June Vacation

UPDATE (8/10/06): That Oil and Gas Park is in Scott, LA. Yahoo Maps finally has good aerial photography, so I was able to pick it out of an aerial photo.

UPDATE (4/25/06): The “decommissioned” “draw bridge” that I mention about 1/4 way down is actually a swing bridge, and it’s operational per this site.

UPDATE (9/30/05): Those corny blue dogs that I mention about halfway down are the work of http://www.georgerodrigue.com/.

This year I spent most of my June away from home. Here are the details.

The first week was Microsoft Tech Ed 2005 at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Florida. I took a Delta flight out with a connection in Atlanta.

Tech Ed is a large annual conference put on by Microsoft for people who develop software with Microsoft tools and use their enterprise server products. The conference ran from Monday through Friday.

I stayed at the Orlando World Center Marriott. The place was nice, but it felt like a jail. Even though I could see Downtown Disney from the hotel, I had no way of getting there. The property is bounded by fences, a divided highway, and Interstate 4. I could not get anywhere without using a taxi or other transportation for hire. I would have to walk across I-4 and a swamp to get to Downtown Disney. The Microsoft Tech Ed buses only ran between the convention center and hotels, so they weren’t much help.

This map clearly illustrates the problem:

The hotel is at the end of World Center Dr. It is bounded by major highways on all sides.

Here’s a view of the prison, I mean hotel:

(I took this picture on my cell phone camera as I was leaving for the last time.)

Microsoft rented out Universal Studios for all conference participants for Thursday night. Man, I’ll tell you what: Universal Studios Florida is a waste of time. If I paid to get in during a normal day and had to wait in ridiculously long lines in the heat for their puny, pathetic rides, I would have felt ripped off. The only thing halfway entertaining was the Beetlejuice’s Graveyard Revue, a cheesy live performance. Interestingly, I felt like I had to walk through a mile of stores just to get from the front entrance back to the parking lot.

Back at the convention center, I noticed a plumbing alteration that I have never seen before:

Notice a pipe that branches off the main drain line? Only a few sinks had this. Is this an overflow drain? If so, why did only a few sinks have this?

Here’s a picture of the outside of the convention center, also captured on my cell phone:

The conference ended Friday, and by 3:00 PM, I was on a direct flight to Houston on Continental Airlines to meet the wife and kid. While on the flight, I snapped some pictures of boats in the Gulf of Mexico:

I also took pictures of offshore platforms, but none of them focused right.

I also got some pictures of the dirt road adjacent to the washed out TX 87:

What’s the purpose of the little loop in the road? To avoid some kind of inlet?

Here is where TX 124, part of the TX 87 detour, meets back up with the still-maintained part of TX 87 near High Island.

The TX 146 bridge over the Houston Ship Channel:

See that peninsula in the distance in the below photograph? Would you believe that used to be an upscale neighborhood? Yup, that marsh was the Brownwood Subdivision of Baytown. It subsided several feet and flooded often due to groundwater pumping. This view is looking southwesterly, and I-10 is crisscrossing the picture along the bottom.

San Jacinto Monument:

Sam Houston Tollway Ship Channel Bridge over the Houston Ship Channel:

This is where the improved US 90 ends in northeast Houston:

Notice that just above the improved US 90’s end is brief road segment that resembles just the access roads around an unused freeway right of way? I wonder if this is part of the future US 90 alignment? Also, crossing US 90 at this point is Beltway 8. The Sam Houston Tollway main lanes are supposedly going to be built by 2007. They need to get moving quickly to meet that!

I landed at Bush Intercontinental Airport in Terminal E, the international terminal. My wife and kid were correctly waiting for me somewhere in that terminal, but unfortunately my baggage claim was in Terminal C! After about an hour and a few phone calls, we met up and departed the airport. We all spent that night at some old friends’ house in Pearland.

The next day, Saturday, we saw my father’s new house and church. I noticed that the sanctuary was constructed of similar materials and had similar angles and designs as Cokesbury United Methodist Church, a church my father held for 10 years. It turns out that both buildings were designed by the same architectural firm!

Nothing too exciting happened the rest of the weekend.

On Sunday afternoon, all three of us piled in our car and headed out to New Orleans, LA. We made a detour through Groves, TX, where I lived in the late 80s. I enjoyed a Papa Levi’s snow cone and saw some of my old haunts. We were only in Groves for about 20 minutes.

Since moving away from Groves, I forgot about this old draw bridge on TX 73 headed towards Orange:

It has been decommissioned, but I think it was operational when I lived in Groves. We rarely went to Orange, so I cannot remember for sure.

