Thursday, August 25, 2016

Happy 100 Years to the National Park Service

Grand Canyon
Despite not posting frequent updates, I do give a bit of thought to this blog and also the experiences I have documented and hope/plan to document some day. I've been very fortunate to have visited so many places and I revisit those experiences through pictures, discussing my travels with friends, and reading/hearing about others' experiences and often comparing them to my own.

Lassen Volcanic National Park
Muir Wood
When I travel, I like to visit big cities and small towns, natural wonders and quiet parks, and I will incorporate any and all into my trips. But I cannot imagine traveling the United States without taking advantage of one or more (hopefully many more) visits to our nation's national parks. Truly one of the best things the United States has to offer is the National Park Service which oversees many parks, monuments, historic sites, etc. all over the United States. From Yellowstone's geysers to the gigantic gash in the Earth that is the Grand Canyon to San Francisco's Golden Gate, to the swamps of the Everglades, to mountains and rainforests, to the Revolutionary War battlefield just a few miles east of my hometown (plug for the Saratoga National Historical Park, done!), the National Park Service, celebrating 100 years today (and all this year), offers something for everyone at little or no charge.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, White House ruins
Petrified Forest
I've written about some of my park experiences before, like getting trapped in Yosemite during forest fires, but I have a lot more to share. Today, though, I'd just like to say thank you to the park service for existing, to the visionaries like John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt who knew that protecting these places was important, and to everyone who keeps them going today from rangers, other employees, and volunteers, to President Obama, for designating new parks, protecting lands for their natural and historical significance.

I'm lucky that my parents took me and my brother to visit so many parks all over the country during our family vacations; those trips stay with me and have helped me explore further. And a special shout-out to my father for volunteering each summer at Black Canyon of the Gunnison, I'm putting a visit
next year as one of my goals.

So, please explore our national parks. Remember that they're there for everyone, that they're important and need to be protected, and know that you will gain so much from any experience you have with them.

"Do nothing to mar its grandeur for the ages have been at work on it and man cannot improve it. Keep it for your children, your children's children, and all who come after you."
Theodore Roosevelt

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Meramec Caverns

After a long hiatus, I'm back to writing about my cross country adventures! Where did we leave off? Ah, yes. I was discovering and sharing the wonders of the great Route 66. And so we continue...

My first Route 66 stop was Meramec Caverns in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri. I saw a crumbling billboard along the highway advertising it as a one-time hideout of Frank and Jesse James (Frank who?). I figured, why not? and headed over.

Welcome to Meramec! You should see the signs I don't have pictures of.

Meramec was a classic road trip destination, a great mix of old fashioned fun and kitsch with some history and geology thrown in. The approach was via a dusty road, faded billboards marking the way. The fairly empty parking lot didn't exactly inspire confidence, nor did the seemingly unfulfilled promise of boat rides on the adjacent Meramec River, docks connected to the cave complex. I think maybe the boat rides weren't yet open for the season; too bad, that would've been fun*. I'll get to the James thing later but I think there is a connection (literally, like with water) between a river in the cave and the one flowing right outside, which I think supposedly allowed Frank and Jesse to escape from the cave. I say supposedly a lot because the James-Meramec connection is, from what I've read, very tenuous at best.

Boat? Check. River? Check. Someone to steer? Uh...
Thanks to a crappy YA book possibly called Cave of Wonder, I knew of Missouri's title as the Cave State before this visit. The Ozarks are filled with caves, many of them likely unexplored. Since most of my recollections of the Ozarks come from Lois Duncan books (fear not, I'll be talking about her when I write about New Mexico) I immediately think of the mysterious lore associated with the region. Although I didn't even exactly realize I was in the Ozarks, Meramec brought out the mystery and I was satisfied with the feel I got. I know that's ignorant of me since there's so much more to any area than some fading signs and a crumbling roadside attraction, impressive though the cave itself actually was. The cave certainly offers a ton of local flavor--it's a major Missouri tourist attraction, played a role during the Civil War, and--get this--has a "ballroom" where the locals used to hold parties. Awesome, right?
The cave tour at Meramec is a lot of fun, very accessible, and not remotely frightening for the claustrophobic. I used to think Howe Caverns, a cave about an hour's drive from where I live, had the corner on the kitschy cave market thanks to the in-cave wedding chapel complete with inset stone heart. That ain't nothin' compared to Meramec. 

First to note are the life size James Brothers figures during their daring hideout and planning the subsequent great escape. As the story goes, Frank and Jesse hid in the cave, knowing of a deeper, unexplored cavern or something while the sheriff waited outside. And then they rode an underground river to freedom. Historical evidence says maybe not but it's a good story. Aside from the James brothers hiding out in the cave, Meramec has a couple of other claims to fame. One: it was the sight of an episode of a TV show (People Are Funny? I'd never heard of it) where a couple was offered a honeymoon in the Ozarks, not realizing they'd be spending their days--and nights--in a cave. 

