The winner of the 2014 pumpkin weigh off in Half Moon Bay, California.  Photo courtesy of Miramar events.

Half Moon Bay, CA: The Great Pumpkin and Beyond

It’s October and just about anywhere you live in the U.S. people are carving, eating, and decorating with pumpkins. They’re in our desserts, at our front doors and even in our spiced lattes, but until I visited Half Moon Bay,  California, I had never experienced the full awesomeness of pumpkins.

SONY DSCIn Half Moon Bay, the great orange squash are piled everywhere. They sit on sidewalks, decorate store windows, and you’re sure to find them perched somewhere in your hotel room,  but during the town’s Art and Pumpkin Festival, they take pumpkins to new heights—and weights. Earlier this month, at their annual pumpkin-weighing contest, a gourd weighing 2,058 pounds took first prize and set a new tournament record. A spokesman for the weigh-off said that the winner, John Hawkley from Napa Valley, “squashed” his competition, beating the runner-up by more than 300 pounds. (Pumpkin contest photo at top, courtesy of  Miramar Events.)

Get your feet wet at the many beaches along Highway One near Half Moon Bay, California.
Get your feet wet at the many beaches along Highway One near Half Moon Bay, California.

Yet, Half Moon Bay is also a fishing town, an agricultural community, and a mecca for surfers and foodies. Consequently, when the pumpkin mania ends for the season, this charming seaside community about 40 minutes from San Francisco offers all sorts of other things to see and do. Visitors should think of the area as “Coastside,” encompassing the oceanside between two lighthouses, from Point Montara on the north to Pigeon Point Lighthouse to the south on Highway One.

Econo-minded travelers can stay at hostels at both of these lighthouses. Or, at the complete opposite end of the lodging spectrum, the Ritz-Carlton at Half Moon Bay offers unbelievable scenery and top-of-the-line pampering. Each of the state beaches along the highway offers something different in terms of scenery, terrain, and marine and bird life, so pack a lunch, drive along Highway One, and take time to stop to experience the rugged California Coast at its best.

To stoke up for the day, you can join the locals for breakfast at the The Ketch Joanne Restaurant on Pillar Point Harbor, then stroll the harbor that is the hub for the local fishing industry. During our visit, a San Francisco friend joined us for lunch on the oceanside patio at the Miramar Beach Restaurant, a former roadhouse, drop off point for illegal liquor during Prohibition, and house of ill repute early in the last century. Things have calmed down a bit since then unless you count the show that a breaching whale and a pod of dolphins put on for us, a surprise because it wasn’t really the time of year for whale watching.

Raise a pint (at least) at Half Moon Bay Brewing.  For dinner, stop at the fabulous Pasta Moon in the funky downtown area of Half Moon Bay. Unassuming on the outside, Pasta Moon offers beautiful decor inside, along with hand-made pasta dishes and other fantastic farm-to-table cuisine, artisan bread and desserts. Don’t let the name confuse you; this isn’t your average Italian pasta joint.

SONY DSCFurther down Main Street, shoppers can find clothing, handmade furniture and one of the most colorful hardware stores ever.  I was particularly interested in the wine and gourmet fare at Half Moon Bay Wine and Cheese company. I always like to give a shout out to independent booksellers that I find on my travels. Surprising for such a small town, HMB has three interesting booksellers, Bay Book Company, Ink Spell Books,  and Coastside Books.  Spend a bit of time in local books stores and you always learn a little extra about the region and its literature.

Whenever I travel, I always come home with a list of things I missed that I’d love to go back and see. On my Half Moon Bay Wish List: seeing the really big waves at the famous “Mavericks” off Pillar Point Harbor, an area that draws really famous surfers from across the world.  It’s, as they say, epic—like surfing over Niagara Falls. The

Happy goats at Harley Farms Goat Dairy.
Happy goats at Harley Farms Goat Dairy.

other is a much gentler event: dining at one of the Farm Dinners at Harley Farms Goat Dairy, down the coast near Pescadero. They serve their gourmet meals in the restored hayloft. Instead I had to content myself with bringing home a load of lavender goat cheese in my suitcase. The giant pumpkin wouldn’t fit.

Eat, Read, Cheer: Ann Arbor, Michigan

University of Michigan Stadium, "the Big House" in Ann Arbor
University of Michigan Stadium, “the Big House,” in Ann Arbor

Whether you’re a died-in-the-wool Wolverine or not, fall is a fantastic time to visit Ann Arbor, Michigan.  Even without football tickets, you can tour the “Big House,” the University of Michigan’s football stadium which is the largest stadium in the United States, the third largest stadium in the world and the 36th largest sports venue. Its official capacity is 109,901, but it seems like whenever I’m there they have at least 110,000.  No matter how well the team plays, there’s nothing like walking into this stadium on game day and I always enjoy walking to the stadium behind the marching band.

