July 2020: Grand Teton National Park

In an earlier concept for this trip, we were to meet Cliff and his family here, with all of them staying in a cabin, and with our RV serving both as our lodging and as the combined gathering and eating place for both families. The COVID situation pretty much killed that idea, and for a while we considered whether traveling to Grand Teton National Park on our own would be worth it. Oh well, we figured, we can either stay isolated in Atlanta, or we can stay isolated in our RV as it sits in a national park. Phrased that way, it seemed an easy call.

Not a slam dunk, though. Although the park is technically “open,” it’s more like open-ish. None of the lodges are open, none of the museums are open, the restaurant at Colter Bay is the only available eating place, and it’s take-out only. Only a few of the amenities are operating (like the Jenny Lake ferry). Colter Bay has a grocery store, laundromat, showers, marina, and the like, but it’s all limited and masked up. Everything else is lock-the-doors-Nellie closed.

And, for us, the biggest disappointment is that all of the ranger-guided hikes and evening ranger talks are cancelled. Over the course of forty years of RVing, staying regularly in national parks, we’ve probably attended hundreds of ranger-led activities, and yet the absence of them for this trip was almost enough to cause us to pull the plug.

Even still, it’s the Grand Tetons, we had nine days reserved, and hiking, touring, and photography are all largely unaffected, so off we went. Let’s face it. COVID or not, this is one spectacular place.

This is the view that Ansel Adams made famous, done here to lesser effect on one of our afternoon drives. Even when the weather is dark and cloudy, the Tetons are dramatically beautiful.
Typical Skip frolic and detour: up at 4:00 a.m. to make an hour-long drive to be in the right spot to photograph the John Moulton barn, just as the first rays of sunlight hit it.

So, what follows are a few impressions from a trip in a distinctly unique time, which should be taken as a complement to our account from the last time we were here four years ago.

Crowds. To be sure, even though the park isn’t fully operating, there are beaucoup people here. Some of them are staying in the campgrounds (which are all full), some are driving up from Jackson, some must be spontaneously generating from the pavement. In any event, they are all over the place.

But not exactly all over the place. There’s a statistic that I can’t recall exactly, but something like 95% of the people who visit national parks never go more than 100 yards from a paved surface. That matches our experience — venturing a tenth of a mile from any form of pavement means we were essentially alone in the woods. Every day, save one where it was cold and rainy all day and we stayed in the campground with friends, we ventured off into the woods with no other purpose in mind than to enjoy the sheer beauty of this place. And each such experience was mercifully free of crowds. Even free of crowds when it shouldn’t have been free of crowds. For instance, there’s a little dippy two-mile trail that leads off from the campground for a loop along the lakeshore. It’s literally a matter of stepping out of the door for a one-hour walk. Even still, we saw only a couple people.

Here’s another example. One day we hiked up to the top of Grand View Point. In all the years we’ve been coming here, this view, from the western side of the park, looking width-wise across the park to the mountain range on the other side, was new to us and completely unique. (As opposed to partially unique, which is what happens if something is one-of-a-kind but there’s more than one, whatever that means.) This is the view:

Grand View Point.

Priceless. Anyone who ventures into GTNP would surely seek out this trail just for the spirit-filling beauty of the place, right? Nope. How many people did we see over the course of three hours on the trail? Less than 10.

Wendy and I spent hours trying to figure out what could possibly account for the overflowing crowds along roadways, in turnouts, in parking lots, and generally hanging out in Colter Bay, while simultaneously there are few people just a fraction of a mile away. We haven’t settled on the definitive explanation. One possibility occurs to me: ever since the turn of the 20th century, simulations of reality have been displacing reality itself. In the current visually overloaded era, everyone knows what the Grand Tetons look like, and in some ways the reality of the location is just another version of what’s more accessible virtually. So for many people, the purpose of being in the park is not so much to experience the park itself as it is to document one’s presence in the park. Why spend hours walking the woods to do that? That would explain the M.O. we often see: people show up at some scenic overlook, jump out of the car (leaving the engine running), turn their backs on the scene, snap a few selfies with the view in the background, and then jump back in the car and drive away. For Wendy and me, the process of slogging away to get to a scenic vantage point yields a qualitatively different experience than the effect of any virtual substitute. Perhaps for many, though, there is no meaningful difference. Whatever the explanation, “crowds” in national parks, except at designated selfie locations, is largely a myth.

Well, almost. For most of our time here, we thought we’d do something a little different and explore the lesser-known, western side of the park. So, we spent 5 days hiking around in areas where we’d never been before. But, our favorite locations, and some of the most scenic, and hence most popular, are on the eastern side of the park, right along the base of the mountains. So, we decided to spend our last couple days revisiting those locations.

String Lake — looking at the outflow end.
On the trail to Taggart Lake at about 8:15 in the morning and zero people on the trail.
Taggart Lake, where we actually did encounter people. Two of them, to be precise. A nice couple from Winter Haven, Florida, with whom we chatted for a few moments before hitting the trail in solitude again.
Brantley Lake Trail. Same deal: at this point we’re about 4.5 miles into the hike and seeing other hikers only rarely.

