Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Christmas and New Year at Longwood Gardens

A fantasy wonderland of colorful fountains and more than a half million Christmas lights are burning each night through January 11th at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. You can also see world class ice skating performances and tour the indoor gardens with 11,000 different types of plants in all colors, sizes and shapes.

This year Longwood Gardens started a timed ticket entry that has improved the visit significantly, less crowds and more opportunity to see the holiday exhibits. There was no waiting when we went on a Saturday evening and the efficient parking attendants had us into a parking space, near the entrance, in a matter of minutes. The time between Christmas and New Year is the perfect opportunity for a family outing.

Stroll the 1000 acre estate and enjoy the outdoor decorations and open air fountains. Throughout the evening the dancing fountains are set to holiday music and changing colors ever hour. Performances are held each hour until an hour before closing.

World class skating performances are held at the Skating Under the Stars outdoor theater. At the Saturday performance Alexey Beletsky, 4 time silver medalist representing the Ukraine and Israel, performed ice dancing with Melissa Bulanhagui, the 8th ranked US skater, along with Blake Rosenthal, U.S. national medalist and international junior medalist. Under foggy skies, the skaters entertained the large crowd with solo and combined ice dancing for the twenty minute performance.

Throughout the park are hot chocolate and soft pretzel stands to warm you up on a cold evening. There are also two dining areas open for snacks and meals. If you are up for a full family buffet check out the special dates for the Yuletide Buffet.

Getting There: Located in southeastern Pennsylvania, Longwood Gardens is a great day trip from places in New York, Eastern Pennsylvania, Northern Delaware, Maryland and Washington DC. Approximate distances from these areas:

Philadelphia, PA 30 miles
Wilmington, DE 12 miles
Valley Forge, PA 28 miles
Lancaster, PA 43 miles
Baltimore, MD 75 miles
Washington, DC 110 miles
New York, NY 130 miles

Individual Ticket Costs
Adults: $16
Seniors (ages 62+): $14
Students (ages 5-22): $6
Children ages 4 and under: Free

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Fountains, Flowers and Flights of Fancy at Longwood Gardens

Outside the trees are dropping their vibrant fall colors while inside exotic flowers and plants burst with more colors than a springtime rainbow. The place is Longwood Gardens, just west of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where exotic plants from throughout the world are on display year round.

If you like flowers and fountains this is the place to see over eleven thousand different plant species and more fountains than any other garden in the United States. Throughout the year, there are different themes to highlight the spectacular plants and special attractions. Going on now through November 23 is "Autumn's Colors".

Also through November is the Chrysanthemum Festival with more than 20,000 Chrysanthemums in bloom. The indoor and outdoor gardens are bursting with color and extraordinary shapes. The entire 1,050 acre estate has areas of interest for visitors of all ages. Take a walk in the topiary gardens and imagine the whimsical creatures and shapes that made gardens like these a staple for the rich and famous around the world. There are areas of discovery for children and adults in the Indoor Children's Garden, or at the Idea Garden where you can watch the trains as they travel through miniature Longwood landmarks made from natural elements.

In addition to the changing flower displays, there are special entertainment and cultural events. "Fall Fantasy of Glass" is running simultaneously with the current theme and highlights the artwork of glass artists Michael Cohn and Molly Stone, of Cohn-Stone Studios in Richmond, California. Their colorful and whimsical pumpkin and gourd creations are a visual treat. These are excellent artists who have exhibited throughout the world and are featured in a number of museums, corporate and private collections.

We made the day trip in early November with some out of town visitors. I wasn't sure how impressed I would be of a glass squash but I have to admit the colorful blown glass are truly a work of art and enjoyable to see. The artistry of the glass pumpkins fit perfectly with the natural beauty of the flowering plants surrounding the exhibit area. I was impressed with the hospitality and friendliness of all the staff and employees that we encountered. We were approached by one staff member, who upon seeing my 83 year old mother in law, let us know where we could get a wheel chair at different locations throughout the park if we needed one.

The architecture of the conservatory, ballroom and mansions on the grounds are also worth the time to visit. The entire property has a wonderful history, dating back to 1700 when William Penn issued a grant of land to the Peirce family. It wasn't until the early 1900's, when Pierre S. DuPont, of the Delaware DuPont family, purchased the estate that the gardens began to take shape.

While we were there, we noticed a number of workers busy getting ready for the annual Christmas spectacular with over 500,000 outdoor lights that will be burning throughout the gardens. During December, the floral displays, decorated trees, ice skating under the trees and the dancing fountains make Longwood gardens a wonderful outing. There are two dining areas open for a snack, meal or hot drink. Christmas at Longwood runs from November 27 through January 11, 2009. If you can't make it before Christmas it is still a great place to take family, and visitors, after the holidays.

Keep in mind there is a new ticketing process for Christmas admissions. When we visited during Christmas last year it was crowded to the point that once in line you were propelled through the gardens. This year Longwood is going to a timed ticket entrance policy that will reduce the crowds and wait time as the more popular exhibits. To reserve a place go online to their ticket page at

For the serious artist and photographer you can take your easel or tripod but only before noon and you have to stop by the main desk to get a registration tag.

