Journal of a Camp Host: Excerpts

The season of vicarious wanderlust on True Stories Well Told rolls on through end of June.

by MC Hansen

Excerpts from the book Journal of a Camp Host

Dec. 21-First Day of Winter

Who would have thought a year ago (when we were snowmobiling on the endless trails of northern Wisconsin) we would today be down here, out on these sandy trails in a new Polaris mini-Jeep. The yellow coded “Long Leaf” trail is a challenge, as it’s barely wide enough to accommodate the Jeep, meaning the branches are in our faces a lot. Also some curvy turns are so sharp we have to watch that the top bars of the Jeep don’t catch the tree branches as we tilt-a-whirl on through. Then we hit a series of mounding bumps, sometimes dozens in a row, left behind from the 4-wheelers. What a RUSH, haven’t been on a ride like that since my last visit to Great America Amusement Park.

Dec. 23

More care packages arrive, from my Mom and Mark’s daughter. Now I know how important it is to send these type of gifts to the troops abroad—you really look forward to them. It doesn’t replace being with family, but it sure helps fill the gap. We go into town to stock up on groceries and have our water camel refilled, gearing up for the upcoming two weeks of Holiday campers.

Dec. 24-Christmas Eve

The weather is cooperating and as planned we are having guests tonight for a BBQ. Mark helps me prepare the shish-ka-bobs and sets up the mini-bar. I clean the shrimp, placing them in a serving tray with spinach dip and crackers on the card table outside on our patio. People stop in for a drink and snacks. Iris is on her cable watching everything going on. Next thing I know she’s up on the table and has the biggest shrimp from the bowl in her mouth. Luckily the guests thought it was hilarious and demanded I let her have the treat. This is not like her to help herself to the food, but I guess it was simply too temping. Back in ’07 my sister and her husband had invited us to Christmas Eve dinner and she was treated to a taste of caviar. Could be she was reminiscing of a Christmas past.

Dec. 25-Christmas Day

Volunteers gather at the Lake George Center for a potluck Christmas Lunch. What a feast! I don’t remember eating like that even at a commercial brunch, also great conversation and company. After lunch we team up for Trivia, and Mark shows off his gathered Jeopardy expertise.

Stopping for groceries on the way home, we see what we think to be the start of the Rainbow people coming into town, outside of the Winn Dixie supermarket looking for handouts. Another beautiful day outside so we enjoy the evening sitting on the patio again. The campground is only about one third full, not as busy as expected. Hopefully the New Years brings more campers.

Letty and Eastwood

Living in these close quarters, especially when the weather is cold, is a challenge in itself for any couple. Now Delancy East Camp Host’s car is dead and Eastwood is not feeling well enough to tackle the problem. He did not walk over for Christmas Eve and Letty says he’s always a big scrooge when the holidays roll around. She walks over one evening in tears and needs a ride for a cig run, closest point of purchase Club 88. So I leave Mark behind and we go for a few drinks and warm up by the fireplace. Being together 24/7 makes one much more sensitive to your partner’s shortcomings on a daily basis, we both agree, after some discussion on the topic.

She decides to go over to her sister’s for a few days until Eastwood moves out of his slump. But only a day or so later Eastwood speeds by in the car. I guess the warmer temperature helped it to start right up, no new parts needed.

Dec. 30

Mark’s sister and her husband come up from Southern Florida for a visit and bring along their huge black Great Dane, Stella. This dog is larger than some small horses I’ve seen. Iris is not impressed by the dog’s size however, and almost busts through the trailer screen door to attack. She hasn’t been this upset since her last visit to the vet.

We have a nice visit once the animals calm down and are kept separated. Later we decided to go see the “picking group” play their instruments at Club 88. Weather has been warmer again and we sit on the front porch to listen and sip the 75-cent cold Bud Selects they serve in chilled mugs. Campgrounds is about 75 percent full and lots of day riders also deciding to pay the $6/vehicle to park here for the day.

Dec. 31-New Year’s Eve

We celebrate with a special bottle of Barefoot Champagne, a gift, and rib eye steaks on the grill. As usual, I never make it to midnight, but sit out by the fire with the Christmas lights on longer than on other nights of the year. Finally Iris and I retire and Mark says he wants to sit outside for a bit yet.

Crash—“HELP!” I open the trailer door to find Mark on the ground unable to walk. He had decided to polish off the rest of the whiskey and then walk over to East Delancy to visit. Unfortunately he didn’t make it back without stumbling and falling a few times, and was in quite a state by the time I helped him up through the trailer door. His disability really kicks him in the butt when he over-partakes of the happy juice. Of course I give him the “buddy system” talk again and help him to bed. The middle of the Ocala Forest is nowhere to be rolling around after midnight. You may become bear bait or worse!

Jan. 3, 2011

Two fellows show up on foot at our site looking for the Florida Hiking Trail. They were turned around and trying to find their way back to their camp up near Rodman Dam. The trailhead is right across the road from us and I gave them a map of the entire Florida Trail system, as they explained they were trying to walk the whole thing. They had spoken with another fellow who said he did it and only had $84 to his name to spend. I thought to myself, the next thing they spend money on should be a compass. They decided to go on this “walkabout” (as they called it, like the Australian Bushmen) since they both recently ended up jobless and had nothing else to lose. I pointed them in the right direction back towards their camp and said a few Hail Mary’s for them both that night




A good-looking fellow, “JR” is a bit younger than us I would guess, with crew cut and always dressed in a neat clean Forestry uniform. He, along with his superior Ocala Ranger, originally interviewed us for the volunteer position. He is great to work with and has a real love for the outdoors.

