Traveling, Cooking, Reading, and Trains

January 18, 2020

My Uncle Jake passed away in December 2019. When we visited him in November his doctor told us he was suffering from “too many birthdays”. I loved how the doctor put it. He was 91. He was my mom’s brother, the youngest of five siblings, the only boy, and my last connection to my mom’s family. You are supposed to have favorites, but he was my favorite since I was 5 years old.

My wife, youngest sister, and I went to Cottonwood, Arizona to pay our respects at his memorial service. In the weeks leading up to the service my sisters and I went through pictures to find some nice ones of Uncle Jake. My older sister, Laura, recently digitized my mom’s huge family photo album so she got us off to a good start. I used Lightroom to touch up a few of them and then printed them to display at the service. The church administrative assistant worked with me to to get the pictures displayed. When we showed up Saturday morning she had white boards and stands for us to post the pictures on.

PIctures of Jake at his memorial service

The memorial service was quite simply the nicest I had ever attended. Years ago when Jake lived in Winslow he conducted a series he called “Sermon in Song” He’d sing a hymn in his beautiful tenor and then talked about the biblical foundations of that hymn. In a typical sermon he would cover a few songs. Pastor Jonathan in Cottonwood got wind of that and a few years ago asked Jake to reprise that when Jonathan had to be out of town. As part of that, the pastor videotaped an interview with Jake about the process. He played parts of that interview during the service. We also heard recordings of Jake singing two of his favorite hymns during the service.

Speaking and singing in your own memorial service: you can’t do better than that.

Everyone who spoke at the service repeated the refrain: he was the kindest and gentlest person any of them had ever known. An older man stood up to say that Mr. Baker was his favorite teacher ever. Max stood up to testify that Jake was the best boss ever. Members of the Verde Valley Voices recounted how he co-founded the group and was a joy to sing and be with.

I was one of the last to speak. Knowing the inevitable was going to happen, I had a few months to gather my thoughts about Uncle Jake and ended up with a long text which I was planning to read from. At the beginning of the sharing, Pastor Jonathan reminded us that we didn’t need a second sermon. Uh oh. Suffice it to say that I cut down my planed talk dramatically. Instead of the opening humorous line I replaced it with something along the lines of “Pastor Jonathan said we didn’t need a second sermon; although my last name may be Thompson, I am a true Baker at heart and like a Baker have a lot to say.” Here is the written version of my speech

I’m not sure how many times I’m going to cry today, but if the over/under gambling line is 2½, take the over.

My name is Howard Thompson and Jake Baker was my mom’s brother. I think today most everyone knows him as Jacob; but to me he will always be Uncle Jake.

I have a confession to make. Like your kids, you aren’t supposed to have a favorite uncle or aunt. But of my mom’s 4 siblings, Jake was my favorite. My aunts were all great but my Uncle Jake was my hero. 

He stayed in Winslow near my grandparents and was a big help to them as they aged. Jacob was a school teacher at Jefferson Elementary School in Winslow and then became principal of the same school. This was the same school he attended as a child. He admitted it was a bit awkward at times supervising some of the same teachers who taught him when he was a child. Years later he got a job as assistant superintendent in the Cottonwood and Sedona area.

Each summer we would travel over Route 66 from Southern California to visit my grandparents, aunts and uncle. The stories I could tell of those summer trips across the desert: 3 AM starts; chicken pox; me and my 2 sisters and a collie in the back of a VW bug; our car overheating in the desert. But those are stories for another time.

During our visits Uncle Jake would take me for a walk down to the drug store after he got off work to get a soda at the drug store counter. This was the real deal: the little metal frame with a small conical paper cup – like you see for snow cones today – hand mixed Coca Cola syrup and soda water. Spending time alone with him was Heaven for a little boy.

One summer visit I was lusting for a toy rifle I saw at the Western Auto. I was doing what I could to earn a little bit of money here and there but I just wasn’t going to get close. One evening Uncle Jake just went and bought it and gave it to me. I was over the moon.

It wasn’t just the stuff he bought me that made me close to him, it was his gentle spirit. His generosity extended to his treatment of people.

Like so many families of the Great Depression (though what was so great about it, I don’t know) they had a tough life. Before Jake was born, both my grandparents suffered from tuberculosis requiring them to move from rural Illinois to the southwest. Reading some letters written by my Aunt June – his second oldest sister – I came to appreciate just how hard their lives were. Despite the hardships: three brothers dying of disease in Illinois, living over a thousand miles from family in an age where technology couldn’t shorten the distance; and with his dad traveling on the Navajo reservation for weeks at a time, Jake’s gentle spirit shone through. 

Being the youngest, and being blessed with a long life, Jake was eventually thrust into the role of caretaker for his sisters. A job he took on with love. Well into his 80s Uncle Jake would travel over to Sedona two or three times a week  to check in and help his oldest and only living sister. My Aunt Sally is right, Jake is the kindest person we’ve ever known.

As you no doubt know, Jake has always been a singer – in Winslow he sang in a number of groups including a barber shop quartet. You may not be aware of this, but Jake was a professional singer from the age of three: he’d ride his tricycle down the block singing and would be rewarded with pennies and nickels. You can see him on that trike on the picture board set up for the reception.

