Places to go and things to see by Gypsy Bev

Archive for January, 2012

White Waves of Desert Sand

White Sand as far as the eye can see!  Beautiful waves and dunes of sand cover 275 square miles of land near Alamogordo, New Mexico. Approaching from Cloudcroft, a mountain village with an altitude of about 10,000 feet, the view of White Sands in the distance with a mountain background was spectacular.

Surrounded by military installations, White Sands National Monument, the largest gypsum sand dune field in the world, was an unusual environment to explore. White Sands Missile Range surrounds the place and was where the first atomic bomb was detonated. Holloman Air Force Base was just east of here and a few miles farther on you will find a landing site for space shuttles.A couple times a week, traffic will be stopped for a few hours as test missiles are being shot overhead. This is truly an interesting place for those interested in space travel, as in nearby Alamogordo you can find the International Space Hall of Fame.

Reaching White Sands National Monument, first stop is the Visitors Center, which was a 1938 WPA project constructed of adobe in Spanish pueblo style. Adobe bricks are usually sixteen inches long, ten inches wide, and four inches thick so this is a solid building which has stood the test of time. Two men would work all day to form about a hundred bricks. Set in a landscape of native plants, this is truly a Welcome Center to the area.

Outside it is time to explore. Don’t forget your water bottle because if the sun shines, this can be a very hot desert scene.  This is an especially unusual scene as gypsum is seldom found in the form of sand. But located here in a basin, the white gypsum  is captured, because there is no outlet to the sea. The dunes are constantly changing shapes as tiny grains of sand are blown into ripples across the vast white desert. This area, with shelters inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, makes a great place for a rest, or to watch the antics of others on the dunes.

You will probably want to take a leisurely drive through the White Sands area, just to get the feel of things. There was a paved road for a couple of miles, and then you were on your own, to decide if you wanted to venture off driving on the gypsum highway through the hills of sand.

There were also a couple of walking trails – one mile-long path through the sand and another an actual boardwalk. Climbing to the top of one of these large dunes is a challenge and fun.  But this is one place where coming down is the hard part! Children have the right idea here as they use saucers or cardboard and slide down the dunes, resembling what a youngster would do with a sled in the snow.

Animals lived in this ocean of white sand in an evolved state as they became part of their environment and were thus camouflaged against the white desert scene. Salamanders, spiders and the Bleached Earless Lizard were white…just like the sand.

Drive, hike, walk the boardwalk, or go sledding!  So many options! But definitely an unusual place to enjoy the beauty that nature provides, including beautiful sunsets.

White Sands National Monument is in southern New Mexico along U.S. Highway 70, which can be reached off I-25 from Las Cruces or off U.S. Highway 54 from Alamogordo. Personally think the approach over the Sacramento Mountains on U.S. Highway 82 gives a great overview. Remember the roads may be closed at times for missile testing with a possible wait of several hours.


Way Down South – Key West

“Cayo Hueso” – Spanish for “Bone Island” – was the original name for Key West because of all the skeletons found on the beaches during the days of pirates and sunken treasures. This is the southernmost city in the continental United States with Cuba just 90 miles away! With the Atlantic Ocean connecting with the Gulf of Mexico on its shores, the sunsets here are spectacular and always accompanied by a gentle breeze.

Just getting here is an adventure as you travel across forty two bridges through the Keys on US Highway 1, the Overseas Highway. The route is only 113 miles from the southern mainland of Florida to Key West with the longest bridge being seven miles long.  All the way you are surrounded by tropical beauty and aquamarine waters. You see the coves where pirates landed long ago, and where drug smugglers currently hide their stash.

The highway here is actually built on the original route of the Overseas Railroad, which was constructed by Henry Flagler back in 1912. When the railroad and its bridges were destroyed in a hurricane in 1935, it was rebuilt and reopened as a highway in 1940.

Ernest Hemingway, John James Audubon and Harry S Truman all were frequent visitors here. The Hemingway house is one of the favorite stops and has a relaxing garden, which is a photographer’s dream. Nobel Prize Winner  Ernest Hemingway called the island home for ten years and found solace here along the turquoise waters. Be sure to look for the 40-50 six-toed cats that are descendants of Hemingway’s favorite tomcat, Snowball. Did seem fitting to take home one of his books, so selected his final work published during his lifetime, which not surprisingly had an ocean theme, Old Man and the Sea.

Conch Tour Train gives a guided tour of the island and even makes a stop at Sloppy Joe’s, the most famous bar in Key West. Opened in 1933, the day after Prohibition was repealed, owner Joe Russell had previously operated an illegal speakeasy. Hemingway and his “Mob” of literary cohorts were regular customers, who philosophized and drank the days away.  Today the bar is filled with historic memorabilia dating back to the days when Hemingway – known as Papa – stopped in for a drink with one of his best friends, Joe Russell – known as Sloppy Joe.

