Seems like it wasn’t that many years ago that little Sally went off to that great chipmunk-chasing grounds in the sky. Now little Sabrina has gone off to join her sister. It was just one of those things where Sabrina kept heading downhill, until all she did was pace around, pant, and sleep. And eat treats. Lots of ’em. It was hard to know what was going on inside her brain, such as it was, because she had no affects. But we began to worry that she was actually in pain and miserable. So, all things considered, it was time to say good-bye.
(The girls came by to say good-bye to Sabrina, which turned out to be reminiscent of a picture of them with Sally a few years ago.)
As it turns out, we had a scheduled trip back to F.D. Roosevelt State Park, so we had a couple days to adjust to a new normal without that stinkin’ little rascal. And the days were perfect. Cool, slight breeze, beautiful park, a wonderful 3.2-mile trail along Mountain Creek, and nothing to do but enjoy being outside.
(Set up at camp site #520. Typical of FD Roosevelt State Park — beautiful site, nicely secluded, and perfect for sitting outside, enjoying the peace and quiet of the park.)
(At left: Wendy walking under the Log of Damocles. At right: using her new knee to cross a fallen log.)
And to top it all off, we had a 24-hour wake for Sabrina, with a wonderful steak dinner on Tuesday night, and an indulgent bacon and egg breakfast on Wednesday.
So, little Sabrina is gone but we’re sure she and Sally are having a great time.
As noted previously, one of our favorite state parks is F.D. Roosevelt State Park, located near Callaway Gardens. Since it was time to take ACE out for exercise, and since Roosevelt State Park is only 22 miles away from where ACE lives, off we go. Surprisingly, even though it’s August in middle Georgia, which normally would be a combination of phrases invoking the same appeal as phrases like “hot poker” plus “left eyeball,” the weather was actually cool and clear and the three days we spent there completely refreshing.
This time, though, besides enjoying the park, hiking through the woods, and touring along the ridge of Pine Mountain, we took an afternoon to visit Roosevelt’s “Little White House,” a place that we had not seen in several decades. Roosevelt built the Little White House in 1932 while governor of New York, since it was close to Warm Springs, famous for its 88-degree, mineral-laden spring water, which Roosevelt sought out seeking a cure (or at least relief) for polio. It was at the Little White House in 1945, while posing for a portrait, that FDR suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died a short while later. This modest little cottage has been carefully preserved very much as FDR left it, and a museum on the grounds provides many exhibits, including FDR’s 1938 Ford convertible with hand controls, along with a short film describing Roosevelt’s life and presidency.
In nearby Warm Springs, one can visit the pools where Roosevelt, and other victims of polio, went to find some relief from that terrible affliction. Inside the exhibit there is on old “iron lung,” a mechanical device used to compress and expand someone’s torso, thereby forcing the lungs to pump air in and out of the body. There were often hundreds of people in iron lungs at clinics, and many of them spent years in such devices.
But the FDR museum tells another, fascinating story. It was largely through the long times that Roosevelt spent at the Little White House, and through his association with the farmers and workers of Georgia, that he settled upon most of the philosophy of the New Deal. In a book I recently read, Reagan: The Life, H.W. Brand made the point that in recent history there have only been two presidents that actually matter: Roosevelt, as the author of the welfare state, and Reagan, as the author of the conservative revolution–the two presidents who capture the poles of “government is the solution” versus “government is the problem.” And much of the course of modern America, including the current degree of polarization and animosity, reflects the collision of these two opposing philosophies.
All of which makes it hard for me to find a place in my brain for Roosevelt. On the one hand, he faced the most daunting combination of circumstances one can imagine: a global economic depression, a climate change disaster, and a world war against abject evil. What could anyone do under such circumstances but muster every means and resource available to the government and make everyone and everything, in essence, instruments of the state?
But on the other hand, he is the founding father of the welfare state, the man who put the country on the road to serfdom. As mentioned in the previous post, the prevailing ethic when Roosevelt took office was that it is morally wrong and personally degrading for an able-bodied man to take money he did not earn. That ethic is obviously long-gone now, and one must wonder whether the acceptability of living on the dole, indeed the prevailing norm that there is a right to live off of the hard work of others, can be traced back to Roosevelt himself.
I guess none of this is new. Recall the Jews wandering in the desert saying, “We hate it here. We want to go back to Egypt where we had food, and shelter, and free health care,” to which Moses replied, “What? What are talking about? You were slaves in Egypt. What are you going to do, put yourself in slavery for a bowl of soup?” To which the answer was, “Heck yes!” And so it goes.
I wasn’t going to post anything about two trips made in ACE this year, since they were mostly about things other than RV’ing, but since I’m about to do a post about our recent trip to F.D. Roosevelt State Park in August 2022, here’s something quick that explains the gap.
