Category Archives: Historical Locations

The Motor City- Without a Vehicle

“And you may say to yourself, well, how did I get here”- David Byrne.

I found myself in Detroit, Michigan on an unexpectedly pleasant October week asking myself just that question.

On one level, of course I know how I got here: Delta Airlines. I am not that reckless :).

On a whole other level, and the level that David Byrne was clearly referencing in Once in a Lifetime, I was quite confused.

How did the sequence of events in my life come together that lead me here?

To this forum…

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In this city…

With this group of people….


Is there a reason for it? Was it “meant to be” for any reason? Or is it a result of decisions I made aggregated over the course of time? Had I made these decisions differently, prioritized things in my life in a different order, or just paid more attention to a few specific things, would it have lead to a result that is significantly different?

This song was on my mind because last time I was in Detroit, way before I even had the idea to start writing about my travels, I recorded a dance to this music video at the Henry Ford Museum.

This was in 2008, a time when Detroit was at some kind of a low point. The story of Detroit is familiar to many, as it has been written about extensively.

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As the headquarters to America’s three biggest car manufacturers, the city was prominent and prosperous in the middle of the 20th Century. However, it fell on hard times in the later part of the 20th Century due to a combination of customers increasingly buying foreign cars and the decline in manufacturing in the U.S.

Nearly every time anyone writes about Detroit, they write about the city’s economic fortunes, often making points about social issues, economic policies, etc. Even when I came to Detroit with no desire to address the city’s economic misfortune and current attempts at recovery, it is hard to escape. Evidence of it is everywhere.

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Visitors from other parts of the country kept telling me how eerie it felt; the lack of crowds, empty streets and mostly empty bars. Even acknowledging that these were all weeknights, it still felt different than what most people experience in urban areas throughout the country.

The history, as well as current state, of any place is always going to be a part of any travel experience. And, for Detroit, this includes the history people focus on (decline from 1960-2008), but also some of its history prior to this.

Strangely enough, despite the fact that Detroit is “The Motor City”, and best known for its role in the automobile industry, much of its history, and many of the interesting attractions, can actually be reached without a motorized vehicle.

Within downtown, one can walk to many of the city’s historical, and current attractions.

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For those willing to walk a mile, the only places that really require vehicular transportation are the Motown Museum and the Henry Ford Museum. The Cobo Center, all the attractions along the Riverfront, Detroit’s historic Opera House, the Fox Theater, the venues for all of Detroit’s sports teams, as well as multiple casinos can all be reached on foot within roughly a mile and a half of each other.

 

Interestingly enough, there is a lot one can do in the “Motor City” without even using a motor!

Much of this was actually built in Detroit after the decline of the auto industry. One of the reasons I visited Detroit in 2008 was to see their newly built baseball stadium, right downtown.

My 2017 visit to Detroit was to attend a conference related to a client I am currently consulting with. The reason is complicated as organizations rarely send consultants to conferences to represent their brand. Consultants are temporary and technically not a member of the organization.

It makes my identity, like Detroit’s identity as a city, feel way more fluid and complex than it was in the past. In the mid 20th Century, a place could have a simplistic identity; The Motor City, The Rubber City, The Iron City, etc. Today’s growing cities, like Denver, have identities that revolve around multiple areas of focus.

Many people are rooting for Detroit to make a comeback. Places like Greektown and Corktown, adjacent and walkable from downtown, are emblematic of a new, different, and more multi-faceted Detroit emerging from the ashes of the decay that plagued the prior half a century. One day, Detroit will find itself anew, unrecognizable to the Detroit of Motown, and people will ask “how did it get here”. They may even ask “My God, what have I done” (from the same song).

The point of David Byrne’s song is that people need to stop and periodically think about their lives, the directions they are headed, their priorities, etc. Otherwise, they will just kind of like drift, with nobody really understanding whey they are where they are, doing what they are doing, with the people they are with.

There are unique things about Detroit. Obviously the large amounts of empty space, some of which is being converted to farmland.

Also, their proximity to the Canadian border, rust belt infrastructure, and continued contributions to the music industry.

 

Attending this conference was a reminder to me. No matter where I go, no matter what I am doing, I cannot help but be me. While we all need to periodically re-think things, come up with new ideas, and even take on a somewhat different identity, there will always be some things fundamental about ourselves that do not change. Detroit’s current transitions reminds me of this.

