Italy Captures the Gang of Ten

Grape-land never made our bucket list. We assumed it was hot, humid, dirty, overrun with tourists, smelly, and rife with Gypsies rifling pockets.

All that’s true …

Then a life-long friend retired, snagged a timeshare in Cortona, Tuscany, and invited the old gang over for a June holiday. Within hours of our arrival, the people, history, food, wine, and physical beauty of this travelers’ paradise won us over.

The Greeks believed Capri to be the end of the earth.
The Greeks believed Capri was the end of the earth.

Lana and I arrived in Rome and immediately broke European travel guru Rick Steves‘ taxi rule:  “If you can, get a taxi from an official taxi rank. It lowers the chance that you’ll wind up in unregistered taxis, which are notorious for not playing by the rules.

Car rentals were problematic...
Renting is problematic.

After the ten-hour flight and twenty-hour day torched our brains, we stumbled into Roman sunlight, and a portly middle-aged driver — smiling ear-to-ear so happy to see us — uncloaked at the airport curb, tossed our bags into the back of his grimy black unregistered car, drove twenty minutes in circles, then deposited us in front of our hotel for 20 Euros. We wondered why his happiness doubled with a small tip until we caught a taxi ride for the same destination eighteen days later:  10 Euros.

The gregarious hospitality of the happy swindler story was worth the 15 Euros, we figured, and then we got nailed again a few days later in Florence.

Walking down a lightly populated boulevard, we were approached by a well-dressed middle-aged man asking for change. Within two minutes he had his fingers in Lana’s pocketbook playing the I’ll trade-this-two-Euro-piece for two singles … and when we asked him what he needed the change for, he replied:  the telephone.

Although it took reserve to keep my Keen-clad foot out of his Gucci-covered posterior, I laughed at Lana when she said later:  “I’d give him another Euro just to show me how he got his hands in my pocketbook.”

Rome at First Glance

We spent the first day walking around the Trevi Fountain , enjoying the shops and restaurants vibrating with international students, noticing Napoleon’s statue in disrepair and disregard, spying armed guards holding military-grade weapons in front of banks and government buildings, dodging ubiquitous motor-scooters swarming around stoplights — Vespas racing wide open from green to red by suited professionals of both sexes —  watching homeless folk washing feet in public fountains laced with exquisite statues, seeing graffiti sprayed on architecturally perfect limestone buildings throughout the city, ogling grandiose Vatican wealth walled next to Muslim immigrants selling shawls to bare-shouldered-naked-kneed tourists not minding Guru Steve’s advice:

Entry to the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican Gardens is permitted only to appropriately dressed visitors. Low cut or sleeveless clothing, shorts, miniskirts and hats are not allowed.

Once lusty shoulder knobs and bony knees are tastefully hidden, one may enter St. Peter’s Basilica and view roughly 50,000 portraits of naked folk. We discovered this at the end our our adventure. The second day we bused to Sorrento via Naples.

Trevi Fountain
Trevi Fountain

Naples

Parasailing in Naples
Watching Para-sailors from the bus window

The bus driver stopped and let us stretch our legs at an overlook for ten minutes and then hustled us back inside and barreled through town as though a plague lay in wait.

We didn’t understand his motive as the view out the window was astounding, but days  later when our wine  tour  sommelier told us Naples held the reputation as the drug and crime capital of Europe. Like East St. Louis, West Oakland, and the South Side of Chicago, I reckon Naples contains streets to avoid.

 

Sorrento

The ocean-hugging romantic getaway across the Bay of Naples was abuzz with tramping tourists, but its lovely weather and cleanliness relative to Rome led to a wonderful stay with unending photographic possibilities, gourmet food, shopping, museums, architecturally unique churches, beautifully maintained walkways, and seaside-views that attract honeymooners from around the globe.

Our friends Mike and Chris — gang of ten members — were in Sorrento with their daughters Bridgette and Cami, so we dined on fresh seafood and pasta and headed back to our respective hotel rooms to gather energy for Capri and Pompeii.

Sorrento restaurant
A Sorrento sidewalk restaurant
Sorrento next to Mike and Chris' hotel.
Sorrento next to Mike and Chris’s hotel near the city center.

Pompeii

Pompeii

The Pompeii exhibit at the Chicago Field Museum blew my mind back in 2005, but the actual setting places one smack dab in A.D. 79 in one of the prettiest places on earth, and quite modern in its day with running wells, cisterns, toilets, bath houses, shops with “hot plates“, brothels, and a drainage system that cleansed the streets during a rain.

Pompeians — enjoying the ultimate in culture and high living at that moment in history, living on a seacoast and hosting trade from the known world while enjoying the amenities of balmy weather and a robust citizenry — had no idea the hammer was coming down.  They didn’t even know that the nearby Vesuvius was volcanic.

On August 23rd A.D. 79 the city celebrated Vulcan, the Roman god of fire.

Pompeii victim
Flashed in Pompeii Ash

He rewarded them with a hammer blow the next day,burying the city in six meters of volcanic ash.

