All posts by Al Simons

Date night!

“You’re going on a DATE NIGHT!”

Our son and daughter-in-law’s Christmas gift certificate promised us a date night.  Cool!

Then we read a little more closely. This “date night” would be a gourmet dinner in a Medjool date grove, just outside of Yuma AZ (actually just over the state line in CA).  Fodor’s rates it as one of the top 20 unique dining experiences in the world (#9)!

The part of the date grove that we were in.

It lived up to its advertising.

Some background

Since ancient times, date palm trees are propagated from offshoots, not from seeds.  Material I have read on the web indicate that trees grown from seeds produce inferior fruit. Of course, there is the possibility that some would produce superior fruit due to random genetic mutation, but that isn’t being explored—at least not commercially.  So all the Medjool date trees are clones of each other! (That ought to make my friends at JAX happy!)

Dates have been cultivated for over six thousand years, starting in the area of present day Iraq. The claim is made that it is the oldest cultivated crop.  Medjool dates originated in Morocco. In the 1920s, the fungal “bayoud disease” was wiping out the date trees in Morocco; eleven offshoots were shipped to the Coachella Valley area in southern California in 1927, both for preservation of the Medjool date strain and for research into the disease.  All of the Medjool date trees in the US derive from those eleven offshoots—and there are many! In the ’40s, four offshoots were moved to the Bard Valley, north of Yuma.  Those “four sisters” are still producing fruit, and their offshoots are everywhere in the valley!

The dinner, which was organized by the “Visit Yuma” organization, was held at the Imperial Date Gardens, one of the largest Medjool growers in the Bard Valley area.  Last year, Imperial produced many million pounds of Medjool dates; it is an amount I can’t imagine! They are the only grower in this area that packages their own dates; all the other growers send their crop to a co-operative packaging facility.  Even so, Imperial still sends the majority of its crop to the co-op.

The cultivation, care, and harvesting of the dates is very labor intensive. When we were there (February 1), the tree our guide was using for demonstration purposes was just showing the very first signs of budding. The harvesting finishes in late October or early November—so the cycle takes most of the year.

The male trees are kept separate from the female (fruit-producing) trees.  All the pollination is done by hand—and there are thousands of trees! The pollen is produced in pods, which are opened and the pollen collected in jars.  Over the course of weeks, this pollen is spread, tree by tree, over the female trees that make up the bulk of the large grove. Up… Pollinate… Down… Move. Repeat.

One of the major aims of date cultivation is to produce large, high-quality fruit.  But the tree’s survival-based evolution has caused it to produce many fruit… quantity, not quality.  The growers want to focus the tree’s energy into a few fruit. The fruit bearing shoots are like rudimentary brooms, with one stalk coming from the tree which sends out finer branches which bear the fruit. One of the first things the growers do is to cut off most of those finer branches.  Then they remove most of the fruit on each of the remaining branches.  According to our guide, only about 10% of the fruit is allowed to mature. Even so, the stalks will become so heavy that they have to be tied up to keep them from breaking. Small trees will produce 150 to 200 pounds of dates; larger trees will produce 250 pounds or more. Overall, Imperial Date Gardens produces around thirteen thousand pounds of dates a day.

On a plant like a blueberry bush, or even an apple tree, all of this care would be relatively easy (if we forget about the thousands of trees part).  But the dates are 30 to 50 feet up in the air! All of the care is performed from telescoping boom lift trucks.  The work platforms are U-shaped, so that the workers can access all of the tree without repositioning the truck.

When the fruit gets to the point that it would soon be interesting to birds, each stalk is enclosed in a mesh bag, with an openable end. At first the end is left open, to allow the most air possible into the fruit.  However, just like apples, when the fruit nears maturity some will fall from the tree.  Therefore, the bag’s end is closed just before that point, to capture all the dates.  Wonder if the apple growers should start bagging all of their branches?

The harvest per se starts in August, and will extend to late October or early November.  Just from a point of logistics, each tree is harvested once.  That means that there will be some fruit not at the perfect stage of maturity.  Some may still be green, or too moist. These are separated in the first, sorting, stage of production, which also removes twigs and other debris.  These dates will be allowed to ripen or dry off the tree.

So how do you process 12 million pounds of dates, or even the 1.5 million pounds that they package on-site?  With large warehouses, LOTS of trays, and HUGE freezers.  I’ve never before seen a -10° F freezer the size of a warehouse!  Gives “walk in freezer” a whole new meaning.  Imperial Date Gardens uses no chemicals on its trees; the freezing process kills any pests (they are part way through the process of becoming completely organic-certified).  We were told that any dates you eat will have been frozen.  One interesting side note is that dates may be frozen and thawed repeatedly without any loss in quality.  But even if you don’t freeze them, dates will still be good after eight months in your refrigerator, or a month or so at room temperature!

There is a cleaning and secondary sorting and inspection process.  Here the dates are shaken on a clean wet cloth and then dropped onto a conveyor belt where inspectors look for the correct amount of skin wrinkling (a sign of moisture content), ripeness, size, etc.

Our guide showing us the cleaning and inspection area.

Is anyone else thinking about Lucy and Ethel?  I know I did when I saw the conveyor!

Dates which pass this inspection drop off the end of the conveyor, into a tray.  The tray is given a final inspection.  If any dates don’t pass, the entire tray is simply put back into the cleaning and inspection process!

One of the other attendees asked about the people who work in the grove.  Most of the farm’s laborers are seasonal migrant workers, but about 95% of them come back year after year.  They have some workers who have been with them for 30 years or more. Apparently, the date harvest season meshes well with some of the other crops grown in the area.

The dinner!

I haven’t talked about the dinner yet; I hope you’ve been anticipating it as much as we did!

Our “dining room!”

Our meal was prepared by chef Alex Trujillo, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu. He also runs the Patio Restaurant in Yuma. One of the aspects of the meal was that all five courses would contain dates in one form or another.

We started with appetizers, which included corn fritters with dates in the mix.  A wonderful twist! They were much more flavorful than usual, and sweeter.  Another appetizer was bacon-wrapped Medjool dates.  I was so disappointed that none of the servers wandering with the appetizers would leave her plate at my place.  I could have very happily eaten the entire plate!

