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Travel: Autumn Shines Along Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula

(Photo by Kaki Smith)  

  The house was just an ordinary little cottage in Sturgeon Bay, not one of the tall old farm houses—part of the dairy and agricultural legacy of the area—that line the roads along Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula. It was just an average family house in a nice little town.  But the Maple tree in the front yard was another matter. Even in a place crowded with trees in full color, that tree was enough to make anyone slow down and take a second look.  Covered in brilliant and beautiful leaves, it seemed to be even more intense than any of the others around it and everyone in the car, each of us adults who’ve seen beautiful autumns before, people who might have become jaded at some point, had some comment. Out came the cameras and photos of a beautiful Maple tree were added to the albums on our smart phones.

   All that fuss over a tree? Absolutely. It doesn’t matter if you’re not happy about summer slowly fading away to be replaced by winter’s chill. It doesn’t matter if we complain about the shorter days and nights cool enough to chase us indoors when just a few weeks ago we would have lingered over one more cup of coffee or glass of wine. This time of year, when nature throws a party and colorful leaves fall around us like confetti and drift onto sidewalks and stick to the windshield of the car, we celebrate. 

   But, of course, that party is better in some places.

   I got lucky. I could have been anywhere in mid-October. But at the peak of the most beautiful time of the year, I was in Door County traveling along the narrow peninsula that juts like a thumb on the east side of Wisconsin, a place that is sometimes called the Cape Cod of the Midwest. It’s an apt description. Small villages dot the shoreline of Lake Michigan or, on the other side, Green Bay. White clapboard houses, big red barns and, of course, hardwood trees whose leaves show their true, beautiful, colors for a few weeks each year, dot the landscape.

   And during those weeks everything changes. Ordinary roads turn into picturesque leafy lanes that curve and meander under an arching canopy of trees so beautiful you crane to look up through the windshield as you drive. Hillsides become a patchwork quilt of color with scarlet, green and gold, stitched together as far as the eye can see. Markets are filled with apples and pumpkins and even a rainy day is beautiful.

   It’s easy to see why people allot precious vacation time to this season, booking cottages or hotel rooms in the quiet weeks before winter sets it. Especially in a place where for a few weeks each year even little trees in front of an ordinary house dazzle us before they settle down to sleep the winter away.

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 is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

  

Travel: Ballooning Means Rising Above One’s Fear

   There are people who seem to be born with a thirst for a thrill. They take every chance to leap off bridges, tethered only by elastic Bungee cords. They jump out of planes, trusting one yank of the cord will release the parachute that will lower them gently to the ground. They paddle kayaks over waterfalls and drop out of helicopters wearing skis.


    I am not one of these people.


    I don’t have that kind of confident trust. Cords snap, parachutes fail, waterfalls tumble and break the things that ride them. Why would I tempt fate?


    But edging out of middle age, I seem to be shedding some of the extreme caution that has kept my feet on the ground most of my life. I’m still not a thrill-seeker, but I just don’t seem to be bound by so many “What Ifs.”
    A recent trip to Elko, Nevada coincided with the annual Balloon Fest and I was offered a chance to take a hot air balloon ride. I didn’t stop to think once, much less twice. I hopped up into the basket and listened to the instructions about where I could and should not put my hands. (“Never touch the rope. If you touch the rope we will fall and die.” Check.)


    It was only as the blasts of flaming gas right over my head lifted the balloon away from the ground that I began to ask myself what on earth I’d been thinking. The list of hazards—power lines, rogue winds, murderous sharp-shooters (Hey, what if?) and even fabric fatigue (I imagined seams fraying and opening and, well…)—played through my head like a bad movie.


    But I was in. And we rose swiftly and silently, immediately catching the current of air and moving toward the horizon.


    We moved steadily across the city. Dogs, startled by the sights and sounds of the balloons, there were 30 more behind us, barked and danced as we flew over. School children waved from the yellow bus that looked like a child’s toy. Birds flew beneath us, darting in and out of the trees lining neighborhood streets.


    I’d wrapped my fingers tightly around one of the bars at the side of the wicker balloon the moment we’d lifted off and I didn’t seem to be able to let go. But, a few minutes in, still holding on, I felt myself relax enough to really think about what I was seeing and experiencing.


    I looked out toward the Ruby Mountains, somewhat obscured by smoke from wildfires further north, across the high Nevada desert and the rough, dry landscape so many crossed on foot and by wagon train 150 years ago as they made their way over the California Trail to conquer the wide-open West and start new lives in California.


    It really is a beautiful way to travel. In a balloon you do not fight the wind, you ride it. You surrender to the currents and ribbons of air that stream over the planet and let them take you where they are going. There are tools: hot air, vents, ballast, and so on, but ultimately, you are a guest of the wind.


    At the end of the ride we began our descent. The landing was not smooth. A breeze came from out of nowhere and fought us, but we stuck it. Then, when the pilot realized we'd come down on railroad property—not cool—we lifted up just high enough to find a more accessible spot. The chase crew found us and we were done.


    When I finally climbed out of the basket, back on the ground at last, a surge of adrenaline made me tremble.
 “Anxious Annie” as a friend once dubbed me, had taken a chance. And I had one more thing I could check off my list.


    We helped roll and fold the balloon, storing it and the basket in the trailer behind the chase van, and I was baptized with cheap champagne to mark my first flight. Later, I messaged a photo taken mid-flight to my children and their confused responses made me laugh. This was not what they expected to see.


    That’s the beauty of aging. Not only do we surprise others when we take a chance, occasionally we even surprise ourselves.
    
    


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 is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com
  

Travel: Celebrating the Seasons at Elkhart Lake

(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)

   Just today, the rattle of someone pulling a boat and trailer, bouncing over the patched pavement of the street in front of my house, was a familiar and significant sound. I know it well.  And I know what it means. When neighbors start bringing home the boats and campers, when outdoor toys are put away so that winter tools and gear can take their place, I know we’ve really reached the end of Summer at the Lake season.

   Every place I’ve ever lived has claimed bragging rights for being the lake-loving mecca. But the truth is, wherever there is a lake to get away to, and most states have plenty of them, people will get there. Cabins become family heirlooms, passed down and cherished, and a unique culture—peculiar to that particular place—grows and evolves.

   I’ve been thinking about this since I spent Labor Day weekend in Wisconsin exploring historic Elkhart Lake. First settled in the 1860s, Elkhart Lake boomed in the 1870s when the Milwaukee and Northern Railroad added a stop at the downtown depot. At its peak, more than 2,000 visitors arrived each week, pouring into the sprawling resorts that built up at the edge of the lake. By 1894, Elkhart Lake was a true village.
Today Siebken’s Resort, the Osthoff Resort and the towering Victorian Village are all built on the bones of those earlier hotels and summer resorts.

   Late one afternoon we climbed onto a pontoon boat and circled the scenic glacial lake as our guide filled us in on the unique history of the community.

   The beautiful spring-fed, rock-lined, glacial lake covers almost 300 acres. Just over 120 feet deep at its deepest point, Elkhart Lake is ringed by Wisconsin forest. Most of the homes and summer cottages have remained in families for generations. While its history is uniquely American—Speakeasys, road races and summer stock theater—there is a quaint European vibe that reflects the German heritage of early developers.

   I’m sure Elkhart Lake is a great place at the height of summer, but I was glad to be there at that particular moment. Labor Day marks the unofficial end of lake season in most places. But that only means the summer crowds go away. The lake never closes. And, of course, neither do the resorts that surround it. By visiting in September, I was able to appreciate the beauty without the bustle of the busiest time of year.

