Today was hotel room day for Gallifrey One 2015. Otherwise known as Gallygeddon: the Bloodbath.

Seriously. By the time I copied and pasted the group code into the Marriott website, the hotel was basically sold out. By the time I clicked the link to the overflow hotel, I could no longer get all of the dates I wanted.

So I made a reservation at the Hilton :-)

Yes, I'm disappointed we won't be in the convention hotel, but the Hilton is literally next door past a parking garage, and costs basically the same amount of money. It'll be fine.

Mad props to Gally staff for running that popular of a convention. I already can't wait for February.
The Rocky steps at the Art Museum. Obviously a mandatory visit :-)

Philadelphia 2013

And yes, that's people running up the steps. Some of them multiple times.

On the way back, I also passed by the Franklin Institute, sadly missing the Pompeii exhibit by two days.

Philadelphia 2013

Philadelphia 2013

Beautiful architecture yet again. I kind of want an apartment in there (you know, once I win the lottery).

Philadelphia 2013

And then there was the time someone decided to build a Masonic temple right next to a church. Only in National Treasure city.

Philadelphia 2013
I mean, we all know that already. I say it often enough. But part of my job, at least once a year, is taking a trip to one of the biggest vacation destination on Lake Erie: Put-in-Bay. The most recent trip up there was for a two-day workshop/conference thing, and part of that was a visit to Perry's Victory & International Peace Memorial, which is a national monument run by the Park Service. Third highest monument in the US, I think, after the Statue of Liberty and the St. Louis Arch. And the view is pretty awesome.

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Yes, I went from one of the lowest NPS spots to one of the highest in the span of less than a month :-)

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This was only a little while after the Bicentennial of the Battle of Lake Erie, and while most of the remnants of the festivities were cleaned up at this point, we did see one last tall ship floating by the neighboring island. Kind of sad I missed the actual party - then again, I think I was in a hot air balloon at the time. I still think I win :-)

Of course, I also took some of the traditional "fish staring at me while I take photos" pictures... because seriously, fish stare at me when I take photos of them.

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And... well. There's a reason half the pictures I get sent at work are of Lake Erie sunsets. They're really really pretty.

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After the balloon flight, we ended our Albuquerque day with shopping (jeans! in my size! that actually fit!) and snuggling pitbulls. (There was a pitbull rescue camped out at the pet store next to the Western store. I may have squealed with delight.)

And then we had dinner at the winery next to our hotel. It was AMAZING. Such good food. We also got a flight of wines to try, and I learned that I hate chardonnay and burgundy, and will always find a Pinot Grigio or a Shiraz/Syrah that I like. Also, wines from South Africa, Australia, and California are better for me than wines from France or Spain. Random, but so far it's worked.

And then I flew home :-) Chicago tried to keep me there for a little while again, but hey, what else is new. Midway hates me.
(It's a song. It's been in my head since that balloon flight, when I'm not mentally singing 80s cartoon themes.)

And we're off!

Albuquerque, NM

At first it was a little bit scary, just because you're floating in a basket, but it actually ended up being a very smooth ride, since you're just going with the wind, instead of trying to fight it like you do in a plane.

The weather was perfect - a little bit dusty in the distance, but we still got to see a lot of views. This was one of the ones from 1800 feet in the air, I think.

Albuquerque, NM

Obviously we had a better view than these guys :-)

Albuquerque, NM

One quick pass over a horse farm - apparently the company had previously been asked to go high, since the balloon freaks out the horses.

Albuquerque, NM

I kind of wonder what this particular view is like from the cars...

Albuquerque, NM

Then again, Albuquerque drivers are complete jerks and probably wouldn't notice. While we were over the highway, we saw a car chase, people turning on red in front of ambulances, general honking madness... it was random.

So we went over to the Rio Grande instead (which is much less scary here than in Texas). The surrounding woods are called the Bosque, and are sort of the city park area. (Also, there's lots of balloon traffic in Albuquerque in the morning.)

Albuquerque, NM

Not a lot of water in the river - apparently if there's more, you can sort of skim over it with the basket.

