Historical Research: Part 1

Having left the idea to marinate, we each gravitated toward Oregon Trail as a trip theme after we tossed the idea around. And May seems as good a time as any to make the crossing. So we decided to make it happen. But that means we have a lot to do, with surprisingly little time until our little wagon train sets off. Thus begins the route planning.

A route vaguely following any of the historic Oregon Trail or Lewis and Clark expedition lines will be a stunningly scenic adventure. But this also gives us unique blend of not only American history but also computer history. Because — while we’ll source our routes, stops, and stories from many places — first thing’s first:

Why do we all know The Oregon Trail?

I’m speaking of the classic computer game, naturally. In its 2016 article, “How You Wound Up Playing ‘The Oregon Trail’ in Computer Class,” Smithsonian Magazine writes:

The Oregon Trail, Word Munchers, Storybook Weaver. All games you played in school, all made by the same state-funded company—the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium. From 1978 to 1999, MECC, together with Apple, competed against private software companies to turn American children into a nation of computer-savvy early adopters and make computer class as much a part of American schooling as math and English. […] MECC’s goal was on putting a computer in the hands of every K-12 student in Minnesota. Once MECC had [its UNIVAC maintframe], it needed a game.

(This image would come from a later version)

Don Rawitsch, Bill Heinemann and Paul Dillenberger, three student teachers enrolled at nearby Carleton College, created The Oregon Trail in November 1971 for an eighth-grade history class Rawitsch was teaching. The game starts in Missouri, 1848, where the player equips a party of pioneers for the 2,000-mile journey to Willamette Valley, Oregon. Along the way, the player manages his or her wagon train through river crossings, food shortages, injuries, illnesses, breakdowns and theft.”

Well if that doesn’t sound like the ideal place to get route planning inspiration, I don’t know what does.

When Rawitsch’s class ended, he removed the game from the mainframe — but printed out the source code (yes, on paper) before he did. MECC later hired him to resurrect the pile of papers, adding new features and plot points. He researched Oregon Trail pioneer diaries to help tie events and locations together. Some stories even mentioned help from Native tribes, which inspired him to add those encounters as well. The game was retooled and re-released multiple times as new generations of personal computers were created.

All MECC games had to do four things: First, the information based on real events had to be historically accurate. Second, learning couldn’t be spread out in patches; it had to be woven throughout the game start to finish. Third, it had to include thorough documentation for the teachers to use it as a teaching aid. And fourth, the games had to be fun.

Between 1975 and 1995, The Oregon Trail series was MECC’s most prolific title. Although MECC shut down after it was acquired, that game remains a cornerstone of “early experiences with computers” for many Gen X’ers and Millennials. The Internet is awash in reboots, parodies, and re-imaginings. And while we three weren’t as avid players as some of our peers, we remember this game and the ancient, table-sized computers that ran it in our early schools.

Thankfully, several organizations have managed to relaunch versions of the original to play in emulators online. We tried our luck on the 1990 PC-DOS release of The Oregon Trail courtesy of The Internet Archive.

Spoiler alert: one of us was killed at the hands of another.

Cutting this down from a slow-paced, alcohol-soaked 90 minute screenshare to a 22 minute super-rough-cut of highlights took far longer than I expected. I have gained new respect for the video game streamers and reviewers who make this look a lot more streamlined. But I suppose I’ll get better with practice; I intend a rematch!

West Texas New Years 2023

We rang in 2019 in Big Bend and it was pretty spectacular. But it was also very crowded. So last summer, when George found an AirBnB option about fifteen miles outside Terlingua in the middle of nowhere with its own kitchen, we booked it without much additional consideration. And in uncharacteristic fashion, we didn’t go back in and fill in the blanks — instead opting for a “huh, so what do we want to do today?” approach.

And after being tossed overboard by the great log flume of decembermania, I didn’t put up anything on the blog. But I was delighted to later learn that there were those wishing that I had — so I’d like to offer a little recap of yet another adventure in this magical place.

