Category Archives: Museums

When I Went to Cuba

 

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Okay, so it wasn’t Cuba, it was actually an exhibit at Denver’s Museum of Nature and Science.

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We travel to different cities, regions and countries to experience what we can’t experience at home. Sometimes, however, experiences from other places come to us. This is the case when a new restaurant, serving cuisine from the other side of the world opens, or when the stock show comes into town, parading livestock right through the middle of the city!

It is important for those of us that yearn to travel, share adventures, and learn about other cultures, but do not travel full time for a living, to take advantage of the times when experiences from other places come to us.

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It is human nature to be fascinated by what is not known. It is why children want to know what is in their parents secret closet, why many are fascinated by ghost stories and conspiracy theories, and why for our entire existence, humanity has speculated as to what exists beyond life and death.

Cuba is one of those places that, to Americans, is somewhat of a mystery. This exhibit brings that mystery to life.

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The main part of the exhibit is an area that is far more wide open than nearly all other museum exhibits. Cuban music, both traditional and modern are played, and performers jump on and off the stage. It is surrounded by some of the things that Cuba is perhaps best known for culturally; Cars built before the Cuban Embargo went into place in 1962, and outdoor produce markets.

Seeing the culture of a place in this format serves as a reminder that experiencing a place, whether it be a country, a region, or a city, is not just about going to landmarks. It is about the people, the day-to-day life, the music, the art, and traditions. It is hard for me not to feel as if traveling to a destination, and only experiencing the places listed in a travel guide causes many of us to miss out on what makes a place truly unique.

Of course, it is hard to write about Cuba without addressing Communism and relations between the United States and Cuba. As someone who believes that a free market economy is both the most efficient and most just manner in which to organize a society, it would be easy for me to simply dismiss and hate the recent history of Cuba. However, I am also a person who appreciates the complexity of every situation. What I dislike most about our present day political situation is seeing that which is complex and deeply philosophical reduced to catch phrases, jokes, and sometimes mean-spirited tribalism.

I had previously read about the complexity of the factors that lead to the Cuban revolution, and the fact that Fidel Castro did not declare himself communist until a couple of years after he took power. He may have only declared the nation communist to gain protection from the Soviet Union after realizing he would not have good relations with the United States.

Reflecting on this, as well as the U.S. interventions in Cuba prior to Castro’s revolution made me realize that there are two sides to every struggle and every revolution. There is the ideological side, which is often used to drum up support in cases like the Cold War. However, there is also a component of them that are just about power.

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The story of Cuba in the 20th Century is also a demonstration of the danger in tearing down what exists without a clear plan going forward. Many Cuban revolutionaries, and supporters of the revolution, ended up getting something far different than what they had envisioned. Reading about what happened to large segments of humanity in 1177 B.C., and then in 476 A.D., and even some modern day examples of revolts without an end game, the lesson is clear. Yes, we should be striving to make changes. But, it is often better to build on what already exists. If the system must be completely torn down, it is imperitive to have at least a framework for what replaces it.

The results of the Cuban revolution are also often judged differently by different people based on priorities. Cuba is far poorer than us, but in some ways more equitable.

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They have also managed to preserve nearly a quarter of their land for nature, and protect some species that cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

Additionally, the agricultural practices developed on the Island after the collapse of the Soviet Union caused them to lose access to many pesticides and chemicals significantly improved the health of their coral reefs.

Cuba has endured many changes. An 80-year old Cuban has seen Fulgencio Batista seize power, Castro’s revolution, the U.S. embargo, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the opening up on the Cuban economy over the past ten years. The exhibit ends with a series of statements made by randomly selected Cubans about the future of their country. Some express hope. Some express caution and resilience. There were even a couple that stated they do not want what we have, described as “excessive consumerism.”

The majority just learned how to just roll with the changes. After all, regardless of who does what in struggles for power, life goes on. The will always be music. There will always be culture. There will always be people with dreams.

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The Oregon Trail IRL

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We all remember playing the game as a kid. There was even a scene in the movie Boyhood, where the main character, Mason, is playing the game at school. Across multiple generations, it seems like nearly everyone, at least in the United States, has an experience playing Oregon Trail sometime between grades 3 and 8.

Strangely, I don’t recall the exact learning purpose. It seems like the game is about American History. However, nothing in the game requires players to remember historical facts. I bet that a lot of people play the game multiple times without even knowing that in the year it is set, 1848, James K. Polk was president and we were finishing up a war with Mexico. The game does seem to teach kids about geography, and some basic life skills like how to survive in the wilderness, plan a trip, and avoid disease.

The Oregon Trail IRL was a one time event, on a Saturday evening, at the History Colorado Center. It is only the third time I’ve ever consumed alcohol inside a museum, and is the kind of hands on event I would like to see more of at museums.

Don’t get me wrong, I do love all kinds of special exhibits, and the History Colorado Center had a great on on baseball at the same time.

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However, there is something about being able to physically interact with something like the Oregon Trail at a museum. As I had noted before, the permanent exhibits at the History Colorado Center are quite interactive, something I certainly appreciate. The Oregon Trail IRL, a one night event, is quite different a typical museum experience.

Participants took part in real life versions of the activities we all remember doing on the screen; fording a river, hunting, looking for wild fruit, and even fixing tires.

 

The only disappointment was that I sincerely expected to go to a room where we kill something like 2,400 pounds of bison, but are only able to carry 200 pounds of it back to the wagon. That seemed to always happen in that game.

It had not even occurred to me how much the event was about nostalgia until I entered a room called Ms. Frizzle’s Classroom Crafts.

 

Popular music from the late 1990s, such as Ricky Martin and Britney Spears were playing. There were old computers, overhead projectors, and everything people of a certain age range would remember about being in school. For a few minutes, I actually got quite emotional, remembering what childhood and being in school was like.

My mind instinctively turned to the good things, the things I wish I had more of in my adult life; Spending most of the day learning about a variety of different topics, and being surrounded by a community of people in the same situation as me (the class). Adulthood can be isolating, and many of us have jobs where we focus on one thing the entire day.

