Tag Archive | Historical Sites

SW National Parks Trip: Spruce Tree House

The last cliff dwelling that we visited on our trip to Mesa Verde National Park was Spruce Tree House.  Spruce Tree House is the third largest cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde, with 130 rooms and 8 kivas.  It was rediscovered in 1888, and is one of the best preserved sites at the park; about 95% original.  The alcove that the dwelling is located in is 216 feet long by 89 feet deep.  The dwelling was constructed between 1211 A.D. and 1278 A.D.

Spruce Tree House is also the most accessible cliff dwelling; visitors can visit without being on a ranger guided tour.  To get there, we walked down into the canyon via a 1/4 mile paved pathway.  There are Rangers stationed at the dwelling to answer questions (and probably to make sure people don’t try to steal artifacts or vandalize the site), but you can explore a lot of the dwelling on your own.


The View of Spruce Tree House from Above

The View of Spruce Tree House from Above

Spruce Tree House is also the only site at Mesa Verde where you can enter a kiva.  The Park Service replaced the roofs on two of the kivas here, and one of them is open to visitors.  Even though what we know about kivas and their use is just an educated guess, it is fun to imagine what it would have been like to witness a spiritual ceremony or meeting in the kiva.

A Closer View of Spruce Tree House

A Closer View of Spruce Tree House

Spruce Tree House also has several T-shaped doorways; archaeologists aren’t sure if these have a spiritual significance, are merely a design element, or if they are for better temperature control in the rooms.  T-shaped doorways are found throughout the Puebloan community, including Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon and other sites – it is known that these communities traded with each other, so ideas and preferences were undoubtedly passed from one to another as well.

Spruce Tree House – With a View of the T-Shaped Windows A Kiva is in the Foreground

Spruce Tree House – With a View of the T-Shaped Windows
A Kiva is in the Foreground

As we were walking down to the site, we passed the trail head for the Petroglyph Trail, a trail that leads a couple of miles off into the canyon to a petroglyph site.  Had the day been warmer, we certainly would have ventured out to check it out.  However, on the day we visited it was very cold – probably high thirties, and although we had sweatshirts and hats, we only had summer jackets, and Jon didn’t have any gloves.  It actually started to snow as we were leaving for the day.

So the Petroglyph Trail goes on the list of things to do on our return trip to Mesa Verde, whenever that happens to be.  If you do decide to do the Petroglyph Trail hike, be sure to check in at the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum, as it is considered a backcountry hike, and one tourist disappeared from the trail in June 2013.  To date, no trace of him has been found, despite an extensive search.  It is a stark reminder of the fact that our National Parks are still very wild.

SW National Parks Trip: Balcony House

After we checked out Cliff Palace, we headed over to Balcony House to meet the rangers for the tour.

The rangers at the Visitor’s Center had let us know that we would need to be climbing ladders, crawling through tight spaces, and climbing up on the original foot holds of the original inhabitants, so understandably, the tour begins with the safety talk.  They give more warnings and encourage anybody who has concerns about their abilities to reconsider whether this tour is a good idea.  It is a necessary beginning, because they certainly don’t want to have to deal with someone who can’t make the climb, or becomes paralyzed by fear, or gets stuck in the tight space in the tunnel.

Ranger Wendell did have a bit of humor for us though, telling us that one of her fellow rangers shoots for a 90% return rate on tour participants.  That’s 90% returning home from the tour; not 90% who return to the park for another tour!

Ranger Clyde led our tour of Balcony House; he wasn’t wearing his uniform that day but I’m not sure why. But, as it turns out, we were in for a real treat.  Ranger Clyde is a Navajo historian in addition to being a Park Ranger, so he provided a unique perspective on the sacred nature of the dwelling.

We walked down the steps to get below the mesa top, and Ranger Clyde began the tour talking about the things in nature that the Native Americans used to make their world easier. The plants that they used to make clothing, shoes and bedding, the animals that they ate and used for household purposes, and the ways that they navigated their environment to survive.  He encouraged us to look around at the landscape and see what plants and animals could be used, and what their purpose would be.

Ranger Clyde showed us a seep, where the water would flow down through the sandstone and emerge in a little pool near the entrance of the dwelling. This water gave the Puebloans one of the key elements of survival.  Even though Mesa Verde gets only about 10 inches of rain per year, there are numerous seeps that provide water year round.

Then we started up the ladder. This ladder didn’t exist during the period when the Puebloans inhabited the dwelling – when we climbed up the 35 foot ladder we weren’t climbing up to the original entrance of the dwelling either.  The ladder was a very sturdy double ladder, installed by the Park Service in the 1930s, and even though it was quite tall, I was perfectly comfortable climbing up.  There was just a very brief period where I got a little bit nervous about the height as I was getting off at the top.

