Monday, July 22, 2024

Not Even Not Traveling 53: Idaho II

Idaho II

Craters of the Moon National Monument

Millions of years ago, the caldera (the hot spot near the surface) of the Yellowstone supervolcano seethed under the lands of Idaho. The continental plates and the lava have shifted since then. Slowly, the heat underneath has moved hundreds of miles and into Wyoming.

Only 15,000 years ago, though, the caldera burst out in lava flows and it did so in eastern Idaho. Only 2,000 years ago, it erupted again (in a minor way, or we wouldn't be here). It created more lava on the plains of Idaho. According to most geologists, the volcanic fissures at Craters of the Moon are dormant, not extinct. Ugh. So they are expected to erupt again in the next thousand years. 

Underneath the Snake River Plain, which runs through Idaho, is a feature called the Great Rift. It's an area where the ground gapes open in spots, with some of the clefts as deep as eight hundred feet. Naturally, the major lava pools formed along the path of the Great Rift. 

Even now, the environment on the Snake River Plain is harsh. The dry winds and heat-absorbing lava rocks sap water from the area. Summer soil temperatures exceed 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Plant cover is less than 5% on the cinder cones, where we hiked, and about 15% over the entire park.

It is not a hospitable place.

The features are darned unique, though. And hiking here is another sneaky way to visit Yellowstone without the crowds. At the visitor center, I didn't have to wait in line. I strolled straight to the desk. There, a young man asked if he could help and I said, "My wife isn't here yet but I know what she's going to ask. Where can we go and not see any other people?"

The two women next to me overheard and burst into laughter. But they nodded. 

"Okay, I can't get you to no other people at all," he replied. He unfolded a map for me and circled three different trails. "But I can get you to where there's hardly anyone else."

"Sold," I replied, maybe a bit quickly. He had a plan and I patiently listened to the details. Not surprisingly, the longest and most exposed trails were the least popular. 

Inferno Cone

Some of the popular attractions at Craters of the Moon are so alluring that we waded into them anyway, despite the presence of other people. One of them was the Inferno Cone, the largest cinder cone in the park. It looked so great, I had to pull into the lot. We emerged from the car smiling at the sight. 

"Do you want to climb that basalt mountain?" my wife asked.

"Yeah, that's a terrible idea," I agreed. "Let's go."

She took a few steps along the path. She stopped and turned, eyes narrowed in a suspicious glare. "What did you just say?"

"Let's go." I passed her on the way. 

After we had hiked a couple hundred feet up, maybe halfway to the top, we paused. The elevation and the incline were both pretty high. The experience started to remind me of one I'd had at the Bear Dunes park in Michigan. There, almost twenty years before, I decided to run down a sand dune mountain that started on a  bluff and proceeded far below to the shores of Lake Michigan. After the journey to the water, of course, I had to trudge back up the bluff. It took ages. Naturally, everyone gave me grief about it but, in my defense, everyone had warned me not to do it. 

I had no such defense this time. Granulated basalt is a much, much easier surface than sand, though. We enjoyed the climb. When we got to the highest rocks on the peak, we adored the view, too. 

Broken Top Trail 

This was a great, highly recommended hike. The trail took us up the northwest side of the mountain (Broken Top) and then around it, down, and back to the west. From the overlook, and in several other places, we could see another mountain that probably deserved to be called broken, too. Really, all of the features around us were probably cones or buttes. To our south, we could see Big Cinder Butte, not much taller than the place we were hiking. 

Part of what made the trail so good was the wildlife at the top and the desolation at the bottom. At the bottom, we passed into the lands of the Great Rift. We explored some of the earth-cracking fissures and, gracefully enough, we did not fall in. (For most of them, it would have taken a lot of effort to get into a position to fall. A fall would not have been recoverable in any way, though. No one would have even recovered a body.) We did look fairly closely into Buffalo Caves, though, since the other cave trails were closed due to park maintenance.  

Tree Molds Trail 

On the way back to the same parking area, we hiked on some of the Tree Molds path. It wasn't hard to see why it got its name.

In fact, as a general observation, I felt I could understand why some of the Apollo astronauts - Alan Shepard, Eugene Cernan, Joe Engle, and Edgar Mitchell - performed part of their training at Craters of the Moon as they tried to learn to look for the best rock specimens in a harsh environment.

Wednesday, July 3

Boise, Idaho

Okay, so we hardly looked at it. We stayed in Boise. We know it has good coffee shops. We drove around and looked. But Boise is actually pretty big. 

Unlike most of the towns we stayed in, Boise has all the elements of a good-sized city. It's the opposite of touring the national parks. We arrived without much time to explore before our flight. We were surprised to see the number of high-rises. I was pleased to drive by a professional football stadium, a basketball and hockey arena, and evidence of nightlife. Boise has a lot going on. We dined at a restaurant in the Basque district. Boise has districts!

