The Great River Road, Part 9: Dubuque, IA

Adversity does not build character, it reveals it. – James Lane Allen

 September 1, 2015 – Day 11 – Dubuque, Iowa

We left Dyersville and the Field of Dreams movie site and headed east to spend the rest of the day in 182-year-old Dubuque. Our first stop was the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, which offers a little something for everyone. For wildlife lovers, there are over a dozen aquariums with everything from giant catfish to river otters. For Mississippi River lovers, there are all sorts of interactive displays on how the Great River and rivers in general operate. They even have a display on the Great River Road, which gave us a nice visual on our progress to date. For steamboat lovers, there are not only displays but also the dredge William M. Black, a steamboat and National Historic Landmark that we toured. After walking for most of the day, it was nice to sit back and watch James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge 3D which chronicles his underwater expedition to the deepest part of the ocean.

Two tickets to paradise...not so much
Two tickets to paradise…not so much

Our most memorable part of the museum, though, was the 5,000 square foot Titanic exhibit, the largest in the museum’s history and Dubuque’s history. The exhibit, which unfortunately didn’t allow photos, took us on a timeline from the ship’s construction to its final plunge to the ocean floor. It was that rare exhibit where you actually want to stop at each display and read every word. Upon entering the exhibit, we were each given a Titanic ticket with the name of an actual passenger on the ship and their story. We were told that upon exiting the exhibit, we could check a display board to see whether our person lived or died. After looking down at our tickets and noticing that we were both third-class passengers, I looked at Lil Jan and asked, “Do you think we’ll survive?” “Not likely, honey,” she replied. A few minutes later we were staring at the very ornate replica of a first-class cabin, to include an elegant sofa. I got caught up in the moment and without thinking, looked over at Lil Jan and said, “I really want to draw you.” Once again, she replied, “Not likely, honey.”

We are here!
We are here!

We learned that a first-class ticket could be purchased for $2500, approximately $57,200 in today’s dollars. The most expensive rooms were more than $103,000 in today’s dollars. Right across from this elegant 1st class room replica was a third-class room setup. Up to 10 people resided in 3rd class rooms, each paying $40, which is equivalent to $900 in today’s dollars. Mostly strangers shared these rooms and families were often split up and assigned to rooms based on gender.

Other exhibit highlights included the dinner menu on that fateful night, dishes, jewelry and ship pieces retrieved from the ocean floor, and an actual chunk of iceberg to give a sense of how cold it was that night. The final room was the memorial room, where we read the stories of survivors and saw the names of those who made it and those who weren’t so fortunate. We pulled out our tickets and checked for our names on the board. As feared, the people we represented both died. I conjectured that we probably sank next to Jack, all because Rose wouldn’t scoot over and make room on that piece of wood for the three of us.

Annie Funk...courage under fire
Annie Funk saved a woman and child

As we scanned the stories of the survivors, two of them really stood out to us. It’s interesting how one’s character is best revealed during times of crisis, and that was certainly the case for these two individuals. At one end of the character and integrity spectrum is Annie Funk, an American Christian born into a Mennonite family in Pennsylvania. Annie spent her adult years serving immigrants in the slums of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Paterson, New Jersey. While fulfilling her dream as a missionary in India, she received a telegram that her mother was ill back in Pennsylvania. Traveling by train and boat, she made it to Liverpool, where she learned that the ship she had been booked on to take her to America had been delayed due to a strike. She opted for Plan B, buying a second-class ticket on the Titanic, making its maiden voyage. Titanic set sail on April 10, 1912, and all was well. Annie even celebrated her 38th birthday while on the ship. However, at midnight four days after setting sail, stewards awoke Annie and told her to get dressed and head toward the lifeboats, because the ship had struck an iceberg. She made it to one of the last lifeboats on deck, which had one seat remaining. At the last moment, she stepped back and gave her seat to a mother and child, saving two lives. Annie ultimately sunk to the bottom of the ocean along with 1500 others, and her body was never identified. She’s honored at a memorial in Pennsylvania at the Hereford Mennonite Church Cemetery. The memorial reads, “She was coming home on her first furlough, when death overtook her in the wreck of the steamship Titanic off the coast of Newfoundland. Her life was one of service in the spirit of the Master—‘Not to be ministered unto but to minister.’” In a moment of incredible heartache and adversity, Annie’s character was once again revealed, and so we, too, honor her today.

Bruce Ismay, who saved himself
Bruce Ismay saved himself

At the other end of the character and integrity spectrum is Bruce Ismay, who goes down in history as a villain and coward. In fairness, there are conflicting accounts of his actions during the fateful Titanic voyage. We know for sure that he was an English businessman and the chairman and managing director for Titanic’s parent company, White Star Line. He was the highest-ranking White Star official on board, and was among the 705 survivors. Prior to the voyage, Ismay ordered that the number of lifeboats be reduced from 48 to 16 to accommodate some of Titanic’s luxurious features. While 16 lifeboats met legal requirements, they were insufficient to save all the passengers on board. There are other reports that Ismay encouraged Captain Smith to attempt a speed test during the voyage, perhaps valuing White Star Line’s reputation over a concern for passenger safety. Later, as the ship was sinking, Ismay boarded a lifeboat and abandoned ship, despite the long-held principle of women and children first. Both the British and American press criticized him and labeled him a coward for abandoning ship while passengers were still on board. He claimed he was the only one near the lifeboat at the time, so he wasn’t taking the seat of any women or children. We will never know exactly what went down in those final moments as the ship sank, or whether Mr. Ismay could have made a greater effort to seek out and save others on board.

View from inside 4th Street Elevator
View from inside 4th Street Elevator

After leaving the Titanic exhibit and museum, we headed up a steep hill in order to get on the Fourth Street Elevator, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Place. It claims to be the steepest and shortest railroad in the world. In 1882, local banker and former state senator J.K. Graves built the railroad because he lived on the bluffs but worked down in the town. Although the bank where he worked was only two and a half blocks away, it was a two hour round trip journey by horse and buggy. This prevented him from eating a half hour lunch and taking a half hour nap each day. So he built this railway, known as a funicular, to solve that problem. It has burned down several times in history, a fact that would have been convenient to know before boarding. A later owner, C.B. Trewin, added a second floor apartment at the top of the incline, where he and his buddies smoked and played cards without their wives interfering. It has been said (just now, by me) that they put the fun in funicular.

So you're saying in the original manuscript, Huck was a cross-dresser?
So you’re saying in the original manuscript, Huck was a cross-dresser?

Our final stop of the day was the lobby of the 176-year-old Hotel Julien, which has hosted guests to include Abraham Lincoln, “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Mark Twain, and the notorious Chicago gangster, Al Capone. Legend has it that Mr. Capone would hide out at the hotel when things got too hot to handle in Chicago. He would hide his cars at a nearby underground garage, and take over the entire 8th floor, using guards as lookouts. We thought about running into the lobby and going all gangster on the place, but thought better of it. Sorry, Al.

"So I've brought together all the readers of our blog to get your feedback..."
“So I’ve brought together all the readers of our blog to get your feedback…”

Today was a very full day…enough for two blogs. We began the day with a reminder to dream big dreams and then pursue them, like Ray in the Field of Dreams. We ended the day with a lesson on character, thanks to the courageous Annie Funk and her morally more questionable fellow passenger, Bruce Ismay.

