Category Archives: Travels

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.)

13 June 2018: Here we go again…

The description of our upcoming trip to the left half of the country (literally and politically) got short shrift in the last post because I distracted myself with the improbable story of Chang and Eng Bunker. Now that I have a few minutes, here’s the plan:

We leave Atlanta and make a beeline for Palmdale, California, for a couple days visiting my sister and her husband. That marks the beginning of almost two weeks in California, which raises a weird political thing about our travels. I noted previously that our trips around the country rarely bring us into contact with the leftish fraction the political spectrum. Part of that, of course, is because gauche cohort tends to congregate in cities, where there are obviously few scenic opportunities. But one might wonder, does California present an exception to the curiosity that we find only the red areas of the country are worth traveling to?

Nope. Even in a choke-hold-blue state like California, with blueness extending its grip even to the rural and agricultural areas, our particular destinations seem to be only of reddish persuasion. (And that includes Palmdale, which although technically in Los Angeles County, and which is a stop only for personal, not scenic, reasons, is politically and culturally part of Kern County, the massive red trapezoid to its north.) Surprisingly, the entire coastline of California, which is an uninterrupted string of blue bastions, has only one red exception, Del Norte County, which is where we happen to be staying. It looks like we’ll be able to transit almost the entire length of California with nary a contact with any blue people.

Weird. I wonder if there’s a point to all this?

Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah… trip plans.

We depart from Georgia on Wednesday, June 13, arriving in Palmdale on the following Monday. From there, it’s off to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, Yosemite National Park, and Lassen Volcanic National Park.

Then, a quick blip up to Crater Lake National Park where we link up with Robert and his family in their brand new RV. I wrote previously of delivering Robert’s pop-up camper to him. Given their affinity for camping, though, and more importantly given the inevitable nature of traveling with three little dirt-bag boys, they decided that it would be beneficial to have an RV with a bathroom where one can hose off the little rascals. So they are now the proud owners of an Aspen Trail 2340 travel trailer, which gives them not only the aforementioned hosing-off-chamber, but bunk beds and other creature comforts.

All of us will then caravan over to Redwood National Park for a couple days, then up the Oregon coast, stopping first in Newport and then Astoria, before we split off and they had back to Dupont and we head east, working our way over several days to Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. That last stop holds special appeal: Teddy Roosevelt was, in many ways, the godfather of the conservation movement in America. The irony is that his conservation ethic was forged by the economic and environmental calamities his ranches suffered in the 1880s. The area of those ranches, and how they offer a special glimpse into Roosevelt’s core values, is where we’ll spend a few days. We are really looking forward to that stop.

Then, it’s working our way back home, and we should be back mid-July. We’ll clean up for a week or so, and then gird our loins for having five little granddaughters stay with us for a week.

 

May 2018: Strange but true…

We’re getting ready to leave on our next big trip out west (more on that below), but first a solo trip to Mt. Airy, North Carolina, for a shake-down cruise and a meeting of my amateur radio club. So, in the natural order of things, that’s what this post would be about. But the fickle finger of fate, combined with irresistible force of divine providence (or something like that), had other plans. So here goes…

The campground here (Mayberry Campground) (because it’s near Mt. Airy, which was the model for the town of Mayberry in the old Andy Griffith show) (which is a story in itself, but one I can’t mess with right now) sits on the historic property of Chang and Eng Bunker, the original Siamese twins, and is run by descendants of the Bunkers.

The story of the Bunkers is so improbable that, if it weren’t true, one would brush it off as a ridiculous fairy tale.

Chang and Eng, from a watercolor done in 1836.

Chang and Eng were born in May 1811 in Thailand (then known as Siam). Now known as “conjoined” twins, they were joined at the sternum and shared a common liver, although they were otherwise complete. Conjoined twins occur when, in the early stages of development, an embryo that would otherwise separate to form twins only partially separates. Conjoined twins are rare, occurring in about one out of every 200,000 live births. Surgical teams are increasingly capable of separating many such pairs, but in the era of Chang and Eng, separation would have resulted in certain death for both.

