White House Christmas Tour

On December 20, 2015 · 2 Comments

Every once in awhile my proximity to the nation’s capital results in interesting opportunities. I got a chance to visit the White House somewhat by luck to see the 2015 Christmas decorations displayed for public viewing. This was the standard public tour — I’m no VIP just an average citizen — although it happened to occur during a particularly scenic time of the year. It also served as a reminder that the White House was more than a residence for the President; it was also the people’s house and a museum.

I won’t be discussing any geo-oddities today so feel free to come back when I post the next article, or enjoy some holiday photos I took as I walked through rooms on exhibit.

I’d been to the grounds of the White House several times before, most recently for the Easter Egg Roll in 2013, although I’d never been inside the actual building. I’d never gotten around to it in spite of living in the Washington, DC area my entire life. Getting tickets always seemed like such an chore. However this time I practically had tickets handed to me so I couldn’t turn them down. Now I believe I’ve completed perhaps every tourist attraction in my hometown, which is saying a lot.

National Christmas Tree

White House Christmas Tour 2015

We arrived with plenty of time to spare so we began our adventure by strolling down to the National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse. The wife and kids enjoyed wandering amongst the many state and territorial trees while I took a short detour over to the Zero Milestone marker to pay my respects. Certainly there was time to find the closest piece of weird geography before starting our tour.

East Visitor Landing

White House Christmas Tour 2015

Envision the strictest possible airport security imaginable and that’s what it was like trying to get onto the White House grounds. They’d collected enough personal information ahead of time to completely steal my identity if that’s what they’d really wanted. I guess we checked out because we saw ourselves on the list and they let us proceed to the first of several sequential security lines. This included two separate positive identification checks, a stroll past sniffing dogs, and finally a passage through the magnetometer. I joked that we’d probably get through all of the lines only to discover that we’d reach the end of the tour; we’d find ourselves back on Pennsylvania Avenue after the final check. The ordeal of getting into the White House took longer than the time we actually spent inside, although I wasn’t complaining. I’d actually been concerned ahead of time that maybe the tour might be canceled due to recent events so I was fine with it taking as long as necessary.

Finally we made it up to the East Visitor Landing, greeted by giant cutout penguins as we entered the doorway.

East Colonnade

White House Christmas Tour 2015

One recent change made me happy, and made this article possible. The White House had prohibited visitor photographs for more than forty years before lifting the ban in July. I wasn’t allowed to bring my good camera or use a flash, although my mobile phone camera passed muster and served well enough. I began snapping as soon as I entered the East Colonnade and I didn’t stop until I exited on the front lawn. I figured I might never get another chance.

The colonnade featured hand-cut paper snowflakes dangling from the ceiling. Naturally I had to find the Virginia snowflake.

East Garden Room

White House Christmas Tour 2015

I felt sorry for the bust of Abraham Lincoln stuck behind a Christmas tree. He had a better view during the rest of the year, of the south lawn and the Washington Monument in the distance.

Vermeil Room

White House Christmas Tour 2015

Vermeil seemed to be an unusual word. What was it, and why would anyone name a room for it? The explanation was pretty mundane: it was a fancy name for gold plated silverware. Someone gifted of set of silverware to the White House that was placed in the room. The name stuck.

East Room

White House Christmas Tour 2015

The East Room was the largest room in the White House. If you’ve ever seen a photo of a reception held by the President it’s likely to have occurred within this room. It occupied the entire short width of the White House with views both of the north and south lawns from its windows. That’s when I realized that the White House may be a large residence although it wasn’t a particularly large building. Those famous receptions must get pretty crowded. The average ballroom in a mid-tier hotel would likely be larger than the stately East Room. I imagined the East Room was probably decorated a lot nicer, though.

Green Room

White House Christmas Tour 2015

Then we came to three rooms named for different colors, the first being the Green Room. Notice, indeed it was green.

Blue Room

White House Christmas Tour 2015

Following came the Blue Room. The tree here was considered the "official" White House Christmas tree. I don’t know what distinguished it from the several dozen other trees spread throughout the house, or whether the title went with the Blue Room itself. This tree, according to the brochure we received, was a Fraser fir from Lehighton, Pennsylvania. It certainly looked resplendent.

Red Room

White House Christmas Tour 2015

Could the Twelve Mile Circle audience guess the name of this room? Why yes, of course, it was the Red Room, the most distinctly hued of the three colored rooms. The Red Room was associated with Dolly Madison in particular, wife of the fourth President of the United States, James Madison. Christmas decorations mirrored the crimson theme, with strands of cranberries and garlands of red apples and pomegranates. I know it was probably terrible that all I could think of was REDRUM from The Shining whenever I heard Red Room. I didn’t want to say anything out loud though. I’m sure the Secret Service agents wouldn’t have appreciated it.