JR hit the trails today, as part of his duties, out patrolling the Delancy Loops.

A few hours later he pulls up alongside our site looking pale as a ghost. He had a close call with a 4-wheeler going too fast for conditions. The guy ran right up the front of JR’s OHV and flipped. Luckily no one was injured. But that guy picked the wrong person to hit—he was issued a ticket of course. I can only imagine what went through JR’s mind in those few minutes; his wife and child surely. He sat for a bit to compose himself, then headed back to the Ranger Station. All the trails are two-way traffic and even being on guard, you are always at risk of other bad drivers. Riding safe is somewhat of a gamble, especially on busy weekends and holidays.

Amazingly we have managed to “keep the peace” amongst a variety of visitors . . .riders, hunters, hikers and rangers. Like the delicate eco-system of this area, too much sway one way or the other would be cause for major concern.

- – -

After a 30 year career spent in the corporate world, while earning an Applied Science Degree in Marketing and Graphic Communications, author MC Hansen set out on a free-lance venture Camp Hosting with her cat and newly found handsome partner/photographer. JOURNAL OF A CAMP HOST is a comedic and romantic non-fiction journal of actual events that took place during their time in the Nicolet and Ocala National Forests. Also recorded, cross-country travel routes with some heart-felt lessons learned along the way.

© 2013  MC Hansen, Photos by Mark T. Napholz



Posted in Guest writer | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Sedona Sunrise

The season of vicarious wanderlust on True Stories Well Told rolls on through end of June.

By Nancy Malvin

sedona sunrise pages - right

Taking these pictures of the Sedona sunrise was a simple act of clicking the shutter. Getting to the spot where I took them required a bit more effort.


When we went to bed Wednesday night, John had been adamant that he was too tired to get up to view a sunrise, no matter how potentially breathtaking it might be. I wasn’t sure I’d have the confidence to do it on my own, but I set the alarm for 4 a.m. just in case. I woke up frequently during the night, and looked at the clock each time: 11:30. (Gosh, I’ve only been asleep for an hour or so.) 1:30. (Still too early. Go back to sleep.) 2:30. (Nope, not yet.) At 3:45 I turned off the alarm.

“I’m really comfortable. Maybe I’ll just sleep in, too,” I thought. And that’s when she started in on me.

“You need to get up now.”

Damn. No matter where I go, that little internal voice won’t leave me alone.

“I’m tired,” I replied.

“But you said you wanted to do this,” she prodded.

“Look, I have no idea what the route to the airport observation point looks like. You know I navigate by visual clues.”

“So it takes an extra turn or two.”

I knew she could out-logic me, so I tried another approach. “It’s not that big a deal anyway. I’ve seen sunrises before.”

“Yeah, and exactly how many times have you seen one in Sedona?”


“Besides, when you get home, you’re gonna be really mad at yourself for not at least trying.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” I conceded.

“So at least get up and TRY.”

Sometimes her nagging is actually helpful.

I jumped out of bed, not in a courageous leap, but quickly, so I didn’t have time to change my mind. Fearing I’d hesitated too long and might now miss the whole thing, I grabbed the clothes I’d laid out last night (also just in case) and hastily put them on. After a quick trip to the bathroom, I opened the door, closed it quietly behind me―and was startled by the darkness.

“Duh! You’re headed out to take pictures of a sunrise. If the sun isn’t up yet, that means it’s still dark outside.”

I knew that. Nonetheless, I wasn’t prepared to see it. Of course the room had been dark, but with the heavy draperies motels use, it’s not uncommon for it to be dark inside and bright outside. Good thing I hadn’t given it any conscious thought or I might not have gotten out of bed after all.

Once I got to the car, my next challenge was to orient myself on the map so I’d know which way to turn out of the motel parking lot. Normally when I’m on unfamiliar turf, I drive a few blocks, noting the names of the side streets I pass and the order in which I pass them. Then I pull over, find those streets on the map, and turn it around until the streets appear in the same order as I passed them. But since Motel Lady had told us that the Days Inn was on the far west edge of town, I was able to figure it out while sitting still. (Those readers who are as directionally challenged as I am understand this. Those who aren’t can stop laughing now.)

There was just enough light from the dashboard to see the street names on the map. Unfortunately, reading the actual street signs was harder. (If only my eyes were still as sharp as when I read Nancy Drew books under the covers. ) What if I’d already passed Airport Drive? How long would I go before I gave up and decided I’d missed it? The last thing I wanted to do was make a u-turn and look foolish.

At that thought, she spoke up again. “And exactly who is it, Nancy, that you think is hovering on these empty streets at 4:30 in the morning, waiting to point their finger at you and laugh at your incompetence?”

Good point.

I stopped paying so much attention to my doubts and settled in to enjoy the ride. And suddenly there it was: Airport Drive. Wow, I’d found it!

From this point on the map showed no more street names, just a squiggly line that ended at Airport Mesa. No problem. I didn’t have time for the map now anyway. That squiggly line was in reality a narrow, winding road up the side of the canyon, and driving it demanded my full attention.

