Easter Sunday morning in the Atlanta Botanical Garden with our friend Susan

Atlanta in April – and it feels like summer already!

We had two friends to see and three days to do it in. Officially Mark had never been in Georgia before – connecting through the airport doesn’t count – so we figured it was worth three days. And indeed it was even though one of our friends ultimately was sidelined with back trouble so we couldn’t see him (getting old sucks). The three days with our friend Susan Shaer, though, was fantastic.

We were close friends with Susan back in Massachusetts, but not long after we left to start our world adventure she sold her house in Arlington to buy smaller places in Denver and Atlanta where her daughters, and perhaps more importantly her grand-children, live. And after these exciting years we had a lot of catching up to do.

After driving down from Nashville we had our first lunch in Atlanta at Bistro Niko, a very respectable French bistro (except that it was about four times the size of anything you’d find in Paris). We ate at the bar and quickly found ourselves in a fun and lively conversation with David and Kelly, locals who were delightfully liberal. Such fun!

Lunches, dinners, drinks – we did it all. Susan is a fascinating woman who had an impressive career working in politics and non-profits. She ultimately survived two unfortunate marriages and these days is thriving on her own spending winters in Atlanta near one daughter and summers in Denver near the other.

Lots to catch up on. But even with all that time with Susan we had a lot of time on our own to explore at least pieces of Atlanta. First, the mistake. Mark spends a lot of time researching where we should stay and based on that research chose a nice Starwood property in the Buckhead neighborhood. A place you’re supposed to be able to walk around and all that. Hah! You can walk as long as you like walking along broad, busy, noisy thoroughfares. And everything that you want to see is miles away. I actually did a bunch of those five- and six-mile walks to get to various places and back … and ended up paying the price when I got a really nasty blister on the last day. Word to the wise: stay in Midtown, not Buckhead!!

Now, what was there to see in Atlanta? Besides some really good restaurants, we enjoyed the Martin Luther King Jr. Center, the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, and the Atlanta Botanical Garden.

The boyhood home of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was then known as Michael King, Jr.

The King Center was good, and we were there just days before the fiftieth anniversary of his assassination. I always cry when I see a tape of that last speech in Memphis the night before he was killed. You know the one:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

You worry that fifty years later in a land where white nationalists are equated with people protesting racism, the promised land maybe ain’t what was promised.

The tombs

And then we went to the Carter Library. In some ways for me that was even a bigger deal. That was the first presidency that I experienced as an adult, and of course the great Walter Mondale played a big role in it.

Before Carter’s presidency, Vice Presidents were pretty much just so much office furniture. Carter was the first president to give his Vice President real work; thus Mondale was he first consequential Vice President and essentially the model of the modern Vice President. And for what it’s worth, this isn’t a bad legacy.

There were two exhibits in particular that I found striking. One was a 10-minute video of a “day in the life” of the president, showing the many meetings, discussions, memos, and calls Carter dealt with on just one ordinary day; truly an impressive array of issues to deal with. The other was a detailed review of the Camp David accords, 13 days of intense meetings with Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin that were deep, deep in the details of that historic conflict but that led to the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt that has held to this day.

What was so striking in particular about these exhibits was the juxtaposition of Carter – trained as a nuclear physicist – handling these difficult issues in extraordinary detail and sensitivity, compared to the current piece of shit in the White House. Utterly inconceivable that Trump would ever have intelligent discussions about the minutiae of transportation policy and energy policy and education policy, or could break away from Fox News to spend 13 days hashing out a successful peace treaty in the Middle East. I always thought Jimmy Carter was a good man, but I also recognize that he had distinct shortcomings as a president. Compared the current incumbent, though, he was a giant.

A replica of Jimmy Carter’s Oval Office

Enough ranting about politics; I usually prefer to save that for pre-dinner drinks with Mark.

Atlanta, though, was good. We have quickly leapt from winter in Duluth through spring in early summer here, where the daytime temperature on Easter Sunday was in the low 80s. From here it’s east to Savannah and then south into Florida. Lots of driving but it’s been a great way to visit with old friends.