A Visit to Albuquerque

People like to break things up into neat little groups.  It is a technique people use in order to try to simplify a world that, in reality, is quite complicated.  In the United States, we take our cities, and break them out into various groupings.  We place cities in groups based on their region, their size, and sometimes even by culture.  I am as guilty as anyone of doing this.  But, every once in a while, we find ourselves in a place that reminds us that we need to respect two basic tenants of humanity, which apply both to the Cities we visit, as an entity, as well as to each and every one of us individually.

Each City, just like every one of us, has a distinct and unique individual identity.  In this identity, we see reflections of factors such as its geographic location, its history, and some of its specific influences, such as specific personalities and prominent industries.  We also see some specific quirks that cannot be easily explained just by looking at what we observe elsewhere.  It is the same way with each and every one of us.  When we are being true to ourselves, our behavior patterns manifest in a similar unique manner, a manner that can only be described as attributed to our unique person.  I feel it every time any one of my friends responds to anything I do or say by simply saying “That’s so Steve”.

Also embedded in the character of any City I have ever visited are reflections of natural law, or the universal truths that bind us all together.

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Albuquerque reminded me of both of these two basic facts.  Albuquerque has a unique heritage.  It has similar beginnings as Santa Fe, and even has an Old Town Square that reflects these beginnings.

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However, much of the city was built in a much more sun-belt style car-centric manner.  It is one of the most storied towns along historic U.S. route 66.  Route 66 embodies multiple eras of U.S. history, including the mass migration to California during the Great Depression, and later the first decade after the second World War, when the American road trip first became accessible to a large swath of the American people; the middle class.

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Route 66 connected Chicago to Los Angeles from the late 1920s through the end of the 1970s.  While the route covers a large distance, traversing many different parts of the country, it is the Southwest, New Mexico and Arizona, that is often most commonly pictured when people imagine that classic road trip on route 66.  While the exact location of the route 66 town in Disney’s Cars is not disclosed, the imagery in the movie clearly points to a southwestern location.

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Albuquerque celebrates its pivotal position along route 66 by both preserving some of the places that were legendary stops for travelers along this highway.

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As well as creating restorations that recreate the experience of being at a travel stop along the old highway, much the same way old west towns recreate the American West during the 1800s.

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Route 66 is even the subject of a major controversy in town.  A proposed Bus Rapid Transit project, called Albuquerque Rapid Transit, would more or less follow the path of historic route 66 through town.  Residents of a hip area of town adjacent to the University of New Mexico called Nob Hill appear united in opposition to the project.  Some of the signs I saw opposing the Albuquerque Rapid Transit referenced protecting the heritage of route 66.  However, I wonder if this opposition is motivated by route 66 preservation, or the desire to avoid any changes to the neighborhood.

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Regardless of whether the people are motivated by the desire to preserve route 66 in its historic format, or preserve their neighborhood the way it currently is, on display here is one aspect of humanity that appears consistent across all cultures.  When people are enjoying their current situation, they generally do not desire change, and, in many cases, will fiercely oppose it.  This has been the case for me, personally, at various stages in my own life, and is also evident in a lot of the behaviors I observe in others when they react to changes in the workplace or their favorite social media outlet.

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It also appears to be basic human nature to seek out a broader view of the world from time to time.  It is the reason people go to the top of the world’s tallest building, hike Mount Rainier, or sit and gaze down at Los Angeles from the Hollywood sign.  Albuquerque’s answer to this is the Sandia Peak Tramway.

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This tramway takes passengers on a 15-minute ride from a base elevation of 6559 feet (already significantly higher than the center of town), to a peak of 10,378 feet. Here, visitors to the area can see unique rock formations.

 

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Learn about the unique biomes that can be found in the mountainous terrain (Breckenridge has a similar exhibit, but uses an actual garden).

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And, can get a view overlooking this city that actually covers a much broader area than just the Albuquerque city limits.  In fact, Sandia Peak is so high that it is quite difficult to make out individual buildings or even neighborhoods in town!

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The culture is unique as well, seeming to combine so many aspects of the West and Southwest.

