Travel to Seneca Falls, New York, the hub of women’s history in the U.S. for an education on the history of women’s rights and a hefty dose of historic charm.
The struggle for human rights never seems to end. Yet, in Seneca Falls, New York, you’ll find inspiration when you learn about the historic leaders of women’s rights. Located in New York’s Finger Lakes region, at the tip of Seneca Lake, the town makes a great stop on your tour of the area.
Seneca Falls was the site of the first Women’s Rights Convention held on July 19-20, 1848. The Women’s Rights National Historical Park commemorates that event and depicts women’s struggle to gain the right to vote and for other rights that come with equal citizenship in this country.
One of the meeting’s organizers, Seneca Falls resident Elizabeth Cady Stanton, began the event with a speech on the convention’s goals and purpose:
“We are assembled to protest against a form of government, existing without the consent of the governed—to declare our right to be free as man is free, to be represented in the government which we are taxed to support, to have such disgraceful laws as give man the power to chastise and imprison his wife, to take the wages which she earns, the property which she inherits, and, in case of separation, the children of her love.” The Convention culminated in the Declaration of Sentiments, which is full of ideas that were quite revolutionary at the time.
The Women’s Rights National Historical Park is actually a collection of historic sites, all within easy walking distance. Start at the Visitors Center (check the hours they’re open!) which presents a great film on the first convention and its leaders. Exhibits further explain that event and women’s progress since then. The Visitors Center also has an excellent book shop. Other buildings in the park include the Wesleyan Chapel where the convention took place and the houses of other prominent leaders of the movement including the homes of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Mary Ann M’Clintock. The Park offers outdoor ranger-led tours.
Beyond the Park
Down the street from the National Women’s Rights Park Visitors Center, you can also tour the National Women’s Hall of Fame, where plaques and photos pay homage to America’s most famous women. In addition a stroll along the The Cayuga–Seneca Canal (which links to the Erie Canal) is a must.
Finally, many believe that Seneca Falls was the inspiration for Frank Kapra’s fictional town of Bedford Falls in the classic film It’s A Wonderful Life. There’s even an It’s A Wonderful Life Museum. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the movie so they’ve got big plans for a festival December 8-22, featuring anyone and everyone who is still alive and connected to the movie such as the actors who played the Bailey children, including Zuzu.
A Wyoming vacation delivers gorgeous western scenery, Native American art, cowboys, polo players, hiking and open spaces. Read these great books to conjure up the spirit of the west before you go.
You won’t find many people in Wyoming. At about 600,000, the Cowboy State tallies the smallest population in the U.S. That’s around six people per square mile. Cattle outnumber humans by far. So, if you come from a more populated place—such as either of the U.S. coasts—Wyoming’s open space in itself makes an amazing sight.
Though low on people, Wyoming’s emptiness is packed with some of the most unusual sights and citizens in the U.S. That includes the beloved and often crowded Yellowstone Park and Grand Teton National Parks. They’re great, but be sure to include other destinations in your road trip to experience some of this most iconic spots in the American West.
All those unblocked vistas leave plenty of room for the imagination. Its no wonder so many classic western novels are set in Wyoming—Shane, The Virginian, and My Friend Flicka to name a few. More contemporary authors also find inspiration in Wyoming’s rugged plains, mountains and canyons. Wyoming crime solvers such as Craig Johnson’s Sheriff Walt Longmire (books and Netflix series), C.J. Box’s game-warden-hero Joe Pickett and others (usually on horseback) always get the bad guys and stand against corruption despite any challenges nature throws at them. The region also inspired Annie Proulx’s story collection Close Range: Wyoming Stories of which “Brokeback Mountain” is one. Finally, I have to add Hank the Cowdog, our boys’ road trip favorite when they were little.
Close Encounters with Devils Tower
On our recent Wyoming road trip we drove from east to west along the state’s northern tier starting at Devil’s Tower, one of Earth’s most impressive geological features. Rising 1,267 feet above the Belle Fourche River, the monolith creates a sight so unusual it made the perfect location for aliens to land in Steven Spielberg’s classic sci-fi movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Watch it before you go.
