A Travellerspoint blog

January 2008

The City on the Edge of Space

American History, Space Flight, Petrochemicals and the Gulf of Mexico all in a day in Houston, Texas City and Galveston

sunny 10 °C
View Work Trips 2008 on GregW's travel map.

When one thinks of Texas, one thinks of heat, of dusty desert landscapes upon which tumbleweed rolls along. Texas is a big place, though, and Houston offers a tree-filled view, a lush river delta leading into the Gulf of Mexico. However, with a latitude of 29 degrees north, 45 minutes, a latitude further south than Cairo, Egypt, one would expect Houston, Texas to be warm, even in the January.

In fact, average temperatures for Houston in January tend to be in the high teens Celsius. That is why it was so surprising that the weekend I choose to tour the city, Houston would be experiencing a high of 10 Celsius. Unprepared for the cool weather, I had to wander down to a Target store and buy myself a sweater. Local Houstonians were wandering around in heavy jackets with scarves and gloves.

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Decked out in my new sweater, providing one of the 4 layers I was wearing, I headed out from my Hotel near the Galleria on the west side of Houston, and headed East towards San Jacinto Bay.

The battlefield at San Jacinto, near the San Jacinto River and San Jacinto Bay, was the site of a very important battle in 1836 that gained Texas their independence from Mexico. In the 1800s, Mexico stretched from Columbia (modern day Panama) in the south to a northern border that included parts (or whole pieces) of California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Texas. Mexico gain independence from Spain in the early 1800s during the Mexican war of Independence, and soon that large swath of land found itself under the control of president General Antonio López de Santa Anna (a man who would hold that office a total of 11 different times over a 22 year period).

In 1835, Texas declared independence from Mexico, forming the Republic of Texas. Santa Anna was not impressed, and soon dispatched troops to bring Texas back under Mexican control. Santa Anna swept up into Texas, defeating Texan troops at the The Alamo in San Antonio and later at Goliad.

General Sam Houston, on the Texans side, retreated his troops from Santa Anna’s advance. Santa Anna, feeling confident, divided his troops into multiple columns to pursue both Houston and the Texan government. This gave Houston his opportunity, and Houston set up camp on a point of land where the Buffalo Bayou met the San Jacinto River.

On April 21st, Houston attacked the Mexican camp, with a regiment of troops lead by Sidney Sherman advancing from the northern tree line, and the main bulk of the army coming up from the south. The Mexicans, unprepared that day for battle, retreated to the east, where they were cornered. 600 Mexican soldiers died that day with a loss of only nine Texans. Santa Anna was captured the next day, April 22nd, 1836, and forced to sign a treaty giving Texas it’s independence from Mexico.

Texas’ independence was short-lived, however, and a few years later they joined the USA. Following the defeat by the Texans, much of the rest of Northern part of the Mexico fell during the Mexican-American war. In 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ceded to the United States approximately 1/3 of the present area of the USA, including in whole or in part the present-day states New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California, Utah and parts of Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas and Oklahoma.

The point where the battle took place is now a state park with a large monument to the battle and the Texans victory over the Mexicans. The Art Deco obelisk is the tallest free-standing column in the world at 570 feet tall, 15 feet taller than the Washington Monument. Leave it to the Texans to outdo even their own government. In addition, a number of boulders are scattered around the grounds where important parts of the battle took place, including the spot where the majority of the 600 dead met their ends.

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The park is also home to the 300 acre San Jacinto Marsh, a tidal wetland that has recently been undergoing restoration. In the 1970s and 1980s as the petrochemical industry and shipping grew in the area, much the marsh lands along the San Jacinto River were converted into open water. Started in 1997, the San Jacinto Marsh Restoration Project has been working to convert the area back into a marsh. More on the project can be read on the Department of Fish and Wildlife website, or on the University of Houston / Clear Lake website

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Speaking of Clear Lake, that was my next destination, to the south of the San Jacinto Park. Clear Lake is a pleasure boaters destination, with from 19 marinas and over 7,000 boat slips in Clear Lake area, the third largest concentration of pleasure boats in the United States, apparently.

My reason for going to Clear Lake was not to go boating (a little cold to be out on the open water this past weekend). Rather I was there to head north from Clear Lake and back over the city boundary into Houston and NASA’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, which sits just over the border from Clear Lake in Houston.

The Johnson Space Center is mission control for all American Space Shuttle missions, activities aboard the International Space Station, and is the training facility for all American astronauts. No rockets or space shuttles take off from Houston (for the most part, that happens in Florida at the Kennedy Space Center). The control facility in Houston is separated from the launch facilities in the event that a disaster occurs (rocket explosion or what have you) to ensure that you don’t lose both facilities.

