Before I'm ready to tackle another DARK•HERITAGE post--which I'm sadly delinquent on doing--I wanted to do a quick trip summary. As I said yesterday, this will no doubt interest absolutely no one, but I'm going to do it anyway, then start back up on my A to Z series.
The first three days of my vacation--Thursday through Saturday--were actually a pioneer trek reenactment activity. My wife and I took on the roles of a "Ma and Pa" for about 10 teenagers. Although no handcart pioneers ever trekked through the woodlands of Michigan up near Bay City, it was still a fun and meaningful activity for everyone involved.
After that, we got home, slept in, went to church, and packed the car for our "real" vacation which started first thing on Monday morning. We spent two days driving, which was fine. My wife had looked up locations of places to eat that we can't get in Southeast Michigan, so we got to do a "nostalgia food tour" while we were at it. First up was a Chick-fil-A in Indiannapolis. It turns out that it was actually in a mall food court in the suburban town of Fishers, but we did it anyway. We spent the night in Springfield, MO. After passing through Oklahoma City, we saw the area that had been hit by a tornado, still strewn with debris and fallen trees and stuff. It was pretty glum, even several months after the fact. That part of the drive, until about Amarillo, was pretty miserable--so windy that it was hard to keep a straight course on the freeway, and surprisingly busy with traffic. Once we were well into the Texas panhandle, it was easier going, though, and we made it to Lubbock, where my folks live, easily enough early on Tuesday evening.
Wednesday we took a sort of "down day" and hung out with my parents, including at their HOA pool. The high temp was about 110° F, so yikes. In fact, that was true for three days straight before a cool front and little thunderstorm blew into town. We also went west to Carlsbad, NM and saw the caves--something I hadn't done in probably 25 years, and my wife and younger kids hadn't ever done at all (my parents went with my older kids about 6-7 years ago, but their memory wasn't great, especially my daughter who was only 7-8 or so at the time.) The caverns are really fun--a pretty singular experience, I think (although there are two other big national park cave systems in the US, and plenty of other caves in other countries and in other venues in the US as well)--it's just amazing how big and spacious they are. We spent about 45 minutes going down the "natural entrance" and when we got there, there's an elevator to take you back up. My kids were about to hop on when I told them that we hadn't even started the self-guided tour yet--all that we had done was enter the cave--the vast expanse of the so-called "Big Room" was still completely unexplored. There are, actually, a few bigger chambers in the world, but since it's unlikely that we'll ever go to Malaysia to see the Sarawak Chamber.
When I did this as a kid in the mid-80s, you could see the King's Palace (and the rest of that entire tour, including the Queen's Chamber and the Papoose Room) as part of the self-guided trip, but they've since closed that and made it a ranger-guided trip only. That's OK; the caverns are so big and there's so much to see even without it that you almost start to feel like you're overloaded on scenic limestone cavern speleothems, to the point where even dramatically beautiful and fascinating features start to feel routine.
I actually was almost more interested in the Guadalupe Mountains, which straddle the TX/NM border and under which the caves reside, than I was in the caves. This part isn't the most scenic (that would be Guadalupe Mountains National Park, which we could see from the parking area) and it had been burned a fair bit in wildfires. I still drug my wife and older kids (the younger two hopped in the truck with Grandma and Grandpa) on the Walnut Canyon scenic loop, which I probably should have had a Jeep for rather than a minivan. Although it was only 9.5 miles, it took a good hour to make the drive on this terrible, unimproved dirt road, and I'm sure I'm the only one who appreciated it (my kids fell asleep and my wife got carsick.) I also saw the trailheads for the Rattlesnake Canyon trail (what a great name!) and the Juniper Ridge trails. There was not a tree in sight, and even the scrubby mesquite, juniper, or whatever low bushes would normally have grown here was all burned by the fire. We saw a few blackened branches still poking up into the air, but otherwise, it was all spiky grasses, yuccas and cacti. I'd love to take a good week or more and really explore the backcountries of these two parks someday--probably in February. Like I said, it was 110° F the day we were there, and there was not a drop of water in sight. The views across the mountains were a little hazy too--a ranger told me that brushfires 50-60 miles away were causing smoke to interfere with the normally great views of Guadalupe Peak and El Capitan.
