Ramble On

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Pig Wranglin' - Part 3

With one pig moved using the “goat halter” method, we stopped to regroup.  This method didn’t meet up to expectations on several accounts – for one thing, the pig squealing had upset and exhausted all the on-lookers, and for another, David’s shoe was full of…how shall I put it…ordure du cochon -

All was suddenly as I feared, and we were going to have to move on to Plan C:
“Chase down and catch the pigs one by one, and then carry them the 200 yards or so...”

Queue Flatt and Scruggs-

We went back to the barnyard, where the pigs had gone back into the chicken coop and were resting from all the excitement.  David remembered that he had an old training crate for his dogs, so we thought about how we might coax the animals into it one by one and transport them that way.  So the first thought was to see if we couldn’t just open the door to the chicken coop and let one of them out into the crate.

We tried it – but the pigs didn’t cooperate.  They knew by now that we were after them and they just looked at the open door, seeing that we had set a trap for them.  Then they just milled around the coop, eventually settling down in the straw to wait for us to go away.

Our next big idea was to move them back to the goat stall, and see if we couldn’t corral them from there.  Same technique for moving them – that worked, and now we had the three pigs back where we wanted them.

I carefully positioned the crate in front of the gate, and we opened it just slightly, so that unless the pigs took a flying leap they’d have nowhere to go except for inside.  Then David went around behind the pigs to rustle them up.  One came over to check out the crate.

David swooped in and caught the pig’s two back trotters, lifting them off the ground, and proceeded to try and push the pig into the crate wheelbarrow-style.  Once the pigs head was safely inside, we knew that the body would follow…that’s just how pigs work.

The pig’s head was free and he was choosing every direction but in the crate.  He got his nose under the crate, around the crate, over the crate, and at one point, he had part of himself squeezed between the gate and the crate.  Finally, David decided to snatch him completely off the ground and kind of toss him in – and I snapped the little hatch door closed.

Next step was to move him in the crate, which had taken a beating from all of this and didn’t look like it would survive being carried over.  We decided it might be best to haul the thing - pig and all - over to the new pasture, using the tractor with the bucket attachment.  We loaded him in, and I climbed in beside the crate for the ride.

Taking stock of my situation, you’d never catch me at work riding one of the machines.  But this was different – we were moving the pigs – and sometimes, you just have to go with it.  I hope none of our safety monitors are reading this.

That pig had settled right down as soon as he was in the crate.  I think it even went to sleep for a few minutes during the short drive over to the new pasture, where we unloaded him and then reconnected the electricity to the fence.  He immediately joined his colleague happily grazing and rooting around the fresh ground.

It was time for us to reconsider our approach – this crate method had worked out for us, but the other pigs had learned that once a pig went in, he didn’t come back.  Pigs are smart, you know, and also, these last two were wary. 

We spent another half hour in the barnyard with those two pigs, trying to catch them and move them.  It was a failed effort though – eventually, our thoughts turned to having some cold hard cider.  You know, there is a new cidery in the Valley…

I caught up with David and his brother a few days later at an event.  They told me they had started fresh the next morning, and moved the last two pigs easily – they even got them both into the crate at the same time.  I was happy and proud I could help come up with such an innovative, easy way to wrangle the pigs. 

I went back for eggs the next weekend, driving up slowly to make sure that the Sourses weren’t home this time.  It was all quiet while I made my transaction in the cooler, and then I quietly drove away, unscathed, and not out of my depth this time.

Still, on the way out, I stopped to check out the pigs in the new pasture.  When I walked up to the fence, they came a-running, putting the past behind them, happy to be on the fresh ground doing their piggy things.  They’ve got a few months left now to enjoy themselves.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Pig Wranglin' - Part 2

Three of this year's group.  Lower left is the haltered pig.

