12-15 February 2017: Disney Again

For the umpteenth time in the past three decades, we find ourselves back at the Fort Wilderness campground. And once again, here we are without any youngsters at a destination that is seemingly not conceived for unaccompanied old coots like us. So, what gives?

Part of the answer lies in our appreciation for the Disney commitment to excellence, something I’ve noted numerous times before. It is a refreshing break from modern tolerance of mediocrity to be somewhere where there is a singular driving force to do everything as well as it can be done.

And this instance of our recurring migration had a special objective: a visit to Disney’s Animal Kingdom. What a place, even though we missed out on the one attraction we most wanted to experience: the Kilimanjaro Safari. It’s a weird story, but apparently the animals have free reign in the area where the tour meanders along, and Disney shuts down the excursion when the animals have congregated on the roadway along the designated route. At our scheduled time, several ostriches, of all things, had parked themselves along the pathway and, after an hour of waiting for those improbable but stubborn creatures to move on, the authorities decided the situation was hopeless, cancelled the ride, and gave us all bonus coupons good for priority admission to any attraction in any park. Not useful for us, but a nice gesture, even though it symbolized the perfect irony of the Disney empire thwarted by a cartoonish bird.

Even still, the Wild Animal Park provided a wonderful experience. The Lion King musical was as good as anything one would see on Broadway, and the encounters with the animals occurred in habitats that seemed strikingly natural and not at all “zoo-ish.”

 

There are too many pictures to post them all here, but these pictures of a Lowland Gorilla and a Sumatran Tiger (the smallest of all tigers at “only” 200-300 pounds) illustrate the point. As does this little weaver finch. I watched as this little guy carefully wove a nest: over the top, under the bottom, around the branch, over and under, over and under, again and again. Just like a human weaving a basket, except this little rascal is a bird! Who taught the bird to do that?

And I had a chance to do little “photography” in addition to enjoying the park.

One little bit of creativity that I enjoy involves using a special in-camera filter to grey-out everything but a single selected color. For this shot, I eliminated all colors except for orange.

This shot was done by taking three pictures rapidly using three different exposures, then using a computer program to combine them into a single picture, a process known as “high dynamic range” photography. The effect is that the image duplicates what the human eye can see, able to see both bright and dark areas simultaneously, something a camera cannot do without computer processing.

Back to Disney. I guess the one aspect of the Disney experience, and perhaps the one that most compels us to come back year after year, is the way it seems to elevate human nature. I noted in a prior post the comment made by one visitor that impressed me as a perfect summation of my sentiments: “I guess if you’re not happy here, there aren’t a lot of places you’ll ever be happy.” True indeed. Even after the Kilimanjaro Safari frustration of waiting for an hour, only to be turned away unfulfilled, something that one might think would create a flood of nastiness among those waiting in a crowded line, people were funny, and friendly, and good natured, and just adapted and moved on to other things. What if all of life operated thusly?

8-11 February 2017: Hamcation

One of my hobbies is amateur radio (call sign K4EAK). I have a nice little setup in the house in LaGrange, from where I’ve spoken to people in all 50 states and several hundred different countries. I even once spoke to guys in Europe by using special equipment to bounce a radio signal off the moon! Our local club assists first responders with communications during severe weather outages, as well as doing other public service tasks. I have a pretty good mobile setup in the truck, and from time to time I even play on the radio while we travel around in ACE. There’s an amateur radio chapter in our motorhome association, and a few times we’ve met up with them in various locations, like this trip back in 2014. All of this is pretty geeky, and most people would (rightly) assume that ham radio guys are mostly nerdish dweebs, who generally keep their noses stuck in various electronical gizmos,  and who for the most part have only marginal interpersonal skills. Think of Big Bang Theory come to life.

If you’ve gotten this far, this part of our Florida trip involved a descent into the deepest, darkest possible recesses of nerdism: the second-largest “hamfest” in the world, a place where thousands (literally) of hams congregate to buy and sell new and used equipment, attend seminars on various communications topics, and “socialize” (using a generous definition of the term).

A panorama view of Central Florida Fairgrounds (Orlando), where hundreds of RVs and thousands of ham radio guys have congregated for the 2017 “Hamcation.”

 

 

The “swap meet” (the indoor version, but there’s also an outdoor “tailgate” version with hundreds of sellers) and the vendor area (where dealers and manufacturers peddle their latest wares).

And since a couple dozen members of the motorhome club were in attendance, we also set up one night for a potluck supper:

About 36 members and guests from the “Family Motor Coach Association” Amateur Radio Chapter set up between a couple rows of member’s motorhomes.

I know what you’re thinking: what was poor Wendy doing during all of this, seeing as how she has a mostly normal personality and finds my ham radio activities about as dull as a fence post? My answer is, who cares? No, I’m kidding. That was a joke. I’m actually very grateful that she puts up with these little eccentricities of mine with little (well, mostly little) objection. She did spend one day visiting our son-in-law’s parents down in Lakeland, where she was able to do the Frank Lloyd Wright tour at Florida Central College, a college that has been described as the most beautiful campus in the United States. As the tour website puts it, “The story of how a Methodist college with no endowment – during the Great Depression and World War II – was able to not only convince one of the most sought after architects of the time to draw plans for their school, but was also able to afford to build them, is a wonderfully entertaining story.”

And we both enjoyed the evening get-togethers of the ham radio club. For all of the nerd-jokes that attend an event such as this, the people are actually friendly, welcoming, and interesting. Next stop: Fort Wilderness and Walt Disney World! Woo hoo!

 

3-7 February 2017: Cedar Key, Florida

We love Cedar Key. In fact, last year this was probably our favorite spot in the Florida tour. But twixt then and now, on September 2, 2016 to be precise, Hurricane Hermine made landfall at St. Marks as a Category 1 hurricane, with the eastern-side winds (the worst of the storm) making a direct hit on Cedar Key. The Weather Channel and other news coverage showed poor little Cedar Key being pummeled by waves and wind, with one scene, broadcast again and again, showing an entire dock breaking free and crashing into the shoreline. We were nervous as we left Topsail Hill Preserve and headed for Cedar Key. What would we find?

Nothing. Really. Except for the telltale color of a few new roofs, one would be hard pressed to detect any evidence of a hurricane.

So, what gives? Where’s all the death, damage, and destruction that we saw on TV? A waitress in one of the burger stops said that everything was patched up and businesses were operating and back to normal in eight days! Apparently, Florida has about a gazillion contractors who descend on hurricane-hit areas within days and start the rebuilding process (which was mostly minor patch-up here and there). And Cedar Key was doubly benefited in that Hermine hit a few days before the annual “Pirate Festival,” which as near as I can tell, involves thousands of nearby residents showing up in pirate costumes for a week of drinking, carousing, and saying “a-a-a-r-g-h” to each other, except that a large percentage of them work in building trades and they figured, I guess, that as long as they were there anyway, they might as well earn some drinking money.

Besides that, as the locals explained it, the damage wasn’t that bad anyway. We struck up a conversation with one of the guys who runs a local fishing charter, and who shed more light on the absence of any catastrophic destruction, something we should have known. Apparently the news folks, desperate for dramatic footage, would walk around, stand in a few inches of water, and zoom in on the water to make it look light an sea of wind and tsunamis. One guy even leaned sideways as he broadcast to make it look like he was struggling to fight the force of the winds and stay upright. The guy said he watched the broadcaster, wondering “what is this idiot doing?”

