Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Manning to James
Indianapolis Colts vs. Jacksonville Jaguars
Jacksonville, FL

Sport is an integral part of the American experience, and no sport better personifies our collective obsession than football. Sure, baseball is our national pastime, but football packs more people into bigger stadiums with louder crowds, complete with such distractions as cheerleaders and tailgates.

On this weekend in Florida, John Grandefeld (of Memphis barbecue fame) joined me for a few days to experience Game Day at University of Florida in Gainesville for a match-up between the Florida Gators and the Arkansas Razorbacks, and then the following day for a Jacksonville Jaguars vs. Indianapolis Colts NFL game.

The heat was oppressive, and I was battling a cold, but entering a stadium that seats 85,000 people screaming while clad in their orange and blue is an experience unlike anything else. Although Arkansas isn't ranked like the Gators, they still are a familiar foe, and almost gave Florida a scare in the 4th when they went on a scoring drive. You don't have to even be a fan to get caught up with the emotion and excitement of those around you -- that's part of the fan experience that's ineffable to couch potatoes that never get a chance to see a game live.

The other interesting aspect of the day was the political presence outside the stadium of "Gators for Bush," or "Gators for Kerry." In the controversial state of Florida, where democrats and republicans seem evenly split, and "vociferous" (to use a word uttered by George W. Bush at the first presidential debates), it was ironic to see the game outside, as well as in, the stadium.

The following day was a chance to photograph my first NFL game courtesy of Bill Frakes from Sports Illustrated, whom I assisted at the Belmont Stakes earlier this year. If you think college fans are nuts (and they are), then you can begin to imagine what pro fans are like when fueled by equally balmy weather and alcohol. The Jaguars held an inexplicable 3-0 record going into Sunday, when they met the Peyton Manning, the QB of the Colts. During a mid-4th quarter tying touchdown, the crowd erupted into a frenzy, and I watched in amazement as Manning called "audibles" (last second verbal play changes following the huddle) over the din. He powered his team down the field to beat the underdog, but the game was exciting nevertheless for me.

A few days earlier in Pensacola, I sat down for dinner at the bar of Carrabba's, an Italian chain, and bumped into Gary McCraken, the photo editor of the Pensacola Journal News. His experienced with Hurricane Ivan made me rethink what I wrote about the destruction of the hurricane. When I told him that I had been driving around and I saw damage, but nothing like what I had seen on the evening news (which I called "sensationalist"), he told me that I should have seen it from a helicopter.

Later that evening, I checked out his paper's website to view a slideshow of his work. The destruction in Pensacola was widespread with 4,000 homes completely destroyed and uninhabitable. The landscape was dotted with 30,000 blue tarps on damaged roofs in a community with only 300,000 people. His own house had an oak tree fall through the roof causing massive water damage. He, like other Floridians, noted how quickly the clean-up efforts transpired, which might account for my experience.

John and I also made a brief trip to Disneyworld, where neither of us had been since our youth. Although Orlando has been significantly developed, Disneyworld remains virtually unchanged compared to my memory. We rode Space Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, and the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. John commented on how he was surprised that they hadn't updated anything, but I thought that it added to the sense of nostalgia that even 20+ years later, I could say, "Oh yeah, I remember this ride." We screamed like little girls on Space Mountain -- that rollercoaster in the dark is still scary after all these years.

So that's it. 48 states. 36,000 miles. 14 months. 2 cracked windshields (yes, it cracked again). But I've realized that the journey never really ends. Perhaps the updates won't be as frequent, but I will continue to travel this country of ours for years and years to come. There is so much to see and experience, and I've only started to tap the tip of the iceberg. After all these experiences, I'm just appreciative that America Is.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Jim Hildenbrand
Hurricane Frances & Jeanne Survivor
Melbourne, FL

It’s 93 degrees and the sun is pounding down on Osceola County, which has the miserable distinction of being in the path of three hurricanes. Branches litter the side of the road, signs are blown over, and tarps cover numerous roofs. Cops patrol the area in swarms. Driving down the highway gives a sensation of vertigo because the trees lean left and right, distorting your sense of what is up.

Further south in Melbourne, the story is much the same. The Red Cross is running four shelters for displaced families, and the Salvation Army and other charities are dispensing food, water and ice. Power hasn’t been restored fully, and the electric company is announcing that another week may pass before power is back to all residences.

