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…
Over the years, Roosevelt State Park near Pine Mountain has always been one of our favorites. Miles of hiking trails, a lake for fishing, nearby attractions, vicious geese that attack small children … what’s not to like? We were here last four years ago (“Preparing for the Next Big Trip“) with Cliff and all the little girls, so, when Jennifer and her girls had a three-day weekend available, it was back to FDR State Park.
And because FDR State Park was one of the places we first went camping when we moved to Georgia, it was also the place where we developed our principles of “no rules camping.” Here’s the deal. When we were raising our kids, we had lots of rules: we go to church and Sunday school every week; you eat what’s put in front of you; you do your chores before you play; TV only if you get all A’s and B’s, and then only 30 minutes per day; we pick your friends; bedtime means bed time; no R-rated movies until you’re 18; and dozens of others. Maybe we had too many rules … that’s one of the things one thinks about in hindsight after the kids are grown: what did I do right or wrong as they were growing up? But, right or wrong, we were basically a rule-based family.
Except when we went camping. Then, perhaps sensing that the little darlings needed a respite from the regimentation of our family life, we established no-rules-camping. It worked like this — when we were camping, there were no rules. You were free to do whatever you want. Really, whatever. Well, not exactly “whatever.” We did have two rules: we had to know where you were, at least within a search-party radius, and the kids could not physically harm each other, at least not seriously (mental abuse was OK). But subject to that, the kids really were free. They could jump on their bikes and go where they chose, head off into the woods, walk into the lake fully clothed (that actually happened), eat or not eat whatever they chose, wipe their worm-baity grubby little hands all over their clothes; stay up until all hours; play in the mud; whatever. We figured that, other than the normal, perfectly acceptable risks of being outdoors (cuts, bruises, broken bones; drowning; ticks; snakes; etc.), there was relatively little harm from easing up on the reins, it was fun (and probably healthy) for kids, and frankly it gave us a few days off from having to constantly socialize the little darlings. And it was fun for us too.
I think rules-based parenting is probably passé nowadays. But even still, there seems to be a delight in the freedom that a camping trip provides. Within minutes of our arrival on this trip, for example, the girls literally ran off into the woods, following the azimuth provided by their geocaching app, in search of some trinket. I don’t remember if we knew where they were or not — we certainly knew that they were on foot so they couldn’t have gotten too far — but it brought to mind memories of countless trips over the years, and the pure joy of watching kids doing what they do best, which is being kids.
What a great trip. We’re already talking about fitting in another three-day excursion this Fall, and I can hardly wait.
Oh no! Not another Walt Disney World / Fort Wilderness post?!? Yup. Well, sort of. It was indeed back to the Disney Fort Wilderness campground (for the seventh time in the past nine years, plus a boatload of times before that), but this trip was different. First, it was a full-blown family reunion, and second, it was done during the COVID clamp down.
Family Reunion. With the family spread out over 1000-plus miles of the eastern side of the U.S., getting everyone together takes effort. A lot of effort. Specifically, it required our driving ACE down 400 miles from Atlanta, Cliff hauling his RV 1000 miles down from New Jersey, Summer and the girls flying down from Philadelphia, getting Robert’s RV 100 miles up from Tampa, putting Jennifer and the girls on a plane from Atlanta, and somehow timing arrivals and airport runs to get everyone and all of the RVs in the same place at roughly the same time. Actually, now that I write that, I have no idea how that happened. But, thanks to extraordinary effort by everyone, it did. Amazing.
And it was worth it.
Jennifer and the girls, and Robert, Laura, and the boys, all left on Sunday, so the rest of the week was Cliff, Summer, and the girls, along with the two of us. That meant two days of the Magic Kingdom and EPCOT, plus a couple more days of pool time, fishing, horseback riding, some really incredible dinners, and continued lizard catching.
Anyway, I won’t go on and on. The last time the whole family got together was back in the summer of 2019, so this gathering was long overdue. It was great for the grownups to spend time together, but it was even better for The Cousins.
