road trip

2017 Trip Five: Northern MN: Aug. 3-4

The Iron Man memorial in Chisholm MN dedicated to the miners of the Iron Range. It is listed as the third largest free standing memorial in the world.

Grand Rapids, MN Aug. 4

If you scratch in the right location, most towns have some claim to fame. Just a few examples; back in June we were in Vining MN, population 78. A young woman born there has become a U.S. astronaut. During our March-April 2017 trip we were in the towns where Kool Aid and Dr. Pepper were invented. On this trip, we have been to Judy Garland’s hometown (Grand Rapids, MN); to the childhood home of Bob Dylan (Hibbing, MN) and the town where the Greyhound Bus Lines originated (Hibbing MN again). And, arguably, one could claim that we have spent time here on the Iron Range, the location that gave birth to the American industrial might. My arguments for that will be in today’s blog.

A chilly, rainy day drove us inside Thursday as we explored the manufacturing and immigrant side of the Iron Range. Our first stop was the UPM Blandin paper mill tour in Grand Rapids. This paper mill has existed for over one hundred years; one of its earliest products was the production of newsprint for the St. Paul MN Dispatch and Pioneer Press. The tour begins with a 30 minute video and personal explanation of the paper making process, along with the history of Blandin Paper Company. I have to admit I have a fondness for Blandin. The owner established a foundation in 1941 and in 1958 when the owner died, the foundation had one million dollars. Upon the sale of the company in 1977, $77,000,000 was added to the foundation. Currently it has over $350,000,000. Mr. Blandin focused the efforts of the foundation on rural Minnesota, with an emphasis on the Grand Rapids area. The Finnish company UPM now owns the company and the foundation is separate. Still, seeing a company where the needs of the community were important to the company owners is heart-warming. Mr. Blandin, besides being a successful entrepreneur, was far-seeing in the terms of his trust. He even required a court to review the foundation operations every three years.

After the video of the company and paper-making process, we donned safety glasses and head phones and headed for the mill across the street. Our tour guide was a former Blandin employee who explained the operations of the machinery we were viewing. The head phones provided protection from the noise of the machinery and a means for the guide to talk to us with radio attachments to the headphones. The paper making process keeps getting faster and more efficient. Today, the company produces twice the output with one-third of the employees that were previously employed here. The major line that we observed is an interconnected series of: an applicator of a wood pulp slurry to paper forming machines, de-waterers, rollers, heaters, quality inspection etc. that would cost one billion dollars to replace today. The paper is then coated, smoothed, and buffed to produce a high gloss paper used in magazines, advertising materials, flyers, etc. Blandin uses a mixture of three kinds of trees (aspen, balsam fir, and spruce) grown on land they own (187,000 acres of forest land) and from independent operators harvesting trees from their own land or under leases with public forests. 200,000 cords of wood per year are used to produce 400,000 tons of finished paper.

Bob Dylan’s childhood home in Hibbing MN

From Blandin in Grand Rapids, we drove to Hibbing MN and drove by the house where Bob Dylan lived from kindergarten through high school. Dylan, born Robert Zimmerman, is the musician who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016 “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. There is no museum here, just stores selling T-shirts etc. with his name on them. Next stop: the Hull-Rust-Mahoning Mineview, an area and exhibit of the huge open-pit iron ore mines that mark the Iron Range of Minnesota.

I think at this point I need to give a brief overview of “The Range”. Many states have an area of the sate which is unique and described in a shorthand style, such as the UP of Michigan, the Hill Country of Texas. In Minnesota, this is the Iron Range. In the late 1800s, high-grade iron ore was found in the northeastern quadrant of Minnesota. The iron ore is found in four bands of ore called ranges, the Measbi, the Vermillion, the Cuyuna, and the Gunflint-although the Gunflint is primarily in Ontario.

One view of Hull-Rust-Mahoning mine

The ore was found as America was going through its industrialization phase. The large supplies, the high-grade of the ore, the ability to use open-pit mining, and the capacity to ship major quantities through the Great Lakes from ports like Duluth-Superior made the Minnesota Iron Range the primary producer of iron ore in America for decades. The ore here made the steel that built America’s skyscrapers, the rails that spread trains across the United States, and the armaments for WWI and WWII. Without this accessible ore, the development of America into a global powerhouse would arguably not have occurred. When high-grade ores ran out in the 40s, MN researchers developed the process to consolidate lower grade ore into taconite. This taconite mining continues today, although at a much lower quantity given that a high level of steel is now imported. Our stops on Thursday and Friday explored the history of Minnesota iron ore mining and the settlement of the area by immigrants.

Another view of the Hull-Rust-Mahoning mine

Four snaps indicating the size of the mining equipment

In Hibbing, we visited “Mineview”, an exhibit and viewing area above the Hull-Rust-Mahoning (HRM) mine. The HRM is the largest open-pit iron ore mine in the world. The HRM, at its maximum, is 800 feet deep, 8 miles long, and 3.5 miles wide, covering 5,000 acres. The mine is constantly changing as dirt overburden is removed to access the iron ore, the ore is removed, and roads and train tracks constructed. More dirt has been moved here than for the Panama Canal. The mines started out as numerous small claims. Consolidation occurred as eastern monetary interests became involved to provide the large sums of money necessary to operate the mines and to provide their factories with a steady supply of raw materials. Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Hill all became invested in the mines and the infrastructure to ship the ore to Cleveland, Pittsburgh, etc. Over 800 million tons of iron ore have been shipped from the HRM mine. The mine grew so steadily, it paid for the moving of the town of Hibbing. When the town was first constructed, it was close to the mines. As the mines expanded, they began to encroach on the town itself. Beginning in 1918, the town’s buildings were put on wheels and logs and rolled two miles to the south where you now find the businesses and homes located.

Moving the mine towards the Mineview viewing area

The mineview overlook allows one to look into the pit, watching the operation from the edge of the pit. This exhibit site will be moving next year as it is so close to the mining operation, that the ground underneath will be mined in 2018. We watched the construction of an access road from the depths of the mine up towards the mineview site. The mining process here consists of: the removal of overburden, the blasting of harder waste rock and ore into smaller chunks, the scooping of the ore into trucks to carry the ore to a crusher and grinders to create a fine concentrate, the pelletizing of the concentrate through dewatering and addition of bentonite clay, and then the pellets are rolled into 1/2″ balls and hardened by heating. The final pellet balls are then shipped by rail to loading docks on Lake Superior. In 1901 steam shovels dug rock with bucket capacity of 3/4 yard. Nowadays, the buckets can load 65 tons into trucks that haul 240 tons. Our pictures show out dated trucks from 20 years ago, but still huge by any standard.

From the HRM Mineview, we drove a short distance to the Greyhound Bus Lines Origin Museum. The museum is the effort of local people in Hibbing, particularly one Gino Nicolelli. It is not funded by Greyhound. Greyhound began in Hibbing, MN. As the mines spread out, residential areas developed in “locations”, areas where homes and boarding houses could be built. In the early days, the population on the Range was primarily single men. Even as families developed, the pay was not sufficient to allow people to build their own homes and have horses (or cars later) for transportation. A couple of miners got together and purchased a Hupmobile auto and began transporting miners to work and stores. Over time, the men added more vehicles and modified them in their own body ship to provide additional seating. The museum covers the men who began the transportation business and develops the story line of how it branched out, eventually buying out small competitors until it became nationwide.

One of the Greyhound buses on display

The museum has several buses demonstrating the various designs used over the years. There was a cute display of a passenger on a bus huddled up with a blanket around him. Early buses did not have heat but they did provide blankets. The museum displays start to peter out around 1970; it does not cover Greyhounds later history of strikes, bankruptcy, re-organization and eventual purchase by a British firm. Another notable omission is any mention of the role of inter-city buses, like Greyhound, during the desegregation efforts in the South. Our previous trip to Anniston Alabama included the site of a burning of a Greyhound bus.

