Days 15-16: Ghost Ranch

Wednesday, June 29 and Thursday, June 30

Life at Ghost Ranch begins to take on a  predictable rhythm as people gather in line before meals (very good food, by the way), sit around after meals talking and watching Ultimate Frisbee and soccer, stroll off to morning worship and then to activities, and just hang out the rest of the time. I can see how this could grow on you and understand why people come here year after year.

For the week that you are here, you are in your own world. It is a safe world with old friends and loving people, surrounded by natural beauty that surely must be a sign of a loving and peaceful God. There is no TV (at least that I know of), limited Wi-Fi and cell phone access; and to find out what is going on in the larger world you have to really work at it, which as far as I can tell few people do. (Except for me, of course, but after another week in Paradise, I am sure that even I would not care what The Donald is up to or who won the Nats game.)

These two days Embry and Jasper do Pottery, which I skip to get caught up on blogging and rest my wounded knee. We are getting to know a few people—all very nice, especially Joanne and Jenny, two women from Hawaii. In line with the blog theme of “…In the Age of Trump,” I can’t help gently bringing up politics. Everyone we talk to is a kindred spirit. You are not going to find many Trump supporters here—and probably not all that many Republicans—and I suppose that figures. Ghost Ranch is known for its intellectual, artistic, and spiritual pursuits and attracts like-minded people. People seem to steer clear of controversial topics, however, lest the atmosphere of peace and beauty be disturbed. I can’t disagree with that. But as a reminder that we are not in Paradise, it seems a whole bunch of the women we have talked to are single parents, many raising kids more or less on their own. Some of the counselors we have chatted with—especially the young men—seem to have stumbled on Ghost Ranch by chance and are here temporarily, somewhat adrift, with their future uncertain. The imperfect world we will all return to in a couple of days will have the same challenges we all left behind.

At noon today we are joined for lunch by the McMichael clan, driving up from Santa Fe–Rick and Karen, Embry’s first cousins with whom we have traveled to India and Southeast Asia and sailed with in Tahiti and the Grenadines—and Cousin Bill and his wife, Lynn. It is great to see everyone. They arrived yesterday in Santa Fe for a family reunion starting tomorrow, which we will attend after dropping Jasper off at the airport. In the middle of lunch a major thunderstorm hits (We could actually watch it approaching.) sending us scampering for cover indoors as winds gust into the 40s and hail the size of mothballs pound the heads of those playing soccer and Frisbee, including Jasper, who was drenched. I could almost hear the parched grass saying, thank you, thank you.

The on-again-off-again showers dampened the afternoon and evening activities, giving us time for some needed rest before the driving continues, starting tomorrow. Jasper sprawled out on his bed and read his book all afternoon, even though his buddy, Chase, came up to the room twice to coax him out. Jasper has been going pretty hard from the time he gets in line for breakfast at 7:15 a.m. until the forced bedtime of 8:30 p.m. I suspect he needed the rest more than we did. I wonder if the bonding of the Fabulous Three will last. What I guess is most special about the week for him is having free time with kids his age from noon to eight everyday, allowing them to explore on their own the magic of Ghost Ranch.



Days 14-15: Ghost Ranch

Monday, June 27 and Tuesday, June 28

The sky is steel blue and the temperature is in the mid 60s as we get in line for breakfast, typical temperature for a morning in the high plains. We are at 6,500 feet above sea level, about the same as Mt. Mitchell in NC, the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi. We look up to mesas 1,500 feet above us and at mountain peaks in the distance around 11,000 feet high. Even though the temperatures will reach the mid 90s by the afternoon, the low humidity and constant, gentle breezes allow you to feel comfortable in the shade, which is fortunate, since I have seen no sign of air conditioning anywhere. (In the sun is another matter, however, and practically everyone here walks around carrying a water bottle.)

Jasper quickly finishes his breakfast of scrambled eggs and cereal and darts out  to find his new friends. Our first breakfast may be the only time we eat with our grandson as he and his two buddies—Chase from Tulsa and Aleyah from Baltimore—begin eating together at a table they choose, usually sitting with other children their age. This behavior seems to be universal at Ghost Ranch since we see few kids over five eating with their parents or grandparents.

Our room is in the “Cottonwood,” one of two guest rooms above the library and only a few hundred feet from the dining hall. It is spacious with windows on three sides affording stunning views of the meadow, dining pavilion and towering mesas, and allowing good cross breezes. “Cottonwood” is an apt name since these trees are clustered around the dining hall and most of the other buildings; and this time of year the air is filled with white puffs carrying tiny cottonwood seeds, creating a magical effect.

