Category Archives: Travels

8-9 July 2018: Theodore Roosevelt National Park

After a quick stop at the park on our arrival day, we were prepared to be underwhelmed by our stop here. The park itself is OK, but nothing so dramatic as other national parks: the badlands are several steps down from Badlands National Park; the Little Missouri River that winds its way through the area is just an unimpressive little river, cloudy from the eroding clay soils; the wildlife is not as plentiful nor as extraordinary as what one might see at Yellowstone or Custer State Park; and even as a tribute to Teddy Roosevelt, the park is not as successful as Mt. Rushmore.

But our assessment changed when we explored the park more thoroughly. The eroded sandstone and clay mounds seemed to rise straight up out of lush green grasslands, enhanced by an unusually wet spring and early summer, and presented a beauty unlike anything we had ever seen.

A pesky rain cloud seemed to follow us around for the first couple hours of touring the park.

From atop Buck Hill, it almost looks as if a green carpet had been applied to the landscape, cut away where the clay features intrude on the surface.

In many places, the green carpet of the grasslands covered the hills themselves. That effect, combined with fields of wildflowers. was striking. (You can see that the Park Service had done an extensive controlled burn last May to eliminate invasive tree species, allowing the natural grasslands to flourish.)

In areas dominated by sage brush, wildflowers were common.

And wildlife, while not common, was plentiful enough that the bison were able to occupy the roadways and tie up traffic.

We even saw the famous wild horses. Well, one at least:

And our stop here did validate the essential connection between this area and Roosevelt’s conservation philosophy. Roosevelt was in many ways the father of the conservation movement in the United States and it is often said that to understand his approach, one must see the badlands of North Dakota, where he not only briefly ventured into a ranching business, but where he began to formulate his idea that the natural resources of our country were precious, exhaustible, and subject to over-exploitation. Having been here, we understand the point.

Roosevelt believed that, without moral or legal constraints, the very same human tendencies that propelled mankind to greatness would inevitably tend to excess and destroy the foundation on which they were built. His hallmark achievement as a trust-buster, for example, is a perfect illustration. As Morris points out in Theodore RexRoosevelt admired the great captains of industry and what they accomplished: they built railroads that spanned a continent, a steel industry unmatched in the world, and a financial structure that could leverage capital and fund the expansion of an entire nation. But at some point, something of an uncontrolled chain reaction had taken place in those institutions. The economic impulses that led to their greatest success couldn’t stop themselves and they began to consume the social foundation on which they were built. The “freedom” that a free market provided allowed the industrial giants, through trusts and combinations, to turn their power towards the market itself. Roosevelt came to believe that the energy of commerce, like fire, was a valuable servant but a terrible master.

Roosevelt saw a similar effect when it came to natural resources. As he said, “We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.” The productive use of resources, in essence, because it was not self-constraining, contained the seeds not only of its own destruction but of society’s loss as well.

It would be hard not to come to such a conclusion in the plains of 19th century North Dakota. Bison, which may have numbered across the country as many as sixty million, had been decimated and now numbered only a few thousand. On his bison hunt to this area in September 1883, bison had become so scarce that it took Roosevelt ten days to bag one. Ranchers, enticed by the grasslands, were streaming to the area in such numbers that the landscape was overgrazed and denuded. Although it would be a century before the concept of the “tragedy of the commons” would be articulated, Roosevelt could see it happening before his eyes. The truth that nature can be used only up to a point before it can no longer recover is inescapable in the severe environment of the North Dakota badlands.

One can read into Roosevelt’s philosophy a sort of incipient Sierra Clubophilia, but that would be a mistake. Morris points out that, in Rossevelt’s famous trip to Yosemite with John Muir, Roosevelt was uncomfortable with Muir’s preservationist philosophy and much preferred the scientific management principles for forests espoused by his good friend, Gifford Pinchot. Roosevelt considered one of his most important environmental achievements to be the Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902, which provided for the construction of dams and irrigation projects throughout the west. Roosevelt believed that, “water in western rivers, if not being used to help people, was wasted,” a phrase that would be anathema to card-carrying Sierra Clubistas. Roosevelt was an avid hunter, something that would make a PETAcrat throw up, and not only supported a widespread ranching industry, to the same PETAcrat effect, he participated in it himself.

Roosevelt with John Muir in Yosemite in 1903. Although Yosemite had already been largely protected, Roosevelt’s trip to this area reinforced his view that some areas of the country had to be preserved for future generations.

So Roosevelt came to believe in a conservation philosophy that was balanced and dualistic: beneficial use on the one hand and preservation on the other; scientific exploitation of resources that were renewable and manageable, and binding perpetuation for resources that were unique and irreplaceable. Such would be a natural and essentially inevitable conclusion for a hunter and rancher in 19th century North Dakota, which is why it is worthwhile to see the place of the formative years for Roosevelt’s conservation convictions.

