Thursday, December 4, 2014

Kalamazoo, Michigan

"Keep your friends close and your farmers closer."

• Welcome to Michigan •

Saturday evening, August 30, 2014

This is the billboard we spotted on the way into town, and it provides a pretty accurate idea of Kalamazoo.  As we drove toward Kalamazoo, we passed countless churches, and many corn fields.  We even passed a couple of Christmas tree farms.  I'm guessing the population of Kalamazoo is very low, since there are many regions with little groups of houses that don't belong to towns.  These sparse areas are simply called "census designated areas" so that the census can keep track of who lives there.

Upon arriving in "downtown" Kalamazoo, I was incredibly surprised that we parked easily, for free, and found a large space right away.  The only thing more surprising was that as we walked through the downtown area, we saw no people.  It was almost like a ghost town.  All the shops were closed.  Since there was no traffic, I walked down the middle of most of the streets.  I think Western Michigan University is near there, and it struck me as odd that no students had moved into the area two days before school started.

Where is everyone?
Sunday,  August 31, 2014

On Sunday morning, we drove out of Kalamazoo and into farm territory.  Here, I looked around and noticed that out of the few establishments we saw, all were very typical of American rural suburbs.  For example, the restaurants served generic American food almost exclusively.  Most buildings we saw were bars or industrial complexes.  It appeared that no foreign culture had percolated into this area.  Goodbye Pad Thai...
Flowers in Kalamazoo at Gull Meadow Farms
Our first stop of the day was to the Gilmore Car Museum, which sits on 90 acres of a census designated area.  On the way to the car museum, we spotted several gorgeous homes, which seemed to be houses for successful retirees from other cities along the lakefront.  The other side of the street, on the other hand, appeared to house local people who were placed solidly in the middle class and would stay there until they retired.

At the Gilmore Car Museum, we visited the largest collection of antique cars I've ever seen.  There was entire room of antique Cadillacs, and old model Shell Station, and an original Model T.  After learning all about Henry Ford asking for clock wheels for the holidays when I was in elementary school, I felt pretty excited to see his original Model T.  Henry Ford is credited with inventing the assembly line to amp up mass production.  For many people, the Model T mass produced car is the symbol of the industrial revolution in the United States.

Henry Ford's Model T
Shell Gasoline
A video about the rise of the automotive industry in the United States explained that cars allowed people to travel between the city and the country with ease and speed that was never seen before.  Suddenly, a city family could travel to the beach on a sunny afternoon.  Country folks could hop in their car and go shopping in the city.  People met more people, and the divide between the country and city shrunk.  However, these trips weren't all that easy since there were no roads or street signs at the time.  If you got lost, you stayed lost.  Despite complications for people with no sense of direction (me!), the rise of the automotive industry allowed people across the United States to visit each other, visit national parks and attractions, and open their minds to new experiences.  In addition to opening up new options for vacations, cars saved enormous amounts of time and allowed businesses to operate much faster than in the past.  Interestingly, since there were no roads (or other infrastructure) at the beginning, people drove the first cars right through grassy fields and raging rivers.  These days, we occasionally get an exciting off-road experience in a field, but can you imagine driving through a river?

At the museum, the 300+ antique cars are all kept in mint condition, inside spotless barns, which were brought from around the state.  In one barn, there was a room full of Hudson cars.  Another held one of Queen Elizabeth I's cars.  Another exhibit explained that before "trunks" were large compartments that opened on the back of a car, they were just a small box, or trunk, that was attached to the side of the car.  Hence the name "trunk".  We strolled through the Corvette section,  and then passed into the Chrysler room, where we saw a 1963 turbine that produced exhaust at 525 ºF, and got about 12 mpg.  Outside the barns, lunch is served in an authentic 1941 diner that was relocated from Connecticut to Kalamazoo.  Definitely visit the Gilmore Car Museum if you're in the area!

Inside a Thunderbird
W.K. Kellogg Manor
Our next stop was to the W.K. Kellogg Manor.  Initially, this estate was owned and operated by the Kellogg cereal family.  Today, Michigan State University owns and maintains the property.  We learned that this property can be rented for private events when we accidentally crashed a wedding.  Walking into the manor, we were extremely confused because we couldn't figure out if this house was open to the public, if it was a museum, or if there was an office with some information for visitors.  Since we couldn't find anywhere to buy tickets, we just wandered into the house.  Unsure if we were welcome guests or trespassers, we took a quick look around and were delighted to find a little breakfast room filled with Kellogg's cereal memorabilia and little bowls of cereal at a table.  Sensing that maybe we weren't supposed to be wandering around the house, we packed up and drove off to visit the W.K. Kellogg Bird Sanctuary.

