Strataca

May 30, 2022 – Hutchinson, Kansas

In addition to the Cosmosphere, a world-class space science museum, the city of Hutchinson, Kansas, features another prominent attraction: the only salt mine in the country that’s open to the public. Have I got your attention yet? Read on!

Formerly known as the Kansas Underground Salt Museum, Strataca is owned by the Hutchinson Salt Company, which began operations in 1923 as the Carey Salt Company. Nancy and I visited Strataca in late May 2022.

The salt extracted from the mine is not the type that you’ll find in your kitchen salt shaker. There are a number of impurities in the mineral, which makes it ideal for managing icy roads and for feeding livestock.

Strataca’s story begins, as do all of the good ones, in the late part of the Paleozoic Era, known as the Permian Period, about 275 million years ago. Kansas, along with much of the rest of present-day North America, was covered by a vast inland sea. The waters eventually receded, leaving behind an immense deposit of salt that, over tens of millions of years, was covered with layers of shale and other sediments like sand, gypsum, and silt. That 275-million-year-old deposit of salt is now 650 feet below the Kansas prairie.

The museum has been at this location on the east side of Hutchinson since 1986. Of the 15 salt mines in the United States, Strataca (née the Kansas Underground Salt Museum; the name was changed in 2013) is the only one that is open for visitor tours. I’m trying to remember to take pictures of the exteriors of the museums we see; it seems that the American flags are flying at half-mast more often than not. We visited Strataca on Memorial Day.

A double-deck elevator takes two sets of up to 15 people each on a four-minute trip 650 feet down into the bowels of the earth. (It’s not really the bowels of the earth; the top crust of the earth, which makes up about 1% of the radius of our planet, has an average thickness of nine to 12 miles. In other words, the 650-foot elevator ride takes visitors down about 1% of 1% of the earth’s radius. Still, the elevator ride is pretty neat!)

Excavating the shaft for this visitor elevator was no mean feat. In addition to penetrating hundreds of feet of sedimentary rocks, the shaft also had to descend through part of the Ogallala Aquifer – one of the world’s largest natural underground reservoirs. The aquifer is about 130 feet thick at the site of the museum. To construct the shaft, engineers used liquid nitrogen to freeze the area of the aquifer immediately surrounding the planned shaft, then excavated the ice and replaced it with a concrete liner. The process was completed in 15-foot increments, and took just over a year between March 2004 and March 2005.

Upon exiting the elevator, visitors enter a large chamber filled with interesting exhibits that tell the wondrous story of sodium chloride (NaCl). As you can see, every visitor has to wear a hard hat. I jostled my way to get a blue one. The temperature in the mine year-round is 68 degrees Fahrenheit, with a relative humidity of 45%.

Let’s go back topside for a moment. This map, located in the museum’s visitor center, shows the extent of the mine (in yellow) with the rest of the city of Hutchinson to the west (left). The 1.5-square-mile mine is immense; if each of the excavated areas was lined up in a straight line, the chamber would extend for 150 miles. Pillars of solid rock salt, 40 feet square, are left to separate each chamber and support the upper level of salt.

Okay, back down into the bowels of the earth 650 feet below the surface. Here’s a closeup of the salt deposit. As you can see, it’s quite different from the Morton’s that’s in your kitchen cabinet. The sodium chloride is mixed with a number of other minerals, including shale and sulfur compounds, which is why it’s primarily used to de-ice roadways.

The year 2023 will mark a century of mining by the Hutchinson Salt Company (formerly Carey Salt). It mines in the room and pillar process. This involves excavating, with the use of explosives, large chambers alternating with square pillars, measuring 40 square feet, that support the upper level of the mine. The process results in something of a checkerboard pattern, if it could be viewed from above. The mine’s chambers are very large, ranging from 2,500 to 15,000 square feet in size, with ceiling heights of 11 to 17 feet. The room and pillar method differs from traditional precious metal mining, in which miners follow the vein of gold or silver ore, for instance (unless it’s more cost-efficient to simply take an entire mountain apart, which seems to be happening more often).

Strataca has retained a lot of Carey Salt’s equipment from the early days of the mine (I’m guessing partly because it would cost time and money to return them to the surface, but it’s still fun to see the specialized equipment). The machinery is fairly well-preserved, considering the relatively high humidity; the salt can’t be good for metal parts, though. This machine was used to cut long slits at the bottom of a salt wall; when explosives in the wall were detonated, the slit ensured that the salt fragments fell forward into the chamber.

The excavation takes place in much the same way today, but using modernized equipment. The rock salt fragments are transported via conveyors to crushers, then taken to the surface using large buckets on a hoist. When operating at capacity, the skip, or mine elevator, can carry four tons of salt to the surface every three minutes. The skip is also used to transport miners into and out of the operation. Miners formerly used a rail system to move about the operation underground, but have since started using old junk cars that have been modified to run on bio-diesel fuel. Developed almost entirely from old cooking oil, the burning of bio-diesel doesn’t leave particles suspended in the environment. There are many instances of several generations of Hutchinson families being employed by the mine.

This was an interesting exhibit; it’s essentially a waste dump site. Early in the mine’s history, employees would leave their empty food packaging underground because it was more cost-effective to use the skip to transport either rock salt or miners. The salty environment, well away from the sun’s ultraviolet rays, has preserved the trash remarkably well; a lot of the sandwich wrappers and empty drink cups look like they were tossed aside last week instead of in the 1950s.

Nancy and I went on a couple of different guided tram rides through the mine. We got to see chambers that were excavated decades ago, using earlier mining methods. The mining company has placed a number of environmental sensors throughout the operation, which provide early detection of any possible shifting of the rock salt walls. The Mine Safety and Health Administration, which oversees operations in U.S. mines, considers this salt mine one of the safest in the world.

Nancy really enjoys being underground. I mean, really. She’d been looking forward to visiting the Hutchinson salt mine for a number of years, and we both had a great time. Luckily for us, our underground adventures were only beginning – we’d be able to descend into the bowels of the earth natural caves at two U.S. national parks in the months to come. Multiple times at each cave, even!

A salt mine might seem like something of a “so what?” kind of experience. But it’s the salt that comes from this mine, and others like it, that keep our roads safe to drive in wet and freezing weather. We’re glad we went, and, combined with the Cosmosphere, Strataca makes an excellent reason to visit Hutchinson.

The Cosmosphere

Hutchinson, Kansas – May 28, 2022

Hutchinson, Kansas, seems to be an unlikely place for a world-class museum devoted to space exploration. The state’s main economic driver, by far, is agriculture: Kansas ranks in the top 10 states in the country for revenue from beef cattle, corn, hay, hogs, soybeans, sunflowers, and wheat (40 percent of all the winter wheat grown in the United States comes from Kansas).

However, the Sunflower State’s motto is “ad astra per aspera,” which, as you’ll recall from your Latin learnin’, means “To the stars through difficulties.” The motto is more a recognition that the state succeeded despite struggles with Black slavery, relationships with Native Americans reluctant to give away their homelands, and the U.S. Civil War than a resolution to actually travel to space, but I think it’s inspiring nonetheless.

Nancy and I visited the Cosmosphere in late May 2022.

This is a reproduction of the Bell X-1, the jet in which USAF Captain Chuck Yeager first broke the sound barrier (Mach 1, or about 700 mph) on October 14, 1947. The original X-1, Glamorous Glennis, is on display at the National Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Fittingly, the original X-1 is next to the Spirit of St. Louis, in which Charles Lindbergh made the first solo transatlantic flight. The X-Plane program, of which the X-1 was the first craft, began in 1946 as a means of developing aerodynamics, engines, and other factors of high-speed and high-altitude flight. (The idea that the sound barrier was broken the year after the program’s start is, to me, kind of mind-boggling). The breaking of the sound barrier with a straight-wing aircraft came as a surprise to many aerospace experts, who believed that a swept-wing design was necessary for supersonic flight. X-1 flights ended in 1958, and by then the jet had flown at speeds approaching 1,000 mph and at altitudes close to 72,000 feet. In 24 years of testing, more than 40 X-Plane pilots were killed in expanding mankind’s knowledge of aeronautics. The experiments showed, however, that it was possible to break Earth’s gravitational pull and leave the planet’s atmosphere. They helped develop today’s vehicles that soar through our skies and the space around us. (Incidentally, and while it wasn’t necessarily built for speed, the Spirit of St. Louis had a top speed of 133 mph in 1927 – only 20 years before Yeager’s historic flight.)

The Cosmosphere (which is, again, smack-dab in the middle of Kansas) is home to the largest combined collection of U.S. and Russian spaceflight artifacts in the world. Numbering more than 13,000 pieces, the Cosmosphere’s collection is second to only the Smithsonian Institution’s Air and Space Museum for U.S. artifacts and is second only to Moscow for its number of Russian artifacts.

The Cosmosphere’s significant 1997 expansion gave it space to display one of the 20 surviving Lockheed SR-71 Blackbirds. The SR-71 first entered service as a high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft in 1966. The aircraft had a top speed of 2,200 mph (Mach 3.3) with a service ceiling of 85,000 feet, or about 16 miles (the scientists have determined that Earth’s atmosphere ends, and space begins, at about 62 miles above the planet). Lockheed built a total of 32 SR-71s; 12 were lost in accidents but none were destroyed by enemy aircraft (if an oncoming missile was detected, the Blackbird pilot simply went faster). The SR-71 (this particular model has Air Force serial number 61-7961) makes for a really impressive exhibit, but it’s difficult to get a photograph of the entire craft. This was the second SR-71 we’d seen in just two months, we saw AF model 61-7951 at Tucson’s Pima Air & Space Museum in March; most of the other 18 surviving Blackbirds are also on display at aircraft museums and Air Force bases around the country (one is in England)

Given Kansas’s agrarian economy, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Cosmosphere started as a planetarium, with a used projector and rented folding chairs, in the Poultry Building on the Kansas State Fairgrounds in 1962. It was one of the first public planetariums in the country. Four years later, the planetarium moved to the campus of Hutchinson Community College. In 1980, the Cosmosphere was expanded to a 35,000-square-foot facility, which included one of the country’s first IMAX® Dome Theaters and a three-level exhibit gallery (my first and only other visit to the Cosmosphere occurred sometime in the mid-1980s, while visiting family in Kansas). The Cosmosphere tripled its size in 1997, becoming an impressive 105,000-square-foot facility with room for educational events and other programs.

If you thought that the Moon looked a little smaller after the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon in July 1969, it’s likely because Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin brought back some rocks when they returned to Earth. On exhibit in the lobby of the Cosmosphere, this is one of the few Moon rocks on public display in the world. Armstrong and Aldrin collected this rock during a three-hour walk in the Sea of Tranquility on June 20, 1969. Its mineral composition is basalt, which is an igneous rock formed from rapidly cooling volcanic lava. It weighs just under 5 ounces – it used to be bigger but the scientists cut it in to smaller pieces in order to study it – and the same scientists say that it’s 3.84 billion years old.

The German V-2 Rocket

The Cosmosphere has several large independent exhibits that tell the story of how the space race developed. One of these exhibits focuses on the development of the Vergetlungswaffe 2 (“retaliation weapon 2”), the V-2 rocket, and it’s simply an outstanding experience, with interesting displays of original hardware and plenty of explanatory panels.

It’s safe to say that putting mankind in space, beginning with launching manned rockets into the sky in the early 1960s, progressing to the Apollo missions to the Moon that started in 1969, and continuing with programs like Skylab (1970s), the space shuttles (1980s), and the present-day International Space Station, started with weaponry development during the buildup to World War II. Simply put, many of the other rockets exhibited in the Cosmosphere wouldn’t have been possible without the development of the V-2.

The V-2 rocket on display at the Cosmosphere was discovered in an abandoned warehouse in Huntsville, Alabama. It was acquired by the museum in 1989 and restored by SpaceWorks, a division of the Cosmosphere. The project took several years and restored the rocket to how it would have looked in the period of 1942-1943. The seated figure near the front of the rocket represents a Jewish prisoner; many thousands of Jews were forced to work on the hazardous rockets.

