Housing Faith

My attitude toward organized religion has changed considerably over the last few decades, and my opinions are usually not so favorable. Raised in the Southern Baptist tradition, I am more familiar with Protestantism as it is practiced by that denomination; however, I have studied other Christian traditions and the major world faiths. I disagree with the modern atheists who argue that religion is superfluous and will ultimately become obsolete. Religious practice dates back long before written history, and although it is waning in some parts of the western world, it is thriving in other areas. Many people obviously possess a need for belief in the metaphysical, whether it’s in the form of organized religion, personal faith, or spirituality. Perhaps religious practice is even an evolutionary trait in humans, an idea that has been explored by sociologists, religious scholars, and even some biologists.

I am now an Episcopalian, mainly because the Episcopal Church seems to be so inclusive and focuses energy on advancing causes of social justice and charity, especially for people we often identify with the margins of society. There are probably other inclusive faith traditions with similar characteristics, such as the Congregationalists, Unitarians, and others from outside the Christian world. Admittedly, the cultural, intellectual, and even social aspects of religion are more appealing to me than the supernatural. St. Paul wrote that these three remain: faith, hope, and love. I cling less to the first than the other two.

One common criticism I notice expressed against organized religion concerns the number of resources spent on designing, constructing, and maintaining houses of faith, such as cathedrals, mosques, temples, and tabernacles. I understand the issue and the disconnect between the message of charity and the often-obscene wealth exhibited in these magnificent structures. At the same time, I can also appreciate what these places of worship mean to parishioners. Beyond their religious significance, these architectural masterpieces also serve as cultural icons, fine art repositories, points of community or even national pride, tourist attractions, and centers of activity.

I am conflicted about the money spent on such palatial houses of faith when there is so much poverty, examples of which are often present right at the doorstep of the structures. Still, I find myself attracted to their beauty and will make every effort to visit them when we travel to places known for ecclesiastical architecture. They are just too amazing to miss. And as formidable as these edifices are, occasionally we are all reminded how easily they can be destroyed, such as the horrible fire that consumed Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in 2019.

Here I have posted photographs of some of the most spectacular houses of worship we have visited during our travels. I look forward to seeing more.

Notre Dame, Paris, France
Notre Dame, Paris, France

 

Notre Dame, Paris, France
Notre Dame, Paris, France

 

Westminster Abbey, London, England
Westminster Abbey, London, England

 

St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome, Italy
St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome, Italy

Getting There Is Half the Fun: An Adventure Deep in the Ozarks

One of the more interesting responsibilities of my current job is participating in an oral history project exploring the history and culture of the Ozarks, a physiographic region of the country located in portions of southern Missouri, northern Arkansas, and small portions of eastern Kansas and Oklahoma. I have solicited interviews from several people so far including a retired NASA astronaut; a farmer who moonlights as a musician; a folklorist and musician; and most recently, a woman who is a visual artist, a writer, and a horticulturist growing ginseng in the hills of northwest Arkansas. Since this is a personal blog, I won’t reveal her identity but will call her Ms. Ozart for the sake of convenience.

Ms. Ozart had a career in environmental science, but she also pursued artistic endeavors from an early age. Now that she is no longer working away from home, she can focus most of her time and energy on what she loves most: growing native plants, gardening, painting, and writing. She was not raised in Arkansas but lives here now with her husband, a couple of horses, and a dog who at one time kept her chickens safe from predators. The dog is old, deaf, and retired. Ms. Ozart no longer has chickens.

It was her fascination with one specific plant that attracted Ms. Ozart to this part of the country. Ginseng is a perennial herb native to deciduous forests, especially in places like Appalachia and some parts of the Ozarks. It thrived in these locations and throughout many other areas of the country until it was grossly overharvested in the 1970s, mainly because of the purported medicinal benefits of the root. It is now considered an endangered species. The demand for the plant’s root has been high in China for centuries, and plants from the U.S. are still routinely shipped there. Ms. Ozart isn’t interested in harvesting the roots or selling them. It takes anywhere from 10 to 15 years for the root to develop to a marketable size. She is much more interested in propagating the plant and selling the seeds so other people can do the same.