Motel Lady had said there would be a parking lot across the road from the vista point, but I didn’t know how far up the road it would be. I hoped I’d see it in enough time to slow down safely before having to turn off. At 25 mph, that seemed likely. (I hadn’t noticed any speed limit signs, but driving this winding road in the dark made 25 feel plenty fast enough to me.) Even without the map, though, I was confident that the parking lot would be on my left. (There was, after all, nothing on my right but air.)

Suddenly there it was, the vista point parking lot. I’d found it on my own without any miscues or even one u-turn!

After gathering my camera, journal, and flashlight, I double-checked to make sure I’d put the key in my pocket. (I certainly didn’t want a repeat of the San Francisco vista point experience.) Then literally grinning from ear to ear, I walked across the road to watch the sun rise over the red rocks of Sedona, Arizona.

In 1988, on my first solo travel adventure, I was driving a friend’s car from San Jose to Marin County, California, when I saw a sign for a Vista Point. “Why Not?” I thought. So I got off the highway and headed up the side of a mountain. That time, too, I made sure I had the car key with me before locking the doors. Unfortunately I didn’t know that unlike my Camry, my friend’s Pontiac Firebird required two keys: one for the ignition and one for the door locks. I obviously had the ignition key, but my friend had failed to give me the one to unlock the doors. For the details of how I got the car―and me―off the mountain, read that 1988 story.

© 2009 Nancy Byrkit Malvin

Posted in Guest writer | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Finding Love, by way of East Wind

I wrote this in the first life writing group I facilitated (and the first I participated in, as well). We followed the methodology laid out by James Birren in his book Telling the Stories of Life through Guided Autobiography Groups. Session 6 prompted us to write on the theme of “Your Sexual Identity.” The following is lightly adapted from the essay I wrote in July, 2004.

By Sarah White

A fair amount of my energy as I entered my 20s went toward finding some alternative to domesticity and the nuclear family model. I had been interested in communal living since my first exposure to hippies. In face I wrote a paper surveying communes for a high school English class. And in 1981, when I was 25,  I went to visit one. With me was my potential husband Jim.

I met Jim when I made the decision to go back to school in commercial art. To cut costs, I applied to live in a cooperative house. Jim was another of the applicants, and we met at a group interview. He says I caught his eye then.

We were both accepted into the house, and in a matter of months I was turning down my other lovers and snuggling down with my new friend and roommate. In a few months more I was realizing his love for me was a jewel of great worth. Maybe we should cast our lots together. But where? And how?

The co-op house we lived in had ties to East Wind, an intentional community on 1000 acres of Ozark hill country. Brearly House functioned as a sort of “halfway house” between the real world and the co-op world, and it followed the same rules and customs as the mother ship.

One of the things that appealed to me most as I learned about East Wind was their ideas about parenting. They took political issue with the idea of the 2-parent family. House rules forbade bringing a child into the commune without 3 parents signed on to raise it. A breeding pair had to find a third friend willing to play a very hands-on version of the “godparent” role.

I liked this idea a lot. The thing that scared me most about parenting was the possibility I would at some point find myself alone, a single mom. The East Wind plan with its handy back-up parent seemed like a good solution. I thought maybe I could take on love, marriage and the baby carriage if I tried it there.

So when spring break came in 1981, Jim and I headed down to East Wind to check it out. It was our first trip together. I love to travel. I did not know yet that Jim did not.

We got on a train in Madison which took us to Chicago, then Saint Louis, where we switched to a bus and continued on to East Wind on the Missouri-Arkansas border. It was about 10 pm when the  bus let us out at a bowling alley at a crossroads in the middle of nowhere. We went inside to find a phone to call our hosts for pick-up. That’s when I realized I didn’t have the phone number of the place on me.

It’s impossible, it turns out, to ask directory assistance for a phone number when the place you want to find is far outside any town and straddles a state line.

Jim is a very sweet man who will do almost anything to humor me, even if doing so makes him miserable. The only catch is, he is unable to hide his misery. And he was very miserable at that moment in the bowling alley.

I do not like public yelling matches but that’s what we did. Somebody at the bowling alley overheard us, and he knew somebody and somehow the phone number was gotten and the truck came down from up-country and delivered us to the commune.

The East Wind Community has a protocol for visitors, particularly those considering applying for residence. We would be given a tour of the community; we would be perform work jobs; and we would socialize with the community’s members. One individual, in our case a slim red-headed man named Chad, would be assigned as our cultural interpreter.

The next morning Chad took us on the tour after breakfast in the dining hall. First the lodge, with its kitchen, dining, and shared living spaces. Then the dorms, long buildings like chicken coops with tiny spaces for each resident, about 6’ x 8’ with a sleeping loft above and a desk below. No clothes closets—no need. In the next building was the communal clothes cupboard, laundry and shower house.

The tiny private rooms didn’t bother me but the thought of communal clothes did.  “What if you have a favorite piece?” I asked.

“You can keep it for yourself it you really want to, but it’s discouraged,” replied Chad. I couldn’t help thinking about my size. What if the only fat pants were gone when I got out of the shower? This communal life might be trickier than I realized.

