THE “NEW” LONELIEST ROAD IN AMERICA

BLOG #32, SERIES 6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
THE “NEW” LONELIEST ROAD IN AMERICA
August 12, 2015

It was clear back on June 26, 2013, at the tail end of our second National Park Series, that I annointed Highway 50’s seemingly almost empty stretches of mostly straight highway, stretching from Fallon, Nevada to Holden, Utah as America’s loneliest highway. I never thought I’d ever find one to rival it—much less upstage it. But I have. And we were blindsided by its existence. Not the road itself, but its loneliness.

So fast-paced is this life that we live that we rarely take long road trips any more: it’s much easier and faster to fly. But every once in a while we get nostalgic for auto-travel (not interstates but rural roads).

Early in July, we decided to put together a 2200-mile tangent, beginning in Conifer, Colorado, then angling south on I-25 to Raton, NM; angling SE to Amarillo, Texas; then south on I-27 to Lubbock; then angling SE on all kinds of country roads to Austin; then SW on I-35 to San Antonio. We hadn’t ever driven on the back roads between Lubbock and Austin; indeed, we hadn’t driven south of Fort Worth in over thirty years.

My what changes we noticed! First of all, instead of everything being July-brown it was the greenest green we’d ever seen in Texas in July. Reason being the nonstop rainstorms that just wouldn’t quit. And even Texas backroads were generally in fine condition with 75 mph speed-limits being the norm. And what a difference population-wise! I’d heard, of course, about the continually increasing population in Texas, but it was jolting to see how tiny hamlets were now towns, towns were now cities, and cities—well, just take Austin for example. Austin is a city that is growing so fast city-planners have all but lost control. It was one vast traffic jam while we were there—even on I-35. Locals we spoke with confirmed that sometimes it takes them up to four hours just to get from one end to the other! The other big change we noticed was that on ridge after ridge after ridge, as far as the eye could see, virtual forests of white wind-turbines. Connie and I agreed that these days—at least in West Texas—wind-millionaires must be rivaling oil-millionaires.

But then, after seeing how it was almost all city now between Austin and San Antonio, it was time to head home. Not having any desire to re-experience I-35 traffic again, we decided to explore a route we’d never tried before. Perhaps it would be a bit more serene. Little did we know!

Our chosen route was Highway 90 west through Hondo and Uvalde to the border-town of Del Rio. This is wide-open country with relatively few habitations. Only Del Rio of any size at all, no small thanks to being home to Laughlin Air Force Base and the vast Amistad Reservoir. Though I’d heard about Amistad it was something else to actually experience it! It took us well over an hour NW of it to get past it. About the only vehicles we’d see would be Border Patrol vehicles. Another epiphany was that the Rio Grande River is part of the Amistad Reservoir. Yet another was the discovery that the Rio Grande is America’s fifth-longest river (1885 miles long). It is born in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, meanders south through Colorado and New Mexico, then forms the entire 1240-mile border between Texas and Mexico. What a road-trip following the Rio Grande from its source to the Gulf of Mexico would be. Ah! As Lucy Earp would say: “A blessing for another time!” Believe me, I now realize what a daunting challenge it is for Texas governors to police 1240 miles of the river border with Mexico!

Though it was already a lonely road en route to Del Rio, it really became lonely once we left Del Rio. We stayed on Hwy. 90 until we reached Sanderson, then turned NW on the southern terminus of 285 [Denver is its northern terminus]. Then it was on through small towns such as Fort Stockton and Pecos in Texas; and Carlsbad and Roswell en route to Santa Fe, and it is otherwise almost entirely devoid of human habitations. Not until we reached the outskirts of Santa Fe did we get back into much cell-phone coverage.

It so happened that we had to drive through a very large storm front, driven by fierce winds and characterized by one huge purplish-black thunderhead after another. I don’t believe I’ve ever, in my entire life, experienced such dramatic constantly changing sky paintings. It was often difficult to stay on the road, thanks to extremely strong side-winds and torrential rain. But it was grand to experience!

North of Santa Fe, it was a little lonely, but not nearly as much as between San Antonio and Santa Fe.

So, if you ever want to get away from it all in the lower 48 states, I wholeheartedly recommend you take 90/285 from San Antonio to Santa Fe!

Try it!

