Our travels began anew for Melanie’s 50th college reunion at Vassar. En route, we stopped in Utica, New York for a two-day visit with Frances Wolfson, the widow of Chancellor Emeritus Lester Wolfson of Indiana University South Bend. And what a splendid visit it was! Frances was waiting for our arrival with grand cheer. At ninety-three, she is still an elegant and gracious lady. A few days earlier, she had telephoned to warn us that she was not her usual self. Obviously, still mourning her recently deceased husband and dear friend, she was feeling listless and out of sorts. She thought perhaps we might want to reconsider our visit. Not a chance! From the beginning of our Vassar planning, we had been looking forward to spending time with her.
Frances characterized our two-day visit as good medicine for her. After an afternoon of good conversation and hors d’oeuvres in the afternoon in her lovely Acacia Village apartment, we went out to dinner at a neighborhood Italian restaurant, Dominique’s Chesterfield. The large clientele on a Tuesday evening was a sure sign that this restaurant is a local favorite. And we were not disappointed; the food was delicious.
The next day we had a late breakfast before getting a veritable historical tour of Utica from Frances as we made our way to the local shopping center to buy a pair of white pants for Melanie and an all-weather jacket for me as a buffer to the unexpected chilly weather. We skipped lunch and made our way to the local museum, the Munson William Proctor Art Institute, for the opening of their summer film series to see Norman with Richard Gere. The movie’s complicated plot of a wheeling and dealing fixer, expertly played by Richard Gere, has a bounty of intrigue and surprises. It definitely merits a second viewing. I missed key components of the plot. And even with my hearing aids, some of dialogue escaped me.
But what is most remarkable about this little museum are the artistic treasures we discovered – tableaux by O’Keefe, Picasso, Feininger, Dali, Glackens, Leger, Mondrian and sculptures by Arp and Barlach. Granted these pieces may not be as important and as numerous as you might find at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Louvre, but to the novice art lover that I am, I was amazed to find such artists in this local museum.
Although we did not have time to explore extensively (and learn more about) the collection, I believe I assume correctly that many of these works came from the estates of generations of Alfred Munson’s families, Helen Elizabeth Munson Williams and Thomas Proctor. Certainly, we will re-visit the museum on our return trip to see Frances.
Before dinner, we took time in the cool afternoon for a pleasant nap. Later, choosing where to dine required discussion among us. Apparently, Utica is a gourmand’s dream as it is home to several good restaurants. We narrowed our choices to a Bosnian and Italian restaurant, and finally settled on Ventura’s, a highly respected restaurant among the locals, and one of Frances’ favorites, specializing in Old World Italian cuisine. As if anticipating our arrival, one of the waiters was already at the door to greet us and helped Frances mount the three stairs into the restaurant. The dinner, impeccably presented and prepared, was delicious. Prior to our leaving, Mr. Ventura, came to our table to greet us and to chat with Frances. The intimate exchange between him and Frances was a sure sign that she is a frequent patron, well-known by the wait staff. Our meal finished, Mr. Ventura escorted Frances to the door, helping her descend the stairs and making sure that she was settled safely in the car that we parked, at his request, on the sidewalk just in front of the steps.
On our way to her apartment, Frances once again thanked us for our visit and repeated what good medicine we were for her. Whatever anxieties or trepidations she may have had about her health, about aging or being alone without a spouse, she now felt revitalized physically and emotionally renewed. That may be so! But she gave us a wonderful gift in return, two happy days in her company.
Now back to the subject of this blog. On our recent road trip to the Southwest, we visited the Georgia O’Keefe museum in Santa Fe, walked in O’Keefe’s footsteps at Ghost Ranch, toured her home in Abiquiu and saw breathtaking views of landscape depicted in her paintings. We learned about her strength, her resilience, her independence, her love of nature, her views of humanity. And perhaps, what was more striking for us was Georgia’s exuberance about life — the simplicity of being in the moment. Georgia’s studio and her home extended into exterior spaces; from her window she had expansive views of nature, She lived simply; when not painting she tended her ample gardens. Simplicity in living was her modus operandi. Her home was neat and modest with sparse but functional furnishings.
Similarly, Frances has a depth of character and regal demeanor that reveal an interior strength, resilience and grace. Her telling of Utica’s historical trivia gave us glimpses into her former civic and social engagement with the city. And like Georgia’s, her apartment overlooks a picturesque panorama. Adding to its charm, are works of art by artist friends and her talented artistic children. These two women, whose lives overlapped for a number of years, shared/share an uncommon love of the aesthetic and a joy of the human spirit. Each was/is a grand lady!
Humans are not the only species on earth, we just act like it.
Chief Joseph, Nez Percé Tribe
C’est beau! C’est magnifique! C’est grandiose! C’est immense! These exclamations by MariThé mirror the expressive joys of children opening presents on Christmas Day. As we traversed the Southwest, our friends, MariThé and Christian, marveled at the varied scenery, from the lush green terrains east of the Mississippi to the parched earth of the desert. Their appreciation heightened our enjoyment of the breathtaking beauty of the Southwest landscapes. Until their arrival, their images of the Southwest had been gleaned through Westerns. As we rode along the vast plains, we could envision the cowboys on their broncos, bandanas in the wind, rounding up herds in a cloud of dust, the cries of giddy-up and yippy-yi-yay echoing in the distance.
