Mary Clark, Traveler

Denison, Texas – From a President’s Home to a Pirate Ship With Art In Between

Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Birthplace
Room where Eisenhower was born

Denison, Texas began as a company town built by the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad (called the KATY), the first railroad into Texas.  At its height, half of Denison worked for the KATY, including David Eisenhower from 1889-1892.  In a small white clapboard house across the road from a railroad tract, the family’s third son, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was born in 1890.  President Eisenhower’s birth details may have been lost since all births were at home and Denison had no hospital.  As late as his application to West Point, Dwight thought he was born in Tyler.  However, Principal Jennie Jackson remembered the Eisenhower family and contacted him when he became famous.  

Statue of Eisenhower by Robert Dean

Then General Eisenhower visited his birthplace in 1948, just after the home was purchased by Denison to be preserved.  It is now a State Historic Site that offers a short tour of the house (he only lived there 18 months). A bronze life size statue of General Eisenhower stands on the grounds with him dressed in his personally designed short Eisenhower jacket.  Oklahoma artist Robert Dean created five statues of the president and Denison was lucky to get one of them. The statue was dedicated on the 50th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy, France.  Eisenhower Birthplace

Denison’s downtown is surprisingly long and large with the train station anchoring the east side.  This is the third station on the site and includes a wedding venue in the former waiting room and a railroad museum.  There we learned Union Pacific bought the KATY railroad and still runs freight trains through the town.  However, the railroad yard now lies west of town and is a busy place. 

Kaboodles Store in Denison

A surprising number of art galleries and antique stores line Main Street with a proposed Studebaker Museum in the works.  My favorite store was Kaboodles, opened two years ago by Cindy Dickson.  The store includes creative and unique repurposed items by local artists and even carries leather purses made by Brad Berrentine, a resident of Pattonville.  Kaboodles Facebook Page

After lunch at Café Java’s (also known as CJ’s), we walked past the old Rialto theatre.  As we peered through the glass doors, new owner Rich Vann waved us in. He has replaced the sound system, brought in a large screen, and is ready for nightly live shows, movies, or even football games.  His opening event on August 23rd is a Stevie Wonder impersonator.  “We aren’t promising anything.  We’re just going to do it,” he tells us.  All those living in the downtown lofts are going to appreciate this venue. Rialto Facebook Page

Swimming Beach at Eisenhower State Park

Continuing to capitalize on the brief Eisenhower connection, the city boasts of nearby Eisenhower State Park on Lake Texoma.  This is a large park with many camping spots, screened in cabins and some serious marinas, including the Eisenhower Yacht Club.  An employee acknowledged there is no club nor club house and the name is just a fancy way to describe the marina.  Pontoon boats are available for hire and we particularly liked the small swimming beach.  We were sorry not to have brought swim suits to enjoy the clear, cool waters. 
Eisenhower State Park

Compass Rose
Further around the lake we found the Compass Rose – an exact replica of a wooden, tall sailing, brigantine privateer boat from the 1860s.   It was undergoing repairs as we approached.  A young man introduced himself as Mark Nagel.  “I’m the quartermaster,” he said.  Captain Ron Odom soon approached and shared the history of his boat.  She was built in 1968, has traveled around the world twice and is one of only 145 remaining privateers in the world, few of which are still sailing.  Since their purchase, Captain Ron and his wife, Tamie, have refigured the sails into a square rig which allows the boat to turn in any direction, picking up the wind on the lake.  They’ve replaced just about everything, furnished it with period pieces and covered the hull with fiber glass to protect it from growth in the lake.   

This nautical life is especially surprising for Ron who lived 52 years on a cattle ranch in West Texas.  After spending summers sailing in the Caribbean and owning a series of Hunter boats, Ron and Tamie are finally living their dream.   The Odoms have made the ship available for tours (1st and 3rdSaturdays) and sails.  All of the crew work as volunteers except a required 100 ton captain.  Passengers are treated to pirates in authentic costumes, complete with an ex-marine who climbs the mast and rigging.    Check their website for sailing times, including their full moon events.  
Compass Rose Website

Denison has an eclectic assortment of history, art, recreation, and entertainment for visitors – certainly enough to fill a day or weekend.  Since it’s just an hour down the road, more in Paris should take advantage – unless pirates make you nervous.

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Comparing International Airline Personalities

Quantas Airlines approaching Auckland, New Zealand

The travel day had already been long – early morning wake-up call, two hour drive to the airport, parking, check-in, security review, first flight out, lost in a new airport, and now, finally, the second and last flight from Mexico City to Oaxaca.  American Airlines brought us to Mexico City and bankrupt Mexicana was to carry us to our destination.  I walked into its clean, new airplane and immediately relaxed as classical music played overhead and wondered why other airlines didn=t use Mozart to calm passengers.  But then all international airlines have their own personalities.