Big Steve

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The Great River Road, Part 8: Dyersville, IA

Ray, people will come Ray. They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past… This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh… people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.   – Terence Mann

 September 1, 2015 – Day 11 – Dyersville, Iowa

I awoke knowing this was going to be a great day, because today we were headed to the Field of Dreams. Some movies hit you at a deep, emotional level, and Field of Dreams does that for me and apparently many others. For some, it’s simply a great story about baseball, our great American pastime. Others may identify with Ray Kinsella (played by Kevin Costner) and his troubled relationship with his now deceased father who had been a devoted baseball fan. But as a young newlywed back in 1989, I think I identified mostly with Ray, the young husband being challenged to pursue a dream.

Child of the corn
Child of the corn

Ray’s dream, or calling, was to build a baseball field on his family’s cornfield. One evening, while walking through the cornfield, Ray hears a voice, a whisper, telling him, “If you build it, he will come.” The voice continues whispering to him and then he sees a vision of a baseball field. Of course, when it comes to dreams or callings, usually not everyone is on board. There are skeptics, and such was the case with Ray. His wife, Anna, is understandably skeptical, especially given the financial ruin faced by the family. Ray’s brother-in-law, Mark, implores him to re-plant his crops on the field to avoid bankruptcy. It’s difficult for Anna and Mark to buy into Ray’s dream until they, themselves, start to have their own supernatural visions.

Although I’ve never heard supernatural voices or had ghosts from my past emerge from cornfields, I’ve had some dreams. With each of my dreams, each big idea for the future, there were skeptics. The skeptics were often people close to me, and were usually very well intentioned. They wanted what was best for me, and were concerned that my vision for the future wasn’t necessarily in my best interest.

They built it, we came.
They built it, we came.

One of my first big dreams was to follow in my dad’s footsteps and pursue an Air Force career. One well-intentioned skeptic asked, “Are you sure you want to do that? With your degree and background, you could make a lot of money and achieve a lot as a civilian.” Later in life, I had a dream to try to help plant a church in Honduras. Among the many supporters was a skeptic who basically thought our money and energy should go toward reaching the lost in America and in our own community, not strangers on foreign soil. Even later in life, I felt a calling to retire from the Air Force and pursue dual careers, teaching at a Christian school by day, and serving as a youth minister at night. Once again, some well-intentioned friends questioned the decision, citing the significant pay cut and the potential for even bigger jobs and higher rank if I remained in the military. A more recent dream, shared by my wife, was to unload most of our possessions and travel the country by RV. While most people thought it was a pretty cool idea, there were skeptics who questioned our sanity and ability to live peacefully in such tight quarters. My next pending dream, a calling that has been lying dormant for two decades, is to thru-hike the 2180-mile Appalachian Trail. After explaining the challenges and potential perils of such an undertaking, a person I love (for many reasons, to include the fact she birthed my wife) commented, “Now why in the world would you want to go and do something like that?”

Life on the farm
Life on the farm

When dealing with skeptics, I recommend listening to their opinions, but also considering the value system behind the opinion. In some cases, they have valid concerns, like not wanting you to get eaten by a bear and then have your carcass thrown off a cliff. Other times, though, critics seem to value making and accumulating money over, well, all else. The thinking goes that the potential for a high corporate salary trumps the patriotic desire to defend one’s nation. The potential for promotions, increasingly prestigious positions, and more money trumps whatever teaching or mentoring might happen in a small Bible class at a private Christian school. In addition to the pursuit of material wealth, another prevailing value of critics is the desire to play it safe and avoid risk. What if the church doesn’t remain open? (It didn’t.) What if you break an ankle running a marathon? (I did.) What if you forget to put your tow car in neutral before pulling it? (Okay, it happened!) People are so naturally drawn to safety and security, to keeping their Maslow pyramids upright, that they recoil at the thought of someone risking failure by not playing it safe. I know this because too often I am the skeptic. Even with my own sons, I have sometimes been inclined to respond to their plans and ideas with skeptical hesitation rather than a more supportive, optimistic approach. They deserve more balanced advice from me, not just “well, nice idea, but here’s everything that can go wrong with that…”

"Ease his pain."
“Ease his pain.”

We arrived at Dyersville’s Field of Dreams and I was instantly impressed by it. The farmhouse, baseball field, and cornfield had a certain vibe to them and definitely lived up to the hype. Since it was a weekday morning during the school year, we almost had the place to ourselves. Almost. The first visitors to join us near home plate were a group of five special-needs young adults and their chaperone. These young men were fired up and had huge smiles on their faces, but seemed unsure what to do next. Their chaperone said, “Run the bases, gentlemen…run!” Four of them slowly began meandering about, while the last guy took off full-speed toward the pitchers mound. He ran right by it and touched second base and then made a big loop out in centerfield, laughing all the way. It was the most fantastic, heart-warming running of the bases I had ever seen. Well done, sir.

"Go the distance."
“Go the distance.”

Next, a group of three women in their 80s approached, wearing pink shirts, accompanied by one of their daughters (their chaperone, also in pink). I told the ladies I came close to wearing my pink shirt today and wish that I had. They laughed and asked if I would take their picture and I said that I would, under one condition. “I want you to take the field,” I said. They looked over at their chaperone, who nodded, and off they went to take the field. So I took their picture. I think if ever I were to coach baseball again, it would be with a team of 80-year women, and I’d call them the Pink Panthers. That’s my dream, and I’m not listening to any critics.

Pink Panthers take the field
Pink Panthers take the field

Lil Jan and I took pictures around the property and video of each of us emerging from the cornfield, just like Shoeless Joe Jackson from the movie. I even ran the bases…a little faster than the 80-year-olds but slower than the young man with the special need and big heart. The field is in perfect condition, and I’m thankful that it has been maintained and made available for tourists and fans to see. As we drove away, I reflected on the movie and specifically on Ray’s life-changing decision to follow his heart and build the ball field of his dreams. That decision changed his life and ultimately led to him reconciling with his father. I reminded myself to dream big dreams, and to have the courage to go after them. Not all dreams will come to fruition; in fact, some pursuits may fail miserably. But, in my opinion, an even greater failure is to be so risk averse that you rarely if ever pursue your biggest dreams. I hope my sons will continue to take a bold approach in pursuing their dreams, even if their old man isn’t always on board initially.

In light of some of the cool places and amazing moments we’ve experienced on our journey down the Great River Road, I thought I’d close with another quote from the movie…

You know we just don’t recognize the most significant moments of our lives while they’re happening. Back then I thought, well, there’ll be other days. I didn’t realize that that was the only day.                                                                                                           – Dr. Archibald “Moonlight” Graham

Big Steve

P.S. Bonus video:  To see Shoeless Janet Johnson, click on the link…


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The Great River Road, Part 7: Davenport to Maquoketa Caves SP, IA

Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world. – Gustave Flaubert

 August 30, 2015 – Day 9 – Davenport, Iowa

After a restful night’s sleep wedged between rows of trucks at Wal-Mart, we headed out to worship at the Central Church of Christ in Davenport. Several members welcomed us and, as is customary, asked, “Where are you from?” This is not a difficult question for most people, but we’re not most people. We can claim Tennessee, the place where we met, graduated from college and got married, and where my dad and sisters live. We can claim South Carolina, where our mail is sent, where Lil Jan was born, and where most of her family lives. We can claim Delaware, my birth state, or Virginia, where we own a home. Florida is another option, because that’s where we most recently lived, where our driver’s licenses are from, our cars are registered, and where we keep most of the handful of possessions we own. Of course, a lengthier, more complicated option is to discuss 47 years of Air Force assignments. However, the quickest, least complicated, and most accurate response is to simply point to the RV occupying several parking spaces along the back of the church parking lot. That’s where home is, at least for now. Before saying farewell, I gave a final glance to the four large banners hanging from the front wall at the church building. They offered sound advice, so I thought I’d share them:

  1. Walk faithfully.
  2. Give generously.
  3. Love extravagantly.
  4. Share fearlessly.
Lil Jan Doin' Large Things
Lil Jan Doin’ Large Things

Our next stop was about as touristy as they come: Iowa 80, The World’s Largest Truck Stop! It humbly began in 1964 with one bay, two diesel pumps, and a small restaurant in the middle of an Iowa cornfield. Today, this massive, 24/7 complex has grown to 225 acres and 900 parking spaces for truckers…in the middle of an Iowa cornfield. It features…

  • Iowa 80 Kitchen, a 300-seat restaurant with a 50-foot buffet (surprisingly good food)
  • 30,000 square foot super trucks showroom
  • 24 private showers
  • 60-seat surround-sound movie theater
  • Driver’s Den with fireplace
  • Two game rooms
  • Barber shop and styling salon
  • Truck wash and truck scale
  • Truck service center
  • Dentist
  • Chiropractor/masseuse
  • Custom vinyl graphics shop + embroidery center
  • Upscale gift shop, collectibles store, and travel store
  • Food court, featuring Wendy’s, DQ, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and more
Big Rig Driver
Million dollar truck…$3 jorts

As I walked around this amazing place, the thought crossed my mind that we could leave the RV parked outside and live here. Think about it. Nightly massages. Adequate showers for family gatherings…or a Hernandez family sleepover. An on-call, 50-foot buffet. Greeting truckers at the Driver’s Den with popular phrases like “Breaker one-nine,” “Hey good buddy,” and “You’re aware of the showers, right?” And when tourists ask, “Where are you from?” I could say, “Right here! Lil Jan works in the embroidery shop and I help truckers pass gas out by the bays.”

Sadly, my idea to live there was rejected, so we headed north to set up a new base camp at Maquoketah Caves State Park. As usual, we will do a campground review of this state park in a separate, upcoming blog.

August 31, 2015 – Day 10 – Amana Colonies, Iowa

Although we were a little west of the Great River Road corridor, I decided to take us even further west to visit the Amana Colonies. I learned about these towns/colonies in the 1000 Places to See Before You Die book and wanted to try to work them in before we die. (Our time is running out…yours is too. Sorry for that mid-blog reality check.)

To understand the National Historic Landmark known as the Amana Colonies, one must go back to 1714 in the villages of Germany. A religious movement began called Pietism, which promoted faith renewal through Bible study, prayer, and reflection. More specifically, they believed God, through the Holy Spirit, inspired individuals to speak. They called their group True Inspiration based on this perceived gift of inspiration, or prophecy. Unfortunately, they were persecuted for their beliefs and sought refuge at the Ronneburg castle and other estates in central Germany. Fast forward 130 years and the group faced severe economic depression in Germany and more persecution. In 1843 they decided to pool their resources and sought religious freedom in America. Working together and sharing their property, this community of 1,200 people established a separatist, communal way of life on 5,000 acres near Buffalo, New York.

German food? We're there.
German food? We’re there.

The community, now called the Ebeneezer Society, thrived and outgrew their land. They needed affordable land with enough fertile soil, stone, wood and water to build their dream community. Those requirements led them to Iowa where their leaders named their new village Amana, which means to “remain true” and comes from Song of Solomon 4:8. They established six villages, two miles apart, on 26,000 acres of a river valley. They shared all resources and properties, working together to provide housing, medical care, food, and schooling to each other. The Village Council assigned jobs yet there were no wages, because no money was needed…nor a police force of any sort. Among them were many skilled craftsmen, and well-crafted products became a hallmark of the Amana Colonies. They gathered for quiet worship and reflection 11 times per week in very simple church buildings. Life was good.

That way of life lasted until the Great Depression. In 1932 they set aside their communal way of life, due partly to a disastrous farm market. They also believed that the communal way of life kept them from achieving individual goals. So, while the communal dream was over, they continued their tradition of community spirit and religious faith. Their expert craftsmanship has been passed on to subsequent generations, which may explain the Amana appliance in your kitchen or laundry room. Thankfully, they also preserved their historic brick, stone and clapboard homes, their gardens and walkways, and their hospitable nature.

High Amana General Store
High Amana General Store

Lil Jan and I did a self-guided walking tour of the village of Amana. We perused several antique stores and watched blankets and clocks being made at the woolen mill and clock factories. Lil Jan bought a historical Christian fiction novel set in Amana. (For historical Christian fiction lovers, it’s by Melanie Dobson and titled Love Finds You in Amana, Iowa.) Not surprisingly, we feasted on a fabulous German meal at the Ronneburg Restaurant, named after that German castle that provided the community refuge in 1714. The waitress explained how the original community operated, and offered insights on the close family bonds and traditions that remain today.

While soaking in the history of this place, we learned of another separatist, communal living group that came to Iowa nine years prior to the people of Amana. Settling just 50 miles away, they also spoke German and wore similar clothing, but were different ethnically and religiously. Despite their close proximity and common roots, these two groups…the Amana people and the Amish people…have had very little interaction through the years.

Master Clock Makers at Work
Master Clock Makers at Work

After touring the Amana colony on foot, we drove through the remaining colonies and then headed back to our base camp in Maquoketah. Today, we were transported back in time to a community that shared a common faith, work ethic, and way of life. They shared their possessions and believed Bible study, prayer, and reflection should characterize one’s faith. I think they were on to something there. If my dream of living at the world’s largest truck stop doesn’t work out, we may give communal living a try.

Big Steve

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The Great River Road, Part 6: Grand Detour, IL to Davenport, IA

Sometimes the most scenic roads in life are the detours you didn’t mean to take. – Angela N. Blount

 August 29, 2015 – Day 8 – Grand Detour, Illinois

Today was supposed to be just an easy travel day for Big Steve and me. There were no attractions to see or agenda items to check off. We simply wanted to get from Huntley, Illinois to Davenport, Iowa to rest up before continuing our journey down the Great River Road. Sometimes God has other plans.

As we traveled through the aptly named little town of Grand Detour, Illinois, Steve noticed a sign for the “John Deere Historic Site”. Being a history buff and fan of unplanned stops, Steve said, “let’s check this out” and went down a side road and into the parking lot. Honestly, I had my doubts. I’m not all that in to tractors, so I thought we should probably pass on this one. That would have been a mistake. Steve would want me to add here…that for the record he was RIGHT in choosing this stop!

John Deere's Home
John Deere’s Home

We paid a modest entry fee and began a guided tour of the John Deere homestead. It was incredible…what a pleasant surprise. I quickly became aware that John Deere was an actual person, not just the green and yellow tractor we associate with that name. The tour guide had a firm grasp of John Deere’s story, and walked us around the property and through the main house. He went through key events in family history and pointed out several features of the house and its furnishings. It was like stepping back in time. One of my favorite items in the house was a rocking chair. The tour guide explained to us that they used the rocking chair as a way to dry their hair by hanging it over the back of the chair. How creative is that? We then headed over to the original blacksmith’s shop, which is an archaeological dig and historic site. Our guide pointed out the artifacts that had been dug up and their purpose, and then we watched a video of the John Deere story. Three things stood out to me:

Deere Statue
Deere Statue

1. John Deere didn’t invent or build tractors. In fact, the first Deere tractor prototype  didn’t come along until nearly 30 years after his death. He never used any of the fancy green and yellow farm equipment that is associated with his name. The first John Deere tractors were created by his son.