At Ghost Ranch family week, organized activities occur every morning from nine to noon, following a short religious service for anyone who is interested. The service today, attended by 75 or so people of all ages, is much like the first one—guitar music with drums and singing, at first lively, sounding to me like rock ‘n roll, then more mellow. There is lots of clapping and swaying with the music. It seems like everyone knows the words to all the songs. The music then tones down as people sit down and listen attentively as the chaplain begins her mediation. We are asked to close our eyes and feel the spirit of God in our souls as we, “who are made in the image of God” experience the beauty and holiness of this place. We breathe in deeply, touch our hearts to feel our own heartbeat, and link arms with our neighbors in what can only be described as a sublime moment—until a cell phone goes off and the chaplain pauses just for a split second before saying cheerfully, “Do you think that could be God calling?”

A minute later the service is over, and everyone rushes out to a morning activity. Our activity—and we insist that Jasper join us instead of going with his new friends to “Kids Games”—is “Dinosaurs.” We head down to the museum where we meet Alex, the paleontologist. He is pudgy with a bushy white beard, balding, and walks with a waddle. He is worth the price of admission. With a twinkle in his eye and a wry wit, poking fun at just about everyone and everything, he never crosses the line to cynicism, though at times he comes close. He is what you would call a kind and gentle curmudgeon and is especially good with children. (We later learn that he grew up in Arlington, VA, worked in DC  at the Smithsonian before discovering Ghost Ranch and moving here permanently in the mid 90s.)

There are 12 of us in the class, 7 kids and 5 adults. The oldest kid is 13 and wears a tee shirt, which on the back says, “I am autistic, please be patient with me.” He and his two younger siblings are accompanied by their 80-something grandmother from San Diego, who can walk circles around me. Over the course of the two days we get to know all the adults– all are women and are from all over the U.S.– and find them to be kind and gentle people. Jasper fits in nicely with the kids and adds to his new friends list.

Over the course of these two days we do a lot of things in our dinosaur activity: We make molds from fossils of dinosaur bones found on or near Ghost Ranch. We learn all about dinosaurs, rocks, and the various periods of prehistoric Earth. We hike a mile up a steep path to the site where the ceolophysis fossil–a small meat eater– was discovered, the only dinosaur fossil of its type ever found. The second day we take box lunches and drive an hour and a half–most of the time on a steep, deserted, one-lane, dusty road–to an old, abandoned quarry on the top of a 10,000 foot high mountain where there are thousands of rocks containing fossils of tiny sea creatures who lived some 350 million years ago.

Holding several of these small, round fossils in my hand, I pause for a moment and let my eyes wander to the meadow below and the forest on the other side. I can’t help wondering how long we humans will be around. What kind of creature will be examining our fossilized bones some 350 million years from now and what will they conclude about us and about our civilization?


Afternoons are free at Ghost Ranch so everyone sort of does his or her own thing. For Jasper this means reconnecting with his two buddies—eating lunch together at the same table, which only works when they secure an early spot in the cafeteria line, followed by an hour or so of three person soccer, then a hour’s rest, enforced by his grandparents, and then off again in mid afternoon to explore the ranch. It is not until around five that he reappears, smiling, just in time to get to the dinner line early so the Fabulous Three will have their table. The hour after dinner is more kicking the soccer ball around on the large field in front of the dining room, shared with serious Ultimate Frisbee players (mainly teenagers), requiring Jasper and his buddies to duck every now and then to avoid a sailing round disk. At seven pm a bell rings, the Ultimate Frisbee game concludes as people head to various evening activities like canoeing on a nearby lake, pottery, trail rides, rock climbing and yoga, and the Fabulous Three disappear again. We were worried the first night when Jasper disappeared and at 8:30 was still nowhere to be seen. Frantically, Embry and I visited every outdoor activity, but no Jasper. Just as the sun set he showed up to get his camera. He and his buddies had been at the stable area. We then established the let-us-know-where-you-are-going rule.

The grandparents spend the free time resting, napping, reading, blogging and wondering where on earth Jasper might be.




Day 13: To New Mexico

Sunday, June 26

Oklahoma soon blends into the Texas panhandle, and for the first time we begin to see wind farms, one after the other, containing thousands of giant, white propellers, all standing at attention and gently moving as if they were part of one vast orchestra. So far we have not seen one oil well, a sign, perhaps, of the future and our survival as a species.

Yesterday for lunch we stopped at the Mid Point Café, a tiny restaurant located in Adrian, Texas, a speck of a town with handful of desolate houses situated on the original Route 66 halfway between Chicago and LA and recommended by Susan, Ashley’s wife. She was raised on a ranch herself near Lubbock, about 40 miles south of Adrian and described the Mid Point as a rare gem. It was. Tastefully decorated with Route 66 memorabilia, it had about 20 tables and booths, about a third full of tourists and locals when we arrived–which was late for lunch, around 1:30. The 50-something owner greeted us warmly and noted that if we had arrived 30 minutes earlier, we would not have found an open table.

