Category Archives: Deep Thoughts

2020 Western Trip: Post Mortem

Just a few random, wrap-up thoughts after our 2020 trip to Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and Montana.

RVing During a Pandemic. Definitely, the only way to travel during a pandemic is in an RV. No hassles with restaurants, public bathrooms, common spaces, germ-laden surfaces, or any of the infinity of petty (but necessary) annoyances of trying to stay free of contagion-laden encounters. Except for missing out on some of the attractions of our typical tours (such as rangers talks, guided hikes, museums, visitor centers, and the like) (all of which, to be clear, we did miss), RV travel during a pandemic is essentially no different than any other RV travel expedition. We wondered before we left whether this trip would provide the essentials of what have always made our trips memorable, and the answer is a resounding yes.

Schedules. Because our trip turned solo at the last minute, and because the kinds of activities that normally populate our schedules were largely unavailable, for the first time we had a trip that presented day after day with nothing in particular to do. And surprisingly, that made it one of the best trips ever.

Normally, when one’s time on a trip is limited, there’s a weird sort of pressure to make the best of it, to make sure all of the essentials get done, to avoid “wasting” time. But this time, we were free to do things as they struck our fancy. If we passed a sign for a trail to a waterfall, we were free to break from plan, pull over, and do a spontaneous hike. When we thought wildlife might appear, we were free to sit for three (!) hours just to see what happened. When we visited a particularly photogenic scene, we had the flexibility to wait for a couple hours for just the right light.

We witnessed one of those meteorological conditions where the wind blowing over the mountain top caused the mountain to generate ever-changing plumes of clouds. I actually did a time-lapse video of the scene, and if I figure out how to post it, I’ll replace this photo. The point, though, is that we had the freedom to spend an hour just sitting at the overlook, watching clouds. A special treat, and something possible only with an unencumbered schedule.

We don’t expect this to be our M.O. going forward. We laughed at what it would have been like to sit in lawn chairs by the side of the road for three hours if we had a shrewdness of grandchildren with us. But, for this one trip, the serendipity of an unencumbered schedule made it memorably special.

Connectivity. We noticed something odd this year: the visitors map to Yellowstone has several colored blobs indicating those areas of the park where cell phone coverage is available. Even worse, it looked to us like the Park Service is laying fiber optic cable in Grand Teton NP. On both counts, I have grave forebodings about what future park experiences may hold.

I understand why a lack of connectivity can be a nuisance. In Grand Teton, there was only one area we found that had cell phone coverage (a pull-out down by Willow Flats), and only one other location (down by the marina store) that had WiFi internet access. So, to fire off an itinerary change to the family, phone ahead for campground reservations, or respond to some supposedly “urgent” need back in Atlanta, all required an inconvenient detour to some suitable spot and a break from park activities.

But that’s the point. Immersing oneself in the splendor of the Grand Teton range is not about sending off emojis, updating your Facebook timeline, or firing off some blather in your TikTok app. It’s not even about staying connected to the office. The essence of a visit to a national park is that it forces you to detach from the consuming trivialities imposed by modern technology, take a deep breath, and momentarily focus on things that transcend the mundane details of ordinary daily life.

I’ve written before about the tragic superficiality of people we’ve seen who come across some scene of breathtaking beauty, turn their backs on the magnificence of their surroundings, take the obligatory selfies, and then promptly leave, only to continue their never-ending stream of missed opportunities. I wonder now if that tragedy will be compounded by the Park Service striving to make the national parks places for connected experience.

Blue Meanies. For many years, I’ve pondered the connection between city living and an excessive proportion of nasty people. And it’s not just one of my (many) (mostly random) theories: a friend’s wife who is an epidemiologist at CDC has actually done academic research on how urban density is a causative factor in aggressive behavior. This also explains a phenomenon we observed: states that are dominated by cities, and hence those states that tend to be blue, also tend to display the urban manners of the citified people that populate them.

We had an interesting confirmation of this social phenomenon this year. From time to time, more often than one might think in national parks, one encounters people who are unexpectedly and unnecessarily rude and aggressive. The most common examples can be seen on the park roadways. Speed limits in the park are generally pretty low (often 45 mph, slower near lodging, popular attractions, or areas where wildlife congregate). Many people (including us) actually abide by these speed limits. Unfortunately, though, for certain kinds of people, a speed-limit-obeying vehicle is little more than a source of frustration and an opportunity for attack. These are the people who ride the bumper of the car in front of them, swerve out (often illegally) to blast by the offending speed-limit-obeying motorist, drive the wrong way through a traffic slow-down, and otherwise bring the ill-mannered demeanor of urban life to the wilds of Wyoming.

