A Question of Distance

I write a piece each week for a project called Story Worth which my daughters purchased for my birthday. It seems they actually want my memoirs, go figure. This week’s assignment was to write about the farthest trip I ever took. What follows is my answer to that question.

This is an interesting question as there are two different answers. If we consider total distance, regardless of the means of transportation, it would be our family trip to Italy in 2006. We flew into Rome for that trip and then over the course of two weeks, traveled to Positano in the south of Italy, and then crisscrossed the country ending up in Venice. From there we crossed again to Siena and Florence, and eventually returned to Rome. This trip was an incredible adventure and a cherished family memory. We discovered so many things and both viewed and learned an incredible amount of history as we traveled from city to city. Along the way we formed a friendship with the families who accompanied us on our tour. These were people we had not known before entering our hotel in Rome. People whom we never would have known except that fate had put us together. The beauty of travel is not just the scenery and the history you experience, but the people you meet along the way, fellow travelers on the journey.

That trip was by far the farthest distance wise, but if I think about the longest driving trip I ever took, it would be my drive to California and back in the summer of 1977. That summer, my brother and I loaded up my 1974 Mustang compact and headed west for California. It would take us three days and numerous stops along the way before we would arrive in Sacramento, but we made it. I could tell you of the adventures along the way, but most were sworn to secrecy and the statute of limitations has not yet been lifted. I can tell you that among some of the records set, one was touring both Yellowstone and Mt Rushmore on the same day. Even the park ranger questioned how we accomplished that one.  Along the way, we slept under the stars, that was until we thought we heard a bear, explored an abandoned gold mine at two in the morning, and met countless characters along the way. That trip was a bonding experience for my brother and I that will forever entertain us each time the story is retold and would establish a friendship that has lasted to this day.

Never discount the value of travel. The world is such a large and diverse place. Each new place you visit and every new person you meet adds to the whole of your being. Take time in life to travel, whether it be to far off lands, across your own country, or just in your state, look for the beauty, make new friends, and always enjoy the ride.

Steel City

I admit this is a travelogue, but I’ll make a point. Long, well long long ago, I was given the dare by a college friend on an all too many libations evening, to drive home for the weekend with him and another friend. No big deal except that we were in Wisconsin and he lived in Connecticut. We would leave late Thursday night and be back in time for our Monday classes. I took the dare and immediately started to worry about how my parents would feel if something happened and they would not have even known I had gone. The morning before we were set to leave, I caved in and called my dad. Totally expecting him to shoot down the idea as crazy, ill formed, and paid for how?, I awaited the big NO! To my utter surprise, my conservative, sensible father said, “I have given up so many things in my life and travel was one, you should travel every time you get the opportunity.”

I took the dare and we were off late that Thursday night, snow bound on the Ohio Turnpike at 2:00 in the morning, stranded in a truck stop till dawn and one whole day of driving, but we made it to Connecticut. Two days later and another all night drive and we were back at UW Oshkosh for my 10:00 am class. To this day, this opportunity remains an incredible memory.

A month or so ago, we were invited to the wedding of my next door neighbor’s son. The catch was that it was in Pittsburgh and I am sure the thought was would they really come? If my Connecticut trip all those years ago taught me anything, it was never pass up an opportunity to visit a city for the first time. I had never been to Pittsburgh so there really never was a hesitation, we were going and we would travel by car. Travel by car, as I have written about in other blogs, is the best way to really experience a trip. We split this trip in half, spent a day in Sandusky, Ohio and arrived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania early on Thursday afternoon.

Lake Erie sunset from the Sandusky Pier Park
Tunnel view of the Point Park Fountain in Pittsburgh

My opinion of Pittsburgh, as my title states, was one of steel mills, heavily industrial, and well, likely poor. Granted we stayed in the downtown, but my opinion changed immediately. The city has been working very hard on regentrification and the impact is everywhere in the downtown area. Pittsburgh sits on the confluence of three rivers, the Alleghany, the Monongahela, and the Ohio. Their meeting point is marked by a beautiful park surrounded by the bluffs on either side. Just across the river sits the Pittsburgh Steelers football stadium and just down the river the Pittsburgh Pirates ball park. The bike trails run everywhere and food, entertainment, and sports bars dot the area. In short, so much to do and see and in my case not much time to get it done. But I have two more days and I am confident I will leave here with not only new memories, but another city added to my completion list and an opinion changed.

