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.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

A Once in a Lifetime Event part 2

The first morning we woke up at five AM and could not get back to sleep and so by the end of the first day we were ready for bed at around eight PM. By the third day we were in sync with local time and waking up at a more respectable hour and able to stay awake until a normal bed time.
We had nothing special planned for the first week, but went to the shopping centres and spent a few dollars and then went to see the movie Dunkirk.

Although not rated highly by the critics, I thought this movie was really well made.  It followed  several people caught up in the terrible situation of the British defeat in France with the struggle to help or to get home. Although it tried to tell you right at the start, it took me a while to catch on that we were seeing the same events from different people’s perspectives over different timescales, but it works and once you understand it makes a great deal of sense.

 Dunkirk was a big deal for my parents for a couple of reasons. One it was a real morale booster in a war that was going seriously wrong. Britain was losing in Europe and Africa where it seemed that Hitler was unstoppable. Miraculously, by out of the box thinking, hundreds of stranded soldiers were saved from capture or worse by the action of civilian volunteers. The second thing that made it important to them was the use of the ‘little ships’, just like the boats they loved and holidayed on whenever possible.
Some of the actual boats used by the evacuation photographed at the time as they are towed down the River Thames to the sea.
 One of my aunts had even owned a boat that was believed to have been one of the little ships. So I was brought up hearing about how amazing and wonderful a miracle Dunkirk had been. After seeing the movie I revealed how ancient I am to my grandson, by mentioning that I had worked with someone who had been on the beach at Dunkirk.

A still from the movie
Charley Featherstone was a great friend of mine, one of those work colleagues you get along with really well and never forget. He had been part of the rear guard in the retreat, he had managed to return to England only by dumping all his kit and swimming out to one of the last boats to leave. He was always resentful, that having returned to England to continue the fight for his country, he had been charged by the army for losing his equipment and docked pay to cover the cost. Having survived Dunkirk and working with me, he died of lung cancer aged under 60.

For this year’s trip to visit the family, we were not planning on going anywhere special until the twenty first of August. On this day, we planned to cram ourselves into the thin line stretching all the way across the USA, along with a considerable portion of the population of the USA, plus all the foreign visitors like ourselves who came to experience the solar eclipse.

Although the eclipse would be visible across the entire USA and several other countries. A rather narrow strip is the only place where the sun was due to be completely obscured by the moon passing directly in front of it. This area was where what is known as totality would take place. Everywhere else only a chunk of the sun would go missing and the further away from this narrow strip you were the less of the sun would be hidden.
The family do not live very far from the line of totality, so we had booked a parking space in a local airfield at Atchison and intended to spend the day there on the day of the eclipse.

On this map, the family live about where the n is in Kansas City.
As you may imagine, eclipse fever had struck America, which had become known as The Great American Eclipse.

 On every TV channel different people were showing you how to view the eclipse safely and warning you of the danger of looking directly at the sun. The internet was full of gadgets, instructions, maps of the path and DIY methods for viewing safely. Special glasses were being sold and Amazon recalled some thousands of eclipse glasses because they could not check their validity, having sold out completely. They then, unable to get them all back, refunded everyone who had bought them. Many of the shops around the area instantly sold out and we were lucky because having discovered the Amazon glasses, that TS had bought back in May, could be unsafe, we managed to find a few still in the local Dillons store.

Some of the eclipse glasses we bought.  The unopened package was the one which Amazon suggested could be below standard, so they never got used.
People whose houses were under the path of the eclipse had been reported as renting them out for the day for thousands of dollars and many sites had been issuing tickets to avoid a rush on the day. Unscrupulous people had been printing fake tickets that had been sold for outrageous sums which would not actually get you in to the place they claimed to be for.
People started to openly display their idiocy, one woman was reported as having asked if the eclipse festival could be moved to Saturday, since it would be more convenient as she would not have to take her children out of school to watch the eclipse and others reportedly putting sun block directly onto their eyes and having to be treated in hospital.  All of this against a background of tweets and statements by a president, who seems to find saying sensible things difficult, with the subsequent furore in the media each time he opened his mouth.

On top of that the weather continued to be cloudy and dull with rain and thunderstorms occurring as the day of the eclipse approached.

