Monday, August 30, 2010

Welcome Patti Cupcake!

The Wife and I would like to congratulate the Altar Boy and Altar Boy's Wife for bringing Little Patti Cupcake into the world.  The little tyke just couldn't wait to join this grand old family of ours.  Can't wait to meet her this Thanksgiving.

I hope her first day in this world was a wonderful one.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Hiking Iowa: Preparation Canyon State Park

Note:  I was going to follow the advice of GeekHiker who suggested going out without gear, camera, GPS, or geocaches and just relaxing in nature, maybe with a book.  I ended up following his advice to the letter except that I took my camera ... and my GPS ... with geocaches loaded ... and I didn't take a book.  I guess I didn't follow his advice but it felt good to get out never the less.

After we moved to Nebraska, one of the first things I did was look for a hike to do.  My first Iowa hike was going to be in Preparation Canyon State Park.  What attracted my attention to this park, when looking for hiking opportunities, was the name.  Frankly I found it hard to believe that Iowa had anything that could be remotely called a canyon.  This was before I ventured into the Loess Hills of western Iowa.  By the way, the canyon/quarry that young James T. Kirk drives his stepfather's antique corvette into ... it ain't real folks.

When I was planning to do the hike back in 2008, I discovered that tornado damage had temporarily closed the park.  Shortly before we moved, a tornado ripped through the park uprooting trees and wrecking havoc.  Sadly the same tornado system also ripped through the Little Sioux Boy Scout Camp killing four boys and wounding 48.  It took almost two years to repair the damage to the park and finally, in 2010, I managed to go to Preparation Canyon.

Preparation canyon was named by Mormon pioneers who stopped here and set up a town named Preparation in 1853.  The Iowa DNR site has a short history of the area.

I looked at the Iowa DNR trail map and decided to start the hike at the end of the main park road on the south-west side of the park.  I would follow the trail and link up with other trails used to access eight hike-in camps.  These trails would form a loop back to a northern parking area where I could either follow the road or take another trail back to where the car was parked.

I started down the trail, and down was the word here.  To get into the park you drive up some rather high hills - high for Iowa anyway.  The Loess Hills in this part of Iowa (north-central western Iowa) are higher than those near Omaha.  The entrance of the park is at a high point so the trails on the western side of the park all start by going down.
Preparation Canyon - Bee on Flower
Busy Bee ... they're always busy.
A few hundred feet down the trail I saw the results of the tornadoes.  On either side of the trail were plastic tubes that protect newly planted tree.  On the trail ahead ... well, it was hard to see the trail ahead.  It was obvious that the trail had not been maintained in the last two years.  The very wet spring and summer we had resulted in waist high grass completely engulfing the trail.  The trail, if it were cleared, would be the width of a narrow road.  Where the rangers had driven down the trail, leaving wheel tracks, was an eroded, rut filled mess.  In places the ruts were almost two feet deep.  The ruts were hidden by the thick grass and made the trail hazardous.  To make it even worse, the ground was muddy and, in places, the trail was very steep.

I waded through the grass and made it down the steep ridge.  By the time I got to the bottom my pants were completely soaked through thanks to the dew.  At the bottom the trail turns to the left to follow a creek.  The rain  had swollen the creek intro a swampy, green, duck weed covered pond.  The water was so high that the trail was under a quarter inch of water.  I slowly walked through the water, feeling the mud suck at my new New Balance 977s (sort of half way between a walking shoe and a boot). The trail then sunk deeper under water (Here's a close up of the trail at this point).  I decided that I didn't feel like wading.  I turned around and fought my way back up to the car.
Preparation Canyon - There's a trail here?
Yes ... This Is The Trail Along The Creek
When I got back to the car I decided to walk down the road to another trailhead north-west of the car.  I started down this trail and ran smack dab into the same unmaintained trail that I'd encountered on the other trail.  I persevered and reached the bottom near the ponds, soaking my pants even more.  This trail was different in that the trail never went under water.  I also saw from this vantage point that the swollen creek was a collection of several pools of water connected by small streams.
Preparation Canyon - Swampy Creek
Verdant Pools
I reached the junction were the first trail met the trail I was on.  I'd turned around about 100 feet away from the junction.  This is a guess since I really couldn't discern where the other trail was.  At this point I followed another rutted, overgrown trail up the other side of the canyon.  It wasn't much better that the other two trails I'd been on.  I was starting to wonder if this entire day was going to be a wet, messy struggle hip deep in soggy grass when the grass disappeared.  I'd reached the top of a ridge where the trail I was on met up with the hike-in camp trails.  From this point on, all the trails were maintained and the grass was no more than ankle deep.  Also from this vantage point you can see the tornado damaged area of the forest.  In the center of this picture you can just  make out all the plastic tubes with new trees.

