Destination: Round Island Lighthouse

Round Island is part of Hiawatha National Forest, is entirely uninhabited, and really doesn’t have any tourism to speak of.  Occasionally someone will take a kayak across the channel, or we’ll see a bonfire on the beach, but for the most part it’s pretty forlorn, the lighthouse locked up tight, nobody around.  One day a year the Round Island Lighthouse Preservation Society, together with Boy Scout Troop 323 of Freeland, Michigan, open it up for tours.  The tour itself is free, but if you don’t have your own way across transportation from Mackinac costs $15.  First they put seven people into a smallish fishing boat, then they transferred us into two inflatable Zodiac rafts.  I wish I’d been wearing lighter pants, I was siting right in the bow and my jeans didn’t get dry the whole time I was there.

Nobody really took care of it from the time it was decommissioned in 1958 until a storm swept away a whole corner of the building in 1972, and people started to realize they might lose it forever.  They kept it from collapsing then but the interior is still in desperate need of reconstruction.  Holes in the walls, holes in the floors, but it’s a beautiful building.  Boy Scouts throughout the building talked about the history all the way up.  The first floor housed the two massive compressors that created steam to run the foghorn, the second and third floors were living quarters for the keeper, his assistant, and their families.  Some of the bedrooms had the foghorn right outside the windows – I’m sure that was fun to sleep through.  On the fourth floor there’s just a ladder up into the lantern room, and from there a tiny hatch opening out onto the deck.

While I was there a woman named Gertie came to the island.  She’s 90 years old, and her father was once the lighthouse keeper.  She spent a handful of summers living here as a girl, and sat for a long time telling us about carrying water up from the lake, the things her sisters found walking the beach, and making whatever fun you could in such a lonely place.  We moved into what had once been her bedroom, and while she spoke a floorboard broke out from under her daughter’s foot.

Going inside Round Island Light is a rare opportunity, and one that I passed up too many times.  I probably spend three hours wandering through it and listening to Gertie’s stories.  It would be nice to see it restored someday, but the money and effort involved with such an undertaking may be too much.  In the meantime we’ll just have to love it as a beautiful ruin.

Destination: Little Rock

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Leaving the Fort Smith area I headed east on I-40, with a stop at Petit Jean State Park.  Miles of creek side trails and a big lake make Petit Jean a great spot for outdoor adventures.  One of the central features is Cedar Falls, which tumbles 90 feet into a gorge.  There’s a couple of vantage points above it that are easy to get to, but to see it from below requires a hike down into the canyon.  Another interesting spot is Rock House Cave, a petroglyph site.  Beautiful Civilian Conservation Corps construction on roads, trails, and picnic areas round out this gorgeous location.

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Right smack in the middle of Arkansas is its capital city: Little Rock. Once upon a time this was the place everyone was talking about as nine black teenagers struggled through the integration of all-white Little Rock Central High School. The school itself still operates so you can’t just go wandering around in it (although there are tours occasionally, see the NPS website for info) but the grounds are open and the National Park Service operates a very nice (and free) visitor’s center kitty corner to the school. I was there in the afternoon and watched for a bit as the students were heading out for the day. Black, white, sixty years after the National Guard was used to keep out the Little Rock Nine everybody mingled together and it didn’t seem to matter a bit what color anybody’s skin was.

Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, Little Rock, Arkansas
Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, Little Rock, Arkansas

The River Market District is a beautiful section of the city packed with restaurants, shops, and historic buildings.  I stopped for lunch at Ottenheimer Market Hall where stalls offer just about any kind of food you can imagine.  Pizza, ice cream, Asian, Middle Eastern, soul food, nobody could possibly go hungry in this place. While I was there I saw everybody from bankers to construction workers chowing down.  I was basically eating with the Village People.  Wandering along the street I came to the Old State House, where Arkansas seceded from the Union on May 6th, 1861.  The free museum inside covers every aspect of Arkansas history you can think of.  There were big sections on governors, civil rights, the history of bicycles, movies with any sort of tie to Arkansas, there was even a whole room of dresses worn by governor’s wives.  When my feet started to hurt I hopped on a trolley; for $1 it meandered through the river district, over the Arkansas River into North Little Rock, and back again while the driver pointed out interesting things along the way.  North Little Rock holds T.R. Pugh Memorial Park which contains The Old Mill.  This was never actually a mill, it was created purely as a picturesque ruin, but it is pretty enough to have made it into the opening scenes of Gone with the Wind.

