Friday, September 25, 2015

Of Popes and Politics

It’s been fascinating watching the right-wingers lose their collective mind over a Pope who follows the teachings of Christ more than the polemics of Ayn Rand.

Be good stewards of God’s creation.  Care for “the least of these,” the poor, the outcast, the downtrodden.  Seek justice.  Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.  It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

You’d think a group that clothes itself in religious rhetoric – that claims sole ownership over the term “Christian,” in fact, much to the amusement of the rest of us – would recognize these and abide by them.  That they would welcome spiritual guidance from the leader of the world’s largest church, from the leader of the church where so many of their foot soldiers go on Sundays.  That they would recognize the spiritual power of a man who has spent his life in the service of his faith – the same faith that they claim to have – and who has been elevated by the votes of the elders of that faith into its most prominent and powerful office, an office which, by its own decree, renders the occupant infallible when speaking ex cathedra.  A man who lives that faith every day, far more thoroughly than they do.

You’d be wrong, of course. 

The religious right has nothing to do with actual faith.  It is a deeply cynical manipulation of the symbols of faith in order to achieve political power, and it has been extremely successful in the US since it emerged in its modern form in the late 1970s.

And if you understand how it emerged, you also understand why this particular Pope is such a threat to the right-wing and their carefully-constructed political machine.

The modern American right wing is a strange and jury-rigged creation.  It has at its core a set of different, not entirely compatible constituencies whose interests all managed to line up together in the decade or so following the 1968 collapse of the left in America.

First and most importantly, you have the politicians of the right, conservative leaders who – like any politicians – sought to gain and hold power.  They had been out of power since 1933, when it became clear that the supply-side economics that they favored and which served the interests of the wealthy and powerful so well were simply inadequate to the needs of a demand-side economy.  The problem for them is that they had nothing really to offer the American people to get them on their side.  The majority of Americans were, objectively, better off economically under the progressive economic policies adopted by the US in the wake of the Great Depression – a fact recognized even by many conservatives, who incorporated them into their own platforms by the 1950s and simply argued for different focus and extent.  Read through Dwight Eisenhower’s election year platforms and see. 

The right-wing revolt of the 1960s brought a new group of conservatives to power in the Republican Party, and they worked diligently to switch the focus of American politics from economic issues (surefire losers for their cause) to social issues (on which they could win).  You see this with Nixon’s Southern Strategy, for example, and the backlash against the social protest movements of the 1960s.  While the resistance to the Civil Rights Movement was the most obvious and open social issue on the right, it would be the resistance to the Feminist Movement that would eventually bring them the most success.

Because those conservatives needed foot soldiers.  And that brings us to the second main constituency – Protestant Evangelicals, many of whom held deeply traditional or even reactionary views on social issues.

These Evangelicals had largely disappeared from American politics after the Scopes trial of 1925.  They hadn’t given up on changing the United States to suit their views, but they generally sought to do so outside of the political sphere.  As I have written before, this changes in the 1970s when they emerge back onto the political stage as actors.  The question was, of course, whether they would jump to the left – the leading Evangelical politician of the 1970s being Jimmy Carter, after all – or to the right.  And for reasons that I’ve discussed here, they jump right.

But those two groups were not enough to turn the modern right wing into the juggernaut it is today.  To do that, they needed the Catholics.  That's the third group.

The late 1970s is where the abortion issue first becomes a concern to conservatives and Evangelicals.  Because prior to that it wasn’t.  Evangelical leaders in the 1960s had hewed to what we would call a pro-choice line today – a view that is fairly easy to support using the Bible, actually – and the Roe v. Wade decision removing state restrictions on a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion had been hailed by those leaders as both a religious and political victory. 

But the Catholic church had long held a consistent anti-abortion line, condemning it as sinful and supporting political efforts to bar the practice.  This fit fairly well with the socially conservative views of the church hierarchy at the time, views that were in many ways not that far removed from those of the Evangelical leaders on other issues – particularly on issues relating to women’s rights in general.

The animosity between Protestant and Catholic leaders had long roots, however.  Anti-Catholic hysteria goes back all the way to the founding of the American colonies – the Puritan John Winthrop, one of the founders of Massachusetts in the 1630s considered the Catholic church to be the anti-Christ.  And anti-Catholic violence would emerge again and again over the course of the 19th century – the riots of the 1830s and 1840s, and the Know-Nothing Party of the 1850s being perhaps the best known examples.  Much of the Nativism directed at the New Immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was specifically because they were Catholic.  Uniting those two groups would not be easy.

