Category Archives: Deep Thoughts

August 2022: Roosevelt, the Park and the Man

As noted previously, one of our favorite state parks is F.D. Roosevelt State Park, located near Callaway Gardens. Since it was time to take ACE out for exercise, and since Roosevelt State Park is only 22 miles away from where ACE lives, off we go. Surprisingly, even though it’s August in middle Georgia, which normally would be a combination of phrases invoking the same appeal as phrases like “hot poker” plus “left eyeball,” the weather was actually cool and clear and the three days we spent there completely refreshing.

This time, though, besides enjoying the park, hiking through the woods, and touring along the ridge of Pine Mountain, we took an afternoon to visit Roosevelt’s “Little White House,” a place that we had not seen in several decades. Roosevelt built the Little White House in 1932 while governor of New York, since it was close to Warm Springs, famous for its 88-degree, mineral-laden spring water, which Roosevelt sought out seeking a cure (or at least relief) for polio. It was at the Little White House in 1945, while posing for a portrait, that FDR suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died a short while later. This modest little cottage has been carefully preserved very much as FDR left it, and a museum on the grounds provides many exhibits, including FDR’s 1938 Ford convertible with hand controls, along with a short film describing Roosevelt’s life and presidency.

The “Little White House” is really nothing more than a small, two-bedroom cottage, the kind of place one would not now associate with a “presidential retreat.”

In nearby Warm Springs, one can visit the pools where Roosevelt, and other victims of polio, went to find some relief from that terrible affliction. Inside the exhibit there is on old “iron lung,” a mechanical device used to compress and expand someone’s torso, thereby forcing the lungs to pump air in and out of the body. There were often hundreds of people in iron lungs at clinics, and many of them spent years in such devices.

But the FDR museum tells another, fascinating story. It was largely through the long times that Roosevelt spent at the Little White House, and through his association with the farmers and workers of Georgia, that he settled upon most of the philosophy of the New Deal. In a book I recently read, Reagan: The Life, H.W. Brand made the point that in recent history there have only been two presidents that actually matter: Roosevelt, as the author of the welfare state, and Reagan, as the author of the conservative revolution–the two presidents who capture the poles of “government is the solution” versus “government is the problem.” And much of the course of modern America, including the current degree of polarization and animosity, reflects the collision of these two opposing philosophies.

All of which makes it hard for me to find a place in my brain for Roosevelt. On the one hand, he faced the most daunting combination of circumstances one can imagine: a global economic depression, a climate change disaster, and a world war against abject evil. What could anyone do under such circumstances but muster every means and resource available to the government and make everyone and everything, in essence, instruments of the state?

But on the other hand, he is the founding father of the welfare state, the man who put the country on the road to serfdom. As mentioned in the previous post, the prevailing ethic when Roosevelt took office was that it is morally wrong and personally degrading for an able-bodied man to take money he did not earn. That ethic is obviously long-gone now, and one must wonder whether the acceptability of living on the dole, indeed the prevailing norm that there is a right to live off of the hard work of others, can be traced back to Roosevelt himself.

I guess none of this is new. Recall the Jews wandering in the desert saying, “We hate it here. We want to go back to Egypt where we had food, and shelter, and free health care,” to which Moses replied, “What? What are talking about? You were slaves in Egypt. What are you going to do, put yourself in slavery for a bowl of soup?” To which the answer was, “Heck yes!” And so it goes.

April and May 2022: Here and There

I wasn’t going to post anything about two trips made in ACE this year, since they were mostly about things other than RV’ing, but since I’m about to do a post about our recent trip to F.D. Roosevelt State Park in August 2022, here’s something quick that explains the gap.

April 2022: Georgia Nature Photographers Association. Every year, GNPA has an “Expo,” which is the club’s gathering at some photogenic location for several days of classes, field trips, displays, contests, and general photography goofing around. This year it was at Jekyll Island, but since I was derelict in making reservations, the hotel was full and I had to resort to taking ACE down to Blythe Island county campground.

The above photo was entitled “Life Among the Ruins,” which I thought was a clever play on Browning’s “Love Among the Ruins.” That poem, if I recall correctly from high school or college or whatever it was (which I probably don’t), was about how everything man builds will crumble and fall, but love will survive. So my photo might by analogy say that everything man builds will crumble and fall, but life will survive. Get it? Pretty clever, eh? Apparently, it was too clever. For the second time at a GNPA Convention, this photo was put on display in front of the entire membership during the contest awards ceremony as an example of what is wrong with the photograph. I give up.