We left Hibbing driving east to Chisholm and the Minnesota Discovery Center. While the Discovery Center began in 1977, it has been upgraded recently and includes a complex of 660 acres. We spent most of our time in the 33,000 s.f. museum which covers the Iron Range through exhibits on “The Land, The Mines, The People and The Work”. Our emphasis was on the people; the European immigrants from all over Europe who came here, creating a diverse spectrum of small, urban communities. Unlike much of Minnesota which was primarily rural and agricultural, the people concentrated in small towns.

One exhibit discusses the strikes of 1907 and 1916 which were broken by the use of company hired “security” forces and local sheriffs. After the 1907 strike, many participants were denied work in the mines. By 1916, the strike breakers hired in 1907 had come to the same conclusion as the workers in 1907 for the need to strike. Pay was low and graft common. Workers were only paid by the production of good ore. While this might seem reasonable, the more you produce, the more you earn; the consequences were that safety measures were ignored (no pay for that), people who argued were assigned to production areas with low-grade or low concentrations of ore (unless they bribed the foreman), and as mines expanded, travel time to further reaches of the mines were not compensated. Both strikes were broken and no union existed on the Range until the 1930s. The eastern financiers who invested money into the mines were handsomely rewarded, workers who toiled in harsh conditions had trouble just getting by.

Honoring Slovenians at the Minnesota Discovery Center in Chisholm

The Range went through periods of discrimination where the Swedes and Norwegians were “better” than the Finns, Italians, and Slavic people. Over time, intermarriage between ethnic groups occurred, and today there is more a “Ranger” identity versus the rest of Minnesota, rather than ethnic groups identifying against each other. The Range suffers economic cycles as lumbering and mining go through periods of expansion and contraction. As automation increases, the towns suffer the loss of younger people. The desire for good paying jobs creates a tension with people advocating environmental issues over all else. Part of that tension is occurring as new mining proposals put forth copper mining, which has a greater environmental impact than does iron ore mining.

The museum was an excellent source of information about the Iron Range, providing a background to the economic and political conditions on the Range today. As we headed back to the Green Heron B & B, we had dinner at the Cedars in the Sawmill Inn, a comfortable restaurant with style and great food. A better meal than Zorbaz the night before, but Zorbaz was a family, pizza style place. It served its purpose but Cedars was more enjoyable.

Snapshots from Bovey MN

Friday our only goal before heading home was the tour of the Hill Annex Mine. This is a closed mine, owned by the State of Minnesota and managed as a state park. Tours are currently offered only on Fridays and Saturdays. However, on our way to the tour, we made a stop in Bovey MN. Bovey’s claim to fame is that a local photographer snapped a well-known picture called “Grace”.  “Grace is a photograph by Eric Enstrom. It depicts an elderly man with hands folded, saying a prayer over a table with a simple meal. In 2002, an act of the Minnesota State Legislature established it as the state photograph. Wikipedia” It was created in 1918, so its fame now is more in the realm of senior citizens and certain religious groups who still market it. The book in the photo is actually a dictionary, although it is frequently erroneously credited as a Bible. Certainly the photographer is sending the message of the book as a Bible even though some photographic liberties were used in the shooting of the photo. In any event, we stopped at a small antiques store and looked for something interesting to buy. While nothing struck our fancy, we did discover their display of a speakeasy in the basement, with an escape tunnel through a tall chest of drawers.

The Hill Annex mine, with the water filling in the pit

From Bovey we drove to Calumet MN to visit the Hill Annex Mine State Park and take the 1.5 hour tour. The Hill Annex mine operated from 1913 to 1978 and was the sixth most productive mine in Minnesota. There are still piles of tailings and ore that could be productive depending on future demand and economics, although near term use is very unlikely.  When operating, the mine had to be pumped to keep water out. Once the mine closed, the pumps no longer operated and portions of the pit have become a lake.  The park has displays in the old mining clubhouse but our target was the tour.

Abandoned equipment at the Hill Annex mine

The tour is led by a former miner at the Hill Annex. We took a bus over the grounds, some reclamation areas with abandoned machinery, some top of the pile view points, and a spot close to the water now in the former pit.  The tour started in sunny weather but half way through a light drizzle came out. The drizzle made our journey up one of the hills a challenge as the bus was unable to gain full traction on the wet rocks. It took four tries before we made it up the hill. Our guide explained his work and the machinery.

This mine is named after James J Hill, who through the building of the Great Northern Railway, was truly instrumental in the development of the northwestern United States from Minnesota to Washington State. (In my volunteer work Saturday at the St. Anthony Falls visitor center for the Mississippi National River and Recreation area, two men from Seattle were visiting Minnesota and touring locations connected Hill. They understood the role he played in developing their state.) Hill and his sons purchased land and a small railroad in the range, primarily to obtain timber. Iron ore was known to be in the area, but Hill just lucked out into one of the most productive mines on the range. The full story is complicated, but the mining leases he set up, rather than operating the mine, provided his heirs and investment partners $500 million dollars in revenue through 2015 when the last of the leases ended.  Most people in Minnesota know of Hill’s railroad wealth, his mining wealth from the Hill Annex mine was hidden behind a little known trust.

From Calumet we drove home, stopping for lunch at a bar/restaurant in Carlton MN. This mini-vacation was a pleasant learning experience with great overnight accomodations.

Ed and Chris St. Paul Aug. 6

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2017 Trip Five: Northern MN, Aug. 1-2

McCarthy Beach State Park in Minnesota

Grand Rapids, MN August 1, 2017

Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Population 11,000 people and 1,000 lakes. Slightly smaller than last week’s city, Chicago, with 2.7 million. Chris and I are back on our hunt to visit all 76 Minnesota state parks. This trip will allow us to visit three more; our total will be 66.

It has been a gorgeous day. For those of you in hotter climes, the temperature reached a high of about 82, light breezes and mainly sunny skies. Low tonight of 55 degrees Fahrenheit. We spent part of the afternoon and evening sitting on the beach of Pokegama Lake, 6600 acres in size and about 110 feet deep at its greatest depth. Our beach front lodging is at the Green Heron Bed and Breakfast, an excellent facility Chris found on the Internet. While the B & B is named after the green heron found locally, once again it is the sound of the loon that says “Northern Minnesota lakes” to me.

Our drive up to Grand Rapids took us through small towns like Mora, population 3400 which is a county seat and home to the Vasaloppet, a cross-country ski touring event in Minnesota with ties to Sweden which is where many of the Mora European settlers originated. Another community was McGregor, population of about 350 people. We stopped in Mora and had a mid-morning break of pastries from the local bakery. Along the way, summer wildflowers lined the highways; maybe not as overwhelming as our time in Texas but still breathtaking. The latter portion of the drive frequently brought us into contact with the Mississippi River; shallower and slower moving up here than the sections we observed from the Empire Builder last week.

Looking down from the Continental Divide at Savanna Portage State Park

Savanna Portage State Park was our primary destination for the day. Lunch was in the park, next to one of the lakes. Savanna Portage has over 15,000 acres and is named after the Native Americans and the fur traders who used this area as a connective trail between Lake Superior and the Mississippi River. “Savanna” refers to the open grassland on the eastern portion of the trail. “Portage” refers to the process of carrying canoes across land areas between water routes.

From about 1760 to about 1830, fur traders were an important economic engine in this portion of the country. They used large canoes on the Great Lakes to bring the beaver pelts to Montreal from Minnesota and places west. To get the beaver pelts to the shores of Lake Superior, they used smaller birch bark canoes. The portage here began with poling the heavily laden canoes through 12 miles of a twisty, shallow river. Then a canal was dug for a portion of the journey, ending with the carrying of canoes across land. The portage took five days through “swamp, bog, blood-sucking insects, and severe weather.”

While the weather was nice today, we did encounter more flies than we wished to see and our hiking was shorter than usual. We made sure though to hike the trail of the Continental Divide. This divide separates rain water coursing eastward to Lake Superior and the Atlantic Ocean and rainwater coursing westward to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. (There is a third continental divide in Minnesota which sends water northward to Hudson’s Bay in Canada.)