We had come up with three ways to move the pigs, but we were already ruling them out, so I was worried we were going to run out of options.  Here are the three plans we’d hatched: 
  1. Build a short pathway from the barnyard to the pasture - but we didn't have enough electric fencing to get us all the way there.
  2. Use the goat halters to calmly walk the pigs from one place to the other.  This one sounded really good, in theory - at the time, I was not familiar with how readily pigs accept being on a leash.
  3. Chase down and catch the pigs one by one, and then carry them the 200 yards or so...the pigs at this stage are only 50 pounds or so, so I agreed that the idea was feasible, but not necessarily practical.

At their present size, the pigs could still get into the chicken coop, and they often slept in there with the chickens roosting above and on them.  It was a quiet and comfortable place for them – and so we decided we might use it as a corral.  We’d simply get them all to go in there and then we would shut the little door so they couldn’t get out.

David trekked around to the barn to find the goat halter and Brett and I wrangled the pigs into the chicken coop.  However, after a few tries in the closed quarters, it looked like the halter plan wasn’t going to work.  We decided to rustle them over to the goat stall, where we would have more room and the pigs would be closer to the gate we would use to move them through. 

Brett and I were stationed outside the chicken coop with a large plywood board to guide the pigs over to the other stall.  Our thinking was that if they came out of the coop and their view to the barnyard was blocked, they’d naturally turn towards the goat stall – and once they were headed in that direction it would be a natural thing for them to just go on in there, especially once they saw us out in the barnyard.  And that was just how it worked out for us – easy peasy, lemon squeezy.

But now we had a stall full of four pigs who were on to us.  We closed the gate on them, and David dropped the halter down on one of the pigs, catching it under one of its forelegs and around the neck. 

If you catch a dog this way, as long as the animal is not already panicked, you might find it simply relaxes under the gentle pressure applied to its chest and back – it’s a calming feeling to them that reminds them of their mother’s care when they were pups.  Not so with pigs – their instinct is that any constraint means that they have become a prey animal, and the eating will begin soon. 
The pig was right in this case, except that we planned to give it a few more months before the deed must be done.  But the animal bucked and jumped a few times, and the screaming started.  Not something you want to be around – I heard the peanut gallery over there yelling “Make it stop!” a few times.

This pig wasn’t going anywhere on a leash.  It finally just collapsed on the floor of the stall and waited to meet its maker – except that wasn’t our plan at all.  David moved in and hefted the pig off the ground, hauling him towards the gate and yelling out instructions as he went, only barely loud enough to be heard over the pig.

We got them through gate, closing it behind so the others couldn’t get out.  David was moving along at a trot, with the pig in his arms, and I followed along to open the electric fence (that we had turned off, I should be sure to note).  Meanwhile the pig was screaming all the while.

David’s triathlon training was paying off, and I had trouble keeping up with him, but there was another good reason for me to keep my distance.  About halfway to the new pasture, David looked over his shoulder and back at me, asking asked, “Is this pig peeing on me?”

“No, David,” I said, “he’s shitting on you.” In fact, the pig had been continuously evacuating itself since they’d gotten out of the barnyard.  Fortunately, most of it had not landed on David – but now I noticed that he was not going to emerge unscathed from the experience.

“I think I got some in my shoe!” he said.

Plan C at work - but that's tomorrow's post.
As we continued along towards the new pasture, I had to reflect on my own preparation for this experience.  Two years of butchering, and a month as an agribusiness intern doing odd jobs on the farm, and this was the first time I had seen an animal release such quantities – and on the fly, so to speak, as well.  I had developed such a pastoral, bucolic view of the whole eat local thing, but that was turning into something altogether different, and fast.

I turned these thoughts over in my mind until I remembered why we were doing this – for next spring’s bacon.  I got over it pretty quickly after that.  We sped through the rest of the chore, getting that pig in its new pasture and turning on the electric fence, and our thoughts began to move on to how we might catch and move the other three.