At her invitation, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Ms. Ozart at her beautiful property. Because ginseng is rather valuable, and poaching is a constant threat, she prefers to keep her exact location as private as possible. Respectfully, I have included no photographs of the area with this post. In our preliminary correspondence, Ms. Ozart asked me if I would prefer to meet her in the nearby town and have her drive me to her home. She told me if I had a nice car, I probably wouldn’t want to go far beyond the town. Images of being blindfolded in the trunk of a large sedan came to mind. She warned me that my phone’s GPS app may have trouble finding the address, especially if I happened to exit the program in route from the nearby town. Cell service doesn’t exist this deep in the Ozarks – no bars . . . nada. I am fortunate to have a Ford F-150 pickup, so I decided to take my chances and trust my phone to get me there.

I have spent most of my life in rural areas. The last town where we lived in the northeast Georgia mountains was in a county with several small towns and a total population of just over 40,000. It was a booming metropolis compared to where Ms. Ozart resides. The “little town” several miles north of her location where she offered to meet me consisted of a tiny square that was like an appendage off the side of the two-lane state road. There were about six buildings housing such enterprises as a bank, a café, a feed store, and an art gallery where some of Ms. Ozart’s work is on exhibit and for sale. I continued farther out into the countryside until my riding companion, Siri, instructed me to turn left onto a dirt and stone road – not gravel, large stones. Sometimes, the rocks were semi-submerged boulders. The shocks on my truck will no doubt need to be replaced soon.

Ms. Ozart had warned me that it would take about 15 minutes or more to travel from the paved road to the base of her driveway where she would meet me. When I looked at the map and discovered the distance was only a few miles, I thought she was exaggerating. She wasn’t. Had I attempted to ramp up my speed to over 20 mph, my truck and I would have been launched airborne into either a tree or flowing water, both of which were in abundance on either side of the wide path that was given the designation of the county name followed by a four-digit number. The transportation department didn’t even bother with naming it for a prominent family that had carved out a living here generations ago, which is a common practice for farm roads in Georgia. I crossed over the same river twice and a few tributaries on surprisingly sturdy concrete bridges that were more like large culverts. I was expecting rickety wooden structures, which of course would never be able to support farm equipment and heavy trucks that undoubtedly traverse this byway every day.

I was traveling through a rather mountainous terrain compared to much of the Ozarks, with high ridges rising from rolling valleys fully furnished with fence lines, crumbling rock walls from long-abandoned structures, small creeks and branches, clusters of trees and shrubs, rock outcroppings, and grazing cows — lots of cows. I am convinced the livestock in northwest Arkansas have social security numbers. Even in December with the predominant hardwood trees undressed for the approaching winter, it was like an opening scene from the Daniel Boone television program from the late 1960s. Aside from the occasional power lines, the countryside probably looks much as it did in frontier days.

Notwithstanding the absence of cell service, most of the folks living along this county road are not really off the grid. They have electricity, running water, propane gas, satellite television, perhaps even slow and spotty satellite Internet service, and other amenities that people enjoy in the most remote parts of the country. Although Ms. Ozart has dreams of someday being a true homesteader, she freely admits that most of her provisions these days come from Walmart and the occasional delivery truck whose drivers risk life and limb to reach her door.

When I arrived at the base of her driveway — the cross section of a creek, a road intersection, and a pasture gate — Ms. Ozart was waiting for me in her small, well-seasoned red pickup truck. “You might want to ride the rest of the way with me,” she said. “Your truck probably doesn’t have four-wheel drive, does it?” And here I was, thinking the wagon trail that had gotten me this far was hazardous. I transferred my recording equipment to her truck, and we headed up the ridge on a rutted, winding trail just wide enough for one vehicle.

We stopped after about 100 yards to look at one of the locations where ginseng is growing on a raised plateau just across the creek from the “driveway.” The plants are dormant this time of year, and the leaves are gone, but she wanted to show me the spot just the same. She gingerly scampered across several rocks to reach the other side, warning me to secure my footing on the slippery surfaces as I followed. I could just imagine conducting the interview in blue jeans soaked in icy creek water. Luck was on my side. I remained high and dry.