Our basement apartment AirBNB was well tended but it was so plain (bare concrete floors, no tiles, terrible water, odd smells), I grumped about it quite a bit. Still, I left with the impression there is plenty to do in Boise. There's plenty during the summers, at least, and probably all year round. We hadn't seen enough - which is how we end many of our multi-state tours.

Sunday, July 21, 2024

Not Even Not Traveling 52: Idaho I

Idaho I 

In Shelley, our room was small but beautiful.

Beautiful is not the same as practical. The apartment design was open, no doors anywhere in our miniature suite, not even the bathroom. The corridors in the suite were too narrow for more than one person at a time. The tiny fridge was fine. The controls to the hot tub were a mystery in that they didn't quite work according to the instructions. The room's wireless service was decent.

In Shelley, we had taken a room in a motel. As noted above, the results were generally pretty good. However, the situation was unique. For one, the address wasn't advertised as a motel although, viewed from the outside, that's what it looked like to me. Someone on AirBNB said they were renovating old hotel rooms. They offered a special rate during the construction phase. The rooms looked fine in the ad and, surprisingly, they proved to be slightly better when we checked into one. 

I know what I've said about local ownership of motels before. Local properties often doesn't turn out to be well maintained. But this place was nice. The new owners had picked a good spot. They had given a theme to each room as they had renovated it. The themes were interesting. Someone involved had an artistic touch.

I'd rent a room there again. The suites are small, yes, but they were built 1950s originally. It wasn't too bad an era for construction. The dimensions are more cramped than you might find in modern construction but the refurbished results are nice. 

Tuesday, July 2

In the morning, Diane noticed a sign on the way to our next scheduled stop, the Craters of the Moon park. My eyes had vaguely glanced over a yellowish rectangle with red lettering but I didn't read it. Since I was the person steering the vehicle, I didn't much notice it, even. In my defense, reading while driving is generally frowned upon, although I suppose it might be appropriate to read about the Darwin Awards.

"There's an Atomic History Museum," Diane pointed out.

"What, where?" This part of Idaho looked deserted. It didn't even have potatoes, just distant mountains. "Around here?"

"We passed a sign." She put a finger on her chin. "After I thought about it for a second, it seemed like one of those weird places you might like to stop in at."

She was totally right. I started trying to read the signs. Cryptically, the red letters said: EBR-1. Other billboards along our way had details about atomic history although I still couldn't read them. Diane did her best to convey the information.

We pulled into the parking lot of EBR-1 at 9:04. A sign there said they opened at 9:00. Two teenagers outside the building greeted us with looks that said, "Oh no, visitors!" They scooted in through a side door, as if fleeing from our car as we parked it. Our presence seemed to be ruining their nice, quiet morning of doing nothing. (That turned out to not be entirely true, though, because other atomic tourists started arriving ten minutes later.)

Inside the main door, I learned EBR stood for Experimental Breeder Reactor. This building had housed the first nuclear power plant in the world, apparently. What kind of sight-seers would this place get? 

Well, EBR-1 is beautiful and simple. It is pretty much "The Little Nuclear Plant That Could." As one of the teenagers explained to us, the staff in 1951 built a simple heat exchanger that powered a turbine. They chose NAK (a sodium-potassium alloy) for the heat exchanging material because it is technically a liquid metal, very efficient for the job, and NAK stays liquid over a wide range of temperatures. 

I walked around in a state of constant shock over how straightforward everything seemed. Of course, I grew up reading about this stuff, but still. The place reminded me of a pool pump and filtration system. It was not much more complicated than that. If you found the gauges and pipes under a municipal swim center or a boiler room, you wouldn't think anything about it. Well, although the engineering was was easy, the science was still nuclear physics. By 1953, experiments in EBR-1 proved that the reactor was, in fact, producing the plutonium the scientists had hoped to create.

The tourist materials lying around as we toured read like the equivalent of a "Nuclear Power for Dummies" manual. I was vastly entertained by the straightforwardness of it. I kept thinking, "Huh, I should get one of these for my house." At my work, in fact, we're talking about building data centers. Those are always constrained by the limits of our local power company. Again, it gave me the thought, "So let's just have one of these."

Radiation is scary. The usefulness of it never fails to impress, though. I have to agree with XKCD about uranium - it's a suspicious macguffin in our narrative reality. If you were reading a fantasy book and the characters came across a magic metal that could power them to the stars or blow the top off a mountain, you'd think it was pretty farfetched. And yet here it is. We use it to light our homes. 

As an unplanned stop, EBR-1 was pretty great. The nearby town of Arco preserves some of its atomic energy heritage, too. (It was the first town powered solely by nuclear power, albeit as a proof of concept.) Naturally, we took pictures. And we freshened up our coffee.

