Saturday, September 19, 2015

Old Stomping Grounds

All of the United States have rural areas, but some states are more rural in character than others. Indiana is such a place. I was born and raised in Grant County, Indiana, mostly living in the countryside and  a couple of very small towns. My father's family has been in Indiana for many generations, since the early 19th century. There is a long tradition of Pogues residing in rural Indiana. My mother's family only arrived in the area from the South due to a crash in the textile industry in the 1950s. As such, I am half Southern by upbringing, and at this point I lived most of my life in the South. That said, having grown up in the north (lower case 'n' as northerners believe they are Americans first), my world view was more shaped by this rural Indiana origin than any other factor.

A modern "family" farm in Indiana. This is pretty much the Indiana I grew up with. One of the sons got a degree in Agronomy and took the farm corporate. Nowadays farming is really only viable if you scale up to huge acreage, especially if you are planting grain for cash rather than raising livestock.

Indiana is a place of farms, plains, and slow, muddy rivers. It is a place with cold, snowy winters, and small, run-down towns that lost industrial employment when the United States began to trade extensively with developing nations. The beginning of the end was the recovery of Japan after World War II, a further blow came from the opening of trade with China by the Nixon Administration in the 1970s, and was completely finished off by the North American Free Trade Agreement. The Indiana economy slugged onward with the wavering strength of agriculture on the fertile, extensively glaciated plains between the Ohio River and Lake Michigan, before finally recovering on the strength of growth in service industries in and around Indianapolis, accompanied by rapid urbanization of that area. Nonetheless, at heart, Indiana is fundamentally a farming society. There have always been the farms, and I assume, so there will always be. The farms plant their mark upon the landscape and the people as they plant the soil.

The contemporary face of Indiana agriculture - an ethanol plant between the county seat of Marion and outlying village Sweetser. It smells wonderful, with the scent of cooking corn (maize), like a whiskey distillery.

In the 1970s and 1980s, it was a safe, if bleak, place to grow up. I learned to love the outdoors in Indiana, and that love has shaped the way I have lived the rest of my life and the decisions I have made about where and how I live. Dad was an avid angler, and I grew up fishing in the rivers and lakes of Indiana. Mostly we fished the muddy Mississinewa River and it's reservoir, but sometimes we went to the nearby Salamonie or even drove up many times to the deep, clear, spring fed glacial lakes of northern Indiana. They were good times and I think Dad is responsible for interesting me in the outdoors. It's like an infection and once you catch it, when you are indoors the only thing you can think of is going outdoors.

Dad and I went to walk a 1 mile section of the Sweetser Switch section of the local "Rails to Trails" path. I had a distant view of the house I spent most of my formative years in as well as Pipe Creek, the major drainage for the area. I spent a few crucial years roaming along Pipe Creek, learning to love the natural world. I believe all children should have such an upbringing. Crime and contention come from the city. It is the inevitable result of too many people compressed into too small an area. Peace comes from nature and solitude. I do not believe that socialization and culture trump an appreciation of nature. "Freedom" means freedom from the constraints of other people or it means nothing. You get freedom in the country, in both the intellectual and in the physical sense, and it is there simply for the effort of living, with no planning or contriving required. As for culture, it exists where you bring it. Culture is not found in a particular place, it exists in the mind. You can get plenty of culture in the country as long as you have plenty of education.

Pipe Creek. I lived about a half mile downstream from here and fell in a few times, but mostly waded in on purpose. The water inflow on the right bank is from the ethanol plant pictured above - a couple of miles away.
The world's largest silver nugget, because, um, yeah, I don't know really, but as the sign says, it was too heavy to move. They painted it silver by the way. Silver nuggets are not actually silver. They usually look like dull, blotchy rocks. The paint was not a good idea. I guess the nugget must have been transported by glaciation from Michigan or Canada because the bedrock in Indiana is almost uniformly limestone or other sediment.
Yeah, massive grain silos right in  the middle of Sweetser. Hilarious.
Near the crux of the Sweetser Switch Rails-to-Trails path, in "downtown" Sweetser, Indiana. Downtown has a whole 2 stories. By they way, the old switch was where the trains could be switched from one rail line to another. In this case it was probably to facilitate the offloading of grain from the local elevator to the trains.
Old rail cars and a statue of Garfield the cat, donated by illustrator Jim Davis, born and raised in Grant County.
The Mississinewa River near one of the battles of the War of 1812, but more importantly, near the first place I ever went fishing.
The Hogback recreation area on the Mississinewa Reservoir. The mud flats are a result of the lake being lowered to winter pool. The primary purpose of the reservoir is flood control, so the water level is lowered in winter to accommodate heavy rains in late in the season and in early spring.

