Labor Day cues the traditional end of summer rambles with watermelon and barbeque gorgings in places like Texas, where Tabasco Sauce and habanero chilis bring authentic heat, and rhythmic door openings and closings on thousands of airplanes and SUVs occur in unfamiliar places nationwide.
A shout out to all the laboring people who smoothed the sheets, cured the brisket, and ensured tenderness of the biscuits on my travels through 46 states. They inhabit every corner of America, not just the humid South of Horwitz’s recent tome (Spying on the South), but the boroughs and bayous, marshes and mountains– stretching from Bangor, Maine to Miami-Dade County, Windy Chicago to Cajun Lafayette, Louisiana; from Chula Vista, California to Washington’s Cascades’ rain forest and roads winding to Hurricane Ridge for breathtaking views into Canada’s Rocky Mountains)—all doors to discovery.
The opportunity to tour 46 states came as a Midwesterner with a wanderlust and the luck to see the country while making videos to share a safety message with daily drivers and pedestrians. I missed what to the untrained eye might appear to be the most exotic states—Alaska and Hawaii—and possibly the under-appreciated Dakotas (but a place called the Badlands probably deserves a visit!). A complete list of memories from decades of American travels could only come in bits or in a single end-of-summer blog, so expect mere highlights!
New England’s Subtle Surprises
During an August Congressional Recess rush up the coast to Nova Scotia with my groom in my late twenties New England’s pleasure went unnoticed. But the Crayola-colored clapboard barns and fishing vessels did catch my attention and the fresh cod rivaled every fish dinner to that time. In Bangor a decade later the wait staff presented stick-to-your-ribs backwoods chowder and crushed the stereotype of the, scowling flannel-shirted Libertarian. Then a generation later, Boston barmaids served Samuel Adams craft beer to tables of thirsty metal-wearing marathon athletes, my daughter among them. The next year we returned for shrimp and sushi to celebrate her rowing performance stroking a Texas eight in the Head of the Charles (River) Regatta.
Amtrak took me to New York City in October 2001. The Big Apple seemed to ooze red, white and blue after traveling from DC on business. The heroic recovery crew still worked in the pit at the base of Manhattan as I entered the subway system. Colorful notes with smudged pictures of loved ones posted by wives and husbands, mothers and fathers, and many adult children begged for any scrap of information about them. Over future trips, the notes came down and new skyscrapers went up, eventually a semblance of normality returned with a subtle, but expected twist of insecurity.
Today the brash, confident New Yorkers who were neighbors briefly eons ago have their mojo back. The generosity they showed decades ago to a pregnant guest drinking hot chocolate with her husband to keep warm one New Year’s Eve: “Potty run! Let the pregnant lady up in line!” (Cold must have seasoned the child to all weather —see earlier Boston events).
The lure of Washington, DC drew me in my twenties and became home base on and off for over thirty years. Yet a feeling of awe always overtakes me when I enter the Library of Congress Reading Room with its massive dome and the collection of the nation’s venerable bound antiques gracing the walls. Today whenever a Congressional argument seems nonsensical, I remind myself that Congress once argued over whether to purchase Jefferson’s books. The Library needed a jumpstart after the British burned it to the walls in 1814. Ludicrous.
Next in priority: oars slicing through the Potomac River in a rented rowing shell from the Thompson Boathouse near Georgetown—or if you prefer a kayak or a paddleboard. Early mornings can’t be beat when the proud Blue Herons cautiously trot out their staggering chicks on the backside of Roosevelt Island opposite the Virginia shore and the multi-colored ducks waddle into the water near pure white geese floating the inlet.
Two rules are essential for these early trips down the Potomac—stay dry and stay alive as the blue green river seems to swell all around the sliver of a boat that protects you. Even with a few years’ unsystematic rowing under my belt, never failed to slow down for the immovable stone arches of the Key Bridge—beautiful from the GW Parkway, but perilous and unforgiving obstacles capable of ending it all for risky novices on the water. Likewise, the larger tourist boats deserve a wide berth or simply hug the shallow right or left edges of the river, where they can’t travel.
Traveling feeds my joint passions—a book addiction that grew into a six-bookcase, seven-shelf, floor to ceiling book collection of odd cookbooks and unique finds about American Founders, Civil War generals, and American presidents– and the quest for new ideas in unexpected places. People who sold the books, cooked the meals, and picked me up and deposited me at far-flung airports were my instructors in America’s casual classroom. Their pleasure in their work encouraged my gratitude and dependence on their unique expertise as I sought relief while wworking with tight deadlines and even tighter filming budgets.
