Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Homer's Travels Look Back At 2009

Another year is almost over. Tonight we'll probably go out for an early dinner before watching the Omaha fireworks show. Going through my posts from this year, I really didn't find much of a trend. I posted about the same number of posts this year as in 2008 though this year's numbers were padded by the only predominant theme: photography. As the year went by the number of pictures I've taken has slowly decreased. I guess I'm ending the year in a picture taking slump.

Let's look back at 2009, shall we:
Last year, when I summed up my plans for the new year, I said:
"The coming year is going to be one of preparation for me. I want to prepare myself for the 2010 Pilgrimage of Saint James. There are a couple trails including the Steamboat and Cowboy trails that should provide good training. I also intend to do more Omaha walkabouts to add miles to my legs in between bike rides."
The coming year will be a continuation of the last. I have postponed my Pilgrimage to 2011 for various reasons. I intend to do the Steamboat trail this May. I am considering doing the Cowboy Trail in July/August after I get back from our Jordan trip. We'll see what actually happens.

Watching all the retrospectives of television, the last year, not to mention the last decade, were pretty dismal. Fortunately, The Wife and I have come through relatively unscathed. Hopefully the new year, 2010, an optimistic sounding year, is better for everyone.

Here's to a Happy and Prosperous New Year for all.
May all your dreams come true in 2010.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Snowshoeing Iowa: Wabash Trace South Of Council Bluffs

The Wabash Trace Nature Trail, in the north, starts in Council Bluffs, a short 25 minutes from my home. The first segment from Council Bluffs to Mineola is paved and has a parallel horse trail. At least I think it's paved - it's hard to tell with everything under inches of snow. On Christmas eve and Christmas Day we received 14 inches of blowing snow. I figured this would mean I would have another chance to use my snowshoes before the year ran out and I was right.
The trace starts in Iowa West Foundation Trailhead Park not far from the Iowa School for the Deaf (They have some impressive buildings that I'll have to come back and photograph sometime). I was concerned that the parking lot would be unusable because of all the snow but a good Samaritan must have come in a cleared most of the parking lot.

The snow conditions on this part of the trace were quite different from
those near Coin. Near Coin the snow was pristine, fluffy, and soft. My snowshoes sank in some two to three inches. On the trace near Council Bluffs there was widespread evidence of snowmobile (despite the no motorized vehicles signs) and cross-country ski tracks. This activity packed the snow down so that my snowshoes only sank an inch or so. It's a lot easier to walk on packed snow and I managed to double my speed to about 2 mph.

The part of the trace I walked on today was not that exciting. The trail parallels busy roads and farmland that detracts from nature. There are a
lot of trees that provide some shelter and separation but this section is accompanied by a lot of street noise. I was hoping that I would be shoeing in snow but the light snow I drove in to get to the trailhead stopped when I started down the trace and restarted again when I got back to the car - bad timing I guess. I took a few pictures which I've added to my 2009-2013 Wabash Trace Nature Trail Hike Google Photos album.

My turn around point was a bridge and bench about 2.2 miles from the trailhead. I took time to sit on the bench to eat a snack bar. I figured that sitting while eating would reduce the chance of face planting like I did last time. I was right.

The packed snow allowed my to extend my snowshoe out to 4.49 miles with a small elevation change of 140 feet. Despite the easier going, and me dressing more appropriately for the weather, I still had a trickle of sweat running down my back when I got to the turn around point and slightly wobbly legs when I got back to the car.

There is more snow in the forecast so I expect more snowshoeing in the new year.

On a side note,
my back, that was bothering me since Saturday, is getting a lot better and, wearing a back brace just in case, snowshoeing didn't aggravate it.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Book: Sarah Vowell's "The Wordy Shipmates"


I have been a fan of Sarah Vowell ever since I heard her on This American Life. I have seen her in person twice before. On the radio, and in person, she has a dry wit and a funny delivery that is helped by her squeaky voice. In these short, limited doses, Vowell can be very entertaining. In a longer, written form, say, a book, her humor doesn't quite hold its own.

Sarah Vowell's latest, "The Wordy Shipmates" is the second book of her's that I've read. The first, "Assassination Vacation", which I reviewed here, was okay. It held my interest. "The Wordy Shipmates" was tougher. The book is about the puritans who settled the Boston area. I've never considered the puritans a funny bunch. Vowell tries her best to make the subject interesting and humorous but falls short. Even reading it in her voice doesn't help - after hearing her voice, it's impossible not to hear her reading the book in your head.

The book is a little repetitive, a fact that resulted in the Wife getting bored and not finishing the book. I finished it but I have to agree that Vowell rehashes things a lot. It's like she's talking to you and is worried that you may have forgotten what she said a few minutes ago. After doing that every few minutes, it would get old and this book doing it every few pages gets old as well.

I like Sarah Vowell but I've determined that I can only handle her in small portions. When her next book comes out, I will have think long and hard before I buy it.

Not recommended unless you have a puritan fetish. This was a let down for my last book of 2009 and my 18th book of the year.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

One Lift-Twist Is All It Took

While shoveling and snow blowing this morning, my back finally caught up with me. Years ago, back in college, I hurt my lower back. Once you hurt your back, it is never the same again. Every few years I would do something, often something stupid, and re-injure it. This morning I felt fine but, after my first lift-twist with a shovel full of snow, I'm now walking around like an old man.

I was and still am planning to snowshoe later this week but my lower back will probably have the final say.

Now, excuse me, but I need to go back to my Tylenol, Ibuprofen, and heating pad.

