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Archive for November 2012

Travel: Riding the Rails with the Branson Scenic Railway

   When I travel to a new place, one of the first activities I look for is a train ride, especially when the cars or locomotives are vintage workhorses that have been restored and put back in use. There’s no better way to sit back, relax and see the countryside, as well as capture a bit of local history.


    In many places such excursion trains are located at the edge of town, in the rail yards where the engine and passenger cars are stored between trips. But Branson, Missouri, is different.


    The Branson Scenic Railway depot is right in the middle of town. In fact, I could look down on the depot and one of the big engines from my room next door at the Hilton Convention Center. The morning of my ride, all I had to do was walk out the front door of the hotel and straight into the historic 1905 Branson depot.


    Each day, depending on the season, two fully-restored locomotives, Number 98 built in 1951 and Number 99 built in 1962, carry the seven cars, all built between 1939 and 1956, on three to four trips. The excursion train operates on working Missouri and Northern Arkansas Railroad lines and travels as far north to Galena, Missouri or south to the Barren Fork Trestle in Arkansas.


    Once on board, seating is open so passengers are free to find a spot they like and settle in. The dome cars fill up fast so I bypassed those and picked a seat in a car in the middle of the train, at a small table so I could take notes as I rode.


    Rolling through the beautiful Ozark Mountain foothills in fall is about as pretty a ride as you can imagine. The trees were beautiful. As we rolled along, deer, turkeys and even wild pigs could be seen from the wide windows. The train was full—I understand it almost always is—and most passengers were visiting Branson from all over the country. At one end of the car a group of seniors from Indiana laughed and talked and at the other end a family of four from Texas took photos as we rolled across the tall trestles. It was the kids’ first train ride.


    During the 40-mile roundtrip excursion, a narrator pointed out not-to-be-missed views, gave wildlife alerts and filled us in on the history of the train and the region. The rail line we were riding was built at great cost due to the ruggedness of the landscape and it was the primary reason the town of Branson grew and thrived. The car attendants, most of whom have been with the railway for years, stopped by frequently to chat.


    Branson is known for big shows and glitzy entertainment but, no surprise here, the train trip was my favorite activity. There is nothing contrived or artificial about it.


    So many places raze the old to make way for the new, but Branson went to great lengths to not only preserve its railroad history, but totally reinvigorate a tangible, and still thoroughly enjoyable, link to the past.

More information about the Branson Scenic Railway
    
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer based in Spokane, Washington. Her audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

Travel: Exploring Round Top, Brenham and Washington County, Texas

    Too often, when we travel to big events, the only thing we see of a town while we’re there is the crowd and the attraction. There’s no time to take the side roads and explore. But as a traveler I’ve learned it pays to make another trip when the crowd is gone, to see a town or city or part of the country when it’s not on show. When the roads are clear, the diners and cafes are more relaxed and rooms are not scarce.

    Anyone who’s ever been to one of the Round Top, Texas, antique shows knows what it feels like to roll right into a big raucous party. Acres of antiques, miles of traffic, parties and people everywhere. It’s all great fun but if you make the trip between shows, you get a different view.

    I’ve spent hours treasure hunting, moving from one vendor to another in search of the perfect antique, but this time I was looking for more than that so I spent an off-season week exploring the small towns in and around Washington County, Texas, including Round Top. There was still a trace of autumn color on the big oak and pecan trees and although the temperature dipped at night, the days were warm and golden. But this time, instead of antiques, music and food, history took center stage.

    I stood in the reconstructed Independence Hall at the Washington-on-the-Brazos historic site at the edge of the Brazos River and listened to the story of the fierce struggle to gain independence that happened at that site. A town was born, transformed and then faded away but the legacy of fiery confidence and determination still remains in the pride of native Texans.

    At the same park I strolled through the home of Anson Jones, the last president of the Republic before Texas gained statehood and I traced the timeline of events that led to the creation of contemporary Texas at the Star of the Republic Museum.

    I spent time in Brenham, one of the state’s oldest settlements and toured the Simon Theater, a 1925 movie palace and show hall that is undergoing a complete restoration. I explored Chappell Hill, an old stage coach stop that has a rich history of cotton farming and was home to Polish immigrants who traveled to the United States in search of a better life.

    And the day I stopped by the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum just happened to be election day. I traced the story of the man who became the nation’s 41st president while at that moment, across the country, men and women were casting ballots to elect the 45th president. One of the rights that was fought for by men and women who built the simple Independence Hall I’d toured the day before.

