Monday, July 29, 2019

Losses and Attitude

Back when I first moved to Texas and started my pretty-much annual pilgrimage to Michigan, there was a drive-in movie theater sitting right there on US-59 in Redland between the historic East Texas towns of Lufkin and Nacogdoches. In their day drive-ins were a big enough deal that the county road just on the north side of this one was, and still is, named Redland Theater Rd.

By the 80's, when I first drove by, all over the nation drive-in theaters were fading rapidly from the roadside and it was somehow comforting, anchoring to the soul, to see the electrified art-deco marque perched out there in front of that big, magical, erector-set screen with it's back turned to the highway to avoid driving distractions and pirate-watching.

But even then the paint was fading, the weeds were filling in under the marque, and she was getting a little worn around the edges, but all could be forgiven for the reminder of a different time.

At first the marque proclaimed a family-friendly double-header playing Thursday through Sunday nights. Then in a few years that was cut back to Friday and Saturday nights. But, since the critical importance of family-time was giving way to the inconvenience of scheduling it within our busy lives, not even that was enough, so a trio of large X's were plastered across the marque and the theater struggled on for a few more short years catering to a different, non-family-outing sort of crowd.

Eventually the inevitable happened. It's hard for me to say exactly when since the marque still stood, year by year gradually loosing more and more of the letters left over from that last carnal hurrah, but it was sometime in the early 90's.

By 1996 the bits that made it a theater were still there, but a large building had been plopped down, seemingly at random, right where cars used to position themselves for the evening's viewing, and the property was being used as a salvage yard.

By 2013 the salvage yard had moved across the highway, the projection booth had been knocked down, and the property was being used as an oil distribution/storage facility. But the screen and marque still stand!

Though it's hard to say for how much longer because the highway out front is now the planned corridor of I-69 and they've already built a land-consuming flyover and ramps just to the north of the theater's location.

It is (or rather was as you'll see in a moment) a sad thing to watch the old girl on her long slide downhill. Painful to watch this iconic symbol of a happy, carefree, yet somehow productive youth slowly slide back into the earth one marque panel and one more dollop of rust at a time.

Of course, being raised in Michigan I was never actually taken to this particular theater when I was a kid, but it was just like the one I did go to, with so much anticipation, a couple times every summer. And every time I drove by the Redland Drive-in Theater I would feel the loss of those days drag on me like the gravity that's dragging on that big old screen.

Then a few years ago I was coming around the curve on the north side of Lufkin, preparing myself for a dose of sadness for that decaying theater I was about to flash by at a tire-singing 60 MPH, and for some reason I decided enough is enough. (Could it be that I am growing up? Oh hell no!)

Life is full of loss. From the time we lose track  of our banky up to and through the more permanent loss of friends and family as we age our personal checklist of losses constantly grows as we leave bits of our past behind. As we build up a warehouse full of  what was, and is no more.

But, for whatever reason, that day I realized I could make a choice about how I dealt with those losses.

I could mourn this, the loss of the drive-in, and all the other losses that were piling up in the wake of my past, or instead I could chose to celebrate what used to be with a smile. Perhaps a wistful smile, but a smile, as I dwell on the memories invoked rather than on the losses suffered.

Though I try, I can't claim to be 100% successful at embracing this new attitude, but nowadays when I drive that 13 mile stretch of US-59 between Lufkin and Nacogdoches, rather than dwelling on the rust and decay of the Redland Drive-in Theater with a heavy heart, I make a conscious decision to smile and recall the gleeful thrill of a young kid "helping" pack the station-wagon with blankets and coolers. To remember the tingly anticipation as we take our turn in line at the entrance booth, followed by the frantic hunt for the optimum parking slot combined with working speaker. To re-live the interminable wait, despite the playground out behind the concession stand, for the sun to go down far enough for the projector's hot bulb to outshine it, then the carefree delight of laughing happily at the goofy refreshment-stand announcements because I know the cartoons are next.

And, unlike at home where they always seemed to have something else they needed to do, Mom and Dad would be right there to watch them with me. (Yeah sure, brother and sister were there too, but siblings don't count - do they?)

