Tucked inside the beautiful Chase County Courthouse in Cottonwood Falls, Kansas, you’ll find the nastiest, roughest little jail you’ve ever seen. It seems like one night here would be enough to set anyone on the straight and narrow. Still, judging from the names repeatedly scrawled on the walls, there were several inmates who just couldn’t stay away.
Unlike other old jails I’ve seen where cells are enclosed by bars, the cells here are made from crossed slats of heavy metal. They form a pattern of rectangles and squares that creates a dreary feeling, impenetrable and unforgiving. Nonetheless, it’s fun to see if you’re only there for a visit. You get there through the jury room adjacent to the imposing courtroom.
The ugliness of the jail contrasts with the beauty of the rest of the building which was built in the French Renaissance style. Completed in 1873 the Chase County Courthouse is the older Kansas courthouse still in use. It’s constructed constructed of walnut and limestone, topped with a red mansard roof that stands high over this Flint Hills prairie town.
The courthouse is characterized by the distinctive shape of the roof. Standing 113-feet tall, you can see the courthouse and its red mansard roof from vantage points throughout the county on most days.
While you’re at the courthouse, be sure to look for more shapes in the architecture.
Now, partly as a result of her brother’s unexpected death and her mother’s move to a memory care facility, Near the Exit takes a slightly different approach to travel. She investigates how cultures confront death, from the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, to Mayan temples in Mexico, to Maori communities in New Zealand, and to plenty of more commonplace sites such as nursing homes and graveyards. It’s a very readable, wise and, yes, funny book that will certainly inspire me to appreciate many of the places I travel in a new light, hopefully with the Grim Reaper on another bus.
Here Lori answers my questions about travel inspiration and our ultimate destination:
How and when did you decide to combine spirituality and travel?
I’ve been interested in these two topics for much of my adult life. About 15 years ago I realized that I could actually combine them–in fact, pilgrimage is almost certainly the oldest form of travel, and is still of major interest to millions of people today. So at that point I decided I wanted to specialize in the intersection of travel and spirituality, which I define very broadly. While I’m Christian, I’ve wandered a lot in my faith journey and draw inspiration from many other traditions, especially Buddhism.
Your book focuses on mortality as well as travel. Would you briefly discuss a couple of places you’ve been where the culture offers exemplary ways to deal with our own mortality? Can such cultural travel help ease the fear of death or the loss of loved ones?
In my book I write about the small Colorado town of Crestone, which has the nation’s only non-denominational, open-air cremation site. While I didn’t see a cremation there, I talked to a variety of residents about what it means to have this option in town, and what it’s like to see their neighbors’ remains go up in smoke. It’s clearly a powerful experience and a profound teaching in impermanence. They also do the preparation for death very well, with strong community support and communal rituals that help ease the transition, both for dying people and for their loved ones. Crestone has a lot to teach us about dying well.
The other place that I found to have a very healthy attitude toward mortality was the Day of the Dead Festival I attended at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago. On November 1-2 in Mexican communities, the dead are said to return for a visit. People create altars that honor their loved ones with photos, mementoes, and their favorite foods, and picnic on their graves. I like the idea that the dead come back for those days, and then leave again. It’s a very healthy response to death, I think. You don’t focus on it all the time, but you know that for those two days, you can remember and grieve and celebrate, all at the same time.
I focus on literary travel; you target spiritual/religious locales. Your interest has certainly taken you to some unusual places—grave yards, cremation grounds, pyramids. In what ways does having a particular focus or field of interest enhance your travel? For example does it offer a way to go beyond routine tourism and to interact with the people who live in your destination? Do you have other suggestions for subjects/interests around which to organize a trip?
I love all kinds of travel, but I think having some kind of focus for trips deeply enriches the experience. It might be gardens or art or food or beaches or a wide variety of other topics. The point is that you’re able to focus on certain things and ignore others, which can deepen your understanding and enjoyment. Travel can sometimes feel like a firehose of impressions. Having a sense for what’s most important to you can help you deal with that rush of too much information and too many new experiences. Pretty much anything can be a focus for travel. People should think about what gives them pleasure and what they’re curious about.
I loved the story about your New Age travel companions in Mexico who constantly reported having past-life experiences and spoke “galactic.” One in particular said she had received a message from the Egyptian god Thoth. OMG. I think it would be difficult to travel with a group like that and it sounds like they drove your husband, Bob, a philosophy professor, a little nuts. We’ve all been in trips and tours with travel companions who were a tad irritating. Any suggestions for how to deal with all this? Lessons learned?
