Category Archives: Featured

Driving Across America

Driving across the United States is an experience that I highly recommend taking the time to do – especially if you get to go with some of the best travelling companions you have.

There is no substitute for traversing a large area by ground. We watched the landscape change dramatically as we passed on the road, and we got out to experience some of the greatest spots on foot. We ate exciting meals in unfamiliar towns and re-energized with tasty snacks along spectacular trails. We enjoyed getting together with friends, experiencing the hospitality of family, and travelling with each other.

It all came together last summer when Irena, my wife’s sister, was heading to California for the next chapter of her academic career. Obviously Helen and I wanted to come across the country with her, and their younger brother Alex was wise enough to join in.

Planning began with Google Maps and ideas of places we wanted to go. I had some great memories from previous trips I had taken with family, and we did some research online and figured out a schedule. We were going to be on the road for two weeks, from Hoboken to San Francisco. After helping Irena move in and get furniture, the other three of us would fly back east.

All of our gear and many of Irena’s possessions were going coast-to-coast in a 2008 Honda Accord. Thankfully it was a four-door model. I would have gone with nothing but a jacket and whatever I could fit in my pockets if I had to, but fortunately for me and everyone who had to spend hours in a car with me, we were able to bring a backpack each, extra shoes, and a medium duffel bag to share space in. There was no room for camping gear, but we were on a limited schedule anyway, so motels and family homes would serve for sleeping space. A Garmin nüvi, smartphones, and park maps would help us navigate. We were ready for adventure.

Driving across the country is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, a dream frequently forgotten as life presented other paths. I don’t know if I truly believed we were all going to do this until we hit the road the first morning.


We set out from the Hoboken waterfront in the first week of August. There was excitement all around because we were really doing this! We made a brief stop in town to get some awesome scones and muffins a friend made for us. We joked that she was trying to make sure we would come back, but actually she’s just cool like that.

Our first day was a drive to Pittsburgh to meet with a friend. We decided that we would take I-80 across New Jersey and Pennsylvania, because it seemed like the scenery would be more mountainous than it would be if we took I-78, the other likely candidate. We would be seeing plenty of farm country on our trip, so the wooded Pocono Mountains were a nice send-off from familiar territory. As the highway winded through the hills and valleys, mist rolled over the landscape outside. We arrived in Pittsburgh with plenty of daylight left.


We didn’t explore Pittsburgh for very long, but it was a nice city and a good opportunity to rest up for the big trip ahead of us. We got a good view of the city from the top of the historic Duquesne Incline.


Below the hillside are the three rivers of Pittsburgh. Here the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers meet to form the Ohio River. There is actually a park there called Point State Park. The lawn by the point contains a stone tracery of Fort Duquesne, an important landmark in the French and Indian war.

For us, the city marked our passage west. The next day would be a long drive to St. Louis.

We left Pittsburg pretty early. I was fascinated with the idea of taking the wheel for the entire distance, and my travelling companions obliged. It turns out to be about a 600 mile trip, but we made some stops so it was not too hard to handle. Most of the day was along I-70: riding hours of highway, passing cities and towns exit sign after exit sign, watching acres of farmland and rows of strip malls pass by in between.

I was going to drive right past the signs for the world’s largest golf tee and world’s largest wind chime, but Helen was not about to let this opportunity pass. We followed the signs to a town called Casey, Illinois, where big things are made. The world’s largest golf tee, world’s largest wind chime, and world’s largest knitting needles and crochet hook can all be found here. Some of the big things include Bible verses or religious imagery.


It is actually a creative way to get travelers to stop in the town. We ended up buying some sandwiches and drinks before getting on the road again.


No meal we had that day could have prepared us for what awaited in St. Louis. Going on a solid recommendation, we decided to have dinner at Pappy’s Smokehouse. We got some of the last ribs available that evening and they did not go to waste. The first bite had us all engrossed in the process of eating as much of the delicious meat as we possibly could. The other meats we had were excellent, but it was the ribs that were most impressive. We will make a serious effort to get back to Pappy’s if we’re ever close to the area.

We walked off some of the meal and car ride at the Gateway Arch, which is a pretty impressive structure to stand by. Just up some stairs from the mighty Mississippi River, the Arch was constructed as a monument to American westward expansion.

The next day would see us driving across Missouri and half of Kansas. It would also see more ribs, this time for lunch at Oklahoma Joe’s. It’s a great barbecue restaurant at a gas station in Kansas City, KS, and it has apparently changed its name to Joe’s Kansas City since we were there. We all enjoyed Pappy’s more, but we had only good things to say about Joe’s.


Eventually we got off I-70 to take a smaller highway through Kansas. It was a chance to get closer to the prairie and stick our heads out the window to feel the breeze.


We got to Cawker City just in time to see the World’s Largest Ball of Twine in the evening’s golden light. Cawker City doesn’t seem to have much going on these days, but along Highway 24 there is a canopy that houses a very large ball of twine that is said to be the largest in the world. It was started by a local farmer named Frank Stoeber in 1953 and it has apparently become a collaborative effort. Visitors are encouraged to buy twine to add to the ball, though the store was closed by the time we came to town.