April 2022: Georgia Nature Photographers Association. Every year, GNPA has an “Expo,” which is the club’s gathering at some photogenic location for several days of classes, field trips, displays, contests, and general photography goofing around. This year it was at Jekyll Island, but since I was derelict in making reservations, the hotel was full and I had to resort to taking ACE down to Blythe Island county campground.
The above photo was entitled “Life Among the Ruins,” which I thought was a clever play on Browning’s “Love Among the Ruins.” That poem, if I recall correctly from high school or college or whatever it was (which I probably don’t), was about how everything man builds will crumble and fall, but love will survive. So my photo might by analogy say that everything man builds will crumble and fall, but life will survive. Get it? Pretty clever, eh? Apparently, it was too clever. For the second time at a GNPA Convention, this photo was put on display in front of the entire membership during the contest awards ceremony as an example of what is wrong with the photograph. I give up.
May 2022: FMCA Amateur Radio Club Spring Rally. Yes, another geeky ham radio excursion, but this one turns out to have been relevant for the post that is to follow about F.D. Roosevelt State Park. The rally was hold in Crossville, Tennessee, and besides doing our usual ham radio stuff (which, as noted, most normal people find insufferably dull), we did a little field trip to the Cumberland Homesteads Historic District. The Cumberland Homesteads was the largest of the Roosevelt’s New Deal subsistence homesteads built to aid “needy yet worthy families” with jobs, training, and the purchase of homes. Two hundred fifty-one families lived in homes they built, all within a community of farms and businesses. Families paid for the homes through the wages they earned building the community and farming the land.
What makes the homestead especially interesting, and relevant to the post that will follow on our trip to F.D. Roosevelt State Park, is that Roosevelt faced an interesting problem during the Depression: At the time, it was considered morally wrong for an able-bodied man to accept money that he didn’t work for. Even if people could be persuaded to take charity, giving someone charity without giving him a chance to work was considered degrading. Hence Roosevelt had to come up with all of the make-work agencies, like the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation. Roosevelt knew that to lift people out of poverty in a way that didn’t humiliate them in the process, he had to give them an opportunity to “earn” they money they received, even if it was nothing more than building a trail through the mountains or a community center in the middle of the Cumberland Plateau. The Cumberland Homesteads was a marvelous example of what people can accomplish if we “help” them without degrading them in the process.
It makes one wonder what America would be like if such an ethic were still the prevailing norm?
Next trip … Roosevelt State Park and Roosevelt’s “Little White House.”
One of the many things I love about my dear, sweet, intelligent, thoughtful, and supportive (in cases she’s reading this) wife is that she has a seemingly inexhaustible tolerance for my charming eccentricities and petty foibles. So, for example, when I decided to ride my motorcycle out to a conference in California, and then ride back from Santa Monica to Jacksonville Beach in a day and a half, for no reason other than to establish my credentials in a group of like-minded weirdos, she did not actually divorce me, make me sleep on the couch, or excise any of my body parts.
What brought on this sudden flurry of heartfelt appreciation is that I’ve done something less dangerous but equally, um, “eccentric.” Specifically, this: I enjoy amateur radio. The stereotype of a ham radio hobbyist is pretty much accurate: nerdy, obsessed with radios and amplifiers and antennas and all sorts of stuff that is mysterious to normal people, engrossed in technical details of radio wave propagation, and prone to spending countless hours in dark rooms staring at dimly illuminated equipment to ends that would seem utterly pointless to any sensible person. But that’s me, and I like it. So, when I’m not traveling with the aforementioned spouse, I set up a portable ham radio station in the RV:
Hold that thought…
One thing that hams do, like most hobbyists, is attend “conventions” where there are seminars on various radio topics, dealers selling the latest equipment, and thousands of hams selling off their used stuff. The biggest one is the Dayton (Ohio) “Hamvention,” which in 2019 drew nearly 35,000 hams. I’m writing this from the Orlando “Hamcation,” which is smaller at 20,000, but which provides on-site RV parking. Due to that option, my RV amateur radio club held a gathering at Hamcation with 16 motor homes congregating from as far away as Colorado.
Hold that thought…
Yet another thing I like to do with ham radio is called “Parks on the Air” (or POTA). The idea is that one travels to a state or federal park, sets up the radio, jury-rigs some kind of an antenna (such as by throwing some wires up into the trees), and then makes contact with amateur radio guys all over the country. So, for example, I set up at Crooked River State Park right on the coast near the Georgia/Florida border, cranked up my radio, and made 151 contacts with operators distributed around the country:
Here’s the moment you’ve been waiting for: the point of all this. Since (1) I do ham radio stuff, and (2) I was traveling to Hamcation anyway, and (3) since there are dozens of parks on the route to and fro where I could do POTA activations, I decided to combine all three into an extended circumnavigation of the state, combining all three activities into one trip:
The drive didn’t quite work out like I planned, but even with some minor glitches along the way, traveling from park to park provided some memorable experiences. I visited 5 state parks (actual parks, like with campgrounds and picnic areas), 3 state historic areas (including the Jefferson Davis Historic Site, which somehow has survived current cancel culture, with even the statue of Jefferson Davis still intact), one federal National Wildlife Refuge, and one “eco-lodge” (which is some kind of facility where they send young, impressionable students to be instructed on various ecology topics).
