A quick trip to Denver

It had been a long time since I visited my friends in Denver, so I took a quick trip out a couple of weeks ago. I took Zeke and Lucy; Leah stayed home to take care of the cats and Sam, who still gets carsick. I had planned to leave on a Monday, but Zeke made a break for freedom and it took until about mid-afternoon to find him and convince him to come back home. So I left on Tuesday.

It’s 1360 miles from our house, a nice, two-day drive. I’ve made this drive and a similar drive to Albuquerque many times, sometimes in my truck and sometimes riding a motorcycle. I have always simply slept somewhere along the way, in a rest area if in the truck or in some tall weeds if I rode the bike. I stopped this time at a rest area on I-70 in Kansas. I wanted to make 700 miles so the next day would be shorter, but I didn’t manage it.

During the night I dreamed that I was sleeping across the front seats of the truck with my shoulder, my hip and my knee hurting. Then I woke up, sleeping across the front seat with my shoulder, hip and knee hurting.

This was sunrise at the rest area.

I wanted to leave before sunrise, but between hurting and having to take Lucy for a couple of walks during the night, I didn’t sleep well enough to make it.

I got to my friends Errol and Cookie’s house around 8 pm. I usually say I’m visiting Denver, but they actually live in Littleton. Errol and Cookie’s daughter Debra and her husband Tres live not far away, also in Littleton. Grandson Will was there, and granddaughter Emily came home from college to see friends. Another old friend, Tom, Errol’s brother, rode his motorcycle up from near Albuquerque. We spent the next four days visiting.

Here are Tom (standing) and Errol working on Tom’s bike, a 1989 Honda Transalp. I pointed out to them that when you take a trip on a motorcycle, your destination should always be somewhere that you can work on your motorcycle. Maybe that doesn’t apply to modern bikes.

Tres is restoring an MGB-GT, donated by Tom.

Tres’s work is meticulous. The front suspension assembly is lying on the floor right behind Tom. When I saw it I thought it was a rebuilt assembly that Tres had ordered from England, but, no, it was his work. I expect the finished car to look like it was ordered directly from England.

Debra and Tres’s dog Elroy looks like Zeke’s cousin.

They also have a cat, Spencer. Elroy and Spencer get along famously.

Spencer is a cat that is exactly like one that we don’t have.

Zeke and Elroy didn’t get along that well. There was a lot of posturing, some growling and at least one phony fight that involved snarling, barking and snapping, none of which resulted in any injury that I could see. I found a spot of blood above Elroy’s eye, but it wiped off, so I think it probably came from Zeke, although I couldn’t find any place on Zeke where the blood could have come from. I’m not sure what their problem is. I suspect that Elroy resents Zeke, and Zeke is not appropriately respectful in his host’s home.

Part of the visit required that we sit on Debra and Tres’s deck

I think we probably talked about things.

After four short days I had to head back home. I had one last breakfast with Errol, Cookie, and Debra and then found my way back onto I-70.

As it happens, eastern Colorado and western Kansas look pretty much the same going east as they do going west. They are mostly flat, with some low, rolling hills. Windmill farms provide the most visual interest, especially after dark when you can see the red warning lights blinking simultaneously on scores of windmills.

I spent another night in Kansas sleeping across the front seats of the truck. This time I had prepared. I had several pillows to lay out over the seats to make them closer to level and to take the hard edges off the bucket seats. I think Lucy woke me up a couple of times, but I got a decent night’s sleep.

I got home around 11 pm on the second day. I was pretty tired, but it was worth it. I hope it’s not as long before the next visit.

Inside the Biltmore

On the day of our tour we waited in the Biltmore house stables until our 1:30 entry time into the main house. The stables were more impressively constructed than most mansions today. They were crowded, but not with horses. Apparently, Christmas is so popular for visitors that groups of tourists have to wait until their appointed times.

Just off the main entry, which I showed in yesterday’s post, there is a sunken garden area with a glass ceiling. It’s called the winter garden.