All through the meal, we were serenaded by a string quartet, playing some classical music and some adaptations of popular music.

Fine sound for a fine meal.

Here’s a quick look around, during appetizers.

After the appetizer course, we had our informative tour of the facility. When we got back to the dining tent our places had been set with a green salad.  The greens were wrapped with a perimeter of very thinly sliced long cucumbers.  It almost resembled a large ramekin. Dates in the salad, dates in the dressing!

Salad, with raspberry-date dressing.
There were a variety of salads!

Next, we had a creamy carrot and date soup. Need I say it?  Delicious! Need to find a recipe for that…

The main course included a steak (nicely rare) and a chicken breast, accompanied by mashed potatoes and asparagus. The sauces were date-based, and yummy.

It tasted as good as it looks!

Kathe wasn’t quite able to finish all of the main course, and said she was finished.  No dessert for her!

But the fates laugh at people who make statements like that.

Dessert came out and it was tiramisu!  Her absolute favorite dessert. Oh, well.  “We’ll be good starting tomorrow.” The dates put a nice spin on the traditional dessert.  Even Al, who doesn’t normally like tiramisu, enjoyed it!

Date on top, and date sauce!

One of the great things about travel, and we think especially RV travel, is getting to meet new people and hear their stories.  That was certainly true at this dinner, where we shared a several hour-long visit with a couple from interior British Columbia.

When we left, Imperial Date Gardens gave us each a one-pound box of Medjool dates.  We’re still enjoying that reminder of the evening.

All-in-all, a great night! Thanks so much, Mike and Laurelyn; we loved it!

And from a different point of view…

Now that we’re pretty much settled, we have time to play with toys (repeat after me: “Toys are good!”) and take day trips.

Not too far from here are the Blythe Intaglios.  If you don’t want to click the link, briefly these large desert drawings were created by early indigenous people by scraping aside the dark stone layer at the top of the desert floor, exposing the lighter colored earth below. Also called geoglyphs, these are very hard to date.  However scientists believe they appear to be between 2000 and 500 years old.

They’re very hard to see from ground level, so our drone whispered in my ear…

#1. Considered the best preserved of the intaglios, this human figure is 105′ from head to feet.
#2. Depiction of a man, 102′ from head to feet. The line across the knees is part of what was originally a circle; only the part inside the fence is still easily visible. If the figures were sacred, is it possible the circle is the remnant of a dance ritual?

The intaglios were first “discovered” by modern man in 1932 by a pilot flying from Las Vegas to Blythe (CA).  The intaglios were fenced in in 1974, after it became clear that off-road vehicles would destroy them.  There are visible tire tracks in both pictures above. There are several theories about their original purpose and of course what set of theories wouldn’t be complete without one or more about aliens!

We are constantly in awe of the scenery here.  I know that the desert landscapes don’t appeal to everyone, but they really strike a chord in me.  See if you can spot the Colorado River.

We’ll go back in the new year (we’ll be camping in another location closer to them), to try to find the remainder of the intaglios.

Back at the ranch (OK, camper), I’m enjoying getting familiar with the drone, and with video editing at which I am a COMPLETE newcomer.  Here is a quick view of our current location.  We are in the camper near the bottom, just to the left of center.

At some point I’ll post a video with audio, or with multiple scenes composited. I’m not good enough at that yet!

Hope you have a great day!

On the moon?

Early on in our trip planning, White Sands National Monument was on our list.  But then we decided that we’d like to see some of Utah “before it got too cold,” so we planned to go west on I-40 all the way into Flagstaff and then north.  We decided that we’d do White Sands, NM some other time.

Well, “too cold” seemed to be following us all the way across the country (local temperatures were often 15° to 20° below normal—we started to think that it was our fault!).  We decided that we would drop down to a more southerly, i.e., warmer, route—I-10—after Bosque del Apache.  Yea!  White Sands was back on the route!

White Sands National Monument visitors’ center, built in the 1930s.

We knew that there are basically two “White Sands” things.  There is White Sands National Monument, and also White Sands Missile Range, the largest military base in the country in terms of area. The Missile Range is closed to the public (of course), so we focused our imaginations on the Monument, which we thought was completely separate.

It turns out, it isn’t so separate.  The Monument is completely inside the missile range; it closes to public access any time the military launches a missile. Phew!

The other thing we didn’t know was that the missile range has a museum open to the public! Did I mention in a previous post that I like space-oriented things?

White Sands Missile Range Museum

The first day, we went to the museum.  Since you’re entering a military base (by all of about 100 yards), you must present ID, and they run a quick check with the FBI to see if you’re a baddie. (Sorry, no pics of the entrance station where we had to register.  That is apparently a serious no-no.)

Outdoors display

We spent most of the time at the museum outside at the rocket display.  It was neat to actually see some of the rockets whose names I knew from the ’60s.

The Patriot, launched from a truck
Some of the missiles in the outdoor portion of the museum

 

The OH-50, an unmanned helicopter developed in the 1950s for anti-submarine warfare. Drones aren’t new! Although it is no longer in use in combat, it is still the only unmanned helo to be combat certified.  The OH-50 is still used at the Missile Range to tow targets.
WSMR is an Army base, but used by all branches of the military. This is a Navy guided missile launcher tested here.

The rockets on display here were almost all developed for the military, but they also enabled our manned space program.  Until the Apollo program’s use of the Saturn V booster, all of the rockets used for our manned space flights were repurposed military rockets—Redstone, Atlas, and Titan.  The Redstone held a special place in my memory because it was used for Alan Shepard’s and Gus Grissom’s sub-orbital flights at the start of Project Mercury, the beginning of the US manned space program.

I didn’t know that the Redstone was designed to be “transportable.”  From the information sign in front of the rocket:

As a field-artillery missile, Redstone was mobile and transportable by plane, truck, or train. However, when on the move, it needed a convoy  eighteen miles long, with 200 vehicles carrying approximately 10,000 individual pieces of equipment and more than 600 men.  The Redstone itself was carried on three trucks—its nose section (warhead), midsection (power plant and fuel tanks), and tail section—to be assembled in the field.

