Sunday, May 31, 2009

One Idea in Detail: Take a Blue Highway Tour

Who among us hasn't daydreamed about taking off and just driving wherever we felt like at the moment - no itinerary, no schedule, no list of must-see sites or must-visit relatives, no rushing from one to the next.

One guy who actually did this was William Least Heat Moon. About 30 years ago, having lost both his job and his marriage, he set out in his van to just drive around America. In three months, he covered 13,000 miles, starting from and returning to Columbia, Missouri. His trip took him from coast to coast, as far south as the Louisiana Gulf Coast and as far north as Montana, North Dakota and Minnesota, just shy of the Canadian border.

He documented his trip, and the many conversations and personal musings that occurred as he traveled, in a best-selling 1982 book entitled Blue Highways - A Journey into America. I recall reading the book when it had just appeared in paperback and it is sitting next to me on the desk as I type this.

The "Blue Highways" of the title refers to the maps and atlases of the day that frequently used the color blue to denote secondary roads, while the "important roads" were black or red. In his trip, Mr. Moon (or should it be Mr. Least Heat Moon?) decided to stick to the blue roads, those minor state highways and county trunks that wound through the scenic parts of America and were populated with colorful characters.

Mr. Moon was clearly not a shrinking violet kind of guy. He sought out the country stores and small-town cafes and became adept at striking up conversations with the waitresses (who I'm betting were never referred to as "wait staff"), their patrons and various other hangers-on. Needless to say, there were no fast food chain restaurants on his agenda.

The book is a striking narrative of a personal journey on America's side roads. There have been a lot of changes in the U.S. since 1982, but I'm sure we can still create a blue highways tour in the age of Mapquest, GPS and Garmin and enjoy experiences not too different from the author's.

There is still plenty of American countryside best seen from winding two-lane highways and plenty of small towns with locally-run cafes and bars. There are still folks who gather at the same time every morning for coffee to share the local gossip and opine on the events of the last 24 hours, folks who have known each other for 60, 70 or 80 years and can all recall the day the furniture store burned down or the new highway bypass opened.

Even if they are now meeting in a fast food restaurant. A few years ago, I was driving to meet with a prospective client in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, about four hours from my home. Having allowed plenty of time, I was driving into Oconto, the last burg before Peshtigo and realized that I had about a half hour to spare before my 10 AM meeting at the paper mill. I noticed a Hardee's restaurant ahead on the main drag and decided to stop for a cup of coffee.

As I ordered at the counter, I was vaguely aware that a couple dozen people - all of retirement age - were scattered about the restaurant, but thought nothing of it until after I'd selected a table roughly in the geographical center of the room. Within minutes, I became acutely aware that all the other patrons knew each other, met there every day at the same time, and, although seated in a seemingly random arrangement, were in fact conducting one conversation. The one stranger in the room had just taken a seat right in the middle of this conversation, the news of the day ricocheting past his head from one corner of the restaurant to another.

It was an uncomfortable 15 minutes as I downed my coffee and biscuit a bit faster than anticipated. But it was also a glimpse of local culture - since these people all knew each other, there was no point in crowding around the same table - everything they had to say was meant to be shared with everyone in the room anyway. Each probably had his or her favorite table and wasn't about to move just to get closer to the next-door neighbor seated across the restaurant. I imagined as I drove away the next conversational topic - "Who was that guy wearing a suit and tie who sat right smack-dab in the middle of our group? Didn't his mother teach him any manners?!"

I envision my blue highways trip being full of experiences like that one, although I would first seek out a local cafe instead of a Hardee's and I might even join in the conversation. If the cafe had a counter, I would sit there and engage the owner or waitress in a dialogue, ask them what to see in town, what's unique about the place, how did they come to live here. I'd be sure to visit the local museum - even small towns these days seem to have some sort of public building housing some sort of collection - whose proprietor is also sure to have some interesting stories to tell. (By the way, to illustrate this point, there's a Fire Museum in Peshtigo dedicated to the Great Peshtigo Fire of 1871, the deadliest fire in U.S. history. It is largely unknown because it occurred on the same day as the Chicago Fire, which got all the press.)

