Traveling to Totality

Solar Eclipse viewing hill in Du Quoin

Solar eclipse watchers on a hill at Du Quoin State Fairgrounds.

When traveling I often wonder what matters most – where I go or whom I go with. Two weeks before the solar eclipse I still had no plan. I wanted to see the solar eclipse in totality with someone I knew. I had procrastinated over the three-day, $800 dorm rooms offered at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. When I found someone who would do that, the rooms were no longer available. Then my lifelong friend Joan said she’d take Sunday off from her job at a casino in Joliet and drive down to southern Illinois with me.

It was my former neighbor and friend Dennis who convinced me that Eclipse colander experimentI must see the total eclipse. “It’s life changing,” he said. “Everything you thought you knew is put into question.” Okay, he had been drinking when he said that but he is not one to sensationalize.

Joan didn’t care if I had a plan. “We can always sleep in the car at a truck stop if we have to,” she suggested. While she’s on a tight budget, Joan was the right person to go with. She’s a lot of fun and easygoing. I found a tent in my basement and called the Du Quoin State Fairgrounds to see if they had space available. “Yes, we have lots of space. Just come. No need for reservations,” the woman on the phone said. This would be an ideal place within the path of totality. Du Quoin is about 20 miles north of Carbondale. We would avoid the anticipated traffic congestion and crowds being reported by news outlets. I had attended a rodeo at the fairgrounds so was somewhat familiar with it. Continue reading

An Overnight Train to Allahabad

Train arrives in Allahabad, India

The Bundelkhand Express #11107 arrives in Allahabad from Jhansi, India.

The train is late. We wait. It will transport us overnight to Allahabad (ALD) and into Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state and one with the largest number of people living below the poverty line. My son and I have been in India for six days. We have yet to see anyone on top of a rail car. We don’t see unaccompanied children. The station in Jhansi is filled with young men, just as we have seen in the streets and shops. When I asked an English speaker about the lack of women out and about I was told, “Many women remain in the home with their families.”

It’s nearing midnight. The station has a waiting room for women only. A few elderly ladies dressed in colorful saris and some mothers with young children sit on the benches wearing forlorn faces. I don’t know if men and women travel in different compartments on this train. In Delhi, the metro trains had a women’s car. I chose to ride in one and found it comfortable – less crowded, less noisy and less smelly than the other cars. Will it matter to the men if I am sleeping in the same space as them? Will it matter to me?

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Train Ride to Orchha and Local Life in India

India passenger train vendorsMy 21-year old son Henry and I are ready to board the 10:10 a.m. daily Thirukkural Express at the Agra Cantt rail station heading for Jhansi. The train ride is nearly the same distance as Amtrak’s Downeaster that runs from Boston to Brunswick, Maine in the U.S.A. The timetables are comparable at about 3.5 hours.

A strong stench of urine wafts near the Express train car door. This is a mystery to me until later I observe a cow urinating on a station platform. Animals co-exist with the human population in India. At a snack stand in the station a monkey plays on the overhead pipes. Outside, a goat leans against the wall. Cows meander and dogs trot along what seems to be a familiar path. I like the daily reminder that we share this earth with many creatures.

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Travel to Washington DC Inauguration by Train

train station at Washington DC

Washington Union Station

Yes, you can still get a train ticket on some Amtrak routes to Washington DC to attend the inauguration of Donald Trump on Friday, January 20th. You will pay more this week than another time, but timing is important when traveling. Inauguration day in Washington DC is an event every American should try to attend some time in their life. If you wait for someone you really like to take the oath, you may end up never attending the event. One person witnessing history in the making can have a ripple effect. Stories get told and shared.

With an estimated 900,000 people attending this year’s presidential inauguration, train travel may be the easiest way to get there. Amtrak has released travel tips for the event encouraging passengers to allow additional time arriving at stations and citing limited access to entry and exit points at Washington’s Union Station. Minor stuff.

Washington Union StationWashington’s Union Station is across the street from the Capitol Building and the National Mall. You won’t need any transportation to get where you want to be. Signs will direct you to the event. There are still some hotels with rooms available that are less than a mile from Union Station. Washington has a great public transit system. However, closed streets will affect bus and car traffic, so take the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) trains if your feet get tired. The Smithsonian station stop will get you to the Mall from wherever you may have wandered. Remember to pack light and plan extra time for almost everything as the city swells with crowds.

