Out of Season

On September 21, 2017 · 4 Comments

A strange sight confounded my older son as we walked through a warren of shops near the Santa Fe Plaza during our recent New Mexico trip. He spotted a year-round Christmas store. It didn’t register on my mind until he pointed it out, I guess because I’d seen plenty of them before. Although, as I thought about it longer, the notion did seem peculiar. Christmas felt impossibly removed from the high desert in the middle of July. Yet, the shop attracted plenty of foot traffic and presumably did well enough to keep momentum even outside of the advent season. Twelve Mile Circle once posted a story on seasonal towns so it seemed like a fine opportunity to now study seasonal businesses that defied the odds.

More Christmas


DSC_0040
Bronner’s West entrance. Photo by Sue Talbert Photography on Flickr (cc)

I imagined that Christmas stores probably did better than many other off-season enterprises. As I mentioned, they didn’t even register on my mind until my son pointed one out. They’ve done so well they’ve been "normalized" in many people’s consciousness, even though they catered to an event that happened just one day each year. Amazing.

The granddaddy of all shops must be Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland in Frankenmuth, Michigan (map). I have a relative that simply must stop there whenever nearby, as just one example. Apparently "over 2 million" other people per year agreed. Wally Bronner founded this epic Christmas extravaganza in 1945 and it grew to cover several acres of shopping space with 100,000 lights, 800 animated figures and parking for a thousand cars.

I enjoy Christmas as much as anybody although I don’t really understand the year-round phenomenon.


Fireworks


South of the Border Billboard
South of the Border Billboard. Photo by SeeBeeW on Flickr (cc)

I understood year-round fireworks just slightly more than permanent Christmas. Sure, almost every firework in the United States detonats on July 4 for Independence Day. Sometimes people saved a handful for special events though, like New Years Eve or if their favorite sports team won a championship, or things of that nature. Generally though, little plywood fireworks stands tended to pop-up a couple of weeks before July 4 only to disappear just as suddenly like mushrooms on a lawn. Operating an all-year fireworks stores didn’t seem like a great business model, yet they existed.

Lots of them seemed to flourish around state borders, generally in South Carolina although I’ve seen them in other states. They found a niche wherever the laws of one state fell out of balance with its neighbor. I mentioned that situation in Right up to the Line when I discussed the ever-tacky South of the Border (map). Plenty of other fireworks warehouses also clustered nearby, tempting drivers along Interstate 95 as they entered South Carolina. Practically anything that blew up could be sold there legally.

Unlike a Christmas shop, a fireworks warehouse probably couldn’t stay afloat just anywhere as an all-year business. It needed to work by osmosis. Sales seemed to focus on outsiders that wanted to bring "the good stuff" back to their home states.


Ice Cream


The Freeze
The Freeze. Photo by Travis on Flickr (cc)Yo

I switched my thoughts from annual events to extreme weather patterns. Near my home, and I’m sure near yours too, an ice cream shop kept selling its chilly treats even through the dead of winter. What if we took that notion to its utmost? Could a business like that survive all year in Alaska? Well, yes.

In Fairbanks, the average low temperatures generally hovered around -20° Fahrenheit (-29° Celcius) in the winter. It could get a lot colder than that, too. I found a bunch of ice cream shops in Fairbanks and most of them opened only during mild months, like May through August. That made perfect sense. Who would want ice cream warmer than the outside temperature? However, I did discover one place that remained open all year, College Town Creamery. They also offered non-frozen items so I’m sure that helped carry them through the cold, dark winter.

Really, I wanted to find something a little more Alaskan, a bit farther away from the city. The Freeze in remote Glennallen, Alaska (map) seemed to fit that definition. Unfortunately it appears they’ve closed. I guess ice cream in Alaska had its limits.


Hot Yoga


Hot Yoga
Hot Yoga. Photo by Todd Lappin on Flickr (cc)

Some people swear by hot yoga. This trend gained popularity largely through a style created by Bikram Choudhury. Other styles of hot yoga also existed. In Bikram yoga, room temperatures hovered around 104° F (40° C) as practitioners cycled through 26 predefined positions. I imagined people felt rather baked after an hour and a half-or-so in that oven. Maybe 12MC readers who’ve tried hot yoga can elaborate on its benefits or drawbacks.

I thought of Phoenix, Arizona where summertime temperatures often topped 110" F (43° C). I’ve never been hotter in my life than a summertime visit to Phoenix a few years ago. Would hot yoga businesses survive year-round there? Indeed they could. I found so many of them that I had to stop counting. It seemed people in Arizona could tolerate a lot of heat.

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 1 (Orientation)

On August 3, 2017 · 12 Comments

Our family visits a different part of the United States every summer. This year we decided to travel through northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. We made it as far west as the Four Corners monument although we we spent only a few moments in Utah and Arizona. We toured through parts of Utah back in 2011. Arizona will need to wait for another day.