The visitors’ center at Johnson Space Center has an interactive museum which would probably be fun for kids, but I found a little dull. I did, however, quite enjoy the opportunity to do the NASA tour, where a tram takes you around the grounds of Johnson Space Center. We saw one of the three mission control rooms in the facility, the training center where astronauts train and a few rockets and rocket engines from past programs like Saturn and Apollo. The training area was interesting, as it included full size training models of the shuttle and International Space station, a couple of shuttle flight simulators and two models of the Canadarm, the robotic arm made by Spar Aerospace in Canada. Yay Canada! To simulate using the arm in a zero-g environment, the astronauts train by pushing around balloons and other light weight objects with the robot arm.

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In addition to controlling missions and training astronauts, the Johnson Space Center is also home to the development programs for the next generation of space travel, which includes new space craft, a lunar base and a trip to Mars. In addition to the over 17,000 full time and contract employees working at the Johnson Space Center, there are more than 70 aerospace firms in the Houston area. The Bay Area (as the area around the Johnson Space Center complex is called) Bay Area Houston is home to 92 percent of Houston's aerospace jobs and 4.5 percent of Houston's total employment.

As the tour group was leaving building 30, where the mission control rooms are located, the guide motioned up to a flag atop the building. “Whenever an American is in space, the American flag flies on that pole. As there is an American at the International Space Station, the flag is flying at this point.” Looking up to the flag pole, I noticed off to the right that the moon was rising in the blue sky over the building. There it was, NASA’s next destination, the moon, just above the horizon, so close and yet actually 380,000 kilometers away. Houston is right there, at the edge of space.

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Due to its important place in the Aerospace industry, Houston’s NBA team is called the Rockets, though I learned while attending a game last Wednesday that originally the team was from San Diego. In San Diego, the team was also called the Rockets, in honour of that city’s large aerospace industry. Luckily for the NBA, the Rockets moved from one capital of aerospace to another. After moving from Minneapolis to Los Angeles, the Lakers of the NBA never changed their name, even though there isn’t much in the way of lakes around the Los Angeles area.

Heading south from NASA down highway 146, I noticed that my gas gauge was getting low, so I pulled off the highway in Texas City to fill up. Buying gas in Texas City, besides for being a practical concern of not running out of fuel, was also a strong metaphor. I recently read the outstanding book The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, in which the author examines the question, “If somehow the earth were depopulated of humans overnight, how long before all trace of humankind vanished?” In the book, the author spends a chapter in the Houston area, and specifically Texas City, to examine what would happen to all the petrochemical processing plants that we have created.

Why associate the petrochemical industry with the Houston Area? As the interesting article on the Houston Ship Channel called Amidst a Petrochemical Wonderland: Points of view along the Houston Ship Channel points out, approximately one quarter of the refining capacity of the United States is located along the ship channel, at over 20 petrochemical plants in the channel area. They are linked by pipelines, selling streams of liquid product to one another, and bringing in crude from hundreds of platforms in the Gulf, as well as heavier, cheaper crude from Mexico.

Texas City, south of Houston, is home to three refineries: Valero, Marathon Ashland Petroleum LLC, and British Petroleum (BP). The BP refinery can process over 450,000 barrels per day, making it the third largest refinery in the USA. In addition to the refineries, there are a number of other petrochemical plants that use all that refined oil to make a number of products. With all those petrochemical plants, Texas City has from time to time, blown up. The most significant of these, known as the Texas City Disaster, happened in 1947, when a fire aboard the French ship Grandcamp ignited the 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate (fertilizer) aboard, causing the ship to explode. The resulting set of fires and explosions through-out Texas City killed more than 500 people and wounded over 5,000.

I left the gas station just as the sun was sinking in the sky, and drove through town and past the chemical plants. The lights on the pipes, stacks and processing equipment were just coming on. Looking at this stainless steel maze light up against the blackening sky, with spouts of fire shooting in bright orange and cool blue flames from venting stacks, I couldn’t decide if the scene reminded me more of a post-apocalyptic landscape ala Mad Max, or a futuristic city like something from a Japanese manga cartoon.

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Apoligies for the poor singing, and the fact that my words get cut off at the end. I am a poor host and videographer, apparently. I was saying, before I apparently hit the stop button to quickly, "Welcome to Texas City, the gas station of America."