Getting There. Located in southeastern Pennsylvania, Longwood Gardens is a great day trip from places in New York, Eastern Pennsylvania, Northern Delaware, Maryland and Washington DC. Approximate distances from these areas:

Philadelphia, PA - 30
Wilmington, DE - 12
Valley Forge, PA - 28
Lancaster, PA - 43
Baltimore, MD - 75
Washington, DC - 110
New York, NY - 130

Individual Ticket Costs
Adults: $16
Seniors (ages 62+): $14
Students (ages 5-22): $6
Children ages 4 and under: Free

All Aboard a Magical Ride at the National Aquarium

With pocket watch in one hand and oil lantern in the other, the mid-twentieth century train conductor greets us with a drawn out baritone "alllll aboard." Not the usual greeting one would expect at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, where people from around the world come to view the more than 16,000 animals, fish, birds and marine life that represent over 660 species.

This particular visit to the aquarium was unlike any other visit to see the many aquatic themed exhibits. This night was a magical night filled with the multi sensory film experience of the "Polar Express." This classic animated film is a fifteen-minute 4-D experience that will take you on a train ride in the aquarium's Immersion Theater. I have seen the full length "Polar Express" in 3-D IMAX that is quite a show, but nothing like this 15 minute, eye popping, in your face version.

I've been to several 3-D movies with varying reviews of quality and I wasn't sure that even with the 4th dimension this would be much different. While I anticipated a few scenes that would make the audience duck as something flew out of the screen, I had no way of knowing what was in store. I was blown away with the fourth dimension. From the opening scene, when the boy is awakened by the arrival of the Polar Express outside his bedroom, I was hooked. Not only was the sound realistic but the seat and entire theater seemed to rumble as if a train had just rolled in. You feel the wind of a passing train on your face and whoosh of the escaping steam cloud from the brakes on your legs. As the steel wheels grind to a stop, the snow that is gently falling in the film is also falling in the theater.

One of best features of this experience takes place in the dining car as dancing waiters break into song and acrobatics as they pass out hot chocolate to the wide-eyed passengers. As the drinks are poured on screen, you can smell the hot chocolate. There are more special effects in the movie and in the previews of coming attractions. While the "Polar Express" may not be what you would typically expect at the aquarium it is fast becoming a holiday tradition to get in the holiday spirit and a chance for audiences to experience the amazing 4-D Immersion Theater. This is a must see film for the family, whether you have kids or not. The "Polar Express 4-D" runs through January 4, 2009.

Remember this theater experience is only one facet of the hundreds of exhibits at the aquarium. Visitors can trek through the Australian outback in the Animal Planet Australian - Wild Extremes exhibit, experience the tropical rainforest, explore the undersea world of aquatic life and see a live dolphin show. This is an excellent adventure for the whole family.

Getting There:
Located at the Inner Harbor, Baltimore, Maryland

Hours of Operation Mon-Thur: 9am-5pm Fri: 9am-8pm Sat: 9am-6pm Sun: 9am-5pm Throughout the year, visitors may tour the Aquarium for up to 1 and 1/2 hours after the ticket center closes.

Holiday Closures - Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day.

Admission Rates: From $13 to $29 Total Experience Package includes Aquarium admission, 4-D Theater and the Dolphin Show! Purchase tickets online to ensure entry at your desired time.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Wallowa Lake and the City of Joseph

A trip to Northeast Oregon is an opportunity to witness where one of history's tragic stories begins. This is where the Nez Perce Indians spent their last free days, before going to a reservation. Today, among the mountains, streams and valleys of Wallowa County, residents and visitors alike enjoy the natural beauty of the lake and the area where the Nez Perce Indians spent their summers hunting and fishing.

One hundred and thirty one years ago, Chief Joseph the Younger and his followers were forced out of the valley by the U.S. government for not honoring a treaty imposed upon them. Today, the mountains and area around Wallowa Lake is often referred to as the "Little Switzerland of America." The nickname comes from the tall, snow-capped mountains that surround Wallowa Lake on three sides. The picturesque vistas are reminiscent of the larger pristine mountains in Europe. This land is as wild and beautiful as it once was, with miles of forests, fresh mountain streams, lakes and abundant wildlife. As "civilization" moved into the area over the last century there have been several homes, businesses and attractions built near the lake. My journey through this land begins in the small artistic town of Joseph located a couple of miles from the lake.

Originally named Lake City in the 1800's the town changed its name to Joseph in honor of Chief Joseph, father of Young Joseph, of the Nez Perce Indians. The French called the Shahaptian Indians of the Pacific Northwest Nez Perce, meaning "pierced nose", after they saw a few Indians with nose medallions. Such piercing was uncommon with the Shahaptian and was more applicable to tribes further south. A misnomer that has remained. The Nez Perce still call themselves by that name today. The Nez Perce lived around what is now Northeast Oregon, Idaho and Washington.

Today Joseph is still a small town with just over one thousand residents. This small town however, is big on art and reminded me of the art centers of Santa Fe, New Mexico and Park City, Utah. Joseph is primarily one main street lined with galleries, studios and bronze foundries separated by real estate offices and gift shops. Throughout the town are excellent bronze sculptures from some of the top artists in the country. Valley Bronze was the first foundry in town and was instrumental in leading the town to financial success after the collapse of the timber industry in the 1980's. Since then more foundries have opened in the town and more artists call this home. The success of the bronze foundries is evident in the $2.4 million dollar order, a few years ago, from the U.S. Government for the National World War II Memorial in Washington D.C.

