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Thanksgiving Reflections … from the Woodshed?

It’s hard to imagine. It’s even ironic — at least from the perspective of a guy who works for an electric utility, but let’s shut down all the electronic gadgets for a moment and step back in time.

Put yourself in the position of the Pilgrims and Native Americans who celebrated that first Thanksgiving in the early 1620s.

Mike Birkeland with his German Shorthair, Chestnut

Hangin’ with Chestnut in the Woodshed

The European settlers had just crossed the Atlantic on the Mayflower and landed on Plymouth Rock. They battled illness and death all the way across. Their early days in the new world brought more of the same.

According to the history books, their new neighbors, the local Natives, knew how to live and work off the land. They shared what they knew. The technology of the time, flint and stone, was used to plant corn and make fire. It was primitive. But it kept people alive.

Now fast forward nearly four hundred years. What if we put ourselves in the shoes of the early settlers or Native Americans who first inhabited this land?

They had very little. Yet they came together and gave thanks for the resources, blessings and gifts bestowed upon them by their Creator.

It makes me wonder … in this world of instant gratification, media manipulation and technology overload if we truly understand the meaning of “giving thanks” and being thankful for all that we have?

Maybe I’m just getting old. Perhaps I’m becoming more cynical.

Either way, if TV news channels, social media or presidential elections are any indication, I don’t get the sense we’re thankful for much anymore.

But as we settle in for Thanksgiving this year, my hope is we take a deep breath and make it more than another day to sit on the sofa and watch football.

Maybe this year we’ll actually toss a football with our kids or grandkids. Or, maybe we’ll invoke a little old-school thinking and play yahtzee, a game of rummy or roast chestnuts on an open fire.

Oops. Sorry. I’m mixing seasons a bit. Besides, I really don’t know anyone who has ever actually roasted chestnuts on an open fire.

But it sounds good, doesn’t it?

And that’s the point. People didn’t have much “back in the day.” And they still got by. It probably made the little they had that much more meaningful.

This year, as we enjoy a warm home, a hot meal and the comfort of family or friends, let’s be thankful for all that we’ve inherited from our forefathers and mothers. Whether its freedom, liberty or faith, we have much to be thankful for.

Happy Thanksgiving – from Mike, Wendy and Sarah Mae & the Birkeland Boys. May it–and you–be blessed. 

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An Odyssey to ‘My Favorite Guitars‘ 
(Article originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of Minnesota Bluegrass magazine)
The idea of “springing ahead” didn’t feel so good when the alarm went off at 4:15 a.m. But I quickly adjusted to an awakened state when our 17-year-old son, Derek, walked in the door.
 
My Favorite GuitarsNormally, his late, or should I say early, arrival would cause an uproar in our house. But we weren’t home. We were at the Crowne Plaza in Plymouth, MN at the MBOTMA Winter Weekend. Derek had been up late jamming with friends.
 
MBOTMA weekends are the exception to family curfew rules — as long as the kids adhere to the “buddy system.”
 
Early-morning wake-up calls are not the norm during festivals. And it didn’t help this was the “spring ahead” Daylight Savings Time weekend. That meant one-less hour of sleep. But we had an adventure waiting. It was time to hit the road. We had Naples, Florida, in our sights.
 
This is where the story expands a bit, so I must invoke a bit of arithmetic in story-problem form: Picture two families; a total of four adults and 11 kids ranging from the age of three to 18. Add a 31-foot Pleasureland Rental RV into the mix, and you have 15 people (and a nearly equal number of musical instruments) piled into a Class C motorhome bound for an 8,000-mile round-trip journey to the Sunshine State and back. We had eight days to pack it all in.
 
The Rental Unit - Ready to Roll

The Rental Unit – Ready to Roll

If you’re scoring at home, we exceeded the “sleep number” for the RV, but you’d be surprised how creative you can be when several members of your group are under four-feet tall. 

 
MBOTMA “Connections”
The two families on this journey had become (and still are!) good friends through MBOTMA. The families of Paul Ashworth and Mike Birkeland see each other often at weekend festivals.
 