The big ball of twine was just a small landmark in our adventure and served as a convenient point of interest in the real goal of getting off of the interstate. We were rewarded with a sunset over the prairie.


We spent the night at a Super 8 in Beloit, Kansas. It was the same as most motels: pretty clean, offering beds and a bathroom, and serving dismal but edible complimentary breakfast.

We set off for Colorado in the morning. We passed by fields stretching to the horizon, herds of cattle, some ruined old shacks, and modern agricultural structures, some of which looked like giant robots over the horizon. Periodically the speed limit would drop as we passed through a town that stretched a few blocks from the main drag. We headed west in search of mountains.

When we were planning the trip and discussed places we wanted to go, Colorado was on top on the list, and Utah was just behind. I said that I had seen a lot of Colorado and Utah on family trips in 2005 and 2006, but I was excited to go back. Once you’ve been, you understand.


Driving into Colorado from Kansas, the landscape appears just as flat. Though the prairie was cool I was itching to see mountains, especially since we were headed to the Rockies. When I saw the mountains rise from the horizon little distinct from clouds yet unmistakably majestic, I shouted excitedly, grabbed the passenger’s seat in front of me, and started shaking it. I’m certain my enthusiasm was appreciated.

We had heard good things about Boulder, Colorado, and now that we’ve been there we have good things to say. We only spent an evening and a morning in Boulder but we loved it. It was a pleasant place to hang out and walk around, especially with an old friend accompanying us. There was a big bookstore downtown, a huge farmer’s market with numerous free samples, and some beautiful park space. People were pretty friendly, and there were mountains around the city. We ate a great dinner at the Mountain Sun Pub and Brewery. They actually gave us a complimentary platter of fries because we had to wait for a table, which was a really cool thing to do. After we sat down we got some quality burgers, salads, and beer.

Rocky Mountain National Park was a major destination for us. It was great to get out and spend a full day hiking after so much time in the car.

We decided to hike to a lake called The Loch, basing our route on a description from the book Day & Overnight Hikes: Rocky Mountain National Park by Kim Lipker (2008). We also had a nice National Geographic trail map (Trails Illustrated 200: Rocky Mountain National Park), which helped us decide our route through the ridges and lakes.

The high altitude made this hike more challenging. I spend most of my time within 2,000 feet of sea level. Today’s hike was over 9,000 feet above sea level. The morning got a little rough with the cold rain, but by lunchtime it was hard to imagine wanting to be anywhere else.


We had a full day of hiking to enjoy great ridge views and hang out around clear mountain ponds.


It was an exhilarating experience that took a lot out of us. We headed back to the town of Estes Park straight for a Vietnamese and Thai restaurant called Café De Pho-Thai. We downed serious quantities of tasty food and guzzled pitchers of water.

On our second day in Rocky Mountain National Park we hiked to the summit of Deer Mountain, which at 10,013’ actually appears to be slightly lower in elevation than The Loch. We started out lower so we did made some gains in elevation this day. Even though this hike involved fairly steep climbing, we were just well enough accustomed to the altitude that it felt easier than the day before. We had great views on the way up and a spectacular summit view.



The descent offered a chance to more leisurely observe the scenery.


It was time to get on the road again. We headed west on Trail Ridge Road and made some worthwhile stops along the way. One of the best stops was the short but spectacular Tundra Trail, which had sweeping views all around.


We encountered some wildlife we don’t see in New Jersey, including the ptarmigan, a bird that is pretty good at camouflage.


Back along Trail Ridge Road we encountered a herd of elk.


By the time we made it here, hunger had driven me to innovation and I made myself a sandwich with peanut butter and two Clif Bars of Sierra Trail Mix flavor. I would eat this again.

Trail Ridge Road crosses the Continental Divide, the geographic division between waterways that flow into the Atlantic Ocean and waterways that flow into the Pacific Ocean. It’s obviously a spot where photos should be taken.


That was all the time we had for Rocky Mountain National Park.

We stopped in the town of Grand Lake for meat and Rocky Mountain Oysters at a place called Sagebrush Barbeque and Grill. Honestly I had expected that eating testicles would leave a more virile impression in my mouth, but they were just bland fried discs. The other meat was good though, and it was kind of cool to eat peanuts and throw the shells on the floor. Plus the Old West décor was fun. After dinner we took a nice walk by the lake around sunset. Continuing westward, we stayed at a motel along I-70 in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

West of the Rockies we entered a landscape with a different vocabulary from what we were used to, a land of canyons, arches, hoodoos, buttes, mesas, and washes. Utah was ahead of us and we were excited to get there.


At Arches National Park we entered an otherworldly landscape that invited us to come explore the sand and stone and bake with it under the sun.



Water and sun protection are a must at Arches. Stop in the visitor center to fill all of your water bottles because you might need them.

You should arrive at Arches ready to wander and gaze. The walls of stone make impressive sights, and being able to look up at giant arches made me feel quite fortunate.


Arches was the only park we went to that I felt was crowded. Things have changed since Edward Abbey was a ranger and there was just an unpaved road into the park. Now tourists pour in by the carload, and unfortunately many seem to have trouble giving other people space to enjoy the rocks. However, it is hard to complain because the park really is awesome and we were also visiting the place with limited time and rushed to the accessible highlights. The landscape really is too spectacular to not share.