Just one example of a glitch. I didn’t bring enough clothes. Fortunately, though, I learned an important fact from a friend: dirty laundry has to ability to self-regenerate. That is, if you put your dirty clothes in a hamper, in a few days they have self-cleaned enough that they can be worn again. Really. It’s true. Google it. By virtue of this miracle of modern textiles, I was able to go for 12 days with only 4 days of clothes.
Another glitch. One stop was at the Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation State Historic Site. The story of this plantation is fascinating. Before the civil war, the economy of the coastal south, from Georgia up through North Carolina, was based on rice, not cotton. The rice plantations, however, had to be located in what were insufferable, mosquito-infested, malaria-producing swamps. So the plantation owners would high-tail it out of those areas from April through October, leaving the slaves as the only occupants of the plantations. As a result of this extended time to themselves, the slaves developed their own culture, which was a combination of African memories and Christianity (mixed with voodoo) (seriously), even developing their own language (Geechee-Gullah), which was a mix of African dialects and English. Incredibly, that culture survived well into the 20th century, and continues to exist in pockets even today. What was the glitch? I took a tour of the plantation to learn more about this incredible bit of American history, but the tour turned out to be focused on the plantation owners’ furniture, artwork, and household accessories, including (no kidding) little lacy things that looked a lot to me like doilies. Doilies? Seriously? In the midst of this story, people want to look at doilies? Actually, yes … most people on the tour did in fact want to learn more about the home and its contents, so I waited until the tour was wrapping up, thanked the guide, and headed on to the next park. Not a totally worthless stop, but definitely a glitch.
All things considered, it was a great trip. Definitely too long away from home, maybe a bit much on the one-night stands along the route (not those kind) [Kids — If you don’t know what that means, ask your parents], unfortunate unseasonably cold weather (like 20 degrees below normal), and maybe not the most efficient routing (for example, too much backtracking). But the trip still had its moments. Georgia has done a wonderful job with its state parks and traveling around, seeing the parks, and having the fun of talking on the radio along the way, and combining that with a gathering of like-minded (mostly nerdy, but who’s counting) folks means the trip was well worth it.
One of the oft-touted advantages of an RV is that, as something of a mobile condo, it permits one to live near the relations for a while, allowing for extended visits, without the hassles and expense of hotels, restaurants, and rental cars (and now, COVID-loaded public places). In our case, that effect is multiplied because we’ve got three RVs scattered among the families, which means the congregating location can be essentially anywhere.
So, over the years, we used the RV to host dozens of family gatherings in campgrounds (such as a gathering at Land Between the Lakes, May 2015), meet Cliff on his temporary work assignment in Beaumont (November 2015), meet Cliff at Disney World (April 2016), travel out west for the birth of grandchild #7 (June 2016), meet Cliff in San Antonio (April 2017), visit my sister in California (June 2018), take an extended West Coast vacation with Robert and family (June-July 2018), arrange a linkup with Robert as he PCS’ed from Washington to Florida (May 2019), meet Robert and family at Disney World and break Christopher’s arm (March 2020), attend Robert’s promotion ceremony (March 2021), do a family reunion with all four families at Walt Disney World (March 2021), and meet with Cliff in Shenandoah National Park (June 2021). Plus probably a couple dozen other meetups, gatherings, and trips that don’t come to mind.
For all that, though, this is the first time that we’ve used the RV for a holiday gathering, namely Christmas, or as it will soon be phrased in today’s newspeak, “Popular Religious Leaders Natal Day,” a holiday that likely will be held on the last Monday in December. It’s not beyond imagining. We had to cancel a trip with Cliff over Columbus Day weekend due to travel difficulties, which spared me from having to do a blog post on a day now known in some circles as “Indigenous Peoples Day.” I’m waiting for Presidents’ Day to be renamed “Racist Leaders Shaming Day” and the Fourth of July redesignated as “Oppressive Government Founding Day.” All we need now is a national holiday to celebrate “hate week” and the fulfillment of an Orwellian dystopia will be complete.
Where was I? Oh yeah … Christmas. How did I get off on that rant? No matter. This trip not only gave us family time in Florida at Christmas, that gathering was followed by a trip with Robert and family to the Florida Keys. Robert has done an excellent blog post that summarizes the trip, so I won’t repeat the details here. Suffice it to say that this trip was one of the best family gatherings we’ve ever had.
