Defending America’s “Town Of Motels”

Is Breezewood, Pennsylvania getting a bum rap? The little town off an exit ramp of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, where travelers pass a half mile of motels, truck stops, gas stations, and souvenir stands before connecting to the highway that takes them toward Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, has become a social media meme through the above photo. In the meme, Breezewood is presented as ugly, chaotic, and loud–a prime example of tackiness and American wretched excess.

That photo doesn’t exactly depict a garden spot. But now Breezewood’s defenders have risen to respond to the harsh criticism–as in this article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The defenders argue that the sneering dismissals of Breezewood reflect a cultural snobbishness about seeing the exposed machinery of American life: the gas stations that must exist to power American car culture, the hotels that are needed to house travelers that are the mainstay of the American tourism business, and the assorted rest stops and restaurants that service the needs of those travelers. And, of course, all of those businesses shown in that photo provide people with gainful jobs, and have allowed Breezewood to continue to exist when other American small towns have withered and died.

My own memories of Breezewood are different from the contemptuous prevailing meme, too. When UJ and I were kids Grandma and Grandpa Neal used to take us on driving trips from Akron, Ohio to spots on the east coast, like Washington, D.C. or the Jersey shore. We would climb into the back seat of Grandpa’s Oldsmobile 98, try not to fidget while he carefully navigated the car along the growing network of American highways, always obeying the speed limit, and wait until we reached Breezewood where we would stop for the night at a Holiday Inn close to the Turnpike exit ramp. In those days, a sign announced Breezewood as the “town of motels,” and we were always glad when we saw that sign because it meant we could get out of the car, go for a swim in the hotel pool, eat dinner, and visit Crawford’s Museum next door to the hotel–a “museum” of stuffed animals and curiosities that was basically designed to stir the imaginations of a young kid. The next day we would wake up, have breakfast, and continue our leisurely journey.

In short, I liked Breezewood and have fond memories of it. I’m glad there is pushback against the Breezewood meme. It shows that reality is always more complex and nuanced than a photo and a few words that convey a smirking putdown.

Official Numerology

My mother was a prim person. She didn’t like foul language, never cursed, and did not countenance her children using slang language for bodily functions that were not to be discussed in polite company. But if we had to discuss such things–say, to advise that we absolutely had to pull over at the next rest stop or risk disaster and humiliation–we knew to use Mom’s preferred euphemisms: “number 1” and “number 2.”

I had forgotten “number 1” and “number 2” until I used the county courthouse men’s room today and saw that Mom’s polite terminology has been adopted by an official sign in an official establishment. Mom would have applauded their discretion.

Bombs Away!

This is a fine time of year to be outside in the Midwest. The high temperature hits the 70s, and conditions tend toward dry and sunny. But if you’d like to enjoy that weather by reading a good book in our backyard, you’d better bring along your hard hat—just in case.

We’ve got a tree back there—a black walnut, maybe?—that drops these little green bombs, some of which are shown in the photo above, on the unsuspecting. The green pellets are just under the size of a tennis ball and solid, with the green casing covering a black nut underneath. If you’re sitting outside, they drop unexpectedly from the tree branches far overhead, first rustling the leaves and then hitting the ground with a noticeable thump. It’s unnerving. The green casing then dissolves, leaving the nut underneath to be enjoyed by the neighborhood squirrels.

I haven’t been hit—yet—by one of the green projectiles, but this time of year I tend to stick to the screened-in porch, just in case.

Losing Clockwisdom

The other day someone asked me about my morning walks around Schiller Park and I explained that, being a creature of habit, I inevitably walk up Third Street and, when I reach the park, I head counterclockwise for my laps around the park. My friend understood exactly what I meant and no doubt visualized the hands of a clock in the process.

It made me wonder whether, if I was using the same expression with a teenager, they would be mystified by the expression, or would understand that “counterclockwise” means to turn right as you begin your laps from the twelve o’clock position. Do they even have clocks with hour and minute hands in schools these days, and how many homes have old-style clocks around–rather than digital contraptions on their microwaves, ovens, refrigerators, and TVs? We’ve got the nifty art deco-style clock shown above on the end table next to our bed, but it was a consciously retro purchase to go with our retro house. Otherwise, our timekeeping would all be of the digital variety.

And “clockwise” and “counterclockwise” aren’t the only concepts or phrases that are at risk in the digital era. Will people still say that something that went well came off like clockwork? Will people still say that they worked (or rocked) around the clock? And will taunting people boast that they will clean your clock?

I’m afraid that the clock is ticking on clock-related phrases, and it’s a shame.

Waiting For The Montauk

Of the garden of late bloomers, the Montauk daisy is the most frustrating. Two years after we replanted a portion of the plant that was gifted by a generous neighbor, I still have not personally seen its blooms. As flowers go, it’s a tantalizing tease.

