View Full Version : travelogue spring 06

07-10-2006, 03:08 PM
I left Maine in late winter in the company of my friend Jan, headed for her home in Durango, Colorado (by a very roundabout route). We drove down the east coast, taking in the sights along the way. We stayed overnight in Etna, NY, just north of Ithaca, with my friends Andrew and Lorna. The next day we passed through Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia, ending the day in southern Virginia. The next morning we tried to tour Grand Caverns, Virginia, but they weren’t yet open for the season. Apparently we looked pathetic, though, as one of the employees was waiting for a bus full of schoolchildren and let us in to look around until they showed up. My first cave... very colorful!

By the end of the next day we had crossed Tennessee and turned south again into Mississippi to visit my friend Chubbs, who is a cotton breeder at one of the ag stations in the delta. What we saw of Mississippi was flat fields; I had been expecting swamps and trees, but I guess those are farther south and east. We also took in the Blues Museum in Clarksdale, which was small but good.

The next day found us crossing Louisiana into Texas. The easternmost part of Texas is not bad looking, with treed rolling hills, but as soon as we hit the cotton belt it got boring fast, and stayed boring for the next two days. A single cotton field would stretch for miles. There were no actual people in sight. Everything was flat and hot. Jan and I agreed that we, as a nation, could have saved ourselves quite a lot of trouble if we’d just let Mexico keep Texas.

At the northwest corner of Texas we headed up into New Mexico. We’d enjoyed Grand Caverns enough that we thought we’d take in Carlsbad Caverns. They were, of course, humongous, with ceilings over a hundred feet high and rooms on the same scale as a ballfield. However, they weren’t as colorful as Grand Caverns, being mostly cement-gray, and I liked them less. They were also overrun with people. We spent the night in Roswell, NM, making sure to make tinfoil hats for our mascots.

The next day we stopped in Albuquerque to visit Jan’s parents, then proceeded on to Durango, arriving after dark. Home! (sort of). Seven days and 3641 miles from Maine to Colorado isn’t very efficient, but it was a good trip.

Jan is many things, including a college professor (political science), a volunteer firefighter/EMT, and a builder of custom houses. This last part is the most relevant, as I worked with her for the next six weeks doing mostly finish carpentry on a house in the final stages of construction. In that time she also bought herself her own place, and we did a little work on that, too. Other activities while I was there included a couple of concerts (The Subdudes and Shamika Coleman, both highly recommended), trips to Hovenweep National Monument and Chaco Canyon (both of which I liked better than Mesa Verde), lots of visiting with my friend Ashley (whose weekend house I was living in) and her two toddler boys, and a ride on the Durango and Silverton train (which only goes halfway to Silverton at that time of year because there is still snow in the mountains). I also bought my first cell phone; though I was grumpy about it at the time it has served me well.

My next destination was northern California to spend a month with my sister Jos, who lives in Berkeley. I again made an extended trip out of it, spending the first night in Moab, UT and visiting Arches National Park, where a ranger who kept trying to talk me out of going on a guided walking tour of a rugged area called the Fiery Furnace eventually admitted that I was tougher than I looked. (Humph.) The next day I stopped at Great Basin National Park. I should have been suspicious that their web site didn’t include any pictures; it wasn’t a very attractive area, in my opinion. But they did have a nice cave, which I toured, and some archaeology (Fremont people, I think), which I didn’t.

I’m going to expand a little bit on the whole idea of the Great Basin, simply because I didn’t know it existed. If I was just ignorant, and everyone else has already heard of this, please just bear with me.

I think most people have heard of the continental divide. The idea is that west of the divide, all rivers ultimately flow west and empty into the Pacific, while to to east side of the divide water is destined for the Atlantic. What I didn’t know is that the “line” that is the continental divide actually splits, and there is an area in the central west (which has no colloquial name, so far as I know) that doesn’t drain anywhere. There are actually hundreds of non-draining basins out there, and they tend to form salt flats and other sorts of unsavory desert landscapes.

I’d intended to spend the next night in Lake Tahoe, but about the time I got there three things happened: it started snowing, Jos called to tell me that she had a lot of work to do for her weekend class and she’d prefer if I delayed my arrival, and my friend (and former student) Al called to offer me a weekend in the Pacific Northwest by way of Southwest Airlines. So I abandoned my hotel reservation in Tahoe (which looked lovely and which I hope to revisit someday), ditched the car at the Sacramento airport, and flew to Seattle. At the end of a VERY long day (which had started in the stinking desert in eastern Nevada, and finished with a ferry ride on Puget Sound) I found myself in a bed-and-breakfast on Whidby Island. I woke up to a view of the Sound and the Cascade mountains, which were very green and not at all desert-like, just what I needed. After breakfasting amongst the approximately 40 domestic rabbits that were running amok on the grounds of the B&B we toured the rest of the island and then drove down the east side of the sound, taking in the commercial tulip fields which were in full bloom, and which I had never managed to see when I lived in Washington. The next morning I was back on a plane to Sacramento, picked up the car, and proceeded to Berkeley.