The Nazis sunk incredible financial resources into the development of the V-2, believing it would turn the tide of World War II because of its ability to strike opposing targets from more than 200 miles away. The V-2 was developed by a team led by Dr. Wernher von Braun, a brilliant rocketry scientist whose early work was influenced heavily by the tests performed by Dr. Robert Goddard (early in his career, von Braun corresponded with Goddard regarding the latter’s experiments). Von Braun was very interested in sending mankind to space, and saw the V-2 program as a way to further his research into rocketry. His interest in space exploration almost led to his execution by German officials, who believed von Braun wasn’t sufficiently focused on creating a weapon of destruction and instead wanted to create a way to travel to the stars. Only the doctor’s relationship with a Nazi official who had Hitler’s ear saved his life.

The V-2 was the first long-range guided ballistic missile. Between September 1944 and March 1945, Germany launched more than 3,200 of the rockets at targets in England, Belgium, and other areas in western Europe. The rockets were fired from mobile launch pads, which made it extremely difficult for Allied forces to find and destroy the launch sites. A V-2 firing battery consisted of 152 self-propelled vehicles, 70 trailers, and more than 500 men. Each battery could fire up to nine missiles per day.

A V-2 rocket stood more than 46 feet tall, weighed 27,000 pounds and flew 50 miles into the sky, but the engine was just over five feet long and weighed just over one ton. Incredibly, that engine created 56,600 pounds of thrust while burning 33 gallons of alcohol and liquid oxygen every second.

The rocket carried a one-ton payload of high explosives to the edge of space, 250,000 feet above the earth, more than 200 miles to its target. When it began its return to earth, the V-2 reached speeds of 3,500 miles per hour – faster than the sound that it created, which meant that it exploded on the ground before the thunderous roar of its descent could be heard. Latter-day research has shown that a V-2 explosion created a crater 66 feet wide and 26 feet deep, displacing about 3,000 tons of material. From launch, the V-2 took only 4 minutes to reach its target (for reference, the width of the state of Colorado is a little less than 400 miles, or about twice the distance that a V-2 traveled).

V-2 attacks killed more than 1,700 Belgians in Antwerp, and injured 4,500 more. In London, more than 2,700 civilians were killed by the rockets, with an additional 6,523 injured. As horrid as those numbers are, it’s estimated that development of the V-2 cost the lives of as many as 20,000 people in Germany – most of them Jewish prisoners who died either from overwork or from accidental explosions.

In its time, the V-2 was a defenseless weapon – when everything worked. Fortunately, the rocket involved incredibly complex engineering and everything rarely worked. While the Nazis continually refined the engineering to improve the weapon’s efficiency, the V-2’s development came too late in the war to have the kind of impact the Nazis expected. By war’s end, the development of the V-2 (and its predecessor, the V-1) cost Germany the equivalent of $3 billion – roughly twice the amount of money that the United States poured into the Manhattan Project to produce the atomic bomb.

World War II is ripe for “what-if” scenarios, and the V-2 development is a good one. Considering that the V-2 had an insignificant impact on the war’s outcome, compared to the carnage that occurred otherwise, the money and manpower that it cost could have been allocated to the production of more fighter aircraft and anti-aircraft missiles. If the Germans had better control of the skies over western Europe in 1944, the Allied invasion on D-Day may not have been possible and the slow but steady encirclement of Berlin by Allied and Russian forces wouldn’t have happened.

The exhibit at the Cosmosphere does point out, however, that if the invasion at Normandy hadn’t been possible, Berlin – rather than Hiroshima – may have been the first target of the atomic bomb.

In the immediate aftermath of Germany’s capitulation, both U.S. and Russian forces were on the hunt for von Braun and his team of rocketeers. Both sides wanted the expertise and equipment, but von Braun surrendered to the United States and he and his colleagues were brought to this country. The V-2 was examined and led to the development of the Cold War’s intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and, in the interest of science, the rockets that would carry mankind into space beginning in the 1960s.

I’ve struggled – a lot – with how to write about this particular blog posting; it’s one reason I haven’t posted anything for several months, and I considered leaving all of the V-2 material out of it. However, I think it’s important to not shy away from the fact that humans can be horrible to one another. I’ve read a lot about German’s leading up to and including World War II, trying to understand why humans can be horrible. I’ve also read extensively about Wernher von Braun, trying to understand why he contributed his considerable scientific intellect to the development of a terrible weapon that killed thousands upon thousands of innocent people, either in targeted cities or in forced labor. Von Braun was absolutely furious that the Russians were first into space, first with a dog and then with a man, but he lived to see the results of the Apollo program that sent the first men to walk on the moon – using technology that von Braun helped develop while he worked at NASA. I’ve come to the conclusion (and it’s open for revision) that von Braun really did want to expand the science of rocketry – to send mankind into space – and he was able to do that. I’m a big proponent of many facets of space exploration, but I need to be more cognizant that much of that research has come at horrific costs.

There are a great many other fine exhibits (of which I took a lot of photos that seem to have disappeared into the ether; that’s probably okay because this posting would be even longer than it is) at the Cosmosphere, and it’s well worth a visit when you’re in central Kansas. I think I’ve written about this before, that museums like the Cosmosphere are a great opportunity to stretch one’s mind. Even if museums don’t have all of the answers, and, perhaps particularly if they sometimes don’t, it’s never a bad thing to learn.

Kansas Barbed Wire Museum

May 26, 2022 – LaCrosse, Kansas

It’s bold to call a town the Barbed Wire Capital of the WorldTM, but that is indeed what La Crosse, Kansas does. The designation came about because of another of La Crosse’s claims to fame: it’s the home of the Post Rock Museum. But before we get into post rocks, let’s go back to barbed wire (if you really want to read about post rocks, scroll down to the bottom of this post but you’re going to miss out on the truly exciting barbed wire content). In the early 1960s, volunteers at the Post Rock Museum noticed that a large number of visitors took special notice of the small barbed wire exhibit.

La Crosse, Kansas (founded 1876, current population of 1,266 people), is the Barbed Wire Capital of the WorldTM and is home to the Kansas Barbed Wire Museum and the Post Rock Museum (note the structures holding up this sign; read on for more information on those).

In response to that interest, in 1966 a group of La Crosse businesspeople formed the Kansas Barbed Wire Collectors Association. As with any association, it conducted an annual event: the first Barbed Wire Swap and Sell Convention occurred at the Rush County Fairgrounds in May of the following year. More than 2,000 barbed wire collectors and enthusiasts attended the show. La Crosse has since hosted the event each year (the 2022 festival was May 5-7) and that’s one way you get to be called the Barbed Wire Capital of the WorldTM.

This signage is posted prominently on the museum’s exterior. I’ve spent most of my professional career working for nonprofit associations, and I’m still continually surprised at the truth of the statement, “There’s an association for everything.”

Another way is to develop a museum. The first building that housed the Kansas Barbed Wire Collectors Association’s collection of barbed wire and associated materials was a small structure on Main Street in La Crosse. The museum was dedicated on April 30, 1971; the day included a parade as well as appearances and remarks from various local and state dignitaries. The 500-square-foot building was home to displays of 500 types of barbed wire, tools, and other artifacts, the majority of which came from the collections of two Kansas men, Leo Schugart of Hoisington and Don Wigington of Quinter.

If you’re researching barbed wire, sooner or later you’ll be making your way to La Crosse, Kansas. If you’re hungry after studying barbed wire, be sure to visit the JCT 4 Diner, located on the north end of town (the museum is on the south end) and order the chicken-fried steak. Come to think of it, I wonder if there’s a chicken-fried steak museum.

Alas, less than two decades passed before the museum had outgrown the Main Street building. The La Cross chamber of commerce commenced a fundraising campaign to construct a new building, measuring 5,400 square feet, in the town’s Grass Park. The new facility, built in a year, was dedicated on May 4, 1991. The Kansas Barbed Wire Museum, which is owned and operated by the Kansas Barbed Wire Collectors Association, is also home to the Antique Barbed Wire Society’s Historical Research Center as well as its Hall of Fame. The museum welcomes visitors from around the globe each year.

Two of those visitors this year were Nancy and me, in late May. Nancy, recognizing my enthusiasm for barbed wire exhibits during our travels (we’ve seen an impressive number of exhibits in city museums in New Mexico and Arizona), surprised me with an early birthday gift of a visit to the museum. At the time, we were camping in Hays, Kansas, which is located about 25 miles due north of La Crosse. For those unclear or simply unaware of where Hays is, it’s about 160 miles east of the eastern border with Colorado, conveniently located in the north-central part of Kansas on Interstate 70.

The biggest part of the Kansas Barbed Wire Museum is its immense collection of barbed wire varieties, displayed in case behind Plexiglass. (Forgive the glare from the overhead lighting in this photo, but the Plexiglass is probably what you want between barbed wire and you.) I neglected to count, but I would imagine there are a couple of dozen cases (I’m not kidding) like this one. The museum’s collection contains more than 2,400 varieties of barbed wire mostly from the American West of the late 19th century, but also contemporary styles and those from around the world.

You might be asking yourself: “Why is there a museum dedicated to barbed wire?” It’s a fair question, I suppose, and for the answer we must go back to the formation of the North American continent and its place on the earth. Imagine a vertical line hugging the eastern borders of North and South Dakota, continuing south near the eastern border of Nebraska, and then across the eastern thirds of Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. That line is the 98th Meridian, meaning that it’s 98 degrees (out of the globe’s 360 degrees) west of the Prime Meridian at Greenwich, England (all meridian lines extend north and south to the poles of the earth). The 98th Meridian is significant because most all of the land in the United States west of that line (with the exception of the Pacific northwest and the west coast) gets less (and some get much less) than about 20 inches of precipitation each year, and everywhere east of that line receives more than 20 inches. To compare five cities in which we’ve recently been:

CityMeridianAnnual inches of precipitation
Tucson, Arizona 111th10.6
Denver, Colorado105th14.3
Hays, Kansas99th (one degree west of the 98th)23.8 (plus an additional 13.9 inches of snow)
Memphis, Tennessee90th53.7
Detroit, Michigan83rd34 (plus an additional 33 inches of snow)

There are altitude-based and other geographic exceptions to the annual precipitation amounts, of course: a mountain town in Colorado such as Ouray, in the San Juans, can receive 20 or 24 inches of rain and almost 12 feet of snow each year. The point is, there are some places in the United States that are better suited to growing moisture-dependent crops such as, say, corn than others.

In the last year of being on the road, Nancy and I have experienced single-event rainstorms in Arkansas and Indiana that would have provided a third of Denver’s annual precipitation. That arid nature of the western United States results in different types of flora (such as buffalograss and saguaro cacti) and fauna (such as desert bighorn sheep and horned lizards), and, to get back to the subject of barbed wire, much fewer trees.

East of the 98th Meridian, trees are pretty common thanks to the arable soils and relatively high levels of precipitation. Because of their ready availability, trees provide wood with which to build fences to contain livestock and protect crops. However, in the high plains of the west, most trees grow naturally only along waterways like year-round rivers or seasonal creek beds; many of those trees, like cottonwoods and mesquite, are not anything with which you’d want to build a house or even construct a livestock fence.

Each of the mounted varieties of barbed wire is accompanied by signage denoting the name of the variety (Ox Pen Wire, Vosburgh Cast Iron Plate, and Scutt’s Early Clip, among others here), along with the U.S. patent number and date of patent, as well as the museum’s unique collection identification number. There are, again, 2,400 varieties of barbed wire on display at the museum, as well as vintage examples of all of the tools used to build and maintain the fencing. Certain people take this sort of thing very seriously, and I’m glad that they do. We all have our personal hobbies and interests, right?

While it doesn’t support any real kind of tree growth, the Great Plains does have a great variety of other plants. The native grasses of the prairies west of the 98th Meridian developed deep-growing roots in order to reach reserves of moisture in the soil. In addition to keeping the soil from blowing away during wind events, the grasses wouldn’t turn over easily with farm implements developed for eastern croplands. Further, those native plants had evolved to need much less moisture to survive than did crops such as wheat and especially corn that grew readily in the eastern United States.

The museum has a cabinet devoted to barbed wire with historical significance, which I found very interesting. Many of this blog’s readers with Kansas roots will remember the tornado that nearly completely destroyed the town of Greensburg, Kansas, on May 4, 2007. One can read the history of this artifact on the signage below the artifact. Greensburg is about 70 miles due south of La Crosse.