View of Green Heron B & B from Pokegama Lake

We arrived early at the Green Heron, knowing we would be treated to refreshments and appetizers at 5 PM. The B & B is impressive and the hosts, Johnnie and Chris Fulton, friendly. Chris, my Chris, that is, is already discussing coming back here next summer, probably with daughters in tow. At various times, we enjoyed the view of the lake from chairs outside and from the screened in patio. I used the library to do most of my work on the blog.

Wednesday, August 2

Four and a half years ago when we started serious travel, I was not excited about staying at B & Bs, nor at the homes of Evergreen Club members. Since then I have come to enjoy the friendliness of the hosts and the breakfasts that vastly surpass those we prepare for ourselves at home. This morning’s breakfast of home-made muffins, bacon, home-made quiche, and a yogurt/granola/fruit dish exceeded the standard breakfast served at a Hampton Inn or Fairfield Inn or at the Heimel-Klejbuk Inn.

Well-fortified, we headed out for the day’s activities. It was going to be a slow pace; we decided bugs would be a problem at any park and we should not attempt long hikes where I would just be cursing (not that I ever curse!!). To be fair, the bug situation at the B & B and in towns has been no hassle.

Views along the Edge of Wilderness scenic byway from Grand Rapids to Effie MN

Driving the “Edge of the Wilderness” scenic byway was the first item on our agenda. The byway is 45 miles long. We last wrote about it in August 2015 as part of our Northwest MN journey. Chris enjoys the trip along a two lane road, winding through birch and fir trees nestled among numerous lakes. We detoured to several back roads, checking out resorts and homes located along the lakes. Like many other parts of northern MN, small resorts are still in business, although the competition from fancy places has got to be tough. We had to dodge a few logging trucks. Lumbering is still big business in the area with much of the cut timber headed for the Blandin Paper Mill in Grand Rapids. (We plan to tour it tomorrow, a likely rainy day.) This area is for people and families that want to enjoy nature and the outdoors; biking, canoeing, fishing, camping, hiking, etc.

Effie MN: mosquito and cowboy statues, Effie Cafe, and Edge of Wilderness sign

The scenic byway ends in the town of Effie, population 123. We had lunch in the Effie Cafe with a dozen locals. Our waitress (the only one) indicated the cafe had been hopping the weekend before due to the annual Effie Rodeo. This year’s rodeo was their 62nd annual.

From Effie we drove to our first state park of the day, McCarthy Beach State Park. The beach has been highly rated by Highways Magazine and we wanted to scope it out. The air temperature was just reaching 70 degrees Fahrenheit, so our bodies stayed on the shore. There were only a few people on the beach being mid-week and cool. The beach is not huge but probably ample enough, there is a kiddie’s section and an adult section. Trees surround the lake shore although private residences surpass the public park portion. The water is shallow and one can walk out for a great distance. The clarity was great. We felt relaxed just sitting and watching the day go by.

At the Edge of the Wilderness Visitor Center, there was a nice display discussing clarity of lakes. While swimmers may wish to have swimming lakes with really clear water, these clear lakes do not have enough nutrients to support a vibrant supply of fish. Swimming and fishing are not necessarily mutually compatible.

Mississippi RIver: top St. Paul our origination, middle at Schoolcraft State Park, bottom about fifty miles south of Grand Rapids

For our final stop, we drove an hour and a half to Schoolcraft State Park. Schoolcraft is small, only 225 acres. We only saw two other vehicles there. Schoolcraft is named after Henry Schoolcraft, the European explorer who was smart enough to ask Native Americans for assistance in finding the head of the Mississippi River. Other Europeans lumbered around on their own without finding it.

The Mississippi River flows through the park. It is not well-advertised but there are eight dams on the upper Mississippi River in this area to help control the flow of the Mississippi downstream to keep the 9′ shipping channel supplied with sufficient water during periods of low flow. The US Army Corps of Engineers did this in the late 1800s. Of course, no local permission was sought back then and numerous Native American villages, hunting grounds, and wild rice marshes were flooded.

At the southern end of the park, the Vermillion River flows into the Mississippi. There are at least three Vermillion Rivers in Minnesota. This one. One up by Lake Vermillion and Ely. Finally a Vermillion River close to St. Paul, running through the town of Hastings. Chris and I were canoeing on the Hastings Vermillion last Saturday. We might see the Ely Vermillion on our next Up North excursion in a few weeks. In contrast to the clarity of water at McCarthy Beach State Park, the Hastings Vermillion was cloudy but the fishing was great. We also observed three bald eagles and one great blue heron on that river.

We will head home Friday but the next two days are more likely to be spent viewing logging and mining locations.

Ed and Chris. Grand Rapids MN. August 2nd.

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2017 Trip Four: Chicago July 25-28

St. Paul, MN July 31, 2017

For this short trip to Chicago we traveled light; no iPad so no blog while traveling. This is our fourth trip to Chicago in the last ten years or so and for the second time in a row, we rode the Amtrak Empire Builder from St. Paul’s Union Depot. Overnight parking ranges from $49 to $64 per night and our plans for the visit did not require a car. The Amtrak round trip fare for two was $234; it seemed like an easy decision to train it. Amtrak seats are roomy and comfortable, you can walk around, there is scenery to observe, and plenty of people-watching and listening. Amtrak is always an adventure though; you can not plan on it being fully on time. I have a habit of checking to see how the Empire Builder is doing, time-wise. Often it is 15-30 minutes early (it waits in St. Paul to depart on time if it arrives early). It can also be late. When it is late, it can be hours late. Of course, our train was one of those. The engine for our train broke down in the mountains out west and the train had to wait for a BNSF freight engine to arrive and pull it the rest of the journey to Chicago. We knew it was going to be late, so we had breakfast at the Buttered Tin in downtown St Paul while we waited.

Crossing the Mississippi River on Amtrak going from Minnesota into Wisconsin

The Empire Builder arrived in St. Paul three hours late. The freight engine goes slower than the Amtrak engine and we arrived in Chicago four hours late, 8 PM instead of 4 PM. The Empire Builder usually stops on the northern side of the depot, ours went further into the southern portion of the station, providing a shorter walk for passengers trying to connect with other trains. The ride was smooth, the views scenic. Many moons ago Mark Twain described the view along the Mississippi River in grandiose words. His words may have been a little over the top but the view does make for a relaxing and enjoyable trip. Chris and I split our time between our coach seat and riding in the observation car.

Readers of this blog may recall that I have been a volunteer docent on the Amtrak Empire Builder as part of the Trails and Rails program jointly sponsored by Amtrak and the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (MNRRA), a unit of the National Park Service. Unfortunately, this year the program is in on hold. MNRRA lost two rangers, one was the supervisor for this program, and with the federal freeze on hiring they did not have enough staff to oversee our program. Hopefully it will return in 2018. I felt a little weird riding the train, particularly when in the observation car where we did our presentations, and not speaking or being able to listen to any speaker. Most passengers did not know the difference. On this train, I did not recognize any of the conductors or car attendants. On our return trip on Friday I recognized a conductor and he did indicate some people had asked why the Trails and Rails program was not being presented.

Mural dating back to the days of the Chicago Motor Association in our Hampton Inn Chicago

In Chicago, we stayed at a Hampton Inn at Wacker and Michigan, one half block from the Chicago River. It was a very convenient location. The hotel building originally was the home for the Chicago Motor Association (AAA) but had been vacant for many years. The renovation retained the Art Deco feel of the original building. Like many hotels in large cities, the rooms were small. Of our four stays in Chicago, three have been Hamptons and all have been a good choice. We walked the mile to the hotel from Union Station, once again enjoying the architecture of the buildings along the way. Dinner was across the street at a Jamaican bar/restaurant.