Louisiana welcomes us:

One nice stop was at a little park/arboretum just south of I-10 in Scott called the Louisiana Oil and Gas Park. (aerial photo) It was on a curved road segment, located next to some restaurant that was closed, and across the road from a gas station. We fed Alec some homemade chocolate chip oatmeal cookies and let him walk around for a while.

Here’s a picture of that endless bridge over the Atchafalaya Swamp. Fortunately for motorists, even though the speed limit lowers to 60 over the bridge, there is nowhere for cops to hide except on the other side of a few bridges. All the crossovers are blocked off. If you don’t like paying the “speed tax,” you have little to worry about on this bridge.

Alec is reasonably happy in the back seat:

That’s one of those goofy sign towers on the swamp bridge in the background.

We stopped by Ralph and Kacoo’s in Baton Rouge for supper. While there I was amazed to see a Winchester Boy Scout rifle! It’s the rifle in the center of this photo:

Close ups:

Between Baton Rouge and New Orleans was another long I-10 bridge, but not as long as the bridge west of Baton Rouge.

We arrived at the hotel at around 10:30 PM. Alec was beyond exhausted. He was so tired that he just slept on my shoulder when I pulled him out of the car. He never sleeps on people, so this was a rare treat.

We reserved a room in advance at the Wyndham Bourbon Orleans. This is a 4 star hotel, but we got the room for really cheap since it’s off-season. Considering parking rates, it was probably cheaper (and infinitely more convenient) for us to stay here than try to stay at an outlying hotel and drive in every day. This hotel is right in the French Quarter, two blocks south of Bourbon St., and immediately north of Jackson Square. It was a great location! For the next two days, we walked or rode the streetcars everywhere.

First we went to the Audubon Zoo. We took the St. Charles Streetcar from Canal to the zoo. (Well, to the north side of Audubon Park where we caught a zoo shuttle.)

Here’s what the streetcar track looked like most of the way:

The zoo was neat, but the stifling heat kept most animals indoors. Lunch was a downright bargain for the zoo. Jennifer and I ate for only $7.50!

After that, we went to Jackson Square and toured St. Louis Cathedral. That was a good stop. We then planned on following an AAA French Quarter walking tour. However, a few blocks into the tour, we realized that we could care less whether a particular building was owned by the 1908 Governor’s cousin’s daughter’s roommate’s ex-wife. Plus it was blazing hot, and Alec has trouble sleeping in the stroller. So we quit and headed back to the hotel for a nap.

That evening, we went to the Riverwalk Mall for supper. The mall was mostly a tourist trap. It was interesting, though, because it is a long mall split on several levels. The mall gave great views of the Mississippi and the US 90 bridge.

That night, Alec was still happy despite the heat:

The next day we hopped on the Canal St. Streetcar (air conditioned!) and headed to City Park. We toured the New Orleans Botanical Garden and Sculpture Garden. The botanical garden was interesting, but I think most of the blooms had already disappeared due to the heat. The sculpture garden was full of typical, weird modern sculptures. One thing I enjoyed was this sculpture:

I enjoyed this because it was the subject of a Valentine’s Day stamp in 1973.

We headed back and got a great lunch at The Gumbo Shop by Jackson Square. The lunch prices were reasonable, and they gave us more than we could eat.

After a respite at the hotel, we went on a 2 hour cruise on the Steamboat Natchez. I wasn’t all that impressed, mainly because the cruise was blisteringly hot. We were on the side of the top level, and there was virtually no wind. They should at least install fans. But near the end of the cruise, we discovered that the 2nd level near the front has a great wind. Dang, I wish we had discovered that earlier! Alec wasn’t enjoying the heat:

After the cruise, I had to snap a picture of one of the the local, dominant bus company’s buses. The company name entertainingly combines two potentially offensive words:

What a name!

After the cruise, we went to the Aquarium of the Americas.

After the aquarium, we returned to the hotel to give Alec more nap time.

At around 6:45 PM, we headed out for supper. We decided to see what was on Canal St. This meant another walk down Bourbon St.:

After reviewing our options, we chose to board the St. Charles St. Streetcar and head to Copeland’s. We were at the restaurant by 8:30. Alec was tired and fussy by this time, so we had to take turns eating for part of the meal. The meal was really good.

After that we headed back to the hotel. We walked down Bourbon St. again to get from Canal St. to the hotel. Two “beading ceremonies” happened in our vicinity, but the crowds were too thick to see anything juicy.

The next morning we had breakfast at Cafe Du Monde. The beignets and coffee were overrated. I don’t recommend their food unless you like greasy funnel cakes. That’s all the beignets taste like.

