Monthly Archives: September 2014

Is “Scenic Interstate”an Oxymoron?



If you google “scenic interstate highways” you won’t find much.  One respondent nominated the Pacific Coast Highway, Highway 101. The problem is, 101 has very few Interstate segments and goes basically inland through a lot of central California.  The real West Coast Interstate Highway is 5, and Highway 1 is the one to drive in California if you have lots of time and want scenery.  The 3rd website down promises “Images for scenic interstate highways”.  The photos are mostly close-ups of concrete and cloverleafs.  The fact is, the Interstate Highway System was built for speed and convenience, not scenery.

I pondered this as I drove quite scenic I-15 from Great Falls to Helena, Montana, in July, 2014.  It followed the upper Missouri River for much of its 90 miles with the Big Belt Mountains in view about half way through the journey.   Because Ruth was driving, I began to compile a list of others and came up with 12 before reaching Helena.

I-70 from Grand Junction to Denver.  What’s in View?  Wineries, the Colorado River, Glenwood Canyon, The Rocky Mountains beginning about Eagle and lasting practically all the way to the Denver suburbs and a rapid descent, the Eisenhower Memorial Tunnel, etc.

I-75 between Naples and Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  Also called Alligator Alley, this curveless and creepy 78 miles is appropriately named.  I recently had a vivid conversation at a party about the accidents that occur when cars slam into inhabitants.  Alligators do occupy the waterways adjacent to this road and are seen on the road  despite fences and underpasses that reduce their numbers.

I-70 across Kansas.  No joke.  I love this 425 mile  journey over the High Plains, through the Flint Hills, and into the woods of eastern Kansas.  Every town along the way has at least one attraction of interest (see August 5, 2014 blog, “Kansas Surprises” and the next-day continuation).

I-75 north from, roughly, Mount Pleasant to Sault Ste. Marie.   The freedom of the open road and several lakes can be enjoyed after leaving populated southern Michigan.  The most awesome part is crossing the Mackinac Bridge, also known as Big Mac.  Side trips might include Leelanau County north of Traverse City and its aqua Glen Lake, Mackinac Island, the Soo Locks, etc.

I-25 from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, New Mexico.  I haven’t drive this segment of 25 recently, but I used to experience it regularly and loved the way its 50 miles rose rapidly from big city to open country.   Four Indian reservations, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, La Bajada, etc.

I-87 from Glen Falls to Plattsburgh, New York.  How many Interstates pass through a 6.1 million acre park?  Larger than Massachusetts and incredibly beautiful (see photo above), Adirondack Park is the largest in the Continental U.S.

Also listed:  I-95 From Portland to Bangor, Maine, I-68 from Hagerstown west to the Maryland border, I-15 from Las Vegas to St. George, Utah, I-35 from Oklahoma City south to Ardmore through the Arbuckle Mountains, and I-84 east from Pendleton to Baker City, Oregon.  What am I missing?




Ryoanji Temple: 15 Rocks, 0 Ducks


Lonely Planet suggests that visitors to Japan carry a pair of slip-on, sock-like feet coverings to wear in temples.  Good advice.   Street shoes are forbidden inside, and each popular temple entrance has shelves to place them on.  As we came out of one wearing only socks, there was a single bench with an elderly Japanese couple sitting on it contentedly having a conversation.  Ruth & I grabbed our street shoes, stepped outside, and squatted on the temple steps to put them on.  The couple immediately came out, bowed, and apologized profusely for not getting up.

There are more than 1,600 Buddhist temples in Kyoto.  Shod and on Bus 29, we headed for yet another famous one, Ryoanji, which was northwest of central Kyoto in the foothills.  Founded in 1450, Ryoanji is of the Rizai Zen school as are half of the temples in Kyoto.  The focus in this one was discovering both wisdom and one’s true nature in the activities of everyday life, like bench sharing.

The main attraction at Ryoanji was a kare-sansui-style (dry landscape) rock garden, 15 different sized grey rocks in a white gravel rectangle the size of a fairly large swimming pool (82 by 32 feet).  This, in turn, was surrounded by a privacy wall.  No trees, just carefully spaced rocks of different shapes poking out of the gravel.  The walls, according to the temple’s brochure, were of clay boiled in oil.  With the passage of time, the oil seeped out and made Rothko-like designs.  This highly celebrated garden was the creation of a very respected Zen monk named Tokuho Zenketsu, and silent and transfixed people of all ages sat on the crowded viewing platform viewing his work.  Ruth, not so much into Zen, became obsessed with counting the rocks and kept coming up with 14.  I counted the same.  The 15th must have been either very small or hidden behind a more prominent rock.

