Homer's Travels: June 2009

Monday, June 29, 2009

Elevated Heart Rate

I'm riding my bike on the Big Papio trail, wondering if my heart rate was elevated.

I approached one of the underpasses where the trail passes under the busy street.

This particular underpass was curved so you really couldn't see up ahead.

I zipped down the grade, staying on the right side of the trail in case someone was coming the other way, pedaling hard so that I could make it up the hill on the other side.

I reach the curve, look ahead, and see a lawn mower coming at me in the middle of the trail.

I ain't talking about a wimpy push mower.

I'm talking an industrial size, as-wide-as-the-trail cutting swath of doom, riding lawn mower.

I'm sure my face turned into a mask of abject panic as I put a death grip on my rear brake lever.

My rear tire skidded, the rear end of the bike wagged around like a crazed fish, and, to my relief and amazement, I managed to stay on two wheels.

The mower dude pulled over out of my way and we passed each other with a wave.

An uneventful end to a potentially disastrous event.

Yes, my heart rate was elevated.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Music: Grand Funk Railroad, The Guess Who, And Night Wing

Thursday I saw an advertisement for a free concert at Memorial Park on Friday evening. After I overcame the surprise of not having heard of this before hand I decided to check it out.

Unlike the other two free events I've attended at memorial park (Feist and Gomez), this one was crowded when I arrived twenty minutes before the start of the show. I think there were a few reasons for this: school is out, the weather was cooperating, and the acts were known by most people over 40.

The day was pretty hot but not nearly as bad as earlier this week. The place was crowded and it took me a while to find a spot near the stage that had a somewhat unobstructed view. The crowd was a sea of Harley Davidson paraphernalia wearing, tie dyed, concert shirt, tattoo revealing, 50-somethings with a healthy mix of other age groups. Beach balls were flying and, as the sun went down, the crowd became a star field of glowing chem lights thanks to the free 'glow necklaces' that were given out. The sun going down also brought relief from the heat but this wasn't until the end of the second act. I was prepared this time with food, water, a hat, and sunglasses.

The fun started with a first act that, like most free events I've been to, was a local artist. Night Wing is the local Offutt Air Force Base country/rock cover band. They started with an impressive rendition of the National Anthem, performed by Technical Sergeant Lara Murdzia accompanied by a solo guitar. Night Wing did a half hour of typical cover songs which bordered on the mediocre with the exception of TS Murdzia who has a great singing voice. The fact the whole band was in Air Force coveralls seemed a little strange.

After a very short intermission the Guess Who took the stage. Actually I would rename them 40% Guess Who as only two of the five members are from the original Guess Who. This is actually saying a lot as the Guess Who formed in 1962 and, having been in the band for 47 years, the old farts still rocked. They were pretty good and they matched their old 60s-70s sound pretty faithfully. The crowd obviously enjoyed the band as I did. There were a few in the crowd who looked like that had 'prepared' themselves for this dip back into the 60s. This kept the police busy patrolling the crowd.

The third act was Grand Funk Railroad. (Back in 2008 I almost paid to see them at the Chumash Casino. This time waiting paid off) Like the Guess Who, only 40% of the members were original 1968 band members. Didn't bother me much as they rocked. They did a lot more stuff that I'd never heard before which caught me by surprise. I'm not a Grand Funk expert but I expect more of the greatest hit list. It was kind of refreshing to have a mix of electric blues mixed in with the more known songs like "Locomotion" and "We're An American Band". Because of this mix, I was once again surprised to find out that I knew more of the Guess Who songs than I did Grand Funk songs. I went in expecting the opposite.

Two songs in the drummer, one of the originals from 1968 did a hard core drum solo. He then went on to sing a couple of the songs and play the drums for the entire show. I wish I have his endurance when I'm this age.

At one point during "I'm Your Captain (Closer to Home)", the mike cut out and after a brief audience disorientation, the crowd picked up where Max Carl left off. When the mike came back on the crowd and Max were right in sync. It helps to have old fans who know all the lyrics.

After the last song a barrage of fireworks was shot off, an early July Fourth celebration. I have to say that Omaha knows how to do fireworks shows. At one point I had to squint because the explosions over the stage were so bright. It rivaled the new years eve show last year.

There was singer on stage that was not in any of the bands but performed with all of them. Actually, she was on the stage for over four hours. She was the signer. Yep, she not only signed the master of ceremonies, she signed all the song lyrics for the entire concert. I can't remember ever seeing this before.

A great concert. It always helps if you are familiar with the acts. Can't wait for the next free concert. Pictures of this one can be found here.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Vote For Me! Vote For Me!

Voting for the Boston.com May contest is open. You can vote here. Please vote for my picture. The one I submitted is this one. Thanks in advance

Voting ends Monday the 29th of June.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Friendships, I have Neglected You

It's been almost five months since I signed up for Facebook. I figured that the only 'friends' I would have would be blogger friends and some of the younger members of the Wife's family. What was unexpected to me were the high school classmates that I hadn't heard from for almost 28 years. More unexpected was the conflicted feeling this brought.

Thinking about it a bit, I shouldn't really be surprised with the conflict I felt. My history of staying in contact with schoolmates, dorm mates, and co-workers has been rocky, all the fault of myself. You see, I'm not a very good friend when it comes to separation. As soon as a friend has left, no matter how close I was to that friend, I almost hostilely push them out of my mind.