Walking back to the hotel, I got a good shot of the cathedral in Jackson Square:

I also finally got a picture of this goofy art store a half block south of the hotel. All the store had were variations of a stupid blue dog:

What kind of bonehead runs this place?

Here’s a picture of the hotel:

After that, we headed out of town. We drove north through Slidell for a little scenery (not!), then got on I-59. We took I-59 to Meridian, then US 45 north to Amory, MS where Jennifer’s grandparents live. On the way, we stopped by the University of Southern Mississippi to see their new polymer science building. The facility would have been impressive in a major university, not just in quaint little Hattiesburg, MS!

Here are all our bags. Can you believe we fit all this junk in our Nissan Maxima?

Who says you need a stinkin’ SUV to do a vacation? We fit plenty of stuff in the Maxima and we had a much more comfortable, safe, and efficient ride to boot! (Yes, NHTSA stats show that overall, there are still more fatalities in SUVs than in traditional cars. The supposed safety aspect of SUVs is marketing bunk. Don’t believe it.)

There’s not much to speak of in downtown Amory, but Bill’s Hamburgers still does good business:

This is something you’ll never see in bigger cities:

A closer look shows a Bible with a weekly suggested reading:

Alec gives a devilish look while Great Grandma watches:

He thinks, “I’m making surprise in my pants for Mommy!”

After we were done in Mississippi, we headed back to Texas by way of US 82, I-55, and then I-20. We briefly stopped in Vicksburg. This is the entrance to the old US 80 Vicksburg river crossing:

This is a view of both the new I-20 (left) and old US 80 (right) bridges:

The old bridge also carries a railroad crossing:

40 or so years ago, this used to be a toll bridge. I guess this was the toll collection station? Believe it or not, this bridge still collects tolls from the railway cars that pass through it.

Notice the curves? This is narrow pavement, so it could have been scary to pass by a large truck headed the opposite direction:

Want something better? My flight to Atlanta followed I-20. I got some pictures of these bridges from the air:

The rest of the drive home was uneventful. We arrived home on a Monday.

Wednesday night I dug up part of my sewer pipe. (More info.)

On Thursday I took off for the 7th Annual Chevrolet Nova Listserv Gathering in Amarillo, TX. (Jennifer and Alec stayed home.) This year, we only had 8 Novas show up:

That green Nova in the background is a fine specimen. It is a ’73 and has less than 8,000 original miles!

My favorite part of the weekend was a side trip to Palo Duro Canyon State Park. At the park, seven of us walked the trail to the Lighthouse Formation. We were treated to all sorts of wonderful scenery like this:

Here’s the formation:

A view from towards the top of the formation:

The formation itself is quite tall:

A spectacular treat were walks through trails that were chock full of flowers:

It was unreal! Look how tall they are:

Fields of flowers:

Close up:

Notice how many blooms had yet to open? That field would probably have been even more spectacular a week or two later.

Can’t forget the obligatory stop by Cadillac Ranch.

Did you know this display was moved a few years ago?

We defaced one of the cars with a 2005 Gathering sticker and our signatures:

How cute. A town named Bushland in the middle of Bush Country:

This wouldn’t be a real gathering if we didn’t have at least one failure this year! Shawn, one of the Nova owners, noticed that his car was leaking motor oil too quickly. Here are some people checking it out:

After starting the car, some people noticed that oil was draining off the top back of the block too quickly. It was too even of a drain pattern to be the rear intake manifold seal, so they speculated that it must be the oil pressure sending unit.

A little investigation with fingers caused the oil pressure sending unit to snap off a brass tube. (This guy had a complicated arrangement so that he could have two sending units–one for a gauge and one for an idiot light.) This left part of the tube in the engine block. This tube was probably about to break from fatigue anyway.

This is a major problem. If he started the car, oil would gush straight out of the block.

Fortunately, someone brought an EZ Out to the gathering. After breaking a “Made in India” wrench, Shawn removed the brass piece from his block.

The gauge sender was too fat to fit in the spot without another brass extension, so Shawn just hooked the stock idiot light sending unit back into place.

The guy on the right, Mike, is who had the EZ Out:

Funny story: after the gathering was done, Shawn was on his way back to St. Louis. Just on the other side of Oklahoma City, one of his exhaust valve springs broke in two places! Fortunately, Mike, who lives in Ohio, was about an hour behind him. After several cell phone calls and emails to our listserv, we managed to help Shawn contact Mike. Mike was flat towing a Nova behind his Jeep Grand Cherokee. Mike simply unhooked his Nova and hooked up Shawn’s Nova. Shawn drove Mike’s Nova, following Mike at up to 80 MPH, all the way back to St. Louis. Mike is now known as the listserv’s Guardian Angel. This isn’t the first time he has been a hero at a gathering.

