National Parks Birthday – 100 This Month! (Wind Cave National Park)

In honor of our US National Park’s 100th birthday later this month, here are some shots of Stu Patterfoot visiting Wind Cave National Park in the southern Black Hills of South Dakota. This was the first cave in the world to be named a national park. (Thank you, Teddy Roosevelt.) The park is nearly 34,000 acres on the surface with plenty of wildlife, but below ground it includes one of the world’s largest cave system. It is famous for the calcite boxwork formation which is quite rare and stunning.

Visit our national parks this month.

P.S. Towards the end of August, all national parks will be free for four days!!!!

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Summer Reflections — Nashville, Tennessee, Surprise

Although I personally prefer to head north to the cool sand beaches of Michigan, ANY time (might have something to do with my name), this summer Hubby and I decided to go south for a change. We’d never been to Kentucky or Tennessee, except me, as a kid of 7. I gave in even if it was forecast to be in the mid-90’s, high humidity (99% is high), and thunderstormy. It was a new summertime someplace adventure. We picked six highlighted places to go. Our second highlight was Nashville, Tennessee.

Nashville was a surprise! (Although, next time we go to Nashville,I believe we’ll fly v.s. driving the nearly ten hours to get here.)

I’d envisioned it as a small, redneck town. You know, like one you could walk into one of the many tiny recording studios along a hilly street, cut a record, and become famous. (I spoke to Elvis the other day, and he told me so.) But, not true! Nashville today is almost 700,000 in population. That ain’t no hick town by any standard. The music industry (Nashville is called Music City) has made this place very cosmopolitan.

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Our hotel had shuttles every thirty minutes to the impressive downtown area. Very convenient. The honky-tonk “Lower Broad” (Broadway) was fun. It is packed with bars and eateries, each with their own stage (in some cases, several) for musicians to perform. Our son who works in the music industry and has been to several conventions at the huge Nashville Convention Center, advised us to just walk down Broadway, listen for a band we liked, go into that bar, have a drink, tip the band, and move on to the next place we heard and liked and do the same. We walked “Lower Broad” in broad daylight, but even with the early time of day, there were music groups playing in some establishments as well as street musicians. We walked some of the Cumberland River bank, had ribs and local beer, and shuttled on back to our hotel.

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That evening we drove out to the Grand Ole Opry House. This is the third or fourth location for the Grand Old Opry stage. This most recent auditorium has 4,372 seats. The House is conveniently located next to the Opry Mill Mall, and where Opry House ticket holders are encouraged to park. There must be a symbiotic relationship between Mall and Opry House. We went into the mall and bought things. It was very interesting to see a vivacious, populated mall when malls throughout America seem to be dying out. It even holds a 20-theatre movie theatre.

I must confess I’ve never been much of a country music lover, but listening to the variety in one night, I can’t quite say I’m a country fan, but sure am willing to listen. The slick-run two-hour show held each of the individuals or groups to three songs each, whether they were newcomers, current hit makers, or legends. We expereinced two standing ovations the night we went. Amazing.

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Naming Nashville “Music City” is no lie. There are literally thousands of venues for artists to perform, for free, for tips, or for pay. The really big trouble is there wasn’t a single musician or group I heard that didn’t play really, really well. However does someone make it in the music world these days, to not just recording tI must confess I’ve never been much of a country music lover, but listening to the variety in one night (the musicians could perform three songs only), and even recognizing some names and tunes, and hearing new artists, I can’t quite say I’m a country fan, but I’m now sure willing to listen to their music, but to getting music industry people to listen and like it, and then to have the public do the same?

It got me thinking of unpublished writers I know who are excellent writers, some even with agents (someone besides family and me believe in them!). In the writing world, too, it is really, really hard to break in and get published; and then after publication, noticed and read and liked by strangers.

Trying to be published or recorded can be so depressing. Luckily, Nashville also is home to the chocolate bar, Goo-Goo Cluster. They are worth every nibble of the 240 calories in a single bar, whether you’re depressed over not getting recognized or just in a sweet mood. I never had them before. I sing and play guitar well enough to go on some of the Nashville venues (even though that won’t happen), but, oh, yum; now I’ve got a new favorite candy bar. Thank you, Nashville.