Yep, far better to enjoy the memories of good times that not all have been blessed with than to mourn their passing.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Cache River State Nature Area

If you're into canoeing or kayaking you may have heard of this place before. If you're not you probably have never heard of this place, or if you have, you haven't been there.

The Cache River, down there in the on-the-way-to-nowhere southern tip of Illinois, is a meander left over from the glacial floods period of what we now call the Ohio River. For about 100 years we did our damnedest to screw the river over, as seems to be our nature, by cutting drainage canals, building levies, and harvesting the wealth of trees, including 1000 year old bald cypress, but in the mid 1900's we finally came to our senses, realizing that we were fucking with one of the premier wetlands and bird flyways of the country, an area supporting, or at least trying to support, an estimated 100 endangered animal and plant species.

IDNR photo

Now the nature area protects, and is slowly, very slowly, rehabbing some 15000 acres of the waterway and surroundings.  In amongst that there is about a dozen miles of canoe/kayak trail, with several access points, meandering lazily around down there in the bottom tip of the state.

But don't be fooled. Not all the water down here is flat and lazy. In fact the Upper Cache River is more portage than float, mostly because of sever bank-erosion due to decades of trying to make the river flow where it doesn't want to. This erosion tends to bring nasty snarls of trees down into and across the waterway and you definitely don't want to get caught up under one of those!

But, if like me, you aren't really all that motivated to get out onto the hot, muggy, and definitely buggy water, there's always the Barkhousen-Cache River Wetlands Center, which also serves as the southern terminus of the 45 mile long Tunnel Hill Trail.

The visitor center is off of SR 37 a couple miles north of the intersection with SR 169 and from the campground I meandered (No really, I left the US and State roads behind and took to tiny little county roads.) some 30 odd miles on down there Sunday morning. (Yep, still Memorial Day Weekend)

I don't know why, but it never occurred to me that the Tunnel Hill trailhead parking for the southern end of the trail would have hours, but it does, mostly because it's also the parking lot for the Wetlands Center. When I turned off the road I was confronted with a big gate and sign telling me that it doesn't open until 0900 and you better get your vehicle back out before 1630 or it will get locked in!! (There's no such restrictions on the Karnak trailhead a few miles to the east.)

It wasn't yet 0900, by a long shot, but the gate was open so I drove on in anyway, parked in the far corner of the lot, and kicked back for a while, since I wanted to check out the visitor center first thing, before I got all sweaty and stinky from riding the trail.

The center was worth the wait.

Though it isn't huge, the displays range from millions of years ago up through today and cover

geology, flora, fauna, (Though I could have done without all the live snakes, one each to a plain, glass-fronted box. It's not that I don't like snakes, I do, and there's the issue. I'm not comfortable with the morality of caging them up like that. If our game-boy addled youth can't be educated with static displays screw-em!) and a detailed history of man's shenanigans over the last couple hundred years and the more recent attempts to repair the damage.

The glassed-in back of the visitor center looks out over wetlands and there's a half-mile or so of ADA trail back there with interpretive stops along the way.

Despite the day, and the holiday, I had the place to myself for an hour or so.

But then it was time to hit the trail, literally, although I suppose you could argue that I didn't so much hit the trail as roll it.

For a little over two miles, interrupted by only one road crossing, and that a backroad, the trail, very nicely paved with decomposed stone like all the rest of this trail that I've been on so far, bee-lines east-southeast through the trees.

About a half mile in the trail crosses the nearly still waters of the Cache River,

and though it might look like I had the trail to myself, I didn't.

It wasn't another biker, and he/she didn't let me get close enough for introductions, but the serpent did leave quite a set of tracks behind as it slid off down the bank.

It felt like a lazy kind of day, but a couple of miles later I made the sharp left turn at Karnak and continued north up the trail for another 5 miles or so.  This got me to where the still active BNSF tracks cross the abandoned tracks that are now trail. Here the BNSF is coming north out of Metropolis and eventually works its way up to Minneapolis/St Paul.