I followed the wooded trail around past unoccupied camp sites moving from one trail to another in my attempt at a loop around the park.  It was a lot easier and my pants started drying out.  It also was not very traveled this late in the summer as a number of spider webs stretched over the trail.  I passed the sole occupied camp where the sounds of a father-son pair enjoying one last camping trip before school starts could be heard beyond their tent.

My next turn took me out of the wooded area onto a grassy meadow covered hill.  A nicely mowed path led up to the top of a hill and a welcome bench.  From the top of the hill you could see the treetops - I'll have to try to get up here when the leaves change this fall.  I stopped and ate a snack bar while I felt the cool breeze on my face.  I sat under a blue sky with temps in the high 70s and I felt content.  It had been months since I'd gotten out of the house, out of the backyard, out of the car, out of civilization.  It was restoring.

I followed the trail past a few more empty camps.  Stopped to take pictures of flowers and insects - my favorite subjects, it seems.  The trail ended at another parking area.  The choice from here was either follow the road back to the car or follow another trail that connected up with the overgrown trails I'd been on earlier.  As my pants had started to dry, I decided to follow the road back to avoid another soaking.  I did stop to look for a geocache but it was hidden in the middle of the tornado damage and I suspect it was in Oz by now.

Back at the car I drove to a nearby overlook in the Loess Hills State Forest, found a geocache ("Loess Hills Forest Overlook"), and took pictures for this panorama:
Loess Hills Panorama
Loess Hills Forest Lookout Panorama
There is a short trail that leaves from the impressive lookout platform (you can see the trail in the picture) but, not knowing how long it was I decided not to do it.  Turns out it was only 0.91 miles.  I'll have to do it some time as the area is beautiful.

Total hiking distance was about 4.72 miles including the extra round trip I did on the first, waterlogged trail.  The elevation gain from peak to trough was about 317 ft but I ended up doing this elevation four times (There are multiple 'canyons' in this park).  Pictures, mostly of insects and flowers, can be found here.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

But It's Just Around The Corner

It's still August and Sam's Club already has the Halloween stuff out.  Crazy.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Nebraska Byways Passport: Mines, Forts, Baseball

In early August, the Wife and I went on another roadtrip to pick up some Nebraska passport stamps to add to the ones I got in July.  This time we would visit the three attractions on the Loup Rivers Scenic Byway.

Our first stop, after a nearly four hour drive along country highways through small central Nebraska towns, was Happy Jack Peak and Chalk Mine.  The mine is located outside the town of Scotia, NE.  We stopped at a filling station to ask directions.  Even with the directions, I managed to miss the parking lot several times.
Happy Jack Chalk Mine - Entrance
Entrance to the Happy Jack Chalk Mine
The chalk mine, actually a diatomite mine, is one of only two known to exist in the United States and is the only one open to the public.  It is also advertised, according to the brochure I picked up, as:
"[N]ot just Nebraska's biggest underground adventure, it is Nebraska's only underground adventure."
In the office we payed the modest entry fee, the guide picked up a large hand lantern, and we went into the mine.  She told us about the history of the mine, the one death in the mine, the wild high school parties and dances that were held in the old mine, and pointed out interesting features in the soft walls including fossilized rodent burrows.  It was pretty cool in an odd sort of way.  We even saw some wildlife - a bat.  We left with a chunk of free souvenir diatomite (it's outside with our two chunks of Crazy Horse memorial).  More pictures of the mine can be found here.

We left and headed north in search of lunch in the another small town, Ord, NE, before going to our second attraction of the day, Fort Hartsuff.  Fort Hartsuff was built during the Indian Wars to protect settlers and friendly Native American tribes in the area.  The Fort is located in the Sand Hills and, due to the scarcity of trees in the area, was built of a material similar to concrete.  We watched a movie in the visitor's center before walking  through the buildings.  Once again I had to face the fact that most forts just don't look like the forts seen in the Westerns.  More Fort Hartsuff pictures can be found here.
Fort Hartsuff Panorama
Fort Hartsuff - Beautiful day on the parade grounds
While we were talking to the ranger, she asked if we'd hiked up the short trail to the top of Happy Jack Peak.  We hadn't.  The view of the Loup River is supposed to be spectacular.  Sigh.  I'll have to go back sometime though I doubt I'll make it since it really isn't on the way to anything.