There is definite destruction, but having toured the area, I think the media has a tendency to show the worst of the worst -- The house with no roof and one wall, the people getting around their street in a boat. The reality is that $8 billion in damage isn’t a whole community of houses that no longer exist. It’s a roof here, a car there, etc. And the structures that had fallen over completely that I witnessed were generally old and poorly constructed. That isn’t to downplay the destruction because clearly, thousands of people are severely affected, like Jim Hildenbrand who lost two roofs to Jeanne and Frances. It’s simply proof of man’s need for sensationalism, which is fed and fueled by the media.

The flip side of this partial exploitation is the enormous goodwill that is generated by these events. Clear Channel Outdoors loaded up old vinyl signs on a truck and drove them down from Charlotte as Jeanne, the tropical depression, moved northward, to hand out in Melbourne at a Clear Channel radio station for free. People were lined up to get these large pieces of vinyl to use as tarps on their houses.

Across the parking lot, volunteers had showed up to wash down cots that were being transferred from one facility to another. A Greensboro Salvation Army chapter left a food truck at a nearby mall so that volunteers from Cocoa, FL could help serve the residence of Melbourne.

Normalcy will eventually return and as one commentator pointed out, things tend to be better after disasters because of the “Jacuzzi Effect,” – i.e. people figure as long as their rebuilding, they might as well thrown in the Jacuzzi as well. Hopefully, Florida will be spared for the rest of the season, although by everyone’s account, they are getting awfully adept at managing crises. They might need that skill when election time rolls around…

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Juan O. Perkins
Kelly Ingram Park
Birmingham, AL

I’ve been to many museums in my lifetime. Of course, New York has dozens of the world’s best, and I’ve made trips to DC and to places around the world, but none has struck me as being so profound as the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham. I entered the facility on a Sunday, and was immediately ushered into a small theater to watch an introductory film. Suddenly the screen lifted to reveal the exhibit hall, and an elderly black man was waiting for us.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether he was going to guide us through the exhibit, and quite frankly I wasn’t in the mood to be led. But I stuck with him for a few minutes as he explained how restaurants were segregated (yeah, yeah), and water fountains (yeah, yeah). Then he came to a picture of two children being followed by there father. They were contesting the rights of blacks to attend a white school in Birmingham in 1957. The father was James Armstrong, our guide.

He fought for the right of his children to attend schools following the Brown v. Board of Education landmark ruling, and it wasn’t until 6 years later that his second set of children were finally allowed into a school, disputing the notion that “separate but equal” approached anything remotely fair and just.

The experience would be akin to going to the Holocaust Museum in DC and being greeted by survivors, but of course, they are too old now. But the Civil Rights movement was only 40 years ago, and the thousands of young men and women who took a part in the marches are still very much alive and well, and fortunate to see how much Birmingham has changed since the 60s.

The last part of the exhibit was a looped broadcast of the “I Have a Dream” speech. I had never seen more than the last few sound bites. The speech, in its entirety, is amazing not only for what it says, but because King was such a magnificent speaker, and at a time when the notion of a “sound bite” didn’t even exist. He had no professional speech writer. He had no teleprompter, and he barely references his notes. He spoke from the heart in front of 200,000 people, and changed the world.

As I went back to Kelly Ingram Park, the site of so many civil rights incidences (like the unleashing of German Shepards on the black activists), a homeless came up to me to take me on a tour (of course, he expected some compensation at the end). He alleges to have taken a part in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) march in May of 1963, when the children of Birmingham were called to take action because the adults of the movement were depleted from arrests. Juan O. Perkins later joined the Air Force and spent two years in Vietnam as a helicopter gunner, and two years in Europe before returning to the US. He followed a circuitous path that took him to San Francisco to earn an Associates degree in accounting, then back to Birmingham where he raised a family, and worked in various capacities. But times have been hard as the once industrial city has turned more high tech, and for the past year, he has slept on the streets, awaiting notification from the Veterans Association to treat his prostate cancer.

Perkins knew quite a bit about the origins of the park, which was reborn as a memorial park in the early 80s. It features a number of sculptures including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and numerous references to the four young girls killed when a bomb was detonated at the 16th Street Baptist Church. He even walked me over to the Church to show me the cracks in the wall that was rebuilt. The irony, he claims, was that the Church rejected him as a member because in the early 60s, its membership consisted of affluent and lighter-skinned blacks, but as a result of the bombing, it became a symbol of the fight against oppression.

“Are you clean?” I asked before handing him some money.

“You mean drugs? I don’t even drink…I do smoke reefer though.”