Washington DC monumentIf you want to avoid or join the planned demonstrations, marches and protests here is the Washington Post guide with locations, time and dates. Here is the National Mall map to help orient you to the area.

Enjoy the train ride with your fellow citizens. You can tweet about your ride using @Inaug2017 and #Amtrak hashtag. I am @maryklest on twitter.

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Train Trips Don’t Stop at the Station

Amtrak station in Orlando, FloridaLooking for things to do outside of your routine? Get on the train and head for the experience of your choice. Through my train trips I’ve discovered some of the best, most favorably reviewed places, activities and events located near train stations. I’ve done the research, talked with local experts and traveled to many places by train. In 2017 this blog will be devoted to train-centric details that let you leave your car behind and avoid airport lines but still visit some of the best food and wine festivals, wellness retreats, workshops, outdoor activities and conferences – fun experiences you can reach by train.

Train information is often not included in event travel directions. More than once I drove or flew to a place that was located close to an Amtrak station. I had to pay parking fees and cab fares, struggled through storms while driving and waited in lines at airports just because I didn’t know how to travel by train. Train trips don’t stop at the station. Want to go hiking in the middle of a winter? There are trails in Arizona, Florida and California that you can reach by train. Need a wellness break? Whether a spa, meditation center or yoga retreat trains can take you there.

Why train?

Sightseer lounge car on Amtrak trainWhen you get on a train all you have to do is breathe. Your routine is gone. It’s time to improvise and see the world. Train travel is a practical, efficient and environmentally friendly way to travel. Solo travelers, families, people of all ages and abilities can feel comfortable and safe when traveling by train.

It’s fun. You will hear stories from all kinds of people and share a few of your own. You always have the option to move around between cars and stretch your legs in the ample space provided at each seat. It may take you longer to get where you’re going. That’s part of the pleasure. You slow down. I love watching the landscape, sky and light change from the train. Read for hours uninterrupted. Meet people who are different from you. Discover ways of life in America’s countryside, small towns and cities.

Train trips are easy. Amtrak train schedules and ticket and reservation information can be found online.  Other rail excursions can be found online as well. When traveling on Amtrak a simple way to save money and support a strong national rail network is to join the non-profit National Association of Rail Passengers (NARP) organization. The $35 annual membership gives you a 10 percent discount on most fares.

Feel free to share your favorite train travel experiences near rail stations in the comments box below. Come back to this site often or subscribe to read about a new place, activity or event that is close to a train station. Traveling by train can be adventurous in itself. Your trip won’t stop at the station if you know where to go and how.

 

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What I Learned Riding Amtrak Trains During 2016

Amtrak trainI traveled many miles on Amtrak trains this year and talked with passengers to see what I could learn from them. Some were serious minded, others were funny. They were of all ages – seniors, parents, college kids and children. They were of all religious, geographic, ethnic and racial backgrounds. Here is a summary of some things I learned while traveling by train during 2016.

People like to be listened to

To start a conversation I usually asked some standard train traveling questions. Where are you going? Where are you coming from? Why did you decide to take the train? I was ready for quick responses, lengthy explanations and everything in between. Nothing about their physical appearance gave me a clue as to who would engage and who would not. Some were ready to talk from the get go, others needed time to assess why I was curious about them. Those who did open up to a stranger had something in common – they liked being listened to. Listening is a skill. It’s something that brings us closer to one another.

They love their families

Amtrak at Chicago Union StationMany of the people I met on the train were going to visit a family member or attend a family event. Chris from Yazoo City, Mississippi was returning from his daughter’s wedding. Grandma Laurie was on the last leg of a trip from Israel to Cincinnati to see her family. Tiquan was returning home for college break. An Amish family was heading to Iowa for a funeral. The effort it takes to participate in family life is worth it. That kind of love can’t be found anywhere else.