For a while, Chang and Eng were under contract to a company that paraded them around the United States as a curiosity, but after that contract expired they settled in North Carolina where they bought a farm. [NOTE to all readers under the age of 30. Because this story occurs in the early 19th century, Chang and Eng operated their farm using slaves. For you, that makes them morally repulsive and unworthy of anyone knowing anything about them. Accordingly, to protect your fragile psyches, you are encouraged to stop reading now.] North Carolina was a slave state but under U.S. law, the twins counted as white. [Young people: don’t ever go to North Carolina.] They sought and were granted U.S. citizenship, but when they got to the naturalization office and were told that U.S. law required them to have a surname, so they adopted the name ‘Bunker’ from the man standing behind them in line.

In 1843, Chang and Eng married two local sisters, Adelaide and Sarah Yates. Originally, the two couples lived in a single home, sleeping in a bed made for four (strange-but-true fact #1) (imagine sleeping like that) (as one example, how did they roll over?), but after a period of time the two sisters began to dislike each other (#2). So, the two couples arranged to live in two separate homes, with Chang and Eng alternating between the two homes (#3), thereby allowing the sisters to minimize their contact with each other.

Over the course of the following years, Chang and Adelaide had eleven children and Eng and Sarah had ten (#4) (the strange aspect of the fathering-children-thing is self-evident). Chang’s son Christopher and Eng’s son Stephen both served in the Confederate army, where they were wounded and captured by Union troops. [Young people: I told you to stop reading; don’t blame me if you just learned that there was a civil war.] As a result of the war the two brothers lost almost everything. In 1870, as they were returning from a tour of Europe and Russia, Chang suffered a stroke down the side closest to his brother. Eng nursed him as best he could, carrying around Chang’s now useless leg in a sling as his ailing brother leaned on a crutch. Shortly thereafter, Chang began drinking heavily (which did not affect Eng, because the two brothers did not share a circulatory system) (#5) (imagine being joined at the chest to a tipsy brother) and in 1874 Chang died while the brothers were asleep. Eng awoke to find his brother dead, exclaimed “Then I am going!” (#6) and died a few hours later (#7) (imagine being joined to a corpse, and having to wait a few hours for the inevitable). And if all of that isn’t enough, the Bunkers’ shared liver was removed and can be seen in Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum to this day (#8).

Chang and Eng in their later years.

The Bunker dynasty, however, lives on. There are more than 1500 descendants of the Bunkers, many of whom live in the Mt. Airy area, and several of whom are prominent in their fields. United States Air Force Major General Caleb V. Haynes was a grandson of Chang Bunker through his daughter Margaret Elizabeth “Lizzie” Bunker. Alex Sink, former Chief Financial Officer of Florida, is a great-granddaughter of Chang Bunker and was the Democratic nominee in the 2010 Florida gubernatorial election. Eng’s grandson through his daughter Rosella, George F. Ashby, was President of the Union Pacific Railroad in the 1940s. Composer Caroline Shaw is a great-great-granddaughter of Chang Bunker and won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013.

My radio club was treated to a tour of the white farmhouse on the campground property built by Eng’s son, William Bunker, in 1900.  The campground owner, Benny East, is the great-great grandson of Eng.  His mother, Ruby Bunker East, was born and raised in the farmhouse along with her 5 sisters.  Benny’s daughters, Kali and Lakin East can also be found working at the campground and are great-great-great granddaughters of Eng.

Now … back to the actual point of this post.

How did the shakedown cruise go? Fine.

What about the upcoming trip? Here it is:

2018 Summer Tour. Stops 15-18 indicate places we’ll be camping with Robert, Laura, and the three boys.

That’s it for now. Further details on the upcoming trip will follow.

7 June 2017: Heading home…

After leaving Grand Canyon National Park, the plan was we’d make a quick stop to see Petrified Forest National Park, bip on down the road to see Susan and Terry at their mountain place in Pine Top, and then head home. As we were driving through a construction zone, though, a passing truck kicked up a rock, which hit the windshield, knocked a nasty hole in the top, and created two cracks running down the windshield. Such things are quite common actually, just the necessary consequence of pushing a piece of glass that’s four feet high and eight feet wide down the highway at freeway speeds. It’s actually more common on an Alaska trip, but since Arizona roads seem slightly worse than the Alaska Highway, I expect broken windshields are a fact of life here too. In any event, the windshield repair place, as it turns out, was in the same town as our stop anyway. Woo hoo. See some rockish wood, get the windshield fixed, take a breather up in the mountains, and then point ourselves east, pedal-to-the-metal, and away we go.

