All in ‘The Family’…

The Lowder’s had a dilema. Their 2017 summer schedule was packed to overflowing. Shannon and Tracey thought they had it all figured out. Au contraire. Their European trip went without a hitch and the numerous lists on the calendar were beginning to clear. Landon’s basketball AAU stint with “The Family” out of Detroit had one last tournament. It was a biggie in Florida, end of July. Since much of the summer had been spent apart for various tourney’s and Peyton’s rigid touring choir schedule in France and Germany, the Lowder’s thought the whole family would spend the week in Florida together. To make it a more homey vacation, the rented a house instead of a hotel, airline tickets were bought. Even Ari, Josh and 6 month old Jovi were set to spend a relaxing week together. Plus that biggie tourney, but at least it was the last one this year.

Long about mid-July, Landon’s AAU coach sent out a memo saying the team had decided not to go to Florida, instead choosing a tournament in Fort Wayne, Indiana on the same weekend. Oh for cripe’s sake. The Lowder’s found themselves mildly perturbed with this news. What to do? Cancel the Florida trip, disappointing a few family members and taking a big hit monetarily? Go to Florida and take Landon along, letting him miss one tourney? Wouldn’t be the end of the world. Except for those dang college coaches constantly calling Tracey, asking when Landon’s (Drew to the rest of the world, he was on several college watch lists during AAU’s Nike season) team was arriving in Fort Wayne? Maybe let Shannon take the family to Florida and Tracey travel with Landon, but that’s how it goes most weekends. Or all but Landon head to Florida and ask the mild mannered superhero grandpa and grandma to accompany Landon for the weekend?

Actually most of the team player’s parents rarely go to these tournaments. There’s just too many, and it’s too expensive. The players and coaches travel means and hotels are paid for, so they just send their kids with the coaches. Money for meals is about all they need. I’m sure they get updates from their kids after games with twitter or phone calls. The AAU tourney’s tend to be quite far away, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Los Angeles, so Hubs and I only watch him a couple times during the summer, usually Grand Rapids and Fort Wayne, neither more than 100 miles from us.

Truthfully until the plane took off for Florida, I thought Tracey would call saying he had changed his mind and was going to Fort Wayne after all. After he comtemplated all the conversations between college coaches he would miss during the weekend, I didn’t think he could do it. It’s not a matter of trust in Landon’s care, (we did squat anyway, except show up for every game in support of the best player on the planet, or should he need us if he was hurt) but Tracey knows most of the coaches in the tight world of basketball. Can you see them popping questions to me about Landon’s technique, agility, or fade-away jump shot? Umm, no but I gotta say, I’m biased as heck where this young man’s basketball skills are concerned. Honestly, I cannot imagine ANY Division 1 college that would not benefit enormously from his prowess as point guard/defender/outside shooter/ball handler/play maker/and all around assist dude who routinely makes other players look and play better. Any. Division. 1. Team. Flat out. He ‘sees’ the floor in ways other players don’t. He just keeps getting better. Yeah, it’s all good.

But Tracey and family flew to Florida and the job of game-stat-texter was left to me. Which I totally blew the first game! We were stinking late. No excuse, our hotel was like 10 feet away! I always like to be early and watch the team warm up. I thought each half was 20 minutes, we got there about the 12 minute mark. Ugh. But it wasn’t that bad, each half is 16 minutes. In these tournaments, the games on Thursday and Friday’s are called pool play (?) something like that. It’s how high your team gets seeded in your division for the tourney, which starts Saturday morning. When Saturday rolls around, lose 1 and you’re done. So the first 3 games were not the most important ones, yet you want to do well to be seeded high. Well, we lost the first game by 3 points. Not a good way to start the tourney. They weren’t in sync and it showed. Lousy game. Period.

Fort Wayne’s Spiece Fieldhouse (home of the Gym Rats, quirky, love that name) is quite a place. We’ve been watching Landon play there occasionally for about 8 years. It has 7 basketball courts, a private workout gym for paying members, a shop loaded with t-shirts, shoes, and sports gear. But it’s the entrance and signage I find interesting. Everyone knows Indiana is one of the biggest basketball states around. There’s tons of framed uniforms from famous players (Larry Bird) and coaches (Hoosier’s Bobby Knight-I think I’m gonna be sick) hanging as you walk in the building. Plus a quote from the Fieldhouse owner Tom Spiece, bragging about the size of Indiana’s high school’s gyms. Funny.

I never think Landon’s team plays particularly well in the a.m. Might have something to do with teenage boys staying together in hotel rooms, video games, eating junk food and lack of sleep. I’m just guessing here. Naturally, The Family’s 2nd game is at 11:30. Could be worse, they’ve played as early as 8:30 before. Not a pretty sight. Lots of puffy eyelids (looks more like teenage girls who spent the night bawling). I should really be more clear when I say, The Family. At this tournament, The Family had 4 teams. One team for each age group, 14 through 17, all named, The Family. But only the 16U (U meaning 16 and under) has Landon (and his 2 doting grandparents).