Train travel offers adventure

Trains travel through parts of America that cannot be accessed by cars or buses. Airplanes disregard landscapes all together. Train travelers expressed a desire to reduce chaos in their lives and slow down. They didn’t like flying. Josie was traveling alone to Harper’s Ferry to hike the Appalachian Trail. For Robert, even the bus was too hectic. He described the train as laidback. Jimmy was traveling to Wyoming to start a new job. It was his first trip on his own and out of the state of Florida. For a mom and her toddler son who wore a shirt with a train that included a cookie car, his first train ride was a thrill they wouldn’t forget. Adventure is in the eye of the beholder.

Disabled people have a choice

Blind man riding the railsThere were people I met who were unable to manage other transportation options due to a handicap. A military veteran of the war in Afghanistan with PTSD held his service dog in his arms. A blind man and his wife were going to Tucson from Cleveland to meet friends. The train allowed them to travel in a way that they were comfortable. Remember those who are capable when they have options.

Frustration outweighs optimism

When I board a train I bring my optimism with me. I wake up every morning and say to myself: “Let me love this day and everyone in it.” More than once while on the train people challenged my outlook. They did not love everyone. Their future was bleak. America had let them down. People talked about loveless marriages, business failures, crime, unemployment, and government dysfunction. This brought me to a prediction that many of my friends and news media believed unfathomable. 

Donald Trump would be elected president

It became obvious to me while riding on long-distance Amtrak trains that Donald Trump would be elected president. Had any of the campaign operatives, pundits and analysts taken such a ride they probably would have come to the same conclusion. I met a maintenance man who told me he was voting for Mr. Trump because: “He’s rich and a good businessman who will create jobs.” There was a single mom elementary school teacher from Arkansas who was fed up with the way things were going. “Trump will bring the change we need,” she said. An elderly lady from Jackson, Mississippi heading to New Orleans said she would not vote for Hillary Clinton. “It’s not a lady job,” she replied when I asked her why. Data is important, but it won’t tell the whole story when it comes to the human heart.

America is still the beautiful

People gasped at the beauty of America’s landscapes as the train traversed mountainsides, riverbanks, forests, open plains and bayous. Within these diverse terrains I believe we all found some solace. We had something in common. We chose to see it and we chose to listen to each other. We are free to choose.

Train tracks on Amtrak line

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Sri Lanka Scenic Train Ride is a Bargain

Passenger train tunnel in Sri LankaI have been traveling beyond Amtrak routes and outside of the USA this summer. Most recently I traveled to Sri Lanka, an island country south of India. It operates the highest broad guage railway (5 ½ feet wide) in the world. While I spent most of the time traveling in a vehicle, I had the privilege of riding on the Main Line from Nanu-Oya to Haputale in the hill country. The train traverses through tea plantations, forested mountains and valleys and lots of tunnels. The view was spectacular.

I was traveling with the Venerable Bhante Sujatha, a Buddhist monk, and five fellow Americans. We purchased second-class reserved seats a few days in advance at the Peradeniya station and boarded at Nanu-Oya. At the station, there was a “Foreigners’ Rest Room.” Waiting there was the biggest group of Caucasians, Japanese and Chinese people I had seen since being in Sri Lanka. They did not remain confined to this room. Most were on the platform watching for and anticipating the train’s arrival.

The blue painted, made-in-China train was being led by a diesel engine as it pulled up to the station. The first thing I noticed about the train was how clean its body was, not marred by any graffiti. Upon boarding, I noticed the open windows. A breeze of fresh air flowed through the cars allowing passengers a direct link with the landscape. The doorways remained opened as well. The car’s interior was spotless and the blue vinyl covered seats were comfortable. On this train some seats remained empty.

I took the only single seat ticket we had purchased and sat down amongst a group of college kids from Germany. I got a blank look from the girl sitting in seat 34. When I showed her my ticket number she moved out of the seat. The students easily switched from speaking in German to English when I asked where they were headed. They were in Sri Lanka sightseeing, traveling from city to city by train. Gazing out the window I felt relief in not having to dodge my eyes from oncoming traffic or hold my breath every time our driver decided to pass the vehicle ahead of us.

After a few minutes, I realized I was in the wrong car. I was in the unreserved second-class car with a reserved seat ticket. I moved up a car and found my seat number.