The size and scope of the Pompeii site —  plus its history and high culture that catch you unaware — make it a must-see, and British friends tell us that nearby Herculaneum, a UNESCO World Heritage Site lying in the virtual shadow of Vesuvius, is even more impressive.

Capri

Capri
Capri

It must be duly noted that Lana spent countless hours planning this trip, picking out the best bus tours based on customer ratings and comments on a half-dozen web sites, coordinating hotels, museums, trains, and airline tickets. She read / compared / looked up / analyzed and put together a vacation that unfolded perfectly with few unpleasant surprises, as she has so many times before. All I do is take pictures, write up the story, and admire her ability.

Lana and Sasha
There are perks. Lana and Shasha.

Waking to rainfall, we feared Capri — just a twenty-minutes from Sorrento via the Tyrrhenian Sea– would be a wasted day, but the sun came out on the voyage over, perfect conditions because only 5,000 tourist scampered around the island instead of the usual 10,000 that swarm the island daily.

Sasha, our red-haired tour guide boasting Italian-Russian parentage, met us at the dock and kept us thoroughly amused with historical anecdotes and insights throughout the day, pointing out an Italian Fascist redoubt from the WWII built on a jutting cliff side, and noting that the Greeks believed Capri was the end-of-the-earth. A siren still sits above the rocks luring vessels to her open embrace.

Capri’s known around the world for its blue grotto, a limestone cave that intrepid tourists take turns entering and enjoying the way sunlight reflects off the white stone.

The day –starting with rain and high seas — negated the blue grotto, but our boat driver poked into several other grottoes-not-so-deep-and-famous and gave us the grand tour of the island.

One impressive piece of artwork not far from the docks simply blew me away — Seo Young Deok’s “sculpture” composed of motorcycle chains woven precisely into the shape of a human face — perfect for the scooter-crazy Italians.

Motorcycle Chain Sculpture
One of Seo Young Deok’s amazing chain sculptures.

Another highlight was the tram ride up to Alta Capri (alta = above) where the views not only took my breath away but jolted me with vertigo, a sign of age perhaps.

The Tyrrhenian Sea continuously cycled through different shades of blue as the sun filtered in and out of the clouds. Few people chose the path below, but folks of all ages rode the tram to the top and rubbernecked a 360 degree view that startles the senses with its beauty via changeable light and islands winking in and out of the horizon.

Alta Capri
Alta Capri

Orvieto

We took the bullet train to this famous hill-town, but beware boarding trains in Rome.  The schedule displayed for passengers shows trains arriving at certain sidings.  But in reality, high speed trains arrive so quickly they usually beat arrival times, then sit idle on the tracks outside the city while the station assigns them a last-minute arrival siding not listed correctly on the schedule board in Rome.  Which means unaware Americans must run like like O.J.’s leaping luggage to the correct boarding spot at the last second.  Not so much fun for geriatrics with metal knees.

Italian bullet train.
Italian bullet train.

The word Tuscany is derived from the Etruscan culture, which flourished in mid-Italy from 700 BC until Roman assimilation virtually erased it in 400 BC.

During the Middle Ages, [Tuscany] saw many invasions, but in the Renaissance period it helped lead Europe back to civilization. Later, it settled down as a grand duchy. It was conquered by Napoleonic France in the late 18th century and became part of the Italian Republic in the 19th century.  

-- Wikipedia

Orvieto, like Cortona, is a hill town in Tuscany. At first glance, the military advantage of the high ground is obvious, but many of these villages also avoided the swamps covering the low ground, and this is why the region grows such luscious fruit:  the bogs were drained a mere 200 years ago.

Duomo di Orvieto
Duomo di Orvieto

The city had a love-hate relationship with the Papacy during the Middle Ages, when it reached a population of 30,000. However, five Popes lived here for a time for “political and strategic purposes.”

In other words, they were run out of Rome and had to wait for the heat to die down before they could re-assume the Vatican.

Major Orvieto attractions include: the Duomo di Orvieto 14th century Roman Catholic cathedral is one of the most spectacular in Italy; the Orvieto Underground leads you through subterranean medieval caves, tunnels and Etruscan wells; the Torre del Moro 13th-Century clock tower chimes on the hour, half and quarter hours; and, Pozzo di San Patrizio (St. Patrick’s Well). Dating to 1537, this well is 62-meters-deep and features two spiral staircases.

Duomo di Orvieto
Duomo di Orvieto

Assisi

Is naturally associated with famous homeboy Francis, a.k.a. Francesco Bernardone, who lived here around 1200 AD. This simple friar bridged the gap between Jesus and Martin Luther, calling attention to the materialism of the times and the decadence of the Catholic Church during one of its darker periods.

Assisi
Assisi

Today, eight-thousand permanent residents occupy Assisi … while six million tourists stampede through the streets each year. The commercial aspect is a bit daunting, especially when a Saint Francis “statue” springs to life and thanks you for tips.

During his day similar throngs of buyers, sellers, and endless sinners seeking penance crowded the streets and wore out poor Francis. However —  like Jesus rowing to the far side of the Sea of Galilee — Francis would walk forty-two miles through the country to Cortona and relax, meditate, and write at Le Celle (The Cell).

