Democrats win in Virginia


I got to Virginia just in time for the biggest political event of the year. The governor’s race here was the closest thing we’ve seen to a referendum on Trump and Trumpism, and the results were heartening. Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, a mild-mannered Democrat, beat Republican Ed Gillespie by 9 points. Here are a few things I read in the tea leaves:

-       Trumpism lost. Gillespie is an establishment swamp creature who was nearly beaten in the primary by a Trump-Bannon radical. Running scared, Gillespie changed his tune in the general, beating the drum in favor of Confederate statues and against sanctuary cities. It was supposed to fire up the base, but it probably cost him more votes than he gained.

-       Trump lost. Gillespie borrowed some of Trump’s hot-buttons, but he rarely mentioned him by name and he never asked the president to campaign with him. In all but the reddest states, Trump is a liability for Republicans. (Trump, with characteristic class, bad-mouthed Gillespie in an election night tweet.)

-       Trump’s issues lost. A CNN exit poll found that 37 percent of voters care most about health care; just 13 percent about immigration. Obamacare won. Democratic gains in the legislature means Virginia may expand Medicaid. Maine voters called for Medicaid expansion there as well, endorsing a referendum designed to overcome resistance from Trumpite Gov. Paul LePage. Also, Obamacare enrollment is exceeding expectations in the early going, despite Trump’s attempts to sabotage it.

-       For once, the Democrats got their people to the polls in a non-presidential year. I haven’t studied all the numbers yet, but it looks like turnout was the difference. Democrats also swept down-ballot races and came close to taking control of the House of Delegates.

-       Northam beat a candidate to his left in the Democratic primary, but it was a clean campaign and the party came together for the general. Northam, a pediatrician and Army vet who is moderate in politics and demeanor, kept his integrity and didn’t get down in the gutter. And he won big.

-       The candidate who appealed to unity and respect – Northam – beat the candidate, Gillespie, who sowed division and resentment. Thanks, Virginia.

We always make too much of off-cycle elections because there’s nothing else to talk about. Governor elections often don’t turn on national issues or reflect national trends. But sometimes they do. In 1965, a year after Barry Goldwater and Republicans had been crushed by LBJ’s landslide, John Lindsay, a handsome, liberal Republican, was elected mayor of New York. I remember a political cartoon showing a beat-up GOP elephant getting up from the mat in Manhattan, declaring “I’m alive!”

The Democrats are alive.


Finding Nathan Hale

The Nathan Hale statue outside the dorm where he studied at Yale.

The Nathan Hale statue outside the dorm where he studied at Yale.

Nathan Hale was a bad spy – he got drunk with some of the British troops he was spying on and basically confessed – but he had a memorable exit line. As the British put the noose around his neck, he said “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” Pro-independence propagandists and generations of American history teachers took that line and ran with it.

Hale was a Yale grad, and a handsome statue of Hale stands outside the student dorm that bears his name. According to Yale tour guide Scott Hicks, the CIA wanted the statue of America’s first spy to adorn its new headquarters in Langley, Va., but Yale said no way. So some CIA spooks snuck into the Old Campus in the dark of night, made a wax mold of the Hale statue and had a copy made. Now an exact likeness of Nathan Hall stands at CIA HQ.

But it’s not much of a likeness. When he was hung for espionage, Hale was a young man of little renown, and there were no drawings of him or even descriptions of his appearance. So the artist lined up all the men of Yale’s class of 1920 and chose the “typical” Yalie, to stand in for Nathan Hale.

He does look like a dashing, 20th century Ivy Leaguer, but neither the statue in the Old Campus, nor the replica the CIA stole for Langley, look like Nathan Hale.


Crow people on parade

The Absaalooke people, also known as Crow, have pitched their teepees and the valleys and grasslands around the Little Bighorn River for centuries. They still do.

Every August, they return for the Crow Fair for five days of rodeos, dancing and good cheer in Crow Agency, Montana. They pitch their teepees, park their campers and build small corals for their horses. It’s a family reunion and a celebration of Native culture.

