Homer's Travels: September 2010

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Technical Difficulty

Some of you may have noticed that my weather gadget hasn't been working.  It appears that the network interface of my weather station has taken a dump.  I have sent an e-mail to the maker to see how much it will cost to repair.  A new one would cost $240+ so replacing it isn't an option.

Sorry for any inconvenience this may cause.  I know it's the Wife's only link with the outside world when she's at school (her room has no windows).  She was a little distraught when she found out I couldn't fix it.

Until it's fixed, I am removing the gadget.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A Return To The Wife's Alma Mater

This weekend we went to Notre Dame for the Stanford-ND football game.  We left Omaha on Thursday night, spent the night at the in-law's house, and drove into South Bend, IN on Friday.  The drive was long and uneventful but I did snag an awesome, vintage looking, I ♥ Bacon t-shirt at a restaurant near Walcott, IA.

Notre Dame - Basilica, War Memorial, and Golden Dome.
Friday evening we went to the pep rally before heading to our hotel.  After the long day in the car eating crap, we thought we'd go down to the hotel bar to get a snack before we went to bed.  We sat, ordered some food and drink.  While we waited for our orders, the music was turned off and some guy stood up and welcomed everyone to a meeting of his Libertarian group and thanked the local Tea Party Patriot group for joining them this evening.  The Wife and I rolled our eyes and wondered what we'd gotten ourselves into.  At one point we scootched our chairs around so our backs were to them.  I wanted to say soooo much but I knew they were all packing heat so I kept my mouth shut and tried not to attract any attention.  I didn't even finish what I ordered - lost my appetite.

Golden Dome ... Illuminated.
Saturday was game day.  We walked around campus taking pictures.  (I added the pictures to my Notre Dame album and can be found here.)  As we entered campus I noticed the cheering squad leaving a building.  With them was the Leprechaun.  I asked the wife if she wanted her picture taken with him and he was nice enough to oblige.  Made the Wife smile.  (The picture has circulated around the family for a few days now.)  We waited by the basilica to greet the players as they entered.  The Wife got a hug from one of her former students, one of Notre Dame's tailbacks.  Made her smile again.

The custom is to follow the band into the stadium.  This time the Alumni Band led us in.  The oldest was 91!  Not sure what he/she played but I bet it wasn't the tuba.  They played pretty good and they joined the regular band on the field during half-time - 1,000 members strong.

The game was ... disappointing but the weather held out and we stayed dry but chilled.  We left the game early and got a good pew in the basilica for Mass.  We went back to the hotel ... and stayed away from the bar and the wackos.

It was a good weekend getaway despite the loss.  I ate entirely too much junk food and I'm sure my arteries were screaming by the time I got home.  I'm trying to get back to eating healthy.  My arteries will thank me once they get out of their coma.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Hiking Iowa: Loess Hills Wildlife Area

Yesterday I did something I rarely do.  I hiked without a map.  I drove up to the Loess Hills Wildlife Area stopping at the Loess Hills State Forest Visitor's Center on the way.  I discovered at the center that there are very few trails in the Loess Hills State Forest.  The ranger showed me some short trails in the forest that I will do sometime in the future.

I thanked the ranger and headed to the Loess Hills Wildlife Area, Turin Loess Hills Nature Preserve, and the Sylvan Runkel State Preserve.  Sadly there is very little information online about these areas.

I arrived at the trailhead, a gravel parking area with a Loess Hills information sign and several Public Hunting signs, all with some bullet/buckshot damage.  On the other side of a chain gate was a tractor and several round bails of hay.  While it looked like there was a farm road leading into the area, it didn't look much like a trail.  I almost drove away but I decide to do a little more investigating before I gave up.

A Lonely Trailer Home In The Loess Hills.
I geared up, marked my car's location on the GPS, and headed down the farm road.  The road followed the base of a hill.  A couple hundred feet from the trailhead I noticed what looked like an overgrown road heading up the hill on the left.  I turned east and headed up the hill.  After a short distance the grass gave way to a rather clear old farm road that headed south-east through forest at the base of a ridge.