At this point, the one thing we knew for sure was that this approach wasn’t going to work for us with the next one.  We were going to move on to plan C – and that’s where I will pick up the story tomorrow.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Pig Wranglin' - Part 1

“Never wrestle with a pig.  You both get dirty and the pig likes it.” - Unknown

A few weeks ago, when my nephew visited, we decided to drop by Public House Produce to pick up some eggs for breakfast.  Our plan was to pair them up with some of the bacon I had from last winter’s butchering, with Mary making a batch of Popovers(!) from the mix our friend Brian sent us – he’s written about them frequently on his blog “Breakfast at Epiphany’s”:  http://breakfastatepiphany.blogspot.com/search/label/Popovers
The four pigs in the barnyard, before we started.

As we entered the driveway, the Sourses were out front playing with their dogs, so we yelled “howdy” to each other – when you hear this in person, on one side of it, it sounds more like “Woooooooo!” – and I mentioned we were after eggs (although I also wanted to check in on the 2014 pigs).  They wished us well and we drove on back, where we picked up the eggs, and then I showed Brett the pigs and chickens in the barn stalls.

The visit went well and we had our eggs - it was all "good times on the farm" - and then David came around for a chat.  He asked if I might help him with a chore:  He needed to move the four pigs from the barnyard to a new pasture, and it was a task that required at least two people.  Despite my fears of not being up to the task, my fears of basic ineptitude or inadequacy, I agreed.

David tells the story of how a couple of years ago, the first year I was involved with the pig business, he went to the barn to tend the animals and saw the pigs and goats all mixed together in a stall.  They get along very well for the most part, and by this time the pigs had gotten over 200 pounds.  As he walked up, he noticed that one of the pigs had the back leg of one of the goats in his mouth - just sort of casually sizing up whether his stall mates might make a good meal or not.  

This was serious business.  Here we are sizing up the task
after moving the first pig.  Some might call this phase
"Moving on to Plan B."
It seemed the close quarters were getting everybody into trouble.  The goat was none the worse for the experience, but that led David to decide the pigs and goats needed to be put out to greener - and larger - pastures once the herd got to a certain stage of maturity.   So that bit of insight was what led to the chore that we were going to take on today.

Now, it's a standard practice of mine - whenever I happen to be there for a chore - to get a pretty thorough walk through of the task at hand.  This has served me well, because the first purpose of the conversation is to determine if this is a real assignment...something actually necessary on the farm, and not a practical joke to be played on greenhorns.  We quickly progressed past this stage on the chore, reference the story about the goat and pig above.

The second purpose of this orientation discussion is to find out if there is an actual plan for the activity.  I just want to know what to expect, since I am honestly a newbie at some of this - and I'm not shy to admit it.  It turned out that beyond some basic ideas about how to do it, there wasn't really a plan for moving the pigs along.  However, the goats were already "over there" in the pasture, about 200 yards away.

David spelled out three alternatives for how we might accomplish the migration. It wasn't exactly like we would be parting the Red Sea or anything, but still it was going to be a challenging task:

  1. Build a short pathway from the barnyard to the pasture - but we didn't have enough electric fencing to get us all the way there.
  2. Use the goat halters to calmly walk the pigs from one place to the other.  This one sounded really good, in theory - at the time, I was not familiar with how readily pigs accept being on a leash.
  3. Chase down and catch the pigs one by one, and then carry them the 200 yards or so...the pigs at this stage are only 50 pounds or so, so I agreed that the idea was feasible, but not necessarily practical.

My next post will move on to the execution of this chore - including our decision about how to do the job.  But in the meantime, I'll leave you with this short video of our assessment of how cooperative we might expect the pigs to be.  As you watch, consider how easily it might be to implement option 3.  

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Fresh-hopped Honey Pale Ale

Splendid fall weather perfect for a home brew.
Over the weekend I had my first pour of the Fresh-hopped Honey Pale Ale I brewed after picking hops from Dan’s hop yard a few weeks ago.  I used Cascade hops for this – dry for bittering and then the ones I’d picked for aroma.  It’s not overpowering at all, very quaffable, but I want to work with this technique some more so I'm ready when my hops bines are producing quantity. 

I have some plans for this one.  We have relatives coming in from Munich this week, so I'll be sharing with them and looking for some Bavarian feedback, and I also plan to send a six-pack along to a beer tasting function that my office is having - I can't attend in person because of our guests.  We'll see how the feedback goes on all accounts.

