Monday, February 26, 2018

Memorable 9/11 Memorials and Museum

The Good Girls left the driving to Jet Blue and Uber for their quick trip to New York City in January. It was all travel business until the last day when we spent the morning at the 9/11 Memorials and Museum. It was too strong an experience not to share. 

Judy's comments are in italics, Debi's in regular type.

The paper and the people, that’s what I remember most from the day I visited this site two months after 9/11. 

Wisps of paper, sheets of paper caught by bare tree limbs or swirling about on new wind currents filling the empty space of the twin towers. Computer paper, letterhead, memos. Ten million square feet of office space holds a lot of paper.

Paper signs and banners posted on every surface: Have you seen? with a photo, name and a number to call; Do you know? Same information. Banners with child-drawn pictures with words like “We love you, Be strong, We are with you.” Professionally prepared banners with similar sentiments.

Paper littered the graveyard behind St. Paul’s Chapel, both remarkably intact.

People were everywhere, milling around, reading the banners but avoiding the paper signs because they had no information. Many queued for a turn on the observation deck where they could watch responders laboriously picking through rubble down below. The air at ground level was gritty, scratching against my contact lenses and it was hard to imagine what it was like down at Ground Zero. Security men and women tried vainly to keep the quiet crowd out of the way of traffic and responders trudging to the chapel for a moment of rest or a bite to eat.

Those men will always be with me, their thousand-mile stares, visible exhaustion, ineffable sadness and dogged determination to do the job.

This is their story.

You must prepare yourself mentally and emotionally for a visit to the September 11 Museum in New York City. The horrific events of that day will be revisited, but this museum tells many stories about individuals who helped save lives as well as the stories of those near 3,000 who died.  

The National September 11 Memorials and Museum were built to remember and honor those killed in the terror attacks at the World Trade Center site, near Shanksville, Pa., and at the Pentagon, as well as the six people killed in the World Trade Center bombing in February 1993.

Photo by Debi Lander.
As you approach, you come to the Memorial’s twin reflecting pools called Reflecting Absence. Each is nearly an acre in size and features the largest man-made waterfalls in North America. The pools sit within the footprints where the Twin Towers once stood. You see cascading water drop from street level and vanish down holes in the center. You can’t see the bottom. The symbolic absence of what were once the tallest buildings in New York becomes impactful. The name of every person who died is inscribed around the edging.


In 2012 I returned, this time to see the just finished Memorial pools and the temporary exhibits. Mobs of surprisingly quiet people stood on line underneath scaffolding. 

Despite construction of the museum to come and the new World Trade Center, it was still very much hallowed ground, though. Voices were hushed and respectful, many recalling to one another where they were on that day as we moved forward, 

Honoring the names. Photo © by Judy Wells.
Once there, the whispers were breached by a few quiet sobs as a dear one’s name was caressed,

Survivor Tree. Photo © by Judy Wells.
The Survivor Tree, a Callery pear that was found at Ground Zero severely damaged but still alive, had been returned two years earlier and was thriving. It had been mended and cared for then given grafts of young branches and replanted among the new trees, a symbol of resilience and rebirth. Look for a taller, darker green tree encircled by a low metal fence with an identifying plaque.

Pass an  80-foot-high steel column trident, on the way in. Photo © by Judy Wells.
Enter the museum through a glass building on the ground level, and pass through security screening. Proceed down an escalator beside one of the trident columns from the facade of the North tower.

Photo bu Debi Lander.
The museum is an underground architectural wonder. It includes three exhibition sections telling the story of what happened: the day of 9/11, before 9/11 and after 9/11.

The memorial exhibition area commemorates the lives of those who perished. A large room contains floor to ceiling photos, one for each victim, bringing a deeper and more personal impact. You can type a name at a console to see more information provided by the victim’s family.  At the center of this room is a smaller room lined with benches and a transparent glass floor with the original ground beneath. The eerie room is kept dark, and the names of the victims are read aloud one by one and projected onto the wall.

This brought tears to my eyes and a giant logjam in my throat. To see those faces, young and not so young, smiling, full of life and promise that in moments were gone…. Yes, it is a miracle that so many did manage to escape those two buildings but that is of little solace to the loved ones of those who didn’t.

I went into a theater to see Rebirth at Ground Zero, a multi-screen film experience that uses the time-lapse footage to present the transformation and renewal of the World Trade Center site. I found the beginning of this film painful to watch, seeing some the flag-draped coffins removed from Ground Zero with the quiet and respectful reverence paid by the workers.

