Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .


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I haven’t yet been able to get back to writing about our month in Florida since it ended prematurely by family matters in Massachusetts. I hope to share more of my experiences, reflections and photos at some point. But in the meantime, I put together THE GATOR GALLERY, a look at the wondrous world of alligators from The Sunshine State. If you have read my blog fully, then you have already seen photographs of some of the gators we observed in Texas.

This gallery contains 22 photos


Carla’s Photograph of the Day – July 27, 2013

Kayaking the North Platte River, WY

Taken about 11:30 AM, 7/27/13

Today I kayaked alone the six miles of the North Platte River from Saratoga WY to our campsite on BLM land along the shore. Saw deer, mink(!), cattle, pelican, mallard mom with ducklings, mergansers, geese and fishermen.


Rumi Quote of the Day:
“When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.”

DAYS 250-256 Lower Michigan

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June 6-12, 2013

If we’d known how much we’d like the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, we might have skipped over the southern part. But we didn’t know. Also, it took us several days and three state parks to learn another lesson: we don’t like staying at state parks in Michigan. In hindsight, I would have gone to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Seashore near Traverse City instead of the state parks. Much of life, and consequently travel, is learning what would have been a better choice and hoping that the knowledge gained through one’s mistakes will be useful one day . . . often it is not . . . at least not yet.

I was pretty sure I’d been in Michigan before, but aside from layovers at the Detroit airport, I couldn’t remember when. Could this be a new state for both Chris and I? The map of Michigan intrigued us. So much coastline! Almost the entire state is surrounded by the waters of lakes Michigan, Huron and Superior.

When we entered Michigan from Toledo, Ohio it was late and I picked a nearby state park off the road atlas, Pinckney State Recreation Area, west of Detroit. It had a lake, swimming, boating, hiking and mountain biking. We didn’t plan to stay long; it was a stop on our way to the lakeshore. We did get one good piece of advice: travel the west, not the east, coast of the Michigan mitten.

After a couple pleasant, unremarkable days of recouping and catching up on email and other tasks at Pinckney, we went to Grand Haven State Park on the shores of Lake Michigan. It had been recommended to us. We arrived late on a Saturday and there were only two campsites left. To call this a campground would be misleading. It was really a parking lot of asphalt and shifting sand for enormous RVs. They sat right next to each other with barely enough room for a picnic table between them. A few intrepid tenters and small campers like us were there but not many. We would have had much more space spending the night at Walmart.

The recommendation had come from a 20-something state park worker; once there, I understood that this park might be a fun place for her but it was far from our ideal. It was  basically a big communal beach party scene. Looking around us, Chris coined the term “extroverted camping”, that is, camping where people are in close proximity to each other and have endless opportunities for interaction and like it that way. Not surprisingly, it was also a big family scene, which means camping with lots of stuff, lots of activity and, consequently, lots of noise. We like “introverted camping” which prizes privacy, quiet, solitude and introspection, where there is space to reflect, write and meditate. Introverts and the “highly sensitive” seem to find comfort in nature and value its serenity and beauty. Extroverts may as well, but their first priority and source of greatest enjoyment seems to come from being in close contact with other humans.

Our truck was backed up against the sewage treatment building and we only got a few whiffs of foul fumes during our less than 24-hour stay. Our front faced the beach which was attractive in a city beach sort of way, not unlike the boardwalk area of Santa Cruz. Volleyball nets, tables, snack bar, etc. We were in walking distance to the town of Grand Haven and its restaurants and shopping. It’s interesting how similar beach towns are whether on the Great Lakes, Pacific or Atlantic. For the right people, this could be a perfect vacation spot, we just weren’t the right people.

I tried hard to shift my expectations and enjoy what we got instead of what we wanted. The initial view of the vast basin of fresh water was impressive and the sunset lovely. There was a a long pier with a lighthouse where groups of people walked, ran and lingered. Few people swam in the lake since the water was very cold.