I showed the exterior of this space in yesterday’s post.

The temperature in the entry area was distinctly cool. With the original central heating, I suspect that the temperature of the house would have been kept higher back when the Vanderbilt still lived in the house.

We proceeded into the banquet hall.


Every room open to the public had at least one Christmas tree.

The billiard room is off one side of the banquet hall.


A stuffed eagle overlooks the games.


The ceilings were pretty impressive in most rooms.

I think this is the music room, directly behind the entry hall. The piano looks right, but several other rooms also had pianos. I suspect that there was a need for large quantities of large furniture to fill the large rooms.


This is the main stairwell, one of the most prominent features of the front exterior.


The first room on the second floor off the stairs is a sitting room. Then you come to this hallway.


If you go to the left in this image, you find yourself in George’s bedroom. He had a nice fireplace.


This is one end of the room.


Turn to the left and here’s his bed.


There is a bathroom behind the wall, apparently with two doors. Present-day guests are not allowed to use the house’s bathrooms; they must use restrooms in the stables.

To the left of this image there is a door into a sitting room.


It’s actually called the oak sitting room. Nice paneling. It is set up as if for breakfast. The door in the center of the wall leads into the hallway. I presume that would allow servants to bring a meal into the room without going into the bedroom itself.

Just beyond this room is Mrs. Vanderbilt’s bedroom. Hers is smaller, but there is a maid’s room just down the hall.

On the third floor there is yet another sitting room.


I think this is the third floor sitting room, based mainly on the slope of the walls, which indicates that the room is tucked up against the roof. There is a hallway off the sitting room which leads to several guest bedrooms.


You can see the slope of the roof here as well. It so dark that it was hard to get a decent shot. The guest rooms are much smaller than the Vanderbilts’ rooms. I suppose you wouldn’t want to encourage guests to stay too long.

This room had a fireplace with a distinctive and significantly different hearth and surround. It might have been the Gainsborough Room, but I’m not sure. When I look at a floor plan I find it hard to figure out exactly where we were at any given time.


From here we had to descend to the second floor so that we could descend yet again down towards the bowels of the building. The fourth floor, where the Vanderbilts stuffed many of their servants safely out of sight, was not open to the public.

The servants’ stairwell was much more modest than the main stairwell, but still impressive.


Down in the basement we went along a castlesque passageway.


The walls are stone set in cement. The ceiling is a series of barrel vaults formed of brick. The Vanderbilts’ kept the exercise areas down on the first basement level. First, the swimming pool.


Small, since George didn’t swim, but you have to have something for the guests, you know. And then here’s the bowling alley.


I presume servants stayed at the far end to reset the pins.

The exercise room was sparsely furnished.


That’s a rowing machine. There are parallel bars just to the right.

There was a second basement level not open to the public. I think it was mainly storage, so probably not very interesting, except perhaps the wine cellar.

There was a display of historical photographs in the basement, where we found evidence of either fraud or time travel. Look carefully at this photo of a photo.


Here is the caption.


Look back at the photo; do you see anything that looks, lets say, anachronistic? It’s just to the right of dead center. Here:


This is one of the few things I can remember, or at least think I can remember, from a tour of the Biltmore back in the early ’90’s. To me this looks like a modern automobile, possibly an ’80’s model Ford Fiesta or a Volkswagen Rabbit. The only problem is that it appears too large to be a car. I have no idea what it actually is.

And with that, we ended our tour of the house. I was left with an overwhelming impression of conspicuous consumption. I suspect that the $90 million adjusted cost of the house and estate is significantly less than it would cost to actually build such a structure today. Even buying the 125,000 acres today would probably cost more than $50 million, if you could find a tract of land like this.

If you look back at the previous post showing an overall exterior view of the house, you can see a wide, long flat area in front. The land was not originally like that. There must have been the equivalent of many hundreds of modern dumptruck loads of fill dirt to bring the land up level with the front of the house. That alone would cost a minimum of tens of thousands of dollars today, at least at retail.

