Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Farewell Kansas

On the last day of August, we set off for the airport and took our flight home. Unlike many previous visits, we had spent this entire holiday in Kansas. Most years we have had a trip elsewhere, as Kansas is not rated as a holiday state, however, it has some interesting places to see. Although most of Kansas City is in Missouri, it is the centre of many activities for Kansas and has a lot of cultural and sporting events. During the summer, particularly in August, the temperature can get around 38 to 40C or over 100 to 110 F if you prefer. This year it was much cooler which was a boon to us Brits, but very unusual.
Unusually cool temperatures given in Fahrenheit . 

Most banks around Lawrence seem to have one of these outside and each one gives a different temperature by a few degrees, so you need to take the average from several to get any accuracy.  I hope their accounting is more accurate.
The emblem for Kansas is the Sunflower and it is known as the sunflower state. Sunflowers grow wild in many areas, but what you will see most of the year is corn or maize.

Wild sunflowers
There are fields of the stuff everywhere, tucked into any space large enough around the more populated areas stretching for mile after mile in the farmlands.

Corn as far as the eye can see
 In the UK, the word corn was synonymous for almost any grain crop and most towns have a corn exchange where farmers traded goods many years ago, but maize was unknown as a crop until the 20th century. Since most Americans call maize corn, this has caused a certain amount of confusion when reading about Britain in historical works, thinking that Maize was grown in the UK before America was discovered and since maize came from America, this seemed wrong. 

Every flat space not used for something else is occupied by maize.
The maize ripening slowly and suffering a bit from the cool weather

Whilst we were in Kansas, the state lottery had one of the highest rollover prizes and we bought some tickets in the hope of flying back first class, but to no avail someone else had the big prizes.

The huge lottery prize advertised on a roadside hoarding
But I digress.

This year, instead of flying from Kansas City to Chicago, we were heading for Dallas, Fort Worth. The reason for this was to get extra legroom for the long flight where we felt the added twenty minutes to the flight would not be a problem. During our stay, CNN and Fox were constantly reporting on the latest pearls of wisdom from the President until hurricane Harvey arrived. This took all the attention from the President and he did not embarrass his team quite so much until he turned up somewhere near the disaster area and posed for the cameras saying, “A good turnout” as if he was there for some kind of rally not to see what could be done by the president to help the victims of the hurricane. Harvey created a terrible disaster, with floods and high winds causing billions of dollars of damage and making thousands homeless. It was still moving north when we flew to Dallas and we were wondering if our flight would be delayed again, but everything went according to plan.

The internal flight was using American Airlines and the aircraft was comfortable and we got to
Dallas in good time for our connection.

Approaching Dallas Fort Worth and I could see the distinctive shape of the airport.out of the aircraft window.

As we came in to land, we passed by the Six Flags Over Texas theme park, one of the biggest in the area.  You can just make out the rides just to the left of the highway

 At Dallas we used the Sky train to get to the international terminal and then eventually boarded our BA flight home.

 The aircraft was a jumbo jet, something that was the same age as Concorde, but which had not yet been scrapped. It was surprisingly cramped since we had paid extra for more legroom, so goodness knows what cattle class was like.

 On take-off it started to shudder alarmingly for a long time rattling our teeth and alarming the other passengers too, but eventually it settled down to a steady flight. Something was wrong with the cabin pressure, because TBH suffered much more than usual from blocked and painful ears, which did not get better for a day or so after we arrived home. Soon we were cruising along at normal altitude, but had to turn north as Hurricane Harvey was still making waves and we went through the fringes of the storm. This made the first hour of the flight really bumpy and the seat belt sign remained on for much longer than usual.

A map showing the flight path of our aircraft as it skirted Harvey.  By the time we were over Indiana, it was clear of the effects of the storm
 As soon as the seat belt light was switched off there was a rush for the toilets, causing a queue and a lot of congestion around the toilet area. When we arrived home, we were both stiff and tired and the jet lag did not pass off for longer than usual, whilst I found I was really struggling to go up stairs for a couple of days. I have never been affected like that before and put it down to the flu like cold I had caught whilst in the USA and the horribly cramped seats on the old design of aircraft.

I was giving a presentation for the Fairford U3A in a few days and I spent a while getting it ready. I was still feeling rough and my sinuses had started to become infected, causing me to have the sensation that I had been a couple of rounds with the current world heavyweight champion. A visit to the doctor had got me a course of penicillin and over the next few days it started to go from agonising to tender. The U3A talk went off OK and I was able to relax, but although I had stopped coughing, my chest was still sore and walking was causing it to hurt, so I went to the doctor a second time and he told me I had strained my chest muscles coughing too much. The following day I was in hospital after suffering a mild heart attack. But that is another story.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

A Once in a Lifetime Event part 4

For the next few days nothing much happened. Because we had timed our visit to include the eclipse, and the family all had to get back to work or in The Grand Son's (TGS) case had to go back to school, so we were left to our own devices and would spend the morning walking to the nearest shops or doing a little house work or washing our clothes. American washing machines and tumble dryers are much larger than British ones as a rule and the tumble dryers do not crease the clothes anything like as much as the smaller ones we have over here. All British machines seem to be made to fit under a work surface, where in the much larger middle class American homes, they are expected to be stood in their own dedicated space and so are a lot larger and roomier inside.