On almost every street corner is a life size or larger bronze sculpture. One of my favorite sculptures, "Attitude Adjustment", by Austin Barton depicts a cowboy and bucking bronco. The ten-foot high statue captures the cowboy and horse at the peak of movement. The balancing of the sculpture adds to this work of art as it appears to be top heavy and may topple at any moment. There are reportedly twelve of these magnificent bronzes, of this size, but I have only located three. One in Pendleton, Oregon at Hamley & Co., one in Joseph, Oregon and one at the Booth Western Art Museum in Georgia.

Other interesting sculptures include the huge soaring eagle entitled "Spirit of Joseph" by Steve Parks, "Tracking the Intruders" by J. Shirly Bothum and a very refreshing sculpture of a woman holding her hat as if in a strong breeze entitled "Garden Walk" by Ramon Parmenter. Not to be overshadowed by the statuary there are several galleries that specialize in art and jewelry. One artist that impressed me with his original wildlife paintings was Mark Kortnik, of Aspen Grove Gallery.

On my visit, I found the area to be a great getaway from the stresses of daily life in the 21st century. With the exception of the buildings the area is much as it would have been when the Indians roamed the forests and mountains. Today these same forests and mountains offer abundant hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding opportunities. At the lake there is boating, canoeing, fishing and, for the stout of heart, swimming. My daughters coaxed me into the clear cold lake, which was very refreshing, after I inched my way in. The lake is at the end of the road, literally. Once you travel in you have to turn around and go out the same way.
Isolated with cabins and campgrounds the area has the feel of a summer camp. Wildlife is abundant with mule deer seen throughout the early mornings and evenings, eagles, turkeys, and buffalo. There are a few gift shops, a lodge and a couple of places to eat during the spring and summer months. There are a number of places to sign up for trail riding, mountain biking and even hang gliding from Mt. Howard.

A local tramway takes passengers, four at a time, from the base terminal, located near the lake, to the 8,150 foot summit of Mt. Howard. From there you can take one of the well groomed trails to several scenic overlooks. The tramway is open from May through September, depending on the weather. Be sure to work up an appetite on the 2 miles of trails, so you can enjoy the Summit Grill and Alpine Patio for lunch.

For the kids the area boasts quite a population of friendly black tailed prairie dogs that will climb on your lap looking for trail mix. We took advantage of the wonderful trails and hiked a few miles into the wilderness over streams and up the side of a mountain to an overlook of Wallowa Lake. There was also a waterfall on the Lostine River that was ice cold and a real treat after the moderate hike. On another day we joined the trail ride and wound our way through several trails and along streams. The horses were used to novice riders and made their way expertly on narrow trails.

When you enter or leave the Wallowa Lake area, you pass by the Indian cemetery where Old Chief Joseph is buried. Be sure to stop and take the time to visit his gravesite to pay tribute to the man who trusted the government to take care of him and his tribe. His son, Chief Joseph the Younger, became famous for his principled resistance to the removal of his people from this land. He is renowned as a humanitarian and peacemaker. His story, and that of his people, is detailed in Dee Brown's "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee", and "I Will Fight No More Forever - Chief Joseph And The Nez Perce War" by Merrill D. Beal.

Getting there - If you are flying, you can land in Boise, Idaho, about 4 hours by car on the interstate and OR Hwy 82. Other airport options include Pasco, WA, Spokane, WA, and Lewiston, ID. From Portland, Oregon it is about a six-hour drive through the Columbia River Gorge, high desert and plains. We took the longer route, through Portland, and saw a number of wonderful sites along the Oregon Trail.

An African Safari in Baltimore

With the economy in turmoil, now is a good time to get out and enjoy a cost saving adventure. All you need is a little creativity and a trip to your local zoo. You will undoubtedly learn more about our world and the many rare and exotic creatures that live here. I took a day trip to the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore with my kids and found that it’s a great way to connect with nature, your family and even yourself. Most large cities have a zoo and if you haven’t visited one lately there is plenty to see and a variety of activities to educate and entertain.
The Maryland Zoo’s African Journey is the largest exhibit area on the 160 acre zoo, dedicated to the animals and birds of the African continent. A few of the many exhibits include leopards, cheetahs, warthogs, giraffes, elephants, lions, chimpanzees, vultures and West African cranes.

A new feature in the African Journey is the giraffe feeding plaza where you can feed the giraffe’s everyday between 10:30 and 3 pm. We ventured past the rhinos, vultures and camels to Further into the African Journey is an expanded area for the African elephants. On March 19, 2008, Felix, a 24 year old elephant gave birth to the first ever baby elephant at the zoo. Sampson, the 290-pound newborn, was named by vote.

The Maryland Wilderness is featured in the Children's Zoo and represents the animals, birds and reptiles of the state. Included in the exhibit are domesticated animals like goats and sheep and typical farm animals. This part of the zoo has a lot of interaction to keep young kids interested in discovering more about animal and their habitat. They have plexiglass enclosures to watch river otter’s underwater, a cave to see bats and snakes and even an ecological tree built with stairs that you walk up inside. At the top of the tree is an optional slide, a favorite with the kids.

One of the first exhibit areas in the zoo, after taking the tram from the entrance, is the Polar Bear Watch. From here you can see the largest predators in the world, Alaska and Magnet, and their newest addition, Anoki. This year the zoo added Anoki to the exhibit in hopes of breeding with Magnet. Anoki is on loan from the New Mexico Biological Park in Albuquerque. A unique aspect of this exhibit is an actual Tundra Buggy that is air conditioned and overlooks the water and bear habitat.

