Tag Archives: history

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.

48th State

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Arizona is the third most recent state to join the Union.  The only two states admitted more recently are Alaska and Hawaii.  This means that, when it comes to mainland U.S.A., this very much was the “final frontier”, an area that remained wild and unsettled for over a century while areas were being converted from frontier, to small villages, and eventually into powerhouses connected by networks of trails, ports, and railroads.

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The primary cultural image of Arizona is the “Old West”.  Cowboys roaming around wide open spaces.  Small isolated towns where outlaws and town sheriffs fight a continuous battle that resembles the internal conflict we all have between the innate desire for freedom and the desire for justice and order.  Crazy games of poker in whiskey salons that often end in guns being drawn.

Historically, it is correct that Arizona, like much of the west, is the site of many epic battles that often lead to gunfire.  This lead to places such as Tombstone, and Rawhide, being depicted in numerous Western themed movies and TV shows.  Tourists today can relive the experience of the wide open, unsettled, west by visiting these places.

However, movies and TV shows can frequently lead people to inaccurate perceptions.  Films and shows are designed for entertainment purposes, and therefore must focus on the interesting aspects of life in a specific place, like a shoot-out between two gangs.  Anyone that compares their lives to those of characters from TV and movies will often come out feeling that their life is uninteresting.  After all, no movie will show someone sitting at a cubicle for six hours, or doing laundry and ironing shirts.  They focus on the parts that will, well, entertain the people that watch them.

Recent studies have indicated that, while these high profile gunfights did occur in the old west, they were the exception rather than the rule.  Some studies (although not all) have even suggested that the western frontier of the later 19th century was actually a safer place than America today.  There is speculation as to why the “Old West” is depicted and thought of in the manner in which it is, leading some to entertain conspiracy theories.  Regardless of what the reality of what life in this time and place know as the “Old West” was truly like, it is encouraging to see people look at it statistically, as opposed to based on anecdotes and catch phrases.

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Arizona may have grown up late, but it grew up fast.  Based on the 2010 census, Arizona is now the fourth most populous state west of the Mississippi River.

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Growing up in the middle to late 20th century, Arizona grew up in a manner that is very car-centric.  Depictions of present day Arizona life, in movies like Bad Santa, commonly show life in car-centic suburbs, with winding subdivisions, malls and such.

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There is also no forgetting Arizona’s position along the famed Route 66, which took countless motorists between Chicago and Los Angeles during the middle part of the 20th century.  In popular culture, the Arizona stretch of this major historic thoroughfare is amongst the most celebrated, providing the inspiration for the setting of the Route 66 based movie Cars.

The most high profile destination in Arizona is the Grand Canyon.  After all, the state’s nickname, which is labelled on all Arizona license plates is “The Grand Canyon State”.  However, by taking a road trip from Phoenix to Las Vegas, one will traverse the landscapes that cover a much larger portion of the State.

Passing through the Sonoran Desert, which includes Phoenix and much of the surrounding  area, one will encounter hills covered in sagebrush and cactus plants.

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Periodically, one will also encountered Joshua Trees, mountain ranges, and mesas.

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Closer to Vegas, the landscape transitions to the Mojave Desert, which is sometimes even hotter, drier, and more baren than the Sonoran.

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Two developments made Arizona’s rapid expansion in population possible.  First, is the much discussed invention of, and subsequent proliferation of air conditioning.  This, of course, made living in places prone to hot weather more desirable.  The second is the creation of dams, canals, irrigation systems, and water pipelines, which facilitated supplying these dry regions with the water resources needed to sustain life.

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The Hoover Dam, located at the border of Arizona and Nevada, is one of many places throughout the west that diverts water resources from a major river (the Colorado River) to major metropolitan areas.

 

As is the case with the idealized image of the rugged individual of the “Old West”, present day life in Arizona, when discussed, elicits some divided responses, as well as some different interpretations.

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This is very much the image of standard life in Arizona.  A house in suburban looking neighborhood, a pool in the backyard, mountains, and, in many cases, golf.  Some love it.  Some see it as the natural culmination of the “American Dream”.  Some can’t wait to get away from the frigid winters many experienced in other parts of the country, move down here and enjoy the life.  Others, and particularly those concerned with the environment, feel it is irresponsible for so many people to be living comfortable lifestyles, with swimming pools, irrigated lawns, and golf courses in a climate this dry.  People here seem to adhere to the “haters gonna hate” mentality.  The knowledge that people in some distant land are disapproving of their living, eating, hiking, and golfing in the desert does not seem to phase them.

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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.

