52 States in 8 Months

Our car had its own mind in Monument Valley

Posted in Las Vegas to El Paso by Ulf on June 16, 2009

When we arrived in the Monument Valley, we were shocked. In front of us would be one of the most famous landscapes of the United States, and we found ourselves in a snow storm!
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We were desperate. What a mess! Our only choice was to find some restaurant, eat some burgers and hope for the best! We found a nice small restaurant in a desert village and ordered everything they had on they menu. It was really great!

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And guess what happened? The skies cleared and offered great views of the magnificent landscape we were looking for. It’s unbelievable how lucky we were with the weather!
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But we were not the only ones who enjoyed this place. In fact our car liked this place so much, it wanted to drive all alone:

Here are some more pictures of our car. Oh, do you remember this blog post?

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Actually we were in some kind of a park which is run by the Native Americans. For the entrance fee they gave us a road map with the names of all these mountains. It turned out that the road map wasn’t too much of a help: We lost track of where we were immediately after the first off-road driving. And since we didn’t really know where we were, we also couldn’t tell the names of all the mountains. With one exception: The mountain that consists of fine sticks, it’s called “The three sisters”. You’ll find it on the fifth picture in the previous block, the one in the center of the bottom row.

Here are some more pictures of the area. It’s simply astonishing!

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Near Monument Valley there was one more place that I really wanted to see: It’s the Mexican Hat. The name says everything about this rock. Well, at least about the rock itself. The name doesn’t explain why there is a rear axle of a car laying around:

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After leaving the Mexican Hat we went further north in Utah. Our next destination: The Goosenecks State Park. I can probably best describe it by showing a satellite picture (click the link!). This is how it looks like if you stand in front of it. Amazing!
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Similarly amazing is the cattle that lives in this place. I really wonder how they survive (what do they drink?). The whole landscape looks really empty in the South West, but it isn’t. It’s just very sparsely populated — both with men and with animals:
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A few minutes later the road took us directly to a cliff. At first we were not sure how we would get up there (without leaving the car behind), but it turned out that they do have a road. Good for us. Andi, is this the place where you claim that my speed was about 4-8 times over the speed limit? Might well be that you’re right :-). It’s really a fun road! Unfortunately, as a driver, I didn’t have that much time to look at the great landscape :-(.

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There was of course an important reason for our driving speed: We wanted to reach our last National Park for this day, and we had to drive through a snow storm before we arrived there. Two snow storms on one day? What was up with the weather?

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(There are about 15 minutes between these to pictures!)

Our last destination was the “Natural Bridges National Monument“. We were the only visitors in that park, for a simple reason: Most of the bridges didn’t really look good at this time of day — you just don’t want to go there just before sunset. Many of our pictures look really boring, therefore I’ll only show you the pictures of the Owachomo Bridge (and two pictures of the magnificent landscape):

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Do you notice the two strangers on the bridge? How can they go there? That is not allowed!!!
Andi was really terrified that the bridge might crash under their weight, therefore he helped out as a temporary pylon:
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Oh, and if you want to know how such a bridge looks from the top, we somehow got this picture ;-).
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The next National Park in Utah: Canyonlands!

Posted in Las Vegas to El Paso by Ulf on May 23, 2009

After we left the Arches National Park we went to Canyonlands which is just a little bit further to the South. In the beginning there were still a few other cars on the road, but later on we were the only tourists for miles:

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At some point the road ended, so we parked our car and followed a little trail through the park. It was really interesting to see the how the landscape changed completely every few hundred meters. Have a look at the following pictures: Those places are about 500m away from each other, at most 1km. It only took us an hour because we had our lunch in between. And this time it wasn’t even my camera which changed the colors ;-).
If you’re not impressed, then keep in mind that we drove about 100km of everything-looks-the-same-landscape to get here!

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Please have a look at the picture in the lower left-hand side corner above. You’ll notice some needles along the horizon. The part of the National Park that we were in was called “The Needles”. But those needles are only one of the attractions which Canyonlands offers. In fact, Canyonlands is a mixture of different National Parks which are divided by the Green river and the Colorado river, so we’ve only seen a tiny fraction of the whole thing. But we saw this:

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After we left Canyonlands we realized that we were already pretty late on our way to Cortez, so we decided to take the shortest possible route. This route lead us over a mountain which was about 7000ft high. Not a real problem for us since the place where we took the pictures above already had an elevation of 5000ft. Right? Wrong. We took our summer tires directly into an area with full snow coverage, about 20cm deep… (this is the point where we turned around; one other car had turned around about 15ft further along the road, so that’s why you see the tracks on the road).

