Picture Perfect: Traveler

Somewhere in the Midwest
November 1980

Tom took this picture of me and my car at a rest stop while driving from Michigan State to Pasadena. We were traveling to an educators conference at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where we would witness Voyager I’s historic encounter with Saturn. We could have flown to California, but I talked Tom into taking annual leave and driving.

I bought the car—my first—only two months before, a 1980 Toyota Corolla Sport Coupe Deluxe, the least expensive trim. To economize further, I opted for no air conditioning or even a radio. I was still learning to work the manual shift when I drove off the lot.

As I headed home to Buffalo that Christmas in a snowstorm, a speeding semi blew past me on the slippery Thruway, sending the Corolla into a snow-blinded spin. It slid to a stop in the median after threading the needle between a drop-off and a mile post—backwards. It would not be the last time the car would get me through a treacherous drive safely and unscathed.

I moved back to Boston from Michigan two months later, the recession having cost me my job. In the difficult years that followed, the car became my lifeline, my haven, my means of escape. It took me to the mountains and shore, and back and forth to Buffalo, my dash-mounted coffee mug steaming the windshield, sunrise illuminating the rearview mirror.

In 1983 I drove it one way to Virginia, where I would reboot my life and career. By the time the car turned 14, we had traveled together 131,000 miles. In 1994 I took it, rusting and ailing, on one last drive to Shenandoah before signing it over to the American Cancer Society. I snapped some final photos just before the tow truck arrived. After it disappeared from view down the street, I opened the Pentax to extract the film and discovered the camera was empty. Tom’s picture of me and Traveler remains the best I have.

Picture Perfect is a series of occasional short posts, each focused on a single image that captures a memory from travels past.

David Romanowski, 2020

Picture Perfect: The Seagull

Half Moon Bay, California
August 25, 2012

I am an early riser. My sister Judy is not. So on this visit, I quickly settle into a morning routine. I quietly close the front door behind me, walk down Spindrift Way, and cross Highway 101. I find the sandy foot path that leads to the bike trail and follow it to the path that takes me to the beach.

I stroll down the Pacific shore and cut back into town, where I stop at the Half Moon Bay Coffee Company. I sit outside with a mug and a crusty slice of pie—apple, peach, a different kind each day. By the time I return to Judy’s, she is up and tending to her cats. 

Judy has errands to run today, so she drops me off in town, where I rent a bicycle. I want to add a few more miles to my cycling exploration of the Pacific Coast. I ride back to the coastal bike path and head north toward Moss Beach, to where the pavement ends and only a narrow dirt path continues through the coastal scrub. I keep going.

Beyond the Air Force station and surfer-renowned Mavericks Beach, I stop at a bluff and look back across Ross Cove, with its crescent of beach Judy will tell me she didn’t know was there. I take a single photo and bike on. Not until later when I download it will I notice the lone seagull centered perfectly above the “golf ball” radar dome on Pillar Point. It transforms this moody view of the California coast into something more: a perfect picture.

Picture Perfect is a series of occasional short posts, each focused on a single image that captures a memory from travels past.

David Romanowski, 2020

Don’t Know Much About Lighthouses

Raise your hand if you’ve ever taken a picture of a lighthouse. Irresistibly picturesque, they almost demand to be photographed. Tall and stately (but not always), sturdy and indestructible (definitely not always), and historic but enduringly essential, they stand out along the coast like rugged individualists.

I’ve taken my share of pictures of them over the years. I recently decided it was time to learn something about them, so I ordered a book on lighthouses from the library. There were lots of choices, but I had to pick one sight-unseen—libraries seem to be the only thing in our region you still can’t visit in person.

I chose well. Lighthouses: Sentinels of the American Coast (2003) turned out to be a very good introduction. With dozens of photographs by Laurence Parent and text by lighthouse expert Elinor DeWire, it was beautifully illustrated and well written and provided just the right amount of information I was looking for—enough to learn some historical background and interesting facts, but not so much as to cause my eyes to glaze over.

It would have been even better had some library patron not torn out a dozen pages of photographs throughout the book to keep for him or herself, but the main narrative and sidebars were intact. Here’s some of what I learned.

Lighthouse History

A bonfire burning on a shore, among the earliest forms of maritime beacons, heralded to Christopher Columbus in 1492 that he was approaching land in the New World.

