When you drive across America with no particular itinerary, mealtimes can fall at awkward moments. Like between Denver, Colorado, and Salina, Kansas. Like westbound between Laramie, Wyoming, and death.
There's plenty to see in such regions. Railroad trains that go on forever. Redrock and then whiterock cliffs, buttes, and crags that gradually melt down to swells in the prairie with an occasional outcropping of stone. Clouds that drift along in neat acrobatic-swimming ranks and files. Distant rainstorms with virga sweeping down from the base of the clouds but never reaching the ground.
What isn't always obvious is information about where to eat in a strange town. When there's only one Yelp review and it goes on and on about how brilliant the restaurant is, so that one can only assume that the owner wrote it. And there are some places so obscure that Yelp has not yet penetrated the fog.
I've been daring, as with a very nice-looking standalone restaurant in Kanab, Utah, which has become, in our family lore, the legendary Fly-On-Your-Plate Restaurant. (We paid, left, and ate at a Subway farther along the road.)
In the end, when you're road-weary and eager to get to your evening's lodgings, you sometimes have to figure, McDonald's or Subway or Arby's or some other chain represents a minimum below which they are unlikely to fall.
McDonald's is passionate about quality control --that's how it created our Fast Food Nation in the first place. But not everybody is pleased all the time. For instance, our older daughter, when she was little, earned her title as Champion Baby Travel Puker after meals at McDonald's. There was nothing wrong with the food, just with the motion-sick baby, but we welcomed the alternative of Subway when the sandwich shops began popping up pretty much everywhere.
Did you know that Subway now has 30,000 stores in the United States, vs. fewer than 15,000 McDonald's restaurants? And when you add the total of Starbucks coffee shops to the total number of McDonald's, they still don't equal Subway?
Of course, you then have to count the number of tables in each kind of establishment and you won't be surprised that McDonald's has three times the revenue of Subway, and Starbucks about matches Subway's revenue with half the number of locations.
Still, who would have thought, back when Subway first appeared, that it would eventually, in its quiet way, win the sandwich wars? You might have thought that the market was saturated, but when somebody offers what people want, at an affordable price, there's still room for the new kid on the block.
Driving through the upper Midwest, we began to notice a chain we'd never heard of: Taco John's. A little research (i.e., my wife on her smartphone) told us that the chain began in Nebraska, started by an entrepreneur who really was named John. He began it with taco trucks but soon, run by more experienced businessmen, Taco John's franchised its way into a strong position in those flyover states.
We saw so many of them that we finally gave in and ate at a Taco John's. There were some nice touches -- a watermelon lemonade, for instance, half-decent guacamole, and weird squished tater-tots as a side. The tacos themselves were pretty good, on good tortillas with shaved rather than ground beef.
But the overall effect was in line with other fast-food Mexican places -- you don't go there for class, you go there for quantity and price. If it tastes good, too, so much the better. If Taco John's expands to our part of the country, it will probably do well and it will become a viable choice for travelers.
On our return trip from a family reunion in Utah, my wife and I started on I-80, but then dropped south into Colorado, where we spent a night in Fort Collins. Then we crossed eastern Colorado and all of Kansas in a single day.
But that didn't stop us from checking out Abilene, Kansas, Dwight Eisenhower's boyhood home, and sampling various other towns in eastern Kansas. While the westbound trip had brought a steady erosion of color and life, as greens gave way to greys and browns, and trees steadily shrank to barely tall enough to cast shade on a one-story house, the reverse happened as we returned east.
We crossed the humidity line -- the boundary between the Great American Desert and the prairies that regularly get moisture from the Gulf of Mexico -- and it felt like a miracle. Sagebrush wastelands became verdant fields; houses and towns popped up everywhere. So even as the long day of driving wearied us, the living landscape vivified us and we were delighted to come to rest in Independence, Missouri.
The next morning we planned to do no more than cross the state and spend the night in St. Louis, so we had time to play tourist in Harry Truman's hometown. We really enjoyed the visit, in large part because Independence, Missouri, fully honors their native son, and because they have kept a lovely downtown alive and thriving.