Nostalgia has its place. It is always fun to share fond memories with people. However, nostalgia can also be a trap. We often simplify the past, remembering experiences as only good or only bad, when the truth is far more complicated. I certainly long for the intellectual variety and the community I had during school. However, I would not want to return to an environment with all the social pressure and anxiety, where people are mean to those who do not conform to standards that in now way help anyone achieve success later in life. Like every chapter of our lives, this one had both positive and negative aspects.

Too much nostalgia can also get us too focused on the past. No matter how hard we try, the past cannot be re-created. However, the wisdom of these experience can help us make better futures, or, at the very least put into better context what we want, what we don’t want, what works and what doesn’t. The key is to not spend too much time dwelling on how much we miss our good times or how wronged we felt during our bad times.

At a young age, I recall hearing from a lot of older people that the music of “their era” was better. I started to recognize this as kind of a phenomenon, even though it does not have a name. It felt as if these people were culturally stuck, in a past era, 10, 20, or 30 years ago, however long it had been since their youth.

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I never wanted that for myself, because it feels like there is a connection between being stuck in the culture of the past, and being unable to adapt to a changing culture. As I get older, I plan to continue to follow whatever is new, culturally, as best as I can. In fact, despite the fond memories of the songs I heard in Ms. Fizzle’s classroom, I also remember that time period having some really bad ones as well. An idealized version of the past, in our heads, can prevent us from living our best lives in the present. Macklemore and Kesha, in their recent hit song Good Old Days, remind us that whatever situation we are currently in, is something we should be able to appreciate. This can’t happen if too much time is spent thinking about the past.

 

Nebraska Out of the Way Attractions

Smith Falls

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Smith Falls is pretty well hidden from most travelers. It is located in a very sparsely populated section of North Central Nebraska, far away from any heavily traveled interstate highway. It is also in a section of the country where few would expect to see a magnificent waterfall like this one.

Unless you are one of Valentine, Nebraska’s 2,820 residents, getting there is a long drive on empty roads, that even requires four miles on a gravel road off of State Highway 12.

Being so far out of the way of where people live and travel, the Niobrara Canyon, where Smith Falls is located, is quite secluded. The river itself looks nothing like the surrounding areas. The dense tree coverage feels reminiscent of places further East. It feels like the perfect destination for a private group experience; a float trip, family reunion, or some other group bonding experience.

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There does tend to be a few more people at the Falls themselves, as it is the main attraction at the State Park.

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Unlike some trails, visitors can freely walk right into Smith Falls without breaking any kind of rule. Many visitors bring swimsuits, and wear water shoes, as the trail to get from the parking to the falls is not vigorous at all, although it is about half a mile.

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Carhenge

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Carhenge, just north of Alliance, Nebraska, several hours west of Smith Falls is also quite far from any metropolitan area or heavily traveled highway. This image of an open two-lane highway with nobody else on it, wide open skies and small subtle sand hills in the background sums up the entire three hour drive between Smith Falls and Carhenge.

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While both attractions are out of the way, a few miles outside a small town (Alliance has a population closer to 8,000), in a way they could not be any more different. Smith Falls and the Niobrara Canyon is all about natural beauty, an attraction carved out of a glaciation event that occurred about 17,000 years ago. Carhenge is a homage to all things manmade, a recreation of Stonehenge, a mysterious pre-historic manmade structure, using a more modern human invention, cars.

Whereas Smith Falls is serious, Carhenge is has a goofy vibe. There is also more to Carhenge than just rusty old cars arranged like Stonehenge. This one vehicle apparently has a time capsule in it. In the year 2053, someone will open up memories of 2003, the last year before social media. That should be an interesting experience, especially for someone not old enough to remember such a world.

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There is also a car where people can write on.

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A few of these random structures that are made out of car parts, whose relation to the rest of the exhibit is not aparent.

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And, a car hood with a vaguely political sounding message on it.

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Chimney Rock

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Not too far from Carhenge is an attraction of both natural beauty and historical significance: Chimney Rock.

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Although this structure served as a landmark for Native Americans and fur trappers, its significance was heightened when South Pass (in Western Wyoming) was discovered to be the easiest passage across the Rocky Mountains. This lead to most major trails, including the famed Oregon Trail, being routed along the North Platte River, passing by Chimney Rock.

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Chimney Rock is a National Historical Site with a museum containing artifacts, primarily about the pioneers who traveled this route, including journals and letters written by those who made the journey.

It is hard to appreciate in the current era, where anyone with means can get on a plane and fly to some of the most beautiful places on Earth, but when pioneers in the mid-19th Century came across Chimney Rock, they were often in awe of its beauty. Many accounts went to great lengths to describe the structure that is Chimney Rock.

It was also recognized by those making the journey at the time as the point where the flat portion of the journey ended and the uphill part began. The journey ahead would become more rigorous, but also more beautiful.

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Nebraska is not always known as a place with a lot of natural beauty. However, it is not without its places to be appreciated. The truth is that beauty can be found pretty much anywhere, because, it is often not a specific place or a specific person. It is often an experience. A major part of the travel experience is driving. Nebraska offers open roads that pass by subtle features like the sand hills or the rock features further west. The key is to go a little bit out of the way, and to notice, be looking for what is around you. Then, with the right music on in the right vehicle (I personally found both classic rock and EDM to match this situation, you may find something different), the experience becomes a thing of beauty itself.

Stockholm’s Unique Museums

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Science, Art and History.

These are the museums that seem to appear in every city I visit. Many of them are great museums, with people doing great things! Several years back, I wrote very positively about the then relatively new History Colorado Center, and the recent trend where museums are increasingly including more interactive exhibits. At last summer’s TEDxMileHigh event, Chip Colwell, of the Denver museum of Science and Nature, gave an excellent speech about returning sacred artifacts to indigenous people.

However, sometimes I get more excited about visiting the museums that are more unique to a specific city. In Stockholm, there was no shortage of such museums. First, as pictured above, is the Nobel Museum, one that I would consider a must see!

