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The Wild Turkey Geocache

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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,

It’s winter. Even by Minnesota standards, it’s a brutal one. However, we’re in Tucson for four months. One of our favorite places to explore is the Santa Rita Mountains about 40 miles south of the city. Knifing into those mountains is Madera Canyon in the Coronado National Forest. Going from 2,000 feet at the bottom to 9,000 feet on top of Mt. Wrightson, it goes through nine different climactic zones – the equivalent of driving from Arizona to Canada. There are lots of geocaches but few gimmees. Most involve some hiking in steep terrain and many involve some rock climbing. This was one of them.

Natasha at the Wild Turkey geocache.

The lovely Natasha near Ground Zero of the Wild Turkey geocache. The container is a mini-bottle of Wild Turkey bourbon minus the bourbon. Just the log. It’s located in the rocks you can see in the picture and was a tricky hide. It was a challenging two mile hike up the Bog Springs Trail but the scenery was worth it. As you can see, we’ve got our back country gear with us and navigated with our Garmin Dakota 20’s. No cell phone coverage up here. Along the way, we got another geocache and a letterbox. Today, we cruised successfully off the beaten path.

Cheers …. Boris and Natasha

Random Shots – New Mexico Homestead

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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.

Abandoned homestead near Willard, NM

On our way to Tucson in early January, we got off the Interstate in New Mexico and cruised the back roads for a day. It took us to the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument and the Jornada del Muerto, which are poster children for things off the beaten path. We also passed a number of abandoned ranches and homesteads. This was one of them. It’s just north of Willard, NM in the foothills of the Manzano Mountains. There’s no placards or monuments. Just blue sky, waves of prairie grass and few hints as to what might have been.

Cheers …. Boris and Natasha

P.S. I’ve been hard at work on our companion website, implementing HTML5 and CSS. Also working on Javascript and HDR photography. The web site has some new material. If you’re interested in a major Civil War battle that almost no one knows about, hit the link and read on.

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

Random Shots – Fall colors in the Teton Pass

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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,

One of the great things about geocaching and its kin is that it gets you out into places that you would never go to otherwise. We often come across great scenery in our travels. Particularly out west, there’s a Kodak moment around every bend. Every once in a while though, we happen upon a vista which is there and gone in a moment. Clouds, sky, animals, fall colors, mountains, mist, shadows, snow and sunlight often combine to offer a breathtaking view which is gone in a matter of seconds. Our camera has caught a number of them. This is one of our favorites.

Teton Pass, WY in the fall.

This is the Teton Pass overlooking Jackson Hole, WY in mid-September. Altitude 8,631 feet. We were up here making our way along the spine of the ridge and looking for geocaches (of course). For the most part, it was a dreary day, cold and windy. As we returned to the trail head, the clouds parted and out came the sun. The fall colors exploded and the far mountains came into view. We have gone to places a number of times to catch the leaves at their peak and always seem to be a bit early or too late. On this day, we blundered right into the height of the fall colors. Ten minutes later, we were chased down the mountain by snow flurries and an abundance of caution. The restrictive photo size in the blog doesn’t do justice to the view. Click this link for a full sized version.

Just off to the left of the photo is Highway 22. Called the Teton Pass Highway, it runs from Jackson Hole to Victor, ID through the Caribou-Targhee National Forest. The road is steep and winding. Unlike most American mountain ranges, the Tetons do not have foothills or some sort of transition region. They jut straight up from the flat lands of the Snake River Valley.

Every July, Hungry Jack’s General Store in Wilson, WY sponsors the Teton Pass Hill Climb from the store to the pass. Each rider throws in 20 bucks and winner takes all. Although only 5 1/2 miles long, it gains a half mile in elevation with an average grade of 6.7% and a max of 14%. We’ll stick to Rails-to-Trails.

The photo was taken near coordinates N43.4973° W110.956°. Click on the coordinates for an interactive Google Map.

Cheers …. Boris and Natasha

The Palms aka Hoberg’s, Borrego Springs, CA

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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.

Movie stars, gangsters and us have something in common.

When Natasha and I retired and hit the road five years ago, we made it a point to seek out unique or interesting places away from tourist venues. Earlier this year, we struck gold in Borrego Springs, CA and a place called The Palms.

The main entrance

Opened in 1946, it was originally called Hoberg’s Desert Resort. In fact, the locals still call it Hoberg’s. Its location well off the beaten path in the Mojave Desert made it a perfect getaway for famous and notorious people in the 40’s and 50’s. Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe and Mickey Cohen all frequented here. Many of the guests flew in to the resort’s private air strip. Those heady days are long gone. Now its patrons are regular folks with nearby hiking, biking, motocross, golf, RV parks and geocaches galore along with a fair supply of munzees and letterboxes.

The resort is very laid back and unpretentious, with eight rooms and two pool-side casitas. It doesn’t even have phones. Cell phone coverage is pretty good and the resort has WiFi and DirecTV.

The front desk at The Palms

The original lodge building was destroyed by fire in 1958 and re-built in classic mid-50’s California modern style. Memorabilia covers the lobby walls and “rat pack” music plays in the background. They could have filmed scenes from The Godfather here. Along with the main lodge were 56 air conditioned bungalows scattered over the 17 acre compound. Those are all gone now except for a couple of ruins. The resort was abandoned in the 1970’s and fell into extreme disrepair. It was scheduled for demolition in 1993 when the current owners stepped in at the last minute and saved it. They restored everything and renamed it The Palms.