Albuquerque, NM

We didn't get to do that, but I did get a really cool shot of our own balloon's shadow on the riverbank.

Albuquerque, NM

All in all, I was kind of scared about the whole thing at first, but really? Best flying experience ever. If you ever have the chance to do this, you should. It's awesome. And it ended not only with certificates for our first balloon flight, but also with champagne. Apparently it's a tradition to celebrate not dying ;-)
The problem with hiring a company called Rainbow Ryders for our hot air balloon needs is that every time I think about the name, I instantly have the Saber Rider theme stuck in my head for the next hour. (Ok, maybe that's just me. I loved that show.)

Hot air ballooning in Albuquerque starts early - I think we got up just after 4. By the time the sun was coming up, we were in a bar parking lot, unloading five hot air balloons.

First you knock over the basket (carefully).

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Then you spread out an old balloon skin with giant holes in it to freak out your customers. Quickly followed by laying out the real balloon skin before people start hitchhiking back to home base.

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Then you make some of your customers hold open the balloon while you blow air into it with a giant industrial fan.

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And then you set those customers on fire.

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Ok, not really. You actually heat up the air in the balloon skin to make it start to rise, pulling the basket upright as it goes.

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Still, fire. Totally the reason we weren't freezing the entire morning.

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Rainbow balloons! Obviously.

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Petroglyph National Monument is really interesting, but good grief is it hot. The black rocks get nicely baked in the New Mexico sun, and then release that heat in addition to the already hot air (or something). Either way, the first time we walked down one of the trails, I kind of wanted to die.

Petroglyph

It was pretty though - even at the beginning of the trail, you get petroglyphs pretty much right away, both obvious in plain view and sort of hidden and only revealed in certain angles of light.

Petroglyph

Petroglyph

You also get a really nice view of the city - which also happens to point out just how much it's located in a rock bowl, holding on to much of the late summer heat :-)

Petroglyph

And despite the heat and the lack of water, there's pretty flowers all along the path. Some scrubby and dry-looking, but some really bright and pretty. It's weird what all grows between rocks, sand, and rattlesnake tracks.

Petroglyph

Petroglyph
The funny thing about White Sands National Monument is that it's located in the middle of White Sands Missile Range, not only the place where they set off the first atomic detonation, but still an active military base and test range. How do I know that? There's a giant sign on the road, saying "this road may be closed sometimes, because we're setting off explosions in the desert."

Ok, it doesn't say that exactly. But it might as well. The monument has a sign with a number to call about when missile tests are, a schedule of known missile tests when the park will be closed, and a disclaimer about frequent closings in case of lots of missile tests. We even got some warnings about road closures when we drove from Alamogordo back to Albuquerque, though we didn't actually hit any. My guess is we started driving too late, and they opened the roads again before we got to the road blocks.

That drive was pretty random too... we decided to take county roads instead of the freeway, so it was winding, high up in the mountains, and often didn't have guardrails. Yeah, that was fun :-) Still, at least it was an actual road, not something carved out of a mountain and abandoned halfway - thanks, Park Service ;-)

The road also had a delicious roadside diner. I love taking back roads and just randomly stopping at some place that's obviously frequented by the locals - they always have the nicest people and the best food. In this case, a waitress who let me use her phone to check in for our balloon ride, and the best cheeseburger and fries I've had in ages. So good.

White Sands

Dec. 3rd, 2013 03:25 pm
Malibu beaches wish they had sands this pristine.

White Sands National Monument

White Sands National Monument starts with grassland:

White Sands National Monument

But it very quickly turns into sand.

White Sands National Monument

Packed sand where plants grow in it.

White Sands National Monument

And more sand, as far as you can see. (Fancy outhouse for scale.)

White Sands National Monument

They plow the sand into roads and parking lots, much like you'd do with snow. It was... sort of freaky.

White Sands National Monument

You'd think the place would be dead, but we saw bobcat tracks, snake tracks, and these little blue lizards (no really, bright blue) that were too fast to take photos of. They seem to live in the yucca...