Making Memories with Grandchildren – Part 1 – A Grandfather Who Never Got Old

BLOG #41, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
MAKING MEMORIES WITH GRANDCHILDREN
PART ONE
A GRANDFATHER WHO NEVER GOT OLD

October 8, 2014

Many years ago, I was privileged to spend my eighth-grade year with my maternal grandparents in Arcata, California. That one year proved to be pivotal in my own life journey. Pivotal because my grandfather, Herbert Norton Leininger, was a Renaissance man whose passion was truly global: encompassing everything that was going on in the world. Tacked to the walls of the entire second-floor living areas were National Geographic maps, so that Grandpa could keep track of everything that was happening in the world, and the people who made them happen.

Never can I forget Leininger Christmases, when all six daughters and their husbands and families, one by one, arrived and gradually overflowed the big rambling three-story home. Once assigned quarters, everyone gravitated to the second floor where the action was. We kids were tremendously impressed by how little time it took for Grandpa to subjugate these authority figures, our fathers. Grandpa gave hem no time in which to claim any turf for themselves, but instantaneously dominated his second-story stage, vigorously showing his cowed sons-in-law where world events were taking place, lashing out at world leaders who failed to live up to Grandpa’s high and rigid expectations, and occasionally praising the few who passed muster. All the while like a stage actor, he’d vigorously stride back and forth from map to map.

Periodically, Grandpa, with an impish look in his eyes, would glance around to see if those guardians of our morals—his daughters—were listening, then launch into the opening lines of what many in that semi-Victorian Age considered rather “naughty”: Rudyard Kipling’s “And I Learned About Women from Her.” At least that’s what we kids thought it was called, because of that recurring line in each stanza.. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered the poem is simply titled The Ladies.” In it, the persona, obviously—to our mothers at least—a womanizer in then British-run India and Burma. The opening lines run thus:

“I’ve taken my fun where I’ve found it;
I’ve rogued an I’ve ranged in my time;
I’ve ‘ad my pickin’ of sweethearts,
An’ four o’ the lot was prime.
One was an ‘arf-caste widow,
One was a woman at Prome,
One was the wife of a jemadan-sais [head-groom]
An’ one is a girl at ‘ome.”

In essence, in this poem, Grandpa was teaching his grandchildren about the birds and the bees—specifically this fascinating creature we call “woman.” Each stanza having to do with a specific woman the persona in the poem had learned from. But long before Grandpa reached concluding stanzas such as this:

“I’ve taken my fun where I’ve found it,
An’ now I must pay for my fun,
For the more you ‘ave known o’ the others
The less you will settle to one;
An’ the end of it’s sittin’ and thinkin’,
An’ dreamin’ Hell-fires to see;
So be warned by my lot (which I know you will not),
An’ learn about women from me!”

Yes, long before his daughters had vainly attempted to quench the orator, we kids—perhaps because our mothers were so upset with their father—were inwardly enthralled that we’d been permitted to listen to such a wicked poem. Not that we understood why it was supposedly wicked: it was enough that our mothers thought it was.

Grandma Josephine, who’d long ago learned that when the Lord of the Manor was on a roll, he never stopped for breath (for, perish the though, that momentary pause might enable one of his squirming sons-in-law to launch a contrary opinion), consequently, Grandma immediately took the stage in a much quieter manner) with her daughters, discussing family personalities, foibles, idiosyncracies, etc., and the daughters giving as much as they took, there was much laughter.

We kids sat enthralled on the floor taking in both tracks. The experience reminds me of certain contemporary TV interviewers who continually interrupt their interviewees who attempt to answer their hosts’ questions; and when these interviewees interrupt other discussion participants—all these individuals talking at once—, the hubbub is indescribable. In retrospect, I’m convinced that those holiday gatherings were one-of-a-kind. The age of large cohesive families, print-driven education, patriarchal family structure, and children-are-to-be-seen-and-not-heard [we were the last such generation], is no more—and will never come again.

Then, one by one, each car-load would disappear to much hugging, kissing, and waving, each one leaving the house lonelier. And, before long, it would be just us left. Early next morning, religiously at six o’clock, I’d hear the sonorous radio voice of Gabriel Heater (with a fair amount of static) downstairs, and know that Grandpa was once again setting his inner sails for the day.

Only in retrospect do I realize the impact of that one year with my maternal grandparents. How Grandpa’s persona seeped into my own goals and philosophy of life. Nor can I forget Grandpa’s late-life soaring. When he reached the age of 75, he announced that for 50 years he’d pleased the world and his wife—now he was going to please himself. He purchased a snazzy Lincoln hardtop, grew a goatee, and, with the help of a fellow conspirator we knew only as Mr. Smith, he constructed the first camper I ever remember seeing: such a long body grafted on to a Studebaker truck that it was a miracle the front wheels didn’t lift off the ground! Grandpa then found enough bargain paint—the most hideously ugly shade of pea-green I’ve ever seen—to complete the job; loaded it with supplies and grub, and headed north. Only when they reached the last road separating them from the North Pole did they turn around.