After we finished off a “Famous Mid Point Burger” and a chicken salad sandwich, he wandered over and asked where we were from. When we said DC, he asked where in DC, smiling and casually mentioning that he was born there and raised in the Maryland suburbs. If that was not enough coincidence, his primary home now is in Spring Hill, Tennessee, just outside of Nashville. During the next 30 minutes we pretty much got his life history. He was a landfill, sanitary engineer for years, working mainly in Maryland, got burned out, had serious health issues, drove by the Mid Point café on vacation five years ago and bought the restaurant the next year, having zero restaurant experience. He lives behind the restaurant in a mobile home and is assisted by his 20-something daughter (along with four others), who now lives in Amarillo. His wife visits occasionally, and he closes the restaurant from November through March, returning to Nashville. Not an easy life, but he has managed for four years and says he feels liberated from the East Coast rat race.

On Sunday we leave Santa Rosa, New Mexico, where we spent the night in a small Best Western motel, to head to the Albuquerque Airport to meet our grandson, Jasper. New Mexico is everything you would expect it to be—wide open spaces, high desert, multi-colored mesas, and purple mountains in the distance. Just before we crossed over the NM border, we checked my iphone app to see the elevation, which it turned out was over 4,000 feet. I could not believe it! I could not recall any ascent. It must have been a steady, gradual, uphill drive beginning in Oklahoma.

The rendezvous with our 11-year-old grandson worked out but was not without glitches. Embry waited in the car while I went to get a escort pass so I could get through security to meet Jasper, which I would have done except the Southwest attendant gave me a pass with Embry’s name on it, which I did not realize at the time, and which naturally kicked me out of the security line after I had been waiting for 20 minutes. Starting over, I hobbled back to the SW counter on my bum knee (strained ligament, about a month ago), and repeated the process, unsuccessfully pleading with an officer to let me through the shorter “TSA-Approved” line. (His response: “Are you kidding me?”). After finally passing security, I charged to Gate A-8, gasping for breath just as Jasper was coming out of gate. Hey, no problem, I thought, as Jasper gave me a hug.

The 100-mile drive to Ghost Ranch took just over two hours. Dark skies and thunderstorms followed us on both sides, but blue sky was directly overhead as we marveled at the beauty of the high plain—the subtle shades of green, olive, tan, red and gray mesas and purple mountains on both sides.

It was so great to be with our grandson, whose first comment was, “I am so excited to be here!”

We turned into the dusty road (Mile 2,330) leading to Ghost Ranch at six o’clock, just barely in time to check in and catch the end of the dinner line.

Ghost Ranch is a retreat center owned and managed by the Presbyterian Church, located about 50 miles northwest of Santa Fe. We are booked for family camp, which involves probably around 100 or so families, many multi generational, and many who come year after year. (There is also a youth camp underway.) The retreat center is situated on a 33-square mile parcel, about the same size as Arlington, Virginia. It was previously a dude ranch and sold to the Presbyterians for $1.00 in the 1950s. It is another one of those spiritual vortexes like Montreat (NC), the Pocono Lake Preserve (PA), Beersheba (TN), maybe Sedona, and (for me anyway) the island of Anageda in the British Virgin Islands. By spiritual vortex, I mean a spirit that is tangible when you enter the place, not necessarily a religious sponsorship. All I know is that if Marriott or Hyatt owned this place it would be very different. The houses and buildings are adobe and blend in with the colors of the towering mesas, which surround the camp center. Everything is understated and modest. Besides the housing, there are several camp grounds,  a large dining pavilion, the Agape Center (a lecture hall/church building), library, welcome center, paleontological museum, rope and wall climbing area, stables, several athletic fields, and buildings for meetings and hanging out. People are relaxed, friendly and move slowly. You know immediately that this is no Hyatt or Marriott.

Jasper finishes his dinner early and charges out of the dining pavilion to join kids his age kicking soccer balls , tossing Frisbees, and horsing around.

Dinner is over and we walk with everyone else to the Agape Center where an orientation will occur. The orientation starts off with two guitarists wearing cowboy hats, accompanied by a drummer singing lively Christian folk songs and hymns. Most people seem to know the words and sing along enthusiastically. A woman in her 40s introduces herself as the chaplain, says a couple of heart-felt prayers about the beauty of the place and its holiness and then talks about the week ahead. She asks people to standup depending on how many years they have been coming here. About twenty percent are first timers and the rest spread out with some coming here for more than 50 years. It is very different from the solemn, Episcopal high church service we are used to, and as Embry pointed out, is a whole lot more fun. I was pleased that no theology or hard core doctrine was part of the service. I would call it a non denominational, “Christian-lite” service–and genuine, though not what we are used to.