Well, all the best travel stories involve misery, don’t they? Or if not misery, at least trials and irritations. It’s helpful to remember that travel and travail share the same root. It also helps to keep your sense of humor and realize there are times on nearly every trip when you’re going to be irritated or miserable. Just accept that and know that these moments almost always pass pretty quickly. And you can be grateful that those problematic traveling companions won’t follow you home, unless they’re a family member.
I know you strive to meditate and be a contemplative person. The way travel can be nowadays—airport lines and cancellations, overcrowded tourist sights, rushing from place to place—it seems more like wearing a hair shirt than a soul-satisfying experience. How do you maintain your lovely, composed self? Maybe you rip off your clerical collar and yell at people, but I don’t think so.
Hah! That’s funny. I have my moments, believe me. But it helps that I grew up on a dairy farm and never went anywhere growing up. I try never to lose sight of the fact that I’m incredibly fortunate to have the opportunities and experiences that I do. And as I said, even the hard parts make for interesting stories and rich writing material.
Located about 45 miles northwest of El Paso, Texas, Las Cruces has long been a destination for more modern travelers and traders. In the late 1500s, explorer Don Juan de Oñate trekked into what is now New Mexico in search of gold on behalf of the king of Spain. On a route that was later known as the Camino Real, his group worked their way through the great Pass of the North (modern-day El Paso) and then north to what would become Santa Fe. Las Cruces makes a great destination for modern travelers following that route to Albuquerque and Santa Fe or on the route my husband and I followed on an RV trip westward to San Diego. Here are some tips to explore the area.
Farms and Farmers Markets
For such dry country, the Las Cruces area offers remarkable agricultural bounty. As you drive around you’ll see fields of chile plants, nut trees, vegetables and livestock. For an up-close look, visit the New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum. It’s an outstanding, interactive museum with indoor exhibits, and outdoor demonstrations about all aspects of New Mexico Farm life and plenty of live farm animals to see.
The bounty of those farms and ranches is on display at the Farmers and Crafts Market of Las Cruces, typically on Saturdays & Wednesdays, 8:30 am to1 pm. You’ll find nearly 300 local merchants, goods and growers lined up along seven city blocks on Main Street in downtown Las Cruces.
Wine & Dine
Las Cruces is proud of its wine production, too. We sampled wine and ate dinner at the Lescombes Winery & Bistro (formerly called St. Clair Winery) where you can also purchase a variety of New Mexico wines.
Another day we visited the tiny town of Mesilla, just outside Las Cruces. We hunkered down at a little bistro called NM Vintage to share a wine flight and a few snacks.
Mesilla is also one of my favorite stops in the area for dining. Not surprisingly, the area abounds with great Mexican food. At ¡Ándele! Dog House! adjacent to the fancier IAndele! restaurant, we drank craft beer and ate tacos and enormous burrito plates on the covered patio where we could take our dog.
A Bit of History–and Shopping!
Mesilla reminds me of how Santa Fe must have looked before it was discovered by all the tourists. Many cultural and historical activities take place on the plaza. At the north end, rises the Basilica of San Albino, one of the oldest missions in the Mesilla Valley, originally established in 1852 to give religious support to refugees from Mexico. Another Mesilla building was the site where Western Legend Billy the Kid once stood trial for murder.
In Mesilla, you’ll also find gift shops, galleries and Native American jewelry shops. Nambe, the design company that creates contemporary serveware, barware, home décor and gift items, has a terrific outlet on the plaza.
We often travel with our dog, Duffy, so I was particularly happy to find that the Las Cruces area prides itself on being dog-friendly. Canines are great at breaking the ice with strangers and that was doubly true in Las Cruces. You can hardly get through the farmers market without chatting with everyone who wants to see your dog, hear about where you’re from and offer advice on places to visit in the area.
On a long RV road trip, it’s great to stay in a hotel once in a while. In Las Cruces we checked into TownPlace Suites, a dog-friendly Marriott brand where the staff offered a friendly greeting to the dog owners, too.
Get Outdoors in Las Cruces
Finally, New Mexico is an outdoor-lover’s paradise and Las Cruces is no exception. Sadly, howling dust storms kept us away from White Sands National Monument about an hour from Las Cruces. It was amazing to see how the wind whipped up a giant white cloud of gypsum dust from the monument, which made it impossible for hiking, let alone the photography I had hoped for. Next time.
However, other outdoorsy possibilities abound. We headed for the Dripping Springs Natural Area located about 10 miles east of Las Cruces, on the west side of the Organ Mountains. It features easy trails that show off desert scrub and low elevation pinon-juniper and oak woodlands and sometimes wildlife viewing, including rattlesnakes.
