Friday, April 25, 2008

Cruisin' Colorado

After leaving Palo Duro Canyon and Texas, our route took us northwest for an overnight stop at Las Vegas, NM and then on to Colorado Springs for a reunion with our good friends Joe & Susan. A real treat for us was that our friends from Dayton, Kirk and Sue also were able to join us; Joe, Kirk, and I all worked together in our former lives, so it was a special time for us to be able to get together again. We found an RV spot at the Air Force Academy FamCamp, only minutes from where Joe and Susan have their beautiful home . It's a great campground located in the tall pines, but at an elevation of 6700' it can be a bit cool in April, and the temperature dropped well below freezing at night for the week that we stayed. Still, it was a great location at a fair price. The Air Force Academy is a huge facility in a beautiful area; long drives through pines with mountains rising to the west take you to the BX & Commissary area and cadet area. The cadet area is tucked away in a small valley and is a completely self-contained university. There's a large visitor center to explore, but the centerpiece of the Academy has to be the chapel. Open for tours during the day, it's an amazingly beautiful building, designed in a way to reflect the concept of flight and soaring aircraft in side and out. The interior, with its stained-glass panels and soaring ceiling, is simply incredible. It's hard to believe that it was built in the early 60's; the modern styling makes it look like it was finished just recently. Truly one of the most beautiful buildings we've ever seen. All of the buildings in the cadet area were impressive; during my 38 years of dealing with Academy graduates, I now understand why most of them were arrogant.....four years at a place like this will certainly make you feel like you're special.
Besides the wonderful meals and great company, Joe and Susan had a full slate of tourist activities prepared for us. We spent an afternoon exploring the Garden of the Gods, an interesting area of rock formations and parks. Although it was chilly and the ladies preferred staying in the car, we managed to get everyone together for this group picture. From the visitor center, Pike's Peak filled the horizon, begging to be climbed. So off we went, but although we men were perfectly willing to don cold weather gear and hike the mountain to the top, we deferred to our wives and took the Pikes' Peak Cog Railway instead. At least, that's how I remember it......Boarding the train cars, we began an hour and 1/2 journey up the mountain past frozen streams, frozen trees, frozen....well, you get the picture. The train is pretty amazing; at times the grade is as much as 25%, but the train kept chugging along, finally reaching the top where everyone ran into the visitor center before frostbite could set in. After a quick warm-up, I decided to venter outside for some pictures. At first, I thought, "hmmm, not too bad" not realizing that the 40 MPH wind was BEHIND me. It wasn't until I turned around to hike the 1/4 mile back that the cold (20 degrees w/40 kt wind = 22 degrees below zero wind chill) hit me. I can't describe how long that hike back to the visitor center was or how frozen I was when I got there (I had no gloves or hat). If it hadn't been for the large hot chocolate and 1/2 dozen donuts I probably wouldn't have recovered. But we all had a good time and enjoyed the view through our frost-encrusted eyeballs.
A slightly less rigorous trip was to the Coors Brewery in Golden, where we had a great time learning how all of the various Coors beers are made. The tour was interesting and took us through the different areas of the brewery, showing how all of the ingredients come together, and ended at the holy grail of all beer tours - the tasting room! Unlike those stingy Budweiser tours, Coors allows each person to sample FOUR 12-ounce glasses of beer, and you can stay as long as you like. With plenty of non-drinkers on the tour to beg beers from, it can be a long and enjoyable day! On a serious note, it was an enjoyable afternoon and all of us were struck by how much better the beer tasted since it was made so recently....or maybe because it was free.
Our visit was over too soon - hanging around with old friends, reminiscing and sharing stories of our new interests (Joe's become a fly fishing maniac, Kirk's earned his pilot's license), and making new memories together. It was time for us to continue north to our summer volunteer job, but before we left, I caught this picture of Joe and Susan's resident fox, who visits their back yard daily. We'll update our journey and arrival back in Montana soon; stop back and visit!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Palo Duro Canyon