In the early morning, I strolled the beach barefoot with only a few other early risers. It was delightful, with small waves lapping the shore, a soft fresh wind and pleasant temperature. It had the illusion of a great ocean but with no sharks or jellyfish, no tides or salt, no marine mammals and few shells. It was barren compared to the waters of the Monterey Bay which teem with seaweed, anemones, shellfish, sea lions and fish.

Lundington State Park – our next stop – is considered one of Michiganders favorite parks. We were encouraged by its more natural setting but discouraged by the busyness of the campground. We had thought that kids were still in school but soon discovered they were all out for the summer. Although the campground had shade trees and was not as closely packed as Grand Haven, it was still densely populated. Many people were camping with everything, including the kitchen sink. Outdoor rugs and lights, flags, signs, numerous large toys and games, screen houses, potted plants, beach equipment, boats, chairs, tables, and outdoor cooking systems of all kinds.

Everyone – adult and child – had a bicycle and they road around in packs. Every campsite nursed a campfire from early morning until late. It seemed as if the natural beauty of the place was secondary to its entertainment value. We felt as if we were camping in the middle of a noisy crowded playground.

Our site was against a large dune; a trail behind it led to the other side where Lake Michigan spread out in front and a beautiful wide beach stretched in either direction. Few people were actually on the beach and almost no one was in the water. An impressive lakeside lodge built by the CCC in 1935 was being renovated and will be a grand addition to the park when completed. There were paved bicycle trails throughout the park, a small lake and a river running from it to Lake Michigan. I was able to kayak both the lake and stream and sighted some wildlife there (see photos). A foot trail along the dunes led to an isolated lighthouse. (We found out that you can apply to be a volunteer lighthouse keeper at several lighthouses in Michigan.) Again, I can understand how all of this would be perfect for the right people, but we were ready to move on after a couple days.

Hell turned out to be tackier than the tacky I envisioned for it. Hell is a little town in Michigan, originally named Hell Creek, but sometime in the 19th century the “creek” got dropped. It is tiny, a few buildings, and its only industry is taking advantage of its name. Its style and decor is like a year-round Halloween party. The parking lots of the restaurant and gift shop were filled with motorcyclists who, I guess, have a special affinity for Hell. A film crew was busy shooting a video about Hell guided around town by the owner of the commercial establishments and a fellow with horns (you know who). When a woman came up to me and brightly asked, “How the HELL are you?!” I smiled and backed away, giving the vibe that I didn’t want to be part of their media excitement. But I did pose for Chris as “A Lil Devil”.

As you might imagine, there are a lot of jokes and puns about Hell. For example, the Michigan state tourism slogan is “Pure Michigan” so this town suggested you also experience “Pure Hell”. In the winter there, Hell freezes over. And if someone ever tells you to go to Hell, you can say you’ve already been.

There is a town in the Upper Peninsula called Paradise and, believe it or not, Nirvana is also on the map of Michigan. Just by chance, we were able to drive down the small road where Nirvana supposedly existed; I doubted it would be the mini-tourist trap that Hell was. As a matter of fact, we couldn’t find it. There were no signs, no indication that you had reached Nirvana even though it was clearly marked on all the maps we looked at. Nirvana remained mysteriously elusive, unattainable. That’s about right, don’t you think?

This gallery contains 24 photos


DAYS 246-249 Ohio Part 2

June 2-5, 2013

I first saw the ancient mounds of Ohio twelve years ago when traveling to Crestone, CO, from Massachusetts. They blew my mind. Since then, I have wanted to return and see more. In 2001, my sister and I were driving along Rt. 50, a scenic secondary road that for much of its journey across the U.S. travels through small-town America. The guidebook we used suggested various site-seeing possibilities along the way including The Hopewell Culture National Historic Park in Chillicothe, OH. I already vaguely knew about the Serpent Mound, an ancient Native American effigy site, but until then I had had absolutely no idea that there was such an extensive, elaborate, sophisticated network of earthen structures throughout southern Ohio. I also had not known that beautiful 2,000-year-old handicrafts existed as well. My previous understanding was that the local Native Americans had left little behind aside from an occasional arrowhead (like the one my mother found in our backyard south of Pittsburgh.)

