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Welcome to our blog

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

This page is our permanent first page, called a sticky page. It was updated on October 1 and will remain on top permanently. Our most recent post is directly under this one and then they roll in date sequence from most recent to earliest.

Be sure to check out our new tag word cloud search functions in the sidebar.  We’ve also added a Geocaching Storefront to the sidebar with links to our favorite geocaching products.

Also in the page bar at the top of the blog are five pages of background and instruction on geocaching.  The titles are self-explanatory. These short pages are more than enough to get you started.

Cheers … Boris and Natasha

Hi and welcome to our newly updated blog. Designed as a companion to our website, we use it for shorter pages than we typically put on the site.

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 Off The Beaten Path is a family friendly blog that promotes interest in outdoor activities, curiosity about the world around us and lifelong learning. Our vehicle 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 6 and 4) 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 other related sites will develop skills and take you places you would have never known about otherwise.  The only adverse effect we’ve encountered is G.A.S. – Geocaching Addiction Syndrome.  Once it gets in your blood, it’s hard to walk away.

Our adventures have taken us to ghost towns, caves, mountain tops, waterfalls and more out of the way places than we can recall.  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 (or thereabouts).

You never know what you might find here. We love forts, battlefields, ghost towns, 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. Of course, we do normal stuff, too. 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, vagabonds and anybody else who might share our passions.  There’s no arm chair traveling here.  We’ve been to all the places we blog about and most of the pictures are ours.

See you in the blogosphere. …Boris and Natasha

James A. Garfield National Historic Site

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NOTE TO READERS: In keeping with our philosophy of lifelong learning, we are now on Twitter as @cachemaniacs. If you’re interested, there’s a Twitter follow button over on the sidebar or you can just click the link above.

Hi again,

President James A. Garfield

President James Abram Garfield
20th President
Born: November 18, 1831
Inaugurated: March 4, 1881
Shot: July 2, 1881
Died: September 19, 1881 (age 49)
Time in Office: 200 days

I know what you’re thinking. C’mon Boris. The James A. Garfield NHS? Y-a-a-a-a-w-w-w-n. The same thought occurred to us when we visited recently. We needed a break on our annual pilgrimage to Pennsylvania and this sleepy little suburb east of Cleveland was in just the right place. Besides it had a National Passport Stamp and a couple of munzees and geocaches to boot. We figured we’d do our collecting, take a quick look around and be on our way in 30 minutes. We stayed several hours. It’s a very cool place and our 20th President was an interesting and admirable man.

Information about James Garfield often includes the phrase “self-made man” and he certainly was that. The youngest of five children, he was born in a log cabin and raised in abject poverty by his widowed mom, Eliza.  Despite the hard scrabble upbringing,  he became a highly educated and successful man. He was a college professor, ordained minister, lawyer and Civil War veteran all by the age of 30. He spoke several languages, could write in two languages simultaneously with both hands and was one of the most gifted orators of his day. So naturally, all of this led him to his real calling – politics. After two years as an Ohio State Senator, he set his sights on the United States Congress.

**Historical footnotes: Garfield was the last of seven Presidents to be born in a log cabin. He was the first left-handed President, the only ordained minister to serve in the office and the only candidate to be elected President straight from serving in the House of Representatives. Last but not least, he was the first President to have his mother attend his inauguration.**

James A. Garfield NHS

The house that’s there now bears no resemblance to the one that 14 year Congressman James A. Garfield bought in 1876. He had always wanted a farm to be near his constituents, raise his growing family and escape the heat and politics of mosquito-ridden Washington, DC during the lengthy legislative breaks. He found it in Mentor, Ohio not far from the shore of Lake Erie and less than 20 miles from his childhood cabin in Moreland Hills. Along with 158 acres of land came a ramshackle 1 1/2 story nine room white clapboard farmhouse built in 1831. Before long, crops, livestock, orchards and voters were being tended to and the house was getting renovated. This is the eastern side of it. The Garfield family always referred to it as the Mentor Farm. Since livestock roamed and grazed all the way up to the house, the press soon dubbed it “Lawnfield”.