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It includes galleries with artifacts from past Nobel Prize winners, exhibits about the history of the Nobel Prize, as well as the life of Alfred Nobel. Visitors can also quickly look up the Nobel Prize winner for any year, in any category by going one of a series of kiosks associated with each decade.

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In case you need inspiration, there are moving banners flying around the museum, each one with a picture and short description of the work of one specific Nobel Prize winner. They are in what seems like random order.

There is also a video room, a place one can easily spend a couple of hours. Videos in this room tell the story behind many of the Nobel Prize winners and their work. My favorite story was the story of Linus Pauling’s discovery of the double helix (structure of DNA, the basic building blocks of human genetics). Trying to determine how the chemical compounds would fit together spatially, he started folding sheets of paper around, eventually folding them into the shape of the double helix structure, which we now accept as scientific fact.

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It is hard not to admire scientific creativity after hearing a story like this one!

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There are also very few places in the world with a museum dedicated to one single musical act. With acts like Aviccii, Tove Lo and Swedish House mafia, it is hard to dispute that Sweden, a country of roughly 10 million people, produces its fair share of musical acts who are popular worldwide. However, ABBA seems to invoke a special amount of national pride, enough for them to have their own museum.

Unlike the Nobel Museum, which is right in the center of the city, on Gamla Stan island, this museum is a little bit out of the way, on an island called Skansen. It is also a little bit pricier. However, the museum was fun. It took interactive exhibits to a whole new level. Each ticket gives attendees the option to take a try at singing, dancing, producing music videos, as well as things like trivia and operating a mixing board! It also had some information about other components of Swedish musical history, including the EuroVision competition, and all the concerts that have played, over the years, at an amusement park called Gröna Lund.

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I left the ABBA museum somewhat unexpectedly sad. I did not previously know that the band was made up of two married couples, and that at the end of their run, both couples divorced, and the four best friends just simply went their separate ways.

I guess this is the same reason people cry at movies, and get emotional about people who are not a part of their lives, like famous couples. I know in my head that life has chapters, sometimes it is just time to move on, and that being both married and in a band with someone can lead to a disaster.

It was still hard to emotionally contemplate. I thought of the excitement that comes with every new relationship. I thought of how happy they all looked, in the music videos and photographs shown in the museum. Then, I thought of the arguments, the emotional pain, the sadness and the loneliness, how something so good could go so bad. Maybe they were all mature about it. I know, though, it is always hard. I thought back to the breakups I had in my past, specifically those that were “mutual” and “clearly for the best”. Even those breakups, while not causing years of heartache still had their messiness; arguments, nights without sleep, etc.

Stockhom certainly has other museums that are unique. The city’s most popular museum is dedicated to a 17th century ship that capsized within minutes. I chose, however, to visit a museum dedicated to Photography.

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This museum is interesting for three reasons.

1. It has no permanent exhibits; only temporary ones. This is an interesting concept, and a great way to appeal to locals.

This winter, there is a special exhibit dedicated to x-ray photography, something I knew little to nothing about before visiting this museum.

2. There may be more and more museums dedicated to photography in the future, as, although a century and a half old, photography is still relatively newer of a field than Art, Science, or History.

3. The museum actually boasts one of the best skyline views in the city, both from the riverfront outside the museum, as well as from the bar on the top floor!

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I believe there is something unique about every city I visit. Even the standard museums, the art, science, and especially the history museums showcase something unique to the city or region. Through visiting these places, we get an idea as to each place’s unique story. A part of Stockholm’s story is the story of Alfred Nobel’s writing a series of awards for human achievement into his will. It is the way local felt when ABBA won EuroVision 1974. It is also the photographs taken by local photographers displayed here every autumn.

I Like Ike

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There are Presidential Museums for every President that served over the past 100 years, usually located in or near the their “hometown”. Some of the more memorable presidents from the 18th and 19th Century also have museums dedicated to their lives and accomplishments. While some of these museums are located in or near major cities, there have also been a good number of presidents who came from small towns. Their museums can sometime be interesting places to stop while traveling.

The first time I ever visited a presidential museum, I was driving from Saint Louis to Chicago on Interstate 55, a drive that had become familiar and dull to me. It was a July day and temperatures were close to 100 degrees. I knew both me and my car needed a break in the middle of the afternoon. So, I visited the Abraham Lincoln Museum in Springfield, a museum I would certainly recommend. I love stopping at places like this on a long drive, allowing the body to move around a bit, and stimulating the mind with some historical information.  So, on my drive back to Denver from Kansas City, I decided to stop at the Eisenhower Presidential Museum in Abeline, Kansas.

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The museum is located in the EXACT SPOT that the former president grew up.

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On the museum campus is Dwight Eisenhower’s boyhood home, and, with admission, visitors get a brief tour of the house.

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Map from Museum’s Webpage- does not include parts of I-35

The museum is only a few miles from Interstate 70. As president, one of Eisenhower’s signature accomplishments was the signing of the Interstate Highway Act in 1956. So, it seems fitting that this interstate highway system would find a way to serve the town Eisenhower grew up in. Arriving here without using the interstate would feel wrong in a way.

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Every president, no matter the background, has two stories. A story about what they did before they became president, and the story about what they did as president. Before becoming president, Eisenhower was known primarily as the general that oversaw the Allies European Victory in World War 2.

In fact, Eishenhower’s military career, and exhibits regarding World War 2, appear to make up the largest part of this museum. Later in life, Eisehnhower himself considered his role in the military as the most significant one he had played. In his retirement, he preferred to be addressed as “General Eishenhower”, as opposed to “Mr. President” (which is how former presidents are usually addressed).

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After helping start the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), he decided to run for President of the United States in 1952. The museum portrayed him, in a way, as a reluctant president. There is no way of knowing what truly is inside anybody’s heart. However, the way the story is portrayed is not of a man with a strong desire to become president, but of a man who spent his entire life fulfilling the various duties to which he was called. After being called to do so by countless associates, supporters, and both major political parties, leading the nation, as president, was just the final in a series of duties he was called to and performed over the course of his life.

