Made in America Buck Williams, Williams AZ

2019 Grateful 47: Made in America

Wandering around Williams AZ shortly after 8 am on a Friday morning, I spotted a rare sight. A man smoking. It was such a novelty that I went to join him. We’d been stateside a week and he was maybe the third person I’d seen with a cigarette. Ah no, you say, you’re not back smoking? I’m not, but I have the odd one when I feel like it. And sure amn’t I on my holidays. Anyway, this particular cigarette would prove to be the most interesting one I’ve ever had.

Made in America, Buck WIlliams and his shop in Williams AZ

He put his out and then stuck it into a hole he’d bored into the street sign outside his shop. He uproots the signpost and empties it when it gets full. One day, he said, he put a half-lit butt inside and the others caught fire. Smoke started seeping through the hole. He told a concerned tourist who happened to be passing that it was nothing to worry about, saying the town was built on volcanic geysers and this was just a vent. He laughed heartily when he thought of the 20 minutes the chap spent taking pictures of it.

Buck Williams was born in Ohio and grew up on a working ranch in Alabama. After a stint in the Marines, he spent three years as a deputy sheriff in his home state, twenty with the LAPD, and six as a US Marshall in California. All this before spending 15 years as a train robber in Williams, AZ. Sharing the same last name as the town, his wife decided this was where they’d retire. And they did. About nineteen years ago. When you’ve spent as long as he has upholding the law, it made a change to break it. Williams was part of the staged train robbery put on for tourists travelling on the Grand Canyon railroad. Today, he’s the local gunsmith and the man to go see if you want to learn to quick draw or use a bullwhip.

He was telling me that many old Arizona laws, while not always enforced, are still on the books. If I parked in front of his signpost and he came along and wanted to tether his horse, guess who’d have to move? And if I beeped my horn at his horse, I’d be fined. And if I scared him, I could be arrested. The horse, that is. Williams would take a lot of scaring.

Lots of international tourists come to Williams, stay overnight, and then take the train ride up into the canyon. He himself has a massive Chinese fan club, thanks to being featured in a book on Route 66, written in Chinese. It went down so well, that he’s due to be featured in a second by the same author on cowboys. He’s also nabbed a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for both his fast draw and his bullwhip. He can draw a gun in 2.5 tenths of a second. I asked him why he didn’t write his own book. ‘I’m in the middle of doing nothing’, he said, ‘and I don’t want to start another project until I finish this one.’

He gave me the rundown on Williams and suggested where we should go for lunch. Himself had taken off earlier that morning to see the Grand Canyon. I’d stayed behind to feed my Route 66 memory bank. I asked Williams, given that he’s been around for a while and has lived an interesting life, what advice would he give someone starting out today. He didn’t have to think for long. ‘Learn to be responsible for yourself.’ Too many people these days take for granted what they’re told. They don’t fact check or research. They believe what their friends believe.

Just about that point in the conversation, a woman came in to mail a package with UPS (Williams is an agent for them). Her stepson was in jail in California and the only parcels they can get are from vendors. She’s tried to send it via Amazon but it came to her instead. The Amazon guy, [‘a middle-eastern fellah’, she whispered, behind the back of her hand] had emailed her a barcoded label that only UPS shops, not the franchises, had the wherewithal to read. Williams told her she’d have to drive the 40 miles to the nearest UPS in Flagstaff. They chatted, her animatedly, he calmly. She didn’t want to make the drive and had come in royally ticked off with Amazon and her stepson both, venting her spleen, but she left smiling. All in the space of two minutes.

Made in America, Buck Williams, Williams AZ

Williams took a framed photo from the wall and proudly pointed out his son. He was in the US Coastguard and had been an honour guard for four years when Clinton was in office and spent 17 years as a rescue swimmer. A life so very different from the stepson in jail.

Aside from his love of cowboys and guns, Williams has a love of words. He told me how easy it was to understand modern-day politics – poly meaning many, and tics, meaning blood-sucking pests. He recited one of his cowboy poems for me that knocked me sideways with the punchline. I wish I’d been able to record him but traffic was picking up and his regulars were popping in for coffee. He keeps a coffee pot on the go and it seems like anyone’s welcome.

Made in America Buck Williams, Williams AZHe put on his hat for another photo and went on to tell me how to read a cowboy hat. If it’s white or light-coloured, they work somewhere sunny and hot. If it’s high-domed, they work somewhere that gets rain and/or snow. If there’s a cord around the crown, they’ve been in the armed forces – the different colours represent different sections. And his, he said, told me that he was right-handed. This stumped me until he pointed out that the left side of the brim was slightly higher than the right – this was from tipping his hat to the ladies. His right hand would always be on his gun.