Tea that Isn’t Really Tea

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Tea is not something I ever give any real thought to.  For me, it is one of those products that has always just been there.  As much as I claim to be a curious-minded person, I had never even sat and pondered who was the first person to come up with the idea to take a bunch of ground up leaves, put it in a tiny little bag and dip it into a cup of hot water.  In fact, if you think about almost every product we use on a regular basis from the standpoint of a culture that has never been introduced to that product, it probably sounds absurd.  As I write this, I am eating a bagel.  Imagine telling someone who has never heard of a bagel that you have an idea to take condensed bread, bake it into a cylindrical shape with a hole in the middle, and maybe put some random seeds on top.

You would have probably been told, by at least some portion of the people around you, that your idea was either absurd, or unnecessary.  If I could, I would communicate this point to an entire generation of aspiring entrepreneurs, as nearly all of them, will at some point receive a similar reaction from people they describe their idea to.  In fact, some will even be turned down and laughed at by potential customers and investors.

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One of the reasons I had never given tea too much thought is that in my mind I had always associated it with things that I do not find too exciting.  Our subconscious minds have this strange ways of synthesizing our experiences, the experiences we hear about, and even some of the media we consume into some general associations.  Whenever anyone mentions tea, the image that naturally pops into my head is a fancy table with fancy chairs on someone’s lawn, in front of a garden on a day with the most pleasant weather imaginable, and people wasting that pleasant afternoon, with so many possibilities to engage in activities and explore what the world has to offer, just sitting around drinking tea.

In fact, I did not even start drinking tea until I got my first job after Graduate School.  It was free at work.  I started drinking it to save both money and calories, particularly on chilly mornings.  The only variety of tea that was free at my job was “black” tea, which is perfect, because, as I learned at the Celestial Seasonings tour, it is one of the most heavily caffeinated teas out there (surpassed only by Oolong tea).  So, I conditioned my taste buds to the rather plain flavor of black tea and did not ponder other options.

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However, Celestial Seasonings is a place that has way more character than the stuffy images I think of when I think of the average “tea time”.  It was started by a bunch of hippies, which should not really surprise me given that it is in Boulder and was started in the late 1960s.  They would gather leaves in the Rocky Mountains outside of Boulder to make their beverages.

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However, the leaves that constitute “tea” come from plants that cannot be grown in this part of the world.  So, the beverages they put together were drinks that could not actually be considered “tea” by the technical definition.  They would have been considered “herbal infusions”.  The phrase “herbal infusion” had a clear association with the hippie movement.  So, to sell these products to the general public, which was (and still is) largely skeptical of the hippie movement, they labeled the beverages “herbal teas”.

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Now nearly a half a century has passed.  A lot has happened.  First, the hippies reached full-fledged adulthood (over 30, is that what they said?), got jobs, bought houses on cul-de-sacs, and, eventually SUVs and mini-vans.  A new generation emerged, powered by a rejuvenated economy, and became Yuppies.  They managed to both continuously enlarge the houses and vehicles in suburbia, while also turning formally blighted neighborhoods in city centers across the country into high-class urban playgrounds.  Many of the areas that were once focal points to the hippie sub-culture, including San Francisco, and even Boulder, are now firmly under the domain of this new urban culture.  Of course, this is all an over simplification, but hippie communes still exist, largely in the same way soda fountains and other relics still exist.  A family will randomly encounter one in an out of the way place on a road trip, and grandma and grandpa will explain to the children what they are/ were all about.

Yet, the label “herbal tea” is still there, both in this tasting room, and in their packaging.  It is still there despite the fact that so much has changed.  Not only does the general public have absolutely nothing to fear from the hippie sub-culture anymore, but, I would argue that many of their ideas have penetrated our mainstream thinking, both “right” and “left”.  We do not wear suits to baseball games anymore.  People aren’t mocked or reprimanded nearly as much when they explore their feelings, and try to find themselves.  There is no more stigma around going to seek therapy, and tons of people participate in yoga classes.  We may largely be in boring cubicles and offices, but it is not unheard of to openly defy the authority structures there.

Despite all of this, people are still drinking “herbal tea” instead of “herbal infusions”.  “Herbal teas” are Celestial Seasoning’s three top selling “teas”.  Is this simply the power of inertia?  Are there still a significant enough number of people that would shy away from drinking something if it was labeled an “herbal infusion”?  Or is something greater at work?  Our world is in a constant state of flux, and that flux includes language, definitions, and standards.  The hippie movement did not survive, but some of the ideas joined the mainstream.  Maybe, although, these “herbal infusions” were not considered “tea” in 1969, they are now.  Very few people, when they buy these products at the store, even ever realize that they are not actually drinking tea.  For all practical purposes, it is tea despite the technical definition.  After all, Colorado is already a major part of a movement that changed the standards for what is considered beer, why not another product?