And here’s what we noticed. These brutish assailants were almost always from blue states. Amazing. Most of the cars on the road were local (Wyoming and Utah mostly), but when some jerk crossed a double-line to drive at 70 mph in a 45 zone, blue state. And it was way too often to be a coincidence: New York, New Jersey, California, Washington. Blue meanies everywhere.

[For those too young to catch the allusion, the Blue Meanies were the brutish bad guys in the Beatles’ movie Yellow Submarine and a metaphor for mean people everywhere.]

Harleys. Speaking of behavior that is strangely out of place, here’s another one. Although I rode a motorcycle for 50 years, I never really understood the Harley Davidson crowd. The motorcycles themselves are not particularly functional (the performance riding course I took regularly would not even allow Harleys to participate), but the oddest thing is the fascination Harley people seem to have with removing the bikes’ mufflers. Why? For the rider, what could possibly be the attraction of a deafening, mind-numbing roar inches from one’s eardrums for hours on end, and how could anyone be indifferent to the annoyance that such a blast creates for anyone within a couple hundred yards of the offending tailpipes?

What brought on this detour into the oddities of the Harley Davidson subculture? Our time in the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone National Park this year coincided with this year’s Sturgis motorcycle rally, an improbable gathering of, no kidding, 460,000 motorcycles (down this year, maybe due to COVID-19, by about 9% from last year), in the town of Sturgis, South Dakota. An unfortunate proportion of the Sturgis-gathering motorcycles are Harleys, and a doubly unfortunate proportion of the Harleys are ridden by the aforementioned muffler removers. And one more unfortunate circumstance: the Lamar Valley is the natural route between Sturgis and the rest of Yellowstone. What that meant was that the roadway through the Lamar Valley was subject to a never-ending roar of groups (sometimes 30 or more) of unmuffled motorcycles blasting their way through the otherwise tranquil expanse of the park.

There’s a pretty funny video out there of a bison who attacked a woman who had gotten off her motorcycle and walked into a herd of buffalo to take pictures, with the animal adding insult to the woman’s injuries by pulling the woman’s pants right off of her. Really. Watch the video. It’s funny in a Darwin Awards sort of way.

One cannot go anywhere in the national parks without seeing these kinds of warning signs, which makes approaching a buffalo and getting pantsed in the process especially fitting.

In any event, though, we were not so fortunate as to see any bikers pantsed by buffalo this year. Next year, maybe, but at the very least we’ll remember to bring our ear plugs.

Overall. One of our best trips ever, enjoyable even in the midst of a disrupting social climate, and filled with new experiences. We are so glad we resisted the urge to bail out and once again reminded how blessed we are to live in such a beautiful country, and doubly blessed to be able to enjoy it.

July 2020: Grand Teton National Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grand View Point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 2020: As high as an elephant’s eye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On RV’ing During an Epidemic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can I keep my nail clippers?

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

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

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.

On the road with TR…

We are just a few hundred miles out from Theodore Roosevelt National Park, our last stop before we begin the trek home, and we’re listening to Theodore Rex, the second volume of Edmund Morris’s classic three-volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt. We’re listening to the book as a prelude to that stop, largely because it recounts the formation and implementation of Roosevelt’s conservation policies. But ever since our visit to Mount Rushmore, we have carried with us an admiration for Roosevelt’s character and ideals, which has caused us now, as we listen to the book and the miles roll by, to realize that our country has changed in a way that would have stifled the very virtues that Roosevelt embodied.

Roosevelt was a weak and sickly child, debilitated by asthma. He was small and skinny, which made him the object of frequent bullying. But it was how he reacted to these afflictions that gave him the character he displayed as president. He overcame his infirmities by adopting a strenuous lifestyle. In response to the bullies, he hired a boxing tutor who taught him to defend himself. He exercised regularly and pushed himself to go on long hikes. His entire youth was spent in dedicating himself to the development of strength, courage, and perseverance.

The contrast between Roosevelt’s approach to his afflictions and the norms of modern America is patent. It wasn’t that many years ago, certainly within my lifetime, that one gained stature and influence not by having afflictions, but by overcoming them, not by demanding concessions to one’s frailties, but by refusing them. Just a few decades ago, encouragement to “man up” was not something to be derided, it was an exhortation, in the manner of a young Teddy Roosevelt, to develop the best aspects of masculinity in the face of fear, deficiency, or weakness.