Saturday, July 20, 2024

Not Even Not Traveling 51: Wyoming (Yellowstone)


Monday, July 1

This day represented another change in our plans. By accident, we added Yellowstone to our itinerary. A rainstorm came through in the early morning and canceled our horse ride at Chico Hot Springs. It would’ve been nice to hit the trails there, but the guides wouldn't let our group move during the downpour. Looking for an alternative, Diane poured over our maps. She found a way for us to get to Idaho, our next state, by taking a road through Yellowstone.

We were lucky it was such a rainy day. The crowds at the northwest entrance of Yellowstone started out as reasonable ones, initially. They got bad fast, which resulted in traffic jams well before the rain eased off. Despite the density of our fellow tourists, we managed to inspect a few of the interesting geographical features along our route. Mammoth Springs is great, by the way, and we would strongly recommend it. You can hike across most of the place on wooden boardwalks. (I'm generally in favor of interacting with nature at some level, not merely gazing at it like on a television.)  

At a nondescript stopping point near Indian Creek, we encountered stinky, bubbling pools low to the ground, like they were part of a swamp. Technically, I'm sure the place wasn't even a marsh. But it lay down in a wooded glade of sorts and it frothed with steamy warmth, green algae, minerals, and burping gases. No one else seemed to want to come near it. That made it even better for us. We did a lot of pointing things out to each other.

As we exited the site, an elderly couple approached me. The man asked, "Is it worth it?"

"Just smell the fresh air!" I exclaimed. He leaned back his head and roared. His wife chuckled, too. They were practically the only ones besides us to stop here so I had to wonder what attracted them.  

"I can feel it already," she nodded. She wrinkled her nose. "It it far?"

"Not even a football field away into the trees."

She sighed as she stumped off along the path. She was struggling with a noticeable limp, so the distance was important to her. Likewise, she probably enjoyed the definite lack of the usual crowd at a Yellowstone attraction. After a moment of rest when she reached the nearest line of trees, she plodded on out of view. The whole time, she seemed to maintain a slightly grumpy air about the mildly rotten air.  

In our car, we passed Sheepeater Cliff on our left, then we drove across the bridge over Indian Creek. As we rolled over the creek, Diane caught sight of a something by the side of the road. Whatever the species, a largish animal had found a spot between the bridge and the water. What it was doing there all alone was hard to say, but Diane tapped my arm. She has a rapid, hard, blade-of-the-hand touch she uses for urgent situations. This qualified. 

"Pull off! Pull off!" She pointed to a spot in back of us, where I could not go. 

Up and to the right, I saw a lay-by, apparently paved there for people who wanted to stop and hike to the creek. I pulled in and discovered, behind the bushes and stubby trees, a parking lot of sorts. It could fit a half-dozen cars although it lay mostly empty. There was a single picnic table on the sand beyond the lot. A grandmother and two children sat at it with their lunch. The clever Yellowstone park rangers had situated an outhouse building thirty feet in back of the table. It was the dual-outhouse that drew the crowd, small as it was. Six people stood in a line to pass through either door. 

While I gawked at the people for a moment, I glimpsed my wife to my left. She was not leaving me but had already left and was returning. She grabbed my left arm. 

"It's over here," she said. "I think it's an elk."

She led me on a brief hike to the south shore of the creek, From there, I could see the animal was, in fact, an elk. Or maybe I don't know the difference between an elk and some other large quadruped without antlers, which is possible. (A little while later, it turned out I didn't know what a weasel looked like.) Anyway, the creature was pretty big. Even lying down in a thicket of weeds across the river, it was a substantial presence. But we didn't have to worry about it charging us across the stream, so we could get as close as we liked. 

Besides, some nut (some *other* nut), as always happens, managed to pull off the road next to the bridge, the way my wife had wanted me to do. That put his car within twenty feet of the elk. When the driver got out, the distance suddenly looked even smaller. 

It looked small to the driver, too. After a moment of excitement while getting his picture, he backpedaled toward the open door of his car. 

Obsidian Cliff

This was another Yellowstone site where the crowd was minimal. How many people want to look at rocks in a cliff or on the ground? Not many. But historically, the obsidian sites in the United States were important. The tribes traded pretty extensively for the shards and blades, which were pretty much the sharpest available. 

Roaring Mountain 

This really looks cool. My first glimpse made me pull the car off into a lot. Okay, so the throng of picture-takers at this site seemed too much. I could see why they wanted to be here. I'd recommend it despite the difficulties getting in. People, people, people. Yellowstone has too many people in it. But this mountain is genuinely cool (and hot, technically). 

Geyser Basin

Whoops, the geyser basin was so packed with tourists, we decided to drive through without stopping. Maybe some other day. Maybe in the winter. And maybe with more time to devote to a hike through the geyser area while dodging the crowds as much as possible. 

Gibbon Falls 

Compared to the geysers, I guess a waterfall seems ordinary. Anywhere else but Yellowstone, though, and this view would have been a major tourist spot. It was still kind of popular, actually. 