Lana didn’t like Assisi due to its intense commercialism, and heavy crowds. But once she understood it was always this way, and beheld the actual monastery near Cortona where Francis retreated into nature, well.

It all came clear.

Tears flood the eyes and hair stands on the back of your neck when you enter Le Celle.

Le Chelle
Le Chelle

I’m not a jealous person by nature, but Skip mentioned that he often hikes up to Le Celle to read and contemplate. What a blessing!

Peace surrounds the senses at Le Celle.
Peace surrounds the senses at Le Celle.

Florence

This vibrant city is best viewed in the late fall as June is rife with tourists. At one point a hundred-plus Mexican students paraded by lustily celebrating their soccer victory over Germany, and every restaurant and cafe hummed with activity late into the night.

Florentine steaks
Florentine steaks

Jammed with architecture, sculptures, marching bands, entertainers, the best steaks you’ve ever melted in your mouth, and much more, Florence is a must-visit.

Besides the mandatory hackle-raising view of Michelangelo’s David at the Medici family’s Galleria dell’Accademia, check out the Uffizi Gallery (housing Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, Raphael’s Madonna of the Goldfinch, and Rembrandt’s Self-portrait as a Young Man.

We loved walking the city at night, watching couples enjoying the romantic atmosphere, seeing the architecture in street light, reveling in the gourmet cuisine, and listening to the street musicians earning their keep into the early hours of the morning.

Florentine Architecture
Florentine Architecture at night
Florentine Architecture during the daylight.
Florentine Architecture at noon.

Cortona

This ancient hill-town reaching back to 700 BC Etruscans is a jewel in any visitor’s travelogue-memory.

Fetchingly portrayed in Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun, the town’s vibrancy, history, architecture, museums, gourmet restaurants, geography, and kaleidoscopic light combine to hold you spellbound for the entire length of your visit.

Our hosts Skip and Virginia propelled themselves into international-living via elbow grease, perseverance, and brains (is there another legitimate path?) and reside on the northwest side of the city facing sunsets, near the Etruscan wall, on a Roman road overlooking the Cimitero della Misericordia (cemetery). The Roman road leads south to city center, or north through an ancient arch down a quarter-mile stroll to our hotel overlooking the Val di Chiana, or Chiana Valley, where Hannibal destroyed a Roman army in the Battle of Trasimene  in June 217 BC.

The view from Skip's patio.
The view from our hosts’ patio.

Here’s a ten-second video taken at dusk with bats scavenging mosquitoes on the pink horizon, Lake Trasimino shining in the background, and the gang-of-ten enjoying a gourmet meal at Ristorante Tonino, which featured a series of post-dinner solos by inspired opera singers.

Wine flows freely at the Tonino.
Wine flows freely at the Tonino.
Skip and Virginia
Skip and Virginia

Three couples bunked at the timeshare, while Mike, Chris, Lana and I vacationed at the Locanda i Grifi, a sweet hotel just a quarter-mile down the Roman road, an inn we highly recommend due to the nice rooms, great views of the valley, and the hospitality of chef Cristiano, who held a cooking class for us one mid-morning.

Roger and chef Cristiano
Roger and chef Cristiano

Warning: If you really want to enjoy these Tuscan hill-towns, make sure you’re physically up to the challenge of walking up and down 14% grades. Actually, this applies to any kind of foreign travel as the unexpected always occurs, usually involving a physical challenge. Furthermore, driving isn’t feasible in town center due to the inclines, and there’s little room to park. Only the the intrepid locals attempt it.

Up up up on the Stations of the Cross.
Up up up on the Stations of the Cross.

We enjoyed a leisurely lap around town one sunny morning, passing by Francis Maye’s famous home and the Roman road next to it that’s a shortcut to city-center, all-of-which overlooks the Chiana Valley.

Italian hill-towns offer 360 degree panoramic views if you like to walk.

The Piazza della Repubblica is the heart of town, where we lunched and people-watched while discussing the length of the trip between gnawing on our mother’s ankles under the kitchen table in the late 1950’s … to this spot where Saint Francis hung out for recreation and Hannibal slaughtered the Romans.

The plaza reflected in a wine shop window.
The plaza reflected in a wine shop window.

Other highlights included The Museum of the Etruscan Academy, a tour of the famous cemetery below the time share, and a tour of the Stations-of-the-Cross that ended above our hotel at the Basilica di Santa Margherita, where its namesake lies in state like a slab of dark jerky, drawing gawkers inevitably spilling donations into a handy cup. The interior architecture is a wonder to behold.

Basilica di Santa Margherita
Basilica di Santa Margherita

Cortona is so packed with delights that it would take a decade of living there to search them all out. We jammed in as much as possible, however, and never lost the idea that we were on parade as well.

Living in a small Italian hill-town, and having lived in a small town in south Georgia, I understand that you can recognize a family gene pool by the lift of an eyebrow, or the length of a neck, or a way of walking.

-- Francis Mayes

Locals eyeballing the endless herd.
Locals eyeballing the endless herd.