And tip his hat he did. I was ma’amed a lot and I loved it. Buck Williams was made in America. He’s a real character who says that if you leave his shop without a smile on your face, it’s because he’s thrown you out. I left laughing. If you ever find yourself in Williams, AZ, pop in and say hi. Buck’s Place. 117 W Route 66, Suite 145, Williams AZ. You’ll be glad you did. And I’m grateful that I had that cigarette. Thanks’ Buck. You’re a gem.

 

For more on the Grateful series, check the blog.

For more on travel in Arizona, check out www.anyexcusetotravel.com

 

 

Valentine's Day, London Brige, Lake Havasu

A Valentine’s Day to remember

Sad really. Neither of us could remember what we’d done for the last three years on Valentine’s Day. Nothing memorable obviously. Himself would rate himself as more of a romantic than not, but perhaps in thought rather than in deed. Pragmatic runs to my core – romance is the stuff movies are made of. That said, I always appreciate flowers, no matter the occasion, but having surreptitiously checked whether a dozen long-stemmed roses would fit in the console of the rental car, I nixed even voicing that wishpectation.

We set out from Palm Desert California this morning shortly after 8 am expecting to be in Williams Arizona by 3 at the latest. We planned to see the iconic Route 66 town and then have dinner somewhere special. That was the plan. When we left, it was teeming with rain. The electricity was cutting in and out. And the day was shaping up to be quite miserable. We opted for the longer route along the Colorado River as the shorter one involved windy roads through a mountain pass and given the infrequency of heavy rain in the area, I didn’t trust the local drivers to stay in the lanes or the runoff to stay off the road – flash flood warnings in effect for the day.

Valentine's Day General George Patton Museum Chiriaco Summit

We stopped for breakfast at Chiriaco Summit around 9.15 and lost two hours there at the fabulous General Patton Museum. It was so great that it deserves a post of its own, and that’s saying something, as I’m not a great lover of big guns and bigger tanks.  We thought we’d gotten ahead of the bad weather, but by the time we surfaced, it had caught up with us.

Valentine's Day, London Bridge, Lake Havasu

We were headed to Lake Havasu to see the famous London Bridge. A bridge that once spanned the River Thames in London was taken apart, stone by stone, shipped to the USA, hauled to Arizona, and put back together again.  It was purchased by Robert P. McCulloch (him of the lawn and garden machine fame – we have one of his strimmers) for $2,460,000 on 18 April 1968 from the City of London. The things some people do with their money. It took until 1971 for it to be completed and since then has been a major tourist attraction. We lucked out. We got the bridge and the British weather. It was pouring. And cold. But not as cold as it would get.

We stopped for lunch and looked at the map to see the quickest way to get to where we were ultimately heading. We were now about 2 hours behind schedule. I noticed Route 66 was an option and on it, the little town of Valentine. I figured that if we went to Valentine on Valentine’s Day, we’d never forget what we did on 14 February 2019. We decided to decide when we got to Kingman.

 

Valentine's Day, Freeway entrance to 40E

And it took an age to get there. The low-lying fog/cloud you can see is the rain we had to drive through. Us and every articulated truck that had anywhere to go other than home. It was nasty. But when the rain eased off a little, the desert colours were gorgeous. Pinks, yellows, greens, purples, and every possible shade of brown.

By the time we got to Kingman, we’d copped that we’d lost an hour having crossed a timeline somewhere along the way. There was no way we’d get to Williams in daylight so we decided to take the high road and head across on Route 66.  I love driving that road. The mother road. I feel other-worldly when I do.

Valentine's Day Route 66 Arizona

Valentine's Day Route 66 Arizona

When we got to Valentine, we pulled up beside the sign. Another van was parked there. We figured they’d had the same idea. Turns out, it was a TV station from Phoenix who’d come expecting to find something going on. But it was still raining heavily and it was cold and there was no one but us around. They’d visited the general store in Hackberry and had then wandered around Valentine itself before parking at the sign waiting to see if anyone would stop by. We asked Kim Powell, the reporter, if she’d mind taking our photo. I know, I know. I don’t often do it, but given the day and given the place, I simply had to. Anyway, she did. And as one good turn deserves another, she asked if she could interview us. Sure, it’d have been rude to refuse. It’s pretty safe to say that if we did make the telly, no one we know would be watching. But we did… or at least the web.

Valentine's Day at Valentine AZ

Valentine's Day at Valentine AZ

It got dark somewhere on the Hualapai Indian reservation. We rolled into Williams about 8 pm and it looks quite the quaint little town. But after 12 hours on the road, I was ready for my prime rib dinner. Turns out though, our hotel restaurant didn’t quite stretch that far and it was too wet and too cold to go wandering. So I settled for a French dip. But I’m on a promise. Prime rib is something that needs crossing off my list before I leave.

