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Welcome to our blog…

**NOTE TO READERS: Here’s a few items to guide you on our blog.**

My most recent posts are on the sidebar. One of the challenges of running a blog is how to quickly show or access older posts. I’ve done it the MENU function. There’s a menu bar on top. The titles are self-explanatory. Each one has a drop down list of related topics, which are also self-explanatory. You can surf the entire blog by mousing over the titles. How cool is that? We have a lot more stuff to add.

Also on the bar, you’ll see a link called “The Teacher Files”. It also has a drop down menu with links to topics related to my teaching career. I taught for 15 years after 20 years in the Marines. Teaching was one of my true passions in life. I started out with a separate blog, but when I found out how to create menus, I brought it all over here. It’s good stuff – too good to leave laying around in boxes. I’ll add things as fast as I can get them in HTML/CSS format.

Cheers … Boris and Natasha

Hi and welcome to our newly updated blog. Designed as a companion to our website – Exploring Off the Beaten Path. We use it for shorter pages than we typically put on the site plus any other material we find interesting.

We affectionately refer to each other as Boris and Natasha (usually with “dahlink” at the end) – retirees, snowbirds, explorers, geocachers, munzee and benchmark hunters, history lovers, sometime photographers, freelance writers and lifelong learners who can show up almost anywhere.

KidsRN in action

Natasha is relentless in her quest for geocaches. Here, she gives it her all in the Black Hills. Mt. Rushmore is in the upper left hand corner.

Our vision for More Exploring Off The Beaten Path is a family friendly blog that promotes interest in outdoor activities, curiosity about the world around us and lifelong learning. One of our main vehicles for that is geocaching and related activities, plus all that goes with them.

You would be hard-pressed to find another activity which is more fun, positive, educational and family friendly than geocaching and its siblings. My 88 year old mother has been out with us. Our grandkids (now 8 and 6) went out with us in their strollers. They really love hunting munzees and can both handle a smart phone like you wouldn’t believe. Some of the best times I ever had as a Dad were with my youngest son hunting down geocaches in the wilds of Montana and Wyoming. When I was teaching school, I used it in my math classes to teach all kinds of things.

One thing you can be sure of – the pages of this blog and our website will show you things and take you places you would have never known about otherwise.  Our adventures have taken us to ghost towns, caves, mountain tops, waterfalls and more out of the way places than we can recall. We’ve operated in all kinds of terrain and weather and dodged a few critters along the way. It’s been a hoot.  We’ve geocached in 38 states and have a plan in place to finish all 50 by the end of 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 (or thereabouts).

You never know what you might find here. We love forts, battlefields, ghost towns,old cemeteries, abandoned mines, one of a kind diners, cheeseburgers, skin-on French fries, anything to do with National Parks and anything else that’s off the beaten path. The tougher, longer, higher, creepier or more calorie-laden it is, the better we like it. We’ll mix things up to keep it interesting.

 

KidsRN at Mt. Rushmore cache site.

Mission accomplished safe and sound. No humans were injured in the production of this blog.

This is an open blog for families, adventurers, explorers, educators, vagabonds and anybody else who might share our passions.  There’s no arm chair traveling here and we don’t cut and paste Wikipedia.  We’ve been to all the places and/or done all the things we blog about. The writing is mine. So are most of the pictures.

We hope you find something interesting here. Feedback – good or bad – is always welcome. All comments are moderated and public, so please keep it civil.

See you in the blogosphere. …Boris and Natasha

Classroom Jeopardy Game


Mister L

This is one of my better efforts. It’s a great for reviewing or as an activity on those “high energy” days like the day before Christmas break. I’ve used it for different grade levels and subjects, including adult computer classes at a community college where I taught for several years.

The design is actually pretty simple. It’s an Excel spread sheet with hyperlinks imbedded in the cells. Each cell is simply a circle of three hyperlinks-the board, the question and the answer then back to the board. Throw in a blue background, change the hyperlink color to yellow, get rid of the grid lines, add the Jeopardy jingle and voila! Genius!

Mea Culpa: This was my first major HTML coding project years ago. I did it in MS Front Page.  The code is ugly. Today, I could do it in half the time and a whole lot fewer lines of code. Back then, it was trial and error and work arounds. But it works. If you’d like to try it right now, click here


To use it, download the Jeopardy Game Zip file by right clicking on the link to the left. Select “Save As” or “Save Target As” or “Save Link As”(depending on your browser).You’ll get a download box asking where you want the file to go. The default is your downloads folder, but you can send it anywhere.   IMPORTANT:You need to extract the contents after downloading. The game won’t work while it’s zipped up.