I started with a recipe I found on-line for a pale ale, and then substituted in the hops and the honey.  This is my approach to experimenting – pretty safe and conservative, and maybe after a few more brews of this sort I may be ready to invest in an all-grain set-up.  Then we’ll roll out the big beers!

Here’s the recipe I used to brew it:

·         1 lbs Belgian Caramel Pils

·         6 lbs Gold malt syrup split addition (60 and 15 min)
·         1 lbs Mountain honey (5 Min)

·         2 oz. 2012 dried leaf Cascade (60 min)
·         5 oz. 2013 “wet” leaf Cascade (1 min)

·      Safale US-05 Ale Dry Yeast. Optimum temp: 59°-75° F

1. This is a simple recipe adapted from Northern Brewer’s Pale Ale extract kit.  From their basic recipe I used Cascade hops acquired from neighbor Dan; I also added the now traditional honey. 
2.   I’m starting out with Boxcarr Pumpkin Porter tonight as my libation.
3.  Collect 2.5 gallons of water and begin heating.  Place the specialty grains in a muslin bag and heat to 160 degrees.  Steep for 10 minutes.  Remove the grain and bring to a boil.
4.  Add half of the malt syrup. (Be sure to remove from heat so that you don’t burn the extract.) Add 2 ounces of the dried Cascade hops.  Boil for 45 minutes.
5.  Add remaining malt syrup.  Boil for 10 minutes.
6.  Add honey and boil for four minutes.
7.  Add the wet Cascade hops for final two minutes.
8.  Cool wort to 100 degrees and rack to carboy.  Add enough water to bring up to five gallons.
9.  Pitch yeast at approximately 80 degrees or below.
9.       One to two weeks primary, two to four weeks secondary.
10.  Estimated O.G. 1.048 (including honey).
11.  I.G. 1.012, 74 degrees (7 days) Est ABV 4.8% - moved to secondary.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Pigs in a Poke

A couple of weekends ago, David told me he was going to move the pigs from the barnyard out to one of the corn fields at Public House Produce.  I got to be part of that move and have a post coming up about the adventure - but when we made our stop by the farm at the Page County Century, I had the chance to stop by and see them.

As I was driving off, I stopped for a minute to get out of the truck to check them out.  They came a-running, but I'm not sure if that's because they remember me or because they thought I was going to bring them a treat.

When I saw them, they were busy making a great big piggy mess with all the wet weather, rooting around in the mud.  They're really are doing well in the new digs.

Later, David sent the video below, so I thought I would share it as well.  They're coming right along.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Blue Ridge Brewers - October Meeting

I can't always make it to the Blue Ridge Brewers Association meetings.  They're held every other month on Sunday afternoons - since I drive back to Alexandria that evening and since sampling is involved, I figure it's best to avoid temptation...but  this time, with a three day holiday weekend upon us, I was able to join the group to learn about what's going on and enjoy some samples of what everybody else has in the kettle.

By the way, here's a link to our brewers' club:
I also have a link to it in the blogroll in the far right column.

This meeting was held at Beaver Run Brewery - at my neighbors Dan and Sally's barn.  We had a good turn out of around 15 people, which means plenty of samples, including a summery Saison, Pilsener, Oktoberfest Lager, a Lambic, and several Porters and Stouts.

The meetings usually include a mention of equipment or methods.  In this one, Dan showed how his all-grain system worked, using gravity feed and 10 gallon capacity kettles.  Kevin showed us a new bottle cleaning and drying system that was recently featured by Northern Brewer.

There continues to be a lot of interest among the community for identifying local sources of ingredients to brew with.  We had a lucky break in the rain and strolled out to look at the hop yard, which produced over 4 pounds of dried cascade this season - there were a lot of flowers left behind on the bines due to a challenging harvest schedule.  That demonstrated that we know we can get large quantities of hops - several of the brewers have small hopyards producing other varieties.