Out last stop was about an hour or so south in the town of St Paul, NE.  In a storefront space we found the Museum of Nebraska Major League Baseball.  It was a pretty good set up with interesting displays of the many major league players that had some tie to Nebraska such as Wade Boggs from Omaha.  It was put together better than the Bob Feller museum, though that museum was in a more interesting building.  I ended up not taking pictures here.

My next passport trip will probably be a solo mission as the Wife is back in school and college football season starts soon.  On the list of attractions: the Stuhr Museum, the Kearney Archway, Red Cloud, and more.  Stand By.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

How To Build A Dragon Boat

Back in 2008, after we sold our house and before we moved to Nebraska, we made one last trip to China Town and Olvera Street, favorite destinations of ours.  On that last trip we stopped at a store we'd visited several times. On a prior trip, the Wife bought me a Mao messenger bag at this store (This bag gained some notoriety when Cameron Diaz took one with her to Peru.  The rebels in Peru, the Shining Path, is a Maoist organization ... oopsie!  Mine actually has a red picture of Mao though I saw her star one at the store as well).

On this last trip I looked at some balsa wood models.  They had pagodas, boats, aircraft, and even an M-1 tank model.  They were all pretty cool.  I'd seen them on our prior trips but I was too cheap to buy one.  (It was a whole $8.00!!! I am so cheap.)  This time I gave in and bought a Dragon Boat model.

It moved with us to Nebraska and it found a place on a shelf in the den closet.  Finally, after over two years I decided to dust it off and actually put it together.  Not wanting to just put it together, I decided to put together a time lapse movie of the process.  It's not the best of my movie making efforts but it's good enough.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Potrero John Creek Trail vs. The Geocaches

Looking at my blog stats, posts about California hikes have gotten the most hits.  In particular, the post about the Potrero John Creek hike has been one of the most popular ones.

The Potrero John Creek hike is one of my favorites.  I'm not sure if it was about the trail or about the mindset I was in when I did it but it made me feel good.  Looking back, witnessing what has happened, I am not sure I would have written about it.

When I did this hike back in 2007 there were no geocaches on the trail.  Six months after I posted about the trail, a rather active geocacher, chaosmanor, commented that there were now 12 caches on the trail.  As of this post there are 17 caches, 18 if you include the one multi-cache's second stage.  While I am a geocacher myself, I wonder if having this many caches on a 2.75 mile trail is a good thing.

While geocaching, after getting close to the coordinates, it is often easy to follow what I call the geocacher tracks.  Over time as more and more geocachers hunt for a cache they trample the plants around the coordinates.  Since not all of the geocachers are coming from the same direction, there are usually multiple trample paths.  There are times I can follow the geocacher tracks right to the cache.  If the area where the cache is hidden is particularly beautiful, the trampled plant life and the dirt trail blazed by the geocachers often diminishes the experience of nature.  Not all geocaches are that destructive but, as the geocaching community has grown, so has the percentage of inconsiderate searchers.

And it's not just one trail.  Just look at this Map to see how cache happy the area has become.  Each little icon is a geocache.  The trail ending just to the right of center on the top of the map is Potrero John.  In less than 81 square miles there are almost 350 geocaches.

So, when I see that there are 17 geocaches on the trail, I wonder how much destruction has occurred?  How much has been taken away from the experience?  More importantly, how much damage is a direct result of my post?

My blog friend, GeekHiker, has posted about a hike that he calls his 'Secret Spot'.  He hasn't posted where it's at and, now that I have thought about the Potrero John Creek trail, I think that was a wise decision.  I wish I'd thought of that.

I have not gone back there since the geocaches have been hid.  Maybe my worst fears are exaggerated and everything is just peachy.  Or maybe not.  I console myself with the fact that there are many responsible geocachers who have, like me, discovered this once hidden treasure and have come away feeling happy.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Book: Daniel Suarez's "Daemon"

DaemonWhen I was in college, struggling with some programming assignment or other, I would wonder if it were possible to make a distributed, pseudo intelligent program that would give a person control over computer networks.  I suppose this was a weird thing to fantasize about but I was am a geek and many of my internal conversations were about odd science/space/computer scenarios.  If I'd just put some of these narratives to paper and I could have produced a best seller.  Unfortunately for me, Danial Suarez had the same strange ideas as I did and he acted on them.

Danial Suarez's "Daemon" is a fast passed technothriller about a computer genius who, after dieing, activates a computer program (a daemon) that rapidly takes over every computer network in the world.  Based on a computer game, the daemon soon recruits humans to assist it in spreading.  The book is action packed and follows the formula of a typical thriller.