Garfield had a new family, successful law practice and political ambitions when the Civil War broke out. Nevertheless, he was determined to do his part. He was a staunch abolitionist who openly advocated a scorched earth war against the Confederacy, whom he considered traitors. He could have taken a safe job far removed from the fighting and still checked the veteran’s block on his political resumé, but he didn’t. Despite having no military background, he wanted a combat command. Initially commissioned a Lieutenant Colonel in the Ohio militia, he was put in command of a brigade and sent to Eastern Kentucky, where the Confederates were recruiting and establishing a foothold. His orders were to clear them out.

On January 10, 1862, Garfield’s brigade attacked and defeated a larger rebel force at the Battle of Middle Creek near Prestonsburg, KY. It wasn’t a big battle but it was important for two reasons. One, it gave the Union a victory when they really needed one. Two, President Lincoln was profoundly grateful that his home state hadn’t been hijacked by the Confederates. Garfield’s star was rising and he became the youngest General in the Union Army. Fighting at Shiloh, Corinth and Chickamauga, he acquitted himself well in those actions, earning his second star as a Major General. For the rest of his life, he was referred to by everyone as General Garfield or simply “the General”.

 While on medical leave in the fall of 1862, he ran for Congress in his home district (Ohio 19th) and won easily. He returned to the fighting while also carrying out congressional duties.  After Chickamauga in September 1863, he resigned his commission at Lincoln’s behest and assumed his elected office. Despite his earlier rapport with President Lincoln, Garfield refused to support his re-election in 1864 because he thought Abe wasn’t being aggressive enough in the war.

Home of President Garfield.

The structure of the old house is built into the current one. The clapboard section with the small porch in the foreground is part of the original farmhouse. If you take the inside tour, the ranger will point out walls, doorways and stairwells that were also part of it. The house was under continuous renovation for years under the direction of Garfield’s wife Lucretia. It has a mix of styles, including Victorian, Tudor and Cape Cod, all of which can be seen in the picture above. It soon grew to 20 rooms housing their seven children and close relatives from both sides of the family. It also had running water and natural gas for heat, light and cooking. The water and gas came from wells on their property which can still be seen today, although they are no longer in use. After Garfield’s death, Lucretia added an ornate library with a room-sized steel vault on the third floor. It became the very first Presidential Library and is still there today.

Another term you’ll hear to describe Garfield is “dark horse” and he is that, too. It refers to his surprise nomination for President at the 1880 Republican Convention in Chicago. After 36 ballots, none of the listed candidates could corral enough votes. Garfield’s name was placed in nomination as a compromise and the other candidates released their voting blocs. He was nominated on the 37th ballot.

**Historical footnote: The 37 ballots at the 1880 Republican Convention is still a record for the party. The Democratic record is an unbelievable 103 ballots at the 1924 convention in New York that dragged out for three weeks. That nominee was John Davis, a prominent lawyer and diplomat. He lost to the Republican incumbent Calvin Coolidge.**

Front porch of the Garfield house

On this front porch at the southwest corner of the house, James Garfield changed the way Presidential candidates campaign for office. In prior Presidential elections dating back half a century or more,  a protocol had been observed that the candidates didn’t do much campaigning and didn’t talk about themselves. It was considered unseemly and undignified. They let their colleagues, friends and others speak for them. Garfield thought that was crazy, especially since he was a better speaker than anyone in his circle. On the other hand, he didn’t want to ruffle any feathers by turning conventional wisdom upside down. Thus was born “The Front Porch Campaign”. Instead of the candidate running around making speeches, the people came to him. People showed up at Lawnfield from all over the country to hear Garfield talk about the issues of the day and mingle with the crowd, which sometimes numbered in the thousands. Presidential campaigning (and governing) was up close and personal. Schedules were published in the paper. There were no body guards. No security whatsoever. It was perfectly acceptable for a person to walk up to a candidate – or even the President himself – anytime, anywhere and ask questions or air grievances.  Candidate Garfield liked to work the farm and often had people – total strangers – walk up to him in the fields and barns to talk politics. Garfield gave dozens of  front porch speeches in the summer and fall of 1880. Parts of them he did in German, since many of his supporters were German immigrants. He mingled with thousands of people. In the end, he was successful. Future Presidential candidates would use this model very effectively and eventually strike out on the campaign trail themselves.

