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Music City

NASHVILLE!

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A place I’ve never been, and always wanted to go – but I almost forgot to plan it into the trip!  Good thing I didn’t, because in many ways it was the highlight of the vacation.

Historic and modern, Nashville is full of striking architecture

Historic and modern, Nashville is full of striking architecture

 

 

 

 

 

 

As you may remember, the object of this journey was to see mountains, and I had decided to spend Monday afternoon in Nashville on my way back home.  At the last minute, I re-arranged the itinerary, putting me in the Music City on Thursday and Friday instead – all the better for music appreciation.

In all, I was in, I think, six different music venues, and heard more bands play than that, which right there made it all worth it – living as I do in an area where you’re hard pressed to find one band playing on a Friday night!  I highly recommend both Roberts’ Western World on Broadway

Robert's Western World is a classic dive honky-tonk on Broadway, still specializing in PBR and hotdogs, and the classic country offerings on their small stage add to the ambience.  We came here first, tried a couple other spots, and then came back for their foot-tapping sounds and unpretentious style.

Robert’s Western World is a classic dive honky-tonk on Broadway, still specializing in PBR and hotdogs, and the classic country offerings on their small stage add to the ambience. We came here first, tried a couple other spots, and then came back for their foot-tapping sounds and unpretentious style.

and the Grand Ole Opry, if you want the classic country experience.  If you want more modern country, or don’t like country at all, the city still has plenty to offer.  Nashville is without doubt a musical destination, its tunes suiting its geography, nestled between the hip towns of the south-east, the old-time Appalachians, the deep south, and the rural Midwest.  I barely scratched the surface, and look forward to going back to hear more!

Langhorne Slim and the Law was one of the smaller, not-really-country bands that I checked out, in this case in an upstairs bar packed full of college students.

Langhorne Slim and the Law was one of the smaller, not-really-country bands that I checked out, in this case in an upstairs bar packed full of college students.

The Grand Ole Opry live radio performance was a wonderful experience - even better than I expected it to be!  We saw about ten acts in two hours, and they each included some personal anecdotes of their musical career.  Act more quickly than I did, and you won't wind up with this obstructed view...

The Grand Ole Opry live radio performance was a wonderful experience – even better than I expected it to be! We saw about ten acts in two hours, and they each included some personal anecdotes of their musical career. Lady Antebellum “headlined,” but I loved the oldest performers the best! Act more quickly than I did, and you won’t wind up with this obstructed view…

There is plenty to do in Nashville if you don’t want to listen to live tunes (but… why would you go there if you don’t like music?).  Historic buildings, sports teams, a lovely river, shopping, plenty of bars, barbecue joints (or hot chicken – that’s a big thing down there).  The downtown area is very walk-able; the touristy area is really only a few blocks square, but outside of that are some fun shops and restaurants, too.  Looking at all of the offerings, I was struck that it would be a fun place to visit with children, though in mid-October we saw more bachelorette parties, family reunions, and anniversaries.  However, remember that I was only there for 36 hours – and everything I saw had to do with music!

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The Johnny Cash Museum had only opened months before we went, and although it was well-done, I didn’t feel that it was worth the hype… or the price of admission.  If  you’ve read or heard much about Johnny Cash (heck, even liner notes would be enough), you’re not going to learn too much here.  I did think it was neat to see his IMG_1402hand-written letters, his official papers, and his stage costumes.  They also went a little more in-depth on his later, less-public life, which was interesting.  There were multiple kiosks with mini screens and headphones, so that you could watch videos of some of his stage or television appearances.  We got in there in the morning, before there were many others inside, and within a half hour it had gotten too crowded to be comfortable, which leads me to believe that it would not be any fun at a busier time of year.

Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

 

The Country Music Hall of Fame has been on my list for some time, and the museum attached to it is really amazing.  It takes the visitor from the very beginnings of “country” music, with folks coming out of the hills singing harmonies, dancing to jug bands, or strumming true folk songs on guitars, though the modern day with its diversity of sub-genres.   It does a great job of balancing the evolving music, the social forces that popularized or altered it, the distinctive showmanship of the genre, and the values espoused by its performers IMG_1416(whether the gold-plated automobiles or their pious devotion).  It combines text, videos and recordings, glass-case displays, and beautiful architecture.  My only critique is that there is not much that is interactive, so kids may get bored before you do.  The ticket is good all day, so if I had it to do over again, I would go in the morning for an hour or so, then walk around and eat lunch, and come back to digest the rest.  As it was, it was tough to take it all in at once, and I almost missed checking out the Hall itself.

