Ryan's Journal

"My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?" — David Mitchell

Call Me the Underminer

Posted from Midland, Texas at 9:19 pm, December 6th, 2010

The universe intervened on the roadtrip last night, and after driving for an hour without finding anywhere suitable to spend the night White Sands was removed from the itinerary; I probably should have known that overnight parking areas would be limited near a national monument surrounded by a government missile testing range, but I’m not often accused of having an overabundance of brain matter.

Missing White Sands probably worked out for the best as Carlsbad was further away than I realized, and despite waking up before 7AM, arrival time at the park wasn’t until after 10AM. From there the fun began: Ryan loves him some caves. Photos of Carlsbad can’t do it justice – the cave formations are probably more amazing than any other easily-accessible cave in the world, but the most awe-inspiring thing (to me) is how big it is. There are multiple rooms with ceilings well over a hundred feet high, and the aptly-named “Big Room” is 4000 feet long and 625 feet wide at its widest point; it’s tough to imagine how something like this could be engineered by man, much less occur naturally.

After four hours of romping through the cave it was time to leave, and I’m now making a beeline for Louisiana, although a large state that smells strongly of oil lies in-between. I haven’t quite figured out what the route across Texas will be, but it’s likely to take most of the day tomorrow, after which this roadtrip will be in uncharted territories and hopefully involve much more exploring and much less driving.

The Big Room in Carlsbad Caverns National Park

The Big Room. Clever comment about the genius behind the name is left to the reader.

The Chandelier formation in Carlsbad Caverns

The Chandelier. I’d guess that the largest stalactite in this formation was easily over ten feet long. It’s also visible in the previous photo.

It’s Very Large

Posted from Las Cruces, New Mexico at 8:58 pm, December 5th, 2010

The town of Winslow was along the route last night so I decided to be a tourist, stopped, and yes, stood on a corner. I didn’t see a girl in a flat-bed Ford (my Lord) but there was a guy in a F150, so mission accomplished.

Today I woke up just before sunrise to a temperature of 38°F, drove to the gates of Petrified Forest National Park, and, while the horizon turned amazing shades of purple, stared in horror at a sign indicating the park didn’t open for another hour. That disappointment aside, the four-hour park visit was a good one – there were far too many photos and far too little hiking, but the supposed goal of this trip is to visit the Southeast so some sacrifices are needed.

What little plan there is for this roadtrip calls for getting to new places as quickly as possible and limiting the number of visits to old haunts, but White Sands and Carlsbad Caverns are kind of on the way, so I pointed the Subaru in that direction. I’m doing my best to travel backroad highways as long as there is daylight, so I was debating the merits of three possible routes when a dot on the map caught my attention: National Radio Astronomy Observatory. From that point the route was clear, and the fifth of December 2010 will live forever as the day Ryan went to the Very Large Array. The geek juices were flowing strong as I came upon 27 radio antennas, each 25 meters in diameter, spread across 22.3 miles of a high mountain plain. Sadly I only arrived with an hour to spare before sunset, but made the most of it by hurriedly visiting each part of the facility that didn’t have an “authorized personnel only” sign. Am I a huge dork? Clearly. But I am a very happy dork.

Blue Mesa in Petrified Forest National Park

Blue Mesa in Petrified Forest National Park. “Why is it called the Painted Desert” is a question that is infrequently asked.

Very Large Array Radio Antenna

One of the 27 radio antennas that make up the VLA. Each one is twenty-five meters across and totally awesome.

Burros Love Carrots

Posted from Flagstaff, Arizona at 7:51 pm, December 4th, 2010

The day started at sunrise (6:30) in the deserts of Southern California and, with the possible oversight of a stop at a diner, took on all aspects of the classic American roadtrip from there. After a short drive across the border into Arizona the road led along the Colorado River and Lake Havasu. Following a short hike in the Bill Williams National Wildlife Refuge I actually made an attempt to find the bridge in the town of London Bridge – an authentic bridge from the Thames River that was bought & transported to the Arizona desert in the 1960s – but it may be a good thing that this bit of Americana eluded me.

From there the path led along the quintessential road trip route of America: Route 66. With the advent of the Interstate Highway system the “Mother Road” mostly disappeared, but in places it has been revived, and at least in Western Arizona it is a throwback to 1950s America. The hotels that are left have neon signs, the gas stations sport vintage advertising and pumps, Burma-Shave messages line the road, and the stores aim to capture the roadside-stop mystique from yonder years.

In addition this route has waaaaay more than its share of roadside attractions, and one particularly noteworthy one was the town of Oatman. A gold mining town in the early 1900s, when the mines shut in the 1930s the town started dying, but it has resurrected itself as what Wikivoyage accurately describes as “equal parts touristy kitsch and real, honest-to-goodness Wild West atmosphere”. Burros whose ancestors were owned by miners have now gone wild, but they come into town each day to block the only road, poke their heads in car windows, and search out the carrots that local merchants sell by the bag. The downtown has been re-imagined as a wild west town, in no small part due to a 1960s makeover during the filming of How the West Was Won. Despite the revisionist history, a number of the townsfolk struck me as best described as “grizzled”, and there was a charm to the place that I enjoyed but couldn’t quite figure out. Outside of town there are still active mining claims, and a few of the “no trespassing” signs had an unmistakable “trespassers will be shot” undertone. Overall, I left the town liking America just a little bit more for being home to a place like this one.

Oatman Burro Warning

Remove the sticker, choke a burro. Don’t do it.

The One in Which Complancency Finally Loses

Posted from Somewhere in the Southern California Desert, approximately 40 miles west of Parker, Arizona at 7:05 pm, December 3rd, 2010

Due to two factors – a sudden and massive burst of productivity, and an equally massive burst of complacency – the Subaru and I left the confines of Culver City nearly a day and a half later than might otherwise have been expected. On the long and traffic-filled drive through the never-ending four- and five- lane highways of the Inland Empire there were surprisingly some second thoughts – the question of whether it might make more sense to spend additional time focusing on getting some work done was actually being seriously considered – but there was no way that argument was going to win; with rare exceptions I can’t recount any of the innumerable times that I’ve gotten a lot done in a week, but with the possible exception of some family trips when I was still newly hatched every adventure of my life remains a vivid memory.

This trip is slightly different from any recent trips in that the goal is mainly just to have the sort of rough, guy-on-a-roadtrip adventure that hasn’t happened in a long while. There’s a goal of trying to visit an unexplored corner of the country and a desire to try to take new roads and limit visiting the sites of past adventures, but realistically the trip could lead anywhere. At 35 I’ve got this vague sense that things are different from when I was 25, and that I might somehow be more insulated from what made trips in my younger years so special, but I’m hoping the next few weeks proves that intuition wrong.