On the way back to Dallas, we noticed that the Hardeman County rest area on US 287 was called a “Safety Rest Area” and had a tornado shelter. It also has slides and an air conditioned lobby. I’ve never seen such a fancy rest stop!

I also noticed a lot of telegraph-style poles near adjacent railroad tracks. It’s the one in the foreground in this picture:

It wasn’t initially clear whether they are still used? I remember seeing these a lot more when I was younger, but I rarely see them anymore.

We also saw the aftermath of a crash that probably ruined someone’s vacation:

It looked like this guy jumped on his brakes and went out of control. He was headed the other direction.

That’s my June vacation! I have never been away from home for that long.

Memorial Day Trip

I just got back from a Memorial Day weekend trip with some college friends.

We went to Sea Rim State Park near Port Arthur, TX and to a lake house near Lake Livingston.

We went down to Port Arthur on US 175 and US 69. US 175 was surprisingly poorly built between Athens and Jacksonville. For most of that distance, US 175 was an old, narrow, hilly 2 lane road with no shoulders! I rarely see major US routes built so poorly in Texas.

The drive down US 69 brought back a few memories. In the late ‘80s, I lived in Groves, a suburb of Port Arthur. We would travel up US 69 almost to Tyler a few times a year to visit grandparents. I remembered things such as the mural painted on the side of a building (northeast corner of US 69 and TX 21) in Alto, the state hospital in Rusk, and the Pickett House Restaurant in Woodville.

In Lufkin, we stopped by the Texas Forestry Museum. Unless you live in the middle of southeast Texas, you don’t realize the enormity of the forestry industry. The museum clearly explains its scope and impact on the region. One interesting tidbit is that in foresting towns, you had your choice of religion as long as it was Baptist or Methodist. My favorite part was the fragrant pines that bordered a short walk around the back of the building.

Speaking of lumber, did you know that lumber trucks and pole trailers can be registered as farm truck and farm trailers?

I never realized this until I snapped this photo on US 69 just north of Lufkin.

The major route around Lufkin is Loop 287. It multiplexes with US 69. I missed the photo op, but at one point North Loop 287 and South US 69 were going the same direction.

The Pickett House in Woodville was a big disappointment. Normally this is a great restaurant in an old school house building. They are currently renovating that building, so the restaurant moved to an adjacent property directly on US 190. This other building is decrepit and in poor repair. I experienced slow service, they didn’t have any sassafras tea (a staple at this place), and contrary to what was on the menu, the lemonade was just some mixed junk, not freshly squeezed goodness. The meal was not worth the $10.

Heading further south, I noticed several miles of US 69 with double dashed stripes. How is this different than single dashed stripes?

Driving through Lumberton showed a surprising number of new developments. Lumberton is a northern suburb of Beaumont. This development is especially surprising considering that Beaumont was the worst metro area in the country for real estate values. Yes, Beaumont area property values recently declined!

Another goofy sign artifact I did not understand was how almost every 70 MPH speed limit sign on US 69 within 50 miles of Beaumont had a sticker for the 70 numerals. Here are some examples:

I don’t get it. Did the TxDOT Beaumont District reuse old 65/55 MPH signs back in December ’95 and ’96 when they posted these new signs? That doesn’t make sense because these signs would be 8-9 years old at this point. I don’t think the “pasted” parts would still look brighter. I also did not see evidence that the Beaumont area implemented any kind of environmental speed control scheme. (Technically a few counties on the west side of the Beaumont District are subject to environmental speed limits, but US 69 does not go through any of them.)

Speaking of speed limits, the Beaumont District has done the best job of any district I have been in on not posting arbitrarily low speed limits. While state law does not allow for arbitrary speed limits (unless the speed limit is posted at the statutory limit), the Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, and Houston TxDOT districts use a rigid, formulaic approach for setting speed limits: 70 MPH outside the “outer” loop, 65 MPH between the “outer loop” and the “inner loop,” 60 MPH within the “inner loop,” and 55 MPH or less for all other non-interstate highways that are anywhere near anything that would hint of urbanization. (Note that due to environmental speed limits, all 70 and 65 MPH speed limits within about 50 miles of Houston or Dallas/Fort Worth are temporarily lowered an additional 5 MPH. Regardless, the “regulatory” limit, which will again apply once the environmental speed limits are lifted, still use this arbitrary formulaic approach.) Man, the Beaumont area was a breath of fresh air! I was astounded to see that US 69 was posted at 70 MPH all the way from Beaumont to TX 73 in Port Arthur. And TX 73 appears to be posted at 70 MPH through much of Port Arthur and Groves. FM 366 is posted at 65 MPH and 70 MPH for a good distance, something you would never see in other districts. Kudos for the Beaumont District for avoiding arbitrarily low speed limits!

