It's chilly and rainy this morning, a pretty gloomy-looking day. I didn't need to use the air conditioning after all (which means I suppose I could have boondocked if I could have found a state park or whatever). But I don't feel gloomy, sitting here sipping cinnamon tea and eating granola with pecans. Gertie is a snug, cozy nest.
It's hard to believe that I'm only two days' travel away from home. For a few days I've been getting occasional twinges of "let's get home" feeling. Not for the usual reasons—missing my bed and my cat—but just a general feeling that I'm getting tired of driving, I guess. There has been more driving and less sightseeing on this trip than I would have liked, but given the 3,300 mile distance I had to cover I guess that was inevitable. More commercial camping and less boondocking, too...but again, it was largely a matter of convenience given the amount of time I spent on the road (and the need for air conditioning). I didn't get to any of the really remote Bureau of Land Management or Army Corps of Engineers sites...well, there will be other trips.
It's 10:00, and I had better get moving if I'm going to get that laundry done before leaving this overpriced campground. I checked for commercial campgrounds in the Pittsburgh area, but of course there aren't any—the closest is a KOA (boo!) that's 45 minutes away. After another talk with Deirdre I concluded that since it was much easier to get to her home (which is on the west side of Pittsburgh, the direction I'll be approaching from), I'd go there after all. I don't look forward to driving Gertie into Pittsburgh, a city of hills, narrow streets and sharp turns! But it has to be done.
Pittsburgh at last
After an uneventful and rather scenic drive through the hills of Ohio, a little corner of West Virginia and a bit of eastern Pennsylvania, I managed to find my way to Mount Lebanon and my aunt Deirdre's house. Gertie fit in her driveway with about an inch to spare on either side; I actually had to step out onto her neighbor's lawn until I pulled forward into a slightly wider part of the driveway. Deirdre's house is a lovely old place, and the loving care she has lavished on the grounds is obvious. The rambling back yard is edged with lush plantings of all kinds of flowers and surrounded by tall trees, so that you feel as if you're in a country home rather than a Pittsburgh suburb.
After initial greetings, Deirdre and I decided to go out and do a bit of grocery shopping. Unfortunately, the rainstorm that had followed me across Ohio all day caught up with us as we left the store and continued for the next couple of hours, making things a bit awkward as I had to go back and forth from the house to Gertie a number of times to fetch various items. Deirdre decided to make chicken, and I volunteered to contribute some southwestern corn bread, giving me a chance to try out Gertie's oven for the first time on this trip. (The weather had turned chilly, making this a feasible proposition.)
I set to work and soon had the corn bread in the oven. I had some difficulty controlling the temperature, which first was too low and then skyrocketed from the desired 425° F. to over 500°. After opening the oven door for a bit to let it cool off, I put in the corn bread, set my timer (using the one with a neck lanyard) and headed into the house to chat with Deirdre while the bread baked. This was imprudent; I should have kept an eye on things since I was using an oven I had never baked in before. When the timer chirped and I went back out to Gertie, I could smell burning as soon as I opened the door.
The bread wasn't ruined, but the outer 1/4" was nearly charred. The too-high oven temperature was partly to blame, but also contributing to the problem was the fact that I had used an aluminum baking pan instead of the Pyrex I normally use for corn bread. (I had equipped Gertie with all nonbreakable, lightweight cookware). Of course aluminum heats much faster than glass—something I had neglected to take into consideration.
I brought the bread in and we trimmed off the burned part; the rest was pretty good (though a bit heavier than my usual fluffy standard) and Deirdre enjoyed its nutty flavor, so different from the sweet southern-style corn bread that's common in the east. It was a nice complement to the simple meal of chicken, baby carrots and green beans. Deirdre commented that since she's been a widow, her style of cooking has gotten closer and closer to her brother Donald's: she quoted his ideal, which is to spend no more time cooking than he does eating (and he spends little enough time on that!).
We talked about all kinds of things, from my trip to her children. Deirdre told me that when she'd called her next-door neighbor to explain the presence of Gertie in the driveway, the neighbor told her that her (the neighbor's) boyfriend owns a motorhome that used to belong to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and had cost over a million dollars new. (I'm picturing a bus-sized diesel pusher—probably a Prevost.) The idea of Clarence Thomas being an RVer is somewhat startling, I must admit. Wonder where a mere judge got the money to buy a million-dollar motorhome? Wouldn't it be lovely if some juicy financial scandal came to light that would get him kicked off the court? Yeah, right! Dream on, Baird.