It’s sad that our country now celebrates and rewards vulnerability, timidity, frailty, and weakness. But, as Theodore Roosevelt National Park comes closer and closer, we are grateful that it was not always so.

1 May 2017: Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Normally, I’m not big on caves, which have always impressed me as nothing more than big, rocky holes in the ground, and even if they have the usual assortment of formations, all properly lit up, the experience wears off in a few moments and I’m back to being trapped in a big hole. So, the main attraction in heading to Carlsbad Caverns was less the caverns than seeing the bats, which emerge from the cavern every night at dusk, and which I’ve heard about from Wendy and the family ever since they visited there in 1988.

First, I was wrong about the caverns. Like, embarrassingly wrong. (No wonder no one ever listens to me.) Carlsbad Caverns is definitely not just a big hole in the ground. Actually, it is a big hole in the ground, but it’s so big, and so complex, and so stunning in its visual impression that it nearly defies description. We did one of the self-guided tours (we got there too late for a guided tour), which took us into the caverns for a loop of about 2-1/2 miles, starting with an 800-foot descent on a switch-backed trail through the main entrance, and eventually into the “Big Room.”

This is some dippy retro post card that I found on the internet, but it’s the best depiction I found of the layout of the caverns. The self-guided tour, about 2-1/2-miles long, enters down the “natural entrance” on the upper left, all the way over to the “Big Room” on the far right, and then back to the elevator for the 750-foot lift back to the surface.

The “Big Room,” for example, although it’s just a teeny part of the caverns and just one part of the self-guided tour, is huge: big enough to put the U.S. Capitol building in there twice! At one point, it’s 250 feet tall. One side loop around the Big Room is a mile long! This part of the cavern system is only one of about 100 such caverns, most of which have never been explored. In 1986, some guys accidentally discovered a side-branch to the cavern system, and so far they’ve explored it for 150 miles. As the short film in the visitor center pointed out, it’s hard to find any place on the surface of the earth that isn’t fully explored, but beneath our feet, literally, we haven’t even begun to explore our own world.

And somehow the National Park service has managed to install paths, and handrails, and lighting throughout this portion of the caverns.

You’d actually do better to look up images of the caverns on the internet than settle for my amateur attempts to capture the scenes with my camera, but this image makes the point. Note the path winding through this portion of the Big Room. And, although this image doesn’t exactly capture the lighting, the National Park Service hired a theatrical lighting expert to do the lighting with the objective that the interior of the caverns would be illuminated, but the effect would still be “cave-like.” They succeeded on both counts.

I forget how deep we are into the caverns at this point, but we were approaching the time when they closed up the caverns for the day, and we were deep enough that we decided to get one last picture of us alive in case things turned out otherwise.

The bottom line is that I could easily go back to the caverns again and spend more time just marveling in its complexity and beauty.

Second, I was right about seeing the bats, but first a brief digression.

[Social Commentary /on]  There is an amphitheater near the entrance to the cave where visitors can sit down at dusk and watch the flight of bats as they emerge. Everywhere one looks, there are signs explaining that all electronic devices must be turned off (not just put on silent or in sleep mode). No active cameras, cell phones, or other electronic devices are permitted because they interfere with the bats’ behavior and ability to navigate. So, for the good of the bats, and for the benefit of the experience, no exceptions. Everything must be off. The effect of those signs? Zippo. Nada. A huge percentage of the visitors, Wendy and I estimate about half, were completely loaded up with cameras (some even set up on tripods!), cell phones, selfie-sticks, and God-knows-what, all ready to blast away as soon as the bats emerged. What? What’s going on here? The only thing Wendy and I could figure out is that about half of the population, here at least, but probably everywhere, doesn’t care about nature, doesn’t care about their fellow man, and doesn’t particularly care even about the quality of their own experience. As long as they can take some inferior little snapshot, and take it home to their equally self-focused and despicable friends and family, they’re willing to ruin the very thing they came to see. How sad. Fortunately, though, an armed park ranger showed up just before dusk and said that his job was to protect the bats, that using electronic devices was a citable offense, and that if the devices weren’t turned off and put away at this point, those using them were subject to arrest. That did it. Apparently, the problem is widespread enough that the National Park Service has learned that, if moral force isn’t enough, the prospect of making little ones out of big ones in a federal pen will ensure compliance. [Social commentary /off]