I laughed. If all he told me was true, then perhaps he earned the right to smoke a little reefer now and then.

Birmingham isn’t at all what I expected. The downtown area is a bit depressed, as downtowns of old cities tend to be. But the outlying suburbs sprawl for miles and are quite cosmopolitan in nature, where upscale malls near new developments are du jour.

Mercedes Benz has its only US-based manufacturing plant in nearby Vance, in Tuscaloosa county where they produce the M-Class SUV. Interestingly enough, the Tuscaloosa plant wasn’t the first. That distinction belongs to the only other Mercedes plant that was formerly located on Long Island, NY, courtesy of William Steinway of piano fame, who licensed the engine technology from Gottlieb Daimler. The “American Mercedes” was produced in the plant from 1904 to 1907 when a fire destroyed the factory.

Miss Daisy
277 Muddy Bayou Rd
Rodney, MS

The only road through Rodney, MS is made of dirt, just like all the roads that lead to Rodney (there are two). And near the end of the road is an old house with a tin roof that has stood since 1935 when Miss Daisy moved to Rodney. Life was different back then, when the Mississippi rolled a little closer to the small town, and the street was lined with houses and even a drug store, but no more. Miss Daisy surmises that after World War II, all the white folk left for the cities, and even the “colored” folk followed.

That’s how it is down here near the Mississippi.

A hundred miles north lies the Mississippi Delta, the most fertile region west of the Nile, with topsoil some 27 feet deep in some areas. Cotton grows in abundance in towns with immensely rich histories of Southern grandeur and wealth, as well as the undercurrent of racism that permeated and came to an apex in the civil rights battle of the 1960s.

Miss Daisy was, understandably, surprised to see me. My friend, Suzy, told me about Rodney several months ago when I told her about “America Is.” More recently, she told me to take some chew toys for Miss Daisy’s dog. So I stopped by the Wal-Mart and picked up some rawhide and Milkbones, and when I stopped to ask where Miss Daisy lived, she called at me from the porch, and exclaimed, “I’m Daisy!”

We spoke for about 20 minutes and she recanted stories of her youth, and she marveled at how the machines picked and baled cotton nowadays, in contrast to toiling in the fields with a sack slung over her back. Finally, she got tired and headed into her home. I joked with her that maybe I would see her again, and she replied with a smile, “You probably will. I ain’t going anywhere.”

Sports Illustrated’s Bill Frakes went to Ole Miss for law school in the 70s, and when he heard that I was driving through his old stomping grounds, he promptly directed me to Oxford, MS over to City Grocery for lunch (Verdict? Delicious), and Square Books to pick up “Sons of Mississippi.” He told me that if I was off to Rodney “on a lark,” that the book would help contextualize the things I would see on my way down there.

I stopped at a local community center in Port Gibson, the town that U.S. Grant allegedly claimed was “too beautiful to burn.” Patricia Crosby started the center 25 years ago with her husband, who had received a professorship at the Alcorn State College down the road. The white couple in a predominantly black community, enrolled their two children in the all-Black school, and Gibson created the Mississippi Cultural Crossroads to “promote the educational, cultural and economic development of the citizens of Claiborne County.” But times are tough, and their state budget was slashed from $25,000/year to $10,000, while their city budget was cut from $10,000 to nothing. Unable to make her payroll for the upcoming week, she shrugs her shoulders a bit. “The people in the community are deeply religious,” she tells me. They expect a gift from God to save the center, but don’t realize that Patty is the catalyst for fundraising.

On my way southbound, I landed on the Natchez Trace Parkway, an old Indian trail turned scenic highway. Think Pacific Coast Highway meets the lush Mississippi forest. The drive was truly beautiful, and like the PCH, there is very little traffic.

I crossed the bridge from Natchez over to Vidalia, LA to watch the Vidalia Vikings play the Rayville Hornets in a lopsided, Friday night prep football game. It was my first high school football game, played on a dark field, while the home band played in what could only be accurately described as desafinado, or slightly out-of-tune. Like my arena football, my high school football photography needs work.

It’s good to be back on the road again. I took the same path from New York to Memphis on the way down that John and I drove for the World Championships of Barbeque in May. I watched a spectacular fall sunset in West Virginia as I did a year earlier, and ate at the Boston Beanery restaurant in Morgantown.