We safely made it back to her truck and continued our trek toward her house located about a half mile up the hill. We were no longer crossing creeks and branches. We were going through them. She was describing the habitat for ginseng and its companion plants while showing me the more interesting features of her property, including lovely cascading waterfalls and massive rock outcroppings in tall ravines. At one point she stopped the truck to point out another hillside where she had discovered ginseng growing wild. I admit it was difficult for me to concentrate as I was keenly aware that she had parked the truck directly in the middle of a flowing creek. I kept waiting for the sensation of sinking and drifting as we sat there, but after she finished her story, she simply engaged the four-wheel drive and slowly maneuvered forward out of the water. I was thankful for her truck. I was more thankful I wasn’t driving.

We arrived at Ms. Ozart’s house and set up at her kitchen table for the interview. The room was comfortably warm with the help of a gas space heater. She had chili bubbling in a slow cooker that filled the house with a mouthwatering aroma. She put on a pot of coffee, graciously served me a cup, and sat across the table from me and my video camera for a 45-minute conversation that was fascinating and entertaining. She pulled out of her refrigerator seedlings of ginseng and other native herbs she overwinters packed in moss in plastic storage bags. She demonstrated how she makes pigments for paint by grinding rocks from the local creeks into powders of various hues and textures and mixing them with oil, honey, and other suspending agents.  She talked about how the Ozarks region is an inspiration for her writing and her visual art. She and her husband have built a rich life in this isolated slice of wilderness, which I find quite remarkable and admirable.

After we finished and I packed my equipment in her pickup, she drove me back to my truck. “Do you really get supplies delivered to you out here?” I asked as we bumped our way down the hill. “Oh sure,” she said. “Lowes delivered my washer and dryer too.” Admittedly, I was a bit surprised by this news, given how narrow and rugged her driveway is. When we reached a sharp curve where the creek widens next to the road, she pointed toward the stream and said, “I came down early one morning and found a FedEx truck tilted sideways and halfway in the creek right there. The driver had made a delivery to my house the night before, and lost control going back down on this turn. He showed up later that morning with a wrecker. It took the better part of the day for them to get his truck out of the creek, but they did it.”

When we reached my truck, I thanked her for her hospitality and told her how grateful I was that she drove the last leg up to her house. She chuckled a bit and said, “I thought that would work best.” I watched her from my rearview mirror retrieve the mail from her mailbox at the driveway entrance and then climb back in her truck to head home again. Somehow the rocky road leading back to the state highway didn’t seem quite as treacherous this time. The cows appeared just as disinterested as they had earlier. I recognized a few landmarks that I had remembered to look for on the way back to make sure that I wasn’t lost. I allowed myself to look around and soak up the pastoral vistas along the way, but I slowed down considerably and took great care crossing the bridges.

Mal de Débarquement Syndrome

When my sons were in elementary and middle school, their mother and I took them on a Disney cruise, along with a group of other families we were close to from our church. We set sail from a port on the east coast of Florida, spent several days out in the Caribbean, made a few land calls, then returned to shore and headed back home. I resisted taking any seasickness medication when we boarded, thinking I could get adjusted to being on the ship; however, after 24 hours I caved and wore a patch that most everyone else was using to absorb medication into my system. This was our first cruise, and for me, the last. For about 2-3 weeks following our wonderful vacation at sea, I had a terrible time getting back my “land legs,” a phrase that refers to the ability to adjust one’s sense of balance and motion to walking on land after a sea journey or flight.

It was hard to describe the sensation when I finally went to my family doctor seeking a remedy. My symptoms didn’t match those described by people suffering with vertigo, a horrible sense of spinning that my poor mother suffered with for years before her death, resulting in some pretty serious falls and injuries. I never felt as if I might fall, nor was I dealing with nausea. It was more like a subtle but constant feeling in my head that I was gently rocking forward and backward, up and down, simultaneously – almost matching the feeling I have always had when riding in a speedy elevator. The side effects included a dull headache and difficulty concentrating, especially while staring at a computer monitor for hours at a time, which my job often required. Oddly enough, the sensations abated and even temporarily vanished while I was driving or riding in a car.