Fly any of the Asian Airlines and the attendants will take you back in time when Astewardesses@ had to be of a certain height, weight, age, and appearance.  At Los Angeles Airport, I watched a crew of Singapore Airline attendants pass – bright smiles, hair drawn up, hats precisely tilted, and dressed in tight skirts, draped scarves, belted waists, and high heels.  All heads turned to watch this perfectly coiffed cast pass effortlessly through security.  I wanted to be on their flight.
On a Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong, lovely attendants treated our general class cabin as if we were in first class.  The array of food choices was staggering – American, Asian, Indian, vegetarian, egg free, dairy free, kosher.  Soft voices whispered in my ear to determine if I were awake enough to want a snack or breakfast.  Warm damp towels freshened my face.  And bathrooms were kept spotless throughout the long flight. 
My experience with Egypt Airlines from New York to Cairo was in sharp contrast to the Asian ones.  Only male attendants dressed in blue and gold suits served us, and men being men, the bathrooms needed far more attention from the staff than they got. No alcohol was allowed because of its prohibition in Islam. That didn=t stop the loud visiting among passengers. Egyptians are, in general, a happy bunch and even some of the attendants joined in the bantering that crossed rows and aisles. I sat next to a couple who, judging by their tete-a-tete murmurings, were newly married.  They weren’t and acknowledged just enjoying time together before meeting their large family in Cairo. The husband wanted to know where my husband was.  
Alitalia Airlines has been in and out of bankruptcy for years, with a lousy on time record. On a trip to Italy and Tunisia though, it had the best schedule and prices.  The airline makes up for their often late arrivals with an open bar at the back of the plane – literally open bottles of wine that passengers pour themselves.  That made the rear of our plane the place to solve world problems which several travelers tried to do all night.   Turkish Airlines was all business but its low cost competitor, Pegasus, reminded me of the early days of Southwest Airlines, when flight attendants often joked around and gently teased travelers.  Pegasus’ obligatory safety film was made with children giving instructions – so amusing that everyone actually watched.
I had long been intrigued by El Al, Israel’s closely guarded airline, and finally got to try their services en route to Tel Aviv.  At Newark Airport, each passenger was separately interrogated.  My questions included where I was staying, who I was visiting, name of my landlady, had I ever been to the Middle East, why are you going to Israel, to Jordan?  On board, Hebrew dominated and passengers included bearded rabbis, large Hasidem families, a teenage girl in braces who bobbed her head in prayer through the night, and a handsome, teasing flight attendant.  Humus was standard as was the wonderful Middle Eastern breakfast salad with seeds and nuts.

Sky Airlines lunch on flight to Puerto Montt

In using international airlines, it’s been a surprise to be served meals and local products, even on short flights.  On an hour and a half flight from Hong Kong to Hanoi, we were given a hot lunch on Vietnam Airlines.  An even shorter flight from Santiago to Puerto Montt, Chile was enough to be offered cold cuts on Sky Airways, a start-up Chilean airline. On a 50 minute puddle jumper with Tunisair from Tunis, Tunisia, to Palermo, Italy, a sole attendant was able to distribute sweet snacks and hard candy. With its mostly male attendants, Quantas Airlines made available Australian wine and beer as well as Australian movies such as “There’s nothing I’d rather be than an Aborigine.” Swiss Air served the best milk chocolate candy ever and Dutch KLM promoted its dairy products, including Gouda and Edom cheese. 

In these days of tedious air travel, concentrating on the novelties of an airline helps pass the time.  The differences are there, just waiting to be noticed. And for those who prefer a taste of home, Coca Cola is always available – always.

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My Cousin’s Mountain Film Festival

Showing of Mountain Film Festival in Puerta Natales, Chile

Since 1946, film festivals have been held all over the world –  from Cannes to Venice to Toronto to Sundance with emphasis on first time releases, ethnic origins, genres, independent film producers or even documentaries or shorts.  I’ve seen promotions of festivals from Antalya, Turkey to Ft. Worth, Texas as communities work to attract visitors.  But my cousin takes his Mountain Film Festival on the road to where viewers are most likely to be. 

Patrick Moore grew up in Lubbock, graduated with a fine arts degree from Texas Tech, and became a serious world traveler thanks to a job maintaining satellite dishes at U.S. Embassies around the globe.    Even with extra pages, his passport never lasted long and was replaced often.  Wherever he went, Patrick hiked and explored and kept up with climbing feats around the world.  On a whim in New Zealand several years ago, he called Sir Edmund Hillary of Mt. Everest fame.  Sir Hillary invited him to his home and Patrick spent the afternoon with the family, learning more about the famous climber’s life.

 Patrick married a beautiful Chilean American Airline attendant and settled in Santiago to raise his family.  He found the outdoor opportunities in South America unparalleled and he and his family often hiked, biked, climbed and camped.  In his backyard is a climbing wall and a shed full of outdoor equipment.   Even before the embassy job played out, Patrick explored bringing a film festival to the far south that played to his interests – mountain climbing and extreme sports.  He found two.

Poster promoting Mountain Film Festival

The Banff Film festival licenses 25 films to be available to hosts like Patrick who select those they wish to show at their own locations.  He also picks up the four climbing films offered each year by  The Reel Rock Film Tour.  This year featured a harrowing rock climb by individuals who had missing limbs but no lack of courage as well as the Stonemasters, a 1960s group of self-taught rock climbers who ruled El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.  What distinguishes  Patrick’s two to three day festivals are his speakers and workshops on mountain climbing that accompany the films.  

The Mountain Film Festival is shown in 13 South American locations in Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Peru –  just about anywhere young climbing enthusiasts congregate.  Backpackers love it when the festival arrives in town or even on the slope.  Entertainment is hard to come by in most outback areas.   His  most challenging location is at  Aconcagua,  highest mountain in North and South America at 22,000 feet. In February of this year,  Patrick carried his High Definition projector while others packed in a 22 foot inflatable screen.  It took two days of hiking to arrive at the second base camp of the mountain. There at 14,000 feet, the movies were shown on the screen under the stars to 200 grateful and amazed campers.  

