A Travel Writer’s Tale of Exploration, Meeting New People and Fighting Breast Cancer
The framed photo of a handsome young man in military attire was obviously part of a simply erected shrine in one corner of the dining room, and when Francie Thompson saw me pause at it her eyes welled with tears, and she turned away for a moment.
We had just arrived cold and weary from 40 miles of biking, and Francie had chocolate cake still warm from the oven waiting. She helped us get our things to our rooms, charmingly decorated havens in this pre-Civil War homestead called Hanna House near Confluence, Pa., a 100-acre working farm the Thompsons run as a bed-and-breakfast.
In 2005, I had been writing about food for 12 years and had just been named travel editor of the Denver Post. I also had just found out I had a serious form of breast cancer. Through the surgeries and the chemo and radiation, I wasn’t allowed to travel, but I could plan, and what I planned was a trip celebrating survival: a 335-mile bike ride from my birthplace in Washington, D.C., to where I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pa. I asked my father to come along with me and my teenage daughters, and I wound up crafting an entire issue around the trip, from how to make such a journey happen to training for it, shipping a bike, and what to expect in dining and lodging along the way.
Most people think travel and food writing are about visiting exotic locales and sampling foreign cuisines, getting your trips paid for and reveling in the luck of landing the best jobs in the world. But the times I appreciate it the most are those when a connection has been made, when I’ve been able to share with readers the undeniable proof that the world is one big boat and we’re all in it together. Travel is the best way to get quality time with our boat mates and the places around them, and then share the experience with others.
At first, Hanna House was just one of those places I couldn’t wait to let people know about. Certainly the farm itself is one of the great finds, not far from Frank Llody Wright’s Fallingwater and tucked into the lush Turkeyfoot Valley. Chickens and goats and cats roam the property, and in early morning, a roaring fire in the open hearth welcomes guests to breakfasts of homemade waffles with hot syrup and fresh-baked muffins.
There was something more going on here, though…that special sweetness and warmth that comes from lives spent working the land but with an undercurrent of sadness. Nils Sr. looked gruff and serious; he had the calloused, dirt-stained hands of a farmer, but while he was quiet, he never shirked from a question. His wife Francie, on the other hand, was like a boiling-over tea kettle of emotion. It didn’t take long before she shared the story of that handsome young man, the Thompsons’ 19-year-old son Nils, who had been killed in Iraq not long before our visit.
“My son said he wanted to work the farm with my husband, but first he wanted to be a soldier,” Francie said. “He really believed in it. But he said he was going to come back. In fact, he called just before he was killed and said, ‘I’ll be home in a little while, Mom.’ He turned 19 the day before he was killed.”
There wasn’t a dry eye at the table, and an instant intimacy formed. My father, a Vietnam War veteran, asked to help Nils with something out in the barn. My daughters helped Francie with the dishes. I took off my bandana and let Francie’s 15-year-old daughter Lily, now an only child, check out the fuzz of my bald head. After breakfast she shyly led me out to the barn and let me touch the velvety soft muzzle of her prize horse, Stryker, named for her brother’s battalion.
A photo of Lily with Stryker still hangs on the bulletin board in my office. It’s a constant reminder of the Thompsons’ sacrifice, but also of a trip that took our group to places beyond the locales, and the fact that travel is one of life’s great rewards — no matter what we are called upon to survive.
[Editor’s Note: Learn more about opportunities to profit from your travels (and even from your own home) in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.]