Monthly Archives: September 2014

Carlsbad Caverns-the Natural Entrance

I went to visit my daughter in New Mexico this summer and our adventures took us to Carlsbad Caverns for the day.  Now simply making it a day trip eliminated one possibility-the bat flight which happens at night.  Maybe another time.  I supposedly was to Carlsbad Caverns when I was about 5 years old, but I don’t really remember it.  So this was an opportunity to spend some quality time with my daughter.  If you plan on taking any of the really special tours, be sure to check out the website ahead of time and make your reservations.  We got what we wanted, though.

I had checked ahead of time, so I wore my socks and closed toe tennis shoes, grabbed a jacket and took a bottle of water-as well as the camera and phone for pictures.  Once you check in at the top (I was surprised that we actually drove up on top to go down), then you have a choice.  You can either walk down through the natural entrance or take the elevator.  Coming back out, you have the same choice.  Since there was absolutely no way I would be walking out the 1.2 miles, I knew we would be going down when we entered.  The average cave temperature is in the 50’s and we didn’t get down far, before we left the desert southwest heat behind.  I had also seen somewhere that it is up to a 20% grade in places when you are walking down.  We also chose to take one of the talking wands that would give us specific information at certain spots throughout the adventure.  So down and down and down we went, getting cooler and cooler with every traverse of the walkway.  It also got humid feeling quickly, but it wasn’t uncomfortable and I actually never did put my jacket on.

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Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico

The ever changing scenery in the cave was amazing.  We also occasionally would come upon locked entrances to some of those other longer tours that we would not be taking.  We also passed several of the park rangers walking out as we descended further down into the cave.  I finally asked one of the rangers if they were required to walk up.  She shared with me that yes, they were required to walk out and police, clean up as they went.  Since I had already decided to get back into photography, and had heard that pictures were better without a flash.

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Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico

I was ready.  I was so pleased that the smart phone automatically does so much when it comes to pictures.  I didn’t even need to adjust anything, it automatically did it for me.  The pictures came out great I thought.  It would be fun to compare them to the guy who had the really expensive camera and was using a tripod to take pictures.  I have found after this summer’s trips, that my smart phone actually captures great pictures without my messing with it.  It also does better than my digital camera, which takes longer to “capture” it when on the smart setting.  What a difference a couple of years makes, when it comes to technology.

Once we were down to the main cave, it was 1.25 miles to walk all the way around it.  There was a lot more to see than I thought there would be.  The ever changing different things to see included, stalagmites, stalagmites, draperies and many more.  There wasn’t much water down there, but we learned there was a reason for that.  If I remember right, part of it is because the visitor’s center and parking lot sit on top of it, so there aren’t as many ways for water to get down there.  I was very intrigued with how they got all of the lighting done in the cave sections.  Most of it wouldn’t have taken a rocket scientist, but there were places that I know someone dangling from a very long rope was installing lighting elements.

It truly was wonderous, and both my daughter and I enjoyed our time there.  I would definitely go back again, if other family members wanted to do the trip.   It did involve about 3 hours of driving to go and return to where my daughter lives.  I do have one piece of advice for that hike down though.  Trim any long toenails before you put on your socks and shoes.  The grade was steep enough and my toes kept pushing into the toe part of my shoes with a lot of pressure.  By the time I got to the bottom, my toes were very sore.  A month and half later, I still have little black bruise lines going across my toenails.  That really is the only negative from the trip.  Thunderstorms were intermittent while we were on the road, so the less exciting landscapes were transformed into more memorable sequences, including torrential downpour.

It Rains in Las Vegas?

This is the desert!  You are correct that we don’t exactly break records for our regular annual rainfall of about 4 inches.  We really do have lots of rain occasionally, and spotty.  We even have flooding.  We have always had flooding from before I lived here even.  Some of the major roads originally were planned as washes.  Our ground with its caliche and hardpan does not absorb a lot of rain quickly.  So instead, the water runs for the washes.  I moved her about 20 years ago.  At that time, the regular culprit was the Charleston underpass.  The road left road level and dipped down below the railroad bridge.  The water would rise as high as the railroad bridge structure.  At some point during that era, the control district came up with the saying “Turn around, don’t drown!”

