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My Po Toe

October 17-19, 2014

Off to Poteau (click map for slideshow)

Wendy and I spent the first day of Fall Break 2014 relaxing, although she was more productive than I was, since she worked on her triptych inspired by the exterior of the Kimo theater in Albuquerque from our visit there in early July. On Friday afternoon we drove south to Poteau for a two-night stay focused on a hike on the Winding Stairs Trail in the Albert Pike area a couple of hours southeast of there in the Ouachitas of southeastern Arkansas.

I’ve been to Poteau many times since I began my day hikes in earnest over five years ago. The etymology is French for “post”, although this was the first time I heard a terrible story about the origin of its name. Wendy was laughing as she shared:

Poteau and the Poteau River got their name from an old Indian who stumped his toe and exclaimed, “MY PO TOE!”

Puh-leeze!

Poteau Balloon Festival

Balloon Glow

I did manage to surprise Wendy, who knew we were going to stay in Poteau but had no idea their annual Balloon Festival was going on. We drove straight to a lot adjacent to the fairgrounds and paid $5 for our wristbands. A couple of balloons were taking off as we walked in, with two more inflating. A long line of folks had formed, all of them waiting for the balloons to begin bounding up and down on tethers, carrying thrill-seekers up into the air. Later we would see the line had dwindled and tried to pay $10 each for a ride, but it was growing too dark for the lifts, so we had to forego that. The darkness, however, brought the balloon glow, with six balloons’ burners making them blink brightly in the night.

As we entered the festival, on one side of the road a huge monster truck, the Mean Machine, was bouncing riders about a field.

Farther along, a small carnival was underway, and we could see and hear a motocross rally over in the grandstand. Wendy and I walked over to the motocross, attracted by a cyclist doing high leaps across the field using big ramps. I was hoping to use my new iPhone 6’s Slo-Mo feature to video the high jumps, but they were done with those by the time we reached the stands, so I had to settle for slo-mo of kids popping wheelies and their leader doing low jumps off one end of the big ramp.

As we looked out over the carnival from the grandstand, Wendy confessed she had never been on a carnival ride, other than perhaps the train at Bartlesville’s Kiddie Park. I grinned broadly, pointing out different rides we might try. The tame ones she might consider included a dragon roller coaster, Tornado whirling ride, and the Tropical Swinger. That last one was her first choice, after which we braved the Tornado.

We had a lot of fun at the little festival, but worked up an appetite. We drove downtown to Warehouse Willy’s, where the wait was long, and our tummies were growling before we dined. My ribeye steak was excellent.

Winding Stairs Trail

On Saturday we fueled up the car, passing by what Wendy termed a downtown Dementor along the way. It scared us so much we drove 120 miles southeast into the Cossatot Mountains of Arkansas to reach the Albert Pike Recreation Area’s Winding Stairs Trail. I hiked that trail four years ago, noting the tremendous beauty of the Little Missouri River after fording it a couple of miles from the trailhead. I hoped we might be able to reach that area on this trip, but knew it was a long ways in, and the water level on the Little Missouri might block us, given that Wendy had not ever forded a river before. It turned out the water was up enough that we turned back at that ford for this trip.

Winding Stairs Trail Track (click image for slideshow)

We travelled south from Poteau, passing Heavener and the Talimena Skyline Drive before turning east to run along the south edge of the Ouachitas before turning north to reach the Cossatot Mountains. The roads in Arkansas to the trailhead were nearly deserted, as was the locked-up Albert Pike day use area, but we found about two dozen vehicles parked at the trailhead located a couple of miles up the steep and winding gravel road from the day use area. Not far from the trailhead, Wendy pointed out a tree limb beside the trail that resembled a striking snake.

Blaylock Creek Ford

Four years onward from the disastrous flood of June 2010, the Forest Service has almost abandoned Albert Pike as litigation over the deaths there continues. That includes not rebuilding the much-needed bridge over Blaylock Creek. The water was up, and I deeply regretted forgetting to bring our trekking poles along on the trip. Wendy and I found some downed branches we used for poles, but neither of us was successful in negotiating the rocks across the creek without dunking our boots and pant legs. On the far side, Wendy stripped off her boots and wrung out her socks, but I just squished along.

Above the Little Missouri

About 3/4 mile from the trailhead, we had to make a steep ascent and descent over a 3/10 mile stretch. The trail then levelled out, with us passing a large white mushroom with which Wendy practiced her putting skills, whacking at it with a long stick. The Little Missouri became visible far below us to the east, and I posed in my wet boots and pants.

Wendy was on the hunt for rocks with crystals throughout our hike and spotted a set of mushrooms with a millipede on top. I was preoccupied, as usual, with vistas, enjoying the long views above the Little Missouri as the trail turned and slowly descended. As we approached the river ford, across the shimmering water I spied a couple of fishermen.

The Little Missouri

Wendy and I were hungry by the time we reached the river ford, so we clambered along to a side stream where four years earlier I had noted how the cut rocks looked like stacked blocks. It was wetter this time, with a larger stream of water running down the rock steps. We ate lunch, and upstream I found a nice waterfall and pool. I shot a slo-mo video of the falls with my iPhone and admired the long corkscrew root of a tree embedded in the side of the wall.

Meanwhile, Wendy had been finding rocks with embedded shiny mineral deposits. After our trip, she cleaned the rocks, and I got shots of them.

After our lunch, we could have forded the Little Missouri, but the water was so deep that we would have had to take off our boots and socks. So we turned back, enjoying the views up the Little Missouri as we went back up the hillside.