Later that evening, when driving north back towards Houston from Galveston on highway 45, looking at the row of petrochemical plants in the distance definitely put me in mind of that futuristic city. From across the water of Galveston Bay, it looked like a very distant city of skyscrapers, all lit up with shiny glass. It’s truly an impressive site, though once you get closer to the Texas City industrial complex, the vision of future cities fades into the stink of chemical processing.

But prior to heading back to Houston, I drove further south to Galveston. Galveston sits on an island in the Gulf of Mexico, and is now probably best known as a town with a number of tourist attractions. Back in the late 1800s, however, Galveston was the biggest city in the area, surpassing even Houston. However, in 1900 a hurricane struck the area, killing between six and eight thousand people and destroying a good chunk of the city. After that, many of the residents and businesses moved north towards Houston, and the city never really recovered. One can’t help but draw parallels between Galveston and New Orleans, and wonder if Galveston is a glimpse into New Orleans’ future.

I didn’t see too much of Galveston though, as I arrived pretty late in the day and needed to head back to Houston that evening. I took a quick drive around the historic Strand district, and then headed to a restaurant for dinner. It was a busy night in Galveston, and I had to wait for a table. Soon my name was called, and I was shown my table, overlooking the the tall ship Elissa. Launched in 1877, the Elissa was restored in the 1970s. As I was at a restaurant called the Fisherman’s Wharf, I figured I should get seafood, and as I was just steps from the Gulf of Mexico, I decided on an entry with three different preparations of Gulf Shrimp. The shrimp are caught wild in the Gulf of Mexico, where they live. For all I know, the shrimp could have been caught by Forrest Gump and Lieutenant Dan. Who can say?

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I finished up with dinner, and soon was back on the road, heading north along highway 45 back to Houston and my hotel room. The day started with the history of San Jacinto and ended with the historic center of Galveston, and in the middle featured space travel and the futuristic landscape of the petrochemical alley. Yesterday, today and tomorrow all in one day.

Posted by GregW 19:06 Archived in USA Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Reflections on a slow trip to Quebec (that could get faster)

High Speed Rail to Come to Canada? Travelling from Toronto to Quebec via train could be getting faster in the future.

snow -20 °C
View Quebec City New Years Dec 2007 Jan 2008 on GregW's travel map.

It’s the start of the New Year, and of course that implies that we have just ended the previous year. As with many out there, I have taken this time as an opportunity to reflect on 2007. Along with the usual fretting over the fact that another year has passed without getting engaged to Jessica Alba, Jessica Simpson or Jessica Biel (or, really, any Jessica), I take this time as the year ends to see how I fared with travel this year. A lot of this is driven by the fact that many of the reward programs I take part in, like Marriott Rewards, Continental OnePass and Air Canada Aeroplan have qualification periods that run in parallel to the actual year. Luckily for me, I have qualified for elite status in all three of those programs this year, which means 2008 will hopefully mean more comfortable airline seats and bigger hotel rooms.

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I have also, for the third year, calculated how much I flew and how much carbon I threw up into the atmosphere. This year I flew an exceptionally large amount, even for me, with 81 flights totaling up to 80,785 actual miles flown. This is the most I have flown any year, fuelled mostly by the cross-country trips from Toronto to Seattle early in the year, and my recent weeks flying north-south between Toronto and Houston. According to the carbon calculator I used, all that travel added up to somewhere around 27 tonnes of carbon put into the atmosphere. Yikes! And so I was off to purchase a number of carbon offsets to assuage my guilt about so recklessly destroying the planet.

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Good news for the planet, though, is that I didn’t actual fly anywhere for a Christmas vacation this year as I have the past few year, instead electing to stick to the ground and take the train up to Quebec City. While it’s diesel engines do spew carbon into the atmosphere, the amount is less than flying, and the carbon isn’t flung into the high atmosphere, instead it’s spewed out at ground level to choke the local fauna as the train cuts through the Quebec forests.

My train, operated by Via Rail Canada, left downtown Toronto’s Union Station at 11:30 AM on December the 30th, travelling pokily along and making a number of stops as it headed east and north towards Montreal, arriving at 5:02 PM. After a 50 minute stop-over (enough time to grab a burger from McDonald’s, another few tonnes of carbon thrown into the atmosphere), I was back on the train heading towards Quebec City, arriving at the impressive and imposing Gare du Palais in Quebec City at 8:56 pm.

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The total trip took 8:33 minutes to cover the approximately 800 kilometers between Toronto and Quebec City, averaging 100 kilometers per hour. That’s not very fast, providing a similar speed to driving and certainly much slower than flying, which takes 1 hour and 25 minutes.