COVID. Obviously, a crowded theme park, with tens of thousands of people crammed within inches of each other, is a recipe for a super-spreader event of Biblical proportions. (Think of the angel of death hovering over Fantasyland, with the first-born son of each family dropping dead in the boats on It’s a Small World.) (As opposed to the parents keeling over after they’ve heard the refrain for the 95th time.) To prevent such a thing, Disney implemented a large number of restrictions designed to limit the carnage: only a limited number of people were admitted to the park (although you couldn’t prove it by me) and advance reservations were necessary to enter; masks were required everywhere, and there were warning posted that patrons failing to “properly wear” a “suitable mask” “would be asked to leave”; the lines were rerouted to prevent people from passing within inches of each other, along with signs posted reminding people to maintain a six-foot distance; crowd-producing activities (like the fireworks show) were cancelled; and several attractions were closed. And, for the most part, the guests seemed to abide by the restrictions and everyone seemed to take things in good spirits. As is evident from our pictures, we were fully masked up all the time and no one seemed to much mind.
I must say, though, that some of the restrictions seemed a bit much, more like they were drafted by lawyers, or bureaucrats suffering from the nail clipper syndrome, or by corporate PR types intent on corporate virtue signaling, than by sensible health professionals. Or maybe designed to limit the online complaining by the mask-Nazis who incite social media mobs whenever their sensibilities are offended. In any event, some measures seemed more than necessary. For example, we traveled to and from the Magic Kingdom in open-air boats where everyone, even if the boat was fully loaded, would be masked up, situated several feet apart anyway, in the open air, sitting in a 10-knot breeze as they traveled across the water. Even still, Disney chose to limit capacity on those boats to about one-third. Seriously? People were waiting in line under much riskier conditions, just to limit a situation that hard to imagine posing any realistic risk. Other examples abound: spraying down the seats and tables with disinfectant, plexiglass barriers everywhere, restaurant seating restricted to every-other-table, and so on. In a sense, I suppose, Disney should be commended for taking health measures seriously and trying to make everyone as safe as possible. Nevertheless, the experience could have been better under more sensible management.
After everyone had left, Wendy and I stayed one extra day to decompress and have a relaxing dinner at Narcoosie’s, the waterfront restaurant at the Grand Floridian Resort. As we sat there, running through the events of the past ten days, we agreed it was one of the best RV trips we’re ever had. We’ll savor the memories forever …
March saw us making a quick trip down to Tampa for a family celebration. Technically, I suppose, it counts as an RV trip since we drove ACE down there and stayed at the Lazy Days RV campground, but really the trip had nothing to do with RV’ing. Instead it was a celebration of son #2’s promotion to Lieutenant Colonel.
Being promoted to Lieutenant Colonel is actually a pretty big deal. Nearly all Army officers who hang around for four years make it to Captain, which is the highest of the “company grade” officers, but at the next level, Major (the start of “field grade” officers), things start to thin out. The Army has about 80,000 officers (excluding Generals, of which there are only a couple hundred), but only about 13,000 are Lieutenant Colonels or Colonels.
Anyway, we’re headed back to Walt Disney World and Fort Wilderness in a couple weeks for an impromptu family reunion, so the next post will be about actual RVing stuff. Until then, though, well done, Robert … you make us proud.
We’re in the midst of planning several family-gathering RV trips (including one to Fort Wilderness, the location of the defining broken arm moment exactly one year ago), so we found ourselves antsy to get back into the motorhome and head out somewhere. Anywhere. So, with a break in the grey days of January, it was off to Laura S. Walker State Park for a visit to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Which brings a question to mind: why drive 5 hours to see a swamp? It is, well, a swamp. And it’s winter, which means (beside, mercifully, no bugs) no wildlife. And of the area’s 350,000 acres, most are accessible only by canoe, which is off the list for Wendy, who views canoe trips into a swamp as the equivalent of sitting upright in a coffin for day, with added prospects of either drowning or being eaten by an alligator. So, why? Besides being Pogo’s home, is there any reason to visit a swamp?
Yes — this is a great place and we had a wonderful time. Staying in Laura Walker State Park is, like every other Georgia state park, wonderful in and of itself. The campground is perfect, the restrooms are immaculate, and the amenities abundant and worthwhile. We spent our first afternoon there enjoying one of the park’s nature trails that wanders around through the pine forest, with placards placed regularly along the trailside describing the wildlife of the area (none of which we saw, which makes the placards somehow simultaneously irrelevant and necessary) (whatever that means).