May 2022: FMCA Amateur Radio Club Spring Rally. Yes, another geeky ham radio excursion, but this one turns out to have been relevant for the post that is to follow about F.D. Roosevelt State Park. The rally was hold in Crossville, Tennessee, and besides doing our usual ham radio stuff (which, as noted, most normal people find insufferably dull), we did a little field trip to the Cumberland Homesteads Historic District. The Cumberland Homesteads was the largest of the Roosevelt’s New Deal subsistence homesteads built to aid “needy yet worthy families” with jobs, training, and the purchase of homes. Two hundred fifty-one families lived in homes they built, all within a community of farms and businesses. Families paid for the homes through the wages they earned building the community and farming the land.

What makes the homestead especially interesting, and relevant to the post that will follow on our trip to F.D. Roosevelt State Park, is that Roosevelt faced an interesting problem during the Depression: At the time, it was considered morally wrong for an able-bodied man to accept money that he didn’t work for. Even if people could be persuaded to take charity, giving someone charity without giving him a chance to work was considered degrading. Hence Roosevelt had to come up with all of the make-work agencies, like the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation. Roosevelt knew that to lift people out of poverty in a way that didn’t humiliate them in the process, he had to give them an opportunity to “earn” they money they received, even if it was nothing more than building a trail through the mountains or a community center in the middle of the Cumberland Plateau. The Cumberland Homesteads was a marvelous example of what people can accomplish if we “help” them without degrading them in the process.

It makes one wonder what America would be like if such an ethic were still the prevailing norm?

Next trip … Roosevelt State Park and Roosevelt’s “Little White House.”

December 2021 – Christmas and the Keys

One of the oft-touted advantages of an RV is that, as something of a mobile condo, it permits one to live near the relations for a while, allowing for extended visits, without the hassles and expense of hotels, restaurants, and rental cars (and now, COVID-loaded public places). In our case, that effect is multiplied because we’ve got three RVs scattered among the families, which means the congregating location can be essentially anywhere.

So, over the years, we used the RV to host dozens of family gatherings in campgrounds (such as a gathering at Land Between the Lakes, May 2015), meet Cliff on his temporary work assignment in Beaumont (November 2015), meet Cliff at Disney World (April 2016), travel out west for the birth of grandchild #7 (June 2016), meet Cliff in San Antonio (April 2017), visit my sister in California (June 2018), take an extended West Coast vacation with Robert and family (June-July 2018), arrange a linkup with Robert as he PCS’ed from Washington to Florida (May 2019), meet Robert and family at Disney World and break Christopher’s arm (March 2020), attend Robert’s promotion ceremony (March 2021), do a family reunion with all four families at Walt Disney World (March 2021), and meet with Cliff in Shenandoah National Park (June 2021). Plus probably a couple dozen other meetups, gatherings, and trips that don’t come to mind.

For all that, though, this is the first time that we’ve used the RV for a holiday gathering, namely Christmas, or as it will soon be phrased in today’s newspeak, “Popular Religious Leaders Natal Day,” a holiday that likely will be held on the last Monday in December. It’s not beyond imagining. We had to cancel a trip with Cliff over Columbus Day weekend due to travel difficulties, which spared me from having to do a blog post on a day now known in some circles as “Indigenous Peoples Day.” I’m waiting for Presidents’ Day to be renamed “Racist Leaders Shaming Day” and the Fourth of July redesignated as “Oppressive Government Founding Day.” All we need now is a national holiday to celebrate “hate week” and the fulfillment of an Orwellian dystopia will be complete.

Where was I? Oh yeah … Christmas. How did I get off on that rant? No matter. This trip not only gave us family time in Florida at Christmas, that gathering was followed by a trip with Robert and family to the Florida Keys. Robert has done an excellent blog post that summarizes the trip, so I won’t repeat the details here. Suffice it to say that this trip was one of the best family gatherings we’ve ever had.

First, if there’s anything better than Christmas with three little boys, it’s hard to imagine what it might be (save perhaps Cliff’s Christmas with three little girls). Plus wonderful meals, beautiful and warm weather, and Robert’s extraordinary on-post home at MacDill Air Force Base. And then, a week in the Keys, with temperatures in the 80s every day, touring around seeing the sights, fishing, kayaking, and cooking out. What a wonderful week.