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The entire life story that is Dwight David Eisenhower felt like a story out of a completely different time in history. This idea seems almost like a long-dormant old folklore in American culture. The hero turned leader. A person who wins the adoration and respect of a large group of people based on some heroic acts and then goes on to lead decisively, yet not divisively. A person who sincerely tries to lead all the people, rather than just the ones that are supportive. And, a person who finds a way to be both transformative and a consensus builder with views that are strong without being extreme.

[I will leave the exact details of his presidency to the history books and the museum itself.]

This feels, in a way, like the exact opposite of what has been going on recently. When it comes to this idea of a military veteran/ war hero president, there are plenty of examples throughout history, but no clearer example than Eishenhower.

I do not want to make this another angry political blog (there are way too many as it is), but I do not consider our current president, nor his predecessor, to be a hero, at least not in a general sense like the heroes past. Sure, both men are heroes to a subset of our population. However, both men were also dismissive, and sometimes in a nasty way, to other groups of people within our country. Being the first president of mixed racial background, or the first non-politician president may be important steps for our country. But it’s hard to consider being a community organizer or a business tycoon “heroic” in the traditional sense.

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There is a time and a place for everything. Maybe the middle of the 20th Century was the time and the place for the hero. It could be seen throughout the culture of that time; the Western Hero/Villain movies, characters like the Lone Ranger, and such. Our society has changed significantly since then. Movies this decade more commonly feature protagonists with some form of character flaw, and antagonists who draw some amount of sympathy based on their life experiences or perspectives.

As our culture progresses, we enter a period where maybe we should not look to a hero, but within ourselves. Most of the problems we face today are not as straight-forward as a General coming in and defeating Nazis. They’re more complex, like structural racism which results from the cumulative effect of people’s individual attitudes and pre-conceptions, the negative emotional and communal effects selfishness and the accessibility of smart phones create, or the susceptibility of those that feel disenfranchised to messages promoting radical and sometimes violent behavior. They are not solved by a leader, an army, or a bunch of laws. They are solved by each person’s behavior, one by one, day in and day out.

The World War 1 Museum

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In my history classes in Junior High and High School, we spent plenty of time covering World War 2. In retrospect, I realize that the reason people love to talk about World War 2 is that it is the closest thing in history to a real life battle between good and evil. Nearly every other war, struggle, or conflict, no matter how it is portrayed in the history books, is far more nuanced.

What I learned about World War 1 can be rudamentally summed up into the following sequence of events….

  1. Some archduke got assassinated
  2. There were so many entangling alliances that countries one by one started declaring war on one another
  3. There were these trenches and a lot of people died
  4. America came in and saved the day

I later read that World War 1 may be way more significant than the amount of coverage it got in history class.  So, when I found out that Kansas City had a museum dedicated exclusively to World War One, I decided it was worth a visit.

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The main part of the museum depicts the war’s events in chronological order. Visitors walk through the museum, with the chronological order of events displayed on one side and a mixture of war artifacts and other exhibits on the other.

The museum is pretty well balanced between the global USA-specific perspectives. The first section is dedicated to the events before the United States entered the war (1914-1916).  In the middle, a video describes the sequence of events that lead to our entry into the war. The final section is dedicated to the events of 1917 and 1918, as well as how the world was changed by the war.

To truly get the most out of a visit to this museum, I would recommend setting aside at least a couple of hours to read through the full list of chronological events.  If you are like me, and always have a burning need to both think and talk through the implications of everything you read, an additional hour might be necessary.

I came away from this museum with an even greater understanding of how nuanced this war was. First of all, in some ways, this war is often seen in a historical context as inevitable. Nationalism was on the rise, there were ongoing technological and geopolitical changes, and there were all of those alliances. But, the war also started by accident! The mission to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand was aborted. However, the assassins that shot him did not get the message, and assassinated him anyways. This one event would trigger a cascading of war declarations that would descend nearly the entire world into war!

Also, in most wars there is one side that wins and another that loses. While this war had a winning and losing side, there were some exceptions. For example, Russia sided with the alliance that won the war. But, their war was on a different front, and, with a revolution at home that caused them to exit the war 18 months prior to the war’s conclusion, well, they lost. They clearly lost, and lost territory. Italy, the perpetual side switcher of Europe, also pretty much lost. And, the Serbians and Slavs, subjected to Austro-Hungarian rule, despite being on the losing side, won- they won their own nations.

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By the end of the day my mind was feeling, well, just busy. While looking backwards, 100 years in time, my mind kept drifting to the future. In a way, World War 1 created the modern world.  It created the shapes of many of our countries as they are today, but also solidified the concept of the modern nation. Before that there were far more empires, as well as loosely bound city-states. There are also a frightening number of parallels between the world leading up to World War 1 and the world today.

I just kept thinking about what is ahead in the context of what had already occurred. The world was not always the way it is today. It would be foolish to assume it won’t change in the coming years. Three decades from now, the very way our society is organized could be quite different from what we know today.

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The museum also had several special exhibits, the best of which covered how the war-torn French reacted to the United States entering the war in 1917. Children in school throughout France were asked to draw pictures, and write essays, describing how the U.S. entry in to the war made them feel.

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Why is it that we commonly get what we want at the wrong time? I remember joining alongside my classmates in school in groaning when asked to do additional assignments such as this one. Now that I am a full fledged adult, I often desire nothing more than to spend my days doing the kinds of things my teachers would ask me to do in school, rather the work I must do to earn a living. I imagine many young adults feeling the same way.

The other special exhibits at the museum covered revolutions and signs of how the world was changing, murals, maps of the conflict, artifacts such as Wilson’s war proclamation, and posters encouraging people at home to support the war effort.

The museum does contrast with some of the more recently built museums I have visited. Museums built or fully updated in the past ten years tend to have two distinctions from older museums.