Transportable?  Maybe.  Stealthy? No way!

Indoors

There was also a nice indoor portion of the museum. Part of it covered the computing resources used in the early days of the missile age.  Here is a “patch panel” used to program a computer in the days before software.  This is from a computer used into the ’70s!

A quote on the information card: “You had to be a bit crazy to work on the patch panels!”

One way of gathering data about test flights is to track the rockets visually, with “cinetheodolites.”  Each of these required two operators, and many were used around the range.

A cinetheodolite ($75,900 on eBay!  Get yours today!)
Housing for a cinetheodolite

Trinity

There are moments that change the course of history forever; one happened here. On June 16, 1945, the world’s first atomic explosion happened on White Sands Missile Range, at the Trinity Site.  The Trinity Site is only open to visitors twice a year so we weren’t able to see it first hand, but a good portion of the museum’s indoors display space is devoted to it.

A one-third scale model of the bomb that was detonated at the Trinity Site.

The Trinity bomb was the same design as the second bomb, dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, to end World War II.

White Sands National Monument

On the second day, we went to the National Monument.  Mile after mile of white “sand,” actually gypsum.  After having seen the delicate gypsum florets in Mammoth Cave, it was amazing to see this much gypsum, literally piled up.  Kathe thought it looked like we were on the moon!

This plant’s root system causes these hills to remain even after the dune has moved on.

The leaves of this tree are thick and very waxy

It was interesting to walk on the dunes.  I have lived near the water all my life except for our time in New Hampshire, and am used to walking on sand—including the sand dunes on North Carolina’s Outer Banks.  The gypsum packs much more tightly than sand,  and is very easy to walk on in comparison.

We went sledding down the dunes on a plastic saucer (like would be used on snow).  Despite waxing the bottom of the saucer, other than the color of the dune’s surface, it wasn’t anything like sledding on snow!  It was quite sticky, but once you got going, it was fun riding down the dune.  Kathe got some good rides, but I fell out of the saucer each time! Unfortunately, I didn’t get any good video of me tumbling down the dune. (Sand-sky-sand-sky-sand-sky…)

The dunes are always moving, driven by the wind.  Keeping the tourist area road open is a constant problem.

Harder than plowing snow? I don’t know…

We had a really good day there, walking some trails and seeing the scenery.  Al finished with a ranger-led walk just before sunset.  The guide is an astronomer by training,  working as a paleo-geologist.  He described some of the research going on at the whole White Sands site, much of it outside the bounds of the Monument.

On the desert floor (where there isn’t currently a dune), the water table is only a foot or two below the surface. The geology  of the area depends on this.

A wet stick shows that there is water about 18 inches down this hole. The water table (the level of the water below the ground) is closely monitored.

The yucca plant below may be 30 or more feet tall.  It is rooted on the desert floor, and as a dune comes along it grows to keep its leaves and flowers above the level of the dune.  Unfortunately, when the dune passes, the yucca can’t support its long stem.  It collapses and dies.

You didn’t think I’d leave without a sunset shot, did you?

Blue sands at sunset

If you get a chance, do plan to go.  White Sands National Monument is other-worldly.  (Lunar?)

Bucket list: √ and √

Go get your bucket list. I’ll wait while you go find it.

Now add these two items which are in New Mexico, if they’re not already on your list:

  1. The Very Large Array,  otherwise known as the VLA, and
  2. Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.

√ and √!  Our bucket lists are now two items shorter!

The Very Large Array

I’ve been a space fan since the late ’50s, when my dad took me out in the yard and showed me one of our first two satellites—Explorer or Vanguard—at this point I don’t remember which.  I remember watching all of the Project Mercury launches on TV with him.

I’ve known about the VLA for a long time (yes, even before the movie Contact!), but I had never been there.  Now we have!  It is even more impressive in person.

The VLA is a radio telescope, one of the most sensitive in the world.  From the National Science Foundation website:

Among a broad range of scientific capabilities, the VLA addresses four primary science themes: measuring the strength and topology of cosmic magnetic fields; imaging young stars and massive black holes in dust-enshrouded environments; following the rapid evolution of energetic phenomena; and studying the formation and evolution of stars, galaxies and active galactic nuclei.

Phew!

The VLA is open to scientists all over the world who must submit research proposals to compete for telescope time.  The proposals are reviewed for scientific worth and feasibility. It is so highly competitive that, “Even highly ranked proposals are not guaranteed to receive observing time.

The VLA is a long way from anywhere.  We approached from the east, from I-25, and it is over 50 miles away—50 miles of passing almost nothing but beautiful scenery!

Typical central New Mexico scenery (not actually on the way to VLA–where I neglected to take pics!)

Located on the Plains of San Augustin, the site is both high at approximately 8,000 feet, and ringed by mountains. The height reduces the amount of atmosphere-induced distortion of the radio waves, something I had never considered.  The mountains block most of the man-made radio interference.  Any electronic devices you may have with you like cell phones, tablets, fitness trackers, smart watches, etc. must be turned off—completely. Digital cameras are (surprisingly) OK.  Needless to say, having your cell phone off doesn’t matter as there is absolutely NO coverage!

Approaching the VLA—still a fair distance away

The 28 antennas are huge!  The dishes are 25 meters (82 feet) across, and they over 200 tons each. When pointed up, they are 90 feet to the apex. You can’t really get an idea of how big until you have something to use for scale.

Four flights of stairs and we’re not even up to the pivot!

Twenty seven are in active use; there is always one in maintenance; they rotate through all the antennas to keep them all in good condition.

The VLA has four configurations, called “A” (far Apart), “B”, “C”, and “D” (Darned close together).  The configuration is changed every four months, and we were very fortunate to visit when the telescope was in configuration D.  In configuration A, each of the three arms of the telescope is thirteen miles long, and photography wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun!

Antennas close together! The beauty of Configuration D.

The VLA is laid out in three legs radiating out from the center, spaced at 120°.