Wet ford across the Little Missouri

At one of several trailside campsites I found a side trail leading down to the water. The bedding planes were tilted entirely vertical there, exposing many layers of sedimentary rock we could easily break off. They made wonderful skipping stones; I could get six or more skips out of some of them.

Skipping stones

Wendy spotted some more sparkling mineral deposits and later along the trail spotted some mushrooms growing inside a rotting log.

We managed to immerse our boots again when fording Blaylock Creek, prompting Wendy to haul a few big rocks from the shore out into the stream to try and build some stepping stones for later hikers. I assisted a bit, and then we squished our way back to the car. We were grateful to shuck our soaked boots and socks.

I decided to take a different route back to Poteau, allowing Trixie the GPS Navigatrix to lead us along gravel forest roads north out of Albert Pike. She led us far off to the east for some reason, which meant a long slow drive, but it was scenic with one high glimpse of mountains beyond.

We finally rolled into Poteau to change clothes and clean up before a late dinner at Mazzio’s. Our long hike made the pizza quite tasty.

Cavanal Mountain Hill

Cavanal Hill in 2010

The local chamber of commerce bills Cavanal Hill on the outskirts of Poteau as the world’s highest hill, claiming that at 1,999 feet it is just a foot short of mountain status. That is a bit of marketing hooey, but I do like how Cavanal bulks up outside of town, and I remember well how clouds above it four years ago made it resemble a smoking volcano.

Surprisingly, I’d never driven up the hill despite visiting Poteau many times. So the morning after our big hike Wendy and I wound our way up Witteville Drive, named after the old coal mining operation on Cavanal in the early 1900s. The first road up the hill was built by a Poteau man, Sam Sorrels, following about the same six-mile route as the present Witteville Drive. Back in the day, Mr. Sorrels walked and showed the bulldozer operator where he wanted the road built.

The top of Cavanal Hill is now festooned with broadcast antennas, but there is a shelter park amidst them which offers a panoramic view southeast over the town. I laughed at the shoes someone had tossed over a high wire, and Wendy and I exchanged photos with another couple in front of a rock heralding the hill’s supposed height.

Atop Cavanal Hill

The drive back down the hill provided a lovely panorama north and east.

Panorama from Cavanal Hill

We drove back to Bartlesville, where I inserted some boot dryers my mother gave me into Wendy’s boots and laid both pairs of boots out to dry in the backyard, complemented by roses from the bushes Wendy had planted by my patio. We enjoyed our latest outing to southeast Oklahoma and southwest Arkansas and look forward to many happy returns.

Drying Out

Click here for a slideshow from this trip

 
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Posted by on October 26, 2014 in day hike, photos, travel, video

 

A Break on the Red Loop

October 12, 2014

My weekend was virtually consumed by the composition of complex documents to help the district’s teachers with new state appraisal requirements. But Wendy and I took a break on Sunday afternoon to enjoy the 3.26 mile Red Bike Loop at Osage Hills State Park.

Wendy on the trail (click image for slideshow)

We passed the new Osage Trail blazes which redirected the route westward. Wendy noticed an unusual growth high up on one of the trees, and I asked her to pose to provide scale. A flower she picked had a little critter on board, and when we reached the grotto pool we took a break. I was drinking water instead of my usual trail Fanta, enjoying the rippling little pools of water as a thin stream poured across the rocks.

Uphill climb

One of the original red metal Osage Trail markers was still in place and we wound our way up the hillside. On the downslope, Wendy noticed several bunches of small mushrooms.

Mushrooms

I am very grateful that Fall Break has arrived, and Wendy and I will head out on Friday for Poteau for some hiking in southeastern Oklahoma and/or southwestern Arkansas.

Click here for a slideshow from this day hike

 
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Posted by on October 15, 2014 in day hike, photos, travel

 

Roaring River Wrap-Up

October 4, 2014

Wendy and I needed an escape from the stress of work. We had both been working into the night, week after week, to do all that needed doing in our teaching and school-related duties. We’d seen little of each other this work week, as I spent three days at workshops in Tulsa while she had special education training and meetings. So we were both anxious to get out on the trail for some much-needed exercise and stress relief.

Roaring River State Park in Missouri is where I fell in love with hiking, and its Saturday forecast called for sunny weather with a high around 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Perfect! In April 2013 we hiked two miles there on the most impressive short trails: Deer Leap and Devil’s Kitchen. A year later, we walked a 4.5-mile loop on the Firetower Trail. That left three trails Wendy had not experienced, and I knew how to link them so I could readily meet or exceed her demand for a real work-out. So we left Bartlesville around 9:30 on Saturday morning, heading out for what would be a 5.85-mile hike along the Pibern, Eagle’s Nest, and Springhouse Trails.

Trail Track (click image for slideshow)

We reached the park’s Emory Melton Inn by 12:30 p.m. A fun new addition to the Inn were some huge lounging bears. Wendy and I enjoyed our now-traditional lunch beside the windows overlooking the forested knobs of the countryside. I had a French Dip while Wendy had a Frisco Melt. The food was good, but we were feeling it as we clambered down the hillside to the park store for trail drinks and then walked across the very narrow Highway F bridge across Dry Hollow to Campground 1. We walked west through the campground to the south trailhead of the Pibern Trail near the entrance to the Paradise Valley RV Park off Dry Hollow.

Pibern Trail

Wendy on the Pibern Trail

The Pibern Trail was built by the CCC in the 1930s as they were harvesting construction material. It climbs up the western slope above Campground 1 to track northward below a tall bluff carved by the usually-dry rocky streambed that tracks northward all of the way alongside Campground 1 and onward toward Cassville. Back in December 2011 I bushwhacked way up that streambed clear out of the park.