  1. Far more interactive exhibits, and interactive exhibits geared not just toward children but also towards adults.
  2. A greater willingness to take a somewhat critical view of history from the protagonist perspective, such as the Colorado History Center’s exhibits about Japanese Internment Camps, racial resentment in Denver, and the Sand Creek Massacre.

This museum largely lacked these two features. There were only a couple of interactive exhibits, and they were quite basic.

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The war posters, both in the main section and the special exhibits, refrained from depicting the extremely negative portrayal of German-Americans during the war effort, sticking to propaganda posters encouraging citizens to buy bonds and such.

Likewise, the censorship and jailing of political opponents under the Wilson administration (among its other misgivings) are really not touched upon. Still, I came into my visit to this museum with a hard opinion that our entry into this war was a mistake, and was at least able to see a new perspective on this when reading all of the facts here at the World War 1 museum.

Exploring New Mexico

IMG_5660 (1).jpgThe northbound journey out of Santa Fe, along highway 84 towards Pojoaque, and Espanola could not possibly feel any more Southwestern.  Rolling hills are covered with bushes and sagebrush.  There are some trees here, but unlike in the East, their impact on the wide open landscape is minimal.  They are but mere dots, small points in a panoramic image that shows off the entirety of the landscape of the region, stretching for miles and miles.  As a consequence, mountain ranges can be seen in the distance in multiple directions.

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Artwork depicting the culture of the American Southwest can be seen quite frequently along this entire stretch of highway, on roadside decorations, bridges, and even buildings in the distance.  There is something about sculptures and murals like these that invariantly make me think of the Southwest, even when I am in a completely different region.  The use of colors in particular are reminiscent of this region, warm and dry but still American.  The colors are warm, reds, oranges, browns.  Even when they use “cool” colors, like green and blue, these murals somehow find a way to make these colors feel warmer than they typically do in other drawings and signage.

I wonder, as much of the artwork of the region originated with the Native tribes that thrived in the area roughly a millennium ago, if the styles that came to be predominant in this region are a mere reflection of the manner in which the landscape, and climate, impact the human psyche.  And, is this an aspect of human nature that transcends culture?  Did the Spanish, and White and Hispanic people who would later inhabit the region adopt similar artistic styles because they were responding to the same conditions around them and reflecting them in a similar manner?

The reason I was headed in this direction out of Santa Fe, other than just merely to explore, which I do believe is a reasonable pursuit in of itself, was the desire to see one of the most significant, but also confusing places in the United States; Los Alamos.  Los Alamos is a place where some of the top scientists in the world came together during World War 2 in order to build the nuclear weapons that eventually ended the war.

Of course, at the time, it wasn’t the Japanese, but the Germans who were the main subject of concern. It was rumored that the Nazis were building this capability, which could have significantly altered the course of the war.  The Manhattan Project was both highly secretive (Americans were largely unaware this was going on at the time), and quite controversial, as it still is today.

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The entire area has a feel that continues to reflect how Los Alamos came about.  Headed towards town, on highway 502 West from Pojoaque, road signs indicate that the stretch of highway is a “safety corridor”.  What does that even mean?  I have never seen this before.  Anywhere else, this road would have a higher speed limit, less fines, and would likely not have three lanes in each direction.  Something must be going on here.  But, is it still going on?  If so, what?  And, how much of a secret is it?

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The truth is, Los Alamos is a place like no other place on earth, and like the rest of New Mexico, cannot be placed in a specific category.  It is, indeed, a place where discoveries are made.  But, unlike many other towns with major labs, and I am particularly thinking of Boulder, Colorado, which is near my home, it does not appear laid back at all.  After parking, I had an intense experience crossing the street to get to the Bradbury Science Museum.  This crosswalk had a walk/ don’t walk voice command that spoke words with a level of urgency that appeared to highlight the National Security and wartime origins of this town.  It felt as if 70 years later, the mindset had never really changed from its wartime heritage.  Or, in the very least, the town had kept its infrastructure, which was built specifically for time of extremely heightened security.

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The Bradbury Museum is quite well done, and for those traveling on a budget, is free.

I’d say slightly over half of the museums exhibits focus on the Manhattan Project, the A-Bomb and the original history of the laboratory.  However, the laboratory is operational, and has been involved in some high caliber research over the last 70 years, in areas such as cancer detection, energy conservation, and wildfire prevention.  It is amazing to think, the same place, the same people, the same lab, and the same knowledge base was used both to create the most destructive item on the face of the earth, nuclear weapons, but also to advance humanity and help countless people better their lives!

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One of the reasons Los Alamos was selected as the location for this top secret lab, was that it had to attract top scientists, many of the young at the time, to a project that likely meant years in seclusion.  While these young scientists would not have the benefits of urban nightlife, for Los Alamos, and the laboratory, they found an area with plenty of opportunity for outdoor activities.  The volume of hiking trails throughout Los Alamos County (a relatively small county) reflects this history.

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Just West of town, and the lab, is a large area known as the Santa Fe National Forest.  This National Forest, in many ways resembles the National Forests that can be found throughout Colorado.  In fact, I can picture many of the same activities, backpacking, camping, and with the Jemez River, water activities such as fishing and boating.

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The main difference I felt, between here and many of the forested areas of Colorado I regularly frequent for hikes and such, is that this area seemed significantly less crowded- emptier.

Along highway 4, the main road through the forest, there is one area hot spot, a unique natural feature known as the Soda Dam, a waterfall the flows between a rock along the Jemez River.

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Not only does this area feature a waterfall unlike any other place on earth, but there are geothermal features that make this river a popular pseudo hot spring.  I say pseudo- hot spring, as the water is not really hot, as it is in some areas where water temperatures resemble that of a hot tub.  It is just simply warmer than you would expect it to be given its high altitude origins.  It was warm enough that people were able to comfortably swim in it.

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It is an area that is just simply peaceful and panoramic, the kind of place where one can simply turn off the wheels that churn in their heads as a result of everyday life, and just sit, swim, float, or fish, gazing in the distance at the majesty of the region.  Two weeks later, I still gaze at this very photograph and feel as if I am entering a much more peaceful state of mind.  I almost need to place it in front of my desk, as a stress reliever.