The other claim to fame has to do with a convention of some sort that took place in the cave. There's a kind of theater area deep underground where a political event took place. (Details? Who needs those?) As a special surprise, Kate Smith was engaged to sing God Bless America. I can't seem to find any information on what the event actually was and since I clearly don't remember you can tell how interesting the guide was. Nevertheless, the Kate Smith event was indeed a thing and apparently someone was so impressed that now there's this amazing light to show for it:

Yes, that's the American flag projected on rock
The most ridiculous part of the cave tour came at the end. Before leaving, everyone was escorted into the theater space where we were treated to--get this--a sound and light show featuring the Missouri Waltz and our tour guide flipping switches, constantly changing the colors and illuminating the rock wall in front of us. It was awesome. That spectacle was followed by a recording of Kate Smith singing God Bless America, you know, to semi-recreate or honor that past event whose details I've completely forgotten, with the flag light pictured above. It too was amazing.

Meramec is also geologically interesting! It has a stalagmite so massive you really can't see where it comes from or its height or width. I couldn't even tell it was a stalagmite until the guide said so. Unfortunately he wasn't too enthusiastic about it--if I had a stalagmite that big I'd be proud of it, damn it!--but at least it's part of the tour, There are other neat formations including a famous "wine table" and the usual hangy and sparkly bits that accompany your average cave tour. A better geologist than I could explain this stuff for real so I'll just say it's very cool and leave it at that.

Overall, Meramec had no shortage of kitschy moments from the illuminated stalactites and stalagmites to the sound and light show to the James Brothers diorama. The cave entrance itself set the tone: you're already in the cave when you buy your ticket. If you're seriously into caves (or into serious caves) Meramec might not be for you despite its impressive geology, interesting enough in natural rock shades. I'm interested in the science and I've done plenty of more natural cave tours and enjoyed them. But as a little piece of Americana, as a classic roadside tourist attraction, as something that marries local culture, history, and geology, it just doesn't get any better than Meramec Caverns.

*I'm quite sure this paragraph used to contain the key to world peace or something but somehow it got garbled and I have no clue what I meant to say. Sorry, world.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Happy Earth Day!

Just a quick post today after a loooong absence... Since today is Earth Day I thought I'd honor the day with a couple of pictures from my (relatively) recent trip to Iceland. If you didn't know, Iceland is awesome with its use of geothermal energy, plus it's a really cool and beautiful place and geologically fascinating. Good feature for Earth Day, no?

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Get Your Kicks on Route 66

Of all the roads crisscrossing the United States, few have the intrigue of the Mother Road: Route 66 which, as it happens, actually isn’t a road anymore. Route 66 was first established in 1926 and it symbolizes important aspects of many eras in American history: it's road trips, family vacations, Americana, heading to California in search of a better life... Personally, I love 66, what it was in the past as well as what it is today; driving portions of Historic Route 66 and state roads still designated as 66 was a major trip highlight. There are other roads that are longer, others that are older, plus it's just not a continuous road, but there’s just something about 66--lasting to this day--that makes it special. Although the road was officially decommissioned in 1985, it lives on in so many ways.

                                                                                  My favorite Route 66 map

Route 66 originally ran from Chicago to LA (Santa Monica technically) which isn’t even cross-country or anything and yet there is something about it, not just because of the song (pardon the video) which isn't exactly accurate and points if you know why, the TV shownbsp;or associations with Okies and Arkies (no offense to anyone considering those derogatory terms which, apparently, they might be). Route 66 today is a combination of motels, tourist attractions, restaurants, and empty stretches of highway, some things dilapidated, others looking like they did fifty years ago (I hope), while many are modern versions of old attractions.

I was lucky enough to drive portions of 66 in most of the states it passes/passed through (I'm pretty sure I skipped Illinois and I know I missed Kansas but whatever, 66 is barely in Kansas). Driving Route 66 turned out to be an extended and special part of my trip. While I often deviated from its course and there are many places where it simply doesn't exist, meeting up with it--especially after miles of Interstate--was like returning to an old friend.

                                                           Elvis slept here. No, really.
Representatives of Holbrook, AZ's large dinosaur population

In some places, the road is marked Historic Route 66 and there are real attempts to preserve the road's history. Often these areas are main streets of tiny towns, many of which have likely seen a rebirth (certainly in tourism) due to renewed interest in and in preserving Route 66. I-40 might be right next to towns like Elk City, Holbrook, and Winslow but at least there are thriving local businesses. Would many of these places even really exist in the same way without Route 66? Would they merely offer a Walmart, McDonalds, gas station, and Holiday Inn to those on the highway in need of a break? While many of these places have those Interstate adjacent amenities, I think and hope travelers appreciate the local character. Maybe I'm overdramatic but I've seen enough places without character to appreciate those that are unique. In some ways I like ubiquity as much as the next person but if every place looks and feels the same, why go anywhere?