First, if there’s anything better than Christmas with three little boys, it’s hard to imagine what it might be (save perhaps Cliff’s Christmas with three little girls). Plus wonderful meals, beautiful and warm weather, and Robert’s extraordinary on-post home at MacDill Air Force Base. And then, a week in the Keys, with temperatures in the 80s every day, touring around seeing the sights, fishing, kayaking, and cooking out. What a wonderful week.
One other thought: traveling around Florida over Christmas break gave us an eye-opening view into the “snowbird” phenomenon. Besides millions of tourists who come to Florida for a few days, Florida hosts an estimated 900,000 visitors each winter who stay a month or more, which actually increases Florida’s resident population by 5% in a matter of days. Many of these snowbirds (some estimates say a majority) come from Canada (mainly Quebec), but judging from license plates a large proportion hail from the states you’d expect: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois. And they all drive like that’s where they’re from, although that’s a post for another day.
Some of these migrants bring their RVs, making the task of finding an open campground spot almost impossible. (Laura was able to snag us a couple spots in a wonderful campground on Sugarloaf Key only because the campground had been closed while reconstructed after a hurricane, and she called within minutes of its reopening being posted on its website.) Other migrants clog the hotels and resorts. But a surprising number stay in homes they maintain in Florida just for the purpose of having a warm alternative to their frigid home states. There are an estimated 11 million second home in Florida, accounting for nearly 15% of all second homes in the country. And not all of these are little cottages. As we learned when we went to Naples a few years ago, upper-end homes there go for $20 to $75 million, although some bargains can be had across the river, such as at Aqualane, where the homes are in the $10 to $20 million range. And yes, these are mostly “second homes.” About 80% of the owners in these areas spend less than 4 weeks per year in their homes.
And what of the RVs that come to Florida each winter? It’s a weird mix. At some places, such as the RV park in Naples, the RV spots for long-term visitors are filled by one multi-million-dollar RV after another.
But we also encountered the other end of the spectrum at our stop after the Keys: little dinky travel trailers that have been “improved” by the addition of corrugated aluminum siding, plastic lawn furniture, and an eye-popping collection of yard decorations including, no kidding, pink flamingos. We even saw a fair number of Harley-riding “biker snowbirds,” which seems like an irreconciliable combination of nouns. And in a “campground” (which was more like a trailer park) consisting of 300-plus sites, there were well over a hundred of these semi-permanent beauties. Robert actually found himself parked between two of these units, and Laura remarked that she didn’t even feel comfortable going out at night. All of which caused Robert to describe this little gem of a campground as a “dump.”
So, there you have it. A great and wonderful trip, made all the better by the hard work and gracious accommodations of Robert and his family, in the midst of a social phenomenon worth seeing. We’ll be back down in Florida twice in the next few months to babysit the Little Darlings while Robert and Laura absent themselves for various reasons, but I’m sure those trips will be nothing compared to this one. Memorable indeed.
I’ve been to Great Smoky Mountains National Park probably a half dozen times, and it’s always been one of my favorite places. True, it’s not the dramatic beauty of the national parks out west, but in its own way, and at the right times, it holds its own kind of appeal. For example, GSMNP has more waterfalls per square mile than any place on earth. Why? Waterfalls require two things: water and a place to fall. That’s why they’re called “water-falls.” GSMNP gets an incredible 85 inches of rainfall per year, and provides nearly 6000 feet of elevation change across its width. The combination of the two means lots of water falling all over the place. So, even in nondescript no-name locations, glancing around provides truly beautiful instances of waterfalls.
And then, of course, there are the fall colors when billions of hardwoods erupt into a display of color that defies description (and defies capturing in a way that conveys the true effect).
This trip, though, was, well, I don’t want to say it was a disappointment, but GSMNP was not what I expected. In retrospect, I realized that I’d only been to the park in the fall, when bursts of autumn color lit up the hills, the air was crisp and cool, and the park pretty much deserted. Not this time. Not on any count. First, the park was jammed. Like Manhattan jammed. Or maybe Tokyo jammed. (I’ve never been to Tokyo, but in my mind the experience in the park was sort of like people being shoved into subway cars with giant plungers.) And it’s not just my normal (i.e., abnormal) aversion to crowds. In 2020, the park had 12.1 million visitors, trailing only the Blue Ridge Parkway (14.1 million, and which is contiguous with GSMNP) and the Golden Gate Bridge (12.4 million). Furthermore, most of those visitors come during the summer months, and we were there at the very period (late July) that defines “summer months.”