Looking out the north leg, currently comprising 11 of the 27 antennas.

To reconfigure the array, and to bring antennas in for maintenance, they use a transporter. Top speed is 5 MPH; however when transporting an antenna, it usually moves about 2 MPH.

Zero to two in… several minutes.

The reason for the different configurations is that antenna spacing controls the field of view, how wide a portion of the sky it can view, and resolution, how small a feature it can distinguish.  Close spacing (like now) offers a very wide field of view, but relatively poor resolution.  The widest spacing, configuration A, views a much smaller portion of the sky, but can distinguish much smaller features.

At its widest spacing, the telescope is about 22 miles across.  To allow even finer resolution, the VLA is one component of the VLBA, the Very Long Baseline Array, which has a maximum distance between antennas of 4971 miles (8000 km).  The VLBA is controlled from the same building as the VLA, in Socorro, New Mexico; the antennas are spread out from Hawaii to the U.S. Virgin Islands and points in between.

If you want to see the VLA, go soon.  Its replacement is currently in the works, called ngVLA, which will increase its power and its resolution at least tenfold. The individual dishes will be smaller, but there will be many, many more! More information is here, and here (FAQ).

√ The Bosque del Apache NWR

Several years ago I heard about a great place for bird photography, especially for sandhill cranes and snow geese.  It wasn’t over-hyped! In the two days we spent there, we took on the order of 3,000 pictures!

The peak of the bird population happens during the depth of the winter in December. At that point they have approximately 20,000 sandhill cranes, 50,000 snow geese, and 50,000 ducks of various species.

The refuge is heavily managed.  The staff plant several food crops during the summer to feed the birds through the winter—mostly corn.  They plan to feed 100 pounds of corn per bird across the winter.  That is a LOT of corn! They also flood fields with water from the Rio Grande river to give more shallow water areas so the birds have safe places to spend the night. When we were there,  only a few of the fields were flooded; more to come!

Even now in November, there are a phenomenal number of birds here. During the day, the birds are spread out widely across the 58,000 acres of the refuge.  Even so dispersed, the density on any of the feeding areas is pretty high!

Sandhills feeding
Snow geese soaking up the rays.

At night they congregate in a few, relatively small wet areas—being in shallow water protects them from many predators.  This congregation into a few areas results in massive “fly-ins” and “fly-outs” at sunset and sunrise. Photographic heaven!

Go ahead! Count the sandhill cranes. I dare you!
Predator spotted! Snow geese flying out.
Incoming! Sandhills arrived in groups like this continuously for over a half hour.
Three sandhills landing simultaneously.

During the second day, we took two  (free!) tours with naturalists to find other birds which were located on the Reserve. Many were too far away to get good pictures of, but here are a few of the birds we saw.

A trio of cedar waxwings – one of Kathe’s favorites!
Phainopepla, the desert black cardinal.
We think this is an American Kestrel, a small falcon.
A bald eagle, in a snag.

In addition to so many birds including quail and turkey, there are many other species of animals on the refuge including mountain lion, bobcat, jackrabbits, and lizards.

It will take us weeks to work through all of our refuge photographs! Based on this fabulous experience, we’ve decided we’d be thrilled to visit as many wildlife refuges around the country as possible. Fortunately, there are quite a few in Arizona where we will spend the winter. Yahoo!

Canyons, Cadillacs, and Caravans

We spent several days in Amarillo, Texas. There is more to do there than we had thought!

General Texas Thoughts

We enjoyed our time in Texas, starting with our stop at the I-40 Welcome Center as we crossed in from Oklahoma.

Texas does things BIG!

And we had some reminders that we “aren’t in Kansas” (i.e., Maine) anymore!

Well… Maybe we ARE in Kansas, Toto!

Texas is the state with by far the largest wind power capacity, about 22.6 gigawatts, as of 2017.  And they’re still building. There are wind turbine “farms” seemingly everywhere! Go, renewable power!  What you can’t see in any picture is that these farms go on for miles. They are beautiful and quite mesmerizing.

Palo Duro Canyon

When you’re looking at the Palo Duro Canyon, don’t try to compare it to the Grand Canyon.  If you do, you will do yourself a disservice and miss the beauty here.

Palo Duro is the second-largest canyon in the country, and has its own beauty to explore.

The colors in the layers indicate how old the layer is.  The panhandle of Texas was once a seabed, and this stone was laid down across millenia.

Unlike the Grand Canyon, Palo Duro has a road to the bottom of the canyon.  There are campgrounds down there and people bring their large RVs.  We went to the bottom, but I’m very glad that we weren’t pulling Rhett!

Take a look around the canyon!

 

 

The canyon is still being formed by the action of the river.  The day we were there, the river was about 6 feet wide and flowing slowly.

However, flash flooding is a big problem.  Wherever the road crossed the river there were flood gauges at each end of the bridge, measuring road flooding up to 5 feet above grade.  And the bridges were 15 to 20 feet above the river!

They don’t need to shovel snow here (at least very often), but they have a lot of work clearing the road after a flash flood!

“Snow” shoveling after a flood…

Cadillac Ranch

You’ve probably heard about this unusual place, where some artists buried eight Cadillacs nose-down with the backs of the cars sticking up.

It was nearby, so… Why not?

We didn’t realize that it was an ongoing art project, encouraging people to contribute by spray painting the cars!  It was fun to see the cumulative effect—wow!

Some people sprayed expanding foam as well as paint.

RV Museum

We didn’t know about this one ahead of time… Jack Sisemore, the owner of an RV dealership in town, created an RV museum.  It was highly recommended to us by the folks at the next campsite (who happened to be from NH!). I expected a small garage with a few RVs in it.

WRONG!

This is a serious museum of the history of RVing, containing many firsts or only remaining examples of units.

The oldest Airstream, 1935.
One of the first tent trailers. We spent many happy vacations in its descendants!
Another tent-extended camper.
The unit from the Robin Williams movie, “RV”.
Itasca by WInnebago. Serial number 1.
What would an RV museum be without a VW microbus? Al’s family went camping through the Canadian maritime provinces in one of these in the 60’s.

