot them. It may be akin to sending an unruly toddler to the corner for a time out, but it seems unnatural and unnecessary to me.

Unfortunately, in other areas of life, I also tend to undervalue the power of pushing the reset button.

A Spring Resolution

I recently returned from a quick overnight in Cabo San Lucas at the tip of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. A short cruise out of Los Angeles offered sun and warmth, gently rolling seas and good companionship. I savored long, lazy days aboard ship with no agenda, no schedule, no daily deadlines – all equally beneficial for body and soul. I was served interesting food and adult beverages, enjoyed good stage shows and movies, caught a few spectacular sunsets, and watched cavorting whales, sea lions, pelicans and gulls.

We strolled the Cabo waterfront, listened to music, sampled local Margaritas and street tacos and thoroughly enjoyed leisurely time ashore.

As a writer, I am acutely aware that creativity is fueled by new experiences, interesting people, beauty, good food, and even a bit of personal indulgence. But the crush of daily life sometimes gets in the way.

Vacations, especially if they are short, simple and relatively unplanned, are invigorating. Even day trips can be memorable. As much as I love exotic destinations. I have come to believe in the restorative benefits of simple getaways. Unfortunately, those simple excursions don’t happen often enough. But they’re an indulgence I have promised myself more frequently this year.

Getting out in the world is – in my universe – the human reset button.

New Spring in My Step!

I returned to my desk this week with a fresh appreciation for the work I do. Freelancing is, in many ways, a dream job. I understand fully that I have the luxury of being able to escape to far horizons on a fairly regular basis. The flip side of that coin is that, more often than not, I take some work with me.

After all, those portable electronic devices have changed my world, for better or worse. Unless I disclose my whereabouts, there is no reason for anyone to know that I am not slaving away at my desk.

But this time, I chose not to work while in Mexico. Other than checking email occasionally, I did not write a single word. I did not check, nor did I post to social media.  But I returned home with a mind alive with ideas, and a determination to work harder to tell the stories that I find interesting.

So, my promise – to myself – is to get back to work with renewed zest and spirit, and then to walk away much more often. That’s motivation I can embrace.

I pushed the reset button!

It’s the people, not the places . . .

It’s good to get away, and sometimes it doesn’t seem to matter where the journey takes us; it’s the break from routine that’s important.

This time, though, it was all about the place. My husband and I, as those who know us (and those of you who read the previous post) know, spent the better part of a summer in Alaska 13 years ago. We traveled the Marine Highway of Southeast Alaska and numerous watery byways that led us to out-of-the-way villages and secluded coves. We went north to Skagway and Haines, west to Glacier Bay and Sitka, spent delightful days in Hoonah and Petersburg and bobbed gently “on the hook” with only stars and lapping waves for company. We visited Juneau, the capital, several times, and we had good times in Ketchikan, Alaska’s “first city.”

At the end of August we returned to the 49th state, arriving in Anchorage on a Friday evening to spend a few hours prior to embarking the next day on a seven-day voyage aboard Golden Princess. The trip would take us past impressive Hubbard Glacier and into Glacier Bay before visiting Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan on a journey slated to end in Vancouver, British Columbia, the following Saturday morning.

It was not a trip we spent a lot of time planning. It was, in fact, a snap decision, made with a “why not” attitude, but with low expectations. We sandwiched it in between short trips to other destinations during August.

Some initial observations:

What we experienced surprised us. We were less than enamored by Anchorage, home to fully 40 percent, if not more, of Alaska’s residents. But, to be fair, we spent only a few hours there and during our brief visit we encountered delightful people. The city, however, is not pretty, apart from its surroundings.

Our appreciation for the spectacular natural beauty of Alaska emerged fully intact. Looking down on the Anchorage area from our airplane and seeing snow-capped distant peaks towering above the clouds was duly impressive. The water and the coastal vistas are incredible and the vast land seems to extend forever.

And the flowers — before I visited Alaska, I would not have believed there were flowers in what I considered a cold and desolate place. How wrong I was. They were — and still are — everywhere. Wild flowers and flowers in public parks; flowers on window sills and in shops, flowers filling huge municipal planters; flowers in airports and on the docks. Wildflowers along the highway. Gorgeous, colorful flowers. Everywhere!

On Saturday, we boarded a bus for the short drive to Whittier, a year-round deep-water port at the head of Prince William Sound. The trip allowed us a glimpse of white Beluga whales in the waters of Turnagain Arm and a herd of Dall sheep navigating a craggy bluff on the other side of the highway.