Not only is a trip to the zoo a great way to enjoy the outdoors with family and friends it is an opportunity to learn about and discuss how we take care of animals and our surroundings. The zoo is a good day trip that can be educational in many ways. Who knows what you may see the animals doing that will spark questions from your kids, leaving you stuttering, or checking
Wikipedia from your iphone. On my last visit, my daughter asked me who was faster, a cheetah or a leopard. I now know it is the cheetah, running at up to 70 miles per hour for long distances compared to about 40 miles per hour in short bursts for the leopard.

Many people stay away from zoos because they don’t like to see the beautiful animals caged or restricted from running, swimming or flying free. Zoos have been around at least 3500 years and so have the debates on whether zoos are sanctuaries for the protection of the species, educational centers, or circus sideshows, where animals are held captive against their will. There is enough evidence to support all of these arguments and that is where visiting a zoo can help you to connect and reflect on your own feelings.
Day Trip Specifics:
The zoo is open everyday ten months a year, from March through December, except for Thanksgiving and Christmas. The hours are 10 am to 4 pm and costs $11 for adults and $9 for children, weekends slightly higher. Parking is free and souveniers abound.
Special note for those who join the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, or are members of participating zoos, there is most likely a Reciprocal Admissions Program (RAP) that lets you can gain free admission to other zoos in the association. For example Friends of the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. can get free admission to the Maryland Zoo and vice versa. Check your membership for details.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Mysterious Underground of Pendleton Oregon

Like an epic novel, the intriguing "city beneath a city" of Pendleton, Oregon, is rich with characters and settings as diverse as underground opium dens and ice cream parlors. The entertaining and knowledgeable guides take you on a ninety minute journey through several decades of discrimination, crookery, prostitution and gambling. Our tour begins in what was once the red light district of Pendleton, about a three and one half hour drive east of Portland.

Standing on the corner of SW 1st Street and Emigrant Avenue, we view the faded sign advertising the Shamrock Card Room and Hop Sing's Laundry before we descend downstairs to the basement saloon.

Pendleton was a big cowboy town in the late 1800's and is reported to have up to 18 brothels and 32 saloons to entertain the traveling cowboys and people moving west on the Oregon Trail. There are mannequins around the bar and card tables that add to the western flavor of the room.

Next to the saloon is Hop Sing's Laundry. Several
of the small rooms are furnished with period furniture and tools where Hop Sing would wash the dirty and dusty trail clothes of his customers. There was no plumbing in those days so Hop Sing would carry the water from a well in one of the basements and heat it for washing. Hop Sing capitalized on his hot water and dirty customers by offering hot baths while they waited for their clothes. However, one problem Hop Sing encountered was disposing of the bath water. He had to take several buckets up stairs to the alley to get rid of the water. Since this took time away from his business, he offered baths on a sliding scale. The first bath was ten cents to use the fresh water, the second bather saved a penny to use the same water and so on throughout the day, that way he would only have to empty the dirty once or twice a day. This saved Hop Sing time, energy, and water, as he would only add hot water to the dirty water throughout the day. I like a bargain but would hesitate taking the last bath for the 1 cent sale.

Once a year the laundry, saloon and other areas come to life when the mannequins are replaced with local actors and period costumes. The actors relive life in the basement rooms where we see an ice cream parlor, meat market and speakeasy, which were used at various times throughout the early twentieth century. In some of the rooms, we see natural light from above which comes from glass prisms built into the sidewalks. The sun turns the glass a purplish color and it looks like some type of grate. I'm sure I have walked over this type of lighting system in other cities and never noticed.

We emerge from what is called the underground, which it technically is, but most people would call them basements. We are led around the corner, still downtown, to see the glass prisms from the surface. Then it's on to the Cozy Rooms of Miss Stella. We walk up 31 steps to a chapel, which seems a bit out of place in this establishment, but reportedly shows how Miss Stella took care of her girls. We tour waiting rooms, living areas, working rooms and a secret closet used as an escape route for prominent people during police raids. Miss Stella's Cozy Rooms lasted into the 1950's.

After hearing a number of colorful stories about Miss Stella we go down a rear fire escape and back underground to basements with dirt floors that served as living areas and opium dens for many of the Chinese workers who came from China in the mid 1800's. They came from China to find their riches and to work in gold mines or on the railroad. They began businesses such as laundries and eateries. Most who came were men and while they were free men, they encountered the same types of discrimination and working conditions that the slaves, Native Americans and other non-white people suffered. The Chinese didn't find their fortune. Instead they found cheap places to live and work in the basements of businesses and hotels.

The connecting "tunnels" look like hallways that were built to transport goods between businesses, or to receive deliveries. The areas that are lit by the sidewalk glass were access passageways known, in architectural terms, as "sidewalk vaults". In most cities, these passageways have no connection to the early Chinese and are not tunnels. In The Forbidden City within Victoria, David Chuenyan Lai debunks many of the myths around these Chinese tunnels.

The non-profit corporation that conducts the tours has done a great job of creating an entertaining tour with great anecdotes of times past. While the historical accuracy of the tours may be questionable, the tour is worth the price of admission and provides a good starting point to research what is true and what may have been stretched to make a good story.

Like any good story I came away with knowing new characters of the wild west and learning some interesting facts of a time long ago that still lives in legend and myth.