IMG_1423Though the city was busy for the weekend, I found crowds to be mostly manageable, in the middle of October.  It is possible that I wouldn’t want to be there in a weekend in a more popular travel season.  Another lesson learned was to make my hotel reservations online as soon as I found something I wanted.  Waiting only made it too late to reserve the place I wanted online, and when I got there in person I had to pay almost twice as much for the same room.  On a positive note, I did make sure to get tickets to some shows, so I had some entertainment planned out, and I recommend that, as well.  I can’t wait to get back to Nashville again, and would love to hear your thoughts on not-to-miss sights and sounds in town!

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Weekend in Sweden

It has been a long time since I’ve posted an entry here, and I have a backlog of adventures to tell you all about!  But first, I thought I’d share this letter my mother wrote me about a weekend adventure to Sweden!  Yes, that’s right – flew all the way to Sweden for the weekend – it is a great sneak peek at the country and the culture, enticing me to try to visit it for myself one of these days.

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We did a crazy fun thing: we went to Sweden for a long weekend.  In the middle of winter (it was -10 C) with lots of snow.  The adventure began when Jeff bought a car from Volvo and learned that Volvo would pick up travel costs for a round trip if we bought according to a particular program and actually laid hands on said Volvo at the Swedish factory in Gothenburg.  So we did.

The new Volvo... test-driven in Sweden, scheduled to arrive in Chicago in a little over a month.

The new Volvo… test-driven in Sweden, scheduled to arrive in Chicago in a little over a month.

During a bout of insomnia  just before leaving I stayed up most of the night reading a book on Nordic Art.  My interest in Sweden blossomed once I saw these beautiful paintings illuminated by winter light.

What we did in 4 days:

Flew over, picked up at airport by Volvo driver and transported to Radisson in downtown Gothenburg

Visited Volvo factory and test drove car

Then off to Gothenburg to see the FABULOUS art museum

Late afternoon cocoa in one of the many many coffee and cocoa houses. Everyone seems to be in one or another in the late afternoon.  People walk in for cocoa carrying cross country skis or their brief cases or their shopping bags.

Dinner in a wonderful fish restaurant.

(Gothenburg was laid out by the Dutch in the 1600’s and has lots of splendid canals, a port, and plenty of fish.)

On the way to Gotheburg Train Station, pale blue winter light at 8 am.

On the way to Gotheburg Train Station, pale blue winter light at 8 am.

Train the next morning across all of southern Sweden from Gothenburg (west coast) to Stockholm (east coast.  Again we were in a city built on many islands, blessed with good public transportation and very expensive taxis.

Swedish Academy

Swedish Academy

Wandered the old city called Gamla Stan on foot where we took in the Swedish Academy, seat of the Nobel prize, the King’s palace (freezing looking guard standing outdoors like at Buckingham Palace.  Brrr.), lots of cute shops and old buildings (mainly 17th and 18th centuries), and then to the modern downtown area on the next island which we accessed by walking over a charming bridge.

Dinner at a pub called Kvarnen which was featured in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  Highly recommended by us due to the ambiance, good Swedish meatballs, and the drunks singing a capella with incredibly good harmony.

Night-time in a truly charming and eccentric hotel (the Lady Hamilton) on Gamla Stan.

View from the hotel in Stockholm

View from the hotel in Stockholm

Then 4—count ‘em, 4—museums all in one day.  We began with Fotografiska, a photography only museum, then took the tram to another island called Djurgarden—gorgeous place of parks and woods and mansions.  A princely playground. The museums there were the Thielska, Prince Eugen’s home and

Prince Eugen's Palace

Prince Eugen’s Palace

gallery (highly recommended) and then the Vasa.

While the previous two were paintings primarily, the Vasa is a boat.  What a boat.  This is the Swedish Titanic built in the 1600s.  As it was leaving the port of Stockholm on its maiden voyage it sank in the harbor.  Raided over 400 years later and housed in this building, the Vasa Museum.  This is what I imagine is a pirate’s dream ship and it certainly seems to be the model for the ones we’ve seen in every swashbuckling film ever.  The ship is amazing, covered with refined carvings everywhere on the exterior.  While visitors don’t go on board, we walk up different floors of the building alongside the boat with explanations in side galleries.  Well worth the visit.

Vasa Museum

Vasa Museum

Then we dragged back to the hotel, and walked down the street to a little restaurant where we ate reindeer with lingonberries—yummy.

Bedtime, then up in the morning and raced to the plane home.

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Anyone who has more in-depth knowledge of Sweden and what it has to offer, I’d love to get some recommendations from you!