Deere's Kitchen w/ Hair Drying Rocker to the left
Deere’s Kitchen w/ Hair Drying Rocker to the left

2. John Deere was an innovative problem solver. He noticed that plows that easily cut through soil in the Northeast struggled in the sticky black earth of the Midwest. Farmers had to constantly stop to wipe soil off the plow, which made farming more difficult and less profitable. So John Deere went to work in his blacksmith shop. Through trial and error and perseverance, he built a better plow…a steel one that would easily slice through midwestern soil. That 1837  innovation opened the vast rich prairies to agricultural development and laid the groundwork for what eventually would become the John Deere Company we know today.

Replica of Deere's Steel Plow
Replica of Deere’s Steel Plow

3. Most people aren’t familiar with Captain Benjamin Lawrence, but he plays an important role in this story. You see he was the blacksmith who invited 17-year-old John Deere to apprentice in his shop for three years. He taught John the tools of the trade, like sharpening hayforks and rakes, forming and fitting shoes for horses, and later fixing ironwork for stagecoaches. As a result, John Deere became a master of his craft. Later, he himself took in apprentices and taught them the craft. Our society values and honors the “John Deere’s”, and rightly so because their innovations have changed the course of history. But behind every John Deere there is a Benjamin Lawrence who plays an important role in mentoring, shaping, and encouraging future inventors and innovators. We may never become a famous John Deere, but I hope all of us will try to be a Benjamin Lawrence to someone.

Archaeological Dig of Deere's Blacksmith Shop
Archaeological Dig of Deere’s Blacksmith Shop

Our final stop on the tour was the working blacksmith shop, a recreation of the one John Deere would have used. The blacksmith who gave the blacksmithing demonstration was Rick, who just so happened to be an Air Force veteran. That gave him an instant bond with Steve, and the two of them shared details of their careers using acronyms that only military people can understand. He gave us even more details on John Deere’s life and work as a blacksmith, and then expertly demonstrated how to turn a steel rod into a beautiful, decorative leaf petal. He was really good. In fact, if John Deere hadn’t invented that new plow, I think Rick eventually would have.

Rick Doin' Work
Rick Doin’ Work

As the demonstration came to an end, he asked where we currently worked. We told him we had taken some time off to tour the country by RV, but that we had previously worked at a private Christian school. His ears perked up, a smile came across his face and he said, “So, you’re believers, then?” Steve and I nodded and he then proceeded to roll up his sleeve and proudly show us his cross tattoo. In addition to the military bond, we had identified a bond that goes much deeper…our Christian faith. He said, “hold on for a minute…don’t leave…I’ve got something for you” and then politely waited for the other customers to exit the shop. He went back into blacksmith mode and heated up the steel rod with the leaf petal on the end. After a few more steps, this master craftsman presented me with a beautiful leaf petal pendant, forged in fire. It was really touching. And then he said, “Let me tell you one more blacksmith story.” He then told us the following fictional, but inspiring story, which I have attempted to capture from memory. We hope it blesses you as much as it blessed us…

The Blacksmith

There was a blacksmith about 2,000 years ago who was working hard in his shop. He had finally begun to make a name for himself in town and had several orders to be filled. This was good news to him and his wife. One day when he was working in his shop a Roman soldier came rushing in and ordered that he stop whatever he was doing and make his order top priority. When the blacksmith asked him what he needed, the soldier said, “three long nails” and commanded that they be ready upon his return. He turned and rushed out of the shop. The blacksmith knew it was in his best interest to do exactly what the soldier had ordered him to do, hoping this might lead to future jobs for the government. The blacksmith was a crafty artisan and nails were not the most intriguing product, but he knew he needed to do his best and have the nails ready when the soldier returned.

The soldier returned shortly and the blacksmith had the nails ready and waiting for him. He came rushing in again and asked for the nails. The blacksmith presented the three nails to him and the soldier grabbed them, threw some change his way, and turned to leave. As the soldier was leaving, the blacksmith said, “Sir, do you mind telling me what you’re making that you only need three nails?” The soldier turned and looked at him and said, “We are crucifying the King of the Jews today, and these are the nails that are needed for his cross.” Then he turned and left.


The blacksmith had heard of this man that people were calling the “King of the Jews” and his special powers, but he wasn’t so sure what he thought about the guy. So he didn’t think much more about the nails, and went back to work on his other orders. A few hours later, the sky went black, the earth began to shake and rocks were split, the temple’s curtain was torn in two, tombs were broken open and dead bodies were raised to life. This certainly got the blacksmith’s attention. He began to think there might be something more to the story of the “King of the Jews”. Maybe he really was who he said he was? He began to feel bad that he had played a part in crucifying this man.

What this blacksmith didn’t understand was that even though he furnished the nails that were used to crucify this man named Jesus, this was all part of a bigger plan…God’s plan. Jesus had to be the ultimate sacrifice for all and the nails were a necessary part of the event. We should all approach the things we do for a living as a means to fulfill God’s plan. We should choose to do whatever we do with all our might and give God the glory for it. He will take our actions and efforts, however small and meager, and work them into his marvelous plan.

We thanked Rick, our new favorite blacksmith, for the story and leaf petal, and then exchanged hugs and got back on the road. As mentioned in the opening quote, sometimes the most scenic roads in life are the detours you didn’t mean to take. Today we took an unplanned detour…a Grand Detour, in fact…and it was the most pleasant and encouraging surprise on our trip thus far. We learned about John Deere, an innovative blacksmith who invented a better plow, founded a company, and changed farming forever. More importantly, we were reminded of a Jewish carpenter who, 2000 years ago, selflessly gave up his own life, and by doing so made redemption possible and changed the course of history.

Lil Jan

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The Great River Road, Part 5: Prairie du Chien, WI to Chicago, IL

Sometimes luck is with you, and sometimes not, but the important thing is to take the dare. Those who climb mountains or raft rivers understand this. – David Brower

August 27, 2015 – Day 6 – Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin to Rochelle, Illinois

View from the Effigy Mounds
View from the Effigy Mounds

 We awoke in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, but soon crossed the Great River to spend the morning on the Iowa side. Although Lil Jan never expressed this, I could tell she was in the mood to learn something about the Late Woodland Period, 1400-750 B.C. To scratch that itch, I took her to the Effigy Mounds National Monument. The Effigy Mound builders built mounds around the Upper Mississippi River for burial purposes, and perhaps also for ceremonies and to mark boundaries. No one knows for sure. What set these mound builders apart from others is that their mounds were shaped like animals, especially bears and birds. So after a short but steep hike, we began trying to locate and identify some of the more than 200 mounds in this national park. We agreed on the little bear mound, perhaps aided by the sign that said “Little Bear Mound”. However, there was some disagreement and discussion on others, like whether a mound was a chipmunk or squirrel. (It was a chipmunk.) We enjoyed the incredible views of the Great River and pretty much having the park to ourselves.

We're thinking this is the bear-shaped mound
We’re thinking this is the bear-shaped mound
Mounds from the Air
Model of Mounds from the Air

Our next stop was nearby Pikes Peak State Park, one of the most photographed places in Iowa. From atop the Mississippi River’s highest bluff, we got a magnificent, 500-foot high view of the confluence of the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers. Back down the bluff, it was time for some antique shopping in historic McGregor, founded in 1847 and hometown of the circus community’s Ringling brothers.