The tours conducted by reservation cost $15 for adults and $10 for children. The number to call is 1-800-226-6398 weekdays.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Biking Through History - The Civil War Northern Campaign on a Bike

I arrived nearly 150 years too late for the battle of Antietam. The signs of war however were still evident across the Maryland landscape. Burnside Bridge still crosses Antietam creek, General Stonewall Jackson’s artillery pieces still stand and the soldiers, they’re still there too. Being an armchair historian and a weekend bike rider, I signed up for the five day bike ride across Virginia and Maryland billed as the Civil War Odyssey. This ride through history would give me some insight about the people that traveled through this part of the country in the 1860’s.

The journey was also a personal test of my mental and physical fitness. Could I at midlife, a desk jockey and never much of an athlete, complete a journey of nearly 250 miles in five days? As I biked past the now deserted artillery, memorials, and gravestones, I couldn’t help but compare the heat of this June day with what it must have been like for the soldiers wearing wool uniforms and carrying their weapons and gear.

I joined 1800 other riders for the Bike Virginia tour several years ago. Each day we would ride more than I had ever ridden. The journey was more than I expected in many ways, from the physical demands to the mental challenge of conquering miles of hills and heat.
On the first day out it was crowded. A nice warm morning that that would heat up to about 92 degrees as we headed for the far off Blue Ridge mountains. Pedaling uphill, just before the rest stop, I was on my knees in the middle of the road. I had cramps in my thighs so bad my left leg went straight and wouldn’t bend at the knee. I had to hobble off my bike, while other riders swerved around me. I pounded the back of my leg with my fist several times to make it bend, and then I slumped to my knees and some relief. Many bikers asked if I needed help or encouraged me that the rest area was just over the next hill. I finally made it to the first official rest stop at the Oasis Winery. I wanted to stay there. Only twenty miles from the morning start and I was ready to go home.

After a refreshing rest I was ready to get back on my bike. I was wondering if I had made the right choice when I heard the sound of an ambulance coming our way. As I departed the rest area, I discovered that a fellow biker had hit a large pothole in the middle of a downhill run sending him flying into a nearby ditch with a concussion and neck injuries. This was just the beginning, as a number of other accidents would happen throughout the next few days sending some people home or to the hospital with heat stroke, dislocated shoulders or minor scrapes. At times, I wondered why I was doing this to myself.

As I began 1,350-foot climb over the Chester Gap I thought of the marching soldiers and men on horses who traveled this same area with Lee, Longstreet and Hill. During the first few hours of my journey, I learned some lessons that weren’t written in the brochure. Lessons that only experience can provide. Being a photographer for much of my life, I figured I would document my adventure and the scenic beauty of Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. On my first day out I loaded my new, removable bike pack, with a few items for the trip. My packing list included a much too heavy camera, zoom lens, 20mm wide angle lens, rain jacket, Band-Aids, map, 2 power bars, patch kit, power inflator, spare inner tube, and a hand pump. I also loaded up with two bottles of water and a 70-ounce camel back to keep me hydrated. Obviously, I had never ridden with all this gear or I wouldn’t be contemplating burying it near the roadside after fifteen miles.

My feelings of getting rid of my precious gear made me think of the soldiers who came this way carrying water, guns and ammo in this heat. Moreover, I wasn't wearing a wook uniform and didn’t have an enemy firing at me, although at times I thought the road and heat were out to kill me. I also jammed a few other items into the pack, a spare t-shirt and of course sunblock and lip balm. For the second day of biking, I only carried the water and spare tube. This experience helped me to understand the stories I read about soldiers leaving their equipment and packs along fencerows or just dropping them in the field. There comes a time, I realized, that material things just don’t seem so important when faced with exhaustion and heat stress.
Our organizers were like an army of logisticians. The entire trip was the most well planned and executed sport event I have attended. Rest stops were provided every ten or fifteen miles with Gatorade, water, snacks and fruit. There was constant monitoring of the course by the organizers with vans that would pick up or assist anyone having bike problems, injuries or just too tired. Seeing someone in distress the volunteers would pick them up, put the bike on the roof and take them to the next rest stop. At each stop, there would be bicycle repair trailers for adjustments or overhauls.

The average age of the riders was 45. The youngest rider was 8 and the oldest 78. Although there were a few younger riders being pulled along in custom carts as families came out to enjoy the countryside. One couple with a newborn would split the days’ ride in half. One would ride 20 or 30 miles in the morning while the other would take care of the baby. There was even a blind rider, who passed me - He was riding with a friend on a tandem bike.

I finished each day in total exhaustion but with a feeling of satisfaction, having moved closer to completing a goal that at one time seemed insurmountable. I gained a new appreciation for those who lived through the Civil War and look forward to riding with the people from Bike Virginia in the future.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Road to Freedom is Alive in Williamsburg

General George Washington, accompanied by French General Marquis de Lafayette, addressed a large crowd yesterday in Market Square, Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia. His speech was short and to the point, "more militia are needed to press the British into the sea at Yorktown". His rousing talk gave rise to more volunteers joining the fight for independence, then everyone dispersed for dinner at Red Lobster, Applebee's or one of the local taverns.

History really does come alive in Colonial Williamsburg, particularly this time of year when America celebrates Independence day on July 4th. Leading up to the 4th are several events that take place each morning in Revolutionary City, located at the East end of town. Here you can interact with people from the eighteenth century, going about there business. They are extremely knowledgeable about the history and the time period they represent. I approached one gentleman in a period waistcoat and dress of someone from the 1700's, and inquired if he was with the militia. I should have known by his expensive period suit that he was a land holder. He politely informed me that he was not in the militia but was Colonel Ennis of the regular army. He then proceeded to tell me where the militia would be lining up for inspection.

