Monthly Archives: October 2013

Pennsylvania’s Lincolnway

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Nearly a decade before the much celebrated route 66 was commissioned, the first cross country automobile route, “The Lincolnway”, was developed.  This cross country route from New York to San Francisco, first labelled in 1913, roughly follows what would later become U.S. highway 30 through much of the country.  Although less songs and movies have been written about “The Lincolnway”, it is just as historic.

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Accessing the Lincolnway in Pennsylvania is quite easy.  In fact, from the Southeast, it can be accessed without even exiting the highway.  In a town called Breezewood, PA, all Interstate 70 traffic comes to a grinding halt.  In order to continue on I-70 westbound, one must make a right hand turn, followed by a left hand turn, and enter the Pennsylvania Turnpike, where I-70 shares with I-76 for about 86 miles.  This is the only place I know where interstate highway traffic must actually come to a stop at a traffic light.  In many other places, following an interstate highway requires exiting and merging onto different roads, but I don’t know anywhere else where traffic lights are actually part of the main interstate highway route.  As a result of every I-70 traveler having to stop here, Breezewood is mainly just a bunch of gas stations (truck stops) and hotels.

The road that motorists encounter when I-70 comes to a halt is actually the Lincolnway, U.S. highway 30.  Since I have some extra time on my journey, and some level of disdain for the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I decide to follow the Lincolnway through much of Pennsylvania and check out some of the sights along the way.

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After bypassing the larger towns of Everett and Bedford, I make my first stop at a place called Shawnee State Park, roughly 5 miles west of Bedford.  I have always been kind of impressed with Pennsylvania’s State Park System.  I do not ever recall being asked to pay to enter a state park here, which is quite common in other states, and most of these state parks are well kept, even having recycling bins at some places.  The parking area here, less than mile off the Lincolnway, looks like the kind of place where one can relax, do a little hiking, and have a nice picnic.  After less than ten minutes of walking I discovered something truly amazing!

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Lake Shawnee actually reminded me of what I would consider one of my dream vacations.  One of the things I would love to do most is get somewhere between 8-14 fun, energetic people and go to a cabin or campground near a lake just like this one.  It would involve boating, swimming, beach volleyball, a little bit or partying, and some hiking, all of which seem readily available at this place.  In addition, this state park is well out of the way of most major cities, and the lake area is also out of the way of any parking lots, which would make for a true escape from day-to-day life.

It was already closed for the season by the time I arrived, but I could imagine this place in summer, with people swimming, boating, and just relaxing.  Well, not relaxing the way many of us think of it.  I will refer to it as “relaxation for the active”.  For those of us that would not necessarily enjoy a full day of just sitting around and watching T.V., this would be our version of relaxing and getting away from it all.  For people with very fast paced lives and/or high intensity goals like training for a marathon, it would still represent a slow-down of sorts, and I would still consider it a way of recharging.

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A few miles farther west, the Lincolnway enters a section of Pennsylvania referred to as the “Laurel Highlands”.  I am not sure if this is an official region, or some kind of a tourism marketing strategy.  There was a section of brochures dedicated to this part of the state at the Pennsylvania Welcome Center.  Upon entering the Laurel Highlands, the highway actually ascends up a fairly steep slope, going from basically sea level to periodic summits between 2600 and 2900 feet in elevation.

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One of the main points of interest in this region is the United Flight 93 memorial near Stoystown, PA.  On September 11, 2001, terrorists hijacked this plane as part of a four plane attack on the United States.  Two of the planes were flown into the World Trade Center, and one was flown into the Pentagon.  This flight was headed for the Capitol Building (most likely) when the passengers and crew on this flight mounted a plan to retake the plane.  Their plan caused enough confusion to prevent a fourth strike that day, and the plane instead crashed in an empty field in Southwestern Pennsylvania.  All of these passengers, as well as the flight crew, lost their lives that day.  All 40 of them are buried and memorialized on this site.  I don’t know the names of these people, nor will I ever.  But they are people who truly embodied the word courage, and made an unexpected sacrifice for their country.  In a strange way I felt their presence here as people who have earned, and deserve all of our respect.  I would never had thought of this had I not traveled through this area, but I am really glad that someone decided to put up a memorial to these 40 heroes of recent American history.

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For almost all of this stretch of the Lincolnway, the towns I go through are really quite small.  In fact, they are smaller than I expected.  Finding even your basic road trip mainstays like McDonalds and Subway was quite difficult.  One could also see some remnants of the pre-interstate days on this road much the same way they could see these remnants traveling route 66.  Some of these motel signs even contained some outdated advertisements, such as “Color TV”.  I have a DvD series at home about route 66, which discusses all of the famous stop-off places along that route.  I wonder if anything similar has been done for the Lincolnway.

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On the other side of the main summits in the Laurel Highlands, I stop at one of the State Parks, a place called Linn Run State Park.  This one, several miles off the Lincolnway, is quite different.  It is far more of a rustic fishing and hiking state park, with some really beautiful fall colors at this time.  The main odd thing I saw here were little homes, most likely people’s second homes, inside the park.  I did not know State Parks allowed people to build homes in them, but apparently this one does.