Well, no, that's a bit of an exaggeration. Let's just say that it has kept its mid-1900s look and hasn't been given over to the pawnshops, nail shops, and secondhand clothing stores that mark a downtown as dead.
The lovely public square in the center of town is worth visiting -- at least long enough to get an ice cream or a malted milk at Clinton's Soda Fountain and Gifts.
No, this soda fountain has nothing to do with the Arkansas Clintons. It's a coincidence of names. Instead, back when it was a drugstore with a soda fountain, Harry Truman got his first job there at the age of fourteen. He would arrive before school and sweep and clean, then return after school for more hours of work.
At the end of his first week, he was paid three dollars. As he wrote years later in a letter to his daughter, he used part of that money to buy a gift for his mother, and then tried to give his father the rest as his contribution to the household accounts. His father refused, telling Harry that the money was his.
To Truman, it felt like a million dollars. Even after earning the then princely salary of $100,000 a year as President, he still felt that no payday ever brought him as much pride and pleasure as those first three dollars.
Independence offers many sights within a few blocks of each other. The 1879 Chicago & Alton Depot showed a lovely design from the days when the railroad was the primary way most people would enter town. Several old log buildings were still standing, preserved and honored and historically plaqued.
At first we got the wrong impression that the "Truman Home," an elegant white clapboard house with many gables, was where Harry Truman grew up. No, this was the house that he lived in for the last fifty years of his life; even when he was President, this house became the "summer White House." It was far from being the biggest or fanciest house in Independence -- it was exactly right for a President who was also a modest man.
The Harry S Truman Library and Museum is a lovely building. It was the first presidential library, and when it was completed, Truman himself kept an office there and often met with visitors who happened by, chatting with some of them for hours. Imagine the Secret Service allowing that today! And then imagine Obama or Clinton even wanting to be that available to the general public.
After touring Independence, we were still able to reach our hotel in downtown St. Louis in time to walk to a deservedly crowded Italian place for dinner and then walk to a threeplex movie theater to catch a showing of Spider-Man: Homecoming.
To me that was heaven -- a downtown where things were open and we didn't have to use a car. (Good thing, since the garage our car was parked in closed an hour before the movie was over.)
The next morning we walked from our hotel to the foot of the Gateway Arch. Between my wife's claustrophobia and my acrophobia, there was no way we were actually going up into that thing.
The Gateway Arch is a truly American monument with real meaning, especially to my wife and me, descendants of pioneers who crossed the Great Plains with covered wagons. Not that our ancestors came anywhere near St. Louis -- our people crossed the frozen Mississippi many miles north in midwinter 1846, driven out of their homes in Nauvoo, Illinois, by local "Christian" terrorists. But the Gateway Arch still symbolizes the hope and promise -- and refuge -- offered by the American West.
Native Americans are, of course, perfectly justified in seeing the Gateway Arch as a very different kind of symbol.
There was so much construction in downtown St. Louis that the length of our walk to and from the Arch was tripled (at least), but that was good for me; I needed the exercise.
The freeway carried us on Sunday to Lexington, Kentucky, but on Monday we followed some blue highways through the lovely towns of Danville, Kentucky, Junction City, and Alum Springs until we were following country lanes to reach the poplar-lined driveway of a dear friend of ours, a now-retired colonel who served, and continues to serve, our country well, but now lives in retirement on a beautiful tree farm with a remarkable array of ancient woods. It's a life of peace, and my friend is a true Cincinnatus as he and his family take part in the life of their adopted Kentucky home.
Tonight I write this column and tomorrow we'll be returning home to Greensboro. Our home is not on an estate of ancient trees. Our "forests" are stands of tall grasses on a suburban boulevard with birdfeeders and benches here and there.