But the highlight, as improbable as it may seem, was in fact the swamp. The Okefenokee National Wildlife refuge was established in 1937, back in the good old days when the government, if it wanted to protect nature, actually purchased the land, rather than regulating it into non-use, (thereby sidestepping that pesky little fifth amendment and taking the land without actually having to pay for it). Where was I? Oh yeah … established in 1937. Since we only had a day, and since the best (and only) portion of the area accessible by car is through the east entrance, it was down through Folkston and into the east side we went.
First, a little background about the swamp itself. To start off with, it’s not technically a swamp, it’s a “blackwater wetland” and in fact the largest such wetland in the United States. But it sure looks like swamp, and I suspect “blackwater wetland” is a euphemism for “swamp” foisted on us by activists who think “wetland” connotes something more than “swamp.” Interestingly enough, the swamp is the headwaters of two separate rivers: the Suwanee (which flows into the Gulf) and the St. Mary’s (which does its best to separate Georgia from Florida and then flows into the Atlantic). And the name, “Okefenokee,” is some English version of some Indian word that means “land of trembling earth,” apparently referring to the fact that a large part of the swamp consists of semi-floating masses of peat that shake when you walk on them.
Besides the Indians who used to live here, there were actually a fair number of early pioneers (who must have been really tough dudes), who settled in the area. And actually, their habitations looks a lot better than what you might expect by watching reruns of Swamp People on the Discovery Channel.
Back to the trails. Just inside the entrance is the “Canal Diggers Trail.” Get this. In the 1890s, some dufus came up with idea of “draining the swamp.” (It was the other dufus.) To do this, he tried to dig a canal but ran into two obvious (to me) problems: First, there are billions of gallons of water in the swamp and even if one could drain some portion of the area, water would keep flowing back in. Actually, at one point the “drainage” canal actually began to collect water and refill the swamp. Oops. Second, the whole area consists of sand, which means when you try to excavate a ditch, it has a tendency to collapse back in on itself. So, after a few years of trying, and a well-deserved bankruptcy, the project was abandoned. So, for now, the location of that failed effort makes a really interesting short hike.
The other trail we most enjoyed is actually a 3/4-mile boardwalk (!) to an observation tower.
So, 8 hours (and 11,000 steps) later, we finished the Swamp Island drive. It’s a real compliment to the experience that Wendy, who is about the least swampish person I can imagine, had a great time and was glad to have spent the day in a swamp!
Just a few random, wrap-up thoughts after our 2020 trip to Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and Montana.
RVing During a Pandemic. Definitely, the only way to travel during a pandemic is in an RV. No hassles with restaurants, public bathrooms, common spaces, germ-laden surfaces, or any of the infinity of petty (but necessary) annoyances of trying to stay free of contagion-laden encounters. Except for missing out on some of the attractions of our typical tours (such as rangers talks, guided hikes, museums, visitor centers, and the like) (all of which, to be clear, we did miss), RV travel during a pandemic is essentially no different than any other RV travel expedition. We wondered before we left whether this trip would provide the essentials of what have always made our trips memorable, and the answer is a resounding yes.
Schedules. Because our trip turned solo at the last minute, and because the kinds of activities that normally populate our schedules were largely unavailable, for the first time we had a trip that presented day after day with nothing in particular to do. And surprisingly, that made it one of the best trips ever.
Normally, when one’s time on a trip is limited, there’s a weird sort of pressure to make the best of it, to make sure all of the essentials get done, to avoid “wasting” time. But this time, we were free to do things as they struck our fancy. If we passed a sign for a trail to a waterfall, we were free to break from plan, pull over, and do a spontaneous hike. When we thought wildlife might appear, we were free to sit for three (!) hours just to see what happened. When we visited a particularly photogenic scene, we had the flexibility to wait for a couple hours for just the right light.
We don’t expect this to be our M.O. going forward. We laughed at what it would have been like to sit in lawn chairs by the side of the road for three hours if we had a shrewdness of grandchildren with us. But, for this one trip, the serendipity of an unencumbered schedule made it memorably special.