Next on the tour came the workshops. The community earned an income with handmade products, nylon rope hammocks and “utopian sandals” made from recycled tires. But both of these involved some toxic processes, and the community had recently invested in a new, more eco-friendly enterprise: nut butter production. A large shed had been built to house the roasting equipment and packing lines. Three butters were made and distributed to grocery co-ops around the U.S.: peanut, almond, and cashew.

“When we’re doing peanut butter, the whole place smells like the circus,” Chad said.

The nut butters were the second reason, after the 3-parent thing, that I got excited about East Wind. I was set on a graphic art career. Not much use in a farm-based commune. But here, I could put my hand to marketing the nut butters. Chad’s main work was being the marketing guy. I confided eagerly that I would want to work for him if I came here to live.

Over the next  few days we socialized, hiked around the grounds, and did our work jobs.

Being a professional chef, Jim of course went to work in the kitchen. He baked off great stacks of cashew-butter cookies to feed the 50-plus residents. He was a popular guy from that moment on.

Me, I went to work in a different way. I offered to share my women’s spirituality path with East Wind’s women.  I announced I had brought a tape of my teacher Selena Fox lecturing on the nature religion of which she was a practitioner and advocate. I posted a time and place for playing the tape and a discussion to follow.

As it turned out, this was an extremely impolitic idea. About a dozen women came to the session. That left several dozen other residents male and female to wonder what seditious ideas I might be spouting, what cult I was recruiting for. Where Jim’s cookies bought love, my fireside religious chat earned a very cool reaction.

Chad, who had been friendly about my future in peanut butter packaging, was suddenly hard to find and aloof when I did find him. Jim was growing noticeably cooler toward me as well.

Chad assigned us our next work job: cleaning out a brown and leafless flower bed on the hillside behind the dining hall.

Jim and I worked at it in sullen silence. It was time to talk but he wasn’t about to. So as I bent to the task of pulling out dead tangles in the weak spring sun, I carried on the debate with myself. Live here on the land or no? Stay with Jim or split up? Was it coming down to a choice: I wanted to stay, but Jim did not?

Then came our evaluation meeting. The community’s rules on membership state: “If you get four ‘concerns’ (‘no confidence’ votes) in the first week of your visit, you will be expected to leave immediately.”

Jim, of course, passed with not a crumb of doubt. I, on the other hand, was invited to leave. I had been upsetting people. The next morning we were delivered quietly back to the bus at the bowling alley.

We quarreled the miles away like an old married couple. By the time we neared Saint Louis, the irritation had spread from emotional to physical.

That flower bed Chad asked us to clean out? The poison ivy patch.

We distracted ourselves from our pain with argument on bus and train and taxi until finally we were back on the doorstep of our very own halfway house. Jim turned sunny then, as we painted each other with calamine lotion and told our housemates about our trip. It is always like this with him, and I can say that because we’ve been married 21 [now 31] years.

Somewhere between the cashew cookies and the poison ivy, Jim got under my skin.  As I settled back into life at Brearly House and reviewed the trip, I realized: I wasn’t any surer about the nuclear family, but one thing was clear. This was a guy I could get engaged with. After all, engagement doesn’t always mean marriage. Its alternate definition is “entering into battle.”

Session 6 7/22/04

Posted in Sarah's memoir | Tagged , | 1 Comment


The season of vicarious wanderlust on True Stories Well Told rolls on…. send me YOUR travel essays, up to 1500 words! -Sarah White

By Kristine Sperling


The day that a group of missionaries delivered their message of improving the quality of life for children living in draught-stricken Eastern Guatemala at my rural Wisconsin church I must have been especially tired and weary. I can remember being brought to tears almost instantly as the founder described the long-term famine in the region and the children who were starving and neglected. I cried sobs almost uncontrollably, the white hot tears streaming down my face. My husband looked at me and knew we would somehow get involved. I had to be there. I had to see those children. I had to do something. I was wrecked by those images and I had to do something about it. We signed up to sponsor a child that day and I signed my name on the line to go to Guatemala on a trip I knew or understood very little about.

During the time I prepared for the trip I kept asking myself, “Am I a missionary?” “What is my purpose with this?” When I finally boarded the plane to Guatemala City three months later with my group of missionaries, I settled in and tried to get to know the people I was with, most of whom I had only met once or twice and did not know intimately at all. I would be bunking with my Pastor’s wife, our Associate Pastor, and one of the Elders from the church. I wondered how I ended up in such close proximity to leaders in the church. I was just someone who sat in the pews and struggled with the whole idea that Jesus died for my sins. I would often wonder why I didn’t have that gift of faith, that steadfast belief that Jesus died on a cross, was resurrected into heaven and offered me eternal salvation if I held that belief. The thing is that I was never quite sure it was the afterlife that I needed salvation from as much as my life here, now, on Earth.

From Guatemala City and its pristine international airport we traveled to Chiquimula where our clean but spare hostel was based and then headed out for day trips that would launch out of a town called Jocatan. Our trips out of Jocatan into the mountain villages were harrowing by American standards. Standing in the back of pickup trucks as they zoom down the highway and then head off-road pitching from side to side from the ruts and valleys of ancient footpaths into the remote reaches of the region not far from the border of Honduras is an experience you can’t really be prepared for. Unless, I suppose, you are a National Geographic photographer who lives on the edges of the third world for a living. So by the time we reached the beautiful old church where we would spend our first day in the field I was travel worn and overstimulated. It had been a long time since I had experienced travel that wasn’t draped in the luxury of western, upper-middle class standards. I don’t know what I had expected to encounter but each step took me farther from the ease of my life at home.

