Tag Archives: travel

“A Schoolteacher in Old Alaska – The Story of Hannah Breece” edited by Jane Jacobs

I was on vacation (in Alaska) and had promised myself I wouldn’t buy gifts for family and friends – I was trying to travel light. But when I saw this book, I had to have it! Memoirs about Alaska’s early days are numerous, but this one stood out because of the identity of the editor. Jane Jacobs is identified on the book cover as author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Yes, that Jane Jacobs! A Google search of her name yields 22 million hits! Okay, it’s a pretty common name, but I’ll bet the majority refer to the “American-Canadian journalist, author and activist” smiling out at me from Wikipedia (but modestly absent from the book). Hannah Breece, sadly, is not listed in Wikipedia. I hope this is remedied soon.

How did Jacobs-the-activist end up editing this 193-page memoir? In a sense, she inherited the job. Hannah Breece was Jane Jacobs’ aunt. Late in Ms. Breece’s life, when she had retired to Oregon, acquaintances urged her to write about her experiences teaching in Alaska from 1904 to 1918. She asked friends and relatives to return her letters, and used them to assemble a memoir. It was not published. Jane Jacobs admits she was put off by the racism, sexism and colonialism detectable in her Aunt’s writing, though they were merely a reflection of the times.

Hannah Breece died in 1940, and Jane Jacobs published the memoir in 1995! She added detailed commentary that tremendously enhances the value of Ms. Breece’s record. Under the heading of “Puzzles, Tangles, Clarifications”, she addresses the social and political climate of Alaska, its relation to the rest of the US and numerous omissions in the memoir. (In fact, Ms. Breece had left out a great deal.) Jacobs offers seven brief essays clarifying various points. My favorite was #6, entitled “Miraculous Rescues”.

Make no mistake, Hannah Breece was very fortunate to have survived her time in the wilderness. Any newcomer to Alaska had to be smart, strong and LUCKY to deal with the hazards of climate, wildlife, topography and lack of government. Ms. Breece recounts two experiences that “should” have killed her, for which no “rational” explanation of her survival can be offered. Jacobs doesn’t back off from this complex territory. She assigns one experience (a near drowning) to the category of “intuition”. Before crossing a frozen bay, Ms. Breece felt “irrational” fear that was readily explainable after the fact. The second experience was more complex. Perhaps, suffering from hypothermia, Ms. Breece hallucinated. She was helped by a person who wasn’t there. In her dire need, did she remember someone strong and competent from her childhood?

Now that I’ve read it, I’ll pass this book along to the intended recipient. It’s a good thing he likes used books!

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Blue Colony Diner, Newtown, CT

A few weeks ago (January 2, 2017), I insulted the great State of Connecticut because it has so few diners. Then from the depths of memory this story surfaced…

Years ago I was on my way to Connecticut for a reunion of my high school class, accompanied by my husband and my high school BF Marian, who settled in New Jersey like me. We crossed into Connecticut, got on Route 84 and decided it was time for dinner. There’s not much between Danbury and Waterbury. We settled, by default, on the Blue Colony Diner, figuring a diner would have something for everyone. And it did – no problem accommodating the vegetarian in the group.

We knew absolutely nothing about the area, but our waitress, who had the appearance of a diner veteran, warned us that Friday night in Newton was high school football night, and pretty much the whole town was going to show up at the diner when the game ended. Okay.

During our meal, the waitress made a point of asking us to order coffee and dessert promptly. “I’m going to be busy!” People started to come in – recognizable types – a table full of jocks, parents, couples, single sex clusters… We thought things were getting busy, but suddenly the dam broke. Our waitress slapped down the check and yelled “Run for your lives!!” We fled, laughing, and gazed in astonishment at the traffic jam in the parking lot. So we got a good meal, and more fun than we expected. But honestly, I’ve only EVER seen one other diner in Connecticut, and it was pretty weird.