Every once in a while we come across a place that surprises us with it's unexpected beauty. After driving through the flat plains of Texas surrounding Midland, Odessa, and Big Spring, a short drive off the main highway brought us to the edge of a huge canyon with colorful cliffs and magical rock formations. Located just south of Amarillo, Palo Duro Canyon State Park is located in the northern portion of this huge canyon, 120 miles long, and as much as 800' deep - said to be second in the country only to the Grand Canyon for it's size. We spent two enjoyable days exploring the park and watching wildlife. At the entrance gate, we checked in and then visited the park's two native longhorn cattle, appropriately named Biscuits and Gravy. That's the dainty and quite feminine Gravy pictured. After a sporty mile and half drive down a 10% grade, we drove eight miles through the canyon to one of the campgrounds with electric and water hookups where we had plenty of space and great views. Looking around, it's hard to believe you're in northern Texas; the canyon makes you think you're in Arizona or southern Utah. Throughout the park, overlooks provided sweeping vistas of the colorful canyon walls and magnificent rock formations. This state park is a huge operation; there is a large outdoor theater, horse riding concession, gift shop/grill, and extensive visitor center. We saw a wide variety of wildlife; white tail deer, wild turkey, and even desert bighorn sheep. Our favorite were the turkey; they were everywhere and acted more like domestic chickens than the wild and wary birds in other areas. All it took was a handful of bird seed to have your very own turkey visiting each day. We watched this handsome tom turkey as it courted one of the many females in his harem. Although we're not well versed in turkey expressions, she seems to have the "oh no, not again!" look. It was a memorable experience to sit and watch as the flock meandered about, not affected at all by us as we sat and watched.
Our visit to Palo Duro Canyon was one that we'll remember for a long time. Through the years, we passed through Amarillo on I-40 and never knew this wonderful park was so close by; we're glad we finally stopped to visit and encourage you to do the same if you're in the area. We're continuing our northbound journey to Montana - please stop by again and see how we're doing!

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

LBJ Country

Just up a ways from Blanco State Park is Johnson City, a small town where the Lyndon Baines Johnson boyhood home and original family settlement is located. As a Viet Nam veteran, I'm not a big fan of LBJ and his presidency, since his micromanagement of the conflict along with his Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara, handcuffed the military's ability to fight the war and cost this country nearly 60,000 lives. But hey, I'm always interested in history and since it was close to where we were staying it seemed like a good idea to visit the historical sites. We started at the visitor center, the former city hospital, which serves as a central point to explore the boyhood home, recreated original settlement, and place to get information on how to get to the "ranch". After a short walk to the boyhood home, we joined a guided tour and narrative about LBJ's family life here in the 1920s. It was an interesting tour; it's always amazing to see how people lived without electricity, especially in the hot and humid Texas summer. From the visitor center, it was a 14-mile drive to the LBJ ranch, now known as the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park. Here, we boarded a bus at the visitor center for an hour and a half tour narrated by one of the park rangers. The tour passed the one-room school he attended and stopped briefly at the house where he was born in 1906, and where we toured the restored home. Across the street is the family cemetery, where his gravestone is the most prominent. Next to his grave is Lady Bird's, marked with flowers and still without a headstone after a year, as the family hasn't come to an agreement about the inscription. The driver's narration focused on two areas - LBJ's educational and civil rights accomplishments, which were certainly significant and meaningful, and how everyone in the park loved Lady Bird. Until shortly before her death, she would sit on the porch of the main house and wave to everyone on the bus tour, and in years past would come to the bus and greet all of the visitors. Throughout the tour, the driver pointed out all of the remains of the presidential years - the Secret Service quarters, the airfield, communications facilities, and guard shacks. The main house, or "Texas White House", is an impressive home, but we were disappointed that tours of the inside won't be available for a year or two from now. We were told that the house is unpretentious and comfortable inside; that Lady Bird wanted a home that her husband could feel comfortable in without the trappings of the White House. Overall, touring the LBJ historic sites was enjoyable and interesting, and for those who are too young to have lived through his administration, an educational experience.
Now that we're into April, our flamingo is of course appropriately attired in her rain gear. Who knows what she'll be wearing next? Check back and see!