It’s exciting, to be sure, to wear jackets and knit caps in August, even if we did have to don rain gear as well. We visited the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center to see wood bison and musk ox, wolves and porcupines, bear and moose, deer and foxes.

We continued on through the engineering marvel of a tunnel that gives the only land access to Whittier. It is shared (on a one-way basis) by passenger vehicles, buses, trucks and the train!

A floating city . . .

Once aboard, we began to settle in to the life of a floating city with 2,600 other people — not difficult, actually, with the wealth of activities and the pleasant mix of public and private spaces. Every day seems a celebration on board a modern cruise ship.

What we knew we would miss was the feeling of being close to the water — the sound of the waves, the experience of cold fingers and blasts of wind as we dropped anchor or secured the lines of our vessel to the metal cleats of well-worn wooden docks. We missed the camaraderie we felt with fishing boat captains as they put away their gear after a long day; and we missed the hot coffee and good conversation that was always available in cluttered dockmasters’ offices.

We also missed seeing whale spouts and fish jumping just above the swells, gulls and eagles trailing fishing boats and circling above small docks, the occasional family of sea otters looking for refuge in a marina, and eye-level contact with those splashing waves and floating chunks of ice. Looking down on the water from a deck 70 or more feet above it, or searching for native wildlife through binoculars and behind protective glass has nowhere near the same effect.

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What we enjoyed was the companionship of other passengers, especially our delightful dinner tablemates, talking with fellow travelers from not only other states, but from Australia and New Zealand, from Germany and England, from Mexico and from Asia. We appreciated the perfectly prepared fresh fish and seafood that was offered at every meal, the smiling service of bartenders and waiters, the helpfulness of the crew, the variety of outdoor deck space from which to view changing vistas of glaciers and icebergs, mountains and clouds.

We were blessed with sunshine for at least a part of every day, somewhat unusual for this part of Alaska.

We also appreciated having the assistance of other eyes to help spot whales and otters, eagles, bears, seals and porpoises. And, yes, we did spot some, although we yearned to see more! The ship reverberated with a chorus of delight for each occurrence. We were thrilled once again to visit Glacier Bay. The naturalists and Park Rangers who came aboard were interesting and knowledgeable. It was a learning experience, and it was good to have their input.

We heard the “thunder” of glaciers as they calved, and realized anew that listening to the natural sounds of Alaska is mesmerizing.

‘Tis the season . . .

We could have done without the proliferation of t-shirt and key chain shops, furriers and jewelry stores, harborside kiosks and lines of tour buses and waiting guides. But then we realized that they were very much a part of port life 13 years ago as well.

As Alaska residents acknowledge, the season is short and it’s tourism that turns the wheels of commerce in the ports of Southeast Alaska. Life after October settles back into familiar patterns and the majesty of the land becomes once again the personal domain of those who call Alaska home.

Travel is enlightening in many ways. But it’s not the places; it’s the people one meets.

We sought out those people on this trip. And we were rewarded tenfold! Friendly residents are more than willing to talk about their lives, their cities, their families and their experiences. As always, we were fascinated to learn about daily life as it is lived outside the pages of guidebooks.

We always asked for local recommendations for food. In Anchorage, we were directed to a popular local brew pub, and were immediately befriended by a local resident only too willing to share his views on everything from oil drilling to recreational cannabis, from the Northern Lights to politics. The next morning we had cafe au lait and warm croissants at the charming Paris Cafe, a short stroll from our hotel.

In Skagway, there was a wait at “the best place in town to eat,” but the wait was worth it — and we were notified by text message when our table was ready. Skagway may be small and remote, but there’s no shortage of technology! WP_20180821_12_44_28_ProWe were rewarded with perfectly prepared fish, crispy chips and superb local brew.

We took a short bus ride to White Pass, following the path traversed by miners with gold fever, and snapped photos at the border between the United States and Canada, “Gateway to the Klondike.” We walked around Skagway for just a short time before retreating back to our ship as it began to rain. Skagway has changed little, but with four cruise ships in town, it was crowded!

That afternoon, before slipping lines and heading south to Juneau, a program by “real Alaskan” Steve Hites, one of the 1,057 full-time Skagway residents, was a highlight of the trip. Accompanied by guitar and harmonica, the 64-year-old songwriter, storyteller and tour operator charmed listeners with a 40-minute history of “his” Alaska, and the small town he knows so well.

