Category Archives: Deep Thoughts

1 May 2017: Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Normally, I’m not big on caves, which have always impressed me as nothing more than big, rocky holes in the ground, and even if they have the usual assortment of formations, all properly lit up, the experience wears off in a few moments and I’m back to being trapped in a big hole. So, the main attraction in heading to Carlsbad Caverns was less the caverns than seeing the bats, which emerge from the cavern every night at dusk, and which I’ve heard about from Wendy and the family ever since they visited there in 1988.

First, I was wrong about the caverns. Like, embarrassingly wrong. (No wonder no one ever listens to me.) Carlsbad Caverns is definitely not just a big hole in the ground. Actually, it is a big hole in the ground, but it’s so big, and so complex, and so stunning in its visual impression that it nearly defies description. We did one of the self-guided tours (we got there too late for a guided tour), which took us into the caverns for a loop of about 2-1/2 miles, starting with an 800-foot descent on a switch-backed trail through the main entrance, and eventually into the “Big Room.”

This is some dippy retro post card that I found on the internet, but it’s the best depiction I found of the layout of the caverns. The self-guided tour, about 2-1/2-miles long, enters down the “natural entrance” on the upper left, all the way over to the “Big Room” on the far right, and then back to the elevator for the 750-foot lift back to the surface.

The “Big Room,” for example, although it’s just a teeny part of the caverns and just one part of the self-guided tour, is huge: big enough to put the U.S. Capitol building in there twice! At one point, it’s 250 feet tall. One side loop around the Big Room is a mile long! This part of the cavern system is only one of about 100 such caverns, most of which have never been explored. In 1986, some guys accidentally discovered a side-branch to the cavern system, and so far they’ve explored it for 150 miles. As the short film in the visitor center pointed out, it’s hard to find any place on the surface of the earth that isn’t fully explored, but beneath our feet, literally, we haven’t even begun to explore our own world.

And somehow the National Park service has managed to install paths, and handrails, and lighting throughout this portion of the caverns.

You’d actually do better to look up images of the caverns on the internet than settle for my amateur attempts to capture the scenes with my camera, but this image makes the point. Note the path winding through this portion of the Big Room. And, although this image doesn’t exactly capture the lighting, the National Park Service hired a theatrical lighting expert to do the lighting with the objective that the interior of the caverns would be illuminated, but the effect would still be “cave-like.” They succeeded on both counts.

I forget how deep we are into the caverns at this point, but we were approaching the time when they closed up the caverns for the day, and we were deep enough that we decided to get one last picture of us alive in case things turned out otherwise.

The bottom line is that I could easily go back to the caverns again and spend more time just marveling in its complexity and beauty.

Second, I was right about seeing the bats, but first a brief digression.

[Social Commentary /on]  There is an amphitheater near the entrance to the cave where visitors can sit down at dusk and watch the flight of bats as they emerge. Everywhere one looks, there are signs explaining that all electronic devices must be turned off (not just put on silent or in sleep mode). No active cameras, cell phones, or other electronic devices are permitted because they interfere with the bats’ behavior and ability to navigate. So, for the good of the bats, and for the benefit of the experience, no exceptions. Everything must be off. The effect of those signs? Zippo. Nada. A huge percentage of the visitors, Wendy and I estimate about half, were completely loaded up with cameras (some even set up on tripods!), cell phones, selfie-sticks, and God-knows-what, all ready to blast away as soon as the bats emerged. What? What’s going on here? The only thing Wendy and I could figure out is that about half of the population, here at least, but probably everywhere, doesn’t care about nature, doesn’t care about their fellow man, and doesn’t particularly care even about the quality of their own experience. As long as they can take some inferior little snapshot, and take it home to their equally self-focused and despicable friends and family, they’re willing to ruin the very thing they came to see. How sad. Fortunately, though, an armed park ranger showed up just before dusk and said that his job was to protect the bats, that using electronic devices was a citable offense, and that if the devices weren’t turned off and put away at this point, those using them were subject to arrest. That did it. Apparently, the problem is widespread enough that the National Park Service has learned that, if moral force isn’t enough, the prospect of making little ones out of big ones in a federal pen will ensure compliance. [Social commentary /off]

