With vast expanses of rugged wilderness and stunning natural landmarks, the western United States has long been a great region for summer road trips. While researching Watch It Made we found a few attractions that, in one way or another, give visitors unusual insights into the awesome landscape and history of the great western outdoors.
Fighting fires in the forest
Smokejumpers are the paratroopers of the U.S. Forest Service. They parachute into remote roadless areas of forest to extinguish small wildfires before they become big. When the job is done, the firefighters have to march by map and compass through the wilderness until they reach the nearest trail or road—anywhere between two and 50 miles away.
Of the 10 smokejumping bases run by the U.S. Forest Service, one of the most active is in Missoula, Montana (no website, but call 406-329-4934). The firefighters themselves often lead tours. You first visit the loft, where smokejumpers make their own jumpsuits, packs, and harnesses, along with fireline equipment. They inspect, repair, and pack parachutes at the tower, a 50-foot-high structure on which they hang parachutes to check them for damage. Less than 50 yards from the building stand the two aircraft that ferry the smokejumpers to wildfires. If you are lucky, the smokejumpers will be called to duty during your tour, giving you a chance to watch them suit up and fly out.
Mining in the mountains
The western U.S. is famous for its dramatic geology and bounteous natural resources. During the 19th-century exploration of the west, mining—most famously for gold—became an important lure for American settlers. In Sutter Creek, California, tours of Sutter Gold Mine educate people about life inside a mine, the safety issues involved, and what the crust of the earth really looks like. There are still places where gold can be seen in the walls of the mine. Be sure to save some time after the tour to pan for gold and do some gemstone mining!
Digging in the desert
Between 18 and 12 million years ago, a giant mass of borate minerals formed under what is now the Mojave Desert in southern California. Comprising the basic element boron plus other common elements, borates are inorganic salts that serve essential purposes in a huge variety of products for industry, agriculture, and households. The company Rio Tinto Borax now mines for borates outside the (aptly named) town of Boron in the largest open-pit mine in California.
Located amid the austere beauty and arid heat of the Mojave Desert, the Borax Visitor Center is a long drive from just about anywhere, and the visitor center feels like a cool oasis. Exhibits explain the geological history of the deposit, show how mining works, explore the processes of refining and distributing borates, and describe the mine's safety programs and environmental efforts. You can, of course, also look at the mine itself. A viewing area outside the visitor center lets you gaze 700 feet straight down into the open pit. Now that's some deep insight!
Posted By Karen Axelrod Jun 14, 2007