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With this little detour we enjoyed sunset on the road, heavily discussing if the truck in front of us would carry aircraft tanks or boat pontoons. When we came closer we decided that those were the aircraft thingies:

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Andi’s AWD trip

Posted in Las Vegas to El Paso, University stuff by Ulf on May 22, 2009

Hey, I told you that Andi didn’t join us on our trip to the Delicate Arch? He had other plans. There are many roads in the Arches National Park that are for four-wheel-driven cars only. Now, we had an AWD Jeep. So far so good. Andi only needed a place to go. The golden rule from old video games is: whenever you see a closed door, you have to open it. There will be something interesting behind it. Guess what Andi did?
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His plan was to reach one of the hills on the following picture, and things were really looking good for him! There were a few trails were other people had driven before, so Andi knew that things were safe.

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However, just before he reached the top of his hill, he got stuck. There was no chance of getting any further. He even had to put the doormats under his wheels to get enough grip for getting of the hill again…

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In the end, Andi was really satisfied. Driving on those dirt roads is just so much fun. And he had successfully put enough dirt onto the car to make us wash it later that day…

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You know what this story reminds me of? A very small calculation. It shows that the maximal steepness which a car can climb is quite limited. Free_Body_DiagramLet’s assume a non-interlocking connection between your wheels and the ground, and static friction. You want to drive up a hill with a steepness of α. α=0 would be a level surface, while α=π/2 would be orthogonal to the ground. Your car’s gravity force is m·g, but the normal component (which presses you to the ground) is just N=m·g·cos(α). The other fraction of the gravity force is tangential to the road, so it will try to pull you off the hill: m·g·sin(α). The only force that stops you from going downhill is the static ground friction. Its maximum value can be estimated as Ff=µ·N. Putting it all together we have m·g·sin(α)=µ·m·g·cos(α), or α=arctan(µ).

The coefficient of friction µ is roughly 0.4 on normal soil, 0.6 on tarmac and 0.8 if you drive a track vehicle (such as a tank). Now, from the formula I presented above you can easily calculate the maximum steepness α.
For µ=0.4 it is α=22°, for µ=0.6 you get α=31° and the tank will go uphill with at most 39° of steepness. That should explain why Andi couldn’t make that hill…

The numbers above do of course assume that it’s dry. Once things get wet you’ll end up with a coefficient of friction in the order of µ=0.2. That is 11° of steepness. If things get icy, then µ can become virtually 0. And if you don’t have an all-wheel-driven car, than approximately half your car’s normal force will go to non-actuated wheels. That basically means that you can divide all these values by two…

Oh, I forgot to give the good news: The calculation I presented describes only a static case. If you can get enough momentum by taking a run-up, there are no such limits :-).

The Arches National Park

Posted in Las Vegas to El Paso by Ulf on May 21, 2009

On March 27 we woke up in Moab, Utah. The origin of the city’s name is disputed, it might be the Moab from the bible or the mosquitoes (Moapa) from some Native American language. Anyway, we didn’t want to see Moab, we wanted to see the Arches National Park. It was an amazing place. We took more than 150 pictures, in little more than three hours, so that should give you an impression.

On our ride from Moab to the National park we discovered the Swiss alps. Don’t the mountains on the third picture remind you of the Toblerone advertisement? You wouldn’t have expected something like that in Utah, right?

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(We have to admit that Toblerone uses the Matterhorn and not these Utah mountains, but they still looked very Swiss to us!)

In the park we soon found our first arches, and we started taking pictures. That wouldn’t have had been necessary, since the arches got more and more enormous with every mile we went deeper into the park.

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The two first really impressive arches were the North Window and the South Window. We were almost the only tourists at that place, and we didn’t know why:
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I believe that Andi got really bored when I walked away from him to take this shot. I mean, I always went a bit further, checked how much I could capture with my lens, decided that I had to go a bit further away and so on ;-).

