Illinois Wind Turbines


One big change in the Midwest landscape I’ve seen on my occasional visits over the last decade: Lots of wind turbines are being installed (hundreds and hundreds of them in Illinois so far, with many more coming). I shot this pair–just off Interstate 80 on the southern outskirts of Geneseo–as we blasted past (my brother Chris was driving) on Labor Day on our way from Iowa City back to the Chicago area.

Chris asked “how much power do those things put out?” My researches have uncovered the following: These two turbines are Vensys 77‘s, each rated with a generation capacity of 1.5 megawatts. How much is that? The math isn’t straightforward: how much power is actually generated depends on weather conditions; the turbines need wind, of course, but they’re apparently also sensitive to high temperatures. In practice, the generators at this site might produced enough power for about 1,000 homes. The city of Geneseo, population roughly 6,500, said before the turbines began operation in October 2009 that it expected the turbines to provide between 12 percent and 15 percent of the electricity the town needs.

And: How big are those things? Big. The rotor diameter, which I take to be the diameter of the circle swept by the turbine blades, is 77 meters. About 240 feet. The top of the tower is about 300 feet.


longbeach090310.jpg (Above: Looking south down the Los Angeles River, center, and across the junction of Interstate 405, the San Diego Freeway (running right and left) and Interstate 710, the Long Beach Freeway (which runs down the river’s western bank). Long Beach Harbor is in the distance. Taken just after takeoff from Long Beach Airport, September 3, 2010. Google map link.)

I took a long bike ride once from near Boulder, at the foot of the Colorado Rockies, to east central Kansas, then turned around and came most of the way back. The route was given not in a map but in a sort of schematic of the roads on the route. That was a simple matter because a good 80 percent of the route seemed to be on a single highway, U.S. 36. There was a point marked on the diagram about 80 miles or so southeast of Boulder–the point where the Rockies vanished as you headed east across the Plains and reappeared on the westbound route.

That mark on the map made an impression: I loved the idea of a point on the landscape where such a dramatic change is made visible. Most long-distance travel, especially between the Rockies and the Appalachians, I think, is a tale of subtle changes, watching landscapes shift slowly as you gain or lose elevation or encounter wetter or dryer climatic zones. It’s much different from traveling north or south, east or west across California, where the next amazing transformation seems always to be around the next bend.

And then there’s flying across country–by which I mean commercial airline flight–which compresses experience and landforms into an extended narrative of geographic changes. I’ve often fantasized about coming up with some manual or device that would serve as a guide to what the airline passenger sees as he or she soars overhead. At first I envisioned it as a fold-out book in which each page would show landmarks, landforms and highways all the way along the air route, and now I imagine that GPS and map software can hand you a continuous unfolding picture with as much detail as you desire.

The strip of landscape that rolls out beneath the main air routes between the Bay Area and Chicago has become familiar, but it’s still exciting to see from the air: the cityscape, the bay, the bridges, the islands, the towns, the freeways, the hills and mountains that slide beneath you as you head out into the Central Valley. The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta with its knot of waterways, the farm geometry of the valley floor, the big valley cities. Then the foothills and big reservoirs and forests as the hills turn into mountains and the checkerboard of raw-looking clearcuts. Then granite and almost before you know it you’ve vaulted the crest of the Sierra Nevada, maybe within view of Yosemite or Lake Tahoe–so much of what you see depends on what side of the fuselage you gaze from.

Then Nevada: basin and range and uncountable debris fans at the foot of mountains and dried-up courses of old floods. You might be able to place yourself by the appearance of a road–Interstate 80, maybe, or the thin ribbon of U.S. 50, or one of the north-south routes. Then maybe you get a look across one of the mountain ranges at the Great Salt Desert, signaling Utah. Maybe you see that lake, or the Wasatch Mountains rearing up from the middle of the city. The Rockies may appear, or coral-painted canyonlands, or the course of the Green River or the Colorado.

By this time you might be an hour and a half into the flight, maybe more. If you’re connecting at Denver, you might sweep down to the plains across Rocky Mountain National Park. If you’re on a non-stop, you might or might not ever see a square inch of Colorado, but you’ll see some part of the mountain chain. When that’s over, you’ll see the dry, sparsely roaded High Plains. You might meet up with Interstate 80 again near the course of the North Platte River, a rough guide to the old pioneer routes. In western Nebraska the country looks hilly and potholed. Anywhere in these dry plains you might see broad circles of wheat or alfalfa irrigated straight out of the Ogalalla Aquifer. Slowly, the roads increase and the green becomes more intense. You might see Omaha; even if you don’t, you’ll see the Missouri River below, running across a floodplain marked by tall bluffs.