Every morning during the fair, people put on their finest outfits and parade their horses through the campgrounds. It’s a feast for the eyes. Here are a few pictures.

Beyond Red and White


In my column this week, I argue that we get closer to truth, empathy and unity by making popular history more complicated - by telling everyone's stories. Let me elaborate.

The Indian Memorial was designed to express "Peace Through Unity," which is a historical reference to the fact that not all tribes fought on the same side (two tribes, the Crow (Apsalooke) and the Arikara, provided about 50 scouts to Custer's 7th Cavalry) and an aspiration.

A memorial a couple of miles down the road (shown above) illustrates why. The Mystic Warrior statue is in the center of a park on the Crow reservation honoring all Apsaalooke veterans. A plaque explains that the statue commemorates a battle in 1860 or 1861 - 15 years before Custer's battle - in which the Crows, outnumbered 10-t0-one, defeated an invasion by an alliance of Lakota Sioux, Cheyennes and Arapahos intent on taking away what had long been Crow territory. That's the main reason Chief Plenty Coups, leader of the Crow, agreed to treaties with the white man. The chief had also had visions telling him white men would eventually rule his tribe's vast homeland.

Some of those feelings have persisted. Native American protests against the treatment of Indians in the Little Bighorn narrative were led by Sioux activists. Some Crow members have complained that some of the red marble markers describe fallen warriors as having "died defending his homeland and the Sioux way of life." This wasn't their homeland, say the Crow, this was our homeland the Sioux were invading.

Thus the "Peace Through Unity" aspiration. Conflicts between indigenous North American tribes goes back millennia. Tribal alliances to either oppose or support European factions started as soon as the white men hit the shores. White leaders have always tried to divide Native tribes; Native leaders have always tried to unite them - some leaders, at least.

American history isn't all black and white. Or all red and white. Or, for that matter, all red and blue. The shades of nuance are easy to see if you look in the right places.


Chasing the eclipse

I find myself in the position to chase Monday’s solar eclipse, if only I could come up with a strategy.

I’m now in Billings, Montana, which seems to be as close to the Path of Totality – I love that phrase – as I can afford. Rooms much closer to the magic path cost $1,000 or more.

So I’m thinking: Do I drive into the path, find a long dirt road and sleep in my rented car? It’s more than three hours to where I can see the total eclipse. Do I drive hours into Wyoming, watch the sky for 20 minutes, then turn around and drive back? Do I find some cool place in Billings and just enjoy the partial eclipse?

Further complicating things, I don’t have any eclipse-watching sunglasses, and doubt I’ll find any now.

Anyone have any suggestions?

Montanans at the Fair

It's state fair season, and I got to Billings just in time for MontanaFair, the biggest agricultural and entertainment expo in the Big Sky State.

I didn't draw any big conclusions from my day at the fair, but I had a pretty good cowpie (basically a cheeseburger grilled, then wrapped in dough and deep-fried) and I took bunch of pictures.

Into the Big Sky Country

For my first full day in Montana, I took on the Beartooth Highway, one of America's great roads. It starts in Red Lodge, south of Billings, and climbs the mountains to Cook City and the northern entrance to Yellowstone National Park. At Bearfoot Pass - elevation nearly 11,000 feet - you get above the tree line where there's snow, silvan mountain lakes and beautiful alpine meadows.

It's hazy in the northwest, smoky from wildfires raging from here to British Columbia, about which I expect I'll have more to say, but beautiful nonetheless. Here are a few pictures.

While in Montana, I hope to visit the Crow Reservation (and the Little Bighorn battlefield), Glacier National Park and other sights along the way. Today I'm headed to the Montana State Fair. Any suggestions for things to do in Montana would be welcomed.

Gettysburg up close

The "witness tree" above Devil's Den.

The "witness tree" above Devil's Den.

There are maybe half a dozen “witness trees” in Gettysburg – trees documented to have been alive on the days the Civil War came to town.