I didn’t know until we were in the museum that Jack had started the Keystone company, one of the behemoths in the RV industry, in 1996.

Jack is a motorcycle fan as well, and has many exhibited through the museum.  Impressive!

Here are two that caught my fancy.

One-half of all the known cycles of this model and year with  a left hand sidecar
The Harley WLA from WW II.  Since most of these were modified for civilian use after the war, very few remain in their wartime configuration.

Big Texan: 72 Ounces of Beef

Near our campground was the Big Texan, a restaurant, kitsch (sorry, “gift”) shop, and hotel. (The company also happened to own the campground we stayed in.)  For nearly 100 miles on I-40 as we were approaching Amarillo, we saw billboards for this restaurant advertising “FREE 72 oz. STEAK!”

The hitch, of course, is that you have to eat it all in an hour.  Not only the steak, but:

  • Shrimp appetizer
  • Salad
  • Potato, and
  • THE STEAK.

And they mean ALL of it.

This is what 72 ounces of beef looks like! Yeah.  Four and a half pounds.

I was told that about 1 in 7 finish in under the time limit.  According to our server, you have to pay first, which is returned to the lucky few.  And you eat it on a stage, so everyone else can watch your valiant efforts!

The fastest time (according to the web) is by a small woman who finished the steak in under 3 minutes! You can find it on You Tube pretty easily, but trust me, you do not want to watch it!  It isn’t pretty.

Want to try? Neither did either of us.

Finally, just want to note that Kathe has driven every single one of our more than 8,000 miles of this adventure!  Way to go!

Smoky Mountains and Sunsets

From Shenandoah we went to Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP).  We stayed in Big Meadow Family Campground, in Townsend, TN—about two miles from an entrance to the park. The park owners were very friendly and accommodating (we had several large packages delivered there), and the park was maintained meticulously.  Highly recommended if you travel that way.

I (Al) had been to GSMNP many times, always the weekend before Memorial Day weekend, and had several places I wanted to go with Kathe.  Late May was usually somewhat crowded, but not so much as to make getting to what you wanted to see difficult.  I was hoping that the park would again be fairly quiet now, being “after season.”  Maybe it was fairly quiet with respect to the summer crowds, but it certainly wasn’t quiet.

On our first day in the park, we went to Cades Cove.  This is a roughly 11 mile one-way loop through an area that was settled for about 100 years before the creation of the park.  Kathe and I enjoy trying to understand something of small communities by looking at their graveyards.  There are several in the Cades Cove area, along with several small churches.

There are three churches in the cove:  Primitive Baptist, Missionary Baptist, and Methodist.

We think that the Primitive Baptist church is the oldest in the cove.
The steeple and bell of the Primitive Baptist church
Interior of the Primitive Baptist church
Pulpit Bible in the Primitive Baptist Church. Note the vandalism / graffiti on the inside back cover.

Traditionally, Methodist churches had two doors, one for men and one for women.  Although the Methodist church in the cove has two doors, the practice of separating men and women was not practiced in this church.

The Methodist Church
The Methodist cemetery

We were able to see several generations of the cove’s families, and marriages between them.  We noticed that families would sometimes switch denominations with part of the family being buried in the Baptist cemetery and others in the Methodist.

The Oliver family was one of the founding families of this settlement, and remained a presence there. (Click on a picture in the gallery to see the larger, uncropped, version.)

It was hard to see the infant graves with only a single date on the headstone, or a span of only a few weeks or months.

Especially heartbreaking was to find several groupings of three infant headstones from the same family.

The cemeteries are still active, despite being in a National Park. People who lived in the cove before the creation of the park are still able to be buried there.

Two of the things we wanted to see in the cove—Abrams Falls and the mill—we had to pass on due to the crowding.  By the time we got to the parking area for the falls we didn’t have enough time for the hike, and when we got to the mill area, there was no available parking. So we headed back to camp.

Afternoon in the Smoky Mountains

After dinner we went to Look Rock to see the sunset.  This is several miles out the Foothills Parkway, a separate part of the park.  Right at the parking lot, there is a short walk to a viewpoint to the south.  While very pretty, it wasn’t going to be the best for sunsets.  As we were walking back to the car to try to find another place, a young couple asked if we were looking for the tower.  Yes!  They showed us the start of the path across the road from the parking.  After a short (uphill!) hike, we were set for some good sunset photography.

The next day we decided to drive to Clingmans Dome for sunset.

The first part of the drive is along the Little River, which has many cascades and is quite pretty.  One of the disadvantages of driving a large pickup truck is that there are very few places you can pull over for a photo stop.  We did find a few though.

A small cascade along the Little River
The Little River can also be serene

Eventually the road leaves the river and heads into the mountains.  Here we saw our first hints of fall colors, although we missed the bright reds of Maine.

This is a long drive (the Dome is in North Carolina, and the road is a twisty mountain road). The drive was worth it! At many points there are good views of the mountain range that we are in.

The Appalachian Trail passes directly under the tower we watched the sunset from, so I guess I can now say I’ve been on the AT!  (Nah.  I wouldn’t do that to my friends who have hiked the AT.)

Row after row of Appalachian mountains at sunset

In addition to sampling sunsets wherever we land, we love to eat, too! We eat out fairly often, possibly more than we should.  But here we “had” to eat lunch twice at the Black Bear Cafe in Townsend.  Their fried grouper sandwich was outstanding!

We continue to find that meeting people is one of the most enjoyable aspects of RV life.  At Big Meadow, we met Joe and Judy, and two of Judy’s sisters, Jo and Rachel.  We enjoyed comparing our RVs and the modifications we each have made (their rig is a larger version of ours), and talking about favorite places to visit. The sisters are three of seven sisters.  When we left the park the three, who were roughly in their late 70s, were heading out to have lunch with some of their friends…they hadn’t seen since elementary school!

From here, we went to Mammoth Cave, which Kathe already covered in her spelunking post.  We’ll catch you again from Memphis!

Hacking the Sun

As “Tim the Toolman” used to say on TV, “More power!”

