Friday, May 29, 2009

Complaints and questions

We received this letter this morning:
"I'm motivated to write to you because I think less of the Observer-Reporter in its present form. I changed my purchase from daily to Sunday only because I grew tired of seeing President Obama's picture(s) on the front page, with supporting information. A newspaper, in my opinion, is supposed to report factual news, designed to stimulate my thinking. Instead the O-R appears to be very Democratically-biased, so that I believe that your publication is controlled externally somehow and I can't accept that.
"I am also subjected to news of rapes, murders and other stories of criminal nature; I'm tired of it. Thanks for your attention and interest. - G.C.

A: I'd like to answer your letter, but I'll need to get President Obama's permission first. - G.O.E.

Road Trip, Part 9

(A ranch house along Route 40 in eastern Colorado)

The road took us to tiny towns with romantic names in eastern Colorado: Cheyenne Wells, and Kit Carson, along the banks of Big Sandy Creek. But the land is desolate and unpeopled. There is no civilization almost until Denver comes into view.
At the foot of the Rockies, we diverted from our route and headed north toward Loveland, where the Hendricks had recommended a bed and breakfast called Wild Lane. Hmmm. Wild Lane, in Loveland. It sounded… erotic.

Steve Wild inherited the early-1900s house a few years earlier and had turned it into an extraordinary inn crammed full of antiques. Wild’s roots are in Pittsburgh, and he is a graduate of Chartiers Valley High School.

We spent the night in a spacious Victorian bedchamber with a stunning view of the snow-capped mountains. Our host served us crepes Dijon and fresh strawberries in amaretto sauce for breakfast. Wild Lane was the most elegant and expensive of the five B&Bs we stayed in on our trip, but the cost was well worth it.

(Along the Berthoud Pass through the Rockies)

Just beyond Idaho Springs, Route 40 breaks away from I-70 for good and twists its way through the Berthoud Pass at 11,315 feet. There, under the brilliant blue sky along the Continental Divide, open-country skiers trekked on snowshoes across fields of snow as deep as eight feet. It was a thrilling moment, to be thrust back into winter, to watch the wind blow snow into a cloud on a far-off mountaintop. And it was a moment we would not have experienced had we arrived a week earlier, when the pass was still closed.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Road Trip, Part 8

Near Wakeeny, Route 40 is a gravel road that parallels Interstate 70. Heading west, if you take a left and drive straight south for two hours at high speed, you’ll reach Dodge City, the closest place with a familiar name.

As much as we would have liked to pay a visit to Marshall Dillon and Miss Kitty, we were on a mission. At Oakley, Old 40 splits off from the interstate and meanders southwest through an endless expanse of champagne-colored short grasses. We had been told that Kansas was boring, that driving through it would be an agony of tedium, but we found it awesome and beautiful.

From the journal:
People are in short supply in western Kansas. As we traveled along 40, motorists coming in the other direction waved to us. A sign by the side of this empty road read, “Abortion stops a beating heart.” It’s easy to understand that kind of emotion on the high plains, because there are precious few beating hearts in western Kansas. They need all the beating hearts they can to keep them company and tend this land.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Road Trip, Part 7

We arrived at Dave and Mary Hendricks’ farm just before sunset and took one of their two guest rooms. Early the next morning, we awoke to the smell of bacon frying and sat down in the kitchen with the couple for eggs and biscuits. Dave said a grace, with everyone holding hands. “It looks to be just about a perfect day,” he said later. “And it being Sunday makes it all the more so.”

The Hendricks grow wheat on 625 acres and raise draft horses. While our wives did the dishes and talked, Dave and I hauled pails of grain to the barn and walked about.
“Why do you call this place ‘Thistle Hill’?” I asked.
“Well, we’re up on a rise here,” he answered.
“What rise? This land is as flat as a skillet!” I said.
“I guess it’s all a matter of perception.”

We leaned on the fence, watched the horses mosey in their corral. The constant breeze was starting to make my ear ache. Turning 360 degrees, all I could see beyond the house and barn was wheat and sky.
“Doesn’t the loneliness of this place get to you?” I asked Dave.
“You get used to it,” he said. “You learn to appreciate people more when you don’t see them so often. I tell you, what drives people crazy out here isn’t the loneliness. It’s the wind.”