Top 10 Places I Want to Go Next

It has come to my attention that what started as a “travel” blog has morphed into a “nature” blog.  This is because I have been traveling primarily locally – to those who don’t live here, it is probably just as interesting as anything else, but for me it has lost the zing! of “something new.”  Rather than focusing on the specifics of my routes, my campsites, the novelties witnessed, I’ve been looking a little more closely – at the flowers in bloom, the curious insects that cross my path, the riffles of water babbling over bedrock.  Now that the flush of spring and the annual “newness” of nature is fading into the laziness of summer, I’m going to turn over a new leaf (so to speak), and profile my travels a little more.  To kick it off, on this rainy day,  I’m going to do a little dreaming about my next vacations – some shoe-ins (I already have the plans in place), some a bit more of a stretch (might be years down the road).   I heartily welcome tips for travel to these locales, features not-to-be-missed, and ideas for great road food along the way!

1. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore – Upper Penninsula of Michigan.  Natural wonders, backpacking trails, and if it’s timed right, swimming in Lake Superior!  I hope to get there in mid- to late-August of this year, when the water is as warm as it’ll get (though it still takes my breath away)!

2.  The Everglades, Florida.  I wanted to see it before the wetlands were consumed by the rising sea levels, but it appears that the Burmese Pythons have beat climate change to the destruction of this global treasure.  The sooner the better, to see the amazing flora and fauna of these swamps.  I hope to schedule a trip this winter for a 7-10-day exploration of the area – at a time when the heat is at a minimum!

3.  Central America.  At this point I’m thinking of the Dominican Republic, to combine some eco-tourism with Caribbean beaches and tasty Latin food, plus exercising my Spanish a little bit.  Can I do the Everglades and the Caribbean in one winter?  I doubt it, but we’ll see!

4.  Sawtooth Mountains and Salmon River, Idaho.  I loved this place from the first moment I saw it – and I got to see it for a full 24 hours, because my car broke down and needed some new electronics installed in Ketchum (in 2001!).  I’ve been working on finding the time to head back there, plus a partner for a wilderness backpacking trip, ever since.  I’m ready to actually put some energy into it now, and am hoping to get something in place for next summer.Challis Stream

5.  The Carolinas.  North or South, it doesn’t much matter at this point, because I’ve never been to either… working on that quest to hit All 50 States.  Plus I have heard they are beautiful.  Suggestions very welcome for this one!

6.  Ashland, Wisconsin and the Bayfield Peninsula.  Until a year ago, I had never been to this cool town and awesome natural areas surrounding it and jutting out into Lake Superior.  Then I went for a day for work, and whetted my appetite.  I hope to get back this summer or fall for a long weekend, maybe to take in some music at the Big Top Chautauqua or just camp, hike,  swim, and check out the historical and cultural attractions in the area.

7.  Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Milwaukee?  Yes!  Every time I go there, I have fun and get to see something new.  I want to spend a good 2-3 days there and have some a couple nights on the town.  It has all the culture, history, and charm of an old industrial Midwestern city, but it isn’t quite as big and bustling as Chicago!  Great food, great beer, lovely lakeshore, good music, museums, and baseball!.  I already have plans to head there in July, so keep watching for updates!  Recommendations on favorite restaurants are particularly welcome here – I have loved the Comet Cafe every time I’ve been (you should try their bacon pancakes -delish!), but want to try something new!

8.  Louisiana.  I went to New Orleans for the first time a few years ago, to visit my sister and explore the town.  It was great fun, but I want to explore some of the natural areas in the vicinity a bit more.  I’ve always wanted to go to Tab Benoit-sponsored  Voice of the Wetlands concert – blues all-stars uniting for the preservation of Louisiana’s bayous and traditional culture.  I’d love to rock out to great blues music, dine on oysters, and explore the amazing natural treasures on our southern coast!  If not this year, then next!

9.  Is it #9 already? Man, what to choose?  Or, more specifically, what not to choose?  Can I cop out, and make this spot into a whole category?  Well, sure I can – it’s my blog, I make the rules!  So I’m going to choose “Places I want to revisit” – and include Berlin, Germany; south-central Alaska; and the southwest desert all in one!  Since I don’t have any of these vacations even mentally in the works yet, they’ll have to get separated out more once a few more of the destinations above get knocked off.  I’m looking forward to it, though!

10. A new continent. Yes, another cop-out.  Technically, I have never been to most continents.  But if I can get to one new one in the next 5 years, it’ll make me happy.  Asia and Antarctica top my list of potentials, but I wouldn’t sneer at a free trip to Africa or Australia, either!  It appears that I only have “A” continents left in my never-visitied category…

How about you ? Where to next?  Or must-see places that I left off my list?