For them, and for us I suppose, the Grand Canyon was the definitive marker of this vast and distinctive region, the likes of which cannot be found east of the Mississippi. Like many tourists getting their first close-up glimpse of the Grand Canyon, we took a two-hour train ride to the South Rim. Before boarding, we were entertained by a Wild West show that was an amusing caricature of the rough cowboy life. Aboard the train, were tourists from England, Germany, France , India and, of course, Americans from across the States. En route to the Grand Canyon, we were entertained by a cowboy violinist; on the return by a humorous singer of folk music from the sixties.
The South Rim offered expansive views of the Canyon and I had trepidations about looking over the barriers. But I did and glimpsed the magnitude of the Canyon’s grandeur. Unlike some, I did not venture out to stand on any of the boulders. There are limits to my new courage! On my next visit to the Grand Canyon, I would like to be more adventuresome and hike in the valley below, perhaps even climbing to the rim.
That would give me a different perspective of the Canyon’s unparalleled grandeur. I got a taste of it back in the late eighties, as a Kellogg Fellow, during a rafting trip along the Colorado River with my other Class VIII Fellows.
Before visiting the national parks in Utah, we stopped at the Hoover Dam on our way for an overnight visit with our son, Paul, and daughter-in-law, Katie. Paul, who has developed an interest in cooking, grilled a sumptuous feast of steak, chicken, vegetables along with a green salad and a rich, cheesy pasta dish. Earlier that day, on the Strip, MariThé and Christian were thrilled to see the Eiffel Tower, a bit of the Strip’s tacky character. We were all disappointed that we did not get an Elvis sighting, but there were the occasional scantily clad young women who lured tourists for group pictures. After a short walk, we sat on the veranda of one of the bars lining the Strip and had an expensive Happy Hour beer at $7.00.
The next day, we headed to St. George, Utah, where we spent two lovely days at the home of our friends, Bob and Pat Kill, who had already left for their summer and fall stay in South Bend. St. George was our base for visits to Zion and Bryce. From the extraordinary beauty of these imposing landscapes, and the others we were yet to see, Utah rivals New Mexico as a land of enchantment. Even the rainy day at Zion did not dampen our enthusiasm. Strangely, the walk in a steady rain between majestic rock formations along a fast moving river seemed to heighten our sense of wonderment. Interestingly, we were greeted by a squirrel perched on a long boulder who did not seem to mind the attention from passersby.
From Zion we went on to Bryce, and as Bob Kill alerted us, Bryce was unusual. Called “Poetry in Stone,” Bryce opens up to wide panoramic vistas. Its geologic formations create interesting shapes and soft pink tones. What Bob referred to as unusual were the plethora of sculpted statuesque rock shapes, commonly named hoodoos. They owe their peculiar shape to erosion caused by melting snow and ice that seeps into the rock, and once the water re-freezes, expands forming cracks. The name itself evokes something eerie, but as we stood at seven thousand feet of altitude peering in the distance, these shapes captured strength and grace.
In all we spent five days touring Utah’s national parks. At Zion and Bryce we used the shuttle, stopping at interesting places for short hikes. At the other parks, particularly at Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Arches, we were able to explore the environs more easily on foot. When I asked MariThé what was her favorite park, she refused to choose, opting instead to embrace each one equally. My favorite was Capitol Reef because of its deep rich reddish hues that seem to envelop the entire landscape. Light seemed to gently caress the stately rock formations, changing in intensity as the day progressed from morning to mid-afternoon.
What is remarkable about Utah’s national parks is their distinctive character. No one is alike; each has its charm. Canyonlands is as different from Capitol Reef as Bryce is to Arches. Canyonlands is broad and immense, Arches more contained atop a grand mesa. And it is Arches, with its many arched openings in rocks, that is the most marketed and ubiquitous image of Utah’s national parks. Our only disappointment there was the road construction that prevented us from seeing some of the spectacular sites we’ve read about or seen pictures of.
Although there is diversity of landscapes and geologic formations in the national parks we visited, there is one constant, the admonition not to veer off the defined paths for fear of destroying the natural vegetation and soil sediments. Yet, often we saw footprints on forbidden terrain. So shameful that these sacred spaces were violated! As we traveled through the parks, placards strategically placed gave us insights into the scenery we were observing and educated us about the interconnectedness of the global ecosystem. Air pollution across the oceans can cause harm to the fragile ecosystems in the parks. What happens in Peoria affects the fragile environs of the parks.
Another indication of the broad reach of the global community was our encounters of people from all over the world. Besides meeting many European and Asian travelers like ourselves, Melanie happened upon a woman in Capitol Reef about twenty years younger than she, who was born in the same Massachusetts town and who graduated from the same high school in Auburn. Now that’s serendipity!
From Arches, we began our trek back to the Midwest, but not before visiting Indiana-transplanted-to-Wyoming-friends, Bob and Carol Mathia, who have a cottage in Estes Park, Colorado. There we spent two relaxing days. Melanie and Carol played Scrabble. MariThé was enthralled by the elk on the golf course behind their home. And we all took a leisurely stroll in the Rockies. We would have loved to explore more but several paths and roads were closed from a recent snowstorm. The chilly temperature and snow at the high altitudes were startling contrasts to the warmer clime and earth tone colors of the Southwest.
For MariThé and Christian, this journey is one that they will long remember – 5,900 miles total. It may not be the complete travels of Toqueville, but it was nevertheless, amazing! And it was for us as well!