Places that Used to Be

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Many different types of images come to mind whenever anyone talks about “ghost towns”.  I think of all of those images of abandoned, and partially decayed buildings that are pictured on the cover of books about ghost towns.  I think of that abandoned cabin you see while on a hike.

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Sometimes I think back to the recently abandoned town in West Texas I passed through a decade ago on a storm chase.  I even think of other, more recently abandoned, “21st Century” ghost towns.  Heck, sometimes parts of Detroit even come to mind.

But something felt creepy when I came across the site of not one, but three towns that used to exist, as recently as the middle part of last century.

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I looked around in all directions.  There were no buildings at all, not even one of those rotted out wooden buildings that appears to be on the verge of collapse due to neglect.  I looked far and wide along the valley for some sort of evidence that there were three whole towns in the area as recently as the 1960s.  Maybe an abandoned platform along the tracks.  Or even piles of wood, or rocks.  Nothing!  The only evidence anyone passing along this route would have that there ever was any human civilization in the area is a historical marker that marked what once was the site of the highest masonic lodge in the U.S.A.  It’s creepy enough that these towns appeared to be completely erased out of existence.  But, the only indication that these towns ever actually existed is due to the Masons, a secretive organization that many also find creepy.

Three miles up the road, is Fremont Pass, another place with echos of the past.

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Fremont Pass, it appears, is home to another “ghost town”, the town of Climax.  Here, I at least found some evidence of this town’s existence.

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This particular location played a significant role in history on two occasions.  As indicated by the historical marker, the Continental Divide is the western boundary of the Louisiana Purchase.  In fact, this very location was an international border from 1803, when the Louisiana Purchase was signed, until 1821, when the Adams-Onis Treaty established slightly different borders between U.S. and Spanish territory.  The border would remain in a somewhat nearby location until the conclusion of the Mexican-American war in 1845.

Later, the Climax Mine would play a pivotal role in the U.S. efforts in both World War 1 and World War 2, as it sits on one of the largest deposits of a little known substance of molybdenum.  To be completely honest, I have no clue what molybdenum is.  All I know is that it is one of those middle elements on the Periodic Table, which, I am guessing is more than the average person knows.

What I did gather, though, was that like the three other ghost towns in the area, this is a place that was significant, actually quite significant, at a point in our history, but now it is basically gone.  In fact, the only real reason I know about Climax is related to one of my other projects.  I recently created an algorithm to calculate seasonal normals at any given point in Colorado for the purpose of planning out activities across this beautiful state.  To develop this algorithm, I needed to find as many reliable weather observation sites in places with different geographical features as possible.  Climax, it turns out, is the site of one of the highest reliable CO-OP weather stations.

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Not only was this weather station particularly helpful in developing that algorithm, it is also a great source of information regarding snowpack conditions at high elevations for the purpose of avalanche forecasting, as well as determining where to hike or snowshoe.  So, although that molybdenum plant re-opened a few years ago, in my world, this weather station is currently Climax’s most significant attribute.

The fact that places both rise and decline in significance is not a new concept.  Places like Egypt and Sumeria formed the cradle of civilization, only to eventually cede that power to other cities and regions.  Similarly, in today’s United States, we are currently seeing places like Texas and Florida gain province, while parts of the Northeast and Midwest decline.

This particular situation is strange though.  When I think of the “Fall of Rome”, for example, I think of a process that occurred over roughly two centuries.  The ghost towns near Freemont Pass were culturally significant a mere half a century ago.  Today, they are all but vanquished from existence.

I am also not accustomed to seeing this process occur over such a small spatial scale outside an urban area.  Most of Colorado is thriving, particularly the mountainous part of Central Colorado.  These three erased towns are only ten miles up the road from Copper Mountain Ski Resort, a resort that is so popular that it one of only three ski resorts to receive its own detailed forecast from OpenSnow (the other two are Steamboat and Vail).

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Roughly ten miles or so in the other direction, is Leadville, a former mining town that also appears to still be doing quite well for itself.

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When I think this all through rationally, I understand why the civilization left the Fremont Pass area.  The economy was largely driven my one obscure material.  When the price for that one material declined, the entire economy left.  Sometimes, though, it takes some time for information to process through the logical mind.  My gut reaction was still one of disbelief, as it still definitely feels strange to see a set of towns decline so quickly to the point of non-existance in a region that as popular and ascendent as Central Colorado.

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.