As I read the book I thought Suarez was trying too hard to use computer geek/hacker jargon.  It seemed he laid it on a little thick.  But, as the pace of the book picked up the jargon blended into the background and the narrative pulled me in.  As I read the book and watched the daemon spread, I began getting paranoid feelings every time I sat at my computer.  An irrational fear for me ... I am a computer engineer and I should know better but I couldn't help it.

The fear was irrational because the daemon was unrealistic.  The daemon shows too much intelligence.  The daemon was supposed to be based on an artificial intelligence used in a video game but the decision tree, a tool used by most computer games to simulate intelligence, is too inflexible.  Anyone who has ever played computer games and tried to do something that the designer did not anticipate knows what I mean.  You usually can't do what you want to do and the game just stalls, unable to continue ... or it kills your character off.  The tree necessary to handle the daemon would be astronomically complex and I don't think any one, no matter how many resources they had, could put such a thing together.

So, to enjoy this book you have to suspend disbelief and I have to say that I was able to do this and I enjoyed the book.  The book ends rather abruptly as it is book one of two.  The book is good enough that I will have to add the second book, "Freedom (TM)", to my reading list

I can't recommend this book until I read the second part but if it's like the first, I would have to recommend it.  Another review of this book made by the Best Man can be found here.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A Sign That Makes The Wife Smile

The Wife started her new job at her new school this week.  She likes the new school and the whole experience is so much better than the other school she's been at since we moved back to Nebraska.  People actually talk to her!

While she expects this to be her last school (her sixth) something happened today, a sign as it were, that seems to indicate that she's finally found the right place.  During an assembly today, the band began playing the school song.  She laughed when she heard it:


Yep, her new school's song is the Notre Dame Fight Song.  Go Irish and go SkyHawks!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Nebraska Byways Passport: Forts, Clans, Poets

Last year the Division of Travel and Tourism of the Nebraska Department of Economic Development held a Nebraska Byways Geopicting contest to promote tourism along the nine scenic byways around the state.  After winning first prize I was looking forward to seeing what the state would do this year.  The result, announce a few months ago, was a Nebraska Byways Passport Program.

The passport program gives out free passports in which you can get stamps from twenty-seven different attractions, three on each byway.  If you get nine stamps, you get a free T-Shirt.  Eighteen stamps gets you a digital picture frame.  All twenty-seven stamps gets you a FLIP video camera.  To top it off, for each nine stamps, you get entered in a drawing for a $1,000 Laptop.  When I first heard of this I was excited.  A flip camera sounded like a cool addition to my gadget collection.  Then I started doing the math.  To get all twenty-seven attractions you would have to go all over the state and, to get to some, would require hotel stays and lots of gasoline.  Over 1,400 miles of driving over 27 hours.  A FLIP camera at Amazon.com costs between $100 and $200 depending on the bells and whistles.  You would spend much more on hotel, food, and gas.  The only thing that made it worth the while would be winning the $1,000 which was not guaranteed.

Of course, that is not the point of the contest.  The point is to get out and see Nebraska.  So that's what I did.  I figured I could get stamps from twelve attractions on three day-trips.  The first day-trip was along the Lewis & Clarke Scenic Byway and the Lincoln Highway Scenic & Historic Byway.

The Wife was attending a teacher's workshop at Fort Robinson (One of the 27 attractions, by the way) so my first byway foray was a solo mission.  (I am writing this weeks after the actual roadtrip.)  I set out to the closest attraction, Fort Atkinson which, strangely enough, is located in Fort Calhoun, NE.  I went in the visitor's center and sat through an interesting DVD about the history of the fort which was set up to protect fur traders in the area.  After the movie I pickup my passport pre-stamped with the Fort Atkinson stamps.  I drove from the visitors center to the restored fort.  There's a short hiking trail that leaves from the fort going down the bluff through a wooded area.  Since I had a few more places to hit that day I decided to save the hike for another day.  Fort Atkinson pictures can be found here.
Fort Atkinson -  005
Fort Atkinson, Fort Calhoun, NE
My next stop was Winnebago, NE, location of the Woodland Trails/Honoring-the-Clans Sculpture Garden and Cultural Plaza.  Of the four places I would visit today, this was the one that interested me the most.  I had this image of Native American sculptures on some grassy hilltop honoring great warriors and statesmen.  As I entered the town of Winnebago I noticed the new hospital advertising substance abuse clinics beside rundown buildings and dusty roads.  I cruised down the main street looking for some sign.  I was about to give up when a small, generic green DOT sign that simple said "Sculpture Garden" came up on my right side.  I turned into what appeared to be a strip mall with a Dollar Store and a few other stores.  The road ended in a circle.  In the middle of the circle were twelve lifesize statues.  At first I thought that this couldn't be it but then I noticed, over the entrance of a building on the opposite side of the circle that said Woodland Trails.
Woodland Trails - 027
Honoring the Clans Sculpture Garden - Winnebago, NE
I walked over the building and went in expecting a visitor's center.  What I found instead was a consignment shop.  The owner said hello and said that the art in the store was all Native American from the region and was sold on consignment for the artists.  I got my passport stamped and walked around.  Some of the art was pretty good but it was also expensive (One small painting of some quail was $2,400).  There was no movie or any real explanation about the statues outside though the owner of the place said they represent the twelve clans of the Winnebago and that they had been carved by a local artist.