Friday, December 25, 2009

A Very White Christmas

Well Christmas finally got here after the longest Christmas Eve in history. Outside the blizzard is still blowing. We woke up at 7:30AM this morning and went out 15 minutes later to start clearing our driveway and our neighbor's driveway. We have a deal with our elderly neighbors - we clear out their driveway and sidewalks and they let us use their snow blower. So far it's been a pretty sweet deal. A snow blower really speeds things up. Here's what we had to deal with this morning:


Not the most interesting picture as, instead of red and green, everything is white and grey. Between the garage door and the street was a three to four foot drift. The Wife and I managed to knock both driveways out in about an hour and fifteen minutes. We are pretty exhausted and the thought that we will be doing it again this afternoon and tomorrow is a little depressing.

Mom was going to come over for Christmas dinner but that won't be happening due to the snow. The In-Law's Christmas will be celebrated after the New Years.

We opened presents last night. Most of my Christmas present was in help buying my new computer. I also got a camera lens cleaner, a pair of post-exercise sandals I'd heard about (they feel good on the feet), a book on identifying trees, and a pair of glove liners (they've already helped keep my hands warm this morning). All good stuff and just what I wanted.

The one I think most affected by the snow is Homer. It's hard when your bathroom is out in the blizzard and the snow's so deep you drag you G-Whizzer through the snow.



Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas To All

We're having a white Christmas Eve and an even whiter Christmas this year. Due to treacherous roads we will not be going to my Mom's tonight or to the in-laws on Saturday. Hopefully Mom will be able to join us for Christmas Dinner but it isn't looking promising. We move back to the Midwest so that we could share holidays with family and the Midwest gets in the way, figures.

I hope everyone else is having a joyous holiday with family and friends.


Merry Christmas!!!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Book: John Scalzi's "The Ghost Brigades"

The Ghost Brigades" is the sequel to John Scalzi's "Old Man's War" which I read earlier this year (Review here). Like all sequels, it doesn't quite live up to the first book but, as sequels go, it's still pretty good.

The book, as the title implies, follows the Ghost Brigades, Colonial Defense Forces special forces soldiers. The soldiers are engineered from DNA of dead volunteers that die before they can be enlisted in the regulars ranks (All volunteers are recruited from elderly people from Earth and their minds are transferred into young, genetically engineered bodies). The special force's bodies are enhanced using alien DNA and brain implants turning them into super-soldiers.

The crisis in the book was pretty obvious. I saw the potential weakness in the special forces back in the first book. This kind of diminished the reading experience somewhat but the final solution to the problem is imaginative and satisfying.

I ended up reading this book in just over three days. This kind of tells you that I liked it well enough. When I don't like a book I tend to read slow. This one I zoomed through. It could have been better but it was good enough.

If you read the first book, I recommend you read this one as well.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Nebraska Geopicting Contest - VOTE!!!

They've named the fourth quarter winner for the Nebraska Geopicting Contest. Now it's time to vote for the best. Please go to the link below and vote for my picture. My picture is displayed in the sidebar on the right and, just in case, here it is again:




Voting ends on 15 January 2010 so vote as soon as possible. Thanks to everyone who plan to vote.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Nebraska Earthquake Or Loose Nuke?

A 3.5 magnitude earthquake is not an uncommon occurrence if you live in California. A 3.5 wouldn't even generate much news and speculation really. But when a 3.5 quake hits southeast Nebraska. Well. Let the conspiracies fly.

Apparently early Thursday Morning at almost the same time as the earthquake, a
Nebraska State Patrol trooper, who is also an amateur astronomer no less, saw a light in the sky. So, if you were going to explain this phenomena, what would you guess? A meteor? Lightning? Coincidence? Nuclear attack from Russia? What, you ask. A nuclear attack? Well some people are saying that the the flash of light was a particle beam weapon shooting down a Russian cruise missile headed for Offutt Air Force base (home of the Strategic Air Command). The explosion that resulted caused the earthquake.

All I have to say about this is there are a lot of crazy, ignorant, irrational, paranoid, conspiratorial, uneducated, simple minded, extremist, weird people in this world.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Snowshoeing Iowa: Wabash Trace South Of Coin

Wednesday I drove almost two hours to the small town of Coin, IA. Coin is the next to last town on the Wabash Trace. I had originally intended to head north towards Bingham. The deciding factor as to which direction I would head in was the condition of the trail - Snow Free I would consider going north towards Bingham; Snow Covered I would head south towards Blanchard, the southern most end of the trace.

What brought this choice on was a preference I have when hiking - I like to have a destination. A waterfall, a scenic view, a peak. On the Wabash Trace towns are the obvious turn around destinations. If the trace was relatively snow free then a fifteen mile hike to and from Bingham was doable. If the trace was snow covered then it would be better to save the longer hike for a snow free day in the spring. Since I'd never snowshoed before, the southerly route had two things going for it. The first is it's only 5.4 miles to Blanchard. Snowshoeing was supposed to be more rigorous than hiking and a shorter target distance was more realistic. Second, in case it was even more rigorous (which I expected), there was a geocache a mile south from the town that could serve as an alternate turn around point.

As I drove into town I passed by the trace. I couldn't see it for all the snow. I parked on main street a couple blocks from the trail and suited up. I walked down to the trail and turned south. I decided to walk the block to where the trace crossed an asphalt road. The depth of the snow, eight to ten inches, proved difficult in just my boots. I crossed the asphalt and put on my snowshoes and got my trekking poles ready.