   As we circled the lake, passing vintage cottages, picturesque boathouses and an occasional rambling mansion tucked behind the trees, I could see that the seasonal cabins were being swept and cleaned and closed. Boats were back in the small boathouses that perched over the water’s edge.  Thoughts were turning to autumn bonfires and, soon enough, ice skates and snow shoes.

   That is my favorite time at any lake. Sure, summer is fun, but there is something special about the silence of other months. When it’s possible to have the sunrise and sunset to yourself, with enough quiet time to think and reflect. Soon enough, the snow will fall, then melt. The birds will fly away and then return. And before we know it the summer at the lake will start all over again.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

  

Bulletin: CdA Resort May Be NW Best

No destination resort in the Pacific Northwest combines comfort and sophistication — including a luxurious spa, fine dining options and recreational amenities — so well as The Coeur d'Alene. Nestled on the north shore of its 25-mile-long namesake lake, the resort was built in 1986 and immediately became the catalyst for the gentrification of the town of Coeur d'Alene (pronounced core-duh-LANE). “Downtown took off with a character of its own,” recalled Bill Reagan, the resort's general manager since it welcomed its first guests. “It's as if the hotel created a center from which Coeur d'Alene could grow.” After a 413-mile, 7½-hour drive northeast from Bend, via the Tri-Cities and Spokane, my traveling companion and I turned off Interstate 90 in the late afternoon and approached the hotel via a circular drive off Sherman Avenue. A team of valets and bellmen was there to greet us, unloading our luggage, parking our car and guiding us through the elegant, contemporary lobby to the long front desk, where we were quickly checked in for a three-night stay/John Gottberg Anderson, Bend Bulletin. More here. (Jesse Tinsley SR file photo: Coeur d'Alene Resort floating green)

Question: Can you think of a better Northwest resort than the Coeur d'Alene Resort?

Travel: Canoeing Montana’s Missouri River

(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)

    When I opened my eyes, the sun was not yet over the horizon and the weak light it cast was wrapped in the heavy mist rising from the Missouri River. I lay still, warm and bundled under a heavy layer of quilts, watching through the small window beside the bed as the day came into its own.  Soon I could see deer grazing in the rolling fields around the other cabins, all, like my own, early homestead shelters that had been moved to the Virgelle Mercantile and refurbished for guests.


    By the time I was up and dressed the coffee was ready in the kitchen of the old Mercantile building. I poured a cup and the steam rose from the mug in my hand as I walked back outdoors out to take photos.


    After a breakfast of whole-hog sausage and baked French toast, washed down by pots of hot coffee, in the company of others there for the guided fishing and canoeing trips offered by the Mercantile’s sister business, The Missouri River Canoe Company, we gathered our gear and took the short ride down to the canoe launch.Once our canoes were loaded we paddled away.

   This stretch of the Missouri River is shallow this time of year, no more than a couple of feet deep in some places. We made steady progress, paddling hard enough to get where we were going but stopping whenever something caught our attention. The beauty of September in Montana is that the summer travelers have gone back to work and school. We had the river to ourselves, but we were not alone. Deer splashed across inlets and an eagle sitting on the branch of a tall Cottonwood tree studied us as we passed. Farther along, a silent, watchful Coyote, camouflaged in the tall grass, turned his head to follow our progress down the river.

       Soon, warmed by the sun and the exercise, our jackets came off. There wasn’t a cloud in the wide blue dome of the sky and only an occasional gust of wind worked against us as we paddled.

    I listened as our guide, a genuine Montana woodsman who makes his living guiding, hunting and trapping along the river, talked about Lewis and Clark’s journey along the same route through what is now the Missouri River Breaks National Monument. It was, he pointed out, with the exception of the occasional barn or fenceline and the grey-green Russian Olive introduced by homesteaders as a way to shelter flimsy cabins from the relentless wind, essentially an unchanged landscape. Soon, at a bend in the river, the eerie Hoodoos and white sandstone cliffs so unique to that portion of the river, the aptly-named White Cliffs stretch, came into view.    One more thing checked off the list of places I need to see before I die.


    After a couple of hours we pulled our canoes onto a pebbled strip of beach and stopped for lunch, digging into the sandwiches and fruit like we were starving, as though we hadn’t eaten a massive breakfast that morning. As we ate, I thought about something one of the group had said the night before. He’d been telling a story and mentioned a particular day— a special day—as one of the thirty or so he actually remembered of that particular year. I’d never really thought about it before but he is right. Most of the 365 days of work and worry, scheduled appointments, hurried commutes and eat-at-your-desk lunches, blend into a blur. Not much stands out. But, once in a while, there are moments that stay with us forever, etched into memory. They are special enough to share.    

    We packed up the scraps left from our meal and pushed away from the shore, paddling on down the river. More white cliffs and narrow coulees. More photos. More memories.


    At the end of the trip, gathering our gear and hopping back into the van that would carry us and the canoes back to our cars at the Mercantile, I let what I’d seen and done replay in my mind.  From the moment I opened my eyes and let them rest on the fog-softened view, to the last spectacular mile of Missouri River wilderness before we pulled our canoes out of the water, the day was special. It was a day worth holding onto and, in that way, worth sharing.


Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com
  

Shopping: Vintage plaster Madonna figure

(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)

Although I can look for hours, poking around one antique shop after another, and I often find some little something I can't resist, there are only a few things I actually collect. Fortunately, the speical things I love are not always easy to find so I enjoy the hunt as much as the treasure when I bring it home.

Last week I had an hour or so to myself and was in the mood to prowl. I always enjoy looking around Roost, on the corner of Main Avenue and Division Street downtown and often pick up something special there.

Sure enough, I'd only been in the store a few minutes when I spotted the large plaster Madonna figure. I have a small collection of similar figures and this one was perfect. I had to bring her home. Such relics are popular with collectors and prices have risen in recent years. While not a steal, I thought this large statue was reasonably priced and the neutral colors are perfect for my home.

So, she's on my desk now. Waiting to be placed in the perfect niche.

I may not find another vintage “Our Lady” figure for months or even years, but whenever I do I remember exactly when and where I was when I made the discovery. That's what makes each one special.

Travel: Overnight idyll at Montana’s Virgelle Mercantile

(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)

   The two-story mercantile, a farmhouse, the old grain elevator, a bank building and a set of abandoned railroad tracks running across the grassland are the only visible reminders of the town of Virgelle, Montana. Settled in 1912 by homesteaders who rushed to claim their 300 acres in the harsh Montana landscape, by 1930 the boom was over and the little town was frozen in time


    After the last holdout left in the 1970s, the ghost town could have faded away but the property was purchased by a pharmacist who’d grown up nearby. He filled the mercantile space with an antiques business and turned the upstairs rooms into a Bed and Breakfast. One by one, original homestead cabins, rescued from the surrounding countryside, were brought in and refurbished. A vintage sheepherder’s wagon was added to the mix of restored accommodations.


    My room for the night was the 1914 Little Mosier homestead cabin. Big enough for a double bed, an oilcloth-covered table and two chairs, a big iron-and-nickel cook stove and a washstand with both a Coleman lantern and a battery lantern, the cabin faced the grassy slope rolling down toward the Missouri River. To my left, down the road a bit, I could see a working ranch. To my right, a bath house and the Mercantile building. A little further, more cabins and the rest of what remains of the original town.


    Dropping my bags in a chair, I opened the screen door and stepped back out to the porch and stood there a long time looking out, trying to imagine the scenes that had played out in the tiny cabin and others like it. I thought about what it must have been like to live there a century ago, a child on my hip, maybe another in a cradle by the stove. The family would have ached with cold in the harsh winters and been baked by the relentless summer sun. It’s easy to imagine early optimism giving way to fatigue and loneliness and perhaps, eventually, even despair. The reality of the hardscrabble life most early homesteaders faced would break most of us. Only the toughest made it.


