Arkansas and Montana – From Little Rock to Yellowstone (part 2 of 2)

Having arrived from Little Rock the night before, I was eager to hit the road and explore the area around Bozeman. It was a beautiful, sunny morning with gorgeous views of the Bridger Range to the north of town.

Bridger Range – Bozeman

I stopped in Livingston to pick up a breakfast sandwich at Hardee’s, and written on their menu board was the following, “California Raisins Murdered! Cereal Killer Suspected – Heard it on the Grapevine!” Downtown was the historic old Northern Pacific Railroad depot, which used to be the main departure station for passengers going to Yellowstone National Park. Heading north from Livingston I cruised along US highway 89 at 75 mph, the legal speed limit in Montana, toward White Sulphur Springs, passing vast expanses of golden grassland.

On the way to White Sulphur Springs
White Sulphur Springs

At times, the landscape remained unchanged for so many miles, that it almost felt like I was standing still! Amid the grasslands were some huge irrigation systems that turned parts of the dry brown landscape into lush green fields of clover and wheat. Beyond White Sulphur Springs and the Little Belt Mountains, was the small ranching community of Townsend, dominated by tall, massive grain elevators beside the Burlington Northern Railroad mainline. Turning southwest, I came to the historic town of Three Forks, so named for being located at the confluence of three rivers (Beaverhead, Jefferson, and Madison) that gather together to form the mighty Missouri River.

Three Forks
Tobacco Root Mountains – Three Forks
Sacajawea Inn – Three Forks

In the center of town was a monument honoring Sacajawea, the Indian guide who lead Lewis and Clark to eventually discover the headwaters of the Missouri. Across the street from the monument was the grand old “Sacajawea Inn”, a hotel built by the Milwaukee Road Railway (Chicago, Milwaukee & Pacific Railroad) in the late 1800’s. The railroad abandoned Three Forks decades before, but the old hotel lived on. Just outside of town, I spotted a lot of people floating down the Madison and Jefferson rivers on everything from large rafts to inner tubes, basking in the warm late summer sunshine.

Floating down the Jefferson River

Not far from Three Forks, I discovered a small state park that had preserved the “Parker Homestead”, a lovely old log cabin that had been settled in the mid-1800’s and occupied until the early 1920’s. The old cabin was surrounded by huge Cottonwood trees and golden grassland – a stunning landscape!

Parker Homestead State Historic Park

Eventually, when evening approached, I headed back to Bozeman. As I sat in the lounge at the Holiday Inn, drinking a cold pint of local “Bayern Trout Slayer Ale”, I watched a fascinating PBS TV program about King Henry VIII – anywhere else I’m sure we would have been watching some sports channel. (the beer was promoted as “a bigger tale with every ale”) Later, I had a delicious dinner of Asian grilled chicken and steamed broccoli alfredo pasta in the hotel restaurant.

I awoke the next morning to another beautiful clear, warm, sunny day. After a hearty breakfast, I checked out of the hotel and headed southwest to the historic mining town of Virginia City, which at one time was the Territorial Capitol of Montana. A great many of the old original buildings from the 1800’s had been beautifully restored. I walked down the old wooden boardwalk that followed Alder Gulch, to “Boot Hill Cemetery”, the final resting place of many “road agents” (aka bandits)! At least now, they had a spectacular view of the entire valley below.

Virginia City
Boot Hill – Virginia City

From Virginia City, I continued up Alder Gulch to the old mining town of Nevada City, where there was an extensive collection of turn of the century locomotives and railroad cars from many historic railroads. They included The Great Northern, Montana Southern, Milwaukee Road, and the Florence & Cripple Creek, better known as “The Gold Beltline”. Many of the old passenger cars were open and still in their original condition – fascinating, like a walk through time. Nearby was a large display of old mining equipment, including a huge gold dredge that had mined gold from the local streams until well into the 1920’s. According to a historical monument, more than $80 million in gold was dredged in southwest Montana by 16 dredges, among them the largest in the world!

Old Railroad Cars – Nevada City
Steam Locomotive – Nevada City
Gold Dredge – Nevada City

Leaving the fascinating mining history of Virginia City and Nevada City, I headed south to the small ranching town of Ennis to pay a visit to the Madison Ranger Station where I had spent the summer of 1968 working on the Beaverhead National Forest. As I walked down Front Street, the scene looked very much the same as I remembered from 1968,especially the “Longbranch Saloon”. On the night of July 4th, 1968, I partied with my Forest Service colleagues and the local cowboys until the wee hours of the morning. And as I was leaving the saloon to head back to the bunkhouse, I happened to find a full set of false teeth lying on the bright red carpet in the men’s room. Later I discovered that they belonged to a summer employee named Lonnie from Yazoo City, Mississippi, who had no idea they were missing until he woke up with a hangover the next morning. It’s a story never to be forgotten! From Ennis, I drove south, following the beautiful Madison River, spectacular mountains rising thousands of feet on either side of the valley. I made a short stop at the Madison River Workstation , where I had spent the summer of 1968 working on a timber survey in the Gravelly Mountains, before being drafted into the Army at the end of the summer.

Madison River
Cliff Lake – Beaverhead National Forest
Abandoned Town of Cliff Lake – Madison County

From there, I drove over Targhee Pass to Henry’s Lake, Idaho, and then on to a rough gravel road up to the summit of the Centennial Mountains at Red Rock Pass, and back into Montana. The 70 mile long unpaved road took me through the heart of the spectacular Centennial Valley to the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.

Centennial Valley Road
Centennial Mountains

The refuge was established in 1935, covering 76,000 acres of wetlands in the Centennial Valley to provide a breeding ground for wild birds and animals, in particular the endangered Trumpeter Swan. In 1932 there were fewer than 200 of the birds known to exist in North America. But due to the sustained efforts to save them from extinction, an estimated 3,000 swan were nesting on the refuge by 2002. It is the most remote of any refuge outside of Alaska, and has often been called the most beautiful in the country.

Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge

Historically, the Monida – Yellowstone stagecoach line passed through the Centennial Valley in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, transporting over 10,000 passengers between the Union Pacific Railroad station in Monida and West Yellowstone. The grand era of stagecoach travel to Yellowstone National Park ended in 1917 when motor cars replaced the stagecoaches. These days, the old unpaved road still exists, but it sees very little traffic, as new and faster routes of travel to Yellowstone were developed.

Monida, Montana

In the middle of the beautiful warm day, I was suddenly aware of a problem with the new Ford Excursion – a flat tire! And here I was, 30 miles from the nearest town and I hadn’t seen another vehicle on the road the entire time. So as the swans watched me, I began the task of changing the tire, in the middle of the road. (note: there was absolutely no danger from oncoming traffic!) Back on the road again, I drove to Dillon, the next town, and the county seat of Beaverhead County. (On a side note, Beaverhead County is larger than the states of Rhode Island and Connecticut combined, yet there are less than 9,000 people in the county – that’s less than 2 people per square mile!) The town was also home to the University of Montana Western, founded in 1893 as Montana State Normal College. I checked in to the new Guesthouse Suites Hotel on the edge of town and then dropped off my flat tire for repair at the nearby tire shop. By now it was time for dinner, so I walked downtown to the “Longhorn Saloon”, still very much an old cowboy bar where the steaks were legendary – as was the clientele! Later that evening, I sat on my balcony, as the fresh fragrance of sagebrush was carried on the cool evening breeze. The soft sound of crickets filled the air, as well as the distant howling of the Coyotes – a most pleasant night.

The next morning, I was up early, and the hotel’s breakfast of hot biscuits and sausage gravy prepared me well for the day. I picked up my tire at “Marv’s OK Tire Shop”, bought some provisions at the local Safeway, and then fueled up at the Exxon station. Before leaving Dillon, I took a look at the university campus, where many of the old Victorian era red brick buildings had been beautifully restored.

University of Montana Western – Dillon

Then I headed northwest on state highway 278, up a long steep grade into the heart of the rugged Pioneer Mountains – a gorgeous landscape of lush green valleys, Ponderosa Pine forest, and old ranches, in the shadow of towering peaks. Along the way, I came to the historic “Elkhorn Hot Springs” at an elevation of 7500 feet, with a huge swimming pool fed by the hot springs.

Pioneer Mountains
Pioneer Mountains

Several miles north of the hot springs, I spotted a small sign pointing the way to the old ghost town of Coolidge, so I decided to investigate. After a long five mile drive on a rough, narrow, winding unpaved road, and another mile and a half on foot, I finally reached the old mining town. At one time, as late as the 1930’s, it had a population of several thousand, but these days, nothing remained except for a couple dozen old wooden buildings and log cabins, slowly crumbling under the weight of many winters’ snow.

Remains of Old Mill – Coolidge

In 1917, one of the world’s last narrow gauge railroads, the Montana Southern, was built from Coolidge, 40 miles down to the town of Divide, where it joined with a railhead of the Union Pacific Railroad. A post office was established in 1922, and later that year, construction of a new mill was completed at a cost of over $1 million, including a huge 65,000 volt power line from the town of Divide. The mill became the largest in Montana and had the capacity to process 750 tons of ore per day! However, by that time, silver prices plummeted as the nations’ economy took a downturn. As a result, mining operations were being shutdown, and the mill never approached its full capacity. Then in 1927, twelve miles of the railroad, including several bridges, were washed out by the failure of the Wise River Dam. The disaster spelled the doom of the mill, as well as the town. Since then, the old mill had collapsed, though the Forest Service apparently had plans to reconstruct is as a historical exhibit. There were several displays of historical information, and I was able to follow the old railroad roadbed for almost a half mile before it disappeared into the forest. Back on the main highway again, I drove down to the small town of Wise River, where there were several rafts of fly fishermen floating lazily down the Big Hole River, in their quest for legendary Golden Trout.

Big Hole River
Big Hole Valley
Big Hole Valley and the Bitterroot Range

From Wise River, I drove up the Big Hole Valley to the town of Wisdom, which just happened to have had the nation’s lowest temperature the night before (36 degrees), but now, in the mid-afternoon, it was a comfortable 85 degrees! As I continued south up the Big Hole Valley, in the shadow of the rugged Bitterroot Range, I saw massive amounts of hay being harvested, much of it still being stored in traditional tall haystacks. Historically, the Big Hole Valley has been known as “The Valley of 10,000 Haystacks”! Further south, I came to the tiny community of Jackson, best known for the beautiful Jackson Hot Springs Lodge, and a popular center for winter sports. Then I turned southeast to Bannack State Historic Park, the location of Montana’s first Territorial Capitol. I spent some time exploring the old ghost town that had remained virtually unchanged since I first visited it the summer of 1966. Bannack was founded in 1862 and named for the local Bannock tribe. It was the site of a major gold discovery that same year, and served as the Territorial Capitol briefly in 1864, until the capitol was moved to Virginia City.

Main Street – Bannack
Masonic Hall – Bannack

At the height of the mining activity, it had a population of nearly 10,000. Though it was very remote, connected to the rest of the world only by the primitive Montana Trail, there were three hotels, three bakeries, three blacksmith shops, two stables, two meat markets, a grocery store, restaurant, billiards hall, brewery, and of most importance to the locals, four saloons! The majority of the buildings were log structures, but a few of the more important buildings were built of red brick. As I walked down the unpaved main street, many of the old buildings were open, including the Masonic Hall and the schoolhouse, which was strangely eerie, as if the students had just left for summer vacation!

Schoolhouse – Bannack

Another fascinating building that I hadn’t seen inside before was the elegant Hotel Meade, which had served as the State House when Bannack was the Territorial Capitol. As I entered the old hotel lobby, with its grand wooden staircase and magnificent wall safe, I experienced a very eerie feeling, as if the walls had many ghost stories to tell, if only I had the time to spend with them. I climbed the old staircase and looked into some of the hotel rooms, all of which had ceilings at least 18 – 20 feet high, but I failed to find a room that could be called a bathroom or toilet – perhaps that was another building out back!

Hotel Meade – Bannack
Lobby – Hotel Meade

All in all, Bannack was truly the most “authentic” ghost town I’ve ever encountered – the epitome of the “Old West”. Some of the most infamous Bannack history involved Henry Plummer, the town’s Sheriff in the early 1860’s. He was accused of secretly leading a ruthless gang of “road agents” (aka bandits), that people claimed was responsible for over a hundred robberies and murders throughout southwestern Montana. (Modern historians have called into question this account of Plummer’s gang) In January of 1864, Sheriff Plummer and his compatriots, both deputies, were hanged without a trial – typical of vigilante justice in the old west! Leaving Bannack, I drove south through the vast expanse of the “Cross Ranch”, passing beautiful golden wheat fields and deep green fields of hay. Then I came to the little town of Grant and the junction with the road from Clark Canyon Dam. As I passed through the little town, there were a few more buildings that I remembered from 1966, but it was still a sleepy “one horse” town, despite the one and only motel having been renamed the “Horse Prairie Hilton”! I head west from Grant 20 miles to the junction with the Forest Service road to Reservoir Lake Campground, a narrow, very rough, twisting dirt road. It was a very long 18 miles of rough road at 15 – 20 mph before I reached the campground, and as soon as it came into view, the surrounding landscape began to jog my memory of the summer of 1966.

On the way to Reservoir Lake Campground

The sight of the old split rail fence on the edge of the campground was an especially poignant memory of the long days I had spent “debarking” the Lodgepole Pine rails. As evening approached, I began looking for a nice spot to camp for the night. But before doing so, I decided to pay a visit to “Bloody Dick Guard Station” across the creek from the campground. As I approached the old cabin, deep in the forest, memories of my time living there came flooding back.

Bloody Dick Guard Station
Inside Bloody Dick cabin

The old cabin looked very much the same as in 1966, except for a new roof over the small porch. I peeked in the windows and things looked just as if I had left them 37 years before, even the old army style bunkbeds, the old propane gas cookstove, and the kerosene lantern on the kitchen table. Even after almost four decades, electricity had still not found its way to the cabin! Just a few yards away was the spring where I used to fill my water bucket by dipping from the open wooden trough – carefully avoiding the frogs! After a sufficiently long period of reminiscing and some photos, I left the guard station and found a lovely grassy spot under the pine trees beside Bloody Dick Creek to camp for the night.

Camped on Bloody Dick Creek

As evening descended on southwestern Montana, I sat on a log, sipped a cold “Old Faithful Ale” and enjoyed the quiet solitude of a cool summer night, not far from where Lewis and Clark probably camped the day before they crossed the Continental Divide over Lemhi Pass. From there they first discovered the “waters of the Pacific”. Slowly, the daylight faded, the air cooled, and the frogs and crickets began their nightly serenade. Then suddenly, a young mule deer buck jumped out from the brush and dashed into the forest, just a few yards from me. Later, I woke up around 2am and was amazed to see an absolutely spectacular black night sky, filled with billions upon billions of stars and the most beautiful view of the Milky Way Galaxy I had ever seen! (note: there was definitely no light pollution anywhere within a hundred miles) It was a night never to forget!

The next morning, I was up early in the chilly air (39 degrees), dressed quickly, and had a cinnamon oatmeal bar for breakfast. Then I headed back to the campground to find the trail leading to the summit of Selway Mountain and the old fire lookout tower where I had lived for eight weeks in the summer of 1966. After searching around the shore of the lake for a while, I finally found the trail, now just a faint “track” through the sagebrush. It wasn’t long before it turned into a very steep, unmaintained trail through the dense Lodgepole Pine forest – a lot steeper than I remembered, but I was surely in better shape 37 years ago! It was a long five and half miles, 3000 feet up the side of the mountain, and as I climbed along the ridge, the trees became shorter, until the landscape eventually became very rocky and pretty much just alpine tundra.

View of Selway Mountain from Reservoir Lake Campground
Trail to Selway Mountain

When I reached the 9,000 foot summit, many fond memories of my life on the old lookout tower flooded my mind. As I looked around, everything seemed just as I remembered it 37 years ago, except for one thing – my beloved old wooden tower was no longer there! It was in 1942 that the Forest Service built the 50 foot-high wooden tower on the 9,000 foot summit of Selway Mountain. It was staffed intermittently for 29 years, as needed during seasons of high fire danger. Finally, in 1976, it was demolished and burned, having been abandoned, along with a majority of the lookout towers , when the Forest Service began relying on aircraft for spotting fires.

Selway Mountain Lookout Tower – Summer 1966
Selway Mountain Lookout Tower following snowstorm – August 1966
View from Selway Mountain Lookout Tower – Summer 1966
Charred remains of Selway Mountain Lookout Tower

Views from the summit extended 360 degrees, from the Pioneer Mountains 50 miles to the northeast, across the Big Hole Valley to the Anaconda-Pintler Range 70 miles to the north, the Bitteroot Range on the Montana-Idaho border, and 100 miles west to the jagged Lemhi Range in Idaho. Standing on the summit, it was easy to see why the Forest Service chose it for the site of a fire lookout tower – with wide vistas of southwest Montana.

View from the summit of Selway Mountain – Reservoir Lake below
Storm at sunset on Selway Mountain Lookout Tower – Summer 1966

All that remained of the tower were some charred pieces, and I scavenged a few “memoirs” – bits of glass, a small piece of the wooden door frame, and a steel latch bolt from the door. As I surveyed the scene, views of the distant mountains were once again familiar to me, but now, all that remained of the tower were memories that I will cherish forever. Living alone for eight weeks on top of the highest mountain around, in a 12 ft by 12 ft room, surrounded by large windows, with no electricity or running water, and only a wood cookstove, was one the best experiences of my life. Despite the basic facilities, I remembered the daily activities of chopping wood for the stove, hiking half a mile down the mountain to get water from a spring, listening to scores of radio stations throughout the country late in the evening, and reading a collection of old Life Magazines from the 1940’s that someone long before me had left in the tower. I had six visitors all summer, five of them on one day, but I was far from lonely. Another fond memory was the discovery of a copy of the “Lookout Cookbook” from 1954.