The trace ahead of me was unmarred and pristine. I started down the trail. Initially it didn't feel that hard. The snow was soft except for the thin eighth inch crust of ice, the result of the freezing drizzle we had Sunday night.

After a short distance the undisturbed nature of the trail changed as signs of wildlife started to appear. Deer Tracks. Rabbit tracks. What I assume were goose tracks. Small dog tracks. Three-legged dog tracks ... what?!? As I approached Coin I'd passed a three legged dog. He was gone by the time I got to the trace but I found some tracks that had to be his. You could see the dog print at the bottom of the holes in the snow. There was a pattern - first a pair of tracks then a single track. One of the pair was shallow so I would guess the dog was balancing on it's right front and rear legs and using it's left front leg mostly for balance. The three-legged dog tracks (I named him Tripod in my head) accompanied me my entire way.

At the one mile point I reached a bridge (one of four in the 1.5 miles of the trace I snowshoed). I expected to find a bridge here since this was the location of the geocache I was looking for. Geocaches on the trace seem to like bridges. Makes sense since there are a lot of good, sheltered hiding places under bridges. Searching under the bridge with snowshoes on was awkward but I suspect they helped me get up and down the snow covered banks easier with the metal spikes on the bottom of the snowshoes digging in the hillside. I found "
Bears On The Bridge" safely tucked up under the bridge.

I climbed up from under the bridge and considered my options. I decided to try for another mile (making the whole thing four miles) and continued down the trace. I pulled out a snack bar ... a frozen snack bar ... and ate it while I walked on. At the 1.45 mile point I reached a long bridge stretching over the Tarkio River.

I walked across the bridge and decide that I'd had enough. I turned around and started back. The way back was draining. I must have been tired as I was getting a little careless with my foot placement. I pulled out a second frozen snack bar. I took a bite or two when, SMACK, I face planted in the snow. I found out a trekking pole can't do it's job when you are holding it up off the ground with a snack bar in your hand. My left snowshoe caught on something (probably my right snowshoe) and down I went. I got back on my feet, took inventory (no damage), looked around (no one saw me), brushed the snow off my snack bar, and took another bite before I continued down the trail.

The rest of the way was uneventful. By the time I got back to my car I was tired and sweating. I'd dressed 15° warmer than I should have. I stopped for some food and drove home. I was tired ... no, exhausted when I got home. It's been a long time since I felt that weary. I guess snowshoeing was tougher than, and me not as tough as, I thought.

My total distance was about 2.9 miles with 100 ft elevation. My speed was about a third of my normal hiking speed. I guess that says it all. I added some pictures to my
2009-2013 Wabash Trace Nature Trail Hike Google Photos album.



Tuesday, December 15, 2009

In The Pit Of My Stomach

Why do I feel so conflicted?

I was going to go out today. I was going to go out on the Wabash Trace. I was insistent that it would be Tuesday. No real reason - just that I set aside Tuesdays and Thursdays to do hiking/biking/outdoorsy stuff. Tuesday had this other allure - the temperature was forecasted to be below zero. -8°F (-22°C) to be exact. At least in the morning. The high was going to be 10°F (-12°C). In my head I saw this as a challenge. More of a challenge than snowshoeing or long distance hiking. I wanted to feel what cold really felt like. I wanted to beat the cold. I wanted to be stupid.

Watching the weather report last night, they kept using the phrases "dangerously cold". Part of me shivered with anticipation. The rational part of me doubted. Soon afterward I decided to postpone the trip for a day, a day that would be some 18°F warmer. At that moment, that moment of decision, I felt something in the pit of my stomach.

In the pit of my stomach I felt regret. In the pit of my stomach I felt relief. Both feelings fought so hard that I had a hard time sleeping. I felt like I'd lost a fight. I felt like I did the right thing. I felt in conflict. I still do.

I have always been more adventuresome, a bigger risk taker, in the confines of my mind. In reality I look for any and every excuse not to take the risk. Any excuse to play it safe.

Too bad you only feel alive when you take that risk.

Why do I feel so conflicted?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Book: Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner's "Freakonomics"

Have you ever waited for something with so much anticipation that when you got it, it was a big let down? Well, that's what happened when I read Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner's "Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything".

I read paperbacks. I rarely read hardcovers. No real reason really. They're cheaper and easier to pack and carry, I guess. Usually the wait between hard and paper is six months to a year. "Freakonomics" took three years. Everything I read about the book sounded fascinating and when I finally bought it and read it ... Meh.

The book applies economic principles to rather strange questions. Why do most drug dealers live with their mothers? Is there a connection between the crime rate and legalized abortions? The analyses are interesting and forthright, even the ones that are potentially controversial (for example: the legalization of abortions in the 70s resulted in the reduction of violent crimes in the 90s). My problem is that's it. There are not enough examples and analysis. The book is about 50% too short. It's like they put a drop of the best tasting flavor in you mouth and then took it away leaving you wanting for more. To make it worse, I had heard so much about the book in the three years since it was originally published that I pretty much knew all the examples. There was very little surprise for me. Using a phrase of a reviewer of another book, it was like eating leftovers that you didn't want.

What killed the book for me, in this instance, was the
spoiler. I subscribe RSS feeds that often give spoilers for television shows. I used to soak up Star Trek spoilers (all the incarnations) and often knew most of the story before I'd watched the television show or movie. It didn't take long before I realized that reading spoilers diminished my enjoyment. When I started watching Battlestar Galactica, I purposefully ignored any spoilers and just let the story unfold on the screen, surprises and all. It made it a much better experience. "Freakonomics" was ruined by the spoilers.