The explanation, of course, is that we were watching news stories. As Ken Myers points out, they don’t call them stories for no reason. The model for news coverage is not teaching, but fiction. That is, all of the elements that make for a great novel also make for great “news” and therefore drive the coverage: drama, tension, suspense, tragedy, and heroism. And like fiction, a connection to the truth is not an essential element. A degree of verisimilitude helps, but only to provide a backdrop of plausibility. And this is “real news.” “Fake news” is even worse. No wonder we’re all so stupid.

There was some damage in Cedar Key, to be sure, which is what one would expect from a 5.8-foot storm surge and an incredible 22.8 inches of rain! For example, one hotel had the ground floor flooded (but only in the area where it negligently failed to extend the sea wall), a falling-down building, not even open for business when we were here last year, fell down some more during the storm. Some railings and terraces had to be replaced and, of course, many of the roofs went bye-bye. As we drove around in the residential areas one day, we did notice a few, maybe a half-dozen, trees that had been snapped off near the top. Overall, much less damage than we feared based on the sensational coverage we had seen.

So, since everything survived just fine, what we do in Cedar Key? Everything we loved about this place last time. Toured around in the nature areas, ate at world famous Tony’s Seafood, and enjoyed the warm weather (mid-70s and sunny with light, trade-wind-like breezes).

A confederate soldier’s grave at the old Shiloh Cemetery, just a short bike-ride away from the campground.

We love to go on picnics, this time at the Levy County campground, near the “Mounds Unit” of the Lower Suwanee National Wildlife Refuge. It has nice little water/electric campsites, and costs only $15 per night.

Even a foggy morning is photogenic in its own way.

Nigel. His buddies, hundreds of them, are off diving head-first into the water, or skimming along the surface, or riding the updrafts near the buildings. Hard to believe that pelicans were once endangered.

So, Cedar Key remains one of our favorite places and a sure stop on every future winter trip to Florida. Next stop on this trip: Orlando for a ham radio thingie, then off to Disney World.

30 Jan – 3 Feb: Topsail Hill Preserve State Park

We started off this leg with a quick overnight stop to see two of our favorite people on earth, Harold and Jeneve Brooks, who recently moved to Dothan.

Dinner at the Brooks’ favorite local restaurant. And yes, we’re Presbyterians. Wine is not a sin, it’s a sacrament.

Then it was off to Topsail Hill Preserve State Park. Well, it’s not exactly a “state park.” It’s a former high-end RV resort that was turned over to the state, who operates it as a park. In any event, we’ve been coming to this wonderful campground for years, which caused me to wonder whether we ever get to the point where our assessment evolves to “been-there-done-that” and we look for somewhere else as a destination. Nope. In fact, we decided that next time we come here, next year I hope, it’ll be for an even longer period, like maybe a couple weeks. And here’s why.

There were a couple experiences, not guaranteed to occur from year to year, that can make Florida in the winter a wonderful destination.

Unbelievably perfect weather … crystal clear, blue skies every day, temperatures in the mid-70s, and white sand beaches for miles with very few people. Of course, last time we were here, we hit freezing temperatures, with snow and sleet.

Beautiful sunrises.

Sunrise over the dunes. Unfortunately (?), I was cursed (?) with perfect weather, which deprived me of a chance to take pictures with dramatic clouds at sunrise or sunset.

And a perfect day for a bike ride 8 miles down the Highway 30A bike path to Grayton Beach State Park.

 

But what occurred to us on this trip, and one of the main reasons we’ll be back, is that there’s an unlimited number of things to do that either we never grow tired of (like the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, something we didn’t get to this year), or nature talks by rangers, like this one on sea turtles:

“Ranger Nick” explaining that the Topsail Hill Preserve area is not only nesting grounds for three different species of sea turtles (Loggerhead, Leatherback, and the endangered Green turtle), this year it had more of them than any other area in Florida.

Or an infinity of little known, rarely visited places that are special for us, like these memorials to the soldiers and Marines who lost their lives in a helicopter crash near Navarre on March 10, 2015. We stopped here only because Wendy just happened to see a small blurb about the memorial in one of those dippy little magazines put out by the Chamber of Commerce.

A makeshift memorial along the roadside between the mainland and Navarre Beach island: flags, mementos from family and friends, and flowers. We met the city maintenance guy who said that, even though this “memorial” isn’t really a city display, he stops here every day to keep it neat. It’s his way of “paying his respects.”

The official memorial at the Navarre Park. The inscription lists the names of the four Blackhawk crewmen from 1-244th AHB, Louisiana ANG, and seven Marines from U.S. Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command. Eleven stars.

The memorial was especially important for us, not only because of a son who is a Blackhawk pilot, but because the crash occurred during a training mission in unimaginably terrible weather. When asked whether the weather was acceptable for a training mission, a military spokesman said, “Training in adverse weather conditions is not unusual for military personnel. We train as we fight.” Indeed. In a world where trepidation is increasingly common (this week featured a national news story where thirteen DC-area schools cancelled all outdoor activities, no kidding, because a 7-year old female bobcat named “Ollie” was discovered missing from its pen at the National Zoo), this memorial serves as a reminder that there are brave people who not only put their lives on the line when deployed to combat, they do it every day, day in and day out, to keep themselves ready to go if needed. And sometimes, even readiness demands the ultimate sacrifice.

Our only complaint? Florida seems to be unbelievably hostile to dogs. Dogs are banned from beaches, parks, picnic areas, and paths. Good grief. I guess it figures, though. Here in Okaloosa County, we learned that the word “oka-loosa” comes from the Seminole phrase meaning “no dogs.” Really. [I was going to insert something here about enhancing our travel options by having the dogs put to sleep, but since the last time I did that it caused people to line up in support of the dogs, I’ll skip it this trip.] Oh well, a small price to pay for a special place.

Next stop, Cedar Key.

January 2017: Back to Conecuh Springs

Every year, Cliff and I journey off to Union Springs, Alabama, for the Conecuh Springs Christian Springs charity hunt. I’m told that I was actually one of the first hunters, maybe the first, in the program. It all began back in the early 2000s when Robert and I were on a hunting trip in Alabama and decided to drive around and see the area. As we were driving along on some dirt road, miles back into the woodlands of the county, we saw some guy walking along the side of the road with a rifle slung over his shoulder. “Need a ride?” we asked. “Boy, do I ever!” [Digression for readers living in New York, Massachusetts, California, Washington, or any major American city: No–it’s not unusual to see a guy with a gun out in the woods, no–it’s not dangerous to stop and talk to such a person, no–he’s not going to shoot you, and yes–there are places in this country where strangers stop to chat and are friendly and helpful to one another. Now back to the story…] As we were talking, he asked, “I don’t suppose you’d be interested in doing a deer hunt, would you?” and then proceeded to explain the concept behind the first charity hunt that the local Christian school was putting together.

The idea is the local farmers would take you to their absolutely favorite hunting places on their own property, the places where they knew the odds were very good for seeing deer, and let you hunt there for three days, but at the cost of your making a nice contribution to the local Christian school. It’s a totally win-win situation. The cost is very modest compared to commercial hunts, and it’s not only great hunting, it’s a chance to hang around salt-of-the-earth, decent people who are as warm and welcoming folks as I’ve ever met.

