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Ever since our trip to Illinois last week, I’ve been thinking of three men who made an indelible mark on our country: Elvis Presley, Martin Luther King Jr., and Abraham Lincoln. While traveling, we visited sites that filled our minds with facts and an increased sense of appreciation for their gifts and perseverance.

We arrived in Tupelo, MS just minutes after the museum chronicling events in Elvis’ life closed. No problem. The grounds were lovely, and we were able to take as much time as we wanted to see the small two-room house where he was born, the church where he spent many Sundays as a child, a huge statue of Elvis as a teenager, and a brick inlaid time line of major life events. It was all fascinating, but I think what captured my attention and awe was just how humble Elvis’ beginnings were.

Elvis’ music touched people all over the world. From the Graceland tour in Memphis, I learned that his Hawaii concert was viewed by one and a half billion people in forty countries. So no, he didn’t fight for human rights or lead a country divided by war, but his impact on others remains. I’ll always remember, “Another little baby boy was born in the ghetto, and his mother cried.” Powerful song.

While I got a real sense of Elvis’s personality and heart while in Graceland, I felt more sad than glad there. He worked hard, played hard, loved hard, and died far too young—right there in Graceland.

While in Memphis, we visited the Civil Rights Museum, an awe-inspiring collection of photographs, artifacts, movies, news clips, and dioramas that teach and inspire at the same time. The main part of the collection takes part in the Lorraine Motel, the place where Martin Luther King Jr. was felled by a single bullet. There’s a wreath on the railing where he was shot. Inside, the rooms where he and some companions stayed are preserved as they were on that day in April 1968. He was an extraordinary man on a mission to improve life for African Americans and all people who were marginalized.

I know he was no saint. But still, when I ponder his role in the Civil Rights Movement and remember King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, I can think of no one who did more to move equal rights for all forward.

And finally, there’s Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States. As all school children know, Honest Abe, also known as the Great Emancipator, spent much of his young life in a log cabin in Kentucky. He mother died when he was nine years old, and his father remarried about a year later. He was basically a self-taught man whose education is estimated to be a total of eighteen months. He worked at a variety of occupations, including rail-splitter and shopkeeper, before entering political life when he was elected to the Illinois state legislature in 1834.

In Springfield, the facts from history books came to life as we toured Lincoln’s home, ambled through his community, visited the Lincoln Museum, and walked through the old Capitol. In the museum, I learned more of his angst about the war, the slavery issue, and the nation’s economy. I began to see him as a “real” figure, one who loved his country, his wife, and his four boys. Three of the four sons died before reaching adulthood.

 Assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln also died too young. He rose above all manner of issues to become one of the most popular and respected leaders of the 19th century.

 Elvis and Abe came from lowly beginnings; one became a performer who charmed and entertained people all over the globe, and the other became grew up to hold the highest office in the land. Although his family wasn’t poor, MLK had his challenges and struggles too. Regardless of their inauspicious beginnings, all three men seemed destined for greatness.

Seeing evidences of their lives up close and personal makes me ponder for the hundredth time (or more): What makes some people rise above obstacles to fulfill their potential and become instruments of progress, fairness, civility, and yes, entertainment while others do not?

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The next day we were at sea all day, but no one was bored. That doesn’t happen on a Princess Cruise unless a person refuses to come out of his or her cabin. During the at sea days, there were movies, shows, demonstrations, and dance lessons. Some people hung out in the casino while others sat or walked on the Promenade Deck. Others opted to watch a movie on the top deck while sitting in a hot tub or huddled beneath a blanket in a deck chair. Some people shopped and others frequented the bar. Always, there was something to do, to enjoy. There was even a library!

On the morning of the last day of the cruise, we attended a demonstration by the sous chef and bakery chef. Quite entertaining. Towards the end of the performance, many of the staff walked on stage, and one of them, a Vietnamese man, regaled us with the most powerful rendition of “Time to Say Good-Bye” I’ve ever heard. Small in stature, his voice was “big” and touched everyone in attendance. At that moment we realized that the hour to say good-bye was quickly approaching. In less than twenty-four hours, all passengers would be disembarking.

I spent the afternoon walking on the Promenade deck as the ship eased its way to and through the Inside Passage into Canada. The ship’s naturalist was aboard and kept the passengers abreast of everything going on around us as we slowly cruised into Canadian territory. Whales, porpoises, tree-covered mountains, islands, and glaciers surrounded the ship with their natural beauty.