I brought snacks, books, (I have the Kindle App on my phone for that) and plenty of bug repellent and, after making a nest at the base of a trail-side tree, hung out there near the tracks for many hours

hoping to catch a passing freight, (With the camera, not actually - like - catch the thing! I'm not that ambitious!) but I eventually had to leave, still freightless.

Like the BNSF tracks, the trail, this excellently maintained and surfaced trail sitting there waiting for the holiday crowds, remained completely empty for the whole time I was on it with the exception of a mother with a toddler trying out her training wheels right near Karnak.

Again, where did everybody go???

Monday, July 22, 2019

Where'd Everybody Go ?

It's May 25, well into the Memorial Day weekend, and I decided to give my butt one more day of rest from the Quad-B's seat.

Less than 30 miles from where I'm camped in site 49 of the Oak Point Campground, now well and truly full with campers in every site as well as crowded cheek by jowl in the picnic areas and around the boat launch, is the popular Illinois State Park of Ferne Clyffe. (Yep, that's how it's spelled.)

I thought I would run over there and see about hiking the Happy Hollow Trail, counter-clockwise this time since I did it clockwise last time.

As I've said before, Illinois does a pretty crappy job of providing decent trail maps either on-line or on paper, in fact, like last time I was here, the only one available was this big sign-board at the trail-head with a less-than detailed map of the trail. (Not only is it out of scale with the left loop being quite a bit longer than the right loop, despite what this map shows, it is also missing some key data, such as the switchbacks over in the area of the bluffs in the upper left as well as depicting the left-most extent of the trail as coming to a point which it does not.)

Since the sign-board was too big to pack in along with me, I took a photo to carry along with me instead.

I expected the park to be crowded on this holiday weekend, and it was, which is why, instead of parking near the trailhead, which is also the parking lot for the primitive camping area, I parked around the corner at a second trailhead that is only a trailhead, though I had to walk back around to the first because there was no sign-board with map at the second. But before I could make that walk I had to convince a ranger that I was just there day-hiking and not trying to camp in a non-camping area.

Crowded is not my favorite thing, but this whole holiday weekend experiment is all about finding out just how bad things would be.

Most of the colorful fungi come and go quickly

OK, I don't know what the hell all those people crowding in here do during the day,

so ya gota catch them while you can.

but they sure aren't out hiking.

I was expecting a near constant line of hikers rushing past in both directions, but according to my GPS I was out on the trail for a little over 8 hours (Some of which was unnecessary but I'll get to that in a moment.) and during that time passed a grand total of two couples, that's right, four people, half a person an hour; all headed the other way.

If you want to sit around next to your car, feet away from the road, listening to your neighbor's conversations, smelling other people's cooking, and choking on someone else's smoky fire, (Which is somehow necessary despite the 80 degree temps.) you might as well save yourself a whole lot of time, frustration, money, and wear-n-tear on your vehicle, and just hang out on your suburban porch instead.

But Hey! I'm not complaining here, just observing. As far as I'm concerned, if you want to stick around your campsite and haunt the over-crowded bathrooms, that's fine by me.

Last time I was here the trail brushed right by the shoulder of this double-trunked tree.

This time there was a minor detour around the hole left in the ground when winds took the tree(s) down. (The hole is deeper than the photo depicts.)

And this closeup of the shallow roots wrapped tightly around the broken rock that makes up parts of the local geology shows that it wouldn't take an excessively strong wind to bring a tree down. (Our property is heavy on the gravel so I don't walk the trails if the wind is high because I don't particularly want to be driven neck-deep into the ground with a single blow like some sort of squishy nail.)

As for that unnecessary trail-time I mentioned before - well - in addition to poor mapping, Illinois is also pretty bad about trail-markings.

About a hundred yards beyond some power lines I stopped and looked back. "Hey! I don't remember crossing a power-line right of way last time I was on this trail. And I sure thought I'd be heading south by now instead of still going north. Maybe it's time I checked my GPS."

Confused by an arrowed sign that said nothing more than "food plots", I had missed a critical turn in the trail and was over a mile down the River-to-River trail and more than halfway to the little town of  Goreville.

Well that's not right!

I didn't realize how far out of my way I'd gone until I had to backtrack the whole of that goin-the-wrong-way, to regain the proper trail. . . (OK, so Danial Boone I'm not. . .)