Before and after the film I toured examples of how artists had responded.
Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky That September Morning by Spencer Finch.
Everyone remembering 9/11 speaks of the brilliant blue sky that morning and artist Spencer Finch created 2,983 watercolor squares, each a different shade of blue and each commemorating victims of Sept. 11, 2001 and Feb. 26, 1993.

Photo by Debi Lander.
No Day … Like an exclamation point across Finch’s sky squares is a quote from the Roman poet, Virgil. The words “No Day Shall Erase You from the Memory of Time, taken from Book IX of the Aeneid, were forged from pieces of recovered World Trade Center steel by New Mexico blacksmith Tom Joyce.

Memorial Urn. This is one of a series of porcelain memorial urns created by ceramist Tom Lane. Instead of ashes inside, fired into the urn’s surface are the names of the 2,977 victims of 9/11.

Photo by Debi Lander.
Cover Stories. Thirty-three The New Yorker magazine covers track the influence on the city of the twin towers and of their loss.

Photos © by Judy Wells.
Lady Liberty. Since the beginning, this fiberglass image of the Statue of Liberty has been covered with an ever-growing collection of tributes from flags and condolence messages to prayer cards, rosary beads, money, military patches and insignia.

Nearby is a smaller version where messages from children who participate in the Museum’s activity center are pasted.

Flag of Remembrance is made up of faces and names of 9/11 victims with photographs of uniformed first responders forming the blue field and stripes of red and white composed of photographs of civilians. It was conceived by Mindy Kombert and Sherry Kronenfeld in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
After obtaining the photographs and transferring them to fabric, they spent three years sewing on the individual squares of cloth. First responders are in the blue field between words of the Firefighter’s Prayer, civilians are inside red and white stripes. The memorial candles are for roughly half of the victims whose images were not available at the time.

Photo © by Judy Wells.
As poignant as the man-made tributes and expressions are the recovered remnants. Like a Nike of tragedy, this steel fragment from the façade of the North Tower reflects the impact of Flight 11 as it struck the building.

Similarly, is the “Last Column” that became the symbol of loss and recovery. From members of FDNY Squad 41 who first marked it in memory of their colleagues who died nearby to the millions who watched as it was covered in black and draped with the American flag for a hero’s exit as it was solemnly trucked out, this 58-tons of welded plate steel evoked the city’s resilience. Also, the May 28, 2002 end of recovery at Ground Zero.

Photo by Debi Lander.
As I left this area, I moved past what is called the Survivor’s Staircase. This concrete stairway used to sit outside and became a lifesaver for thousands who exited the building before it collapsed.

The second room is an extended timeline of September 11. A warning sign hangs outside of the room as the videos, and rescued mementos inside are very poignant and graphic. I found some of the live footage and answering-machine messages disturbing, but I’m sure the families must have given permission. There are many barely recognizable, dust-coated fragments of office items, artwork, and personal possessions.

I second Debi’s reaction and was particularly affected by a battered, dirty seatbelt from one doomed flight and the children’s clothes from the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. Perhaps because I had been so focused on those at ground level, I hadn’t give thought yet to those who died inside what became weapons of mass destruction.

Among the items stored on the premises, though not open to tourists, are the unidentifiable remains of 9/11 dead, human residue for which no other resting place has been found. So, this museum is also a graveyard.

The museum shop seemed out of place although I do suspect some people want to buy the books about the event.  Sweatshirts? No.

The 9/11 Museum is not without controversy, but these historically significant items must remain somewhere. In the coming years, I think the exhibits will help others understand what happened on that tragic, but important day in American history. 

If you go: The cost for adults is $24, but I used a CityPASS, a package that saves money if you are touring other sites in NYC. The audio narrated by Robert DeNiro was an additional $7 and well worth it.  Guided group tours and an app are also available.
To prepare yourself, spend some time on the Memorial and Museum’s site,

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Road Trip to Downton Abbey

Thought we had finished our road trips for the year until an invitation came to preview "Dressing Downton: Changing Fashion for Changing Times" at the Lightner Museum in St. Augustine, Florida.

You don't have to invite the Good Girls twice so we hopped in our bucket seats, Debi heading north, Judy aiming south until we met in the nation's Oldest City.