The “Bean”

Wednesday, our major activity was a bus tour of Chicago Historical Neighborhoods run by the Architectural Association of Chicago. This group organizes numerous architectural tours; we have been on three others before this one. All are well done and reasonably priced. The tour did not begin until 11 so we wandered around Millennium Park beforehand. Millennium Park was a project of the second Mayor Daley to take the northern section of Grant Park, cover over numerous unused railroad yards and make it into a spectacular park to celebrate the year 2000. Well, typical of many projects it came in over budget, past its scheduled completion date but wildly successful. It is full of notable scenes; the “Bean”, a cascading waterfall, a new garden, a kids play area which is spectacular, and another outdoor amphitheater.

The Crown Fountain in daytime, at night the towers change colors

We have been to Millennium Park before but Lurie Garden and the Maggie Daley kids play area were new to us. Millennium Park cost almost 500 million dollars and was a combination of city and private funds. It is always a pleasure to stroll around, particularly in pleasant summer weather. People gather at the Bean (technically titled Cloud’s Gate), a shiny structure shaped like a bean, that reflects the views of the spectators as well as the background of the Chicago skyscrapers. Others splash in the reflecting pool of the Crown Fountain, situated between two fifty foot towers with changing faces of people on them. Periodically the mouth of the person opens up and directs a spray of water onto the people, usually children, waiting underneath.

Grant Park as a whole is over 300 acres, over 1.5 miles long, provides scenes of the lakefront, is home to several museums, fountains, sculptures, etc. It is the site of large gatherings, such as an outdoor Mass by Pope John Paul II, Barack Obama’s 2008 Election Day victory speech, the celebration for the Bulls and Cubs national championships, and a riot during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

But back to the tour. We were on a double-decker bus, with probably about 20 others. Many of the “Hop-on, Hop-off’ double decker buses that circulate around the downtown area were full. Our tour guide was a volunteer for the Architectural Association who was quite knowledgeable. We drove through Greektown, Little Italy, Pilsen, Chinatown, and Bronzeville. Most of these neighborhoods have changed from their original ethnic roots, although the architectural style may still survive. The 1960s and 1970s were particularly destructive as freeways were constructed and universities and hospitals expanded. This “modernization” destroyed neighborhood cohesiveness and scattered residents to new neighborhoods or suburbs as large, new buildings were erected. For instance, Bronzeville was once home to a major African-American community, located here as informal segregation limited where they could live. When the Illinois Institute of Technology came in with its brutalist, concrete style of buildings, many residents had to move and much of the original housing stock destroyed. We were able to view remnants of the homes from that era.

One of the murals in Pilsen neighborhood

Pilsen was originally a Czech neighborhood. Now it is central to Chicago’s Mexican-American heritage, with numerous wall murals decorating the community. Chinatown is actually expanding, unlike many other “Chinatowns” around the country. Chicago’s Chinatown originally developed when the Chinese who immigrated to the U.S. faced discrimination and violence on the West Coast. Several neighborhoods had homes where the first floor was below street level. Evidently much of Chicago was built on swamp land which has settled. Unlike downtown Chicago where fill was added and building were physically raised, these residences settled without any city intervention. When we visited the Pullman National Monument in Chicago last year, we learned that George Pullman was one of the contractors hired to raise downtown buildings.

We were only able to view these buildings due to the skill of our bus driver. The downtown “Hop-on, Hop-off” buses drive down wide streets with few trees. Our bus traversed narrow streets with tree branches and wires frequently threatening the people on the upper deck of the bus-us. He did a fantastic job; I escaped without any scrapes or bruises and we did not hit any pedestrians or cars. On the tour we saw the outside of the National Mexican-American Art Museum and the National Hellenic Museum; we will have to put them on our list for the next trip.

At the Grant Park Orchestra performance

Wednesday evening we went back to Millennium Park. This time my cousin Sue picked us up with picnic food. We met two friends of hers at the Jay Pritzker amphitheater. The Grant Park orchestra was playing to a crowd of several thousand. Actually, I have no idea of the number of people. The crowd was not announced but it is a large area and people were spread out everywhere. It was a pleasant evening, the music was enjoyable, and we had several hours to chat. Honestly, our talking very quietly during the orchestra did not interrupt or bother other people. It is a setting where you can talk quietly and still enjoy the music as a standard part of the audience participation.

Thursday was projected to be a rainy day but the rain prediction disappeared and we changed our plans. We took a bus north to Lincoln Park. Lincoln Park is 1200 acres and includes the Zoo, Conservatory, History Museum, beaches, playing fields, numerous statues, and nature museum. In the morning, we visited the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum including its butterfly house, the Conservatory, and the lily ponds. At the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, we joined a throng of summer campers as the Nature Museum is free to residents of the state of Illinois on Thursday. Despite the kids, we were able to enjoy the exhibits and displays. Climate change is still alive there; displays showcased climate change, solar panels, green homes, purification of drinking water and the cleaning of waste water.

In Lincoln Park

Walking south, we encountered the conservatory with its glass domes and floral displays. The conservatory was not huge, probably no larger than the Como Park Conservatory here in St. Paul. We continued walking through the park, watching the maintenance crew repair the fountain, then we could observe the dogs and children play in the fountain. The flowers along the fountain area south of the conservatory were brilliant and well done. We even sat for a while and just enjoyed the view. Lunch was at a restaurant just 1/2 block west of the park.

In the Chicago History Museum

Our journey continued for several more blocks as we reached the Chicago History Museum. This was an excellently done. We spent several hours here until our bodies were tired of standing and reading and observing. One of their main exhibits is titled “Crossroads of America”. The displays highlight the role of Chicago in the development of the United States, touching on such topics as the stockyards, railroads, breweries, lumbering, medical advancements, etc. We spent probably two hours going through this one exhibit. The other exhibits we treated as more of a walk through for us since our energy was dwindling.

Walking down State Street

We decided to walk back to our hotel, choosing the quieter side street of State Street and Rush street. The first half of the walk was on quiet, tree-lined, flower-filled streets with probably expensive walk up residences intermingled among high-rise buildings. The final, more downtown section was still comparatively quiet as compared to Michigan Avenue just to our east. We congratulated the fact that we walked over 11 miles on Thursday with a stop at Ghiradelli Chocolate for some ice cream and sorbet refreshment.

Maggie Daley Park

Thursday evening we spent some more time at Maggie Daley park at Millennium Park. We were amazed at the variety, complexity, and beauty of the children’s play structures. There was even a climbing rock area, surrounded by a track where parents and children could rollerblade and ride on scooters. Even at 8 PM, there were a sizable crowd of parents and children utilizing the grounds and facilities.

As we returned towards the Pritzker amphitheater, we encountered the crowd for the live recording of the public radio show called “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me”. The crowd was even bigger than the group present Wednesday night for the Grant Park Orchestra. We managed to wend our way through the park before the crowd left the performance.

Driehaus Mansion Chicago

On Friday, our train was not scheduled to depart until 2:15 PM. We took a docent led tour of the Driehaus Mansion, a suggestion made to us by the friends of my cousin Sue who were with us at the Pritzker Wednesday evening. The mansion is one of the few remaining examples of the palatial homes erected by the wealthy of America’s Gilded Age. At its time, it was the largest private residence in Chicago. In the early 2000’s, it was purchased by a very wealthy investment manager (Richard Driehaus) in Chicago, renovated, and made available for tours. “The lavish interiors are complemented by stunning examples of furniture, decorative arts, stained glass, and period pieces selected from the Driehaus Collection.”

After the tour, it was time to walk over to Union Station to catch the Empire Builder home. The train left on time, but arrived ten minutes late due to slower speeds in areas of track construction work. We had an excellent dinner on the train. Our dinner companions were a couple spending several weeks touring the country, using the train to go from point to point. During our discussions we discovered we had been to many of the same places around the country, including lodging at the Duff Green B & B in Vicksburg. All in all, a pleasant journey.

Returning home along the Mississippi River Friday night

Ed and Chris, Saint Paul Minnesota July 31

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2017 Trip 3: West Central MN Lakes: June 8

June 9, St. Paul MN

American Pelicans on Minnesota lake

Thursday June 8 was our day to finish off the trip with one last state park and the drive to the Cities. Two new couples had joined us the evening before so there was new conversation around the breakfast table at Xanadu Island. Once again, breakfast was excellent; the fresh fruit was infused with a citrus flavor that nicely complemented the “Light as Air” pancakes, scrambled eggs, and sausage. Even the maple syrup was local.