My doctor told me the symptoms would likely fade away soon, but he prescribed medicine to combat the dizziness. Under certain conditions, I can get drowsy taking ibuprofen. Give me an antihistamine, decongestant, cough syrup, or muscle relaxer, and I will almost be comatose within the hour. I could not function during the day while taking the medicine my doctor prescribed, and I didn’t have any problem sleeping at night. So, I pushed through until, slowly and gradually, the symptoms finally disappeared. No one on that cruise got a better value than I did – they were at sea for four nights. I was on that damned boat for over three weeks!

As a result of my unpleasant experience, I decided to forgo cruises in the future and stick with other modes of transportation – cars, trains, and planes. In 2009, I was invited to give a presentation on Flannery O’Connor at a conference in Rome, Italy. My wife and I had been married one year and were lucky enough to spend our first anniversary in the Eternal City. (After all, they said “Take her some place nice.”) I expected to deal with jetlag, given the six-hour difference in time zones between our home in Georgia and Italy. However, my jetlag soon morphed into the post-cruise symptoms I remember all too well from the Disney excursion. Not good news.

Since 2009, I have dealt with this issue multiple times after flying, but not on every occasion and not with the same severity. For instance, I had a miserable few days after landing in Salt Lake City in the summer of 2015, but I had little or no problems following our flight to and from Paris in 2016. Late in 2015 I began taking a regimen of Dramamine, beginning three nights before my flight and continuing until three nights after my return home. I combined the medicine with the use of rubber ear plugs designed to reduce pressure changes at high altitudes. This approach seemed to work for a while, but then a few times it didn’t. In a state of increased desperation, I did what all savvy Americans do when faced with a medical challenge. I consulted my close friend and physician, Dr. Google. Through considerable determination and more-than-usual side paths, my Internet searches ultimately led me to a malady that I had never of before.

Most websites and articles I uncovered in 2015 were describing something labeled Disembarkment Syndrome, although it is now most often identified by the French term, Mal de Débarquement Syndrome, translated “illness of disembarkation.” Fortunately, my research led me to an occupational therapist named Gaye Cronin working out of an ear clinic in Atlanta less than two hours from our home in north Georgia. She had considerable experience in vestibular physical therapy and was familiar with cases of Mal de Débarquement Syndrome. She ran me through a battery of tests, checking my eyes, ears, balance, and coordination. In addition to a prescription for meds to take before and after flying, she also gave me a series exercises designed to train my eyes and ears to adjust to the conditions of flying.

I can’t say that Cronin’s solution has eliminated my symptoms every time I fly, but the situation has improved considerably. I am also more aware of what will trigger problems, such as reading or looking at mobile devices or getting up and walking around during flight. My best chance of avoiding the syndrome’s ill effects is to stay as still as possible during flight with my head facing straight. As annoying as this problem is, it hasn’t ever reached the point where I am unwilling to fly, especially considering that I only do so a few times a year. I probably couldn’t accept a job that required me to fly regularly, but my wife and I like to travel domestically and internationally. I am willing to endure the occasional week or two of post-travel discomfort in order to keep traveling.

I am quite fortunate in that my discomfort always abates after one or two weeks. Sadly, there are people whose symptoms stay with them for weeks, months, and even years. As of now, there is no known cure for this malady; however, there is ongoing research and plenty of information available about Mal de Débarquement Syndrome. I am pleased that there is a Foundation that promotes international awareness of and research on the syndrome. I encourage anyone who suffers from this problem to check out their website.

 

Riding the Rails Through the Rockies

I visited Colorado for the first time this summer in 2019. Although my wife has made numerous trips to Colorado, the state has been on my wish list for many years. I particularly wanted to see the Colorado Rocky Mountains, so we flew into Denver, rented a car, and drove southwest to the ski resort town of Breckenridge where we enjoyed several days of relaxing, shopping, eating great food, and taking a few sight-seeing side trips. Fortunately, my wife planned for us to take an out-and-back train excursion that runs from Leadville, Colorado, up the side of the nearby ridge.