The ladder to enter Balcony House – you can see the dwelling above

The ladder to enter Balcony House – you can see the dwelling above

Once you are at the top of the ladder, you are in the cliff alcove where Balcony House is built.  To get into the dwelling, you have to squeeze through a tight space between the back of the overhang in the cliff and the stone wall constructed by the Puebloans. This tight squeeze turned out to be fairly large when you consider what comes later. At this point we were in the dwelling, which is 40 rooms. Balcony House is considered a medium sized cliff dwelling in terms of the size of dwellings at Mesa Verde.  Only 10 cliff dwelling sites at Mesa Verde have more rooms.  The alcove itself is 264 feet long, 20 feet high and 39 feet deep, so they made good use of the space.

Balcony House – with one of the two kivas in the foreground

Balcony House – with one of the two kivas in the foreground

Balcony House is some of the last construction at Mesa Verde; it was built between 1180 and 1270 A.D. The dwelling is also one of the least accessible sites at Mesa Verde. The only access for the Puebloan people was down the steep mesa cliff, with hand and foot holds carved or worn into the sandstone over time.  Although very little is known about the inhabitants here, archaeologists have made some educated guesses about why Balcony House was constructed somewhat differently than most other cliff dwellings in the area.

Balcony House and its retaining wall

Balcony House and its retaining wall

It is believed that relationships between the communities in the Four Corners region may have deteriorated to the point where security in the dwelling was a concern. They believe that may be why Balcony House was built with such a secure entrance.  When you are inside Balcony House, it is easy to see that the Puebloans used all available space. They built walls back into the overhang, and all the way up to the ceiling. There is evidence that the dwelling was 3 stories tall in some areas. You can see where the mortar still clings to the back and sides of the cliff overhang, and also where soot from fires stained the overhang black over a hundred years.

More of Balcony House – in this photo you can see one of the steel support bars (to the left of the two small windows on the second story) that was installed during the restoration in 1910. It is not considered good historic preservation now, but the Park Service has let the old structural supports stay.

More of Balcony House – in this photo you can see one of the steel support bars (to the left of the two small windows on the second story) that was installed during the restoration in 1910. It is not considered good historic preservation now, but the Park Service has let the old structural supports stay.

Balcony House is named for the balconies that exist between the first and second stories of the rooms.  These overhangs were used by the inhabitants to move from one second floor room to another.  They may have also been used as work spaces.  The fact that these balconies still exist with their original 800 year old wooden beams and adobe mortar is amazing.  In some rooms, wooden beams up high near the ceiling are thought to be drying racks.

Me inside Balcony House – you can see the one of the balconies that the dwelling is named for. And please pay no attention to my mismatched outfit – it was cold that day and I had to wear all of my warm clothes!

Me inside Balcony House – you can see the one of the balconies that the dwelling is named for. And please pay no attention to my mismatched outfit – it was cold that day and I had to wear all of my warm clothes!

After we finished up our tour, there is still the process of getting out.  The original entrance to Balcony House is what the Park Service uses as an exit – a 12 foot long roofed tunnel built by the original inhabitants.  Short people like me can duck walk through the tunnel, but taller people have to crawl to get through it.  Either way, it is a tight squeeze – they recommend taking off your backpack to get through if you are wearing one.

The original entrance tunnel to Balcony House – could you fit?

The original entrance tunnel to Balcony House – could you fit?

Once we were outside of Balcony House, we made our way back up to the mesa top using the hand and foot holds that the Puebloan people used when they lived here.  The Park Service has enlarged them and installed a fence that will keep most people from falling (unless you tumble over the fence), but the journey up the cliff was still a bit scary for me.  Let’s just say I did not look down!

The climb back up to the mesa top from Balcony House. There are no statistics on how many of the Puebloan people died in falls.

The climb back up to the mesa top from Balcony House. There are no statistics on how many of the Puebloan people died in falls.

I loved our tour!  It was fascinating to see just how tough these people were and to experience just a tiny bit of how they would have lived.  It was well worth challenging my fear of heights yet again!

Have you toured Balcony House?  Are you brave enough to want to?




SW National Parks Trip: Cliff Palace

Our first stop at Mesa Verde National Park was at the Visitor’s Center – I got my National Parks Passport stamp, some postcards, and some handy booklets with facts on the various cliff dwellings. We talked to the ranger about our options for a tour, and I decided to book us for the Balcony House tour. I would have loved to do the tour of Cliff Palace too, but I didn’t think I could get Jon to do two tours in one day.

I chose Balcony House because it was the most challenging tour, with the ranger explaining that visitors would have to climb a ladder, crawl on their hands and knees and scale the side of a cliff.  Oh, that’s all…  And they also said it wasn’t a good tour for people with a fear of heights.  Even though I am afraid of heights, this tour sounded a lot cooler than the others.  We were in!  The tours are an extra fee, not covered by your annual parks pass or the standard entrance fee, but they are still very reasonable – $4 per person.

We had some time to stop at Cliff Palace on our way to Balcony House for our tour. Cliff Palace is the largest cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde, consisting of about 150-200 rooms. The dwelling was discovered by Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason in 1888, while they were out one winter day looking for stray cattle.  Wetherill was ranching in the area and had spent some time building relationships with the local Native American tribes; they told him about the dwellings in the canyons. The Ute tribe that was living in the area had known about the cliff dwellings for generations, but they considered them to be sacred land, so they didn’t inhabit the dwellings themselves.