So, from General Patton and his tanks to a relocated London Bridge, to the sleepy town of Valentine, it was certainly a day to remember. Oh, and yes. I did get chocolates. A box of maltesers from a truck stop on 95N. The boy knows me well.

 

2019 Grateful 48

It’s Sunday night. I’m sitting at the table in the Jungle Mansion. One of their 13 friendly local racoons is messing around outside. It’s dark. It’s cold. It’s an unseasonable California. The talented SRP is playing the piano. She’d asked what my favourite piece was. I didn’t have to think. Panis Angelicus. She’d not heard it before, but went online, downloaded the sheet music, and played it. Beautifully. Such unpretentious talent is humbling.

Getting a glimpse into how other people live their lives is a privilege not to be taken lightly. I’d not seen my mate J for more than 25 years and had never met S, although I’d been following the Facebook posts since they’d reconnected some years ago. Social media has a lot to answer for. It creates a virtual familiarity that’s so real that when you meet the person for the first time in real life, it’s straight to hugs and chats.

I remember being in Geneva a number of years ago and telling a colleague how well they looked, commenting that it’d been a while since we’d met. They reminded me that we’d never actually met, other than online. I was shocked. It had all been so real. Coming back to Torrance after all these years, reconnecting with old friends, well, it’s been a tonic.

Visiting (and having visitors) can be hard work. It’s hard to tell how comfortable you’re going to be, and how relaxed they’ll be with you around. But not an hour into the visit, I was helping myself to milk duds from the fridge. ‘Nuff said.


They asked what I’d missed about living in SoCal. I said In’n’Out. We went and got burgers from the family-owned chain that has been a feature on the California fast-food plate since 1948. And they still taste as good as they did all those years ago. The next night, himself had a craving for some decent Mexican food. We went to their local, La Capilla, another family-run venture with four restaurants to their name. I liked this local feel, this sense that America is more than multinationals and multi-state conglomerates.

We sat around and chatted, swapping stories of what we’d been up to in the years since we’d last met, moving inside and outside as the sun permitted. As the stories ebbed and flowed, stories that don’t make it on to Facebook or into blogs, the years melted away. We talked of movies and music (I hadn’t much to contribute to either conversation but thoroughly enjoyed listening to the accounts of happenings that made screen names real.) I came into my own when the scrabble board came out. They recorded me reading The Wonky Donkey for the first time – the first time I’ve read it or recorded it. [If you’ve not heard it before, this Scottish granny knocks great craic out of it.] After we’d eaten some home-made Australian meat pies, S played some more piano and the lads sang.

Evenings like these are what memories are made of. At the end of what’s been a mad week that saw me touch down in six countries, it’s nice to feel at home. I’m grateful that friendship can survive years and years and still be as strong as back in the day. And that it can multiply.

 

2016 Grateful 20

Back in 2001, when I had a feeling that my time in the USA might be coming to a close, I took a road trip with the inimitable RosaB. On our way from somewhere to somewhere in the State of Alabama, we passed a billboard for the Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman. Then we passed a second. By the time we hit upon the third, the advertising had done its job and we left the highway to see what the fuss was about.

Built by a Bavarian Benedictine monk, he himself a little on the small side, too, the four acres is known far and wide as Jerusalem in Miniature. Not far into the twentieth century, Br Joseph’s job was to man the pumps and watch the oil gauges at the Abbey’s pump house, a mind-numbing task he did for 17 hours a day, 7 days a week. To keep himself sane, he started to build little grottos around tiny statues. He made tiny copies of the Holy sites in Jerusalem and eventually had enough to put together a miniature of the city. The monk had rarely travelled so he built his pieces from images on postcards. [I still send postcards – maybe somewhere, someone might put them to use. You know who you are.]

The Abbot of the monastery would have made Walt Disney proud. He soon cottoned on to the winner he had within his walls. He had great plans for an OTT religious grotto, carefully landscaped, meticulously made. Work began in 1932 in an abandoned quarry in the Abbey’s grounds and today, it’s visited by millions. It was one of the highlights of a memorable trip. Well worth a look if you’re in the vicinity.

Fast forward a few years, and I’m in the UK. I’d gone to meet my then boyfriend who was on leave from the QEII. We ended up in Wimborne with its 1/10th scale model town. An idea that incubated during the 1940s, it opened to visitors in 1951. The buildings are made from concrete with beech windows. I still remember feeling like Gulliver as I wandered through the tiny streets, afraid to put a foot wrong lest I step on something or a little someone. All very real it was.  Another lovely memory. Another one worth a visit.