Fountain at Point Park where the three rivers meet
Heinz Field, home of the Pittsburgh Steelers
The Duquesne Incline at Pittsburgh on Mt Washington
Night view of the Incline from the Ft. Pitt Bridge

Travel can never be discounted due to what it does for the traveler. If one travels with an open mind and a good dose of curiosity, you will come home with better understanding of how our uniqueness is in our differences and that our common bond is found in our humanity.


We left Madison three days ago after a year and month of COVID isolation. The temp that morning was 20 degrees and a high of 38 degrees was forecast for the day. Our first night was spent in Cincinnati, OH and our second in Asheville, NC. Late this afternoon we reached our destination on Kiawah Island, SC. The temperature, 75 degrees. I am, as I write this, sitting on the screen porch of our VRBO with a local brew in my hand, watching an alligator sunning in the canal below. Warning, before you put two and two together and conclude our house is unoccupied and easy pickings, besides our ever watchful neighbors, did I mention the eight foot python we recently purchased.

Relaxation Station

It was quite the drive to get here but so scenic and so refreshing after a year of vacationing in my back yard, putting a mere 500 miles on my vehicle in the course of the entire year. I swear I could hear my jeep purring as I turned towards the interstate and began to put the miles behind us. There is a lot to be said for a road trip. A road trip gives you the chance to bond with your fellow traveler or plot where to leave them, just kidding Deb. A road trip gives you the opportunity to experience Americana and to just take in sights on a whim. It is the adventure Jack Kerouac alludes to when he writes, “Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.” Never discount the road trip.

Breakfast in Cincinnati, the pancakes rivaled the ambiance.

For the next week, I will attempt a round of golf on a course light years beyond my ability to play it. I will walk the beach and maybe manage to catch a few sunrises over the Atlantic. I will put as many miles as my legs can handle on my bike. And I will generally put the world of stress and COVID behind me. I will regenerate. For those of you who know me well, know that I have traveled often, sometimes with detailed plans and sometimes by the seat of my pants. This trip feels different. I would be a liar if I said the isolation of this past year hadn’t left me damaged. This trip is the beginning of my repair.

We have arrived. All that is left now is to be: stress free, plan limited, senses alert, and open to the healing that time away can bring.

Three days and 1100 miles later ………….. Let the smiles rival the miles.

Summer’s Gone

It would be a gross misstatement to say that this was a typical summer. As I write this blog, we are in the process of wrapping up our last week of cottage time. My wife shares the cottage they inherited from their parents with her two brothers and that means her time share amounts to five weeks every summer. In a normal year we might, at most, use parts of two or three weeks and then embark on more distant trips to all those places we dreamed our retirement would take us. Not so in the summer of COVID-19. All big travel trips had to be put on hold and with many of our local haunts closed or limited, the cottage proved to be the our only get away and this year saw us at the cottage for all of my wife’s five weeks.

I will be the first to say it, thank God for the cottage. We spent hours reading, hiking, kayaking, biking riding and if you are a regular reader, you know there was a lot of time spent watching my grandchildren fish, which by the way, is pure joy. There were evening campfires complete with the typical word games, stories and s’mores. There was the simple pleasure of spotting the lake’s two loons, the eagles as they soared above and the deer that would quietly visit our cottage as we sat stone still observing them. My grandchildren and I even invented several games, Road Golf being their most popular. With Road Golf, we took it so far as to write up the rules and then refine them as the game demanded. Note to my readers, send me a request via email and I’ll send you a copy of the rules. Equipment is minimal, a good rock and a pair of old shoes.