The first time I can remember, but I'm sure there were other instances earlier, was a friend in grade school in Guatemala. I'll use his initials, PH. We were pretty good friends. I would say we were pretty close. But, like most of my early friends in Guatemala, he moved away when his parents were reassigned. A few years later his dad came back to Guatemala, for business and PH came with him. When he showed up at school, what did I do? I pretty much gave him the cold shoulder and hardly acknowledge his existence. I remember him walking away muttering something in the F.U. vein which I deserved in spades.

When I left for college my friends and I scattered all over the U.S.A. I had the addresses of many and for the first semester or so I wrote letters furiously in what I though was an attempt to stay in contact but in fact I was hard core homesick and the letters I would receive back calmed my fears somewhat. Over time I'm sure most of my ex-classmates got fed up with the barrage of letters I was sending and the replies became fewer and more rare. I became stubborn. I would not write if they didn't write first. By the end of my first year, I can't remember for sure when, the letter writing faded into non-existence. I was bitter and self-righteous.

In college I made new friends. Some were older than me and graduated a year or two ahead of me. When one returned a few years later talking about his amazing job working with computers and stuff, I gave him the minimum attention I had. I bet he wondered what the hell was my problem. I kind of felt a little guilty - I should have felt a lot guilty - but I haven't kept in touch with anyone from collage except for one.

My best friend from college, BP, graduated the same year that I did. We went our separate ways but, through a little effort on both our parts, we were able to maintain a tenuous link through e-mail. We never talked enough though. He went to Taiwan, taught English, and met his wife there. He attended my wedding. Last I heard he lived in Minneapolis with his Wife and son. His last e-mail was March 2002. I never responded.

I started working for the Navy back in 1987. From 1987 to 2003 I was in the same group of great guys. We worked together, got each other's jokes, and fought like banshees together. We were damn close. In 2003 forces beyond our control broke up our group and we were dispersed throughout the warfare center. I use the term dispersed but in fact we were not that far apart - five minute walk across the parking lot at most. We did get together for lunch a couple of times but even that kind of died out. My new job kept me busy and I never seemed to have the time to visit. That of course is just a lame excuse I told myself. I discovered at my retirement party that one of my friends thought I didn't what to socialize with them. Looking back, I understand why he had that impression. I didn't try so why should he?

Then I joined Facebook. When I got the first friend invitation from a high school classmate my first reaction was Wow! My second reaction was oh sh!t. Why this second reaction? No idea. It's like I'm afraid of old friendships. We've exchanged a few e-mails but I know my replies have been a little curt. (Sorry R.P.) I want to know what they're up to without being committed. That's not friendship, that's voyeurism.

My longest friendships have been internet friendships. Friendships that never existed in the real world. It seems that if I have no reality to miss, I can maintain the friendship. Weird huh? That, of course, could be the great thing about Facebook, at least for me. I can 'convert' all my old friendships into into internet friendships and maybe then I can keep it going. Who knows, maybe I can go back the other way once I ween myself from my crappy behavior.

My most enduring, non-familial, on again off again, friendship was with a girl that I'll call Janice (not her real name but we called her that because she looked like another girl named Janice - weird, I don't remember much about the original Janice). She was a year or two behind me in high school. I remember her sitting in empty classrooms between periods reading in a corner or by a window. The most I ever said to her was "Hi Janice" when we walked into the room. On my last day of high school she stepped out of her classroom and handed me a scrap of paper. It had her address on it. When I got to college I wrote to her. I guess you could call our penpal friendship sort of an early blogging. The correspondence started and stopped several times. Sometimes started by me, sometimes by Janice. It lasted through my college years. It lasted briefly in the 90s (I think it was the 90s, not sure). It was never really ended. It would just fade and would start up again when we were ready to talk. Janice is now on Facebook and once again, we are reconnected. I guess it lasted so long because of the internet-like nature of our communication.

So, after reading this ungodly diatribe, I hope any of you readers who have been my friend in the past find it in your heart to forgive me. I sometimes treated you wrong and I am truly sorry. I do want to be your friend. I just need to get over myself and be the friend you deserve.

Monday, June 22, 2009

News of Landscapers, Heat, And High Blood Sugar - None Of It That Great

Today our landscaper was supposed to start work on the back slope of out backyard. The slope is a killer with respect to mowing. It looks so deceptive until you get out there and push the mower up the hill - having done it a few times I now understand the trials of Sisyphus. With the help of our landscaper, the evil slope of doom will be transformed into a garden area devoid of grass and the need for mowing.

Having said this, the landscaper didn't show today. The rain last week has slowed him down and he has postponed the start for a day or two. Or maybe he's recovering from the cruise to Alaska he just got back from. The delay was probably a good thing at the heat index is around 109°F (that's 42.8°C for you Canadian readers). The last thing we need is landscapers dropping like flies in our backyard from heat stroke.

I did manage to get out on my Bike this morning when the heat index was a more manageable 80°F. The humidity, in the 90% range, was pretty oppressive but once you got going it the wind made it more tolerable. I'll be going out to walk Homer later this evening (after 8:30 PM) if the temp/heat index goes down. May not happen though. Poor Homer just doesn't get around like he used to and wearing a fur coat doesn't help in this heat.