So, this year is the umpteenth trip back to central Alabama, back to parking the motorhome at the same hunting plantation, and then back again to the farm of Don and Connie Jones for three days of hunting. The Joneses raise limousin cattle, a breed known for producing very lean and tender beef, commonly sold as “Laura’s All-Natural Lean Beef.”

Hunting always produces great stories (which, like fishing stories, are rarely true, but who cares?) but this year the stories were the best ever.

Day 1: Cliff saw a monster buck, but it was too far off for a shot, so he took a shot at a doe (or so he thought). The deer took off like it was shot out of a cannon, right for the fence at the side of the pasture. He heard a crash sound at the fence line and we took off to recover the doe. Instead of a deer piled up on the fence, though, we found this:

Seriously. In all my years of hunting I’ve never seen anything like this. In fact, none of the local farmers had ever seen anything like this. The deer was moving so fast that it actually blasted THROUGH the hogwire fence!

We eventually recovered the deer (it turned out to be a spike, not a doe) way back in the woods.

Day 2. That morning, Cliff took a shot at another doe (this time it actually was a doe) and once again it headed off like it was shot out of a cannon. (Cliff must be using rocket fuel in his hunting rounds or something. What’s the deal here?) Instead of blasting through a fence, though, this time the deer propelled itself over a cliff and down ten feet into a creek, where it promptly lodged itself under a log.

 

 

The extraction process took over an hour, but basically involved Cliff straddling two logs, muscling the doe out from underwater and then over the downstream log, tying a rope around its neck, floating it downstream to a place where the embankment was slightly less vertical, and then pushing it up the embankment while I pulled from the top. It was actually a fun, if somewhat muddy, endeavor.

Later that day, Cliff returned to the pasture where he had seen the monster buck the day before. For non-hunters, deer are highly unpredictable. Sometimes they show up, and sometimes they don’t. If they do materialize at some location, there’s no telling which direction they’ll come in from. The “home range” of a buck can range anywhere from 100 to 700 acres. Bucks, especially large bucks, are especially erratic. They didn’t get to be big, old animals by being stupidly predictable, and on top of that they have evolved over millions of years to avoid predators, such as humans. Although a deer’s hearing is not much better than ours, their sense of smell is up to 10,000 times better than ours (a deer can detect a foreign scent, and avoid the area, up to a mile away) and a deer will almost always enter an open area downwind of the woods, so that it is sure to pick up the smell of any danger lurking in the woods. The smart ones will even sometimes circle an area so they can enter it from downwind. They see about five times better than we do, and their eyes are particularly adjusted to detect movement. Plus, hunters subscribe to a code of ethics that requires one never to take a shot at a deer unless one is sure of a clean, humane kill. The result of all this is that even with modern-day camouflage, scent-suppressing chemicals, and long-range rifles, combined with the fact that most hunters are smarter, at least somewhat smarter, than woodlands animals, the odds of being able to get a good shot on a deer are very low. Just to illustrate the point, while Cliff’s hunts are proceeding as described here, good ol’ dad is sitting about a half-mile away, overlooking a nearly identical pasture, not seeing anything. Such is the nature of hunting. As the expression goes, “That’s why they call it ‘hunting’ and not ‘shooting.'”

So, Cliff decided to park himself overlooking the place where the monster buck had shown up the day before, hoping (against considerable odds) that the buck was following a routine that would compel him to show up in the same place again, that Cliff could avoid detection (he was hiding behind a fallen log, downwind of the buck’s previous path), and that all of this would come together in a way that would allow Cliff to get a good shot. Unbelievably, all of that actually happened and here’s the result.

A very nice buck (over 200 pounds), the largest Cliff has ever taken. We were told back at the Christian school later that night that this might be the largest buck ever taken on the annual hunts.

I eventually did manage to take a couple deer, but the real stories of this hunt are all Cliff’s. What a great and memorable weekend. We’re already anxious to come back next year.

31 October – 6 November 2016: Branson MO

OK, put a fork in it. We’re done. We are officially “elderly.” We got our toes into that status when we bought ACE and established ourselves as those kinds of little old people who creep along in their motorhome, with little rat-dogs sitting on our laps, backing up traffic for miles, and flipping the bird at frustrated motorists when they finally manage to pass us. And admittedly we took our senior discounts on Wednesdays, went to the 4 o’clock movies, and made sure we ate plenty of fiber. But we clung to a measure self-delusion because, in our minds at least, we didn’t otherwise generally act like “old people.” But that’s ended. We’re here in Branson. Really. Branson. We’ve come to the vacation spot of choice for those getting ready to inhale for the last time. Unlike Las Vegas (where there’s a sign at the airport that reads, “You are now leaving Las Vegas. Time to forget what you did last night.”), Branson is the place for people who forget what they did last night routinely.

And here’s the weirder thing: we really, really enjoyed it. But first, a message from our sponsors.

[Political commentary /on]

A friend recently sent me an article about the red-state versus blue-state divide, and made the oft-noted observation that blue people are mainly concentrated along the coasts, hunkered down in cities, and living in a few areas (like the northeast and places where crystal superstitions abound), while the vast geographical portion of America is essentially red. We’ve all seen the map showing that, while red and blue populations are about equal, the blue area is only about 9% of the country.

countymaprb1024

None of this new. What hit me on this trip, though, is that I now understand why, as we travel around in ACE, we keep meeting our kinds of peeps: the red area denotes not only the politically conservative area of America, it’s almost our travel map! One doesn’t take a motorhome into New York or San Francisco, for example, but across the rural and small-town areas of the country that, frankly, blue people hate. And Branson, as the archetype of red constituencies, is just the kind of place we love. Just as a few examples:

  • We went to a Christmas show on our first day here (I know, I know, it’s early, but ignore that for now), and the show, in an auditorium filled with 700 tourists, began with the MC saying, “Before we begin, let’s not lose sight of why we celebrate Christmas in the first place: the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ…” (!)
  • Many of the events began with an overtly Christian blessing before the meal (!).
  • Every event we went to, every one, had a tribute to veterans. Usually the veterans were asked to stand, while the audience applauded.
  • Many of events also carried an overtly patriotic theme (!), including the Pledge of Allegiance, the National Anthem (often with a swipe at any “idiot” who takes a knee during the National Anthem) (!), America the Beautiful, or I’m Proud to Be An American. In most instances, the audience stood during the relevant pieces (!). Everyone always stood during renditions of The Battle Hymn of the Republic.
  • We stopped by College of the Ozarks (also discussed below), a small (1500 students), Christian liberal arts college. Not only is the college the location of the Missouri Vietnam War Veterans Memorial (!), all of the students work 15 hours per week on the campus (!), plus two 40-hour work weeks (!), and up to 12 weeks during the summer (!), in exchange for which they attend tuition free (!!). The college’s vision is to produce graduates of “Christ-like character” who are, quote, “well-educated, hard-working, and patriotic.” Try to imagine THAT plaque at any Ivy League university, or actually any university in a blue area.

And so it goes: as we travel around, and in Branson especially, we find ourselves in a near-constant immersion in orthodox Christian convictions, hard work, traditional core values, patriotism, and military service. Not exactly blue-state dispositions, and it explains a lot about why we like travel in general and why I’m moving to Branson.