From the highway, you can see Devil’s Tower off in the distance but don’t just pass by. It’s worth a closer look. Hike the 1.3-mile Tower Trail around the base to see how different it looks (often resembling a giant bunch of rocky pencils from various sides and in different light. You’ll see small, colored bundles of cloth around the base of Devils Tower that are sacred offerings left by Native Americans for whom the tower is a cultural and religious focal point.
Cowpokes, Polo Ponies and Art in Sheridan and Big Horn
Not far from Devils Tower we veered north on I-90 to visit Sheridan, a town of almost 18,000 people set next to the 1.1 million acres of forested mountains and rolling grasslands of the Bighorn National Forest.
We enjoyed a tasty lunch at Frackleton’s then headed down Main Street to King’s Saddlery which carries tack any “cowboy, cowgirl and city-slicker” could need such as saddles, ropes, bridles, bits, headstalls, reins, halters, roping equipment, barrel racing equipment, saddle bags, saddle blankets and slickers. Even if you’re not in the market for a new saddle, you have to see King’s. In the back of the store you’ll find folks finishing ropes and working on saddles to customers’ specifications.
Ask to see the Don King Museum, a little gem out behind the store. It’s free. You’re welcome to explore the collection of old west memorabilia including a collection of hand-tooled saddles for which Don King, the store’s founder, was famous along with wagons, coaches, Indian artifacts, guns, Western tack and original artwork.
Head down the street to take a peek at the famous Mint Bar, the watering hole that’s been wetting whistles in Sheridan since 1907. I felt like I should be wearing cowboy boots and spurs. The ultimate in farmhouse decor, the Mint’s walls feature over 9,000 cattle brands from around Wyoming.
In its early years Sheridan’s social life centered on bars, pool halls and brothels around Main Street. The Sheridan Inn must also have been a lively place then. William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody used it as his headquarters during tryouts for his Wild West show. You can stay at the Inn where each room is themed around the iconic Western personalities.
Stroll down Main Street and you’ll soon get the idea that, despite its western roots, Sheridan is no mere “cowtown.” An abundance of terrific statues line the street and other areas. The city’s public art project has brought at least 60 unique pieces of outdoor art to the downtown and made it something of a community phenomenon.
In the tiny town of Big Horn, right next door to Sheridan, they focus more on polo ponies than cattle horses. The posh sport of polo seems a bit out character for this rugged region, yet Big Horn has been a polo hub since the 1890s when aristocrats from England and Scotland made their way to Wyoming. For example, William and Malcom Moncreiffe settled in Big Horn and established a successful business raising registered sheep. They also played an important role in bringing the sport of polo to the area. Now, notable players from all over the world head to Big Horn every year for the summer polo season.
Also tucked back in the Big Horn area, we found the elegant Brinton Museum located on the 620-acre Quarter Circle A Ranch that originally belonged to William Moncreiffe. You can tour the historic ranch house as well as the museum dedicated to Native American art and culture as well as American fine and decorative art.
We left Big Horn and headed south on I-90 toward Buffalo, the town upon which author Craig Johnson’s modeled his fictional town of Durant in his Longmire crime series. Take special note of the landscape in this area. You’ll see the terrain of “Absaroka” County that Sheriff Walt Longmire and his smart-alecky crew inhabit. Buffalo celebrates “Longmire Days” annually.
Traveling from Buffalo, we took U.S. 16 which becomes the stunning Cloud Peak Skyway Scenic Byway. It rises over the southern portion of the Big Horn Mountains and offers breathtaking scenery, worth all the chugging our little RV did as we climbed to the peak at 9,666 feet. Then the road winds through the spectacular Tensleep Canyon. Thankfully it offers plenty of pullouts so even the driver can stop and ogle the view.
We’re members of Harvest Hosts, a program for RVers that allows members access to a network of wineries, farms, breweries, museums and other unique attractions where they can stay overnight. We spent the night at a farm near Shonshoni, on the Wyoming prairie with the mountains off in the distance.
Land like this is the setting of One for the Blackbird, One for the Crow by Olivia Hawker, set in the 1870s. In the story, a man kills his neighbor after he catches him “in flagrante” with his wife. He then goes to jail, which leaves the two wives alone with their children to fend for themselves during the brutal Wyoming winter. It’s action-packed and gives a pretty good idea of the hardship of life in Wyoming at that time.
