broken walls and narratives

A not so revolutionary blog about feminism, socialism, activism, travel, nature, life, etc.

Archive for the month “May, 2018”

The Road NOT Traveled: Seven Things We Didn’t See

The Road NOT Traveled: Seven Things We Didn’t See

H. Bradford

5/31/18

As much as we packed into each day, there was quite a lot that my brother and I did not see on our road trip.  I think that no matter how long or short a trip is, there are always things that a person misses out on. In life in general, there isn’t time for everything!  So, here are some highlights of the Road NOT Traveled, should anyone undertake a road trip between Texas and Minnesota and need some additional ideas of places to stop.


 

1. Mammoth National Monument- Waco, Texas

Originally, we had planned on traveling along Interstate 35 to Waco, Texas.  The goal was to see Mammoth National Monument, a park operated by the US National Park Service wherein visitors can see two dozen mammoth fossils.  I think it would have been pretty interesting to visit the site and learn more about Colombian mammoths and other Pleistocene animals. However, this would have taken us through thick traffic.  We instead made the choice to visit Balcones Canyon Lands. We ended up seeing an endangered golden cheeked warbler. I think seeing the warbler was probably more special than seeing the mammoths.  After all, the mammoth fossils aren’t going anywhere… Image result for mammoth national monument

image from National Parks Conservation Association


2. Dr. Pepper Museum- Waco, Texas

I don’t even like Dr. Pepper.  Yet, for some reason I wanted to make a stop at the Dr. Pepper Museum in Waco, Texas.  I guess it was just another thing to do in Waco. Well, we skipped Waco and missed out on the museum.  Twenty four mammoths and twenty three flavors were not enough to draw us to Waco…

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image from Dr.pepper museum website


3. Frida Kahlo Mexican Restaurant and Billy the Kid’s Grave-Hamilton, Texas:

I missed out on the Frida Kahlo Mexican restaurant and the so-called grave of Billy the Kid in Hamilton, Texas.  The grave actually belongs to Brushy Bill Roberts, who claimed to be Billy the Kid.   I suppose visiting the site would be akin to visiting the the grave of someone who claimed to be Anastasia Romanov.  I was not aware of these sites until we passed through.  Since we were on our way to Dinosaur Valley State Park and had not planned a stop, we passed along without stopping.

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image from Tripadvisor


4. Giant Czech Egg- Wilson, Kansas:

“Awe, look…they’re even wearing their cute little outfits,” my brother said regarding Wilson, Kansas’ Czech Egg and the accompanying Czech denizens of the small town.  The community features a 20 foot tall painted Czech Egg. Unfortunately, it was impossible to include the giant painted egg in our adventure, since it is located four hours away from the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.  The “Czech Capital” of Kansas was too westerly to fit into our road trip. I am sure it would have been fantastic to see the giant egg, but not enough to add several more hours of driving in the opposite direction.

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image from Atlas Obscura


 

5. TruckHenge-Topeka, Kansas:

I really wanted to see TruckHenge, a work of art from an anti-social anti-government sort who was told to remove the junk from his property but instead turned it into a tourist attraction.   Located outside of Topeka, Kansas, a visit to the site would not have added THAT much time to our trip. However, my brother had misgivings about visiting the property of a seemingly hostile anti-government individual whose odd, scrawled messages on the cars indicated that a social visit to his private property would amount to an awkward interaction.  A visit to the farm would necessarily mean interacting with this person as he gave us a tour of the property.   It is hard to know what to expect from this person. Would he engage us in political conversation? What would we say?  How long would the tour last?  Would we offend him?  There were too many social unknowns about such a visit.  I, on the other hand, had initially mistaken Truckhenge for Carhenge, which is an ACTUAL replica of Stonehenge with cars.  Carhenge is located on western end of Nebraska and therefore too far out of the way to make it worth our while. So, there was no Truckhenge or Carhenge for us! Image result for truck henge He might have been a polite and reserved tour guide.  I guess we will never know…


6.  Subterra Castle-Topeka Kansas area:

Just west of Topeka, tourists can visit (and stay at!) a missile silo turned unique home!  The missile silo was decommissioned in 1965 and purchased for $40,000 in 1983 by Ed Peren and his wife.  Ed turned the missile silo into a livable space (pumping out water and testing for radiation). They have decorated the space with New Age decor and offer private tours of their home.  I think it would have been interesting to visit, but tours must be arranged in advance. Lack of time and planning prevented a visit.

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image from Subterracastle.com


 

7. Kregel Windmill Museum-Nebraska City, Nebraska:

I wrongly assumed that the Kregel Windmill Museum in Nebraska City is the only museum of its kind.  Oddly enough, there are a sprinkling of other windmill museums across the US and even in South Africa!  The Kregel Windmill Museum was on our road trip agenda but was cut because we ended up taking a different route to Sioux City, Iowa when we visited the Indian Cave State Park.  Given the choice between seeing a museum devoted to a windmill manufacturer or Native American petroglyphs, I chose the petroglyphs. While I may have missed out on the Kregal Windmill Museum, perhaps I can chase windmills another day (as Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Indiana also have windmill museums.) Image result for kregel windmill factory museum

image from wikipedia


There are only so many hours in a day.  A person has to choose if they are going to see endangered warblers or a mammoth graveyard.  Choices must be made between Native American petroglyphs and windmill museums.  The worth of visiting a slice of prairie must be weighed against the value of giant painted eggs.  Life (for some people) is full of choices.  I like to think that life is long.  Perhaps, one day, I will visit some of these sites.  Perhaps not!  Of course, there are others that were not mentioned, as we passed by numerous interesting places along the way.   There are always roads not taken and all of the fascinating things that will only be experienced in the imagination.   I am happy for the privilege of experiencing those things that I can.