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The entire west is full of areas like this, where, due to unique geological history, the rocks take on a reddish color.  This is the color that many associated with the American Southwest.  Although most of Central New Mexico is much browner, especially in April, a section of bright red suddenly appears at the South end of Santa Fe National Forest, along highway 4, at the border of Jemez Pueblo, yet another Native American village.

The day ended with a final drive down highway 550 towards Albuquerque, where the Sandia Mountains, largely to the City’s Northeast, drew gradually closer as the drive progressed.

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Thinking about all of the beautiful places I saw over the course of the day, my main regret is spending too much of the day in the car, and not being able to stop, hike, float, walk around, and just get immerced in area.  As a travel enthusiast who unfortunately has responsibilities at home, it is all too easy to get into the trap of planning too many activities for too short of a period of time.  This often makes travel feel rushed, like there is too little time to experience some of the places we see.  Luckily, I live in Colorado, and therefore can get similar experiences, National Forest recreation areas and such, closer to home.  But, there are some subtle differences, and things that make this area unique.  I would very much like to come back here at a much more relaxed pace, and experience another side of New Mexico life.

 

 

The Colorado Model Railroad Museum

The later half of March is a confusing time to be in Colorado.  The range of possible weather events makes it a tough time period to plan for.  In the mountains, there are plenty of times snow continues to fall, and provides more high quality snow days for skiers and snowboarders.  But, the snow does not always continue to fall, and if it doesn’t, conditions on the mountain can deteriorate fast, as warmer temperatures are likely to eat away at the snow pack.

At lower elevations there is quite a bit of variance as well.  March can easily bring Denver, Fort Collins, and even Colorado Springs long strings of 70 degree days.  It can also bring heavy snowfall, as was the case this past Wednesday.

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There’s no guarantee that the weather will cooperate for any outdoor activities.  There is always the chance that skiing conditions will continue to deteriorate without conditions for cycling or hiking at lower elevations improving.  For people like me, this time of year has the potential to be quite underwhelming.  Due to this uncertainty, I would not personally recommend people travel any great distance to visit Colorado in the later half of March or April.

With leftover snow on the ground, covering the trails and such, this weekend ended up being a good time to visit one of Colorado’s indoor attractions.  I often lament that Colorado does have some quality museums, an indoor activity, but that I rarely actually visit them as I am planning outdoor adventures.  A weekend like this, with less than inspiring weather conditions is the perfect time visit the Colorado Model Railroad Museum in Greeley.

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As should be expected from a museum dedicated to model railroads, there is quite a bit on display here.  Following the suggested self-guided tour route through the museum, I started out by going upstairs, where I viewed the model rail display in its entirety.

Although it is neat to see these trains go by, each one carrying a different type of freight across the landscape, model railroads are about so much more than just the trains.  They depicts towns, industry, and scenery.  Some of the mountains depicted on this display even contain small components of real rock.

The upper floor of this museum is like a trip back in time.  Plastered on the wall is a map of regional railways, which were once the primary way in which we traveled around the area.  After viewing the photos of historic rail depots, posters from the middle of the 20th Century promoting passenger rail service, and old train schedules on display, I imagined myself in the setting of some quasi-ambiguous time in the middle part of last century, bags packed, ready to hop aboard one of these trains to embark on an adventure.  I gaze at these maps, and think about how much I enjoy not only the adventures I have at various travel destinations, but the process of getting there, the journey.  The railways, and these models, are all about the journey!

The second half of the self guided tour takes visitors downstairs, to see the components of this elaborate model train display individually.  Each segment of model trains tell a story, but not a straightforward story.  They show a snapshot of life in different places along this train’s route.  Looking at all of these individual displays, it is quite easy to imagine oneself there, as part of the story, or as an omnipresent type of observer.  The details and creativity allow visitors to develop a story based on what they see.

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In this thriving town along the rail route, I imagine myself getting a dollar out to purchase a soda from a vending machine on a hot day.  I imagine what this family is doing.  Did they just have a fight?  The Man’s arms are folded and the daughter is turned away from her parents, clinging to a stuffed bear.

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They got creative too.  The scene here is a wildfire being put out by firefighters.  This is one of many places throughout this gigantic exhibit where specific events are depicted.  Not only do we see where stores are, where houses are and such, imagining the day-to-day life in fictitious towns along the route, periodic occurrences are displayed before us as well.

In a few areas, the builders of this display got even more creative.  My favorite one here depicts a kayaking trip gone wrong.  This kayak now inhabited by a black bear, with two people having been thrown into the water, only one still holding on to their paddle.

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A ton of work went into the displays at this particular museum.  It’s been a long time since I have been to a museum like this one, but I picture most model railway museums being similar in nature.  It is impossible to overstate how important attention to detail is when creating an exhibit like this, or even when people create model train sets for their own homes and gardens.  I do not consider myself detail-oriented enough to put something like this together.  I am also probably way too extroverted to want to spend the time putting together a display like this.

Seeing this display, first in its entirety, and then by its individual components, gave me a newfound appreciation for the attention to detail payed when creating this exhibit.  None of it would have been nearly as good had anyone involved in building this exhibit taken the attitude I often take that details matter less than the big picture.  The story of this exhibit would not be presented properly had one little item, one tiny piece of brick at 1:87 scale been slightly off.  Maybe details need not be dismissed.  Maybe those of us that are frustrated with dealing with details we deem insignificant need to just understand how they fit into the big picture.

 

When We Get Stuck

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Here we are, on the verge of something great!  It is right in front of us, in plain sight, a brand new endeavor, a great idea, something that’s going to either change the world, change our lives, or just be one heck of a great time!  The path in front of us is clear, exciting, invigorating.  Never have we felt so alive!  With excitement, enthusiasm, and passion, we enter this new endeavor without hesitation.  We do our due diligence, of course, but the excitement of what lies ahead by far overwhelms any concerns about what could possibly go wrong.