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Continuing west on U.S 30 the drive got a little bit frustrating.  Just past the town of Ligonier, the road opens up into a multi-lane highway, but it does not take long for the road to become suburban in nature, with lots of traffic lights, shopping malls, etc.  Traveling roads like this does take significantly more time than traveling on an interstate.  This is why nearly everybody that travels long distances across the country takes almost exclusively interstate highways.  However, I have noticed today, traveling along the interstate does often mean missing some great places along the way, and I truly enjoyed having the time to take this route.  On the interstate, travel is quite monotonous.  Every exit seems to largely have the same places, the same gas stations, the same fast food, etc.  This is especially true of roads like the Pennsylvania Turnpike, where exits can be over 20 miles apart in places, and most of the eating/fueling is done at rest stops, which are designed to all look the same.  Travel on state and U.S. highways, and one can see what makes each town unique, and see spots that they cannot see anywhere else.  This is why I enjoy traveling on roads like this when not in a hurry.

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My final stop-off was somewhat of a disappointment.  In the travel guide I picked up at the Pennsylvania Welcome Center, I saw an advertisement for a Big Mac Museum.  I immediately thought it was a neat concept.  I wondered how much material there would be about one single sandwich, but was intrigued by the idea of a museum dedicated to one sandwich.  However, this museum was not really a museum.  It was just a McDonalds with a giant plastic Big Mac and Big Mac related newspaper clippings behind some glass thrown periodically throughout the restaurant as decorations.  It is really no more special than the “Rock N Roll McDonalds”, and if this can be considered a “museum”, than every single Five Guys can be thought of as a museum to their burgers.

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Knowing that the Lincolway was about to go through even more suburbia and then downtown Pittsburgh, I decided to finally hop on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.  I got on at exit 76 and followed it the final 76 miles to the Ohio border.  This cost me $4.80 in tolls, which reminded me of another reason I dislike traveling on this road.  However, more important than the price of toll roads is the opportunities provided by other roads.  By traveling the Lincolnway across part of Pennsylvania, I got to see some magnificent state parks, some interesting towns where I could picture the day to day lives of people much different from me, and part of our nation’s history.

Gettysburg 150 Years Later

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When any American thinks about the key places in the American Civil War, Gettysburg is without a doubt one of the first to come to mind.  It was here that the war reached some kind of turning point.  As I had learned in history class, prior to the Battle of Gettysburg the momentum in the war was clearly with the Confederates.  The Union victory at this battle turned the tide of the war, which eventually resulted in a Union victory.  I sometimes speculate that the history is actually more complicated than this narrative.  But, this narrative does seem like it makes a good high-level summary, and the Gettysburg Battlefield is an important battle regardless of what other factors and events contributed to the Civil War’s outcome.

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The town of Gettysburg is a fairly small town in South Central Pennsylvania close to the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.  After a string of victories, Robert E. Lee determined that if he could wind a few decisive victories in “northern” towns, he could demand some form of surrender in Washington.  I am guessing that meant the United States recognizing their independence.  Effectively, the invasion of Gettysburg was part of a plan for the South to complete their victory.

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Most of the Battle occurred just outside of town.  The first shot was fired in a field a little bit west of town, as the confederates invaded from the west.  It was tough to get a good picture of this monument due to the sun angle, but this marker indicates where the first shot actually took place.

Due to the chaotic nature of battles, it is hard to follow all of the events in Gettysburg in chronological order without criss-crossing paths and recovering ground.  The Gettysburg Military Park offers a driving route that covers many of the battle’s key locations and events, but it does not cover them in chronological order,

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One of the first places I visited after the location of the first shot is this cut in the railroad tracks that many soldiers used strategically to hide from bullet shots.  What I find amazing was that this land had already been cut out and these railroad tracks had already been built.  From what I remember about railroad history, 1863 was still kind of early in the development of the railroads.  So, I conclude that Gettysburg was somewhat ahead of the game with regards to getting railroads through their town.

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The entire battlefield area, which is quite large in area (a couple of dozen square miles) has plenty of monuments to specific people involved in the battle.  And, in order to attract visitors from all places, the monuments represent both the Union and Confederate sides.  This monument to Robert E. Lee is placed near a giant field where the Confederates made the final blunder of this battle.  Essentially, both the Union and Confederacy had “lines” where they had set up, and faced each other from roughly a mile away.  On the final day of the battle, General Pickett marched a whole bunch of Confederate soldiers right into the center of the “Union” line as part of a three-prong strategy that did not work.  There were massive casualties, and some soldiers even aborted the mission.  General Lee admitted his mistake to the remaining troops.

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The battlefield also contained a lot of replicas of cannons from the civil war era.  I could not really figure out the rhyme or reason as to why they were placed where they were placed.  But, there were a lot of them.

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Gettysburg is somewhat of a strange place as the area seems to have a mixture of open fields and more wooded areas.  I was told that some of these areas were not as wooded in 1863 as they are today, but given how long trees live, some of these trees had to have been here in 1863.  In fact, there is one section of the auto tour where the trees appeared to be a nice fall color, an added bonus of the trip.  It was here, in a wooded place called “Little Round Top”, at the southern flank of the battle lines, that one of the key turning points in the battle occurred when Union troops fought back a Confederate advance on the second day of battle.  It was a turning point event of a turning point battle.  This one spot can almost be thought of as a place that changed history.  It is amazing how what was once just a pile of rocks on a gentle slope now becomes one of the places that shaped our country and who we are.