And the bat experience? Apparently we were there too early in the season and most of the colony of Mexican Free-Tailed Bats won’t return from Mexico for another month or two. So, right now, there are “only” 20,000 to 30,000 bats in attendance! Precisely at dusk, though, as if on cue, hundreds of bats emerged and begin circling in front of the cavern entrance, racing around at incredible speeds, somehow managing not to collide, gaining altitude with each loop, until they reach a height sufficient to head off into the countryside, and away they flew. Then another flight emerged, again spiraling upward, faster and faster, higher and higher, and then heading off. And then another flight, and another, and another. It seemed like it would not end. I later asked the ranger if the bats were actually emerging in groups so they could form up into “squadrons,” so to speak, but that’s not what they’re doing. They are actually solitary hunters. But they have to spiral upwards because their little wings don’t generate much lift. In fact, most of them can’t even take off from the ground. They are, as he put it, “the jet fighters” of the bat world. After 45 minutes or so, now in almost total darkness, the bats were gone and we headed back to the campground. Had we been here in June or July, it would not have been a few tens of thousands of bats, it would have been hundreds of thousands. I can’t even imagine what that would look like.

So, add this to the list of reasons we’d return to Carlsbad Caverns for an even better re-do of the experience.

Next stop, White Sands National Monument.

Whither postcards?

At every worthy stop we make, Wendy and I send off postcards to the grandchildren, aka Little Darlings (henceforth LDs), all eight of them. But lately it has become a formidable challenge to find postcards even at the most likely stops. Disney had precious few (maybe a half dozen), and only the same limited selection was to be found at all of the venues. Many other stops had none. Sometimes, we’d ask a store clerk if they had postcards and was greeted with an odd stare, followed by, “I think the place across the street used to have some.” I was preparing to add a comment to one of my travel posts about this strange phenomenon but coincidentally a post on the same topic showed up today on the RV Travel blog, describing postcards as a “relic of the past.”

The premise behind Woodbury’s conclusion is that picture postcards, as media of choice for sending off pictures of destination spots, along with the obligatory “wish you were here” message, have been overtaken by photo messages, Instagram, Facebook, selfies, and every other form of instantaneous electronic communication. True, true, and in many ways our ability to follow each other’s travels, see the sights, and participate vicariously in travels to new places is both more extensive and intensive than it ever was. But the replacement of the postcard with an excess of instantaneous photo updates, I think, like so much of the modern electronic alternatives, somehow loses something in the translation.

The difference between a postcard and a photo-feed, I guess, is firstly not so much in the adequacy of the communique, but in the generosity of the message. It takes considerable effort to hunt for just the right card, carefully write out (with a pen, of all things) a message particular to the recipient, address it, and find a place to send it off. At least with eight LDs, it’s hours start to finish. But that’s why postcards are more an act of thoughtfulness than a blunt, in-your-face info update. More than just saying, “wham-bam, here’s a picture, see you later” it says “You matter enough to me that I’m taking time out my travels just to let you know how much I care for you. You’re worth the effort.” And, secondly, the impetus for a picture postcard is, obviously, the picture. There are no “selfie” postcards, which is why they stand in stark contrast to someone who visits something as majestic as the Grand Canyon and thinks, “What a great place to take a picture of me.”

Oh well… I guess it’s to be expected that photographic relics of the past still hold appeal to living relics of the past (namely us). Next post will be back to reality…

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.

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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.

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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6-7 June 2016: Little Big Horn Battlefield

In the annals of American history, there are events that mark breaks in the trajectory. For many of us, the assassination of President Kennedy was one. Something spun out of control in our history at that point, launching the sixties, and setting us on a course that made us a different country than we were previously destined to be. One of my favorite books, Coming Apart by Charles Murray, shows how every aspect of our country’s founding values (in terms of religion, marriage, hard work, honesty, and so on) started to change for the worse at that point. For that reason, one destination on my bucket list is Dealey Plaza, just to see the physical place where the event occurred that changed us forever.

In the nineteenth century, one can make the point that a similar breakpoint occurred with the Battle of Little Big Horn. As Stephen Ambrose made clear in Custer and Crazy Horse (which I read especially for this trip), America was on a cultural collision course with native Americans. On the one hand was an industrious and industrial, productivity-minded, land-owning, free enterprise culture, undergoing an explosive growth in population, and on the other was a primitive culture that appeared to Americans as indolent and backwards. What was to become of the Great Plains, for example? Use them for farmland and ranches to feed a growing population, building wealth for future generations in the process (the American imperative), or leave them unused as nothing but rangeland for wandering buffalo (the native American alternative)?