To do that, simply right click on the downloaded zip file icon and select “Extract”.  Once that’s done, click on the DEFAULT.HTM. It will open in the default browser. The Jeopardy jingle will play automatically one time. If you click on a number, the sound stops so you don’t have to wait on it. The sound works best if you have Apple Quicktime installed on the machine.

Once you download the folder, I’d recommend copying it as a backup, maybe a couple of times. A basic rule of programming is never modify original software. You always need to be able to get back to where you were and the easiest way is to have several working copies. Of course, you can always come back here and get another one.

Click on a number. An answer will appear. After the students respond, click on the answer or the accompanying picture and the question will appear. Click on the question or the picture and you’re right back at the board.

To make changes, copy the entire folder. You always want to keep everything together. You’ll see subfolders labeled as Column 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Inside the folders are web pages which are simple HTM (web) files. There’s one for each question and one for each answer. Open each one up in a web/text editor and change the content. Do not change the names of the files. I’ve made the file structure generic so that it never changes – just the content. That’s critical because hyperlinks are pointed to very specific files names in very specific locations. If you change anything in the structure, the hyperlinks will break and the game won’t work.

Here’s an important pointer from my student teacher.

Mister L

File and folder names are case sensitive. So where it says DEFAULT.HTM, that’s how it’s typed. If you’re clicking on links or using drag and drop, you probably don’t have to worry about it. But if you’ve got the guts to go into the code – and you’ll have to if you want to change topics or content – don’t screw it up. Make copies just in case you do. And another thing, don’t come crying to us if the Jeopardy jingle doesn’t play. It all depends on what media player you’re using. Got all that?

To change to column headings on the game board, open DEFAULT.HTM in a web/text editor and change them. You may have to play around with font size and position, but it’s just like working in Microsoft Office at that point.

On my board, the used category numbers become red instead of disappearing. If you want to make them disappear, go into the properties for the DEFAULT.HTM file and change the color of used hyperlinks to the same color as the board. To get all hyperlinks back to yellow, go to your browser and clear the browsing history. They’ll pop right back.

You don’t need to modify anything else. All the .gif and .jpg files are the images imbedded on the board in the Q and A screens.

This is how I taught myself web editing and HTML code. If I make changes now, I go straight into the code itself. If you’re interested in learning that stuff, this is a great project to do it with. Just make sure you always have a clean original to fall back on. Make working copies of the entire folder and have at it.

I’ve developed more boards than I can remember, not just in math but also computers, geography and history. It can be a bit time consuming at first to come up with five categories and 25 questions arranged so that the harder ones are behind the bigger numbers.

I occasionally had students do it as a project, sometimes for extra credit. Assign them a category and get five or 10 good Q&A combos. I’ve had advanced students develop entire boards using this as a model.

When we started a new unit, I would choose categories and start the new board, adding QandA as I went. It actually goes pretty fast once you get a system down.

The biggest challenge is how to play the game, since obviously, you have more than three players. I tried teams, choral response but didn’t like it. I finally settled on raising hands and calling on students, limiting them to two questions each. Some would answer every one if they could. Others don’t want to answer at all. You’ll have to plan accordingly. It’s still fun for everyone.

This is a GREAT activity for Parent Night or Grandparent’s Day. It’s fun, interactive and gives a good overview of the material you’ll be covering. It blows them away.

I hope you have as much fun and success with this as I did.

Enjoy…Mister L

Calculator Spelling


Mister L

This is one of my favorites.  It’s one of those nifty little activities that belong in every math teacher’s bag of tricks.  The basic idea is to solve a math problem with a calculator, then turn the display upside down.  The correct answer should spell out a word. It’s easy to do, a lot of fun and the kids love it.  In addition to building keyboarding skills, it rolls in a number of other topics, such as place value, properties of zero and one, order of operations, exponents, parenthetical expressions, integers, spelling and vocabulary.  It all depends how creative you want to get with it.


I used calculator spelling questions for warm-ups, bonus questions and time fillers. I always kept a dozen or so on hand that I could whip on the board in a hurry. It lends itself well to round robin activities. It’s particularly good for those high energy days like the day after Halloween or the day before Christmas break when everybody is wired. This is typically a noisy, active session with lots of LOL and OMG.  In my sessions, the students always ended up talking to each other and I was ok with that as long as the work was getting done and they weren’t sharing answers.

This is simple to set up and there are a lot of web sites that cover it.  Here it is in a nutshell.

The digits 0-9 can all be used as a letter when turned upside down.

