Totally Eclipsed

On August 23, 2017 · 8 Comments

Can anyone stand one more eclipse story? I promise this one will be a little different than most. I drove a thousand miles for a 4-day weekend and, well… Mother Nature had different plans.

Lots of loyal Twelve Mile Circle readers asked me if I planned to see the August 21, 2017, total eclipse of the sun. I started getting emails from curious readers several months ago. Actually, I began planning for the event even before anyone asked. My brother lives in a suburb of Charleston, South Carolina. Exactly one year in advance, to the day, I sent him a message requesting a place to stay. Of course he hadn’t heard anything about the eclipse at that point. Almost nobody had. Nonetheless, I wanted to stake out my prime viewing spot before anyone else could claim it. The year passed a lot quicker than I expected and soon we found ourselves heading down to Charleston.

The Drive Down



I way overthought the logistics as I always do, and as my nature often compels me. How would we survive Interstate 95, one of the most traffic-clogged roads on a good day, when hundreds of thousands of people had the same thought? I guessed maybe fewer drivers would begin their journey early Saturday morning, two days before the eclipse. We left the Washington, DC area at 5:30 am, hoping that my prediction might hold true. However, traffic coming out of DC seemed heavier than usual. It continued to build as we passed Fredericksburg and pushed forward towards Richmond. I definitely feared the worst. If traffic looked this bad even before sunrise, what would it look like when everyone woke up and started heading towards the eclipse’s path of totality?

Unexpectedly, conditions improved after we left Richmond. In retrospect, I figured they must have been heading to the beaches of Virginia and North Carolina. This wasn’t eclipse traffic, this was normal beach traffic, of people with Saturday-to-Saturday cottage rentals. We experienced nothing but smooth sailing for the rest of the drive. Honestly the easiest driving happened in South Carolina. The route seemed downright relaxing compared to the initial leg. We arrived at our destination in 7.5 hours, with an average speed (including stops) of about 65 miles per hour (105 kilometres per hour). No delays. None.

I guessed correctly. Others, however, did not. My wife’s friend left from New Jersey later in the day. She made it only as far as Fayetteville, North Carolina until being forced by fatigue to stop overnight. It took her 15 hours.


Hanging Out


Rusty Bull Brewing Co.

We also got plenty of time to hang out with family, another benefit of arriving two days early. This trip would be a little different. We would avoid the usual tourist sites of Charleston. I didn’t want to be anywhere near the crowds. Our older son enjoyed spending time in a quiet corner of his temporary bedroom playing interactive Internet games with his friends back home in Virginia. Our younger son got some quality time with his cousin, including a trip to the local trampoline park. My sister-in-law definitely took one for the team as she shepherded them during that adventure.

The rest of us visited as many local breweries as we could. Over the course of two days we hit six: Frothy Beard Brewing; Holy City Brewing; Oak Road Brewery; Rusty Bull Brewing; Twisted Cypress Brewing and Westbrook Brewing. I’d never been to a brewery in South Carolina before, so now the only states missing from my brewery adventure map were Arkansas, Kansas, Montana and Oklahoma.


Eclipse Day



The morning of the eclipse

Then came the big day. I started with a six-mile run at dawn. I thought Virginia summers were brutal although they paled in comparison to South Carolina. At least mornings in Virginia offered a bit of respite from the worst extremes of the day. However, in South Carolina, I walked through the front door and hit a solid wall of heat and humidity. This seemed troublesome because all that water vapor had to go somewhere, and sure enough clouds began to build as the morning progressed. Clouds, obviously, would obscure the eclipse. Still, I tried to remain optimistic.

Fortunately we didn’t need to travel anywhere. My brother’s house sat northwest of Charleston, even further into the area of totality than the city itself. The period of darkness there differed from the theoretical maximum by only 12 seconds. We didn’t see any need to fight our way through the traffic. We already sat at an awesome geographic viewpoint.

The city itself largely shut-down for the event. Many businesses closed for the days as did the schools. Still, lots of bars and restaurants remained open with all sorts of eclipse celebrations and specials. It became something of an undeclared holiday. Even so, we decided to remain in the back yard with lawn chairs and our eclipse glasses ready.


The Eclipse


Eclipse?

Where we stood, the eclipse lasted from 1:16 pm to 4:09 pm, with totality starting at 2:46 pm and lasting for more than two minutes. Right around 12:30 pm, a thunderstorm rolled into the area and heavy clouds did not depart for the rest of the day. We never saw the sun during the entire period of the eclipse. Thunder and rainfall drowned out every other sound. Only complete darkness offered the telltale sign that something else was happening. This unfortunate turn of events offered a humble lesson in making the best of a bad situation. We did enjoy the moments leading up to totality. The world darkened visibly, especially during the final moments, arriving faster than any sunset. It looked like someone turned a dimmer switch on the entire planet, then repeated the process in reverse. We never got to use our eclipse glasses though.

