At long last, the Washington emigrees made it to New Orleans and we met up with them (rather inauspiciously in a WalMart parking lot) and headed to the campground at the New Orleans Naval Air Station for a couple days. We spent the first afternoon tending to an electrical matter so that they could have a working air conditioner (an important feature of “camping” in southern Louisiana), and then had to make plans for the following day.
The original plan was to take to the boys to the World War II Museum, but based on our impressions, and after a discussion with Robert and Laura, we decided the boys would profit more from the experience if they were a few years older. So, what else to do? Tour New Orleans cemeteries? No. Sample some cajun fare? No. Visit some jazz clubs? No. The “other kind” of clubs? Probably not for a few years. Swamp excursion? Nope. Maybe a “Confederacy of Dunces” tour? (There actually is a statue of Ignatius J. Reilly somewhere in New Orleans.) Don’t think a two-year-old would appreciate the literary significance of that tour.
Finally, Robert and Laura hit on the perfect solution: a tour on the riverboat Natchez, along with a buffet lunch aboard. Perfect for little boys and, actually, pretty interesting for the grownups as well. The most grownup-engaging part of which is that we actually got to tour the engine room. Except that the boiler is power by diesel fuel instead of coal, these are the real thing: huge steam-driven push-pull pistons driving the two arms of the paddle wheel, with no supplemental drive (i.e., no “cheating” with propellers).
Then back to the campground for a quick trip to the PX for haircuts (technically the NEX), then back to several hours of the boys doing drag races and 100-yard dashes on the campground road.
We’re depleted. We’ve spent the past couple days at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. This was a bucket list item for both of us and was supposed to be a stroll through a period of U.S. history that both of us could relate to, me because of my dad’s role as a Navy pilot in World War II, and Wendy’s because of her dad’s role as a B-17 pilot. Easy-peasy, connect with our parents’ era, see some exhibits, maybe see a 1940s musical show, and wait for Robert and family to show up in a couple days.
Things started off on a particularly high note. We had the honor of meeting the last surviving crewman from the U.S.S. Indianapolis, Sgt (fmr) Edgar Harrell, and his escort, Marine Capt (fmr) Donald Montefusco, and got to spend an hour chatting with them about those fateful days in 1945.
Then it was off to the first exhibit: the “Arsenal of Democracy,” describing how America geared up for the war effort. Mussolini mocked America, saying that all we could do was to make refrigerators. Well, Benito baby, as Eisenhower said, there is no force on earth like that of a democracy enraged, and it’s a surprisingly small step from a refrigerator to a bomber, and when America created a “war production board” to oversee conversion from consumer goods to war materiel, Mussolini and his Axis cronies learned first-hand exactly what America’s “refrigerator” factories could do: 108,000 tanks; 97,000 bombers; 100,000 fighters; 24 aircraft carriers; 324 destroyers; and 100 billion (that’s billion, with a “b”) bullets. Add to that 15 million men and women in the armed forces. Oh, and in our spare time, we developed the atomic bomb to vaporize the little Axis creeps in the Orient. So far with the museum, we’re pretty good, so with that exhibit done, we were off to the D-Day exhibit.
At this point, though, the nature of our museum experience changed dramatically. The stunning might of the American response occurs in the context of human carnage of an unimaginably horrific scale. The museum experience begins with a film, narrated by Tom Hanks, that recounts the death tally, country-by-country, as a result of the war, for a total of 65 million people dead. And in every museum exhibit, the human cost of this war is clearly and graphically displayed, often in gruesome photographs, videos, and statistics. Over 400,000 Americans died responding to the evil of the Axis onslaught, and the museum does not downplay that terrible cost.
But the museum’s message is not just about the horrors of World War II, but also the heroics of it all. Indeed, in many ways, the museum is more about the unspeakable heroism of ordinary Americans than anything else. As Stephen Ambrose once made clear, at the start of World War II, it was far from clear that a bunch of farmers, teachers, policemen, and clerks could take up arms and successfully overcome an army of battle-hardened professional soldiers. These weren’t guys who were trained to fight. They were just ordinary people who responded when their country called and resolved to do their best. And somehow, out of the ordinary humanity of decent people, there arose the most powerful fighting force the world has ever seen. Throughout the museum, there are the stories of these ordinary guys doing the most daring, selfless acts of bravery one can imagine. And they’re largely not anyone special; they’re just guys doing their job. Millions of them. Over and over and over. Many times, the stories were so overwhelming it was, for me, actually hard to breathe.
We started off with the hall dedicated to D-Day. When the museum first opened in 2000, it was known as the National D-Day Museum, and it was not until 2003 that Congress declared the concept should be expanded to a National World War II Museum. It is the nature of the way Wendy and I travel that we read every display, listen to every audio, and watch every video. As a result, it took us fully five hours to work our way through the D-Day experience.
And so it went, exhibit-by-exhibit, through the entire progress leading up to, during, and in the weeks following June 6, 1944. Even that event, though, is presented in a stark and foreboding context: on that fateful date, while Americans had seen some victories in expelling the Germans from North Africa, and were moving mile-by-mile up through Italy, and had some victories in the Pacific, the entire world, save for a few small areas, was overwhelmingly in the grip of dictatorships. Knowing how this all ends, it’s easy to forget what we were up against, and to forget that the end was never certain, a point that the museum makes clear throughout.
The next day we returned and, after a seeing a couple smaller exhibits, it was off to one of the newly added halls, “The Road to Berlin.” Same deal: one display after another of the stark combination of horror and heroism.
By the end of our experience in the Road to Berlin, we were pretty much exhausted. There was only an hour left before the museum closed, and we hadn’t even started “The Road to Tokyo,” the battle for the Pacific. But we couldn’t. We were too emotionally drained and didn’t have enough time to see the exhibit in our way anyway. So we’ve saved it for another day.