For those who may be wondering, why is this fool exercising on such a hot day. Well, my last blood test showed elevated triglycerides (They've been high for a while and I'm on medication), high cholesterol (higher than it's been which is above normal), and, the more recent development, high blood sugar levels (134.1 mg/dL - should be between 70 and 99). I've been restricting my diet, watching what I eat, and, being back from vacation, I am attempting to be more active, hence the bicycling and walking. I re-test in September and we'll see if all this effort pays off. Odds are my efforts will bear little fruit and I'll probably go on some medication. Yippee.

Updated Heat Index: At 4:40PM the heat index was 128°F (53.2°C)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

2009 Vacation - Days 11 & 12: Panhandling In The Sand Hills

The night before it stormed in Scottsbluff. I mean hardcore, full blast, rain mixed with hail. In the morning we went out and there were piles of hail on the grass, on the roof of the hotel, and by the windshields of cars. The hood, top, and trunk of my car is now randomly covered in little dents. Damn you weather!!!

Our original plan was to visit a couple places out in the panhandle of Nebraska but as we drove in from Moab we realized it wouldn't be enough to fill the day. Consulting the AAA book we added two more places to the plan.

The first stop was Chimney Rock. Chimney rock acted as a waymark for pioneers traveling across Nebraska heading west on the Mormon, California, and other well traveled trails. Unfortunately we were there around 8:00AM and the visitor's center didn't open until 9:00AM. This means ... no magnet for our collection. Oh well. I did take a couple pictures (The long shot is actually from Scottsbluff).

Our second destination for the day, one of the two late additions, was Scottsbluff's namesake, Scott's Bluff. The visitor's center there had a slide show (a slideshow??? In the year 2009???) that we decided to skip. Most of the history at the center concerns the California and Oregon Trails. A short drive from the visitor's center, through three tunnels, takes you up to the top of the 800 ft tall bluffs. The view from the top is pretty cool and, being spring, there are a lot of wildflowers and cacti blooming. I, of course, took some pictures from up there.

The third destination of the day was the second addition, Fort Robinson. Going into this state park we had few expectations and fewer plans. We get there and start looking at the options. We liked two: a hay ride historical tour of the camp/fort area and a jeep tour of the surrounding bluffs, hills, rivers, lakes, and buffalo herd. This is how our misadventures went down. We walked over to the stable to ask about the hayrides. We were told that the tickets could be purchased at the information booth. By the time we found the information booth we saw the wagon tour ride off in the distance. So we walk back to the stable area to see if we could take a stagecoach ride but the driver was nowhere to be found. We see the jeep tours and think that might be fun so we go back to the information booth to ask about tickets. As we are asking our questions, we watch the jeeps drive off. The next hay rides and jeep tours are in two hours. After whining to ourselves about our piss-poor planning we make hay rides appointment (a minimum of 4 are need and we are the only two signed up - we were save by a couple of hardcore Geocachers who signed up with us).

With two hours to kill, we head inside the officer's quarters building that is now a hotel and restaurant to have lunch - the best, and only, open faced buffalo sandwiches smothered in gravy I've ever had. A quick walk through a nice little history museum and a short scenic drive through the buffalo herd (you know, those little black dots in the distance) and the buttes later and we had a nice horse drawn hay ride through the history of Fort Robinson. The fort has had a long history involving Native Americans (Crazy Horse was killed here), training of calvary remount horses, training of what would become the K-9 corp, a POW camp for Germans (who considered it a resort because of the comfortable conditions they were held in), a USDA beef cattle laboratory, and a state park. The place lost a lot of buildings during the post WWII USDA phase when they started tearing down buildings that they weren't using. Local residents of nearby Crawford raised a stink and the USDA was phased out and the Park and Game commission was phased in. The result is a state park with period lodging, horse back trail riding, jeep tours, river kayaking/tubing, fishing, swimming pools, tennis courts, polo grounds, and a lot of history. The place is a hidden gem. Sorry, no good pictures here.

The fourth destination of the day was Carhenge. While this was a pretty weird place to visit, it was pretty cool too. Along with the Stonehenge replica made from cars that gives the place it's name, there are other pieces of car/metal art spread out throughout the field. My favorite is this metal fish. Pictures can be found here.

Some wise person once said, It's not the destination that matters, it's the journey. The rest of day 11 was part of that journey and was just as important as the destinations. The drive from Carhenge to our stop for the night took us along the scenic Sand Hills Journey byway. (On this day we also traveled parts of the Buttes to Bridges byway and the Gold Rush byway). The Nebraska Sand Hills which dominated the next six hours of our drive are serenely beautiful. The best way to describe the landscape is to imagine a sand dune covered desert landscape. Now cover the sand dunes with green grass. Those are the sand hills. The rolling hills are virtually treeless - the only trees being planted around ranch compounds and a few along the highway. The landscape is dotted with windmills (the old ones, not the wind turbines), cattle, and horses.

Highway 2, which we took, traveled through tiny towns, many unincorporated. The towns were few and far between - 20 to 40 miles apart. Between the towns were dirt roads that took you to the large ranches that graze cattle and horses on the grassy hills. I can't imagine the loneliness and isolation you would endure out on these ranches. Especially when the nearest town may have a population less than 100 people. It would take a very special type of person I'd imagine.

The highway paralleled the railroad. Empty trains headed west followed shortly by coal ladened trains from Wyoming heading east to feed our need for electricity. Crossing the road ahead of us were ... turtles. The Wife counted 11+. Not sure why the turtle crossed the road but there were amazingly few dead turtles on the road. It helps that this road doesn't seem to be traveled much.