**Historical footnote: Garfield also brought another innovation to campaigning. In a small shack behind the house that served as his campaign headquarters, he had a dedicated telegraph line installed and hired people to man it 24 hours a day. Dispatches came and went night and day as the Garfield campaign pioneered the use of communications media.**

His Democratic opponent was retired Union General Winfield Scott Hancock, the “Hero of Gettysburg”. Defying the odds, Garfield threw himself into campaigning and won by the narrowest of margins – about 1/10 of one percent. The self-made man, dark horse and master of Lawnfield was now the 20th President of the United States.

James Garfield at home

This picture of President-elect James Garfield was taken sometime before he left for his inauguration on March 4, 1881. He would never see Lawnfield again.

**Historical footnote: The Constitution originally mandated March 4 of the year following an election for the Presidential Inauguration. March 4 was chosen because that is the birthday of the Constitution – March 4, 1789. That changed in 1933. The 20th Amendment designated January 20 as Inauguration Day.**

Garfield became President in the early years of the “Gilded Age”, a time of unprecedented growth in America lasting from the 1870’s until the turn of the century. The issues he faced were right out of today’s headlines – corruption, labor unrest, immigration, civil rights and economic opportunity. It was the time of the “Robber Barons” – the Rockefellers and Carnegies, the Morgans and the Mellons. It was also the time of the big city political machines like Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall. Throw in labor unions, Indian wars and the first rumblings of prohibition and women’s suffrage and you have your work cut out for you.

His most immediate priority was stopping the onerous White House patronage system of staffing civil service jobs. In years gone by, people would line up outside the White House for an audience with the President seeking a job in the new government. Garfield believed that people should be hired for their abilities and fitness for the job. He immediately shut down the job line and sought the development of a merit based civil service selection system.

In that job line was a schizophrenic lawyer named Charles Guiteau. His family had him committed to a mental institution in 1875 but he had gotten loose at some point. Now he sought a career as a diplomat in the new administration as a reward for his campaign support. Guiteau hung around the White House and the State Department for weeks and even had a meeting with the President. Finally, in May, he was banished from both places and told never to return. The voices in his head told him to kill President Garfield. He bought a .44 caliber revolver and with the aid of the daily White House schedule published in the newspaper, began stalking the new President.

Garfield assassination

On July 2, 1881, President Garfield went to the Sixth Street Station of the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad about ten blocks from the White House. His destination was a speech at his Alma Mater – Williams College in Massachusetts followed by some vacation time in New England. With him were two teenaged sons and Secretary of State James Blaine. Also at the station to see them off was Robert Todd Lincoln, the Secretary of War and the son of Abraham Lincoln. As usual, there was no security, even though Guiteau had announced his intentions for weeks through letters to cabinet officials, military officers and Republican Party leaders. When the President arrived in Blaine’s horse and buggy, Guiteau was waiting inside. As Garfield walked into the waiting area at 9:30 A.M., Guiteau stepped up close behind him and shot him twice at point blank range. The first bullet grazed Garfield’s right arm. The second entered the President’s back on the right side by the first lumbar vertebra, lodging near the pancreas. It missed the spinal cord and vital organs. Guiteau was immediately apprehended. He’d seen his last sunrise as a free man, but he wasn’t an assassin yet. The President was still alive.

**Historical footnote: Garfield was alive but he would not govern again. His governing tenure lasted 120 days although his official time in office is 200 days. The only President to serve a shorter time was William Henry Harrison, the 9th President. He died of pneumonia on April 4, 1841 after only 30 days in office.**

Garfield on his death bed

At his trial, Charles Guiteau admitted shooting Garfield but contended his doctors killed him. That’s also the historical hindsight concensus of the post-shooting care the President received. It was downright medieval and he suffered horribly. He lingered for 80 days while doctors poked and prodded with their fingers trying to find the bullet, which they never did. All they accomplished was to set off rampant systemic infection throughout his body. To cool his fever, he was moved to Elberon, NJ, a resort town on the coast. Garfield lost 80 pounds in 80 days as his doctors tried to feed him a concoction of raw eggs and whiskey to improve his constitution. Finally on September 19, 1881 – wasted away to almost nothing, wracked with fever and draining infection from every orifice in his body – President James Garfield died. He was 49. His wife Lucretia was at his side as she had been the whole time.