After years of following Facebook posts on Patrick’s  festivals, I had the opportunity to experience a showing in Puerta Natales, Chile, a town of 20,000 where many launch into Patagonia.  While North Face is his primary sponsor,  Patrick finds local companies to help with overhead costs and to promote the showings.  In Puerta Natales, Erratic Rock, a local hostel/outfitting company, provided assistance with the location and set-up.  Posters of the festival had been hung around town and the local newspaper covered the upcoming event. 

We arrived on a rainy night at a large, metal hanger for a showing of “Towers of Temptation”, a film on the first ascent of the central towers of Torres del Paine in Patagonia 51 years ago.  At the premier showing in Santiago, Patrick had even brought in the film’s director, Leo Dickerson, to speak.  Inside, indirect lighting illuminated walls of powerful photographs of climbers and the towers. Outdoor equipment such as kayaks, mountain bicycles, and tents were displayed.  Young travelers from around the world milled about – visiting, comparing, sharing stories. Some even carried their backpacks as if they had just arrived in town.  Hot cider was served.  By the time of the showing of the first film, the 200 chairs had filled and all settled in for an evening of entertainment far from home.

The Mountain Film Festival shows continue throughout the year, even in  the coldest days of winter in southern Patagonia.  In my last e-mail from Patrick, he wrote enthusiastically of the next showing in Coyhaique, Chile where a Mt. Everest climber and an Antarctica Explorer will be giving lectures along with the films.  His timing is good.  Travels to Patagonia and other parts of South America are up.  And, there’s nothing more exciting than a good mountain climbing story, especially if the mountain is just outside the window.

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Edom and Ben Wheeler – Tiny Towns That Use The Arts to Survive

Potters Brown, Edom, Texas

Ken Carpenter Jewelry, Edom, Texas
Selections at Potters Brown

I love small towns that use the arts to survive and Edom and Ben Wheeler are two such communities, closely connected and near Athens and Tyler.  Edom owes its survival to Doug Brown, owner of Potters Brown.   Potters Brown Freshly trained as a potter, Doug arrived in Edom in 1971, looking for a quiet place to live and work.   His uniquely painted and glazed pieces  attracted shoppers from the DFW Metroplex which brought in more artisans which attracted more shoppers.  Forty three years later, his store still anchors the “arts district” of Edom, population 375. 

Doug Brown of Potters Brown

Doug was hard to miss in his pink overalls,  t-shirt and  headband as he offered to show off his kiln in back where he was firing that day.  In what was once a feed store, the works of Doug and his wife, Beth, support reds and purples, colors that are hard to achieve in the glazing world, as well as more traditional browns and blues.  Doug was proud that Edom had managed to promote the arts without changing the character of the small town.  “Not much” was his reply to the question of what had changed since he established residency there, failing to note the one-third increase in population since 2000.  

Next door is Ken Carpenter’s Jewelry, which recently celebrated 25 years in “downtown” Edom.  Originally in the restaurant construction business, Ken opened his store in 1990.  Lapis, green turquoise, and larimar are just some of the stones used in his strong pieces.  Like other artists of Edom, Ken supplements his income with appearances at art fairs around the state.  Ken Carpenter Jewelry

Edom supports six other stores and studios. Easily 10% of the population is involved in the arts.  If Paris had the same ratio, we would have 2500 artists.  Imagine what an art center we would be.  

The most prominent building in town is The Shed Café, proudly displaying a banner noting its being designated Best Café in East Texas by Texas Monthly.  It was still full as we entered at 2 o’clock with many locals and visitors enjoying  basic Texas fare such as  chicken fried steak, meatloaf, steak, hamburgers. 

We happened to hit the Second Saturday Art Jam event along the 279 Artisans Trail – named for the highway connecting Ben Wheeler and Edom.  This includes 11 artist shops, several restaurants, produce stands, garden centers and music venues.  After a short, pleasant drive, we arrived in the revived town of Ben Wheeler, the  result of an experiment by two  residents with a vision.  Here’s the description of the foundation contained in the Ben Wheeler website – “Ben Wheeler Arts & Historic District Foundation, a non-profit 501 (c) (3) corporation, was created by Brooks and Rese Gremmels to serve as the vehicle for reconstructing, not only the physical aspects of Ben Wheeler, Texas but perhaps, more importantly, returning a sense of community to the town by providing it with various outlets through music, art, history, education, entrepreneurship, basic civil service and philanthropy.” 

The Foundation has been a kind of privately funded Main Street project with old buildings being renovated and filled with galleries and restaurants.  One dollar rent was offered to entice new shopkeepers.   The Harrison Knife Making school brings in students from around the country while Blue Moose Decoys can be purchased next door and hats across the street.   An old schoolhouse was moved in to house the local children’s library along with a wedding chapel.  Two music venues advertised live concerts the night of our visit.  

And there’s much promotion of its self-designated “Wild Hog Capital of Texas”.  As one resident said, “someone’s got to take ownership.”    At the festival in the fall, you can join a cook-off or compete to be crowned Hog Queen.  The Foundation has literally changed everything for this town of 400.  Sadly, Brooks Gremmels died this year from pancreatic cancer but the foundation and town remain committed to this project.