These locations are something of “tourist spots,” so they can get crowded. For example, the short hike from the ferry dock to Inspiration Point can be pretty much elbow-to-elbow people. On our hikes to Taggart and Brantley Lakes, shown above, another “tourist” hike, we were on the trail at 7:45 but even still we probably saw 20 to 30 people over the course of five miles. Not a lot, but not exactly isolated either.

Until we were almost back to the starting point, and then things got weird. Really weird. Like nee-nee-nee-nee weird. At 11:30 am, 1.1 miles from the parking lot, at the Taggart-Brantley Lakes trail junction, we noticed people were streaming up from the parking lot. Streaming. Like a stream. No, more like a river. One group after another. Some huge groups, like 20 people in one group. Eventually we started counting the people streaming by us and we got to 162! What this must mean is that, on those occasions when people actually get out into the woods, they all go to the same places and move in herds.

And another weird thing. In a COVID era, there’s an etiquette to hiking. People step off the trail as they pass each other, trying to create a proper six-foot social distance, and most people pull up their masks over their face for that moment just as an additional precaution and to show proper sensibility and courtesy. Not during the aforementioned weird interval. No pretense of stepping off the trail to maintain distance, and mask discipline was pretty much gone. It’s like, in all of the vast expanse of the Grand Tetons, there was one little trail section dedicated as a hiking area for morons, and that section happened to be the last segment of our morning hike.

And since I’m on a roll about weirdness, here’s another one. One of the groups we passed consisted of about 20 Asians. Asians always wear masks, right? It’s sort of a cultural thing. They wear masks in a non-COVID era. But not this group. What kind of a world is it where Wendy and Skip wear masks and Asians don’t? Maybe we stumbled into a parallel universe where everything is the same except cultural norms for masks has been reversed?

OK, one more. One of the groups we passed consisted of a half-dozen twenty-something, garishly tatooed dipsticks. Not only were we subjected to a loud, constant blather as they walked along, one of them had discordant, tinny music blaring out from her iPhone. Seriously? The Grand Tetons is the place you go to socialize with your friends and listen to music? Please shoot me.

Anyway, that last 30-minute stretch was unlike any hiking experience we’ve ever had. We can only conclude that we happened to stumble upon the time and place established by the Park Service as the portal through which weirdness enters our universe.

Bears. GTNP is definitely bear country. There are bear warning posters all over the place. And every now and then, one hears of some hapless hiker who gets mauled by a bear. So, that presents a question: venture into the back country, bear territory, or not? The approach Wendy and I take is that, if one says I’ll never go anywhere if there’s a chance of getting eaten by a bear, then one will never go anywhere in the park. That’s not an option. So, instead, we educate ourselves about bears the best we can, hike sensibly (using good technique and being alert, especially where there’s a chance of surprising a bear), equip ourselves with bear spray, and then venture forth. If one of us gets mauled by a bear, so be it. There are things in life worse than getting eaten by a bear. (Although frankly, none come to mind.)

Which is a good theory, except for our hike around Christian Lake. The trail worked its way through twists and turns, with high brush on either side, and we kept seeing bear sign on the trail. Seriously. On the trail, like stepping over bear poop as we walked along. And, plus that, no other people. None. We found ourselves totally alone in thick brush. We kept wondering whether we were being as smart as we think we are. The next day, we got our answer: in talking to a ranger, he mentioned that the Park Service doesn’t recommend people hike in that area except in groups, and seeing signs of bear activity in that area would have made him “nervous.” Oops. I wonder if we were in a different but equally distinct designated moron area?

Campgrounds. OK, so we call this “camping,” but it’s really not. Our RV has a large-screen TV with satellite television, we have a full-size bedroom, and separate bath and shower, and a fully equipped kitchen. Our “camping” spot provides water, power, and sewer service. But even still, RVing constitutes a mode of travel that is more rustic and less luxurious than staying in the resort hotel down the street. And it has a different feel. A campground is a qualitatively difference experience than a hotel lobby. Especially for kids. Children are free to run around unsupervised, make noise, ride bikes, whack trees with sticks, and do whatever kids do when they’re free from the constraints of civilized living (a form of liberation that produces consequences adults can only begin to imagine).

Our campsite at the Colter Bay RV campground. This is just a short walk from Jackson Lake, as well as all the Colter Bay facilities, most of which were open to some degree.

So, “camping” provides a sort of cultural norm that ought to prevail even in an “RV park” like this. And generally that’s true. But not always. At one point in this trip, we were subjected to some bozo who set up his RV, and then opened up his outside television so that he could set his son up with a loud, very loud, military combat video game. Seriously. We were 50 feet away from someone who thinks that the Grand Teton experience mostly involves the sound of machine gun fire. And even worse, he was instilling in his son that version of the “outdoor” experience. Suffering that was bad enough, but then it was made worse listening to this cretin encourage his son by yelling out, “You got him! You got him!” He topped off that bit of depravity by saying, “This is great! It’s just like being in a movie theater!” I was seriously considering whether I should call DFACS and have the child removed from his custody, or simply write a blog post and move on. Wendy thinks DFACS is unlikely to respond, so here you are. In any event, he was gone the next morning. Unbelievable. This miscreant pulled into a campground in Grand Teton National Park, encouraged his son to spend their time here playing video games, never walked down the path to see what lay before him, and then left.

