Rocket Boys: A Great American Comeback

Sputnik’s launch in 1957 thrust the Soviet Union into first place in the space race, causing fear about where its domination would lead.

But for some Americans, like Homer “Sonny” Hickam, the launch was just what they needed to transform imagination, ingenuity and hard work into a great American success story. From 1957 through 1960, Sonny and his West Virginia high school classmates, as the Big Creek Missile Agency, fired off 35 rockets, some wildly successful, some wildly disastrous.

Nearly four decades later, Hickam published Rocket Boys, a memoir that has flown off the shelves since, leading to the acclaimed film October Sky.

The boys dreamed that they would go to the moon, that their rockets would reach space, that they would escape a life working in the coal mine in Coalwood, West Virginia. But, in their wildest dreams, they could not have foreseen where their experiments would take them, their families, their community, their nation. As badly as Homer and his fellow scientists wanted out of Coalwood, their hometown came through for them when everything they had worked for was on the line.

Rocket Boys is an inspiring story for those who value education, community, family, and the dreams of kids growing up in West Virginia–or anywhere.

Hike Oregon! But Don’t Forget Your Guide

Lace up your walking shoes, pack a lunch and head to the Oregon coast for some of the best day hikes in America. And if you are a regular walker around the state, you will not be caught without your William L. Sullivan guidebook.

Sullivan, who once backpacked solo for 1,361 miles in his beloved state, has written 18 books about Oregon, which is similar in size to Great Britain and, like Britain, is known for valuing public pathways. His book about the Oregon coast is one of five regional offerings that feature 100-plus day hikes each. He also chose his 100 favorites for a book covering the entire state.

Hand-drawn maps, difficulty ratings and user-friendly narratives have guided Sue and me on countless walks around Oregon since we moved to Ashland in 2014.

One of our most memorable outings, described in the Oregon Coast and Coast Range guide, is actually more of a drive than a walk. After 12 miles of a twisting, rough gravel road that begins near the southern city of Brookings, Sullivan’s book guides walkers to a 1.6-mile trail, round trip. This one is all about the destination, a Japanese bombing site. On September 9, 1942, a small plane was assembled on the deck of a Japanese submarine off the coast of southern Oregon. After the wings were attached, a pair of incendiary bombs were loaded. A catapult launch sent the plane inland for its mission: Start a forest fire to undermine America’s war effort. Sullivan tells the story and leads hikers to the bombing site. It is a beautiful, forested walk to an observation deck where signs chronicle pilot Nobuo Fujita’s daring attack.

Besides many rewarding walks on the coast, Sullivan’s Northwest Oregon guide has led us on spectacular adventures near Bend, a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts. We are also partial to his guide about southern Oregon, our home.

When we depart on a trip to explore Oregon, we never leave home without Sullivan’s invaluable guidance.

Chasing Dreams in a VW Bus

In 1972, Jerry Steimel graduated college, jumped in a VW Beetle with his lifelong friend, and set out to live his dream, a cross-country trip to California. But his VW Bug had other ideas, quickly ending the trip with mechanical breakdown.

Steimel’s dream wasn’t deterred. Forty-five years later, he jumped in another Volkswagen, a 1973 air-cooled van, and set out from his home in Massachusetts for another try, this time solo. But Jerry Steimel hardly traveled alone.

In Chasing Zorba: A Journey of Self-Discovery in a VW Bus, he is guided by author Nikos Kazantzakis and his book, Report to Greco, whose life lessons begin each chapter. He names his van Zorba after Kazantzakis’ book Zorba the Greek. Steimel’s goal: California. And so much more.

Some call his plan lunacy. But Steimel is out to discover comfort in taking risks rather than living as if he is just waiting to die. He doesn’t hurry, neither in his writing nor his driving, and his literary and physical journeys are a meander. But, in the end, the book rushes up and grabs readers before leaving them with memories anchored in what it means to live life to its fullest.

Steimel goes to great lengths to find places, like the West Virginia site where four high school boys launched rockets and their lives to heights beyond their wildest dreams. It is the site of the film October Sky, which Steimel watched a dozen times. That figures, you see, because Jerry devoted 45 years to social work, lifting kids who needed an extra push.

Steimel weaves places and American history with the people he meets as he drives mostly back roads, having to stop more than now and then to take Zorba to mechanics for adjustments. The journey tests Steimel and Zorba in ways they could never have anticipated.

The author and his VW Bus still miss the turn of the key every morning. And I miss wondering what is around their next turn.

Four Treks, Four Adventures, Four Tests

The Camino Frances inspired Sue and me to backpack four more European distance treks, each with a unique personality. A closed sign greeted us at an ancient aqueduct as we left Spoleto, Italy on the Way of St. Francis in 2018. Part of the official path, the aqueduct was closed after a 2016 earthquake, forcing us to turn around and walk a lengthy detour. How many stairs are there on England’s South West Coast Path? We climbed and descended many of the 30,000 steps in 2019. Glaciers on the Mont Blanc massif frame our favorite accommodation on the Tour du Mont Blanc, Rifugio Elisabetta, in 2016. An ingenious drying rack was a godsend at the Lander Bed and Breakfast in Drymen on the West Highland Way in 2014. Our adventures on the four treks are featured in my second book, coming soon.