All the people who portray the common trades and those who portray the famous like, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, study for years to hone their knowledge and mannerisms. I have never heard history presented so eloquently. Each morning between 9:30 to 12:30 their are usually a special program and shopkeepers, craftsmen, dancing and strolling by all manner of people who look, and act, as though it were 1776. This week we heard Patrick Henry give background information on why the Colonies sought independence from England. He also gave us some insight to his personal life and the tragic account of his first wife's illness. We toured the governors palace, where Patrick Henry moved in with his six children and re-married, having eleven more. We watched the fife and drum corps get ready to celebrate fifty years of service at Williamsburg. We heard the Declaration of Independence read from the capitol building and listened as townspeople discussed the news.

There are several vacation packages available that make this a perfect family destination. One of the best deals is to stay at least 4 days at one of the six Colonial Williamsburg hotels. With the hotel package tickets to Revolutionary City and many tours are free. We have toured several of the buildings to include the Governor's Palace and Tucker House. All have been educational and entertaining. The evening events are many, some requiring admission, others part of the daily routine. This is a place to return again and again for anyone interested in the history of America.

Friday, June 13, 2008

What Lies Beneath – An Underground Journey

Daylight vanishes as we walk down the steep serpentine trail leading into the huge mouth of Carlsbad Caverns. My two daughters and I were glad to be wearing good walking, non-slip sole, shoes as we traveled the 1.25 mile journey from the original natural entrance to the Big Room cavern below. Visitors wanting to conserve energy for caverns below can take the high-speed elevator down 750 feet without shedding a drop of perspiration. My wife and 82 year-old mother-in-law opt for the elevator to get them to the bottom, where the one-mile loop is a pleasant stroll.

My daughters and I pause just inside the gapping 40 x 90 foot entrance, and look back at daylight streaming in through the huge opening. The darkness of the cave swallows the daylight as we descend further into the earth. We talk about what it must have been like for Jim White, who is credited with the modern exploration of the cave, and earlier explorers who journeyed this way. Could they have known this cave had been here for centuries and that pre-historic people explored areas in and around the 300 known caves in this part of the Guadalupe Mountains? Did they marvel, as we did at the delicate and ornamental stalactites and stalagmites? We will never have the answers to these questions, however there is much we do know.

While many people knew of the existence of the cave it took teenager Jim White, in 1898, to begin a life long exploration and promotion of the cave. While in the desert late one afternoon Jim saw smoke rising in the distance. Looking for the source of what he thought was black smoke he discovered the huge opening where hundreds of thousands of bats were escaping the depths in search of food. Over the next 24 plus years, he ventured into the caves and brought out stories of its incredible size and beautiful rock formations. Many people thought he was exaggerating and didn’t pay him a lot of attention. His persistence paid off when Carlsbad Caverns was named a National monument in 1923. Seven years later it was designated a National Park on May 14, 1930.

Back in the cave, my daughters and I make our way downward through the narrow trail passing larger and more impressive outcroppings of rock. The walk from the Natural Entrance is equivalent to walking down 79 stories. The temperature is a comfortable 56 degrees Fahrenheit and the air is dry and fresh. The entire cave is lit with great artistry to illuminate the huge ceilings, stalactites and stalagmites, a scene that Jim and others could never appreciate without the modern wiring and lighting we have today. At one point we see the remains of old steps off to the side that was used by early tourists to the cave in the 1940’s and 50’s. According to the very useful, and recommended, audio guide that we rented at the surface, the first tourists were actually lowered one or two at a time to the bottom of the cave entrance inside a guano bucket. Bat guano, or bat poop, is a good source of fertilizer and with over 400,000 bats in residence most of the year the harvest must be very good.

After about an hour, we meet my wife and mother-in-law near the elevators just outside the much anticipated Big Room. This area has a snack bar, souvenir shop, rest rooms, and a meeting place for the ranger guided tours. After a quick drink of water we begin the mile loop through the Big Room aptly named for this 8 acre wonderland that soars 255 feet to the ceiling.

Many of the rock formations named by Jim White capture the imaginative designs created by nature. Formations evoked names like the Hall of the Giants, Temple of the Sun, Rock of Ages, Lions tail, Devil's Spring, Iceberg Rock, Boneyard and the Witches Finger. We could see how well the names matched the formations, but would you? Take your own flashlight so you can study the formations and come up with your own names.

Of course, in order to enjoy this wonderful experience you must first make your way to the Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Getting to the caverns is a bit out of the way from just about everywhere. We started our trip from El Paso, Texas. After more than 100 miles and what seemed like hours of monotonous driving through the Chihuahuan Desert, I began to question if my decision to venture across two states for a family outing was a good one. I found my answer as soon as we caught sight of the Guadalupe Mountains on the horizon. Rising before us was the highest summit in all of Texas, El Capitan, and a beautiful sight that served as our gateway into the higher elevations with hilly terrain and deep arroyos that led to White City.
Calling this one gas station stop a city is a stretch but it was named in tribute to Jim White. You have to pass through all of White City (about a block) to take the seven-mile winding road to the caverns. In addition to the gas station, there are a few souvenir shops, the Million Dollar Museum, an RV park, a couple of restaurants and a motel. Looking at the brown hills and desert landscape, it was hard to image what could lay beneath all this sand and scrub. In contrast to the dry brown desert surrounding the caverns the trip below is a wonderland of not only stalactites and stalagmites but of sharing the discovery with those who first ventured into this massive cave. For the complete Carlsbad experience, you should visit between mid May and mid October so you can see the bats leaving in the evening. I was surprised to find that bats migrate like birds. They head south to Mexico to feed on insects in a warmer climate then return to their home in one of the uppermost chambers of the cavern. You will also want to check out the guided tours that take you even deeper into the cave. These tours fill up fast so book online early at This is one of the most beautiful places I have ever witnessed, it is incredible, don’t miss out if you get a chance to visit.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Angels and Knights over Nation's Capitol