The next day, we went out in the morning to see the Texas Tech Museum which has both a great N. C. Wyeth collection, and some neat fossils (including a mount of (casts, no doubt) a T. rex facing off against a Triceratops horridus, the real classic dinosaurian match-up. They've also got skeletons of a Deinonychus, Tentontosaurus, Quetzalcoatylus, an adult and juvenile Camarasaurus and a sabertooth, Columbian mammoth, dire wolf, Postosuchus and more. It really is a neat museum, althought half a day is plenty of time to see pretty much all it offers. If you're still looking for something to do, the Ranching Heritage center, literally right next door is pretty fun. I've done it before, but we didn't do it this time. I met my brother and his family at Double Dave's--another place my wife and I had been excited to eat at again, then we went back to my parents house, at which point another of my brothers and his family had arrived. Now with three families full of kids (and a few more stragglers still to come) it felt like a party.
We stayed in Lubbock through Monday morning, at which point we went to San Antonio. It was busy there, but we did the Alamo--a classic experience for any Texan (plus two of my four kids had done biographies on Davey Crockett for school in the past) and the Riverwalk. Tuesday we did Schlitterbahn--which is the reigning Golden Ticket for best waterpark holder and has been every year running since 1998.
As much as I liked this, my favorite part of these few days was the drive there. Once you get off the Llano Estacado, which offers absolutely nothing to look at for mile after mile, you get into some real interesting scenery, starting at about Big Spring, through San Angelo, the Texas Hill Country, and all the way into San Antonio. The only thing that the Llano Estacado offers is wide open roads with little traffic and speed limits of 85 mph. The Texas Hill Country, and the preceding Edwards Plateau offers a fusion of Chihuahuan desert and the more forested and well-watered climates to the north and east, and the Texas Hill Country in particular is noted for its scenic (albeit understated compared to some of the other landscapes of the American west) beauty. It was also an area of particular nostalgia for me; I used to go to summer camps at El Rancho Cima on the Devil's Backbone in the Hill Country not far from San Marcos. But similar scenic terrain extends far to the west of there; like I said, it started looking "El Rancho-like" to my eyes as far west as Big Spring. This combination of short Texas live oaks, juniper/cedar scrub, dry grasses, and occasional prickly pears and yuccas, forming a mostly open forest (technically a savanna for much of it--a savanna is a forest/grassland environment in which the canopy does not close. Most people are mistaken in believing that savannas are tree-less grasslands--those are really only typical of the part of the Serengeti that are in the rain shadow of the Ngorogoro highlands.) Indeed, to make a quick DARK•HERITAGE reference, I imagine much of the savannas of my setting to resemble the Texas Hill Country--with maybe a little bit less dense tree cover--more than I imagine them resembling the grasslands of the Serengeti.
We finished up our trip by spending a few days in Bryan and College Station (the B/CS area, as it's called) where I lived most of my life until moving to SE Michigan, and where I met my wife, went to school and college, where my first two kids were born, and where my in-laws still live. We looked at my old house, my old elementary school, my old high school, my old church, etc. and spent a day wandering around the campus of Texas A&M University. We also spent the afternoon of the 4th at the George Bush (senior) Presidential Library, from where the local fireworks are shot, while accompanied by the Brazos Valley Symphony Orchestra. I left my two younger kids with my wife's parents, who are going to spoil them rotten for a week or two before sending them back home, but I picked up two of my brother's kids, who's maternal grandparents coincidentally live just a few miles from where we live currently, and drove with them (and my wife and older kids) back to SE Michigan, through the totally different route of crossing through Arkansas, much of Tennessee, and then crossing Kentucky and Ohio south to north. I have another brother who lives in the Memphis area, and we crashed at his place on the way back.
I had really dreaded the drive through Ohio, because in my experience that's always been a miserable drive, but as it happens, once we got through the ugly, congested and sprawling Cincinnati-Dayton metro areas, it was pleasant. Ohio was finally--since the last time I had gone through there three or four months ago--put on its big boy pants and joined the non-wussy states by instituting a speed limit of 70 mph on the interstates when not passing through major metropolitan areas. This is also difficult because by the time we get here, we've traveled so long and for so many miles (literally every single one of which I drove personally) we're just really tired of driving. After we finally go through Toledo and cross the border into Michigan, we've got less than an hour more until we're home.
I also noted that Mammoth Caves National Park is right off the interstate and only a few minutes from Bowling Green, KY. Curiously, by coincidence, I need to be in Bowling Green in a few weeks. By taking the entire day off work on Friday when I need to go down there (instead of just a half day as I had originally planned) I should have plenty of time to stop at the park and do one or two of the guided cave tours that afternoon. Right on the heels of doing Carlsbad, that should be fun. I'm not likely to see any of the other major cave sites in the country anytime soon (Lehman Caves, Wind Cave and Jewel Cave, among others, being far away and well off any beaten path I can imagine) so this will be the only major comparison to Carsbad that I'll be able to make anytime soon.