We also had the attempt last year to grow some local barley - that ended up being more a learning experience for us all, but I understand the farmer is going to make another go of it this year.  I'll keep an eye out for news on this one.

Over the next few days, the notes from the meeting will go up on the website above - one of our members uses the tasting session as an opportunity to polish her skills at food pairings.  I'll be looking forward to seeing the suggestions she comes up with in that next post.

Meanwhile, I need to get back to brewing myself - I have a pumpkin porter planned, and really want to get that one underway one evening this week.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Federal Government Shutdown - Impacts to Luray-Page County

For this post, I'm quoting directly out of the Luray-Page County Chamber's weekly "In The Loop" email. As the government shut down wears on, many national news outlets are beginning to highlight the impacts at the local level - and this area is one of those experiencing a significant hit to our economy based on the closure of Shenandoah National Park.


Several people have asked me how the shutdown is impacting tourism. Here are few observations:
  • On the first day of the shutdown, when Shenandoah National Park was closed, about 90 frustrated people came into the Visitors Center seeking help in making alternative, last-minute plans. They needed to find cabins, campgrounds, scenic drives, hiking routes, etc. We scrambled the jets and kept most of them in Page County.
  • Delaware North had to lay off 267 employees in Shenandoah National Park.
  • Appalachian Outdoors Adventures told WHSV that they've had about a 25 percent loss of business.
  • Raven's Roost lost a two-week booking made by group of hikers.
  • Luray Copy Service reports, "Delaware North is our largest customer and normally this time of year we would be printing menus, rate sheets, maps and other various jobs, amounting to significant sales.  This is a loss that we will not recover because the fall season is so short.   On Saturday there was hardly any foot traffic downtown; it was the worst day of sales that I can remember."
The short-term news is not all bad. We are still getting sustained interest in cabin rentals, and one local restaurant-Gathering Grounds-says business is actually up 15 percent.
But the really ominous fact is that each October, tourists to Shenandoah National Park bring $10 million in revenue to the surrounding counties. With the park closed and legions of government workers on furlough, who knows how many of those people will just stay home?
So, I've also been asked, "What's the Chamber doing to fix this?" (No pressure, there, huh?)
We've done a number of media interviews calling on Congress to do its job, spelling out impacts of the shutdown, and pointing out that there are many opportunities to see the leaves and enjoy fall in Page County. We've written a press release to that effect and sent it to dozens of media outlets. I've sent letters to Goodlatte, Boehner and the Washington Post, and we co- signed a letter with the Virginia Chamber of Commerce that will go to all members of the Virginia Congressional Delegation. It's simply not enough for us all to complain to each other. Elected officials (and the media) need to hear from us with hard facts about how their policies are affecting our lives.
And we continue to ask all local businesses to let us know any facts or figures you have about drops in business due to the shutdown. If you can compare lower sales or reduced tourist traffic to this time last year that will especially useful. We will compile all this information and make sure that Congress and the media get to see it.
In closing, the shutdown reminds me of something Ronald Reagan once said: "The best minds are not in government. If any were, business would hire them right away."  --John Robbins, president


Ironically, the area used to be in Eric Cantor's district, Virginia 7 - and due to a rule change the House GOP passed on September 30, he is the only member of Congress that can bring forward the bill to stop this crazy thing.  Complaining about the President's role, or any other politician's lack of action, won't do a thing.  Only Cantor - the representative designated as majority leader - can do something about this.  You can contact him via this web page:  http://cantor.house.gov/

The area is currently in Virginia 6 - Goodlatte's district.  Contact him via this web page:  http://goodlatte.house.gov/

The Luray-Page County Chamber also wants to hear from local businesses about the impacts via http://luraypage.com/

The Inaugural Page County Grown Century

Despite the rain, Saturday was the first annual riding of the Page County Grown Century - a bicycle ride collaboration that combines the local interests in active sports tourism with local agriculture and family farms.  Mary and I were some of the several volunteers who came out - we supported over 60 riders who came from across Virginia, DC, and Maryland to participate.