We spent our last night on the road in the town of Thedford, NE, population 243. We really thought that we would be staying in a little dive hotel in a hick town but we were pleasantly surprised. Our hotel was a a full feature hotel with internet access and comfortable beds. It was next to the railroad tracks so it was a little noisy but we did see a cool sight - two full length passenger airplanes, wings and tails removed, loaded on a train.

We walked next door to the Stubs restaurant. It looked like a nice restaurant but the service was very slow and the food was mediocre. It took us nearly an hour and a half to eat. Another client who came in right after us was up at the counter telling them that she couldn't wait any longer. I guess we were lucky to actually get out food.

Day 12, our last day on the road, started cloudy and went downhill from there but we didn't care because we were headed home. Our only stop for the day was a short drive through the Nebraska National Forest. When you think of Nebraska you rarely think of forest and for good reason - there are very few. The Nebraska National Forest has one unique distinction - it's the largest human-planted forest in the United States. The forest was planted starting in 1902 to see if a forest could be planted on the great plains. The Bessey Ranger District, the part we drove in, is a mixture of different tree varieties. Several different types of trees are grown to see which ones best adapt to the conditions.

Most of the roads through the forest are unpaved. I'm sure the 31+ miles of scenic back country roads are awesome but the recent rain turned them into a muddy mess so we stayed on the short three mile paved road. I had hoped to climb the fire lookout tower on the high point of the forest to get a panorama shot but it was closed when we were there. We probably could have gotten a ranger to let me up there but frankly I wanted to get home. I will have to go back sometime as there are hiking trails in the 90,000 acre man-made forest that temp me.

The rest of day 12 was spent driving in rain. As we got closer to home the rain intensified. Visibility was limited and cars were going in the ditch. We made it home without incident and the hard rain washed the bugs off the front of the car (I was going to take a picture of the bug gut graveyard on my license plate but they're all gone). I will have one more vacation entry to sum things up later this week.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Tachnical Difficulties

Some people have been experiencing technical difficulties accessing and/or commenting on Homer's Travels. I think the issue may be the URL (Internet Address) being used to access the site.

The correct URL is HomersTravels.com. Some of you may be using the old URL valevue.blogspot.com.

Please change any links you may have from the old address to the newer, correct URL.

Friday, June 19, 2009

I Interrupt This Vacation To Announce...

We finally got home today.  I will post about the last two days sometime this weekend ... probably.  What I do want to brag blog about is that my submission for the May Boston.com photo contest, whose theme was May Flowers, made it in the top 50 (out of 307).  I submitted this one:

The voting for the top 10 hasn't started yet but when it does I will post a link.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

2009 Vacation - Day 10: A Second Day Of Transition

Wednesday we left Moab and drove most of the day. The day was pretty uneventful until be turned north off I-80 towards Scottsbluff, NE.

I usually think of Nebraska as being flat but around Scottsbluff the farm land and green pastures are punctuate with buttes, cliffs, and bluffs reminiscent of the Badlands. The mixture of buttes, pine trees, and pastures are not only unexpected but very attractive.

One other thing about Scottsbluff. Something around this town stinks to high heaven. Not sure what it is but it reeks!

Tomorrow we have a day full of nature and history.

Note: I can't believe I actually caught up on my posting.

2009 Vacation - Day 9: 4x4 And Jet Boat - Pictographs And Petroglyphs

Our second day in the Moab area was tour day. It turned out to be the best day of our vacation so far.

The day started with a 4x4 Jeep tour. Actually it was a 4x4 Ford Excursion tour but that's being picky. Our driver, Dave, was a grizzled ex-cop from the Chicago area. He looked like he could tear you apart if you looked at him wrong. He turned out to be a real fun guy. I was surprised to find out that he was 72 years old. He didn't look a day over 50-ish to me. I hope I look like that when I'm 72.

The tour took us up in the hills to the Gemini Bridges – stone bridges. The road was rough but the scenery was interesting. Dave's descriptions of plant life, mineral deposits, and area history were spot one and interesting.

After the bridges we went to Dead Horse Point State Park. The views from the point were amazing. Multi-color stone cliffs and the winding Colorado River. You'd swear the cliffs were carved.

Next came the Pictographs and Petroglyphs. (Pictographs: Paintings. Petroglyphs: Carvings in stone) The Pictographs are estimated to be 5,000 to 8,000 years old and were drawn my person or persons unknown. Some looked very alien like … just saying.

The petroglyphs are younger – 1,000 ± 500 years old from several known tribes. They are more extensive than the pictographs. The petroglyphs and pictographs were the highlight of the 4x4 tour.

Dave returned us to the tour office in time for a delicious lunch provided by the tour company. After lunch we got on a Jet Boat tour that took us down the Colorado River.

This was by far the most relaxing part of the vacation. This part of the Colorado river is as smooth as glass. The boat took us through red rock canyons lined with Tamarix trees. The tamarix is an invasive species of tree that has been creeping up the Colorado river from California at a rate of about 50 miles per year. The tree is incredibly hardy, resilient, and hard to kill. It also sucks water up at an outrageous rate, increases the humidity around them (which encourages mosquito growth), and squeezes out the native species. The park service has introduced a beetle to kill the tree. Wonder when they'll introduce a bird to eat the beetle that was introduced to kill the tree?

Along the way we stopped to see some petrified trees near the shore and more petroglyphs. Our driver, Rory, would turn off the engine and we would drift as he pointed out different geological features and talked about the many movies and commercials that have been filmed in the area. With the engine off it was so peaceful and serene. I took over 250+ pictures. I sample of those pictures are here.