Mark and Susan in the Botanical Garden posing in front of a glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly

And another picture of Mark & Susan. We were there relatively early on Easter Sunday. The crowds would arrive later as church let out, but for a while we had pretty much free range of the place.

Enough color for you?

Pink Jim with pink buds

More from the Botanical Garden

I have no idea whose house this is, but as I was walking back from the Botanical Garden I thought it was kind of pretty

And then there was the Carter Presidential Library. I expected to like it, but instead I loved it.

The grounds at the Center are gorgeous

This was interesting. I thought Carter pretty much came out of nowhere to enter politics, but in fact his father, James Earl Carter, Sr., had served in the Georgia House. I love the line in the letter “While it would be a waste of your time to go into details as to what I would hope to accomplish in the Legislature when there is no way to forecast the issues which will arise …”. In other words, I’m a good person so just trust me. That seems so simple.

And then there was a photo exhibit of portraits by Yousuf Karsh, an Armenian survivor of the Turkish genocide who moved to Canada (though he died at age 93 in Boston when we lived there). He took this iconic portrait of Winston Churchill, making the great man look every bit the bulldog anti-Nazi he was. The background of the picture – which I read about in William Manchester’s three-volume biography of Churchill – is that after a speech in Canada he learned that Karsh had been told Churchill would sit for him. He didn’t want to but said “OK, you have two minutes,” or words to that effect. Karsh wanted a picture without Churchill’s ever-present cigar but Churchill didn’t want to give it up. The photographer then just reached over, grabbed the cigar out of his hand, and quickly snapped the photo. Churchill was pissed … and this was the result. One of the great portraits ever taken.

Celebrating a reunion in Louisville with our great friend Sue

From Chicago our next stop was Louisville, KT, in a mad dash to escape winter. It was a five-hour drive mostly through Indian and I hated it. It wasn’t because Indiana is pretty boring, though it is, or even just that five hours is too long to be in a car. It was the tolls.

I hate, hate, hate toll booths. If you’re a local and have a transponder to just drive through they’re bad enough but with that they are dangerous (lots of accidents as cars slow down at varying tempos), environmentally unsound (as cars slow and stop, idling, waiting their turn), time-consuming, and just all-around annoying. On top of that there is the whole “screw tourist” thing where in many cases they’ve done away with staffed toll booths and just bill the owner of the car. When the car rental agency gets the bill they pass it on to the renter – along with a $25 fee or something like that. Outrageous. So far we’ve only encountered that once and have been going through hell trying to get the Indiana department in charge of screwing tourists to let us pay it over the phone or online before they bill the rental company.

Where are the state Attorneys General in their role protecting consumers? Or state tourist industries convincing the Attorneys General to take it on? And while I’m on the subject, why don’t these people insist that rental companies allow a second driver at no additional cost. It’s inconceivable to me that there is any measurable cost to Hertz if Mark & I are both drivers and there must be a significant safety issue in ensuring that, if possible, there are two drivers for longer trips.

The Ohio River runs through Louisville

Now, Louisville. We finally got there in time for lunch with our old friend Sue Dixon and her husband Jim. Great fun catching up and, for me, meeting Jim. Sue & Jim have both spent their careers in politics (I know; hard to believe that Mark & I have political friends) back in the day when Democrats could win races in Kentucky. After the 2014 bloodbath, when Kentucky’s Trump-before-Trump-was-Trump Republican won, they’ve both stepped away from it so we needed to see how their new lives are going. All in all not so bad: more time for bonding with six-year-old Emily, a new business for Jim, and a well-deserved break from politics. I mean, who are Mark & I to complain about someone for stepping away from it all, right?