And the bat experience? Apparently we were there too early in the season and most of the colony of Mexican Free-Tailed Bats won’t return from Mexico for another month or two. So, right now, there are “only” 20,000 to 30,000 bats in attendance! Precisely at dusk, though, as if on cue, hundreds of bats emerged and begin circling in front of the cavern entrance, racing around at incredible speeds, somehow managing not to collide, gaining altitude with each loop, until they reach a height sufficient to head off into the countryside, and away they flew. Then another flight emerged, again spiraling upward, faster and faster, higher and higher, and then heading off. And then another flight, and another, and another. It seemed like it would not end. I later asked the ranger if the bats were actually emerging in groups so they could form up into “squadrons,” so to speak, but that’s not what they’re doing. They are actually solitary hunters. But they have to spiral upwards because their little wings don’t generate much lift. In fact, most of them can’t even take off from the ground. They are, as he put it, “the jet fighters” of the bat world. After 45 minutes or so, now in almost total darkness, the bats were gone and we headed back to the campground. Had we been here in June or July, it would not have been a few tens of thousands of bats, it would have been hundreds of thousands. I can’t even imagine what that would look like.

So, add this to the list of reasons we’d return to Carlsbad Caverns for an even better re-do of the experience.

Next stop, White Sands National Monument.

Whither postcards?

At every worthy stop we make, Wendy and I send off postcards to the grandchildren, aka Little Darlings (henceforth LDs), all eight of them. But lately it has become a formidable challenge to find postcards even at the most likely stops. Disney had precious few (maybe a half dozen), and only the same limited selection was to be found at all of the venues. Many other stops had none. Sometimes, we’d ask a store clerk if they had postcards and was greeted with an odd stare, followed by, “I think the place across the street used to have some.” I was preparing to add a comment to one of my travel posts about this strange phenomenon but coincidentally a post on the same topic showed up today on the RV Travel blog, describing postcards as a “relic of the past.”

The premise behind Woodbury’s conclusion is that picture postcards, as media of choice for sending off pictures of destination spots, along with the obligatory “wish you were here” message, have been overtaken by photo messages, Instagram, Facebook, selfies, and every other form of instantaneous electronic communication. True, true, and in many ways our ability to follow each other’s travels, see the sights, and participate vicariously in travels to new places is both more extensive and intensive than it ever was. But the replacement of the postcard with an excess of instantaneous photo updates, I think, like so much of the modern electronic alternatives, somehow loses something in the translation.

The difference between a postcard and a photo-feed, I guess, is firstly not so much in the adequacy of the communique, but in the generosity of the message. It takes considerable effort to hunt for just the right card, carefully write out (with a pen, of all things) a message particular to the recipient, address it, and find a place to send it off. At least with eight LDs, it’s hours start to finish. But that’s why postcards are more an act of thoughtfulness than a blunt, in-your-face info update. More than just saying, “wham-bam, here’s a picture, see you later” it says “You matter enough to me that I’m taking time out my travels just to let you know how much I care for you. You’re worth the effort.” And, secondly, the impetus for a picture postcard is, obviously, the picture. There are no “selfie” postcards, which is why they stand in stark contrast to someone who visits something as majestic as the Grand Canyon and thinks, “What a great place to take a picture of me.”

Oh well… I guess it’s to be expected that photographic relics of the past still hold appeal to living relics of the past (namely us). Next post will be back to reality…

31 October – 6 November 2016: Branson MO

OK, put a fork in it. We’re done. We are officially “elderly.” We got our toes into that status when we bought ACE and established ourselves as those kinds of little old people who creep along in their motorhome, with little rat-dogs sitting on our laps, backing up traffic for miles, and flipping the bird at frustrated motorists when they finally manage to pass us. And admittedly we took our senior discounts on Wednesdays, went to the 4 o’clock movies, and made sure we ate plenty of fiber. But we clung to a measure self-delusion because, in our minds at least, we didn’t otherwise generally act like “old people.” But that’s ended. We’re here in Branson. Really. Branson. We’ve come to the vacation spot of choice for those getting ready to inhale for the last time. Unlike Las Vegas (where there’s a sign at the airport that reads, “You are now leaving Las Vegas. Time to forget what you did last night.”), Branson is the place for people who forget what they did last night routinely.

