Detroit Burning: Time to Buy?

Downtown Detroit Sept. 2013

Downtown Detroit Sept. 2013

Intelligent people told me I was taking undue risk in seeking out the most devastated parts of Detroit.  There are 19 photos and I hope you have a minute to look at all of them.  They depict a small amount of the destruction that I saw, but give a thorough flavor for it.  The last one may make you smile.

Burned-down Detroit home. Click to enlarge.

Burned-down Detroit home. Click to enlarge.

The last half of the title is taken from a Realtor’s sign in an abandoned block of the Brightmoor neighborhood.  The houses on either side of the offered property were burned to the ground or otherwise destroyed.  The Realtor sign thus looked utterly absurd in the moment.  At least you would have a quiet street, and you could probably get the adjoining lots for peanuts.  Good luck finding qualified renters.  Arson is so rampant, and the fire department so decimated by budget cuts, that unless a fire imminently threatens another structure the policy is to let it burn.  Firefighters do what they can with broken equipment.

Grave marker in front of abandoned home, Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Grave marker in front of abandoned home, Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Most of Detroit is a miserable jungle of criminals, crumbling buildings, and hard-faced residents.  It was sometimes difficult to distinguish the thugs from regular people.  Everyone’s guard was up all the time.  On the first day I drove from the southwest corner of the city northeast through downtown and into a northern suburb to my hotel.  I thought that at least downtown would be a vibrant area, but it was only somewhat better than everywhere else.  Abandoned and decaying office buildings were plentiful.

Detroit.  Click to enlarge.

Detroit. Click to enlarge.

I found entire blocks of abandoned houses in various stages of destruction. It was safe enough in the abandoned neighborhoods to park the truck and walk around, even in approaching darkness.  I happened upon a young woman, her face covered by a protective mask, who was cleaning out a trashed house to restore it to service.  I crossed paths with two families who were still living in their homes in otherwise empty blocks.  They sat on the porch in the evening partially to watch for trouble.  Scrappers and dumpers are a problem, and my obvious outsider status stirred suspicion.  No one ever threatened me.

Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Detroit. Click to enlarge.

The fully inhabited parts of the city were scary.  It was typical to drive down a street and see police cars and sometimes an ambulance parked where some crime had just occurred.  The streets teemed with apparent thugs.  Even the people I perceived as benevolent looked at me harshly as if to say, “What the hell are you doing here?”  I locked the doors, stayed in my vehicle and stopped only when I had to.

Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Detroit. Click to enlarge.

On one residential street a rough-looking young man walked toward my vehicle as if to block my path.  As I prepared for confrontation in this most tense moment, he stepped aside and gave me a friendly wave and a nod.  I waved back and kept going.  He was a nice guy after all.  I sense that many good people live in these circumstances because they have no means of escape and perhaps little awareness of the alternatives.  They deserve better.

Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Burned down home in Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Burned down home in Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Burned down home in Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Burned down home in Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Detroit. Click to enlarge.

Detroit. Click to enlarge.

2nd to last but not least: the sign that inspired the title.  Click to enlarge.
2nd to last but not least: the sign that inspired the title. Click to enlarge.

Detroit, ending on a positive note.

Detroit, ending on a positive note. Click to enlarge.

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Niagara Falls, New York

Not bad for a free side trip.  What can I say that the photos don’t?  Thanks to Kel for the tip.

American falls at left, Canadian falls in the distance. Click to enlarge.

American falls at left, Canadian falls in the distance. Click to enlarge.

American falls at left, Canadian falls in the distance.  Click to enlarge.

American falls at left, Canadian falls in the distance. Click to enlarge.

Rapids above American falls.  Click to enlarge.

Rapids above American falls. Click to enlarge.

Rapids above American falls.  Click to enlarge.

Rapids above American falls. Click to enlarge.

Top of American falls.  Click to enlarge.

Top of American falls. Click to enlarge.

No navigation systems here.  I get around the old fashioned way, with maps and directions from strangers.

No navigation systems here. I get around the old fashioned way, with maps and directions from strangers.  Click to enlarge.

Cuyahoga National Park, OH

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACuyahoga is a small park whose boundaries are mixed in with the Cleveland Metroparks system.  Located a few miles outside the city, the park features a dense deciduous forest with trees towering a hundred feet high.  An unusually helpful staffer at Metroparks gave me detailed and flawless directions to the one free campsite in the area.

Blue Hen Falls. Click to enlarge.

Blue Hen Falls. Click to enlarge.

