September 30, 2017

International Cranes

by Rosemary

One benefit of having a flexible schedule and few commitments is that we can be spontaneous. As we were driving toward Madison, Wisconsin, we stopped at a rest stop and picked up a magazine that listed things to do in the area. One of those things was the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, 40-some miles from Madison. It sounded intriguing, so we went there the next day.

A sculpture at ICF headquarters

There are 15 different species of cranes worldwide, and the ICF has samples of all of them in Baraboo. They strive to protect cranes in their natural habitats, while helping to improve conditions for local people and supporting a healthy environment for all species. Their work includes programs for breeding and reintroduction.

This beautiful gray-crowned crane in Wisconsin (above) bears a striking resemblance to the pair we saw in Tanzania (below) in 2001.

The Blue Crane enclosure had a mural backdrop. We couldn't tell whether the cranes appreciated or understood it, but we did see them occasionally looking toward it as if gazing into a distant landscape.

We were there on a cool, moist morning. Not many people were present, and all the cranes were active in their enclosures. Most of them noticed us and were clearly keeping an eye on our behavior.

The Whooping Cranes (below) ignored us by staying on the far side of their pond.

The center has hiking trails through prairie and wetland areas, where wild sandhill cranes nest in the spring.

We liked this place so much that we decided to support their work by becoming members.

September 26, 2017


by Rosemary

The city skyline.

A trip to Minneapolis would hardly be complete without a visit to the Mall of America. We were overwhelmed by the country's largest shopping venue, which has over 500 stores, a wedding chapel, two mini-golf courses, an aquarium, more than 50 restaurants, its own transit hub, and a theme park right in the middle of the mall.

There were more candy stores than we could count.

Adventurers ride a zip line above the theme park.

This 60-foot-high art installation consists of thousands of strands of yarn.

After exhausting ourselves walking several miles around and around the mall, we needed some fresh air, so the next day we went to Minnehaha Park. (For unknown reasons, our GPS system could not pronounce "Minnehaha", but rendered it as "Minne-heh-heh" or occasionally "Minne-hee-hee".)

The falls look great today, but in 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson visited this spot, there were problems. Due to a drought, the creek was nothing but a trickle, the falls just a dribble. City officials, eager to make an impression, opened up all the fire hydrants to send water downstream for a photo opportunity. Half a century later, our photo opportunity did not require special effects.

We hiked beside the creek to the point where it joins the Mississippi River. Along the way, we saw this heron hunting for lunch.

We were in town at exactly the right time to attend the Minnesota State Fair. We viewed the top prize winners in nearly every category: livestock, crops, flowers, baked goods, canned goods, textiles, and honey. At the "Miracle of Birth" center we witnessed the birth of both a lamb and a calf. There were an amazing number of food stands, an extensive midway with all the usual games, an array of thrill rides, a kiddie area, and a big parade.

Lambs born in the past day or two relax with their mothers.

It wouldn't be a state fair without butter sculptures.

This dancing traffic cone represented
the Department of Transportation in the parade.

The "Sky High Swings" didn't look like something we wanted to do. Judging from the empty seats, not many others wanted to, either.

But we did ride the giant ferris wheel.

Next: Adventures in Wisconsin

September 22, 2017

Small Town Charm

by Steve W

Leaving the cornfields of Nebraska behind, we entered the cornfields of Iowa. In many of the fields. we saw wind farms, with large propeller-driven turbines that generate electricity. There is much debate about the value of these farms vs. the detrimental effect they have on the quality of life for those who live near them.

Not everyone is a fan of these wind farms.

What we found interesting, however, were the many trucks transporting propeller blades on the highway. Up close, they seem much larger than you would think seeing them mounted on the turbines.

We were headed for Mason City, initially just as a stopover on our way to Minneapolis, but after reading about the town, we decided to stay an extra day and look around. We found out that there were plenty of interesting things to see here. When we first parked in town, we noticed a lot of sculptures on the streets. As it turns out, some of them are owned by the city, but many of them are on display so that the citizens can vote on which ones they wish the town to purchase. Here are a few examples.

This one seems so lifelike!

One of our first stops was Central Park (yeah, I know <g>), which has sculptures as well as monuments to veterans who have died in the various wars. One of the sculptures shows a conductor leading an unseen orchestra. We soon realized that this was an omen of things to come.

We learned that Mason City was the birthplace of Meredith Willson, composer of "The Music Man". Mason City is the blueprint for Willson's "River City" (where "ya got trouble") and many of the town landmarks are represented in the play and film. There is a small square dedicated to Willson, and his boyhood home is a local landmark. There is also a Music Man Museum, featuring sets from the motion picture.