The obligatory stop at the southernmost point in the U.S. Except that it’s not. The actual southernmost point is on the Truman Annex to NAS Key West, but those people shoot you if you try to jump the fence for a photo op.
Robert carded us onto NAS Key West so we could have lunch at the marina restaurant. Typical MWR facility: great ambience, good food, a marina with retiree’s yachts as a backdrop, and a beach with swimming and kayaking.

One other thought: traveling around Florida over Christmas break gave us an eye-opening view into the “snowbird” phenomenon. Besides millions of tourists who come to Florida for a few days, Florida hosts an estimated 900,000 visitors each winter who stay a month or more, which actually increases Florida’s resident population by 5% in a matter of days. Many of these snowbirds (some estimates say a majority) come from Canada (mainly Quebec), but judging from license plates a large proportion hail from the states you’d expect: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois. And they all drive like that’s where they’re from, although that’s a post for another day.

Some of these migrants bring their RVs, making the task of finding an open campground spot almost impossible. (Laura was able to snag us a couple spots in a wonderful campground on Sugarloaf Key only because the campground had been closed while reconstructed after a hurricane, and she called within minutes of its reopening being posted on its website.) Other migrants clog the hotels and resorts. But a surprising number stay in homes they maintain in Florida just for the purpose of having a warm alternative to their frigid home states. There are an estimated 11 million second home in Florida, accounting for nearly 15% of all second homes in the country. And not all of these are little cottages. As we learned when we went to Naples a few years ago, upper-end homes there go for $20 to $75 million, although some bargains can be had across the river, such as at Aqualane, where the homes are in the $10 to $20 million range. And yes, these are mostly “second homes.” About 80% of the owners in these areas spend less than 4 weeks per year in their homes.

And what of the RVs that come to Florida each winter? It’s a weird mix. At some places, such as the RV park in Naples, the RV spots for long-term visitors are filled by one multi-million-dollar RV after another.

But we also encountered the other end of the spectrum at our stop after the Keys: little dinky travel trailers that have been “improved” by the addition of corrugated aluminum siding, plastic lawn furniture, and an eye-popping collection of yard decorations including, no kidding, pink flamingos. We even saw a fair number of Harley-riding “biker snowbirds,” which seems like an irreconciliable combination of nouns. And in a “campground” (which was more like a trailer park) consisting of 300-plus sites, there were well over a hundred of these semi-permanent beauties. Robert actually found himself parked between two of these units, and Laura remarked that she didn’t even feel comfortable going out at night. All of which caused Robert to describe this little gem of a campground as a “dump.”

So, there you have it. A great and wonderful trip, made all the better by the hard work and gracious accommodations of Robert and his family, in the midst of a social phenomenon worth seeing. We’ll be back down in Florida twice in the next few months to babysit the Little Darlings while Robert and Laura absent themselves for various reasons, but I’m sure those trips will be nothing compared to this one. Memorable indeed.

April 2021 – Wither Callaway Gardens?

Part of the reason we’ve always had a fondness from FDR State Park is that it is located adjacent to Callaway Gardens, which has also been one of our favorite places: thousands of acres of stunningly beautiful gardens, miles of bike paths, two golf courses, a wonderful butterfly house, (until recently) a world-class greenhouse, countless natural and hybrid azaleas, all geared towards what has always been the mission of Callaway Gardens: to provide opportunities for recreation and spiritual renewal in an area of natural beauty.

But this trip, we saw something we were not expecting … Callaway Gardens looked like it was struggling, both financially and philosophically.

Attendance had been slipping for years, down from one million visitors per year at its peak in the 1990s to about 400,000 in the past few years. There were several management missteps, including adding an upscale hotel, spa, and housing developments, all of which led to the Gardens bleeding cash, eventually having to sell off about 7000 acres (of its 13,000) to cover its debt. In fact, the upscale hotel, which was designed to complement the Mountain Creek Inn, actually ended up diverting guests, even after the Mountain Creek Inn underwent a $3 million expansion. A new CEO was brought onboard in 2015 (he came with a background in resorts and theme parks — including Dollywood and Silver Dollar City) who made some substantial changes, including closing the Sibley Horticulture Center, a greenhouse that was always one of our favorite stops and that was renowned as one of the most advanced greenhouse complexes in the world. That CEO left a couple years ago, and management is now in the hands of HFE Corporation, a company that operates and manages family-oriented theme parks and attractions and is a unit of Herschend Enterprises, the nation’s largest family owned themed attractions and entertainment company.