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Along the Rio Grande River, which cuts through the center of town, a bike trail, as well as numerous parks provide the urban outdoor space that Westerners seem to value so much.  Whereas, in many other cities I have visited and lived in, living in close proximity to a park is desirable, but kind of a bonus, it feels as if people here in the West view being near a park as a prerequisite, a necessity of life itself!

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On this particular Sunday afternoon, a parade of classic cars rolled through Old Town Square, showing off their classic appeal, and the hard work each and every car owner put into maintaining their vehicle’s shine.

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That evening, on the West side of downtown, another group of people are gathered, also showing off their vehicles, and, almost downright partying.

When I think of all the cars revving their engines up at night, all I can say is, “That’s so Albuquerque”.  One could speculate what mix of cultural influences, old Spanish, sunbelt, Western, Hispanic, etc. lead to Albuquerque being the way it is today.  But it is more than that.  The same can be said about any other place one would visit.  That is why we travel, not just when we need to go somewhere for business, or when we wish to visit people that live in another place, but also when we desire an experience we simply cannot have in our respective hometowns.

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.

 

 

An Old World Town in a New World Region

In the U.S.A., we are quite accustomed to the seeing certain kinds of towns in certain parts of the country.  Since cities were built earlier on the East Coast, we expect to see towns laid out like Boston, Annapolis, or Charleston.  These cities tend to be a bit more challenging to navigate, as is particularly the case with Boston.

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By contrast, in the Western part of the country, we expect to see towns built more around automobile (or the automobile’s predecessor in the late 19th Century, the horse drawn carriage).  Cities like Phoenix, designed with driving in mind, have mostly straight-line roads, with suburban areas having windy subdivisions.

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This is what we have come to expect from towns in this part of the country.  So, when I first looked at Santa Fe’s road network, I was quite surprised to see a city full of windy roads that resembled something I would expect to see along the East Coast, or in Europe.

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Oddly enough, New Mexico is one of the oldest regions in the U.S., at least when it comes to architecture.  The historical lineage is just different.  New Mexico is home to over a hundred Native American Pueblos that date back to long before anyone associated with the United States of America would arrive.  Many of them are still inhabited, with some having been inhabited for over 1000 years!  This is quite a long time for this part of the world.

Santa Fe, New Mexico’s capitol city was founded originally as a Spanish colony in 1610, ten years before the Mayflower would come ashore in Massachusetts, and still retains much of its original Spanish style.  In some ways, driving into New Mexico feels like entering a whole different region, fairly instantaneously.  I first noticed this storm chasing in college. It was my first time in New Mexico, or Arizona.  I was previously unaware of the prevalence of adobe style buildings in these two states, and was somewhat surprised to see how abruptly the styles of the building around me changed once I crossed the border from Texas into New Mexico.

Santa Fe appears to have retained much of its cultural heritage.  Aware that New Mexico has a substantial Spanish history, I decided that it might be a good idea to check out a Spanish restaurant downtown.

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Taberna came highly recommended by the staff at the hotel, and certainly did not disappoint.  The food was excellent, and, on this particular evening, a performer named Jesus Bas performed for the customers.  I sincerely, if only for a moment while sipping a glass of wine, tasting enchiladas, and hearing Spanish music, felt like I was in Spain.  Well, at the very least, it made me want to go to Spain.

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I decided to somewhat follow in the footsteps of one of the people who inspired me to start writing about my travels, Anthony Bourdaine.  For those not familiar, he is a chef who eventually became the host of a series of food related travel shows.  I watched a lot of his previous Travel Channel show No Reservations, where he did not just simply describe the food he was eating, he would also reflect upon the experience, what certain places made him feel like, and what historical context they can be placed in and such.  His current show, which is actually a bit less food focused and more focused on the travel is called Parts Unknown.  So, I was actually quite excited to see a souvenir shop actually called Parts Unknown.  Additionally, the shop is located only a few doors down from one of the places Anthony Bourdaine visited on the Season 2 episode where he travels around New Mexico; the Five and Dime, a shop where he gets a Frito Chili Pie, a commonly served dish in New Mexico.

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I did not end up getting the Frito Chili Pie, as there were a limited number of meals I could have here in Santa Fe.  I mostly just looked around at the souvenirs available in this shop, which featured Santa Fe’s connection to one of my favorite aspects of American History, route 66 (although the route bypassed Santa Fe starting in 1937).