Chris Gould gives a ride overview before the roll-out.
The event included optional quarter century, half century, and full century rides - circuits of 25 miles, 50 miles, and 100 miles for readers who can't do the math - with stops along the course at several of the farms that make up Page County Grown.  As the ride came to a close, a hot lunch pf local ingredients was served, prepared by the staff at The Mimslyn Inn, also a Page County Grown member.

Taking a pause at Public House Produce.
After the event, Chris Gould of Hawksbill Bicycles and also the promoter, said, "Despite the challenges presented by the lousy weather, I think it went really well and people enjoyed the ride, made possible through the cooperation of all the amazing volunteers, the host organizations, and some really nice folks at the pit stops showing real Page County hospitality. I really love showing off the roads out here to friends from elsewhere, and it was also heartening to see Page County residents taking on these rides too!"

There's a Facebook page for the annual event at https://www.facebook.com/events/184589341724186/.

David Sours, who also led and organized the event, thanked the riders and volunteers in a Facebook post on Saturday afternoon:

One of the pit stops along the route - Valley Star Farm. Other
stops included Long Acres Farm, Survivor Farm, Public House
Produce, Shenandoah Town Hall, and Wisteria Farm
and Vineyard.
"A BIG THANK YOU to everyone who came out and rode in the Page County Grown Century today! Another big Thank You to Pamela McNeely Flasch, Christopher Gould, Heather Sours, Carla Sours, Eric Sours, Jim Turner, Mary Konsoulis, John and Nina Wolfe, Bill Fisher, Kevin and Elisa Crisler, Katelyn, and all of the other volunteers that helped out on a very unpleasant day. ...It was a great day and a great event. Looking forward to the future and spreading the word about this fabulous event!"

Checking the "Tour of Page County" Facebook page, I see that next year's event has been tentatively scheduled for October 11.  Hopefully, that'll be a sunny one, as it usually is, but even if it's not, I'll plan to be there.

There are a couple of other bicycle races in the works for next year - check them out here:  https://www.facebook.com/pages/Tour-of-Page-County/294861855754

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Dan's Whiskey Barrel Stout

Post-bottling, here's Dan with the Whiskey Barrel.
For a couple of months now, neighbor Dan has been talking about the whiskey barrel stout he's had in primary and then secondary fermentation. I posted on this brew in early August, but last weekend it was finally ready to bottle, so I took a walk up to visit with him and Sally and to help out where I could.

Technically, this is an Imperial Stout, brewed all-grain, and then aged in an actual whiskey barrel that Dan obtained in the Pacific Northwest.  I've been fortunate enough to have a sample of it as it progressed through stages - it's going to be a very good beer when it's ready...even uncarbonated it's very tasty.

Dan shared the grain bill with me, and the O.G. - which was in the 1.080 range!  No wonder he let this ferment for more than two months.  The bottled ABV is above 10% - this is a beverage you'd better plan ahead for when it's finished bottle conditioning!

There was an earlier post with photos over on our Homebrew Association blog page:  http://blueridgebrewers.blogspot.com/2013/08/brewer-at-work-imperial-stout-aged-in.html

We have a meeting coming up next Sunday!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Pumpkin Patch - 2013 ed.

There's a pumpkin patch every year up at Valley Star Farm - they're a Page County Grown member, which is great, but I love to go by there and check out all the varieties of pumpkins for sale.

Brett and Tessie in the pumpkin patch.
When we're lucky enough to have visitors with us during the fall, we'll take them to it.  This year, my nephew Brett was up for a visit so we went by there to check things out.  Brett went with us a few years ago too, so a repeat visit for him.

We didn't check out the corn maze this year, just a few snaps of everything.  They had the pesky goats again this year, and Mary bought a bunch of decorative gourds for the annual fall tableau - there'll be a future post.
Lots of varieties, including those banana squash.

Speaking of Page County Grown, there's a bike ride this weekend that honors it:  the Page County Century. The course is designed to ride by the farms - there is a quarter-century, half-century, and century ride.  Don't misunderestimate the distances - that translates to 25, 50 and 100 miles, respectively.