In 1997, we had a whole bunch of family visiting, including my nephew who was an unaccompanied minor to be picked up by my mother-in-law.  The problem, it rained and flooded Las Vegas big time.  I lived in the northwest area of town and the airport was on the south end of town.  The rain started in the morning.  I was in the southwest area of town.  I start heading north and come upon a well running river coming down Sahara.  I am in a nice high clearance vehicle (Expedition).  I decide to drive west “up” Sahara to find an easier place to cross.  Eventually I choose to float through the corner gas station and eventually make it back to my house.  But wait! The nephew hasn’t landed yet and we still have to go get him.  The rain is still coming down and pictures are all over the news showing the flooding all around town.  Well, my husband works right down near the airport.  Certainly the airline will let us change who is picking up the unaccompanied minor child-right?  Wrong!  After explaining the situation to the customer service lady for the airline, she says, “It doesn’t flood in Las Vegas, no you cannot change who is picking up the unaccompanied minor.”  I hope she at least felt bad when she saw the pictures of Las Vegas flooded on the tv that night.

In 2003, I was once again down toward the southwest part of town out with a group of friends.  There happened to be tv monitors where we were eating.  We are watching and you will never guess-it is flooding up in the northwest part of town where I live.  We wait for the rain to slow down and figure the flooding will be improved by the time we get to that area.  Who knew?  I had to re-route my drive home a few times, but made it.  What made it onto tv that night was the fact that while a fire truck was out rescuing people, it got stalled in one of the flooded intersections and the firemen had to be rescued.  That was only the northwest part of town though.

During the summer of 2013, we had the Carpenter 1 fire on Mt. Charleston.  As a result of all of that vegetation, roads, and dirt washed away, there is nothing to slow down the water when it rains on the mountain.  There is a new natural wash coming the down the mountain at the edge of the housing developments that crosses Hwy. 95 and continues through a couple more developments and then lands on Grand Teton (up in the northwest).  It proceeded down Grand Teton where it pooled in the lowlands of the orchard, undeveloped intersection corners and some larger single homes.  It rained so much and frequently in early fall of 2013, that the water did just that.  The flooded area was probably about 4 blocks wide and 8 blocks long.  Getting home from work during that time was really challenging, as I kept having to turn around and try and different street.  A few schools were closed for a day or two and creative bussing routes were employed the rest of the time. This area will no longer be a problem at all in the future.  New underground infrastructure is being put in place and the undeveloped corner is now developed.

So let’s jump forward by a year. In 2014, the Carpenter 1 fire is still causing flood problems.  In Las Vegas, we only have two major highways that carry us out of town in four major directions.  Those are Hwy. 95 going north and south (technically west and east) and Interstate 15 going north and south (slightly east and more west).  So a major rainstorm occurs up on the mountain and the water starts flowing and is flowing so hard, it washes 2 cars into the median and floats them down the median toward a large concrete drain.  A couple of passing airmen from Creech stop to help the old couple out of one of the cars.  Ironically a couple of days later I stop for a late bite to eat at a fast food joint.  An airman is buying food and asks the clerk how often Hwy. 95 is closed due to flooding.  The clerk is clueless.  So I jump in and offer up that it was a total fluke-never happened before and will never happen again.  I have been told to never say never!  Within days, there is so much rain coming down on Interstate 15 to the northeast of Vegas by an hour or two, that Interstate 15 gets totally washed out on one side and slightly washed out on the other side.  So 15 has to be totally shut down for a few days until it can be repaired and re-opened.  I am so happy I did not have to use the much longer detour with all of the semi trucks. Out west, in the middle of nowhere, detours are out of the way and take a lot longer.  Up beyond the closed section, 15 runs through a canyon in the northwest corner of Arizona for about 20 miles.  People who were traveling through the canyon at the time of all of the rain took absolutely unbelievable videos of waterfalls in the canyon-waterfalls that don’t ever exist in the canyon at any other time.These waterfalls just poured down the rocks and onto the highway , then ran down whatever lowest points existed on or near the roadway.

So we get the monsoons rolling through in late summer and we occasionally get the tail end of a hurricane in its very weakened on land stage. Now at almost the end of September, we should not be seeing monsoons, and I am not so sure we should be seeing the leftovers of hurricanes.  Today though they predicted rain.  I work in a school library with a 20 foot high metal roof.  When it rains, we all hear it.  During the last class of the day, we heard it coming through in short spurts of downpour.  School dismissed with very few drops and the sun hiding behind the the clouds.  I stayed to make an honest effort at getting caught up on so many things.  I am sitting there and hearing waves of rain coming and going on the metal roof.  Then I am hearing some of the most active thunder I have ever heard.  I actually had flashbacks of the movie Mad Max or some of those apocalyptic movies where it thunders, lightens and rains constantly.  It starts pouring so hard, it is time for a break.  The custodian and I go stand by the front door to observe what truly looked like a hurricane with the rain coming down at a sharp angle.  Safekey pick up must have been really interesting, since he said we now had a collection of broken umbrellas, because of the wind.  But that was only the Aliante area.  Hardly any rain where I live.  A different area of town had wind up to 83mph that took out about 13 trees at one apartment complex.

