Thursday, August 26, 2010

Tonopah and the drive across Nevada

It’s Friday night and I am finally getting around to posting my Travel Tip Thursday piece. This is where you write about favorite places to travel and I’m currently taking my readers through Central Nevada. Today’s stop is Tonopah. For those of you looking for “travel tips” about this area, I’d say, “bring flyswats.”

Leaving Goldfield, I drove north on US 395 toward Tonopah, another major mining camp in the early 20th century boom. Brief showers brought a respite from the heat and the additional altitude (Tonopah is at 6200 feet) made it even more pleasant. I’ve stayed in Tonopah many times and have even joked about retiring here.

In the Spring of 1900, Jim Butler, a rancher and part-time prospector from near Belmont, Nevada, discovered a rich vein of silver near a place that the natives called Tonopah (greasewood springs). According to legend, Butler’s donkey ran away and he went looking for it. Finding it a day later, he looked for a big rock with which to pelt the animal, but the rock he picked up was heavier than normal and upon looking at it, discovered it to be what he thought was high grade silver ore. In Nevada, Butler’s donkey is as famous as the one Jesus rode into Jerusalem and Balaam’s ass (the original smart ass) put together. I should note that serious historians question the historical accuracy of the donkey story, but it makes a heck of a better story than talking about Jim Butler chipping samples off rock ledges in the hot sun.

It took a while for Butler’s ore to be assayed (a process that brought him some additional partners in as he couldn’t afford the assaying fees) and for him to stake out his claims, but in a few years Tonopah was booming. It was an inhospitable place. There was little water and no roads. The closest railroad was the Carson and Colorado narrow gauge, eighty-some miles to the north and by 1900, with little going on in Nevada, only three trains a week ran each way. The C & C connected the Owens River Valley with the Comstock Lode. The Tonopah discovery saved this line, as they soon extended a line to Tonopah (and later on to Goldfield) and converted their tracks to standard gauge so one could take the train from San Francisco (the finance center for the West at this time) to Reno, then to Moundhouse and on to Tonopah.

We didn’t have much time in Tonopah. There was a new museum that I’d heard about (Tonopah Mining Park) and I got there 15 minutes before they closed. I was able to get a few pictures, but next time will plan to spend at least half a day here. Driving through town, I noticed that the Mizpah Hotel is still closed. I’d always wanted to stay it in, but never did. Back in the 90s, I ate there many times and have had a few cold beers in their grand saloon. As we had planned to stay the night in Caliente, 180 miles to the east, we stopped at McDonalds for a quick dinner. My daughter had fallen in love with their new smoothies in Las Vegas, but this McDonald’s wasn’t yet serving them. It was one of the dirtiest McDonalds I’ve seen and they seemed to have been invade by flies. After eating, we left town on US 6, heading past the entrance to the Tonopah Proving Grounds. One of the reasons the town is still going is that the military has had a presence here testing new aircraft. Tonopah’s most recent boom was during the development of the stealth bombers. At Warm Springs, we left US 6 and headed across the Extraterrestrial Highway. We didn’t stop at Rachel this time, but kept going, stopping to watch the sunset in a Joshua tree forest.
Dry rain and open range (ie, cows are not fenced here). East of Tonopah.

I should also note (if any historians are reading this), Tonopah also has the Central Nevada Museum, which has a wonderful archive collection for rural Nevada. There are a number of good books for those interested in learning more about Tonopah. Two that are on my shelves are Russell Elliott’s Nevada’s Twentieth-Century Mining Boom: Tonopah, Goldfield and Ely and Robert D. McCraken, A History of Tonopah, Nevada. Next stop: Caliente!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Catching my breath...

The photo is of the old Soo Line near Ladysmith, WI.

I’ve noticed over the past week that the golden rod have begun blooming. The days seem to rapidly be getting shorter. In the evening sky, the constellation Scorpios is dropping lower in the western horizon and if you’re up before dawn, you’ll see Orion in the east. Summer is coming to an end. If it wasn’t for all these visual signs, I’d know it because my head has been stuffy and it’s time to start snorting stuff up my nose again (in case you’re wondering, I’m talking about nose spray, not that white powdery stuff).


The past week and a half has been crazy at work. The project that has consumed my life for the past several years is finally coming to an end. We moved the offices last week and are now up and running. Everything else will be moved after Labor Day. Next week, I’m taking off a bit for a three day/two night canoe trip on the Manistee River. I can use the break. Hopefully, tomorrow (Or Friday), I’ll get my next post up on my trip out west earlier this summer as we visit Tonopah.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Sweet Everlasting (A Book Review)

Jusdon Mitcham, The Sweet Everlasting (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1996), 194 pages.

This is a well told story. Mitcham crafts his novel with vignettes from the life of Ellis which jump back and forth in time, from his childhood in the 1930s, his life as a young man in the 40s and 50s, and finally to his life in the present (in the 1990s).