On the way back the boat was brought up to speed (59 mph max but we hit around 40 mph). The wind felt good and the speed felt energizing. The boat ride was the highlight of the entire vacation so far.

The day was made complete with dinner at the Sunset Grill high on a ridge overlooking Moab. Prime Rib, Chicken, and a slice of Chocolate Mousse Pie to die for (No, not good for my cholesterol and high blood sugar but I'm on vacation).

2009 Vacation - Day 8: Somewhere Under The Arches

Monday was spent exploring Arches National Park and the town of Moab, UT. Here the odd weather we've been experiencing went to our favor. Normally the temperatures in Moab this time of year are in the 100s. Today the forecasted high was in the upper 80s.

We stopped at the visitor's center to figure out how we should tackle the park. There we saw an awesome guided hike to Fiery Furnace. Unfortunately the next open slot was Wednesday after we were scheduled to leave. We considered doing the hike in the morning and turning Wednesday into a very long day but then the ranger listed the skills needed – rock hoping, no claustrophobia, no fear of heights, climbing in tight spaces. None of these things scared us really but the ranger then listed the equipment we would need – Good shoes (I had my boots but the Wife didn't) and four quarts of water each (I didn't have my camel back). We realized we were not equipped for this hike. We were both really bummed as it sounded like a magnificent hike. Next time. I swear next time I'll be ready. And there with be a next time.

After watching a movie about the park we started our car tour. We covered all of the park stopping at almost all of the turnouts. We did a group of small hikes – 1, 0.5, 0.5, and 1.8 miles (total of 3.8 miles). It was warm today (better than cold, believe me) and it limited how much we wanted to hike. Despite this the Wife and I climbed rocks all over the place and got up close and personal with several cool stone arches. The last hike, the longest, took us to the Landscape arch, the longest arch in the park at 290 feet and possibly the longest in the world. At its thinnest its only six foot thick.

After driving around the park for over five hours we headed into Moab for a late lunch and a short walk down Main street. After a while we had enough, went back to the hotel and took a soak in the hot tub and a swim in the pool. Nice end of the day. Pictures can be found here.

2009 Vacation - Day 7: A Day Of Trasition

Sunday was a day of transition. We left Yellowstone early and went south through the Tetons. Unfortunately the rain and low clouds completely obscured the mountains.

After stopping for breakfast in Jackson, WY, we tried to find a dry place to continue our vacation. We headed south through wide open ranch land, buttes, and small towns. We passed authentic cowboys herding sheep – I guess that would make them sheepboys but I wouldn't tell that to them. If I were brave I would have stopped and taken a picture. They had that rough, old west, feel to them.

The weather cleared up and we thought we finally had left the rain behind. Then we entered Utah. We stopped at a rest stop to use the facilities when it started to hail. Hail! Only pea sized but hail never the less. After the hail came the torrent of rain. We couldn't see very far ahead. This was by far the heaviest rain we'd seen on this vacation. This might turn out to be the rain's last gasp.

Ten and a half hours after leaving Yellowstone we pulled into Moab, UT. Temperatures were in the 70s – 80s and there was no rain in sight. Finally. Real Vacation Weather.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

2009 Vacation - Day 6: Yellowstone By Bus

Saturday was tour day. We booked an all day bus tour around most of the southern loop road including the majority of the volcanic phenomenon in the park.

The day started out pretty good with somewhat clear skies and sunshine. As we went from one steaming hole to another the clouds began to build but, as our luck had it, it never rained while we were out of the bus walking around. We saw all sorts of hot springs, fumaroles, mud pots, and geysers. It even remained dry while we waited for Old Faithful to blow.
We probably could have seen all of this from our car but it was so nice to be on a bus having someone else do the driving for a change. The bus was old and the driver a little inexperienced with double clutching but the seats were comfortable, the driver answered all questions intelligently, and the tour was pleasurable. We also learned a lot more than we would have if we'd done it by our lonesome. Pictures can be found here.

The tour ended with the Upper and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone – both spectacular.

There was less wildlife this trip than on my 1995 roadtrip. Most of the wildlife, the little we saw, was in the distance. The only exception was an Elk near canyon land. I think the difference is the time of the year.

Tomorrow is a long, long driving day – Ten plus hours – to Moab, UT, Canyon Land, and Arches National Monument.

2009 Vacation - Day 5: Yellowstone Wandering

Our first full day in Yellowstone started with breakfast, a rather long drive to the Geyser area of the park, and a hike to Mystic Falls.

I was in a gloomy mood most of the day. Yellowstone seems to bring out the depression in me. I used to think it was how long it takes to get anywhere in the park. Inevitably you end up behind some slow RV. This trip, so far, the traffic has been rather light, shooting a hole in my theory. It could be the gloomy weather … or maybe it's just Yellowstone.

Our first stop Friday was the spectacular Old Faithful Inn. The Wife had seen it on the Travel channel and we stopped to take a look. Pretty cool. Since we had a bus tour planned on Saturday that included Old Faithful itself, we didn't wait for it to blow, instead we headed to nearby Biscuit Basin.

There's a hike at Biscuit Basin called the Mystic Falls trail. I did this hike fourteen years ago and I wanted to do it again to see how things had changed. The area was ravaged by fire in 1988. When I was there in 1995 everything was blackened but new life was visible everywhere. Most of the trees along the trail were no more than a foot or two high. This time the landscape had changed completely.