The earliest known lighthouse, the Pharos of Alexandria, was built about 279 B.C. at the mouth of the Nile River in Egypt. Rising about 450 feet, it was also the tallest known lighthouse in history. It stood for nearly 1,500 years before toppling into the Nile.

Northeast

The first lighthouse in colonial America began shining on Little Brewster Island in Boston Harbor in 1716. The oldest existing (never rebuilt) lighthouse in the United States is the Sandy Hook Lighthouse at the northeast tip of New Jersey, built in 1764.

Lighthouses spread from New England to all American coasts and shores. The Fort Niagara Lighthouse, built in 1818 where the Niagara River enters Lake Ontario, was the first American lighthouse on the Great Lakes. The first American lighthouse on the Pacific was built on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay in 1854. The state that had the most lighthouses: Michigan, which borders four of the five Great Lakes and whose coastline is more than 3,000 miles long.

Southeast

The fledgling federal government assumed control over lighthouses in 1789. Oversight was bureaucratically moved around until the U.S. Lighthouse Service was merged with the Coast Guard in 1939. Many historic lighthouses have since been transferred to state and local organizations for preservation and educational use.

Form and Function

Many early lighthouse towers were octagonal in shape. Cylindrical towers of brick or cast iron became more dominant in the 1800s. Not all lighthouses are tall and imposing. Some look like houses with a big bright light attached.

West

The height of lighthouse has to do with where it sits and how far its light needs to be seen. Lighthouses built on cliffs don’t need to be as tall. Many of the tallest were built along the flat coastal shores of the South and Southeast. The tallest in the United States, at just under 200 feet, is the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Bells and horns were added to many lighthouses where a beacon alone was not enough to pierce dense fog.

Many lighthouses were built offshore on piles pounded or screwed into the beds of bays, sounds, and rivers, especially in Chesapeake Bay and along Carolina shores. Some lighthouses are mobile, mounted on lightships.

Lighthouse Lights

The life of a lighthouse keeper was far less romantic than you might imagine. It was hard, tiring, endless work to keep a lighthouse lit and functioning.

This first-order Fresnel lens from the Cape Charles Lighthouse on Smith Island, Virginia, is in the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News.

Lighthouses burned wood, coal, candles, various kinds of oil, and gas to light the way through the 1700s and 1800s. In 1886 the Statue of Liberty, at the time an official lighthouse, became the first to be electrified. Electrification and automation of the lights continued throughout the 20th century. By 1995 only Boston Light had resident lighthouse keepers.

The invention in France of the Fresnel lens in the early 1800s greatly improved the range of lighthouse light. The lenses were built in six sizes or orders, a first-order lens being the largest and most powerful. Earlier lighthouse lights were static. But Fresnel lenses could be rotated around a light source to create a distinctive flashing pattern that helped sailors identify the lighthouse. To help identify them during daylight, some lighthouses had unique painted patterns on them called daymarks.

But Wait, There’s More!

I could go on and on. If you want to boggle your brain even more, visit the website of the United States Lighthouse Society or the American Lighthouse Foundation. The Lighthousefriends.com website has extensive information on individual lighthouses. So does the US Lighthouses website although its listings are as not comprehensive.

All the photos included here are ones I took over the years during my travels. You can enlarge the images to see more detail. Now I feel an itch get back to the shore and photograph a few more.

David Romanowski, 2020

To the Shore, at Last

It was 208 days since we had been away from home on an overnight trip. Nearly 30 weeks since we had returned from Florida at the end of March.

So during a stretch of delightfully warm October weather, Sue and I finally headed to the Eastern Shore, or Delmarva (Delaware-Maryland-Virginia), as some locals call it. We stayed a night in Ocean City and another near Rehoboth Beach. We felt perfectly safe. We had contact with a single person at both hotels, and they were behind Plexiglas. We brought our own food for breakfast and picnic lunches and ate takeout pizza for dinner.

We brought our bicycles and biked in our usual places: the Ocean City and Rehoboth Beach boardwalks, Assateague Island National Seashore, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, and Cape Henlopen State Park. We also visited a couple of new sites and revisited a trail we hadn’t biked in a long time.

Delaware Botanic Gardens

About 12 miles west of Bethany Beach, Delaware Botanic Gardens opened in September 2019. It is still a work in progress. Only about half of the 37-acre site is finished, the first phase of a 10-year plan.

Compared to, say, the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., (446 acres), Delaware Botanic Gardens is modest in size. You could fit the entire area that’s presently open within the National Arboretum’s central meadow. We spent about an hour exploring, and we took our time, but it was time enjoyably spent.

