The shutdown is more like a conservative fantasy: environmental regulars and tax auditors are sent home while border guards and the people who spy on us are not. It amounts to an evasion of laws Congresses have already passed and the usual procedure of repealing unwanted laws. In other words, nothing more than a subversion of our democracy.
This week at work some visitors have asked me about the effects of the sequester on the park. I won’t get into my answer here, but it’s on people’s minds.
I keep coming back to something I saw on the news— it must have been PBS News Hour and I wish I could find the story now—about the sequester and its effects on national parks. Somewhere in there an analyst from the Brookings Institute said they should be fine. Specifically, the reports showed here scrolling through some spreadsheet on her computer, nodding her head, and saying something like, “They should be fine.” And I thought, “Thanks, lady with a pink sweater in an office, for clearing up how budget cuts affect parks.”
But that’s not really my point either. I’ll accept that, even with all the adverse impacts, national parks won’t disappear and that the world won’t end with even a five percent budget cut. What irks me is that “experts” like the pink-sweatered office lady are never challenged by the news media to account for this opinion or explain at what point they might change their reasoned analysis. Because just as we can’t keep raising spending on national parks forever, we can’t keep cutting them forever either. At some point the things they were created to preserve, and for us to enjoy, will crumble. So, for those whose line that the sequester is no big deal, or maybe even a good thing, at what percentage of a haircut will they not be “fine”? Or do you feel that the total elimination of all democratic spending will be a boon? If so, that’s fine, but you might as well come out and admit to being the errand-runner you are for corporations, rich people, and others who plan to continue benefiting more from our civilization while contributing ever less to it.
All the grave markers, all the crude headstones—
water-lost. Now fish dart among their bones,
and we listen for what the waves intone.
Only the fort remains, near forty feet high,
round, unfinished, half-open to the sky,
the elements— wind, rain— God’s deliberate eye.
Natasha Trethewey, Native Guard
I heard on the radio that the United States has a new poet-laureate. This is not something I usually pay much attention to, except that Natasha Trethewey’s name is familiar to me. I met her when she visited Ship Island to learn more about the Louisiana Native Guard, black soldiers who were stationed there during the Civil War. Her resulting Pulitzer Prize winning poetry book Native Guard is named after those soldiers. So after hearing the news I picked up that book from the library.
Poetry, like jazz, often eludes my attempts at appreciation, even though I write an occasional doggerel verse. The poems in Native Guard are accessible to poetry non-readers like me. They weave Trethewey’s tragic Mississippi childhood (her abusive stepfather murdered her mother) with aspects of Mississippi’s tortured racial history. Trethewey’s mother and father were respectively black and white, their marriage in those days a crime in the state (a poem about this is titled “Miscegenation”).
It wasn’t Trethewey’s personal interpretation of Mississippi that I related to most, but her verbal rendering of the national park I worked at for three and a half years. In the same poem quoted at the top of this post, titled “Elegy for the Native Guards” she writes of her visit to Fort Massachusetts on Ship island:
Inside we follow the ranger, hurried
though we are to get to the beach…
I didn’t lead that particular tour, but she captured my professional existence out there pretty succinctly. Brava!
We crossed the state line into Minnesota around 9:00 p.m. on Thursday night and it immediately started snowing. This was our first legitimate trip to Minnesota (I don’t count flight layovers). The small towns we drove through all have nice welcome marquees that are lit up at night (Stewartville: The Future is Bright!). I ate walleye and wild rice and discovered that many Minnesotans do talk like the characters in “Fargo”.
We spent a night and half a day in downtown Saint Paul. After breakfast we walked up to the Minnesota State Capitol, another fine palace of democracy. Excepting the gilded horse sculptures the outside is serious and gray like the December sky, but the inside is spacious and bright with many colorful varieties of polished stone. We also walked to the Cathedral of Saint Paul, a compact domed basilica perched upon a hill overlooking the city core.
On the long, dark drive from Saint Paul to International Falls, we stopped in Virginia at the heart of the Iron Range, for dinner. Northern Minnesota with its forests and mines certainly doesn’t look like Iowa. The most intriguing road sign of the trip was north of Virginia:
I thought it was a message to the former Secretary of the Interior but apparently Embarrass and Babbitt are two little towns off the same exit of U.S. Highway 53.