A third of a mile later the road ended in an overgrown meadow.  I waded through the grass and shrubs making my way across, finally hugging the edge of the meadow, until I reached the other side.  At this point I followed a game trail south into the forest.  Under the shade of the trees the grass and undergrowth thinned and the game trail disappeared.  Looking around I decided to check out what could be seen from the top of the ridge.  I headed up the hill heading for the nearest high point.

The Beginnings Of Fall Colors.
The top of the ridge, approximately 280 feet above the trailhead, offered amazing views of the forest to the south.  I stood there and took it all in.  There wasn't any sign of civilization.  No roads.  No buildings.  No farm fields.  The only sign I was near civilization was the distant moo of a cow.  Most of the leaves were still green but some of the smaller trees were turning yellow, orange, and gold.

I walked west along the ridge line until I couldn't go further.  I dropped down the ridge and entered the forest.    It was a lot easier to move through the trees.  I thought this to myself until I ran into an area of thick undergrowth, stinging weeds, and huge spiders stretched between trees.  I decided that this wasn't as good as I thought so I headed north and then up another ridge which afforded me another view of hills and forest.

Huge Spider.
I followed this ridge to its end before making my way down through forest and brush until I came out in an alfalfa field.  I walked across the field to a farm road, which turned out to be the one I'd started the hike on, and returned to the car.

This turned out to be a short hike, only 2.05 miles with 702 feet of elevation.  Here is a map of the hike.  Despite it's lack of length, it was an interesting hike with gorgeous vistas.  I'd expected hiking without a map would get me into all sorts of trouble but, to my surprise, it wasn't a problem at all.  I often misread trail maps and take wrong turns.  Without a map I made no wrong turns but I also knew exactly where I was at all times.  I would look down at my GPS and the car would be exactly in the direction I thought it was.  The pseudo random walk felt good and when I stood at the top of the ridge I felt like a pioneer.  I am starting to like the Loess Hills.  Loess Hills Wildlife Area pictures can be found here.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Well ... That Sucks!

The Mother-In-Law has been an avid viewer of As The World Turns for fifty years.  On September 17th the soap aired it's final episode.  The Mother-In-Law sits down to watch and ... the cable goes out.  That really sucks!  Since the outage was local, the cable company would not re-air it.

The Wife told me about what happened and asked if there was something I could do.  I did a little sleuthing.  You can stream the episode but the Mother-In-Law in on dial-up so it would probably be a painful experience.  I dug a little deeper into the dark recesses of the intertubes and managed to download a copy of the finale.

So, to the Mother-In-Law, a DVD with the finale of As The World Turns will be in the mail tomorrow and you should have it soon.  Enjoy.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Chill Of Fall

A cold front moved through this weekend and a preview of autumn's chill has moved in for a day or two.  The high today is in the 50s and, frankly, I'm a little chilly.  I don't have to wait long for warmth though as tomorrow's high is supposed to be back in the 80s.

The crisp air does remind me that the leaves will be turning soon.  For the past two years I have unsuccessfully tried to take pictures of the fall colors.  I've always been too late and I'm hoping I will be able to catch the transformation this year.

I've put some thought into it and I've picked a few places that should provide some good leaf peeping opportunities.  The first is Indian Cave State Park.  I found a great spot on the top of a hill overlooking the forest and the Missouri river (Here's a panorama I took last year).  If I hit it right most of the browns I saw last year will be reds and oranges.

The second place is Ponca State Park.  While I haven't hiked it yet, my recent visit there convinced me that there could be some awesome leaf viewing vantage points.

Another option is a drive along the Loess Hills Scenic Byway.  I've been thinking about doing this for awhile.  The byway runs from northern Missouri to just north of Sioux City, IA.  The full length of the Loess hills is about 200 miles.  The Scenic Byway, though, is not a straight shot and the Iowa portion stretches approximately 323 miles. This distance includes thirteen scenic loops.  The roads are paved or gravel and the scenery varies from forested hills to grassland to farmland.  (My Blog banner is from a Loess Hills Overlook near Preparation Canyon.)  I would probably only do the part north of Council Bluffs, 246 miles, so that I have time to stop and take pictures (limiting it to the northern portion still will mean almost seven and a half hours driving).  Besides, on the way back from the Lake of Three Fires hike I drove about two thirds of the southern part of the byway.

