One Day in Normandy: Omaha Beach and COVID Test Chaos

It was our last day in France, which was bittersweet. We’d all fallen in love with France, and could have explored it forever, but Florence awaited! Since our flight didn’t depart until close to 10pm we’d planned to spend the day paying our respects to the thousands of Allied soldiers who died storming the beaches of Normandy on D-Day by visiting several sites relating to the battle. It was a lot of driving, and time would be tight, but we were determined. However, we first needed to obtain COVID tests in order to fly back into Italy, so we bid Gilles a reluctant, fond farewell and set out on our three hour drive to Caen for testing.

Whether it was user error or our phones’ Americanized algorithms struggling to perform a Google search in France, the testing location we navigated to did not actually exist. Frustrated and confused, we began searching for another nearby location, each of us getting different search results, none of which proving fruitful. To make a long, and indescribably boring story a bit shorter, it took us almost three hours to find and obtain our COVID tests, which meant trimming our itinerary down dramatically, to a single stop.

We opted for Omaha Beach, set out in that direction, and arrived as we received email notifications that our results were available. However, the friendly nurse who had administered our tests had input my birthday incorrectly, making me unable to access my results. It took another half an hour and three phone calls before she finally entered it in correctly and I was able to access my results, and by that point Olivia, who spoke the most French of the three of us and had been the one making those three phone calls, was ready to explode.

Our tests were all negative, but our frustration level was still high, so we decided to get some lunch before heading to the beach. There was a restaurant across the street where we found an outdoor table to catch our breath and feed our bellies. It took many French fries, but by the time we got up we were in a much better head space.

On June 6, 1944 America, Great Britain and Canada launched the largest invasion fleet in history. More than 1200 warships, 4000 landing craft, 12,000 aircraft, and 160,000 troops set off for Normandy to finally gain a foothold in Nazi occupied France, and begin their push towards Berlin. The invasion itself was a surprisingly and hilariously successful deception by the Allies. Between radar trickery, dummy-paratrooper drops, espionage, and US General Patton’s phantom army full of inflatable tanks, trucks and planes, the Nazis were hoodwinked. They knew an Allied attack was imminent, but they thought it would happen at Calais, not in Normandy, and they focused their defensive resources according to that erroneous assumption. Hitler literally slept through it. Once he woke up around 9am, convinced the Normandy invasion was just a diversion from the non-existant attack on Calais, he started dispatching his infamous Panzer troops mostly in the wrong direction. Sucker.

While the Allies were successful on D-Day, we paid a heavy price. More than 3000 Americans died on Omaha Beach alone. Thousands more on Utah, behind enemy lines, and the ensuing days in the push to seize Caen and secure a supply line. That’s to say nothing of the millions who died throughout the course of WWII, including the 6 million Jews who died at the hands of Hitler’s Nazis. I can’t even fathom how it must have felt to walk through these European cities 80 years ago, amidst unimaginable destruction and death, knowing it was all at the direction of a madman.

If you didn’t know of the bloodshed that occurred there more than three quarters of a century ago you’d think it was just another beach. Omaha Beach today is pretty, and fairly touristy. Families milled around, walking their dogs and playing in the surf, and with the sun shining it was hard to imagine it had once been the site of unfathomable carnage.

I don’t think any of us were prepared for how emotional we’d feel walking on that battlefield. In my head I kept seeing the beach-storming scene from Saving Private Ryan. The clear, sunny day transformed into a haze of smoke, with boats full of terrified men and boys filling the ocean along the shore. I could hear the gunfire and screams, see the mangled bodies littering the blood-soaked sand. It was overwhelming to imagine. It reminded me how fragile our own democracy is. We’ve all seen how susceptible people can be to propaganda and misinformation, and how that vulnerability can be exploited by madmen craving power.

We had a long drive to the airport so we hit the road once we’d paid our respects. It was a quiet, reflective 3 hour drive back to Paris. By the time we arrived we were all emotionally exhausted. Our flight was a quick one, but thankfully long enough for us to get in the right mindset for our Florentine adventure. The only complaint we had about the flight was that after all the confusion and frustration and wasted time to get our COVID tests, we were never asked for them. Not at the airport, and not on arrival to Florence. We found that irritating, but we got over it quickly.

It was nearly midnight when we arrived so we took a taxi straight to the AirBnb. Although the driver totally overcharged us and lied about it, we were just grateful for our day of travel to be over and to get settled into the city at the heart of the Renaissance. Our AirBnb host’s son, Niccolo, arrived to let us into the flat, and the girls were positively smitten. He was young, adorable, so polite, and his Italian accent was absolutely charming. The flat itself was equally as charming, and we couldn’t have been more pleased with our home for the next four nights. The apartment was small, but beautifully decorated and comfortable. The girls had their own room, with my room next door, both connected by a balcony overlooking Brunelleschi’s Dome, which was all lit up for the evening when we arrived. My dream was coming true. I was in Medici country!