**Historical footnote: Despite this second assassination of a sitting President, there was no action taken to protect them. It would take the assassination of a third – William McKinley in 1901 – to get the federal government to deal with it. The task fell to the Secret Service, which was created to chase counterfeiters after the Civil War. The law creating the Secret Service was signed by Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865 – the day he was assassinated.**

President Chester A. Arthur

Upon Garfield’s death, his Vice-President Chester A. Arthur took office as the 21st President and finished out the term. He declined to run for a term of his own in 1884. Grover Cleveland, the Democratic Governor of New York, became the 22nd President that year.

Garfield assassin Charles Guiteau.

Charles Guiteau went to the gallows on June 30, 1882 – two days before the first anniversary of the shooting. He turned his trial into a circus, exhibiting bizarre, irrational behavior never seen before in such a high profile public venue. He was convinced until the end that he would be released and was planning a lecture tour.

Lucretia Garfield

Lucretia Garfield buried her husband at Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland, then returned to private life at Lawnfield. Since there were no government pensions or support, benefactors set up a trust fund for her that totaled almost half a million dollars. This enabled her to live a quiet, comfortable life until her death in 1918 at the age of 85. She is buried with her husband.

The house remained in the Garfield family for another five decades. After Lucretia’s death, her brother Joseph lived in it until he died in 1934. During the years after her husband’s death, Lucretia began selling parts of the farm as the Cleveland metro area moved outward. When she died, the children continued. By the 1930’s, it was down to eight acres. The current site is five acres.

Main entry to the Garfield house.

In 1936, the Garfield children donated the house and all its furnishings to the Western Reserve Historical Society. In 1980, it became a National Historic Site and the Park Service took over. A 12 million dollar restoration project in the 1990’s restored the house to its turn of the century glory, which is what you see today. Over 80% of the furnishings in the house are the originals owned by the Garfields. It’s a magnificent work of art, style and architecture. This is the formal entryway into the house.

As we explore off the beaten path, we continually run into things that are interesting and educational beyond our expectations. The James A. Garfield National Historic Site is certainly one of those places. If you find yourself in the Cleveland area, take an hour or two and pay it a visit. It’s located at 8095 Mentor Ave, Mentor, OH 44060. Here’s the park web site.

Cheers …. Boris and Natasha

Tuzigoot National Monument, Clarkdale, AZ

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NOTE TO READERS: In keeping with our philosophy of lifelong learning, we are now on Twitter as @cachemaniacs. If you’re interested, there’s a Twitter follow button over on the sidebar or you can just click the link above.

Hi again,

If you like to explore off the beaten path, it’s hard to beat Arizona.  We recently checked out a place we’d never heard of before – Tuzigoot National Monument.

Tuzigoot (which is Apache for “crooked water”) is a puebloan ruin on the banks of the Verde River that was built and occupied between about 1100 and 1400. People lived here for longer than the United States has been a country. Then 100 years before the first Europeans arrived, the occupants moved on, leaving few traces or clues as to where they went or why.

Tuzigoot National Monument

The builders of Tuzigoot picked their terrain well. The pueblo was built on a strategic ridge that provided easy access to the river and was highly defensible. Construction was continuous for its entire 300 year existence.

The Verde River in northwest Arizona is one of the few in the state that runs all year. It has a watershed of almost 6,000 square miles along its 170 mile length. The Verde River Valley was a natural draw for the hunter-gatherers that migrated there. At its peak of pre-European settlement, there were at least 40 separate pueblos in the valley.

Defense of a pueblo.

This painting by Paul Coze appeared in the August 1951 edition of Arizona Highways. Pueblos were built for security, not comfort or convenience. There were few doors and none on the first floor. Ditto for windows. Access to rooms was by a hole in the ceiling and a ladder. That was also the only ventilation for smoky cooking fires and summer heat. Pueblos were at constant risk of raids, especially once the Apache showed up. That is thought to be one of the main reasons the entire area emptied out in the space of a generation.

After its abandonment, Tuzigoot spent the next 500 years wide open to the depredations of both nature and man. The National Park Service excavated and restored it in the 1930’s. It was designated a National Monument by President Roosevelt in 1939. The name Tuzigoot came from a member of the excavation crew who was an Apache Indian. It has nothing to do with the original structure or people.