0 = o or O

1 = l or i or I (big I, Little i, little L)

2 = z or Z

3 = E

4 = h

5 = s or S

6 = G

7 = L

8 = B

9 = g

Calculator answer

A TI-34 display showing the problem worked. Turn it upside down and check the answer. It may not jump out right away, but if it takes more than a few seconds to interpret, something’s wrong. That’s a very cool self-checking feature of this exercise.

So the word BELL would be 8377.  But remember, that’s what it looks like upside down, so the answer to the problem has to be 7738.  Then it’s just a matter of inventing a math problem that equals 7738.  It can be as simple or complex as you want to make it.  This is easily tailored to individual or class levels. I taught grades 6, 7 and 8. I could use the same answers to get the same words but the problem to get there would be different.

A variation is to have a question with a two or three word answer, which requires the students to correctly interpret and separate the words.  For instance, the answer 71077345 turned upside down becomes 54377017 or ShELLOiL.

Another variation is to use parentheses to get your answer but leave them out of the problem.  The students then have to place the (   ) in the correct place to get the correct answer.  It raises the challenge level and is self-checking – very cool.

Be careful with leading zeroes.  Most displays drop them.  So 07734 ( 43770 – HeLLO) becomes 7734 (4377 – HeLL).  To fix it, include a decimal point to fix the zero in the answer.

Just turn it upside down and read/interpret the answer. Sometimes, it doesn’t jump out at you. Make them stay with it. At some point, they may have to evaluate whether they have the right numbers. That’s part of the drill.

So how many words are there?  I have no idea. Here’s a Word List I compiled. It’s actually a couple of lists I condensed into one document.  You can make any word plural by adding -s or -es to the end.  You can create a descriptive word by adding -ish at the end.  Also, don’t forget abbreviations, nicknames, acronyms and even short foreign words.

The variations and innovations you can do with this simple activity are almost limitless.  It’s not the kind of thing you can do all the time, but when pulled out of your bag of tricks, it can be most productive.

Here are some links to other related resources.

Calculator Spelling NCTM Standards (so you can show your principal when they ask why you aren’t teaching the test)

Calculator Spelling Exercise 1

Calculator Spelling Exercise 2

Sometimes on the exercises, students will come up with the right word just from the clue.  That’s good, but they still need to do the problem and write the solution.

It also goes much smoother if everyone uses the same kind of calculator. If you are fortunate enough to have classroom calculators, this is a good time to use them.  That way, you know the little quirks of the displays and functions and can plan accordingly.  It’s also easier to correct keyboarding mistakes and make learning points to the whole class if they have the same box.

If that’s not possible, then be prepared to answer student questions on “their” calculator. My standard response was “What exactly won’t it do?”  Or “Where are you getting stuck?”  Or I’ll watch them while they run through the problem again.

This is one looc tsop. ha ha ha

This is a good exercise for wringing out all those new calculators at the beginning of the year.  Better to be confused here than at the next standardized test.

Feel free to copy and/or use any of the posted or linked material.

Hey Count.  You need to get out more.  This is what happens when you grade papers all night and all weekend. You start talking backwards.

I hope it’s ton gnihctac.

hu ho  … LretsiM

Top 10 Geocaching Safety Tips

The Find

Here’s a find deep in the woods of western Pennsylvania with stick and gloves displayed. We find our caching sticks, which are five foot lengths of 1 1/4 inch dowel rod, to be indispensable. In any terrain, they give you a third leg. Here, it also helps to avoid copperheads, which are numerous in these parts.

Geocaching and related outdoor activities all carry an element of risk.There are a number of factors that come into play such as activity level, location andphysical conditioning. But we feel the most important part of keeping safe is to know your limits and be prepared if something happens.Natasha and I like to push the limits. We’ve been lucky. Early in our geocaching career, we blundered into a couple of situations that worked out OK but could have been serious. We learned our lessons. Now when we saddle up for a long range cache, we are seriously geared up. Of course, if you’re doing drive by caching in parking lots and the like, you don’t have to be as intense. But if you’re headed into the boonies or even just out of sight of your car for a while, you need to be prepared. You don’t want to be out there, separated from your geopartner, no communication, no water plus it’s starting to rain, get dark and you’re not sure how to get back. We speak from some experience on that. It happened to us near Farmington, New Mexico about 10 years ago. Keep the following 10 things in mind and apply as needed for safer and more effective caching.


#10. Be bear aware…. If you’re in bear country, especially griz, your outlook changes because you’re not at the top of the food chain anymore. Bears can’t see very well but their hearing and smell are sensational and they can outrun a horse over a short distance. Talk to people about recent local bear activity. Make some noise as you walk – people type noise. Bells and whistles just make bears curious. I like to use binoculars to check the area around us as we move. Be careful with food. Stick together. Keep an eye down wind. Carry bear spray. We’ve spent a lot of time in grizzly country and have never had a problem. But some unfortunate people do.