Back to the trip.

We continued south on US 69 directly to its terminus at TX 87. Then we took TX 87 through Port Arthur to Sea Rim. Here is TX 87’s bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway:

Despite the fact that TX 87 is washed out for about 25 miles between Sea Rim and High Island, it is still a well maintained road:

Here’s a sign warning of the road closure:

This is TX 87 past the road closure:

The striping has faded away, and the road is narrow. Pretty soon, the asphalt stops and a sand service road is all you have.

Coming back, here is where the sand road turns back into asphalt:

Another view of the closed part of TX 87:

When you depart Sea Rim State Park, you see this sign:

Even though Galveston is really about 45 miles to the west (left), you have to take a lengthy jog to the east and north avoid the washed out portions of TX 87.

I tried to take several good shots of the road, but my camera unfortunately did a better job of focusing on the windshield bugs. Case in point:

Oh, well.

Here are the beach and main facility at Sea Rim:

I didn’t go into the water. I’ve never been much of a beach guy. The water is too nasty and salty, and you feel gross when you dry out.

That evening I tried my hand at long distance, long exposure night shots of offshore platforms. Here is one:

Same image, zoomed in and cropped:

Same thing for another platform:

Both these pictures were taken on a tripod at my camera’s full 10X optical zoom, F/3.7, 100 ISO, and about 15 second exposure times. That’s about the best I can push my camera. I was amazed at the detail it was able to catch.

A few minutes later, I caught an image of some revelers who apparently thought this was a clothing optional beach. You can barely make out a human body on the left. It may have too many flesh tones to be clothed.

The only smart person in the group got a room at the Port Arthur Holiday Inn. The rest of us fought off horrible swarms of mosquitoes the whole night. I swear, I have never experienced such thick mosquitoes. When we retired to the tent for the night, we literally spent 15 minutes with a flashlight killing all the mosquitoes! None of us got great sleep, either.

But it wasn’t all bad. It was a great experience to hear the waves all night. At 3:30 AM, I awoke to see the full moon illuminating the whole area. And the stars were bright. You don’t get these experiences in north Texas.

One thing about camping is you can’t sleep in. There is too much light. We were up bright and early at 6:30 AM. Within an hour, we had packed up and showered and were off for our next adventure.

Here is a scene on the return trip into Port Arthur on Texas 87. You literally drive through a refinery right before you hit Texas 82:

This experience has always fascinated me.

We then followed TX 82 across to Pleasure Island using the MLK Bridge:

Before that drive, I never realized that anyone lives on Pleasure Island. Well, it’s true. Towards the southern end are a few really nice houses. Nearly all of them have signs opposing a proposed liquefied natural gas plant across the ship channel in Sabine Pass.

Here’s a detail of the signs:

It says LNG… TOO CLOSE. Tough luck, guys. Maybe you shouldn’t have built so close to an industrial area.

Since the mid-‘80s, I thought that the bridge connecting TX 82 to LA 82 at the end of Pleasure Island is a high causeway, similar to the TX 87 Intracoastal Waterway bridge. Boy, was I wrong. It is actually a draw bridge!

It isn’t wide, so I guess all the big ships headed to Beaumont have to pass through the channel separating Port Arthur from Pleasure Island.

Here are the views on the re-entry to Texas:

Fortunately, the speed limit goes up shortly after you enter the state:

Here’s another view of that MLK bridge:

On the way back to the hotel (where the smart guy stayed), we drove through downtown Port Arthur. Man, run down! It’s sad. Port Arthur could have been another fancy coastal city. I am not sure where it went wrong, except maybe not enough of the economy was diversified?


The next brief spot was Groves, where I snapped pictures of where I lived in the late ‘80s:

Sadly, the huge, decades old pecan trees that used to be in front of the house are gone. It almost looked like the current pastor was moving out.

Here’s the concrete area at the adjacent church where my brother wiped out on a bicycle with no brakes and gave himself a concussion:

Any one of those spots could be his blood.

Here’s where I went for 4th and 5th grades.

Mrs. Solberg’s room is just to the left of the front door.