Day 0: Austin to Terlingua

I woke up at the crack of dawn to drive to Terlingua in one sitting. Aside from a startling impact to my windshield near Iraan, it was a lovely drive. I met up with the boys on US-67 just south of I-10 and we rolled through Alpine and into Terlingua Ranch together.

Day 1: Old Ore Road and Ernst Tinaja

We spent the first day on Old Ore Road, revisiting Ernst Tinaja on the way, and finished up at the Rio Grande Overlook. The drive was easier than when we had to do it in the dark back in 2018, although there’s been some washout since I did it in February. And at one point, we ended up passing a posse of three cars, one of which had a transfer case stuck in neutral and the other was missing two wheels — its owner got two flats and had to get new tires back in town.

While we executed this delicate pass, Evan noticed that the Rover seemed to be leaking diff fluid from the front transaxle and I set off the Xterra’s car alarm… in such a way that the easiest method to silence it was to yank my horn relay. So it was a rough day for automobiles everywhere.

But we survived our trials and arrived back to Ernst Tinaja, which remains my favorite little hidden gem of the park. But that pool about half-way through the canyon is still full, which I yet again attempted to find a way over.

And as we rolled out the end of Old Ore Road back to the park highway, the sun was starting to set in the distance.

Day 2: Santa Elena Canyon and Mule Ears Springs, and a Missing Comrade

I woke up to a light rain, which in all the times I’ve been in this region, I’ve only seen one other time. During breakfast and the drive into the park, the rain stopped and clouds parted. What remained was a glorious technicolor desert.

Today was reserved for hiking instead of offroad escapades, so given yesterday’s worrying fluid leak in the Rover, Evan left it behind and braved the passenger seat of the pickup. We started with Old Maverick Road from the park entrance at Terlingua straight down to Santa Elena Canyon where the river enters the park from Lajitas. This was the best view of the canyon I’ve ever seen.

We made a stop briefly at the Castolon Ranger’s Station and Visitor Center so that George could stamp his parks passport. We asked if they had any recommendations for a hike nearby, and they suggested Mule Ears Trail, which I’ve never done before. It’s another iconic hike, with a view of the Mule Ears through the desert floor all the way to a tiny spring next to the ruins of a sheep corral built with stone.

Back at the house, we made dinner, set a fire, and watched the stars a while.

Day 3, New Year’s Eve: AutoZone, Madrid Falls, and Camping at Choro Vista

We applied our Evan Trip Stickers, then packed out of the AirBnB to head up the stunning FM170 along the river to Presidio. We made one last top there before diving back into Big Bend Ranch State Park. As ordered by tradition, we visited an AutoZone — Evan wanted extra diff fluid, just in case, and in exchange for letting me use their restroom (the last for a while…), I finally bought replacement for the dome light that’s been out for ages.

Reasonably prepared and lightly fed, we left Presidio and entered the park. Our campsite, Choro Vista, wasn’t too much further down Madrid Falls Road from where Vista del Chisos was. The drive in was lovely, if a little washboarded, to the Sauceda Ranger’s Station. From there, Madris Falls Road was perhaps a little more washed out than last time, but also we were better at it. And Evan broke out the drone again and experimented with chase patterns on “The Big Hill.”

I gotta admit, it’s pretty epic looking footage. I originally had dreams of mixing in video and audio segments pulled in from our dashcams, too, but mercifully, my dashcam overwrote all of that before I got back to it, so I was spared what would have turned into many additional hours of editing.

We finally arrived into Choro Vista an hour before sunset and made our way down to the Madrid Falls Overlook.

The sun set as we hiked back to the dramatic ridge over our campsite where we caught the beginnings of twilight. Then it was a rush to make camp before it got too dark.

We spent the evening by the campfire, ready to welcome 2023.

Day 4, New Year’s Day: Ojito Adentro and Alpine’s Oldest Hotel

If I keep doing this, I need to start thinking about where sunrise is gonna hit me.

Happy New Year! We woke up and wandered about a bit before cleaning up and heading back the way we came to Sauceda.

