September 1st, 2017

travel

Vacation, Part 2: It’s De-Light-Ful

Title pun thanks to my college friend, Mark.

Having seen 3 total solar eclipses previously, all of which required considerably more complicated travel (Ghana in 2006, Kiribati in 2009, and Micronesia in 2016), there was no way I was going to miss out on the Great American Eclipse. Looking at the path of totality, I realized what would be the ideal spot for me to go. I planned a full year out for my trip to Alliance, Nebraska, home of Carhenge. This is a quirky place, which is always a plus. The combination of a good length of totality (2 and a half minutes) and reasonable odds of good weather made it an ideal destination.

So, after a night at the Fairfield Inn at JFK (just adequate), I took a Jet Blue flight to DEN, where I picked up a rental car. As is all too typical of google maps, their directions are so determined to shave off every possible inch that they make all sorts of pointless turns. Google also has a touching faith in road signs. I might turn on West Kansas Street, but there has to be some visible sign for it in order for me to do so. Still, I managed to find my way along various back roads of Nebraska and made it to the Alliance Hotel and Suites. I was paying about five times what my room would normally cost and about ten times what it was worth, but it was reasonably convenient. At least it was clean, albeit shabby.

Carhenge itself is a few miles north of Alliance. The weather looked iffy, with rain overnight and a lot of fog in the morning. But things cleared up as eclipse time neared. I should note that they were charging $50 for parking, but this was a charity fundraiser, so I was okay with it. There were other parking options a somewhat further walk away. I toured the sight, amused by the car art (e.g. The Fourd Seasons). The main henge is fascinating – built to the proportions of Stonehenge. It’s a must for any fan of uniquely American bizarre tourist attractions. To make things even better, its founder, Jim Reinder, was there, and he thoroughly enjoyed being interviewed by the local media, as well as watching the eclipse with his extended family.

As for the eclipse, I had brought eclipse glasses, my aluminized mylar filter, and solar binoculars. I also had a small tripod and a device for attaching my iphone to the binoculars. What I had not quite figured out at home was that the tripod interfered with the binocular attachment. And I couldn’t hold the binoculars steady enough without it, so there went my main photography plan. I did take a few photos of the "point and pray" variety, but nothing was really great. The eclipse, however, was great. Even at my fourth experience of totality, the feeling of awe was overwhelming. While there were plenty of people around, the site is big enough that it didn’t feel crowded. And it was obvious that everyone was completely amazed by what they were seeing. I think that even applied to the handful of cosplayers who showed up – a couple of people dressed as aliens and one guy as an auto tech kangaroo.

After the sun came back, I waited a while before braving the traffic. I was smart enough to stay a second night in Alliance, so I only had to make it the few miles back to town. My understanding is that the traffic going any further was pretty dreadful. I was glad to take a nap instead of dealing with that. I would end up doing plenty of driving the next day.

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travel

Vacation, Part 3: Wind Cave National Park and on to Wyoming

One of my life list items is visiting every National Park in the U.S. So it made sense to leverage off my trip to Carhenge to drive a couple of hours further north to Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota. (For those who might wonder, I had previously been to Badlands National Park. In fact, I think that may have been the first National Park I ever went to.) It was an easy and uncrowded drive, with the highlight being a sudden stop to let a couple of pronghorn cross the road just before I got to the turnoff for the park visitor center. Once at the visitor center, I had to choose which tour to take. I decided on the Natural Entrance tour, which is the most popular. You’re not allowed to take any bags into the cave, so I went back out to the car to leave pretty much everything except my camera (and my wallet and car keys). I did have time to stamp my National Park passport book and to buy a long-sleeved tee shirt, as well as to watch the park movie and read some of the exhibits, before the tour.

The tour passes the natural entrance, but doesn’t actually use it. The ranger did use a ribbon to demonstrate the wind from the cave that gives it its name. Then we went through a door and down a lot of steps into the cave. There are a total of about 300 steps along the tour (mostly down – you take an elevator out) and roughly half of them are in this first section. When the whole group got down, the ranger talked about two specific types of formations in the cave – boxwork and frostwork. Frankly, neither is anywhere near as spectacular as normal stalagmites and stalactites.

We continued along through the cave, with various stops for talks. The tour covers about 2/3 of a mile, which is a very small part of the overall cave complex, which is still not completely mapped. The most interesting parts were when our ranger (Sina Bear Eagle, a Lakota woman) told the Lakota emergence story, which has to do with the origins of both bison and people. She also read some fascinating excerpts from a journal kept by Alvin MacDonald, who led early tours of the cave. Apparently, it didn’t bother him to leave 3 of the 9 people on one of his tours in the cave overnight!

After the tour was over, I contemplated doing one or two of the short nature trails that were alleged to start near the visitor center. I was, alas, unable to find where either of the trailheads was, so nixed that plan. Instead, I drove on, stopping to look at a herd of bison just outside the park road. These were reintroduced to the area in 1913 and came mostly from the Bronx Zoo. (A few more were brought over from Yellowstone in 1916.) They’re really quite magnificent, at least from what I consider a safe distance.

The next couple of hours involved driving a series of back roads from South Dakota going west and then south into Wyoming. My destination for the night was Guernsey, Wyoming. I’d booked a room at the Cobblestone Inn there based pretty much on being a reasonable distance for my plans. It was adequate. I’d have said it was nice, but the first room they put me in had not actually been serviced. And the second one was lacking a shower curtain. But the really egregious sin was their failure to have coffee / hot water available in the breakfast room the next morning. Yes, I understand that things break, but as a person who considers access to caffeine to be a basic human right, being told just to use the coffeemaker in my room makes me knock at least one to two stars off my rating of any hotel.

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travel

Vacation – Part 4: Cheyenne and Onwards

I also collect state capitals. My specific goal is to do a volksmarch in every capital, generally involving the actual capitol building. Cheyenne was on my way back to Denver (where I’ve done the appropriate walk already) so made for a reasonable morning excursion.

I had not done a 10K volksmarch in nearly two years. I have been having sporadic foot issues, which were probably not helped by how much walking I did in New York the weekend before. It was hot out. It was not really fun.

It didn’t help that the walk wasn’t particularly interesting. There were a few sections of historic buildings, but there was a large part around a lake in a park and another large section through a cemetery, neither of which were notable. The area around the Capitol was better, but the Capitol itself is closed for renovation. There was an attractive Greek Orthodox church and a synagogue across from a statue of Robert Burns. I’d have liked more background on some of the historic houses. So, overall, I thought the walk was meh, but it did serve its purpose.

After the walk, I drove back to Denver and checked into the Hampton Inn near the airport for the night. I have stayed there countless times over the years and it remains reliable for what it is. I called some friends and we made plans for dinner. Normally, I’d have been up for meeting them downtown, but I was pretty worn out and suggested we eat near where I was. That required a bit of research and, through the simple expedient of seeing what the iphone said was nearby, we ended up at African Grill and Bar in the Green Valley Ranch shopping center, a couple of miles down Tower Road.

What a find! Okay, they didn’t actually have any African beers other than Tusker (which is Kenyan, so doesn’t really go with West African food). But the food was excellent. We ordered lamb samosas, fried plantains, spinach stew with oxtail, coconut stew with chicken, and okra stew with goat. The stews came with rice, too. Everything was tasty and all of the dishes were different from each other. Seeing as I do have occasions to be in that area, I am definitely going to keep this place on my go-to list for the future.

And the next day I flew home, though with a delay of a couple of hours. Thus ended an all too brief vacation.

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