One stands at the top of the rockpile known as Devil’s Den. Confederate sharp-shooters hid amid its boulders, picking off Union soldiers on the hill above them, known as Little Round Top. The Union soldiers fired back, with cannons as well as rifles, as bodies filled the small space between the lines. The flat spot to one side of the white oak is known as the “Slaughter Pen.” To the other side is the “Valley of Death.”

It’s a wonder anything stuck in this haunted place survived, but the little oak did.

For those who care about history, the value in visiting a battlefield comes from being able to put great events in human scale. Here you can see how close the opposing soldiers were to each other, imagine how terrifying it must have been to charge up that hill, understand how vulnerable every soldier was.

Here are a few pictures from that corner of this sprawling battlefield.

The view from Little Round Top.

The view from Little Round Top.


Looking down on Devil's Den from Little Round Top.

Looking down on Devil's Den from Little Round Top.

Another view of the Devil's Den witness tree

Another view of the Devil's Den witness tree

Pittsburgh shines

Pittsburgh was long known as "Smoky City," with the dirtiest air in the U.S. But the day we got there - the 4th of July, as it happened - the place sparkled. There's a story in Pittsburgh's transformation that I hope to tell in my next column.

Meanwhile, I thought I'd share a few pictures. Above is the view from atop Mount Washington, which used to be called Coal Hill. We climbed the cliff on board the Duquesne Incline, an ancient contraption that is dramatic and a little scary. Below is one view from inside the car. Finally, three 'Burghers celebrating Independence Day.

'I Miss America'

It was foggy day on Hogback Mountain. The sign on the long-closed restaurant advertised “100 Mile View,” but you couldn’t see anything that day. I stopped anyway. Just before leaving, I saw the sticker on the guardrail. “I miss America,” it said.

It’s haunted me ever since. Who put it there? Does it date from the Obama administration or the Trump administration? Is it about politics or something deeper? What is it about America that we miss?

I’ve come up with a few ideas, but I’d really like to hear yours.

I miss seeing kids playing pick-up games at the park during summer vacation. I miss the days when we didn’t let “stranger danger” ruin childhood.

I miss elections where candidates tried to appeal to the center, not just fire up the base.

I miss the America that had a functioning Congress, where decisions were made, deals were struck and leaders treated each other with respect.

I miss an America where everything wasn’t turned into an over-hyped controversy, where people, media and parties didn’t find so much profit in driving us apart.

I miss an America where Americans weren’t so hyphenated.

I miss a time when the American president was the leader of the free world, when America was respected by other nations, in part because we stood for something besides self-interest.

I miss the America where schools taught grammar, civics and the proper use of the word literally.

I miss the America where facts were facts, authority figures had authority and where science and expertise counted for something.

Sorry to launch a holiday weekend on a down note, but this is a moment that calls for reflection on the state of our nation. So reflect with me, if you will, by dropping me a note at What do you miss about America?



Where vacations were invented

In writing the other day about the state of the American vacation, I didn’t have the space to give to Saratoga Springs its due.

As I note in the column, Saratoga Springs, NY, is one of the places where the American vacation was invented.

Saratoga Springs has been a tourist town for more than 200 years, one of those rare places that never was anything but a tourist town. It’s had its ups and downs, but it has adjusted to changes in the way Americans take time off, and today it’s doing very well.

First came the seriously ill, drawn by the town’s “healing” springs, carbonated and laden with sulfur, iron and other minerals. Philip Schuyler (Eliza and Angelica’s father, for you Hamilton fans) cut one of the first trails to the special place that had long been a tourist destination for Mohawks and other Native Americans. The first hotel in Saratoga Springs opened in 1802, and bigger, more magnificent hotels followed. Saratoga Springs became the place to see and be seen, a place to escape the heat of the city – in 1862 there were two trains a day from New York City, a 6-and-a-half hour trip. Before the Civil War, it was especially popular with Southern plantation owners. They brought along their slaves, of course, but also encountered a community of free blacks, including Solomon Northrup, author of “Twelve Years a Slave.”