The main purpose of our work was to support the medical mission of our nurses, health technicians and the local doctor who came to volunteer with us. The medical team set up a triage where they would examine people who came through for any visible signs of distress, to take vitals and to administer anti-parasitic medicines to everyone who walked through the door. Parasites run rampant through communities in remote villages because of the lack of sanitized water. Because of this many children are robbed of the nutrients their bodies need from the little food they have and become malnourished. The children were administered these yucky-tasting chalky pills from the most endearing, tender hearted people I have ever known. We were asked to volunteer for our positions prior to the distribution but the thought of approaching mothers with their children strapped on their waists terrified me. Up close and personal is not the type of volunteer work I normally engage in. It was more than enough for me to stand behind table and dole out t-shirts and trousers as people waited in line for the health care they needed so desperately.

Initially, the experience of driving into the villages through the thick, dry [word?] didn’t feel right to me. These are areas which are only known to the local populations and I felt as if I were in a fishbowl riding in the caravan of pickup trucks full of white missionaries. People stared at us out of their houses and children followed the trucks, running to catch the candy that was being thrown to them. What were we doing there? Why were we bringing used Green Bay Packers t-shirts to people who were so colorfully and meticulously clothed? The women and girls wore dresses that were spectacular in their enthusiastic combinations of blues, reds, yellows and greens. The hand sewn dresses were modest and pretty with pleats and puffs. The men were dapperly dressed in their blue pants, cowboy boots and hats. Yes there were pants-less children running around the houses, but why was I to judge that? Yet, as I looked on to the faces of 800 people who had gathered for that first medical mission and distribution, I realized that I couldn’t apply my anti-imperialist notions to the daily lives of people in need.

Our specialists identified life inhibiting skin disorders, blindness, worms, fungus problems, asthmas and much more. They examined pregnant women and children with boils and tumors. They handed out whatever remedies and antibiotics we had available to us. They distributed prenatal vitamins and folic acid. One of the most striking issues facing the women in the region were yeast infections that went untreated leading to long term discomfort and related problems. I took for granted being able to stop in to my local pharmacy and just buy off of the shelves a myriad remedies to make my life easier yet these remedies aren’t available in much of the world. The simplest inconveniences we face become life inhibiting obstacles elsewhere.

I spent those days handing out clothing and toys and looking into the eyes of the shy and humble women who walked through my line. I coaxed smiles out of the mothers and giggles out of their babies. I noticed the line of children behind each mother, each child about a year apart and noticed how the toddlers fared the worst. Weaned from their Mother’s breast, replaced by a new sibling and not yet old enough to fend for themselves, it is these in-between children who are most susceptible to malnutrition and disease. I was instructed to identify any children with distended bellies and bulging eyes and bring these children and their families to the medical team. These families would receive supplemental nutrition on a monthly basis and become eligible to have a bucket garden installed on their property, receive chickens and citrus trees to grow their own food, and become and independent, healthy and sustainable family. Most missions teach a man to fish by providing the materials so families can have a basic subsistence life and put their attention to finding whatever work they can to enhance their standard of living.

Seeing dirty children with distended bellies in a commercial and seeing a dirt poor existence on a television commercial or from afar in a tourist bus is much different than witnessing it up close. When you see people who are proud and capable yet hungry and vulnerable in the intimacy of their homes, any Western ideas about individualism and work ethic disappear. Or at least they should. There are smart and hard-working people all over the world who will never pick themselves up by the bootstraps to make a better life. There were days that made me cry rivers of tears by witnessing the love and laughter that exists among the people of Guatemala in spite of the hardships of their village life. Families may have no food in the house but they do not beg, they do not appear weary, they do not appear forlorn. Instead, their children laughed and are loved and their eyes twinkle with the delights of being children. They played and took care of each other. They were proud and somewhat suspicious of our group of white missionaries. All around us there was happiness amidst the aching poverty and even amidst the family dramas that played out in the paternalistic cultural we could not really understand.

My orientation and understanding of the world and its people were deeply and meaningfully impacted by my missionary week in Guatemala. But all along Orion was in the sky and the Moon was bright and I was comforted knowing my family might be looking up at the same sights. Now I realize the whole world looks up too.

© 2014 Kristine Sperling

Kristine Sperling is a believer, wife, mother, writer, entrepreneur and recovered attorney who lives with her family in Westport, Wisconsin.

Posted in Guest writer | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

First Taste of Freedom

The season of vicarious wanderlust on True Stories Well Told rolls on…. send me YOUR travel essays, up to 1500 words! -Sarah White

By Linda Lenzke

“Let us be lovers we’ll marry our fortunes together”
“I’ve got some real estate here in my bag”
So we bought a pack of cigarettes and Mrs. Wagner pies
And we walked off to look for America.

“America,” lyrics and music by Simon and Garfunkle.