There were a few hikes along the main park road I’d wanted to check out. The Ranger who was wandering around the Ranger’s Station sent us on a quest to another little spring, Ojito Adentro.

We took an unpaved road, Casa Piedra or County Road 169, depending on which map you’re reading, out the north end of the park toward Marfa. Being much less traveled than the two park highways on either side, the drive was beautiful yet sparsely sprinkled with homesteads that look a little … uninviting and prepper-y, replete with No Tresspassing signs and intimidating yard art along fencelines. When we hit pavement again, we stopped at the Site of Alamito to reinflate tires and poke around what little remains of this ghost town.

Alamito Creek has been a passageway and the scene of human activity sine prehistoric times. […] Beginning in the 1850s, the infamous Chihuahua Trail, a route for heavy freight wagons from San Antonio to Chihuahua, Mexico, passed near Alamito. By 1870, Alamito was a community with several families farming and working on nearby ranches. John Davis, a pioneer from North Carolina, was a strong community leader. He married Francisca Herrera, the daughter of Carlos Herrera, one of the first Spanish settlers of Alamito, in 1875. They build a home with a chapel, one-room school, and a canal for crop irrigation. Davis was known for serving peach brandy to weary travelers who came through on the Chihuahua Trail. Francisca died in 1892 and was buried near the chapel in Alamito. The grief-stricken Davis went back to North Carolina and never returned to this area. [… These days, only ruins of the Davis-Herrera homestead remain, but ruts of the Chihuahua Trail can still be seen in the bedrock to the north.]

“Site of Alamito,” Texas Historical Commission placard on Highway 169

Aired up, we headed back into Alpine, where George had booked us rooms at the oldest place in town, The Holland Hotel. It (re-?)opened to the public in 1928 to great fanfare at a total construction cost of $250,000 and bosting 70 guest rooms, baths, telephone service, and its own banquet hall. (Each floor had a had a framed copy of every regional paper that ran this press release.)

Day 5: Alpine to Tulsa

700 miles, more or less. I followed the boys back to Tulsa to see a couple folks. Audiobooks, radio chatter, highway hypnosis.

Day 6: A return to the real world

Wherein I set up shop in the corner of the living room and tried to remember how work works while dogs tried to distract (rescue?) me.

Day 7: Climb Tulsa

Our friend Thomas, who now lives in Japan, was back home visiting family, and has taken up bouldering lately. So he asked if we could hit up Climb Tulsa one night, which has become one of my favorite gyms. He did well!

Day 8: Tulsa to Austin

I’m closing in on 100,000 miles with Xterra the Younger. I can’t tell if doing that in less than 5 years is fast or slow. But I have now solidly overtaken the Rover’s odometer. And no, that SES light is nothing serious — just that clogged EVAP valve code that pops up every time he gets dusty.

It would be hard to summarize 2022, except to say it was full of surprises and grand adventures — literal and metaphorical. 2023 has a lot to live up to. Happy New Year!

Nearly Home

I spent my entire day between the Unarmed Hampton Inn and the swanky food hall in its parking lot where Dad and I had lunch just over a week ago — the latter was actually a good way to spend a day. Hot pho, good coffee, and no one else was there when I had to present a team status meeting to two C-Suite folks on my first day back after a ten day hiatus…

Mike owns a space ship now? I gotta get back to Meow Wolf.

That view of the mountains outside the door though, that’s just cruel. And Evan W and Mike, meanwhile, took the car and made a run up to Meow Wolf in Santa Fe, which would have been a lot more fun. I went there with a corporate retreat back in 2018 and have wanted to go back ever since.

After work, we headed out for an Irish Pub (in Albuquerque??) for dinner before making our way over to Lubbock. Usually, I don’t retrace my steps on a trip, but this is just how it worked out this time. Mike picked tonight’s Overton Hotel and I think it might be the tallest building in the whole town.

Back to Albuquerque

We packed out the house this morning and it looks admirably not like eleven climbers let a bomb go off inside of it. Small groups left, one at a time, until it was just me, my two passengers, and an imperial ton of luggage. We almost had to tie someone to the roof, but it all fits barely with just enough room to pull up one seat in the back.