[Political commentary /off]

OK, where was I? Oh yeah, Branson. So, we got here as part of an RV tour group. It’s a long story, but we had a left-over deposit from the Alaska trip that we had to cancel, and decided that using it on a “rally” in Branson, a place we thought we would otherwise never go, made sense. So, now that I think about it, this trip started off doubly weird. Besides the fact that we ended up in Branson, the format was one of those things we all grew up hating: busloads of old people, waddling along en masse into and clogging up restaurants and show venues, all wearing name badges and sporting matching goofy tour-company hats. That’s us.

I’m off track again. Where was I? Oh yeah, back to Branson. So our week here included all of the major old people/touristy/kitschy activities you’d expect from someone in the throes of rapid-onset elderly status.

  • The trip started off on Halloween with a dinner, costume party (oh pull-eeze), and dance. Except for the eating part, we don’t do those things. Ever. Except we did. Proof positive of something. I’m not sure what. One indication, though, is that dinner and dancing started at 5:00 and ended at 9:00. And even worse, we didn’t make it to 9:00.
Peanut Butter and Jelly

That’s us: peanut butter and jelly. We thought our costumes were cute, but we were nothing in comparison to the other get-ups. We didn’t even make the quarter-finals of the costume contest.

  • Tuesday we did the Showboat Branson Belle, a recently constructed but otherwise authentic sternwheeler. That event provided our first suggestion that, so to speak, we’re not in Kansas anymore. It began, as mentioned above, with a startlingly overt Christian message. But then, during the salute to veterans (in which they not only recognized veterans by branch, they also got the order of precedence right!), the MC announced that one of the artists was a veteran, and it turned out to be the stunningly attractive violinist who, after graduating from Julliard (!), enlisted in the Army (!), and was introduced to the audience as former Staff Sergeant Janice Martin (!). Excuse me? We’re in a place where Julliard graduates, who aspire to a career in entertainment, first take time off to do their duty to serve their country?
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Getting ready to board the Branson Belle.

The Branson Belle auditorium, lunch served, waiting for the entertainment to begin.

Former Staff Sergeant (!) Janice Martin performing a classical violin piece.

That night it was off to show #2, the Presleys Country Christmas Jubilee. We didn’t know what to expect–I thought it was going to be an Elvis impersonator. Wrong. The Presleys (no relation to Elvis) are a family of entertainers who have lived in the Ozarks in Missouri and Arkansas for, I don’t know, hundreds of years and who put on one of the best and most popular variety shows in Branson. And besides being surprised by the gospel music sing-a-long going on upstairs before the show (!), this was our first exposure to another Branson tradition: the entertainers came by to greet our group, hang around and chat for a while, and thank us for coming. Overall: a great show. A.

The Presleys (no relation to Elvis).

  • Wednesday started off with the College of the Ozarks, mentioned above. I won’t go on and on about what an impressive school that was, but one more thing… The student guides we had (who were doing their mandatory work stints in the PR department) were both charming, articulate, and enthusiastic. They noted that CofO grads not only have zero debt when they graduate, they are highly sought after and essentially 100%-employed upon graduation because, in addition to a highly-rated education, they all have at least three years of actual work experience. Anyway, it’s worthwhile plinking around on the school’s website. As an experience, it got a grade of A+.

College of the Ozarks Chapel College of the Ozarks

 

That night, it was the “Shepherd of the Hills – Christmas on the Trail Dinner.” That was the only event during the week that Wendy and I really didn’t care for. In fact, we thought that the dinner was bad, the entertainment was worse, and the “Trail of Lights” was even worse still. Our evaluation: F.

“Cowboy” dinner and show, which was a major disappointment for us, although it was the only one.

  • Thursday started off with Clay Cooper’s Ozark Mountain Christmas. After the Trail Dinner we weren’t sure what to expect, but we were back to a truly outstanding performance, full of great music, lively performances, and (in my view) a charming and witty MC. (We both agree the musical performances got a grade of A, but Wendy thought he was a little rough on some members of the audience. For example, he asked one member of the audience his name. That guy kinda looked up with a blank stare and said nothing, to which Clay responded, “Your name is on that little tag you’re wearing if that helps.” I thought that was funny; Wendy didn’t. Sheesh. Girls.) Overall (for me): A. (Wendy gave him a B+.)

 

Then off to the Dutton Family Christmas Show. It’s hard to describe this show, or to convey what a remarkable performance we witnessed. The Duttons are a family of about 9 members who first gained fame as finalists on America’s Got Talent, where even the nefarious Simon Cowell raved about their performance. The music for the show is mostly instrumentals played on violins, guitars, violas, banjos, bass guitars and violins, with occasional keyboards and drums thrown in, combined with a style of engagement with the audience that had people laughing, clapping, and rockin’ out in their seats. Wow. A definite A++.

Then, that night, off to see The Haygoods, another performing family. After the Duttons, anything was bound to pale in comparison, but this show wasn’t really our style. The music was excellent, with wonderful closely-spaced harmonies and masterful instrumentals, but the presentation was too rock-concert’ish for us (light effects, loud music, the rock-style double arm wave, etc.) We enjoyed it, but the grade was only a B+.

Light effects up the wazoo, plus excellent music. But a bit too hip for elderly people like us.

  • By Friday, we were starting to get a little worn out, so the group had the morning off, but then it was off to see The Six, yet another family show. What’s with all of these musical families? They must be breeding in the Ozarks or something. Anyway, this is a group of six brothers (of ten brothers total) (!) (no sisters) (!) [Robert and Laura take note — if you keep trying for a girl, you’re likely to end up with ten boys]. What distinguishes them is that they use no instruments. Really. The accompaniment of instrumental sounds is all done with their voices. We had heard wonderful things about the show, and it gets great reviews, but somehow it didn’t quite measure up. Maybe our expectations were too high. In any event, only a grade of B.

We used to yell at Robert to stop making weird noises all the time. We should have encouraged him to go into show business instead.

Then off to Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede. I can’t believe I just wrote that, but it’s true. A friend, when she learned we were headed off to Branson (and after being convinced that we weren’t kidding) said, “At least please tell me you’re not going to the Dixie Stampede.” We did. The actual Dolly Parton extravaganza. The same Dolly Parton who once said, “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap…” And if going to the Dixie Stampede is weird, get a load of this: we loved it! It was a terrific performance, with great music, and wonderful food. We both came out saying we’d love to bring the grandkids to the show, but frankly I’d go back even without the little darlings. Grade: A+.

 

Schmaltzy, but great. The Christmas music portion of the show was accompanied by a “living crèche.” We love that kind of stuff. Not visible, but the shepherds came in with sheep, the wise men came in on camels, and there were angels up in the rafters. More of the “I’m not ashamed of the gospel” stuff we’ve come to expect in Branson.

  • Finally, mercifully (it’s hard having this much fun), Saturday was our last day. And it started off with a breakfast and show at the Blackwood Singers, Grammy-award-winning gospel singers. I guess I never realized this, but I love gospel music. I love the foot-stompin’ Christian enthusiasm of the music, and the theology of the lyrics is just rock solid. Once again, we found ourselves in circumstances where we would have sworn the entertainment was not our style, and once again we came out of the performance having completely enjoyed ourselves. Grade: A.