The five weeks spread out across three months flew by and here we are, a few days away from Labor Day and the traditional marking of summer’s end. The cottage will be closed up for the season as soon as my brother-in-laws’ final two weeks are logged. And then it will sit, silently enduring the long winter months and heavy snows of northern Wisconsin. But spring will eventually arrive and the cycle of family visits will start anew. The question will be, how will 2021 compare to 2020? Let’s hope more like the old normal we are all longing for now.

But it is what it is. We all traveled afar, far less. We visited our family and friends less in person and far more virtually. We reinvented our traditions, our birthdays, graduations and family celebrations. We read more and socialized less, we ate in way more than we used to eat out. Like it or not, COVID has changed us. Some of those changes may become permanent while others will have been just for now, just for the pandemic. Summer is not really gone, it actually has another month left according to the calendar. In this year, it might feel like it never existed, especially if we only look at what we didn’t get to do. But, if we can reflect on what we did do, especially those things that were different, well then it might have actually been a great summer.

Patience will see us through this. Paying attention to personal habits and keeping each other safe will make it pass quicker. Summer is ending, but it was never gone. And it will come again. Here’s hoping it will be COVID free next time around and that some of our new traditions and activities will survive the test of time and be part of it.

Happy Labor Day

Half Dome …… Pressing On

Part Seven: This next part of the story is the most difficult for me to tell. We had already hiked over eight miles, climbed over 4000 feet and been at it for going on eight hours. As much as it took courage to climb this last 1000 feet, clinging to a one inch cable at almost vertical, it took more courage to know you had to call it quits. That to ignore the vertigo gripping you, at this height, would not only be a bad decision but a dangerous one. To this day, I am as proud of Bailey for turning back as I was for Kathryn struggling on.

As Bailey asked to be let down, I had to make a decision. We still had Kathryn hanging above us needing help. Fortunately, I caught John’s eyes and without a single word spoken, he let me know he was going to go back down with Bailey and that I needed to go up to release Kathryn’s carabiner. We were a true team at that point, willing to make decisions as a team and not as individuals. The move was tricky, but Bailey eased down alongside as I climbed up past. I scrambled up the space between us and reached Kathryn about thirty feet above. We were both disappointed but we climbed on.

Kathryn and I were now about three quarters of the way to the summit and still hanging at nearly vertical, when our third issue arose. As I was looking straight up at Kathryn some 20 feet above me, I saw her boot lace dangling as her boot had become untied. Fearing she would lose the boot or catch the lace under it as she climbed, I knew I had to get her to stop and somehow tie her boot. Kathryn pulled a maneuver I still see in my minds eye. She swung around, sat down on a small 2×4 stretched on the rock between the stanchions on her left and right, and reached down to retie her boot. To do this, she had unclipped and was now looking down between her knees at her feet and not coincidentally at the great void stretching out below us.

Horst had warned us of the effect of dehydration. He used the term “talking like a doughboy” and Kathryn was definitely sounding like a doughboy as she told me she thought she was going to throw up. Interestingly, it would be throwing down not up and on me. I scrambled up to her position, grab water and a candy bar from my pack and made her eat and drink. I could only hope this would help her. After about five minutes, I had my answer. She regained her color, turned around, grabbed the cables above her and started to climb.

We were now with in striking distance of the summit and the slope was coming down to a reasonable angle. As we walked the remaining distance to the crest, Kathryn turned to me and said “I’ll never call you an old man again. My response, “Of course you will, but thanks for the sentiment.” We had made it. We were on the summit of Half Dome! We had reached the top and our sense of accomplishment was unbounded. I will admit, there was still that reverse back down the cables to be dealt with, but for now, we were celebrating.

To be Continued ………….

Half Dome ……Trouble

Part Six: Bailey was just above me and Kathryn above her. Suddenly Kathryn was asking Bailey to climb up behind her and unhook her carabiner. The angle had become so steep that Kathryn could not reach it and was unable to get around the next stanchion unless she could unhook the carabiner from the cable and make the switch. At this point, vertigo was setting in for Bailey. She was near her limit and was now being asked to perform this task for Kathryn. When you reach this point, even the slightest issue can push you over the edge, and that issue was on its way down the dome.