I grew up in western Pennsylvania so these sites were in was my regional neighborhood. (I’ve recently discovered that a few mounds remain in PA as well). I don’t recall ever being taught about these archeological treasures. As far as I can tell, few people – local or far flung – know about them. The cliff-dwellings of the Southwest are familiar to many but these mounds remain unknown to most people. Traveling to England from the U.S. to visit Stonehenge is common, but how many tourists go to Ohio to see these remarkable sacred sites closer to home? Sadly, about 90% of the mounds that the first European settlers saw have been destroyed by agriculture and development.

The vast network of walls, giant circles, squares, octagons, animal effigies, and hill-like burial mounds were originally spread across the midwest, east and south, north to Michigan, east to PA, west to the Mississippi River, south to Georgia and Louisiana. Ohio has some of the largest remaining sites.

Most of these mounds were built between 200 BCE and 1000 AD. Some in Louisiana date to 2500 BCE. No one knows exactly what the large geometric and effigy mounds were used for, most likely a variety of ritual, ceremonial and social purposes. The Native Americans did not live in the great structures but in small temporary villages nearby. The smaller hillock mounds were used as burial places and have human ash remains inside. Much has also been made of the precise astronomical alignment of the various mounds with phases of the sun and moon. In addition, the mounds revealed an elaborate trading system between the widespread mound-building tribes. Copper from upper Michigan, mica from North Carolina, and shark teeth and shells from the Gulf Coast were found in the Ohio mound sites.

The mounds are difficult to photograph; in pictures they look small and unimpressive, like ordinary grassy knolls. So don’t judge them by my photographs! You will have to visit them yourself to fully appreciate these mysterious sacred sites and the under-appreciated history that they reveal. I have included a photo of an artists rendering of what the Newark earthworks might have looked like from above 2,000 years ago.

The Newark Earthworks site was new to me and includes circles, an octagon, a square, walls and small burial mounds. The Great Circle mound is the only part that you can visit. It’s in a state preserve and has a small museum with a few artifacts, information and an extensive selection of short videos about many aspects of this site and other mounds in Ohio. The Great Circle is perfectly round, over 1000 feet in diameter. It is the largest circular earthwork in the Americas. The entire Newark complex is the largest system of connected geometric earthworks built anywhere in the world.

At the entrance, the circle wall is 14 feet high; a trough runs along the wall on the inside, both the source of the dirt to create the circle and possibly a place to collect water. In the center are three small mounds that cover a cremated ceremonial building. Slowly wandering the inner circumference of the circle, now a grassy field with a few large deciduous trees, I reflected on the ancient people and their activities there so many years ago, wishing we knew more about them. I also admired the incredible effort, vision and skill that went into creating these awe-inspiring structures.

Sadly, some of the mounds in the larger complex of the Newark Earthworks have been destroyed by roads and houses. And strangely, the octagon, square and small circle – which still exist – are part of a golf course and not open to the public. The lease for the golf course ends in 2078 and I suspect the mounds will then be handed to the state or federal government for restoration if not before. Understandably, there are many people who protest this private recreational usage of these ancient sacred areas.

I found this quote online to help give you some perspective (I forgot to record the source!):
“Of particular note in the area of Newark is a structure known as ‘The Octagon’. Occupying an area of 3000 x 2000 feet of terrain, this incredible structure is part of a larger interlocking system of earth and stone mounds that comprises about 4 square miles of the area. To attempt to describe the massive size of the mound complex in and around Newark, I share this quote from Bradley Lepper, Ohio Historical Society Archeologist. He says, ‘The Newark earthworks were built on a scale that dwarfs many of the Old World’s most famous sites. The Great Pyramid of Egypt would fit comfortably within the square enclosure at Newark. The Octagon would hold four Roman Colosseums, and Stonehenge would fit within the small circular enclosure located at the Octagon’s southeastern gateway.’”

