Winding between skyscrapers in the Windy City

After a whirlwind of a first day in Chicago, my wife and I were looking for a relaxing way to spend our second night in the Windy City.

By happenstance, we passed a Chicago Architecture Foundation store on Michigan Avenue and decided to pop in. The foundation offers various tours of the city, and after some back-and-forth we settled on the River Cruise.

As far as spontaneous decisions go, it was one of the best I've ever made. The cruise was worth every bit of the $46 price of admission.

The hour-and-a-half journey on the Chicago River takes you past many of the skyscrapers that shape the city's skyline. Our guide explained the history behind the buildings and the architects who designed them.

We went on a day when there wasn't a cloud in the sky, so at some points I struggled to make out the finer points of the buildings while not damaging my eyesight in the sun's rays.

All in all, though, it was a great journey, and one I highly recommend to anyone visiting Chicago.

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Postcards from Apgar Village Lodge

At $100 per night, these rustic cabins inside Glacier National are a bargain. Located at the southern tip of Lake McDonald, Apgar Village Lodge is a great place to stay a few nights while exploring the west side of the park. 

The highlight of my stay was waking up around dawn each morning, getting a free cup of coffee at the lodge office, and watching the sun rise over Lake McDonald. 

The reflections of the snow-capped mountains surrounding the lake would change as morning became afternoon. 

In the evening, the brilliant reflections faded to dark. With little light pollution, the stars and moon lit up the night sky. 

Here are a few photos I took while staying at the lodge. 

The entrance to our cabin.

Our room had a view of a river that ran near the lake.

The room didn’t have a TV or wifi. To me, that was one of the perks.

War Games on the Prairie 

From 1963 to 1993, soldiers went underground every day in remote locations around the U.S. not knowing whether this would be the day they would start a nuclear war. 

It was a peacekeeping mission, according to the military. Thousands of miles away, in the Soviet Union, missiles with the same capability of destruction were aimed at cities throughout the U.S.

In many ways, it was the 20th century’s most dangerous game of chess: a constant build-up of weaponry, with each side determined to keep up with the other. A miscalculation on either side could have started the next world war.

These tensions began in the years following World War II, culminating in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. My mother, who was just an elementary student at the time, recalls participating in drills at school in which students crouched under desks to increase their chances of survival during a nuclear attack.

Years later, in the 1980s, I went through similar drills at school, but it was to protect students against falling debris in the event of a tornado or earthquake.

To me, outside of a muscle-bound boxer that gave Rocky Balboa all he could handle, the Soviet Union didn’t seem like much of a threat. It was a just a place that got very, very cold in the winter.

In 1991, after negotiations between the two governments, the U.S. and Russia signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) to reduce and limit their nuclear weapons.

Missile launch control facilities throughout the Great Plains closed, including one in Philip, S.D., about 70 miles east of Rapid City where I live. It was turned into a museum and is now owned by the National Parks Service. For $6, a park ranger will give you a tour of Launch Control Facility Delta-01 Compound.

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The entrance to Launch Control Facility Delta-01 Compound in Philip, S.D.


Our tour guide, a young man named Ted, met my wife and me at the entrance of the compound, which is still protected by a chain-link fence. Everything was just like the military left it in 1993 when the site closed, down to the typewriters and faded issues of Time Magazine.
We walked past the officer’s sleeping quarters and into a factory-like cage elevator. Ted bolted the door twice — multiple layers of security are commonplace throughout the facility — and we were lowered into a bunker, fortified by concrete thick enough to withstand a nuclear attack.

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The entrance to the bunker.

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Two officers stayed in this room 24 hours a day between 1963 and 1993.

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In the event of an attack, the red box would have been unlocked, allowing officers to fire missiles at the Soviet Union.

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The door to this silo would have blasted off, allowing the missile to fire.

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Until the 1990s, the silo contained a fully operational Minuteman Missile.