After the orientation we talked with a couple who was from the area who said they were a bit put off because their background was Islam and Native American. They were expecting an orientation but not a religious service. I wasn’t either and could see where they were coming from but thought the service could have been a whole lot worse.

After the service while the grownups were getting more camp information, Jasper ran off to join a group of kids engaged in more games. We all turned in around nine—eleven pm East Coast time (for Jasper).

This could turn out to be a pretty good week—and certainly a welcome respite from driving six or seven hours a day.

Day 11:The News

Saturday, June 25

All the news on TV and radio is about Brexit. Few pundits expected the Brits to leave the EU, but here we are with everything now up in the air. No one knows how this will ultimately play out, certainly not me, but this I do know: for us it is a shot across the bow.

This is what scares the bejesus out of me. A large number of those who voted to leave– nobody knows exactly how many, of course, but a lot–did not understand what the implications of leaving the EU actually were. (This is based on Google searches, Twitter, Facebook comments, and post election interviews .) They did not vote against leaving the EU so much as they voted against the Establishment. The votes were pretty much along class lines with the more educated, the professionals, the well-off voting to stay in and the working class–and those whose lives are disrupted by the new globalism– voting to get out. The Establishment wants in? A vote against the Establishment sends a message. The same thing, of course, is happening here with the Trump phenomena. Trump is sticking it to the traditional leaders of both parties. A vote for Trump sends a message—throw the bums out. Hillary is quintessential establishment. It could happen here.

So what is behind all this? A few years ago when I was teaching a course on housing and urban policy at GW, I told my students that I could not understand the steep rise in housing prices since incomes determine how much house you can afford and incomes had been stagnant for years. All I knew was that the bubble had to burst. (If only I had been smart enough to do a Big Short!) The income issue is what is behind Brexit and behind the Trump (and Sanders) movement—along with fears of change, being left out of the new global economy and the changing nature of the  population. Of course people are angry, and many have good reason to be angry. They have been hurt as good jobs have been shipped off shore and competition for the scraps that remain increases. They do not see the current political system working for them.

As we cross the country on the southern route, I check online for basic demographic information, such as race and income. It is no surprise that many of the states we have visited—Tennessee, Arkansas, and Oklahoma—have median incomes below the national median in the low $50,000s. Try living comfortably on $50,000 for a family of four. Sure, prices are lower here than in DC, but not all that much lower.

Bottom line: this is the fundamental issue that has got to be fixed. The challenge is that in the brave new world of a global economy nobody really knows how to do it. There is no silver bullet. It is going to take a long time and will require a lot of smart people working on it. If it does not happen? Think housing bust of 2008 or worse.

The fear I have regarding Trump is that the same mentality that caused people to vote against their own self interest in the UK in order to make a point will happen here. Trump is the farthest thing we need—an insecure, ignorant, ego maniac with fascist inclinations. Yet voting for him makes a point.

It could happen here.

Day 10: Arkansas And Oklahoma

Friday, June 24

Mile 1,575. After a somewhat futile effort to swim in the Crescent swimming pool in the early morning rain (first rain we have seen)—shallow end about one foot deep—we enjoy a big breakfast in the somewhat tarnished “Crystal Room” and head off toward Oklahoma where we will spend the evening.

The drive through the Ozarks is beautiful as the rain subsides, the mist rises and blue begins to appear through the clouds. I am reminded again that extraordinary beauty is to be found throughout our vast country.

The beauty subsides as we drive through a small town at the intersection with I-49, the earth begins to flatten out again, and all the in-your-face signs for fast food, motels and gas stations clutter what would otherwise be the last vista of the beautiful Ozarks. How did we allow the junkifying of small town America to happen?

We have three days to make it to Albuquerque to pick up our eleven-year-old grandson, Jasper, in the afternoon. This will be the first of three long days of driving. Several people who are reading the blog have asked that we slow down, which is good advice, but actually we are not as tired as it might appear. At the end of the day we are pretty worn out but have been able to get a pretty good rest overnight and arise fresh and ready to go (more or less). (When I talk about being tired, you can bet I am writing in the evening.)

The highlights are the ever-changing landscape from the green Ozark mountains to vast fields of crops and then pastures and finally gray prairie. Unlike the Eastern U.S. rural areas, there are very few houses and surprisingly few cows or horses to be seen. The traffic on I-40 has thinned out considerably as well, relieving some of the stress of driving. Two things particularly stand out—the vast blue sky with white cloud puffs and a consistent, strong wind. I thought that this part of the journey would be rather boring but actually it is not for me. I am fascinated by the vastness of the landscape.