Part of our walk to the shops

There was a really good farm shop called Sprouts within an easy walk and we would go there just to get some exercise and to have a look around, inside an air conditioned building after being out in the Kansas sun, before walking home. Despite being morning, by ten it got quite warm, even though it was not as warm as it should be in August, but to us Brits it seemed pretty hot and so the respite was welcome.

Sprouts did a lot of good quality fruit and vegetables and we would top up on tom-ade-ohs, or in English tom-art-ohs and cherries or strawberries. All being top class quality. The Daughter In Law (TDIL) was only working short hours and would come home soon after lunch and we would sometimes drive to some of the larger stores with her.

One morning whilst out on a walk, we spotted a humming bird hovering around some flowers in a neighbours back yard (back garden in English) and one afternoon TDIL suddenly spotted one just outside their window. I was able to grab the camera and got these pictures. The quality of the images were not good since they were shot through the blinds, but you can see it hovering with its wings just a blur.  The blinds caused the horizontal stripes in the background.

On the subject of birds, it seems that some local birds were planning on migrating early and were collecting on the power lines in huge numbers much earlier than usual. Possibly because the weather was cooler than usual for the time of year.

Something I had not spotted on previous visits were the number of birds of prey that lived along the freeways. This was the first year I had been to America after having my cataracts removed and my vison corrected for short sight and I found I was able to see and identify more than I had ever seen on previous visits. Most of the birds living by the freeways were scavengers, turkey vultures and buzzards, presumably living on the road kill, with only the occasional eagle. Although it was hard to tell which was which, eagles tended to be solitary and further away from the traffic, so they were hard to photograph.

One morning we went with TDIL into Lawrence and whilst she went to work, we walked around Lawrence looking in shops for souvenirs and while there we visited the local museum. This was full of soldiers from Fort Leavenworth who were on a an educational trip, so we did not get to see all of the museum, but what we saw was very interesting. A lot of the history of the American Civil War was featured and the history of what took place locally was pretty gruesome. Kansas and Missouri were on opposite sides and both were responsible for what today would be considered war crimes, where civilians were massacred in brutal cross border raids. The interesting thing was the fact that racial prejudice was not so apparent immediately after the war and intolerance slowly increased over the next fifty or so years, presumably as the next generation forgot what the war was all about.

In among the exhibits there were some things from my own personal past, one of them being an X-ray machine to show how well your shoes fitted you. These were in common use when I was a child and whenever my mother bought me a pair of shoes, they were first tried on and viewed in one of the machines. The child stands on the platform with their feet under the machine and you could look into the front viewer to see your own bones wiggling about.  I have no idea how much damage the repeated X-rays did to me, but so far nothing has showed. There were two more viewing slots, one for the parent, one for the shop assistant as well as the one for the victim… I… I mean child.

In the local antiques store, I found a 1953 copy of the Dandy, which is now back in the UK where it belongs.  Antique stores in America tend to be full of fairly recent, things which over here would be classed as brik-a-brak  only Native American artifacts exist that are really old.

That evening we went to the local liqueur store and topped up on some drinks. I was intrigued by some of the fancy labels found in the store.

But I could not resist getting TS and family a much more sophisticated, etched and decorated commemorative bottle of wine celebrating their local baseball team, KC Royals, becoming 2015 world champions.

On the Sunday we planned to have a day out in Kansas City and visit the museums there.

That morning it rained a bit.

But we were not put off as the weather forecast showed it would clear up – and it did.
The rain did not let up until we were nearly at KC and the trip there was not good. Inevitably someone found out the hard way that driving in heavy rain can be a problem.

We went to the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art where we first of all ate lunch in the Rozzelle Court Restaurant which serves pretty good food.

The museum is notable for its giant shuttlecocks that feature on its grounds outside and inside it is filled with a wide variety of art from all ages and an afternoon is not really enough time to do it justice.

There are ancient works of art right up to a section of modern contemporary art. I am not a fan of a lot of modern art and feel that some people are suckered into believing that a blank square is art, when as far as I am concerned it is just a blank square and completely uninteresting.
A work of art?
A discussion of this led to the news story of a pair of a pair glasses being left behind on the floor under a painting by an absent minded art lover. When he returned to recover his property, he found several people admiring the outrageously simplistic piece of art, a pair of glasses on the floor and they were taking pictures and wondering who the genius was who created it. Duh!