#9. Do what the cops tell you…. Geocaching often looks suspicious, especially these days. Hanging around, looking, climbing, crawling can all get you noticed. We’ve been confronted by the police four times, once by the Ski Patrol and once by a construction foreman. Be nice and tell them about geocaching. The vast majority are cool with it. One cop even helped us look. Recently, we ran into Officer Friendly of the Illinois State Police. We were geocaching at a rest area and he threatened to arrest us for trespassing. About that moment, Natasha made the find and waved it. He waited there until we had signed the log and moved on. Be ready for just about anything when a lawman shows up.

#8. Take extra batteries….The energizer bunny’s name is Murphy. It’s downright gut wrenching to have a GPSr die on you when you’re out in the middle of nowhere. Same with flashlights, phones, etc. If you’re depending on battery powered equipment to complete your quest, make sure you’ve got enough juice for the job – especially if you need to find your way back. Lithium batteries are the way to go. Regular alkaline batteries don’t last very long.

#7. Carry a big stick, small flashlight, leather gloves, Swiss Army knife….These items have a multitude of uses, from poking inside a dark cache to probing the trail in front of you to protection from animals (both four legged and two legged). We find the sticks to be almost indispensable. They’re effective, innocuous and legal. Natasha and I use a five foot length of 1 1/4 inch dowel rod which you can buy at any hardware store.

#6. Bring a first aid kit….Scratches and bug bites are part of the charm of geocaching. It can also be dirty, so take care of any open wound. The kit doesn’t need to be massive. Outdoor stores all sell small kits that will fit in a pocket. It can’t hurt to throw in an ACE wrap. Combined with your stout stick, you can limp back to the car if you have to. If you’re allergic to bee stings, take your epi-pen. Keep your tetanus shot up to date for that rusty old barbed wire at Ground Zero. Remember – if something happens out there, you’re on your own, at least for a while. Plan accordingly.

A SPOT GPS locater and messenger. We always have one with us out in the boondocks. We’ve never needed it, but we know we’re ready if something happens. See the link in this paragraph for more information

#5. Take your cell phone or walkie-talkies or both…. Becoming separated from a geopartner is mildly annoying at best and can be downright dangerous. It’s happened to us a couple of times. So now we use handheld radios in the FRS/GMRS range with cell phone backup. The handheld radios are inexpensive and don’t require any ham licensing. Get a radio check before you launch. Have a reconnect plan if all comm fails. Go to a pre-arranged meeting place after a certain amount of time passes. Whatever that place is, enter it into your GPSr as a waypoint so you can find it. Also enter the trailhead or parking areas as waypoints. If all that fails, call 911, assuming you have cell phone coverage. A good alternative for the back country is a GPS locater beacon. We use a SPOT Locater. It sends and receives signals via GPS satellites. You can send check-in messages, call roadside assistance or send an emergency signal. That 911 signal goes to an operations center, which will notify, dispatch and coordinate rescue help. My brother used to race in the Baja. He and his buddies all had one. They had to summon help a couple of times and it arrived in less than an hour. They are a little pricey, but we don’t head for the hills without them.

#4. Don’t forget the hat and sunscreen…. This is one can really sneak up on you. I’ve screwed up in the past. I’m out getting multiple caches, in and out of the car and the trees and figure I don’t need to worry about the sun. But it all adds up and at the end of the day, I look like a lobster. If you’re going to be out in the sun, make sure you protect yourself. Lather on the sunscreen and keep it fresh. Then top it off with a wide brimmed hat and cool UV sunglasses.

#3.Be tick aware …Ticks are a clear and present danger in the outdoors – much more so than bears and snakes. They carry Lyme disease and other assorted diseases and they’re everywhere. Wear long pants and long sleeve shirts. Douse your shoes and pant legs with DEET. Check yourself and each other thoroughly and often and keep checking. The critters seem to come out of nowhere and are almost indestructible. The good news is that they have to attach themselves to a human host for 24 hours to pass on the virus. If you find one latched on, pull it straight out with tweezers. Lyme disease is treatable but no fun.  If you geocache, you’re going to get ticks. Stay vigilant and stay healthy. One additional note – don’t go inside the house with your geocaching clothes on. You’ll have ticks in the house. Basement, garage, laundry room but not in living spaces.

Alien geocachers

Expect the unexpected and you’ll be prepared to deal with whatever (or whoever) comes along, as Natasha demonstrates here in Roswell, New Mexico.