When they returned, they didn’t stay long, but headed south into the jungles of Mexico.

But even that wasn’t enough: Grandpa next announced that he was going to explore all of California’s western rivers from their headwaters to the sea. Never can I forget one of those expeditions: the day I joined family members waiting for Grandpa’s outboard-driven rubber raft to round the bend; sometime later that day, here he came; veered in to shore, bequeathed his garbage to us, noblesse obligedly accepted our grocery contributions, restarted the outboard, and he was once again heading down-river. A jaunty last wave—and he disappeared from sight.

Nor can I forget the times he regaled us with Shakespeare—especially Hamlet, which he knew by heart. He was Prince Hamlet when he treaded the attic boards of his house.

His was the only funeral I can remember where all the “mourners” could do was laugh. In my eulogy, I did my best to recreate his unique persona.

* * * * *

Next week I’ll continue this series of blogs about this thing called grandparenting.

Barely Begun at Seventy – How to Never Get Old – Conclusion

BLOG #30, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
BARELY BEGUN AT SEVENTY
HOW TO NEVER GET OLD
Conclusion
July 23, 2014

“Youth is not a time of life…. It is a state of mind. It is not a matter of ripe cheeks, red lips and supple knees. It is a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a vigor of the emotions; it is a freshness in the deep springs of life.

Youth means a temperamental predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over love of ease. This often exists in the man of 50 more than the boy of 20.

Nobody grows old by merely living a number of years. People grow old by deserting their ideals. Years wrinkle the skin, but self-distrust, fear and despair–those are the long, long years that bow the head and turn the growing spirit back to dust.

You are as young as your faith, as old as your doubt; as young as your self-confidence, as old as your fear; as young as your hope, as old as your despair.

In the central part of your heart there is a wireless station. So long as it receives messages of beauty, hope, cheer, courage, grandeur and power from the earth, from man and from the infinite, so long are you young. When the wires are all down and the central part of your heart is covered with the snows of pessimism and the ice of cynicism, then you are grown old indeed and may God have mercy on your soul.”

–Author Unknown. Quoted in Josephine Lowman’s column in the
Nov. 10, 1980 Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

If you do a lot of people-watching like authors such as I do, it won’t take long for you to discover that children and teenagers tend to congregate around two groups of people: their age group and old people who never grow old. You can’t possibly miss the latter. You feel their force field the instant they come into the room. They radiate joy and vibrant energy. They’re not at all interested in either themselves or what you might think of them–but rather they are fascinated by everyone in their vicinity. They yearn to hear each one’s life story. They do not grandstand; indeed, they listen more than they talk. When they leave the room it’s like the lights were suddenly dimmed to a fraction of what they were before they came in.

They have a Falstaffian exuberance of life. My maternal grandfather (Herbert Norton Leininger) was a tornado of a man. I was privileged to live my eighth grade year with him and Grandmother Josephine. Early each morning I’d hear the sonorous voice of Gabriel Heater on the radio, setting Grandpa’s sails for the day. The walls were papered with National Geographic maps. The house was like a central command war room, and Grandpa was the Five Star General who knew everything that was going on in the world–and what to do about it. Furthermore, he knew who was responsible. If he felt any particular leader was falling down on the job, he’d sit down at his trusty manual typewriter and tell the offending person how to mend his or her ways. Not in generalities–but in specifics. When the six daughters would come home for Christmas, he’d corral his six sons-in-law and show and tell them what was happening in the world. But he wasn’t at all interested in their opinions–he was the alpha male, and never for a moment let them forget it!

Grandma had learned years before that if she waited to get into the conversational sound-track until the lord of the manor paused for breath, she’d never get in at all because when he was on a roll, Grandpa never did pause for breath. So Grandma wisely (amazingly, she was an early modern in this respect) just talked simultaneously–usually about family, people, gossip, personal things; and the daughters were full participants–and there was much laughter. We kids loved the two sound-tracks, and listened to them both. Especially we reveled in seeing those authority figures (our fathers) squelched by their fierce father-in-law.