We bid everyone goodbye and headed out to Lake Carlos State Park, north of Alexandria, MN. On the drive we passed lakes with American pelicans. Evidently more than 20% of all American pelicans nest in western Minnesota. In 1968 there were no reports of nesting pelicans in Minnesota, today it is estimated that there are 22,000 pairs of nesting pelicans in Minnesota.

Hiking around Hidden Lake at Lake Carlos State Park MN

Lake Carlos at 1154 acres is the 43rd largest of 67 state parks-there are also 9 state recreation areas. It is popular with horseback riders, but also has trails, swimming beaches, boat and kayak rentals and fishing. Hiking was our sole activity; the ranger on duty indicated which trail had a bald eagle nest on it so we chose that one. The weather continued its streak of warm days with sunshine predominating. The park office had some new kits to repel deer flies. I bought one but it turns out the deer flies were not out; tree worms were and were dropping onto the trail constantly.

Hike completed and 63rd state park stamp received and we were back on the road, taking the interstate to St. Paul. Modern reality intruded soon as we passed a helicopter with a guy sitting on the strut repairing electrical transmission lines.

Electrical utility work in Douglas County MN

Ed and Chris

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2017 Trip 3: West Central MN Lakes Area; June 6-7

Battle Lake MN June 7

Cataract Lake at Maplewood State Park in Minnesota

This area of Minnesota is still home to hundreds of small lake resorts although they are facing economic pressure from people who stop going to resorts and buy their own lake cabin, or from travel abroad, or from fancier and glitzier lake resorts. We made a good choice coming to Xanadu Island. Bubba and Margie Shivler run a handsome facility, provide an excellent breakfast, offer complimentary cookies and beverages 24 hours a day, and provide no-charge canoes, etc for use. The three restaurants in Battle Lake that we patronized offered great food.

Xanadu and Battle Lake are our home as we visit four parks and various small towns. Our car has a nice coat of dust from gravel roads although a brief shower this morning made the roads a little less dusty today. In some locations, it appears that the county oils the road in front of residences in order to reduce the amount of dust generated near homes-versus farms that are set back further from the road. I am not positive though, since there were a few homes without that service. Margie thought an owner had to agree to pay part of the fee prior to the county performing the work. I could not find anything on the county website but in a time of low tax, low services a partial pay system would be logical. Obviously not all roads are gravel but they make a nice reminder that there are differences between urban and rural areas.

A snapping turtle on the road to Xanadu

As we have driven around and through these small towns, we have tried to make unbiased comparisons to the towns we visited during March and April. The lakes and rivers are much cleaner although we know there are pollution issues here, primarily from agricultural dirt and fertilizer/pesticide run-off. The towns we saw have been prosperous enough and well-maintained. Instead of hearing frogs, we see turtles, including snapping turtles, crossing the roads.

It has been a wet spring and green is everywhere. The first hay crop has been cut while the planted crops like corn and soybeans are just starting to sprout. Bird songs are everywhere, although the haunting calls of the loons stand out from all of the rest. Wildflowers are scattered about although not as abundant as we saw in Texas. Oh yes, beverages, whether water or iced tea or pop, are served in much smaller glasses than the huge glasses down south. While serving people are friendly, you do not hear “Have a blessed day”, “Honey or Dearie”, etc.

Biking on the Glendalough Trail

Tuesday June 6 we visited Glendalough State Park, home to three lakes and a portion of a fourth. Once a private property and game farm of the owners of the Minneapolis newspaper, the Minneapolis Tribune, the park offers canoeing, kayaking, biking, trails, camping, fishing, etc. We chose to take a 1 3/4 hour bike ride, renting bikes from the park concessionaire. The trail runs by the lakes and into the town of Battle Lake. Like many other areas of MN, bike paths are being expanded and used as a tourist draw. The park concessionaire has bike rentals in Battle Lake also.

Chief Wenonga sculpture by Ken Nyberg in Battle Lake MN

Battle Lake was named by the French explorers and fur trappers. It had been the site of battles between the Dakota and Ojibwe with the Dakota eventually being the victors. We turned around at the statue of Chief Wenonga, a Dakota chief who steadfastly demanded that the U.S. government adhere to its commitments to provide him and his family with the amount of land promised. It took decades but he succeeded where most other Indians had given up and accepted the reduced portions.

Four of the Ken Nyberg sculptures in Vining MN

After the bike ride, we went back into Battle Lake and stopped at Art of the Lakes Studio. Nice art work. The studio has been around for fifty years and is cooperatively run by about a dozen artists. Then it was lunch at The Rusty Nail. Our next stop was in the town of Vining, home of a sculptor working in metal, Ken Nyberg. Vining, population 78, has an area next to a gas station that displays many of his whimsical works. The Nybergs’ daughter, Karen, was an U.S. astronaut who went into space in 2008 and 2013. There are numerous Ken Nyberg sculptures around the county, including Chief Wenonga in Battle Lake, and the Upper Midwest.

Chris and Ed at Inspiration Peak, Otter Tail County MN

Our final stop was at Inspiration Peak State Wayside Park, home to a peak 400 feet above the surrounding land. The elevation at the top is 1,750 feet above sea level. The peak is the result of glacial action. Remember that the glaciers were not just one movement, but a series of actions over millions of years. The final result is a series of hills spread across several of the counties in this area. Inspiration Peak is the tallest of the hills that remain from that glacial action. The hike is steep but relatively short, less than half a mile one-way. The view is pleasant; we shared it with two young men from Alexandria MN who, when we met them in the parking lot, seemed concerned whether we would be able to complete the hike. We may have been slower than they were, but we succeeded. The peak “inspired” Sinclair Lewis who described the view from the top: “there’s to be seen a glorious 20-mile circle of some 50 lakes scattered among fields and pastures, like sequins fallen on an old paisley shawl.”

The turtle races in Perham MN

Today, Wednesday, we started with turtle races. This is the 37th annual “running” of the turtles. Perham MN is a town of 3200 souls; home to manufacturers of candy, pet food, cheese, and snack food. The downtown has remained vibrant, able to appeal to visitors to the lakes in the region as well as locals. The turtle races are a summer staple, occurring every Wednesday morning at 10:30 AM.

Today’s races were the first of the summer. There were just under 100 contestants. One of the judges, who has been judging for 17 years, told us the races will draw 400-500 contestants for the early July races. The races are held in a small park downtown. There is a circle with an inner and outer ring. Ten contestants compete in a heat. The ten are within the inner circle; at the start, turtles are released and the first one to cross the outer circle is the winner. Contestants yell and bang pails to urge their turtle on to glory. We noticed there was a tendency for the turtles who faced the east side where there is a wall but no humans, to have a better chance of success. It was fun to watch the facial expressions of the kids and adults who competed. The ten heat winners compete for the final top three places. We never did discover the prizes for winning, but they exist.

We walked the downtown streets and stopped for ice cream and a few birthday gifts for people who have birthdays in June and later.

Loon on lake

Our next stop was in Dent, MN, population 182. The local restaurant is famous for its caramel and cinnamon rolls. By the time we arrived only the frosted cinnamon rolls were left. We had their daily lunch special and boxed up the roll to share back at Xanadu this evening. On our way to Dent, Chris asked if I knew where Nootzi’s (the restaurant) was. I said “no, but Chris, the town is less than 200 people. It will be easy.” Well of course “downtown” Dent is not on the main thoroughfare and there was no sign saying “Downtown this away” so of course I had to double back to find the downtown and Nootzi’s.