As I listened to Jane Austen's novels during times when I was driving and my wife slept, I realized that all the houses in Sense & Sensibility and Pride & Prejudice had names. Jokingly, my wife and I proposed several names, mostly sarcastic, for our "estate" consisting of a modest corner lot with almost no back yard at all.
We finally settled on "Tallgrass" as the most appropriate (and least embarrassingly pretentious) of all the names we came up with. But we don't think we can ever get our kids to call the place by that name, and nobody else would care. We just can't compete with Pemberly or Netherfield. Our house will continue to be known, in the family, as "Grandma's House." And that'll do.
So, yeah, we caught Spider-Man: Homecoming on its opening weekend, and we were glad we did. Our youngest caught it before us, and prepared us a little for this radical turn in the way Marvel handles its superheroes.
The previous two Spider-Man film series were, in my opinion, very good. But there was a strong emphasis on the "super," with Spider-Man swinging through urban canyons like a great magical Tarzan.
In Homecoming, Tom Holland's Peter Parker/Spider-Man (yes, that's right, I just gave away his secret identity) keeps trying to get involved in world-saving superheroics, but it's really beyond his experience and his abilities. He sometimes runs out of web-making fluid, and some of his magnificent soaring leaps end up with a splat.
On the one hand, his official liaison with Tony Stark's Avengers treats him (and his friends) with disdain, so that he is sometimes on his own and overmatched, especially after his fabulous magical suit is taken away; but as Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) remarks: If you're nothing without the suit, you don't deserve to wear it.
It was ironic yet lovely to have the wonderful Michael Keaton play the main "bad guy" in the movie. As a controversial Bat-Man many years ago, he jumped from DC to Marvel with this movie, and his character provides the moral core. Yes, he's doing awful things, but it began when awful things were done to him by roughshod authority. And he has one powerful speech in which he reminds Peter Parker that the rich guys like Tony Stark will always get their way, and little guys like Parker end up making the rich guys all the more powerful.
Though everyone in this movie does a good job with a strong script, I have to single out Zendaya, playing Michelle Jones, the wise-cracking cynical lurker with hair in her face. She delivers some wonderful zingers with just the right mix of anger and ennui, and then gives us a clue to her later importance in this series by telling Peter that he can call her "MJ." (If you don't know why that matters, just enjoy her performance for its own sake.)
Best surprise in the movie: From the start we get many references to Peter Parker's Aunt May, and when she finally appears we expect to see the sort of grey-haired matron we saw in the first round of Spidey movies.
But no. Aunt May is Marisa Tomei, not aged at all, who looks even more sexy and powerful than she was in Crazy, Stupid, Love. The film uses the sassiness that allowed her to steal My Cousin Vinny and I can't wait to see more of her in the movies to come.
This is a superhero movie that brings superheroics to a more human level, and makes it clear that you don't just put on the suit -- there are skills to be learned. Some of those are human skills, and I enjoyed watching Tom Holland start to learn them.
Wanna see something fun? A friend linked me in to this animated map showing where America's immigrants came from, year by year, since 1820. In the lower left corner there's a running display of the top three countries or regions of origin.
I urge you to watch it all the way through. And then forgive the mapmakers for not using the appropriate historical maps of Europe, Asia, and Africa for the pre-1970 world. The only place where it's seriously misleading is Russia, for during most of the serious "Russian" migration to the U.S., Russia did not follow today's boundaries. It was an empire that extended far into eastern Europe. So most of those immigrants from "Russia" actually came from Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic States, and Poland -- and a large percentage of them were Jews fleeing pogroms and persecutions.
I recently started reading Anne Ursu, an award-winning author of books for children and for adults. She teaches in Hamline University's low-residency MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults, a fact that led me to assume that her own books would probably be brilliant ... or awful.
"Brilliant" wins. I first read The Real Boy. It starts with some familiar YA fantasy tropes. Oscar is an orphan boy who works as an assistant -- but not an apprentice -- to the most powerful magician in the Barrow, a village on the edge of a magical forest which seems to exist only to supply the magic needs of the inhabitants of the City.