There are also references to Willson scattered around the town.

Note the suitcase with the tag "H. Hill", the main character in The Music Man
Our next stop was the MacNider Art Museum, a small museum which had a large display dedicated to puppeteer Bil Baird, who was most famous for his marionettes, most notably featured in the film "The Sound Of Music".

At the Museum, we picked up a book about the architecture of Mason City, where Frank Lloyd Wright and his disciples designed many of the houses. Most famous among them is the Stockman House, pictured below. But there are many interesting houses designed by the Wright disciples and others in this small town (Mason City was named the #8 best city for architecture lovers by Conde Naste). As we stood outside one of them, the owner came out and invited us inside for a tour.

There are also some beautiful churches.

Note the rainbow banner on the church above.

But is anybody listening?

As with any small town, there are local businesses and local events that we are not accustomed to.

We found the people of Mason City to be extremely friendly, some stopping to ask if they could help us find something when they saw us looking at our map of the city. If you are in the area, it is worth a stop to see this small town of 28,000 people, which claims to be the largest urban center in North Iowa. Things are different there than in LA, and that's part of the experience we are sharing.

Next stop: Minneapolis, Minnesota

September 17, 2017


by Rosemary

We rarely make reservations more than a few days in advance. However, back in May, as we were preparing to start our trip, we knew we wanted to view the total eclipse on August 21, and advance reservations would be vital.

Studying the map of the path of totality, we decided that the city of Beatrice would be the perfect viewing spot. (At the time, we didn't realize that a huge viewing party with organized events and special guests had been planned.) The closest reservation we could get was in Omaha, about a 90-minute drive away. For more than two months, we gradually worked our way east.

Our first stop in Nebraska was North Platte. The town's big tourist attraction is the Golden Spike Tower, which overlooks Bailey Yard, the world's largest railyard, covering 2,850 acres. Every day, thousands of railroad cars are managed here. Cars are sorted according to destination, while others are inspected and serviced, and locomotives are fueled or held for repairs. An ultrasound inspection system identifies wheels that need to be replaced.

After our visit here, we continued driving east, surrounded by seemingly endless cornfields.

We spent the next night at Kearney, home of the Great Platte River Road Archway. This elevated monument spans Interstate 80. Inside, the museum uses life-size displays and audio guides to document 170 years of westward expansion along the Oregon, Mormon, and California trails.

Nearby is a covered picnic area, some educational exhibits, and hiking trails.

We didn't know it then, but we would be back.

Our hotel in Omaha was in what was once the Omaha Federal Building. All government agencies had left the building by 2008, and it was sold to developers in 2011. Because it is on the National Register of Historic Places, the important architectural exterior of the building was preserved during renovations.

Nearby are two huge sculpture parks, built by First National Bank. "Pioneer Courage" is a series of bronze sculptures portraying a westward-bound wagon train. The sculptures are larger than life (the wagon master is 11 feet tall, and the covered wagons are over 40 feet long) and highly detailed.

Nearby buildings are incorporated into the park, as buffalo and geese seem to pass through the structures.

Down the block and around the corner is the second park, a huge lawn and fountain area called "Spirit of Nebraska's Wilderness".

The more we read about Beatrice's plans for the eclipse, the less appealing it seemed. Weather predictions were also discouraging, indicating that clouds might obscure the view throughout much of eastern Nebraska. We decided to skip Beatrice and drive further west. We could simply stop anywhere that parking was possible.

On the morning of the eclipse we got up at 4:30 am, giving ourselves plenty of time to deal with weather and traffic. We headed west on I-80. Shortly before dawn we were caught in a powerful thunderstorm; we and many others pulled over to the side of the road until it had subsided a bit. We continued to check the weather reports and consult our map. We kept heading west.

Eventually, we made our way back to Kearney, the place we had stayed two nights before, about 180 miles west of Omaha. We parked at the Archway. There were other people there to view the eclipse, including a large tour group, but we were surprised to see that the place was not at all crowded. We set up our food and supplies on a sheltered picnic table and spread our blanket on the nearby grass. The weather was perfect.

The eclipse, strange and beautiful, was an amazing experience. We don't have the right kind of equipment to photograph the sun, and in any case, I haven't yet seen a photo that fully captures the beauty and emotion of that moment. Just for the record, here is a stock photo by Tyler van der Hoeven on Unsplash:

Our drive to Kearney had been easy, but the drive back to Omaha was not. Everyone everywhere left at about the same time, and traffic was at a crawl. It took over four hours to get back to the hotel. It was worth it.

We spent another day in Omaha before continuing our journey east.