Train station at Leadville, Colorado
Train station at Leadville, Colorado

The Leadville Colorado & Southern Railroad climbs roughly 700 feet as it winds its way through the trees of the San Isabel National Forest and over steep ravines pointing toward Freemont Pass until it reaches an old water tank that was used by the historic mining trains many years ago. Then the train heads back down the track and ends up back where it started at the depot 2.5 hours later. The views of the Arkansas River are incredible from the train’s vantage point 1,000 feet above the valley floor. The conductor on our trip was fantastic, providing us with entertaining stories, facts, and figures on the way up the ridge, then letting us enjoy the ride back without commentary – only the magnificent vistas.

French Gulch Water Tank – end of the line at elevation of 10,840 feet
French Gulch Water Tank – end of the line at elevation of 10,840 feet

At an elevation of 10,152 feet, Leadville is the highest incorporated city in the United States. It still has the feel of a frontier mining town, with saloons that attracted legendary wild west characters like Doc Holliday and “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.” Several of the highest peaks in Colorado, exceeding 14,000 feet, are visible from the small town and during the course of the train ride. There are many ways to experience the beauty of the Rockies: driving, biking, hiking, climbing, and more. I highly recommend the novel approach afforded by the Leadville Colorado & Southern Railroad.

Amazing views from the Leadville train excursion
Amazing views from the Leadville train excursion

Missouri Botanical Garden

I am a big fan of public gardens and visit them as often as possible, especially when traveling to new places. With the move to Missouri in 2018, my wife and I have taken opportunities as often as possible to explore some of the wonderful resources the state has to offer. One of the most remarkable places I have seen so far is the Missouri Botanical Garden just outside St. Louis. Founded in 1859, the 79-acre facility is the nation’s oldest botanical garden in continuous operation and is now a National Historic Landmark.

Missouri Botanical Garden
Missouri Botanical Garden

According to the Garden’s website, “more than 4,800 trees live on the grounds, including some unusual varieties and a few stately specimens dating back to the 19th century, when founder Henry Shaw planted them.” The Garden also features the nation’s most comprehensive resource center for gardening information, including 23 residential-scale demonstration gardens. There are various themed gardens throughout the site: Chinese, English, Woodland, Ottoman, and Victorian. There is a 14-acre Japanese strolling garden, one of the largest in the country.

Missouri Botanical Garden
Missouri Botanical Garden

A notable feature of the Garden is the conservatory with a lush, vibrant tropical rainforest complete with waterfalls, tanks of fish, and a walkway winding through incredible exotic plants. I will most likely never visit South America or any other part of the world where I would see a tropical rainforest, so I am always grateful for the privilege of even seeing one in miniature. The one at the Missouri Botanical Garden is the best I have seen so far.

Missouri Botanical Garden
Missouri Botanical Garden

There are so many elements of the Garden that make it a destination. The trails are carefully constructed to take advantage of the landscape and lead visitors to one breathtaking vista after another. The plants are grouped and positioned throughout the property to appear as if they evolved there naturally. There are tree-covered byways with every shade of green imaginable; sunny sections with an explosion of color during the blooming season, including a rose garden; and terraces with mixes of perennials and annuals. There are natural lakes, running streams, and constructed water features.  I was also fascinated with how well the flora is enhanced by statuary, glasswork, and structures.

St. Louis has so many attractions: Gateway Arch, Busch Stadium, a first-class art museum, and a zoo for starters. The Missouri Botanical Garden is every bit as impressive as any of these places. It is undoubtedly a point of pride for the city and for the whole state. I look forward to returning every season of the year to see what surprises the Garden has in store.