And here’s the weirder thing: we really, really enjoyed it. But first, a message from our sponsors.

[Political commentary /on]

A friend recently sent me an article about the red-state versus blue-state divide, and made the oft-noted observation that blue people are mainly concentrated along the coasts, hunkered down in cities, and living in a few areas (like the northeast and places where crystal superstitions abound), while the vast geographical portion of America is essentially red. We’ve all seen the map showing that, while red and blue populations are about equal, the blue area is only about 9% of the country.

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None of this new. What hit me on this trip, though, is that I now understand why, as we travel around in ACE, we keep meeting our kinds of peeps: the red area denotes not only the politically conservative area of America, it’s almost our travel map! One doesn’t take a motorhome into New York or San Francisco, for example, but across the rural and small-town areas of the country that, frankly, blue people hate. And Branson, as the archetype of red constituencies, is just the kind of place we love. Just as a few examples:

  • We went to a Christmas show on our first day here (I know, I know, it’s early, but ignore that for now), and the show, in an auditorium filled with 700 tourists, began with the MC saying, “Before we begin, let’s not lose sight of why we celebrate Christmas in the first place: the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ…” (!)
  • Many of the events began with an overtly Christian blessing before the meal (!).
  • Every event we went to, every one, had a tribute to veterans. Usually the veterans were asked to stand, while the audience applauded.
  • Many of events also carried an overtly patriotic theme (!), including the Pledge of Allegiance, the National Anthem (often with a swipe at any “idiot” who takes a knee during the National Anthem) (!), America the Beautiful, or I’m Proud to Be An American. In most instances, the audience stood during the relevant pieces (!). Everyone always stood during renditions of The Battle Hymn of the Republic.
  • We stopped by College of the Ozarks (also discussed below), a small (1500 students), Christian liberal arts college. Not only is the college the location of the Missouri Vietnam War Veterans Memorial (!), all of the students work 15 hours per week on the campus (!), plus two 40-hour work weeks (!), and up to 12 weeks during the summer (!), in exchange for which they attend tuition free (!!). The college’s vision is to produce graduates of “Christ-like character” who are, quote, “well-educated, hard-working, and patriotic.” Try to imagine THAT plaque at any Ivy League university, or actually any university in a blue area.

And so it goes: as we travel around, and in Branson especially, we find ourselves in a near-constant immersion in orthodox Christian convictions, hard work, traditional core values, patriotism, and military service. Not exactly blue-state dispositions, and it explains a lot about why we like travel in general and why I’m moving to Branson.

[Political commentary /off]

OK, where was I? Oh yeah, Branson. So, we got here as part of an RV tour group. It’s a long story, but we had a left-over deposit from the Alaska trip that we had to cancel, and decided that using it on a “rally” in Branson, a place we thought we would otherwise never go, made sense. So, now that I think about it, this trip started off doubly weird. Besides the fact that we ended up in Branson, the format was one of those things we all grew up hating: busloads of old people, waddling along en masse into and clogging up restaurants and show venues, all wearing name badges and sporting matching goofy tour-company hats. That’s us.

I’m off track again. Where was I? Oh yeah, back to Branson. So our week here included all of the major old people/touristy/kitschy activities you’d expect from someone in the throes of rapid-onset elderly status.

  • The trip started off on Halloween with a dinner, costume party (oh pull-eeze), and dance. Except for the eating part, we don’t do those things. Ever. Except we did. Proof positive of something. I’m not sure what. One indication, though, is that dinner and dancing started at 5:00 and ended at 9:00. And even worse, we didn’t make it to 9:00.

Peanut Butter and Jelly

That’s us: peanut butter and jelly. We thought our costumes were cute, but we were nothing in comparison to the other get-ups. We didn’t even make the quarter-finals of the costume contest.

  • Tuesday we did the Showboat Branson Belle, a recently constructed but otherwise authentic sternwheeler. That event provided our first suggestion that, so to speak, we’re not in Kansas anymore. It began, as mentioned above, with a startlingly overt Christian message. But then, during the salute to veterans (in which they not only recognized veterans by branch, they also got the order of precedence right!), the MC announced that one of the artists was a veteran, and it turned out to be the stunningly attractive violinist who, after graduating from Julliard (!), enlisted in the Army (!), and was introduced to the audience as former Staff Sergeant Janice Martin (!). Excuse me? We’re in a place where Julliard graduates, who aspire to a career in entertainment, first take time off to do their duty to serve their country?