So what is my point?  I love weather-I actually get excited about it.  Does it rain in Las Vegas?  The answer my friends is blowing in the wind!  I couldn’t help myself.  Yes, it does rain in Vegas.  Not much, but sometimes just enough to keep things interesting.

The Road to Somewhere-Hawthorne to Reno

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Walker Lake from the North, AKA Scary Lake

Hawthorne to Reno is the last long leg of this extensive trip and probably has the most going on, of any of the four legs of the trip.  Heading out of Hawthorne the highway starts a gentle wind between the mountains on one side and Walker Lake on the other side.  My friend Vicky refers to Walker Lake as Scary Lake.  Despite having numerous camping and picnic areas, she says it is scary because there is hardly anybody there-ever.  She is right in that aspect.  Driving through on busy long weekends, the most I have ever seen collectively is maybe 11 campers/groups.  The lake remains beautiful, and for the most part, very still.  The town of Walker Lake (if indeed it is a town) is shrinking.  There used to be active businesses there, and there just are not as many businesses these days.  They are for sale.  That is not to say that there aren’t some nice properties here, but it is out in the middle on nowhere. Still, it is lakefront property and the views are scenic.  You can watch for the bighorn sheep that the signs purport exist.  I haven’t seen any there yet.  I have seen a pelican!  Yes, I said pelican.  Ever since I saw that unmistakable bird, I have taken so much crap from both my son and husband.  I haven’t seen it recently-but there is a reason for that.  It turns out I was right all along though.  I decided to research why Walker Lake could possibly be scary.  I found out that it is one of a very small number of lakes that has no outlet.  As the water levels go down, the salinity and mineral content of the lake it going up.  When salinity goes up, the fish populations go down and thus the bird populations that rely on the fish.  It is a dying lake.  So maybe Vicky was right-yes I admit it Vicky.  That is probably also why I haven’t seen the pelican recently also.  During research, I visited the Nevada Sierra Club’s website about Walker Lake and there, is a picture of the pelican.  Despite the drive becoming shorter as the lake levels get lower, it is a really beautiful drive.  If there aren’t a lot of distractions in your vehicle, then it is a great time for reflection (both self reflection and lake reflections).

Continuing on up the highway, you come to the little town of Schurz, which is part of the Walker River Reservation. Schurz is another little town where you want to drive the posted speed limit, since it is a special assessment district when it comes to tickets.  Do you want to know how I know that?  After Nevada passed their tickets for cell phones law, my son was driving through Schurz with his arm on the car door with the window down, resting his head on his hand.  This is something I am sure he gets from me.  I automatically do this when I have to slow down to 25 mph and creep through a town that I have seen more than once.  He got pulled over by reservation law enforcement and was given a ticket for being on his cell phone.  I have done that trip enough with my son in the same vehicle to know he doesn’t use his cell phone while driving through back country Nevada.  Not only that, the cell service is insufficient and sometimes non-existent during parts of that trip.  Alright, so after my writing a letter, providing printed phone documents, a couple of trips to court, a signed affidavit from his passenger that he wasn’t on his phone, the district attorney in Hawthorne got the case dismissed.  I never got to meet the DA, but he must be a pretty cool guy.  Just for fun though (because I have a slightly mischievous side to me), I always roll my window down, put my arm up on my door and rest my head on my hand as I drive through Schurz.  Hey, come on-there isn’t anything else to do.  So let’s continue on through the rolling hills and lower elevation passes and drop down into the Fallon area.  As soon as you drop down into the valley and are driving along the really straight highway past all of the fields, it is time to watch your speed.  The Fallon police are known for pulling over people frequently.  When doing this trip, you sometimes get to know the other drivers on the road (such as all of those who are moving their kids up to Reno to the university) because you are making all of the same stops and strike up conversations.  We saw one of the other drivers we had talked to, get pulled over in Fallon.  You also really need to watch it all the way from before Fallon, all the way out to Fernley.  Fallon has the Naval Air Base that is home to the Naval Fighter Weapons School or TOP GUN.  I cannot say that I have seen much of the planes from the air base on my trips between Vegas and Reno, however, on a trip across Hwy. 50 in Nevada, we were once buzzed by a low flying pilot.  Fallon is pretty good sized and has Walmart, as well as almost every possible fast food joint in the world.  Fallon also has several thrift and antique stores, but that is the topic of another blog entry.  I always stop in Fallon and get yet another snack before crawling in the car to make the last trek into Reno. Once I get onto freeway 80, then it is a winding road surrounded by mountains and running along the river all the way into Sparks and then Reno.  You have arrived and if you are like me, it is time to text whomever is at home in Vegas and let them know you made it.  My son is 21 now, but he is still my baby.  I worry about him, and even my husband when they make that drive alone.  In case anything happens, I want to know where to start looking.  So I have them text me when they are at the major towns and I do the same when I make the drive.