We are planning to spend a good portion of the winter in the desert southwest.  Three main requirements for “boondocking,” also called “dry camping,” are having:

  1. self-contained fresh water,
  2. adequate waste storage, and
  3. electrical power.

While many people carry portable (or installed) generators (as do we), using generators on a continuous basis isn’t very tenable.  So we’ve added solar power capabilities.

This is an unusual post for us, in that it is fairly technical (also called “geeky”): nuts and bolts (and wires).

We wanted to be able to use all the devices we normally do, some of which use 12 volts DC (battery power): the lights, radio, water pump, ceiling fans, etc., while others use 120 volts AC (household power): the TV, Instant Pot, microwave/convection oven, etc.  We also knew that we wouldn’t be able to use our air conditioners, at least for any extended period.  They simply draw too much power.

The basics of a solar system for an RV are:

  1. solar (“photo voltaic”) panels to gather energy, and their controllers;
  2. 12 volt batteries to store the collected energy; and
  3. an “inverter,” which changes the stored 12V DC energy into 120V AC, for those components which need it.

First, some pretty (or pretty geeky) pictures.  Then for those who are interested, the details.

Our solar panels are mounted on the roof.  They can be flat for travel and we will leave them flat when we’re somewhere that we will only be staying briefly, or where we can’t orient the trailer to be on an east-west axis so that tilted panels can face south.

Six of our eight panels, without tilt

When we will be somewhere for a while and can orient the trailer properly, we can tilt the panels to more directly face the sun.

Panels can be tilted to capture more solar energy
Three panels, tilted to face the sun

The solar panels can generate a range of voltages.  We need controllers to change the incoming voltage into the proper voltage to charge the batteries.

Controllers for the solar charging system

One hundred seventy four pounds of batteries equals 600 amp hours of lithium storage.

600 amp hours of Lithium batteries

Our inverter changes the 12 volts DC into 120 volts AC.

Our inverter for 120 VAC–household current.

Now the details… only two more detail pictures below.  Feel free to stop reading if you don’t want to dive into those details.

Solar panels

Solar panels are measured in terms of the number of watts they can generate under “standard” (ideal) conditions.  We chose to use eight panels, each of which can nominally generate 180 watts.

Watts and watt hours

Watts measures the amount of electrical power in use right now; it is analogous to speed.  Think “60 miles an hour.” If you want to know how far you’ve traveled, you need to know how long you have been traveling at 60 miles an hour. The electrical equivalent to distance is watt hours.  If you turn on a 60 watt light bulb, you are using electricity at the rate of 60 watts.  If you leave the bulb on for an hour, you have used 60 watt hours of power. The electric meter on your house measures the number of watt hours your activities consumed.

With our eight 180-watt panels, we theoretically have the ability to generate 1440 watts of power from the sun, under “standard conditions,” which are not often equaled in real use.  The amount of watt hours we can generate will depend on how many hours of sunlight we have (and whether it is cloudy or sunny, winter or summer, etc., etc.)

We’ll get back to watt hours below when we talk about our batteries.

Batteries

Two of the primary characteristics of batteries are the chemistry used, e.g., lead-acid, alkaline, or lithium-ion, and their capacity—the amount of energy they can store.

Chemistry

Until recently the standard battery chemistry for use in RVs was lead-acid, the same as in your car’s battery if you don’t have an electric car.  They are still very popular, primarily because of initial cost, but they have several disadvantages when compared to a newer chemistry, lithium iron phosphate which is abbreviated LiFePo4—say that 3 times fast!  In the comparison  LiFePo4 batteries:

  1. store more energy in the same size battery;
  2. are much lighter, at 29 pounds per battery instead of 61 pounds;
  3. can charge more quickly;
  4. have a much longer lifespan (in terms of the number of charge/discharge cycles and years); and
  5. can be discharged much more deeply.  Lead-acid batteries can only discharged to the 50% point without damaging the battery; LiFePo4 batteries can be discharged to the 20% point. This gives much more usable energy.

The LiFePo4 batteries  have some downsides as well.  They can’t be charged below freezing, and they are very expensive.

For us, the advantages outweighed the disadvantages, so we bit the bullet and got six 100 amp hour LiFePo4 batteries.  Ouch!

Finally, although both battery chemistries have “lithium” in their name, the LiFePo4 batteries are not the same as the Lithium Ion (Li-ion) batteries that are in your cell phone and in my Chevy Volt. Our batteries are slightly less energy-dense than Li-ion, but our chemistry is intrinsically fire-safe.

Capacity: amps and amp hours

Batteries are measured in terms of amp hours of energy that can be stored.  There is probably a reason the industry doesn’t use watt hours, but I don’t know what it is.

Amperage is the measurement of how much electricity is moving through a wire. It is similar to the amount of water coming out of a hose.  Like watts, it has a corresponding measurement for use across time, which is amp hours. In our water hose analogy, this would correspond to gallons of water.

Fortunately, amps and watts are related by a third factor, voltage. Voltage is like the pressure inside the water hose. Watts is amps times voltage.  If our battery is a 12 volt battery, then a one amp flow delivers 12 watts of power.  I hope I didn’t lose you there.   Our 600 amp hours of 12 volt batteries stores nominally 7200 watt hours of power. (I’m ignoring complications like “12” volt batteries are actually 13.2 – 14.4 volts.)

This picture shows the panels generating 42.7 amps of power at a voltage that is too high to apply to the batteries.  The controllers change it to a lower voltage at higher amps–retaining almost the same number of watts (there is a slight loss caused by the controller’s operation).

Lower voltage and higher amperage out–same watts.

And here is the current battery state.  Fewer amps going into the batteries because the RV is consuming some.

Bringing it all together, since our panels generate (nominally) 1440 watts of power, and our batteries store (nominally) 7200 watt hours, we can completely charge our batteries in five hours on nominally perfect days!

Your our mileage may vary.”