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The “masses” of tourists were at the Double Arches, another set of arches which were close to each other:
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It was astonishing. Both the arches itself, and the view which they offered after climbing up a little bit. Still, the most impressive arch was further in the center of the National Park… which required walking a mile or two through an — of course — impressive landscape:

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To shorten the story: We were about to see Utah’s state monument, the freestanding Delicate Arch. Geologists wonder why the bloody thing doesn’t fall apart. We however were happy that we could walk through it without going six feet under :-).

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I have to admit that the “we” was a rather non-constant number on this day. Andi didn’t join us at all (I’ll tell you about his shenanigans later on), and Paul got lost and only found his way to the Delicate Arch after a detour. In fact, he was coming from a direction where no other tourist was. I saw him for the first time after about half an hour when I took a picture of Matthias. Do you notice Paul on the left-hand side picture? I’m asking myself if he had already noticed us (and the Delicate Arch) at that time ;-).

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Visiting Dean, the Cattle Chaser.

Posted in Las Vegas to El Paso by Ulf on May 19, 2009

Wow, the amazing March 28, Part III. The previous blog post ended with our departure from the Chaco Culture National Park. If you look at a map you’ll quickly notice that there are no paved roads leading to the National Park, so we had to take one of the dirt roads:
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Luckily we had a GPS device, so we asked for the fastest route to Albuquerque. The GPS did its job and lead us directly out of the National Park:
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Honestly, when we had to open a gate to follow the road, I really felt like being in the Western United States. Vast empty areas, amazing! Our GPS took really took us to one of the emptiest but still most beautiful places where I’ve ever been:

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I have to admit that we were not the only people around. A couple of miles after we left the National Park we went past a few farmers, but aside from them this was really an empty piece of our Earth. Just beautiful.

To give you an impression of what the roads were like, here is a short video: “after 800 yards, turn right”.

The only problem was that our dirt road was becoming more and more “dirt” and less and less “road”. Additionally the cartographic material in our GPS turned out to be a bit outdated in a few places: some roads had been shifted by a few meters. One could still see the old roads, but sometimes there was a better one just next to it. Meanwhile it was getting dark, so I was also a bit worried about that. The only real problem however turned out to be a fence which crossed our road. Unfortunately the GPS didn’t know about the fence, so it wanted us to go straight through it. No chance for us to get any further…

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We then decided to drive back to the farmers that we met earlier on our funny detour. This time we didn’t silently drive by, but we stopped and talked to Dean. Dean is a Native American cattle chaser. The name “Cattle Chaser” was actually his fathers name! Oh, this is such a great country :-).

Dean said that when we drove by for the first time, he thought that we might be coyote hunters. It turned out that we were the first visitors that came to his place for years :-).

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I’m so sorry that the picture is blurry. To my defense, it was already dark at that time.

Oh, and we had to promise to close the gates along the way back. Dean, we did close them, even though the following picture shows us while opening them ;-).
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Dean told us where to go to avoid further dead ends. The remaining journey to Albuquerque was rather boring, but we had really experienced enough on this single day :-). Thank you, south-western America!

Coyote hunters in the Chaco Canyon

Posted in Las Vegas to El Paso by Ulf on May 18, 2009

Wow, what a day! Part II of what we did on March 28. Our next destination was the Chaco Canyon National Park. It can only be reached by a dirt road, but that was just fine for our Jeep. We had cleaned it the day before, so we needed a thin layer of new dirt to make sure the rental company wouldn’t be suspicious.
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Now, what would we find in Chaco Canyon? Right, the remains of the Chaco Culture. That is, just as Mesa Verde, a settlement of ancient pueblos, and it is far less known (only 10% of the visitors compared to Mesa Verde). This place was inhabited from around 850 to 1150 AD. At that time bricks were the major building resource. I already told you about that in the Mesa Verde post.

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The building you see on the panorama picture on top is called “Hungo Pavi“. Very impressive at a first glance, especially since we didn’t know that we had to expect much more a few minutes later on.