That night we dined with a three other couples whom we had not yet met. Although I can’t recall their names, we sincerely enjoyed their company. They, especially the women, were high-spirited and fun, and I even picked up an excellent recipe for cooking salmon on the grill. And lest I forget, a highlight of the evening was tasting Baked Alaska, a flaming treat that we had seen entering the dining room on trays carried by what seemed to be two dozen staff members.

Early the following morning, we put our bags outside of the cabin and made our to the Horizon Dining Room on the 14th deck. We had enjoyed breakfast there several mornings, and the variety and quality of the food were excellent. Usually a bagel and cream cheese gal, my cruise breakfasts were a little more substantial. Let’s just say I added a little something extra. Something like yogurt, fruit, wheat toast, banana nut bread, scrambled eggs, and bacon (only once, don’t judge). And then there was that morning when I opted for salmon and eggs…delicious.

That morning, the dining room was full, making it a challenge for the six of us to eat together, so we settled for “close proximity.” I met a new friend, a 79-year-old woman traveling to Canada for a family wedding. Chatting with her was a delightful experience, and I admired her willingness to follow The North Face advice to “Never Stop Exploring.”

Breakfast behind us, we reluctantly walked outside to the Lido Deck and asked a staff member to take our picture. It was time to say good-bye. Jeanita and Thomas were flying out of Vancouver with some other people that evening, and and Judy, Carl, Otis and I were spending the night in Vancouver.

Our plan was to take the ferry to Victoria for dinner, but those plans didn’t quite materialize. We took the ferry but went to Sydney, a picturesque coastal town a few miles from where the ferry docked. We walked, oohed and aahed, took pictures, and ate dinner at Subway (they’re everywhere!) before returning to the ferry.

The next morning we flew out of Canada towards the home of the brave and the land of the free. Seeing the words “Welcome to the U.S.A.” was emotional, and I pondered how people entering for the first time must feel.

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Somewhere there’s a small picturesque town in Alaska called Skagway where six of us, all South Carolinians, spent a few memorable hours. We knew it was going to be a fun day as we stood waiting on the deck. As we studied the mysterious graffiti on a huge rock across the way and then glanced at the town villages to our left, we practically bristled with excitement and impatience.

Finally the disembarkment began, and beneath an overcast sky, we walked down the gangplank and strode toward the town. A small shuttle bus took several  passengers to the downtown area, but most of us chose to take the coastal trail so that we could get a better look at the ships in the harbor and some of the local scenery.

Six of us began the excursion together, but the cold and wind began to aggravate Judy’s oncoming cold, so she and her husband Carl left shortly after arrival. My friend Jeanita and I enjoyed browsing through the shops along Main Street, including a fur shop where she spied a coat like one she had purchased years ago. The town (at least the area where we were) was neat, clean, and pretty. Businesses were all well-maintained, and it was a pleasure to walk up and down the main drag and a few blocks off to the side where the homes were.

“Can you imagine living in a place like this?” I asked Jeanita.

“No. I mean, look at those mountains. How would it be to walk out your front door and see them on every side?”

“I know, I know. And then right around the corner, there’s the water,” I said, walking into yet another store.

“But oh my gosh, it’d be so cold,” Jeanita said. “It’s only September, and we wouldn’t be able to stand the wind without our vests.”

There were jewelry stores, souvenir shops, and even a museum. Attracted by its façade, we went into the museum/gift shop. Dark and a little musty, it was unique in size and interesting. It was probably the smallest museum I’ve ever visited, and yet it contained a treasure trove of artifacts and gold rush memorabilia. We browsed through the building and left with jade bracelets and matching earrings. We’ve never been able to pass up a deal, and the jade combo was no exception—buy the bracelet and get the earrings free.

We sauntered into a bakery and vowed to come back for muffins. We didn’t. Not really a regret. Just a fact. You can’t do everything and eat everything. Time and the human digestive system won’t allow it. We went into several jewelry and souvenir shops. Although the businesses were technically souvenir shops, they had a different feel about them, especially the one with native art and jewelry.