The Villa S. Anna

Photo by Wayne Moore
Photo by Wayne Moore

We visited several Tuscan wineries and all were unique, but Villa S. Anna Winery — owned for nearly two hundred years by Simona Ruggeri Fabroni’s family near Montepulciano — tops the list due to Simona’s wonderful personality, storytelling ability, and deep knowledge of the business from five decades of managing all aspects of the enterprise.

Simona Ruggeri Fabroni
Simona Ruggeri Fabroni

After serving a wonderful lunch, Simona lead us through the grounds and cellars, sharing insights other wineries lacked — e.g., instead of removing cellar wall mold, it’s maintained at a certain humidity so the wine ages at a steadier rate. Newer wineries avoid this hassle, but the results are less predictable.

Sometimes the Scottish blood is an inconvenience.  For example, sane people toss out most of their wine while sip-sip sipping throughout a day-long wine tour.

But if pinching pennies and looking for dimes on city streets is a natural inclination, then drinking all the wine poured out at wine-tastings is elemental.

But don’t do it.

Here’s the result if you think you’re going to win that particular battle, so hold your cell phone sideways.

The Vatican

Our dream days in Cortona ended with a wonderful lasagna dinner at Skip and Virginia’s followed by several hours of joyful banter, video-making, and wine-tasting.  Then it was time to plan for the next gang-of-ten rendezvous, followed by hugs and farewells.  The blessing we have in each other is lost on none of us, and a week together in Cortona deepened the bonds even further.

We returned to Rome for the last two days, viewing the Vatican, walking as much as possible for photos, and loving the seaport at Fiumicino,  next to the airport.

Married in the Vatican
Taking it all in after being married in the Vatican.

The Vatican is so vast and full of unending surprises that no blog of this size could explain it. The picture above captures the average reaction upon entering The Papal Basilica of St. Peter, the main hall reaching a height of 448 feet.

Eternal Vengeance
Eternal Vengeance

Our university-art-school-trained guide lead us through a maze of huge rooms and hallways filled with artwork, spilling thousands of interesting tidbits that my mind couldn’t fully process, but I do remember that during Michelangelo’s work on the Sistine Chapel,  Pope Julius II was plagued by some minor official’s poor behavior, so when Michelangelo asked Julius who needed to fill the hell space in the bottom right corner, the Pope suggested the same minor official — and then added that this guy needed a viper attached to his scrotum for all eternity. The sort of thing males remember from art museums.

 

Fiumicino

We spent the last two days strolling arm-in-arm through the streets of Rome and across the beaches of Fiumicino, watching women jostle over sale items, enjoying one last gang-of-eight meal, and watching the fishing boats arrive and unload the day’s catch.

Don’t underestimate this sleepy little city next to the airport as it jumps alive to the sound of fishing boats returning — reminding me of the Hannibal, Missouri of Mark Twain’s youth — and there are dozens of excellent street-side cafés, restaurants, and bars to explore while public beaches allow blue-collar travelers a gander at the blue-collar locals.

The Takeaway?

Roman bridge.
Roman bridge at sunset.

Don’t let preconceived notions keep you from enjoying Italy as its pleasures far outweigh the hassles for 52.4 million visitors per year, but go physically prepared for international travel.

Italy provides more to do than several lifetimes of exploration could cover, and the mix of ancient history and current vibrancy intoxicates the senses beyond the legendary food and drink. Enjoy it with old buds if possible, then savor those times together whenever you reunite.

This meal was interrupted when two operatic street singers got into it.
This meal was interrupted when two operatic street singers started arguing over turf.
An old friend never can be found, and nature has provided that he cannot easily be lost.

Samuel Johnson

Tribal Connections

Whenever my life begins to feel too “cushy” – which is often since I’m a spoiled American Baby Booming corpulent white male with a loving/doting wife, a squared-away son, a reasonably functional family, early retirement, and a supportive church family – I sign up for a mission trip, foreign or domestic.

Which cures the spoiled-brat syndrome pronto.

If you embark on such an adventure, expect:  crushed legs on long flights, strange food clogging the septic system, strange water unplugging the septic system, flat-hard hotel beds, endless oversize bags full to maximum 49.9 pounds of cement-grade calcium carried up and down steps via human chain, sleepless nights filled with the cacophony of poultry crowing contests and spontaneous dog fights, mission beds made of burlap and two-by-fours, water-less showers until Angel Plumbers work their magic, twelve-hour days spent mostly on the feet, the ringing sound of eighty voices banging around the cement walls of the clinic, three languages bouncing in a Babel of towering intensity.

So, why do we subject ourselves to that?

Probably for the same reason soldiers return to Afghanistan seven-or-eight times.  Why firefighters rush into burning buildings.  Why doctors continue to practice medicine into their eighties, serving a network of friends they’ve made over a lifetime.

My personal physician, Paul Brown, Jr.,MD., has lead a mission team to Mexico for over thirty years.
Paul Brown, Jr., MD., leading missions for 30+ years.

They do it for the tribe.

Opinion:  we are designed by the Creator to function in small groups, say twenty-to-sixty people – all carrying different abilities (spiritual gifts) – a tribe where everyone has a job, everyone is respected for their contribution, and everyone is connected to a purpose outside their own agenda.