Second, the park is adjacent to Gatlinburg and just a few miles from Pigeon Forge. Which means that the park is, for many of its visitors, an extension of the Dollywood theme park, T-shirt shop, go-cart-racing, water-slide, Ripley’s-Believe-It-Or-Not-“museum” experience. Really. For example, there are places in Gatlinburg that rent go-cart-like off-road open-air vehicles, stripped of normal vehicle accessories, like mufflers, and people drive these around the park roads. So, anywhere one goes within earshot of a road means one will be oppressed by a constant din of families out for a spin around the park in go-carts. Or here’s another one. Many people bring with them a supply of brightly colored inner tubes so the little darlings can float down the park’s rivers. “Many people” like thousands of them. The park becomes, in essence, a water theme park as much as a national park. One more. The aforementioned waterfalls, besides having trailheads that are jammed for a mile or more on either side, become the equivalent of diving-board / water-slide play areas, with the pools at the bottoms of the waterfalls filled with people swimming and diving and generally having a raucous good time.
None of this is necessarily bad. In fact, a lot of it (minus the unmuffled go-carts) is wonderful. There’s something great about watching a bunch of kids playing in a river, jumping on inner tubes, hurling buckets water through the air to torment little girls, and all the other forms of good, wholesome fun. It’s really wonderful to be at a picnic area watching kids climbing trees only to fall out and break their arms like God intended. It’s just that there’s something incongruous about the experience. It’s just not a national-park-experience. It’s something else. And, in the end, it’s just not something we find worth traveling for.
Finally, part of the reason for the trip was for me to do a little photography, capturing an aspect of the park (the summer presentation) that I’d never seen before. So, I saw it. Meh. Maybe I didn’t have the right attitude, but in the summer the park is basically green. Lots of green. Green everywhere. And my limited artistic skills got quickly exhausted by trying to be creative with green.
So, on all counts, this was probably it for summertime trips to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I’ll go back, to be sure, in the fall. And I do want to try an excursion in the spring when the hills are alive with the sound of, no, wrong sentence, are alive with gazillions of blooming azaleas and rhododendrons. So there will be further posts about the park, and the wonders that it holds. But not in summer.
As mentioned in the previous post, we had a great time at our first (and maybe only) RV excursion to the NASCAR races at Atlanta Motor Speedway. That we had such a great time, though, was due in large part to the wonderful people we met there, most of whom were “KYD Insiders.” Here’s the deal…
Several years ago, Robert recommended a YouTube channel, “Keep Your Daydream.” That channel chronicles the adventures of a couple, Marc and Tricia Leach, who decided to go full-time in a small’ish travel trailer and travel around the U.S. with their three teenage children (and a very large Golden Retriever). Try to picture a Ford F-250 (a mid-size pickup) with three teenagers and a large dog in the back seat, pulling a trailer, with everything needed for a life on the road either in the minimal storage space in the trailer itself, or crammed in the bed of the truck. And “everything needed for a life on the road” means clothing, linens, food, supplies, household items, tools, outdoor cooking appliances and equipment, school materials for the little darlings, computer and camera equipment, trailer accessories, etc. etc. etc. As I’m writing this, I’m thinking “that’s impossible,” even though I watched them do it. In any event, over the course of the past six years, they would publish a weekly update on where they’ve been, what they’ve learned, and tips for anyone considering the same course, along with a stream of thoughts on anything related (or sometimes even unrelated) to RV living. Besides the YouTube channel, they also maintained a website (KeepYourDaydream.com), a blog, a podcast, a FaceBook page, an e-mail distribution list, several Instagram accounts, and probably more media that I’m not thinking of. After a hiatus of a couple years, prompted in part by the need to watch anything during the COVID shutdown, we binge-watched all six seasons of the YouTube videos.
At first during their life on the road, Marc continued to work remotely at his consulting business, but eventually the KeepYourDaydream enterprises were generating sufficient revenue to support the family. And, as these things go, there developed a community of “followers,” which in turn led to a subset of followers who contribute a small amount every month (or every video) and who are known as “KYD Insiders.” That’s where we come in.
The NASCAR event that we attended was also a meetup for KYD Insiders. We decided to join the meetup, even though we weren’t sure what to expect. The KYD media seem mostly geared towards brand-new RVers and/or RVers traveling (full-time or not) with children, and neither category includes us. On the other hand, though, one of the things we like about Marc and Trish’s broadcasts that both of them are completely charming people, whose philosophies about life, including how to deal with a surplus of children in the back seat, were irresistibly engaging. What the heck, we thought, let’s meet them in person and see what happens.
All told, there were about 40-50 KYD Insider families at the Speedway. As expected, nearly all of them had purchased their first RV within the past year, and most of them had children that they traveled with. And all of them were friendly, well-educated, funny, and generally the kind of people we love spending time with. As Wendy put it, “these are our peeps.” So we spent hours sitting around talking, sharing adventures at the racetrack, drinking, eating, drinking, watching the races, and drinking.