Because of the dark winter evening we didn’t see much of the North Country until the next morning when we woke up at the lodge just outside Voyageurs National Park to our view of a frozen section of Rainy Lake. A couple of inches fell overnight. It was not enough to ski or snowshoe on, or at least not enough for the park ranger at the visitor center to rent us skis. He did recommend some trails for hiking and told us a little about the bears, wolves, and moose in the park. The bears were asleep for the winter but the wolves and moose were out and I hoped to see some. Lore was glad the bears were asleep and not was as enthusiastic about the wolves and moose. The gray wolves in the park are pretty big (there was a huge stuffed one in the museum exhibit) but the ranger said they stay away from people.
International Falls was cute but didn’t smell so nice. I suppose the massive paper mills on the riverfront were the reason. The supermarket was busy on the Friday of Christmas weekend. The old lady behind us in the express checkout lane eyed our 14 items suspiciously. It’s fair to say we didn’t look like International Falls residents. People kept asking us why we were so bundled up in our hiking fleeces and snow pants as it was unseasonably warm in the high 20s and low 30s. International Falls looks like more of Carhartt town anyway.
The area around International Falls is quite the winter wonderland, though. There were snowmobiles and ice fishing huts and even a couple of ski planes parked on the lake. On some state trails we found plenty of snow to ski on, but since the national park was the only rental game in town we contented ourselves with trampling over the ski tracks with our boots until some old guy chased us off.
Our big day of hiking was along the Blind Ash Bay Trail near Ash River, a trek highly recommended by our ranger. The day started out cold but the sun came out around 10:00 a.m. and stayed out for a few hours. The trail was four miles round trip through conifer forest. Judging by all the tracks in the snow it looked like an animal highway. Right at the trailhead were some canine-looking tracks, the closed thing I saw to a wolf all weekend. The extent to which deer, cats, mice, squirrels, and rabbits shared the trail with humans surprised me. Then again, maybe trails are trails for a reason. One tiny animal’s tracks ended abruptly in a dent in the snow made perhaps by an owl’s underside. We saw some chickadees and red squirrels but otherwise all was very quiet except for some woodpeckers and snowmobiles in the distance on the lake. Our best sighting was a ruffed grouse which crossed our path. It let us get pretty close before we went our separate ways.
The trail ended at Blind Ash Bay, a little cove in Kabetogama Lake. It was completely frozen over and covered with snow but we didn’t venture out onto it. The sun was out in full winter force and the white lake dazzled us as we stood among dried cattails and looked across. We moved uphill to a clearing for a snack, where it was warm but not blinding. We made the two miles back in just over an hour and drove to the next trailhead for our leftovers sandwiches at Beaver Pond Overlook.
When we got back to International Falls, we stopped for some soup to warm up. The waitress, seeing us in our fleece and snow clothes, asked, “Are you on foot?”
“No, we drove here.”
“Oh,” she said, looking perplexed. We explained we were hiking. She pointed out what a nice day it was. She was wearing a tee-shirt.
On Christmas morning we woke up early, exchanged gifts, and then hit the trail again. We parked at the boat ramp near the visitor center and walked across Black Bay. For Lore’s sake I pretended to not be afraid but I’ve never walked across a frozen lake before either. The ranger said it was fine to walk across but there was still a mental barrier to cross. Instead of following the snowmobile tracks we walked the short way straight across to Kabetogama Peninsula and followed the shoreline north to the dock where the hiking trails started. Once on shore we picked up the hiking trail and walked about half a mile to a frozen beaver pond. We sat in the snow overlooking the pond and ate our trail mix and granola bar breakfast with ice-cold water (the food was not the high point of the weekend).
That was it for hiking. We went back (by now old pros at crossing ice) to the lodge for lunch and naps. We kept catching the “A Christmas Story” marathon on TBS at the same part of the movie where Ralphie beats up Scut Farkus and had to return to it a few times before we saw the whole thing. The staff had deserted the lodge and, as on the trails, we were by ourselves. It was a beautiful and quiet Christmas.
If you want to feel like you know nothing, be an information officer on the oil spill response.
I used to work on the Gulf Coast. I was there during Katrina and I have a connection to the place. I really wanted to help, so as my agency prepared a response I volunteered to go as a public information officer (PIO). In the three weeks I was there, I was outraged by the effects of the catastrophe and disappointed by feelings of my own futility. It was only during my last week that I was assigned to the actual shoreline, at the national park where I used to work.
I spent my first week about as far from the oil and shoreline as anyone on the response: at the Unified Command in Robert, Louisiana. Robert was the field headquarters for the whole response effort. Run from a Shell training facility rented by BP, it oversaw the various area commands where most of the response operations were run out of. My first impressions were “what a complete clusterfuck” and “wow, a lot of people are working very hard to solve this problem.” I spent much my first afternoon getting my laptop working in the External Affairs trailer. The External Affairs division comprised public relations professionals from various federal agencies. They reminded me of characters on “The West Wing” in that they took themselves a little too seriously.
My supposed function was fielding media inquiries about national parks. However, when I got to Robert, oil was in the South Louisiana marshes and BP was attempting the “top kill”, so national parks were off everybody’s radar. So my only routine task was to each morning write up a statistical summary that worked its way up to the White House. It was an easy enough job that I could finish before 7:30 a.m., but the imprecise business of gathering statistics caused some complications. For example, I pointed out a drop in the reckoned total personnel working on the response from one day to the next and this sent a young Department of Homeland Security (DHS) guy into a panic. The administration had been saying that 20,000 people are working on the response. This number turned out to be in error and was more like 15,000. Reporting smaller figures is apparently worse than being precise, so the DHS guy had to come up with some justification for continuing to use the 20,000 figure. He found one, and Obama used the 20,000 figure in a press conference that afternoon. This contributed to feeling that I was not doing anything particularly important.
There were a handful of national parks people in a sea of Coast Guard and BP at Robert. I think we were there just to remind those folks that the National Parks exist (eight on the Gulf Coast and South Florida) and were at risk of oil contamination. I made a few efforts to raise the NPS profile on the response website, with mixed results. After a week of this, I suggested that my knowledge of the Gulf Coast would be better used elsewhere. So I was sent to the Mobile, Alabama command responsible for Mississippi, Alabama, and the Florida panhandle.
My first week in Mobile was a busier version of what I was doing in Robert: contributing little to what I thought was important from an unsatisfying position in a headquarters building. Mostly I compiled reports of interest only to invisible officials in Washington, D.C. Except for a brief stop in Ocean Springs on my way to Mobile I hadn’t yet set foot on the shoreline. Nominally, I was assigned to the Joint Information Center (JIC), though my reporting responsibilities to my agency pulled me away from this Q & A work. That put me into a somewhat isolated and dreary position. But I was happy to oblige and I did the job well, so when I was asked to extend for a week, I agreed with the condition that I be sent into the field.
People, mainly journalists, called the JIC to ask questions, usually not the answer-at-your-fingertips kind. The information officers at the JIC had to go find the answers. The intensity at the JIC went in and out with the tide, or as oil washed up on the beaches in Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. It took a few days just to get my bearings. Being a massive and complex incident it was very hard to grasp it all. It was busiest the weekend oil started washing up on the beaches around Pensacola. Even though oil had washed ashore in Mississippi and Alabama earlier in the week, oil on Florida beaches attracted much more attention. It was as if oil isn’t really on the beach until it’s on a Florida beach.
The reports we had access to rarely had the exact answers to the reporters’ questions, so we had to find someone in another section for the answer. For example, I might ask someone at the Florida operations branch if they know what kind of oil, where, and how far off of Pensacola is it? Or, where are the skimmers and how many are working where? How many feet of containment boom are deployed around Pensacola Bay? They might in turn refer me to the SCAT (shoreline clean-up assessment technique) coordinators or to the situation group in the planning section. I would later discover that the maps and figures didn’t always jive with the reality in the field, but I couldn’t know that from the suburban office building where we were working.
After beach-goers and reporters harassed some clean-up crews on Santa Rosa Island, our growing national park cohort at the JIC started sending more PIOs to Gulf Islands National Seashore. Our strategy was to assist the clean-up crews and the resource advisors (READs)—biologists who kept the responders from doing further harm to the park as they cleaned up—deal with the media and visitors so they could do their jobs.
I was a little underwhelmed, but still disgusted, by the oil I saw on Santa Rosa Island during my first day in the field: mostly little blobs the size of a dime scattered along the wrack line, and much had been cleaned up. It was unlike the solid slicks that the media showed inundating the Louisiana marshes. I saw worse later.
Media interest waned somewhat after the first oily weekend in Florida but we continued to assist the READs and offer “media availabilities”. I accompanied a media entourage on a vessel that took them off the Alabama coast to “look for oil”. The reporters preferred to talk to the Coast Guard, but none of their PIOs were available for this boat, so they had to settle for a park ranger. One of the local TV reporters on my boat interviewed me while she did her makeup. When they could get along side the other media boat, they interviewed the Coast Guard PIO on it while filming nasty orange blobs and silvery sheens on the water.
This was my first look at oily offshore waters. It appeared very difficult to clean. Skimmer boats tried soaking it up by dragging sorbent booms between them. Another skimmer used the pompom-like absorbent parts from a snare boom attached to a long pole to (literally) mop up mats of oil. They wore full protective suits. They must have been broiling.
The next day I was called out to Petit Bois Island in Mississippi. The READs had requested a PIO to deal some media hovering around the island on a boat. Of course by the time I got out there the reporters had departed. I stayed on the island in case they returned, and learned a lot about what those report figures meant in living color at a national park.
Petit Bois Island is a desert. It is hot and exposed. There is no shade except what you erect and no drinkable water except what you bring. The sand is white and reflects heat right back up at you. The clean-up crews erected little shade shelters every quarter-mile or so.
As well as being a desert, Petis Bois was a mess. There were large puddles of brown oil, some maybe 10 feet by 5 feet and an inch thick in patches along the oil-soaked wrack line. The work crews, because they were dealing with heavy concentrations, wore plastic suits to their waists, boots, gloves, and—for some reason—hard hats. With the humidity the heat index was way past 100 degrees—and they worked through the middle of the day. I was hot just watching them. They took long and frequent breaks.
Also a mess was the impact on the island. Petit Bois is federal wilderness area which, in the words of Wilderness Act of 1964, is to be a place “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.” But in order to clean up oil along six or more miles of an offshore Gulf beach you need dozens of workers, utility terrain vehicles (UTVs), shade, water, fuel, food, toilets, boats, landing areas—all while attempting to not disturb sensitive bird and turtle nesting areas or fragile dunes systems and seagrass beds. The crews and the biologists were diligent and innovative as they tried to strike a balance among safety, clean-up, and protection of the natural resources, but neither the catastrophic oil pollution nor this massive clean-up operation honored the spirit of the wilderness.
Even though I didn’t catch up with any reporters that day on Petit Bois Island, I was on television and on radio and quoted in the newspaper. My usual question and answer functions as a park ranger were at once highly simplified and greatly magnified. Most of my previous experience with news reporters has been pretty straightforward, and if I screw up it doesn’t get into the national news.
As a PIO for a national incident I had to stick to a few key messages and wasn’t afforded much candor. On the media boat tour I was confined to the vessel with eight reporters for six hours. Everything I said could have been fair game to them so I spoke as little and as carefully as possible, which seems an impediment to transparency. I’m not entirely comfortable with that; there is an art to it which takes preparation and practice. Public relations folks (like the “West Wing” types in Robert) labor under the presumption that they can (and should) manipulate the media into reporting the news their way with pre-packaged messages. I concluded that though skillful people can pull that off, the media have to want to hear what you have to say first.
Tuesday we were at Rosamond Johnson Beach on Perdido Key, Florida. This was a little case study in how hard it was getting accurate information and everybody on the same page. We arrived just in time for heavy oil to wash up on the beach. Crews had been cleaning it all weekend. The lifeguards asked the swimmers to leave the water. They don’t have authority to close the beach or the water, and it wasn’t clear who does. Closing beaches and waters is a touchy subject and, also impractical, according to someone I spoke with at the Florida Department of Health. The READs and the lifeguards wanted the waters closed or at least a strongly worded official health advisory issued from park management, which wasn’t forthcoming. There was also, according to the lifeguards, a state or county health advisory for county waters that ended at the park boundary. I discovered that everything is a rumor until verified, but as PIO I had to be prepared to answer questions about the lifeguards’ decision and the park’s inconsistency with the county’s health advisory, and whether the oil on the beach is dangerous or not. We never did untangle it all but the media let us off the hook by not showing up. The beach-goers, for their part, had mixed reactions. Most stayed out of the water, but not all. One lady said they only came down to the beach once or twice a year, and that they would risk it for the sake of saving their vacation.
To sum up my admittedly limited experiences and observations: there is nothing easy about fixing the big, complicated mess down on the Gulf Coast. I spoke to a lot of people living and working there who just shook their heads in anger, sadness, and disappointment. I found myself shaking my head a lot too.
I wondered how Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan would wrap up “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” last night. The first five episodes of the series only took us up to the Second World War, leaving sixty years of national parks history and experiences for the last two hours. It ended appropriately enough, after leapfrogging from decade to decade, with the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone in the 1990s.
I liked it. At work, the whole agency has been waiting for this broadcast, hoping it will reawaken interest in the parks. It had some of the best scenic video photography I’ve ever seen on television. For the first time I regret not having a high-definition television.
In terms of storytelling, the first couple of episodes were the best, emphasizing the wild and uncertain days of the earliest parks, their defenders, and their opponents. Burns and Duncan told the separate stories of Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir before bringing them together and then pulling them apart again. There were some slow stretches, too, but the filmmakers kept the emphasis on the people and the places, instead of on the onerous bureaucratic history.
The highlight for me was the retelling of a story I told as an interpreter almost ten years ago: John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s building of the recreational carriage road system at Acadia National Park where his sensitivity to the landscape and the scenery was evident in the design of the roads’ bridges. I used to lead the “Mr. Rockefeller’s Bridges” walking tour twice a week and even have a VHS videotape of one of my tours.
There was also some of that hokum I can’t stand from a few of the talking heads, like: American parks were for the people while European parks were the dominions of the aristocracy. I will scream if I hear that again. As the film amply showed, establishing this country’s national parks was at first largely an elitist, though visionary, idea and undertaking. Droppings of fuzzy-bunny commentary from environmental writers, which Lore calls guitarreo (it translates roughly if not literally into “b.s.”) made me roll my eyes a few times, too.
“The National Parks” is worth seeing if you haven’t yet. It is a good reminder that the places that help define our national identity are still out there and that they are ours.
Our last evening in Haleakala: another fire, another soup. We’re getting better at it. The tent stinks, our clothes stink, we stink. Everything must be washed. We’re only allowed three nights here per month so this is it. It occurred to me that leaving the comfortable, steady climate of the coast, the hotels, the nice little tourist towns, for the relative discomfort of camping and hiking in a volcanic desert high above the clouds takes some mental discipline. I can see why the park wasn’t too crowded.
With the weekend done there was a tamer crowd in the campground last night: no potheads, no later music, no loose chihuahuas. In the morning I walked the campground’s nature trail and belatedly discovered its environs. The campground is exactly at the tree line, between a planted forest of nonnative trees and a native shrubland. I finally saw a few honeycreepers (of the more common species, ‘Apapane I think) in the shrubs.
We’re back at God’s Peace of Maui, a nice place to stay if you don’t need a lot of attention. We treated ourselves to a nice lunch at the Hali’imaile General Store (Lore was already beyond tired of granola bars and trail mix), owned by one of Hawaii’s better-known chefs who is also a proponent of Hawaiian regional cuisine. In the middle of a pineapple plantation, they have a mean pineapple upside-down cake.
We also had a good pizza dinner at the Flatbread Company in Pa’ia. I never have high hopes for pizza from anywhere west of the Hudson, and I think barbecue sauce and pineapple on pizza are separate atrocies. However, our pizza was delicious.
We’re going to the beach one more time tomorrow morning and then leaving. Lore and I discussed whether or not we would want to live here. We both like it a lot. The weather is superb (forecasts are ridiculous: 89 and mostly sunny every day). There is so much to do that we barely scratched the surface of it. The towns are pretty, the scenery is incredible, and the food is tasty. I wonder if we’re better off just visiting when we can.
This is one of those easy downhill hikes (about 2.6 miles and 1,400 feet) into Haleakala Crater along the Sliding Sands Trail and then to Ka Lu’u o ka O’o, the nearest cinder cone. The view across this part of the crater is (by my own reckoning) about 5 miles from ridge to ridge, but it is impossible to get any perspective on the scale because there are no man-made objects inside it.
For a place with only a few sparse plants it is spectacularly colored with red, yellow, green, brown, black, and gray cinders. The walls of the crater are chocolate brown or slate gray with occasional sparse covers of yellow-green shrubs and white-leaved silverswords. The cinder cones of the smaller, later volcanoes inside the crater are red– brownish red to bright brick red– against a deep blue sky. The clouds below seep over the crater rim or through the massive gap in the north where the volcano is eroding into the ocean. Lore and I spent about an hour and a half alone at Ka Lu’u o ka O’o, walking around the rim, photographing, painting, eating lunch, and staring at the scenery.
The price of this is the hike out, not long or steep but tiring in the thin, dry air under the mid-afternoon sun which alternated with chilly overcasts of clouds.
The only front-country campground in the summit district of Haleakala National Park is Hosmer Grove. It is simply a small field with picnic benches, potable water spigots, and fire pits, a picnic shelter and a pair of pit toilets with a sink. It is free and there are no assigned camp spaces nor is there a ranger or host stationed there.
Lore wanted something hot to eat this time and was confident about building a fire. After a couple of lame attempts Lore challenged me to do better and we started an unnecessarily large blaze in the fire pit for my little one-quart pot, which is really only meant to be used with a backcountry cook stove. The soup was good but my pot is black with pine resin.
Maui is generally dark at night, but you can see the stars here above the clouds. The Milky Way stretches from horizon to horizon directly above our heads like a celestial archway.
This campground seems kind of free and easy but it has a downside: it is noisy. We were woken by some chatty potheads (12:30 a.m.) and then some jackass playing a radio (1:00 a.m.) and then by somebody’s errant chihuahua sniffing around the tent (5:30 a.m.).
We got up late but I feel better and can eat again. We planned an easy hike to get acclimated to the high elevation, and followed the Halemau’u Trail to the rim of Haleakala Crater. The crater is pretty amazing: steep cliffs, red cinder cones, and nothing much grows down there. I want to see more.
We are above the clouds. It is very strange. The park road is a good one, well paved and clearly marked. There are no guard rails or shoulders so if we drive off the road we’ll dive right down in to the clouds.
There is a Visitor Center near the summit, at almost 10,000 feet. A few exhibits there explain the geology and efforts to protect several endangered species. Mostly it has more stunning views of the crater.
We are at Haleakala National Park. After we set up the tent and had a cold dinner I got really sick, probably from the high elevation. I’ve camped and hiked higher than this but I’ve never gone from sea level to 7,000 feet in one day.
While I was incapacitated in the tent Lore experimented with fire-making in one of the fire pits. A couple of neighboring campers– of all people a couple of Long Island transplants who teach tango– helped Lore build her fire.
My move to Iowa was my first foray into the Midwest. While I’ve seen quite of bit of eastern Iowa and have traveled to Missouri and Nebraska, I still haven’t been to the industrial heartland around the Great Lakes. This week’s training course brought me to Ohio for the first time. On the drive back, I got to see a little more of Indiana and Illinois.
From time to time I’ve heard it said that Ohio is not in the Midwest, but the Northeast. Garrison Keillor might agree. What’s not urban and sprawling is either eastern deciduous forest or small farms. There is definitely more New York and Pennsylvania in the land than Iowa and Kansas.
After class let out we took a short jaunt to James A. Garfield National Historic Site in nearby Mentor. Garfield’s house, like his biography, is much distorted by his assassination. Substantial donations to his widow expanded the already large Victorian farm mansion. The addition is mostly a spacious library for the late president’s book collection. Garfield himself slouched over a small armchair–custom designed for hanging his legs over one of the arms–in his study on the other side of the house.
We stayed Friday night in Indiana and dropped in on Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, which abuts the grungy industrial city of Gary. Having lived and worked along Atlantic and Gulf coasts, I am not easily impressed with beaches. The lake beaches lack something that the ocean beaches have even in the dead of winter. Maybe it’s the crashing waves and the salt air.
We went to Mount Baldy, a massive dune bare of vegetation that is an environmental disaster: thousands of people climbing it and trampling its plants have turned the dune into a roving blob of sand. Driven by the lake wind, it is creeping at a glacial rate southward. In my imagination it will slowly roll across Indiana, devouring everything in its path. In fact it is so gradual that right now it only threatens to bury the parking lot behind it. The park is trying to stabilize it by planting dune grasses, but this effort appears puny. Beware!
From there we drove back to Iowa via Chicago. The corridor along Lake Michigan between Gary and Chicago is the landscape of industrial might. People sneer at Gary as a living museum of urban blight, but they at least they make useful things. Ought the gleaming financial centers that produce nothing but worthless paperwork assets be the new objects of disgust?
Speaking of gleaming financial centers, we made a quick detour along Lakeshore Drive in Chicago. From the impressive museum campus, I snapped some photos of the city’s office towers. The Sears Tower, now known as Willis, appears undiminished by the renaming.
I’m at Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio this week for training. We were cooped up in a classroom most of Monday and Tuesday, but class got out a little early today, so one of the rangers here took us down to the tow path along the canal along the Cuyahoga River. There’s a wetland that was once a junkyard. Some beavers built a dam and flooded the area, now it’s one of the prime wildlife viewing areas in the park. The beaver dams and lodges are easily seen from the trail. It’s warm enough now that the chorus frogs and spring peepers started up late in the afternoon.
Knowing how bored I get in hotel rooms, I brought with me to Ames plenty to read. And since I was there a whole extra day waiting around I finished “Assassination Vacation” by Sarah Vowell. I read her latest book last week and liked it enough to try another.
“Assassination Vacation” is much more substantial and better written than “The Wordy Shipmates”. It’s about Vowell’s pilgrimages to the historic sites and places associated with the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. She enjoys stuff that even I find boring at times, like statues, graves, and historic markers. For example,
I don’t like statues of historical figures, which to me are a form of idol worship that comes straight out the reptilian parts of our brains. I prefer more indirect devices like buildings, artifacts, and landscapes.
Vowell doesn’t share my contempt for statues (or ostentatious tombs) but she’s a good interpreter–something I strive to be, with mixed results. She sees what these things tell us besides the obvious. Describing a museum display of the bullet that killed Lincoln along with fragments of his skull, she writes:
These well-labeled, well-lit artifacts also suggest the existence of: the autopsy surgeon, the file clerk who catalogued and stowed them, the curator who decided to put them on display, the carpenter who built the display case, etc. Even though I am currently the only pilgrim paying my respects to the relics in this out of the way museum, it suddenly feels pretty crowded in here, what with all the people who made this exhibit possible–from John Wilkes Booth on down to the intern who probably typed the labels–breathing down my neck. I can’t make up my mind which step in the process is weirder, the murder or this display, unless the weirdest step of all is taking a fourteen-dollar cab ride to look at the display about the murder.
Since Vowell visits a lot of National Park areas in her travels, the book includes lots of park rangers. While investigating the case of a conspirator imprisoned at Fort Jefferson, she writes at length about my friend and former co-worker Mike Ryan, an authority on masonry forts whose great enthusiasm for that subject always seems at war with his reserved demeanor. Capturing such verifiable characteristics in writing is pretty impressive.
Today was quite comfortable compared to the glacial blast we had this week. At least until the wind kicked up again. We went out to West Branch to see the National Historic Site and the Presidential Library.
The simple design of the Hoovers’ gravesite is quite striking in the snow:
I was in Springfield, Missouri this week for a conference. This is the fourth time I’ve been there but only the first when it wasn’t 100 degrees. The weather was quite nice. In fact it was perfect on Monday night, when we all went to a Springfield Cardinals baseball game. Springfield is a AA affiliate of the big league Cardinals. AA ball is nice. There are no bad seats. I even went up to the front for a couple of photos. The highlight was the foul ball I almost caught. In a major league stadium I don’t think I’ve even been in the same section as a foul ball. This time, a pop fly foul came right to my seat. I caught it in my ball cap, but it bounced right out like it was a trampoline and right into the hands of a kid a few rows in front of me. I’d say that’s a pretty good cap.
The conference had to do with making the data collected in the parks by scientists accessible and comprehensible by the lay public. I listened to a lot of updates from scientists about water quality and exotic plants, and we practiced some interpretive writing. We were a few blocks from downtown and right next to the Southwest Missouri State campus. In that sense central Springfield is a little like Iowa City, but the “stoonts” weren’t back yet so it was quiet.
We stopped at Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield for a couple of hours yesterday afternoon. They have a nice visitor center with a new film. They also have a three dimensional fiber-optic light map presentation narrated by James McPherson. It was recently restored with new electronics. They also just acquired a neighboring Civil War museum with an excellent Trans-Mississippi collection. This park seems pretty well-endowed.