I know this is getting monotonous, but after lunch we headed over to a performance by George Dyer, which turned out to be our absolutely favorite event of the week. Dyer is a classically trained, formerly touring opera singer. His show is a mix of pop tunes (Andy Williams style), Broadway music, and popular arias. The pop tunes are OK, but the show music and arias are beyond words. Wendy is a big fan of Josh Groban, and Dyer is sort of like Groban on steroids. Just a stunning performance. Definitely our favorite: A++.

Finally, it was the “Christmas Wonderland.” Eh. It was basically just dance numbers, with most of the vocals doing sort of a karaoke accompaniment to recorded music. The dancing was fine, fast-paced and creative, but after so many notable vocals and instrumentals, it was something of a letdown. I gave it only a grade of B-.

So, on balance, I’d say this was one of our best trips. Different, to be sure, than the grandeur of a trip through the western national parks, but a great way to spend a week. Think about it: of the 12 shows we saw, there 9 (!) A’s, 2 B’s, and only one bomb. In terms of a GPA, Branson is an honor candidate with a GPA of 3.9, which isn’t bad for a week’s worth of entertainment. If and when we ever have spare travel time, I’d certainly go back.

26-28 July 2016: Cody, Wyoming

Cody was something of a deviation from our national park-based itinerary, but a stop that was high on our priority list, mainly because in all of our conversations with fellow RVers, as soon as the word “Cody” was mentioned, it seems like everyone immediately said, “You’ve got to go to the museums in Cody.” Frankly, it got to be a little weird. Sometimes we weren’t even talking about Cody, just maybe something about shortcutting across Wyoming, and the comment was the same: “You’ve got to go to the museums in Cody.” What the heck, over?

As it turns out, the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody is worth every accolade it receives, a “gem” as the AAA Tour Guide puts it. There are actually five world-class (like Smithsonian quality) museums here: the Buffalo Bill Cody Museum itself, the Draper Natural History Museum, the Whitney Western Art Museum, the Cody Firearms Museum, and a Museum of the Plains Indians. Each is, in its own way, memorable. The firearms museum, for example, houses the largest collection of firearms in the United States, and the second largest in the entire world. (Only the Ruskies have one that’s bigger.) We attended a lecture on the firearms of the old west, starting with the flintlocks used by the early trappers and continuing through the Colt Peacemaker and Winchester 73. All of the firearms were in working order and available for people to handle. Fascinating. The museum of western art houses an extensive collection, organized along various themes (landscapes, animals, people), including a whole wing dedicated to art depicting the sights of Yellowstone. It has extensive collections of works by Remington and Russell, and even has a full-size replica of Remington’s studio in New Rochelle, NY. As we were walking around, there was a lecture comparing Paxson’s famous “Custer’s Last Stand” to a contrasting Indian painting depicting the same battle (both part of the museum’s collection). Although I’m not generally very interested in American Indians, the Museum of the Plains Indian provided extensive displays, films, and audios showing traditional Indian life (both before and after the arrival of horses), Indian encounters with the white man, and Indian life since then. The natural history museum, besides providing wonderful displays of the wildlife of the Yellowstone ecosystem, features a huge wing built using a series of circular ramps and staircases, allowing visitors to work their way downward through the various zones of the western ecosystems, starting with the alpine environment (above 10,000 feet), and working down to the subterranean layers where fossils and natural resources tell the story of prehistoric times.

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The Buffalo Bill Center of the West, a complex of five world-class museums.

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At the entry to the natural history museum. All of the animals on display were done a world-famous taxidermist, known for his complex displays that incorporate extensive natural features and place the animals in realistic postures.

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A lecture on the firearms of the old west. Wyoming is an “open carry” state, meaning everyone is entitled to carry a firearm, either concealed or plainly visible (you pick). A sign at the museum entrance, though, does ask persons carrying “visible weapons” to check them with security. No doubt there are hundreds of people walking around the museum with concealed weapons, which is fine with me. Anticipating the shock of Californians, New Yorkers, Massachusetters, and other such panty-waisted bed-wetting liberals, the lecture began with the curator telling visitors from those states, “Welcome to America.”

In addition to the permanent displays, there are always fascinating temporary exhibits and lectures. Currently, there’s one on gunfighters of the old west, a display I really, really wanted to see, but forgot about and missed because I have no brain.

I regret that this little blurb really can’t do justice to the true excellence of this museum complex, but if you’re sitting around, just page through the museum’s web site and get a sense for yourself.

Given all of this, one might ask how it could be that museums of such conspicuous quality could come to be located in, of all places (no offense intended), Cody, Wyoming. We asked. The answer is that it all began with Buffalo Bill Cody himself, who used the money he made from his Wild West shows to found, organize, and develop the town of Cody. Then, starting with the original museum of Buffalo Bill memorabilia, a long list of benefactors (including, of course, Laurance S. Rockefeller) began expanding the original structure and donating items for the collection. Over time, the momentum of it all created something of a chain reaction that ended up with world-class displays in multiple areas of focus. It has now gotten to the point where about ten percent of each area’s displays are changed out each year, and each museum’s entire display is actually replaced every 10 years. Only about one-third of the collection is on display at any given time. Some of the materials are housed in a special research facility that, unfortunately, will probably never be put on public display. Cody has something to offer hard to find anywhere else.

As if that isn’t enough, Cody is chock full of other “gems.” The Cody Cattle Company dinner and western music show was great. Just to illustrate how good it was, the guitarist is a recent winner of the Western Music Association “Best Instrumentalist” award. And he deserves it. His guitar playing was among the best I’ve ever heard. The music was great (we didn’t want the show to end), the performers were funny and entertaining, and the food was wonderful.

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The “Triple C Cowboys” at the Cody Cattle Company dinner show. We had all-you-can-eat brisket and chicken, with a whole bunch of other fixin’s, and unbelievably good corn bread.

And then it was off to the Cody Stampede Rodeo. I love rodeos. You might think that a rodeo that performs every night in the same place wouldn’t be up to the standard of rodeos one would see on the circuit, but it was darn good. Most of the performers are PRCA cowboys, working during the summer to “put food on the table” (as the announcer put it, implying, without saying as much, that being a rodeo cowboy is a hard life), and the rest of the performers were very competent locals, including a bunch of youngsters (even young bronco busters) that made for a completely wonderful show.

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This is Wyoming, so (of course), the festivities begin with a prayer, the Star Spangled Banner, and a salute to veterans.

And the next day, it was another “gem”: Old Trail Town, a collection of actual buildings from the old west that have been carefully relocated to Cody, including for example the cabin used by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as they hid out after their exploits. And a bunch of famous old west personalities are buried here, including Jeremiah Johnson.

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Twenty-something buildings from the old west era. Totally fascinating, if for no other reason than to convince both of us that we don’t have what it takes to be a pioneer.

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An actual old west saloon, where a surprisingly large collection of nefarious gunslingers actually hung out. It’s teeny. Maybe a dozen guys could fit in there, but it would be real crowded. Any more than that and it’s no wonder they were always shooting each other.

I know this is getting repetitive, but there was yet one more “gem” on the itinerary: the Irma Hotel, the hotel build by Buffalo Bill himself and named after his daughter, Irma, and famous for its $100,000 bar. We treated ourselves to an all-you-can-eat prime rib dinner that was wonderful.

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Notice the common theme: Wendy sitting at a bar in a saloon. No further comment.

And, of course, all good saloons come with a, um, what did they call Miss Kitty, a “hostess”?