Missouri Botanical Garden
Missouri Botanical Garden

Discovering Our New Home State: Missouri

My wife and I moved to Springfield, Missouri in December, 2018. Her new job prompted the transition from Georgia, the state where I was born and lived for 58 years. We are now settled into a house just outside the city limits in a convenient location and are enjoying the features that a city of 250,000 people can offer, including some great restaurants, plenty of outdoor activities, and an incredible music scene. When we refer to Springfield as a “city,” some of the natives chuckle. They think of it more as a large town, and indeed it does have the feel of one. The people we have met so far have been especially friendly and welcoming.

Over the last few months we have taken the opportunity to venture out from the Queen City (a familiar pseudonym for Springfield) to see other parts of Missouri. I had never visited the Show Me State until we came to visit in the fall of 2018, when the leaves were turning brilliant shades of red, yellow, and orange. Over the last four months, I have been to St. Louis, Kansas City, Lake of the Ozarks, Columbia, and Branson. Those road trips have taken me from the state’s east border to its west, to the south-central lake district, through the capital to the town of the flagship university, and close to the Arkansas state line in the southwest corner. What’s left? The northern third of the state and the southeast quarter, which are both quite rural.

While I have spent some time and covered a few miles in the Midwest, I didn’t know much at all about the countryside of Missouri before moving here. I have been pleasantly surprised with the beauty of the landscape. Most of the area I have explored is considered part of the Ozarks geographical region. The Ozarks are among the oldest eroded plateaus in North America, and the wearing away of soil over the course of about 200 million years makes them look like a collection of deep valleys between elevated plains. The tallest peak in Missouri is just under 1,800 feet. Brasstown Bald, the highest point in Georgia in the foothills of Appalachia, tops out at 4,783 feet. It’s difficult for me not to compare the unfamiliar with what I know so well, and I find myself frequently seeing similarities between my old and new environs. What I have seen of the southern half of Missouri reminds me a great deal of the piedmont region of Georgia, with gently rolling hills and plenty of vegetation.

St. Louis is in every sense a real city, and it has the tall buildings, monuments, parks, and museums to prove it. My wife and I have been there twice together. Once was a work event for her, but we stayed overnight in the historic Union Station Hotel with its signature spectacular music and light show projected on the ceiling of the Grand Hall. Our second trip was for a weekend getaway when we took in a Cardinals baseball game, spent a few hours at the Missouri Botanical Garden, and visited the Gateway Arch and historic courthouse adjacent to the Mississippi River. We also strolled through Central Library downtown with its impressive exhibit hall.

St. Louis Old Courthouse and Gateway Arch
St. Louis Old Courthouse and Gateway Arch

Our weekend in Kansas City was also associated with a work event, which gave us the opportunity to see a soccer match with Sporting. We also spent a half day shopping and wandering around Country Club Plaza, where the Spanish-style architecture is just as interesting as the stores and restaurants. Of course, no trip to Kansas City would be complete without a taste of BBQ, and we stuffed ourselves with some scrumptious pulled pork and sides at a local franchise called Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue.

Country Club Plaza in Kansas City
Country Club Plaza in Kansas City

I took a solo weekend to work on a writing project at The Lodge of Four Seasons at the Lake of the Ozarks. The Lodge was built in 1965, and it clearly would have been a top-of-the-line resort in its day. After undergoing a $15 million renovation in 2016, The Lodge still offers respectable accommodations and several special features including a multi-story indoor cascading waterfall, a Japanese garden, an indoor/outdoor pool, and a sizeable marina with the largest boats I have ever seen up close. The main restaurant was surprisingly good, where I enjoyed some of the best scallops I have had in a long time. The Lake of the Ozarks was formed in 1931 with the construction of Bagnell Dam on the Osage River. It has a long history as a thriving source of recreation and tourism for central Missouri. A recent book by Bill Geist titled Lake of the Ozarks: My Surreal Summers in a Vanishing America is a laugh-out-loud memoir of his days working as a teenager at his uncle’s resort, Arrowhead Lodge.

