Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Adventures in Reading

                     "One benefit of summer was that each day we had more light to read by."
                                                                           —Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle

 I recall lazy summer days spent lying in the shade of a spreading maple tree, 
my friends and I devouring The Happy Hollisters mystery books.
                                                                                                 —Rita Wechter

            Memorial Day marks the unofficial beginning of summer, that season of travel and great summer reads.  This week in lieu of travel writing and photography, I submit links to book reviews by Vickie Bates—published on her blog No Bad Language.
           As part of her 2012 Reading Challenge, Vickie has been posting monthly reading updates and she offers in-depth, thoughtful reviews of books she’s read so far this year.   Vickie’s reading selections—both fiction and non-fiction—reflect her interest in a wide variety of topics and subject matter.

           Enjoy these informative reviews and, if you decide to travel to a destination you’ve read about on my blog, take one of these books along to keep you company.

January Book Reviews:  http://nobadlanguage.net/so-many-books-so-little-time/

February Book Reviews: http://nobadlanguage.net/a-long-reading-list-for-a-short-month/

March Book Reviews:   http://nobadlanguage.net/reading-challenge-update-the-march-of-time/

April Book Reviews:  http://nobadlanguage.net/reading-lessons/

May Reading Update coming in a few days on No Bad Language!

                                    “Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.”
                                                                                       —Joseph Addison

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Gettysburg National Military Park, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

Nephews Bob and Paul in front of the Visitor Center
at Gettysburg National Military Park.

The Killer Angels, MIchael Shaara’s historical novel, recreates the Battle of Gettysburg—those epic three days in July of 1863.   Considered the turning point of the “War Between the States”, more casualties occurred at Gettysburg than in any other Civil War Battle.
I was raised sixty-five miles from Gettysburg and feel fortunate to have visited the battlefields several times.  After reading Shaara’s superb book I’m itching to re-visit the legendary town, and on a June day several years ago I return with my sister and two nephews.
We arrive at Gettysburg National Park and begin looking for a parking space near the visitor center.  As we drive the lot I notice vehicles representing many states and Canadian provinces.  We traverse the rows of cars and my 8 and 12-year-old nephews shout out state names from each license plate while my sister writes them down.  How many different states make our list on this Thursday morning?  Thirty eight! 
Inside the Visitor Center the main attraction is The Gettysburg Cyclorama, a giant 360 degree painting depicting battlefield scenes from "Pickett's Charge" on July 3, 1863.  The artwork was originally completed in the late 1800’s by French artist Paul Philippoteaux.  Restoration of the deteriorating canvas was initiated in 2003 and in 2008, at a total cost of 16 million dollars, work was completed and the Cyclorama moved to its present location.  

Visitors stand in the center of the colossal circular painting
while receiving a narrated tour.

            The following two photos show scenes from the 360 degree painting.

We leave the visitor center and join a ranger-led talk at the Battlefield.  The park ranger offers insights into the minds of the generals as they positioned their troops around the edge of town.  After the talk we drive the battlefield loops, stopping to admire monuments and to climb the observation tower on Culp’s Hill.  The tower provides a dramatic overview of the town and battlefields, however on this foggy afternoon we're unable to discern many of the landmarks.  We’ll have to return on a clear day.

Paul sets his sights on the battlefield.

         This evening we’re lodged in downtown Gettysburg at The Best Western Inn.  The hotel is a National Historic Site and has been lovingly cared for—a lavishly decorated lobby and spotless, comfortable rooms welcome us.   
This elegant hotel also houses a restaurant and pub and is across the square from the historic David Willis House.  President Lincoln stayed in the Willis House with the home’s owner while finishing his draft of The Gettysburg Address.  This truly is hallowed ground.
Another plus to our downtown hotel is its location across the street from The Cannonball Malt Shop.  We finish our day by treating the boys (and ourselves) to delicious milkshakes.
It’s been a memorable day of travel through this small Pennsylvania town, home to one of the most consequential events in our nation’s history.