It's the first year for this one and I hope it comes off great - I'll be volunteering, but don't know my role yet.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The End of Route 66

Today's post will be the last about our little road trip out west last month.  After our visit to the Grand Canyon, we stayed one more night in Flagstaff, and then drove back to Las Vegas.  On the way, we stopped in Williams, Arizona for a little Route 66 nostalgia - all designed for tourists, and perhaps a little over the top on that account.

The claim to fame here is that this was the last stretch of I-40 to be commissioned.  According to Wikipedia, that's because there were lawsuits about the route, which were ultimately settled when three Williams exits were designated.  Once the road was completed through here, Route 66 was decommissioned the following year.

The town has made the best of this claim to fame. There is a loop that runs in and out of some development that includes restaurants, souvenir stands, and boutiques.  A few of them seem authentic enough to have been here back when the "mother road" was a thoroughfare, although we didn't visit them.

We did grab a decent lunch at a Mexican place, and we did take a stroll around to check it out.  I'm including two photos of my favorite "sights" from this little diversion - the excellent Rod's Steakhouse sign, and the locomotive for the Grand Canyon Railroad.

One of the claims to fame here is that Williams is the town you catch the train up to the Grand Canyon, if you're traveling that way.  It looks like a fun trip if you've got the time - our stop was mid-day, so I just took a quick walk over to the station for a look around.

Once we'd checked it all out, we headed back to Las Vegas for our last night.  We had an early flight out, so we stayed in at the Tropicana - we were very well taken care of there after our disappointment with the first room.  It's a nice facility, and I think we'll stay there again sometime.

If you want to know more about Williams, AZ, here is the Wikipedia link:


Thursday, October 3, 2013

Grand Canyon Day Trip

In 2003 I was on a business trip to Phoenix and ended up with an extra day for sightseeing.  I had planned to catch a Southwest flight up to Albuquerque to visit a colleague who'd been interested in starting a consulting firm with me, but that fell though at the last minute, so I drove up to the Grand Canyon for the day instead.

I had another visit in 2009, taking a helicopter flight there and actually landing on the Canyon floor, but I always wanted to get back and to bring Mary along, too.  That's what we had the opportunity to do a couple of weeks back after my speaking engagement in Las Vegas was finished (in fact, I'd added the helicopter flight to my 2009 trip in the same way).  I hoped she was as inspired by this incredible American landscape as I was - and that's how things turned out.

Pictures can only begin to capture the experience of seeing the Grand Canyon.  There's the scale of the thing, the wonder of the geology, and the full pallet of colors - all elements that a simple photograph cannot transcribe.  Fortunately we have Instagram these days, an application that let's you take the sun blasted image and work with it simply to enhance features you find important.  The photos in this post have all been processed that way.

The Grand Canyon is one of our most popular national parks, and as we left the hotel in Flagstaff that morning I prepared myself for traffic and a parking challenge.  I was right about that, but for most of the drive, as we passed through the pass over the San Francisco peaks north of town, there wasn't much traffic to speak of.  We passed through pine forests and aspen groves, and then a desolate high desert that is carved up ranch land - proof that in our country, we're never far from exurban sprawl.

Soon enough, you realize that you are very close to the sky, at altitudes in the 6,000-7,000 feet range.  Then suddenly you are at the Canyon, and the earth opens up, reaching down 5,000 feet or more to where the river is still hard at work carving out these formations.

Since I was there in 2003, the NPS has really enhanced the visitor experience.  The entrance gate has been moved south a ways so that it does not border directly on the parking lots (I remember this, but I may not have a completely accurate memory).  There's a complex of logistics facilities to handle all the visitors, including a welcome center; there's also a new network of buses that allow you to visit without a whole lot of driving yourself around.

We took all of this in, but my goal was for us to take a walk along the Rim Trail over to the village, where we would have lunch, and then walk back.  There are plenty of park facilities to check out along this 5 mile round trip, including a geology museum, art galleries, and souvenir shops.  For the first half mile or so, you're wading through bus tourists, but after that, the touring crowd thins out into smaller groups enjoying the incredible views in a fairly remote and undisturbed atmosphere.