Our husbands had walked apart from us most of the day, laughing and talking about who knows what. Near lunchtime, the four of rendezvoused at the Red Onion Saloon. In its heyday, the business operated as one of the finest dance halls and saloons in the gold rush town of Skagway. It was also a bordello, and today visitors can tour the rooms upstairs for a small fee.

Diners from the various cruise ships filled the tables, and we four sat near the front, a location affording good views of the outside street action and of the restaurant goings-on. The servers all wore dresses with low-cut, form-fitting bodices. In keeping with the spirit of the bordello past, the girls had money stuffed in the front of their dresses. We enjoyed the upbeat ambience of the place and agreed that our chowder and chili dishes were quite tasty.

We talked to our server, and when Thomas, Jeanita’s husband, asked her what she was going to do when the ships left, she simply said, “Relax.” She then turned to us and said that actually she was somewhat of an artist and that she made Christmas ornaments of twigs. When she described the ornaments in detail, I recalled seeing them in a gift shop for the price of $44. Artistic or not, the tiny twig tree was too pricey for me.

Reluctant to leave a place with so much charm and beauty, we stopped by the souvenir shop on the way out. Purchases in hand, we rounded the curve leaving town and walked briskly back to the ship in the chilly, damp air.

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My last post ended with the anticipation of the bus ride through the Whittier Tunnel, the only passageway between us and the Coral Princess. Like it or not, we had no choice but to go through it no matter how intimated we might feel. Sitting still as statues, the other passengers and I looked straight ahead throughout the entire two and one half miles. If anyone spoke at all, it was in whispered tones, but for the most part, we were quiet, our eyes straining for a glimpse of light at the end.

I almost laughed with relief when I finally saw the light.

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The bus emerged from the tunnel and took a curving road to the left. There she sat in the harbor, the Coral Princess. As the driver parked the bus, I looked to the mountains to my right and saw what appeared to be apartments. Later, the woman checked our passports told me that’s where most of the town’s residents resided. Most of the time, she said, that was about 200 people. Now, however, approximately 400 people lived there, many of whom would leave after the last tour of the season: ours.

The baggage handling was a snap and was efficiently taken care of by Princess employees. The passengers stood in line for about twenty minutes, and then we were out the door and walking up the gangplank. Once inside the ship, I noticed a man to our left taking pictures of all who came aboard, including us. We gave him tired smiles and then went in search of our room on the Baja Deck, Room 626.

Happy with our home for the next week, we went exploring and oohed and aahed every few minutes—er, seconds. There were several restaurants, a variety of stores, a casino, a theatre, a lounge, a bar, an outdoor movie screen on the top deck, hot tubs, a library, and plenty of other attractions. I knew right away that none of us would have occasion to say, “I’m bored.”

That evening, we had dinner in the Bayou Café, and our primary server was a delightful young woman from Macedonia. Pleasant and outgoing, her most frequent expression was an Italian one: “Mama Mia!” She and her two assistants made our first dining experience one to remember. Very attentive, they made certain everything was just right.

The menu was extensive, and although two of us ate salmon (after all, we were in Alaska), the others of our party sampled a variety of entrees. One of the men at our table enjoyed his shrimp cocktail so much that he ordered two. After all, he reasoned, we had paid for everything ahead of time. Not even the most disciplined among us could resist dessert. From tiramisu to shortbread and tarts to mousse, there was something delectable to suit even the pickiest of palates.

As we walked back to our cabins, we chatted about what the following day would bring. We knew we’d be at sea throughout the night, and much of our conversation revolved around the anticipation of that experience. About that time, we heard a loudspeaker reminding everyone to report to a “muster station” to learn what to do in case of an emergency.

The muster station experience brought reality home: You are traveling on a huge ship with hundreds of other people. Look around you! If something goes wrong, these are the people you’ll be sinking with!

My last post about our Alaska cruise was about leaving Anchorage and heading for Whittier where we’d get on the Coral Princess. On the way, we stopped a a nature preserve and gazed at some magnificent animals.

Back to the trip.

We’d just left the nature preserve and were still oohing and aahing over the variety of animals we’d seen up close and personal. Moose, elk, reindeer, and grizzlies were walking around like they owned the place. The elk were such beautiful creatures, moving gracefully across the grassy expanse. And the reindeer and moose! How could they hold their heads so high with all that weight on the top? We saw a little porcupine too. I marveled at how the prickly spines grew right of his little body, just like hair. “All creatures great and small…..”