Connectivity. We noticed something odd this year: the visitors map to Yellowstone has several colored blobs indicating those areas of the park where cell phone coverage is available. Even worse, it looked to us like the Park Service is laying fiber optic cable in Grand Teton NP. On both counts, I have grave forebodings about what future park experiences may hold.
I understand why a lack of connectivity can be a nuisance. In Grand Teton, there was only one area we found that had cell phone coverage (a pull-out down by Willow Flats), and only one other location (down by the marina store) that had WiFi internet access. So, to fire off an itinerary change to the family, phone ahead for campground reservations, or respond to some supposedly “urgent” need back in Atlanta, all required an inconvenient detour to some suitable spot and a break from park activities.
But that’s the point. Immersing oneself in the splendor of the Grand Teton range is not about sending off emojis, updating your Facebook timeline, or firing off some blather in your TikTok app. It’s not even about staying connected to the office. The essence of a visit to a national park is that it forces you to detach from the consuming trivialities imposed by modern technology, take a deep breath, and momentarily focus on things that transcend the mundane details of ordinary daily life.
I’ve written before about the tragic superficiality of people we’ve seen who come across some scene of breathtaking beauty, turn their backs on the magnificence of their surroundings, take the obligatory selfies, and then promptly leave, only to continue their never-ending stream of missed opportunities. I wonder now if that tragedy will be compounded by the Park Service striving to make the national parks places for connected experience.
Blue Meanies. For many years, I’ve pondered the connection between city living and an excessive proportion of nasty people. And it’s not just one of my (many) (mostly random) theories: a friend’s wife who is an epidemiologist at CDC has actually done academic research on how urban density is a causative factor in aggressive behavior. This also explains a phenomenon we observed: states that are dominated by cities, and hence those states that tend to be blue, also tend to display the urban manners of the citified people that populate them.
We had an interesting confirmation of this social phenomenon this year. From time to time, more often than one might think in national parks, one encounters people who are unexpectedly and unnecessarily rude and aggressive. The most common examples can be seen on the park roadways. Speed limits in the park are generally pretty low (often 45 mph, slower near lodging, popular attractions, or areas where wildlife congregate). Many people (including us) actually abide by these speed limits. Unfortunately, though, for certain kinds of people, a speed-limit-obeying vehicle is little more than a source of frustration and an opportunity for attack. These are the people who ride the bumper of the car in front of them, swerve out (often illegally) to blast by the offending speed-limit-obeying motorist, drive the wrong way through a traffic slow-down, and otherwise bring the ill-mannered demeanor of urban life to the wilds of Wyoming.
And here’s what we noticed. These brutish assailants were almost always from blue states. Amazing. Most of the cars on the road were local (Wyoming and Utah mostly), but when some jerk crossed a double-line to drive at 70 mph in a 45 zone, blue state. And it was way too often to be a coincidence: New York, New Jersey, California, Washington. Blue meanies everywhere.
[For those too young to catch the allusion, the Blue Meanies were the brutish bad guys in the Beatles’ movie Yellow Submarine and a metaphor for mean people everywhere.]
Harleys. Speaking of behavior that is strangely out of place, here’s another one. Although I rode a motorcycle for 50 years, I never really understood the Harley Davidson crowd. The motorcycles themselves are not particularly functional (the performance riding course I took regularly would not even allow Harleys to participate), but the oddest thing is the fascination Harley people seem to have with removing the bikes’ mufflers. Why? For the rider, what could possibly be the attraction of a deafening, mind-numbing roar inches from one’s eardrums for hours on end, and how could anyone be indifferent to the annoyance that such a blast creates for anyone within a couple hundred yards of the offending tailpipes?