Petrified Forest National Park was interesting. Actually it was fascinating. But having spent a month being blown away by sights of breathtaking beauty and drama, we’re a pretty tough audience and petrified wood, even if otherwise worth seeing, just wasn’t up to our current show-us-what-you-got standard.

Millions of years ago, this area was a dense pine forest. Of course, it was also down somewhere near Costa Rica and the African continent hadn’t broken off from South America, and the whole planet was basically confused and disoriented, so having a pine forest here is the least weird thing about the geological history of this place. Anyway, as the trees died and fell over, mineral-rich groundwater permeated the logs and the logs’ tissue got turned to rock.

My favorite kinds of petrified trees are those where the innards got turned to quartz, like this specimen at “Crystal Forest.”

So there are square miles of rock trees, sometimes even full logs, all over the place. And it’s all interesting in a “isn’t that weird?” kind of way. And there’s also the usual interesting geological stuff:

If you look closely, you can see that this portion of “Blue Mesa” is littered with petrified wood.

We also got a good glimpse of a famous petroglyph display known as “Newspaper Rock”:

Scientists say that the reason the ancient Indians disappeared from this area is a big mystery. Good grief. Look at the rock! It’s obvious that aliens came down to the planet, made a bunch of hand gestures that probably mean “We Serve Mankind,” did a twirly dance thing, and then took them all off to Mars. So much for that mystery.

And the top of the park is the “Painted Desert,” although given our current demands for dramatic scenery, we just pretty much drove through it.

So, after that, we spent a great day up in the mountains, had another wonderful Mexican dinner, and it’s time to head home. The new windshield didn’t come in, but the glass people said it’s safe to drive as-is, so we’ve decided to drive home with a crack in it and we’ll get it fixed later.

When Wendy and I got married, we resolved that someday we’d travel around the country and our first stop would be Grand Canyon National Park. Things didn’t quite work out that way, and it took us way longer to get going on our travels than we planned, but we’re finally well into fulfilling that dream. It’ll be nice to be home, but we are so grateful for a trip like this. Over a dozen national parks and monuments, including places we always said we’d figure out a way to visit someday. And without a doubt, some of best examples of the incomprehensible beauty and grandeur of God’s creation. What a trip!

 

1-5 June 2017: Grand Canyon National Park

Before we arrived here at Grand Canyon National Park, we were wondering whether the park may end up being something of a let down. After all, we’d spent the past few weeks in areas of deep, richly colored canyons, spectacular forms of erosion, and towering buttes and arches. Could the Grand Canyon really measure up to all that? We weren’t sure.

Well, the Grand Canyon measured up just fine, but oddly it took us three days here to realize that. We arrived on day one too late to hit the Visitor Center, so the second day we did our usual thing: checked in, spoke to the rangers, watched the official film, got the hiking and touring information, and mapped out a plan, which began with hitting Mather Point, right next to the visitor center, and then hopping in the car to see the classic overlooks along the eastern half of the park.

Bleh. It was pretty hazy, which didn’t help, but the views were basically of a plateau that obviously had deep canyons running through it, but the canyon walls disappeared mostly without revealing their depths and the Colorado River, if it was visible at all (which it usually wasn’t) was just a thin, barely discernable blue line. The colors were muted by the haze and the dramatic, breath-taking vistas we expected basically weren’t. And plus, it was crowded.

The view from Mather Point near the Visitor Center. If you click on this photo you can barely make out the Colorado River in the upper right-hand corner. It’s that teensy blue thing. So this scene is sort of interesting, but breathtaking it wasn’t. And at each overlook, the effect was the same: our breath remained safely untaken.

Plus, as we traveled from viewpoint to viewpoint, each of the views was basically identical. Some of them supposedly featured oddly-named spires and buttes (like the “Temple of Vishnu” and the “Isis Temple”), but there was little to distinguish one from the other, they mostly were blurred by the haze, and there was no guide to pick them out anyway. Definitely more bleh.

Maybe, we thought, things would be more impressive under better light, so we packed up a picnic dinner and headed to one of the recommended overlooks to photograph the sunset. Bleh. The next morning I got up at 3:00 and headed over to a different overlook to photograph a sunrise. More bleh. Later that day, we drove down to the National Geographic visitor center in Tusayan to see the IMAX film on the Grand Canyon. That showed what we expected: incomprehensibly deep canyons, dramatic colors, raging rapids, and dramatic sunsets. The problem was that none of that matched what we were seeing in person. We felt like we were running out of time and we were wondering whether our best memories of the Grand Canyon would be of an IMAX movie we saw ten miles away.