There weren’t as many singing opportunities when he and my Aunt Sally moved up to the Verde Valley. In true Baker fashion, he co-founded a singing group – The Verde Valley Voices. It has been active for many  years and grew in size up to 120 people. 

We live in Portland, Oregon today, so It’s a rare treat when our visits coincide with one of his singing engagements. We got lucky two summers ago as the Voices were singing in the Verde Valley Days festival. Although Jake was starting to slow down and had to sit instead of stand, he was a trooper and stayed in the group. My wife, Carla, her sister, and I were in the audience and it was wonderful to see and hear him sing. 

On another trip, my son and his wife – a soprano in the Chicago Symphony Chorus – joined us for a visit. One of the truly memorable moments of my life was sitting around the home piano listening to them sing. I can’t imagine the singing in heaven is any better.

I’m so grateful for my Aunt Sally, who is a fantastic story teller and has always helped keep Jake’s life fresh in my mind and heart. On every visit we’d hear another tale of the ways he touched the hearts of his students. His past students and fellow teachers would invariably stop by his house to say hello when in town. But I’m preaching to the choir, you all know what a wonderful person my Uncle Jake was. 

Over the past few decades I have made a point of talking on the phone with him a couple of times a month. Once we retired we tried to get down to visit him and Sally once a year. He told me he thought of me as his son. There isn’t higher praise than that. With my parents gone, I looked to him like my father.

Uncle Jake was the last surviving member of his siblings.  When I talked with his doctor in November, he told me that Jake was suffering from too many birthdays: 91 of them. What a great way to put it. Personally, I”m glad he had so many birthdays and I’m thankful that I was able to share so many years with him. I miss him as the last connection to my mom’s family but mostly I miss his warm spirit.

Here are me, Diana, Sally (Jake’s Wife), and Carla at the fellowship time after the service.

Howard, Diana, Sally, Carla

Here are just a few of the pictures we used at the service. If you’d like to see all 33, you can look at my Lightroom album here.

Here is Jake with my dad, grandpa, and older sister Laura in about 1950. A couple of years before I was born.

Jake, Jim, HH Baker, Laura

Here is a picture of all 5 siblings who survived childhood. Probably taken sometime in the 1980s I’d guess. My mom is in the red skirt immediately on Jake’s right.

Barbara, June, Lucinda, Lois, Jake

A beautiful portrait; probably my favorite picture of the group.

Uncle Jake

Ten or so years ago, I bought Uncle Jake an iPad so we could share family pictures and FaceTime with him. Here I’m showing him how to use it.

Unfortunately I don’t have a picture of my younger sister, Diana, with Jake.

I miss Uncle Jake terribly but feel content that he received the best send off possible.

Date: January 14, 2020

This was my third practice work with my Sony A6600 camera. I’d done outside foliage, and trains, today it was cooking. I tried a recipe I had done before but that only rated three stars. My notes had some ideas about what could be done to get another star.

Let’s get started! Line up the ingredients

Italian Meat Sauce Ingredients

Prep the ingredients for cooking. In addition to the ingredients below I had 1¼ pound each of spicy and sweet Italian sausage links. Last time I used bulk and thought the links might be less fatty. Not so much, it’s really the same stuff, just pushed into link casings. And it was time consuming taking the sausages out of their casings.

Italian Meat Sauce Mis En Place

Naturally, we start by sautéing the mirepoix (carrots, celery, onion) then toss in the aromatics (garlic, red pepper flakes, dried Italian seasonng, and salt)

When that is done, add the sausage and cook until no longer pink. When I made it before it was much to greasy, so I drained some grease before adding the tomato sauce and chicken stock. I got a nice little bit.

Layer of fat taken off after sautéing the meat.

Then add, the crushed tomatoes and chicken stock.

Italian Meat Sauce ready for pressure cooking

Pressure cook for 20 minutes with a 20 minute release. Meanwhile, start simmering some water for the pasta and enjoy a glass of Pinot Noir

A glass of wine while cooking

When the cooking was finished I still had too much fat so I spooned some a lot out. Not the most pleasing picture – but it’s important to see what the process is.

Excess fat from the Italian Meat Sauce

Last time I didn’t get nearly enough of the excess fat off so this was a nice start.

Drain the pasta – I used Penne – and toss one cup of the sauce with the noodles.

Cooked pasta with a bit of sauce.

Dinner is served: portion into pasta bowls and ladle some more sauce on top. Sprinkle some parmesan reggiano on top and dig in.

Dinner is served: Italian Meat Sauce

Sad to say, but even with taking off more of the excess fat, this dish doesn’t climb up to four stars. I found it too watery. That was a problem I didn’t think I’d have when I mixed everything together for pressure cooking. The vegetables and meat really release a lot of liquid. And it was still too fatty.

Carla and I talked and agreed that a search for the killer Italian meat sauce recipe would be fun.

A note on the pictures. I didn’t set up multiple flashes shooting through translucent umbrellas like I sometimes do. I simply used one on-camera flash. I’m reasonably pleased with the photos considering the set up and continue to be happy with the Sony A6600 paired with the 18-135mm lens.