Cliff Palace – the largest cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde

Cliff Palace – the largest cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde

Cliff Palace is built below the mesa top into the cliff, underneath a large flat overhang under the mesa top. The Park Service has built a series of steps into the cliff so visitors can climb down into the dwelling on tours.  There are also a few 10 foot ladders that you have to access to get into the site, but it doesn’t have the significant climbing and crawling that is required on the Balcony House tour.  Because of the stairs, it is fairly accessible to large numbers of the public, so it is the park’s most popular tour.

A portion of the Cliff Palace complex, showing several kivas in the front and a four story tower on the right side

A portion of the Cliff Palace complex, showing several kivas in the front and a four story tower on the right side

Cliff Palace was built between 1190 and 1260, in a period when the Puebloan culture was moving down from the mesa tops into the alcoves. They devoted a lot of time and resources to construct these elaborate homes and spiritual sites; hauling in water to mix mortar, and making plaster to smooth over the block walls. Cliff Palace was three stories tall in areas and had 23 kivas. A kiva was the spiritual center of the dwelling, and is thought to have been a center for worship and perhaps the business of the community.  There is a four story square tower in the Cliff Palace complex as well.

Close up of the Cliff Palace tower. The lighter areas on the tower indicate reconstructed areas.

Close up of the Cliff Palace tower. The lighter areas on the tower indicate reconstructed areas.

Cliff Palace would have been one of the more comfortable cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. Its position relative to the sun would have allowed it to receive more sun during the winter to warm the dwelling, while being tucked in under the overhang protects it from the harsh winter winds. During the hot summer, it would have been protected from the sun beating down from directly overhead, making it cooler.

The view of Soda Canyon from the Cliff Palace Overlook. Cliff Palace is out of frame, in the lower left.

The view of Soda Canyon from the Cliff Palace Overlook. Cliff Palace is out of frame, in the lower left.

However, despite it being one of the more comfortable cliff dwelling sites, Cliff Palace is thought to have only housed about 100 people.  Researchers believe that a small number of people lived there year round, and others came for special ceremonial observances during the year.  This guess is based on the fact that there is a fairly low ratio of living rooms to kivas.

A close up showing some of the kivas at Cliff Palace

A close up showing some of the kivas at Cliff Palace

When we were there, there was a tour of the dwelling just leaving from the mesa top. As a result, the dwelling was empty and I was able to get some great photographs of the dwelling from the viewpoint on the mesa top. That said, I would love to tour this dwelling whenever we are able to return.

A close up of a Kiva at Cliff Palace, showing a display of grinding stones

A close up of a Kiva at Cliff Palace, showing a display of grinding stones

After we checked out Cliff Palace, it was time to head over to Balcony House for our tour.  I’ll post about that next!

Have you ever done the tour at Cliff Palace?  What was your favorite part?



SW National Parks Trip: Mesa Verde History

We got to visit to Mesa Verde National Park! Mesa Verde means green table in Spanish, named for the flat topped mesa that is covered in piñon pine (also spelled pinyon, but I prefer the Spanish spelling) trees.  Mesa Verde National Park was created on June 29, 1906, by President Theodore Roosevelt.  The current boundaries of the park encompass 81.4 square miles, or around 52,000 acres.  Almost 600,000 people visit the park each year.

The entrance sign at Mesa Verde National Park – Yep, that’s snow…

The entrance sign at Mesa Verde National Park – Yep, that’s snow…

The land was once a giant ocean, and the canyons that exist today were created when the ocean and waterways receded, and erosion worked its magic on the sedimentary layers. Elevations in the park range from a low of 6,000 feet to a high of 8,572 feet.  Mesa Verde is the only National Park in the country that was created to protect a cultural site, and it is also a Unesco World Heritage Site – designated in 1978.  Mesa Verde protects over 4,700 archaeological sites created by the Puebloan culture, including dwelling sites, spiritual sites, ancient roads and other sites. Over 600 of the structures in Mesa Verde are cliff dwellings – these are the sites that the park is most famous for.

The first culture to live and farm at Mesa Verde were known as the Basketmakers.  Sources vary on the date, but it seems that they began living in Mesa Verde beginning about 400 A.D.  They made very detailed and beautifully woven baskets, which they used for many utilitarian purposes, including storage, cooking, and carrying water.  They lined some baskets with pitch in order to waterproof them for carrying water.

Around 550 A.D. the Puebloan people were living on the mesa tops, growing maize and hunting to supplement their diet. They also domesticated turkeys and dogs.  This culture discovered pottery methods, and they turned their attention to making pottery and fewer baskets. During this period on the mesa tops, they started out living in pit houses, which were houses dug into the ground of the mesa, with a roof made from timbers laid in rows and covered with reeds, brush and earth.

In about 750 A.D., they began to build villages on the mesa tops from adobe.  Initially, the walls were fashioned with a simple mud and pole construction, but over time their methods improved, and they began constructing buildings using stone masonry with adobe mortar. At this time, they were still living on the mesa tops.

