Monday, June 30, 2008

In the Candystore (Mount Lassen)

Lassen Volcanic National Park is just a few miles away from Hat Creek Radio Observatory, so it seemed inevitable that we would go explore it. I was also excited because Lassen was my third national park in the past month (the others being Badlands National Park and Yellowstone), which is an unprecedented record for me and one that has been great to follow through on.

Lassen's claim to fame, of course, is blowing its top about a century ago and being essentially Yellowstone National Park's little brother ever since in the sense that there's some decent amounts of geothermal activity still in the area. It's also a lovely spot with air quality typically used as the standard against which to measure the other national parks, but unfortunately the nearby wildfires meant we didn't get to see that part. It was still pretty though...

The clearest view of Mount Lassen I got all week, taken from the region known as "The Devastated Area," which was, well, completely destroyed by lahar the last time the volcano blew its top. As this was nearly a century ago, most of the area is now covered in a lovely pine forest, though there are still tall boulders liberally sprinkled throughout the forest which were carried down from the summit in the mudslide.

I will say though, one of the more entertaining things to me was not as much the geology itself but watching the geology students. This is because while I have a healthy respect for rocks and have taken geophysics I am not a rock person, nor had I seen a bunch of them out in the field. Letting them loose in Lassen, by contrast, was like watching a bunch of kids in a candy store, and there was much earnest examination of boulders and tiny magnifying lenses used to examine crystals and what not. I rather liked it just because it's always fun to watch people who are passionate about what they're doing, particularly when they're more than happy to talk your ear off so you might learn a thing or two you wouldn't otherwise.
Isn't this a cool plant? If I were filming a movie on an alien world I'd order a bunch and fill the set with them... Alas these guys have a bit more normal an origin, and are known as snow plants. They make their appearance in the late spring/early summer when the snow melts, and live off the resulting moisture. Some years the forest is said to be covered with them, but as it's a bit dry this year (obviously, or the fire issue wouldn't be an issue would it?) we have to make do with a few scattered throughout the forest.
Snow! Yay! The road we were on wound just above 9,000 feet, meaning there was still plenty of snow for snowball fights this time of year. This was also where the biologists took the place of the geologists in the "kids in a candystore" role, as there was snow algae growing on the snow. It makes the snow look red (despite paradoxically being known as green algae- not to be confused with later green-looking algae on the trip that was red algae), and is apparently not well understood because it's rather difficult to cultivate in a lab setting.
An obligatory shot of steam rising from an area known as the Sulfur Works. This particular feature was a boiling mud pot that was pretty neat, actually, both in its nature in itself and the fact that it was right next to the road. There was a nice sturdy fence to keep the tourists away from getting too close, but we were nonetheless right next to it for all intents and purposes so that was neat.
An obligatory "look, the national park is pretty!" picture. Taken exactly across the street from the bubbling mud pool, where the geologists and biologists had happily realized they were both in a candy store at the same time and were running occasionally intersecting discussions regarding the geophysics involved and the extremophiles. Hooray!

We ended the day by splitting up into two groups, one which would be camping in Lassen for two nights and another which would be heading back to the relative civilization of Hat Creek. I confess I was in the latter group- it had been a bit chilly the night I slept out in the telescope array field, and if I knew anything about altitudes it was that it would be even colder in the campground. Turns out I was right, so that was a good decision...

Hat Creek Week

I'll come right out with it- I liked my week at Hat Creek Radio Observatory (HCRO). This might have had something to do with the miniature fleet of observatory bicycles, the awesome milkshakes at the local place down the road... Or we could all just admit it was because of the pretty radio telescopes and wonderful company and get on with the pictures already.
This is the sunset from the first night at HCRO. All the sunsets were absolutely stunning while we were there but the reason wasn't so pretty- California is currently battling a bout of wildfires, and while there's nothing unusual in that what is unusual is the fact that the fires started so early in the summer. We spent most of the week following updates on the local fires, some of which were 10 miles away and would shut down the local roads, but luckily we lost nothing short of a few views.

