Journalist for Life

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All that glistens … may be Stockholm

STOCKHOLM — What reflects the sunlight more sharply in this handsome city: the painted facades of centuries-old buildings, the waters wrapping around the 14 islands that comprise Stockholm, or the blonde hair of most residents? Or maybe the light is just a facet of the […]

Enthralled by the end of the world

The Antarctic Peninsula — Exactly 22 hours after leaving Ushuaia, Argentina, which calls itself ”the end of the world”, the expedition ship Fram reached the Southern Ocean, which circles Antarctica — the real end of the world. The captain’s P.A. announcement interrupted the lecture on […]

Did the Civil War really start in Kansas?

BALDWIN CITY, Kansas — Fireflies beckon to each other in the darkness accentuated by the trees and the rural countryside. But rough-spoken men break the fairy-tale cheer with threats that reek of hatred — hatred of each other and what the others stand for.

These men are on the frontier of the still young United States — indeed, their looming confrontation is based on whether the barely settled swath of rolling prairie and forest known as the Kansas Territory should be admitted to the Union as a state where slavery is legal or is forbidden.

And tomorrow at daybreak, these men will stage what many historians consider the true first battle of the Civil War — almost 5 years before the Confederates will fire on Fort Sumter, more than 1,150 miles back east.

History a few miles away

This re-enactment, along with others plus museums and an active Army base, recount not just the tortured history of what became known as “bleeding Kansas” but also the state’s role in the challenging creation of the frontier in the mid-19th century. A driving trip of less than 150 miles reveals a rich vein of America’s history. But few sites are as dramatic as the Battle of Blackjack Springs, just a few miles from quiet Baldwin City.

The re-enactors include those angry men and one woman — now a sorrowful widow and grieving mother victimized by the blood lust along the Kansas-Missouri border. They re-create events before and during a three-hour firefight on the grassy hillsides split by a creek along the Santa Fe Trail.

The re-enactment is held on the anniversary of that battle on June 2, 1856, when an estimated 75 Missourians ultimately would surrender to about 25 Kansans led by John Brown, an Easterner who would become a lightning rod for abolitionists.

On the night before the re-enactment, visitors sit on hay bales on the site of the actual three-hour battle, to hear Brown — cradling a rifle, his eyes blazing — decry the “abomination” that is slavery.

He recounts the history of thousands of pro-slavery Missourians moving across the Missouri River into Kansas, where fewer thousands of anti-slavery Easterners and Northerners had already settled.

Battling the Jayhawks

Many arrived just to take part in the vote that would decide Kansas’ status. Many of the Missourians terrorized the settlers — called Jayhawks, after an imaginary combination of those two birds — robbing and beating them.

The raiders also set fire to the town of Lawrence, a hotbed of abolitionists. Five townspeople were killed.

Brown, leading a group that included some of the five sons who had preceded him into Kansas, crossed into Missouri. On May 26, 1856, the group committed what is known as the Pottawatamie (cq) Massacre, using swords and pistols to slaughter five farmers.

The showdown at Blackjack Springs abut a week later was to avenge the massacre, but Brown’s vastly outnumbered forces were victorious. Oddly, no one was killed in the firefight before the Missouri force, led by a deputy U.S. marshal, surrendered.

For the annual re-enactment just yards from the actual battlefield, Brown briefly summarizes the reasons for the fight. Then for about 20 minutes, a few dozen re-enactors including some on horseback have at each other, firing their rifles and pistols.

When it’s time for the surrender, firebrand John Brown (enactor Kerry Altenbernd (cq)  tells the crowd: “Everyone heard of Blackjack — it was civil war!”

Later, Altenbernd, the law librarian for Douglas County (site of Blackjack Springs and Lawrence), tells me in a surprisingly soft voice, “I feel I understand Brown. He was dedicated, not crazy” — addressing a concept most people have when they hear of the massacre.

“There were 4-million of his brothers and sisters in bondage, and he couldn’t free them.”

Different play, different troupe

Another set of folks offers their version of the history that led to the nickname “bleeding Kansas” in the tiny town of Lecompton, briefly the territory’s first capital and just 30 miles from Baldwin City.

A repertoire troupe of about 30 takes turns portraying Brown, as well as the sheriff who torched Lawrence, the Pottawatomie widow and several more historic figures, in a play written 17 years ago by a resident.