When’s the next one? April 8, 2024? I have a cousin who lives in Austin, Texas. Maybe I can make reservations early.

Four Corners, Part 2 (Hikes)

On August 6, 2017 · Comments Off on Four Corners, Part 2 (Hikes)

The vast empty spaces of the Southwest offered great scenery with with long distances between stops. That didn’t bother me. I liked driving and enjoyed the view. We found plenty to do along the way too, mostly outdoors. Every place worth a detour also included a signature hike of some sort. Even the most crowded parks seemed quiet when we took trails bypassed by more sedentary tourists. Unfortunately my lungs, long acclimated to life barely above sea-level, struggled with altitudes that sometimes topped ten thousand feet. I felt short of breath at times although I bounced back like a pro by the end of the trip.

Agua Fria Peak


Angel Fire Resort

The first hike might have been the most strenuous even though it took us directionally downhill. We began the morning by riding the chairlift up Agua Fria Peak (map) at the Angel Fire Resort in northern New Mexico. From there, we hiked all the way down the mountain, a distance of four miles plus change (6.5 kilometres). We were warned to stay on the trail and avoid ski runs because mountain bikers used them during the summer. I didn’t really want to get clipped by a bicycle under momentum so I followed that advice.

The trail began at an elevation of 10,600 feet (3,230 metres) and descended all the way to the valley below. That was high enough to make me feel a little woozy although at least we were heading downhill. Forests of pine and aspen provided plenty of shade, and a bit of protection when the brief daily summer "monsoon" rumbled across the hills. Highlights included amazing mountaintop views, the aerial acrobatics of mountain bikers on adjacent trails and a wildlife encounter with a grouse of some type.


Tsankawi Ruins Trail


Bandelier National Monument

Most people going to Bandelier National Monument only see the main unit. We went there too although we also stopped at the lesser-known Tsankawi unit a few miles further north. Tsankawi could only be approached on foot using a 1.5 mile loop trail. Paleo-Indians lived in a village on the top of the mesa there, probably until the fifteenth century (map). They chose their location wisely. They could spot adversaries from a long distance away and defend their high ground.

Volcanic ash blanketed this entire area millions of years ago leaving a soft layer that became a rock called Tuff. As my son liked to say, tuff wasn’t tough. People stepped upon the tuff for hundreds of years and carved paths into the stone with their feet. Little walkways climbed over and covered the mesa, the same walkways used by modern visitors today. It felt soft and strange; not quite rocky although not quite spongy either. My hiking boots picked up a distinct gray dusty tinge from the climb.

Pre-Columbian inhabitants of Tsankawi also carved into the tuff itself. They created myriad places to stash their wares in addition to the pueblo they built atop the mesa. We barely saw another person as we hiked the loop and examined evidence of this vanished settlement.


Pueblo Alto Trail


Chaco Culture

Our most remote hike took place at Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Its secluded location pretty much defined "middle of nowhere." I guessed the several miles of dirt and gravel road leading into the park scared away most people. In a sense that seemed unfortunate because a lot of folks missed out on something pretty amazing. Nonetheless, it offered us a full day away from crowds, and even more so once we hit the trail.

I first traveled to Chaco twenty five years ago and I remembered being impressed by the hike atop the mesa above its signature ruins. My return trip showed that I needed to follow the Pueblo Alto Trail to get there. Unlike that earlier trip, we didn’t have enough time to hike the entire trail so we turned around at the Pueblo Bonito overlook (map), a two mile out-and-back. Officially this was considered a "backcountry" hike that required registration at the trailhead.

Two miles sounded easy enough in theory although I’d forgotten how the trail made it up to the top of the mesa. The photograph above looks like a sheer cliff. However, a fissure cut vertically through the middle. Hikers had to reach the base of the fissure on a steep path, then wriggle uphill through a narrow passageway until reaching daylight. The original inhabitants used this same path for several hundred years. We weren’t used to such acrobatics and it seemed a little scary. There weren’t any safety devices, just climbers versus rock. The whole family managed to make it to the top without incident and we followed the trail along the cliff to view some great ruins from an elevated perspective.


Petroglyph Point Trail


Mesa Verde

Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde National Park seemed like opposite bookends. Few people visited Chaco and hordes visited Mesa Verde. I’m sure the nice paved road to Mesa Verde made all the difference. Even tour buses could drive easily into the depths of the park. We arrived too late in the day to get tickets to any of the major sites, though. We had to satisfy ourselves with glimpses from a distance at viewing platforms on the opposite cliff. However, our mobility and willingness to get away from the beaten path took us places far away from the crowds. This revealed some remarkable archaeological sites.

We selected the Spruce Tree House trail. This one led beneath the mesa rim, into some of the protected shelves where the original inhabitants built their homes. It terminated at Petroglyph Point (map), and the largest array of petroglyphs anywhere in the park. Only hikers willing to move beyond normal park amenities could ever see them. From there, the trail climbed up the mesa and continued along the tabletop to complete the loop. The whole affair lasted about 2.4 miles, some of it rather strenuous.