The recipes in the book were compiled by Forest Service wives and were designed to use primarily canned and dried foods, since few, if any Montana lookout towers in 1954 had any electricity or means of refrigeration. The variety of recipes was quite extensive and occupied over 60 pages. There were recipes for everything from breads, pies, and cakes to various meat dishes, soups, and sauces, as well as recipes for using leftovers. Included in the 75 page book were explanations of cooking terms, definitions of weights and measurements, guidelines for meal planning, and “helpful hints”. One of the most useful hints involved a technique for determining the oven temperature of a wood burning cook stove, without a thermometer. Instructions: set a flat pan sprinkled with flour in the oven for five minutes. If it becomes a delicate brown, the oven is “slow” [250 – 300]. If the flour turns a golden brown, the oven is “moderate” [350 – 400]. And a deep, dark brown means the oven is “hot” [400-450]. Of course, the next step was to try and “adjust” the temperature of the oven by adding or removing wood – easier said than done! Another helpful hint was “don’t put macaroni in cold water and allow to start cooking, because it will stick”. Then there was “tough meat may be made tender by pounding, slow cooking, or laying it in vinegar water”. And finally, this one was pretty important at times – “to get rid of ants, place lumps of camphor in their runways and near sweets infested with them”. Among the most unique and unusual dishes in the book was something known as “shipwreck”, a hearty stew of onions, potatoes, celery, canned meat, canned tomatoes, canned beans, and whatever spices and seasonings were on hand! Another popular dish was “scrapple”, a fried mixture of bacon, corn meal, onions, salt and pepper. The vast majority of recipes were for simple, traditional comfort food, and tailored to meals for one or two people. Since food supplies were delivered to the tower only every six weeks, one couldn’t just run down to the local grocery store if an ingredient was needed at the last minute!

After an appropriate time of remembrance on the summit, I began the long descent down the trail to the lake, and more adventures following in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark. From Reservoir Lake campground, I drove back down the rough gravel road and then west up to the summit of Lemhi Pass on the Continental Divide, where I found a beautiful, historic site that commemorated the discovery by Lewis and Clark of the “headwaters” of the Missouri River in the summer of 1805. But in reality, it was a small spring just a hundred yards below the pass, and barely wide enough to step across!

Lemhi Pass – Continental Divide
Western most source of the Missouri River

While it’s not the most distant source of the Missouri, it is certainly the westernmost. (The most distant source is a spring in the Centennial Valley below Red Rock Pass far to the east.) Upon reaching the summit of Lemhi Pass, I encountered a “living history” member of the National Park Service, dressed in clothing of the early 1800’s. He told me about the life and times of the Lewis and Clark expedition as they looked out to the west and discovered the waters that flowed to the Pacific Ocean – fascinating stories!

The 7,400 foot-high pass in the Beaverhead Mountains, part of the Bitterroot Range, gained importance in the 18th century when the local Shoshone tribe acquired horses and used the route to travel between the two main regions of their homeland, the present day states of Montana and Idaho. From the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, until the Oregon Treaty with England in 1846, the pass marked the western boundary of the United States. When Lewis and Clark crossed the pass in August of 1805, they were the first white men to see present day Idaho. For many years it was known as “North Pass”, to distinguish it from “South Pass” in Wyoming. Its present name was derived from nearby Fort Lemhi, established by Mormon missionaries in 1855. During the mining era of the late 1800’s, the pass was used by stagecoaches, but the route was later abandoned in 1910 when the “Gilmore and Pittsburgh Railroad” laid track through nearby Bannock Pass to the south. However, the single-track dirt road across the pass still exists today, in much the same condition as in the past.

Meanwhile, modern heavy equipment worked nearby, maintaining the old road. Later, I descended the very steep mountain road to the tiny Native American village of Agency Creek, on the banks of the Lemhi River. Then I joined Idaho state highway 28 north to the small one store town of Tendoy, Idaho, near the historic site where Sacajawea was reunited with her brother, a chief of the local Shoshone tribe. (She had been captured by the Blackfeet nation several years earlier while on a buffalo hunt in Montana) As I continued north toward Salmon, Idaho, I stopped frequently to view the numerous historic exhibits recalling the experiences of Lewis and Clark, as well as the sad tale of the Nezperce tribe as they were forced from their homeland by the US Army in the late 1800’s. (Although they avoided capture for several years, they finally ended up being herded on to a reservation in Northeastern Washington state, far from their ancestral home.) All along the highway, I passed many large ranches harvesting immense fields of hay, in much the same manner as the ranchers in the Big Hole Valley on the other side of the rugged Bitterroot Mountains.

Salmon River – Idaho
Valley near Salmon, Idaho

As I entered the town of Salmon, I discovered a really nice, new brewpub called “Bertrams”, which surprised me, being in such a small town, a hundred miles from the next largest town. I ordered a cold pint of their Pale Ale and a Monte Cristo sandwich (turkey, ham, and cheese on grilled egg battered bread) It was huge and came with a large garden salad of fresh greens and Huckleberry vinaigrette dressing – absolutely superb! As I pulled out of town and continued north, the temperature sign on the Idaho State Bank read a blistering 106 degrees – and yes, it felt hot! Further on, as I approached Lost Trail Pass, I encountered a Forest Service roadblock, due to several forest fires burning in the Bitterroot National Forest. It meant that all traffic had to follow a pilot car for more than 14 miles to the Idaho/Montana border. Once over the pass, the Bitterroot Valley was pretty much filled with smoke from the fires, and at times it blocked out the sun, almost turning day into night. At the small town of Granitesville, Montana I turned east on Forest Service road #38, up to Skahalko Pass, on my way to the copper capitol of Anaconda. Along the way, through lush pine forest of the Deerlodge National Forest, I suddenly came upon a couple of old bikers who were obviously in need of help. Their huge Harley and its trailer had slid off the road, most likely a result of the rough gravel. It was sitting at an awkward angle on the steep slope, and almost into the trees. The old grey bearded biker and his “mama” were unable to push the heavy bike up the slope and get it upright on the road again. So, I stopped to lend a hand, easier said than done – that bike was very heavy! (There was no way the two of them could have gotten it back on the road) Looking back on the situation, I was one of the very few vehicles on the road, so who knows how long they would have had to wait for help! Later in the afternoon, as I approached the old mining town of Anaconda, the landscape suddenly became treeless, a result of decades of disastrous effects from huge copper smelting operations. And strangely enough, several miles before entering the old town, the speed limit suddenly dropped from 75mph to 35mph, for no apparent reason, especially since I was almost alone on the highway! Once I got into the old town, I found it to be almost a “living” ghost town, with scores of empty, deserted buildings and houses. Yet evidence was everywhere that pointed to the importance of the town many decades earlier. Now it was only a lonely memory clinging to life – so sad to see. As I headed east out of town, I saw a gorgeous sunset behind me and the dark silhouette of the world’s tallest smokestack, clearly outlined against the deep orange glow of the sun! A short time later, I pulled into Butte and found a nice Red Lion Inn for the night.

Anaconda smokestack at sunset

The following morning, I visited the historic “Uptown District” of the city, where some of the beautiful old stone and red brick buildings were being faithfully restored. Basically, the whole town sat on a high hill, barren of any trees, and studded with the rusting remains of old, abandoned “headrigs” marking the site of dozens of old copper mine shafts. The city was also surrounded by massive open pit mines – needless to say, not a very scenic location. And yet, beautiful old Victorian houses from the 1800’s were scattered among crumbling old mining shacks – what a contrast! It had the appearance of an overgrown mining camp.

Butte, Montana
Victorian home – Butte
Elegant 19th century mansion – Butte

Among the most significant historic sites in Butte were three old railway stations that had been beautifully preserved from the era of elegant passenger rail travel.  (Great Northern RR, Northern Pacific RR, Milwaukee Road RR) Another fascinating site of historical importance was the “World Museum of Mining”, an authentic re-creation of an old mining camp from the turn of the century, with lots of old mining equipment. It was located on the site of the recently closed “Orphan Girl Mine” – a real “gem” in Butte and well worth a visit.

Great Northern Railway Station – Butte
Old mine “headrig” – Butte
“Orphan Girl Mine” – Butte
Museum of Mining – Butte

Later, as I headed south out of town, I saw a huge roadside billboard promoting “Evil Knieval Daze”, a local festival honoring their hometown son. Then, I drove down to Dillon and made a short stop at the Dillon Ranger Station to enquire about the story behind the demolition of Selway Mountain Lookout. But there was no one now working at the station who was around at that time, so they had no information to share, sad to say. Several miles south of Dillon, I turned on to a narrow, winding gravel road leading up Medicine Lodge Creek and down Big Sheep Creek. It was a beautiful, but lonely drive, with spectacular views of the rugged Centennial Mountains.

Medicine Lodge Creek Road
Medicine Lodge Creek
National Sheep Research Station – Dubois, Idaho

Eventually the road lead me over Bannock Pass and the Continental Divide once again, to the small town of Dubois, Idaho – home of the National Sheep Research Station. East of Dubois was the lovely resort town of Island Park, on the shore of Henry’s Lake, in the shadow of the magnificent Teton Mountains. After a short stop for photos, I headed north over Targhee Pass (and the Continental Divide once more) toward West Yellowstone, Montana. The highway followed the shoreline of Hebgen Lake, which was formed over 50 years earlier as a result of an enormous earthquake that dammed the Madison River. A few miles from West Yellowstone, I saw a sign for cabins at the Bar N Ranch, so I decided to investigate lodging for the night. What I discovered was a huge, gorgeous log ranch house, along with a half dozen rustic log cabins along the shore of a small lake. An old cowboy showed me one of the cabins, beautifully furnished with Southwest Indian artwork – perfect for the night.

Bar-N-Ranch – West Yellowstone, Montana
My Cabin at Bar-N-Ranch
Inside my Cabin

However, the ranch did not accept payment by credit card, so I had to drive 6 miles into West Yellowstone to get cash from an ATM. (But it was definitely worth it) The next day I went into Yellowstone National Park and hiked part of the North Rim Trail above the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River. The views of Upper Yellowstone Falls were nothing less than spectacular!

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River
Upper Yellowstone Falls – Yellowstone National Park

Then, as I drove north to Mammoth Hot Springs, I saw an abundance of wildlife – Elk, Bison, Osprey, Eagle, Whooping Crane, Black Bear, and Marmot. The days were very warm (85 – 90 degrees), but nights were quite cool (38 – 40 degrees).

Bison in Yellowstone National Park
Mammoth Hot Springs
Mammoth Hot Springs

The sight of Mammoth Hot Springs was absolutely incredible, with the waters being every color of the rainbow! (“spectacular” hardly did them justice!) The site is actually a large complex of many hot springs that were created over thousands of years as the hot water cooled and deposited calcium carbonate, at a rate of two tons per day! The source of the hot water, several thousand feet below the surface, travels to the surface via a major fault line that runs through a massive layer of limestone. The superheated water emerges at a temperature of around 170 degrees. Along the edges of the hot pools, various species of algae flourish, tinting the water brilliant colors of brown, orange, red, blue, and green. Over millennia, as the thermal source of the springs slowly migrated north, the deposits of calcium carbonate formed travertine terraces, one of the most striking features of Mammoth Hot Springs! As evening approached, I headed back to my cabin at the Bar N Ranch, and sat outside on the patio overlooking the lake, with a cold glass of local Yellowstone Pale Ale. The night sky was filled with billions of stars and the Milky Way, as a beautiful “Harvest Moon” slowly rose above the Madison Mountains to the north.

Sunset on the lake with Madison Mountains beyond
View from my Cabin

As I sat quietly, the distant sound of Whooping Cranes reached my ear, and at the same time, I suddenly became aware of something “swooping” past me in the night. It wasn’t long before I realized that I was being surrounded by bats as they were feeding on flying insects around the lake! Later, I saw hundreds of swallows nesting in the eaves of the lodge – they also helped control the mosquito population around the lake. The next morning, I had a huge “cowboy breakfast” in the lodge before heading back to Bozeman airport for my return flight home. It was a lovely drive following the Gallatin River under bright, sunny skies and surrounded by rugged peaks of the Absaroka Mountains. There were lots of fly fishermen trying their luck to land a large Golden Trout, for which the rivers of Southwest Montana are justly famous. I had time to pay a short visit to the Missouri Headwaters State Park near Three Forks, Montana. In July of 1805, the Lewis and Clark expedition camped at the site on their historic journey to find the source of the Missouri River. They were very likely the first white men to enter the region.

Missouri Headwaters State Park – Three Forks

Faced with the junction of three different rivers, they were uncertain as to which of the “forks” to follow. But after some discussion, they decided to explore the southwestern most branch, known to the Shoshone tribe as the “Beaverhead River”. Eventually it would lead them to a small spring near Lemhi Pass on the Continental Divide. Later, their decision not to name the Beaverhead River the Missouri, raised debate about which was the longest river in North America. Although the Missouri and Mississippi were almost identical in length, the Mississippi was a few miles longer. Had the Beaverhead River been named the Missouri, it would have won the debate! Ironically, Lewis and Clark thought they had discovered the ultimate source of the Missouri below Lemhi Pass, but they had only discovered the western most point. The most distant source was actually much further east at the headwaters of the Red Rock River, around 8,000 feet elevation in the Centennial Mountains of southwestern Montana.

From the state park, I drove to the Bozeman airport and checked in for the Delta flight to Salt Lake City and onward to Ontario airport. As I reclined in my First Class seat and sipped a chilled glass of Sauvignon Blanc, I looked back on two weeks of fun and adventure in two very different and unique regions of America. I returned home with a wealth of fascinating travel stories and amazing photos to share with family and friends. Such is the lure and pleasure of travel that I enjoy so much! And I hope you have enjoyed the trip with me.

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Arkansas and Montana – From Little Rock to Yellowstone (part 1 of 2)

Following another successful User Conference in July of 2003, I embarked on my annual post-conference vacation. This year I decided to combine a visit to Arkansas, a state which I had only seen on the map, with a trip back to one of my favorite places in the country, southwestern Montana. My journey began with a 5:00 am limo ride to Ontario Airport for a 6:30 am flight to Salt Lake City. My driver, Keith, drove the almost empty freeway at 85 – 90 mph, and he was very proud of the fact that his 1998 Lincoln Town Car had over 533,000 miles on it, with no major breakdowns. Despite the fact, that I arrived at the airport over an hour before departure, the lines for baggage check and security were incredibly long and slow, due mainly to a large tour group traveling to Seattle to join an Alaskan cruise. I ended up getting to the gate with only five minutes to spare! From Salt Lake, I flew to Dallas and along the way, enjoyed a delicious cold plate lunch of grilled chicken, Portobello mushroom, eggplant, and pasta. I spent four hours in the Delta Airlines Crown Room at DFW before boarding the flight to Little Rock. As it turned out, the flight was seriously overbooked, so I volunteered to take an American Airlines flight an hour later for $200 in compensation. (Ironically, the American flight was also overbooked, but this time I did not volunteer!)

Welcome to Arkansas

After arriving in Little Rock, I picked up a rental car and headed downtown to find the historic “Capitol Hotel”. After searching high and low along the full length of West Markham Street, I was surprised to discover that the street suddenly became 3rd Street for 2 blocks, before returning to West Markham Street a block further north! But when I finally arrived at the hotel, I found it to be a beautiful, old late 1800’s pink granite building – classic splendor!

Capitol Hotel lobby

By this time, dinner called and I went to the Capitol Bar and Grill, wonderfully preserved in the elegant style of 1880. My server highly recommended the grilled pork tenderloin au poivre, served with a brandy demi-glaze, garlic mashed potatoes, and fresh steamed local vegetables. Dinner was absolutely excellent, along with a cold pint of local “Boulevard Pale Ale”!

I was up early the next morning to visit the Arkansas State Historical Museum, which included a guided tour of three original houses from the early 1800’s.

Arkansas State Historical Museum
Little Rock Railroad Station

The first house had also been the first printing shop west of the Mississippi. As we entered the old house, we encountered a large, young black slave, bound in chains. He asked why we had come, since his master was not at home. Then he told us the story of his escape and subsequent capture, following the printing of a notice offering a $50 reward for his return. (He also read the notice to us!) In reality, he turned out to be a local actor who had just received an invitation to join the company of the musical “Chicago” – in Chicago! He was very excited – it was a role far removed from that of his “living history” role in the museum. Then he explained that in the old print shop, the “capitol” letters were stored in the upper wooden cases and the small letters were stored in the lower wooden cases – hence, the origin of “uppercase” and “lowercase” on our computers today! In the merchant’s house next door, our guide explained the origin of the traditional children’s game called “Pop goes the Weasel”. In the past, the task of rolling up a skein of wool on the spinning wheel was given to the children. It took 40 revolutions of the wheel to make one skein. But since the children often lost track of counting as the wheel spun, a wooden “counter” was installed that made a popping sound when the wheel had turned 40 times. And being that the spinning wheel was known as the “weasel”, the sound of the counter became “Pop goes the Weasel”! As we entered the third house, our guide pointed out a large mirror built into an old wooden coat rack in the hallway. The bottom of the mirror sat just 6 inches above the floor. Then she explained the purpose of the mirror, which enabled women to check their feet before leaving the house, to ensure that their petticoats were long enough to cover their ankles – hence the origin of the phrase “Mind your P’s and Q’s”! Later in the afternoon, I encountered the ban on sales of alcohol on Sundays in Arkansas, even though the supermarket shelves were fully stocked! And to make the issue even more strange, exceptions were made for restaurants and hotel room service, but not bars! That evening, I dined in the Capitol Hotel, and once again enjoyed a fantastic dinner. I began with a bowl of delicious “five onion soup” topped with melted Gouda cheese, followed by the “Asian Special” – thin strips of beef, grilled shrimp, and filet of Grouper in a light, flaky pastry shell, along with a savory Teriyaki ginger sauce, white rice, and steamed vegetables. It was fabulous, and not what I expected to find in Arkansas ! Back in my hotel room, as I watched the local TV channel, an advertisement aired for a furniture store in Fort Smith. The store owner came on the screen to promote his special deals and ended with the line “… and you’ll have more fun here than a fat man locked in a donut shop!” Doesn’t get much more “local” than that.

Pine Bluff – Downtown

The next day I checked out of the hotel and drove southeast to Pine Bluff where I discovered the Arkansas State Railroad Museum and the “Gilford Wheel Services  Company” that repaired and resurfaced railroad car wheels for many private railroad car owners across the country. The large museum occupied the former “Cotton Belt” railroad (St Louis & Southwestern Railroad) yard and maintenance shops, which had closed in 1992. The museum was most famous for having the last steam locomotive built by the “Cotton Belt” in 1943 and restored to operation in 1986. The old repair shops had preserved the massive overhead cranes and tools used for servicing heavy railroad cars and equipment, including a huge transfer table that was used to move the massive steam locomotives around the shops.

