Near Windigo Ranger Station, Isle Royale National Park

Near Windigo Ranger Station, Isle Royale National Park

Welcome to a potpourri of book reviews, dreams, photography, poems, ruminations, and stories. Scroll down, explore, ponder, and share if you like.

Cuyahoga Valley National Park, or the eastern adventure begins

For this spring trip, the plan was to stop briefly at Cuyahoga Valley National Park, then head to western New York and the Pennsylvania Wilds.

May 19: After taking Petunia to the Hyde Park Animal Hospital and chowing down on burgers and fries at Five Guys, we made it to South Bend, Indiana, before calling it a day. When I was a child, I was drawn to the Fighting Irish brand (without knowing that’s what it was), but the luster had worn off by my late adolescence. I didn’t see much of South Bend, just a bit around the airport and can’t tell you if it’s a quaint college town or a modern, efficient one that looks like a 1950s architecture nightmare.

May 20: J. was sorely tempted by some roadside attractions, including a Studebaker museum, but it’s my unhappy job to keep us focused. Somehow — probably while in search of a coffee shop — we were pulled over the state line into Sturgis, Michigan, by the Great Lakes Chocolate and Coffee Co. Outside Great Lakes, we found patriotically decorated bicycles serving as ads, although they were locked up like any other bike. While in Sturgis J. also spotted a Harley-Davidson dealership, which features its canine greeter on some of its wares, so we had to stop there too.

The rest of the day was a blur of travel plazas and flatlands as we made our way across Ohio until we arrived in the Cleveland area, where we detoured off the interstate. A turkey crossed the road in front of us as we were getting close to Shady Oaks Farm Bed & Breakfast. Once upon a time, it was a rare thing to spot a turkey, at least in Pennsylvania. Now I’ve seen them on roads in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.

After checking in at Shady Oaks; helping ourselves to pita, hummus, and lemonade; and getting restaurant recommendations, we backtracked a bit to Brandywine Falls at Cuyahoga Valley National Park, which is the newest (2000) and third most visited national park in the system. The sky was overcast with a threat of rain, and the lighting was poor, but we got our first peek at this beautiful and surprisingly colorful waterfall. It’s hard for me to imagine that this lovely spot once belonged to a private individual, who ran a mill by the waterfall. Now millions get to enjoy it every year.

Our dinner stop was in Peninsula, Ohio, at the Winking Lizard, a local tavern chain with locations clustered around Columbus and northeastern Ohio — a comfortable and delicious way to end a great day of travel and anticipate the next.

May 21: Knowing that our first destination, Hamburg, New York, was only three hours away, we dawdled at Shady Oaks, where we savored a fireside breakfast and some quality time trying to get the attention of the resident horses and pony. Finally, after 11 a.m., we returned to Brandywine Falls, which had become more popular during the daylight hours. There was even a group of park-rangers-in-training, led by a sharp-voiced instructor who made it clear après-lunch tardiness would not be tolerated. Instead of peeking through dense foliage to see bits of the falls, we went down the steps to the viewing platform to take in the whole view, colorful minerals and all.

Our next planned stop was Blue Hen Falls, but first we detoured to the Conference Center area with what is called the Stone Cottage and then to the Boston Store Visitor Center. Although it’s not as obvious from the outside as from the inside, the Boston Store, built around 1836 as a warehouse (“store” as in storage) and boarding house, is a trapezoidal building that follows the lines of the neighboring Ohio & Erie Canal.

Further along we found Blue Hen Falls, a mystical little waterfall in the woods where, with more time and energy, I would have liked to to have found the way down and soaked my feet and soul in its watery goodness. Apparently, despite the “End of Trail” sign, there’s a longer, more primitive trail to Buttermilk Falls that involves some creek crossings. As we say in Chicago, maybe next time — if there is one.

J. sought out Hale Farm, which was closed, but we soon found ourselves at Everett Covered Bridget, built most likely in the 1860s and reconstructed in 1986 by the National Park Service after a 1975 flood lifted it from its sandstone abutments.

Our last Cuyahoga Valley NP stop was the Beaver Marsh boardwalk viewing platform, which had attracted a horde of student observers who would have scared off any wildlife for miles. By now it was overcast, which had drawn out some interesting water lilies.