The game is about to start. The coaching staff has not been very good about supplying water for the players, so we stopped at Meijer (yes, Fort Wayne has a Meijer-yay) and buy a 12 pack of water. John walks over to the team’s side of the court, hands Landon 2 bottles of water and 2 sticks of gum (Dude is coordinated. He can chew, run, dribble, shoot, set up plays, defend and make it look effortless all at the same time. Umm, Landon not grandpa). The whole team looks as though none of them feel very well. You gotta sleep guys. We hope for the best as the game starts. I’m determined to text a better game to Shannon and Tracey and keep Landon’s stats at the same time. No, I do not possess Landon’s multitasking abilities. Watching the game, using a smart-ass phone and writing down stats are approximately 2 too many things to do at one time for this gram. When Tracey is texting a game to me, he writes all kinds of stuff, floater, put back, terms I know nothing about, plus he includes the whole team. With me, unless someone gets hurts, a technical is called, the coach is being a pudgy jerk, or a kid (besides Landon) is having a superlative game, I concentrate only on Landon’s shots and stats, and both team’s score. Tracey seems content (I know it drives him batty not to be here in person) with what I send him. At least he always knows who’s leading and how many points our boy has. Had I known what was about to happen in the next 16 minutes, I would have/should have been recording. The entire half. Here’s the first half texts because I haven’t figured out how to copy and paste more than 1 text at a time. Ugh, my cross to bear:

Over 100 colleges had coaches watching players, ok Landon…

Warming up now.
Hugged me, told grandpa he doesn’t feel well. Starting.
6-0 us, L with a 3. Another 3 for L, 9 zip. Another 3 for L, 14-0.
Another 3 for L, 20-0.
(Shannon) WOW!
Another 3 for L, blocked a shot too. 20-1. He’s got 15, not many coaches here tho. 22-5, 10 min left.
Another 3 for L. For L, he’s got 18 of our 27.
Coach cannot find a reason to yell, though he did have a turnover.
Another 3 for L. First miss. 30-5. Not planted.
(Shannon) Michigan is there, so that’s good-Edwin is calling all excited and so is Rayshawn.
Jumper L. Time out, 3 min left, 36-12. L has 23.
Another 3 for L. Another 3 at the buzzer, he’s got 29. 44-14.
(Shannon) that’s 9-3’s?
Right and one short jumper, he missed one long shot all half.
Dad’s taking credit, gave him 2 sticks of Juicy Fruit. Oh boy.
(Shannon) apparently tl (Tracey Lowder) told him he’d buy him shoes if he scored 30 in a game. Or it could be the juicy fruit.

Well, what is there left to say? The Family went on win the game easily. Landon played very little during the second half-no need with the score that lopsided. And rest those starters for the next game, which just might be very close. Game 3 is Friday afternoon, then we’re done with seeding. Another easy win. Cute little 30 year old gal sitting next to me, not old enough to have a son on the team. No, she is dating one of the coaches of, The Buckeyes (from Chicago-I know, makes no sense. The team is from Chicago, but the coach graduated from Ohio State. Huh?) She politely asks if I’m # 4’s grandmother? No, # 0 is my grandson, I reply (# 4 is a big blonde-she seemed embarrassed). But she recovered nicely after Landon tossed in a couple of 3’s in a row. I said, yeah, he’s been having a good day shooting 3’s. She slapped a hand over her mouth and squealed, “is he the young man everyone’s talking about? Had so many 3 pointers in a game this morning?” “Yup, that’s Landon!” She looked confused until I explained that I’m the only one who calls Drew, Landon. Only because it’s his name.

Shortly after the game, I get a text from Landon: “I’m in a 3 point shooting contest tonight at Northside High School.” OK, now we have something to do that night. Can’t believe how many people show up, the gym is packed! (Remember how crazy those Indiana folks are about their basketball and gym size)? They start with the 14 year olds, one player on each side of the court. Five chairs, evenly spaced along the 3-point line, each chair holds 3 basketballs. The players start by one chair in the corner, shooting as fast as they can before moving to the next chair with another 3 balls. Perfect score would be 15. The shot clock is set at 30 seconds. You’re not really pitted against the other player as much as you are against the ticking clock. After all the players of that age group are done, there’s either a winner or a play-off of those who tied. Same set up, but timer is set at 15 seconds. Landon’s 16-U division (only 1 player from each team can enter the contest) has maybe 14-18 kids in line. Landon scores 8 in the first round, tying with a couple other kids. But my man comes through, hitting 4 shots in 15 seconds to win his age division. Gets a round of applause and a winning plaque, which he promptly brings over to me. Hubs and I leave just as they’re starting the dunk contest. Unless you’re 7 feet tall, it’s impossible to see cause everyone is now gathered in a huge circle surrounding half the court.

Landon’s team wins both games on Saturday to qualify for the semi-finals on Sunday morning. Landon plays well in both games, scoring 11 in the first one. He does not feel well in 5th game, he’s pale and bending over a lot, so sits out most of the first half, sipping water. Landon ends up with 18 points, with several college coaches (including Michigan’s Beilein and MSU’s Izzo, sitting one chair apart from each other, but pretty much ignoring that fact, no love lost there I think) on one side of the court. Over a hundred colleges are represented with coaches watching certain players.

Landon, front row, 2nd from right. The reigning 16-U national champs, 2017

The Family landed a team in the semi-finals in every age division. Amazing. All 4 teams win their semi’s. We win by a dozen points, Landon’s game is solid, scoring 8, with several assists and rebounds. The championship game is better. Landon has 13 the first half, game total of 18, sitting out the final minutes because we’re up by 30!! Three of the 4 ‘Family’ teams win their divisions. Only the 17-U lose (we’ll remedy that little issue next year, Landon’s 17th birthday is in a couple weeks). Landon is picked as one of the top 5 players of the whole tournament, averaging 15 points a game. I truly believe it’s based more than on just his average point total. It’s the ‘way’ he plays. Intensity, court skills, unselfish play. After pictures with the trophy, we collect the kid and head back to Jackson. We’re all bushed but pumped. Shannon and Tracey will be home the next day and our super hero status will falter, although Landon’s team fared about the best with us as fabulous substitutes during their many tournaments this season. Just sayin. Landon tells me to keep the 3-point plaque, I’m thrilled, though his parents might be a lot less than.