I have no idea what George Vanderbilt would have paid to bring back the huge collection of European furniture and fixtures he used in the house.

I have to admit that this estate qualifies as wretched excess, but the one difference I noticed in comparison to what I have seen of, for example, Donald Trump’s lavish homes, is taste.

A trip to Asheville

Leah and I drove up to Asheville, NC, on Saturday, December 10. We wanted to see the Vanderbilt Estate in its Christmas finery.

Asheville is about 222 miles northeast of us via two-land mountain roads. Google Maps estimated it to be a 4 hour 16 minutes drive. A route taking I-75 to Knoxville, TN, and then I-40 east almost to the front door of the hotel was 275 miles. That route was supposed to take 4 hours and 28 minutes. However, I didn’t believe that we could make the average speed that Google thought we could on the mountain roads. The road is winding and passes through every small town between Rome and Asheville. So we took the Interstate.

The Biltmore Estate is said to be the largest private residence in the United States. It was built by George Vanderbilt, the grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, in the late 1890’s. It was initially to be a small summer retreat for him and his mother, who had been advised to try the weather in the North Carolina mountains for her health.

Construction began in 1889. The house was opened in 1895. It has 250 rooms in total, including 43 bathrooms, and 65 fireplaces. There is more than 135,000 square feet of living space. The estate originally had 125,000 acres. The family later sold most of it to the federal government as a national forest, leaving 8000 acres in the estate today.

The cost of building the estate was estimated by one source as about $5 million, which would be around $90 million in today’s money. A lot of Grandfather Cornelius’s money was in railroading (New York Central) so, of course, his grandson had a three-mile spur built to haul material and workers to the construction site.

When Cornelius Vanderbilt, the patron of the family, died, he was supposed to be the richest man in the US. When his eldest son died, he was also the richest man in the US. Cornelius’s grandson George apparently used most of his part of the inheritance to build the Biltmore Estate, paying little attention to maintaining his business interests. I suppose it’s not surprising that one of the current Vanderbilt descendants, Anderson Cooper, has been quoted as saying that his mother (Gloria Vanderbilt) told him there was no trust fund.

George married in 1898 and the couple had a daughter, Cornelia, in 1900. Unfortunately, George didn’t get a chance to enjoy his gigantic estate for long. He died in 1913 at age 51 from complications from an appendectomy. His widow moved back to the estate and Cornelia grew up there.

The main house is approached by a three-mile road that winds through the forest and ends at one of the gates, at which point the house abruptly comes into view.


This is the exterior of the main stairwell.


The house has four floors and a basement. The family living quarters are on the second and third floors. This is the exterior of the nursery.


I wonder if the gargoyles gave baby Cornelia nightmares. I wonder how a few would look on our house. Maybe I’ll settle for a Kokopelli in the front yard.

The glass roof between these two wings covers a plant room just off the main entrance.


This is the main entry hall, looking from the rear towards the front doors.


Christmas decorations are big at the Biltmore, as you can see when I post some more pictures later.

Mardi Gras! New Orleans!

We weren’t there.

But we did visit New Orleans during warm weather way back in 2008. I’ve been wanting to post a few of our pictures from that trip and this seems like a reasonable time.

This is a horse (Mule? Yes, it definitely is a mule. Thanks to The Ridger, I now know that you can tell the difference by the muzzle.) that pulled a carriage around the French Quarter. It was drinking from a trough at Jackson Square.


This is the St. Louis Cathedral on Jackson Square during the day.

square in day

This scene is nice during the day, but it really shines at night.

square at night

I took this by leaning against a building and hand holding the camera.

We spent a good bit of our time in New Orleans just walking around. We got hot one day, so we decided we needed a hurricane.

hurricane leah

One day we drove up along the river to see some of the old plantations. This one is pretty famous, and this view is the most famous part of it

oak alley

The plantation is called Oak Alley. A number of movies and TV shows have been filmed here, among them “Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte”, “Interview With the Vampire”, and “Primary Colors”.