They now have a sequel out, "
SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance". I have read very few reviews of it. I hope it will come out in paperback sooner than "Freakonomics". The shorter the time the less chance that I will ruin it for myself. Yes, despite being disappointed in this the book, I will probably read the sequel because, despite the lack of 'more', what was there was interesting and worth a mild recommendation.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Last Ballsy Post

Most of my posts this week have been about big balls and snowshoeing. I promise you that, baring some unforeseen blogworthy event, this will be the last balls related post and, possibly the last snowshoeing post as well.

I went shopping on Friday in search of balls to replace the ones that blew off in last Tuesday's blizzard. I hate it when your balls are blown off. I found some at Wal-Mart, where I bought the original ones, but the size of Wal-mart's balls had shrunk 30%-50%. Fortunately with the shrinkage came an increase in the number and sparkliness of the multi-colored balls.

When I got home I decided to surprise the Wife with my ball purchase and went out front to hang them out. Seeing the three to four foot snow drift in the front yard around the oak tree, I pulled out my snowshoes.


This Years Charlie Brown Tree
I got used to them fairly quickly. They weren't as hard to walk in as I expected. Backing up is a little tricky as the shoes pivot but I soon got the hang of it. It took me a half hour or so, using a long pole, to hang the 30 balls on the tree. In the process of walking around in the snow I uncovered one of the original big balls that had been buried in the drift. I'm sure more balls will be exposed as the snow melts. For those who don't remember last year's tree, here it is.

I'd wanted to break in my snowshoes on the Wabash Trace but I didn't want to brave the weather and the closed roads. Instead, the snowshoes were broken in on our front yard - a little anticlimactic as breaking in goes. I'd planned to try to snowshoe today but a forecast of freezing drizzle, which turned out to be completely overblown, kept me indoors once again. When it comes to the possibility of going in the ditch, I think I'm a little timid. I should have been out on the trail snowshoeing but I had no ... guts.

As I said at the start of this post, this will be the last ballsy post this year. I hope this has satisfied all you innuendo seekers. I smiled while I put it together. I won't mention snowshoeing again until I've actually got out on the trail and actually snowshoed for real. Snowshoeing in the front yard just isn't very satisfying.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Damn ... No Snowshoe For Me

The road to the Coin, IA, and most of the roads in south-west Iowa, are closed so I'm postponing my snowshoe trip. I can't say I'm happy about this but what are you gonna do. Probably for the better as the temperature for the start of the day is forecast to be 4°F (-15.55°C) with wind chills around -3°F (-19.44°C).

I will try again on Saturday.

Balls Out Snow Shoveling

Well, the blizzard blew through last night. Our weather station peaked at 20 MPH but I suspect the neighbor's house blocked most of the wind coming from the north-west. We probably had some 12 inches total snow fall but the snow drift in our driveway was three to four feet. It took the wife and I about an hour, with the help of the neighbor's snow blower, grandson, add grandson's friend, to clear all the snow out of both our driveways. The wind was still blowing but at a more manageable 5 MPH. You had to be careful where you threw the snow to prevent it coming back in your face.

The biggest casualty of the blizzard, besides my aching back, were the balls in our oak tree. We started with twelve big balls and now we only have eight. Who knows where they are. They could be down the street, under a couple feet of snow, or both. Hopefully we'll find them once the snow starts to melt.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Distance Reconsidered

As I sit inside looking at the snow coming down, I am still thinking about going snowshoeing on Thursday. After a couple days of shoveling snow I've come to the conclusion that temps in the teens and twenties aren't so bad. Yesterday I got up at 6:20AM and shoveled the drive so that the Wife could get out. It was 11°F (-11.667°C). While my fingers ached for the first 15-20 minutes, as I worked, I warmed up and my hands were fine.

I am reconsidering the length of the hike. Fifteen miles would be fine in boots with snow in the inch deep range but the forecast is now for nine to ten inches on top of the two inches already on the ground with temperatures in the teens. Snowshoes will be a must. After reading about snowshoeing, and after reading comments from
GeekHiker and Godefroy, I think a more realistic distance would be two to five miles. I suspect I will be the only fool out on the trace so I will be blazing the snowshoe trail. Breaking new trail on snowshoes sounds like a slow slog. It will be especially slow as I'm a noobie.

I think I've got what I need. Snowshoes, a pair of trekking poles, water bottles, GPS, long underwear, warm socks (two pairs when I'm in my boots), gloves,
balaclava, layers.

Whatever happens on Thursday, it will be interesting.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Should I Freeze My A$$ Off?

This week I'm planning to do another segment of the Wabash Trace. This one will be between the small town of Coin, IA to the even smaller town of Bingham, IA (I can't find any information about Bingham but it comes up when you Google Map it). The trail is about 7.5 miles long between the towns (15 miles round trip). There is one potential impediment to my hike - Weather.

The current forecast for Thursday is a high of 29°F. This doesn't sound too bad except I'll be starting the hike around 9:00 AM when the temp will probably be in the single digits or low teens.

On top of my operating temperature, the lower operating temperature ranges of my Camera (32°F) and my GPS (14°F) might be an issue.

To make things a little more complicated, and potentially more fun, is that before Thursday (Tonight, Monday night, and Tuesday) the area is expecting some 6+ inches of snow. With temperatures never passing freezing I would expect most of the snow will still be on the trail. If we get the predicted snow, I may have my first opportunity to try out my snowshoes though I hear you need at least 8 inches of snow for snowshoes to work their best.

I've never hiked in the snow and I've never snowshoed either. I would like to do the whole 15 miles but I would expect snowshoes would slow you down quite a bit as would walking through snow with just boots. Whatever I end up doing will be a learning experience.