Oscar is plagued by the bullying apprentice, Wolf -- but when that menace is taken care of with shocking abruptness, we realize: This is not familiar ground after all. Weird stuff can happen.
And it does. Oscar has his talents, but he is also petrified when he has to run the magic shop while his boss is out of town. And with the guidance of a new friend, Carrie, apprentice to a healer who sometimes needs potions of Oscar's making, Oscar finds that the world is nothing like what most people believe it to be, and something has to be done.
The story is clever and inventive, standing predictable ideas on their heads, but the vigor of this slender book is in Ursu's storytelling. She makes Oscar's tongue-tied helplessness completely believable and understandable -- without weakening him as the hero of the story. We love him and his cats right away, but when we start to expect him to suddenly realize his powers and save everybody, he ... doesn't. Ursu is not writing everybody else's misunderstood-young-wizard story. She's writing her own.
For me, the experience of reading this book was itself magical. Ursu creates an atmosphere of strangeness, danger, and impossibilities without any of the obvious tricks. I finished The Real Boy determined to read more by this author. Maybe everything by her.
So on a night when insomnia owned me, I read Anne Ursu's Breadcrumbs. It's the story of a contemporary fifth-grade girl, Hazel, who is completely reliant on her next door neighbor and best friend, Jack, after Hazel's dad leaves and her mother can no longer afford to send her to a school (that sounds a bit like Montessori) where her quirkiness fits right in.
But Hazel finds that Jack is also close friends with several boys in the public school who do not like her at all, and in the struggle for Jack's loyalty, it comes to seem as if Hazel is going to come out the loser.
Or is she? Ursu does a good job of showing how Hazel's dependency on Jack might be closing her off from other people who are willing or even eager to be her friend. Hazel's mom arranges a "playdate" with the daughter of a good friend, and we as reader's delight in the would-be friend -- and in her failing-screenwriter uncle. These are some of the best scenes in the book.
But in the middle of the book, the story takes a sudden turning. What was once completely realistic, so that "magical" elements are shown as make-believe in Hazel's and Jack's play, all at once begins to be literally magical. But because we weren't prepared for this in any way -- mentioning pretend magic doesn't prepare us for magic to suddenly be real -- it's hard not to read the events in the magic forest as some kind of symbol-heavy dream or hallucination from which Hazel will wake up, perhaps having learned some important lesson.
It is not a spoiler for me to tell you that as near as I can tell, Breadcrumbs takes the magic sequences as literally true within the reality of the story. That is, the things that happen to Jack and Hazel in the Snow Queen's forest are not imaginary, and all the dangers and temptations that threaten to block Hazel's quest to rescue Jack are real.
I say this because it took me some work and rereading to come to this conclusion, though the story reads much better if you know from the moment Jack and Hazel separately plunge into the forest that this is now a fantasy novel and the magical stuff is real.
The first half of the novel is a brilliant realistic treatment of childhood friendships and how they can crumble without any ill intent on anyone's part.
The second half is a fascinating anything-can-happen romp through a surreal landscape.
But I have to say that I wish I could have read the version of this story in which magic remains imaginary and Hazel has to recreate her life and her identity after she is abandoned by the best friend on whom she had become too dependent.
As it is, though, it's still a wonderful experience to read Breadcrumbs. If you are part of a reading group, I think the story will be the occasion of some wonderful discussion -- particularly if you warn everybody in advance that when it suddenly turns magical, these events should be taken as real. That will avoid some confusion and disappointment, and will help keep the discussion on the topics that matter: What do you do when, for no detectable reason, you lose a friend?
And how do you recognize, after having spent years with a genuine best friend, the other, less-intense forms of friendship that make up most of our associations?
In the real world, the answer is not to go looking for them in a magical forest. And it is certainly not to start trying to find intense freudian or jungian readings of the "symbols" in the fantasy portion of Breadcrumbs.
on the art and business of science fiction writing.
Over five hours of insight and advice.
Recorded live at Uncle Orson's Writing Class in Greensboro, NC.
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