A week later I’m sitting next to Landon at Peyton’s final concert at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp. “Do you want your plaque back,” I asked? “No, why,” he counters? “Because I’m deciding where to hang it and don’t want to make a nail hole if you want it back.” He turns and says seriously, “pound the nail gram.”

It’s been a good summer. No, a great summer. Peyton with her European concert tour. Watching Jovi get cuter by the day. Landon with another great season of displaying his hoops talent. And growing a couple inches. Maybe the biggest news is getting his first 2 basketball scholarship offers from colleges, Toledo and Northern Illinois. Not the biggest or best baskeball schools-yet. So I guess it’s officially started. Let the bidding war begin. The line forms on my back deck. Do not park on the grass, Landon’s grandpa hates that. Now exactly who are you, why do you want my boy, and what kind of playing time we talking…

City of Lights…

It all started late last fall, think it was Thanksgiving. Shannon announced that our 7th grade granddaughter, Peyton (singer-dancer extraordinaire) had been selected as a member of Michigan’s Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp International Touring Choir. Peyton would be heading to France and Germany with 4 dozen singers for 6 weeks during the summer. “Anyone interested in a little plane ride to hear her sing in Paris?”

Staying limber by the Baltic Sea. Singer/dancer Peyton, 2017…

Not hardly. I adore Peyton and her over-abundance of pure talent, but another trip over seas, no thanks. I was still recovering from my 12 day trip to Italy, June 2016 with Shannon, and the thought of another long flight was less than appealing. Italy was fantastic, but physically challanging because of my sore leg. Before heading back to the kitchen to finish the dishes, I mumbled, “Think I’ll pass, but the rest of you go and have a great time!”

Venice, Italy 2016…

Shannon, Tracey and Landon were going for sure. Josh and Erica had an invite for a Paris destination wedding of a friend so they were contemplating the trip to include both events. I can say with utmost certainty, I NEVER gave a trip to Europe another thought.

T, Landon & Shannon on their way to Paris, 2017…

Peyton got out of school on a Thursday in early June and headed to Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp the next day for a week of intensive rehearsals before jetting across the ocean. Shannon was planning her extended stay in France and Germany, plus the week Tracey and Landon would be there, when she sent this zinger. “Ugh, I’ve been detailing our trip, concert venues, hotels, car rentals, places the guys might like to see besides everything old and artsy! You know mom, I’m gonna be alone in Paris for 5 days after they leave. All it would cost you is your flight. You interested? Think about it!” Oh boy. “Umm, just for curiosity’s sake, where might I find some good flight prices?” I asked, ever so casually. “With a date this close (about 3 weeks away), Metro’s gonna be high. Try Chicago or Toronto. Surely dad would drive you to Toronto.” Double oh boy. Really need to mention to the Hubs I’m now contemplating ANOTHER trip abroad. How exactly do I broach that one? After hem-hawing around, finally just blurted out I wanted to go to Paris. Awkward. John was not in favor. At all. No, it wasn’t the money or going without him. He loves when I do stuff with any of the kids-with or without him. He was very uncomfortable with ANYONE from our family traveling abroad this summer.

After Hubs calmed down, I started looking for an inexpensive flight. Without going into first class stuff, the prices started under a grand and up. Cheapest was flying out of Toronto. That’s about 300 miles away. But what a great excuse to stop at Niagara Falls again. It’s only 75 miles out of our way! I booked the flight on an airline I’ve never heard of. Had to board a train at the airport, walk out in a poop filled field and pick out my very own Canadian Goose responsible for zipping me to Charles de Gaulle airport. Oh honkers. Glad I wore long sleeves. It’s cool at 38,000 ft.

Breathtaking Niagara Falls, 2017…

While I thought the trip to Italy was a couple days too long, I felt the opposite about Paris. Much of this was due to travel time. Peyton’s last concert (my only chance to hear her) was 7 hours from Paris, thus pretty much shooting anything productive or touristy for 2 solid days, which were spent in a car. OK, it was a Mercedes Benz. And driving on the Autobahn. Just belt it out there Janis. So, while I can hardly be considered knowledgeable about one of the most famous cities in the world, I’m not without an opinion or willing to share it either. Just take the following observations with a grain of salt-s’il vous plait. (If you please)

Yup, says I was doing 102 in Germany, 2017…

1. They eat kind of strange. No matter what type of restaurant we were in or what they were eating, the French eat weird. They use their knife like an extra digit/extension of their hand. They’re talking (quietly) a mile-a-minute, using lots of expression, but the knife in their hand seems to have a mind of its own and a mission to accomplish. It’s (the knife) on the move constantly, moving, circling, cutting, encouraging morsels to get with the program and move towards the fork. Daintily piling it on higher, making the mound on the fork fuller, and neat. Ready for consumption. There’s no way I’ve ever got my knife to behave like that, making those slick moves.

2. Don’t know about the rest of France, but Paris has an overabundance of motorcycles. Crowded city, parking is at a premium. Motorcycles park everywhere and anywhere, usually on the sidewalk. But it’s when they’re not parked that really blew my gasket. They have more rights than cars or pedestrians. I’ve watched motorcycles weave in and out of traffic my whole life, nothing new. But in Paris motorcycles drive in between the car lanes, yup pretty much right on the painted lines. You could easily maim a dozen bikers every block if you just opened either one of your car doors. And when you come to a stop light, all the motorcycles behind you pull up to the front of the line. And they have a style of bike I’ve never seen or noticed before. It has 2 front tires. Rather small and quite close together, maybe 8 inches apart. Do they even have sell that style here?

