Monthly Archives: September 2015

Dirk Pitt – Revisited!

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On our vacation this year to North Carolina, I got to visit my favorite place in the whole world—Montreat. Just a short distance from Black Mountain and less than a half hour drive from Asheville, Montreat is the place I vacationed almost every year growing up and the special place I have written about before. And this year, I realized one more reason Montreat is a special place—it was here where I was introduced to Dirk Pitt, almost 40 years ago.

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On a family vacation to Montreat while I was still in college, my brother-in-law loaned me a book he had just finished reading—Raise the Titanic! It was my first exposure to Clive Cussler’s iconic character, Dirk Pitt and I loved his swashbuckler ways. When the book was first published, the sunken titanic had not been discovered so it was exciting to think not just of its discovery but also of the possibility of re-floating it. As soon as I finished the book, I knew I would have to read more novels featuring this unique character.

I first went back and read Cussler’s earlier books, the Titanic! being his fourth book in the series. And every couple of years as a new Dirk Pitt adventure was published; I would purchase it as soon as it came out. I was hooked!

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Although not what you would consider great literary works, these highly entertaining stories have placed Cussler on the New York Times bestseller list more than 20 times boasting over 125 million fans worldwide (so I’m not alone). In his popular Dirk Pitt series, Cussler uses the same format each time where the book opens with an actual historical event—often the sinking of a ship—which hidden treasures then factor into the intrigue later in the book. They offer a fun, historical fictionalized story that is both exciting and often believable.

Amazingly, over the years, it seemed that Dirk never aged. The stories always included the same cast of supporting characters whose specialized skills aided in whatever adventure that was transpiring. And another aspect that always kept me interested was almost all of these books feature Dirk driving an actual car from Cussler’s classic car collection.

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In fact, Cussler even includes himself in the book as a brief character that lends a helping hand. One year, I actually got the thrill of meeting the author at a book signing in Memphis and an autographed copy of his 16th Dirk Pitt novel is a part of my library collection. And it was in this book that Cussler unveiled a new twist that would add even more to his future novels. Not long after this release, Clive also began to coauthor this series with his own son, appropriately named, Dirk.

As we prepared for our trip loading up my Kindle with summer readings, it was the recognition that I would be reading Cussler’s latest novel—Havana Storm—while we were in Montreat that resurfaced the memory of that first book so many years ago. And while I don’t have a picture of myself reading that first book on the porch of the cabin where we were staying, my wife did capture this shot of me reading his and my 23rd Dirk Pitt novel in the most perfect reading spot in Montreat, the porch of Moore Center overlooking the waterfall from Lake Susan.

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Fitbitting!

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I’ve always thought that walking was for old people. Whenever I saw the elderly walking at the mall or around the neighborhood, I thought how good of those old people to get some exercise—thinking that was probably the only thing they could do. This is a pretty arrogant thought coming from someone who is not only aging but also seeing the last few months of his fifth decade fly by. Thus, I either need to change the way I think or include myself in the classification of “old people” because I walk now or more specifically, I guess you could say I “Fitbit.”

I never really thought about walking before—at least not intentionally walking—since I never thought of it as exercise. Since I have run for over 20 years, I didn’t think I needed to walk. But that all changed last year when the company I work for offered Fitbits for free to all employees as a part of their wellness program. Considering I could get one for free, why not so I did. I filled out the form online and a few days later, it arrived at my door.

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Prior to getting my dark blue Fitbit, there was only one other time when I would have loved to have had a Fitbit.

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The year my wife and I went to Paris, France, I wished I had one. We did a lot of walking, particularly that first day and when we got back to our apartment, my wife exclaimed that she had walked almost 30,000 steps, nearly 15 miles. It would have been nice to have had that milestone to my credit.

When I first starting using my Fitbit, I really had no idea how many steps I took in a normal day. After a few days, I began to think getting about 8,000 steps was pretty good but then I would get little notifications like “just 2,194 more steps to reach your daily goal.” I don’t even remember setting a daily goal. As it turned out I didn’t. 10,000 steps is the default setting that comes preloaded on a Fitbit. But since it was about 5 miles, it seemed a worthy and attainable goal and so I began to walk extra to meet that daily goal.

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Not long after I got my Fitbit, I went to Disneyworld for the first time with my brother. I figured I would get a lot of steps there and even took my computer with me so I could sync my Fitbit at the end of each day to be sure I got credit for all of my steps. While there, I hit 18,000 steps one day and 19,000 another. I was actually a little surprised that I didn’t rack up as many steps as my wife did in Paris but I guess part of the time in Disneyworld, I was moving very slowly in line waiting to get on a ride.