Serene setting at Oak Creek Bed and Breakfast

Edom and Ben Wheeler can be visited in a day from Paris but a nice outing is to spend the night at  Oak Creek Bed and Breakfast just outside of Athens. Oak Creek Bed and Breakfast  Randell and Marilyn Tarin are the Innkeepers and faces of a new kind of B&B.  No longer are B&Bs just historical Victorian homes with flowered chintz coverings.  Randell and Marilyn retired from the Metroplex and built their dream home in the East Texas woods along with two tastefully decorated cabins. 

One of Two cabins at Oak Creek Bed and Breakfast

Aside from providing our hearty breakfasts, the Tarins were knowledgeable local guides, steering us towards and away from certain restaurants and wineries.  They check it all out before making recommendations to their guests.  Even though we didn’t need their Elopement-Honeymoon Package, for which Randell is licensed to perform, the quiet, private setting was enough.  Remember this place when you just need to get away for a night.

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Magellanic Penguins – Struggling to Adapt

A couple of adult Magellanic Penguins

An entire island of penguins?  How could that not be cool?  Children and adults alike are pulled toward these little guys – strutting their stuff on land, sleek swimmers in the water.   On Magellan Island, on the Magellan Straits of South America, thousands of Magellanic penguins make their summer homes burrowed into the ground.  We got to walk among them on a morning excursion from Punta Arenas, Chile.

Melinka Ferry to Magellan Island

 There are two ways to travel to Magellan Island, assuming the trip is not cancelled due to high winds.  Pay lots more and arrive on a zodiac boat before the crowds or take the slow Melinka ferry, landing on the island two hours later.  We were in no hurry and enjoyed being on the Straits.  Many young adults in the international crowd chose to catch up on their sleep but we  were happy to listen to the lecture given in Spanish and English by a young woman who seemed to be in charge of us.  

Magellanic penguins can live up to 25 years with as many as 300,000 penguins roosting on this small island.  Male and female look exactly alike, weigh about 11 pounds and mate for life.  Couples are only together six months of the year, parting after babies are born, trained to hunt for food, and sent on their way.  Males and females will go separate directions for the winter, hooking back up the next year – same place, same time- with only the female’s ability to identify her mate’s call bringing them back together.

Upon arrival on the island, we had been strictly instructed NOT to stray from the marked path that led from the dock to an old lighthouse.  Looking at the island from the boat, I thought I was gazing at Prairie Dog Town in Lubbock, Texas.  With no vegetation for shade, thousand of penguins stood guard outside the hole that was their home.  They return to the exact same burrow each year where two eggs are produced by the female and hatched by both parents. 

By our visit in March, the babies had already been pushed out to sea to find their way up the east coast of Argentina, led by an adolescent.  All adolescents had also been sent packing.  No coddling or overprotective parents here.  Remaining were  adults, easy to identify by the broad black stripes on their chests.  The wider the strip, the older the penguin.  They had to bulk up – gain back weight lost in feeding babies all summer.  No fishing boats were allowed near the island,  but adults still would be out for 2 or 3 days to find food, swimming as far as the Atlantic and Pacific.  

Tourists on path through the Magellanic Penguins on Magellan Island

Molting Magellanic Penguin

We only had an hour on the island and cameras were whirring.  Photographers squatted, lay on the ground, leaned over the ropes marking the paths.  Telephoto lens competed with point and shoot cameras.  The penguins seemed oblivious of us all – similar to a Galapagos Island experience 40 years ago.  Occasionally, a penguin would cross the path on its way to the water, doing that funny waddle until diving in and smoothly swimming away.  It was surprisingly noisy with sea gulls complaining as they were attached by skuas –  large brown birds that like sea gull eggs.  Penguins chimed in with their donkey brays.  And feathers were everywhere as all penguins molt each year.

Skuas, Sea Gulls and Magellanic Penguins on Magellan Island

What our lecture on penguins failed to tell us is the real risk to the colonies because of global warming.  In February of this year, the New York Times ran an article by Harry Fountain detailing the increased heat and rain where penguins mate.  Baby penguins feathers are not waterproof for six weeks and many will die from hypothermia if soaked by rain.  I was shocked at the statistic that 2/3 of the hatchlings don’t survive to leave the nest.  Add this to oil spills, depleted fish supplies from commercial fishing, and unregulated tourism, and our little friends are struggling to adapt fast enough. Fortunately, organizations such as the Wildlife Conservation Society are working to create protected areas with commercial fishing banned.  

Magellanic Penguins close to the water

After an hour, our leader shooed us back down the path to the boat.  It appeared our group had been respectful of the rules regarding the path and didn’t try to get closer than allowed.  But I’m sure the penguins were happy to see us go.  One probably gave the “all clear” sign as the boat pulled out.   Today, that island would be empty as all have moved north for the winter.  We can only hope they’ll be back –  same place, same time next year.

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Punta Arenas – Hanging Out At the End of the Earth

Rebuilt waterfront in Punta Arenas, Chile

 Punta Arenas lies on the Straights of Magellan, 880 miles due north of the icy shores of Antarctica and 2500 miles from the South Pole.  It has been a harbor for boats and travelers through the Straits since it began as a penal colony in 1848.  After the town burned in an 1877 mutiny, it was rebuilt sans prison and became a major trade center for the sheep farming industry and those who hoped to discover gold in the area.   It also helped to have a coaling station for steamships on the main shipping route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans – at least until the Panama Canal was built in 1914.  Colonists from Spain were expected but Punta Arenas also attracted a surprisingly large crowd from Croatia in search of gold and escaping a long drought in their home country. 