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Tunnel Hill Trail: Deja Vu All Over Again.

OK, it's Thursday (May 23) and all is still quiet here in Oak Point Campground. I figured this would be a good day to run the 15 miles over to Vienna, drag the Quad-B down off the bike-rack, and ride a bit of the Tunnel Hill Trail. After all, who knows what the trail will look like over the Memorial Day weekend when the DHH, Desperate Holiday Hoards, get loose.

Today's plan is to ride north from Vienna the 9 miles up to the tunnel at Tunnel Hill. Since I've been here, and written about it, before I really didn't plan on making a post about today's trip, but a couple of things came up, one interesting, the other - well - highly questionable. . .

To be honest, I am, at best, a casual bike rider. OK, let's really be honest here, truth is I go for months at a time without touching the Quad-B. On top of that, the range of adjustments on my cheap, big-box-beater-bike are limited and the bike doesn't fit me very well at all. Mostly in the form of putting far too much weight on my un-conditioned hands, to the point where it once took two days before I got any feeling back in my pinky fingers after a longish, by my standards, ride.

On top of that the trail is mostly up hill from Vienna to Tunnel Hill,

so I probably don't have to tell you how relieved I was to spot the Tunnel ahead after slogging along for 9 miles with too much of my body-weight bearing down on my hands.

But you may have noticed something there on the left side of the trail ahead of me.

I didn't know snappers were tire-biters, but this big-shouldered hulk was laying there in wait, perhaps mistaking himself for one of those dogs that hides behind the curbed garbage cans, waiting to lunge out and take a bite out of any car that goes by. (With all the plastic parts on cars nowadays I imagine it's a lot more satisfying now than back when cars were all steel and rubber.)

I used to live in the swamps of the Pascagoula River Delta in Mississippi, so as far as snappers go, this guy was on the small side.

But you see that grin on his face and a little bit of drool trickling out the corner of his mouth when he thought I was going to get close enough for him to taste?

Been there, done that, not getting any closer!

Just a couple tenths beyond the tunnel is the site of the former Tunnel Hill depot. The depot is long gone now, but with water, pit toilets, and a shaded picnic table, all sitting on the highest point of the trail, this is a good spot for a lunch-break before heading downhill back to The Van.

Except that during lunch I got to studying the map. From here the former town-site of Parker City was only about 4 miles away.

There used to be two railroads that crossed each other at Parker City and a bustling town servicing the many travelers passing through with hotels, restaurants, and barbershops grew up here. Once passenger traffic shifted over to cars and the road system Parker City died a quick death. I understand that a logging operation came through a few years ago and removed most of the visible remains of the town-site, but, oh what the hell!

I'd already been on the stretch of trail I just rode, but I haven't been to Parker City, or as they call it now the Parker site, before.

Though it would probably make a whole lot more sense to park The Van at the trailhead in New Burnside and ride just 2 or 3 miles from there to Parker City, that kinda seems like cheating, and I'm already out here on the trail. Besides, what's the harm in adding 8 more miles to the 18 or 19 mile round trip?? (The Wife just walked by, looked over my shoulder at what I'm writing, and I swear I heard her mutter "silly old fool", though she denies it.)

Refreshed by my break, falsely as it turns out, I climbed back aboard the Quad-B and aimed her north instead of south.

It was mostly downhill from Tunnel Hill to Parker City, as the series of fresh beaver dams across the creek alongside the trail kept reminding me.

You'd think I'd enjoy the easy ride, but instead I could only think about the fact that every turn of the wheels was one more turn I'd have to struggle with on the uphill journey back. But, of course, I was too stubborn/pig-headed/stupid (take your pick) to turn back now.

I didn't take any photos once I got there. I tell myself it's because they didn't 'read' well (A photo 'reads' when it's clear what's in it. A shadowy photo of a tree growing out the top of someones head does not read well, nor does a few scraps of overgrown concrete poking through the undergrowth.) but it's probably because I was too preoccupied with thinking about that uphill ride ahead of me, but the former site of Parker City is marked by an old, weathered, and blank, signboard alongside the trail. Just a few feet off the trail are some bits of non-descript concrete foundations with very few clues as to what they might once have held up. Maybe one day, when the pain of the ride back to Vienna isn't quite so fresh, I'll check to see if there's any Sanborn insurance maps of Parker City available and see if I can put names to some of the building foundations.

