Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Traveling on the cheap, to some great places

Hiawatha Trail, Gettysburg and the Newseum

Taking a break along a Hiawatha Trail trestle bridge early September are mountain bikers, from left, Jeff Cordes, Scott and Helen Brown of Sunriver, Ore., and Diane Cordes, also of Hailey. Photo by

Truth be told, I don't travel much. That's quite an admission for the son of a man who spent his life in the travel business. But the world is a different place at Thanksgiving 2008.

Workplace demands are tougher, if you're lucky enough to have a job. Leisure time is shorter and travel is pricier. Why venture out when the economy is so bad? A penny saved is a penny earned, and earnings are more elusive. There's a good reason why Thanksgiving travel was down for the first time in six years.

Travel is a complicated subject. You do it for mental health or family togetherness, but it's still optional. There are substitutes I've found work well, good vicarious fun, like spending $5 and reading the New York Times travel section, or taking in a foreign movie. There is no substitute, however, for traveling itself.

So, here are some suggestions for your 2009 travel plans.

These are three wonderful places I've visited this past year. One of the best things about these three trips, taken separately in April, September and November, is they cost a grand total of $75. That doesn't count the cost of getting there but who's counting anyway, with transit prices being all over the map in 2008.

Focus on the $75. And consider one other thing when you're thinking about travel. You can't put a price tag on adventure and discovery.

One of my favorite film directors is a German-Turk named Fatih Akin. His 2007 film "The Edge of Heaven" is a journey that starts with a young man driving a car into a dark, long tunnel. It's where the journey starts. Where the story ends is a mystery. That's why you watch and that's why you travel.

Biking the Hiawatha Trail

It's been called one of the most scenic stretches of railroad in the country. Known as Milwaukee Road, the 46-mile route of the old Hiawatha passenger train crosses the heavily forested Bitterroot Mountains between Idaho and Montana.

This is northern Idaho country of the St. Joe Forest, 65 miles east of Coeur d'Alene and right on the state line between Idaho and Montana, accessible by I-90 to Lookout Pass, elevation 4,147. To the east is Missoula. And to the west, Wallace. The forest is nearly uninhabited.

But you can't find the incredible scenery without riding a mountain bike complete with headlamp through the 1.7-mile long St. Paul Pass "Taft" Tunnel that the U.S. Forest Service first opened in 2001. That's the start of your four-hour trip on the Hiawatha Rail Trail.

It's dark, eerie and cold, temperatures dropping by 20 or 30 degrees inside Taft Tunnel.

The railroad bed inside the tunnel doesn't have train tracks, but it's hard dirt and relatively narrow. On either side are 18-inch culverts that catch water dripping down the damp, tunnel walls. You don't want to veer right or left and take your tire into a culvert. We passed someone who did, and he nearly broke his ankle.

Taft Tunnel is 8,771 feet long, straight as an arrow as it burrows under the state line. You have no idea what dangers lurk or how long it will take. The only indication of the tunnel ending is a tiny, white circle of light, way in the distance.

Finally, you're through, out in the sunshine to enjoy breathtaking scenery of the 15-mile downhill ride from the East Portal at Roland, to Pearson. Along the stretch you ride through nine tunnels and seven high-steel trestles.

A couple of the railroad trestles are 300 feet above water. Virtually all the trestles are within eyesight as you make your way downhill. Five or six trestles in, you can look up and see the ones you've crossed. It's like a Western movie.

"Downhill" is the key word for a biker riding the Hiawatha Trail.

It's downhill all the way, falling 1,000 feet in elevation. Anybody can do it. You stop frequently for interpretive signs that describe the 1906-1911 and $260 million construction of the longest electrified mainline railroad in the world.

All in all, it's a great way to spend a sunny, late-summer Idaho day. Once you reach the Pearson trailhead at the end of the line, you load your bikes onto a shuttle bus that takes you back uphill to the Roland trailhead. There you reclaim your bike and ride back through the Taft Tunnel to parking area for your car.

You can bike or hike the Hiawatha Trail between May 26 and Oct. 7. We asked the bus driver why the final cutoff was Oct. 7, and he ended the questioning by saying that's when hunting season begins.

Total cost was $45 for the day use trail pass and shuttle bus fee, plus the mountain bike rental fee from Lookout Pass Ski Area. Bring your own bike and pay $18 for trail passes and bus. It helps fund trail maintenance.

"Best darn railroad in the world," was the way one old-timer described the Pacific extension of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad. The line went bankrupt in 1977. And nearly 13 miles of the Idaho section opened for hikers and bikers in 1998.

Hallowed ground at Gettysburg

For a place where so many good men died and such slaughter occurred, the 6,000-acre Gettysburg National Military Park Battlefield in Pennsylvania is one of the most peaceful places in the world, if you ignore the tour buses.

The records say 165,000 soldiers from the Union and Confederacy met on the Gettysburg battlefield. More than 51,000 became casualties as they fought for their beliefs. Today, the battlefield remains much as it was 145 years ago.

I've been to Gettysburg five, six, maybe seven times. They suggest you spend two or three days taking in the entire experience of the three bloody days in July 1863 that changed the country. I've never had the opportunity to spend that long.