I envisioned a small town clinging to the last rocks of the South American continent but instead found a small city of 170,000 inhabitants reinventing itself in a new world of energy and tourism. It is the center of Chile’s only oil reserves, now being drawn out by fracking.  Half of the country’s lamb production still ships in and out of its free port but  new kids on the block include dozens of cruise ships which call during the summer season of November through March.  

Punta Arenas is filled with names associated with its adventuresome past.  There’s a Charles Darwin Colegio, Magellan Street, Los Navegantes Hotel, Colon Avenue (after Christopher Columbus) and even a street named Yugoslavia after the homeland of many of the Croatians that immigrated here.  Just two years ago, flash floods filled streets and damaged or destroyed 500 homes. The city has taken advantage of the disaster and rebuilt the water walk, using pavers to redesign streets and sidewalks and adding monuments, benches and play areas.  

Monument to area’s  important sheep industry

Many visitors fly into Punta Arenas and immediately launch into Patagonia to the north or ship off to Antarctica.  Our unusual two night stay had two purposes – to see the Magellan  penguins and meet some local Rotarians who had visited my brother in Davis, California during a Rotary exchange.  

From our hotel, we easily walked to Ivan Baria’s home where we were joined by Alejandro Toro and his wife, Lily, and children.  Ivan was restoring his Art Deco home that had been damaged in the floods.   Trays of hors d’oeuvres awaited, many made from the very popular mayonnaise, with hot dogs served later.  Offers of Pisco Sours were accepted and visiting began.  

Ivan Baria, Mack Walker, and Alejandro Toro

Their children attend the local German school, where Lily teaches English.  Sports are played against 17 other German schools in Chile and parents have to pay for students to fly to games.  They learn 3 languages, Spanish, German, and English, and all will visit Germany for a month. Alejandro’s son had obviously just been to Europe as he sported a sweat shirt claiming to be part of a Czech Praha Drinking Team.   Ivan had been an exchange student in Nebraska in 1976 where he first saw color TV.  His daughter just returned from her exchange experience in Minnesota.  Exploring the world was a way of life for his family.

When asked what was good about Punta Arenas, Ivan explained everything centers around the home resulting in strong relationships and a safe place for children.  Alejandro and Ivan bonded during their trip to California and told wonderful stories that included my brother.  What struck me was how normal it all felt – enjoying an evening with friends – except it was at the end of the world. 

Southernmost Golf Course in the World
Exact replica of Magellan’s Ship,Nao Victoria

Ivan picked us up the next day for a “real” tour of the town.  It included a short ride up to the southern most ski area, open one month a year, the southern most golf course with its wind tilted trees, historic cemetery  and the two year old Nao Victoria Museum containing exact replicas of Magellan’s ship, Shackleford’s lifeboat and soon to be finished Darwin’s Beagle boat.  On a more personal note, we toured Ivan’s Croatian neighborhood where he grew up on a hill surveying the Magellan Straits.

Owner Silvia Harambour at Kiosko Roca

And for an insiders’ treat,  we arrived at Kiosko Roca at peak hour.  This small diner overflowed with students grabbing an afternoon snack while adults waited for take-outs.   It was named the best “picada” or “traditional hole in the wall” in Chile winning over 155 entrants.  The original owner’s daughter, Silvia Harambour, smiled easily and insisted we try their banana milk and choripanes, a sandwich with chorizo paste.  It was the perfect place to end the tour of Punta Arenas – a local spot filled with locals who hardly noticed the often heady wind outside. Thanks to the many modern conveniences, life is very doable at this end of the world.  

Author and husband on Southernmost ski lift in the world

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Family Offerings in Alexandria, Louisiana

New Land of the Jaguar section at Alexandria Zoo

Alexandria lies right smack in the middle of Louisiana, neither full blooded Cajun nor Creole, but a nice absorption of  cultures that have passed through.  And there have been many.  First the Choctaw, Tensas, Appalachee and Pascagoula Native Americans, followed by the French, and then the U.S. picked it up in the Louisiana Purchase.  As with many town names, it’s probably named after founder, Alexander Fulton, who laid out the plan for the city in 1805.  Thanks to its location among several national forests, its military history and sites to see, Alexandria is a good base for exploring central Louisiana and has something for the whole family.  

Draped Mirror at Kent Plantation House
Purple Funeral China at Kent Plantation House

For a taste of history, Kent Plantation House, a classic raised Creole cottage, is one of Louisiana’s oldest structure (213 years) and is filled with era appropriate furnishings.  The house is treated as if it were occupied, meaning its decorations vary by season and life’s happenings.  Mirrors  were draped in black net on our visit, signifying a death in the family.  Our enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide, Sandy Lott, filled in  other funeral customs such the use of purple as the funeral color extending to even  purple forget me not flowers on china and a purple cake.  A kneeler was placed in front of the casket for private prayers for the deceased. Sandy kept us entertained with the source of many of our sayings such as “shoo fly” and “cost an arm and a leg”.   I would love to see this home decorated for the Christmas season but it’s beautiful anytime.

One aisle in Silver dollar Pawn and Jewelry Shop

Stop by Silver Dollar Pawn and Jewelry Store, where Jimmie, “the Don of Pawn” DeRamus, will entertain and educate you for as much time as you have. He claims, “You can fact check everything I say.”   His ‘stuff’ fills 65,000 square feet and includes the MLK hearse, Jerry Lee Lewis’ diamond ring, a steamboat chandelier, five Bone Allen Saddles, and an Elvis Presley watch.  Movie producers call for props and educators are loaned what they need.  He takes his Christian faith seriously as evidenced by the proud display of the Ten Commandments on the outside wall. Everyone can find something of interest here.