“Naturalists in Paradise: Wallace, Bates and Spruce in the Amazon” by John Hemming

“Naturalists in Paradise”

https://nearctictraveller.wordpress.com/2015/08/

This highly enjoyable book was reviewed by another blogger (see link above), so I will limit my comments to the last chapter, where Hemming discusses the lives of the three explorers after their Amazon travels. In particular, he describes their books and other publications, some of which would be worth tracking down. The three scientists made amazing contributions to the advance of science. They also erred. “The greatest error made by…these observers…was to equate luxuriant tropical vegetation with rich soil.” Interesting! Many decades passed before the flaws in this logic were understood.

Hemming summarizes some of the work that the three explorers did outside the field of natural history. Most important were the observations they made pertaining to indigenous and isolated groups of people.

The three explorers knew and corresponded with most of the other great scientists of their time, including Charles Darwin.

Hemming, by the way, adds a few observations from his own contemporary travels in the countries visited. I appreciated this, though it would have interfered if he hadn’t been so restrained. I’m sure he has tales to tell!

This quotation from Richard Spruce clarifies the motivation of these scientists and expresses their passionate relationship to the natural world.

I look on plants as sentient beings, which live and enjoy their lives – which beautify the earth during life and after death may adorn my herbarium…(Even if they have no medicinal or commercial value to man) they are infinitely useful where God has placed them… They are at the least useful to and beautiful in themselves – surely the primary motive for every individual existence.

Emphasis added. Scientists are sometimes accused of cold detachment. This makes is clear that they may, in fact, pursue their work out of love.

Rating a State Park for Car Camping – Vermont’s Jamaica State Park gets Five Stars!

The point of this blog is to review books, but I don’t (quite) spend ALL my time reading. I spent Memorial Day weekend “car camping” in Vermont. In fact, I’ve spent the past 25 Memorial Day weekends camping with the same crowd of friends. I would guess we’ve stayed at 15 different campgrounds in seven or eight states, all public rather than private. We usually occupy 8 or 10 campsites and total around 40 campers, of all ages.

What makes for a good campground? Let’s see… Location, infrastructure, activities, staff, alcohol policy, pet policy and “atmosphere”.

There is no perfect location. As a group, our center of gravity has shifted north over time. Jamaica, Vermont (the town and state park share the name) was a seven hour trip for the families from farthest south, four hours from Boston and half an hour from those who now call Vermont home.

Under location, we can also consider geography. We’ve camped in the flat Pinelands of New Jersey, near beaches in Connecticut and Maryland, and in hilly forests. Vermont falls in the later category. We really like woods and hills!

Our basic infrastructure requirement is flush toilets and hot showers. Check! We turn down “group sites” because they often have pit toilets.

Jamaica State Park is very small, about 40 campsites, some equipped with lean-tos. Our reserved site was listed as having a “prime lean-to”. It was large and sturdy, consisting of a floor, three walls and a roof, enclosing enough space so a tent could be placed within. Given our experiences with bad weather, this was wonderful! We pitched two more tents on the ground. The weather stayed dry.

Missing was one amenity we’ve occasionally enjoyed, namely a sink at the wash house with hot water for washing dishes. Oh, well, can’t have it all.

Activities? Hiking and bicycling were at hand. The swimming area was just a place to wade in the small, fast moving river. No lifeguards, and no boat rental. Vermont is very tourist friendly, so those of us who decided to go exploring enjoyed scenery, shopping and the Green Mountain National Forest.

Our main activities are eating and talking, anyway.

The staff at Jamaica State Park was friendly, the alcohol policy was easy to deal with (no kegs or underage drinking), and dogs were allowed if leashed. To my surprise, we had six dogs along for the trip!

So what about “atmosphere”? It was great! Our fellow campers were pleasant. The employees who enforced quiet hours weren’t obnoxious. I’ll be happy to return to Jamaica or try another Vermont state park any time. (For the record, I find New York state parks creepy. New Jersey’s park employees act like they really wanted to be in the state police. Connecticut runs its megapark at Hammonasset with wonderful aplomb and professionalism.)

Vermonters deserve to be very proud of their parks. I’ll be back!

“Margaret Fuller – A New American Life” by Megan Marshall

It’s been suggested that I should consistently provide the following:

  • Published 2013, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 375 pages (text) + 95 pages (contents, illustrations, prologue, epilogue, notes, index).