So what you see in the above picture, by the way, is part of the 42 telescope array, which will be phased up to 360 telescopes once the kinks are worked out and the money flows in. It's pretty impressive stuff, but what's also impressive is what it takes to run this stuff in the control room to process the signals-
I offered various telescope operators five bucks to pull out random wires and replug them in the wrong places, but for some reason none of them would go for it.
A bunch of us students and Garrett, the telescope operator. Perhaps it's an indication of just how much there is to do in the area, but at night we'd have 'observing parties' in the control room and play with the Allen Telescope Array (you might have not been able to see stars some nights due to smoke, but for radio waves this luckily isn't a problem). Definitely cool stuff, though we could have done without the blizzard of various bugs that would inevitably find their way into the control room.

Anyway, I should move on from this because a lot happened this past week that I need to get to and I am spending the rest of my summer working on the Array. Continuing on...

Monday, June 23, 2008

At The Array (ATA!)

All the REU students are at the Allen Telescope Array this week, but I can't pretend the view right now is like the one above. Why? Because there are currently about 800 wildfires in California, about 100 of them close enough to count as "local," and as we're in the valley there's a bit of haze and you can just barely make ou the mountains. They're perhaps a bit too close for comfort- the closest wildfire is about ten miles away and the road we took to come here yesterday is now closed. Everyone's crossing their fingers that we won't be forced to leave before the end of the week, but this isn't something you mess with obviously and everyone's been advised to keep their belongings close just in case we need to leave suddenly.

But there is one good effect- the wildfires made for a lovely sunset last night (pics later), and a bunch of us slept out last night under the stars in the Array field (to the left of the picture above). Lovely skies, even with some smoke, but a bit on the chilly side as it cools down quickly around here. Still, saying you slept in a radio telescope field has bragging rights that go with it, so I'm glad to have taken advantage of the opportunity.

Ok, more at some point later when I have things sorted out a little better. Cheers!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Crazy Times down on Costello Music

Last night I decided that for better or worse I will never, ever be able to utter bad things about San Francisco. Why? Because within the past few days it has dawned on me that famous bands actually come to San Francisco at concerts one can actually go to. Specifically, I discovered by chance this past weekend that The Fratellis- a band I've mentioned here more than once- were going to be in town Wednesday (yesterday). In what was even more exciting, I found myself with a reasonably priced ticket to a sold-out concert surprisingly easily, so I got to go to their concert last night!

The concert was at The Fillmore which it turns out, in that way I end up in interesting places without realizing it beforehand, is a pretty famous concert venue. Back in the 1960s it was the focal point for the music side of counterculture- aka hippies- and everyone has played here. (Speaking of which, remember the hippie VW Bus in the movie Cars called Fillmore? I now know where his name comes from!) There are posters all over the walls of the bar areas and it's hard to think of a band name I didn't see from the past few decades I didn't see, from Jimi Hendrix and The Who to Matchbox 20 and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. Here's an image off their site to give you an idea-
The Fratellis, of course, had their own poster for the night, and further it is tradition at The Fillmore everyone got one while leaving the venue (thus undoubtedly the primary decor in several Bay Area dorm rooms). Bit of a weird one though-
But anyway, the concert! It was absolutely fabulous of course- they just came out with a new CD this past week so lots of new tunes, but they had the sense to play their old hits as well so everyone was happy (they also have one of the most intense drummers I've ever heard- huge drum set, and his shirt was drenched through after just a few songs). Further, The Fratellis have music that has quite a bit of energy in it, meaning it's very, very easy to dance to, and I think you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who wasn't doing just that. I even did a few turns with a colorful San Franciscan or two, on the grounds that it's more fun that way and who knows when I'll have the chance to do it again, and it definitely ranked high up there in terms of concerts I've been to.
(Picture from The Fratellis website, as I didn't take my camera.)

I'd describe more, but suspect concerts are primarily exciting to go to and not to read about. Honestly, I suppose this post is an elaborate way of me saying I am quite enamored with San Francisco's music scene right now. After all, there are only so many cities in the world where you can show up one week and discover one of your favorite bands is playing there the next, and San Franciscans definitely have had enough experience in how to do good concerts. Must investigate this further...

