Road Blog: Lamar, Colorado, to Grants, New Mexico

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Above: Just outside Wagon Mound, New Mexico, a town on Interstate 25 about 105 miles from Santa Fe. Wonderful day on the road: wind, sun, clouds, the overawing and heartbreaking beauty of the country. We ended up in Grants, about 100 miles east of the Arizona border, after having one small adventure with the car. Won’t go into the long version here, but we had a check engine light go on just about the same time we were passing a Toyota dealer in Raton, just south of the Colorado state line. The mechanic there agreed to check us out right away, and suffice it to say (a longhand version of the story might find its way here) that the car’s six salty Chicago winters exacted their toll today. But in a small way. The shop got us on our way in an hour or so. No more problems, and now I know what a coil assembly is.

Below: Marchiondo’s Store, Raton, New Mexico. There’s a story there, too, which I shall relate. It’s connected to that whole car deal, but it’s got its own twists and turns. Note: the store’s been closed since 1986. Still full of “merchandise,” as the owner described it. It’s the “A Rose for Emily” of the retail world.

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Road Blog: Kansas City to Lamar, Colorado

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Got a late start from Kansas City this morning, and took our time in Chase County–home of the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve–before doing some serious driving starting at about 2:30 in the afternoon. Well, we had lunch in Cottonwood Falls, the Chase County seat, and since we had just one key for the car and were concerned about locking it in the car–we stopped by a general dry good store with a sign that said it made keys. Getting the spare key was a half-hour process that involved the store proprietor expressing doubts about his ability to cut a two-sided key, a long search through the blanks he had in stock, and a digression about a locking gas cap that once had failed him. We did not hurry him along. Finally, he chose a blank he thought might work since he didn’t have the one specified for our Toyota Echo, and cut it with no problem. He said he thought it would work in the car, took our buck-eighty, and we were on our way. The new key works fine and all we have to remember to do now is not to leave the spare key in the car where we won’t be able to retrieve it when we lock the other one inside the vehicle.

We also wasted some time trying to locate Kansas Highway 150, which our map sort of implied might head west from Cottonwood Falls. Eventually we found it, but not before driving back and forth on a back road that goes past the town fishing lake and through a dying hamlet called Elmdale–still on the map–just off U.S. 50.

Elmdale looked desolate and much the worse for wear. Only one business appeared to exist in town–a grocery that except for the soda vending machines outside looked like it might be shut down. Just down the main street from there was a small edifice built from the same sandy-colored limestone that appears in many substantial buildings in the area. It was the city hall, built (according to an inscription at the lower right of the picture) by the Works Progress Administration in 1936.

Chris remarked that the place reminded him of a desperately poor town in eastern Kentucky, Pineville, that we had driven through with our dad in 1966. The shattered houses, some abandoned, some still occupied, reinforced the impression. So did the scruffy city park and the nearly empty streets. The one sign of activity was someone unloading a truck full of wooden pallets, adding them to the hundreds of pallets already stacked near one home. I wondered whether they were intended as firewood.

There’s a story to the town, one that naturally is not evident from a five-minute look at the place. By way of the town’s Wikipedia entry, I came upon a terrific (though undated) story from the Emporia Gazette that chronicles the town’s decline over the past 60 years, mostly due to a series of floods. The piece is accompanied by some nice shots from a Michigan photographer, Galen Frysinger.

Trip coordinates:

Departure point from Chicago: 42 degrees, 0 minutes, 32 seconds N. latitude
87 degrees, 41 minutes, 21 seconds W. longitude

Day One stop: 39 degrees, 6 minutes, 52 seconds N.
94 degrees, 45 minutes, 46 seconds W.

Day Two stop: 38 degrees, 6 minutes, 13 seconds N.
102 degrees, 37 minutes, 6 seconds W.

Home (Berkeley): 37 degrees, 52 minutes, 39 seconds N.
122 degrees, 16 minutes, 53 seconds W.

Comment: We’re within a quarter degree of our destination latitude. We’re about 20 degrees east of it. I don’t believe we’ll find a straight-line route.