What most people don’t know is that the Puebloan people only began to build the cliff dwellings that Mesa Verde is famous for in the 1190s. And the Puebloan people are thought to have left the area around 1300 due to a prolonged drought – that means they lived in the cliff dwellings for only slightly more than 100 years. Of course, that explains why only 600 of the 4,700 archaeological sites are cliff dwellings.

Between around 1300 and the 1800s, the Ute tribe came to the area. Spanish explorers traveled through the area in 1776, looking for a route from Santa Fe to California. They described the mesa and the canyons during their expedition, but apparently did not get close enough to see the cliff dwellings tucked into the alcoves.

In the 1870s, the area was home to the Ute tribe, and trappers and prospectors moved through the area. The Utes had long known about the cliff dwellings, but considered them to be sacred sites and did not live in them. One prospector, John Moss, found a cliff dwelling in 1873 and described it for the greater population. In 1876, a federally financed survey crew came through; that led to the first discussion of a systematic study of ruins in the American Southwest.

Meanwhile, the Wetherill family were living and ranching in the area, and had befriended the local Utes, who told them about the cliff dwellings tucked into the alcove. After gaining permission to winter their cattle in the canyons, Richard Wetherill spotted Cliff Palace and climbed up to it. He and his family and friends explored Cliff Palace and collected many of its artifacts. Some he sold to the Historical Society of Colorado, and many he kept for himself. The Mesa Verde dwellings were no longer a secret.

Cliff Palace – the largest cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde

Cliff Palace – the largest cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde

In 1891, the Wetherills hosted Gustaf Nordenskiöld, a Swedish explorer and mineralogist. He introduced scientific methods of collection and cataloguing of artifacts, and meticulously documented and photographed all of the artifacts he found. Unfortunately, he also packed up a large number of them and shipped them to Sweden. The collection then was acquired by the National Museum of Finland, where it still resides today. It’s really sad. This was a major catalyst in the dialogue for protecting the site in the future.

Fortunately, the movement to preserve Mesa Verde had a lot of interest, and was ultimately successful.  I’ll post about our visit to the park next!



Farewell 2012 – Can’t Wait for 2013!

As I sit here on the couch listening to the washer and dryer run, waiting for Jon to finish playing with paint samples and put the movie in (yes, I’m well aware of how lame we are…), I decided to do a little 2012 tribute blog.  Some of the year was great, some not so great, but I suppose it can’t all be rosy.  So here goes, in no particular order…

1.  I hit my one year anniversary at my new job, a job where I feel valued and appreciated and love my co-workers!

2.  I went on an amazing trip with Jon… nine days in Georgia, North and South Carolina.  The longest trip I’ve ever been on with him!  You can read about it from the beginning here

3.  My wonderful Martini kitty, my feisty girl with a protein allergy who loves sneaking meat and hates being brushed, was diagnosed with low grade diffuse alimentary lymphoma.  Cancer of the blood cells.  We started chemotherapy treatment in November, and I was heartbroken.  So far, Tini is hanging in there.

4.  I celebrated my two year wedding anniversary with my fabulous husband Jon.  We didn’t do anything special, but our trip was our anniversary celebration (see #2 above).

5.  I went to Michigan to visit my Grandma, who is 95!, and to attend my cousin’s wedding.  And I got to see many of my aunts, uncles and cousins!  I’m really lucky to have the family I do.

6.  Jon and I got to visit some fantastic exhibits at some great museums.  Gauguin at the Seattle Art Museum, King Tut at the Pacific Science Center, all the wonderful collections at the Detroit Institute of Arts, and the interactive musical experience at the Motown Museum.  And all the amazing historic home tours that we visited on our Grand Tour!

7.  I completed my third half-marathon!  And it was for a great cause!

8.  Jon and I went a fun wine tour in Washington and Oregon for the President’s Day long weekend.  Wine, historic hotels, and even some antique shops!

9.  I got a promotion at work!  Talk about felling valued and appreciated!

10.  We went on a fun long weekend trip to Chelan, where we tried lots of great wine and had one of the most fun and memorable drives home ever!

So, while the year certainly wasn’t perfect, and there were some ups and downs, I feel pretty blessed to live the life I do.  Here’s wishing that 2013 is an even better year for all of us.  Happy New Year!

Lincoln’s Sanctuary

Recently, I read Lincoln’s Sanctuary: Abraham Lincoln and the Soldier’s Home, by Matthew Pinsker.  It was a great find at the library book sale, and I couldn’t resist picking it up for $1 when I saw it.


Lincoln’s Sanctuary, by Matthew Pinsker

If you have never heard of the Soldier’s Home, it is on the grounds of a property that was established in 1851 as the Armed Forces Retirement Home, also known as the Military Asylum.  Its purpose was to care for the invalid and disabled veterans of the army.  The cottage was originally the home of George Riggs, the man from whom the property was purchased.  The cottage dates to 1842.  So, how does that relate to Lincoln you ask?

Well, the Soldier’s Home is approximately 3 miles from the White House, which was considered to be well outside of the city in the 1860s.  And it enjoyed a location atop a shaded hill, so it enjoyed cooler temperatures and breezes than the White House did.  It was a perfect summer retreat for someone who lived in Washington D.C., close enough to be able to travel daily to the White House, but far enough away to feel like you were getting a break to the country.