There’s a philosophy that is palpable in the KYD media: there’s no such thing as a “perfect” RV, and if you wait until everything if exactly right, you’ll never go. As they put it, “start small and start now.” And, there’s no such thing as a perfect trip. If you insist that every trip be free from the dips and bumps that go along with traveling, you’ll quit RVing as soon as you start. Both views seemed to be their philosophy applied to just about every aspect of day-to-day living: things are never “perfect” so don’t wait until they are and don’t get all lathered up when things go wrong. That view maybe has more opportunities for application in an RV (vehicles that are notoriously trouble-prone), but it’s a darn appealing view across the board.
That philosophy, then, gets adopted (or appealed to those who already held to the same view) by those who felt themselves gravitating towards the KYD media, which means all of the Insiders had the same easy-going, life-relishing, people-loving attitude as the Leaches. As one of our newly-minted friends put it, unhappy people tend to get annoyed by happy people, which means that the kind of harrumphing grumps one has to deal in everyday life will self-exclude from a group like KYD Insiders, leaving only the better sort of people in the remainder.
And Marc and Trish are just as charming in person as they are on YouTube. Even though they are sort of “celebrities” in a sense, at least among the Insiders group, the Leaches are unassuming, engaging, and good natured with everyone they meet, and they take time to meet everyone.
We may or may not go to another NASCAR event someday, but Wendy and I are both committed to the idea that we definitely will do another KYD Insider event.
Add one more notch to the stock of our RV adventures: NASCAR. Yup, four days at Atlanta Motor Speedway for a 400-mile NASCAR cup event, along with a boatload of other activities. It’ll actually take me a couple posts to get the full story out, so this is installment number one. First, some background.
At one point, NASCAR was the most popular spectator sport in the U.S., with event viewership numbers consistently over 10 million, eclipsing MLB, NFL, and NBA in the number of viewers per weekly event. And the same was true for in-person attendance. NASCAR’s major venues were all routinely sold out, with tracks such as Bristol (capacity 160,000!), sold out for 55 events in a row!
But beginning in the early 2000s, things started to level off, and then precipitously decline. By 2015, ratings were down in nearly all the races, and in more than half they were the lowest they’d been since the 1990s. And viewership and attendance continue to decline. By 2021, ratings were often sinking to new lows across all events.
Our experience confirms the analysis. In chatting with track workers, we were repeatedly told that both the camping areas and track attendance were only a fraction of what they were a couple decades ago.
There are lots of reasons offered for the decline. All major sports are seeing declines in viewership (except for soccer, which, as everyone knows, is not actually a sport, at least for real Americans). NASCAR’s ever-changing rules and championship rankings have put off many fans. The NASCAR in-person experience, which used to be something like a midway with souvenir haulers, has been taken over by corporate retail operations. But mostly it’s that various cultural changes are making high-power stock car racing just less appealing, especially to young people.
Having said all that, though, our experience at NASCAR was completely wonderful. Much (most) of that was due to the link-up with the Keep Your Daydream crew (more on that in the next post), but even the NASCAR experience itself was enjoyable beyond anything we expected. This may be one-time been-there/done-that experience, but for an event in that category, we have no complaints.
Just to be clear, though, even though this is an RV blog, bringing the motorhome to Atlanta Motor Speedway is not “camping” by any sane definition. It’s more like tailgating in a parking lot for four days.
The weekend began with a charity run around the track in Nana’s little Ford Edge. For a $50 donation, we were allowed to take the car onto the track’s 1.54-mile quad-oval with 24-degree banked turns. There was a souped-up Camaro pace car leading us, which kept speeds to a “respectable” range, although most cars were nowhere near keeping up with even that modest pace. I mostly did keep up with the pace car, having fallen back by only a couple hundred yards by the end of the 4.5-mile “race.” My top speed was somewhere around 95 on the straightaways, which was about as fast as our little car seemed happy about, and slowed to 80-85 in the turns, which is where the car felt a little squirrely and I was too chicken (I know I’m mixing taxonomic groups) to push it. Only afterwards, after watching a race, did I learn I was my driving strategy was backwards. I was driving low in the straights and going up in the corners–it should have been the opposite. Darn. I’m sure I would have given the pace car a run for this money and set the Ford Edge track record had I known the proper driving technique.