It's the last stop in the U. S. this blockbuster exhibit of authentic period costumes and accessories from the addictive PBS series Downton Abbey.

Jessica Fellowes
At the press conference we met Jessica Fellowes, niece of scriptwriter and Downton creator Julian Fellowes and an expert on all things Downton, and Nancy Lawson, curator of the exhibit of 36 authentic Victorian era outfits.

Nancy was particularly interesting. For the first three seasons, the actors were clad in historic attire from British collections of antique garments .

"These were real clothes," she said. "Very fragile; over 100 years old. By the fourth season, everything was made by the costume team. The craftsmanship will appeal to you even if you don't give a fig about the clothes." 

Interesting, but we wanted to see those clothes!

None too soon we were ushered up to the ballroom where they were displayed and wow, the nobility not only lived well, they dressed superbly. By themselves they were worth the trip but as Lightner curator Barry Myers and his staff have displayed them, the result is spectacular.

The late Otto Lightner was a collector of just about everything, from cigar bands to music boxes and the art and furnishings that surrounded them from what we've come to know as the "Gilded Age." The museum's attic was scoured, appropriate period pieces were pulled out and polished then arranged into "rooms" to suit the attire.

The result is a rich array, visually dense dense and satisfying as it sets off what the characters living there would have been wearing. After all, the museum is the former Alcazar Hotel, built by magnate Henry Flagler in the Gilded Age to accommodate the younger set who found his elegant Ponce de Leon Hotel across the street too stuffy.

As Debi remarked, "The dining room table setting is so inviting I wanted to jump across the ropes and sit down."

Alas, neither of us were wearing anything as elegant as the chic gown on display, one of our favorites.

As we circled the tableaux, we came across curator Nancy again who summed up the experience perfectly.

"The camera focuses on the face. Now you can see the whole ensemble."

Curator Nancy Lawson.
"Dressing Downton" is on display now through January 7, 2018. We strongly suggest you see it.

Tickets are $19.99 per person for the exhibit and the museum; reservations are advised as this will likely be a sellout. Group tours an be arranged for a service fee; 844-426-4088,

Many special events accompany the show.

High Tea at Cafe Alcazar.  Set in what was the hotel's enormous indoor swimming pool, it includes  sweets and savories , 3-5 p.m., Sunday through Thursday, 2-3 p.m. Friday and Saturday. For reservations contact Cafe Alcazar (lunch can be had there throughout the week), 904-825-9948 or the museum.

Upstairs/Downstairs at the Alcazar. Learn what life was like for guests and staff during the Gilded Age in a one-hour tour for groups of 10 adults; $45;

One-time Events.
Unless otherwise noted, contact the Museum for reservations,

Nov. 4: Nicholas Dawes, "The Treasures of Downton: An Appraiser's View," 10 a.m., Casa Monica Hotel. The Antiques Roadshow appraiser and member of the Heritage Auctions team speaks on decorative items found in the great English homes of the 19th century.
Nov. 4: Nicholas Dawes Appraisal Clinic,:11 a.m., Flagler Room, Flagler College.  Dawes will appraise one small item for each special ticket holder.

December 12-14: Dining at Highclere with Francine Segan, James Beard-nominated author and Italian cuisine expert, talks of elaborate etiquette, entertainment and the dishes Mrs. Patmore would have sent to table.
Munch, Mingle and Matriculate, ay history of chocolates.
American Food Fads - Gilded Age to Today.

Dec. 31: New Year's Eve Soiree and Anniversary Party, Lightner Museum Historic Pool Area.

Bed and Breakfast "Dressing Downton" promotion.
Reserve a two-night, three-day stay Sunday through Thursday for two at the St. Francis Inn or Casa de Suenos, ask for the Dressing Downton special and receive
• Two Golden Admission tickets to the exhibition and museum at any time during the admission date.
• A keepsake tin of Downton Abbey tea
• Fine chocolate from Cadbury
In all, a $60 value.
Now through Jan. 7, 2018 excluding Dec. 26-29, 2017.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Devils Tower in Wyoming

Driving in the middle of nowhere for over an hour, we were starting to give up hope on our planned Close Encounters of the Steven Spielberg kind. Then it emerged in the distance - -  Devils Tower - - a stately tower bestride a hill. Its mesmerizing aura pulls like a powerful magnet. It’s had that effect for millennia, with the Northern Plains Indians and other indigenous people considering the Tower a sacred site. Even Congress recognized its singularity, designating the area a U.S. forest reserve in 1892 and later, in 1906, Devils Tower became the nation's first National Monument.