Other memorable moments at campgrounds abound, but most of them are heart-warming, or at least funny. Campgrounds are uniformly family locations, and there are kids all over the place. Yesterday, we heard one father admonish his ten-year-old son, “There’s nothing funny about being rude.” He’s obviously got a lot to learn. Being rude can be pretty darn funny, especially to a ten-year old boy. But somehow, even the rudeness of little boys seems a little less bothersome here than in other places. There are several family reuinions going on, and one sees a dozen lawn chairs assembled around a grill, with grownups and kids laughing it up. What a wonderful place for a family to assemble. I know there are people who find five-star resort hotels, like the Jenny Lake Lodge, the preferable accommodation, and there are people who find resort cities, like Jackson (which is sort of like Aspen with a buffalo motif), the preferred locale, but I can’t imagine any place I’d rather be for a Grand Teton visit than this campground.

We’re already making plans to come back next summer.

July 2020: It’s an adventure…

RV travel has a lot to commend it: beautiful locales, a slower and more relaxed pace of travel, destinations that would be difficult without mobile accommodations, and, in a time of pandemic, the previously mentioned advantage of being able to see the country while essentially self-isolated. But there’s another side to RV travel, a darker, less romantic, and decidedly less enjoyable aspect. Perhaps the best way to put it is to paraphrase the oft-heard warning to those thinking of cruising the oceans: if you don’t like tinkering with things, facing a constant stream of maintenance, dealing with a never-ending series of breakdowns and repairs, and being able to keep an even keel when faced with being stranded, don’t even think about RV travel.

What brought on this moment of sudden realism? For the second time since we’ve owned this RV, we found ourselves locked out. The insidious little cause of this latest bit of frustration is a poorly designed and/or stupidly manufactured door mechanism on most RVs. It turns out there’s a little plastic part that connects the door handle to the latch bolt that engages the strike plate. And as you’d expect from a cheap plastic part, certainly made in China by virus-spreading worker bees whose mission in life is to weaponize RV parts in order to foment rebellion in the West, the little stupid connecting part breaks with some regularity. Really. Any Google search on the web will turn up thousands of accounts of people finding themselves locked in or out of their RVs with no way to retract the latch bolt and thereby get to the other side of the door.

Fortunately, having been through this once before, we at least understood the concept for a temporary fix. I was able to climb in through the driver’s side window (don’t even try to picture a seventy-year-old, corpulent, crinky old man trying to contort himself enough to make it though an opening 18-inches square). Once inside, I was able to remove the interior molding to get access to the latch bolt. Being unable to force it to retract last night, we decided to have dinner and sleep on it overnight, which necessitated Wendy doing a similarly ungraceful entry to the motorhome. Then, last night, as my over-energized, sleep-depriving brain ran through an infinity of possible jury-rigging options, another idea came to me. We got up this morning, implemented my overnight epiphany, retracted the latch bolt, and opened the door.

We’ll be fine for the rest of the trip. We’ve removed the latch bolt, so there’s no need to worry about having to retract it using the now useless door handle, and we can use the deadbolt to secure the door, both inside and outside the RV. Once we get back to Atlanta, I’ll replace the door handle, reinstall the molding, and wait in dread for the next door handle failure, which is certain to occur too soon. Or maybe it will be something else. It will certainly be something. Such is the nature of RV travel.

But now, off to Grand Teton National Park, and in the grand scheme of things, who cares about door handles?

July 2020: As high as an elephant’s eye

For about 700 miles of this trip, we found ourselves driving through corn fields. Not all of the corn was as high as an elephant’s eye. Actually, none of it was. But that’s not the point. The point is, why are there hundreds and hundreds of miles of corn? The question particularly came to mind driving through Nebraska, which is, after all, the “Cornhusker State.”

It turns out, corn is the most widely grown crop in America. The reason crop fields go on forever is because about 96 million acres of land (about 150,000 square miles) in the U.S. are dedicated to corn production. In Nebraska, for example, over 20% of the area of the entire state is dedicated to corn production. Iowa is the biggest producer of corn (over 37% of its land area dedicated to corn production), with Illinois in at number two (I thought the Illini were too busy passing stupid gun laws to do much else), and Nebraska is number 3. Corn is grown in essentially every state, even Alaska.

For some reason, agricultural production is measured in bushels. If I knew anything about farming, I’d know why, but I don’t and I don’t. Just take it that a bushel of shelled corn weighs about 56 pounds. In any event, annual corn harvest in the U.S. is about 15 billion (“billion,” with a “b”) bushels of corn, which works out to 420 million tons of corn produced every year.

And what do people do with all that corn? 33% goes to livestock feed (spread about equally among dairy, beef cattle, hogs, and poultry), almost that much goes to ethanol production, 10% goes to distiller grains, and about 10% goes to other uses (like high corn syrup and sweeteners), and 10% to export. The corn used in livestock feed is the “carb” component of the feed; the protein component comes mostly from soybeans, which we also saw miles and miles of as we drove along. And the “other uses” of corn, although small fractions, are pretty interesting: breakfast cereal, tortilla chips, grits, beer, soda, cooking oil, and even bio-degradable packing materials.