The Road to Somewhere-Tonopah to Hawthorne

The next stretch is Tonopah to Hawthorne.  You will drive for awhile before anything significant pops up, besides the never ending views of land, mountains and rolling hills.  Just past the intersection with Hwy. 6 is a humongous dry lake bed.    What is interesting here, is that the mirage effect happens there whether it is summer or winter, dry or snow.  The tumbleweeds or whatever grows out there reflects, giving the impression of posts sticking up.  At the north end of the dry lake bed is another one of those puzzling businesses that I would like to check out sometime.  The road is private, so I probably shouldn’t.  By now you are traveling north along the Sierras on the border of California and Nevada.  Did I say I love mountains?  I can drive along or through mountains all day long and be peaceful.  The views are fabulous, and the only reason I don’t have a ton of pictures is I would have to stop the car repeatedly to take them. Then I would have to pass the same vehicles I had already passed.

In one 15 mile stretch you trip upon two busy spots and two small towns.  Sodaville is truly nothing but a bump in the road, but its biggest claim to fame is a sign saying Lobster Crossing. I know the story about it exists, but it eludes me right now.  Sodaville used to be the place between north and south when the narrow gauge railroad existed.  Up the road a few more miles is Mina.  Mina became the new place between the north and south when the larger gauge railroad came in and it became the transfer station.   Also within a few miles is the little town of Luning.  Each of the little towns have their “places” including an ice cream stand, a bar, some sellers of rocks, and perpetual yard sales.    Yet, a bit farther up the road is an area that has “high wind area” signage.  Yes, the wind does blow strongly through there at times.  Of course, one can watch for dust devils all along the whole trip. So this is what breaks up the drive between Tonopah and Hawthorne. Hawthorne is full of landmarks to look for.  Once, you start heading down the small incline heading into Hawthorne, you start seeing the hundreds and hundreds of bunkers from what was once a truly active army depot.  It is hardly inactive currently, but now has multiple different operations going on-without a lot of visible activity.  Now the lack of activity did result in the deaths of seven marines a little more than a year ago.  The Naval Underwater Warfare Center is located there also.  Doesn’t a title like that make one wonder.  Now if you are an enquiring mind, then Google that and read what is there.  I did!  Wow!  Those kind of stories bring to mind James Bond and aliens.  I have thought of taking a picture of that sign, but another blogger already tried and almost lost his camera.  Maybe I will pass, just so I can save my pictures.  At any rate, Hawthorne has a casino, some hotels, antique stores, thrift stores, a grocery store, quick stops and of course, MacDonalds.  It is not the booming metropolis it once was, but I understand that it could boom at any time based on the need for ammunitions after the first 30 days of a war.

 

The Road to Somewhere-Beatty to Tonopah

The next stretch is from Beatty to Tonopah.   Probably the most significant of these are the roads into Death Valley.  Many people visit Death Valley in the spring, when the blooms are supposed to be phenomenal.  I have not made that trip either yet, but maybe when I am retired.  To me, it is an awfully long way to drive round trip just to visit it. I just don’t have the time to do it as a side trip when I am making this trip, especially because you almost have to go out of your way because of the way the roads go.  There is another unique something going on out there.  I have tried to Google Earth this and had no luck.  There is a dirt road that turns off the highway and goes back past what appear to be farm buildings and then heads up over a mountain pass.  I have seen semis turn onto that road, and I think they pass the farm buildings.  Where on earth are they going on dirt roads?  Sometime I may get really adventurous and turn down that road myself and see what I can see.  Then again, maybe not, especially not by myself.  As you get closer to Goldfield, you start moving up in elevation and come into the elevation that Joshua trees live in.  The scenery can be very interesting throughout this trip with changing weather, but the Joshua trees make the scenery more interesting temporarily.  On occasion, snowflakes have been coming down at the top of Goldfield Pass, but usually coming to Goldfield pass means to slow down.  You are coming into one of those small towns where 25 mph means 25 mph.  They even have the electronic speed limit sign to show you what your speed is.  The Goldfield Hotel is the famous one from the show Ghost Adventures, as well as some others I can see online.  I did watch it, and while I tend to be skeptical, I won’t be spending any time inside that hotel at night.  Goldfield to this day appears to have lots of activity related to mining of the small stake variety.  It has an antique store, a few shops where you can eat, and even a place where they will show you how to pan for gold.  They have some sort of fall festival and land sale.  What really excited me about this, was they build a parking area and put in a basic but much needed rest stop.  It was just too far to make it all the way to Tonopah.  Now the stretch between Goldfield and Tonopah is very well patrolled, so you may have to behave during this relatively short stretch.  I am always amazed at the single ranches located out in the middle of nowhere.  How on earth do they survive without internet, cable tv, being able to run to the store down the street or get along without fast food.  Obviously it is a different lifestyle, that is not my choice.  The ranches located out here are not even that far out.  But on a different trip, we came across a ranch that was at least 100 miles from the nearest town with anything in it.  I have always enjoyed learning about the pioneer life, but I sure couldn’t do it.  Tonopah is the county seat for Nye county.  Ironically, Nye county barely captures Tonopah in its geography.  You drive into Nye county right before driving into Tonopah and you leave Nye county quickly when you leave Tonopah. Tonopah is a good sized town with an actual historic downtown and your choice of a variety of gas stations.  The casino has been there forever.  McDonalds used to be the fast food stop, but went out about two years ago.  It was chased out, I suspect by the stop at the other end of town that has gas, Subway, Burger King, and a quick stop too.  The last couple of years though has brought a big change to Tonopah.  All of a sudden on one trip, there was a small man camp springing up, and a very tall tower was being built a bit out of town. When I asked the clerk about it, I found out they were building the Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project.  The project is generating energy, the man camp has continued to grow, and I now have a landmark that is tall enough that I can see it about 40 miles out to know I am getting close to Tonopah when coming south.