The clash kept recurring, with a result that one “arrangement” after another would be made between American settlers and native populations, with the arrangements not working out very well for either side, and with both sides (not just the Americans, in my view) repeatedly violating the agreed-upon terms. Something eventually would have to give. My suspicion (which I admit may not stand up to scrutiny by knowledgeable historians) is that both sides knew the process was futile: despite all of the treaties, the various peace delegations, splits in factions on both sides, everyone probably knew that one side was going to win and one side was going to lose. Ultimately, there would never be a middle ground.

In that context, on June 25, 1876, a force of maybe 2000 Sioux and Cheyenne Indians, led by Sitting Bull as the diplomatic leader and Crazy Horse as military leader, encountered the 7th Cavalry Regiment under the command of Lt. Col. (brevet Major General) George Armstrong Custer. The rest, as they say, is history. When word of Custer’s defeat reached the East, ironically in July 1876, right at the moment America was celebrating its centennial, relishing it past successes and giddy over its future prospects, the fact that Indians had defeated one of America’s most celebrated heroes was more than the country could stand. One can almost hear a collective response, “OK. That’s it. Enough is enough. Let’s put an end to this once and for all.” As a result of that battle, large military forces were sent west, and within a few years Crazy Horse was dead, Sitting Bull had surrendered, and the west was opened for America’s “Manifest Destiny.” It reminds me of Pearl Harbor. In a way, the enemy may have “won,” but that hollow victory unleashed forces that would leave the “victor” utterly destroyed.

So, here we are in the very place where that shift in the historical trajectory occurred. And besides its historical significance, it’s also a military memorial, a national cemetery, a place where American soldiers fought and died. In all ways, it is for me a place that is both dramatic and holy.

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Atop “Last Stand Hill,” looking down towards the Visitor Center. About 5 miles to the south were Reno and Benteen. Through a massive program of GPS mapping and archeology, the place where each soldier fell is relatively well known and is marked by a headstone. Some of the headstones bear names, but most just say, “A soldier of the 7th Cavalry fell here.” The national cemetery is visible just past the Visitor’s Center.

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The ravine in which Calhoun’s forces were trying to move to link up with Custer. It’s not really clear from this photograph, but one can see how Calhoun’s troops were using classic fire-and-maneuver tactics, with a series of headstones marking each place where they stopped to provide fire and were overwhelmed. All of Calhoun’s forces were killed.

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The memorial erected atop Last Stand Hill, I believe in 1881. It marked the place of a mass grave, commemorating the place where 249 soldiers were buried. Some of the bodies were later relocated. Custer is now buried at West Point.

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One final thought: Both Wendy and I were a little nervous about seeing the National Battlefield Monument. Our tour guide was a Crow Indian, there is the recent (2003) “Indian Memorial” at the monument, and as one would expect in these times, much of the narrative here extolled the virtues of native American culture. But overall, our fears were unwarranted and things were just fine. The presentations and displays very much honored the American soldiers and, although the native American perspective was included, it did so without in any way diminishing the bravery and sacrifice of the officers and men of the 7th Cavalry.

And one other thing occurred to us both. There are times in history when both sides are right, where both sides are fighting for something noble. To my mind, as I listened to the presentations and pondered the significance of this battle, that was true here. Whatever the deficiencies of the Indian’s “traditional way of life,” and why I think clinging to the traditional ways was not a good choice, every culture has a right to decide for itself how it wants to live, and an insistence on the right of self-determination is a noble ambition. Here, I think, both sides are worthy of honor, and the Monument does a good job of doing that.

Definitely a good stop.

So, that’s about it for the special stops on our way out west. We now have three days of pedal-to-the-metal travel (which means creeping along at 60 miles per hour for us old people) before we arrive at Robert’s. We’ll post some concluding thoughts when we get there.

February 2016: Everglades National Park

Forty-four years. Forty-four years ago, when Wendy and I were traveling around the country, without an agenda, with nothing to do but to enjoy each other and this country, staying in national and state parks as we traveled eastward, we promised each other, “We’ll do this again someday.” And here we are. It looks like this will be the year when we see national parks spanning the country from the Everglades to Glacier. And not only are we embarking at long last on fulfilling a decades-old promise, we are doing so in the centennial year of the National Parks system.