The plant seems to thrive in the Stonington climate. Last year it took firm root after our replanting, grew considerably, and produced lots of buds that were just getting ready to bloom when they were neatly clipped off and consumed by the local rampaging deer horde. This year the Montauk daisy grew like crazy—so much so that it has overwhelmed its bed, and I’ll have to split it up and replant parts of it elsewhere in the down yard next spring—and the deer have blessedly stayed away, but I had to head back to Columbus before the blossoming started. The buds were out and getting ready, but stubbornly refused to comply with my travel schedule.

The flowers have now begun to open, and Russell graciously sent along this photo, but of course it’s just not the same as checking out the flowers, in the sunshine, with your own two eyes. Seeing the Montauk daisies in full bloom will have to remain an aspirational goal until next year.

Memories By Maude

My maternal grandmother, Maude Neal, had a remarkable memory. Locked in her brain were hundreds, if not thousands, of poems, sayings, and song lyrics that she could summon and quote at will on any occasion. Her repertoire ranged from silly ditties she learned as a kid (“Kaiser Bill went up the hill to take a look at France. Kaiser Bill came down the hill with bullets in his pants.”) to sayings about hard work, fortitude, love, family, death, and just about any other topic.

Back in the ‘70s or early ‘80s Mom decided to sit down with Grandma, have her deliver some of her sayings, and make careful note of them. Mom then carefully typed the poems and sayings (with a few typos and strike-throughs) and assembled the pages in a handmade booklet, decorated with stick-on flowers and held together by yarn. All of us kids got a copy. We still have my copy, decades later, and keep it on a table in our upstairs study. It’s a cool piece of family memorabilia that reminds me of Grandma Neal and Mom whenever I see it.

And while I lack Grandma’s facility with remembering and quoting poems, I remember her reciting some of the poems in this little booklet. Like this one, which I first heard as a little kid when I came home and made some complaint about something trivial:

I do not ask to walk smooth paths

Or bear an easy load.

I pray for strength and fortitude

To climb the rock-strewn road.

Give me such courage and I can scale

The hardest peak alone.

And transform every stumbling block

Into a stepping stone.

Grandma’s poetic message was clear: suck it up, kid! It’s still good advice.

One Last Stonington Sunrise

I’m back in Columbus, after a happily uneventful travel day. It was weird to wake up in our German Village bedroom and not see a scene like the photo above, taken one morning earlier this week, right outside our bedroom window. So I’m going to indulge myself by posting this last sunrise picture before transitioning fully back to Midwest sights and sounds.

They say that people who live around physical beauty eventually become indifferent to it. So far that hasn’t happened with me and the sights presented by living somewhere with a view of water and sun. Maybe it’s because the harbor views still seem so novel after decades living in the landlocked Midwest, or maybe it’s because my time in Stonington is broken up by returns to Columbus, or maybe I just like sunrises that have lobster boats in the picture. I hope I never reach the point where I can pass by a striking sunrise without stopping to goggle at it, and looking forward to seeing more.

The View From The Rocks

It was a beautiful morning yesterday. The sky was blue, the sun painted the eastward facing houses on Greenhead peninsula with a brilliant, glowing luminosity, and the tide was out, which allowed me to walk far out onto the rocky outcroppings along the shoreline and get a good view at the long pier fronting the water.

I wanted to get a good, long look at this pretty little part of the world, which I have called home for the past few months, and lock it securely in my memory before heading back to the Midwest. I took this photograph because sometimes a photo app can help the memory, too.

Pumpkins Please

Kish is a big pumpkins person. As soon as the pumpkins show up at the grocery store, she’ll buy a carload and put out as many as possible to make for a colorful autumn. That’s okay with me, because I think pumpkins are pretty pleasing, with their bold colors and rounded shape. In Stonington we have a nice shelf on our front step that is perfect for displaying pumpkins, where they go well with the remnants of this year’s crop of Black-eyed Susans and the dusty white plant the locals call “snow in summer.”

It’s still fairly warm here; yesterday the temperature may have briefly touched 70. But pumpkins aren’t the only sign of the cooler autumn to come. The edges of the leaves at the tops of the trees are starting to turn, there’s more animal activity, and the summer tourist season has ended. It’s a good time for pumpkins.

Trailblazing

I’ve spent a few days working over at Russell’s property this summer. He has multiple acres of some lovely, largely wooded property at Cape Rosier on the mainland, and among many other projects he’s been working on creating hiking trails through the property to particularly scenic spots. Earlier this summer Richard, Russell, and I worked for a day on clearing out a path and glade along a cool, stony brook that spills out from a natural spring on Russell’s land, and on Sunday I continued the path along the stream and then turned inland to follow an obvious animal trail and see where it led.

Trailblazing is hard work, but it is also a lot of fun. Basically, the goal is to identify the logical route for a trail and then convert landscape that looks like the photo above into something walkable, like the photo below. That means breaking up and removing rotted logs, gathering up and moving fallen timber that blocks the way, and cutting down scrub trees and dead trees and low hanging branches along the route. Armed with a small saw and limb-cutting shears, I let my pathfinder instincts run free, cutting and chopping and hefting armloads of branches and fallen twigs. As the trail signs turned inland, I followed what looked like a deer trail, shown running through the moss in the photo below, that led to a pretty natural clearing where sunlight dappled the ground under towering trees.