    Grabbing my camera, chasing the golden light cast by the fading sun, I followed the path across the road and walked to where the old railroad sign still marked the town by the railroad tracks. A rabbit, startled by my footsteps, darted out and, deciding I was no threat,  skirted me, almost touching my boots, before continuing down what was obviously a trail, worn and defined by generations of other wildlife.


    As it always does, gazing out at the vast openness of the Montana sky and rolling grassland soothed the jangled tension inside me. Like many others, I am someone who needs quiet spaces but although I relish my solitude, I don’t need complete isolation to find it.  The little cluster of old buildings and cabins was perfect. There were a few others staying in the restored cabins and the sheepherder’s wagon surrounding the mercantile store, but voices were low and each of us seemed to be happy to be left alone with our thoughts.


    After a big meal served family style in the kitchen of the bed and breakfast, in the company of other guests—there were only one or two others as it was late in the tourist season—I was ready to call it a day. Flashlight in hand, I followed the path back to my cabin. A bird, startled by my footsteps on the porch, returned the favor and startled me as it flew over my head and out into the night sky. Inside the cabin, the lantern painted the walls with shadows.


    I slipped between crisp cotton sheets, burrowing under the heavy hand-stitched quilts. The early September night was already cool, tinged with autumn, hinting at the winter that would come.


    As I lay alone in the dark, listening to the coyotes call down by the river and the rustling of nightbirds and small creatures outside, I closed my eyes. Content, warm, safe, and, for the first time in weeks free of the noise of a busy life, it felt possible to pick up the loose and broken threads of work and family and all the other nagging worries that fight for attention in my mind and knit myself back together. I closed my eyes and let the night sounds sing me to sleep.
    

More information about the Virgelle Mercantile

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. In addition to her Spokesman-Review Home Planet and Treasure Hunting columns and blogs and her CAMera: Travel and Photo blog, her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com
  

Shopping: Rejuvenations in Reardan

My friend Kati took me on a road trip recently.

Following Highway 2 west of Spokane, we pulled into the little town of Reardan. First stop was lunch at the Red Rooster. (Kati's tip: Order the potato salad. She's right.) Full and happy, we headed around the corner to the new location of Rejuvenations to do some shopping.

The new storefront is the first clue that the interior is more than a hodgepodge of any old thing.  Upscale corrugated metal trim and stylized lettering lead inside to a surprisingly roomy space. With old and new items side by side, it's easy to spend an hour or so poking into corners and investigating the loft. I especially loved the new-and-improved burlap sewn into pillow covers and the exclusive line of ruffled curtains and bed linens.

Instead of the junking-only shopping I'd expected to do, I found a couple of new items I couldn't leave behind. The lightweight fleece-lined leggings will keep me warm this winter and my new granddaughter scored a pair of ruffled pants.

I've been traveling so much lately, I'm a bit behind so it was a treat to get out of town and catch up on what Rejevenations owner, Coni Tanninen, has done with the business. This is a beautiful time of year for a drive. Head west, stop in Reardan and rejuvenate. Oh, and don't forget to look up at the ceiling while you're shopping. The big burlap covered light fixture is one of the most creative things I've seen in a while.

Check out the store's facebook page for more photos and information.

Bear Encounter: Down and dirty travel on the Wilderness Explorer

(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)


    When we signed on for a small-ship journey along Alaska’s Inside Passage, we were promised the opposite of a traditional cruise. We were promised an un-cruise, to be specific. Instead of a leisurely sail past some of the most beautiful scenery on the continent, instead of endless buffets and variety shows, we would venture up secluded coves and into narrow fjords and channels thick with Humpback whales. We would paddle kayaks around icebergs, near glaciers and along pristine shorelines. We would step off the boat and into the real Alaska.


    InnerSea Discoveries promised me we would get our feet dirty.


    On the first full day of the voyage, a dozen or so of us stepped into a skiff and rode to the shore for a hike. Walking along the coast at the mouth of a small stream, we listened as our guide talked about the likelihood of seeing bears (this was a favorite fishing spot) and his words were still hanging in the air when the first Grizzly ambled, as if on cue, into sight.


    The bear was young, probably a yearling on his own for the first season. Wading into water that was alive with leaping and splashing salmon, he seemed bewildered, not sure where to turn or pounce next.  Finally, at a disadvantage, he gave up and, aware but not particularly interested in us, followed the stream up to a short waterfall. Then, as we watched, a second young bear stepped out of the trees.
    This was already much more than I’d ever expected.


    The two bears eyed one another as they got closer and closer, finally meeting nose to nose in the middle of the stream. Then, while we stood silent and breathless, they rose on their hind legs and came together in a slow and powerful embrace. We soon realized they weren’t really fighting, but rather playing at fighting; wrestling, wrapping their arms about one another, throwing arcs of water droplets high in the air with each move.


     For almost half an hour the two bears splashed and hugged and tussled and nipped at one another’s ears and shaggy fur. We couldn’t tell if they were siblings who’d stumbled onto one another at a familiar spot or teenagers still somewhere between flirting and playing, but we knew that what we were seeing was an extraordinary experience.


     I didn’t blink, pressing the shutter again and again, trying to capture the amazing performance going on in front of me.


    Finally, as the two bears stopped playing and finally, just like kids who’d dawdled over their chores, got about the business of foraging and feeding, we walked carefully back to the waiting skiff. As we moved away from the shore, finally far enough away to find our voices, everyone began to talk at once. We were the fortunate ones and we celebrated it. It was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen. Just thinking about it now gives me chills. The moment was splendid and wild and real.


    The captain had already heard about our adventure and was there to meet us as the skiff pulled back up to the side of the Wilderness Explorer. She reached out to each of us as we came aboard.


    One foot on the deck, the other still on the small raft, I looked down at my boots and I had to smile. They were caked with the gritty, sandy, glacial soil so unique to Alaska. My mind and my camera were full of images and my feet were dirty, just as I’d been promised.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. In addition to her Spokesman-Review Home Planet and Treasure Hunting columns and blogs and her CAMera: Travel and Photo blog, her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com
  

Idaho gas prices jump, overtake national average

Idaho's gas prices have jumped 5.5 cents a gallon in the past week, AAA Idaho reports, pushing the state's average price up to $3.855, a penny higher than the national average of $3.843. A month ago, Idaho's average price for a gallon of regular gasoline was 12 cents below the national average; since then, it's risen 28 cents a gallon.

Still, AAA Idaho notes it could be worse: Nine states currently have average prices above $4 a gallon, including Oregon at $4.04 and Washington at $4.06.

The urge to fly and the need to nest

    (Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)

   The wind had picked a bit up the night before, sweeping through the tall pine trees, taking with it loose branches and needles, dropping them to the grass below.


    I noticed something else in the litter on the lawn and as I got closer I could see it was a small bird’s nest, still intact after its long fall. I picked it up and studied the way it was made. I have never seen a nest that isn’t, in some way, beautiful.  A marvel, really. But this one was exceptionally so.


    Made almost entirely of long strands of dried grass woven around what appeared to be wool or even dryer lint, the inside was lined with a soft, golden, feathery material. At first I thought it might be the bird’s own feathers but then I realized it was a layer of shredded cattail blooms, the tall plant that grows in ponds and marshes and bends and dances in the breeze. The compact bloom had been pulled apart and separated into downy fibers.


    I held the nest for a long time, thinking about what an engineering and artistic accomplishment it was. And to what lengths the birds had gone to to create it.


    Grass and lint are all around us. That could have come from any house nearby. But the cattail had to have come from the park down the hill, several blocks away. It would have been no small feat to bring home, bit by bit, enough of the fibers to fill even such a petite shelter. What compelled her to use that particular plant? Surely there must have been some easier way.