State Dining Room

White House Christmas Tour 2015

I think I liked the State Dining Room most off all, with its giant nutcrackers and a scaled version of the White House made of gingerbread. This was a smaller space than the East Room and was used for more intimate receptions.

The End

White House Christmas Tour 2015

Before long, once completing our leisurely stroll through the public rooms, we found ourselves out on the front lawn. It amazed me to stand right there in front of the White House at such a famous, iconic position. What an incredible privilege. How many other nations open the homes of their leaders to public tours?

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you and yours.

Geography Ablaze

On November 15, 2015 · 3 Comments

Loyal reader Ken has attended Burning Man a number of times and suggested I highlight some of the geographic quirks associated with it. He was even kind enough to provide the topics! I’ve never experienced Burning Man so I was grateful to begin this article with a pre-packaged outline. All of the ideas below came from Ken except for the last little tidbit. I simply took his suggestions and put them in different words along with a few graphics. It also took me a lot longer to get around to this than I would have hoped. I always appreciate reader suggestions although it takes me awhile to figure out how to include them sometimes.

What is Burning Man? Well, it’s this (and so much more):

Burn Night and the citizens of Black Rock City: a panorama, 2009
Burn Night and the citizens of Black Rock City: a panorama, 2009 by Neil Girling on Flickr (cc)

It’s a week-long gathering held annually on the Black Rock Desert playa in western Nevada (map). I’m not sure I can adequately describes what takes place there. Maybe 12MC attendees can post their recollections in the comments. I’ll simply borrow the description that Burning Man uses for itself.

Once a year, tens of thousands of people gather in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert to create Black Rock City, a temporary metropolis dedicated to community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance. In this crucible of creativity, all are welcome.

I did mention Burning Man in Twelve Mile Circle a couple of years ago. I believed that it could serve as a modern proxy for the nineteenth century Camp Meeting phenomenon. The focus shifted away from religious devotion in its current incarnation although it still retained the desire of people to band together in community each year. In one new twist, it followed a "leave no trace" philosophy. Every artifact of Black Rock City must be removed at the conclusion of each festival.

Black Rock City

2012 Black Rock City Theme Camps and Villages map
2012 Black Rock City Theme Camps and Villages map by Alexander on Flickr (cc)

I wondered how I might describe the geographic layout of Black Rock City without a map because "Burning Man does not maintain a portfolio of ‘stock’ or PR images" with proper licensing. I figured a photograph of a map would constitute fair use so that’s the route I took instead of borrowing the much better map on the Burning Man site that might possibly run astray of a copyright.

The layout was quite logical. Radial streets followed the pattern of an analog clock in fifteen minute increments. Circumference streets began with Esplanade closest to the center and then proceeded in alphabetical order outward from the center. The alphabet streets changed each year based on the chosen art theme. In 2015 they were Arcade, Ballyhoo, Carny, Donniker, Ersatz, Freak Show, Geek, Hanky Pank, Illusion, Jolly, Kook and Laffing Sal, to fit the Carnival of Mirrors theme.

Finding someone in a crowd of tens of thousands would be a daunting task ordinarily. The layout simplified efforts. Let’s say, and I’ll pick something randomly from the 2015 Unofficial Map of Black Rock, someone wanted to visit her friend at Ganesh Camp. She would simply wander over to 3:30 & G(eek).

County Road Conundrum

Portion of Washoe County Road 34 within Pershing Co.

The road leading up from Gerlach to Black Rock City, as Ken noted, was signed Washoe County Route 34. Nonetheless several miles of the road highlighted above — including the portion nearest Burning Man — strayed into Pershing County. 12MC had observed similar situations before such as New York stealing roads from its neighbors. It was nice to see another example albeit at the county level. I found a photograph that corroborated Ken’s recollection. I can’t reproduce it here because of its copyright notice although I could certainly link to it and let readers check it for themselves. Clearly this spot at the entrance to the festival was physically located in Pershing County and nonetheless signed Washoe.

Did Pershing contribute to road maintenance for the segment on its own side of the border? I don’t know. Washoe certainly had more financial resources, seeing how Reno was included within its borders. Washoe was a long, skinny county and CR34 connected its northern portions to the remainder. The road ran all the way from Gerlach up to the Oregon border, 120 miles, with only eight miles in Pershing. Additionally the Pershing portion didn’t serve anything in Pershing except for an ephemeral Black Rock City once a year. I thought Pershing might have a case for not paying for maintenance although I didn’t know that to be true.