All of this led to what was a palpable change in the way the Gardens now present themselves. Indeed, even before knowing about the Gardens’ financial woes, we all remarked that it looked like the Gardens was cutting costs and struggling to make ends meet. Besides the closed hulk of the Sibley greenhouse, the grounds themselves were visibly less up-kept, the Mountain Creek Inn is shuttered, and the crowds were noticeably diminished. Plus, there was something incongruous about Callaway Gardens, of all places, closing the greenhouse and garden, while keeping the zip line. To be sure, I like theme parks as much as the next guy, but one would think that a place billing itself as “gardens” would have room for a bench among the flowers.

I’m sure that part of the Gardens’ woes can be attributed to a series of unfortunate external events. Troubles started after 9/11 with the decline in the travel industry, its real estate ventures got walloped by the 2008-2010 real estate crash, it made some bad financial decisions, and it’s certainly suffering right now from the COVID slump.

But I wonder if something else isn’t driving the decline in attendance. Callaway Gardens always sold itself as a place of quiet, introspective beauty. A place of spiritual renewal as much as anything. Obviously, a place to to renew one’s soul is only attractive to people who think they have a soul, which is an increasingly rare belief in America nowadays. And quiet solitude in a place of natural beauty has a hard time competing with the frenetic pace and fractured attention spans of a technology-crazed populace.

All of which may explain why Callaway thinks, probably correctly, that the secret to the Gardens’ future lies not so much in spiritual nourishment as in theme park exhilaration. Whether it can actually build itself up into the kind of would-be theme park that can successfully draw visitors seeking that kind of experience remains to be seen.

But an even bigger question in my mind is whether, succeeding or not, we may lose something of what made Callaway Gardens worth going to, namely that it was precisely not a theme park experience. I don’t know. Maybe the Callaway Foundation, which owns and oversees Callaway Gardens and which is committed to the original Callaway legacy, can strike a balance of attracting enough of the sort of theme-park clientele to keep the gardens going, while preserving enough of the quiet, subtle, natural beauty of the area to provide spiritual nourishment for the rest of us. Or maybe that’s an impossible balance. Or maybe there’s no market for spiritual goods in a world where people find all the affirmation they need in a theme park. We shall see…

April 2021 – No Rules Camping

Over the years, Roosevelt State Park near Pine Mountain has always been one of our favorites. Miles of hiking trails, a lake for fishing, nearby attractions, vicious geese that attack small children … what’s not to like? We were here last four years ago (“Preparing for the Next Big Trip“) with Cliff and all the little girls, so, when Jennifer and her girls had a three-day weekend available, it was back to FDR State Park.

The entire picture album for the trip is here: FDR State Park – April 2021.

And because FDR State Park was one of the places we first went camping when we moved to Georgia, it was also the place where we developed our principles of “no rules camping.” Here’s the deal. When we were raising our kids, we had lots of rules: we go to church and Sunday school every week; you eat what’s put in front of you; you do your chores before you play; TV only if you get all A’s and B’s, and then only 30 minutes per day; we pick your friends; bedtime means bed time; no R-rated movies until you’re 18; and dozens of others. Maybe we had too many rules … that’s one of the things one thinks about in hindsight after the kids are grown: what did I do right or wrong as they were growing up? But, right or wrong, we were basically a rule-based family.

Except when we went camping. Then, perhaps sensing that the little darlings needed a respite from the regimentation of our family life, we established no-rules-camping. It worked like this — when we were camping, there were no rules. You were free to do whatever you want. Really, whatever. Well, not exactly “whatever.” We did have two rules: we had to know where you were, at least within a search-party radius, and the kids could not physically harm each other, at least not seriously (mental abuse was OK). But subject to that, the kids really were free. They could jump on their bikes and go where they chose, head off into the woods, walk into the lake fully clothed (that actually happened), eat or not eat whatever they chose, wipe their worm-baity grubby little hands all over their clothes; stay up until all hours; play in the mud; whatever. We figured that, other than the normal, perfectly acceptable risks of being outdoors (cuts, bruises, broken bones; drowning; ticks; snakes; etc.), there was relatively little harm from easing up on the reins, it was fun (and probably healthy) for kids, and frankly it gave us a few days off from having to constantly socialize the little darlings. And it was fun for us too.

I think rules-based parenting is probably passé nowadays. But even still, there seems to be a delight in the freedom that a camping trip provides. Within minutes of our arrival on this trip, for example, the girls literally ran off into the woods, following the azimuth provided by their geocaching app, in search of some trinket. I don’t remember if we knew where they were or not — we certainly knew that they were on foot so they couldn’t have gotten too far — but it brought to mind memories of countless trips over the years, and the pure joy of watching kids doing what they do best, which is being kids.