Ellis was born in to Georgia sharecroppers. His parents never had much of a break, but as a young man, he gets one as he hires on at a cotton mill and soon becomes a mechanic, fixing the looms. He marries Susan, a beautiful woman. They have their fights, but mostly get along well. They are blessed with a child. Susan transforms their yard, around their little mill row house, into a garden of wildflowers. The garden is so well done that it eventually draws the attention of the Atlanta newspaper and the women of the local garden society. Over all, life is good. Yet Susan and Ellis are carrying a secret from their past. When the two of them share their secrets, it tears them apart. In a heated argument, their son runs out of the house and into the street and dies under the tires of a neighbor’s car. Susan leaves Ellis and he tries to commit suicide. His first attempt, burning himself to death, fails as he’s saved from the inferno. But the mill row houses are close together and other homes burn, the flames burning bad a neighbor woman and an explosion in the fire blinding a firefighter. After being released from the state mental hospital, Ellis spends six years and two months in prison. He’s released in 1960 and lives doing odd jobs, always regretting the fight he’d had with Susan. At the end of the book, thirty-five years later, he finds her. She’s in a nursing home, alone, with Alzheimer’s. She doesn’t know him, but as he works in the home as a janitor, he continues to care for her, the woman he never stopped loving.

I enjoyed this book. Ellis is a good man with bad breaks. Reading the book, I found myself pulling for him as he struggles to do what is right. Mitcham paints a picture of life in the South during the 1940s and 50s, and does a good job of addressing the issue of race, which was always close to the surface. Although the book is not religious, Mitcham tackles the process of redemption. How does one live a life after having made a mess of things? Through Ellis, we’re shown one man’s struggle to do good despite his past.
Several years ago I reviewed another of Judson Mitcham's books, Sabbath Creek.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Goldfield, Nevada

Travel Tip Thursday is a writing prompt that encourages us to write about places we’ve seen and visited--ie, we gives tips on places to travel as opposed to what to pack (this was added a day after the original post to answer one of my critics). This week, I continue with my trip a few weeks ago through Southeastern California and Southern Nevada.
After leaving Rhyolite, I topped off the gas tank in Beatty and headed north on US Highway 395. Next stop was Goldfield, near the half-way point between Las Vegas and Reno. A hundred years ago, this was the largest town in the state with over 20,000 citizens. It was a boon town and identified by historian Sally Zanjani as the “the last gold rush on the Western Frontier.”

After the decline of the Comstock Lode in the 1880s, Nevada slipped into a twenty year depression and the state almost ceased to exist. There were even discussions as to if it still qualified as a state as it had lost so much of its population and other states were envious of it having two senators and a representative in Congress. But with the turn of the Twentieth Century, Nevada came to life again as new mines were discovered in Tonopah, Goldfield and Ely. Next week, I’ll tell you a bit about Tonopah, but this week, we’re stopping in another of these mining camps that hit it big, Goldfield, the county seat of Esmeralda County.

The rich lode at Tonopah was discovered in 1900. Two years later, the mining district that was to become Goldfield was discovered. According to legend, a Paiute named Tom Fisherman hauled a “picture rock,” a yellow colored piece of ore, into Tonopah that he sold for $10. Fisherman said he found the ore 30 miles south of Tonopah. Several miners headed south and in December 1902, two miners staked the first claims on the north ridge of the Columbia Mountains. They named the mining district “Grandpa,” supposedly because it was either to be the Grandpa of all mining camps or because Grandpah in Paiute means “Great Water.” The former is the most likely explanation as there is no great water in this district, although what constitutes “great water” in this arid region is relatively.

In October 1903, there were 36 miners and investors living in tents. They incorporated a town and changed the name to Goldfield, thinking that it sounded better in their marketing campaign than did Grandpa. Several mines were beginning to produce well. In the later part of 1906, one mine produced nine million dollars worth of ore. Unlike Tonapah, which was mostly silver (a ratio of 86 ounces of silver to one ounce of gold), Goldfield was mostly gold (a ratio of 3 ounces gold to an ounce of silver. In the first four decades of the century, Goldfield produced over 90 million dollars in ore (compared to 148 million for Tonopah). Remember, this was when gold was worth $20 or so an ounce.

In its heyday, Goldfield boasted a fancy hotel and many buildings of brick and block. A number of railways made their way to Goldfield, one coming from Tonopah (which connected to the older Carson and Colorado, a narrow gauge railroad that connected to the Virginia and Truckee at Moundhouse, which connected to the Union Pacific at Reno). This railroad was later converted to standard gauge. To the south, two railroads came north, one from a town that would become known as Las Vegas and another from Lundow, California, a line that also served the borax interest around Death Valley.
Goldfield has a colorful history. One of its early residents was Virgil Earp, Wyatt’s brother and sidekick at the shoot-out at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. Virgil worked as a sheriff deputy until his death of pneumonia in October 1905. In 1907, a mining strike resulted in the military being called out, which created some interesting times. The town also became a center for raising capital for new mining adventures in Southern and Central Nevada, many of which were designed to mine the pocket the investors rather than digging for actual gold. The town of Rawhide was most notable among these endeavors. The town also featured boxing matches that gripped the nation. Boxing, in the early 20th Century, was considered barbaric and outlawed in many parts of the nation. But long before Las Vegas became the final home for Sonny Liston, boxing found a home in Goldfield as some of the same promoters of bogus mines also promoted championship fights.