“In 1753, Benjamin Franklin wrote to a friend about a curious phenomenon in the American west. White prisoners rescued from Native American tribes were seizing the first chance they could to flee into the wilderness and rejoin their captors. There were no reports of native warriors migrating in the opposite direction. Perplexed, Franklin concluded that the errant whites must have become ‘disgusted with our manner of life’ despite being shown ‘all imaginable tenderness’ on their return.” (Source).

Sebastian Junger, author of Restrepo and The Perfect Storm, recently penned a book titled Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, which focuses on the War in Afghanistan and veterans’ mental health.  Junger writes:  “Today’s veterans often come home to find that, although they’re willing to die for their country, they’re not sure how to live for it.”

Instead of focusing on job training and social re-conditioning, we treat vets like pariahs and load them up on drugs while ignoring the root cause of their distress and side-stepping psychiatric care, which is expensive and time consuming.  We treat veterans as if they aren’t worth our time and effort after they return with lost limbs and shattered psyches.  The suicide rates for white males over sixty-five, many of whom are Vietnam vets, bears witness to these unresolved issues.

“In 2008 active duty and veteran military personnel abused prescription drugs at a rate that was more than twice the rate for the civilian population. In 2009, the VA estimated that around 13,000 vets from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from alcohol dependence syndrome and require veteran mental health treatment for this problem.” (Source)

After listening to Junger’s podcast, it occurred to me that we are indeed better beings when connected to a well-functioning small group, which is why churches, synagogues, mosques, Boy Scouts, Rotary, Lions Clubs, Crips, Bloods, and Hell Angels exist.

The last three will probably lead to harm, but the call of the tribe is embedded into our nature, and that is why making a conscious decision to serve on a positive team is a healthy choice.

Let’s take a look at contemporary suicide rates

White males accounted for 7 of 10 suicides in 2016; and, the rate of suicide is highest in middle age — white men in particular (The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention).

Sadly, suicides in all demographics have risen dramatically since 1999, though Hispanic males are much lower than white males.


The March 2018 medical mission I joined to Ixtepec, Tatoxcac, and Xochiapulco, Mexico offered unending examples of a high-functioning tribe  than I can list (starting with the angel who swapped her airline aisle seat twice for my leg-killing window view); furthermore, this team comes together bi-annually to bring medical care to under-served residents in the rugged mountains northeast of Puebla, Mexico. Nearly half of the folks treated were indigenous, speaking Totonaca, a native language “not closely related to other native languages in Mexico.”

Which required three levels of translation:  English – Spanish – Totonaca — and back again.

This year I was the “optometrist” which meant that I helped 320 folks find workable reading glasses over four days using two Bibles (the KJV, and a Totonaca New Testament), a spool of thread, a needle, a flashlight, and a pocket knife to cut plastic.  The spectacles were donated by the generous Lion’s Club Tribe.

The will to work is unshakable in this ninety-year old.
The will to work is unshakable in this ninety-year old.

My Spanish interpreter – Fany (pronounced Fanny), from the Methodist College in Puebla – was coming off a semester of concentrated French, so the combination of suddenly switching to English while simultaneously deciphering an unknown indigenous tongue wore on her along with all the physical challenges, yet she hung on to gain a second wind and finish the week admirably.

Local teens connected to the Ixtepec Methodist Church also saved the week by giving fully of themselves, obviously loving and cherishing their elderly by listening carefully to their needs, then translating them into Spanish, where Fany would pass it to me, and then back again.  Three hundred twenty times in four days.

Multiply that by the entire cohort of volunteers (approximately 120), and you begin to perceive the amount of coordination it takes to make this mission work.

Plus eleven months of planning and preparation up front.

Sebastian Junger claims that we need three essentials to live healthily and harmoniously: 1) we need to feel competent at what we do; 2)  we need to feel authentic in our lives; and, 3)  we need to feel connected to others.

Looking back at the suicide statistics, it must be noted that the Hispanic males take their own lives in much fewer numbers than Caucasian males.

“White men over the age of 65 commit suicide at almost triple that overall rate.  These men are also eight times more likely to kill themselves than are women of the same age group, and have almost twice the rate of all other groups of male contemporaries.

Disparities along ethnic lines for elderly males are also substantial. Compared with white males ages 65 and older, African American males (9.2 suicides per 100,000), Hispanic or Latino males (15.6), and Asian or Pacific Islander males (17.5) in the same age range had significantly lower suicide rates.”  (Source)

Research on the “why” is thin, but after spending a week in Ixtepec, casual observation of the culture exposed a deep connection to family, community, nature, and God:  all characteristics of a healthy tribe.

In contrast, the phenomenon of disconnected angry white American males sitting in dark rooms drinking alcohol and absorbing CNN or FOX is ending badly.

Imagine that.

Our Mexican patients exhibited a wide range of physical needs – missing teeth, scabies, parasites, allergies, an entire gamut of untreated ailments testing the knowledge and experience of the mission doctors, nurses, and pharmacists – but the local populations’ connectedness to the spirit, energy, patience, and genuine good nature lifted the hearts of all servants, Mexicans and Americans alike.

