Yellowstone in Winter

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Yellowstone is a very special place in our hearts. We first went there when we got married. Indeed, we got married there! It was to be a once in a lifetime trip since we thought that we’d never be going back. But six months later, Diane took a job based in Bozeman, MT, which is about an hour away. As a result, we have been there many times since, and have gotten to know it really well. We have been and explored it in spring, summer and Fall, but to date, never in the Winter. However, circumstances this year dictated that Diane had to go out to the office in February, and so this time we took the opportunity to go and explore the park in the winter.

Yellowstone in winter is a very different place from that in the other seasons. For a start, there are far fewer visitors. During the summer, approximately 10000 people a day visit and stay in the park. In the winter, only the Snow Lodge at Old Faithful and the Mammoth Springs Hotel are open. This limits the number of visitors staying in the park to approximately 300 per day, giving it a much more intimate feel. Evenings are spent at the lodge mixing with other visitors, swapping tales and enjoying a hot meal and drinks after a long day in the cold. In addition, due to the snow, the internal roads are closed to regular cars, meaning there is not traffic on the roads. To get about, you have to take a snow coach, which is a van equipped with humongous tires to cope with the deep snow on the road. This all makes the park far less busier and very different from other seasons. The other thing is that its cold. Very cold. And windy. Temperatures when we were there were around -20F. So you do need to dress appropriately and have good coldweather gear. It is very easy to get frostbite if you are not careful. Of course if it gets too cold, sitting indoors with a warm drink and watching the snow come down is also attractive!

Unfortunately, much of the wildlife is in hibernation at this tome of year. Still, we did see plenty of Bison congregating around the warm springs and the wolf packs had been observed close by recently. However, bear tracks had been seen close by recently, which was concerning as they should all have been in hibernation at that point.

In due course, I will also write about Yellowstone in the other seasons. but here is a photo memento of the trip to give a flavor of the place in winter. Enjoy.

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Driving down to Gardner from Bozeman- Big Sky Country

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Mammoth Hot Springs in Winter

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Snow Coach – Look at the size of those tires!

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Geyser Basin

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Snow accumulation!

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Frost encased Trees

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Snowshoeing by a hot spring

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Old Faithful In in Winter – it is closed up for the winter

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Bison!

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Old Faithful

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Old Faithful Inn – we were married here

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Old Snow Coach

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New Snow coach with tracks

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A lot of snow

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Old Faithful Again

 

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Bison resting in the snow

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Old Faithful Inn

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Panorama of Geyser Basin

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Elderly Bull Bison Resting by the river

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Hot Spring in the snow – the warm water keeps it from becoming frozen

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Artists Paint Pots in Winter

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Hot Springs Feeding Firehole River and keeping it from freezing

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Mudpot!

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Hotspring

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Bison in geyser basin to keep warm

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Bison at North Entrance in Gardner MT

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BNSF train heading up Bozeman Pass as we head back to Bozeman

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The American South West

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We usually take our summer breaks after everyone has gone back to work. This is because my summers are very busy and things settle down once the academic year starts again. It also has the added advantage that with everyone back to work and school, prices are cheaper and places are less crowded. Thus it was in September 2016, we ventured down to the southwestern part of the USA, specifically southern Utah and Arizona. This is desert country and full of spectacular scenery, often featuring in TV shows and the movies, but is far more spectacular in real life. The highlights were to be the National Parks down there, specifically Zion, Bryce and Grand Canyon National Parks. However, we also like exploring and traveling from place to place, seeing the local areas is just as much fun . Having never been to the southwest before, it was also going to be a new part of the country to me. We weren’t dissappointed.

The trip started by flying into Las Vegas, grabbing a car and getting the heck out of town. Las Vegas has absolutely NO attraction to me. When we picked up the car it was over 100 degrees in the shade!

 

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Hot!!

Getting out of town, we got onto the main highways north, heading for Utah. Immediately, the immensity of the American southwest strikes you with the vast landscapes opening out and the huge wide open skys above you. As in the movies, the road stretches off to the horizon.

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On the road heading north though Nevada

Northern Nevada is somewhat dusty and a bit grey, with scrubby desert, but as we clipped through the extreme northwestern tip of Arizona and into Utah, the scenery became more majestic and thrilling, with the rocks and desert taking on the red colours so frequently seen in the movies set in the southwest desert. (It turned out there is a reason why the scenery in movies often has red rocks in it – as we were to find out, many westerns and films of similar genres were filmed in this area). After getting off the interstate, and stopping to collect provisions, we made our way up into the hills on smaller roads to the small town of Springdale, UT, where we were to stay for two nights.

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Climbing up into the southern mountain range of Utah

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Approaching Springdale as the sun goes down

Upon arriving, it was late in the day and the sun was dropping, emphasizing the magnificent redness of the sandstone scenery and vast openness of the Utah desert. So we grabbed a bite to eat, meeting a nice couple from Blackpool as we did so,  and headed for bed, truly thrilled to be here.