Some of the earliest expeditions by the U.S. Army into what is known today as the Great Plains showed that the land probably wasn’t fit for much at all. In an 1810 journal recounting his adventures in the U.S. West, First Lieutenant Zebulon Pike wrote “these vast plains of the western hemisphere may become in time (as) equally celebrated as the sandy deserts of Africa.” Major Stephen H. Long, who traveled more than 26,000 miles in five expeditions across the West, in 1820 called the area “a great desert,” which later led to the term “the Great American Desert.” The plains area from present-day Nebraska south to Oklahoma was, according to Long, “unfit for cultivation and of course uninhabitable by a people dependent on agriculture.”

This display, mounted high in the rafters of the museum, was one of the exhibits in the museum’s first building and brought to the new facility. It is a nest built by crows almost entirely of wire, much of which is of the barbed variety. The nest was found in Greeley County, Kansas, which is along the border with Colorado in the far west part of the state. In the exhibit, the wires are real; the crows are not but they give a sense of scale to the 72-pound display. Nests like these are found in the arms of utility poles and on windmill towers.

The passage of time shows that both Zebulon Pike and Stephen Long were wrong* about the prospects of people living in the High Plains. However, it took unimaginable hard labor, perseverance, and technological breakthroughs, in addition to that passage of time, to prove them incorrect. In 1820, the entire United States had a population of less than 10 million. Today, more than 14.5 million people live in the states of Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Colorado. The Front Range of Colorado, which stretches from Pueblo in the south to Fort Collins in the north, has a population of more than 5 million people alone [and the Front Range also has views of two of Colorado’s most prominent mountains, Pikes Peak (elev. 14,115 feet) and Longs Peak (elev. 14,259 feet); I don’t know why the names don’t have possessive apostrophes, but these namesakes show that you can get mountains named after you even if you’re wrong].

*Actually, I don’t know that Pike and Long were entirely wrong. At least along the Front Range, that population of 5 million people is largely possible only by water being brought from somewhere else: snow runoff in western Colorado rivers that’s diverted under the Continental Divide to the Front Range, and water being pulled from the underground Denver Basin aquifer through wells. States downstream from Colorado are making increased (and, to this point, entirely legal) demands for Colorado’s western slope water, and the Denver Basin took tens of thousands of years to fill but is now being further depleted every year. Many farms in eastern Colorado and western Kansas and other parts of the area irrigate their corn (the crop doesn’t have much of a chance of success in the Great Plains without irrigation) with a lot of water pulled from the Ogallala Aquifer, which is being similarly and rapidly depleted, without a possibility of being refilled on a human timescale.

But I digress. Back to barbed wire. The 98th Meridian, then, served as a kind of barrier to westward expansion of the United States during and after the U.S. Civil War. The native grasslands were too tough to efficiently plow for use as cropland, and there was no guarantee that there would be enough precipitation to help crops survive even if their seeds could be planted. Add to that the fact that there was very little lumber for building or burning, and it was a land most inhospitable for development.

I haven’t played chess in quite a long while, but I still found this chessboard and piece display a lot of fun. Each type of piece is made from a different variety of barbed wire, identified by a nearby placard (ex., the two kings are made from Wing Staple Barb, patented in 1878; the four knights are Merrill’s “Twirl,” patented in 1874; the 16 pawns are made from Glidden’s “Oval,” patented in 1876).

What was the land, which supported at the time only a number of nomadic Native American tribes that hunted immense herds of bison and other native animals, good for? Well, some folks decided it could support cattle. Between 1866 (the year after the Civil War ended) and 1880, nearly 5 million head of cattle were driven from Texas north into Kansas and beyond for transport by railcars back east.

Barbed wire is also very effective at limiting the movement of people. This section of wire, along with the fragments of concrete, was taken from the Berlin Wall after that structure fell due to extraordinary social revolutions in late-1980s eastern Europe. The wall, for which construction began in 1961, separated the countries of East Germany and West Germany for nearly 30 years, until November 30, 1989. The museum devotes a lot of display space to exhibits of other barbed wire used for human containment, such as concertina wire, providing welcome food for thought beyond the wire’s use for livestock and crop fencing.

Along the way, some cattle were sold to ranchers in Texas, as well as present-day Oklahoma, Kansas, and other states. Those cattle helped establish ranches that, in a few cases, are still around today. The Homestead Act, signed into law in 1862, brought droves of people to the west with the intent of acquiring free land upon which they could build homes and develop farms. Moreover, the railroads, in addition to transporting cattle east, brought more people from the eastern United States to the west where public sentiment thought it increasingly likely that livings, if not fortunes, could be made – despite the treeless aspect of the plains.

Those eastern sentiments, such as putting up fences to protect their crops and livestock, conflicted with the open range rights that the cattlemen enjoyed. However, the plains still weren’t any good at providing trees with which one could make fences. Until farmers could cost-effectively keep free-range cattle from tromping their crops and their own livestock from wandering away into the vast expanse of the plains, there was no way for livings to be made. That changed on November 24, 1874, when Joseph Glidden was awarded a patent for barbed wire.

Glidden (January 18, 1813 – October 9, 1906) was an Illinois farmer (I’m writing this blog posting at Kankakee River State Park in Illinois, about 90 miles southeast of Glidden’s farmstead in DeKalb) who developed one of the first methods of mass-producing barbed wire using a coffee mill to create the preliminary experimental barbs. With another twisted wire keeping the barbs in place, Glidden developed “The Winner,” which he considered his best design effort and for which he received the U.S. patent. The development was an immediate success and quickly found its way west, where, since much less wood was needed to build fences, it ended the open range era of the American west and it turned the Great Plains into innumerable pastures. When he died in 1906, Glidden was one of the richest men in America.

Today, drive along any road – multi-lane paved Interstate highway or dusty gravel byway – in the West and you’ll likely see galvanized steel barbed wire fencing that can stretch for miles on into the horizon. It’s cheap, durable, and relatively simple to install, without the use of much wood (except where there isn’t any wood; see below).

Joseph Glidden may get the majority of the praise for popularizing barbed wire, but there were others before and after him who produced it.

Glidden’s “The Winner” wasn’t the only barbed wire design, and many before and many after him developed their own styles that they thought would work better in certain situations or environments. Those hundreds of other barbed wire designs, all with the intent of keeping animals in (or out) of a certain area, kept and continue to help keep Americans and the world fed and clothed for generations – and that’s the reason there’s a Kansas Barbed Wire Museum.

What to Do When There’s No Wood

Prior to the coming of the railroads to the west in the late 19th century, vast tracts of lands in the west couldn’t be fenced because there were no trees with which to provide wooden posts and rails. Even after the continent was crossed and after barbed wire was easily available, wood was still scarce and therefore best reserved for building living and work structures.

But spools of barbed wire can’t be used to build a fence without some sort of solid material used for a post, so what do you do? In the case of central Kansas, you use readily available material: rocks. Present-day Kansas, like much of the rest of America, was once under a great inland sea. Over millions of years, organic material from recently departed marine creatures fell to the sea bottom, and over further millions of years was compacted into a rock called limestone.

La Crosse’s original claim to fame was the Post Rock Museum, inside which are exhibits detailing the techniques and tools used to extract limestone used for fenceposts and other construction needs (such as for the Post Rock Museum itself and many other buildings in the area). The Post Rock Museum now shares the limelight with the Kansas Barbed Wire Museum; happily, the two are about 20 feet apart from each other.

The inland sea eventually drained away and, millions of years later, left present-day Kansas relatively dry and treeless under buffalograss-covered topsoil. Needing materials which which to build fenceposts, early settlers resorted to extracting the limestone rocks from just under the area’s topsoil. The area in which the limestone rests covers a 200-mile-long swath of Kansas land stretching southwest from the north-central border with Nebraska to about the location of Dodge City (a town, like many others in Kansas, that was made possible by the cattle trails of the late 19th century) in the southern part of the state. The swath measures in width from 10 to 60 miles wide. Farmers and people who specialized in quarrying post rocks would spend a day extracting about 25 posts, each of which could weigh between 200 and 450 pounds, from the ground.

This example of a post rock fence is adjacent to the Post Rock Museum, which originally had a relatively small display of barbed wire artifacts in addition to its primary focus of exhibits about extracting the posts from the ground. The popularity of the barbed wire display led to the establishment of the Kansas Barbed Wire Museum, now located directly next to the Post Rock Museum. See also the photos of post rocks used in the sign supports for the Kansas Barbed Wire Museum and the Antique Barbed Wire Society’s Historical Research Center at the top of this post – kind of brings it full-circle, don’t you think?

Because of their strength and stability, post rocks were needed only every 30 feet or so to support a barbed wire fence. Today, with the ready availability of steel and treated wood posts, post rocks aren’t nearly as high in demand. But in their heyday, from the mid 1880s to 1920s, post rocks were found in 40,000 miles of fencing in that swath of central Kansas – and, because of their durability (they’re rocks), many are still in use.

Back to Barbed Wire

Barbed wire, at first glance, may not seem like a significant development. But without it, the expansion of Anglo-Europeans westward across the 98th Meridian would have been, at best, substantially delayed. Beyond the economics and geographic expansion, barbed wire had huge cultural impacts as well: because it disrupted the migration of bison herds, barbed wire also led to the displacement of dozens of Native American tribes that had considered the region their homeland for many generations. Barbed wire, with a solid assist from the railroads, is what made the Anglo-European development of the Great Plains possible.

The National Museum of World War II Aviation

April 30, 2022 – Colorado Springs, Colorado

The city of Colorado Springs is home to a number of U.S. military installations, including the U.S. Army’s Fort Carson; the U.S. Air Force’s Peterson Air Force Base, Schriever Air Force Base, and Air Force Academy; and the U.S. Space Force’s Cheyenne Mountain Station, Space Command, and Space Operations Command.

I spent some of my early years (1975-1979) growing up just south of Colorado Springs, and it was fun to be able to camp in the Goddard for a week in April a few miles from my childhood home. I’d forgotten how common it was to see people in military fatigues while walking around Colorado Springs: almost 10 percent of the population is active-duty military, and the defense industry is responsible for about 40% of the Pikes Peak region’s economy.

The U.S. military’s strong presence in Colorado Springs makes the city a fine host for the National Museum of World War II Aviation, which opened in 2012. The museum has a collection of 28 aircraft dating from the 1920s through just after World War II, and here’s what makes this collection unique: each of them still flies. Nancy and I have been to plenty of aircraft museums to see hundreds of aircraft, but this was the first one in which all of the aircraft could be taxied to a runway and take off. The airplanes are used in a number of airshows across the country, and therefore must be maintained to be reliable and safe in the air.

The non-profit museum is co-located at the Colorado Springs Airport with a private business called WestPac, which specializes in restoring and maintaining vintage aircraft. Our tour of the museum on April 29, 2022, also included a good look at what WestPac does to restore these beautiful birds and keep them in the air.

North American Aviation T-6 Texan

This T-6 Texan is one of 15,495 of the aircraft built by North American Aviation between 1935 and 1951. The Texan was used as a training aircraft for pilots of the U.S. Army Air Force (which later became the U.S. Air Force) and the U.S. Navy, as well as air forces of the British Commonwealth, during the World War II era and into the 1970s. The T-6, with a cockpit built for the flight instructor and student, has a maximum speed of 208 mph and a range of 730 miles. Because of the number still capable of flight, the Texan makes frequent appearances at modern-day airshows. That’s Pikes Peak (elev. 14,115 feet), which had received some new snow up top a day or two before this photo in late April, above the cockpit.

Waco JYM

That’s our guide for the tour, docent John Lynch, in front of a 1929 Waco JYM airplane. This particular aircraft is known as “The Lindbergh Plane” because Charles Lindbergh, who in May 1927 became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, later flew this airplane to help promote the new industry of airmail service (which had employed Lindbergh before his historic flight). The airplane pictured provided airmail and air taxi service on the nearly 900-mile-long route between Chicago and Minneapolis.