    Nothing beats the fun when the tents are up and the antiques are everywhere, but that’s only half the story around Round Top and Washington County. The beautiful rolling Texas countryside is rich with history and the stories of ordinary people who did and continue to do extraordinary things.


Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer based in Spokane, Washington. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

Travel: Don’t Get Caught with Cold Feet

In the Departures section of the latest issue of AAA Western Journey Magazine, I contributed a list of my own  travel tips and tools; suggested uses for items you might have at home in your own closet or medicine cabinet.

One tip that didn't make the list is actually my favorite. In fact, I use it often.

Hotel rooms, especially in Europe, can be chilly in winter. So, to combat cold feet, before going to bed I fill a disposable (and watertight!) plastic water bottle with hot water. As hot as I can get it without actually softening the plastic. Then I slip the bottle into a soft cashmere sock kept in my luggage for exactly that purpose, tuck the homemade hot water bottle under the covers and slip in with it.

Of course, my quick fix doesn't stay hot as long as a traditional hot water bottle, but it helps me stay warm, relax and get to sleep. The next morning I either put the empty bottle back in my day pack or, it there's an option, recycle it.

Most frequent travelers find a way to “MacGyver” fixes for issues that come up. But, as a friend said, leave it to a woman to figure out a way to warm up her “popsicle toes.”

Travel: Posting a filtered view of memorable moments via photo-sharing apps

   At a rcent media event, I watched as a friend showed another woman—a professional photographer—her latest post on her Instagram feed, the mobile application that allows anyone to take photos with a smartphone camera and then manipulate them, filtering to add color, texture, vintage graininess or even bizarre special effects, before posting online.
    
    “That’s pretty, but it’s crap,” the photographer said dismissively. “Those photo apps let people who don’t know what they’re doing take a bad photo and then ‘save’ it by adding special effects. It’s basically junk.”


    My friend laughed off the other woman’s dismissive and, to be blunt, rude, words and moved on.    


    I’ve heard that kind of exchange before and it always strikes me as foolish. Photo apps are creative toys, outlets for expression, not a threat to professionals. And there’s a reason they are so popular. A photographer with skill and the right equipment can take a technically perfect photograph. But sometimes technically perfect is just not real enough.


    It’s the same with words. If I were to tell you that recently, at the Peaks of Otter Recreational Area near Bedford, Virginia, I walked a trail to the top of a mountain on a 67-degree weekday in October, climbing until I stood at the overlook gazing down at a forest of hardwood trees that were no longer photosynthesizing, and then when I had seen enough I took the rocky path back down, you’d have a pretty good idea of what I’d done and where I’d been. But I wouldn’t have communicated in any way what I felt.


    But when I tell you that not too long ago, on what felt like a perfect fall day, breathing in cool air scented by forest smells of fallen leaves and woodsmoke from distant cabins, the sun warming my back, I climbed a winding, rocky, path crisscrossed by the roots of the gnarled trees that clung to the rich dark soil of the southwestern Virginia Blue Ridge Mountains and when I reached the stacked-stone overlook I stood still and silent as my heartbeat slowed, gazing out as far as the eye could see at a beautiful carpet of golden Hickory and scarlet maple treetops; when I tell you I stood there a long time taking it all in, acknowledging my instinctive reaction to the beauty of the season before turning to make my way back down the steep path, I bring you a little closer to my experience.


    I think that’s the appeal of Instagram and other mobile phone camera apps. They let us take what we see and paint the image with nostalgia, sentiment and other emotions.


    Of course, there’s a time and a place for artistic license. I carry a professional camera with me wherever I travel, and the camera on my iPhone 4s is surprisingly good. I shoot on both so I come home with a not just a photo suitable for traditional publication, but, because I love the creative flexibility, I usually post a lightly-filtered or focused version of the same image online on my Facebook page, Instagram feed and Tumblr blog.  One captures what I saw, the other what I felt. But what’s most interesting to me is the reaction many people have to a filtered image. They look at it longer, closer. Perfect focus, balanced composition, color and scale, draw our approval. But emotion, the “junk” so many deliberately remove from their work, draws us in.


(Click “Continue Reading” to see an unflitered view of the cover photo.)

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer based in Spokane, Washington. Her audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com
  

(Travel) The War to End All Wars

Silent testimony to 11/11.

WWI bunkers in Flanders Fields, Belgium.

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Cheryl-Anne Millsap's Home Planet column appears each week in the Wednesday "Pinch" supplement. Cheryl-Anne is a regular contributor to Spokane Public Radio and her essays can be heard on Public Radio stations across the country. She is the author of "Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons."

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