Bald Eagle
The W.K. Kellogg Bird Sanctuary cares for and rehabilitates injured birds of prey.  In this lovely place, we observed a barn owl, a great horned owl, a bald eagle, a hawk, and many swans and geese.  We were particularly interested in seeing the barn owl because we both took a class at UChicago called Behavioral Neuroscience, in which we learned about barn owls making head saccades and having lopsided ear flaps so they could localize sounds both horizontally and vertically.  We wanted to see if the owl really moved its whole head, and it did!

Someone wants a snack...
One of the most fun parts about the bird sanctuary was hand-feeding the swans and geese.  When you buy your entry ticket, you have the option to purchase a bucket of food for the birds.  Whenever the swans and geese see visitors walking around with a bucket, they waddle over and expect food.  Too feed them, I held out a handful of feed toward a goose, and it marched over and ate all the little grains right out of my palm.  Their beaks are made of this really hard, almost plasticy, material, and they snap the food our of your hand, and somehow avoid biting you.  I had never fed a goose before, and had no idea how fun it would be.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Leila Arboretum
The highlights of the day on Monday were taking uncomfortably close-up photos of bugs at the Leila Arboretum and visiting the alligators at the Critchlow Alligator Sanctuary.  The Leila Arboretum is a large, natural space with fields of wild flowers, forests, and open fields.  Many people play Frisbee here.  I'm a big fan of taking pictures, so I snapped a few wild flower/bug photos.  Bugs kind of freak me out, but I managed to get close enough.  Perhaps in the future I'll purchase a telephoto lens.  Check out these cool bug photos:
Grasshopper at Leila Arboretum

On the way back to Chicago, we stopped at the Critchlow Alligator Sanctuary.  Previously, I have seen lots of alligators in Everglades National Park in Florida, but I never expected to find alligators in Michigan.  This sanctuary collects alligators that need safe places to live and groups them into five habitats by age and size.  Some people apparently think it's a good idea to keep an alligator as a domestic pet (what??!!!), but then realize that this is a seriously bad life choice when the alligator grows into a giant reptile with lots of teeth.  These "domestic" alligators (which are not at all domesticated) usually arrive at the sanctuary with a stripped pattern.  Alligators become stripped when they are denied sufficient exposure to sunlight.  Over time, their stripes disappear at the sanctuary.  Other alligators come to this sanctuary from zoos or to recover from injuries.  FYI, it is actually legal to have an alligator as a pet in Michigan.

Mini Gators Sunbathing
Did you know it's possible to train an alligator?  Each alligator at the Critchlow Alligator Sanctuary responds to both his or her name, and a stick with a particular color on it.  The family who owns and maintains the sanctuary rewards each alligator with a treat each time he or she responds to the correct name or color.  In this way, they can get a single alligator to come over to them for a veterinary checkup, transportation, or anything else.  Their largest alligator is named Godzilla.  Godzilla is still growing, since alligators continue to grow throughout their entire lives.

Godzilla and the Gator Keeper
At the sanctuary, we had the exciting opportunity to feed the alligators.  We bought a little bucket of alligator biscuits.  When you toss a biscuit into the water, the alligators swim over and chomp it with their serious jaws.  Then they stare you down until you throw another biscuit for them.

No Swimming!
Obviously, the winter in Michigan is too cold for a tropical reptile like an alligator.  During the spring, summer, and fall, the alligators live outside in their habitats and eat a lot.  They store the fat from what they eat in their tails, and then take five months off of eating during winter.  In winter, the Critchlow alligators live inside the on-site greenhouse, where the temperature and humidity are controlled.  As an anti-winter human, I think spending the winter in a "simulated Florida" sounds pretty good.

The sanctuary also rescues giant turtles.  Turtles with deficiencies in their diets often arrive with bumpy shells.  Over about thirty or forty years of healthy eating, a turtle's shell will smooth out.  These turtles can live for over 100 years, and they love to eat strawberries.  If you are around Kalamazoo, definitely make time for a visit to the Critchlow Alligator Sanctuary; it's a hidden gem!

Happy travels!

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