Since one-third of corn production goes to animal feed, I thought it might be appropriate to insert a note here to my vegan friends. But then I realized I don’t have any vegan friends. Nor do I want to.

And, of course, people eat corn directly. Sweet corn (like for corn-on-the-cob and canned corn) is one such use, but it turns out it’s a trivial fraction of overall corn production (less than 1%). But how’s this for a weird fact: Popcorn is also a corn crop, grown and harvested so that the corn kernels retain some moisture in the center of the kernel, which is what causes it to “pop” when heated. That’s not the weird part. The weird part is that Americans consume about 17 billion quarts of popcorn every year, meaning the average American consumes 58 quarts of popcorn per year. I like popcorn as much as anyone, but I guess I’m just a slacker when it comes to serious popcorn eating.

For some reason that I’m sure has to do with political correctness gone berserk, internet searches for “corn” often redirect to articles entitled “maize.” It is true that corn (OK, fine, maize) was originally domesticated in Mexico about 10,000 years ago, but so what? If we want to call it corn, we get to call it corn. Sheesh. Oh, and besides that, reading about corn production inexorably leads one into the thorny political thickets of farm subsidies, a blog post for another day…

One last tidbit. Some alarmists go off the deep end worried about “fixed” resources. You may recall the panic in the 1970s about us “running out of oil.” Ha — that’s a funny one. But the truth about the infinite expandability of “fixed” resources is nowhere more apparent than in agricultural production. In 1900, an acre of farmland could product about 25 bushels of corn; today that figure is 180 (!) and is limited not so much by nature as by the economics of farming. Change the economics and it could go even higher.

So, we’re out of corn country now and almost to Grand Teton National Park. But there’s an infinity of fascinating things to learn, and one of the things we love about cross-country travel is that each passing mile gives us an opportunity to check one more off the list.

19 July 2020: A Peculiar, Peripatetic Pandemic

The caption is right on all counts, starting with the fact that I’m writing this while sitting in the RV in the Peculiar Park Place RV Park, located in Peculiar, Missouri. Seriously. There are a variety of explanations as to how this town came to earn its moniker, but the leading candidate is that the guy who surveyed the town wanted a unique name and kept submitting various unusual names to the state, all of which were rejected, until in exasperation he said, “I don’t care what name you give me, as long as it’s peculiar.” He asked for it…

The reason we’re here in Peculiar, though, is that we finally got into the RV for an actual trip. It took us FIVE tries. First was a trip to North Carolina with all four families. That didn’t work because Robert got eliminated by the flying fickle finger of fate (AKA DoD), which imposed a 250-mile travel limitation. Version 2 was three families in the same location, which got nixed when we decided, correctly, that two families in one RV during an epidemic was a tad too risky. Version 3 was a two-family trip to some random state park in Virginia, which got cancelled because, well, who wants to go to some random state park in Virginia? Version 4 was the same two-person group, but headed to Grand Teton National Park. That got cancelled because Cliff realized that the prospect of flying cross-country with three children, connecting in O’Hare, dodging infected people, dousing the upholstery with antiseptic sprays, while everyone was wearing masks, including a four-year-old, was nuts.

So, here we are with version 5: Wendy and I travel cross-country over 4-1/2 days and we do Grand Teton National Park on our own.

1892 miles, over 4-1/2 days, from LaGrange to Colter Bay, Grand Teton National Park.

RV travel during a pandemic presents a unique combination of considerations. On the upside, RV travel means no hotels, no restaurants, and no public bathrooms; we can, in essence, self-isolate while we travel around and see the country. That explains why most RV dealers have found their inventory depleted and the RV rental companies are booked for months in advance. The downside of RV travel during a pandemic is that it occurs, well, during a pandemic. That, in turn, means that places and activities where people naturally congregate are closed, such as the Grand Teton’s ranger stations, visitor centers, ranger talks, and ranger-led hikes. That’s a significant issue for us — we enjoy all of those activities. We always start out a visit to a national park by reviewing all the information and displays at the visitor center, no matter how many times we’ve been there, and we pretty much go to the ranger talks every night. Still, it’s Grand Teton National Park, the singularly most beautiful place on earth, and we look forward to a great time, add-ons or not.

So, further updates will follow in a few days.

On RV’ing During an Epidemic

We’re sitting here, properly sheltered-in-place, wondering what will happen to our planned RV trips this summer. Right now, we have two trips on the calendar: one in June-July with Robert and family, starting here in Georgia, then up to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, then over to Charleston and the Yorktown, then down to Cape Canaveral and the Space Center. The second trip in July-August is out to Grand Tetons National Park with Cliff and family, then into Montana for a week, then home. Will the COVID-19 epidemic quash those plans? What is the best guess at this time? To answer that question, one must understand government stupidity.

First, a digression. Recall the 9-11 terrorist attacks. In response, the government announced there was a public welfare emergency, therefore it was increasing its control of American society and imposing a wide array of emergency restrictions. One of those restrictions, notably, was a prohibition on anyone boarding an airplane with nail clippers. Seriously? Nail clippers? Did the government actually think that nail clippers could be used to seize control of a commercial airplane? There’s a story, maybe apocryphal but informative anyway, that the ban on nail clippers was even applied to a pilot, who responded, “Look. So far as I know, there’s no way to seize control of an airplane with nail clippers. But even if there is, it doesn’t matter. I don’t have to seize control of the airplane. I have control of the airplane. I’m the pilot.” No avail. Bye-bye nail clippers.