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There are also several places on site where the war turned uglier.  By this I refer to areas where casualties mount, but little to no land actually changes hands.  This is how I imagine the “trench warfare” during WW1 to have been.  This one wheat field apparently changed hands over six times during the three day period of the battle.  Hundreds upon hundreds continued to die with neither side advancing too much.

 

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I kind of ended up on information overload a bit.  There is a lot to understand about this battle, and prior to today I had really only thought of it as the battle, and the Gettysburg Address.  We decided to stop for lunch at a place called the Appalachian Brewing Company, which has a whole bunch of locally brewed beers, and burgers with their label on them.  I have never really seen any company burn a label into a burger bun.  Last week I saw how the Louisville Slugger bat company burns their label into their bats, but a burned label into a burger bun seems quite unique and different to me. Either way, it was an interesting experience, and I left the place actually feeling a little bit tipsy after this beer “flight”.

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After lunch, back on the battlefield tour, I did do a couple of things one could consider a bit goofy.  I saw a spot on Little Round Top where they had created an iconic image of the Civil War, a photograph of a dead Confederate soldier.  I hope I did not offend anyone when I decided to reenact this photo.  Sometimes I like to feel history come to life when I visit these places.  This is why I was excited to see a Civil War reenactor standing at the top of the hill.  I actually wonder how often Civil War reenactments occur in Gettysburg.  I imagine a lot, and I picture the 8,000 people that live in Gettysburg to run into, and even be delayed by Civil War reenactments all of the time.

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The battlefield also contains memorials to all of the infantry units that fought in this battle.  Each one of these memorial stones contains statistics about the number of soldiers lost in battle.  Reading just some of these stones I conclude that nearly half the people who came to this battle did not leave.  This, of course, is what makes war so sad.  Military history can be interesting, and it sounds like fun to take part in one of those reenactments.  But it is important to remember how many people do lose their lives whenever there is war.

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From the statues commemorating Abraham Lincoln, and the naming of one of our oldest cross country routes the Lincolnway, the impact that the outcome of this battle has had is quite evident all around us.  After hearing all of these details about the battle, strategies, events and such, my main takeaway from all of it is that General Robert E. Lee lost this battle due in part to an over aggressive strategy following a series of decisive victories.  When I process this through my head it actually makes a great deal of sense to me.

I think we have all been in situations where we get arrogant, aggressive, and sloppy after a series of ego boosts.  I can relate this to sports teams that blow giant halftime leads, and executives that push through major new product lines without the full vetting of the product.  It is easy to get caught up in a “winning streak”, and lose sight of the need to make careful decisions.  I do not know if the war’s outcome would have been different had Robert E. Lee exercised a bit more patience and due diligence at this point in time.  The war had other fronts and many battles elsewhere.  It is still strange to think about that possibility though, the possibility that the world could be completely different if only a few events at a key point in history had unfolded differently.  Alternate history writing often makes that speculation, and also speculates about how today’s world would be had the outcome been different.

Would the Southern and Northern States have ever reconciled their differences and reunited?

When would the Confederate States have outlawed slavery?

Could this have changed the outcome of the 20th century conflicts in Europe?

These questions and many more are discussed by many writings and videos often with wildly different answers.  There is no real way of knowing what would have happened had this war turned out differently.  This is part of what makes it fun to speculate.  However, Gettysburg is not about alternate history.  It is about real history, and history we can learn from.  This is why I find it important to not just learn the fact, but also the lessons.  One can memorize the sequence of events in this battle, and every battle of the Civil War but still fail to take away the lessons from it.  One such lesion from this battle is to make sure we all continue to make smart decisions even when our egos have been boosted and our confidence peaked by a series of victories, in any situation in life.

Anne Arundel County and the DelMarVa Peninsula

Anne Arundel County is my favorite county in Maryland.  It sits on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay, south of Baltimore (and Baltimore County), and east of the counties in the D.C. area.  Many people are surprised that I have a favorite county in Maryland.  But, I feel like Anne Arundel County provides visitors with an experience that seems quintessentially Maryland to me.  It’s primary city, Annapolis, is characterized by the colonial development style that makes these early colonies on the eastern seaboard distinct from much of the rest of the nation.  However, much of the rest of the county is suburban in nature, which is really what much of the populated part of Maryland is like today.  With it containing a shoreline on the western banks of the Chesapeake, many of the boating activities synonymous with Maryland culture have a significant presence in this county.

In my experience here, which is quite extensive, as I have an Aunt and Uncle who used to live here, and good friends that still do (whom I am visiting this weekend), it seems as though this part of Maryland is not as politically charged as the counties to the west, adjacent to D.C.  Those areas actually feel more like an extension of D.C. than really Maryland, the same way Arlington and Alexandria seem more like a D.C. extension than Virginia.  Both of these areas are significantly different culturally from the rest of their respective states, and therefore a visit to Silver Spring is no more of a “Maryland experience” than a visit to Arlington is a “Virginia experience”.

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I have some amount of destain for politics and politicians at this time.  It is not that politics is not an interesting topic of conversation and not significant.  It is just that the way we practice and discuss politics in this nation at this time has this strange way of bringing out the worst in people.  Right now, I view Washington D.C. as a group of people who generally view themselves as way more important than they are/ should be, and therefore I had no desire to pass through this city at this time.  So, I went around on the “beltway” to get to Anne Arundel County.