    I carried the nest home and set it on the mantel in my living room. For days, every time I walked by, I would stop for a closer look. One afternoon I sat down on the sofa—a piece with a new slipcover, sewn by a friend who does beautiful work. I searched and searched for just the right fabric before settling on the natural cotton and now every time I look at the sofa, it pleases me.


     Still cradling the fragile thing in my hand, still puzzling over the curiosity of it, I reached behind me to adjust the cushion at my back and felt the fine weave of the soft linen pillow cover under my fingertips. Immediately, I remembered the day I’d purchased it in a small shop in Estonia. I’d spent an hour pulling out cover after cover until I found a pair that were exactly right. 


     I glanced at the curtains hanging at the window and recalled discovering them in a second-hand store in Reyjkavik. I hadn’t given a thought to how I would get the four panels home, I just had to have them. The eight yards of material had stretched my already-full luggage to its limits and when I got to the airport I was told it was overweight.  The gate agent listened as I told him how I’d found the curtains. How they were old and soft and the color was perfect and that I would never again find such beautiful fabric. Still looking at me, without saying a word, he tagged my heavy bag and sent it away without charging me the extra fee.
   

 I turned to look at the small Native American rug behind the glass doors of the secretary standing in the corner. I’d spotted it in a weaver’s studio outside of Chimayo, New Mexico, picking it up and putting it down twice before committing. I tried to be practical, but I simply had to have it.


    My own nest is filled with soft things from unlikely places. Things which, although I stumbled onto them at the time I was, in some sense, seeking. Who am I to question a bird’s choice? After all, exposed to the elements, at the mercy of wind and rain and sly predators, she had fragile eggs to protect and tender fledgelings to care for. I have four sturdy walls and a roof over my head.


    The delicate nest is still on the mantel. I think I will keep it there as a reminder that the real difference in a shelter and a home is what surrounds us when we are there.


Cheryl-Anne Millsap can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com
  

Traveling to Tallinn

(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)

 

An acquaintance recently asked where I'd been that had surprised me the most and I didn't hesitate to answer. Tallinn, the beautiful and ancient Estonian city on the edge of the Baltic Sea, was surprising in many ways.

Virtually unknown to US tourists, as are other Baltic countries that virtually disappeared under more than 50 years of grim Soviet occupation, Estonia's capital city is remarkably well-preserved. Only a few buildings were destroyed in WWII, leaving the town square intact. Now, under its own rule, the city is embracing tourism and has become popular with European travelers. It's also a favorite destination for Russian tourists looking for a quick getaway. Tallinn's relatively new (since 1991) Christmas Market is one of the most popular.

Remnants of the old city wall curve around the oldest parts of the city, enclosing narrow streets and lanes and picturesque buildings. A towering Russian Orthodox church anchors the top of the hillside and offers a wonderful view of the city and the Gulf of Finland. Remnants of Soviet presence can still be found, in the KGB museum and other spots, but Estonia—the birthplace of Skype—has embraced its freedom and the culture is rich and vibrant.

I wrote about visiting Tallinn in the last issue of Spokane Cd'A Woman magazine. You can read that story here.

Gas prices soar, but not in Idaho - yet

As gas prices shoot up dramatically across the nation, Idaho's escaped much of the latest jump, AAA Idaho reports, with Idaho's average gas price now sitting at $3.59 per gallon. That's 11 cents less than the national average, and 40 cents below the West Coast average. The national average has shot up seven cents in the past week and 30 cents in the past month, amid various domestic supply and distribution issues and an uptick in oil prices. The problems have included a Richmond, Calif. oil refinery fire that particularly impacted California and other West Coast states. California's average gas price is now $4.10; Oregon is at $3.89 - up 21 cents in the past week - and Washington is also at $3.89.

Dave Carlson, AAA spokesman, said Idaho still could see some impact. “How high gas prices will move on the West Coast depends on how quickly the Richmond refinery is operating and how much of the slack caused by the fire there can be picked up by regional refineries,” he said. “Whether Idaho prices will be similarly affected will depend on whether gasoline intended for this market is diverted elsewhere.” You can read more here.
  

Traveling Mothers

(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)

  My son has been on a boat out on the Pacific for weeks now and every so often a few lines arrive by email.     
    “This has been a great trip,” he writes “The hurricane turned so the seas are not so rough now,” he writes. “Work is going well,” he writes. “Saw some whales today,” he writes.
    

   I see one word: Hurricane!
    

   I’d just settled into my usual routine of vague worry and superstitious bargaining with fate when, and, as usual, it was the last thing I expected, my daughter—the brand new geologist—was assigned to a job on a boat off the coast of Greenland. (Wait, isn’t Greenland melting?)
    

   Already living 200 miles away from me, with less than a day to prepare, she packed and flew away without my being able to see her face or hold her close. Now I’m left to wonder how two little land-locked children could grow up to sail so far away. At the same time.
    

   My friends point out I shouldn’t be surprised. Don’t I fly over oceans every chance I get?  Why would I expect any less of my children, especially these two adventurers? Stop worrying so much, they tell me.
    

   Of course, I have an answer ready. I’m not green. I’m not confident like my son. If anything, I’m overly cautious and too careful. I’m not young and beautiful and vulnerable like my daughter. I’m just another middle-aged woman on a train or in an airport, hugging her purse and keeping one eye on her luggage.
    

   But, truth be told, I finally had to admit to myself that what’s bothering me as much as worry, is guilt. I’m consumed with guilt. I can’t shake the feeling I’m not holding up my end of the bargain. I’d already booked a work-related trip to Alaska before I knew my children were going to be traveling; not that it even occurred to me to ask. And now, thanks to me, we’ll all be scattered across the globe. How will they reach me if they need me?
    

   Children are meant to fly, some tiny voice inside me whispers, mothers are not. It’s our job to be home base, the place our children come back to. If I am not here, what will become of us? What kind of home base goes to Alaska where cell phones and computers don’t work? The swallows only return to Capistrano because it’s there waiting for them.
    

   Before my children came along, even after I was married, I came and went as I pleased.  I bought plane tickets and train tickets at the drop of a hat. But after the babies, when the occasional chance to travel solo came along, I usually let the opportunity pass.
    

   Occasionally, when I would mention some place I’d been or adventure I’d had before they were born, they would look at me, confused, trying to imagine me anywhere else.
    “Well, Mommy wasn’t always Mommy,” I would tell them, laughing at their confusion. “I used to be another girl.”
    

   But if I'm honest, what held me back was that I couldn’t bear the idea of leaving them. Overwhelmed with love and responsibility, I wasn’t just afraid of something happening to my children. I was terrified something would happen to me. How would they survive without me? Who else knew them so completely?  If something happened to me and they asked their father or grandparents ( or their new mother!) for a Sadie Sally story, no one would know the world I’d created for them in my head. No one would know that Johnny was the little boy who kept a dragon named Jimbo or that Sadie was the sister who always discovered magic dust in her pocket just when it was most needed or that a road divided the enchanted forest and one side was a wonderful, magical, place but the other was dark and frightening and no matter how hard they tried something always lured Sadie, Sally and Johnny into that dark place where they had to rely on their wits and the dragon and a little magic to escape. Who else could tell Sadie Sally stories? Nobody but me.
    

   Only I knew who preferred her milk warmed. Who was afraid of the dark. Who liked to talk about dreams first thing in the morning. Who needed an extra kiss and glass of water before bed. I knew them on a cellular level. After all, each had peeled away from me, physically dividing us at birth. We were, at least in the beginning, two parts of one.
    