It sits on the edge of Anza-Borrego State Park and has unobstructed desert vistas in almost every direction. You can be as active as you want or not at all. The nearby mountains are full of desert bighorn sheep, which can often be seen on drives or hikes. In fact, the word “borrego” is Spanish for those bighorn sheep.

The Pool

The focal point of the resort is its magnificent Olympic-sized pool. For many years after it opened, this was one of the largest swimming pools in southern California. It also has a large hot tub/spa on the deck. At the far end of the pool, there are windows below the water line. There used to be an underground bar here where you could get a drink and watch the mermaids. It is now used for storage although you can still see through the windows. Also notice the desert skyline in the background. The pool is literally just steps from the lodge, which is just to the left of the pool.

The skies here are pitch black at night, so star gazing is a popular activity.

The Red Ocotillo

Another very popular activity – and the one that brought us here – is the food. There are two restaurants here. Inside is the more formal (and more expensive) Crazy Coyote. Outside, shown in this photo, is the Red Ocotillo. This is laid back, informal poolside dining at its best. People come for miles to eat here. After a hard day in the desert, it’s the perfect place to unwind and recover.

This was one of our best off the beaten path finds. It has it all – remoteness, history, uniqueness, geohides, a “coolness factor” and food. If you’d like to check it out, you’ll find them at 2220 Hoberg Rd, Borrego Springs, CA. Here’s a link to their web site. The GPS coordinates are N33.2692° W116.4008°. Click on the hyper-linked coordinates for a Google map.

NOTE TO READERS: Anza-Borrego State Park used to be a hot bed of geocaching. No more. In 2010, the state contacted geocaching (dot)com and directed them to deactivate/remove all physical geocaches in the park. Although they may show up in a search, they are no longer active. There are virtual caches and earth caches that are still available. This restriction was only placed on Anza Borrego Park. Do not despair, however. There are hundreds of geocaches in the 40 mile stretch between Borrego Springs and the Salton Sea, including several long strings of off-road/4×4 geocaches.

Cheers … Boris and Natasha

To Our Loyal Readers – We’re Back

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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.

I’m back from my self-imposed 92 day exile.  We spent the winter in Tucson, Arizona, which is going to be Snowbird Central from now on. We saw and did a lot of great stuff and I’ve got a lot in the writing queue. To be honest, I just ran out of gas and put the writing aside.  It was time for a break.

The San Francisco Peaks 

Arizona has many faces, which is one of the reasons we go there. Mountains, desert, alpine forests, even the ocean if you’re willing to go 50 miles into Mexico from Yuma. These are the San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff. The highest peak has an elevation of 12,600 feet and you can walk right up to it weather permitting. There’s also a big ski resort up there – Snow Bowl. All the peaks used to be one giant peak that reached up to 16,000 feet. It was blown apart in a volcanic eruption thousands of years ago. This area north of Flagstaff in the NE corner of Arizona is an active volcanic region called the San Francisco Volcano Field. Although quiet now, it is still active. The last major eruption was about 800 years ago. It formed the huge cinder cone which is now Sunset Crater National Monument. This photo was taken at the park entrance.

But I think the writing mojo is back, especially with the all the Civil War stuff going on this year. I like to write about smaller and/or lesser known battles on their anniversaries or present some new background on others. I wrote about the Alamo and the Doolittle Raid earlier this year. I missed the Little Bighorn and Gettysburg. Missed one yesterday too – the Union Civil War attack on Battery Wagner by the 54th Massachusetts. This was the first black regiment in the Union Army. The attack was the climactic scene in the movie “Glory”. 

Desert Winter

Yes, it snows in the desert and when it does, it’s beautiful – although Arizona drivers can be hazardous. This photo was taken in Catalina State Park in Oro Valley, AZ after an overnight snowstorm of wet, heavy snow. The snowline got down to under 2,500 feet, which is the altitude here. The snow on the low ground was gone shortly after sunup but in the mountains, it lasted for several days. The peaks in the back are the Santa Catalinas. They reach up to about 6,000 feet here and eventually climb to over 9,000 feet at Mt. Lemmon, which has a ski resort overlooking Tucson. Catalina Park has one of the largest concentrations of saguaro (swor’oh) cactus in the world. The 50 square mile park has over 5,000 of them.

So welcome back and enjoy what’s coming down the pipeline.

Cheers … Boris and Natasha

Winter Comes to the Desert

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It snowed in Tucson today. We didn’t get much on the valley floor, which is around 2,500 feet in altitude. Above 3,000 feet though was a different story. They got hammered. I expect we’ll wake up in the morning to snow capped hills all around.

tucsonwinter1

I love shooting landscapes. A snow covered desert has to be one of the best subjects for a photo. So being from Minnesota, snow or not, I was out looking for a shot with my trusty Nikon D3100. The challenge of shooting the desert winter is that it doesn’t last very long. You’ve got to shoot on the fly, with not much time for setup. I got some. An hour later, they were gone.

Here’s another one. Ya gotta love the snow in the palm trees. The picture is a little fuzzy because of the ice fog rolling in.

Desert winter

This would be a great shot for a Corona beer commercial – or not.

About a mile away in the background of the pictures are the Santa Catalina Mountains. They jut up from the desert floor to an altitude of up to 9,000 feet on Mt. Lemmon. Today, they are completely socked in by the storm. It’s supposed to stay cold tonight and be sunny tomorrow. Could be some great shots in the early morning.

Tomorrow it will warm up and the snow will be gone. Even the higher elevations will be gone in a week. All that moisture will make the desert explode in color in a few weeks. More work for the Nikon.

Cheers … Boris and Natasha

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