As with most boom towns, Goldfield began to decline after a few years. Several diasters helped the decline. In 1913, a flash food brought havoc on a good part of the town. Then in 1923, a fire destroyed about 25 blocks of the city, including much of the business districts. Another fire, the next year destroyed more of the city. By 1947, all the railroads to Goldfield had stopped running. Had it not be for the town’s location on US 395 and that fact that the town is the county seat for Esmesalda County, the town might have become a truly ghost town. As it is, there is still the courthouse and a few businesses in Goldfield.

It was hot when I arrived. I parked on an empty Main Street and set out with my camera, snapping photos of the old hotel. The last time I was through here, the hotel was being restored, but the developers ran out of money. I photographed the old Methodist Episcopal Church (now a community center), the courthouse, the fire department, the old high school and a bunch of mining equipment.

I’d been to Goldfield a couple times before. At one time, I thought I might like to do a study of the role the churches played in the 1907 miner’s strike, like Liston Pope did with the textile strike in Gastonia, North Carolina (the book he wrote is titled Millhands and Preachers). I was given access to the first Presbyterian minister’s sermons and some of his correspondence (I have copies of his pictures of Goldfield packed up, somewhere). I searched through them but found no reference to the strike and eventually gave up the idea of researching the connection between religion and the strike.

The last time I was in Goldfield was with Ralph, on a Sunday afternoon in January toward the end of the 20th Century. We’d been exploring the backroads and mining camps between Death Valley and Goldfield. We came into town and stopped at one of the bars on a side street for a beer and to catch up on the playoff games. There were six or eight people in the bar and the bartender. The place was warmed with a wood stove and smelled of burning pinion. As we were finishing up our first glass of beer, a man came in a young woman. She was stunning. I wondered for a while if they were a pair, as he was at least 30 years older than her. He told the bartender to give everyone a round and then went on to explain that he and his daughter had driven up to Tonopah, where he had a casino. He had his daughter drive a new sports car up from his Vegas dealership, the car to be given away to some lucky gambler as it helped draw traffic into his casino. He also, it turned out, own that little dumpy bar in Goldfield and so the bartender, knowning who was boss, set us all up with another drink.

On this afternoon a few weeks ago, we didn’t stay in Goldfield very long, just long enough to take a few pictures. As we drove on north, toward Tonopah, a small thunderstorm blew though, cooling off the desert and making the rest of the afternoon more pleasant.

An excellent book on Goldfield is Sally Zanjani's, Goldfield: The Last Gold Rush on the Western Frontier. Another book about the revival of mining in the early 20th Century is Russell Elliott's Nevada's Twentieth-Century Mining Boom: Tonopah, Goldfield, Ely. A colorful book about the unsavy way mining stock was promoted is George Graham Rice's My Adventures With Your Money. This book, first published in 1913 and republished in 1987, was written in prison after Rice was convicted of fraud.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Last Thursday Evening

There are some things that defy photography... By the way, this is a busy week as we're moving offices. I'll be around some, but how much is questionable. I just hope to maintain sanity.

I leave the creek and head across the lake. My bow points toward the crescent moon, just a day or maybe two after rebirth, hanging just above the pink and purple band around the horizon. My dog is asleep, tucked in between the forward thwarts, oblivious to the hum of insects, the croaking of the bullfrogs, and the drips of water off the blade of my paddle. I pause long enough to slap at a mosquito on the back of my neck, and then look up to watch an air show. Like the planes of a carrier clearing the air for the safety of those below, split-tail barn swallows and bats scoot and dive across the sky, feeding on insects in the evening air. The calm waters are pink, reflecting the sky. The mirrored image of the moon and Venus, which is just above the crescent, are also in the waters. In the distance, I hear the coughing start of an outboard; another fisherman has decided to call it a day. I draw the paddle deep into the water, pulling my canoe toward the distant launch. The moon continues to drop toward extinction as more stars appear. As I approach the shore, waves from the fisherman’s boat cutting across on the other side of the lake gently rocks my boat, sloshing the dog around. He wakes, wondering what’s up. I pull up, parallel to shore and he jumps out. I follow, dragging gear back to the truck and return for the boat. The moon is now gone from the sky. It’s time to head home.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Nevada Jack's Sunday Morning Rant

While Sage is heading off to church, I thought I'd get a few things off my chest. Sorry, like Sage, I'm gonna keep my chest hair there!

We've gotten sick and tired of hearing about Steve Slater this week. In case you missed it, he was the JetBlue Flight Attendant who cursed out an unruly customer over the airplane’s intercom system, then announced he was quitting, pulled open the emergency door to the plane and slid down the inflated escape slide, purportedly with a beer in each hand. We hope when he receives his last paycheck, in addition to all those fines he’s going to have to pay, JetBlue will also deduct from his salary those two beers—at the outlandish price the airlines now charge customers… Who in the world wants a drink bad enough that they'll pay five bucks for a can of watered down Bud-lite? But that's another issue. What we're really angry at is in the way Mr. Slater has become a sort of anti-establishment folk hero and many bloggers have taken up his cause as he gives new meaning to the country song, “Take this Job and Shove It.”