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Michigan Signs (for the balance)

After my post about British Signs and Street Crossings, I started thinking how someone from another country coming to upper Michigan would react to some of our signs here. For example…

There is the infamous Michigan no-brainer: “Do Not Pass When Opposing Cars Present,” a sign I always go by too quickly to whip out my iPhone for a shot. It is for a two lane road opening to a three land road on a hill. The third central lane is for passing coming up the hill. But if no one’s in that lane, feel free to go into it to pass your slow downhill car in front of you.

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There’s the caution sign that the road ends…before you drive into Lake Michigan.

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There are the “Icy Bridge” or the newer “Bridge freezes before road” signs.

Hotels up north warn to be on the lookout for falling icicles (even in summer?) or instructing guests to not use hotel towels to wipe down sleds, or no snowmobiles allowed through the parking lot.

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A central Michigan truck company placed this sign on the back of their truck:

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Is this sign for a zoo? Or to be on the lookout for mating wildlife (X-ing)? Or is it a misspelling and polite way of indicating a nudist camp crossing ahead?

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Other states have their own peculiarities. When we lived in South Dakota there were official signs like, “Next Rest Area 365 miles” or “Do not cross road when flooded” or my personal favorite, a series of old pickup tires hung on fence posts in the Black Hills with the white words painted on them: “No Hunt.”

In defense of signs in England, we’ve all got our own local signs which may bring a smile or questioning look to outsiders. Mostly they’re used to keep us safe, I suppose, or on the flip side, not get sued.

So when you are writing your real or make-believe worlds, be aware of your region’s culturally different signs intended to help or guide, not confuse people.

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British Signs and Street Crossings

Before we headed to England for our first time this summer, Friend Mary who frequently travels there, told us when crossing the street in the UK, do the opposite. American rule: Look left, then right, then left again. British rule, she said: look right, then left, then right again. As we would depend on foot or public transportation for the entire stay, I felt it an experienced and helpful suggestion. Or so I thought. It only took me that first day walking in crowded-busy London to realise her rule needed some modification. Sandy’s 4-part rule for crossing London streets: Always use the crosswalk; look all four ways before stepping out onto the roadway; keep on looking as you cross; and watch out for that occasional driver in his mega-expensive car to run the red light or spin around the corner. And for a self-reminder, every time I crossed a road, I actually pointed my arm out at a 45 degree angle to the right. Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy. Using my method, we only nearly got run over about forty-five times — not bad for a 10-day stay. There were also the safety islands in the middle of busy streets, and the squiggly lines painted on the roads. Look 4 ways and point to right (except when you’re on one of those safety isles, when you’d point left).

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Signs in Britain are different from in America, too. When we arrived at Gatwick Airport, “Toilets” was a welcomed if somewhat blushing sign to spot, but then there was this running man on a green background with an arrow to a white rectangle.

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My mind ran some possibilities: fire escape route (with up-pointed arrow), hallway to bomb shelter (with down-pointed arrow), or maybe “Run for your life! There’s a tiger loose in the terminal!”

I’ve always felt the best thing to do when you can’t conveniently look things up is to ask questions of a living person.

“Way out,” came the answer. I must have blinked as I went through my mental files, because he quickly added, “What you would call the exit.”

I hadn’t even said I was an American!

A sign of a white man going down steps on a blue background and the word “Subway” did not mean to public transportation, but a way to cross the street underneath the street: stairs down, cross beneath, stairs up.

There was one sign near St. James’s Park in London which took me a day later to figure out. Of course, when you’re in a hurry to get across the street, looking all ways, and pointing, and then look up and notice this sign — the only one I’d seen like it in our then-8-day stay —  you don’t really have time to think what it means.

I wonder, if you hadn’t had this set up in the blog post, given just one second of time, can you figure it out?

 

 

 

 

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Little England. Big America.

It was only upon our return to the United States that I realized how big America is. I mean, I knew ahead of time that England was about the size of the state of Michigan, but everywhere I looked on our return was . The driver’s lanes here are wider. The sidewalks here are wider. Even the wastepaper baskets and toilets are bigger. In England, it was obvious who were Americans by their big (loud) voices. Yards, if they exist, are tiny.  Distances between major cities are shorter over there. Semi trucks are shorter in the UK, and even on the motorways for several days, I saw no doubles or scary triples like in the USA. And upon our return, I was surprised to notice how physically big Americans are. I guess my eyes had merely overlooked that fact before, or been adjusted to the sights. But coming home, it seemed that every store I entered, I found big people — big compared to thin Englanders. (Of course, you can find some skinny Americans, and you can find some plumb Brits.)