Then the NASCAR races started. Saturday was the first race, the Infinity-Series 250-mile race. The Infinity series, we learned, is supposed to be the “minor league” for NASCAR, featuring up-and-coming drivers who aspire to the big-league “NASCAR Cup” series. The cars are built to different specs that make them slightly slower, but for some weird reason, NASCAR lets the big-time drivers join the race where, at least here, the big names (Kyle Busch in this case) often win. The race was unbelievably exciting, even though it fueled the animosity NASCAR fans direct at Busch. Bush and his teammate, Daniel Hemric, had been neck and neck for most of the race. With just 7 laps to go, Busch “bumped” Hemric, who was leading at the time, sending Hemric into the wall and giving Busch the win. Both drivers say the “bump” was accidental, and Busch apologized over the team radio after the contact, then again after capturing the checkered flag — going so far as to call the victory “somber.” “People would say I did it on purpose, but what do I need to do it on purpose for,” Busch said in a post-race interview. “Kid’s going for his first win. I’m going for 102. I’ve been there, done that. I don’t need it. It would certainly help him a hell of a lot more than it’s going to help me and give the perception that now I have on that.” Accident or not, we heard a few comments like, “Figures. Busch would bump his own mother.”
We had been told about, but failed to appreciate, what to expect when 40 high-performance cars, all sans mufflers, fire up and drive around the track at top speeds around 180-190 mph. The sound levels are just short of 120 decibels at the track. To put that in perspective, anything over 85 decibels is harmful, a chain saw operates at 105 decibels, and pain begins at 125 decibels. So, standing trackside and temporarily removing my ear plugs caused tears to start welling up in my eyes and my fillings to pop out. But more than “hearing” the sound, one “feels” it. The sound levels are so high that the air throbs and one’s bones vibrate as the cars go by. Combine that with cars going so fast that they are just a blur, the the physical experience is unlike anything we’ve ever experienced short of the Oshkosh fighter-jet fly-bys.
But Sunday was the big momma race, the Quaker State 400. And once again the race had an exciting finish, and once again it involved Kyle Busch. Only this time, he didn’t bump anyone, and the race to the finish was against his older brother, Kurt. And Kurt won. What was amazing about this race, though, was that the cars were faster, and the noise louder, and the competition more fierce, than what we had seen the previous day. In part, that’s because the drivers are mostly a step up from the Xfinity series drivers, and at this point in the season the stakes are greater. But there’s also the difference in the cars. The cars, offered by Toyota, Ford, and Chevrolet, are supposedly look-alikes to their street-legal cousins. Maybe, or maybe not. In any event, even the “low” horsepower engines run at Atlanta Motor Speedway (550 HP), sitting in a 3200-pound car, provide enough juice to go airborne (which cars will do about 205 mph). NASCAR keeps mandating a variety of measures to try to keep speeds down to reasonably safe levels, including the mandatory use of restrictor plates (metal plates in the fuel system to restrict airflow to the engines) (now changed to a tapered spacer), mandatory front and rear spoilers to increase drag, mandatory front-end intakes, and so on, but even with these car-slowing requirements, speeds on the straightaways are still up around 200 mph. In fact, lap times were often less than 30 seconds, meaning the average speed around the entire track was north of 180 mph.
Bottom line: Perhaps the best indicator of how this trip worked out is this: Wendy had to leave half-way through the main race to get home because our stupid dog was being delivered from doggie day care. What did she do when she got home? Turn on the TV to watch the end of the race. Seriously? Wendy? NASCAR? That can only mean that our first (and maybe only) NASCAR experience was a total blast. While I doubt we’ll ever be full-blown NASCAR devotees, if there were some other reason to take ACE to a track, with some NASCAR races added for good measure, we’re in.
One of our favorite kinds of trips is one where we do an RV meetup with family, and if meeting up with family is great, meeting up with family at a national park is even greater. This time it was linking up with Cliff, Ansley, and Margot in Shenandoah National Park. And Shenandoah was a special treat for both families. I had always thought of Shenandoah as mostly a road: a ridgetop highway (Skyline Drive), with the national park being a small ribbon of forest sloping down on either side. Actually, no. The park is over 200,000 acres in size, which means the border on either side of the roadway is MILES wide. And there are over 500 miles of hiking trails, 90 perennial streams, and dozens of waterfalls. So, because we arrived a day ahead of Cliff and the girls, we did our usual thing: went to the visitor center, explained the constituency of our family group, and asked for the best way to spend a few days. Armed with the list the rangers provided, we spent a long weekend of hiking, listening to ranger talks, and hanging around the Big Meadows campground, which involved a considerable amount of dodging wandering cervidae.
We all agreed that the trip was one of the best ever: wonderful campground, beautiful scenery, great ranger talks, fun hikes, lots of activities, and pretty much all we could want.
Including one weirdness: the park is being overrun by gypsy moth caterpillars. Really. Billions of the little wooly buggers. Like many such problems, this one has its roots in human miscalculation. It seems that some Frenchman (it figures), namely one Étienne Léopold Trouvelot, decided in 1869 that he would interbreed the gypsy moth caterpillar with silk worms and, I don’t know, make more French women’s panties or something. In any event, the caterpillars escaped, started to spread, and within 10 years had devastated a huge fraction of the northeast’s hardwood forest. Little by little they’ve been spreading ever since, reaching the Shenandoah National Park in the 1990s. And they are wiping out the park’s population of native oak trees.