#2. Bring lots of water…. This one that can sneak up on you too, usually in the form of a “quick cache” which turns into a marathon. Next thing you know, you’ve been out there for two hours with nothing to drink. Unless you’re doing PNGs, throw a bottle of water in your kit. For longer ventures, you can’t beat a CamelBak. Fill it with ice and top it off with water. You’ll have ice water the whole day.

#1. Know when to back off….Geocachers are a pretty tenacious bunch and we’re probably at the top end of that scale. Part of this activity is recognizing limits. We’ve stopped literally yards away from GZ because we didn’t think we could complete it and/or get back safely. Things can go south in a real hurry out there. Don’t compromise your safety for a cache. It’ll be there tomorrow. Go back and re-group. Next time, you’ll probably walk right to it.

Learn from our mistakes … Boris and Natasha

Jean Bonnet Tavern

Jean Bonnet Tavern

A ghost’s eye view of the Jean Bonnet Tavern.

Four miles west of Bedford, Pennsylvania is the Jean Bonnet (bo-nay’) Tavern, which has hosted travelers since the mid-1700’s. The Jean Bonnet Tavern has seen it all – war, peace, crime, rebellion, trade, Indian raids and westward migration as the nation grew. The tavern occupies a very strategic spot, sitting at the base of the eastern side of the Allegheny Mountains at the intersection of the Forbes Road (Route 30) and Glades Pike (Route 31). Those roads follow old Shawnee trading paths and are still the major east-west highways through the region.

The tavern is renowned for its old world charm, history, rustic decor and great food. It is also famous for its ghosts and hauntings.

In 1742, the French built a small fort and trading post here to carry on trade with the Shawnee. It was abandoned during the French and Indian War.

After the war, the British constructed a building on top of it and there has been one there ever since. The real Jean Bonnet bought the property from the British in 1779 and built the current structure using the thick stone walls of the French fort as the foundation. Those same stone walls are the walls of the downstairs restaurant today. The Jean Bonnet Tavern was very successful. Back then, this was the edge of the westerrn frontier. Anybody headed west over the mountains stopped here. It was the last place to outfit and prepare before heading into the frontier. Soon, it became a hub for commerce, exploration, socializing, politics – and justice.

Dining room with gallows beam

Part of the main dining room with the gallows of the French spy highlighted. There is also a good view of the original French fort walls.

It was a meeting place for both sides during the Revolutionary War. It survived the Indian raids of 1780 that savaged the region. Later, it was a gathering spot for farmers involved in the Whiskey Rebellion. Federal troops sent to quell the rebellion, led by President George Washington himself, encamped near the grounds. That was the one and only time the Commander-in-Chief has led troops in the field.

It watched as battles of the Civil War were fought less than 90 miles away, including Gettysburg and Antietam. In the week before Gettysburg, Pennsylvania militia troops skirmished with Confederate cavalry in Everett, only 10 miles away to the east.

At least two men are known to have been hanged here.

The Forbes Expedition of 1758 stopped here on its way to attack Fort Duquesne, the French base at the junction of the three rivers in modern-day Pittsburgh. A suspected French spy was hanged in the basement which is now the restaurant. His body was buried under the floor so the French would never know his fate. The beam that served as the gallows is still there. According to legends and ghost hunters, the spirit of the French spy is still there too.

In the 1760’s, a second floor was added to the original structure and was used as a circuit courtroom. Frontier justice was swift and several men were reportedly hanged. The only one documented with any certainty was a horse thief who stole horses from the Shawnee. He was tried and hanged while the Shawnee waited outside. They took his body with them.

In 1980, the tavern underwent a major renovation. Underneath the old floor downstairs workers found a human skeleton. Although it was never identified, testing showed the bones dated back to the late 1700’s.

Stone fireplace in the dining room.

The fireplace. The picture really doesn’t do it justice. It’s massive. Old pots and cooking utensils hang nearby. In the winter, there is a roaring fire going in it. They keep a smaller one going in the summer to fend off the chill of the night air in the Pennsylvania mountains. The room view in the previous picture (with the gallows pole) is directly behind the camera.

Hauntings and paranormal events have been observed or recorded at the Jean Bonnet Tavern for years. These include cold spots, strange lights, objects being moved, anomalies on pictures and apparitions. These have been observed or experienced by customers, guests and staff, including the owners. The tavern was featured on the Biography channel’s “My Ghost Story” in 2012. A Google search will bring up many more happenings.