One experience I do not want to learn about is frostbite. I plan to bundle up and layer it on pretty thick but I am still concerned a little about my hands. My gloves are good but I don't know how I'll feel after five hours in sub-freezing cold. Glove liners would help and I have them on my Christmas list but that will be too late to help this week.

I think I'll have to give this some thought.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Christmas Time Is Here

On Monday I put up the Christmas tree. This was a little backwards this year as the outside lights are usually the first thing to go up but our family outing to the in-laws shifted stuff around. During Christmases past, putting the lights on the tree has always resulted in a minor argument between the Wife and I as we struggled to get them on straight and evenly spaced (Last year may have been the exception to this as I don't remember arguing). This year I decided to ensure some Christmas peace in our household and put the lights on the tree by myself before the Wife got home from work. I managed to do a pretty good job. The only issue I had were lights who stubbornly refused to light but, after a half hour of fiddling, participated.

The Wife spent a lot of time this week putting up all the other indoor decorations.

Today I finished it all off by decorating the outside - hanging the LED lights along the roof line, hanging the large wreath, and hanging the big balls from our oak tree. Unfortunately we don't have enough big balls. I think our oak tree has grown bigger. This means off to the store this weekend for Christmas decoration shopping.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Book: Robert Sobel's "For Want of a Nail"


Every now and then I like to change it up a little bit, get away from the space based science fiction that I usually read, and delve into alternative history/counterfactual/speculative fiction. I have noticed two distinctive types of alternative fiction. The first is written in a more scholarly fashion, as if a person is speculating what would happen if some detail of history had been different. An example would be "What If?", an anthology edited by Robert Cowley. The other type uses the alternate history as a backdrop for a story and feels more like a piece of fiction than an historical study. Examples of this type would be Philip Roth's "The Plot Against America" or Robert Harris' "Fatherland". My latest read, Robert Sobel's "For Want of a Nail: If Burgoyne had won at Saratoga" is a combination of the two types.

"For Want of a Nail" is written like it was a history book. It is not just any history book but an actual history book from this alternate history down to the fictitious footnotes on nearly every page, to the fictitious Selected Bibliography, to the fictitious critique of the book at it's end. For a while this format was a little distracting. It reminded me of some of the Star Trek Technical Manuals and Star Fleet Blue Prints I have stuffed away somewhere in the basement where everything is from the 23rd century. After awhile the distraction faided and I really got into the book.

The book starts with British General Burgoyne winning the battle of Saratoga. This leads to the defeat of the American Rebels who, unwilling to live under the rule of the King, eventually migrate to our Texas (called Jefferson in the book). Eventually Jefferson, led by president Andrew Jackson, invades and merges with Mexico, which includes California, Arizona, and New Mexico, and becomes the United States of Mexico. The original 13 colonies, along with part of modern day Canada, and most of the continent east of the Mississippi, become the Confederation of North America. The book then alternates between the two nations speculating how they would evolve politically, socially, and economically.

Sobel goes beyond the usual scholarly speculation. He follows the history of these two nations until 1971 - nearly 200 years. He includes tables showing election results, imports and exports, and other data you might find in a history book. (The one piece of data he did not include, and would have been very helpful, would have been a map.) A decade or two after the changed event, any speculation, especially the numerical data, becomes purely fiction - the book shifts from type one to type two (scholarly to fictional backdrop). This is fine because the story Sobel weaves grabbed me and held my interest.

As I read it I was surprised to find that I liked it. It was a history book. No real history book from my school days ever held my interest like this. It was a pleasant surprise. I wanted to read more but, since the book was published in 1972, there was no more.

Recommended to the historically minded.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Spell Checkers - Good or Evil?

Anyone who follows Homer's Travels knows that my spelling and grammar generally suck. Like many out there I, at least for spelling, have become somewhat dependent on the spell checker. Like any tool the spell checker isn't 100% reliable but, after using it successfully for a long enough we sometimes become complacent and assume if a word isn't highlighted or underlined with the red squigglies then it must be correct. Here is a story that may shake you out of your complacency.

I'd been working on my first (and only) job for a couple years. This was back in th late '80s. We had just received out first Intel 286 computer. It was the only one on our work group and it was shared - I don't feel nostalgic for those days of typewriters and carbon paper. Then again, back in those days we had secretaries that did most of the typing. Anyway, I digress.

I was putting together a letter concerning a technical manual update that was being proposed. The letter would be going to our bosses in Washington D.C. I'd worked on it a while trying my best to sound official and all professional like. I even used that new fangled spell checker that came with
WordPerfect (version 1 probably). It was perfect. Yeah. Right.

Like any good bureaucracy, all official letters leaving the organization had to be reviewed and approved by at least three layers of Bosses. My immediate boss was out of town so my draft went to my Boss' Boss first. Shortly afterward I was summoned to his office.

My Boss's Boss was a nice guy. Laid back. Fair. Looked a little like
Cannon. We always marveled at how such a large man could fit in such a tiny car. He was holding my letter. He pointed at a line in my letter that he'd underlined and said:
"This is probably true but I don't think we should share it with Washington."
I took the letter and read the underlined text:
"We need tit as soon as possible."
My face probably turned several shades of red before we both started laughing. Who would have thunk that the word "tit" would be in the spell checker dictionary? Well, it was.