Their preferred venue is in the main hall of a former college building, now the Lane Museum. There, the re-enactors send visitors into either side of the main aisle and encourage them to shout out huzzahs or boo the actors, depending on whether the visitors are sitting on the Missouri or the “Free State” side. This group, which also bought or made their costumes and props, performs up to 50 times a year, often for school groups around the state.

On the road west

Less than an hour’s drive southeast, in Olathe, more of Kanssas’ history — without the emphasis on the bloodshed — is recounted by costumed docents at the Mahaffie (cq) Stage Coach (two words cq) Stop and Farm. Occupying original and recreated buildings, plus a 4-year-old museum, the story of America’s westward growth is told through artifacts — from a child’s plate to farm implements to a Colt revolver – and reproductions and a timeline mural that begins in 1845. That’s 12 years before James Beattie (cq) Mahaffie arrived in Olathe with his wife and five children and created a 600-acre farm along the Santa Fe Trail.

That wagon path was used by Midwesterners as the trade route when Mexico won its freedom from Spain. It went from Missouri’s Mississippi River towns to what is now Santa Fe, New Mexico. “Uncle Beattie” Mahaffie first built his stone farmhouse, which still stands, and operated an inn and then a stop for stagecoaches. His wife and daughters would feed 75 to 100 passengers daily — the coaches rolled 24 hours a day between 1865 and 1869.

Owned by the city of Olathe and covering 11 of the original 600 acres, the attraction includes a blacksmith shop, livestock barn for oxen and horses that pull the reproduction stagecoach that carries visitors around the buildings. In the farmhouse, they can watch a docent cook using authentic kitchen equipment and even try their hands at churning butter.

But 30 years before the Mahaffies arrived, the federal government needed to protect the traffic along the Santa Fe and Oregon trails and the early settlers from attacks by Native Americans. The government erected a series of forts about 100 miles apart along the frontier, and one of them is the oldest, continuously operating, military base west of the Mississippi. It has a familiar name: Leavenworth.

Touring an Army base

Laid out on the tree-covered bluffs high above the Missouri River, Fort Leavenworth opened in May 1827 and as usually happened, a village grew up nearby.

It wasn’t long before a 14-year-old from the village named William Cody began working for a freight shipper, riding along the trails to help protect the wagons and to provide the drovers with fresh meat. His prowess with a rifle earned him a nickname he cherished: Buffalo Bill.

Nowadays, visitors to Fort Leavenworth are passed through a security checkpoint and can follow a self-guided tour of the base, a handsome facility of red brick buildings that date back a century but are also are as new as the 21st century.

Immediately after the Civil War, newly freed blacks comprised about a fifth of the U.S. Army, By 1867, Leavenworth was home to one of the regiments of African-American cavalry known as the Buffalo Soldiers. When he was commander of Leavenworth in the early 1990s, Gen. Colin Powell had erected two handsome statues commemorating those units.

Visitors learn that the famed Leavenworth prison now has both military and civilian components. Prohibition-era gangsters such as Machine Gun Kelly were imprisoned hereSo was Robert Stroud, a murderer who gained fame because he kept birds in his cell, Thus he was later — but incorrectly — referred to as the Birdman of Alcatraz, where he did serve time.

While the prison buildings are not open to the public, the base does hold the Frontier Army Museum, which traces America’s growth even before there was a United States. Among the artifacts are a1763 French musket, surveyors’ tools from the late 18th century and on to the 20rh century — including a biplane like those used to chase Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa in 1916-17.

Among the extraordinary pieces on display: a Medal of Honor awarded in 1875, and a paymaster’s ledger showing that in 1881, the highest paid non-commissioned officers were chief musicians, who earned $228 total for a five-year enlistment.

End Bag, the new book from Bob Jenkins, collects his best stories from 19 years as travel editor. Available now on View a sample at Read more about End Bag here.

Relax and learn, where East meets West

The signs claim this 200-acre swath of serenity is in the unremarkable community of Delray Beach. But, in truth, the Morikami Museum does a marvelous job of re-creating a slice of Japan. True, it’s an idealized view: The Morikami (pronounced MOOR-ee-CAH-me) and its adjacent gardens […]

Share this mountain respite with the butterflies

PARIS, Ark. — Two-lane roads snake up, down and around hills and mountains of Arkansas. They lead to more than 50 state parks and countless recreation areas and boat-launch ramps. Along these roads, you traverse cattle pastures, forests and villages so small you wonder how […]

Disney does Alaska — differently

Juneau, Alaska — Larry Stauffer’s job assignment the past couple of years has been pretty straightforward:

Figure out how to make the standard shore excursions in the busy Alaskan market so special that passengers aboard the Disney Cruise Line’s first-ever trips there this summer will buy its pricier versions.