Eventually private owners pumped so much mineral water out of Saratoga’s springs that they threatened to dry up. After efforts to regulate the pumping failed, New York state government bought up all the springs and created Saratoga State Park in the 1930s where even people of modest means could soak and sip.

For more than a century, Saratoga Springs was a playground for the top 5 percent, but then it wasn’t, and the town’s business leaders found other ways to draw less fancy visitors, mainly booze and gambling. It did a booming business during Prohibition, aided by its location, halfway between the distilleries of Montreal and the thirsty patrons of New York City. The town went through a wild period when mob bosses like Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky owned clubs and casinos.

Then, when business took a nosedive in the late 20th century, Saratogians discovered resources as valuable as sparkling waters: Their town’s history, architecture and distinctive character. Victorian buildings were lovingly restored, parks spruced up, investments made in public art and cultural events. The Roosevelt Baths are still in operation, part of a full-service spa for vacationers who want to pamper their body.

Today, Saratoga Springs is thriving, says local historian Field Horne, and real estate values have gone through the roof. It’s a walkable city, with a lively nightlife. I can vouch for the Southern cooking at Hatties on Phila Street and the live jazz at 9 Maple Ave. It’s got culture, including a top-flight performing arts center and the National Museum of Dance. It’s got Thoroughbred racing and the Racing Hall of Fame. It’s surrounded by beautiful landscapes, historic places and refreshing lakes.

It’s still a playground for the 5 percent: You can tell from all the one-of-a-kind boutiques that the economy is pumped up by the well-off. But there are a few budget hotels and B&Bs, and it doesn’t cost anything to stroll through Congress Park or take in the mansions on North Broadway.

What makes Saratoga Springs work is its size. Its civic and business leaders have chosen sustainability over unbridled growth. This isn’t Vegas or Orlando, and it doesn’t want to be. That’s easy to keep a manageable scale if your community is on an island, like Key West or Martha’s Vineyard. Saratoga Springs has kept seems to have limited its growth on purpose.

Saratoga Springs is definitely worth a visit.

To Canada and back

I’m afraid I’ve been doing more traveling than blogging of late, and most of the last few months has been devoted to logistics: We bought a trailer and a truck to pull it. We put our house on the market and it’s now under agreement. We put my wife’s parents’ house on the market. We rented the largest storage unit available and stuffed it with stuff. Other stuff has been distributed among family members. It’s been pretty complicated and ambitious, but we’ve made a lot of progress toward going fully mobile, and meanwhile I’ve gotten to know northern New England better.

Last week I took the truck for a short exploration. I visited Montpelier (the nation’s smallest state capital by population) and ferried a bunch of charity cyclists to the northernmost tip of Vermont. Beautiful farm country up there, as the mountains give way to the flatlands of the Champlain and St. Lawrence valleys.

Montreal is just an hour and a half from the Vermont border, so I went up for a brief visit, passing through a tiny rural border crossing. It’s a beautiful city I’ve visited before. One treat this time was my first view of the inside of the Notre Dame Cathedral, an absolutely stunning place.

Then I crossed back into New York at the bigger, I-87 border crossing. Both crossings were quick and uneventful, though I did have to give up an orange to be allowed back into the USA. From there it was a 3-4 hour trek to Saratoga Springs, a historic resort that is now thriving. I made side trips to Albany and to the Saratoga battlefield.

 I plan to write about all this in the weeks to come, but for now I’ll just post some pictures.

New Orleans and the Confederacy

Workers in New Orleans prepare to take Robert E. Lee off his pedestal. AP photo

Workers in New Orleans prepare to take Robert E. Lee off his pedestal. AP photo

New Orleans gives its own flavor to everything it touches. That includes the ongoing debate over what to do about symbols and public art celebrating the Confederacy. New Orleans has just removed four Confederate monuments from prominent perches, prompting predictable cheers and jeers both inside and outside of the Crescent City.