I left Indiana in 1989 when my mother and stepfather moved to Murfreesboro, Tennessee. It was a huge change for me, but I welcomed it. Rural Indiana is a nice safe place to grow up but I think I was born with a drive to always seek something more than what I have, and I knew I could grow more if I left, so I welcomed the change.

After high school, I initially attended Texas A&M University in 1992. Unfortunately I made the decision to leave there under outside pressure and went back to Indiana to attend Purdue University. It was not my first choice, and it was not really a choice I wanted, but it was a choice I felt I had to make at the time. I walked away from nearly complete academic scholarships to be closer to my family in Indiana. I worked in a factory for 7 months and then transferred to Purdue from Texas A&M in January of 1993. I ended up changing my major a couple of times. It was a sad, directionless time in my life. I say this with apologies to my family, whom I love, but the main lesson I took from this period is that once you have moved out of the house, do not take unsolicited advice from family. It is Ok to ask for advice, but advice you did not ask for is likely to not be in your best interest. The advice may be right for your family but wrong for you. At some point you must become an adult and make your own decisions.

Anyway, I did appreciated my time at Purdue, even though I did not take full advantage of it as I should have. I now realize that the mistake I made in returning to Indiana should have already been apparent, but it took a few more years before I realized it. I'm quick in many ways but slow about things like that.

Purdue is a fun place to go to school, and my horizons were broadened by attending for 4 years. I met people from diverse backgrounds and beliefs and I was exposed to minds with the highest level of education. At Purdue I had the great experience of being instructed by professors with degrees from institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, Oxford, and Yale, as well as many other private and public colleges of good reputation. I met informally and spoke with on two separate occasions Herbert C. Brown, then Professor Emeritus of Chemistry and Nobel Prize winner (Chemistry 1979). Few people can say they've met a Nobel Prize winner, and I might never have met one if I had not been there, struggling through 2 years of chemistry.

I goofed off too much at Purdue, not partying and drinking as a lot of students do, but generally wasting time and pursuing my own personal interests, hobbies, and obsessions. I'm definitely compulsive at times, and probably I could be placed somewhere on the autism spectrum. At Purdue, I indulged this to the extreme, and many days were lost to the indulgence. This epic time wasting became possible somewhat because of the great resources of the university: the vast libraries (this was before the expansion of the internet), and the various opportunities to pursue everything from the outdoors, to computer diversions, to the sporting events that are so much a part of the life of large universities in the United States.

Speaking of sporting events, while back visiting this year, I went with my Dad to a Purdue men's basketball game. Indiana is a basketball state and the sport is deeply ingrained in the culture, or at least it was through the 1990s. Although I had little ability myself, aside from the ability to shoot free throws pretty well and the ability to move fast in a straight line, I spent some time in junior high school and my freshman year of high school as a manager and statistician for the basketball teams. During this time I learned a thing or two about basketball and got indoctrinated to the tradition. The traditional importance of the sport of basketball in Indiana is difficult to describe to someone not from Indiana but suffice it to say that I did not intend to miss any more basketball games than I had to when I was at Purdue, and Purdue was a major basketball power at the time. Purdue home games are some of my best memories from an era with few good memories for me.
We got great seats in the third row next to the tunnel where the team enters. I negotiated hard with the scalper but I still think we paid too much since it was Christmas break, the opponent was insignificant, and few students were present.

Mackey Arena. I think it holds over 13,000. This crowd was at least 9,000, if not more. I attended many sold-out games there when Purdue was ranked in the top 10 and the bleachers rumbled with the sound of stomping feet. Unfortunately Purdue lost a close game, despite the opponent being a cupcake. Purdue men's basketball has fallen on hard times.

Strava: 2 miles, 0 feet, lol.
Visiting my old stomping grounds in Indiana usually brings back a flood of memories and much sentimentality, but also re-affirms the decision I made to move on. There is a bleak beauty to the flat land and open skies of rural Indiana, and I experience the comfort of the familiar from my childhood when I visit. I sometimes miss Indiana . . . but I never miss it enough to move back again. When I graduated, I knew without a doubt that I intended to take the opportunity to go back to Tennesseee and would never move back to Indiana. I went on to more schooling in the South, a complete change of future career direction, and in many ways a complete repudiation of my college days in Indiana. I often think I should have stayed at Texas A&M.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Granite Dells of Prescott, Arizona

One of the places I have considered living at some point is Prescott, Arizona. It is a mountain bike mecca and has a reputation as an outdoor town with abundant opportunity for exploits in the Bradshaw Mountains and Sierra Prieta with peaks into the 7,000s. Like Flagstaff it sits at high enough elevation to avoid the extreme heat for which Arizona is usually more well known. Unlike Flagstaff the elevation is a more moderate 5300 feet above sea level. This means that the winters are milder. Unfortunately it was apparent that there were few if any jobs for someone with my background. Instead, I ended up in Flagstaff. Anyway, I now live close enough to visit.