Both Sage and I are anti-establishment types, but we don’t see Mr. Slater as a hero. As part of a flight crew, he was responsible for the safety of those on board and he deserted his post. In the military, that’ll get you shot. He certainly put his own needs and desires over that of those he was called to protect and serve. And furthermore, if the passenger wasn’t doing what she was being told to do and was aggressive toward him with a lethal weapon (and over loaded carry-on bag), as a member of the flight crew, all Mr. Slater had to do was to call security. Instead of throwing a fit, he could have had the angry customer removed from the plane, in handcuffs. But he didn’t. Maybe he thought this stunt would draw a lot of attention, which it certainly did, but in my opinion, the stunt was irresponsible.

We're not sure why we got so worked up over this; perhaps it has to do with a trend we see where we focus more and more on our needs and less and less on others. It’s like we’ve all become petty little gods. We think only of ourselves and our immediate wants; we look to satisfy our short-term desires and forget about everyone else or what’s needed long term good of society.

A second thing that has gotten us all worked is the anger over Obama for speaking in support of building a mosque in New York City, a few blocks from ground zero. When Sage first heard this story, it was being reported that they were building the mosque at ground zero, the site where Muslim terrorist killed thousands of people. That made him angry, even though it seemed that they might have a constitutional right to build there. But then, when he heard that it was not at the actual ground zero site, but two and a half blocks away, he felt betrayed and misled. I reminded him its not the first time that right-wing bloggers betrayed him by misreporting the facts. These folks are after Obama now, because he says they have a right to build there, which isn’t anything more than “defending the constitution,” and I think there was something in his oath of office that alluded to that being one of his tasks. Like Sage, I’m sick and tired of all these right-winged talking heads spouting off at the mouth on this one. If zoning ordinances allows for a religious building, then it seems to me that they should be allowed to building their mosque or community center. If zoning ordinances don’t allow any religious buildings, then that would be another story. Whether it’s in good taste or not to build that close to Ground Zero is another issue, but good taste isn’t a constitutional requirement. If it was, they would have kept a ban on lite-beer and wine-coolers when they repealed of the 18th amendment.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Rhyolite, NV (A Travel Tip Thursday post)

Travel Tip Thursday is a writing prompt that encourages you to give tips to favorite places to travel. Today, I’m continuing to tell you about my trip through the barren regions of eastern California, Southern Nevada and Southern Utah as we visit Rhyolite.

Leaving Death Valley, we headed toward Beatty, a town known for the Yucca Mountain project, the place where some people want to store our nuclear waste. The town also has some hot springs (would they become hotter?), a few legal brothels (I don’t supposed they need any help in the hot department) and gas stations. As the needle was dropping well below the ½ tank mark, I knew I better top it off. In this country, you don’t want to be cutting it too close. But before arriving in Beatty, I took a short detour to the site of what use to be Rhyolite. I’d been here a couple times before, but felt the need to stop again. This is a ghost town you can tour in 30 minutes or so, especially since most of the buildings are now closed off from sightseers.

Rhyolite sits in the Bullfrog Mountains, a name that was given to these hills by Ed Cross and Frank Harris, the two miners who discovered gold here in 1904. They later said they named it Bullfrog because the ore had a greenish color, like a bullfrog, but the name certainly has a hint of irony as there are no frogs in these arid mountains. Rhyolite was the third big discover early in the 20th Century that brought new life to Nevada. The first discover was silver in Tonopah in 1902, followed by gold in Goldfield in 1904. A few years after gold was discovered at what became Rhyolite, the town flourished. By 1908, as many as 10,000 residents lived in this town. Unfortunately, for the town, the rich ore was all on the surface and by 1911, little mining was being done in the Bullfrog mining district. By 1920, the town only had 20 residents, probably about the same number as today.
I have no idea where the caboose came from since Union Pacific, to my knowledge, never operated any lines through Rhyolite.

During its short heyday, the Las Vegas and Tonopah Railroad built a wonderful mission-style station in Rhyolite. Today, the station is fenced off and to further deter sightseers, there are signs warning of rattlesnakes. There are also the ruins of a few stores and a bank in Rhyolite.

I'm sure there are some rattlesnakes around, but it was too hot the day we were there to see any. But if you started overturning rocks and looking around under foundations, there's no telling what you'll find.

The other interesting building in Rhyolite is the bottle house, built by Tom Kelly, a 76 year old Australian, in 1906. Using only mortar and bottles for the walls (there must not have been deposit on bottles in those days), the house is unique. However, during the mining era, there were a couple other bottle houses in Goldfield.

Mining has continued in the region, however. Newer processes of extracting ore and the ability to strip mine and leach the ore helped bring new life to these hills. When I was last in Rhyolite in the late 90s, the mine was still going. At the time, ore prices were down, but from what I learned talking to a miner in a bar in Beatty the company had long placed orders paying nearly $400 an ounce, so they were making money. Interesting, with the price of gold high now, the mine appears to have closed.

