Monthly Archives: August 2017

Diagon Alley to Tintagel

I love the King Arthur Legend–Merlin, Malory, brave knights.  That’s why I included Tintagel, supposed site of Camelot, on my Cornwall itinerary.  Travel writer Kirsty Fergusson said, “You might be tempted to give it a miss” after encountering the crowds and tourist shops of modern-era Tintagel.  But then she added that missing the castle where Arthur might have pulled the sword from the stone and the coastal walk would be a shame. I had to go there.  Now I have to go back to see both.

Slow travel in Cornwall is the only way to get around, so Ruth and I didn’t arrive in Boscastle until afternoon.  Boscastle, where our ancient hotel was located, was more than 4 miles from Tintagel, so we had to wait for a bus to take us there after checking in and hauling our luggage up to our tiny 3rd floor room.   The hotel was too old to have elevators.  After arriving in Tintagel, we had to walk through the town, a continuous string of unpleasant tourism-oriented stores, to get to King Arthur’s castle.  I saw only 2 places of interest on this walk, A Cornish hall-house dating from the 14th century that survived because it became a post office and an Arthurian research center.  To get to the castle meant either a descent down a steep, rugged path and then back up again or paying to take a shuttle. Ruth opted for the ride but I walked.

When we met down below, we headed for the ticket booth.  It was now approaching late afternoon and the entrance fee for each of us was close to £10. Then I read the sign that destroyed all my illusions.   The castle on the island where King Arthur was supposedly born dated from 1230, centuries after Arthur would have lived in the area. It was built by Richard, Earl of Cornwall, not King Uther.    Interest in the legend was at a high point in Richard’s time thanks to the success of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s retelling of the legend.   I flashed on the picture of the modern, hole-filled Arthur sculpture I saw on almost every piece of tourist literature and had a melt down.

Waiting for the bus that would take us back to Boscastle, we met a couple who had started on the coastal path that Kirsty Fergusson raved about and found it difficult.  Part of the reason why they abandoned it was the late-afternoon time.  A more-than-four mile walk on a difficult path back to Boscastle seemed risky.

The next day at Launceston Castle, which I loved, the lady selling tickets said that keeping old castles up was a maintenance nightmare, especially the one at Tintagel on an exposed promontory overlooking the ocean.  No wonder it cost so much to enter the island!  She told us how to get a discount.  Launceston Castle was also built by Richard, William the Conquerer’s half-brother.   I was now filled with regret and vowed to return to Tintagel.


The Surprising Brinton

The Brinton is an unlikely museum in an unlikely place.  It’s on a ranch.  It’s near the tiny town of Big Horn.  It’s in Wyoming.  It’s really worth seeing.

Bradford Brinton was from Tuscola, Illinois.  He had homes in Chicago and New York, but he lived on his ranch in Wyoming 6 to 8 months each year.  He apparently fell in love with the property and bought it in 1923 after getting very wealthy selling farm implements. After graduating from Yale, he worked in the family business that became the Case Threshing Machine Company.  He was an avid art collector who also loved big game hunting.  South of Sheridan, his 620 acre Quarter Circle A Ranch with impressive Bighorn Mountain views was his escape from city life.  A visit to the museum should also include a somewhat seasonal ranch tour.

Brinton’s ranch house furnishings and library full of books and hunting trophies are as unlikely as his museum.  Queen Elizabeth II visited.   There’s a saddle barn, a leather workshop, and a garage containing his last car, a 1936 Buick.  He died following gall bladder surgery before it was delivered.

His older sister Helen inherited the ranch and the car.  Used to her chauffeured Packard, she put a few dents in it.  Helen summered here at her brother’s ranch but wintered in Phoenix.  She preserved the property and established the museum as a memorial to him.  She wanted to keep his ranch in its natural state, so the oversized museum is quite a surprise.

Expecting to see a modest ranch building with a few paintings and sculptures in it, I was shocked to observe a very modern, immense 3-story art facility built into a hillside.  Up 2 flights of dramatic stairs, the museum is built into a 209 feet long rammed earth wall that’s the largest one in North America. It’s not, however, the largest in the world.  That would be The Great Wall of China.