I cruised by Vanderbilt University, and ate at Fido’s in Nashville. I sped on the police-free Bluegrass Parkway at odd hours of the morning, passing New Haven and Boston, Kentucky. And much to the chagrin of my stomach, I ate a Quarter Pounder with Cheese meal at McDonald’s.

I'm a sucker for little towns with cool names. The final pic: The little red schoolhouse from Little Red Schoolhouse, MS.

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Rose Fosha, Archaeologist
Old Chinatown Site
Deadwood, SD

HBO's Deadwood has caused quite a stir in the real Deadwood. Traffic to the city's website is up six-fold, and the tourism board is expecting a huge increase in visitors this summer. First settled in 1876 because of the large gold deposits, Deadwood became legendary because of the larger-than-life heroes that walked its streets like Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. Today, Deadwood is a casino town located just a stone's throw away from Sturgis, SD, famous for its annual motorcycle rally.

For the past four years, the city of Deadwood has taken a portion of its gambling revenue to finance archaelogical digs through the Historic Preservation Society. Rose Fosha, a state archaeologist, has led a team of students, professionals and volunteers to excavate the area that used to be Chinatown, in hopes of finding more about these early immigrants.

Like in Butte, MT, Chinese immigrants were sent to Deadwood by one of six large Chinese companies that would pay for transportation across the Pacific in exchange for work. At the turn of the century, Deadwood had a Chinese population of between 250-500 residents, although many of them eventually dispersed as they did in Butte.

As I watched the team uncover a portion of a building foundation that hadn't been documented on any historical maps, one of the stars of HBO's Deadwood showed up to the site, apparently visiting the town that had made him famous. Jim Beaver was spending the week in Deadwood, on hiatus from the LA-based shooting, getting to know the area. [note: I originally said that it was Leon Rippy, but Jim e-mailed me to tell me it was him. Sorry about that Jim!]

The Badlands' name was derived from both the French and Native American terms that meant "bad lands to travel." Vast prairies suddenly give way to plunging canyons and eroded spires of sedimentary rock, so it's no wonder that the early people found the lands so inhospitable. Because the center of the US was underwater 70 million years ago, you won't find any dinosaur remains, but many other types of fossils can be found, and are still found today by tourists wandering around.

The national parks service also has a "passport" with information on all the parks in the US (Deleware is the only state without a national parks reserve apparently), and you can get a stamp for each park in each visitor's center. It's a very cool concept, and one that I wish I knew about earlier.

Monday, June 21, 2004

George Washington & Thomas Jefferson
Mt. Rushmore
Keystone, SD

State historian Doane Robinson had the revolutionary idea of carving the faces of the nation's famous into the granite needles that poke through the South Dakota Black Hills. He approached sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who agreed to the project, and decided to carve into Mount Rushmore because it was more structurally suitable for such a monument. Opposition to the project came from many groups including the Lakota Tribesmen of the Black Hills, who saw the project as an abomination. Yet, as the faces emerged from the rock between 1927 - 1941, the mountain soon became a source of national pride, and a major tourist destination.

One of the assistants on the Rushmore project was a polish immigrant from Boston, named Korczak Ziolkowski. After winning first prize at the New York World's Fair in 1939 for a sculpture, he was approached by the Lakota Indian Chiefs who wanted him to build a memorial to Crazy Horse, the Indian Chief, whose defiance against the encroachment of his lands by the white men became legendary.

With only $174 to his name, Ziolkowski moved to the the foothills in 1947 following a tour of duty in World War II, and slowly and meticulously started carving the 600 foot mountain into the shape of Crazy Horse riding his stallion.

Despite passing away in 1982, seven of Ziolkowski's ten children and his wife continue to work on the privately funded memorial. With over 50 years of work, the only discernible feature is the face of Crazy Horse that was revealed in 1998, yet millions of tons of rock have been moved to slowly shape the mountain. The foundation that runs the project has no estimate for when the sculpture might be completed, and it refuses to take federal moneys, continuing the philosophy of free enterprise that Ziolkowski held from the start.

As impressive as Mount Rushmore is, the entire sculpture could fit into the head of Crazy Horse. When completed, the Crazy Horse Memorial will be larger than the Great Pyramids of Giza.

The non-profit organization has built a cultural center near the base of the mountain, that will, in time, become a formal educational institution with a vast collection of Native American artifacts. On this day, I saw a Lakota Indian named Larry performing a dance meant to scare away his enemies. I thought it was funny that his name was "Larry" instead of something more exotic, but heck, my name is Allen, so who am I to judge?