On the westernmost side of the state, we arrived at our final destinations of Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park. We visit those places over and over, but we were happy that this time we had also included in our trip a few of the other great destinations–and that wide open space– that Wyoming offers.
Mackinac Island, Michigan, sits in on the Straits of Mackinac where the Great Lakes of Michigan and Huron converge. That location made it the ideal place for Native Americans and fur traders to make their summer rendezvous to trade and it was here that John Jacob Astor made his fortune in the fur industry. Missionaries, soldiers and eventually Gilded Age tourists from Detroit and Chicago pulled ashore to enjoy this remarkable island. Today, people from around the world arrive on the island and become part of that centuries long summer tradition.
History and Tradition Come Alive
I visited Mackinac (pronounced Mackinaw) Island in summers when I was growing up so the island has a special place in my heart. I returned earlier this summer and was happy to see little has changed. I felt the same sense of anticipation as the ferry ride (about 20 minutes from either Mackinaw City or Michigan’s upper peninsula) brought the Mackinac Bridge into closer view. The island still bans cars making it very bike, buggy and pedestrian friendly. And, the smell of the island’s trademark product, fudge, continues to greet visitors on arrival. The lovely Victorian cottages still charm and the Grand Hotel remains grander than ever.
While Mackinac Island offers a terrific array of places to eat, drink, pedal and kayak, it’s the history here that has always grabbed me. That’s why I always urge fellow visitors to get away from the crowds on Main Street by the ferry docks and explore the island by foot, bike or horse. Start with the famous Fort Mackinac which offers canon blasting, rifle shooting, historic displays and a spectacular view of the island and surrounding waters. (Slightly off topic, here’s one of the crazy things I remember from visiting as a kid. There was a grisly display in the fort back then about Dr. William Beaumont who was an army surgeon at the fort and a young voyageur who had been accidentally shot in the stomach. The stomach wound didn’t heal and Beaumont was able to view the workings of the stomach through the hole–for a very long time. The exhibit is now at the Fur Company Store and Dr.Beaumont Museum.)
Somewhere in Time and Literature
For a sense of history, I also recommend reading Iola Fuller’s classic tale of Mackinac, The Loon Feather. It’s a romantic tale of a young Native American woman and it’s ending is improbably happy, but I’m a sucker for all that. And, the book conveys quite accurately the early days of the fur trade on the island.
At The Island Bookstore on Main Street, they’re happy to share their ideas for island-related reading and much more. If they’re not too busy, it’s fun to chat with owner Mary Jane Barnwell and store manager Tamara Tomack about literature and island life. Mary Jane is among the 500 or so people who live on Mackinac Island year-round. Because the island is accessible in winter only by snowmobile or airplane, you can bet she has a few stories to tell. And she does have a several adorable books of her own for children about the island, including Grand Adventure and Goodnight Mackinac Island, a children’s vacation journal.
Here are their suggestions if you want to read up before your island visit: Once on This Island by Gloria Whelan, Open Wound—the Tragic Obessions of Dr. William Beaumont by Jason Karlawish, and The Living Great Lakes: Searching For The Heart of the Inland Seas by Jerry Dennis. Finally, Somewhere in Time, by Richard Matheson is a must-read for Mackinac Island visitors. It was written about the Del Coronado Hotel in San Diego, but the movie version of the story with Chrisopher Reeve and Jane Seymour was filmed on Mackinac Island, mainly at the Grand Hotel.
It’s not easy to find Julie Schumacher. Like the setting of her book, Dear Committee Members, winner of the James Thurber Prize for Humor, her office in the English Department at the University of Minnesota seems exiled to a warren of rooms deep in the bowels of Lind Hall on the East Bank campus. Go downstairs, through some doors, down a hall, through the door with the arrow on it and its on the right somewhere at the end of the hall. Leave a trail of breadcrumbs to find your way back.
Also, like her fictional protagonist, Jay Fitger, she’s a creative writing professor and pens scores of letters of reference for students who are applying for jobs and grad school. Dear Committee Members consists solely of such letters in which the arrogant and curmudgeonly Fitger reveals more about himself than his students.
