Manassas, VA

We got back “home” to northern Virginia yesterday. We are staying at the Courtyard Inn at Manassas battlefield. In the South they call the battles first and second Manassas. In the North they are better known as the battles of Bull Run. The Rebels tended to name the battles after nearby cities. The Yankees favored geographical features. Bull Run is a creek that runs through the battlefield. Since it is located in Virginia, the National Park Service uses the local name – Manassas. The big battle that took place in September 1862 in Maryland is called Antitem. Southerners call is Sharpsburg after the town. In Maryland, the National Park carries the Yankee name.

Alex and I went to the battlefield. First Manassas, the first big battle of the Civil War took place right about this time in 1861, so we were feeling similar weather and seeing similar sights. I thought about Wilbur McLean. He lived on what became the battlefield before the war. The Rebs commandeered his house as an HQ and it suffered severe damage. After the battle, Wilbur decided he didn’t want to be in such an action filled area, so he moved south to a peaceful little place called Appomattox. When Generals Grant and Lee came to terms in April 1865, they commandeered his parlor to sign the armistice. Trouble just follows some people..

Peaceful farmland of N. Virginia, site of the first battle of the Civil War. It was hazy. On clear days you can see the Blue Ridge. This part of Virginia is one of my favorite regions in the world. It is not breathtaking, but it is green and pleasant. During the Civil War there were not so many trees, as you can see from old pictures. Horses needed pasture.

“There stands Jackson like a stonewall. Rally behind the Virginians!” This is the place where Thomas Jackson, later always called stonewall, stopped a Union victory at first Manassas. I don’t suppose he was as muscular as the statue implies. The terrain is rolling and large numbers of troops can be concealed in the undulations. The Yankees were surprised when they ran into the Rebs behind the hill. Jackson was an instructor at VMI in Lexington. He studied the campaigns of Napoleon and believed in the bayonet. He had trained his men well in its use. The Civil War was a time of technological change, as the rifle was replacing the smooth bore musket. Bayonets and even pikes were still effective weapons at the start of the war and both sides were fond of the charge. Unfortunately, the longer range of the rifle was making this a deadly – if heroic – anachronism. The next year, at Fredericksburg, not far from here, the Union spent many thousands of lives charging entrenched Southern positions. The Union paid them back in kind at Gettysburg in 1863. Southerners boasted of Pickett’s charge for the next fifty years, but it was a mistake.

Nashville, TN

It is a pleasant place. Nashville looks more Midwestern than southern, although there are the magnolias. We went to see the Parthenon. Nashville has the only full sized replica of that building. It is nicer than the original, which was famously destroyed by the Venetians during a skirmish with the Turks, who used the building as a power storage facility. Although this one is more complete, it is made of concrete instead of marble. It was built in 1892 for the Centennial of city of Nashville. Surrounding the Parthenon is Centennial Park. Across the street is Vanderbilt University, the “Harvard of the South”.

We are staying at Marriott Courtyard. It is a suite hotel, but with smaller facilities than Residence Inn. We had planned to stay at KOA, but the hot weather in Arizona convinced us that we did not want to spend another night in a hot cabin. Ironically, it is cool today. I was a little chilly sitting out near the pool supervising the boys. The boys played football with some other guests. It was not a fair game. Alex was much stronger than anyone else in the pool. He could just muscle through the lines.

Memphis, TN

We went to see Grace Land – home of Elvis yesterday. It is a big house, but except for the 13 acres it sits on, there are many larger homes in the neighboring suburbs. It goes to show how much our expectations in housing have grown. In 1957, this was a big mansion; now its just a big house.

I am not a big Elvis fan, but I have to say, he was unique – without a doubt the most significant entertainer of the 20th Century. We shall not soon see his like again. More than thirty years after his death, thousands of people visit his house showing more reverence than they would at St. Peter’s. My kids were not born during “the King’s” lifetime, yet they and billions of people all over the world recognize him, or at least his caricature. I am convinced that one reason Bill Clinton was elected president is that he reminded people of Elvis because of his accent and some of his mannerisms. The tour of the house is well done. It is done via recordings. You push the number when you get to the appropriate display. You can’t bring your digital camera into the building, so I have no picture. Suffice to say that it is very 60s or 70s. After the tour, we had down home southern barbeque at the Elvis restaurant. The grounds at Graceland are very pretty with lots of nice trees. It is characteristic of the region.