The Kyoyochi pond at Ryoanji dated from the 12th century and its setting was more traditionally garden-like.  The tree-covered shoreline caused a lovely reflection in the water.  Until recently this temple was known for its mandarin duck population.  Ryoanji was once known as Oshidoridera, the temple of mandarin ducks.   I still don’t know what happened to them or the 15th rock.

The temple between the rock garden and the foothills was where the 11th century country house of the Fujiwara family once stood.  The property became a temple for Zen training in 1450.  Destroyed by fire during a war, the temple was rebuilt in 1499 and became a World Heritage Site in 1994.

The tea room’s wash-basin was inscribed, “I learn only to be contented.” The formal Japanese continue to benefit in many ways from Zen influence.




The Specialized Museum of Russian Art


Name three 20th century Russian artists.  Before July, 2014, I could not have done this.  But now it’s easy–Geli Korzhev, Aleksei Gritsai, and Mikhail Tkachev.  It’s easy because I went to MORA in South Minneapolis.

The Museum of Russian Art at 5505 Stevens Street is, to my knowledge, the only museum of its kind in the United States except for a small one in Jersey City.  Founded in 2002, it opened in its current location, the former Mayflower Congregational Church, in 2005.  I’m not a fan of turning churches into, say, Mexican restaurants like the one in my neighborhood.  I find that sort of profane.  However, the Mayflower that still looks like a Texas mission church on the outside has been beautifully, and respectfully, repurposed into museum space inside by Julie Snow.   The venue is as attention-getting as the art.   All forms of Russian artistic expression is MORA’s mission, but its current focus seems to be on the realist, often severe, art of the Soviet Era, which is not commonly exhibited in America.

The Museum of Russian Art owes its existence to Ray and Susan Johnson. Minneapolis residents but owners of the Overland Gallery in Scottsdale, Arizona, the Johnsons have been collecting 20th century Russian art since the late 1980s.  Art historians have advised them about artists to collect, but most of their purchases have been instinctual.   The Museum that they founded now has 11,000+ works.  Raymond and Douglas Johnson are listed as co-owners of Overland.

Because current curators have so much to draw upon, they totally change what’s up every 3 months, for now.  The Main Gallery show Ruth & I saw focused on about half a dozen 20th century  artists who hold important places in the Johnson’s collection.   I was told that still-active Raymond has made many, many trip to Russia over the past 30 years to meet artists and their families and select what he liked.  “You really have to act on what really amounts to a hunch,” he has said.

I especially like the Fireside Gallery with its pull-out drawers and extended explanations of what I was seeing.  Ruth lingered in the huge gift shop with a must-buy attitude.   The image above is the door of a display chest in that shop, the only object I was allowed to photograph in MORA’s interior.  MORA’s website, by the way, is

The Museum of Russian Art is clearly an attraction that’s getting the attention of a growing number of patrons.  If you join them, you will see art like nothing you’ve seen before, unless you have traveled to Russia and visited museums.


The Art-full Montana State Capitol


The 1st time I was in the Montana State Capitol in Helena I didn’t learn much.  It was a late-autumn, weekend afternoon.  Snow was in the forecast. The only person around was a security guard, so I was limited to a self-guided walk-through.  The 2nd time I visited the Montana State Capitol in summer, 2014, Dallas the Dynamo was there.  Dallas gave Ruth, me, and a family from Illinois the best capitol tour I’ve ever had.  Afterwards, he gave me his card which featured racing flags, a sports car, and the words retired (sort of).

Montana’s Governor, Steve Bullock, calls his capitol “The People’s House” and “the crown jewel of Montana architecture”.  Helena, like most western towns, began as a mining camp; but it didn’t become a ghost-town when the gold ran out.  According to Montana’s State Capitol (a publication of the Historical Society), it became a banking and supply center with a ginormous Catholic cathedral.   Montana became a state in 1889 and Helena beat Anaconda’s bid to become the capital in a copper king showdown.

Using the same design as South Dakota’s, the capitol’s architects, Charles Emlen Bell and John Hackett Kent, created a flashy Victorian building with lots of light, purple marble from Tennessee, an ornate copper dome, etc. Bell and Kent got the job when they agreed to move from Iowa to Montana. A provision of the contract required the architect to be Montanan.  Their building was dedicated on July 4, 1902, and take note, Washington–the legislature had authorized $1 million for the project but the final cost was $540,000.