The University of Michigan Marching Band.
The University of Michigan Marching Band

As long as you’re on the campus of my alma mater, be sure to stroll

University of Michigan Law School's beloved Reading Room
University of Michigan Law School’s beloved Reading Room

the “Diag,” the heart of the central campus for some great people watching, pop into the law school’s Hogwarts-like reading room, and spend some time in the terrific art museum on campus. The  museum’s new modern wing, with its Tisch Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art, offers a look at some very important works by Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Alberto Giacometti and Max Beckman, to name a few.

Hungry?  Head to an Ann Arbor classic,  Angelo’s, for a breakfast that will fill you up for the rest of the day.  Calorie counts don’t usually slow me down, so despite my gigantic breakfast, I like to stop by Dominick’s for beer, sangria, pizza or subs.  Need something to wash all the down?  I’ve always been partial to the milkshakes at Pizza Bob’s.  Finally, you’ll want to round out your Ann Arbor pig-out weekend with a stop at  Zingerman’s Deli or Zingerman’s Roadhouse, or both.

Wait!  Don’t pick up another pastrami sandwich or you’ll burst.  feast of loveInstead, pick up a feast that will be easier on your arteries, Charles Baxter’s novel, The Feast of Love.  It’s set set in Ann Arbor where Baxter was an English professor (he’s now at the University of Minnesota).  This terrific book as nominated for the National Book Award.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Dreamy

Pigeon Point Lighthouse, near Half Moon Bay, California
Pigeon Point Lighthouse, near Half Moon Bay, California was built in 1871 to guide ships along the Northern California coast.

O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?
From “A Dream Within A Dream by Edgar Allan Poe

Finding “Gone Girl” in Cape Girardeau, Missouri

The bar, the courthouse, the house on the Mississippi river where “I could step right in the sucker, an easy three-foot drop, and be on my way to Tennessee.”  For authors such as Gillian Flynn in her huge fiction bestseller Gone Girl, the setting of a novel plays as crucial a role as the characters themselves.  It creates atmosphere, foreshadows what is to come, and sets the pace.  But when director David Fincher and his location scouts set out to make a movie based on the novel, it was a challenge to find real world places to match those of Flynn’s imagination. They found them in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.

The movie, released today, has received some pretty great reviews. So, between the book and the movie, I’m betting that plenty of Gone Girl fans will be looking for her in Cape Girardeau, a lovely river town in southeast Missouri, where the movie was filmed.

In case you’ve missed it all, in Gone Girl, Amy Dunne (played by imgresRosamund Pike) disappears from the North Carthage, Missouri, home she shares with her philandering husband Nick (Ben Affleck) on their fifth anniversary, leading him to be investigated for her (maybe) murder. “If there are married couples here, maybe you should change seats” rather than sit together, said Ann Tenenbaum, the chairman of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, when the film premiered in New York. “Abraham Lincoln said, ‘Marriage is neither heaven nor hell, it is simply purgatory.’ David Fincher will personally escort us there.” As the story progresses, we learn that this is one crazy couple and we find that the narrator isn’t necessarily giving us the straight story. (To see a fun discussion among readers of the book, see Book Journey‘s spoiler page.) The realistic setting adds to the tension.

"Gone Girl" director David Fincher said that the view from the Common Pleas Courthouse stairs overlooking the river is what sold him on Cape Girardeau, Missouri, as North Carthage in his movie.
“Gone Girl” director David Fincher said that the view from the Common Pleas Courthouse stairs overlooking the river is what sold him on Cape Girardeau, Missouri, as North Carthage in his movie.

Stacy Dohogne Lane of the Cape Girardeau Convention and Visitors Bureau told me, “North Carthage doesn’t actually exist, though there is a Carthage, Missouri.  The Mississippi River plays such a big part in the book that they wanted to capture a true Missouri river town. Steve Mapel, the film’s location scout, came to Cape Girardeau in the Spring of 2013 and spent quite a bit of time here doing a very intensive search for specific locations.  We had such a good time sitting around our conference table with Steve…he’d say ‘I’m looking for a place that has x, y and z’ and we’d all brainstorm a variety of places that fit within those parameters.”  David Fincher has said that the view from the Common Pleas Courthouse stairs overlooking the river is what sold him on Cape Girardeau as North Carthage.  Gillian Flynn later told Fincher that Cape Girardeau was the place she had in mind while she was writing the book, and he joked in an article that he wish she’d told him that sooner and saved him some time.

Alas, Gone Girl fans probably won’t find Ben Affleck or Rosmund Pike on the streets of Cape Girardeau but the river town makes a great weekend getaway (about two hours from St. Louis). The town offers a terrific map of Gone Girl sites that you can download for a driving tour.  It’s a lovely way to see the area even if you don’t care about Nick and Amy. Beyond Cape Girardeau’s movie role as North Carthage, you’ll find intriguing historic and outdoor sites, antiques and shopping, and it makes a great spot for a girls getaway weekend with wineries, spas and more.

Be a Rebel – Read Banned Books (They’re More Interesting)

I used to love to sneak into the adult section of the library when I

My Banned Books bracelet.
My Banned Books bracelet.

was in grade school.  I lived in a small Michigan town with a very loving yet stern librarian who I remember vividly, Miss Lillian Crawford.  She knew my my grandparents, my parents, and probably most of the parents of children who came to the library.  My mom dropped me off on Saturdays while she got her hair done, making the library both a source of child care and intellectual stimulation.