Wendy posed on a small bridge, and we followed the trail northward along the bluff. A short side trail led to a small cleft in the bluff, and some trees had distinct fungal growths. The trail climbed to approach some of the most impressive sections of bluff before turning about.

All along this hike, Wendy was searching for rocks with embedded crystals, recalling the beautiful find she made back in April on the trail near Onyx Cave a few miles away from Roaring River. She found a rock with some nice crystal ribbons and a rock with a screw-shaped fossil imprint.

Bluffs on the Pibern Trail

The trail turns back south at an area of tilted and fallen slabs which I call TumbleTown, descending steeply beside a waterway to reach the rocky streambed below. Wendy took a snapshot of me in front of TumbleTown, and I did the same for a couple who had made the arduous ascent to reach us.

Streambed at north end of the Pibern Trail

Down in the rocky streambed, I took a panorama with my new iPhone 6, which I’d been using for some of the snapshots along the trail. The trail briefly followed the streambed before re-asserting itself on slightly higher ground to the west for a beautiful walk through the trees. We were singing as we walked along the sunlight-dappled path.

We passed a tree with several bumps and a birdhouse, and reached the north end of the trail at the very end of the road for Campground 1. I don’t like the long walk along the asphalt road beside the campsites, preferring to just follow the dry but very rocky and bumpy streambed. That provides nice views of the carved and forested bluff as you traverse rocky and leafy ledges and sculpted bedding planes, but you need good hiking boots for that option.

Walking the streambed

We passed a tree with much of its rootball exposed; it probably won’t survive the next flood. We passed under the low bridge into Paradise Valley, where some kids were playing in the streambed. One asked knowingly if we’d just finished the trail. Wendy and I then walked up Dry Hollow to the park store. The old walkway across Dry Hollow was destroyed in a flood, and the south streambank is too steep to climb. So we had to again cross on the pitiful Highway F bridge. Missouri should prioritize replacing that very narrow bridge, which is barely wide enough for campers and trailers and is dangerous for pedestrians.

Murder Hill

Wendy had told me she wanted a workout on this trip, and boy-howdy, I had one ready for her. The climbs along the Pibern Trail are nothing compared to the long steep climb alongside Highway F up the hill leading south out of the park towards Seligman. My family has always called it Seligman Hill, but if you walk it, it is Murder Hill.

Elevation Profile

As we climbed and climbed toward the top, Wendy commented, “I’ll only hate you for a little while.” We finally reached the top, which has a trailhead for the Eagle’s Nest Trail. We were grateful to be leaving the highway and very glad our climb was complete.

We walked along and down the ridgeline, past the completely overgrown homestead of Miss Jeanne Wallace, the Mountain Maid, which one can only identify from the lilac bushes and yucca still growing in the area. We followed the upper part of the trail loop, which has a pretty winding section in the trees, before descending alongside Roaring River to return to the Emory Melton Inn. Wendy got a shot of some nice red leaves.

Eagle’s Nest Trail

The Last Trail

Wendy’s goal for the day was to hike six miles, and we had done a bit under 5.5 miles by that point. So I took her along the park’s newest trail, the short but steep Springhouse trail just south of the Inn. That means Wendy has now been on every trail in the park, hiking everything except for the lower part of the loop on the Eagle’s Nest Trail and a small connector between the Deer Leap and Firetower Trails.

It was a steep climb to the small trail loop. As we completed the loop and turned at a fork in the trail, Wendy laughingly said she was so very thankful when we turned left and down, rather than right and up. That last hike had brought our mileage up to 5.85 miles, which our calves and hamstrings said was quite enough for the day.

We freshened up and drove to Monett, where TripAdvisor led us to The Family Room Steakhouse, where we each enjoyed a tasty KC Strip with shrimp. The homemade mashed potatoes were peppery but yummy. The green beans, however, were noticeably spicy. Wendy commented on that to the friendly waiter, who found out that the cook had accidentally used cayenne pepper. The waiter provided a free slice of chocolate meringue pie to cool us off. It was a great way to end our day trip, and I’m sure we’ll return to that restaurant in the future, since The Rib in Cassville is long gone.

I’m no fisherman and I lost my interest in camping long ago, but the trails at Roaring River make it a favorite retreat for Wendy and me. We are so glad autumn has arrived, bringing with it the prospect of many more day hikes.

Click here for a slideshow from this day hike

 
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Posted by on October 5, 2014 in day hike, photos, travel

 

Back on the Trails

September 14, 2014

Osage Hills Thistle (click for Osage Hills slideshow)

A week into September 2014 the summer weather abated, allowing Wendy and me to venture out for our first hike since our vacation in New Mexico in early July. On a Sunday morning we headed west out of town to Osage Hills to hike four miles around the Bugle Loop on the Tower/Lake, Cabin, and Falls trails. We admired colorful thistle on the Tower trail and an intricate spiderweb above Lookout Lake. We lunched trailside on my favorite hiking meal, a QuikTrip turkey & swiss sandwich on berry wheat bread, before walking down to the Sand Creek falls. The water was running high from recent rains, and an extended family was enjoying the flow.

The next Sunday we drove to Owasso to have lunch at El Fogon, which was the top-rated Owasso restaurant on TripAdvisor. Wendy enjoyed her carnitas with corn tortillas while I dined on my typical order of steak fajitas. Then we drove east to the 120-acre Conservation Education Reserve at Rogers State University. I had visited it five years earlier, but back in 2009 I did not track my route. Before we left town to drive to Owasso, I’d done an extensive web search for a detailed map of the reserve, eventually tracking down a nice online GPS map created by students at the local vo-tech; I had exported and saved that map to guide our hike.