We lingered as long as we could at Thistle Hill, but we had a long drive to Denver ahead of us. You can never forget that chilling feeling of standing beside a gravel road on which the only tire tracks are your own, feeling so separated from mankind, sensing what the Indians and the pioneers must have felt standing on this windswept ground so long ago – that realization of how small and inconsequential Self is to Nature, on the prairie and under the big sky.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Road Trip, Part 6

(The School House B&B in Rocheport, Mo.)

The drive west from Missouri was rough. We fought a gale from the northwest all day, and in eastern Kansas, the rain turned to sleet, and then hail smacked against the windows of our vehicle as we rocked down the highway through an ocean of orange grass.
From the journal:
We stopped for gas and to add a quart of oil, and the force of the wind was almost enough to take the hood off. I had to hold the hood with one hand while I poured the sluggish oil with the other. My fingers became numb in just a few seconds.

Our vehicle was a Mitsubishi Montero, the older, boxy 4-wheel-drive model with the straight-up windshield. Against that wind, I figured we were getting barely more than 10 miles to the gallon.
We drove into Russell, hometown of U.S. Senators Bob Dole and Arlen Specter, late in the afternoon. A squall had passed through before us, leaving on the streets three inches of wet snow that melted quickly in the sunshine just breaking through the clouds in the immense sky. Dole was definitely Russell’s choice to be president of the U.S. at the time, even though it was obvious that this poor town had never received a smidgen of pork from its favorite sons in Washington.
At dusk, we pulled off the highway and traveled gravel roads across the prairie to Thistle Hill, a bed and breakfast sheltered from the wind by an enclosure of cedars, about seven miles from Wakeeny (population 2,300). Our brief experience there would be unforgettable.

(The Dream theater in downtown Russell, Kan.)

Monday, May 25, 2009

Road Trip, Part 5

(Abandoned barn off Rote 40, Clayton, Ind.)

Beyond Indianapolis, Route 40 gets even lonelier: a straight and seldom-used highway interrupted ever 10 miles by a village. There are some gentle hills in eastern Illinois, but the road is as straight as a yardstick.
When they buy cars out here," I told Alice, "steering is just an option."

We reached Vandalia, Ill., which is the western terminus of the National Road, by early afternoon and had lunch at the Old Fashioned Soda Fountain, cater-corner to the Madonna of the Trails monument (left). The statue is identical to the one near Richeyville, and there are 10 others just like it across the country, all installed by the Daughters of the American Revolution to commemorate the pioneer spirit.

From the journal:
Arrived in Rocheport, Mo., at 4:40 p.m. and asked the proprietor of The School House B&B if we could get a room for the night. She said there had just been a cancellation and gave us the Spelling Bee Room, which is delightful, with a four-poster bed and a seven-foot-tall wardrobe. We went for a walk along the KATY Trail, a 190-mile rails-to trails path that took us between the bluffs – white cliffs with caves 40 feet above the ground – and the Missouri River.
There was another note in the journal. Seems we ate at a place in Rocheport call Le Bourgeois Bistro – "Excellent meal, great vegetarian dishes, 3 glasses of wine, bill was only $28," I wrote.
Ah, but that was 1996.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Today's gripe

Call me a stickler, or call me a dinosaur, but I have a respect for the Parts of Speech. I get awfully irritated when I hear the expression, "My bad." I'm sure that if we could alter the vocal chords of chimpanzees to enable them to talk, even they would probably come up with a more comprehensible way to say, "I'm sorry, that's my fault."

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Road Trip, Part 4

(Lantz House proprietor Marcia Hoyt making quiche for breakfast)

From the journal:
After Columbus, the road became straight and flat, and we rolled through the monochrome landscape – made even more colorless by the cloudiness of the sky – almost alone on the highway.