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Over the winter when the weather was cold and nasty outside, I began to walk the second floor of our house from one end to the other in the morning before work. When I mentioned this to my wife one night, she remarked, “Oh yea, you’re house-walking.” It sounded so risqué. But obviously I was not the first to do this if a term had been coined for people getting extra steps inside their house.

The next time I went off to teach my class, I found I was walking the halls on break since I was getting very few steps standing in front of the class all day.

I even started to walk from one building to another at work to get steps and encountered others obviously doing the same.

On days that I ran, I easily met my daily goal as I usually had over 5,000 steps by the time I got back to the house. And when the weather got warm enough to go out doors, I began to go outside before work on non-running days and walk around the lake in our subdivision.

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While I have hit 15,000 steps several times and achieved many of the badges offered, the London Underground, the Sarenghetti, and the New Zealand awards, I only recently finally hit 20,000 steps

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I don’t recall what was special about that day; maybe I ran and then did a lot of walking just as a normal part of my day.

I still have all of my weekly progress reports from Fitbit so I can go back and see what were some of my more productive weeks. My biggest weekly total so far is 93,694 steps, one of the weeks I was in Amsterdam where I always do a lot of walking.

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Relaxing after a day of walking!

So I still have some goals to reach—my first 25,000-step day and my first 100,000-step week. I doubt were it not for getting a Fitbit, I probably wouldn’t have focused on getting extra walking in as a part of my day. But I’m glad I did and hopefully this will help me with my weekly exercise routine even though my neighbors may see me and think, “there goes another old person walking through our neighborhood.”

Good Roads!

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I have now read four different books about the building of roads and I’m hooked. To many of you, this may sound about as exciting as watching grass grow. But for someone who loves cars, loves to drive, and loves to learn about building things, this is a marriage made in heaven.

I previously posted about books on building things and certainly learning about the history of roads in the US was a natural extension of that from cars. For anyone living in the 21st century, decent roads is something we don’t even much think about until you realize that the roads we have today had their beginning in the 1920s, less than a century ago.

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I became interested in reading my most recent road book, Father of Route 66: The Story of Cy Avery by Susan Croce Kelly, when over the summer, I visited my son-in-law’s home town which at one time, had Route 66 running right through its downtown square.

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The tale of building “good roads” as the movement became known as had many interested protagonists: local farmers who needed better roads to get their crops to market, railroads who would get to carry those crops brought to market by good roads, and the automobile industry (dealers and manufacturers) who would see an increase in sales with better roads. In fact this latter group probably had the most to gain as selling cars without good roads was about as folly as selling trains without tracks to run them on.

There is a reason why early cars were fitted with wagon-like wheels—beyond just the fact that the first cars were “horseless carriages”—to minimize the chance for getting stuck in mud on the dirt roads that predominately existed when cars began to be sold.

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But it was ultimately the politicians and road administrations that got those roads built. And it was a constant battle between county, state, and federal interests that made it such an interesting story worth writing a number of books about.

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Prior to the Good Roads movement, roads were primarily local or regional. In some areas, groups of individuals banded together across county and state boundaries to form “trail associations” that focused on building a road that connected their communities. These roads were usually designated by a name such as the Mohawk Trail, the Santa Fe Trail, the National Old Trails Road, and the Lincoln Highway. These early thoroughfares were simply marked by painting signs or insignia on telephone poles, barns, or rocks along the route.

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When the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) began to explore ways to improve roads in the US and establish a national highway system, they recognized that using named trails and their routes would be problematic since many of them overlapped each other, particularly in the less populated west, and there was no standard of road quality among them.

But abandoning the trails didn’t come without its problems. Part of the debate centered on whether highways should be long haul routes or shorter routes interconnecting cities, which collectively would then weave a national highway system. Anyone who has gotten off the high-speed interstate to take a more leisurely drive along a US highway—the “Back roads”—knows the latter position won the day.

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With that debate settled, the next controversy was which cities to interconnect with each US highway. This is where the local politicians got into high gear to petition for their local community. Everyone recognized that having a US highway come through his or her community would be the “road” to economic success (pun intended). And this is where the story gets very interesting as local, state and federal politicians and highway administrators battled with each other over what was best locally, within the state, and at the federal level.

But choosing the routes, as pretentious as it was, was no less difficult than how to name the roads. Here actually the state of Wisconsin led the way with using numbers to designate highways. What added to this difficulty was the decision that two digit road numbers ending in “0” or “5” would be major roads and other numbers would be secondary roads. With that, the battle over the numbers began for it was not just having a US highway run through your town, but having one of the “-0” or “-5” roads.

This is where Route 66 is unique.