             The Memorial Day observance originated after the Civil War to commemorate fallen soldiers.  This weekend, as we honor our nation’s veterans, let us pause to remember the ultimate sacrifice made by those brave young men during the Battle of Gettysburg.

If you’re a fan of Civil War history and you’ve never been to Gettysburg you owe it to yourself to make the trip.  Find out more by visiting these websites: http://www.nps.gov/gett/index.htm


          Have you ever played the license plate game when visiting one of our nation's parks?  Try it the next time you're visiting one of your favorite places and let me know how many states are represented there.
          This summer, take a few days to read or re-read The Killer Angels.
Need more vacation reading material? Next week I’ll link you to one of my favorite blogs—Vickie Bates’ “No Bad Language”—for thought-provoking, insightful summer reading suggestions.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Carlsbad New Mexico


            Blackened heads and bodies of cactus and yucca litter the landscape, resembling alien life forms incinerated during an intergalactic war.  A human-started fire in July of 2011 charred 30,000 acres of Chihuahuan Desert in Carlsbad Caverns National Park.  I pick my way through the death, dismayed by the destruction one careless person has wrought.

Charred carcasses of Torrey Yucca (left) and Prickly Pear Cactus.

           At Carlsbad Caverns though, it’s not this scorched above-ground world that people come to see—all the action takes places 750 feet below the earth’s surface.   

        Inside the Visitor Center the elevator doors close and with a whoosh I’m barreling toward the caverns at the rate of 8.5 miles per hour.  In one minute I’m deposited inside the entrance to The Big Room, the major attraction here in Carlsbad.  As I pass through revolving doors the sight greeting my eyes is anything but wild.  A cafeteria, souvenir stands and rest rooms fill the area.
I follow arrows to The Big Room and am relieved to find the commercialization outside replaced by a natural wonderland inside.  A 1.2 mile paved trail with handrails winds its way through lighted formations.  The cave is filled with sweeping draperies, giant cake-like stalagmites, long willowy stalactites and bulbous, popcorn-like stalagmites.   During my two hour cave exploration I see and hear other people occasionally, but on this weekday in March my experience is one of relative solitude.

Draperies are formed when stalactites grow
into each other.

Several of these "layer cake" formations may be seen
in The Big Room.

  The following morning I return to the park for the ranger-led King’s Palace tour.
Fifty-four other people join me and the ranger starts by asking for everyone’s home state.  New Jersey, Illinois, Vermont, Georgia, Texas, Colorado and Oregon are represented today, along with one person from Utah. (That would be me.)
We begin our journey and enter a series of chambers not open to the general public.  While we admire hanging draperies, stalactites and stalagmites the ranger tells of the cave’s discovery.  Early Indians were the first users of the cave but they didn’t venture much farther than a natural entrance.  In 1899 a ranch hand named Jim White discovered one of those entrances and he was hooked, dedicating the rest of his life to exploration of the caverns.  As I look around I decide it was mighty brave of Mr. White to be down here with only a dim, candle-lit lantern and no lighted paths marked “Exit” to find his way out. 
After learning more about the creation of this cave and the wonders it contains I have a question for the ranger: 
         “Are the caves ever vandalized?” 
         “Oh yes”, is the answer.  Many visitors touch or break off pieces of the formations.  At one point, rangers discovered 200 acts of vandalism in one month.  The park service’s message of preservation and protection obviously isn’t getting through to everyone.  
That being said, I highly recommend a visit to Carlsbad Caverns National Park.  You’ll be amazed by the mineral masterpieces in this underground showpiece.

A ceiling full of baby stalactites, also
known as soda straws.

A popcorn stalagmite, caused by
condensation on the surface.

The easy King’s Palace Tour enables everyone from kids to Grandmas to see a restricted part of the caverns; however other, more adventurous tours are offered.  Reservations are required—sometimes months ahead of time—for all ranger-led tours.  Check out descriptions of tours and activities, as well as information about the creation of the caverns on the National Park Service website: www.nps.gov/cave
I started the day above ground on the devastated landscape.  It may be 30 to 40 years before this area recovers; if you’re visiting Carlsbad Caverns and would like to see healthy, undisturbed Chihuauan Desert wilderness, travel 36 miles southwest to Guadalupe Mountains National Park. 