Memphis in general is a nice southern city, with lots of big trees. I ran today through the green suburban streets shaded by oaks, tupelos and magnolias. It is much like tidewater Virginia or Carolina. You can recognize southern cities, from Virginia to east Texas, by the broad tree filled lawns and smell of the typical plants. I had to jump over a lot of debris. One reason the grass is so green is that there has been horrendous thunderstorms over the last week that dumped torrents of water on the region causing floods in low-lying areas. We missed it all, but benefited from the aftermath. Not only is everything green, but also the rain brought lower temperatures. Last night it got into the 60s, which is rare for the mid south this time of year. This morning, when I went running, it was about 80.

We are staying in the Residence Inn. It is much like the others, but not as nice. We are next to the railroad tracks. About ½ kilometer from us, the tracks cross the street at grade. It is dangerous for the cars and the trains, so the engineer sounds a warning a good ways before he reaches the street, about a ½ kilometer before in fact. Trains must have rumbled by at least ten times during the night. I tried to incorporate trains into my dreams, but it still caused me some unrest.

The tracks outside our hotel. A train goes by every half hour.

Little Rock, AR

Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma are very green, full of forests and lakes. They are nothing like I pictured them. Looking at the roadside scenery, I would guess that I was in West Virginia. The forest looks like is mostly oak and pine. Little Rock is a pleasant city. I looked at one of the home pages. Houses, what look like nice houses, are amazingly inexpensive. You can get three bedrooms for less than 100K. I told Chrissy that we should live here. She is less than enthusiastic. I am not serious, of course. This is, after all, still Clinton and Jed Clampet country. Besides, I really like Northern Virginia. I only wish it was cheaper.

Adding this the next day – I went running this morning right outside the hotel. It is a little too hilly for a good run. Running down the steep grades pushes your toes against the tops of your shoes and you have to run up on the balls of your feet the whole way. The grades are also a bit too long. That said, it was a nice run. Everything is so green. The emerald blaze almost hurts your eyes. After coming out of the desert where all life is precarious and vegetation has to be coaxed to grow, this is Eden. If you drove a stick into the ground, I think it would sprout leaves. The soil is deep enough to support very large trees. Vegetation crawls from every crack in the sidewalk. I think it has been a particularly wet season, but it can’t be far different from the normal. Of course it is the humidity that keeps the plants so green and luxuriant, but even that feels good after you have dried out for a couple of weeks. This part of Little Rock looks remarkably like Vienna, Virginia. The hills are steeper, but when I ran though the suburban neighborhoods, I could have been there. There are just not that many types of landscape.

Oklahoma City, OK

We are back in the green part of the U.S. I like the state of Oklahoma. At least in this part, there are a lot of trees and green pastures. The weather is warm, but pleasant. Oklahoma City, however, I could do without. It is an ordinary looking Midwestern city, but it doesn’t seem to have the parks and infrastructure like Minneapolis or Milwaukee.

We visited the Cowboy Museum. It is a very nice. There is a lot of western art – sculptures and paintings. The building is evidently used for community events. It is one of the most tasteful venues I have ever seen. I liked the beautiful gardens. There were exhibits of western clothes, weapons and gear. The “West” is in many ways a creation of the movies and this was evident at the museum where at least a quarter of the exhibits were of artifacts from western movies and television shows. Many of the distinctive hats, guns and boots were created for actors like John Wayne, Charlton Heston or Tom Mix in the movies: cowboys probably never saw many of the styles. One of the characteristic cowboy hats, for example, is specifically called the Tom Mix hat after the early movie actor. It would have been awkward on the plains. Among the displays was a giant bowie knife, made by Gucci for John Wayne. It looked very impressive, but would have been far too big to be carried by a man in the wilderness. I have done enough hiking to understand how good looking gear gets abandoned along the trial. I don’t suppose it was any different in the old west, especially when we were talking about life and death. The real west was more like a blue-collar outdoor adventure punctuated by fits of deadly violence. Cowboys were hard working guys just trying to make a living – heroic in the sense that a working man is heroic. In many ways more noble than the fancy pants “code of the west” drifters portrayed on film.