The inverter

The last major component in our system is a 3000 watt inverter. This can supply about 25 amps of 120 volts AC power.  However, to do that it has to consume over 250 amps of 12 volts DC from our batteries (inverters are not 100% efficient).  Remember that we have only about 480 amp hours of usable storage (80% of 600 amp hours).  So obviously we wouldn’t be using that much power for very long!

The inverter is sized large enough that we can run one air conditioner from it for a while, especially in the peak of daylight where we can pull power from both the solar panels and the batteries.  But if we need to run it continuously, we’ll have to spin up one of the generators!

To the desert!

So that is the package that we are counting on to keep us going in the desert this winter.  We’ll see how it goes… After all, this trip is an adventure!

Grandkids! Water!

Water

Just before the time we’re writing about here (we’re a bit behind the times) Hurricane Florence hit North Carolina and affected so many people in the southeast.  We’re very thankful that those we know who were in the area are safe, and are keeping those more seriously affected in our prayers.

Grandkids

We’ve had our first “house guests!” (RV guests?)

We traveled to Watkins Glen, NY, to spend some time with our son Mike, our daughter-in-law Laurelyn, and four of our grandkids in Corning, about 20 minutes away.

Friday night dinner — delicious Mexican food.

The two boys, Dean, 10, and Graham, almost 13, spent Friday night with us.  They were the first to use the convertible couch in the RV as a bed.  They reported it to be comfortable (phew!).

We had an early birthday  for Graham, and then played one of his new games.  Graham will soon be a teenager! How did that happen so quickly?

Early birthday!

Also Grandpa got a lesson in GoPro from Dean!

Saturday morning, Graham and Dean’s sisters, Mira, 7, and Brynn, 5, joined us—Saturday night was the girls’ night to sleep in the camper and boy, were they excited!

No, they didn’t ride over in the back of the truck!

The plan for the day was to enjoy the features at the campground. But before we headed out, everyone had to try (again and again!) the magic recliners in the camper — they’re powered to recline, heat, and massage and were a BIG hit!

We lost count of how many turns each of the kids had trying out the recliners.

Time to play! Grandma and all four kids took advantage of the campground’s mini-golf course.

Ready for the U.S. Open! Look out, Tiger…

Then we all made use of the on-site water park.  The big hit was the water slide.  Grandpa L. also gave the slide a try! Graham just about wore the slide out…

Grandpa was happier about the ride than he looked!
Oh, my goodness!
Some serious concentration. Go, Dean!

What’s happening here?

We also made use of bumper boats and the jumping pillow. Grandpa L. tried the jumping pillow, much to the amusement of those watching.  By getting back off the pillow very quickly, he avoided permanent injury! (Note to GL: you’re not 14 any more!)

Mira, Brynn, Dean, and Graham on the jumping pillow
Grandpa L, just before he failed miserably!

In Corning Sunday night, we saw what we all agreed was the most intense rainbow we had ever seen!

The picture does not do it justice!

More water: Watkins Glen State Park

May we introduce Lolly Lobster, our traveling mascot.

The remnants of Hurricane Florence came through our area on Monday.  We were scheduled to leave on Tuesday, but the weather between there and our next destination, French Creek State Park in PA was predicted to be lousy for driving.  We delayed our departure by a day and took advantage of the extra day to visit Watkins Glen State Park which we had never been to before.

Wow!

One fall, near the start of the walk.

The heavy rain of the day and night before gave us some spectacular scenery as we walked up the gorge path along Glen Creek.

A torrent

They claim that there are 19 waterfalls along this mile and a half path. We have no idea how they count.  It looked like one continuous cascade to us!

What number is this, honey?

Yes, the trail goes behind several of the waterfalls!

Awe-full to have all that water cascading over your head!
Fun playing with shutter speeds…
Another waterfall to go behind!
We’re embarrassed that this was our FIRST visit to the park — what an amazing spot!

We rounded out our visit to Corning and Watkins Glen with a lovely dinner out overlooking Seneca Lake. It was a sensational visit, albeit all too quick. We’ll be back!

Sunset over Seneca Lake

Gettysburg

Al: I never served in the military; I know that I don’t have a soldier’s “headset,” for lack of a better word. I have high respect and admiration for those who have.

I considered not writing about Gettysburg.  The scope is too large.  Being on the battleground is completely overwhelming; I don’t know really where to begin.

One way could be to look at the sobering statistics. In three days of fighting, July 1 – 3, 1863, approximately 7000 soldiers were killed. There were approximately 51,000 casualties (soldiers killed, wounded, captured, or missing). There are many estimates of the casualty count; we have seen higher and lower estimates. Some units lost two thirds or more of the men who were present at the start of the battle. 158,000 were engaged in the battle across the three days.

Casualty figures for a unit

Amazingly for a battle that surrounded a city, there was only one civilian casualty; a twenty-year-old  woman named Jenny Wade was killed by a stray shot.  How times have changed.

The civilian structures were damaged, though, and some still bear the scars.

Bullet scarred wall
Through-and-through cannon ball

Occasionally we’ll include a reference, “(NPS)”. This indicates that a particular statistic or comment came from the National Park Service’s Gettysburg FAQ web page.

Kathe: I’ve been to Gettysburg in recent years but Al had never been; I couldn’t wait to share it with him.

When we entered the visitors’ center, we headed right for the ticket booth and decided to purchase the three-way pass that comprises the Cyclorama, the museum, and a two-hour bus tour of the battlefields. As we always do with every National Park we visit, we started with the orientation film. It gave an overview of the three days in July 1863 — narrated by Morgan Freeman — and I was already in tears.

From the overview film, we were shepherded upstairs to the Cyclorama. It’s breathtaking – a 360-degree painting of the Gettysburg Battlefield that was painted in 1883 (it’s one of four that have been created – this one was acquired and restored a few decades ago). It is 42 feet tall and 377 feet around. We all stood on a raised platform in the middle of the room and were surrounded by images, lights, sounds, and narration that made it all come to life. We were in the midst of the battle. It was sobering. More tears.

Detail from the cyclorama

Us: Later while on the battlefield, one of the things that surprised us was the terrain. This is open, mostly flat, land.  In 1863 it was even more open; many of the trees now present were not there.  Then it was agricultural fields. The National Park Service has an ongoing program to restore the area to the conditions at the time of the battle, removing trees, planting orchards, and restoring walls and fencing. Local farmers have access to the land to plant crops.