From these underpinnings, Roosevelt’s conservation accomplishments were impressive: while in office, he set aside over 230 million federal acres for conservation, a quantity of land greater than the entire state of Texas. He signed and invoked the Antiquities Act that allowed for preservation of land as “national monuments.” He established 150 National Forests, 23 National Parks and Monuments, 51 federal Bird Reserves, four national Game Preserves, and 24 reclamation projects.

So, this ends this year’s summer excursion. We now start the long (1800 mile) (this is a BIG country!) trip home.

1-4 July 2018: Family Time On the Oregon Coast

Since the link-up at Crater Lake, our plan for this segment of the trip has been to let Robert and Laura come up with a plan that makes sense for them and three little dirt-bag boys, and we’ll follow along and watch. In part, that’s a necessity: only the parents can come up with an itinerary that is tolerable for little boys who will spontaneously combust if confined to car seats for too long, taken to a venue where they have to remain quiet, or otherwise expected to behave in a way incommensurate with boyish realities. But the plan also makes sense because Robert and Laura have a spirit of exploration and a joyful approach to travel that makes the itinerary fun for us, and it’s our pleasure to let them guide us along.

Of course, driving US Highway 101 along the Oregon coast cannot be anything but beautiful.

US Highway 101 snakes along the Oregon coast, here just south of Warrenton in the Suislaw National Forest. Driving the motorhome on curvy roads, up and down hills, with narrow lanes and no shoulders would be a challenge, if I minded impeding traffic and creating mile-long backups. Fortunately, I’m mostly oblivious to such things.

Almost everywhere one stops, it’s just one picturesque scene after another.

But what made the trip especially fun were the stops that Robert and Laura selected. Whether it was something as kitschy as “Trees of Mystery” (where, incidentally, Wendy and I stopped on our way back to get married in 1972!)…

A 49-foot tall concrete statue of Paul Bunyan at Trees of Mystery. Babe, the blue ox, is just off to the right.

Little Michael is only two, so it’s a little hard to know what he’s saying, but it sounded like, “C’mon guys. Have a little respect for yourselves. What if someone see us here?” Or something like that.

Or tide pools (where we cringed as the boys literally leaped, baby mountain goat style, from rock to rock, wearing ill-fitting rubber boots that somehow gained traction on moss-covered rocks…

 

Even little Michael enjoyed digging up, well, anything.

At Thor’s Well. The classic shot of Thor’s Well shows water flowing over the rocks and then draining into the opening. Unfortunately, that only occurs at high-high tide during winter storms. So, Laura captured this shot of water coming up through Thor’s Well. Still pretty cool.

Or a stop at the Tillamook cheese factory…

Or a stop at the beach at Fort Lewis State Park, running in the water and collecting (no kidding) jellyfish carcasses in a bucket…

  

  

Or a visit to Fort Clatsop (the winter home of the Lewis & Clark expedition in the dreadful winter of 1805-1806) (“dreadful” in the sense of 90 inches of rain in 4 months!), continuing to work on their Junior Ranger merit badges, and learning how to load and fire a flintlock…

Or a visit to the local maritime museum…

Columbia Light Ship

Or, of course, playing with sparklers on the 4th of July…

In other words, it was four days of family time, camping and having fun, and we were privileged to be a part of it. Now, they’re headed back home, and we’re starting a trip over to Teddy Roosevelt National Park and then home.

29-30 June 2018: Redwoods National Park

As I’ve noted several times, the National Park Service was created in 1916 with this objective: “… to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” The tension is obvious: providing for enjoyment, while leaving the resources unimpaired. Even still, though, I am repeatedly impressed with what a wonderful job the Park Service does in balancing these seemingly irreconcilable objectives.

Our trip to Redwoods National Park is a perfect example. The Coastal Redwood trees, although not possessing the same volume nor living as long (“only” 1200-1800 years) as their cousins, the Giant Sequoias, are actually taller, reaching heights of 350 feet. Prior to the last ice age, their range extended as far south as Los Angeles, but now their range is limited to a sliver of coastline in northern California and southern Oregon. Over 95% of that range has been logged, meaning that only 5% of old growth redwood forest remains in its natural condition. The state of California preserved much of that old growth area in three state parks, and in 1968 the federal government created Redwoods National Park to add to the area protected by the state.

Which brings up the “enjoyment” side of the enjoyment-preservation balance. The Park Service has constructed the most wonderful series of trails and exhibits throughout the federal portions of the park areas. Although we only hiked for 1.2 miles of the trail system (there’s a limit to how far a little two-year-old can “hike”), the walk was truly memorable.

Walking along the trail behind the Prairie Creek Visitor Center. As usual, even though the trail is directly behind the Visitors Center, and is only a mile long, we saw only one other family on the trail and basically had the whole forest to ourselves.