Inside and upstairs in the museum are Bradford’s vast collections of Native American artifacts, like the beaded cradle below his Buick, and lots of Western Art. Like most collectors, Bradford doted on Remington and Russell.  There was a collectors’ art show, the Bighorn Rendezvous, in progress when Ruth & I were there.  Many of the works had won prizes and sported sold tags.   “Nocturnal Instincts” by Gregory Packard was my favorite and still available but I didn’t buy it.

I sensed that Mr. Brinton thought of Sheridan as his primary home. He rode in its main 1932 parade.  The saddle on his horse that’s on view in the ranch house was decorated with much silver.  Also on view when we were there were 2 unusual yellow uranium glass candlesticks.



Beaty’s Bounty


One of the greatest rewards of travel for me is being able to return to a place or attraction I loved.   I had that experience in July, 2017, thanks to Orvel and Jo Anne.  We met these friends from Texas in Vancouver, BC and took them to the Beaty Biodiversity Museum on the campus of the University of British Columbia (UBC).  This visit was even better than our first one because the 4 of us took a tour with Nancy, an astute student who knew the collection well and was gifted at explaining it to others.  Thanks to her, I’ve seen a passenger pigeon, an elephant egg, and a cone snail.

The first museum of its kind in Canada, the Beaty Biodiversity Museum opened in 2010.  95% of its collection is available for inspection.   Named for UBC alumnus Ross Beaty, the Beaty Biodiversity Museum has collected more than 2 million natural history specimens and organized them into 6 collections.  One Best of Vancouver list called it the “Best Collection of Weird Things in Drawers”.   After you’ve been there, this description will seem especially apt.

Getting To Beaty is easy.  There are several parking structures on the UBC campus, and 2 of them are close to Beaty. If you don’t mind a short walk and asking for directions, you’ll have no trouble finding it. A campus map helps.  One professor told us to look for a whale.  An unmissable 150 ton blue whale skeleton equal in size to 33 adult elephants hangs in Beaty’s lobby and becomes the first of over 500 ongoing exhibits.

Passenger pigeons used to darken the skies of North America.  It’s estimated that there were 5 billion living examples of them.   Now extinct, the last one, Martha, died in 1914.  Elephant birds, also extinct, were once found on the island of Madagascar where they laid the biggest eggs in the world.  The largest avian species that ever lived, the elephant bird resembled a kiwi, its closes living relative. A living elephant bird has not been seen since the 17th century.  After you read what follows, you’ll wish the cone snail was extinct.  It’s not. The National Geographic calls it the “World’s Weirdest Killer”.   Inhabiting an innocent looking, easy-to-step-on shell found in tropical seas, the cone snail’s harpoon causes muscle paralysis in humans.  If treatment is quickly given, it’s no longer a guaranteed cause of death.   20 to 30 people, some recently, have died from its sting.

Burgess Shale, part of earth’s biodiversity is on view at this museum as are fungi, fossils, fish, etc. The Beaty Biodiversity Museum is one of those places that enchants children while adults spend hours opening drawers and staring with fascination at what’s in them.




Little Bighorn Isn’t Little Anymore

The Little Bighorn Battlefield is remote.  It’s 75 miles north of Sheridan, Wy and 65 miles east of Billings, MT.   That’s why I was surprised by the astounding number of travelers there.   During Ruth & my visit, I learned that 400,000 people, including many foreigners, come here each year, and I became fascinated by this question, Why is a long-ago battle between the U.S. Army and Northern Plains Native Americans of such great interest to contemporary Americans?”

While there, I was amazed by the fact that the story of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer is both prominent yet treated as only a small part of what led to the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876.   The Visitors Center was a very crowded, multi-generational place that clearly stirred high interest.  Near it was another surprise, a national cemetery with 5,000 tombstones. It was officially closed for future burials in 1978 except for some already accepted reservations.  While Ruth elbowed her way into the standing-room-only film that she later told me was worthwhile, I browse the gift shop.  There were so many books about Custer for sale that I began counting them.  I stopped at 50. Why is there such interest in a man who lost one of the most controversial battles in American history?  I began looking for the answer and discovered that I had to really search for anything about him on these premises.