 

The Road to Somewhere-Las Vegas to Beatty

From the time my son decided to attend the University of Nevada at Reno, I have been making the 8 hour drive with stops at the speed limit several times.   I always have to make stops, but I don’t always go exactly the speed limit.  Sometimes I even get to do the drive with someone, but for the most part, I drive by myself.  In its most basic form, the drive can be broken into roughly four, two hour segments.  But there really is a lot more to it.  Despite being a drive that most people just want to get done, there are some really neat things to see out there.  There are also the little known things.

My drive always starts in Northwest Las Vegas near Durango and Hwy. 95 as I head towards Beatty.  On the way, I pass Kyle Canyon, Lee Canyon, and the road to Cold Creek.  All of these lead up to or over Mt. Charleston, where there is a resort, a ski area, and a four wheel trail over the mountain respectively.  About a year ago, Kyle Canyon experienced the Carpenter 1 Fire which contributed to later serious flooding issues.  Who would have thought that there would be floods in or near Las Vegas?  But that is a separate blog entry.  Lee Canyon has the Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard Resort which is only about 30 minutes away.  While visitors from the far northern parts of the country come to Las Vegas wearing their shorts in the winter, some of the locals are in ski gear up yonder enjoying the snow.  That snow one year even resulted in an avalanche, taking one life with it.  The turn off to Cold Creek has both a federal  and state prison right there.  The road dead ends at Cold Creek, unless you are very adventurous and have 4-wheel drive on a high clearance vehicle. About the second year we lived here, my husband and I drove up over the the mountain.  It was a really rough ride, but it was really cool seeing wild horses at the top. Going down the other side toward Pahrump was a bit smoother as we dropped into a state park and campground.  Of course Pahrump at that time was really small.  It has experienced its own growing pains, although it is still very small by most standards.  Out beyond the Cold Creek turnoff by about 8 minutes is the town of Indian Springs and Creech Airforce Base.  Another small town, one that has stayed small. Most of the Airforce base personnel drive in from Las Vegas.  On an interesting day, one might see people standing by the road protesting the use of drones. Alright, that doesn’t happen often, but it did happen on one of my trips.  It seemed to be protest season in the state during that trip.  A bit beyond that is Mercury, NV.  Mercury is actually the area where they used to test atomic bombs.  I have always been intrigued as to whether going through Mercury would shorten my trip.  So I visited Google Earth to see what I could see out there.  There are all kinds of unidentifiable things out there, as well as some that can be identified.  While you will see vehicles on Google Earth, no one is allowed in there without clearance and it definitely is not open to the public.  If you get your name on the list far enough in advance, and are cleared, you can take one of the yearly tours that goes into the area.  BUT, no phones or cameras allowed.  I think I might pass on that.  Right at about that spot, the highway goes from four lane to two lane.  Anymore, taking that route, you are not alone.  There is always someone out there, it is just a matter of how many someones. You are sharing the road with semis and RVs, so there is bound to be some passing involved.  Not far after that is one of the paved ways into Pahrump and then one very old rest stop and a few shops with gas at the junction to Amargosa Valley.  Amargosa Valley actually has Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge.  A friend was telling me about it on one of our trips back.  Sometime, I think I will tag along with her and see what kind of damage I can do with photo devices.  I believe she said it was primarily birds.  The next thing of interest along this stretch is Big Dune.  If you are into 4-wheeling and sand, then this is probably a good place for you.  It is indeed a big dune, that is constantly under change by weather and wind and has been around since 1000 AD or possibly earlier.  It amazes me that we can have something like this in Nevada in the middle of nowhere, but it exists.  It is another one of those place holders that lets me know where I am on that long trip.  You also pass what looks like an iron ore mine operation.  I haven’t researched this one.  Whatever is coming out of the ground looks dark red like iron ore.  I have to admit to being clueless on this one.  Next stop is Beatty!  If you are not used to driving distances in Nevada and have a heavy foot, listen carefully!  If the speed limit is 25 mph, you better do 25 mph and not one mile over.  The little towns get their revenue from people who think they are among the priveleged.  There is always law enforcement around in all of the small towns on this trip.  I have been followed for 26 mph in town.  Beatty has a lot of claims to fame.  I remember driving through many years ago, when the highlight for me was the casino that is there.  Later, the Death Valley Fruit and Nut Company sprung up, as well as Subway, an ice cream place and a jerky place.  Everyone stops to use the restrooms-trust me!  The variety of candy, nuts and chocolate is enticing and well worth the stop.  I buy something every time.  Beatty is also known for being near Rhyolite, a ghost town which is nearby in the Bullfrog Hills.  I haven’t been there yet, but I want to go to this one.  It is featured in one of the Tomas the Tortoise books that I have in my school library.  But there is one more thing that I learned about Beatty a couple of years ago.  They have a sufficient number of homes in Beatty for the size town that it is.  They also have an unusually high number of quonset huts, garage sized buildings, and garage type buildings. Back in August of 2013, the Las Vegas Review Journal published a piece about a photographer who spends her summers trying to catch pictures of test cars.  The engineers test the cars around Death Valley and then garage them and the teams in Beatty.  I keep looking for those test cars every time I take a trip.  I think I have only seen one so far, but I will keep looking.  Beatty also has a thrift store, an antique store and a guy who sells military surplus items.