We stopped for lunch in Lafayette at the Red Brick Inn, an historic tavern where the atmosphere is pleasant and the food simple and good.
How far is it from here to the Indiana state line?” I asked our waitress.
“Indiana? I don’t have any idea,” she said. No one ever uses this road to go there. It’s, like, real far. Three or four hours, maybe.
In fact, it took us less than two hours to reach Indiana, and 30 minutes later, we were in Centerville, where we planned to spend the night we had made a reservation at the Historic Lantz House, one of the town’s treasures, now run as a bed and breakfast.

Built in 1835, it was the home and shop of wagon-builder Daniel Lantz. Lantz built the Conestoga wagons that carried pioneers westward. During the Gold Rush, Centerville was awash in travelers. Their tales of riches for the taking finally became to much for Lantz, who at the age of 47 abandoned his business, wife and five children to join the company headed for California.
Poor Dan Lantz never made it. Along the arduous trail, he contracted dysentery and died in southwestern Wyoming, not too far from the Great Salt Lake. The fact that I, then also at the age of 47, had embarked on a foolish journey west to the Great Salt Lake and was sleeping in this man’s house and following in his footsteps sent a shiver up my spine.
But what was I worrying about? If Dan Lantz had a recreational vehicle and 2,000 miles of pavement in front of him, he would have lived to write about his trip, too.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Road Trip, Part 3

(A bad-hair day at the National Road Museum)

We passed the S bridge at the intersection of Routes 221 and 40 at 8:05 a.m. on that damp and chilly morning of March 27. About 20 minutes later, in Triadelphia, W.Va., with Alice behind the wheel, we had our first argument.
“If you don’t chill out and quit stomping on the invisible brake, I’m going to turn this car around and go home!” she said.
I did chill out, sort of. But we never argued again for the next 4,135 miles. After our return, someone asked Alice if we’d taken a gun along, for our protection. Good God, no, she told them; if we’d had a gun in the car, someone would have been shot before we reached Wheeling.

I wrote this in my journal:
Our impressions of the road today – shabbiness and neglect dominate, particularly through West Virginia. “This looks really bad,” I said. ‘It looks like West Chestnut Street (in Washington),” Alice added.

The National Road – Zane Grey Museum in Norwich, Ohio, just east of Zanesville, is a pleasant surprise. In addition to a colorful and thorough history of the road, the museum offers exhibits about the life of Ohio native and American West author Zane Grey and an impressive collection of commercial pottery produced in the area.
The life-size figures in the exhibit are a little scary, though, and if they are really true to history, then the frontier must have experienced a critical shortage of hair stylists.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Road Trip, Part 2

The National Road had its start before the birth of the nation. George Washington was among a company of men who blazed a trail from Cumberland, Md., to the Monongahela River. That route would be followed a half century later when, in 1805, a proposal was put through Congress for “a road from Cumberland… within the state on Maryland, to the river Ohio.” Begun in the presidency of Thomas Jefferson, the highway would become the only one ever built directly by the federal government.

The road reached the Ohio in 1818, but it had not gone nearly far enough to serve the needs of pioneers pushing westward, nor the needs of farmers shipping produce eastward from the newly settled territories. By 1839, the road had reach Vandalia, Ill., where construction halted for good over a route dispute.

From Vandalia westward, the history of Route 40 (not to be confused with Interstate 40, which takes a more southerly course across the country and incorporates much of old Route 66) is not as old but just as rich. From the Mississippi, the road parallels the railroad tracks, which in turn follow the Smokey Hill Trail to Denver, along which Fort Hays, Fort Russell, Fort Wallace and other outposts of the U.S. Army were built in the 1800s.

From Atlantic City, N.J., to Park City, Utah, Route 40 today is a commercial route. It is used by shoppers, by local people, by school buses and farmers. But there are few travelers.
It was a road built and used by people brimming with optimism, and it is a road littered with the debris of their ambitions. This was our first impression as Alice and I set off on this road one dreary March morning in 1996.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Road Trip, Part 1

It seemed like a crazy idea at first: Hop in the car and drive west on Route 40, to the end of the road.