Arkansas Railroad Museum

In addition to more than 50 vintage locomotives and railroad cars, there was a very interesting exhibit about the origin of the Cotton Belt Railroad. It had begun as a small short line railroad in Tyler, Texas in 1877, and eventually gobbled up over 17 other small railroads in eastern Texas, northern Arkansas and southern Missouri before being taken over by the Southern Pacific Railroad. From the railroad museum, I drove downtown and discovered a fascinating collection of 12 huge murals depicting the history of the town and the surrounding region. There were beautiful, colorful painted scenes of activity on the riverfront during the late 1800’s, a view of the Main Street from 1888, and a scene from the history of the timber industry. But the most unusual and fascinating mural was that of native son and filmmaker Freeman Owens, who changed the movie making industry forever when he perfected the process of putting sound on film for the Eastman Kodak company.

Pine Bluff Mural – Main Street
Pine Bluff Mural – Cotton Belt Railroad
Pine Bluff Mural – Freeman Owens

A historical monument near the Jefferson County Courthouse detailed the story of the old town when it was a thriving port on the Arkansas River, which saw large steamships transporting cotton and rice downriver to New Orleans. But today, those shipments go by rail and the old port is just a faded memory preserved by one of the large murals. From Pine Bluff, I headed north to Stuttgart, Augusta, and Batesville, passing huge fields of rice, corn, sorghum, and cotton. Along the way, I spotted quite a bit of wildlife, including black vultures, white egrets, coyote, and even a couple of Armadillo, who were unfortunately the victims of road kill! As I drove through many small towns along highway 79, I passed old, dilapidated downtowns that had long since died out as people had migrated to larger towns, and businesses had relocated to shopping malls outside of town. It was sad to see what surely had once been lively towns that are now just names on the map. Lovely old buildings stood vacant and decaying, awaiting the wrecking ball, or perhaps a new life someday. As the day approached late afternoon, heavy dark clouds began to appear, signaling the inevitable thunderstorms that characterize mid-summer weather in the South.

Thunderstorm -Batesville
Evening Storm – Batesville

With them, the thunderstorms brought a temporary cooling relief from the oppressive heat and humidity of the day. So they were welcome, unless of course, a tornado or two should happen to join the storms! That evening I found a nice room at the “Dogwood Motel” on the edge of town. As I walked around the town, I discovered that it was the oldest town in Arkansas, having been the first territorial capital. It had also become an important port on the White River and a gateway to the Ozark Mountain region to the northwest.

Plantation Museum – Batesville

The next morning, heavy thunderstorms lingered, before eventually yielding the day to sunshine. At least the weather was noticeably cooler, but still quite humid. Leaving Batesville, I made my way to the tiny town of Cave City, and as I entered the town, there was a huge sign on the side of the road that read “Home of the World’s Sweetest Watermelons”! Further down Main Street, I spotted a very strange and unique looking motel, the “Crystal River Cave Tourist Motor Lodge”, built of rock from the cave located near the center of town.

Crystal River Cave Tourist Camp – Cave City

The cave, which was formed by the Crystal River, had served as a veritable “town refrigerator” where local people stored their milk, butter, and produce. Apparently, various attempts had been made to explore the cave to determine the origin of the Crystal River that flowed under the town. While no one has ever been able to show where the river begins and eventually ends, it’s said that the river rises and falls with the level of the Mississippi River, more than 150 miles away! These days, Cave City is most famous for the annual Watermelon Festival in July. Beyond Cave City was the old town of Newark, once the county seat, but now virtually deserted, except for a couple of old red brick buildings on Front Street, and a huge grain terminal alongside the tracks of the Union Pacific Railroad. The next community I came to on state highway 14 was the old village of Jacksonport, with its historic red brick county courthouse dating back to 1872. At that time, the town was an important steamboat stop and trading center at the confluence of the White River and Black River, until it was bypassed by the Iron Mountain and Southern Railroad in 1890. But the most memorable historic site in town was the old sternwheel steamboat named the “Mary Woods No.2”. She carried passengers and cargo up and down the river from 1831 well into the 1960’s, before being retired and opened as a museum in 1976.

Mary Woods-2 Steamboat – Jacksonport
Mural – Jacksonport

Leaving Jacksonport, I followed state highway 14, parallel to the White River, through many small towns, with curious names like Oil Trough, Pleasant Valley, and Evening Shade. And along the way, I went from a dry county to a wet county and back to dry again! Just outside the small town of Mountain View, on my way to the Ozark Folk Center State Park, I spotted a large billboard on the side of the road that was quite a curiosity. On it was a picture of a bag of chewing tobacco named “Stench”, side by side with a pack of cigarettes named “Fool”. And in big bold letters above them was the title “Dumb and Dumber” – sponsored by the Stone County Health Department. Gradually I began the slow ascent into the Ozark Mountains of northern Arkansas and the Ozark – St Francis National Forest.

Ozark Mountains
Ozark – St Francis National Forest

There I found the Ozark Folk Center State Park and the Dry Creek Lodge, a beautiful old log structure that looked like it had been built from the surrounding forest. Luckily I was able to book a room in the lodge, and then I grabbed my camera to take photos of the traditional mountain arts and crafts being demonstrated by local artisans in the adjacent village. It was fascinating to watch and listen as the artisans and craftsmen worked in the same way and with the same tools and materials as their ancestors had done 150 years earlier.

Ozark Folk Center State Park
Ozark Folk Center State Park

As evening approached, I headed to the “Iron Skillet Restaurant” in the lodge for a huge traditional southern dinner, that included two thick slabs of salt-cured ham, beans, mashed potatoes and white gravy. As I savored the delicious meal, I watched a host of wild critters outside the window – squirrels, chipmunks, hummingbirds, doves, cardinals, and one incredibly fat woodchuck! That evening, after dinner, I sat outside on my balcony in the warm summer night, listening to the crickets, and watching a skunk prowling around the edge of the forest in search of food. The next morning, after a hearty breakfast of homemade biscuits and sausage gravy, a southern tradition, I headed north to Blanchard Springs Cavern. There I joined a small tour group, lead by a Ranger from the Ozark National Forest, and followed him into several huge underground rooms, whose ceilings were covered in beautiful “drapery” limestone formations.

Blanchard Springs Cavern
Blanchard Springs Cavern

Apparently, the cavern was only recently discovered, so much of it remained unexplored. Continuing west on state highway 14, I passed “Branscum’s Grocery Store” in the tiny village of “Fifty-Six, Arkansas”. It seems the town’s name originated from the number of its school district when the US Post Office was established there.

Downtown “Fifty-Six”

Further on there were very impressive views of the rocky bluffs rising several hundred feet above the White River near the old town of Calico Rock. The town was once a bustling steamboat landing and railroad junction in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. But those days had disappeared, leaving it a very quiet shadow of its former self.

Welcome to “Flippin”

As I continued west through the heart of the Ozark Mountains, I passed several small settlements with some odd names, like “Flippin”, “Yellville”, and “Blue Eye”, before coming to the spectacular Buffalo National River. It was over 150 miles long, with a steep gradient and fast water, bordered on both sides by 500 foot high sandstone bluffs, making it very challenging and exciting for white water enthusiasts.

Buffalo National River

The area, managed by the US Forest Service and the National Park Service, spanned four counties in northern Arkansas. Portions of the region had also been designated as wilderness area. It was the nation’s first National River and remains a true gem in the state, that almost became flooded by two proposed US Army Corps of Engineers dams in 1972. Northwest of the river I came to the fabled town of “Dogpatch, Arkansas”, where the post office had closed many years before, as had virtually everything else in town, including the crumbling remains of the “Dogpatch USA” theme park! (which at one time had grand dreams of being the Disneyland of the south!) As I looked around at what was left of Dogpatch, I remembered the time when I worked at the Republic Ranger District on the Colville National Forest in northeastern Washington State. While I was there, I had supervised some tree thinning projects being done by a family from Dogpatch. (I still have the letter from them with the postmark from Dogpatch!) So, yes, Dogpatch does/did exist. Later that afternoon, I drove to Petit Jean State Park and the beautiful Mather Lodge, situated on the edge of a thousand foot high escarpment, overlooking the spectacular Arkansas River.

Petit Jean State Park

The name of the state park originated from the legend of a young 18th century French woman who disguised herself as a boy in order to find a position as a cabin boy on a ship sailing to the Louisiana Territory. Once the ship’s crew had reached the upper portion of the Arkansas River, she became very ill, and on her deathbed she revealed her true identity to her fiancé whom she had tried unsuccessfully to join earlier on the voyage. By her last request, she was buried on the top of the bluff under the name she had been given on board ship, “Petit Jean”, meaning “Little John”. That evening I was able to book one of the rustic cabins near the lodge, which had been built of local river rock and stone in the 1930’s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. I spent a lovely, quiet evening sitting on the porch of the cabin, as the music of the crickets filled the air and the light of the fireflies illuminated the dark sky. The following morning, I hiked to the Cedar Falls Overlook for a beautiful view of the water tumbling over 120 feet into the river below. From there I drove to “Stout’s Point” on the top of the bluff, with sweeping views of the river and the entire valley over a thousand feet below.

Stout’s Point – Petit Jean State Park
Petit Jean State Park

Nearby was the gravesite of Petit Jean and views of Mount Magazine in the distance, Arkansas’s highest point at 2,753 feet. As I admired the spectacular view, I had to admit that I had not expected to see this kind of magnificent landscape in Arkansas. Later in the morning, I headed west into the foothills of the Ozark Mountains, where I discovered several old vineyards, some dating back to the mid-1800’s. Just outside the small town of Altus was the “Chateau Aux Arc Vineyard”, where a Swiss family had been making wine from the native “Cynthiana” grape for generations! It was here that I came to realize the origin of the name Ozark, which comes from the literal pronunciation of the French term “Aux Arc”, meaning “Big Bend” – the name the early French explorers gave to the distinctive bend in the Arkansas River. The French were among the first European explorers in Arkansas and Louisiana, which accounts for the abundance of French names of places in the state. Further to the southwest, on my way to Fort Smith, I traveled through a small portion of eastern Oklahoma and the Ouachita Mountains.

Eastern Oklahoma

It was a lovely landscape of high rolling hills and dense deciduous forest, mixed with large expanses of beautiful meadows – all part of the Ouachita National Forest. Later in the afternoon, I crossed back into Arkansas and came to Mount Magazine State Park, the state’s highest point. There were some spectacular views of the river from the high bluffs, a popular site for hang gliders.

Mt Magazine State Park
View of the Arkansas River – Mt Magazine State Park

That evening I found a nice old hotel in Van Buren, across the river from Fort Smith, and as I searched for a place to have dinner in Fort Smith, I was pleasantly surprised to find a large number of tasty oriental restaurants. There was everything from Chinese and Japanese to Thai, Malaysian, and even an Indonesian restaurant.

The next morning, I walked around the historic downtown area of Van Buren along Main Street, from the old “Frisco” Railroad Depot (St Louis & San Francisco Railroad) down to the riverfront.

“Frisco” Railroad Station – Van Buren
Old Anheuser-Busch Brewery Building – Van Buren
Entrance to the Brewery Building

At one point, I came across the old “Anheuser-Busch Brewery” building, where the company name was still inscribed in the floor tile at the entrance. By this time, I was ready for breakfast, and as luck would have it, I was standing across the street from the “Cottage Café”. As I entered the small café, it was very obvious that it was a “local” favorite. Even before I sat down at the vintage counter, I was greeted by a mother and daughter waitressing team with “have a seat hon”. They were a couple of “brassy, bleached blondes”, who smoked constantly and called everyone “hon”, regardless of gender. It was a classic local diner, and the huge portions of country ham, eggs, homemade biscuits, red eye gravy, home fries, and coffee were delicious – and kept me going for the entire day! After a huge breakfast from the bleached blondes, I bought a ticket on the historic “Arkansas and Missouri Railroad” for a trip through part of western Arkansas and the Ozark National Forest to the small town of Winslow, a distance of 70 miles.

Aboard the Arkansas and Missouri Railroad

During the scenic journey, the onboard crew entertained us with many interesting stories and fascinating local history. The train made a short stop in Winslow at the Chester Railway Hotel, where our guide told us about a ghost in room number 4, who was a man locked out of his room late at night over 100 years ago, after having drunk too much at the saloon on a frigid winter night. Apparently, as a result, he froze to death that night, and it was rumored that if you booked room number 4, your blankets would often be pulled off in the middle of the night! On the return trip, I spotted a lot of deer grazing at the edge of the forest, and at one point, the train crossed three old wooden trestles, one of which was over 700 feet long and 125 feet high, before entering the ¾ mile long Winslow Tunnel. All in all, it was a very interesting and scenic journey on a historic old railroad. After returning to Van Buren, I drove south on US Highway 71 and state highway 270, through the beautiful Ouachita National Forest, to the tiny town of Pencil Bluff. According to historical accounts, the town started out as two small towns by the names of White City and Sock City before merging into the present-day community. Apparently, the origin of the name Sock City came from the fact that men often hid money in their socks when they went to play poker at the local saloon. The town sat at the foot of a high bluff overlooking the Ouachita River. Leaving town, I continued southeast on a narrow country road into the backwoods of Arkansas, near the town of Cherry Hill, and then on to Polk County Road 67, a gravel road that crossed over the Ouachita River. Suddenly, I came upon a large flock of Wild Turkeys beside the road, as well as an old dog lying smack in the middle of the road and totally ignoring me!

Murals on the levee wall in Caddo Springs

Eventually I made my way northeast, passing through the village of “Caddo Springs”, in the “Caddo River Valley”, the names of which derive from a misspelling of the French word “Caddeaux”, meaning gift. It was another of the many misspellings of French words in Arkansas, the pronunciation of which were very much French, despite the misspelling. (A fascinating historical aspect of my journey through the state of Arkansas)

The sign says it all!
Welcome to Hot Springs National Park

Finally, I arrived in the historic tourist destination of “Hot Springs National Park”, a popular spot for both American and European visitors in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. I was able to book one of the last available rooms at the historic, grand old “Majestic Hotel”, not far from the famous “Bath House Row”. (on a sad note, the Majestic Hotel was destroyed by fire and demolished in 2016)

Majestic Hotel – Hot Springs
Bath House Row
Downtown Hot Springs

Although the National Park was established in 1921, one of the nation’s oldest, the region of Hot Springs had been used for therapeutic baths by the indigenous people for over 8,000 years. Geologically, the springs water originates from rainfall in the surrounding mountains, which seeps very slowly through sandstone at a rate of about one foot per year, to a depth of almost 7,500 feet below the surface, a trip that takes about 4,000 years! At that depth, the water encounters rock heated by the earth’s core. Then the heated water begins to rise along fault zones, as a result of artesian pressure, to emerge at the surface as hot (140 – 150 degrees) spring water containing a wide variety of dissolved minerals – a pleasant tasting solution, mildly alkaline composition of mostly Calcium Carbonate. Legend has it that the Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto received a gift of the healing water from the local Quapaw tribe in 1541.

Hernando De Soto statue – Fourdyce Bath House
The “Grand” Bath House
Entrance to the “Fourdyce” Bath House

Beginning in the mid-1800’s and into the early 1900’s, several large, elegant “bath houses” were built over the hot springs to offer treatments for a wide variety of diseases of the skin and blood, nervous affections, rheumatism, and “various diseases of women”! Later, during the height of popularity for “seeking the waters” in the 1930’s, many “modern” therapeutic treatments were introduced, often under the supervision of a physician. These new treatments included being placed in a steam box, a German “needle shower”, and something called a “Scotch Douche”.  (a needle shower surrounds the body with a strong spray of water from dozens of very small nozzles, whereas the Scotch Douche involves strong jets of alternating hot and cold water) During my tour of the National Park Visitor Center Museum, some of the “equipment” used for these treatments bordered on resembling instruments of torture during the Spanish Inquisition!

“Instruments” for therapeutic treatments

Often, the “treatments” would take several weeks, consisting of daily baths and therapy. The bath houses remained racially segregated until the Civil Rights Movement of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Today, only two of the old, original bath houses are still operating – the Buckstaff and the Quapaw. The remaining bath houses have been renovated and repurposed as the Visitor Center/Museum, a Contemporary Art Museum, and even a craft brewery/restaurant. So Hot Springs has changed a great deal over the past century, but it remains active and a popular tourist destination. After a short walk down the “Grand Promenade”, I went back to the hotel for dinner in “Grady’s Bar and Grill”. The filet mignon, grilled rare and served in a wild mushroom ragout, was truly incredible, along with a glass of “Chateau Aux Arc Cabernet Sauvignon”. And the “Louisiana Bread Pudding” in Bourbon sauce was an outstanding finish to a wonderful dinner. But later that night, I was rudely awakened at 2:30am by the loud noise from a TV blaring at full volume in the room next door. After repeated knocking on the door and three phone calls to the room, there was no response! Finally, I went down to the front desk and requested the assistance of hotel security. They unlocked the room and found no one there – unbelievable! As I checked out in the morning, I hung the “Make Up My Room Early” sign on their door, silently bid them farewell, and wished them a lousy day! Then I took a long leisurely walk along the “Grand Promenade”, past many of the old hot spring bath houses, most of which had been closed for many years.

Grand Promenade
Hot Springs National Park

However, the National Park Service had restored the “Fourdyce Bath House”, one of the most classic and luxurious of all the old bath houses and developed it as a Visitor Center/Museum. I had arrived just in time to join a tour lead by one of the Park Rangers. During the tour, she explained the unique geological conditions that yield the constant flow of hot spring water that made the town a mecca for people from all over the world seeking to “take the waters”. The bath house was divided into separate areas for men and women, although both had the same equipment and services. She also pointed out some of the really weird “instruments” that were used for “therapy”. In the main rooms were beautiful stained-glass windows and skylights that illuminated the brilliant white marble floors and walls.