Be careful. It seems like hikers regularly stumble over fossils around Las Cruces. Dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures have wandered around New Mexico, for millennia and this dry and rocky Chihuahuan desert ecosystem provides the perfect conditions to preserve ancient fossils. That’s why they’re still around for trip over. I love these stories!
For example, in 2017, a nine-year-old boy named Jude Sparks stumbled over the remains of a rare stegomastodon while hiking with his family in the nearby Organ Mountains. The boy told the ABC-TV affiliate in El Paso, that his older brother told him it was “just a big fat rotten cow” but it was actually a fantastic a find for the world of paleontology. In 2014, a bachelor party also stumbled over a stegomastadon. So, watch your step. Or, head to the hallways of New Mexico State University where the Zuhl Museum contains a large number of fossils of invertebrate and vertebrate animals from all over the world, including trilobites, corals, ammonites, insects, and fishes.
You have to hand it to space aliens. Like our most unruly relatives, when they visit they can cause a stir that we just can’t get over. On a recent road trip through southern New Mexico, we couldn’t resist a side trip to Roswell, the center of a classic UFO story that includes an extraterrestrial visit and a government coverup.
The Roswell Incident
Roswell, a ranching town, launched into international fame in 1947 when a sheep rancher northwest of town found strange metallic objects on his property and reported the incident to officials at the local military base. According to the Roswell city government website, “on July 8, 1947, public information officer Lt. Walter Haut issued a press release under orders from base commander Col. William Blanchard, which said basically that we have in our possession a flying saucer. The next day another press release was issued, this time from Gen. Roger Ramey, stating it was a weather balloon. That was the start of the best known and well-documented UFO coverups.” For more, see a history.com explanation.
Little Green Men
Did that rancher find parts of a flying saucer or just a weather balloon? Was it the “cover up” of an alien landing or merely the government explaining away hush-hush scientific research that couldn’t be revealed to the public? Who knows? Still, you can’t beat a good alien story whether it’s fact or fiction and the city of Roswell has made the most of it. The city features two notable art museums, the Roswell Museum and Art Center and the Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art and other attractions, but space aliens are it’s claim to fame. Consequently, the city receives thousands of visitors each year who are either true believers or lovers of kitsch. Count me in the latter group. I couldn’t resist.
In Roswell, the globes of downtown streetlights have alien eyes painted on them. The city hosts an annual UFO Festival. The local McDonald’s skipped the golden arches in favor of spaceship architecture. At the Dunkin’ Donuts a green space alien holds the sign inviting you in, much the way high-schoolers advertise their team’s car-wash fundraisers. Even at the nearby Bottomless Lakes State Park, a campground host sign welcomed us with a little green man.
For all things UFO, head to Roswell’s International UFO Museum and Research Center. Whether you’re serious about aliens or not, you gotta go. The price is $5 for adults, $3 for seniors, $2 for children and they let my dog in for free. It offers a compilation of clippings, letters, and faded photos regarding the Roswell Incident. You’ll find other information about sightings of UFOs, alien abductions and a section about Roswell in the movies. Best, of all, even skeptics enjoy the steam-filled landing of aliens in a display in the museum’s center, pictured above.
If you can’t make it to Roswell, you can indulge your sci-fi side with classic books of the genre. They include H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, that classic of aliens invading earth, anything by Isaac Asimov (I, Robot, Foundation), Philip K. Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep—adapted for film as Bladerunner), and Octavia Butler (Lilith’s Brood.)
See more about New Mexico’s gorgeous and “alien” landscapes in my next post.
The Battle of Franklin near Nashville, Tennessee, may not be the most famous battle of the American Civil War. Yet, for lovers of historical fiction, the story told in Robert Hicks’ novel The Widow of the South is gripping enough to inspire travel to Franklin, Tennessee, to see Carnton Plantation and other sites where the story takes place. If you go, you’ll discover why the Battle of Franklin is considered the last great battle of the Civil War.
And, you’ll find plenty of modern-day activities that make Franklin a great destination above and beyond the battlefield. It’s so cute, it even inspired a Hallmark movie, based on Karen Kingsbury’s The Bridge.
The True Storyand the Fiction
The Battle of Franklin on Nov. 30, 1864, was one of the worst disasters of the war for the Confederate Army, with nearly 7,000 casualties. (For a detailed explanation, see the Battle of Franklin Trust website.) During the battle, which raged not just in fields but also in people’s back yards, Carrie and John McGavock’s plantation, Carnton, served as a field hospital for hundreds of injured and dying Confederate soldiers. Today, you can tour their the Greek Revival house and the adjacent cemetery. (See my previous post on the Carter House where the battle also raged.)
Robert 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.”