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View from the Hotel

The next day, we woke up to a truly spectacular view of the mountains that surround the hotel. Heading on up to Zion Canyon after breakfast, we took a hike up one of the trails, the Watchman trail. This heads up the mountain, giving truly stunning scenes, but about half way up, I suddenly started to get severe vertigo and lost the ability to determine which way was up! This isn’t a good thing when you are walking along a cliff edge! Indeed, I was to experience this throughout the trip, which certainly made things more interesting when at places like the Grand Canyon! Although we pressed on for a while, we eventually decided that it wasn’t worth it, took a reak and headed back down. It was a disappointment, but better than falling off a cliff!

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Taking a break halfway up the Watchman Trail on a natural stone chair

Back down in the canyon, we headed off up through the park. No cars are allowed in Zion Canyon, the main area of Zion National Park (a good thing!), apart from those on the main road transiting the park, and so there are buses taking you to various parts of the park. This was a good system and you can drop-off and pick up a bus quite easily. Since it was Labor Day weekend, the park was quite full and had everyone had a car, it would have been horrendous. We went right up to the head of the canyon, a natural amphitheater known as the Temple of Sinawava, a truly spectacular location. I’m afraid that after the mornings vertigo, I was not up for the scary climb known as the Angels Landing Trail, a trail that runs along the extreme edge of a cliff climbing to the tip of one of the highest peaks in the park. No thank you. Instead, we had lunch down by the river with a very determined ground squirrel!

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Natural Ampitheatre known as Temple of Sinawava

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Hungry and Determined ground squirrel – “Can I have some of your sandwich?”

By late afternoon, we had had enough and headed back to the hotel. Someone mentioned that it was truly spectacular up at Kolob reservoir, which is a very remote lake just outside of the park, accessible by vehicle, but with hardly any tourists. This sounded attractive to us! It is much higher than the main Zion Canyon at over 8000 ft altitude, but was worth the drive! You start out in the red sandy desert of the lower altitudes, but as you climb, this gradually gives way to Alpine meadows and lush scenery. It is a gradual transition, but surprising – who knew that such lush meadows existed in the desert?. A few people have holiday homes up there, but it is very remote and mainly used for farming.

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Climbing up into the mountains from of the desert floor.

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Diane with Alpine Meadows at High Altitude

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Stunning Scenery

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Looking back across the alpine meadows down to the valley

Things were going well until we came round the corner to find a herd of panicked horses on the road in front of us. We stopped, as did the pickup behind us, and together with a bunch of locals, spent the next hour rounding them up and get them back into their field. We were actually doing quite well until an idiot with a pickup ignored our requests to wait for a few minutes whilst we got the herd back into the field, blasted along the road and panicked the herd, scattering them. Great! Thank You Jerk! It took us all another hour to get them all back together, calmed and back into the field. I think the locals were most impressed that we knew how to handle horses, especially being from the east. Indeed they were so impressed, they asked us to help them round up the 24 cows that were also loose and roaming. Which we did, using the car to help drive the herd along the road. All of this involved much running to get ahead of the herd in order to drive them back in the direction they needed to go. At first I couldn’t work out why I felt so awful – surely I wasn’t that unfit. Then I remembered that I was now at over 8000 ft altitude and had just come from sea-level the day before. Again, eventually, we all herded the cows a mile back along the road to their field and eventually got them safely tucked away!. We made some good friends that evening and it was good to meet the locals.

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Escaped Horses on the road – we managed to round them up and get them back into their field

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Herding escaped cattle with the car – Diane driving, Phil on left herding.

After finishing, we headed on up to the reservoir and JUST made it before darkness fell, as the picture below shows. After heading home and some dinner, we slept really well that night!

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Kolob Reservoir at dusk – our intended destination

The following day, it was time to move on, via Bryce Canyon to Kanab, where we were to stay for the night. The road is twisty and spectacular, climbing up the side of the canyon into the high farming country. Nerve wracking at times, since it runs along the edge of the cliff. The run to Bryce was pretty, and even though Bryce was somewhat out of the way, the scenery was truly something else. Bryce sits on the edge of a  mile valley and the various geological formations were breathtaking. I will let the pictures tell the story.

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Climbing out of Zion on our way to Bryce Canyon

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Bryce Canyon

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Rock Formations at Bryce

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Natural Arch

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One thing about Bryce is that it is windy. Being at altitude, meant that it was also cold. Anyone visiting should wrap up warm. Another thing that one should note is that there are no barriers on the edge of the cliffs. One can just step into the void! This caused me no little concern when I saw parents letting their small children run along and play at the edge of the paths without restraint! I was a nervous wreck by the time we had finished.

Leaving Bryce, we then motored down to the small town of Kanab, where we would be staying for the night.