And there was a little time for exploring of Louisville, a city that seems to be starting to come back from some years of hard times. The downtown stretch where we were staying had some attractive buildings that had been restored and we saw some of that in progress as a couple of buildings had been entirely razed except for the facade. Good job! A look at the 2nd Street bridge from which Cassius Clay says he threw his Olympic gold medal when he returned to Louisville and discovered that gold medal or not, he was still just another … umm, you know the N word … in his home town. That plus an attempt at a bourbon tour that worked pretty well. When we got there they were sold out for the day but in cases like that you can just go up to the second floor and have a free tasting of three different local bourbons. In other words we didn’t pay for the tour but got the part that we were most interested in. Not a bad deal.

What trip to Louisville would be complete without a Louisville Slugger?

Then it was a fun dinner with Sue – Jim stayed home with six-year-old Emily while Sue proved just as fun and funny and smart as we remembered from all those years ago – and off the next morning to Lexington.

Lexington is less than two hours from Louisville and it was a surprisingly beautiful drive. Much of it was on the Bluegrass Parkway which was just a really pleasant drive (with no tolls…). It was finally becoming slightly springish with great rolling green hills. Real horse country.

Lexington’s historic court-house. What I loved about it, besides the classic architecture of course, is that the building is going through a total gut renovation. I love it when city’s invest in their cultural patrimony.

Once we got into Lexington we were truly charmed. We were stopping her to see Ben Self, an old friend from politics. He was the Chief Technology Officer at the DNC back when they decided to hire us to make the VAN available to Democrats nation-wide, so we’ve always had a very soft spot in our heart for him. That plus the fact that he’s just a great guy all around.

Like a lot of people, though, he got burned out on DC politics and went back home to Lexington. What to do with the second stage of your adult life? How about open a local brewery? Sure enough, Ben has reinvented himself as Kentucky’s premier microbrewery. He describes the business as having a triple bottom line: to be a great employer, to be environmentally sensitive, and to be a great part of the community. He seems to have succeeded in all, while simultaneously running a (very) successful business. Oh, and in his spare time he’s returned to politics, serving these days as the Kentucky state Democratic Party chair. That’s a big deal.

Ben and Mark, the two best things to happen to Democratic technology in, well, ever…

On top of great fun just reconnecting with Ben and seeing this new life of his, we happened to be in Lexington for the major celebration of his sixth anniversary with the brewery. He invited seven of Lexington’s top chefs to come and serve small plate dishes paired with various of his beers. It was brilliant! Fortunately Mark & I had decided to just ignore our low-carb diet this one night and it was completely, totally worth it. Great food, great beer, and some fun people. We met a couple of Ben’s employees and to say they were enthusiastic about their jobs couldn’t be more of an understatement.

I can’t say enough about how impressed we were with his operation there. Almost enough to make me start drinking beer again. And on top of all that Ben’s wife Rebecca (whom we first met when we ran into them completely unexpectedly in the immigration line entering St. Lucia in 2008!) runs an impressive non-profit in the same building as Ben’s brewery demonstrating how old urban buildings can be used to grow food and teaching kids about all that. Crazy impressive.

Rebecca’s non-profit demonstrates how these old buildings can be used for growing food in an exceptional environmentally friendly way. I wish I could explain the whole thing better!

Oh, and on the subject of Lexington, even without Ben and the brewery and just accidentally being there on the best night of the year, the city itself seemed really cool – great buildings, pleasant parks, friendly people. I thought we were just going to have a little visit with an old friend but it turns out I liked the city, too.

The next morning then it was off to Nashville, our third stop in three days. We were supposed to visit more old political friends here – a couple who met while working with Mark on Tom Harkin’s presidential campaign – but as it turned out they were both out of town so instead we had the afternoon and evening to ourselves. We took a nice afternoon walk out to the Villanova campus and on to Centennial Park, built in 1903 to celebrate Nashville’s centennial.

Think Nashville felt spring-like?