For a while, Michael got to hitch a ride.

 

Junior Rangers making an impromptu survey of the redwood forest.

And, for reasons one would understand only if accustomed to spending excessive amounts of time in the company of little boys, the highlight of the walk, in the midst of this unspeakable beauty, was encountering two Banana Slugs (Ariolimax californicus, if you’re interested) engaged in what I assume is the slug-version of a “romantic moment.”

 

It’s hard to describe what nasty little things these are, although I must note that the Banana Slug is actually the school mascot for UC Santa Cruz. Only in California.

And then, following the normal practice of both families, it was a lunchtime stop at a nearby picnic area.

Hardly a typical picnic area, but it’s what the Park Service routinely provides to enhance visitors’ enjoyment of the area.

And one last thing. The campground in Crescent City where we stayed was one of the best. Not only did we have side-to-side spaces…

Crescent City KOA

…this was the “play area” next to our sites:

The boys “discovered” this area while we were setting up (not that one can hide a grove of redwoods) and we wondered what it would take to get them out of here for the real point of the stop.

As good as Crater Lake was, this stop was even better. And now it’s on to the Oregon coast.

 

 

27-28 June 2018: Crater Lake National Park

At long last, we finally made the link-up with Robert, Laura, and the boys. We arrived at Diamond Lake RV Resort in southern Oregon about an hour before they did, which gave us plenty of time to set up and brace ourselves for the explosive energy of three little boys! More on that below.

But first, Crater Lake. For a while, we thought Badlands National Park presented the weirdest geology we could imagine. Then it was Bryce Canyon National Park. But now, it’s Crater Lake. Definitely Crater Lake. Hands down, the lifetime achievement award for weird geology goes to Crater Lake.

Crater Lake was formed about 7700 years ago, recently enough that the account of its formation exists in the oral histories of some of the local Indian tribes. At the time, what was then Mount Mazama was a 12,000-foot tall volcano, with a magma chamber under the peak growing in volume and increasing in pressure. Over the course of two to three weeks, which is “instantly” in a geological sense, a series of vents opened up around the base of the mountain, forming a circle where lava, steam, and gases were ejected from the magma chamber. Then, suddenly, with the pressure relieved in the magma chamber, in a matter of two to three hours (that’s right, hours), the area inside of the vent holes collapsed and dropped straight down 8000 feet (that’s right, eight thousand feet), leaving only a circular rim that had been the slopes of Mount Mazama. Think about that. A twelve thousand foot mountain dropped straight down 8000 feet in 2-3 hours. That’s completely too weird to be true. And it’s not just me. I was talking to a park ranger who was helping do the math and when I looked at her, visibly thinking to myself “I’m not buying this,” she said, “I know, I know. It’s hard to imagine that such a thing could actually happen. I wouldn’t believe it myself except that there were eyewitnesses!”

After the collapse of Mount Mazama, there was a rim with a three thousand foot deep crater inside of it. Over the course of the next couple hundred years, the crater filled with water from rain and melted snow and, due to an area of permeable material that acts as a sort-of “overflow drain,” the level of the water has remained constant ever since. Presto change-o, Crater Lake. At 1900 feet deep, it is the deepest lake in the United States, and one of the deepest in the entire world.

Which brings up the second too-weird-to-be-true aspect of Crater Lake. There are no streams that flow into Crater Lake, which means that the water is only rainfall and melted snow, which in turn means that the lake is filled with only distilled water. No sediment, no organic matter, no nothing. Pure water. As a result, there is a color and a clarity to the lake water that is seen nowhere else on earth.

They call this color “Radiant Blue,” but that doesn’t begin to do it justice. Scientists have measured the light from the lake for both radiance and hue, and the color occurs nowhere else on earth.

The water is so clear that there’s enough light at 450 feet below the surface to support plant life. In essence, there’s a column of water hundreds of feet deep, all across the four to six mile width of the lake, emitting blue light over its entire depth.

I’ve mentioned the idea before that certain scenes in national parks are “breathtaking” in a literal sense. One of the rangers mentioned that they watch people when they first see Crater Lake and the rangers call the experience “sucking air,” that sound visitors make when they audibly gasp because what they see before them literally takes their breath away.

For all that, there was one downside to Crater Lake. The trail and vantage points around the rim all present a life-threatening fall down rocky slopes. Everywhere there are signs that read: “DANGER! FALLS CAN BE FATAL! DO NOT CROSS THE WALL!” Traveling with three young boys, all of whom love to climb and jump, and for whom a low wall is something to walk along or, even worse, jump over, made for some casual, carefree walks along the rim. Not.

What one can’t see in this picture is three adults perched inches away from these Little Darlings ready to make a sudden grab in case one of them decides to swing his feet around to the other side of the wall.

 

Cute, aren’t they? Except that these guys are within inches of certainly fatal fall.