Each visit, I'm in and out, stopping at old haunts, imagining what happened, picturing the assaults, discussing the strategy, puzzling at the happenstance, and sidling up to group tours to pick up information from licensed battlefield guides. I've stepped lightly on hallowed ground. My visits have been five hours max.

Officially, there are 1,328 monuments, markers and memorials in the park. It's overwhelming. Fortunately, there are few restrictions on where you can go. The park is open year round, sunrise to sunset. There is no fee to tour the battlefield called our country's "Common Ground."

This time, I spent $7.50, which was the admission charge to the new Museum and Visitor Center that opened for the first time April 14. One reason for my visit, three days after the election of Barack Obama in early November, was to see the newly conserved and restored Cyclorama painting by Paul Philippoteaux that debuted Sept. 26 of this year.

It's tough to do anything without seeing the battlefield first. You can take a 24-mile auto tour that traces the three-day battle in chronological order. I'm fascinated mainly with three spots—the lovely tree-lined Seminary Ridge, where Confederates mounted their final and decisive "Pickett's Charge," and also with Little Round Top and the High Water Mark along Cemetery Ridge.

My first stop on the recent trip was the North Carolina Memorial along Seminary Ridge. On a visit to Gettysburg you drive along and pull your car over when something strikes your fancy. Nothing is more interesting than Pickett's Charge.

The extraordinary sculpture by Mount Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum was dedicated in 1929. It portrays five soldiers, forging ahead in the climactic Pickett's Charge—one carrying the Confederate flag, one pointing at danger, all with looks of absolute determination. Of 800 in the North Carolina infantry on July 3, 588 were killed in Pickett's Charge and 120 were listed as missing.

I got out of the car and started walking up to the memorial. Sitting along the rock fence by the one-lane road, dressed in Confederate garb, was a tall, Civil War re-enactor, a man whose overriding purpose in his retirement was to greet tourists along Seminary Ridge and to answer questions about the famous battle.

We talked maybe 10 minutes and I could have stayed an hour. He seemed to know virtually everything about the decisive battle. "So, what does 'missing' mean?" I asked. "Pulverized," he said, rising from his little chair to over six feet in height. "All you have left are the boots."

"It was all over in 45 minutes," he said, talking about Pickett's Charge.

Silently, we both looked across the broad canvas of the battleground, beautiful farmland rising gradually to the Copse of Trees—The Angle where hand-to-hand fighting occurred, across the quiet land to Cemetery Ridge's High Water Mark where the Confederates were repulsed. It's an overwhelming sight.

He said after a while, "I've walked it and it's not as flat as it appears. You go down. You come back up. They kept going until they couldn't go up anymore. Forty-five minutes that changed the course of history."

One of the unique things about Gettysburg is your immersion in events that happened nearly 150 years ago. In casual conversation you replay the successful and failed tactics. I remember, five years ago, my wife and I visited Stirling Castle in Scotland and were struck by some conversations we overheard—people discussing William "Braveheart" Wallace's 1297 defeat of the English like it happened only yesterday.

Gettysburg is much the same. It's our history. Americans and the many foreign visitors discuss the actions of leaders like Chamberlain, Meade, Jeb Stuart, Lee and Longstreet like they happened only yesterday.

Further down Confederate Ave., in the trees of Warfield Ridge, Confederate General James Longstreet late in the afternoon of July 2 began his assault on the strategic high ground held by the Union—the hilly flanks called Big Round Top and Little Round Top.

Occupants of the many tour buses stopping at Little Round Top don't always get a chance to take the short walk down the hill to Vincent's Spur. Deep in woods, the 20th Maine monument dedicated in 1889 stands unobtrusively on a boulder rock—just up the hill from where brave Alabama divisions were repulsed in their drive to take high ground.

The quiet of the place speaks volumes. I sat on the boulder rock next to the monument and listened to the birds and the rustling leaves.

My final stop was the High Water Mark, where you gaze across the quiet and peaceful battlefield to Seminary Ridge in the distance and imagine the futile Confederate attack, and the Union's definitive answer.

The chaos, fury and carnage of Pickett's Charge are captured on the mammoth, 124-year-old canvas of painter Philippoteaux. His creation, 377 feet in circumference and 42 feet high, puts viewers in the middle of the battle. The Cyclorama has been restored in its original three-dimensional diorama and now includes a sound and light program.

Before you take the escalator to the Cyclorama in the new Museum and Visitor Center, you watch a 22-minute feature film that tells the story of the Battle of Gettysburg, with its causes and consequences. It's narrated by actor Morgan Freeman.

Then you tour the new, expansive Civil War exhibit galleries that give visitors a deeper understanding of the times and the battle itself.

"Headless Body in a Topless Bar"

Those in the news business don't have much pretense about the work.

You won't find 5,000 people in a funeral procession for a newsman, like you find for a fallen policeman or firefighter. You might find 10 colleagues bellying up at the bar.

But, since April 11 of this year, there is a huge new museum devoted entirely to the news and media business. The privately funded $450 million, 250,000 square-foot Newseum is on Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington, D.C., halfway between the White House and Capitol.

