20 July 2009
Forty years ago today, the astronauts of the Apollo 11 mission became the first people to set foot on an extraterrestrial body. It was - and still is - a monumental technological triumph and inspired a generation of scientists and engineers. That inspiration has proven to be, in fact, the most lasting legacy of Apollo 11; sending humans into space instead of unmanned spacecraft is both highly risky and highly expensive (so much so that the recurring discussions about a manned mission to Mars always strike me as lunacy), but no single image has done as much to galvanize public support for science as that of Neil Armstrong taking a giant leap for mankind. This was, of course, by design: John F. Kennedy was one of the smartest presidents we've had, and he knew full well that a moon mission would give Americans a huge morale boost out of what had been a particularly grim period of the Cold War. His plans succeeded spectacularly, and ushered in an era in which it would have been great to be a scientist. It's no exaggeration to say that since the days when Huxley lectured to London workers on a piece of chalk and Marsh and Cope's fossil discoveries were front-page stories in New York newspapers, science has never been as popular as it was immediately following the moon landing. It is in honor of that, then, that I'm writing this post and reminding every scientist out there that they really should like the moon.
07 July 2009
After a long, sometimes weary, trip across the country, it was very nice to spend a few days at home in Seattle. I always enjoy showing people around Seattle because, like any Northwest native, I'm proud of where I come from, but also because it serves to remind me that there really is a lot about the city that remains unique. I have made the argument that uncontrolled growth in the last couple of decades has done much to homogenize the place, and I stand by that argument, but it is encouraging to note that even after all that has happened, there are still a great many things you can see and do in Seattle that you simply can't anywhere else. A few cases in point:
- The Ballard Locks: Ballard itself is one of the most sadly altered neighborhoods in the city (though kudos to the Nordic Heritage Museum, Olsen's Foods, and Larsen's Bakery for keeping the community's Scandinavian heart beating), but the locks remain a proud reminder of the city's nautical heritage. Not only that, but the fish ladder is the only place in any major city that I know of in which you can get an underwater view of migrating salmon.
- The Seattle Center: It's something of a failure as a public space (not because it's unpopular, but for a site that plays host to so many major events, you'd expect a little more open space) and some recent additions (well, really just the EMP) were extremely ill-advised, but if you think about it, there are few - if any - places in the world where you can see a comparable collection of legitimately good '60s architecture. The Space Needle, Pacific Science Center, and Key Arena are the cornerstones, of course, but what I've always liked about the Center are its less-visited areas, like the courtyards and fountains outside the Northwest Rooms and the Bagley Wright Theater.
- Archie McPhee: Other cities have novelty stores, yes, but nothing I have ever seen comes close to Archie's (now newly returned to its home in Wallingford).
- Ye Olde Curiosity Shop: If you can ignore all the tourist schlock, the likes of which you could find in any store in any coastal town in the world, and focus on the mummies, shrunken heads, and freak animals, I would argue that a trip to Ye Olde Curiosity Shop qualifies as a unique experience.
- Downtown Library: Most of Seattle's downtown is composed of buildings that, while not ugly, are also not particularly inspiring. The new library, though, really is something different, and I'm generally inclined to agree with the architectural critics who gave it a thumbs-up. The views through the glass shell - a nice nod to the Northwest's often overlooked endemic architectural style - are especially nice.
- Burgers: I have never understood exactly why Seattle is such a hotbed for really good burger places, but I'm glad it is. Growing up here, I thought that having easy access to places like Dick's and Red Mill Burgers was the norm, but nowhere else I've ever lived has ever had anything comparable (not even Chicago, though in its defense it does have the world's best hot dogs).
- Pike Place Market: There's a reason all the tourists flock here. A working farmers'/fishermen's/whatever market right in the middle of downtown - especially one that's been running uninterrupted for over a century - is something you just don't see in many cities.
This is obviously not an exhaustive list, and I'm sure that many of my readers have already thought of additions they would make. If I wanted to be a downer, I could mention that there are plenty of negative unique things about Seattle (the way it's geography is perfectly shaped to funnel drivers into hellish traffic jams and how civic leaders have ignored that fact for decades, for example) or that several formerly unique things have lost much of their luster (like Fremont, where older works of public art such as the troll or 'Waiting for the Interurban' stand as monuments to a time when artists could actually afford to live in this alleged artists' colony). However, I'm sure I'll have enough time to dwell on the city's future in later posts, so I'll end this one with an upbeat reminder for all you Seattleites out there: yes, your city has seen significant change, but at its core it's still something special. That's probably something all of us - even the more jaded among us, such as yours truly - should remember from time to time.