Take that, Denver! You are not the only mile-high city.

I decided to dedicate one of my free weekends to exploring Prescott since it is less than 2 hours from Flag and headed out for some mountain biking at an interesting geological feature called the Granite Dells. It is a stretch of granite rock formations and buttes that stretch for a few miles near town. It is exactly the type of thing that cannot be seen east of the Mississippi River and is extremely photogenic.

Watson Lake. The Granite Dells are the rock formations on the other side. The lake floods through and around many of the rock outcroppings.

I pulled into the city (county?) park at Watson Lake and paid the $2 access fee and received good advice from the attendant on how to get on the trails. The skies were threatening since I had decided to watch the Purdue football game in the morning and the prediction was for afternoon thunderstorms. Fortunately I arrived after most of the lightening had cleared out and never had a problem. The storms were hovering over the Bradshaws all day but broke up when they moved out over the grassy intermountain valley areas.

A typical section of the Lakeshore Trail. Sorry the photo is so dark, that was a byproduct of the continuous overcast.

There are a combination of bike paths, rails-to-trails, and very difficulty technical single track mountain bike trails around the lake and through the Dells. I rode around the end of the lake and into the Dells and soon realized I was in over my head. I kept hoping the trail would smooth out but eventually it became clear that hiking my bike over all the giant slabs of rock was a waste of time so I connected into the rails-to-trails and started spinning. It was hard to keep going because there were so many photo opportunities. It is a scenic place and the rails-to-trails (Peavine Trail) is a great way to see it.

Very scenic view from the Peavine Trail, a rails-to-trails path. Granite Mountain of the Sierra Prietas is visible in the distance, 7,629 ft. It's a lovely mountain but I failed to get any closeup photos of it.

Eventually I rode the Peavine Trail to the intersection with Highway 89A, which also goes through Sedona, and went back and rode a branch line out into classic wide open big sky country as epitomizes the American West. I could see the distant San Francisco Peaks, some 50 miles or more away as the crow flies, sitting atop the Colorado Plateau. I was in disbelief at first that I could see the Peaks but eventually realized that it had to be what I was seeing. The scale of the terrain of this region boggles the mind.

Big sky country in north central Arizona. The San Francisco Peaks are visible in the gap to the left but are very faint in this photo. They looked larger and more obvious in person (of course).

Eventually I realized there was some slight danger of it getting dark on me so I turned back to the car, stopping only to take in some caffeine and enjoy the scenery another time. The park closed at sunset, 6:41 pm on this particular day, and I had been running late all day. I got back in plenty of time to change clothes and head into town to find somewhere to eat.

Prescott has a great downtown, traditional, centered around a courthouse, and is hopping with active businesses. These types of downtowns nearly died in the 1970 and 1980s but thankfully have made a comeback in many places. The local economy is quite obviously dependent on tourist traffic and there are plenty of places to eat all around the square. There was some type of special event going on and it was packed with people, but I found an ostensible "Irish pub" restaurant-bar called Murphy's on the edge of downtown so I had no difficulty finding parking or getting seated. I ordered the Beef Stroganoff, which the waiter claimed drew people all the way from Phoenix. It was a good Stroganoff although I'm not sure I would drive all the way from Phoenix just to eat it. Fortunately there are so many outdoor opportunities around Prescott that there will always be another reason to go back!

Ah, Beef Stroganoff to refuel after a day of riding! It is about as Irish as Vladimir Putin, but still well worth ordering at Murphy's Pub.

Photo Dump

That is the trail - I had to hike over that huge inclined slab.

The Granite Dells from within.

A view up one of the higher rock formations.

Another view from the Peavine Trail with Granite Mountain a little more visible.

The higher buttes of the Granite Dells. I believe one of these is likely the high point at 5100 feet above sea level.

Amazing pillars of granite! Due to the coloration I would have guessed this was sandstone from a distance if I had not known it was granite.

A wider view of the Granite Dells from out in the prairie. The scale of Granite Mountain can be better seen from this angle.

Beautiful place to ride!
Happy trails!