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Fantastic Birds and Where We Found Them

Fantastic Birds and Where We Found Them

H. Bradford

5/29/18

A highlight of visiting new areas is the possibility of seeing new birds.  I feel that I have been growing a lot as a birder, but it is both a body of knowledge, practice/training, and a skill set (attention to detail, spotting things quickly, memory).  Thankfully, my brother was a good sport and helped me spot birds.  Having a second set of eyes was helpful in uncovering some of the bird life hidden in the world around me.  With that said, here are some of the top birds that we spotted between Texas and Minnesota on our road trip!  (Note that many of the photos are poor quality since the birds are distant, moving, or just hard to easily capture for me).


    1. Golden Cheeked Warbler:

       

The Golden cheeked warbler only nests in Central Texas and nowhere else in the world.  According to Audubon’s guide to North American birds, it prefers mature woods of ashe juniper and has been threatened by loss of habitat and nest parasitism from cowbirds.  My brother and I set out for the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge in search of the bird.  I didn’t have high hopes of finding it, since it is rare and warblers can be difficult to spot.  We hiked along a juniper covered hill in search of the endangered bird and only found it at the end of the hike.  The warbler actually perched a few feet away from my brother.  It wasn’t too difficult to identify, since we had passed sixteen trail markers along the way which featured a painted image of the bird.  The bird’s population is about 21,000, so it is rarest bird I have seen.  Texas land developers want to de-list the bird as an endangered species.  1/3 of the bird’s habitat was destroyed between 1999 – 2011.   It would be a terrible loss if this bird went extinct due to the profit driven shortsightedness of land developers.  Plus, the mature juniper forests we hiked through are a really unique and pretty habitat. https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/golden-cheeked-warbler https://www.audubon.org/news/yet-again-texas-developers-try-delist-endangered-golden-cheeked-warbler

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2. Scissor Tailed Flycatcher

I really wanted to see a Scissor Tailed Flycatcher because they are unique looking birds.  I had never seen one before until visiting the Botanical Gardens in San Antonio.  Of course, once I saw one…I saw them all over!  The birds were perched on wires along the roads between Texas and southern Kansas.  They range across the southern great plains and seemed especially common in Oklahoma.  Since they range so far south, I certainly have never encountered one in Minnesota.  They are related to kingbirds and I watched one of them swoop to eat insects at Dinosaur Valley State Park in Texas.

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3. Painted Bunting

My brother spotted an unfamiliar bird at Government Canyon.  The brilliantly bright bird was about the size of a sparrow.  When I caught it in my binoculars, I saw that it was a painted bunting…one of those birds that is immediately recognizable to anyone who has browsed bird guides.  The colorful, green, red, and blue bird can be found in the South eastern United States, including Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana as well as some parts of the Carolinas and Florida.  Like the Scissor Tailed Flycatcher, once we spotted one we were seeing them all over- with sightings at Balcones Canyonlands and Dinosaur Valley State Park.  That is one of the interesting things about birding.  You can be “bird blind” to a species or all birds, until you take time to notice/identify them- then suddenly- they are everywhere!

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4. Indigo Bunting:

Further north in Nebraska, my brother spotted a small blue bird, which I recognized as an Indigo Bunting.  Although Indigo Buntings can be found in Minnesota, I have never seen one.  There were dozens of the blue colored birds near the wetland trail at Indian Cave State Park.  The bird ranges throughout the Eastern half of the United States, from Texas to Minnesota, eastward to the Atlantic coast.

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5. Lark Sparrow:

Sparrows aren’t always the easiest to identify, since they are generally some variation of brown.  Still, as I identify more birds, I know that sparrows are in the frontier of new species that I can add to my life list.  Thankfully, the Lark Sparrow was easy to identify.  I spotted one at Dinosaur Valley State Park, but also saw a few in Kansas.  I didn’t immediately know that I had observed a new sparrow, but I did note that its facial pattern stood out compared to other sparrows I have seen.  Lark Sparrows are not found in Minnesota as they tend to range further west and south.

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6. Black chinned hummingbird

The only hummingbird regularly found in Minnesota is the Ruby throated hummingbird.  I was definitely hoping to see another species of hummingbird on my trip.  To this end, I spent some time in the butterfly garden of the San Antonio Botanical gardens, where I believe I saw a female black chinned hummingbird.
The black throated hummingbird is most commonly found in the southwestern United States.  I got a better view of this hummingbird at Dinosaur Valley State Park, where I saw several easier to identify males.   Black chinned hummingbirds are common in the Western united states and closely related to Ruby throated hummingbirds.

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7. Golden- Fronted Woodpecker

In addition to seeing another species hummingbird, I really wanted to see more woodpeckers.  I was treated to a sighting of a Golden fronted woodpecker at the San Antonio Botanical gardens.  I happened to make a second, last minute visit to the bird observatory, where the woodpecker was perched by a dried up orange.  According to Allaboutbirds, Golden Fronted woodpeckers enjoy eating grass hoppers and sometimes stain their beaks purple from eating prickly pears.  The woodpecker is found in Oklahoma and Texas. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Golden-fronted_Woodpecker/overview?gclid=EAIaIQobChMI6O_o9bKW2wIVEtbACh26xgVwEAAYASAAEgIUo_D_BwE


8. Red-Headed Woodpecker:

Red-headed woodpeckers can be found in Minnesota, but I have never seen one.  It seems that they range across much of the Eastern United States.  My first sighting of a red-headed woodpecker was at Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.  My brother and I spotted one in the forest along the river.  It was a quick sighting, but the bird is pretty unmistakable with its entirely red head.  According to Allaboutbirds, the Red-headed woodpecker has many nicknames, the best of which is probably Jellycoat.  Fossils of red-headed woodpeckers have been found in Florida, dating back as much as 2 million years.