Last Day on the Road

November 5-6, 2010   

Miles 9133 – 9836

Mountain View, AR – Chicago, IL

After leaving the awesome Blanchard Springs Caverns, I headed over to nearby Mountain View, Arkansas for some culture.  The Ozarks are known for three things, at least in my mind: beautiful scenery (check), hillbillies (er, check), and music.  The first two are shared pretty closely with lots of places, among them southwestern Wisconsin.  The last makes the area unique, and in a lot of different ways.  Most people have heard of Branson, MO, and a lot have been there.  That’s one example of the excellent country music available in the Ozarks, but Mountain View shows off another side of things.

In warm weather, visitors to historic downtown Mountain View, “The folk music capitol of the world,” can listen to accomplished musicians picking guitars, banjos, mandolins, and bass on porch stoops all over town, and even join in if they had the foresight to bring an instrument along.  Nightly concerts at multiple locations around town bring in sell-out crowds, and several museums of mountain music and crafts round out the experience.

In November, though, most of those places are shuttered up tight, along with the ice cream shops, fudge factories, and t-shirt dealers.  In late fall, I was left with a few die-hard music stores, a luthier’s studio, and a small post office from which to mail the last of my postcards.  I nearly bought a mandolin in town, just to say that I had, but settled on just a few picks, instead (after all, I’d barely played the mandolin I’d just dragged over 9,000 miles around the country with me).  I walked around town in the chill, and drank a hot tea in lieu of the ice cream before heading over to the Ozark Folk Center.  Of course, even that closes early in the off-season, and I got there just as the doors were shutting.  Instead of displays of heirloom crafts and musical artistry, all I got was the gift shop… but even that was full of high-quality, handmade items.  Plus, it gave me the opportunity to look for some last-minute gifts from my long travel – and even a couple Christmas presents!

I left Mountain View with a determination to head back on some warm summer day in the future, and headed north.  I crossed into Missouri just before sunset, drove straight east, and a few hours later crossed into the southern tip of Illinois.  I meandered around, generally northward, for a few hours before finally finding a spot to spend the night in the Shawnee National Forest.

I woke up in the morning to a towering cliff topped with brilliant fall leaves  – I couldn’t have picked a better campsite if I had tried! 

I headed up from Cairo towards Carbondale, with a short detour to go through Anna, IL, which I had always wanted to see.  Around mid-morning I got to a park near Carbondale that had been recommended to me by a friend (thanks, Jared!) for one last hike.  The Little Grand Canyon is a favorite among college students and families alike, and on this beautiful fall day I could see why.  Not only was the scenery itself beautiful, but I had the chance to look out on the flat Mississippi River floodplain and realize that these were the last hills for many, many miles.

My drive north confirmed that fact, as I got on the interstate and zoomed my way north through cornfields and concrete for another 6 hours until I hit the urban sprawl of the Chicagoland area.  I threaded my way through it until I could smell Lake Michigan, see familiar store fronts, and make second-nature turns through narrow city streets.   I rang a familiar bell, and my mom opened the door and welcomed me in to the fragrant meal they had been keeping warm all evening.  Home at last!  And ready for the next adventure…

Looking westward towards the Mississippi River from the peaks of the Shawnee National Forest in Illinois.

Bites, Bats, and Bingo

10/22 – 10/25/2010

Detail on the floor of the state capitol building, Austin TX

Austin, TX

I got into Austin late on Thursday afternoon, and my friend Kevin started right in on planning a fun-filled weekend.   I told him that I wanted to see “the bats” while I was in town, and we headed out to see them that very evening.  The Congress Avenue Bridge in downtown Austin is host to the largest urban bat colony in North America, reaching 1.5 million at the peak of the summer season.  These are Mexican free-tailed bats, the same species that I saw at Carlsbad Caverns.  They migrate to Mexico and Central America from approximately November through March, but I was lucky enough to catch them while they were still in town.   At sunset every night, they fly out from their roosts under the bridge and swarm over Lady Bird Lake, looking for insects.  It was pretty neat to see, but not quite as intimate of an experience as at Carlsbad.  Not everyone can say they’ve stood downtown in the Texas state capitol with traffic speeding by and seen hundreds of thousands of bats fly off into the evening, though!  I forgot to take pictures, but luckily some other folks have great videos posted on YouTube:

After checking out the bats, I had the first of many tacos in Austin.  These were delicious fish tacos (from Wahoo’s), which would later on be joined by traditional tacos, and gourmet tacos (El Chilito – gourmet in flavor only; the price and atmosphere are as simple as you can get).  Austin definitely has a lot of good food, and one could probably argue that tacos are its specialty.  That person, however, might get some disagreements from fans of Barbecue, as Austin is located just slightly off of the “Texas Barbecue Trail,” and I had the opportunity to sample some of its finest on a busy Saturday night.  Although good, I have to admit that large chunks of meat are not always my favorite food, so the experience may have been better than the flavor for me.  There seemed to be a crowd there from a nearby wedding, stopping in for a bite between the ceremony and reception, perhaps?