This kind of weather is unusual and at least ten degrees C cooler than is normal for Kansas in August.  I always want to burst into song when I hear that phrase, having been brought up on all the 50s musicals, and Kansas is indeed corny in August, the fields all around are full of corn, not quite as high as an elephant’s eye, as suggested by another 50s song, but getting on.  Be that as may be,back to the narrative.
Since this was the first eclipse to be accessible to US citizens over a wide area for 90 odd years, it would be a national disaster if the day was cloudy, so we waited and hoped for a sunny day.

Kansas in August 2017 not quite as expected

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

A Journey, Leading to a Once in a Lifetime Event part 1

Four o'clock in the morning and the alarm had gone off, it was time to get up. We had packed our suitcases the night before and gone to bed early to try to get as much sleep as possible before the grizzly hour we had to wake. Two zombies staggered around the house getting ready and promptly and on time the taxi arrived and we were off to Heathrow. High in the dawn sky Venus was a startlingly bright star and visible all the way to the airport even as the sky lightened to full daylight.

Because you are supposed to allow three hours to check in and go through security, we had needed to leave the house by half past five. Soon we arrived at Heathrow and our taxi driver helped us find a baggage cart and pile on the three huge suitcases and carry-on bags and we headed for the check in.

If all had gone well, we would have already been on our way at a reasonable hour the day before, but a strike by the air crew of the ‘wonderful’ airline we had booked with caused our flight to be a day late and very early.  Not naming any names, this airline's name starts with a B and an A. Not all bad though, our substitute flight had us booked onto an American Airlines Dreamliner, which proved to be much more comfortable than the BA aircraft we returned on.

 After checking in the three large suit cases we went through to the security area where I managed to set off the metal detector twice. First I had my mobile still in my pocket and then because my wallet has metal plates to stop my contactless credit cards being read by people with whom I do not wish to share my bank account. Inside the departure area, we found somewhere to get breakfast and having eaten we wait. Although we were requested to arrive three hours before take-off, we always seem to have a long wait in the departures lounge and so we sit and people watch and wait for the flight to be announced, watching the information screens to see which gate we will be departing from. Eventually it is time to board the aircraft and this is done excruciatingly slowly by ticket numbers. We shuffle forward down the long corridor and eventually board our flight for Chicago. After a lot of struggling to get our carry-ons into the overhead bins and the smaller ones under the seat, we are on our way. Well, we are trundling along what seems to be an endless runway and about the time I start to believe that we are going to drive all the way on the ground, the aircraft starts to accelerate and we are off the ground.
 This is the bit that I love and TBH hates, I like to look out of the window and see how much I can recognise from the air and since Heathrow leaves from London I can often identify more or less where we are until we get above the clouds. Once over the clouds there is nothing to see, so I usually turn on the map and watch the flight slowly crawl across the country to the coast over Ireland then on to the Atlantic.

 Hours of tedium pass, neither of us have ever been able to sleep on any aircraft and after hours of playing stupid games on my iPad and watching Guardians of the Galaxy vol II and Hidden figures from the list of in-flight movies, I realise we are approaching Lake Michigan and starting to descend. Our ears then start to pop and block alternately as the air pressure changes and eventually we are bumping along the runway with the engines in full reverse thrust and slowly we slow down to taxiing speed and we eventually arrive at the terminal.

From the aircraft window, you can see the Sears Tower in the distance.  We have definitely arrived in Chicago.
The introduction of the ESTA, which you have to fill in to visit the USA, and an electronic passport has improved our entry no end.  Because we have used ESTAs since 2008, all our details were on record and all we had to do at passport control was offer our passports to a scanner, stand in front of a camera and the gate opened and let us in.  Very little queuing and easy as pie, a big improvement on what we had to go through before, where a very stern looking individual would gaze at us suspiciously and after a long rigmarole with our passport and other papers, reluctantly let us through.

