MISSION: To visit every state and territory in the U.S. For my mission a visit is greater than a stop over; I wish to explore the natural and cultural environments of these areas. Each of these locations has a story to tell, and I want to find it.

As of February 2018 I have visited all 50 states (and Puerto Rico and 2 island in the US Virgin Islands) at least once.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

How To See the Sites of Buffalo/Niagara Falls in 2 Days

I had lofty goals for 2 days - I knew it going in.  But I also had precedent.  I had visited the area about 10 years ago for 2 days specifically for a friend's wedding reception; even then I stuffed some stuff in to the weekend.  Niagara Falls is a thing a majesty and it cannot be denied.

I broke the trip up - 1 day for the Falls and one for Buffalo (namely the zoo's polar bear cubs)

In Niagara, entertained myself at:

  • Hershell Carousel Horse Museum - here I learned about the history of the carousel ride.  Did you know that it was considered scandalous when it was first introduced.  Only adults allowed and the church preached against its corruptive powers.... the Carrousel!!!!  Not only did we learn how the horses were carved, we were also treated to a lesson on the music.  You can't walk out of here without a deep appreciation for the artistry alone.  
  • Riding Maid of the Mists - not much to say here except that it is a must do... I rode this trip without my poncho hood up and can happily report that the powerful mists are better than a shower in penetrating my thick hair.  You take the ride to feel and hear the power of the falls...you walk around the State Park to see the falls.  Because, you cannot see the falls when you get close.  Your eyes shut from the battering of the water.  And, if you are me, you laugh silly from the experience.  This was my second ride and I would go back in a second (on a warm day).
  • Talking in the Symphony (no kidding, I was treated to a concert of John Williams music - and
    still humming ET because of it).  I don't care what his detractors say, I love John Williams music.  I really think that people that criticize do not know the breathe of his musical genius.  Not every score he composes is a "march", it just so happens that some of his most well know compositions are marches.  Still, there are some lovely classical strings in there.  And after a day of walking around, sitting down on Old Falls Street for a special concert by the Buffalo Philharmonic was nothing but pure bliss.  
  • And then, headed back to the Falls again at night - because if you have not seen them, you must
     witness the colors on the water.  It sounds so simple, but the site is not!  ( when I get some time, I will add a slide show of the falls pics in the right hand column for all to see)

After some well earned rest, I headed to Buffalo to visit the primary reason for my trip:

  • I spent the afternoon with the polar bear cubs, "ahhhhhing" away at the Zoo.  For those that do not know, the Buffalo Zoo has 2 polar bear cubs this summer.  One was born there and the other was brought there from Alaska after a tragic hunting incident (where its mother was killed).    Words cannot do that afternoon justice as all of us in attendance watched both cubs play with each other, with their toys, swim, scratch, run after birds... it was too adorable.  And the locals must be repeat visitors because "they are getting so big" was repeated over and over again.  
  • After spending most of the afternoon observing polar bear cub behavior, I headed off to view the rest of the zoo where the other animals were also in active moods.  I got to see all sorts of monkeys antagonizing each other (there is a whole butt scratching thing that I have to research now - is it an insult?)  The aviaries were filled with colors pheasants playing in the dirt.  Lions and tigers were calling.  Gorillas were moving about.  Wallabies were hopping.  It was a very active time - one would swear that the animals were competing for attention since the crowds were at the polar bear site.  
  • I rounded out the weekend with a bit of history and headed to the Teddy Roosevelt National Historic Site - the home where Teddy was sworn in as President after William McKinley was shot at the Buffalo Expo. The tour is a historical discussion... and here you learn that Teddy was camping/hunting (doing what he always did) when he got word; he traveled to Buffalo, was told McKinley would be fine, went back only to come back again when he passed away days later.,.. I shot in the gut will do it to you in any time period.  And as the tour walked you though some of the key issues of the day - immigration, labor laws, women's rights, civil rights, the titans of industry controlling everything - you were left shaking your head on how these issues have not changed.  Have we not learned from history?  Have we forgotten our history?  Do we think that we know better now?  Or will these issues haunt our society for all of its existence?

Friday, July 19, 2013

Random Sites and Interesting Places in WI and IA

There is lots more to write about regarding my trip in the Lands of Corn and Cheese.  Surprisingly, I have been a bit busy since I returned.  Now I am headed off on my next great adventure... and guess what??? It is supposed to rain on me again.  Sad, I know.