But then it happens.  Shortly into this new endeavor, due to something we either overlooked, poorly estimated, or never even considered in the first place, we find ourselves stuck, much like I was in Vail’s Orient Bowl.  That morning, I got off the ski lift, and saw the 15″ of fresh powder that Vail had recently received.  Instead of following tracks already made by those who skied in this area earlier in the day, I wanted to make my own tracks.  I expected a wild ride through this fresh powder!  On the contrary, I suddenly found myself slowing down, and sinking. The realization that I would find myself at a standstill, and need to work to dig my way back on track, is much akin to the realization many of us have when we realize that some aspect of our plan is not going to materialize the way we had anticipated.

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What is strange is that this experience, of suddenly finding myself stuck occurred at Vail Resort.  Vail Resort is not only home to one of the largest and highest rated ski resorts in the world, but it is also home to a ski museum, which has artifacts of the history of both skiing and the resort itself.

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Vail ski mountain was founded by a man named Pete Siebert, who fought in World War 2 as part of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division.  This group of soldiers trained in the mountains of Colorado, mainly on skis, and were subsequently deployed to Northern Italy to lead an attack, on skis, in the heart of one of the Nazi strongholds in the region.  Many of the soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division, despite being from many different places all over the country, found their way back to Colorado, and alongside Siebert, helped develop the skiing industry into what it is today.

The story of skiing, and the story of Vail is summarized quite nicely at the Colorado Ski Museum.  In fact, the museum has other exhibits, including one on snowboarding, a bunch of facts about the origin of downhill skiing, which pre-dates Vail and even the 10th Mountain Division’s World War II efforts, and one that shows the history of the U.S. participation in skiing and snowboarding events in the Olympic Games.

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Yes, I had to get my picture taken with one of my favorite athletes, even if it is only a cardboard cutout.  I was not sure if I would get kicked out for taking this photo, so I made it quick.

The abridged version of the story of Vail is that it opened on December 15, 1962, struggled for a couple of years (the second year they had a snow drought and brought in the Southern Ute Indian Tribe to perform a snow dance for them), and then the resort took off in the later half of the 1960s.  After that, the resort periodically expanded, eventually combined with Beaver Creek and became what it is today.  For more details, I would seriously recommend visiting the museum.  With only a $3 suggested donation, it is a great activity for kind of day where skiers and snowboarders need to take an hour or two off due to weather or exhaustion.

The aspect of Vail’s history that is largely not covered by the Museum is the one that pertained to my own experience earlier that day- getting stuck.  The museum has an exhibit, and a video describing the 10th Mountain Division, how they trained, and what they accomplished.  They also describe the history of Vail as a ski resort in detail.  But, the 10th Mountain Division disbanded at the end of 1945, when the war ended.  Vail resort opened in 1962.  The only discussion of this roughly 17 year time period between these two events, was that Mr. Siebert was looking for the perfect place to open a ski resort.

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In detail, what did Pete Siebert do from 1946 through roughly 1960 (when he started laying the groundwork for Vail)?  Nobody knows, but it is definitely possible that he got stuck, much in the same way I was earlier that day.  Maybe, like many who returned from World War II, he came back and did not know what to do during Peacetime.  Or maybe, he looked at places for years and could not find the right one.  It is possible that he could have had a few “false starts”.

Those of us that have ever been, or currently are, stuck, can take solace in the fact that Mr. Siebert eventually, despite what is likely close to a decade of being stuck, put together a world class ski resort.  Additionally, many of his fellow 10th Mountain Division soldiers contributed to what Vail eventually became (the shops, restaurants, and even clubs that popped up in Vail Village).

After being stuck in the snow, I eventually made it down the mountain.  In fact, after only a short delay, I was able to climb my way out of the deep snow into a set of tracks just to my left.  Despite the fact that I did not get what I wanted out of that particular experience, I had a great experience with the remainder of that particular run, finding areas of deep powder farther down, where the terrain is a bit steeper, and then shooting through some glades.

In this particular case, I had no choice but to try to climb my way out of this section of deep powder.  In may other situations in life, we do have the option to give up.  Unfortunately, we often do prematurely, sometimes simply knowing that there is an easier path.  But, the easier path is rarely the more rewarding one.  The experience of getting stuck in the snow only to eventually have a great remainder of the run, followed by seeing a parallel experience with the founding of the very resort I was skiing at reminded me that it is often worthwhile to get “unstuck”, but also that it is less of a catastrophe to be stuck in the first place than we often imagine.

We live in a culture that reprimands people for being stuck only for a couple of months.  Two months with nothing to show for it- you’re on thin ice …. or out of a job!  Sometimes I even reprimand myself for “wasting” a single day!  Pete Siebert may have been stuck for over a decade!  Yet, he eventually founded Vail, and the experience of living in, or visiting, Colorado would not be the same if it weren’t for this important contribution.  So, maybe we need to be less hard on each other, and be less hard on ourselves.

Bozeman, Montana; Where My Journey Begins

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“I had always known that we had the best downtown in all of Montana.  And then last year, we were voted the best downtown in all of Montana.”  At least that is how Bozeman was described to me by one of the locals, while giving me lunch recommendations.  He eventually told me that every place downtown was good, and to only avoid chain restaurants.

The first person I interacted with in Bozeman was the cab driver that drove me from the airport to the REI, where my bicycle had been shipped to, reassembled, and was waiting for me.  He described Bozeman as a “town full of expert skiers”.  With all of the other observations I had made while in town, and with the other interactions I had with people from Montana, it feels to me as if Bozeman is like a smaller and more extreme version of Denver or Boulder.  The cab driver indicated that the town almost shuts down on powder days, as everyone is headed to the mountains.  And, the people coming in and out of the bike shops appeared to be people that could ride a fair number of miles in challenging conditions.

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Bozeman is only 50-some miles from Big Sky, one of the most famous ski resorts in the country.  Locals, however, appeared more proud of their local ski resort, Bridger Bowl, only 16 miles from town, as indicated by this sign.  It was also described to me as “the only non-profit ski resort in the Country”.