Abortion was the key.

If right-wing political leaders could sway the Evangelical churches to adopt an anti-abortion position, they could join those two interest groups into a powerful and influential voting bloc that would bring those leaders to power.  And that, more or less, is what happened.  This alliance between Evangelicals and Catholics remains the bedrock of the modern right, the source of much of its electoral strength and the machine that allows conservative politicians to enact their economic plans.

And now the Pope is openly criticizing their economics.

He has decried the kind of unfettered libertarian capitalism that is at the heart of the right-wing economic vision.  He has called for economic justice.  He has called for resources to be put toward the care of the environment.  He has spoken in defense of the poor, the outsiders, and the refugees.  He’s basically recognized the incompatibility of so much of the right-wing economic and social platform with the teachings of Christ.

He’s still anti-abortion.  But that’s not enough anymore.

What this Pope is doing, in effect, is opening a wedge between Catholics and the American right.  American Catholics now find that they have the religious freedom to abandon the right and still call themselves good Catholics.  The alliance with Protestant Evangelicals which has been the foundation of the modern American right for nearly half a century may not survive that.

This terrifies the GOP.

And you can see it in the hysterical assaults they are making on the Pope while he is here in the US. 

They’ve called him a false Christian.  They’ve questioned his understanding of the Bible.  They’ve called him a Communist.  They’ve boycotted his speeches and angrily declared him to be a liberal, which to those of us who actually are liberal is rather comical.

They’re scared.

If Pope Francis ends up decoupling the alliance between Catholics and Evangelicals that has been so critical to the success of the right wing since the 1970s, the right wing will collapse.

It’s been a fascinating thing to watch unfold, and more than a little sad.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Ding, Dong, the Campaign is Dead

We went out and celebrated.

When the news came down the internet that Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) was bowing out of the presidential race, it really wasn’t a surprise.  He’d been polling at 0% all week, after all, and even if the margin of error was about 2% on those polls, that still means that mathematically he could also have been at -2%.  I’m not sure what that translates to in real terms – perhaps that 2% of the GOP base would rather vote for Bernie Sanders than this guy.  But it was clear that he was on his last legs.

I worried anyway.  People like that, people with no principles beyond what they are paid by their puppetmasters to have, people whose careers have been defined by soulless ambition and ruthless immorality, people like that have a way of hanging on, of surprising the mass of decent humanity with their powers of recuperation.  And given the money that the Koch Brothers had paid for him, I expected them to make more of an effort to save their investment.

But rumors began to fly yesterday about staff layoffs.  And today when I got back from picking up Lauren from school, several of my friends had tagged me with articles announcing Governor Sock Puppet’s withdrawal from a race he should never have been anywhere near to begin with.

I can’t say I’m overjoyed so much as I am relieved.

Scott Walker is gone from the national stage, for the moment at least, but the sickness that he represents in the body politic remains.  He is the poster child for venal ambition, for the petty vengeance of the cowardly on better men and women than they, and for the right-wing extremism that is rotting the foundations of the republic.  It’s still out there. 

Seriously – one right-wing extremist today (a Patrice Lewis of the World Net Daily, and no I’m not going to link to that collection of half-witted radical fantasies – go find them yourselves if you truly want to abuse your intelligence) went on record calling for the US government to be overthrown by the military and then divided into Conservative America and Progressive America, since there is no other way for right-wingers to get what they want.  They fundamentally despise democracy.  They have no respect for the Constitution.  They hate everything this country stands for, and they have the gall – the unmitigated horror-show arrogance – to call themselves patriots and criticize everyone else as not real Americans.

Why this woman isn’t being prosecuted for subversion right now is an interesting legal question.

In a just world, such people would have been confined to padded cells and kept away from anything sharper than a banana years ago.  But no – they’re out there, cluttering up the nation’s airwaves, running for office, and reducing the average intelligence of the nation simply by continuing to breathe.

That’s what conservatives are reduced to these days.  Caricatures and insanity. 

I feel bad for genuine thinking conservatives.  I know a few of them.  They’re good people, even if we disagree on many things.  Nobody represents them anymore.  I tell them, “welcome to my world.”  Nobody’s represented me for a while either.