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On the way to Kanab

On the way, we found a jewel of a site that we didn’t know existed. A small sign pointing off the road said “Coral Pink Sands State Park”. Hmm, sounds interesting, lets follow it! Driving down a series of increasingly smaller roads, avoiding wandering cattle, led to the most spectacular sand-dunes. If you think Sahara desert sand, but coral pink, you get the idea. The park lies in a valley consisting of red sandstone rocks and over the millennia, the winds have whipped through the valley, braking up the rock into fine sand and whipping the sand into spectacular dunes. A small section is set aside for dune buggies to play and it was fun to stand on the dunes in the wind and see them playing. The sand was extremely fine and we all did the usual thing of picking up handfuls and letting it drift in the wind. Again though, it was extremely windy and cold (most of Utah seems to be windy in fact!). I realized that I have in fact seen this place before – in the movies. Given its close proximity to Kanab and its spectacular location, it is no surprise that it has appeared as backdrops and locations in various westerns. A truly spectacular find and we would have stayed longer, but it was getting cold and the light was fading, so we headed off to Kanab.

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Ever smaller roads and dirt tracks

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Hazards of the road – Free ranging Cattle

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Coral Pink Sands State Park

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Kanab is right on the Utah / Arizona border and is known as “Little Hollywood”, since it is in this area that many famous Westerns were filmed, due to the spectacular scenery of the area. There was a ranch just outside of town where many movie sets were constructed – you may have seen these sets in a number of movies. After the ranch closed (today it is an animal shelter), some of the sets were burnt down, but others were relocated to small museum on the edge of town, which was kind of neat. It was quite surreal to stand on the set of my favorite Western, “The Outlaw Josey Wales!”

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Little Hollywood in Kanab

The reason we were staying there was that we had arranged to go riding in the desert the following morning. Whenever we travel, we try to go riding at least once. Firstly, it is a good way to see new places, secondly, riding in different places and with different horses improves your riding technique. We went with a guide and set off just after dawn to ride through the desert to a Slot Cayon, known (with good reason) as Peekaboo Canyon. This was the first time I’d ridden on deep sand and it took a few minutes to get used to the feel of it – the horses are working much harder. But after a few minutes, I grew comfortable with the motion. Our guide (who owned the horses) was a real old-time rancher and once he realized we could both ride, really opened up, discussing what it is like to be a rancher, his love of his horses and pointing out all sorts of wildlife trails in the sand, including a discussion of the different types of snake tracks (I’m not fond of snakes!). Riding across the desert in the early morning light was magical. We went through various terrain, including desert scrub and down into a dry wash (with a pretty steep drop down into it) that lead to the destination.

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Riding through the desert to the slot canyon

A slot canyon is a region where a river is forced to flow through a narrow crack between two rocky outcroppings, forming a very narrow channel. Most of the year, the desert is dry, but when it rains , the water can come flowing through the canyon at high speeds and with significant force. The water can rise very rapidly in a matter of minutes. This is why one really needs to pay attention to the weather when out in the desert – rain many miles away can cause severe flash flooding in the vicinity of the canyons. The force of the water has eroded the canyon walls into smooth flowing lines to form a mysterious landscape – the name Peekaboo canyon is apt as kids could have a great time here playing hide and seek. The morning was a truly superb experience.

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Entrance to Peekaboo Canyon

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Deep in the Canyon

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Diane exploring the Canyon

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Other worldly water erosion of the rocks

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Diane and I with our steeds for the day – Linda and Sara

After riding back to the car and un-tacking (we had to persuade the horses that we needed  to dismount – they knew the routine and were bent on self-loading onto the trailer, with or without us on their backs!), we bade good-bye to our guide and got back on the road headed for our next destination – the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, where we were to spend the next two nights.

It is only 50 or so miles from Kanab to North Rim if you go the direct route, but we had all day, so why hurry? We took the very indirect route that ran along the UT / AZ state line, crossing the Colorado river at Lake Powell by the Glen Canyon dam and then doubling back to North Rim via the road running along the foothills of the Vermilion Cliffs. On the way we stopped at various side spots, including a small, but fascinating site where dinosaur fossils had been unearthed.

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Glen Canyon Dam with Lake Powell Behind

This was true desert southwest country. The landscape was vast and empty, with a backdrop of red, chocolate and cream rocks and mountains, set against a deep blue sky with no clouds. It was rare to see other cars on the roads and towns were few and far between. One drove for miles  without seeing any living thing, indeed nothing but an empty landscape and the road dissapearing over the horizon. Crossing the Colorado River again at Navajo bridge, we started to parallel the Colorado on the left and the Vermillion Cliffs (so named for their spectacular red colored rocks) on the right. Occasionally, especially as one got closer to North Rim, one would see Native American stalls on the sides of the road, selling beautifully made jewellery. We purchased some for presents and got talking to the various vendors. They actually act as a co-operative, so all moneys go back to the tribes. However, it is still obvious that most Native Americans are desperately poor, something that is just not right in this day and age.

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Navajo Bridge

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Vermillion Cliffs

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Down by the Colorado River

Getting closer to North Rim, we started to climb and yet again went through the odd sensation of suddenly climbing up into Alpine meadows. Driving down the dead end road to the Lodge, we passed through extensive meadows filled with large herds of bison, feeling for all the world like we were in Montana rather than in northern Arizona.