In Juneau and Ketchikan, once again we asked for local food tips and were given the names of two eateries slightly beyond the tourist mainstream. At both, The Flight Deck in Juneau, and again in Ketchikan at The Dirty Dungee, we devoured fresh-caught Dungeness crab, and couldn’t have been happier!

About traveling to Alaska . . .

My heartfelt advice to anyone considering an Alaska cruise?

GO!

My husband and I realize that we were privileged to be able to experience the state as we did — on our own — and that trip will remain in our hearts as a unique experience.

We remember how small we felt while on our boat, especially one morning in Juneau as we awoke to the presence of a massive cruise ship snuggled against the dock directly in front of our vessel.

101_0747As luck would have it, on this trip Golden Princess occupied that slip, and we wondered if the private yacht owners felt as dwarfed as we had that long ago morning.

The allure of Alaska has not diminished for us. We shared the excitement of first-time visitors on this cruise. And we understand clearly the sentiments of those who return again and again. There are many ways to travel to this unique state, from “big-ship” cruises to private vessels, land-sea combos, fly-in fishing or sightseeing trips and active expedition cruises. The Alaska State Ferry runs north from Bellingham, Wash., year round, the the Al-Can Highway provides an unparalleled opportunity for those who love road trips. There are summer work opportunities for college students, and the tourist industry brings part-time residents every season. There is no one-size-fits-all recipe for visiting Alaska.

Absolutely, go to experience the place — the stunning scenery with majestic peaks and pristine water, the wilderness, the waterfalls and the icy blue glaciers. Look for wildlife, of course, and marvel when you spot a whale or a group of bears on shore, eagles in the trees, or otters in the sea. Eat your fill of freshly-caught fish and seafood. Snap Selfies. Take tours. Buy trinkets.

But go especially to meet the people! Dinner companions often become lasting friends. At the very least, casual encounters with shopkeepers, restaurant servers, tour guides, ship’s staff, and the people you stop to talk with on the street linger as lasting reminders of the trip  even when memories of specific sights begin to fade.

Cruising is invariably a pleasure, no matter what the ports.  And Alaska still lives up to its moniker as the American “last frontier.” It’s a big adventure!

So, yes, go to Alaska!   

Will we return? Perhaps not. But we would not hesitate to do so. It’s that good!

 

All those ships; and all those seas

Note: At about 6:30 a.m., British time, on July 7, 66 years ago, a brand new ocean liner set a speed record by steaming across the North Atlantic in just three days, 10 hours and about 40 minutes. It was the maiden voyage of the SS United States. The return voyage to New York Harbor set another record. It was a feat never to be duplicated. 

My love affair with ships and with the sea began a long time ago. It continues. 100_9713 (2)

Ships old and new, large and small; sailing ships and historic steamers; lobster boats and shrimp trawlers; pirate ships and submarines, military ships and cruise ships; private yachts and fast powerboats all find treasured places in my mind and memory. And, by extension, so do airships and spaceships, classic automobiles, muscle cars, locomotives, freight trains, and the Orient Express.

If you note the recurring theme in this blog, it’s not by chance.

On May 8, my husband and I had a unique and wonderful experience. We joined a group of ship enthusiasts on a cruise to Bermuda. This group, however, was not just any old band of ship-lovers. Termed the SS United States Legacy Cruise, it was conceived and planned by the SS United States Conservancy in cooperation with the Pollin Group (travel planners) of Chevy Chase, MD. The 70 or so individuals who participated all have a connection — in one way or another — to the last of America’s flagships, the former ocean liner that now sits forlornly at a Philadelphia pier awaiting an unknown fate.

The ship that set the Atlantic speed record sailed the seas for only 17 years. The record-setting Atlantic crossing commenced in New York City on July 3, 1952. The SS United States arrived in England only three days, 10 hours and 40 minutes later, breaking the Eastbound speed record formerly held by Cunard’s Queen Mary and capturing the Blue Riband Trophy. It was an achievement never thought possible by a ship of that size, and it is still unsurpassed today.

Read about that crossing, and watch a video about that historic voyage.

What became her last Atlantic crossing, in November 1969, was an unexpected event.  Indeed, a 16-day cruise of more than 8,000 miles was on the schedule for the 1969-70 holiday season. Passengers would have enjoyed an exotic itinerary including Madeira, Tenerife and Dakar, as well as a New Year’s visit to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands on the Atlantic round trip.  Since then, a series of owners has alternately explored plans to put the ship back in service or threatened the scrap heap.