Road Blog: Chicago to Kansas City (Kansas)

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My brother Chris, his son Liam (he’s 12), and I started out from Chicago to drive to California. I’m actually doing an errand–picking up my dad’s car and bringing it out to Berkeley–and since it’s spring break for them, they’re along for the ride.

To break up the Interstate highway slog, I like to get off on side roads occasionally. I suggested the possibility of driving out U.S. 20 through northern Iowa and northern Nebraska to northeastern Wyoming, and then making our way down to Interstate 80 near Rawlins. What I liked about the route: it would take us within about 30 miles of Wounded Knee, on the Pine Ridge Reservation of the Lakota Sioux; it would also take us right past Fort Robinson, Nebraska, the site of a tragic episode in the 1876 saga of the Northern Cheyenne attempt to return to Montana from a reservation Oklahoma.

But the weather along that route: not good. It was supposed to be fine through Wednesday, at which point we’d be starting across Wyoming. But rain and snow, and then heavy snow, are forecast for much of the corridor we’d be taking. The weather along Interstate 40 and other central and southerly routes seemed much less problematic. So we headed southwest from Chicago this morning in the rain.

We stopped early in the afternoon at the Union Miners Cemetery in Mount Olive, Illinois. I happened across this spot with my son Eamon about five years ago when we spotted a highway sign pointing us to the “Mother Jones Memorial.” That had to be investigated, and it turns out Mary “Mother” Jones (1830-1930) is buried there along with many members of the United Mine Workers and other coal-mining unions.

Maybe someday I’ll make a day of it down there. Today, we stopped for 15 or 20 minutes, not really long enough to take in much more than the main attraction. The marker above, with the Leaning Jesuses, is along the lane to the Jones monument (which is just visible in the left distance).

After this, we took state routes and country roads to Grafton, where we took a ferry across the deceptively calm-looking Illinois River (the image below; the river is running high, and much of the lowlands east of the river are under water), then to the Golden Eagle Ferry, which crosses the Mississippi on a bend south of, but upriver from, the mouth of the Illinois.

On the Missouri side the boat unloads you onto a floodplain road that’s less than a 10-minute drive to a freeway that leads into I-70. We skipped a detour to a temporary Missouri River ferry (in Glasgow, where a new bridge is being built), stopped in Independence to see Harry Truman’s place, looked at some of the important Mormon-related sites in town, then crossed the river after dark into Kansas.

Tomorrow we might cross paths with John Brown.  

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Chicago Cemetery Trip

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Saturday, Dad and I made a quick run down to Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, on 111th Street outside the city, to visit some family graves (my mom, my brother, an uncle, my grandparents; there’s a bunch more of them out there we didn’t have time to see this time).  

Then we went over to Oak Woods Cemetery, at 67th Street (Marquette Road) and Cottage Grove Avenue. Among reasons I might want to visit this place is the fact–I think it’s a fact–that Confederate prisoners from the Civil War prison at Camp Douglas are buried there. But what drew us yesterday was the presence of a future grave: that of “Senator” Roland Burris. Among the many quirks that distinguish him is that he has already had an elaborate memorial set up at Oak Woods. Maybe that’s not so quirky, but the listing of items from his curriculum vitae–for instance, that he was the first African American exchange student from Southern Illinois University to the University of Hamburg, Germany–has struck many observers as a little odd.

One wants to see for one’s self, so we went down to Oak Woods to take in the sight. We pulled up to the gate at 4:10 p.m. to find the entrance gate closed and a sign saying the grounds closed at 4:15. The exit gate was open, though, so I drove in only to be stopped by a caretaker who said, “Closed 4:15!” “We’ll be out in five minutes, I promise. By the way, which way to Senator Burris’s memorial?” We got the simple directions (take a hard right once inside the gate, then the first left, and it’s about 100 yards away, straight in front of you). We didn’t have time to savor the scene. Just a few quick shots of the Burris gravesite and one of the resting place of Olympic great Jesse Owens, whose stone is across the drive on the bank of the cemetery’s pond. Then back to the gate, as promised. “Did you see Harold Washington’s grave?” the caretaker asked. “No — we have to come back,” I said.

Next trip to Chicago, maybe.