U.S. Route 40. The National Pike. The federal highway begun during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson and over which pioneers plunged into the unexplored wilderness on Conestoga wagons. I had traveled the route eastward toward Cumberland, Md., many times, but the farthest west I had traveled had been just over the state line into West Virginia, 40 years earlier, when as college students we frequented bars like Morgan’s and Gebhardt’s to slake our thirst with 3.2 beer.

“How far does it go?” my wife, Alice, asked.
I thumbed through my road atlas, my finger tracing the thin black line through Wheeling and into eastern Ohio. Across Ohio, the line goes back and forth across the thick artery of Interstate 70 but remains its own road. On through Indiana and Illinois it meanders, cutting through the middle of every single town in its path.
Just before St. Louis, Route 40 merges with I-70, but it does not end there. It shares the pavement with the superhighway through Missouri and eastern Kansas, before splitting off into a two-lane secondary road. In western Kansas, it winds south on its own course, joining the interstate just east of Denver. In the foothills of the Rockies, it abandons I-70 for good and snakes across the Continental Divide through a pass almost 12,000 feet above sea level. From there it slithers across the vast expanses of western Colorado and eastern Utah, through the Uinta Mountains.

“The Great Salt Lake, that’s where it ends,” I replied. “It just sort of hits Interstate 80 and disappears.”

It would be a long trip – about 2,000 miles to Salt Lake City, mostly on two-lane road with who knew how many stoplights, through the heart of America, on a route that once stretched from Atlantic City to San Francisco.
We departed with the hope that in driving down Main Street of countless towns we would traverse not just distance but time, and witness a living history of our nation and its people, but we really had no idea what to expect.
Such is the intriguing nature of the Road Trip.

Friday, May 15, 2009

A new story

Thirteen years ago, my wife, Alice, and I decided to get away from Western Pennsylvania for a while. We liked the idea of a road trip. We got this crazy idea that we'd hop in the car and drive west on Route 40 – the National Road that we traveled almost every day – and follow it west to the end.

So, on a rainy day in March 1996, we left our house, cut over the hills to the S Bridge and turned left on U.S. Route 40. Less than a week later, we were in Park City, Utah, where the road now ends and joins Interstate 80. Along the way, we experienced a part of America beyond our imagination. We stayed in bed-and-breakfasts along the way and met some awfully nice people, and I wrote about the trip in this newspaper's Sunday magazine upon our return.

Just the other day, I checked on the Internet and discovered that all those B&Bs are still in operation and are still run by the same people, so it is still possible to recreate the same experience. So, I'm going to dig out my journal and retell that journey. I am hoping that some of you will e-mail me photos and accounts of your own favorite road trips, just like some of you did for "Forever Cars," and I will insert your chapters between the chapters of my story.

We'll call this one "Road Trip," and it starts Monday.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Comments and complaints

C: Your policy of honoring mothers on Mothers Day is commendable, but why exclusively choose mothers of large families?  Is the value of a mother determined only by the number of children she has produced?  There is a wide variety of mothers raising children. There are widowed mothers and single mothers struggling to raise one or two, there are foster  mothers and adoptive mothers raising children who were not born to them, there are grandmothers raising the children of their ill or absent adult children and there are stepmothers raising "blended" families.  Next year, please consider honoring all mothers in your celebratory addition. Where would families be without them? - M.K.

A: I have to assume that you are a new reader of our newspaper and unfamiliar with the Mothers Day stories we've published over the years. We've written about foster mothers, about foster grandmothers, about mothers of adopted children and children with disabilities, about single mothers, and, most controversial, about moms behind bars – criminal mothers incarcerated on Mothers Day. We've written about mothers from their children's point of view, and from the perspective of their husbands, friends, siblings, parents and themselves. This year, the "hook" for the story was moms with big families.