What brought on this detour into the oddities of the Harley Davidson subculture? Our time in the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone National Park this year coincided with this year’s Sturgis motorcycle rally, an improbable gathering of, no kidding, 460,000 motorcycles (down this year, maybe due to COVID-19, by about 9% from last year), in the town of Sturgis, South Dakota. An unfortunate proportion of the Sturgis-gathering motorcycles are Harleys, and a doubly unfortunate proportion of the Harleys are ridden by the aforementioned muffler removers. And one more unfortunate circumstance: the Lamar Valley is the natural route between Sturgis and the rest of Yellowstone. What that meant was that the roadway through the Lamar Valley was subject to a never-ending roar of groups (sometimes 30 or more) of unmuffled motorcycles blasting their way through the otherwise tranquil expanse of the park.
There’s a pretty funny video out there of a bison who attacked a woman who had gotten off her motorcycle and walked into a herd of buffalo to take pictures, with the animal adding insult to the woman’s injuries by pulling the woman’s pants right off of her. Really. Watch the video. It’s funny in a Darwin Awards sort of way.
In any event, though, we were not so fortunate as to see any bikers pantsed by buffalo this year. Next year, maybe, but at the very least we’ll remember to bring our ear plugs.
Overall. One of our best trips ever, enjoyable even in the midst of a disrupting social climate, and filled with new experiences. We are so glad we resisted the urge to bail out and once again reminded how blessed we are to live in such a beautiful country, and doubly blessed to be able to enjoy it.
There are two kinds of winds that come out of thunderstorms: tornados and derechos. We know that we don’t want to be in the first; this trip gave us to opportunity to learn we also don’t want to be in the second.
The original plan, the one that involved “seeing” Montana in four days (ha ha), had us leaving Livingston on August 8, which would put us crossing Nebraska and Iowa on August 9th and 10th. That would have been a bad thing. On the night of August 9th, a derecho, which is an area of straight-line winds blasting out from a line of thunderstorms (from the Spanish word meaning “right” or “straight”), blew across the Midwest. This particular storm, incredibly, was a line of severe thunderstorms 600 miles long. Ahead of that fearsome monster were straight-line winds of at least 58 mph across essentially the entire front, and winds clocked in Iowa in excess of 110 mph. All across the area, roofs were torn off of buildings, trees were uprooted, semi tractor trailers were blown over, grain elevators were toppled, and thousands of acres of corn fields were flattened. At one point, power had been knocked out to nearly one million homes. The effect was essentially an inland Category 2 hurricane, spreading the same kind of destruction, except that unlike a hurricane, this one didn’t lose force over land, it gained it. Our route would have put us right in the middle of all this on the very night it happened.
But, as it turns out, we were miles away. Since we decided we are basically morons for thinking we’d see Montana in four days, and having resolved to come back to Montana for a month next year, we realized we might as well get a head start on the trip home and leave on August 7th. That meant, instead of spending the night of August 9-10 in Nebraska, in the middle of unimaginable destruction, we were 300 miles southeast, watching on network news the devastation occurring in where we would have been had we left per our original schedule.
I assume that, had we been in the jaws of this beast when it hit, we would have taken shelter in the campground bathroom building, or some other suitable shelter, but the RV likely would have been damaged, maybe totaled. Instead, it’s just a story of what might have been. We’re pretty much devoted Presbyterians, so we don’t believe in luck or coincidence. But whatever you call it, providence or luck, but for a spontaneous decision to leave a day early, this would have been an entirely different post.
Wendy and I have driven through Montana probably a half-dozen times over the years, and every time we do, Wendy says, “Wow! This place is SO beautiful. Instead of just driving through, we should stop for a while and see Montana.” So, having wrapped up Grand Teton National Park, we headed up to Livingston, Montana, for a week. Two of those days were spent in Yellowstone, but that gave us four days to see Montana. Hold that thought.
You know how sometimes you hear someone say something and you wonder, “Are you serious? What are you thinking? Are you actually that clueless?”
Now, back to seeing Montana. Yes, we actually are that clueless and no, I don’t know what we were thinking. “Seeing” Montana in four days is nuts. Montana is almost 150,000 square miles in size. (Compare that to Georgia, which is about 60,000.) Montana is roughly 570 miles by 315 miles in length and breadth. It has 70,000 miles of paved roads, and an immeasurable number of dirt roads. So, what were we thinking that we could “see Montana” in four days?