Monday, July 15, 2019

A Moment Of Insanity

OK, it's the morning of Tuesday, May 21 and I'm parked in The Brother's driveway. Over the past couple days I assisted in knocking off a couple of paying jobs he had in the shop (The "pay" on one of them was a trade for a classic small motorcycle that he figures he can clean up and sell for more than the job was worth, not an unusual arrangement for him.) but now I have three days to get myself safely tucked away back at home, some 1300 plus miles away, before the friggin Memorial Day hordes are turned loose.

That night, 12 hours and 560 miles closer to home, (I drove a lot of back roads in between)  I pulled into my favorite Illinois (I know, I know, the words favorite and Illinois just don't seem to go together.) rest stop at MM 79 of southbound I-57.

If you take the "cars" fork when entering the rest area (Those of you with tow-behinds or larger motorcoaches will be OK, trucks do this too.) then turn right just beyond the bathrooms you end up on a little side road that takes you out onto a peninsula sticking out into Rend Lake. This road makes a relaxed loop at the end (Big enough for big rigs to get around easily.) and has a wide, paved shoulder all the way around for parking rigs of all sizes well away from the freeway noise.

My timing was impeccable! (Yep, sarcasm. . .) The sun had just set and I no sooner parked, opened the vents, and stepped out, than the sirens in Benton, a few miles to the south, started going off. A quick check of Weatherbug showed a nasty looking storm off to the southwest and heading this way!

Of course, to get out of here I had to go south, right towards the storm - in the dark - so I shut everything up tight again and hung on.

The worst of it was over in about 15 minutes, but during that 15 minutes there was some pretty impressive straight-line winds that reached under The Van and blew about a cup of water in under the gaucho through a leak I still haven't found.

Anyway- if I was to be home by Thursday, leaving the Friday roads to the holiday-crazed, I would need to knock off another 16 hours over the next two days.

I'm not sure what happened, maybe it was the storm last night, or maybe just a brain-fart, (Or, based on the overheard conversation from many years ago where the child psychologist told my mom there was nothing he could do for me,  maybe there's just something fundamentally wrong with the way my brain works.) but barely an hour and half into Wednesday's drive I had made a detour and was pulling into the Shawnee National Forest Oak Point campground at Lake Glendale.

When I stopped at the pay-station to pick up an envelope (I can never seem to remember my campsite number on the walk back up to the pay-station so I take an envelope with me and fill it out while I'm standing in the campsite.) the host came out all apologetic because the electric sites were all taken for the rest of the week and through the weekend. (Remember, this is early Wednesday) I told her I don't want electric anyway, I want the apparently unpopular non-electric loop (No generators allowed! Which, in my opinion, should always be the case in public campgrounds.)

The tent in the foreground is mine. I use it as a placeholder.
I ended up in the same campsite I had last time I was here, site 49. Not only that, since all campsites here are FCFS, I could nail it down for the whole weekend by paying for it through the following Monday night. (Six nights, $36 with my geezer-card)

I know, I know, brain-fart or not, in the face of the upcoming holiday weekend, this is just pure insanity!

But my thinking, my justification, was that it has been decades since I actually braved camping though a holiday weekend, so maybe my perception of what it would be like is heavily skewed by my broad and general dislike of people. (Individuals are find but "people" suck!)

I figured I could survive a few uncomfortable days to find out for sure. Worst case, I could forfeit a few of my nights and bail out Saturday. (I've found that traveling in the middle of a holiday isn't all that bad, its only terrible on either end.)

Conclusions: It wasn't perfect, but not nearly as bad as I expected. The place, predictably, filled up, but being an old FS campground there is a bit of space between sites so I didn't have neighbors coughing into my dinner. (Though one evening the young couple in the next campsite sang to their little girl and I ended up with 'Frère Jacques' stuck in my head all the next day. and here's me disliking anything French!) This isn't a "party" campground either, at least over on the non-electric loop, so the noise wasn't unbearable. Noticeable, but not unbearable. And I don't know what all these people do during the day when they are camping, but they certainly don't do the things I do (More on that over the next few posts.) so weren't in my way at all.