Later I did a little more searching on this topic. Here's what the Washington Post wrote in a biographical article about Thomas: "Now that the court is out of session, Thomas has taken to the road in his 40-foot custom-built motor coach. With its plush leather furniture, satellite television and onboard galley, the 1992 bus is a 'condo on wheels,' as Thomas once described it. 'When he's out on the road in his bus,' says one close friend, 'it's like he's off the record with himself.' He'll pull into a Wal-Mart parking lot, cap on, sometimes unrecognizable in middle America. Polishing the bus with a rag, he'll engage folks in conversation about different waxes and oils, and drink lemonade. The homey atmosphere at RV parks and campgrounds—not to mention the anonymity he enjoys—is a welcome respite, he tells friends." Yeah, I can understand that...especially since the article goes on the explain that Justice Thomas has been bitterly reviled and ostracized by many white and most black Americans for his ultra-conservative Supreme Court decisions.
By the way, Thomas's coach isn't just a Prevost—that would be too commonplace. It's a Marathon: an individual, custom conversion of a Prevost coach. I guess the Supremes get paid pretty well. Or maybe it's the speaking fees...?
After supper I showed Deirdre the 1914 "Gertie the Dinosaur" film that inspired Gertie's name, and she showed me a videotape that her daughter Megan had sent back from the Himalayas, where she and her mountain-climber boyfriend Jim had gone on one of their climbing expeditions. (They've also climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, an unnamed peak in the Andes and sundry other interesting high spots.) It was raw, shaky footage, but showed the magnificence of the terrain...and the cheerful spirits of the Sherpa guides.
I'm really glad that I ended up here at Deirdre's, because I've really enjoyed talking with her at length—something I never get to do. She's such an interesting person; intelligent and creative. I guess it's a Baird characteristic—her parents and her brother Donald (my father) certainly fit that description, as does her son Hugh. Tomorrow afternoon we'll go see Donald, and then with luck on Thursday I'll get him and Hugh over here to see Gertie.
It was pleasant to sleep in cold weather for a change. I didn't get to bed until about 11:30 p.m. and slept till almost ten in the morning. It was chilly when I got out of bed, but the catalytic heater did a good job of warming Gertie up. After a shower I checked my tanks and found that while my black water tank was almost empty, the gray water tank was 3/4 full. That told me tomorrow's shower would probably bring it up to overflowing, as previous experience has shown that indicator to be a bit optimistic. I knew I would need to spend two more nights here, which would mean two more showers. So I used the kitchen wastebasket as a bucket to transfer a few gallons of water from the gray water tank to the black water tank. (I simply dumped from the external valve into the pail and then emptied the pail into the toilet.) Now both tanks are less than half full, and I know I'll be OK for the time I'm here.
I just found a cat hair on my keyboard—the alternating bands of light and dark gray made it unmistakably Marie's—and it filled me with longing to see her again. I do miss her! But I should be with her again in only a couple of days (I'm figuring on arriving home on Friday), so I'll just have to wait.
I found when I got up that Gertie still had a pretty strong odor of burnt corn bread everywhere except in the bathroom (its door had been closed), so I opened all the windows and left both exhaust fans running all day. Deirdre drove me over to Donald's a little after noon. We sat and chatted for awhile, then went shopping at the Giant Eagle so Donald (who doesn't drive) could stock up on canned goods and other items too heavy to carry home on foot. While we were there, we were talking about how I'd bought Gertie, when Donald made an offhand remark that floored me: he said "I'm kicking myself now because I believed all those ads that said 'Will you have enough money when it's time to retire?'...when all along I could have been spending some of it on myself." I have never before heard Donald, the personification of parsimony, say anything remotely like this. Is it possible that he envies me a little because I spend money on fun things, while his generation felt compelled (in the aftermath of the Depression) to save endlessly and stint themselves of every pleasure?
Well, let's be fair: Donald's saving ways made my condo possible—he lent me the money for the down payment. Oh, I'm reasonably good at saving up for things (like Gertie)...but never have acquired the knack of saving for saving's sake, as Donald does. I suppose you could say that he goes too far in one direction, while I go too far in the other.
Back at Ellsworth Terrace, Donald and I and Deirdre talked about all kinds of things, from history to regional accents to adoptions to deafness, ASL and Deaf culture (I gave them an off-the-cuff synopsis of the history of these things in the US, Britain, France and Russia, and only hope that it was as interesting to them as it is to me!). I found myself thinking what a pleasure it was to be talking with intelligent, educated people. Little things that popped up in conversation would remind me every so often. For example, Deirdre and I both used to own Toyota Tercels, but she is the only person besides myself I've ever heard pronounce the name correctly: with the stress on the first syllable. I'm quite sure she also knows that the word refers to a species of peregrine falcon and comes from the Latin tertiolus ("third") because the males of this species are a third larger than the females. Deirdre and Donald are both people with a vast range of interesting tidbits of knowledge, and I follow in their footsteps to the best of my abilities.
I suppose that this ought to make me wish for a little Baird to carry on in my footsteps, but it doesn't. There are plenty of smart children in the world already, and plenty of other adults willing to put up with the noise, chaos, financial drain and general inconvenience of raising them. I have no interest in perpetuating a Baird dynasty. But I am proud of the family I come from, because they are such very smart, talented, skilled and interesting people. The only other one I know who's in that class is my friend Walt Emery, a man of immense and broad knowledge, talents and skills. I really feel that these are my kind of people...the kind I can learn from.