In all, Lincoln spent 13 months living at the Soldier’s Home during his Presidency.  He first visited 3 days after his inauguration, and his last visit was the day before his assassination.  He was able to use the peace and solitude to get some of his best thinking done, and as a result, he was able to produce some of his best work there, including, it is thought, the first drafts of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Matthew Pinsker does a wonderful job going chronologically through Lincoln’s Presidency, hitting the high points of Lincoln’s thoughts and actions, and tying these events in with Lincoln’s time at the Soldier’s Home.  Of course, some of it is speculation, because there aren’t surviving records to corroborate it, but the author makes educated guesses on Lincoln’s writings and conversations with others based on historic eyewitness accounts of visits, diary and journal entries from the time, and public records of when Lincoln and his family were in residence at the Home.

The book offers a look at the more intimate side of Lincoln’s life.  Those moments when he was able to let his guard down and enjoy his friends and family.  It also provides more than one eyewitness account of the sheer exhaustion and fatigue he experienced during his Presidency, when people expected him to be available to receive them at any hour of the day or night.  It made me think of the line of photos of Lincoln that hang in the Lincoln museum in Springfield, Illinois, where 5 photos document the aging process.  In those photos, Lincoln goes from a young to an old man in the span of four years.

I do wish there were more description about what the Soldier’s Home was like when Lincoln stayed there, but the book is an insightful look into a place where Lincoln spent a significant amount of time, where friendships and professional relationships were developed and nurtured, and where crucial political decisions were made.  I’ve wanted to visit the Soldier’s Home since I first discovered it was open to the public, and this book made by want to visit even more.

Be aware however, that it is not a quick or easy read, and has a tendency to be rather dry.  Someone with only a cursory interest in Lincoln or the Civil War probably won’t find this book holding their interest.  But to the true Lincoln scholar, it offers another perspective that had not, to this point, been explored.

I didn’t know until after I read the book, but apparently it was commissioned by the Soldier’s Home to increase awareness of this amazing historic site, which was recently renovated and opened to the public in 2008.  And the proceeds from the sale of the book to to the National Trust for Historic Preservation to maintain the Soldier’s Home.  What a great way to fundraise!

I Was Promised that Sacramento Was Hot!

In April of 2009, Jon and I were able to get cheap fares to Reno, Nevada, so we decided to fly there and drive over to Jon’s old stomping grounds, Sacramento. We flew into Reno over the mountains and through the turbulence, but we made it there in one piece. The Reno airport is like being in a casino, with all the slot machines and ringing noises. Fortunately, since I don’t like casinos, we were able to escape pretty quickly after picking up the rental car.

Once we were on the road, we made our way to the interstate and heading towards Sacramento. We got to head over the mountains on Donner Pass, which was fun. Even though it was April, it was still snowing on the pass, and quite cold. I wasn’t dressed for the weather, which made stopping at the rest area a chilly excursion. It was really interesting to see the terrain and the conditions that that Donner Party were subjected to as they tried to cross over the pass 160 years ago. I can imagine even now how difficult it would be without the modern conveniences that we have today – cars and paved roads. Those people stuck it out in the deep snow, starving, with no supplies and no idea how far it was to get back to civilization. It is amazing to think about how strong and brave those people were. And here we breezed over the pass to Sacramento in 2 hours.

We stopped for a little while and had lunch in the town of Auburn. It was a beautiful sunny day and we wandered around town for little while. Me being the nerd that I am, I made Jon pose for pictures with me in the sun. And there was antique mining equipment, just begging to be posed with. So we did.

Mining Equipment in Auburn

When we got to Sacramento, I was struck by how cold it was. Jon promised that it would be hot in April. Like shorts and tank top wearing hot. Really, it was more like jeans and sweater weather. I was disappointed. There was one day that I did get to lay out in the sunshine by the pool, but it was too cold to go in the water, and I even had to cover up with my towel at times. Certainly NOT hot like I was promised.

We had a couple of days to hang out, so we did some of the touristy things in town.  We went down to Old Sacramento, which is a tourist area right on the river. Old Sacramento was built around the railroad line, and has original old west buildings and others that have been rebuilt according to period specifications. It is touristy, with the shoppes (yes I meant to spell it like that) selling taffy and souvenirs, along with art galleries and a few import stores. They had some neat stuff, but at tourist prices (translate that to: stuff we can’t afford). We had lunch at a fish and chips place, eating our fish and chips the traditional way with vinegar. I just don’t understand why that hasn’t caught on here – it’s so much better than tartar sauce.