Stained-glass ceiling – Fourdyce Bath House
Classic old porcelain bath tub

All too soon, it was time to leave Hot Springs and head to the Little Rock airport to catch my flight to Montana, and the beginning of the second leg of my journey. Along the way, I had time to briefly visit “Toltec Mounds State Park”, where huge earthen mounds were burial and ceremonial sites dating from 400BC. Several of the mounds were located so as to mark the dates of the summer and winter solstice. It was a short but fascinating look at Native American history and culture in Arkansas. Upon reaching the airport, it was a quick and easy check in for the flight to Dallas, so I had time for a cold glass of local “Diamond Bear Blonde Ale” in the Delta Airlines Crown Room before boarding was called. Arriving in Dallas, I waited in the Crown Room and watched TV as Lance Armstrong won his 5th straight Tour de France. As he was cycling through cold, pouring rain in France, it was very hot, muggy 100 degrees outside in Dallas! On the flight to Salt Lake City, my seatmate was a man from Montgomery, Alabama on his way to Edmonton, Alberta to oversee the installation of new carbon bearings in an oil rig. I had a short break in the Salt Lake airport Crown Room, before boarding my final flight to Bozeman, Montana, where I arrived just before midnight. I picked up my Hertz rental car just minutes before their office closed for the night! To my surprise, they handed me the keys to a brand new, bright red Ford Expedition – not exactly the “mid-size” SUV I had reserved. But it drove very well, though it “felt” huge! Then I checked into a nice room at the Holiday Inn and settled in for the rest of the night. Tomorrow I would begin the second week of my vacation in southwestern Montana. [Stay Tuned!]

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Bermuda – A British Overseas Territory and A World Away

Over the years I’ve made three trips to Bermuda.

Map of Bermuda

[June 1985]  My first trip was in June of 1985 at the conclusion of my first software training class for Esri in Washington, DC. Having spent two long, exhausting weeks conducting training for the US Geological Survey, I was really looking forward to a short vacation. Back in 1975, when Marion and I arrived in the States from England, we spent a few days in New York with her long-time family friends Rolf and Vickie. They had invited us to visit them at their summer home in Bermuda, and at last, I had the opportunity to accept their invitation, although it was ten years later. An invitation to stay with a resident of Bermuda is very special, since accommodations on the island are quite limited. The day after my training class ended, I was up early at 5am for the flight to Boston and on to Bermuda. That afternoon, I arrived in Bermuda to find hot, sunny, humid weather, typical for the island in the summer. After passing through Customs and Immigration, I was met outside the terminal by Rolf, dressed in a white linen suit and tropical pith helmet – looking very “official”! We drove to his home, at the island wide speed limit of 25mph, and arrived at “Fiddler’s Roost”, the name given to the estate by Rolf. It was a gorgeous white washed Spanish Colonial style house located near the summit of Knapton Hill overlooking the sea – with spectacular views! It had thick stone walls, marble floors, lots of French doors opening on to several terraces and patios, and high ceilings of beautiful Cedar beams. It surrounded a lovely pool and colorful tropical garden – such a marvelous, peaceful, and relaxed setting, almost idyllic!

“Fiddler’s Roost”
“Fiddler’s Roost”

Later in the day I joined Vickie as she took her daughter to the airport for the return flight to New York. On the way back to Fiddler’s Roost, we took a short tour of St. George’s, a classic English style village, established in 1609 as Bermuda’s first capitol. Most of the buildings in the old village were painted beautiful pastel colors, with white washed roofs, on narrow cobble stone streets having curious old English names, like “Auntie Peggy’s Lane” and “Needle and Thread Alley”. The town square had been restored to its original condition when whalers had visited the island in the 17th and 18th centuries. In addition, St. Catherine’s Fort and St. David’s Lighthouse were preserved  from the same era. Touring the old village was like stepping back in time!

St. George’s
Town Square in St. George’s
St. Catherine’s Fort

Then we picked up Rolf’s nephew Oliver and his Irish girlfriend “George” (Georgina) at the Club Med. As we drove back home, we passed countless mopeds and bicycles, but few cars, primarily because the number of cars allowed on the is strictly regulated. According to Vickie, it could take 2 – 3 years to obtain a permit for a car. Needless to say, there were no rental car companies on the island, but plenty of places to rent mopeds and bicycles. Along the way, we also passed a large US Naval Air Station – must be a pretty tough duty station! (Although locals refer to the “island”, Bermuda is actually a collection of several small ancient volcanic islands connected by causeways, enabling one to drive the entire “country”) Late in the afternoon, there were a few tropical showers, but by evening, the cool air from the ocean was perfect for a leisurely supper of cold meats, fresh fruit, and warm crusty French bread. As we sat on the terrace overlooking the sea, the sweet fragrance of Honeysuckle and Jasmine drifted around us on a gentle breeze. Such a peaceful, relaxed feeling surrounded us in the garden, under the light of a full moon. That night, I lay in bed listening to the soft chirping of the tree frogs and the rush of wind in the trees – a timeless moment!

The Terrace

The next morning, I awoke to a beautiful, sunny day and joined everyone for breakfast beside the pool. Later, Rolf drove me down to “Devil’s Hole Cycles” to rent a moped so I could explore the island on my own. Driving on the left was a bit scary for the first 20 minutes or so, but with everyone going only 25 mph, it soon became easy and enjoyable. In the afternoon, I drove into Hamilton, the main town of Bermuda, bustling with activity. There were hundreds of mopeds, and a lot of businessmen dressed in coat, tie and “Bermuda shorts” – so classic and very British. Moored in the harbor were two huge cruise ships, preparing to “unleash” their cargo of thousands of tourists upon the town. I did some shopping among the mostly British stores and stopped in a local pub for a cold Ginger beer. Then I boarded the ferry for a short trip across the bay to the small town of Somerset. The journey followed a scenic route through several small islands, on some of which were beautiful homes overlooking the bay. Once I arrived in Somerset village, I decided to have lunch at the “Country Squire”, a lovely outdoor café on the shore of the bay. Scores of multi-colored sailboats and yachts were anchored in the bay, shimmering in the warm mid-day sunshine, surrounded by clear, aquamarine water.

The Ferry from Hamilton
Islands in the bay on the way to Somerset Village
The “Country Squire Pub”
Boats anchored in the bay

After lunch, I walked to Cambridge Beach, a gorgeous arc of pink sand and crystal clear blue water. Beautiful tropical flowers of red, purple, and yellow lined the edge of the beach.

Cambridge Beach – Somerset Parish

Back in the village, I stopped at a small shop called “Trimingham’s” to purchase a gift for Rolf and Vickie, a replica of the “Sea Venture” – a ship that was bound for Jamestown, Virginia in 1609. However, it encountered a severe storm at sea and wrecked on the coast of St. George’s Island, and from this accident came the first European settlement of Bermuda. On my way back to Hamilton, I took the “back roads” for mopeds only. The route passed many beautiful bays and beaches along the south shore of the island, where waves of brilliant aquamarine water crashed upon soft pink sand beaches, in long, frothy white crests – some of the most beautiful beaches as I’ve seen anywhere! I stopped to visit “Gibb’s Hill Lighthouse”, located on the highest point of the island. I climbed the 189 steps of the old spiral staircase to the top, where I met the lighthouse keeper. As I walked around the narrow catwalk, the views of the entire island (aka country) were spectacular.

Gibb’s Hill Lighthouse
View from the lighthouse

Upon returning to Knapton Estate, I joined Oliver and Georgina in the pool, to cool off in the hot, humid weather. Later, as evening approached, Rolf invited Oliver and me to join him in his study as he listened to the daily financial report on BBC World Service radio. The world’s metal prices were of particular interest to Rolf and Oliver, as they trade in concentrated ore futures. Afterwards, with cold drinks in hand, we all sat down to dinner, a local chicken and rice dish that was a specialty of Bermuda. Dinner was a special affair as we sat around the table, overlooking the ocean, sharing stories and adventures. With the sun slowly setting and a cool evening breeze softly brushing past us, it was a most relaxing dinner. And as the evening progressed, we all moved out to the terrace for coffee and dessert by candlelight. Looking upon the sea, the moonlight “shimmered” across the water, and the little tree frogs kept us company as we talked about many current topics – everything from world politics and the arms race to life’s most embarrassing moments. Finally, the gentle evening breeze from the moonlit sea, rocked me to sleep in my room.

The following morning, I awoke to sunshine streaming through the open bedroom window, along with a fresh ocean breeze. Breakfast was fresh papaya and lime beside the pool with Rolf and Vickie. As we basked in the warm tropical sun, little multi-colored lizards scampered among the plants in the garden. Finally, it came the time to pack my bags and reluctantly take a long, last look at the brilliant blue sea and the beautiful tropical flowers. I said my farewells to Oliver and Georgina , as they lay on their air mattresses in the pool.

Georgina and Oliver in the pool

Vickie drove me to the airport, past a stunning landscape of deep blue lagoons and bright pastel pink houses. All too soon, I was aboard a new Delta Airlines L1011 aircraft bound for Atlanta. As the huge jet lifted off and I gazed upon the islands, surrounded by the azure blue sea, I knew would return someday soon.

[May 1988]  My second trip to Bermuda came in 1988 after a hectic business trip to Huntsville, Alabama. Early in the morning, after returning home from Huntsville the day before, I was aboard a Delta flight to Boston. Since I arrived after the only daily flight from Boston to Bermuda, I spent the night at the Logan Airport Hilton Hotel. The next morning, I boarded the Delta flight to Bermuda, not yet having heard from Rolf or Vickie. I suspected they were still at their home in Scarsdale, New York. When I arrived in Bermuda, I called their home and received the message that they indeed were in New York and not expected to be in Bermuda until the day after my departure from the island – unfortunately bad timing! So I checked with the “Accommodations Bureau” at the airport and was able to book a nice room at the “Serenity Guest House” in the village of Paget, on one of the south shore beaches. After a short taxi ride, I checked into the guest house and then grabbed my camera for a day of exploring the island. I soon discovered a beautiful, lonely trail that followed the path of the old, abandoned “Bermuda Railway”. It originally ran from one end of the country to the other, some 50 years ago. Hiking along the trail, I was able to see some of the more remote parts of the island that tourists rarely see.

Bermuda Railway Trail

At one point I left the trail and walked down to Warwick Long Bay Beach, the longest, and regarded by many, as the most beautiful beach. I took off my hiking boots and strolled along the beach, the warm sand and cool water making for a very pleasant experience. Later, as evening approached, I went for dinner at the “Sea Horse Grill” in the nearby “Elbow Beach Hotel”. The fresh grilled shrimp salad was delicious as I sat on the terrace overlooking the ocean and the beach below. The hotel was among the earliest to be built in Bermuda, and remains a stunning structure of old local limestone, atop the cliff above Elbow Beach. After dinner, I went to the “Sea Horse Pub” in the hotel for a cold gin tonic and listened to a very funny British performer singing “rude” songs that delighted the older folks in the audience. On the way back to the guest house, I picked a few flowers to freshen up my room.

Warwick Long Bay Beach
Elbow Beach Hotel

The next morning, I arose rather late, most likely due to my biological clock being 4 hours behind the Atlantic time zone. I spent most of the day in Hamilton, exploring the shops and galleries. For lunch, I stopped at the “Cock and Feather Pub”, where I enjoyed a delicious local, spicy fish stew, as I sat at a table overlooking Hamilton’s main street.

Main Street in Hamilton
Hamilton Harbor

Meanwhile, several colorfully decorated horse-drawn carriages passed by, carrying their tourist guests from the huge cruise ships docked in the harbor. Returning to the guest house that evening, I walked over to the Elbow Beach Hotel for another delicious dinner of fresh grilled fish, followed by a drink in the Sea Horse Bar. Early the next morning, I hiked another section of the Railway Trail to Hodson’s Ferry, by way of Tribe Road #4 and Chapel Road. Along the trail I passed through large expanses of gorgeous blue Morning Glory and bright red Oleander blossoms. In Many places, the trail became a narrow lane, framed on both sides by old rock walls – very quaint.

Bermuda Railway Trail

When I reached Hodson’s Ferry landing, I boarded the small ferry for a short journey to Hamilton town, by way of Salt Kettle. After some shopping in Hamilton, I took the number 11 bus to St. George’s, an hour’s ride along the north shore. At one of the bus stops, a small group of Rastafarians were gathered. As the bus pulled to a stop, a guy in the back of the bus leaned out of the window and yelled “Hey Bro – hit me with a lick”! He was handed a cold beer as the bus pulled away. All along the journey, passengers were constantly leaning out the window and shouting greetings to people on the street as the bus passed – the very epitome of a “local” bus! At one point, the bus made a stop at the American Naval Air Station, where the main gate was guarded by two young Marines – what a tough duty station they must have! At last we arrived in the old village of St. George’s, where two huge cruise ships were docked. The village center was crawling with thousands of pink pastel pants and flowered shirts (aka tourists). In an effort to escape the crowd, I spotted the historic “White Horse Tavern” on the waterfront, where I enjoyed a delicious lunch, while overlooking St. George’s harbor.

St. George’s Harbor

After lunch, as the crowd headed back to their ships, I explored the old town and passed many small, interesting shops, such a “Cow Molly” and “Mama Angie’s”. The narrow, quaint cobble stone streets had curious names, like “Shinbone Alley”, Printer’s Lane”, and “Old Maid’s Row”. On a small hill overlooking the village was an old abandoned church – walking among the ruins of the church was a bit of a strange feeling.

Old abandoned church

Nearby was old Fort William, also known as Fort Victoria, where the gunpowder magazine had once been used to store ammunition for the Americans during the Revolutionary War. Now it’s a trendy pub, deep under the massive rock walls. Later in the afternoon, I visited the “Confederate States Museum” housed in the historic Old Globe Hotel, an important headquarters for the Confederate States during the Civil War. From here, the Confederates managed the shipment of cotton to England and war materials to the South. It was a fascinating look at a part of little known American history, of which few Americans are aware.

Old Fort William
Ethiopian Orthodox Church – St. George’s Parish

I returned to the White Horse Tavern for a pint of traditional English bitters, before boarding the bus back to Hamilton and the ferry to Hodson’s. That evening I returned to the Elbow Beach Hotel for a superb dinner of fresh, local broiled grouper. Afterwards, I went to the bar and caught the “naughty” songs show again – still very funny! On my walk back to the Serenity Guest House, the tree frogs serenaded me under a dark sky filled with millions of bright stars.

The following morning, I did some last minute shopping in Hamilton to find a wedding gift for my sister. As I strolled around the town, I hated to leave Bermuda and such a beautiful relaxed pace, knowing that I would be returning to a hectic pace of life at work back home. However, as the Delta flight departed the island, I once again felt that I would return someday!

[July 1991]  On my third trip to Bermuda, I was fortunate to be able to invite my dear friend Leslie to accompany me on a complimentary Delta Airlines First Class ticket. And this time we would be staying with Rolf and Vickie at “Fiddler’s Roost”. Our flight to Bermuda included a stopover in Boston again, where we stayed at the Logan Airport Hilton Hotel. As we were leaving the hotel the next morning, we encountered members of the heavy metal band “Poison” in the elevator. They had been hired to play for a large wedding the night before, and as we all stood in the elevator, the contrast in cultures was dramatically apparent – but everyone took it in stride! After having coffee and pastries in the Delta Airlines Crown Room, we boarded the L1011 aircraft for the flight to Bermuda. Rolf met us upon arrival, still looking “chipper” at age 79, dressed in his signature white linen suit and pith helmet. We chatted all the way home, and Vickie welcomed us with open arms. She showed us to the flat (apartment) downstairs, a lovely place where we could be alone to come and go as we pleased.

The “apartment”
The Pool – Fiddler’s Roost

We spent the afternoon lying around the pool, catching up on reading and napping as a result of the 4 hour time change. The weather absolutely perfect, with lots of sunshine and a gentle ocean breeze. That evening, Vickie prepared a delicious dinner and we chatted on the terrace as we enjoyed the beautiful views of the ocean and gorgeous sunset.

The next morning, as we enjoyed breakfast beside the pool, Rolf reminded us of the need to conserve water, due to a severe shortage across the country. Bermuda depends almost entirely upon rainfall for its fresh water supply, and in fact, every house is designed so as to capture rain on a limestone roof and store it in cisterns beneath the house. We spent another leisurely day around the estate before joining Rolf and Vickie for another fantastic dinner on the terrace overlooking the ocean. The usual evening “routine” was to “freshen up”, have drinks, watch the BBC evening news, and then sit down for dinner by candlelight on the terrace, as a gentle evening breeze from the ocean surrounded us. Coffee, liqueurs, and stories rounded out the evening. Leslie and I usually stayed up late, sitting on our patio, watching the stars, listening to the surf crashing on the beach below, and enjoying the caress of a warm ocean breeze – pure bliss!

On the patio

The following day, Rolf had arranged for a moped to be delivered for us, and I was given detailed operating instructions by Rolf. It was a two-seater model so that Leslie and I could “motor” around the island together. It took me a bit of time to get my “sea legs”, and Leslie was very patient about not being a “back seat driver”. In the afternoon, we drove to the Elbow Beach Hotel for a drink and then on to Horseshoe Bay Beach for a leisurely stroll in the surf along the gorgeous pink coral sand beach!

Horseshoe Bay Beach – Southampton Parish
Horseshoe Bay Beach

From there, we went via the ferry to Somerset Village and the Royal Navy Dockyards, at the far west of the island, to visit the Maritime Museum. It occupied a large portion of the old stone fort known as “The Keep”, and included the historic “Casemate Barracks”, once used as a prison in the 19th century. The “Citadel” still had old naval guns from the 19th century, mounted on massive ramparts to protect the harbor and docklands.

Old Naval Guns mounted on the ramparts

The interior of the museum preserved the huge gunpowder magazines, with their high arched red brick walls and ceilings, where ammunition had been stored. Today, fascinating historical displays and exhibits line their walls. We spent a couple of hours exploring the museum and just scratched the surface of Bermuda history. Originally, we had planned to take the 6:35pm ferry back to Hamilton, but since the museum closed at 5pm, we decided to take the 5:15pm ferry instead. And it was a good thing we did so, because it was the Queen’s birthday and the ferries were running on a holiday schedule. Had we waited until 6:35pm, we would have missed the last ferry of the day! That evening, we joined Rolf and Vickie for dinner on the terrace, as the sound of the surf played in the background, and a gentle breeze surrounded us. Leslie and I spent the rest of the evening chatting on our patio, serenaded by the tree frogs. The next morning began with a lovely breakfast beside the pool, after which, we packed our bags for the return to California. As Rolf drove us to the airport, we felt sad to leave the beautiful, private world of Bermuda. But we had many wonderful memories and lovely pictures to take home with us! (I’m sure another trip to Bermuda awaits us)


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Dawson City, Yukon Territory – Heart of the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush

At the end of August in 2001, I boarded a flight to Salt Lake City and on to Anchorage, Alaska. Upon arriving in Anchorage, I picked up a rental car, and I was pleasantly surprised when Hertz handed me the keys to a new Mercury Mountaineer SUV. That night I checked into a beautiful corner suite in the Captain Cook Hotel downtown, my favorite place to stay in Anchorage.