However, most people come here for the atmosphere and the food. Going into the main dining room is like stepping back in time. It is quiet, cool and windowless with thick stone walls and the original massive exposed chestnut beams and columns. The focal point is the large fireplace that was once used to prepare the tavern meals. People with buckskin clothes and three corner hats would be right at home here.

Being a local native, I’ve been here dozens of times. Even though I haven’t lived in Pennsylvania for over 40 years, we make annual family visits and Jean Bonnet’s is always on the itinerary. I’ve never seen a ghost or had a bad meal. It’s the kind of place where you can just relax, enjoy the food and savor the surroundings. There are very few like it.

The GPS coordinates for the tavern are 40.0424, -78.5606. Click on the coordinates to bring up an interactive Google map.

If you like history and exploring, you’re surrounded by it here. Fort Necessity, the Allegheny Portage Railroad, the Johnstown Flood Memorial and the Flight 93 Memorial are all within an hour’s drive. Two hours will take you to Gettysburg, Antietam, Fort Ligonier and Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural masterpiece Falling Water. That’s just for starters. Pennsylvania is one big museum. All you have to do is drive down the road and you’ll find stuff. That will give you plenty to see and do when you’re not hiking, biking or kayaking, which abound throughout the region.

Good haunting and bon appetite… Boris and Natasha

Battle of Grant’s Hill

**NOTE TO READERS – Here’s a battle off the beaten path which you’ve probably never heard of.**

September 14, 1758. The French and Indian War.

Battle of Grant's Hill

The Battle of Grant’s Hill was very one-sided, as the British showed yet again that they were not proficient in fast moving, close in wilderness fighting. Twenty years later in the American Revolution, they still weren’t. There’s no trace remaining of the battle area. It’s now in the middle of the “Golden Triangle” in downtown Pittsburgh. The site of the heaviest fighting is the location of the Allegheny County Courthouse.

This battle was fought as part of the British effort to capture Fort Duquesne in present-day Pittsburgh, PA during the French and Indian War. It shouldn’t have been fought at all. Major James Grant was leading a reconnaissance-in-force mission from Fort Ligonier, about 50 miles to the east. He had strict orders from his commander, Col. Henri Bouquet, to not get into a decisive engagement. He was to do a thorough recon, take prisoners and gather intelligence.

Grant ran his mission to perfection. He got his force undetected to within 1/4 mile of the fort on a hill overlooking the forks of the three rivers. Then he got stupid. Seeing Fort Duquesne as a ramshackle, under-manned fort, he decided to attack. It was a disaster. He lost 400 of 800 men and himself became a POW.

Survivors made their way back to Fort Ligonier and reported to Col. Bouquet that Fort Duquesne was a mighty bastion defended by thousands. That cast a pall over the entire British plan. In reality, Fort Duquesne was falling apart and the French were preparing to abandon it.

The hill where Grant was defeated is no longer there. It was leveled a century ago to make room for expansion of the downtown business district. However, the area is still called Grant’s Hill and has been since the earliest days of the city.

I’ve got lots more information about the Battle of Grant’s Hill and the Fort Duquesne campaign. Just click on the links.

The Old Meeker Ranch

We’ve geocached in 40 states. The only areas we haven’t explored are New England and the Pacific Northwest. But out of all that, our favorite geocaching destination is the Black Hills of South Dakota. The Black Hills have it all – scenery, open spaces, mines, ghost towns, trails and more places to explore than you can do in one trip. And there are geocaches everywhere. You could geocache and explore there for the rest of your life and never get bored. They have everything from drive ups to day long quests. One of those quests took us to an abandoned homestead nestled deep in the hills. Locals call it the Old Meeker Ranch.

First look on the road in

First look

You can drive to within a mile on a forest service road with a locked gate. Then you walk in. This is the first view you get when you come over the rise. The pictures simply don’t do it justice. It is a breathtaking scene.

Natasha with the cache

Natasha with the ammo can find. The geocache was called “The Old Meeker Ranch”, GC1CTMH. Unbeknownst to us, the owner had deactivated it the day we found it. It might still be there, but we’ve got the last entry in the cache log.

The 278 acre ranch area was homesteaded in 1882 by Frank Meeker, who was a rider for the Pony Express in his younger days. He named his spread Willow Creek and that is still the name of the year round stream that flows through the middle of it.

The front door and barn

The front door and the barn. The barn is relatively new, built by the last owners in the 1950’s.