The two families account for five of the six members of the band “Porcupine Creek.” About the only thing missing on this trip was the third PC family. Soren Olesen and his crew couldn’t make the journey but they were with us in spirit. Besides, if Soren, Judith, Holger, Sophia, and Grandma Audrey had been able to make it, this story problem would be even more complex.
 
But enough with the numbers … we are musicians after all. If you’re like me, you’d rather not count past the number of beats in a measure.
 
We were off to Naples to visit MBOTMA friends and play a benefit concert arranged by Jon and Sharon Garon, owners of My Favorite Guitars. Sharon organized the event to raise money for Grace Place, an organization that helps children and families overcome poverty.
 
We were also Naples-bound to play music with MBOTMA members Bill and Kate Isles, who were touring in the area. Two of the Porcupine Creek kids also play with the singer-songwriter duo when they perform as the Bill and Kate Isles Band.
 
A late start
Due to the priority of jamming and playing at the winter weekend, we didn’t quite have the RV completely ready to roll at 4:15 a.m. Sunday morning. By the time our bags were finally packed and we filled the 50-gallon tank with gas (gulp!), the clock read 10:06 a.m.
 
The 4,000 mile odyssey was underway. “The Plan” was to alternate drivers, use the RV as a moving motel and drive straight to Naples. Google Maps said it would take 26 hours.
 
Unfortunately, we found that Google is overly optimistic. Call it more like 36 hours.
 
Jake Ashworth getting his rest along the road.

Jake Ashworth getting his rest along the road.

Maybe it’s because we had a few RV-movie like adventures along the way. We had to stop and grab some water to manually “flush” because it turned out our water holding tank (that we thought we had filled) was empty. No water, no flush.

 
It turns out there was trouble with the tank valve. Or maybe it was operator error. Either way, picture Robin Williams in the movie RV. That was us.
 
Also, when you’re traveling in an RV, gas stops to fill 50-gallon tank take awhile. When you add 15 people, who decide they need to use a real restroom; buy goods and services and otherwise loiter in a convenience store, it adds up to 25 minutes with every stop.
 
The idea of “making time” was based on a good theory. But like many theories, it didn’t stand up to the rigors of actual application outside the laboratory of our minds.
 
We adults, however, did enjoy the opportunity to move around while traveling, make meals on the fly and stretch our legs for much-needed rest.
 
The kids enjoyed the flexibility of playing cards, stretching out, jamming, listening to bluegrass and, dare I say, country music. The banter among the teenagers in the RV was, at least for this dad, priceless. It reminded me that God is merciful. Thankfully, most of us move beyond the mindset of a teenager.
 
Are we there yet?
The worst part of the road trip on the way down, occurred just north of Tampa Bay on I-75. The interstate was under construction and it looked more like a parking lot than a freeway.
 
It was a discouraging stretch of asphalt and added to the unallotted and unplanned Google time issue that was mentioned earlier.
 
After surviving the grueling Tampa traffic, we finally pulled into the Garon’s at 10:15 p.m. Monday, March 10 — 36 hours after our departure from Minnesota.
 
The first thing the kids (at least all the kids under 15) did was jump in the pool. I’m not sure what the other adults did, but it took less than minute before I said “yes” to Jon’s offer of a glass of Merlot. It was a small reward for a weary traveler.
 
Our first full day in Florida put us full-tilt into logistics mode. The dads assumed that responsibility (think Chevy Chase in the “Vacation” movies).
 
We had rental cars to pick up (a good use of piled up VISA Points) and the RV needed to find it’s reserved home at the nearby Collier-Seminole state park. We also had to drop a couple of kids off to play an afternoon gig with Bill and Kate at the park.
 
Sarah Mae & the 'Boys' with Jake Ashworth on banjo performing in Naples.

Sarah Mae & the ‘Boys’ with Jake Ashworth on banjo performing in Naples.

Thankfully, the ever-gracious Mr. Isles also coached us through our first experience at the campground dump station where we had issues with a cracked sewer hose. If you saw the movie “RV,” you know the scene we were fearfully close to repeating.

 
Thankfully, before we turned any valves, Bill loaned us his RhinoFLEX swivel hose, along with a clear elbow adapter. As Bill poignantly noted, the clear plastic adapter helps you “see” when you’ve successfully completed the “job.”
 