The Conservancy, led by Susan Gibbs, granddaughter of the ship’s designer, is the current owner, with a mission to see her restored and rejuvenated — not to carry passengers — but rather to assure that succeeding  generations of ship-lovers will be able to explore her cavernous interior and learn her unique story.

It is quite a story

For six days on board the Celebrity Summit, a modern cruise ship, our group heard stories of the SS United States. The ship was built in Norfolk, Va., as a luxury liner in the heady days of mid-Century Modern style. She was aluminum, fast, sleek and lightweight, powered by state-of-the-art propulsion, and said to be unsinkable.

She was, however, a heavyweight in terms of performance, function and appearance. The ship was fully capable of serving as a troop carrier, built during the height of the Cold War era. The illustrious British-flagged “Queens,” Cunard’s luxury ocean liners, ferried troops admirably during World War II. Had the need arisen, the vessel could also have been converted to a hospital ship.

The SS United States was built in Newport News, Va., funded by both the U.S. Navy and the privately-owned United States Lines. She sailed under the American flag and performed exceedingly well as a passenger ship, carrying presidents and dignitaries, film stars and “common folk.” She brought immigrants to the United States and also carried her share of military families, along with their household goods and vehicles, to and from European duty stations. She had speed and agility, numerous luxury features, a fully-equipped operating room and a modern pet kennel with a resident veterinarian.

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Today she sits with peeling paint at a pier in Philadelphia, her interiors stripped and her props missing, awaiting her fate. One of her caretakers, Mike Wolfe, who says he is familiar with “every inch” of the old ship, notes that she still has a grandeur and mystique about her. He is protective of her because, as he says, she is still beautiful. “This ship has a soul,” he insists.

Heading to Bermuda

We watched the Statue of Liberty and the New York skyline recede from view as we made our way out of Port Liberty in Bayonne, N.J., finding it impossible not to think of those long-ago embarkations and arrivals. It is said that William Francis Gibbs never missed the chance to see the SS United States as she departed and returned to pier, watching silently from shore. With two massive stacks and a distinctive color scheme, she must have dominated the view.

The ship was in many ways the designer’s obsession, although he only sailed on her once, on that record-setting maiden voyage. It had been Gibbs’ long-standing dream to design a ship that was 1,000 feet long. The SS United States measured 990 feet in length; from keel to the top of the forward funnel, she rose to a height of 175 feet.

By the end of the week, those of us on this first Legacy cruise had become “old friends.” Steeped in the lore of the ship, we shared our individual reasons for wanting to save her, and those who had sailed on the ship enthralled us all with their memories. Among our group were former passengers and crew members, friends and family, movie-makers and ship designers, scuba divers and armchair travelers, young and old.

In addition to the formal presentations that kept us all busy, we dined together and met informally, bound by joint commitment to this iconic ship. We spoke as well of other ships and other seas, and found we shared other common interests. Once we arrived in Bermuda, our group was treated to a special tour of the National Museum of Bermuda and its park-like grounds. We enjoyed a lunch at the well-known Frog and Onion Pub at Royal Naval Dockyard. We had ample time for private exploration and time to enjoy welcome sun and warmth after rainy days at sea. Bermuda’s beaches are stunningly beautiful, its island ambience delightful, and its people welcoming!

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Serious Efforts to Save a Ship

Current work to assure a bright future for the SS United States continues in earnest. According to Susan Gibbs, it is bearing fruit. Even though she declined to discuss specifics, she noted that solid opportunities exist.

One of the highlights of this Legacy cruise was the presentation of a sizable check to the Conservancy. Dockage at the current pier in Philadelphia is expensive and there are ongoing preservation efforts. If you’re interested in learning more about the SS United States, or about ways to help assure the ship’s preservation and redevelopment, visit the Conservancy website or follow SSUSC on Facebook and get involved.

There are many ways to help: I would love to hear from anyone who has any sort of personal connection or recollection to share. In future posts, I’ll write more about the  people I met during this cruise to Bermuda and tell more stories about the SS United States, interspersed with more stories about the faraway places that the ships, planes, trains and automobiles that so spark my imagination can tell us all.

Meanwhile, if you’re traveling to New York between now and August 3, don’t miss the exhibit currently at the National Lighthouse Museum, Staten Island.