Peppered with a hilariously snooty vocabulary (with phrases like “floculent curds”), his letters perpetually digress to lament his department’s lack of status in the University, the ongoing building repairs and the trials of having an office next to the bathroom. “…we are alternately frozen and nearly smoked, via pestilent fumes, out of our building,” says Fitger. “Between the construction dust and the radiators emitting erratic bursts of steam heat, the intrepid faculty members who have remained in their offices over the winter break are humid with sweat and dusted with ash and resemble two-legged cutlets dredged in flour.” He bemoans the lack of respect for the liberal arts and the struggle of dealing with office technology—topics dear to Schumacher’s heart. Clearly, she follows the old adage “write what you know.”
Yet, when you do arrive at her office, it’s easy to see that Julie Schumacher is no Jay Fitger. She’s downright pleasant, enjoys her colleagues and proudly shows off her former students’ published novels. She swears her letters of reference never wander off, Fitger-like, into completely inappropriate discussions of sexual indiscretions around the department. Finally, unlike poor Jay, her work regularly receives recognition.
She was first woman to win the Thurber Prize in its 18-year history.The award is named for James Thurber, the author of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the creator of numerous New Yorker magazine cover cartoons and one of the foremost American humorists of the 20th century. Previous Thurber Prize winners have included Jon Stewart, David Sedaris and Calvin Trillin.
So many women have written funny books—Tina Fey, Nora Ephron and Betty White to name a few—it’s surprising that a woman hasn’t won the Thurber prize before now. See my previous post about James Thurber. That changed last year when all three of the finalists were women including New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast for her memoir Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? and Annabelle Gurwitch for I See You Made an Effort: Compliments, Indignities, and Survival Stories from the Edge.
As the first woman to win, Schumacher recognizes the irony that her lead character is a man. “It never occurred to me to make him a female,” she says. “This character has certain expectations of power, a big ego and he’s crushed when things don’t turn out professionally and romantically. It had to be a guy.”
Schumacher came to this place of distinction through long experience and serious practice of her craft. She grew up in Delaware, graduated from Oberlin College and from Cornell University with an MFA in fiction. She joined the University of Minnesota faculty after teaching as an adjunct at several Minnesota colleges in an effort to “keep an oar in the water” while raising her two daughters. Along the way she published books for young readers, a short story collection, and a critically acclaimed first novel, The Body of Water.
Of Dear Committee Members she says, “I didn’t start out to write a funny book. Actually, it’s a really a sad book. For Jay, things haven’t turned out like he expected, he’s besieged and disappointed. He’s a complicated character. I fell in love with him.”
Her sophisticated style of humor eschews the raunchy (no f-bombs here) in favor of writing that observes the funny in everyday life and in human nature. “The trick,” she says, “is to push the discomfort of a character’s behavior just to the edge, but not too far.” That makes it perfect for an award named after James Thurber. “Humor, he said, is “a kind of emotional chaos told about calmly and quietly in retrospect.”
Schumacher says life today requires humor. “Its a release, a catharsis.” Through her alter ego, Jay Fitger, humor also gives Schumacher a means of serious social commentary. He says, “…there are other faculty here on campus who are not disposed to see notable scholarship ignored; and let it be known that, in the darkened, blood-strewn caverns of our offices, we are hewing our textbooks and keyboards into spears.”
Join Off the Beaten Path in welcoming Terri Peterson Smith, author of Off the Beaten Page: The Best Trips for Lit Lovers, Book Clubs, and Girls on Getaways. Smith will take us on a tour of America’s most fascinating literary destinations and will provide inspiration and suggestions to plan your own literary getaway.
I was delighted to see this coverage of Off The Beaten Page in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. I hope it inspired others to make their travels “literary travels.” Check out the article, Literary traveler goes ‘Off the Beaten Page’ and please be sure to tell your friends.
So you think the idea of visiting a presidential library sounds about as interesting as watching paint dry. I was in your camp until I visited the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin Texas. I expected lots of yellowed documents, some photos, and “Mad Men” era tchotchkes. What I got was a tour of some of the most dramatic events of American history, in which Lyndon Baines Johnson was intimately involved. They include the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the space program, and his transition to the office of President after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, to name a few.