We pass the border to Oklahoma as the pastures change to plains. Then we pass through one “nation” after another of Native Americans—Cherokee Nation, then Kickapoo, Shawnee, Potatomi, Chickasaw, Pawnee, and Cheyenne. The plains are vast and from I-40 no sign of any settlements. I can’t help thinking, where is everyone?

Evening at the Best Western in Clinton, OK, Mile 1,967 with left over pizza from our dinner at the Crescent.

The big news of the day, of course, is Brexit and what it means for the UK, the EU, and for the U.S. More on that to follow….


Day 9: Memphis And The Ozarks

Thursday, June 24

When we arrived in Memphis Wednesday evening, the elegant lobby of the Peabody Hotel was packed with convention goers—men in dark suits and women in business dresses—sipping drinks, talking enthusiastically and seemingly enjoying the high energy setting with a jazz pianist playing away but hard to hear with all the chatter. I remember those days myself and briefly ponder the scene with mixed emotions. I admit I loved such gatherings then but I am glad I am standing here now wearing a golf shirt, shorts and a baseball cap, observing it all as a bystander.

We were so tired we ordered dinner in and crashed around nine. (Embry had another All Souls rector search interview.)

Thursday morning was a highlight for Embry. We met Curry in the lobby for a long breakfast in the Peabody dining room. Curry and Embry were classmates from first grade through high school, and his family was very close to the Martin family since his father was dean of the faculty of Davidson and hers president. They re-bonded immediately, sharing childhood and teenage stories and catching up on almost 50 years of going their separate ways. Like Embry he also had earned a PhD (geophysics), and has recently retired from the faculty of UT-Memphis where he was an earthquake expert. This visit marks our last reunion for a while, which I am not too unhappy about since the energy involved in such reconnections is very high and my energy level at this point might be described as very low.

After breakfast we visited the National Civil Rights Museum. This is an extraordinary museum, which should require a day though we had only a couple of hours. I spent a good bit of time in the section on the early years—especially the Albany Movement where we had worked in 1966, while Embry visited the museum annex across the street focusing on King’s assassination . What a privilege and blessing to have been part of the Civil Rights Movement! How lucky we were to be alive at that time and in that place.

Now off to the Crescent Hotel, a Nineteenth Century historic hotel located in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. The first 100 miles were tedious as we made our way along a bumper-to-bumper I-40, squeezed between 18 wheelers going 80 miles an hour—even worse traffic than on I-81 on our way to Asheville. Eventually we turn off onto Arkansas state road 23, which is the complete opposite—more like a country lane, weaving up and down green mountains with towering trees, making us feel at times like we were on a roller coaster. For the first 50 miles we could not have seen more than a dozen cars and very few houses or signs of human life. Eventually the road leveled off a bit, and billboards started to appear advertising hotels in Eurika Springs, the location of the Crescent hotel. It was close to sunset when we entered the outskirts of this Victorian village, with gingerbread-looking houses, cute, touristy stores of all sorts and pleasantly crowed sidewalks. It took another 15 minutes to find the Crescent Hotel, which involved going down narrow streets, up steep hills and one sharp turn after another.

After a day of another high energy reunion, the Civil Rights Museum and 250 miles of driving in trying conditions, boy, were we ready for this hotel! Embry had found it online and noted that it was one of the most historic hotels in the country.

Now at this point I have to admit that ever since we moved from our house on Macomb Street to the Kennedy-Warren, I have come to expect as normal a somewhat higher level of excellence in living standards. I am the first to admit that this may be a dangerous sign of elitism, but it is what it is. At the K-W, there is a doorman, concierge, world class fitness center, lap pool, and elegant bar. Images of the Kennedy-Warren were swarming in my head along with those of the Homestead and Greenbrier– Five Star, world class resorts in remote locations as certainly this resort hotel was. As a destination hotel listed in the National Register of Historic Places, this would be one of those special hotels. I could already taste the martini and was wondering what delicious choices would be on the dinner menu. Embry was obviously wondering the same thing and said she hoped she had brought a nice enough dress.

As we parked and headed with our baggage to the main entrance, I did notice signs of peeling paint and rusty railings on this five-story, stone structure but did not think much of it. Besides the temperature was in the mid 90s with sweltering humidity. I could not wait to get inside to cool off and unwind.