What a great trip. We’re already talking about fitting in another three-day excursion this Fall, and I can hardly wait.

March-April 2021: Ft. Wilderness

Oh no! Not another Walt Disney World / Fort Wilderness post?!? Yup. Well, sort of. It was indeed back to the Disney Fort Wilderness campground (for the seventh time in the past nine years, plus a boatload of times before that), but this trip was different. First, it was a full-blown family reunion, and second, it was done during the COVID clamp down.

Family Reunion. With the family spread out over 1000-plus miles of the eastern side of the U.S., getting everyone together takes effort. A lot of effort. Specifically, it required our driving ACE down 400 miles from Atlanta, Cliff hauling his RV 1000 miles down from New Jersey, Summer and the girls flying down from Philadelphia, getting Robert’s RV 100 miles up from Tampa, putting Jennifer and the girls on a plane from Atlanta, and somehow timing arrivals and airport runs to get everyone and all of the RVs in the same place at roughly the same time. Actually, now that I write that, I have no idea how that happened. But, thanks to extraordinary effort by everyone, it did. Amazing.

And it was worth it.

Friday night dinner, before Jennifer and the girls arrived. The bottle of wine on the table is for the adults, except in case of a widespread kid-meltdown, in which case any form of subduing the children is permissible, including forced inebriation.
The Cousins” (as they refer to themselves) at the Ft. Wilderness pool on Saturday. The “campground” is so full of things to do that all we did was to hang around there all day.

Jennifer and the girls, and Robert, Laura, and the boys, all left on Sunday, so the rest of the week was Cliff, Summer, and the girls, along with the two of us. That meant two days of the Magic Kingdom and EPCOT, plus a couple more days of pool time, fishing, horseback riding, some really incredible dinners, and continued lizard catching.

Anyway, I won’t go on and on. The last time the whole family got together was back in the summer of 2019, so this gathering was long overdue. It was great for the grownups to spend time together, but it was even better for The Cousins.

The full family album is available here: https://photos.app.goo.gl/NdkzXPbqS4Zdg2zh8.

COVID. Obviously, a crowded theme park, with tens of thousands of people crammed within inches of each other, is a recipe for a super-spreader event of Biblical proportions. (Think of the angel of death hovering over Fantasyland, with the first-born son of each family dropping dead in the boats on It’s a Small World.) (As opposed to the parents keeling over after they’ve heard the refrain for the 95th time.) To prevent such a thing, Disney implemented a large number of restrictions designed to limit the carnage: only a limited number of people were admitted to the park (although you couldn’t prove it by me) and advance reservations were necessary to enter; masks were required everywhere, and there were warning posted that patrons failing to “properly wear” a “suitable mask” “would be asked to leave”; the lines were rerouted to prevent people from passing within inches of each other, along with signs posted reminding people to maintain a six-foot distance; crowd-producing activities (like the fireworks show) were cancelled; and several attractions were closed. And, for the most part, the guests seemed to abide by the restrictions and everyone seemed to take things in good spirits. As is evident from our pictures, we were fully masked up all the time and no one seemed to much mind.

I must say, though, that some of the restrictions seemed a bit much, more like they were drafted by lawyers, or bureaucrats suffering from the nail clipper syndrome, or by corporate PR types intent on corporate virtue signaling, than by sensible health professionals. Or maybe designed to limit the online complaining by the mask-Nazis who incite social media mobs whenever their sensibilities are offended. In any event, some measures seemed more than necessary. For example, we traveled to and from the Magic Kingdom in open-air boats where everyone, even if the boat was fully loaded, would be masked up, situated several feet apart anyway, in the open air, sitting in a 10-knot breeze as they traveled across the water. Even still, Disney chose to limit capacity on those boats to about one-third. Seriously? People were waiting in line under much riskier conditions, just to limit a situation that hard to imagine posing any realistic risk. Other examples abound: spraying down the seats and tables with disinfectant, plexiglass barriers everywhere, restaurant seating restricted to every-other-table, and so on. In a sense, I suppose, Disney should be commended for taking health measures seriously and trying to make everyone as safe as possible. Nevertheless, the experience could have been better under more sensible management.

After everyone had left, Wendy and I stayed one extra day to decompress and have a relaxing dinner at Narcoosie’s, the waterfront restaurant at the Grand Floridian Resort. As we sat there, running through the events of the past ten days, we agreed it was one of the best RV trips we’re ever had. We’ll savor the memories forever …

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.