3. France does not seem to like colored cars. About 80% of the cars were black. Henry Ford would be pleased about their color choice, but not with the amount of American cars on the roads. During the week, I spotted about 5 Fords, couple of Nissans, not one Chevy or pickup and very few SUV’s. Silver and white colors made up the other 20%.

4. Guys/hip/young/older-even business men wore very skin tight jeans or dress pants. Capris too and many carried purses. That was different.

5. The French didn’t get the memo: smoking is bad for you and those around you. Wow, a lot of folks were still smoking in France.

6. The French enjoy a good meal out. They eat late and take a very long time in restaurants, often 2-3 hours. Perhaps perfecting their knifing techniques. You can watch your entire life pass before your eyes (in slo-mo) before the waiter brings your check. Side note: saw very few overweight people in France.

This was my only German meal, rote bratwurst, speck & sour-salad…

7. A very popular mode of transportation is walking. On uneven surfaces (poured cement was rare), but sure-footed, agile and often in high heels. As for fashion, almost anything goes. Because walking is done by the majority of the French, young parents use strollers far past the time most Americans parents do. Children, looking as old as 7 or so were quite common to see. As for why many of these kids were still using pacifiers, I cannot imagine their reasoning. On the flight home, a family of 3 sat next to me. The little boy appeared to be around 5 or 6. Drank from a baby bottle and sucked on a pacifier as he colored and drew pictures in his book. Ugh.

8. For the most part, I found the French very polite. One motorcycle dude nearly hit me with his bike. I was in the cross-walk, walking with at least a hundred people on a green walk sign, yet he clearly thought he should be able to squeeze through and motioned for me to stop, letting him go because I was in the wrong. I poo-poohed him away with my hand (no, not just the one finger) and kept walking. A couple of folks might have been a little bit frustrated with me at times when I didn’t understand what they were trying to say. When I explained my hearing loss (just showed ’em the old hearing aid) they were much more patient and pleasant.

St. Francis of Assisi painting at The Louvre, 2017..,

9. Not one hotel (I stayed in 3, one was in Germany) used top sheets on the bed or had washcloths. That’s just wrong. And weird.

10. There are security guards at the entrances of every store, and I had to open my purse or bags I was carrying.

11. In our last Paris hotel, the bathroom was bigger than the room. The strange looking door key slides into a slot by the light switch which activates the electricity. When you pull your key to leave, everything turns off but the air conditioner. And you turn your key into the front desk everytime you leave. I should have asked someone because I have no clue why. Hotel had 6 floors but the elevator only went up to 5. Don’t say it. Just don’t. Guess which floor we were on? Of course, number 6. It did have great views of the city. As we were checking in, the manager motioned conspiratorially for us to follow him. Down the hall, through 2 doors, he unlocks a service elevator, packs in the 3 of us (we now have Peyton with us) and all our belongings inside with this admonishment, “you are not to use this elevator unless you are checking out. Walk down one flight and use the elevator from floor 5. Same when you come back in, use the regular elevator up to the fifth floor and walk up the stairs to 6. Understand?” No, please explain that again. It’s 10 pm and we’re too tired to go back out and find something to eat, but explain again how your world will unravel if we use the service elevator.

12. Tables in restaurants are spaced less than a foot apart. Ice is a precious commodity and doled out unwillingly. Water is never given unless requested, plus then you get charged for it. Pop is more expensive than some wines. Coke lite was 5-7 dollars a bottle.

Pop & water adding up to over 21 bucks, so out of line…

13. Driving the Autobahn in Germany was a blast. Made Shannon take a picture as I cruised along at 102 mph, the fastest I dared to drive. No one stays in the left lane EVER like they do in America. You signal, move to the left lane, pass, signal and move back to the right. So that’s how it’s supposed to work! Clipping along at 102 in the middle lane, I was constantly passed by cars going much faster, say 130 or better. Yikes, I loved it.

14. Peyton’s concert was held in a high school in a small town in Germany, not too far from Munich. During intermission, the hallway had a lovely table set up offering beer, wine, pop or champagne. No cookies though. Bummer. Shannon and I sipped Mimosas! Can you believe it?

15. Notre Dame is magnificent! Just think, construction began about 1000 years ago. Makes you realize how young America is. 14,000,000 people visit the cathedral every year. Amazing and awesome. Did not see the Hunchback.

Notre Dame…

16. The Louvre. Inspiring. No small feat once you’ve arrived. The place has almost 800,000 square feet and 38,000 objects/art/antiques, vying for your attention. Overwhelming after you walk in. Quick crash course: The Mona Lisa is a bit over-rated. It’s rather dark and small. But by far the most popular room at the Louvre. The painting hangs behind glass, and back a few feet from a railing, keeping the crazies at bay. A least a couple of hundred jostling, pushy people, all trying to get up to the railing to take some pictures. The oddity? Most everyone turned around once they managed to get to that coveted spot. Wanting a selfie with The Mona. Ugh.

No selfie here, just Mona Lisa at The Louvre…

16.A. The famous ancient Greek sculpture, Venus de Milos (Aphrodite) is very impressive.

Venus de Milo. Beautiful…

16.B. As was Napoleon’s apartment. For a small guy, he might have overcompensated just a bit. If the painted ceilings weren’t quite enough, one of his Chandeliers is larger than our entire family room. Very showy, little man.

17. The Eiffel Tower. Just. Wow. Built as the entrance to the World’s Fair in 1889, construction started in 1887. Made of wrought iron lattice work, it spans about 1000 feet in height. Impressive. Very. Standing tall and proud on the banks of the Seine River, it is the most popular paid monument in the world with close to 7 million people a year. All of whom picked the same day as Shannon and I. We stood in line for 2 hours to buy tickets. With 2 security check points. The views are spectacular. We toured during the day, so I did not see the gorgeous night lights. Shannon, Tracey and Landon went at night before I got there.