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My friends live in a row house in Millersville, MD.  The section of houses they live in is not too uncommon for this part of the country.  It is crowded and the houses actually connect to one another.  Saturday was a housewarming party, and my contribution was a bottle of Bourbon I had picked up on the Bourbon Trail in Kentucky on Wednesday.  It is Bourbon Cream from Buffalo Trace.  It tastes like Bailey’s, only better.  It went over well at the party, and I would recommend it!

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On Sunday we took a drive over the Bay Bridge over the Chesapeake Bay to an area referred to as Maryland’s “Eastern Shore”.  The Bay Bridge is a really neat bridge.  It is a classic for those that love bridges.  The main marvel of engineering on this bridge is how long the bridge is, 4.3 miles.  It is a testament to the amazing engineers that we have in this country that I, along with millions of drivers each year, cross this bridge, over 150 feet above the water’s surface for this long of a span of time and distance without feeling nervous about the integrity of the bridge.  I think more people complain about the toll than anything.

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Traveling through Maryland’s eastern shore, first on U.S. 301, then on state route 300, I am quite surprised by the scenery I encounter.  After the first few miles off the bridge, where the same shoreline features that are common in Anne Arundel County seem prevalent, I actually encounter farmland that reminds me of the midwest a bit.  Not as many trees have been leveled here to make way for farmland as have been in northern and central Illinois, and the trees are a bit denser in the non leveled places.  But, many of the crops are the same.  And, I surprisingly encounter some irrigation devices too.

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Our destination is Dover Downs, a “racino” (which refers to a racetrack that is also a casino).  Unlike many of the other racinos I have been to, this particular one has both a horse racing track and a NASCAR track.  NASCAR hosts a couple of races here each year.  I headed into the club box, where all of the rich people would sit during these races, as well as their horse races, which occur more frequently.  But, there were no races, for cars or horses, today.

The other thing that differentiates this place from other racinos I have been to is that the casino part of the facility is a full casino, and offers you a casino experience equivalent to visiting a standard casino.  By this I mean that every table game, from the common black jack and craps, to games like pai gow poker, can be found here.  Also, there are no alternate rules that change the experience, such as no alcohol sales or the requirement of a “rake” at the black jack tables.  At Canterbury Park in Minnesota, for example, every $10 black jack bet requires the player to chip in a 50 cent “rake” that the casino just takes.  This makes it nearly impossible to win, and not a great place to gamble.  No such restriction exists at Dover Downs, and I appreciate that.

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After the racino, we head back into Maryland, but not quite back over the Bay Bridge.  This was so that I could take part in an activity that I have always closely associated with Maryland; eating crab.  In fact, I can barely remember the last time I came to Maryland without going out for crab.  There is really nothing like eating seafood when it is fresh, and being that I currently live in land-locked Colorado, it was imperative that I have a seafood meal while in Maryland.  The restaurant I was taken to is called Harris Crab House, and it is right along the shore of the Chesapeake.  There is nothing better than eating crab while staring right at the body of water the crab was just caught from. It is beautiful in two ways.  The views here not only make me think of both the tranquility and adventure that can be achieved on water, but also reassure me of the freshness of my food while serving as a reminder of how connected the culture of this region is to the water.

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Not only did I get to see the sun set over the bay, something that is possible because we are east of the bay, but the stairs of the restaurant also had a marker marking the high point of the water during Hurricane Isabel.

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Apparently hurricanes Irene and Sandy did not bring water as high in the Chesapeake as Isabel, a 2003 North Carolina landfall.  The marking labeled here reminded me how much coastal storms are also a part of life here.  I saw plenty of boats on the water, both out in the open and docked.  Many of these boats would be submerged if this event were to repeat itself.  I also imagine these boats being battered by the wind, in this hurricane, the two more recent ones, as well as the dozen or so “Nor-Easters” that occur in these parts every winter.

Maryland has other parts, including Baltimore city, the D.C. influenced suburbs of Montgomery and Prince George Counties and western Maryland’s mountains.  However, for some reason, when I think of Maryland, and the things Maryland is most known for, I think primarily of the places and I activities I have seen here in this part of the state.  It may be a while before I have another crab meal like the one I had today.  In fact, I was too preoccupied with eating to take any pictures.  So, I am quite glad to have had a good Maryland experience this weekend.

A Drive Across Virginia

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Virginia is a very pretty state.  It is kind of an overlooked state when it comes to natural scenery.  At least it is from the perspective of someone who has spent most of their lives in the Midwest.  I know Shenendoah National Park can be quite nice, but I did not set aside time to visit on this road trip.  Instead, I chose to go straight from the Great Smokies to Farifax Co./ the DC Metro area.  This made for a long drive, nearly 8 hours, but it was a very pretty drive too.

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I spent most of the day on Interstate 81, which I was on for 300 miles from the TN/VA state line to Strasburg, VA, where I turned onto I-66.  Through the Southwest part of Virginia, I was able to see mountains on both sides of the highway, but without driving up or down any major terrain features.  This differs greatly from many of the scenic drives I have taken across the state of Colorado, which typically involve driving up and down mountains.  The mountains here, while legit, also seem to be spread out a bit more, making for a scenic, yet still relaxing drive.