Here’s a before and after picture comparison of Tuzigoot.

Tuzigoot in 1934.

A 1934 National Park Service picture of Tuzigoot before the excavation began. It’s taken at the southern end of the pueblo looking up the hill to what was known as the Citadel. Many more historical photos can be found in the National Park Service gallery.

The Citadel.

The same view taken in 2014. The re-construction you see dates to the original work in the 1930’s, although there is considerable maintenance.

The people who built and lived in Tuzigoot and the other pueblos in the valley are called the Sinagua by anthropologists. “Sin agua” is Spanish for without water. Dominating the skyline of Northern Arizona are the San Francisco Peaks, which can be clearly seen from the Verde Valley. Those 12,000 foot mountains have no rivers flowing out of them. The Spanish called them “sierra sin agua” – mountains without water. The name was applied as a generic name for pre-European native people in central Arizona. They were hunters, gatherers, farmers and traders. The Hopi, Zuni and Navajo all trace their lineage back to the Sinagua.

Rooms at Tuzigoot

There were around 110 rooms at Tuzigoot, built over the course of three centuries. They ran north-south along the spine and spread down the hill to the east and west. It was a sizable community. Excavations revealed that all the rooms had evidence of food preparation, unlike many pueblos where some rooms were used only for storage

Inside construction at Tuzigoot

Inside construction was solid, with wooden beams as uprights and also cross-members. Thatched mats covered the beams which were in turn covered with adobe to make a ceiling. The beams were cut from Arizona sycamore trees that grew prolifically along the river. Everything was done with stone tools and manual labor. The Sinagua had no horses and the wheel was unknown to the them.

Central Arizona has many pueblo ruins that are now under state or federal protection. Montezuma’s Castle, Walnut Canyon and Wupatki national monuments are within easy driving distance. So is Sunset Crater National Monument, site of a volcanic eruption that affected the surrounding area around 1000 A.D. For a different type of exploring, check out Jerome, AZ and Prescott, AZ. There’s also historic Route 66 weaving its way through the entire area. Like we said earlier, if you like to explore, you’ve come to the right place.

The Tuzigoot Visitors Center (click the link for a map) is located at 25 Tuzigoot Road, Clarkdale, AZ. Just follow the signs. The GPS coordinates are N34.7723230, W112.0278880. The visitor center is small and was built in the 1930’s as part of the re-construction. There is a 1/3 mile (500 m) trail that takes you in and around the pueblo. You can see the whole thing in about an hour.

There are geocaches everywhere in the area. Cell phone coverage is spotty, so caching on the fly can be challenging and there are few munzees. There is a healthy supply of letterboxes.

BTW, if you go to Jerome, try lunch at the Haunted Hamburger. Fantastic burgers with a view of the San Francisco Peaks. On weekends, be prepared to wait for a table.

One last note: Remember, this is the desert. Heat, sun, dehydration and things that bite, stick or sting are constant companions here. Pace yourself. Be alert. Be aware. Use caution.

Happy trails… Boris and Natasha

Our Top 10 Geocaches – #2

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NOTE TO READERS: In keeping with our philosophy of lifelong learning, we are now on Twitter as @cachemaniacs. If you’re interested, there’s a Twitter follow button over on the sidebar or you can just click the link above. You can also E-mail us.

Hi again,

We started this series last year and have been working through it slowly but surely. Since then, our Top 10 have changed a bit as we have been to some really cool places.

Here’s what we have so far.

#10 – Easy to Overlook Cache, Tucson, AZ

#9 – Nuke on a Mountain Cache, Sundance, WY

#8 – The Caves of the Door Bluff Headlands Cache, Door County, WI

#7 – Spooky Tunnel Cache, Kuhntown, PA

#6 – Trolls Cache, Livingston, MT

#5 – Dragoon Springs Geocache, Dragoon, AZ

#4 – Civil War Entrenchments Cache, Snake Springs, PA

#3 – Big Spring Cache , Guttenberg, IA

Trying to nail down the Top 10 is a moving target because as we travel around, we run into a lot of potential Top 10’s. To make the list, there has to be something extraordinary or unique about the geocache under consideration. It might be distance, difficulty, terrain, location, history or just the surroundings. Our #2 cache made the list because of the unique geocaching environment it is located in – an abandoned highway tunnel on an abandoned section of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. From July, 2011 – the Rays Hill Tunnel geocache.