Of course, before getting to Saturday, or Monday for that matter, we have to get through Friday.  In the afternoon, I spent some time relaxing at Barton Springs Pool in Zilker Park.  This is a 3-acre, 1,000-ft.-long pool fed entirely by an underground spring.  The 68-degree temperature of the water was refreshing at first, but a bit chilly as the sun went behind the trees.  As I lay on the grass drying off afterwards, I marveled at the courage of the topless bathers around me – not for baring their breasts in public so much as taking off a layer while I was shivering!   After that, I went out and had a few beers while watching the Texas Rangers vs. SF Giants in the final game of the World Series.  Make that a few too many beers… which may help to explain why I didn’t even remember who won the game!

As a result, Saturday started off somewhat slowly, but I eventually made it out to an Audubon preserve on the outskirts of Austin, where my friend Kevin showed me some of the local flora and explained his research.  After an afternoon hike there, we were ready for the aforementioned barbecue, checking out a couple locales in downtown Austin, and catching a free outdoor show by The Old 97’s.  The evening was even capped off by a stop at the famed Broken Spoke, where I enjoyed the live honky-tonk band and even tried a few horribly-executed two-steps myself!

The highlight of Sunday (after an exhausting game of street hockey) was a visit to Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon, a hole-in-the-wall dive bar that just happens to have the world’s greatest Sunday afternoon entertainment.  Dale Watson played excellent classic-style country while simultaneously MC’ing the main attraction: Chickenshit Bingo.  Yes, it is pretty much what it sounds like.  They put a chicken in a cage on top of a board with numbers on it.  If the chicken shits on your number, you win!

Ginny's Little Longhorn Saloon on a packed Sunday afternoon

The winner!

 

Ginny keeps watch on the customers so no one can heckle the chicken

Texas State Capitol, Austin

On Monday I did some of the requisite stuff, like visiting the State Capitol, and had a delicious lunch and nice visit with my friend Lisa.  I realized that I’ve never really toured the whole Wisconsin state capitol, and decided to do more of those “touristy” things once I returned home.

Texas Pride is everywhere

In fact, the return home was almost imminent.  After all, Austin was my last planned stop on the trip.  Before heading north, though, I decided to explore a little more of this great state, and headed for the coast to explore more about Texas history and take a dip in the Gulf of Mexico… topics for future posts!

Home Again

Fields and bluffs along the Lower Wisconsin River during an exceptionally warm November.

I have not abandoned the idea of completing the story of my journey – you can honestly expect it to be done within the next fewweeks!  However, some folks have been wondering if I’m still on the road and exploring, or what.  The answer is that I’ve been back in Wisconsin since mid-November, but that I have not stopped adventuring and collecting new experiences!

On my first day back in Wisconsin, I got to light a prairie on fire (on purpose, of course), and since then I’ve had my share of earth, air, and water, as well – not least in the form of snow, which we’ve had on the ground since the beginning of

Steam rising off the Wisconsin River during a near-record cold snap a couple weeks later.

December.  I was excited to be reunited with my dog, and she seemed happy to see me – or at least happy to run around in the woods and find dead things to eat.  Despite nearly a week straight of subzero temperatures (unusual so early in the season), she enjoyed being out in the snow as much as possible.  Thanks, Stephanie, for taking such great care of her!

I have enjoyed seeing friends and revisiting old haunts, including exploring some awesome State Natural Areas, having a drink at favorite dining establishments, and just spending quality time catching up.  Special thanks to Matt and Rachel, Marc, and of course Mom and Dad, for allowing me to continue my couch surfing even though the vacation was over!

Of course, after a couple exciting months, I couldn’t stop exploring new places, either.  I took a drive through the lovely bluffs and river valleys of southwestern Wisconsin to have brunch at the Castle Rock Inn with a friend and taste wine at Weggy Winery afterwards.  We are better known for beer, and with good reason, but we do indeed have wine in Wisconsin!  To be honest, I personally don’t like any of the drier reds produced in this state, but there are some dry-ish whites that I can drink.  Wisconsin wineries are better known for their sweet, dessert-like wines, which likely reflects both the types of grapes that grow here as well as the local propensity for Rieslings and White Zinfandels.  While the dining was great, seeing some of the most beautiful country in the world may have been my favorite part of that journey!