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Most US highways are predominately laid out on East-West coordinates (even numbered roads) or North-South routes (odd numbered roads). In contrast, Route 66 starts in Chicago and winds southwesterly through Illinois, Missouri, and Oklahoma before turning due west towards Los Angeles. Interestingly this route was originally designated Route 60 but thanks to politicians in Kentucky who had none of the major routes running through their state, they successfully wrestled the “60” designation away from the primary father of this unique route, Cy Avery, leaving him with the less desirable “62” designation for his road. A multiple month feud ensued that almost jeopardized the entire highway system before it was finally agreed to designate it Route 66. But it is Cy who seems to have gotten the last laugh in the battle between Oklahoma and Kentucky over the number 60 for who remembers Route 60 and who remembers Route 66?

Save for the potholes we must all contend with after winter ends, we really enjoy the freedom of driving on good cross country and trans-continental roads today. But I can still picture the dirt road that ran in front of my Aunt’s house in a small town in Texas. In fact, the first time my dad drove us there and we left the smooth pavement for the rugged dirt road, I couldn’t understand why the road wasn’t paved. But this was the way many roads were originally.

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Aunt & Uncle with dirt road behind them

I must say that I have thoroughly enjoyed my share of driving on good fun roads—Tail of the Dragon and the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP)—being the main ones. But having read these four books, I have a whole new appreciation for all of those dedicated and hard working individuals who fought for what they thought was right and best for both local communities and the nation as a whole. And since I have already driven the entire 469 miles of the BRP, I can envision once I retire taking the time to drive all of the 2,450 miles of Route 66. For as the expression goes, I’m sure I’ll “get my kicks on Route 66.”

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Road Trips with My Daughter

Growing up, Labor Day was a depressing day for me since it meant the end of summer and back to school.

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Even in high school, I recall watching; with my parents, the Jerry Lewis Labor Day telethon to benefit the Muscular Dystrophy Association—“Jerry’s Kids”—knowing the next day it was back to school. But little did I know that one day, Labor Day would take on a much more joyful meaning.

After I graduated from college, married, and started our family, Labor Day became a much-appreciated holiday from work after the blistering heat of a sizzling Memphis summer. And since I wasn’t in school, that old adolescent dread never crossed my mind. After our daughter graduated from high school, Labor Day weekend took on a whole new connotation.

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The year our daughter started college, it was Labor Day weekend that my wife and I drove her to college for the first time. This trip was a bit emotional and fraught with anticipation since none of us had ever seen the campus before. Our daughter had early committed to attending and since it was over a 10-hour drive 700 miles away, we didn’t make a separate trip just to see the campus. Our feelings were heightened even more since just the prior year; we had dropped our oldest son off to college—him being the first of our three children to move away to college.

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But all three of us couldn’t have been more pleased with the college and the cute little town from which the college took its name.

The next year, it was just my daughter and I making the trip up north. And I quickly learned she and I were of like mind preferring a “scorched earth” approach to driving—no stops except for gas (which meant we also drank very little liquids to avoid additional stops).

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As we approached Bowling Green, KY, we saw it would be necessary to at least make a short stop for a photo opportunity with me among a sea of Corvettes. Turned out that was the weekend of the annual homecoming for Corvette owners in the town where the cars were built. And then it was on our way.

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The following spring, when my daughter and I made our return trip home from college, we stopped long enough to quickly run through the Corvette Museum before they closed and to get a shot of me actually sitting in a Corvette.

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The following year, my wife again accompanied me as we took our daughter back to school, our daughter driving her car and my wife and I coming along in our car loaded with lots of college room essentials.

That school year, rather than coming back in May to help her move home for the summer, my return trip with my daughter was before Christmas, as she would be spending her winter term in Russia.

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In the fall of my daughter’s senior year, my wife again accompanied me for the fourth and last of our annual Labor Day weekend road trips.

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And as in previous years, we celebrated our daughter’s birthday early with her before we drove back home.

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Our road trip up the following May was with our whole family since it would be our daughter’s graduation and as it turned out, our final road trip with her driving back home.

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As I reflect back over these road trips with my daughter, now more than 10 years ago, it is with mixed emotions that I relive these journeys in my mind’s eye. The times my wife and I had with our daughter were special in that she was our only companion and we had each others undivided attention. And these trips, when it was just my daughter and I, were extra special times for a dad and his only daughter as I witnessed her maturing and becoming more of the woman she has turned in to, each year as she snipped away a little more of those proverbial “apron strings.”  While the real purpose of each trek was always either for my daughter to go away to college or to come home, the times we had together and the conversations we shared wove a special fabric that replaced the severed apron strings and plaited a perfect and permanent connection between us, one that I get a daily reminder of as I sip water from my college mug obtained on the second road trip so long ago.

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