Needless to say, we didn’t “see” Montana. What we did see was one little sliver of the south-southwestern part of the state, specifically the Gallatin River canyon, and then the Madison River valley. Seriously. Two riversheds. And it took all day.
The Gallatin River canyon, though, provided us with a quality experience that overcame the shortfall in the quantity of Montana that we actually saw. As usual, we stopped for a picnic along the river’s edge and then simply sat there for an hour, doing nothing but taking in the beauty of that particular place. Which was different than the beauty of the place a mile down the road, which was different than the beauty of the next mile, and so on, and so on, for a hundred miles. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” True indeed.
Here’s something else that’s great about Montana (and essentially every other western state). Almost 40% of Montana is “public lands.” Actually, for the western third of the state, probably 80% is public land. It’s hard for eastern people to appreciate what that means. But realize that every mile or two there’s a fishing access point, a trailhead, a canoe launch point, a pullout, or a picnic area. Mile after mile of profound beauty, with nearly limitless access.
What this means is that to really “see” this little sliver of Montana that we explored, to hike the trails, spend time at a sample of the campgrounds, fish the streams, even head back to hunt the backcountry, would take years. Really. Years. One could never really “see” Montana, even the western third of Montana, is a lifetime. But it would be wonderful to try.
Halfway through the trip, we headed up to Big Sky, a resort area just west of Highway 191. Back in the early 1970s, several investors and developers (including Chet Huntley, the newscaster of the Huntley-Brinkley Report) began the development of the area, which now claims to be the largest ski resort in the country. It has a permanent population of almost 3000, and swells to several times that during the winter.
Big Sky is an area of unspeakably stunning beauty, billing itself as a place not only for skiing, but for hiking, fly fishing, mountain biking, camping, horseback riding, whitewater rafting, and hunting. I’m sure all that is true, although to look at it one might think it was developed mainly as a resort area where nice rich people could go to hang around other nice rich people. How nice? The guy with spotting scope in Yellowstone who set it up so Wendy and I could see the wolves? He lives in Big Sky. And how rich? The spotting scope that he let us look through was a $4000 20-60X Swarovski. Seriously. The cost of his spotting scope was more than the down payment on our first house. That’s OK, though. He can probably afford it: a small, two-bedroom condo in Big Sky would go for somewhere between $400K and a couple million, and single family homes start at around $1 million and range upwards to you-don’t-want-to-know.
And, of course, given the Big Sky clientele, everything about the area is perfect. All of the homes, businesses, sidewalks, even the trails, are immaculate. Following one spur-of-the-moment impulse, we did a short hike down to see a waterfall and, as you would expect, even an otherwise nondescript stream was perfect.
I’m not sure that Big Sky is the kind of place we’d ever like to live. Among other things, I expect one can only live a “resort” lifestyle for so long. But especially nowadays, when rancor, bitterness, ugliness, hatred, etc. etc. etc. all seem to be de rigueur, it might take us a pretty long time to grow weary of living in the company of nice rich people.
In any event, we left Livingston substantially short of our goal of “seeing” Montana, but now we have a new plan to “see” Montana. On some upcoming trip (maybe next year), we’ll divvy up the western portion of Montana into a half-dozen areas and spend several days in each.
We’ll see. But our prior impression was true. Montana is an unimaginably beautiful state and we can hardly wait to go back.
The original plan was that we would explore Yellowstone for a day or two during the Grand Teton stay, and then spend a week exploring Montana the following week. But, Grand Teton turned out to present more opportunities than we had time for, and Yellowstone (at least part of Yellowstone) was more accessible from our Montana location anyway. So, change number 37 to this itinerary: Do Yellowstone from the north.
Then, we then further modified that modification to spend time focusing solely on the Lamar Valley and the Northern Range area of Yellowstone, skipping all of Yellowstone’s more familiar geothermal features, Hayden valley wildlife, canyons and waterfalls, and the gazillion other things that Yellowstone has to offer, to follow a concept much like we did at Grand Teton: select an area that was relatively unknown to us and then just wander around, with no particular objective in mind, and see what happens.
This was by far the best two days we have ever spent in Yellowstone. I’ll leave the highlight of the trip, though, for last.