For more on the Newark Earthworks:–historic-sites-by-name/newark-earthworks

It wasn’t easy to find this mound. I knew it was in Granville, OH, not far from Newark, but most sources did not give clear directions. When we finally got to it, I knew why its location wasn’t publicized more. It is in the middle of a very well-to-do neighborhood. The animal-shaped mound is on a small knoll encircled by a road with large, fancy homes. I felt out-of-place parking there with our funny home-made camper and in our scruffy camping clothes. It’s the kind of place where I thought one of the homeowners might call security to check on us.

The mound itself was hard to distinguish and you could not determine its actually design; it was made up of several rolling lumps on the top of a small hill with a grand view over the valley. But I still felt pleased to stand on the sacred site and to wonder what it was like 1000 years ago when it was built. You can only get a sense of its real shape from an aerial view. Here is a link to a photo:,_Aerial_View.jpg

We also visited the Hopewell National Park, with its “Mound City”, a collection of 23 mounds within a large square mounded wall. The National Park system owns five mound sites in the Chillicothe area, two of which are closed to the public for archeological work and reconstruction.

The visitor’s center houses a small but impressive collection of artifacts from the mound-builders, mainly animal shaped carved pipes, pottery and copper ceremonial objects. They have a short movie called, “Mystery of the Ancient Architects” and you can see a preview at:
Chris and I were the only ones there and walked around the grass covered park looking at the different mounds from many angles.
For more on the Hopewell Culture National Historic Park:

I had visited the Serpent in 2001 but was excited to show it to Chris. He, like most people, especially those from the west, had no previous knowledge of this mound or any of the others. There has been great interest in the Serpent Mound by archeologists since the 19th century and it has been preserved by a private organization.

It was a hot steamy day and we slowly walked the paved trail around the undulating, 1330 foot mound. They have a tall platform, like a half-sized fire tower from which you can get a better overall view of the big snake. But, like the alligator mound, you can only see the whole thing from far above.

I consider snakes to be one of my totem animals so I appreciated the vision someone had to create this grand gesture honoring the power and spirit of serpents.

To see the Serpent Mound from above go to:×3741123/serpent_mound_aerial_view_of_the_serpent_mound_in

For more information on the Serpent Mound:–historic-sites-by-name/serpent-mound

In addition to the generally accepted theory that the mounds were built by early Native Americans, other, quirky and outright bizarre theories also have followers. They attribute the making of the the mounds to extraterrestrials, to an ancient race of giant humans, Vikings, a lost tribe of Israel, God, and people from Atlantis. And notably, for those of you that like this sort of thing, in 2007, a crop-circle appeared in the soybean field across from the entrance to the Serpent Mound park.

Finally, if you are ever driving past St. Louis, I also highly recommend visiting the Cahokia Mounds in Collinsville, IL, a World Heritage Site designated by UNESCO. It has a wonderful museum and there is a 100 foot high mound – essentially a pyramid – you can climb (and see the St. Louis arch). At one time, in about 1250 AD, this was a large, bustling city of 20,000.

DAYS 244-246 Ohio Part 1

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May 31 – June 2, 2013

It was a Friday night as we approached Dillon State Park in southeastern Ohio and we were concerned that the campground might be full. At the entrance booth was a sign saying “Bluegrass” with an arrow pointing in. Uh-oh, we thought, we’re really in trouble now, a bluegrass festival was happening there over the weekend. The campground might not only be full but overflowing. But we needn’t have worried since a number of sites were still available. Possibly the forecast of scattered thunderstorms for the weekend had kept people away. Although some musicians were jamming in an impromptu concert near the camp store as we drove in, the actual festival was scheduled for 4 PM on Saturday and was free.

The next day after Chris returned from a bike ride, we sauntered over to the bluegrass event in progress. I didn’t think about it in any special way since music festivals are relatively common; it was just a chance to hear live music in our “backyard”. I am casually familiar with bluegrass music, enjoying its spirited energy, its often virtuoso fiddle playing, and its roots in the traditional music of the British Isles. My experience with it is limited and comes from having seen Seldom Seen in concert years ago, admiring the talents of Alison Krause and the jazzy bluegrass improvisations of David Grisman.