Clearwater Springs

This is a 'nothing' kind of place but we liked it. Now, that's partly because there were less than a dozen other tourists on the walkways with us. There isn't much to see, a few mineral pools and interesting plants, except there was also a fast, little animal zooming around. The animal caught most of our attention. It zipped along a log, posed for a moment, popped onto a rock, skipped back to the log, and skittered back to the other end.

We followed it and took pictures. We got blurry, awkward shots. The animal wasn't a chipmunk. It wasn't a squirrel. It wasn't large, though. It was certainly no bigger than most cats, and it was even faster. 

Only when we came home and showed our friends the photos did we find out (thanks, Ted) that we had not known what a weasel looks like. 

Heading to Idaho

Since we only drove through the northwest quadrant of Yellowstone park, our experience of it was necessarily limited. But the road took us into the last state of our trip, Idaho. We were bound for Shelley - not an old girlfriend. It's a town.

Friday, July 19, 2024

Not Even Not Traveling 50: Montana II

Montana II

Sunday, June 30

In the morning, we resorted to the Maps app to find the Lewistown Coffee Company. Every now and then, you can find a coffee shop that makes you regret you're not a local. This was one of those. So it's recommended, I guess, but regardless we could not buy a house and retire there. We hit the road. 

On the way out of town, we had another laugh at the signage. This one was not as good as Thrifty White, maybe, but it does speak to how hip the owners are:

SUS Furniture

Again, the name seems out of touch in an amusing way. I'm sure they are not playing Among Us, nor are they randomly borrowing slang from their grandkids. They are not selling Boujee Cushions or a Yeet Seat. Although maybe that would be a better approach than whatever it is they are doing - it's hard for us to say, since we smiled and drove on. 

Our next stop was Chico Hot Springs. This is sort of a natural, heated pool and tourist trap. It's so cheap, you would guess they siphon the water straight from Old Faithful with a really long garden hose. And that's pretty close to the truth. The water comes from the Yellowstone hot spring system. It gurgles through cheap but sturdy PVC pipes into two in-ground, concrete pools. Whatever the construction expense, the owners clearly paid it off ages ago and Chico doesn't need to charge more than a token amount. And they sell you all sorts of extra, touristy kitsch of course. 

One pool is warm enough to make you feel like human soup after a minute in the microwave - not steamy at all, really, but comfortable. The other looks great but the water arrives too hot for me, It's at 'lobster pot' levels but, frankly, it's still pretty popular. Some people enjoy really hot water. Both of the pools smell like a mineral bath. 

There are no water slides, no wave machines, and not even inner tubes. It's just you and whatever friends you bring along to Chico Hot Springs, chatting and listening to your skin wrinkle. Which it will. Because you'll like it and you'll stay in it. The springs are soothing in a way that's hard to describe. 

Also, it may dawn on you that you're visiting Yellowstone without the crowds. This might be the best part of the park. 

That night, we stayed in the town of Big Timber. Our AirBNB site was a mini-mansion. However, it was Sunday night and the rodeo had literally just left town. Everyone else had booked their rooms in the house for the duration of the rodeo. They had partied and cleaned up (well, barely). Now they were gone. We had a seven-bedroom place to ourselves.

It was beautiful. For fun, we ate dinner at a long, fancy table. But we did not grab the seats at either end of it because we wanted to be close enough to talk. 

Thursday, July 18, 2024

Not Even Not Traveling 49: Montana I

Montana I

Saturday June 29

After breakfast, we picked out another park to try. This time, we moved westward into Montana and then to the Makoshika State Park. Normally, this is an area where you can see fossils (and in fact, we did, although they were seashells). However, the lower trails at Makoshika had been washed out by flooding on the day before. It made our fossil hunting difficult. 

We climbed to high ground on a central trail that switchbacked its way to the top of a butte. The view allowed us to look down on everyone else in the park (only in a literal way). There were a few other hikers but not many, not even for a Saturday morning after a storm. Most of the park guests stayed on a level with the visitor center.  
Makoshika was nice enough but we had a schedule to keep in our drive across the country, so after an hour we hopped into our rental car and headed to Lewiston. There, we met our nicest AirBnB hostess. She showed us to a small but well-stocked room in her house. 

Although the space was clearly dominated by the king-sized bed, our hostess made up for it by providing free coffee, tea, oatmeal, and recommendations about Lewiston. We asked where we could hike. She showed us a trail by her house that led "to the frog pond," which was part of a small but beautiful town park. After our walk around the southwest of town and the park, we asked about finding a good steak restaurant. We had come to Montana, after all, and we had been advised on what to try. 

"Oh, I'm sorry," she said. "We don't have any fine dining in town."

"No places that serve steak?"

"Maybe a few." Our hostess gave us a half-dozen recommendations but she concluded by worrying that they weren't nice enough for us. I'm not sure how we had impressed her as being sophisticates. 

One of the most promising places was a brew pub, so we headed there. The decor, as advertised by our hostess, was typical for a middle-class restaurant with a brewery attached. Once again, I felt a bit surprised. This time, delightfully so, and the source of my eyebrow-raising was the food. 