My BFF at Pike's Peak
My BFF at Pikes Peak

We headed back across the river to Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin’s second oldest city. It was here where Canadian fur trader Louis Joliet and French Jesuit missionary Jacques Marquette became the first white men to enter the upper Mississippi River in 1673. Had they celebrated by jumping out of their canoes into said river, they could have proven that white men can, in fact, jump…336 years before Blake Griffin did so. Next up was the location of the original Fort Crawford, which played a role in the War of 1812. It was also here where Sauk leader Black Hawk surrendered after the Black Hawk War of 1832. Jefferson Davis was stationed at the fort as a lieutenant and Zachary Taylor, our twelfth president, commanded it as a colonel. Our role at the fort was to drive by it.

Villa Louis Survives Flood
Villa Louis Survives Flood

Our next drive-by was of Villa Louis, the 1870 mansion of the prominent Dousman family that is now a National Historic Landmark. The estate sits on the mostly vacant St. Feriole Island. That got me wondering…why is a beautiful 240-acre island, prime real estate on the Mississippi River, mostly vacant? It turns out that the massive Flood of 1965 submerged the island. It had flooded many times before but never to this extent. After considering many alternatives, Congress ultimately authorized the government to acquire 121 homes and businesses and relocate the people, homes, and businesses to higher ground off the island. In their place, the city eventually built ball fields, gardens, and parks. The flood mostly spared Villa Louis because it was on elevated ground. St. Feriole Island became the second city or neighborhood we’ve encountered on our trip (along with Hibbing, Minnesota) to be completely relocated…this time due to Mother Nature.

This is Where We'll Meet
This is Where We’ll Meet

As we headed out of town, we drove past the Hungry House Café. I felt compelled to pull over for a picture. Then I looked over into Lil Jan’s eyes that looked like heaven. I got a funny feeling up and down my spine, which turned out just to be gas.  I said, “Tonight I’m gonna meet you, at this Hungry House Café…and I’m gonna give you all the love I can, yes I am.” And with her heart clearly on fire, she looked deep into my eyes and said, “Giddy up oom poppa omm poppa mow mow, Giddy up oom poppa omm poppa mow mow.”   It was a special bonding moment for us. With our credentials as biggest nerds in the world re-validated, I started up the RV and we heigh-ho silvered away.

Chicago-style Pizza!
Chicago-style Pizza + Lasagna!

Needing to get a little warranty work done on the RV near Chicago, it was time to make a detour off the Great River Road and head east. We arrived at the Rochelle, Illinois Wal-Mart to set up camp. While a more thoughtful guy would have taken his wife for dinner and a movie, we decided on dinner and laundry. Yes, it was laundry night and I was more than a little excited to experience my first public Laundromat and get clean socks.   Besides, what could be more romantic than watching a black and white TV stuck on the Home Shopping Network, sitting on plastic elementary school chairs, and listening to the hum of appliances? Actually, these places tend to attract a rather interesting, lower to middle-class slice of American people…people like us. One guy put a load of clothes in and then lay down next to the vending machine in the back for a nap. A mother and daughter leaned against the folding table by the driers discussing the daughter’s boyfriend and their plans for the weekend. A sweet, very short Hispanic couple came in with their young son. They laughed a lot and dad chased their son around the rows of washers and dryers while mom did most of the work. Meanwhile, Lil Jan and Big Steve fed enough quarters into the machines to do three loads, and then did our own share of laughing as Lil Jan videotaped me folding her purple panties. Next time, she can fold her own underwear and I’ll go take a nap by the vending machine.

August 28, 2015 – Day 7 – Chicago, Illinois

We dropped our RV off at the dealership west of Chicago and had about 7 hours to kill. Our options were to find a nearby mall and walk/shop all day, find a coffee house and rest/read all day, or head further east to take on Chicago. Chicago is too cool of a city to pass up, so we took the Fit to the nearest train station, and took a 1.5-hour train ride into downtown Chicago.

Millennium Park, Chicago

Click on following link for video clip…


Trying to do Chicago justice in just a few hours is really impossible, so we had to make some choices. We had toured the city years ago with our boys and visited the Navy Pier and shopped on Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile. So this time, our priorities were simple: (1) eat a Chicago-style pizza, and (2) hang out at Millennium Park. We headed to Giordano’s for lunch, where I feasted on pizza and Lil Jan had the lasagna. After glancing up at the Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower), the second tallest building in the United States, we walked to Millennium Park and did some people watching. The highlight for me was the giant video display of people’s faces, with water shooting out of their mouths onto little children. Unfortunately, we had a train to catch, and an RV to pick up, so we headed back to Union Station and said farewell to Chicago. Despite the high murder rate, Chicago is a beautiful and interesting city to explore. I kind of wish we had taken the time to visit one of their Laundromats.

Big Steve

Click on link for final video clip…


What you talkin bout Willis?

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Campground Review: Frontenac State Park, MN

“But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the LORD has done this? In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.”   – Job 12:7-10

Yes, “the hand of the LORD has done this”!  In fact, sometimes God  just smacks me upside the head with the awesomeness of His creation. This tends to happen while I’m hiking.  Most recently, it happened at Frontenac State Park while solo hiking through the forest as the morning sun broke through the trees. I had to just stop and thank God for this gift, and for allowing Lil Jan and me the privilege to be able to travel the country during this special time in our lives.  As for Frontenac State Park, here’s our review…


 Dates: August 25-26, 2015

Campsite: 14E

Overall Score: 3.88 (out of 5)

Summary: Although this is a relatively small state park, it has a wide variety of beautiful terrains. There are river bluffs, forests, and hilly prairies to hike, and one of the most scenic picnic areas we’ve come across. The park has a secluded and peaceful feel to it, which is a good thing.

Did I mention God is awesome?
Did I mention God is awesome?

Recreation/Amenities: 4.0 – 20+ miles of great and varied hiking trails, ranging from easy/scenic (along the bluff) to difficult (going down the 430+ foot bluff with switchbacks from In Yan Teopa rock to the river). Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are available in the winter.

In Yan Teopa (Rock with Opening)
In Yan Teopa (Rock with Opening)

Hookups & Connectivity: 3.5 – electric only, with dump station. Water source is located in the camping area, but not at individual campsites. Only 19 electric sites, which may not meet demand on holiday weekends and other high volume times.

Local Vicinity Things to Do: 3.5 – Canoe and kayak rentals are available at nearby Lake Pepin. Of course, the Great River Road is nearby. From the park, I’d recommend heading north to Red Wing (historic, w/ some shopping), crossing over into Wisconsin and then following the Great River Road north to the historic towns of Prescott and Hastings.

View from bluffs, along hiking trail
View from bluffs, along hiking trail

Cleanliness: 4.2 – well-maintained campsite, facilities, and trails.

Intangibles: 4.2

Pros – Be sure to check out the great view of the Mississippi River (at this section, it’s known as Lake Pepin) from the bluffs and especially at the picnic area. Good chance of seeing a bald eagle during the winter months. Friendly staff. $36/night, which includes a $5 park entrance fee and an $8 charge for an electric site.

View of Lake Pepin (Mississippi River) from Picnic Area
View of Lake Pepin (Mississippi River) from Picnic Area

Cons – I would be scared to hike with children (or someone as graceful as Lil Jan) along parts of the bluff, unless they were on a leash. The drop off is steep and unforgiving. Campsites were wooded/scenic, but also pretty close together. It would be difficult to park a big RV given the campground layout—one of the reasons we went with a somewhat smaller (32’) Class-A. There’s no place to cool off (pool, creek, etc.), aside from the Mississippi River…and that may not be advisable. The hiking trail map and signage could have been a little better.

We enjoyed our time at Frontenac State Park.  Time to say farewell to Minnesota and head back to the Great River Road on the Wisconsin side.

Big Steve

A Final Reminder How Incredibly Awesome God Is!
A Final Reminder How Incredibly Awesome God Is!