Our first look at Devils Tower in Wyoming. 

We couldn’t wait to get a closer look at the protruding spire. We passed onto the National Park site and took a winding road up to a parking lot. The area offers a few hiking paths, but Judy and I chose the popular Tower Trail, a paved, 1.3-mile loop around the base of the formation. The route is a smooth, flat trail, but your neck begins to get sore because you can’t resist staring up at the fascinating structure.

Looking up at Devils Tower.

Kids climb on the rocks near the base, many take selfies, and informational signs appear as you walk the circuit. Documented claims place the naming of Devil's Tower to 1875 when an interpreter for expedition leader Colonel Richard Irving Dodge misinterpreted a native name to mean "Bad God's Tower." The apostrophe never made it through the translation. All information signs use the name "Devils Tower," following a geographic naming standard eliminating apostrophes, perhaps easing the burdens on cartographers.  Native American names for the monolith include: "Bear's House" or "Bear's Lodge" "Bear's Lair. "

Kids climbing on the rock pile at the base of Devils Tower.

The bear reference harkens back to native legends, which tell that  “a group of girls went out to play and were spotted by several giant bears, who began to chase them. To escape the bears, the girls climbed atop a rock, fell to their knees, and prayed to the Great Spirit to save them. Hearing their prayers, the Great Spirit made the rock rise from the ground towards the heavens so that the bears could not reach the girls. The bears, in an effort to climb the rock, left deep claw marks on the sides, which had become too steep to climb. (Those are the marks which appear today on the sides of Devils Tower.) When the girls reached the sky, they were turned into the stars.”

The Legend of the Bear

Enchanting, but that story hasn’t persuaded the geologists. They offer a few differing theories but agree that a volcanic intrusion created the structure, but don’t agree on exactly how that process took place. One theory states that the tower is all that remains of an ancient explosive volcano. A common explanation holds that the tower was entirely underground when formed, becoming visible only as the surrounding mantle eroded over countless ages.

Ridges cover the surface of Devils Tower.

Other theories suggest that Devils Tower is a volcanic plug or that it is the neck of an extinct volcano. Presumably, if that were the case, the volcanic ash, lava flows, and volcanic debris would have eroded long ago.

Broken columns

Hexangonal columns

The tower today offers a well-defined rib-like structure. Look close, and you'll see the ribs as hexagonal segments uniformly shaped, like a pencil. Condensation as the tower cooled and hardened are thought to have created pressure points that produced the fracturing that generated the hexagons. It appears that entire columns of rock broke off and fell, given the piles of broken columns, boulders and smaller rocks piled at the base. These indicate that the monolith was once wider than it is today.

Climbers are dwarfed by the staggering Tower.

Halfway around we noticed a few climbers attempting to reach the peak. They looked like they were studying where next to place their feet and hands. No adventurous thoughts from us, climbing was not an activity on our "to do" list! However, the National Park permits those that register. We delighted in the view of the valley from this vantage point.

View of the Valley below Devils Tower. 

The climactic scenes of the 1977 classic “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” dramatized the natural wonder and made it a commanding visual image. Even for those who have never been can recognize a photo. Today the park sees about 500,000 visitors per year.

Wildlife also frequent the area; we spotted a deer and many squirrels in the forested hills. Prairie dogs are plentiful along the base road. When we finished our loop, we naturally hit the gift shop. We found an endearing poster of the bear climbing the tower, and laughed at the little alien figure in a corner.

Deer as seen in the surrounding forest at Devils Tower.

Oh those cute prairie dogs!

Unless you feel like hiking more of the trails, you’ll only need about two hours maximum in the destination. No matter how it came to be, Devils Tower is an astounding geologic feature the likes of which I’d never seen before. The movie was a great escape, but visiting in person was otherworldly.
We had to stop for one more photo on our way out. 

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Custer's Last Stand from both sides

When we left Wyoming for the 70-mile drive to Montana to see Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, site of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer's famed last stand, we had no idea it was the 141st anniversary of that battle, June 25, 1876.

We lucked into a gathering of historians, interpreters and descendants of the Great Plains tribes  - the Lakota, the Cheyenne and some Arapaho - that fought to preserve their nomadic way of life.