So, call this kind of government lunacy the “nail clipper effect.”

Now, here we are in the midst of the COVID-19 shutdown. Once again, the government has declared a public welfare emergency and clamped down with all sorts of exceedingly heavy-handed restrictions, all (supposedly) for our own good. Some of them (most, probably) are in fact sensible and necessary. This is an important public health crisis and the government is properly taking dramatic steps to deal with it. And in any event, I’ve always hated people who claim a prerogative to decide which laws they will and will not obey. So I’m dutifully complying with all of the applicable restrictions.

Still, though, I can’t help but wonder whether the nail clipper effect lies embedded somewhere in this mass of restrictions.

Now back to RV’ing … an apt topic because it illustrates that yes, the nail clipper effect is alive and well.

The governor of Virginia recently ordered all RV parks in the state closed to transients, but allowed hotels to remain open. There are so many things idiotic about that order that it’s hard to know where to start, but consider just one big one. Suppose there is a duly law-abiding citizen who must, for his job, travel up and down the East Coast. He’s law-abiding, so assume he’s involved in some “essential services, ” like critical infrastructure maintenance and repair, say pipelines. To do his job, he has to travel through and spend a night every now and then in Virginia. Assume he has an RV he could tow that along with him. What is he to do? According to the government, he should not stay in his RV, where he has no contact with any other persons and can cook his own meals, shower in his own facilities, sleep in his own bed, all places that are free from contact with any other persons, all easily sanitized, and for which there is zero risk of transmitting or getting the virus from others. No, he’s supposed to sleep in hotels, where he must encounter large numbers of other people, all with unknown (and probably unknowable) degrees of infections, ignoring the fact that hotels have notoriously terrible cleaning practices, and with nowhere to sit down to safely have a meal.

In other words, the government is saying, in the name of public welfare, we’re going to ban the use of safe places and require people to occupy dangerous places. Thanks a lot.

Can I keep my nail clippers?

In the meantime, I guess we wait and see what happens to our planned trips. It looks like RV’ing is on the government’s list of targeted activities and we may get canceled. If that happens, if the government falls prey to the nail clipper mentality, telling me that, for the good of the public, people cannot stay in their own accommodations but must instead mingle together in hotels, I’m pretty sure the trips are off.

At least I’ll be home where I have nail clippers.

January 2020: Ft. Wilderness Again

It is said that Walt Disney World is a land of adventures. Adventures, indeed. Consider, in particular, the adventure experienced by grandson number 2:

CMK X-ray
Right. What appears to be a fracture line in the ulna and a fracture-induced bulge in the radius is just that.

The course that led to this particular adventure began in the ordinary way. The first night we did the campfire sing-along and marshmallow roast.

Part of the “camping” ritual at Ft. Wilderness involves an infinity of activities, this one being a Chip ‘n’ Dale s’mores production and sing-a-long.

By 6:45 am the next day we were at the Ft. Wilderness dock for the boat ride to the Contemporary Resort, then the monorail over to the Magic Kingdom, then a morning of racing from place to place, doing the usual stuff, except that Chris was the only boy interested in Space Mountain.

Things begin as they should...

Eventually it was lunch, then back to the campground for a brief respite, with a plan to return later for more rides, then the fireworks show, and then to drag three depleted boys back to the campers.

But during the interlude back at the campground, we decided on an excursion to the nearby playground, which turned into some kind of a game wherein, for reasons only little boys can imagine, there was “hot lava” only on the highest parts of the play equipment, and escaping the lava required one to climb up to and then jump from the top or, in Chris’s rendition of that maneuver, jump from the top and then cushion the fall by landing squarely on an arm.

So, after a lengthy “is-it-broken-or-not” discussion among the grownups, all the time with Chris crying and insisting, correctly as it turns out, “I’m telling you my stupid arm is broken!”, Robert took the little guy to the emergency room and the rest of us did what all sympathetic family members would do under such circumstances, which is to say, we went back to the Magic Kingdom.

The untoward turn of events created something of a crimp in the plans, but (except for Chris, of course) not as much of a crimp as one might think. The remaining five of us still had a great time at the Magic Kingdom, culminating in the most amazing fireworks show that the world has ever seen.

It’s hard to describe, but animated images cover the entire castle, and the fireworks are choreographed to the images. And while all of this is happening, music appropriate to the images plays over the park’s loudspeakers, while tens of thousands of little children all sing along.

The next day was scheduled to be one hanging around the campground anyway, and even for a little boy with a broken arm there’s no shortage of things to do.

While the other kids were off at the pool, Chris and I spent a couple hours hauling fish out of one of the canals, including some remarkably large catfish. “Catching” the fish involved my holding the rod while Chris cranked away furiously on the reel. Not exactly artful, but it worked.