Independence . . . a few thoughts

Fireworks over the water are a traditional part of July 4th celebrations in many parts of the country. Fire risk seems lessened, and exploding colors and sounds seem magnified by rippling water below and starry skies above. We have enjoyed such displays many times, watching with as much awe as any child.101_3074

A bit of background

Several years ago, as we made our way by boat across Chesapeake Bay and into Baltimore Harbor, we noticed an unusual buoy — not the normal red or green of navigational markers, not a warning orange — but rather red, white and blue.  At the same time, we couldn’t help but see the flag fluttering in the breeze at historic Fort McHenry, situated on a peninsula that intrudes into the Patapsco River not far away.

We later learned that the U.S. Coast Guard sets a ceremonial marker annually to mark the approximate spot where the words to the Star Spangled Banner were first written.

Gypsy-new camera-NJNYMDDC 517 (2)The unique buoy and an oversize flagpole brought home to us that year the reality of the battle that shaped the destiny of a young nation. History is like that — it sometimes takes being there to make it real.

The War of 1812, which began because of trade disputes and issues surrounding westward expansion, escalated when ongoing battles between Britain and France waned. It was a devastating time for a young country, and there were serious doubts about the ability to survive as an independent nation.

Much of New England never joined the fight. And, by the time it was over, the “second War of Independence,” as it is sometimes known, resulted in the deaths of 15,000 Americans, nearly as many as perished during the Revolutionary War. The War of 1812 actually lasted for two years and eight months.

Putting it in perspective

The fighting at Fort McHenry took place September 13, 1814. By the time the battle was brought to Baltimore, the war was all but lost. Washington, D.C., including the White House, the Capitol and other government buildings, had already been burned. Gypsy-new camera-NJNYMDDC 519 (2)

This past May, on a trip to Bermuda, those events of 1814 became even more real. It was from this Atlantic island some 600 miles offshore that a fleet of British warships was launched on August 1, 104 years ago, carrying 5,000 British Army and Royal Marines troops. Even though the colonies had declared independence nearly 40 years earlier, the British had not yet given up.

It was at Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor that the tide of war changed; defenders fought off the British during more than 25 hours of intense bombardment.

During the fighting, a young attorney was detained on a British ship in the harbor, along with a physician whose release had been promised. Francis Scott Key, sometime poet as well as a lawyer, had negotiated a prisoner exchange with the British, set to occur after the battle. As the fighting ensued, he was inspired to write the words to a poem which was set to music, with the title Defence of Fort McHenry. Later Francis Scott Key added three more stanzas, all but forgotten today.

The Star-Spangled Banner, although popular, was not used ceremoniously for another 75 years. In 1890, it was adopted by the U.S. military for play during the raising and lowering of the colors.

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Touring the Royal Naval Dockyards this spring on the island known to its residents as “the Rock” or “Gibraltar of the West,” we actually thought little about Baltimore or the War of 1812. Instead we were focused on British history and maritime supremacy, until a chance remark brought back the memory of Fort McHenry, the flagpole and the buoy.  We toured the grounds of the British naval compound, walked the ramparts, and imagined those ships sailing towards Baltimore to quash yet another rebellion. With that clarity of perspective, we realized once again that we are still a very young country!

And so we celebrate . . .

It surprised me to learn that Independence Day was not even a holiday to celebrate until 1870, nearly 100 years after the Declaration of Independence was drafted, and long after its authors had passed on.

It surprised me equally as much to learn that the song written by Francis Scott Key was only adopted as the National Anthem by presidential order in 1916, just more than 100 years ago. Congress made it official only in 1931. The anthem made its official debut at a sporting event, a baseball game played in Chicago in 1918, during the turmoil of World War I.

And the fireworks? Well, that part of the celebration was added only after the poem was written and the song was performed.

None of that, however, diminishes the fun — or the spectacle. No matter what else occurs on the 4th of July, whether there are parades or solemn ceremonies, barbecues or backyard picnics, swim parties, bicycle runs or Days at Six Flags, it’s the fireworks that encompass the spirit of the celebration.

But, lest we forget, independence had a cost. It still has. The fireworks that are so much fun today were deadly serious in 1814. So, as we celebrate, perhaps we should also consider just what independence means, and what price each of us is willing to pay to preserve it.

Stay safe, everyone, on this 4th of July, and enjoy your celebration, no matter what it is!

If you’d like to learn more, here are some resources:

http://www.sacredclassics.com/keys.htm

https://www.history.com/topics/the-star-spangled-banner

https://www.constitutionfacts.com/us-declaration-of-independence/fourth-of-july/

https://www.bermuda-attractions.com/bermuda_0002c2.htm

https://www.bayjournal.com/article/us_anthem_flag_arent_the_only_stars_at_fort_mchenry