Next year, our writers will undoubtedly find another hook on which to hang a Mothers Day story. You'd think they'd run out of options, but society keeps coming up with new variations to write about. Who knows? Maybe this same-sex marriage business will open up a whole new box of hooks.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Forever Cars, Part 10

By Caitlyn Burroughs

My first car had been in the family for over half of my life before it became mine – a 1986 silver-blue Honda Accord with standard transmission (similar to the one above). It pops up in my childhood memories here and there – being in the passenger seat, emerging from the Fort Pitt Tunnel with my Mom as she spilled her drink all over the stick shift and was so frustrated that she declared, “This is the WORST day of my LIFE!” I remember not understanding why she was so upset about spilling some Pepsi, but looking back, I am sure there were other factors contributing to her bad day, including having to drag her “sick” kid to work in Pittsburgh with her. I also have a vague memory of standing in the driveway and sticking skinny little twigs in the key holes on the doors of that car, and then breaking them off so that they were flush with the lock – I don't think I even knew why I was doing that as I did it, but I do know that it made my dad madder than all get out.

Once I was older, there were the torturous lessons in learning how to drive a stick. After having taught me enough that I knew what was supposed to happen, my dad left me in the car at the bottom of the driveway (which is on an incline) and said, “Just keep trying, and when I see you at the top, you will know how to drive stick.” He was wrong. When I finally arrived at the top, it was on foot, stomping up and crying… “I CAN’T do it. I’m NEVER going to learn how to drive a stick!” Of course, I did eventually get it, and the car was officially deemed mine at some point when I was in college.

The sad part for me is the ending of my story. For graduation, I was excited to get got a “newer” used car – and picked out a teal 1990 Acura Integra. Despite my attachment to the old Honda, I couldn't help but be smitten by this slightly newer and fancier car, despite the fact that it was an automatic. I don’t think I realized that I would miss the Honda until the day after we traded it in, when I drove by the dealership on the way to work and saw it sitting in the back parking lot, looking betrayed and abandoned. To make matters worse, three months later I decided to move to New York City, which meant I had to sell the Acura. I wasn’t too sad about losing the Acura, although it was a fun car for the short time that I had it, but I sure wished I had just kept my dear Honda for a few more months.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Forever Cars, Part 9

By Brody Burroughs

It’s hard to forget a car that bursts into flames as you’re pumping gas into its tank, and I’ll never forget that faded blue ’74 Saab 99.

It was purchased for $25 when both the car and I were 15. While awaiting resurrection at the local mechanic’s shop, it was struck by my newly licensed buddy, who plowed his parents’ wagon through the mechanic’s lawn and into the lot of cars awaiting repair, totaling a Trans-Am and smashing my taillight.

His insurance company gave me $350 for the damage, and that was enough to get it rewired and road-ready, and for a year we roamed from Prosperity to West Alexander in the bliss of newfound freedom.

Driving it was like driving a car you just found somewhere, abandoned – the thrill of what should not be. It soon developed a heavy smoking habit, and on the way to trade it in the fire happened. I had barely heard my father (the G.O.E.) cuss, let alone scream profanity as an alarm to all. After calmly extinguishing the fire, the attendant loaned us the extinguisher for the day and we went from dealer to dealer, parking around back in case we had to put the fire out again.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Photo gallery

OK, you guys had a lot of fun with the photo of my Polish relatives, so here's another one to talk about. This photo was taken by my father with a Polaroid camera at a party in our basement in October 1961. The 12-year-old girls here are trying to avoid being photographed. Aside from how different their attire is from what pre-teens wear today, what I like about this shot is the kitsch in the background - how 1950s! And how about the returnable glass Coke bottle. (This one did not make it into the book.)

Friday, May 8, 2009

Whine, whine, whine

C: During wrestling season, we would like to see more articles about wrestlers/wrestling. It seems as though this sport no longer receives the coverage it once did. - T.F.

A: There was a time – 35 years ago – when wrestling was THE sport in Washington and Greene counties. Thousands packed gyms and spilled into the halls and outdoors for big matches.Today, some of those schools have trouble finding wrestlers for half the weight classes, and other schools have dropped the sport altogether. There have been dual meets at which only a couple of dozen spectators have shown up to watch match after match be forfeited for lack of an opponent. Naturally, the newspaper coverage of this sport has followed this trend.