For Stauffer, that meant getting the lumberjacks, dog mushers, gold-panners, helicopter pilots, totem-pole carver, glacier guides, train conductors and fishing boat operators to come up with something distinctively better.

Disney passengers can dress in protective gear and get a helicopter ride to a glacier near Juneau, then set off with ice axes to explore.
To achieve that, the manager of Disney Cruise’s Port Adventures (the Mouse’s term for excursions) twice flew from Orlando to Alaska, sampling about 20 excursions, then meeting with the operators.

“I absolutely challenged them to come back to us with ideas that were different for Disney. I told them we would be coming with 1,000 kids, told them what we already do on our existing itineraries,’’ Stauffer told me as he led a media tour to the ports last fall.

The Disney Wonder begins the first of 18, one-week voyages May 3 from Vancouver. It will call on Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan. Here’s a sampling of the Wonder’s up-market excursions it terms the Signature Collection:

Ketchikan – A popular tour visits Totem Bight State Historical Park, for a walkabout and explanation of the symbolism represented by its 14 totem poles. The Signature Collection touch takes place at the adjacent Potlatch Totem Park:

Youngsters help create a new totem pole, portraying a sea monster. Each child will be given paints and a piece of wood bearing a stenciled design – either feathers or gills for the monster. Each newly painted piece will be attached to the 20-foot-tall pole, to be finished by the end of the summer season.

For something flashier, the long-running Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show is down-sizing logs and equipment, for shows performed just for Wonder passengers.

Youngsters get to try their hand at a special version of the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show, in Ketchikan.
The lumberjacks will select about 10 children — as young as 5 – to take part in pint-sized versions of several stunts.

Skagway — The famed White Pass & Yukon Route railroad, an engineering marvel when built between 1898 and 1900, carried about 365,000 tourists in 2010 on its 27-mile, narrated, trip.

For those Wonder passengers selecting to upgrade, White Pass will form special Disney trains, carrying up to 120. They will get the standard trip as the train chugs up the mountain pass for about 100 minutes.

But Signature Collection passengers will stay onboard for the return trip, rather than getting into buses. On the downhill ride, kids will be placed in their own railcar. They will get special activity books, including an I-spy bingo style game to keep them checking the slowly passing scenery.

The White Pass & Yukon Route railroad climbs through the same passes as it did when built for the Yukon gold rush.
There also will be a costumed character – either a railroad figure or a prospector — spinning tales of the gold rush era.

The passengers are then taken to train the attraction named Liarsville. Here, Wonder passengers will watch an exclusive performance of a puppet show and listen to costumed staff explain that the gold prospectors had to carry about a ton of goods to help them survive the harsh winter.

The kids will be sent on a scavenger hunt for those supplies, in the tent village that is Liarsville. Next, the youngsters will try panning for gold flakes, with help from the Liarsville staff – and Donald Duck, resplendent in a traditional and matching ear-flaps hat.

Juneau — Perhaps the most-spectacular of the Signature Collection trips occurs out of Juneau, atop the Upper Norris Glacier.

In a typical summer, helicopter operator Tim Cudney (cq) and 16-time Iditarod musher Linwood Fiedler (cq) will haul about 10,000 passengers up to the glacier and put them on two-mile loops around the glacier in dog sleds. According to Cudney, “It is a life-changing experience … We have people (saying) this is on their bucket list.’’

And that’s without the tourists’ getting to put booties on the dogs to protect their paws – just one of the add-ons fashioned for the Signature passengers. They will also select the lead dog, then help harness the dogs to the sled.

Finally, these passengers can take the place of the professional musher – though youngsters will be just holding the sled’s handles while the pro stands behind them on the runners. The trips will be doubled to about four miles.

Also, Fiedler said, “We’ll show them how 150 dogs and 20 people can live on the glacier in a tent city, without flush toilets and light switches.’’

For more information

For rates, sailing dates and more information about the Disney Wonder, consult a travel agent or go to

End Bag, the new book from Bob Jenkins, collects his best stories from 19 years as travel editor. Available now on View a sample at Read more about End Bag here.