There seemed to be far more about Tatanka-iyotanka, more commonly known as Sitting Bull, than about Custer.   That’s partially because the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument is on the Crow Indian Reservation.  As a result, visitors have several options.  The 2 main ones involve cell phone audio or Apsaalooke tours.  The latter depart 5 times daily for 1 hour, complete battlefield excursions with Crow Tribe and other Native American guides.

My tour of the center in search of Custer resulted in lots of info about the people of the Plains, the uses of bison, etc.   There was a vivid diorama about Reno’s retreat.  And I finally found one about Custer’s debacle.   I found “Unraveling the Mystery” the most interesting display.  It described Little Bighorn Battlefield excavations in 1984, 1985, and 1989!  During them 9,660 artifacts including cartridge cases, wedding rings, coins, etc. were found.  The 2nd most interesting display to me was about Custer’s wife Elizabeth, who donated lots of personal items to this battlefield commemoration.    After he died at Little Bighorn, she moved to New York City.   Lectures and writing kept his memory and her love for him alive.  She was his faithful widow for 57 years.

Losing the Battle of Little Bighorn for Custer meant the death of his brother Tom and 211 other men from the 7th Cavalry.  An additional 105 from other companies also died. After it, Lakota and Cheyenne families removed their dead, up to 100 bodies.  Less than 20 years later the Army erected 249 headstones to show where Custer’s men fell.   The Indians won the battle but lost the subsequent war that resulted in the end of their nomadic way of life. One of the biggest contributing factors to the conflict was finding gold in the Black Hills.  This led to violations of the Fort Laramie Treaty and a huge influx of gold seekers who weren’t concerned about Native American rights.

Many myths and legends have emerged from this one historical incident.   Because the story keeps growing,  it continues to generate great interest among travelers who stream to a remote, windswept corner of Montana and treat it like they would a 2,000 piece jigsaw puzzle.


Scenic Interstates?


“The area around the Bonneville Salt Flats,” Cruis’n USA concludes, “is the longest stretch of straight Interstate in the entire country….No trees, no curves, nothing.”  I can relate.  I find about 95% of Interstate highways dull.  I guess that’s a design ideal since these roads are built for fast distance travel and not to be part of anyone’s actual vacation.  Gawkers taken in by Interstate scenery at 80 mph would surely be considered a hazard to Interstate planners.   “Hey. look there, family.  Isn’t that a gorgeous view?”  Crash!

That’s why I’m surprised when I come across a truly beautiful stretch of Interstate like I-70 between Salina and Green River in Utah. Ruth & I usually take Highway 6 from Spanish Fork to I-70, but this year we decided to take what looked like the longer way to see if we were missing something.  We were.  The Utah scenery was spectacular almost all the way.  The San Rafael Reef was the cause.  Its long series of colorful cliffs and distant mountains is unbeatable, and the fact that a storm was brewing added drama to the drive.

When I got home, I began to wonder if there are other beautiful Interstate drives out there.  Last night I spend an hour pouring over a Rand McNally Road Atlas and had lots of surprises.  The biggest one is how many stretches of Interstate it has dotted as scenic. Here’s what I learned. California has a least 7 scenic Interstate drives.  Some very beautiful states have few.  For example, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico have lots of dotted highways but only one Interstate each shown to be scenic.  The one in Colorado is the continuation of I-70 eastward.  The long stretch from its border with Utah all the way to Dillon is deservedly dotted.

I unexpectedly found 4 scenic Interstates in both Connecticut and Massachusetts!  I-76 going east in Pennsylvania, which is also the Pennsylvania Turnpike, is dotted from Somerset almost all the way to Harrisburg.  Many states–Florida, Iowa, Louisiana, New Hampshire, Virginia, Hawaii, etc.–have only one dotted Interstate.  Several, like Idaho, Kansas, and Michigan, have 2.   Oregon, a super scenic state, has 3.

What’s up with Hawaii?  Only O’ahu appears to have developed Interstates, and they are designated H1, H2, and H3.  Alaska has zero Interstates.  This might be due to its late designation as a state, size, remoteness, and small population.  The only other state that Rand McNally could find no Interstates to name as scenic is Illinois. Anyone who has driven I-55 from St. Louis to Chicago will understand why.

Missouri, Kansas, and Pennsylvania all claim to have the first completed Interstates.