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

All in a Day's Work

So here is, in short, what I am doing this summer. I am going into the logbook for the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) and making a database for component failures- as in, when stuff goes wrong- and then hopefully seeing correlations in what goes wrong and how it can be prevented. This will be good because I get to learn a lot about database structure and the ATA benefits by getting a good framework for their still-developing structure.

This is what the ATA looks like, by the way. There are currently 42 telescopes but there will be ~400 when it's all said and done, which is a fancy way of saying whenever a check comes in to build the rest of it. (On that note, anyone want to build a radio telescope? Only costs $120k, which is a relative bargain in this field.) Anyway, picture:

Close-up on one of the dishes-
In actuality, though, my job gets pretty interesting. First of all my mentor is Jill Tarter, the director of the SETI Institute, inspiration for the Ellie Arroway character in Contact and all around fascinating woman, and jobs are always more fun when your boss has pictures of her posing with Jodie Foster in her office and stuff like that. Second, the first week I was too busy to write because I got to go visit places like Berkeley (the ATA is being built in conjunction with the Berkeley Astronomy Department) and the engineering company where the Array is being built.

The best day by far to this point, though, was the day I got to go to Hat Creek Radio Observatory in northern California where the ATA is located. It's a 5.5 hour drive away from here, but it turns out Jill's husband (who is also a radio astronomer, at Berkeley) has a plane, and Berkeley allows you to use grant money towards fuel costs. Turns out that way it only takes about 2 hours to get to the Array from the Palo Alto airport, as a fellow student and I (and two astronomers, but they already knew this) found out...
Picture of the little Cessna, which technically sits six people but it seems cramped enough with four if you ask me. A few people were asking me apprehensively about the bumpiness of small planes (and I confess I didn't eat much breakfast that morning, just in case), but the weather in California is remarkably stable at this time of year so this wasn't much of an issue. It was only bumpy once when going over a ridge, but I confess the slight turbulence right then was enough to make me realize why small planes seem to crash so often- in non-perfect weather, it must really suck.
Typical "this is what California looks like from the air" picture. (It's all yellow, of course, because it hasn't rained in months so these are the famous golden hills of California.) There are huge patches of farmland too, of course, but I know everyone's seen enough of those from airplanes and it's not too exciting, so let's move on.
San Francisco and the Golden Gate bridge from 10,000 feet (zoom in for a better look). The haze you see isn't haze at all of course, but rather the fog coming in for the night...

The fog is really impressive by the way, even if you wouldn't nessecarily think so. It doesn't get foggy down here, but when I went into the city last weekend on the train the fog was rolling over the mountains in such a dense, stealthy way that I would've guessed it was straight out of a horror movie if I didn't know any better.
When it flat-out doesn't rain for months, you inevitably get wildfires. This one was interesting because we hadn't seen it at all when flying up in the morning, but by the time we were flying back it was going full-steam and sending smoke thousands of feet into the air. Had to divert our course around it, actually...
An areal view of Lassen Volcanic National Park, easily viewable from the ground at the ATA. Most people don't realize this, but Mount Lassen was the second most recent volcano in the Cascades to erupt, in 1915 (the most recent, of course, being Mount St. Helens), in which it was described as having devastated the surrounding area. When I inquired at the Array site if this was indicative of a great place to build a multi-million dollar telescope array, this concerned was shrugged off. "It's either that or earthquakes" it was explained in a way only Californians can get away with.

I'd go on about Mount Lassen and the ATA, but excitingly I will be there next week again! The REU program does a weeklong field trip to Hat Creek/ Lassen for all the students every summer, which we're all very much looking forward to. Trust me, it's a gorgeous country up there, even if you never hear about it much for whatever reason.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Defined By Stuff

I was going to write something about what exactly I'm doing in California, but in the interest of keeping things at least slightly exciting I will instead focus on all the things I currently keep in my pockets. This is because explaining what most of the stuff is doing there requires me to explain a few things anyway-

~ key ring and card holder- This is the one I carry around at uni, actually, but important because it has my bike lock key and SETI entry card inside it. NASA Ames research center, where I live, is a mile or so away from the SETI Institute, meaning we all got bikes for the summer because it doesn't rain here in the summer. (Really- it just doesn't, and hasn't since springtime.) My current bike is a cruiser- I couldn't help myself- except unlike my Cleveland one this is probably from the original generation of when all bikes were like cruisers. So it goes.