A lean young man dressed in a shabby uniform opened the door. I immediately realized this was not the Homestead. There was no air conditioning, and it was probably hotter inside than out. Ceiling fans were swirling futilely. The walls were dark paneled with dusty pictures of the building decades ago along with news clippings of events in the 1920s. A tarnished gold plaque boasted, “Renovated in 1922.” Bits of paper and trash were on the floor. The dark rugs in the hallway were worn and in some places stained, the modest lobby furniture was drab and pretty beat up, and the ceiling lights so dim you would have a hard time reading. People dressed in jeans and shorts were milling around, but no one was sitting. We soon learned that they no longer served any dinner, but we could get some pizza on the third floor if we were hungry.

We looked at each other, groaned under our breath and made our way in the sweltering heat to our third floor room. There were some 15-20 people, mainly high school or college age, listening intensely to a slim young woman talk about spirits, ghosts, weird deaths, and pointing in the direction of our room. We managed to squeeze our way through the group and open the door to find a tiny room with dark red walls and red ceiling, torn brown carpet, one light hanging from the ceiling and barely enough room for a small double bed. There was an air conditioner in the window but it did not work, nor did the fan. We could not open the windows.

This was our introduction to the Crescent Hotel, founded in 1886 and now in its “Second Renaissance.”

The story has a happy ending. After protesting we were given a cottage suite, about a quarter mile down the hill, which was pretty nice. We did manage to walk back to get a beer and a pizza where we were one of only a handful of people and waited on by a very friendly, African American, 19-year old basketball player on his way to a junior college at the end of the summer, determined to succeed. The pizza was good enough, and we learned that the big draw of the hotel is that it is “the most haunted hotel in America.”

Not the Greenbrier but worth putting on your list—if you want a good story.

Day 6-9: Middle Tennessee

Monday, June 20-Wednesday, June 23

It turns out that doing a blog post every day is a bit of a stretch so here is a brief summary of our next three days, all spent in Tennessee.

  • Monday, a wonderful visit with Eslick and his wife, Annie, dear friends from high school days on their 200 acre farm about 40 miles south of Nashville in one of the most beautiful parts of Middle Tennessee. Steak dinner that evening with the cousins and sister-in-law, Kathy, at Curt and Val’s house.
  • Tuesday, hanging out with Kathy at her house where we are staying. (My brother died of cancer seven years ago in his early sixties.) Afternoon visit with cousin Buck in his law office on floor 29 of a downtown skyscraper, tour of downtown Nashville and the Country Music Hall of Fame, dinner with the cousins at the Firefly, Curt’s restaurant in the Green Hills suburb of Nashville. (Embry had to miss the two dinners to listen to telephone interviews with candidates in the All Souls search process.)
  • Wednesday, off to Memphis, via Vanleer, a tiny town about 50 miles northwest of Nashville, where we visit Ashley (friend from Union Seminary days and our housemate in Southwest GA in 1966 when we worked for SNCC in the Civil Rights Movement) and his wife, Susan, on their beautiful 175 acre farm. Arrival in Memphis around eight where we stay at the famous Peabody Hotel. We just pass Mile 1,100 on the trip meter. I wonder again how long we can keep up this pace.

These were three jam packed days mainly spent renewing old and precious friendships and experiencing Nashville, which has changed in many ways (bigger buildings downtown and sprawling suburbs) but still looks pretty much the same in the neighborhood where I grew up, Belle Meade. I marvel at the stately mansions and manicured lawns and wonder where the money comes from to buy these things. It also occurs to me that when I grew up in Belle Meade, all the people owning these homes were in my parents’ generation. Now they are younger than me, some probably in our children’s generation. Of course, you think, that is the way life works. But it is a reminder as to how fast time goes by, how much things change and yet stay the same.

I grew up thinking that the Nashville environs was the most beautiful place on earth with its green hills and fields, winding streams, meadows and farm lands. Now, having traveled to scores of countries around the world, I still think so and suppose this is not all that unusual for people to do, though I will now concede that Middle Tennessee is actually only one of the most beautiful places.

I was sorry not to be able to visit more friends but time was limited. I think how lucky I was to grow up here, to have loving parents, and to have so many friends, many of whom have had distinguished and fulfilling careers and interesting and, I believe, fulfilling lives. I wonder when and if I will see them again.

Day 5

Sunday, June 19

Mile 620. Off to Nashville, my home town. We say our goodbyes to Alison and get off by nine, rolling into Nashville just before six. (Time change to Central time.)The views are stunning as we climb up the Smokies with green everywhere under a Carolina blue sky with white cloud puffs and then descend to Knoxville and drive through the rolling hills of Middle Tennessee.