Today, there is much more competition for readers' and spectators' attention. Scholastic girls sports, particularly basketball, soccer, volleyball and softball, have attracted attention they never had 20 or 30 years ago. Football has emerged as the No. 1 high school sport in Southwestern Pennsylvania, and newer team sports like lacrosse and hockey have elbowed their way into scholastic athletics.

Nevertheless, wrestling still receives (my own opinion here) a disproportionate share of space in our sports section. I challenge you to find another daily newspaper in this state that devotes more space to wrestling than the Observer-Reporter, or that can boast of a more experienced and respected wrestling writer than Joe Tuscano. And don't forget, Mat Matters, Joe's Internet blog, covers a great deal more about the sport here than could ever be squeezed into the newspaper.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Shameless, shameless!

More shameless self-promotion from the Grumpy Old Editor...
The above photo is of some of my relatives in Poland, taken sometime in the 1950s. It's one of 68 photos included in my book, "Enter, With Torches."

If you didn't already buy the book online, you can still do so (click on the ad at right). Or, if you live around here, you can buy it at these locations:
- Border's Book Store, Bethel Park
- W&J College Book Store
- Bounce Back Books, S. Main St., Washington
- The Book Exchange, E. Maiden St., Washington
- World West Galleries, N. Main Street, Washington
- Sri Yantra Yoga Center, Houston
- Observer-Reporter offices in Washington and Waynesburg
- The Almanac, Valley Brook Road, McMurray

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Today's gripe

OK, this is really picky, but have you noticed lately that television broadcasters seem to be having more and more trouble synchronizing the audio and visual components of their programs?
I just can't stand to see someone's lips moving a half-second behind or ahead of the words they are speaking. It's like watching a poorly dubbed foreign movie. It's confusing and distracting. So, fix it, already.

We get mail

The snail mail we receive here at the newspaper has diminished in recent years, but we still get plenty of it. Much of it is costly promotional material that goes straight into the "circular file," as we call the waste can. For instance: This morning I received a brochure from the National Watermelon Promotion Board. This organization's slogan is, "Make every day a picnic with watermelon."

As I read this aloud with a chuckle, one office wag suggested that a watermelon a day will keep the doctor away, or at the very least, dehydration.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Forever Cars, Part 8

By Nancy Bennett

The first car I bought myself was an Austin-America. It looked just like
the picture above, except it was blue. The only problem I had with
it was the hydraulic suspension. Every so often I would lose it on one
side of the car, which made it look lopsided. I took it to British
Motors in San Diego (run by an Englishman), and after my third trip in for the same problem, I asked him why this kept happening. He said,
“Remember when the colonists dumped the tea in the Boston Harbor? Well, this is the way we are getting even.”

When I got married, my husband wanted to get rid of it right away. He called it a death trap. I thought it was cute and fun to drive. Needless to say, we traded it in for a “safer” car.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Forever Cars, Part 7

Well, it looks as if no one else out there has a good car story, so I’ll just add one more anecdote and leave the door open in case anyone else wants to walk in with a car story sometime in the future.

Around 1977, we couldn’t manage anymore with just one vehicle, so I bought another. I didn’t have much money to spend and ended up with a 1969 GMC pickup truck (similar to the one in this photo). Its color was a sort of rust brown, which was great, because that made it difficult to see the real rust. It was as basic as a truck comes: V6, standard transmission (“three on the tree”) and no power steering.

One day, I was in West Alexander and needed to get to our newspaper’s office in Waynesburg. Rather than take the interstates, I decided to find a shortcut on the back roads through “the Finleys,” as the sparsely populated townships of East Finley and West Finley are called locally. Little did I know how steep and twisting those back roads could be. Driving across the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan would have been easier.

That night, my right arm began to ache and swell. By the time I climbed into bed, the pain was excruciating, and I had to sleep with it propped up on pillows. The next morning, I looked like Popeye the Sailor Man. I was sure it was broken.
My doctor and an intern following him around examined me. The intern said it must be broken. My doctor disagreed. “Tendonitis,” he proclaimed, preparing plaster for a cast. “What the hell were you doing?” he asked me.
“I was in a fight,” I said, “with my truck.”