In a speech this week, Mayor Mitch Landrieu put the monuments in context better than I ever could. Here’s a slightly edited transcript of the speech:

By Mitch Landrieu

Mayor, City of New Orleans

The soul of our beloved City is deeply rooted in a history that has evolved over thousands of years; rooted in a diverse people who have been here together every step of the way – for both good and for ill.

It is a history that holds in its heart the stories of Native Americans: the Choctaw, Houma Nation, the Chitimacha. Of Hernando de Soto, Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, the Acadians, the Islenos, the enslaved people from Senegambia, Free People of Color, the Haitians, the Germans, both the empires of Francexii and Spain. The Italians, the Irish, the Cubans, the south and central Americans, the Vietnamese and so many more.

You see: New Orleans is truly a city of many nations, a melting pot, a bubbling cauldron of many cultures.

There is no other place quite like it in the world that so eloquently exemplifies the uniquely American motto: e pluribus unum — out of many we are one.

But there are also other truths about our city that we must confront. New Orleans was America’s largest slave market: a port where hundreds of thousands of souls were brought, sold and shipped up the Mississippi River to lives of forced labor of misery of rape, of torture.

America was the place where nearly 4,000 of our fellow citizens were lynched, 540 alone in Louisiana; where the courts enshrined ‘separate but equal’; where Freedom riders coming to New Orleans were beaten to a bloody pulp.

So when people say to me that the monuments in question are history, well what I just described is real history as well, and it is the searing truth.

And it immediately begs the questions: why there are no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks; nothing to remember this long chapter of our lives; the pain, the sacrifice, the shame … all of it happening on the soil of New Orleans.

So for those self-appointed defenders of history and the monuments, they are eerily silent on what amounts to this historical malfeasance, a lie by omission.

There is a difference between remembrance of history and reverence of it. For America and New Orleans, it has been a long, winding road, marked by great tragedy and great triumph. But we cannot be afraid of our truth.

As President George W. Bush said at the dedication ceremony for the National Museum of African American History & Culture, “A great nation does not hide its history. It faces its flaws and corrects them.”

So today I want to speak about why we chose to remove these four monuments to the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, but also how and why this process can move us towards healing and understanding of each other.

So, let’s start with the facts.

The historic record is clear: the Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard statues were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause. This ‘cult’ had one goal — through monuments and through other means — to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity.

First erected over 166 years after the founding of our city and 19 years after the end of the Civil War, the monuments that we took down were meant to rebrand the history of our city and the ideals of a defeated Confederacy.

It is self-evident that these men did not fight for the United States of America. They fought against it. They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots.

These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.

After the Civil War, these statues were a part of that terrorism as much as a burning cross on someone’s lawn; they were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge in this city.

Should you have further doubt about the true goals of the Confederacy, in the very weeks before the war broke out, the Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, made it clear that the Confederate cause was about maintaining slavery and white supremacy.

He said in his now famous ‘Cornerstone speech’ that the Confederacy’s “cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

Now, with these shocking words still ringing in your ears, I want to try to gently peel from your hands the grip on a false narrative of our history that I think weakens us and make straight a wrong turn we made many years ago so we can more closely connect with integrity to the founding principles of our nation and forge a clearer and straighter path toward a better city and more perfect union.

Last year, President Barack Obama echoed these sentiments about the need to contextualize and remember all of our history. He recalled a piece of stone, a slave auction block engraved with a marker commemorating a single moment in 1830 when Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay stood and spoke from it.

President Obama said, “Consider what this artifact tells us about history … on a stone where day after day for years, men and women … bound and bought and sold and bid like cattle on a stone worn down by the tragedy of over a thousand bare feet. For a long time the only thing we considered important, the singular thing we once chose to commemorate as history with a plaque were the unmemorable speeches of two powerful men.”

A piece of stone – one stone. Both stories were history. One story told. One story forgotten or maybe even purposefully ignored.

As clear as it is for me today … for a long time, even though I grew up in one of New Orleans’ most diverse neighborhoods, even with my family’s long proud history of fighting for civil rights … I must have passed by those monuments a million times without giving them a second thought.