As for the entry card, beyond getting into the building this is important because the SETI Institute shares the building with Symantec on the second floor, aka the people who gave you Norton antivirus software. This means you need a special SETI card obviously, but the building has an odd layout so you're forever going from the "common" areas to the shared and back (even on simple things like going to the kitchen or to my boss' office). Alas, this is also problematic for a few of my fellow students who are busily trying to figure out how to pull a prank on Symantec, as apparently they're not total fans of their software...

~ key ring for room key- NASA Ames used to be in part Moffet Federal Airfield, an active military base until 1994, so the student housing (for several programs) is in the old army barracks. Think a cross between a hotel and a dorm really.

I rather like the base, by the way. First of all it has Hangar One, possibly one of the most iconic things in the greater area, there's a branch of Carnegie-Mellon University here for robotics to make me feel like I'm back in Pittsburgh, and word on the street says Mythbusters has filmed a decent number of shows here. Oh, and when I had to do my laundry last week it involved going through an abandoned barracks area to a bunker that had an asbestos warning on the door, a journey which at night reminds one of the set of a scary movie. ("They were there to discover alien life... but then the aliens found them!!!) Defintely a place with character.

~ NASA ID badge- I got one of these the first day to get on and off the base, and it has proven annoying for several reasons. First, it is slightly larger than a wallet size, meaning you can't fit it into anything. Second, you need to show it every time you need to get in. Third and most annoying, it doesn't count as a valid form of ID in itself, so you need to show a government-issued ID (aka driver's license) every time you enter as well, thus rendering this badge completely worthless. As I've already established when I forgot the special ID, you're allowed onto the base with just your driver's license, thus proving this is just a layer of bureaucracy someone likes to keep around (probably the guy who takes the crappy pictures).

~ Wallet- Important for the money that one goes through quickly in California, BART card (aka light rail/subway in the San Francisco area), and for the driver's license which is the actual important piece of identification.

~ Cell phone- I often "forget" my cell phone in my room back at Case because I am not a total fan of them (to the point of not really having one at all in New Zealand on study abroad), but that's not exactly an option here. This is because there has been quite a bit of travel already on the job, and calling people, and stuff like that, so cell phones are sorta important...

Of course, I realize I haven't described what exactly I'm doing yet, but that deserves its own post so I'll explain later.

So all in all, too many things to keep track of. See, I realized soon enough that my problem here is this is one or two objects to many for the "in pockets" category for me because I'm forever forgetting one or two things and spending a few minutes before work every day looking for the missing item. This is usually the NASA ID in which case I don't shed too many tears, but this morning it was the bike key/ SETI card, and that was a hassle to poke around for... Am working on increasing the efficiency of combining items still, so my goal is to know where everything is without a search within a few weeks.

And that, ladies and gents, is my brief description of the day-to-day in California. As promised earlier, I will give a description of work itself a little later.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Utah Salt Flats

One last update before Road Trip USA is over...

We drove from Yellowstone to Salt Lake City on Friday afternoon (last week), admiring the potato fields and mountains, and set off Saturday across the lonely stretches of Utah and Nevada. Utah in particular was surprisingly fascinating, thanks to the Bonneville Salt Flats. They look, more or less, like this-
The reason this was exciting was because of the reflection you can see there. For a long while we weren't certain what the reflection was, exactly, but soon enough we realized it was a thin layer of water a few inches thick. Naturally we had to pull over and check it out...