In mid-December, I drove up to the southern edge of the northern forests,

White-tailed deer in southern Wisconsin

and, while walking through the floodplain forest along the Wolf River, I got to see my first porcupine in the wild!  It was at least as exciting as the armadillo or the roadrunner – it is easy to forget that there are little-known ecosystems, habitats, and associated wildlife so close to home!  On the way back, I wound through the flat countryside of small, German towns in the central part of the state.  What would normally have been a less-than-inspiring drive for me was cheered by the lights and holiday decorations lining main streets and squares along my journey.  I was even struck by an odd similarity between Baraboo, WI and Arcata, CA!  Who’d’a thunk it?

Lake Michigan at Foster Ave. beach

I spent a few days around Christmas with my family in Chicago, and went on a couple of my favorite “urban hikes” while there.  As a kid in high school and college, I mostly took this sort of hike to save money – I had better things to do with my bus fare!  Today, I can afford the buck fifty, but I still find them a great way to see a city!  I took a few little walks around Oakland,

Chicago skyline seen from the north, beyond Montrose Beach.

Berkeley, and San Francisco, and more of a hike in Austin, but my Chicago adventures were probably the most ambitious.  I took my dog for walks to the lakefront, and watched the waves of Lake Michigan crash on the walls.  If you have never watched ice forming on the surface of a Great Lake, you should try it sometime!  By January or February, there is usually a good, thick shelf extending out from shore a ways (which some idiot every year tries to walk on, falls in, and drowns), but despite our cold December temperatures, the sheet of ice near the shore was not yet solid, and rose and fell gently with the waves, while small “icebergs” floated just out from shore.

The next day, I had lunch with friends at Athena Restaurant in Greektown (mmm – you can’t get Greek food as good as Chicago’s anywhere but Greece, I’m convinced), then decided to walk

Opa! Flaming cheese is a cross-cultural favorite

towards home.  I wound through the Loop, where evening rush hour ran into post-holiday shoppers – and looked in the windows of the Marshall Field’s building.  That famous building is now owned by a former-

Michigan Avenue Bridge, Tribune Tower, and John Hancock Building - Christmas in Chicago

competitor in the department store world (macy’s), and they had the audacity to fill the holiday windows with a portrayal of Miracle on 34th Street, which takes place entirely in New York!!!!  Seeing that was the only downside of my walk, but the affront remains with me to this day.  I continued on from there past the Art Institute and down Michigan Avenue, the Miracle Mile.  I passed the old Water Tower, and continued through the row houses of the Gold Coast and Old Town, past the farm at Lincoln Park Zoo, and on to the intersection of Belmont and Clark, where many an adolescent (and pre-adolescent) weekend was spent.  I trudged on until I passed a darkened mid-winter Wrigley Field, waved at the statue of Ernie Banks, and finally saw a bus coming my way, which I hopped onto for the last mile and a half back to Andersonville.  If you have the time and stamina for it, this is absolutely the best way to see the city!

Upon returning to Wisconsin, I began a whirlwind of activity.  In an unanticipated turn of events, I have since moved to far northern Wisconsin and am just beginning work and life up here.  Once I finish catching up on all my adventures of the fall, you can expect an account of my experiences up here – I guarantee wolves, bears, tall trees, wild rivers, and, if I know my dog at all, plenty more porcupines to come!

Wandering the Desert

Wandering the Desert

A "river" in the Sonoran Desert of western Arizona. This channel is flooded with water when it storms, and an ORV trail in dry weather.

Mile 5359 – 6999

October  14 – 20, 2010

Oakland, CA – Guadalupe Mountains National Park, TX

I spent a week getting from the San Francisco Bay to the Texas Hill Country, passing through three deserts and four states.  For a good representation of how arid this country is, even in the agricultural areas, check out the Trip-Tick page of my journey, and note the river crossings.  I crossed a total of ten (10) rivers in the two thousand (2,000) miles of this leg, and most of those were dry.  The Colorado River (at the AZ/CA border) and the Rio Grande (where I met it in central New Mexico) were the only ones with significant water in them, until arriving in eastern Texas.  I crossed more water-bearing aqueducts than natural flowages.

That’s not to say that there isn’t life in the desert, though.  In fact, when I arrived at Joshua Tree National Park a few hours after sunset, I had been expecting silence and stillness – instead I was assaulted by the chirping of crickets, flying and crawling insects, and the noises of little lizards crawling around in the bushes.   Well, not exactly bushes – mostly in the cactus and agave.

I’m getting ahead of myself a little bit, though.  Between Oakland and Joshua Tree are 500 miles of Central California.  It looks a lot like what you might expect: very flat, very brown, lots of irrigation systems watering the vegetable crops and orchards.  In the morning, I could see workers driving the dusty roads between fields, and watering the trees individually with a small ladder truck.