The trail starts at a boardwalk that takes you past several hot springs and geysers. The trail follows the Fire Hole river. At the first 'Y' junction we veered off the river and headed up to a lookout point high above the surrounding plain. The trail switchbacks steeply up the ridge. A chipmunk jumped the Wife on the way up and stalked us all the way up the ridge. Must have thought we had food or something. From the top of the ridge you can see several geysers including Old Faithful. The plain had changed a lot since my first visit. Back then the plain was a grassy meadow with few trees. Today the plain is dominated by new growth trees. Quite a different sight.

We followed the trail along the top of the ridge before we switchbacked back down to the falls. Mystic falls is a 70 foot torrent of water. Very impressive. Living in Southern California I missed raging rivers and waterfalls. The rest of the trail follows the river back to the boardwalk. Once again luck smiled on us and the rain held off until we got back to the car. This hike, with the addition of the lookout loop is about 4.1 miles roundtrip. (Silly me, I left my GPS in the car so I have no elevation information).

The drive back to Yellowstone Lake sucked any remaining energy we had. Must have been the four continental divide crossings or something. We stopped at Fishing Bridge for some lunch before heading for the hotel for an afternoon nap. I'm kind of disappointed with myself. A 4.1 mile hike wiped me out. I suppose I have to remind myself that we are at elevation (7,000+) but I'm still disappointed in myself.

The afternoon ended with a boat trip out on the lake with a little history thrown in. The sun, that had been hiding in the clouds most of the day, finally made an appearance and we ended up with perfect boat riding weather.

We closed the day with a few drinks in the Lake Yellowstone Hotel sunroom listening to piano music and watching the sun go down over the lake. Pictures can be found here.

Monday, June 15, 2009

2009 Vacation - Day 4: Little Bighorn

Thursday started with a bird smacking our windshield at 80+ mph. The windshield is fine. The bird, not so much. Scared the poop out of us.

We only had one attraction to visit – Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. We went into this one thinking that there wouldn't be much there to see – maybe a marker and a small museum but we were pleasantly surprised.

The day was perfect – the first without any rain – when we pulled up to the visitor's center. The center is next to the national cemetery holding mostly veterans of WWI, WWII, Korea, and other modern wars. We walked through the small museum and learned there was a bus tour of the battlefield.

The bus tour, guided by a member of the Crow tribe, took us through the sequence of events that led to Custer's last stand. Her description was fair and balanced. The fields and hills are dotted with white gravestone-like markers showing where the remains of dead soldiers were found. Most of the remains are buried in a mass grave. All I can say is that Custer was one stupid white man. What do they say “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” Seems appropriate here. The whole park was well done. Pictures can be found here.

The rest of the day was a long drive to Yellowstone. We checked into Lake Yellowstone Hotel before walking along the shores of the beautiful lake. The lake shore and the outside of the hotel was swarming with mosquitoes – huge mosquitoes. Fortunately the hotel is also swarming with swallows that swoop around the hotel columns eating mosquitoes. Frankly the swarms of swallows, being more visible, are more freaky.

The hotel also had no television or Internet something that both inspired fear and hope in me. Very strange reaction.

We arranged a bus tour and a lake boat tour for the next few days. Friday will be hike day.

2009 Vacation - Day 3: Wet Buffalo and Devil's Tower

Wednesday, day 3 of our rather wet vacation, started with rain. Rain, rain, and more rain. It was also cold – 40s & 50s. A perfect day to ride in the back of a jeep … which is exactly what we did.

The jeep tour, provided proudly by Buffalo Jeep Safari, was in a covered jeep and took you wildlife watching in Custer State Park. While the jeep's cover kept most of the rain off us, there were no sides or windows to the jeep. The Wife rode shotgun and ended up with her right side soaked. I was in the second row bench seat and was fairly dry as I was sitting in the middle (my seat was wet to the left and right of me). I did feel the full brunt of the cold though as the front row heat did not reach back to me. We were the only adventurous fools to not cancel. Fortunately the actual tour was worth the cold, wet misery we subjected ourselves to.

Our driver, a retired, Vietnam vet, truck driver from New York state had a great sense of humor and told a good story. We really liked him even though his knowledge of park history was a bit limited. He drove us on less traveled roads looking for bison and other wildlife. Unfortunately the national guard was conducting exercises involving noisy truck convoys, troop maneuvers, and some exercises involving blowing up Improvised Explosive Devises along the roadside. This didn't make the wildlife very happy so many of the animals were skittish and made themselves pretty scarce. Despite that, our driver managed to find a herd of bison – mostly females with lots of newborn calves – that we could get close to. The bison were used to the jeep so we came within 10 feet of nursing buffalo calves. Along with the buffalo we saw Pronghorn antelope and deer. Pretty awesome if you ask me. Pictures from our jeep tour can be found here.

The jeep dropped us off back at our car where I jumped in and turned the heat on full to help thaw out my hands and feet. We left South Dakota heading northwest into Wyoming for our next destination – our nation's first National Monument, Devil's Tower. The drive there followed the developing theme of our vacation: non-stop rain and drizzle. Fortunately another theme started here as well: as we arrived the drizzle let up and we had time to take pictures and to do the 1.3 mile loop around the base of the tower. It turns out we've been lucky with the weather and it often clears up when it counts. A few pictures of Devil's Tower are here.

