Saturday, July 4, 2009

On the Road: Yellow Springs Ohio

I've been busy with work as I travel, so haven't been able to write much. That and a very long drive from St. Louis to Covington, Kentucky left me very tired. I finally feel like I've caught up on sleep a bit now. In Ohio, I'll be traveling much shorter distances before heading west again.

After my stay in Washington, Missouri, I headed out to see if I could taste a little Missouri wine. I went to Balducci Vineyards and Montelle Winery, both nearby. I tasted a range of wines at both. My impression is that Seyval Blanc makes the most successful whites from the perspective of someone used to dry vinifera-based wines, and Norton (also known as Cynthiana) seems to make the best red wines. A couple of the port-style wines I tasted were quite good. I have to say that the wine we make in our backyard is better than anything I was able to taste, but I doubt I tasted the best Missouri has to offer. Montelle is in a beautiful setting with a large outdoor deck area to eat and drink wine on.

I started late on my way to Ohio and didn't arrive in the Cincinnati area until almost 2:00 in the morning and had a very hard time finding a hotel, the first time that has happened so far. The places listed in the hotel list on my GPS either weren't there or were scary-looking, so I headed back to Covington, thinking there would be something near the airport there. I was forced to have dinner at an overcrowded Denny's, although the turkey sandwich I ordered wasn't bad at all. I stayed in a Holiday Inn in Covington. I spent most of the morning working in the hotel business center before heading out again. I went down to see the Roebling Bridge, which the locals appear to call "The Suspension Bridge." I drove down to the water near the Kentucky-side tower and looked around a bit. There is a whole neighborhood of old brick buildings there. According to a plaque near the bridge, the area was heavily fortified during the Civil War and was a point at which Union forces held back an advance from the south.

Next I went to the Cincinnati Art Museum, which has a small but attractive collection. There were some beautiful portrait miniatures, a special show of Winogrand photographs, a contemporary glass exhibit that had some interesting examples, and, of course, the regular collection. The museum has a good Sargent. I saw the Art Museum in St. Louis, too. It was smaller than I remembered it, but I enjoyed seeing it again. They have a good Holbein (pictured). I last saw the place when it hosted a huge Monet show, in 1978, while I was at Webster College. I Stopped by Webster on my way out of St. Louis. The place has expanded a great deal, but the buildings I knew are all still there. I walked through Loretto Hall and Maria Hall. I waved to my old dorm room--although I couldn't remember what floor we lived on.... I strolled the halls on all four floors, to be sure.

Heading north, later in the day, after my visit to the Cincinnati Art Museum, I headed for Dayton, but was tired and, now in familiar territory for the first time on this trip, I decided on the spur of the moment to have dinner at The Golden Lamb, in Lebanon, as I was hungry. Turns out the rooms there are no more expensive than the cookie-cutter hotels I've been staying in, so I stayed at the Inn. I stayed in the Ulysses S. Grant room. I didn't realize so many famous people had stayed there, although I knew the inn was very old, dating from 1803. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Horace Mann, Charles Dickens, Henry Clay, and presidents such as Grant, Taft, Harrison, Harding, and others all stayed there, not to mention Ronald Reagan and George Bush, more recently.

Now having lunch in Yellow Springs, Ohio. It's hardly changed in the 25 years since I was last here. The rebellious mood is unchanged--first thing I saw driving into town was an anti-war protest. People still stand around in the streets discussing politics. It's amazing how many of the shops are still there, just as they were. One or two are new, and the Winds Cafe has expanded and moved across the street, but otherwise, little has changed. With my eyes closed I could have listed the stores along the main street.

Off now to visit my old haunt, the Outdoor Education Center, at Glen Helen.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

On the Road: Hannibal, Missouri to Washington, Missouri

I ended up spending most of the day in Hannibal, Missouri, working. It was a nice break from driving, actually. Finally finished work at about 3:30 and then took a walk around the town. A kernel of the place as Mark Twain must have known it is left. His childhood home is there (pictured). Becky Thatcher’s house is there. Twain’s father’s office still stands. There is a large stone barn from the period as well. It is enough to get a sense of the scale of the place. What has grown around it is built on a somewhat larger scale.

