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Tuesday, August 31, 2010


Water for Elephants is a must read if you're looking for a colorful mixture of love and murder against the backdrop of a Depression-era circus (and who isn’t?). This is definitely not the circus your folks took you to when you were little. The first chapter is rife with hints of love, scenes of disaster, and a gruesome description of murder. With this phenomenal opening, author Sara Gruen has the reader hooked!

Told in flashback close to the end of a lifetime by Jacob, he takes us back with him to the Depression and a long-vanished world when circuses moved by train from town to town, each circus aspiring to be the next Ringling Brothers. With jobs scarce and starvation a real possibility, those who worked for the circus did just as they were told, and the conditions were mean and difficult. Gruen's description of the circus life, the kinds of acts, and the treatment of animals and people create an atmosphere of grunge and fear. Living conditions are atrocious on the train; horses are packed in so none can lie down. People are treated no better. There is a hierarchy among the circus folk—performers do not mix with the hands; the cook tent is handled differently for each level of worker, and everyone knows his place. Life is tough, and each member must earn his keep. It is not unusual for people no longer needed nor useful to be tossed from the moving train in the middle of the night. Gruen populates her book with the artists, performers, trainers, animals, and sideshow performers for which the circus is famous, but they do not become stereotypes; they're developed and interesting people who struggle to do their jobs and present the world with the illusions we wish to see.

Unfortunate circumstances initially bring Jacob to the circus, a world totally removed from the one he left behind as a Cornell veterinary medicine student. As he is introduced to the circus' unusual culture, so are we. A strange old man, Camel, an alcoholic in the age of prohibition, takes Jacob under his wing, makes sure he gets a job and a place to stay. At the circus Jacob meets August and his wife Marlena, a star performer on the Liberty horses, those regal white stallions with the beautiful girl standing and riding and guiding them around the ring. The couple’s and Jacob’s strange friendship evolves in and around the circus and grows more complex as time passes. Many of the characters develop personal psychological defensive walls and come from strange and eerie backgrounds. Little by little Sara Gruen reveals them and forces her reader to react emotionally. She writes tightly, and no detail is unimportant.

In those crushing economic times, circuses fold, and the remaining ones rush to hire performers or secure animals that might add to their allure. At one such moment, the circus acquires Rosie, an elephant who does not seem to live up to her reputation as an exciting performer. Although he hates Rosie, under August's direction she becomes the center of attention when ridden by Marlena. August is not happy with his new assignment as Rosie’s trainer. Rosie frustrates him and he retaliates cruelly. Neither Marlena nor Jacob can tolerate this abuse, and their concern for Rosie creates interesting consequences. It is Jacob who unlocks the secret to Rosie.

Water for Elephants is a wonderful book of layered stories. I got lost in each layer enjoying the richness and surprises though I cannot describe this novel as a “pretty” book. If you enjoy Americana and love an escapist adventure, this is certainly the book for your next vacation.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


Here's a little info about a site I just joined two weeks ago and have already made two purchases. It offers one deal a day. You join in an area. I joined for NYC, for instance, but I was flipping through the other day just to see how other areas worked, liked what was offered in Dayton and bought it--$100.00 worth of photo books from Picaboo (a company from which I had just ordered a photo book) for $25.00. That should work for our upcoming trip.

So I thought I'd put it here on Third Age Traveler. It might be something to think about for the cities of your destinations. Or it might work for you at home.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


After our helicopter ride, we walked around Juneau, Alaska’s capital since 1900. The city, now the third largest in Alaska, began as a gold mine town, and growth really began around 1882. Summer in Juneau translates to 16-18 hours of sunlight!!! That is so cool!

We had the bus driver let us off outside the Paradise Bakery & Cafe, so we could have a cup of coffee and think about our glacial experience. Lo and behold, the décor is to Rob’s liking—Patsy Cline!!!
Juneau cafe

Juneau has a frontier town atmosphere, and we wanted to wander. We did get to see several passersby we knew weren’t there as cruise tourists!
Alaskan resident

Outside City Hall there is a mural depicting a Haida view of creation. The Haida are part of the Tlingit nation, the indigenous people.
Creation mural

Juneau has many museums, and in one we visited, there were newspaper clippings from WWII. One was of our declaration of war with Japan, and the others were of entertainers up there to perform for the troops—including Al Jolson, and in Juneau, as everywhere else in Alaska, we got to chuckle at some more Alaskan humor and fun. If Juneau seems far away now, imagine how it was in 1941. Yet these entertainers came up here for the military. Very heartening.
newspaper clipping
newspaper clipping

Folks in Juneau get around in floatplanes, and down by the docks they are parked as we park our cars.
Alaskan floatplanes