The Waco JYM doesn’t have anything to do directly with World War II but as is the case with all aircraft, its service record helped develop the technology used in later airplanes. The museum is right to be proud of having this airplane in its collection: it’s one of four Waco JYMs produced for Northwest Airways, and this 93-year-old aircraft is the only one still capable of flight (note the pan underneath the engine to catch oil – all of the aircraft in the museum’s collection have those). Mr. Lynch, a U.S. Navy veteran of the Vietnam War, provided a thoroughly educational and entertaining tour; he was able to speak not only about the mechanics required for powered flight from the viewpoint of an engineer, such as wing and propeller design, but also the global developments of World War II from a historical perspective. He’s one of the better docents Nancy and I have had the pleasure of meeting.

Douglas Aircraft Company SBD Dauntless

This is an SBD (for Scout Bomber Douglas – in U.S. Navy nomenclature of the day, the first two words of the acronym describe the function and the last word names the manufacturer) Dauntless; they were originally designed by Northrup but the model was further developed and then introduced by Douglas in 1937. The first flight was in 1940. The Dauntless was a light bomber and reconnaissance aircraft with a maximum speed of 255 mph and a range of 733 miles. It had two .50-caliber forward-facing machine guns and two .30-caliber rear-facing machine guns (which were operated by the gunner/radio and radar operator, who was kept plenty busy in the back of the cockpit). An SBD also carried up to an 2,250-pound bomb load. These were the primary U.S. Navy aircraft in service during the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and a Dauntless was the first airplane to sink an enemy ship in World War II (a Japanese submarine, three days after Pearl Harbor).

I don’t think Nancy nor I were prepared for how big these Navy planes were – I guess we’re just used to primarily seeing, in person at least, fighter aircraft that were used in the European theater of the war. An SPD-5 had a length of 33 feet, wingspan of 41.5 feet, and a height of 13.5 feet, all with an empty weight of 6,400 pounds. Interestingly, the Goddard, the fifth-wheel trailer in which we live, has a length of 35 feet and a height of just over 13 feet, but it has a dry weight of 14,000 pounds — it’s not expected to take to the air, though.

If you’ve seen either version of the movie “Midway” (the 1976 release with Charlton Heston or the 2019 edition starring a number of CGI pixels), the Dauntless is the airplane that gets the most screentime while showing the events of the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway. In the latter battle, these aircraft sank or disabled four Japanese aircraft carriers. Also serving in the Battle of Guadalcanal, the Dauntless was, despite its slow speed and relatively light armament, a very hardy and reliable dive bomber. These airplanes sank more enemy ships in the Pacific Ocean than any other World War II bomber. As aeronautic and armament technology increased rapidly during the war, the production of SBDs ceased in 1944.

It was a great experience to see an example of the aircraft that was able to so effectively counterattack the Japanese naval forces during the early weeks and months of the United States’ involvement in World War II. This particular aircraft has an interesting story: it crashed into Lake Michigan in May 1944, during aircraft carrier training exercises, and wasn’t extracted from the lake until the mid-1990s. It has since been restored to be a fully functional flyer, one of only six SBDs in the United States still capable of flight (one-tenth of one percent of the original total of 5,936 produced between 1940 and 1944).

Grumman TBM 3-E Avenger

An unidentified tour participant, who seems to be in a lot of these photos, lends a sense of scale to this TBM Avenger. With a gross weight of 15,500 pounds, this was the heaviest single-engine aircraft of World War II. Grumman built the first Avengers, which originally flew just a few months before the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. It was formally introduced in 1942, and Grumman would go on to build almost 2,300 TBFs (torpedo bomber, and the “F” was for “Grumman,” for reason that probably makes sense from a military perspective). Electing to stop building Avengers in 1943 so that it could focus on the production of fighter aircraft, Grumman awarded a contract to General Motors to continue building the torpedo bombers. GM would call its versions TBMs (“M” for “Motors”). In all, Grumman and GM built almost 10,000 Avengers for the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Allied naval and air corps. Note the folding wings, which allowed for more of these aircraft to be carried by … aircraft carriers.

TBF Avengers were not an immediate success story: of six unescorted aircraft that participated in the Battle of Midway in early June 1942, five were shot down and the sixth returned with one crewman dead and the other injured. As the war progressed, however, crews gained invaluable experience (each aircraft had a pilot, a gunner/radio operator, and a bombardier) and the Avenger played a pivotal role in naval operations; the airplanes destroyed two Japanese super-battleships and sank dozens of Japanese submarines in the Pacific and German U-boats in the Atlantic. The TBF/TBM had a maximum speed of 200 mph, with a range of 1,000 miles. It carried one 2,000-pound torpedo or 2,500 pounds of bombs, in addition to three .50 caliber machine guns and one .30 caliber machine gun.

George H.W. Bush, who would later serve as a U.S. President from 1989 to 1993, was shot down by Japanese forces during a September 1944 bombing mission while flying an Avenger. He parachuted from the plane and was picked up offshore by an American submarine.

Lockheed P-38 Lightning

Here’s the first fighter aircraft we saw on the tour: the P-38 Lightning, which was the only truly successful twin-engine fighter seeing action in World War II. It was used primarily in the Pacific theater of the war, where big oceans and dense tree canopies made having redundant propulsion systems desirable. The Lightning was the first fighting aircraft in history to exceed 400 mph, and the only American fighter in production from the beginning of World War II until its end. The Lightning was armed with four .50-caliber machine guns, a .30-caliber machine gun, and four hardpoints for bombs or rockets. P-38s were credited with destroying 1,800 Japanese airplanes in the Pacific during the war. Lockheed made just over 10,000 P-38s during its production.

This particular P-38, like many of the other aircraft in the museum’s collection, has an interesting history – including the deepest combat history of any other airplanes in the museum. Pilot Ken Sparks, on a mission on the last day of 1942, was credited with two aerial victories while flying this airplane. He downed one craft with gunfire, and then inadvertently clipped another with the Lightning’s right wing. The wingtip lost several feet of material, but the aircraft survived while the Japanese craft crashed. Sparks would have 11 more victories in several additional aircraft. This airplane was buried for decades near an airfield in Papua New Guinea, and was restored by WestPac in 2017.

This is another very large airplane, especially for a fighter, which made getting a good photo difficult – it has a wingspan of 52 feet. Empty, it weighs 12,800 pounds – twice the weight of the Douglas SBD Dauntless.

Republic P-47D Razorback

This was an interesting exhibit, located just behind the P-38: it’s the hulk of a P-47D Razorback, which was found in roughly the same condition as the remains of the Lightning. WestPac has plans to restore it, which would likely make it the only flying Republic-built P-47D in the world. It, like the P-38, was buried in the jungle for more than 50 years and gives you an idea of what the WestPac restorers sometimes have to work with.

Republic P-47D Thunderbolt

This is the same model of aircraft as shown in the previous photo, but it has the later bubble canopy that improved the pilots’ abilities to see their surroundings. With eight .50-caliber guns totaling 3,400 rounds, P-47s were the most heavily armed Allied fighters of the war. They were also fully capable as bombers; a Thunderbolt could carry about half the bombing ordinance of a B-17 Flying Fortress. Thunderbolts had a top speed of 433 MPH and a range of 800 miles. About 15,500 P-47s were manufactured during the war years, and their versatility saw them perform in every theater of the conflict. As we were to discover at yet another aircraft museum in a few months, Thunderbolts were built primarily in Evansville, Indiana, in the southeastern corner of the state.

Douglas A-1E Skyraider

This airplane wasn’t discussed much on our tour, but it caught my eye for a couple of reasons: it’s painted in the livery of the South Vietnam Air Force, and it’s positively loaded for bear. The A-1E Skyraider was designed by Douglas during World War II as a aircraft-carrier-based single-seat replacement for the Curtiss Helldiver (see below) and the Grumman Avenger (see above). Prototypes first flew in March 1945, and Douglas Aircraft would go on to build 3,180 of these aircraft. Skyraiders saw a lot of action in both the Korean War and the Vietnam War. An A-1E had four 20mm cannons and up to a dozen rockets. Depending on the mission, a Skyraider – powered by a single Wright 2,800-hp engine – could carry bombing materiel equivalent to that of a four-engine B-17 or B-24: it was tested to carry 10,000 pounds of bombs. While Skyraiders were flown in aerial combat during the Vietnam War by the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Navy, and the South Vietnamese Air Force – two of these aircraft shot down a Soviet MiG jetfighter – the primary mission of the aircraft was to provide air support for ground troops. It was the most accurate bomber of that conflict.

Grumman F3F-2

Our tour continued into the maintenance hanger of WestPac, which was a great experience. Compare this Grumman F3F-2 to the P-47 in a previous photo, and you’ll see how rapidly aeronautics advanced when there was a world war underway. The F3F-2, the last U.S. Navy and Marine biplane fighter, was introduced in 1936 and retired from service in 1941 – before the United States entered the war, and the same year that the P-47 entered service. The F3F-2 had a .30-caliber and a .50-caliber machine gun, but could carry only 700 total rounds of ammunition. It could also carry one 116-pound bomb under each of its lower wings. Its engine is a Wright Cyclone producing 950 horsepower (less than half that of the Thunderbolt’s Pratt & Whitney’s 2,000 hp), and it had a top speed of 264 miles per hour – a little better than half of the P-47’s top speed. It’s a beautiful airplane for its (or any) time, to be sure. but it’s also instructive to see how quickly technology can improve when the conditions couldn’t be more serious. We saw this particular model in WestPac’s service center being readied for its annual inspection so that it could once again take to the skies.

Curtiss SB2C Helldiver

Here’s an aircraft currently under restoration by WestPac, the Curtiss SB2C Helldiver-1A. These airplanes had a troubled beginning, as their heavy weight. as well as issues with control and stability, caused multiple delays after a prototype first flew in December 1940. Curtiss was heavily criticized by the U.S. government for failing to produce combat-ready Helldivers in the first four years after the placement of the order, but the first SB2Cs finally saw combat in November 1943 and performed admirably during the latter period of the conflict – replacing the Douglas Dauntless SBD. Helldivers carried four .50-caliber guns and one .30-caliber gun, in addition to a thousand-pound bomb. Eventually 7,140 of these aircraft were constructed. This particular airplane was used as a trainer and saw action for a short while after World War II. It was later sunk in a lake, but recovered in the 1980s and is now one of WestPac’s restoration projects.
This is the Wright 2600-8 engine of the Helldiver (shown at top left in the preceding photo; the propeller has been removed). The engine produces 1,700 horsepower and takes the aircraft to a maximum speed of 295 MPH and a range of 1,165 miles. I think it shows just much work went into the design of all of these beautiful aircraft so that America could contribute to winning World War II. Moreover, it shows what must go into their ongoing maintenance to make sure that they still fly safely; when we owned a house, I felt proud of myself when I remembered to add oil to the lawnmower.

The National Museum of World War II Aviation is tremendously fascinating. Seeing a range of aircraft developed for both air combat as well as bombing was illuminating. It has fewer aircraft than most aviation museums we’ve seen, but the idea that all of the restored airplanes are still capable of flight really sets the museum’s collection apart. If you’re in the Colorado Springs area, the museum is well worth a visit – the aircraft there are really quite beautiful machines.

Petrified Forest National Park, Day 1

Near Holbrook, Arizona – March 25, 2022

Progressing east and west, Interstate 40 divides Petrified Forest National Park into northern and southern sections. The interstate generally follows the path of historic U.S. Route 66, which connected the midwestern United States to the country’s west coast in the first half of the 20th century. Although Route 66 stretched more than 2,200 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles, Petrified Forest is the only national park with former segments of the historic highway within its boundaries. The area south of the interstate, much larger in size than the northern part, contains most of the petrified wood specimens in the park. The northern area, however, boasts incredible roadside vistas of the Painted Desert and a sizable national wilderness area. Nancy and I visited the northern part of the park in late March. Gunther stayed with Rusty in the Goddard, but Nancy and I would enjoy the dog’s company when we returned to the park the following day.

We briefly stopped in at the northern visitor center, which was undergoing significant renovation at the time, then proceeded to drive along a route that included a number of overlooks of Petrified Forest National Park.