Life sustaining land for the Plains tribes. Photo © by Judy Wells.
You can see why they didn't want to move. It's called steppe land, gently rolling hills of high grass that graduate from "steps" of mesa-like rises to foothills then mountains that were sacred to the people who lived on their flanks. Interspersed with creeks and rivers with treed banks, it is ideal for the herds of horses and buffalo that sustained the tribes.

Like most interaction between the settlers and Native Americans, it is a sad story of promises made and broken. This had been designated by treaty Plains tribes' land but when gold was discovered in the Black Hills, the government decided to move the Plains peoples to another reservation. Despite having vowed to never raise his gun against a Cheyenne ever again, Custer entered the fray.

National cemetery. Photo © by Judy Wells.
Typical of all National Park properties, this one is beautifully done with a National Cemetery for all war dead,

Last Stand Hill. Photo © by Judy Wells.
an obelisk atop Last Stand Hill memorializing the soldiers

Photos © by Judy Wells.
and headstones identifying where Custer's soldiers and the Indians were thought to have fallen and even one for the horse cemetery. They are guesstimates at best for the men - all bodies were removed after the battle - but nonetheless give visitors an idea of the action.

A short distance from the hill is a circular earthwork, the monument to the Plains tribes. The "spirit door" welcomes the departed soldiers inside.
The Native American version of Custer's death. Photo ©  y Judy Wells.

Walls of the sacred circle display the names and words of those who fought and surround a sculpture of "spirit warriors."
Spirit Warriors. Photo © by Judy Wells.

There is signage from the Visitors Center to Last Stand Hill and beyond to tell what happened where.
Signage above, scene below. Photos © by Judy Wells.\

Not that historians on either side agree beyond the fact that Tatanka-iyotanka "Sitting Bull," Crazy Horse and their warriors won the battle but lost the war. As word of the massacre spread, public opinion insisted the Indians must go. Within a few years they were all on a reservation and the Crows, who already had made peace with the U.S., were given the land surrounding the battlefield.

Re-enactor of Crazy Horse. Photo © by Judy Wells.
It was to Crow land we went next to see Real Bird's annual recreation of the battle, known to the his side as the Battle of Greasy Grass. It's held on Bird property along the Little Bighorn River where Sitting Bull's camp had been. For once the warriors are young Native Americans and the 7th Cavalry are white men who have learned the cavalry ways at the U.S. Cavalry School and have taken the three-day Custer's Last Ride.

It was hot, just like on "that" day, but we were in bleachers and definitely not dressed in wool uniforms as the soldiers had been. We also had water bottles instead of canteens.
Dusty like that day, too. Photo © by Judy Wells.

According to the narrator, Custer met his end here, not Last Stand Hill. After weeks of meditating and fasting, Sitting Bull had envisioned Custer at the battle, his death and a great victory. Tribal lore says the Lakota had recognized him from his long blond hair and captured and killed him long before battle's end. Interpreters and historians we spoke with at the battlefield insisted the Indians did not even know Custer was here until it was all over, nor would they have recognized him. The summer had been so hot he had cut off that long blond hair.
A member of the 7th cavalry takes aim a Crazy Horse. He missed. Photo © by Judy Wells.

Whatever the truth may be, it was an afternoon of young riders in war paint whooping wildly back and forth on their war-painted ponies and bugle-blowing and formation keeping lines of cavalry. Quite colorful.

Battle weary ourselves, we headed back to Buffalo, Wyoming, for dinner in The Virginian at the historic Occcidental Hotel.

Built in 1880 for the railroad that went to Sheridan instead, the Occidental attracted many of the same visitors as well as Calamity Jane, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (who may have added to the bullet holes in the entryway and Saloon ceilings) and a host of hard-drinking sheriffs. The 18 rooms are named after some of them and the place reeks with wild west memories.

Someday we'd like to sip a few in that Saloon, lean back and listen to the stories of shootouts and high stakes poker games, during one of which ranchers, a father and son, won the hotel itself! Current owner David Stewart looked like he could tell a few.

Occidental owner David Stewart. Photo © by Judy Wells.
Fans of author Craig Johnson's Walt Longmire Mysteries series and the TV show based on them may recognize Buffalo as Durant in Absaroka County. There's even a Longmire election headquarters a few shops down from the hotel. Johnson follows Owen Wister whose The Virginian is largely based on tales and actions he witnessed during many stays at the Occidental.
A real store for a fictional sheriff. Photo by Judy Wells.

History and literature - a potent combination.