We had gotten to the cables early enough to have only a few groups ahead of us. One of those groups was made up of three frenchmen who were well seasoned climbers, having probably climbed in the Alps and considered this climb a walk in the park. They had already been to the summit and were on their way down when they had to pass us coming up. As fate would have it, they met at Bailey’s moment of decision.They stepped out of the cables and literally hopped around and down around us. In any other situation, this would have appeared comical, but not so from our vantage point. Simultaneously, from somewhere high above us, a climber had dropped their Nalgene water bottle. As it bounced and clatter down the dome, it passed right between the frenchman, dancing on the sheer edge, and Bailey clinging to the cables. That bottle never stopped its drop but simply disappeared as it fell the thousand or more feet through empty space, crashing against the rocks far below. And that was it. Bailey made her decision.

To be continued ……..

Half Dome ……. The Cables

Part Five: Kathryn made the first move. As we sat there contemplating those cables, Kathryn exclaimed that having come this far and covered so much ground already, she was not turning around without at least touching them. As she headed across the saddle toward the cables, Bailey spoke next. “You know she isn’t going to stop there so I guess this means we’re going.” And that was that. By the time we reached the cables, Kathryn was already climbing. We pulled on our gloves, grabbed our backpacks and followed; Bailey went first, then me and John right behind us.

It was then that the first mistake was committed. For whatever reason, Kathryn decided to leave her backpack on the saddle. This included her water bottle. By now, we had been walking for nearly seven hours. We were tired, hot, and though we had been trying to stay hydrated, this was not the time to leave behind such a precious commodity. But, already almost 100 feet above us, Kathryn was not coming back down. And so we climbed.

The first hundred or so feet were reasonable. The angle of climb was near 45 degrees but doable. We were getting comfortable with the cables and proficient at switching our carabiner each time we reached one of the stanchions, but that didn’t last long. At around 150 feet, the pitch increased to over 60 degrees. At this point, it was like climbing a ladder. The carabiner switch became more and more difficult. We were now reaching behind us to unhook and then re-hook on the other side of the stanchion. Every time we reached back, we got to look straight down, not just the 200 feet of cables, but all the way down the sides of the dome to the valley over 2000 feet below. And that is when our next problem arose.

To be continued ………

Half Dome ….. The Ascent

Part Four: 3:15 am, time to get ourselves going. The sun would not be up for another two hours, but we were, and with good progress, we might get to see sunrise from the top of Nevada Falls.

man standing on brown rock cliff in front of waterfalls photography

Photo by Oliver Sjöström on Pexels.com

We set out from camp by 3:30 as planned. We had put on rain slickers and donned our head lamps so we would be able to see our way as we followed the trail up the falls, but we still had close to a half hour walk to get to the trailhead. From there we would take the Mist Trail, aptly name as it follows up the south side of Vernal Falls and is blanketed with mist floating off the thundering cascade. Cut into the rock wall that created Vernal Falls, we would follow the steps of the trail up the side of the falls to a crossover point midway between the top of Vernal Falls and the spillway for Nevada Falls.

Half Dome 7

Everything was going as planned. We hit the trailhead at 4:00 am and with some degree of effort, managed the climb through the maze of rock steps in the predawn darkness. The mist would shimmer off the light from our head lamps as we negotiated the trail and then bounce back of the wet granite walls. The saying, it’s always darkest just before the dawn, was taking on a very literal interpretation. We eventually crested the top of Nevada Falls just before sunlight began to creep over the peaks and gently spill over the valley now two thousand feet below us. We took a well earned break and ate our first snacks of the day as we watched the sunrise display its artwork on the peaks around us.

The next leg of the ascent was the easiest as we hiked the three miles on a nearly flat trail snaking alongside the Merced River. This area is called the Little Yosemite Valley and for many climbers it is where they spend the night before summiting. This cuts two to three hours off the climb and allows for an earlier summiting. We simply trudged on and actually made good time through this section all the while knowing that the next section of trail would be much more difficult.