Our final stop of the day was for our third state park, Maplewood. We drove in and as usual, even though we have an annual park pass, we stopped at the office to talk to the park ranger, get Chris’s park book stamped, and see what items they have for sale. I (for a change) struck up the conversation with the Assistant Superintendent. It turns out he is from Pelican Rapids, which is nearby, and has been here since 1995. Our conversation turned to the August week in 2004 that Chris and I did a volunteer stint in Pelican Rapids with Global Volunteers. We had a pleasant discussion recalling people and incidents from Pelican Rapids. The park guy commented that small town Pelican Rapids has embraced new immigrants and its resulting diversity. The immigrants work primarily at a local turkey processing plant.

Chris found a creamer/maple syrup pourer made by Dineen Pottery of St. Paul. Dineen makes pottery souvenirs for numerous parks, This is the first purchase we have made of their product as we have plenty of mugs. Maplewood, besides being a great park for fall colors, also hosts a maple syrup making festival in the spring. They have a new Sugar Shack used for interpretations for school kids in the spring and then sell the syrup at their fall festival.

Looking north from Hallaway Hill Overlook at Maplewood State Park in Minnesota

At Maplewood, we climbed another observation peak. Hallaway Hill Overlook is not as tall as Inspiration Peak, nor as steep but the hike was longer and more pleasant as it wound its way through prairie and woods to the top. Our second hike was around Cataract Lake. A portion of this trail co-exists with the North Country Trail, an under development trail that will, when completed, stretch from eastern New York to central North Dakota.

Dinner was at Stub’s, whose motto is “The second best restaurant in Minnesota”. Conversation with our lodge mates and owners wrapped up the evening.

Sign above door at lodge at Glendalough State Park, Minnesota

Ed and Chris

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2017 Trip Two: Tour of Texas April 29-30

Saint Paul, MN. May 1

At a Kansas rest stop

The last two days were driving in the rain, steady rainfall all day, frequently heavy. Saturday night we stopped in Kansas City, it is less than half the distance home but there are not many lodging options between KC and Des Moines.

This trip was 10,050 miles over 61 days. Thirteen states including Minnesota were included. Our primary goals were met successfully; spring migration of sandhill cranes, wildflowers in Texas, and Big Bend National Park.

No real negatives; lodging options were great, Evergreen hosts wonderful to meet. We were pleased with most of the museums we visited. The summer of 2017 will probably be short, regional trips. Next long trip is likely to be out East again; Rhode Island, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Connecticut.

Thoughts from Chris: As you all know, Ed is the main writer of this travel blog and does an incredible job sharing our travel adventures. After this last trip, I wanted to share some musings.

We are very thankful to God for our time, health and resources to have been able these past 4 plus years to explore the United States and Canada. The varied physical landscapes of our country, the welcoming of strangers, the humbling historical places of triumph and tragedy, the local “off-the beaten” road experiences have made our trips so very memorable.

I wanted to share some aspects of making our trips so successful.

1. We are planners. We enjoy the process of considering what trips we will take each year, the routes, the things we want to experience and visit and where we will stay. The research is fun and intriguing.

2. We have a budget. We know that if we want to “stay in the national park”, our lodging for those nights will be high and will need to be off-set with Evergreen stays ($20/night) or Hilton/Marriott properties where we get breakfast and points. Which nights will we need a laundry and which nights will we be coming in late after a long drive?

3. What special events may be happening in the area: a rodeo, concert, side trips, lectures? We get reservations, if needed, for these in advance. For this trip we identified several docent tours, the rodeo, bird watching excursions, rafting trip, jeep trip, star-gazing party.

4. We are not foodies, but tend to seek out the local “mom and pop” eating establishments and check to see if the area church/veterans club/etc. is having a community dinner/breakfast. We, however, also travel with granola bars and peanut butter and crackers which sometimes have become our lunch/dinner.

5. We enjoy visiting “niche” spots. We now have a better appreciation of tractors (after visiting the tractor testing site in Nebraska) and the work of Habitat for Humanity after seeing the home for International Habitat for Humanity in Georgia.

6. We enjoy visiting where something was started and/or now made: Kool Aid (Nebraska), Dr. Pepper (Texas), oil (Texas), Winnebago RVs (Iowa) among many.

7. We enjoy visiting our National Parks!

While we treasure our trips around the country, we know we are very, very blessed to live in St. Paul, Minnesota. We encourage all our readers to explore and enjoy what is in our own backyard. When was the last time you canoed the St. Croix River, biked Mississippi River Boulevard, went to one of our great art museums, hiked at Fort Snelling State Park, visited Como or the Arboretum, enjoyed a free outdoor concert in the area? We remember well when we were workaholics with a family, house and yard. We know that the Twin Cities’ area is the best in the country to have many options for outdoor and indoor learning and outdoor activities. “Staycations” in the Twin Cities are so close and affordable.

We are staying close to home for the next several months and are looking forward to enjoying what our area has to offer. There really is “no place like home”.

Chris and Ed

Ed and Chris
May 1, 2017
St. Paul MN

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2017 Trip Two: Tour of Texas April 28

Oklahoma City, Friday April 28

Oklahoma City National Memorial: the chairs, the reflecting pool, and one of the gates.

Two Tragedies. Not the most positive way to start drawing our trip to a close but the travel geography dictated our stops during our drive today.

A crop duster plane near the Texas-Oklahoma border

We left Amarillo Texas and drove into Oklahoma. Most of today’s journey continued on two lane state roads; speeds around 70-75 mph on roads with no shoulders and narrow traffic lanes. We never exactly left oil country but instead of well pumps, we observed tanks and pipelines. The sight of railroad traffic returned as a portion of our journey paralleled the main tracks of the BNSF Railway. Scrub brush gave way, usually, to fields dedicated to growing wheat and cotton. Grain elevators started to appear. Large cattle ranching operations were more obvious. I am guessing, but I believe the better quality grass here allows for more concentration of cattle ranching than in the lower rainfall, desert area we just left.

We saw more wind turbines today than we had in all of our trip prior to this. Texas is the largest producer of wind power, much of that generated in West Texas. Evidently though, the four largest wind farms in Texas are in an area east of Odessa, a part of Texas we did not drive through. However, Iowa is the state with the highest percentage of its electricity produced by wind power.

As we left Texas and drove into the western section of Oklahoma, the countryside seemed greener. The land was less endlessly flat with rolling hills. The Washita River flows through this section of Oklahoma and we stopped at the Washita Battlefield National Historic Site.

The Washita Battlefield site

In November 1868, the camp of Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle along the Washita River was attacked in the early morning hours by the 7th U.S.Cavalry under the direction of Lt. Col. George Custer. When the battle was over, 30-60 Cheyenne, including women and children, were dead. Another 53 women and children were taken into captivity. Over 800 horses were slaughtered. Most of the Indian braves were elsewhere; this camp was the winter home of primarily the women, children and elderly.

This incident was an almost unavoidable result of the western expansion of settlers, the taking of Indian land, the rapid extension of the railroads, the hostility and lack of trust between the Indians and the U.S., the string of broken treaties, and continued hostilities by Indian braves who were enraged by the Sand Creek massacre in Colorado four years before. The U.S. Army had adopted the policy of total warfare to drive the remaining Indians onto reservations. Ironically, Black Kettle was one of the chiefs who was cooperating and trying to convince his people to accept the inevitable. The result of capturing and killing women and children and slaughtering horses and burning possessions was a recognition by the Southern Plains Indians that they had no choice but to accept reservation life.

Eventually, even driving the Indians onto reservations did not satisfy the settlers. Surviving Indians from all over the country were forced into Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. But settlers were not satisfied and the Indians were forced onto small, individually owned parcels of land. The balance of the reservation was then sold or given to settlers, most notably during the Oklahoma Land Rush of April 22, 1989. The Oklahoma nickname “Sooners” stems from settler who disobeyed the law and entered the “Unassigned Lands” prior to the official entry time in order to claim prime land.

From Washita Battlefield we drove to Oklahoma City. We stopped at the Oklahoma City National Memorial. On April 19, 1995, the Alfred Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City was torn apart by a truck bomb that killed 168 people and more than 650 people were injured. Until 9/11, this was the worst case of terrorism in the U.S. The bomb blast was executed by an American with right-wing extreme hatred of the U.S. government. He set the federal building bombing for the two-year anniversary of the Branch Davidian compound inferno near Waco Texas.