Grandpa loved literature–could quote and perform Shakespeare by the hour. Apparently, he knew Hamlet by heart; and would tread the boards like a professional when he could round up a captive audience. When he was 75, he announced that for fifty years he’d pleased his wife and the world by being clean-shaven; now, he was going to please himself. He grew a distinguished goatee, purchased a natty Lincoln hardtop; constructed the first camper we’d ever seen; he and a luckless co-conspirator we knew only as Mr. Smith, painted it the ugliest green I’ve seen in my lifetime, packed it with grub and they journeyed north to the North Pole.

When they returned, before we knew it, they’d headed south into the jungles of Mexico. In his eighties, he announced he was going to find the headwaters of each of California’s major rivers and ride down them in a rubber raft. Never can I forget one day when I was invited to join other descendants who’d dutifully brought the requisitioned grub to the appointed spot on the riverside. After quite a wait, we heard the put-put of an outboard motor, Grandpa veered in to the bank, unloaded what he wanted to get rid of, bequeathing it to us; then, with inimitable noblesse oblige, accepted our tribute, loaded the grub, restarted the motor, headed out to mid-river, and with a jaunty wave, disappeared from view.

On the day of his death, he and his Lincoln were roaring through the Oregon countryside, wiping out mailboxes right and left, as though he was Don Quixote and they were enemy windmills.

His was the only funeral I’ve ever attended where all the “mourners” did was laugh.

* * * * *

So, beloved . . . , you don’t have to ever get old at all. My Great Aunt Lois, at the age of 104, still firmly up to date on the Zeitgeist, was asked, “Aunt Lois, how old do you have to be before you are old?” Without a minute’s hesitation, she shot back, “Old is anyone who is fifteen years older than you are.”

Those who never grow old remain passionately in love with every aspect of life. They are voracious readers and indefatigable travelers. The days are never long enough for all they want to learn and do. Yet in all their continual growth, they continuously watch out for opportunities to help those who need what they’re capable of providing–they are known far and wide for paying it forward. They revel in children and young people, never more joyous than when in the midst of them. Because of all this, they find no time in which to get old. Most likely, death will have to really huff and puff just to trip them up at last. When their race is stopped, funerals are never held for them–only celebrations.

My own beloved mother was just as much in love with life as was her father; she differed from him mainly in that she spent her lifetime ministering to the needs of others. His center of gravity was closer home.

I’ve dedicated 13 of my 86 books to my mother, for she was my lodestar. Possessed of a near photographic memory, she’d memorized thousands of pages of short stories, poetry, and readings. And never slowed down until faced with the cruelest enemy of all, Dementia.

In one of my books, Tears of Joy for Mothers, my introduction is titled, “My Mother’s Scrapbooks,” and it consists of my mother’s favorite poems of the home, of life itself. It is fitting that I close this three-part blog series with the poem she first recited when she won a high school elocutionary contest with it. Later on, it was while hearing her recite it that my father fell in love with her. Late in life, in the “From the Cradle to the Grave” programs she and my father put on, she’d close the program with the one poem that summed up her passion for life: Amelia Burr’s “A Song of Living.”

“Because I have loved life, I shall have no sorrow to die.
I have sent up gladness on wings to be lost in the blue of the sky,
I have run and leaped with the rain, I have taken the wind to my breast.
My cheek like a drowsy child to the face of the earth I have pressed.
Because I have loved life, I shall have no sorrow to die.

I have kissed young love on the lips. I have heard his song to the end
I have struck my hand like a seal, in the loyal hand of a friend.
I have known the peace of Heaven, the comfort of work done well.
I have longed for death in the darkness and risen alive out of hell.
Because I have loved life, I have no sorrow to die.

I give a share of my soul to the world where my course is run.
I know that another shall finish the task that I leave undone.
I know that no flower, no flint, was in vain on the path I trod.
As one looks on a face through a window, through life, I have looked on God.
Because I have loved life, I shall have no sorrow to die.”

RHAPSODY OF THE SEAS & STORMS I HAVE LOVED

Yes, it’s possible to fall in love with a ship. They say there are only three perfect shapes in our world: a violin, a ship’s hull, and a beautiful woman—and each of these harmonizes with the other two.

Well, I just fell in love with Royal Caribbean’s Rhapsody of the Seas; it is that rarity: a near perfect ship (both inside and out). For a ship is either a work of art—or it is not. Perfect ships don’t just happen: they must be dreamed up by visionaries; visionaries who know that perfection rarely results from happenstance. It’s like a perfect dinner: every piece of it mut appeal to all one’s senses without a false note anywhere. As is true with a beautiful woman, it is impossible to define what makes her so; it is either there or it is not. I seek the same perfection in our books; indeed I agonize over every piece: the choice of stories (emotive power, length, mood, velcroishly impossible to forget once read, etc.), the position each is slotted into, the illustrations, the cover, the typeface, the paper—each is a totality that is either a beautiful work of art or it is not. Just so a ship like Rhapsody.