Martin Luther King Hearse
Jerry Lee Lewis Diamond Ring

The small Alexandrian zoo is a surprise in a town this size.  Opened in 1926, accredited  Alexandria Zoological Parkhouses 500 animals and has the unique Louisiana Habitat section complete with alligators.  Land of the Jaguar had just opened when I visited and contained an active ocelot, an unusual Tyra, Chilean flamingos and a huge Giant Anteater.  In the Asian area, a beautiful white Bengal tiger lounged comfortably by the fence, allowing close viewing.  This zoo is a perfect size for younger children but engaging to all.

Bengal Tiger at Alexandria Zoo

Original Eli Whitney cotton gin
Cotton Picking Sacks

Just over an hour’s drive from Alexandria is Frogmore Plantation and Gin, an 1800 acre working, historical cotton farm complete with old and new cotton gins.  Reconstructed slave quarters include the cook cabin, overseers dog trot, and commissary.  The tour traces the history of cotton and, in particular, its harvesting.  Eli Whitney’s cotton gin removed seeds from the cotton and replaced 50 working slaves.  After slavery came share cropping.  Lynette Tanner, owner of the plantation, even talked about modern day cotton and China’s predatory pricing tactics.  Check before you go, but often the family can don long cotton sacks and try picking cotton by hand.  Your kids will never complain of chores again.

Surrounding Alexandria are National Forests with good hiking trails.  Unfortunately, our visit was during the government closing of parks and we only hiked a small part of the  Kisatchie National Forest.  But that was enough to realize the potential for sustained hiking in the area. The Wild Azalea Trail is Louisiana’s longest hiking trail, measuring in at 31 miles.  Bicycles may also be rented, allowing families to use cycling trails. For fishing, try Kincaid Lake Recreation Area.  

Unless you are a real history buff, you may not know of Alexandria’s important military past.  In the Red River Campaign of the  Civil War, the Union Army was stopped here from progressing further and taking Louisiana and Texas.  The story of Bailey’s dam is illustrated at Fts. Randolph and Buloh State Historic Site. And during World War II, this area was humming with soldiers and bigwig officers.  In the Louisiana Maneuvers, soldiers trained for entry into WWII at four bases and practiced throughout the nearby Louisiana countryside.   The Louisiana and Military Maneuvers Museum will tell you more. (409 F Street Pineville, Louisiana 71360
(318) 641-5733

In the past, you could have followed the Red River from northern Lamar County to Alexandria.  Today, just head to Texarkana and turn south.  There’s plenty to see on the way but save time for Alexandria and environs.  

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The Hostel Life – Are you ever too old? Torres Del Paine National Park Lodging

Paine Grande Mountain Lodge

 It was not our intent to stay in hostels on our trip to the magnificent Torres del Paine National Park in the Patagonia area of Southern Chile.  We had only heard of the beauty of the setting and challenging hikes.  A four day, private tour was booked which included food, lodging, transportation and a guide – a petite, young Chilean woman named Saundra.  While in the mountains, we were to stay in a “refugio” and a “lodge”, words we should have investigated more carefully. Saundra brought by the duffel and sleeping bags (should have been first clue) needed for the two nights at our lodgings on the trail. We re-packed minimal clothes and toiletries but maximum trail paraphernalia like walking sticks, rain gear, bandaids, moleskin, hats, and sun screen.

Dining room at Refugio Las Torres

The next day, after a ten hour hike (another story),  we arrived at Refugio Las Torres, at 8:45 pm barely in time for a hearty dinner of instant asparagus soup, roll, very good pork roast with garlic sauce, mashed potatoes and dessert.  It was obvious they most often cook for young hikers who are starved.  We weren’t the only over 60 participants but definitely in the minority.  At our table were three older Canadians traveling for a year, often via cargo boats.  After dinner, we carried our duffle bags to a separate building and had the first look at our rooms.

My introduction to hostels came in 1972 on a five month tour of Europe, where the youth hostel idea was conceived in 1909 by Richard Shirrmann, a German schoolteacher.  It was an inexpensive form of lodging with the all important opportunity to meet other young travelers.  Hostels today have  followed the expanded territory of backpackers.  In  Puerto Natales, a launching town for Patagonia, a population of 20,000 supports 20 hostels as listed on  In comparison, there are only two hostels listed for Dallas on the same site.

Our room at Refugio las Torres

Forty two years later, I’m looking at an old familiar site – three bunkbeds in a single room.  We were only four, meaning space shared with stranger(s).  Fortunately, our first bunkmate was a quiet, young Dutch man who came in late and left early.  With limited space, we kept bumping into each other trying to find “stuff” to take to the separate bathrooms.  My brother and his wife whipped out a pad to place on the beds “just in case” of bedbugs, as suggested by their 25 year old son.  My husband and I could only hope for the best.  The light at the women’s  bath was out.  All the fit, young women were prepared with miner lights,  strapped on their heads to navigate.  I only had a very small flashlight to put in my mouth, working for all needs except brushing teeth.  The night was long with much wind and snoring.