After all of this, one thought kept coming back to both of us. Could America ever do something like this again? Is there enough dedication to our country, as a country, that millions of men would sign up motivated only by a sense of national duty? Do the citizens of America have the character to put their lives on the line to save others? Are we physically and mentally capable of prolonged periods of deprivation and misery to sustain this kind of effort? We don’t know. Maybe. One hopes so. But the museum experience was a glimpse into an era where America was all that and more. And we’re glad we spent a couple days here. We’ll be back.
One of the extra added benefits of military service, besides being overworked, underpaid, sent off to God-forsaken hinterlands for months at a time, and having people try to shoot your fanny off (sounds pretty good so far, eh?) is that every couple years, you get to uproot your family and drag them off to some area of the country where they get to start their lives all over again. And because everything in the Army has to be described by a TLA (“three letter acronym”), this pick-up-and-move ordeal is known as a PCS (or “permanent change of station”). (As opposed to TDY (“temporary duty”), which is where you abandon your family for some period of time, and which further shows that everything in the Army must have a TLA, even two-word expressions. Go figure.) Besides the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of military families going through this process every year, what’s doubly amazing about it is that somehow military families not only rise to the challenge, they largely show the fortitude to make it a virtue. Like this:
All of which is a long way of getting to the point: Robert, Laura, and the boys are, as I write this, in the process of PCS’ing from Seattle to Tampa, Florida.
Because they are who they are, though, they are once again “PCS’ing with style.” All five of them, plus a poodle (don’t ask), with whatever belongings they’re toting with them to avoid their being destroyed by Army movers, and towing their trailer, are meandering diagonally across the country, camping and seeing the sights along the way.
As you might expect, Laura has the boys studying in the truck between stops, getting their Junior Ranger badges at each stop, and somehow making sure that three boys and a dog crammed into a four-foot wide space for three-plus weeks don’t kill each other.
So, our plan is to meet up with them in New Orleans, see the World War II Museum together, then off the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, and then, with a stop in the middle, travel with them down to Tampa, where we will help out with the Little Darlings while they get everything moved in to their new abode.
I guess “post mortem” isn’t exactly the right term, since technically we’re not dead (yet), but it’ll do.
Our trip this year covered 6500 miles in 32 days, through 19 states and 6 national parks. Of the 44 national parks in the continental U.S., we’ve taken our little ACE to 28 of them. Our goal was to spend retirement traveling the width and breadth of the U.S., seeing what the country has to offer, and we’re well on our way to doing that.
As we’ve been exploring national parks, we’ve taken our RV through most of the western half of the U.S., skipping only Nevada, which we’ve avoided for moral and spiritual reasons. Future trips will definitely include the upper Midwest, but probably won’t include the Northeast, which (1) except for Maine, has little to offer in terms of scenic beauty and (2) presents political and sociological challenges that we would likely find insurmountable.
The highlight of this year’s summer trip was, of course, the 8-day stretch in the middle with Robert, Laura, and The Boys.
At the Suislaw National Forest stop (Oregon coast), where we spent a morning playing around in the tide pools.
Behind the Prairie Creek visitor center, where we (as usual) had the trails essentially all to ourselves.
There are lots of reasons why the stretch in the middle of the trip with the west coast fraction of the family was special. Obviously, and firstly, they’re family, and we don’t get to see them as often as we’d like, and they’re the only branch of the family tree with a cohort of little boys, with all that such entails. But beyond that, seeing them on a camping excursion is doubly special. There’s a Ken Burns series on the national parks called “America’s Greatest Idea,” and during the course of that series there are interviews with numerous leading conservationists, among whom there is a uniform and recurrent theme: “I developed my love of nature and my approach to caring for and protecting the natural order over years of camping with my parents.” It is true: Learning about nature by watching the Discovery channel gives one only a superficial and incomplete understanding of the natural world; camping in it adds another level; camping in it in the presence of parents like Robert and Laura adds even more, mainly because they infuse the process with experiences, such as their mandatory participation in the “Junior Ranger” program, that are fundamentally transforming, even (or maybe especially) for little boys. It was a special privilege to be a part of all that.
And, of course, there was our stop in California to see Kathy and Tommy.
Tommy and Kathy in Tommy’s hot rod, a definitely cool ’32 (I think) Ford. We hadn’t seen these guys in years, so the stop in California was special indeed.
Add the stays at Crater Lake and Theodore Roosevelt national parks, and this trip, despite the challenges (described below), was in my estimation worth every bit of the effort.
However, Wendy tells me that I have PAINTED too rosy a picture of this trip, and she’ll give me a good SHELLACKING if I don’t provide the UNVARNISHED truth. (Enough of that.) So here goes…
For lots of reasons, the planning and execution of this trip was not one of my better efforts. We spent way too many days doing only overnight stops. Spending all day on the road, usually on nothing but interstates, only to stop at some unattractive RV park, set up, eat, crash, pack up, and head out, for days at a time, is just plain brutal, no matter how worthwhile the destination. Plus, on both sides of the family time in the middle, we were confronted with record-breaking heat waves, which pushed the experience from tedious to outright awful. Even our stops at the national parks were too short, just a couple days each, meaning that we were rushed at each location, not even having time to spend an extra few days at each park hiking and exploring. And we ended up racing through some areas, like Montana, where we otherwise would have stopped. The bottom line is that doing this trip in only 5 weeks was a mistake.
How much of the LUSTER (sorry) (now I’ll really stop) this takes off the experience is something that requires some time to work out. My hunch (or maybe my disposition) is that the unpleasant aspects of the trip will fade from memory, leaving only the SHINE (sorry) (I promise, that’s it) of the highlights.
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 Rex, Roosevelt 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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.