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The Great River Road, Part 4: Minneapolis, MN to Prairie du Chien, WI

I started out thinking of America as highways and state lines. As I got to know it better, I began to think of it as rivers. – Charles Kuralt

August 25, 2015 – Day 4 – Minneapolis to Frontenac State Park, Minnesota

 We disconnected our Honda Fit from its RV mother ship and headed toward Minneapolis, the first of four large cities on the Great River Road. While many know Minneapolis for its art, theaters, and outdoor recreational activities, I mainly know it as the home of the Twins, Vikings, and Prince. With no agenda or must-do list (other than to find a “raspberry beret from a second-hand store”), we decided to park the car downtown, get out, and just start walking. We immediately noticed the 7+ miles of glass-enclosed skyways that link various downtown buildings. So we went up some stairs, entered the skyway system, and randomly traveled around the seemingly never-ending maze. The idea to have shops, restaurants, and businesses of all types connected along the skyway is brilliant, especially for a city with cold, snowy winters. It reminded me of the Crystal City Underground in Virginia, except it’s larger and above ground. We spent an hour speed walking around the labyrinth, darting in and out of corridors, and passing over city streets down below. At one point we stopped and took a picture of the Minnesota Viking’s new stadium, which is under construction. Little did we know that less than 24-hours later, a construction worker would die after falling from the roof while working on this project.

Vikings New Stadium
Vikings New Stadium

After googling “best Minneapolis lunch restaurants”, we walked another mile and crossed the river to Kramarczuk’s East European Deli, a legendary Ukranian eatery. In the late 1940s, skilled sausage maker Wasyl Kramarczuk and his skilled baker wife Anna left Ukraine in search of the American dream. They founded this Minneapolis landmark restaurant, and lunch was indeed legendary, the best meals on our journey thus far. Lil Jan had the Varenyky, aka pierogi…dough dumplings stuffed with meat, cheese, and potatoes. I ordered the polish sausage sauerkraut dish, as my dear mother would have wanted me to.  Both dishes were wonderful. While there, we met a nurse and her grandmother from Canada. They were interested in moving to Florida so we gave them suggestions based on our 7 years of experience living there. As we were finishing up a superb, borderline romantic sidewalk lunch on a beautiful sunny afternoon, Lil Jan was stung by a bee and dropped her glass of water on to my plate. Startled, I looked down, as the few remaining sausages floated across my plate, like rafts on the nearby Mississippi River.

Kramarczuk's Deli, Minneapolis

Kramarczuk’s Deli, Minneapolis


Lil Jan and her doughboy decided to work off lunch by walking through Pillsbury Park, and then out onto the point for a beautiful view of Saint Anthony Falls and its lock and dam. The walk to the point has a number of interpretive displays on how locks and dams work. As I stood alone on the point, I looked up at the massive I-35W Saint Anthony Falls Bridge, which stood in front of me. I wondered what it would have been like to be standing on that point on the afternoon of August 1st, 2007. On that tragic day, during the busy rush hour, the bridge’s predecessor suddenly collapsed, killing 13 people and injuring 145. The National Transportation Safety Board cited a design flaw of a too-thin gusset plate as the likely cause of the crash. What would it have been like to witness this tragedy? How would I have responded? Would I have jumped into the water to try to save people? Or would I have rushed to the school bus carrying 63 children, which was resting precariously against a guardrail of the collapsed bridge, near a burning semi-trailer truck? Or would it have been enough to simply dial 911 and let the professionals handle the unfolding situation? Most of us like to think that we would rise to the occasion and do something heroic; but what would we actually do? I also thought about the victims who woke up that morning, unaware that this would be their last day on earth. Were their family relationships in a good place? Had they left anything unsaid? Were they right with God? We just never know when our time will come.

Saint Anthony Falls & I-35W Bridge

We returned to our RV, hooked the Fit up to it, and headed southeast toward Wisconsin. We decided to spend one final night on the Minnesota side of the river at the beautiful Frontenac State Park. Please see our next blog for a review of the Frontenac State Park campground.

August 26, 2015 – Day 5 – Frontenac State Park, Minnesota to Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin

 After a restful night at Frontenac State Park, I got up early for a solo hike around the park, while Lil Jan opted to work on her Ladies Day lesson. (She’s speaking at a women’s retreat in Nashville, Tennessee in September.) We then headed out and crossed over the Mississippi River to Wisconsin, to begin one of the most scenic stretches of the Great River Road. There are a series of small quaint river towns (Prescott, Stockholm, Pepin, Alma, etc.) that offer history, antique shopping, and amazing views. One highlight for us was having lunch at the Stockholm Pie & General Store, which was named “One of the 100 Best Places to Eat in America” by Roadfood Guide.

"Top 100" Roadside Eatery, Stockholm Wisconsin
A Top 100 Restaurant in America

A little further down the road we entered the town of Pepin. On the outskirts of town, a little girl was born in a log cabin on February 7, 1867. Later she would write a book about her early childhood experiences in Pepin… “Once upon a time…a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin in a little gray house made of logs.” The book was Little House in the Big Woods and the author was Laura Ingalls Wilder. Like Charles Lindbergh, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s early formative years shaped the person she would become. As she looked backed on her early years on the frontier, she wrote, “It has been many years since I beat eggs with a fork or cleaned a kerosene lamp. Many things have changed since then, but the truths we learned from our parents and the principles they taught us are always true. They can never change.” There’s a lesson there for parents…and children. Another thing we can learn from her is that late bloomers can be great bloomers. She didn’t begin her writing career until she was sixty-five. She had only planned to write one book, Little House in the Big Woods. But it was an immediate success, and children who read it wrote to her begging for more. She said, “I was amazed because I didn’t know how to write. I went to little red schoolhouses all over the West and I never was graduated from anything.” She ended up writing eight books before passing away in 1957. Of course, those stories would come to life in the 1970s television series, Little House on the Prairie. A big fan of Laura Ingalls, Lil Jan insisted we pay a visit to the replica “little gray house made of logs” that Laura grew up in.

Laura Ingalls Wilder's Wayside Cabin
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Wayside Cabin
The Loft Where Laura & Mary Slept
The Loft Where Laura & Mary Slept

Only four days into our journey along the Great River Road, we’ve already been inspired by the people we’ve met, both living and dead. Today, we’re glad the Kramarczuk’s immigrated to the U.S. and opened a restaurant. We’re hopeful the two delightful Canadian women we met are able to find a new home and life in Florida. We’re thankful for the first responders and others who helped save lives following the bridge collapse in Minneapolis. And we’re glad that, at age 65, a woman took the time to write a book about her experiences growing up in a log cabin in Pepin, Wisconsin.

Laura Ingalls…at 17 & 69

Later that evening, we rolled into Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, and took up residence in our new home, the Wal-Mart parking lot, with several of our trucker buddies. Whenever I start to feel manly like my fellow “big rig” drivers, Lil Jan brings me back to earth by reminding me…we’re pulling a Honda Fit.