 

9. Meadowlark:

Another bird that I wanted to see was a meadowlark.  Meadowlarks can be found in Minnesota, but once again, I have not seen one.  Once we entered Kansas, I started to see meadowlarks everywhere!  They were on fence posts and power lines.  One flew over my brother’s van.  Of course, there are Western and Eastern Meadowlarks- which look extremely similar.  The state bird of Kansas is the Western Meadowlark.  I want to assume that is what I saw, but both birds can be found in Kansas as their ranges overlap.  I took a photo of one of them at Tall Grass Prairie National Preserve.  Upon looking at the photo, I believe it was an Eastern Meadowlark…as it had a whiter mustache and bolder colors.  Maybe among all of the Meadowlarks I saw, I saw a few of each.  I didn’t hear the song, which is an easier way of telling the two apart.

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10. Swallows:

I saw several species of swallows on my trip.  Swallows have been difficult for me to identify because they look similar, move quickly, and often don’t pause long enough for a good look.  However, I am slowly starting to sort out the swallows one by one.  For instance, if it is solidly dark, it is a purple martin.  If it is purple/blue on top but white on the underside, it is a tree swallow.  A blue and brown head with a forked tail is a barn swallow and a blue and brown head (+ white spot) without a forked tail is a cliff swallow.   A swallow that is brown with a brown chest, is a bank swallow.  This is a fairly rough guide to the differences, but has helped me sort out the swallows.  I saw cliff swallows in Oklahoma City and bank swallows at Indian Cave State Park.  The San Antonio Botanical Gardens had tree swallows and purple martins.  I also saw Barn swallows along the way.

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Conclusion:

During the road trip, I saw over 25 new species of birds.  I am sure if I was a better birder, there were probably at least 40 new species of birds.   Kansas and Nebraska were great for viewing raptors, but it was hard to identify them while driving.  There were other birds that I saw, such as a curved billed thrasher, tufted titmouse, sedge wren, lesser yellowlegs, orchard oriole, Loggerhead shrike, etc. which added to my list.   My brother saw a bobwhite, but I only caught it making noise and flying away.  Thus, some sightings were better than others.

Other birds: a loggerhead shrike at the Tall Grass National Preserve, a night hawk also at the Tall Grass National Preserve, a blue gray gnatcatcher at Dinosaur Valley, Scrub Jay at Balcones Canyonlands,  Curve billed thrasher at the San Antonio Botanical Gardens, and many more which were too fast to photograph…

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Road Trip: Texas to Minnesota!

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Road Trip:  Texas to Minnesota!

H. Bradford

5/20/18

This year, my brother accepted a new job in Minnesota.  This meant that he had to move his family and belongings from San Antonio to Minnesota.  The move presented a logistical problem, as he has two vehicles but would have had to pay someone to move one of the vehicles north.  So, rather than have him pay someone to move his vehicle- I volunteered to drive it for him!  I thought it might be fun to travel from Texas to Minnesota on an epic sibling road trip.  I planned out some stops and a route for us.  Because of my work schedule (eight days on/six days off) I was able to fly to San Antonio and embark on this road trip without having to miss work.  Of course, the only problem was that 1.) I hate driving.  2.) I have never driven that far before.  3.) I have never really driven in major cities.  But…the lure of adventure outstripped my anxieties and the cross country odyssey began.  Here are some highlights from the cross country journey!


 

Day One/Two: San Antonio

 

Riverwalk:

I arrived in San Antonio in the late afternoon after working a night shift the day before (and a stretch of nine shifts in a row prior to the trip).  Although I was sleep deprived, I had just enough energy to explore the River Walk for a few hours. The River Walk is a well touristed area, but an easy place for a leisurely stroll and overpriced food.  I enjoyed eating Mexican food, observing ducks, and posing by The Alamo. In the past, I have had some misgivings visiting and posing by The Alamo, which is a symbol of Texan independence/statehood. On the other hand, it could also be viewed as a place where Mexico squarely defeated insurgent U.S.settlers.  Or, it could be viewed as a Spanish mission to educate or covert (i.e. acculturate/destroy) Native Americans into the Catholic faith. However one wants to remember The Alamo, a highlight was watching my brother convince one of the park rangers to take a photo with me by pretending to be a guileless tourist, rather than San Antonio resident for the past several years. Image may contain: 2 people, including Heather Bradford, people standing and outdoor


San Antonio Botanical Gardens:

It is hard to rank something like botanical gardens, since each is unique in their own way.  However, I will say that San Antonio probably has one of the best botanical gardens that I have been to.  A person can spend hours in the massive gardens, which features plants from several Texan regions, a pond, a bird observatory, children’s gardens, herb gardens, butterfly gardens, a Japanese garden, collections of ferns and citrus fruit, and much more.  The garden also offers a great view of San Antonio. I visited the garden while my brother was finishing his exit paperwork for the army. I focused on birdwatching, which is also great at the botanical gardens!

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The Missions:

After visiting the botanical garden, my brother and I headed off to see some of the San Antonio missions. Although I have visited San Antonio twice before, I had not visited the missions on my prior trips.  I was not entirely interested in them, since well, they are monuments to the conversion of Native Americans to Catholicism. However, since it was my last visit, I had not previously seen them, and they are World Heritage Sites, I thought there might be some value in paying a brief visit.  As such, we checked out two of the four missions. We visited Mission San Jose and Mission Concepcion. I would say that a highlight of visiting Mission San Jose was walking along the defensive walls of the grounds and imagining what life must have been like for the people who lived within the walls.  We paused to take a photo of the ornate, Rose Window, which was very popular with tourists. Otherwise, after walking the grounds, we headed over to Mission Conception, which was much smaller. The most notable thing about this mission site was the Native American murals. The ceiling of one part of the mission featured a sun with a mustache.  I like to think that the artist wanted to slip in some sort of subtle cultural resistance against Catholicism. No automatic alt text available.


Government Canyon State Natural Area

One of my favorite places to visit in the San Antonio area is Government Canyon.  In the past, I have spent many hours hiking the canyon area. A must see highlight of the hike is the dinosaur footprints, which are located about two and a half miles from the visitor center.  Unfortunately, each time I have visited the tracks have been submerged in water. Despite the algae, mud, and water, the shape of the tracks is generally visible without much imagination. From the dinosaur footprints, hikers can choose several other trails.  This time, my brother and I chose to take the overlook trail.