After that, you’re almost home. Iowa, farmed and fertile looking and looking anything but flat, a rolling landscape broken by hundreds of small and big streams. The Mississippi is ahead, impossibly wide and complex looking as it braids among heavily wooded islands. And then it’s southwest Wisconsin or northwest Illinois, with county roads knocked askew from the preferred township grid as they straggle across thousands of square miles of glacial debris dumped in the last ice age. And then towns: Madison in the distance, Janesville, Beloit, Rockford. The Rock River. The Fox River, the suburbs, the city, the airport. Touchdown.

(Flying out here Friday, my routine was interrupted. I flew down to Long Beach, then from there to Chicago. Terra incognita, mostly, especially sitting over the plane’s port wing. But I did get glimpses. I puzzled over our route after leaving Long Beach; we took off to the northwest, then turned and flew south out over the ocean before turning to head east, and I just don’t know the landscape down there. The first good reference point I spotted was crossing the Colorado River. And after that, just a lot of guesswork. (The actual flight path appears to be here.)

Chenoa, Illinois


Chenoa’s a town about 25 miles north-northeast of Bloomington and sits at the junction of U.S. 24, which runs east-west, and Interstate 55 (and old U.S. 66). We drove through town in mid-April, headed west on 24 to pick up 55 on our way from Chicago to Berkeley. We detoured through the old downtown business district, a handful of handsome and under-used old brick buildings surrounded by low frame and pre-fab buildings. The sign was no doubt touched up or repainted altogether, since the Chicago-based Selz shoe concern apparently went out of business about 60 years ago. (Here’s a post from a blog on faded signs that talks about the company and has a few examples of old Selz signs.)

News from the Road: Grants, New Mexico


We stopped overnight in Grants, New Mexico, our third night on the road from Chicago to Berkeley last month. I have vague recollections of the place from a hitchhiking trip in December 1974 (I was headed to Berkeley that time, too). I got dropped off on I-40 on the west end of town about 7 in the morning, and it was very cold; about 10 below zero is how I remember it. But I had only been out on the highway for a few minutes when a new-looking Chevy pull ed over. I noticed the car had California plates, and I was thinking that at the worst I’d get a ride all the way across Arizona, anyway. As we pulled back onto the highway, the driver asked where I was going. When he heard where I was going, he said I was in luck because he was headed to Oakland. He dropped me right at my friends’ house near College and Ashby avenues. I remember the driver stopping for gas soon after he picked me up, in Gallup, at a point where I believe the interstate still might have been under construction and you had to take the old Route 66 through town. The morning was still intensely cold, but I remember seeing several men–Navajo, I guessed, since we were very close to the Navajo Nation–stumbling very drunk along the street; farther on, a couple more were lying on a sidewalk passed out. It was a little scary and disturbing, and I was glad not to hang around.

On this trip, we got to town right at sunset and pulled into the first motel we saw, which happened to be a Comfort Inn. My brother Chris went out and found trunks for us at Wal-mart, and we all went swimming. We ate Domino’s Pizza, then crashed for the night. Next morning we stopped at cafe on the other side of town and picked up the local paper, the Cibola Beacon The cafe wasn’t great–the milk my nephew Liam ordered was curdled and the food was just sort of thrown at us. The paper wasn’t terrific, either (here’s a sample from a more recent issue, under the headline, “Wildlife Found Near Residence:”

“A bobcat was seen at a home in Grants near Mount Taylor Elementary School on Monday. Ida Ortiz, wife of former mayor Ronald Ortiz, was gardening at her home and noticed a small cat in the yard, which at the time, didn’t realize it was a bobcat. Ortiz called her husband and described the animal to him and he called public safety officials. Officials found bobcat foot prints in the yard and took all safety precautions from there especially considering a elementary school was right across the street. The bobcat was never found.”

In fact, the only thing in the paper that made much of an impression was the ad above, featuring the future rifle-toting toddler. I can’t think of anything to add to that at all.

News from the Road: Chase County, Kansas


On the recent Chicago-Berkeley peregrination, we stopped in Cottonwood Falls, Kansas. One draw is the nearby Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, in the Kansas Flint Hills. It’s beautiful country. The town itself has a reputation as a well-preserved prairie village. It’s the county seat, and the courthouse is said to be the oldest still in use in Kansas (or west of the Mississippi, depending on who you believe). Broadway, the main street stretching north from the courthouse, is brick-paved. It is bordered by some handsome old buildings, including a hotel said to have a decent restaurant. We stopped for lunch at the Emma Chase Cafe and had burgers and fries; sweet-potato fries, in my case; never had them before.  