This map shows the range of the Chihuahuan Desert.
The desert covers parts of New Mexico, Texas and the
country of Mexico.

A healthy patch of Chihuahuan Desert in
Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

White Sands National Monument, Alamogordo, New Mexico

          Surreal is an overused word, don’t you think?  Here are a few synonyms: bizarre, unearthly, dreamlike, phantasmagorical.  White Sands National Monument combines all these adjectives while offering visitors an otherworldly sensory experience.
Decades ago I saw a picture of White Sands and I’ve been waiting for a chance to make the trip to Alamogordo, New Mexico ever since.  Now here I am on a crisp clear morning, standing among dazzling white dunes.  

The brilliant dunes of White Sands, framed by
The San Andres Mountains.

          It’s March and too early for wildflowers but that’s my only regret about being in the dunes today.  Even without flowers, photo opportunities present themselves everywhere I look.  
And it’s so quiet here.  The only noise I hear originates from three jets flying overhead on their way from nearby White Sands Missile Range.  But they’re gone in a flash.

The jets are gone and quiet returns to the skies above
White Sands.
           I sip my coffee and munch on a bagel in the deserted picnic area, watching as a family climbs a distant dune, sleds in tow.  Sledding the dunes is a popular activity and as I leave the area I notice a partially broken sled lying at the bottom of one of the dunes.  Why not?  I carry the sled up the hill, sit down, kick up my heels and slide down, sand spraying and hair flying as I go.  It’s fun.  But once is enough.

I didn't have to fight for a table at the park's deserted picnic area.

            Next stop: the trailhead for a 5 mile hiking trail.  I walk a short way up a hill where 360 degree views await.  Two hikers return from the loop trail and it’s only 9:00 a.m.  An early start, before the day warms and the winds arrive, is the only way to do this trail.

 On top of the hill a woman sits knitting, accompanied by two little dogs.   
“It’s a perfect day up here, isn’t it?” she says.  
“Yes.”, I agree.  “Are you from around here?”  
“No, we’re from Michigan—East Lansing”, she points to her husband who is standing atop the rise with a long-lens camera mounted on a tripod.  
“What kind of dogs are those?”  I ask.
“They’re Morkies, a cross between a Maltese and a Yorkie.” 
  “They look like they’re enjoying themselves.”   
       “Oh, they love it out here.  This is our first time in the southwest.  We started our trip in mid-December and have been traveling all over.”
I’m jealous.  Taking a few months to wander the country, stopping wherever the mood strikes and the scenery beckons, it sounds like heaven to this voyager. 
By the way, if you’re traveling with dogs New Mexico is an excellent place to vacation.  During my journey through the Land of Enchantment I noticed The Albuquerque Zoo, Sandia Peak Tramway and Carlsbad Caverns all providing kennels for your dogs while you enjoy the attractions. 

Mrs. Michigan and her Morkies.

These hikers enjoy a quiet morning on the dunes.

The one mile nature trail is my next destination.  The trail is interpretive; signs along the way use an illustrated kit fox to narrate.  The fox tells you where she lives, what she eats and how she survives this harsh desert environment.  It’s well done—a beautiful short hike.

Vegetation along the nature trail provides hiding places for
meadow voles, lizards, hares and ground-dwelling birds—
all are on the menu of the kit fox.


             It’s always fun to learn something new while on vacation, and at the visitor center I do just that.  One of the rangers mentions the insect display under glass near the cash register, then points to a large black wasp with orange wings.  It’s the Tarantula Hawk, a type of spider wasp, and it delivers the most painful sting of any insect in North America.  If you see this scary Halloween-colored wasp stay out of its way or point it in the direction of the nearest tarantula, its preferred victim.
         When the wasp finds a tarantula she stings and paralyzes it, then lays her eggs on the unlucky arachnid’s body.  After the eggs hatch, the baby wasps have a fat, juicy tarantula to nourish them.  Luckily not too many locales host the Tarantula Hawk—look around your neighborhood and if you don’t see any tarantulas then you needn’t fear a bite from this frightening parasitic pest.   