I decided to use my 14mm wide-angle lens for taking pictures the day we visited the Painted Desert. I got it a couple of years ago to primarily take pictures of the night sky but thought its properties would help capture the feeling of the vast open landscapes of Petrified Forest National Park. There is a disadvantage to using this lens, though: it’s not automatic, so the aperture, ISO, and other settings all must be set manually. I’m no good at any of that. Many of the photos I took were over- or under-exposed, and I had to make manual adjustments using a couple of pieces of photo editing software.

One gets a different perspective of time and distance when visiting this part of Petrified Forest National Park. The different colors in the gullies in the center of the photograph represent 200 million years of sediment being laid down by rivers and then being eroded by later rivers, and the rock formation on the horizon at left, Pilot Rock, is nearly seven miles away. The horizon in the center is much further – perhaps a hundred miles.
This view of a deep basin formed from erosion is from one of the first overlooks on a road that goes through the Painted Desert. One can see for, literally, a hundred miles to the horizon. They’re not visible in this photo, but we could see many, many tractor-trailers traversing Interstate 40 on the other side of this huge basin. Sharp-eyed viewers will, however, note a distinct lack of petrified wood in this view; that’s because most of the petrified logs are well south of this part of the park.

Petrified Forest National Park contains only a small part of the Painted Desert, which stretches across almost 8,000 square miles of northeastern Arizona. The colorful rocks, primarily mudstone and sandstone, of this region are called the Chinle Formation. Deposited from 227 to 205 million years ago during the Late Triassic Period while most of the land area on Earth was on the single supercontinent Pangaea, the rocks have been buried, lifted, and eroded during Pangaea’s breakup and shift into today’s major continents.

There are still living trees to be found in Petrified Forest National Park, but they’re nothing like the towering conifers that grew 200 million years ago when the area was located at about present-day Costa Rica. The park’s overlooks are built on a layer of basaltic rock that was ejected from volcanic eruptions only between 16 and five million years ago, forming a protective layer that is much more resistant to erosion than the sedimentary layers of rock below.

During the Late Triassic Period, the land comprising Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park was located just north of the equator and supported a much different environment (different enough, for example, to support a forest of 180-foot-tall trees that would later become petrified). As Pangaea divided, the land mass migrated north and the land itself underwent massive changes.

The different colors seen in the Painted Desert are quite impressive. Large river systems flowed through this area hundreds of millions of years ago, depositing many layers of gravel, silt, and sand. The different colors of the layers are created by varying mineral content of the soils, which have been exposed through geologic movement as well as water and wind erosion.

The Chinle Formation is itself divided into five members: Mesa Redondo, Blue Mesa, Sonsela, Petrified Forest, and Owl Rock. Each member represents a transition of the land from wet to dry environments over millions of years: the Mesa Redondo, the oldest layer and therefore the one underlying the rest of the formation, consists of red sandstone originally laid down 226 million years ago, and the youngest, Owl Rock, includes pink and orange mudstone at the top of the formation that was deposited 207 million years ago.

Here we see a visitor to Petrified Forest National Park (it’s Nancy) contemplate more than 200 million years of geologic change that resulted in these magnificent views.

Older rock formations in the Painted Desert are at the bottom of the geologic column, and the layers of rock grow younger in age as the elevation increases. The colors of these rocks come from the iron they contain. Drier climates allow the minerals to become exposed to oxygen, causing the iron to rust and develop distinctive red, brown, and orange colors. When the climate is wet, moisture essentially covers the sediments and prevents their oxidation. Those layers are colored blue, gray, and purple.

I think a lot of people might underestimate just how wide-open the American West can be. This picture, taken from the Pintado Point overlook at the national park, gives an idea of how far one can see in the northern Arizona desert. For instance, Turkey Track Butte is nearly 23 miles away from this viewpoint but is still distinctly visible. Behind the butte, the San Francisco Peaks are barely discernable, but they’re more than a hundred miles away. Pilot Rock is the highest point in the park, and Lithodendren Wash is a seasonal stream.

Nancy and I took a short hike along the rim of the basin, and one of the highlights of that walk was a stop at the Painted Desert Inn, which was originally built as a respite for travelers on Route 66. The highway passed just a short distance south of the building, and a spur road brought visitors to the inn for refreshments.

Records are unclear regarding exactly when the building was first constructed, but descendants of the original owner say he built it in the late teens of the 20th century. The Painted Desert Inn had several owners during the course of its life as a place of rest for Route 66 travelers, but the U.S. government bought the building and four surrounding square miles of land in 1936. Petrified Forest National Monument had been established 30 years earlier, and the area became a national park in 1962.

The interior of the Painted Desert Inn now serves as a visitor center for the Painted Desert as well as a museum with artifacts from the inn’s heyday. It’s all very impressive and you’re going to have to take my word on that because none of the pictures I took inside turned out.

Despite my photographic foibles, we really enjoyed this first visit to Petrified Forest National Park. I grew up on the eastern plains of Colorado, and I know long, uninterrupted distances. They are nothing compared to what can be seen in northeastern Arizona.

We’d see more of the park, and a little bit of actual fossilized wood, the next day. (Actually, we’d see a lot of fossilized wood. So. Much. Fossilized. Wood.)

Navajo County Courthouse

Holbrook, Arizona – March 20, 2022

Holbrook, Arizona, located in the northeastern corner of the state, is the seat of Navajo County, which was split off from neighboring Apache County in 1895. Both counties are still huge: Navajo measures 9,960 square miles, and Apache still has more than 11,000 square miles even after the division. Navajo County is bigger than the state of Vermont and just slightly smaller than Massachusetts. (For reference, my home county in eastern Colorado, Kit Carson, is considered very large at 2,162 square miles; in fact, Navajo County is about a tenth the size of the entire state of Colorado.)

Nearly two-thirds of Navajo County is designated Native American reservation land, including parts of the Hopi Indian reservation, the Navajo Nation, and Fort Apache Indian Reservation.

We camped in Holbrook for a week because of the town’s close proximity to Petrified Forest National Park – the park is only 25 miles northeast of the city – but we found plenty to like about the town itself.

The Navajo County Courthouse, completed nearly 125 years ago, is now home to the Navajo County Historical Society’s museum. Built in 1898 at a cost of $15,000, including a $3,000 jail, the courthouse was in use until 1976 when the Navajo County Correctional Complex was constructed on the south side of Holbrook.

Construction of the Navajo County Courthouse in Holbrook, Arizona, was completed in 1898. The courtroom and jail are on the right side of the building. You can probably determine on which floor each is located: one has cloth curtains on its windows and the other has metal bars.

The museum was open on a Sunday afternoon in March after the Goddard’s arrival in Holbrook, so we were able to spend a few pleasant hours touring the exhibits.

The first exhibit in the museum is the county jail, which is to the right after one enters the courthouse. The jail was built in Kansas City, Missouri, by the Pauly Jail Company, which began operations in 1856 and is still in business today – be sure to consider it for any incarceration needs you may have. The jail was then shipped by rail to Holbrook and placed in the still-under-construction courthouse.

The jail’s desk and other office furniture is on display in the office. That’s a receipt book along with some historic postcards on the desk. The longhorns at top left allude to Navajo County’s ranching heritage, which is extensive.
Here’s a handy feature located in the wall across from that desk: it’s a peephole covered by a swinging cover that affords a view into the detention area …
… and here’s what one sees if one looks through that peephole. The sleeping accommodations are somewhat spartan.
I don’t know how often you consider turning to a life of crime, but I know that when I do I make myself think of scenes like these and my thoughts quickly change to other, less illegal pursuits. Nancy and I didn’t have an opportunity to visit the new correctional facilities in Holbrook, so I don’t know how they compare to these. One would think they’re an improvement.

Firmly deciding to continue living our lives on the straight and narrow path, Nancy and I proceeded to other parts of the museum. Volunteers for the Navajo County Historical Society spend more than 2,000 hours each year curating and conserving artifacts from Holbrook’s past. The items represent the lives of Native Americans, Euro-American settlers, ranchers and cowboys, bankers, homemakers, railroad employees, teachers, merchants, and travelers through the area over the past centuries. Like many community historical museums we’ve visited, the exhibits in the building show a tremendous range of cultural, social, and economic pursuits. I wish other museums, however, were as well curated as Holbrook’s: the society has really done a fine job of keeping the exhibits relevant and reasonably sized.

The Mother Road

Holbrook makes much of its location on the former Route 66, one of the original highways of the U.S. Highway System. Established in 1926, Route 66 connected Chicago, Illinois, with Santa Monica, California, and passed through the states of Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona in its 2,448 miles.

Route 66 was an extraordinarily important highway in the first half of the 20th century, serving as the primary means by which Americans migrated to the West – especially during the Great Depression (John Steinbeck’s novel “Grapes of Wrath” alludes heavily to the highway). The route proved to be an essential economic driver for dozens of cities and towns along the way, as businesses provided food, fuel, shelter, and services to those who traveled the highway. Route 66 was officially removed from the U.S. Highway System in 1985, having been mostly replaced by a variety of segments of the U.S. Interstate Highway System.

The museum displays interesting artifacts from Route 66, and Holbrook itself makes many references to the highway along its former route. While we were in Albuquerque, New Mexico, we also saw many references to Route 66 (according to the mileage chart in the display above, Albuquerque is 1,329 miles from Chicago).
This marker for mile 322 on Route 66 was originally located east of Petrified Forest National Park – Holbrook today is at mile markers 285 and 286 on Interstate 40, which follows the path of Route 66 in northern Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. The interstate highway splits Petrified Forest National Park into two parts, and the 350-square-mile park is located in both Navajo and Apache counties. This is a really attractive mile marker, and I wonder how many of them are still around.

The Hashknife Outfit

In addition to the town’s Route 66 connection, the Holbrook museum also features extensive exhibits on the Aztec Land & Cattle Company. The company was founded in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1884 to take advantage of significant drops in cattle prices in Texas. Many large ranches in that state had continued to add to their herds, intending to reap profits when the beef markets improved. However, lingering drought caused prices to drop even further.

Aztec bought the Continental Cattle Company and its Hashknife brand (so called because the cattle brand resembled a bladed kitchen utensil), then shipped a total of 60,000 cattle and 2,200 horses from Texas to northeastern Arizona. The cattle were grazed on land purchased for 50 cents an acre from the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad. The grazing lands stretched about 300 miles from just south of Flagstaff to the New Mexico border (Arizona and New Mexico were both U.S. territories until 1912). With the ranch headquarters in Holbrook, the company’s employee base was a significant economic force for the town. However, Holbrook’s population of 300 residents found that not all of the Hashknife Outfit’s cowboys were of the law-abiding type. Cases of armed robbery and cattle rustling escalated, and there were 26 shooting deaths in 1886 (again, in a town of 300 people).

The Aztec Land & Cattle Company’s cattle brand looks a lot like this handy-dandy kitchen utensil, called a hashknife.

As was typical in the days of the Old West, range wars involving different ranches and their possessions were common. Many of the cowboys involved, either current or former Aztec employees, were incarcerated or outright killed.

The original end of Aztec as a beef-raising company came in 1902, with a drought, flooding, and overgrazing that destroyed the land on which the cattle were grazed. Aztec sold off its land and its remaining cattle, and the Hashknife brand was sold to a family in Flagstaff (and Aztec continues today as the third-largest private landowner in Arizona).

However, many of the cowboys of the Hashknife Outfit would go on to become respectable citizens of Holbrook and the surrounding area as independent ranchers, law enforcement officers, businessmen, and community leaders.

Although it was definitely the largest, the Aztec Cattle & Land Company wasn’t the only cattle concern around Holbrook and the museum has many artifacts about the ranching way of life.

Is it really a Western historical museum if it doesn’t feature a barbed wire exhibit? I think not. These barbed wire examples from the early Holbrook area date from the mid-1870s and 1880s.

Charles Goodnight, a Texas rancher and cattle trail developer, is credited with introducing the chuckwagon, a mobile kitchen used to keep cowboys’ bellies full, in 1866. Goodnight’s model was a modified wagon from the U.S. Civil War, to which he added a box with drawers and shelves for food and supply storage. Goodnight’s cattle drives took cattle from Texas to New Mexico on the Goodnight-Loving Trail (which also followed part of the Butterfield Overland Mail route). He’d later go on to drive cattle from New Mexico up into Colorado and Wyoming. Cooks for the cattle drives would also serve as barbers, dentists, and bankers for the outfits, and were so important that they were usually second in command to the trailbosses.