Date: January 14, 2020

Last January I took part in the Matt Kloskowski “Fresh Start” training/program. I found it fun and engaging. I learned some new things that I’ve carried forward since then. You can read my posts for the four weeks here.

Matt is running the program again this year and I signed up again. Week One’s assignment was to get in the habit of publishing your work – review and post my favorite pictures of the last year . While I feel I do okay with that via my blog, I think it is helpful to keep track of my successes so I can build on them.

If you look at the sections on the top of my web site you’ll see a section called “Photo Gallery (…)”. I had the intention to update this at least annually, but you can see by the title of the section I haven’t changed it in four, going on five, years. I’m going to work on that in the coming month, so keep a look out.

Rather that replicating them in this post, I’ve created a Flickr album of my favorite 20 pictures from 2019 you can find here.

Here is my absolute favorite of the year – taken near Lake Quinault in the Olympic Rain Forest

Kestner Homestead, Lake Quinault

Some will find their way to my new all time top 20 favorites. Stay tuned to see what makes it and what doesn’t.

Now I’m looking forward to Week 2 which starts tomorrow (Monday January 13, 2020)

This all comes under my goal for the year to work on my photography.

Picture Date: January 4, 2020

Friday I took some pictures around my front and back yards with my new Sony A6600 with an 18-135mm lens. On Saturday it was time to see how it works with trains!

My favorite local location for train pictures is was near the entrance to the Ridgefield Wildlife Refuge. There was a lovely little spot to park and get pictures of northbound and southbound trains on the BNSF line between Seattle and Portland. I could be safe far back from the track and the sightlines were great; there was even a signal in view making it easier to determine where the next train might be coming from. I’ve posted about my visits here numerous times.

Last year they replaced the single lane wooden bridge over Lake River (yes, that’s the name) with a new two lane structure that goes over the tracks as well as the river. The new bridge is complete but they are still removing the old one. The access is closed during the week for that work. Being a Saturday and having a new camera , I thought it would be a good time to see if I could still get in to take some train pictures. Dang; there is a little turn off to that area but it is now protected by a locked gate. I had to find a new place to grab my pictures.

So I headed into the town of Ridgefield and looked for places where a road might cross the tracks. I found a spot on Railroad Avenue that provided some access. It wasn’t long before I was rewarded with a train horn. I had a memory position in my camera set up for action photos. Unfortunately the train was coming from the south and I had to shoot practically right into the low winter sun.

BNSF coal train rolling through Ridgefield, WA

What a difference the light makes! As the train passed I turned to face north with the sun behind me. I got a dramatically better picture. Light is everything.

Nice light on the back end of BNSF coal train rolling through Ridgefield, WA.

Less than 10 minutes later a UP container train was headed north.

UP on BNSF trackage in Ridgefield, WA

I’m delighted with the performance of the camera. While it isn’t as capable as my Sony A7R3 with the 24-105 lens, the new camera is so light and the motion tracking may even better than its big brother. Less weight is good when packing for a trip and for hiking or walking around a city all day. And the images are definitely good enough for my use.

There is a nice pedestrian bridge over the tracks at the Carty unit of the sanctuary, but it is protected by a chain link fence limiting train pictures. A train passed just after I parked but I got to the bridge as the train was pulling away. I tried to shoot through one of the gaps but you can see a blurry white artifact to the right of the last car.

View from the pedestrian bridge of the Ridgefield Wildlife Sancuary Carty Unit.

Train traffic had slowed or stopped so I headed down to the depot in downtown Vancouver, Washington. There was no action on the main north/south line over the bridge but there were a couple of freights pulling out of the yard and headed east out the Columbia Gorge. I grabbed a couple of frames. These yard locomotives look freshly painted for 2020.

Vancouver, WA train yard
Vancouver, WA train yard

All in all an okay day despite the disappointment of my favorite spot not being available anymore. But hey, any day with trains is a good day!

You can also check out my A6600 album on Flickr.

Picture Date: January 3, 2020

I had a chance to try out the new Sony A6600 camera fitted with the kit
18-135mm lens. I was waiting around for the cable guy who never showed up so I had to confine my first set of pictures to around the yard. You can also check out my photos on Flickr.

First the obligatory photo of our wood duck box in the green space behind our house.

Wood Duck Box. f/5.6; 135mm; 1/250; ISO 800

Then I went out to the front yard to catch some hints of a far off spring. A rose bud that the deer haven’t found yet.

Rose Bud
f/5.6; 135mm; 1/250; ISO 1250

Our trees know the days are getting longer. It’s a long time until they will leaf out, but they are getting ready.

Buds! f/5.6; 78mm; 1/125; ISO 200
f/5.6; 135mm; 1/500; ISO 100
f/5.6; 79mm; 1/125; ISO 160

And some winter berries for a bit of color.

Winter berries. f/5.6; 135mm; 1/250; ISO 1000

I’m happy with the results. And the camera/lens combination is much lighter than my Sony A7RM3 with the 24,105mm lens. Maybe it will work for travel. I’ve got more pictures to take: landscapes and trains. Fingers crossed

Post Date: December 30, 2020

(Dare I say “Resolutions”?)

I can tell I come from the corporate world when thinking about these: first I thought where I wanted to be at the end of 2020; thenI organized those ideas in categories; then developed strategies for each category;  finally, I developed (kinda) measurable and achievable objectives to achieve those goals. 