Train view of Sri Lanka hill countryI sat next to a semi-retired  Sri Lankan businessman named Kyma. He was wearing a checkered shirt, pants and glasses. I mention pants because traditional garments for Sri Lankan men is sarongs. Kyma was friendly and knowledgeable about the train route. His work at a furniture manufacturer required him to travel twice a month. He spoke English with a heavy accent. Contrary to what is found in many countries, in Sri Lanka it is the older people who are more likely to speak English. Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) was under British rule until 1948 and remained a British dominion until 1972. Only 10 percent of the people speak English fluently. The majority of people (75%) speak Sinhala. In the northern region, Tamil is spoken.

For his travel, Kyma chooses to take the train from Colombo to Peradeniya to Haputale. “It is relaxing,” he said. Glad to hear I was curious about the route, he narrated points of interest along the way. “We are nearing the highest elevation…This is the dairy region…Another tunnel up ahead.” In fact, there are 46 tunnels on the Main Line. When we stopped next to another train, Kyma saw a friend of his and had a quick chat.

Passengers on Sri Lanka train

Kyma had worked previously as a flight staffer but was now glad to travel by land rather than by air. With a smile he said, “The trains often do not run on time.” He chooses second-class reserved seat tickets for his trips. “You made a good ticket choice,” he said. “Second class reserved is the best way to go. First class you can’t open the windows. It’s air conditioned with TVs but who needs that. I like the fresh air and the view of the landscape.” He was right. I liked feeling the air too and taking pictures without the obstruction of a windowpane.

The drama of the countryside could not be replicated on a TV screen. At the high elevation the mountains appeared as layers of distant shadows. Around a bend the tracks pivoted against a hillside and a steep valley drop. The tunnels blacked out the landscape and in me created a sense of wonder about who dug through this rock to lay this track.

Sri Lanka passenger trainA conductor came by and checked my ticket. Other than that, it felt like the people’s train. There was joy and camaraderie.  Two excited young women were lifting their heads and waving their arms from the open doorways as if they were free for the first time. Passengers moved easily from different sides of the aisle to view the wonders of the countryside. A young Sri Lankan man walked through the car balancing a box filled with tea and roti (flatbread). He and his customers exchanged broad smiles. The safety and security of open doors and windows did not seem a consideration at all.

The clickety clack sound of the train rolling towards its destination was that of a mechanical device rather than the quiet engine of a vehicle. We arrived at Pattipola station, which reaches 6,225 feet above sea level. It’s the highest station stop within the 900-mile government owned railway network. This vista on top of the world dwarfed the train and us. What a small space we occupy in everyday life.

Kyma and I bid farewell at the Haputale station in the Badulla District in the Uva Province. The cost of my 25-mile scenic train ride was 600.00 rupees or approximately $4.00 in USA currency. What a bargain!

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My Return Train Trip With Two Romani Gypsies

San Antonio to Chicago, Texas Eagle, Train No. 22
Menger Hotel in San Antonio, TX

Menger Hotel in San Antonio, TX

I like places where my senses feel at ease. The lovely, historic Menger Hotel served as a respite while I visited San Antonio during its annual Fiesta celebration. The parades, street food, people and music were invigorating. I relished the museums and sitting along the San Antonio River outside of the Riverwalk. Near the Blue Star Arts district turtles rested on the river’s banks. Black birds cawed in the trees that offered shade from the hot sun.

Train travel is like that for me. Whatever is going on elsewhere, I feel suspended in time and at peace while inside this tubular vessel. That’s how my return train trip to Chicago began. When I learned that the two men who sat down near me were Romani Gypsies, my pensive mood was jolted by curiosity.

They wandered into the car carrying bags and blankets. They hesitated about which seats to sit in. “This car is cooler. Let’s stay in here,” the man with a mustache said to the other. He took the seat in front of me and the other man in a faded blue jean jacket sat across from him. They looked to be in their early fifties with bronzed skin, dark eyes and silver sideburns.

Their slapstick actions and petty arguments with each other made me think of the jesters in an opera. But my thoughts about them changed. They dropped their belongings, some of which were carried in black garbage bags, onto the vacant seats and floor. Once they were settled in, they spoke to each other in a language I was not familiar with. I tried hard to decipher it.