It’s been over a week since I posted about a book. That’s a long time for me! The reason is that I found a book that took some time to read, and it amply rewarded my effort.

Margaret Fuller was born in 1810 and died in 1850, living in and around Boston, then New York City and finally spending four years in Europe.

SPOILER ALERT! The circumstances of Margaret Fuller’s death in 1850 were shocking and very sad. If you want to read her life story in proper order, stop now, read the book and then come back and consider my reflections.

Margaret Fuller was born just over 200 years ago. A very bright first child, she was initially educated by her father, who intended to convey to her “everything” he had learned at Harvard. She soaked it up, and later, deprived of any opportunity for college, became her own teacher of classics and languages, setting very high expectations for herself.

At the age of 25, Margaret’s father died and she took responsibility for her mother and several younger siblings. Fear of poverty shadowed her life. But Boston was in a state of intellectual ferment (the so-called New England renaissance), and Margaret, both well educated and outspoken, found a place among the Transcendentalists and other writers and thinkers of the day.

Margaret edited the new journal called The Dial and published a book Woman in the Nineteenth Century which is considered the first classic of the American feminist movement. Working for the New York Tribune, she became the first American full time writer of book reviews.

Margaret’s burning wish to travel to Europe was finally fulfilled when, at the age of 36, she accepted the position of governess in a Quaker family that toured England, spent some time in Paris, and then went to Italy.

In Rome, Margaret’s life took a turn that her New England friends and family would not have expected, and, indeed, she told them nothing about it for many months. She fell in love, bore a child, and married. Before her infant was a year old, revolution broke out in Italy. Margaret was firmly on the side of change, hoping for democracy and reform. Her husband fought in the defense of “free” Rome and Margaret worked as a nursing volunteer in a makeshift hospital.

The revolution failed, and Margaret, with her husband and child, made plans to return to Massachusetts, where she expected to support her family by writing.

Unable to afford travel on a passenger liner, they embarked on a freighter that accommodated a few passengers. Bad luck plagued the trip. The ship’s captain died. In inexperienced hands, the ship ran aground near Long Island (NY). Some crew and passengers survived, but not Margaret, her husband or their child.

What impressed me about Margaret Fuller was the way she threw herself into the issues of her times. She wrote about race, prison reform and education among many other topics.

This book by Megan Marshall is right in the “sweet spot” between popular and academic writing. This is biography at its best. I recommend it highly to anyone interested in feminism and/or American intellectual history.

“What the Psychic Told the Pilgrim – A Midlife Misadventure on Spain’s Camino de Santiago de Compostela” by Jane Christmas

The first thing you need to know is that “Santiago“ is the apostle Saint James. His body is believed to be buried in the city of Santiago de Compostela in north western Spain, and routes to that location have become “pilgrimage” routes, traveled (mostly) on foot by Christians seeking spiritual refreshment. Jane Christmas joined this tradition. Her “quickie” explanation (you need one on this road) was that she was walking to “affirm her belief in God and celebrate her 50th birthday”. Good! And admirably clear, though I don’t know why she consulted a psychic during her preparations.

Christmas undertook serious physical training before her trek and began in good condition, through not, perhaps, fully adequate for crossing the Pyrenees at relatively high altitude, one of the first challenges of the route. Her “mistake”, while preparing for the pilgrimage, was to accept the company FOURTEEN additional women who, inspired by her example, asked to join her! She had not intended to be “in charge” and when that burden was thrust on her, she hit the road at a brisk walk and (unintentionally?) left the pack behind.

I didn’t particularly like the attitude she conveyed about this misunderstanding, which she dismisses with nonchalant statements that amount to “women are like that”, namely bitchy, whiney, cliquish, etc. I just think these were the wrong women…

Christmas’s descriptions of the Camino and the people she met are vivid and often amusing. The countryside and small towns sound wonderful. The fact that she found romance on the trail warms my heart.

I wonder what the Camino is now like. From what I’ve read, the number of pilgrims has increased steadily over time. I hope the hostel accommodations, which sounded sketchy at best, have been upgraded. There’s a whole literature of this pilgrimage, and I’m interested enough that I’m likely to check it out, reading modern accounts first.