Before I head off the airport, I wanted to jot down a few thoughts on my June trip:
  • Aquariums - I went to 3 places that were to have aquarium-like features.  Sadly, only one was truly awesome. 
    • I give 5 stars to the Mississippi River Aquarium in Dubuque, Iowa.    It might have stolen my heart with a special turtle exhibit, but its true majesty was how it embraced the whole river:  it walked visitors through the entire river journey from headwaters to delta.  Sure you met sturgeon, but you also see otters, turtles, alligators and a whole tank on the Gulf of Mexico.  They have videos that fly you over the whole river.  AND it touches on the communities and cultures influenced by the Great Mississippi.  I loved it. 
    • Sadly, I did not love my time at the Discovery Center in Milwaukee.  The Science Center/Aquarium was in a great place and filled with kids - at the science exhibits.  The aquarium was in the basement.  And there it had a few tanks of fish with no names.  They had a walk through laboratory that focused on tropical fish (not there are any in Lake Michigan).  I got the feeling it was  there to say they had one.  But, if you need an aquarium fix in the area, head to Chicago and visit the Shedd.  However, I must say that the facilities diorama of the Great Lakes System was fascinating; you could play with the weather and the lock system in the model and see how it impacts the lakes.  You can clearly see how they interconnect.  This was the must see!
    • Lastly, (or firstly if you are going by the order I visited them in) - there was the Great Lakes Visitor Center in Ashland.  At the southern point of Lake Superior, this facility was all about the displays, no live fish here.  BUT it had a wonderful boardwalk  trail to explain the local ecology... and this is what I really wanted.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Beauty of the Islands

The day after my birthday, the weather was perfect for spending time on the water.  It was a warm, clear day - not a lot of wind.  The sky of blue, there was soft puffy clouds in the sky and I was ready to tour the islands... and so was everyone else who had been rained out, fogged out over the last several days.  The boat was filled, but I was at least able to score a window seat by a few nice people.  When I travel alone, it always nice to end up near people that like to chit-chat... and on a long boat ride touring islands, I knew I would want to talk. 

As promised, the islands and the views were well worth the wait.  Lake Superior sat as a smooth base,
the the islands rose as these green slivers where the sky met the lake.  While on the boat, we were treated to stories of brownstone and its cliffsides, of fisherman and of the Native American heritage of the region.   Sure the area is beautiful, but it is not easy.  The lake freezes over in the winter (well most winters until recently).  Lake Superior is so large and so cold that it, more or less, controls the way of life in the region - creating fog and driving weather patterns.  There are wolf, coyote, bear in the woods.  The winters are long - heck it snowed in May this year.

A few of the islands housed historical fishing shacks (pic to the left), but I am not so sure people use them anymore.  We passed the old brownstone rock quarry (pic to the right), one of the main reasons the area was settled.   We saw cormorants diving in the cold waters, gulls flying above and were told more about the "huge" fish in the lake.  The captain weaved tales of ship-wrecks and stranded fishing parties.

While Lake Superior is deep, there are shallow shots near the islands and in the dark or fog, everything blends together.  So, as you guessed, the islands have their fair share of lighthouses.  And although most of the lighthouses are run automatically now, Raspberry Island has a park service Lighthouse keeper (different tour) that mans the house during the season.

The true crown jewel of this trip was Devil's Island and the seacaves.  Here, the sandstone cliffs have been eroded away by years of erosion, and left in its wake is this complex cave network.  Look closely,
and you can see the sandstone's shifting colors; you can see how in spots it goes deep and others the caves are shallow.  And at this point in the cruise, we were to drift past these features a few times.... well, that was the plan until out boat went through a black fly hatch.  From that point on our boat and trip was swarmed by thousands of biting black flies.  Our captain cut the visit to the caves short.  We needed wind, stat!

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Trying to Get to the Apostle Islands

The Fog kept us in.
The Black Flies!
On my trip to Wisconsin, I was looking forward to visiting the Apostle Islands.  Situated in the very northern part of the state, it was a 5 1/2 hour drive from Madison (where I flew into).  I had allotted 3 days time in the area, thinking that was plenty to experience the small town, the lake, the islands and the area's natural beauty.  I had planned on several boat and kayak tours, hiking and exploring.  BUT, mother nature, with an assist from the airlines, had other plans.  I was delayed, fogged out, rained on and swarmed with biting black flies.  All of that was not going to keep me from seeing them - I had come too far!

Sea Caves at Devil's Island
The Apostle Islands are a more recent park in the system.  The National Lakeshore was established on the south shore of Lake Superior in 1970; it protects a collection of small islands off the northern coast of Wisconsin for their sheer beauty (i.e. their scenic, biological, geological, historical architectural and wilderness resources).  These low sitting islands checker the lake breaking the smooth water with strips of green.  A few of them still house historic fishing camps and others have lighthouses.

I had never been to Lake Superior.  I was ready to dip my toes in its waters,   I was drawn to the pictures of the flat coastal rocks.  I was looking forward to the sea cave system.  It looked peaceful.  And really, it was tranquil. That tranquility was necessary since my vacation began with stress - I missed my flight out of DC, my next flight was delayed and I missed my connection as a result.  I can't blame United since I would have made the connection if I had made my original initial flight.  So, I spent 5 hours in Chicago waiting for a 20 minute flight.  By the time I finally landed in Madison, I had just enough time to make it for my ghost tour in Bayfield.  Gone was my plan to stop at cheese factories and the Great Lakes Visitor's Center.  I need to power drive (all those drives up and down I-95 come in handy at times like these).