It's strange that we spend so much time and money on these enormous effigies when there are so many other humanitarian causes that need the resources. Yet, these projects are inspirational, and I couldn't help but feel a sense of pride for the achievement of carving a mountain, as well as what they represent. It is doubtful that the Crazy Horse Memorial will be completed in my lifetime, but I would like to come back in another 50 years to witness the progress of American will.

Sunday, June 20, 2004

Old Faithful Erupts
Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone, WY

If Old Faithful was a part of Disneyland, I'd be asking for a refund. I waited over an hour for her to blow, and when she finally did (a little late, I might add), there was no thunderous soundtrack, no fireworks, no large mouse shaking the hands of the kids. In fact, before it was even over, hundreds of spectators were already heading for the exits. The geyser doesn't even make any noise. And everyone was quiet. It was like watching TV with the sound off. What happened Mother Nature?

The day started with a hailstorm in Big Sky, MT, which gave way to thunder and lightning. The temperature darted between the 40s and 60s for most of the day, as i drove the windy path from west to east of Yellowstone. What the park lacks in sheer vertical height, compared to Yosemite, she makes up with almost alien landscapes generated as a by-product of the geothermal activity that underlies much of the area. And strangely, as you leave the park towards Cody, the landscape becomes incredibly sparse -- nothing like the lusciousness of the Yellowstone.

Along the way, I spotted buffalo, elk, deer, and even a grizzly bear cub foraging for food on a hillside. Apparently, you're not supposed to get close to the buffalo, but heck, I'm from the city. What do I know about wildlife? So there I was just a few feet from the resting buffalo trying to get a nice shot for the blog.

Lots of dads were out flyfishing today, despite the inclement weather. I had grand notions of jumping in the middle of a stream to shoot a picture, but figured the water temperature was probably in the 40s, and well, I was never a posterchild for the Navy SEALs anyway.

As I exited Yellowstone, I had the pleasure of driving through Big Horn National Forest, which is more of a tribute to geological outcrops with exposed strata dating from 2.5 billion to 200 million years in age than a forest. I navigated the mountainous road as the sun set behind me, and was fortunate enough to catch the Ray Charles memorial services on NPR. It seemed fitting that the man who made "America the Beautiful" famous should croon one last time as I passed through some of the most beautiful vistas the country has to offer.

Gummi Bears at the Walmart in Cody, WY are half the price of New York City gummi bears.

As I stopped for gas in Buffalo, WY, I was pulled over as I entered the gas station. My crime? 37 in a 30mph zone. Fortunately, I got off with a warning, which in all honesty is what the crime merited. 7 miles over the speed limit? Surely you jest. That is not a crime. That is making sure the flow of traffic isn't impeded unnecessarily. The cop was cool enough, so I have no real complaints. As I entered the quik-mart to pay, the cashier asked me what part of New York I was from, having spied my plates as I parked in her gas station for nearly 10 minutes.

"I'm from Niagra," she told me, and went further to explain that she had moved to Wyoming after having met a guy on the Internet. Don't get me started. Anyway, she ended up marrying the guy, and seems happier in Buffalo, WY, than she was in Buffalo, NY.

Happy Father's Day, pop.

Saturday, June 19, 2004

The Yankees
Yankees v. Red Sox - South Spokane Little League
Spokane, WA

Spokane exemplifies exactly what happens without adequate city planning. What appears to be a lack of more stringent zoning, and sprawl control, has turned the city into a literal strip mall connected by 4 lane "highways" and poor traffic patterns. The urban areas of the city have nothing distinct or unique, which contrasts sharply to the nature that surrounds the Pacific Northwest.

Surrounded by the ugliness, I hadn't planned on staying for very long, but I found myself a bit tired from the days of driving, and my recent bout with sickness. I spent a better part of the day lounging around in Border's Bookstore, and then found a Little League game on the southside of town. Ironically it was the Yankees v. the Red Sox with 9 year olds scrambling around in the orange light of the late afternoon. The nine year old game is quite entertaining. The ball moves slow enough that it's easy to follow the action, and ironically there is probably more action because the kids are still learning how to judge plays. Errors and kids bumping into each ohter seem to be commonplace, and therefore highly enjoyable. The kids don't really care about winning yet either, which is refreshing.

And after the game, I got to toss around a football with a couple of the kids. We ran around the baseball diamond throwing the football as far as we could, and it was the most exercise I've gotten in about six states.