You really don't want to be this close to a Tarantula Hawk.
I hope this one was already dead.
(Photo taken from an internet Images site.)

              So, was White Sands National Monument worth the wait?  Absolutely.  Visit White Sands yourself for a satisfying—dare I say surreal?—experience.  Find out more:  http://www.nps.gov/whsa/index.htm
Next week we’ll visit another New Mexico gem:  Carlsbad Caverns.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Great Gallery in Horseshoe Canyon, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

          A day at an art gallery can be inspirational.  But adventurous?  Unlikely, unless you’re considering a trip to The Great Gallery in Horseshoe Canyon, Utah.
          Horseshoe Canyon lies in a remote section of Canyonlands National Park.  The trailhead is accessed by traveling 32 miles of dirt roads from Utah Highway 24 and then it’s a 3.25 mile desert canyon hike to the gallery.  This hike, described as moderately strenuous, involves a 750 foot climb out of the canyon and much of the trail is soft sand, which can be tiring but is well worth the effort.

I'm heading into the canyon.  The 6.5 mile round trip hike
features stunning desert scenery.

This photo shows the immensity of the rocks
in Horseshoe Canyon.  Can you spot me in
the picture?  Look for the black arrow on the
bottom left—it's pointing right at me.

            The Great Gallery's pictographs—or rock paintings—span a hundred foot rock wall in a protected alcove and it’s the type of art that leaves one speechless—an archaeologist's dream.  The drawings are believed to be from 2000 to 7000 years old and were made by The Ancients, a group of hunter-gatherers (pre-ancestral Puebloans or Anasazi) who traveled this canyon for 7500 years.  Many of the figures on the wall are life-sized and some are pigmented.  Can you imagine a dye that lasts for thousands of years? 

         This collection of pictographs has endured for millennia due to its location under an alcove in a hard-to-access area.  While safeguarded from the elements, rock art is still vulnerable to vandalism by modern humans; to combat this problem park rangers and volunteers are stationed at the gallery.  Rangers and volunteers educate visitors and answer questions about the gallery as well.

          Archeologists are at a loss to interpret many of these renderings in stone. These images lead to endless speculation about the history and culture of a civilization far removed from our own.

The most famous panel in The Great Gallery.
Named "The Holy Ghost Panel" this artwork showcases a larger-than-life
mystical figure who appears to be a deity.  Are the other figures his followers?

What could these two life-sized figures represent?
One appears to have a crown, the other houses two fighting
ungulates inside his chest. 

Isn't this figure fascinating?  A healer?
A mother (or Mother Nature)? A cannibal?
Why is a bird perched on her right shoulder? 
Let your imagination run wild.

Is this a couple with the animals they've hunted
or are tracking?
Or are these ghostly figures "gods" of the hunt?

Before visiting The Great Gallery I thought all rock art was the same—a few etchings in the rock, some interesting, some not, maybe a couple intricate drawings thrown in among the stick figures.  And then I saw the artwork of The Ancients and was transformed into an admirer of this archaic artwork.  
After viewing this exhibit I think you’ll agree that rock art is neither boring nor all the same.  And I guarantee that even if you’re not an art aficionado you’ll never forget a day spent at this astonishing art gallery. 
How about you?  Have you seen rock art that captured your imagination?  That left you wondering—who were these ancient peoples and what were they trying to say?


          Interested in visiting The Great Gallery?  Read more about it by visiting this website:  http://www.utah.com/nationalparks/canyonlands/horseshoe_canyon.htm
A valuable resource when planning a rock art viewing tour is this book: Guide to Rock Art of the Utah Region: Sites with Public Access by Dennis Slifer.