So I am not judging anybody, I am not judging people. We all take our own journey on race. I just hope people listen like I did when my dear friend Wynton Marsalis helped me see the truth. He asked me to think about all the people who have left New Orleans because of our exclusionary attitudes.

Another friend asked me to consider these four monuments from the perspective of an African American mother or father trying to explain to their fifth grade daughter who Robert E. Lee is and why he stands atop of our beautiful city. Can you do it?

Can you look into that young girl’s eyes and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her? Do you think she will feel inspired and hopeful by that story? Do these monuments help her see a future with limitless potential? Have you ever thought that if her potential is limited, yours and mine are too?

We all know the answer to these very simple questions.

When you look into this child’s eyes is the moment when the searing truth comes into focus for us. This is the moment when we know what is right and what we must do. We can’t walk away from this truth.

And I knew that taking down the monuments was going to be tough, but you elected me to do the right thing, not the easy thing and this is what that looks like. So relocating these Confederate monuments is not about taking something away from someone else. This is not about politics, this is not about blame or retaliation. This is not a naïve quest to solve all our problems at once.

This is, however, about showing the whole world that we as a city and as a people are able to acknowledge, understand, reconcile and, most importantly, choose a better future for ourselves, making straight what has been crooked and making right what was wrong.

Otherwise, we will continue to pay a price with discord, with division, and yes, with violence.

To literally put the confederacy on a pedestal in our most prominent places of honor is an inaccurate recitation of our full past, it is an affront to our present, and it is a bad prescription for our future.

History cannot be changed. It cannot be moved like a statue. What is done is done. The Civil War is over, and the Confederacy lost and we are better for it. Surely we are far enough removed from this dark time to acknowledge that the cause of the Confederacy was wrong.

And in the second decade of the 21st century, asking African Americans — or anyone else — to drive by property that they own; occupied by reverential statues of men who fought to destroy the country and deny that person’s humanity seems perverse and absurd.

Centuries-old wounds are still raw because they never healed right in the first place.

Here is the essential truth: we are better together than we are apart. Indivisibility is our essence. Isn’t this the gift that the people of New Orleans have given to the world?

We radiate beauty and grace in our food, in our music, in our architecture, in our joy of life, in our celebration of death; in everything that we do. We gave the world this funky thing called jazz; the most uniquely American art form that is developed across the ages from different cultures.

Think about second lines, think about Mardi Gras, think about muffaletta, think about the Saints, gumbo, red beans and rice. By God, just think. All we hold dear is created by throwing everything in the pot; creating, producing something better; everything a product of our historic diversity.

We are proof that out of many we are one — and better for it! Out of many we are one — and we really do love it!

Now is the time to send a new message to the next generation of New Orleanians … A message about the future, about the next 300 years and beyond; let us not miss this opportunity New Orleans and let us help the rest of the country do the same. Because now is the time for choosing. Now is the time to actually make this the City we always should have been, had we gotten it right in the first place.

We should stop for a moment and ask ourselves — at this point in our history, after Katrina, after Rita, after Ike, after Gustav, after the national recession, after the BP oil catastrophe and after the tornado — if presented with the opportunity to build monuments that told our story or to curate these particular spaces … would these monuments be what we want the world to see? Is this really our story?

We have not erased history; we are becoming part of the city’s history by righting the wrong image these monuments represent and crafting a better, more complete future for all our children and for future generations.

And unlike when these Confederate monuments were first erected as symbols of white supremacy, we now have a chance to create not only new symbols, but to do it together, as one people.

In our blessed land we all come to the table of democracy as equals.

Instead of revering a 4-year brief historical aberration that was called the Confederacy we can celebrate all 300 years of our rich, diverse history as a place named New Orleans and set the tone for the next 300 years.

The Confederacy was on the wrong side of history and humanity. It sought to tear apart our nation and subjugate our fellow Americans to slavery. This is the history we should never forget and one that we should never again put on a pedestal to be revered.

