Spring is in full, beautiful bloom in the Finger Lakes region of New York, site of this month’s meeting of the Midwest Travel Writers Association.
In addition to lots of photos, oodles of story ideas and great memories, I brought home three Mark Twain awards, including a first place, in MTWA’s annual travel writing competition.
The contest, with 168 entries, was judged by Betsy Edgerton, associate journalism professor in the Department of Communication and Media Innovation at Columbia College Chicago. The awards were presented amid the Victorian splendor of Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion State Historic Park in Canandaigua, NY.
My first place win, in the recent sites category, was for a story on the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, site of MTWA’s last conference in September. It detailed an Ohio woman’s pilgrimage to Whitefish Point to pay respects to her uncle who lost his life, with all 28 other crew members, when the Edmund Fitzgerald sank in Lake Superior in 1975. The story, described as “illuminating” by the judge, ran last November in both The Detroit News and the Dallas Morning News and received some 8,000 hits on social media. You can read it here: http://www.detroitnews.com/story/life/2014/11/04/edmund-fitzgerald-legend-lives/18488647/
I also won second and third place awards in the contest’s newspaper categories, international and domestic, respectively:
“Jewish Berlin: The Capital City Where Hip Meets History,” ran last September in the Detroit Jewish News; the judge said it was “beautifully written and truly reader-friendly, with a lot of the writer’s personality mixed in.”
My third-place winner, which I dubbed ‘Just for the halibut,’ described a shore excursion from a Disney Wonder cruise in Alaska; it was published in The Daily Journal, Kankakee, IL, in January, 2014. The contest judge offered these kind words: “The writing in this article is bright and engaging; readers would be all set to pack their bags.” You can check it out here: http://www.daily-journal.com/life/travel/let-s-go—destination-ketchikan-alaska/article_f2fde1e2-a78d-59b3-88da-9c79b1a046ec.html
Fittingly, several days before the Mark Twain awards were presented, I happened to visit Mark Twain’s study and grave-site in Elmira, NY., at the eastern end of the Finger Lakes. Custom-built originally on a local farm owned by the author’s sister-in-law, the historic study was later moved to the Elmira College campus. It’s a small, octagon-shaped structure, painted a drab chocolate brown, that mimics the pilot house of a riverboat like the one Twain — given name Samuel Clemens — worked on as a young man on the Mississippi River. Large windows front the study’s sides and student guides tell tales of the many cigars the author smoked daily and the cats that kept him company as he wrote most of his American literary classics there in the late 19th-century, including “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” “The Prince and the Pauper,” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
A short ride away, courtesy of Trolley into Twain Country Tours, we paused on a hillside at Woodlawn Cemetery and pondered its most famous resident. In keeping with local custom, I placed a penny on Twain’s gravestone and hoped that the writing muse would pay me long and fruitful visits in the coming years.