Here I am, twenty years later, and I've still not learned that lesson. I still depend on the spell checker (and Google when it's not in the spell checker dictionary) to correct my messes. I haven't made any embarrassing ones lately ... but give me time ... It'll happen soon or later.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Wild Weekend Of Wackiness

I'm still recovering from this weekend. Almost three days with the in-laws. The Haverhill Social Club. Uncle K and Aunt E's 50th anniversary party. Perkins after 11:00PM ... twice in a row. (Breakfast at midnight can be life threatening.) I'm not as young and resilient as I used to be.

Those people know how to have fun. Fortunately, I don't drink so I survived relatively unscathed but when I'm on the road my eating gets wacky and my body, a creature of habit, has difficulty adjusting to the changes. If I wasn't bloaty, I was tired. Too much fat. Too much sugar. Too much caffeine. Five pieces of French Toast. Three large pancakes. Two pieces of cake. One muffin (They're deadly, you know). This on top of the Lasagna, Brisket, and Jello. I think it will take a couple weeks for my cholesterol to return to normal.

The 50th anniversary party was fun. Not as wild as some past get-togethers, no drinking out of shoes, but it was a good celebration.

To top it off, I found a geocache in Haverhill, called "
Haverhill" of course (I tried to do this in the dark with my head lamp guiding the way but I got tired of the barking dog and didn't feel like being arrested so I found it the next day), went to a bar under the overpass (Turned out to be a little too 'hip' for us - the crowd was way too young), and found a Lincoln Highway marker on main street Marshalltown.

Beside and because of all this, I had a great time. How can you not have a great time with those people? Not possible.

In between the eating and drinking, I took a few pictures in
Haverhill and Marshalltown.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!

I want to wish everyone a Happy Thanksgiving to everyone, especially our troops overseas.

And now, to my Mom's house for feast and family.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Hiking Iowa: Wabash Trace Nature Trail - Mineola to Silver City

After the last few hikes on the Wabash Trace and Oak Creek Trails, I decided to keep this week's hike to a more manageable length. Since I enjoyed the Wabash Trace so much last week, I decided to do another segment - this one stretching 4.3 miles between Mineola, IA (Pop: ~200) and Silver City, IA (Pop: 259).


The trailhead is located on the north side of town. There is a small parking lot, a picnic area, a couple of benches, and a trailhead marker. It was chilly this morning and the wind was blowing so I bundled up and headed east on the trail. Eight tenths of a mile later, near the outskirts of the town, the trail crosses Barrus Road and heads south-east.

This segment is similar to the one from Silver City to Malvern. There are fewer trees and fewer bridges but the trail is flat and straight. There are only three bridges on this segment - two in Mineola and one as you enter Silver City. I seem to have become a fan of bridges. There are more benches along this short segment than on the longer one. All benches and bridges that I've seen so far are either sponsored or dedicated to someone. Bridges have the sponsor's name carved on railing planks. Some are sponsors by the boy scouts. Others by local bike clubs, bike shops, or businesses. Some are dedicated to anniversaries or untimely passings. It adds interest to the hike.

Along the way I found a couple geocaches. One, "
NFL Cache", was about a third of a mile off the trail on 275th street. The other, "Quicksilver City", was not far from Silver city.

In Silver City I explored the
1911 jail some more before sitting on a bench in front of the small library and sucking down a soda.

The way back went pretty quick. I stopped and explored some box cars in Mineola, similar to the ones in the Silver Creek, keeping erosion at bay.

The total distance for this hike was 9.14 miles round trip. Elevation was about 360 feet. I didn't take too many pictures along the trail - they all looked like the ones I took last week - but I did add some more pictures to my
2009-2013 Wabash Trace Nature Trail Hike Google Photos album.

I think I have a new goal - walk each segment of the Wabash Trace. Some of the segments may have to be biked as they are a little too long to walk.
Note: Earmuffs are good.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Make Up Your Freakin' Mind!

We received our Jordan flight information yesterday. Suck. Suck. Suck. 7 hour layover in Frankfurt arriving on Monday morning at 1:35 AM. Suck. Suck. Suck.

So I checked flights on Kayak.com again. Prices dropped back down to where they were originally. What!?! I say What?!?

A call. An email. New reservations. Better flights. Thank you Jesus.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Hiking Iowa: Wabash Trace Nature Trail - Silver City To Malvern

The Wabash Trace Nature Trail is another local rails-to-trails biking/hiking trail that stretches 62.3 miles from Council Bluffs, IA to Blanchard, IA, passing through six towns in between. I decided to pick a segment that would be close by and would offer me a challenge. The segment between the small town of Silver City (pop: 259) and Malvern (pop: 1,256), stretching eight miles, seemed to fit the bill.

Silver City is about an hour from Omaha. It is if you don't take a wrong turn on the way. Google Maps missed a whole segment in its directions which got me headed in the wrong direction. When I passed the Council Bluffs' Wabash Trace trailhead I knew I was on the wrong path. I stopped and pulled out a map and figured out my error and I made it to Silver City some 20 minutes later than I'd planned.

I parked near the labeled trailhead and, before starting, went cache hunting at the nearby restored 1911 Silver City Jail where I found "
The Big House". The jail is just a simple white box but the sign is kind of cool.

I fed the metal ranger and headed south-east. The trail crosses main street Silver City, passes behind a farm supply business (the smell on anhydrous ammonia was wafting in the morning air - nasty stuff), before leaving town. The trail parallels the gravel road for the first 1 and 1/3 miles before veering off through the farm fields. The trail is a one lane wide, crushed limestone path. A lot of the stone has washed away in some sections revealing the packed dirt underneath. I imagine it can't be easy to maintain a 62.3 mile trail on donations. Despite this, the trail is in excellent condition. Trees line the trail on both sides for most of the trail, branches from both sides arch inward to meet overhead. When the trees are leafed out parts of the trail would be like a long tunnel - a reason to revisit during the spring.