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So Cody was a great stop in all respects and a fitting finale. Our trip of a lifetime is basically over, and today we start the L-O-N-G trek home. Some final thoughts about the trip, and the prospects for the dogs, will follow once we’re back.

21-24 July 2016: Glacier National Park

This stop didn’t start well… After arriving and setting up, we followed our standard routine of going to the visitor center, getting the maps and trail guides, and asking our usual question of the ranger: “We only have ‘x’ days here, what are the top things we should do?” Then, collecting the information we received, we decided to sit down over a cup of coffee and plan out the next three days. Glacier runs a shuttle between various areas of the park, so we thought it would be fun to take the shuttle to the Lake McDonald Lodge, seeing the beautiful mountains as we went, grab a chair in the lobby overlooking the lake, and make our plans.

Bad idea. First, I have no idea what I was thinking. I hate buses, especially diesel-powered, fume-belching, loud vehicles like the one that awaited us, made even worse by a what I assume is a disintegrating transmission that emitted an ear-piercing whine every time it was revved up. And then, the Lake McDonald Lodge is a L-O-N-G ways from the visitor center, and there’s nothing to see enroute. No mountains, no glaciers, not even decent views of the lake. And then, the Lake McDonald Lodge is definitely nothing to get excited about, certainly not on a par with the Jackson Lake Lodge or the Yellowstone Lodge, and there was no place to sit anyway. And finally, on the way back, the shuttle only ran in one direction, so we had to go way up the park to get to the turn-around point, where our 20-seat shuttle bus was boarded by 50 hot, sweaty hikers, giving it the all the ambiance of a jitney in Calcutta.

But, the next day, the sun came up, my disposition improved, and it was time to do the famous Going To The Sun Road. Words cannot describe that drive: 48 miles of an amazing engineering accomplishment routed through the most breathtaking scenery in America.

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That faint line you see angling upward is the road; look closely and you’ll see that those little dots are cars.

 

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The melting glaciers and snow fields create hundreds of waterfalls.

Until the road ends at St. Mary’s Lake:

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Here’s something that’ll make your brain hurt: The mountains that form the landscape, as can be seen in the photo above, are all sculpted sedimentary rocks. How could sedimentary rocks exist in what is an extension of the granite Rocky Mountains to the south? It turns out that about a billion-plus years ago, a huge sea (the “Belt Sea”) covered the area of present-day eastern Washington, northern Idaho, western Montana, and nearby areas in Canada. Over time, about 18,000 feet of sediment were deposited in the sea, which turned into the sedimentary rock of this area. (I can’t imagine 18,000 feet of sediment, but don’t hang up on that concept; things are about to get even weirder.) About 150 million years ago, the tectonic plates of North America started pushing against each other, forcing the uplift that created the Rocky Mountains. But while that was happening (according to geologists) a piece of the much older sedimentary rock from the Belt Sea, a piece about 300 miles long, 50 miles wide, and 20,000 feet thick, broke off and slid 50 miles eastward, so that it covered the younger rock of the Rocky Mountains rising underneath it. Excuse me? A sixty thousand cubic mile “piece of rock” “slid” to the east? It is that “piece of rock” that now forms the peaks of Glacier National Park. Then, about 2 million years ago, when about one-third of the planet was covered in ice up to 5000 feet thick, glaciers scoured the area creating the horns, aretes, and valleys we see now.

The glaciers that exist here now date from much more recently, only several thousand years. In 1910 when the park was founded, there were about 150 glaciers; today, there are only 25. As the planet continues to warm up since the end of the “Little Ice Age” in 1850, the expectation is that the glaciers will continue to retreat, perhaps disappearing entirely by the year 2030. [Note to family members: better make reservations for your trip here before it’s too late.]

Next day, it was our favorite thing to do: hiking. The weather was cloudy and cool, but that’s not necessarily bad for a hike. So we were off to Logan Pass to do the hike to Hidden Lake.

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A field of “glacier lilies,” beautiful, small, fragile lilies that bloom for only a short time during the alpine summer.

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Hidden Lake. We were wondering whether we’d do the 1.5 mile, 750-foot drop, hike down to the lake but had the decision made for us by the NPS. The area was closed due to “Grizzly Bear Activity.”

And then, off to the “Highline Trail,” a narrow (sometimes only 18-24″ wide), scree-covered pathway that clings to the sheer rock face. Definitely not a place for those afraid of heights.

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The Highline Trail presents the prospect of a life-ending fall to the Going to the Sun Road a couple hundred feet below. Still, if one is going to plummet to a certain death, the Going to the Sun Road isn’t a bad place to end up.

And finally, FINALLY, we got to see real, actual wildlife!

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Mountain goats are actually much bigger than one might think, seeing as how they’re called “goats.”

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Hmmm. Tourists displaying what is sometimes called “inappropriate behavior,” although that phrase doesn’t seem to do justice the extent of the bad judgment seen here. To me, “inappropriate behavior” is using the salad fork for the entree; cornering a wild animal on a narrow mountain trail warrants a harsher assessment.

On Sunday afternoon, we did another fun hike, this one up to Avalanche Lake. Stunning.

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Avalanche Lake, about a 5-mile round-trip hike, and worth every footstep. Yes, three waterfalls cascading down into the lake. The water is so clear you can’t see it; those logs you see scattered behind us are all underwater.

But before we did the afternoon hike, we faced a realization. Most of Glacier National Park is roadless and inaccessible. Only about 5% of the park is visible from a road. Of the 25 glaciers, only one is visible.

As a result, there’s really only one way to see to see the park:

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Seriously. OK, so we broke the budget. But it was worth every penny. The route took us down the western side of the park, up to Mt. Jackson and the Jackson Glacier, through Piegan Pass, up to the Many Glacier area, past Iceberg Lake and Margaret Lake, up to the Goat Haunt area, up to Waterton Lake [in case the FAA is reading this, we did not, repeat not, fly into Canadian airspace], down past the Rainbow Glacier, by Longfellow Peak, up the Avalanche Creek canyon, past Gunsight Mountain, across Lake McDonald, and then back. At least that’s what we can remember. The views were so stunning, and the narration to compelling, and I was snapping about a picture every two seconds, all of which means we can hardly remember everything we saw. Plus the weather was so perfect (no wind and zero-zippo-nada turbulence, even at the ridgelines) that at times we got so close to the glaciers that the pilot confessed he couldn’t get any closer without “making snowcones.”

Helicopter Tour

So, here are a few of the pictures from that trip.

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I know, I know. That’s a lot of scrolling. But trust me; there are lots more pictures where those came from. And if it looks like the pictures were taken from someone flying left seat, that’s right. I was. What a treat.

As an aside, we’ve previously noted the virtue of hiking and camping as a family activity. We usually think of that when we see young couples with gaggles with little rug-rats in tow. But this trip presented a particularly heart-warming variation on that theme. As we hiked up to the Hidden Lake overlook, we came across a family group from Puerto Rico. A father, who had been here years ago, not only brought his son here to experience the splendor of this place, but he brought his 77-year-old father along as well.

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Note to Kazmarek kids: Pay attention to this photograph. When the day comes that Mom and I are no longer able to make it to such places on our own, you will be expected to lug us along on your trips. Your inheritance (assuming we don’t spend it first) (which we probably will) is at stake.