Groves was a neat side trip. It had been around 15 years since I had last seen the city in daylight. The last time I was in Groves was January ’98. I took my wife (then my new girlfriend) in my “I just finished restoring it but still had a lot of work to do” ’74 Nova to Galveston and then to Groves. We arrived at around 7:00 PM, well after sunset. As soon as I exited off TX 73 to the main drag ( 39th St. ?), my alternator seized, eating up my water pump/alternator belt. I spent the next few minutes trying to find people I knew so that someone could take me to get a new belt. The job took two people: one to take me to K-Mart to get a new belt, and the other to tap out a bolt for the alternator I had in my trunk so that it would accept an SAE bolt and fit in my car. (Yes, I knew the alternator was going out. Don’t ask me why I didn’t replace it beforehand. Stupidity.)

Someday I want to go back to that town and spend a few hours revisiting old haunts.

Next stop was the Rainbow Bridge and Veterans Bridge.

Here’s a view over the top of the Veterans Bridge:

The Rainbow bridge is to the left:

Just east of the bridges is a turnoff where you can get better pictures:

I REALLY like this picture:

A drive up the Rainbow bridge:

When I lived in Groves, this bridge had narrower pavement, probably 9½’ or 10’ lane widths, and no shoulders. For comparison sake, 10’ lane widths are found on many Dallas roads. Imagine squeezing by an 18 wheeler at speed on this bridge! I also remember older style guardrails.

Just west of the bridge, we turned off into what may have been a private drive. We got great pictures of the bridge structure. A guy was watching us the whole time. It’s as if they get a lot of unwanted visitors.

After that, we went to the Texas Energy Museum in Beaumont. We tried going to the Texas Fire Museum, but it was closed. We still got to see the “world’s largest fire hydrant”:

The drive to the lake house was uneventful.

While at the lake house, we wore ourselves out on two jet skis. We also experienced a severe storm with hail and high winds. Here is where a rain gutter pushed out a bunch of hail:

This is the hail pouring down:

After the lake house, we returned to Dallas via US 190 and I-45. In Huntsville, we stopped at The Junction Restaurant. It was great! For $6, I got a chicken fried steak, baked potato, salad, and rolls. What a deal!

We stopped by the Fairfield Dairy Queen. When you pull up, you see an innocuous Dairy Queen:

But turn to the left a bit, and you see a really weird house:

It’s a neat looking structure, but out of place. I wonder what stories that house has to tell? The Dairy Queen assistant manager said that the McDonald’s owner owns it. Checking the Freestone County Appraisal District records, that’s not true. The local McDonald’s is a corporate store. Even stranger, the Freestone County CAD site has no record for this DQ. It has the McDonald’s, the adjacent Texas Burger, the adjacent Exxon, and the Jack in the Box, but no Dairy Queen. I would like to know more about that house’s history.

Another guy took lots of shots of this house.

On our drive back, we detoured on to TX 75, the old US 75, to avoid a huge backup due to a wreck. On TX 75, we saw this railroad bridge near Streetman:

It was neat seeing this, knowing that everyone traveling between Dallas and Houston passed under this same bridge before I-45 was built.

The only other interesting note was Palmer’s cops were out running radar on I-45. Palmer is a speed trap south of Dallas that has no business running any traffic patrol operations on I-45; virtually nobody on I-45 is going to or coming from Palmer. Someday I want to inspect their records to see if they comply with the Texas anti-speed trap law that requires them to remit most ticket fines to state coffers.

That’s it for the trip. It was a fun and exhausting trip!

Las Vegas

I just got back from a trip to Las Vegas.

We almost didn’t make it. A week before our Friday departure, we took our kid to the church nursery for Parents’ Night Out. He apparently caught the stomach virus. After church on Sunday, he was having diarrhea. On Tuesday, Jennifer’s appetite went way down. I had no appetite Tuesday evening, and 3:30 AM Wednesday morning, I puked my prior day’s lunch.

Fortunately, all three of us pulled through just in time. We were able to drop off Alec at the grandparents’ house on Thursday evening, and on the way home we shared a large order of McDonald’s fries. (This was a major recovery step for us!)

Friday morning we rose bright and early at 4:55 AM. We got to Las Vegas by 10:00 AM. On that day we walked from Mandalay Bay to the MGM Grand, took the monorail to the Fashion Show Mall, then walked all the way back to the MGM Grand. We didn’t return to the MGM Grand until after nine.

At the Mandalay Bay, we ate at Border Grill, a southwestern restaurant. After ordering, I realized that I had ordered a meal that had goat cheese. The goat cheese had a bleu cheese-like taste. Yuck. I am staying away from that junk.