The year was 1968; I was a freshman at the University of Wisconsin – Parkside, my hometown campus. I had originally been accepted at UW-Madison, until a bureaucratic snafu at the 11th hour involving my leadership scholarship, work-study grant and student loan caused me to revert to “plan b.” I became homebound in Racine, Wisconsin. This was not the dream I had for myself. I was a smart working class kid, the first in my family to go to college and here I was, still languishing in my hometown — bummer.

As both luck and fate would have it, I met and fell in love with Frank that first semester. He was a tall, dark, handsome man of Hungarian heritage, with long wavy brown hair and a Van Dyke mustache and goatee. He resembled d’Artagnan of the Three Musketeers and was just as cavalier and mischievous as the fictional character. Frank presided over his court in the student union, playing cards and discussing politics. I was quickly welcomed into his entourage of student radicals and campus misfits.

One day on a dare as we sat bored playing cards in the union, Frank stood up with bravado and stated, “Let’s go to San Francisco.” One of our friends asked, “When?” Without a moment’s hesitation he exclaimed, “Now!” In 1968 “now” was a magical word and living in it was to be admired. The seven us immediately left the table, not wanting to be the first to bail out of the dare. We all jumped in one car, making stops at each of our banks to withdraw travel money (remember this was a time that pre-dated ATM machines), but didn’t stop at our homes to pack a toothbrush or a change of clothes, how curious.

As we travelled south to Chicago before heading west to California, we smoked a little weed on our way to the Brat Stop in Kenosha for a lunch of beer and bratwurst. Stoned, hungry, and full of ourselves, the reality began to sink in that we were leaving home. As we devoured our brats and downed our tap beers, we waxed sentimental about the things we’d miss most from our home state of Wisconsin. After we finished our lunch, Frank exclaimed, “Enough, let’s hit the road. We’re going to San Francisco!”

It quickly became clear as we got closer to Chicago that this was not a “psyche,” the 1968 equivalent of getting “punk’d.” We were divided into two camps, those ready to turn around and go home and those of us with Frank at the helm, wishing to push on to our destination. When we took a poll, four, including the owner and driver of the car, wanted to return home leaving three of us, Frank, his best friend Charlie and myself committed to forging forward, our paths separating. They drove us to the Chicago Greyhound Bus Terminal in the Loop on the corner of Clark and Randolph and we borrowed most of their cash, capitalizing on their guilt for abandoning the journey.

1960s greyhound


After purchasing bus tickets to San Francisco with stops in Omaha, Nebraska and Denver, Colorado, we crossed the street to the diner kitty-corner from the terminal for a cup ’o Joe, a bite to eat, and time to write letters home. This was the first in a series of letters I wrote my parents over the years when I shared news signaling a turning point in my life. This was the “Your Eldest Daughter is Dropping-Out of College to Search for America and the Meaning of Life” letter.

“Laughing on the bus
Playing games with the faces
he said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy
I said ‘Be careful his bowtie is really a camera’”

The three of us entertained ourselves playing cards, napping, making up stories about our fellow travelers and the people we encountered during our rest stops. We were considered “hippies” by the public and treated with distrust or disgust, due to nothing more than the men’s long hair and our shared non-conformity in dress and behavior. We didn’t care, we were simply happy together, our band of Three Musketeers.

The journey became a little more complicated when just outside of Omaha Frank developed a raging abscess tooth. His left cheek was swollen and he’d taken to eating triple the dosage of aspirin twice as often as recommended to quell the pain. We had a long layover at the Omaha Greyhound Terminal and I tried with no success to find a dentist to treat him on an emergency basis. Instead, I found a dentist in Denver which was the next major stop on our trip. While I had been on the pay phone scheduling the appointment, I was being watched by a young man with a crew cut holding an olive drab duffle sitting on a wooden bench, adjacent to the bank of phones.

As I was walking back to Frank and Charlie, the man with the crew cut stood up and approached me. He made a couple of lewd remarks about how he could make my trip more memorable and he could take me places I never dreamt of before. I said, “No, thank you.” I already had travel companions and pointed to Frank and Charlie. He turned his head, glared at them, looked back at me, grabbed my arm and said, “How could those faggot hippies please you like a real man could.” As his voice grew louder and his intentions more threatening Frank and Charlie approached to intercede.

Frank was six feet four inches tall and barrel-chested, a big man. Charlie stood just a couple inches shorter than Frank, but carried more bulk. They were gentle giants, peace-loving men prone to resolve conflict with words not fists, yet the crew-cut, strong, lean man accosting me was prepared for a fight as I tried to dislodge his hold on me as my rescuers approached.

As Frank broke the man’s hold on me he wound up his fist to hit Frank in his swollen left cheek. Instinctively, I started pounding on the man screaming “Stop, it!” By this point we had drawn the attention of other travelers and the terminal security guard. The stranger with the crew cut grabbed his duffle, cursed under his breath, and escaped outside the terminal.


“Toss me a cigarette, I think there’s one in my raincoat”
“We smoked the last one an hour ago”
So I looked at the scenery, he read his magazine
And the moon rose over an open field

We arrived in Denver, Colorado and checked into the Hotel Republic. It was one of those residence hotels on the periphery of downtown, where old men and people down on their luck would stay permanently or for a night or two to take a bath and get out of bad weather. It reeked of booze and cigars and the rooms were hot and humid from the steam radiators. Our plan, get Frank’s abscess tooth treated, take a bath, sleep in a bed and then back on the road for the final leg of our journey. We were exhausted.