Although the stars are probably awesome at Arches, I was glad there was a full moon when we went. The moonlight gave Delicate Arch a satisfying glow and lit our way over the rocks. It also added to the experience of viewing ancient Native American rock art along the trail.

If you’re not camping, Moab is the place to stay when you visit Arches. If you are camping you should visit Moab anyway because it is a cool adventure town with some good food. Eating at Twisted Sistas was a nice break from the desert heat for us.

The next day we were on the road to Bryce Canyon. It was a good road to be on with the impressive desert landscapes and rock formations along the way.


We got to Bryce late in the day. We began our visit at Inspiration Point. It was a marvelous place to look out over the landscape below, take pictures, and reflect on how far we had come. We took a short walk along the rim to Sunset Point and watched the colors of sunset on the rocks.


Even though the landscape is not a canyon, the name Bryce’s Canyon has stuck to it. Ebenezer Bryce was one of the Mormon pioneers who began settling in the region in the 1870s. Native Americans had been seasonally hunting and gathering food in the area for thousands of years, but there is no evidence they stayed through the harsh winters.

The next day we took some walks among the hoodoos. The irregular spire-shaped rock formations are really something to marvel at. The walks through Bryce are spectacular. The place was busy but not what I would consider crowded.


In the evening we headed towards Zion National Park. The drive in was punctuated by the dark and narrow Zion Mt. Carmel Tunnel, a 1.1 mile drive through stone with occasional windows looking out into the canyon. After the tunnel a series of switchbacks brought us through the park and into Springdale for dinner.

Zion is really a great place to be. Massive sandstone walls surround the green banks of the Virgin River.


With only a day to explore the park, our natural course was to go on one of my favorite hikes of all time, Angels Landing. We walked switchbacks up to a trail junction on the ridge. There we took a short break before heading out onto a knife edge a thousand feet above the valley floor.


Rainclouds and distant thunder threatened to cut our hike short one way or another. Hanging onto metal chains along a nearly bare ridge is not a good place to be in a thunderstorm. Our hearts pounded as we reached the outlook at the end. We took a few pictures and headed back.


The rain held off long enough for a quick lunch on the ridge. We headed a little down the West Rim Trail to a nice spot away from where everyone congregates for Angels Landing. I would love to take a longer walk along the canyon rim sometime. We had a refreshing soak on the way down the switchbacks to the shuttle bus.

Private vehicles are not allowed in Zion Canyon in the summer, which was actually kind of nice. The busses run quietly and blend in to the landscape. They were as clean inside as a transport for muddy hikers could be. A speaker system on board tells riders a little about the park, including how many people have recently died while attempting to hike Angels Landing.

We walked through the canyon a little while to where the trail enters the river at The Narrows. We did not block out the time or bring the equipment to wade through a river for miles but I would love to do that sometime.


As we were standing in the river getting more rain, a little baby doll started to float by. Since we could tell it wasn’t an actual baby, it was kind of funny in a dark sort of way to see it bobbing down the river bumping into rocks here and there.

We enjoyed the previous night’s dinner at the Spotted Dog Café so much we went there again after we cleaned ourselves up a little. After dinner we drove off into the sunset across the desert. Utah was behind us and our wet hiking clothes were stowed safely out of smell range.

We had decided to save the Grand Canyon for another trip, when we would have more time to enjoy it, so we continued westward. Our next destination was Boulder City, Nevada via Las Vegas. It is a little surreal to drive through the desert at night and see the lights of Vegas.

Boulder City was built as housing for the construction and supervision of the Boulder Dam, now called the Hoover Dam. We stayed at the historic Boulder Dam Hotel.



Inside the motel is an excellent little museum called the Boulder City Hoover Dam Museum. The museum exhibits show how construction workers and their families lived during the building of the Boulder Dam. It used memorable displays to teach visitors about general and specific experiences of Boulder City residents.

Our morning continued at Lake Meade, the lake formed where the Colorado River is contained by the Hoover Dam. Other people were enjoying swimming there, but I was not so into it. Even though the beach was hot enough for me to overheat while sitting still, I wasn’t too eager to go in the water with the cinder blocks and other debris I saw at the edge. Once I got in the water I quickly learned it was warm as soup but was enough to keep me from overheating.


Around midday we were on our way to the Hoover Dam, an American landmark that was constructed from 1931 to 1936.


Built from 4,360,000 cubic yards of concrete, the dam and power plant complex is really too big to get in one photo unless you’re far away. You can drive and walk across the dam though, which is pretty cool.


We then headed back to Las Vegas for a lunch of overeating. We were looking for an outrageous Vegas buffet experience, and the Bacchanal Buffet at Caesars Palace did not disappoint. It really was absurd how many types of food you could get, and some of it quite good.

After a break in the decorated halls and less-decorated restrooms of Caesars Palace we were back on the road. It would be a long drive through the desert to the California coast.