For the next month I worked with my sister. She works at Lawrence Berkeley National Labs in a group that is using remote sensing techniques (satellite and aerial photography) to assess the impact af a variety of water management strategies on “wetlands” in the central valley, near the “city” of Los Banos in the Central Valley. If the midwest is our nation’s breadbasket, then California’s Central Valley is its fruit basket. A large percentage of the fresh produce we get year round is grown there, both fruits and vegetables. It’s farmers in the Central Valley who are in conflict with the city of Los Angeles over water supplies, as most everything is irrigated most months of the year. Needless to say, the hydrology of the Central Valley is pretty messed up. The water table has fallen more than 100 feet since we started farming it about a century ago. What was a huge rest-stop on a major flyway for migratory birds is now a heavily cultivated agricultural zone. The birds make do with some state land and wildlife refuges, which themselves have to be managed in terms of water to maximize forage and habitat. The project my sister is working on is looking at how the timing of water release into the “wetlands” (mostly basins surrounded by manmade levees) affects the quantity and species of plants that the birds prefer.

Like most labor-saving techniques, the remote sensing technologies require a little bit of extra work up front. In this case, Jos and I were doing what is known as “ground truthing,” inventorying plant species and distribution at a moderate number of precisely determined (by GPS) locations so that our observations could be compared with the remote imagery. This provides a reality check so that they can be sure what they are looking at when they analyze the larger images. So we’d pile out of the truck, find a likely looking patch of something green, take its location with the GPS, enter its identity and size into the file, and then do it all over again, twenty or thirty times a day. Towards the end of my stay it started to get beastly hot and humid, but as one of the women who was working with us pointed out, “This is the only place I go on a regular basis that wouldn’t be a bad place to be in an earthquake!” Despite the heat, the sunburn, and nearly stepping on a rattlesnake, I found it really nice to be back outside again.

We were working only 70% time, so I had a lot of opportunities to do other things. I revisited the Berkeley Botanical Gardens (one of my favorite places), ushered for a play (filling in for Jos, who was still backed up with schoolwork), visited the Museum of the African Diaspora (small) and the DeYoung Museum (great!), helped my friend Destry pack for a move, did a lot of early-morning walking and some painting, experimented with playing Magic (a card game), and got a CD player installed in the Subaru.

(Wow, I maxed out the 10000 character post limit! More in a minute...)

07-10-2006, 03:09 PM
My next stop was Tacoma, WA. My plan was to leave some of my stuff at Al’s place and then drive to meet him (he travels almost full time for work) with the idea that I’d be digging fossils at the John Day Fossil Beds while he was supervising an antenna installation in eastern Oregon. Well, he hadn’t quite gotten out of Montana yet, so I spent a couple of days in Tacoma visiting friends (including Nelma, another former student) and then headed east on I-90. I spent the night in Spokane with Ashley’s mother and grandmother and made it to Billings the next evening, only to find Al with severe abdominal pain. Six hours in the ER later he had a diagnosis of a gallbladder that had to go, so we stashed his truck at the Billings airport (he was forbidden to drive) and headed back to Tacoma. He was able to arrange some very prompt surgery and ended up only having to take a week and a half of medical leave for recuperation, during which time we were also able to visit with yet another former student, Bobby, and his wife Anne.

Then it was back on the road again, headed for Fossil, OR. (Careful readers will note that Al’s truck is still in Billings at this point.) The Fossil trip was pretty much a disaster, as: Al had already been replaced on this job, so there was no point in him being there; it rained the whole time, and the fossil beds were closed because of it; and I got food poisoning. Back to Tacoma for half a week, and then we headed out to Montana, reuniting Al with his truck in Billings and then proceeding to Lewistown, where we are currently located. After a week at a motel in town I chanced upon a mother-in-law apartment on an Angus-and-wheat ranch about ten miles outside of town, so for the last week I’ve been woken up by the chickens and had a full kitchen at my disposal. Much better. I like the landscape in this part of Montana better than anywhere else I’ve been this spring (sorry, Durango fans). The cattle are fat and happy and there are lots of nice rocks too.

And that brings us up to date. Next stop, Cascade, ID.

Bruce Hooke
07-10-2006, 03:40 PM
Wow, what a journey. Thanks for the report!

07-11-2006, 07:47 AM
Great traveloguing! Gives me itchy feet. I just got an email from a long lost friend who settled down in Joshua Tree last night. HHHHHMMMMMNNNN.