After the discussion, TGS seemed to have mislaid his glasses at one point, not sure if this qualifies.

One piece of modern art that took my attention was a chess player contemplating his next move, it is only a part of a person, but it captures the deep concentration of a chess player.

By the time we had seen all the galleries, we were ready to start for home and left a little after four.

The last Monday of our visit, we went for a walk in the Clinton Lake Park.

It has a number of paved footpaths which are kept free of long grass for a few yards either side in order to avoid snakes. The most common snake in the area is the copperhead which is poisonous, but rarely fatal in humans. They have a nasty habit of freezing when approached and their camouflage is so good, it is possible to accidentally tread on or very close to them causing them to strike. More poisonous is the rattle snake, which tend to prefer dry areas and the cottonmouth which prefers wetlands. Of the 38 snakes found in Kansas, only five species are poisonous, so there is only a small chance of encountering one. Most snakes are harmless.

 In many parts of the USA there are trees that grow this odd looking fruit.

 They are the Osage Orange tree and the large fruit they produce is known as a hedge apple.

The Osage Orange tree

They are inedible even for most wild life, but the trees were once used as hedges by the early settlers because they sprout long thorns which made them impassable to cattle. With the introduction of barbed wire, they fell out of use and now grow wild. There is a folk belief that the hedge apples will repel insects, but this apparently has been disproved. However, the juice is an irritant and you should avoid handling them.
A denizen of the park
All around the park, we saw turkey vultures and buzzards and several of the buzzards flew close enough for some good photo opportunities and both TS and myself took several pictures.

A pair, photo by TS

Some of the wild plant life, complete with beetle

Some more plants.  There were a whole range of plants and insects in the unpaved areas, conservation is alive and well.

On our way home we took a slight detour to some wetlands where we hoped to see some cranes, but they had guessed we were coming and so had gone elsewhere. I did see a heron, but it was too far off for a good photo. This was the last outing of our trip and quite soon we had to catch our flight for home.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

A Once in a Lifetime Event part 3

With still a few days to go before the eclipse, we drove into Kansas City and visited the Union Station which has become a collection of museums. We parked in a multi-storey car park that is linked to the museum area and city centre by a walkway and whilst we were on the walkway, we caught a glimpse of KC’s new tramcar. This provides a free service which takes pedestrians through the centre of the city and was not there the last time we visited KC, having started in 2014.

When the Union Station was built, there was huge competition between the railroad companies and so each railroad company tried to outdo each other with some amazing and impressive structures. Union Station in Kansas City is no exception because it is huge and impressive.

 It now hosts a number of museums, meeting rooms and galleries which are open to the public.

 After a short stroll around the place looking at what was on offer, which included a display of mummies, we decided to skip the mummies and visit Sea Life, an aquarium.

A denizen of the deep
The week dragged by and the sky got cloudier, then it started to brighten up and the temperature rose steadily until it was almost normal for Kansas, but the weather forecast was not hopeful.  Eventually the next day was the twenty first, the day of the 'Great American Eclipse'.

Today is the day 

The day had finally arrived and we were all up early, we were going to the Amelia Earhart Airport, a small airfield some twenty miles north of the family's home.  Getting ready for an early start, we piled all the stuff we thought we would need into the hire car. We had hired a vehicle large enough for us all to fit in together, previously we had been going out using two cars because TS and TDIL both have VW Golfs which would not take three adults and a six foot three grandson comfortably, so we needed more room. Hire cars in the USA are not too expensive, but there had been a sudden interest in hire cars, particularly the larger roomier types because of the eclipse and the prices had shot up, so we had  decided to compromise by hiring a saloon that was just big enough for our purpose.  We were pleasantly surprised because the hire company gave us a larger vehicle than they had originally kept for us.  The hire firm had one left over and we were able to have it for the same price as the slightly smaller car.
The previous evening we had scurried around making sure we had the cameras, camera sun filters, tripods, chairs, sun block, eclipse glasses, tissues, hand sanitisers and so on and so on. If we had forgotten anything, we would not be able to go back for it because the roads were likely to be crowded.

 All week the roads had warning signs telling us that the traffic would be heavy on the 21st, but the traffic was actually quite light until we got closer to Atchison where we had booked a car parking space.

 The slowest part of the journey was when we got close to the entrance to the airfield where we had to crawl the last few hundred yards. Passing a small house as we queued, there was an older couple sitting on their porch watching us slowly go past and we assumed they were feeling pretty smug because they had all the facilities to watch the eclipse at hand without leaving their house. Close to the gate volunteers were checking our entry passes and we were told to have a good day after a girl had checked we had a booked place.