However, my mind was not on skiing at the time.  My mind was on bicycling, as this was the beginning of a 3-day bicycle journey that would take me through some of the country’s most amazing natural features.  And, it would be the most challenging ride I have ever attempted.

After picking up my bike, as well as all of the necessary supplies I needed for my trip at the REI, I rode the first 1.3 miles of my journey, to the Bozeman Inn, where I would spend the evening.

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Having my bike shipped to the REI and assembled there worked out quite well for me.  The price to assemble the bike from the box is $40, and they pretty much made sure that nothing was wrong with the bike, which is something I really wanted for a bicycle journey that would take me through long stretches without bike shops.  They even checked the spokes, trued the wheel, and made sure everything else was working.  And, when they realized they still had my tire lock key, someone from the shop brought it to me downtown.

It would be nearly 10:00 P.M. before the sun went down that evening.  I had already checked into the motel, but was looking for some information about the town, maybe a bike map, or even a restaurant guide for the time I would be in Bozeman.  Instead, there was just a bar and grill located adjacent to the motel.  “Lights” by Ellie Goulding was playing quite loudly where people were drinking inside.  It was a clear reminder of what evenings were like on a normal night during my “normal life”.  So, I had the instinct to go inside, drink a little, enjoy the music, and try to meet some locals.  But, I knew better.  I was on the verge of something special.  It would be a challenging ride, and I needed my energy.

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I loaded up my bike with all of my supplies packed nicely into the panniers I had carried with me on the flight into Bozeman the previous evening.  I looked around me and saw mountains in all directions, reminding me that, yes, I was in for some challenging climbs in the coming days.

Spending the morning, and mid-day, in Bozeman gave me some time to mentally prepare for the challenge I knew I had ahead of me.  I decided to check out the attraction I had heard about the most; The Museum of the Rockies.

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This museum has somewhat of an interesting local take on geological, biological, and natural history.  Like the Field Museum in Chicago, it has an exhibit that displays how life evolved over time, starting with the single celled organisms that dominated the earth for Billions of years prior to the Cambrian explosion, through the time of the Dinosaurs and beyond in chronological order.

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This museum’s exhibit was way more dinosaur centric than the other life over time exhibits I’ve been to.  Their main attraction is the “Montana T-Rex”, the biggest T-Rex to be discovered inside the State of Montana.

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The museum is quite locally focused.  The exhibits on geological history contain a lot of information specific to the geographical area around Bozeman.  Most of the dinosaur exhibits are displayed along with a map of Montana which show where the bones were dug up.

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Seeing some of these specific exhibits actually changed the way I look at scenery.  Exhibits like this one, about the Beartooth Mountains, don’t just show how pretty they are, but show what rock formations can be seen, and how and when they developed.  The geological history behind all of these processes, from plate tectonics to atmospheric composition changes, and even processes involving air pressure changes and erosion all help explain why everything we observe is the color and shape that it currently is.  And, ultimately, for people who study natural history, all of these rock formations that we observe provided clues to Earth’s past, and helped these scientists discover what we now know.

I’ve looked at a lot of mountains, and a lot of natural scenery over the past few years.  It occurs to me that the scenery that we observe means something different to everybody.  Some people focus on the aesthetic nature of what they see, a beautiful mountain, a beautiful lake, a scenic overlook.  Others focus on the adventure.  Wow, this mountain would be great to climb, or this river would be crazy to kayak in.  But, still others are trying to deduce how this scenic view in front of them came to be.  They are the ones that see red rocks and see the process of rusting, which occurred over the course of 2 billion years, as early photosynthetic life gradually increased the oxygen content of the atmosphere, lead to the chemical reactions that made some rocks red, so long as they have had significant above ground exposure.  They are the ones that look at the rocks and see as story, a progression of events.

I almost felt bad, walking around the museum in my bicycle clothes, looking kind of like a bad-ass, talking to people about my bike trip, when the truth is, that I had only biked 7 miles so far, from the REI, to my hotel, and then to the museum.  It was the guy at the ticket window that had told me that Bozeman’s downtown was the best one in Montana.  He informed me that the museum and downtown were the two places to really see in Bozeman, so I decided to ride my bike downtown, get some lunch, and wait for my friend to join me.

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I was impressed by the downtown, particularly the bike parking.  After eating lunch at a Co-op (the kind of place that looks like a grocery store but sells fresh made lunch food to workers in downtown areas), I had some time to kill.  I was excited, getting kind of anxious, and my mind was active!  Maybe it was the 10 miles I had already ridden, enough to get my blood moving.  Maybe it was knowing what was to come.  Or, maybe it was the downtown, the vibrancy, and the unique-ness.

From book stores, to local shops, everywhere I went seemed to put me into an active process of deep thought.  For example, I saw a book.  It was titled “Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are incompatible.”  I thought to myself how ironic it is.  People become attracted to either Science or Religion, but usually do so due to the positive aspects of it; science and it’s intellectual curiosity, religion and the hope and purpose that it brings.  Yet, so many people, after choosing to love one or the other, spend more time focusing on the negative aspects of the other one, as opposed to the positive things that brought them to love either science or religion.

Just like that book, everything I saw brought me to some weird intellectual thought pattern.  I should go back to Bozeman sometime under different circumstances, and see if this is just the way the town works.  Is there something about the energy of this town that makes people just think in unique ways?

Many Montanans refer to Bozeman as “Boze-Angeles”.  In this part of the country, I am guessing this is not meant as a compliment.  That evening, after riding to Chico Hot Springs (more on that in my next post), a woman from Butte, MT would describe Bozeman as “pretentious”, and the place in Montana where one is most likely to be judged.  And, although I did not necessarily feel judged, I definitely sensed the pride here, consistent with what the cab driver, and others told me.  Still, I enjoyed the feeling of being adventurous, intellectual, and on the verge of a major adventure that would also be a major challenge, a major accomplishment, and open me up in a whole new way.