Making Family Memories Around a Mill Creek Campfire

BLOG #36, SERIES #6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
MAKING FAMILY MEMORIES
AROUND A MILL CREEK CAMPFIRE
Part One
September 9, 2015

It took close to two years to make the family reunion happen; after all, Mill Creek, California, is relatively unknown to most people. One member of our family came from Idaho, one from Florida, four from Maryland, two from Nevada, two from Colorado, and eight from various places in California–eighteen of us in all.

Miracle of miracles, eventually all eighteen arrived at Mill Creek—in spite of fierce forest fires burning all across Northern California. Especially in the San Joaquin Valley, smoke was thick, and most roads leading to the coast were closed due to the fires—at times it seemed like the entire Golden State was on fire!

The focal center of this gathering of the clan was Marji and Elmer Raymond’s trailer house and fire-pit. My sister Marji had been the main choreographer of the reunion. As we watched one contingent after another make their appearance, I couldn’t help but step backwards in time more than half a century when annual Thanksgiving reunions of the Wheeler and Bond clans were a given. High on Napa Valley’s Howell Mountain at Grandpa Rollo and Grandma Ruby’s Angwin ranch, it was unthinkable to miss Thanksgiving with extended family. The pattern was unvarying: car door after car door being slammed, Grandma Ruby’s singing out her unvarying, “Why you dear souls!” and “Why Papa!,” as each new arrival was hugged—all this while dogs barked excitedly and cats scurried for cover. The women gathered in the kitchen, each bringing food. The crescendo of family gossip and laughter made it a wonderful place to be—and the smaller children played with the well-over-a-hundred-year-old blocks by the fireplace (some of the blocks had crossed the plains in wagon trains a century before). Grandma Ruby (who was deaf, could read lips) ruled over this segment of the reunion. Outside, a little distance off, Grandpa Rollo ruled over the men in their marathon horseshoe tournaments that stopped only for dinner, or darkness. The continuous clinks as horseshoes reached the stake was etched in the soundtracks of my memory forever. The older boys watched in fascination as ringer after ringer rang out. Grandpa’s usually rang out most because rarely did his tosses miss the stake. There was much laughter and bantering and shouts when ringers were capped by other ringers. Since the usual Thanksgiving head-count averaged over eighty, the cumulative hubbub never stopped except to eat. And what meals those were! Only for the blessing was there momentary silence. At night, Grandpa challenged all comers at caroms. Eventually, the carom boards were put away and all gathered around the upright piano to sing. Grandma Ruby “listened” by putting her hand on the piano top and seraphically “feeling” the music. Eventually, the kids were put to bed but the adult socializing continued far into the night. And next day, the slammed car-doors and “you dear souls!” and “Why Papa’s” were heard once more, as the yearly ritual came to an end.

Except for an occasional funeral, once Grandpa and Grandma were moved to Oregon, the Napa Valley reunions stopped, and family members never again gathered together in mass as they had before. So you can imagine the memories that were brought back to Marji, my cousin Steve, and me as once more we heard the continuing ring of horseshoes—with one big difference—the marksmanship being generally so poor that it was a serendipity when a horseshoe actually touched a stake!

But this time, Marji made sure the women weren’t prisoners of the kitchen: breakfast and lunch could be eaten at the Mill Creek Restaurant or in the cabins; only the dinner would be picked up under the tent adjacent to the fire-pit and eaten around it.

Next week, we’ll take you through “the rest of the story.”

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Trains — The New Way to Travel (Part Three)

BLOG #24, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
TRAINS – THE NEW WAY TO TRAVEL (Part Three)
June 11, 2014

During that long night, the train would stop at Helper, Provo, and Salt Lake City, Utah. At Salt Lake City, many got off, and many got on. But since the overhead lights were left at dim, we were only partly aware of the stops. Then came Elko and Winemucca, Nevada; but again we were little aware of the stops. Not until Reno, did we thoroughly awaken. By breakfast time, we were climbing the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Never before had we seen so little snow in the Sierras in mid-April. It was late afternoon when the train drew into the Old Sacramento train station. Here we disembarked, rented a car, and drove up the San Joaquin Valley to Red Bluff, where my sister and brother-in-law live.