This particular chuckwagon belonged to George Hennessy (1877-1974), who was mayor of Holbrook in 1918 and was married to the daughter of the Hashknife Outfit’s foreman. Another resident of Holbrook, C.F. Lee, owned the wagon later, and his son, who donated the wagon to the Holbrook museum, said it was special to his father because, as a teenager on his first cattle roundup, he ate off this chuckwagon.

Back to the Triassic

One of the things I really appreciate about community historical museums is the breadth of items they display. The artifacts can range in dates from the times of ancient Native American cultures up to the Great Depression of the 1930s and even more recent. As I wrote, the Navajo County Historical Society has excelled at displaying just a few items from each era in order to abstain from overwhelming visitors. Let’s go back even further in time for a moment:

This is the fossilized skull of a critter still needing positive scientific identification, found about a mile east of present-day Holbrook. It is likely an amphibian that lived during the Triassic period, 250 to 200 million years ago. The skull is maybe 18 inches wide. Holbrook is, of course, also near Petrified Forest National Park and its huge fossilized trees that lived about 225 million years ago.
Writing of hard things, this is an example of an adobe brick from an early Holbrook building. Many of the buildings of the city are constructed from adobe, which has since been stuccoed to prevent erosion. Adobe is, of course, a time-honored construction material in the American southwest. This display also included other building materials, including sandstone blocks and red clay bricks, from since-demolished Holbrook buildings.
The citizens of Navajo County have long held a strong interest in preserving the past. In 1940, the war in Europe was threatening to spill over into other parts of the world, including the United States. Political leaders in Navajo County wrote a prayer for peace and sealed it in the three-inch galvanized pipe shown above. The capsule was then deposited in the left pilaster of the courthouse entrance. Other items included in the time capsule included two buffalo nickels, two March of Dimes pins, a newspaper from 1940, an election ballot form, and a number of written letters. The capsule was unearthed in 1995 during an annual celebration in Holbrook. In 1998, the contents of the time capsule along with other items from that year were reburied in a PVC pipe in the same location, and officials decreed that the plastic time capsule will be reopened in the year 2098.
The courtroom, located on the courthouse’s second floor, looks much like it did in the final days of its use in 1976. The jury seats are on the left, and museum exhibits are on the room’s other walls. The judge’s chambers and legal library, through the door to the left of the exhibit cases, are also preserved. After the courthouse’s construction, this room was also used for community dances until it was decided that the festivities were putting too much weight on the floor. Note the ornate design of the ceiling. I don’t know how much time you’ve spent in courtrooms, willfully or not, but for some reason they always have a calming effect on me.
I took this photo of the courthouse’s front door as we were leaving the museum. There’ve been a lot of people who walked through this door in the last 124 years: some to face a trial, some to pay a county bill, some to attend a dance in the courtroom (when that was still permitted). The door and its hardware have a lot of character, and they’re just a few steps from the PVC time capsule that will be reopened in just over three-quarters of a century.

Tuzigoot National Monument

March 19, 2022 – Clarkdale, Arizona

We enjoyed a one-week stay in Camp Verde, Arizona, in mid-March of 2022, which allowed easy access to two National Park Service (NPS) sites. The first was Montezuma Castle National Monument, a cliff dwelling on which construction began a thousand years ago and which we visited on a couple of consecutive weekday late afternoons. The second was Tuzigoot National Monument, another ancient Native American dwelling site located about 20 miles northwest of Camp Verde. Tuzigoot was declared a national monument on July 25, 1939. Nancy and I visited the monument on a pleasant but overcast Saturday in mid-March.

Look closely at the top of the tower: that’s a group of about a dozen people. Tuzigoot is a big place.

Like the nearby Montezuma Castle, the Sinagua Native Americans began construction on Tuzigoot pueblo about a thousand years ago. Also like Montezuma Castle, Tuzigoot is misnamed: it’s a corruption of the Tonto Apache phrase “Tú Digiz,” which means “crooked water” and refers to a bend in the nearby Verde River. The pueblo, located on a hilltop with 360-degree views for miles around the area, featured 110 rooms.

The proximity to Montezuma Castle, and to other pueblo communities like those in New Mexico’s Aztec Ruins National Monument and Bandelier National Monument, as well as Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park, points to the fact that the residents traveled frequently between the dwellings and traded ideas and goods with each other. Again, much like the other pueblos in the area, the dwellings were abandoned beginning in the 1300s most likely due to a variety of reasons (depletion of natural resources, climate change, possible threats from other native cultures) rather than just one. Also, the Hopi, who count themselves among the Sinagua culture’s descendants, believe their forebears were naturally nomadic and didn’t like to stay in one place for too long.

The Tuzigoot National Monument experience begins with the site’s visitor center, which is itself a historic structure (although not as historic as the pueblo, since the visitor center dates only to 1936). The visitor center was built as a museum by local Clarkdale residents, who also helped professional archeologists with the initial excavation of the Tuzigoot pueblo. The center contains actual artifacts – not reproductions – that were found during the site’s excavation in the 1930s.

Here we see a Tuzigoot visitor (it’s Nancy), freshly armed with knowledge gained from the visitor center as well as a pair of binoculars, ready to begin her 1/3-mile trek to the pueblo. The center is a really cool building, both on the inside and the outside.

The visitor center is on the National Register of Historic Places and has a collection of 3,158 objects, not all of which are on display. The collection includes ollas (large pottery pieces serving as bowls or baskets), woven baskets, projectile points, and jewelry.

The visitor center has an extensive collection of artifacts from the Tuzigoot pueblo as well as from other ancient communities. Men and women from Clarkdale logged more than 34,000 hours excavating and conserving more than 150 pieces of pottery. These pieces, acquired back in the day by trading with natives from neighboring pueblos, date from the years 800 to 1375.
I really enjoyed these twig figures that represent mammals – they date from 4,000 to 2,000 years ago, but you probably read that. They’re each about four to six inches wide.
This example of a reconstructed wall from the pueblo shows how thick the structures were. That NPS flyer, placed helpfully by a visitor (me), is 8.25 inches wide. As anyone who’s ever built a pueblo knows, thick walls make for good insulation. Summer temperatures in the Verde Valley reach into the 90s, and wintertime lows commonly dip into the 30s.
We were happy to have some excellent birdwatching opportunities at Tuzigoot. This lesser goldfinch (Spinus psaltria) was singing a happy tune just outside the monument’s visitor center. These may be the smallest finches in the world: males generally range from 3.5 to 4 inches long and weigh between a quarter ounce and four-tenths of an ounce. Much of their diet consists of dandelion seeds.
The visitor center also has a nice native plant collection. This is a specimen of ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens), which translates to “stay far, far away” in Spanish (not really). Although it looks like a cactus, it’s genetically related more closely to tea and blueberries (really). Ocotillo can grow up to 30 feet tall and is sometimes planted as a living fence.
Desertbroom (Baccharis sarothroides) is a flowering shrub native to the Sonoran Desert of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. Tea made from steeping the twigs helps alleviate pain from sore muscles. The plant is rich in compounds that reduce cholesterol and serve as an antioxidant. However, there’s also evidence showing that ingesting the compounds has its share of negative side effects so don’t go drinking that tea just yet.

The Tuzigoot site was first described by Anglo-Americans in the 1850s but wasn’t professionally excavated for nearly a century after that. Following the departure of the Sinagua, centuries of neglect, along with countless rain- and snowstorms, freezing temperatures, and the desert heat, left the pueblo in severe disrepair. The site was first excavated in the early 1930s and Portland cement was used to stabilize the rocks. Unfortunately, that material can, over time, damage the original rocks used in the buildings. In the late 1990s, researchers began to replace the Portland cement with mortar that is a better match with the bonding materials that were used a thousand years ago during initial construction.

This is from the top of the highest tower in the pueblo, looking southeast. The trees just on the other side of the meadow indicate where the Verde River flows. A couple of visitors to the left of the fence on the right side of the image provide a sense of scale. The pueblo was built on a hill that’s 120 feet higher than the surrounding terrain.
Nancy and I are fond of pointing out signs like this, which are necessary for exactly one reason.
This rock wren (Salpinctes obsoletus) was also happily singing, but on the rocks of the pueblo. They are also a very small bird, about 5-6 inches long and weighing half an ounce. Rock wrens are known for laying down a pathway of small stones outside their nests, which are located in rock crevices or in tree stumps.
Tuzigoot visitors are allowed to enter some of the rooms. This one allows access, via a steep set of stairs, to the top of the tower shown in the first photograph. The ceiling shows the viga-and-latilla (large logs crossed with perpendicular smaller logs) ceiling that also served as the supporting floor for the upper story.
Looking southwest from the high tower of Tuzigoot, the town of Jerome, Arizona, is visible from the top of the pueblo. Five centuries after the Sinagua left Tuzigoot, Jerome was founded at this location because of the nearby hill featuring a large capital letter “J.” I’m just kidding with you right now: the town was founded there because of the presence of immense amounts of copper underneath it. The copper mines have since played out. In 1930, Jerome had a population of close to 5,000 people and it now has around 500 residents. Also note the snow on the nearby mountains; Jerome is about 100 miles north of Phoenix and lies at an elevation of about 5,000 feet.

The 190-mile-long Verde River, which flows to the north and east of the Tuzigoot pueblo, drains an area of almost 6,200 square miles. The Verde flows just a few feet from where our campsite was in Camp Verde, which derives its name from the river. It eventually empties into the Salt River east of Phoenix, which in turn flows into the Gila River west of the city. A nice trail leads north from the Tuzigoot visitor center to a natural area called Tavasci Marsh (named after the family that once owned a dairy there). About 10,000 years ago the marsh was part of the river but it has since been separated through erosion and other geological forces to become a separate, but connected, wetland. There were, hundreds of years ago, many marshes in the Verde Valley. They’ve since been drained for human development and pasturelands, and today marshes are very rare in Arizona. The trail is a half-mile walk to an observation deck that overlooks the marsh, and there are more opportunities for birdwatching and plant appreciation.

I really like this plant, which we’d also seen at Saguaro National Park outside of Tucson, Arizona. It’s desert Christmas cactus (Cylindropuntia leptocaulis), and its pretty red berries were used by Native Americans to create an intoxicating beverage.
Sparrows aren’t generally thought of as especially attractive birds (I disagree), but the black-throated sparrow (Amphispiza bilineata) is definitely an exception. These desert natives are 4.5 to 5.5 inches long and weigh about half an ounce. Black-throated sparrows are extremely well-adapted to their desert habitat (they’re also known as desert sparrows in the southwest); while they get a lot of their moisture from water sources during wet times, during dry periods they derive almost all of their necessary moisture from eating insects. This handsome sparrow was hanging out near the trail to Tavasci Marsh.
It wouldn’t be a visit to a Sonoran Desert site without seeing the strawberry hedgehog cactus. They just have ridiculously long thorns compared to their body size.
This is Tavasci Marsh, one of the few remaining wetlands of its type in Arizona. Nearly 245 species of birds have been documented in this riparian area and the marsh attracts plenty of other wildlife – none of which happened to be visiting during our time overlooking the area, but that’s totally alright because we saw plenty of other birds on the trails during our visit.

Tuzigoot National Monument is a fine example of the diversity of ancient Native American pueblos. As conserved by the National Park Service, the monument is a great opportunity to not only learn about its former residents, but to also see some great natural attractions.

Pima Air & Space Museum, Day 2

March 6, 2022

We’ve found that many museums and other attractions in the southwest allow visitors to bring their dogs along. That policy is probably, at least in part, so that people don’t leave their dogs in their cars. For whatever reason it is, we’re good with it.

Gunther was able to join us on the second of our two visits to the Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson. The exhibits that we saw on March 6 were all outside. It was a lovely day and there happened to be an airshow training program taking place at a nearby airfield, so we saw plenty of planes on the ground and in the air. As I wrote in the posting about our first day’s visit, there are hundreds of airplanes on the grounds of the museum, and taking them all in, even with a two-day pass, is a lot to handle.