Once you leave Little Yosemite Valley, the trail links up with the John Muir Trail and the ascent up to and around the backside of Half Dome starts testing the legs. Through what seemed like a never ending series of switchbacks, the trail rose steeply for another two or three miles and twenty-five hundred feet of elevation. Eventually the trail reaches the lower part of Half Dome where another set of switchbacks awaits, this time above the tree line and set on the granite of the lower dome. It seemed to us that this leg of the climb from Little Yosemite Valley to this spot at the lower dome actually required the most encouragement. With each switchback, we would expect to see Half Dome just ahead. The reality was, more trail, more climb, and another switchback. When we finally reached the lower dome, we were near exhaustion, but at least feeling like we were getting close. Five hundred more feet of elevation and we arrived at the saddle.

A saddle is the connecting ridge between the two halves of a mountain. It is often called the false peak due to the real peak being obscured by the lower half of the face. Reaching the top of the saddle, we got our first views of the three thousand foot drops on either side of the saddle and, straight ahead and above us, the cable route. No picture can do it justice. The summit is just over six hundred feet above you at this point, but it’s the steep incline that grabs you, close to 60 degrees for over two-thirds of the route. The cables are strung about four feet apart and pass through stanchions hammered into the granite at six to eight foot intervals. Though not required, most climbers use carabiners to clip onto the cables for some sense of safety and gloves to deal with the rough steel braid of the cable itself. Both the view and the task ahead is daunting.

Half Dome 4

We are here, but our apprehension level just went off the chart. As we sit on the rocks, staring up at the challenge of the cable climb, we are asking ourselves some fairly serious questions. Are we ready to make the next move? Are we ready to clip on?

To be continued………..

Half Dome …….. Anticipation

Part Three: We arrived in California on July 6th, 2009 seemingly ready, excited and a little apprehensive. We had decided to spend several days with my sister and brother-in-law in Bishop. Bishop is located on the northern end of Owens Valley, situated between the Sierras to the west and the White Mountains to the east. Our stay here would give us time to visit but also time to get acclimated to the altitude and to get some last minute advice on our climb. During our stay, we planned on quizzing both my sister Kay and her husband, Horst, about the times that they had lived in Yosemite and more specifically about when they had made this climb we were about to attempt.

Kay and Horst were able to give us much better descriptions of the route. In our pre-planning, we had intended to hit the trailhead by no later than 6:30 am, but Horst suggested that we plan on leaving from our encampment by 4:30 am so as to reach the trailhead by 5:00 am. In the meantime, a friend of Horst was called in for more up to date info as he had recently been to Yosemite. He informed us that at this time of year the route was getting crowded and there were actually log jams on the cables making them slow but also more dangerous. His suggestion was to be at the trailhead no later than 4:00 am to beat the crowds. This meant a 3:30 am start. It was starting to look like we might as well skip sleeping all together.

On our second day in Bishop, Horst, as mentioned previously, agreed to hike us up on Mt Tom where we could get up to some higher elevations. This would test our legs, lungs and our mettle. What ensued was a great chance to not only see some incredible scenery, but the opportunity to test out our gear and our hiking ability as we continuously climbed on the trail eventually reaching the glacier at 10,000 feet of elevation. Hike accomplished, now we were really ready and chomping at the bit to get going.

Day three found us entering the park and taking the two hour drive across Tuolumne Meadows and eventually down to the Valley Floor. Our entrance to the Valley did not disappoint. There was Half Dome looming high above us, just daring us to try. After longing glances at its huge granite half dome features and Half Dome’s prominent beak like overhang, we headed to our encampment in Yosemite Village.

trees under white cliff

Photo by William Brand on Pexels.com

Our accommodations consisted of a canvas tent placed on a raised deck. We had cots to sleep on, but that was the extent of the amenities. In a way this was okay. Considering our wake up time would be around 3:15 am, we at least wouldn’t be giving up a comfortable bed begging us to keep sleeping.