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It was also nice to have relatively cheap gas.  I filled up in Wytheville (which I am told is pronounced with-ville), a town that is kind of in the shadows of a couple of fairly major mountain peaks.  Later that day, we would actually have a fairly in-depth discussion about some of these strange pronunciations of place names, and how they effective act as a manner in which people use to identify outsiders.  If I were to have talked to any local, I would have tried to pronounce the name of this town the way it is spelled, making it clear that I am not from here.

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After my stop in Wytheville, the highway actually took me closer to the mountains, but still without a major climb.  This part of the drive is quite scenic.  The only thing I wish they had was more rest stops/ scenic overlooks like there are in other parts of the country.  But, with nearly all of this interstate being quite scenic, the people who designed this highway probably find little need to identify one specific spot as worthy of a pull-off.  Instead, I think the point of this experience is just to have a nice, consistent drive.

Also, at this point I got a pleasant surprise when the sun emerged and the clouds gradually dissipated.  By the end of the day/drive it would be completely sunny.  The sun made it pleasant, and warmer by my next stop.

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Virginia does not seem to me like the kind of place for the truly rebellious, anti-establishment types.  At least it doesn’t seem so from this particular drive.  Throughout the drive I continually saw signs indicating that the speed limit was enforced by aircraft, something I have not seen in any other place I have driven in recently.  The rest stops contained a lot of police related messages, and I did see a lot of highway patrol on the road, either pulling someone over, or waiting in the median, clocking people.

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The second half of the drive up I-81 drives around Shenendoah National Park.  I am not sure whether or not this particular feature I am looking at is part of the park or a ridge outside the park.  This is part of what happens when travels take you to a place that is unfamiliar.  If I were somewhere I currently, or have ever lived, I would be able to pick out all of the land features based on memory.  In places I have never been to, I am left with pure speculation, or the prospect of buying a map to figure it out.  With all of the drive along both I-81 and I-66 I certainly believe I saw some features from the road associated with the national park, but I am also left kind of wishing I had set aside some time to visit the park, or at least drive through.

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After a long day’s drive, I approached my destination glad I was traveling in the direction I was traveling in, eastbound on I-66.  The traffic going the other way was quite heavy, most likely people from the D.C. area headed out of town for the weekend.  Many were probably on their way to Shenendoah National Park to see it during the peak fall foliage season.  There also could have been some people who live that far away from the city, as I had already begun to see housing developments and such appear.  As a person who has always generally lived in a metropolitan area, there is something about the appearance of traffic, extra lanes on the highways and signs for park-and-rides that makes me feel at home after a long drive like this.

I had heard the Interstate 81 across Virginia was a pretty drive and I am glad to have done it.  I really appreciate how one can look at the mountains, off to both the left and the right, without having to traverse through anything majorly treacherous.  This combination of features made the drive unique, and kind of made it a relaxing drive.  Well, if it weren’t for signs telling me airplanes were tracking my speed in a state known to have a sizable military presence, it would have been quite relaxing.  Also, with Friday starting off cloudy, but clearing out sometime shortly after noon, I got to experience the scenery in both cloudy and sunny skies.  Maybe the features look slightly better in the sun, but the early part of my drive was still quite nice underneath a cloud deck, making it a drive that would be pleasant for many motorists in many different conditions.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

America’s most visited National Park is Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Situated  in the Southern Appalachian Mountain Range, along the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, it is not the easiest place to get to.  When I think of National Parks, places like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon first come to mind.  This is why I am somewhat surprised that this National Park takes the prize as most visited, with something like 10 million visitors annually.

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The drive down to the Smoky Mountains was quite scenic.  It was mostly along Interstate 75, which I joined just north of Richmond, Kentucky.  Mountains began to appear as I approached the border of Tennessee.  And, with it being a cold morning, fog appeared along the sides of the mountains near the border.  I have only driven this road once before, but I actually recall it being prone to fog.  I even remember fog related caution lights the last time I was here, which I did not see this time.

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As I approached the National Park, I began to think that there may be places besides the National Park itself that are just as scenic.  I knew the park would be crowded, which it was, with slight backups on the way both in and out of the park.  I still wonder if I could have gotten the same experience at a slightly different location.  Most mountain ranges are larger than the parks that are built to celebrate them.

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As I entered the park I notice that the trees in this area have largely not turned yet.  This, of course, is at lower elevations, and as I traveled up the mountains, the scenery would change.  This is one of the things that made this trip quite interesting.

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My Thursday hike would take me up the Alum Cave Trail to the top of Mount LeConte.  This trail is right in the middle of the park, and one of the most popular trails here.  It is kind of describes as your “quintessential Smoky Mountain hike”, and since this is my first time here, I figured I might as well start with this one.

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The hike starts off somewhat easy.  The first mile or so treks along the valley of a creek, gradually gaining elevation from a start of something like 3500 feet to just over 4000 feet.  It is in this part of the park, the middle elevations (as it has places lower than 2000, but also peaks above 6000) where the fall foliage was at it’s peak this week.  Knowing this, I would still recommend late October as an ideal time of year to visit the Smoky Mountains.

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Arch Rock is the first defining feature on this trail, 1.4 miles in.  It is at this point that the trail becomes more difficult.  In fact, I think there are a lot of people that end their hike here.

