When I was in school, Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail was on my reading list. At the age of thirteen, the formal writing and the lengthy, detailed descriptions of a time, scenery and people who did not in the least interest me, turned me towards another choice of book. So here I am, some fifty years later, with other interests, more tolerance, and certainly a more receptive mind.

Francis Parkman

Francis Parkman

Francis Parkman was born into an aristocratic Boston family, son of a well-connected and wealthy Unitarian minister. Plagued by illness most of his childhood, he was often sent into the countryside in an attempt to make him more robust. This, combined with his own enjoyment of James Fenimore Cooper’s novels, seems to have had a lasting effect on the young man whose walks in the woods always entailed carrying a rifle, just as his hero, Hawkeye, did. At Harvard, his interest in Native Americans became evident, and his desire to write histories of the United States (as well as a love of horticulture) took root. Taking time off from college to do a Grand Tour of Europe in order to recover from one bout of his neurological illness, he visited George Catlin’s Indian Gallery in London. This may have been the final push to form plans to travel west. In May, 1846, he finally set out for Independence, MO, with his equally well-heeled cousin, Quincy Adams Shaw. The duo went on to Fort Laramie where, under the sponsorship of the American Fur Company, they were outfitted and prepared for their journey to live with the Oglalla Sioux. Parkman even dressed for the part of a westerner, kitting himself out with buckskins sewn by the Oglalla women at the fort. Years later, he still possessed the outfit when Frederic Remington prepared the illustrations for the deluxe 1892 edition of Oregon Trail.

As anyone who has read The Oregon Trail will know, Parkman pushed himself through many bouts of illness, dosing himself with opium to plod on. In the end, he lived with the Oglalla for three weeks, taking copious notes that eventually formed the book. Parkman would return to Boston where he wrote numerous histories of the United States as well as becoming a professor of horticulture at Harvard, and a founder member of the Archaeological Institute of America.

The Oregon Trail was to have a great influence on the minds and hearts of

Emigrants on the Oregon Trail

Emigrants on the Oregon Trail

Americans. Consider that it still appeared as recommended reading for my school in 1964, and that editions are readily available today. And how many writers of western material or television scriptwriters have taken Parkman’s word and descriptions to heart?

So what is so captivating about The Oregon Trail that it has lasted this long? Parkman was very much a product of his class and times. For someone who was so intent on living with the Native Americans, he is singularly unsympathetic to their plight or their lives, repeatedly referring to them as “mongrels.” Yet while the modern reader may be rightfully appalled at these and other appellations, there is a certain fascination in how prescient Parkman’s writing is: on pg. 90 he describes a wagon train rolling past a native village: “a long train of emigrants with their heavy wagons was crossing the creek, and dragging on in slow procession by the encampment of people whom they and their descendants, in the space of a century, are to sweep from the face of the earth,” and later “…the buffalo will dwindle away, and the large wandering communities who depend on them for support must be broken and scattered. The Indians will soon be abased by whiskey and overawed by military posts…” (pg. 190) Parkman saw this as the natural march of progress much as missionaries see bringing Christianity to indigenous inhabitants a step toward civilization.

Julius Birge

Julius Birge

Some twenty years after Parkman’s journey, Julius Birge left his Wisconsin home to take virtually the same trip. He, too, kept notes, and forty-five years later, in 1912, these would be the basis for The Awakening of the Desert. Also descended from an old New England family, Birge, while not as formally educated as Parkman, was still incredibly well-read and had also suffered illness. One of the reasons he took the trip, which was to ostensibly deliver goods to a Mormon settlement, was to recover from a bout of typhoid. But Birge had grown up in rural Wisconsin amid Pottawattamies and Winnebagos; indeed, he was reputedly the first child ever born to non-native parents in Whitewater, WI.   Because of this, Birge’s interests are totally different from Parkman’s, and, perhaps, also because of this, his judgments are gentler. However, both men dealt with Native Americans and both encountered Mormons; both men spent time at the forts along the route and both lighted upon almost identical scenery. They each had treacherous river crossings and knew hardships and thieves. In 1872, in the introduction to the fourth edition of The Oregon Trail, Parkman reassessed his view of that march of progress. He wrote, “…we did not dream how Commerce and Gold would breed nations along the Pacific, the disenchanting screech of the locomotive break the spell of weird, mysterious mountains…had we foreseen it, perhaps some perverse regrets might have tempered the ardor of our rejoicing.”  Birge also had the benefit of hindsight; in 1912, some forty-five years after his journey, he knew that such an advancement, more than anything, also marked the end of “…the country as God has made it…” and that western migration was “…depraving and demoralizing even the savages.” (pg.56) His view was that, “the cities and states of America have struggled to increase their population by immigration, apparently on the theory that the rate of that increase was to be the measure of growth in the happiness and prosperity of its people. When our national heritage shall have been partitioned among the nations of the earth, and the wild, wooded hillsides shall have been denuded by axe and fire, giving place for farms and cities, then those whose fortune it has been in childhood to roam through the primitive forests or over the yet free and trackless plains, would hardly exchange the memories of those years for a cycle on the streets…” (pg. 56)