Continuing along I-40 there are three different archaeological parks to visit. These are mound sites, created hundreds of years ago by the ancestors of modern Native American tribes. Some of the mounds have fallen victim to farming over the years but several are still visible. Toltec & Parkin have trails going out to their mounds, but Hampson is just a small museum dedicated to a site that remains privately held and can’t be visited. The ranger at Toltec told me that they had excavated one mound for study and when they rebuilt it they had to bring in 18 dump trucks of dirt. Imagine doing that by hand, carrying the dirt in baskets.  Village Creek State Park also resides along this corridor and has some nice trails.

I really didn’t expect Arkansas to be so incredible, but I’m already scheming to go back.

Destination: Petrified Forest National Park

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Unfortunately for me this isn’t really a hiking sort of park.  There were a couple of short trails but it seemed like one of those places were you drive through, stopping at pull offs to see a few things.  A few minutes there, a couple of pictures here, on to the next.  I read in their guide later that “off the beaten path” hiking is apparently OK in some places, but I had seen so many signs telling me to stay on the paved paths that it just got confusing.  Anyway I never really know what to do in these kinds of places.  Like am I supposed to dive out of the car to examine every single one of the bazillion petrified logs that are laying all over the place?  They’re interesting, but they’re not THAT interesting.

There were some things that I DID find really interesting, like the petroglyphs at Newspaper Rock and a handful of other pull offs.

The park is arranged as a 28 mile drive between the Painted Desert Visitor’s Center at the north end and the Rainbow Forest Museum at the south end.  I started at the south end, but either way is fine.

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I stayed about 20 miles away in Holbrook.  It’s one of those desert towns with a profusion of Route 66 memorabilia and goofy dinosaur statues.  (I loved it)

Route 66 was replace by I-40 long ago, but once upon a time it ran through where the park is now.  The pavement is gone, but the telephone poles remain, and there’s even a rusting Studebaker to mark the spot.

Prints of the black and white versions from this series are now available for purchase here.

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This Week In Awkwardness

I learned how to throw spears using an atlatl during V-Bar-V Heritage Site‘s Archaeology Discovery Days.  After a half-dozen throws I was getting halfway decent at it; my last spear actually hit the board, although not any of the ground sloth targets painted on it.

I discovered a PBS show called Time Team America that follows a group of specialists helping out on archaeological digs all over the United States.  They spend three days on a site, using high tech gear to help the group conducting the dig accomplish a specific goal, like finding evidence of a building they’ve been looking for.  The show covered a wide range of topics from throughout history – everything from 13,000 year old Paleo Indian sites to Civil War era prison camps.  If you’re into history or archaeology it’s definitely worth a look.


Crossed Off the Travel Map:

Clark Memorial Clubhouse, Clarkdale, Arizona


Added to the Travel Map:

A Train Wreck in the Woods, Near Whistler, British Columbia, Canada

RKK Energiya Museum, Korolyov, Russia – space museum.

Museum of Soviet Arcade Games, Moscow, Russia – pretty much exactly what it sounds like.

Star City, Russia – once secret cosmonaut training/residential facility.

Lucky Lindy’s Contribution to Archaeology

Recently I attended a lecture at the Sedona Public Library about Charles Lindbergh’s work in archaeology.  While flying over Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, he began to wonder if the Mayan ruins he was seeing had ever been found by scientists, and it occurred to him that the ability to spot buildings and patterns on the ground from the air could be of real use to the archaeological community. As it turned out, he was right. Working with the Carnegie Institution he and his wife Anne discovered and photographed many previously unknown ruins tucked deep in the canyons of the American Southwest.  They could cover in just a few hours what would take weeks or months to explore on foot.  Ancient roads, sacred kivas, and hidden pueblos impossible to see from ground level became plainly obvious from the air.

Besides the discoveries themselves, these photos also give us an idea of what some of our most famous public lands looked like nearly a century ago, when they were still untouched by tourism.  Many of these places have since acquired parking lots, visitor’s centers, hordes of camera-wielding vacationers, and probably quite a bit of graffiti, but the Lindbergh photos give us an idea of what they were like before society marched into them.