As a community, we must recognize the significance of removing New Orleans’ Confederate monuments. It is our acknowledgment that now is the time to take stock of, and then move past, a painful part of our history. Anything less would render generations of courageous struggle and soul-searching a truly lost cause.

Anything less would fall short of the immortal words of our greatest President Abraham Lincoln, who with an open heart and clarity of purpose calls on us today to unite as one people when he said:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to do all which may achieve and cherish: a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”


In search of great trees

In my column this week, I write about our habit of seeking out amazing trees during our travels. I've found the search for trees more difficult than I had expected. I'm still looking for a good website or book that lists significant trees and their exact locations.

But since the column appeared, I've started getting suggestions from readers: a white oak in Jersey I hope to visit, a huge cucumber magnolia in North Canton, Ohio, and a tree in Maui that sounds wonderful. I'm sure there are many more, so if you know of a remarkable tree that might deserve a spot on our itinerary, drop me a note at

A sycamore on Main Street in Sunderland, Mass., deemed a "Significant Tree."

A sycamore on Main Street in Sunderland, Mass., deemed a "Significant Tree."

How we roll: Choosing the wheels to meet the highway

A campground on Mobile Bay

A campground on Mobile Bay

Tocqueville traveled the countryside by wagon, Twain by steamboat and railroad. Kerouac rode in buses and Neal Cassady’s Hudson. Steinbeck had a little cabin custom-built on the back of a truck.

My wife and I are going off in search of America in a truck pulling a travel trailer.

We generally prefer campgrounds over hotels. They are a lot cheaper and they put you in the middle of natural beauty. I’ve been camping since my Boy Scout days, but I’m too old to sleep on the ground. Mostly retired and ready to roll, we started looking at RVs.

The vehicle must align with your traveling style. We want to camp in scenic places for a week or more at a time, making day trips to places of interest in the area. Motorhomes, with the living quarters attached to the vehicle, have some advantages on the road, chiefly that the kids can be lounging in the back while the parents drive. But we don’t want to have to pack up our house every time we need to run to the store for groceries. Better to leave the little house all set up at the campground while driving some other vehicle to town.

There are two options for that kind of arrangement: A motorhome towing a small car or a truck towing a trailer. Since trailers have no engines, they are less expensive than motorhomes. We figured a motorhome towing a car would cost us twice as much as buying a trailer and a truck to tow it.

But we’re used to driving medium-sized cars. Could we handle towing a big rig? We decided to try it out before buying.  We flew to Nashville, where we rented a travel trailer and a truck, and took them on a 10-day trek through Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee.

The truck turned out to be far bigger than we needed – three-quarter ton when a half-ton would do - but that’s all the rental company would approve for towing. We found it intimidating and awkward. The truck, an F250, had no steps or running board. Getting into it was like mounting a horse; getting out was like falling off a cliff. The trailer was smaller than I’d choose, especially for a long trip. It had all we needed – bed, table, kitchen, bathroom – but two people couldn’t move around in it at the same time.

The mismatched combination looked odd, but we learned to drive the truck and handle the trailer – going forward, at least. Backing up is going to take more practice, but pull-through campsites helped us avoid that lesson this trip. We learned to hitch and unhitch the trailer, with some help from more experienced neighbors, and to get all the trailer’s systems to work.

We also learned that you can find nice places to camp and still see everything you want to see. We camped at a state park in Louisiana where we could hear owls mating just outside our trailer, for instance, yet a 20-minute drive took us to a $3 ferry that dropped us in the French Quarter.

There are other ways to roll, of course. After turning in our rentals, we borrowed our son’s low-slung Toyota and spent a long weekend at an Airbnb in Memphis. The car was easier to maneuver on narrow city streets than the truck had been, but came with its own challenges. Getting in was like stepping into a canoe; getting out was like climbing out of a bathtub.