Next day brought a change of residence to “Paine Grande Mountain Lodge” on Lake Pehoe which sits alone at the vortex of two of our planned hikes.  We arrived in a catamaran with  wind gusts of 60 mph and rain showers.   The “lodge” had a large dining room with beautiful views but it soon became apparent we were again in a room with three bunk beds.  Our roommates didn’t arrive until 5 and I’m sure those two young men from Los Angeles were horrified to find their “parents”  ensconced on all the lower beds.  All they requested was to hang their clothes to dry.  Soon shirts, pants, socks and even underwear were hung over beds, storage units, and curtain rods. And, they, wisely, took the ear plugs offered by my sister-in-law.

Noise level in the lodge increased as groups of hikers hurried in from the cold.  Four German women arrived in heavy hiking boots, layered clothes, jackets unzipped, and covered backpacks slung over the shoulders .  One American woman dried her shoes and warmed hands in front of a wood burning heater as another put vaseline on legs and shoes.    A Spanish girl complained of pain in her legs and feet and several were limping.  A young buck walked by with towel around his waist.  Freshly changed young adults headed to the bar in flip flops where Spanish, English, German, French, Italian and Japanese were heard.  All were so comfortable with the mixed sex rooms and visiting seemed easy among them.

Taking advantage of Happy Sour – 2 Pisco Sours for price of one – we waited for dinner.  Ever though the lodge was unexpectedly full because of the gale outside, it still offered generous servings of a mild curry chicken with lots of vegetables, corn soup and flan.  The large, full dining room had about 85% young and 15% older guests.

Basic breakfasts at hostels

Wind blew all night and our room seemed barely heated. Sleeping bags sufficed for warmth but a closer bathroom equipped with paper towels was missed.  All quieted by 11.  The next morning, we were up early and the dining room was more equally divided 50/50 between age groups.  I guess they used up all their funds for dinner as breakfast was marginal – first time to try chocolate bran cereal – yuk- and coffee  served with hot water, small packets of instant coffee and fortunately, hot milk to mix.

Waiting for the Catamaran with backpackers

After the morning hike, we waited with a line of backpackers for the return voyage on the  catamaran.   An equal number of backpackers emerged from the boat to start their hikes, with one lone Asian couple carrying a suitcase.  I actually felt quite proud that we had survived two nights in hostels but was looking forward to our private bath and hot water at the next hotel.   Some experiences truly favor the young but I say never say never. It’s only a night.

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Berlin’s DDR Museum Chronicles Life Under Communism in East Germany

Two-stroke, two cylinder Trabant Car from days of Communism in East Germany

I grew up during the Cold War and knew little of everyday life behind the Iron Curtain.  Information was hard to come by as propaganda dominated the Soviet block.  And the American press was happy to report of only hard times suffered by Eastern Europeans.  Yet, life went on – citizens worked, students were educated, couples married, and families vacationed.  Today, with photos, facts and displays, a wonderful, small museum in Berlin chronicles every day life under communism to the amazement of its many visitors.

On display at the DDR Museum was the most famous consumer product in East Germany.  The tiny 4 passenger  Trabant  had a two-stroke, two cylinder engine and used a plastic called auroplast to make the car lighter.  It was jokingly referred to as a “plastic racer” but could reach 60 mph.   The next joke concerned the length of time needed to take delivery of the car.  One should order the Trabant when the baby is born so that he/she will have a car when she leaves home for college.  In truth, this was not far off as the average wait was 16 years.  Drivers traveled with their own spare parts as they were expected to provide those to any auto repair shop.   It is ironic that America’s cars are just now using plastic in construction but our purpose is to improve gas mileage, not to cheapen the product.  An innovate entrepreneur in Berlin used our fascination with this car to collect and pain Trabants, and now rents them to tourists.  One pulled up in front of us at the East Side Gallery portion of the remaining Berlin Wall.   It was loud and barely held the two Americans inside. 

With a farmer father, I was particularly interested in the agricultural collectivization and proud the East German farmers did not capitulate easily to communal farms.  The government tried to entice them to join farm coops by providing seeds and modern machines.  When that failed, the army arrived to arrest resisting farmers and  secure the transfer.  By 1960, collectivization was complete.  On our farm in Plainview in that same year, my father was experimenting with growing potatoes, carrots, cabbage and onions in addition to the traditional wheat and cotton.  His farm was among the many American farms that were so efficient,  Russia had to buy wheat from us in 1972.

Inside East German homes in 1971, only 8% had telephones and 36% had toilets.  I thought this a misprint.  Yet, 18 years later in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell, just 16% had telephones and 76% had toilets.  The government provided cheap food and prefab housing (an eleven story building could be built in 110 days) but no coffee.   To enhance this basic existence, East Germans became the biggest drinkers in the world.  In a year, an average person drank 286 bottles of beer and 23 bottles of schnapps, at a time when there were no purity laws for the beer.

Typical Living Room under Communism in East Germany

A typical living room was displayed and truthfully, it didn’t appear so different than the 50’s style I grew up with.  Because the government chose the style, nothing changed in the next 40 years.  At first glance, there appeared to be a healthy number of media outlets – 39 newspapers, two TV channels and four radio stations but the government briefed the editors daily on what could be reported.  Music on the radio stations and nightclubs had to play 60% bands from East Germany and its socialist neighbors.  Discos circumvented this by playing only a fraction of the East German song before playing Western music.  

Forbidden Books in East Germany

The youth listened to rock and roll in churches even though the Stasi  (State Security Police) took pictures of them exiting the church.  The museum had an interrogation room and listening devices that the Stasi  used on their citizens.   East Germany also made extensive use of citizens spying on their neighbors, resulting in 250,000 political prisoners over the years. These were later “ransomed” to West Germany.