Pablo, a minister from another province, traveled to Ixtepec with his teenage son, both patiently washing, drying, and treating foot ailments.  Ricardo and LuLu traveled from Nicaragua to lead the translating team, and three other college students traveled with Fany from Puebla to sacrifice their free time and comfort to serve their country.

Foot Care
Foot Care via agape.

The exact ratio of Mexican-to-American servants on this mission is unknown, but it seemed like 3:1 as local teens, the church pastor’s family, and other Mexican missionaries – plus half the congregation – pitched in to make it work. Villagers lined the street to tote heavy bags down to the church the minute we arrived, and waited patiently for hours on end — often in the rain and wind – to receive their annual medical care.

We didn't ask for help, but we received it with joy.
We didn’t ask for help, but we received it with joy.

The Ixtepec-Tatoxcac-Xochiapulco clinics succeeds because everyone has a job – or three – everyone is valued for their contribution, and all are connected through Jesus Christ.

No matter where our travels take us – Johnson City, Ixtepec, Tasmania, wherever – if two-or-more are gathered in His name, we are connected. We are also connected by our willingness to serve, to share that last full measure of devotion that propels The Tribe.

“Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.” Romans 12:1 NASB

My two previous mission trips to this beautiful mountainscape northeast of Puebla occurred in the late Nineties, and I must say there is a noticeable improvement in infrastructure – the highway from Puebla to the mountains is new and modern – plus the thirty-two years of medical mission work is revealed in the faces of the people, who look much healthier. Even the dogs show fewer ribs.

Waiting for the clinic to open ...
Waiting for the clinic to open …

The visiting team stood in awe of these patient, hard-working, community-loving, God-present, spiritually connected folk – The Tribe – functioning as it’s meant to be.

Meanwhile, reality-show Americans continue to back-stab each other on social media, ignore common values, highlight differences, suck down opioids and alcohol in record volumes, endlessly eyeball the latest fear-mongering headlines slanted to feed personal preferences, and commit suicide in record numbers.

Simultaneously, church attendance in North America is dropping like a rock.

Suicide stats don’t lie. Broken lives parading past our eyes don’t lie.

"How do you become an adult in a society that doesn't ask for sacrifice? How do you become a man in a world that doesn't require courage?"  -- Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

You don’t.

Those who serve rely on the tribe:  church family, Sunday school classes, spouses, and relatives, all connected through Christ – who finance our way, who donate medicine, eyeglasses and crutches, who pray for and bless our service with their love.

We certainly relied on the tribe in Mexico who fed, housed, worked diligently beside us, and have served faithfully for over thirty years.

From desert wanderers seeking the Promised Land … to disciples sharing the Good News … to medical missions serving the needy in foreign lands … The Tribe functions with efficiency through its unselfish connection to The One.

I don’t know about you, but I’m sticking with The Tribe.


Note:  More pictures here.

Midwestern Lake Tour: Superior, Michigan, Dale Hollow (Fall 2017)

Following a two-month visit to Western Illinois this fall – helping my active mother recuperate from hip surgery – my wife Lana and I were free to drive back to Tennessee any way we chose.

Near my hometown of Sheffield, Illinois
Western Illinois in late August

Pumped up on Jim Harrison’s “Brown Dog” novellas set in Upper Peninsula Michigan, we needed to lay eyes on this special place, and as always, interesting characters popped up along the way. Even Brown Dog uncloaked in Paradise, Michigan.

Furthermore, Lana’s college friend Donna and her husband Phil enjoy a condo jutting out off a basalt platform overlooking Lake Superior at Two Harbors, Minnesota, and they had previously invited us for a weekend, so we wandered home across America’s stunningly beautiful heartland lake country.

31 August 17

The drive from Sheffield, Illinois to Galena – where U.S. Grant briefly resided – is usually delightful:  endless cornfields rolling north in static undulations of unglaciated hills  snaking beside the Mississippi River.

But this time drifting Canadian wildfire smoke hung trapped above the ground in the ghostly-still air, reminding us that California simultaneously roiled in flames, and that Grant loved big cigars.

Ironically, Ron Chernow (author of Hamilton) recently released a biography of the 18th president, which appears to lift him out of the scandal and booze for a bit and focuses on the advancement of racial equity.

Normally we take time to wander the streets of the Galena – lowercase galena in science textbooks – with its wonderful shops and picturesque hillside quaintness, but we decided to turn in early. The next morning we rolled into Wisconsin, emboldened with sunshine and covered with breweries.

***

1 September 17

Meandering north through corn-beans-corn, we arrived at the Potosi Brewery, home of Snake Hollow IPA, a wonderful beer if you like yours hoppy.  Then the Great River Road north sent us toward Pepin as we enjoying seeing the well-decorated laid-back small towns along the way.

Our 1950’s era Pepin hotel lacked everything except two sleep-able beds and a bathroom, but a walk down to the dockside found us at the Harbor View Café where the motto is best from scratch.  While dining we overheard customers say they drove down from Minneapolis twice a month to enjoy the always-changing but consistently-good fare. The spicy lamb cassoulet was tasty, indeed, washed down with the mandatory local craft beer.