For those who are wondering, the water was pretty warm and we washed our feet off afterwards as the water was really, really salty upon taste sampling. Oh, and the place we're standing is a few miles in front of the track where they set the world speed records every year. The water evaporates evenly, meaning the remaining salt is perfectly smooth for miles and miles around.
Another shot of the salt flat lakes. Really lovely.
As a last photo, here is a very odd sculpture spotted on the side of the road in the middle of the salt flats. Internet searching revealed it to be called Metaphor: The Tree of Utah, and is primarily interesting to me because it's the only landmark in the miles and miles of desolation.

After the Salt Flats there was nothing much except Nevada, which is more remoteness and not particularly exciting. We spent the night in Reno, Nevada, which is depressing in itself because I have had statistics drilled into me enough to find casinos silly and the people who throw away their money tragic...

Anyway, I've been on my SETI job for a few days now but have been super-duper busy so I'm behind. Don't worry, I'll catch up soon enough, but the long and short of it is this is the last post of Road Trip USA. And I must say, it really is fun to drive across America and see what it's like. This country varies an incredible amount, meaning there's always something new to see, and my family gets along pretty well so the company was good too!

Alrighty, it's getting late even here on the West Coast so I'll write about California later. Cheers!

Friday, June 6, 2008

Yellowstone Wildlife

My absolute favorite thing about visiting Yellowstone is, hands down, the wildlife. First of all, it's so abundant- you can hardly go a few miles without seeing something you'd pay good money at a zoo to see- and second of all it's really exciting, and third of all it's just cool. If you don't think so, you're just jealous because you haven't gotten to the point in your life yet where you think "oh, another buffalo herd, not worth stopping for..."
First of all, a buffalo. The most prevalent in the park. I really like them because it's difficult to think of an animal more iconic of the American West than a buffalo, and they're everywhere, so this made me happy.
A baby buffalo, also affectionately known as a "red dog." These guys are born weighing 70-80 pounds, which sounds like a lot until you realize their dads weigh about one ton...
An elk. Also everywhere, particularly around Mammoth lodge where they're smart enough to graze on the well-mown grass. We also saw one with a beautiful set of horns, but no picture I'm afraid.
A white-tailed deer spotted on our hike. Now listen, I know these guys aren't too exotic- they've been tearing up my mom's garden longer than I can remember- but I'm keeping track of wildlife species seen alright? Alright.
A moose, cooling down in the water.
A beautiful shot of a butterfly who obligingly posed on our hike.
And last but not least, a black bear! Spotting these guys is a big deal in the park and we did it twice- once when he was waaaaay off in the distance so that you'd never notice if there wasn't a ranger and a crowd of people around to point out the black speck on the nearby hillside to you, and once when the cars slowed down on the side of the road and we discovered he was only a few yards away. (A sure hint of good wildlife in Yellowstone is an unexpected traffic jam.) This guy was pretty little and he was foraging on the side of the road, wondering what all the huge commotion was about but not at all deterred by it-
I loved him, not only because he was cute but because, well... ok, he was really cute. I'd so want one, if I didn't know they can kill people and all those messy details.

Also seen but not shown here, due to either lack of photograph or my ability-
~ ground squirrel
~ jackrabbit
~ bighorn sheep
~ lots and lots of birds
~ grizzly bear (Ok, this one is very suspect. However, the first afternoon we were in the park there were a bunch of cars parked with telescopes looking in a direction, and for a second while I looked in that direction it looked exactly like a grizzly bear. No one else saw this though, and I don't fully trust it myself, but still it would be cool to say I saw one!)

Yellowstone: Day 3

What is wrong with this picture? If you responded "it is June 6th and it is friggin' snowing!!!" then you are absolutely correct. We woke up this morning to discover fresh snow on the ground (not to be confused with the piles of snow left over from prior falls that just hadn't melted) and more of the white stuff coming down fast. It turns out this is rare even for Yellowstone- it hasn't snowed here in June in six years- but it was nonetheless great. The only problem is I kept feeling like we were about to go skiing like my family is apt to do when traveling out West, except I kept recalling with disappointment that we wouldn't be doing that for a few months yet.

I will say though, the snow was a nice touch to the scenery. It saves me the trouble of coming back in wintertime to see what the park looks like then!