So these are my plans.  The Wife and I will be going to a Notre Dame Football game next weekend and I will start stalking the leaves the following week.  I also want to find time to fit in some hiking as well.  Now for some cooperative weather.  Wish me luck.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Cowboy Up ... Or Not

For those who have been paying attention, I was supposed to hike the Cowboy Trail this month.  Not only that, if I'd actually stuck to my original plan, something that rarely happens, I would have reached Ainsworth, NE today and the Wife would have been waiting there to pick me up.  I'm not in Ainsworth.

The first change in plans was driven by Anthony Bourdain.  His event was smack dab in the middle of the hiking window.  Looking at the calendar I changed the window to early October.  I started making calls to make hotel/bed and breakfast reservations.  I starting doubting my new plans when there were several no answers - not even answering machines or voice mail.  I didn't let this deter me as I went down the list of places.  Then I called a guest house in Atkinson, NE.

The guest house owner was very nice.  Turns out she was on a local board in charge of her section of the Cowboy Trail.  When I explained what I was doing she said "I think something is going on east of here concerning the Trail."  She then suggested I call a Nebraska Game and Parks (NGP) guy in Lincoln who's in charge of the entire trail.  I made the call and discovered that part of the trail was closed due to two bridges being out and one long section of rail bed (i.e. the trail right of way) having washed away leaving a river where the trail had been.  I thought about this a bit.  Made a few more calls to lodging and receiving more no answers.  *sigh*

The NGP guy had suggested that I could walk around most of the damaged areas but the idea of walking along a highway, the alternate route, didn't seem attractive.  If I skipped the damaged section all together I would be cutting the hike from 150 miles to 69 miles.  I ditched the entire plan there and then.

There's more to this than lack of accommodations and the need for unattractive detours.  Have you ever planned a trip that, as you got closer to the departure date, got less and less attractive?  The Wife feels that way about her summer workshops.  I do it all the time.  As it gets closer, it starts feeling like too much trouble even when it isn't.  There was a little of that when I decided to not do the Cowboy Trail.

There was one final thing that niggled me in the back of my head.  What if I failed?  What if I couldn't complete the hike?  What if I had to call the Wife to come and pick me up because I couldn't make it?  How would this impact me?  How would I handle this?  More importantly, how would it affect my Camino walk in Spain?  If I didn't make it I am sure that I would cancel my Spain trip.  I would regret this very much.  So, using some twisted internal logic, I am convinced that it would be better for me to go to Spain cold, without having done a similar long hike.  I hope I'm right.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Hiking Iowa: Lake Of Three Fires State Park

Yesterday was an almost perfect day for hiking with weather in the 60s, a light breeze, and a state park with a cool name.  The only downer was that it was overcast.  I'm talking hard core June Gloom for those living in California.

My destination was Lake of Three Fires State Park near Bedford, IA.  I'd heard about it at a hiking site I came across recently, AllTrails.com.  After registering you get a list of recommended hikes in your area.  Some of the suggestions I received were hikes I'd already done but there were a few that were worth checking out.

Lake of Three Fires State Park is located about two hours drive from where I live.  When I lived in California, I rarely drove more than an hour to get to a trailhead.  I have found in Nebraska, you have to drive a bit to find the good hikes, especially if you are interested in distance. Ponca, Indian Cave, and now Lake of Three Fires - almost two hours away, all worth the drive.

Lake of Three Fires is named after a legend in the area.  From the park brochure:

"Legend says the Potawatomi (a tribe that once roamed the plains of SW Iowa and NW Missouri) joined with two other tribes, the Ojibwa (Chippewa) and the Odawa (Ottawa) and formed the Three Fires Confederacy, a loose alliance that promoted their mutual interests.  It is believed that the three tribes held a great council meeting to join forces for protection against invading tribes."

Lake of Three Fires - Water Plant Growth.
I parked in the south-east corner of the park near, of all things, a sewage settling lagoon.  From there I followed the map south.  The trail is marked as an equestrian trail but it is actually a multi-use trail.  As an equestrian trail, hikers should watch where they put their feet as horse exhaust is common.

