Sunday, February 17, 2008

USS Lexington

We visited the USS Lexington on Friday, which was a very worthwhile museum. Because this aircraft carrier was reported sunk no less than four times during WWII, it was nicknamed "The Blue Ghost" by the Japanese. There were a number of WWII fighter planes on both the hangar deck and the flight deck. One of the planes had Cdr. John McCain's name on it. Since he was shot down over Hanoi and his plane was destroyed, this can't possibly be the actual plane he was flying, but it was still interesting to see his name there. There was also an exhibit honoring Bush number one, who was a fighter pilot during WWII. He was shot down once, which is common knowledge, but we learned that he also had to bail out one time due to a malfunction.

There was a film about flight training of fighter pilots in a drill known as Red Flag. Pilots from the US and allied nations all get together for "war games" and it is quite a training operation. It lasts for about a week (I think) and in the last exercise, live ordinance is used. We learned that if a pilot survives his first 10 missions, his chance of surviving in action increases dramatically. This exercise is designed to give a pilot his first 10 missions in a relatively safe training environment. Still, these exercises are far from safe, and pilots and crew have been killed performing them. We were able to tour the entire battleship, including the engine rooms, crew's quarters, sick bay, galley, dental and opthalmic clinics, chapel, and a lot of other things I'm sure I'm leaving out. The Lexington was the first vessel to have women aboard as crew members. Very interesting.

Yesterday, we visited Padre Island National Seashore. There are two barrier islands off the coast of Texas--Mustang Island, where we are, and Padre Island to the south. The two islands are separated by Packery Channel, which we both suspect was formed by hurricanes. These two islands are a part of a chain of islands that stretches along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States from Maine to Texas. They are called barrier islands because they guard the mainland from the direct onslaught of storms. The national seashore is a preserve made up of white sand-and-shell beaches, picturesque windswept dunes, wild landscapes of grasslands and tidal flats.

The national seashore is the longest stretch of primitive, undeveloped ocean beach in the nation. It covers 70 miles of the 120-mile Padre Island which is considered the longest undeveloped barrier island in the world. Some 600 species of plants and wildflowers exist there. The strip of land is only .1 to 3 miles wide. To the east lies the Gulf and to the west, the Laguna Madre (a hypersaline lagoon), including a portion of the Intracoastal Waterway (shipping lane). On the Laguna Madre side, lies the park's Bird Island Basin, a highly regarded and popular windsurfing spot.

In 1519, when the first Spanish fleet sailed along the shore, the island was populated by the Karankawa Indians. Padre Island became infamous as a graveyard for ships blown onto the island during storms. If you can drive far enough, you can see the shipwreck "Niquaragua," however that was much further than we were able to drive. Around 1804, Padre Nicholas Balli, for whom the island was named, used it for his ranching operation, the first permanent European settlement on the island. Unfortunately, the island was nearly denuded of its many varieties of grass, and it was eventually protected as a national seashore and closed to ranching in the 1960's. Since then, the grasses and "sea oats" have made a dramatic comeback. The dunes depend on grasses to keep them stable. Sometimes the grasses are damaged by both people and storms, and the dunes begin to migrate (as they do in White Sands National Monument). They have been clocked at moving 35 feet per year (more than an inch per day).

We drove as far as we could on the paved road, but that eventually gives way to the beach. We were given a handout that informed us that the parks service is not particularly helpful for vehicles stranded on the beach. It was a warning to think ahead and bring tools you might need if you were to get stuck in the sand. Otherwise, it is permissible to drive on the beach. We passed a number of RVs in the first mile or so, but then it became less and less populated with visitors. We continued on the beach for about five miles until we came to three vehicles that were stuck in the sand. The tide was high, and so it wasn't possible to drive on the hard packed wet sand. We were in pretty soft sand, and we eventually lost our nerve about going any further. It's unfortunate because at about 10 miles the beach turns from sand to seashells, and that would have been fun to see.

After we came back, we visited Bird Island Basin to watch the windsurfers. They were moving really fast because of the high winds. We also had a chance to walk a 3/4-mile loop out among the dunes and grasses. It is easy to see why this area is known as coastal prairie. I didn't take but a few pictures because it wasn't really possible to capture it in still photography. For that, Mike had the advantage with video because he was able to capture the movement of the grasses and the sound of the wind. It was a fairly monochromatic landscape, and very beautiful.
We enjoyed our visit there. It was unfortunate that the high winds made it pretty near impossible to enjoy being out of the car. The temperature was near 70, but the wind made it quite chilly. I can imagine that it is a wonderful place to be in the summer time, however.

So today the weather is nearly perfect. The wind has died down and it is warm outside. I'm thinking of sitting outside and soaking up some rays. Hope all goes well with you at home. We are waiting for a UPS delivery that Mike is expecting, and then we will start our trip home. We had expected it on Friday, but now it won't come until Monday at the earliest.

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