In Portugal recently, we happened across a third such marvel in the village of Sobreiro. Aldeia Tipicia (typical village) was a the brainchild of potter José Franco who began work on this masterpiece in 1960. Driven to preserve the customs and crafts of Portugal, he wanted to replicate the old workshops and stores, the houses, and the communities that were all in danger of being swallowed up by progress. He also wanted a miniature village for kids, with working windmills and all sorts. Later he added a third part – an interactive children’s agricultural centre inside some castle-like walls. Franco died in 2009 leaving a legacy that,  like the others, and indeed like Miniversum here in Budapest, is still working its magic.

Because no matter what adult worries and concerns you might have going in, when you happen upon these miniature places, you can’t help but revert back to being a child. Rediscovering the open-mouthed child-like awe often jaded by cynicism is quite the experience. I found myself pointing and exclaiming like a kid on Christmas morning.

None of the visits were planned. But all happened when I needed some perspective. Someone up there is looking out for me. For this, and for the artists like Br Joseph and José Franco who made them possible, I’m truly grateful. Cost of entry: free. Recalibration: priceless.

IMG_6713 (800x600)IMG_6712 (800x600)IMG_6709 (800x600)IMG_6706 (800x600)IMG_6705 (600x800) (2)IMG_6704 (800x600)IMG_6703 (800x600)IMG_6702 (800x600)IMG_6722 (800x600)IMG_6720 (600x800)

A walk through a cancer survivors park

Death and cancer are not synonymous. Fight. Don’t give up.

In 1980, Richard A. Bloch (co-founder of H&R Block, those people who help you with your US tax returns) was given the all-clear. He had battled with lung cancer and won. In  2004 he died of heart failure. In the intervening years, he and his wife Annette dedicated their lives to helping others fight the Big C. The RA Bloch Cancer Foundation is now  a major resource for victims in North America.

In 25 cities in Canada and the United States, you might just stumble across one of Bloch’s Cancer Survivor Parks, just as we did when walking around Minneapolis. Intrigued by this rather substantial patch of green in the midst of what has to be prime real estate area, we had to take a look.
IMG_4204 (800x600)

IMG_4210 (800x592)IMG_4209 (800x600)The parks all have the same three elements but are designed to fit in with their surroundings. There are two different walks. The positive mental attitude walk has 14 plaques, 4 inspirational and  10 instructional. One of the instructions is simply to read the Foundation’s free book Fighting Cancer.  

The second walk is the Road to Recovery, seven plaques that explain what cancer is and what’s needed to overcome it. No rocket science here, nothing we don’t know, but somehow it’s easier to digest. A good example, I think, of the medium being the message. The Foundation notes the intention of a park on its website: To newly diagnosed patients, it is meant to give hope and courage. To those in the process of fighting the disease, it is meant to give directions and determination. To those who have not had cancer, it is meant to reduce fear.

IMG_4208 (800x600)

The most evocative for me, though, was the life-size sculpture of eight people passing through a maze that represents the disease. Those going in show all the emotions we associate with a diagnosis – fear that we or our loved one won’t  make it, hope that we/they will, and a determination to try. The three coming out are happy they’ve made it.

The sculpture  – Cancer… there’s hope – is the last work of Mexican artist Victor Salmones. It’s quite something. Two weeks after he had completed it, Salmones was diagnosed with cancer. He died in 1989. A fitting legacy.

 

 

A parallel universe

Although it’s been more than a month since I was in the States, one morning in particular keeps replaying itself in my head – the morning we went to the West Bank and ended up in Somalia.IMG_4172 (800x600)
When we had driven through the Minneapolis neighbourhood of the West Bank on our way to St Paul, I had a made a mental note to come back and walk around what looked like a very vibrant, ethnic neighbourhood, a splotch of colour on an otherwise rather typical grey steel and glass cityscape. I was particularly taken with the shop names. I wanted to get out a world map and stick a pin in every country mentioned.

IMG_4181 (800x600)IMG_4176 (800x600)Also known as Cedar-Riverside and Little Mogadishu, the West Bank is a vibrant community that was at once foreign and familiar.  Its demographics have morphed over time, from predominantly Scandinavian at  the close of the nineteenth century  to being home to one of the largest Somali communities in the USA today. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was where the hippies hung out. Think perhaps Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. It was here that the activists fought the developers, where the anti-war protesters made their opinions known, where poets and musicians found their inspiration, where actors tread the boards.

IMG_4171 (800x600) (2)Were I to relocate, I might upset the age balance. It’s a young place with nearly three-quarters of the residents under the age of 35.  The community sits in the shadow of the multi-coloured Riverside Plaza – where the TV character Mary Richards lived in later episodes of the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Today, it’s home to thousands of Somalian.