Back on the interstate, we stopped at Pub Frato in Concord, Ohio, and at Starbucks in Erie, Pennsylvania. We detoured to drive down part of the long peninsula that makes up Presque Isle State Park, where the sun was setting and the wind was howling.

At last we crossed the line into New York, where there are few exits and fewer rest stops, but giant signs proclaim, “Niagara Falls!” as though the region’s big wonder is only a few miles away.

After we exited the interstate, or the New York Thruway, even in the dark I felt at home with the older houses separated by woods and big front yards guarded by trees that have been there since before I was born. It’s different from most of Illinois in a way I can’t describe.

Finally, after passing it two or three times in the dark, I got out of the car to track down Sharon’s Lakehouse, which really is directly across from the Lake Shore branch of the Erie County library system. I also remembered why walk along Rte. 5 in Hamburg is dangerous, especially in the dark. No one hit me, I survived, and, for the first time since 1987, I had returned to Hamburg with a little time to explore my hometown.

Book review: The Return of Martin Guerre

The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1983. 176 pages.

In today’s science-based world, where simple DNA tests can help free the innocent on Death Row, the story of Martin Guerre might have ended before it began. Inheritance and money were involved, and then as today we take both very seriously. The risk of exposure is greater now, but at least your life doesn’t depend on guarding against it.

In Davis’s own words, the book is an attempt to go beyond the film, “to dig deeper into the case, to make historical sense of it.” In fewer than 200 pages, Davis takes the reader along an exploratory journey into the past that includes a surprising wealth of lessons about geography, local economies and law, culture, beliefs, and customs and practices. She mixes facts such as what is known about Martin Guerre, his wife, and her family, with the conjecture necessary to build a plausible story.

Why did each player act as he or she did and how? What did each hope to gain (or not lose) and how? How did each manipulate public beliefs and opinions? Davis runs through various scenarios, focusing on the village but also referring to broader, changing political and religious issues where they can help answer the larger questions, for example, about Catholic law on marriage and what it meant at the village level, or how the new Protestantism may have been spreading in Artigat and affected the people and the case.

Although the motivations of the actors can’t be known, for the most part Davis’s conjectures seem plausible against the sketchy context she is able to provide. Like Davis, we can only guess at the emotions that must have wrenched the family members when Martin Guerre left and when he returned (and returned again) — the anger, fear, perplexity, concern, and acrimony that can accompany any unplanned or unwelcome change in a life course that has been accepted, especially when that change affects future status, comfort, and security. The older Martin Guerre’s refusal to lead a “life of quiet desperation” upsets the equilibrium the village and the families have achieved and thwarts his own objectives.

In a conclusion that’s as interesting than Martin Guerre’s case, Davis covers the relevant history of Jean de Coras, an officer of the law who found himself compelled to tell the story from a legal perspective, but can’t quite put his finger on the kind of story it is. Davis’s tale of his origins, life, career and writings (including Arrest Memorable), and own demise nearly overshadows that of Martin Guerre. For Coras, “the outcome was wretched . . . at least it makes it hard to tell the difference between tragedy and comedy.” His end, no less tragic than that of the man on trial, combined with his ambivalence toward the case and his selective account of it, made me wish I’d spent less time on Guerre and more on Coras and his rationalizations and changing sympathies.

The Return of Martin Guerre is a great way for a non-historian to learn about a time that we’d like to think was simpler, but in which a seemingly straightforward case could raise religious, judicial, and even philosophical questions around one village, one family, and one man — and whether he was, and was believed to be, Martin Guerre.

Book review: A War Like No Other

A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War. New York: Random House. 2006. 416 pages.

In my 50+ years on Earth, I’ve lived through the middle and end of the Cold War, nuclear proliferation, and wars waged from the depths of tropical forests and the expanse of deserts using everything from automatic weapons to automated drones. While the war veterans of 1782 and 1865 wouldn’t recognize much of today’s weaponry or some of the new tactics, “War is hell,” as it has always been.

In A War Like No Other, Victor Davis Hanson outlines the cause, means, and results of the Peloponnesian War and how the strategies, tactics, and technologies evolved as the war dragged on, changing how the Greek world approached fighting and the military even as classical Greece tore itself apart. Hanson organizes his history by the war’s essential elements, such as fear, fire, disease, terror, armor, walls, horses, and ships.