Amarillo, TX

The most interesting thing in town is the Big Texan, where I had the best steak I ever tasted. It is a kitschy place, but nice. You can get a 72 oz steak. If you eat the whole thing within an hour, it is free. The waitress says that about ten people a day try to eat the big steak and about three actually finish. They got a big table in front where the big eaters do their thing. Nobody was trying when we were there. It seems to me that it is embarrassing to lose and maybe even more embarrassing to win.

The town itself is mostly strip malls and hotels. It is not that bad a place, but not that good either. The thing I noticed in the paper is how cheap houses are. You can get what looks like a decent house for less than $100,000.

We visited the Plains Museum in Canyon, Texas nearby. The museum was nice and inexpensive. It is housed at West Texas A&M. Texas Universities are good and in state tuition is cheap. This school seems particularly good for geology, paleontology and agriculture. The most interesting part was the history of oil exploration. Texans worked hard to develop technologies to find, get oil and to get it to market. It is a ground up history, where many entrepreneurs innovated their way to success – very heroic. Oil is an interesting topic. Compare how the people of Texas created a resource to how the princes, potentates and nabobs of Arabia had an unearned resource handed to them by foreign companies. Oil corrupts third world counties because they don’t do anything to develop the resource. It comes free along with resentment of the firms that gave them this undeserved bounty.

There were also exhibits on Texas in the past, starting with the Pre-Cambrian. My personal favorite is the Pleistocene, but there is not that much you can say about a couple of bison skulls so let me skip to the last couple hundred years ago. Life was a challenge for people in the Texas panhandle. The land is semi desert. Adapting crops to the environment only goes do far. Farmers water their land with water drawn from the Ogallala aquifer, a giant underground lake. The aquifer was created 100,000 years ago by water runoff from the far away Rockies. It is no longer being recharged because the Pecos River now cuts through and drains off the water into the Gulf of Mexico. The water will last awhile longer, but needs to be conserved. Maybe we could plug up the Pecos in set the whole recharging thing in motion again.

I listened to AM radio on the way into town. Most people around here are conservative, if you survey what they listen to. But contrary to what we might think of people so far inland in the U.S., they are interested in foreign affairs. They have to be, since their agricultural commodities are sold on world markets. The local radio included interviews about markets overseas and a report of a trade delegation from Russia visiting the panhandle. They also had a call in program about how biotechnology is being received in Europe.

In the land of the lotus eaters Durango, CO

At 6500 feet, Durango is much cooler and nicer than the deserts below. It is a truly cute town. Everything is clean and in good condition. It is a bit like a living Disneyland. People look healthy and outdoorsy. Durango was built by the railroads and grew because of mining, but now it depends on tourism and resident yuppies who love its mountain activities and pleasant, carefree atmosphere. The town does have a lot to offer an active person. Bike, running and hiking trails are all over the city. The slopes are good for skiing and the rivers are good for white water rafting and kayaking.