The Lodge of Four Seasons atrium
The Lodge of Four Seasons atrium

I started working as a special projects coordinator at Missouri State University Libraries in June, and on my first day at the job I accompanied the Dean of Libraries to Columbia, home of the state’s flagship University of Missouri. Columbia is a classic university town with fine architecture, cultural institutions, athletics, and a charming downtown. Naturally, Columbia has a thriving nightlife, perhaps best represented by Booches, a pub and pool hall dating back to the 19th century. An interesting fact about the town: when it was originally designed, a tract of land was set aside specifically for a university. We traveled through Missouri’s capital, Jefferson City, that had recently suffered considerable damage from a strong tornado. The whole area was also struggling with terrible floodwaters courtesy of the Missouri River that had completely covered the small airport, destroyed some local businesses, and left homeowners living on their own “islands” accessible only by boat. Missouri certainly has its share of violent, unpredictable weather.

When we first began to consider the move to Springfield, we were happy to learn how close the city is to one of the most popular tourist towns in the Midwest. Branson has been welcoming vacationers to the Ozarks since it was incorporated in 1912. Among the first attractions was Marvel Cave, one of many underground caverns open to the public in Missouri. In 1960 the operators of the site opened Silver Dollar City, a small park modeled after a frontier town. Over the next few decades the site grew into a family-centric amusement park with roller coasters, children’s rides, and various forms of entertainment. The first music theaters began to open in Branson in the mid-20th century. By the 1980s, the town was bringing in major music stars such as Roy Clark. Eventually, other big names would move in to build their own theaters such as Boxcar Willie, Jim Stafford, Ray Stevens, Andy Williams, Glen Campbell, and Dolly Parton. In recent years, the theaters have reduced in number, but other attractions have taken their place, such as water parks, museums, wineries, and more. We have visited Branson twice thus far, and on our last trip we had a fabulous dinner at the Osage Restaurant at Top of the Rock, a resort built by Johnny Morris, the founder of Bass Pro Shops, which is headquartered in Springfield.

Top of the Rock near Branson, Missouri
Top of the Rock near Branson, Missouri

I had no idea how much Missouri would have to offer in the way of urban amenities, places of interest, and abundant natural resources. Our fair city also happens to be the official birthplace of Route 66, and Missouri is close to the heart of this iconic mid-20th-century roadway that linked Chicago to the west coast. Travelers through Missouri can still marvel at some of the quirky roadside attractions that are vestiges of the highway’s glory days: Meramec Caverns, a giant red rocking chair, Mule Trading Post, and Uranus Fudge Factory (pun absolutely intended). Our exploration of this diverse state has just begun, and I’m sure future blog posts will be devoted to what we find along the way.

The Summer of 1984 in England

My first airplane trip ever was to England for a six-week Study Abroad program during the summer of 1984. I was a graduate student majoring in history at a small public liberal arts college in central Georgia. My concentration was civil rights in the South, but I was also a fan of British literature and history. I had read Dickens, Trollope, Austen, Woolf, and many other major British writers while I completed a BA in English. I was fortunate enough to receive two different scholarships offered by my college, along with generous assistance from my parents, to cover the cost of the program sponsored by a university in Atlanta.

Not only was this my first flight, it was also my first time leaving the South. Up to this time I had ventured no farther north than Washington, D.C. and no farther west than Alabama. Flying was an alien form of transportation for my family. My father had flown one time in his life as a young man to Pennsylvania, but that was it. He loved the idea of traveling, and our family took road-trip vacations every summer to places in Florida, Tennessee, and the Carolinas. My parents had respectable jobs but not the kind of professional careers that afforded the luxury of air travel in the 1960s and 1970s. As far as I know, my mother died in her early eighties without ever boarding a plane, which is ironic considering that she worked at a huge Air Force base surrounded by aircraft. I will always be grateful for the sacrifice my parents made for me to travel overseas.

British Museum
British Museum

The program I was enrolled in allowed me to pick up several credit hours that would be applied toward my degree. Our class numbered about twenty students, and we were led by two professors teaching in Georgia. We were not officially affiliated with an institution in London where we were based for the six weeks. Our classes were informal and held in the dining area of the Haddon Hall Hotel we occupied on Bedford Place, a block from Russell Square and just around the corner from the British Museum. Haddon Hall was more like a hostel than a hotel by American standards. I had not lived in dorms as a student, so it was a bit of an adjustment to share a bathroom and showers with a large number of strangers of both sexes occupying a floor of the hotel.