According to our tour guide, the tactics had not changed much from the days of the Revolutionary War, with the soldiers often marching in a line across an open field toward the opposing side.  A rise of only 100 feet (sometimes less) could give a dominant position.

The key high point was Little Round Top, at 150 feet above the fields.  The higher rise next to it, Big Round Top, was not useful militarily because it was (and remains) completely wooded.

View from the top of Little Round Top; only 150′ gives a strategic “high ground” advantage

Shortly after the war, various groups began placing bronze and stone (mostly granite and marble) monuments on the battlefield honoring regiments, divisions, corps, and armies.  Now there are approximately 1328 (NPS) monuments within the park. They range in size from gargantuan (Pennsylvania and New York) to diminutive and hidden in the woods (Maine 20th). The brigade monuments had either round (Confederate) or square bases (Union).

The Pennsylvania monument
One of many New York monuments, this one in the cemetery

Detail of the New York monument

There were also many markers across the battlefield that indicated the midpoint of each regiment and their right and left flanks (ends). You can see how closely the units were deployed.

Markers indicating the right flank of one unit and the left flank of the next

We walked the range that the Maine 20th Regiment had spread across on Little Round Top; it was amazingly short. Due to where they were deployed, their monument is a short walk into the woods. The inscriptions on the sides of the monument list the soldiers who were killed or died of their wounds inflicted during the defense of Little Round Top.

We took advantage of a free Ranger Program in the park on our last morning there: a tour of the National Soldiers’ Cemetery on Cemetery Hill. This area was known as Cemetery Hill at the time of the battle and was one of the contested regions.  The Soldiers’ Cemetery is adjacent to a pre-existing public cemetery which gave the hill its name.

Soldiers were originally buried in shallow graves on the battlefield. They were then re-interred with great effort at the Soldiers’ Cemetery.

Originally set aside by the state of Pennsylvania, it was for the Union dead only.  Most of the Confederate dead were interred in the Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, VA, in a special section set aside for Gettysburg casualties (NPS).  Now it is a national cemetery and is still in active use.

Initially the plan was to bury soldiers without regard to rank or unit.  However it was decided to bury them in sections, according to the state they were from—still without regard to rank. Remarkably, most of the graves have names.  Each state section has some graves marked “Unknown.”

Most graves are identified
Sometimes the state and even the regiment were known, but the soldier’s identity was not

Each state had a marker indicating the number of soldiers buried here.

The marker for the Maine section

Additionally, there are many simple numbered marble markers for soldiers for whom their state was unable to be determined.

One section of graves of unknown soldiers

All of the soldiers are arranged in a semicircle around the Soldiers Monument that is the focus of the cemetery.  The way they are buried seemed unusual; they are buried behind their headstone with their heads toward the center.  In this way should they rise they will be facing outward, ready to defend Cemetery Hill again.

The cemetery is still in use; here are some graves from the Spanish-American War, and World Wars I and II.  Still newer graves are in an adjacent annex.

Graves of soldiers from the Spanish-American War and World Wars I and II
Marking newer graves of unknown soldiers

Being on the battlefields of Gettysburg gave us a deeper understanding and reverence for the words of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. It is an awe-inspiring and humbling place that we hope each of you will have an opportunity to experience.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Abraham Lincoln.
November 19, 1863.

Delivered at the Soldiers’ Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

OOPS!

They say things happen in threes.  Or fours.  Fives?

We’ve had very smooth sailing until now.  This stop has made up for that, but we’re still laughing and smiling.

We stayed at Pine Grove Furnace State Park in Pennsylvania.  The campground is about 50 years old according to the campground host.  Back then the trailers were not as big as they are now, and some of the corners are very tight.

“They want us to fit into THAT space?”

The road to our site was very narrow, making maneuvering difficult. The site was very short. But with a fair amount of backing and forwarding we were able to get the trailer into position and the truck off the road.

“Ummm, Honey?  I can’t find the water spigot.”

Look at the reservation slip… oops!  This is an electric-only site.  Good thing we have large tanks for “ins” and “outs.”  But we don’t travel with the fresh water tank full because of the weight it would add, so… Ask another camper where the water access is.  Hitch the trailer back up to the truck, and drive to the water.  Fill up.  Now get into our spot again. (Did a better job positioning the trailer this time!)

Since we plan to “boondock” (camp with no hookups at all) for a good portion of the winter, we look at this “opportunity” to use only the water we’re carrying as good practice.

Still smiling.

We start to open the slides that turn our narrow trailer into a much more spacious (400 sq. ft.) living area.

“SCREECH!!!”

What the…?  Haven’t heard THAT before.

A small rug that we use at the sink hadn’t been put away, and is now under the slide, between a roller and success.  It is about 18 inches inside a ½” slot.  Our fingers aren’t that small, nor long.  Cannibalize the metal handle of a fly swatter to form a dual-hooked gadget with which to snag the rug and pull it out.

We spent three days and 4 nights here visiting the Gettysburg National Military Park.  We’ll write that up in a post soon.

Time to leave, and it rained overnight. We squeegee the rain off the slides, so it doesn’t end up inside the trailer.  Wait.  Why is that slide topper (like an awning over the slide, to keep leaves, etc. off the top of the slide) about 10 inches too far back?  Why is that end cap missing?  Why is that other end cap broken?

We have the first damage to the trailer.  Did we mention that the campground was too small for our rig?  We apparently clipped a tree at some point without feeling it. Two inches closer and we would have met the tree with the body of the trailer resulting in much worse damage.  So… disappointed that we have damage to fix, but we’re glad it wasn’t worse.

Finally (we hope!) as we return to the truck from a rest stop we notice…

The tailgate is DOWN!  Oh shoot!

We lost a few small items from the bed.  Apparently one of us had accidentally pressed the tailgate release on our fob at some point.

Phew!

We’re ready for a few problem-free weeks of travel now.  We deserve it!