Shoppe in Old Sacramento

What was really cool at Old Sacramento was the Railroad Museum. They go chronologically through the history of the Railroad, from the first laying down of the railroad ties by the Chinese workers, to present day. They document the horrible conditions that the Chinese were subjected to, and the dangers of the work. They talk about the experience of laying the line up and over Donner Pass, and how the workers would frequently get trapped in storms like the Donner Party did. The museum has all sorts of different engines and railroad cars that you can look at, and some that you can go through. They have dining and sleeping cars from the heyday of train travel that reminded me of several classic movies. One day it would be really cool to take a cross country train trip for a couple of days, to live the experience. Just not one that is long enough that I’d really be in need of a shower. I’m not sure how that works on a train, but something tells me I just don’t get one. But I digress… The Railroad Museum also had a whole exhibit on railroad toys (my grandfather would have loved this – he was really into toy trains), and it was neat to think back on a time when all little boys wanted to be train conductors or engineers.

Me with a Railroad Car

So, that wrapped up our day – we were tired but happy.

San Francisco Hill Workout in the Pouring Rain (aka Part 2)

The next day, we slept in a bit and got ready. We headed out for breakfast and found a diner with some really good food, but the grumpiest waitress on the West Coast. Geez, you’d think that she had just waited 45 minutes for her breakfast!

We decided that we were going to head over to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. I’m not sure that I had ever been to a modern art museum, and now that we have, Jon and I both agreed to avoid them in the future. I’m not an art snob by any means, but I think that for it to be art, it needs to be something I can’t do. These exhibits were just weird. There was an exhibit of collages made with other artist’s work (kind of a Van Gogh, Starry Night decoupage kids project), a billiard table with no pockets, a canvas painted all red (I could totally do that!), and my personal favorite, a room sized piece that consisted of a white clay baby Jesus surrounded by concentric circles of black clay poodles. Really, what is the symbolism of that? Are you telling me Jesus is going to get taken down during the second coming by a hoard of rabid poodles!? Jon and I were both in agreement that traditional art and history museums are more our style. But I supposed you have to do it so you can say you have.

Baby with Poodles

We left the museum and decided to have a little adventure with public transit. It was pouring, and we wanted to go see the Haight-Ashbury district and Golden Gate Park. Bus fares in San Francisco include the return ride too! So we got on and passed by the Capitol Building with its gold leaf dome, and passed through the Mission district. We got off in Haight-Ashbury and spent some time wandering around in the shops in the area. There was a really cool used bookstore with lots of good history books. And Jon’s favorite place, at the very end of the road… the record store. Amoeba records is like the Costco of record stores. New, used, movies, they had it all. Jon was in heaven! And I was bored. But he tries his best to not make me wait too long. He got a couple of things, and then we took a walk in Golden Gate Park. Mind you, it wasn’t really all that pleasant, because it was raining, so it was a rather brief walk. Once we got on the bus going back towards the Baldwin, we got to drive by The Painted Ladies! They are as cool as they look in all the movies. If I could live there, I would totally move to San Francisco. Something tells me I can’t afford them.

Golden Gate Park Carousel

Later that afternoon, we hooked back up with Pablo, and we got to go to another record store. This one had a weird valet elevator even! After that, we roamed around looking for something to eat, and found a little Thai place with the best food. The meal was delicious and the company was good. The only bad thing was that afterwards we had to venture back out in the pouring rain. By the time we got back to the hotel, we were soaked. My coat was still somewhat wet the next day.

The last day of our trip we only had a half day in San Francisco before we had to head back to the airport for our flight home. I had been curious about the Cable Car Museum, so after we got some breakfast, we walked to it. It was pretty neat. You can stand on a platform and watch all the cables in action. Literally, there are these gigantic cables, wrapped around gigantic pulleys, and the cable cars are pulled along their tracks from this location. They also have antique cable cars on display, and displays on the history of cable cars and how they came to be in San Francisco. And this museum is free too. We did buy a couple of souvenirs in the gift shop to help support the cause.

Antique Cable Car

After having a weekend of fun, it was time to go home. Any decent vacation is always too short.

San Francisco Hill Workout – Part 1

The first airplane trip that Jon and I took together was when we had been together about 6 months. At that point, I think we were both thinking that we were in the relationship for the long haul. The extended stay trip is kind of a milestone in a relationship, because it is a great opportunity to assess different skills (how does this guy react when he is tired and cranky and the airline loses his luggage?) Plus, there is the other important factor to be considered: will being around this guy 24 hours a day for several days drive me to the brink of insanity? So, to test our relationship (or just to take a vacation, whatever you want to call it), we flew to San Francisco in February 2009. I had never been to San Francisco before, but Jon had been there several times. We flew into the Oakland Airport, and had decided that for this trip, we weren’t going to rent a car. San Francisco has pretty good public transportation options and we are both physically fit and not opposed to walking places. Once we landed, we took the shuttle bus to the BART station, to make our way into San Francisco. It was dark by the time we got to the BART, so we couldn’t see any of the landmarks, and it took us a couple of stops to figure out that we were going the wrong direction – we had gotten on the wrong train… Oops. So, we hopped off, went over to the other track, and got back on in the right direction. That boo boo cost us about 20 minutes, but we were none the worse for the wear, and made it into the city without further incident.