The embedded map showed our approximate route. We began our adventure at the Denver International Airport where we landed and rented a car. From there we drove down to Angel Fire, a ski resort town in New Mexico where I have family. That offered a nice base for a return trip to Taos, a place I last visited in 2013 during the Dust Bowl adventure. The next swing included a series of National Park properties: Pecos National Historical Park; Bandelier National Monument; Chaco Culture National Historical Park; and Mesa Verde National Park. We also spent time in towns along the way including Santa Fe, Los Alamos and Durango. Then we drove back to Denver.

We packed a lot of activities into those ten days. From mountains to desert, from cold to warm, from historic to modern, we tried a little of just about everything. I didn’t capture many new counties on this trip though, for a couple of reasons. First, the immense size of counties out there made it difficult, although each capture covered a lot of territory on the map too. Second, I’d been to several of the places before. This was more about visiting friends and family, and showing the kids places I loved seeing during an epic road trip I took a quarter century earlier. Even so, I still found time for a few county captures, some under interesting circumstances


Pecos Subterfuge


Pecos National Historical Park

The path from Angel Fire to Santa Fe, New Mexico would ordinarily go through Taos and enter Santa Fe from the north. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to capture a couple of new counties by traveling along the eastern flank of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, then looping back to Santa Fe from the south. That inefficient route led directly past Pecos National Historical Park. I used the park as my excuse. We enjoyed Pecos — and I’ll talk about that some more in a future article — although the actual reason focused squarely on the new counties, Mora and San Miguel.

The park fell within San Miguel and the photograph above gave a nice overview of its terrain. Each afternoon the "monsoon" rains of summer covered the plains. Mora County looked similar, maybe a little greener, with an economy seemingly based on ranching. I didn’t see a lot of wealth in sparsely-populated Mora. At one point we drove through its county seat, also called Mora, and the speed limit dropped down to 15 miles per hour (24 kph). You better believe I didn’t go a single mile per hour over that limit. It seemed like one of those places where speeding tickets probably funded the few public services that existed out there. I admit I had no evidence of that and perhaps I’ve made an unfair assessment. I didn’t risk it either.


Let’s Make Sure at Los Alamos


Bradbury Science Museum

I’d marked New Mexico’s smallest county, Los Alamos, as one I’d visited previously. Los Alamos made my tally many years ago during that previously-referenced epic road trip. However, I’ve since doubted that I actually captured it. No major roads between popular destinations cut through there. That was by design. Los Alamos served as the secret hideaway for scientists designing atomic bombs during World War 2. Nobody was supposed to travel to Los Alamos without a specific reason to be there. The county, established formally in 1949, covered barely a hundred square miles (250 square km). I simply couldn’t see how I’d crossed its borders on that earlier trip. Why had I concluded otherwise so many years ago? This time I made sure to record my visit photographically for the sake of accuracy and completeness. It didn’t "count" as a new capture even if that might have actually been the case.


Giving William McKinley His Due


Chaco Culture

My exceedingly brief visit to McKinley County, New Mexico probably set a record for my most absurd county capture ever. It also became another exceedingly rare example of a "walk only" county like my recent visit to Cass County, Michigan. McKinley happened during my trip to Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Nothing was easy about getting to Chaco Canyon. The National Park Service recommended the northern route that involved about 16 miles of mostly decent dirt and gravel roads. I took that route. Visitors could also approach from the south with about 20 miles of "at your own risk" dirt roads. The southern route, if I’d been more adventurous, would have brought me through McKinley County.

However, I noticed that I could head south from the Visitors Center, go a couple of miles along the southern dirt path, and reach McKinley. I decided to touch McKenly at its closest point, where the road ran directly along the county line. I simply needed to stop the car and touch a point of land just beyond the roadside (map). A barbed wire fence ran along there too, so I put my foot between the strands of wire. Then I gently patted the ground with my foot. County captured.


Colorado Backcountry


Durango, Colorado

Actually I captured most of my new counties on a single day. We drove from Durango to Denver using the default route. We had some friends to visit in Denver so I didn’t want to go out of the way. Even so, that brought me through Archuleta, Mineral, Rio Grande, Saguache, Chaffee, and Park Counties for the first time. Driving through Saguache offered particularly remarkable scenery. Much of the county sat in humongous bowl surrounded by mountains on all sides. Amazingly flat, filled with fertile fields, and yet the wide plain sat at an elevation of something like 8,000 feet (2,400 metres). Park County also offered a little entertainment, if only as the setting of the South Park cartoon. That included a drive through Fairplay, the inspiration for the quiet mountain town where Stan, Kyle, Kenny and Cartman lived.

Nine (possibly ten) new county captures didn’t seem like a lot from a numerical perspective. Nonetheless, we covered quite a bit of territory and had a great time doing it.


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

Purpose
12 Mile Circle:
An Appreciation of Unusual Places
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