I finally remembered to take a picture of a museum’s exterior so I’ll include this photo. That’s a Douglas A-4C Skyhawk in the foreground. It was a carrier-based bomber produced by Douglas Aircraft Company, and later McDonnell Douglas, from 1954-1979. The Skyhawk, which played active roles in conflicts ranging from the Vietnam War through the Falklands War, could carry the bombload equivalent of a World War II-era Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. It had a top speed of 670 MPH; about 3,000 were produced.
This was one of the many, many formations of aircraft that flew over the saguaro cactus of Tucson in the days that we were camping there. The pilots were training for upcoming airshows, taking off and landing at nearby Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. They usually flew in groups of three or four, and some of the formations included vintage aircraft like this A-10 Thunderbolt with P-51 Mustangs and others featured current airplanes like the F-22 Raptor flying alongside World War II and Korean War-era craft.
The aircraft on the outside grounds of the museum are lined up in long, long rows, grouped mostly by their era. The museum is a big complex — Nancy and Gunther and I walked four miles during our visit that day. That’s a Vought F-8 Crusader, produced beginning in 1957 and retired as a fighter by the U.S. Navy in 1976, in the foreground. It was also a carrier-based jet, and the last American-made fighter to use guns (20mm cannons) as a primary weapon. Crusaders, which could reach 1,227 MPH (Mach 1.8, or 1.8 times the speed of sound), were used to take low-level photographs of missile installations in Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962; they saw most of their action later during the Vietnam War.
Rotary-wing aircraft fans aren’t left out: here’s a row of helicopters starting with the Sikorsky UH-19B Chickasaw. This cargo helicopter was introduced into U.S. Air Force service in 1950 and retired by the U.S. Navy in 1969. The UH-19 had a crew of two, could carry 10 troops, and had a maximum speed of 101 MPH. This particular UH-19B is one of about a dozen Chickasaws on current display in the United States.
A museum visitor and her ill-behaved dog take a look to the skies at the ongoing training operations while standing in front of another big helicopter, the Mi-24D Hind-D. This Russian-made gunship has been in operation since 1974 and has seen action in nearly every conflict since then, including the Soviet war in Afghanistan (1979-1989), the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). the Gulf War (1991), and in this year’s operations in Ukraine (both the Russians and the Ukrainians have Mi-24s). The Hind has a maximum speed of 208 MPH and has a substantial range of armament capabilities. Almost 2,700 Hinds have been produced, and armed forces all over the world have them in their inventory. They’re very menacing aircraft; it’s unfortunate that the paint used to protect the canopy is nearly the same color as the rest of the helicopter.
One more widebody whirlybird: this is the Sikorsky MH-53M Pave Low, a USAF combat search and rescue helicopter in service from 1974-2008. The Pave Low had a crew of two pilots, two flight engineers, and two gunners, with a top speed of 200 MPH. It weighs 16 tons empty.
From a design standpoint only, I love me some MiGs. This product of the Russian Mikoyan-Gurevich design bureau is a MiG-29 Fulcrum, which entered Soviet Air Forces service in 1982 and is still in use by a couple of dozen air forces today (including those of Russia and Ukraine). It was developed to compete with U.S. fighters like the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle and the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon. The Fulcrum has a top speed of 1,500 MPH (about two times the speed of sound, or Mach 2). This particular aircraft is one of seven MiG-29s currently on display in the United States.
Here’s an earlier MiG, and one of my favorite aircraft designs as well, the MiG-21 Fishbed. This is the most-produced supersonic fighter in the world, introduced in 1955 and still in use by some countries’ air forces. It has a top speed of 1,350 MPH. Almost 11,500 MiG-21s were built, and we’ve seen two of them: we saw another of these aircraft on display in Albuquerque, New Mexico, at the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History in November 2021.
This big boy (it’s almost 20 feet tall and weighs 31,000 pounds empty) is the English Electric Lightning, introduced in 1960 and retired by the Royal Air Force in 1988. This is the only British-designed fighter that reached Mach 2. It was developed to protect the United Kingdom from potential attack by Soviet nuclear bombers. This particular Lightning is one of only two on current display in the United States.
Staying with European manufacturers for now, here’s a Dassault-Breguet/Dornier Alpha Jet, a fighter in production from 1973 to 1991 and built cooperatively by France’s Dassault Aviation and Germany’s Dornier Flugzeugwerke. France’s air force used the Alpha Jet primarily as a trainer, and Germany’s air force used it as an attack jet. About 500 aircraft were built; the jet, which had a two-person crew, had a maximum speed of 620 MPH at sea level.
I didn’t know that Hawker Aircraft, which built the WW II-era Hurricanes that, along with Supermarine Spitfires, ably fended off German attacks during the Battle of Britain, also built jets. This is the Hawker Hunter, which was introduced in 1954; the last combat craft was retired (by the Lebanese Air Force) in 2014. The Hunter had a maximum speed of 623 MPH. Besides the Royal Air Force, 21 other overseas air forces used the Hunter.
The Pima Air & Space Museum also has a good variety of civilian aircraft. This is a Cessna 172M Skyhawk. The Cessna 172 is the most-produced aircraft ever built: since 1956 more than 44,000 have been produced by the Cessna Aircraft Company of Wichita, Kansas, and its partners. It has a cruising speed of 140 MPH, with room for one pilot and three passengers. In 1911, a farmer in central Kansas named Clyde Cessna built his own airplane. He tested further aircraft in Enid, Oklahoma, but when Enid bankers refused to lend him more money, he moved his operations to Wichita. Cessna is now a brand of Textron Aviation, which also owns the Beechcraft and Hawker Corporations. This is one of four different Cessna models that my dad, Steve Goering, has flown. That’s a Lockheed L-049 Constellation airliner, which had been restored by Trans World Airlines, behind the Skyhawk. This particular airplane started out as a military transport but was later to converted to civilian use as one of the first aircraft in TWA’s fleet. The airliner had room for between 62 and 95 passengers and a maximum speed of 377 MPH.
Two more airliners, with that same museum visitor and her same ill-behaving dog in the middle. On the right is a Boeing 737 and on the left is a prototype of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Almost 11,000 737s have been produced since 1966; they are capable of carrying up to 215 passengers. The Dreamliner, in production since 2009, can carry between 250 and 290 passengers and has a range of about twice that of the 737 (more than 6,400 nautical miles vs. up to 3,850 NMI). The Dreamliner’s top speed approaches 600 MPH.
I don’t know how old this young boy is or how tall he is, but he does provide a good sense of scale for one of the Dreamliner’s jet engines.
It wasn’t part of a program at the Pima Air & Space Museum, but seeing these Heritage Flight Training Course aircraft flying in formation overhead was pretty thrilling. That’s a North American Aviation F-86 Sabre (capable of Mach 1, or 678 MPH) flanked by a pair of North American P-51 Mustangs (top speed of 440 MPH), all being followed by an Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor (top speed of 1,500 MPH, or 2.25 times the speed of sound). I write a lot about the speeds of all of the aircraft we saw at the museum because I’m always impressed with the rate of technological development following World War II. The Mustangs are propelled by a completely different technology (um, a propeller) than the jet-powered Sabre and the Raptor, of course, but the Sabre, introduced in 1947 and just five years after the Mustang, is 50 percent faster than the P-51. There’s a span of just 58 years between the introduction of the Sabre and the Raptor, which has a top speed more than twice that of the Sabre.
Here’s that same formation, with visitors to the Pima Air & Space Museum watching from below. It struck me that the Mustangs, introduced 80 years ago and still capable of flying alongside an F-22 Raptor (with the latter throttled waaay back, naturally), were airborne above hundreds of other aircraft that will never be in the air again but still served their respective purposes.

There are about 400 aircraft at the Pima Air & Space Museum, inside hangers and outside on the ground, and each of them has an interesting story to tell. I wanted to limit the number of photos in this posting to 10 or 12, but couldn’t decide what to exclude. I didn’t include photos of the EWACs (early warning and control) airplanes like the Grumman E-1 Tracer that flew over Europe during the Cold War, or the bombers like the couple of Boeing B-52 Stratofortresses on display. Even with the two-day pass, we could have spent a lot more time looking at these airplanes and learning about their place in history.

Tucson Botanical Garden

March 5, 2022

Nancy and I decided to pay a visit to the Tucson Botanical Gardens on a quiet Saturday morning in early March. The garden grounds are located in the northwest corner of the city, in a pleasant area of residential neighborhoods and small businesses. The gardens are at an expansive former family home, which adds a decided sense of intimacy to the experience of visiting.

We spent most of the morning wandering around the Cactus & Succulents Garden, which afforded us an opportunity to see some really interesting cacti and some birds as well.

This cactus is called Mexican Fence Post. It can grow up to 20 feet tall and, true to its name, is native to Mexico can be grown as a natural living fence.

The Cactus & Succulents Garden features plants from around the world that also perform well in the southern Arizona environment. The plants have been divided into four major areas representing the:

  • Sonoran Desert of North America
  • Chihuahuan Desert of North America
  • Desert regions of South America
  • Desert regions of Africa

Mexico has between 750 and 800 different species of succulents. The United States has about 200 native species, and South America has about a thousand species.

A wandering passerby (it’s Nancy) provides a sense of scale for this cactus that also grows plenty tall. This is called organ pipe cactus, and can grow 20 feet tall with a width of 12 to 15 feet. It is native to Mexico and the United States.

We saw a number of birds at the Botanical Gardens, including five species I’d never seen before.

This is a very common bird, the house finch, but I like the way he’s looking at me.
This grizzled specimen of cactus is a representative of Old Man of the Mountain (Oreocereus trollii), which originates in Argentina. This slow-growing cactus can reach about 3 feet in height.
This is a curve-billed thrasher. It has a remarkable beak. This species is more widespread in New Mexico, but its range also includes southern Arizona and even the very southeast corner of Colorado, as well as western Texas and most of Mexico.
This is a species of agave called whale’s tongue. It can grow up to 4 feet tall and 4-6 feet wide (this is a younger specimen). Mature whale’s tongues (about 10 years old) will send up a flowering stem that reaches up to 14 feet. Like most agaves, the original plant dies after flowering and distributing its seeds.
This small species, Tephrocactus cactaceae, has spines that seem somewhat out of proportion to its body. It is a native of Argentina.
Back to a taller species: this is thick-stemmed totem pole cactus. It grows 10 to 12 feet tall, with smooth skin and no visible spines. It is a native of Sonora and the Baja Peninsula of Mexico.
Here’s the back of a broad-billed hummingbird. I took six or seven photos of this guy, and this is the best of the lot. Hummingbirds just don’t stay still very long. Other new-to-me birds that I saw at the garden were the orange-crowned warbler, the lesser goldfinch, and the verdin. I wish I had better photos to share of those last three, especially the verdin.
Here’s another succulent, crucifixion thorns. Native to Madagascar, this shrub can grow up to 7 feet tall.
Finally, here are several specimens of the distinctive saguaro cactus. Saguaros, native to Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, the Mexican state of Sonora, and a couple of areas of California, can grow up to 40 feet tall. We’d see a few more examples of this species when we visited Saguaro National Park a few days after our visit to the Tucson Botanical Gardens.

We were really happy to visit the Tucson Botanical Gardens. It’s always fun to visit a garden that, like Denver’s, is in a residential area, and there were several more habitats in the gardens that showed even more diversity in plants. Even in early March, there were plenty of blooming flowers to enjoy throughout the gardens.

Pima Air & Space Museum, Day 1

March 4, 2022 – Tucson, Arizona

Until 1947, the U.S. Air Force was a component of the U.S. Army (during World War II the branch was known as the United States Army Air Forces). In 1966, during a celebration of the anniversary of the establishment of the U.S. Air Force, military commanders in the Tucson area realized that many of the historic World War II- and 1950s-era aircraft stored on Davis-Monthan Air Force Base were being lost – as was much of U.S. military history. Airplane parts were being sent to smelters so their metal could be used in modern aircraft production. Base officials began to set aside examples of the aircraft along the base’s fenced perimeter so that the public could see them. Although the practice saved many aircraft from the smelter, this wasn’t an ideal solution. The Tucson Air Museum Foundation of Pima County was formed that year, and the foundation found a 320-acre site of BLM land just south of the Air Force base. The foundation’s first aircraft acquisition was a B-24 Liberator. Many years (and hanger constructions and aircraft acquisitions and hanger expansions) later, the Pima Air & Space Museum is the country’s largest non-government-funded aviation museum. The museum has more than 100 civilian, military, and experimental aircraft in its four indoor hangers (totaling a quarter-million square feet) alone, as well as many more parked on the grounds outside for a total of about 400 aircraft.