When I had a bite of salad, I encountered something long forgotten: cucumber has flavor. What's more, the taste of it has always seemed really good to me. Sometimes, as a kid, I ate cucumbers raw out of my grandfather's garden. Onions, too, and other vegetables but there was something subtle and fun about the cucumbers. These specimens in the salad must have come from somewhere local, a farm not a garden, but they were very fine. 

I almost regretted my order of totchos (tater tots done up as nachos). But the totchos order continued my tradition of trying something new at every reasonable opportunity and they were good - almost top of the menu for most brew pubs - and I liked them. So I was okay with them until I tried a slice of my wife's steak. 

The flesh was pink. It glistened. I chomped down on it and felt it separate softly between my teeth. 

"What do you think?" Diane asked. She had an expectant look. She knew.

"I think this might be the second best steak I've ever tasted," I replied honestly. I checked my words. I was being a bit hesitant because it is hard to measure between bites fifteen years apart. 

"Are you thinking Dickie Brennan's was better?" Her gaze narrowed. "In New Orleans?"

"Yeah." It was exactly the basis of my comparison. Diane knows about my pickiness with steak. There have hardly been any I've genuinely liked - only the best, really, or perhaps also the very good while in an extreme circumstance like not eating for a day or two. 

"Dickie Brennan's did a lot to theirs. I think this place just grilled the meat. They sprinkled on some pepper. That's it."

I looked at the steak again. She was right. This local, grass-fed beef was so much better than others of its type that, in my mouth, I could barely establish the resemblance. All the other steaks I've had were, at best, reminiscent of the two finest, this one in Montana and the other at a fancy restaurant in New Orleans. 

Probably, all over the mid-range restaurants in Montana, we could get steaks better than anywhere in the east. There's something wrong with our food distribution system to cause this, of course, but there it is. 

That night, we tried to stay up to see the northern lights. We loved star gazing in our last two vacations. This time, the clouds looked grim but we felt they might clear. It was worth a try. 

Diane fell asleep waiting. I set my alarms for 10:00, 10:30, and 10:45. The sun wasn't scheduled to set until 10:43 PM, but I didn't quite believe it. (The forecast was true, naturally.) The skies stayed bright and cloudy even at 10:30. After sunset, the moon rose from the northwest. The presence of the lunar orb always renders star gazing impossible. Plus the sphere itself was, on this night, merely a glow behind an expanse of clouds. So the lateness of the hour didn't matter. We weren't going to see stars, auroras, or anything but smoky greyness, not even a true inky dark in this town, on this evening. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Not Even Not Traveling 48: North Dakota III

North Dakota III

Friday, June 28

We drove a mile, at most, to a place with an unpromising name, the Donut Hole. There, we shared a Carmel Roll, a pastry neither of us had experienced before, probably because we are trying to give our arteries a break. (Mine deal with too much crap already.) Our friend Ann had recommended trying the North Dakota carmel rolls and, in fact, they tasted darned good. Also, the coffee was decent in a 1964 way. It was the standard beverage, black, but well-made with clean containers, strainers, and percolators in the back and so on.

The manager came to our table and chatted. She asked if we had seen the tornado, which apparently swung one or two streets south of our apartment. But it was no big deal, she said, "'cause it didn't touch down."

"We're having a parade," she announced. And this was the big news. 

She recommended we stay in Dickinson for the biggest event of the year, which was scheduled for the next morning. It was going to be a rodeo parade, led by the members of a touring rodeo. In a way, it sounded fantastic. It also sounded like we would be trapped in a sea of humanity with street blockades, floats, people shouting 'yee haw' because they can, and probably giant, inflatable cartoon characters. If I could have known in advance which cartoon characters, I would have stayed. 

Instead, on the way out, Diane and I agreed to flee Dickinson the next morning before the street to our apartment got shut down. From the signs along the parade route, it was definitely scheduled to happen. 

That day, we drove to the scenic loop of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, where we saw:

  • Prairie dog homes, thousands of them. Based on their behavior, ages ago they formed primitive homeowners associations. Every ground entrance has the same 'look' and they go on for miles.
  • Bison, one of nature's ways of reminding you about the limits of your car insurance.
  • Wild horses, who always seem to me like secret fashion models for L'Oreal. No matter what the weather conditions, wild horses have great hair and are ready to pose with Fabio on the covers of romantic paperbacks. 
  • Killdeer, which have a great name but are just birds.
  • More cactus than I expected. Because I didn't expect any this far north. 

And we saw buttes everywhere. There were even signs for Big Butte, White Butte, Table Butte, Blue Butte, Saddle Butte, and more. These weird and probably involuntary North Dakota attempts at humor about buttes just went on and on. 