By now it was definitely starting to feel a bit more springy, with tulips and trees abloom. Very nice. Not only that but in Centennial Park you get to see what they claim is the world’s only full-scale replica of Athens’ Parthenon. Of course when we want to see the Parthenon we just drop by Athens to see the real thing, but the setting here in Nashville was pleasant too. In fact, after the centennial celebrations were over the city intended to tear it down but the people arose in protest so there it is still. And definitely not as hot as the summer stops we’ve made in Athens!

As for the rest of Nashville, the reason everyone else comes here? Well, I think maybe I’m just too old for that. In the evening we walked past a lot of clubs with cheap beer and really loud live music. Not exactly my idea of a good time. As Mark put it, too many 20-something Woo-Hoo!-ing. I’d thought that still we would stop into at least one and try it but they were just all too loud and too crowded so instead we found an adult place for a pleasant cocktail and then a steakhouse to make sure we were completely back on diet.

The Parthenon, or at least Nashville’s version of it

There you are, three stops in three nights. Finally done with snow and starting to find spring. Next it’s Atlanta where we have a couple friends to see and, since it’s probably the biggest city in the country that Mark hasn’t been to, we’re going to stay for three days. Enough of this driving every day!

Jim & Sue after our bourbon tasting

And in front of the Ohio River

Our selfie with Ben Self

One of Lexington’s seven chefs who made our one night in Lexington truly something special

Mark, Todd, & Chris at Girl & The Goat on our last night in Chicago

From Minneapolis it was a five-and-a-half hour drive to Chicago, the longest drive we’re going to do on this road trip. There were two interesting things about the drive. One, Wisconsin is really boring. I should qualify that and say that southern Wisconsin is really boring. Most of my childhood was spent in northern Wisconsin and that is beautiful but the southern part of the state is just flat and dull and ugly. On the other hand the second thing of note was that at one point while traveling through Wisconsin I realized that there was no more snow on the ground. It was only nine days in Minnesota’s snow but it felt like nine weeks. Free at last!

Oh, and one other observation about the drive. We stopped for lunch in Janesville (home of House Speaker Paul Ryan, but we didn’t see him). Mark had found a place just a little off the highway with good reviews so that made sense. It was early afternoon on Sunday and the place – a big bar with good salads and nice-looking burgers – was packed. At some point it occurred to me that pretty much everyone there had driven; there was really no neighborhood around it. And yet pretty much everyone, or certainly most people, had beers or Bloody Marys in front of them. For years now, long before we started this adventure, Mark & I walked when we were going out or took public transportation or a cab. Here, though, the parking lot was full and lots and lots of people were drinking.

I supposed that is far more the norm than the exception in the U.S. but it gives me pause when I’m driving. In much of Europe authorities are utterly hard-nosed about drinking and driving and, of course, cities and towns tend to be much denser so people can walk to their favorite watering hole. I like that system a lot better.

Our first night in Chicago was the Stormy Daniels interview on 60 Minutes. You have to love it when even cheap food joints hate Trump.

OK, now on to Chicago. It’s a city we love, in part because of the city itself – the size, the density, the architecture … all that. And it part we love it because we can visit Chris & Todd. They own a building in the Uptown neighborhood where they’ve turned the lower level into an Airbnb, so that’s where they stayed. Chris & Todd, of course, were traveling with us in Tuscany last fall when we had an awful experience with an Airbnb host who was nasty because we were using her washing machine too much (though she listed it as an amenity on the Airbnb website). We were glad to observe that Chris & Todd were much better hosts and didn’t complain one bit about how much laundry we had. (And, if you’re ever staying in Chicago, their unit is honestly great – big space, two bedrooms, beautiful kitchen, and a quick ride to the train into downtown. You won’t be unhappy!)

One thing that was interesting about seeing Chris & Todd a few months after our Tuscan adventure was that on the one hand Todd says he’s a little weaker, that his ALS is getting in the way more and more. On the other hand, to me certainly, it looked as though he was doing measurably better. Now I know that ALS doesn’t typically move in that direction but I just thought he was moving up and down stairs a lot more quickly. All we could guess was that by the end of our two weeks in Italy he was getting pretty tired and that was my more recent memory. At any rate, Chris and Todd are still hanging in there and great fun to visit with.