Lake Pepin, a man-made reservoir on the Mississippi River west off Wisconsin’s Route 35, provided a lovely backdrop as we after-dinner strolled the top of the levee surrounding a harbor filled with people cooking and drinking on sailboats while the hardier rolled out into the sunset with fishing poles lashed to down-riggers.

US Conservancy picture of the North Mississippi in Wisconsin
US  Nature Conservancy photo of the Mississippi in Wisconsin

3 September 17

We stopped at Duluth on our way north to Two Harbors, and the old downtown manufacturing center was covered with tourists strolling the promenade, enjoying the Portland-ish rose gardens, dozens of thriving restaurants and shops sporting sunny views of the lake.  One gentlemen mentioned that locals were soaking it up because they knew what lay ahead. Short-sleeved walkers all around us belied the coming white season, the majesty of Lake Superior’s shining blue soon turning to the leaden-grey gales of November.

Duluth roses
Duluth roses

A couple of hours up the Bob Dylan Way (Highway Sixty One) we arrived in Two Harbors, Minnesota,  a quaint village on the western shores of Lake Superior where our friends Phil, Donna, and Moses – a charming three-year-old cocker spaniel – accepted us graciously into their spacious condo filled with glass facing the ever-changing “Gitche Gumee” (the great sea in Ojibwa).

Driving to Two Harbors, MN
Lake Superior off Phil and Donna’s Porch

Clouds, sun, radical shifts in color and mood, moon, clouds, lake, the ever-changing kaleidoscope of God’s artistic capacity happily traipsing past each day … our friends have delighted in this gift – both physical and spiritual –  for over twenty years and are still mesmerized.

Our gracious hosts
Moses maintains control.

4 September 17

After rising early and dining on Phil’s hearty eggs and sausage, we toured Highway 61 north with Phil behind the wheel of the family van, Moses sitting on my lap peering out the windshield, and the women happily reminiscing in the passenger seats as we tooled up to Grand Marais, Minnesota with an extended side-trip on the Gunflint Trail to snatch a peek at the Boundary Waters, a treasure both Phil and I have fished on separate occasions, an astounding  1,090,000-acres of fresh water lakes covering both shores of the US and Canada.

As we looked northwest into the horizon, loons spontaneously serenaded, a bald eagle passed at eye level yards in front of our rock overlook, wheeled, and fell into the abyss.

Earlier in the day we’d visited Gooseberry Falls State Park, Split Rock Lighthouse, and Tettegouche State Park, known for its rock climbing.  All of these worthwhile stops appear along Highway 61 on western shores of Lake Superior between Twin Harbors and the Gunflint Trail.

5 September 17

The next morning we drove down to the docks to see iron ore loaded onto a massive lake hauler, but we arrived a few minutes late only to witness it steaming away toward Sault Saint Marie where we’d soon visit and watch similar ships pass through the locks.

Parting with good friends and carrying wonderful memories, we thanked Phil and Donna for their grace and hospitality, talked of future visits, then headed south to the Wisconsin state border – then east – with a glimpse of Apostle Islands passing by the driver’s side window as we cruised down Highway 13.

6 September 17

Between Bayfield and Marquette we passed iron ore mining towns – Ironwood, Bessemer – then lunched on remarkable onion soup at the Portside Inn at downtown Marquette on a bright fall day filled with tourists and shoppers.

Near Marquette, MI
Abandoned iron ore docks near Marquette, MI

Following Route 28, we stopped in Munising, Michigan to see Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore with its spectacular cliff and rock formations, but it was socked-into-the-fog so we headed to Whitefish Point where we thoroughly enjoyed the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum.

Whitefish Point Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum
Whitefish Point Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum

Endless rounds of Gordon Lightfoot’s Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald (warning: if It’s A Small World still rings in your head, you may want to don ear plugs) lead you audibly through an excellent display of nautical science, specialized equipment, geographic explanations, descriptions of shipwrecks and stories of real-life derring-do that will spin your head.  The bravery of those masters of the Inland Sea is legendary, while technology has kept more Edmund Fitzeralds from finding the bottom of its inhospitable depths.  The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point is a must-stop, indeed.

***

A lovely drive down Highway 28 to Paradise found us at the end of the day inside the Magnuson Grand Lakefront Hotel with a balcony view of the ever-changing face of Lake Superior, and evening of sun, clouds, mist, and shifting light.

Lake Superior at Paradise, MI
Lake Superior at Paradise, MI

***

If you are a reader, then it’s possible you have met or have at least seen a character step out of the pages and cross your path.

This has happened to me twice.

Two years ago, when I was writing Jellybeaners, Lana and I passed through Tellico Plains, Tennessee on a motorcycle trip.  Tellico Plains is actually renamed “Kituwah Falls” as the novel’s fictional setting.

While eating a light lunch at a local restaurant, I witnessed the main character walk in – a six-foot wiry raven-haired half-Cherokee beauty – look at me, pull herself to her full height, smile, then back out and stride off  down the street.

