the Argo Tunnel

in addition to the Denver Miniature Museum, we also ventured into the mountains to see another unique Colorado site — a gold mine & mill. the Argo Mill & Mine is located in Idaho Springs east of Denver and is known in part because of its 4.16 mile long tunnel that allowed easier extraction of gold along the length of the tunnel. the Dutch ex-pat that started us off on our tour was a hoot and gave us far more information than strictly necessary.

construction of the tunnel began in 1893 from the southern terminus and, by the time it reached its completed length in 1910, intersected nearly all the major gold mines between the entrance and Central City. construction did not progress unhindered, as management and construction teams changed and war broke out between England and Spain. rather than dig further into the mountain and then cart gold out to the entrance and down the mountainside or to the mill, the tunnel allowed prospectors to send ore down chutes into carts that traveled along rails inside the tunnel and straight to the mill.

by 1914 the nearby mill was running at full capacity but problems persisted and, in 1943, disaster struck. prospectors found a major lode of gold near the Central City end of the tunnel and decided to blast it out to get at it more quickly. unfortunately, there was an abandoned mine that did not appear on maps which was filled with water. the blast unleashed what amounted to an underground lake and flooded out the tunnel. the deluge ripped up everything in the tunnels, rendering it virtually unusable and full of acidic mine water. shortly after the disaster, the national government ordered all gold mines closed so as to free men and materials for mining metals more deemed more important to the war effort. neither the mine nor the tunnel ever re-opened.

Argo Mill & Tunnel
Argo Tunnel

astronomical clocks, part 1: Prague

the Astronomical Clock is perhaps the most iconic image of Prague. it is certainly one of the most visited sites in the city, particularly at midday when people crowd into the square next to the Town Hall and crane their necks for a glimpse of the noon display. the oldest part of the clock — the mechanical clock and astronomical dial — dates from the early 1400s (1410). the current clock has three components: the astronomical dial, which includes depictions of location of the Sun and Moon; a calendar dial with ornate medallions representing each month; and the Apostles that parade past the two doors at the top (closed in the picture) to mark each hour. (for more on how to read the clock, check out the Clock’s Wikipedia page.)

for centuries, legend held that renowned the clockmaker called Hanuš, or Jan of Ruze, created the clock and refused to share the designs with anyone. when the city elders heard rumors that Hanuš planned to construct an even more intricate and elaborate clock in another city, they had him blinded so that no other city could compete with their Clock. taking revenge, Hanuš damaged the clock such that no one could ever repair it to its initial, smooth working condition. unfortunately, documents uncovered in the 1960s proved this legend simply that; while Hanuš possibly did repair work the clock, the man who constructed the mechanics of the astronomical dial was actually Mikulas of Kada, working in cooperation with Jan Sindel, a professor of astronomy at Charles University.

a tale of revenge from a bitter clockmaker makes a much better story as to why the Clock broke down so routinely, especially when it more or less broke down all together in the early 18th century and thereafter remained motionless for nearly a century. retreating Nazis set fire to the buildings on the southwest side of the Old Town Square, severely damaging the Clock in 1945. once again, restoration took place and within three years the improved mechanics had the clock chiming out Central European Time (rather than Old Czech Time, wherein 24 marked sunset, a time which varied by up to four hours depending on the season.)

(if you’re inclined, a better explanation of the Prague Clock.)

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bright lights in the City of Sin

no, dear readers, I have neither abandoned nor forgotten you. there was merely the matter of four fantastic weeks of football which I was obliged to watch and celebrate. lots of persuasive arm-twisting to get people to join me for 6:30 a.m. or mid-work-day matches. now it’s back to the important work of dreaming about what new (or old) places I might visit (or re-visit) here and in my travels.

during this hiatus, one of my co-workers went to Las Vegas for the first time (to celebrate her twenty-first birthday) and was, in a word, underwhelmed. it’s hard not to have certain expectations for a city with such notoriety; pop culture has cultivated such an unattainable image of what Vegas ought to be, what ought to happen there, the insanity and hilarity that will ensue on any visit, that reality won’t be able to compare. or, at least, not for anyone I know. with the bigger-than-reality dimensions Vegas takes on in popular culture, upon hearing her reflections I was rather thankful that my primary purpose in visiting Vegas each time was to see friends.

my first trip was chock-a-block with tourist attractions that were, for the most part, worth the effort. no matter how kitschy or cliched, you can’t avoid the sights that make a place famous. I find that the ones that I even have passing interest in are worth the effort, if for no other reason than to say you’ve seen one cultural icon or another. the fountains & gardens at the Bellagio were impressive, the canals at the Venetian something different, the floor shows were what one would expect, the Forum Shops gave me a headache from the lack of natural air, the lions at the MGM Grand were rather depressing, the Cirque du Soleil production of Ka was unquestionably spectacular — a stage that went fully vertical !, if also priced spectacularly.

but for all it’s glitz and glamor, had I not been visiting friends, I’m fairly certain I would have hated Vegas. (of course, if not for visiting those friends, I’m also fairly certain I would never felt any need to go to Vegas …) the very principles on which the city thrives — consumption, excess, careening headlong towards something “bigger” and “better” at any cost — are antithetical to the kind of travel that I enjoy. how many of the casinos that I saw when walking down the Strip for the first time in August of 2005 will be there in five, ten, fifteen years? some of them are already gone. the Bellagio seems iconic now, but so was The Dunes, which stood on the same location from 1955 to 1993. Vegas suffers from the same lack of “historical weight” as does San Diego and other sites in the American West, but Vegas has taken this deficit and capitalized on, exploited and extrapolated it. not only is there a lack of history, but there’s a complete rejection of the remotely culturally passe. Arabian themes? so early 90s (the Aladdin is now defunct). perhaps the Bellagio remains so iconic because it has modeled itself on something with historical weight (Lake Como in Italy) and Paris-Las Vegas is kitschy but memorable because it, too, rests on the historical cred of another structure.

my co-worker was disappointed that nothing truly “spectacular” happened; there were moments, she said, but nothing sustained, nothing that lasted. and maybe the fact that she didn’t have a sustained feeling of the exceptional lies rooted in that lack of historical weight. someplace that so cavalierly discards the icons of its past cannot produce the environment necessary to create moments of historical significance. I’m sure it happens for some people, that Vegas provides that experience for people who seek it out, but I’m also sure that I’m not the type of person to get satisfaction from that kind of experience (and I suspect that neither is my co-worker). I like my travel experiences to have more depth, and more permanence associated with them.

Mystery Spot!

one tourist trap that I long wanted to visit in Santa Cruz: the Mystery Spot.
managed to convince everyone to take the jaunt up into the hills for what proved a thoroughly entertaining visit to this nook of warped perspectives (and/or reality). whatever causes the place to do what it does … I enjoyed it. Gabrielle and I took our turns fudging with our heights with respect to one another. we all climbed a ladder on the wall of the shack like stairs. Tanya stood in a line up of tall people to short people, which then reversed and everyone appeared the same height. the experience was rather disorienting (as, I take, it ought to be) but lots of fun. the best $5 tourist trap I’ve ever visited, for sure.

for more info, visit the official Mystery Spot website

Cliffs of Moher

apparently, it’s actually quite the rare day when you get crystal clear skies and a good view of the Cliffs of Moher. weather not withstanding, the Cliffs are pretty amazing. rising 120m (394 ft) from the Atlantic at Hag’s Head on the south end, they reach their highest, 214m (702ft) above the sea, 8km north, just beyond O’Brien’s castle (which was built in 1853). on a clear day, you can see to the Aran Islands and Galway Bay, and even the Ten Bens in Connemara. it’s one of the most visited attractions in Ireland, pulling in as many as a million people a year. I cannot imagine what the place would have been like had I visited during the height of tourist season, with coach buses choking the parking lot and disoriented, jet-lagged tourists wandering all over the place. as it was, the visitor’s center was packed — wall-to-wall people; forget about a leisurely browse through informational material or looking for the perfect gift in the shop. maybe it was the weather: no one wanted to brave the wind and mist, or had just done so and wanted an opportunity to warm up before heading back to the car or coach. try to dry out some before sitting another hour or two. really, not unlike a lot of the other heavily touristed sites that I visited. I wager if we’d gone to the Blarney Castle, it would have been even more choked than the Cliffs of Moher.