One of the interesting sites to see is an open-air museum of work by Albert Szukalski, a Belgium artist/sculptor. Just southwest of the town site are a number of sculptures, the most outstanding being of the Last Supper. Jesus and the disciples all look like ghosts. When visiting rural Nevada, expect to be surprised by what you find. Next week, Goldfield.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Jesus Died for This? (A Book Review)

Becky Garrison, Jesus Died For This? A Satirist's Search for the Risen Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervans, 2010), 233 pages.
Jesus Died for This is the combination of a religious travelogue and a personal essay. Garrison’s quest begins with a “spiritual safaris” to the Holy Lands, a “safe and sanitized expedition” that allows her to “see the preapproved holy sites without getting all devotionally dirty.” (24) Of course, half of God’s children in the region, the Palestinians, are off-limits, but otherwise, there was much to see and mock. It appears kitsch is alive and well in the Holy Lands. On the Mount of Olives, she learns that faithful pilgrims can rent a life-size cross and retrace Jesus’ steps without the same consequences. There are even wheeled crosses for those lacking stamina, an accommodation not provided by the Romans. (26) From the Holy Lands, she travels to a Book Seller Convention in America, to the British Isles for Greenbelt (think Woodstock) and around the British Isles, back to the Holy Lands where she her travels shadow that of then Secretary of State Condi Rice (and on this trip she does meet with some Palestinians), and then she travels back around the United States.

As Garrison travels and reports on the faithful and absurd (which too often seems to go hand-in-hand) she ponders her own upbringing. Garrison’s father was an idealistic Episcopal priest and professor who crashed and burned. Both of her parents were dead by her seventeenth birthday, plunging her into a “dark-night-of-the-soul.” (52) Such a background certainly colors her view of the world and also provides much to reflect upon. Although her father’s excesses were many and destructive, she also saw glimpses of good in his work. In most everyplace she travels, she sees both the good and the bad and her critique is not spared on the conservative and liberal, the fundamentalist and the mainline, the charismatic and the emergent. As a good satirist, Garrison cares for the church and for the gospel of Jesus Christ and is constantly calling for those who follow him to live up to his standard and not a standard that we force onto Jesus. During her travels, Garrison notes that
“select Christians have appointed Jesus Christ to the rank of a four-star general in the “War on Terror.” Meanwhile, some progressives depict Jesus of Nazareth as the ultimate social justice warrior, as though they’ve reduced the crucifixion to nothing more than a really bad day at the activist office. Then you have the armchair insurrections decked out in faux Che Guevara gear who deconstruct and then deny the resurrection, a war of words that may exercise the mind but fails to feed the soul. All this cherry-picking through the gospel leaves us with a Christ that tastes good but in the end is less filling.” (137)
Garrison does realize that the pen can be dangerous and destructive. “Righteous anger, which is one of the best weapons in the satirist’s arsenal, can eat me alive if I’m not careful,” she writes. “Jesus must look at some of my moves and shake his head.” (136-7) Although a satirist, Garrison seems to hold back some punches out of respect for the church and certainly for the church’s Savior. As Mark Twain did in Innocents Abroad, in which Twain traveled through the Holy Lands, Garrison pokes at that which fails to live up to Jesus’ ideal, but never pokes at Jesus himself. Instead, she finds comfort in the mystery of Jesus’ resurrection, the hope in which all Christians share. I agree with her assessment that she makes early in the book as to the 21st Century’s greatest challenge, “finding ways to communicate theological change without becoming yet another crass Christian marketing machine.” (42) Of course, if we can find a way to communicate Christ in such a manner, there would be no need of satirists and Ms. Garrison may have to find another arena to satire. However, I don’t think her pen is in danger of being retired.

Ironically, I found myself reading this book while in Las Vegas for a wedding. Vegas was another city Garrison visited during her travels. Sitting by the pool at the Monte Carlo, I nodded in agreement when Garrison writes about the “majestic mountains surrounding Sin City [being] obliterated by massive man-made monstrosities.” I had already decided the city needed a sweep by the INS when I read her description of “the throngs of illegal aliens hawking flyers promising the ultimate sexual partner.” I agreed with her assessment that “The Strip” blocks Nevada’s natural beauty. (111-112). Yes, there was much in this book that I found myself agreeing, but maybe that is because we’re both an ENTJs on the Myers-Briggs scale. (101)

I recommend this book to the faithful who need to be reminded of what’s essential in our faith: Jesus Christ. I also recommend this book to the skeptical, who may see through Garrison’s insights that not all Christians buy into Joel Osteen’s slickness or the rapture-ready hype of the LaHaye dispensationists. And I recommend the book for anyone in need of a laugh, but warn you that there are also some sad parts.

To meet the full disclosure requirments the FCC may have imposed on bloggers, I admit I was given a copy of this book to review, but received no other compensation (not that I would be opposed to that, if it could be arranged). I also note that, to my knowledge, I'm not related to the author.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

High School Reunion Blues

The photo is one of my favorite high school classroom. Funny thing, our teachers never seemed to show up...
Last night was my 35th high school reunion. Due to my recent trip West for my son’s wedding and the overwhelming demands at work right now, I was unable to attend. This saddens me, especially in the day of instant communication which allowed me to receive a text message from friends I haven’t seen in a quarter of a century as they gathered at the reunion. This afternoon, thanks to Facebook, my grief lessened as I looked at all the posted pictures and asked, “Who are those old folks?” I didn’t need a visual reminder that we’re only a decade away from qualifying for senior housing.