Being able to return to a simple meal and Netflix in my room made it easier to retool for another day in 100-degree heat where trucks and trains met in Dallas or pedestrians risked their lives in Chula Vista, California, where we filmed PSAs. Room service wasn’t an option while working the snow-covered rail right-of-way in Ohio filming safety videos for truck drivers. And maybe the Belgian waffles at breakfast set me up for a confident morning, which I needed when I took over the rental’s wheel outside Colorado Springs. An ancient Oldsmobile Cutlass in front of me did a 360 in the newly fallen snow, ahead of an oncoming car. No sweat, although half the staff rode with me. Never a scratch.
While working on a PSA long before I sampled authentic TexMex in Austin, the crew wandered into a simple restaurant on a suburban side street miles from Chicago’s skyscrapers to find Spanish signage and menus. Then ordering began with a pointer finger, sad to say. Warm homemade tortillas wrapped around authentic burritos and tacos, seasonings adjusted for the Gringo palate.
Southern Problem Solvers
Then on an assignment outside Atlanta, fine Southern fried chicken and biscuits could not solve a major problem initiated in the Chicago suburbs. Seven high school students died and two dozen were injured in a school bus-Metro-train crash at Fox River Grove, IL. A substitute bus driver stopped on the opposite side of the tracks at a stoplight, but didn’t realize the back end of her bus overhung the tracks by eight feet (due to widening of the road in front of her). All the school bus-train crossings in the country were inspected and a school district near Dalton, Georgia worked with us to develop and a school bus driver training video with a DC production team .
The completed “The Responsibility is Ours,” safety video debuted at a school bus driver convention in Reno after which I drove southwest for a view of Yosemite, which seemed to me to be this side of heaven, just what my soul needed after nearly a year working with fabulous people under tremendous pressure to deliver a story worth watching with a safety message woven throughout. For many fortunate reasons, the training being just one, school bus-train crash fatalities have nearly disappeared. (School districts now are aided by GPS,-all-county mapping, and advanced trip planning for out-of-district sporting events.)
When we flew through Atlanta’s Hartsfield Airport for the Dalton shoot, the pizza makers picked up their pace dramatically in preparation for the Olympics. Earlier they tossed pepperoni slices at a tender, haphazard speed onto the stretched dough. “One pepperoni, two…” marked their speed. Now the toppings were scattered as if from a helicopter and whipped into the ovens able to heat six large pizzas simultaneously .Speedy adjustments.
East St Louis: Nothing Left to Lose
I’d be lying if I pretended that bringing a film crew into East St. Louis didn’t scare me. A drug bust went down a block from where we were filming an outdoor scene, we persevered. The law enforcement hired to rotate in the area had one request: “We will be out of here before nightfall?” But this seemed to beg the question: Why were we here? The middle school stood less than half a mile from where a student had been killed walking in the middle of the tracks. That’s why we were there. The students were eager to help, working with us through boring takes for three days onsite before we moved to film by the tracks and an area cemetery.
A local filmmaker developed the script and pointed out a young black actor who played the lead very convincingly. In the script he sought a break to be a comedian. When an opportunity comes, he’s held back by a train blocking his neighborhood. He decides to climb through the train just as it lunges forward, tossing him onto the tracks as the train rolls crushing him. Later we went back to the middle school to share the Telly Award the video won.
After five business trips and one mother-daughter birthday celebration in New Orleans, my Cajun and Zydeco education continues. I grew up on Louie Armstrong. Early on I realized before draining my first that a single Hurricane at Brennan’s would do. Years later law enforcement safety partners didn’t slow down and paid the price after three of the sweet, alcohol fueled intoxicators. Sat them on the sidewalk, while we sampled my favorite crawfish etouffee finished with crème brulee Southern style. Only Shreveport comes close, serving those tasty bites doused in a creamy red sauce within a mile of their catch and home to the original Tabasco Sauce factory. In their honor an artist’s rendering of those succulent beasts graces my kitchen. Since all the major railroads run through the Big Easy, it was once the easiest place to get approval for safety meetings, since New Orleans was “on their road.”