Robert and Laura, like us, always include a picnic lunch in the middle of the day, but the dangers to three unpredictable boys from the precipice along the rim caused us to move away from the rim for the mid-day break. Fortunately, there was a picnic area not too far away, which allowed the boys to climb on lava flows, fallen trees, and boulders, all of which present nothing more than the usual risks of cuts, bruises, and concussions. In other words, a relaxed environment.

So we spent the day with the boys getting their Junior Ranger badges, going on ranger walks, and otherwise taking in the story of this most improbable place. Next stop, Redwoods National Park…

 

25-26 June 2018: Lassen Volcanic National Park

Manzanita Lake, where we were supposed to stay, except that reality got in the way of our plans.

What a pleasant surprise. As we were driving up towards Lassen Volcanic National Park, we realized that we had some chores to tend to, and we couldn’t remember why we were going to Mt. Lassen in the first place. Who goes to Lassen Volcanic National Park anyway? No one that I’ve ever heard of. So we decided to cancel our reservation at the Lassen campground, stay in town where it would be easier to get our chores done, and hit Lassen for an hour or so, just to say we were there.

First of all, the little fall-back KOA campground turned out to be one that had won an award of excellence every year for a couple dozen years. It was really one of the best places we’ve ever stayed.

But the park itself was the big surprise. It was not only stunningly beautiful…

Kings Creek Upper Meadow, where we stopped for a picnic lunch.

…the park memorialized those truth-is-stranger-than-fiction events that we keep running into at national parks. Apparently, there are four kinds of volcanoes (not including a fifth variety that I’ve classified, namely the dreaded “man eating volcano”), and the national park is the only place in the world where all four occur in the same area. And besides that, Mt. Lassen is the largest volcano in the world of the “plug dome” variety. A plug dome volcano erupts with lava that is thick and gooey, so it doesn’t really go anywhere except to make the volcano bigger. Until all hell breaks lose, which has happened a lot to Mt. Lassen in the past few hundred years. Like, for example, this area known as the “Chaos Jumbles.”

About 300 years ago, the volcanic dome suddenly collapsed, and the rocks broke into little pieces (from a few inches to a few feet across) when they slammed into the ground, and then this pile of rocky rubble raced down the mountain riding on a cushion of trapped air. Seriously? Trapped air? Imagine air hockey played with a couple billion tons of rock racing at you at 100 miles per hour.

Then again, on May 22, 1915. Mt. Lassen literally blew its top and sent a wave of rocks, lava, and poisonous gases down the mountain, destroying everything in its path, but seemingly stopping short in places for no good reason.

Nobles’ Trail, where a wave of boulders suddenly came to stop, right before they would have smooshed Wendy in her tracks, had she been there, which she wasn’t.

Scientists are studying Mt. Lassen because it foretells what we can expect from the process of natural recovery at Mt. St. Helens. But to me Mt. Lassen was interesting because volcanoes, earthquakes, and shifting tectonic plates are those sorts of things whose destructive power is, in a way, well, interesting. It’s like those videos of lava flowing over highways and into people’s swimming pools in Hawaii. (I don’t do the stupid apostrophe thing.) Or, I’m really interested in what happens if there’s a shift in the Cascadia Fault and a giant lahar wipes out Seattle. (Like as is described in this article, “The Really Big One.“) Anyway, for the perverse appeal of nature’s destructive power, it’s hard to beat the Mt. Lassen area.

So, it was a great day and we wish we could have stayed longer. But Crater Lake, and a link-up with Robert and family, is next.

 

 

23-24 June 2018: Yosemite National Park

It’s one of the most photographed vistas in the world: Yosemite valley, with El Capitan on the left, Bridalveil Falls on the right, and Half Dome off in the distance. And this picture, from the Tunnel View overlook, has been taken about 135 billion times. And the day we were there, the lighting was blech and there was nothing unique about the scene. So why take the shot? Because it is breathtaking. Not in the vernacular sense, but in the actual, literal sense that when looking over the valley from this vantage point, it is truly hard to keep keep breathing. We actually came here twice, and both times we watched groups, including a couple tour buses, show up, snap the obligatory photograph, or more likely take a selfie with the spectacular beauty of this place as a mere backdrop to what the visitors think is the most important aspect of this place, namely themselves, and then leave. But every now and then, something different would happen. A person would walk up, camera in hand, and then actually see what lay before him, stop breathing, put the camera down, pause to take in the majesty of this place, regain his breath, and then take the shot. People in the first group went home with another set of selfies; someone in the second group went home transformed.

And everyone knows this, but scenes like this abound everywhere.

Bridalveil Falls from the valley floor.

Half Dome from Glacier Point

Even the places that aren’t really places are beautiful.