   Imagining the possibility of not being there for my children unhinged me. Just thinking about it, I whimpered and paced like an animal separated from her young. I didn’t put my traveling shoes back on until the three oldest were out of the house and on their own and the youngest showed an independent streak I wanted to encourage.
    

   I thought I’d left all that worry and guilt behind me, but again they’ve exposed me for who I really am.
    

   Mommy is always Mommy.
    

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. In addition to her Spokesman-Review Home Planet and Treasure Hunting columns and blogs and her CAMera: Travel and Photo blog, her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com
  

Seattle to Alaska aboard the Disney Wonder

(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)  

   The little boy stood beside the table that held the mini-iceberg, the chunk of ice that had once been a part of the North Sawyer Glacier before breaking away—calving— and falling with a splash into the Tracy Arm fjord off Alaska’s famed Inside Passage. It had been harvested and brought aboard by the Disney Wonder crew and put on display on one of the upper decks so passengers could touch history in frozen form.


    Like most of the others who circled the hunk of ice, the boy put out his hand and touched it, tracing with his finger the rough edges that were softening as it melted and dripped away. His eyes were wide and shining, but that touch wasn’t enough for the pre-schooler. He let go of his mother’s hand, stepped forward and wrapped both arms as far as he could around it, putting his cheek against the frozen surface, embracing it. Claiming it. For a moment anyway. Icebergs are cold, you know.


    I hadn’t known what to expect of the cruise beyond beautiful scenery and character breakfasts, but my daughter was the reason for the trip. She would celebrate her 17th birthday while we were sailing and I wanted to give her a memorable birthday that would be fun for all of us without reducing her to a bored minor on a cruise designed for adults. But most of all,  I wanted her to see the water, the mountains, the wildlife and the glaciers of Alaska, and I wanted to be there when she saw it all. I’m keenly aware of how little time I have left with her before she goes off to school and takes the first tentative steps into her own life, and there is still so much of the world I want to share with her.


    After leaving Seattle, the second day of the 7-night cruise we steamed leisurely up the majestic Tracy Arm fjord until, coming around the last bend, we pulled silently up to the ice-filled water at the foot of the blue glacier. People spilled out onto the observation decks, cradling cups of cocoa in their hands, and gazed out on the view. And the view was stunning. In spite of the wind and the chilly temperature, everyone was drawn to the spectacle and then seemed unable to look away.


    The naturalist accompanying the cruise provided on-board narration about the size and history of the North Sawyer, including its rapid retreat, a condition shared by glaciers all over the world. He pointed out the harbor seals resting on the ice, the eagles on the Sitka Spruce and commented on the habits of bears and other wildlife.


    We didn’t just take a spin around the cove and move on. The big ship rested silently in that beautiful place and let us all drink in the sights and sounds. The PA system was turned off for long stretches of time to give us, and the natural world around us, sweet silence. Even the ship’s crew, some of whom must have seen the sight many times, wandered out on deck to take it in. Then, a steel cage was lowered into the water and the iceberg fragment was brought aboard.


    Several hours later we pulled away, back into the Passage and continued our journey. It was exactly what I had hoped for. I watched as my daughter scrolled through the photos she’d taken, pointing out the exceptional ones, and I was filled with gratitude to have been there with her.


    If I’d been a little boy I might have thrown my arms around her for just a moment, happy to be so near to something so wonderful. But only for a moment. Teenagers are slippery, you know.

 

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. In addition to her Spokesman-Review Home Planet and Treasure Hunting columns and blogs and her CAMera: Travel and Photo blog, her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com
  

Statute of limitations on travel advice

Should there be some sort of unspoken requirement that you have been somewhere in recent history before you presume to offer hints and tips to someone heading there for a visit?

Last week, a colleague headed to a small city in the Southwest where I had lived long ago asked if I had any advice.

I went out on a limb and guessed that the Grand Canyon might still be nearby. But he had already figured that out.

A memorable feast under the Tuscan sun

(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)  

   I have friends who actually plan each meal. Not just at holidays, but all year long. Even in the summer. Even on vacation. They look through magazines and cookbooks and pick a recipe because it excites them, not because it uses only four ingredients and the prep time is guaranteed to be less than fifteen minutes. Pushing a cart through the aisles of the grocery store doesn’t cause them to wilt like yesterday’s salad. They actually enjoy it.
   

    I am not like these people.
    

   And yet, by default, and I’m still trying to remember exactly how this happened, I am the person who has the responsibility of putting something (occasionally food) on the table each day. This is not easy.  I like to eat. I love food. I just like it better when someone else figures out what it will be and then makes it happen.
    

   As a young mother, with toddlers at my feet and a husband who was away three nights each week, we ate a lot of informal meals of fruit and cheese, hard-boiled eggs. Sometimes we added bread and butter to the feast. As a not-so-young mother working from home, writing around the schedules of four active children, I learned to love my crock pot. 
    

   It should be easier now but it isn’t. Now I lack any real motivation.  And I still lack imagination.
    

   I finally realized the real problem is that I’m just not a sophisticated foodie. I love to eat but, for me, the simpler the better.  I can sit down to fruit and a little cheese (tossed with a good book) and call it good. I like a nice piece of salmon. A piece of crusty bread and good butter. A bowl of strawberry ice cream. In the winter, simple and basic vegetable soup ( the one thing I like to prepare) can make me happy every night of the week.
    

   I was with friends not too long ago and the subject of memorable meals came up. I listened to the others rhapsodize about famous restaurants, Foie gras, thick steaks and various ragouts, reductions and complicated recipes. After thinking about it, I realized that, predictably, one of my favorite meals was one of the simplest I’ve ever eaten.
    

   My husband and youngest daughter and I were in Italy several years ago, in mid-October, strolling through a beautiful village in Tuscany. By noon we were ravenous. As it happened, it was market day and the town square was filled with vendors. I purchased a roast chicken from a mobile rotisserie and three clementines from a fruit stand. Actually, when the man realized all I wanted was three pieces of fruit, not the three kilo he’d thought, he gave them to me with a smile, waving away the Euro I offered.
   

    We took the warm, moist, roast chicken and the fragrant fruit to a small courtyard at the top of the city wall and sat looking out over the beautiful countryside as we ate with our fingers. My husband and I shared a bottle of local white wine as the sun warmed us. Bees droned in the flower garden and a local cat showed up to eat the scraps my daughter tossed to him. When we were done, the remains of the feast were rolled into the paper bag that had held the hen and thrown away. And that is my memorable meal.

   I watched people smile and nod, imagining the day and the moment as I described it. I’m no gourmand but even I know the secret ingredient of any feast is the simple pleasure of consuming it. Especially when you share it in the company of friends and family and, occasionally, a very good book.





Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. In addition to her Spokesman-Review Home Planet and Treasure Hunting columns and blogs and her CAMera: Travel and Photo blog, her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

Forget the app, there’s a map for that

   In the jumble of odds and ends I carry around in my purse, a mix of grocery store receipts, loose change, lipgloss, hairbands and bobby pins, mints, a small leather notebook and a pen, there is an honest-to-goodness map of the world. And I don’t mean the Google Maps app on my iPhone.
   

   The portable, purse-size Oxford World Atlas was a gift from my daughter, something I asked for last December, when, for once, I had an answer ready when asked what I would like to unwrap on Christmas morning. She bought it, brought it home and put it under the tree and now it is almost always with me.
 