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As I continue up the trail, I notice more great views of the mountains and the foliage.  The hike overall is somewhat difficult, but I would say I have done harder hikes in Colorado, especially due to the elevation.  However, I did get a chance to feel really awesome, as I was the fastest person on the trail that day.  I would spend most of the day passing people up, and only get passed up once, at the very end of my descent, right before reaching the car again.  This, of course, is the opposite of the experience that I typically have in Colorado, where I am the one usually getting passed up.  I should really not compare myself to others, especially regarding something like hiking, but it still felt kind of good, almost like I know what it feels like to be one of those guys with their headphones on running up Mt. Bierstadt.

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The trail’s main defining feature is Alum Cave, which is not a cave, but more of a series of bluffs.  This point is also a common stopping point for hikers.  It was a cold day, especially for Tennessee standards.  Highs would only get into the lower-middle 50s at the base of the mountain, and most of my hike would be in temperatures in the 30s and 40s.  A little nervous about the cold, I thought about stopping here, but decided to keep going anyways, up Mt. LeConte, which would take me over 6500 feet in elevation.

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I had perviously noticed a white looking feature to the top part of the mountains.  One could mistake this feature for snow, but one of the hikers informed me that it was a really heavy frost.  This, of course, is something that would never happen in Colorado due to the lack of moisture, and is one of many features that make the Appalachian Mountains different from the Rocky Mountains.  When I finally got to this level, I was relieved to find that this frost was not present on the ground, which would have made the hike slippery.

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There were some really neat icicle formations near the side of the trail, but there were really only one or two parts I would consider slippery.  The top of the mountain did have some dense pine forests.  With their heavy coating of frost, walking in and out of these areas was somewhat creepy feeling- appropriate for Halloween.  There was some wind at the top of the mountain.  It was no faster than 10 mph, but was enough to blow some of this frost off the trees.  The frost flying through the air felt kind of like it was snowing, but being the scientist I am, I knew that it was not actually snowing.

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0.2 miles before the top of the mountain, there were a bunch of cabins.  I actually saw some people with full backpacks headed there to stay the night.  The top of the mountain was foggy, which dampened my view.  WIth it being cold and windy, I only stayed up there for about 10 minutes; long enough to take this picture and eat a 6″ sub from Subway, which I brought with me in my backpack.

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The hike took me about 5 hours overall, 3 to get up and 2 to get down.  Other hikers told me that it was an impressive time, but I was kind of in a hurry, as it was cold and I did not want to take long breaks.  The additional time gave me a chance to see some of the park’s other features.

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The first of such features was the Newfoundland Gap, which was apparently discovered in the early 19th century as an alternate route to the Cumberland Gap.  Looking out at the natural features, I struggle to figure out where this gap is, and what makes it an easy route for settlers to get across the Appalachians.  I am guessing it is the valley between this hills, but it seems as though they would still have to climb to the elevation I am sitting at, 5048 ft.

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I also got to see a small section of the famed “Appalachian Trail”, which follows the high points along the NC/TN state-line through most of the park.

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I drove up the road to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in the park.  But, the cold, windy weather, and fog at the observation deck stopped me from actually going up there.

Overall, I enjoyed my experience at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and I think the area offers something for everyone.  Just outside the park are the towns of Gatlinberg and Pigeon Forge.

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Both towns are quite touristy, with tons of restaurants, hotels, and other attractions like roller coasters and family fun centers.  However, Gatlinberg was more dense, the kind of place where one would largely walk to most of the places they desire to go to.

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Pigeon Forge, on the other hand, is a driving place.  I saw few people walking around here (as I saw a lot in Gatlinberg), but there were still tons of attractions, probably even more than in Gatlinberg as Pigeon Forge is home to Dollywood.

For those that want a more rustic experience, there is plenty of that too.  In fact, just off the Smoky Mountain Parkway (the highway that connects these two towns to Interstate 40), it gets a lot more rustic quite quickly, with lots of cabin sites, but also areas with tubing and other outdoor activities.  I can imagine nearly everyone getting something out of their Smoky Mountain experience, and I can imagine spending a significant amount of time here.  Between this, my experience in Nashville last year, and what I hear about Memphis, Tennessee seems to me like a state that really knows how to party!

One other thing I noticed while in Tennessee is that there are parts of the country where Krispy Kreme donuts are still popular.  In fact, my hotel offered free Krispy Kreme donuts to their guests, as a manner in which to draw people (as competition is quite stiff in this area).  In this part of the country, Krispy Kreme donuts were popular long before the Krispy Kreme fad up north around a decade ago, and remain a cultural institution.  When I ate my donuts, I realized once again that these are good donuts.

We urban, cosmopolitan, northerners (or however you describe pop-culture influenced mainstream America) seem to do a good job of taking cultural mainstays from other regions and turning them into short-lived fads.  Shortly after the Krispy Kreme fad (which was roughly 2001-2004), we created a fad out of Caribbean reggaton music, culminating with Daddy Yankee’s widely successful BarrioFino album.  For those that don’t know, Daddy Yankee is still producing albums that are widely successful in the Caribbean, and even moderated a gubernatorial debate in Puerto Rico.  We are now doing the same thing with twerking, which has been part of African American culture for two decades.  Actually, that fad may already be over!

After my breakfast, I head back to the park to visit one last destination; Cades Cove.  This part of the park is mainly for wildlife viewing.  I have limited luck, as much of the area is pretty empty.  There are a lot of horses here, but that is kind of what I expect.  I was amazed, though, at how people went right up to the wildlife, even if it was deer, something I see all the time.  At the other National Parks I have visited this year, mainly Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain National Park, anywhere I’d seen wildlife, there were park rangers making sure people don’t get too close.  Here, it appeared as if people were walking up to the animals, just daring them for a fight.