On the way back to the car from the hike, the Wife's superpowers were activated once again when someone called her name. We both rolled our eyes a little and smiled. Sure enough, one of the Wife's students from Mercy was at Devil's Tower. Her superpowers never cease to amaze.

Leaving the park we decided to take action against the weather and stopped at a gift shop to buy a sweatshirt for the Wife and a Fleece jacket for me. We both had packed mostly shorts and t-shirts and this vacation has not been a short and t-shirt type of vacation.

The rest of the day was a drive to Sheridan, WY, a stay at what once had been an old Mill, and a great dinner at a corner bar.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

2009 Vacation - Day 2: Minuteman And Crazy Horses

NOTE: Daily posting was interrupted by lack of Internet service. I also mis-underestimated how tired I would be at the end of the day. I will try to catch up. Maybe.

Tuesday morning in Wall, SD started with a drizzly, dreary, foggy overcast sky. Thank cheesus we drove through the badlands the day before or we would have seen very little. Parts of the park were shrouded completely in fog. One positive, the rain water darkened the reds and yellows of the landscape ... if you cold see them through the fog.

Our first destination of the day, the geek portion of our vacation, was a Minuteman III Missile silo just out of town. We arrived at the unassuming site and talked to the ranger. He told us about tours that we had not been aware of. A cell phone call to the main office confirmed the tours but they were booked solid for the month of June. We looked around the silo area. The silo blast door was open and there was a glass cover keeping the dummy missile dry.

We headed to the main office to get more information. After listening to the ranger we asked if we could get on the tour and were pleasantly surprised that we could! We now had three hours to kill until the tour so we drove through the badlands (drive through number two) back to Wall and ate brunch.

After brunch we went to the Wounded Knee Museum. The building is small and rather unassuming from the outside but on the inside is a very well done history of the mistreatment of the Native American peoples and the massacre at Wounded Knee.

Back to the Missile headquarters (Badland drive through number three) just in time for the tour. After a briefing by the ranger, we convoyed our cars to the Minuteman Missile Launch Control facility. The group was divided into three groups of six – each group had its own ranger. Our group's ranger was the same ranger we met at the silo earlier in the day – Kerry.

Kerry led us through the above ground building first, marveling us with old military stories. He was stationed there when he was in the Air Force and later was involved in the START treaty. Now he's a tour guide. He reminded me of the typical gung-ho military guy. He often talked in military speak which managed to confuse the Wife at least once. When it was our turn we all got in the elevator and went down to the control room where we heard more rather inane stories. I would have preferred more history and less anecdotes but it was interesting enough. Pictures of the Minute Man facility are here.

After the tour, we headed to Custer, SD. Along the way the rain got stronger. I was getting a little gloomy when, as we got closer to Custer, the rain stopped and the sun tried mightily to shine through the clouds. We took advantage of the brief break in the weather to visit the Crazy Horse memorial. The only thing completed is the face - a little disappointing though the face is very well done. As I watched a movie about the carving, I wonder if it will ever be finished. Early on only one person, Korczak Ziolkowski, worked on the sculpture. Today there are seven people working, all children of the original sculptor. It's a family affair and only a family affair. They don't seem to want outside help. I wonder, for such a magnificent memorial to Native Americans, where are the Native American assistance? Are they not trying to help or is the Ziolkowski family not accepting any help? Lot's of questions. Pictures are here.

We spent the rainy night in Custer.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

2009 Vacation - Day 1: Corn, Drugs, And Bad A$$ Land

We're on vacation and I have my laptop. I'm planning to post everyday if I can. Not sure I will manage this but I will try to post within 24 hours of each vacation day.

Day one started overcast and dreary and the low, June Gloomish, clouds followed us most of the day. Despite that, it was great to get on the road. When the clouds finally cleared in the afternoon, I was amazed at how big the sky is out on the plains. I felt very small and a little awed by the rolling South Dakota grasslands and the seemingly unending blue sky dotted with puffy, happy clouds.

We decided to get the more touristy places out of the way on this first vacation day starting with the Mitchell, SD Corn Palace. The Corn Palace, originally built in 1892, is a big ornate auditorium/social gathering place decorated with corn. When you visit this place you have to corn-sider the a-maize-ing ear-chitecture (Sorry about that but these were all phrases on billboards along the way to Mitchell). The outside of the palace is decorated in murals made from multicolor corn – i.e. corn mosaics. We watched a movie on the origins of the palace as a way to attract new settlers to Mitchell and to promote the town as a possible capitol of South Dakota. While the palace failed to win them the capitol seat, it did attract settlers and visitors to the town. The palace has been built, moved, and rebuilt several times in it's history, each time more elaborate. While I thought the palace was a little corny, the history of the pioneer struggles to attract neighbors was interesting and informative. A few pictures are here.

Back on the road west we passed hundreds of Wall Drug signs. I've never seen so many signs. To say that one out of every five was a Wall Drug sign would be an underestimation. When we arrived it was your typical, souvenir hocking, tourist trap. We walked through the rows of chochkis before stopping for some lunch – Buffalo Burgers of course.

It was still early so we took a drive through Badland National Park. We'd both been there decades before. While it was beautiful, the colors were a lot brighter in my memories. I also don't remember all the green. I wish my memory was a little better.