Near L.A., however, the terrain got a lot more interesting, even if the vegetation maintained its end-of-summer dormancy.  Skirting the city through the hills of Pasadena and the eastern suburbs might even have been beautiful, if the smog hadn’t reduced visibility as extremely as it did.  There was almost no view into the distance, and even on the nearby hills, any green that might have remained was fogged over by the gray-brown air.  The traffic was also about what I expected for down there: horrible.  In fact, the only thing about the Los Angeles area that did not live up to my expectations was the light drizzle I got in the early evening.  Imagine that: after a week of unheard-of solid sunshine in Oregon and northern California, to get rained on in “Sunny” Southern California!  Now, I will admit that I have assurances from locals that there are really nice things about L.A., and that both the traffic and smog were uncommonly bad that day, but I’m just writing what I see…

Most of the way from the hills of Los Angeles to the Colorado Desert of southeast California was driven in darkness, but the monotony of the flat, dry landscape was still apparent.  I could clearly see why Palm Springs is both literally and figuratively an oasis on that route.  It was a little bit surreal to all of a sudden emerge from the total darkness to tastefully lit resorts and subdivisions surrounded by enormous palms.  Large lighted signs for impending concerts by famous pop stars (and once-famous pop stars) lined the road, and casinos and golf courses beckoned.   I’m not on a luxury vacation, however, so I stopped only long enough for gas before plunging again into the dark night, heading east into the heart of the desert.  After crossing a set of small mountains, it wasn’t too much longer before I got to Joshua Tree NP.

Colorado Desert in Joshua Tree National Park

I spent a night and a day there, exploring a little bit of the Colorado Desert and the Mojave to the north.   The Colorado Desert is part of the Sonoran Desert, which makes up most of southern Arizona and southeastern California, along with large portions of Sonora and Baja California in Mexico.   The Colorado (named after the river, not the state) portion of the Sonoran Desert is hotter and drier than the rest of it, however, which became apparent as I moved eastward.  In Joshua Tree, the Sonoran Desert consisted mostly of small cactus and low shrubs, but as I moved into Arizona I saw more and more large saguaro cacti, taller bushes, and plenty of lechugilla agave.  All of it looked like desert,

Just beyond Hope, AZ

however, with little grass growing between the brush or cactus, and dust blowing up at each breath of wind.

Here’s something silly that I hadn’t really realized about the desert sand, and those of you who have lived in the desert (or who have even given it a moment’s more thought than I have) will probably laugh at me: It’s really more “little rocks” than what those of us who come from wet regions see on our beaches.  Of course, that makes sense: the desert lacks not only the constant movement of water to break down its rocks, but also dense roots of vegetation, burrowing insects

Mesquite tree germinating in the desert sand

and animals, decaying organic material, and all of the other things that make sand or soil elsewhere.  And I imagine that the desert winds, which blow unchecked by trees across vast stretches of land, blows away the finer particles more quickly.

One of the interesting things about Joshua Tree NP is that it is on the border between the Colorado and Mohave Deserts, so I went north and west, which was also uphill, and found myself in a slightly cooler, slightly damper ecosystem.  I was told that it was less hot and dry, at least on the scale of yearly averages, but didn’t notice a difference myself on a sunny fall day.  The vegetation, however, was denser and taller, and the Joshua Tree (really an enormous species of agave that proliferates in those conditions) was everywhere.  Check out my next post for more pictures of the park!

Joshua Tree, Mojave Desert

After leaving Joshua Tree and driving east towards Arizona, I was struck by how much more barren the landscape became.  I didn’t have an opportunity to look into it, but I assume that human land use practices have affected the diversity of vegetation and viability of natural plant communities.  Certainly much of that area, as well as western Arizona, was fenced for grazing, though I didn’t really see much grass in there, let alone cattle.  There was more grass than I had seen in either desert in the park, however.  I’m not sure if the grass is planted or if there is just more moisture in certain locales.   In either case, though, if it’s grazed, I can imagine that the cacti would be removed to prevent harm to the animals.  Anyone with knowledge on this is welcome to inform me!