The trail, a slightly overgrown dirt road, weaves in and out between forest and meadow.  This time of year, meadow means lots of flowers and long grass (Thankfully I took my allergy meds before I'd left that morning).  Seeing all the flowers and remembering the dearth of flowers last spring (compared to California, that is) I have come to the realization that early fall might be the wildflower season in these parts.

Lake of Three Fires - Early Fall Color.
There was a lot of wildlife on this hike.  Mostly white-tail deer, toads, and birds including cranes.  One of the most eerie sound I've ever heard was the sound of a dozen ravens taking flight as I approached their perch.  The flapping has a low, orderly, woosh-woosh sound that sounds like some portent of evil.  Or maybe it was just me.

The trail turns west then north along the west side of the lake.  While the east side of the lake is the camping/recreation area of the park, the west side is the forest and rather wild part of the park.  The trail passes four park ponds (and several outside the park boundary) as it moves north.  The northerly trail zig-zags back and forth adding distance to the hike.  If you do not want the distance and do not care much about the ponds, there is a short cut trail that connects the tips of the zags that ends near the northern wetlands.

Lake of Three Fires - Wetlands.
The wetlands are, to me, the most interesting part of this park.  I think I have a thing for wetlands.  I suppose it's because there were so few in California where I first started my hiking.  The wetland area must have been dry in the past as now the skeletons of trees poke out of the duckweed covered water.

Water Lily.
The trail, past the wetlands area, turns south and eventually passes through the campgrounds and public areas.  The three campgrounds include a primitive area for tent campers, pads with connections for RV campers, and very nice cabins with electricity, plumbing, and air conditioning.  The lake is too small for skiing but fishing is permitted - I saw a boat with a couple fishing at the north end of the lake.  The public areas include very impressive stone and wood shelters built by the Civilian Conservation Corp.  The centerpiece of the shelters were large stone fireplaces and I could just see myself relaxing next to a roaring fire on a chilly autumn night.

The total hike was 7.8 miles.  The park advertised the park as having 8 miles of trails so they were close.  If you include some of the short cuts they would be about right.  AllTrails.com said there was 10.5 miles so I will have to be careful not to be too trustful with their claims.  Total elevation gain was about 920 feet but that was distributed over 6+ elevation changes.  The actual peak to trough change was only 97 feet.

I enjoyed this hike.  It was unpretentious but still had  a nice variety of landscapes.  I came away relaxed and satisfied, signs of a good hike.  Pictures of the Lake of Three Fires State Park can be found here.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Catching Up With The Week That Was

I've been a little unmotivated when it pertains to posting lately.  Everything seems too trivial to post about so, to break the six day silence, I will combine all my trivial activities into one summary post.

Last Tuesday I went to Peru, NE.  When I walked the steamboat trace last may, I'd promised myself that I would return to take more pictures of the Roland Sherman carvings.  Using my new camera and a tripod that I'd brought, I took pictures of all the carvings.  Most of the sculptures appeared unchanged but the genie of Genie Hallow was is very poor shape.  The genie is a combination of carved stone with concrete additions and most of the concrete additions had fallen off.  Not sure if this was a result of all the rain and weather we've had this summer or of vandals.  I haven't uploaded any of the new pictures.  The pictures are of slightly better quality than the ones I took in May but the lighting and poor contrast of some of the sculptures limited what I could capture.

On Friday morning I had blood drawn for another lipids test.  I moved up the blood work so that I could let loose a bit this weekend.  I know, not the best thing for me.  We were joined Friday evening by TE and JA for an high school football game at the Wife's school.  Unfortunately the overcast, drizzly, dreary day was not conducive to sitting on wet bleachers watching a game.  Instead we went out to eat at the Nebraska Brewing Company.

I have to say that I cannot recommend the Nebraska Brewing Company.  The food was okay but not spectacular.  They brewed their own beer so I ordered a root beer.  Home brewed root beer is usually pretty good.  Theirs ... well, I'll never know because they were out ... on a Friday night.  We should have took the hint when we found the place rather empty for a Friday night.  TE ordered an appetizer ... that never arrived.  The waitress was very apologetic and offered them a free dessert.  They chose the Chocolate Cobbler.  Seeing the dessert when it arrived, I ordered one for myself.  Five minutes later ... "Sorry, they're out of chocolate."  WTF. Here I had my blood drawn early so that I could splurge on some sweet root beer and a decadent dessert and I end up with bupkis. *sigh*

Saturday turned out a little better as we all went down to the farmer's market, ate a good lunch, and ended up at Maggie Moos where I consumed four scoops of Better Batter ice cream with cookie dough mixins.  Yep, it made up for Friday.  After a stop at a used bookstore (Everyone bought books except me) we went home and watched college football.  Okay, I admit that while I watched some football, I spent more time on the confuser playing on-line Scrabble.