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I would very much like to come back here.  There is so much more to see and do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, as well a in Gatlinberg and Pigeon Forge.  However, I am also curious to go somewhere else in this mountain range where it may be less crowded.  Perhaps I could go somewhere like Mount Mitchell, or to an area north or south along the range, just to see if the foliage and hiking experience would be just a good without the traffic and crowds.  However, I do think it is interesting to see these mountain ranges in the east, as they are quite different from the Rocky Mountains, near where I live.  They have much more of a densely forested feel to them than the wide open Rockies.  The colors are different, and the mountains feel somewhat different in orientation.

 

Louisville Slugger and the Bourbon Trail

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How many people can name one company that manufactures baseball bats?

How about two?

There are probably a lot of people involved with the sport of baseball that can name two or more, but I would reckon to say that most people can name one bat manufacturer; Louisville Slugger.  The truth is, there are over 30 other bat companies, but unlike some other industries, like automobiles and soft drinks, there is a clear leader in this industry.  This is why the Louisville Slugger bat factory is a must see for any baseball fan.  My last time driving through this area, not seeing this bat factory was my one regret, so I have chosen to make this a top priority on this trip to Kentucky.

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Getting into Louisville was a little bit of a struggle today, as I hit some major traffic and had to take an alternate route.  But, after this minor delay, I was still able to make it in time to get a spot on the 10:00 bat tour.  This is one major advantage of traveling on weekdays.  In fact, time-off considerations aside, I would definitely recommend to anyone to travel in the manner in which I have, designating weekends for parties and such, and leaving the “touristy” activities like this one to weekdays where there will be less tourists.  When being a tourist, you do not want crowds, when partying, you likely want at least some crowds, or are at least less impeded by them- something to definitely consider.

The bat factory tour was well worth the $11 fee, which also included souvenirs, and a museum with exhibits about both the history of Louisville Slugger bats and the history of Major League Baseball.  I am quite astonished by the number of bats this company produces every year, and how quickly they produce customized bats for major league baseball players.  As I watch the World Series tonight, I realize that I will never look at something as simple as a player knowing they have another bat available to them after breaking one the same way again.  A lot of work goes into producing these bats, starting with trees being cut down in the forests of Pennsylvania and New York, followed by the wood being shipped to Louisville to be sorted, cut, and customized to everyone’s individual use.  It is strange to me how easily a ballplayer will throw a bat away due to frustration, slumps, etc. when so much effort was needed to produce that bat.

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Louisville is the largest city in Kentucky, and it seems not too different from other cities of it’s size in the region, like St. Louis and Cincinnati.  For some reason they have this gold replica of the David Statue by Michelangelo.  I don’t know why this is here.  But, otherwise, it is just like any other downtown.  I see people in suits talking business.  I see science museums and performing arts centers.  Those sandwich shops where people go to lunch are there.  I even stopped at one.

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Kentucky is an interesting place.  It is definitely prettier than Indiana, with more trees and rolling hills.  I am glad they finally raised their state speed limit to 70 (from 65).  However, it is a place that is tough to categorize.  It is not quite part of the Midwest region, as it’s neighbors to the north are.  But, it is not exactly a true southern state either.  During the Civil War, Kentucky largely did not take a stance, as it was a “border state” that allowed slavery but did not secede from the union.  For this reason, and many others related to culture, climate, and geography, I can never figure out how to classify the state of Kentucky when I am describing the different regions in the United States.

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The state is also unique for several other reasons.  I head east to Frankfort, KY, the state capitol, to join up with the famed “bourbon trail”.  Here, I notice something I should have noticed before about the state; how old the buildings are.  Due to the fact that the easiest pass over the Appalachian Mountains was a place called the “cumberland gap”, near the borders of Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee, this state was settled earlier than states to it’s north and south.  Kentucky became a state in 1792.  Tennessee in 1796.  The states to the north and south would not become states until the 1810s.

In fact, given its’ size, the town Frankfort, KY most reminds me of is Annapolis, MD.  Throughout the center of town I see historic buildings, dating back to the later 1700s and earlier 1800s, and the buildings have that more colonial feel that is common on the east coast.  The road layout, and tree density all make me feel like I have reached the east, even though at one point in the early part of this country’s history, this was considered the west.

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My brief stint on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail first takes me to the Buffalo Trace distillery.  Here, I got to learn some strange facts that are second nature to bourbon enthusiasts, but facts I was unaware of, such as the requirement that a “bourbon” contain between 51 and 79 percent corn to be labeled as such.  From all of the spots on the tour out to the parking lot, the area has a distinct smell.  The smell is probably one that any employee of any distillery has become accustomed to, but it definitely smells strong and distinct.  All I can say is, I would not recommend anyone go to a bourbon distillery on a day in which they are nursing a rough hangover.