Rambling on the rails

The man in the blue jean jacket started playing music out loud from his cell phone. The other turned his phone on to a radio talk show. When the Conductor came by, he indicated to the men that they should use earphones. They turned the volume down, but when the Conductor passed they raised it again. They continued broadcasting their selected radio stations as if it were some sort of competition between the two of them.

A phone rang. I heard the mustached man seated in front of me say in English, “Give me a month. You’ll have the money. I’m buying that red truck. This train is much better than the bus. Saved some money. I will be in St. Paul via Chicago on Monday. We may go on to Iowa then back to Florida because of my lungs.” He ended the conversation saying, “I try to be a good Christian, but the obstacles keep coming.”

Texas freight trainWe had a twenty-minute layover at a station stop so I went in to buy some food. I was nearing the front of a long line when I saw the two men. I learned the mustached man’s name is Michael. Upon his request, I bought them a pack of smokes with a $10 bill they gave me. “You can keep the change and buy yourself a cup of coffee,” Michael said. I gave him the change. He was born in Waco, Texas. He and his cousin, Allen, were traveling to Minnesota to find blacktop work. Allen was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma and seemed lost without Michael there to make decisions. I wasn’t sure where they were living but they got on the train in Ft. Worth. I asked them what language they were speaking.

“Romani Gypsy,” Michael said.

“We’re the only nation without a flag,” said Allen.

Romani people flag

International flag of the Romani people.

“No,” Michael corrected him. “We got a flag.” He told me the Romani Gypsies’ country of

origin is India. I quickly looked it up on Wikipedia and Michael was right about the flag and the country of origin. An estimated one million Romani people live in the United States.

Leaving, yet holding the past

We talked more when we returned to the train. Allen admitted to being a womanizer in the past. He called his first wife “a good woman.” A silver chain bracelet was wrapped around his wrist. He read off and on from the Bible. When in the morning Allen couldn’t find his Bible, he began to panic. He questioned each passenger on whether they had seen it.

The Conductor entered the car and Allen pleaded with him for help. The conductor asked him, “Did you have anything in it?’

“My whole life,” Allen replied. Minutes later he found it beneath the seat behind him and opened it to read. I think the Bible reading marked the beginning of his day even while on the train.

Texas Eagle train travel passengers

Michael and Allen on the Texas Eagle

Allen slept a lot but it was Michael who seemed tired. Tired of questions, tired of trying, tired of chasing the next buck. “The reason why we’re poor,” he blurted, “is because we’re trying to do what’s right.” As we approached Chicago he allowed me to take their picture but only if he could take my picture as well.

During the 32-hour train trip from San Antonio to Chicago, it was Allen who gave me a language lesson in Romani Gypsy.

Sar son means how are you.” I repeated the words and he smiled.

Kushti means good.”

“Kusthti,” I said.

Pakvora – beautiful.”

Allen’s choice of words told me that for all the hardships he and Michael were facing, they remained optimistic. Another thing we had in common – they both love the British singer, Adele.

Seeing Texas By Train With a Blind Man

Texas Eagle, Train No. 21
Amtrak station at Marshall, Texas

Marshall, Texas train station

Morning began with a suggestive gray light. Then the sun streaked the horizon with turquoise, crimson and carrot-colored orange. Having passed through parts of Missouri and Arkansas at night, we were entering the state of Texas. Pastures for grazing, bounded by fences, had replaced open Midwest cropland.

I sipped a two-dollar cup of coffee and listened as the conductor made a good morning announcement: “Welcome to those who boarded overnight. A safety instruction card is available at your seat describing emergency exits. Shoes must be worn. Escort your children at all times. The rest rooms are in the lower level. No smoking. Next stop, Marshall, Texas.”

My hunch that everything would be big in Texas was immediately put to rest as we passed the Piney Woods of East Texas. The young woman seated behind me complained to her boyfriend, “These pine trees are skinny, not like the ones we have in Michigan.”

This is what Texas looked like to me from the train – Head Hunters taxidermy, fireworks stores, green pastures, Route 80, Valero gas station, Coastal hay for sale, BBQ, peach tree orchards, Southwestern Christian College.