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Getting ready to board the Branson Belle.

The Branson Belle auditorium, lunch served, waiting for the entertainment to begin.

Former Staff Sergeant (!) Janice Martin performing a classical violin piece.

That night it was off to show #2, the Presleys Country Christmas Jubilee. We didn’t know what to expect–I thought it was going to be an Elvis impersonator. Wrong. The Presleys (no relation to Elvis) are a family of entertainers who have lived in the Ozarks in Missouri and Arkansas for, I don’t know, hundreds of years and who put on one of the best and most popular variety shows in Branson. And besides being surprised by the gospel music sing-a-long going on upstairs before the show (!), this was our first exposure to another Branson tradition: the entertainers came by to greet our group, hang around and chat for a while, and thank us for coming. Overall: a great show. A.

The Presleys (no relation to Elvis).

  • Wednesday started off with the College of the Ozarks, mentioned above. I won’t go on and on about what an impressive school that was, but one more thing… The student guides we had (who were doing their mandatory work stints in the PR department) were both charming, articulate, and enthusiastic. They noted that CofO grads not only have zero debt when they graduate, they are highly sought after and essentially 100%-employed upon graduation because, in addition to a highly-rated education, they all have at least three years of actual work experience. Anyway, it’s worthwhile plinking around on the school’s website. As an experience, it got a grade of A+.

College of the Ozarks Chapel College of the Ozarks

 

That night, it was the “Shepherd of the Hills – Christmas on the Trail Dinner.” That was the only event during the week that Wendy and I really didn’t care for. In fact, we thought that the dinner was bad, the entertainment was worse, and the “Trail of Lights” was even worse still. Our evaluation: F.

“Cowboy” dinner and show, which was a major disappointment for us, although it was the only one.

  • Thursday started off with Clay Cooper’s Ozark Mountain Christmas. After the Trail Dinner we weren’t sure what to expect, but we were back to a truly outstanding performance, full of great music, lively performances, and (in my view) a charming and witty MC. (We both agree the musical performances got a grade of A, but Wendy thought he was a little rough on some members of the audience. For example, he asked one member of the audience his name. That guy kinda looked up with a blank stare and said nothing, to which Clay responded, “Your name is on that little tag you’re wearing if that helps.” I thought that was funny; Wendy didn’t. Sheesh. Girls.) Overall (for me): A. (Wendy gave him a B+.)

 

Then off to the Dutton Family Christmas Show. It’s hard to describe this show, or to convey what a remarkable performance we witnessed. The Duttons are a family of about 9 members who first gained fame as finalists on America’s Got Talent, where even the nefarious Simon Cowell raved about their performance. The music for the show is mostly instrumentals played on violins, guitars, violas, banjos, bass guitars and violins, with occasional keyboards and drums thrown in, combined with a style of engagement with the audience that had people laughing, clapping, and rockin’ out in their seats. Wow. A definite A++.

Then, that night, off to see The Haygoods, another performing family. After the Duttons, anything was bound to pale in comparison, but this show wasn’t really our style. The music was excellent, with wonderful closely-spaced harmonies and masterful instrumentals, but the presentation was too rock-concert’ish for us (light effects, loud music, the rock-style double arm wave, etc.) We enjoyed it, but the grade was only a B+.

Light effects up the wazoo, plus excellent music. But a bit too hip for elderly people like us.

  • By Friday, we were starting to get a little worn out, so the group had the morning off, but then it was off to see The Six, yet another family show. What’s with all of these musical families? They must be breeding in the Ozarks or something. Anyway, this is a group of six brothers (of ten brothers total) (!) (no sisters) (!) [Robert and Laura take note — if you keep trying for a girl, you’re likely to end up with ten boys]. What distinguishes them is that they use no instruments. Really. The accompaniment of instrumental sounds is all done with their voices. We had heard wonderful things about the show, and it gets great reviews, but somehow it didn’t quite measure up. Maybe our expectations were too high. In any event, only a grade of B.

We used to yell at Robert to stop making weird noises all the time. We should have encouraged him to go into show business instead.

Then off to Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede. I can’t believe I just wrote that, but it’s true. A friend, when she learned we were headed off to Branson (and after being convinced that we weren’t kidding) said, “At least please tell me you’re not going to the Dixie Stampede.” We did. The actual Dolly Parton extravaganza. The same Dolly Parton who once said, “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap…” And if going to the Dixie Stampede is weird, get a load of this: we loved it! It was a terrific performance, with great music, and wonderful food. We both came out saying we’d love to bring the grandkids to the show, but frankly I’d go back even without the little darlings. Grade: A+.