RSU Day Hike (click image for RSU Reserve slideshow)

This time the tracker was running as we entered the gate near the Terra Lab to circumnavigate the reserve on its Butterfly Loop, Southwest Trail, Wetland Loop, and Weather Trail for a total walk of 2.75 miles.

The butterfly garden was buzzing with bumblebees. Wendy got a shot of the fish and a frog in the pond, and a bloom. We were then driven onto the Butterfly Loop by the approach of grandparents with grandchildren.

Bumblebee

A glade with benches featured a trailside tree which had been fully consumed by bagworms. The trail wound around the southeast portion of the reserve, with another group of hikers in close pursuit. We lost them when we turned off onto the Southwest Trail, which had a profusion of yellow blooms.

Southwest Trail

A muddy pond had a turtle swimming along with only its eyes and snout protruding from the water. A meadow had sumac, while the wetlands featured small cattails and plenty of bugs. The big pond featured a windmill and extensive plant growth in the water teeming with tiny fish. A couple of dragonflies flew by and settled down, intent on, er, coupling.

Dragonfly Couple

It was a nice but still rather warm walk; I’m eagerly awaiting even cooler weather for future outings.

Click here for a slideshow from the Conservation Education Reserve

 
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Posted by on September 14, 2014 in day hike, photos, travel

 

A Tale of Two Schools

September 6, 2014

In September 2014 a story in the Daily Oklahoman newspaper in Oklahoma City highlighted both the high school I graduated from and the one I’ve taught at for 25 years. The context was an article about the number of high school graduates enrolling in Oklahoma colleges who have to take remedial coursework. It included bar charts of the state’s public and private high schools which send over 100 students to college and have the highest and the lowest percentages of students who have to do remedial work.

My alma mater, Putnam City West in northwest Oklahoma City, was ranked among the worst performers, with 50% of its graduates who went to an Oklahoma college having to take remedial classes. That compares to 20% for Bartlesville High School, where I’ve worked since 1989, placing BHS among the top seven schools in the state and in the top five public schools in this ranking.

Remediation rates at my alma mater and where I teach

Remediation rates at my alma mater and where I teach

What makes the schools so different? In a word…demographics. I have heard the junior high I attended, one of two feeder schools to PC West, called “the armpit of the district.” Nevertheless, I received a strong education at PC West back in the early 1980s, which propelled me to many academic awards, scholarships, accolades, and a rewarding career. But the demographics of the families it serves have steadily worsened. While Bartlesville High’s demographics have also declined since the ConocoPhillips merger at the start of the twenty-first century, it still serves a rather different clientele than PC West. Consider this data from the Profiles 2013 report cards for each school:

Demographic Statewide Average Putnam City West HS Bartlesville HS
Students Eligible for Free/Reduced Lunch 62% 83% 29%
Mobility Rate (incoming students) 11% 18% 4%
Suspension Rate (higher is better)
1 suspension per X students
124.4 85.4 280.7

My entire teaching career has been suffused in a never-ending drive to hold schools more accountable for their students’ performance. But Helen Ladd’s 2011 analysis stated:

…a simple bivariate regression of state test scores and state poverty rates indicates that a full 40 percent of the variation in reading scores and 46 percent of the variation in math scores is associated with variation across states in child poverty rates. The addition of one other explanatory variable related to family background, the percent of children who are members of minority groups, increases the explanatory power of the relationship to about 50 percent in reading and 51 percent in math. Clearly the mix of family backgrounds is highly correlated with patterns of student achievement across states.

The blogger at OKEducationTruths analyzed the data on the 454 schools in the data set the Daily Oklahoman was drawing from to identify how much different factors correlated with the college remediation rate. Given Dr. Ladd’s analysis, it is no surprise that in the Oklahoma data poverty factors had the strongest correlations with the college remediation rate.

Bartlesville works pretty hard at preparing kids for college. Teachers of courses with state tests are required to collect, analyze, and act upon data from regular assessments. There are remediation programs in place at each school to help identify and assist struggling students. I don’t know how much of that is done at my alma mater. But I know that BHS benefits greatly from having only about a third as many students who come from impoverished families and a mobility rate that is less than one-fourth of that at PC West.

So I’m not going to dump on my alma mater and praise my own school for their very different college remedial course rates. This is a tale of two schools who serve very different populations, with different challenges. What Dickens wrote in A Tale of Two Cities describes well the tumult public school teachers face in our own time:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

LATER POSTSCRIPT:

On Facebook, former Bartlesville school board member Vanessa Drummond asked a good question: how do the poverty rates compare among the top-performing schools? I expanded upon that with a look at all of the low and high performing public schools:

High-Performing Schools on College Remediation Rate:

School Students Eligible for Free/Reduced Lunch Mobility Rate (incoming students) DISTRICT Adults (25+) with College Degree
Statewide Average 62% 11% 23%
Stillwater 35% 3% 48%
Deer Creek 7% 3% 57%
Edmond North 18% 5% 51%
Edmond Memorial 24% 3% 51%
Bartlesville 29% 4% 30%

Stillwater is the outlier, but it is a town of 47,000 which is home to one of the state’s two leading universities. It is hardly surprising that a district dominated by a university would fare better in college course remediation rates. The percentage of adults over age 25 holding a college degree is illustrative; note that is a district-wide figure versus other school-specific figures. Compare those demographics to those of the low-performers:

Low-Performing Schools on College Remediation Rate:

School Students Eligible for Free/Reduced Lunch Mobility Rate (incoming students) DISTRICT Adults (25+) with College Degree
Statewide Average 62% 11% 23%
Tulsa Nathan Hale 100% 30% 25%
Tulsa Memorial 82% 28% 25%
Lawton 57% 48% 20%
Muskogee 81% 11% 18%
Midwest City 67% 12% 18%
Lawton Eisenhower 44% 12% 20%
Putnam City West 83% 18% 32%

Notice how Lawton High’s lower poverty rate is offset by its enormous mobility rate, although Lawton Eisenhower doesn’t have that excuse. The Putnam City district has a good percentage of adults with college degrees, but it includes three high schools, with PC North serving a much higher socioeconomic status group than PC West or the original PC High School. So we can’t discern the adults in the PC West area with college degrees.

 
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Posted by on September 6, 2014 in politics

 

Down in the Salt Mine

September 2, 2014

Labor Day weekend 2014 found Wendy and me 650 feet below Hutchinson, Kansas, touring part of a salt mine. It was the highlight of our first out-of-town trip in my new 2014.5 Toyota Camry XLE, which replaced Princess, my 2001 Toyota Camry LE.

Trip to Strataca (click map for slideshow)

Princess replaced by Silver Fox

Silver Fox

I was sad to have to let Princess go, as she was the best car I ever had. But with over 236,000 miles on her and repairs this month exceeding her bluebook value, it was time for me to move on. I drained the car fund I’ve been building for four years and, with some help from my always-generous parents, traded Princess in for Silver Fox. Yes, the new car is silver instead of white, and I picked that name since the car reflects my mid-life desire for some flashy luxuries, such as leather heated seats and a moonroof.

The most useful new luxury is linking my iPhone wirelessly to the car’s sound system via Bluetooth. That is more convenient than the wired option I installed in my old car back in February 2012, since the phone automatically links with the car when I get close to it, allowing me to control the music on the car’s dashboard touchscreen and conduct hands-on-the-wheel phone calls. I like the latter feature, since avoidance of visual-manual interactions with a phone when driving improves safety. The car has its own voice recognition system, but even after completing its voice training, I found the iPhone’s Siri to be far more accurate in interpreting my commands. I still keep my iPhone mounted high on the dash with a holder that attaches to an air vent, since I still rely upon its TomTom GPS app for navigation, and Toyota doesn’t yet have Apple CarPlay.

Oh, and another nice feature of Silver Fox is the ease with which it passes slower vehicles on two-lane highways. Its 4-cylinder engine produces 178 horsepower versus the 136 hp engine in Princess, while still getting highway gas mileage in the upper 30s. I could get even more power and mileage in the hybrid model, but it is more expensive, and the battery pack’s longevity seemed ill-suited to my typical decade-plus of active car use before trading in for a newer model.

Hutchinson by way of Wichita

Silver Fox transported Wendy and me 184 miles northwest from Bartlesville to visit Strataca, the underground museum in an exhausted part of the Hutchinson Salt Company’s mine below Hutchinson, Kansas. We stopped along the way for lunch in Wichita. The first two restaurants we tried were too crowded or closed, so we wound up at Five Guys Burgers & Fries. We’d heard about this chain but never been in one before. Our food took awhile to be prepared, but was delicious.

Strataca Entrance

We arrived in Hutchinson after 1 p.m. I drove around town to show Wendy the Cosmosphere, which we planned to visit the following day. I’d been there previously and would have shared it on this trip with Wendy, but she was catching a cold as we headed out, and that, along with plenty of homework for both of us, meant that we cut our trip short the following day and saved the Cosmosphere for a future return trip.

But neither homework nor head colds kept us from being transported 650 feet down to the huge salt mine below Hutchinson. Our first stop at Strataca was around 1:30 p.m. to purchase tickets. Strong winds of over 30 miles per hour pelted us with sand as we made our way from the parking lot, so I was glad the earliest we could descend was 3:20 p.m. That gave us time to do some shopping, and, upon our return, to strategically park my new car to avoid most of the blowing sand.

Back to the salt mine

We then waited in the above-ground lobby for our group’s descent on the elevator, reading posted quotations. One from Isak Dinesen appealed to me:

The cure for anything is salt water – sweat, tears, or the sea.

The museum occupies a tiny portion of the immense salt mine. The active area is mined by the Hutchinson Salt Company, a successor to the original Carey Salt Mine of 1923. They mine over 500,000 tons of rock salt annually, primarily for use in de-icing roads. The Carey mine has grown to over 980 acres, with inactive areas leased to Underground Vaults & Storage. They store various items in leased space roughly equivalent to 35 football fields encased in solid stone, more than 45 stories below ground. The entire played-out portion of the mine, however, is equivalent to almost 740 football fields, stretching miles in each direction. If linked end-to-end, the mined rooms would stretch over 150 miles. The temperature is a steady 68 degrees year-round, although large fans have to be used to circulate air brought down through the shaft. Abandoned areas of the mine are closed off so that they don’t have to waste energy moving air around in those spaces.

Down we go

Wendy before a wall of rock salt

Throughout our visit we had to wear hard hats along with small rebreather kits strapped at waist level. The roof of the mine can peel, although they inspect the public area daily and knock down any loose bits. The trip down took 90 seconds in a newer double-level elevator that was constructed by the underground storage company and the county historical society. The original 1923 shaft is still in use by the mining company. We stepped out into a long wide tunnel through the rock salt, lit by roof-mounted lights.