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Day Three:  San Antonio to Gainesville, Texas

On day three of the trip, we finally left San Antonio via HWY 281 towards Marble Falls.  This route was preferable to the congested and speedy I-35, which would have taken us through Waco Texas (and to Mammoth National Monument).  The easy drive took us through Texas’ Hill Country, past many things named after Lyndon B. Johnson. Our first stop was in Marble Falls for breakfast…


Blue Bonnet Cafe:

We stopped for breakfast at the Blue Bonnet Cafe in Marble Falls, Texas.  I am not a huge fan of pancakes, but I will say that I had the best pancake I’ve eaten at this cafe.  It was fluffy, filling, and thick. I also appreciate that everywhere I ate in Texas had iced tea (at all hours) and that I was often offered a “to go” cup for my refill.  This is not the norm in Minnesota. In any event, the breakfast was a great start to the day, which says a lot since breakfast is my least favorite meal.

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Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge:

Following breakfast, we detoured away from 281 to Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge.  The visitors center was closed, but we went on to hike at the Warbler Vista.  Our goal was to see the elusive and endangered Golden Cheeked Warbler, which is endemic to Texas and only breeds in mature juniper forests.  We wandered along a jagged juniper lined hill trail. While we heard birds, we saw nothing for most of the hike. Then, towards the end of the hike, we decided to take a moment to investigate the source of a birdsong.  Sure enough, it was the Golden Cheeked Warbler!  I struggled to photograph the quick bird as evidence that I had seen the endangered warbler. The bird actually landed a few feet away from my brother, then zipped off to some nearby evergreens.   I was able to snap a photo. We saw and heard the bird a few more times before finishing the trail.  At the end of the trail, I saw two scrub jays, which were also a first time sighting for me. The Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge is also home to the Black capped vireo, another endangered bird. We set off to the Shin Oak overlook, where the bird is sometimes found. However, we did not have any luck seeing this bird.   We saw an Indigo Bunting and many cardinals, which seem pretty abundant in the Texas Hill Country. Image may contain: plant, tree, sky, grass, outdoor and nature Image may contain: bird and outdoor


Dinosaur Valley State Park:

 

Our journey continued towards Dinosaur Valley State Park.  This brought us back along HWY 281 to enjoy more Hill Country scenery and small, Texan towns.  One of the more unique towns that we passed through was Hamilton, Texas. Hamilton features a Frida Kahlo themed Mexican restaurant and the grave of a man who claimed to be Billy the Kid.  Further along 281, Hico Texas hosts a Billy the Kid museum. We did not stop at these places as we lacked the time, but I think that they would have been interesting stops.


We drove on to Dinosaur Valley State Park, which is known for several sets of dinosaur foot prints.  When we arrived, the day was very hot. We were initially very excited to pose by the giant dinosaur statues and find the prints.  The excitement gave way to frustration. The park was very busy and the tracks were located in the water. We slipped out of our shoes, waded into the water, and crossed slippery rocks to view one set of tracks.  This was a lot of effort. I had imagined that the tracks would be permanently etched in mud turned to stone along a dry path. Nope. It is my understanding that all of the tracks are located in the Puluxy River.  There are times of the year when the river is drier and access to the tracks is easier.   Based on my experience, I would recommend bringing water shoes and preparing for some wading to access them.  I would also recommend a water proof camera or not bringing along anything that should not get wet.  On the other hand, the park is an ideal place to bring kids, since children can literally swim around with dinosaur foot prints. Image may contain: cloud, sky, shoes, outdoor and nature Image may contain: outdoor and water


After viewing one set of footprints, we decided to go for a hike.  Hiking on any of the trails involved crossing over the river (which is another good reason to bring water shoes or waterproof hiking boots).  My feet got wet in the crossing. The heat and wet feet added to my waning morale.   I was encouraged by the idea that we might see a rare Black capped vireo on one of the trails.  However, we didn’t see many birds and after driving all day, we didn’t have much energy for a long hike. Our final destination was still over two hours ahead of us, so we eventually turned around to plot the final leg of our day’s journey.

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Gainesville, Texas:

We spent the night on Day Three in Gainesville, Texas, which is located very close to Oklahoma.  The drive there was pleasant enough as we skirted around major cities and the associated traffic.  By the time we arrived, it was late in the evening and we were both tired. We didn’t do much sightseeing in Gainesville, but managed to drag ourselves to a Mexican restaurant not far from our hotel.  I ordered a vegetarian taco, which was stuffed with “mixed vegetables.” As it turned out, the mixed vegetables were literally the sort of mixed vegetables a person gets from a can or in a school lunch (carrots, corn, green beans, lima beans).  It was odd and disappointing.  Otherwise, we strolled around the historic downtown area and called it a day!


Day Four:  Gainesville, Texas to Wichita, Kansas

Day four took us from Gainesville, Texas to Wichita, Kansas.  We set out early, followed Interstate 35, and made our first stop in Oklahoma City to visit a few tourist sites.  Oklahoma has some lovely landscapes and I regret that we did not stop to take some photos as we pressed towards Oklahoma City.