Then, on the night of our second day, things began to change. Once again we headed over to watch the sunset, but this time the light started to cooperate. Things were still hazy, but the colors of the canyons started to reveal themselves in the light of the setting sun, and the drama of the canyons was, if anything, accentuated in the muted perspective of the evening haze.

Sunset at Yavapai Point. Oddly enough, this was not one of the recommended points to photograph a sunset. We ended up here only because, as we were sitting around at a burger joint, Wendy had a hunch that the clouds were starting to look interesting and suggested we go take pictures of the sunset, and I pulled out a map and chose some random overlook that appeared to have a western exposure. (I’m beginning to think I need to do less planning and more spontaneous hunching. The problem is that I’d basically have to change my personality.)

And then things went from bleh to wow on the third day. Somewhat encouraged by the sunset of the preceding night, we decided to give the Grand Canyon one more chance (pretty big of us, eh?) and we took the shuttle bus up to Hermit’s Rest. And then, based on another one of Wendy’s hunches [someone should figure out a way to bottle her intuitions], we decided not to exit the bus at each of the overlooks as we had planned but instead to walk down from Hermit’s Rest seven miles along the Rim Trail back to the starting point. So we bought a couple sandwiches and some drinks in the Hermit’s Rest snack shop and started walking. And there, along the trail, we found the Grand Canyon everyone kept talking about.

A typical view along the Rim Trail, this one only a short way down from Hermit’s Rest. The black-colored rock layers at the bottom of the canyon are, believe it or not, almost as old as the earth itself, nearly two billion years old! Then each of the canyon’s layers rising upward represents hundreds of millions of years of geological history. It’s almost as if one is looking over God’s shoulder as he’s forming the earth over billions of years, getting to watch him as his creation unfolds.

Still along the Rim Trail. As seen here, in places the canyon walls were so red that they appeared artificially colored.

Layer upon layer of differently colored rock, plunging down about a mile into bottomless canyons. The upper portion of the Rim Trail is paved and accessible to bicyclists, which makes it less desirable to hikers like us, but at this point the trail is a dirt path, well-maintained and easy to follow, with few visitors except for occasional hikers.

And it’s not just that we got to see the vistas of the Grand Canyon that we hoped for. As is true in so many other cases, the trail, once removed even just a short distance from where it intersected the bus stops, was basically empty. Until we reached the bottom, we saw no more than a couple dozen hikers along the trail. And the park service has placed picnic tables and benches every few hundred yards along the trail, allowing one to sit and enjoy the beauty of God’s creation in silence and awe.

Just one of dozens of picnic tables and benches along the unpaved portions of the Rim Trail, each positioned to allow one to pause for a few moments to gaze over the canyon unfolding below. Incredibly, we had most of the area, including the benches and tables, pretty much to ourselves for three hours.

It’s hard to capture the real psychological effect, but that three-hour hike entirely changed our impression of the Grand Canyon. It is definitely one of the most dramatic places on earth, and it inspires a sense of reverence that is unlike anything we experienced elsewhere. I suppose we still might find the experiences at some of the Utah parks more punchy in a way. Nothing, for example, can really match the weirdness of the hoodoos at Bryce Canyon or the graceful symmetry of the arches at Arches, but the spiritual qualities of the Grand Canyon will forever hold a special place in our memories of this trip. It is true: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.” Amen.

We still have one more stop to make at Petrified Forest National Park (we skipped it on the way up), plus a stop to get our windshield fixed (long story), but it’s time to start heading home.

29-31 May 2017: Zion National Park

Zion National Park has been something of a mixed bag for us. The campground is spectacular (the photo above was taken about 100 yards from our site, looking up at “The Watchman,” which appropriately watches over us every night) and the Zion canyon itself is breathtaking (more on that below). But this place is seriously overloaded and, for the first time in our travels, we’ve had only limited success in figuring out how to negate the effects of the crowds.