Anchorage – View from Captain Cook Hotel
Anchorage – View of the Alaska Range across Cook Inlet

The next morning, as skies were clearing, I enjoyed a huge seafood omelet at the Downtown Deli. (shrimp, crab, halibut, salmon) After breakfast, I headed north out of town on the Alaska Highway toward Glennallen. A few hours later, as I approached the town, there was fresh snow on the mountains and gorgeous, brilliant fall colors everywhere – yellow, red, and gold! On the edge of town, there was an historical monument honoring Colonel Allen, who first surveyed an overland route from the Copper River to the Yukon River, and eventually all the way down the river to the Bering Sea, a distance of over 2000 miles! North of Glennallen, I spotted several moose on the edge of a lake near Tok Junction. When I got to the small town, I stopped at “Fast Eddie’s” for a great halibut burger, and then fueled up at the old Tok Lodge for the 250 mile drive to the Yukon border. At Tetlin Junction, I turned off the Alaska Highway and on to the Taylor Highway for the journey to Dawson City.

Anchorage to Dawson City

A couple of hours later I came to the tiny isolated village of Chicken, Alaska, and I couldn’t pass up the chance to take a photo of beautiful, downtown Chicken – all three buildings! (Chicken Mercantile, Chicken Saloon, Chicken Café) Just as I was about to leave town, I spotted two chickens in a cage in front of the café. But the name of the village actually originates from the fact that the word “chicken” is the common name for the Alaskan Ptarmigan!

Chicken – Downtown
Chicken Post Office

It wasn’t long before I came to the Yukon border and Canadian Customs Post. Shortly after passing through customs, I began the 100 mile drive on the “Top of the World Highway” that followed the summit of the Ogilvie Mountains, through great expanses of brilliantly colored alpine tundra for as far as the eye could see.

Yukon Territory Border
Yukon – Top of the World Highway Map

Just west of Dawson City, the highway descended steeply down to the mighty Yukon River. Here I crossed the river on a small ferry operated by the Yukon Territorial Government. By now the weather had changed considerably and a light rain had begun to fall. As I drove into the old gold rush town, I started noticing a lot of “No Vacancy” signs at all the hotels and motels – not a good sign! (especially since the next nearest town to Dawson City was Pelly Crossing, almost 200 miles south!) I stopped at several of the hotels and motels, and the story was always the same – the whole town was fully booked, being the last long weekend of the season, and the finals of the Territorial Softball Tournament! And to make matters worse, no one could recommend anywhere else to stay.

Dawson City – Downtown

Suddenly I spotted a sign in the window of the Westminster Hotel Bar – “Rooms Available”! But as I walked into the lounge, it was most definitely a very seedy place. So I checked a couple other places in town, in vain, before reluctantly heading back to the Westminster Hotel, resigning myself to being given the last dirty room directly above the noisy bar where a local rock band was setting up for the night. I almost felt “relieved” when I was told there were no more rooms available, contrary to the sign in the bar window! But, before preparing myself to sleep in the SUV, I took another drive south of town and spotted the “Bonanza Gold Rush Motel and RV Park”. But of course, they had no rooms, having given away their last room 15 minutes before! The woman at the front desk felt sorry for me and called two more places in a last, desperate attempt. One was a youth hostel on the far side of the Yukon River that had one bed left in a dormitory – however, by this time, the ferry had already stopped service for the night! The only other option was a “rustic” cabin 30 km south of town, with no electricity or running water! (by this time, I was pretty much out of options and facing a long, cold night in the SUV) When I didn’t “jump” at either of those final options, she went quiet for a moment, and then called “John”. When John stepped into the office, she said “do you think we should put him in the back of the trailer?” (his parents lived in the front of the trailer) I counted my blessings when John said “yes”! As it turned out, the one room was small, but it had a bed and a shower. Cases of empty wine and liquor bottles were piled high outside the trailer, but at that point, I didn’t mind) As we entered the trailer, John handed me a towel, bar of soap, a roll of toilet paper and then said, “good night”. Having finally found accommodation for the night, I headed downtown for dinner and enjoyed a fabulous plate of fresh, pan fried Arctic Char at “Klondike Kate’s”, along with a couple of “Chilkoot Lagers” from the Yukon Brewing Company in Whitehorse. After dinner, as I retired for the night in my small trailer room, the rain was falling softly on the tin roof – very peaceful!

The next morning, I woke up to find steady light rain falling outside and a heavy, cold overcast sky. After taking a shower in the tiny bathroom, I decided to drive south of town to Dempster Junction, the beginning of the Dempster Highway, a gravel road that winds its way north through the arctic tundra to the small native village of Inuvik, on the coast of the Arctic Ocean – a distance of 735km (nearly 500 miles). I decided to drive about 30 km up the road, just to say I had driven the Dempster. By the time I returned to the Klondike Highway junction, the SUV was covered in a thick layer of yellow mud, that would become something of a “badge of honor” when I got back to Dawson City. By this time, the rain had turned the unpaved streets of town into muddy trails. Wooden boardwalks gave pedestrians a chance to avoid slogging their way through the mud, except when having to cross the street. As I walked around downtown Dawson City, in the mud and rain, I speculated that it must have been much the same for the thousands of gold seekers during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898.

Dawson City – Main Street
Dawson City from the past

Around noon, the judging began for the “International Outhouse Race”, followed a short time later with the start of the race. Teams of five people from Canada, USA, and Sweden competed, pulling their outhouses on wheels through the muddy streets. Rules of the race required one person from each team to “ride” in the outhouse during the race. As part of the course, the teams had to stop at designated places along the route to search for specific items to collect in their outhouse – sort of like a scavenger hunt! By the end of the race, no one was recognizable, having been totally covered in thick, gray mud – but they all had a great time!

Dawson City – Outhouse Race Judging
Dawson City – Outhouse Race Start
Dawson City – Outhouse Race down Main Street

After the award ceremony, I walked over to the Dawson City Museum, which was the old Territorial Administration Building – Dawson was the capitol of the territory until 1950, when the capitol moved to Whitehorse. The museum had many interesting displays and exhibits, with lots of fascinating history from the gold rush era. There was also a great exhibit of three small steam locomotives that once operated on the old Klondyke Mining Railroad, which ran from Dawson City up Bonanza Creek to the mining community of Grand Forks.

Dawson City Museum – Steam Locomotive

At the height of the gold rush, Grand Forks had a population of more than 10,000 – now it’s a ghost town. The same was true for Sulphur Springs, now just a name on the map today. In the afternoon, the rain tapered off, so I drove up to “Midnight Dome”, a steep mountain rising a thousand feet above town. From the summit I had a spectacular view of the confluence of the Klondyke River and the mighty Yukon River. Far below, Dawson City lay perched on the only small patch of flat land for miles around.

Dawson City – View from Midnight Dome

Meanwhile, light showers played tag with the sunshine. To the east and south of Dawson, along the banks of the Klondyke River, lay huge ribbons of mine tailings that resembled giant caterpillars – the remnants of massive gold dredging operations, which continued until the early 1960’s! During the gold rush of ’98, and for many years after, millions of dollars of gold and silver were mined every year. Even today, there are still active mines throughout the region. Later, I drove up the old road along Bonanza Creek to see the site where gold was first discovered in 1897. The massive old gold dredge #4 was still sitting in the creek bed where it had last mined gold in the late 1950’s. It has now become a National Park Historic Site.

Klondike River – Gold Dredge #4

On the way back to town, I visited the historic cabins of the famous writers Robert Service (“The Cremation of Sam Magee”) and Jack London (“The Call of the Wild”). Both cabins are now National Park Historic Sites.

Dawson City – Robert Service Cabin

Back in Dawson City, I took a long walk atop the huge dike that now protects the town from flooding in the spring. Nearby was the historic old river sternwheeler “Keno”, now in permanent dry dock on the shore of the river. She operated on the Yukon River from 1922 until 1960, carrying both passengers and freight – one of the last sternwheelers on the river.

Dawson City – “Keno” Sternwheel Riverboat

Downtown I discovered a monument to honor the memory of the 100 people from Dawson City who lost their lives in 1918, when the Canadian steamship “Princess Sophia” sank during a violent storm north of Juneau, Alaska. (no one aboard survived) Not far from the memorial, rather ironically, was the “Lowe’s Mortuary Museum”, in an old log building that served as a funeral parlor during the days of the gold rush, and well into the turn of the century. As I peered through the dusty windows, I saw a room filled with old implements and products used by morticians of the era – rather gory, gruesome and primitive! (an old empty casket sat in the back of the room, perhaps awaiting its next guest) A couple of blocks down the street was the “Downtown Hotel” and the “Jack London Grill”, where I had a superb dinner of fresh pan seared Arctic Char and fresh steamed vegetables – the Arctic Char is essentially a fresh water Salmon and a fabulous fish to eat. The cold glass of Chilkoot Lager went exceptionally well with dinner. My server insisted that I must finish dinner with a slice of fresh homemade pie, made with local bumbleberries and rhubarb, and it was exceptional! But the restaurant was out of ice cream, the main ingredient for over half of the desserts on the menu. After dinner, I walked next door to the “Sourdough Saloon” where a tour group was engaged in the ritual of doing “Sourtoe Cocktails” – some foul tasting liquor in a small glass, in which an old human toe was placed. The instructions from the bartender went like this: “you can drink it fast or you can drink it slow, but the toe must touch your lips”! (he also cautioned not to swallow it) Afterwards, everyone who was successful was awarded membership in the “club”, which certainly must be a prestigious award anywhere in the world! The Sourtoe Cocktails were very popular among the tourists – not so among the locals. Meanwhile, a song on the old jukebox caught my ear, “That wedding ring is as ugly to me as your husband is to you” – surely a top hit on the country charts. Not long after the last Sourtoe Cocktail had been downed, I walked outside, into the dark night and muddy streets of Dawson City, much like the old sourdoughs must have done a hundred years ago. And just before I headed for bed, I looked up to see a patch of clear sky, filled with the stars of the Big Dipper, shining brightly.

But the next morning, heavy low clouds, fog, and drizzle had returned to Dawson City. As I checked out of the Bonanza Gold Rush Motel, the manager couldn’t remember if she had told me a price for the first night in the back of the trailer, so she said “how about $50?”, and I said “that sounds good to me”. (especially being that it was only $35 USD) Then I filled up with gas, bought a large coffee, and headed to the ferry across the Yukon River. On the other side, I began a long, slow, steep climb up the mountainside to the “Top of the World Highway”. For the first half hour, I was driving through dense fog (aka heavy low clouds), but when I reached the summit of the mountains, 3000 feet above the river, I broke free of the fog/clouds and a beautiful vista of mountains lay before me, as far as the eye could see. The deep, narrow valleys below were filled with heavy, dark grey clouds – at that point, I was truly “above the clouds”!

Yukon – Top of the World Highway
Yukon – Top of the World Highway
Yukon – Top of the World Highway

For more than a hundred miles, the highway skipped along the high, rounded peaks of the Ogilvie Mountains, occasionally dipping into the narrow valleys filled with clouds. And all around me were the brilliant yellow, orange, and red fall colors of the alpine tundra, shining beautifully like a massive carpet across the Yukon Territory! About three hours later I came to the Alaskan Border Customs Station and a new time zone, but the landscape barely changed.

Alaska Border Post

Further west the road began a slow, steady descent into the Fortymile River Basin, a land of extensive mining activity. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, there were many small American mining towns that were actually located in the Yukon but lived by US laws. It remained the case until the 1920’s, which helps explain the close relationship between Alaska and the Yukon today. The highway rapidly deteriorated into a rough gravel road, with lots of hairpin turns as it meandered in and out of numerous deep valleys. The miles continued to pass by as I gazed upon the gorgeous autumn colors that unfolded before me, around every turn in the road.

FortyMile River Basin
Autumn Colors in Alaska

Eventually I came to the metropolis of Chicken and then the junction with the road to Eagle, before coming to Tetlin Junction and the vast expanse of the Tanana River Basin. A few hours later I reached Tok Junction, a place where everyone driving into or out of Alaska “must” pass on their way, either east, west, north, or south! As I fueled up and grabbed a sandwich at the historic old Tok Lodge, the sun was finally breaking through the clouds in full force, brilliantly highlighting the lovely fall colors of the forest and tundra. On the way to Glennallen, I rarely passed another vehicle for over three hours – it almost felt as if I had the highway entirely to myself! West of Glennallen, on the highway to Anchorage, there were many incredible views of the rugged Chugach Range, the peaks covered in a coat of fresh snow. The massive Tazlina and Nelchina Glaciers were shining brilliantly under the sunshine.

Chugach Range
Chugach Range
Tazlina and Nelchina Glaciers
Matanuska Valley – Eureka Summit

There was a noticeable absence of Moose and Caribou in sight, it being the start of the hunting season! As evening fell upon the Matanuska Valley, I arrived in Anchorage and checked into a nice room at the “Millennium Hotel”, located on the shore of Lake Hood, the world’s busiest float plane base. That evening I sat in the “Fancy Moose Bar”, overlooking Lake Hood, with a cold pint of Alaskan Amber, and watched the float planes taking off and landing.

Anchorage – Lake Hood

Later, as the sun was setting across the lake, I enjoyed a fabulous dinner of char-grilled fresh Halibut, topped with Mango chutney. And to finish off dinner, I had a huge piece of “Mary’s Bread Pudding”, filled with generous portions of dried wild cherries and pecans, and topped with Yukon Jack hard sauce! As I relaxed in the bar after dinner, I reflected upon the amazing experience of Dawson City and the Yukon Territory – historical, colorful, and definitely unique! A place I know I will return to someday, hopefully when there’s a vacancy!

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Canary Islands – The Forgotten Islands, somewhere between Europe and Africa

In late December of 1997, I took advantage of an award ticket on Swissair to travel to the Canary Islands, a collection of small volcanic islands 100 miles off the coast of Africa. I was really looking forward to a vacation, having been out of the country on business trips for the entire month of November, missing the Thanksgiving holiday for the past three years! As I prepared to leave home early in the morning, I not only packed my bags, but also wrapped my Christmas gifts and posted all my Christmas cards. When the morning of my departure arrived, it felt more like the beginning of another business trip, rather than the start of a vacation! On the ride to the airport, there were gorgeous views of the snow-covered San Gabriel Mountains under clear blue skies. The flight to Atlanta was very comfortable in First Class, and the hot breakfast of Mexican scrambled eggs, peppers, potatoes, and sausage was most welcome. After landing in Atlanta, I spent some time enjoying the atmosphere and amenities of the new International Business Class Lounge before boarding the SwissAir 747 for the 9 hour flight to Zurich. Just after takeoff, I relaxed with a cold gin and tonic, along with a delicious appetizer of grilled shrimp, smoked fish, and very tender roast beef. For the main dinner course I chose a superb, very delicate, poached Norwegian salmon, served with new potatoes, steamed carrots and broccoli. The meal was very fresh and delicious, accompanied by a chilled glass of Swiss white wine from the Fendant du Valais region. After dinner, the dessert and cheese cart came by with a selection of Swiss cheeses, dried fruits and nuts. A cup of expresso soon followed, along with a glass of port. I finished the evening with a glass of Cointreau on ice, feeling very relaxed and well on my way to enjoying my vacation! Several hours later, I awoke to a beautiful sunrise over the French Alps, and soon we were landing in Zurich, where the entire countryside was covered in a blanket of fresh snow. As I walked out of the airport terminal, the freezing air made its presence felt immediately on my nose! It was a short ride on the shuttle bus to the Airport Hilton Hotel, a place I was already very familiar with from many past business trips. After checking in, I took a much needed nap for a couple of hours, before going downstairs to the Swiss Tavern Restaurant for an early dinner. The restaurant was a very authentic replica of a typical Swiss village tavern, and offered very traditional fondue, a uniquely Swiss dish. My server highly recommended the “Farmer’s Cheese and Ham Fondue”, and it arrived as a large boiling pot of melted cheese and chunks of ham, along with a huge basket of crusty bread. The taste was incredible, and by the time I reached the bottom of the pot, I was pleasantly stuffed! Seated next to me was a table of locals enjoying a special “Fondue Chinoise” (Chinese fondue). At the end of their dinner, all the men ordered large snifters of French brandy and Cuban cigars, selected from a large wooden chest. Nearby, at another table was a young American gay couple who had recently passed the dating stage and were now living together for the first time. One of them ordered the fondue, to which the other remarked, “are you going to make a meal of just bread and melted cheese?” His partner was a bit more worldly and replied that he had done this before, and it was very good. After a fabulous dinner, I went up to the lobby lounge for a Swiss beer and listened to some very nice, relaxing music by an Italian musician playing piano and synthesizer.

The next morning I was awake at 3:00am, but avoided getting up until 6:00am for the return trip to the airport. After checking in for the flight to Las Palmas on Gran Canaria Island, I had coffee and pastries in the SwissAir Business Class Lounge before boarding was called. The MD-80 aircraft was almost completely full, but I was lucky enough to have an empty seat beside me for the 4 ½ hour flight. Gran Canaria Island lies to the southwest of the European continent in the Atlantic Ocean, 100 miles from the coast of Western Sahara.

The Canary Islands
Map of the Canary Islands

The first two hours were pretty bumpy, as we flew through the strong Jet Stream, and unfortunately that was also during the breakfast service! (coffee cups were spilling into the aisle) But at last, the pilots found smooth air over southern Spain, and it was a pleasant flight after that. The skies began to clear as we approached the Canary Islands, and we landed under brilliant sunshine and warm temperatures – dramatic contrast to the snow and cold of Switzerland! As I walked out of the terminal and looked for the hotel shuttle bus, which the guidebook said would be meeting arriving flights, it was no where to be seen. So I asked the airport welcome desk for the hotel’s phone number and received two different numbers. The first number I called turned out to be a private residence, but the man who answered was kind enough to give me the correct number, which turned out to be a “transposition” of two digits. He sounded as if he received calls for the hotel on a daily basis. Once I connected with the hotel front desk, I was told to take public bus #61. I made an attempt to find bus #61, but to no avail, so I finally ended up taking a taxi to the hotel.