The Oregon Trail by Alfred Bierstadt

The Oregon Trail by Alfred Bierstadt

I can only wonder why he saw the desert—that great American ‘desert’, the plains—as awakened. It might have been more apposite to say that it had begun its death throes. But how apt his words are today.


The Oregon Trail at South Pass today

The Oregon Trail at South Pass today


The editions I used for this post are:

Birge, Julius C. and Birge, Barbara B., The Awakening of the Desert: An Adventure-Filled Memoir of the Old West, a CreateSpace 2014 reprint of 1912 edition, Gorham Press, Boston   This book is also available at  For further information, go to

Parkman, Francis, The Oregon Trail, Dover Publication, Inc., Mineola, NY, 2002, reprint of 1883 edition, Little, Brown, and Company, Boston.

Parkman, Bierstadt and b & w Oregon Trail photos Public Domain; photos of Julius Birge and South Pass, courtesy of Barbara Birge


IMG_1890One of the highlights of my recent cross-country road trip was Estes Park, gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. And how could it not be a highlight? Here is scenery that both inspires and excites in a corner of Colorado once called the ‘Switzerland of America.’ One of several wide valleys at around 8,000 feet, which include North Park, Middle Park, South Park, and Winter Park, FullSizeRender-18Estes Park itself was renowned for its beauty. Continue reading


IMG_0423The judges have decided—the votes are in! Having traveled more than 8,000 miles and scoured the country for the very best, here are the 2015 DOWNING ROADTRIP AWARDS…in order of encounter. Continue reading


FullSizeRenderIt’s been a long last day, Cristal doing all the final driving from Rhinebeck into NYC, dropping things at her apartment, at my apartment, and then out to my house. She’s dealt with double parking, cutting in, blocking in, speeding and reckless driving on top of all the other traffic woes. But here we are, safe and sound, at home in East Hampton. Our groceries have, happily, been delivered—a perk of living out here—and the first load of wash is in. My own suitcase is still half-unpacked and I haven’t touched the two months of mail waiting for me; the garden is distinctly overgrown, and there were 59 messages of varying importance on the answering machine. But here we are, seven weeks later, having had the experience of our lives and enjoyed (almost) every minute of it.IMG_2450

We have a list of some twenty-five awards we’d like to share with you in a day or two, but for now I am signing off. There is no deeply felt summation here; I fear I would get sentimental in the extreme if I tried to do so. But what I would like to say here is that America is every bit as varied and diverse in both its population and its landscape as I hoped it would it be. We are so incredibly lucky in this wide ranging variety, it is impossible to compare our country with anywhere else. Cristal and I both had a fantastic time—there is no other IMG_2452expression to round it off—and we both would do it again.

Stay tuned for the Award Ceremony, but for now, thank you for coming along—we’ve enjoyed your company.


Springwood, Hyde Park

Springwood, Hyde Park

The sitting room at Springwood

The sitting room at Springwood

My daughter’s take on visiting ‘Springwood,’ the Hyde Park home of Franklin Roosevelt, was that visiting the homes of famous people was like reading People magazine; her point was that the way people lived is no reflection of the impact they had on the world. Good point, but I dragged her along anyway.

For anyone who has seen the recent Ken Burns

FDR's bedroom

FDR’s bedroom

series on the Roosevelts, actually visiting the house is an insightful supplement. Here is the story of the financial hold his mother had on him and Eleanor, and here is the story of his tremendous fight to hide his incapacity to walk while showing a great capacity to think and live normally.

One of numerous letters sent to FDR as President--it just says, "Attaboy."

One of numerous letters sent to FDR as President–it just says, “Attaboy.”