Alaska by Sea and Land-Of Airlines and Getting Home

Teri at Princess did a great job of getting us all on a non-stop flight from Las Vegas to Vancouver when we headed up.  It was on Air Canada.  I have never, ever been on a tighter plane.  The boys are 6’4” and 6’6” tall, so they often have trouble getting comfortable on planes.  I am 5’10” and even I had my knees shoved into the back of the seat on that plane. I just couldn’t get comfortable, so I opted for as much out of seat time as I could muster using whatever excuses I could.

Coming back was actually much better.  We all flew on Alaska Air, and of course we had three different legs to our flight between Fairbanks and Las Vegas.  The flight we were catching originated in Barrow, so we had some interesting people working on extended length work shifts up in that area of Alaska that fly in and out between the North Slope and their other homes where their families are. There was definitely more leg room on all of the planes on the flight back.

Leaving from Fairbanks International is very different than flying from Las Vegas International.  Fairbanks is so quaint, it only has 6 gates.  The only crowd going through the security check were the members of our own group.  It is indeed a very quiet, comfortable airport.  Once again, everyone was very friendly.

As I mentioned earlier in another post on my blog, I was quite disappointed that I didn’t get more wildlife pictures.  Our group ended up all over the planes on the flight back and I am a chatty type person, so I started talking to the young man sitting next to me.  He was coming from north of Fairbanks and had plenty of pictures taken from the house he lives in up in Alaska.  Those pictures are of all of the animals I wish I had seen: bears, moose, deer. Can you imagine being able to take a shot out your front or back door of a wild animal just feet away?  I sure hope that place has improved facilities if you know what I mean.

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Mt. McKinley from the Plane

On the flight between Fairbanks and Anchorage, I glanced out past the person sitting next to the window and had to take some pictures.  I am almost certain I caught Mt. McKinley from the plane window.  It had to be!  Yes, all of the mountains are tall, but only Mt. McKinley is 20,320 feet high.  I am so proud of that picture.

As usual, the flight from Seattle to Las Vegas was packed.  I occasionally land the opportunity of upgrading on the cheap on a flight headed out of Las Vegas, depending on where it is flying.  That never happens on a flight headed into Las Vegas.  Those flying to Vegas for fun were starting the party early, while we were headed back to reality.  Reality hit us when we got off the plane after 11:00 pm and the temperature was still around 100.