Therefore, it’s my casual observation that England is little and America is big.

Relating this information to writing…what is the feeling of your setting? Is it large and roomy or elbows-tucked-in small? How would your main character respond growing up in a roomy land v.s. a crowded one? Or feel visiting one the opposite type of setting?

Play with your characters. Play with your setting. Write, rewrite, tweek.

Tower of London, London, England

We are now back in the States, but our trip to England for the first time is still in processing mode. One of the last places we visited in London was the Tower of London. Very stupidly, I’m embarrassed to admit, I used to think that the Tower of London was Big Ben. I never saw the big deal that people made of climbing this tower. Oh, silly, ignorant American!

Our first plan was to see the Tower of London on a day when we were touring seven other London sights. But by the time we arrived there, we only had an hour to see it, and since it wasn’t just a tower, we didn’t think that would give it justice. We decided to spend our one “flex day” entirely at the Tower of London. I am so glad we did. It’s not your hour tourist stop. We spent four hours there and still didn’t see everything.

Even though it’s a museum (and so much more), it is not a free museum like most museums in England. There is a cost, with lots of tourist shops nearby.

We followed Rick Steve’s advice and bought our tickets near the tube stop instead of at the gate, saving several pounds by doing this. I don’t understand it; it’s just a fact. By stopping by the establishment the day before, we knew it was going to be crowded. In fact, ALL of London is crowded. But we figured if we got there right when the gates opened, it might not be quite so crowded. It was a good choice, but by the time we left, I felt downright claustrophobic.

The Tower of London is not a single tower as I used to think. It is a fortress with history and numberous buildings, and today there are actually people living within the walls. This is the land of the Yoeman Warders, a.k.a, Beefeaters who are dressed in black tunics and hats, although today their biggest role is opening the gates, giving tours, and locking the gates. There were also, however grenadier soldiers (in red uniforms and tall, fuzzy hats) on the grounds, standing or marching in front of two buildings. They carried heavy guns, similar to AK17s. One grenadier guarded the building where the crown jewels are kept; the other was at the Queen’s House. These are not toy soldiers to please tourists. The are true soldiers with real weapons protecting both the royalty and riches of the country.

You cannot take photos inside the building where the crown jewels are kept, and to get a close-up view of it in its glass case, you step onto a moving walkway. Look fast! I was impressed with the giant diamond rock, fist-sized, no: larger. But I was also impressed in an entirely different way with the four-foot golden alter plate for serving holy communion at the coronations. There were lots of sparkles in this building of the Tower of London, but as a fantasy writer, I was actually more interested in the White Tower with its 500 years of armor inside the White Tower (a separate building within the Tower of London). Why there was even a 15′ tall dragon made of weapons, armor and shields.

Prisoners are no longer kept in the Tower of London, neither is the armour used. But there is something about the grounds which caused me to know this was not a normal tourist stop. I felt quiet, respectful, even a bit scared. Perhaps it was the serious guards with their modern-day weapons. Perhaps it was from the ghosts of the many who were beheaded within those walls. Perhaps it was because of the legend of the ravens staying on the grounds (or England would fall). Or maybe, as I stood on the wall and overlooked Tower Bridge (often mistakenly called London Bridge), I knew hundreds of years of history and millions of lives passed right over the very stones and bricks upon which I trod. I was in the ethers of history itself.

Toilets (American Translation for this British Word: Bathrooms)

First, have you noticed that although it is a daily human occurrence, most authors do not show their characters in the bathroom? Unless it’s to do something illegal, private, or escape, this little room is merely used as a setting.

Secondly, the terms. I’ve heard it called the ladies or gents, a public convenience, the necessity room, the out back, a privy, and an outhouse–the last three for little buildings separate from a main building, or used at camp grounds. A thousand years ago in Rome and other large cities across Europe, using these facilities could be large with fifty or seventy holes. Men and women used the same room.