The Presidential Library—the nation’s first, and started while he was still in office—is a comprehensive showcase of the Depression, a sad chronicle of the nation at its lowest point. In addition, the estate also includes Top House, FDR’s getaway, and Val-Kill, the cottage Eleanor designed and furnished independently of her mother-in-law’s influence and her husband’s harried life.

Eleanor's sitting room at Val-Kill

Eleanor’s sitting room at Val-Kill

The visit was a splendid last day of sightseeing for us before we head home tomorrow. And how did Cristal feel at the end of it? She said she was glad she went because now she would like to know more about the Roosevelts and what they accomplished.

The view from Springwood

The view from Springwood

FDR's grave in the rose garden

FDR’s grave in the rose garden


FullSizeRenderIn the last days of travel as lengthy as this has been, the mind slowly turns toward what awaits at home. For Cristal, who had only been back from three years living in Colombia (less some visits home) for one week before departure, there are applications for a new full-time job to get out, a renovated apartment to move into, and the arrival of her boyfriend to look forward to. My own mind is swimming around two months of mail and bills to deal with, bathrooms that will be modernized, doctor appointments and the start of a new book. As Cristal deals with numerous deliveries and unpacking belongings sent from Bogota, I’ll be considering the cheapest way to update my house, and making plans to escape once again in October—to a conference and on to Wyoming. It’ll be a busy August, no doubt.

IMG_2408For today, we made a start on sorting what needs to be dropped in the city and what will be taken on to my house, and how to place everything in the car for the speediest evacuation of luggage on city streets without parking spaces. We wonder why we have so many breakable goods in tow and why the suitcases don’t close. We’re thinking ahead to lunch in the car and fighting traffic on the Thruway.

The Beekman Arms, oldest inn in America

The Beekman Arms, oldest inn in America

But today also offered us a small glimpse into old America. Settled by the Dutch, in 1686, as much of the Hudson Valley was, Rhinebeck also played a part in the Revolutionary War. The oldest inn in America is here and, even today, there is a local chapter of Daughters of the American Revolution. But it is to the old Dutch families that the area mostly owes its character. On our last stay, a couple of years ago, we visited one of the Vanderbilt mansions. Tomorrow we’re off to see the Roosevelt homes.IMG_2417


There we were, taking the long way—the scenic route—down from Canandaigua to Rhinebeck, tooling along pleasantly through the glorious Catskill Mountains, when a speeding car whizzed past us practically slamming into another vehicle, who just managed to slip into the right hand lane directly in front of us. Had the speeding vehicle hit the other car, it would surely have spun around in front of us including us in the crash. Cristal and I were both shaken by the incident, but remain in fine fettle. What the occupants of the nearly-missed car were like, I dread to think.

IMG_1031The Catskills, after the Rockies and the Tetons, are mere hills, but green ones at that, thick with trees, bisected with rivers, dotted with old towns. We took a detour to visit an old hotel at which I had had several vacations as a child. It has just undergone a name change along with its twenty million dollar makeover, but looked pretty much the same. It strikes me now as something from another time, another era, and it wouldn’t appeal to me to stay there now. Its sister hotel, on the other hand, right next door, is in gloomy decadence, rather like an old southern mansion that has been left to decay.IMG_1035

So here we are in our last home away from home, a small chalet-type house in Rhinebeck, in the Hudson Valley. Compared to other houses we’ve rented over the past weeks, and homes we’ve stayed in as B and Bs, it somewhat misses the mark. We found the beds unmade, a single toilet roll at 2/3 use, which we’ll have to replace, air con only in the bedrooms—insufficient at 85 degrees—and, worst of all, Cristal’s ‘room’ was the chalet attic, boiling hot with no shades on the windows. We have duly moved her mattress and bedding down to my room. I’m not sure if we’re ‘spoiled’ travellers; we discussed this earlier today, wondering about our expectations. As Cristal is currently unable to find mugs for our evening tea, I don’t really think our expectations are too high.



IMG_2402IMG_2400Some years back there was a campaign for good food and healthy eating with the slogan, “You Are What You Eat.” In fact, it started as a television series in the UK and spread from there. It’s an adage I’ve tried to follow, but obviously, when traveling, it’s far more difficult than at other times.

