Monday, March 30, 2015

Planes, spaceships and missiles at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center

Space Shuttle Discovery

Chapel Hill was just the half-way point to our ultimate destination, Washington DC. The reason for our visit is a longer story involving cousin, fraternities and galas, but just as on our North Carolina stop the boys and I were mostly just along for the ride. We had arrived Friday afternoon leaving time to meet family also in town for the weekend, and then headed to Dogfish Head Alehouse in Gaithersburg (MD) for dinner. A brewing company based in Delaware, the restaurant had delicious grub… and the crowds to prove it. With the annual Rock ‘n Roll marathon taking place in DC that weekend among other things, we knew we were in for big crowds, but with a little bit of planning ahead and some consulting with a local DC-er we picked a destination for Saturday morning: the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

If you’ve been to the National Mall in Washington, DC, chances are you’ve visited Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum there. Being located in downtown DC has its advantages; an estimated 6.7 million visitors walk through the doors annually, making it the 5th most visited museum in the world. However, a drawback to the location is available space, as the 161,145 square feet of exhibition floor space can be restrictive when talking about displays of large airplanes. In order to present a much larger percentage of the missiles, airplanes and spacecraft in the Smithsonian’s custody, the companion facility was opened in 2003. Located in Chantilly, Virginia, the Udvar-Hazy Center is adjacent to Washington Dulles International Airport, and even boasts an observation tower that gives visitors a 360˚ view of the airport. We didn’t brave the lines to take the elevator up; it was Family Day at the museum, and despite the extra pair of hands helping with the three boys, it was still going to be a challenge to give the entire museum a proper tour.

It was immediately obvious I wouldn’t have gotten far without the company of our friend who has called the DC area home for 16 years, Dziesma, to help manage the boys + stroller in this enormous space with the weekend crowds. To give you an idea of the massive scale of this 760,000 square feet museum, there are two main hangers open to the public, the Boeing Aviation Hangar and the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar, housing 170 aircraft, 152 large space artifacts and thousands of aviation and space artifacts. Udvar-Hazy Center is also home to the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar, where the preservation of the National Air and Space Museum's collections takes place. Visitors can watch the restoration of projects through a window overlooking the hangar, although it being a Saturday there wasn’t any work in progress. Finally, the museum is home to the Airbus IMAX Theater, the Emil Buehler Conservation Laboratory and the Archives – arguably the foremost collection of documentary records of the history, science and technology of aeronautics and space flight in the world.

The Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar

One of the most impressive displays is that of the orbital spacecraft, Space Shuttle Discovery. The third of five shuttles built for NASA’s Space Shuttle program, its first mission was from August 30 to September 5, 1984. Over 27 years it launched and landed 39 times, more than any other spacecraft to date, and it was finally retired upon returning from its final mission on March 9th, 2012, arriving at Udvar-Hazy on April 19, 2012. Discovery performed both research and International Space Station assembly missions, but might be best known for carrying the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit.

Also on display is the Enola Gay, the Boeing B-29 Superfortress that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. After the war, the bomber operated from Roswell Army Air Field in New Mexico, and although it was flown to Kwajalein for the Operation Crossroads nuclear tests in the Pacific, it did not make the test drop at Bikini Atoll. It was transferred to the Smithsonian Institution and spent many years parked at air bases exposed to the weather and souvenir hunters before being disassembled and transported to the Smithsonian's storage facility at Suitland, Maryland, in 1961. The cockpit and nose section of the aircraft were exhibited at the National Air and Space Museum for the bombing's 50th anniversary in 1995 amid a storm of controversy, and once restored has been on exhibit at Udvar-Hazy since 2003. The last survivor of its crew, Theodore Van Kirk, died on July 28, 2014, at the age of 93.

The Enola Gay on the right, with the R on its tail

We spent hours admiring the helicopters, airplanes, space ships and historic artifacts on display, and then what felt like hours standing in line for lunch at the McDonalds. Despite that frustration it was an incredible experience, and I hope we have the opportunity to return once the boys are a little older. There is so much history on display, from the first days of flight to modern space expeditions, and it is mind-blowing to think of the distances traveled by these aircraft. Where else in the world can you hold a meteorite in your hand one minute, and admire the fastest jet-propelled aircraft (the Blackbird) in the world the next?!