I went out, took pictures of the statues and the plaques (In English and Native American).  They were well made but, frankly, I was a little disappointed.  A mini-mall was not the place for these statues.  They deserved better.  Honoring-the-Clans Sculpture Garden pictures are here.

I left, shaking my head, and headed for my third destination, Bancroft, NE.  Bancroft was the home of the first Poet Laureate of Nebraska commemorated by the John G. Neihardt State Historic Site.  John G. Neihardt wrote about the prairie, pioneers, and Native Americans.  One of his best known works was "Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux".  The museum had a small movie theater, a research library, and an exhibit room in the shape of a medicine wheel.  In the gardens outside the museum was a small cabin where Neihardt did some of his writing along which a medicine wheel garden.  While the garden had some flowers, colored to match the symbolic colors of the medicine wheel (White, Yellow, Black, and Red), I was a little too late in the growing season.  Nevertheless, it is very well done.  A few John G. Neihardt Museum pictures can be found here.
Neihardt Historical Site - 002
John G. Neihardt Museum - Medicine Wheel Garden - Bancroft, NE
The last stop of the day was the Louis E. May House in Fremont, NE.  The house, owned by the Louis E. May foundation, was built by the first mayor of Fremont, Theron Nye.  (Why it's not called the Theron Nye House, I do not know.)  Built in 1874, the Lincoln highway would pass by the house almost 40 years later.  When I got there, the elderly ladies who gave tours had no idea about the passport program.  They had seen the passports and the stamps and had wondered what they were.  I grabbed the stamp and stamped my passport as I explained the program to them.  They gave me a tour of the house.  Of the four places I went to this day, this was the most underwhelming.  It was just a grand old house filled with rather amateurish displays.  Returning the house to period setting would have been a better use of the house.  A few Louis E. May House pictures can be found here.
Louis May Historical Museum - 001
Theron Nye House, Fremont, NE
All together, I was on the road and at attractions for about eight hours.  I took mostly two lane country highways.  It's the only way to see the country.

Part two of my Nebraska adventure was on the Loup Rivers Scenic Byway where I visited three more attractions, this time with the Wife.  Stand By.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Time To Drink Out Of Women's Shoes

Wow, what a weekend.  More specifically, what a Saturday.  The Wife and I went to another family wedding, something the family takes very seriously.  The wedding was of the GodSon and ... not sure what to call her ... the GodSon's Wife is the best that I can come up with.

We drove up on Friday and stopped by the hotel where most of the family were staying.  Next door was a bar that was filled with interesting ... characters.  While some of the family did manage to go in and return safely, they told stories of short skirts, straining zebra bustiers, and women who looked suspiciously like men.  Sounds a lot like the legends of amazonian tribes I read about in my last book.  After our six hours on the road, I didn't feel I had the energy to launch an expedition of my own so the Wife and I called it a night.

The Saturday afternoon wedding was traditional and went nearly flawlessly except for the obligatory flower girl hissy fit.  Actually, the flower girl hissy fit is so common,  I guess you could call it an mandatory part of a traditional wedding making this a flawless wedding.  Way to go guys!  The couple, a pair of teachers, did a lot of their own wedding planning, including memorizing their wedding vows, so it's not a surprise it went so well.

The wedding was followed by the typical, raucous family reception. Drink, food, drink, dancing, drink, music, drink, cigars, drink, singing the Schnitzelbank, drink, shots, and ... drinking out of women's shoes.  As receptions go, it was pretty awesome.  I usually don't participate in a lot of the festivities, choosing to just sit back and admire the closeness and the fun-lovingness of the Wife's family.  I do partake in the food.  They had a great idea and placed individual cakes on the tables so that you didn't need to get in line for cake - a very smart idea.  There was also a Tesla out in the parking lot that got a lot of the guys drooling.  I stayed away as the price tag is too steep for even a free look.