Myriad Gardens and Bricktown:


This botanical garden was smaller than I thought it would be, but it was still a relaxing place to visit.  I enjoyed the small collection of unique fruit plants such as the blackberry jam plant (Randia Formosa) and fruit salad tree (Monstera Deliciosa).  Outside of the greenhouse, there was a park/amphitheater with ducks, irises, and a sunken lake. Myriad Gardens is located by the Bricktown Entertainment District.  My brother and I strolled around the area, enjoying the river walk along the Oklahoma River. I regret that I did not take more photos of Bricktown itself, which seemed like a pretty typical center of urban tourism.  Originally, Bricktown was an industrial area centered around the Santa Fe Railroad. Bricktown and neighboring Deep Deuce were once centers for Oklahoma City’s African American population, but this shifted with the decline of industries, construction of major highways, and desegregation of the city.  In the 1980s the area was purchased by a private developer and further gentrification was promoted by the city’s Metropolitan Area Projects (MAP) program. http://www.blackpast.org/aaw/bricktown-and-deep-deuce-oklahoma-city-1889 Image may contain: sky and outdoor


Museum of Osteology:

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the museum located miles away from Oklahoma City’s center in what appeared to be a neighborhood of warehouses, fields, and road construction.  It was also strange that the remote building was a private museum of skeletons collected by an individual.   It seemed rather eccentric that a person would collect over 300 skeletons, which he personally cleaned, and displayed for the public.  Despite the weird location and fact it was someone’s menagerie of the dead, the museum was actually one of the most memorable that I have visited. The displays were professional and scientific. The skeletons were generally organized by taxonomic families and featured interesting facts.  For instance, I learned that hedgehogs were no longer grouped in the order Insectivora (as it no longer exists).  All of the skeletons were real, with the exception of a collection of early human remains replicas. The center of the museum featured giraffe, whale, hippo, and elephant skeletons.  The gift shop was full of unique souvenirs, including unicorn skeleton bumper stickers, glow in the dark animal skeleton t-shirts, and toad skeletons encased in plastic.

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Chisholm Creek Park/Great Plains Nature Center:

Upon arriving in Wichita, we felt like taking a walk.  We had heard of the Great Plains Nature Center, but read that it was closed on a Sunday.  My brother searched for another nearby park and found the Chisholm Creek Park. As it turned out, the park WAS actually part of the Great Plains Nature Center and OPEN.  This was great luck! We hiked along the trails, which meandered through wetlands, forests, and prairie areas. I saw many birds, including two black crowned night herons, many tree sparrows, and great blue herons.  The park was surprisingly busy for a Sunday evening, with people of all ages enjoying nature. While we didn’t stay long in Wichita, Chisholm Creek Park was definitely worth a visit (and probably even better when the visitor center is open!) Image may contain: outdoor


Day Five:  Wichita to Sioux City, Iowa

Day five of our journey was packed full of driving, outdoors, and adventure.

Tallgrass Prairie Reserve:

Just over an hour away from Wichita on a farmland and meadowlark lined highway is the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve.  This park is a small piece of the ecosystem that once spread across the midsection of country.  Only 4% of the US’ tall grass prairie remains. We arrived early and were immediately charmed by the hilly, grass carpeted landscape and socially awkward park ranger at the visitor center.  Best of all, the park is FREE to visit!  We set off on a trail that began near the visitor center, which took us through pasture and along a wooded river trail.  The small patch of woods hosted a large variety of birds, making for some of the best birding on the trip.  It also shaded us from the sun and provided a nice vantage point for viewing the prairie. We hiked for over two hours, ending just as the sun was gaining strength. If we would have had more time to explore, we could have taken a bus tour to visit other parts of the park and view the bison herd.  Instead, we had a long day of driving ahead of us, so we set off on back roads towards Topeka. I wanted to avoid toll roads, so we took a slightly longer route. The longer route gave us a nice view of the Flint Hills and smaller Kansas communities.

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Westboro Baptist Church:

I was not aware that the Westboro Baptist Church was located in Topeka, Kansas.  The hateful church is located in a quiet residential neighborhood. We stopped for the spectacle of seeing the infamous church and also for the opportunity to give them the finger.  We made the quick stop before taking a fast food lunch break in Topeka. Across the street from the church are two colorful houses. One is decorated in the colors of the Trans flag and the other is clad in rainbow siding.  The house with the pride flag colors is the Equality House, which has hosted weddings, drag shows, and fundraisers. The Trans flag house was purchased by an eight year old transgender child through crowdfunding.  There are many fast food restaurants located near the church, so we stopped for a quick bite to eat before continuing our journey. Image may contain: tree, sky, house, plant, outdoor and nature   Image may contain: Heather Bradford, standing, tree and outdoor


Indian Cave State Park:

From Topeka, we headed to Indian Cave State Park in Nebraska.  We arrived in the late afternoon, once again following rural roads.  I wanted to visit the park, since I thought it would be interesting to see petroglyphs left behind by Native Americans thousands of years ago.  There is also a ghost town nestled within the state park.


We found that the park was very expansive if not a little confusing.   The petroglyphs were located at the furthest end of the park, along a cliff face facing the Missouri River.  The rock wall is more of a cliff than a cave.  Still, the site is easily accessed from the road.  Unfortunately, many people have carved messages into the rock face over the years.  The petroglyphs are hidden within a mess of graffiti.  There seems to be little to prevent further desecration of the monument, so I would recommend visiting the park for the opportunity to see it while you can! Image may contain: outdoor, water and nature


After visiting the petroglyphs, we followed the road back to the ghost town of St. Deroin.  The city was abandoned after the Missouri River shifted and the town lost ferry service. Interestingly, the community was part of the Nemaha Half-breed reservation, who were a group of mixed ancestry Native American/European people.  The reservation ceased to exist in 1861 but some of the descendants continue to live in the area to this day.  It seems like a fascinating history, since they would have been outsiders to both societies and I wonder how modern descendants fare today.  For instance, do they identify with their Native American roots or do they want some kind of federal recognition?

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Finally, we explored a wetland trail near the remnants of St. Deroin, where we saw over a dozen Indigo buntings and my brother saw a bobwhite.  The trail offered a few of the Missouri River, as well its previous path by St. Deroin.


Sioux City, Iowa:

After a long day of driving and exploring, our final stop was Sioux City.  We didn’t arrive until after 9pm, so we really didn’t have time to explore.  My impression was that Sioux City seems to be a hub for semi trucks.  The only thing we did in Sioux City was share an appetizer sampler at Perkins, almost collapse from exhaustion when we arrived at our hotel, and complain about the news coverage of the royal wedding.


 

Day Six:  HOME!