The trail was pretty quiet in the middle of the week - one guy letting his
dog relieve itself and a solitary biker. This doesn't mean there wasn't any sounds of civilization along the trail. The farmers were out in force harvesting and preparing their fields for winter.

I found three geocaches along the trace including "
Flat Tire", "Queen Anne's Corner", and "Train Wreck?".

The high point of this section in my opinion is the
Silver Creek Bridge. It is the largest bridge (and there are many) on this section, crosses Silver Creek, Silver City's namesake, and is about half way between the two towns. On the east bank of the creek are at least eight, probably more, old, rusty, half buried box cars. It looks like the aftermath of some decades old train wreck. In fact, according to one geocache description (Train Wreck?), the cars were dumped there to control erosion. Not as exciting as where my imagination took me. I will return to explore sometime - the little kid in me won't have it any other way.


Two miles from Malvern you begin seeing half mile markers, something the rest of this section lacked. At Malvern I decide to walk up to main street and look around. Malvern has a typical small town main street with a couple cafes, a grocery, a library (impressive size for the small town), a volunteer fire department, and a few little storefronts. Next to the library is an old log cabin built by one of the pioneers of the area. A plaque talked about Malvern being a stop on the underground railroad for slaves escaping from Missouri.

I decided not to stop for lunch. This probably wasn't the smartest thing. Instead I went into the grocery and bought a diet Code Red (caffeine) and a Milky Way Bar (sugar, carbs, and fat) and sat on a bench on the street corner and watched the traffic go by while I rested and consumed junk food.

On the way back I spooked some pheasant, chased some cardinals, and ran across a
group of deer grazing along the trail.

The return was a little bit tough on the legs and feet. This trail, unlike last week's
Oak Creek Trail has several benches along it but they were spaced out at weird intervals and the last four miles don't have any. Along the way back I downed two bottle of water and two snack bars.

At about the eleven mile mark my left knee started hurting. I've had surgery on both my knees and lately I've found my left knee to be a little cranky when I get past the eight mile point or so. I hope this will go away with more use and not get worse. The pain, while quite sharp and wince-inducing, comes and goes and rarely lasts very long.

The hike turned out to be a little longer than I expected: 17.4 miles. This is a personal best, a full 2.1 miles longer than my last record on the way to
Topa Topa Ridge. That hike had over 4,500 ft of vertical, this one only 331 ft. I liked this section of the Wabash Trace. Can't wait for my next, shorter, section.
Photographs are here.

Friday, November 20, 2009

It Will Ruin Your Eyes

Well, I can kiss my laptop goodbye now that the Wife has learned that they stream football games. Tonight she's watching her nephew play in the 4A championship.



As you can see, my laptop is connected to the big screen. Unfortunately the site won't let you go full screen so she has to sit up close. You would think for $4.99 (the webcast is not free) you could go full screen but noooo.

Note: To the left of the TV you will find the Notre Dame shrine which has had mixed results lately.

The Price Of Procrastination - Inflation

Eighteen days ago I went to AAA to set up our Jordan trip. The one decision I held off on was who would book the flights. General Tours offered $1,907 per person. AAA could get tickets for $2,053 per person. I went home and checked and found flights in the $1,300 to $1,600 range but they were terrible (24 hours + to get there). I decided a week and a half ago to go with General Tours' flight since, if there were changes or problems with the flights, they would take care of all of the hassle.

I then procrastinated.

What was the cost of procrastination? General Tours is now over $2,400 per person. AAA is now over $3,000 per person. When I check, $5,451 for the more convenient flight (15 1/2 hours to get there, 22 1/2 to get back). There are cheaper flights but I want to enjoy my vacation and long flight times close to a day long and connection times (i.e. time to run like heck through the crowded airport) of less than 40 minutes won't help me enjoy my vacation.

How did prices more than double in 18 days? Don't make no sense to me.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

New Confuser To Eat Up My Time

I finally replaced my seven and a half year old computer. I went the lazy route and ordered one from Dell. This is a departure from my last three computers that I built myself. I always liked knowing exactly what was under the hood and what software was running. My babies were rarely cheap as I usually bought near state of the art components - components that I rarely used 100%.

My Dell, a Studio 540, is pretty sweet.
  • Intel Core 2 Quad CPU Q9400 running at 2.66 GHz
  • 6 GB of DDR RAM
  • 640 GB Hard Drive - some would argue you need more but I have another 750GB on a NAS (Set up as a RAID 5 configuration) for storing pictures, music, and other stuff
  • 16x DVD+-R/W
  • Wireless Keyboard and Mouse (Logitech)
  • 20" Wide Format Monitor
I'm pretty happy with it so far. After about 24 hours I've got most of my software installed. Having the operating system already installed (Windows 7 Home Premium 64 bit) made for a real easy setup. I had it up and running in about 60 minutes including the time to tear down the old system, clean up the desk's CPU cubby, and setting up the Dell.

The only driver I haven't been able to find yet is for the ancient USB-Serial adapter I use to connect my GPS. I'll have to use my laptop (running XP) to dump data to my GPS until I save up enough to buy a new GPS.

My inner geek is satiated ... for now.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Hiking Nebraska: Oak Creek Trail - Valparaiso To Loma


Until now most of my hikes have been in parks. Now I have added a "Rails-To-Trails" hike to my repertoire. I've been meaning to do this since I moved to the Midwest. Nebraska and Iowa have a lot of these trails and I think they are similar to what I'll experience in Spain.