Then I remembered I’m retired and it doesn’t have to be formal; but here we are.

Some Issues

Maybe it’s just me but after retiring I found it refreshing not to be constantly working toward resolution of projects and problems.  But that freedom led me to become lazy and fall into ruts. 

I don’t need to fill every minute with achieving some goal, but I think it is a good idea for me to put some structure around the things I’ve wanted to do. 

Health and  Wellbeing 

I’m too heavy (it says so right there on my annual physical report). I plan to work on two things in this area.

Goal: Lose 12 pounds (a simple 1 pound/month). Everyone’s New Year Resolution starts here, right?


  1. Eat WAY less sugar. Sugar is my downfall. 
  2. Exercise at least 6 days each week. I practice yoga 3 days a week but need to force myself to get out those other days. Daily activities can include:
    1. Yoga (3 days a week)
    2. Walk a minimum of 45 minutes
    3. Swim 30 minutes. I gave up swimming a few years ago. Maybe it’s time to get back in the pool


If you met me, you’d think I’m an extrovert; well, I think of myself an introvert caught in an extrovert’s body. I can easily spend a few days all on my own and can be uncomfortable in group settings if I’m not good friends with everyone. So I go into overdrive to overcome my discomfort. But really, human interaction is necessary for a happy and fulfilling life. My  objectives in this category are not as measurable as for the health category.

Goal: Be more social


  1. Say “Yes” more often to social activities. Too often I try to find an excuse (not a reason) to get out of an engagement. 
  2. Be open to more travel. We do travel a lot but often I think of reasons to avoid going.
  3. Engage in low-stakes relationships. I stole this from – I think – the New York Times. These are interactions with people who are not in my close group of friends; think the barista you see a few times a week. Smile, chat them up.

Challenging Myself – Activities

I have things I want to accomplish with my hobbies but my laziness leads to procrastination.

Goal: Cook more

I used to cook quite a bit. I loved being creative and combining it with my photography and my blogging. This past summer my son’s vegetarian family moved back home to be closer to family. They lived with us while their house sold and they bought a new one here. The five and three year old boys were not always fans of my efforts so I left a lot of the cooking to their mom. 

In addition, two of my big inspirations have waned over the past year. Mike Vrobel of Dad Cooks Dinner doesn’t seem to be posting as much and since Chris Kimball left America’s Test Kitchen I haven’t been as engaged in the TV shows and the Cook’s Country and Cooks Illustrated magazines


  1. Cook more (Um, objectives are supposed to be more specific that goals. Oh well. 
  2. Explore other sources of inspiration for cooking. Add at least one new source of inspiration (e.g. YouTube, Blogs, Magazines)

Goal: Improve my photography


  1. Get out there and take pictures; I don’t have to wait for a day to go photograph trains or take pictures on a trip. I need to just get out in the world with my camera.
  2. Take notes in order to learn what works, and what doesn’t. (I did this successfully a year ago on my train pictures and it worked out great).
  3. Look at the photos in post processing and figure out what works best in different circumstances.
  4. Finish the lessons I purchased from Matt Kloskowski and practice the techniques on my own photos.

Goal: Read.
I’ve hit a lull over the past few months.

Objective: Read 12 books in 2020. Normally my goal is 8 and so far I’ve always exceeded it.

Goal: Play my guitar

Objective: I don’t want to box (pun intended) myself in here. I like doodling when playing along with music I listen to. That said, last year I learned the 5 box patterns for the minor pentatonic scales and it was a big step in my enjoyment. I don’t see myself signing up for formal lessons.


I think many of these activities will feed each other. If I lose weight and become more active it will help me get out more. And, getting out taking pictures is an activity that will promote the health goals. Often when I cook we invite people over for dinner, which supports my socialization goal. In addition I usually take pictures when I cook which – if I work at it – will help me improve my photography.

Other goals are mutually exclusive. Reading and working on processing pictures are solitary activities which do not foster socializing. 

Now, if I was a real nerd I’d build a spreadsheet with the activities going down the left side and goals across the top then put “X” showing which goals the activities foster. I thought seriously about it, but nope.

Trip Dates: October 12-14, 2019

After two weeks on the road we were ready to get back home; but we still had a bit of a journey in front of us. It’s over 500 miles from Bryson City, North Carolina back to Washington DC where we’d catch our plane. Originally we had planned to do the drive on October 12 which would give us a day and a half to visit Washington DC. But with all those miles behind us we opted to take two nights to get back to Washington DC.

Our first stop would be Asheville, North Carolina – not a long drive. We started off on the Blue Ridge Parkway to get more views of the Great Smoky Mountains. When we stopped at a scenic view point a couple of hours into the drive we realized we had left something back in the AirBnB in Bryson City. We started back and made some calls to our hosts to arrange for the pick up. Thankfully the cleaning people were there and gave us the missing piece of luggage. Back on the road, but now without time for another trip along the Parkway, so we hustled down US 74.

