Travel makes epiphanies

HoF

This summer, our family took its first pilgrimage to the Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, New York. As anyone who’s made the trek can tell you, it takes determined intent. You don’t drive by Cooperstown on the way to somewhere else. It’s about 200 miles northwest of New York City, 250 miles west of Boston and, not to mention, about 2500 miles east of our hometown, San Francisco.

We went because (a) we’re all baseball fans, (b) since the focus of the trip was touring colleges for our daughter, we felt our son deserved a destination he’d more fully appreciate [He’s 14 and he sat through an intimate hour-long conversation with the admissions director of Bryn Mawr without complaint. Nothing less than heroic.], and (c) a visit to the shrine of baseball seemed an appropriately American thing to do.

The Hall itself didn’t disappoint us – we walked through beautiful and well-curated exhibits and saw artifacts from our favorite players and teams. Nor did Cooperstown, which was quaint and naturally beautiful. But it was a serendipitous and overheard conversation at dinner that made the greatest impression and will always stick with me.

We went to Cooperstown’s Alex & Ika, a wonderfully unique place to eat, and had to sit at the bar because it was so crowded. Happened to sit next to two women, one younger and Japanese, the other older and white, sharing some awesome-looking appetizers. They were having an intense conversation and, for once, my habitual eavesdropping paid off. The younger woman had a very good command of English, although it was heavily accented. She was a student at Williams College, itself a two-hour drive, or several-hour bus ride to the east [As I said, you don’t drive by Cooperstown on the way to anywhere.].

She’d come to Cooperstown right before the start of her fall semester specifically to see the Hall of Fame. Turns out she knew a lot about our ‘national passtime’ and very much wanted to better appreciate the quintessentially American game.  And she knew and wanted to see all the Japanese players who had exhibits or artifacts in the hall – Hideki Matsui, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hideo Nomo and, of course, Ichiro Suzuki – and mentioned them reverently by name. For her, a visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame seemed a trip of devotion and respect, not just for baseball or the players who represented the Japanese game but also for America.

What a great testament, was that pilgrimage, not just to this woman’s spirit, and her dedication to her home country and its long baseball heritage, but to the beauty of this country as well, and its generation-after-generation attraction of people to its shores, for the fulfillment of whatever driving purpose.

IKA

Don’t You Dare Miss It

Great places to visit, things to see and events to attend and be a part of – as Americans, we should be proud of the great diversity. Music. Food. Celebration. Parties. You could never see all of them but here’s a list of place-particular (and mostly annual) events I think you might want to put on your list before they’re sold to the highest corporate bidder or completely gone.

10. SXSW – Austin, Texas

People who’ve been going since the very first South-by-Southwest (SXSW) Festival might tell you it’s a shadow of its former self, but this event still brings together music, technology and social thinkers in original and fun ways.

9. Oregon Shakespeare Festival – Ashland, Oregon

What’s the best part of this festival? The plays? The production values? The acting? The naturally beautiful setting? The theater itself? All of the above. The audience is an exciting mix too.

8. College Basketball Final Four – Location varies

A good friend went to a final four years ago and still talks about the insanity of an arena filled with high-volume and high-energy bands, fans squeezed into replica team jerseys, plastic pig-heads and other totems of the teams playing.

7. Taste of Chicago – Chicago 

Chicago is an uncommonly beautiful city, especially during summer. Everyone who can is outside for as often and as long as they can be. Imagine a gorgeous lakeside park literally filled with the city’s best food and bands ranging from native blues to nasty hip hop.

6. Fleet Week – New York and San Francisco

I find it hard to completely describe the feelings Fleet Week stirs in me. My grandfather and father both went to sea, following a long family tradition, and I do feel somewhat at home on the water. The sailors who visit port during fleet week are young, smart, engaged and knowledgable – a delight to meet, and a source of pride for our country. The vessels themselves are of singular scale, gliding grey behemoths. And then, there are the insane flyovers by the Blue Angels.

5. Pride Parade – San Francisco

This parade stirs pride of a different sort. Since its wild Gold Rush days, San Francisco has  tended to make people of all stripes feel welcome. As a result, the city has always attracted people who have felt less than accepted, appreciated or loved elsewhere. “Come here,” San Francisco says, “and be yourself, completely. We’ll celebrate that together.”

4. Mummers Parade – Philadelphia 

Philadelphia may be known for a sort of button-down personality, but this is anything but. Insane, is what it is. Troops of men, painted in silver, clothed in wild color, carrying banjos, playing old tunes like “Golden Slippers,” marching down ice-cold winter streets of downtown.

3. Presidential Inauguration – Washington, DC

The particular identity of the person being inaugurated doesn’t matter. The party doesn’t matter. A million citizens come to the mall in our capital every four years to bear witness to the orderly transfer of power, one citizen to another, the result of an open, fair and free election, without force or coercion.

2. Mardi Gras – New Orleans

Famous and infamous. Superb music, insanely inventive floats, free-flowing drinks, a city full of people who just want to have an amazing time. What is there left to say about this month-long party in America’s party, music and booze capital? Laissez les bontemps roulez (let the good times roll, for non-francophones).

1. 4th of July – Boston 

The Pops come out to bring the enormous outdoor crowd to a frenzy of patriotism, even before the real fireworks begin. There are July 4th celebrations everywhere, but Boston gets it. Wicked.