Some no-name meadow along Glacier Point Drive

And for all this, there were two aspects of our Yosemite visit that were particularly memorable. Ever since the days when Wendy and I first met, we would go on picnics. I know it’s incongruent in a way, but the small simplicity of a picnic lunch is particularly apropos in the grand beauty of a place like Yosemite. So, we packed a lunch of sandwiches and fruit, Wendy picked a place off the map called Tenaya Lake, and this is where we stopped mid-day.

Tenaya Lake, from our picnic spot.

Picnic lunch at Tenaya Lake

The second was that the last time we were here in Yosemite was back in 1972 when we traveled cross-country to get married in Connecticut, staying in national parks the whole way. We slept in rubber-coated canvas tent (that we got with S&H Green Stamps) (don’t worry if you have no idea what I’m talking about) that would drip condensation on us all night long:

And one of our favorite campsites was in the Tuolumne Meadows campground, just past Tenaya Lake where we stopped for lunch. So, we went back. We tried to find our old campsite (no joy) but still, the memories of Yosemite flooded over us as we looked over the meadow.

Tuolumne Meadows

What a great visit. Next stop, Lassen Volcanic National Park. I know that volcanoes along the Pacific Rim of Fire seem to be particularly active lately, so if this is the last post before we are consumed in a pyroclastic flow, good bye and thanks for all the fish.

21-22 June 2018: Sequoia National Park

There are two things worth noting about Sequoia National Park. The first is trees. Sequoia has them. Really big ones. In fact, the largest trees on the planet: Over 300 feet high; weighing as much as 2.7 million pounds; and up to 40 feet in diameter at the base. And they are really old, like over 3200 years old. 

The “Four Guardsmen” near the “Giant Forest” area of Sequoia. These trees are actually puny by comparison, but I think they put them here so that people get used to the idea of big trees before the REALLY big ones hit their eyes like some big pizza pies.

At left: The General Sherman Tree (Southerners… don’t freak out. After all, they did win, so they get to name the trees.) The General Sherman Tree is considered to be the largest tree in the world, although “only” 275 feet tall (there’s a coastal redwood that’s 380 feet tall), and “only” 2300-2700 years old (there’s a Bristlecone pine that is slightly more than 5000 years old). But its volume is an incredible 52,000 cubic feet, equivalent to 7.5 million board feet of lumber! And it adds the equivalent of a 60-foot “normal” tree every year.

Giant Sequoias grow only in a few little areas on the unglaciated, Western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains, between 5000 and 7000 feet, where a combination of soil (their seeds germinate best after a fire), moisture, and other factors are perfect. There are 75 groves of Sequoias, consisting of a few trees to several thousand.

It’s hard (actually, impossible) to convey the scale of these trees in a photograph, though. As one of the rangers pointed out, a human stands in the same relation to one of these trees as a 1-1/2 inch mouse stands in relation to a human. Really. Look at the photograph above. The branches you see coming horizontally out of the General Sherman Tree are five feet in diameter. Even looking straight up, perspective simply causes the lines of the trunks to converge, without conveying the fact it’s way up, really way up, to the tops disappearing in the reaches above one’s head.

It’s hundreds of feet to the top of these trees, somewhere up there in the next level of the atmosphere.

The second point about Sequoia National Park is the lesson it carries about conservation. In the late 19th century, these trees were being logged and it was apparent that, with a limited supply of these giants, confined to only a few places, it would only be a few years before they were gone. Led by John Muir, Congress was persuaded to preserve the area and Sequoia National Park was created on September 25, 1890. Sequoia was the second national park, thereby not only protecting itself, but showing that Yellowstone was not a once-for-all endeavor. The country was now embarked on a path to preserve for all times the treasures that our land had given us. Congress tripled the size of Sequoia National Park a week later, and then created General Grant National Park to preserve the Grant Grove. (Southerners–same caution; they won the war, for crying out loud. This park is their bragging place.) In 1940, Grant Grove was merged into the newly created Kings Canyon National Park, and in 1978 the Mineral King area was added. The park now comprises about 400,000 acres. The several thousand trees that exist now, and that will continue to exist for an unending line of future generations, owe their existence to these early conservation efforts.

As is often noted, the idea of a national park is a fundamentally democratic concept. It’s a physical way of saying, “this is our land, for our enjoyment, and ours to pass on to our children … it doesn’t belong to the few, it belongs to the people.” One can watch the families and almost hear, “come here kids, look what your grandparents gave you.” But there’s also a spiritual dimension to standing before these wonderful trees. John Muir said something like “No cathedral built to God can equal these giants,” which mostly misses the point, but there is in his remark the truth that one cannot contemplate these trees without casting one’s mind to the one who made them, and therefore walking among these towering giants can be a form of worship. And, to be able to marvel at God’s handiwork is part of what it means to be fully human. On both counts, conservation is a fundamentally religious exercise, whether people realize that’s what they’re doing or not.