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Nothing prepares one for the Grand Canyon. I don’t care how many pictures one sees of it, it is not the same as being there staring into the void. The road into North Rim is the only way in or out and is closed in winter due to snow fall. Unlike the more well known South Rim village, North Rim is pretty isolated, which makes it less commercial and more enjoyable. The Lodge and the cabins form the centerpiece of the area and once darkness falls, people gather round the various outdoor fires and at dinner to share experiences. Staying at a lodge inside a national park really should be done by everyone at least once. The cabins are basic, but functional. People go for dinner at the lodge and pick up hiking supplies at the store. After dinner, there are ranger-led talks on a variety of subjects (we went to one on bats) and as the sun drops down over the canyon, the rocks change color in a never-ending sequence of hues. As darkness closes down, you can hear the animals in the woods near by and you realize that this is not a normal hotel – you truly are out in the wilderness, albeit with the comforts of the lodge.

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Grand Canyon at dusk

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Our Home at North Rim – Basic, but functional and comfortable

The thing to realize about Grand canyon is that it is a REALLY big hole in the ground. It is a huge gash in the landscape, which on either side is quite flat in many respects. As a result, it is all the more surprising because you don’t get to see it until you are really close to it and it seemingly comes out of nowhere. And it is big – over a mile deep. Indeed, it is actually hard to see the Colorado river that formed it from the top. Birds fly below you and it is not unusual for people (including me) to get vertigo looking down into it. It is possible to thru hike from one rim to the other – it is only about 10 miles across from North rim to South Rim village. Indeed, after dark, you can see the lights of the lodge on the opposite side. However, when thru hiking, you are descending over a mile to the bottom of the canyon on narrow treacherous and rocky trails, which you then have to climb up again. And you are in the desert, where it is hot, especially at the bottom of the ravine. Most people do the hike in 2-3 days, camping overnight at the bottom. It is possible to do it on mule back, but either way it is not for the fainthearted and we chose not to do it. Instead, we explored the various sites on the North Rim, just enjoying the epic scenery and the changing colors of the rocks as the sunlight moved round, since we had planned to drive to South Rim a few days later anyhow. I will leave the pictures to do the talking.

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One of the things about Grand Canyon is that it is at altitude, over 7000 ft at the rims. This can affect people who are not used to altitude and don’t make allowances for it. We experienced this on the second evening we were there. I had stepped out for a moment and came back into the lodge lobby to find that someone had keeled over suffering from heart irregularities, and that Diane (a former EMT (Paramedic in UK terms)) and another person who was a doctor, were about to start administering CPR to the victim. Fortunately,  the victim had a pacemaker and after what seemed like an eternity, it kicked in and he came round. Still, he was bundled off in the ambulance as a precaution. since we were going into dinner, we were given a free desert and a window table overlooking the Canyon as thanks, which was very kind. I remarked later that I can’t leave Diane along for more than a few seconds without her getting into trouble, She was not amused!

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North Rim Lodge

After spending a second night at North rim, it was time to move on to South Rim. Although a distance of only 10 miles as the crow flies, it involved a drive of about 250 miles, taking up much of the day. Much of the first part of the route involved back-tracking along the route we had taken to North Rim, again driving along empty desert roads back to the head of the Canyon, before turning south and heading for South Rim.

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Vermillion Cliffs

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Colorado River

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Natural Formation?

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South Rim is the better known of the two lodge areas at Grand Canyon National park. It is also the more commercial and as such I wasn’t as fond of it – it was too much like a resort, which is essentially what it was, having been developed as such by the Santa Fe railroad, who built a railway line right to the edge of the rim. There are some spectacular buildings there – the old Railroad depot (still in use with the daily train from Williams, AZ), the Magnificat old hotel the El Tovar. And as always the sight of the canyon is spectacular. However, South Rim didn’t have the same feel as the north rim and it didn’t quite do it for us. In addition, Diane had also become affected by the altitude, dust and dryness, and was starting to contract bronchitus. Thus it was that although we were scheduled to stay for two nights, we decided to leave early and head for lower altitudes and a warmer climate at our final destination in Phoenix, in order for her to avoid getting really sick.

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Hopi House, South Rim

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El Tovar Hotel – we stayed there one night

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The Grand Canyon from South Rim, AZ

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Alco FP4 at the depot

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Grand Canyon Depot

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Train Reversing in

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F40’s on the head end

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Arizona is a big state and driving from Grand Canyon in the North to Phoenix, located in the Sonoran Desert of the south, involves quite a few miles of driving. Leaving Grand Canyon and heading south was a bit of an anti-climax. I was expecting the sweeping landscapes that we had become used to, but it was in fact quite scrubby for much of the way. We took the back routes, meandering here and there, passing over mountain terrain and past large cattle ranches. Towards the end of the day, we started to drop down into the Sonoran desert, with the landscape becoming much more in line with what we expected, i.e. flat, sandy and miles of open space. The horizon opened out and we started to see Saguaro cactus trees that everyone expects to see in southern Arizona. As the sun dropped, the red hues of the desert started to really show themselves. Reaching our destination and checking in, we were reminded that this is a very different environment from what we are normally used to. Firstly, there was a bloody great tarantula warming itself on the path in front of our cabin. This scuttled off angrily when we appeared. Secondly, a dead scorpion was found inside the room! This reminded us of the frequently quoted adage when in the desert, “Check your shoes before putting them on”!