the Cliffs were a convenient visit on my drive from Dingle to Galway. the day that I visited started out cloudy, but not misty or rainy. the entire drive up through Cos. Kerry and Clare, in fact, was overcast. after about twenty minutes, though, the cloud that had been hovering over the Cliffs descended and gave me a right soaking. (lucky me, I had a change of clothes handy for when I returned to my car, soaked to the skin.) the wind, not surprisingly, wasn’t on my side either. O’Brien Tower stands about half-way along the Cliffs and it is not exaggerating to say that the building is assaulted by the winds. you know the clip of Conan at the castle? spot on. granted, it wasn’t nearly that bad the day I visited, but the wind wouldn’t have to ratchet up much to get there.

two other things I found interesting during my visit: while the Cliffs are maintained by the Office of Public Works (and thus technically free, despite the fee charged to park in their lot, which is the only one for at least a mile in any direction), the land that runs behind the Cliffs is privately owned. as such, the land is in use … by cows! as I mentioned in a previous post, farm life has pretty extensive reign on land once you get out of the cities. if it’s good grazing land, there are sheep, cows, or even donkeys munching it up. the pastures fenced behind the Cliffs were filled with cows in various shades of brown.

along the wall, as well as along the river in Galway, there were signs for the Samaratin’s helpline. there are people hired to walk the Cliffs of Moher, ostensibly to answer questions and help tourists, but more explicitly to make sure that no one in distress tries to avail themselves of the height of the cliffs. there are walls built up from Liscannor slate (in which you can see marks left by worms, snails and eels from ages past), but with the wind gusts it can still be quite dangerous. and it is not far a far leap from this side of the slate to the edge of the cliffs, if one is desparate and thus disposed. I climbed over an “extreme danger, do not pass” sign and can completely understand how, on a particularly gusty day, one might get swept over the edge and into the sea some 400 feet below. not that it stops many people from exploring beyond the paved boundary of the cliff-side walk.
seeing signs for Samaratin’s so many places also got me wondering why similar signs aren’t posted in more places in the U.S., whether on bridges or river tow-paths or tall buildings. just a little, bright plaque offering assistance to those perhaps in need. maybe we just stick to the big places, like the Golden Gate Bridge, and hope for the best everywhere else. maybe there are actually more options for the clinically depressed. maybe private gun ownership makes it less necessary to have alternative means of ending one’s life.

lastly, the Cliffs of Moher is up for selection as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. check it out, and vote if you’re so inclined.


during my day in Cork, I took the opportunity to visit the J. Jameson & Son’s Old Midleton whiskey distillery. it was my first experience with using Bus Eireann for local connections, and what a good relationship we developed (why don’t we have public transportation that is this easy to use in the U.S.?). the facility that we toured was in use until 1975, and the distilling process has since moved to a larger one on the same site. whiskey in Ireland is made either here or at Bushmills in the North. that produced in Midleton is transported to the Dublin facility for bottling and packaging.

not knowing anything about the process, I found the tour at least informative, but I have since discovered that our ‘guide’ did little more than recite the information provided on the pamphlet. it felt like something aimed directly at tourists for whom English was not a first language (and there were quite a few on our tour).

the barley is dried out in a kiln using anthracite, which is a smokeless fuel that results in the distinctive taste of Irish whiskey. that made in Scotland uses peat to fuel the fire, which gives the drink a smokey taste. Irish whiskey is also distilled three times, in contrast to twice for Scotch whisky and once for bourbon. initially, to test the proof of whiskey after it was distilled it was set on fire. if it didn’t burn, the proof wasn’t high enough. if it exploded, it was too strong and given over to the workers at the distillery.

the top photo is of the masher, where the dried out barley is mixed with boiling water. during the process the starches in the grains are converted into fermentation sugars, resulting in a liquid known as “wort”, which is then sent on to “washbacks” for fermentation.

the bottom photo is the oldest building on the site, dating to 1794, when it was built as a woollen mill. it was used as a military barracks during the Napoelonic wards, and was turned into the distillery in 1825. the waterwheel at the side dates to 1852. it’s 22ft in diameter and made of cast iron. it also functioned until 1975.

at the end of the tour, i took the opportunity to compare bourbon, scotch, and whiskey, discovering that i don’t much care for any of them!