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I ended up going to a place called Horesman’s Haven, a small restaurant on the edge of Santa Fe famous for authentic New Mexican style food where Anthony Bourdaine was caught off guard by the level of spice in their green chili.

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My chili was not quite as spicy, but still packed quite a punch.  I am glad it did!  Many people try to avoid spicy food while on vacation, to avoid experiencing an upset stomach while far from home.  In this case, the level of spice was an important part of the experience.  Life is meant to be experienced.  Some people spend their entire lives trying to avoid bad outcomes.  In my view this is a sure fire way to miss out on countless rewarding experiences.  Bad outcomes are going to happen.  We just need to manage them in our own way.  Missing out on a whole bunch of experiences, and I am talking about things much more significant than one high quality meal, bears a much greater cost than the occasional unfavorable outcome.

I am guessing this is the attitude taken by the unexpectedly high number of people who make a living as an artist in this town.  In the downtown part of Santa Fe, it seemed like half of all buildings house art galleries.  Santa Fe is known for art galleries, but there seemed to be way more than is necessary to support a town of roughly 70,000 people, even if all of those people are wealthy and have dozens and dozens of pieces of artwork hanging from all of their walls.

Like New Mexico as a whole, Santa Fe appears to have an interesting set of values that does not fit neatly into one of the categories we have become familiar with.  It is western, but also European.  It is cowboy, but also quite diverse.

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It is a state capital, but has a state capital building that looks nothing like any of the other ones I have seen across the country.

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It is the kind of place that erects historical markers dedicated to fiscal responsibility, an important, even if not flashy, achievement, and one that reflects the western values of personal responsibility.

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It is also a place that erects building dedicated to the memory horrible death marches in Europe.

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It is both “old world”, and “new world”.  It does what we all need to do, both in our own cities, and more importantly, individually.  It combines old ideas with new ideas in a way that uniquely represents its individual identity.

Places of Questionable Significance

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In 1983, an incredibly drunk Ozzy Osborne made the mistake of deciding to relieve himself on the Alamo, a building of historical significance.  He was arrested (Isn’t public urination usually just a ticket?), and scorned by many, primarily due to the fact that the Alamo is an important symbol of pride amongst Texans.  However, to Ozzy, a British rock star, the building probably did not mean too terribly much.  While a sober Ozzy (if that existed in 1983) would probably have realized the building is significant due to the presence of tourists, he probably would not have felt the same affinity or pride when standing in front of the Alamo.

With the exception of a few wide eyed hippies that believe that every place is significant, and a few hard core cynics, that fail to see the significance in any place (or anything), the significance of most places is dependent on the person and the culture.  There is no better of an example of a place like this than Four Corners, U.S.A.

Four Corners is unique due to the fact that it is the only place in the United States where four states all border one another.  If one wanted to stand in five different states at one time, it would not be possible.  If one wanted to stand in four different states at once, there is only one place where it can be done; Four Corners Monument.

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The primary reason people visit this particular monument is to take silly pictures like this one.  Assuming the location of the four-state border is correctly marked (some question that is in the right place), in this picture I am in four states at once.

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However, in the absence of state borders, this particular spot would really actually be quite insignificant.  There is no natural demarcation point, or significant change in scenery.  Even on the Colorado side, the wide open landscape, periodic mesas, and sagebrush screams Arizona much more than Colorado.  This Arizona-like feel persists for over thirty miles into Colorado until the San Juan Mountains start to show up on the horizon somewhere east of Cortez.

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The significance of this place is further muddled by the fact that this point is not the border of four different jurisdictions.  The monument is actually on an Indian Reservation.  Thus, you do not even get the standard differences in policies and sales tax that usually accompany state borders.  An equal number of souvenir stands exists on all four sides of the monument.  I am not sure whether or not marijuana is legal on this particular reservation, but the policy is the same on all sides.  I did not observe all of the pot heads clustered in the Colorado quadrant of this monument.

In the absence of state borders (and people obsessed with exact points of latitude and longitude), the most significant site in this region is a rock formation a dozen or so miles away called Shiprock, which has cultural and religious significance to the Navajo people who have inhabited the region since well before the Spanish arrived.

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From a completely neutral standpoint, the rock formation definitely seems to stand out way more than any other feature in the area, which is mainly small mesas and creeks.  But that does not mean the wide open space where the monument should lack significance to all people.