IMG_4173 (800x600)IMG_4184 (600x800)We walked, and talked and took photos. And then we got hungry. Not much was open  – not even the Acadia pub, which proudly boasts NO CRAP ON TAP on its window decals. Another doorway asked the world to SAY YES TO PEACE AMONG PEOPLE. It was morning and while appreciative, I was craving eggs not invocations to do my civic duty. Breakfast ain’t breakfast without eggs so we popped into the only open café we could find:  a large rectangular room with the basic tables and chairs and a small counter at the end whence reigned the woman of the house. A television was showing some soap too asinine to hold anyone’s attention for very long. The menu was a peculiar mix of African takes on America staples. Our fellow diners were all male, all African, and all speaking something other than English. They all seemed to know each other. Those who came in as we were sitting did the rounds, greeting all the others in the room, moving from table to table if a something more personal than a catchall hello from the doorway was needed.IMG_4174 (600x800)

IMG_4187 (800x600)

IMG_4188 (600x800)We sat over coffee so strong a mouse could trot across it. We ate food that again, was both foreign and familiar. And we listened to everything going on around us, unable to understand a word. It was light years away from any TV depiction of the American Mid West. A parallel universe. And I wondered how long it would be before the language was lost, the culture diluted, and the food choice changed. I thought  about the melting pot that is America and the generations of immigrants who now call it home. And I thought of Europe and the myriad migrant communities that are mushrooming in , say, Germany and Dublin, whole neighbourhoods where German and English are the foreign languages and schnitzel and coddle the foreign foods.

IMG_4178 (800x600)IMG_4177 (600x800)Just up the street, Neighbourhood America lives on , unabated. Palmer’s Bar is a local institution. Had it not been so early and had it  not been our last day in the city, I could have parked myself on a high stool and paid attention to nothing but the world ticking by.

From the outside it looks like a throwback to the speakeasy days. From this inside, these old photos speak of community and spirit.  Ranked by Esquire as one of the best bars in America, a recent review tagged it as a  refuge of coexistence, the bar beats with diversity. Anarchists, the homeless and academics all dwell there. Bob Dylan no doubt pounded a few beers here in his Minneapolis days and Bonnie Rait has been known to drop in when she’s recording in town. If I ever needed a reason to go back, this might just be it.

IMG_4186 (800x600)

IMG_4183 (800x600)

IMG_4180 (800x600)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Walking on air

There’s something a little surreal about being about to walk around a city without once going outside. Given the cruelty of the Minnesota winter, this is an added plus for those living in Minneapolis. The city has 8 miles of glass-walled skywalks connecting government buildings, office buildings, shopping malls, and public amenities over 69 blocks downtown. It even has a skywalk map. Think London underground  … in the air.

IMG_4130 (800x600)IMG_4140 (600x800)The skywalk is the brainchild of real estate developer Leslie Park, who even in the early 1960s, had vision enough to fear the damage indoor shopping malls could do the heart of a city by taking all the traffic to a convenient, one-stop shop as it were. To combat this convenience and to keep people shopping and using downtown Minneapolis, he started building skywalks. Those in existence today are owned by the various buildings they connect and therefore don’t have regular opening and closing times. [Could locked skywalks replace underground carparks as terrors spots in movies I wonder?]

Given that the nearby city of Bloomington is home to America’s largest shopping mall, this was smart thinking on his part.

The Mall of America, a shopping mall in Bloomington, Minnesota, is the largest shopping mall in the United States. It is also the most visited shopping mall in the world. Opened in 1992, the mall receives over 40 million visitors annually. Currently, it features 520 stores, a theme park, an aquarium, a movie theater, a wedding chapel, 50 restaurants and about 20,000 parking spaces. The mall is so big that it has its own zip code (55425)

IMG_4137 (590x800)IMG_4148 (800x589)I was fascinated. We walked miles. I could have done the same again the next day, had we had a next day. You simply never know where you will end up or what will be around the next corner. Look over a balcony down onto IMG_4193 (800x600)an indoor garden, a bank, a café. See sculptures and statues. Stop for coffee in the famous Caribou coffee shops. Pop into Macy’s to experience the magic of American Customer Service, where, if you’re lucky, the shop assistant will conspire with you to find you the best online coupon to use … on their phone!

IMG_4198 (800x600)

MTMOORECharles Strite, who invented the pop-up toaster, was born in Minneapolis. Mars Inc., father of the Milky Way and the Snickers bar, was founded there in 1920. The city and its suburbs are home to 12 Fortune 500 companies. Bob Dylan used to live there (in Dinkytown, in what’s now the Loring Pasta Bar, where we had dinner one night). And, of course, it’s where Mary Tyler Moore threw her beret in the air at the start of the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Classic TV.

Whether it’s theatre [Minneapolis (combined with St. Paul) is the 3rd largest theatre market in the US and is second only to New York City for the most live theatre seats per capita]  or birdwatching [the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary is the country’s oldest public wildflower garden],  skywalks or shopping, Minneapolis is a city that has someone for everyone. And, alongside Madison, WI, it’s a city I think I could live in.