Dziesma looking out over the hangar, with the Blackbird lower center 

The Smithsonian lists all the objects on display on the museum webpage along with detailed descriptions and other facts. There is no admission, but parking is $15 and the only food available the previously-mentioned McDonalds. The museum is stroller-friendly, although crowds can make navigating more difficult. Thank you very much to Dziesma, our extra set of hands and tour-guide extraordinaire for the idea to visit, the assistance with the boys, and the company! (You can read her version of the day’s events here, although I don’t know if it is to be trusted – she calls the boys ‘well behaved’…) 

My French-born son with the first supersonic airliner to enter service, the Concorde, the boys admiring the helicopters, and Vilis getting a better view

Friday, March 27, 2015

An Easter Five on Friday

Easter is a little more than a week away, but we’ve just barely started our preparations! Here are the five things I’m thinking about as the holiday approaches;

1. Traditionally dyed Easter eggs. Latvians use onion skins and red cabbage to color their eggs, using natural ingredients before it was en vogue. If you would like to give au natural a try this year, my post Œufs blancs covers the onion skin method and Natural Easter eggs instructs on the red cabbage method. Either we’ve eaten fewer onions this previous year or I’ve been slacking on saving the skins, as my bag was far too empty for the deep brown color I strive to get. Yesterday was the day I rummaged through all the onions in the produce department earning strange looks from other customers and the cashier, but after I buy white eggs we’ll be all set to color our eggs next week.

2. Last year I couldn’t procure the necessary farmer’s cheese to make my grandmother’s paska (we were in Ohio and we must have called thirty stores in our search!), and so this year I’ll be driving to Spartanburg’s European Market to pick up the stuff; harder to find than morels in these here parts.

3. Our local Bi-Lo supermarket had pussy willow branches for sale on my last shopping trip, saving me from a mad last-minute search across the Upstate to be prepared this Sunday. I fully intend to be the first one up, earning the privilege to give all the boys a good apaļš kā pūpols, vesels kā rutks wake-up call! (Read my post Pūpolsvētdiena or Palm Sunday here if you're wondering what I'm talking about.)

4. The giant Easter bunny at the company Easter party doesn’t get any more normal-looking as the years go by; every year I think how different this human-size rabbit is from the more rabbit-sized one I imagined hiding all the eggs of my childhood. Eventually won over with the promise of securing bubble wands, the boys still had their doubts; good thing they were too busy admiring one another’s haul from the morning’s egg hunt to give it too much thought.

5. Easter egg baskets. Three favorite things to find in yours on Easter morning?

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Chapel Hill is home to University of North Carolina, forming the “Research Triangle” along with Durham (Duke University) and Raleigh (North Carolina State). Although we’ve been in/around Chapel Hill a few times while living in Greenville, I had never seen the campus. We explored the North Carolina Botanical Gardens one morning a couple weeks ago (operated by the University of North Carolina), and when Roberts was liberated from his work obligations we picked him up and headed to downtown Chapel Hill, a town founded specifically to serve the University.

Coincidentally we picked up a NC jersey at a consignment sale last month

Kenan Memorial Stadium is home to the North Carolina Tar Heels. There has been an unwritten rule since the Stadium opened in 1927; the stadium can never be taller than the surrounding pine trees. With a current capacity of 63,000, the largest number to ever fill the stadium for a game was (before the 2011 expansion) a standing-room-only crowd of 62,000, when the Tar Heels hosted the Florida State Seminoles in 1997.

Specifically chose this picture because you can't see Mikus isn't wearing pants

Adjacent to the stadium is the 172 foot tall bell tower. Dedicated to John Motley Morehead (class of 1891) and Rufus Lenoir Patterson II who funded the bell tower’s construction, the tower was dedicated on Thanksgiving Day, 1931. Up in the belfry are fourteen mechanized bells, which replaced the carillon of twelve manually operated ones some time ago. Traditionally a few days before commencement, seniors get the chance to climb the tower, but on our visit the door was securely locked and we could only imagine the view of campus afforded from the top. Dr. William C. Coker, the first Professor of Botany at the University, designed the hedge and lawn surrounding the tower, with peeks of the stadium down the southeast hedge row.