We got into Asheville mid afternoon not leaving a lot of time for sightseeing. Talking with the folks at the Asheville Visitor Center we learned that traffic through the tourist area was “adventurous” so we opted for the on-and-off tourist bus. The problem was that we didn’t have much time for the on-and-off part. Well, we’d at least to get to see the city. After seeing Thomas Wolfe’s house – where Linda got a picture for her son who is a big fan – we got off at a stop that promised good barbecue. There would be a final pick up bus in an hour or so and if we missed that we could Lyft or Uber back to the visitor center to get our car. The stop was a light industrial area with some artist lofts and galleries. Well, once we got off we discovered the restaurant was closed. We found a pizza place nearby and had pies and salad.

But I did get to see a local freight train! (I was in a safe place – I zoomed in for the picture)

WAMX local in Asheville, North Carolina

We made it back to our hotel and off to sleep. The next morning we headed north on I-81 toward Charlottesville, Virginia. Along the way we passed through the northeast corner of Tennessee. This is the state where Linda was born when her – and Carla’s – dad was practicing medicine in Harlan County, Kentucky. We stopped at a nice rest area where we got a picture proving Linda was back in her birthstate.

Linda’s Birthstate: Tennesse

Se even struck up a conversation with another Tennessean.

Linda chatting with another Tennessee native

Later on the drive somewhere in Virginia we had another stop where we were treated to a lovely view.

View from the roadside near I-81 in Virgina

We finally made it to Charlottesville. After checking in to our hotel we headed to the downtown area where they’ve blocked off traffic to make a nice pedestrian-friendly mall.

Shopping area, Charlotsville, Virgina

Being Sunday evening there weren’t a lot of choices but we settled on a Korean restaurant. What an experience. The hostess ignored us for a few minutes and wasn’t at all friendly at all when we asked for a table. The hotel was busy but she finally seated us in a back room where she would also be our wait person. We could tell she wasn’t really unfriendly as much as extremely stressed. It turned out to be her first day. It took FOREVER to get menus. Finally, a more seasoned wait person took over and were served. There were four other parties in the back room and two of them never were served – they ended up leaving.

After dinner it was dark and we had some trouble navigating back to the hotel. The exit we wanted was blocked and we got kinda lost. I think we went through the same section of freeway three times. Finally, I just got off the freeway where there was a shopping mall and we took a look at the map and finally got back to the hotel on surface streets. It was an aggravating evening.

Carla is not a fan of Thomas Jefferson – at all – but being so close to Monticello she had to see it. Our flight home was in the evening which gave us barely enough time to see it. She and Linda were there when it opened while I slept in and had a leisurely breakfast.

Monticello. Not exactly as depicted on the back of a Nickel.
Enslaved peoples home at Monticello

It wasn’t long before we were caught up in the craziness that is Washington D.C. traffic. We were thankful it was a Federal holiday and traffic was relatively light. We made it back to E & L’s house in Maryland in the late afternoon with just enough time to pick up some things we had left there then fight the traffic back to the airport.

We had a long adventure, covering more than 1,700 miles in 17 days.

A rough approximation of our trip. Image from Google Maps

As fun as it was, it was a trial at times. Carla and I had both been very sick leading up to the trip. I suffered a flare of my COPD for over a month and Carla had a bad bug for at least two weeks. That meant we didn’t do a lot of walking leading up to the trip and as a result we were out of shape. Just two days before leaving we thought about cancelling. Linda, who went to Brooklyn, New York before meeting us in DC, caught a bug along the way. Carla and I slowly got better as the trip went on. I took most of the morning tourist trips off so I could sleep.

But Linda was sick with a cough through the whole trip. She is a trooper. Every night she’d say “We need to take it easy tomorrow”; then every morning she’d say “I think it’s breaking up”, and off we’d go on a full day of adventures. I had a hard time keeping up with her when she is sick. I’m usually lost in the dust when she’s healthy. She went to the doctor when we got home and got some medicine for her secondary infections.

We travelled through six states and the District of Columbia. We bit off a bit more than we could chew, but since we likely won’t be back anytime soon, we are glad we took it all in.

Thanks for following along!

Visit Dates: October 10-11, 2019

We woke up early because we had one of our longer drives – over 7 hours – to get from Savannah, Georgia to Bryson City, North Carolina with a stop in Charleston to drop Starr off at the airport for her trip home. Poor Starr, she had a long wait in Charleston before her flight took off.

Once we got off the interstate highways we entered the hilly country as we made our way up US Highway 74 to Bryson City. Once in town, our instructions to the AirBnB cabin we had booked for our stay said “don’t try to use GPS to find the place, it won’t work.” The directions looked plain enough until we realized the roads and landmarks were not as described. The directions told us to take the Veteran’s Blvd exit from the freeway and set our trip odometer to 0 so we’d know when to turn. Veteran’s Blvd was supposed to turn into Franklin Grove Church Road. Uh, oh how’d we get onto Slope Street? Now our mileage was shot as well.

We decided to head back into the downtown area to get some stuff for dinner before trying again. We figured if finding the place was this hard in the light, it would be almost impossible at night. We asked a few people in the store if they knew where the cabins were. They were mostly helpful and we figured out we had been on track.

Back in the car we looked at the landmark roads on the directions and plotted our way on our map app. It turns out we had been on the right road; what the directions didn’t tell us was that Veteran’s Blvd, turned into Slope Street, which later turned into Franklin Grove Church Road. It was frustrating, but we have roads like that where I live: Start off on Greenway, take a curve and you’re now on Brockman, cross a street and you’re on Beard; all without turning onto a new street.