It turns out it is possible to eradicate the gypsy moths (as was successfully done in the Pacific Northwest). Unfortunately, though, as one of rangers put it, getting the Park Service to launch a program to kill animals (even invasive ones) requires a long (like, L-O-N-G) approval process. It can be done, though. A little further south in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the hemlock trees are being devastated by the wooly adelgid. There, though, the Park Service has launched an extermination program involving not only chemical controls but even “predatory beetles.” So far, those results are encouraging. Whether the Park Service can jump through its bureaucratic hoops before the Shenandoah oak trees are gone remains to be seen.
We’ve decided that because Shenandoah National Park is only a half-day drive from Cliff’s location, it’ll be a great spot for periodic get-togethers. We’ll be back soon.
Part of the reason we’ve always had a fondness from FDR State Park is that it is located adjacent to Callaway Gardens, which has also been one of our favorite places: thousands of acres of stunningly beautiful gardens, miles of bike paths, two golf courses, a wonderful butterfly house, (until recently) a world-class greenhouse, countless natural and hybrid azaleas, all geared towards what has always been the mission of Callaway Gardens: to provide opportunities for recreation and spiritual renewal in an area of natural beauty.
But this trip, we saw something we were not expecting … Callaway Gardens looked like it was struggling, both financially and philosophically.
Attendance had been slipping for years, down from one million visitors per year at its peak in the 1990s to about 400,000 in the past few years. There were several management missteps, including adding an upscale hotel, spa, and housing developments, all of which led to the Gardens bleeding cash, eventually having to sell off about 7000 acres (of its 13,000) to cover its debt. In fact, the upscale hotel, which was designed to complement the Mountain Creek Inn, actually ended up diverting guests, even after the Mountain Creek Inn underwent a $3 million expansion. A new CEO was brought onboard in 2015 (he came with a background in resorts and theme parks — including Dollywood and Silver Dollar City) who made some substantial changes, including closing the Sibley Horticulture Center, a greenhouse that was always one of our favorite stops and that was renowned as one of the most advanced greenhouse complexes in the world. That CEO left a couple years ago, and management is now in the hands of HFE Corporation, a company that operates and manages family-oriented theme parks and attractions and is a unit of Herschend Enterprises, the nation’s largest family owned themed attractions and entertainment company.
All of this led to what was a palpable change in the way the Gardens now present themselves. Indeed, even before knowing about the Gardens’ financial woes, we all remarked that it looked like the Gardens was cutting costs and struggling to make ends meet. Besides the closed hulk of the Sibley greenhouse, the grounds themselves were visibly less up-kept, the Mountain Creek Inn is shuttered, and the crowds were noticeably diminished. Plus, there was something incongruous about Callaway Gardens, of all places, closing the greenhouse and garden, while keeping the zip line. To be sure, I like theme parks as much as the next guy, but one would think that a place billing itself as “gardens” would have room for a bench among the flowers.
I’m sure that part of the Gardens’ woes can be attributed to a series of unfortunate external events. Troubles started after 9/11 with the decline in the travel industry, its real estate ventures got walloped by the 2008-2010 real estate crash, it made some bad financial decisions, and it’s certainly suffering right now from the COVID slump.
But I wonder if something else isn’t driving the decline in attendance. Callaway Gardens always sold itself as a place of quiet, introspective beauty. A place of spiritual renewal as much as anything. Obviously, a place to to renew one’s soul is only attractive to people who think they have a soul, which is an increasingly rare belief in America nowadays. And quiet solitude in a place of natural beauty has a hard time competing with the frenetic pace and fractured attention spans of a technology-crazed populace.
All of which may explain why Callaway thinks, probably correctly, that the secret to the Gardens’ future lies not so much in spiritual nourishment as in theme park exhilaration. Whether it can actually build itself up into the kind of would-be theme park that can successfully draw visitors seeking that kind of experience remains to be seen.
But an even bigger question in my mind is whether, succeeding or not, we may lose something of what made Callaway Gardens worth going to, namely that it was precisely not a theme park experience. I don’t know. Maybe the Callaway Foundation, which owns and oversees Callaway Gardens and which is committed to the original Callaway legacy, can strike a balance of attracting enough of the sort of theme-park clientele to keep the gardens going, while preserving enough of the quiet, subtle, natural beauty of the area to provide spiritual nourishment for the rest of us. Or maybe that’s an impossible balance. Or maybe there’s no market for spiritual goods in a world where people find all the affirmation they need in a theme park. We shall see…