Screaming in formation through the blue skies near the nation's capitol, the phenomenal U.S. Navy Blue Angels and the Army's premier parachute team, the Golden Knights join a host of other aerial acrobatic performances at the 2008 Joint Service Open House at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.
Civilian and military planes vied for the crowd's attention throughout the day with spectacular air demonstrations and ground exhibits from bi-planes to the Air Force’s newest fighter the F-22 Raptor. The world famous Geico Skytypers, the only World War II civilian squadron flying in existence made quite an impression by spelling out “FRIENDS ALWAYS” in recognition of the United States, Great Britain, French and German effort to keep West Berlin free at the beginning of the Cold War. The team flys six T-6 Texan aircraft that were introduced in 1937 as a basic combat trainer plane. Other planes flying or on display included the huge B-52 Stratofortress long range bomber, the U2 Spy plane.

One of the planes I was interested in seeing was the Memphis Belle, a B-17F Flying Fortress that was the first WWII bomber to complete 25 missions over Europe and return to the United States. The crew and plane were immortilized in two films with the same name as the bomber, Memphis Belle. In fact it turns out the B-17F on display was the plane from the 1990 movie starring Matthew Modine and Bill Zane.

From the Ragged Edge comes Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Jill Long performing high energy aerobatics in a Pitts S2B, two seat bi-plane. Jill has been flying since was 16 and according to her bio has over 3000 hours of flight time. As the crowd was watching Sean Tucker go through his award winning performance LTC Long was standing behind her plane walking through her upcoming flight in deep concentration. Her
experience and daring was evident with her rolls, speed and dives.

Today’s technology was not only evident in the new aircraft but as part of the Air Show. I was impressed with the Jumbotron screens that were near center field and the excellent sound that could be heard clearly everywhere on the flight line. While pilots like John Klatt in his Air National Guard Staudacher S-300D hand crafted plane was doing acrobatics the audience could see him on screen live in the cockpit, telling the crowd what he was doing. This added a new dimension to the Air Show. Now instead of just watching the stunt plane do hammerhead turns and fall toward the earth in a spin, you can glance at the screen and see a close up of the pilot in the cockpit with the world spinning around him.
One of the precision flights of the day was the world’s only supersonic, civilian jet demonstration team, the Starfighters. These three F-104 Starfighters flew in tight formation with not much space between them.

The famous Airlift that saved the people of West Germany from the Soviet Union and becoming part of the communist bloc was honored at the air show with a flyby of the C-47 “Second Chance.” This WWII plane represents the C-47 and C-54 airplanes that flew supplies to over 2.2 million Berliners at what would become the beginning of the Cold War. Beginning in 1948, the airlift continued for eleven months when the Soviets agreed to lift the blockade. The airlift continued another four months until September 1949. At its peak the United States and Britain were flying over 5000 tons of supplies each day to Wes Berlin. Part of the opening remarks were by Colonel (Ret) Gail Halvorsen who was one of the original pilots of the airlift know as the “Candy Bomber”. He received his nickname for tying Hershey chocolate bars to little parachutes and dropping them over Berlin.

Closing out the days events was the much-anticipated Navy Blue Angels. From their first flight in 1946 in Jacksonville, Florida, the Blue Angels have been thrilling crowds around the world. To date it is estimated that over 400 million people have watched their demonstrations. Their performance lasted over an hour with solo flights, dogfights and precision formation flying ending with their trademark Fleur di Lis where all six jets move in unison only to split off into various directions like a blooming flower.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Kinetic Race 2008 a Big Success in Baltimore

Wilma and the Wombats, Fifi and Platypus were crowd favorites at the 10th annual Baltimore Kinetic Sculpture Race, hosted by the American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM). The annual race started under overcast clouds and a great turnout of artists, tinkerers and onlookers. Twenty-nine Kenitic Sculptures registered for this eight hour race that wraps around Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, to Canton Waterfront, Patterson Park and downtown area before returning to the starting point at the AVAM.

While the distance covered is about 15 miles there are a few stops for testing these human powered, amphibious works of art. The first stop, after making the steep climb up Federal Hill under human-power, thereby demonstrating the street worthiness of the movable art pieces, is the Canton Waterfront. Here they travel down the boat ramp into the water circling either the dock or the marker buoys in the harbor. At least one sculpture sank in the early attempts while others drifted a bit with the current. Those that got away required a gentle nudge from the volunteers in kayaks. One of the favorites was the Wilma and the Wombats (Wayward Outcast Musicians Battling Apocalyptic TribulationS) who entertained the crowd with a 12 piece jazz band.

The spectators were spectacular along the entire route of the race as they turned out in all manner of wacky and colorful outfits and kinetic things on their heads. There were also Kinetic Chickens, who are volunteers to help with answering questions and giving directions. They should have an award for the zaniest getup. The photographers were out in full force. It seemed as if everyone had a camera or cell phone, taking pictures and thoroughly enjoying the day.