Inevitably, Rob and I found our way to the Red Dog Saloon with some friends, Bunny and Tom. Atmosphere, atmosphere, atmosphere! In the territorial days, Gordie Kanouse would meet tour boats with his mule and wore a sign saying, “follow my ass to the Red Dog Saloon.”
Red Dog Saloon
Red Dog SaloonWant to eat? Order “The Avalanche, a one-third pound beef patty served with lettuce, tomato, pickles, grilled onions, cheese, bacon and topped with our famous BBQ sauce. Served on a Kaiser bun.” (no, I didn’t) But the highlight was the honky tonk piano player. He was really good, really into ragtime, and really a big talker and joker. NOTICE HIS TIP JARS
Alaskan life

piano player
And the day didn’t end there. We wanted to get back to the ship to hear a presentation by Libby Riddles, the first woman, in 1985 to win the Iditarod, the famous dog sled endurance race from Anchorage to Nome. A musher since 1976, she tells a fascinating story, but two factoids will stay with me always: sled dogs are mixed breeds, not pure husky, and these dogs have two layers of fur to protect them. Makes me wonder about my insane desire to spend a winter month in Anchorage just to see what it's life. If you visit Libby's website at, you get an inkling of the strength of this woman. You might even buy a t-shirt emblazoned with this saying, “Alaska—where men are men and women win the Iditarod.” Ha! Ha!

Sunday, August 15, 2010


Here in Juneau, Alaska’s capital, we experienced the highlight of the ENTIRE trip, the helicopter ride to the Mendenhall Glacier. Dressing warmly, we put on the appropriate equipment—special studded boots to grab into the sleek icy surface.
helicopterThe turbine helicopter ride, my first, was exhilarating and far beyond my expectations; in fact this was something I dreaded but felt necessary. How could I come to Alaska and not helicopter to a glacier?

My smile began and my white-knuckled grip relaxed even as the helicopter left the ground, and we soared over the landscape reveling in the blues, green, whites, and blacks—all vivid and magnificent.
Mendenhall Glacier
From above we looked down on the alpine ridges and then viewed the deep crevasses and the colors of the ice. The blue is caused by the reflection of the sun on the water. We saw the ice falls where the Juneau Icefield overflows to form the Mendenhall Glacier.
from the helicopter
deep crevasses
flying to Mendenhall
from the helicopter
On the surface of the glacier, Rob looked around and proclaimed quite rightly, “This is spiritual.” Each moment was an experience in Nature’s power, artistry, and creativity.
Mendenhall Glacier
Mendenhall crevasses

Our guide explained how glaciers form, flow, and shape the landscape. Gingerly, I walked on the glacier while Rob straddled and photographed a crevasse.
Rob on Mendenhall

The water moving through the crevasses looked like Nature’s own monumental waterslide—a beautiful, natural flow of blue through the white ice and the lines of silt.
Mendenhall Crevass
mendenhall crevasses

Enjoy the images I’ve captured to tweak my memory and to share with you.
from the air

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Thursday, August 12, 2010


Despite the busy schedule, we still had plenty of time to meander through Skagway, a frontier town with a seven-block-long historic district known as the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park. We visited a re-created saloon complete with patrons and Bass Ale in the window.

Saloon museum

Bass Ale

There the turn-of-the-century shops and saloons are still open for business. Remember that 100,000 people set out for the Klondike, but only 30,000 reached Dawson city. Others, men and women saw right gold right in the little hamlet of Skagway, and their entrepreneurial spirit mixed gold miners with painted ladies,

Brothel Window


con-artists and gamblers. Skagway was modern with electric lights and telephones. It boasted 80 saloons, three breweries, many brothels, and just about anything that could possibly separate a man from his money.

Rob and I knew where we would separate ourselves from some of our money—The Red Onion Saloon—at one time the classiest dance hall in Skagway.

Red Onion Saloon window

It had an upstairs bordello of ten rooms, small but extravagantly decorated. There were three exits to each room as well as hole cut in the floor with a copper tube connected to the cashier’s desk. A discriminating client, after a few drinks downstairs and perhaps some dances, could choose from ten dolls displayed behind the bar, each one representing one of the ten girls upstairs. When the client chose, the bartender would lay the doll on her back, indicating she was busy. When her money moved down the tube to the cashier, the bartender placed the doll in the upright position. She was back on the available list.

Red Onionbar picture

Very efficient, wouldn’t you say! Today we can take a 15 minute “brothel tour,” but we pass in favor of some brew and time enjoying the Red Onion décor!

Red Onion Saloon


Skagway, Alaska building

Skagway, Alaska

Snow blower


Today’s Skagway is interesting but quite different. A modest home costs $250,000. In the winter, the population drops to 400. In fact, about 4,000 Alaskans of a population of 686,000 spend the winter in Hawaii each year. Despite the climate, the people of Skagway know how to have fun. They are in the Guinness Book of Records for Having the Most People Participate in and Egg Toss. On July 4, 2008, they had 1162 people participate!

Can you tell we enjoyed our time in this place? It brings a smile just to remember and write of it.

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