Here we are with Sonia and Nina, friends of Chris & Todd’s whom we’ve met and bonded with before. Mark sat between them during dinner and appeared to have about the best time of anyone.

Our first night in was quite an extravaganza: Chris & Todd hosted a dinner party for us and eight other of their friends at a nearby restaurant. We had met a few of the others before and then had a chance to meet several newbies, always fun. I sat next to Coco, a woman you may have seen on Fox News. (But then if you watch Fox News what the hell are you doing reading this? She acknowledges that none of her friends ever see her there.) She was apparently their go-to woman to defend Hillary Clinton during the 2016 race and yes, she had some fun stories!

Two other meals of note in Chicago. On our second night we took Mark’s niece Jasmine and her boyfriend Charlie out to dinner at The Gage, a swank steakhouse right near the Chicago Institute of Art where they both study. It was a fun night: Charlie is a charming guy, not at all the scary guy you might expect studying art. And Jasmine, what can you say? When you live far away you see her growing up in fits and starts and then all of a sudden *Bam!* she’s a beautiful and interesting young adult. She reminds me of my little sister who, when she grew up, I discovered was a fascinating person. Mark & I are already looking forward to spending more time with her this summer in Italy where the whole Sullivan clan will be spending a week.

Me & Mark with Jasmine & Charlie after dinner. Since they’re artists – Charlie’s field is photography – Mark thought we should be artsy with this shot.

And then there was a final dinner at Girl & The Goat with Chris & Todd, and oddly named but excellent restaurant they took us to once before. Hard to get reservations there but totally worth it if you can manage it.

Otherwise Mark & I did a lot of walking in Chicago and a frustrating experience with Chicago Institute of Art. It’s a bit over six miles from Chris & Todd’s Airbnb to the museum, so on our first full day we set off for the long walk. Because of a modestly late start by the time we got there it was lunch time so we ate first and then went to the museum. When we got there, though, the line was long and slow so we just bagged it, figuring we’d go back the next morning when it opened. So we walked back, making a 13-mile walk to and from lunch.

The next morning, then, we took the train in, got there just after it opened at 10:30, and the line was super long, like crazy long. I’m sure it would have taken an hour to get in, so we just bagged it again. I wanted to see the museum but not that badly. So we walked away, toward the lake, and discovered a second entrance, this one with a much shorter line. We got in line and it was just inching along, barely moving. I went to look and, notwithstanding the $25 entrance fee – higher than any museum we’ve ever seen anywhere in the world – they were staffing two of the eight sales booths.

So let’s see if I have this right. You open later than most museums and close earlier than many so the time to see the place is pretty restricted. You have higher prices than anyone, AND you won’t hire enough people selling tickets to keep the ticket lines reasonable. As Mark points out, there is just no reason in the 21st century to have lines like that. You can make tickets available online and, if you need to restrict entry due to crowding, the tickets can be time-specific. So we just said to hell with them. I’ll enjoy other museums.

That’ll teach them!

A fun little site showing Chicago’s 27 sister cities. Mark & I have been to a large majority of them, though I can’t quite read all the names.

So that was Chicago: old friends that we love, some new friends, and even a bit of family time. Nice architecture but no art worth seeing. Great food. Oh, and one more thing to love about Chicago. We walked by some Banana Republic outlet store and stopped to buy some basics. When we checked out we saw a sign that a 2017 ordinance requires every store to charge seven cents for every bag you get. Since I didn’t have anything to carry our new clothes in we paid the seven cents, but I loved it. When I mentioned it to Chris he said that yes, he and everyone he knows now carries around one or more bags just in case they buy something. A brilliant way to reduce both trash and pollution.

From here we’re continuing south into Kentucky. Next stop, Louisville.

Chicago architecture

Another shot

Another shot of Charlie & Jasmine, a cute couple

Todd and Harry, another cute couple