The GodSon and his Wife make a great couple and the Wife and I are very happy for them.  They opened presents the next day.  Unfortunately we had to drive home and missed the day-after festivities.

Since I know the GodSon often reads Homer's travels, I would like him and his new bride to know, if they ever need to get away, we have a guest room they can use and they are always welcome at our place.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Book: David Grann's "The Lost City Of Z"

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon (Vintage Departures)Why do I read non-fiction?  The primary reason is to be educated.  I rarely read non-fiction to be entertained - that's fiction's function.  David Grann's "The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon" changed my view of non-fiction.

The book, written in two parallel story lines, follows the author in his quest to discover the fate of the subject of the second story line, Percy Harrison Fawcett.  Known as PHF to his friends and family (even his wife refers to him by his initials), Fawcett was an explorer of the Amazon during the early 1900s until he and his eldest son, Jack, disappeared in 1925.  I'd never heard of Fawcett and I found the stories of his exploits leading up to the mystery behind his disappearance fascinating.  Fawcett was convinced that a great civilization existed, or had existed, deep in the amazon jungle in one of the blank parts of the map that still existed back then.  He called this city "Z".

The PHF story line reads like an action novel, something out of Indiana Jones.  The descriptions of his seven amazonian expeditions, including cringe-inducing descriptions of infected body parts, insect swarms, and wounds leaking puss, kept me riveted.

Grann's story line is less exciting but it does include the pieces of the puzzle that he discovers along the way and develops a very plausible theory to the ultimate fate of Fawcett, his son Jack, and Jack's friend Raleigh.

The book reads like fiction and Fawcett's story sounds like the plot of some old movie serial.  I zipped through this 319 page book.  It was fascinating to watch Fawcett succumb to obsession while racing to find Z before adventurers like him became obsolete.  With satellite imagery, GPS, and Google maps, it is unlikely that we will see another larger than life explorer like Fawcett.  A pity as the world is in desperate need of larger than life figures.

Highly recommended.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Strike A Pose

One of the Wife's friends went home for the weekend (Sturgis ... during the 70th anniversary of the biker rally ... very cool) and she needed someone to take care of her dog.  Milo, an Australian Sheep Dog (mix?), has been a pretty good house guest these past few days but one thing we found hilarious was when he did this:
Strike A Pose
He seems to be comfortable in this position as he's fallen asleep doing this.  Usually one of his front paws is sticking straight up - in this picture he's a little more ... relaxed.

Friday, August 06, 2010

2010 Vacation: Jordan - Day Seven - Getting Home And Epilogue

Our last morning in Jordan was uneventful except for a couple things:
  1. A bird, probably the damn Falcon, took a crap on me and my camera bag at the airport.  Splattered off my forehead onto the bag.  Okay.  I get it.  I shouldn't have gone in the women's mosque.
  2. We bought water after passing through airport security just to find out that you had to pass through security one more time before getting on the plane.  To top it off, the free water we got on the plane after we left Amman had to be chugged because we had to go through security once again in Frankfurt.  A pox on the liquid explosive idiots waging a war on my water bottles.
Other than that, the flights home went fine.  No delays.  Better seats.  We also landed in Omaha during a rather spectacular and harrowing lightning storm.