The next morning Charlie knocked on our door. With a look of concern on his face he said, “I’ve made a decision. I’m going to head home and let you two go on to San Francisco without me.” We were dumfounded. We didn’t see this coming at all. During the trip we were like the “Three Musketeers,” a merry band of outlaws. I paid as much attention to Charlie as I did to Frank, and Frank and Charlie were best friends. We’d take turns sitting with each other. We asked him why. He responded. “Let me tell you about the dream I had last night.”

Charlie proceeded to detail his dream. He was a farmer and I was his wife, the crops he tended were acres and acres of carrots. These carrots were unusual in that they grew upside down, erect, pointing skyward. He looked at us as he shared this, first with a furrowed brow and a look of concern, before he broke into a broad smile after a long pause and said, “I don’t need to tell you what this means, other than it’s time for me to go home.” Later that day, Frank and I re-boarded the bus to San Francisco after we gave Charlie plane fare home and said our good-byes. The moment the bus departed the depot we were missing Charlie and the spirit of our trip had already changed.

Frank and I finally arrived in San Francisco a few days after departing Wisconsin. We found a cheap hotel, bought a map of the city, took showers, and counted our cash. After Charlie’s plane ticket we were left with a pretty meager reserve, meals for a few days and a couple nights in the hotel; we’d have to find jobs or panhandle. The reality of our prospects hit us pretty strongly, yet here we were in the place where it was all happening, though we were one year late for “the summer of love.”


Over the course of the next few days we explored Haight Ashbury and Golden Gate Park, the epicenter of the hippie movement and the migration of counter-culture youth to California. “The Summer of Love” attracted a wide range of people of various ages: teenagers and college students drawn by their peers and the allure of joining a cultural utopia; middle-class vacationers; and even partying military personnel from bases within driving distance. The Haight-Ashbury could not accommodate this rapid influx of people, and the neighborhood scene quickly deteriorated. Overcrowding, homelessness, hunger, drug problems, and crime afflicted the neighborhood. Many people simply left in the fall to resume their college studies. On October 6, 1967, those remaining in the Haight staged a mock funeral, “The Death of the Hippie” ceremony, to signal the end of the played-out scene.*

Yes, the peace and love from the summer before had been displaced by gawkers, amphetamine freaks, and drug-peddling motorcycle gangs. We weren’t going to find jobs before our money ran out and clearly panhandling was not an option since the streets were already full of them including musicians playing for coins or an offer to get turned on.

We returned to the Greyhound Station where we could sleep free overnight if we kept changing places. There were restrooms, vending machines, and pay phones, all our basic needs could be met. Frank and I discussed our future and for the first time I witnessed the vulnerability of this man I loved and would have followed anywhere. We agreed to swallow our youthful pride and we called our parents asking them to wire us money so we could go home. This was the first time we talked with them since we mailed our dreamy letters from Chicago, talking about finding ourselves and searching for the meaning of life. Yes, we found ourselves alright, ready to return home.

We picked up money from our parents at Western Union, including the telegraphed memo, “We hope you use the money to come home, stop. We love you, stop.” Frank and I boarded our United Airlines flight back to Chicago. It was my first plane trip. When I arrived home my mom had prepared my favorite meal, Chop Suey that according to urban legend was created “in the 1860s, when a Chinese restaurant cook in San Francisco was forced to serve something to drunken miners after hours, when he had no fresh food. To avoid a beating, the cook threw leftovers in a wok and served the miners who loved it and asked what dish is this—he replied Chopped Sui.”**


** Wikipedia


A vignette from the memoir, Perfectly Flawed, by Linda Lenzke, a Madison-area writer, poet and playwright.


Posted in Guest writer | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Nirvana at Table in Umbria

The season of vicarious wanderlust on True Stories Well Told rolls on…. send me YOUR travel essays, up to 1500 words! -Sarah White

By Sarah White

In 1991, I was selected to be part of a Rotary International Group Study Exchange. The program’s mission was to build international friendship through professional exchanges. A group of five “outstanding young professionals” were chosen from central Wisconsin to exchange visits with a team selected by a Rotary district in central Italy. With our Rotarian hosts we toured factories, gave our speech about Wisconsin at their Rotary Club meetings, and ate. Unbeknownst to us, the Rotary Clubs hosting us were competing to see who could put on the most glorious feasts. We were unwitting but willing pawns in this game.

Our “outstanding professionals” consisted of three other women, Jenny the journalist, Rita the postal worker, and Mary the realtor, plus Ron, a carpenter loaded with more charisma than was good for him, and our Rotarian leader, Bruce. Having summarized our five-week Italian extravaganza elsewhere, I will now dwell on the second-best meal I was served. I won’t burden you with a description of the first-best meal, the District Governor’s Banquet in Campobasso with which our trip concluded—it might hurt you to know such wonderful meals exist.

Photo courtesy of Trip Advisor, provided by management, July 2012

Photo courtesy of Trip Advisor, provided by management, July 2012

The experience I am about to describe was just “a little meal at a trattoria,” we were told.