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Even in September, Phoenix is hot. Very hot. This really does limit what you can do during the day and air-conditioning really is a must to survive in that area. It easily reached over 100 degrees by mid morning and the buildings and landscape retained that heat long after dark.  The purpose of our few days in Phoenix really was a few days of R&R, and most of the time there was spent doing just that. However, of the many things to do in Phoenix, a couple of museums really stood out.

The first of these was the Heard Museum in downtown Phoenix, which is dedicated to Native American Art and history throughout the ages. I’m not really into art museums, but this contained many interesting pieces, both traditional and contemporary, organized in such a way to illustrate the story of the the Native American people through the ages. The galleries show the traditions and cultures of the various different groups, the effect of the coming of the white man, and what it is to be Native American today. A very powerful museum and well worth the visit. Unfortunately, being an art museum, it was not possible to take many photo’s, so it is difficult to illustrate.

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Some of the Art on display at the Hearst Museum

The other site we visited was Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West architectural studio. Frank Lloyd Wright was one of Americas best known architects of the first half of the 20th century, designing such well known buildings as the house at Fallingwater in Pennsylvania and the Guggenheim Museum building. As well as an architectural practice, he ran two architectural studios named Taliesin East and Taliesin West, where young architects came from all over North America to learn from the master. One of these (Taliesin East) was in Wisconsin, the other (Taliesin West) is located in the Phoenix area of Arizona. Wright and the students would alternate between each studio, moving south to the warmer climates of Arizona for the winter and back north to the cool of Wisconsin for the summer. Both studios are still operating as part of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture and the practice of alternating between the two studios continues to this day.

Wright was an odd man to say the least and by most accounts, wasn’t particularly pleasant, being over-bearing and a control freak. However, he was innovative in the practice of architecture, and although a lousy structural engineer (nearly all of his buildings currently have or have had significant structural issues), he designed some of the most iconic buildings of the first half of the 20th century. He used his two studios not only as spaces for teaching and living, but also as laboratories for experimentation with the use of different designs and building materials. The studios were always changing as parts were redesigned and rebuilt. Today, although the studios still house the School of Architecture, they are available for visitation by guided tour in order to get an idea of this remarkable, though difficult man and his designs. We chose to visit late in the day, as the sun was going out, both because it was cooler to be wandering around the grounds, but also because the desert colors are at their most vivid early in the morning and late in the day as dusk approaches.

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Mountain Backdrop at Dusk

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The Setting of the Sun

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Native American Art

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Studio with Guide

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Reflecting Pool

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Studio at Night

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In many cases, Wright didn’t just design the buildings, but also the interiors and the furnishings. Many of the originals from Wrights private living quarters at Taliesin West still exist and unlike many museums, you are encouraged to touch, sit on and experience the furniture (most of which in my opinion I have to say was damned uncomfortable!).  I didn’t always like the designs or the furnishings, but they were very much of the period, original and like everything from this difficult genius, unique. I hope the photo’s give a feel for the place and the unique environment that exists there..

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Wright’s private living space

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Taliesin West in Lego

Phoenix was our last stop. From there, after a few days, we had to head home and back to normality. But I love the southwest. It is vast, but not in anyway empty, with outstanding scenery and a fascinating mixture of cultures. Like most of the west, I love it there and feel right at home (apart from the tarantula!). We shall be going back.

First Day of Spring

Spring is the time when evrything starts to bloom, the day length increases and you can start to feel that winter is behind you.  This year it started with a vengeance – Two days off work due to snow! Spring? Really?

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Sasha buried in the snow – First day of Spring?

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Backyard and Grover in hibination

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Flock of very hungry starlings waiting for the bird feeders to be refilled.

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View of the village – road is passable, but the weather is getting worse.

It snowed all day and the snow blower got some exercise in the evening as we cleared the driveway. However, it should be warmer this weekend, so maybe spring is finally on the way!

A White House Wedding

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White House Wedding Party after the Ceremony

“Phil, where are you?” demanded my beloved on the phone.

“In the car, heading over to see Canyon”.

“Well turn around and go home. We’re going to a wedding!”

“Oh?, Where?”

“The White House”!

The White House is probably one of the most recognized buildings in the world. Unfortunately, it is rather mired in controversy at the moment. However, this is not the place to discuss the various rights or wrongs of politics here. This website is apolitical OK. But back in 2016, in the waning days of the Obama administration before the presidential elections really got going, we got the chance to visit it whilst attending Diane’s cousin’s wedding. It wasn’t a conventional wedding, but was rather fun all the same.