Hicks constructed his book using letters and diaries but added a number of fictional characters to the factual mix, including Zachariah Cashwell, a young soldier from Arkansas whom Carrie nurses back to life– and she falls in love with him. Serious Civil War buffs no doubt roll their eyes about the book’s fictional additions.
Hicks 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.”
As you tour, you’ll discover that the Battle of Franklin was anything but imaginary. Here, the blood stains remain on the floor.
Outside, the cemetery that Carrie created and tended for the rest of her life contains the graves of 1,481 young soldiers, a staggering reminder of the epic battle.
Updated and More Inclusive
The Carnton tour used to somewhat glorify the business acumen of Carnton’s white owners. That neglected the horror of slavery and the fact that all of us could succeed in business if our laborers worked for free. I’m happy to report that the plantation has added a Slavery and the Enslaved: Tours at Carter House and Carnton.
So, I maintain that quality historical fiction serves an important role to spark interest in historical events and sites, even though it may not be 100 percent accurate. I, for one, had never have heard of the Battle of Franklin before reading the book. More importantly, historical sites must present their stories from multiple perspectives and with an eye in include the facts, not just those with a nostalgia for the old South.
…And While You’rein Franklin
Yet, everything in Franklin isn’t about war and death. The charming town makes a great girls’ getaway or weekend trip, not just for history buffs. There’s unique shopping an abundance of live music and some charming inns, too. Don’t miss Landmark Booksellers, inspiration for Karen Kingsbury’s novel, The Bridge.
Where to Stay
The new Harpeth Hotel, a Curio Collection by Hilton luxury hotel, is the only hotel in downtown. There are also a wide array of charming B&Bs.
I hadn’t returned to the Emerald City since researching the book, but I just spent a week in the Seattle area and sampled a batch of Seattle activities and adventures. Here are some of my favorite ideas for Seattle travel, or to enjoy as a reader or movie-goer.
Author Maria Semple’s Seattle First, I heartily recommend author Maria Semple as your Seattle traveling companion. I can’t imagine a more fun person to travel with –via her books set in Seattle. The movie made from her bestseller, Where’d You Go Bernadette?, comes out this month starring Cate Blanchett. From the trailer, it looks like it offers some awesome shots of Seattle (with plenty of humor about the abundant blackberries vines).
On my way home from Seattle, I read her most recent book Today Will Be Different. If you liked Bernadette, you’ll enjoy Today Will Be Different. Both feature women struggling with motherhood, middle age, and “finding themselves.” They’re both hilarious, rather improbable and take readers on a fun tour of Seattle landmarks and neighborhoods.
Chihuly Garden and Glass
Seattle salutes famed Pacific Northwest glass artist Dale Chihuly with a stunning gallery and garden (and restaurant!), Chihuly Garden and Glass at Seattle Center, right under the iconic Space Needle. If you love art, gardens, or simply eye-popping color, this is the place for you.
Olympic Sculpture Park
Just a short walk down the hill from Seattle Center, you’ll find the Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park. Covered in monumental artworks, this award-winning nine-acre park on the waterfront is Seattle’s largest downtown green space. Sit amidst giant works such as Alexander Calder’s “The Eagle” (see above) with a view of Seattle Center and the Space Needle in back of you and the waterfront and Olympic mountains in front. It doesn’t get much better.
Seattle’s most hip and edgy neighborhood? For most people, the answer is Capitol Hill. Here, you’ll find one of my favorite bookstores, Elliott Bay Book Company, where I happily spent an hour admiring the store and gathering books from their list of staff picks and book club ideas.
For ice cream, don’t miss Seattle classic, Molly Moon Ice Cream –Honey Lavender! Salted Carmel! Melted Chocolate! Along with a cone, I bought their cookbook to make my own Molly Moon at home.
Also in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, you’ll find the uber-cool Starbucks Roastery and tasting room. There’s hardly a place in the entire world that doesn’t have a Starbucks outpost. But, in Seattle coffee lovers can make a pilgrimage to the first Starbucks, at Pike Place Market. Caffeine fiends will also enjoy a visit to the Roastery, a Disneyland for coffee lovers. Grab some java (and pizza, pastry, and much more) and watch them roast the beans. It’s one of just a few such Starbucks in the world; others are in New York City, Milan and Shanghai.
Reserve ahead for dinner at a neighborhood favorite, the award-winning Sitka and Spruce at the Melrose Market. Peer in the old auto shop’s windows and and see, as Seattle magazine said, “a brick wood-burning oven anchors the open kitchen—nothing sits between diners perched at the long, wooden communal table and the band of bearded chefs busily working nearby.” Super-creative food from the Northwest.