It was a moonless, clear night in the desert. We could see the stars through our windows and decided to pull off the highway for a better look. Not far from I-15 we stopped the car. Darkness surrounded us as we stepped out to look at the sky. The uncountable stars above gave a brilliant reminder of how vast the universe is. As we stood and our eyes adjusted we could see more detail and unfamiliar constellations. Taking a moment to enjoy an unexpected detour lead to a memorable experience.

Helen kept driving as we cruised by Los Angeles in the middle of the night. I stayed up to keep her company and periodically assured her that I could drive if she wanted. We arrived in Santa Barbara around 2 AM ready for some serious rest. We picked a good town for it.

I really didn’t know much about Santa Barbara before we stopped there. We chose it as a destination because it was supposed to be a nice town and we had friends there. It turned out to be a really enjoyable place.

We took it easy in the morning and met a friend at a little café called The Shop. Enjoying a delicious breakfast in beautiful weather was a great start to the day.

In the afternoon we headed to the beach. Now we had really traversed North America and made it to the Pacific Ocean. Naturally we headed in for a swim. I had never swam in the Pacific Ocean before. I found the water enjoyably cold and calm.


In the evening we drove up into the hills and took a short path to a boulder strewn hillside overlooking the ocean. We hung off the Lizard’s Mouth rock and played around on some less challenging boulders.


Spending two nights in the same bed was a luxury we hadn’t enjoyed since our trip began. After another breakfast at The Shop we were on the road again. We headed north on the Pacific Coast Highway. Somehow we don’t have a lot of pictures from this drive, but at least we didn’t stop in the road to take pictures like some tourists were doing.

Along the way we saw a sign for an elephant seal viewpoint. We obviously stopped here, and we were rewarded with a beach full of elephant seals.


In the evening we rolled into Mountain View and visited with relatives in the area.

Our last day of the trip was about fulfilling our original goal: helping Irena move to California. We made the obligatory trip to Ikea followed by furniture assembly.


We headed up to San Francisco to eat at Burma Superstar, and stayed over for breakfast burritos and the morning’s flight. Fourteen days after we had set out from the east coast, we were heading back. The trip was over, but adventures would continue.


The Castle on Bannerman’s Island

About fifty miles up the Hudson River from New York City, an empty castle crumbles on a rocky island.


The island is commonly called Bannerman’s Island, but it is found on maps as Pollepel Island, and has been known by this name with several variations of spelling. There are tales of a local woman named Polly Pell being rescued from the island or the waters around it by a brave and devoted lover. Less romantically, “pollepel” is a Dutch word for ladle, which is also the name of a device Dutch sailors used to pick up crew members who had been left on islands for being too drunk or rowdy.

During the American Revolution, a series of underwater obstacles were placed between the island and the western shore, but they did little to obstruct British shipping. During the nineteenth century the island had a few sheds on it and served fishers, picnickers, and probably bootleggers and prostitutes.

Storm King and Pollepel

Francis Bannerman IV was born in Dundee, Scotland in 1851, and moved to America with his family in 1854. When his father went to fight in the US Civil War, young Francis, also called Frank, went the docks in New York with a grappling hook and pulled scrap and lost cargo out of the water that he then sold. Shortly after the Civil War, Frank and his father began dealing in Navy and then Army surplus goods. Francis IV was heavily involved in the family business and eventually began his own company with his father’s approval.

Frank Bannerman realized that many weapons and supplies that were typically scrapped could be sold to foreign militaries that could not afford the most modern equipment. He also realized the historical value that many of the goods he acquired held. Frank put together a huge catalog describing the military goods he had on hand. Soon he set up a store and museum at 501 Broadway in Manhattan.


Bannerman acquired an enormous amount of surplus and captured items from the 1898 Spanish-American War. His business was outgrowing its New York buildings, and Bannerman had to figure out how to store the vast stockpile of weapons, ammunition, and gunpowder he had accumulated, which included millions of rounds of captured Spanish ammunition and tens of thousands of rifles. Neighbors and government officials were not so thrilled about having a pile of explosives sitting in New York.

Bannerman looked upriver to an island that either he or his sons had noticed on an earlier trip. He purchased the island on December 5, 1900.


Construction began on the first arsenal and the caretaker’s house in the spring of 1901. The valley must have echoed with explosions as a level area was blasted from the rocky island.

In 1905, construction began on a bigger arsenal building. Bannerman was not an architect, but he sketched the basic design for his work crews to follow. He was inspired by castles he had seen in his travels, especially those in his old home country of Scotland.

Bannerman Castle

Many of the walls do not meet at right angles, giving the building the appearance of being larger than it is, which is still pretty large.

Also in 1905, Bannerman purchased underwater rights from the State of New York, and built a harbor around the east and south side of the island.

Pollepel Island

By 1915 the arsenal was completed. Massive lettering on the walls advertised Bannerman’s business to passing boats and trains running along the shore. The island, easily accessible by barge, became a shipping hub for munitions. Cannons, pallets of ammo, or whatever else Bannerman sold could be loaded onto barges for collectors, museums or military customers.

A family home was built high on the island, and the Bannerman family often stayed there during summers. Francis Bannerman got to watch his grandkids play on an island that belonged to the family.