RaysHillGeocache

This is the eastern portal of the tunnel. The gold arrow points to the cache location. After you bike through the tunnel, it’s up and over. Footing can be treacherous. The small dot of light in the center of the blackness is the other end. Don’t let that fool you. The center 2/3 of the tunnel is pitch black and requires a strong bike light to negotiate safely. You’ll also experience a 20 degree temperature drop, which is welcome on a hot July day. At 3,532 feet, it was the shortest of the seven tunnels on the turnpike. It’s also the only portal to not have ventilation fans above the opening. All of these tunnels were dark and dingy, with cement lining and recessed lighting. Headlights were required even during the day. Believe it or not, 18 wheelers used to rumble through this tunnel in both directions. Before it was abandoned in 1968, my family had driven through it many times. The tunnel is part of an unofficial bike trail on a 13 mile stretch of weather-beaten asphalt called the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike.

When people think of my native Pennsylvania, they usually think Pittsburgh and Philadelphia – urban areas. In fact, most of Pennsylvania is heavily wooded and mountainous. The Allegheny Mountains run northeast to southwest through the center half of the state. Part of these mountains run through Somerset and Westmoreland counties and are called the Laurel Highlands. This is the area where I grew up and it looks much as it did 250 years ago – trackless woods as far as the eye can see. From the earliest days of exploration to modern times, the Alleghenies have challenged those who tried to tame them with roads, canals and tracks.

RaysHill1885

The eastern portal of the Rays Hill Tunnel in 1885 with the geocache location shown. The original turnpike followed the right-of-way for the Southern Pennsylvania Railroad. Over the course of 10 years, a lot of work was done on the railroad, including nine tunnels, and a lot of money was spent but the project was never completed. The line and its tunnels spent over 40 years in legal and financial limbo until the whole right-of-way was bought by the Turnpike Commission in 1937. Construction started in 1938 using the railroad bed and seven of the nine tunnels. The man at the center of the photo with his foot on the railroad tie is Andrew Carnegie, the principal financial backer of the doomed venture.

A year before Pearl Harbor, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania opened a four lane concrete toll road through these mountains that would eventually run east-west from border to border – the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Modeled after the German Autobahn, it was the first high speed limited access superhighway in the United States. Construction started in October 1938. The first 160 mile section from Carlisle to Irwin opened for business on October 1, 1940. Construction and expansion have been ongoing ever since. The original design envisioned speeds of up to 100 mph. The road was designed to maximize straightaways while minimizing curves and hills. This is where the tunnels came in, but that design parameter didn’t last long.

RaysHill1940

The eastern portal of the Rays Hill Tunnel on September 30, 1940 – the day before the opening. The future geocache location is marked. The turnpike was a victim of its own success. In its first year of operation, two million cars traveled on it. The road was four lanes but the tunnels were two lanes and very narrow and dark. Within 10 years, traffic jams at the tunnels became a regular occurrence. By the late 1950’s, the flow of traffic was significantly inhibited and the Turnpike Commission embarked on an aggressive program to remedy the tunnel jams. Between 1964 and 1968, three of the tunnels were abandoned. Four others had second parallel tubes drilled. In fact, an entire 13 mile section of the roadway around Breezewood, PA was abandoned and reconstructed on a new right-of-way. This took the Rays Hill Tunnel and the nearby Sideling Hill Tunnel out of action. The entire abandoned section, along with its two tunnels, became the Pike2Bike Trail in 2001. The third abandoned tunnel, Laurel Hill, is 50 miles to the west. It has been off limits since it was taken out of service in 1964.

So here we are on a hot July day looking for tunnel geocaches compliments of Andrew Carnegie and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Although little has become of the Pike2Bike, the route is a popular and fairly easy 26 mile ride round trip. The road can get a bit nasty at points so a helmet is a must. Likewise, you’ll need a strong bike light to go through the tunnels. Actually, two is better. Mount a flamethrower on the handlebars. That will light the way ahead. Also wear a headlamp, so you see what you are looking at as you look around you. Tunnel biking can be challenging. There are pools of water everywhere, some torn up pavement and the occasional rock or branch in the way. There are about a dozen geocaches along the 13 mile route. Each tunnel has a virtual munzee. If you go to the eastern end, you’ll pass the parking apron of the old Cove Valley Travel Plaza. It was also bypassed and abandoned but everything was torn down. You can still see the foundations of the old Howard Johnson’s Restaurant. It has a geocache nicely tucked away in it.