Lake Crystal:

On our final day, we drove from Sioux City to our respective homes.  The final journey took us through Lake Crystal, Mn, where my brother picked up the rest of his family.  I stopped by the nearby Welsh Park, which is named after the second longest city name in the world. Apparently, many Welsh people settled in the area.  There was once a Welsh Methodist church and there is also a Welsh Heritage Orchard.  There is also a Welsh farmstead on the national register of historic places (Jones-Roberts Farmstead).  I don’t know the specifics of Welsh settlement in Lake Crystal, but Blue Earth and LeSueur Countries attracted a few thousand Welsh settlers who farmed in those counties.

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Pigeon Lake Rookery:

Continuing north, we stopped at Pigeon Lake.  Pigeon Lake is a wildlife viewing area, where a person can stop alongside the road and view several islands which serve as rookeries for pelicans, cormorants, and herons.  Without a spotting scope, it is hard to see the scope of the species breeding on the islands. However, even without a spotting scope, hundreds of birds can be seen dotting the islands. Image may contain: sky, tree, outdoor, nature and water


Sartell to Duluth:  The End…

My brother’s final destination was his new home in Sartell.  We spent some time viewing the new house, which was still devoid of his belongings.  From there, my mother drove me back home to Duluth. Thus my road trip ended! I was exhausted, as I had driven over 1,400 miles and seen many things.  The next morning it was back to work for me.


It was nice to have the opportunity to go on a road trip with my brother.  I felt as though I had lived several weeks over the course of several days.  We were busy from the early morning to late night each day.  Even with a busy schedule, we didn’t scratch the surface of everything we could have seen!  There were bones, birds, dinosaur foot prints, petroglyphs, and hikes.  The “flyover” states have plenty to offer and I think that for as much as I dislike the US for its politics, racism, sexism, other isms, history, and place in the world- I can appreciate the US for our natural landscapes.

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Reflections and Lessons from the Husky Fire

Reflections and Lessons from the Husky Fire

H. Bradford

5/7/18

I learned about the Husky Fire just before 11 am on April 26th when I was about to leave the Women’s Health Center in Duluth.   A co-worker from Superior rushed into the office and announced that just after 10 am there had been an explosion at the Murphy Oil Refinery, that there are evacuations, and multiple deaths.  The director turned on the television in the lobby, which reported 20 casualties.  My initial reaction was horror and anger.  I felt horror because it seemed as though there were many injuries and deaths.  I also felt horror since I was returning home from Superior after working ten hours at Safe Haven (overnight) and three hours at the Women’s Health Center.  I didn’t know what I would be returning home to or if I would be able to return home.  I felt anger because I just wanted to go to sleep!  I had already worked through the night and into the morning.  It was a terribly inconvenient time to have an industrial disaster.   I texted my housemates Adam and Lucas an alarmed text about evacuations and deaths (which later proved to not be entirely true), finished the last 10 minutes of my shift, and headed home to the unknown of Superior.

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(An image that I believe was used in the Duluth News Tribune)


Traffic was normal on the way home.  For a moment, I panicked that the Blatnik Bridge was closed, as there was a caravan of large street cleaning vehicles blocking access to the bridge.  The bridge was not closed.  The vehicles were partaking in the normal activity of cleaning the streets.  Still, things were clearly amiss as I could see a giant, black cloud in the distance- spreading menacingly away from the Husky Refinery (which I had until that morning thought was the Murphy Oil Refinery.  I was not aware that the Alberta based company, Husky Energy, had purchased the facility in August 2017).  Despite the sprawling black cloud, everything in Superior was oddly normal.  I noticed someone outside doing yard work.  A dog was sitting out in the yard.  Young children were playing in a park.  I thought it was bizarre and reminded me of Pripyat after the Chernobyl accident.  People slept in their beds, then awoke, and went about their business as radiation saturated them.  Chernobyl may seem like an unfair comparison, but oddly, the Husky Fire and Chernobyl both happened on April 26th (a collapsed country and thirty two years apart).   In any event, at that point of time, there was not as much concern.  My roommates didn’t seem concerned yet and the earlier alarm about multiple deaths and evacuations was found to be untrue.  (The word casualty does not mean death, but can mean injury- such as casualties of war.  However, since the word is often used to mean someone who has been killed, there was some initial misunderstanding about the media use of the word.  As for evacuations, as of 11:15 ish when I returned home, there was nothing beyond the immediate area of the disaster (to my knowledge).


I settled into bed, unsettled, but trying not to worry too much.  No one else seemed very worried.  Not the kids playing or person carrying on the yard work.  I spent time looking at the news, but everything seemed to be under control.  Before going to bed, I told my roommate Lucas to shut all of the windows, but he laughed at me.  I think he even made a Chernobyl joke, about how I had been there, and was the expert now.  I couldn’t fall asleep.  The window was shut, but I imagined invisible particles entering the house and breathing them as I slept.  I thought about dying in my sleep or just inhaling carcinogenic debris.  I felt angry again.  I felt mad about having worked the night shift and that I was unable to get the rest I needed.  Lack of sleep often invokes anger in me.  Eventually, I did fall asleep…for about an hour… before Lucas knocked on my bedroom door and said that an area 3 miles around the refinery and 10 miles downwind was being evacuated.  There had been more explosions.  He said he was heading to Duluth.  I was crabby and exhausted, so I said I would just stay in bed.  I pulled two more blankets over my head, as if it would give me added protection from the poisonous smoke.  Lucas texted me what seemed a frantic message that the traffic over the bridge was extremely backed up and he was stuck.  I became more concerned as it seemed that the people of Superior had finally mobilized to escape.  The schools had closed.  I think the area of evacuation at that time was as near as UW Superior (which isn’t that far from where I live).  While I think that I was just outside the evacuation area, three miles is not a magical perimeter- outside of which everyone is safe.  Oh, 3.2 miles- that’s cool!  Those particles are 100% gone at exactly the three mile mark.