Hotel Maspalamos Oasis

After checking in to a lovely room overlooking the ocean, I took a long walk along the beach, before enjoying a wonderful dinner at the “El Senador Restaurant”. Dinner began with sumptuous grilled shrimp sizzling in butter and garlic, followed by the main course, grilled filet of Sea Bream, served in a luscious garlic and lemon sauce. Then I finished dinner with a fantastic burnt custard dessert and a cup of espresso. Back in my hotel room, I enjoyed a glass of Spanish wine and a gorgeous sunset, as I sat on my private veranda – a beautiful, relaxing end to the day!

Sunset on Gran Canary Island

The following morning, I began the day with a delicious breakfast buffet outside by the pool, under warm, sunny skies. Later, I joined a group of German tourists for a day long tour of the island. There were five mini-vans, filled with people mostly over 65, all of whom were very nice, but a very quiet group. I was very lucky to be able to sit in the front seat, next to the driver – perfect for taking photos. Our tour leader was Herman and our driver Carlos, a real “ladies man”, who was constantly whistling and singing to himself – mostly for his own entertainment! He was very nice, and very flamboyant, in contrast to the very staid German tourists. His favorite saying was “Mein God”! We drove high into the volcanic mountains on very steep, narrow roads, where vehicles had to reverse many times on tight switchbacks to ascend the mountain. We travelled from the dry, barren south side of the island, over the high summit, to the very wet, heavily forested north side – an incredibly dramatic change in a very short distance. It was almost as if we had suddenly crossed over to a totally different island!

The road up the mountains
South side of the island
North side of the island

Along the way, although the dominant language of our group was German, Spanish was the official language of the island. During our tour of the island, we passed through many small coastal towns and villages, built on steep cliffs overlooking the sea, the houses being a brilliant white with deep purple trim. In many of the steep, narrow canyons were large reservoirs called “Barancos”. At one point, we turned off the coastal road and headed up the “Grand Canyon of the Canarias”, on an incredibly steep and twisting road.

Grand Canyon of the Canarias

Near the top of the canyon, we stopped in a tiny village to visit a small church carved out of a cave. We were greeted by the mayor (Burgermeister), Don Juan Carlos, who had emigrated from Cuba many years before. After viewing the church, he invited us into his house, also partially in a cave, for fresh cactus fruit juice from his garden. Then we watched as he ground corn meal by hand on an old stone wheel. Meanwhile, a local program played on his old B&W TV inside the cave! Just outside his house was gorgeous, huge Poinsettia bush with spectacular deep scarlet blooms. Looking around, the whole mountainside was a collection of small fields laid out in a series of terraces that climbed up the steep slopes.

Village and church
Old house built into a cave
Don Juan Carlos grinding corn

Further down the road, we stopped for lunch at a small hotel restaurant, situated in another steep, narrow valley on the north side of the island. The restaurant was well known for serving a unique dish consisting of thin slices of various meats and fresh vegetables that each of us could cook as we wished on our own “hot volcanic rock” in the center of the table. Along with the delicious meats and vegetables came lots of local red wine, and a fabulous thick cream pudding topped with cinnamon and sugar. The whole meal, including the wine, was very inexpensive, costing each of us only 1500 pesetas (roughly $5.00).

Lunch in the village
On tour of the island
Terraced fields

Leaving the restaurant, we drove down the narrow valley on another incredibly steep, one-lane road, past fields of bananas, papayas, cabbage, carrots, eggplant, corn, and avocados – a very lush, green landscape, in stark contrast to the south side of the island. Eventually we reached the coast again, and soon were driving through Las Palmas, the island’s largest city. As we drove past the heavily developed and industrial area, I was very glad to be staying in Maspalomas, a much more beautiful part of the island. As we arrived back at the hotel, we were rewarded with a spectacular sunset that silhouetted the mountains beautifully. For dinner that evening, I had a delicious dish of sizzling garlic shrimp at El Senador again. After which I had a beer at the “Piano Beach Bar”, where a local singer was performing classic lounge songs. He had a good voice, but he kept hitting off key notes on the keyboard – perhaps he was “tone deaf”? Meanwhile, I watched the waves pounding the rocks on the beach below, listening to their eternal rhythm – a beautiful evening! I finished the night in the hotel lobby bar, listening to an English band called “Sweet Home”. They played everything from Frank Sinatra and classic Viennese waltzes to 50’s Rock-n-Roll! And to top off the night, they played the current popular hit, “Macarena”, to the delight of the German tourists!

Evening at the hotel

The next morning, I was awakened at 8:00am by a phone call from the local “Hertz” man, who wanted me to come down to his office to pick up the rental car I had booked for 12 noon! He claimed it was not possible to wait until noon, so we settled on an 11:00am pickup. Following another wonderful breakfast buffet by the pool, I grabbed my camera, water bottle, sunscreen, and headed into an extensive expanse of sand dunes not far from the hotel. Along the way, I passed a corral where camels were kept for “rides through the desert”. The northern edge of the area had several, large stable dunes covered with a thick forest of Juniper brush. But as I walked south toward the sea, the vegetation quickly became sparse as the dunes became more unstable.

The dunes
The dunes and Palace Hotel in the distance

Soon I came to some very high dunes, and as I reached the crest, I suddenly found myself overlooking a large group of nude men sunbathing and “parading” among the dunes! I managed to seek an alternate route toward the coast. On the way I spotted lots of tracks in the sand from lizards, snakes, and small animals, but during the entire time, I saw only one lizard. (so I suspected they were all nocturnal) Just before I reached the coast, I had to climb one of the highest dunes, but my struggle up the steep soft sand was rewarded with a spectacular view – craggy, volcanic mountains to the north and golden rolling sand dunes to the south. And on the eastern edge of the dunes was the “Palace Hotel”, a massive, pure white structure, gleaming in the bright sunshine! To the west was an old lighthouse, standing tall against the deep blue sky. From the coast, I trekked further west, up and down what seemed liked endless dunes, under the brilliant mid-day sun, before finally reaching a long stretch of beautiful white sand beach and pounding surf!

Palace Hotel
The beach
Dunes and the lighthouse in the distance

As I sat on the edge of the dunes, a constant stream of people strolled along the beach – all manner of bodies passed by, beautiful and otherwise. I couldn’t help but notice quite a few women going topless, though in all honesty, most would have looked better had they kept their tops on! I took off my hiking boots and walked along the beach, my bare feet playing “tag” with the surf. It was a lovely feeling every time the water flooded over my feet, amid the warm sunshine – very peaceful and relaxing. As I continued walking west toward the lighthouse, many young families frolicked nude in the surf – so many that I soon wondered if I had inadvertently walked into a nudist camp! But everyone seemed to take my presence in stride, so I didn’t feel at all uncomfortable. But at one point, I passed a couple of little old English ladies, who must have been more than a bit shocked, as several men strolled by them with everything “flying in the wind”! It was a long but enjoyable walk along the beach back to the hotel, and a wonderful way to enjoy the beautiful sunshine, the roar of the ocean, and the spectacular scenery.

“nude” sunbathers

When I reached the far end of the beach, I found a perfect place to stop for a cold beer – the “Café Bachstueben”. It had the original Budweiser beer from Budvar, Czechoslovakia. As I sat on the terrace, overlooking the beach, it didn’t take long to realize, with so many people nude, just how few are really attractive! But it’s great to see that they feel OK to “let it all hang out”, whatever it is and whatever it looks like. Back at the hotel, I relaxed on my veranda with a glass of wine and watched a gorgeous sunset. Later, I strolled through the small town of Maspalomas and stopped at “La Bodega Terraza” for a fantastic dinner of fresh grilled fish and vegetables, along with a cold pint of German beer. Meanwhile, a young guitarist played old rock and classic jazz tunes, sometimes very good, but all the time competing with a couple of Spanish guitarists at the restaurant next door!

The next morning, after another incredible breakfast buffet on the terrace, under clear blue skies, I savored my last day in the Canary Islands. I packed my bags and loaded them into the Hertz rental car – a very little red car, with just enough space behind the seat for my bag. Then I got directions from the hotel concierge about how to get to the road that would lead to the small villages of San Bartolome and Santa Lucia, high up the steep mountains in the center of the island. As I drove up the steep, narrow, twisting road, I found the little red car was perfect for driving in the mountains. There were times when it was a bit scary though, even with guard rails on the edge of the road, especially when approaching oncoming traffic. Soon I reached the summit of a high ridge, where I was rewarded with a spectacular view of a massive rock headwall, looming high above the deep valley below. In the distance, clinging to the incredibly steep slope, at the base of the thousand foot high headwall, were the two small villages. Brilliant white washed houses clung to the mountainside, neatly stacked one on another – a gorgeous scene under the clear blue skies and radiant sunshine.

Village of San Bartolome
San Bartolome
Santa Lucia in the distance

As I followed the narrow, sinuous road, it dropped sharply into the deep valley of the “Barranco de Tiranja”. When I finally reached the valley floor, I came to the tiny village of “Fataga”, where there was a large oasis and a small herd of camels. (the village was famous for “camel safaris”) As with so many other traditional villages on the island, all the houses were white washed and topped with roofs of red clay tile that gleamed in the mid-day sun.

Barranco de Tiranja
Village of Fataga

All too soon, I had to make my way to the airport for my return flight to Zurich. The 5 hour flight was very pleasant, with a delicious dinner of pork tenderloin in a wild Morel mushroom sauce, along with a chilled glass of Swiss white wine. I reflected on the trip to a beautiful place that I would remember for a long time, and that in two days time I would be sharing Christmas with my sister Lynn, Nils, and Leslie – by way of Zurich, Cincinnati, Salt Lake City, and Boise. From warm, sunny beaches to snow covered mountains – such is the pleasure of travel!

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Kiev, Ukraine – After the Fall of the Soviet Union

In October of 1996, I traveled to Moscow to conduct a training class for the staff of our Russian office. At the end of the class, I was headed to Kiev, the capitol of the new Republic of Ukraine. I was up at 5:00 am for the ride to the old Vnukovo Airport south of Moscow, where I had to wait for over an hour before being allowed to check in for the flight to Kiev. The old Soviet era airport was a very dark, cold, and depressing place! But luckily, I was travelling in Business Class on the Russian airline “TransAero”, so I was able to take advantage of waiting in the new Business Class lounge – a world away from the drab airport lobby. At last the Kiev flight was called for boarding, but rather than proceeding to a gate, we were lead (more like “herded”) into an old WWII Soviet army truck! After 10 minutes or so, the truck pulled up beside a new Boeing 737 aircraft, and soon I relaxed in my business class seat with a cold gin and tonic. My seatmate was a young American woman who had lived in Fairbanks, Alaska for seven years, so we had a lot in common to talk about. She also spoke fluent Russian and helped me read the choices for breakfast – a turkey sandwich or an omelet. An hour and a half later we landed in Kiev, and Evgeny, our Ukrainian representative met me at the airport. He drove me to the “hotel”, which was actually more like “student housing”, and it came with no heat and no hot water! As soon as I entered the room, I knew it would become a serious problem – I could tolerate the cold room, but not a cold shower! I spent the rest of the day exploring the city on foot. There were countless old Orthodox churches, each with a beautiful, onion-shaped dome gilded in brilliant gold. As I came to one of the largest churches, I stopped to observe the very traditional service, where everyone stood throughout the entire liturgy. Later, I came to the “Golden Gate”, part of the ancient wall that once surrounded the old city. As I walked down one of the old, narrow, winding streets, I passed a multitude of musicians and artists. Just then, I spotted a little sidewalk café and stopped in for a delicious Apel Strudel. Further along the street, I came to a very interesting “underground” bar that had several small, dark wooden booths along a single, long narrow corridor. The German beer was great, but what I remembered most of all, was the one and only toilet. It was located inside a small, narrow “closet” under the stairs, and at the top of a series of steps – functional, but very weird! (Most of the public toilets I saw were of the Gallic type – basically nothing more than a hole in the floor, and almost always gross and disgusting!) In beautiful contrast were the brilliant autumn colors of the trees that lined the banks of the Dnieper River.

Map of the Ukraine
Riverfront Park
Fall Colors

I walked through a lovely riverfront park and stopped for dinner at a nice outdoor café, where the borscht and dark bread were superb. That evening I joined Evgeny and Andrei to watch a ballet competition at the historic “Taras Schevchenko Theatre”. It was a gorgeous 18th century opera house, but I was a bit nervous when Evgeny “sneaked” us in through a backstage door!

The next day, we went to Evgeny’s office at ECOMM, located in one of the old buildings of the State Geology Centre. To say the building was in bad shape would be a gross understatement – no electricity to power the elevators (had to climb five flights of stairs), no water above the third floor, and more gross, disgusting toilets! In fact, the toilets were particularly weird – being standard sit down toilets, but “sunken” into the concrete floor so that the toilet seat was “level” with the floor! It was pretty obvious that one was required to “stand” on the seat in order to use the toilet! The old offices were cramped, drab, and dreary – the hallways choked with heavy cigarette smoke. And if that wasn’t enough, there was no heat. (the Geology Centre had not been able to pay their utility bill for several months!) To make matters even worse, the noise from jackhammers on the floor above almost drowned out normal conversation. Thankfully, my time in the ECOMM office lasted only a couple of hours. Later in the afternoon, I was moved to a different “hotel”, where I was promised hot water, but still no heat! I was told that the central heat for all buildings in the city was “scheduled” to be turned on October 15, regardless of the weather. I was shown to a large apartment that had two bedrooms, sitting room, bathroom, and kitchen – spacious, but sparsely furnished. As it turned out, this “hotel” was part of the Academy of Science, where visiting scientists and academics stayed. When lunchtime rolled around, we all went to a small restaurant next door. As I entered the place, I noticed it was once again decorated in the classic old Soviet style of dull brown and faded red, with the windows covered by heavy curtains – a very dark and depressing atmosphere, with the one exception of a couple of bright, multi-colored panels of beautifully painted Ukrainian wildflowers. They were a welcome breath of fresh air amid the stagnant surroundings! Sadly, the food was as mediocre as the restaurant, with half-cooked chicken and soggy, greasy potatoes. The only ray of sunshine during the meal was a bowl of traditional Ukrainian borscht, which was excellent. Meanwhile, a huge Great Dane stood in the doorway eyeing our table, and I would have gladly given my plate to him! After a couple more hours of work at the ECOMM office, Evgeny took me grocery shopping so that I would have something to fix for breakfast in the morning, as well as some beer for the evening. The new super market was much the same as one might find at home, with the exception that it included a full bar and currency exchange – but had run out of beer! So Evgeny stopped at a local street vendor and filled a large plastic bag with a dozen bottles of Ukrainian beer, of which three leaked. So by the time I reached the hotel and entered the elevator, beer was dripping steadily from the plastic bag! That evening I decided to take a hot shower before heading to bed, just in case the hot water disappeared by morning. My evening entertainment was provided by an old color TV, with an antenna that consisted of a six foot section of electrical wire. I spent over half an hour “repositioning” the wire, searching for the right location to get the best reception. Ironically, the huge central radio/TV tower was only a stone’s throw from my room!

The next day, I gave a technical presentation at the second annual Ukrainian GIS Conference, which was held in an old Soviet era trade institute in an eastern suburb of Kiev. Among my observations during the conference:

  • Still no heat in the building
  • Presenters seated at the head table were constantly coming and going on and off the stage
  • Very old lecture hall with incredibly uncomfortable seats (most likely designed to keep people awake)
  • Almost all the presentations had no visual aids or at best, just a few poorly designed overhead slides which were mostly unreadable (only one other presenter besides me used a computer and video projector)
  • Most of the presenters just “droned” on and on about various computer system configurations – without even a hint of a system diagram, only reading names of hardware and software components
Trade Institute

At one of the breaks, I met a lady from Data+, our Russian office in Moscow, who had travelled by overnight train to attend the conference. Later, lunch was served in a high school cafeteria on the other side of a busy 4-lane expressway. Rather than use the pedestrian underpass 50 meters away, 300 people dashed across the highway, narrowly missing being hit by the heavy traffic! (I chose to use the underpass) The meal was typical of what I had experienced in Russia – boiled cabbage and beets, boiled potatoes with carrots, heavy black bread, borscht (the best part of the lunch), and some “mystery meat” that looked like a bit of Swiss steak. And just as in Moscow, there were no knives, just some flimsy aluminum alloy forks and spoons, neither of which could begin to cut the mystery meat! After lunch, we all returned to the lecture hall, most by dashing across the busy highway again. As I sat in the cold, dreary hall, listening to another “drone”, I longed to be outside in the beautiful, sunny, warm Indian Summer – the golden yellow and brilliant orange trees softly dropping their leaves to the ground with the slightest breeze. At the same time, I don’t think anyone was listening to the speaker, not even the speaker himself! Soon my thoughts turned to how much I was looking forward to going to Vienna at the end of the week – sort of like “decompressing” from the “challenges” of Eastern Europe, similar to the feeling I had whenever I arrived in Hong Kong after spending two or three weeks in China. At last, the first day of the conference concluded, and Evgeny took me for a walk in a park on a hill overlooking the Dnieper River, where there was a huge grey metal statue dedicated to the veterans at the end of WWII. At the base of the monument was a large collection of old military equipment from the 1930’s and 40’s, including a massive old railroad tank that had two huge guns, one at each end.

WWII Veterans Park
WWII Veterans Memorial Statue
Dnieper River Valley

From the top of the hill was a gorgeous view of the river valley, with a beautiful sunset reflected off the golden dome of an old Orthodox church across the river. Then Evgeny and I joined Andrei for dinner. After finding two restaurants closed, we ended up at the “Restaurant Dnieper” in old Kiev. We were seated in a classic dining room named the “Al a Carte Room”, and promptly served ice cold glasses of Ukrainian vodka. For dinner, Evgeny recommended “Chicken Kiev”, an original recipe of the restaurant. (breast of chicken, fileted and wrapped around a stuffing of wild mushrooms, exotic spices, and butter, then deep fried to a crispy outside, but soft and juicy inside – really fantastic!)