The memorial has several parts. The location of the federal building is now a grassy site with 168 chairs representing the people who died; the children who died (they had been in a nursery program) are represented by smaller chairs.

There are two entry gates at each end of what had been Fifth Street in front of the building. At one end is recorded 9:01, at the other end 9:03. The bomb went off at 9:02, the gates represent the innocence before the attack and the healing after the attack. Fifth street is now a shallow reflecting pool with gently flowing waters.

The Survivor Tree

Across the street from the building had been an American Elm tree. After the bomb blast, only a portion of the trunk remained. It grew back and now is a full-size tree surrounded by a brick promontory wall. There is an orchard of new trees to represent the emergency responders enhanced by a wall of representative hand-painted tiles sent by children from around the world.

A chain link fence is still outside a portion of the site. Originally put up to keep people from encroaching on the crime scene, people left mementoes on the fence and it has been continually used for that purpose ever since. Finally, a small wall was the only remaining portion of the Murrah Building and has been retained with the names of survivors from the blast.

Ed and Chris.

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2017 Trip Two: Tour of Texas April 24-25

Odessa TX. Tuesday April 25

Sunrise on our last morning in Fort Davis, TX.

When we mentioned to someone from West Texas that we were spending two nights in Odessa, they asked: “Why?” Well it is not the most touristy place in Texas but there is the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum in the area. The museum is in Midland which is 20 miles from Odessa. An Evergreener earlier on this trip said that the oil field workers live in Odessa, the oil field owners live in Midland. From a quick look, that seems to be the case. Midland was ranked #1 in Texas in 2013 in the concentration of high-income households.

In the Balmorhea area, irrigated crops, well pumping, well production equipment

Monday morning we left Fort Davis. The first 45 minutes were spent continuing to drive through the mountains and desert. As we approached Balmorhea, the terrain flattened. The impact of oil fields just started to intrude on one’s senses; flares from burning gas, the smell of petroleum, the swirl of dust in the air, the sight of oil well pumps began and increased dramatically the closer we got to Odessa.

Part of the swimming pool at Balmorhea State Park

In Balmorhea is a state park located around a large artesian spring. The San Solomon spring system still pumps out water for residential and commercial use, with agricultural use primary. One can observe the irrigation canals and the green crops as contrast to the desert brown miles away from the springs. At Balmorhea state park, the largest spring fed swimming pool in the world was constructed by the CCC. At the deepest end by the springs, it is 20 feet. Other recreational portions are five feet deep. The spring water flows out of the pool into the irrigation system. We arrived around 9 AM. While it was too cool for us to take a dip, there were a handful of people in the pool.

Apache Corporation is located in Houston but was founded by three men from Minneapolis. They recently discovered in the Balmorhea area one of the largest oil discoveries in recent years. Previously oil drilling in the Balmorhea area was relatively light. Apache plans to drill 300 wells in the area. Thus, again will there be the fight between trade-offs. Oil production and jobs versus water use and potential degradation. The regional water board has already approved a water sale to Apache. The McDonald Observatory has already weighed in with its concerns for an increase in night sky light pollution. In its behalf, Apache Corporation seems to have one of the more responsible environmental records.

As mentioned earlier, the oil field impacts increase dramatically as we drove towards Odessa, 115 miles away. Two-thirds of the way to Odessa, we stopped at Monahans. The Monahans Sandhills State Park is known for its sand dunes. Smooth sand dunes as well as dunes with vegetation exist here with the smooth sand dunes beckoning to one. The park rents sand discs (originally designed for snow) but makes no promises as to slideability. As the day heats up, the sand becomes more resistant to sliding. We had arrived around noon, after having breakfast in Pecos and the stop in Balmorhea.

Monahans Sandhills State Park

Chris and I popped for the rental fee and took a chance. One drives out to the smooth dunes area, hikes up the hill, and tries to slide down. No luck. Too hot, sand too sticky. It was still fun and an unusual way to break up the day.

The sand here originated in New Mexico and was transported during the last post-glacial period. The dunes were probably formed 5-7,000 years ago and since they are located in the Permian Basin, the winds swirl around the basin but don’t blow the sand out of the basin. The dunes are here to stay under current conditions.

One of the sand piles

As we continued our drive to the northeast and Odessa, the well heads, collection systems, and utility poles providing electricity seemed to sprout everywhere. Most surprising to me were the numerous, large sand mining areas. I had been hearing about the use of Wisconsin and Minnesota sand for fracking but sand is used in regular well drilling also. One exhibit indicated 600 truckloads of sand can be used to drill one well. Sand here in the desert is mined also and used. Another exhibit listed the factoid that one gallon of oil needs 2,000 tons of tar sands to produce.

Given the wind, dryness, and lack of vegetation, blowing sand occurs frequently and must be adding to air pollution. We could visibly see the low-level pollution increase as we entered the Balmorhea area and then moved on to Odessa. BUT, as I checked national records, the air quality index for Odessa is similar to that in St. Paul, MN. Sometimes maybe you see things with a new eye when traveling. I will have to look around home with a critical and impartial eye when I return.

The drinking water quality here in West Texas seems to be universally criticized. TV news and newspapers have commented on it. But unemployment is low, population growth is occurring and construction seems to be occurring everywhere. Those are situations people like. Midland is even home to the first primary commercial service airport to be granted a spaceport license. The city is home to a space flight research facility and a space pressure suit manufacturing company.

For the rest of our trip we are lodging in national chains. Our TownePlace Suites here is nice, with an outdoor pool. Restaurant options are abundant with most of the usual food chains present. We ate at a regional steakhouse Monday night and regional deli today.

Today (Tuesday the 25th) we planned to see one museum, the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum in Midland. This was another AAA GEM and for us, it was a chance to learn more about the petroleum business. And it is big business, over 1,500,000 oil wells have been drilled in Texas over the last 100 years. We spent three hours here. The museum is excellent, covering geology and drilling techniques. They have a “Disney-like” ride discussing future oil exploration; through it we learned that laser drilling is under active research.

The Permian Basin is named for a geologic period of time ranging from 250 to 300 million years ago. The mass extinction of most living creatures on earth occurred at the end of this period. Today’s extraction of oil is due to the living organisms in the sea covering this area and the transformation of those organic creatures into oil under heat and pressure from layers of rock. The Basin is considered to cover an area 250 miles by 300 miles and has been one of the largest oil producing fields in the world.

In the early days, nitroglycerin was carried to well sites in vehicles like this

The museum showcases the discovery in oil in the Midland-Odessa region, dating back to 1923. The entrepreneurs who lived through boom and bust are highlighted, along with a clear description of the oil drilling process. We finally learned that those cylindrical tanks that we observed next to wells are devices to separate water, oil, and gas that are pumped up from the well.

One of the Chaparral racers

An additional gallery details the history of the Chaparral racing cars. Jim Hall, the founder of the Chaparral was from Midland. The chaparral racing cars were a major innovation in race cars in the 1960s and 1970s. Several of the original race cars are here along with a model of the garage where research and repairs were undertaken.

The Oil Patch outside the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum

Outside, the museum has a collection of antique oil field equipment. The items range from the early 1900s to the 1990s.

We cooled off in the pool at the hotel before heading out to dinner. Tomorrow our end goal is Amarillo with a stop in Lubbock, Texas.

Ed and Chris. April 25

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2017 Trip Two: Tour of Texas: April 22-23

Fort Davis, Texas Sunday April 23-and some from Saturday April 22

Looking up at McDonald Observatory, Fort Davis Texas

A fantastic experience! That describes the hours we spent at the McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis, Texas. The Observatory began in 1939 due to an unexpected bequest from a Texas banker and lawyer, William Johnson McDonald, who left money to start an astronomy program at the University of Texas. At the time of his death in 1926, Texas had no astronomy department. The university began a collaborative program with the University of Chicago which had a premier department. A local woman donated the land on the mountain top where the observatory was built. The McDonald Observatory is now solely run by the University of Texas and has four major research telescopes (an 82″, a 30″, a 107″, and a 360″). on two mountain tops and a support community. Other instruments, some owned by UT and some belonging to partner organizations, are used for research into radio waves, infrared, etc. and to educate visitors.