For most likely a variety of neurological, sociological, and historical reasons, Western Culture associates wide open spaces like this one with freedom.  It’s the wild.  It’s the untamed.  It’s the place where you can yell as loud as you want, shoot any kind of weapon you want, and start a fight without anyone to break it up.  There is nobody to tell you where you can (and can’t) hike, climb, tie a rope to an arch or mesa to swing from it, or even try to catapult small rodents.  It’s the last refuge of people seeking to escape every single one of society’s restrictions and limitations.

But the one set of regulations that one can really never escape is the ones that exist only inside their own heads.  I often refer to these as the “invisible chain”.  And by this, I am referring to all of the anxiety, fear, and self-consciousness that often stop us from doing what we feel we should be doing.  It stops us from telling people what we really think.  It stops us from talking to that interesting and attractive stranger on the train.  It stops us from dancing when fun music comes on.  In some ways, it stops us from living.  And, millions of Americans are in the process of destroying their livers trying to reclaim it.  In these pictures of the free, wild, and untamed west, there are typically very few people, or buildings to indicate the presence of people.  There is nobody to judge you, and nobody to make you feel self-conscious about what you chose to wear, say, and do.  The fact that this is where we go to seek freedom indicates where we, as a people, believe most of our restrictions come from.

Therefore, if one could overcome this “invisible chain”, the restrictions placed upon us would be limited only to those officially legislated by some kind of governing body and effectively enforced by law enforcement personnel.  The few lucky individuals that manage this are able to find this greater level of freedom in places like London, Hong Kong, or New York City; places that provide the interaction with other human being that we all crave.

We often see the desire for community and human interaction as pulling us in one direction, while the desire for freedom and individuality pulling us in the opposite direction.  As an extrovert, I often struggle with the fear that asserting my individuality and refusing to conform, will cost me in the social realm.  Reflecting upon all of this in the wide open spaces of the desert southwest, I re-realized that being an individual and reducing that fear actually helps in the social realm.  Negative responses from those that fear non-conformity are more than outweighed by positive responses by those that appreciate authenticity and variety in nearly all circumstances.  The key is to understand that we all have freedom of choice, and not to allow any of the hate to translate into hatred towards others.  This applies even the people that have ridiculed me and caused me hurt.  They have the freedom say what they want.  The only way to truly overcome that ridicule is not to ridicule them back, or “defeat” them in an argument.  It is to not be affected by that ridicule and continue to be the way you are despite anything they say.

This is one of several lessons, I re-learned on this trip.  These re-realizations make this place significant to me, even if the official reason for the significance of any of these places is questionable.  Everyone has a different experience here, and it is completely understandable for someone to come to Four Corners, find out it is on a reservation, buy nothing at the souvenir stands, and leave seeing the place as pointless.  For me, however, this is where I got my mind off some of life’s frustrations, and got back on the path to becoming a better person.

Mesa Verde: A Window to the Past

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For some reason, the history classes I took in Jr. High School and High School left me with the impression that the North American continent prior to the arrival of Europeans was one populated by nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes that never really established a civilization.  The popular characterization of Native America is a series of quasi-nomadic tribes following herds of Bison and other big game animals around vast open areas.  Thus, it is hard not to think of our continent as lacking the ruins of ancient civilizations that are quite prevalent in places like Egypt and Rome.

However, there are places in North America where one can view the ruins of ancient civilizations that existed long before the Spanish established the first European settlement at Saint Augustine, Florida.  The most high-profile pre-European (pre-Hispanic) civilization in the area is that of the Mayans, who archeologists discovered to have been quite advanced in writing, math, and the sciences, at a time when Europe was wallowing in the “dark ages”.   Those ruins can be found in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico.

Closer to home (for me), there are a handful of places, mostly in the Southwestern United States, where ruins of ancient civilizations can be viewed.  Preserving this history was significant enough for the United States to establish (in 1906) Mesa Verde National Park, as the only archeology themed National Park in the system.

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Mesa Verde National Park is located in Southwestern Colorado, in a part of the state where mountains are less numerous than they are in the popular tourist destinations in central Colorado.  The drive from Denver is roughly seven hours, making it a somewhat difficult destination for many to reach.  In fact, the nearest interstate highway is over 100 miles away, and so are all airports that normal people can afford to fly into (I am assuming flying into Telluride is pricey even in summer).  As a result, even on a popular weekend like Labor Day Weekend, the place is significantly less crowded than many other National Parks.