Everglades National Park is a fitting beginning, different from anything we’ve ever done before. While most national parks were established to preserve some dramatic panorama for future generations of visitors (imagine Teddy Roosevelt seeing Yellowstone for the first time), Everglades was established solely to protect an ecosystem. Over 1.5 million acres of what is essentially a slow-moving river (only 1/4-mile per day), a “river of grass,” as is said, 60 miles wide and only a few inches deep, flowing from Lake Okeechobee southward towards Florida Bay.

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After a quick stop at the visitor center at the entrance, we drove the 38 miles to the Flamingo campground, visitor center, and marina.

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Set up at Flamingo Campground. (And yes, I did set up my ham radio station, although I only had time to operate for a few minutes.)

And once here, we wasted no time in doing what we like best about such places: visiting the educational displays, attending the ranger talks, and generally exploring what makes each national park worthy of its stature.

But here, because the Everglades does not exist to preserve things worth seeing, experiencing the Everglades is different than the western parks we’ll visit this summer. Here, the experience is quieter and subtler. It is not less spiritual, but spiritual in a difference sense, not so much standing in awe of the grandeur of creation but more marveling at the intricacy and complexity of the created order in its hidden spaces. As one of the rangers said, the Everglades “whispers” its message.

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The “river of grass” at the Snake River slough, “only” 6 miles wide.

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At Snake River slough, a barred owl hooting away back in a thicket.

One day we tour a boat tour through the mangroves lining the Buttonwood Canal, through Coot Bay, and into Whitewater Bay.

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Baby American Crocodile, and no one even noticed his big brother behind him!

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The deadly Manchineel tree: “Standing beneath the tree during rain will cause blistering of the skin from mere contact with this liquid (even a small drop of rain with the milky substance in it will cause the skin to blister). … ingestion [of the sweet, apple-like fruit] may produce severe gastroenteritis with bleeding, shock, bacterial superinfection, and the potential for airway compromise due to edema. … Juan Ponce de León was struck by an arrow that had been poisoned with Manchineel sap during battle with the Calusa in Florida, dying shortly thereafter.”

And we even did a ranger-guided canoe trip on a five-mile canoe trail out and back from Nine-Mile Lake. The trip provided a bit of comic relief since, firstly, we are old, feeble geezers who don’t know how to paddle a canoe, and secondly, the wind was howling at 15 miles per hour, gusting to 25, which meant the canoe frequently got caught by the wind and headed sideways into the swamp. Still, it was a great morning.

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We also “experienced” the Everglades in one of its less appealing aspects: mosquitos. We’re told that this is an “unusual” winter. It may be. This winter has been wetter than usual (normal rainfall in January is 2.5 inches, but this year it was 12.5 inches), and one can imagine that the surplus of standing water has given the little suckers a windfall of breeding sites. Either way, we ventured out only when slathered with DEET and the first few moments inside the camper were always spent trying to clap in mid-air fast enough to squish the little beasts between our palms.

We took advantage of one surprising opportunity for a side trip to the old Nike missile base, now a historical site within the Park.

For people of my era, the cold war, and in particular the Cuban missile crisis, is not only part of our history, it is part of our being. It’s easy to joke about the backyard bomb shelters and the “duck and cover” drills in elementary school, but I remember, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, going with my mom to the grocery store, and everything was gone. Everything. I stood there seeing nothing but empty shelves. No milk, no produce, no bread, no canned goods. Nothing. And even as a twelve-year old, I was convinced that war was upon us. Fireballs were going to light up the sky, and for those not immolated by blasts, it was going to be a nasty battle for survival. Memories like that formed us all, and they are part of us even today.

The crisis started in October 1962 when U2 spy planes overflying Cuba saw that the Soviet Union had installed short- and medium-range missile bases in Cuba. A missile launched from Cuba could hit Washington D.C. in 13 minutes. The nuclear warheads for those missiles were on Soviet ships headed for Cuba, and Kennedy imposed a “quarantine” (that is, a blockade) around Cuba and threatened to destroy any Soviet ship that tried to run the blockade. The Soviets said they viewed the blockade as an act of war (it is), that they had every intention of running the blockade, and would use any means necessary, including nuclear weapons, to protect their freedom to navigate the seas. Kennedy then issued his famous threat that any use of nuclear weapons against anywhere in the western hemisphere would be met with an unlimited retaliatory counterstrike on the Soviet Union. The situation was escalating to the point that the very end of civilization was seemingly inevitable.