The museum is a big U formed out of several of the interconnected rooms in the mine. The tour is self-paced, with displays in each room showing the various types of mining technology used here since 1923. Since it is so laborious to get mining equipment down the small shaft, it is never hauled back up and out. That meant we had examples of the original equipment to see, along with short video clips explaining how the equipment was used.

We examined display cases and passed fellow tourists taking selfies; the underground museum is equipped with WiFi, so you can keep in touch with the world above even with 45 stories of rocks above your head. Wendy and I took turns posing by the mine’s walls of rock salt, which include occasional pure salt veins formed by water flow.

Down in the salt mine

Different eras of mining technology

Salt saw

The mine originally relied on rails laid on the floors to move its electrical machinery and to haul the workers and mine materials. We passed an old train that transported workers and saw how they use large saws to undercut a fresh face. This provides a nice level floor and allows the rock to collapse when it is blasted loose. Deep holes are drilled into the face, and explosives are inserted. In the old days they used dynamite, and there were lots of empty dynamite boxes in the mine, but today they use ammonium nitrate and fuel oil. The chunks of rock salt used to be shoveled by hand into train bins to be hauled to a crusher and lifted. The blasting saved some effort, but workers still had to manually shovel tons of rock.

Eventually they abandoned the use of rails, switching to diesel vehicles. On display were an old car and a pickup which had been dismantled and brought down the shaft, and then reassembled and welded back together. My favorite was a 1940 tractor which got stuck in a farm shelterbelt back in 1958 and abandoned. In 1994 a mine supervisor bought it for $60 and had workers cut it loose from tree that had grown up through it. They disassembled it and brought it down into the mine, put it back together and cleaned the carburetor, and put it to use. Since Star Trek: Voyager was popular at the time, they named the tractor after the eponymous ship in that show, and even labelled its battery holder as the warp core.

Voyager tractor and its warp core

The mine today uses front-end loaders running on bio-diesel to scoop up blasted rock salt into a crusher. The crushed rock spills out onto an extremely long conveyor belt for transport to the original shaft.

Front-end loader and conveyor belt

Storage

Dean Cain’s Superman suit

A fun area of the museum displays the history of the storage facility. I laughed at the incongruity of the 1959 Miss Salt Queen contestants. The mine was originally mostly six feet high, but the storage areas were raised to 10 feet. Today they use big cutters to lift the ceilings for storage areas, and this creates firmer ceilings and beautiful patterns in the rock salt. The much-appreciated bathroom facility they added in 2012 has walls which show the difference between the lower blasted mine area and the cut upper section.

This mine is the largest single storage facility for movie and television film internationally, thanks to its consistent 68 degree temperature and 35-40% humidity. A display illustrated the storage racks, and they had several movie costumes on display, including the Mr. Freeze costume and infamous “nipple” Batman suit from the 1997 movie Batman & Robin. I was a fan of Lois & Clark back in the 1990s, so I enjoyed seeing a Superman costume worn by Dean Cain.

Wendy with Dorothy II from Twister

Old animation drawings are also stored in the mine, and it was neat to look at original Bugs Bunny and Sylvester drawings. I was already familiar with data records storage in salt mines, since my mother worked for a savings and loan in Oklahoma City which stored records in a mine near Kansas City. The mine storage areas hold a variety of stored data records, and Wendy was impressed by the huge old IBM System 38 computer on display. Above it was a nice display of evolving data storage technologies, reminding me of my recent post about my own digital storage changes. It was amusing to see that the big IBM computer tape reels we used to always see spinning back and forth in old movies only held about 140 megabytes of data. My desktop computer currently has instant access to over 35,000 times that much local storage.

We came across the Dorothy II prop from the Twister movie; we’d seen the Dorothy I and other similar props in the Oklahoma History Museum last November. I enjoyed seeing old 35 mm film movie editing equipment used to view, cut, and splice films back in the days before digital editing.

Train and tram rides

We had purchased tickets allowing us to ride an electric train for a narrated 15-minute ride through parts of the mine dating to the 1940s and 1950s. We saw how they used to plug up spent areas with old dynamite boxes to control air circulation. There were areas where the floor had heaved up or a part of the roof had collapsed, and some of the old mine rails and cars. The mine is ever-so-slowly closing up under the pressure of the overlying rock; a study by the nuclear energy folks showed it might seal up in 36,000 years. The slow buckling of the mine was part of the reason why protesters successfully fought against having the salt mines used for nuclear waste storage, worried that waste might eventually be introduced into the overlying aquifer. That aquifer was a barrier to the construction of the shaft we took down into the mine; they punched through it by freezing the surrounding area during the drilling before lining that portion with concrete to keep the water out.

Other “remnants” of mining we saw along our excursion included a trash pile and portable toilet; they really do leave stuff down in the mine! We then took a tram for a “dark ride” through parts of the mine without electric lighting, but the low light levels and steady motion meant that the only shot I got was of an abandoned old car.

Heading up and out

As we left the mine, I posed with a pickaxe, and then we boarded the elevator for the ascent. Back outside, I looked at the small electric train engine once used for switching services at the Carey Salt Mine’s evaporation plant and mine. The wind was still strong and dust-laden as we drove back to Wichita, passing through large clouds of dust reminding us that this area was part of the 1930s Dust Bowl.

Dust storm outside of Hutchinson

Along the Arkansas in Wichita

We spent the night at the historic Drury Plaza Broadview Hotel along the Arkansas River in downtown Wichita. We were on the 8th floor in a nice spacious high-ceiling room with a great west view of the river. Wendy got a great shot of the sunset before we headed out to eat.

View of the Arkansas from the hotel

Wichita’s Old Town district seemed the best bet for finding some nightlife on the Sunday night before Labor Day, and we enjoyed pizzas at the Old Chicago Pizza & Taproom.

Spangles for lunch

The next morning Wendy’s cold had worsened, and so we opted to head home after lunch rather than drive back to Hutchinson’s Cosmosphere. Our first attempts for Labor Day lunch failed, since family restaurants were understandably closed, so we wound up at one of the many Spangles joints around town. Outside there was an old Chevy plunging out over the building’s entrance, and inside we found a Mustang Mach I, Phillips 66 signage, and good burgers.

We enjoyed our trip and look forward to returning to Wichita and Hutchinson in the future, but although we certainly enjoyed our tour at Strataca, we won’t have to go “back to the salt mine.”

Click here for a slideshow from this trip

 
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Posted by on September 2, 2014 in photos, travel

 

Going Solid State

August 17, 2014
Tubes gave way to solid state

Tubes gave way to solid state

When I was a small child, I would climb up onto the top of the black-and-white television in our living room. It was warm up there, and I would peer through the vents down into the television. Its innards were lit by the dim glow of vacuum tubes. I figured out those tubes were part of the reason why there was a long delay between turning on the set and getting a picture or sound; until they began to glow red hot, Mr. Magoo would not appear. Eventually I would clamber down and sprawl on the floor to watch the flickering gray images. I also remember being bewildered by that stupid lying NBC peacock, which would spread its feathers and proclaim the next show would be in living color…it never was.

My parents finally bought a Zenith color television around 1973, an emblem on its front proclaiming it as SOLID STATE. I wasn’t sure what that meant, except that the warm glow of the tubes was gone and the picture and sound came on very quickly. The peacock was proud and colorful.

Solid state circuits with transistors revolutionized electronics, and now solid state drives are changing local storage on our computers.

Hard disks vs. solid state drives

For decades we’ve relied upon the incredible hard disk drive first introduced by IBM in the 1950s. For years every decent personal computer had one or more of these spinning drives, with their steadily increasing capacity and decreasing cost, as I outlined in my previous post. But in 2010 I bought a laptop computer with no hard drive, a second-generation MacBook Air. I knew its 128 GB solid state drive meant it would boot up very quickly and perform admirably despite its somewhat dated microprocessor, but I was still startled by the performance increase it gained by dispensing with an electromechanical hard disk.

Solid state drives are now commonplace in our smartphones, tablets, and some laptop computers. But it has taken much longer for them to creep into our desktop systems because the old hard disks have so much more capacity and are far cheaper. I finally took the plunge this month of buying a one-terabyte solid state drive for my five-year-old desktop computer, and this post is about my experience of installing and using it.

Cleaning up my system

I debated doing a fresh installation of Windows 7 on the new solid state drive and then re-installing, one-by-one, the various applications I use on my desktop machine. That would clear a lot of cruft from the computer and its registry, but it would mean a lengthy process of locating, re-downloading, and re-installing software packages. Back when everything came on an optical disc, re-installations were fairly straightforward, but now many of my applications are downloaded from the web and I’d have to find download links and locate emails with their registration keys to get them back up and running.

That was too big a hassle for me, but I also wanted to make the image of my existing disk as clean as possible before cloning it onto the new drive. So I used Control Panel > Programs and Features to list the dozens of applications on my system and began working my way through them, uninstalling anything I thought I would not use. Over its five years of use, I have installed on my desktop machine many different video and photo editing applications and accumulated various utilities I needed once or twice and then never again. In the end, I wound up uninstalling over 40 different programs. After a reboot to ensure clean-up from the uninstalled programs, I was ready to install my new solid state drive.

My Crucial M550

My new solid state drive and installation kit

My new solid state drive and installation kit

I had ordered a Crucial M550 one-terabyte drive with a SATA interface from Amazon for $432. I also purchased a $24 desktop installation kit which provided a SATA cable to connect the drive to the computer’s motherboard, an adapter bracket to fit the laptop-sized 2.5″ wide drive into a desktop’s 3.5″ bay, and Acronis TrueImage HD software to help me migrate my system from my one-terabyte hard disk to the solid state drive.

Thankfully Windows 7 is new enough to know how to handle a solid state drive; if a new drive had meant moving to Windows 8, I would have refused. I hated Windows 8 when I previewed it back in the spring of 2012 and the few times I’ve used it since have convinced me to stick with Windows 7. I won’t get a new desktop computer until after the successor to Windows 8 is released; I often skip versions of Windows and have never regretted it.

Installing the new drive

My hard disks before the new drive was installed

My hard disks before the new drive was installed

I unplugged the power and all peripherals from my CPU and opened it up. I had two one-terabyte hard disks; one was the primary drive and the other for backup. Both were connected to SATA ports on the motherboard and to power cables from the power supply.

Four screws that came with my installation kit secured the tiny solid state drive into the wider adapter bracket. The drive is only 7 millimeters thick, which makes sense for a laptop computer, but looks comically thin compared to my system’s hard disks. The bracket then was supposed to be secured in a drive bay by four more screws that came with the kit. But my bay is not easily accessed on one side, so I was only able to easily screw in three of the four screws. It seemed sturdy enough, and solid state drives are much less susceptible than a hard disk to vibration damage.

The new drive installed in my computer

The new drive installed in my computer

Next I hooked one end of the keyed SATA cable which came with the installation kit to the new drive. The other end keyed into an empty port on the motherboard. I found an unused SATA power cord coming out of the power supply and hooked that in. With that, the hardware installation was complete. It was time to tackle the software side of things.

I needed to clone my boot hard disk to the new drive, tell the computer to start booting from the new drive instead of the old hard disk, and then tweak some Windows settings to help prolong the life of my solid state drive.

Cloning my disk

I closed up the computer and hooked everything back in. I flipped on the power and inserted into the optical drive the Acronis TrueImage HD disc from the installation kit. I was fast enough that the machine booted up in Acronis instead of Windows.

The Acronis software listed the new solid state drive and both of my hard disks. I instructed it to clone the boot hard disk C: over to the new solid state drive, which it had labelled as F:. It took 2.33 hours for the 772 GB of data on the hard disk to be copied over to the new solid state drive. I then exited Acronis and the machine rebooted.

Changing the boot settings in the BIOS

Pressing the DEL key repeatedly as it booted up interrupted the boot sequence to bring up the BIOS (Basic Input/Output System) menu where one sets boot options and the like. I changed the boot sequence to first try to boot from the CD/DVD drive, then each of the four USB flash drive slots on the front of the computer. This would allow me to easily bypass Windows if I needed to use a disaster recovery disk or a utility like Acronis. Next in the boot sequence came the new solid state drive, then the hard disk I had been booting Windows on, and finally the hard disk I was using for easy in-the-computer-case backups. (Yes, I also periodically make backups to a portable hard disk which I store off-site.) I saved the settings and exited the BIOS, and hoped that Windows would come up on the new drive.

It worked like a charm, with Windows 7 Home Premium booting up much faster than I’d ever seen before on my machine. I checked in Windows Explorer and verified that I had booted from the solid state drive; it was shown as drive C: while my backup hard disk was now drive E: and the hard disk I had been booting from previously was listed as drive F: (the optical drive is drive D:).

Making sure Windows 7 is being SSD-friendly

I’d noticed that Windows had installed some device drivers when it booted up, and one was for the new solid state drive. I hoped that meant Windows had been told to no longer try to defragment the boot drive and to use TRIM. Hard disks can be defragmented every so often to consolidate files spread out across the disk and speed up the disk’s performance; this was much more important in the old days than it is today with our enormous hard drives. But you should NOT defragment a solid state drive, since the resulting reads and writes simply waste rewrite cycles of the memory without improving performance to any meaningful degree. TRIM should also be enabled on a solid state drive; this changes how deleted files are handled to help preserve the usable life of the drive.

An article at Lifehacker helped me check that TRIM was enabled (it already was) and that defragmentation was disabled on the solid state drive. Older articles had urged disabling the SuperFetch service, relocating the Windows Page file to a hard disk, and the like. Other articles said those changes were not all that important, but I did them anyway, including implementing some more tips from ghacks.net.

The results

The new drive dramatically improved the boot process on my machine, which had become very slow and tedious with the hard disk maxing out as Microsoft Security Essentials and Dropbox and other services did their thing. Here’s a comparison:

Boot item Time after boot from hard disk (minutes:seconds) Time after boot from solid state drive (minutes:seconds)
“Starting Windows” screen 0:26 0:26
Windows password prompt 1:15 0:46
Desktop background appears 2:06 0:53
Desktop icons first appear 2:37 0:53
Windows logon sound 2:38 0:53
Desktop icons fill back in 4:20 1:02
Networking icon shows ready (most start-up services running) 6:40 1:08
Dropbox shows ready 16+ 2:08

As you can see, it was taking forever for my machine to fully boot up – a major reason why I invested in the solid state drive. For years I’ve examined the disk activity via Windows Resource Monitor and seen how processes associated with Microsoft Security Essentials and Dropbox, and sometimes the disk indexing service and iTunes, were maxing out my hard disk’s throughput.

Dropbox and other services were hogging my hard disk after boot-ups

Dropbox and other services were hogging my hard disk after boot-ups

I had used various online tips over the years to tweak various services and settings, but they didn’t help much. Eventually things would settle down, but sometimes that would take 15 to 20 minutes, during which time my system was very sluggish. So I almost never rebooted my machine, and dreaded when a security update or the like would force me to reboot.

The left graph shows my hard disk finally settling down 19 minutes after booting; the right shows my solid state disk less than 3 minutes after booting.

The left graph shows my hard disk finally settling down 19 minutes after booting; the right shows my solid state disk less than 3 minutes after booting.

The two graphs at right illustrate how much nicer things are with my solid state drive. On the left is a graph of hard disk use 19 minutes after a recent boot-up, when the hard disk finally settled down, transitioning back to more normal behavior after continually reading data as fast as it could. The right graph shows the solid state drive’s use less than 3 minutes after boot up; notice the change in the scale of the y-axis: the drive has already read all that was needed for the various services and is just doing minimal background tasks.

So thus far I’m extremely pleased with this upgrade. It will make booting and using my five-year-old machine much more enjoyable and hopefully allow me to stretch its useful life out for a few more years.

I have some nostalgia for that old tube television from my childhood; I remember the glow of the vacuum tubes, the comforting heat they generated, and the smell of hot dust as the television warmed up. But I will never be fond of my memories of the interminable boot times and sluggishness of my desktop computer before I installed the solid state drive. In this case, I’ve gone solid state and won’t look back.

UPDATE: One of my students this year told me that I needed a SATA III port to get the most of out of drive. My 2009 motherboard only has SATA II ports, which have less throughput. So eventually I might invest in a SATA III PCIe card. That would improve throughput even more, although still not reaching the level available on a motherboard-based SATA III port.

 
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Posted by on August 17, 2014 in technology

 
 
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