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One of out of many impressive observations was that they built really straight walls and accurate edges. Exactly 90°, even after more than 1000 years. And many of their houses were four to five stories tall. Can you believe that? I mean, we had many taller buildings in Europe at that time, but that’s not the point: I simply didn’t know that they have had these buildings in Northern America! In my stupid imagination those Native Americans were housing in tepees and not in solid masonry buildings that were taller and more rigid than today’s buildings.

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And although I don’t really now much about building design, they used many construction techniques that are familiar to me nowadays. Look at the windows, for example. They used window lintels (German: Fenstersturz), even though Wikipedia claims that the Greek had introduced them. I was totally astonished.

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The largest house in Chaco Culture National Park is called “Pueblo Bonito“. My pictures won’t impress you. I recommend that you either look at the place from the Google Maps perspective, or on the NPS website.

Have you seen what this place looks like from the top? Okay, then let me show you how it looks from inside. I’ve prepared a little video tour for you:

Actually, right before I took this video I read a little warning: “… requires climbing 7 stairs, descending 14 stairs and stooping through 11 narrow door ways 20-27″ wide and 41-46″ tall. Mobility-challenged individuals may want to exit the plaza …”. I’m not yet 20″ wide, but I’m way taller than 41 inches, so I should have been a bit more careful ;-).

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After this impressive experience we’ve decided to leave the National Park and head to Albuquerque. We were still about 160 miles away from our hotel, and the first 20 miles or so were dirt road. How often have I used the word “impressive” in this blog post?
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Did you notice that the title of this blog post mentions “coyote hunters”? There is one more funny story behind that, and I really want to share it with you. Unfortunately I’ll only tell you about that if someone finds the road sign and the bunny which are hidden on two of the pictures in this post ;-).

Mesa Verde and Four Corners

Posted in Las Vegas to El Paso by Ulf on May 13, 2009

March 28 was a day full of highlights. Everything started with the Mesa Verde National Park near Cortez, CO. It is about the Anasazi, an Native American culture who lived in the area of Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico. I might also refer to them as Pueblos or Ancestral Puebloans. Well, the last one is to complicated, I won’t use it again ;-).

Now, let’s cover the history of those Pueblos in three lines:

  1. It is assumed that they entered the area roughly at A.D. 1, when we started today’s calender. At first they were alcove dwellers, living in small caves in the mesa mountains (Mesa translates to “Tafelberg”, which is a mountain with a flat top and usually a very steep hillside).
  2. After a few hundred years (maybe A.D. 500?) these Anasazi moved to the mesa top where they started to build funny houses. You’ll see pictures in a few seconds.
  3. Once the Ancestral Puebloans (yes, I used it!) sufficiently proved that they could build housings on the mountain top, they went back to the caves of their ancestors and built houses there. That’s where the really cool stuff is today, you’ll also see pictures :-)

Let’s start with the pithouses that were build on top of the mesas. The oldest one which we saw dated from around A.D. 675. It actually consisted of two houses. Now, you might think that this is one pithouse with two rooms, but the archaeologists are pretty sure that the second part of the house was built after the first one burned down.

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Actually, many of the pithouses burnt down sooner or later. But that’s just fine since the Pueblos had just learned building houses out of wood. You can’t really expect them to build fireproof houses immediately.
However, they already knew how to ventilate their houses, so one could see quick progress:

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A few hundred years later (maybe A.D. 800) the Pueblos build most houses on top of the earth and not below it. However, there were houses called “kivas” that still went underground. These kivas were religious places, but also used for social gathering. Most kivas we saw had a round shape:

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While most houses were still made of wood around A.D. 900, the Pueblos had learned to use bricks by A.D. 1000. And it took them only another 75 years until they used double row masonry:

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I somehow get the feeling that those Pueblos build better houses than most Americans do today (they are still using compressed wood here…).

However, at around A.D. 1200, the ancestral people moved back down the mountain, because they had a great idea: They built houses from stone in a place where wind and weather couldn’t damage them: In the caves and below the rock overhangs of the mountains!

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Some of these small towns have 50 rooms plus a couple of kivas, so these were really large installations! Are you already astonished? You haven’t even seen the large one, Cliff Palace. Having 150 rooms and 23 kivas, this is the largest cliff dwelling in North America:

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Luckily we are in free America and not in Europe, so we were allowed to actually walk into one of these sites and see it with our own eyes! :D If this was in Germany, then we wouldn’t be allowed to do it! Thank you, America!