Days of wine and noses

Days of wine and noses

Above: A worker rolls a barrel through the wine aging room at the Muga bodega. HARO, Spain—Juan Muga peers through his black horn-rims as he pours red wine into the tall stemmed glass, then swirls it about. New to wine tasting and seated next to a […]

Palace tour reveals Venice’s history of tough love

VENICE — Oversized, languorous figures in the richest of colors and reaching toward Heaven are splashed across the ceilings and walls of the Doge’s Palace in this beguiling city. What space is not covered with Renaissance masterpieces is gilded, or it erupts in sculpted plaster […]

A new walk on the wild side

The Trek truck brings you within a few yards of Animal Kingdom's herbivores.
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Acclaimed anthropologist Jane Goodall was a consultant as Walt Disney World Resort was building its fourth and largest theme park, Animal Kingdom. When the media previewed the park before its April 1998 opening, I asked Dr. Goodall what she thought when she was first contacted by the entertainment conglomerate. She answered:

“I wondered, what took them so long?’’

I was thinking the same thing when I went on the park’s new, three-hour experience, the Wild Africa Trek: What took them so long, to provide the customers a more up-close view of the critters?

The Trek is pricey — $129 until Feb. 26, then $189 – but it is fun, educational and at times, thrilling. On the two hours of walkabout, you will be leaning over the banks of a river to get within15 feet from hippos and from crocodiles so large they look like leathery minivans with pointy teeth. A lot of teeth.

Saving you from becoming someone else’s very special memory of the trek is a snug-fitting vest. It has harnesses around your upper thighs and a sort of industrial-strength bungee cord attached to its back. The two Trek guides help you hook a carabiner clamp at the end of this cord to brackets that slide along metal railings. This allows you to lean over the river banks, as well as to cross two swaying suspension bridges.

Your snug vest and bungee line keep you tethered when crossing the bridges.
The bridges, too, cross the river, and while you grasp the cables that hold up the netted sides of the bridges, you’ll be looking down for the irregularly spaced wooden planks on which to step. Looking down is good, because you’ll again be eyeing the crocs or the hippos, more than 20 feet below.

The guides alternate leading/narrating the walk and photographing the participants, limited to a maximum of 12. At the end of the trek, each person is given a card with password information that allows them to view all the images taken and to then order a photo CD, which is included in the fee.

Also included is a charming picnic lunch served at an observation post providing great views of elephants, giraffes and various types of antelopes. The lunch, served in an ingenious metal container, includes appetizer-sized items such as prosciutto ham, shrimp, salmon and hummus.

This lunch stop occurs in the last third of the trek, which is made by open-sided truck. It follows the same roads used by the often-crowded Kilimanjaro Safari trucks. But your truck benches have plenty of space, and binoculars are provided for the frequent stops to better view animals.

My truck paused within 15 feet of a young giraffe and an adult, within 30 feet of a rhino and her youngster. We also watched three cheetahs on a nearby hillside, a lion and lioness looking relaxing in the sun, plenty of hooved stock, and several adult elephants and a predictably cute young one.

The Wild Africa Trek provides up-close views on a three-hour trip.
All of these were pointed out and described to us by the knowledgeable guides. We heard them over ear pieces that attached to portable radios receiving their commentary.

The Wild Africa Trek offers especially close-up views of creatures we otherwise might never get. On the Kilimanjaro Safari trucks, you could be in the middle of a row, with other passengers blocking your camera. Not the case on the Trek, and we never left a stopping point until everyone was satisfied with their view through the provided binoculars or their cameras.

If you go

Because Wild Africa Trek steps off just six times a day and is limited to 12 people, reservations are recommended; call for (407) 939-8687. It is limited to those at least 8 years old and weighing less than 300 pounds – participants step on a scale before they are allowed to don a vest, though the scale’s read-out is seen only by a staffer.

Also before being outfitted, each participant must empty their pockets into their own locker, lest anything fall out during the trip. Cameras that have a neck strap can be retained.

A ticket to Animal Kingdom is required in addition to the Trek fee, which is $129 through Feb. 26, when it rises to $189. In addition to the walk and truck ride, participants receive lunch, a metal water bottle to keep, and a CD of photos of their experience.

End Bag, the new book from Bob Jenkins, collects his best stories from 19 years as travel editor. Available now on View a sample at Read more about End Bag here.

Disney’s new ship makes dreams come true

It’s getting so a cruise passenger can’t even stroll the 1,115-foot-long ship in private without launching interactivity. Which is exactly what the creative gang at the Walt Disney conglomerate, the Imagineers, has been planning for years. The venue is the company’s first new ship since […]