Once we got there, we went and found our hotel, The Baldwin. The Baldwin is located about a half block from the gates of Chinatown, with a nice central location. The pros, it is a neat historic hotel, with a big clawfoot bathtub. Our room had a view into the condo across the alley, which had some really cool artwork and furniture. Of course, we tried not to snoop too much into the lives of our millionaire neighbors, but hey, they left their shades open! Some of the reviews on one of the travel sites said that the garbage trucks going through the alley in the middle of the night kept them awake all night, but we didn’t have any problem with that. The cons, the bed was soft and creaky, and past its useful life. The hairdryer was attached to the dresser in the room, so you couldn’t really do your hair in the bathroom. That was really just a quirk, but odd nonetheless. They didn’t have a continental breakfast, but most big city hotels don’t. They did have coffee and tea in the lobby at all hours, but no coffeemaker in the room.

Once we got settled, we headed off in the direction of Chinatown to find something to eat. The shops were closing, so could couldn’t peek around into any of them, but we managed to find a conveyor belt sushi place that looked decent. We enjoyed a meal of sushi and chatted about what we were going to do in the city. We headed back to the hotel so we could be up early to do some touristing!

The first full day in San Francisco started out with no rain and somewhat overcast. We had a quick breakfast at Starbucks, and then headed out for a walk up the hill to Coit Tower. Wow, that is a hike! Once you are almost at the top of the Telegraph Hill, which is steep, you have to climb up a series of steps to get to the Tower itself. Luckily we weren’t in a hurry! Coit Tower has been a San Francisco landmark providing butt-burning workouts since 1933, when it was completed at the bequest of funds by Lillie Hitchcock Coit upon her death in 1929. When Lillie Hitchcock was 15 years old, she began a lifelong affliation with the Knickerbocker Engine Company Number 5. As the story goes, in 1858, the Knickerbocker Engine #5 was understaffed, and the men were struggling to pull the engine up Telegraph Hill. Lillie Hitchcock was on her way home from school, and threw her books to the ground and began to help pull the engine up the hill, imploring other bystanders to join in the efforts. The Knickerbocker Engine Company never forgot her efforts and made her an honorary member of the department. Although Coit Tower really does resemble a fire hose, the architects insist that it was not intended to portray any sort of firefighting equipment.

Coit Tower is decorated with dozens of murals that were commissioned as a project under the Public Works Administration, President Roosevelt’s Depression Era New Deal federal employment program. The murals were mostly done by students and faculty form the California School of Fine Arts and depict city and rural life, the disconnect between the rich and the poor, and other everyday subjects. The murals are incredibly detailed. You can read the titles of newspapers in the pictures, and each time you look, you will see something different. When we went, it was free to enter the rotunda where most of the murals are (I’m not sure if it still is) – you just have to pay to take the elevator to the top. Since we had never been, we did take the elevator up, and I think it was worth it to see the panoramic views of the City. I probably wouldn’t go up every time though. It is like the Seattle Space Needle, it is the type that you only need to see every 5 or 10 years.

Coit Tower Mural

While at Coit Tower, Jon’s friend Pablo joined us. Pablo and Jon met when Jon lived in Sacramento, and they have been fast friends ever since. Pablo made the trip from Sacramento to join us and spend a couple of days. It was my first time meeting Pablo, but I could immediately see why Jon likes him.

After we left Coit Tower, we headed over to get a look at Lombard Street. Jon told me it was really close to Coit Tower, and at the time, I didn’t know enough to not believe his distance estimations. It was, if I remember correctly, about a half hour away (remember we are walking), down one big hill and back up another big hill (remember this is San Francisco). Some of you have heard Lombard Street called “the crookedest street in the world”. Well, apparently it is not, but it sure is close. The block is so steep that in order to accommodate cars, the street was built with a series of extreme switchbacks. In between the switchbacks are little flower gardens. I’m not sure who maintains the flower gardens, but if I lived there, I certainly wouldn’t want to be out there digging in the dirt when someone came barreling down the hill with no brakes! My theory is that all the little flower gardens are roadside memorials to the residents killed by crazy car-wielding tourists. But it sure is fun to take pictures.

Next we headed over to Fisherman’s Wharf. This was a downhill walk from where we were, but sometimes walking downhill is just as difficult. This walk is dotted with mansions, and I think several are being used as embassies. Tough life working in a mansion… But on the way, we found Patagonia! No, silly, not the geographic area, that’s in Chile and Argentina. The store! And they were having a sale! I found a really cool laptop bag with room to hold extra stuff. It is perfect for traveling with your computer. The only thing that has kept Jon from trying to steal it is the fact that it is lavender, that that Jon’s laptop doesn’t fit in the laptop pocket. Of course, that doesn’t always help. Sometimes he just takes it anyway.

All that shopping built up an appetite, so when we got down to the wharf area, we experienced another of those big city traditions that we just can’t get at home – In & Out Burger! Sometimes I just crave a hamburger, and these ones are so good. I’m sure I don’t want to know how many calories are in them – because I’m convinced that they butter the buns. But after all that walking I think I deserved it.

Down at the wharf area, there is a little museum run by the California Parks Department. It is pretty cool. It shows the location of all the shipwrecks that they know about in San Francisco Bay. There is an exhibit about the dangers of the Bay and the hazards that the sailors experience from back in the 1800s to today. And it’s free! We poked around in there for a little while and then it was on to the big reveal – Fisherman’s Wharf.