We went white water rafting on the Animas River that goes through town. Actually, I am not sure it qualifies as white water, since water levels are low. We had a decent, but not that exciting a ride. The river guide was named James. James studied anthropology and has some interesting insights. He believes in spiritual use of herbs (like peyote), was generally new age and a thoroughly charming person. He decried the greed of those who would use water for purposes other than sending it down the river for rafting or fishing. Talking to him makes me understand how far I am from Washington. People around here don’t care much for national politics. They feel separate from the East-Coast elites. In many ways this is the land of the lotus-eaters. It seems very politically correct. I don’t believe people litter or abuse animals in any way, and they even have non-smoking areas outside. The inhabitants of the region live well on the fat of the American economy without really understanding that theirs is a resource intensive lifestyle made possible by the larger U.S. They need energy intensive four-wheel drive vehicles to get to idyllic recreation places, which were deathtraps and wastelands before the government built roads to the general area. Their high tech equipment is made in those satanic factories far away (probably China). The town’s pride, a steam engine that still runs, makes more pollution than hundreds of big cars, yet that smoke is picturesque. I can’t blame them for their attitude. They are lucky. This is the kind of place I searched for as a young man and would like to retire to when I am old, but like Ulysses and his crew, I can’t linger in the land of the Lotus Eaters too long for now. Besides, parts of it are on fire.

We had planned to visit Mesa Verde, one of the oldest Indian ruins in America, but a forest fire closed the park. The drought here has lasted a couple of years and dry wood burns. James is philosophical. He has seen the rivers high above the bridges and seen them so low that the rocks scraped the bottom of the boat. He pointed out that this so called drought is small potatoes. It is nothing like the one that started about 900 AD and lasted about 500 years. He is talking about the catastrophic drought that finished off the Anastazi. I guess we can be thankful for small favors. But before we shout hallelujah too loud, we may ponder that this could just be the start of something much bigger. What happened before can happen again. Well as we all know, everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it and we have enjoyed some good weather in the last 150 years. James says that water will be the biggest resource issue of the 21st Century. I agree. In the arid Southwest, with its history of boom and bust, you see how fragile things can be and how whole communities can dry up and blow away as dust in the wind when their water is cut off. In the deserts of Arizona the old cowboys said, “Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting about.” Let’s hope this doesn’t become a worldwide truth. On that happy note . . . Colorado is a great place. I still think I like Montana better, but I could learn to love this state.

As long as I am thinking about timeless truths, I just need to share two more. One I saw on a t-shirt, the other on a tombstone. “Give a man to fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and he sits in a boat and drinks beer all day.” That’s the t-shirt. “I never killed a man that didn’t need killing and never killed an animal except for meat” from the epitaph of an old west marshal.

Monument Valley

The pictures speak for themselves. You can understand why this place is such a popular setting for westerns. It is part of the Navajo reservation and we had to pay $25 to get in. We drove a 17-mile course, stopping at various places to look at the scenery or take pictures. The flat, big rock formations are mesas, after the Spanish word for table. When they get thinner and broader at the bottom, they are called buttes. When the butte gets very thin it is called a spire. Which are which is open to some interpretation.

After that we went on to Durango, Colorado, stopping at the four corners monument. The four corners is where the states of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah meet. It is also part of the Navajo nation, and it cost us $15 to get in there. I guess they have to make money in this dry, inhospitable place. It is the only place in the U.S. where you can set your foot in four states at once. The Navajo arrived in the area only about 800 years ago. Before that Anastazi people occupied the place. The Anastazi lived in Pueblo villages that you still see around here, but they died out for reasons anthropologists still speculate about. A big reason was the harsh climate. Despite the grandeur, this place is obviously a wasteland. We drove for hours at 60 mph through almost nothing but rock, sand and dirt. Occasionally you see a house. I don’t know how the inhabitants make a living. This is even bleaker than the desert near Phoenix. The only redeeming characteristic is that it is much cooler than the lower desert. Daytime temperatures are only about 100, which seems cool at least in the dry air, and it gets into the 50s at night.

As we crossed into Colorado and gained altitudes, things became a lot greener. We are staying at KOA in Durango, Colorado. It is a nicer cabin than we had before. Durango has all the conveniences, including a Wall Mart, where we bought a window fan for $10. It is bringing in the cooler air very nicely. I am writing at about 11 pm and it is comfortably cool outside. Tomorrow we plan to go rafting and I hope to have pictures.