We also noticed, "Thrifty White Pharmacy," a name that seemed like it had to be a relic of a more innocent time - and so it is. The Thrifty White chain, which I'd never encountered before visiting North Dakota, is named after the family founders who started the first store in the Dakota Territory in 1884. 

The Ukrainian Cultural Center

Gosh, this was sort of a busy day. I noticed the Ukrainian Cultural Center as we drove through town and immediately wanted to visit, if only to get an explanation. We foolishly ate lunch before we stopped by. If we had wandered in earlier, we could have eaten a Ukrainian style meal with our local Ukrainian-American neighbors. 

There are any number of immigrant groups who settled in the Dakota territory. Very few of them were Ukrainian. But they formed a number just large enough to establish this cultural center. 

We chatted. We took pictures.

I had noticed another oddity on the route to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, signs pointing us to the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame. Naturally, I was curious. We passed the national park again along the way to it. I was surprised to see some of the wild bison sleeping near the southern border next to the fence. Not much later, we saw wild horses on a different stretch of the southern fence. Apparently, some of the animals feel the park is a bit small for them. They stray to its limits.

North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame

We headed upstairs immediately in the HOF because the nearest corridor took us to a stairwell. A sign said 'More Exhibits Up Here,' so I figured it was as reasonable to start up the staircase as anywhere.

Seeing the exhibits out of order may have been unintentionally revealing. I was struck right away by how many plaques in this section didn't extol cowboys at all. The achievements of the people pictured were often 'owned a ranch for forty years' or 'gave a lot to the community.' They were examples of rich people memorializing themselves and their friends. That's not too terrible a thing - I've seen it in nearly all museums - but the element of local old-friend congratulations was out in the open and served as fair warning. There were also a couple of genuine cowhands remembered via plaques. In the back stairwell, we saw a series of paintings and posters referring to the local Objibuay, Dakota, Lakota, and other prominent tribes.

But I was seeing it all out of order.

On the main level, I would have seen a better display of Native American materials if I had walked through the front entrance. There was no explanation of how these exhibits connected to the cowboys in the hall of fame, though. It was merely an acknowledgement that the United States broke a lot of treaties specifically with these groups.

Beyond, in the north wing to the right after the main entrance, I encountered the rodeo champions of North Dakota. There aren't a lot of professional sports in this state. Rodeo, in which local cowhands have excelled during national competitions, is the most obvious chance to brag. Alvin Nelson, Brad Gjermundson, and many other North Dakotans succeeded at high levels in the 1970s and 1980s. This includes their national championship runs in multiple events. Before them, in the 1950s and 1960s, the state bragged about a 'six pack' of young cowboys making it to the national championships. Even before, North Dakotans played a role in establishing the championships, deciding events, and so on. The national rodeo championships seem to be usually held in Texas or Oklahoma, perhaps due to the weather, but plenty of the trophies get awarded to northern cowboys.

We watched an educational film about the history of rodeo events, which I needed in order to establish any context for myself. I couldn't help noticing the lack of people of color in it even though, historically, there should have been quite a few. For two or three seconds, the announcer mentioned that 'local indians came and participated' at a North Dakota rodeo but that was about it. Likewise, the film passed up the chance to talk about women in the competitions. Although women were allowed to compete, eventually, and they had their own events like goat roping, the film didn't seem to know what to say about them. Instead, it spent five minutes (a long time in a short documentary film) talking about the rodeo queens. This is the tradition of voting for beauty queens to lead the rodeo opening or closing ceremonies.

You can tell the curators of the museum are really trying to be inclusive with the Objibuay artifacts, the mentions of women, and so on, but they don't seem to understand the point of it. They are trying to be nice. And that's great. But probably everyone, even the North Dakota rodeo fans, would have been happier to hear about their neighbor Becky getting seventh place in a national event (here, I assume the museum would have bragged if a local woman had won first prize) than to hear a general 'women also participated' message.

Monday, July 15, 2024

Not Even Not Traveling 47: North Dakota II

North Dakota II

Thursday, June 27

We headed out early, relieved to say goodbye to the motel. Finally, we were back to our original plan. We aimed for Theodore Roosevelt National Park. We had read a lot of good reviews of it and they made us eager to hike the North Dakota badlands.

The drive was long. The hiking was nice, enough. However, it is reasonable to say no badlands are as beautiful as those one state lower on the map in South Dakota. The North Dakota version suffered by comparison, maybe because it is relatively green. It is home to more insects, birds, and lizards than other northern badlands (plus maybe we saw a chipmunk or a weasel). 

After our hike, we hit the road again and arrived at an AirBNB in Dickinson, a town we chose mostly because it is nearby-ish to the park. Our apartment looked nice-sized, old, and in a state of repair that results from the renovation strategy of "maybe we'll try to get away with doing nothing."

On our first night, because parks aren't exciting enough, we hosted a tornado. 