Those poles mark the original road
Stay tuned for the full post on Meramec Caverns

                                                           This chair is in need of a giant.
I tried to do a few 66 things every day during my travels along that route. I ate at funky diners, toured caves, stood on street corners (not like that), and went to museums. One thing I didn't do was stay in an old motel and now I really wish I had. Something for the next trip, I guess.


Route 66 isn't always the most scenic or the most interesting and it's never the fastest. And yet, it has that mystique that sets it apart from other roads. I love it all: the kitschy souvenir shops, the many Route 66 museums--most of which offer a lot of the same "information" and similar memorabilia--but are all worth visiting nonetheless, the crumbling gas stations, peeling signs, signs proclaiming historic significance, funky motels, freshly painted murals, giant rocking chairs, maps creeping along the sides of buildings, and so, so much more.

I'll be covering many of my stops along Route 66 so be prepared to read a lot more about it (please?). Route 66 is the quintessential road trip road and, as someone who loves road trips, I couldn't help but long to experience some of the glory of that road, and someday to experience it again. Route 66 may not be what it once was but it's still special and I give my thanks to everyone who has helped keep 66 and its spirit alive.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Merry First of March from Santa Claus

Wow, it's been a long time since I've updated! Yikes. I still have most of a road trip to post about before I forget it all. So here's the next bit...

When we left off, I had just stopped for the night in middle-of-nowhere, Indiana. That overnight stop was notable because the hotel was the first I encountered with an open pool (and hey, that’s important). The hotel was also unusual in that it was literally on the border between Eastern and Central Time. Like, to the point that my phone kept switching back and forth. Unfortunately, the hotel was officially in Eastern Time while Santa Claus, my new first destination for the next day, was in Central. Since stuff there didn’t open until 10, I lost some time there. It’s not like I’d actually planned on visiting Santa Claus but since I was so close I figured I should. Ultimately, I don’t think it made much of a difference aside from the fact that maybe I’d have been able to fit in the next day’s stop a little earlier. But maybe not so it really doesn’t matter.

Santa Claus was both kind of amazing and incredibly pathetic. As you may know, the town's original name was not Santa Claus but Santa Fe (pronounced "fee") and apparently since there already was one of those, they had to change the name. As to why they chose Santa Claus, I've heard that was to drive tourism though I have no idea if it's true and if it is I’m not sure how well that worked. There isn’t much to the place, actually. I visited the strip mall that I’m pretty sure passes for the center of town. It contains the post office, supermarket, and massive Christmas-themed gift shop. What else do you need? I didn't see much else or even very many people.

There is a local theme park, Holiday World (I think it used to be Christmas World?) but that’s pretty much my definition of Hell so I definitely didn’t check it out. I did rather enjoy the gift shop. See, I don’t even celebrate Christmas and I find a lot of that stuff tacky to the extreme (no offense) and I get that it’s important to a lot of people but all this commercial stuff, every ornament imaginable, and people take it so damn seriously seems just a tiny bit over the top.

Anyway, Santa Claus is now one of those places I can say I’ve been, a little curiosity, just one of those bizarre little places that dot the landscape of this country. As for my trip, I continued through Indiana, Illinois, and into Missouri.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Cincinnati and Louisville

I only spent a few hours in Cincinnati. That was enough.

Actually, I do wish I’d had more time there but on a different day. Cincinnati is home to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center which I did see but only from the outside. It’s closed on Sundays which is when I happened to be passing through.  I hadn’t really thought about the city's strategic location just across the Ohio River from Kentucky (well, except for the airport which is in Kentucky) but Cincinnati was an important part of the Underground Railroad. Next trip I’ll do the whole museum thing, whenever that happens.

What with the center being near the river and all, there are some bridges nearby. I think the most famous is probably this one:

If you notice a resemblance to the Brooklyn Bridge, good eye! Both were designed by Roebling; this one actually bears his name. I walked about halfway across. It would’ve been fun to walk the whole things but I had a few reasons for not bothering: it was hot out, the pedestrian walkway was pretty deserted (as was most of downtown), and there were other things to do.

Cincinnati apparently has a great art museum. It seemed a little tough to actually get there so I didn’t go. Again, next trip. I did go to the Taft Museum, a smaller museum downtown in the former home of some people who were sort of related to the president somehow. I'm trying a new thing where if I don't remember the facts, I either make them up or leave them out. Less work and I'm more inclined to finish posts in a timely manner. Hence the lack of Taft Family Tree.