Thirdly, on our recent trip to England, it was difficult at first for me to refer to bathrooms or restrooms as toilets. But there they are–all over Britain–signs saying “TOILETS.” In fact, when I saw large signs in windows for “Flat TO LET” my mind wanted to stick in the letter “I” in the space.

Of course, the Brits have other words for this room, like loo or bog or water closet or W.C. One tour bus trip we took had us meet back at Bog Island. I didn’t think much about it until I returned to the bus and realized there were steps going down under the street on this little triangle surrounded by road. It’s now closed off, but once upon a time those steps led to the bathrooms, or toilets, or bogs.

As an American, when I think of toilets, I think of the actual seat and bowl and tank. So when I saw a sign reading “Men working in women’s toilets,” I imagined tiny men inside a toilet bowl. (Must have been jet lag thinking.)

In many public places in London, like the Tube or train stations or near the Thames River, it costs to use the facilities. My friend Mary often goes to England for work. She’s usually around the Manchester area, up north. She warned us that it would cost 20p to use the toilets. So before we left, I made sure my husband and I each had 20p with us. I was delighted to find my first toilet in England free. That one was in the airport, near the custom’s line. But later when I came across pay toilets in London, they were for 30p or 50p. So much for being prepared with p to pee.

However, do not let a fear of finding a bathroom in England stop you. There are, indeed, plenty of free restrooms. Restaurants have them. Museums have them. Churches and cathedrals have them. So when you go to England, you may feel free to go.

Fashion in London

It was our first time to England, staying for ten days. What was the main thing I was concerned about? Fashion. Blame it on my Shaker upbringing when there were different clothing rules for every occasion. Oh, what to wear! I knew my American accent would make me stick out, and that I could control the volume of my voice, but would my clothes fit in? Would carrying a backpack make me look like I was a college student or a tourist?  People traveling to England recently told me that no one wears sneakers. Would my shoes be walkable and yet fashionable? People here in the States seem to make a big deal about shoes.

As it turned out, my worry was for naught.  Riding the Tube gave me plenty of time for fashion observation.

Many people wore backpacks — men, women, young and old, both in London and in Oxford. If women carried purses, the strap generally went over one shoulder and across the chest to the opposite hip. Men also carried “man bags” very similar to women’s purses and in the same across-the-chest way.

Women’s shoes? 80% were black flats with sometimes a bow or buckle on them; 15% were sneakers, leaving the other 5% in heels. Although once I saw a young woman in a short black skirt walking near Trafalgar Square wearing black net stockings and no shoes on her feet at all.

Shorts? About 1% of women (teens, mostly) wore short-shorts. And about 1% of men wore shorts — can you say tourist?

There were also Indians and muslims in long dresses.

We met a man from Canada who had lived in England for four weeks. Even though it was in the 70’s most of the time we were there, he complained about how he had to wear jeans and long-sleeved shirts every day in the summer there because it was so cold. Um…wait a minute. I’ve been to Canada many a time, mostly camping out. 70’s is not cold. I suppose it’s all a matter of perspective.

So, when going to London, no need to worry about fashion. Simply wear comfortable clothes (and don’t speak loudly).

Our European Hotel — in London

In February, I started to panic. We were going to England at the height of tourist season, end of June, beginning of July. We’d decided to only do public transportation (i.e., no car rental). We needed to secure a place to stay (or more) which were nearby to Tube stations (a.k.a., The Underground, or what we in America would call, subways; however, in England, a subway is the path down the steps and under busy roads). As I looked at maps of London, I panicked again. I don’t think there are any two streets parallel in the city. Just how did one find their way around?

When I began my search for hotels, I started stabbing, though not entirely, because I’d look up hotels only in the area we were spending the most of our time — South Kennsington — and hotels which had a room available for ten days. I contacted British writer friends for suggestions. One didn’t travel to London if she could help it, the other recommended chain motels like Super 8’s, but which needed a car (or taxi) to get to. Back to personal on-line research. Results: full; full; full; way too expensive; full. Then…BINGO! Although it was at the top end of our price range, more importantly it was in the area we wanted and available for ten days. We’d never been to England. We hope to go again, but who knows. I grabbed my credit card and booked it.