We also took a boat ride into the swamps. Here is a snowy great egret (Again, thanks to The Ridger for identifying this bird.) keeping an eye on us.

snowy egret

The tourist boat takes a regular route. They stop at one point and feed the alligators, which are used to being fed there. That was OK, but they also let the tourists hold an alligator baby. Leah wanted to take this one home.

take my alligator

Not really. I was busy with the camera so I couldn’t hold it.

We missed Mardi Gras that year, but I visited New Orleans for Mardi Gras back around 1984 with another graduate student. He had a doctor friend who was in the Navy stationed near New Orleans, so we had a place to stay. The doctor friend took us downtown to see the parade. We got some beads and a few glimpses of naked lady parts, but the thing I remember most was how cold it was. New Orleans experienced a very cold snap for a few days around Mardi Gras. Street vendors were doing a great business selling yellow and purple knit caps, one of which I bought to save my ears.

The other thing I remember is portable toilets overused to the point that urine was streaming down the street. As it happens, the human body does not sweat as much during cold weather, so the body must eliminate fluids some other way. Urinating is that way. Although there were enough portable toilets that they might have sufficed in warmer weather, there was nowhere near enough for the cold weather we had.

Maybe I need to go to Mardi Gras again to wipe that memory away.

Leah thinks I have already posted these picture. If I did, someone might kindly tell me.

A glory at Kwaj

In about 1987 I had a chance to travel to Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. Kwajalein Atoll is part of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. It’s about 10 degrees north of the equator and about 13 degrees on the other side of the International Dateline (the US government stretches the dateline west to include Kwajalein in the same date as the mainland US). It’s 2500 air miles from Hawaii, which is about 2400 air miles from Los Angeles, which is just under 2000 air miles from Atlanta. It is, in other words, remote.

The US has operated a base on Kwajalein Island since the end of World War II US Army Kwajalein Atoll, or USAKA). They also operate bases on other islands in the chain, including one called Roi-Namur.

I took this picture when I flew from Kwajalein to Roi-Namur (Roi and Namur were originally two separate islands, but they were joined by an artificial causeway by the Japanese during World War II.)


Here is another I took on the same flight.


This is a glory. This is not an especially good example, but any example of a glory is a wonder. A glory is a bright ring that forms around the shadow of an observer when the sun is behind the observer and the observer looks towards his own shadow. Glories can often be seen from airliners flying over clouds, or in fog with bright lights behind the observer. I showed a glory in fog in a previous post, although I didn’t actually identify it as a glory. You might also see a glory in smoke.

The Wikipedia article on glories indicates that there is some scientific uncertainty about the source of the phenomenon, but other sources indicate a fairly simple explanation that I think is accurate. It is basically caused by scattering of light by cloud drops or other particles in the air. In the case of most particles or droplets, most of the light that interacts with them is scattered in the same general direction as it was originally traveling. That’s why, when clouds cover the sun or moon, you can see a bright area around where the sun or moon is, as long as the clouds aren’t thick enough to completely block the light. However, a large portion of the incident light is scattered back towards the source. That’s what causes the bright ring around the observer’s shadow. Back scattering, as it’s known, is what makes it hard to see in thick fog if you use your car’s high beams.

The (relatively) simple explanation is also consistent with the fact that you can see a similar phenomenon on a sunny day if you look at your shadow on the ground. There should be a brighter area on the ground surrounding your shadow. That bright area is light that is preferentially scatted back towards the light source.

The Wikipedia article about Kwajalein Atoll has at least one mistake. It says that the total area of the atoll islands is about 16 square miles, when it is, in fact, about six square miles. They may have been referring to the total area of the Marshal Islands, which includes other atolls.

The Marshall Islands are probably most famous as the site of a lot of the US atmospheric nuclear weapon testing.