During this time, south Florida was the scene of a military buildup not seen since World War II. Hundreds of military trucks driving down the streets, military bombers landing at every airport available, and trucks and trains carrying missiles arriving every day. Even as the crisis subsided, we all realized that the threat to our very existence could come from as close as sixty miles south. In 1965, the National Park Service gave permission to the Defense Department to build a Nike missile base inside the Park to guard against that threat. That base survives today as a historical site: Nike Missile Base HM-69.

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Surprisingly, even though one can hardly imagine an experience less Everglades-ish than immersing oneself in the details of mutually assured nuclear destruction, both of us agree that the tour of the missile base was a highlight of the trip.

So, once again, we find ourselves leaving too soon. Too much to do and not enough time. In a sense, that’s the inevitable consequence of racing around Florida, spending only a few days in numerous places, as we scout out possible locations to escape Atlanta winters. But in other places giving short shrift to the locale was tolerable. Here, I wish I had made the Everglades a break in the place-to-place dash and booked a stop of at least a week. It deserves it. If we can make it back someday (I hope we can), we’ll definitely spend more time here, just listening to Everglades whispers.

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February 2016: Naples, FL

A friend suggested that, since I was heading off to Florida, I should read at least one of the books by Carl Hiaasen. I’d never heard of Hiaasen, so I read the reviews and picked Stormy Weather. As I learned, Hiaasen is an op-ed columnist for the Miami Herald with a political philosophy that does not, shall we say, align on very many points with my own. Which means that ordinarily I’d be reading his works only to the extent of my practice of being aware of how the enemy thinks. Except for two things. First, he is a gifted writer and the book Stormy Weather is hilarious. Second, the principal theme that runs throughout his books is particularly relevant to this trip: through the irresistible influence of developers, tourists, and corrupt politicians, Florida has been destroyed by some weird combination of vulgarity, venality, greed, and lunacy.

As I mentioned, we didn’t see any such thing in Cedar Key. We got a hint of the Hiaasen Complaint in Sarasota, mainly because of mile after mile of seemingly aimless traffic. But now, in Naples, we are confronted by the Hiaasen Complaint fully substantiated. It’s hard to describe this subculture. In the outskirts of Naples, it’s mile after mile of roads, sometimes seven lanes wide in each direction (that’s right–seven!), lined on both sides with mall after mall, all of them overflowing with shoppers! Stopping at a COSTCO to reprovision a few staples, we found the store so overflowing that the checkout lines, no kidding, extended so far into the store that there were “merge lanes” in the product aisles! Any break to the malls? Yes, but only where they were interrupted by garish, gated communities with signs proclaiming, “Homes to $2 Million Plus.”

Old town Naples, particularly the Fifth Avenue area, once one fights the traffic to get there, is chock-full of trendy restaurants and up-scale boutiques, neither of which is our style.

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But then, there’s “real Naples.” “Real” in the sense of “unreal.” As of June 2015, Naples has the highest per capita income of any city in America. Two-thirds of all American billionaires (“billionaires,” with a “b”) live in Naples. In the Port Royal area, homes go for $20 to $75 million, except that at the lower end of that range they’re basically tear-downs. Really. Some bargains can be had across the river, such as at Aqualane, where the homes are in the $10 to $20 million range, although that area is removed from the beach and one has to drive (not that!) to get to a beach. No wonder the homes are so devalued. Location, location, location. And this isn’t just a couple homes … we’re talking about dozens of homes spread across multiple areas. And, even weirder, 80% of the owners in these areas spend less than 4 weeks per year in their homes.

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Home of Dick Portillo, who sold his chain of Chicago hot dog restaurants to Berkshire-Hathaway, with his 112-foot Westport “Top Dog.”