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Destination: Tombstone

A stagecoach in the historic town of Tombstone, Arizona.

Tombstone is an interesting place.  An old mining town like the bazillion others in the Southwest, but this one is famous for the characters that once resided there and the crazy antics they got up to.  Various Earp brothers, the O.K. Corral, the Bird Cage Theater, cowboys, outlaws, the place is chock full of history.

The day I was there the main roads were all closed to cars, I don’t know if they keep them like that all the time or only on weekends or what, but there’s lots of free parking within a couple of blocks so it’s easily walkable.

The Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park ($5) does a great job presenting the town.  It’s a big place with lots of artifacts, photos, and information.  There’s a whole section on the debate over what happened during the O.K. Corral shootout.  Apparently it’s quite a thing.

One of the most famous buildings in town is the Bird Cage Theater ($10), so named because it held so many “soiled doves”.  It’s the only original building left on Allen Street, the others having been rebuilt after burning to the ground in various fires over the years.  I’d seen it on ghost hunting shows and it really is a neat place.  Everything is original and exactly as it was left in 1889: the wallpaper, the curtain on the stage, the bullet holes below it from a drunk cowboy who wasn’t happy with the show, the gaming tables in the basement, and the private rooms where the prostitutes plied their trade.

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The nearby Boothill Cemetery (free) holds a lot of the famous characters from Tombstone, and a lot of goofy grave markers.  As I understood it only a few of these are original, but the recreations are historically accurate.  Some of them really give you an idea of the social order of the era, like the one that just says “Two Chinese”.  Many of the graves are simply marked “Unknown”.

Tombstone is easily reached by taking I-10 from Tuscon to Benson and then Highway 80 south to town.  For a side trip on the way back, take Highway 82 through San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area and stop at the ghost town of Fairbank. There’s not a lot there, a few tumbledown buildings, the train station, and the schoolhouse which now houses a nice museum (free) and gift shop.  The Fairbank cemetery is located on a hilltop about a half mile down a side trail.  Continue on 82 and I-10 is just a short drive back up Highway 90.

I actually camped a half hour away at the Benson KOA where I woke up to some new friends:

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And that’s the end of the good things about the Benson KOA.  Two nights I was there and the showers never got warmer than slightly above frigid.  There’s a million places to stay around there though, including several right in the town of Tombstone.

Destination: Oak Creek Canyon

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Climbing up from Sedona to Flagstaff, Highway 89A winds along Oak Creek, passing waterfalls, quaint lodges, and beautiful picnic spots.  Surrounded by forest, it’s easy to forget that there’s a desert just a few miles back down the road.  The several picnic areas along the way all require a parking pass, the Red Rock pass works for most of them and can be purchased as daily, weekly, or annual.  Aside from Slide Rock State Park, it’s all run by the U.S. Forest Service so a National Parks pass also works.  If you really want to immerse yourself there’s four campgrounds in the canyon.


Call of the Canyon (West Fork Trail)

That being said, none of the Red Rock or Federal Lands passes work at this spot like they do all the other picnic and hiking areas, so forking over $10 to park here is mandatory.  If you’re looking for a day trip the trail meanders about three and a half miles through the West Fork canyon; I didn’t go all that far but still managed to spend over an hour just taking pictures and drinking it all in.


Mayhew Lodge

On the West Fork Trail, Mayhew Lodge began as a small cabin on the banks of Oak Creek, became the set of a movie and then grew into the vacation destination of presidents and film stars.  The lodge was purchased by the forest service in 1968 and burned to the ground in 1980.  The remaining stone walls and foundations are now being overtaken by trees and ivy, looking like some kind of secret garden.  A more intact chicken coop and a cave used for food storage are located right on the other side of the trail.


Banjo Bill

This was the only other picnic spot I stopped at.  No idea why it’s called Banjo Bill.  It’s a beautiful spot with a waterfall pouring right over the driveway of a lodge up the hill.  I love the rocks along here.  They have the most incredible textures, and this time of year there’s colorful leaves laying all over them.  A lot of the trees have grown the rocks right into their roots.

Prints from this post as well as others from Oak Creek Canyon are now available for purchase here.