 

Schmaltzy, but great. The Christmas music portion of the show was accompanied by a “living crèche.” We love that kind of stuff. Not visible, but the shepherds came in with sheep, the wise men came in on camels, and there were angels up in the rafters. More of the “I’m not ashamed of the gospel” stuff we’ve come to expect in Branson.

  • Finally, mercifully (it’s hard having this much fun), Saturday was our last day. And it started off with a breakfast and show at the Blackwood Singers, Grammy-award-winning gospel singers. I guess I never realized this, but I love gospel music. I love the foot-stompin’ Christian enthusiasm of the music, and the theology of the lyrics is just rock solid. Once again, we found ourselves in circumstances where we would have sworn the entertainment was not our style, and once again we came out of the performance having completely enjoyed ourselves. Grade: A.

I know this is getting monotonous, but after lunch we headed over to a performance by George Dyer, which turned out to be our absolutely favorite event of the week. Dyer is a classically trained, formerly touring opera singer. His show is a mix of pop tunes (Andy Williams style), Broadway music, and popular arias. The pop tunes are OK, but the show music and arias are beyond words. Wendy is a big fan of Josh Groban, and Dyer is sort of like Groban on steroids. Just a stunning performance. Definitely our favorite: A++.

Finally, it was the “Christmas Wonderland.” Eh. It was basically just dance numbers, with most of the vocals doing sort of a karaoke accompaniment to recorded music. The dancing was fine, fast-paced and creative, but after so many notable vocals and instrumentals, it was something of a letdown. I gave it only a grade of B-.

So, on balance, I’d say this was one of our best trips. Different, to be sure, than the grandeur of a trip through the western national parks, but a great way to spend a week. Think about it: of the 12 shows we saw, there 9 (!) A’s, 2 B’s, and only one bomb. In terms of a GPA, Branson is an honor candidate with a GPA of 3.9, which isn’t bad for a week’s worth of entertainment. If and when we ever have spare travel time, I’d certainly go back.

16-18 July 2016: Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone. The world’s first national park, created in 1872, and to this day the benchmark for the national park concept. The impetus for the park’s creation was largely found in its dramatic physical features: geysers, hot springs, waterfalls, glacial valleys, and mountain peaks. Early reports from the area were so fanciful that they were assumed to be the product of the drunken imaginations of mountain men too long without human company, and no one in Washington believed them until photographs and an official survey confirmed that the whole area is indeed as spectacular as the descriptions made it out to be. That was all it took for President Grant to OK the creation of the park.

It’s no wonder the physical features here defy belief. The Yellowstone area is the product of a series of explosions of the “Yellowstone Supervolcano,” a category defined as a volcano whose eruptions eject more that 250 cubic miles of volcanic debris. (That’s “cubic miles,” like with with “m.”) The Yellowstone volcano has had at least three such eruptions: 2.1 million years ago, 1.2 million years ago, and 640,000 years ago, that ejected 6,000, 700 and 2,500 times more stuff than the eruption of Mt. St. Helens. (If you’re a typical overprotective parent, add this to your list of daily worries: eruptions occur about every 600,000 years and the last one was 640,000 years ago.) The last eruption was so powerful it blew lava and ash into Louisiana! If it were to blow again, about two-thirds of the United States would be affected. Seriously. This is one big honkin’ volcano. And each time it erupts, it shifts and collapses in on itself leaving a landscape, including the famous geothermal features, that only a Martian could invent.

We were first here on our pre-marital honeymoon (how’s that for a concept?) 44 years ago, and have returned several times since then, so the question is how many times can we return before the effect of those “dramatic features” wears off?

Wendy’s view is that the real impact of most of the sights in Yellowstone happens on the first visit, and successive visits add little to the experience. My own view is a little different. For me, the effect doesn’t wear off so much as it, “matures.” Either way, though, there’s so much to see and do that both of us agree it would take many visits before one has really “done” Yellowstone. On the day we arrived, for example, we made a quick jaunt up the road to the nearby Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone to see the upper and lower falls, things we’ve seen numerous times before, and once again were taken with the beauty of this place.