   I pull out the book often and I am never disappointed. In less time than it would take to type in a keyword and track the tiny virtual map on the tiny screen on my phone, I can check the milage from Tokyo to Mumbai. I can, using the graph, measure the distance in miles or kilometers from one side of Paris to the other. I can daydream and make plans. I can follow along with the BBC or NPR news anchors when they’re talking about a drought, or disaster in some distant part of the world. Or, if I’m in the mood for something closer to home, I can look for unexplored places just a day’s drive from my backyard. And it isn’t all maps. At a glance, I can see what the national flag of Luxembourg or Montenegro looks like. I can find the capital city of the Slovak Republic, the population of the Mariana Islands, a list of the world’s busiest airports, the annual rainfall in Rome and even the average income of residents of Berlin.

   The information in the atlas is random and immediate. No searching for service or wireless. Just as men and women have been doing for centuries, I open a book and find a place that sparks my imagination. I like the satisfactory sound and feel of crisp, glossy, paper when I turn a page or trace my finger along printed highways, railways and rivers. I get swept away by possibilities and before I know it I’m connecting the map-dots of cities and countries. 

   I know a few facts may have changed since the book was updated, in fact, I’m sure of it. The world in always in flux. If I need to confirm the data, I do. But, for the most part, I’m sure of what I see. The socio-economic situations, politics and migratory habits of people are constantly changing but, and I find this immensely comforting, the continents, islands and land masses that make up the physical world as we know it are all still, barring any meteor strikes, volcanic eruptions and other cataclysmic surprises before this goes to print, exactly where they are supposed to be. And thanks to my daughter, I’m happy to say they are right at the bottom of my purse, between yesterday’s to-do list, a white shirt-button and my phone.


Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. In addition to her Spokesman-Review Home Planet and Treasure Hunting columns and blogs and her CAMera: Travel and Photo blog, her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

AAA predicts July 4 holiday travel will jump this year

AAA is predicting more holiday travelers covering more miles over the July 4 holiday this year, with a jump big enough to tie the past decade's high mark, set in 2007 prior to the recession. “We view the projected increase in travel as a positive signal, even though it's surrounded by a mixed bag of economic drivers,” said Dave Carlson, AAA Idaho public affairs director. Factors pushing toward more travelers include the holiday falling in the middle of the week, which likely will prompt more travelers to make longer trips and extend their holidays. A survey by AAA found that 54 percent of those planning to travel for the holiday will begin their trip prior to the start of the work week that includes the Wednesday holiday.

The motorists' group also cited stable airfares and declining gas prices nationwide, though Idaho's average gas price is now six cents a gallon higher than it was a year ago; the U.S. average gas price is 15 cents per gallon lower than it was a year ago. Idaho now has the sixth highest average gas price of any U.S. state. Though more travelers are expected to travel farther this year, they're also expected to spend less each; median spending is expected to be down 7 percent from last year.

Train travel brings community experience

(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)

I see a thousand automobiles every day. They’re all around me. They roll down my street in the morning and late at night. They ride in formation in front, beside, or behind me on the highways and freeways. And yet, never does it occur to me to wish I was in any of those steel cages. They hold no mystery. I suspect, for the most part, they are going to work, to the grocery story, to have the dog groomed or on any of the countless necessary but mundane trips I take each week.

But when I see a train, when I hear the whistle blow in the night or early in the morning, I automatically stop to listen; to wonder if it is a freight train or passenger train. To wonder where it is headed and where it has been. I put myself onboard, on the other side of the wide windows, and my imagination settles down onto the steel rails and is pulled forward with the chain.

I’m not alone. I hear others say the same thing. There is a romance to train travel that time and progress haven’t managed to dampen. A train is going somewhere slow and steady, rolling through valleys, over mountains and on high trestles spanning wild rivers. Even animals seem to catch the spirit, drawn to the fenceline beside the tracks and then stopping to lift their heads to watch the boxcars or coaches rumble by.

The last time I was on the Rocky Mountaineer, the luxury excursion train that snakes across British Columbia and Alberta, winter was closing in. We left Vancouver in the darkness of an October morning and pulled into stations in deep twilight at the end of each day’s ride. The rivers were low and slow and grasses and shrubs painted the hillsides with autumn color that flamed at the feet of tall evergreens and the pale skeletons of Pine Beetle-damaged pines.

But this trip I gazed out at the fresh green of a late Western Canada spring. Sipping coffee over breakfast in the dining car, we left the big city behind and moved out into the countryside. In mid-morning we watched eagles and Osprey fly over rivers that were swollen with snowmelt and spring rains. in the afternoon someone called out “Bear” and people popped up like Prairie Dogs, craning to see a big Black Bear grazing at the edge of the road. Bighorn Sheep perched on rocky outcroppings, tails flicking as they watched us roll by.

The next day we reached the Rocky Mountains and cameras clicked all around me. Many of the passengers were making the trip of a lifetime: a dozen or so from Australia, two women from Chile, a couple from Wales, another from Scotland. All were there to see the iconic Canadian landscape of the west, and Mother Nature happily obliged. Just as we pulled into Banff, as if cued to provide the grand finale, a grizzly sow and her cubs stepped out of the pines and stuck around just long enough to be photographed before melting back into the shadowy forest.

Listening to others in the coach talk about the bears, about the mountains and the places we’d passed on the trip, I was able to put my finger on one of the aspects of train travel that is so appealing: It is a community experience. It is a journey in the company of others who share the love. And, really, when you think about it, that’s what we’re all looking for in everything.



Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. In addition to her Spokesman-Review Home Planet and Treasure Hunting columns and blogs and her CAMera: Travel and Photo blog, her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

Note: The Rocky Mountaineer has added SilverLeaf service for the 2012 season. Find more information about it here.

Lesson from Estonia: Love feeds us all

(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)

Living in villages in the remote southeastern corner of Estonia, the Setu people have been farmers and woodsmen for centuries. No one seems to be exactly sure how long. They are said to be the oldest settled people in Europe, having never moved from their homeland. The pagan traditions of the past melded over time with the traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church and now, with half their homeland on the Soviet side of the demarcation line drawn after Estonian independence in 1991, leaving families fractured and divided, their primary export is more basic. It is the ancient songs traditionally sung by the women as they worked, cared for their families, worshiped and celebrated family ties. Now, Setu choirs perform around the world, on television, at festivals and fairs.

We were invited to join a group of Setu women at the cemetery for a special celebration. There, a cloth was spread at the base of the gravestone of a woman from the community. Food was arranged on the cloth and when everything was as it should be, the women stood up and began to sing. As they sang they swayed, some wearing traditional white wool coats over their woven skirts, white blouses and ornamental silver jewelry. All wore scarves covering their hair.

When the songs ended the women gestured toward the food, inviting us to come closer. They poured fruit punch, held up takeaway containers of cake and sandwiches and urged us to finish it all. Instead of the hushed voices one might expect in a churchyard, there was laughter and conversation.

The Setu language was indecipherable to me. The way the women were dressed was exotic with the musical jangling of silver on silver, chains of coins draped over large, heavy cone-shaped breastplates meant to ward off evil spirits. But a ceremony to honor the dead centered around food and hospitality made perfect sense. Food is sustenance,  we take it in to satisfy the need to fuel our bodies and minds. But food is also a conduit for love.

Thinking of my childhood, I recall so many meals. Family dinners, picnic lunches and breakfasts of scrambled eggs and toast. Chocolate milk and cups of coffee. Leftovers.

Food was my introduction to each of my children. Our first embrace was when I nursed each one just minutes after birth. Even now, when I can get them all together I have to serve them something. To feed myself, I need to feed them, to see them satisfied and content. Thinking about it, I realize my last moments with my mother on the night she died were spent offering her tiny spoonfuls of ice. It was all I could do.

The scenery and the songs of the Setu may be different from my world, but the driving force is the same. We court over meals, we celebrate milestones—birthdays, anniversaries, promotions—at the table. We grieve those we have lost gifted with offerings of food prepared or delivered by friends and coworkers.

