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Archive for the ‘history’ Category

grand coulee dam

Grand Coulee Dam is 550 feet high! 5,223 feet long! Generates 6,809 megawatts of electricity! And other measurements as well. The best statistic comes from a jaunty pamphlet provided by the Department of the Interior Bureau of Reclamation: “Grand Coulee Dam is one of the largest concrete structures in the world. What else could you build with 12 million cubic yards of concrete? A sidewalk four feet wide and four inches thick and wrap it twice around the equator (50,000 miles), or a highway from Seattle to Miami.”

Ok, ok. Wow. A visit to Grand Coulee on the Columbia River sounds like it might be boring but it’s quite the sight and has the most fun visitor center.

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artillery museum

“Experience History With A Bang at Canada’s National Artillery Museum in the Central Museum of the Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery at Canadian Forces Base Shilo”. That’s a mouthful to put on a road sign but we didn’t need to read it; Ralph scoped out the RCA Museum early on and we made a crooked beeline for it when we passed through Manitoba.

I couldn’t have less interest in war lore, but through Ralph I’ve grown to appreciate military museums as an alternative way to connect with the regions we visit. They often house peculiar items found nowhere else and present a different perspective than the usual insipid pioneer museum.

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old montana prison

I’m not sure how I feel about the Old Montana Prison, built in 1871 and emptied of prisoners and staff in the late 70s.

While sad, it also felt unhaunted and peacefully laid to rest. Inside the red castle-style walls the offices are in stasis—as if the job placement counselor and chaplain just stepped out for a coffee—and have a stark, government-issue beauty (if there was ever an oxymoron, that’s it).

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custer’s last stand

We visited the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument—a vast area 60 miles from Billings, Montana—on the day after it took place 134 years ago. Ralph “The Master of History” narrated the story of the clash between Custer, his two subordinates (Benteen and Reno) and the 600 men of the 7th Cavalry, and thousands of well prepared Native American warriors as we drove the length of the battlefield and back.

“What happened was this,” Ralph began patiently. “Custer divided his command into three, well, really three and a half parts” (already this account is getting complicated.)

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virginia city

Look up “Virginia City” in any thesaurus and it will be synonymous with “tourist trap”. Something about that name, from Nevada to Montana, means overpriced sassparillas, olde tymey portraits, tedious demonstrations, cheap t-shirts and worse.

Virginia City, Montana and it’s redheaded stepsister, Nevada City, are technically ghost towns that are described as “two of the best-preserved examples of the many mining camps of the West.” During the gold rush days in Alder Gulch, Virginia City—population 10,000—was the largest town in the inland Northwest. Now, it’s teeming with nearly that many sightseers, but unlike the Nevada version, it manages to retain a modicum of authenticity.

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ufo festival

I didn’t have directions to the 11th Annual UFO Festival but it was easy to find: I simply followed the highway signs to McMinnville, parked the car, and followed the crowd carrying lawn chairs and wearing tinfoil hats. (At the town border I was disoriented by a guy in a Jeep Wrangler flying an enormous confederate flag stenciled with the word “REDNECK”. I though that was incongruous to the nature of the event, then remembered the rich history of American abductees.)

The UFO Festival is held every May to commemorate the Trent UFO Photographs, taken in 1950 by a local farmer that many agree are among the most credible images of a UFO ever captured.

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u.s. bank old main branch

I rarely use the ATM in the garage entrance to the Portland Main Office of U.S. Bank downtown, preferring instead to step inside the lobby and waste the teller’s time—depositing a check I’m sure they’d prefer I used the machine for—just for the opportunity to absorb the atmosphere in the cavernous old branch.

One weekday morning I took a break from work and walked next door (from the old Wells Fargo Building, built 102 years ago; Portland’s first “skyscraper” and host to the downtown Raptor Cam) to use the teller line at the old U.S. Bank. Afterwards, I approached the guard who stands attentively every day in the lobby and asked if I could take a few pictures; were there any restrictions?

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memories of wally

In 1955, a group of 55 avid Airstream owners—mostly friends of founder Wally—became charter members of the Wally Byam Caravan Club. During that year, the largest Airstream caravan in history was launched to Mexico.

Ralph’s Norwegian grandmother Odne and her husband George were part of the historic WBCCI Western Mexico Winter Caravan of ’55. During our visit to Detroit Lakes, Ralph’s mother—Odne’s daughter—dug through a box of keepsakes and produced Odne’s journals about the trip that winter, handwritten in notebooks she purchased along the way.

Update the cultural references and much of her chronicle could be written about an Airstream caravan in 2010 (though hopefully highway conditions have improved by today).

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ogden

The Utah scenery abruptly vanished when the wind kicked up and created a brownout of smoke and grit from Provo to Ogden so thick we could barely see the huge temple in downtown SLC. People everywhere were apologizing. (“It’s never like this!”) A crusty guy in line at the gas station convenience store reported that “one of the islands in the lake”—what on earth could he have been talking about—was on fire due to a lightning strike.

When a state park is downgraded to a county park it falls into a bureaucratic black hole for a period, making it impossible to find online or otherwise. Such was the fate of Fort Buenaventura, which we finally discovered hidden behind the railroad yard.

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wyoming

When I moved to Portland twenty years ago I thought the Oregon Trail was, well, in Oregon. I’m embarrassed that I was surprised to encounter historic aspects of the trail (and signs of Lewis and Clark) in almost every Western state we visited.

Fort Laramie in Wyoming is (according to the Smithsonian Guide to Historic America, our roadtrip reference bible) one of the West’s most important forts. As a trading post in the 1840s it became a popular stop on the Oregon Trail, one-third of the way to the promised land and the first place to swap an ox in 300 miles. Today, it’s restored to appear the way it looked back in the day and “provides a glimpse of a bygone military era”.

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