We picked up the local paper, the Chase County Leader-News, which ran the following story at the bottom of the front page on April 9. The story never says so–the locals must just know it–but the R3 Energy plant at the center of this incident is using chicken fat (among other things) as a raw material for biodiesel fuel. I had never thought of chicken fat that way before (a story earlier this week in the Arkansas Daily Gazette mentions that Tyson Foods, a big chicken processor, has a renewable energy group and is building a plant in Louisiana “to make high-grade biodiesel and jet fuels from Tyson-produced nonfoodgrade animal fats such as beef tallow, pork lard, chicken fat and greases.” I am way behind on my alternative energy news).

Six months before the incident, the Emporia Gazette ran a rather long article on the new biofuels plant in Cottonwood Falls. It was put up by a local family looking to get into a new business. It was a win for everyone–until the chicken fat spill.

R3 cleaning up spill

City Utility Supervisor
informs council of
chicken fat spill at R3

Jerry Schwilling
Chase County Leader-News

City Utility Supervisor Ron Lake informed the Cottonwood Falls City Council at its Monday, April 6, meeting that he had discovered a large amount of chicken fat at the city’s sewer lagoons Friday, April 3.

The chicken fat had run through the sewer line from R3 Energy to a lift station and from there onto the ground around the lift station.

Lake said when he discovered the chicken fat he asked R3’s Mike Swartz about it and Swartz said it was chicken fat that had been spilled at R3.

Swartz said Tuesday, April 7, that the spill had occurred when a truck was off-loading at the plant. The truck’s equipment, Swartz said, had malfunctioned spilling the chicken fat on the ground in the plans off-loading catchment area.

That area is designed to catch any spill and divert it either to the plant’s lagoon or the city’s lagoon. The decision was made to divert the spill to the city’s lagoon, Swartz said.

However, the lift station on the sewer line malfunctioned and the chicken fat spread on the ground around the lift station instead of going into the lagoon.

Swartz said the chicken fat was biodegradable and posed no ecological threat.

Lake told the council that he was required by the state to report the spill and to have it cleaned up.

Lake said that Swartz told him the spill had occurred on March 26. R3 did not report the spill to the city, Lake said.

Swartz said he reported the spill to two city employees the day it occurred and was told that Lake was not available.

R3, Swartz said, was having the lift station steam cleaned Tuesday, April 7, and had contracted a skid loader to pick up and dispose of the chicken fat on the ground at the city’s lagoons. He said he expected the clean up to be completed by the end of the day, Tuesday, April 7.

The council directed [city attorney?] North to send R3 a letter asking R3 to clean up the spill in the next seven days or the city would contract to have it cleaned up and bill R3.

The council also asked North to look into the creation of an ordinance to deal with any future spill.

Road Blog: Jolly Kone


One more from the road: a drive-in we passed in Wasco, between Highway 99 and Interstate 5 north of Bakersfield. The featured role of pastrami is notable, but pales next to the claim, “The Best Food in Wasco.” I can’t testify one way or the other.  

We pretty much stuck to the route that Google Maps or Mapquest might give you between Barstow and Berkeley: Highway 58 to Bakersfield and Highway 99; then up to Highway 46, through Wasco to I-5. Then all the way up the San Joaquin Valley to I-580, which takes you into Oakland. The route is simple and it is fast, and the traffic in the valley mostly behaved itself. We hit the front door here at about 5 p.m. straight up. Total driving for five days: 2,685 miles. Not a killer, but in a mini-Toyota it was a little bit of a challenge. Now that I think of it, I don’t recall seeing a single Echo on the road between here and Chicago (plenty of Priuses, though).

More tomorrow. I get to sleep at home tonight.

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


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.


Clean Rice


Last Thursday night, just outside the town of Tsukuba in Ibaraki Prefecture. We were walking along a semi-rural road just after sunset, and, not reading Japanese, I had no idea what this little kiosk was. My son Eamon said, “Well, what would a farming community like this need?” Well, there were rice fields all around us, scattered with single-family homes and small apartment buildings. But I still had no clue what I was looking at.

The large characters on the canopy say, “Kubota Clean.” What I was looking at was a personal rice mill (built by the Kubota company). People bring their winnowed household rice here, dump it in the hopper, put in some money, and this unit hulls and polishes the rice to the finely finished white grain most in Japan prefer. Not sure what the U.S. equivalent would be. A neighborhood flour mill to grind people’s wheat into flour?

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The Rich and Insipid Traveler

Mostly to feed our fantasies, I guess, a few years ago a friend who thought we should travel more sent our names to a travel company called R. Crusoe & Son. Several times a year, we get the R. Crusoe catalogs. Once or twice I’ve perused them seriously–one time they had an off-beat cruise that started in Chicago and went out through the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence to Newfoundland and then on to Greenland. One of the stops on the tour was L’Anse aux Meadows, the single site in North America where physical evidence has turned up of a Viking settlement. Something about that appealed to me. But we’re talking luxury travel here, inviting people to drop five or maybe even six figures on a trip. When the time comes, I’ll get to Newfoundland for a lot less than that.