Food brings us together, binds us to one another. And standing in a windswept cemetery, surrounded by stones weathered and mossy with age, I didn’t have to understand the words to recognize the spirit of the songs.


 Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. In addition to her Spokesman-Review Home Planet and Treasure Hunting columns and blogs and her CAMera: Travel and Photo blog, her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com
  

Travel gives us a better view of home

(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)

After three weeks on the road, traveling through different countries and cultures, I was still waking up in the middle of the night, addled by dreams, confused by my surroundings, having forgotten I was home again. I would blink in the darkness, staring into shadowy corners until my eyes adjusted and I recognized my own bedroom. For days I struggled to adjust, my mind and imagination still filled with the people and places I’d seen, my body on a different schedule.

Finally, lured by a spectacular sunset, I got on my bicycle. I needed the exercise and the distraction. I rode through the park and formal gardens near my house, maneuvering around the people who were out for an evening stroll, who were admiring the spring growth, stopping to look closely at plants, reading the name on the placards identifying them before moving on.

I navigated neighborhood streets, crossed a bridge over a busy arterial and then pulled up at a popular overlook to take a photo of the city below me. It was just beginning to glow in the twilight and traffic lights looked like a necklace of red and green stones stretching north toward the mountains.

As I made my back home I passed a house that seemed to be filled with music, the vibrant sounds of Beethoven pouring out into the spring evening through open windows. Around another corner I caught the smell of wet paint and through a window I could see a man rolling onto the wall a fresh coat of clean white paint. I passed a pair of teenagers sitting on the hood of a car parked on the street, their heads close together as they talked to one another. Farther down the street a big tabby cat stared out a window, his eyes following me as I rode past.

When I finally pedaled up my driveway and pulled into my garage, I felt calmer and realized the ride had soothed whatever it was inside me that had been so jangled. I was finally home.

No matter what takes me to some place far away—the bargain-basement airfare, the invitation, the assignment—I make an effort treat each trip to each new place like it will be the last. Like I will never return. I want to see it all while I can. I want to hear what people are saying, taste the food, drink the wine, sniff the air and find the pulse. Open your eyes, open your ears, I tell myself. Don’t miss a thing.

But so often at home, I move through my day like an automaton, oblivious to the place that owns me, driving with blind eyes down familiar streets, through familiar neighborhoods, past familiar landmarks. I put my feet on the floor in the morning and, leading with my chin, push through the day.

That’s my loss. What makes any city exciting or interesting is its people; the countless ordinary lives lived each ordinary day. I had to travel around the world, and then around the block, to remember that.


Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. In addition to her Spokesman-Review Home Planet and Treasure Hunting columns and blogs and her CAMera: Travel and Photo blog, her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

Memorial Day: White Crosses at Flanders Field

(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)

    In a quiet corner of Belgium, tucked into what is now a residential area, behind a low brick wall and evergreen hedge and just beyond an avenue of stately Linden trees, 368 American soldiers are buried at the Flanders Field American Cemetery.


    One of 24 cemeteries outside the United States maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission, the Flanders Field American Cemetery is the only American cemetery in Belgium. It was established on the site of the battlefield where almost 94 years ago, from October 30 to November 11, 1918, the 91st Division fought to liberate Belgium.


    I was there on a raw spring day in April and a cold rain fell on my umbrella as I walked between the rows of white marble crosses. The weather only added to the solemnity of the moment. Coming from Spokane, I took special note of Northwest names: Bernard Meyers and Edward Condon from Washington State, Frank Osborn from Montana. There were others from Idaho and Wyoming, and I wondered if the descendants of any of these men might be my neighbors.


    Sadly, the War to End All Wars was hardly that. Almost a century later we are still in conflict, still living under the threat of war and terror. Men and women continue to die on foreign soil. Supreme sacrifices continue to be made.


    In the elaborate marble chapel at the Flanders Field cemetery I stooped to read the messages on the wreaths of paper Poppies—the symbol of Flanders Fields and the almost unimaginable losses there—and other memorial flowers. One stood out. The card attached to the ring of red paper flowers was printed with the words, “From an American who remembers.”


    There was no name, no way to tell to whom the wreath had been dedicated. But thinking about the names on the simple white crosses, the generations altered and impacted by the cruelties of war and the men and women who are coming home now to a society grown so accustomed to conflict we forget to thank and acknowledge those who deliberately step into harm’s way , it crossed my mind I should pull out my pen and add the words, “From all of us.”

You can see more photos of the Flanders Field American Cemetery on my CAMera: Travel and Photo blog.
  

 

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. In addition to her Spokesman-Review Home Planet and Treasure Hunting columns and blogs and her CAMera: Travel and Photo blog, her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com


  

We have asparagus season. Germany has Spargelzeit.

   (Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)

 

 

   Just after the morning’s first cup of coffee, I pedaled my bicycle to the organic market near my house. I’d been drawn by the sign advertising fresh local asparagus and I came home with bundles of the tender green vegetable in the wicker basket on the front of my bike.  That night, grilled in butter and olive oil, sprinkled with a bit of sea salt, it was as delicious as I’d expected. The quintessential taste of spring.

   Halfway around the world, in Germany, I know another woman was probably doing the same thing. Only her bicycle basket would be filled with the pale, white asparagus. It would be more delicately flavored, grown in tall mounds of earth, sheltered from the sun until harvest.

   From April to late June, Germans are mad for asparagus. Eaten only in season, the tender, pale, stalks set off a frenzy of dining and celebrating. We have asparagus season. They have Spargelzeit. Once the delicacy of kings, and regarded as a medicinal luxury in the Middle Ages, the “edible Ivory” stalks are brought out like treasure. Harvested, displayed and consumed with adoration.

   Weekly markets—usually held in the historic squares of the old cities—are sprinkled with stalls featuring rows of  white asparagus bundles paired with other early fruits and vegetables like radishes or strawberries. The effect is as colorful and appealing as any still-life composed by an artist.

   Restaurants create special menus dedicated to asparagus, each trying to outdo the other. It is blended into cocktails, pickled, chopped into salads, draped across main courses and even sweetened and turned into dessert.  One might have it in the morning’s omelet, lunchtime salad and again at the evening meal. With a glass of German wine, of course. There is no moderation.

   Like the country’s exuberant Christmas decorations, Asparagus is the star of spring. There are asparagus festivals, complete with Kings and Queens and districts organize asparagus trails and tours similar to the well-traveled wine routes that meander through the Rhine valley.  The Lower Saxony region produces a fifth of all the asparagus Germany consumes each season and in the Baden fields devotees, eager for the freshest bites, can pitch in and join the harvest.

   Here, in my part of the world, the sign is back. A new harvest of local Northwest asparagus is on display at the market so I’ll hop back on my bike and fill the basket again. I’ll serve it up and savor each bite. But I can’t help but feel a bit cheated. Sure, we have asparagus season. But Germany? Well, they get Spargelzeit.


Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. In addition to her Spokesman-Review Home Planet and Treasure Hunting columns and blogs and her CAMera: Travel and Photo blog, her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

Sleeping with the KGB

(Photo of the Hotel Viru KGB Museum by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)

 

   It’s usually done without thinking. I check into a hotel, unpack, take a photo if the view from the window is a good one, maybe even take a nap or, if there's time, a bubble bath.  Then, as I leave for the afternoon or turn in for the night, I slip the Do Not Disturb sign on the door and that’s that. My valuables are locked in the safe. My door is locked. My privacy is secured.

    I never gave much thought to that privacy as a luxury but recently, touring Estonia and the beautiful city of Tallinn on the coast of the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Finland, I got a glimpse into an altogether different world. I took the one-hour KGB Hotel Museum at the Sokos Viru Hotel.