Farther up the hill, we found another side of Capitol Hill–a leafy neighborhood of huge historic homes, quite different the the commercial end of the Hill. We visited Volunteer Park with its lovely conservatory and great views from top of the old brick water tower.
Lake Union for Kayaking
Seattlites are an outdoorsy bunch and there are plenty of opportunities for visitors to join them for outside action, especially on the water. We rented kayaks at Agua Verde Paddle Club, not far from the University of Washington. It’s a great way to see Seattle’s famous houseboats (ala the movie “Sleepless in Seattle”), fishing and pleasure boats, parks and the Seattle skyline from the water.
Pike Place Market
Sure, it’s touristy, but for flowers, food and flying fish, Pike Place Market is fun, no matter how many times you’ve been there. In summer, go early before it gets too crowded to walk through.
We dined near the market at the Pink Door, in the historic Post Alley. Sitting outside offers a great view of the waterfront, inside an elcletic batch of entertainment (trapeze artists to hot club jazz) and you’ll find great Italian-influenced food anywhere you sit.
Where We Stayed
Downtown: The Hyatt Olive 8. The Olive 8 is eco friendly and just plain friendly. We received one of the most cordial greetings there I’ve ever had at a hotel. It makes a great location to explore downtown, with a short walk to Pike Place Market, great shopping neighborhoods, and it’s close to the Monorail that goes to Seattle Center—anything to avoid driving and parking in Seattle! It’s easy and inexpensive to take the Light Rail from the airport to downtown’s Westlake stop and walk a couple of block to the hotel.
Capitol Hill: Gaslight Inn. Housed in and old mansion, this B&B offers a great contrast to big downtown hotels. Super friendly owner Stephen Bennett makes a yummy breakfast and is happy to offer directions to Capitol Hill hot spots. Too hot? There’s a cool pool in back.
2018 is a big year for Mary Shelley as wecelebrate the 200th anniversary of her masterpiece, Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus.Frankenstein’s birthday has spawned a new movie about her life, a reissue of the original book,a host of special events, new analysis of her work and new respect as well.
It’s hard to grasp the impact the story that Mary Shelley wrote at 18 has had and
continues to have.Frankenstein is part of our culture and consciousness.Whether or not you’ve read the book you know Frankenstein (the name of his creator, Victor Frankenstein, not the monster who is nameless) from the old Boris Karloff movie, TV’s Herman Munster or my favorite, Mel Brooks’s “Young Frankenstein.”He’s in our cereal (Frankenberry), our vocabulary (Frankenfoods) and in our metaphors—”He’s created a monster!”
“I busied myself to think of a story…one which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature.. and quicken the beatings of the heart.”
New Editions, New Analysis
It’s time to put Frankenstein on your reading list whether its Shelley’s novel or the many new books about Mary Shelley and the cultural impact of her creation. One mark of an enduring classic is that so many people find meaning in it and from so many angles.Scholars consider it the first work of horror writing, the first work of science fiction and first modern myth. Fiona Sampson’s new biography In Search of Mary Shelley looks at Shelly’s younger years and how such a young person could create one of the most enduring horror stories in history.
Shelley wrote the book in a time of fascination with electricity and the notion of re-animating the dead. The issues surrounding ethics and the dangers of science and technology–gene editing, designer offspring, even social media–are more relevant than ever. Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers and Creators of All Kinds examines the moral issues, pitfalls and hubris that may arise in science. For more reading on the big guy, be sure to take a look at Frankenreads, an international celebration of the Frankenstein’s anniversary for Halloween, organized by the Keats-Shelly Association of America.
Finding Mary Shelley
This year, literary travelers will find events celebrating Mary Shelly and her homely offspring all over the world from the Keats Shelley Museum in Rome to universities, libraries and museums across the U.S.
If you’re in Minneapolis, be sure to visit one of my favorite hidden gems, the Bakken Museum on lovely Lake Harriet. The museum focuses on the history and nature of electricity and magnetism.It’s founder, Earl Bakken, created one of the world’s first battery-powered cardiac pacemakers and was also one of the founders of Medtronic which is now the world’s largest medical technology company. He was fascinated with electricity and its many medical uses. And, with this museum, he sought to inspire others to enjoy and pursue the science surrounding electricity.
The Bakken Museum has a terrific section devoted to Mary Shelley and her story. It includes examples of phantasmagoria (scary slide shows of the time), and many explanations of how the science of the era inspired Shelly’s fiction. A theater in the exhibit offers a spooky 12-minute show that brings to life the tale the over-reaching scientist, Victor Frankenstein.
Travel to the places you read about. Read about the places you travel.