Walkways around the harbor were well-decorated.


If you manage to look inside, you will notice this arch contains a passageway.


Bannerman was an patriotic citizen who strongly supported the Allies during the First World War. He donated clothing to Belgium and a large quantity of armaments to the British government. But that wasn’t enough for his company to escape suspicion.

Supervising the island and its huge stores of arms was an important job. Bannerman was often absent, either running the store in Manhattan or conducting business around the country. In the course of a Naval Intelligence Bureau investigation, Charles Kovac, an Austrian-born superintendent, was arrested on the island on April 19, 1918 on suspicion of being an enemy agent. Apparently he had set aside four machine guns, which he testified were for saluting passing ships. Subject to deportation, he was instead paroled with restrictions. Bannerman objected strongly to the investigations into his business, and protested to Frankiln D. Roosevelt, then acting secretary of the Navy.

Bannerman was eventually exonerated, but it is believed that the stress of being under investigation for disloyalty hastened his demise. He died on November 26, 1918, soon after undergoing gallbladder surgery.

bannerman harbor

Upon Francis Bannerman’s death, the business passed to his wife Helen and their sons, who continued to use the house as a summer residence.

On August 15, 1920, the powder house exploded with enough force to shatter windows in nearby towns and send pieces of the wall crashing onto the railroad tracks on the shore. A chunk of rock landed on the hammock where Helen Bannerman had been resting moments earlier. Nobody was seriously injured.

The business continued over the next decade, and a reprint of a 1927 Bannerman Catalogue gives a sense of the goods they were dealing. It was the place to go for everything from “Stone Age and Ancient Savage Weapons” to “Gatling Guns, Etc.”


A .50 Caliber Gatling Machine Gun mounted on a special naval carriage is reportedly “Very suitable to enterprising yachtsman ‘cruising among waters infested with pirates.” I wouldn’t argue.


Collectors looking for special guns were advised to allow a second choice when possible.


A historic use of the crossbow was included for the customer.


Of course, swords and bayonets were available.


As were handguns from multiple eras.


Bannerman also acquired a lot of supplies that would be useful for camping.


After Helen Bannerman’s death in 1931 the island was used less frequently. By the late 1950s, Bannerman’s grandsons began closing the business. Professionals were brought in to safely dispose of old ordinance, Smithsonian Institute curators got to take items for the museum’s collection, and the remainder was auctioned. Some locals say that an alcoholic superintendent let anyone take whatever they could carry off in exchange for whiskey. I haven’t found this story in the history books, but it is unclear if everything was accounted for before vandals and looters got to the island.

By the 1960s Bannerman’s Island was frequently unattended and vandals and neglect took their toll. In 1967 the island was transferred to the State of New York, but remained off limits to the public. On August 8, 1969, an intense fire burned through the grounds. After police and firefighters determined that nobody was trapped on the island, the fire was allowed to run its course. The cause of the fire was never determined.


In the 1990s the Bannerman Castle Trust was organized, and the island was opened for guided tours. Efforts are underway to preserve the structures on the island.

A guided tour of course costs money. Kayaking around the island does not, but landing on the island is forbidden. Plum Point, on the west side of the Hudson, has free parking and a place to launch small, non-motorized boats. Crossing the Hudson in a small kayak on a choppy day is not the easiest paddle. I have been on the Hudson when it was very calm but this trip had me cresting waves, taking on water, and being rocked side-to-side when I stopped for photos.

If you want to carry your boat across railroad tracks and launch on big slippery rocks, the Breakneck Ridge train station, on the east side of the Hudson, is significantly closer to Pollepel Island. Maybe there was even a dock there before Hurricane Irene tore up the area in 2011.

Bannerman from Breakneck Station

Note that Breakneck Ridge station is barely marked from the road, but the parking area along Route 9D for the yellow-blazed Wilkinson Memorial Trail is nearby. Breakneck Ridge station is just a small platform next to the tracks, with a pedestrian bridge about a quarter mile north. Google Maps marks the location of the pedestrian bridge (where there is no parking) as Breakneck Ridge station. There is an overlook at the pedestrian bridge as well. The best overlook is probably along the Wilkinson Memorial Trail on Sugarloaf Mountain though.

Bannerman’s Castle might be falling down, but it remains a historical curiosity in a picturesque setting – a great place for a day’s adventure.



Bannerman Catalogue of Military Goods 1927. Reprint by DBI Books, Northfield, Illinois.

Bannerman, Jane. Pollepel – An Island Steeped in History, Bannerman Castle Trust.

Johnson, Thom and Barbara H. Gottlock. Images of America: Bannerman Castle. Arcadia Publishing, 2006.

Kowawese Unique Area at Plum Point. Orange County Parks.

Rinaldi, Thomas E. Hudson Valley Ruins: Forgotten Landmarks of an American Landscape. University Press of New England, 2006.

Sugarloaf Mountain and Breakneck Ridge Trail. New York – New Jersey Trail Conference.

Under the Mountains

Vietnam’s Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is home to a number of impressive caves. I first heard about the place while reading a National Geographic article about Hang Son Doong, the largest cave ever discovered. While Hang Son Doong is still being explored by professional cavers and scientists, other caves in the area are open for tours.