In the dining car I was seated with a man named Ed. He couldn’t see any of what Texas looked like because he lost his eyesight at the age of nine. He was with his Golden Retriever service dog and a woman named Bo, who was his wife.  His dog laid down under the table on my feet. “I hope he isn’t bothering you.” A dog owner myself I assured him, “Not at all.”

Texas telephone towersEd’s sunglasses wrapped around his eyes past his temples. They were not dark glasses, but gray colored. “When I called Amtrak the first woman I talked with said I could travel with my dog. The next woman said she wasn’t sure, but when I got here they let me on.”

The couple had traveled by train from Cleveland to San Antonio then back to Austin. From there they were making their way to Tucson. Friends had told them to come visit in the spring before the weather got too hot. They talked of their other trips – to Europe and the Middle East. I was curious and asked Ed, “So much of travel is visual. How do you describe where you’ve been?”

“I think visually,” he said. “I love to design stuff. When traveling I might recollect what it felt like. There’s a spatial quality to places. I remember certain smells and sounds, including music. I know if the people are friendly or not.“

A second marriage for both of them, they exchanged wedding vows in Switzerland.

“Why Switzerland?” I asked.

“Because of its role in establishing a training school for guide dogs,” Ed said. Bo talked about the beauty of the country and the people.

Blind man riding the rails

Ed and Bo on the Texas Eagle

I asked if I could take their picture. The man who had no idea what I looked like, only what I sounded like, removed his sunglasses and posed with the same vanity we all do. Bo smiled broadly; confident she had found a gem of a man.

I went back to my seat and shut my eyes. I wanted to experience the train ride in the way Ed might. The rumble beneath my seat sounded like two people on a treadmill running in unison. Above me a whisper of air circulated. My shoulders rested between the wings of the chair. Its polyester fabric pin-pricked my skin. I heard the crinkling sound of a package being opened and then smelled a whiff of potato chips. A lawyer talked on his phone incessantly.

I put my ear buds on and listened to Van Morrison sing Bright Side of the Road, then Bonnie Raitt, I Will Not Be Broken, and The Lumineers singing Bob Dylan’s Boots of Spanish Leather. My eyes-closed session ended with Sheryl Crow and Sting singing Always on Your Side. At will, my eyes opened to the sights of Texas. And it was amazing.

 

Texas Eagle Passes Illinois Railroad Prairies

Amtrak Texas Eagle, Train No. 21
Illinois railroad prairie

Native plants grow alongside a railroad right of way in central Illinois

A landscape can flush out memories the same way an old familiar song does. It happened to me while traveling on Amtrak’s Texas Eagle train through central Illinois. I was a college student heading to school. I was a young editor reporting on railroad prairies – native plants growing along the ICG Railroad right of way. This land was not only familiar to me but to my ancestors who made a living tilling the soil, acre after flat acre. Like a river returning to its source, Illinois created a current inside of me.

I sat with this feeling for a while.

A few years ago, through a mindfulness class I attended, I learned to stop myself from ruminating. The reason I learned to stop was because ruminating gave me no advantage for appreciating what’s happening in the moment. For that reason, I let the memories go and gazed out at the landscape that presented itself to me on that day, on that train.

During mid spring before the crops have started their growth cycle, the view was equivalent to that of a teenager’s blank stare, as exciting as a pair of dormant brown corduroy pants. If there is not a color called dormant brown, I thought there should be.

My seatmate knew nothing about Illinois. He kept his attention on his laptop. He traveled by airplane from Minneapolis to Chicago to attend a business meeting. He was taking the train from Chicago to Bloomington where he would attend another meeting.

“I could have drove,” he said. “But taking the train I avoid a speeding ticket and I can work. Time is everything, you know.”

An efficient fellow he was. Sitting next to him felt awkward, like the pauses during a bad first date. My limbs tightened. He was wearing clear frame glasses, blue jeans, a sport jacket and a black & white checked shirt. His dark hair was properly cut and combed.

Central Illinois wind farm

Wind farm in central Illinois.

I saw some tall white wind turbines in the distance turning their trinity of wings slowly in unison. They grew closer and more numerous as the train moved along its track. Illinois ranks fourth among U.S. states for installed wind turbine capacity. But what I was searching for was a field of blooming Prairie Trout Lily. Continue reading