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Water: The Midwest View

[Other posts on water: 

Big Bathtub II: 'Wasted']

Spotted the following letter today on the Chicago Tribune's (Tom Skillings's) weather page: 

Dear Tom,
The level of Lake Michigan is up 13 inches from last year. That's great, but could you 
express that in gallons of water?
Dan Fridley
Dear Dan,
The quantity of water that circulates through the Lake Michigan hydrologic system is 
truly staggering. And expressing that volume in units as miniscule as gallons yields 
numbers that are so huge as to be practically incomprehensible, but here it goes. 
A 13-inch increase in the level of Lake Michigan's 22,300 square miles amounts to 
5.044 trillion gallons of additional water (5,044,000,000,000 gallons). And that's not 
all. Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are essentially one lake; their water levels rise and 
fall in tandem. Thirteen inches of water added to the level of Lake Michigan means 13 
inches added to the 23,000 square miles of Lake Huron as well, and that amounts to an additional 5.202 trillion gallons (5,202,000,000,000 gallons).

So to summarize the arithmetic: Lakes Michigan and Huron, total surface area 45,300 square miles, have risen a foot and an inch in the past year. The total increase in water volume is 10.2 trillion gallons.

There is no doubt that is a lot of water. But it is an abstraction, proof that in the wet eastern two-thirds of the United States, water is, most of the time, something that's just there, like leaves on the trees, mosquitoes, corrupt politicians and bad beer. In fact, this immense amount of water, these trillions of gallons, are a trivial amount in the Great Lakes context, where volumes can be calculated in hundreds or thousands of cubic miles.

But before we get to that, let's put those 13 inches of Michigan/Huron water to work: let's frame them in the California context. 

In California and anywhere in the West where water means the difference between nothing and abundance, the working unit is the acre foot: the water it takes to submerge an acre a foot deep. An acre foot is 325,851 gallons, and that is said to be enough water for two average American households to keep their toilets flushed and lawns green for a year. 

The extra 13 inches of Michigan/Huron water: It comes out to something like 31.3 million acre feet. California's total reservoir capacity is said to be about 42 million acre feet. So that foot and an inch here–the incidental effect of increased runoff in their basins–would fill California's collection of monster lakes and catch basins three-quarters full. What a gift to a dry place. 

Lake Michigan has an approximate volume of 1,180 cubic miles, and Lake Huron 849. A cubic mile of water is just under 3.4 million acre feet. So the 13 extra inches of water in Michigan/Huron added about 9 cubic miles to their volume, or a little less than 0.5 percent (that's not too shabby, actually). All California's reservoir capacity would be satisfied with roughly 13 cubic miles, about 0.75 percent of the volume of the two lakes (and while we're throwing Great Lakes volume numbers around, the combined volume of Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario is about 2,538 cubic miles; the volume of Lake Superior is 2,900 cubic miles). 

When you see numbers like this, which may be close to meaningless without more context, you think you can understand the envy and ambition of Westerners who think the Great Lakes would solve all their problems. It seems a little crazy, until you travel up and down California and see how much has been invested in large-scale plumbing to make water go places and do things that seem to defy nature and physics.  

Wisconsin

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Cheese, by day (photo by Kate during her return trip from Ripon) and by night (photo by me, after a drive up the lakeshore this afternoon. The second cheese place is right next to the first). Location is Paris, Wisconsin, on the west bank of Interstate 94. 

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Your Norwegian Cemetery Picture of the Day

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Today's outing: The Dairy Queen at Irving Park and Central, then over to Narragansett to swing by my dad's childhood home on Nashville Avenue. Headed down the crowded, brutally potholed avenue, Dad said, "Here's Mount Olive Cemetery." Where most of his family is interred. We turned in. I have a general idea where the relatives are buried–mostly his mother's family, the Sieversens–but he has a precise sense of where to go. So there they were: his parents, his grandparents, many aunts, uncles, and cousins. 

Until five or so years ago, I remember going to Mount Olive just once, the day my grandmother was buried in September 1975. But since my mom passed away in 2003 and we started visiting her family's cemetery–Holy Sepulchre, so far on the South Side that it's actually beyond the city limits–I've come to Mount Olive several times, too. 