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My day ends in Versailles KY (which I am told is pernounced ver-sail-es, and not like the French city), home of the Woodford Reserve Distillery. This distillery produces some more high end whisky.  I drink it “neat” (i.e. no ice), which is what I was told is proper.  I’d say I am drinking it like a “real man”, but I also ordered a water.  So, if I was in an old western of sorts, this would not be acceptable.  Either way, I did drink it the real Kentucky way.  And, to add to the experience, I grabbed a few bottles of Ale 8 (a beverage that is unique to Kentucky), and mixed it with some bourbon for the last drink of the evening.  This gave me to total Kentucky experience.  Earlier this year, rapper Eminem said “Life’s too short to not go all out”.  I have taken a basic equivalent of this message to heart in many of the places I have visited this year, hoping to get the full experience of life in that place.  Heck, I even ate something called “turnip greens” and poured vinegar on them (which I think is the right way to eat them).

There is no real quick way to summarize Kentucky and what Kentucky is all about.  I’d come up with something along the lines of saying that it is like Virginia and Texas had a baby, but that would ignore many of the other unique qualities of this state.  Kentucky produces 95% of the world’s bourbon.  Whisky produced in other states takes on different forms.  Princes and kings from other countries often come to Kentucky for horses.  These qualities are not shared by neighboring states the way one can say Illinois produces corn, like Indiana and Iowa.

Perhaps Kentucky is trying to teach me a lesson.  Maybe it is time for me to stop trying to categorize states, and just visit places and take them for what they are.  Driving across endless seemingly identical corn fields in Indiana it becomes easy to lose sight of the fact that places are worth visiting because every place is unique, with a unique history, a unique geography, and a unique combination of influences that produces an experience different from other places.  The combination of rolling hills, bats, bourbon, and horses makes Kentucky a place like none other.

Interstate 65: The Raceway

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I designed a road trop that would mix the familiar with the new.  The first day of my road trip focused on the familiar, and few roads are more familiar to me than interstate 65 between Chicago and Indianapolis.  During my time living in the State of Indiana, people would often refer to Interstate 65 as “the raceway”.  This, of course, referred to how fast traffic would move on this highway.   Traffic most likely moves this fast on this particular road because the two cities it connects both contain a lot of fast drivers.  At the time when I was living in Indiana, the highway speed limit was 65 and traffic tended to move at a speed of about 80 mph.  Since then, the speed limit has increased to 70, meanwhile gas prices have risen substantially.  Still, with the exception of when trucks are slowing down the highway by passing one another, traffic moves at about the same pace.

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Most of this route would be considered quite dull by most.  It pretty much looks like this, open fields of corn and soy stretching endlessly into the distance.  And, there is little variance.  Nearly every highway I crossed would contain the same features, a few gas stations, and signs pointing motorists to both Chicago and Indianapolis.  For many, this is a dreadfully dull ride, but for me it is slightly differnt.  As I had spent a significant amount of time in the area, and gained a lot of interesting experiences here, the highway actually brought back a plethora of memories for me.  Many of the exits I encountered on this trip reminded me of interesting experiences I had years back.  It was almost like a trip through a period of my life, and almost like I was reliving many of these memories.

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I felt it appropriate to stop at Arbys, a staple of this region.  In fact, whenever I think of central Illinois and Indiana, I think of Arbys, as they are plentiful here.  One time, while driving interstate 55 from Saint Louis to Chicago, I decided to count the number of Arbys- there were 13, and that was only the number I could see signed from the highway.

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There is one place where the endless fields of corn and soy give way to a very different scenery; in the vicinity of the Wabash River near Lafayette, Indiana.  WIth dense trees, and even a little bit of terrain, this region is always a welcome break from the monotony of this trip, even when I am reliving memories from my past.  In fact, I recollect this area being one of the few areas I explored beyond the local fast food joints and truck stops on this trip.  I was hoping for more color, given that it is well into October, but I heard that the weather had just cooled down recently.  So, the colors will have to wait.

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Indianapolis is not a glamorous city.  In fact, it is mostly known for being quite affordable compared to most cities its’ size and larger.  I recall seeing lists that compare median income to median home costs, and seeing that Indianapolis is one of the easiest places for someone with the average paying job to afford a home.

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However, it is not without its’ interesting places.  The bike trails here are pretty unique, albeit they do not seem like they would be efficient.  In town, I got the chance to check out the Indianapolis City Market, which seems like the kind of place people go to eat lunch during an average workday downtown.  By the time we arrive there, around 4:15 P.M., most of the businesses seem closed.  However, there is one open establishment, called the Tomlinson Tap Room that serves beer from different microbreweries throughout the state.  They even serve “flights” on boards shaped like the State of Indiana, which I found to be a unique idea.

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Looking at the clientelle at this establishment, it appears to be one of those after work type of places that tends to die down around 8 or 9 P.M.  Plenty of these types of places can be found in central business districts of many large cities, as other districts are more sought after with regards to nightlife.

Although I can never think of a defining feature about Indianapolis, I always enjoy my trips here.  My last time here was in 2010, when I was Wisconsin defeat Michigan State in the inaugural Big 10 Championship game.  I remember getting pitchers of Long Island Iced Tea for only $7 at a place called Tiki Bob’s.  And this was on a Saturday night, and the night of a major sporting event.  There is something to be said about affordable cities, and even affordable neighborhoods of our own cities.  People here seem to be enjoying the same experiences for a fraction of the cost.  Sometimes I even wonder if the joke is one me, and others that chose cities and neighborhoods that are trendy or well known.  They are probably sitting back, enjoying their $3 drinks and $550/ month apartments wondering why we pay so much to be where we are and do what we do.