All of this was possible because by chance, Diane’s cousin and his fiancée had discovered that in Washington DC, you can officiate at your own wedding. I.e. you can marry yourself. And you can do it anywhere in the District of Columbia. All you need was a marriage license and a license to officiate and you are good to go. So after obtaining these, the plan here was to get a group together, go visit the White House, which is a national park site and thus open to visitors, find a quiet spot somewhere and have a quick ceremony. No major organization, no negotiations with the custodians, just get it done. And essentially, that is what happened. The only slight glitch was that until that morning, Diane’s cousin had forgotten to tell us that we were included in the plan!

So I hurried home, and soon after Diane got back as well. A quick wash, brushup and change of clothes and we headed off to DC to join the rest of the group. Visits to the White House are scheduled in advance and with me being a foreigner, I made sure that I had plenty of ID with me so that I could get in. (Diane’s cousin had obviously put us on the schedule to attend, but had forgotten to tell us we were going!) Obviously there are security measures to pass through, but these were not actually that draconian and once clear of that, you are essentially free to wander about the open parts of the house at will.

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Going In

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Garden Terrace

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Side Garden

Despite its prominent and active political nature (it IS the Presidents official home after all), you’re free to explore at your own pace. OK, there are a bunch of Secret Service personnel on duty, one in each room, but they were very friendly and courteous.

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I Guess they call this one the Green Room

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First lady’s Sitting Room

After entering through the East Wing, you pass through the basement and can visit various rooms, including the Library, China Room, etc. These are the rooms that Nixon used to haunt during the last days of his Presidency. Although some of the rooms were roped off to casual visitors, it should be remembered that it is a working house and that after all the visitors have left, the barriers come down and people use these rooms for relaxation and visiting. Indeed, as one of the last groups to enter that day, the custodians were following through taking down the rope barriers, ready for a function that night.

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Famous Picture of George Washington – saved from being burnt by the British (I kpe my mouth firmly closed!).

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State Dining Room

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View of the South Lawn from the Oval Blue Room

One of the suprising things about the main mansion of the White House is just how small it is. As Mansions go, it isn’t that big, though it is part of a complex that includes the west and east wings, which aren’t that visible from the street. From the north (i.e. looking from Pennsylvannia Ave), it really looks quite small, though it looks a bit more imposing from the South Lawn. This is also apparent from inside – the rooms are not that big, even the East State room which is the one where the President gives all his press conferences and holds State functions, etc. And the hallway down which he walks when going to meet the press (that is seen in every interview given) is not that big either (it looks huge on TV). Indeed, everything looks so much bigger than reality on TV and in the movies!

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East Room where Wedding ceremony was held, complete with very helpful Secret Service Agent

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Famous Picture of JFK

It should be noted that the interior of the White House is not the original. The building was heavily rebuilt in the early 1950’s during the Truman administration, as it was falling down. During the work, the interiors (including the walls) were carefully dismantled and the building stripped back to its outer walls, before new internal framing was installed and the interior rooms reconstructed largely using the original materials. During this time the basement was extended and there is now a deep underground complex that visitors cannot visit.

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I wonder who lives here?

Each room has a Secret service agent in it. Mostly, these are as you would expect from the movies, super-polite, built like an outhouse, shades, suit, tie and earpiece. I’m sure they had other items of equipment on hand that we couldn’t see. What I wasn’t expecting was that they were REALLY knowledgable about the history and artifacts of each room. This was genuine knowledge, not reading from a script. Indeed, it was like talking to an expert on “Antiques Roadshow”, as it was obvious that they really knew their stuff. I remarked on this to one of the agents that I was having trouble reconciling this with the public perception of Secret Service agents, i.e. jumping out of helicopters with guns blazing and take one for the President. “Oh yes” he replied. “We do that too!”

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In front of that famous hallway. Now where to hold the wedding?

Anyhow, as we all wandered through the east room, there was some discussion amongst our party about where to try and hold the ceremony. This caught the eye of the agent on duty, who asked Diane if there had just been a proposal? “No” she said, “they were hoping to hold a small wedding ceremony somewhere in the building”. “Oh” he replied, “I wish we’d known ahead of time! We could have really set something up for you! How about doing it here”? And with that, he proceeded to take down the barriers, escorted the group into the East Room for the ceremony. After a brief debate about where to do the deed, it was decided to hold it in front of the fireplace. And so that is where it occurred, in full view of all other visitors at the time.

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Wedding Ceremony

Indeed, a number of other agents came to watch the proceedings! It only took a few minutes and then it was over and time to move on, especially as the white House staff were eager to start preparing the East Room for a function that night. I wonder if the participants in that event knew that a wedding had occurred there just a few hours earlier? The generosity and willingness of the Secret service agents to accommodate the couple’s wishes was unexpected and extremely generous. Their enthusiastic response helped make the day a memorable occasion and the agents on duty that day were a credit to their service.

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Married!

And so we were able to pull it off. We got to visit the White House and pulled off a surprise wedding. After we had finished the tour, we took several pictures out in front of the north portico (again courtesy of the Secret Service) and then headed home to Chris and Gina’s new house for a barbeque and party. Oh, and yes, their marriage certificate really does say 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, Washington DC as their marriage location. Not too many people can say that they have that!