In the middle of the room, there’s a red box on the wall that reads: ENTRY RESTRICTED TO MCC DUTY. It’s secured by two Master Locks. In the event of an attack, Ted said, two Air Force officers would have opened it simultaneously to launch missiles at targets in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China. 

As the tour came to a close, Ted told us about the handful of times that a miscalculation almost led to war or, using his preferred term, “mutual destruction.” Both sides experienced radar failures during the Cold War that made it appear as if they were under attack, but chose not to fire because they couldn’t be certain.

It was only through extreme restraint, Ted says, that “mutual destruction” was avoided.

Lady in red

Trees in bloom at the Yuan Dynasty City Wall Park.

Spring is a popular time for photo shoots at the Yuan Dynasty City Wall Park in Beijing. The trees are in full bloom, and when the wind blows, white and pink petals float down on the heads of passers-by. On blue sky days, engaged couples flock to the park in their suits and white gowns to have their pictures taken.

I passed this young woman on a recent afternoon, dressed in a traditionally inspired red gown for a photo shoot. Walking in that dress without any help has to be difficult.

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Balancing act

DSC_0070A group of women prepare for a dance performance at Intramuros, a colonial-era walled city in Manila, Philippines. The centerpiece of Spanish Manila (1521-1898), Intramuros was heavily damaged during a battle to recapture the city from the Japanese during World War II. Today, it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Manila.

Postcards from Yunnan

This is as close as I got to the Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of the world's deepest river canyons. I had planned to hike the gorge, but the trail was closed because of a landslide.

View of the Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of the world’s deepest river canyons, from my bus window.  I had planned to hike a trail that cuts through the gorge, but it was closed due to a landslide.

Scenery

Some of the scenery at a bus stop between Dali and Shangri-La in southwestern China’s Yunnan province.

Shuttlecock

Men take turns kicking a shuttlecock in Dali Old Town. Shuttlecock kicking is a traditional Chinese folk game.

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Sitting on top of the world — almost

On my last day in Shangri-La, I hiked to the top of a hill overlooking the city. The incline wasn’t steep, but every 20 paces or so I had to stop to catch my breath. The city has an altitude of 3,200 meters, and my body still hadn’t completely adjusted to the elevation.

Along the hike, I passed several tombs that had been dug into the hillside. Some were very elaborate, with sculptures of lions and carvings of people dressed in ethnic attire. I assume families chose this spot as their loved ones’ final resting place because of the view. From the hill you can see a giant golden prayer wheel – the largest in the world – and rows of mountain peaks that grow taller as you look farther into the horizon. Continue reading

Thou shalt build more stairs

I think that in the course of building nearly every major temple and palace in ancient China, a conversation like this took place.

Architect: “It looks great, but there’s something missing.”

Lead foreman: “What is it boss?”

Architect: “I just can’t put my finger on it … .”

Lead foreman: “Bigger Lions? Higher walls to keep the bad guys out?”

Architect: “No, that’s not it … I know! More stairs! We need more stairs. Immediately assemble 100 of your fastest working men and add an additional 1,000 stairs to every entrance of this temple.”

Lead foreman: (Sigh). Yes sir. Continue reading

Awestruck in Dali’s Old Town

Dali is so beautiful that it can be downright dangerous.

I was riding a bike through the city’s Old Town, taking in the scenery and historic architecture, but not the giant pothole that lay in front of me. The next thing I saw was concrete.

Fortunately, I landed left knee first, and suffered only a few bruises. I hobbled to a nearby pharmacy and, using broken Chinese and a little point and grimace, described what I needed. I felt embarrassed, but if any Chinese city is going send me head over heels I’m glad it was Dali. Continue reading

Fast times call for life in the slow lane

I like walking along the moat that surrounds the Forbidden City because it gives me a feeling that’s hard to find elsewhere in Beijing: peace.

On a clear day the reflections of the trees and towers lining the palace’s outer wall stretch across the moat, their colors preserved in the water. Old men with wooden fishing poles cast their lines a few feet from each other and smoke cigarettes and make small talk as they wait for a bite. Continue reading