So, what of the Hiaasen Complaint? One can certainly wag his finger at the populace here, full of disdain for those who don’t share one’s keen judgment and moral sensibility. I have to be somewhat careful about such moral superiority since I’m basically in the set being wagged at (as I expect Hiaasen is as well).  But putting aside all of that, the principal “appeal” of Naples just doesn’t hold much appeal for us. The climate is wonderful, the surrounding natural areas are great, and the people have been uniformly friendly and outgoing. But Naples qua Naples is basically uninteresting and can be easily skipped.

Speaking of the surrounding areas, we did have a chance to visit the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary (due to the recommendation of a friend, the same friend actually). Wow. Easily in the same class as the Lower Suwanee NWR, and a wonderful side-trip in the Naples area. Unfortunately, it has been an unusually wet January in this area, so the swamp, which is normally drying out this time of year, is pretty much flooded, which has made the area not as conducive to wildlife and bird viewing as normal. But still, it took us hours to walk along the 2-1/4 mile boardwalk, and we enjoyed every minute of it. We’ll be back.

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And, of course, numerous Bald Cyprus:

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For all of its appeal, though, I cannot avoid commenting that the Audubon Society does manifest a tendency to the very philosophical defect that plagues most environmentalist thinking, namely the elevation of “nature” over people. For example, one series of displays shows the increasing number of people and the decreasing number of wading birds in south Florida, exponentially trending in opposing directions. Implied in the display is, “Look! This is terrible! People are going up and birds are going down!” So what? I thought. I wanted to collar some hapless Audubon volunteer with a confrontation, “OK … birds like south Florida and people like south Florida. What’s the right balance? People have to eat, which means we need farmland. We need homes and paper products, both of which mean harvesting trees. How much and where? People enjoy a warm, temperate climate in the winter. What’s your plan to meet that simple aspect of human welfare?” I didn’t. I actually think of the Audubon Society as being on the more reasonable end of the environmentalist spectrum, but I found the content of their message long on doctrine and short on sensible, balanced messaging. Still, it’s a great place to visit.

Otherwise, it’s been a relaxing week. We’ve spent some time here enjoying this wonderful RV resort, which is about the nicest RV resort we’ve ever been to, certainly in the category of the RV resorts in Cashiers and Hilton Head, although our little ACE looks a little out of place.

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To their credit, no one really seems to mind that we’re definitely the trailer trash of the neighborhood. There was a huge gathering for the Superbowl. There are community breakfasts every morning. One night we got together with a bunch of the residents for a “spirited” (read: “highly competitive”) game of trivia. And one night a local guide came by and gave a fascinating talk on fishing in the Chokoloskee Island/Thousand Islands area of Florida. This resort is probably a little out of our budget for long-term stays, but this is definitely one of the better watering holes around and a great place to camp out while seeking warmer climes.

September 2015: Riverbend Campground (Hiawassee, GA)

It’s been a L-O-N-G time since our last trip (May, to Land Between the Lakes), which is probably why I’ve been spending hours and hours (and more hours) relentlessly planning future trips. Month after month of no real RV’ing demands at least a virtual substitute. But now we’re here, for real, at Riverbend Campground in Hiawassee, Georgia.

But first — a digression. People often say that RV’ing is as much about the journey as the destination. So far, though, I’m not sure I’ve really figured out the journey thing. I think I’m pretty good about the destination part, and very good at figuring out how to get to the destination, but not so good at unplanned stops in the middle, much less a significant deviation that would take me off-route, delay the arrival, and (heaven forbid) potentially cause a rewrite of the entire plan.

This trip has taught me a lesson about the “journey” aspect of RV’ing. En route from LaGrange to Hiawassee, our practice of stopping every couple hours was thwarted by the fact that the portion of the trip in the 1-3 hour slot was all Atlanta urban hell, with no real place to take a relaxing break. Not even a rest area or tolerable gas station. So we found ourselves coming up on Blue Ridge, Georgia, after four hours of driving, road-weary, hungry, with both us and the dogs ready for a potty break, when Wendy spied a sign that said, “Fannin County Veterans Memorial Park.” “Turn here,” she said, and off we went on a “it’s all about the journey” detour down some narrow country road.

What a treat! Off the path, in Blue Ridge (population 1290), is a memorial to those men of Fannin County that have died in this nation’s wars. One obelisk for every war, with the names of the dead inscribed on each. Surrounding the park, all of the flags were at permanent half-staff. A plaque proclaims Duty-Honor-Country. And a Huey UH-1, with 1st Air Cav markings, sits on display.