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The Happy Couple in front of the North Portico after the ceremony.

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North Portico

Thief!

We have seveal birdfeeders around the house, as we like to see the birds come down and it helps them thrive, particularly in the winter months. Plus, it keeps the cats occupied. Recently, our birdseed consumption has been going up dramatically. At first we thought it was just the sudden increase in birds needing feeding with them all hatching in the late spring. However, this not the case. On Friday, I found the real cuplrit.

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This young raccoon has discovered a nice regular source of food for himself. He is just a youngster and this is probabaly his first year on his own. Normally, raccoons can be quite destructive and messy when going after bird seed, but he was quite careful, taking one seed or nut at a time and then eating it before going back for more. Once he was full, he carefully climbed down and went to find some shade under the Land Rover. The cats didn’t like the intruder, but with such good manners, I don’t have the heart to turn him away from the feast. I just hope he doesn’t bring his friends over.

Fox Joins The Party

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Canyon checks out the fox who is checking out the horses

One of the nice things about working at Graham Equestrian, is that we get to experience the wildlife that lives there on a regular basis. Being based on  State Park land, we have quite a number of foxes and deer in the vicinity, all of whom are failrly comfortable in the presence of horses and humans. Indeed, it is not unusual for them to come close to us, seemingly quite unconcerned about our presence, espescially if you’re on horseback. It is quite common for the deer to come out of the woods in the evening and line up along the fence watching the proceedings going on in the arena. Indeed, the othernight, I was riding Canyon up in the field and the deer all grouped up on us so that we were riding as a herd.

Anyhow, I snapped this picture a few nights ago of one of the local foxes out with the horse herd in the back pasture. I’d been out to check on Canyon, who has a slight hoof injury (abscess in the coranory band) and just happened to see the fox come trotting along the fence line to pass the herd. Neither the horses or the fox were particularly concerned about  the presence of the others. In the picture above, Canyon (the brown horse behind the darker coloured Midnite) is checking out the fox (on the left), who is watching the horses, but neither was particularly worried. The fox carried on with his business, trotted past the herd and dissapeared into the woods.

Being able to experience things like this close up on a regular occurrence reminds me how lucky I am to be able to experience nature in such a way. Most people never get to see or experience this, yet we see it regularly. And after a bad day at work, it makes the day go better.

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Local Fox heading out on his business.

An Industrial Visit

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“I need to get out!” said my beloved. She works from home and although that has a lot of advantages, you can get rather house bound.

“OK!” says I. Where shall we go?

“Oh, I don’t know. How about Scranton?

Scranton!?! You don’t hear too many people list that as a weekend away destination! It’s an industrial city in Pennsylvania Coal Country, about three hours away from home, once famously described as the biggest scrap yard in the wold and thus making the Eighth Wonder!. We’ve driven past the outskirts numerous times on the way too and from Canada, but never stopped. The outskirts aren’t much to look at. And the only things I know about Scranton are that 1) it is the setting for the US version of “The Office (which I’ve never seen, but understand to be as cringeworthy as the British original, which I’ve also never seen) and 2) it is the birth place of one Joe Biden, formally US Vice President under Barack Obama and who famously said he’d like to take Donald trump behind a bike shed and thrash him! On the face of it, Scranton seems an odd place as a destination. Yet, infact, downtown is quite attractive, though rather quiet, and has an interesting early 19th Century older style of architecture, simmilar to that seen in American Gangster movies such as The Untouchables. And being that it is an industrial city based on mining and manufacturing , it has an abundance of industrial Museums. And Diane and I like Industrial Museums.

So we threw some overnight things in the car and off we toddled. 3 hrs later on a beautiful, but cold day, we arrived at our first port of call. This was the Lackawanna Mine Tour, where you can visit a reopened anthracite mine. Scranton, and indeed the whole of northeast Pennsylvania, is riddled with deep coal mines. This area of the northeastern US has some of the biggest anthracites deposits in the world and as such was an industrial powerhouse for over a century. People flocked from all over the world to work in the deep mines. Like in the UK, the industry declined in the second half of the 20th Centrury, and the mines closed. This particular mine closed in 1966. However, part of it was reopened in the early 90’s as a museum. It now sits in a landscaped multi-use park, just outside of Scranton.

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The mine visit involves going underground. Unlike deep mines in the UK, which are ususally accessed via a cage lowered down a deep vertical shaft, this one is accessed via a sloped shaft down which runs a funicular railway car. To enter the mine, you ride down in the man rider, which is slowly winched down the track. Going underground, you reach a depth of about 300 ft below the surface, where the temperature is a nice steady 52 degrees year round.

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Bye Bye World

Once undergrown, a tour of the open part of the mine is given by former mineworkers, who explain about how mines work, what the life was like, procedures, etc. Unlike when the mine was fully working, there is now reasonable lighting. But you still hear and see water dripping through the rocks, it is still dark and you realise you are a long way from the sky above.

