Wednesday, May 27, 2009

1,250 Feet Above Sea Level

This past Memorial day weekend I ventured to the heart of an unexplored territory, the East Coast of the United States. Interestingly enough, despite having done a fair amount of traveling internationally, before this weekend aside from layovers in Dulles I had never visited anywhere east of Chicago, and even my time there could scarcely be termed a 'visit.'

With a whole branch of the family living along the Eastern Seaboard, I decided it was high time to alter this state of affairs. After viewing the shockingly high prices of Manhattan hotels I contacted my (second, third?) cousin Kris to see if I could arrange a bed at her home in New Jersey. Luckily for me, a bed was available so I booked a flight and was soon on my way.

While I have often been a bit nervous while scrambling across the scree fields of Colorado's 14ers, I do have a passion for high places and the spectacular views they afford. With the hearty endorsement of Kris's husband Steve my first stop in the city was The Empire State Building for a panoramic view of Manhattan and the surrounding Burroughs and states.

Previous travels have seen me at the top of the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral in London (108 Meters), the Landmark Tower in Yokohama (296 meters), the Eiffel Tower (324 Meters) and Tokyo Tower, (333 Meters). Stretching 381 meters (1,250 feet) the Empire State Building is far and away the tallest man made object I have had the pleasure of ascending. Despite the fact that it was completed back in 1931 it still ranks as the 15th tallest building in the world and since the tragedy of 911 is back to being the tallest building in New York City.

Indeed, while the Empire State Building has been surpassed by other taller structures, I would say that it's never been surpassed in popular imagination. After all, King Kong hasn't climbed Taipei 101, or any of the behemoths under construction in Dubai! In a way, the Empire State Building is still The Skyscraper, just as the city below is still The City.

There are two observatories at the top of the building, an outdoor one on the 86th floor, and a smaller indoor one perched at the very top on the 102nd floor. I had to see both. The view, as expected, was mesmerizing, and the 102nd floor was shockingly devoid of tourists. Most people opted for the almost as fantastic view, at a cheaper price. I'm glad I paid the extra though, both for the amazing vistas in ever direction and for the bragging rights!

Interestingly enough, on the ground floor was a Chipotle Mexican Grill, with the requisite photo of the world's first Chipotle, located a few blocks from where I grew up here in Denver. Also, while on the 102nd floor, I overheard a tour group from Scotland chatting about the view... and correctly picked out the one from Glasgow! After descending back down to the bottom, I headed to the subway to see if I could find my way uptown to the American Museum of Natural History.

Friday, May 15, 2009

A Change of Scenery?

Ever since I first traveled overseas, to Ireland in 2000, I have wanted to live in Europe. While my two years in Japan has left me with a love of Asia and a deep desire to move back there, I still haven't lost that desire to live in Europe too.

Luckily I now have that chance. Ever since 2003 I've pondered getting a Masters degree abroad, in Europe. I've visited schools, canvased web sites, and pondered degree programs galore.

I finally found one of major interest when my friend forwarded me the website for Lund University, in southern Sweden. Lund has a large selection of Masters programs taught in English, which given my lack of Swedish speaking ability is a plus, and more importantly has no tuition.

Yeah, you read that right, no tuition fees, even for international students. Now you still have to be able to cover expenses in one of the most expensive countries in the world, but that lack of tuition fees saves at least $15,000 a year right off the bat over your standard masters program.

You may wonder what this has to do with my life. Well, I found out last week that I was accepted to study at Lund University's Center for Asian Studies! Needless to say this is an amazing opportunity, and one that I am thrilled to have been offered. I'll have a very busy summer, but come fall I'll be going back to school, in Sweden!

I suppose I'll have to find a new name for the blog. From "Grant in Japan" to "A Guy in Shorts in a Nation in Pants" to "Kanazawa Tales" to "Denver Tales" this blog has gone through many a metamorphosis in its four year year life span, and it looks like I have another major change of scenery to come, and I look forward to the additional challenges and discoveries that lie in my future.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Nuclear Apocalypse

One of the other things we found out about while at Mt. Rushmore was the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. During the Cold War the great plains were covered with thousands of missile silos, ready to respond at a moments notice to any hint of Russian attack.

The historic site consists of two parts, the command center, housed below a nondescript building in the middle of the South Dakota prairie, and a silo with a (deactivated) Minuteman II missile inside. We met up with the Park Ranger guide after a 90 mile drive along I-90 from our overnight at the town of Spearfish.

Above ground at the command center we saw living areas for the Air Force missileers and security forces who were stationed there. Below the surface was the actual command center, where two men would be stationed for a 24 hour shift. All the familiar tropes are present, with a missile launch requiring two independent keys within the command center, and the agreement of two command centers to actually launch. The center itself is 31 feet under ground, behind a huge blast door (with the Dominoes Pizza ad on it) and mounted on shocks, ready to withstand a near miss from a Soviet nuke.

After that we got to see an actual, unmanned, Minuteman II silo. The key to the Minuteman II system was that it was a stable, solid fueled missile that could be kept at the ready for decades without danger or degradation. Previous liquid fueled ICBM's couldn't be kept in a ready state, and had to be fueled before launch, a laborious and time consuming process when Russian nukes where headed your way! This way American strategic forces could be ready to lay waste to any corner of the globe with a mere 30 minutes notice. It revolutionized the American nuclear deterrent, and was in place from the late 60's through to the early 90's. However even today there are active missile silos all around Wyoming, Montana and ... Colorado!

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Jewel Cave

At the Mt. Rushmore office I plundered their supply of National Parks pamphlets looking for other sites of interest in the area. The road from New Castle to Mt. Rushmore passed a turnoff for Jewel Cave National Monument, and the site looked like the more interesting and the closest of the two federally administered caves in the area (the other being Wind Cave.)

Jewel cave got its name from its many beautiful cave formations, especially the 'popcorn' and the crystals the dot the cave walls. For many years after it's designation as a national monument in 1908 Jewel cave was known only as a particularly beautiful cave, but in the late 1950's that changed.

A pair of local cavers on an exploration mission found that the cave kept going, and going, and going. When we visited in January, a little bit over 130 miles of cave had been mapped. As of May 3rd the total explored area of the cave measures 145.17 mile, making it the second longest known cave in the world, behind Mammoth Cave (360+ miles long)in Kentucky. However, neither Mammoth nor Jewel cave have been fully explored, and wind sensor readings say that there will be new passages to map in Jewel cave for a long time to come.

We really lucked out with traveling in the off season (again), with just Michael, myself and one other tourist on the cave tour. The guide said that often in the summer months the tours sell out, with over 50 people in each tour group. Obviously, we got a much more personalized experience, and had a great time interacting with the park ranger who led us around the 'scenic' tour.