Eiffel Tower. Speechless…

18. Steak Tartar. Hubs and I went to a fancy restaurant in Janesville, Wisconsin 30 years ago. The place had a humongeous pipe organ and a menu that could have been considered a novel-it was that long. On the menu was Steak Tartar. I had to ask because I had never heard of it. Raw steak. Not rare, but raw. I always assumed that meant a good sirloin or Porterhouse. But ice cold and raw? No thanks. At McDonald’s we were taught that E-coli sits just about everywhere on meat. Yucky thought. If you want your steak really, really rare, that’s ok. As long as you sear both sides on a very hot surface, any nasty organisms are toast. But with hamburger, E-coli is no longer just sitting on top because it’s ground up, thus putting it throughout the meat. So we cooked our beef to a minimum of 155 degrees, thus ensuring 99.99% of E-coli was destroyed. Sorry, that was more lengthy than I intended. Anyway in France, Steak Tartar is on every menu and very popular. But it’s not just hunks or tidbits of steak. It’s good ground beef, steak or HORSE meat that resembles a hamburger pattie. And often served with onions, capers and raw egg yolk. Just kill me now. Looking at the plate I thought, wow if you take away the capers, add half a cup of oatmeal, mix it all up and plop it in a pan at 350 degrees oven for an hour. Voila-meatloaf. Oui-oui…

View of Paris from the Eiffel Tower…
Looks like a raw meatloaf on his plate…

Niagara Falls…

I’ve always loved slapstick so you’d think the Three Stooges would be at the top of my list. Not so. I never found them particularly funny. Moe was just plain mean. Still I watched them when I was younger. Anyone remember the skit about Niagara Falls? Everytime those 2 words are uttered, Moe and Larry go into this speel, “Ni-agra-Falls! Slowly I turn, step by step, inch by inch.” Poor Curly, (I do love the noises he makes) gets the ever-lovin’ snot beat out of him. Again.

My incredible Niagara Falls, 2017…

I have been a-ga-ga over Niagara Falls since the first time I laid eyes on this amazing wonder of nature about 20 years ago. Hubs was buying a piece of machinery equipment in New York and I was along for the ride. After the business was done, we were ready to start our 8 hour drive back to North Muskegon, John casually asked if I wanted to stop at Niagara Falls? I had never been, so I said sure.

He assumed half hour-tops-and we’d be on our way. Poor Hubs. Talk about an immovable object. I simply could not tear my eyes from the Falls. “Come on Denise, we’ve got a long ways to go. If we don’t get on the road soon, we won’t get home until 3 in the morning. We gotta go.” “Just 10 more minutes,” I whined, “I’m not ready! Can’t we just spend one night? Or a week,” I pleaded?”No, I have to get back at work. Let’s find the car,” he said. “I promise, we’ll come back soon.”

Deserving a big wow I think…

From that moment forward, getting back to Niagara Falls as often as I could, no matter the means became paramount. Hitchiking, flying, walking, driving, jogging, duck walk, crab crawl, skateboarding, roller skating. How I got there didn’t matter, only how often and how long could I stay this trip?

My next trip to Niagara had to wait a few years. Mom was in deep health decline and all trips from Michigan were heading due west to Iowa, not north-east towards The Falls. Mom passed away in late 2004. A few months later, Hubs, Adam and I moved my spry 88 year old Dad to an apartment a couple blocks from us in North Muskegon. When Dad was settled, we finally found some time to spend at Niagara (8 hours by car). I prefer staying on the American side, although probably the best view of the Falls is from the Canadian side. Canada’s side is just too busy, almost a carnival-like atmosphere. Vendors hawking t-shirts, hotels with an outside wall to practice your wall/rock climbing skills. Geared towards families with kids who are bored after watching some water spill over some rocks for 10 minutes or young folks looking to party. For me, I enjoy the more sedate beauty of the oldest state park in America. Established in 1885. Two hundred plus acres, Goat Island and 3 Sisters Islands. Lots of room, even with 10 to 12 million visitors a year. And you can almost touch the water near The Bridal Veil as it runs over. If you watch for a few minutes, you can see leaves in the water jetting by. I’ve even seen fish go over. And the color is such a beautiful light mint green, it cannot be duplicated. No really, Sherwin tried. So did Williams.

It was May, 2005. I brought along my walking paraphernalia, including playlists to keep my feet moving. We were there during the week and the weather was quite cool. Always an early riser, I had all my gear in the bathroom so I wouldn’t wake John up. My hearing loss was noticeable but not nearly as significant as it is now. I walked out of the Holiday Inn at dawn, stepped out on an empty sidewalk and listened. The Falls are about a block and a half away, and I can clearly hear the roar and see the fine mist rising up. There are no words. No. Words. I set my music to play, plop on my headphones and start walking towards the mist. My, that sounds positively Stephen King-ish. Eerie. But Niagara Falls mist is all good except when it hampers my view too much.

The 4 foot wide blacktop trail that runs along the falls is often slanted, full of pot holes, cracks, and unforgiving edges. For a person with a hearing loss and balance issues, this means I must pay strict attention to the pavement at all times. Bummer. I had hoped to ‘walk & gawk’ the Falls, but now was faced with paying close attention to my not so fancy footwork. There are a couple popular very wide sections of cement that hold hundreds of people trying to get up close and personal just at the edge of the Falls where a few million gallons of water per minute spill over. By now I am sharing my walk with a few local joggers (can you just imagine this is their regular daily routine and most probably don’t even ‘see’ the Falls anymore-say what?), a few maintenance guys emptying trash barrels, sweeping sidewalks, picking up trash.