Navajo Nation

We crossed into the Navajo Nation today. The geography is bleak but beautiful, mostly sand and rock. The Navajo are the most numerous Indians in the U.S. and their reservation is one of the few that is economically viable without gambling casinos. The economy is based on sheep herding and tourism. In the middle of Navajo country is Monument Valley, a place of great natural beauty where many Western movies were filmed. There are a lot of signs supporting our troops in Iraq and more American flags than you find even in most other places in the U.S., and I understand that the Navajo are eager participants in the military. Navajo soldiers were important during World War II as code talkers. The Japanese could break American military codes, but they had nobody who could understand Navajo, which was spoken nowhere outside the American southwest. U.S. units had Navajo who spoke to each other in their obscure native language that baffled the Japanese throughout the war.

On the way, we went past the Grand Canyon again. I have included some pictures. We also went past an Indian village ruin. It thrived until about 1150 when the climate became hotter and dryer (without the help of the greenhouse effect). Climatologists have managed to piece together a complete climate history using tree rings. The earth’s climate is very unstable. It was warmer in the year 1200 than it is today. The Southwest has droughts that last hundreds of years. On the side is a painting of what it is supposed to have looked like. You really can’t think of these things as cities. They are more like apartment buildings or townhouse complexes. The picture shows the WHOLE thing, so it would be a small apartment complex. Doors are on the roof. The ancient McDonalds and Seven-Eleven are not pictured.

Beautiful downtown Kayenta, Arizona. Really – that’s the town, although some of the suburbs (mostly mobile homes trail off into the distance. What else do you need? There is a shopping center, a McDonald’s, Burger King, several gas stations and a couple of hotels. We are staying at the Holiday Inn, which is a nice place. The people around here are very friendly and have a real love & pride in their home. This is the kind of place you have to love or leave.

Williams, AZ & Route 66

The kids are not as enthusiastic about being at KOA campgrounds as they should be. It is a kid friendly environment with a nice pool and places to do things. We rented a small cabin. As I write, it is still hot both inside and outside the cabin, but I know that in this thinner mountain air it will be cool as soon as the sun goes down.

Williams is a much higher altitude than Phoenix. Thick forests of ponderosa pine cover the nearby mountains, and the air is cool at night. Up a little farther north is the Colorado Plateau, with widely spaced trees in a park-like setting. It is always surprising to me how fast environments change in the mountains. Our campground is in a fairly dry area of small trees. A few miles up the road the trees are really tall. Up a little farther is high plains (what in most of the world they call steppe). I plan to wake up early tomorrow and run through at least three distinct biomes. I like it here.

Meteor crater was featured on the movie “Starman” with Jeff Bridges. It looks a lot bigger in the movies. It is worth seeing, but not worth going to see if you have to go very far – unless you are interested in those sorts of things, and there are such people. Before we went, I consulted the web about the crater. It is a Mecca for meteor watchers. The crater was formed by a meteor impact about 50,000 years ago For reference, this is about the time anatomically modern man started to wipe out his Neanderthal cousins. (This factoid I know because I am listening to an audio book on evolution as I drive. Now I will probably remember both factoids until the day I day or dementia sets in.) The crater is well preserved because the meteor had the good sense to land in what was a desert even then. In a more temperate climate, it would have filled with water and the sides would have caved in.

Route 66
Thousands of emigrants from the East headed west for the Promised Land in California along the “mother road”. Route 66 ran from Chicago to Los Angeles before the advent of the Interstate Highway system. Highway travel was more of an adventure fifty years ago than it is on today’s highways with today’s cars that slice through mountains and make travel across deserts an air-conditioned pleasure. Although Interstate 40 roughly follows the course, most of Route 66 is now gone or converted to local streets. We will be traveling along the route for much of our trip. We are starting in Williams, Arizona where part of the original road is preserved in something approaching its original condition. Below are photos.

We ate at the Route 66 Diner. I had a 1950 style greasy hamburger that made no pretense about being healthy. Even I thought the batter fried French fries were a little grease redundant however. After we ate, a small band dressed in Civil War costumes played songs. The leader said that he was a teacher who had done a project with his class. Some of them were so interested in the subject they wanted to explore it further and did studies on the songs.