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And here’s the best part. The Memorial Park sits next to the Fannin County Middle School. Which means that every day, those kids go to school under the shadow, literally, of those who died so that they could go to school. Do the kids of that school realize the significance of what stands across the parking lot? Probably not. But will they someday hear an echo of voices telling them that duty to country sometimes demands the last full measure of devotion? I’m sure they will. In my mind’s eye, I can see a day when America is attacked and, for reasons some guy can only vaguely sense, he feels compelled to take up a gun and fight for his country. And those ghosts in the memorial who watched over him as a kid can rest well knowing the enduring influence of their sacrifices. Maybe what this country really needs is a veterans memorial on the grounds of every school in the nation.

Back to camping…

This trip was to Riverbend Campground, near Hiawassee. Very nice campground, with the Hiawassee River running right behind our site.

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By chance, the FMCA Georgia Mountaineers chapter was at the campground, so we sat around and chatted with them for a while. One benefit of traveling with fellow RVers, it seems to me, is being able to pick their brains on an infinity of RV topics. One topic we discussed was the best timing and route for touring the Utah National Parks, and the President of the chapter even sent me a fully fleshed out itinerary based on his experience. We may have to link up with such groups regularly in the future.

Saturday we hiked Brasstown Bald, and learned that it’s amazing how strenuous it can be when two old geezers try to walk one-half mile up a steep path to the observation deck. But what a view!

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Sunday it was off to see friends and go to church with them in Hayesville, NC (about 20 miles away), and then lunch, and then a couple more hikes.

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Which is cause for another digression. Over the years, I seem to have lost touch with lots of people … no excuse, just too much to do and a procrastinating personality. But as we travel around, it’ll be fun to reconnect with friends and distant family in California, Colorado, Arizona, Washington, the Northeast, the Southeast, and wherever else our mobile society scatters us.

Statistics for the trip:
Trip distance: 439 miles
Campground cost: $32 x 3 nights.
Mileage: 8.45 mpg (all but the last 100 miles towing the toad)

The tradition continues … again.

In a previous post, I recounted the long history our family had of camping as our children grew up, and noted with some satisfaction that Son #2 had carried on the family tradition by buying his own pop-up camper. Now, Son #1 has followed suit with his own pop-up camper! And started his own camping blog, kazadventures.com, which is a great read.

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All of which got me thinking. What is it about “camping,” in whatever form, even “camping” (such as it is) at Fort Wilderness, that holds this lasting quality? There are the obvious attributes: it’s a break from “real life,” it’s an encounter with nature (even if it’s only fishing in a pond or digging up worms), it’s family time (including time with the dogs). It’s sometimes just a chance to be uninhibited–we would ride our bikes around the campground in various fighter jet formations: finger-four, to single echelon, to diamond, and then, when someone was ready to stop, we’d buzz our own campsite in “missing man” formation. In any place but a campground, acting like that would get you a visit from DFACS. And, frankly, one main motivation for us was that camping is affordable; the overwhelming majority of our camping trips consisted of a 50-mile hop up to the Corps campgrounds at Lake Lanier. Twenty bucks for a weekend and we had an instant “vacation.”

But one other thing comes to mind, something that was true then but even more so in today’s world. Camping provides a chance to disconnect from one set of experiences and reconnect with others, more basic and, in today’s world, less virtual. Sometimes the reconnection is trivial, sometimes it’s deeply spiritual, and sometimes it’s both at the same time. Camping dispels the myth of “quality time.” Often life’s best and most memorable experiences don’t arise from highly organized, regimented, mandatory fun-drills; they occur spontaneously when you’re just goofing around doing not much. On one son’s first backpacking trip, we stopped for a break to take off our boots and give our feet a rest, and he looked up at me and said, in a way that only an eight-year-old can, “Dad, have you ever noticed how great it feels to take off your socks?” In a sense that’s the mission of a camping trip: a chance to get away and spend time, so to speak, taking off your socks.

Three sets of the family campers are scheduled for a link-up at Land Between the Lakes NRA over the weekend of May 14-17. (Daughter and her crew are tied up that weekend, but there will be others for that branch of the family.) So, with four Little Darlings, ages 2 to 5, in three adjacent campsites, the virtue of camping continues on.