The one-room apartment was a delightful space in a pleasant neighborhood, but we’re going with the campgrounds. We’re now the proud owners of a 24-foot Starcraft travel trailer. It’s small but not claustrophobic, and light enough to tow with a medium-sized pickup. I can’t wait to get it on the road.

The mismatched truck/trailer rig we rented for 10 days.

The mismatched truck/trailer rig we rented for 10 days.

Life and death

Any long journey will likely be interrupted by life events. My silence in this space of late has been prompted in part by a family crisis: the death last week of my father. Here's a piece I wrote Sunday on Facebook:

My father died April 14, 2017, at 104 years old. His life was a long book, but the final chapter was blessedly short.

That was Good Friday, and today is Easter Sunday, when thoughts turn to death and resurrection.

Dad was a church-going man. He and Mom met in church and they were there every Sunday, singing in the choir. They used to joke that he had no choice, since he sang tenor and church-going tenors were so hard to find. They brought their five children to church with them every Sunday, until we were old enough to decide on our own.

We sang songs of resurrection every Easter – in three services, including sunrise - and they ring in my head today. After Mom died four years ago, Dad said he didn’t really believe in life after death, at least not a heaven where he and his dear wife Allie would be reunited. But I think resurrection and life after death need not be taken so literally.

I find myself in the Green Mountains of Vermont this Easter Sunday. Snow is still hiding in the shadows, but crocuses are up and it’s sunny and warm and gorgeous. I listen to the Easter hymns and see the woods being reborn. It’s Spring, and all that seemed dead a month ago is alive again.

I think of Dad and know it was the quality of his life that matters, not the quantity of his years – and the quality of man he was matters most of all. I think the good that we do stays in the world long after we’re gone. Dad lives in my heart, but also in my life – and in the lives of all his children, grandchildren and countless people he touched with warmth and kindness. That's life after death.

Amid the joy of resurrection, the hymn asks “Where, O Death, is now thy sting?” Easter applies the balm. Death has been redeemed by new life. He lives. We are one. Hallelujah!

- Rick Holmes

April 16, 2017

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Buddy Gibson's story

I met Julius – everyone calls him Buddy – Gibson at Prairie Creek Campground on Lake Woodruff in Alabama, one of the Alabama River Lakes. He had just caught a blue catfish he estimated at 30 pounds, the biggest he’d ever caught.

He’s spent his life in Alabama, and even though he’s got a 32-foot trailer – a most impressive rig - he mostly stays in the South, fishing in Alabama, sometimes Mississippi and Geogia. He spent one month in Wears Valley, in the Smokies.

He grew up outside Selma, and asks if we came down for the bridge-crossing reenactment. We say yes, and his face registers neither encouragement nor disapproval. But he wants to say something. He talks about what happened in Selma obliquely, without using words like civil rights, protest, violence or race.

“I was just a kid back then, and not that involved,” he says. “We never thought about it when I was young. We all played together and didn’t say nothing about it.

“I was in the Guard back during Vietnam, and I had a good buddy slept in the bunk above mine. But he couldn’t even come into town for a drink with me, and that didn’t seem right.”

His voice trails off.

“Well, y’all have a safe trip.”


Jefferson Davis, patriot?

Afternoon in Confederate Park

Afternoon in Confederate Park

It’s hard to search for American unity without confronting the nation’s bloodiest argument, especially if you are a New England yankee touring the Deep South.

Confederate Park in Memphis sits on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi. At its center stands a statue of Jefferson Davis.  Its inscription notes, in large letters, his service as president of the Confederate States of America. In smaller type, it notes his service in constitutional offices of the United States of America: Member of Congress, Senator, Secretary of War.

The inscription then sums it up this man in words that took my breath away: “A TRUE AMERICAN PATRIOT”.

No. Anyone who violates his oath to defend the Constitution, who instead takes up arms against the constitutional government of the United States is a traitor, not a patriot.

There are still some, especially in the South, who equate secession with patriotism, and I just don’t get it. If you can’t abide America or its policies and want to move somewhere else, fine. But how can you say you love your country and still want to leave it?