Here in the Finger Lakes, as I’ve been saying, life pretty much revolves around food production and wineries. There’s a good-sized Amish and Mennonite community whose pristine farms line the roads with cabbages, corn and other vegetables. FullSizeRender-17We started our outings today with one of the markets they attend, and ogled the variety. After that, we went on to a “Garlic Festival’ at one of the wineries, an event brimming with oils and vinegars to buy in flavors you’d never think of, honeys of every variety, and, needless to say, real garlic—not the store-bought stuff that’s virtually tasteless, but garlic that sings and zings in your mouth. No “EEEE-uwwwws” here, please; this was delicious stuff. And finally, we ended the day with a ‘wine walk’ in the town of Canandaigua, going from shop to shop, tasting wines and cheeses, cookies and dips.IMG_2405

But one man’s meat is another man’s poison, as the saying goes. Here at our B and B the day starts with what the innkeeper obviously views as a gourmet breakfast. This morning this consisted of tea, mango juice and pure grape juice shots (nothing like Welch’s). There was a gigantic blueberry muffin waiting on our plates as we sat down, swiftly followed by peaches on whipped feta IMG_2399atop bruschetta with a balsamic reduction. Before the last bite was down, blueberry pancakes were staring us in the eye with two rashers of bacon, baked with a sprinkle of sugar and walnuts. Finally, with hardly a second to spare, a mound of sliced strawberries sitting on a split scone sat in front of us, pretty as a picture. I won’t describe yesterday’s breakfast in such detail, but I will tell you it ended with wine ice cream on chocolate cookies.

If I am what I eat, I dread to think exactly what I am.IMG_0981


IMG_2387On Sundays opposite my New York apartment there is a farmer’s market. Most of the vendors come down from the Finger Lake region here in upstate New York, standing out in winter weather with numb fingers, half asleep from their very early rising to get to the city. Today, in glorious summer sunshine, I got to see their produce first hand.

vineyards in the Finger Lakes

vineyards in the Finger Lakes

The Finger Lakes region is primarily known for its wine. New York State wine used to be a joke many years ago, but a number of the wineries have now managed to build their reputations to an acceptable level. Cristal and I did a bit of a wine tour around the Lake—to the extent that it’s something of a miracle I can still write today. As Designated Driver, I had to decline tasting at the last winery—beginning to feel somewhat wary of facing these winding country roads.

Carp in The Japanese Garden at Sonnenberg Mansion

Carp in The Japanese Garden at Sonnenberg Mansion

Our tour also included a stop at the Sonnenberg Mansion, a post-Civil War home

The 'Old Fashioned Garden' at Sonnenberg Mansion

The ‘Old Fashioned Garden’ at Sonnenberg Mansion

in the Tudor style built by Frederick and Mary Thompson, a wealthy NY banker and his wife. Mary apparently loved flowers and gardening, and the grounds around the house are divided into twelve different types of garden. But what caught my eye was the story of how flowers actually ‘saved’ her life. She was travelling in Europe when she discovered the tulip festival in the Netherlands was taking place. She therefore changed her plans to return home and went to see the tulips. Mary had had tickets to travel on the Titanic…

Weeks ago in Nashville, as we wandered around The Old Opry and read stories of the great and the good of country music, there was the biography of Waylon Jennings. Jennings, before he was truly famous, had been a guitarist for Buddy Holly. He gave up his seat on Holly’s fateful flight to another man.

Life is full of those, ‘what if I had done this?” or “ what if that happened?” but for most of us, it doesn’t hit with such a resounding thud.IMG_0986


As I write this, I am watching a load of clothes perform a wild dance of twists and turns in a tumble drier—a reckless carousel of laundry. Having managed to previously get the wash done in either homes or motel laundry rooms, we have finally been reduced to a Laundromat. It’s not a pleasant experience, sitting here in intense heat, but a novel one for me, and perhaps good fodder for a book. Oldies but goodies are blaring on the sound system, and the pin board has some interesting notices, everything from smoked meat to a cute puppy found without a collar.

FullSizeRender-15We’re in Canandaigua in the Finger Lakes region of New York. Our license plate is no longer unusual, no longer an object of comment, and I’m pleased to be able to use the US dollar once more. The magnificent view of Niagara has been traded for an attic room view of Lake Canandaigua. We chose this area to go wine tasting, which we hope to do tomorrow. But for now, forgive my brevity, having wasted a couple of hours from one of our last days, we’re going to gather the semi-dried clothes and get the hell outta here.