Kwajalein Atoll is now used by the US Army as a missile and missile defense test site. The current name of the site is the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site (usually called simply the Reagan Test Site, or RTS), named in honor of President Ronald Reagan because of his pursuit of the fantasy of a defense against a large-scale missile attack on the United States.

More than 70 years ago, in 1944, US forces invaded Kwajalein and Roi-Namur as part of the strategy of island-hopping across Pacific on the way to the Japanese homeland. Kwajalein was invaded a few months after Tarawa, which was the first really bloody lesson the US learned about what fighting the Japanese would be like. The planners for the Tarawa invasion thought they had bombed and shelled the island so much that there would be little resistance; that turned out not to be the case. So when they planned the amphibious invasion of Kwajalein, by one estimate, they poured about 6000 tons of bombs and shells onto the island. That’s equivalent to about 40 percent of the size of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Another estimate was that it amounted to about 100 pounds of explosives per square foot of the island.

The battle for Kwajalein Island lasted four days. It’s pretty amazing to think about, especially if you have actually visited that island. At almost any point it’s possible to see the ocean on both sides at the same time. Back then I was still running; it was an easy run around the entire perimeter of the island.

The invasion of Roi-Namur occurred next. That island is tiny, even in comparison to Kwajalein Island. That battle took a day. As a result of that 24 hours of fighting, four Medals of Honor were awarded.

There are quite a few relics from the Japanese occupation and the US invasion. Here is a Japanese headquarters building.


This is what’s left of one of the Japanese defense positions.

This is a wall of a building with graffiti left from that time.


This is some of the debris left from US equipment lost on the beach. I found some old rifle cartridges in the water near Roi, but have long since lost them.


Today, the islands are pretty.



Base personnel cut the coconuts down from the trees to keep them from falling onto the heads of residents.

It’s not what you think of as a tropical paradise, but that image probably comes from volcanic island rather than coral atolls. Coral atolls have no mountains. The highest natural elevation on Kwajalein is probably less than six feet above mean sea level. Fortunately for Kwajalein, it is close enough to the equator that hurricanes almost never hit the island. However, when I was there, a strong storm had only recently hit the islands, resulting in a lot of losses for the Marshallese. Kwajalein’s and Roi’s facilities weren’t harmed, but those facilities are American and more sturdily built.

Kwajalein Island and Roi-Namur Island are reserved for US personnel. Any Marshallese working on the islands must return back to their home islands after each work day.

The reason US personnel are at USAKA is to take part in US missile testing. US intercontinental missiles are sometimes launched from the coast of California to reenter at Kwajalein as part of routine testing of US offensive weapons. Personnel at Kwaj also take part in missile defense testing. This is used for both purposes.


This is ALTAIR (ARPA Long-Range Tracking and Instrumentation Radar), operated by MIT Lincoln Laboratory. ARPA is the Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is currently called the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. There are other radars located around the islands.

My visit was part of a small sounding rocket test associated with the old Ballistic Missile Defense program, the one that was going to protect the US from a massive Soviet missile attack. I flew into Kwaj one day and then flew with a few of my fellow contractors and some government workers to the island of Roi-Namur. I stayed at Roi for a few days before the missile test I was involved with. It was a nice vacation. I spent it walking around the island, reef walking and taking photographs (the slides from which the images here are scanned). The weather was warm and humid but reasonably pleasant. The facilities on the island are pretty primitive in some respects. It was at Roi that I learned that if you don’t keep Diet Coke cool, the Aspartame in it breaks down into something that doesn’t taste very good. At all.

Our test, which was a small one, failed. It involved what’s called a sounding rocket, which is a smallish missile that barely reaches outer space and then returns. Our missile had three stages. When the first stage separated, it “chuffed” (residual propellant ignited and puffed out). When it chuffed, the first stage bumped into the second stage and damaged it. The missile then went out of control and had to be destroyed.

So we packed up and went back home, and I never went back again.