Up a long flight of stairs to the north of town is an old lighthouse with a good view over the Mississippi (see photo). Halfway up are the ruins of a bridge across the river (replaced by a newer bridge). A plaque notes that Franklin Roosevelt opened the bridge (with a young Harry Truman in attendance) in the 30s. The walk up the stairs gave me some much-needed exercise. Up on the hill I saw a Baltimore oriole, a cardinal (haven’t seen one since I lived in Ohio), and an indigo bunting (ditto).

After lunch at Lula Belle’s I headed south on Highway 79, along the river and the rail lines (stopping to refresh myself with an iced latte and a scoop of coffee ice cream, which I plopped into the coffee. Along the highway, I stopped at a nature preserve that was closed. Mostly saw killdeer and the ever-present swallows and red-winged blackbirds. I’m getting the impression these are the two most common birds in America. I decided to stop for the night near Defiance, Mo, in the heart of the Missouri wine country in the area west of St. Louis, along the Missouri river, an area mostly settled by Germans, many of them interested in winemaking. Had dinner in O’Fallon. Depending on work, I plan to see a couple of vineyards tomorrow morning, see the St. Louis Art Museum after that, and then get as close to Ohio as I can before it gets dark.

[That was the plan anyway, none of the hotels I originally headed for was open, so had to divert. Ended up in Washington, Missouri, considerably further south than I had intended, but still in the wine country.]

Tidbits: Karl Malden--RIP

Just heard that Karl Malden died today. He was 97. One of the last of his generation. RIP

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

On the Road: Manhattan, Kansas to Hannibal, Missouri (Summer 2009)

I left Manhattan, Kansas late in the morning and headed for Kansas City (I learned that Manhattan was founded by abolitionists from the East Coast--hence the name). The scenery on the interstate was not much to look at. Got off a couple of times to look around, once at Alma, which was a tiny town, interesting for its old stone buildings made from the local limestone. Later I stopped at a winery, that turned out to be making mostly elderberry wine. I searched in vain for a place making vinifera (true wine grape) wines from locally grown grapes.

I went through Topeka, to Kansas City. I wanted to see the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, but it was closed. My father remembers this museum from his youth, as it is right around the corner from the high school he attended, Rockport High School, which I had a quick look at. Decided to move on to St. Louis but then reconsidered and diverted north to Hannibal by way of Highways 54, 19, and 61.

A big chunk of work has just come in, so I may stay here in Hannibal a second night, as I will have to do this and get it off to Tokyo as my top priority for tomorrow. When I can, I will head down the Mississippi on Highway 79 to St. Louis before heading further east.

Monday, June 29, 2009

On the Road: First Impression of Kansas (Summer 2009)

This was about ten miles into Kansas, on Route 77 South, heading toward Manhattan, Kansas, which turned out to have a nice little Holiday Inn with an attached restaurant called Houlihan's that offers real food (at last).

On the Road: Iain Nicholson Audubon Center (summer 2009)

I happened to see a sign on 1-80 advertising the Iain Nicholson Audubon Center, near Kearney, Nebraska. It seemed worth stopping at. I'm glad I did. In about half an hour of walking and talking with the very helpful and friendly staff, I saw Baltimore orioles, a willow flycatcher (probable), dickcissels, bobolinks, bobwhites, a great blue heron, a catbird, a common yellowthroat, and a number of others that, ultimately I was unable to identify, including some sort of raptor with a very pale underside. Part of the problem is that I'm so far east now that my Western Birds is quickly losing its relevance. A very nice place this was. Well worth a visit. The dickcissel, the yellowthroat, and the flycatcher were first sightings for me, and I haven't seen a Baltimore oriole since the 1970s.

On the Road: Take the High Road (Summer 2009)

I was slightly taken aback this morning when, while bird watching, I realized that a lot of the weeds growing by the roadside were Cannabis. It seems to be everywhere in this part of Nebraska--apparently not cultivated. One man I spoke with referred to it disdainfully as "ditchweed."