five green plastic armchairs near canopy tents

Photo by Vikas Sawant on Pexels.com

Before hitting our cots, we packed all our gear and food into the bear box situated just outside of our tent. This necessity only added to our anxiety, all we would need is to be raided by a bear if not eaten by one sometime in the night. This thought alone was enough to keep us awake but we were given even more to think about when just about the time we were dozing off, a family noisily passed near our tent. As fate would have it, or stupidity, we clearly heard them drop their cooler of food only to hear the father say, “just leave it, we can’t eat it now anyway.” Oh, but we were sure the bears would be interested. Needless to say, between the anticipation, the uncomfortable cots, and every little noise that for sure had to be a bear, 3:15 am rolled around without a whole lot of sleep having been accomplished.

To be continued…………

Half Dome…..Planning Begins

Part Two: Kathryn had taken over and we were now in full on planning mode. Where Bailey and I had approached it as a hike, no, almost a stroll, Kathryn was going to make sure we understood the importance of knowing what we were going to attempt.

She started with a route map. This was no stroll in the park. Here is the excerpt from the Yosemite guide book: The trail to Half Dome from Yosemite Valley is an extremely strenuous hike covering over 17 miles. Hikers gain 4,800 feet of elevation along the trail that passes highlights such as Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall, before reaching the cables on Half Dome’s steep granite domes. If that wasn’t sobering enough, she reminded us that it would be July, one of the hottest months in the park. We were going to need to condition, gear up and do some research.

We started with the research and soon were looking at maps of the route. The climb up Vernal and Nevada Falls wasn’t a cake walk but it was at least a trail. There would be lots of rock cut stairs, some bouldering but all in all, relatively easy. Once on top of the falls, a long hike and eventually some fairly steep trail with lots of switchbacks awaited us. Eventually, we would reach the dome with its cables to assist us to the summit of Half Dome. We figured ‘cables’ sounded easy. And then we saw the pictures.

Half dome

So, we conceded, Kathryn might be onto something. Again from the guide book: The most famous–or infamous–part of the hike is the ascent up the cables. The two metal cables allow hikers to climb the last 400 feet to the summit without rock climbing equipment. Since 1919, relatively few people have fallen and died on the cables. However, injuries are not uncommon for those acting irresponsibly. A little more reading had their mother trying to pull her, at best, weak support of this ‘adventure’. The book warned that though at least 60 people had met their demise somewhere in the process of this ‘hike’, only 20 were on the dome and its cables, and with proper behavior and planning, it was relatively safe. Sorry mom, sounds like we’re still on.

With research completed, it was time for outfitting our trek. In no particular order, tennis shoes were traded for quality hiking boots and heavy socks. Shorts gave into hiking pants that could be easily converted as early morning cool temps gave way to afternoon heat. Of course there would be quality backpacks to carry climbing gear consisting of carabiners and gloves for the cables, lunches and snacks and more importantly, water. Throw in a water purifier, just in case, and head lamps, it was going to be dark when we needed to start, and we were outfitted. We had by now become REI and Shepherd & Schaller’s ‘best customers’.


We now had two months to get in condition. Our conditioning started off with hikes and trail climbing at a local state park. We started adding gear and weight to our packs and the hikes got longer. Eventually, we hiked the Bear Skin Trail in Northern Wisconsin and except for an occasional glance at those pictures of the Half Dome cables, we were bordering on cocky.

Early in May, we had secured our accommodations at Yosemite Valley and had settled on an early morning start of 6:00 am. However, after a discussion with our brother-in-law, Horst Klemm, who had once worked as a backcountry ranger for the National Park Service, two suggestions were made. First, he would take us on a high country hike to a glacier on Mt Tom near their Bishop, California home, just south of Yosemite’s East Gate. This would serve to acclimatize us Midwest flatlanders to the much higher altitude at which we would be starting our climb. Second, Horst suggested that we up the departure time from the trailhead to 5:00 am to give us the time we would need to complete our summit and of course our return to camp.

We were ready….or so we hoped.

To be continued…………