The park’s namesake cave, Phong Nha, is a hole in the mountain along the river.


It is a big hole. Tour boats bring visitors a short distance into the cave.


It is also possible to kayak 1.5 km (about 9/10 mile) deep into the cave. Naturally, we opted for this route.


We paddled our two-person inflatable kayak past tour boats and the well-lit areas near the cave entrance. A park guide led the way while a tour company guide followed us. With the darkness surrounding everything outside our headlamps, it wasn’t easy to grasp that we were paddling through a mountain, surrounded on all sides by thick limestone.

Along the way we passed an artifact from the Cham civilization, a metal drum that had somehow been wedged into the cave wall.


At our turning back point, we got out of our boats and walked a short distance up through a chamber. Clambering over the steep rocks was made more challenging by the rubber sandals we had been issued for the trip – too short, too loose, and easy to slip out of.

Phong Nha is in the northern half of Vietnam, and the cave was used to shelter soldiers and supplies during the war against South Vietnam and the United States. There might have also been a hospital inside. It must have been pretty spooky to sit in a dark cave all day as explosions rumbled outside.


Once the American military found out about Phong Nha, it launched airstrikes against the cave. The attacks had little effect besides knocking some stalactites off of the entrance and leaving a number of shrapnel marks on the rocks outside.


Our trip through the cave was completed when we crossed from the staging area to the road on a small boat that leaned heavily to one side as the pilot bailed water out of it.

This area of Vietnam was an important link in the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a network of paths used to ferry supplies south to be used in the war against South Vietnam.

Vietnam had been partitioned in 1954 after the defeat of French efforts to re-establish the colony they lost during the Second World War. The partition was supposed to be temporary, but a strongly anti-communist government with American backing took control of the south, and the two sides soon headed for conflict. By 1959, increasing repression in South Vietnam and the subsequent rise in militancy among southern communists spurred the North Vietnamese government to action. Hoping to avoid open conflict with the United States, they began infiltrating military supplies along paths through the central highlands, often across the mountains of neighboring Laos. Southern communists who had moved north according to the 1954 agreement began to re-enter South Vietnam and lead communist insurgents.

The infiltration routes, which collectively became known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, continued to be an important link in the communist military effort throughout the war with America (1964-1973). Rice paddies along the roads around the park still have holes from American bombs. There is also a monument to the trail’s role in the communist victory.


Transporting military supplies across rivers could be a delicate operation. We were told that trucks driving through the night would be concealed near the river before dawn. At night, supplies were brought across the river on pontoon bridges and ferry boats that were hidden in Phong Nha cave during the day. The Americans only figured this out after a night of dropping numerous flares over the area. Xuan Son, an important wartime crossing, is commemorated with a small monument by the road.


Phong Nha-Ke Bang contains a number of spectacular caves. Paradise Cave is well worth visiting. It might have impressed me even more than Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico.

Our first few minutes in the cave had us walking through an area lit by electric lights. We were greeted by big caverns with impressive formations.


Soon it was time to turn on our headlamps as we headed off the walkway. We passed through huge rooms lit only by our headlamps. Much of the floor was covered in sand or clay. Apparently a large percentage of where we walked floods during the rainy season. Many of the areas remain wet and muddy throughout the year, so tourists are offered camouflage fatigues and canvas boots for the trip. After our experience with Vietnamese sandals we decided to stick with our own boots.

The flow of water and air created some formations that looked like the roots of plants.


Occasionally the floor looked like mud but was actually very smooth rock.


Some of the rock formations sparkle under light.


And what kind of adventure would it be without the occasional spider?


The whole trip was very exciting, but Paradise Cave really stands out for its huge room with a collapsed ceiling, about 3.5km from the main entrance. We arrived there around noon, when rays of sunlight shine down through the mountain.


Looking through the hole you can see the forest high above.


As a cloudy afternoon set in, we were put in a dim twilight. After a quick lunch and a dunk in a nice pool formed in the rocks, we headed back out of Paradise Cave.

We also took a short tour of Dark Cave, named its dark limestone. Like all caves, it is dark inside.


We swam through part of Dark Cave with lifevests on. We turned back where the rocks get really sharp, but experienced cavers with the right equipment could explore further. We did get to see a fossil in the cave wall.


If you’re up for some Vietnamese coffee or a relaxing cup of tea, the guy who found Hang Son Doong cave runs a cafe nearby.


Ho Khanh grew up in a village near the Phong Nha area. He helped sustain himself by hunting in the jungle after his father was killed in the war. On one of his days in the forest the young Ho Khanh found Hang Son Doong. He managed to find the entrance again in 2009 and guided a British caving team to their first expedition of the cave.

I was disappointed that Ho Khanh wasn’t around when we visited his cafe, but it was for a good reason. He was out on an expedition.

The rugged and heavily forested mountains of the region would definitely make it harder to find a cave entrance.


It is not easy to find maps of the area either. We were told that hiking without a guide is discouraged because there could still be unexploded ordinance in the jungle, and the narrow border region of the country has some military importance.