All things considered, it was another wonderful trip to Walt Disney World. As before, I’m amazed at how Disney, whatever it does, does it to a degree of perfection that one never sees anywhere else in our modern world of mediocrity. And, also as before, when I hear the carping of cynics who say that Disney is too commercialized, too artificial, too expensive, too American, or too whatever, I’m just glad that no such sentiments occur in this family. For all of us, Disney really is a magical place and, as was remarked to me by a visitor once before, “I guess if you’re not happy at Disney World, there aren’t a lot of places you’ll ever be happy.”

On edit: the final AirVenture numbers are in.

The last two posts summarized various aspects of this year’s Experimental Aircraft Association “AirVenture” gathering in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. A recent article in Flying magazine details the record-setting statistics for that event: “The Numbers Are in For AirVenture 2019.” Just to highlight a few of the most unbelievable metrics:

  • Total attendance was 642,000, an increase of 7%.
  • More than 10,000 aircraft were flown to the the event, resulting in 16,807 aircraft operations, an average of 127 takeoffs/landings per hour! [Compare this to Atlanta Hartsfield airport, which averages 91 operations per hour (2236 per day), and it’s supposedly the “busiest airport in the world.” Sorry, but not during the week of AirVenture it’s not!]
  • Besides the thousands of plain ol’ general aviation aircraft, there were 1,057 home-built aircraft, 939 vintage airplanes, 400 warbirds, 188 ultralights and light-sport aircraft, 105 seaplanes, 62 aerobatic aircraft, and 7 in an “other” category.
  • There were 12,300 camping sites (tent-, RV-, and airplane-sites), which together accounted for 40,000 visitors.
  • At one point, when I was grousing about the shortcomings of the camper registration process, I thought to myself, “If I were a decent person, I’d quit complaining and get out and help.” I should have. AirVenture relied on 5,500 volunteers who contributed more than 250,000 hours of volunteer time!

When we were talking to friends about what to expect at Oshkosh, I would often say, “Well, I’ve been to lots of airshows before…,” to which the response was always something like, “No, you don’t understand. This isn’t an ‘airshow.’ It’s an aviation experience in a completely different category from anything you’ve ever seen.” Truer words were never uttered.

22-24 July 2019: Oshkosh AirVenture (really)

After loitering around for a day, waiting for EAA to give us an all-clear to head to the campground, and with nary a peep from Campground Central Command, we decided to head on over and take our chances. Good call. The campground was open, although in the throes of thousands of like-minded campers all converging on the airport at the same time, and after 4+ hours of creeping along at a turtle’s pace in the camper registration line (which is baffling since we were pre-registered), we finally made it to the campground and got set up.

It’s easy to have mixed feelings about the campground: there are (literally) four thousand (!) campers, all jammed together elbow to elbow, with no amenities (or even shade, for that matter), which creates an environment like what you’d expect it would create. But, all of that pales in comparison to the convenience of walking just a fraction of a mile to the flight line, displays, and everything else that AirVenture has to offer. So, even with EAA’s conspicuous campground management deficiencies, we decided that staying in the campground is definitely the way to go.

And AirVenture is everything we were told it would be, and more. It really is hard to convey the atmosphere of a place where over the course of a week, there are 600,000 airplane kooks flying around, walking around, lounging about, visiting exhibits, and watching airshows, interspersed with nearly a thousand vendors, and God-only-knows how many displays, programs, and seminars. We were in and amongst this AirVenture frenzy for two-and-a-half days, and saw only maybe a tenth of what there is to see, and only half of the activities we had flagged as things we definitely wanted to do. I have thousands of pictures trying to capture the feeling (don’t worry, I’m not going to post them all), but understand that all of what follows falls woefully short of adequately communicating the experience.

The first thing one notices is that this is not just an airshow; it’s a pilots’ convention. Many of the attendees flew here in their own planes, and the assortment of aircraft is as varied as you’d expect for a group named the “Experimental Aircraft Association.”

The General Aviation area has all the popular private aircraft, with parking (and camping) areas like this going on for hundreds of yards in multiple areas.
Aficionados of particular makes, such as these 1930s-era Beech Model 17 Staggerwing biplanes, a model that was eventually done in by the Bonanza, all park together.
Acres and acres of home-built “Experimental” aircraft.
As well as a full complement of several hundred float planes.

Of course, Airventure also included four hours of air shows every day, featuring not only aerobatics but demonstrations and flights of a wide variety of aircraft.

Twin Tigers (Yak-55s)
Rocky Mountain Renegades (flying Van’s RV-8, Van’s RV-4, Giles G-202)
Red Bull: Kirby Chambliss in Edge 540
The announcer claimed that there was something about this Red Bull MBB Bo 105 helicopter that gave it special capabilities. No matter. It was still terrifying to watch a helicopter do not only loops and rolls, but front- and back-flips.
The legendary Patty Wagstaff (in her Extra 300S), three-time National Aerobatic Champion (!), slicing the ribbon, inverted, at about 20′ high.