I eventually dragged my extremely tired body out of bed.   Tiredness tried hard to battle fear.  But eventually fear won as my boyfriend said he was leaving for work early, but that he thought I should leave the house too.  He said he wanted to know that I was safe.  I am often feel that my needs (such as sleep) don’t matter much to the universe, so it was touching that my safety was concerning.  I told him that I would also go to back to work.  I work at a domestic violence shelter and our employee break room has a futon.  I thought that if I fled Superior, I could go to my job and rest for a while.  It is odd how work can be a place of refuge.  My work is a shelter- so it is equipped to – well, accommodate the needs of people who need a place to stay.  I didn’t rush to go there, but I did call my job to give them a heads up that I would be trying to sleep there.  Once my refuge was secured, I ambled around the house trying to throw a few things together.  My brain wasn’t in evacuation mode.  It was in “What do I need to bring with me to take a nap at work mode?”.   I packed only a few things, such as a toothbrush and some toiletries.  I also took a shower.  Our hot water heater had broken a week prior and had FINALLY been fixed that day.  I went a week with only one shower (which I took at UW-Superior’s fitness center).  So, showering was a priority above escape from the death cloud. Image may contain: sky, tree, cloud, house, plant, outdoor and nature


I snapped a few photos of the cloud on my way out of Superior and then when I arrived in Duluth.  After taking the photos, I was happy to report to work and find that my supervisor had fixed up the employee break room nicely for me.  She gave me new, clean bedding (not the stained, worn bedding the residents end up with) and had turned the futon into a bed.  The shelter had been made aware that CASDA, a domestic violence shelter in Superior, had been evacuated.   Safe Haven was ready to accept people staying at CASDA, but in the end, they went to a hotel.  As for our own residents, they were gathered around the television, watching the news coverage.  The cloud was much larger and darker now.   They asked me questions and seemed happy that I was safe.  That was also very touching.  They are all homeless and have gone through truly awful things.  Still, they had enough emotional reserves left to care about a worker at the shelter (who often make their lives harder by enforcing rules or determining the length of their stay.)  As I settled down and tried to sleep, my mother called.  She did not know about the accident until she drove home and noticed the cloud in the distance.  The cloud from the fire could be seen over fifty miles away in Cromwell.  She offered that I could stay with her.  It was an hour away and I was beyond tired (having obtained about an hour of sleep), so I declined, but said maybe I would depending upon how bad the situation was.

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I really didn’t sleep well.  I checked the news.  There were reports that fire fighters were unable to fight the fire and were just waiting.  It was reported that it could burn for days.  I also read that there were concerns about a tank of hydrogen flouride.  I learned that hydrogen flouride is used at about 50 oil refineries in the US.  I also learned that it becomes hydroflouric acid when it contacts moisture, such as that the moisture of the skin, lungs, eyes, etc.  and causes burns, blindness, fluid in the lungs, and other nasty health effects.  This was the first that I had learned about the tank.  The tank was supposed to be near the fire, but there was no reports of HOW close.  Nor, was there reports that the tank (which was 150-200 feet away from the uncontrollable blaze) was full of a chemical that could kill thousands of people if the tank exploded.   My brain could not turn off.  There was too much information to process and too much lack of information to ponder.  I may have slept an additional 45 min to an hour, but eventually decided to wake up.  Sleep was simply not on the agenda.   Instead, I woke up, gathered myself, and decided to go for a walk.  By then, it was nearly 7pm and there were reports that the fire had been put out and the evacuation would likely be called off later in the evening.  That was encouraging.


Later that night, I joined a few friends for trivia.  I talked to Chris about my concerns about the tank of hydrogen flouride, which she agreed was nasty and would kill/injure thousands of people.  She looked at a google map of the Husky Refinery and we tried to figure out where the tank was in relation to the fire.  This information was not available to the public at that time.  She concluded that it might be one of the smaller tanks by the railroad tracks, as it is unlikely that they would want to transport the chemical that far from the trains that carry it.  This didn’t allay my fears, since these small tanks were not far from the fire (but father away than the ACTUAL tank turned out to be).   Lucas, one of my roommates, decided he was going back to Superior despite the ongoing concern about the tank.  Adam had already been in Superior for several hours, since he needed to take care of his chickens and felt he was safe in the basement.  This made it difficult for me to sustain my concern.  I definitely wanted to go home (since I had slept a sum of two hours in the last day and a half or so).  I hadn’t packed anything.  The evacuation didn’t really come with instructions of what to take or for how long to expect.  Ultimately, I returned to Superior since I didn’t want to be the one roommate out of four who was too chicken to go home.  After all, even the chickens weren’t evacuated.  There is a stigma about being fearful.  It is a sign of weakness.  Personally, I don’t think that I made a rational choice.  I also don’t feel that my house mates were entirely rational about remaining.  But, I think that making smart choices requires information.  I don’t think we had the information required to make smart choices of staying in Superior or not.  The risks of the tank exploding and nature of hydroflouric acid would have been important information.  The suggestion that the evacuation would end as early as 9pm also created false hope and a false sense of security.   Smart choices also require the material support to make a choice.  In my case, in a very real sense I was extremely tired.  By the end of trivia, I could no longer remember my telephone number.  I also could not remember who Anthony Bourdain was (a trivia answer I knew, but could not remember).   I don’t think I had the mental wherewithal to drive a safe distance or make an informed decision.  In a way, I feel that I failed my friends by not being more insistent and concerned for our safety.

 

I returned home sometime after midnight.  I noted that there was a chemical odor in the air, but continued inside to my bed.   The evacuation order was not lifted until 6am.  I was dead tired, but only slept a few hours.  Again, I was obsessed with looking up snippets of news.  But, throughout the night, Facebook and the media were sleeping.   There were no new updates.  By morning, every celebrated how the community came together.  Duluth sent buses to Superior.  Emergency respondents from around the area pitched in.  There were no deaths.  School children were evacuated to the DECC.  People opened their homes to evacuees.  And, the air was said to be normal.  For the most part, life resumed as normal.  Businesses opened.  People went about life as usual.  Despite the air quality being deemed “normal” this seemed impossible, considering that a giant asphalt fire raged on for eight hours creating a plume of black smoke that could be seen 50 miles away.  But, it made me wonder what normal is?  Maybe that amount of pollutants in the air is normal – in places like Los Angelas or Beijing where millions of cars fill the air with exhaust each day.   I considered that perhaps our baseline or our normal is the equivalent of a raging asphalt fire.  What is normal?  Normal does not necessarily equate to healthy….