The next day, I drove across the border into the lake resort town of Coeur D'Alene, ID. They were having their annual Car D'Lane vintage car fair, which featured some cool cars, but it was very similar to the stuff I saw in Green Bay. As I was ready to pull out of the parking lot, I heard the familiar sound of ball on bat, and soon found myself shooting a AA ballgame.

I dashed off to Butte in hopes of photographing an arm wrestling contest at a local pub, but I was about an hour late, and the clientele looked a bit suspect. And when I say "suspect," I mean they looked like they had probably committed a number of crimes...

Friday, June 18, 2004

Berkeley Pit
Digital Composite Photograph
Butte, MT

With street names like Quartz, Platinum, and Galena, it's no wonder that Butte's main industry is mining. Energy costs drove mining out of town during the 80s, but after deregulation occurred, mining resumed in some parts. Berkeley Pit was once the largest open copper mine in the world, but now is a highly toxic lake. The EPA relaxed clean-up requirements as long as the water level stays below a threshold, so now, a modern water processing plant sits on the banks of the lake to purify water and ensure that the levels do not rise too high (and they are rising).

After the California Gold Rush passed, many Chinese immigrants moved to Butte because of the boon in mining. In 1870, the Chinese made up nearly 10% of Butte's population, but were met with disdain and discrimination, and eventually fled for greener pastures. But for many decades, a Chinatown flourished in uptown Butte, and two of the original buildings (Mai Wah Building) still remain, and are maintained by a historical society. Of note, a brick-laden wok oven that originally used firewood for the noodle shop that formerly operated until the 1940s.

Butte also has the distinction of having the worst mine disaster in the US, killing 163 in the Granite Mountain Shaft in 1917. Despite precautions, a miner's carbide lamp ignited a oil-laden support rope, which carried the flame down into the shaft, torching the men that were working over half a mile below.

As usual, hunger pulled me over to stop in Bozeman, MT, where I was suprised to see a pretty hip downtown area. The cosmopolitan nature of the town can be explained by the presence of the Montana State University (whose mascot, incidentally, looks an awful lot like Kansas State's). So maybe you have to put up with a bunch of drunks, but college towns sure seem to be an economic benefit to areas around the country.

And what would a summer day be without some sport. Unfortunately, bad weather has been following me around, starting with the 46 degree disaster that was my morning. By the time I made it to Missoula, it had warmed up to the mid-50s and even lower 60s, which was warm enough for the men's 45+, slow pitch softball league to take their positions at McCormick Park. Just a hop away across the railroad tracks is an almost completed ballpark for the Missoula Ospreys, a Pioneer League team for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Wish I could have watched a game there, but it looks like they are a few weeks away from completion.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Michael Clemens
President, National Sunflower Association
Wimbledon, ND

I was really just trying to get out of the rain that had enshrouded most of eastern North Dakota. Despite the mystique of the movie, Fargo was really like any other town with it's line of fast food restaurants on the main drag through town. But it was hunger that pulled me to stop at the Valley City Burger King, when a gentleman came up to me as I was stretching next to my car. You see, with the 47th least populous state in the nation, the North Dakotans can spot an out-of-towner from a mile away. A one-minute conversation, turned into Mike inviting me up to his 6,000 acre farm just a few miles away.

After Mike ran some errands in town with his mother, we met up at the Valley City Chamber of Commerce where he jumped into my car, and started showing me around North Dakota. The High Line Bridge which is the main railroad link through the north central US was closely guarded during both world wars for sabotage because it was so important to commerce. He showed me a local dam, and explained how the increased precipitation in the past 10 years has caused a potential disaster waiting to happen in nearby Devil's Lake. And then we drove onto his properties where he grows corn, wheat, soy and sunflower. He explained the nuances of weed control, contracyclical pricing, and showed me all his farm equipment including his bitching new sprayer complete with GPS unit.

Between his farming, Mike spends time lobbying on behalf of the Sunflower organization, which includes trips to the Far East and across the nation. He's also active in state politics, currently trying to get an ethanol plant built, so that the corn that the state grows isn't shipped abroad for ethanol processing.

Despite becoming sick as a dog a few hours later, today was one of those great days where you meet a local that changes your whole perspective. Mike is planning an anniversary trip to NYC with his wife in November, so maybe we'll have a chance to meet up again.

Finally, traveling around the US gives you a chance to see lots of neat town names, but this has to be one of my favorites so far. Exit 7 off I94 in North Dakota is the little town of "Home on the Range."