We finally found our cabin and encountered a new challenge: a steep gravel road. Soon after turning on to the second Franklin Grove Road from Franklin Grove Church Road, we took a right down a gravel road. At the bottom of the hill we had to make a sharp left and go up a steep loose gravel driveway to get to the cabin. Our little rental car did not want anything to do with that. After a couple of attempts we figured out that we had to gun it a bit at the bottom of the driveway then quickly hit the brakes when we got to the flat spot. Tricky but doable.

We went inside, had some beers and dinner then bed – it had been a long travel day.

The Great Smoky Mountains get their name from the persistent fog, not from fires. It was foggy the next morning so I went down the gravel road a bit to capture a picture of our surroundings.

Great Smoky Mountains. Bryson City, North Carolina

Difficult to get to, but definitely worth the trip.

We relaxed and had a nice breakfast the next morning. Our adventure for the day was a trip on the Great Smokey Mountain Railroad up the Nantahala Gorge. It’s a very popular attraction proven by the long walk we had to make from the parking lot. We had nice indoor seats in a steam-era passenger car as the train wound its way up the Tuckasegee and Nantahala rivers. We had a grand time chatting with our fellow passengers and enjoying the view.

Nantahala Gorge, NC

The gorge was nice but much smaller than I had pictured; when I think “gorge” I think of the 90+ mile Columbia Gorge cut by the Columbia River just east of Portland. It’s averages over 3 miles in width. Just sayin.

We reached the end of the line at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. We got out and wandered around while the locomotives changed ends.

Great Smokey Mountain Railroad. Nantahala Gorge Route

When we pulled back into Bryson City and headed back to our car we crossed paths with the GSMRR steam locomotive that takes a different excursion.

Great Smokey Mountain Railroad Steam Locomotive

For many/most railfans the steam locomotives are the be all and end all. I grew up just as the diesel locomotives put the steam locomotives out of business. While I’m not a huge fan of steam, I do get chills when I hear that steam whistle blow. On the way back to the cabin we picked up some to-go food for dinner from the Bar-B-Que Wagon restaurant. I think they must have purchased a large mincing machine; the pork and cole slaw were minced into tiny pieces of the same consistency. It tasted okay, but it made us miss the barbecue we had at the Sandfly At The Streamliner in Savannah.

The following morning – Friday before Columbus Day (as its called in the South, but is now called Indigenous People’s day in the Northwest) – we piled into the car for a trip through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Our first stop was the Oconaluftee Visitor Center at the south end of the park. It is a nice visitor center with many old buildings from the early days of North Carolina.

Oconaluftee Visitor Center. North Carolina

I’m not sure what this is, but I liked the looks of it.

Oconaluftee Visitor Center. North Carolina

From the crowds at the center it was clear that the 3-day holiday would bring out more tourists than we had seen so far on our trip. The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the most visited national park in the country, bringing in 11 million visitors a year. The road over the mountain and into Tennessee provided some nice views.

Looking back at the road up and over the Great Smoky Mountains.

Traffic slowed down as we approached Gatlinburg, Tennessee at the northern edge of the park. Carla found a parking spot and we headed over to Bennett’s Pit BBQ for lunch. We had some yummy brisket.

Bennett’s Pit Barbecue in Gatlinburg, Tennessee

Linda was of a mind to get some moonshine as gifts for some friends and family. I was wholly unprepared for the site as we got out on the main street. Oh, my gosh! I’ve been to tourist towns before but I have never seen anything as crowded and crazy as Gatlinburg.

Tourist Mecca. Gatlinburg, Tennessee

The sidewalks and road were both just packed.

Tourist Mecca. Gatlinburg, Tennessee

I can’t imagine what this town is like on a summer weekend. We were somewhat overwhelmed by the crowd, but most of the people were smiling and chatting away as they worked their way through the mass.

We found one spot that sells moonshine – a LOT of moonshine. As you enter, they check your ID; you can then pay a small sum to stand at a large circular table with a bartender in the middle. The bartender talks about the different types of moonshine available and passes out small shot glasses for everyone to taste. Now, I don’t think of myself as a prude, but parents with babies strapped to their chests, drinking hard liquor at one in the afternoon is, well, weird. We didn’t take part.

We spotted a liquor store about 5 blocks down the street but were not made of stern enough stuff to fight our way through the crowd, so we headed back to the car and our return trip. By afternoon, the traffic had picked up considerably. There aren’t a lot spots to stop and view the park. We waited in line in the car for almost an hour to pull into one lot. The car at the front of the line had to wait for a car to leave in order to take its place.

We did find a spot that crosses the Appalachian Trail.

Appalachian Trail. Great Smoky Mountains. Tennesee

As we walked down to the trail a couple of men were just coming out, having hiked over a hundred miles in the past few days. After taking a few steps down the trail I joked with them that on average our two groups hiked 50 miles each. They didn’t think that was so funny.

Appalachian Trail. Great Smoky Mountains. Tennesee

We enjoyed the scenery near the trail.