Fisherman’s Wharf is one of those ultimate tourist traps. I knew that before we went, but didn’t really know what it would be like. It is built on a Wharf (duh) and is kind of like a big, outdoor shopping mall, with all the stores catering to every imaginable tourist desire. T shirts, music boxes, candy, expensive art and lots of over-priced food. We wandered around for a little while, but it really isn’t that big of a draw for me. I was really more interested in finding the sea lions, but there weren’t very many hanging out on the day that we were there. Locals told us that there have been fewer and fewer of them in the last couple of years (maybe they are all heading up the Columbia River to chow down on the salmon at the dam).

Alcatraz Island from Fisherman's Wharf


That night was Valentine’s Day, and the next day was our six month anniversary. So, to celebrate, we walked over to North Beach and found a little hole in the wall Italian restaurant that was actually huge on the inside. The three of us enjoyed a delicious meal and Jon and I split a bottle of wine. Sorry guys, I have absolutely no recollection of what kind of wine it was – something Italian – but it was tasty. Funny though, I still remember that I had some delicious gnocchi, and Jon had eggplant parmesan.

That dinner wrapped up our day, and we walked our overstuffed, happy selves back to the Baldwin. I swear I walked 20 miles that day (Jon says it was only really 7 or 8), so I slept well!

From Horses to Senators

The next day, I decided to head over to the Henry Clay house. I knew hardly anything about Henry Clay when I went, but he was another historical figure who had a house in Lexington (it’s actually a plantation mansion – it is huge), so I jumped on the opportunity.  Clay’s estate is available for tour, and the docents give a lot of very detailed information on who he was and what he did.  I learned that he was fascinating man, who certainly doesn’t get enough credit in the history books.

Henry Clay served the United States as a politician for most of his life, including in the Kentucky House of Representatives, the US House of Representatives, Speaker of the House (he was selected as Speaker on the first day of his first term of office – something that has never been done any other time), the US Senate, Secretary of State, and he ran for President 5 times!

He was a major contributor to the Missouri Compromise of 1850, was a supporter of the founding of a National Bank, developed the Hereford breed of cattle, operated a horse farm, had eleven children, fought in a duel, and created the Mint Julep. He died from tuberculosis in 1852 at the age of 75. Abraham Lincoln considered Clay to be one of his mentors and role models, even though the two only met on a couple of occasions (through Mary’s family, of course).

The Henry Clay House

I also visited the Kentucky Horse Park and the International Museum of the Horse while I was in Kentucky. The Kentucky Horse park is hard to describe. It’s kind of like a fairgrounds, but when the fair isn’t happening. All you horse-people who are reading this will certainly understand. There are some beautifully manicured grounds, horse arenas, jumping arenas, hot walkers, stables… and very few horses.

They do a Parade of Breeds twice a day in costume, in one of the side arenas, which is interesting, and you can see some famous retired racehorses and Standardbred pacers and trotters, but otherwise the park is kind of a dud. I wandered around for awhile trying to find something happening, but was pretty disappointed.

I also went over to the International Museum of the Horse, which had some appeal. It takes you through the history of the horse, from prehistoric times to modern day, and they have an exhibit on carriages and one on portraits of famous racehorses. But it just seemed like the exhibits were tired, and hadn’t been updated in a long time. I guess it is good to try a place out and say that you have been there, but I will find other things to do next time I’m in Kentucky.

The Man O’ War Statue at the Kentucky Horse Park

Feeling unsatisfied after my trip to the Kentucky Horse Park, I found a winery called Equus Run nearby and decided to try it out. Kentucky’s wine industry is in its fledgling stages – when I visited in 2008, I was told there were only 10 wineries in the state. The winery is located on the top of a hill, looking down over a beautiful valley. There was a pleasant patio where you could enjoy your wine. The server was friendly and informative about the wines, and I bought a bottle of their White Celebration blend. This was before the days of checked baggage fees, so I packed the bottle in my checked bag in all of my used socks, and it weathered the flight just fine. Interestingly enough, I waited awhile to drink it, and when I did, earlier this year, I found it to be too sweet for my taste. It seems that what I like has changed over time.

And just so you don’t think that I spent all of my time wandering around historic sites, I did spend some time at the pool at the hotel, and thoroughly enjoying the summer weather. I know, I know, all you sunblock, sun-shunning skeptics out there will probably be lining up to give me a lecture, but there is nothing like basking in the warmth of the sun, and feeling that warmth penetrate all the way through to your bones. When you live in the Northwest, a hot sun is a strictly seasonal phenonmenon, and you have to worship it when you get the chance. The George Hamilton look alike who was strutting around in his speedo was just the icing on the cake. He really thought he was hot, and kept trying to get my attention. It was really difficult to not laugh out loud – thanks but no thanks buddy! Well, look at that, I’ve gotten off topic again – so with that image of a 60-something, overly tanned guy with a slight beer belly stuffed into his speedo, I’ll leave you until next time.