Alaska by Sea and Land-Denali

We arrive on the train in Denali, near the entrance to Denali National Park.  We head to Denali Princess Lodge.  This lodge is also very large, but a little more compact than the last one.  It sits on the bend of the Nenana River and right in the little town of Denali.  This lodge also screams rustic, some buildings more than others.  Built in 1987, it appears this was their first lodge.  It has been redone and added to every since.  There are four or five different places to eat on property or you can always go across the street to the most expensive Subway we have ever been to.  Alright, they have their reasons.  There are a few other places to eat in town, but you do have to walk there.  We took one evening and our group went over to the Denali Salmon Bake Restaurant which also has custom brews-so everyone was happy!  The food was good, the surroundings were fun, and the wait staff was attentive.

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Stampede Wilderness Tour

So when we arrived at the lodge, we only had time to get into our rooms and some of us were off for another wheeling adventure in the evening.  It is called the Stampede Wilderness Adventure and the vehicles are ARGO amphibious ATVs.  The group was a little overbooked and one of the amphibious vehicles had broken down. There were three of us in our little group, so we ended up in one of the four wheeled vehicles with a guide on board.  Both guides were very gracious and let us do the driving.  I’ll admit it, I wimped out and let the boys drive.  These pathways they use are used by jeeps, the ARGOs and other ATVs.  The tracks are well worn in and full of water.  Here we are traversing what look like rivers in places and I am just praying that the machine I am in is not going to stall.  The water was deep enough, it would leak in through the floorboards and the doors when we got in too deep, but we never did stall.  One of the our guides was a very mature, reliable boy from down the road that works for the company.  I admit, it was pretty exciting!  No views of McKinley from here though, the weather wouldn’t cooperate and we were now 60 miles north of the mountain.

Back at the lodge, there were computer printed signs on the doors: Caution-moose and calf on property.  Do not approach!  That was my cue to take a walk and see if I could get close enough to catch a picture.  No such luck.  So the next morning when I am standing in line for a delicious morning beverage over at the lodge, I am standing behind a Princess employee.  I ask, “Were there really a moose and calf on the property?”  She replies, “Yes, with the exception of yesterday, we have seen them every day the last week.  They got caught on this side of the river when the water rose.  There are three actually-the mother, the calf and a young bull moose.”  So now I am even more determined to find the moose-but not at the moment.  This day is rather rainy, very cloudy, and pretty much normal weather for the area, with just drier skies at times.  That evening, our last, I go out with my camera and phone in search of the moose.  YES!  There they are, only they are back on the other side of  the river. Now if I had only taken my camera off of smart setting, I may have been able to zoom in enough to get better pictures.  Oh well, at least I got some pictures of them.

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Husky Homestead Tour

Earlier in the day though, I had to find another excursion to go on, while the boys did white water rafting.  I had really wanted to see wildlife, but the only way to do that was to take an 8 or 9 hour bus ride into the park.  After all of our excursions and not really getting to sleep in, I just couldn’t see myself sitting on a bus for that long.  So I caught up with the rest of party and went to the Husky Homestead Tour.  I learned so much about dogsledding, and the Iditarod in particular.  The musher is Jeff King.  It ended up being more fun that I thought it would.  When you arrive on the shuttle bus, they hand you a puppy because-they have to be socialized.  There were two main litters, one was 25 days old and the others were 11 weeks old.  As part of having to be in control of your best dogs for the Iditarod, the litters are born after late spring-early summer.  They were so cute!  There was lots of joking about taking one home in our purses.  All kidding aside, the training is serious, but they do have fun with it.  Jeff’s daughters got to name the dogs for awhile, so there are dogs there named after Disney princesses.  Then there are those named after expensive perfumes.  Finally there are those that Jeff named after 60’s and 70’s music groups-like Crosby, Stills, and Nash.  So that pretty much sums up the Denali experience.

Alaska by Sea and Land-The Train, Finally!

All of these last 19 years, we have wanted to take this trip for the train ride.  We had done the cruise, but were just drooling over others’ pictures from the train.  I think things have evolved from what they once were.  Once upon a time, Princess, Carnival, and Holland America each did their own thing to Alaska and did their own land tours.  Those land tours used to look very different.  Then Carnival bought out Princess and Holland America and a few others.  So I am not sure, but I think the train used to do the whole trip one way.  Now,  you get one of two segments.  I am actually pleased that we got the Talkeetna to Denali segment and you will find out why as I talk about it.

The train has two levels-one for dining and one for hanging out and viewing through the panoramic windows that rise almost all the way to the middle of the ceiling.  Beverages and little souvenir items are available for purchase and most people arrange for a time to dine downstairs during the trip.  I think it was about a three hour trip which followed the edge of the Susitna River for a time, then the eastern edge of Denali National Park and finally caught up with the Nenana River in Denali.