The following morning, the hot water came on at 6:30 am, so that by 7:00 am I had a nice hot shower, as the sun rose over the city. Ironically, as soon as I turned off the shower, the hot water suddenly disappeared, entirely – nothing but air came out of the faucet! Needless to say, I was very fortunate. For breakfast I fixed a typical Slavic meal of hot tea and small sandwiches of dry bread and sliced sausage. Later, after a morning conducting a training class, we had lunch at the “hotel” nearby where I had spent my first night. The food was simple, but very tasty. However, when Vladimir asked about the hot water situation, he was told it was still off, which made me glad that I had insisted upon changing hotels! After the training class, we drove back to the high school to attend the conference Gala Banquet. As we arrived, we found a room full of large tables filled with dishes of mystery meat, fish, fresh vegetables, and loaves of dark bread. And on the corner of each table were several bottles of mineral water, wine, and of course, Vodka. During the dinner, there were countless toasts of Vodka to everybody and everything. It seemed as though there was no excuse needed to propose a toast, other than the fact that there hadn’t been a toast within the past five minutes. As the evening progressed, Evgeny kept introducing me to people who needed support with software, but who had no money. Communication was very difficult, as Evgeny translated for me, trying his best to search for the right words from his limited vocabulary of English. I felt as if I was being “handled” the whole evening – very uncomfortable and exhausting! At one point, Evgeny introduced me to a large man who was a high-level government official. He was very drunk from the large bottle of Vodka he carried with him. Then, all of a sudden, he lunged forward, gave me a huge bear hug, and planted a very wet “kiss” on my cheek! I was stunned and stood silent, not knowing what to do. But at last the evening came to a close and we drove back to my hotel.

The next day, during the training class, workmen on the floor above us, spent most of the day pounding hammers on the concrete floor – not an ideal learning environment. Meanwhile, the weather had turned very gray and cold, with the threat of rain or snow at any time. If it hadn’t been for the beautiful golden leaves on the trees, it would have been very drab and depressing. That evening, we went to a very nice restaurant near Evgeny’s office. It was elegant, despite the heavy brown fixtures and classic Soviet era design. There were very few people dining, but the food was great, especially the Bulgarian salad of fresh diced tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions, topped with shredded goat cheese and black olives. We finished dinner with a cup of strong Turkish coffee. When I got up the next morning at 7:00 am, I discovered there was no hot water, so I went back to bed, and a half hour later, the hot water returned – thankfully. Later in the day, Evgeny accompanied me to the City Architecture Office for a meeting with the department head, and it turned into a long, difficult conversation, again due to Evgeny’s limited English vocabulary. The lack of heat in the office didn’t help the situation either. After the meeting, we walked to a nearby metro station, and descended into what seemed like the “bowels of hell” – incredibly long escalator into a very deep subway. The metro station was beautiful, much like the classic Stalinist metro stations in Moscow. The journey on the metro took us to a lovely park on a large island in the middle of the Dnieper River. When we arrived, a wedding party was having their photos taken beside the eternal flame honoring the veterans of WWII. The bride’s sparkling white dress shined brilliantly against the background of golden leaves on the trees and deep red shrubs surrounding them.

City Park
City Park

We walked through the park and across a wooden bridge to an old part of the city, where an ancient stone wall surrounded the church and monastery of Lavra.  As we entered the main gate house, there were ancient paintings of many old Saints, with their heads surrounded by halos of gold, hanging on the walls. The old church had been bombed during WWII and left in its state of destruction as a memorial. The treasures of the church, which had been confiscated by the Soviet state, were now on display in a new museum next to the church. The domes of the church and monastery were gilded in gold, which shined even on a cloudy day. We walked down a steep old street paved with huge blocks of stone, worn smooth by people and carts over the course of a thousand years. Eventually we came to an old iron gate and the entrance to the catacombs (caves) beneath the church, but they were closed for the day. However, Evgeny said he would try to see if they could be opened for an important foreign guest like me! So we entered the “Church Relations Office” and enquired. We were delighted when a nice young monk volunteered to guide us on a special tour of the caves. We followed him along the stone path, through a vineyard, to the entrance, where we were both handed a small candle. Then we proceeded down some steep, narrow steps into the eerie darkness. It was difficult to see much of anything, since our candles were almost going out many times, due to the wind. The dark narrow passageway became very eerie as our candles flickered, throwing strange shadows on the walls and ceiling. Soon we came upon several ancient wooden caskets with the remains of saints dating back to the 10th and 11th centuries. The tops of the caskets were covered with glass, revealing the mummified bodies of the saints, dressed in elaborate robes made of gold thread. On several occasions, the young monk stopped to kiss the glass to honor a particular saint. The dark, narrow passageway began to make me feel a bit nervous and claustrophobic! Some of the saints were actually buried into the wall, with a glass window for viewing them. Meanwhile, our young guide kept telling us about the saints as we walked past them, but after the first 10 or 12, I lost track, since all their stories seemed pretty much the same. However, I’m sure to the faithful, each saint represented a unique position of honor in the church. Near the end of our tour, we came upon three small chapels, carved deep in the caves, dating back to the 10th century. Just beyond was a very small room carved out of the rock, once the residence of Saint Anthony, the first monk to establish the Greek Orthodox church in the Ukraine. Nearby was another very small room carved in the wall where a saint had himself “entombed” to await his death – weird! (there was no evidence of just how long he had to wait) As we made our way to the exit, we passed a group of young priests dressed in black robes, engaged in prayers and meditation. Back up on the surface and into the world of the living, I felt as if I had just travelled back in time a thousand years – such an historic, yet macabre experience! And just as we were about to exit the catacombs, the electric lights suddenly came on, illuminating all of the dark passageways through which we had walked with only the faint light from our tiny candles! (so the candles must have been for “special effects”)

Lavra Church
Lavra Church
Lavra Church
Lavra Monastery

Located near to Lavra was the “Mykola Syadristy Microminiatures Museum”, which Evgeny described as an extraordinary display of miniatures. I assumed there would be a lot of familiar objects in small scale versions. But to my surprise, all of the exhibits could only be viewed through a large magnifying glass – true “MicroArt”. Among the most impressive and unusual objects were:

  • A complete chess set carved on the head of a pin
  • A rose flower carved inside a human hair
  • A set of golden shoes on the feet of a flea
  • A working clock inside the eye of a dragonfly
  • The entire score of an opera, written on the face of a pear seed
  • The world’s smallest working electric motor
  • A 4-masted sailing ship, the size of a pencil point, made of gold

To say this exhibition was one of the wonders of the modern world would be an understatement – truly an amazing and fascinating museum!

Museum of Miniatures

The walk through the park, back to the metro station, was especially lovely, with a thick carpet of gold and red leaves rustling beneath our feet. Along the way, on our return to the hotel, Evgeny needed to call Vladimir, so he walked across the street to a bank of four old telephones, only one of which worked, but he didn’t need to pay for the call – public phone calls in the city were free, as long as you could find one that worked! Later we met Vladimir and went upstairs to the “Salyut Restaurant”, where we began dinner by sampling three different kinds of Ukrainian vodka. After a fabulous meal of Chicken Kiev, Evgeny invited us to his house in the woods, 20 miles outside the city, for some cognac and to meet his girlfriend Natasha. She greeted us dressed in her bathrobe! It was pretty obvious she wasn’t expecting us. We got to see Evgeny’s young German Shepherd and her nine two-week old puppies – beautiful! After many toasts of Cognac from Crimea, Vladimir drove me back to the city.

The next day, Evgeny and Vladimir took me to the “Pirogovo Open-Air Museum” on the outskirts of the city, where there were many old, historic wooden buildings of all shapes and sizes from several regions of Ukraine.

Entering the Open-Air Museum
Old Church in the Open-Air Museum
Open-Air Museum
Open-Air Museum
Open-Air Museum
Open-Air Museum
Open-Air Museum
Windmill in the Open-Air Museum
Windmills in the Open-Air Museum
Ancient Church – Open-Air Museum
Open-Air Museum
Open-Air Museum
Open-Air Museum

In addition to the beautiful old buildings were several classic old wooden windmills. The origin of a few of the oldest wooden structures could be traced back hundreds of years to people from the Carpathian Mountains, who shared a common history with ancient Greece and Troy. As we were leaving the Open-Air Museum, we soon found ourselves following a large group of people, and it wasn’t long before we discovered that we had inadvertently become part of a wedding ceremony! Just then, as we were about to excuse ourselves, an old woman said, “never mind, join us anyway”! The next morning, the weather turned cloudy and damp, so I felt very fortunate to have had beautiful sunshine for my photos the day before. As I went down to the hotel restaurant for a delicious breakfast of cheese blintzes, I noticed that much of the hotel space had been leased to private businesses, one of which was the “Ukraine-American Law Company”! After breakfast, Evgeny met me with his driver Yuri, for the drive to a meeting at the Ministry of Civil Defense and a tour of their training centre. As we drove through the center of Kiev, I couldn’t help but notice that Yuri “draped” the seat belt across his lap “unfastened”, in order to appear to the police that he was obeying the law – never mind the aspect of safety! After enduring a long, tedious meeting with the Director of the training centre, we were taken on a tour of the facility. The whole place resembled a “museum”, with scale models of everything from a sugar mill, to a bomb shelter, and even a pig farm. Most of the displays had lighted panels that demonstrated various processes, like water purification and electrical power generation. Throughout the massive facility were large rooms of old, outdated 1950’s analog technology for “monitoring” disasters – but curiously, there were no computers anywhere to be seen! Near the end of the tour we were shown an extensive 3-D model of a typical town, before and after a nuclear bomb blast – complete with flickering lights and fires, for both daylight and nighttime simulations. As we left the training centre, my impression was that of an outdated facility, better “re-purposed” as a public museum, with an admission fee. At least that would help pay for the heat! In stark contrast to the Ministry of Civil Defense was our next destination, the offices of the Ministry of Emergencies. There we found a large, new building of Italian marble and exotic Asian hardwoods, nothing like the drab old Soviet style at the Ministry of Civil defense. There was even a huge new $70,000 state of the art video projection system. Judging by the names of the two ministries, it begged the question, “does an emergency not call for the actions of civil defense”? But it seemed clear that emergencies were far better supported financially than civil defense preparation. Evgeny had also arranged a spur of the moment meeting with the Minister, and as soon as we entered his palatial office, he offered us glasses of French brandy. Thankfully, the meeting was a short one, and we were soon on our way to dinner at the “Dniepro Hotel Restaurant”. We were greeted to a very nice, huge buffet of many traditional Ukrainian dishes, including the ever-famous Chicken Kiev. The restaurant was very busy, mostly with foreigners who could afford the price of 48 Gryzna (about $25.00), which was very expensive for Ukrainians. But the dinner was a hundred times better than anything at the “Hotel Ukraine” where I was staying – thanks very much Evgeny!

At last, the day came that promised a return to more comfortable surroundings – my flight to Vienna. Evgeny and Vladimir picked me up at 10:00 am, each with a gift of Cognac from Crimea. Then we drove downtown for breakfast at the “Nika Restaurant” (Hikä in Russian). It was a very nice little café with marble topped tables and bright, cheery colors – obviously a new place, in stark contrast to the surrounding drab neighborhood. The menu had some unusual items, including “flabby eggs with omelet” and “roasn beef”. I speculated that the eggs must be scrambled, but I had no idea about the beef. I chose fried eggs Turkish style that were served with diced peppers and onions – delicious! As we sat in the restaurant, Evgeny kept dashing outside and around the corner to check on my luggage in his car, to make sure the bags were still there. (which begged the question of whether his car was locked or not?) After breakfast, on the way to the airport, we made a short stop at Lavra so I could take a few more photos of the gold domes glittering in the bright sunshine and surrounded by a forest of red and gold – stunning!

Lavra Monastery – Kiev
(By Falin – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

At the airport, I said a fond farewell to Evgeny and Vladimir, with heartfelt thanks for their generous hospitality. Passing through immigration and customs, I checked in for my flight and then proceeded to the departure hall. Unfortunately, there was no Business Class lounge, so I occupied some time shopping and found a couple of handmade lacquer boxes painted with lovely scenes of old Kiev, as well as a traditional icon painting of the Virgin Mary. After shopping, I spotted the “Irish Bar”, sat down, ordered a cold beer, and prepared to bring my travel notes up to date. When the pint of beer arrived, I was informed that only US dollars or German Deutschmarks were accepted as payment! Suddenly, that left me with 80 Gryzna in local currency, as well as 600,000 Russian Roubles, both of which were totally worthless outside of Ukraine or Russia! The flight to Vienna on Austrian Airlines was very nice, with a delicious lunch served as well. My seatmate was an American businessman who had the very latest mobile phone, with many of the features that we take for granted today in our smartphones, including wireless access to the internet. It was quite a large device and had a very expensive price tag, but it was the latest technology available at the time. Looking back now, it would most likely reside in a museum today! I arrived in Vienna to find cold, cloudy weather, a sure sign of approaching winter. I took the train into the city and walked to the Hotel Sofitel Belvedere, a small historic hotel on a quiet street near the “Stadtpark” (city park). For dinner that evening, I walked to the “Railway Pub” for the world’s best Wiener Schnitzel and a cold stein of local Gösser beer. As I savored the light, crispy schnitzel and cold beer, I reflected upon the unique and challenging experience in the Ukraine. With the recent fall of the Soviet Union, I was confident that things would soon improve for the Ukraine, especially given the warm hospitality of the people! And I look forward to another trip to the Ukraine.

Central Place of Kiev
Dnieper River
View of Kiev
Monastery at Lavra


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Kenya – The East African Plains: On the Ground and from the Air

In July and August of 1991 I embarked on my second “around the world” trip to conduct software training classes in Singapore, Kathmandu, New Delhi, and Nairobi. My itinerary included stops in Anchorage, Hong Kong, Singapore, Dhaka, Kathmandu, Calcutta, New Delhi, Mumbai, Nairobi, Frankfurt and New York before returning to Los Angeles. One part of the journey was especially memorable, the time I spent in Kenya, specifically the opportunity to visit Masai Mara National Park, on the border with Tanzania. After landing in Nairobi on an Air India flight from Mumbai, Mike picked me up and we drove to the headquarters of the Kenya Wildlife Service where I would spend the next five days training the staff in the use of the latest GIS software. During the daily commute to the training facility, I observed the traffic, a chaotic mix of old buses, and small mini-vans called “Matutus”, all of them “packed to the gills”, with people “hanging from the rafters”! In the midst of this chaos, hundreds of pedestrians made mad dashes across the streets, deftly dodging the traffic. But the most unusual sight had to be the huge dump trucks hauling people in the back of the truck, even during the rain. What a ride it must have been, but at least it must have been cheap. One evening Mike suggested that we have dinner at the world famous “Carnivore Restaurant”, which is known for its extensive menu of wild game. I ordered the smallest plate, but even at ¼ kg it was huge, so I couldn’t imagine what the 1 kg plate must have looked like. When the plate arrived, it had a large assortment of meat, including Hartebeest, Zebra, Cape Buffalo, and Crocodile tail, which was especially tasty – sweet and tender.

Downtown Nairobi
Serena Lodge – Nairobi

At the end of the week, we left class early so that Mike and I could drive down to Masai Mara National Park for the weekend. Mike’s friends Monica, Bridgette, and Suzanne joined us, and soon we were on our way south through the “White Highlands” and the Great Rift Valley.

White Highlands

The girls had prepared all of the food, enough for a two week safari, though we would only be gone for two days. Slowly the highway climbed up to the top of the Kikuyu Escarpment at an elevation of 8,000 feet, through a region of lush forest, rolling hills, and beautiful tea plantations. Later we turned off the main highway on to a narrow, unpaved road that dropped steeply over 5,000 feet down the side of the escarpment to the floor of the Great Rift Valley – a much warmer and drier environment.

Great Rift Valley – Kikuyu Escarpment

The road had been built in the early 1940’s by Italian prisoners of war, and it had way more deep potholes than road surface. We stopped for petrol in the small town of Narok, and as we drove through the town, I made note of some very interesting landmarks that included “California Grocers”, “Side View Hotel”, and “Supa Dupa Dressmakers”. Leaving Narok we drove across vast expanses of grassland, dotted with scattered Acacia (Thorn) trees, and occasionally a large wheat farm. The sight of huge green and yellow John Deere combines harvesting grain, as herds of cattle and goats were being tended by Masai warriors nearby, was a stark contrast of cultures! All along the side of the road, we saw Masai warriors dressed in their traditional red cape and carrying a long spear – very primitive, yet proud and majestic.

Masai Warrior

Further on, the road deteriorated rapidly into a narrow dirt track, so we locked the hubs in 4WD. As we approached the National Park boundary, we began seeing more wildlife, including large herds of Gazelle, Impala, Kudu, Ostrich, and Cape Buffalo. When we arrived at the park gate, Mike handed the guard a letter from Dr. Andere, the head of the Kenya Wildlife Service, granting us entry without having to pay the park fee. Leaving the ranger station, we drove over a low hill and onto another dirt track that took us to the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) Research Station where the Aerial Survey staff were camped. Nearby, the British Army had a small camp, as they were working to renovate the research station. The KWS staff had their tents pitched in the tall grass beside a small grove of trees, overlooking the hills to the east – an ideal setting for a safari camp. We set up our tents on the edge of the circle and the girls promptly laid claim to the large tent, “assigning” Mike and I to the small alpine tent!

KWS Aerial Survey Camp
KWS Camp
Mike and our Alpine Tent

As dusk approached, the KWS staff had a roaring campfire going, so we joined them and grilled our marinated beef over the flames. It was delicious, along with the German potato salad and cold Tusker beer. Later in the evening, we shared our meager ration of Johnny Walker whiskey with the KWS guys around the campfire and related our experiences of being in Africa. As we talked, the fire burned slowly, and the stars above us shone bright in the night sky – the surrounding hills became beautiful silhouettes! (a magical evening) As I lay in my sleeping bag that night, I listened to the occasional sounds of Hyenas and Lions in the distance. There was a guard (“escari” in Swahili) posted on duty throughout the night, just in case. Our camp was the only one permitted in the park, as all other visitors were required to stay in one of the park lodges, for safety reasons. Visions from the film “Out of Africa” filled my head that night.

The next morning, I was up with the sun – the early morning air was cool and the tall grass glistened with heavy dew. There were a few lingering sounds of Hyenas in the distance, and the surrounding hills were awakening under the early rays of the sun. Just then I noticed a troop of Baboons slowly making its way around the edge of the camp toward the grove of trees beyond. They scampered through the tall, wet grass, lead by a large male. Meanwhile, several youngsters played tag with each other and generally “harassed” the rest of the troop! It was a fun scene to watch, but one had to be careful, since Baboons can be dangerous if they feel threatened.

Troop of Baboons

By this time, Mike was also up, so we got the water boiling for coffee and waited for the girls to wake up, which finally came around 9am. Then it was off to Keekarok Lodge for breakfast, where the girls also took advantage of the washroom facilities.