We had a busy day of exploring planned so we needed to get some sleep, but first we needed some food. As had become customary during our trip, and since we’d arrived so late, we ordered McDonald’s. And, as always, it was the comfort food we needed after a crazy day traversing two foreign countries.

Come back next time to get a history lesson from your resident nerd-blogger as I acquaint you with the Medici family while we explore the birthplace of the Renaissance! Till then stay chill and keep hiking, my friends.

Madeline Island: A Brief History of Wisconsin’s Secret Paradise

home written in the sand

Not all my ‘cations are Ladycations. Though I love getting away with my ladies, I also love getting away with my kids, and my favorite place to take them is to my childhood home on an island in northern Wisconsin (yes, Wisconsin has islands).img_8822

Madeline Island is a small island in Lake Superior. It is the largest, and only of the Apostle Islands that is inhabited year round. It’s 14 miles long and 3 miles wide respectively, and has a permanent, winter population of 302. That number swells to 1500 when the “Summer People” arrive.

The Island has a rich history going back to its first settlers: the Lake Superior Chippewa, a band of the Ojibwe people. According to legend, the Gitche Manitou, or “Great Spirit,” told them to go west until they found the place where “food grows on the water.” They traveled west along the south shore of what we now know as Lake Superior until they came to the wild rice growing in the marshes along the lake shore near Chequamegon Bay. They eventually found, and settled on the island, naming it Mooningwanekaaning, meaning, “Place of the Golden-Breasted Flicker Woodpecker.” IMG_5557

In the 1600’s French fur traders established one of the first colonial settlements in the region, that quickly became one of its most important trading outposts, and later the island’s town of La Pointe. Because most men worked outdoors during that time, beaver skins, which are waterproof, were a hot commodity. Native Americans would trade them for things like knives, blankets, and other goods with European fur traders.

With such lucrative fur trade, of course, came more white people, anxious to trade with the Ojibwe. This time they were British. A rivalry between the French and British, both vying for control of the fur trading industry, came to a head in the 1660’s during the Seven Years’ War, ultimately resulting in the French relinquishing all their territories east of the Mississippi to the British, including Madeline Island, and the town of La Pointe. No one seems to have asked the Indigenous Islanders’ opinions on the matter.

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The American Fur Company on Madeline Island.

After the War of 1812, control of the fur trade was gained by the American Fur Company, founded by John Jacob Astor, in 1808. If that name sounds familiar, it’s either because you’re a reasonably well informed history buff, or you watched the movie Titanic. Indeed, Mr. Astor’s great-grandson and namesake perished aboard the vessel when it struck an iceberg a century later. You may remember hearing he was the richest man aboard Titanic. That fortune began with his great-grandfather’s fur trading company, making him the first multi-millionaire in the United States.

As tends to happen when white people “discover” land and encounter its native population, missionaries weren’t far behind the traders. Jesuit priests were the first to arrive and establish a mission to the Ojibwe. That first Catholic church no longer stands, but on the site where it once stood remains the “Indian Cemetery,” a misleading name for this burial ground given its origin in Catholicism, and the fact that both Native Americans and white settlers alike are buried there. img_0137

Among the cemetery’s Indigenous inhabitants is The Island’s namesake, Madeline Equasayway Cadotte, daughter of Chief White Crane. Madeline married Michel Cadotte, the son of a French-Canadian father, and Ojibwe mother. His marriage to Madeline helped him become the lead trader in the area.  Another notable figure in the cemetery is Chief Buffalo, or Kechewaishke. The Lake Superior Chippewa’s Chief for the first half of the 19th Century, Chief Buffalo was instrumental in securing land for his people by resisting the US government’s attempts to push them westward, signing treaties that granted them permanent land in the area. The reservations at Red Rock and Bad River are still home to many Lake Superior Chippewa today.img_5482.jpg

Though few Ojibwe still live on the island year-round, it is sacred ground, and Native American culture is still very much a presence on Madeline. From the Ojibwe translations on the town’s signage, to the ceremonies still held on the sacred lands, Mooningwanekaaning honors its history as the Lake Superior Chippewa’s spiritual center.

The second church built on Madeline was a protestant mission in 1832. “The Old Mission” was built on land that now houses the La Pointe Post Office. In 1925 a new church was built a short distance down Main Street, St. John’s United Church of Christ.833

It’s that church that brought my family to Madeline Island in the late 1980’s. My dad was an out-of-work pastor who ran a non-profit organization in nearby Duluth, Minnesota. “The Anchorage” ministered to the working people of the city’s downtown area, providing counseling services, fellowship, and Bible studies. It was through this ministry that a member of one of his Bible studies suggested he talk to the church council at St. John’s.

Before too long our family was loading up our minivan and driving 90 miles every weekend to my dad’s new parish on Madeline Island. It was supposed to be a summer gig. The church was in the process of looking for a permanent pastor, one that would be a full time resident on the island. We thought it would be a few months in the summer and then we’d be back to business as usual in Duluth.