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Wow! Wow! Wow! We were completely astonished!
And we were hungry, so we went to the local Wendy’s ;-). Was this when I tried the “3/4 lb. Triple with Cheese” menu?
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Next on our route was the Four Corners Monument (in the Four Corners area), the only place in the United States where four states meet. It is inside some Indian reservation, either Navajo Nation or Ute Mountain Ute Indian Reservation … or maybe they even belong together? Anyway, we had to pay about $12 or something to get there, but it was worth it!
We could be in four states at the same time! Even though Colordo’s flag was missing…

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My plan was to break the law in four states at the same time. I though about drinking alcohol in public, which seems to be prohibited in most places in the US. Now, I asked some Indians if they would sell alcohol to me, but they told me that nobody would have alcohol in that reservation. Wow! That completely changed my mind about Indians!

Without having done something illegal in any of these states, we continued our journey. You only know half of the adventures of March 28 so far…

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How do I make gray pictures look nice?

Posted in Las Vegas to El Paso by Ulf on May 12, 2009

A few days ago I published a grayscale picture, and Flo & Mascha asked my to post-process it a little to make it look more “punchy”.
Normally I do not do any post-processing at all with the pictures you find on this blog. There are a few exceptions, for example when my lens wasn’t clean or when I stitch a bunch of single pictures together to create a panorama. And this will be another exception.

Here is the original picture. It came already from the camera in “gray scales” (can you say this?), so all I did was stitching two shots together:
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Flo proposed to increase the contrast a bit. I increased the contrast by 10% and 20% in the following two pictures (100% would yield a b/w picture):

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Instead of changing the contrast, Flo mentioned “raising the black point”. In the next two experiments, every pixel with a brightness of 0.1 or less (0.2 for the second one) is mapped to 0, yielding a total black. The remaining color scale (0.1 to 1.0 or 0.2 to 1.0) is linearly distributed between 0 and 1. Flo, is that what you had in mind?

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My amateurish eye thinks that the pictures do already look “more interesting”. Furthermore the 10% increase in contrast is comparable to the 0.1-to-0 mapping, while the 20% increase in contrast shows far less effect than the 0.2-cutoff.

Since the picture was taken around 9am which is neither dawn nor dusk, Flo proposed increasing the brightness. That step has to be combined with the increase in contrast, I think. Here is what comes out when I increase the contrast and the brightness by 20% each:
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Or well, we’re in America. Let’s go big. +50% brightness, afterwards putting the black point to 0.2:
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Thank you for you advise, Flo and Mascha. I think that the place really got more lively now (although “dull” would have been a pretty good description of my first impression of this place *g*). Luckily there are a lot of pictures from the South West coming up — landscapes where any post-processing could only make things worse (feel free to prove me wrong).

PS: In the case you had other changes in mind, feel free to prepare your version of the picture and leave a comment.

EDIT: The first gimp’ed image came it! Fabi, a nice chap I met in Miami, proposed using the GIMP “Color Curves” function to spice my picture up. The S-shaped mapping function he used also increased the average brightness in the resulting image and increased the contrast. There is something I really start to like about this GIMP function: I understand what I’m doing. If I say “increase the contrast by 20%”, then my only guess would be that they apply some nonlinear transformation until some numerical indicator of the image’s contrast changes to a certain value. Not very specific. The function which Fabi proposed however will directly show you which input color is matched to what output color! Now, this is his result:
seagray_fabiAnd I do not only like the method, I do also like the result. Fabi was more courageous to allow really bright areas in the sky, and I think that this was a good idea. It created a more visible contrast between the sea and the sky.

Winston, Chloride, T or C, Las Cruces and Mesilla

Posted in Las Vegas to El Paso by Ulf on May 11, 2009

When we returned our rental boat on the Elephant Buttes lake, we were told that “New Mexico is neither New nor Mexico”. Well, at that point we couldn’t compare it with Mexico yet. But to convince us that New Mexico isn’t new we were told to visit some of the ghost towns near by. That sounded good, because we were just about to visit a couple of other cities in that area. At first we drove through Winston, a place which still has a post office (second picture). This is where we dropped a lot of the postcards which we wrote during our trip… I was quite surprised when I heard that they actually arrived!