On the Road: Ogallala, Nebraska to Manhattan, Kansas

Left Ogallala, headed east later than I had intended and made slow progress at first. Stopped at Sutherland Reservoir, but saw nothing of interest, except cliff swallows nesting under a bridge over the Platte River. Much of my route today followed the river, which runs in numerous shallow channels. The road crosses and recrosses many forks.

In North Platte, stopped at the Golden Spike Tower, which is an observation tower Union Pacific has constructed for tourists. It allows a bird's-eye view of the Bailey Classification Yard, the largest rail switching and classification yard in the world, so they say. Frankly, it wasn't much to look at, but interesting enough that I don't regret the detour (see photo).

Much of the rail traffic here seems to be coal trains bringing coal down from the area around Casper, Wyoming. They get routed here, mostly to power plants in the east, in places like Cincinnati, and Boston, and New York, and Washington. For the past two days I've been seeing the trains everywhere, some of them with as many as 200 cars.

Last night, coming into Ogallala from Scottsbluff, the road ran parallel to the North Platte River and more or less to the rail lines. I happened to start on the road just as the sun was going down. In the rear-view mirror, it was no longer visible, but light was coursing over the horizon, as various objects in the landscape were still catching the last glow. One of the coal trains appeared ahead of me at a point where the track was at a slight angle to the road. The coal cars are typically polished aluminum (or so they appear to be) with vertical, beveled ribs. Each car was neatly mounded with coal. The cars look like hundreds of perfect, but perfectly burned pound cakes in baking tins. The ribs on the cars began to catch the pink light and the whole train was lit up as if with hundreds of neon tubes standing on end--actually the bevels of the ribs reflecting the last pink rays of the sun at me. It was rather extraordinary. It lasted only about seven minutes. The first minute or two I wasn't able to understand what I was seeing. It reminded me of the gaudy neon lights at the casinos in Reno.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

On the Road: Rock Springs, Wyoming to Ogallala, Nebraska

I spent most of the day today driving east on I-80, which is a fairly boring drive. Got off the highway in Laramie, lured by a sign advertising an art gallery at the University of Wyoming (Laramie Campus), but it was closed. Moved on to Cheyenne, and from there further east into Nebraska. It was more of the same, until I came to my senses and left the Interstate. I turned north on State Route 71, from Kimball to Scottsbluff, hoping to do some birding at Scottsbluff National Monument.

The scenery was immediately more interesting. Rolling farmland, vivid green, except where just mowed. Harvesters were cutting hay and making giant green rolls of it. Soon the bluffs appeared--big, eroded outcroppings of sand-colored stone. As it was late in the day, the light was very pretty. I got to the monument and took a walk of about a mile up into the bluffs. Saw a spotted towhee, hundreds of swallows, a pair of black-billed magpies--beautiful, big birds in iridescent black-green with flashes of white in flight. Also saw a mountain bluebird for the first time. I had seen the western and eastern varieties before, but not the mountain bluebird--a beautiful, all-blue bird. The other varieties have rust on the breast and sides. Then drove southeast from the bluffs to Ogallala, on highway 26.

[Update: Recently (in January 2011), I read Desperate Passage, a book about the famous Donner Party that was stranded for months in the Sierra Nevada mountains near the end of their trip across the continent. I realize in retrospect that I followed much the same route as the Donners and the families traveling with them (albeit in the opposite direction). Scottsbluff was an important landmark for wagon trains heading west.]

On the Road: Cheyenne, Wyoming

Now in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

I feel like I'm not getting anywhere very fast. Colorado turned out to be a good deal south of the road I'm on, so I think I'll try to go back home through Colorado rather than diverting now. The distances are a bit daunting. I can see now that the way to really do this would be to pick a region of the country of interest, fly into the nearest big city and then explore from a base rather than trying to fill in the spaces by car. Still, it's been interesting so far. Likely to end up in North Platte, Nebraska tonight.

Met a friendly local woman in Starbucks, who recommended a Chinese place for lunch, the Twin Dragon. She also mentioned a few interesting old buildings in town that I will try to swing by on the way out. Partly because it's Sunday, very little is going on here. I was able to stand in the street downtown for several minutes to photograph the State Capitol building--not a moving car in sight. The food at the restaurant turned out to be barely edible. I skipped the buildings and headed east.
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