There are two main areas, the lovely 2-acre Meadow Garden and the 12-acre Woodland Gardens. Several smaller gardens border the meadow area and reside within the woods. We visited early in the morning, when the meadow grasses and flowers glistened with dew. Within the woods were what appeared to be gigantic bird nests—sculptural elements made from cleared brush, an amusing creative touch.

The gardens are presently only open from 9:00 to 1:00, Thursday through Sunday. You have to purchase timed tickets in advance ($12 per person, free to those under age 16). We visited on Thursday, bought our tickets online while driving to the gardens that morning, and were still able to land a 9:00 a.m. slot.

Delaware Botanic Gardens is a pleasant place to wander around, but keep in mind that the gardens are new and still being developed. We look forward to revisiting as they continue to mature and expand.

Battery 519 at Fort Miles

Cape Henlopen State Park in Delaware occupies the site of a former U.S. Army base, built to defend the entrance to Delaware Bay and the Delaware River during World War II. That heritage is preserved at the Fort Miles Museum and Historical Area, which encompasses historic structures and outdoor exhibits. As we’ve visited the park in recent years, we’ve seen the Artillery Park take shape and the adjacent barracks buildings undergo renovation.

On this trip, we finally got to enter Battery 519, a 15,000–square foot, heavily fortified bunker hidden within the Great Dune, a high point along the coast. The battery once contained two powerful 12-inch guns trained on the Atlantic. The space where those guns once stood now hosts special events, and its doors open out onto the Great Dune Overlook with its sweeping view of the coast.

A long corridor lined with massive doors leads to a small room housing exhibits on Fort Miles during World War II and on what life was like for the 2,000 soldiers and civilians stationed there. I love maps and models, so I was especially drawn to the scale model of the cape and fort as they appeared during the war.

Entrance to Battery 519 is free, but the park website states you can only access it on guided tours and during open houses. I’m not sure if that’s still the case or whether it now has regular hours on certain days. It’s well worth a look inside if you happen to find it open.

Cross Island Trail

If you’ve driven to the Eastern Shore via the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, you’ve passed right by the Cross Island Trail. You can see it alongside U.S. Route 50 as you cross Kent Island.

The trail has been extended since the last time we visited. It now runs about 7 miles from Terrapin Nature Park on the bay to Long Point Park just east of Kent Narrows. Several short spur trails branch off the main route. One leads to the Chesapeake Exploration Center, which is where we like to park. Located just off Route 50 right before you cross the Kent Narrows Bridge, the center has visitor information, exhibits on local history, and those all-important restrooms.

The Chesapeake Exploration Center used to be where the trail ended. It now continues under the Kent Narrows Bridge and a couple of miles farther east. Much of this new section is a boardwalk that extends more than a half mile alongside coastal marshes. While scenic, it’s also the noisiest section of trail because it runs alongside the highway.

In the other direction, the trail becomes much quieter as it veers away from the highway. It passes marshes and meadows, winds through woods, and goes by farms,  housing developments, parks, and places to eat. When you reach Terrapin Nature Park, you can walk or bike trails that lead to the shore of Chesapeake Bay and a view of the Bay Bridge. For such a short trail, it’s quite diverse. Newly repaved, it is wide and smooth.

The Cross Island Trail makes for an easy daytrip from Washington, D.C. Depending on the mood of the traffic gods, it’s about an hour away. It’s also a nice break from the drive to the shore if you’re heading that way. Biking from one end to the other and back may be the most relaxing 15 miles of your trip.

David Romanowski, 2020

Related Posts

October at the Shore
Return to Cape Henlopen
Gallery: Cape Henlopen

The Covered Bridges of Frederick County

Over the river and through the wood,
to Grandmother’s house we go;
the horse knows the way to carry the sleigh,
through the white and drifted snow.

When we sang that ditty in grammar school at Thanksgiving time, our imaginary sleigh surely crossed that river on a covered bridge. Snow had been shoveled onto its deck for the sleigh runners to slide over, for the bridge wasn’t covered to keep off snow. It was covered to protect it from the weathering effects of sun and rain. An uncovered bridge might last 20 years. With proper upkeep, a covered bridge could last more than a century.

The song “Over the River and Through the Wood” was adapted from a poem written by Lydia Maria Child and published in 1844, during the heyday of covered bridges. Nearly 14,000 wooden covered bridges once spanned the rivers and streams of the United States. Most were built in the mid-1800s in rural areas from east to west and north to south.