Occasionally I drifted from the sections that Miss Crawford deemed appropriate for my young mind into the adult fiction. Ohh, la, la–swearing, sex, and ideas I didn’t understand. Actually, I probably didn’t understand the sex, either. Miss Crawford ratted me out to my mother.  I was a super good girl and Mom, fortunately, thought it was amusing that I went astray in such a way. What  a rebel!

Forgive me, Miss Crawford

During this week’s discussion and celebration of banned books, I have to say both Mrs. Crawford and my mom were right.  There’s nothing wrong with guiding young people in their reading, getting them to read in the first place, and encouraging age-appropriate, quality literature. So, I have some sympathy for parents who worry about the books their children are exposed to in school. But, though it was probably benign neglect rather than liberal thinking, I’d err on my mother’s more permissive side every time. What is reading about if not about challenging old ideas, learning about other people, the wider world, and about ourselves?

One the the most frequently banned authors currently is Sherman 28c4d1f2e8d048f702c3dbf0990aca8cAlexie.  He grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington.  His stories about life on the reservation are often far from the mainstream portrayal of Native Americans and consequently his book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is regularly at the top of the most challenged list.  He says on his website, “It means I’m scaring the right people.  Hooray! I keep hoping somebody will organize a national boycott against me.”

Banning books is all about fear.  Fear of ideas that challenge our religious and world view.  Fear of children learning about sex and fear of people whose skin color is different.  In an article on Huffington Post, Bonnie Stiles, mother of four students in Meridian, Idaho schools where Alexie’s book was recently banned, said she pushed for its removal from the high school curriculum after reading the book and counting 133 profane or offensive words in its 230 pages. Really, if that’s your worry, you need to ban your children from riding the school bus where that language is freely shared.

Forgive me Mrs. Crawford! But, friends, I encourage you to be a rebel and let your freak flag fly.  Read those banned books yourself and, rather than counting swear words, discuss the books with your children. Encourage your book club to join you in reading banned books.  Take a look at the ideas and recommendations some of my favorite books bloggers are offering this week: Sheila at Book Journey, Epic Reads, and Banned Books Club.  You’ll also find lists of current and classic banned books  and this list of banned classics from the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.

Finally, for inspiration, listen to what Bill Moyers said a couple of years ago.



“The Widow of the South” and Carnton Plantation, Franklin, Tennessee

Carnton Plantation in Franklin, Tennessee, is the setting of Robert Hicks's novel, The Widow of the South.
Carnton Plantation in Franklin, Tennessee, is the setting of Robert Hicks’s novel, The Widow of the South.

One hundred and fifty years ago Carrie and John McGavock’s plantation, Carnton, served as a field hospital for hundreds of Confederate soldiers during one of the most epic battles of the Civil War, The Battle of Franklin, near Nashville, Tennessee. Today, you can tour their the Greek Revival house with its porches that bring to mind the O’Hara plantation, Tara, in Gone With the Wind. But this house and it’s role in the Battle of Franklin are anything but fictional.  Here, the blood stains remain on the floor.

And outside, the cemetery that Carrie created and tended for the rest of her life contains the graves of 1,481young soldiers who died in the battle. It serves as a staggering reminder of the loss and of the remarkable woman who wouldn’t let them be forgotten.

I would never have heard of the Battle of Franklin if it weren’t for Robert Hicks‘s fictional account of Carrie’s story in his Unknownbestseller, The Widow of the South.  Hicks served on the board of Carnton Plantation and became fascinated with its story. He says in the book’s author’s note,”Carrie McGavock became a ‘living martyr and curiosity.’  She became famous without ever leaving her farm, renowned for her daily wandering in the cemetery, for her mourning clothes, for her letters to the families of the bereaved, and most of all, for her constancy.  From the day the last of the dead was buried in her back yard, she never really left her post in the cemetery, continuously checking her book of the dead.” Find out more in this CBS interview with Hicks.

Hicks reconstructed this tale from letters and diaries, adding to the factual mix a number of fictional characters, including Zachariah Cashwell, a young soldier from Arkansas whom Carrie nurses back to life– and she falls in love with him. Though Civil War purists chuckle about the book’s accuracy, it has nonetheless informed a lot of people about the battle, about Carrie, and prompted them to visit the key sites of the Battle of Franklin, the biggest Civil War battle that most people have never heard of.  He says in the book, “I submit my sincerest apologies, to those who require it, for meandering from the history in the interest of telling a story.  Other than Carrie and her immediate family and slave, most of the other characters are either composited of historical figures from Franklin’s past or were born in my imagination.” So, I submit that quality historical fiction serves an important role in creating interest in historical events and sites, even though it may not be 100 percent accurate.  What do you think?

TheCemetery that Carrie McGavock created after the Civil War.
The cemetery that Carrie McGavock created on her plantation after the Civil War.


Travel to the places you read about. Read about the places you travel.


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