Finally, there are about 30 subscribers to this blog. As near as I can tell from reviewing the analytics, about ten people are following our travels, two readers can’t figure out how to work the unsubscribe function, and the rest are reading only the updates on the dogs. For the benefit of that last group, the dogs are fine. We’ll be heading home in a few days and there’s really no point now in having them put to sleep. We’ll reevaluate their status before we leave on the next trip.

We’re off to Cody, Wyoming, for a few days, then we’ll start the pedal-to-the-metal return trip.

16-18 July 2016: Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone. The world’s first national park, created in 1872, and to this day the benchmark for the national park concept. The impetus for the park’s creation was largely found in its dramatic physical features: geysers, hot springs, waterfalls, glacial valleys, and mountain peaks. Early reports from the area were so fanciful that they were assumed to be the product of the drunken imaginations of mountain men too long without human company, and no one in Washington believed them until photographs and an official survey confirmed that the whole area is indeed as spectacular as the descriptions made it out to be. That was all it took for President Grant to OK the creation of the park.

It’s no wonder the physical features here defy belief. The Yellowstone area is the product of a series of explosions of the “Yellowstone Supervolcano,” a category defined as a volcano whose eruptions eject more that 250 cubic miles of volcanic debris. (That’s “cubic miles,” like with with “m.”) The Yellowstone volcano has had at least three such eruptions: 2.1 million years ago, 1.2 million years ago, and 640,000 years ago, that ejected 6,000, 700 and 2,500 times more stuff than the eruption of Mt. St. Helens. (If you’re a typical overprotective parent, add this to your list of daily worries: eruptions occur about every 600,000 years and the last one was 640,000 years ago.) The last eruption was so powerful it blew lava and ash into Louisiana! If it were to blow again, about two-thirds of the United States would be affected. Seriously. This is one big honkin’ volcano. And each time it erupts, it shifts and collapses in on itself leaving a landscape, including the famous geothermal features, that only a Martian could invent.

We were first here on our pre-marital honeymoon (how’s that for a concept?) 44 years ago, and have returned several times since then, so the question is how many times can we return before the effect of those “dramatic features” wears off?

Wendy’s view is that the real impact of most of the sights in Yellowstone happens on the first visit, and successive visits add little to the experience. My own view is a little different. For me, the effect doesn’t wear off so much as it, “matures.” Either way, though, there’s so much to see and do that both of us agree it would take many visits before one has really “done” Yellowstone. On the day we arrived, for example, we made a quick jaunt up the road to the nearby Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone to see the upper and lower falls, things we’ve seen numerous times before, and once again were taken with the beauty of this place.

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Lower Falls, as seen from Artists Point, a view that has been photographed and painted at least a billion times, not including a couple hundred million selfies taken by Asian tourists and American millennials while we were there. And no, this is not a painting I copied from the internet; it’s a photograph taken at the scene.

So, we spent the next two days simply driving around the park. The main roads in Yellowstone form figure-eight shape, just right for a couple days of motoring around, seeing the sights. Of course, “driving around” means experiencing waits for bull-headed locals who amble along the roadway oblivious to the delays they create.

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Some people worry that humans have an adverse effect on the wildlife. Ha. The wildlife either don’t care about humans or take a perverse pleasure in annoying us. Either way, don’t worry about the animals.

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Old Faithful, as seen from the back, whatever that means.

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Grand Geyser, the largest geyser in the world, spewing boiling water about 75 feet high, and it goes on and on until, frankly, we got bored of watching it and went elsewhere.

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One of many belching mud thingies. The “geothermal” features of Yellowstone aren’t beautiful, and it’s hard to see the glory of God’s creation in a sulfurous nauseating cauldron that belongs in the third circle of hell, but these features are so unspeakably weird that we actually enjoy traveling around just looking at them.

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Mammoth Hot Springs. Except (too bad for the huge Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel), the springs aren’t. The flow of water went dormant in 1998 and so now it’s just a big white terraced rock, and those striking multi-colored pools of water are all gone. If the springs remain dormant, this will be just a big pile of dirt. Hard to imagine the “Mammoth Pile of Dirt Hotel” holding much appeal for tourists. Asians maybe.

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The Lamar Valley in the very northeast section of Yellowstone. For some reason, we’ve never been here in all of our trips and it’s both beautiful and unlike anything else in the park. Definitely coming back here to explore further.

Two other thoughts.

First, we were here in 1988, the year of the worst fires ever at any national park. Those fires destroyed one-third of the park. However, since much of the park is grassland or river canyons, the fraction of the forest land destroyed was much higher. Everywhere one goes, there are miles and miles of burnt forests, even now with only minimal regrowth.

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One of the burned areas, with new lodgepole pines only four to eight feet high. In other more favorable areas, the lodgepoles are up to 25 feet high.

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In some areas, regeneration is barely visible, leaving a landscape of miles of fallen burned logs, even 28 years after the fire. This is near Mt. Washburn, a rocky terrain that seems to defy regrowth. Those are all fallen logs that cover the hillside.

In all of this, though, the National Park Service makes a good point. Fire is a natural part of the landscape and lodgepole pine might take 200 to 300 years to reach maturity. So the cycle of death and regeneration that occurs regularly here is much longer than a human lifespan. But in terms of the age of the park, the cycle is a blink of an eye that has occurred millions of times in the past and will continue to do so. Still, it’s sobering to think that no one will see the park as we saw it in 1972 until maybe the mid-2300’s.

Second, it is impossible to discuss Yellowstone without discussing the crowds. In 1916, the National Park Service was created with this objective: “… to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” The tension is obvious: to provide for the enjoyment of the National Parks by the people of this country, while leaving them “unimpaired” for future generations. As we’ve been traveling around visiting National Parks during this busy travel season, we have often thought about the issues inherent in balancing these potentially conflicting objectives.

This is especially true at Yellowstone. According to rvtravel.com, last year more than four million people from all over the world visited Yellowstone, most in the peak summer months of July and August. The park superintendent was quoted in the May issue of National Geographic as fearing that the number of visitors would have to be limited or there would be irreparable damage to the park’s resources. So, what to do about the crowds? The National Park Service is considering all its options, but there aren’t many good choices. Access by the people is not only mandated by the NPS organic legislation, it’s critical to the mission to inspiring in people a sense of the majesty and importance of the natural order.

For me personally, the greatest problem with the crowds is not the effect on nature but the effect on the crowds. When the density gets too high, even people in Yellowstone start to adopt the behaviors and general decency of New Yorkers. It’s a common experience that urban environments tend to be nasty and transporting those aspects of human nature to a place that’s supposed to be a refuge from such things defeats the purpose of the parks.

And, for those waiting for this point, here’s “proof of life” for the dogs. I know this photograph is supposed to have Wendy holding today’s newspaper, but this is Yellowstone. They don’t have newspapers. Good thing, since we couldn’t bear to read one anyway. In any event, the dogs are still alive. For now. And yes, that is an expression of dread you can see in their eyes. Apparently dogs have sufficient contemplative ability to sense an uncertain future.

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10-15 July 2016: Grand Tetons National Park

What can one say about this place that hasn’t been said better a thousand times before? Even pictures are bound to be boring and dull because Ansel Adams already outdid anything anyone else could ever do. So that’s the end of this post. Goodbye.

Never mind. I can’t stop myself. In fact, with six days in the park, this post is going to be a longie.