** HISTORICAL FOOTNOTE – The Pony Express carried mail to/from St. Joseph, MO and Sacramento,CA. Letters cost $10 an ounce. The 120 riders covered the 1,900 mi (3,100 km) route in 10 days. Most of the riders were teenagers, some as young as 14. They rode legs of 75-100 miles, going at breakneck speed day and night. Switching horses at way stations that were about 10 miles apart, the riders kept to the timetable despite weather, terrain, outlaws, hostile Indians and numbing fatigue. Although successful, the Pony Express was only in operation from April 1860 to October 1861. It was replaced by the transcontinental telegraph. We don’t know what Frank Meeker did in the 21 years between the Pony Express and the Willow Creek homestead, but he must have been one tough hombre.**

These are original buildings from the late 1880’s. Although preserved and open to the public, the ranch has been bedeviled by vandalism in recent years. So far, it’s been broken windows and torn exterior clapboard, which have been fixed by workers. In fact, the day we were there, a BLM crew came out to inspect the place and do any needed repairs.

The ranch changed hands numerous times, ending up with the Davis family in 1952. They built the new barn and worked the spread until 1974. After they left, the ranch spent 30 years in limbo and disrepair before becoming part of the Black Hills National Forest in 2004.

The dilapidated kitchen

We’re explorers. Locked doors and “No Entry” signs drive us nuts. One of the great things about the ranch is that you can go inside the buildings, including the house. When the last family moved on, they left behind a treasure trove of artifacts – cans, jars, newspapers and more – on shelves and in closets. These aren’t props put there by someone. They’re the real deal. Use caution, of course. The upper floors aren’t safe. Watch out for weak spots in the structures and be alert for an occasional rattlesnake. Also keep in mind that this is wild country with black bears and mountain lions. If you have pets or small children, keep them close.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) took over in 2004 and scheduled the property for demolition in 2006. A grass roots effort led by local artist Jon Crane and the Black Hills Historic Preservation Trust saved the ranch. They also raised funds for preservation work, an effort that is ongoing as we write this. A dedicated corps of volunteers working alongside the BLM and spearheaded by Historicorps keeps the ranch in a state of “arrested decay” for the public to visit.

Going out the way we came in

Looking at the way back. If you’re a photographer, this place should be on your bucket list. Here are some great photos taken on the Old Meeker Ranch.

For your GPS. N43.8042º W109.5554º. These coordinates will put you right at the center of the ranch. Click on them for a Google map.

The Old Meeker Ranch is a unique historical treasure. It is one of the few ranch homesteads in the country that is maintained, open to the public and freely accessible. Concerned citizens, historians, artists, archaeologists, businesses, trusts and government agencies work hard to keep it that way. Please enjoy it responsibly and safely.

Cheers …. Boris and Natasha

Titan Missile Museum – Green Valley, AZ

“Anybody who isn’t wearing two million sunblock is going to have a real bad day.”
……Sarah Connor, Terminator 2

Warhead of a Titan II ICBM

This R2D2-looking thing is a re-entry vehicle (RV) for a Titan II ICBM. It carried a single Mark-53 nine megaton nuclear warhead. That’s over 600 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb dropped at the end of World War II. The Titan II would have carried this payload over 6,000 miles in roughly 30 minutes after a launch sequence that lasted 58 seconds. This RV is on display at the Titan Missile Museum in Green Valley, AZ. It is the only museum of its kind, safeguarding and preserving a piece of Cold War history – a complete Titan ICBM launch facility. If you get up to South Dakota, you can check out the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site  near Wall, SD.

I admit it. I’m a Cold War junkie. I grew up in the days when we did “duck and cover” drills in school. I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis. Most of my 20 years in the Marine Corps were spent as a cold warrior. Now I’m a road warrior, but I’m still fascinated by the whole Commie/nuke/Dr Strangelove thing. Looking back on it now, a lot of the stuff was ludicrous (nuclear land mines, anybody?), but it was deadly serious back in the day.

If you lived in Tucson between the early 1960’s and the late 1980’s, you were surrounded by 18 Titan II ICBM’s and the Soviets knew all about them. That means in the event of war, there were probably several dozen Soviet missiles targeting Tucson’s Titan force.

Fortunately, it never came to that thanks to the deterrent effect of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). When the Titans were taken out of service during the Reagan administration, the missiles were reconfigured as launch vehicles for NASA. The launch facilities were gutted except for this one. Launch Facility 571-7 was kept intact, a deactivated Titan was placed in the silo and a museum was born. The 571-7 designation is shorthand for the 7th launch facility of the 571st Strategic Missile Squadron. It was one of two missile squadrons, along with the 570th, belonging to the 390th Strategic Missile Wing at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson. Got all that?

When we came to Tucson for the winter several years back and discovered the Titan Missile Museum, it was high on the bucket list. I went there not knowing what I might find. Some of these military museums are little more than roadside attractions with a bunch of junk laying out on tables. Happily that is not the case here.