After all that bridge and museum activity, I was ready for dinner. As you may not know and I sure didn’t, Cincinnati’s famous and perhaps favorite city dish is chili. Their chili is not chili as I know it: thicker than soup, made with beans. Chili in Cincinnati is basically meat and spices served over spaghetti (yes, you read that right). I’m okay with rice, in a bowl with a few crackers is fine, I’ve even done chili on a jacket potato in England. But spaghetti? That just seems weird. I noticed it also typically has cheese which I’ll concede is fairly normal in my world though not for me. I've read that there's also some ordering system with numbers corresponding to stuff in or on the chili... it's a thing, let's just go with it.

Anyway, I figured there was no harm in trying the stuff. Thus began a scavenger hunt across the city of Cincinnati for an open chili restaurant. These days, chain restaurants are a pretty common thing. According to my Don’t Die Before You’ve Done This book, there are a few big chili places: I knew about Skyline and Gold Star. The book neglected to mention that Skylines tend to be closed on Sundays. I saw two, maybe three downtown, totally closed. By then I was on a mission. Aided only by my GPS, I traversed the city in search of an open chili restaurant.

Miles later, I almost literally stumbled across a Gold Star in a run-down strip mall. What the hell? I thought, and headed inside. I ordered chili "two ways" which is basically meat/sauce and spaghetti. I have to admit, I wasn't terribly impressed. Not my thing though the pictures looked delicious.

The waitress was really surprised to hear I was from New York; she didn't hear an accent and I decided it wouldn't be polite to tell her I could hear hers. I got similar reactions all over the country, actually, along with the New York=New York City thing. I always enjoyed hearing "Where in New York?" over "Say something New York! (and what I really want to hear is fuggedaboutit)".

As far as Louisville is concerned, I really didn’t see that much of it. I unfortunately got there kind of late on a Sunday when things tended to be closed. I’ve heard tell of a great museum there but of course didn’t see it. I did get to see a large, wax Colonel Sanders but I couldn’t get too close. Sadly, because that thing was awesome. That dude’s everywhere in Louisville. I also got to see the giant Louisville Slugger (that’s a baseball bat for the unaware) outside their factory.

Through a window hence the sucky quality

I found downtown Louisville very pretty with interesting architecture and lots of flowers. It wasn’t very crowded though, and as it was getting late, I didn’t really linger. Instead, I continued to Indiana where I stopped for the night just a few miles from Santa Claus.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Hocking Hills

Gorges, caves, waterfalls. These are all words that typically come to mind when one thinks of Ohio. Right? Well, around Hocking Hills State Park, perhaps. I first read about Hocking Hills in one of those 10 Gazillion Places to Visit Before You Kick the Bucket: Flat States Edition* books. The book said I should go, so I did.
Hocking Hills is about 50 miles southeast of Columbus, off the Interstate, in a gorge-ous part of the state.  The caves basically are recesses with overhangs, amazingly called recess caves, not deep, labyrinthine, underground caves. They’re still cool, though, Old Man Cave in particular. That one’s special because an Old Man actually lived there, hence the name. There’s a plaque in his honor and everything.  Old Man Cave is a short hike from the Visitor Center, down along the side of the gorge. 

From that point, there are a few trail options; I chose the loop around Lower Falls and back to the Visitor Center. The trail winds along the gorge passing little caves with drips that can’t really be called waterfalls, much as I’d like to. While Lower Falls itself is pretty, the best part is the aquamarine water (that looks doubly redundant even though it isn’t) in the pool at the falls’ base.

For me, the hike back up was the hardest part. The trail included a rickety staircase, the kind where you can see in between each step with a steep drop-off into the gorge just a couple of feet away. What can I say, I’m a really big baby. Fortunately, a nice woman reassured me on the “hike” and let me borrow her walking stick, that was greatly appreciated. Her dog didn't like the staircase either, just for the record.

After the hike around Old Man Cave, I visited the most famous and popular waterfall in the park: Cedar Falls.

The hike down was easy; the path winds along the gorge, shaded by trees, following the stream. The trail is a loop and the way back wasn’t quite so easy: it looked like a bridge had collapsed or washed out or something so the stream had to be forded. Luckily it was shallow though I think technically visitors aren’t supposed to go in the water at all. Oh, well. Also, one area included a very narrow but thankfully short passageway between massive rocks. Not exactly a claustrophobic’s dream but the rest of the trail was easy.

Hocking Hills more than kind of reminds me of the Woodruff Nature Center in New York, a place I wrote a little about once. Although my trips to both places were on hot days, the parks were shady and filled with running water, and felt relatively cool. Both places also have waterfalls and unusual caves and feel almost hidden from the rest of the world.

Ohio was one of the few states I passed through twice on my road trip; Hocking Hills was definitely the highlight of the state so totally worth a visit.

Next up: Cincinnati to Louisville

*This is not an actual book. As far as I know.