RaysHillMap

This is a schematic of the western end of the Pike2Bike. The Sideling Hill Tunnel is five miles east of the Rays Hill Tunnel. There are a couple of trail heads and a service road called Oregon Road that allow access to the pike. Here’s a link with their description and location. The trail is safe from predators, both four legged and two legged, and is patrolled sporadically by state, county and local law enforcement. Families and groups of all ages and abilities bike on it, including the tunnels.

The nearby Sideling Hill Tunnel was the longest tunnel on the turnpike at almost 7,000 feet. You can’t see the other end because there’s a slight rise and fall built into the roadway. You’ll be biking in pitch black darkness for almost a mile. While not officially open to the public, the inner workings of the tunnels are accessible to the adventurous. Steps, passageways, ventilators, control rooms and other assorted man-made features are waiting for the curious. It’s a great introduction to the world of “urban exploration” or URBEX, which we dabble in occasionally. Take your light and wear your helmet. Slow and easy does it, both inside the tunnel and out.

There’s no water or facilities on the trail. Summers here are hot and muggy, so plan accordingly. In the fall, the colors are spectacular. A local bike shop does tours of the pike and the tunnels. Check out Grouseland Tours. There’s quite a bit of information about all this on the Internet. A couple of Google searches should get you what you need. The GPS coordinates of the Rays Hill Tunnel geocache are N40.02072 W78.19852. Click on the coordinates for a Google map.

Regardless of how or when you go, we think you’ll find this a unique off the beaten path experience. We sure did.

Cheers … Boris and Natasha

Munzee – Geocaching with QR Codes

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NOTE TO READERS: In keeping with our philosophy of lifelong learning, we are now on Twitter as @cachemaniacs. If you’re interested, there’s a Twitter follow button over on the sidebar or you can just click this link.

The evolution of the geolocation stashing game continues as technology advances. First, there was letterboxing. Created in Scotland in the 1850’s, it involved hiding a box somewhere then providing written clues on how/where to find it. It was 150 years before the next generation appeared – geocaching in 2000 – enabled by the Internet and GPS. Both of these activities involved finding a container and signing something in it. Now even that simple task has been rendered obsolete by techology.

Say “hello” to Munzee. It’s the latest entry into the geo-game realm – and it is very cool.

In letterboxing, you need a compass. In geocaching, you need a GPS device. In Munzee, you need a smart phone with the Munzee app and a QR code reader.

A Munzee

This is a Munzee. It’s a registered QR code on a sticker, a magnet or a tag. When you find it, you scan the code with your smart phone, digitally signing and recording the find via the Internet. How cool is that? You can make your own through the web site or you can buy them from Munzee, all ready to go. We ordered 50 stickers. It cost $17.50. No sign or guardrail is safe now.

The word Munzee comes from the German word “mûnze” (moonˊ-za) which means coin. Originally conceived using coins for game pieces, it evolved away from that but the name stuck.

Munzee has only been around since 2011. It’s the brain child of a group of hobby geeks in Dallas, TX. They originally thought of the idea in 2008 but QR technology wasn’t ready for prime time yet. Now apparently, it is.

Munzee on a sign

Munzee sticker on the back of a sign.

In many respects, Munzee is like geocaching (although none of the developers had ever geocached before). It uses GPS to place and track down the munzees. The entire gaming environment is run by a central web entity – munzee (dot) com. It does, however, have its own language. Munzees aren’t hidden – they’re deployed. Munzees aren’t found – they’re captured. People who play the game are called munzers. Munzers find deployed pieces on the Munzee web site, then track them down with the Munzee app on their smart phone. The capture is done through the app, which opens the QR reader for you.

Munzee capture

Natasha captures a munzee.

Although the parallels are obvious, so are the differences. Munzees can be hidden anywhere, including places where a geocache isn’t practical or allowed, like National Parks. That said, there are already hybrid geocaches that have a Munzee code inside it, so you can get both.