The northeast corner of Yellowstone is the least visited area of the park. It consists of three regions, the Northern Range, the Lamar Valley, and the Soda Butte Canyon (which leads up to the northeast entrance to the park).
So, to explore the area, we did our usual motor touring and day hikes.
But none of that is what made our exploration of this area so special. The Lamar Valley has been called the “Serengeti of America,” and it is an apt designation. Coming over a rise and descending into the valley, one sees this:
And, something truly exciting for me, we got to see a wolf prowling the valley floor.
Finally, here’s the highlight. It’s hard to explain, but Wendy and I have been RVing and camping since the early 1970s. Although all of these trips have been special for us, and are chock full of memorable moments, in reality they are largely the same kind of thing that anyone would likely have spending time in the same area. But not this time.
It started when we struck up a conversation with some random guy, who mentioned to us that there was a buffalo carcass up the road, and earlier that morning there were wolves and bears on the carcass. Even more, if nature holds true to form, the wolves and bears would be back around 5:00 or 6:00 later that afternoon. So, we drove off, marked the location of the carcass, and vowed to return at the appointed hour. Except we got nervous and returned at 2:30 instead, setting up our lawn chairs and the camera, binoculars at hand, and waited for the appointed hour. And waited, and waited. Waited for two-and-one-half hours sitting in the sun to be precise. But, that’s us. If you’ve ever seen a dachshund waiting outside a chipmunk hole, you know where the phrase “dogged determination” comes from. Well, that’s us. “Dogged determination” for two-and-a-half hours.
At around 5:00, a guy with a spotting scope standing next to us said that a pack of nine wolves had emerged from the woods, quite a bit to our left, and was headed towards to carcass. Sure enough, all nine wolves in the pack worked their way across the sagebrush prairie, and pretty soon we saw this:
After 30 minutes or so of doing buffalo munchies, the wolves meandered off. And not in a “pack” per se. The just sort of separately wandered up towards the woods, laying down in the sage from time to time, sometimes going one way, sometimes the others, until after another 30 minutes they happened to all be near the woods edge more or less in one group, and then they disappeared. At this point, Wendy and I are counting this as one of the best days we’ve ever had.
Then, as if this wasn’t enough, what swoops in but a bald eagle! The only eagle we’d seen our whole time in the park. Seriously. I was hoping he’d also fly down for a tasty morsel, but after flying around a couple times, he just perched in the tree and kept an eye on the goings-on below. But wait … there’s more.
At this point, the professional photographer standing next to us said, “Stand by. There’ll be a bear here soon enough.” As it was explained to us, a grizzly might be able to drive a pack of wolves off of a carcass if he wanted to, but a black bear certainly couldn’t. So, said the photographer, there was almost certainly a bear watching the wolves from the tree line, waiting for them to finish up. And, sure enough, a few moments after the wolves entered the woods, we saw this:
At this point, we’ve been watching the wolves-bear buffalo-buffet going on for over an hour and then the unthinkable happens. A bunch of onlookers headed down the hill from the roadway and started walking towards the bear! Yes, there’s a river between the bear and the tourists, but it’s the same river that the buffalo waded across a few moments ago and one that would take a charging bear about 10 seconds to cross at full speed.
So, this is the moment of truth. In a way, we were rooting for the bear, not wanting any of the tourists to be eaten per se, but a nice mauling would be OK. Unfortunately, though, the bear decided that mauling a tourist might mean he’d end up getting euthanized, so thinking that discretion is the better part of valor, he decided to vacate the carcass instead. A-a-a-a-a-r-g-h! These stupid tourists had managed to drive off our bear!
But then, ta-da!, the heat showed up. A ranger walked down and rousted the tourists.
At around 6:30, we decided we needed to head back to the camper. There was a chance that the wolves would return for second helpings, or maybe even a grizzly would show up, but we had a two-hour drive home and wanted to get there before dark.
So, for this last day, we had spent nearly 12 hours simply wandering around the northeast corner of the park, with no particular plan in mind, taking up whatever delights we happened to come across, culminating with watching, in the wild, unaffected by human presence (until the very end), the wild behavior of a wolf pack, a bald eagle, and a brown bear. What a day!
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.
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:
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.
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).
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.