I really expected it to be an uncomfortable experiment with hoards of  your typical out-of-control yahoos, but it wasn't. Maybe camping is too much trouble for the yahoos nowadays. (When tuna sales dropped over the past few years the manufactures discovered that it was because the millennials just couldn't be bothered to open a can and pour off the extra liquid. Once they started packaging the same tuna in ready-to-eat, tear-open pouches the sales went back up.)  I'm probably not going to go out of my way to camp over holidays, but now maybe I won't be held hostage by the holiday schedule quite so much in the future.

Further observations: Say what you will about the government handing public lands over to concessionaires, (And I have my own conflicted opinions about that, especially when I run into concessionaires that won't honor the geezer-card because it cuts into their profits.) but when the campground filled up Friday evening the host and manager started leading campers (But no big rigs!) over to one of the picnic grounds or the boat-launch, any place with bathroom facilities, and pointing them to spots where they could set up camp. You would never find actual Forest Service employees doing something like that. They would just hang out the full sign and go home.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Misinterpretation, Over and Over Again

OK, this magazine has been hanging out in The Van's bookshelf for a while now, waiting for me to get around to it.

Being a model railroader I know what DCC is, and I also know what a turnout is (track switch), but every time I catch sight of that banner at the top,which must number close to a hundred times now, I can't stop myself thinking 'Yes, we do need to ban shorts at turnouts and gatherings of all kinds, especially those worn by old fat men. . .'

After all, who wants to see that?!!

Thursday, July 11, 2019

The Jarring Juxtaposition

It's a fairly safe bet to assume most everybody knows who Dow Chemical is.

What may not be so widely known is that Dow Chem's international headquarters is in Midland Michigan, a town of less than 50,000 in what some in the international community, or pretty much anybody else for that matter, might consider an out of the way place.

That's because, despite what you might think of Dow Chem and its impact on our world, good and bad, it is a family oriented business founded right there in Midland just before the turn of the 20th century by chemist Herbert Henry Dow and there it remains. Dow got it's start when Herbert used his expertise to extract bromine from the briny waters way down deep under Midland and used that to pretty much capture the market for bleach and potassium bromide.

In addition to being a shrewd, out-of-the-box business man (When Germany attempted to prevent Dow's expansion into European markets in 1905 by dumping bromides into the US market at ridiculously low prices, Herbert bought up all he could get his hands on and dumped it right back into the European markets at a price that crippled European manufactures, but still brought Dow a profit!) and a chemist, Herbert was also an avid botanist.

And that's where the jarring juxtaposition really comes in, because Herbert's passion resulted in Dow Gardens, a 110 acre botanical garden almost within sight of the original bromide extraction plant.

Mid May turned out to be a great time to visit the gardens this year. Normally that's a little late for tulips, but there are an amazing variety of "late" tulips out there and the gardens is not shy about using them to make a statement.

But the garden certainly doesn't limit itself to flowers.

The grounds also support a wide variety of trees

and shrubs

and even the most ancient of plants are represented here. (Did you know that the fern was the first appearance of a circulatory system in any living entity on land, but that like the even more ancient  mosses their reproduction alternates between haploid [a single complete chromosome copy, like cloning] and diploid [two incomplete copies that must come together like sperm and egg] with the haploid generation reproducing via diploid and the diploid via haploid - - - Sorry, I've been taking a botany course.) 

In addition to an elaborate play area, hands-on gardens, and picnic pavilion, the children's garden is also peppered with sculptures

from the whimsical

to the slightly creepy.

And this summer the garden is hosting Origami In The Garden

which features a couple dozen or so origami-based sculptures scattered throughout the grounds.

Of course I took a few hundred photos during the afternoon I spent there with Mom and my sisters, but I'll spare you that "experience" and stop with the photos here.

But if you should, by some chance, find yourself in mid-Michigan with a morning to spare, not a bad place to check out.