Campers are typically cyclists touring the Towpath Trail that runs through the Cleveland metro area.  The tiny campground was full with only 3 tents on the ground including mine.  I went to bed early.  Two other campers woke me up when they walked in two hours later.  I thought I heard them checking out my tent.  Not knowing who I was dealing with, I kept my light off and quietly picked up my knife.  “Hello,” I called out.  A petite girl in her early twenties and her boyfriend returned the greeting.  They were merely getting into their own tent, and quarters were close.  The next morning the young man ripped a loud fart, and the girl voiced her displeasure.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

I didn’t get any photos here.  Sorry for the unbelievable negligence.  This is where former President Teddy Roosevelt enjoyed his first outdoor adventures.  Roosevelt hunted bison here in the 19th century, enduring 7 consecutive days of rain before shooting one.  The Park Service’s historical writings describe Roosevelt as an “inexperienced dude from New York” on this outing.  He established two cattle ranches in the vicinity.  One can still walk to the site of Teddy’s main ranch house, though nothing remains of the structure.  Historians credit Roosevelt’s experiences in this area for ultimately inspiring him to establish the U.S. National Park System.

When I arrived in town traffic was backed up half a mile from the park entrance.  I thought I might encounter thick crowds, but a ranger explained it was just a town parade.  He said the park receives 10% of the visitation at Yellowstone, and this was my experience.  Road traffic was light, and I didn’t see anyone else hiking the trails.

The park is a more colorful version of South Dakota’s famous badlands.  Said color is provided by a distinctive mix of juniper trees, deciduous shrubs, and grasses carpeting the several hundred foot tall dirt mounds and treacherous gullies.  Wild bison abound throughout the park and are easily seen from the road.  I watched herds of large adults shepherding calves small enough to sit in a person’s lap.

Burning coal beds, ignited by lighting or wildfire, were present under some of the dirt mounds into the 1950’s.  The soil is composed of bentonite clay and is known to become extraordinarily slippery and soft following a hard rain.  Substantial rain fell on the area while I was there, and I had no trouble walking the trails or driving the dirt roads.

The Little Missouri River National Grassland borders the park.  Dirt roads of varying difficulty interconnect for miles in all directions.  The area sits atop the famous Bakken shale formation.  Oil and gas wells are scattered throughout the grassland.  Cattle ranches are too.  I found a secluded place to camp off one of the many spur roads in the grassland.  My only neighbors were three flaming gas wells, each a long distance away.

Boston’s Freedom Trail

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Freedom Trail in downtown Boston will take you back in time to before our country was born.  You will see where Benjamin Franklin was baptized, Paul Revere’s home, the tavern where the Boston Tea Party was planned, and the Old North Church.  Those are a few of the many historical sites along the trail.  It took me well over 3 hours to see everything.  The visitor center was closed upon my arrival, and I spent 30 minutes wandering Boston Common and the adjacent streets looking for the trail.  Then a compassionate street vendor showed me the narrow cobblestone ribbon which marks the Freedom Trail throughout the city.

Old North Church where Paul Revere signaled his famous warning.

Old North Church where Paul Revere signaled his famous warning.  Click to enlarge.

Along the way I bought some grapes at the outdoor produce market.  A woman in front of me bought them, and then backed out at the last minute. I was starved for fruit and vegetables after several days on the road.  “I’ll take those,” I said.  “Thank you,” the vendor replied, sounding relieved.  “You tell ‘em all day (the prices) and they walk off.  They must be afraid something’s going to happen between here and there.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt is difficult to explain the amazement I felt at actually visiting the sites that played a key role in the American Revolution.  Some of them, such as the Green Dragon Tavern and Old North Church, are still operating.  One doesn’t often see places dating back to the 1600’s in our relatively young country.  I felt proud of our founding fathers for who they were and what they did, especially while still under British rule.

After three nonstop hours on my feet I plopped down on a public bench.  A man saw me opening a map and offered directions.  He and his wife spent the next few minutes telling me the shortest way back to my parking garage.  I had been warned about the rudeness of Bostonians, but everyone I interacted with was friendly.   Boston’s streets run at a fast pace similar to that of New York.  Most people walked past the historical sites as if they were nothing, as I probably would if I lived there.  I wonder how many residents took the time to walk on the Freedom Trail at some point.

Devil’s Tower: Not Enough to Move the Needle

Devil's Tower, WY Sept. 2013: Click to enlarge

Devil’s Tower, WY Sept. 2013: Click to enlarge

I drove to Devil’s Tower, the famous Wyoming monolith so popular with Sturgis bikers, on my way to Michigan.  I could see the Tower from just outside the entrance and, unimpressed, did not see fit to enter the park.  Never before have I been so disinterested in a destination as to strike it from the itinerary upon arrival.  Perhaps this is what happens when one sees the number of special places that I have, and has the brain wiring of an adrenaline junkie as I do.  The neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky has noted that when the brain is conditioned to respond to thrills, an ever-increasing level of excitement is required to move the proverbial needle.