After the game TE and JA went home and the Wife and I went to the Holland Center to listen to Anthony Bourdain.  We've been watching his show, No Reservations, for many years now and really like his irreverent take on thing.  He was surprisingly funny, interesting, and entertaining.  While he is not as irreverent, he's now married and the father of a three year old daughter - things that have mellowed him out a bit, he often took his foul mouth commentary to the bleeding edge.  The high point was when he was taking questions from the audience.  A guy walks up to the mike, tells him that his wife thinks he's sexy but thinks Bourdain's friend Eric Ripert was sexier and asked him what he thought of Ripert's lips.  Very funny.  People thanked that guy for asking the question as we left the Holland Center.

So that's it.  Today is a chore day - laundry and lawn mowing.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Sneezing Our Way Along The Heritage Highway

Sunday was another Nebraska Passport day.  This time we headed to the prairie and the city of Beatrice (It's not pronounced as you think.  It's pronounced be-AT-russ with emphasis on the 'a'.  Another strange Nebraska pronunciation).

Our first stop was about 30 miles west of Beatrice.  Located south of the unincorporated town of Jansen is the Rock Creek Station State Historical Park.  Rock Creek Station was a stage coach and pony express station located on the Oregon and California trails.  The station's claim to fame is being the location where Wild Bill Hickok shot David McCanles, beginning his gunfighting career.  After getting our passport stamped we headed down a mowed trail past pioneer graves, including one of an unknown school teacher, to the reconstructed buildings near the creek crossing.  First stop was the post office and a ranch cabin.

Following wagon wheel ruts, we walked to another grouping of buildings.  On the way we passed a man wearing a shirt that said "100% Red-Blooded American.  The Wife leaned in to me and asked sotto voice "Should I ask him what tribe he belongs to?"  This got us giggling all the way across the toll bridge to the east ranch grouping of buildings.

The other group of buildings consisted of a toll cabin, a pony express barn, and a bunkhouse.  In the barn an old local guy was giving black smith demonstrations to a group of kids and their parents.  We walked around, took some pictures, and headed back to the visitor's center.  We walked through the exhibits before buying a magnet and leaving in search of lunch.  Pictures of Rock Creek Station are here.

We stopped for lunch in Beatrice and then headed over to nearby Homestead National Monument.  Homestead is the only national park dedicated to an act of congress: the Homestead Act of 1862.  The visitor's center, a building with a sweeping roof line reminiscent of a plow blade, houses an impressive arrays of multimedia displays including a microphone where you can record your own memories of homesteading (The act was discontinued as late as 1976 - 1986 for Alaska).  We watched the movie and witnessed a balanced description of homesteading including its impact on the Native American populations.  Some of the Native American comments were quite poignant.

After getting both our Nebraska and the National Parks passports stamped, we stopped at the nearby Freeman school.  This one room schoolhouse was named after Daniel Freeman, the first Homestead Act applicant.  In the 1890's the school was in the center of a church-state separation struggle when Daniel Freeman objected to the teacher using bible verse in her lessons.  Freeman sued.  Freeman lost that suit.  Pictures of the Freeman School can be found here.

On the way home I counted my passport stamps and found I had ten.  I'd reached the first milestone that would get me a t-shirt.  Adding in my head the last three or four attractions that I could get on day trips, I realized I would never reach the next milestone of eighteen.  I decided right there that it wasn't worth the effort or the gas to get the remaining attractions within my reach so this will be my last Nebraska Byways Passport post.