It’s been a long time since I joined the 700 or so other students from my high school on the football field that warm humid night of June 6, 1975. Honestly, I don’t remember a lot about the evening except that it went on and on and seemed to take forever for everyone to receive their diploma. I kept worrying I’d get the wrong diploma or wouldn’t graduate for some technical glitch like not showing up for class (which wasn’t really a technical glitch). It all worked out. I was handed the right diploma and for a few years had it framed and proudly displayed, but after graduating from college it just didn’t seem that important any more. And after several more degrees, I can now proudly say they’re all safely boxed away, somewhere. Yet, as the talk of the reunion intensified on Facebook, I began to think more and more about my high school years. Looking back brings both smiles and sadness.

Those of us in the Class of ’75 saw the world change in our twelve years of school. We had barely gotten out of the first “Dick and Jane” book when President Kennedy was shot and were struggling with geometry when another president, Nixon, resigned. There were the Gemini rockets and later the Saturns, the ones that took men to the moon. We watched David Brinkley, a hometown boy, on the evening news as he reported on battles in Vietnam and Civil Rights protests across the nation, including those in our own city. We experienced the turmoil of cross-town busing and the horrors of race riots. We listened to the Beatles as they swept the airways only to learn of their breakup before we entered high school. We were mesmerized with the horns on “Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4,” sought out the supposedly hidden meanings to Led Zepplin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” and were saddened as we song along with the Stone’s on their ballad, “Angie.” As we turned 18, those of us who were boys became men and had the papers to prove it as we were the last to carry a draft card. But the drafts were a thing of the past and as the cards didn’t have photos, they could be easily lent to a friend who wasn’t yet 18, the legal drinking age at the time. And then, as we were busy ordering our gowns and those silly mortar caps for graduation, we watched the fall of Saigon and witnessed the end of an American era.

A lot happened in those twelve years of schooling. They certainly weren’t the best time of my life, but for good and bad, I wouldn’t be who am I today without them. I’m glad the those old folks in those pictures had a good time last night and now, I’ll just have to avoid mirrors in order to maintain my delusion.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Death Valley in July

Here I am again, a day late with my Travel Tip Thursday post, a writing prompt that encourages you to share the secrets of a special place to visit. Today, I’m taking you to Death Valley in July. It’s a place that most folks would want to avoid as the temperature in the afternoon soar to the 120 degree mark, near 50 degrees Celsius! But that was not the case with me two weeks ago.

As I shared earlier, due to Thunderstorms, it took us two days to fly out west. That, and some other business needs that had come up, we had to change our planned schedule. We were going to start with a long drive from Vegas to Virginia City and then work our way back to Southern Utah before heading back to Vegas in time for the Saturday wedding. But having lost a day, we decided we would forgo the trip to Virginia City, which left us with dilemma. Just where should we spend our extra days? My daughter, who has an interest in weather, had recently read in a weather magazine about the hottest day ever recorded in the western hemisphere. This happened back in 1913 (and was the world’s record for a few years, until a reading in Africa topped it). The temperature rose to 134 degrees, so hot that the person reading the thermometer wrapped himself in a wet towel as he went out to read the gauge and when he came back inside, the towel was dry. They were not calling for such extreme temperatures (only into the low 120s), so we decided to head over to Death Valley.

The drive from Vegas was beautiful, as a nearly full moon rose over the mountains, lighting up the desert in a soft light. We spent the night at the Longstreet Hotel and Casino in Amargosa Valley, which is across the Funeral Mountains from Death Valley. It was a warm night and I was up early, before the sun, enjoying what little coolness the low desert brings while I photographed the valley. The temperature must have been in the upper 80s and a warm breeze was blowing from the south. Knowing that it was going to be a hot day, we headed into the valley early.

Our first stop was at Death Valley Junction, a small community that was once a railroad stop on the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad (a line that was abandoned in 1947, if I remember correctly). Like many towns in the west, it had an opera house. Unlike many, the opera house is still open, but we’d gotten in too late on Saturday to catch a show.

From Death Valley Junction, we headed west, into the park on Highway 190 which climbs up over the Amargosa Mountains. We took the side road up to Dante’s point, which at 5000+ feet, provides the best look of the valley from the east side. From there, the valley looms north and south, looking barren and dry. It was warm, so I’d windows down so the car wouldn’t heat up so much, but that was a mistake. The parking lot was filled with bees and many of them came inside the car. When I got back, I drove the car around, doing donuts in the parking lot with the windows down, slinging out bees. Twice, on our drive down from Dante’s point, I had to pull over and swish out a bee as another one came to the surface.
Dante's Point, looking north (Mesquite bush to right of photo)
Dante Point, looking south. Although hot, the clouds keep us from boiling under the sun!

Next stop was Zabriskie Point, a beautiful display of colorful rocks weathered by millenniums of erosion. After hiking to the top of the point, in temperatures soaring well into the triple digits, we all cooled off with bottles of cool water.