I find myself doing 2 things out of the ordinary during my normal walking routine. I ditch the headphones and music cause it seems sacrilegious not to enjoy the sounds of The Falls as I walk. And I stop frequently which I never do while walking. Not even when I should to avoid getting hit by a car (drivers who seem hesitant to give the right of way to a mere mortal). Hey, I’m the pedestrian here, you stop for me! (Hubs has warned me repeatedly, “Denise, you’re gonna get hit. You’ll wind up dead, but at least you’ll be dead right.” What a keen sense of humor). Whenever I dare glance up for a second, the breath gets knocked out of me from the spectacular view. I simply stop until normal breathing ensues, and continue on my merry way.

The next morning it’s raining. Hard. Let’s see. How many people in the world get to walk/jog/run/meander along one of the world’s most beautiful natural wonders? And almost have the whole place to themselves? Not very freaking many. I am certainly not giving up my time alone with The Falls because of a little rain. Besides, it was in the mid 50’s, and I have a rain coat. I cross the bridge (the original one built in the late 1800’s, now it’s only used by folks walking across) that leads to Goat Island and find since some of it is metal, it’s like walking in an ice storm. Very slippery and my footing is precarious. After crossing the bridge, there’s lots of bushes, shrubs and trees on both sides. It’s very early and pretty isolated and I don’t have a good feeling being there by myself. Turn around, slip and slide back across and eliminate the bridge from my walk. For the most part, I make about a half mile loop, out in the open, along the Falls. I do venture a bit farther than I should though on every loop. Why? Because of a tree. My favorite tree in the world. It’s full of worts. I really don’t know what you call these good sized bumps. The tree is crooked, kind of by itself, near where The Rapids actually start.

My gnarly tree…

The Rapids. They run the width of the Niagara River about a half mile before tumbling over the Falls. There is a sign stating, No boats beyond this point. (Meaning, you can’t stop or get turned around past this point, you’re going over, adios). The Rapids are only about 5 or 6 feet deep but the water is clipping along at a brisk 30 miles an hour. This puts The Rapids in some special catagory of a 5 or 6. What that means exactly I don’t know, but a tour guide once said, “The Rapids are unsurvivable should you fall in.” Alrighty then. The Rapid’s colors vary from light to darker blue, to white and green. I won’t say I love the Rapids more than the actual Falls. But it’s very close, maybe even tied. The Rapids have their own story to tell, and I find myself listening (it’s quite loud, even for the hearing impaired) and watching them in awe. For hours. Which can be a little frustrating to a person who does not love The Rapids with all his little pea-pickin-heart like I do.

The awesome Rapids…

By the time my rainy walk was done, my shorts were soaking wet. I hung them up in the bathroom to find them nice and dry the next morning, but stiff as a board. Still, all good. How about taking a ride on Maid of the Mist, which gets you pretty close to the actual Falls? Strange sensation, hearing and feeling the power of the boat’s engines fighting hard to avoid from being pushed rudely downriver. You can take an elevator beneath The Bridal Veil, tramp your way through a tunnel, and find yourself directly under the biggest shower-ever. Climb some wooden steps close enough to be scared by the water’s enormous power. Or take a cable car across The Gorge (notice how I capitalize The each time I mention Rapids, Falls or Gorge? They’re just too important, too big, too impressive not to have the word The with a capital letter. And I don’t think I’m that easily impressed). But The Falls, The Rapids, The Gorge deserve such recognition. I’m still surprised I dared go on the cable car. It’s quite a stretch, very high over the river, a bit further down from The Falls. Smack dab in the middle of the water is this strange natural phenomenom. It’s a gigantic whirlpool, caused by erosion. Scary. Another great way to do some oohing & ahhing is off the Observation Deck. Jutting out over the river with fantastic views of both sides of The Falls.

We (or just me) have visited Niagara Falls with different family and friends over the last few years. John’s brother Les and sister-in-law Mary Jane went with us in the fall of 2006. Jane and I used football as an excuse to enjoy The Falls and bought Buffalo Bills-Minnesota Viking tickets. A word about a couple things here. Remember I said 10 to 12 million people visit The Falls every year? Ugh, that’s an awful lot of people horning in on my territory. But I’ve found a solution, and was reminded why I came to that conclusion on this last trip. Folks flock to The Falls en masse during June, July and August. I assume cause the kiddos are out of school. So here’s the ticket. Don’t, I repeat, do not go in June, July or August. Had we wanted to go on the observation deck a couple of weeks ago, it was about a 2 hour wait. Same for The Gorge, or Maid of the Mist. In a hot line with dogs, kids and strollers. The most enjoyable trips for us have been in May or September/October.

Long time friends Dale & Beth Duits came to visit us from Minnesota in 2009. We let them recuperate from their long drive for a whopping 24 hours before hauling them to Niagara. They had never been there before. Good times. In 2012, Shannon and I attended a bridal shower in Pennsylvania for our then soon to be sister/daughter-in-law Erica, but not before spending 2 days at Niagara. Shannon hadn’t had the opportunity to see them before either. Joann, one of my dear friends from Muskegon wanted to go to a wedding near Boston in 2013. Didn’t want to go alone or fly. “Umm, I’ll go along and drive if we can stop at Niagara Falls.” Wasn’t that nice of me? We stayed in Niagara twice, on the way to the wedding and on the way home. Heaven. This was in April and it was very cool and rainy at The Falls. We actually drove through downtown Boston 2 days before the Marathon bombing. Heard about it on the radio on our way home through Canada. Horrible terrorists.