My first clue to the situation was a "TORNADO WARNING" alert. Diane slept through the blare of both our phones, which was impressive and also gave me the feeling of having received a "SHARK ATTACK IMMINENT" alert while she was in the bath. I didn't want to wake her but I also wanted to make sure the sharknado wasn't actually upon us. Absence of imminent disaster would be my justification for letting her sleep, which she probably needed. I stalked along our apartment windows, checking the dark and swirling skies for funnel clouds. 

I noticed the building was whining at me. This was not a metaphor, nor a comparison to my kids nor work nor even our pets. Amidst the roar of the wind, I heard a distinct, high-pitched sound. It could have been a siren but, unlike one, it held steady. The tone didn't vary much - a little, maybe, with the rise and fall of the winds. 

Finally, I headed downstairs for a better look. The apartment door opened to the south, where I could watch for flying debris and witness Dickinson as it changed briefly into the Venice of North Dakota, like it was trying on a dress and deciding on whether or not to add gondolas. I stood there for a while, getting drenched despite hiding in the shelter of an aluminum awning, and I saw that the greatest darkness in the sky lay in the swirls farther south. 

As I lingered, I felt the whine in the air begin to subside. It tapered off to merely the sound of strong winds. The situation seemed less urgent. I grew conscious that was the only person visible on the streets of Dickinson. 

So I trudged back upstairs, feeling I'd made the right decision to let Diane sleep. 

Sunday, July 14, 2024

Not Even Not Traveling 46: North Dakota I

The Last Three Continental States

June 25 - July 3, 2024

North Dakota I

Tuesday, June 25

We flew into Minneapolis on a cramped Southwest flight to meet our friends Ann and Jon Pennington. Ann was the one who drove to pick us up. She soon offered her thoughts on M365 Power Programming, a subject in which she is expert and my institute is, by contrast, a year behind her while deliberately trying to acquire the same expertise.

So my vacation began with talk about work. I found it all very fun, fortunately. Ann revealed that her team succeeded at creating a tool my team needs. Her group's code is portable, too, so we soon weren't only talking about our work but venturing into the 'doing something about it' territory as I took notes. 
Later, we discovered one of my groups has been doing a lot of exploration and staff instruction on AI methods, which Ann and Jon both wanted to learn about. The three of us talked late into the night about trends in AI, the use-cases for it, the limitations of the training methods for all AIs, the dangers of overwriting learned skills, and the some of the faulty analogies being made to human learning.  

Wednesday, June 26

In the morning, Ann took us to get our rental car from Enterprise. As I drove away from the agency, my wife noticed something wrong with one of the turn signals. We continued to drive and test it and decided the left blinker was definitely not working. That was too bad because it was otherwise a nice Toyota luxury SUV, perfect for a trip across multiple, northern U.S. states. However, we had to turn around and drive back to the rental office.

The agency apologized although they seemed apoplectic about the fact they had sent this car to a repair shop precisely to have the turn signal fixed. They had assumed the work was done; but it wasn't. This got me to cyncically wondering if a repair shop, knowing they were repairing vehicles that usually wouldn't, really couldn't, ever come back might take shortcuts, They might even say they had done the job when they hadn't.

We had to trade down to a Hyundai SUV with less comfortable seats, fewer amenities, and so on. But all the critical parts of it worked. 

The Hjemkomst Ship

Well, we didn't visit it. We got a late start on the day, so we didn't see the viking ship replica. This happens to us all the time on long driving trips. We adjusted. And we had lunch. 


Following the advice of the Penningtons, Diane and I stopped at Kroll's outside of Fargo, North Dakota. After a saurkraut omelete (well, that was just me), we picked a spot for a hike. This was going to be a vacation of parks and museums, or so we had planned, and the second park (after a Minneapolis park with Ann and her dogs) was Lindenwood on the east side of Fargo. 

Lindenwood has a weird bridge that looks like the designers decided to put a guillotine at each end. The mechanisms, upon closer inspection, must have been used to lower the bridge into place and maybe also to lift it out for repairs. The bridge is tiny. Guillotines might see more use than the drawbridge system.  

The North Dakota Heritage Center

We picked the Heritage Center museum because it was close and the timing worked out for us. Fortunately, it was a darned nice place. Although it aims at children for part of its audience (as many museums do), the center offered plenty of adult-level exhibits and instructions. We had the opportunity to learn about the Dakotas and their inhabitants. 

There were tribal exhibits, technical exhibits - including a missile launch system - social exhibits, and a few things that were reasonably unique. The North Dakota Heritage Center has a 'Dino Mummy.' It is one of the few recovered fossils on display in the world to show preserved dinosaur skin. 

This one is as scaly as movies would lead you to expect. The skin didn't show traits of being feathery.  

After the museum, we had to move on to Jamestown. There, we had to deal with a hotel cancelling our reservation due to construction on their site. We chose a local motel named Two Rivers. It was probably the worst place on our trip. Local is not always a good thing with motels. This one was dirty despite reeking of brutal cleansing agents someone had used to prepare the room. (No scrubbing involved, I would guess, just throwing buckets of cleanser around.) I decided to sleep in my clothes rather than let too much of the local sheets and/or insects climb on me during the night.