Completely packed to the gills.

As we barreled through Henderson, Mike suggested we make a quick stop at the Hoover Dam overlook, which, well… I haven’t done since we tried and got kicked out back in 2017.

Lake Mead is incredibly low. But it did give a pretty cool view of the dam and the spill towers behind it. Mike put it interestingly, “even 100 years later, this still looks big.”

Hoover Dam was built in the early 1930s. So many engineering feats from almost a hundred years ago seem to have been dwarfed by what has sprung up since. And here it is, less than 50 miles from The Strip, a monument to colossal architectural absurdity that seems to bulldoze anything older than I am and replace it with something even bigger. And yet, Hoover Dam still looks really big.

The closest we got in 2017 when Evan M was sternly told to vacate the premises by security.

I didn’t realize you can drive over the dam, so we did! It looked like there was an exit from the park area back onto US-93. And… well… there is, but it’s barricaded and Google Maps seemed to not know that… (this is becoming a theme). So we drove back and out the Nevada exit to the highway. So while Red never got to drive over the dam, at least now Xterra the Younger and I have. Twice.

Anticlimactic, but perhaps a fair warning of how today would go: in Kingman, Arizona where US-93 dumps into I-40, we sat in creeping traffic for almost 45 minutes. Never again with this stupid route.

About ten straight hours later, we’re back in Albuquerque. But this time we’re at the Hampton Inn across the highway from the Armed Security Extended Stay, so it’s better. Unfortunately, tomorrow at work is already looking dicey. I feel a disturbance in The Force, but have yet to summon the courage to re-enable work email service to my phone…

Red Rock, Part Two

Photo from Lyndon C

Two more awesome climbing days. And something unusual happened — I didn’t really pick up my camera much. Thankfully, leaving it on top of a pile of gear meant that a lot of people moved it around. And, in the process, used it — for which I’m grateful.

Friday at Classic Rock Wall

After the big dinner, we went back to Classic Rock as a bigger group, a bit further down the area to a couple of routes in warm sun and a few in the canyon.

In which we learned belayers should probably wear helmets, too…

Evan and I started by putting up a slabby 5.8, which was a really fun route. At least, until I put my weight on what looked like a great foothold and the whole thing, about the size of a brick, broke off. These two pieces are just the largest that remained after it crashed down and shattered. I saved them to put on my bookshelf. Thankfully, no one was hurt, but this is the… “spontaneity” of a newly developed wall.

Some of us spent a while taking turns on a sunnny 5.8 and 5.9 with a great view of the canyon beyond. I finished up with a lead on a dramatic and fun 5.10c that went well, and then flailed my way up a crimpy slabfest 5.11b that I had no business playing with but had fun on. Thanksgiving leftovers and a hot tub to wind down.

Saturday at the Cactus Massacre

Sadly, we were down two people today — Evan G flew back this morning in anticipation of a condo closing; Lyndon was out with a pulled muscle. The rest of us went to a crag I’ve never been to before with ~80 foot walls around a large flat area perfect for lizarding in the sun.

But what was supposed to be a sunny day turned out to be quite cloudy and cold. The very first climb of my day was trading catches with McCracken on a 5.10d (soooooo not a warmup for me), which had a hard start but was a lot of fun. He made it look super easy. I made it look outstandingly difficult. But I finished it, and I had fun! Through the afternoon, I hit up a slabby 5.9, a crimpy 5.10c, and a fun 5.10a to finish out my trip. It seemed like everyone had a couple victories for their last day. It’s been a good week.

We did a little packing, cleaning, and way-too-late-into-the-night chatting back at Climber Mansion before we all head out in different directions tomorrow morning.

Saturday Update

Arrived at a crag without any shade in a bright warm sun. Jackets came off, sunscreen went on… Then almost immediately a cloud cover set in and it got cold. Current status: hiding hand warmer pouches in chalk bags.