04 July 2009
It's always hard to sum up a road trip, especially one of the magnitude of Cincinnati-Seattle, without falling into the trap of just recounting everything you did in excruciating detail. In the interest of saving everyone's time, then, I present to you this cop-out: a series of bulleted lists inspired by the sights our trio of paleontologists saw en route.
Best Road Signs
- "Prepare to Meet Thy God/Maker;" we saw one of each version, and both were equally inexplicable.
- The multiple series of rhyming pro-gun-rights signs across Illinois.
- "Spelunk This!" and "Get Lost;" from billboards advertising a cave and maze, respectively, in the Black Hills. You could tell both from the wittiness of the slogans and the quality of the signs that these two were real winners
- The countless signs - especially in the Northern Rockies - peppered by bullet holes from recreational gunfire
Best National/State Parks
- Yellowstone; don't really know how it could be otherwise. It's always jammed with gawking tourists for a reason.
- Ashfall Fossil Beds, Nebraska; according to the signs advertising it, it's "America's Pompeii." Not really sure that's accurate, but anyone passing through Nebraska should make time to see it. Think the Dinosaur National Monument quarry, but with rhinos and horses (which of course makes it even cooler).
- Badlands; if you like pictures of craggy rocks in low-angle afternoon sun, this is the place for you. If you want to see genuine fossils in situ...not so much.
- Ginkgo, Washington; the reason that Washington's state gemstone is petrified wood, but the real reason to go is for the views of the Columbia. Also, there's wineries nearby!
- Mount Rushmore; it still strikes me as odd that anyone would look at a mountain - especially one in South Dakota, of all places - and say to themselves, "Hey, you know how I could improve this stunning natural vista? By adding the faces of three incontrovertibly great presidents and Teddy Roosevelt for some reason!"
- Missouri Headwaters, Montana; given that we were loosely tracing Lewis & Clark's trail most of the way back, there was just no way we could have missed this one, and it's a good thing we didn't, since we saw some migrating pelicans there.
- Museum of the Rockies, Bozeman, Montana; it's ridiculously dinosaur-heavy and far too prone to presenting Jack Horner's word as gospel, but it's one of the best paleo museums in the West and has only gotten better with time.
- Dinosaur Park, Rapid City; it's pretty much the best one out there, provided you're not looking for accuracy (or imaginative color schemes) in your dinosaur models. The panoramic views of Rapid City and the Black Hills are a big plus.
- Berkeley Pit, Butte, Montana; it's an old pit mine! It's home to the most polluted body of water in North America, with a pH slightly lower than that of Coke! It kills migrating waterfowl (though not immediately, as the tourist literature points out)! Someday it will reach the water table, at which point being a citizen of Butte will become even more miserable! If nothing else, it provides plenty of conversation fodder for road-trippers.
- Snoqualmie Falls; they're very close to home and easy to overlook, but there's a reason David Lynch put them front-and-center in the Twin Peaks credits.
- "Daddy, I hate this place." -Remarkably perceptive kid at the Berkeley Pit
- "Can I join you?" -Extremely drunk southern gentleman who entered our hotel elevator in the lobby, pushed the button for said lobby, waited a few seconds, realized he actually needed to go to the 9th floor, and talked to us the rest of the way about how much his sister had to pay for a room there.
- "Arrive at Wendy's, on right." -My GPS; imagine, say, Richard Attenborough pronouncing 'Wendy's' to see why this was so funny.
- "Turn right." -My GPS, directing me to turn into the middle of a prairie dog town, which was occupied by several ground squirrels but by nothing resembling a road.
Best Scenic Drives
- Bighorn Mountains, Wyoming; the literal high point of our trip was also one of the figurative high points
- Yellowstone; again, kind of a no-brainer, though the most scenic highways in the area tend to be the ones running through the canyons and valleys just outside the park.
- Lake Couer d'Alene, Idaho; The lake really is gorgeous, but between the houses clustered along the shore and the fairly thick forests that cover the area, there are disappointingly few good vistas.
- Mountains-to-Sound, Washington; I-90's path over the Cascades has always been a sentimental favorite of mine, and it certainly is one of the more impressive routes into Seattle.
- Pintler Scenic Byway, Montana; a nice enough alternative to I-90, though the interstate's course through the mountains north of Missoula is in many ways more impressive.