Some interesting details included a mass nudist movement in the country with much skinny dipping, explained  as one of the few ways East Germans could freely express themselves.  Young children had communal potty breaks at which none could leave until all were finished.  Pictures of tanks and soldiers were used to teach math.   Women were encouraged to have babies, enticed by free child care, credits on debt and generous maternity leave.  Travel was limited to the Eastern Block countries.  Russian was the second language taught.   The government decided what clothes were fashionable and could be worn.  And, there was a frank acknowledgment of steroid use on athletes in the 1970’s.  

Photo of Berlin Wall at DDR Museum

Exiting the museum, one stood in front of a large photo of the Berlin Wall.   For a brief moment, I held my breath as I waited for the automatic doors to open.  We then walked into the booming Berlin of today.  What a contrast.  The air somehow felt freer.

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Crystal Bridges Museum and the Spirit of Alice Walton

View of Eleven Restaurant from wing of Crystal Bridges Museum

Alice L. Walton is the 8th richest person in the United States, having inherited a great deal of Wal-Mart stock from her father, Sam Walton.  Divorced, with no children, she splits time between her ranch outside of Ft. Worth, Texas and Bentonville, Arkansas.   Most visitors to Bentonville  have business with the corporate home office of Wal-Mart – second largest corporation in the world. But with the opening of the Crystal Bridges Museum two years ago, Alice Walton wanted to add another purpose to that journey and she succeeded beautifully.

I began hearing of this museum from friends and the press.  All wondered how such a first class art museum could land in a town of 38,284 inhabitants.  The answer lies with Alice Walton, who used to paint with her mother on childhood camping trips, beginning a life-long love and collection of water color paintings. There’s something about being a multi-billionaire that causes one to consider their legacy.  America has been blessed with Carnegie libraries and Rockefeller Foundation grants.  Following in this tradition is Walton’s desire to build an accessible art museum featuring American Art.  Walton knew museums drew from a 300 mile radius for visitors.  If a circle were drawn around each major art center in the U.S., a large blank area existed in northwestern Arkansas and Ms. Walton wanted to change that. 

View of Crystal Bridges Museum from above

Placed on the 120 acre family home place, Walton worked with architect Moshe Safdie to minimize intrusion of the museum on the beautiful natural surroundings of hard wood forest .  They were so successful that I was shocked as I parked on the upper level and walked  to the small building above ground.  Below, nestled in a ravine, was the complex of five connected buildings, much larger than expected and completely invisible from the road.  With glass walls peering into the ponds below, reflections doubled the beautiful late afternoon lighting.  

Sign welcomes visitors to Crystal Bridges Museum

From the moment of arrival, I felt Alice Walton’s presence.  Entry was free thanks to a $20 million grant from Wal-Mart with only a small cost to view the visiting private collection of Georgia O’Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz.  We had dinner reservations at the restaurant Eleven, placed on the bridge across the stream.  Soft live music warmed the space.  My companion knew the chef and he soon came out to visit.  I asked if Ms. Walton ever came to the museum.  Quite often, he said.  In fact, she would sit down with patrons and visit to be sure they were enjoying themselves.  “Did she happen to be here this evening?”  “Maybe,” he said.

Eleven Restaurant at Crystal Bridges Museum

After dining, we joined our guide for an evening tour, a wonderful time to see the museum.  Thanks to an endowment of $800 million from the Walton Family Foundation, largest single gift to a museum in American history, Ms. Walton and her advisors have been able to outbid others to present a cogent history of American Art.  A few pieces stand out.  Straight from the New York Public Library at a reported cost of $35 million is Asher Durand’s masterpiece “Kindred Spirits,” a mid-1800s ethereal painting of two men on a cliff pondering the distant Catskill Mountains. In sharp contrast is “Rosy the Riveter”, a crowd favorite by Norman Rockwall, portraying the strength of America in a single woman worker whose feet push firmly down on Hitler’s Mein Kampf .  A new arrival is the realist Edward Hopper’s somber Blackwell’s Island painted with his usual rich colors.   I thought it appropriate to display some works of Thomas Hart Benton for whose uncle the town of Bentonville is named.

Feet of Rosie the Riveter by Norman Rockwell

As we were leaving, we walked through a gallery with a show of water colors that had just opened that night.  These were from Alice Walton’s own collection which will be permanently given to the museum upon her death.  Turning to the gallery’s guard, I asked if Ms. Walton had been there that evening for the opening.  He said, “Oh, yes.  About 6 pm” – the exact time I asked the chef of her. 

Plans continue for the site.  Our guide announced a recent purchase of a Frank Lloyd Wright home in New Jersey  to be dismantled and rebuilt on the grounds.  Shows and lectures fill the calendar.  Yet the art world buzzes as to whether the museum can become and sustain itself as a big player in America.  I can’t contribute to that discussion.  But while I missed meeting Ms. Walton, I do know it’s easy to feel her influence and commitment to bringing our country’s art history to those outside the big cities. Paris is 254 miles from Bentonville – just inside that 300 mile circle Alice Walton drew.  A four hour drive brings you face to face with America’s art in a stunning setting – not bad for a small town in Arkansas.  

Edward Hopper’s Blackwell’s Island
by Thomas Hart Benton
by Andy Warhol

Crystal Bridges Museum 

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