My plan when arriving in Bayfield was to quickly check into my Bed and Breakfast and run to meet my tour.  I made it (whew) and got my first taste of obstacles for the weekend - the small town was under construction and the rain and fog would not let go...  it made for a spooky evening, but was not ideal for my plans for daylight.  Still, the ghost and historical tour provided some great stories.  Apparently, the local B&B's look for ghost stories and histories in their accommodations; we were told a great story of how one proprietor went looking for one since they thought that they were at a disadvantage.  They asked other ghosts to come to their home.  When they finally got their wish, they ended up with a bad accordion player ghost.  See, cute!  We also learned some of the history of the area and the islands - founded for timber, brownstone and fishing; as the area was settled, farming took a foothold and the cows took over downtown!

My birthday was to be celebrated with the Grand Tour of the islands.  Instead, I woke up to thunder
and pouring rain.  By the time it was time to load the boat, the rain stopped (yeah), but a thick fog, Scooby Doo fog, started rolling in off the Lake (boo).  Our captain tried to wait it out.  Alas, it was not to be.  He called it off and also admitted to me that the afternoon tour of the shipwrecks would be a bust since the rain kicked up the silt.  Damn!

I contacted a kayak outfitter that could fit me in a tour.  I figured fog couldn't hurt if we weren't going out too far.  I was all ready to sign up for the excursion, when they mentioned wet suits... I did not pack a wet suit.  I did not have a bathing suit to wear under one of the generics they had.  I was going to Wisconsin, I wasn't planning on swimming.  And hey, I have kayaked in Alaska and never needed a wet suit... what was this about?  So, off to the Park headquarters I went.  There, the fantastic rangers told me to head to Madeline Island on the car ferry, there I could visit the state park (if I could deal with the mud).  So, off on my first car ferry adventure I went!

Monday, July 1, 2013

Searching for the Meaning of the Red Barn

I am back from my trip through America's dairy land.  And, while I must sit down, go through my pictures and sort through the souvenirs, I have really been pondering a common site that I passed in Wisconsin and Iowa - the big red barn.  Sure, it is the iconic image of the American farm.  The rolling green land waving in the breeze with a field of animals nearby and that Big Red Barn in the background.  I really thought that was pure imagery.  I have been through plenty of farmland - Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Missouri, Pennsylvania... heck, I grew up in New Jersey and yes, there is plenty there too.  But I really never took that iconic red barn in like I did this trip.  It seemed like every direction I looked, I was staring out at the red barn.  That left me wondering - why red?

Home now, I have time to look into this.  My first instincts was that red was a purposeful color choice.  I would have guessed that red was a color that was good for cows (because there sure were plenty of those in dairy land).  My second guess would have  been that red stands out well in the land of green and when you are out on endless acres of farmland, you just look for the red to head back.  But what do I know?  Well, I don't know squat about red barns... because after a bit of digging, I have found 2 main schools of thought on the choice of color (and one more in depth analysis):

  1. The Historic Choice - (a) The area was heavily settled by Scandinavians, Germans and Irish.  Apparently the Scandinavians had preference for red farmhouses and barns (the famous Falu farg red paint, from Sweden's massive copper mine)... (b) The "barn red" is not the bright, fire-engine red that we often see today, but more of a burnt-orange red. As to how the oil mixture became traditionally red, there are two predominant theories:
    • Wealthy farmers added blood from a recent slaughter to the oil mixture. As the paint dried, it turned from a bright red to a darker, burnt red.
    • Farmers added ferrous oxide, otherwise known as rust, to the oil mixture. Rust was plentiful on farms and is a poison to many fungi, including mold and moss, which were known to grown on barns. These fungi would trap moisture in the wood, increasing decay.
    Regardless of how the farmer tinted his paint, having a red barn became a fashionable thing. They were a sharp contrast to the traditional white farmhouse.
  2. The Economic Choice - Red Paint is Cheap!!!  According to some, One of the biggest reasons for red pigment being cheaper is because it spreads much thinner and still produces an opaque coating. The pigment in paint, if opaque,  serves to absorb ultraviolet light thereby vastly extending the life of the coating. Red pigment, whatever it is always has the most opacity of any color. Equalling cheap in two different ways. Cheap to buy (just dirt) and cheap to use (goes a long way) bonus; paint lasts longer.
  3. The Scientific Choice - Red Paint is Cheap!!   What makes a cheap pigment? Obviously, that it’s plentiful. The red pigment that makes cheap paint is red ochre, which is just iron and oxygen. These are incredibly plentiful: the Earth’s crust is 6% iron and 30% oxygen. Oxygen is plentiful and affects the color of compounds it’s in by shaping them, but the real color is determined by the d-electrons of whatever attaches to it: red comes from iron.  (like blues and greens from copper, a beautiful deep blue from cobalt).
I feel better now... even though I don't think we need blood in our paint mix, and last time I check all paint costs the same now... I am still stuck on why red persists today, except to guess that it is tradition and it looks striking.  Somehow I do not think that a big yellow barn would make the same statement.

(and thank you to howstuffworks.com, the farmers almanac, the Smithsonian and boingboing.net for help in me solving this pretty mystery).