Saturday 13 September 2008

Mesa Verde

Denver to durango was weird. Our plane was about 50% grubby campers like us, and 50% uber rich people, who presumably had all come to do the railroad thing.

The pueblo dwellings were amazing, and it was dry enough to dry out our tent :) The burning question I had ever since I saw photos of these and other pueblo dwellings was - why? Why live in a cliff? It's difficult to get water and food in, imagine rockclimbing with a giant basket of corn, and difficult to get waste out (or just gross, depends on your tolerance for poo I guess).

My guess was the reason was defense - who needs locks when you have a grade 16 climb to your door? In fact archaeologists think it was to free up farmland on the scarce plateau land. They were starving farmers in the desert, they moved off the plateau so they could plant more crops.

Was nice to be out of grizzly territory for a little while - they only had black bears :)

rocky mountain high, altitude sickness high

Ahh...the rockies. Our campsite was awesome with a view of the squarish Long's peak - the only '14er' (14,255 feet/4,344 m) in the park, although Colorado has heaps. Long's is the prize for the hardcore peak baggers visiting the park, apparently 10,000 people attempt it per year but only 3,000 reach the summit. The hike is only 8 miles one way, but the elevation gain is 4,855 feet (1,479 m). You either need to start at about 3am to get it done in a day before the afternoon weather closes in, or make it an overnight - em wasn't particularly keen for either so I left it for my next visit :)

The elk were in rut, we could see herds of them in the meadows below our campsite and hear the males bugling all day and night. The bugle is funny, it sounds like someone opening and closing a really squeaky door slowly.

First day we did a cool hike to Ouzel lake (10,010 feet/3,051 m), which was high enough to feel the effects of the altitude. The next day I left em at Bear Lake and climbed 2,850 feet/868 m up to Flattop (12,324 feet/3,756 m), which resulted in headaches, getting snowed on, and feeling vaguely nauseous but the views were awesome out over the mountains and down from the top of Tyndall glacier. We did lots of hikes over 5 days in the park, but these two and Mills Lake were probably the best.

On our last night it pissed down rain all night, and our tent was in a natural drainage path, which became a waterfall and small river. We made some quick flood diversion earthworks and managed to stay dry. Frickin bears meant we couldn't cook in the tent vestibule (see here for why camping in bear habitat is a pain in the arse), so we had a delicious cold dinner of corn and beans in a burrito.

The pine beetle has smashed the west side of the park, with whole hillsides of trees killed. The more visited (and interesting) east side is expected to suffer the same fate over the next few years. There are no good ways for controlling the beetle except a return to cold winters which kill the larvae - how's that for an unexpected consequence of global warming?

The rockies are also experimenting with birth control for the elk, which have no natural predators since the wolf was hunted out of the park. Their preference was to re-introduce the wolf as was done with great success in Yellowstone, but the objections were: the wolves could not be confined to the park, and they would make visitors nervous. They are expecting to get sued no matter what they choose to do!

San Antonio Texas: "We don't dial 911"

San Antonio is a cool town, and feels just as much like Mexico as the US. It is the only place I have seen in the US where Mexicans and Americans seem truly integrated.

Good stuff:
  • The alamo.
  • The missions, beautiful old churches in defensive compounds. Full of weddings!
  • The riverwalk. The city has an amazing system of weirs, shutters, and underground overflow pipes to handle heavy rains and floods by shutting off sections of the riverwalk and diverting the river flow.
  • First friday of the month arts festival. Mexican food and music along a strip of funky art galleries. Awesome block party kind of vibe.
  • T-shirt: Picture of a gun with "Texas: we don't dial 911"
  • The airport had rocking chairs. After sitting in one for a while I decided that they actually weren't that much fun. May be improved with shotgun and tabaccy.

Austin - bats in your bridge?

Austin shits all over Dallas. It is the home of the SXSW festival, one of the best in the world. However, the coolest thing that happens in Austin is millions of Mexican Free-Tailed Bats hang out under the Congress Ave bridge in September and fly out en masse at sunset for food. Unfortunately by the time they fly out it is essentially dark, so almost impossible to get a photo. They make a really weird meaty sound when millions of wings are flapping and the smell is horrendous.

Other cool stuff in Austin:
  • The state capitol was surprisingly awesome. Our tour guide was genuine Texas: "my name is Bob, and I'm the best tour guide in this building with that name"...and..."she was a great that how you say it? Anyway she talked real good".
  • The birth place of the whole foods chain, which is a really Gucci supermarket with amazing fresh food, organic everything, and tons of specialty stuff like gluten-free and vegan. The store in Austin is amazing - sort of like the food part of Harrods with bars you can eat at, but at more reasonable prices :) It is the only place in the world I have seen a double-sided receipt. Save the trees!

Friday 5 September 2008

Dallas, now my least favourite city in America

Dallas really doesn't have much going for it. LP says (and I agree):

...the gritty downtown feels deserted; those who work there eat lunch at office-building lunch shops and then scatter...

This great atmosphere was complemented by a large number of homeless people from New Orleans being driven to Dallas and dumped on the streets as part of the hurricane Gustav evacuation. Our hotel was chock full of evacuees and government staff.

On the plus side, the 6th floor museum in the Texas book depository (sound familiar?) was awesome. Bizarrely they actually have two white crosses on elm street that mark the points where bullets entered JFK's body, the second of which was fatal. You can see one in the photo.

Chicago, now my favourite city in America

Chicago is an awesome city. I can't believe I have been through the airport so many times without visiting the city, and it took a hurricane to get me there! We did an architecture tour along the river, which was phenomenal. Chicago has so many different styles and architecture innovations, and if you believe our guide, modern architecture was invented in Chicago (twice).

Other awesomeness:
  • Riding part of the 26 miles of continuous bike paths along lake Michigan.
  • Swimming in Chicago's drinking water.
  • Seeing Obama's house (and maybe obama) on the edge of the ghetto in southern Chicago. Seriously, the badlands were two blocks over.
  • Finding out graduates doing an MBA at University of Chicago pay $44k per year, while I only paid $20k for 5 years of study at home. Course the University of Chicago has a ridiculuous number of nobel prize winners and invented nuclear power, so I might not be comparing apples with apples.
  • Robie house by Frank Lloyd Wright (that makes two now), even though it was being renovated and there was a annoying arrogant woman on our tour who was, I'm ashamed to say, Australian.
  • Saw the sight of the first nuclear reaction in the world at University of Chicago.
I think I could live in Chicago but apparently winter = not so good. Also we ate this ridiculous pizza that took 45 min to cook and was sort of like a super-dense pepperoni pie.