Butterfly on the Appalachian Trail. Great Smoky Mountains. Tennesee
Great Smoky Mountains.

I probably sound curmudgeonly but I think the high visitor rate at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a function of its nearness to population centers more than of its inherent beauty. If you want to see what a National Park can be, come out west to the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Yellowstone.

We made it home and finished our minced barbecue dinner from the night before.

Originally we had planned to drive back to Washington, DC the next day in order to have another full day touring the Capital before our flight back home. But we were pretty tired and the road ahead was pretty long. Linda Called E&L – our hosts in Washington – to tell them we needed to take two days to get back. More on that in my final post of the trip.

Visit Dates: October 7 & 8, 2019

We’ve been talking about this trip for years; whenever I mentioned our plans people usually responded with “Go to Charleston, South Carolina” or “Go to Savannah, Georgia”. We’ve got it covered. On October 7, we packed up from our place in Charleston and after a short delay, headed down the road to Savannah – the southernmost part of our journey.

Because of our late start we stopped for lunch in Beaufort, South Carolina. Not to be confused with Beaufort, North Carolina. The two city names are spelled the same but pronounced very differently. While the North Carolina city is pronounced “Bow Fort”, The South Carolina is pronounced with the first syllable rhyming with “View” and the second syllable rhymes with “bird”: “Beufird” I can imagine the good natured arguments when citizens of the two towns meet.

Like most of the rest of our journey we were close to the Atlantic Ocean. We found a lovely little restaurant where we could sit on the back deck while we ate.

Lunch in Beaufort, SC

After lunch we strolled along the waterfront.

Beaufort, SC

I even persuaded the sisters to sit together. I don’t take pictures of people very often so my results are decidedly mixed

Sisters in Beaufort, SC

One of the sisters grabbed a pic of Carla and me

We strolled around the downtown area for a while before getting back in the car and heading to Savannah. Savannah, is on the south bank of the river that bears its name and separates Georgia from South Carolina.

We had a very nice AirBnB in the downtown area. We could tell we weren’t in Charleston anymore. Whereas Charleston was boisterous with parties going late into the night, we were given notice that any noise after 9:00PM in Savannah could result in immediate eviction by the police. Okay, then.

In the morning we headed over to the old part of town for a walking tour the sisters had arranged. We enjoyed our tour guide who was a semi-retired architect who moved to Savannah a few years before.

Tour Guide: Savannah, Georgia

James Edward Oglethorpe founded the town in the early 18th century. He built a city of groups of city blocks, each group surrounding a park space. Here is a view of the “Oglethorpe Ward Plan” drawn by our tour guide.

Savannah, Georgia blocks

The 4 trust lots on the east and west sides of the square were usually public buildings such as shops or professional offices. The tything lots (called that because there were 10 lots in each of the four areas) were usually homes.

Here is a better picture I grabbed from the internet.

Oglethorpe Ward layout. Savannah, Georgia

And when the blocks are built next to one another the city looks like this (image from the internet)

Groups of Oglethorpe wards in Savannah Georgia

A walk through this area is wonderful. Every central park is a bit different.

Later we drove out to the Wormsloe Historic Site, the grounds of a very old Slave Labor Camp (Plantation). The main building is not open for tours as it is still in private hands, but there are tours of the older parts. Originally, indentured servants were used for labor, but in the mid 1700s, the ban on slavery was lifted and enslaved people were used because it was more profitable.

Oysters were plentiful and the shells were used as aggregate to make “tabby”: a type of concrete.

“Tabby” concrete at Wormsloe Historical Site. Savannah, Georgia

Some of the original wall remains.

Original walls at Wormsloe Historical Site. Savannah, Georgia

The tour was very good providing views of marshes, Shipyard Creek and the Skidaway river.We even saw a lizard skittering up a tree.

Lizard on a tree. Wormsloe Historic Site. Savannah, Georgia.

Once the tour was over we took a leisurely hike back to the main building. We got in the car and said in unison: “Let’s Eat!”. We found the Sandfly At the Streamliner barbecue joint on a quick internet search and headed over. There is a Sandfly barbecue joint just across the river from the Wormsloe Historic Site, but we went to the “Sandfly at the Streamliner” 1220 Barnard Street. As we approached the building I had a good feeling about our choice.

SandFly Barbecue. Savannah, Georgia

The interior is as classic as the exterior.

SandFly Barbecue. Savannah, Georgia

We all ordered plates with various sides. I opted for brisket coupled with collard greens along with Mac & Cheese.

SandFly Barbecue. Savannah, Georgia

But we had to try the ribs, so we ordered a half rack as an appetizer. I should have taken a picture. While the rest of the meal was delicious, I can say that the ribs were the best ribs I’ve ever tasted. They were divine. A lot of times when I eat in a restaurant I think to myself “I can make this”; and I can cook pretty good barbecue. But I can’t make these ribs; I don’t know what the magic is but they were perfection. Just the right amount of smoke and spice. If you go, order a full rack.

We were full but the sisters wanted to walk. While they walked through Forsyth Park, I sat on a bench and enjoyed the view. There are so many beautiful fountains in the south.