The signing of the Civil Rights Act 50 years ago puts LBJ’s role in that issue at the forefront this year. Johnson “pushed for legislation to fix societal problems, signing bill after bill, act after act. From the War on Poverty to Civil Rights, Medicaid to Medicare, he knew a better society wasn’t enough — we needed a Great Society. Put simply, he got things done.”
His legacy in this area is only now being recognized because it was previously overshadowed by his administration’s handling of the Vietnam War. At the museum, one sees a portrait of a man tortured by his responsibilities as commander-in-chief during that unpopular war. But the library informs visitors on the other sides of Johnson, who was often a funny guy and a savvy politician, who twisted plenty of congressional arms to further his legislation. Most importantly, the museum gives visitors historical context for so many of issues with which Americans struggle today.
If you have time, head for the hills….Texas Hill Country, that is…to see the LBJ ranch.
Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream
Robert Caro’s many volumes of work about LBJ includingThe Path to Power and The Master of the Senate
Robert Califano’s The Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson: The White House Years
Two newer books, The Bill of the Centuryby Clay Risen and An Idea Whose Time Has Come By Todd S. Purdum
Bars and counters are my favorite places to sit in restaurants. There’s something about the combination of close proximity and food that fosters great conversations among complete strangers. And, if I see you sitting next to me with a book, you won’t have time to read it because I’ll won’t be able to stop myself from asking what you’re reading, what it’s about, and do you recommend it.
That happened a couple of springs ago when my husband, Scott, and I were in Rockport,
Mass., (on Cape Ann, about an hour north of Boston) while I was researching my book, Off The Beaten Page: The Best Trips for Lit Lovers, Book Clubs and Girls on Getaways. There was still a chill in the the air and we were happily slurping down huge bowls of fish chowder at the Red Skiff, a tiny restaurant on Rockport’s aptly named Mt. Pleasant St. (The relaxed pace and the chance to hang out and chat with locals on both sides of the lunch counter without a line if diners behind you, and of course lower prices, are a few of the many charms of off-season travel.) I noticed that two of our lunch counter companions were discussing a book, so I had to barge into their discussion and ask about it, which led to questions about where we were from and what brought us to Rockport. Turned out the two gentlemen were members of the local sheriff’s department enjoying their day off. When one heard about my project, he grabbed the book from his friend’s hands and said, “You’ve got to read this book.” It was Elyssa East’s Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town. He said with an air of mystery that Dogtown has had a very strange history. “Say no more,” I said.
That lunch counter encounter was enough to launch me into reading not only East’s non-
fiction book about a murder in Dogtown, but also Anita Diamant’s fictional work The Last Days of Dogtown (you may have read her best-seller, The Red Tent) and Thomas Dresser’s Dogtown: A Village Lost in Time. After reading those books, I had to go see the place for myself.
Dogtown is a 3,600-acre tract of juniper, bog, and granite with a beautiful reservoir at one end. Early settlers–really early, like the mid-1600s–put down roots in Dogtown, though it couldn’t have been easy among so much rock. A century later as many as 100 families lived in the Dogtown area. But after the Revolutionary War, people figured that fishing might be a better way to make a living than tilling around giant boulders. It’s surprising that it took them that long. By the early 1800s, Dogtown was deserted, but for a few impoverished widows who, like Tammy Younger, the “queen of the witches,” intimidated passersby enough to make them pay her to leave them alone. A few dogs remained, too, which according to some people is the reason for the area’s name.
One thing that’s unnerving about Dogtown is that’s it’s rather hard to find your way around, giving the feeling that at any turn you could become hopelessly lost and eventually end up like Tammy and her warty friends. To explore Dogtown Commons, buy a detailed trail map at Toad Hall Books in Rockport or bookstores in Gloucester and bring along your GPS. You can also take a tour with an expert Seania McCarthy at Walk the Words. With a bit of looking, you can still find the holes that were the cellars of the first Dogtown homes.
But my favorite hike is the Babson Boulder Trail. During the Depression, millionaire
philanthropist Roger Babson, the founder of Babson College, hired unemployed stonecutters to carve 24 inspirational words on Dogtown boulders, many on what is now the Babson Boulder Trail. It’s fun, but a tad eerie, to encounter giant boulders at various points on the trail with inscriptions such as “Industry,” “Kindness,” “Be On Time,” and “Keep Out of Debt.” My favorite: “Help Mother.”