Anyway, after the inspiring tour of Sequoia, we headed downhill, 5000 feet downhill to be precise, to explore Kings Canyon. Meh. Jointly administered with Sequoia, Kings Canyon is technically a separate national park, but for us it didn’t carry the wallop as Sequoia.

The canyon itself was impressive in its own way…

Along the Kings Canyon Road, where a wobble of a few inches would be followed by several seconds of prayer, and then by a sudden stop. For scale, if you look carefully you can see a teeny little car creeping along the roadway with a white-knuckled driver behind the wheel.

…and there were some nice waterfalls along the way (Roaring River Falls and Grizzly Falls, respectively):

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But we didn’t really find Kings Canyon to be on the same level as Sequoia (emotionally or altitudinally). Sequoia is a special place, certainly one of our great national treasures. A giant Sequoia tree is part of the emblem of the National Park Service, and that befits the special significance of these wonderful creations.

Next stop, Yosemite.

 

19 June 2018: An afternoon with the Gipper

Finding ourselves with an unexpectedly clear afternoon, we decided to bip on over to the Reagan Presidential Library, 60 miles away in Simi Valley, California. What a wonderful and inspiring afternoon.

H. W. Brands, in his recent biography Reagan: The Life, makes the point that there are only two twentieth-century presidents who matter: FDR, for having launched the welfare state and the resulting culture of dependency on government, and Reagan, for having launched the conservative revolution and the resulting aversion to government intrusion on individual and economic freedom. Much of the conflict in current-day politics can be seen as the continuing clash of these two philosophies.

Government is not a solution to our problem; government is the problem. 

Government’s first job is to protect us from others; it goes wrong when it tries to protect us from ourselves.

Government is like a baby. An alimentary canal with a big appetite at one end and no sense of responsibility at the other.

No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. So, government’s programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth.

But the reason Wendy and I found the history of Reagan’s presidency so compelling had less to do with the broad contours of political philosophy and more to do with the stark contrast between the nature of the presidency as it existed just a few decades ago and the way the presidency has manifested itself over the past 10 years. Just a couple examples.

When Reagan took office, the country was in desperate condition on essentially every front. The economy had ground to a halt and inflation had skyrocketed, a combination that liberal economists said was impossible and found themselves forced to invent a new word to describe it: stagflation. After the Vietnam War, Watergate, and Nixon’s resignation, confidence in American government was at an all-time low. In 1975, Saigon had fallen, resulting not only in the expansion of oppressive totalitarian governments into Southeast Asia, but leaving 55,000 Americans seemingly having died for nothing. Radical Muslims were threatening world stability, American diplomats were still being held hostage after a year and a half in captivity, and the failed rescue mission only further compounded the sense of the government’s impotence. The Arab oil embargo had shown the whole country was at the mercy of people who hated us. And to top of off, Jimmy Carter’s famous “malaise” speech in 1979 left Americans feeling like our only option was to blow our own brains out.

Reagan took stock of all this and, incredibly, decided that the solution lie not so much in a patchwork of policies and programs, although he had those ready to go, but in an appeal to American values. “Our problem,” he said, “is that we’ve lost faith in ourselves.”

The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things.

Reagan realized, more than any president in my lifetime, and certainly more than the pitiful instances we’ve seen in the past ten years, that the first task of a leader is to inspire people to a common vision.

There are no constraints on the human mind, no walls around the human spirit, no barriers to our progress except those we ourselves erect.

We’re Americans, and we have a rendezvous with destiny. No people who have ever lived on this earth have fought harder, paid a higher price for freedom, or done more to advance the dignity of man than Americans.

A nation’s greatness is measured not just by its gross national product or military power, but by the strength of its devotion to the principles and values that bind its people and define their character.

Above all, we must realize that no arsenal, or no weapon in the arsenals of the world, is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women. It is a weapon our adversaries in today’s world do not have.

In his farewell address eight years later, Reagan summed up what had guided him during his presidency:

I wasn’t a great communicator, but I communicated great things, gathered from our experience, our wisdom, and our belief in principles that have guided us for two centuries.

The change in national psyche was astounding. Within months, Time magazine (Time magazine of all things!) pronounced in a cover story that Americans had begun to feel good about themselves. Reagan’s views resonated across party lines. “Reagan Democrats,” a newly coined characterization, led him to two landslide victories, including a reelection where he won 49 of 50 states (missing only on Mondale’s own Minnesota, although not by much). His firing of 11,000 air traffic controllers who illegally walked off their jobs further solidified the change in national disposition that we would not be held hostage by anyone ever again, not externally or internally. We were confident, energetic, and optimistic.