The performance was in full swing when we arrived (a short walk from our campsite). The band, Joe Williams and Deepwater, was playing, some of the songs were familiar, some not. A modest crowd was gathered in lawn chairs around a small stage; hot dogs and drinks were for sale. The audience spanned the generations from small children to the elderly. This was the third year for this now annual event at Dillon.

Gradually it dawned on me that this was not just random musicians showing up at a random place to perform (as most concerts are) but rather an authentic expression of the living musical tradition of this area. The music was emerging from the community and was the result of innumerable interactions and connections in these very hills through time. From the early settlers who brought their music, through the music’s evolution as home-grown entertainment in the villages of Appalachia, to its 20th century adaptation as bluegrass, the musical baton was being passed over the centuries to its present manifestation at this concert. Although you can find bluegrass anywhere, this is its true home.

I am so used to the availability of any type of music, anytime, anywhere and to the globalization and intermixing of musical traditions, that I had forgotten that authentic regionalized music was still alive in the U.S. It was an exciting alternative to the isolated iTune-download-earbud musical experience. Instead I felt part of something larger, something living.

Next came the final band, The Wayfarers, a group of young energetic men with a rip-roaring repertoire. Fiddle, banjo, guitar, mandolin and a real hand-made washtub bass. Children and a few adults danced on the concrete slab in front of the stage. I clapped, slapped my knees and stamped my feet. Chris and I dubbed one little boy, about 4-years-old, “The Stomper”. He seemed completely entranced by the performance. Standing alone in the center of the dance floor, he energetically stomped one foot while hugging a toy to his chest, imitating playing a cross between a banjo and a fiddle. Often he mouthed the words, revealing his familiarity with the music. Perhaps, he was the child of one of the performers. I imagined him growing up immersed in the world of bluegrass, becoming a musician and carrying on the tradition to future generations.

I have added two short videos taken of the Bluegrass Festival below.

June 5, 2013
Our neighbors at Dillon State Park were on their maiden voyage with their brand new Airstream trailer. It was shiny and pristine and reminded me of the sleek design of my Apple Macbook Pro . . . if I could travel in my laptop. The Airstream appears both retro and high-tech at the same time, like the imaginative inventions of Jules Verne. Chris recalled that the Airstream factory is located in Ohio and offers tours to the public. So we made plans to go. He was excited to see how they built this unique and iconic home-on-wheels and to learn anything that might be useful in redesigns to our camper.

It was a rainy day. This brought out the tourists looking for an indoor activity and the tour was full with 30+ people. The guide was an 80-year-old ex-factory worker and an owner of many Airstreams during his lifetime. We learned the history of the Airstream trailer and the ups and downs of the company (they are on an upswing right now, looking for additional skilled employees).

We then walked through the main building of assembly. Because of the noise much of the guide’s tour information was lost but, as it turned out, the most interesting part was watching the process of creation: building parts, bending sheets of aluminum, installing appliances, testing for water leaks, wiring and plumbing. At the end, we were able to climb into the final, elegant complete product. (They didn’t allow photography in the factory.)

Although well-designed and made from top materials, the Airstream looks small and modest when sitting next to the enormous modern McMansions-on-wheels that you often see at campgrounds.


This gallery contains 11 photos


Carla’s Photograph of the Day – July 13, 2013

Taken 7/13/2013 by Carla Brennan

We were delighted to have such a special introduction to this sacred site. 
“Bear Butte is sacred to many indigenous peoples, who make pilgrimages to leave prayer cloths and bundles tied to the branches of the trees along the mountain’s flanks. Other offerings are often left at the top of the mountain. The site is associated with various religious ceremonies throughout the year. The mountain is a place of prayer, meditation, and peace.”

Photograph of the Day Runner-Up
Giant Pheasant Family – Enchanted Highway, ND

In the small and dying town of Regent ND a retired school teacher and sculptor got the idea to revitalize the economy by putting the road to Regent on the map through creating a series of huge metal sculptures along the drive! The Enchanted Highway was born! What a wonderful, unusual idea to address a depressed region. The sculptures include flying geese, leaping deer, grasshoppers, an underwater scene, Teddy Roosevelt, pheasants and a tin family. All super-sized.