The field was uneven and TS drove the big car slowly across the bumpy ground until we were waved into a parking spot, a few hundred yards into a field. They had organised the parking well and there was plenty of room between each car and between the rows.

 We piled out and headed for the nearest facility. Whereas we call them Porta-loos in England, they are known as Porta-potties over there. We passed one and then came to a second which had a short queue, then we were all soon ready to explore the site. At the top of the airfield were a number of small hangers or some similar kind of building and inside one there was an exhibition where you could have a look at a famous aircraft once flown by Amelia Earhart. Amelia Earhart was the first woman to fly the Atlantic solo and an important air pioneer.  The airport is named the Amelia Earhart  Memorial Airport in her memory.

Amelia Earhart
Close to the airfield’s apron there was a PA system just inside the entrance of a hanger, which was playing loud music. Later a local band played live music.

Standing around and on the concrete apron there were a number of light aircraft parked.

Two bi-planes were giving flights and kept flying over the site, so quite a festival was taking place.

Having explored a bit and noted where the food sources were, we headed back to the car and got the chairs out and set up the tripods and attached the cameras. We were all ready for the big event. Although it was not long past eleven AM, we decided that getting lunch may be a good idea, because it would get busy around noon. The eclipse was not due until just after one o’clock, so there was plenty of time but we wandered around the vendors stalls making our choices. We each found a vendor that sold our particular preference and queued up. TDIL and I went for a pulled pork sandwich each whilst TBH, TS and TGS went to queue at a more exotic Greek food stand. It was hot and sticky, so despite the water we had brought with us still in the cooler in the back of the car, TDIL and I bought a bottle of water each and sipping on these made our way back to the car. The others had not finished queuing but had told us to carry on and they would catch us up.
Back at the car, the others not far behind us, we all consumed our early lunch and waited for the eclipse.
Whilst hot, it was humid and soon we saw that in the distance clouds were looming. There was a clap of thunder and it seemed the gods were not too keen on us viewing a total eclipse this time around.
A thin band of rain had been predicted that should pass over before the eclipse started, but these clouds looked more ominous and not too long after hearing the distant thunder we saw a flash of lightning and then it began to rain.

A thunderstorm in Kansas can be bad news, very bad news, so it was not a happy bunch who sat and waited to see if the storm was going to be a bad one. Sitting in an open field during a thunderstorm is not a good idea anywhere but, the thunder passed by in the distance and it was just rain that passed over us.
With the onset of rain, away went the cameras and out came the rain gear and the brollys and we sheltered as we waited for the thin band of rain to go past. It did stop raining but the sky did not clear and almost as soon as we decided it was safe to come out from under our brollys again, it started all over again, in buckets this time.

 Eventually the rain died away, but the sky remained cloudy. It is now approaching the time for the eclipse to start, in fact it must have begun, but we could not see the sun, which remained stubbornly invisible. 
Suddenly there was a burst of whooping and cries of delight as the clouds thinned enough to see that the sun has got a bite out of it.

For many people this was exciting enough because they had never seen any eclipse before and whilst the clouds were thin enough, I managed to snap a couple of shots until the clouds thickened again. 

Looking around, I could see a lighter patch heading our way and after a while the clouds thinned enough to see the sun was rapidly disappearing and it was becoming darker.

 The sky remained cloudy, but you could clearly see the thinning crescent and then clouds rolled in again, but miracle of miracles, they thinned down just as it got really dark and we could see a circle of light around a black disk and we were able to see totality.

My camera clock was still set to British time, so subtract six hours and you can see it was just past one o'clock

The world turned really eerie, one o’clock in the afternoon and pitch black, not like a heavy cloud, black as night but all around there seemed to be a sunrise in any direction you looked.

The whole site was cheering and whooping as this weird situation remained for the expected two minutes or so and slowly the clouds thickened just as one side of the glowing ring started to brighten as totality ended.

 The clouds were moving fast and every now and then you could see the widening crescent of light grow thicker and thicker, until the clouds blotted it all out once more, but  I had seen my first and probably only total eclipse!

The sky remained obscured by cloud and so like many around us, we decided to call it a day and head off home before the rush started. Fat chance.

Once we got back onto the main road the traffic started to build and build and soon we were crawling along in a solid stream of cars all heading home.

A state trooper and the highway patrol conferring on the unexpected traffic in their usually quiet neighborhood
Ironically, after a few minutes of driving slowly, the clouds parted and there was the sun in a clear blue sky, but still with a chunk missing and so both TBH and TGS were able to continue watching the eclipse as we drove along since they were on the passenger’s side of the car and could see the sun. The traffic jams continued for a considerable way home.  We were interested to see that once home, looking at the traffic maps for that evening, the path of the total eclipse was marked out by traffic jams.

So that was eclipse day, but we were not going home for a few more days so this is not the end.