A few observations about Jordan:
  • Talking to people after we returned they wanted to know about the women we saw in Jordan. While most of the women wore the traditional head covering, exposing the entire face (the Hijab), the more conservative head-to-toe, hands gloved, and only the eyes showing was rare.  I saw, maybe, a handful.  In fact, I saw more women with their head/hair exposed than I did with the full covering.  I saw a family at Jerash where the woman was totally covered, the husband was in leisure, western attire, as were their two children.  What struck me as I watched them is that the man and the children seemed under dressed.  I kept thinking that the man should have been in a suit.
  • Jordan is a country of men.  We saw women wherever we went but the men usually out numbered them.  All the waiters, shop keepers, and hotel attendants were men.  The only exceptions were at Petra where there were quite a few Bedouin women selling their wares and at security posts there were often one woman police office to search the women (The Wife was inspected by two different women, short women, while going through airport security).   Beside these exceptions, you only interacted with men.
  • Jordan is Bilingual.  Most of the signs are in Arabic and English.  Everyone we met knew some English.  The Wife wished they would have encouraged us to use more polite Arabic greetings but, frankly, the Jordanians were quicker at the Hello-Welcome than we were with the as-Slām ʻLykm
  • Jordan, while 94% Muslim, is not a very religious country compared to, say, Saudi Arabia.  Jordan is pretty Liberal which may explain why everyone in the Middle East likes Jordan and have made Jordan a vacation destination.  It may also explain why a Mosque was not on the tour itinerary.
  • Another question often asked was about the heat.  It was hot in Jordan but, as they say, it was a dry heat.  We arrived in Jordan at approximately the same time of day that we left Omaha.  The temperature in Jordan was cooler than Omaha and the lack of humidity made it much more comfortable.
  • Water is scarce.  Typically a neighborhood has running water every three or four days.  When they have water they fill tanks which you see on the roofs of most homes.  A big water pipeline is being built to bring water from the aquifer under Wadi Rum that will leave the water on all the time.
  • Cats are the animal of choice.  I saw only a  few dogs.
  • After we got back we rented Lawrence of Arabia.  Neither of us had watched the whole thing.  The movie was filmed in the Wadi Rum area.  It was kind of fun to see where we'd been - I swear I recognized some of the rock outcroppings in the movie.  Some of the blown up trains in the movie were actually filmed on the wreckage of the original destroyed train.  All I have to say about T.E. Lawrence is that he was a nut case.
We enjoyed Jordan.  It wasn't perfect.  Jordan is a rather drab country.  Our hotel was not in a very walkable area of Amman so we were a little limited in the evenings.  I would have added a day at Aqaba and a night in Wadi Rum to sleep under the stars which are said to be spectacular there.  Despite this the new cultures, the many firsts for me, and the hospitable people made Jordan a memorable vacation.  I can now add one more red country on my travel map (At the bottom of the sidebar on the right in the margin).

Next on our list of vacations (all subject to change, of course): 
  • 2011 - Spain to walk the Camino and a visit to our friends in California via Route 66 (Chicago to Santa Monica)
  • 2012 - China, Tibet, and Nepal followed by RAGBRAI.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Ferdinand, Napoleon, And Isabella

At night out big picture window attracts bugs.  Lots of bugs.  Lately they've also attracted toads.  The toads, the largest is about an inch and a half from nose to butt, climb up the side of the house and up the glass.  I watched them the other night.  When they eat they look like they're jumping from one point on the glass to another, defying gravity.  They're fun to watch.

The Wife insisted in me naming them so I named them Ferdinand, Napoleon, and Isabella.  I have no idea how to sex a toad so the names may be completely off gender but they're toads so who cares ... except maybe other toads.  I also can't tell one from the other but I think Ferdinand is a little bigger than the other two.

Here's a picture of the largest one, Ferdinand:
Ferdinand Toad
When he's not eating bugs, he's smearing up my clean window.  Darn toad toe prints everywhere!

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

2010 Vacation: Jordan - Day Six - Wadi Rum

I only have one picture from our last full day in Jordan so you'll have to use your imagination ...

We checked out of our hotels in Wasi Musa and drove south out of town.  As we left we stopped at an overlook and took in the sweeping vista.  Our guide pointed out the extent of Petra.  The site is much larger than most people realize.  It would probably take a week or more to explore all its nooks and crannies.

[Insert Petra Panorama Here]

On the mountaintop on the left of the panorama, the white dot, is a mosque/shrine.  It is the purported burial place of Aaron, brother to Moses.

We continued south, driving through small desert towns.  We passed by fields with herds of camels [Insert Picture of Camels Here].  We crossed our first train track and the exit to the Camel Racing course, before arriving at the Wadi Rum visitor's center.

Wadi Rum, a valley named after a prominent mountain in the region, Mount Rum, reminded me a lot of the American desert southwest.  Parts of it were reminiscent of formations I saw near Moab.  This makes since as the Moabite kingdom was located in Jordan though not in Wadi Rum.

We walked out back of the visitor's center and saw a group of pickups, the ubiquitous Toyotas that are found in all countries all over the world, decked out with seats in the bed, and a sun covering [Insert Picture of Pickups Here].  We climbed into two of the trucks and raced out into the desert.  Ours was the lead pickup so we were spared from eating dust.

Our first view was of the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, [Insert Picture of Seven Pillars of Wisdom Here] a rock formation named after the book by T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia).  Lawrence based his operations out of the Wadi Rum area in 1917-1918.

The tour continued past large sand dunes, petroglyphs marking caravan routes [Insert Picture of Petroglyphs Here], and stunning vistas.

[Insert Stunning Vista Here]

After driving through one stunning view after another we stopped at a Bedouin tent to have tea.  Outside the tent were carvings of three faces, one of them being Lawrence of Arabia [Insert Picture of Carved Face Here].  Now, I know this is a sin to some of my bloggy friends but, frankly, I am not fond of tea.  I especially am not fond of hot tea when it's in the 90s in the shade.  Having said this, I didn't want to anger Allah any more than I already had so I took tea with the Bedouins and drank it down once it had cooled off enough (I think I burned my lips a bit - it was very hot tea - and I'm not used to hot beverages).