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The history of “civilization” in this park begins sometime in the 6th Century with the construction of “pit houses”.  Archeologists believe that this was the first time any kind of permanent residence was established here.  The tribes that would eventually inhabit this area were believed to have been semi-nomadic prior to the 6th century A.D.  Over time, these civilizations gradually got more complicated, and houses (referred to as Kivas) were grouped together into little villages.

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Although the period of Ancestral Puebloan civilization at this site lasted over 600 years, it is the very end period, mainly from the middle 1100s through the middle 1200s that receive the most attention at this park.  This, of course, is the period in which most of the Cliff Dwellings were inhabited.  The Cliff Dwelling we visited is referred to as Long House.  For $4 per person (in addition to the entrance fee), the Long House tour provides the most in-depth explanation of the civilization that existed in the region.  This 90-minute tour is only available from Memorial Day to Labor Day.  The road to access Long House (on the far west end of the park) is also only open Memorial Day to Labor Day.  Visitors who come to the park later in the fall, or earlier in the spring, can visit other Cliff Dwellings, and take other tours.

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The inhabitants of this region were a very resourceful people.  In addition to the corn, beans, and squash that they grew in the region, they took advantage of most other plants in the area, including Cactus, and the fruit-bearing Yucca plant.  They even resorted to ever awful-tasting plants like Juniper berries in meager years.

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They even invented the first diaper from Juniper bark.

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Of course, in a dry climate like this one, one of the scarcest resources is water.  For this, the Ancestral Puebloans devised a system to capture what little water precipitates through a system of little streams and holes designed to capture water when it comes.  Even with this resourcefulness, water was still always in short supply, and a long-term drought is often cited as a potential reason as to why these villages were abandoned sometime in the 13th century.

IMG_2426 IMG_2427Their homes, or “Kivas”, were significantly smaller than our homes today, even in large cities like New York.  The standard “Kivas” appear smaller than most people’s garages today.  Even the “Grand Kivas” would pale in comparison to the size of most present-day one bedroom apartments.
This is most likely because this civilization did not view the concept of the “home” in a way we are accustomed to.  A recent commercial (for some kind of real estate agency) describes home as “a place for your life to happen”.  The commercial reflects the prominent views of mainstream America today.  The Ancestral Puebloans who inhabited Mesa Verde from the 6th through the 13th centuries, used these “kivas” as places to sleep, gather, and sometimes have ceremonies.  However, it was not where their “life happened”.  The remainder of their lives was still primarily outside.

IMG_2420 IMG_2417Archeological analysis has also revealed that these homes were actually built in a rather hurried manner, with little attention to details.  It was hinted that there was always this view that any residence would be considered temporary.  According to the exhibits at the Visitor Center, while many scientists and archeologists concur that the reason this site was abandoned in the 13th century was scarcity of resources (water and animals), the descendents of the inhabitants of this region indicate that it was simply time for their people to move on, to another chapter of their story, in a different place.   Coming from this point of view, the concept of homeowner’s insurance, something practically considered a necessity in our present culture, would have been rejected as an absurd idea in 12th century Mesa Verde.  Fire?  Move on.  Earthquake?  Just put up a new building.  Not the big deal that it has become for us today.
IMG_2448 IMG_2406 IMG_2439 IMG_2403 Mesa Verde’s more recent history appears to be driven by wildfires, always a concern in regions like this.  While traveling about the park, the landscape of any given area can vary significantly depending on how recently it has been burned by fire.  A major fire in the year 2000 engulfed nearly half of the park, causing significant portions of the park to appear as this picture above, with a creepy combination of larger, older, dead trees, and the newer vegetation that has developed over the past decade and a half.For those on a tighter budget, I would certainly recommend staying in the town of Mancos.  It is the nearest town to the entry of the park (only 6 miles away).  It is a town of only 1300 residents, and does not boast too many amenities.  However, it offers, by far, the best deals on hotel rooms in the area.  Our hotel room was the Country West Motel, and I would recommend it to anyone.  A classic looking, modest roadside motel, it had it’s own courtyard, sizable enough rooms, and even a poster that I really enjoyed having in my room.
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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.