    The Hotel Viru, built in 1972, was Estonia’s first skyscraper and one of the very few luxury hotels in the Soviet Union. With a glitzy Vegas-meets-Moscow interior, complete with showgirls, the Varu was built to bring in much-needed tourism dollars. It was where visiting celebrities and VIPs stayed. But, as was later discovered when Estonia gained independence in 1991, the hotel was riddled with microphones and other surveillance secrets. Hospitality KGB style.

    Small unseen rooms were secreted between guest rooms to make it easy for KGB agents to eavesdrop and monitor guest’s activities. And on the 23rd floor (the elevator went only to the 22nd floor) in a cramped space occupied by two men and filled with equipment, private conversations were recorded and monitored 24 hours a day. On each floor, matrons sat in hallways and marked the comings and goings of each guest.

    In Tallinn, everybody wanted to work at the hotel. In Soviet Estonia, the next best thing to having some kind of power or prestige was having a friend who worked at the Viru. In a society where black-market trading was the only way to thwart severe and deliberate communist deprivation, who you knew was was like money in the bank. The Viru was a source of foreign currency. Of scarce food supplies, basic toiletries and any number of other desirable things.You could, for instance, if you were lucky enough to make an under-the-table deal, procure a cake baked by one of the hotel pastry chefs. A cake!


    The KGB tour starts in the lobby before taking the elevator and a flight of stairs up to the  secret room. The hideout’s interior is just as it was found when KGB agents fled. There are still cigarette butts in the ashtray. Our guide obviously relishes her job. She sprinkled her historical comments with “wink wink, nudge nudge”asides about the “micro-concrete” construction and the “special” bread plates which were wired with microphones and placed on the dinner table when KGB agents were particularly interested in what certain guests had to say.

    She told us that when Elizabeth Taylor stayed at the Viru, she threw a Movie Star tantrum and ripped open a feather pillow. Unfortunately, Ms. Taylor then tried, unsuccessfully, to flush the feathers down the toilet and caused quite the plumbing headache. Score one for Americans, I guess. (Astronaut Neil Armstrong was also a guest but was apparently less temperamental.)

    While the cloak-and-dagger machinations sound almost comic now, it’s worth remembering that life for the residents of Estonia during the Soviet years was anything but funny. There was no abundance of anything. Scarcity was real. So were travel restrictions and lack of personal freedom. The things we take for granted—like privacy—were sometimes unattainable. Think about that the next time you check into a hotel. And if you’re ever in Tallinn, a beautiful city in an independent country, check out the KGB museum at the Hotel Viru. It's worth the trip. And the reminder.
    
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. In addition to her Spokesman-Review Home Planet and Treasure Hunting columns and blogs and her CAMera: Travel and Photo blog, her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

Biologist talks about birds, culture of East Asia

NATURE – Howard Ferguson, a Washington Fish and Wildlife Department wildlife biologist, will present a free program on his experiences with birds and culture in East Asia at 7 p.m. Wednesday may 9 at the Riverview Retirement Community, Village Community Building, 2117 E. North Crescent Ave.

On sabbatical, Ferguson traveled for several months working and exploring Saipan, Japan, Bali, Borneo, Thailand and Vietnam.

The program is sponsored by the Spokane Audubon Society.

See a map for directions.

Little Souvenirs

Preparing to take a taxi to the Brussels airport, I’ve removed everything from my suitcase and spread it across the bed in my hotel room and I am, one by one, refolding and repacking each piece. Looking at the things I’ve gathered, even though I was trying to be prudent and to remember the charges the airlines level against heavy bags, I realize again how difficult it is for those of us who are susceptible to the romance of ordinary objects. Much more than the expensive souvenirs, we know the little things carry with them the most evocative memories of the places we explore.

Other cities and other countries haunt my house.  I can pull a book of matches out of a drawer in my kitchen and be instantly transported back to a cafe in a faraway place; strong coffee, conversation and an unfamiliar view through the window. Matchbooks are not so common these days and most I find were brought home years ago, but I occasionally still run across one and a tiny flame from Prague or Pennsylvania, will light the barbecue on my very American patio.

I frequently, if I like the scent, slip hotels soaps into my luggage between sweaters or folded pajamas to keep them fresh. When I unpack at home the fragrant soaps go into the linen closet. Again, when I least expect it, I’ll come across a bit of Paris or Brussels or Zurich or San Francisco tucked between pillowcases or folded into sheets.

At each museum I visit I purchase a postcard of the painting or sculpture I loved the most and the cards become bookmarks in whatever book I was reading on the plane or are slipped into travel guides. Some escape the pins on the cork board behind my desk and turn up when furniture is rearranged.

A bottle of wine, wrapped and slipped into a boot in my suitcase, is opened later bringing with it a reminder of a special meal or a special moment in Tuscany. Or Napa.

Now, after a week traveling across Belgium, my bags are full of such odds and ends. The silk scarves I collect as I go, gifts and souvenirs for my family, maps, travel guides and destination pamphlets picked up along the way are added to a few favorite hotel lotions and soaps. Finally, when it is all done I pull out the practical gift given to me last Christmas by my youngest daughter and prepare for the worst. Slipping the portable travel scale over the handle of my luggage I lift it, biting my lip as the numbers flash and then finally stop. Good news. For all my worrying, I am a pound or two under the limit.

That means there is just enough room for the big box of Belgian chocolate.


Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. In addition to her Spokesman-Review Home Planet and Treasure Hunting columns and blogs and her CAMera: Travel and Photo blog, her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

Sea-Tac tries expedited security PreCheck program

Next time you’re at an airport how would you like to speed through the security line without taking off your shoes and belt or removing laptops and liquids from carry-on bags?

The Transportation Security Administration is starting an expedited screening program today for some passengers on Alaska Airlines at Sea-Tac Airport, the Associated Press reports.

It’s called PreCheck.  

The only Sea-Tac travelers eligible for now are members of Alaska’s frequent-flier program invited by the airline and pre-approved by TSA. Also members of expedited border crossing programs run by the Customs and Border Protection, such as Nexus.

Spokane adventurers detail 15 weeks in Alaska

ADVENTURING — Spokane adventurers Debbie and Bill Pierce will present a free program about their 15-week, 12,000-mile summer trip of kayaking, fishing and wildlife photography in Alaska tonight (April 23), 7 p.m., at the Corbin Community Center, 827 W. Cleveland Ave.

“Carrying kayaks and mountain bikes on our conversion van,  we explored as many roads, trails and waterways as possible,” Debbie Pierce said. “With no real plan or time commitment,  we used  the fireweed as our only timekeeper-our summer's clock.

“Traveling from mid-June to late September, we watched  the blossoms climb up the stem of the  tall plant, knowing that (according to Alaska folklore), summer was over when the petals  hit the top.”

She said their photos include some of Alaska's amazing scenery, “including the beautiful  mountains and wild rivers, the rugged coastlines and magnificent wildlife.”

The program is sponsored by the Spokane Canoe & Kayak Club.

Spokane Mountaineer details Middle East, Africa travels tonight

TRAVEL — Meri Murphy of the Spokane Mountaineers will detail her the post retiremed trip she made — for eight months! — in the Middle East and Africa during a free program tonight, 7 p.m. at Mountain Gear Headquarters, 6011 E. Mansfield.

 Murphy departed Spokane one week after retiring for a low-cost adventure in Middle East (2 months) — Turkey, Syria (whew!), Lebanon, Dubai, Oman.

Then Africa: (6 months): South Africa, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania/Zanzibar, Rwanda.

She'll show her slides and talk about the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly.

Her one word summary of her journey: “Fabulous.”