The drive through the park is a treat. On one side of the road is meadow with deer/elk/antelope grazing and prairie dogs poking their heads out of their holes and chirping at each other. The other is a surreal multi-colored desert landscape contrasting sharply with the verdant late spring plant growth. Pictures of our drive though the badlands can be found here.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Busy No-Yet-Summer Day - Art And Music

Two days before we head out on vacation, I decided to start a little early. We started with a good breakfast at Luis M's Burger Lust and a visit to the Farmer's Market in the old market area of Omaha. In the afternoon I went to the 2nd annual chalk walk in Papillion while the Wife talked garden with a friend.

The chalk walk is similar to Santa Barbara's I Madonnari Festival but at a much smaller scale. Santa Barbara had hundreds of chalk drawings. Papillion had six or seven. I think I'll give them some slack as this is only the second time they've done this and there is only one professional chalk artist in Omaha. The few that they had were pretty good. Here is a sampling of the art. Along with the art there was live music and a fire truck for the kiddies.

Since the chalk thing was less than I expected, I had some extra time on my hands before the Memorial Park Concert that I was going to attend started. So, in an attempt at killing time I drove downtown to see if I could get some pictures at the Sandcastle contest. When I got there the whole downtown area was packed. Along with the sandcastles there was a Taste of Omaha food festival going on. Driving around a bit I realized that by the time I found a parking spot and walked the distance to the sandcastles, it would be time to turn around and head back to the car. I seem to have bad luck with Sandcastles. Maybe next year.

I ended my day with the O! What A Concert held at memorial park. The concerts are open air and free. I found a spot fairly close to the stage and set up my folding chair. I ate a subway sandwich waiting for the first act. I must have been getting tired as I forgot three things in the trunk of my car: Bottles of water resulting in me buying three dollar water; sunglasses that I thought I didn't need until the sun came out of the overcast and made me squint until I got a headache; and a hat which also would have helped with the whole squinting thing.

The concert had four acts, one more than last years. The three warm up acts were all local Omaha bands. The first was Brad Hoshaw and the Seven Deadlies. I'd heard Brad solo last year and wasn't that impressed - he was a little too mellow - but he was a little more energetic backed by his bad The Seven Deadlies.

The second act was Mal Madrigal. They were okay but none of their stuff really grabbed me.

The third act was Sarah Benck and the Robbers. She was closer to the style I like. A bit more of an energetic rocker feel. The melodies were catchy but the lyrics seemed a little amateurish. Even so, I think I enjoyed her the most. One factoid: The Seven Deadlies are also the Robbers. If Brad Hoshaw hadn't pointed that out, I probably wouldn't have noticed. I can be bad with details like that.

The main act was Britain's indie rock band Gomez. Again I was just barely impressed. Not bad - just okay. Like Feist last year, I ended up leaving half way through their set.

Pictures of the concerts can be found here.

The crowd at the concert seemed thinner this year. I suspect that fewer people knew Gomez who don't have the American exposure that Feist had. On top of that there had been rain in the forecast (a forecast that was very wrong - it did rain an inch and a half over night though). Based on this description you would think I had a bad time. I didn't really. I was hoping for more and ended up with enough. What more can you ask for the price of FREE.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Book: Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons"

When it came to reading history books, I was stuck in World War II. In high school none of my history classes got past World War I. So, as a result, my knowledge of post 1940s history is pretty sketchy until about the late 70s or so when I became aware that there was a real world around me.

This brings me to my latest read, Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite". I saw this book recommended by Wired magazine and it seemed interesting. The books covers the history of a group of scientists, originally physicists who worked on the Manhattan Project, who formed an independent advisory organisation called Jason. Since its founding in 1960, Jason has performed studies and provided reports to the Department of Defense (DOD) via the Advance Research Projects Agency (ARPA - later DARPA adding D for Defense). The scientist, including among others, Hans Bethe and Freeman Dyson, picked and chose which studies it wanted to conduct and their reports were often briefed by the Jasons to the Secretary of Defense directly.

Jason worked on the hardest nuts to crack that the DOD had. The projects ranged from how to detect nuclear missile launches, how to distinguish between real and dummy warheads, how to communicate with nuclear submarines, to how to verify the various nuclear test ban treaties. Most of the early Jason members had joined because of a combination of patriotism and guilt over developing the atomic bomb. Many of the Jasons hoped to put the nuclear genie back in the bottle. They obviously were not successful. Over the years new scientists, including non-physicists, would rotate in, chosen by the Jasons, helping keep Jason fresh.

Jason's influence began declining after Viet Nam. During this war they were instrumental in developing the concept of the electronic battlefield (using sensors to detect and engage enemy troop movements). They issued reports that helped kill the idea of using tactical nuclear weapons in Viet Nam (and sadly they had to do it again during the Iraq war). One of their favorite duties was Lemon Detection - i.e. debunking stupid ideas. They were not very supportive of the Star Wars programs and missile defense. They didn't participate in development of Stealth technologies (They were not asked to participate, a sign of the waning influence).

Many of the studies and work that the Jasons produced were and still are classified. The public may never know how much Jason has/is contributing. It sounds like the early meetings, held during the summer so that the scientists, mostly professors, had free time, were fascinating. Some of the greatest minds of the time, gathered in La Jolla, CA, shooting the sh!t with each other, bouncing equations off the greatest intellects of the time. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall. The current Jason is a little more fragmented and the camaraderie there was at its founding has diminished somewhat.

Being the geek I am, I wish there were more independent scientists advising the Government. Today, the Government depends too much on scientists employed by industry or directly by the Government whose independence and impartiality are questionable.

The book was put together using dozens of interviews and is a very good read. Highly recommended.