Sometime in the last few days, we got the latest R. Crusoe catalog. In format, in style, and substance, they look and read like J. Peterman gone into the travel business. Mostly the results are innocuous. A description of an upcoming trip through China includes these highlights: “Enroll in Shaanxi Normal University for a morning discussion with students. Hear their hopes for the future. … Don’t blush when we view the lesser-known Han Dynasty naked warriors. Emperor Jingdi died in 141 B.C., but he left behind earthenware figurines dressed in silk. The clothing didn’t survive, but the troops are exquisite au naturel.” (Italics Crusoe’s, throughout.)

One of the trips in the brochure goes through Southeast Asia. Vietnam, Cambodia, and other places we Americans have left our mark. The pamphlet acknowledges that we’ve got some history in that part of the world, and the tour will visit war sites. But the past is acknowledged in a bland, chatty, empty — insipid — way that makes you wonder whether the purpose of visiting the region is to remember what happened there or forget about it. Here’s the bulk of the description, which I swear is presented in context:

Begin in Hanoi, which blasts any old associations of the Vietnam War. The 21st century city is a rich stew of influences–Asian and French colonial brand-new and Old Quarter. Our investigation goes forward as it should, by the leisurely pace of a rickshaw.

To Ho Chi Minh’s old haunts. Then poke around in the past with a researcher at the Museum of Ethnology. … See the Hanoi Hilton, where downed American pilots spent more time than they would have liked. …

Emperor Gia Long founded Hue as his dynasty’s first capital. He even created his very own Forbidden City, part of the imperial citadel. Have a look before retooling your sense of romance at dusk aboard a private sampan on the Perfume River. Also here: seven tombs for seven emperors. …

Once Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City sizzles. Its War Remnants Museum presents us with an eye-opening version of the “American War.” Passing the U.S. Consulate, experience a flood of memories–the chopper on the roof evacuating the last Americans.

Over cocktails and dinner, an economics professor brings us up to speed on Vietnam.

Burrow underground in the Cu Chi Tunnels, the very ones that helped change Southeast Asian history for good.

Then Cambodia. Somerset Maugham arrived in 1930 on a languid journey. Jackie O dropped by, too. Like them, we see the country’s light and dark sides.

Touch down in Phnom Penh to dabble in local history at the Royal Palace and its Silver Pagoda (featured in Architectural Digest). Treasures collected from across Cambodia await in the National Museum.

Cruise the poetic Mekong River at sunset on a private boat.

Those who want a deeper understanding of the unspeakable horror of the Khmer Rouge can take an option drive to the Killing Fields and visit Tuol Sleng Prison.

Consider today’s Cambodia over lunch with a journalist at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club. …

Our trip winds down with some options: Enjoy a cruise on Southeast Asia’s largest lake, with a stop to see creations of artists disabled by exploded land mines. Instead, head for the finely-carved temple of Banteay Srei. Or get a view of Angkor on a helicopter ride over the complex. …”

That last “instead” is a stunner. It’s as if the person writing the copy suddenly thought, “Amputees?! Get me out of here, Mr. Wizard!” For eight thousand or ten thousand bucks, depending on whether you’re sharing a room on this 17-day extravaganza, a quick extraction from reality is the least you ought to be able expect.

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Visiting Iraq

I search for the word “Iraq” on Technorati, the blog-content indexing and search service. I view the results in Technorati’s “Mini” applet, a neat little pop-up window, updated every 60 seconds, showing the latest blog posts related to Iraq. At the bottom of the Mini window is a perky little ad that’s supposed to be relevant to my search:

Visiting Iraq?

Find cheap flights and hotel rates for Iraq from over 100

top travel sites at Book direct and save.

Clicking on that link takes you to a Kayak page that invites you to choose one of seven Baghdad hotels for your upcoming trip. Top of the list: The Ishtar, on Saadoun Street. Amenities include free parking, car rental, a multilingual staff, an outdoor pool, and jogging (with all that going for it, the joint still rates only 5.0 out of 10 based on 32 Kayak users).

When you try to book a week at the Ishtar, though, Kayak returns a screen saying that if you want a reservation at any of the listed Baghdad hotels, you need to call them. If you try to book a flight, you hit another roadblock: a browser window pops up saying that no one Kayak does business with is flying to Baghdad. Just out of curiosity, I checked two other big online travel agents, Orbitz and Expedia, and they won’t get you to Baghdad, either. Curious, eventually I found the booking site for Iraqi Airways, which flies three round trips a week between Baghdad and Dubai in United Arab Emirates for 1600 AED (Emirati dirham), about $450.