And there were a large number of military demonstrations…

F-35 Lightning II. The U.S. stated plan is to buy 2,663 F-35s, which will provide the bulk of the crewed tactical airpower of the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps in coming decades. Deliveries of the F-35 for the U.S. military are scheduled until 2037 with a projected service life up to 2070.
F-22 Raptor. Originally, 750 F-22s were to be purchased. However, in 2009, the program was cut to 187 aircraft due to high costs, a lack of clear air-to-air missions, a ban on exports, and development of the more versatile F-35. The last F-22 was delivered in 2012.
F-22 Raptor being escorted by three World War II P-51 Mustangs. There were dozens of warbird aircraft present, and what’s amazing is all of them are privately owned, restored and maintained by private individuals purely to assure that this country’s heritage of vintage military aircraft remains available for future generations.

The military aircraft, though, we’re limited to the hair-on-fire fighters. This year’s airshow included a special series of flights by military training aircraft…

A Stearman PT-17, the airplane of choice for naval aviators’ first introduction to flight during World War II. My father received his initial training in one of these.
A pair of AT-6 Texans (although the Navy called them “SNJs”), the advanced trainer during World War II, after one graduated from the PT-17. My dad also trained in one of these.
A doubly special moment: a Beechcraft T-6 Texan II (the current Navy trainer) flying alongside an F8F Bearcat (one of the last fighters made during the World War II era).

… and besides the trainers, AirVenture also featured flights of little-heralded, but extremely important “observation” aircraft, mostly used to spot enemy positions and call in hell’s fury on top of them, something that gives me a nice warm feeling in my heart.

A pair of O-1 “Bird Dog” Army aircraft. During the Vietnam war, these planes were used for reconnaissance, target acquisition, artillery adjustment, radio relay, convoy escort and the forward air control of tactical aircraft, including bombers.

A highlight of the show was the aerial firefighting demonstration:

Besides all this, there were also demonstrations by aircraft that, well, defy understanding by normal people.

This guy, for example, took an old barnstormer biplane and for some reason, mounted a jet engine on the bottom. “Wild Side” indeed.
Not to be outdone, these guys took two Yak-55 stunt planes, welded them together in the middle, and then mounted a jet engine under the center section.

But this is the weirdest:

This is some guy flying around on a jet-powered contraption that looks for all the world like a decapitated seagull. And you might notice he looks somewhat nervous. Here’s why…
… this guy is actually laying down on top of the wing, strapped on, I’m sure, but obviously holding on for dear life nonetheless.

But the real highlight of the show was the night airshow.

The Aeroshell demonstration team performing close formation aerobatics at night.
More of the pyrotechnics that characterized the night air show.

I have probably been to over a hundred airshows in my life. As a kid, I grew up at airshows, and air races, and airports, and air-everything. Nothing in my life prepared me for this.

Just one concluding thought. If one is an airplane nut-case, Oshkosh is a little piece of heaven on earth. But it likewise holds a parallel appeal even to normal people: this is also a gathering of people who just love America, who support the military, and who aren’t hesitant or embarrassed by conspicuously patriotic celebrations. Every afternoon show began with the National Anthem, and everyone (as in “everyone”) stood, removed their hats, faced the flag with their hearts covered. Essentially every event, every performer, every display included some kind of a stated thanks to current and former military members, without whom (it was always said) as a country we would have nothing. At one point, Wendy (who is by no stretch an airplane devotee) looked at me during one of the more patriotic moments and said, “These are our peeps…” True, true.

21 July 2019: AirVenture – Day 0 (sort of)

For anyone not familiar with it, “AirVenture” is an annual gathering of aviation enthusiasts in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, but that doesn’t begin to describe how over-the-top crazy this event is. Imagine an airshow with all of the usual aerobatics and stunt-flying, except that the airshow is attended by about 600,000 people, many of whom fly to the airshow in airplanes they built themselves, and who spend the week sleeping on the ground under the wings of their aircraft. And during the same show, the military takes advantage of the opportunity to show off its latest hardware. And all of this is held at “Whitman Regional Airport” in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, a dippy little two-bit airfield that, incredibly, for the week of the airshow actually becomes the busiest airport in the world. During the week of AirVenture, the airport will see 10,000 aircraft, 3,000 show planes, nearly 1000 journalists, and 900 commercial vendors. Besides gawking at airplanes, there are hundreds of seminars for the attendees, with topics ranging from the latest aviation technology to (no kidding) “How to hand prop your aircraft,” which I think means starting the engine by grabbing the propeller and giving it a good yank, getting out of the way before the propeller slices you to ribbons.

Seeing as how I’ve basically been an aviation aficionado my whole life, AirVenture is a major bucket list item for me. So Wendy and I are here to spend a few days immersed in aviation excess.

But life is not so simple. Just before we arrived, a major weather system passed through, leaving our camping area at Whitman Field a soggy, impassable, mud bog. So, we’re stuck in a nearby campground, waiting for things to dry out enough to get to Oshkosh.

So, we spent today, first, killing time at a different airport, sitting at the finish line for air races where guys take their own airplanes and, just for the fun of it, see how fast they will go.

A home-built Lancair (I think) dives for the finish line with wide-open throttle after flying 431 miles from Mt. Vernon, Illinois, to Stevens Point, Wisconsin.

A home-built “Long-EZ” crosses the finish line. Besides having a weird pusher-puller arrangement of propellers, the swept wing in the rear combined with a canard in the front makes some people (like Wendy, for example) think that the airplane is flying backwards.