Continuing north we came to Professor Coker’s legacy, the 5.3 acre Coker Arboretum. The boggy pasture was originally developed as an outdoor classroom for the study of trees, shrubs and vines native to the State, until the 1920’s and following decades when Dr. Coker added many East Asian trees and shrubs. Today the collection ranges from flowering trees and shrubs to bulb and perennial displays, featuring a 300 foot native vine arbor and a Metasequoia (dawn redwood).

After an ice cream stop for the boys we finished our UNC tour at Top of the Hill Restaurant and Brewery. The pub opened in 1994 and was one of the first microbreweries in the state, and these days is possibly one of the best places to be after a UNC win due to the view of Franklin Street. The infamous “bonfire” celebrations occur when students and fans spill into the street from the bars, restaurants and dorms along Franklin, resulting in occurrences such as after a 1982 game when the street was literally painted blue. In 2009 after winning the men's NCAA championship over 45,000 people crowded Franklin Street.

Top: view from Top of the Hill, bottom: a Franklin Street bonfire (source here)

All three Research Triangle teams are in the tournament this year, and all have fared well so far. Tomorrow UNC (seeded 4th) will face off against  Wisconsin, while Duke (1st seed) plays Utah and NC State (8th seed) upset Villanova for a game against Louisville on Friday. Maybe we’ll see them meet up in the semifinals or finals!

Top of the Hill mascot wearing #23

* A small part of me is cheering on University of North Carolina, just because that’s where my childhood home-town hero played three seasons of basketball. A couple years after his Tar Heels won the national championship in 1982, Michael Jordan joined the Chicago Bulls.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Pelham Mill ruins on the Enoree

Happenstance brought us to another historic site in Greenville, this one under the radar of the majority of locals, even those living nearby. With old mill ruins, river shoals and a few acres of bottomland forest, in my opinion Pelham Mill Park is one of the coolest parks in Greenville County.

Home to the first textile mill in Greenville County outside of city limits, there are scenic and historic elements that liken it to Falls Park downtown. The Upstate was largely shaped by the textile industry, and just as Falls Park contains the ruins of a mill, Pelham Mill Park contains the remnants of a cotton mill. The evidence of a complex series of stone and brick foundations spanning the floodplain, shoals and terrace overlooking the Enoree River are accessible to visitors; though, be warned - with steep, muddy footpaths, tall grass and an unfortunate abundance of trash, extreme caution should be exercised when exploring the site.

The Greenville County Historic Preservation Commission donated the thirteen acres to Greenville County in 1988. Seven acres have been added through a partnership with Western Carolina Regional Sewer Authority, and the master plan for the park includes eventual interpretive signage, picnic sites and a walking bridge spanning the river that would provide access to trails along the Enoree River. One aspect of the plan which has been completed is the dog park, and a second that is currently in the works is restoration of the former Pelham Mill Post Office.

In 2008 (source here) and now 

The building was built in 1870 as Pelham Mill’s office until the textile plant closed in 1930. It became a post office until it was closed in 1996, and when Highway 14 was widened in 2002 it was moved to its present location. Greenville Rec is restoring the historic structure for use as a community building with help from Western Carolina Regional Sewer Authority and Greenville County.

source: here

Other features of the park include a paved path leading to the historical 19th century stonework dam. An overlook provides a view of the dam, architectural remains of the mill and shoals on the Enoree River. Crumbling walls, foundations and depressions give evidence to what used to stand on the site: two steam smokestacks, underground pipes, drains, turbines, nine brick pilings, the mill’s main powerhouse and steam generator, and finally the large mortared stone dam with six sluice gates spanning the Enoree River. The Mill burned down in 1943 (except for the mill office), as the only fire trucks available had to come all the way from Greenville and Greer.

Pelham Mill is recognized by the Greenville County Historic Preservation Commission as one of 11 historic sites in the County.

On a related note, the Enoree river served another important purpose a few hundred years earlier. In 1766 NC/SC negotiated a boundary between ‘Indian land’ and their new settlement with the Cherokee. This line extended from Honea Path across the Reedy River all the way to Virginia, but today there is nothing to remind us of this aspect of southern history except a few historic markers. If you do stop at the marker, make sure to find the nearby geocache

Friday, March 20, 2015

Celebrating the first day of spring with a festival of color

Spring is here! Although today is officially the spring equinox, spring temperatures have been with us now for a few weeks. We’ve been spending as much time as possible enjoying the sunshine and warm weather before it gets hot, although some afternoons it seems like we once again went straight from winter to summer in terms of temperatures. Nonetheless, we’re excited about the new seedlings growing in the garden and all the beautiful blooming trees and shrubs, and a few weeks ago joined our friends for a Holi celebration.

Holi is also known as the festival of colors or the festival of love. This ancient Hindu religious festival has become popular across the world due to the festival’s vibrant colors and playful nature. As with many spring holidays, the festival signifies not only the end of winter with the arrival of spring, but also the victory of good over evil.

Traditionally Holi starts with a Holika bonfire on the night before where participants gather together to sing and dance. The next morning the color festival starts; participants carrying color powder, water guns and water balloons filled with colored water roam the streets throwing color at people. Groups carry drums and musical instruments from place to place, singing and dancing. In addition to color throwing, people will share conversation and Holi delicacies, and the holiday stretches into the evening when people will dress up and visit friends and family.

Our Holi celebration took place in Conestee Park with color powder we had ordered online. I had tried an online recipe utilizing flour and food coloring, but in the end it was worth the money to order a set, as there were a dozen bags of different colors with none of the mess making it at home entailed. I was surprised at how easily the powder washed out of all the clothes, but be warned – showers beat baths, and the water running down the drain can be quite shocking, especially if you were throwing a lot of red powder! 

Wishing you a happy Holi and a wonderful spring! 

* In parts of the world today there will be a solar eclipse and a supermoon in addition to the spring equinox! The Faroe Islands and Svalbard (Norway) will see a total solar eclipse, and Europe, northern and eastern Asia and northern and western Africa will see the partial eclipse. A Supermoon refers to the full or new moon on its closest fly-by of Earth, making it look bigger than it normally does.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The green in Greenville

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Greenville’s St. Patrick’s Day parade has come a long way in two years. We last attended in 2013, when daylight savings time threw the start time off by an hour making the wait longer than the parade. This year we were not completely sure when the parade was set to start and arrived a bit early on the morning of Sunday the 8th. The boys headed into Fluor Field to check out the scene while I staked out a spot, and before we knew it the parade was on!

This year the parade route was three times as long as on our last visit, starting at 1:30 at the intersection of Coffee & Main Street. We caught them at the very end of the parade route, at Fluor Field. Upon finishing, the bagpipers and flags made a circuit of the green.

A larger to-do also meant larger crowds. It was nearly impossible to navigate the mass of people inside the stadium with the stroller, and forget the children’s activities – the lines were hours long. Although some of the Irish fare sounded appetizing, the more popular items quickly sold out and so we settled for some cotton candy.

It’s great to see Greenville get into the spirit. On this day I hope you enjoy your green eggs and ham, your green beer or your green Chicago river, and may the luck of the Irish be with you!

Friday, March 13, 2015

The North Carolina Botanical Garden

On our last visit to the North Carolina Botanical Gardens we were confined to the education center while some severe tornado weather passed through the area. This time around we had much better luck, with warm temperatures and sunny skies accompanying us to the University of North Carolina Gardens.

Two miles of trails connect the Education Center to over a dozen smaller gardens. We started in the Display Garden, currently home to The Stickwork Installation. There is a fascinating video on the building of this giants bird’s nest on the Sculpture in the Garden website.

After passing through the Cattail Gate we found ourselves in the Herb Garden, complete with sections for medicinal, culinary, industrial and even poison herbs.

They thought the poison garden interesting, but the boys were enthralled with the chess set we found beyond the Herb Garden.

I enjoyed the Garden of Flowering Plant Families, where plants from related families are grouped together to show the taxonomic relationships among plants. And just adjacent were the aquatic and carnivorous plants. Southeastern US is home to the world’s most diverse collection of insect-eating plants, and we dissected a dead one to find the insect skeletons within.

There wasn’t much in the aquatic beds this time of year, just a few fish and snails to hold the boys’ attention.

Pulitzer Prize winning author Paul Green did much of his research and writing on folklore and the uses of native plants in a cabin that has been relocated to the property (see first picture). Although it wasn’t open on our visit, the interior has been renovated to appear as it did when Green used it as his writer’s retreat. Close by in the Mountain Habitat is the Storytellers' Chair.

On our way back towards the Education Center we crossed through the Coastal Plain Habitat, where a chorus of frogs was silenced by our approach. We only caught sight of the ripples of a few stragglers, but found salamander eggs floating in the water near the bridge.

We ended our visit with an exploration of the Children’s Wonder Garden. Some things remained the same as on our last visit, but there were plenty of new things to see and do, including a fairy mailbox; both boys were compelled to write the fairies a letter…

The NC Botanical Garden is a must-visit destination when in the Chapel Hill area. I would love to return to witness the different seasons in the various gardens, and can imagine how exciting it would be to retrace our steps in another month when everything has greened up. We soaked up some last rays of sunshine, made one last climb up the giant log and then headed towards the parking lot to meet Roberts for lunch.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Lake Conestee Nature Park

Not too far from the busy downtown of Greenville, between Mauldin and the Donaldson Center, lie 400 acres of hardwoods, evergreens, marsh and river. Between playdates and Park Hop we had been to the adjacent Conestee Park at least a dozen times, but it was during one of these decidedly spring-like days that we’ve been having that we ventured beyond the Greenville County Rec complex into Lake Conestee Nature Park, with Sparkleberry Island the day's destination of choice.

With dozens of trails crisscrossing the area including our famous Swamp Rabbit Trail, there are more than a few choices on an afternoon such as ours; due to its proximity to the children’s playground and the relatively short length (0.6 mile loop +there and back brought the total to about a mile) we chose River Otter Way and Froggy Bottom Link, a loop of boardwalks and sandy pathways taking us around the entirety of Sparkleberry Island.

The name Sparkleberry 'island' refers to the fact that the piece of land was actually completely encircled by water at one time before Lake Conestee filled in; today, the Reedy River is to the north and east, while various bays and Marrow Bone Creek are to the south and west. Despite 90% of the original lake being filled in, with the North Slough along the western portion of the island and West Bay on the southern tip there are plenty of opportunities to spot waterfowl and wildlife on the hike. Even with four loud hikers accompanying us we saw birds galore; it’s no wonder the park has been designated as an Important Bird Area of Global Significance by the National Audubon Society, an incredible 190 species have been documented by the Greenville County Bird Club.

The bridge spanning the Reedy River is a sturdy pedestrian bridge that looks as if it could have been a railway at some time, if not for its narrowness. Immediately on the opposite side is a picnic area, perfect for some future feast. Continuing on, we crossed from trail onto boardwalk for the western portion of the circle. These boardwalks are new, and here and there is still a muddy expanse crossed by wooden plankways; however getting muddy would be completely by choice. With inquisitive and curious kids it might be prudent to wear rain boots on future visits; this would allow the boys to get up close and personal with the wetter aspects of the island, as a couple of the hikers on the day’s visit showed us.

A wildlife observation deck looks out over West bay on the southern end of the island. We saw mallard ducks and geese enjoying the sunny day, fish and turtles in the shallow waters. In the middle of the bay is the Great Blue Heron rookery, and during late spring and summer you'll see plenty of the birds in the area.

Back in the woods we found plenty of deer sign left by the inhabitants of the hardwood forest. Along with the deer, raccoon, beaver, fox, river otter, and various small mammals inhabit the park. Reptiles and amphibians are also plentiful. Woodpeckers and insects kept the boys busy as we looped back around to the Reedy for the last section of the hike.

I can’t wait to explore other portions of the park. Along with several trails that shadow the Reedy, there are paved and unpaved trails and boardwalks leading to intriguing-sounding places such as Forrester Farm, Raccoon Run, and to larger 'bays' than what we saw on our hike. The Swamp Rabbit Trail’s terminus is currently at the southern end of the park, close to the Historic Conestee Mill, and the Historic Conestee Lake Dam is another point of interest that I’m sure we’ll explore someday. I can imagine that as the summer progresses the insects might become a nuisance, but during these late winter and early spring days there is no better place to be to enjoy all that the beautiful Upstate has to offer just a few miles from our doorstep. Bright red maple buds on the river and bright green grass brought senses starved for color, and the fresh air and sunshine were simply invigorating. The boys had a great time, whether it was searching for tracks, drawing in the sand or enjoying the playground on our return; I hope that we have the opportunity for further exploration soon.

For park hours, trailheads and parking, click here, for park rules and safety, click here and for the park map, click here. My guide to Lake Conestee Nature Park (complete with links to the various trails and areas within the park) is here.

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