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Horrible working conditions

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Electric mine Loco and Cars

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At the coal face

The tour takes about an hour underground and the former miners were extremly proud of their work and knowledgeable. The mine is considered to be an active mine, so has to undergo all the safety rules and regulations that a working mine would. So it is proffesionally run and quite safe to be down there and doesen’t feel claustrophobic. Never-the-less, it was nice to come back to the surface. Even after an hour, you definitly get a feel of what a horrendously difficult, dangerous and dirty life it was working in the mines. It definitely makes one realise that no matter how we may complain about our jobs, the iritations we feel are nothing to the tribulations these miners faced daily.

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13000 lb lump of coal

Located next to the mine tour was the Anthracite Mining Museum. This was a self-guided museum dedicated to the role of the Anthracite industry in North Eastern Pennsylvania, the lives of the miners, and how society in the region was affected by mining. One of the first things I saw was a Welsh language bible. Why Welsh? Well, some of the very first immigrants were miners from Wales looking for a better life. This is reflected in that there are many names in Eastern PA that are welsh in origin. Diane was impressed that I could actually read and pronounce the words on the front cover! (I lived in Wales for many years!). Both museums are well worth the visit.

After finishing both museums, we headed for our hotel, which was in the old Lackawanna station. Downtown was rather quiet for a Saturday, espescially as there was a university right next door. I expected carousing students, but no, apart from a couple of (obviously student) bars, all was quiet. We had a meal and then went for a walk around the centre of town. Some of the architecture was fascinating and we found the old (and active) newspaper building, where you can look in off the street and see the printing presses at work. Unfortunately, they wern’t running late on a saturday evening, but it was still fascinating to see the newspaper at the heart of the city.

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Printing Presses

We had a good meal out (which for me consisted off the largest hot dog I’ve ever seen – wrapped in bacon and smothered with fried potatoes and a fried egg – oh so healthy, but oh so good!. We then stopped at a coffee shop and headed for the hotel and a good nights sleep. Being in the old railway station, this had advantages for me……

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Train of Alco Units Rumbling Past – We would catch up with these again next day.

The folowing morning, after a quick cup of coffee, we said good bye to the hotel and headed down to the railway museum. This is Steamtown, a former derelict locomotive roundhouse and railway yard that has been rehabilitated and opened as a museum administered by the National Parks Service. The first thing we saw as we drove in was this….

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Reading Railroad T1 4-8-4 (and Diane)

Parked in the yard were a whole host of Alco diesels (some being former MLW ones, MLW being the Canadian Arm of Alco, and who built some  of Alco’s designs under licence). Some of the loco’s chuntering in the yard were the lashup we’d seen the previous day from the hotel.

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4 axle Alco’s – lead unit is Canadian built with wide cab

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Alco 630 idling at the depot

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Also sitting in the yard was this…..

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Big Boy – The biggest of them all

A legendary Union Pacific “BigBoy” 4000 class. This is considered to be the biggest loco to operate successfully on any North American railroads. One is today being returned to service by it’s original owner Union Pacific.

The museum consists of the stalls from the original roundhouse, plus other new buildings ina sympathetic style built to replace those demolished in the 60’s. All are situated around a working turntable. The idea behind the museum is not only to preseve the collection, but to give an idea of what a working railroad depot was like. the original stalls house some of the loco’s in the collection in an authentic setting, whilst the newer buildings house exhibits on the working life of railroad employees. A good deal of stock is available for view and the atmosphere in the working part of the shed (viewable from an above ground walkway really is quite authentic. Unfortunately, the light and space of the working shed does not make for good photography, but here goes….

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Sat outside was the last remaining ICRR 2-8-0, basking in the sun.IMG_2781

Whilst pottering around the yard and occaisionally going for a spin on the turntable, was this F3 unit.

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The loco was being used to shunt items around ready for the beginning of the main tourist season, and was also being used to train new railroad volunteers. A worker took us to see the companion B unit which was being worked on in the roundhouse. (A B unit is a locomotive with no cab or controls. It is a remotely controlled slave that is controlled from a loco with a cab (An A Unit).

Steam town also has the old backshops, where loco’s were repaired and rebuilt. This is now used as a restoration base, and we were taken to see the facilities back there. Most heritage railwys I know of would kill for these facilities.

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Axle Press

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B&M Pacific Firebox under repair – note the missing crownsheet.

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0-6-0 Switcher finishing winter maintenance

Out in the yard were lines of stock that were awaiting restoration and rapir. I suspect that for some, it will never come. However, there is an active restoration program underway, and many items will be repaired for static display at least.

One of the amazing things to me was that it was allowed (and encouraged) to walk about the yard and explore, even though it was a working yard with moving trains etc. I mean, this is America – Land of lawyers and litigation! A working rail yard, though which freight trains pass, is a hazardowuns area. But its allowed and personally I feel better for it.

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So, at the end of the day, we headed home. Scranton may not have the best reputation, but it is infact a suprisingly nice little town. Quiet, a little down at heal, but with some hidden gems for all ages. By no means did we cover them all. But then, I’m certain we’ll be going back one day – afterall, its not too far to go when Diane says “I need to get out of the house”