Why did we decide to visit the observatory? Well, AAA rates it a GEM. Evergreeners have recommended it. We have enjoyed several night sky programs at national parks over the years. This part of Texas is high on the list of areas to observe bright stars and where better to follow-up on bright stars than an observatory? We went “whole hog” in scheduling activities. Our experience began Saturday evening, April 22 with a one hour educational presentation. That was followed by a 90 minute star-gazing adventure. Then we came back Sunday morning for a 2.5 hour talk and tour of two of the telescopes.

Every program was well-done. The initial 60 minute lecture was held indoors for about 100 people. Graphics were used well to illustrate the points the lecturer was making; generally about our solar system and the planets. A few of the points both Chris and I remembered; more of the points were new and understandable; some of the points were over our heads.

After a 30 minute wait to allow for the skies to darken, 336 of us went outdoors to an open-air amphitheater for a “Star Party”-a sky viewing presentation and telescope viewing. (Obviously additional people came just for the Star Party.) Chris and I did not line up to use one of the dozen or so telescopes set up. Instead we spent the 90 minutes listening to a guy just do a fantastic presentation. It was humorous, it was understandable, it was educational, and it was fun. He used some sort of laser pointer that enabled him to point out constellations, stars, planets, satellites, etc. using the sky as his chalkboard.

After the programs we better understood the concept of the solar ecliptical plane; the constellations and why there are 13, not 12; why you can not see all constellations or planets at one time, etc. At 10:06:36 he pointed out a satellite. We observed it crossing the sky and then for about 3 seconds it gained immensely in brightness. This satellite by Iridium Communications has reflective antennae that gather and reflect sunlight causing the brief burst in brightness.

Did I mention it was cold? The previous blog post discussed how the weather had changed from temperatures in the 90s to clouds and cool temps. When we arrived in Fort Davis on Saturday and as we toured other locations, the skies were dark. We were uncertain if the program would be canceled. However, around 6 PM the sites cleared up. The temperature remained in the 40s for the program but we were bundled up and had a blanket to place on the concrete bench.

McDonald Observatory, home to the original 82″ telescope

Sunday morning after breakfast and Church, we returned to McDonald Observatory. This “Daytime Solar Viewing and Tour” began with another lecture, accompanied by video and graphics. Through filters and media hook-ups, we viewed live shots of today’s sun-well, delayed by 8 minutes for transmission time. The topic was the sun, solar flares, coronal mass ejections, sun spots, etc. There was some repetition of information that had been presented the previous evening, probably helpful to us in remembering data.

The 107″ telescope-completed in 1968 and the third largest in the world at that time

After the lecture, we drove up to see first-hand the 107″ telescope. We stood right next to it; young girls were given the controls and made the telescope turn, the building’s opening rotate, and the curtains that shield the telescope move up and down. The floor by the telescope can also be raised to allow for maintenance. The operation and history of the telescope were covered. The telescope area is kept chilled to 46 degrees. Some of the other tour-takers were quite chilled by the end of our time in there.

The building housing the Hobby-Eberly Telesope

After the 107″ scope, we drove over to the next mountain (also donated land) to view the 402″ scope. Actually this telescope, the Hobby-Eberly, is a prismatic scope that utilizes a series of 91 hexagonal prism segments rather than one large mirror to collect the light. By use of the prisms, it actually does not have to be 402″ across to have as much capability as a 402″ mirror telescope. It is currently being upgraded to work on a Dark Energy Experiment and while we could view it, we could not get as close to it as we did with the 107″ scope. The people here were quite proud of the construction design which allowed the telescope to be constructed in 1997 at well below expected cost due to using “off-the-shelf” components. It is currently tied for second largest telescope in the world.

All in all, an excellent time; interesting, illuminating, enlightening.

Ed and Chris. Monday April 23 in Odessa Texas

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2017 Trip Two: Tour of Texas April 22

Fort Davis, Texas Saturday April 22

Fort Davis National Historic Site

What a difference a day makes! Friday the sites were clear and the termperature was in the high 90s. Today as we drove to Fort Davis we encountered gray skies, fog, and temperatures mainly in the 40s. Luckily the border checkpoint (75 miles from the border) was well-marked and could be seen even with the fog. The drive was only 100 miles and the elevation change went from 3,000 feet to 5,000 feet. Still in the desert, though.

Heading for the fog and clouds

Our first stop was a bust. Marfa Texas receives lots of attention as an “in” place to visit. Back in the late 1970s, a major art installation began with works of Donald Judd. Now the Chinati Foundation offers guided and self directed tours of locations where large-scale art and the landscape are linked and in buildings where large-scale art is installed.

One of the large scale Donald Judd concrete art installations

My negative take is based on viewing one site and the fact that other sites are only open for limited times, resulting in the need to stay in this small town all day in order to view them. The long guided tours by docents sell out though, so some people are evidently enthralled by it. We toured the untitled works of Judd in concrete.

Part of my negative take may also be the lack of reasonable food at 9:30 AM. If we stayed longer, options included Dairy Queen and Subway. Other choices also opened later or were back in the high-end cutesy variety. We were out of town by 11 AM.

Fort Davis was a little better in the food choices although the list of restaurants put out by the Chamber had multiple errors in the dates and times the restaurants were open. No Dairy Queen, no Subway. The ice cream store is open Wed-Sun, so that suits us just fine-it was listed as Mon-Fri. Thirteen restaurants are listed, two are open for just two or three days of the week. We had lunch at the state park restaurant, luckily it stayed open until 2 PM (the brochure siad it would be open for dinner. Wrong.) One of the restaurants is usually open on Saturday but for some reason it was closed yesterday.

Our choice for dinner opened at 5 PM. We got there are 5:05 and the next opening was at 7 PM. I was not sure if that restaurant is usually crowded or if the crowd was due to the Christian Motorcyclists Association being in town and taking up all of the few food choices. Yes, the CMAs were on Harleys and had their leathers on but they looked to be at least 65 years old, overweight, and there were a lot of trikes among the motorcycles. Dinner was at Lupita’s, a small Mexican restaurant with seven tables-all occupied.

Part of Officers Row at Fort Davis

Fort Davis is home to the Fort Davis National Historic Site. Described as the one of the best remaining frontier military post in the Southwest, the fort is also known as home to the Buffalo Soldiers, the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry comprised of all “colored men”; except for the officers. The Buffalo Soldiers were stationed here from 1867 to 1885.

From the video and displays, the fort may have been a critical component in maintaining the peace during the Indian Wars but the soldiers spent more time on buidling the fort, roads and telegraph lines than fighting. The San Antonio-El Paso Road goes right by the fort. The fort was established in 1854 as part of the guarantee to Mexico to stop marauding Indians from crossing the border. In 1891 it was abandoned, having outlived its usefulness. For the next 70 years it was lightly used and started to deteriorate. In 1963 it became a national historic site.

From the fort, we drove to the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center and Botanical Gardens. We had a nice walk through the gardens; everything was blooming nicely due to their drip irrigation system. But what I really wanted to mention was the greenhouse. The greenhouse is devoted to preserving the natural diversity of the desert. For us, it was an eye-opener.

Some of the many cacti in the greenhouse at Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center in Fort Davis, TX

The greenhouse is chock-full of cacti; varieties of cactus we had never seen before. Yes, I know we are from Minneosta but we have been traveling for several years and have visited numerous deserts, desert gardens, and botanical centers. The differing colors, styles, formations, etc. just were mind-boggling. A few of the more interesting ones, to us, are shown above. I could present many more.

Saturday night’s activity will be included in the blog post for Sunday.

Ed and Chris

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