White Sands National Monument

... and in the mounds left by the roots of the scrub brushes when the sand moves on and the plants get stuck (dead shrub on left, live shrub on right).

White Sands National Monument
I found Commander Hadfield's mission badge :-) Technically there's more than one, since most astronauts are up for two missions (I think Hadfield was 34 and 35), but this is the photo that came out better through the glass.

New Mexico Museum of Space History

Random satellite. It's funny how small some of them are.

New Mexico Museum of Space History

Fuel cell model from one of the Apollo missions. And you thought a car engine looked complicated ;-)

New Mexico Museum of Space History

I wish I could remember where this was from... possibly a bit of the space station?

New Mexico Museum of Space History New Mexico Museum of Space History

Want to dress like an astronaut? Try a pink polo shirt.

New Mexico Museum of Space History

Mum landing the space shuttle. I tried it after she did, and apparently I am an excellent shuttle pilot :-)

New Mexico Museum of Space History

Ok, I'm an excellent shuttle pilot on Novice level. I decided to quit while I was ahead.
And then we drove to Alamogordo, because if you're basically driving past it, you may as well stop, right? Alamogordo, aside from radiation, is also home to the New Mexico Museum of Space History.

New Mexico Museum of Space History

Yes, it's on top of a hill. With a view.

New Mexico Museum of Space History

It also has a Missile & Rocket Garden. So much better than garden gnomes or flamingos.

New Mexico Museum of Space History

New Mexico Museum of Space History

New Mexico Museum of Space History

I think my favorite part of the outside display was the Mercury capsule.

New Mexico Museum of Space History

Why is it painted all psychedelic in the back?

New Mexico Museum of Space History

Astronauts were also very small at the time, apparently.

New Mexico Museum of Space History

All in all, it's pretty impressive that people went up and came back FROM SPACE in what was (and pretty much continues to be) a fancy tin can. Hats off, astronauts. You're pretty damn awesome.

New Mexico Museum of Space History
One day, someone had an idea: if all you need to build a telescope is some lenses and some mirrors, why bother with the giant tube to enclose everything? Why not just build a building to surround the framework that holds everything up?

Voila: the Hobby-Eberly Telescope.

Hobby-Eberly Telescope

It's big and shiny on the outside.

Hobby-Eberly Telescope

It sits on air cushions so it's easier to move, and moves more smoothly for long-term programmed observing.

Hobby-Eberly Telescope

And it looks like something out of Star Trek on the inside. (They were cleaning the dome when we were there, so the tarp is to keep crap from falling on the fancy, expensive mirrors.)

Hobby-Eberly Telescope

Also, the view from that hill is almost as good as it is from the other one.

Hobby-Eberly Telescope
I'm not quite sure how we ended up at McDonald Observatory... we pretty much saw a sign by the side of the road and decided to stop. And then there was a show, and a tour, and then it was three hours later :-)

The observatory sits on top of two hills, in the middle of nowhere, Texas. It's really perfect for stargazing, but the view during the day isn't bad either.

McDonald Observatory

But that particular dome is for tomorrow. Today, one of the big telescopes.

McDonald Observatory

And the equally ginormous counterweight. I forget how heavy that was, but it was a lot of pounds.

McDonald Observatory

Tour guests got to move the telescope, and rotate the turning floor part it sits on. And then we got to move the dome itself, to see just how cool it is :-) We couldn't open the door to look out, since it was raining, but oh well.

McDonald Observatory

Tomorrow: the fancy telescope in the big silver dome. And probably more pretty views.
You can keep the tarantulas, including the one that went across the road as we were driving out of the park. We did appreciate the goodbye wave from the resident vulture though (sadly not captured on memory chip).

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I should start by saying that I wouldn't have been anywhere near this road if mum hadn't been driving. I personally would have turned around :-)

I should also say that we were pretty much safe on this road. The Park Service apparently likes giving guests a feeling of adventure.

Looks pretty harmless, right?

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Well. As the Guide says... mostly harmless.