PS – The local airline, Sun Country, has put in a bid for a Cuba route. Just sayin’

Floured

I’m not a great one for museums. Unless of course they’re connected to the Holocaust, genocide, resistance, war, the Inquisition – things that we need to remember not to forget. Then I could happily spend an afternoon re-educating myself. Of my non-awful museums of choice, the Unicum one in Budapest is a favourite. But museums generally are not high on my list of places to see when I’m travelling.

When in the Twin Cities recently, my hosts took me to see the Mill City Museum. They’d planned the day around it and it would have been churlish of me to suggest alternatives (not that I had any – I’m not big on research). If you’d told me that I’d find flour so fascinating, I’d have called you names. But fascinating it was.

IMG_3953 (800x600)It’s an excellent museum that chronicles the importance of the mills to the area. From when the first mill opened in 1866, people have been earning a crust by grinding, milling, sifting, and packaging flour. The grain elevator tour is a gem. You sit in the elevator which IMG_3956 (800x600)stops at various floors in the mill and explains through video and narration what went on back in the day. Brilliant. I never knew that flour dust was explosive! I never knew that white lung was also billed as occupational asthma. And I never knew that Minneapolis was once the flour milling capital of the world. Back then, the men could swing a 100 lb sac of flour as easily as if it were feather pillow. [deep sigh]

IMG_3964 (800x600)IMG_3977 (600x800)The city is home to the famous Pillsbury doughboy, but that mill is no longer in use and has been converted into artists’ lofts. From the viewing platform high up in the museum, there’s  fantastic view of the cities, which is worth the admission price alone. And if that isn’t enough to convince you, local man Kevin Kling’s movie – 330 years of history in 19 minutes – has to be one of the best ( if not the best) history synopsis I’ve seen of anywhere. An excellent example of how a city lives through its people and how its culture lives through its stories. Sharp, witty, engaging, and to the point, tourist boards the world over could take a lesson from this man’s book. If you’re in the neighborhood, it’s definitely worth a visit.

The great teardown of Minneapolis which saw 200 buildings razed in 5 years has left its twin city, St Paul, just a tad more attractive.

IMG_4037 (800x600)IMG_4033 (800x600)The Cathedral of Saint Paul, which opened its doors to sinners in th early 1900s, is a replica of St Peter’s in Rome. Sitting atop of Cathedral Hill, its copper dome shines down over the city. JFK attended 11am mass there on 7 October 1962 and the pew in which is sat is now marked with a bronze plaque. There’s also a stone from the castle in  Rouen, France, where Joan of Arc was imprisoned back in 1431. It’s a magnificent building, in stark contrast to the last church I was in, but beautiful, too, in its own right. My favourite part was the Shrine of Nations, a series of mini altars/chapels featuring saints from around the world, including our own St Patrick.

IMG_3999 (800x591)IMG_4016 (800x600)The drive up to the Cathedral took us through the posh part of town, with massive old houses lining both sides of Summit Avenue. Had we had time, I’d happily have spent an afternoon just walking the streets wondering who lived where (F. Scott Fitzgerald was a local in his day). As it was, I was IMG_4006 (800x600)already praying I’d win a lottery so I, too, might afford the view.

One of these houses was home to a certain James J Hill, a man who was before his time.  A man with a vision. Canadian by birth, he made his way to the States when he was 17 where he worked as a mud clerk on the Mississippi.  He made his millions on the railroads, and married  a waitress from his local café. Mrs Hill never forgot whence she came and ensured that her kitchen help had wooden floors to stand on rather that stone IMG_4019 (800x600)flags. It was the first house in the city to be fully electrified back in 1890 – 9 miles of wire it took to wire it up. In its day, Hill’s art collection was valued at $1.7 million, all housed in his private gallery, also home to a 1006-pipe organ. Add this to the 156 rugs that cover the floors on three landings, the 2000 square feet of hallway, and the fabulous stained glass windows (he’s said to have turned down designs submitted by Tiffany), it’s a house I’d have little trouble imagining myself living in.

IMG_4028 (800x600)IMG_4030 (800x600)IMG_4064 (800x600)IMG_4059 (800x600)He had showers in the bedrooms. The master suites had walk-in wardrobes. The place was fire proofed (no one wooden beam touches another), burglary-proofed (stylish steel grids on doors) and for a man who was permanently blind in his right eye and fond of an onion sandwich before hitting the sack, James J was quite the character.

The dining room, where he hosted President McKinley for dinner has a gold-leaf ceiling and leather walls with a 25-foot long dining table. I was salivating. The massive red house next door was his wedding present to one of his sons. [Dad?]