This is a shot of what most of the park looks like by the way. If you're old enough, remember the Yellowstone Fires of 1988? If not, it turns out over 60% of the park's forest was devastated that summer by wildfire, and in most places it shows. The forest is busy growing back, but the charred remains of the old trees still poke up to remind you of this chapter of history.
This odd scene was shot at Midway Geyser Basin, which is famous for the surreal hues the water and surrounding region get from the thermal vents (aka lots of minerals and extremeophile bacteria make the pretty colors). There are a few famous shots of this but alas that wasn't meant for me and my camera- too much steam!
My obligatory shot of Old Faithful, the world's most famous geyser. I'll come right out with it: Old Faithful is pretty overblown in the "famous tourist attractions" scene of things, particularly when you realize just how much other incredible stuff there is to see in the park. Don't get me wrong, it's kind of cool to see a bunch of water shooting up, but it looks suspiciously similar to any large public fountain you've seen in your lifetime. Yawn.

Ok, to make up for this, I'll do one more cool Yellowstone post before going to bed. Because it turns out what lives in Yellowstone, not what's at it, is the most exciting part of all...

Yellowstone: Day 2

Yellowstone is, as my mom observed at one point, a true American park. The reason is there are roads in the park going to all the "major" attractions, so it really seems like most tourists just drive around, waddle a few hundred yards to see said attraction, then go back and drive on. We obviously couldn't be typical Americans, so chose a nice, long hike on Thursday to enjoy a bit of the park most people never see.

And trust me, it was great. We did a trail called the Beaver Ponds Loop which was, obviously, a several-mile loop around old beaver ponds. Except since this is Yellowstone, we kept running into views like this-

Ah, so lovely! (That's the "town" in Yellowstone called Mammoth in the valley.) Soon enough the trail started winding through a bunch of aspen groves, which were framed by the background views quite beautifully-
Another pretty shot, towards Mammoth Terraces-
Overall, I'd say that what was most surprising about the trail to me was how, well, Swiss the whole thing felt. I went to Switzerland once, when I was about eight years old, and what little I remember of hiking around there was strikingly similar to this corner of Yellowstone. No cows like there are everywhere in Switzerland, of course, but these comparisons only go so far...
Another pretty shot of the trail...
A shot of the old Gardiner trail, which is the old wagon trail used over a century ago when the park was first founded. It still winds all over the park, and it's frankly amazing to see some of the steep slopes the old wagons went over because they're so incredibly steep.
An obligatory beaver pond picture, as I said this was a trail to go past them at some point.
An obligatory wildflower picture. Why do I say obligatory? Because my mom loves flowers, so we stopped at every single new type of flower on the trail we saw to admire it. By my guesses there were ~15 types of wildflower (pretty impressive seeing as it was the equivalent of early spring at this altitude) including some lovely ones like lupines, columbines, and shooting stars... These ones here are balsamroots, pictured here because they are by far the most common wildflowers in Wyoming at this time of year and are quite lovely.
As a final bonus of the trek, after our hike we detoured to see the Mammoth Terraces in Yellowstone, formed by limestone deposits from the hotsprings. Apparently these change very rapidly in nature, meaning if you visit in a few years you will not find anything that looks like this picture, and I think that's kind of neat.

After this, of course, we were all sufficiently dead tired from all the walking. We had our best wildlife sightings of the entire trip afterwards, though, which I will detail later...

Yellowstone: Day 1

Yellowstone National Park is one of those places where, upon reaching it, you immediately feel bad for having spent all those years of your life without visiting it earlier. It really is a wonderful place- sort of like New Zealand but with scenery a bit more large and wild, and buffalo wandering around instead of sheep. In short, totally awesome.

We spent most of Tuesday driving through Bighorn National Forest (which was stunning, but my camera was out of juice so it's for our memories alone) to Cody, Wyoming where we spent the night. I have visited Wyoming once before when we skied in Jackson Hole when I was in 9th grade or so, and always insisted Wyoming was my favorite skiing locale since and was happy to see the rest of the state lived up to it. Wyoming is just so lovely, so wild...