Among 14 exhibition galleries, 15 theaters and two television studios in the seven-level structure is the Freedom Forum Journalists Memorial—saluting over 1,800 reporters, photographers, editors and broadcasters who have died in the line of duty.

Befitting the nature of the beast called the Newseum, you'll find displays of creative masterpieces like the 1983 New York Post headline, "Headless Body in a Topless Bar."

Noisy, crowded and lively, and constantly changing its exhibits, the Newseum has been called the world's most interactive museum. It has something for everyone.

You might even linger for entertainment in the bathrooms. The Newseum has bathroom tiles with silly headlines, like, "Journalists Say Voters Hold Key to November Elections." Don't ever say headline writers don't tell it like it is.

Only 17 years ago, USA Today's founder Al Neuharth established a nonpartisan foundation called The Freedom Forum that, for its main priority, built the first Newseum and Freedom Park in the Rosslyn area of Arlington, Va. That building across the river from Washington, D.C. was open from April 1997-March 2002.

I visited the old building twice and was mainly impressed with the hallway filled with newspaper front pages from around the world.

That tradition continues in the Newseum. Visitors stroll along and analyze 80 newspaper front pages—from that very day—that have been enlarged and printed for display.

A paper from each U.S. state is posted daily plus international newspapers. Front pages are electronically transmitted to the Newseum in the middle of the night and posted by the time the Newseum opens at 9 a.m. each day.

With all the visual treats and button-pushing interactive menus offered, I'd have to say that two incredibly powerful exhibitions attracted most of my attention during my visit to the Newseum in April, 10 days after the museum first opened.

The first is the Comcast Foundation's 9/11 Gallery, built around the remaining upper section of the 360-foot antenna mast from atop the North Tower of the World Trade Center. High on the wall near the antenna are the front pages of 127 newspapers representing 50 states and 34 countries on Sept. 12, 2001. On that day, the New York Times sold an additional 400,000 copies.

Huge, bold headlines scream with one-liners, mainly "Terror," "Infamy," "Unthinkable," ""Evil." But as I inspected the wall of front pages for the better part of an hour, I selected my #1 pick as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's "None of us will ever forget this day," followed by the just-the-facts underride, "Terrorists turn passenger jets into missiles."

There is also a very emotional exhibit on freelance news photographer Bill Biggart, 54, the only working journalist killed covering the terrorist attack. He was out walking his dogs and went back to get his cameras after the planes hit. Plus, a 12-minute film called "9/11: Running Toward Danger," with previously unseen footage from New York's WABC-TV. It's powerful.

I'm a big fan of newspaper photography, so my favorite exhibit, worth the $20 Newseum entrance fee, was the collection of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs. All the iconic images of our history over 70 years seem to there.

The most comprehensive collection of Pulitzer Prize-winning photos ever assembled is portrayed on the walls and galleries, in a video film and within the four interactive kiosks that contain over 15 hours of content and more than 1,000 photographs.

In those kiosks, 68 of the award-winning photographers are interviewed. You sit down, access a screen and hear how the picture was taken and how they went about their work. You get to see their proof sheets, so you can see the images taken before and just after each of the iconic photographs.

Nearly every photographer talks about the fortune and sheer luck that produced the iconic images. They don't dwell on the hard work and instinct that brought them to the scene, instead, they marvel like outsiders to their own work about how the mere swing of a camera can mean everything.

Soldiers on Mt. Suribachi didn't pose for Joe Rosenthal at Iwo Jima in February 1945. Rosenthal wanted a photo of the flag going up, but he was talking with a colleague when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw soldiers moving and swung his bulky Speed Graphic around to snap the flag raising.

Rosenthal's movement came from practice. He said, "On the battlefield you're often on edge, turning from one loud, disturbing sound to another."

John Filos' 1970 photo of the killing of anti-war protestors at Kent State University—the photo of a woman crying over a fallen body—might have not had its impact if the woman wasn't a 13-year-old runaway reacting with a scream to the horrific sight. She wasn't a college student at all, Filos found out years afterward. An older person might have reacted differently, he ventured to say.

Probably the most powerful testimony came from Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams, the 1969 Pulitzer Prize spot news winner for his shot of an execution in Saigon.

"It was a slow day," Adams started out in his interview.

The North Vietnamese Tet offensive brought fighting close to the U.S. Embassy in Saigon Jan. 30, 1968. Adams and an NBC film crew were walking around when they came upon two South Vietnamese soldiers and a prisoner marching down a street. Adams found out later that the prisoner had murdered a South Vietnamese colonel, his wife and their six children.

Adams said, "All of a sudden, somebody (Gen. Nguyen NogcLoan, chief of South Vietnamese national police) came out of nowhere and shot the prisoner in the head. I was standing there and took the photo. Right after, he turned to me and said simply, 'They have killed many of my men and many of your people.'"

"Pulitzer Prizes don't take talent, they are given for the event," said Adams. "I still think Joe's photo (Rosenthal's Iwo Jima photograph) is the greatest picture ever taken. But I really believe that the most powerful weapon in the world is the still photograph. Photographers have been known to change society and to change the way we think."

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