Big Steve

An Especially Good Stretch of the Great River Road

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The Great River Road, Part 3: Little Falls to Bloomington, MN

“When I was a child on our Minnesota farm, I spent hours lying on my back…hidden from passersby, watching white cumulus clouds drift overhead, staring into the sky. It was a different world up there. You had to be flat on your back, screened in by grass stalks, to live in it. Those clouds, how far away were they? Nearer than the neighbor’s house, untouchable as the moon—unless you had an airplane. How wonderful it would be, I’d thought, if I had an airplane—wings with which I could fly up to the clouds and explore their caves and canyons—wings like a hawk circling above me. Then, I would ride on the wind and be part of the sky, and acorns and bits of twigs would stop pressing into my skin.”  — Charles A. Lindbergh, The Spirit of St Louis

August 24, 2015 – Day 3 –Little Falls, Minnesota to Bloomington, Minnesota

Childhood matters. The so called formative years are ones that have a profound and lasting impact on a person’s development. Some experts suggest the formative years happen from birth to age 5, when 90% of a child’s brain develops (50% for Bama fans), along with 85% of a child’s social skills, personality, and intellect. Others point to the adolescent years because of the strong influence that time has on the rest of one’s life. Early experiences tend to set the pattern and lay the groundwork for what will follow. Was your family close? How did you spend your time? Did you have exposure to things or ideas that fascinated you or challenged you? Did you grow up in the hustle and bustle of a city or did you catch lightening bugs in jars and watch the stars at night in the country? Was God and faith a real part of your life or was it more of an abstract concept? Often you can trace what’s important to a man, along with his activities and accomplishments, back to early experiences in his youth…his formative years.

Young Lindbergh Rafting Mississippi River
Young Lindbergh Rafts the Mississippi River

Many years ago a young boy grew up on a farm on the Mississippi River near Little Falls. He had chores and responsibilities, but also had plenty of free time to explore and think and dream. With no cell phone, television, or video games to distract him, he had time to explore the Mississippi River on a raft and venture across his family’s sprawling wooded farm. He had time to dream big dreams and let his imagination run wild. His fascination with the motors in his family’s Saxon Six automobile and later his Excelsior motorbike led him to study mechanical engineering at the University of Wisconsin. While there, he became even more fascinated with the wonder and potential of airplanes. His formative years laid the groundwork for a quite interesting and (mostly) impressive life. He became a husband and father, a Pulitzer-prize winning author and an international celebrity. As a scientist and inventor, he joined with a French surgeon to create an early artificial heart, and joined with Henry Ford to develop World War II bombers. As a lobbyist, he fought for preservation of the environment. But his great love, the thing that sparked his imagination the most, was flying. He became a mail pilot, an Army Air Service Reserve pilot, and a barnstormer or daredevil pilot. The man whose childhood had been shaped along the banks of the Mississippi River also liked a good challenge. So in the 1920s, when a hotel owner offered a $25,000 prize to the first pilot to fly non-stop from New York to Paris, our young dreamer and explorer jumped at the chance. The rest is history. On May 20th, 1927, Charles A. Lindbergh, Jr., took off from Roosevelt Field in Long Island and crossed the Atlantic Ocean in his monoplane named Spirit of St Louis. After 33.5 hours in the air, he landed at Le Bourguet Field near Paris, making aviation history.

Charles Lindbergh House
Charles Lindbergh House

So we went to his childhood farm. We hiked the woods of his family’s property, which is now known as the Charles A. Lindbergh State Park. We walked the banks of the Mississippi River behind his childhood home. We saw the opening in the forest where he landed his first airplane, a World War I surplus Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplane. We wondered what life must have been like for him as a youngster on that farm, dreaming big dreams and making big plans…during his formative years.

View of Mississippi River from Lindbergh House
View of Mississippi River from Lindbergh House

That got me thinking about my own formative years and how those early experiences shaped my future life. Mainly, I remember that on long trips, mom and dad would let me sleep behind the backseat along the back window in our car. I could stretch out for hours at a time, unencumbered by seatbelts or having to look at my older sisters. Many times I would wake up alone and in a daze, sweat beads running down my face, while me family was inside eating at a restaurant. Sometimes there would be a sweat stain in the shape of my head under the back window, with mild sunburn on one side of my face. I think maybe they rolled down the windows and quietly snuck away to save money and “let Steven rest”.

Landing Strip for Lindbergh's Jenny Airplane
Landing Strip for Lindbergh’s Jenny Airplane

I’m not really sure how these travel memories from my formative years affected me. But I suspect they have manifested in two ways. First, truth be told, I now live full-time in a van down by the river. Second, growing up and even to this day, I’ve enjoyed using the sun and a magnifying glass to set living things (mostly ants) on fire. Just as my parents used the back car window and sun to nearly kill me, I now take out my bitterness on the insect world. With considerable skill, I can often zap an ant or small beetle in seconds with a focused ray of sunshine on his thorax. Ants in motion are more challenging. Proper technique involves synchronizing the magnifying glass speed with the ant’s speed while keeping the sun’s rays in focus at just the right angle. If you can just get the back ankles on the ant to light up, he’ll curl into a writhing ball and it’s game over. I’m not proud of this. But I do it well, much better than young Lindbergh ever dreamed of.

I’ve even mentored others in the art. As a teacher at Foundation Christian Academy, I once co-chaperoned an 11th grade field trip to the Alafia Rendezvous, the largest living history event in the Southeast, featuring demonstrations and portrayals of frontier life before 1840. Two of my students…I don’t want to mention names…so let me just say Leebler and Bunker…purchased a magnifying glass from one of the vendors. As the 20 or so of us strolled the grounds, the two of them positioned themselves between the sun and our principal, Mr. Smith. I thought to myself, “surely not”, but that was my only thought. Mr. Smith was talking to another student as he strolled along, unaware of the drama about to unfold on the back of his bare but moderately hairy thighs. I was aware but did nothing. I’m not proud of that, but as someone who had spent his formative years in the hot sun in the back of his parents’ car, the moment seemed fair and right…even cathartic. With careful precision, one of the boys…might have been Leebler…focused the sun’s rays on the back of Mr. Smith’s thigh, as I watched in delightful horror. Within seconds, Mr. Smith jumped as if stung by a bee, as a small puff of smoke billowed into the January air. He took it in stride (literally), the boys high-fived, and I felt like the torch had been passed (literally) to the next generation. These were, after all, Leebler and Bunkers’ formative years.

Nickelodeon Universe Theme Park

After scratching our hiking and history itches, we piled into our RV and headed south for Bloomington. If a secluded hiking trail in the middle of Charles A. Lindbergh State Park is at one end of some societal scale, the Mall of America is at the other. The largest mall in America, it receives over 40 million visitors annually, the most of any mall in the world.   It has a gross area of 4.87 million feet, enough to fit seven Yankee Stadiums inside. It features more than 520 stores, along with an aquarium, a miniature golf course, and the largest indoor theme park in the United States. We had pretty clear objectives for this behemoth of a shopping mall/entertainment complex. I wanted to walk a couple of miles, drink a cup coffee, and look at large Lego formations. Lil Jan wanted to buy a dress and not get lost. I succeeded on my three objectives. Lil Jan failed on both of hers. I understand getting lost…the place is massive. I hadn’t been so lost since trying to determine the linkage between meatballs and sectionals at the Tampa IKEA. But how does one not find a dress at the largest shopping mall in America? I don’t get that. Sometimes women baffle me. I wanted to help her, but wasn’t sure how to ask the question at the information booth…

Me: “Uh, excuse me, ma’am, but my wife wants to buy a dress but is having some difficulty finding one. Are there other stores in town that would have a better selection?”

Customer Service: “No, sir, I’m afraid not. There are over 520 stores here. This is one of the largest three malls in the western hemisphere. If something is made, it’s probably here.”

Me: “So there is a larger mall with more selections in the eastern hemisphere.”

Customer Service: “Well, yes, I believe the largest mall is the South China Mall in Dongguan.”

Me: “Dongguan it, we should have gone there!”

Customer Service: “Was that supposed to be funny?”

Me: “No, ma’am.”