We were lucky to see a moose (with a collar for tracking purposes) out in the meadow.  But the most impressionable part of the journey was learning about the Flag Train.  The actual name of the train is the Hurricane Turn Train. Now, first you have to know that I didn’t get to spend a lot of time on the internet during the trip, and that was killing me.  I do consider myself quite the independent spirit, but I am NOTHING compared to the people living out there in the middle of nowhere.  No roads to access where they live, they are truly living off the land and off the grid.  I don’t know how they do it-really!  They do order things in and they do go shopping occasionally.  Here is how that goes.  Each place has a pole near the train track with some sort of flag to go up if they want the train to stop.  They get on the train, take the train to where they are going, get what they need and then go back home on the train.  This is the same single train track with one siding that accommodates the two tourist trains ( one going each way).  The flag train runs round trip.

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The Train Track, Talkeetna to Denali

The train trip was everything we expected, even our dining time.  There were so many photo opportunities.  While our bus driver/guides did an awesome job of telling us stories and history, I know I enjoyed the train the best.  Our getting off stop was at Denali for a stay at the Denali Princess Lodge, the next part of our adventure.

Alaska by Sea and Land-McKinley Princess Lodge/Talkeetna

From 100 miles away from Mt. McKinley, there was a wonderful view of the mountain, void of most clouds with a lot of sun.  This is quite the opportunity up here from a tourist’s point of view.  On with the drive to McKinley Princess Lodge, which is located 40 miles south of Mt. McKinley/Denali. This is not a small lodge at all, and it houses the employees as well.

Built in 1997, this relatively new Lodge screams rustic decor with extremely nice amenities.  This lodge is truly out in the middle of nowhere. Yet I can’t help feeling that driving on the roads and seeing an occasional driveway, it is not as far out in the middle of nowhere as some places in Nevada.  The main lodge has the best view of the mountain and they have even taken the guesswork out of taking pictures of it by putting up an arch with the name of the mountain on it.  Just haul out your camera and snap a shot.  Princess has all of the luggage orchestrated for you.  They deliver it to your room and you put it out so they can pick it up and get it to your next destination.  The property is huge, so plan on a lot of walking or wait for the property shuttle that makes the rounds about every 15 minutes during hours. Shuttle buses are scheduled to move you to and from your excursions, or into Talkeetna which is 40 miles away.

Mt. McKinley at Midnight

Mt. McKinley at Midnight

The weather really was on our side.  There were a few clouds depending on what part of the day you were looking at it, but you could clearly see the 20,320 foot high mountain regardless during our visit.  We went ziplining in the evening at Denali Zipline Tours and got some pictures with the mountain in the background.  Once again, we had so much daylight, that excursions ran late into the evening and started early in the morning.  Midnight felt like eight o’clock in the evening. After ziplining, it was time to find someplace to eat in Talkeetna.  We found a little place called the West Rib Pub and Grill and got right in to sit down.  To say that the staff if friendly is an understatement.  They really make you feel welcome and are very attentive to your needs frequently.  Beyond the food menus, there are legal sized information sheets about Mt. McKinley, including the major expeditions, records that were set, the dates and lots more.  Reading material while waiting for your food.  We sat on the patio under the umbrellas.  Then it was time to catch the last shuttle bus back to the lodge.  We decided to hang out on the lodge balcony taking pictures until midnight when we got back.

4 Wheeling with Jeremy

4 Wheeling with Jeremy

The next morning after our luggage was out, we went to the 20320 Restaurant for a hearty breakfast.  Back onto a shuttle bus for some 4 wheeling.  Upon arriving, we were immediately dressed in full rubber rain gear from head to toe-well a full helmet on our heads.  I wondered what it would really be like driving through the woods.  They had definitely had their share of rain in the previous days.  While it wasn’t raining on the excursion, there was a need for the rain gear as we took paths with waves of ponded water.  Fun was had by all!  I was a little disappointed we didn’t see any wildlife.  Next, an extremely quick shuttle back to the lodge, to catch the shuttle to the train in Talkeetna.  They put up with all of my concerns and the train knew we were arriving close to time to depart.  Turns out the train didn’t arrive until we were standing on the platform.  You think they do this a lot?

A small side comment here!  You know those safety presentations they give you when you get on an airplane.   Every time we got on a shuttle, we got a safety presentation-so much so, that I knew the presentation by heart and got to try my hand at it on one of the trips.  Everyone is in radio communication, the lodges, the buses, the train, certain other employees.  Next up, the long awaited train ride!