Fly Geyser

Fly Geyser
Fly Geyser by photosbyflick on Flickr (cc)

Fly Geyser was an interesting attraction along CR34, not too far removed from Black Rock City. Geothermal activity created the wild design and coloration. However, it wasn’t natural. People exploring for geothermal energy sources failed to plug the well either intentionally or accidentally. Hot water continued to spew to the surface, creating a geyser cone from dissolved minerals. The attraction can be seen from the road although the site isn’t open to the public anymore (map). It looked like something that would fit within Burning Man itself.


Recent Freedom of Information Act requests confirmed that Federal Bureau of Investigation agents conducted surveillance on Burning Man for the last several years. Apparently they’ve tested some of their new toys there along with placing undercover agents amongst the guests to watch the happenings. Next year Ken can play “guess the FBI agent” as he wanders across the playa. Is it the lady meditating in the yurt or the dude twirling fire batons? Inquiring minds want to know.

Equally odd, think about it from the perspective of the FBI agents who get paid to attend Burning Man and blend in with the crowd. I bet they have a lot of volunteers.


On July 26, 2015 · 6 Comments

The Twelve Mile Circle "Complete Index Map" has enough entries on it now that my mind wandered to the spots not yet covered. These tended to be remote, empty places bereft of many people or dramatic topography. That would appear to be an accurate description of central Kansas in particular, seemingly flat as a pancake and lacking much of a population. Nonetheless I drilled down onto the map, spied Interstate 70 and saw a town called Hays. I wondered what might be there.


Actually there wasn’t much there although that didn’t surprise or bother me. Every spot has a story. Hays was the biggest town for miles around with more than twenty thousand residents so I figured I’d find something interesting. It also had a fairly sizable university with twelve thousand students making it quite the college town. Fort Hays University had a museum, The Sternberg Museum of Natural History, which featured numerous fossils from the time of dinosaurs all the way to the Ice Age. It seemed like a lot of these midsized towns of Middle America had fossil museums. I love that kind of stuff. I need to get out there and see a few.

Fort Hays

Fort Hays
Fort Hays by frank thompson photos (cc)

Many readers probably figured from the name of the university that the town of Hays may have had a connection to Fort Hays. That assumption would be correct. It began as Fort Fletcher in 1865 to protect wagon trains. Soon thereafter government authorities renamed it Fort Hays and shifted its purpose, as part of an effort to protect the new railroads from attack by Native inhabitants as tracks began to crisscross the Great Plains. A town grew around the fort. The Fort Hays Historic Site now occupies the original site.

General Alexander Hays

Alexander Hays

Peeling back another layer of its etymological history, Fort Hays derived its name from General Alexander Hays. He displayed abundant courage during his distinguished military career in the Civil War until his death at the Battle of the Wilderness in central Virginia. Hays was the type of General who led from the front of his troops, within the thick of the battle. He suffered several wounds during various campaigns until his luck finally ran out in 1864. He was shot through the head, not quite yet forty-five years old.

Hays was largely forgotten by history despite his bravery, having been overshadowed by much more famous military commanders on both sides of the Civil War. Very little was named for Hays other than the small fort on an expanding frontier that later blossomed into a town. Other than that there were a couple of monuments placed on battlefields as memorials and one small bland suburban road named in his honor, and that was about it.


Czech Dancers
Czech Dancers by Kansas Tourism (cc)

I noticed a town nearby to the east one level more obscure, called Wilson (map). It may be best known as the self-proclaimed “Czech Capital of Kansas.” I was amused by the title. How much Czech diaspora could be living in Kansas? It wasn’t like there would be an abundance of competition. Still, one needed to work with what had been granted in these remote places so Czech Capital of Kansas became its calling card. The story became more interesting as I checked into it. Apparently Czech immigrants arrived in Wilson from Bohemia in the 1870’s to help build the railroads. It must have been a welcoming place because they’ve remained in Wilson ever since. Residents even hold an annual Wilson After Harvest Czech Festival at the end of July (unfortunately 12MC just missed it this year; it was held July 23-25).

I couldn’t find the original Wilson who served as the namesake though. Clearly he was important person locally because Wilson was located in Wilson Township, which also had a Wilson Creek, Wilson Cemetery and an Old Wilson Cemetery.

Completely Unrelated

I got an email recently from Vexillographer who had just completed a video about the Jeddito time zone anomaly on the Navajo reservation in Arizona. I had discussed this awhile ago in USA Time Zone Anomalies, Part I

Vexillographer actually visited the anomaly in person and made this video about his experiences. Do check it out — the time zone weirdness found there is amazing. It also includes a nice shout-out to 12MC at the end. Thanks Vexillographer!

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