The
Oak Creek Trail [map], a former Union Pacific right-away, stretches thirteen miles from main street Valparaiso, NE to just south of Brainard, NE (I love that name!). Since I'm not ready for a twenty-six mile round trip hike yet, I studied the map and located a convenient turn around point at Loma, NE, located seven miles from the Valparaiso end of the trail. The trail is open year round except for deer hunting season (14-22 November this year). I never heard of a trail in California being closed because of hunting. Of course, I've never heard of a Nebraska trail being closed due to fire either.

I had some preconceptions of what I would find on a rails-to-trails trail. Turns out I was fairly right. Railroads don't like hills much and they try to route their trains where there are few hills so the trails are flat. Railroads don't like to twists and turns much so the trails tend to be straight and any curves tend to be long drawn out affairs. These trails, if they cross rivers and streams, have cool bridges. I also thought that hiking a straight, flat trail would be boring. At one point I was contemplating taking an MP3 player loaded with podcasts but I decided against it. The few reviews I could find on-line described the hike/bike ride as scenic and I didn't want to be distracted so I left the MP3 player at home. The reviews were right.

The trail starts west of main street Valparaiso. Near the start is a map of the trail, information about the local Bluebirds, and a metal ranger for voluntary trail upkeep donations. I payed double the suggested annual fee and headed out. The trail is a wide crushed limestone trail wide enough for a pickup to drive down. The trail is intended for hikers and bikers but is also used by the farmers to move their livestock and to get from one field to another. In the winter, the wide path would be perfect for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Running parallel to the main trail is a grassy equestrian trail that, at times, crosses the main trail and shares the bridges. The first bridge you cross, near the trailhead, is a
metal trestle, the rest are wooden and over-engineered. The trail then shoots west and north-west straight as an arrow. The trail crosses several gravel and dirt roads along its way. It also crosses a creek several times - not Oak Creek but the Bates Branch - branch of the Oak Creek I presume.

The trail turned out to be quite scenic. The trees were winter bare but they were still easy on the eyes. In the spring and summer, when the trees are leafed out, the trail would be a completely different hike.


Along the way there are trail markers. On the North side are markers sponsored by the "Kilometer Club." On the south side, the "Milepoint Club." The distanced are carved in the side of the railroad-tie posts. Either there are some posts missing or I missed a few of the dueling measurement system posts along the way. After the three mile post they are much more consistent.

The trail runs through farm land, passing cropland, cattle pastures, and wooded areas along creek beds and fence lines. On the way to Loma I saw nobody - the only things watching me
were the cows. I did see some farmers engaged in some late harvesting.

At mile seven you arrive to the village of Loma, NE. There is a bench on the trail, something I wish were more common on the long trail. I decided to skip the bench and walk into town - a distance of some 100 feet.

As much as I liked this trail, Loma was much more interesting to me. I have always had this interest in tiny towns. The Wife's family comes from the town of Haverhill, IA, population 170. One of my Grandmothers lived in the small town of Grant, IA, Population 102. I used to like taking pictures in the town of Harmony, CA, population 18. Loma, NE has a population of 54 but I have seen figures as low as 23.
The town looks a little more substantial in person since, with all the leaves off the trees, you can see more houses and farmsteads. It is still pretty desolate.

Loma has had some notoriety as it was a location for the movie "
To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar." It 'played' the town of Snyderville, NE and was chosen because they

"needed a town that looked completely isolated in the wide open spaces; one where the characters would truly feel stranded." (From Nebraska On Film)
I looked around, agreed that it fit the bill to a tee, and found the only open establishment, the Bar-M Corral, and went inside. It was a dark, dingy, comfortable feeling country bar. The elderly woman who ran the place was sitting at a table watching a small TV. I asked for a can of diet pop, and sat down at the bar. She served me and, without saying much, returned to her TV. Since conversation didn't seem likely, I enjoyed my barstool, cold drink, and watched the Price is Right with the proprietor. As I drank an ancient dog walked over to check me out. Its rear end practically creaked as it hobbled over to me. I reached down and gave it a good scritch. It must of liked it as it came back several times for more. It particularly liked its butt scratched - I think all dogs like their butts scratched.

I finished the pop, thanked the owner, and headed back out to the street. The dog followed me out and
did some barking. It looked like there had once been a couple more storefronts in town but they were now empty and in disuse. Except for the bar proprietor, I saw no one else. I walked down the middle of the unpaved main street. I took a few pictures. The best maintained building in town appeared to be the Czech Catholic Church at one end of town. The newest building I could see was the chemical toilet located next to the trail. I used the facilities - I wasn't prepared to used the bar's facilities - not brave enough.

I got back on the trail, stopped briefly at the bench to eat a snack bar, and started back. On the way back I ran into a few people - a couple on an ancient Ford Tractor and faded red pickup cutting trees down for firewood and a pair on bicycles. Other than these people and the cows, the only other signs of life were a fat squirrel and several red-tailed hawks.

I made it back to the car in about four and a half hours. I was surprised to find my average speed to be three miles an hour. I expected it to be much less. The total distance was 14.6 miles. There was about 540 feet of elevation difference from Valparaiso and Loma. Loma is on a plateau. I didn't feel this elevation at all as it was so gradual - 0.015 feet per foot.

Sometime next year I will try the full 26 mile round trip. I think it will be a nice hike in the spring or early fall. Can't wait to walk through Loma again.
Pictures can be found here.