After getting to the valley floor, we drove south to Badwater, the lowest elevation in the United States, and some 285 feet below sea level. The last time I’d been in the valley, it was filled with yellow flowers with exception of the lake around Badwater. In July, there are no flowers, just baked rock and a few hardy plants and the lake has been reduced to small puddle. Where the lake had been, there was a large barren salt flat.. As water evaporates in the valley, it leaves behind salts. The soil in this barren area is more than 6% salts, a chemical desert where nothing grows. In other places, where the salt level is 3-6%, pickleweed will grow. From .5% to 3%, arrowweed grows. Mesquite, the familiar plant in this country, only grows in soils with less than .5% salts, soil still too salty for most plants.
I hiked out into the salt flats, breathing in the hot air. In most places, a 1000 feet change in elevation results in a temperature change of 3 degrees, but because of the nature of the Death Valley basin, every 1000 change results in a 5 ½ degree change. Heat is trapped in the basin which is why temperatures in the summer often reach over 120 degrees (50 degrees C).

After Badwater, we headed back north and to the Furnace Creek Ranch, the spot that was once known for the hottest temperature in the world. When we arrived, the temperature was 116, it was 120 by the time we had finished touring the museum. We then ate lunch and decided to get out of the heat by driving north, through the Valley and heading over daylight pass toward Beatty, Nevada (known for hot springs and legal brothels). Just before Beatty, we made another stop at Rhyolite, a town which once had a population of over 10,000, but today has only a handful of folks living there. I’ll post more about Rhyolite in a future post.

Sage's travel tip for Death Valley: Bring plenty of water and sunscreen!

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Las Vegas update

We’re back from our trip west. Coming home of the red-eye was much less hectic than the two days it took us to get out West. The plane was only four minutes late this morning, well within the margin of error for a transcontinental flight. As I try to avoid saying much about family here, I’ll just acknowledge that I now have another daughter and I hope she and my son have a good life together.

They got married in Las Vegas, in the “world famous La Bella Wedding Chapel.” I didn’t know it was world famous having first heard of it when the invitation arrived. It turns out this was the place Mike Tyson married his most recent victim wife, and just in case that those of us who’d gathered would have missed that we were in the “world famous La Bella Wedding Chapel,” the preacher inserted the line three different times into his ceremony. The wedding chapel in Cana, where Jesus changed water into wine, was only mentioned once.

I love Nevada (and you’ll get to hear about more places in that state over the next few weeks), but I can’t stand Las Vegas. It’s so over-the-top and fake. Steve Wynn, one of Vegas’ top developers once said something along the lines that Vegas is what God would have done at creation if he’d had the cash. But I can’t believe that the God who created the Grand Canyon and the smallest desert flower that blooms in March and who sends the most wonderful sunrises and sunsets across the desert floor is that tacky. In Vegas, you’re crowded by people as your eyes feast on constant water features or are blinded by neon light, all the while the noise level is so great that you can’t think straight. It’s everything that the desert isn’t. But enough of my rant, I was excited to go see what this city was up to since the economic downturn. I wasn’t overly impressed.

They’re back! At every corner of every intersection along the strip are six or eight guys who assault you with cards advertising women who supposedly will make your every dream come true. Ten years ago or so, the city was doing a pretty good job of keeping these “Wetback Pimps” off the street. Now, I assume the police are stretched so thin that they don’t have time. It may not be politically correct for me to say this, but I think a few INS agents could clean out the city in a manner of hours.

Of course, Las Vegas is a multi-cultural/multi-national city. People from all over the world flock there and one of the benefits of this multi-nationalism is the food offerings. That said, I wish I had time to explore a particular sushi bar in a strip mall south of the city. The place was called “Sushi Mon” and I couldn’t help but wonder if the Jamaicans aren’t trying to weasel their way into the sushi business… By the way, if any of you don’t know the origins of sushi, you really should read Roy Blount’s short story “I Don’t Eat Dirt Personally,” in his collection of southern humor.

Another thing I found strange along the strip was the advertisement of a “Mini-Kiss” concert. Silly me, I thought a mini-kiss was a peck…

And finally, Las Vegas is the place that you can buy all kind of tee shirts that you’d never wear in front of your mother. Along the strip there was a place selling shirts with silhouettes of pole dancers and the slogan, “I support single mothers.” Who would wear such a shirt? But as I reflected on this, I realized that it is probably more truth in such a statement than I’d want to admit. Of course, it isn’t because the wearer of the shirt has compassion, but the desperate situation of many single mothers. (And before you ask, no, I didn’t buy a shirt.)

In addition to the wedding and meeting an old friend in Las Vegas, another highlight was driving down to Boulder Dam early on Sunday morning. The city was as quiet as it gets and the sun just rising over the distant mountains as I drove down Boulder Highway. I wanted to see the new bridge over Black Canyon, which diverts traffic from the dam itself. Ever since 911, there has been concern about traffic over the bridge (they no longer allow trucks to travel over it as a way to protect the dam). In addition, the road winding down into the canyon is slow and the new bridge will be a more direct connection between Southern Nevada and Northern Arizona.