Attention Deficit Vegas
Probably the continual Ca-Ching, Ca-Ching once you step off the plane draws Americans for the chance to double their money on the slots (or lose it and then some at the blackjack tables), see the bright lights of the GM Grand, or catch Circe de Solei in flight. The attractions grew over a decade plus, beginning when writing the Mobile Electronics newsletter during the Consumer Electronic Show. Unforgettable 18-hour days glassy-eyed viewing the latest and greatest technology while standing on cement barely covered by a thin layer of plastic “carpet.” (After three years of cortisone shots, foot surgery helped relieve the pain.). Cheap hotels, cheap alcohol, and “family-priced” restaurants made Las Vegas a popular location, so we went often, even though the meetings weren’t as productive as they could have been in Omaha or Fort Worth. The quality and quantity of the accommodations multiplied, but blindfolded I could identify where we were by the wattage of the keg lights, whether it was Cher or Adele, or if the cologne was Old Spice or Hermes 24.
Snow Shouldn’t Matter
Park City, Utah, great skiing location, site of Sundance Film Festival, and not far off Union Pacific tracks, delighted with mountain landscape out every window. The car rental company talked me into renting a Blazer for a drive into Yellowstone National Park after the meetings ended. (What they didn’t tell me: in April 15 feet of snow still stood around the park). Before I left the rental counter, Enterprise, which has since treated me well, said they’d topped off the tank and place my luggage securely in the back of the Blazer. Major mistake: I didn’t check.
Forty-five minutes later when I arrived in Park City, the trunk was bare. When I called to have the bag delivered, Enterprise said they weren’t making deliveries that night because of the snow—they’d bring it up in the am. Isn’t this a ski resort? Snow your bread and butter? Evidently not when it falls on rental cars.
I spent the night in the SAME clothes I’d worn since leaving for National Airport at 5:30 a.m., something that hadn’t happened in thirty years, on a job interview in Binghamton, NY. Then a truly ferocious snow storm that forced the plane off the runway and convinced me I didn’t want to be a reporter in the Eastern snowbelt.
In Park City arose the next morning at 6 am and drove down to Enterprise in a surly mood and retraced my tracks to dress for an 8 am. Used other rental companies for at least six months, not wanting to chance another evening wrapped in a sheet.
While snow did remain on the mountains around Yellowstone after work concluded, a winter wonderland awaited, offering sights and sounds I might never have seen if I’d come in summer—and with the crowds the Elk might have stayed away.
Keeping the Beauty of the West on the Wall
For every rugged story, there’s a counter—Montana—don’t understand why Jane Fonda could flee such a slice of heaven. Her pairing with media mogul Ted Turner must have been a slice of hell! (But they didn’t seem to share similar political perspectives.) I brought back with me a print of the Big Blackfoot River flowing through Cottonwood Creek that hangs in my office to reminds me. Neighboring Idaho served as a gateway into the Canadian Rockies’ stunning scenery—cornflower blue skies and whiter-than-the-White-House clouds. Advice to novice Canadian drivers—those beautiful prancing deer travel in packs of five across major highways. Just missed them at twilight, my heart stopped beating for a moment. That’s a collision neither driver or deer survive.
Sometimes just stopping to admire Mt. Baldy or spending an hour with the priceless art at the Getty Art Museum north of Los Angeles helped relieve stress during the Middle School safety filming along. (My living room wall holds the museum’s framed Monet casual flower poster). We hired professional young teen stunt performers in movies and commercials. One’s father performed in the Pirates of the Caribbean.
When the safety film was in the can, we wondered who would be the first to use it. Surprisingly the most conservative folks when it came to “stunts” wanted to test it in Maine. They tried it out in several classrooms. Middle schoolers got it.—”Yes, we do risky things for a living, but we’re trained to be safe. Running in front of trains can get you killed and that’s not a risk we’re willing to take.”
When they saw the response, New England sent their results and endorsed the video, which helped encourage other regions to give it a shot. The Houston Film Festival awarded “Are You in Contro?l” a Bronze Remi in the Safety category at their International Film Festival that year.
In the end, this is a love letter to those who helped make the work successful and my travels epic, and to those who labored to clean the rooms and fed me unexpected treats when I needed them most. And especially to those who trusted me to carry it forward, but particularly those who worked diligently to craft the stories and stay the course to film them in some pretty dicey situations. Some people are alive today because your videos enticed people to watch, giving the safety message time to etch in their brains. Thanks to all of you. To my readers, hang tight, seek out similar adventures safely! Stay tuned for more American Ramblings!