It was a different world back then. In many ways arguably a better one, a simpler one. But like anything, this appreciation might well have depended on how far up the IMG_4069 (800x600)stairs you were sleeping. It was a lovely glimpse into times gone by and further confirmation that the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St Paul have a lot going for them – not least among which is their hospitality. It’s been a while since I’ve felt so at home. Thanks MB & J.

IMG_4072 (600x800)

IMG_4091 (600x800)IMG_4087 (800x600)IMG_4096 (800x600)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bussin’ on up…

I don’t have  TV in the flat. I can’t have a TV in the flat.  I could have one if I wanted one but I can’t. Because if I did, I’d do nothing but sit in front of it all day, every day. If it makes noise and shows pictures I’m mesmerised. Turn it off and walk away, you say. Tell this to the teen with fake ID who spent her first day in New York in front of a TV watching back-to-back reruns of MASH, chomping on giant-sized bags of sour cream and onion chips. Ridged no less. Sights? What sights? I had control of the remote. I was in multi-channel heaven. [Imagine what I felt like when I discovered TV on demand?????]

Yet it was only when I was smack bang in the middle of the MidWest that I realised the effect that TV has had. It has painted a picture for me of middle America, one that on occasion lives up to reality and on other occasions, falls far short. There’s little in the way of consistency.

IMG_3927 (800x600)I took the bus from Madison, WI, to Minneapolis, MN. On a fine day, it would take about 4 and a half hours. On day with a blizzard blowing in Chicago (where the bus started its odyssey) and in Madison, it would take a lot longer. No matter. I’d booked a seat with a table for $10 (in advance) and bought a second ticket for my second suitcase (f0r $25 – the day before) even though the bus wasn’t even half full. Hey, I wasn’t about to argue with the driver – a supersized, chain-smoking, steel-toe-booted woman with a look that would relegate all the nuns in my childhood to the back pew. [She would later pull over on the highway (yep  – I thought that was illegal, too) to go upstairs to have words with someone who had ignored her first request to turn down their music. They saw the light.] Anyway, she ticked all the boxes. Roseanne Barr with attitude.

Behind me, two young men (who weren’t travelling together) kept up a ball conversation  for the entire trip. They showed little favoritism, starting with football and taking apart the coaches and players of the Green Bay Packers (WI), the Vikings (MN) and the Chicago Bears (IL). They then moved on to baseball and had made it to the 76ers in Philly just as the bus pulled in to the terminus. Another box ticked – if it involves a ball, American males can talk… and talk… and talk.

Across the way, one woman, who had taken a fall and hurt her arm (but not her hand) the day before, was trying to get an appointment to see a doctor. She spoke to the hospital and then to her husband, her sister, her daughter, and her son. She had words with her daughter, too, whose good-for-nothing husband wasn’t worth the blade of grass he was born under. She must have had free local calls and could have found a role in just about any US family sitcom I’ve seen.

Opposite me was a young girl who ate her way across the miles, trying repeatedly to connect to the wifi we all could see but none of us could access and no one had the balls to ask the driver. [My job was to make your journey as pleasant as possible. Tell my bosses. If you enjoyed your trip, my name is Judy; if you didn’t, my name is Tracy.] Every 15 mins or so she would swap out her book for her phone and her phone for her iPad, and her iPad for her iPod,her iPod for a nap, and then nap for her book, and her book for her phone… Me? I just watched her, checking in occasionally on how the others were getting on.

We eventually made it to the Twin Cities, stopping first in St Paul and then in Minneapolis. Thankfully, I was being met. And had a hotel booked for the night over in Dinkytown.

20160302_070625_resized

20160302_080147_resized20160302_075554_resized20160302_072118_resizedYep – Dinkytown. What a great name for a neighbourhood. Close to the university, it’s home to lots of fraternity and sorority houses (another check on the list of American staples) that were both old and new. I was fascinated. And it has its headshops, its bookshops, its trendy cafés and restaurants, its Irish pub and its diners. And in particular, it has Al’s diner. Didn’t see anyone though in letter jackets. (And no, I didn’t mean leather.)

Al’s opened to the public back in 1950 at 6am on 15 May. Its 14 bar stools have been sat upon since then, from 6am to 1pm daily. Theirs is a simple system. You don’t sit down until you’re old its okay to do so. You can be asked to move up or move down the line to accommodate others. And while you’re never rushed, there’s a niceness that pays attention to those in wait and overrides any thoughts you might have of dallying. That said, the banter flows. There are boxes of prepaid yellow chits filed in alphabetical order beneath the counter. Checks are totalled manually. Orders are hollered out when done. So many boxes checked there…

20160302_072056_resizedThe morning we were in there, two business men sat to my left. They were talking in millions, the way you do – discussing investments and such like. To their left, a lone diner, a young fellow in his early 20s, had just realised that Al’s didn’t accept credit cards. He asked the waiter to hold his seat while he went to the ATM.’No worries’ he said. ‘Pay when you’ve eaten.’ There’s trust for you. So he ate. They ate. We ate. And when it came time to pay, one of the businessmen told the waiter to that he’d pick up the young man’s check, too.