The second aspect of Reagan’s presidency that inspired us was they way he dealt with the Soviet Union. During the 1960s and 1970s, the Soviets had pulled a rope-a-dope on America, persuading us to buy into “detente,” while they engaged in a massive military buildup and we depleted our military, both in personnel and materiel. As a result of Carter Administration policies, the American military was plagued by low morale, low pay, outdated equipment, and practically zero maintenance on what did exist. Reagan knew as well as anyone that, even though the effort would be expensive and, in a way, contrary to his goal of controlling federal spending, to defeat communism, he had to begin by strengthening our military forces. Reagan restored the B-1 bomber project that Carter had cancelled, and when the Soviets deployed SS-20 missiles to Eastern Europe, Reagan responded with deployment of American Pershing II missiles. By the end of his presidency, Reagan had expanded the U.S. military budget to a staggering 43% increase over the total expenditure during the height of the Vietnam war. That meant the increase of tens of thousands of troops, along with more weapons and equipment.

Here’s my strategy on the Cold War: we win, they lose.

The dustbin of history is littered with remains of those countries that relied on diplomacy to secure their freedom. We must never forget that it is our military, industrial and economic strength that offers the best guarantee of peace for America in times of danger.

A truly successful army is one that because of its strength and ability and dedication will not be called upon to fight, for no one will dare to provoke it.

But more than this, Reagan was successful in defeating communism because, unlike the presidents before him, he realized that American didn’t have to take on the destruction of communism. Communism was inherently unstable and unsustainable. Given the right pressures, it would destroy itself.

The years ahead will be great ones for our country, for the cause of freedom and the spread of civilization. The West will not contain Communism, it will transcend Communism. We will not bother to denounce it, we’ll dismiss it as a sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.

I believe this because the source of our strength in the quest for human freedom is not material, but spiritual. And because it knows no limitation, it must terrify and ultimately triumph over those who would enslave their fellow men.

Therefore, Reagan launched a relentless, uncompromising, focused effort to subject the Soviet Union to economic, military, and moral pressures that they could never withstand. He simply wore them down on all fronts.

The great dynamic success of capitalism had given us a powerful weapon in our battle against Communism–money.

As for the enemies of freedom, those who are potential adversaries, they will be reminded that peace is the highest aspiration of the American people. We will negotiate for it, sacrifice for it; we will not surrender for it, now or ever.

In an ironic sense Karl Marx was right. We are witnessing today a great revolutionary crisis, a crisis where the demands of the economic order are conflicting directly with those of the political order. But the crisis is happening not in the free, non-Marxist West but in the home of Marxism- Leninism, the Soviet Union. It is the Soviet Union that runs against the tide of history by denying human freedom and human dignity to its citizens.

The Soviet Union is an Evil Empire, and Soviet communism is the focus of evil in the modern world.

Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.

This post is already too long, and I could go on forever. But one more point. Part of Reagan’s success in defeating communism can be traced to his relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev, a relationship that adversarial, to be sure, but which was also built on trust and, ultimately, friendship. The museum recounts the famous story, but it’s worth retelling. In preparing for his summit meeting with Gorbachev, Reagan’s advisors were warning him that Gorbachev was a tough cookie, hard, focused, uncompromising, and humorless. “Maybe I should tell him a joke,” Reagan suggested. “No!” the advisors cautioned. “Do not under any circumstances tell Gorbachev a joke.” So what did Reagan do? Started his summit meeting with this:

Mr. Gorbachev, I heard that a Russian citizen went into the local KGB office to tell them that his parrot was missing. “That’s not our business,” the KGB officer responded, “tell it to the local police.” “I know I have to tell it to the local police,” the man responded. “I just want the KGB to know that I disagree with everything that parrot says.”

Gorbachev paused for a moment, and then burst out laughing.

Wendy and I, like I expect most Americans, are worn down by the politics of the past decade, how the political parties have been captured by the lunatic fringes of their constituencies, and do little nowadays other than spew rancor and hatred, bent on each other’s destruction, happy to take the country down in the process. Spending the afternoon in the company of a man who inspired a nation and changed the world buoyed our spirits and inspired our hopes. Americans are great people, and America really is a beacon to the world. Reagan knew it, and maybe someday will have a leader who unites America in remembering it.

17 June 2018: Gettin’ our kicks…

From Grants NM, where we spent a night, to Palmdale CA is 683 miles, way too far for a single day’s travel, so we made a stop in Seligman (pronounced by the locals as sell-IG-men), Arizona, a nowhere little town with a population of 456 people soaking wet. And because we were trying (unsuccessfully) to get to Seligman ahead of some brutal crosswinds, we left Grants early and arrived here at noon. What to do in such a place where everything is covered in dust, almost everything is boarded up, and there are actual tumbleweeds rolling down the main street?

Chalk up another lesson. As it turns out, Seligman was the home to one Angel Delgadillo, a barber and pool hall owner, who watched the town collapse overnight on September 22, 1978, when Interstate 40 opened a couple miles to the south, replacing U.S. Route 66 as the main highway and diverting thousands of cars per day away from the shops and restaurants of Seligman. By the mid-1980s, Seligman was dead, with most of the buildings torn down or abandoned and almost all of the residents gone.