I eventually found Lil Jan near the giant American Girl store. By that, I mean an American Girl store that’s very large…not a store that caters to plus-sized girls born in America. (Not that there would be anything wrong with that.) She said, “Let’s just go. I didn’t find a dress I liked.” Of course not, honey…not at a dinky little mall like the Mall of America.

Day 3 of our Great River Road adventure was in the books. We overnighted at the Bloomington Wal-Mart…and made plans to take on Minneapolis in the morning.

Big Steve

Lil Jan Doin' Big Things
Lil Jan Doin’ Big Things
Along Hiking Trail, Lindbergh State Park
Along Hiking Trail, Lindbergh State Park

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The Great River Road, Part 2: Grand Rapids to Little Falls, MN

Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore. – Dorothy Gale

August 23, 2015 – Day 2 – Grand Rapids, Minnesota to Little Falls, Minnesota

 This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it! We rejoice when we wake up in a “van down by the river”…or when we’re parked between two semi trucks in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Grand Rapids. We awoke this particular Sunday morning excited to get to worship with our brothers and sisters in Christ in Hibbing, Minnesota. It’s always fun to meet new people, especially ones who share a common faith. It’s also interesting to see how different congregations go about conducting the different elements of worship (singing, praying, communion, etc.) And, quite honestly, after 27 straight years of being in charge of something as either a deacon, youth minister, or elder, it’s refreshing to be able to walk into a service with no responsibility other than to worship our awesome God.

Our brothers and sisters at the church of Christ in Hibbing were extremely welcoming, and were excited to hear that we were full-time RVers. Although they are few in numbers (16 in Bible class and about 25 in worship), they were very friendly and encouraging. After a challenging class on 1 Corinthians 5, an older man (Gary Nading), presented a thoughtful lesson on what it means to be made in the image of God (from Romans 8:29). At the conclusion of the service, Brother Nading shared with the congregation that next year, to celebrate his 80th birthday, he and his wife would once again be riding the Tour de Togo. The Tour, a 200+ mile bicycle rally over three days, raises money for their local church camp, the Flaming Pines Youth Camp. (Note to Robert Clouse: motorcycle rally fund-raiser for Florida Bible Camp?) Yesterday, we were inspired by a volunteer making mats for the homeless in Bemidji. Today, God introduced us to a man who will, as an 80-year-old, be biking 200+ miles to raise money for a Christian camp! We love to hear about elderly Christians continuing to serve God in their later years…hope we can do the same some day. When Paul talks about fighting the good fight, finishing the race, and keeping the faith (2 Timothy 4:7)…I can picture Brother Nading crossing the finish line with his hands in the air, his wife riding along by his side, and a smile on his face. (Actually, I hope his hands are on the steering wheel…he’ll be 80.) We really got two sermons that Sunday morning…the one Brother Nading preached…and the one he lives.

Original Greyhound Bus Station, Hibbing
Original Greyhound Bus Station, Hibbing

Still in the town of Hibbing, we drove by the Greyhound Bus Museum, where the first bus service began in 1914. The initial bus (actually a vehicle known as a Hupmobile) took miners to the local strip mine. That strip mine would become the Hull Rust Mine, which today is the largest operating open pit iron ore mine in the world. This man-made “Grand Canyon of the North”, a National Historic Site, measures more than three miles long, two miles wide and as much as 600 feet deep. Since 1895 it has moved more that 1.4 billion tons of earth and during the 1940’s (and more specifically, World War II), one quarter of the ore mined in the United States came from the Hull Rust Mine. As mine operations expanded in the early years, the town of Hibbing got in the way. So in 1919, they moved the town! It took two years and $16M to move 185 houses and 20 businesses to the nearby area where Hibbing currently resides. And how did the mineworkers living in the new Hibbing location get to work back at the mine? By taking the previously mentioned Hupmobiles which evolved into the Greyhound buses we know today. The Visitor Center includes a video presentation, observation deck, a gift shop and mine exhibits. If you time it right, you can also witness a mining dynamite blast used to clear bedrock away to get to the iron ore. Before moving on from this quarry story, I just want to say…Yaba-daba-doo!

Hull Rust Mine, Hibbing

We returned to Grand Rapids for one final stop: the Judy Garland Home / Wizard of Oz Museum. For fans of Miss Garland or the movie, this is a bucket list destination. Judy was born Frances Ethel Gumm in Grand Rapids and spent the first few years of her life in this home, which can be toured as part of the museum admission. She was a singer, actress and vaudevillian performer (along with two older sisters) from the age of 3, and had an incredible 40-year career. Her awards included Grammys, a Golden Globe, Academy Award nominations, and the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement in the motion picture industry (at 39 years of age, the youngest recipient). In 1997, she was posthumously awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and in 1999, the American Film Institute placed her among the ten greatest female stars in American cinema history. Of course, her most famous role was that of Dorothy in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz.

Judy Garland’s Childhood Home, Grand Rapids

In terms of Oz memorabilia, this museum delivers big-time. Our favorite thing was the stagecoach used in the movie, which had been previously owned by Abraham Lincoln. We also toured Judy’s early childhood home because, well, there’s no place like home. (Sorry)

Abe's Carriage
Abe’s Carriage

Most importantly, I had a long conversation with the Wicked Witch of the West. I privately shared with her my disappointment over her treatment of the Munchkins, and how she and her flying monkeys had caused many of my childhood nightmares. I let go of this long-held bitterness, we made our peace, and I forgave her with a kiss. As I walked away from the exhibit and looked back over my shoulder one last time, she mouthed the words, “I’ll get you my pretty…just like I got your little dog Mandy.”

Forgiveness and Reconciliation
Forgiveness and Reconciliation

As we departed the museum in our RV heading south, we discussed something that seemed to be missing from the Judy Garland home tour and museum: the “bad stuff” from her life. If it was there, we never saw it. Despite all of her professional successes, which the museum documents quite well, she had a really difficult personal life. She had very low self-esteem as a child, which was made worse when studio executives said she was ugly and manipulated her physical appearance onscreen (they were wrong, by the way). She was financially unstable, frequently owing thousands of dollars in back taxes. Four of her five marriages ended in divorce. Worse still, she had a prolonged battle with drugs and alcohol, which eventually took her life from an overdose at age 47. Was it right to “sanitize” her life and only present the good stuff? Perhaps so, given all the young Oz fans that tour the place. On the other hand, would a presentation of some of her struggles have presented a more balanced view on her life? Could young people and other visitors possibly learn from her struggles in some way? Before answering, think about how you would want your own life portrayed if they built a museum about you some day.

After having this discussion about what should or should not have been included in the Judy Garland museum, and our (never to be) personal museums, we listened to a recent chapel talk by our son, Kyle, at Harding University. Kyle makes the point that each and every person has a compelling life story, one that is made up of both good and bad. We all make mistakes and face difficult challenges in life. That’s part of who we are, and God uses both the good and bad to help mold us into the people he wants us to be. Like the Wizard of Oz, we all have a magical version of our families and ourselves that we naturally want the world to see. But like in the movie, when we pull the curtain back on our lives, the reality isn’t always so magical. Gary Nading has struggles. Judy Garland had struggles. And Da Johnsons certainly have struggles. Perhaps when we allow ourselves to be a little more transparent, we’re better positioned to help those going through some of the same challenges.

We enjoyed our time in Grand Rapids and Hibbing. As for what’s next…well…I could while away the hours, conferrin’ with the flowers…if I only had a brain.

Big Steve

P.S. If you’d like to hear Kyle’s chapel talk, go to the following link, and his talk begins at 14:21…

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