Munzee in a geocache

Munzee in a geocache.

The entire Munzee environment was designed with an eye towards competition and rewards. Munzers rack up points. Families, teams and corporations have had Munzee competitions. Businesses have seized on Munzees as a way to market themselves. Unlike a geocache, a Munzee can easily be put inside a business, which will bring munzers inside. Restaurants put them on menus. Boutiques put them on shelves. Some businesses offer discounts or deals for getting Munzee points at their establishment. Munzee has opened up a whole new world of possibilities previously unheard of in geo-games. Or, you can just go out and have a good time with it, which is what we do.

Consistent Internet connectivity is crucial to munzers. The game is played in real time. That’s why you won’t find any back country munzees – yet.

Munzee on a fence.

Coming soon to a fence post near you?

Developers are working feverishly to create an offline environment for Munzee. The results are encouraging. It is now possible to do a search for Munzees in an area, download them as GPX files and load them into a GPS device as geocaches. Then you disappear into the dead zone, locate them and capture the QR code. The find is queued up and sent when the Internet re-appears. This new capability will enable the deployment of Munzees anywhere. Here’s a link to a web-based search page that will do all that for you. It’s not yet a capability in the munzee (dot) com site. I expect that will change soon.

Also coming online are geocaching apps that will integrate munzees. CacheSense already does it. It’s the one smart phone app you can use to search for, locate and record both geocaches and munzees on the fly. Soon they’ll all be doing it or they won’t be in business anymore. Here’s a separate link to CacheSense for iPhone.

One other thing – munzee is free. You don’t pay anything for membership or the app.

So that’s Munzee in a nutshell. We just stumbled on to it five days ago. They were popping up on our CacheSense screen and we had no idea what they were. As soon as we tried it, we were hooked. It’s a natural extension of geocaching with some new twists. Now we do both. Give it a try. We think you’ll like it.

Munz on … Boris and Natasha

Random Shots – Coolest Courthouse Ever?

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Coolest Courthouse Ever?

As we travel around the country, we often find ornate buildings in the middle of nowhere. This picture postcard scene is the county courthouse for Shackleford county Texas. It is located in Albany, about 30 miles north of Abilene. Built in 1884 by Scottish stone masons, it cost $49,000 – almost twice the original price estimate – and is still in full operation. It sits on a large town square that is right down the street from the Vintage Vanilla soda fountain. The carillion in the bell tower chines on the half hour and hour. The clock keeps excellent time. West Texas is full of ugly, hard scrabble towns but Albany isn’t one of them. Built at the height of the wild west, it has seen cattle drives, buffalo hunters, railroads, oil booms/busts and Commanche Wars. It has many century-old buildings that are still in use. There are parks and a bike trail on the old Texas Central railroad bed. They’ve also got a half dozen geocaches within walking distance of the courthouse. And check out that blue sky!

Hot Springs – Big Bend National Park

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Hot Springs - Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park is full of surprises and this is one of them. In the far southeast corner of the park, a geothermal spring bubbles up from the bottom of the Rio Grande River. A relic of the area’s ancient volcanic past, it is crystal clear, laden with healthy minerals and is a constant 105 degrees – about the same temp as a hot tub. In 1909, an entrepeneur named J.O. Langford built a bathhouse to corral the springs and opened a health resort. Besides the bath house, it had a store, a cafe, a post office and cabins that rented for $1.25 a night. People came from all over the world to soak in its healing waters and there are all kinds of stories of people being made well from just about everything. In 1916, Langford had to abandon his operation because of the Pancho Villa raids. After 10 years of border violence, Langford returned in 1927 and started over, making things bigger and better. He sold the operation to the state of Texas in 1942, which donated it to the National Park Service. The NPS ran the resort as a concession until 1952, when it was abandoned for good. However, the springs and the foundation of the bath house are still open to the public. You can soak in it all you want (although you can’t do it naked like the old days). If you get hot, you can hop into the Rio Grande to cool off, then climb back in. It is the most popular destination in the park. In addition to the springs, you can explore the ruins of the old resort facilities. There’s also a geocache there, so how could we resist? The yellow arrow points to the spring. The water in the enclosure is all spring water. It flows into the river over the outside wall.

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