Many stories to tell there, I'm sure. Here are a couple of surface things I've noticed. It's clear from the great majority of older graves that the cemetery was a resting place for Norwegians (maybe some other Scandinavians, too), mostly Protestants. There's a drinking fountain near the entrance in the form of a Viking warrior, complete with helmet and flowing beard. But like the rest of the city, the ethnic makeup of this neighborhood is changing, too. Most new graves appear to belong to Latino families, many Catholic. It's the kind of mixing that I expect would have been unlikely in life. Now here the communities are together. 

Cemetery walking always produces something striking or poignant. Maybe because we had a brother who died at the age of 2, I'm always been brought up short by children's markers. At one of the family graves I saw that three children, ages 4 or younger, were buried with their parents. 

Nearby, I came across the grave of Junior Jansen, 1925-1930, a grave remarkable for the legend "Our Boy" and the vivid, clear photo of the boy who had been buried there. It's hard for me to imagine that picture has lasted out in the weather all these decades. Next to Junior Jansen's stone was another Jansen marker–a broken monument bearing a sculpted figure of a young girl. Strange thing: someone has evidently gone to the trouble of setting the figure upright–but unattached to its damaged lower portion or the original base. 

Another thing about the Norwegian part of the cemetery: slowly, surely, nature is taking its course. Trees and shrubs have overwhelmed some graves. But what you notice more are stones left askew as the ground heaves and shifts through the seasons and maybe through the sinking or collapse of the underground vaults that are supposed to keep everything tidy. You come across headstones that are falling onto their faces and monuments that have toppled backward or sideways. You find groups of markers that seem jumbled together, clumped at odd angles, with a collection of apparently unrelated names. Looking at the years on the markers I passed, it seems that most date to between 1900 and 1950. I saw only a handful dated after 1960. The most recent was from 1997. One has the impression, looking down the rows of tilted, angled, sometimes broken markers that for the descendants of most who lie here, this is a place out of mind.

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Surfing Lake Michigan

Lake Michigan Surfers
Kate drove up to Ripon, Wisconsin–everyone in unison: "the birthplace of the Republican Party"–to visit our old Berkeley friends Robin and Jim. I hung around the house with Dad for most of the afternoon and just at the moment I was about to succumb to the urge for an afternoon nap went out for a walk. From the Brekke North Side headquarters it's about a mile and a half out to the lake, and that's where I went. Then strolled up the beach in Loyola Park for half a mile taking in the wintry shore scene. Suddenly I realized a surfer was in the water.

The sight was remarkable first because this was the first time I'd seen anyone surfing out on the lake (that probably says more about my long-time absence from these parts than the willingness of the locals to turn Lake Michigan into a wave-riding scene). But the real surprise was that someone was out today. In Northern California, cold conditions go along with surfing: the water temperature off San Francisco dips into the high 40s during the winter and never seems to get above 56 (and of course in some places along our coast, the real challenge is the ferocity of the ocean conditions: big waves and strong currents). 

But in Chicago today, the highs were in the upper 30s, and the water temperature was 40. I would say that qualifies as frigid. Apparently, you can conquer anything with a modern wetsuits and a refusal to consider any pastime ludicrous.

I approached the surfer and asked whether I could take his picture. Yeah, he said. And how about sending him a copy? (I did.) The storm that came through last night featured a strong northeasterly wind that was forecast to raise 12-foot waves in Chicago and along the southern end of the lake. Those conditions brought Dave, the surfer, and his buddy Kevin, out to the beach at Loyola Park. 

Dave said the conditions in the water weren't great. Instead of swinging to the northwest, which would have created good waves, he said, the wind remained northeasterly and the waves were choppy and confused. He said he had only heard about surfing in Chicago last fall and had first gone into the water here in October. 

Dave's friend Kevin I saw bobbing off a little jetty at the north end of the Loyola Park beach. Swell after swell passed; my inexpert eye didn't see any epic rides pass him by. He paddled into the beach and joined Dave. I waylaid him, too. He said he's been surfing in Lake Michigan for 15 years. Question in the form of a statement: "The best waves must be in winter." Yeah, that's generally true, Kevin said. But until 15 years ago, wetsuits weren't good enough to protect you from the lake cold. "Ever been in the water when there was ice?" "Yeah," Kevin said. "I've had ice on me," Dave said–the air being so cold it would freeze the water on the outside of the wetsuit. 