Blast door

There are four of these blast doors in the blast lock area at the bottom of the access steps. They work in pairs like an air lock. One pair seals off the crew from the outside world. The other pair seals off the silo area from the crew area. Each door weighs 6,000 pounds and is opened/closed manually. They are perfectly mounted and balanced on simple pin hinges. Even after hanging there for over 50 years, they can be moved with one hand. The design and construction of these launch facilities is unbelievable. In addition to the obvious workmanship and attention to detail, everything is redundant and backed up. Nothing was left to chance. When all sealed up, the facility could survive just about anything except a direct hit by a nuke.

Tucked away in the Sonoran desert hills, the museum is a hidden gem. They have static displays inside and out, a documentary film and several kinds of guided tours that go through the whole underground facility. The silo contains a de-activated Titan missile. You’ll get a good look at it from above and below. There’s also a simulated launch conducted in the control room with the tour. Afterwards, you can walk around topside for as long as you want. Photography is allowed throughout. The all volunteer staff is knowledgeable and includes several docents who worked as missile crew or contractors. Everyone is very informal and friendly. The cost is about nine bucks per person and is well worth it. The museum is a private non-profit entity and also a National Historic Landmark. Be sure to grab a hard hat when they offer them. There’s all kinds of head bangers underground.

The entire facility and tours are very informative. Some of the revelations are downright jaw-dropping. For instance, assuming they survived, what did the four person crew do after the launch? They had a 30 day supply of food and water but only two weeks of air in their sealed underground bunker. The hard reality was that there was no plan. They were on their own. It was assumed that the crew commander at some point would begin to probe outside the facility. Now there’s something to look forward to. If the main access route was untenable, there was an emergency escape tunnel that would take them outside. At least, that was the theory.

Titan II ICBM

The star of the show – the museum’s Titan II ICBM. The Titan II was the largest ICBM deployed by the U.S. during the Cold War, measuring 103 feet long and 10 feet in diameter. It also carried the largest warhead. The Mark-53 had a yield of nine megatons, i.e. nine millions tons of TNT. A train carrying nine million tons of TNT would be 1,200 miles long. Weighing around 8,000 pounds, it was a thermonuclear bunker buster.

We’ll never know what targets the Titans would have hit but with nine megatons of firepower, they weren’t going to be used on radar sites and truck parks. It’s a virtual certainty that they would have gone after command centers, key military installations, industrial centers and nuclear storage facilities. Even the launch crew didn’t know the targets. A total of 150 Titan II’s were built. Fifty were used as test and evaluation platforms. Fifty four ended up in silos with nuke warheads. There were 18 each in Tucson AZ, Wichita KS and Little Rock AR. One of the missiles in Little Rock blew up in its silo in 1980.  Built in safety locks kept the RV and warhead intact.

The Titan II missile was a rock steady and reliable system and performed several roles simultaneously. At the height of the Cold War, it was the most dangerous missile on earth. In terms of speed and accuracy, the Soviets had nothing like it until the late 1970’s. Twelve were used to launch the NASA Gemini manned space missions from 1964-66. In 1977, two modified Titans (Titan III) launched the Voyager satellites on their journey out of the solar system. Others were used to launch scientific and commercial payloads from Vandenburg AFB. The last Titan II was launched in October 2003. A platform with a planned service life of 10 years lasted 40. It was finally done in by the economics of its high maintenance.

In a way, the museum’s launch facility is still involved in a Cold War scenario. The START Treaty requires measures to verify the absence of weapons that may be in violation. The RV on display in the exhibit room has a big plexiglass cutout to show at a glance there are no weapons on board. Also, the 760 ton sliding silo hatch is locked in the half open position so Russian satellites can keep an eye on it.

Museum entrance

This is the place. GPS coordinates N31.9020636, W110.9995385. Click on the coordinates for a Google map. Click the following link to find out all about the Titan Missile Museum. BTW, Count Ferdinand von Galen is a real person and a real German Count. He’s also a successful Arizona businessman, aviation enthusiast and chairman of the Board of Directors for the Arizona Aerospace Foundation.

When you finish at the museum, you can fire up the smart phone and start gathering up some of the dozens of geocaches and munzees in the immediate area. Cell phone coverage is excellent along the I-19 corridor. Then it’s time for some Mexican food. El Patio, El Rodeo, Agave and Manuel’s are all excellent and about 10 minutes away. There’s also a Taco Bell nearby.

Then you can walk off the calories and the guilt at the Pima Air and Space Museum. One of the largest non-government air museums in the world, it’s magnificent.

Enjoy your visit …. Boris and Natasha