Since we had arrived just before mid day, we made our trek along the trail immediately, arriving at El Tovar lodge just before 2pm.  We had a great lunch over there, with a window seat that allowed us to enjoy the scenery and incredible Grand Canyon weather - warm but not hot, and wonderfully sunny.

After lunch we began our walk back, and already the sun's changing position began highlighting new formations in the Canyon and emphasizing a new range of colors.  My last photo in the series came out with hues of blue and violet - where the others, taken in full sun, show more yellows and reds.

We had a great time, and Mary told me she'd love to come back some time and try a hike down into the Canyon.  I've dreamed of that myself, so we'll have to plan it.  If I keep up my bi-annual streak of speaking at this conference, perhaps we'll tack that trip on to the 2015 edition!

Because of the government shutdown, I can't post links to the park today - I'd planned to link to the Grand Canyon site and the Rim Trail description.  I'll come back to this post in a few weeks to update it with those links.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Flagstaff Check-in

We had decided to stay a couple of nights at Flagstaff, since it is only about an hour away from the Grand Canyon, which was our destination when we set out from Vegas after the conference.

I remembered driving through the town in 2003, coming up from Phoenix for a Canyon day trip.  I noticed the climate difference from that valley to the south - lots of pines and greenery, and cooler temps.  That made a nice change from Las Vegas as well.

We had some time the first night to take a little walk around downtown, so we checked out some of the old Route 66 landmarks and iconic neon - visible in the first picture here.  The second picture is the view from our room - those are the San Francisco peaks, and there is a popular ski resort there.  As you pass through the range, the altitude rises to 8,000 feet above sea level.

We checked out a little outfitter there - Peace Surplus - to pick up some new fleeces.  It was chilly in Flagstaff during our stay!

Second feature of the evening was a visit to the Beaver Street Brewery, Flagstaff's famous craft brewery and restaurant.  Those were some good beers and burgers.

Afterwards, back to the hotel to rest up after Vegas and the drive.  We had a pretty big day ahead of us at the Grand Canyon, after all.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Inside Hoover Dam (aka - The Dam Tour)

This is only one side of the turbine room.
After we had a look at the new bypass bridge and looked down at Hoover Dam from a height of around 900 feet, we continued down the serpentine access road to check out this incredible engineering achievement.  As I drove the route, all I could think of was that this winding road was one the US Highway, and that it continued on across the dam, and that that was the route that people used to have to take to get through the area.  The traffic jams must have been constant!

We finally arrived at the visitors center and booked our tour down into the power plants and tunnels.  The elevator ride itself is a minute long, with stops carefully choreographed to manage all the tourists making their way through the facilities. It was all a comedy act from there as our chaperon introduced himself as our dam guide and told us he would answer all of our dam questions.

Eventually, when we reached the lowest elevator station, we were told that the tunnels that we were walking in were part of the channel infrastructure that had to be built to reroute the river before the dam could start - these tunnels themselves took two years to build, the same amount of time the dam took!
A scale model illustrating the construction process.

We also had a look at the turbines in their cavernous room - it is hard to believe that the base of the dam is 600 feet wide, and it surrounds this area on both sides.

Some other interesting facts about the dam, which was built during the Depression but had been planned over the 20 or so years before:

  • The dam cost less than $50 million to build in the 1930's
  • It was estimated that residual heat from curing the concrete would remain for more than 100 years
  • The water in Lake Mead serves seven states - and provides a national recreation area as well

One of the inlet towers, showing the receding water level.
The calculus of population growth and rainfall and snowfall has meant receding water levels in Lake Mead.  In the photo of the inlet tower, the bleached out walls of the canyon above the water level are a testament to this problem - the water level has been in a constant state of retreat since the dam was first built.

We spent a couple of hours enjoying the tour and checking out the exhibits on the construction of the dam.  Then it was on to Flagstaff, which would be the base for our day trip up to the Grand Canyon.