The bridge was something to see, but what was really neat was seeing (and photographing) four desert bighorns sheep on the Arizona side of the canyon. They’ll be more photos and stories to come…

Monday, August 02, 2010

Waiting on a Train (A Book Review)

I came across this book last month in a coffee shop in Munising, MI and read it last week while flying out West. It was pointed out to me that it was ironic at best (and at worst I was tempting fate) to read a book on train travel while flying. But, like the author, I find myself taking “perverse pleasure in what is happening to the air industry” now that the “façade [of their] superiority has fade.” (183)

James McCommons, Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing 2009), 284 pages.

During the turbulent year of 2008, a year when gas prices rose to record heights and the economy nosedived, James McCommons spent the year riding Amtrak around the country while speaking to railroad experts about the future of passenger rail services. As he takes various trains, he writes about his experiences traveling and his interviews. Mixed into the text is a brief the history of railroading in America. For a nation that has the most efficient freight system in the world, our passenger system is leaves much to be desired. McCommons describes what happened with passenger rail service in the United States and how we ended up with the spotty system we currently have.

Amtrak was formed at a time when the entire rail system in the United States was nearing a collapse. Railroads were expected to provide passenger service as well as haul freight as a result of the generous land grants and money they’d received to built the roads, but they wanted to get out of the passenger business. In order to shed this responsibility, Amtrak was formed. Each railroad contributed equipment and gave Amtrak running rights on its track. Amtrak did receive some of its own track, the “Northeast Corridor,” which was tracks own by the bankrupt Penn Central which had been formed into another quasi—government corporation, Conrail. At the time, the Penn Central bankruptcy was the largest ever and Congress felt it had to act or it leave much of the northeast without any rail service. In the late 60s, both freight and passenger trains were in trouble.

McCommons explores in detail how the railroads became such a mess. In the 19th Century, the government gave land and money and other incentives to the railroads to encourage them to connect the country. In some ways, railroads can be credited with created the “United States” as steel connected communities across the nation. But as the 19th Century came to an end, the brutal and often monopolistic practices of railroads caused them to be one of the most hated businesses in the nation. During the Progressive Era, starting with Teddy Roosevelt, railroads were highly regulated. As the nation entered the 20th Century, railroads had few friends to help them against the threat of other forms of transportation that were being subsidized. Furthermore, railroads were barred from having any connection with bus services, which was seen as a competition to rail travel, not a complimentary service. Railroads came out of the Second World War with high hopes for passenger service, but the interstate and air travel quickly diminished their hopes. (109-111)

Amtrak, according to McCommons research, was designed to fail. Although sold as a way to make passenger rail profitable, such an idea was a myth. Once Amtrak was created, railroads didn’t have to worry about providing passenger service, and if it failed the railroads would be off the hook.

As McCommons points out, the “farebox” doesn’t pay the cost of operating any of the railroads we’re envious of around the world. Unfortunately, we’ve been sold the line that passenger rail can pay for itself and the debate over such trains in the United States is framed by Congress who sees itself as “subsidizing” Amtrak, while they “invest” in highways and airports. (247) Obviously, such terminology puts passenger trains at a great disadvantage to other forms of transportation.

As he travels the country, McCommons visits with passenger rail advocates and industrial leaders of all but one of the Class 1 railroads in the country. Only Union Pacific refused to meet with him and Union Pacific comes across in this book as being anti-passenger rail. Yet, McCommons was surprised at the response he had from the other railroads who strive to work with Amtrak in providing passenger service. As Amtrak only owns a portion of its track, it has to depend on other railroads for space on their tracks. Norfolk Southern has even pondered the idea of getting back into the rail business. (221) CSX, which has the most passenger service on its system, proposed in 2008 to the US Department of Transportation “Corridors to the Future” Program, a north-south transportation corridor that would run along I-95 with dedicated freight and passenger lines to help remove congestion from the freeway. The Bush-era Department of Transportation only funded highway projects! (254) The Bush family looks anti-passenger rail in this book. George W. Bush tried to kill Amtrak funding throughout his administration and his family is well tied with Southwest Airlines, whose president bragged that he killed a proposed highspeed rail corridor that would tied together Texas three major metropolitan areas. In Florida, Jed Bush also killed a project that would link that state together with high speed rail.

Although McCommons points out the failure of passenger rail in this country, he also highlights several areas where it is successful. He points to corridors which successfully links population areas together and notes that trains can compete with airlines in travel of less than 500 miles. Many of these corridors have developed (Northeast, California, North Carolina, Chicago-Milwaukee, etc). McCommons suggests that for passenger trains to make a comeback, they will need of a nationwide strategy for rail service (that’s not based on nostalgia) and money. It will require new tracks as current tracks are near capacity (CSX noted that if railroads took just 10% of long-haul trucking off the freeways, it would gridlock the rail system). (268)

I recommend this book. Of course, I’m sort of a foamer when it comes to train travel (read the book to learn what a foamer is). Not to brag, but I have ridden all the trains he rode with the exception of the lines in New England. To read some of my train adventures, check out these posts:

Coast Starlight
Southern Crescent
The City of New Orleans
The Virginia & Truckee
Train from Musan to Seoul
Late Train to West Palm