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Lower Falls, as seen from Artists Point, a view that has been photographed and painted at least a billion times, not including a couple hundred million selfies taken by Asian tourists and American millennials while we were there. And no, this is not a painting I copied from the internet; it’s a photograph taken at the scene.

So, we spent the next two days simply driving around the park. The main roads in Yellowstone form figure-eight shape, just right for a couple days of motoring around, seeing the sights. Of course, “driving around” means experiencing waits for bull-headed locals who amble along the roadway oblivious to the delays they create.

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Some people worry that humans have an adverse effect on the wildlife. Ha. The wildlife either don’t care about humans or take a perverse pleasure in annoying us. Either way, don’t worry about the animals.

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Old Faithful, as seen from the back, whatever that means.

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Grand Geyser, the largest geyser in the world, spewing boiling water about 75 feet high, and it goes on and on until, frankly, we got bored of watching it and went elsewhere.

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One of many belching mud thingies. The “geothermal” features of Yellowstone aren’t beautiful, and it’s hard to see the glory of God’s creation in a sulfurous nauseating cauldron that belongs in the third circle of hell, but these features are so unspeakably weird that we actually enjoy traveling around just looking at them.

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Mammoth Hot Springs. Except (too bad for the huge Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel), the springs aren’t. The flow of water went dormant in 1998 and so now it’s just a big white terraced rock, and those striking multi-colored pools of water are all gone. If the springs remain dormant, this will be just a big pile of dirt. Hard to imagine the “Mammoth Pile of Dirt Hotel” holding much appeal for tourists. Asians maybe.

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The Lamar Valley in the very northeast section of Yellowstone. For some reason, we’ve never been here in all of our trips and it’s both beautiful and unlike anything else in the park. Definitely coming back here to explore further.

Two other thoughts.

First, we were here in 1988, the year of the worst fires ever at any national park. Those fires destroyed one-third of the park. However, since much of the park is grassland or river canyons, the fraction of the forest land destroyed was much higher. Everywhere one goes, there are miles and miles of burnt forests, even now with only minimal regrowth.

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One of the burned areas, with new lodgepole pines only four to eight feet high. In other more favorable areas, the lodgepoles are up to 25 feet high.

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In some areas, regeneration is barely visible, leaving a landscape of miles of fallen burned logs, even 28 years after the fire. This is near Mt. Washburn, a rocky terrain that seems to defy regrowth. Those are all fallen logs that cover the hillside.

In all of this, though, the National Park Service makes a good point. Fire is a natural part of the landscape and lodgepole pine might take 200 to 300 years to reach maturity. So the cycle of death and regeneration that occurs regularly here is much longer than a human lifespan. But in terms of the age of the park, the cycle is a blink of an eye that has occurred millions of times in the past and will continue to do so. Still, it’s sobering to think that no one will see the park as we saw it in 1972 until maybe the mid-2300’s.

Second, it is impossible to discuss Yellowstone without discussing the crowds. In 1916, the National Park Service was created 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: to provide for the enjoyment of the National Parks by the people of this country, while leaving them “unimpaired” for future generations. As we’ve been traveling around visiting National Parks during this busy travel season, we have often thought about the issues inherent in balancing these potentially conflicting objectives.

This is especially true at Yellowstone. According to rvtravel.com, last year more than four million people from all over the world visited Yellowstone, most in the peak summer months of July and August. The park superintendent was quoted in the May issue of National Geographic as fearing that the number of visitors would have to be limited or there would be irreparable damage to the park’s resources. So, what to do about the crowds? The National Park Service is considering all its options, but there aren’t many good choices. Access by the people is not only mandated by the NPS organic legislation, it’s critical to the mission to inspiring in people a sense of the majesty and importance of the natural order.

For me personally, the greatest problem with the crowds is not the effect on nature but the effect on the crowds. When the density gets too high, even people in Yellowstone start to adopt the behaviors and general decency of New Yorkers. It’s a common experience that urban environments tend to be nasty and transporting those aspects of human nature to a place that’s supposed to be a refuge from such things defeats the purpose of the parks.

And, for those waiting for this point, here’s “proof of life” for the dogs. I know this photograph is supposed to have Wendy holding today’s newspaper, but this is Yellowstone. They don’t have newspapers. Good thing, since we couldn’t bear to read one anyway. In any event, the dogs are still alive. For now. And yes, that is an expression of dread you can see in their eyes. Apparently dogs have sufficient contemplative ability to sense an uncertain future.

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