What started out as a summer job turned into a fall job, then a winter job, then a spring job, then another summer. While the church council sought a full time, permanent pastor willing to move his family to this tiny and, in the winter, somewhat isolated community, our family was falling in love. Our parents were making cherished, lifetime friendships, while us kids spent our summers swimming in Lake Superior’s crystal clear (albeit freezing cold) waters, eating pizza and ice cream at Grampa Tony’s, and riding our bikes all over the island. In the winter we would go sledding, build snow-forts, and cross country ski across the lake. My siblings and I all agree, our time on Madeline Island afforded us the most idyllic childhood imaginable.

When St. John’s found a full time pastor we were devastated. Though we’d known this was always the plan, Madeline Island had woven its way into our hearts. It had become a part of us. We belonged there. Even as a kid, I could feel it: The Island was special.img_9100

Lucky for us (though not for he or his family), the new pastor turned out to have some mental health issues. Once he was hospitalized, they asked my dad to come back and fill in for a couple weeks. And once it became clear the other pastor would not be returning, we were ecstatic. My dad tried to keep us Christian about it, rein in our celebrations of another man’s nervous breakdown, and teach us some humility. But as a kid, all I cared about was that we got our house back, our beach back, our friends back, our home back. The fact that it came at another man’s expense was inconsequential to me. I just wanted to go home, and by any means necessary. Suffice to say, my dad’s lessons didn’t stick that time around.

Instead of going through the painstaking process of finding another pastor all over again, the church offered my dad the job as permanent part time pastor. We could remain in Duluth during the week, and come to “our” island every weekend, just like we’d done before. We continued doing this until we moved to Cleveland when I was 18 years old, when the weekly travel had become too much for my mom’s failing health.1123

Leaving again, knowing not only would we not be returning each week, but that our new home was almost 1000 miles away, was indescribably difficult. No place else has ever felt like home the way Madeline Island did. Not even our actual home in Duluth held the same level of sentimentality (though it’s a very close 2nd). It was Madeline Island that made me realize “home” isn’t a building, it’s a state of mind. “Home is where the heart is,” as the saying goes, and my heart is on Madeline. Always. It’s like a piece of me is always there, and until I’m there, too, a part of me is missing; as if I’m not complete unless I’m there. I’m my most authentic, contented self when I’m on The Island. I think one of the reasons I love backpacking is that it’s the closest I’ve come to recreating that feeling.050

That’s why almost every year I load an absurd amount of camping gear into (and onto) my car, grab the kids, and head north. I want my children to share my love of The Island, to feel the serenity that I feel when I board the ferry, to appreciate the natural beauty and quirky community that makes Madeline Island my favorite place in the world. I want them to keep visiting long after I’m gone, to share the sacred piece of land with their children. And since I already have my burial plot there (the best Christmas present I ever received. Thanks, Dad!), in the same cemetery where my mom was laid to rest, I think I’ll get my wish. Wanna visit my grave when I’m gone, kids? You know where to find me. No, I’m not above manipulating my children from beyond the grave for a good cause.

This summer, like most, we were Island bound. Since my daughter is now a sophomore in college and considering an internship next summer instead of coming home, I saw this as possibly the last family vacation I’ll get to take with all my children, at least for a while. As always, we spent the week camping at Big Bay Town Park, a paradise in its own rite.img_8664

Big Bay is a literal bay on the island’s eastern shore. Flanked by red rock cliffs on either end, it’s home to a 2.5 mile golden sand beach, a lagoon, and both the State and Town parks. The Town Park, which we prefer due to its lagoon access, a lower price tag, and plain old nostalgia, has drive-in campsites that back up against the lagoon, and are surrounded by White Spruce, Balsam Fir, and Birch trees. At night the sounds of croaking frogs, and the haunting call of loons fill the air, occasionally mixed with the distant sound of crashing waves when the winds kick up, and Lake Superior shows her might.

While we spend our days on the beach soaking up the sun and splashing around in the Great Lake, night brings a totally different, and even more incredible experience, in the same place. With almost no light pollution, Big Bay is a phenomenal spot for stargazing. On clear lights the Milky Way is on full display, and when conditions are right, you may even see the Aurora Borealis. Meteor showers are particularly amazing, as you seemingly have a front row seat to seeing every single one that streaks across the sky.img_8622

This summer was especially awesome. We arrived at the ferry in Bayfield at the same time my childhood friend (actually my brother’s best friend since birth, so he’s like my other brother) arrived, and our vacation had begun. Zach, his fiancĂ© Kim, and their son Stone, who still live in Duluth, join us every year for a week of camping on The Island. They’re some of my absolute favorite humans in the world, and getting to spend that week with them each year makes the whole experience all the more special.

So, though it’s not technically a Ladycation, I hope you enjoy this next collection of stories as I try to capture my childhood home, and most cherished place: Madeline Island. Thanks for reading! Join me next week on LadycationSunday as my peeps and I begin our week-long camping adventure at Big Bay Town Park! And don’t forget to follow Ladycations to stay up to date on the latest trips, tips, and tales! Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends.

~Steph