"I don't goof around here too much," Kevin said. "This is sort of my beach of last resort. It's a lot better down at the end of the lake"–around the Indiana Dunes–"some really big water down there." 

It was sunset. I started to leave the park. The two of them walked up to the north end of the beach, and they were heading back into the water. 

Delightful, Dismal

"MONDAY SHOULD BE A DELIGHTFULLY DISMAL EARLY APRIL DAY."

That's out of the area forecast discussion from the Chicago office of the National Weather Service, a line of clear "look what's happening outside" prose in the midst of talk about steep lapse rates, negatively tilted troughs, cyclonic flows, and tightening gradients. 

After a sufficient time away–decades, not years–you forget what April here can bring. The weather service provides a reminder of some snow records for this month, including a single snowfall of nearly 14 inches back in the 1930s. 

But outside the record books, I remember an Easter on which we got about a foot of snow (the preceding Christmas featured what I remember as a tropically warm heavy rain; well, rain anyway). The year I turned 16, the first baseball game of our high school season was postponed because we got nearly a foot of snow (when we played the game, a week or two later, the snow was gone and but sunny weather was accompanied by a brutal cold snap. We scored a single run on a sacrifice fly, our pitcher threw a no-hitter — it was too cold to want to make much contact — and we had the first win in a season whose other highlight was the desertion of about half the team to go watch Jefferson Airplane play for free in Grant Park). And then there was the day I turned 21, going to school down at Illinois State and working at the college paper, The Vidette. We had a blizzard of Spackle-like snow. I was lonely and typically disconsolate. Turning 21 wasn't a drinking holiday, since the drinking age was 19 at the time. The real source of my pain was another night spent at the dorms with no prospect of a date or even a friendly conversation with one of the thousands of females nearby. 

Oh, yeah, I got over it. But I haven't forgotten, now that I'm reminded.  "Delightfully dismal early April." 

[And Monday: More from the Tom Skilling and the Chicago Tribune's weather page on late season snow in Chicago: Snowless Aprils vs. Snowy Mays.] 

Guest Obervation: Louise Erdrich

Kate and I flew to Chicago this morning. "Morning." It was actually sometime toward the end of the night. The van shuttle that drove us over to San Francisco got to our house at 4 a.m., which meant we were up a little after 3.

Back in California, Saturday was the model of a spring day, meaning warm, clear and green. It was a pretty spring day in Chicago, too: clear and warm enough, low 50s, that you wouldn't mistake it for winter. I went out for a walk wearing jeans and a flannel shirt and noticed within a few blocks I was the only one not wearing a jacket. The wind was cutting, and it was cold in the shade.
Tomorrow and Monday are supposed to be a different matter. Snow's on the way, though much more is falling west and north than the forecasters say will come down here. Still, the next couple of days won't be mistaken for spring.
A favorite scene describing a spring snowstorm, from Louise Erdrich's "Love Medicine":

"… The snow was bright, giving back starlight. She concentrated on her feet, on steering them strictly down the packed wheel ruts.

"She had walked far enough to see the dull orange glow, the canopy of low, lit clouds over Williston, when she decided to walk home instead of going back there. The wind was mild and wet. A Chinook wind, she told herself. She made a right turn off the road, walked up a drift frozen over a snow fence, and began to pick her way through the swirls of dead grass and icy crust of open ranchland. Her boots were thin. So she stepped on dry ground where she could and avoided the slush and rotten, gray banks. It was exactly as if she were walking back from a fiddle dance or a friend's house to Uncle Eli's warm, man-smelling kitchen. She crossed the wide fields swinging her purse, stepping carefully to keep her feet dry.

"Even when it started to snow, she did not lose her sense of direction. Her feet grew numb, but she did not worry about the distance. The heavy winds couldn't blow her off course. She continued. Even when her heart clenched and her skin turned crackling cold, it didn't matter, because the pure and naked part of her went on.

"The snow fell deeper that Easter than it had in forty years, but June walked over it like water and came home."