If you're into camping, as William Least Heat Moon was, that would certainly enhance the experience as well as reduce your expenses. Otherwise, I'd recommend trying the local hotels, motels and B&B's. I'd also recommend keeping a diary and having a camera at the ready. You could retrace Moon's journey or simply go wherever you feel like each day.

You may not create a best seller like Mr. Moon, but your words and photographs will be documents you'll enjoy reviewing for the rest of your life - and will, of course, qualify as the required "deliverable" for this particular HarvilleQuarter.

Note: The photograph shows the Oconto, Wisconsin, Christian Science Church, the oldest structure built as a Christian Science Church in the world. Weekly services have been held there since the building was completed in 1884.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Welcome, South Korea and Abu Dhabi

This probably won't come as a surprise, but HarvilleQuarters is my first foray into blogging. It began on January 1, 2009 and initially I told just a few relatives and friends about it. (And, I must say, they've been remarkably restrained about reading it regularly, much less posting actual comments.)

I subscribe to a Web service that tracks "hits" on the site and gives me a weekly report. Whole days went by with no hits, or with only one - me. And the hits other than my own almost always came from a city where I have a friend or relative who's aware of my blog.

That was OK - I was getting my bearings about this whole blogging thing as well as taking my time before adding a new post.

This changed about a week ago when I posted a comment on National Public Radio's Website in a section soliciting questions about retirement for a series they are planning. I made the point, as I have in this blog, that considering how we will spend our retirement years should be as important as accumulating the financial wherewithal to support our plans. I included the link to HarvilleQuarters.

Apparently, a few people read my comment and were motivated to take a look. I've been getting up to 15 visitors a day, still a small number by blogging standards (I'm sure the Huffington Post is not nervously checking its rearview mirror), but an exponential increase from the prior week. It's been fun to check my stats each day to see where the hits are coming from.

Although I'm far from having a visitor from every state, I have added quite a few new ones - Oregon, New York, Michigan, Missouri, Colorado, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, DC. It was even more exciting to see two foreign countries represented - South Korea and Abu Dhabi.

So --- welcome to all of you, and especially those of you reading from half way around the globe. Please don't hesitate to add a comment to this post telling me how you got here, along with any ideas you'd like to offer for great retirement activities. Your idea may show up in my next list of Another Dozen Examples, and if you include your name and city, I'll give you credit for it.

Warm regards,
Bruce Harville

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Another Dozen Examples

73. Create and sponsor a contest (thank you, Rodney).
74. Write your memoir - or a friend's or relative's.
75. Create and stage a guerilla theater event in a local public place.
76. Drive around all five Great Lakes.
77. Host weekly dinner parties with different guests at each one.
78. Learn pyrotechnics and give a show on a patriotic holiday.
79. Create a great Lego structure (or K'nex or sploids).
80. Take a roller coaster tour.
81. Read blogs on subjects that interest you and post comments daily (and/or start your own blog).
82. Learn how to rosemal.
83. Share one of your passions with children.
84. Become an expert player of a video game.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

One Idea in Detail: Build a Tree House

If you’ve been reading this blog from the earliest entry forward (and who hasn’t?), then you may recall my view of retirement as a time to experience your “second childhood,” using that term in the best possible sense. What better than a tree house to evoke memories of those halcyon days from your original childhood?

I do recognize that not everyone had the opportunity to have a tree house your first time through childhood. For one thing, you may not have grown up with a large tree in the backyard, or perhaps you had no backyard period. But – if you have a backyard now, and, if it has a large tree – this is your chance to make up for that big empty spot in your youth.

My brothers and I did have a tree house - of a sort. Basically, it was a roughly 4-foot square platform made from old lumber sitting on a couple of low branches in a wide-spreading Yellow Transparent apple tree behind our house. I think we nailed a couple of boards into the trunk so we could get up there. Frankly, I never spent much time there because it was pretty uncomfortable and there wasn’t a whole lot you could do except wait for small, hard, green apples to fall on your head when the wind blew – sort of like being pelted with golf balls by an unseen duffer.