IMAX ON WHEELS

A week later, we boarded the east-bound California Zephyr in Sacramento. Right on time. By now we’d become one with the rhythm of the train and life inside it.

Europeans and world travelers are fascinated by America’s vast open spaces, the grandeur of the West; for there’s nothing to match it anywhere in the world. They don’t show that fascination in planes–but they certainly do in trains. On trains you see people from all over the world who are entranced by the majesty of the American landscape. To them, rolling through the West in an Amtrak car is like looking through IMAX lenses at some of the world’s most iconic scenery slowly rolling by. Just as interesting: to see Americans discover for the very first time their own heritage outside their windows.

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Everywhere we’d been, during that intervening week, people had asked us what it was like to travel on a train. We couldn’t have attracted much more attention if we’d announced we’d be on the next space flight. Because we live in a “ho-hum” and “whatever” time, almost never do people get energized or excited about anything any more. Planes certainly don’t excite any more; indeed, the normal response to hearing we’re taking a plane somewhere is either complete boredom or commiseration. Not even cruise ship travel excites any more. But rather, “sure hope you don’t get sick!” or “Where you going this time?” Hardly anyone travels by bus anymore. And car travel is–just car travel. This is why it’s so amazing to see so many people light up and gush when told we’re traveling by train. “Oh, be sure and tell me what it’s like when you get back!” or “You lucky guy! Can I tag along?”

Life has, in truth, come full circle: what’s old has become new, and what’s new has become old. Retro is in. Roughing it is in. Five-star hotels are passé. Children and young people are searching for experiences that are fresh, new, and not cookie cutter. This is why trains are in and planes are out.

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Interestingly enough, the same phenomenon is true on trains. All you hear around you are variations on “Thank God we’re traveling by train!” “Isn’t plane travel awful!” “Isn’t it great to be free to get up, walk around, talk to people, play games, eat whatever or whenever we want, relax or sleep, with no timetable to worry about!”

Really, it’s one big mutual admiration society! Hardly a soul wants to be anywhere else but on a train. And they love the Observation Car. The interaction with people of all ages, the running down to the snack area below whenever they want a bite to eat, the opportunity to play board games, to laugh, to reminisce, to joke–but more than anything else: to talk with people and find out what makes them tick.

Then there’s the Dining Car (right next to the Observation Car). We actually looked forward to the three full meals a day they offer there. The food was surprisingly good. And the vegetarian options were most palatable. But really, you’d have to experience it yourself to fully appreciate the full difference. Had we been traveling by auto, it would have taken us two and a half days (including two nights at a motel), the stress of driving long hours, finding acceptable eating options on the road, gas costs alone would have totaled over $500 for the round trip–not counting repair problems or road hazards. Meals would have cost us at least as much, per meal, as on board Amtrak.

But oh the difference! To get on the train and be able to fully relax. No driving pressures. No hauling in and out suitcases each night. No missing much of the scenery because of driving demands. Just sit back, relax, and watch America slowly pass by. Tired of sitting? Wander down to the Snack Car, the Observation Car, the Dining Car. Get acquainted with your fellow passengers.

Occasionally, one of the train personnel would get on the mike and tell us about the history of sites we were passing by. Later on, I discovered that someone has written and published three books detailing every significant history-related spot in the entire transcontinental train route from the Atlantic to the Pacific! I saw all three in one of the train station gift shops.

There’s also not a little of “Now that we’re here, let’s close the door! We don’t want too many people to discover how wonderful train travel is, because they might then wreck it for the rest of us.”

The one sad negative for the host of wanabee train travelers is that trains service all too few locales across the country. Radically different than it used to be when trains connected virtually every hamlet in America. Europe is much more fortunate than we are in this respect.

Next week, I’ll be bringing to a conclusion my paean to train travel.”

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