Lessons:

Conversations: 

The first lesson that I drew from this was that there should be ongoing conversations with friends or loved ones about what to do in the case of disasters.  I feel that we should challenge each other and ask lots of questions.  Where would we evacuate?  Why wouldn’t you want to evacuate? (I have chickens, I like my bed, I feel safe, I don’t like being a guest at someone’s house, etc.)  What would it take to convince you that this is needed?  Where would we take pets?  How would we get somewhere safe?  What are important things  you would want to pack?  I think that these kind of conversations could get everyone on the same page.  There is a social dynamic to evacuating.  People look to each other for cues that a situation is safe or unsafe or if they are too worried or too unconcerned.  I think that conversation could help family groups or friend groups make better decisions in crisis.


 

Expect Disasters:

I feel like a nutty, apocalypse prepared person with a year of food stocked in my fallout shelter.  But really, disasters should be expected.  This is because we live in a profit driven society.   Safety precautions involve increased fixed capital costs to capitalists.  The drive for profits means that there will be short cuts.  I am sure that anyone who has worked anywhere can see this.  Safety is usurped for profits when workers are not properly trained, are given defective equipment, tools or machinery is old or outdated, work days are lengthened, workplaces are understaffed, workers are overly tired, or any of the very ordinary conditions across all sectors of the economy.  Husky Energy has a history of fires and oil spills at other locations and the Superior refinery in particular had a $21,000 fine in 2015 for an OSHA violation related to chemical storage and emergency response.  While the fine was paid and OSHA reported the problem was resolved, the fine is nothing compared to the nearly $10 billion revenue that Husky Energy makes each year.   The drive for profits will always drive the trend towards lack of safety.  Therefore, any work place is a potential source of injury.  However, some work places operate on such a scale or with such dangerous materials that the danger extends from the every day risks faced by particular sets of workers to entire communities.   I remember in 1992, when Duluth and Superior were evacuated due to the benzene spill.  Although I was a child living over 50 miles away, I watched the news as the cloud spread.  I worried that it would come all the way to us.  My father worked in West Duluth (where he had suffered several serious on the job injuries over the years- the individual side of worker safety).  He was among the 80,000 people who evacuated that day.  Thus, I have lived through two disasters of a scale large enough to require evacuation.  Will it be the last?

Struggle is the Only Buffer Against Excesses of Capitalism:

I think this is an important moment for people in Duluth and Superior, since it is an opportunity fight for more safety.  There are plenty of concerned people who want more information and more testing of air and soil.  Many want an end to the use of hydrogen flouride at Husky Energy.  Some want an end to the refinery altogether or have used this as an opportunity to not only critique Husky, but Embridge, which also uses the facility.  The crisis has revealed many gaps in how disasters are handled, how environments are monitored, and how safety is ensured.  If this anger congeals into struggle, we can hopefully curtail some of the worst excesses of capitalism in our community and lessen the risk of future disasters.  The small measures of safety and environmental protection that we enjoy were won by struggle and will only be defended by the struggles of workers, but also social movements like environmental movements.   I have seen some cynicism about the effectiveness of protest, but I think that this is the perfect time for protest, petitions, public hearings, or the number of other methods of resistance which are being planned or discussed.

Challenge Complacency:

Honestly, it is hard to care about everything all of the time.  I have felt fatigued by activism and am often impressed by the amount of emotional energy that others can put into continuing to inform members of our community about this disaster.  I lack that energy.  I care…but I am tired.  Like the day that I didn’t get enough sleep, I just want to pull my blankets over my head and hide from the world.   I commend their efforts.  It is very easy to be complacent.  Should I plant a garden this year?  Should I care?  Everything I eat and drink is inundated with plastics and toxins of some kind.  The air I breathe is full of pollutants from the everyday functioning of our fossil fuel based economy.  At some point in my life, like almost everyone else, I am going to get cancer.  There are thousands of terrible things that happen every moment of every day.  That doesn’t even include the ordinary challenges of simply living.  Everything is terrible all of the time.   The only way to make it better is to fight for a better world  But, that suuuuure is tiresome.   Somehow, we must work together to challenge complacency.   I don’t have an good answer about how to care- but I think it helps to hold on to and grow that kernel of anger.  Anger is frowned upon, especially for women- but I care when I remember something that made me angry.  I am angry that I wasn’t well informed.  I am angry that many people in the world live in the shadow of the next catastrophe.  I am angry that life on our planet is going extinct and that we altering our planet in terrifying, irreversible ways.  I am angry that every day living for workers means potential injury from fast food deep fryers to nuclear reactors.   Yep, there we go.  Anger.  Gotta love it.  It is as refreshing as a hot shower after a week without a hot water heater.

Knowledge is Power:

This is a super cliche conclusion, but really, it is helpful to know things!  I didn’t even know the NAME of the refinery, much less what it does or how it functions.  I still don’t know much about the Husky Energy Refinery.   I am thankful that there are many people in the community who are asking questions and sharing resources to learn more.


I am sure I could draw other conclusions, but that’s all I’ve got for now.  There are other local activists who are far more informed and whose opinions have congealed into more meaningful reflection.   While I have been a lazy activist lately, I am committed to being a part of the struggle in the months ahead.  On Wednesday of this week there will be a protest against the liability waivers that Husky is having injured people sign so that they are not liable for future health problems.   We will all have long memories of the evacuation day.  With time, memories often vanish into novelty.  So, I hope it is not a memory of an isolated event but an ongoing struggle and conversation.

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