Heritage House Museum, the historic Porter family home, gives visitors a taste of the pirate folklore and island life. Built in 1834, this is one of the oldest houses on the island where Jessie Porter established a creativity haven for many famous artists and writers.  The Robert Frost winter cottage in the garden has a beautiful orchid collection. Each year the Robert Frost Poetry Festival is held at this site to promote Key West as a literary destination.

Sunset Pier on the Gulf Coast of Florida is the best seat in the house for the fantastic sunsets of Key West. Here at the Sunset Celebration you watch the sun sink into the Gulf of Mexico while the streets are filled with arts and crafts exhibits, entertainers, psychics, and of course, food!

As poet Wallace Stevens once wrote: Key West is the real thing – the sweetest doing nothing contrived.

Key West, Florida can be reached by crossing all the bridges through The Keys down US Highway 1 to its very end. It is the only highway going that direction so there is no possibility of getting lost.  Enjoy the journey!

Spirit of Christmas on Byesville Scenic Railway

Spirit of Christmas seems to be a fitting name for a ride on the Byesville Scenic Railway, because after you hear the stories of the miners from long ago, you will definitely appreciate the Christmas of today.

Accompanied on this trip by Miner Dave and Miner Steve, the hour train ride passed by twelve abandoned mines where about five hundred men worked underground.  However, in the area there were seventy seven deep coal mines with approximately five thousand men working.

The train track here was busy back in the early 1900’s with perhaps one hundred fifty trains going down the tracks on a busy day.  Their regular routes went from Marietta to Cleveland, but they went North as far as Canada.

Since it was the Christmas season, Miner Dave asked if there were any teachers on board. Then he selected a lady to read “The Night Before Christmas” as the train went down the track.  Miner Dave did appropriate sound effects as well as scene effects behind her back, which made for an amusing reading.

Young people are remembered in the mines as children often started working at the age of eight, with their parents’ consent, especially if the father had been injured. Someone had to work to pay their $12 a month rent as otherwise their family would have no place to live.

They did indeed, as Tennessee Ernie sang, “Owe my soul to the company’s store.”   They were paid in tokens that could only be spent at the company store.  So if the family needed an item, they would charge it there, then the man of the family would pay for it on payday.

Miner Dave explained that only men worked in the mines as it was thought that women would bring bad luck. They worked about 175 days out of the year. There was no welfare in those days, so they had to use credit…at the company store. For this most dangerous job in the world, there was no insurance and no vacation. There were definitely no atheists working in the mines.  They all believed that someone was watching over them.

How did you know if you were to work each day? At 7:15 each evening, everyone would listen for the whistle at the mine. If it blew once, there would be work tomorrow; twice, maybe and listen again at 4:15 in the morning; three times, no work the next day.

All nationalities headed out to work swinging their dinner pail. The pails could not be set down on the mine floor or the rats would open them and eat their dinner.  So miners always hung their dinner pails high on the mine wall. A sandwich made of West Virginia Ham was quite a treat – that ham, by the way,  was bologna. They always left a little something in their pail, just in case there was a cave in and they might be below ground all night. If they made if safely through the day, the miners would let the children have their pails on the way home and enjoy a little snack.

On Christmas Eve a hundred years ago, the mines would close early for the day at 4:30. Since there was no money for gifts, a stop at the company store might allow them to get an orange or some walnuts for the children. Often they would break a limb off a tree and either stick it in a can or in holes in the handle of a broom. This they would decorate with rags, bittersweet, popcorn, ribbon or berries.

Everyone would go to sleep early that night and be up to go to church on Christmas Day in their cleanest bib overalls. When they arrived back home, there would be one or two gifts under the tree. Gifts were often wrapped in newspaper, and then tied with rags and decorated with sprigs of berries.  Most were gifts made with love, and all Made in America.

Byesville is the coal mining capital of Ohio and their plans are to erect a monument to the coal miner at their station in downtown Byesville. When you give a donation, you are given a badge that explains the mining story.

The colors on the badge are symbolic of life down in the coal mines.

Yellow stands for a beam of sunshine that sheds light on the darkness of the dungeon of a  dark and gray mine.

Gray is for the rock/slate layers that are found above and below the seams of coal.

Black needs little explanation as it is the color of coal, also know as black diamonds, buried sunshine, or rocks that burn.

Red is for the color of blood that was spilled onto the ground from those who either lost their lives or were injured while working about the mines.

Someday soon the Coal Miners’ Memorial Statue Fund will reach its goal and the efforts of all the workers and their families will be recognized.  Coal miners helped make our country what it is today and will never be forgotten.

Now you better understand why the Spirit of Christmas should be alive in your heart today and all through the year. Charles Dickens expressed this in A Christmas Carol when  Scrooge said:

I will honor Christmas in my heart

and try to keep it all the year

May the Spirit of Christmas roll on!

Byesville Scenic Railway is located in Byesville, Ohio just off I-77 (Exit 41) South of Cambridge. Turn toward Main Street of Byesville, then left at the traffic light.  The train depot is one block on the right. Free parking is available along Second Street and Seneca Avenue. The train operates most weekends during the summer months as well as for special holidays throughout the year.

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