We heard a story of an old woman who still goes out into the jungle with a metal detector and her adult granddaughter to look for bombs. With a little knowledge the devices can be disarmed and their quality steel sold for scrap. This was apparently a big part of the region’s economy after it was devastated by the war.

But today Phong Nha-Ke Bang sits in a peaceful green countryside inviting visitors who are up for a little adventure.



Jenkins, Mark, Conquering an Infinite Cave, National Geographic, January 2011.

Moss, George Donelson. Vietnam, an American Ordeal, 3rd Ed. Prentice Hall, 1998. Establishment of Ho Chi Minh trail, 100-103. Routes through Laos, 240.

Phong Nha Farmstay

Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, UNESCO

Walden in Winter

On July 4, 1845, Henry David Thoreau moved into a cabin he had built in the woods near Walden Pond. He was not seeking the life of a hermit, but wanted a quiet place to write, study nature, and experiment with simple living.

Thoreau Went to the Woods

Since his youth, Thoreau avidly explored nature and excelled academically. Upon his graduation from Harvard in 1837, he began meeting with Transcendentalist philosophers in Concord, Massachusetts, and became friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson. Thoreau’s first published work would appear in Emerson’s journal The Dial.

Thoreau soon got permission to use part of the Emerson family’s land to gain a deeper understanding of nature. He bought scrapwood and secondhand windows, cut pines with a borrowed ax, and built himself a cabin. He also planted two and a half acres with vegetables, mostly beans. His house was on a gently sloped hill, and its location is now outlined by stone markers.

Thoreau Cabin Site

This was not an experiment in primitive living, but an experiment in simple living that Thoreau hoped could be applied more broadly in society.

Walden Bean Field

A replica of Thoreau’s cabin stands near the parking lot of Walden Pond State Reservation.

Thoreau Cabin Replica

Thoreau made the walls of his cabin from the outer layers of pine logs, so the surface would have been a bit rougher than the replica’s.

In Walden; or, Life in the Woods, Thoreau noted that he lived about a mile and a half south of Concord, and a mile from any neighbor. This was no mean distance for a proud saunterer like Thoreau, who said that “every day or two I strolled to the village.” Thoreau also had many visitors at his cabin, including fugitive slaves he helped guide north.

Not many people visited the cabin in the winter, but Thoreau still walked to town to socialize and conduct his business before walking back through the snow to his cabin. On lonely winter days he sometimes visited the grounds of ruined homesteads nearby and thought of their former inhabitants.

Thoreau’s cabin stood not far from the pond.

Thoreau Cabin and Walden

He described his winter morning work as taking an axe and pail to get water.

Standing on the snow-covered plain, as if in a pasture amid the hills, I cut my way first through a foot of snow, and then a foot of ice, and open a window under my feet, where, kneeling to drink, I look down into the quiet parlor of the fishes…

Thoreau was living on the fringes of civilized life, where culture met the wild. He was close enough to participate in Concord life and visit his family there, but far enough away that many people considered his situation odd. This is exactly where he wanted to be.

Thoreau hoped that the lessons he learned at Walden could be applied by other interested people. Discovering the essential facts of life would help determine how much time and work were really needed to obtain necessities and how much could be spent at leisure and study. It would also give Thoreau a deeper understanding of his relation with the rest of nature. Thoreau was a firm believer in the need for wildness as a tonic to restore and strengthen the civilized.

Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wildness…

The railroad was one product of modernity that clamored through the wild at Walden. Thoreau often walked by the tracks, and he seems unsure of whether to be awed or annoyed at the power of the train. Either way he could not ignore it, as the tracks that pass by the banks of the pond across from Thoreau’s Cove were operational in his day.

Thoreau Cove and Train

Thoreau reflected on heat as a basic necessity of life, something common to all humanity. The need for wood to warm and to cook was universal. Food for fire was as valuable to Thoreau’s contemporaries as it was to their ancient ancestors.

In Walden, Thoreau describes nature as satisfying a need for infinite discovery:

At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor…
We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.

Thoreau did his best to explore and fathom the wild. He traveled around New England, observing and recording nature. His knack for measurement served him well in his work as a surveyor assessing property lines.

When Walden froze, Thoreau took the opportunity to measure the pond’s depth by cutting through the ice and dropping down a sounding line. He noted that “There have been many stories told about the bottom, or rather no bottom, of this pond, which certainly had no foundation for themselves.” The mystery of Walden was further compounded by the absence of streams feeding it, as it is a glacial lake filled by runoff. Thoreau’s 1846 survey of the pond is accurate to a close degree.


The ice also served Thoreau as a clear area to walk when Concord was covered in deep snow. Walden Pond became his yard. It was also a draw for icemen, who gathered the thick ice to keep food cool in the days before electric appliances.

Today, walking on the ice is a welcome experience to those who rarely get to stand in the middle of a frozen lake.

Walden in Winter

The ice varies in thickness, and cracks run through it.

Walden Ice

On September 6, 1847, Thoreau left his cabin at Walden and went back to living in Concord. He became “a sojourner in civilized life again” after two years and two months in the woods.

I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.