All of this history and mystery made Dogtown a favorite source of inspiration for the painter Marsden Hartley who captured the place in powerful, primal paintings such as “Rock Doxology.” He said, “A sense of eeriness pervades all the place…. [It is] forsaken and majestically lovely, as if nature had at last formed one spot where she can live for herself alone.” Read the books and go see for yourself.
Ernest Hemingway’s personal life was as interesting and adventurous as his fiction. So, while I was in Chicago recently I took a side trip to the lovely suburb of Oak Park, where I visited the Ernest Hemingway House and Museum. For Hemingway fans or if you enjoy books about Hemingway such as The Paris Wife, you’ll find a stroll in the author’s old neighborhood is delightful.
In previous posts, such a the one about A Skeptic’s Guide to Writer’s Houses, I’ve discussed the fact that authors’ homes aren’t as interesting as the places where their books are set. Still, it’s fun to see how an author lived and maybe hear a few stories about family life that may have shaped his world view. For example, when you take the guided tour in the home, you’ll see the little dining room where Hemingway’s grandfather sat with the children for breakfast and encouraged all of them to tell stories. He didn’t long enough to see what sprang from such encouragement.
So, if you’re in Chicago, make a trip to Oak Park to visit the Hemingway family home. Start at the museum at 200 Oak Park Avenue 708-524-5383, www.ehfop.org The home where Hemingway was born is one block north.
Author Armistead Maupin was in the Twin Cities last week speaking at the wonderful Pen Pals, an author lecture series that raises funds for the Hennepin County Library system. I’m sure that when they booked him for the event no one knew that it would coincide with the passage of the bill that made Minnesota the twelfth state to legalize gay marriage, but his appearance last week couldn’t have been more timely.
Maupin is the author of the beloved Tales of the City series that began as a newspaper column in the 1970s, first in a Marin County paper and then in the San Francisco Chronicle. Much the way Charles Dickens’s work appeared in serial installments, each Tales of the City column delivered a new episode in the lives of a quirky and sometimes bizarre collection of transsexual, straight, and gay characters who reside at the fictional 28 Barbary Lane, San Francisco. The series grew into eight best-selling novels, a television miniseries, a film and a musical.
Maupin was one of the first openly gay authors and his stories were ground-breaking in a time when there were no gay people in popular culture. I was thinking as he spoke about how much things have changed, particularly in light of Minnesota’s new marriage law. His conversation was peppered with a few “motherfuckers” and some colorful comments about his sexual behavior. I wondered if such in-your-face speech seemed a bit dated, unnecessary in the era of Ellen Degeneres and “Modern Family” when gay people are more part of the mainstream. That was Friday. Then Saturday night in New York’s Greenwich Village, a gay man was murdered in what was clearly a hate crime. So, that answered my question. Maupin’s attitude and his stories are as pertinent as ever. When he started writing there was the homophobic Anita Bryant. Now we have Rep. Michelle Bachmann.
Maupin’s groundbreaking stories incorporate the politics of the 1970s but also focus on universal themes of love and longing that have made the “Tales” endure over the decades with broad appeal. Maupin says, “We read to feel less alone, to find our experience reflected in that of others.” I would add that reading opens our minds to the the experience of others even if it isn’t the same as ours. The best thing about reading: it fosters empathy.
For anyone traveling to San Francisco, the Tales are a must read and Maupin’s web site offers a great map to the real places that you read about in the books. That reading and travel combination gives insight into the city’s history not only as ground zero in the gay rights movement but also its position as the America’s foremost place for iconoclasts–the Beats, hippies, immigrants from around the world, and cultural and spiritual seekers of all sorts who have changed the way we think and influenced our culture.
Though he will forever be associated with San Francisco, Maupin and his husband Christoper Turner, have decamped for Santa Fe, for what Maupin says is a new adventure in a place that has amazing vistas, adobe homes, and wide open spaces. But, he says, “San Francisco is still in my heart.”
Travel to the places you read about. Read about the places you travel.