A highlight of the day was the Imperial Palace Auto Collection. Technically all cars at this collection were for sale, and a guy was on duty ready to handle any sales. The net value of all these cars was probably well over $5,000,000.

After we got back to the hotel that night, I stuffed myself with McDonald’s food. That upset my stomach all over again, leaving me unable to eat anything all day Saturday. Despite this, we were still able to make it to a lot of fun destinations on Saturday, including the Stratosphere tower. This is a view from the Stratosphere, taken by my brother:

That tower spooked me. The roller coaster and other rides on top caused it to vibrate. Vibrations feel wrong at the top of a 1,149 foot tall building.

By the way, recognize this location?

Watch this video and you’ll remember: http://media.skoopy.com/vids/vid 00308.wmv (Warning: very explicit language.)

On Sunday we all drove to Death Valley. That was my favorite trip. I made a separate, extensive post about this.

On Monday we went to the Bellagio buffet for a late breakfast/early lunch. That was a pricey but fantastic brunch.

While at the Bellagio, we strolled to their botanical garden. This “garden” is actually a large room that they stuff full of containerized plants that are in bloom. If the plant isn’t in bloom, it isn’t in that room. So you get an insanely dense, extraordinarily fragrant carpet of flowers at all times.

Later that day I had to drop Jennifer off at the airport. (I stayed behind for a business conference. More details later.) After that, Micah and I went to the Las Vegas Simpson’s House at 712 Red Bark Ln. in Henderson, a Las Vegas suburb. This house was made up to look like the Simpson residence as depicted in the popular cartoon. Since then it has been converted back to a standard residence.


Is now this:

The house now has touches like driveway oil stains, torn blinds, missing screens, and so on.

I found a picture of one of the Simpsons creators marking a picture in the sidewalk in front of the house, but I totally forgot to see if that piece of sidewalk is still there. However, further analysis of a photo shows that one square of the sidewalk is colored differently than the rest:

Hmm, I wonder what’s there?

After that, we went to Hoover Dam. This is the generator room on the Nevada side:

Only four of the generators were running. The tour guide explained that electrical production is a byproduct of the dam. Since the Lake Mead reservoir is about 50 feet low, and since only enough water is released to support downstream water uses, the available water was only enough to power four generators on each side. The last time any water flowed over the Hoover Dam spillways was 1983.

My grandmother’s cousin says that my great great grandfather mentored someone who went on to be the head engineer for a major dam project in the western US. She is not sure, but it may have been Hoover Dam.

After Hoover Dam, I got a chance to see and drive a ’74 Nova with 13,900 original miles. That car had bone stock mechanicals. It almost drove like a new ’74 Nova, but driving it made me appreciate how amazingly well I had my own ’74 set up. I had worked out a ton of my ‘74’s “old car” drivability problems and really had a great driver. Too bad I lost it!

That evening we went downtown. I wanted to see the million dollar display at the Horseshoe casino, but this display was sold off a few years ago to a Kansas City collector. Apparently that display was about a third of the $10,000 bills still in circulation.

After that evening, I had to attend the 2005 HEUG conference. The HEUG is a user group for PeopleSoft users in higher education, although it includes some government entities and nonprofits. Surprisingly, this year’s HEUG conference was the best attended one yet despite Oracle’s PeopleSoft buyout.

That’s about it for my trip.

Death Valley

The trip started with a stop at In-N-Out Burger. Man, that was good food! The potatoes for the fries were peeled and cut in the location, and the burger was excellent. I could see this chain doing well in the Dallas area. We don’t have realistic fast food alternatives to the usual suspects: McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Whataburger, and Burger King.

The drive to Death Valley was fascinating for a Texas, green-grass flatlander like me. I saw scenery, mountains, hills, and terrain! Even more fascinating was the absence of green grass! Even in Las Vegas, empty lots were mostly piles of rocks and dirt. In Texas, I am used to empty lots quickly becoming overrun with green weeds. I am used to yards of Bermuda or St. Augustine grasses. People in Las Vegas have rock gardens!

Anyway, we first did US 95 from Las Vegas all the way to Beatty, NV. On this route my brother spotted a rock formation that looked like a monkey:

A little later I saw a strip mining operation:

I used to live near strip mine operations in east Texas, but because of the trees, they were never visible.

More great scenery:

As we neared Death Valley, I noticed a basin that looked especially arid. At first I thought that this area was the Valley, but I was mistaken. It turns out that this area is in fact the Amargosa Desert. This is a picture of the desert basin on Nevada 374, the road between Beatty, NV and Death Valley National Park.