Thoreau went on living his life and continued to deliver lectures on some of the day’s most pressing questions, including how to confront a government that upheld slavery and how to keep the right amount of wildness in a developing society. His time at Walden undoubtedly refreshed his writing. In 1849 he penned what would become one of the most influential American essays, “Civil Disobedience.” Originally entitled “Resistance to Civil Government,” the essay was largely inspired by Thoreau’s one-day imprisonment for refusing to pay a poll tax, which happened while he was walking to town from Walden. Thoreau also continued to study nature until his death from tuberculosis in 1862.

Walking around Walden, especially when the beach crowds are absent, gives us a chance to reflect on our connections with the rest of nature, and to consider the words Henry David Thoreau left us.

Rise free from care before the dawn and seek adventures. Let the noon find thee by other lakes, and the night overtake thee every where at home.

Frozen Walden and Sun


Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 2003.
Strolled to village, 154; Winter walks, 232, 240, 246; Gathering water, 256; Tonic of Wildness, 285; Wood, 227; Unfathomable, 286; Measuring pond, 259; Sojourner quote, 7; I left the woods, 291; Seek adventures, 188.

Baym, Nina. “Thoreau’s View of Science.” Thoreau Reader, EServer web publishing project, Iowa State University, 2009.

Goodman, Russell, “Transcendentalism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

Hoag, Ronald Wesley. “Walden, The Place.” Thoreau Reader.

“Replica of Thoreau’s cabin at the Walden parking lot.” Thoreau Reader.

Schneider, Richard J. “Thoreau’s Life.” The Thoreau Society, 2006.

“Thoreau’s 1846 survey of Walden Pond.” The Thoreau Reader.

Thoreau, Henry David. “Civil Disobedience,” Ed. Richard Lenat. Thoreau Reader.

Concrete Arches

In December of 1911, trains began crossing the Paulinskill Valley over massive archways built from more concrete than any other structure in the world contained. Today the Paulinskill Viaduct towers over the valley below as a monument to railroad engineering.


The Viaduct was part of a massive project to more efficiently move passengers and freight across northern New Jersey.

The Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad Company was formed in 1853 when two Pennsylvania railroads consolidated. Its primary purpose was to haul anthracite coal from the Scranton, PA area to connections in New Jersey, but it expanded into carrying other freight and passenger traffic. The DL&W’s 1869 takeover of the Morris and Essex railroad extended its line to Hoboken, just across the Hudson River from New York City.

In 1899 William Haynes Truesdale became president of the company. He had been a railroad man all his life, starting as a clerk in a Midwestern railroad company. Truesdale launched an ambitious program to modernize and improve the company’s infrastructure and equipment.

One of Truesdale’s concerns was the corridor between Port Morris, New Jersey, and the Delaware River. The 40 mile trip included numerous curves, some of them very sharp for a railroad, as well as steep grades that were expensive to haul coal over. A cut-off route was planned that would shorten the trip to 28 miles with only a few gentle curves, and a total rise and fall of only 11 feet.

DL&W’s chief engineer George J. Ray outlined the Cut-Off plan, but there is disagreement over whether Ray or one of the concrete engineers is most responsible for the design of the viaducts.

The Lackawanna Cut-Off was built in seven sections under seven different contracts, at a total cost of $11 million. Construction began in August 1908 and the first trains rolled through in December 1911.


The Cut-Off pioneered the use of reinforced concrete in railroad construction. The Paulinskill Viaduct is 1100 feet long and spans seven arches 117 feet above the valley.


When the Viaduct was built, it crossed over another company’s railroad that passed along the river. The foundations of their station and nearby buildings can still be seen.


The Cut-Off later fell under Conrail’s control and was abandoned in 1979. Its tracks were torn up afterward. Guardrails aren’t guaranteed either.


Passages in the rail bed lead to inspection and maintenance tunnels. Naturally, the tunnels are now full of graffiti – as well as satanic rituals and spirits of the dead, depending on which folklore you choose to believe.


Massive amounts of fill were needed to keep the Cut-Off at a gentle grade. Tunnels were built to cross through the fill. The tunnel at Route 94 is marked at the top of the arch with the year 1909.


A second tunnel nearby is now a park passageway.


The rail bed also cut through hilltops.


The tracks crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania at the 1450 foot-long Delaware River Viaduct, which Interstate 80 travels underneath.


The Delaware River Viaduct was completed in 1909. At its western end, the railroad curves sharply north and joins other tracks to go through a gap in the Kittatinny Mountains along the Delaware River.


Maybe one day the Lackawanna Cut-Off will again be topped with steel tracks and feel the rumble of passing trains. Hopefully space for a pedestrian walkway can be made if that happens. In the meantime, its viaducts offer the traveler a glimpse into what people once did to make a straighter railroad.



Casey, Robert J. and W.A.S. Douglas. The Lackawanna Story: The First Hundred Years of the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1951.

Cunningham, John T. Railroading in New Jersey. Associated Railroads of New Jersey, 1951.
Photo of viaduct under construction is from Cunningham’s book.

Richman, Steven M. The Bridges of New Jersey: Portraits of Garden State Crossings. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005.

“Paulinskill Viaduct,” Weird NJ.