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I just found out that Winston is already considered a Ghost Town according to ghosttowns.com, but the place which we actually wanted to see is called Chloride. You can also find it on ghosttowns.com, and on Google Maps. Right, Chloride is the place where the road ends. They did a lot of silver mining there in the 19th century, so that’s maybe why chemistry-related names were chosen for these towns.

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Now, you can obviously see that this place hasn’t been totally abandoned. There are still a few people living there, and they call it a ghost town because in earlier days it was a much larger settlement with a few thousand inhabitants. One of the people in this lonely place is Don, a former rocket engineer who used to work on control systems for aircraft navigation. Sounds interesting, doesn’t it? Nowadays he runs a little museum and tries to keep the place in shape.

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On the pictures you’ll find a mechanical lawn mower (both Don and I believe that it doesn’t work), some advertisement for cheap guns (around $3, but you have to pay another 40ct for your first 50 bullets) and a dynamite detonator. Yes, we arrived in the Wild West! :-)

Next on our route was Truth or Consequences, or “T or C” as the locals call it. Visiting this place was on my To-Do-list ever since I saw it on a map for the first time. Originally called “Hot Springs”, the town changed its name in 1950. It adopted the name of a game show. There are some things which can only happen in America, right?
A few years ago they even made a movie called “Truth or Consequences, NM“, but from what Wikipedia says it must be really really lousy: “in its widest release the film appeared in seven theatres”. That says it all.

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There was not much to do in T or C, so we went on to Las Cruces and Mesilla. Both towns are very close to each other. In the 1840s there was the American-Mexican war which ended with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. This treaty defined the border between the United States of America and the United Mexican States. Mexico had lost about 55% of its pre-war territory. Unfortunately the maps were not very accurate in those days. On the official map of the treaty, the position of El Paso was shifted by about 40 miles, so the territory conflicts went on. In 1850 the Mexican government sent settlers to found Mesilla, claiming this territory would belong to Mexico. This was somehow true because the Rio Grande formed the border between the USA and Mexico in this area before the Gadsden Purchase. Now look at what happened to the Rio Grande in the 19th century:
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This explains why Mesilla is a part of Las Cruces today :-D. Just as all Mexican or pseudo-Mexican towns, Mesilla has a city plaza with a church next to it. Sounds familiar, right?

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After having seen Mesilla we went back to Las Cruces, crushed into some cheap motel and fell asleep (we got up at about 4:30 in the morning since we had to bring Andi and Matthias to the airport, that’s why we were quite tired).

An elephant butte near T or C

Posted in Las Vegas to El Paso by Ulf on May 10, 2009

One of our aims during the Spring Break Holiday was to use as many kinds of transportation as possible. I used a few buses, one train, a taxi, roughly five planes and three rental cars. Is that all? No, we also wanted to rent a boat. This is why we went to the “Elephant Butte Lake” in New Mexico. It was quite cloudy, and I remembered one of Flo’s tricks for making gray landscapes look more interesting: Just take a grayscale picture!
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The first marina we went to didn’t lend any boats, but they sent us to another marina. This is where we rented a pontoon boat for 1.5 hours. This is very simple in the US since your credit card is your boat driver permit… The lessor gave a quick introduction on landing, and it turned out that these boats are absolutely easy to control. So we rev’ed the engine and hit the sea:

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The Elephant Butte Lake is an artificial reservoir with a dam producing about 5 MW on average. If you look at the Google Maps pictures, you’ll see that the water level changes a lot. Just open the previous link and zoom out a little bit. You’ll notice that quite a few rocks become islands as the water level rises. When we were at that place, we actually didn’t notice that the water level was that shallow. It’s good that they have these “hazard buoys” to tell us where not to go :-).

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But what about this Elephant Butte? At this time of year it is actually an island, and a the locals claim that there is a goat living on it. I guess it is a ghost goat ;-). Anyway, this is Elephant Butte:

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Unfortunately we didn’t see the goat, but from all stories we had heard we were too frightened to land on the island and to look for it. Instead we floated around it, and looked for the perspective from which Elephant Butte looks most like an Elephant. Did we find it?

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