Searching for a plan that would get me, Donald, Hugh and Gertie all together in one place at the same time (a tall order!), I finally came up with the idea of driving Gertie from Deirdre's house in Mount Lebanon to the entrance of Ellsworth Terrace (I couldn't go up into the cul-de-sac, for reasons mentioned previously), where Donald would be waiting for me; I'd pick him up and take him over to Hugh's place in the Arlington neighborhood. I was nervous about attempting two successive feats of navigation in a very difficult city like Pittsburgh, but after carefully preparing directions in digestible snippets on my voice recorder, I managed to pull it off, after bidding Deirdre a fond farewell.
Donald and I spent a pleasant three hours at Hugh's studio—a converted bar in the old Arlington neighborhood. Hugh talked about his latest artwork and showed us some of his superb woodcuts. I showed them pictures of Terra Studios, the "Gertie the Dinosaur" movie (Hugh has no VCR, but I was able to play it on the small LCD screen of my camcorder)...and of course gave them the "grand tour" of Gertie. It was thoroughly enjoyable to sit there surrounded by Hugh's many artifacts and artworks—he's so good!
Hugh often works on commission for various Pittsburgh churches and other organizations, and his latest commissioned piece was sitting in the living room, just completed: a statue of John Chapman (better known as "Johnny Appleseed") sculpted for a local library.
Chapman, of course, is a legendary figure...though there's surprisingly little hard information about him. He did indeed roam the Pennsylvania/Ohio/Kentucky region selling (not giving away) apple seeds and seedlings. He was an outdoorsman and something of a rugged individualist: one account says that "He slept outdoors, ate berries and made his clothes from sacks. He made his drinking water in winter by melting snow with his feet." Not surprisingly, he died of pneumonia. Hugh's statue depicts a ragged, barefoot man with a walking staff and a Bible, true to the legend.
One of the things I had been planning for this visit was to photograph my grandfather's dioramas. My paternal grandfather, George M. P. Baird, was a playwright, among other things. I haven't read his work, but I vividly remember the little models he built of the stage sets for his various plays. They were about a cubic foot in size—miniature scenes of waiting rooms and middle eastern courtyards and fields of wheat and more. They had furniture, wall coverings and various miniature props, and were carefully lit by small light bulbs to replicate the desired stage lighting. To my young eyes they looked very real!
Grandy (as we called him) built at least ten of these dioramas. (He also built a wonderful Christmas diorama that I still have.) They hung over the staircase between the second and third floors of his big old house on Summerlea street in Pittsburgh, so that you could view them from the third-floor hallway. I used to spend a long time just looking at them and imagining what was going in the tiny worlds in those boxes.
Hugh now has those precious boxes in his downstairs studio. He's done some restoration, dusting and cleaning, and exchanged the old Mazda lamps for lower-wattage bulbs that don't run as hot. I'd been wanting to photograph these dioramas for years, and this was my chance. I set up my tripod and ran through all ten, one by one, while Hugh and Donald sat and chatted.
By the time I finished, it was already early afternoon. I got detailed directions from Hugh on how to get out of Pittsburgh, and he drove Donald back to Ellsworth Terrace (I actually followed him part way, since our paths coincided), while I headed for the Pennsylvania Turnpike and home.
Not that I expect to get there today—it's a good seven-hour drive even in a car, and I was leaving after 1:00 p.m. But I figured I'd get about halfway across the state and camp for the night, then make it home by early afternoon tomorrow—two easy drives instead of one hard one. And that in fact is how it worked out: I drove as far as Carlisle, where I found a decent commercial campground, leaving me less than 150 miles to go tomorrow (unless I decide to stop in at the Rockvale Square outlet mall in Lancaster County on the way). I'll be home Friday afternoon, a day before my most optimistic prediction. And I'll miss the Memorial Day weekend traffic, which starts to get heavy around quitting time Friday.
"Home"...the word feels ambiguous. Gertie has been my snug and comfy home for almost three weeks now. It's hard to imagine as I sit here in her lounge, typing into my PowerBook and listening to Cal Tjader's jazz recordings on the MP3 player, that this long adventure is almost over. On the whole it has been a very satisfying experience. I've seen (and photographed) things I never saw before. I've been treated uniformly well by everyone I met and have done my best to be outgoing and friendly in return.
And I've managed to get through a 3,300 mile trip without any major mishaps...except for the loss of the awning, which could be major or minor depending on how you look at it. I choose to regard it as minor in a practical sense...although still very embarrassing. But I didn't ram any cars, blow any tires, spill anything while dumping, try to drive away from a campsite with the hoses still attached... Aside from the awning, I didn't do too badly for a beginner. I ate well, kept my blood pressure down, did my exercises most days and kept Gertie neat and clean inside. I guess all my preparation paid off!