Since I hadn’t been there since 2013, I noticed many changes. There’s been a lot of remodeling. The Bridal Veil observation lot has been completely redone. It’s fantastic. All the blacktop walkways that were long, long overdue for updating have been replaced. Now they appear about twice as wide, maybe 8 foot instead of 4. And I was only there several hours. Did not get over to Goat or 3 Sisters Islands which have had face lifts too. Maybe next time. There will be a next time. Soon.

One more little item. A side trip when you’re visiting the Falls. Buffalo is about 30 miles away. There’s a pub in Buffalo called The Anchor Bar (yes, also deserving of a capital T on the). Legend, folklore, don’t know, don’t care. The Anchor Bar is owned and operated by Frank & Teressa since-forever. In 1964 several of their son’s friends stopped at the bar quite late and were hungry. Ten minutes later Mother Teressa (different gal than Mother Teresa of Calcutta) plopped down a platter of something in front of them. No one knew exactly what they were looking at and her son was a bit embarrassed. “It’s a shame to put such beautiful wings in a stockpot,” said Mother Teressa (again, not the same saint). Teressa had just invented the original Buffalo Wings. I do know the wings are the real deal. Delicious. Mild, medium, hot or suicidal, yikes. During our trip with Les and Mary Jane, we were standing in a long line waiting for a table on a Saturday night. On John’s left stood a half dozen Vikings (Brian McKinney-all 355 pound, 6’8″ of him) each patiently waiting for their own to go bags. Who am I trying to kid? Brian walked out with 6 boxes. The Anchor Bar. Worth the trip as long as you’re already at The Falls. And if you require a guide, I’m available. Cheap…


I never had a desire to travel abroad. There’s too many places I still need to see in America. Then I got an opportunity to visit Italy up close and personal. It’s been 13 months since Shannon and I traveled to Italy. And I’ve written a whopping 4 sentences about it. These were snippets that occured while I was there. It was a wonderful 12 day trip with my daughter, and inexcusable why I haven’t written at least one story about my trip.

The Coliseum literally took my breath away. June, 2016…

I wasn’t ready. I know, that’s lame. I knew about Italy months in advance, yet still felt unprepared when I left. Much of my anxiety/apprehension was because of a health issue, which is kinda funny. When Shannon asked me to go, she worded it this way, “mom, you really need to come. You’ve never been to Europe and we’ve never taken a big vacation together. I want you to go while you’re still ambulatory and have all your faculties.” (she has such a warped sense of humor) Well ‘most’ of my faculties were hovering nearby, but it was the ambulatory part which was given me fits.

The Coliseum is enormous…

I hurt my left leg behind the knee 4 months earlier. Just walking. Felt a burning, searing pain and instead of turning around and limping home, walked another mile. Tried to tough it out but after a month of swelling and hobbling around I went to see my primary care doctor. He thought it was a Baker’s cyst and sent me to an orthopedic guy who didn’t think so. Had x-rays, an MRI, physical therapy and a couple of prescriptions over the next 2 months.

By Mother’s Day, 3 months after the initial boo-boo, I had a baseball size lump on the left side of my knee. I was starting to panic about going to Italy. I was in constant pain, limping with every step. In my detailed trip itinerary was this troubling sentence: we’ll do a lot of walking, bring comfy shoes. No where did it state, make sure you have 2 good legs (guess that’s a given). I didn’t want to embarrass Shannon or hold up the group. About a week before we left, the ortho doc gave me a cortisone shot in the knee. It helped quite a bit. Still I was a huge drain on our little 17 non-related American family in Italy, especially Shannon. It was Shannon and one of the leaders of our group, a great guy named Doug who often helped lug my suitcase up and down the stairs, on and off busses, trains and the airport. Ah, water under bridge, or in the canal. By the way, when you see those charming canals, the way humans get over them without getting wet is a bridge. A curved sloped bridge, usually with steps. Many, many steps. Which I had to take one-at-a-time with my purse, carry on and suitcase, unless one of my guardian angels saw my pitiful grimace. Oh, I was a slow-moving-sloth-drain. OK, enough about my temporary disabilites. (It took my knee a year to heal and I still have to be careful when I twist, pivot or use the stairs, but it is loads better)

Christy from our group near The Coliseum, 2016…

First stop. The highs and lows of 3 days in Rome. I might have been expecting too much. Rome-holy-city-Pope. Nope. OK, it wasn’t all ethereal. It’s a huge city, so there’s some trash in the streets, slums, even graffiti on abandoned buildings. But when you visit their ancient artifacts, they’re absolutely pristine. They know how to care for the things they revere and honor.

Our hotel in Rome was the nicest of our 4 stops. Breakfast was included everyday with all our hotel rooms. But Rome! Yowza! The dining area had a huge room where they served the breakfast buffet. Not chintzy American hotel fare either. Wafer thin slices of prosciutto which is dry-cured ham, homemade crusty breads and rolls, butter, a dozen varieties of cheese. Eggs, meats, fresh fruits. Their breakfast feasts resembled a fine lunch or brunch buffet. Coffee was strong and delicious. Real china plates, coffee cups, silverware and cloth napkins. The salt & pepper shakers were miniature. Salt shaker had 3 tiny holes, pepper had 1. So cute. Hubs would still be sitting at the first table, the first day, shaking condiments on his eggs. Thirteen months later.

Look at the itty-bitty holes on condiments. When in Rome….

We toured Pricilla’s Catacombs. Underground, narrow, dark, uneven surfaces. These catacombs were used as burial grounds from the 2nd to 4th centuries for Christians. It’s the only thing I did and wished I hadn’t. I still can’t believe I didn’t trip or fall. Small rocks jutting up from the ground with poor lighting at best. But it was neat to go through. Scary for me with my lack of balance and fat knee.