It’s good to have smart and experienced friends. Thankfully, our RV rookie dump dilemma was averted. Whew!
 
Day One in Naples concluded with the benefit concert for Grace Place. Porcupine Creek was the headline band. And the group of teenagers, still fresh off their November Race for a Place win at MBOTMA’s Harvest Jam, didn’t disappoint the well-tanned Naples crowd.
 
Bill and Kate Isles also joined “the kids” at the concert, along with this writer and our family band, “Sarah Mae & the Birkeland Boys.” Jon Garon and Naples super crooner David Estes rounded out the evening of bluegrass music. Nearly $1,000 was raised to benefit kids and families in need in the Naples area. 
 
More than white sand beaches …

The benefit concert was focal point of the trip, but there was plenty of time for other priorities over the remainder of our four-day whirlwind. In fact, we especially liked trading the snow in Minnesota for Naples’ white sand beaches. 

Beach Bums

Beach Bums

 
The only down side was our Minnesota complexions. We speculated our collective glare, which was much whiter than the sand, may have scared the locals and the college spring break kids. But we found a few bold souls with dark sunglasses who we’re willing to take us on in a few games of beach volleyball. 
 
We also made time for plenty of music for the remainder of our stay as well. The Bill and Kate Isles Band played to an enthusiastic crowd of campers at the state park Wednesday evening.  They invited Porcupine Creek and Sarah Mae and the Birkeland Boys to play a few tunes. It wasn’t the Grand Ole Opry, but Minnesota-style bluegrass, folk and old-time music went over big at the campground.
 
The final music event of the week took place at Jon and Sharon Garon’s home on Thursday evening. Our ever-gracious hosts invited the neighborhood — as well as everyone from the benefit concert over for dinner and music on Thursday. The impromptu House Concert was the highlight of the week.
 
Our host, Jon Garon, in the middle of the "jam" during the Thursday house concert.

Our host, Jon Garon, in the middle of the “jam” during the Thursday house concert.

In addition to all the musicians already mentioned, we were joined by several members of another Minnesota MBOTMA family — the Ophoven’s from Grand Rapids. But they took a more humane route to Naples. They flew.

 
The Ophoven’s were in town visiting a friend, Karysse Trandem. Karysse, is a Doctor by day and a gifted singer and performer on the side. Her version of Etta James’ signature song, “At Last,” brought the house down to start the night.
 
With all the great music, improvisation, creative energy and Elizabeth Ophoven’s breakneck-speed mandolin breaks, it was a night to remember. And a House Concert not soon to be equaled.
 
Homeward Bound
By the time Friday rolled around, our minds were back in travel mode. We would be leaving for home early Saturday morning, so after one last trip to the beach, and an enjoyable “last supper” with the Garon’s, we ran a few errands and packed the RV for 2,000 mile odyssey back home.
 
Among those final errands was one last trip to Jon’s store. Paul and I had been eyeing up a couple of sweet-sounding Martin’s hanging on the wall at My Favorite Guitars, including a custom MBOTMA D-15 designed by Mark Kreitzer.
 
As fate would have it, we came home with two more instruments than we left with. We also hit the road for home with a lifetime of memories packed into a whirlwind journey and an overstuffed RV.
 
With a few traveling mercies and a lot of prayer, we made it back to Minnesota around 8:30 p.m. Sunday evening. If you’re still keeping score, that’s a total of eight days and seven nights with 15 people, one RV and great music.
 
Would we do it again? Depending on who you ask, you’ll get different answers. But this dad would do it again in a heartbeat. We would take more time though. For the road trip itself as well as our time in the Sunshine State.
 
Now that we’re home, we’ve settled back into our normal routine. That includes a summer filled with songs, bluegrass festivals, jam circles and visiting with the many friends we’ve made through the Minnesota Bluegrass and Old-Time Music Association.
 
And, for as much fun as we had on our Florida adventure, we won’t have to travel 4,000 miles to do it. Until then, pick early. Pick late. Pick often. And if it works for you — try pickin’ in an overstuffed RV. The memories will last a lifetime.