This may sound discombobulating if, like me, you’re not familiar with the classical Greek era. By taking this approach, Hanson brings into relief the critical points and factors in the war’s agonizing progress and evolution, for example, the insufficiency of ravaging, the growing reliance on lightly armed troops, the need for horse troop support, the increasing desperation on both sides of sieges, and the inclination of democracy to make awful decisions and punish the leadership that carries out those decisions.

While aw is a survey, rich details draw the reader into the horrors of the war and its political background — the confusion and noise of the hoplite battle at Delium, where in the chaos Athenians kill Athenians, and the desperation at Syracuse, where men stranded on Sicily hundreds of miles from home are hunted down and slaughtered even as they drink the water of bloodied rivers. Later in the war, sailors are “speared like fish” as their triremes are destroyed.

At the beginning of the war, the expectation is that some land, mainly in Attica, will be ravaged; some cities may be besieged; some triremes may be sunk; and some hoplites will be killed honorably in a few decisive battles. As the war drags on, the rules are ignored, then forgotten. The war, which could have been a series of decisive battle and events, becomes a chronic, progressive disease with no cure but the destruction of one host or the other. Even when it’s in remission, such as during the Peace of Nicias, it’s festering within the Greek body.

By the time Athens is finally defeated, left to watch its vaunted Long Walls torn down, thousands of Athenians, Spartans, allies, and bystanders have died, hundreds of triremes have been rammed and sunk, and the Athenian treasury has been depleted, yet no clear victor has emerged. Athens and her aspirations have been reined in, but Sparta is weaker, while its enemies are not. In the meantime, war, once waged ostensibly according to conventions and rules (even if often broken) has turned into a nursery for ideas and technologies aimed at killing the most people most efficiently.

Why should you care about a war fought thousands of years ago over fear of an empire that faded soon after? Throughout Hanson refers to many wars that have happened since — Ottoman, the American Civil War, the first and second world wars, Vietnam, and Iraq. In some ways the Peloponnesian War set a precedent for why and how modern conflicts are fought, who participates, and how conflicts are marketed and perceived during their up- and downswings.

As Hanson recounts critical miscalculations made by the leaders, peoples, and combatants on both sides, it’s hard to forget that future historians and peoples will look back and marvel at our own errors and blunders and wonder how we could be so oblivious to so much that is obvious. After all the years, money, and lives lost, perhaps the Peloponnesian War’s clearest legacy was helping to make future conflicts easier to sell to people who want to be winners and ever more coldly and efficiently deadly — at which point, no one wins.

Perking up old-school style with the coffee percolator

I can’t count the times Garrison Keillor has worked the Lutheran compulsion to ply guests with coffee into A Prairie Home Companion. My parents weren’t Lutheran, but the moment they saw a car that looked like it might pull up in front of or next to the trailer, out came the coffee and any cookies that had escaped my foraging on the sly. It was an invariable ritual, almost as certain as death or taxes.

The first coffeepot I remember was a percolator. Although I haven’t seen one since those times, I remember that coffee percolating was a rich sensory experience — the aroma of the coffee as it percolated, the sight of the liquid shooting up against the inside of the clear lid handle, and the bubbly sound that inspired an unforgettable series of percussive notes that still evokes vintage Maxwell House coffee advertising.

I recall the parts as well — the pot, the basket, the lid, and the hollow stem through the basket, as well as the filters with the hole for the stem. For my parents, the brew of choice was Eight O’Clock coffee, bought at Loblaw’s and ground (coarse) on the spot in the store’s big grinder.

Percolators fell out of fashion in the 1970s when drip coffeemakers became popular thanks to Joe DiMaggio in ubiquitous Mr. Coffee commercials. My parents (most likely my dad, as he did the shopping) succumbed to the hype and bought a drip coffeemaker, which then took over a spot on the counter.

The once-simple world of American coffee has evolved into one my parents wouldn’t recognize — the latte grande, the espresso machines, the syrups and shots, the French presses, the “pound” of coffee sold in 11-ounce cans, the Keurig cups, and fussiness of it all. If you camp like a cowboy on a cattle drive (like Keillor’s Dusty and Lefty), you may still use a percolator because all you need is a fire to get a pot going (although these days Dusty and Lefty mostly find themselves in new-fangled cafés, complete with very noisy espresso machines).