Now two years later we stumble across Brown Dog, the part-Ojibwe hero of Jim Harrison’s UP novellas, a character here described by the New York Times’ Anthony Doeer:

Brown Dog has no other name. He’s simply B. D., a scoundrel, a “backwoods nitwit,” a “kindly fool,” a goof as lovable as Sancho Panza and a libertine as promiscuous (if not as discriminating) as Don Juan. Picture a smuttier, older and alcoholic Huckleberry Finn, who happens to be Native American.

The long-haired whiskey-soaked half-Indian Brown Dog – or his doppelganger – stumbled into the Little Falls Inn while we soaked up burgers, but he was much longer-in-the-tooth than the 49-year-old protagonist, which made sense because Harrison published the last Brown Dog novella in the early 90’s. Our BD paid us no mind and remained in character, affixed to a female, a second muscle-bound hand wrapped around a beer mug.

***

7 September 17

After breakfast we drove to Tahquamenon Falls State Park, amazed at the size of the falls and the water’s brown color, the effect of tannin in the soil that’s swept downstream.

Gooseberry Falls
Tannin colors the water at Tahquamenon Falls State Park

8 September 17

Ambling south, we arrived at Sault Saint Marie (sue saint mah ree)  mid-morning and happened to walk up to the locks just an iron ore ship Herbert C. Jackson, a seeming identical twin to the Edmund Fitzgerald, slipped through, then slowly descended to Lake Huron below as the life-sized crewmen we just chatted up minutes ago morphed into miniature Toy Story characters hauling string-ropes.

http://www.saultstemarie.com/attractions/soo-locks/
The Herbert C. Jackson

“The Soo” is an American city past its prime, though its Canadian twin appears to thrive, and there’s new talk of widening the locks to accept heavier commerce, which may bring a new financial spring for both as the Great Lakes eternally serve our distribution of goods with an efficiency outstripping trucks pounding interstates into oblivion and high-sulfur Wyoming coal trains hogging rail lines as commuters sit fuming on overcrowded expressways.

A friend of mine from high school moved to Seattle after college, loved his IT job at Boeing for nearly thirty years, but retired the day after his work buddy suffered a heart attack on a traffic-blocked expressway, expiring in his car, unable to exit, unable to receive help from outside the blocked lanes.

We can do better.

Spending the night in St. Ignace, Michigan – located on the north end of the Mackinac Bridge – we ran across another novel-worthy character who’d literally built his own functional tractor out of an assortment of parts-on-hand:  a straight six Ford motor, a massive steel u-bar for the frame, used wheels and tires, a drive train constructed of welded bolts and assorted gear drives from the parts bin. You can tell you’ve encountered a “character” when their spirit shows through … brightly.  It’s an experience beyond words, but you know it when you see it.

This wiry retired farmer dressed in oil-soaked overalls and reeking of knowledge gained from life experience, travel, and wide reading told us we’d just missed a parade of 2,200 antique tractors crawling over the Mackinaw, and that there were such annual parades for motorcycles and semi-trucks covered in lights.

We bid adieu after two beers and several enjoyable stories, then drove down to the waterside where antique tractors glowed in the orange-red sunset of a near-perfect fall day, Lake Huron shimmering in the background.

9 September 17

The next morning we paused at Bridge View Park, a memorial to the iron workers who built the Mackinac Bridge and enjoyed outstanding views bathed in warm sunshine, cumulus clouds reflecting on still waters, and then crossed the Mackinac Bridge onto the Lower Peninsula, where we meandered along the western shores of Lake Michigan.

The sculpture is a composite of a typical ironworker, said the Grosse Point Park artist, typical of the men who began building the Mackinac Bridge May 7, 1954, 53 years ago.
The sculpture is a composite of a typical iron worker

Spending the night in Ludington, we watched the sun set on a ferry stuffed with tourists as it pulled out for Manitowoc, Wisconsin, a system of conveyance allowing travelers to avoid the clogged arteries surrounding Chicago and Gary and enjoy themselves with brews and views instead of fumes of doom.

Luddington, MI
Ludington, MI

10 September 17

The next morning we eased out of Michigan on a cloudy day and transitioned into yellow-corn-sandy-soil northern Indiana, something I noticed having grown up in black loam Illinois where thick green stalks stand 6’ by the 4th of July.

The immaculate farms throughout Indiana, however, thrive under Amish and Mennonite ownership.  We made a mental note to return to this pristine countryside on a slow motorcycle ride.

Buggies clogged the roads...
Buggies clogged the roads…

11 September 17

During our last day on the road we slipped through Indiana into Kentucky and decided to spend the night at the well-designed Dale Hollow Lake Inn on the Tennessee / Kentucky border, where we enjoyed one last night of changing lake scenes while deer munched grass below our veranda.

Dale Hollow Lake
Dale Hollow Lake

***

Even with the exquisite scenery, renewed friendships, outstanding food, unexpected delights and character revelations, we realized our quick week in the UP was simply a training mission for longer, more laid-back excursions to come, perhaps by motorcycle or camping trailer because …

Midwestern lakes always leave you longing for more.

One Lake Superior Mood
A Superior Mood