I choose the train, though, instead of driving or flying though, because I was on vacation and in no real hurry to get anywhere. Instead, I wanted a nice relaxing trip, allowing me to look at the scenery, read a book (it was a Michael Crichton thing about talking monkeys) and relax.

That might soon change. Yesterday in Ottawa, the premiers of the provinces of Ontario and Quebec, Dalton McGuinty and Jean Charest, announced a plan to do a feasibility study of putting a high-speed train between Quebec City and Windsor, Ontario, which we would find “whizzing along the tracks at upwards of 300 km/h – double the speed of VIA Rail's current trains – [taking] two hours and 18 minutes to travel between Montreal and Toronto, down from four hours.”

While this is an idea that has been tossed around a number of time over the past 20 years, the two Premiers (the leaders of the provincial governments, for those not familiar with the Canadian political structure) have a number of reasons to study the idea now. In addition to the desire of voters to see Canada meet carbon reduction targets, Quebec and Ontario are both large manufacturing economies. The price of oil has been skyrocketing, causing the cost of manufacturing to rise, while the Canadian dollar strengthening against the US dollar and the softness in the US economy meaning that our exports to USA are becoming more expensive just as Americans are tightening their spending. A $20 billion dollar project to build high speed rail would mean jobs, especially for a company like Bombardier, maker of high speed train engines and cars.

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I’ve in the past covered how cool it would be to have a high-speed train in the high population Ontario-Quebec corridor that runs from Windsor, Ontario (just across the river from Detroit) to Quebec City and includes major population centers like Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa.

Nothing more clearly brought this to my attention than two different trips I made this summer.

The first, taken 5 times between May and July, was between Toronto and Detroit. The distance between these two cities is a straight 370 kilometers along. Via Rail runs trains down to Windsor, Ontario, but the trip takes almost 4 hours and the departures are too late in the morning to get me to Detroit on Monday mornings in time for work. Instead, I ended up flying Air Canada into Windsor, and taking a combination of taxis and buses between the Windsor airport and my workplace in downtown Detroit.

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In August, I headed over to Europe. Obviously I had to fly across the Atlantic (no trains to take there), but once I landed in Europe, I spent two weeks travelling almost exclusively by high speed rail, travelling between London, Brussels, Cologne, Amsterdam and Frankfurt on the fast and comfortable high speed Euro-trains. On the trip between Cologne and Amsterdam, I was even lucky enough to sit in the front cabin, where I could easily see out the front window and watch as we sped between Germany and the Netherlands.

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Now, the interesting thing is that if you do the math, the train isn’t really that much faster Europe. From London to Frankfurt is a total of around 800 kilometers, which the trains cover in 6 hours and 32 minutes, or around 130 kilometers an hour. Despite having ICE trains that can travel up to 300 km/h, for the most part the trains can’t travel that fast for much of the length of the trip. Things are getting faster though. The Cologne to Frankfurt part is all high speed track, and the train is often travelling in excess of 250 km/h, and the UK is building their infrastructure to get the Eurostar moving faster.

What is very impressive about the Europe trains, though, is the fact that they run so frequently. Looking at taking a train from Toronto to Windsor, the earliest I could get out was 7:50, arriving in Windsor at 11:30. The first flight out of Toronto airport leaves 7:15 and arrives at 8:22, meaning I have to leave my house around 5:30 to get to the airport and clear security. Leaving my house at 5:30 am to catch a 6:00 AM train would be possible. A 6:00 AM train would arrive in Windsor at 9:45 AM, and I could be across the river quickly and at the office by 10:30. That would be a completely doable proposition.

While the trains in Europe may not be as quick as they possibly could, they run often and they are comfortable, and that’s something that Canada needs to do in the Windsor-Quebec corridor to make train travel something that’s more than just a mode of travel for tourists who want scenery and relaxation.

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Posted by GregW 11:30 Archived in Canada Tagged transportation train_travel travel_philosophy Comments (0)

Quebec City is cold, snowy and 400 years old

Forget the O.C. (Orange County), the Q.C. (Quebec City) is the place to party for New Year's Eve!

snow -20 °C
View Quebec City New Years Dec 2007 Jan 2008 on GregW's travel map.

On July 3, 1608, Samuel de Champlain was looking to set up the first permanent settlement in the new world for France. Coming to a narrow spot in the river that had served both as an Iroquois settlement called Stadacona and fort founded and later abandoned by Jaques Cartier, Champlain decided on this spot to locate his city. Naming it after the local native word Kebec, meaning “where the river narrows,” Quebec City became the most important city in New France.