Fewer than 900 of those historic covered bridges are still standing, and now and then another is lost to fire or flood. That even that many are left is due to the dedicated efforts of private groups and governments across the country to preserve, restore, and maintain them.

Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Vermont account for well over half of the historic covered bridges in the United States. Pennsylvania has the most, more than 200. Maryland, which once had many dozens of them, now has only six. One is northeast of Baltimore, and two more are near the far northeastern corner of the state. Three reside just north of the city of Frederick.

A Covered Bridge Excursion

It had been decades since Sue and I visited those three covered bridges in nearby Frederick County. So on an overcast Saturday morning in October, we decided to take a drive into the countryside and search them out again.

We followed the directions on a county brochure; the information is also available on the Frederick County website. Utica Mills Covered Bridge is a few miles north of Frederick just off Old Frederick Road. Loy’s Station Covered Bridge is 6.7 miles farther north. Roddy Road Covered Bridge is northeast of Thurmont, another 4.2 miles away.

The modest distances between them makes cycling from bridge to bridge popular. Indeed, we encountered many bicyclists—solo riders, pairs, small groups, and one big swarm. Just after as we were about to leave Utica Mills, a large troop of motorcyclists also pulled up. They trailed us the rest of the way, arriving with a roar at each bridge just a few minutes after we did. We thought we would escape weekend crowds by driving far out into the countryside. We were wrong.

Different Structural Designs

At first glance, the three bridges look a lot alike. They are all painted red, of modest length, and have similar exterior styles. However, they offer an almost textbook lesson in covered bridge structural design. Covered bridges exhibit many different styles of trusses, the structures that support the bridges. These three bridges have three different truss designs, each a step up in complexity.

The Roddy Road Bridge has the oldest and simplest design, called a Kingpost truss, used on short bridges. Loy’s Station Bridge expands on that basic design. Its Multiple Kingpost truss is used on bridges of moderate length, up to about 100 feet. The Utica Mills Covered Bridge adds an arch to the Multiple King Post design to create a Burr Arch, one of the most frequently used truss systems. The illustrations below show that design progression.

For much more detail on each bridge from the Maryland Covered Bridges website, click on the titles below.

Roddy Road Covered Bridge

At just under 40 feet, the Roddy Road Bridge is the shortest of the three bridges, and the shortest in Maryland. The original bridge was probably built in 1856 (construction dates of some covered bridges are subject to dispute). It was heavily damaged by an oversize truck in 2016 and dismantled. Its wood was deemed unusable, so the bridge was reconstructed from new materials. Thus, this bridge is a replica, although the county brochure doesn’t mention that.

Loy’s Station Covered Bridge

Loy’s Station Bridge, at 90 feet, is the second longest of the three (the brochure misstates that it’s the longest). The original bridge, built in 1848, also met an untimely demise. In 1991, as part of an insurance fraud scheme, a pickup truck was parked on the bridge and set ablaze, largely destroying the historic structure. Some of the original hardware, rafters, and braces were salvaged and reused in the reconstructed bridge, which was completed in 1994.

Utica Mills Covered Bridge

The longest of the three bridges, the 101-foot Utica Mills Bridge was actually part of a longer 250-foot bridge, built in either 1850 or 1843, that spanned the nearby Monocacy River. That bridge was destroyed by the disastrous flood of 1889, which also devastated Johnstown, Pennsylvania, when an earthen dam upstream from the city failed. The surviving section of the two-span bridge was dismantled and reconstructed here two years later.

Like most surviving covered bridges, the Utica Mills Bridge has undergone repair and rehabilitation several times. I noticed as I walked through the bridge that its upright posts are notched below the arch in such a way that it looks like the arch was repositioned at some point, perhaps when the bridge was reconstructed.

Handcrafted History

Like steam trains and lighthouses, covered bridges evoke nostalgia for a rosily idyllic, romanticized past. Irresistibly picturesque, covered bridges draw people from all over, who go way out their way to photograph them, walk their thick planks, admire their sturdy, handcrafted construction, and lay their hands on history. The fact that some are to varying degrees replicas of original bridges doesn’t detract from their timeless charm.

One of these days, I’ll go on a hunt for Maryland’s other three covered bridges. But next time I’ll go during the week.

For more information:

Maryland Covered Bridges

National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges

David Romanowski, 2020