The weather was cold, yet perfect for the fall afternoon. We’d left Anchorage about 8:30 that morning and were scheduled to board the Princess Coral sometime that afternoon. None of us actually knew exactly where that was or when the “all aboard” would take place. We just knew it was soon, and it seemed to me that the whole bus was bristling with excitement and a touch of anxiety. Seven days on a ship? Were we ready?

The driver took us through some beautiful country, and I spied a couple of signs pointing toward the Portage Glacier. It would have been divine if we’d had time to visit the glacier that my daughter Carrie and some friends from South Carolina had visited nearly twenty years ago when we were in Anchorage for a Team-in-Training marathon. I recalled the quote, “Don’t be sad it’s over; just be glad it happened.” The memory of that cool morning (although it was June 20) would stay in my mind forever.

Suddenly the bus pulled off the road to the right so that we could get a good look at a mountain with a glacier. Many were content to sit tight in the bus, but Otis, Thomas, and I got off to get a better look. We simply could not resist walking through the open space between the evergreens. ‘Twas swell to feel the wind and stand as tall as humans could stand there in that majestic place. A glacier and a mountain and trees and a body of water!

Browning’s words, “God’s in His heaven. All’s right with the world” flashed through my mind as we sauntered down near the water. No matter where my life went after the trip, I’d always have this moment in nature with my sweet husband and one of our friends. Even they, tough nature guys, were affected by the magic.

We asked Thomas to snap our picture, and the image portrayed our feelings on the last stop before arriving at Whittier. Carpe diem!

We got back on the bus with our fellow passengers, and the driver informed us that we had to be at the tunnel by 1:30. The tunnel? What kind of tunnel was so special that you had to have an appointment? Here’s what kind: a 2.5 mile, one-way tunnel dynamited into being! Vehicles leaving Whittier began the trip through the tunnel at the top of each hour, and those going to Whittier went through on the half-hour. That’d be us.

It could have been my imagination, but it seemed to be that the chatter stopped, and for the most part, my traveling companions were all silent as they (we) considered what was ahead. We arrived at the tunnel, and I was surprised to see so many cars, trucks, and buses. Where did all those people come from? We took our place in the queue and listened to the driver prattle on as we waited our turn.

The half hour was upon us, and the bus inched forward.

I’m going to remember these moments for the rest of my life, I thought as I finished my last walk in McKinley National Park.  Around midmorning we left on the bus and headed for a little town called Talkeetna where we were scheduled to catch a train to Anchorage. The station was tiny, but it had a beautiful red, white, and blue flag hanging from the front of it. Colorful against the gray sky, it begged for attention, and I obliged by taking a picture of the stars and stripes.

The train ride was long, but nice…exciting too. Mile after mile after mile, the train sped through the wild, and we soaked in as much beauty as our human eyes would allow. Many travelers ate lunch, but most settled for snacks. According to fellow passengers, the food choices were fairly extensive, and the service was good.

The scenery was breathtaking. Trees, especially the tall, straight pines and yellow willows flew by on every side. There were rivers and gravel bars and hills—everything but people. Occasionally, we glimpsed some small structures, probably work-related buildings, but no houses. How do people travel about in this wild country? I wondered.

After a couple of hours, probably closer to three, the conductor announced that soon we’d go through Wasilla, the childhood home of Sarah Palin, and arrive in Anchorage shortly afterwards. Soon we slowed down to ease through an overcast and chilly Wasilla, and he pointed out Palin’s home on our left. The house was nice but unpretentious, and I wondered about her childhood and how the geography and landscape had affected her psyche.

Palin lives in Arizona now, a totally different environment. Now she sees desert sagebrush instead of taiga forest, sun instead of misty fog. She never has to worry about permafrost or grizzlies these days, and she can probably leave her coat and gloves behind even on the coldest of winter days. Without ever having met her, I know that as beautiful as Arizona is, there are days when SP misses her native state.

There were stores, restaurants, and homes along the way, and I realized that in Wasilla, the citizens had everything we have in Camden—everything necessary for survival, that is. I didn’t spy any oaks, dogwoods, or  palmettos, but there were schools, churches, and grocery stores evident all along the ride. When the Princess train pulled into the station, everything around us looked gray: the sky, the concrete, the busses—everything. Like good soldiers, we disembarked from the train and climbed aboard a bus that would transport us into our hotel in Anchorage, the Captain Cook.