I once studied with a talented Spanish professor who said, “To the poor man, a loaf of bread is a banquet.  To the rich man, a banquet is nothing.  In this way, the poor man is richer than the rich man.”

To my observation this statement holds true often in life.  I was unimpressed with a destination that many people will rave about forever.  Elsewhere in life others may take for granted the valuable things they have, unaware of how much others would want the same.  I can’t change the way I felt at Devil’s Tower, but I am more conscious of the things I have to be thankful for.

Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky

Mammoth Cave, Kentucky: Click to enlarge.

Mammoth Cave, Kentucky: Click to enlarge.

I drove into the Mammoth Cave visitor center ten minutes before closing time.  The staff, typical of Southern park rangers, was highly motivated and professional.  They were happy to help me plan cave tours despite the late hour.  I learned to great disappointment that the Wild Tour through the backcountry of the cave was sold out for the next week.  The more I heard about this tour over the next two days, the more thankful I was to be turned away.  People related stories of aches and pains, as well as a few other visitors suffering a sprained ankle or injured shoulder from trouble navigating the tiny passageways.  If a person gets stuck in a passageway, he is pulled out by force with little regard for potential injuries.

Mammoth Cave, Kentucky: Click to enlarge.

Mammoth Cave, Kentucky: Click to enlarge.

Instead I took three other cave tours inside of a day, which kept me underground for a total of six hours.  Wild tour conditions notwithstanding, Mammoth cave is named for its high ceilings, wide passageways, and immense overall size.  The typical cave setting on my three tours involved ceilings of rock three to seven stories high and walkways ten to fifty yards wide.  So far over 1300 miles of cave have been mapped.  The rangers assured us that far more awaited exploration.  Although Mammoth is not officially recognized as the world’s largest cave, the rangers were adamant that it should be.  Further exploration of the cave is very difficult and time-consuming, requiring multiple days of camping in the cave’s outer reaches.  Few people want to do it, and exploration rarely occurs anymore.

My first tour guide was a pleasant, knowledgeable young man and one of the few explorers who had recently mapped new sections in the cave.  His assistant was a nag who kept asking the group to slow its walking pace.  I did my best to ignore her and stuck near the front of the line.  While I contemplated the uselessness of her presence, she seemed to think that she was executing a critical duty in handsome fashion.

Green River above Mammoth Cave, Kentucky: Click to enlarge.

Green River near Mammoth Cave, Kentucky: Click to enlarge.

The remaining cave tours were guided by a two-man team of rangers.  One was a middle-aged, heavy-set man who proudly declared that he was a “native hillbilly from Western Kentucky.”  The other was an athletic gentleman who retired from a career as an officer on nuclear submarines.  Both were fun and interesting guides.

The cave entrances are reached by roads inaccessible to the public, on which tourists are transported by bus.  On one such ride the former Navy man noticed a Range Rover following our bus.  Upon arrival at the cave two tan, lanky young men, each well over 6 feet tall, approached our group and told the rangers they missed our bus “by about 8 seconds.”

“The tour leaves at 3, not 3 and 8 seconds,” replied the Navy man.  Calling the visitor center from the phone in the cave’s doorway, he coordinated approval for the smiling young men to join our tour.  I chatted with them while the ranger worked, and they told me about their recent trip to South Africa.  The ranger was ready to get underway and again addressed the two latecomers.  “I need you boys to lock the door for me after everybody’s inside,” he said.  “Yes, sir,” the men replied simultaneously.  With that were off on the day’s final cave tour.  Given the way our ranger led tours, I could easily see him commanding a nuclear submarine.

Sink above Mammoth Cave, Kentucky: Click to enlarge.

Sink near Mammoth Cave, Kentucky: Click to enlarge.

The park is almost as proud of its above-ground hiking trails as it is the cave.  Hikers walk through dense, tall deciduous forests set on steep, rocky slopes.  The woods teem with deer, squirrels, and turkeys.  Geological features known as sinks are a distinctive characteristic of the park and the surrounding region.  A sink is a circular depression in the ground, typically 30-80 yards in diameter and 100+ feet deep.  Runoff flows through these porous sinks into underground rivers and streams, some of which flow through Mammoth Cave.

The Green River flows above through the park and is accessible by boat or trail.  The muddy flow seemed strong and rose fairly high up the banks.  Still, one could hardly hear the water.  The Green was the quietest river I had ever visited, and its stealth added to the peacefulness of the forest setting.