Anyway, before I wax poetic I will get to the pictures because I'm sure that's why most of you are here, so these are all from Wednesday-

This is the view over Yellowstone Lake from Steamboat Point, which is the highest altitude large lake in the USA. There are two things striking here to the average person- the steam rising up from a vent, and the ice on the lake in early June- but Yellowstone is an incredible sort of place whereby within a few days both of these seems totally normal. You'll see what I mean...
Patrick posing in front of the old-school tourist bus from the 1930s. You can actually do tours on these, which we did for a few hours the first afternoon to get our bearings, and they're pretty cute if I may say so.
A mud volcano. Apparently it irregularly explodes on occasion, which would be alarming until you realize Yellowstone is the world's largest caldera and might be overdue for an eruption that would throw ash over much of the American West, so it's all relative right?
The Lower Falls in the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. It's twice as tall as Niagara, impressively enough, but it's all the more impressive when you take a look at the rest of the canyon-
The view of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone in the other direction. The rocks are particularly incredible here: there is red from the rust, of course, but also yellow from all the wonderful-smelling sulfur from all the thermal activity in the park. All in all, a stunning sight!

Anyway, that night we had an interesting bit of adventure actually. It was the last (*sob*) night of the Stanley Cup finals which we obviously had to go watch because of the Pittsburgh Penguins, but televisions are understandably a bit difficult to come by. We ended up asking around (which was a touch embarrassing- "hi, we're amidst all this splendor, but can you tell us where we can find a TV?") and learned the one television in the park was in a place called Mammoth, an hours drive away. So we drove there for dinner, naturally, only to learn that they didn't get NBC in the Park (what?) but a helpful guy at the bar told us and the other Pittsburghers who had shown up by this point to head over to nearby Gardner, Montana just outside the park.

So let the record show, Montana is my 30th state or so, and my experience with the state consists of going to a lovely cowboy saloon called The Rusty Rail to watch a hockey game. It was nice, though, because even though the Penguins didn't do too well all the locals were incredibly cheering for our team, and there are good microbreweries in Montana, so I view the state with favorable light!

Mount Rushmore

Visiting Mount Rushmore has got to be one of the most stereotypical American touristic things to do. I mention this because it's a bit of a drive to get to from, well, anywhere, but is nonetheless incredibly iconic. As once you're in Rapid City, South Dakota it makes sense to see if Mount Rushmore lives up to the hype, we drove out on a drizzly Tuesday morn to check it out for ourselves.

My impression: Mount Rushmore, unlike perhaps a few other stereotypical tourist haunts, is really kind of cool. First of all the sculptures are huge, and second of all the detail is done wonderfully (right down to the glint in the eyes), so it's very easy to admire for the work of art it is.
Here's a view from the loop trail because it's an angle of Mount Rushmore you usually don't see. The huge stone pile below the sculptures is actually from the extensive amount of blasting done to create the sculpture, which was done for the 150th anniversary of the United States (do the math!). About 90% of the work was done via blasting, incredibly enough, and the overall work was supposed to be much larger but the Feds cut the funds so we were left with what we see today. It happens...

Of course, Mount Rushmore was also noteworthy on this trip because it was here where our largest amount of drama occurred. After contemplatively admiring the mountainside, doing the little loop trail, and checking out the CNN cameras on site (this was the day of the South Dakota primary- aka the last Democratic primary, and my 4th state I've visited in recent months to have a primary!) my dad realized the keys to the car were no longer in his pocket. What?! There is a certain amount of anxiety that results when you realize you have lost the keys to the car somewhere within Mount Rushmore National Park, particularly when you are a bit stranded and it's an isolated spot to boot, so there was an understandable amount of worrying for a few minutes. Luckily however some Good Samaritan spotted the keys on the loop trail and turned them in to the Ranger Station after a few minutes so we were free to head on to Wyoming, forever doomed to make jokes about the car keys for the duration of the trip.

And this is good, by the way, because I think Wyoming is one of my favorite States in the Union. But I get ahead of myself...