So, after a couple hours of watching planes (either fascinating or boring, depending), and with Oshkosh still closed, we decided to explore a bit of central Wisconsin. A friend had suggested the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, but it’s closed for renovations for the entire year. Wendy read a short blurb about the Dells of the Wisconsin River nature area, and we always enjoy hiking, so it’s off we go!

A-a-a-a-a-r-g-h!!! Somehow we missed a turn and ended up in the town of Wisconsin Dells. Words cannot even begin to convey the vulgarity of that locale. Billing itself as the “water park capital of the world,” the city has more water parks than any other city in America. The experience is so demoralizing that the only way to convey its full effect is to labor through the details of it all. In the span of a few blocks, one is confronted with:

  • The Mount Olympus Water and Theme Park (three hotels serving a 300-acre outdoor and 120,000-square-foot indoor water parks, with more than 40 waterslides, plus eight go-kart tracks, seven roller coasters, a large wave pool with 9-foot waves, lazy rivers, and hot tubs).
  • Noah’s Ark Water Park (the Flamingo Hotel, serving what is billed as America’s largest water park, 70 acres of waterslides, pools, rivers, bumper boats, surfing experiences, arcades, a 4D dive-in theater, a water coaster, slides, swings, water cannons, along with 12 eateries and bars).
  • Kalahari Resort (750-room hotel with indoor and outdoor water parks with multiple slides, lazy rivers, activity pools, wave pools, including a Ferris wheel, African-themed carousel, ropes course, climbing walls, go karts, bowling, mini-golf and arcade games).
  • Great Wolf Lodge (80,000-square-foot indoor water park, with 6 slides, rivers, activity pools, hot tubs, kiddie pools, a four-story water tree house, and the Howlin’ Tornado, a water slide “thrill ride”).
  • Wilderness Lodge (600-acre, also billed as America’s largest water park resort, with four indoor water parks, three outdoor water parks, a large outdoor pool area, indoor go karts, a lazer maze, a ropes course, bumper boats, mini-golf, a kids’ club, arcades, the Klondike Kavern, with its two, five-story tube slides, and the Wild WaterDome, America’s largest indoor wave pool).

And so on and so on. It never ends. You get the point. Except you don’t. As if this isn’t enough, in and amongst all this are go-kart tracks, t-shirt shops, junk food dispensers, souvenir shops, and an unimaginable array of the most ghastly, grotesque, garish architectural nightmares on earth. The “Rome Hotel,” for example, is an ersatz replica (or maybe caricature) of the Roman Coliseum.

That’s enough. No, it’s not. One more point. You might think such an area is so repulsive that it would be empty, devoid of people, like those creepy photos one sees of abandoned amusement parks. Wrong again. The area is packed, crammed, jammed with people standing in pools, elbow to elbow, in whatever microbial soup exists in these communal pools, which almost certainly includes E. coli, Ebola, and flesh-eating bacteria. Thousands of people, everywhere you look. It’s like Manhattan, only wetter.

Somehow, we managed to maneuver our motor home through the traffic, and out of this little piece of hell on earth, and back to our campground. The Oshkosh campground is still closed, and unfortunately we didn’t tow our car along with us, and all of the rental car agencies within 50 miles are sold out, so I’m not sure what’s next. But it certainly doesn’t involve Wisconsin Dells.

19-20 May 2019: Pensacola

After a quick drive to Pensacola Naval Air Station, where Robert had reserved a pair of adjacent sites in a great campground on the base, we had time for afternoon play in the Gulf.

The inevitable combination of a big, strong dad and a small, skinny, imminently tossable little boy is, well, as shown above. (It’s hard to tell from his facial expression if this is really fun or really scary. Doesn’t matter. Either way, it’s a launch to an altitude sufficient to present a risk of burning up in reentry.)

Next day, though, was the big day: a morning at the Naval Aviation Museum. We’ve been here many times before, but it’s always special. There are numerous World War II naval aircraft in the museum’s collection, and most of them figure prominently in family lore.

An F4U Corsair, of the type that my dad flew in World War II. I once had a letter he mailed back to my mom with a photo of an aircraft very much like this with the caption, “Yes, the Navy sometimes lets the Marines fly them.” Apparently, the museum agrees.

I repeated some of the stories my dad told me about flying the Corsair, most notably how it earned its reputation as an “ensign killer.” The combination of a long nose that obscured the carrier on approach (which necessitated a turning approach to the ship, straightening out only at the last moment), plus a 2000 horsepower double-radial engine so powerful that a clumsy hand on the throttle would torque-roll the aircraft, meant that flying a Corsair onto the deck of a pitching carrier was not something to be undertaken by the inexperienced. At least not twice.

Plenty of opportunities to climb into a cockpit...
And another…
…and another.

Then back to the campground, more beach time, a wonderful dinner of ersatz Chick-Fil-A homemade chicken sandwiches, and then evening playtime at the beach catching ghost crabs. (Which causes one to wonder: why does the following exchange occur in real life? “Ow, ow, it’s pinching me!” “Then put it down.” “No. I don’t want to.”) Maybe there’s some genetic remnant of an evolutionary ancestor that explains such things. Something to think about someday…

Next, off to Yogi Bear Jellystone Park (seriously?) before the last push to Tampa.