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In uncertain winter, memories shine through

By ROBERT N. JENKINS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 30, 2001

Finally, it is winter, by the calendar. But for millions of us, winter began the morning of Sept. 11: the kind of winter our ancestors suffered through -- an indefinite period of darkness and uncertainty.

As I look back on my travels this year, it is as if most of them took place in the sunlight, though a shadow has since fallen that dims my recollections.

Still, shining through are memories of places and people . . .

While I have twice interviewed budget-travel guru Rick Steves over the telephone but have never met him, like millions of others I feel that I know Steves: I've seen him so often traipsing about Europe for his two PBS TV series. Early this year, Steves casually recounted for me his 25 years of professional travels and confided that when relaxing with friends in the Seattle area, he often enjoys seeing the slides of their vacations.

The owners of my small hotel in Brugge, Belgium, treated their guests one morning last March to a walking tour of that medieval city. We were especially lucky because our guide was a 75-year-old charmer, Andre De Nolf, who spiced his narrative with anecdotes that showed us why any sensible person would love his hometown. I do.

My dinner-table mates on cruises this year included some notable folks. At the table on one ship, for instance, was the diminutive Valerie Farnes, of Blackfoot, Idaho, and the lean and dapper Ray B. Sitton, of Pensacola.

For former gas-station owner Valerie, this was cruise No. 70. "I'm booked through next May," she confided. Ray had to be prompted to disclose that he had retired from the Air Force as a three-star general. Nine times he piloted B-52s with their nuclear payloads to Europe during the Cuban missile crisis -- and this was his first cruise.

Another first-time cruiser, an Orlando man who won't be named here, complained every night at the dinner table about something -- from operation of the onboard pingpong tournament (he lost) to the cruise line's printed suggestions to passengers on how much to tip waiters and cabin stewards. The last night, when prompted by another diner to suggest the three best things about the trip, this man immediately answered, "Oh, the whole experience was great!"

I came nose to muzzle with a pack of wolves in Delaware, only a wire fence and my trepidation keeping us apart. Angelo Piner, licensed by the federal government to care for the wolves in a private compound, explained, "They are wild animals (but) we read each other." With that, he called to the alpha male, who stood on its hind legs to lick Piner's face through the fence.

Not too many miles away -- in tiny Delaware, nothing is too many miles away from anything else -- Capt. Bonnie Maull said she had traded life on the open seas for piloting a three-car ferry across the Nanticoke River. The crossing takes just 70 seconds, enough time, she said, "to talk to the drivers and passengers."

If Delaware is compact and populated, Idaho sprawls and is largely undeveloped. I spent three days in Idaho white-water rafting in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. Not to worry: Rafting outfitter Dave Warren and his intrepid crew -- all but one of them teenagers -- provided all the comfort, outdoors lore and personality any city slicker needs.

The most interesting people I met last July during eight days of driving through Montana were my sons, Mike, 18, and Ryan, 15, who came with me. It was the longest time I have been able to spend with them without my wife, Dianne, filling every role from social director to cook. It will always be a special memory for me.

But the highlight of each trip is not necessarily the folks we meet. My day at the battlefields of Gettysburg was peopled only with ghosts from more than 138 years ago.

Visitors to the gently rolling farmlands and rocky hills can see films, read books, take guided tours and wander about museums before they reach the hallowed land. But ultimately they must use their imaginations to fill this panorama with its history.

I have two more memories of 2001 that do not leave me.

Close to sunset on Sept. 10, I flew into the airport at Newark, N.J., casually glancing out my window toward the Manhattan skyline. The only landmarks I could identify were the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

Because of delays caused by a terrific electrical storm that evening, my flight to Tampa did not take off until about 11:15 p.m. In less than 12 hours the towers, and almost 3,000 innocent people then inside them, would be reduced to memories. Our winter would begin.

About a week later, I selected a photo for the front page of the Sept. 23 edition of the Travel section. It showed the main terminal of Washington's Reagan National Airport, empty save for four people seen beneath an immense U.S. flag hanging from the ceiling. Then I wrote the main headline for that issue:

A changed world: Now what?

On Nov. 4, I got off a plane at Reagan National and hurried toward the taxis, on my way to give a speech. Getting my bearings in the terminal, I glanced to my left -- and saw that same flag. It was 54 days since the terrorist attacks, but there still was just a handful of people in the building, emphasizing to me just how much our world has changed.

Last week, I plotted time on my 2002 calendar to travel throughout much of the southeastern United States, and I booked plane reservations to Europe. For while our winter began early and is of uncertain duration, I know that every winter is followed by the promise of spring.

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