This overhead shot of the Pima Air & Space Museum shows the extent of the museum’s collection [for a sense of scale, the two large gray aircraft next to each other on the left side are B-52 Stratofortresses (Stratofortressi?); they each have wingspans of 185 feet]. The four hangars open to the public are at the top of the photo (courtesy of the Pima Air & Space Museum).

Recognizing that its collection is large and takes aircraft enthusiasts a lot of time to visit, the museum smartly offers a two-day pass that Nancy and I took advantage of. Because March 4 was pretty breezy, we opted to spend that day looking at the aircraft inside the hangers. I’ll share just a few of the ones that I enjoyed viewing, listed in order of their year of introduction.

Introduced in 1939, the Curtiss P-40E-1 Warhawk was heavily used by not just the U.S. Army Air Force, but also the Royal Air Force, the Royal Canadian Air Force, and the Royal Australian Air Force during action in World War II. With a production number of 13,378 aircraft, it was the third-most produced American fighter of the war following the P-51 Mustang and P-47 Thunderbolt. The Warhawk lacked a dual-speed supercharger and therefore couldn’t compete in high-altitude combat against the Luftwaffe’s fighters in Europe. It did, however, perform admirably in the theaters of North Africa, the Southwest Pacific, and China. The Warhawk had a top speed of 334 mph.
It was a tremendous pleasure to stand next to this aircraft, one of my favorites of all time. This is the Supermarine Spitfire Fr. XIVe. The Spitfire is recognized as the best British-made fighter of World War II. Along with the Hawker Hurricane, this is the aircraft (or rather, an earlier version of it) that defended London and its environs during the Battle of Britain (July-October 1940). Although more Hurricanes were involved with the battle, the Spitfire’s higher performance gave it a higher victory-to-loss ratio. The aircraft’s design was modified constantly during the course of the war, improving performance through engine changes, wing design, and other alterations. From an aesthetics standpoint I actually prefer earlier versions of the Spitfire in which the fuselage extends to the tail, but the bubble canopy afforded pilots much-improved views. That’s a Rolls-Royce Griffon 65 engine near the left wing, the same V-12 liquid-cooled model that would have been used in this model of Spitfire (earlier models used the Rolls Royce Merlin engine). The Griffon saw widespread use beginning in 1941 and remained in production until 1955. It had a rating output of 1,730-2,420 horsepower. In order to accommodate the Griffon engine, the Spitfire’s nose had to be redesigned and the propeller went from three blades to five. With the Griffon engine, the Mark XIV had a top speed of 446 mph – 20 percent faster than the first production models. Nancy and I appreciated that many of the aircraft on display at the museum had a representative corresponding engine next to them. The last Spitfires were retired from active duty in 1961, but about 70 (out of 20,351 produced) of the aircraft remain airworthy.
The Consolidated B-24 Liberator, introduced in 1941, was used by every branch of the U.S. military in every theater of the war. About 18,500 Liberators were made, including 8,685 by the Ford Motor Company at its Willow Run manufacturing plant near Belleville, Michigan (incidentally, we have camping plans at a campground near the site of that plant in August). The B-24 was the world’s most-produced bomber, multi-engine aircraft, and American military craft in history. The B-24 had a cruising speed of 215 mph (maximum speed of 297 mph) and a range of 1,540 miles. American technological advances by the end of the war (including the development of the B-29 Superfortress, which had a range nearly three times that of the Liberator) made the B-24 obsolete. The fellow in the blue vest at lower right is a docent for the Pima Air & Space Museum; although he’s not a World War II veteran, he had a lot of interesting information to share about the B-24. The youngest of America’s World War II veterans were born around 1927. My family has an interesting history with the B-24: one of my mom’s uncles and one of my dad’s uncles were best friends at McPherson College in McPherson, Kansas, and flew the Liberator from North Africa together, about 25 years before my parents met.
Here’s another one of my favorites: the North American P-51 Mustang. Before the United States’ official entry into World War II, British military authorities had approached North American to build P-40 Warhawks but the company decided instead to build a more modern aircraft of its own design. A prototype of the P-51 was rolled out about three months after the contract was signed, and the Royal Air Force was flying Mustangs in January 1942. The first Mustangs were underpowered compared to other contemporary fighters, but that problem was rectified when the P-51s were fitted with Rolls-Royce Merlin engines. This P-51D had six .50 caliber machine guns rather than the four in earlier versions and could reach an airspeed of 437 mph. More than 15,000 P-51s were built; the last Mustang left U.S. military service in 1957 and the last Mustang left other forces (the Dominican Republic Air Force) in 1984. Nearly 100 Mustangs in private ownership are still flying.
The Boeing B-29 Superfortress was introduced in 1944, toward the end of World War II, but it certainly left its mark. B-29s carried more bombs, higher, farther, and faster than any other bomber. Superfortresses had a maximum speed of 358 mph, a range of 4,100 miles, and a service ceiling of nearly 32,000 feet. Over 3,000 B-29s were built and many continued to serve not only as bombers, but as reconnaissance planes and fuel tankers, into the early 1950s.This particular Superfortress, serial number 44-70016, served with the 330th Bomb Group and flew a total of 32 combat missions over Japan. It was retired in 1959.
While most of the Pima Air & Space Museum’s collection is devoted to military aircraft, there are plenty of civilian airplanes on display as well – including some suspended from the ceilings of its hangers. This is a Taylorcraft BC-12D, introduced in 1945. It has a maximum speed of 105 mph. My dad, Steve Goering, became a licensed pilot as a young man and has since flown quite a few different fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft. A number of years ago he flew a Taylorcraft BC-12 belonging to a family friend. That’s a Hughes OH-6 Cayuse, a helicopter introduced in 1963, behind the Taylorcraft – Dad flew one of those when he first went to Vietnam as a U.S. Army helicopter pilot during his in-country orientation flight in the late 1960s.
The North American F-86 Sabre was the best known aircraft of the United States’ first jet fighters. Design work began as World War II was ending in 1945, and the first prototype flew in August 1947. It was the first swept-wing jet fighter to enter American service, and, in a dive, exceeded Mach 1 – another first for an American aircraft. Sabres had a top level speed of 599 mph, and made their name during the Korean War. Eventually, 25 different countries would use Sabres in their armed forces. This particular model, an F-86E, was delivered to the U.S. Air Force in April 1951. It was first assigned to Japan and then transferred to Korea for the remainder of that war. It was retired in 1959.
The Grumman F-9F Cougar was originally envisioned to simply be a swept-wing version of the F-9F Panther, one of the first carrier-based fighters in the U.S. Navy, but despite retaining the F-9 designation it was a different aircraft altogether. The new design gave the Navy an aircraft capable of competing with the Soviet Union’s swept-wing MiG-15 aircraft, which was very effective in the skies over Korea. Grumman delivered the first F-9F Cougars in December 1952. This aircraft, an F9F-8P photo reconnaissance model, had a top level speed of 637 mph – still subsonic, but fast enough to compare with the MiG-15. In 1954, a U.S. Navy pilot set the transcontinental crossing speed record in a Cougar, completing the 2,438-mile flight in just over 3 hours and 45 minutes – it was the first time that the distance had been covered in less than 4 hours. Grumman produced almost 2,000 F-9F Cougars; the last Cougar was retired in 1974.
Introduced in 1958, the Bell UH-1 Iroquois is perhaps the most-recognized helicopter in the world. Versions of the Huey (the nickname is derived from the original U.S. Army designation of HU-1, and it’s certainly better known than “Iroquois”) remain in both military and civilian service today. More than 16,000 Hueys have been built since its introduction. Each branch of the U.S. military had its own version of the Iroquois by the mid-1960s, and the helicopter is perhaps best known for its use by the U.S. Army in Vietnam as a gunship, as well as cargo transport, medical evacuation, search and rescue, and other operations. The Army used 7,000 Hueys during its operations in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. The first Iroquois had a maximum speed of 127 mph and its various armaments included 7.62mm machine guns and 70mm rocket pods. My dad flew UH-1s as an Army instructor at Fort Rucker, Alabama, where he was an instructor; as well as in operations at Wertheim Army Airfield, West Germany; and at Fort Carson, Colorado. The particular UH-1 shown is from the 174th Assault Helicopter Company, deployed at Duc Pho in Quang Ngai Province from 1967-1970. The 174th was a sister unit of my dad’s F Troop, 8th Cavalry Regiment at Chu Lai, about 40 miles from the 174th. While at the museum I saw a few men my dad’s age walking slowly around this Huey – their memories were their own, but they were almost palpable.
This exhibit shows a variety of memorabilia from Vietnam-era helicopter operations. The U.S. Army Air Cavalry reintroduced the Stetson hat (to the left of the shirt) during the Vietnam War, and the Stetson hat is still worn during the Air Cavalry’s military ceremonies. The hats were originally worn beginning in the 1870s by U.S. Cavalry soldiers. The helmet, at right of the shirt, is a Gentex APH-5A worn by U.S. Army flight crew. The flashlight below the helmet is an Army-issued angle-head model. That’s a model of the Sikorsky CH-54 Tarhe helicopter to the left of the flashlight, along with a model of a mobile field hospital. In the center is a U.S. Army M60D 7.62mm machine gun, as mounted on U.S. Army helicopters. This display brought back a lot of memories for me (well, not so much the M60, but the shirt, helmet, and flashlight certainly did).
The neat thing about a lot of aircraft museums is the range of technology on display. The first aircraft you see when entering the main hanger is a reproduction of a Wright Flyer, which the Wright brothers flew a few feet above the North Carolina sand dunes in 1903 with a top speed of 30 mph. Then there’s this Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, introduced in 1966 and with a top speed of 2,200 mph and a service ceiling of 16 miles above the Earth. Sixty-three years isn’t that much time, but look how far aviation advanced in that period. We’d put men on the moon and bring them back to Earth 66 years after the Wright Flyer took off. The Blackbird could fly across the transcontinental United States in a little over an hour – it took the F-9F Cougar 3 hours and 45 minutes to do that only 12 years earlier. I haven’t asked Dad, but I’m pretty sure that he has no hours flying the Blackbird; even if he did, he probably couldn’t tell me.
Here’s an aircraft that my dad did fly. The Bell AH-1 Cobra was originally conceived as a private venture, but Bell shifted its production of the helicopter to support wartime efforts in Vietnam and the Cobra was in the air over Vietnam by 1966. Although it doesn’t look much like the Iroquois, the Cobra and UH-1 have more than 80 percent of their parts in common. The Cobra has a top level speed of 141 mph, and was originally armed with two 7.62mm multi-barrel Miniguns or two 50mm grenade launchers, or one of both, along with either 7 or 19 70mm rockets, depending on the model of rocket launcher. Both the U.S. Army and Marine Corps continue to use modernized versions of the Cobra in their operations. This Bell AH-1S Cobra is close to the AH-1G my dad flew in Vietnam; the AH-1G is the original production model, and the AH-1S has an upgraded engine to the AH-1G.

Even if it represents a smaller percentage of its total collection, the aircraft inside the hangers of the Pima Air & Space Museum are truly impressive. They’re historic, they’re beautiful, and some of them are terrifyingly efficient at what they were designed to do. There were dozens of other aircraft that I didn’t include in this posting: a McDonnell FH-1 Phantom, a Grumman F-14 Tomcat, a Hawker Hurricane, a Grumman F-11 Tiger, a Fairchild-Republic A-10 Thunderbolt … the list of aircraft just under a roof at this museum is incredible. Seeing a Huey up-close again, as well as other aircraft that my dad has flown, was really rewarding. Here’s a fun fact: my birth in June 1969 was induced a few days early so Dad could see me before leaving for Vietnam. I was born in McPherson, Kansas, where my two great-uncles (the B-24 Liberator crewmen) were friends a quarter-century before I was born.

In another post, we’ll return to the Pima Air & Space Museum and take a look at the aircraft outside the hangers (some of which my dad has also flown).

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