We went back to our apartment for a few hours to rest and digest. I wanted to see the old riverfront touristy part of town. We didn’t need a big meal, but ice cream is always in order, right? As we walked along the old riverfront we saw a container ship heading out from its dock and under the bridge connecting Georgia and South Carolina.

Container Ship. Savannah Georgia

It passed about 100 yards away – it is a big ship! And some workers were on the side doing I don’t know what.

Workers on a container ship. Savannah, Georgia

As we headed toward our apartment we saw the moon behind a church steeple.

Moon over Savannah, Georgia

We had a good night’s sleep; after breakfast we packed up and headed back up north. Unfortunately, we had to say goodbye to Starr; she had to fly back home, so we dropped her off back at the Charleston, South Carolina airport.

Next stop: Bryson North Carolina and The Great Smokey Mountains

Visit Dates: October 4-7, 2019

We followed US 17 down the coast from Wilmington, North Carolina to our next stop in Charleston, South Carolina. Along the way we saw many roadside stands selling Sweetgrass Palmetto baskets and objects like we saw during our stop in Wilmington.

One of our daughters-in-law went to College in Charleston so we were excited to see a part of her history. The old part of town is on a peninsula formed by the Copper and Ashley rivers as they make their way to the Atlantic Ocean.

Charleston, SC (Google Maps screen shot)

We stayed at an AirBnB on Spring street which was close to the old downtown area with plenty of shops and historical sites. It wasn’t unbearably hot so we were able to walk most everywhere in the core.

One day we did hop in the car to drive over the US 30 bridge to see the McLeod Plantation. We signed up for a tour but had some time to wander the grounds. I wandered down to Wappoo Creek to catch a view of the sites on the north bank.

Looking across Wappoo Creek from the McLeod Plantation Historical Site. Charleston, SC

Still wandering the grounds we saw the classic oak tree arch draped with Spanish Moss along the beautiful pathway.

McLeod Plantaion Historical Site

Turning around we saw the main house framed by the tree.

Mansion. McLeod Plantatioin Historical Site. Charleston, SC

We then headed to the tour meeting point. Our tour guide was a young woman who was very knowledgable about the history of the area as well as the plantation itself. Before we started she told us that she would be sharing the real story of plantation life, not the glamorized version we may think of when we see these stately homes. She invited people to leave if they weren’t comfortable with that. No one left.

While the antebellum lives of the owners’ extended family might have been stately and serene, the lives of the dozens of enslaved people, who made that life possible, was anything but. Our tour guide called this place by its rightful name: a slave labor camp. Plantation owners throughout the South waged a war of terror on the enslaved people. A slave caught learning to read or write was a crime just shy of killing the owner and dealt with accordingly. In addition to the whippings and other tortures, keeping the enslaved people uneducated, and separating families and loved ones was a means of maintaining absolute control.

Children – even babies – could be separated from their parents in the blink of an eye. The enslaved people developed a culture of mutual support to help manage the deprivation they were faced with.

The one-room houses of the enslaved people stand in stark contrast to the lavish mansion where the owners lived.

Enslaved People’s Quarters. McLeod Plantatioin Historical Site.
Enslaved People’s House. McLeod Plantatioin Historical Site.
Interior: Enslaved People’s House. McLeod Plantatioin Historical Site.

One of the children’s’ jobs was to make the bricks for fireplaces mansion foundations. Our guide pointed out this brick bearing an enslaved child’s fingerprints that stands in mute testimony to the life he or she led. I’ve circled the fingerprints in read. Click on the image to get a better view.

Enslaved girl’s finger prints in brick. McLeod Plantation Historical Site.

As we had after visiting the the Holocaust Museum and African American Museum in Washington, DC and the Fredericksburg battle site in Virginia we were silenced by the cruelty that man is capable of.

On another outing through Charleston we stopped at the site of one of the first slave markets. I think the lives of the kidnapped and enslaved peoples lives can be represented in one image Linda took at the slave market museum: enslaved peoples’ “living” conditions on a slave ship.

Slave Ship Representaion. Slave Market Museum in Charleston, SC

This can only be done by people who don’t think their captives are people. We wouldn’t treat our animals this way. Horrible, just horrible.

We tried to shake off these images and take in some of Charleston’s beauty. I had heard of Spanish Moss but had never seen it. It cascaded down from trees all around the slave labor camp. A couple of pictures above show the moss on the trees. Here is a closeup.

Spanish Moss: McLeod Plantaion Historical Site

The heat and humidity of the south makes for beautiful gardens.

Flowers at McLeod Plantation Historical Site. Charleston, SC

On our last night in Charleston we ate the Fleet Landing Restaurant and Bar. We had a table overlooking the Copper River. What a fabulous dinner. I had shrimp and grits made with tasso ham gravy. It was incredibly rich and was the best meal I had on our entire trip.

We walked off dinner by strolling on the walkway along the river down to the bottom of the peninsula. The Pineapple Fountain is beautiful.

Pineapple Fountain. Charleston, SC

Looking out across the water you can barely make out the island where Fort Sumter was built. This is where the Civil War started. After walking down to the Battery at the bottom of the peninsula. We were pretty bushed after a day of walking so we caught one of the free tour busses back north to our apartment.

Like much of our trip we were struck by the juxtaposition of beauty and horror. Our next stop was Savannah, Georgia.