Electric and stove top percolators are still sold. The most frequent comments on Amazon seem to be, “I would get one if I knew how to use it” and “Are there instructions?” Maybe it’s a sign of how in the 21st century we’ve become so used to our electronics doing the work and keeping the time that operating a simple coffee percolator seems not only different, but daunting.

Relics: Dictators among us

At a time when the cell phone had become popular but not ubiquitous and the smart phone was still a toy for the affluent, one day I heard someone on the street ask me a question. While thinking, “Are you talking to me?” I asked, “Pardon me?” because I hadn’t caught what she’d said. The young woman sharply shot back, “Not you!” while pointing to her phone. Apparently, I’d intruded into her world.

Even before the mobile phone, some people talked aloud while walking alone. These weren’t young folks planning hookups, or mothers tracking down wayward offspring, or couples checking in with each other. These were Very Important People with Very Important Thoughts whose Very Important Time couldn’t be wasted during their commutes. They were using Dictaphones or similar devices to record letters, memos, minutes, notes, and anything else they needed to get out of their heads and into the record. At the office, a secretary might don a headset and type the recorded words. As Dave Barry might say, there are two kinds of people: Those who dictate, and those who take/transcribe dictation. You want to be the kind who dictates.

Dictation devices weren’t new in the 1980s and 90s — they have a long history beginning in the 19th century, and they evolved throughout the 20th. According to this article, a Dictaphone plays an important role as Fred MacMurray’s inanimate confidante and eavesdropper in the 1944 film classic Double Indemnity. While Walter Neff’s thoughts were strictly private, public Dictaphone use bloomed among yuppies in 1980s and 90s Chicago, or maybe that’s when I noticed it.

Today using a Dictaphone on the street might be as jarring and quaint as getting out a Sony Walkman, although if you prefer an old school approach with new technology, you can still buy a handheld dictation device. You don’t need dedicated hardware to dictate or a secretary or administrative assistant to transcribe your thoughts, however. Just fire up an app such as Dictaphone or Dragon Dictation or the functionality built into apps such as Evernote. You can talk to your device anywhere, anytime, and it will do the hard work of deciphering what you’re trying to say. (It’s still up to you to proofread.)

If, however, you’re plotting a murder like Walter Neff, you’ll want to put both the dictation device and the phone down. Even better, set aside the dame. She ain’t worth it, kid.

Graue Mill and Museum on Salt Creek, Oak Brook, Illinois

J. wanted to take his camera and lenses to a store in La Grange to be sent out for cleaning and let me tag along to take advantage of the sunny if nippy, windy day (March 21).

After leaving the camera shop around 4 p.m., we headed west to Graue Mill and Museum on Salt Creek in Oak Brook, which I’d discovered online when looking for nearby forest preserves or walking trails. Opened in 1852, Graue Mill served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Although the mill and museum weren’t open yet (the building opens for the season in mid-April), we could still photograph the mill exterior, its wooden wheel, and Salt Creek, which has wide trails along its banks — something to check out in warmer weather. Near the mill, at the point where Salt Creek narrows before passing under York Road, a wide swathe of water rushes over a dam that’s as attractive as a dam can be. Here in Illinois, you take waterfalls in any form you can find. The trails near Graue Mill appears to be popular with families.

On the way back down York Road, I noticed ostentatious houses, both finished and under construction. I saw them only in passing, but they looked like something developed at Disney — a cartoonish 21st century contortion of poorly conceived fictional, flat medieval architecture. A man’s home is his castle indeed. I’d rather spend the money on less house and more land. And an architect.

Our next stop was at the Drake in Oak Brook, where the door was locked but opened for us by a woman with a mobile phone glued to her ear. From the bathroom, I heard J. talking to a man in the strangely quiet hallway off the strangely unpopulated lobby. It turns out that the Drake had undergone remodeling and wasn’t open to the public (including us) yet. That explained the mysterious and eerie dearth of people.

Finally, we returned to the city and Julius Meinl, where my gulaschsuppe was followed by gulasch, because I was in that kind of hearty mood. Bon appetit.