The race continues on to Paterson Park where the kinetic sculptures are field tested in mud and sand before returning to the museum and award ceremony. We saw one entry with a flat tire on the way to the Park requiring the whole team to lift the vehicle.

This is a timed race, assuming you make through the water torture and obstacle course. There are Kinetic Cops who patrol the event handing out tickets to entrants when they break the rules resulting in a time penalty. According to the race officials, these cops are known to accept bribes to overlook all but the coveted ACE award and safety rules.

There are a number of awards for these adventurers, often called Kinetinauts because of their fearless artist engineer and piloting skills. There is the coveted Art award for artistic design, the ACE award for completing the race entirely under human pilot power with no pushing or pulling of the sculpture. This year we saw the creative, and large Bumpo the elephant sculpture get disqualified for this award because it could not exit the water under it’s own power. I think they should have given the elephant a break, he was great getting in and around the water, he was also probably the heaviest sculpture. Bumpo will still be eligible for the people’s choice award.
Awards will be presented at an awards ceremony at the AVAM. Come back for the updated version later, with all winners listed. The winners of this race will qualify for the big race later this year in California, in the 40th annual Kinetic Sculpture Race. The California course covers approximately 42 miles of sand, water, pavement, hills, more water, roads and freeways from Arcata to Ferndale and is over a three day period.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Springtime in Yellowstone

Majestic mountains, cascading waterfalls, bears, wolves and buffalo are some of the reasons people travel to Yellowstone National Park, my wife Debbie and I were no exception. The purpose of our springtime journey to the Wyoming Park was to photograph the iconic wolf, moose, elk and antelope. They were all there, but to our surprise, we discovered and focused on a wonderful world of birds, flowers and smaller, more common animals.

We found late April into early May to be a great time to visit, just as the park is bursting with new life and color. In the cool breeze of Spring, we found unexpected treasures at a small freshwater lake in the mountains of northern Yellowstone. We had the good fortune so witness the courtship of Yellow-headed Blackbirds.

In Yellowstone, tourists have a curious habit of stopping whenever they see wildlife anywhere near the road. They come to an abrupt stop in the middle of the road, make U-turns, and any number of other vehicle maneuvers to get a good view. Other tourists, in turn, stop behind, or pull into the other lane, scanning the surrounding woodland for any sign of life. It’s kind of like an animal version of the paparazzi hunting for a celebrity on Rodeo Drive. Often they yell out “whaddya lookin’ at?” if there isn’t an immediately recognizable large animal. If someone gets out of his or her car with a camera, it is the signal that there must be something great. Soon a small mob will form to approach whatever animal is nearby, shutters clicking as the strobes fill in the shadows.

On our second day we had just finished breakfast and were driving north, through the park toward Mammoth Hot Springs, when we sighted a car on the side of the road. Our excitement increased as we saw a man with a camera, and no other cars! A clear sign, in the Yellowstone tourist language, that something special must be visible. As we pulled over to the side of the road, we quickly scanned the horizon, a trick we learned while waiting in backups along the highway and watching other drivers. Other than a small lake with tall reeds we didn’t see any large animals. We checked to see if we could see which way the photographer was looking. Other cars were now starting to pull off both sides of the road around us at haphazard angles. The photographer began moving back to his car, camera down around his neck, when I rolled down my window I was about to join the Yellowstone paparazzi and yell “whaddaya lookin’ at?” he looked in my direction and shook his head side to side. He began walking back to his car.

Other cars caught the headshake and started to pull back onto the highway, hoping to be the lead car for the next sighting. As the last car was pulling out, my window was still down, I heard the beautiful sounds of a chorus whistling and tweeting down the embankment just ahead of me. As we listened to the variety of the bird’s calls, we saw flashes of yellow and black with streaks of white as a number of birds flew from reed to reed.

I glanced back to the road as the photographer who brought our attention to this area was pulling back onto the road. I checked the horizon again wondering what brought him out of the car when the sounds of the birds all around the small lake captivated me once again. I had never heard such wonderful sounds. I ventured out of the car mounting my camera on the tripod and moved quickly down the embankment. I was soon out of sight of the cars passing on the road, a good thing, since I had no idea what type of riot would ensue if people saw me with a camera and tripod outside of my car.

The male birds were so colorful and animated that they didn’t seem to notice my presence. At one point, a male Yellow-headed Blackbird landed on a reed directly in front of me. The bird was so close that my telephoto lens wouldn’t focus. While watching the male, I heard rustling noises in the undergrowth of the tall grasses near the edge of the water. After about 45 minutes, which seemed like only 10, I noticed a correlation between the arrival of the male on the reed and the rustling sounds from below. The male would hop from the reed to the ground and jump through the tall grasses in pursuit of a mate.

While I was enjoying the bird sounds and watching flashes of yellow bounce from reed to reed then out of sight, my wife was waiting patiently by the car, a clear signal for passersby to stop and ask the familiar question of what she was looking at. When she replied that, there were dozens of beautiful Yellow-headed Blackbirds they drove off. Some looked at her as if she was not all there as if to say, “Birds! You can see birds anywhere this is Yellowstone.”

I will always be grateful to the anonymous photographer who, for whatever reason, was near the lake and brought our attention to the wonderful birds and their Spring dance among the reeds.