The next piece of tedium is waiting for our checked in baggage to emerge from the depth of the baggage handling conveyors and after we watch an an endless row of other people’s suitcases pass by, ours eventually emerge one by one and I was able to pull them off the carousel as they got near enough to reach. Loading them onto another baggage cart, we can then check them in again for the internal flight.
 From the International terminal at Chicago, to join our connecting flight, we have to take the airport’s train to terminal 3 and go through the security once more. After another struggle to get all our bits into the trays for scanning and checking and then get them all out again and packed back into our hand luggage we can sit down and wait for the connecting flight to Kansas City.
The connecting flight is not for another two hours or so and so we wait once more sitting it out. Waiting, I must add, is better than having to rush. From time to time we have been hard pressed to get to the connecting flight and running through a large airport carrying your hand baggage and arriving completely out of breath just as the gate is closing is not too much fun, so a long wait is quite acceptable, only requiring patience rather than physical stamina.
Eventually we able to board the flight and we were crammed into the much smaller aircraft with less space for hand luggage, so one of our bags has to go in the hold. Finally we were off, trundling down runway after runway. Chicago airport is big and has a maze of runways which criss-cross each other. The surrounding runways are full of other aircraft waiting to take off or arrivals taxing to their terminal. so often you have to wait at a crossroads whilst another aircraft crosses in front of your aircraft.

 This bit is always the longest part of the trip subjectively because we know it is only a short flight to Kansas City compared to the twelve hours and two movie flight across the Atlantic.
Finally we take off and we are on the last leg of the flight.

At first it is cloudy and I cannot see the ground.
Soon the clouds start to break up and I can see the Missouri River snaking its muddy way through the Illinois countryside 
Coming into Kansas City we pass over the Missouri River again and we know we are about to land when we can see the junction where the Kansas River joins it and the tall buildings of Kansas City skyline just behind.

 Soon we are down and making our way along the runway to the terminal.

The KCI terminal
After a short wait, we get off the plane, passing through security and there are the family waiting for us. We have finally made it.

Another day out

Not too far from where we live is the Slimbridge Wetlands and Wildfowl Trust and in July we thought it would be a good idea to pay a visit taking a friend along who is keen on bird life.
The area has been a wildlife trust for many years, founded in 1946 by Sir Peter Scott, the son of the Artic explorer captain Scott. The trust has been open to the public since it was first founded.

The Better Half (TBH) grew up in the same area and has visited Slimbridge as long as she can remember and I had also been there long before we met, so it is a familiar place for both of us.

On the way we cross Minchinhampton Common where it is traditional for the local farmers to summer their cows, so there are often cows wandering around, but are usually not a problem but this day, there was a traffic jam resulting from more cows than we had ever seen there ambling across one of the road junctions where two intersecting roads cross the common.

After this brief holdup, we duly arrived at Slimbridge. To get to the wetlands, you have to cross the canal and there is a swing bridge which is opened for boats to go through every now and then which halts the road traffic for a short while. Since this is fairly infrequent, I got out of the car and placed myself in a position where I could photograph the boats going through. Just by the side of the bridge a swan had made a nest and there were a number of signets sitting on the nest.

The Slimbridge site is huge and it is not possible to walk everywhere on one visit, without hurrying past most of the different areas, so this time we decided to go to some of the more distant parts of the wetlands where we have not often been. We wanted to see if we could see some of the rarer species that can be found there.

From the hides we were able to see many waterfowl and at one point saw some avocets which please our friend immensely, since they are hard to find away from a place like Slimbridge.

Further on we saw a large bird in the distance and realised it was a crane.

Moving to a higher level in the multi-story hide, we soon spotted two more. These birds have only recently been re-introduced into the UK and are slowly spreading across the natural wetlands.

 We were seeing three and after wading around for a while they took off and flew out of sight.

There is a hide at the end of a long path which is for watching kingfishers, but although we stayed for a while, much to the relief of my feet, we did not see any.
We then wandered through the main visitor area and looked the various less timid birds that were looking for food from the visitors or finding their own in the ponds and waterways that have been provided in the grounds.
There were still a number of chicks around with their mothers, still looking cute and fluffy

A Moorhen and her chick.  The chicks always have extraordinarily long feet for their size

Some flamingos from the West Indies, not usually found in the wild in the UK, but part of the preservation work

Another imported species

And the otters
After our visit, we had booked a table at the Tudor restraint, where we have been several times when in the area because it is a good place to eat and after a meal, we returned home.