Sunday, July 7, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 360: Biomythography - Note 99: Religious Experiences, Pt. 3

Religious Experiences, Part II

Night 3: 

On the next night, I crashed late, exhausted. I'd worked past dinnertime. I'd read comics and paperbacks for less than an hour after my late meal. At last, my limbs got so heavy they were hard to move. I had to put myself on pause. 

When I lay back, I started dreaming within seconds. I fell into a busy adventure. Here, I was an agent on an alien world, a golden insectoid person among many others. We were different, somehow, and structured as a society in ways other than I had expected in my job as secret agent. Yet we were clearly people inside. We had the usual set of mortal problems, solutions, and needless intrigues. Among the problems I needed to deal with was a frustrated individual who was considering murder. My job was to steer him away from making that choice. 
I dashed from one complicated plot to another. Although I solved the potential murder, I found other things wrong, other crises to avert or at least, in the cases of natural disasters, to mitigate. My time on the dark, golden planet seemed awfully long. 

Eventually, I finished the last mission and found myself back in my home base, which was located in the heart of a giant, yellow star. Part of me realized this was an odd place to keep the base. Yet it made perfect sense. The insectoid people wouldn't think of looking here for a very long time. 

Besides, from the impossible size of the star, I understood that epochs had passed. The universe was old. Now that I was back in my base with a few others of my kind, I recovered my memories. They had been off-loaded, somehow. In the star, I understood more. I immediately agreed with this as a location for launching operations on the planet, which was good, because a few seconds later I remembered I had played a key role in designing the place. 

The three of us designers met. 

You're being called back, said my partner-boss, currently in the form of one of the natives but glowing silver, perhaps with the heat.

Someone is being called, I replied, resisting my orders. 

We all know the logical choice is you, said the glowing creature. I am strongly tied here. And I was never as good in the other places. 

But I've achieved a lot, I countered.

Yes, and that's why we don't need you. The creature shrugged. You know you're the one. 

How long will I be gone?

Forever, I think. 

I nodded. My partners indulged me as I took a last look around the interior of the star. Then I let myself be called back. I returned to headquarters, although I'd been gone so long I had forgotten the place. 

My existence blinked. Headquarters, it seemed, was the afterlife. 

I held motionless for a moment, suspended in whitespace as I let my awareness expand. The milky atmosphere because transparent to my senses. I saw what I needed to see. There were countless electric-blue angel souls around, most of them in the distance. There were yellowish formerly-alive souls, too, some of them close to me. Not much had changed since I had gone on my mission to one of the last planets in the universe that still teemed with life. 

And yet everything had changed. 

A nearby soul touched me, then another. As we gathered, I knew what they knew. I had been called back because the other architects in the afterlife were building superstructures. The tasks were massive. The structures were too big for mere souls to see and understand. Yet we worked with them. 

And the non-architects had called for me. And the other architects, too, had wanted me, they revealed. They directed my attention to several large conglomerations in front of me. I recognized them. They were the soul-structures I had started in ages past. There were soul-roads and conduits I'd made, too, even farther off. 

They wanted me to join everything. They wanted it to make sense. 

Dimly, I felt the presence. The ever-holiness in the afterlife no longer irritated me. I felt for the vibration of it as a way to reassure myself I was in the right place, doing the right things. Well, the other souls wanted me to put this all together, to join everything with everything else. It was a big job. 

It was so big, I could barely perceive the nearest other architect in the distance. Even so, I knew the architect and the others like us were farther away than I really understood. It didn't matter. Distance was irrelevant. Time was immaterial. I would do the work. I would join superstructures with others. I would thread the darkly yellow conduits. 

This was the end game. Or it was nearly so. Or maybe my perceptions were incomplete and the building of the superstructures would go on forever. But I didn't think it was the case, this time. I had come and gone a lot, over the ages. I had born witness to the changes. And I had just lived (once more) in the universe. It had looked old. There had been only four ancient galaxies visible. The main galaxy itself was drifting apart into components. Only a few hundred stars had been visible from the home base. 

And here, the afterlife was bigger, more finished, and more complex. It was functioning, to my view, in nearly understandable ways. 

Maybe I would understand more. And maybe I wouldn't. When I had first arrived, I had railed against my lack of comprehension, spurred on by my perceptions of wrongness. But now I didn't feel any need to exert myself against the presence that was God. My burning push for justice had been so long ago, I barely remembered. Now I simply did the good deeds I could, however small they were in this grand scheme. 

I moved the stars. I moved the structures.

The presence was always there. Even the angels, I noticed, seemed more mature now. They found their places better. They understood something about how to lend aid. And I had my place among them, fixing and building, working all the way, laboring in peace toward the unknowable end, toward the heat death of the universe.