We returned to the visitor's center and got back on our short bus.  We drove north the rest of the day.  We made one stop at a rest house where I took my last picture - a picture of a falcon.  I would come to despise this falcon.
Jordanian Falcon
The rest of the day was a long drive back to Amman.  We dropped some of the tour group at the airport so they could catch flights out that evening.  We returned back to our Amman hotel and spent a quiet last night in Jordan.  It felt odd.  When we went to Peru we left rather late in the evening but before most of our group had left.  It felt right.  In Jordan I felt like we had over stayed our visit.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Music: Al Green w/ The Mynabirds

So I got to start with what happened the last time I went to an Al Green concert.  You see, I've been to two of his shows.

The first time was a Friday night some six or seven years ago.  It was at the Greek Theater in LA.  The Greek is an open air amphitheater.  We get there, find our seats, the sun goes down, the temperature gets a little on the chilly side, the show starts, and ... I fall asleep.  I slept through most of the show.  The Wife won't let me forget that fact.

So, 2010.  Sunday night.  Al Green plays to a packed crowd at the Stir Cove, an open air, grassy, amphitheater.  It's warm and muggy but a breeze makes things bearable.  The warm-up band, a local band called The Mynabirds, does a good set.  Their lead singer has a pretty good voice but the songs don't grab me.  I yawn a bit by the end.

A brief intermission and Al Green comes on and puts on a show.  The Wife enjoyed it a lot.  I wasn't as thrilled.  I have to say that my eyes closed a few times but I really didn't sleep this time around.  I wasn't impressed with his set.  He did a medley of his good stuff (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch, Can't Take My Eyes Off You, Let's Stay Together, and several more), each lasting thirty to sixty seconds each.  If he's done the full lengths of these songs and did a medley of the songs that he actually sang, I think I would have really enjoyed the concert.

His backup singers were his daughters, and they were pretty good.  One thing I found odd was that Al Green only sang about half the lyrics with his daughters and the audience singing the rest.  Maybe it's just his way on engaging the audience.  I suppose it could also be his age.  He is sixty-four and his style of singing needs a lot of energy.

So I can't say I enjoyed it much.  I did enjoy the company as the Wife's Brother and Sister-in-law, TE and JA, went with us.  I always enjoy it when we do thing with them.

One last note.  The Stir Cove allows photography as long as you can't change lens.  I guess that's their prerogative.  I wish I'd known and I would have taken my Canon S5.  Instead I got no pictures.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Book: Stieg Larsson's "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo"

The Girl with the Dragon TattooA week or so ago I finished Stieg Larsson's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" and I have to say that I liked it.  It was not my usual science fiction fare.  Actually, it was not science fiction at all.  It was a mystery/thriller, a genre that I have neglected for quite a while.  I think my last thriller was probably a Clancy novel sometime last century.

The book follows a journalist and a researcher/investigator/hacker who, in the course of intertwining plot lines, join forces to solve a decades old crime.  Most of the plot lines in this 590 page book are introduction.  You are introduced to Mikael Blomkvist, a business reporter convicted of libel, and Lisbeth Salander, an anti-social, possible aspergers, brilliant hacker/investigator/researcher.  You watch as their lives meet and a friendship, what little Salander allows, emerges.

The mystery itself, the disappearance of a sixteen year old girl over forty years ago, is interesting to a point.  As I read more about it, it seemed a little mundane.  I'm used to grand mysteries that end in earth shattering consequences, a staple of science fiction.  I have to accept that outside of Sci Fi, Fantasy, and Action genres, simpler intrigues are sometimes the norm.

Taking this into account, I liked this book.  The characters were interesting.  I especially like the Salander character.  The Blomkvist character was rather generic but he did have some potential.  I wonder if he is a necessary character.  Did Larsson need a 'normal' person for the reader to relate to or did he need a 'normal' person that he could relate to?  I supposed a whole book from Salander's point of view would be more challenging for the reader to the point of making it a difficult read.  It would also make it a challenge for the writer.  The book, with it's multiple stories surrounding the central mystery, peaked my curiosity enough that I will probably read the two sequels ("The Girl Who Played With Fire" and "The Girl who kicked the Hornet's Nest").

On a small side note, Stieg Larsson, assisted by the sales of these books, has become Amazon.com's first author to have sold one million kindle e-books.