One last thing.  After spending the day out on the Nebraska prairie, the Wife's and my allergies kicked into high gear.  We sniffled, snorted, and sneezed our way back home.  We decided that if we were pioneers we wouldn't have survived the first allergy season on the prairie.  We're both medicated today.  My pill seems to be wearing off so I think I'll go get another.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Hiking Nebra ... Oh, Never Mind

This was going to be another hiking post.  Thursday I drove two and a half hours to Ponca State Park to do some hiking.  The park in located along a wide spot of the Missouri River.  The north part of the park is meadow while the south and west are forested loess hills.  The thing about Nebraska State Parks, or more specifically their websites, is that they don't post good trail maps.  The map I found was of poor quality and didn't have any trail lengths marked.  This makes planning a hit or miss proposition.

Now, I'm not sure if it was my need to get on the trail or what but I let my need overshadow my better judgement and I ignored the weather forecast.  Rain was in the forecast for the morning and I totally failed to even check if the weather was different two hours north.  I asked myself "what was I thinking" as I drove through the rain on the approach to the park.

The rain did let up as I arrived at the park headquarters.  I went in and picked up a better trail map along with a sheet of brief trail descriptions.  Back in the car I looked over the map and headed to the first trail that looked promising.  Ponca State Park has ten trails totaling about 20 miles.  The trails range from 0.8 miles up to 4 miles but, after studying the map a bit I saw that there were a lot of little connector trails that would allow you to combine loops.  I set my sights on a combination of the Old Oak, Bloodroot, and Corps of Discovery trails that would yield a five mile trail whose difficulty would range from easy to moderate to difficult.

I reached a trailhead for the Old Oak Trail, geared up, walked up to a plaque with a You Are Here map and felt the rain restart as I studied the map.  I didn't have a rain jacket (It was on the list in my head but I forgot to check that list when I'd left that morning) and I was carrying my camera.  I don't think I would have minded getting wet but hiking without my camera ... I feel like I would see the most amazing thing and I would not have any proof.  I looked at the trail.  It was a narrow, packed dirt trail that, after all the rain we've had, was mud.  It was also a hilly trail so I could see myself slipping and sliding my way along the trail - I would find this a plus if I were 10 but at 47 I was less enthusiastic.

I got de-geared and got back in the car and sat there listening to the patter of rain on the car roof.  Not wanting the day to be a complete waste, I drove around the park making a note of the diverse terrain and the location of various trailheads.  The rain let up a bit so I decided to look for the sole geocache in the park.  I parked near the archery/pellet gun range.  This is one thing I haven't gotten used to yet.  In California you would rarely have any type of firing range in a state park.  In the Nebraska/Iowa area, most areas, including wildlife refuges, have at least archery ranges and some are closed to hikers during hunting season.  I walked along the closed asphalt road that went through the range.  Most of the targets were just stuffed canvas targets but there were a few stuffed dear and bear to be used as targets as well.  I reached the cache location and found it ("Nebraska 4-H GC - Dixon County") fairly quickly despite the fact that the GPS was jumping all over the place.

As I walked back to the car the rain started anew.  I sat in the car and ponered how I could salvage the day.  Salvation came in the form of the Nebraska Passport program.  I pulled out the passport and looked to see if there were any attractions nearby.  The Lewis and Clark Visitors Center about forty miles west seemed to fit the bill.  I left the park and headed for Crofton, NE on the Outlaw Trail Scenic Byway.

Most of the drive west was through rain.  All that rain was heading towards Ponca State Park so I think my decision was a wise one.

The Lewis and Clark Visitors Center is actually located north of Crofton on the banks of the Missouri River/Lewis & Clark Lake just south of Yankton, SD.  The visitors center overlooks the Gavin Point dam/power plant.  This center, run by the Army Corp of Engineers and the National Park Service, has displays about Lewis & Clark, the Missouri river, and the Army Corp of Engineers.  I looked through the exhibits, bought a travel magnet, and got stamps in both my Nebraska Passport and my National Parks passport.

The rest of the day was a long drive back home with a stop for lunch in Norfolk, NE.  The day turned out pretty good.  I now had enough intelligence to plan my next trip to Ponca State Park.  I found a cache.  I picked up some stamps, and a I found a new magnet for our collection.  My only real regret was not stopping to take a picture of an old building north of Norfolk.  The red building sported a large sign that said "Wee Town".  Wee Town is, apparently, a ghost town that once was home to nearly 50 residents.