Keekarok Lodge
Keekarok Lodge

After breakfast in the lodge, we headed west on the main track (aka dirt road) toward the Mara River, and along the way we spotted our first large herd of Wildebeest and Zebra. The scenery was very classic East African plains – high rolling hills and wide valleys, covered in tall grass and scattered flat-topped Acacia trees. It was beautiful! When we reached the crossing of the Mara River, we saw a large pool of Hippos, some of them stretched out on the river bank, sunning themselves. As we stood on the edge of the river watching the Hippos, a couple of Vervet Monkeys sat in the tree watching us.

Hippos in the Mara River
Vervet Monkey watching us

The Hippos periodically surfaced, blew their nostrils, and submerged again. All of a sudden, a great upwelling of Hippo manure appeared in the middle of the river – it just kept bubbling up and bubbling up – massive! It was a sight not easily forgotten. We bid farewell to the Hippos and headed north to Serena Lodge, with the 5,000 foot Olooyou Escarpment in the distance. The lodge was located atop a large hill overlooking the Mara River and designed to resemble a traditional Masai “Manyatta”, built into the side of the hill facing the river.

Serena Lodge

The view was spectacular as we sat on the terrace by the pool, with our cold Tusker beers. Below us, Elephants and Cape Buffalo grazed in the tall grass near the river – the vast East African plains stretched to the horizon. While we relaxed by the pool, a young Hyrax scampered past us on the rock ledge. It’s so strange to see one of them and know this overgrown Guinea Pig is the closest relative of the Elephant!


Later, we drove south, following the river on a little used dirt track, and stopped at a large bend in the river to have a picnic lunch beneath the lovely Acacia trees. That’s when we noticed two large Crocodiles “lounging” on the opposite bank, while a group of Hippos bathed in the water downstream – so we named the place “Crocodile Point”. Across the river we could see a large herd of Wildebeest in the distance and hear the faint sounds of their “snorting”.

Crocodiles in the Mara River

That afternoon, on our way back to Keekarok Lodge, we came upon a large, black-maned male lion and a lioness on the edge of the track, no more than 20 yards away. Further on, we encountered a group of tourist “combis” that had surrounded 6 – 8 lions asleep in the bushes. The lions paid no attention to the efforts of the tourists to get them to respond!

Lion and lioness
Giraffe on the plains

Back at the lodge, we sat on the veranda with cold Tusker beers in hand, and watched a group of young Vervet Monkeys steal some small jars of marmalade from one of the tables in the restaurant. At the same time, their “criminal activity” was captured on film and video by several tourist cameras – the monkeys were definitely not camera shy!

Monkey stealing marmalade

I took a short walk to a platform overlooking a large water hole, and along the way I discovered a camera bag that had been left by an Indian family I had passed earlier.

Boardwalk to Water Hole
Water Hole Observation Point

When I returned their bag, I found out they were from Palos Verde, California and the entire family of two adults and five children were on a month long safari to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary! (they had to be very wealthy to afford such a trip) To my surprise, their two teenage daughters didn’t like Indian food – it was too spicy! Before leaving the lodge, Mike and I bought a case of beer from the staff canteen to take back to the guys in the KWS camp. (they really appreciated the gift and it was soon gone) As we drove back to the camp, we could see some large grass fires burning on the northwest horizon. It was possible that the fires were set by the Masai to encourage the growth of fresh, new grass. As we pulled into camp, there was a red glow on the horizon that was reflected in the clouds above us. While we began to prepare dinner, a herd of Cape Buffalo grazed near the perimeter of the camp, reminding us that we were indeed in Africa.

Cape Buffalo
Wildebeest and Zebra
Thompson’s Gazelle
Hyenas stalking Hartebeest and Gazelle at a waterhole

After dinner, the British Army contingent paid us a visit from their camp nearby. They brought along an ample supply of rum and cokes, but alas, no ice. The entire camp joined in singing old songs around the campfire, accompanied by Mike on his guitar. It was a wonderful evening as night fell upon East Africa. I headed to my sleeping bag around midnight, since I had to be up before dawn the next morning for a hot-air balloon safari. (Mike continued partying with the army) During the night I was awakened a couple of times by the sounds of Hyenas and Lions in the distance. Finally, I woke up before sunrise to a strange mix of African radio music and the sounds of Hyenas. I was excited about joining the balloon safari, but it took a bit of prodding to raise Mike so that he could drive me to the lodge. He was very hung over from the evening of rum, but we arrived at the site of the balloon launch just as the faint light of dawn broke above the horizon. We watched the raising of the balloons as a cool wind came out of the east. The final stage of the raising was the spectacular firing of all the gas jets – lighting up the sky with a brilliant yellow glow!

Final stage of balloon raising
Balloon raising

Then I joined a group from England and we lifted off at sunrise, slowly gaining altitude until we were silently floating a couple of hundred feet above the vast African savannah. A gentle breeze pushed us southwest over Masai Mara toward the border with Tanzania. As we rose higher in the sky, so did the sun, illuminating the plains with a soft orange glow. It wasn’t long before we saw a pride of lions stalking a small herd of Gazelle and Impala. (the tourist combis were stalking the lions!) As we slowly drifted over the grassy plains, the silence was amazing, broken only by the occasional sounds of animals below us or a short burst of the balloon’s gas jets. No one on board made a sound, except to quietly point out some animals.

Floating over the plains of East Africa
Balloons on the horizon
Migrating Wildebeest from above

The experience of silently floating 100 feet above the ground over some of the most productive wildlife habitat in the world was almost like a dream! (I had to pinch myself at times, just to make sure it wasn’t a dream) In general, the animals ignored us – at one point, a group of Waterbuck “jousted” with each other for the privilege of “soliciting” the attention of the females. The whole African wildlife scene played out before us, while we were a very transient audience, as it should be. As we neared the Tanzanian border, our pilot Chuck became concerned about finding a suitable landing site, before we ended up crossing the Sand River and entering Tanzania. He related one incident where two of his Kenyan crew were arrested by the Tanzanian border officials and spent two months in jail! But as we descended to 50 feet above the ground, Chuck spotted the track along the border and sat the balloon down with the greatest of ease, so that we did a light “touch and go” and then a gentle landing very near a Warthog den in an old termite mound. Luckily, the Warthogs were not at home! The crew had already arrived and rapidly deflated the balloon as we all climbed out of the basket.

Deflating the balloon
Kenyan crew

At the same time, other crew members were busy setting up tables and stools in the grass for our Champagne brunch. Soon the tables were overflowing with a dazzling array of fresh fruit, pastries, quiche, bacon, and eggs. The champagne glasses sparkled in the brilliant morning sunshine, and were soon filled with the chilled bubbly! We all raised our glasses to toast our pilot Chuck, and the two British couples on their honeymoon. The luxurious experience of enjoying delicious food and drink amid the vast African plains was almost indescribable, but definitely unforgettable!

Champagne brunch on the plains of East Africa

Following brunch, we all jumped into the waiting Land Rovers for a pretty rough ride back to Keekarok Lodge over a seldom used track in a remote corner of the park. Back at the lodge, we sat in a special area on the veranda reserved for balloon safaris, and shared our experiences over coffee, while Chuck filled out our official certificates, that included a list of all the animals we had seen that morning. Later, Mike and the girls arrived, and a few minutes after that, his friend Jack “buzzed” the lodge in his plane, having just returned from the morning wildlife aerial surveys. Jack was from Canada and the official pilot for the Kenya Wildlife Service. We all headed to the airstrip to meet him, along with the hope of joining him for a flight over the park. As it turned out, Jack was eager to take us up, so we climbed into the plane.

Boarding Jack’s plane

Jack was insistent that I take the front seat next to him so I could get the best photos, as I was the only one of the group with a camera! We taxied out to the runway and before we knew it, we were climbing into the bright blue African sky, headed northwest to find the great herds of migrating Wildebeest and Zebra, which number in the hundreds of thousands. As we flew over our campsite, we saw the herd of Cape Buffalo grazing nearby, along with a small group of Elephants.

KWS Campsite and Research Station

We continued northwest, and passed over herds of Gazelle, Impala, Giraffe and Zebra, before spotting the main band of Wildebeest. Suddenly the plane swerved and dropped abruptly as Jack maneuvered to avoid a collision with one of the huge vultures circling above us! The impact with one of these birds having a wingspan over 6 feet could be serious, even fatal! Jack was always on the lookout for them. Soon we began seeing long, sinuous black lines in the distance, stretching out across the savannah. These were the great herds of Wildebeest, migrating northward from the vast Serengeti plains of Tanzania, in search of new grass, following the annual short rains. As we neared the eastern side of the Mara River, Jack estimated there were well over 500,000 animals in our limited view! Then, as Jack circled around to the river, we saw a large number of Wildebeest scrambling down the steep bank and diving into the swift current, being swept downstream and emerging in a cloud of dust on the opposite shore.

Migrating Wildebeest crossing the Mara River
Mara River crossing

It was the exact spot where we had enjoyed our picnic lunch the day before. We wer

Mara River

e witnessing an event that had been repeated for thousands of years – magnificent! Jack took us down for an even closer look with a steep, banking turn, which was great for taking photos, but a bit rough on the stomach. As I clicked away with my camera, Mike finally lost it and had to grab the airsick bag – so much for his late night partying with the British Army! By now it was time to head back to the lodge, and Jack followed an old DC-3 to land at the airstrip. Mike and I bought another case of beer for the guys back in camp, and then began the drive back to Nairobi. Along the way, we passed three large trucks overturned on the side of the road, which wasn’t that unusual, since at times there was no shoulder, just a sharp two foot drop-off.

Overturned trucks

As we reached the main Naivasha – Nairobi highway, a light rain began to fall, so that by the time we got to the turnoff to Kijabe, the unpaved road looked to be quite muddy. We got out and locked the hubs in 4WD, but we were only able to advance about 300 yards up the steep muddy road before the SUV began sliding all over the road. As other vehicles ahead of us became stuck, Mike decided to abandon the shortcut and reverse back down the road – something much easier said than done! Everyone’s nerves were on edge as the vehicle slowly “slid” down through the soupy mud. At last we reached the main highway again to continue our journey to the city, albeit by a longer, though safer route. (however, by that time my boots were covered with sticky, red mud – a souvenir of our weekend trip perhaps) As we negotiated the heavily pot-holed highway, sometimes at a mere15mph, we passed through a small village and suddenly saw a man “dart” into the incoming traffic. He was almost hit three times, but continued chasing the mini-bus that had almost him! It was a really wild scene to watch, and probably happens almost every day. Slowly the road climbed the steep Kikuyu Escarpment overlooking the Great Rift Valley, through a lush, green forested region with yellow-green tea plantations scattered amongst the forest. The region was known as the “White Highlands”, where the English colonials settled, having displaced most of the native Kikuyu people. (eventually, the resentment of the Kikuyu lead to the “Mau Mau Rebellion”, and finally the independence of the country)

The White Highlands

From the top of the escarpment we had spectacular views of the Great Rift Valley thousands of feet below, and in the distance were the legendary Ngong Hills, made famous in the film “Out of Africa”. At last we arrived at Mike’s house, unloaded our gear, and enjoyed a “hot-n-spicy” pizza at a local pizza parlor.

The next morning I awoke to the startling news of a military coup in the Soviet Union! It sort of made my training class seem somehow less important, but this was the last day of the class and everyone was looking forward to a small party to celebrate. I gave the office secretaries 1500 Kenyan schillings (about $40) to buy the food, and they cooked the entire meal in the tiny canteen kitchen. Later in the afternoon, we all gathered in the canteen to share a traditional Kikuyu meal called “Jama Choma” – a simple dish of boiled beef and vegetables, served with lots of bread and fresh fruit. (most Kenyans did not like spicy foods) During the party there were speeches by the managers of several departments, but people kept eating. Finally, at the end of the meal, Dr. Andere presented me with a very special gift – a gorgeous ebony carving of a rhinoceros! The party concluded with a class photo outside in front of the KWS headquarters. The next morning, I reconfirmed my airline ticket and went to the New Stanley Hotel to have a coffee in the Thorn Tree Café, just as I had done many years before. As I sat on the terrace, watching the action on the street, many fond memories of my trip overland across Africa in 1974-75 filled my head. A lot of things had changed in Nairobi, but there were still some familiar experiences that made my time in Kenya very enjoyable. Later in the afternoon, I joined Mike, Bridgette, and Monica for a visit to a special place called “Kazuri Beads”, where beautiful jewelry and ceramics were on display, all of which were handcrafted by young single mothers. The shop was part of Karen Blixen’s estate in the heart of the Ngong Hills, a lovely region of low hills, small villages, and green coffee and tea plantations – so reminiscent of the film “Out of Africa”.

Kazuri beads
Karen Blixen’s estate

After the customary British tradition of afternoon tea and biscuits, we returned to the city by way of Nairobi National Park. It was an amazing experience to see Zebra, Wildebeest, Lions, and Giraffe with the backdrop of Nairobi skyscrapers shining in the distance. Only in Africa! Arriving back in Nairobi, we joined Jack and his wife Daphne at their house for the “requisite” drinks before dinner, a long-standing custom with most “expatriates”. After dinner, we arranged to meet Jack at Wilson Airfield the next morning for an “air safari” to Amboseli and Tsavo National Parks.

As we took off the next morning, there was a heavy ceiling of clouds around 5,000 feet, but Jack flew a mere 100 feet above the ground for a real “bird’s eye” view of the country. In fact, we were often below the birds! On the way to Amboseli, we flew over dozens of Masai “Manyattas” – huts surrounded by thick high fences made from Acacia branches whose sharp thorns kept lions at bay so the cattle could be protected at night. It was a very effective building technique passed down through many generations of Masai. Occasionally we passed children who excitedly waved to us as they jumped up and down.

Masai “manyatta”

As we neared Amboseli, we began seeing long green stretches across the brown grassland. These were the “seasonal swamps” that result from the short rains. Flying over the swamps, we could see long, thin tracks that looked like “snakes” in the grass. Actually, they were made by Elephants wading through the swamps as they chomped on the tall, dark green grasses. From above, the Elephants looked more like giant pigs “wallowing” in the grass.

Elephants in the swamp – Amboseli National Park

After flying over the lodge, we turned southeast toward Tanzania and flew over a large lake that had formed in an ancient volcanic crater. Then Jack climbed through the thick clouds, up to 10,000 feet, in an effort to get a view of Mt Kilimanjaro, but the massive peak remained shrouded by the heavy cloud cover.

Mt Kilimanjaro in the clouds

As we descended, I recalled the memories from 1975 when I had climbed the mountain and saw the sunrise over the East Africa plains from the 19, 340 foot summit. Before long we were flying over Tsavo National Park, home to large numbers of Elephants and Rhino. Jack circled Kilaguni Lodge, landed at the airstrip, and taxied right up to the front door! The lunch buffet was served in the beautiful open-air restaurant overlooking a large water hole, where we watched all manner of wildlife come to take their daily ration of water. As we enjoyed the many delicious African dishes, we noticed several Baboons sitting on rocks in front of the restaurant.

Kilaguni Lodge – Tsavo National Park
Baboon at Kilaguni Lodge
Baboon “scouting” out the restaurant

Suddenly, one of them rushed forward and “charged” the table next to us. And just as quickly, the Baboon was on top of the table, “screeched” loudly, and grabbed a dinner roll from the plate of one of the ladies at the table! She jumped from her chair, but it all happened so fast that no one got it on film, despite the large number of cameras on hand. In order to combat the “Baboon attacks”, the restaurant staff carry sling shots, and the very sight of one would scare the devil out of the Baboons! One time, Jack “pretended” to have a sling shot and it was enough to scare them off. Having lunch while we gazed upon the plains and mountains of Tsavo, with the abundant wildlife that visited the water hole, was like watching a National Geographic film, but in real life! Eventually, it was time to leave the lodge and head back to Nairobi. Several children stood patiently on the edge of the airstrip, as Jack warmed up the engines, and as we took off from the red earth runway, they waved excitedly!

Children at Kilaguni lodge awaiting our takeoff

On the return route, we followed part of the Nairobi – Mombasa railroad main line. All of a sudden, Jack spotted a large bull Elephant standing a few feet from the tracks, as a freight train approached. We circled around for a closer look, just as the locomotive passed the huge pacaderm, missing it by only a few feet! It almost seemed as if the Elephant was “challenging” the locomotive – a poor contest at best!

Nairobi – Mombasa railway

As we approached the hills east of Nairobi, we could see they were extensively terraced fields of tea and coffee – the dark green color in beautiful contrast to the deep red volcanic soil of the Central Highlands. After having landed at Wilson Airfield, Jack and Daphne invited us for a BBQ at their house. It was a lovely way to end our air safari!

The next morning, I packed my bags for the return flight home. Mike picked me up at the hotel and said that he had arranged a short meeting with Dr. Richard Leakey, on our way to the airport. It was a very special event for us, and even though Dr. Leakey was a very busy man, he still gave us his full attention – we felt that he had made the time just for us. As we told him about the work of KWS using the new computer mapping software, he seemed genuinely interested and asked many questions. I left the meeting having felt his “presence” – clearly a brilliant and impressive man. Dr. Leakey gave us a National Parks pass and insisted that we drive through Nairobi National Park on the way to the airport. The drive afforded us the opportunity to once again see Wildebeest, Hartebeest, Waterbuck, Gazelle and Ostrich, along with a huge Cape Buffalo that insisted upon walking in the middle of the road! We had to pull off to the side of the road to avoid a confrontation. The highlight of my final “wild game tour” came when we spotted a den of young Black Jackal pups sitting alongside the edge of the road. They were really cute as they sat and stared at us – sort of bewildered, but at the same time, overcome with curiosity!

Young Black Jackal pups

It was a perfect way to say farewell to Kenya and the East African plains. All too soon I was boarding Lufthansa flight 581 bound for Frankfurt, continuing on to New York and eventually Los Angeles. As I settled into my Business Class seat, I noticed a young boy walk up beside the Dutch man sitting across the aisle from me. The little boy began “adjusting” the man’s channel selector and volume control of his stereo headset while the man was reading. Suddenly the man looked up to see what was going on, and he laughed! As we flew over Sudan, Libya, Italy and Switzerland, I recalled all the fond memories of my most recent visit to Kenya, a place which remains among my favorite destinations in the world! (Stay tuned for more adventures in Africa!)

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