Russell’s property is beautiful and full of surprises—like the brook, the spring, a big round boulder I dubbed Cannonball Rock, and a natural granite promontory that affords a view of Cape Rosier and Castine in the far distance, and others yet to be discovered—and there are lots of ways the trails could run. I’ve finished my trailblazing work for 2021, but I’ll gladly return in 2022 for more scouting, brush cutting, and trail clearing.

A Tall Ship In The Morning

This morning’s walk produced a surprise—a “tall ship” in the harbor, towering over the outboards and the lobster boats. It was a perfectly clear morning with barely a breath of breeze, and I walked out to the end of a jetty to get a good look as the masted vessel rode at anchor. With my time in Stonington drawing to a close, I’m going to take in as many harbor and boat scenes as possible.

My Planting Map

Last year I carefully harvested lupine seeds and planted them on the last day before we headed back to Columbus. Unfortunately, by the time spring rolled around, I had only a dim recollection of where I planted the seeds. As a result, the first few weeks up here were a time of constant discovery, where I had to carefully scour the ground for the radial leaf pattern of tiny lupine plants grown from the seeds I had sown months before.

This year, I’ve harvested more lupine seeds, and I’m going to be more organized and systematic in my planting. I’ve drawn a “planting map” that will guide my lupine planting before I leave and also make sure I reserve the areas where I plan to put parts of the colossal Montauk daisy plant that I’ll be splitting up and replanting in the spring. The map is not a super accurate depiction of the down yard—actually, it’s pretty bad and not at all to scale—but it’s good enough for my purposes.

I’ll keep the map up here in an easy to find place. With my handy map to remind me, next spring I should be able to avoid a repeat of this year’s treasure hunt for lupines.

The Steps Project

I am calling my last big yard work initiative of the season the Steps Project. It’s been an interesting, challenging, “dirt under the fingernails” bit of work that combines archaeology, tricky balance, digging, pulling, and lots of roots.

The Steps Project began when our 80-year-old neighbor visited our down yard as part of our earlier tree-cutting work. He’s lived in this neighborhood since he was a kid, and he recalled the hillside being a treeless expanse with stones that the kids used as steps to come up and down on their walk to and from school. Steps in that location would be a good thing because the hillside slopes at close to a 45-degree grade, and getting up and down on a dewy morning can be a slippery proposition. But the steps he recalled were long gone, covered now by a thatch of moss and weeds.

Obviously, stepping stones don’t just vanish; they were under there somewhere. And I think having a kind of stairway to get from top to bottom of the slope would be useful. So the archaeology part of my Steps Project involves figuring out where the stones are buried. When I find them, I cut through the thatch, pull out the moss and weeds, and then cut or pull out the tree roots that grew over and around the rocks. Then I use a brush to clear off the dirt and other debris so the rocks—now exposed for the first time in decades—can dry out in the sunshine. The balance part of the project comes in because I’m doing all of that while trying to hold myself steady on the slope and not taking overly aggressive actions that might send me toppling down the hillside.

Yesterday I finished with the last two “steps,” and now I’ve got a rocky, ersatz set of stairs on the side border of the down yard that you can see in the photos accompanying this post, from the above and below perspectives. Of course, the steps aren’t perfectly aligned like a staircase, and you have to zigzag and take different length steps to get up and down, but they are definitely a safer way up and down. And they are kind of fun, too. In fact, I feel like one of the kids in my neighbor’s old gang when I use them.

Appreciating A Wet Walk

It rained for most of the day yesterday, rained some more throughout the night, and is raining still this morning. As this look down our road/driveway shows, my walk today is going to be a wet one.

I don’t mind a wet walk. In fact, I appreciate them as a real change of pace. You’ve got to adjust your mindset for a wet walk, because you’ll need to really pay attention to what you’re doing. I don’t wear my earbuds and listen to music on the wet walks, because I want to stay actively engaged with my surroundings. No wool gathering is permitted. You’ve got puddles to dodge, and an umbrella to maneuver against the windblown raindrops, and potential splashes from passing pickups to watch out for.

But once you get out into all that rain and wetness and puddled terrain, you find things to like. The road has a special shine to it. The rain makes drumming and popping sounds against the fabric of the umbrella and the leaves on the trees and the surface of the puddles. The wet air almost seems to hug you, and the watery breeze smells fresh and clean and good. And when you get back, wetter than when you left, you feel pretty good about going out at all.

At The Midpoint

Well, we’re at the midpoint of our three-day Labor Day weekend. And with a beautiful sunrise this morning to spur us on, we are at the moment of decision. What should we do today, knowing that tomorrow is also a day off? Hiking? A long walk? Yard work? Grilling out? Reading? Watching football and savoring a cold beer?

That sounds a lot like exactly what we did yesterday—and it also sound like exactly what we should do today, too. That’s the beauty of the Labor Day weekend.