After freshening up a tad, many travelers, including us, ate dinner in one of the hotel restaurants, Fletcher’s. The food was delicious, and our conversation was not only about our afternoon train experiences but also about the next day’s agenda. Tonight would be the last night we’d spend on land, and by that same hour the next day, we’d be on the ship waiting to set sail.

Our time in Anchorage was brief, and if my husband hadn’t been willing to walk to a small diner for breakfast the next morning, our only real contact with the largest of Alaska’s cities would have been too negligible to even count—kind of like having a short layover in Reno and announcing to friends that you had once visited that gambling mecca.

As it was, we sauntered down 5th Avenue for a view of the coastline and a short stroll along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. After walking back up the steep hill, we walked a few blocks until we found the perfect diner, one that served both locals and tourists alike. The service was good, the food was tasty, and the view of downtown Anchorage through the huge front windows was great.

Scuttling back up the street, we made it back to the Captain Cook just minutes before the bus arrived, the one that would take us out of Anchorage and towards the sea and our ship.

Friday was Folly Beach day, the day I walked on the second longest pier on the east coast of America. But that was Friday.

On Saturday, we headed to Tybee Island Beach located on the easternmost point in Georgia. I had drooled over some pictures one of my daughters had taken there and vowed to visit the site at some future point. That time arrived Saturday around high noon.

After Folly, I wasn’t expecting to be that impressed. My weekend mission was to see and take some photographs of Folly’s pier for a future beach book of photographs, so anything after that was gravy, in a manner of speaking. Folks, I was absolutely overwhelmed with Tybee Beach. Crossing the Lazaretto Creek Bridge, surrounded by salt marshes on both sides, was a precursor to awe-inspiring vistas beyond.

Before setting foot on the beach, we rode around and around and around trying to figure where and how to park. We could see that there were parking meters everywhere (even at Arby’s where we considered getting a snack), but we had no change to put in them.

“There must be something we don’t know,” I said. “Everyone else has figured this parking thing out, and so can we.”

 “Well, I wish somebody’d tell me,” he said, jerking the car to an empty spot on a side street.

Slamming the door behind him, my husband jumped out to take a look at one of the parking contraptions. It looked like a meter but was actually a device that delivered tickets for two-hour blocks. He slid the debit card through and thankfully saw that we had two full hours to stroll about and make some discoveries.

We finally found a parking spot in the half-mile long parking lot and headed towards the ocean with all of the other day-trippers. It was low tide, and the strand was wider than any beach I’d ever visited. Naturally, I had to experience the strand in a more personal way, so I took off for a walk to the left of the pier. The sand was hard and packed. The water was warm. The beach goers were reading, sleeping, chatting, eating, staring out to sea, and watching their children play in the surf.

These are the same kinds of things they do in Myrtle Beach, I thought. So what’s so different?

I never came up with an answer to that, but I think it had something to do with the way people parked their cars and then walked in what seemed to be swarms to the beach. The beach was so wide that probably twelve to fifteen “layers” of people lounging on chairs and lying on towels were stacked between the ocean and the dunes. And did I mention that several dozen people were actually camped out beneath the pier? It’s that wide and that long!

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After getting my feet wet in the ocean, known as “the pond” to Tybeeites, I walked up the steps to the Walker Parker Pier. Located at the end of Tybrisa Street, the historic pier has picnic tables, a snack bar, music, and restrooms in its pavilion. According to the signs, the pavilion is a popular spot for musical performances, dances, and other events.

We walked the length of the pier, gawking, stopping for photo ops, and interacting with various strollers. We met a young couple celebrating their fifth anniversary who had left their four children behind with grandparents. When I asked the young mother if she missed her children, she giggled and showed me a bagful of souvenirs for them. And then there was the couple from VA who was leaving on a Caribbean cruise the next day. We snapped their picture, and they returned the favor.

It’s Wednesday now, four days since the Tybee Island visit.  No matter how stressful, busy, sad, or upsetting future days might be, I hope I can recall the ocean breezes, the wide sandy beach, the people hiding in the shade beneath the pier, and the roar of “the pond,” and know that somewhere there’s a beach where all is right with the world.

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Love this picture taken by Allie Bowers and sent to me. It's so awesome that someone as young as Allie appreciates the beauty of our world.

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