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Yes, that road is exactly one SUV wide. The other lane? Across the ravine.

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See the stonework on the side of that road? That's the stabilization they put on it. Sadly, it was broken in places -_-;

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But hey, we made it! Slowly and carefully, but we made it. And in retrospect, it was pretty cool.
It is pretty impressive. Big, and turbulent, and pretty much surrounded by the only green stuff in the entire national park.

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Also, some of the canyons - formed by tributaries - are invisible.

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See it? Yeah, it took the sign to point it out. The canyon goes into that diagonal line, right in the middle.

The Park Service map we picked up said something about a "hot tub" type thing right by the river, if you walked down the path off a certain parking spot. So we did.

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The hot tub is the calm part at the front, behind the wall thing. Needless to say, we didn't stop long :-) The rock walls on the other side were nice though. I didn't take pictures of them, but there were some petroglyphs right at the start, and some pretty impressive bamboo-type things with hiding spots for animals.

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Of course, getting there was... a whole 'nother story. But that's tomorrow.
BATROCK!

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Ok, so it has some regionally appropriate name like "Donkey's Ears" or whatever, but really... come on. Batrock.

I also loved how Santa Elena Canyon from far away is literally a hole in a wall of mountain.

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And it's just generally gorgeous scenery out there in southern Texas.

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I guess that sort of explains why people would want to live there. Then again, it probably had a lot to do with free grassland for cattle. Because really, it's still way too hot down there.

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Good grief is it hot in Texas. Like, wow. Kind of awful.

Santa Elena Canyon is really pretty though. Apparently the Rio Grande decided to cut a hole right into a wall of rock. Because it could.

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Supposedly, according to the park ranger we talked to, you can cross this little tributary within the park and walk down a path cut into the right side of that canyon, and it's really pretty. And it's just a little crossing, really nothing to worry about.

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Looks harmless, right? Well. This is what happens when you try to walk through it.

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Let's just say we decided we didn't need to see the view from the other side.

The Rio Grande is kind of impressive though. It looks pretty slow, until you look closely. Then it's a churning river of sediment-loaded water that I really wouldn't want to get too close to. It'll probably steal your soul if you look for too long.

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What was entertaining was listening to the pigs (javelinas, technically) rooting around in the undergrowth. We never saw one the entire time we were there, but they were really really loud. Apparently it's a great place for pigs to live down there.
I'm a big fan of the National Park Service. In particular, the way they train their rangers in giving education talks. I mean, a large part of it is probably choosing people who are good at giving education talks, but buy do they turn those into people who are great at giving education talks. The guy who gave a sunset talk at the Big Bend resort was no exception.

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Of course, he also made me look over my shoulder every time there was a shadow on the wall because I expected a tarantula, but that's a thing that happens when you stay in a Texas national park. The hotel's friendly note about "tarantulas and scorpions get into rooms sometimes - please call us if you need help" didn't actually help with that either... anyways.

Great ranger talk, quite fun. But really, we were all there for the view.

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There's a reason that center dip in the rocks is called the Window. It was very very pretty.

We did also see a scorpion on the way back to our room (for some reason scorpions don't bother me that much,) and a coyote wandered through the middle of the little seating area by the parking lot without a care in the world. Yay nature! In a mostly controlled environment at least. Unbridled Texas nature is kind of scary.
Yeah... sorry. I'm really really terrible at this. We all already know that, right? Good.

From Carlsbad, it was a neverending drive down what seemed to be one single road (it wasn't) all the way through Texas, to the only national park that's a national park because people wanted it to be one, and not because it had "something special" about it.

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There were people who used to graze cattle there, and consequently kind of killed everything in the immediate vicinity, so it doesn't look like it used to.

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See the house? View's pretty priceless though. It is honestly a pretty park, and much more interesting than the prime prison country you drive through to get there. We stayed at a "resort" in the park itself (there's nothing else there, basically), and really enjoyed our view all around.

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Also, we found Amon Sul. See it on the right there? :-)

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Apparently people around there call that rock formation the Watchtower, but it's not an official name or anything.

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