This is probably the worst crowding we’ve ever seen at any national park. Like Manhattan crowded. No, more like Tokyo crowded. At one point, there were so many tour buses jammed into the museum/welcome center (seven, we think) that they closed off the parking lot, the shuttle buses could not get in, and people could not get back to their cars. The hike on the “River Walk” up to “The Narrows” was like a New York sidewalk, with people elbow-to-elbow, pushing and shoving, as they were barely able to creep along. A few days ago, there was a two hour wait to get on the shuttle buses. When we took the shuttle up the canyon (cars are prohibited, thank goodness), this is the line we had to wait in:

This wait was only about 15 minutes, even though the line snaked back-and-forth in Disney World fashion for about six circuits. In watching people lining up to get on and off the buses, which often had standing room only, I was reminded of those scenes of commuters being crammed into Tokyo subway cars with giant plungers.

The effect of the crowding was compounded by three factors. First is the arrangement of the park itself. As with Arches, the layout of the park is such that there are only a few points in the park where people are dropped off to see the sights. Eight, to be precise, and since cars are banned, it is eight places and only eight places. Second, the number of visitors is more than the park can accommodate. On a recent peak day, the park had 45,000 people in attendance. Essentially all of those people are crammed in and around those precious few eight stopping points. Do the math… it’s not pretty. Finally, being as tactful about this as I can be, there is a problem with the nature of the population. Zion is very close to Las Vegas, so it attracts travelers consisting of a mix of those who are not interested in traveling to any remote location and who, well, are the kind of people who find Las Vegas to be a desirable add-on to their “national park experience.” They all seem to be urban types for whom crowding and density are a necessary corollary to modern life and they are quite good at importing urban “manners” to their visit to the park. And, for them, this probably just another stop on an American vacation itinerary that consists of New York, Chicago, Las Vegas, Zion. That’s the mix. Plus, well over half of the visitors seem to be foreigners who have little knowledge of or interest in conservation of wild places in the American conceptualization of that principle, and therefore seem to have no interest in abiding by the norms of visiting an unspoiled location.

The net result is that for us, several times and for the first times ever in our 45-plus years of visiting national parks, we had the feeling of “get me out of here.”

But, on the other hand, this place is stunning and once away from the crowds, this place is definitely a must-see. Really. This is as beautiful a location as anywhere we’ve ever been.

The Watchman, with the Virgin River flowing through the park. By sunset, the crowds were thinning out and it was actually easy to get this shot.

The “Towers of the Virgin” as seen on an early morning ranger-guided tour. The tour was not only excellent (it focused on the history of the Mormons in this area), because it was (1) early in the morning and (2) a closed group escorted by a ranger, it was free from the crowding that we encountered under other circumstances.

And there were times when we got away from the crowds. For example, we spent one day visiting Kolob Canyon and Kolob Terraces, two little-visited areas of the park (probably because the roads are so winding and narrow) (and for part of the trip, dirt) that tour buses cannot manage the route. Over the entire trip, we saw maybe a half-dozen people.

Kolob Canyon. To get here, one has to drive about 20 miles outside of the park, drive north on I-15 for 15 miles, and then take a narrow, winding, marginally terrifying road up through the canyons. But the views are spectacular.

On a hike to the “Emerald Pools,” which was fairly jammed with people, we continued on past that photo-worthy spot and, once beyond the location where the selfie-crazed tourists were gathered, the crowds completely dissipated and we had the views to ourselves.

 

Even on the hateful “River Walk,” Wendy discovered a dirt path next to the river, away from the paved trail up to The Narrows, that was once again people-free.

About 100 yards to the left of this tranquil scene are thousands of people, shuffling along in dense crowds, apparently feeling quite at home in the experience but oblivious to the beauty that lies just a few feet away.

And late one day we took off for a moto-touring drive to the east side of the park on the Zion-Mt. Carmel road, and had a wonderful time, relatively immersed in a wild place, as evidenced by this:

A herd of Bighorn Sheep, all females with a couple lambs. Wendy spotted these as we were driving along, gave the command for an immediate stop and we spent about an hour watching them feeding among the rocks.

As the sheep moved off the rocks, this little guy spotted me, apparently wondering why that thing up above him didn’t have horns. We never did see Daddy Bighorn.

So, of the Utah parks, while this is certainly one of the most beautiful, we’d probably say this was our least favorite. Perhaps it would have been better earlier in the season, or perhaps, unfortunately, this is just the future of the national park experience.

In any event, next stop is the Grand Canyon. Further updates to follow…