Touring this capitol is like visiting an art museum.  Dallas, sensitive to the interests of 2 families, took us early on to see a sculpture of Jeannette Rankin, noted pacifist and the first woman to be elected to the U.S. Congress.  When she died at the age of 93, she was considering another congressional run to protest the War in Vietnam.  Dallas met her.

Then he took us to see E.S. Paxson’s “Lewis and Clark at Three Forks”, the 1912 painting Stephen Ambrose personally selected for the cover of Undaunted Courage.  Dallas met him.

In the Senate Chamber, Dallas pointed up to the massive, heavy chandelier that came loose during the 1959 Hebgen Lake earthquake that destroyed and/or unbalanced a lot of  flooring.  A 1999-2000 capitol restoration brought back a lot of the building’s original appearance.

We spent the rest of the tour in the House of Representatives discussing artist Charles M. Russell’s painting “Lewis and Clark Meeting Indians at Ross’ Hole”.  This 25 feet long, 12 feet high work commissioned in 1911 is considered Russell’s masterpiece.  It’s clearly the largest of his paintings. The roof of his Great Falls Studio had to be raised while he painted it. However, Dallas had us focus on one small detail, a snarling wolf.  Russell seriously disliked the Speaker of the House and put a wolf behind his podium so that each time the man turned he would see the animal’s menacing face.  Dallas estimated that the painting was worth $60 million.






Australia’s National Sports Museum


Australia’s National Sports Museum (NSM) is located at MCG.  The Melbourne Cricket Ground was the scene of the 1st Australian Football game in 1858, and the Australian Football Hall of Fame is there.  Football is Australia’s preeminent game, but NSM is about far more than just football.

Australian rules football is not like the American game. It’s more like rugby or soccer.  Players use all body parts to move the ball that they must periodically bounce on the ground.   Holding it is strictly forbidden, but tackling opponents is not.  This is a full contact game.  Rugby football, by the way, was already being played in Sydney by the 1820s.

However, the first sport I learned about at NSM was basketball.  Australia’s National Basketball League is 2nd only to the NBA in worldwide recognition, or at least the Aussies think so.

After admiring a boxing kangaroo mascot, I took time out to find the theater and watch some historic footage of races at Mount Panorama.  Ruth and I had just driven this track (see August 28 blog, Bathurst’s Mount Panorama). During the film I learned about Peter Brock, Australian motor racing and MP legend, who was killed in 2006 during a race near Perth when his car hit a tree while Peter was apparently living up to his quote, “Bite off more than you can chew and then chew like hell.”

Australians are sports mad, even more so than Americans in my opinion. No sport is ignored.  Horse racing, for example, is still a very popular pastime. During World War II Aussies established football leagues to boost morale while in Singapore prisoner of war camps.  Cycle races were being held in Melbourne as early as 1869, and cycling events at the Melbourne Cricket Ground drew bigger crowds than cricket.  Today, Cycling Australia has 230+ clubs.

Drug use to enhance sports performance was common in 300 BC Greece where successful athletes were given serious money, gifts of cattle, and army service deferments.  It is believed, NSM reports, that doping led to the breakdown of the ancient Olympic Games.  Australia has hosted the modern Olympics twice, Melbourne in 1956 and Sydney in 2000, when Australia’s best medal tally ever was achieved with 58 including 16 gold.  One of my favorite displays was the National Sports Museum’s almost complete set of summer Olympic torches.

Browsing the Australian Football Hall of Fame I read about the John Coleman and Brownlow Medals.  Like Heisman trophies and Superbowl rings, both are highly prized.  The latter is football’s highest individual honor Down Under.

NSM is comprehensive and its guides especially welcoming and well-informed.  One led me to info about the 2003 Canberra bush fires that resulted in the loss of world champion marathon runner Robert De Costella’s medals that melted in the intense heat. He also wanted me to see them on display.  Another insisted that I handle Ian Thorpe’s size 17 athletic shoe.

I have seriously under-covered cricket, yet another Australian sports obsession, and could go on for several thousand more words, but it would be much better for you to go to Melbourne, one of my favorite cities, and take the tram to this 5 Compass gem, the National Sports Museum at Gate 3, MCG, Yarra Park, which masterfully blends sports and culture.