Connie and I have cruised on a number of beautiful ships owned by Carnival, Olympia, Celebrity, Silversea, Norwegian, and now Royal Caribbean. Several of them I have loved enough to incorporate into stories: Carnival’s Jubilee, in “White Wings (Christmas in My Heart 10); Olympia’s Stella Solaris in “Stella Solaris” (Tears of Joy for Mothers); and the Norwegian Sun in my upcoming Christmas story, “Journey” (Christmas in My Heart 19). But of them all, only Silversea’s Silver Cloud is as beautiful as Rhapsody of the Seas.

But I really didn’t fall deeply in love with Rhapsody until May 19. I had no sooner finished my “Thousand Miles to Nome” lecture for the entire ship when the waves began to grow as we faced the full 10,000-mile-across power of the Pacific Ocean in British Columbia’s Queen Charlotte Sound. By dinner-time, we spent half the time looking out the window at the gathering storm.

Each minute that passed, the storm grew worse—of course, loving the elemental power of storms so much, I’d personally classify such storms as ‘better.” In spite of sophisticated stabilizers, the ship began to rock. Occasionally a broadside-wave would hit us so hard you could almost hear the Rhapsody cry out in pain. Connie went to bed early so that she’d have something firm to hang on to. I, on the other hand, left the room and ricocheted from wall to wall as I attempted to walk down the long hallways. Few people were about, for they’d even had to stop the evening show part way through, fearing the performers would break legs or worse. But the venturesome ones who were out—well, we bonded, for it would have been great fodder for America’s Funniest Home Videos. We reeled – staggered – sashayed like so many thoroughly soused drunks. The wildest sensation was doing stairs, for when taking steps up, the steps would rise up to greet you; when taking steps down, the steps would drop away from you. I was so enchanted with this stair phenomenon that I did the aft set of eleven flights of stairs a number of times. What was really funny was seeing the look of disbelief on the face of a first floor staff member who couldn’t believe this lunatic was back for another run at it.

Afterward, since I couldn’t even stand up without crashing into something in our stateroom, I tumbled into bed and blissfully fell asleep to the night-long rocking of the deep while poor Connie couldn’t sleep at all. Come to think of it, Christ must have loved storms as much as I, for His disciples couldn’t believe it when He slept through a violent storm in mid Sea of Galilee.

I was reminded of several other great storms in my life, especially the one on the rim of Mexico’s Copper Canyon. We were visiting my brother, acclaimed concert pianist, Romayne Wheeler, and staying in his Eagle’s Nest studio on the canyon rim. A terrific storm hit, and the wind-driven rain fell up at us from the mile-deep canyon below, so it came at us from all directions. The battered studio began to leak like the proverbial sieve, both from the roof and from below through the shuttered windows. The two grand pianos getting drenched, we formed a brigade to help save them from ruination, sloshing around barefoot all the while. Terrifying because continuing lightning pyrotechnics could easily have electrocuted us all.

The only comparable storm I can remember on the sea to the one on May 19 (waves 40 feet high and 70 MPH winds) was one I experienced when I was 13 on a banana boat en route from Trujillo, Honduras to Tampa, Florida. This 300-foot-long fruit tanker ran straight into a full-strength hurricane—weather forecasting was still in its infancy back then, so we had no warning. In the absence of stabilizers, the ship rolled from side to side and frontally plunged deep down and then leaped sky high, to such an extent that almost everyone was throwing-up from nausea. But where was I? You guessed it: up on the top deck holding on to the railing for dear life as great waves all but buried me. Oh it was wonderful! My folks were too sick to care if I washed overboard or not. Undoubtedly the long line of New England sea captains in my paternal lineage has much to do with my reveling in the fury of great storms.

After the May 19 storm had run its course, the master of the ship, Captain Stein Roger Bjorheim [what intrigues me no little is that almost all cruise captains seem to come from Norway] came on the intercom and after-the-fact reassured us, declaring that the safest place to have been in a storm such as yesterday’s was in the Rhapsody of the Seas for she’d earlier on ridden out a Category 5 hurricane with hardly a scratch. That’s when I fell deeply in love with Rhapsody of the Seas. I yearn to tryst with her again.