Most of our curriculum involved field trips to museums and historic landmarks, and we were required to write papers based on what we learned on our tours of these places. As a class we visited the London Tower and saw the Crown Jewels. We also visited the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the National Gallery, Westminster Abbey, Windsor Castle, the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, and other famous sites. The typical routine for the course was to meet with our professors for a lecture about the places we would visit, and then we would have follow-up discussions before writing down our thoughts and reflections.

Another major component of the program was the theatre — we attended numerous stage productions in some of the most famous houses in the city. We saw Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical “Cats” in the round at the New London Theatre (now the Gillian Lynne Theatre) when it was only four years old. We saw award-winning actors like Claudette Colbert and Rex Harrison in “Aren’t We All” and Peter O’Toole in “Pygmalion.” These were the first professional plays I had ever seen, and I was mesmerized. Our professors did a fine job of planning and coordinating all our activities, providing the class with meaningful exposure to British culture and history.

Queen Elizabeth II - Trooping the Colour
Queen Elizabeth II – Trooping the Colour

One of the most valuable features of the program was the free time we had to explore on our own. I was able to wander around London’s parks, avenues, markets, and squares for hours at a time, watching people interact with one another. I returned to museums the class had visited to spend more time in wings and galleries that interested me most. I also took advantage of opportunities that were not included in the class syllabus, like historic and literary walking tours, attending Mass at St. Paul’s Cathedral, and watching the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. I stood just a few yards from Queen Elizabeth II as she rode by on horseback celebrating her birthday as part of the Trooping the Colour ceremony. I made day and weekend trips to Stratford-upon-Avon, Wales, and St. Albans. I took a hovercraft across the channel to spend the day on the west coast of France in Calais and Boulogne. I spent a fabulous day at Wimbledon during the Grand Slam tennis tournament and had the chance to watch athletes like Chris Evert compete on the grass courts while I savored mouthfuls of strawberries and cream.

At Wimbledon - July, 1984
At Wimbledon – July, 1984
Postcard of Piccadilly Circus
Postcard of Piccadilly Circus

Spending six weeks in London gave me some idea of what it would be like to live in the capital and the most populous city in England. I spent my free time in much the same way the locals do by enjoying the green-spaces, hanging out at Piccadilly Circus, shopping occasionally, strolling along the Thames, attending outdoor events, and traveling around the city in the Tube. Of all my immersion experiences in London, the evenings I spent at a neighborhood pub called The Plough were the ones that I remember most fondly. Pub food was undeniably the best of any I tried in England, and the meals I had at The Plough were authentic and delicious. More importantly, I was introduced for the first time there to hard cider, a perfect alternative to beer for people like me who have never “acquired a taste” for liquid barley, yeast, and hops. It would be several years before hard cider made its way to the shelves of stores in America, but once it did, the beverage became quite popular. I am never without bottles of cider in our refrigerator and find it on tap frequently now in bars everywhere.

There was an old professor from the University College London who must have spent every evening in The Plough. I don’t recall his name or even his face after all these years, but we developed a friendship, and I enjoyed hearing his stories about students, about being British, and about living in London. He was a serious music lover and was obviously proud of his LP collection, which he treated with all the care of an antiquities conservationist. As he put it, “Once played on a ruby, ALWAYS played on a ruby.” I frequented the pub more and more often, and he would recognize me when I walked in the door. With a bombastic voice in a heavy British accent, he would exclaim from across the room, “Come over here, you damn Colonial!”

The Plough
The Plough

My time in England as a graduate student was transforming and gave new meaning to the history and literature I had studied. It altered my thinking about so many aspects of life and what it means to be both an American and a human being. All of the students were required to keep a personal journal to record thoughts and feelings about our varied experiences. I still have mine, along with some memorabilia from those six weeks. Over the years, I have pulled out the journal several times and relived so many moments that will be with me as long as memory allows.