Our first stop is Cookeville, Tennessee, where my college roommate, Sam and his wife, Diane, live. Sam and I were close friends in high school as well and we have always been almost like brothers. A retired pathologist, he has escaped a close call with lymphoma, now thankfully in remission. Sam and Diane travel almost as much as we do and show no signs of slowing down. We tour the town of 30,000—which has a major university and like Asheville is a “micropolis” and seems to be holding its own– and enjoy a Father’s Day lunch on the patio of a New Orleans themed restaurant in the small downtown area. Sam and Diane are liberal Democrats and very involved in their Presbyterian church. Most of their trips overseas have been either bike rides with fellow pathologists at international meetings or helping out in small villages in Lesotho and other struggling developing nations. All of their friends in Cookeville are Republicans and some support Trump enthusiastically, a situation they seem to accept stoically.

At four we head out for Nashville. My first cousin, Curt and his wife, Val, have invited us to their home for an extended family dinner with his two brothers, Buck and his girl friend, Dorothy, other brother, Hal, daughter, Ashley, and her wife, Rachael (whose wedding I officiated last year), my brother Tom’s widow, Kathy, Val’s stepfather, John, and my uncle George. George is in his late eighties and starting to show his age. He now lives in an assisted living community and has had several serious health scares, doesn’t say much anymore and uses a walker. Curt is a scratch golfer and for Father’s Day picked up his dad up and took him with him for a round of golf. George, of course, did not leave the golf cart, and both reported having a good time. The dinners at Curt and Val’s are always fun with great Southern-cooked food, plenty to drink and always stories to tell.

My cousins and uncle are also Republicans and I could not resist asking the question as to whether they will vote for Trump. I was surprised to see each one shaking their head and emphatically saying never. But they can’t support Hillary either. My guess is this year they will just not vote. So far these are some ominous signs for Trump’s chances. But our journey has just begun…

Day 4

Saturday, June 18

Book talk day. Our friend, John Curry, who lives in Asheville convinced Ron Vinson who runs the Presbyterian Heritage Center in Montreat, which is about 20 miles from Asheville, to allow us to do a book talk about Civil Rights Journey. About 20 people show up and we even sell a few books. One friend, Tom, who was a freshman at Davidson when I was a senior, who now lives in Montreat and who has spent most of his life helping disadvantaged people in South America and Africa, shows up and it is great to see him and to see DG and Harriet, Embry’s brother and his wife, who make the journey from Chapel Hill. After the talk we spend the afternoon on the back porch of Gilmour’s Montreat cottage talking about old times and how we all are coping with getting older (Gilmour is now 80 and Nancy 76.)

Gilmour is a successful business man and a Republican. I could not resist asking him how he felt about Trump. He said that he would never vote for Trump and he did not know a single Republican in NC who would. I am encouraged.

Montreat is one of those spiritual vortexes with origins in the 1890s as a Presbyterian retreat center. I have been here maybe six or seven times, and each time am aware that it is a very special place, something you feel but can’t adequately explain. I think it has something to do with the Presbyterian character—modest, hard working, unpretentious, kind and gentle. What you see is what you get.

Then I remember that Trump claims to be a Presbyterian.

Day 3

Friday, June 17

We arrived at Crowfield’s, an age 55 plus community on the outskirts of Asheville, where Alison, Embry’s second cousin, lives. On the way we passed through downtown Asheville, which in some ways is the exact opposite of Bristol. The population of the town is about 80,000 compared to Bristol’s 50,000—not all that different– but the downtown is bustling and vibrant with numerous café’s, coffee houses, restaurants, bars, art galleries, boutiques and stores of all sorts. Streets are comfortably crowded at four in the afternoon with hip-looking people strolling along the sidewalks. Ashville is a blue oasis in a desert of red. It has been this way for years, having established itself as a welcoming community, unapologetically progressive, attracting artists and musicians, retirees and others wanting to live in a setting of stunning beauty and cooler temperatures, with access to all kinds of cultural and intellectual pursuits. My first impression when we first visited Asheville years ago was that it was a kind of Greenwich Village South.

So why Asheville and not Bristol?

Asheville never had much of an industrial base like Bristol so it did not experience significant job losses when the manufacturing jobs moved overseas. Before the economic downturn in the region, because Asheville was already a tourist haven with the Biltmore Estate and access to national parks, white water rafting, hiking and other outdoor sports, it did not have to reinvent itself. Also UNC Asheville brings in thousands of students, intellectuals and academics. Civic leadership and commitment to openness and moderation provide a welcoming atmosphere for like-minded people—especially retirees bringing money and free time with them. Finally and perhaps most important, Asheville is what is called a “microtropolis”—a small town at the center of a larger metro area. Both Bristol and Asheville are situated in metro areas of just under 500,000 people. Asheville serves as the center of its metro area. Bristol is only one of three small towns, all competing against each other for customers and all struggling.