This time I’m going to do the whole tree house thing much better. I’ve been reading all the tree house design books in our local library system (and there is a surprisingly large number of them) for ideas. These books are nothing if not inventive. There are tree houses of all shapes, sizes, architectural styles, materials, amenities and price ranges. A few literally have electricity and serve as actual homes for adventurous sorts. Some are veritable villages of tree houses spread throughout a grove of trees with suspended walkways between them.

The tree house I’m planning is unlikely to be featured in any of these glossy books. I’d just like a simple deck-like structure at least slightly above the roofline of my ranch-style house.

I think I may have a pretty good candidate for a host tree – a large honey locust with dappled shade and widely spaced branches. It seems healthy and strong, the trunk is pretty straight, and there’s a spot about 15 feet above the ground that would seem to offer some solid attachment points. I live in a fairly high area of Madison, and I’m hoping from my tree house I can see Lake Wingra about a mile away and, if I’m really lucky and other trees aren’t in the way, catch a glimpse of our state capitol dome.

I don’t need anything big or fancy – I’d just like a little deck with a railing that can accommodate a couple of comfortable chairs. I am willing to allow one friend to join me, but I’m not looking to throw any parties up there. I’ve found a simple design that is basically a wedge attached to both sides of the main trunk that flares out to a width of about six feet. Because the entire deck is attached to the same part of the trunk, I won’t have to worry about different branches swaying wildly during a gusty windstorm and pulling my deck apart – or ripping a supporting branch off my tree.

I envision many summer mornings sitting on my tree deck with my thermos of coffee, enjoying the dappled shade while reading the paper. Afternoons will be equally leisurely, relaxing with a good book and a cool beverage, or just napping in my chair, or enjoying the view from my aerie. The tree is very open in the interior, a feature that, along with the not-too-dense shade and a slight breeze will, I hope, discourage mosquitoes. And since my backyard is surrounded by a six-foot-tall stockade style fence, I shouldn’t need to worry about my tree deck becoming an “attractive nuisance” to neighborhood kids who might take an unplanned plunge from 15 feet in the air.

Needless to say, I would also prefer to avoid plunges, unplanned or not, from my tree deck. The railing will need to be good and sturdy and I may have to limit my cool beverages on summer afternoons. I’ll need a strong ladder as well, since that’s a bit of climb and, to be honest, I’m not terribly fond of heights. I think I’ll be fine once I’m sitting on my tree deck, but I can imagine my heart will be pounding the first few times I make the trip up and down the ladder.

You may decide not to build a tree house for yourself, but for your grandkids or some other extremely fortunate young people whose undying love you will earn by so doing. In that case, I’ll send you back to the many tree house design books available through the library, online, at your local bookseller or a big box home supply store. The variety really is incredible and they don’t need to be high in a tree, or even attached to a tree at all. Many are supported entirely or partially on posts and are just high enough off the ground to give the kids a fun sense of elevation. I’d let the kids help pick the design and the only limits are your collective imagination, carpentry skills and budget – and some designs in these books could clearly start to run into real money.

One final piece of advice – it would probably be smart to consult with your local authorities to determine whether there are any building codes that must be observed or permits acquired. I was surprised, pleasantly, to find upon calling city hall that my tree deck could be built free of bureaucratic oversight, but that may not be true for you. Also, depending on its placement and visibility, it would be wise to let the neighbors know what you’re planning just in case they might have some heartburn over it. Especially if you’re planning to borrow their tools.

Or at least let them know that they or their kids will be welcome guests occasionally. Maybe they’ll even offer to donate some construction labor.

Just remember, according to one of the books I read, most falls out of tree houses occur during the construction period. Be careful and don't be afraid to get some professional help if you're looking at a house as high as mine.

Note: Photo is from