Eastern California

Sonoran Desert, western Arizona

I crossed the Colorado River at Parker, AZ, just below the dam that forms Lake Havasu.  Even in the dark, when I got out of my car, I could tell that there was moisture in the air.  It is amazing how different things smell when they are wet!  I had not particularly noticed the scent of the desert – primarily because it doesn’t smell like much at all, I think.  Of course, the vegetation by the river was also much greener, denser, and more varied, which would account for smelling more like green plants and the more humid air, but I had a similar experience in northwest Texas, as well.  There, I spent a couple days in the Guadalupe Mountains, which is on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert.  Despite the higher rainfall and warmer average temperatures in that area, which bring about greater diversity and density of plant and animal species, there still wasn’t much scent in the air this time of year.  On my last morning there, however, a light drizzle fell, and it brought out that dry-damp smell that comes even up north after long periods without rain.  However, it was stronger than I ever remember it being.  I assume it is because the rain is dampening and washing away greater accumulated amounts of pollen, dust, decay, etc.  Either that, or the daily variety of scents in a temperate climate cause me not to notice them as much individually.  In the relative absence of odor, maybe anything that is giving off water smells more strongly.

Again, though, I’m jumping ahead.  I spent a day crossing Arizona, through more of the same desert ranch-land.  Here and there, I saw heavily irrigated hay-fields, which stood out as bright green against the beige desert.  Quite a bit of cotton was also grown there.  In fact, I don’t think I have ever seen a cotton field, and it took me a while to figure out what it was.  There were also fields of sweet sorghum, which is used not only as a feed crop but also, apparently, as a source of ethanol in the Southwest.  It was larger than the sorghum I’d seen growing in the upper Midwest, and I actually had to look it up before deciding if it was that or some odd variety of corn.

All of these crops, all the grazing, all the watering of the many homes in Arizona (the area including Tucson and Phoenix is the 5th-fastest growing region in the country) does not come without a price.  While visiting Casa Grande National Monument in south central AZ, I read a statistic from 1988 that the water level in the aquifer had dropped over a hundred feet in fifty years.  Casa Grande, which I’ll cover in more detail in a later post, is the ruins of a Native American village, complete with four-story buildings, from almost a thousand years ago.  They were primarily an agricultural community, drawing water not only from a complicated system of canals and aqueducts, but also allowing the roots of hardy plants to draw their own water from the aquifer.  Today, the park noted, many of the mesquite trees were dying, as the water level had dropped from an average of twelve feet below the ground to over 120 feet deep, and the roots could no longer reach it.

View of Tucson

Of course, I also came to understand why people might want to live in the desert, when I spent the night with my Aunt Peggy in Tucson.  Her beautiful home in the foothills, with a lovely cactus garden and sun almost every day of the year is certainly inviting!  I did not spend long there, but hope to return again soon for some hiking and exploring, both of the town itself, and the surrounding areas.  Saguaro National Park, in particular, piqued my interest, but I only took a quick drive through the park’s scenic loop road.  This is an example of the Sonoran Desert at its finest: lots of saguaro cacti, plus plenty of prickly pear, barrel cactus, and various agaves and brush species.

Saguaro cacti in Saguaro National Park, outside of Tucson, AZ

I left Tucson for New Mexico, and drove east on I-10 through many, many miles of unvarying terrain.  In Las Cruces, New Mexico, I crossed the Rio Grande River, carrying a little water on its way down to form the southern border of the United States.  It wasn’t quite as “Grande” yet as it would become later.  I continued east in the dark, so I can’t tell you a thing about White Sands except for this: Alamogordo is 70 miles from Las Cruces, and I could see its lights as clearly from one end of that desert as from the other.  It is completely flat and clearly dry.  East of Alamogordo, I began to climb into the mountains – the southern continuation of the Rockies, though much lower in height and the breadth of the range does not extend as far as it does to the north.  Despite the darkness, I could imagine how beautiful the view must be, and I sensed the changing climate around me.  I spent a night in the company of friends near Cloudcroft, in a pine forest – the very high desert, I might call it, and the chill of that mountain night was refreshing after all the warm weather I’d had; it felt good to put on a sweatshirt!

The following day led me to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, in far southeastern NM, and thence to

Guadalupe Mountains

Guadalupe Mountains NP in northwest Texas.  These parks fall within the Chihuahuan Desert, in the Guadalupe Mountain range, which formed as a reef on the edge of a prehistoric inland sea.  The mountains are beautiful, and the variety of vegetation in the low desert, the relatively moist canyons, and the oak-and-pine-covered peaks was amazing.  I definitely liked this place the best of all my desert travels, so you can expect plenty of photos in future posts on the Guadalupes and the Caverns.

Lechugilla agave in the Guadalupe Mountains

Miles and miles of Texas

Guadalupe Peak is the highest point in Texas, and with over five hundred miles to go to Austin, I’m tempted to say it was all downhill from there.  Not true!  I will go into more detail on the mountains of West Texas, the central plains, and the Hill Country, not to mention Austin itself, after the next few posts that will flesh out these desert adventures.  You’ll have to keep tuned for all that excitement!