Alison lived most of her life in New York City working in the textile industry as a designer and color specialist, then followed the textile exodus to Greensboro as the big companies moved to the South. Semiretired now, she has settled in nicely with a network of friends and involvement in all kinds of activities. She has developed a new-found interest in painting, and her landscape paintings can be found decorating hotel lobbies and restaurants in downtown Asheville.

Our first full day in Asheville was exhausting. We awoke on a sparkling morning to see a flock of wild turkeys outside our window. After a morning walk of two miles around the 70 plus acre, wooded property accommodating about 200 townhouse-type condos, I joined Embry and Alison and college-friend Liz for lunch at Biltmore Forest Country Club, Asheville’s oldest country club. Liz has been a journalist, college professor, and foreign service officer with the State Department serving in Egypt during the Arab spring, Pakistan during the War in Afghanistan and various other trouble spots. She appeared on the front page of the Washington Post when working as a reporter during the first Iraq War, a battalion of Iraqis surrendered to her since she was the only American around. Now mostly retired and involved on and off with think tanks, she lives in the same complex as Alison.

We ate lunch on a patio overlooking the golf course surrounded by the Smokey Mountains. Much time was devoted to North Carolina politics (dismal), the election (Liz supports Bernie. Alison, Embry and I, Hillary), and the challenges of aging and finding the right balance between purposeful activity and simple enjoyment of life.

Easier said than done.

After lunch Embry, Alison and I set off to visit Monroe, another family friend who is also a Davidson graduate, about five years behind me. His brother, David, was a fraternity brother of mine graduating three years before me and sister, Ethel, an expat artist who lived in Colombia, created our favorite painting, a huge abstract, that hangs in our new digs as it has in every house we have lived in.

It should have been a tipoff when he told us that cell phones do not work where he lives and that his address can’t be located on a GPS.

He lives near Black Mountain, a village about 20 miles south of Asheville. We go up a winding road, cross a one lane bridge, when the surface turns from asphalt to dirt as we head straight up the mountain with a steep drop off on the right. If we were to meet another car going the opposite direction, someone would have to back up for miles.

We turn onto the road—path is more like it– to his house, hoping we have got it right since backing down would be impossible. After about a half mile, we see it—a small cottage, nestled on a steep hillside in the midst of a deep forest. If you see canoes, it will be our house, Monroe had said. We see canoes! And then we see Monroe, a beaming, bearded, slightly balding 60-something man scampering down the hillside with both arms extended and a broad smile. Monroe is followed by his wife, Fern, a bit shy but welcoming. We have arrived!

There is no way to do justice to the three hours we spent with Monroe and Fern.

After graduating from Davidson, Monroe began a career which included several years in the Peace Corps, years working in Asia and Africa with Care, eventually meeting his wife-to-be, Fern, a volunteer with a Mennonite outreach initiative in Lesotho. After returning to the U.S. they moved into their mountain cottage, where he has been a community organizer and she is a community nurse. The wood paneled rooms in the cottage are lined with dusty books and memorabilia with posters promoting good causes—fighting hunger, eradicating AIDS in Africa, civil rights, expanding Medicare in NC, and social justice. Family photos of their three children, now all grown and who all were raised in this isolated and stunning location, are everywhere. Family photo albums of family photos line the shelves, one for each of the 30 years they have lived here. A wood stove provides heat during the winter. There is no air conditioner, no cable TV, no modern convenience of any kind. I think, when the power grid goes down, they won’t know the difference.

Monroe’s current cause, working from his office in the basement, is fighting institutional racism in North Carolina. Naturally he has been on the front lines of the “war against people” (my term) being waged by the Republicans in North Carolina. He embodies a kind of uninhibited exuberance for life you don’t expect to find in a remote cabin, near the top of a tall mountain in the wilderness of North Carolina.

We spend the afternoon talking on their deck with views of Craggy Gardens, on a mountain of over 6,000 feet on the other side of the valley. They show photos of their new friends, a mama black bear and three cubs, who visit their deck at least once a day. Having seen the movie, “Revenant,” I do not regret the bears not showing up during our chat. We take an hour’s walk on narrow paths around the property admiring the views and marvel as Monroe flies through the air on a old tire hooked up a rope hanging from a limb that allows him to sail a hundred feet above the ground below him. Not bad for someone approaching 70.

When six pm approaches we rush off following Monroe and Fern, who are driving their car, inching down the path to the valley to a very nice restaurant in the village of Back Mountain where we meet Gilmour, Monroe’s first cousin and roommate of   Embry’s brother, Mike, and Gilmour’s wife, Nancy, for dinner. Over dinner, we converse about old times when the families spent summers together in Montreat, the Presbyterian retreat center nearby where Gilmour and Nancy still spend every summer.

I wonder how long we will be able to keep up this pace. Fun but exhausting.