By the way, a metal building on NV 374 just west of US 95 in Beatty is the Yucca Mountain Information Center. Yucca Mountain is that controversial radioactive waste dump the federal government. After driving through the area, I could hardly imagine a more desolate site than Yucca Mountain.

Death Valley National Park starts just before the mountain range about 25 miles away. You can see them in the background of the above picture. The basin sits on the other side of the mountains.

After you enter the park, the road quality gets really bad, and the speed limit drops to 45 MPH:

By this point, we are ascending that mounting range.

Now we are over the mountain range and at the visitor kiosk on the northeast end of the park, near Daylight Pass. You get a great view of the Death Valley basin from this area:

The white stuff in the background is all the salt at the bottom of the basin. This picture is looking roughly to the south.

Right after the visitor kiosk, the main road is shut off, forcing you in on a side road. Flash floods in 2004 wiped out several roads in the park.

Super low speed limits as we descend into the valley:

Here is the main reason we went to Death Valley. It was in a rare heavy bloom due to unusually generous rains:

The whole area was fragrant. Keep in mind that this is a barren desert.

More flowers:

Notice the amazing yellow carpet of flowers, with the salt of the basin in the background:

When we California 190, we headed north a bit to the same sand dunes where part of Star Wars was filmed:

These are a few hundred feet in the distance. I wonder if these are also the same dunes where the Spaceballs guys “combed the desert”?

It’s hard to make out, but we are at sea level as we head back south on CA 190 to the Death Valley Visitor Center.

We took a little detour by a naturally-fed Salt Creek (yes, water in the basin of Death Valley!):

Little pupfish thrive in this creek:

We’re still on the way to the visitor’s center. This is a view looking west from CA 190 across the basin. Notice the flowers. I think the mountains in the distance start at about 15 miles away.

Gas is expensive at the visitor center!

After the visitor’s center, we stopped by the Devil’s Golf Course.

This is salt left over from evaporating water. Water in Death Valley basin has nowhere to go but evaporate. All minerals are left behind. Our travel guide warned us that this stuff is so hard that you can easily break bones if you trip.

Our final stop was Badwater Basin, 282 feet below sea level:

That’s my brother on the right being an idiot. He’s good at that.

Turn around from the sign and you see this:

Zoom in on that little sign in the middle of the rock wall to see this:

Would you believe that the basin of Death Valley had standing water?

Yup, that’s water. Not deep, and very salty, but water! Mind you, this was late March. I doubt there will be any water here in August.

Remember that rock wall with the sea level sign? Step away about 1000 feet and you’ll see that it’s only the foothill of a far larger formation. You can barely make out the sea level sign about 1/4 of the way up this formation.

Death Valley was stunning. I never imagined that it would be as beautiful.

One thing I realized is that I always imagined that Death Valley was the area on I-10 between Arizona and Los Angeles. That area is actually the Mojave Desert. The visitor center says that despite its name, Death Valley is not a particularly deadly place.

On the way back to Las Vegas, we passed through Shoshone, CA and saw this outrageously priced gas:

Slowpoke vs. Enjoy the Ride

“Slow down, take it easy, and enjoy the ride” is dumb and paradoxical. This statement is a sugar-coated way of suggesting that slothful driving makes a trip more enjoyable. Strictly from a transportation perspective, nothing could be more wrong.

The bulk of vacation scenery is featureless cornfields, road kill skunks, and billboards. The faster one blazes through this, the more enjoyable a vacation is.

A small portion of driving scenery is scenic features like wide vistas, distant mountains, and approaching storms. Whether you are doing 55 MPH or 155 MPH doesn’t affect your enjoyment of these distant features. Yeah, so you may only have 15 minutes to enjoy a mountain view instead of 30, but who cares? After the first few seconds of the view, you have absorbed about all meaningful information you are going to get. Compared to “going there and doing it,” looking at something through the window is excruciatingly trivial. Summiting a 12,441 foot mountain peak is an amazing experience; looking at it through a car window is not much better than staring at pictures on your computer. Slothful speeds only starve you of time for stops at meaningful destinations. More time to savor the dead skunks is better than time with grandma, right?

Some people think that fast speed has a direct correlation to a poorly planned vacation, and that by driving slowly the vacation will magically be more enjoyable. The truth is that again, by squeezing time out for meaningful activities, slow travel speeds worsen the quality of any vacation, well planned or not. A better approach is scheduling plenty of stops, be realistic with travel times, and, most importantly, stop cheating yourself and your family with short vacations!

The two easiest ways to maximize enjoyment is to minimize time in the car and maximize meaningful stops. In other words, drive as fast as you are comfortable, and stop often.