After a morning of touring an Umbrian olive oil producer and an egg factory, we freshened up back at our hotel, then piled into the Rotarians’ minibus for the short drive to La Fattoria, a restaurant on the outskirts of Spoleto. In the midday sun we unloaded before a simple façade, which gave way to a dark interior. It was filled with an aroma of roast meat and garlic coming from a huge open grill at the back of the room. We were led past it to a private dining room and seated around a long table. There were about a dozen of us including the Rotarians and their wives, a daughter or two brought along to translate, and a journalist covering our visit for the Spoleto newspaper.


A torrent of food was about to pour over us.

It began with a trickle. Appetizers were brought: tiny rounds of crisp toast, spread with a dark truffle paste. Waiters speared tissue-thin slices of prosciutto onto our plates, and urged us to try their local delicacy, the sheep cheese, pecorino. Its crumbly salty tang made me thirsty.

Bottles stood poised at the ready, up and down the table, red and white wines, and bottles of water, “gazata” and “non-gazata”, with or without the bubble.

Our hosts filled glasses for us. Conversation swirled around, the exchange-student kind. What have you seen since you got here? How did you like Terni? You’ll like Spoleto better. Tell us about where you come from.

I was tired—we had been escorted through activities from 6 a.m. to midnight every day since our arrival five days ago—but becoming happier by the moment under the influence of the never-empty glass of smooth red vino de tavolo. The wine and the delicious appetizers began to relax me. The waiter didn’t need to disturb me with more food, but he did.

“Tartuffe, specialité de Spoleto,” he said. The dish he offered me was tortellini and the sauce was again of the earthy mushroom. To me “truffles” had always meant expensive chocolates and I was intrigued by this musty brown stuff. Its flavor was as strong and wild as the mountains around us. There was something randy in that flavor, a salty earthiness that reminded me of semen. My eyes met those of a man across the table. He looked as if he knew what I was thinking. I quickly took cover in the conversation on my left, where Jenny was listening to the journalist describe a local scandal.

Another wave of food broke over us. Waiters brought huge platters of lasagna, spooned layers onto our plates. More wine was poured. Jenny whispered to me, “how much more food can there be?” I had no idea. It was an odd sensation, and we let go into the endless stream of delicious food washing over us.

Following the dense lasagna came a lighter dish, this time a freshly-made linguini knapped in a silky white sauce with voluptuous morsels of asparagus and sausage stirred in.

All around us conversation flowed, a murmur that began to sound like rain. Some spoke in English, others in Italian. I followed what I could and nodded and smiled when understanding ran out. In Italy it is perfectly acceptable for a woman to contribute nothing more than her decorative appearance. Silence and smiles were all that were expected of me, and I was happy to oblige.

I was discovering another grace of Italian life, the grace of a delicious meal taken in leisure. This was food as art. Food as a dance, scripted in a choreography of flavors. It was as carefully programmed as a symphony. Each course created its own mood, suggested its own emotions, comfort or passion or daring. Bland pasta had answered the opening challenge of sharp cheese and prosciutto; now hot roast meats with spicy odors of garlic and rosemary woke us from the pastas’ creamy lull.

I was seated on the cusp between two conversations, able to tune in to either or to drift quietly by myself. I noticed a man at the far end of the table, also unspoken to. I pointed this out to Ron, across the table from me, and he replied, “ Don’t you recognize him? He’s our bus driver.” The driver had walked in with our party uninvited, and was now being snubbed by the Rotarians.


Veal shortribs came around on the waiters’ arms, followed by roast chicken. Conversation slowed as we applied knives and forks to the delicious food. It did not take long to disappear, in spite of the mountains we’d already consumed.

Jenny whispered to me, “Italy…where too much is never enough.” We giggled tipsily. Ron shot us a dirty look, then returned to his conversation with the pretty translator on his left.

In a show of mercy, the waiters now brought lighter fare, vegetables both hot and cold, tiny fried potatoes, marinated green beans, asparagus baked in a quiche. For the first time I tasted radiccio, its licorice bite a perfect refreshment to our overworked palates. Conversation picked up again as we found our second wind. There was a reverence in its tone. The sharing of food had been a communion.

Again the bottles of wine and water were passed around the table, new ones brought to replace the dozen or so we’d already emptied. A light sweet wine complemented the dessert that now appeared. We were each presented with a pastry, a golden sphere filled with chocolate and whipped cream inside its flaky crust. And to follow that, the principle of contrast was again observed—tart crisp fruit was brought. I watched as the men took paring knives and carved slivers with quick, graceful movements. I was hypnotized by the simple gesture.

Finally, exhausted, we laid down our silverware and took refuge in espresso. For a moment no one spoke.

Distantly I heard music from the dining room. John Lennon singing “Imagine.” I drifted in tranquility evoked by the dreamy song, lulled in that perfect satiety one can only reach either through prolonged sex or a good meal. My every sense was satisfied, my every hunger filled.

“Imagine all the people…living for today…”

Fifteen plates and three hours had passed. We stumbled to our feet, boarded the Rotarians’ minibus and headed to dinner.


The Wisconsin Group with members of the Spoleto Rotary Club. That’s me, front row, far right.

Posted in Sarah's memoir | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

If you’ve enjoyed travel, you might enjoy my book…

Write Your Travel Memoir: 5 steps to transform your travel experience into compelling essays. What’s the secret to writing stories others will find compelling? After you read this book you’ll know the answer. You’ll also have an outline for your travel memoir and a solid plan for writing it. Available on Amazon

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment