The last two posts summarized various aspects of this year’s Experimental Aircraft Association “AirVenture” gathering in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. A recent article in Flying magazine details the record-setting statistics for that event: “The Numbers Are in For AirVenture 2019.” Just to highlight a few of the most unbelievable metrics:
Total attendance was 642,000, an increase of 7%.
More than 10,000 aircraft were flown to the the event, resulting in 16,807 aircraft operations, an average of 127 takeoffs/landings per hour! [Compare this to Atlanta Hartsfield airport, which averages 91 operations per hour (2236 per day), and it’s supposedly the “busiest airport in the world.” Sorry, but not during the week of AirVenture it’s not!]
Besides the thousands of plain ol’ general aviation aircraft, there were 1,057 home-built aircraft, 939 vintage airplanes, 400 warbirds, 188 ultralights and light-sport aircraft, 105 seaplanes, 62 aerobatic aircraft, and 7 in an “other” category.
There were 12,300 camping sites (tent-, RV-, and airplane-sites), which together accounted for 40,000 visitors.
At one point, when I was grousing about the shortcomings of the camper registration process, I thought to myself, “If I were a decent person, I’d quit complaining and get out and help.” I should have. AirVenture relied on 5,500 volunteers who contributed more than 250,000 hours of volunteer time!
When we were talking to friends about what to expect at Oshkosh, I would often say, “Well, I’ve been to lots of airshows before…,” to which the response was always something like, “No, you don’t understand. This isn’t an ‘airshow.’ It’s an aviation experience in a completely different category from anything you’ve ever seen.” Truer words were never uttered.
After loitering around for a day, waiting for EAA to give us an all-clear to head to the campground, and with nary a peep from Campground Central Command, we decided to head on over and take our chances. Good call. The campground was open, although in the throes of thousands of like-minded campers all converging on the airport at the same time, and after 4+ hours of creeping along at a turtle’s pace in the camper registration line (which is baffling since we were pre-registered), we finally made it to the campground and got set up.
It’s easy to have mixed feelings about the campground: there are (literally) four thousand (!) campers, all jammed together elbow to elbow, with no amenities (or even shade, for that matter), which creates an environment like what you’d expect it would create. But, all of that pales in comparison to the convenience of walking just a fraction of a mile to the flight line, displays, and everything else that AirVenture has to offer. So, even with EAA’s conspicuous campground management deficiencies, we decided that staying in the campground is definitely the way to go.
And AirVenture is everything we were told it would be, and more. It really is hard to convey the atmosphere of a place where over the course of a week, there are 600,000 airplane kooks flying around, walking around, lounging about, visiting exhibits, and watching airshows, interspersed with nearly a thousand vendors, and God-only-knows how many displays, programs, and seminars. We were in and amongst this AirVenture frenzy for two-and-a-half days, and saw only maybe a tenth of what there is to see, and only half of the activities we had flagged as things we definitely wanted to do. I have thousands of pictures trying to capture the feeling (don’t worry, I’m not going to post them all), but understand that all of what follows falls woefully short of adequately communicating the experience.
The first thing one notices is that this is not just an airshow; it’s a pilots’ convention. Many of the attendees flew here in their own planes, and the assortment of aircraft is as varied as you’d expect for a group named the “Experimental Aircraft Association.”
Of course, Airventure also included four hours of air shows every day, featuring not only aerobatics but demonstrations and flights of a wide variety of aircraft.
And there were a large number of military demonstrations…
The military aircraft, though, we’re limited to the hair-on-fire fighters. This year’s airshow included a special series of flights by military training aircraft…
… and besides the trainers, AirVenture also featured flights of little-heralded, but extremely important “observation” aircraft, mostly used to spot enemy positions and call in hell’s fury on top of them, something that gives me a nice warm feeling in my heart.
A highlight of the show was the aerial firefighting demonstration:
Besides all this, there were also demonstrations by aircraft that, well, defy understanding by normal people.
But this is the weirdest:
But the real highlight of the show was the night airshow.
I have probably been to over a hundred airshows in my life. As a kid, I grew up at airshows, and air races, and airports, and air-everything. Nothing in my life prepared me for this.
Just one concluding thought. If one is an airplane nut-case, Oshkosh is a little piece of heaven on earth. But it likewise holds a parallel appeal even to normal people: this is also a gathering of people who just love America, who support the military, and who aren’t hesitant or embarrassed by conspicuously patriotic celebrations. Every afternoon show began with the National Anthem, and everyone (as in “everyone”) stood, removed their hats, faced the flag with their hearts covered. Essentially every event, every performer, every display included some kind of a stated thanks to current and former military members, without whom (it was always said) as a country we would have nothing. At one point, Wendy (who is by no stretch an airplane devotee) looked at me during one of the more patriotic moments and said, “These are our peeps…” True, true.
For anyone not familiar with it, “AirVenture” is an annual gathering of aviation enthusiasts in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, but that doesn’t begin to describe how over-the-top crazy this event is. Imagine an airshow with all of the usual aerobatics and stunt-flying, except that the airshow is attended by about 600,000 people, many of whom fly to the airshow in airplanes they built themselves, and who spend the week sleeping on the ground under the wings of their aircraft. And during the same show, the military takes advantage of the opportunity to show off its latest hardware. And all of this is held at “Whitman Regional Airport” in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, a dippy little two-bit airfield that, incredibly, for the week of the airshow actually becomes the busiest airport in the world. During the week of AirVenture, the airport will see 10,000 aircraft, 3,000 show planes, nearly 1000 journalists, and 900 commercial vendors. Besides gawking at airplanes, there are hundreds of seminars for the attendees, with topics ranging from the latest aviation technology to (no kidding) “How to hand prop your aircraft,” which I think means starting the engine by grabbing the propeller and giving it a good yank, getting out of the way before the propeller slices you to ribbons.
Seeing as how I’ve basically been an aviation aficionado my whole life, AirVenture is a major bucket list item for me. So Wendy and I are here to spend a few days immersed in aviation excess.
But life is not so simple. Just before we arrived, a major weather system passed through, leaving our camping area at Whitman Field a soggy, impassable, mud bog. So, we’re stuck in a nearby campground, waiting for things to dry out enough to get to Oshkosh.
So, we spent today, first, killing time at a different airport, sitting at the finish line for air races where guys take their own airplanes and, just for the fun of it, see how fast they will go.
So, after a couple hours of watching planes (either fascinating or boring, depending), and with Oshkosh still closed, we decided to explore a bit of central Wisconsin. A friend had suggested the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, but it’s closed for renovations for the entire year. Wendy read a short blurb about the Dells of the Wisconsin River nature area, and we always enjoy hiking, so it’s off we go!
A-a-a-a-a-r-g-h!!! Somehow we missed a turn and ended up in the town of Wisconsin Dells. Words cannot even begin to convey the vulgarity of that locale. Billing itself as the “water park capital of the world,” the city has more water parks than any other city in America. The experience is so demoralizing that the only way to convey its full effect is to labor through the details of it all. In the span of a few blocks, one is confronted with:
The Mount Olympus Water and Theme Park (three hotels serving a 300-acre outdoor and 120,000-square-foot indoor water parks, with more than 40 waterslides, plus eight go-kart tracks, seven roller coasters, a large wave pool with 9-foot waves, lazy rivers, and hot tubs).
Noah’s Ark Water Park (the Flamingo Hotel, serving what is billed as America’s largest water park, 70 acres of waterslides, pools, rivers, bumper boats, surfing experiences, arcades, a 4D dive-in theater, a water coaster, slides, swings, water cannons, along with 12 eateries and bars).
Kalahari Resort (750-room hotel with indoor and outdoor water parks with multiple slides, lazy rivers, activity pools, wave pools, including a Ferris wheel, African-themed carousel, ropes course, climbing walls, go karts, bowling, mini-golf and arcade games).
Great Wolf Lodge (80,000-square-foot indoor water park, with 6 slides, rivers, activity pools, hot tubs, kiddie pools, a four-story water tree house, and the Howlin’ Tornado, a water slide “thrill ride”).
Wilderness Lodge (600-acre, also billed as America’s largest water park resort, with four indoor water parks, three outdoor water parks, a large outdoor pool area, indoor go karts, a lazer maze, a ropes course, bumper boats, mini-golf, a kids’ club, arcades, the Klondike Kavern, with its two, five-story tube slides, and the Wild WaterDome, America’s largest indoor wave pool).
And so on and so on. It never ends. You get the point. Except you don’t. As if this isn’t enough, in and amongst all this are go-kart tracks, t-shirt shops, junk food dispensers, souvenir shops, and an unimaginable array of the most ghastly, grotesque, garish architectural nightmares on earth. The “Rome Hotel,” for example, is an ersatz replica (or maybe caricature) of the Roman Coliseum.
That’s enough. No, it’s not. One more point. You might think such an area is so repulsive that it would be empty, devoid of people, like those creepy photos one sees of abandoned amusement parks. Wrong again. The area is packed, crammed, jammed with people standing in pools, elbow to elbow, in whatever microbial soup exists in these communal pools, which almost certainly includes E. coli, Ebola, and flesh-eating bacteria. Thousands of people, everywhere you look. It’s like Manhattan, only wetter.
Somehow, we managed to maneuver our motor home through the traffic, and out of this little piece of hell on earth, and back to our campground. The Oshkosh campground is still closed, and unfortunately we didn’t tow our car along with us, and all of the rental car agencies within 50 miles are sold out, so I’m not sure what’s next. But it certainly doesn’t involve Wisconsin Dells.
After a quick drive to Pensacola Naval Air Station, where Robert had reserved a pair of adjacent sites in a great campground on the base, we had time for afternoon play in the Gulf.
Next day, though, was the big day: a morning at the Naval Aviation Museum. We’ve been here many times before, but it’s always special. There are numerous World War II naval aircraft in the museum’s collection, and most of them figure prominently in family lore.
I repeated some of the stories my dad told me about flying the Corsair, most notably how it earned its reputation as an “ensign killer.” The combination of a long nose that obscured the carrier on approach (which necessitated a turning approach to the ship, straightening out only at the last moment), plus a 2000 horsepower double-radial engine so powerful that a clumsy hand on the throttle would torque-roll the aircraft, meant that flying a Corsair onto the deck of a pitching carrier was not something to be undertaken by the inexperienced. At least not twice.
Then back to the campground, more beach time, a wonderful dinner of ersatz Chick-Fil-A homemade chicken sandwiches, and then evening playtime at the beach catching ghost crabs. (Which causes one to wonder: why does the following exchange occur in real life? “Ow, ow, it’s pinching me!” “Then put it down.” “No. I don’t want to.”) Maybe there’s some genetic remnant of an evolutionary ancestor that explains such things. Something to think about someday…
Next, off to Yogi Bear Jellystone Park (seriously?) before the last push to Tampa.
At long last, the Washington emigrees made it to New Orleans and we met up with them (rather inauspiciously in a WalMart parking lot) and headed to the campground at the New Orleans Naval Air Station for a couple days. We spent the first afternoon tending to an electrical matter so that they could have a working air conditioner (an important feature of “camping” in southern Louisiana), and then had to make plans for the following day.
The original plan was to take to the boys to the World War II Museum, but based on our impressions, and after a discussion with Robert and Laura, we decided the boys would profit more from the experience if they were a few years older. So, what else to do? Tour New Orleans cemeteries? No. Sample some cajun fare? No. Visit some jazz clubs? No. The “other kind” of clubs? Probably not for a few years. Swamp excursion? Nope. Maybe a “Confederacy of Dunces” tour? (There actually is a statue of Ignatius J. Reilly somewhere in New Orleans.) Don’t think a two-year-old would appreciate the literary significance of that tour.
Finally, Robert and Laura hit on the perfect solution: a tour on the riverboat Natchez, along with a buffet lunch aboard. Perfect for little boys and, actually, pretty interesting for the grownups as well. The most grownup-engaging part of which is that we actually got to tour the engine room. Except that the boiler is power by diesel fuel instead of coal, these are the real thing: huge steam-driven push-pull pistons driving the two arms of the paddle wheel, with no supplemental drive (i.e., no “cheating” with propellers).
Then back to the campground for a quick trip to the PX for haircuts (technically the NEX), then back to several hours of the boys doing drag races and 100-yard dashes on the campground road.
We’re depleted. We’ve spent the past couple days at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. This was a bucket list item for both of us and was supposed to be a stroll through a period of U.S. history that both of us could relate to, me because of my dad’s role as a Navy pilot in World War II, and Wendy’s because of her dad’s role as a B-17 pilot. Easy-peasy, connect with our parents’ era, see some exhibits, maybe see a 1940s musical show, and wait for Robert and family to show up in a couple days.
Things started off on a particularly high note. We had the honor of meeting the last surviving crewman from the U.S.S. Indianapolis, Sgt (fmr) Edgar Harrell, and his escort, Marine Capt (fmr) Donald Montefusco, and got to spend an hour chatting with them about those fateful days in 1945.
Then it was off to the first exhibit: the “Arsenal of Democracy,” describing how America geared up for the war effort. Mussolini mocked America, saying that all we could do was to make refrigerators. Well, Benito baby, as Eisenhower said, there is no force on earth like that of a democracy enraged, and it’s a surprisingly small step from a refrigerator to a bomber, and when America created a “war production board” to oversee conversion from consumer goods to war materiel, Mussolini and his Axis cronies learned first-hand exactly what America’s “refrigerator” factories could do: 108,000 tanks; 97,000 bombers; 100,000 fighters; 24 aircraft carriers; 324 destroyers; and 100 billion (that’s billion, with a “b”) bullets. Add to that 15 million men and women in the armed forces. Oh, and in our spare time, we developed the atomic bomb to vaporize the little Axis creeps in the Orient. So far with the museum, we’re pretty good, so with that exhibit done, we were off to the D-Day exhibit.
At this point, though, the nature of our museum experience changed dramatically. The stunning might of the American response occurs in the context of human carnage of an unimaginably horrific scale. The museum experience begins with a film, narrated by Tom Hanks, that recounts the death tally, country-by-country, as a result of the war, for a total of 65 million people dead. And in every museum exhibit, the human cost of this war is clearly and graphically displayed, often in gruesome photographs, videos, and statistics. Over 400,000 Americans died responding to the evil of the Axis onslaught, and the museum does not downplay that terrible cost.
But the museum’s message is not just about the horrors of World War II, but also the heroics of it all. Indeed, in many ways, the museum is more about the unspeakable heroism of ordinary Americans than anything else. As Stephen Ambrose once made clear, at the start of World War II, it was far from clear that a bunch of farmers, teachers, policemen, and clerks could take up arms and successfully overcome an army of battle-hardened professional soldiers. These weren’t guys who were trained to fight. They were just ordinary people who responded when their country called and resolved to do their best. And somehow, out of the ordinary humanity of decent people, there arose the most powerful fighting force the world has ever seen. Throughout the museum, there are the stories of these ordinary guys doing the most daring, selfless acts of bravery one can imagine. And they’re largely not anyone special; they’re just guys doing their job. Millions of them. Over and over and over. Many times, the stories were so overwhelming it was, for me, actually hard to breathe.
We started off with the hall dedicated to D-Day. When the museum first opened in 2000, it was known as the National D-Day Museum, and it was not until 2003 that Congress declared the concept should be expanded to a National World War II Museum. It is the nature of the way Wendy and I travel that we read every display, listen to every audio, and watch every video. As a result, it took us fully five hours to work our way through the D-Day experience.
And so it went, exhibit-by-exhibit, through the entire progress leading up to, during, and in the weeks following June 6, 1944. Even that event, though, is presented in a stark and foreboding context: on that fateful date, while Americans had seen some victories in expelling the Germans from North Africa, and were moving mile-by-mile up through Italy, and had some victories in the Pacific, the entire world, save for a few small areas, was overwhelmingly in the grip of dictatorships. Knowing how this all ends, it’s easy to forget what we were up against, and to forget that the end was never certain, a point that the museum makes clear throughout.
The next day we returned and, after a seeing a couple smaller exhibits, it was off to one of the newly added halls, “The Road to Berlin.” Same deal: one display after another of the stark combination of horror and heroism.
By the end of our experience in the Road to Berlin, we were pretty much exhausted. There was only an hour left before the museum closed, and we hadn’t even started “The Road to Tokyo,” the battle for the Pacific. But we couldn’t. We were too emotionally drained and didn’t have enough time to see the exhibit in our way anyway. So we’ve saved it for another day.
After all of this, one thought kept coming back to both of us. Could America ever do something like this again? Is there enough dedication to our country, as a country, that millions of men would sign up motivated only by a sense of national duty? Do the citizens of America have the character to put their lives on the line to save others? Are we physically and mentally capable of prolonged periods of deprivation and misery to sustain this kind of effort? We don’t know. Maybe. One hopes so. But the museum experience was a glimpse into an era where America was all that and more. And we’re glad we spent a couple days here. We’ll be back.
One of the extra added benefits of military service, besides being overworked, underpaid, sent off to God-forsaken hinterlands for months at a time, and having people try to shoot your fanny off (sounds pretty good so far, eh?) is that every couple years, you get to uproot your family and drag them off to some area of the country where they get to start their lives all over again. And because everything in the Army has to be described by a TLA (“three letter acronym”), this pick-up-and-move ordeal is known as a PCS (or “permanent change of station”). (As opposed to TDY (“temporary duty”), which is where you abandon your family for some period of time, and which further shows that everything in the Army must have a TLA, even two-word expressions. Go figure.) Besides the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of military families going through this process every year, what’s doubly amazing about it is that somehow military families not only rise to the challenge, they largely show the fortitude to make it a virtue. Like this:
All of which is a long way of getting to the point: Robert, Laura, and the boys are, as I write this, in the process of PCS’ing from Seattle to Tampa, Florida.
Because they are who they are, though, they are once again “PCS’ing with style.” All five of them, plus a poodle (don’t ask), with whatever belongings they’re toting with them to avoid their being destroyed by Army movers, and towing their trailer, are meandering diagonally across the country, camping and seeing the sights along the way.
As you might expect, Laura has the boys studying in the truck between stops, getting their Junior Ranger badges at each stop, and somehow making sure that three boys and a dog crammed into a four-foot wide space for three-plus weeks don’t kill each other.
So, our plan is to meet up with them in New Orleans, see the World War II Museum together, then off the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, and then, with a stop in the middle, travel with them down to Tampa, where we will help out with the Little Darlings while they get everything moved in to their new abode.
I guess “post mortem” isn’t exactly the right term, since technically we’re not dead (yet), but it’ll do.
Our trip this year covered 6500 miles in 32 days, through 19 states and 6 national parks. Of the 44 national parks in the continental U.S., we’ve taken our little ACE to 28 of them. Our goal was to spend retirement traveling the width and breadth of the U.S., seeing what the country has to offer, and we’re well on our way to doing that.
As we’ve been exploring national parks, we’ve taken our RV through most of the western half of the U.S., skipping only Nevada, which we’ve avoided for moral and spiritual reasons. Future trips will definitely include the upper Midwest, but probably won’t include the Northeast, which (1) except for Maine, has little to offer in terms of scenic beauty and (2) presents political and sociological challenges that we would likely find insurmountable.
The highlight of this year’s summer trip was, of course, the 8-day stretch in the middle with Robert, Laura, and The Boys.
At the Suislaw National Forest stop (Oregon coast), where we spent a morning playing around in the tide pools.
Behind the Prairie Creek visitor center, where we (as usual) had the trails essentially all to ourselves.
There are lots of reasons why the stretch in the middle of the trip with the west coast fraction of the family was special. Obviously, and firstly, they’re family, and we don’t get to see them as often as we’d like, and they’re the only branch of the family tree with a cohort of little boys, with all that such entails. But beyond that, seeing them on a camping excursion is doubly special. There’s a Ken Burns series on the national parks called “America’s Greatest Idea,” and during the course of that series there are interviews with numerous leading conservationists, among whom there is a uniform and recurrent theme: “I developed my love of nature and my approach to caring for and protecting the natural order over years of camping with my parents.” It is true: Learning about nature by watching the Discovery channel gives one only a superficial and incomplete understanding of the natural world; camping in it adds another level; camping in it in the presence of parents like Robert and Laura adds even more, mainly because they infuse the process with experiences, such as their mandatory participation in the “Junior Ranger” program, that are fundamentally transforming, even (or maybe especially) for little boys. It was a special privilege to be a part of all that.
And, of course, there was our stop in California to see Kathy and Tommy.
Tommy and Kathy in Tommy’s hot rod, a definitely cool ’32 (I think) Ford. We hadn’t seen these guys in years, so the stop in California was special indeed.
Add the stays at Crater Lake and Theodore Roosevelt national parks, and this trip, despite the challenges (described below), was in my estimation worth every bit of the effort.
However, Wendy tells me that I have PAINTED too rosy a picture of this trip, and she’ll give me a good SHELLACKING if I don’t provide the UNVARNISHED truth. (Enough of that.) So here goes…
For lots of reasons, the planning and execution of this trip was not one of my better efforts. We spent way too many days doing only overnight stops. Spending all day on the road, usually on nothing but interstates, only to stop at some unattractive RV park, set up, eat, crash, pack up, and head out, for days at a time, is just plain brutal, no matter how worthwhile the destination. Plus, on both sides of the family time in the middle, we were confronted with record-breaking heat waves, which pushed the experience from tedious to outright awful. Even our stops at the national parks were too short, just a couple days each, meaning that we were rushed at each location, not even having time to spend an extra few days at each park hiking and exploring. And we ended up racing through some areas, like Montana, where we otherwise would have stopped. The bottom line is that doing this trip in only 5 weeks was a mistake.
How much of the LUSTER (sorry) (now I’ll really stop) this takes off the experience is something that requires some time to work out. My hunch (or maybe my disposition) is that the unpleasant aspects of the trip will fade from memory, leaving only the SHINE (sorry) (I promise, that’s it) of the highlights.
After a quick stop at the park on our arrival day, we were prepared to be underwhelmed by our stop here. The park itself is OK, but nothing so dramatic as other national parks: the badlands are several steps down from Badlands National Park; the Little Missouri River that winds its way through the area is just an unimpressive little river, cloudy from the eroding clay soils; the wildlife is not as plentiful nor as extraordinary as what one might see at Yellowstone or Custer State Park; and even as a tribute to Teddy Roosevelt, the park is not as successful as Mt. Rushmore.
But our assessment changed when we explored the park more thoroughly. The eroded sandstone and clay mounds seemed to rise straight up out of lush green grasslands, enhanced by an unusually wet spring and early summer, and presented a beauty unlike anything we had ever seen.
A pesky rain cloud seemed to follow us around for the first couple hours of touring the park.
From atop Buck Hill, it almost looks as if a green carpet had been applied to the landscape, cut away where the clay features intrude on the surface.
In many places, the green carpet of the grasslands covered the hills themselves. That effect, combined with fields of wildflowers. was striking. (You can see that the Park Service had done an extensive controlled burn last May to eliminate invasive tree species, allowing the natural grasslands to flourish.)
In areas dominated by sage brush, wildflowers were common.
And wildlife, while not common, was plentiful enough that the bison were able to occupy the roadways and tie up traffic.
We even saw the famous wild horses. Well, one at least:
And our stop here did validate the essential connection between this area and Roosevelt’s conservation philosophy. Roosevelt was in many ways the father of the conservation movement in the United States and it is often said that to understand his approach, one must see the badlands of North Dakota, where he not only briefly ventured into a ranching business, but where he began to formulate his idea that the natural resources of our country were precious, exhaustible, and subject to over-exploitation. Having been here, we understand the point.
Roosevelt believed that, without moral or legal constraints, the very same human tendencies that propelled mankind to greatness would inevitably tend to excess and destroy the foundation on which they were built. His hallmark achievement as a trust-buster, for example, is a perfect illustration. As Morris points out in Theodore Rex, Roosevelt admired the great captains of industry and what they accomplished: they built railroads that spanned a continent, a steel industry unmatched in the world, and a financial structure that could leverage capital and fund the expansion of an entire nation. But at some point, something of an uncontrolled chain reaction had taken place in those institutions. The economic impulses that led to their greatest success couldn’t stop themselves and they began to consume the social foundation on which they were built. The “freedom” that a free market provided allowed the industrial giants, through trusts and combinations, to turn their power towards the market itself. Roosevelt came to believe that the energy of commerce, like fire, was a valuable servant but a terrible master.
Roosevelt saw a similar effect when it came to natural resources. As he said, “We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.” The productive use of resources, in essence, because it was not self-constraining, contained the seeds not only of its own destruction but of society’s loss as well.
It would be hard not to come to such a conclusion in the plains of 19th century North Dakota. Bison, which may have numbered across the country as many as sixty million, had been decimated and now numbered only a few thousand. On his bison hunt to this area in September 1883, bison had become so scarce that it took Roosevelt ten days to bag one. Ranchers, enticed by the grasslands, were streaming to the area in such numbers that the landscape was overgrazed and denuded. Although it would be a century before the concept of the “tragedy of the commons” would be articulated, Roosevelt could see it happening before his eyes. The truth that nature can be used only up to a point before it can no longer recover is inescapable in the severe environment of the North Dakota badlands.
One can read into Roosevelt’s philosophy a sort of incipient Sierra Clubophilia, but that would be a mistake. Morris points out that, in Rossevelt’s famous trip to Yosemite with John Muir, Roosevelt was uncomfortable with Muir’s preservationist philosophy and much preferred the scientific management principles for forests espoused by his good friend, Gifford Pinchot. Roosevelt considered one of his most important environmental achievements to be the Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902, which provided for the construction of dams and irrigation projects throughout the west. Roosevelt believed that, “water in western rivers, if not being used to help people, was wasted,” a phrase that would be anathema to card-carrying Sierra Clubistas. Roosevelt was an avid hunter, something that would make a PETAcrat throw up, and not only supported a widespread ranching industry, to the same PETAcrat effect, he participated in it himself.
Roosevelt with John Muir in Yosemite in 1903. Although Yosemite had already been largely protected, Roosevelt’s trip to this area reinforced his view that some areas of the country had to be preserved for future generations.
So Roosevelt came to believe in a conservation philosophy that was balanced and dualistic: beneficial use on the one hand and preservation on the other; scientific exploitation of resources that were renewable and manageable, and binding perpetuation for resources that were unique and irreplaceable. Such would be a natural and essentially inevitable conclusion for a hunter and rancher in 19th century North Dakota, which is why it is worthwhile to see the place of the formative years for Roosevelt’s conservation convictions.
From these underpinnings, Roosevelt’s conservation accomplishments were impressive: while in office, he set aside over 230 million federal acres for conservation, a quantity of land greater than the entire state of Texas. He signed and invoked the Antiquities Act that allowed for preservation of land as “national monuments.” He established 150 National Forests, 23 National Parks and Monuments, 51 federal Bird Reserves, four national Game Preserves, and 24 reclamation projects.
So, this ends this year’s summer excursion. We now start the long (1800 mile) (this is a BIG country!) trip home.
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.