It felt great to get outdoors. The kids didn’t even complain. Much.


Articles in the Four Corners Series:

  1. Orientation
  2. Hikes
  3. Towns
  4. Native Americans
  5. Breweries
  6. Reflections

See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr

Lickety-Split

On February 26, 2017 · 4 Comments

I’ve begun to plan a long-distance road trip for April that I’m not quite ready to reveal to the Twelve Mile Circle audience. However, offering just a hint, I noticed an oddly named town in Indiana called French Lick. It fell remarkably close to Santa Claus, the subject of one of the earliest articles on this site. I figured the fine people of Indiana must have a sense of humor.

French Lick


French Lick Springs
French Lick Springs. Photo by Dan Perry on Flickr (cc)

The named sounded familiar for some reason. Once I looked it up I knew immediately why I’d heard it before. Basketball legend Larry Bird grew up in French Lick. They even named a street after him there. Nonetheless, this being 12MC, the more fascinating tangent seemed to be the name of the town itself.

I figured the Lick part probably came from a nearby salt lick somewhere. Indeed, that seemed to be the case as I researched it further. Bison herds roamed this area in the days before people of European descent started pushing over the Appalachian Mountains and paddling through the Mississippi watershed. Bison and other animals gathered at these natural licks to literally lick the ground for essential mineral nutrients. It didn’t take long for the newcomers to decimate local bison populations: "The last historical account of killing a buffalo east of the Mississippi occurred in 1830 at French Lick, Indiana."

The French part seemed more problematic. No definite French population settled at French Lick although the general vicinity fell within French control for awhile. Later American settlers just thought it sounded plausible that the French must have lived at that particular spot. An entrepreneur applied French Lick to a resort he opened at the lick — mineral spas being quite popular at the time — and the name stuck. The spa continues to exist today (map).


Licks of Kentucky


Places with a Lick Suffix
Place Names Ending in Lick
via GeoNames

There seemed to be a definite time and place for the word Lick to be appended to towns. The names were applied during a period when people still remembered that Bison once roamed east of the Mississippi River. That seemed to coincide with the early to middle Nineteenth Century. Licks clustered in places such as Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee, West Virginia, and especially Kentucky. I found a bunch of Kentucky place names in the Geographic Names Information System. There, all sorts of specific Licks existed: Bank; Bee; Blue; Deer; Flat; Grants; Grassy; Knob; Lees; Log; Mays; Mud; North; Paint; Rock; Salt; Slate; Sulfur; Wolf. I never did learn why they seemed to concentrate so predominantly in Kentucky.

The biggest of those Kentucky places appeared to be the town of Salt Lick (map). Pioneers were drawn there originally by abundant game that gathered at the local licks. One early account claimed that hunters once spotted 500 bison there. The animals left long ago although their legacy survived in the name of a town where several hundred people still lived.

Appending the word Lick to various place names seemed pretty unique to this region, too. I found only minor geographic references anywhere else in the world, and certainly none included town names.


Big Bone Lick


big bone lick state park
big bone lick state park. Photo by Joel on Flickr (cc)

Every once in awhile 12MC resorts to Beavis and Butt-Head behavior. Please forgive me. It might be best to jump entirely to the next topic. Nonetheless, I felt that I should note the existence of Big Bone Lick, a State Historic Site in Kentucky (map). It’s on Beaver Road. Seriously.

Actually it sounded like a really fascinating place, and something right in my area of interest. It’s called the "Birthplace of American Vertebrate Paleontology." An ancient mineral lick drew megafauna including mammoths. However, the lick occupied a rather marshy area and large animals sometimes got stuck. They died there and their bones remained in the muck waiting to be discovered several thousand years later. Settlers came to the area and saw those big bones so they named their nearby town Big Bone. It seemed logical enough. The unfortunate situation met by those ancient animals reminded me of the Mammoth Site in South Dakota that I visited a couple of years ago. I’ll need to keep Big Bone on my list of places to see someday.


Young Lick Knob


Young Lick viewed from Brasstown Bald
Young Lick viewed from Brasstown Bald via Wikimedia Commons (cc)

A mountain in Georgia’s Appalachian region bore the name Young Lick, reaching an elevation of 3,780 feet (1152 metres) (map). Hikers on the nearby Appalachian Trail could reach its summit –the knob — with just a minor detour. SummitPost described it as "a mellow hump along the ridgeline forming the Tennessee Valley Divide."

That’s not what made it special, though. It marked the tripoint for Habersham, Rabun and Towns counties. It also marked a triple divide for Eastern Continental Divide watersheds. Water flowed to the Atlantic via the Savannah River. In another direction it flowed directly towards the the Gulf of Mexico. A final option also flowed to the Gulf, taking a circuitous route through the Mississippi River watershed instead.

If that wasn’t motivation enough, it’s located near Hellhole Mountain.

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12 Mile Circle:
An Appreciation of Unusual Places
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