20160302_071323_resized‘Why would you do that’, yer man asked with a shock that said he wasn’t local.
‘Ah’, the man replied, ‘someone bought me a latte earlier this week. I’m just paying it forward. You do the same.’ I’ve seen the movie. I’ve done it myself. But I’d never actually seen it done in real life before. And my eggs Benedict were great, too.

Only a wet day in Minnesota and I’m beginning to see why the state rates so highly when it comes to places to live.

 

 

Moving to Madtown?

One of the last questions I ask myself as I pack my bags and get ready to move on is whether or not I could live wherever it is I am leaving. Considering how spoilt I am in the homes I have – Ireland and Hungary – it takes a lot for me to say yes. And it takes a helluva of a lot for my yes to be a resounding, unhesitating, yes! But Madison, WI? There’s a city I could move to tomorrow (assuming the next POTUS is someone I can bear to look at).

State capital and university town, Madison is big enough not to know everyone and small enough to be walkable. And it has heart. I could tell. I can tell a lot of the spirit of a town by its signage. What? I hear you say. You’d move countries based on a few signs? Well, I never said my brand of logic was for everyone. But given how I make my decisions, that’s more research than I’ve ever done.

IMG_3836 (800x600)IMG_3835 (600x800)IMG_3840 (600x800)IMG_3852 (800x600) (2)IMG_3868 (800x600)IMG_3869 (800x600)IMG_3870 (800x600) The overwhelming sense I got was one of culture and caring mixed in with a healthy dose of quirkiness and little fear of being different.

The city sits between two lakes  – Mendota and Monona (the latter is the one into which Otis Redding’s plane crashed). And there are three more close by: Lake Waubesa, Lake Kegonsa and Lake Wingra. Of its 94 square miles, over 17 are under water. It’s quite something to look out over the frozen expanse of water and wonder how much lotto I’d have to win to be able to afford a lakeside property.

Home to about a quarter of a million people,
Madison oozes an appeal rarely found in my American experience (even though I’m a great fan of the US of A). Everywhere I looked, I IMG_3875 (800x600)saw humour, generosity, and a charming ‘what the hell, life is for living’ attitude. I admit to having a serious case of the moves. And it wasn’t just the thoughts of warm cookies being delivered up to 3am. The city seems to be making a concerted effort to stay local, support local, and be different. That I applaud. The city’s farmer’s market is the country’s largest producer-only market with over 300 stalls. And on a per capita basis, the people here buy more books than anywhere else in the country (okay, so there’s a big university, which by the way numbers 24 Pulitzers and 17 Nobel prizes in its alumni…. perhaps no surprise about the books). It has 260 parks in the city itself and one of the 10 free zoos in the country. And perhaps what’s most endearing – its nicknames include Mad City and Madtown.

IMG_3810 (800x590)

IMG_3816 (800x600)IMG_3821 (800x600)The State Capitol is at the  city’s heart. No building in town can be taller than it and nothing new can be built within a mile of it. It’s the second tallest dome in the country, after, of course, the one in Washington DC. The day I was there, a massive schools art exhibit was in progress and there was
certainly a lot of talent on display. Stunningly gorgeous, it was inviting and inclusive and almost homely, despite the gilded ceilings and the fancy columns. I was particularly impressed with a poster pointing to understanding assumptions.

IMG_3824 (600x800)IMG_3846 (800x600)Walking the streets of Madison, I was completely taken with the place. And I started to think about going back to school – again.  But I’m being fanciful, I know. Still, though, it’s dreams like these that keep me young inside. The possibilities life offers are endless. How cool is that, eh?

IMG_3858 (800x600)IMG_3878 (589x800)IMG_3879 (600x800)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_3898 (800x588)And, of course, there’s also the FLW connection. I know I keep banging on about him but what can I say, I like the chap. There’s a convention centre in Madison that he designed – or at least, he drew the original drawings. There was some fighting with City Council over his IMG_3902 (800x600)
plans to extend out over the lake (and I wondered about the Infinity Room in Jordan’s House on the Rock and how it is supposed to be a tribute to Wright). His signature is there, though, on the wall, as is a bust of the man himself. There’s also quite a stunning photo exhibition of IMG_3905 (800x600)his work which gives some idea of what a proliferate architect he was. I was suitably awed.  Yes, Madison left its mark. It’s an amazing little city in a state that has much to offer by way of hospitality and frozen custard. I mightn’t be on the  next plane, but it’s been filed away for future reference.

IMG_3909 (800x600)