Besides the economic collapse of the town, and thousands like it, Delgadillo saw another casualty: an important part of America was dying along with Seligman, the small towns, the local stores, and the slower pace of travel that allowed people to meet those from other areas. Ironically, the ability to travel long distances quickly, bypassing everything along the way, was not bringing people together, it was driving them apart. Losing the unifying experience of traveling through areas, meeting strangers who were both different in some ways but alike in others, was doing something bad to America.

So, in an incredibly improbable story, this small-town barber decided to do something about it. In February 1987, he arranged for a meeting of representatives of the Arizona towns along Route 66 that had been bypassed by I-40. His plan: to designate Route 66 a “historic byway,” encouraging people to travel along the old route and see and experience what America used to be. The move was successful, and nine months later the State of Arizona designated the roadway from Seligman to the California as the “Historic Route 66.” Travelers started exiting the interstate to spend a couple hours traveling back in time as much as laterally in geography. During its heyday, Route 66 had been known as “Main Street America” or the “Mother Road” because coursing its path really was a short course in American culture, and that reality was coming back into focus along the portions of the route in Arizona.

And then other states followed suit. In 1990, Missouri designated portions of the road network as “Historic Route 66.” Soon, there were “Historic Route 66” roads designated in all of the states along the original alignment, all the way from Chicago to Santa Monica. Eventually the federal government got involved, and the “Historic Route 66” road network was designated a National Scenic Byway. Some portions of the route have been listed in the National Register of Historic Places. In 1999, President Clinton signed the “National Route 66 Preservation Bill.” Then the World Monuments Fund added Route 66 to a list of international monuments of historic significance.

There’s still more. In 2006, John Lasseter, creative director at Pixar, traveled along Route 66 and came up with the idea for the animated film Cars, the story of a small town (Radiator Springs, although the locals here claim it’s really Seligman), bypassed by I-40. Interest in traveling Route 66 swelled.

All of this was new to us so we spent a few hours wandering around Seligman. Incredibly, we saw three tour buses disgorging who knows how many visitors. Think about it; multiple tour buses in Seligman, Arizona. And the streets were crowded with countless other tourists, including about a dozen German motorcyclists. It was explained to us that Historic Route 66 is a common destination for Europeans who recognize something essential about Route 66 that many Americans do not. We ate dinner at the Road Kill Cafe (“You kill ’em, we grill ’em”), which has been owned and operated by the same family since long before I-40. We even stopped in Angel Delgadillo’s barber shop, paying silent homage to the guy whose vision of America was behind the renaissance of Route 66. We spent about an hour talking to the woman who runs the store where Delgadillo’s pool hall used to be. Much to our surprise, our disappointment about a stop in a nowhere town with nothing to do turned out to be the best part of our cross-country dash to California.

To be sure, there’s little to Seligman except for a few hotels, a few restaurants, and about a gazillion souvenir shops. For all of the enthusiasm about Route 66, Seligman is pretty much just a dumpy little town. But that’s the point in a way. American used to be a network of dumpy little towns, tied together with strings of two-lane, slow-moving roadways, where people had the time and the inclination to meet each other. It makes one wonder whether much of what ails America might be cured somewhat if more of us drove cross-country on small roads, through dumpy little towns, and connected with our neighbors a few states over.

 

15 June 2018: Steakhouse Rules

We’re only 1090 miles into our cross-country dash to California, having made it as far as Amarillo, which ordinarily would not be cause for an update, except for this…

For reasons that are too weird to mention, our family, due largely to being egged on by our son-in-law, has made an annual event of watching the annual Coney Island Nathan’s hot dog eating contest. Our family hero, of course, is perennial winner Joey Chestnut, whose current record is something like 72 hot dogs and buns (about 16 pounds worth) in 10 minutes. With the Fourth of July bearing down on us, the anticipation of watching the next contest is almost too much for us to bear.

What does this have to do with an overnight stop Amarillo? Amarillo is the home to the “Big Texas Steakhouse,” which offers a “free” 72-oz steak meal to anyone who can finish the entire meal in less than one hour. The meal consists of a shrimp cocktail, baked potato, salad, roll with butter, and of course the 72 oz. steak. Finish all that in one hour and it’s free. Miss the time limit and you get whacked for $72.

Putting two and two together, you’re no doubt wondering, what would Joey Chestnut do to the steak meal? You guessed it. He holds the world record for finishing the meal: 8 minutes, 52 seconds. If you can watch him do that without upchucking your cookies, there’s a YouTube video online.

Just think. But for this trip, I would have gone to my grave unaware of such truths.

Time to hit the road. Next stop: burrito country. (Don’t even begin to think about the implications.)