Nearly 400 years later, Quebec City is geared up to celebrate its 400th birthday. That celebration started on December 31st, 2007, with a multimedia musical show leading up to the countdown to midnight and the ringing in of 2008.

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Having just started up my project in Houston a couple of months ago, I wasn’t sure if I was going to get an opportunity to get away during the Christmas break, and as such I hadn’t arranged a trip. As he got close to Christmas, it was clear that I would be able to sneak a couple of weeks in vacation in. However, by that time, everything was sold out or outrageously priced. Add to that the recent nagging guilt I’ve been feeling about travelling all around the world but ignoring the amazing sites in my own country, and I decided that I needed to spend some time in Canada.

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I debated sticking around my home in Toronto, or heading up to Ottawa or Montreal, but all are places that I have been lots of times before, and wanted to do something different. Quebec City provided a good opportunity both because I hadn’t been there since I was 10 years old and also because I could get there on the train. So I booked tickets on Via Rail, made some hotel reservations and headed off to Canada’s most “European” feeling city.

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Champlain founded his city around the small town square which today goes by the name of Place Royale. The square gave name to the area that sits between the St. Lawrence river and the foot of the cliff that towers over it. The area contains a number of small streets and alleys with old buildings that today house a number of restaurants and boutique shops along cobblestone streets.

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Up atop the cliff is the area of town called Old Quebec. The entire area is surrounded by thick fortified walls, and the highest point is dominated by the gothic looking Chateau Frontenac Hotel, one of the many luxury hotels built by the Canadian Pacific Railway company to encourage travellers to take their trains across Canada.

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Just east of the walled city is the Champs-de-Bataille park, also known as the Plains of Abraham. During the seven year’s war between Britain and France, it was on these plains (a farm owned by Abraham Martin, thus the name) that British troops under General James Wolfe defeated the French general Louis-Joseph de Montcalm and took the city. This was the start of the fall of New France. The French Colonies within North America had extended from east-to-west from Newfoundland in the Atlantic ocean to the Rocky Mountains and from the Arctic Ocean in the north to the Gulf of Mexico in the south. At the end of the Seven Year’s War, most all of this land was ceded to Britain. There is a notable exception to this, the small Atlantic islands St. Pierre and Miquelon that are still controlled by France today, though most North Americans are unaware of the existence of this small French colony just off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada.

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To the north of the Plains of Abraham is the Grand Allee, a beautiful street with old buildings that have been mostly converted into restaurants, bars and the occasional museum. I wandered along it for a few moments, but quickly headed back to my hotel.

I have a confession to make here. I am a Canadian, it is true. But I come from Toronto, one of the southern most cities in Canada, and due to both it’s southern latitude and the moderating effect of Lake Ontario, Toronto doesn’t really get very cold or very snowy at all. In fact, in 1999 Toronto became the butt of many jokes within Canada for having to call in the Army to clear the streets after a snow storm. As a Torontonian, I am mostly used to a few inches of gray, wet slush on the ground and temperatures around the freezing mark.

Quebec City, being farther north, gets snow, and it gets cold. Most of the time I was in the city, the temperature didn’t get above -20 Celsius, and dipped down much colder at night. My fragile Torontonian body could barely take the cold that, I am sure, Quebeckers were laughing and thumbing their noses at.

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I did manage, however, to pull myself out of doors, bundled up in all my warmest clothes, to watch the big multimedia celebration at Place D’Youville on New Years Eve. As much as I wanted to enjoy the festivities, though, it was a bit of a dud. They had wedged the stage in a corner of Place D’Youville against the walled city, which meant that most people (including myself) didn’t have a view of the stage, so I ended up watching the festivities on the big screen. Then it turns out the timing was off on the show, and by the time the show climaxed with a countdown from 10 to the New Year, it was already 12:03 am on January 1st, 2008.

Note that they are counting down in French, starting at six

Oh well, what is time but a human construct anyway, so why not celebrate the New Year countdown whenever it’s convenient? At least the fireworks afterwards were nice. And it does look like there are going to be some pretty big parties this year in Quebec City to celebrate their 400th year, including their famous Winter Carnival, the craziness that is the Red Bull Crashed Ice contest, and some big parties set up for July to mark the actual founding of the city.

And if you are thinking of going, the good news is that in July the weather will be a lot warmer than it is in January.

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Posted by GregW 12:31 Archived in Canada Tagged events Comments (2)

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