The biggest disappointment of the trip fell to Rome too. The Sistine Chapel. We arrived early, waited in line a long time and got shoved through in under 90 seconds. Ugh. Maybe nobody’s fault. Still sucked. The Orlando, Florida mass shooting happened the day before so there was heightened security. The police stood everywhere shouting, “silence, silence, keep moving, silence! Move along. Silence.” Not exactly the most reverent mood setter as you should slowly stroll through, eyes lifted upwards as you gaze on Michelangelo’s, The Last Judgement painted on the ceiling. It was like waiting in an impatient line for a carnival ride as a kid, jostled, pushed, smashed against too many people. This week, a year later on my FaceBook newsfeed, I noticed a TV anchor guy, Bret Baier vacationed with his family in Italy. My jaw dropped when he posted a picture outside the Sistine Chapel. Oh my, not exactly the way I remember the Sistine Chapel on the day we were there.

But Rome also supplied me with my favorite top-spot of the whole trip too. And I was kinda surprised with my reaction when I saw it. I was smitten, speechless, breathless, awed, mesmerized. More than our constant art overload, more than Michelangelo’s David in all his nude glory. Not the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, none of the above-put together. For me it was The Coliseum. Heavens to Betsy, it seemed not-of-this-world! There are no adjectives to describe setting eyes on The Coliseum, which once held 50 to 80 thousand crazy folks. They had recently installed an elevator or there is no way I could have gone inside. The steps were too numerous to count, narrow and very steep. Those ancient Romans were in tip-top shape. If you ever have the chance to go, pick Rome. Just for the Coliseum. Awesome, superb, mind blowing, stunning. Wow. Just wow. Wow.

Shannon & I at The Coliseum. Surprising how high up we are, 2016…

Second verse, same as the first. No, our second stop was the polar opposite of anything Rome-like. Assisi. I loved it there. A drastic, dramatic change in sights, sounds and scenery from Rome. Assisi was built on the top of a hill as a fortress. For this gal with a bothersome leg, the steep up and down streets were almost too painful to manuever. But it was just so neat. With spectacular views overlooking the countryside, small towns, roads and woods. The birthplace of St. Francis and St. Clare back in the 11 century I think. Church after church after church! Holy Hannah. Awesome. Some churches were very humble, some beyond very ornate.

Our tour group with the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in the background, 2016…

The street artist in Assisi was phenomenal. He started this 6 foot chalk drawing before we got there and finished St. Clare before we left town. Townsfolk said these chalk drawings usually last a few weeks. I’m still sick about a gorgeous oval platter I did not buy. It was made near Assisi and believe it’s called Deruta. I would buy a special trinket later, but still wish the platter was hanging on my wall. I would be remiss here if I didn’t mention gelato. Italian ice cream. Rich and sweet. Never tasted it before Italy (ok devoured a dish every day of my trip). Life is good with gelato.

A street artist chalk drawing of St. Clare of Assisi, 2016…

Florence, my third stop. The city is hip, yet very old. Our hotel was just bizarre. It’s ultra modern. Just didn’t seem to go with the flow of the city. The hotel entrance looked like a bench with a mess of open laptops on it. Those were chairs. But I liked Florence a lot. Michelangelo’s David is in Florence. And Michelangelo is buried there. There’s a church called Duomo Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. It’s made of pink, white and green marble and is very striking. Pink marble, still can’t get over the color. But even that unusual landmark didn’t have the impact or bring up the raw emotion that traveling 8 miles outside the city on a bus would hold for me. The Florence American Cemetery. Sitting on 70 acres rests over 4,400 of our soldiers remains. I started crying as soon as we got there. Green, green grass surrounded by trees, with rolling hills, a memorial wall and small pool. And thousands of white crosses. Thousands. Most of the deaths were from the Fifth Army during the month of June, 1944. Too much. The cemetery is immaculately cared for by Italy, which has promised to always watch over our soldiers.

An emotional day. American Cemetery in Florence, Italy, 2016…

Our last stop was highly anticipated by me. I think I was the only one though. We went to Venice for 2 days. Venice-meh, but one of the side trips offered was a 45 minute boat ride to the island of Murano. This is what I was excited about. I LOVE blown glass. This is where I was going to buy a-drop-dead-gorgeous-piece-of-authentic-Murano-hand-blown-glass. We had some time constraints, (there was that boat back to Venice we needed to be on) and I had a terrible time choosing a special-I-went-all-the-way-to-Italy-just-to-buy-this-but-I-got-er-done. The vase was too big and fragile to carry, so I had it shipped home. It’s a lovely remembrance of my trip.

Um Dave, show some modesty please. Dude, nice butt…

One other side trip was really neat. I’m a little vague on exactly which person of our group knew this gal, but think it was our fearless leader, Dave. Pretty sure the gal’s name was Ann and I know she’s American. She married an Italian 40 years ago and has lived there for decades. Ann invited us to her home for an Italian family dinner. I didn’t count the number of courses but it had to be close to 20. Ann had every known friend and relative helping with serving, clearing, cooking, washing dishes, taking pictures, visiting with all of us. We were stuffed and humbled by their kindness, delicious food and desire to make it a night we would all remember. My trip to Italy, gelato, the quaint farm supper, The Coliseum, The American Cemetery, gelato, Catacombs, Assisi, 17 foot David, the art, gelato, island of Murano, the magnificent churches. Really fabulous and memorable. I’m sorry I didn’t write about it sooner. It was so much to process. Big thanks to Shannon and Tracey. Love you guys. Until my next story, Au Revoir, er, I mean Auf Wiedersehen…

My hand blown glass vase from Murano, 2016…