Our route from Idaho Falls took us through a series of National Forests (Caribou, Bridger, and Teton), and then along the Snake River into the national park. It says something about what one can expect from the destination when the route to the scenic area is itself a scenic area, almost as if nature were saying, “Just so you don’t sprain something when you get to the Grand Tetons, here’s a little something to warm up on.”

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One of the many pullouts for slow traffic (that would be me) along the Snake River as we head north. This is nothing, just the drive to the place where things start getting scenic.

We checked in, got the relevant information, and mapped out what to do over the next few days, only to confirm that, once again, we had too much to do and not enough time to do it. Then, as luck would have it, our insufficient stay was made worse by the fact that the weather on Monday, instead of clearing up as forecast, stayed wet and windy.  So we were forced to spend that day mostly touring around in the car. Still, though, perhaps as more of nature’s gradual immersion process, even on a dismal day the drama of the Grand Tetons is apparent.

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This “Cathedral Group” of the Grand Tetons from across Jenny Lake.

And then, nature, apparently believing that we were sufficiently accommodated to bear the sight of the mountains, cleared out the weather and gave us the full monty view of the Grand Tetons.

20160711 Grand Tetons

Mt. Moran and Grand Teton Mountain, from the Jackson Lake Lodge deck.

How could such an improbable thing come to be? We attended a ranger talk on the geology of the Grand Tetons, which was fascinating. There is a fault line that runs right along the base of the mountains. In a surprisingly small number of really big movements along that fault line, the mountain side got pushed up and the valley side hinged downwards, leaving an abrupt edge that rises essentially straight up 8000 feet from the valley floor. And the process is still going on. Earthquakes occur here every couple thousand years, with the last one about 2400 years ago. When the next one happens, the geologists think it’ll be big, like really big: probably 7.5 on the Richter Scale and the effect will be that the mountains will be about 20 feet higher. (Actually, the valley floor will be 15 feet lower and the mountains will be 5 feet higher, but why quibble.)

Tuesday, we finally got to get out and do some hiking, doing a five-mile hike up and around Taggart and Bradley Lakes.

Taggart-Bradley Lakes Trails

I hate to keep spewing out boring pictures of one stunning view after another, but it’s unavoidable. Every turn presents another breathtaking view. Wendy even noted that we were developing a monotonous refrain: every time we can around a turn on the trail, it was the same thing. “Seriously?”

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Taggart Lake, one of about a gazillion glacial lakes in the Tetons, all of which are this scenic or better. Yet the effect never diminishes.

As if the day hadn’t been perfect enough, we then went to Jenny Lake Lodge for dinner. We definitely are not fancy dancy people. We travel around in our little motorhome, eating our little home-cooked meals from a little list of favorite dishes, and when we go out, it’s to a little family-style nearby eatery. But this restaurant, if we could afford to eat this way (which we can’t), would change us forever. Dinner is a five-course meal, prix fixe (at $90 each, not including drinks and tips), and each round is a masterpiece, not only in its preparation, but in its presentation. As just one example, the plate for each course is nicely adorned with a flower, and the flower is itself edible. Adding to the experience, the son of one of our dearest friends is the dining room manager who gave us the behind-the-scenes details of what it takes to run a five-star facility like this. Oh, and the view is typical:

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Wednesday was a fishing day, although it turned out to be more of a scramble-around-and-be-stupid day, an activity for which we appear to be eminently suited. The story is too long and too convoluted to recount, but it began with a 6000-calorie breakfast buffet at the Jackson Lake Lodge and ends with a perfect fishing spot on Jenny Lake recommended by Cliff and, brace yourself, yet another stunning view.

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A secret fishing spot at Jenny Lake. Seriously? This is”fishing”? Fishing doesn’t get any better than this, even though I only caught one little trout. Actually, life doesn’t get any better than this.

Thursday and Friday were more taken up with more hikes through more stunning views. I know that sounds like a lot of hiking for two old wussie geezers (i.e., “wheezers”), but we seem to be doing surprisingly well. Grand Tetons has over 200 miles of trails, and those that are less than 8 to 10 miles long or so, rated as “moderate” or less with only limited sections of “strenuous,” are all just fine for us (and there are dozens of such trails) . It would take us weeks to exhaust the possibilities. So Thursday we did the other end of Jenny Lake and up (and up and up and up) to Inspiration Point. That hike, as it turned out, was one of more crowded we’ve experienced so far, which is not to be wondered at: every fifteen minutes the ferry boat unloads another group of 35 tourists who make the trek (or at least try to make the trek) 400 feet up to the prominence (which is roughly equivalent of taking the stairs to the top of a 38-story office building).

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On the way up to Inspiration Point, overlooking Jenny Lake.

On Friday, it was a ranger-guided hike at the Laurance S. Rockefeller Nature Preserve. There’s too much to say about the experience, especially since we had never visited this end of the park before, but two points are significant. First, Grand Tetons National Park would be something altogether different were it not for the Rockefellers. Just one example: When John D. Rockfeller had agreed that the Grand Tetons area was a risk of intrusion from commercial interests in the Jackson Hole valley, he asked what he could do to help. Horace Albright put together what he viewed as the most aggressive request he could imagine, which would have involved Rockefeller buying up land worth a few million dollars. Although he was embarrassed to be asking for so much from a man who had already done so much, he presented the plan to Rockefeller anyway. Rockefeller responded, “Mr. Albright, you misunderstood what I was asking you for. I want to know how much it would cost to buy the entire valley.” That family legacy continued, with Laurance donating the family property, several thousand acres, which is now the nature preserve section of the park.

The second point is this. Among the resources possessed by the National Park Service, we have come to conclude that the most valuable is the ranger cadre itself. Every ranger we met was knowledgeable, friendly, accessible, and dedicated (and probably underpaid). We attended four separate ranger programs at Grand Tetons, and all of them, every single one, was outstanding. And none was better than the ranger-guided hike at the Rockefeller Nature Preserve. Our ranger, Lisa Simmons, was not only unbelievably knowledgeable about the flora and fauna of the area, she had a style of engagement that made the experience doubly memorable. One example: she would from time to time stop and pose questions as a way of engaging us in a discussion, including ones that were often pleasantly philosophical, such as, “Tell me what the experience of the Grand Tetons does for you? What does it mean?” Everyone responded with statements about the beauty of creation, the sense of man’s place in nature, the importance of preserving such areas, and so on, until the discussion got to a couple visiting from Germany, who said, “This place helps me to understand a lot about America. In Germany, we have parks, but they are small. Here, everything is so big, and besides that such big places help us to understand the size and power of nature itself, seeing places like this helps us understand why you Americans have always been so good at thinking big ideas, why you always see limitless possibilities…” Excuse me? This is a chit-chat on a nature hike? And it happened several times as we ambled along, all facilitated and encouraged by a ranger who knew her stuff at many different levels.

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Our ranger, Lisa Simmons, leading a discussion on symbiosis in nature. Here, she asked us to guess how the moose and grey jay exist in a symbiotic relationship. This was just one of about a dozen stops where she used a discussion method instead of the conventional “sage on a stage” manner of conveying her incredible knowledge.

Once I get back to Atlanta and can organize the photographs, the Grand Tetons photo album will be located here.

Today we’re off the Yellowstone.

P.S. For those nervously awaiting an update on the fate of our little wiener dogs, they’re still alive.