I actually thought it was a sweet European style place to stay. It was only nineteen rooms on four stories, and was above cafes and shops. They had no kitchen or lounge, so our continental breakfast was brought to our door each morning. How quaint. How European. All true. My husband said that thirty-eight years ago when he was a student abroad, there were some mighty skimpy places he’d stayed, so as long as the room had a bed and an en suite (in room) bathroom, it was all good.

Our hotel was half a block from the South Kennsington tube station. Yay! Perfect. Location. Location. Location.

When we arrived in the morning, our room was not available, but we were able to leave our two bags there at the desk and take a walk around our neighborhood, and even check out the Victoria and Albert Museum just a few blocks away. Oh. And the reception desk was on the first floor landing — the European first floor, which is our American second floor. We left our bags and returned after our neighborhood walking tour and eating Fish and Chips at a restaurant which held about sixteen chairs around tables (very typical arrangement for restaurants; some have fewer indoor eating spots with four or so tables just outside).

We took our room key, 417, and started up the posh red carpeted stairs. We discovered the 400 number did not mean fourth floor. The first room in the hotel was 401. So up we marched, and marched…and marched. We were on what Americans would call, the sixth floor — 86 steps from the street level. (pant-pant) I’d requested a quiet room in the back if possible, as a result of one of the reviews. We got one of the two rooms facing the street.

Most English buildings do not have central heat or air (heating or air-conditioning). A small circular fan sat on the desk. We put it in the open window, hinge broken so it could only open four inches. There was also no screen. In fact, in our entire ten days in England, I don’t recall seeing a single window screen. Besides the fan on the desk, there was a 12″ x 18″ tv screen atop the small (dorm room size) refrigerator, two twin beds, two night stands, and a chair, with walking room between the door and the window. But, yay, we had an en suite bathroom — tiny, but efficient, with an 18″ towel rack (no hooks on back of door, etc.).

Our continental breakfast was the same every day — and the same for other guests, I noticed. Two hard-boiled eggs in metal egg cups, 4 slices of white bread, two small glasses of orange juice, a small pot of tea (for me) and a small pot of coffee (for my husband), all on a small tray. There were two cups and two saucers. In one of the cups was two pads of wrapped butter and two jelly pads. The toast was atop two small plates — which were smaller than the toast itself.

My husband sat in the chair at the desk to eat. I sat on the edge of a bed. He’d dragged over one of the heavy nightstands for me to use at a table, but by the time I leaned over the plate to eat, my chin nearly touched the nightstand. From then on, I ate off my lap. Reaching across for my drinks set on the refrigerator. Yes, that was within arm reach, so I didn’t need to get up to get them.

Our “hosts” (behind the reception desk, and who brought us our breakfast trays) were two India-Indian men and one who was of perhaps Turkish heritage. My husband pointed out how it was difficult to understand them sometimes because they not only spoke with an English accent, but an English accent with their own native language accent twisted in. For some reason, I didn’t have any problem understanding what they said.

We ate supper usually around 7:30 or 8, which is considered late by American standards, but normal for English. We’d come back to our room after supper. Sunset was about 9:30, so we tried to be in bed by then. The signs on the pubs on the street below requested that the customers keep their voices down after 11:00 in respect to their neighbors. That was rarely the case. Also, being on the street-side, we heard the police and ambulance sirens, although we couldn’t see the street because the sidewalk in front of the hotel was only two people wide and the building went, well, straight upwards. Also, there was construction on either side of our hotel with scaffolding from the street all the way up to the sixth (American sixth) floor. You know…sometimes they do construction work in the night. Crash-bang.

Also, it was hot in our room. In the morning, I’d keep our door opened unless we were dressing. The difference in temperature was about 17 degrees. There were a few nights when I stood in the opened doorway at 1 or 3 a.m., just feeling the cooler hallway air in my nightgown. My husband suffered in silence, every night sweating through his sheets and pillow. This was also deceiving, because by the time we walked down the 86 steps to the street, some mornings it was sweater weather, and mine was left up on the sixth floor.

I must say that the first few days, I was rather grumbly about our room situation. But then, well, it was just all part of the experience. And by about day six, it was normal. Besides, walking up and down those stairs every day had to be some sort of good for my circulatory system. I’m glad for the hotel experience. I’m glad they’re memories. I’m sure I’ll be using most of this in some way in future stories. It’s all good.