I’m glad that the nation will be spared the unanaesthetized brain removal surgery that would have been a Walker administration.  The man was by far the most dangerous candidate running as far as the long-term survival of the republic was concerned, up to and including The Donald, and anything that that keeps him out of the Oval Office – even as a tourist – is by definition a good thing.

On the other hand, this is a guy whose entire career has been defined by overweening ambition and ruthless petty vengeance against those who have crossed him, and I fear for Wisconsin.  He’s back, he’s angry, and like any sociopath he has no conception that any of his ills were his fault.  He’s already on record blaming others for his fall.  We will pay for the wisdom of the American people in rejecting him, no doubt. 

America, as you celebrate your Walker-free future, remember us back here in Wisconsin.  We took the bullet for you.

Actually, I don’t really expect him to finish out his term of office.  He’s still got three years remaining in office and nothing to do other than exact retribution and really, how long will that take?  He’s already gutted the state.  There’s not much left.  I’m assuming the GOP will kick him upstairs to corporate HQ and settle him in with a nice little hot-air factory of his very own on Fox.  He can brag about facing down all those nasty, nasty protesters there, and the gullible will believe him and send him money. 

Although I was one of those nasty protesters, as were my daughters, and a politer group of people I have never been in – I’ve been in rowdier grocery lines.  There were people walking around with plastic bags collecting trash.  There were singers.  There were children.  It wasn’t exactly a riot.  Also, now that I think about it, I never saw Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) the whole time I was there.  He spent his time hiding in the tunnels under the Capitol, scurrying in and out like a rat.

A legend in his own mind, that one.

But his future lashing out is still to come, so tonight we cancelled our dinner plans and went out to celebrate our governor’s fall from the national stage with food and drink.

You grab what good there is in the world, and run with it.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

New Who Now

We finally got to see the new season premiere of Doctor Who tonight.

Two and a half years ago, I’d never seen an episode.  Now I’m an addict.  As addictions go, it’s not so bad.  There are all kinds of support groups, though unlike AA they are more focused on helping people like me further our addictions than actually get over them.  There are t-shirts, mugs, and other paraphernalia so you can identify your compatriots.  There are even conventions for likeminded souls to gather and share, and someday I’ll probably get to one. 

But mostly there are the shows, which are fun to watch and occasionally even thought-provoking. 

It took us months to get through the backlog of the New Who episodes on Netflix, but it was nice to have them there, waiting for us, anytime we were ready for them.  And then we finished them.  But that was okay!  Because the 50th Anniversary special came right up, and then the Christmas episode that year. 

And then there was a wait.  A very long wait, which ended with Series 8 and a brand new Doctor.

And then there was another wait.

Fortunately, we have lives so we didn’t just sit around staring at a blank television screen, tempting as that may have been when the GOP debates were on.  There were other shows to watch!  Other things to do! 

Naturally, when tickets went on sale for a 3D version of the last two episodes of Series 8, strung together to make a movie, we jumped on them the way any good junkie would when presented with a fix.

We went down to the next city south of us Wednesday night to see it.  There weren’t nearly as many people there as I thought there’d be, which is perhaps not surprising in hindsight for a 2-hour show at 7:30 on a school night, but the ones who showed up were mostly wearing Who gear and were friendly.  One nice young woman named Courtney – wearing a bright red fez – struck up a conversation with me and Tabitha while we were getting our tickets, and eventually she and her boyfriend ended up sitting with us.  This sort of thing rarely happens at Terminator movies.

The 3D part didn’t add much, honestly, even if it did make the credits more fun.  But we enjoyed seeing the shows again and catching a few things that we had missed the first time around, and there were a couple of throw-ins for the fans that they tacked on at the end.  It was a good night out.

Saturday was the actual season premiere, but we were all busy that night.  Tabitha had to work, and the rest of us were at a family event at my in-laws’ house.  Fortunately we live in the age of the DVR, so this was not a problem.

We ordered pizza.  We shoveled off some space in front of the television – Kim’s office is undergoing some repairs, so everything in it is currently in the living room.  We dimmed the lights.  The show began.

I rather like Peter Capaldi’s version of the Doctor, and his writers are much better (or, if they’re the same people, they’re doing a much better job) than the ones Matt Smith got saddled with.  I’m still not sold on Clara, whose character has yet to solidify nearly three years in, but Missy is turning out to be one of the more entertaining features of the recent shows.

The Doctor is still a madman in a box, who goes wherever there seems to be trouble and tries to help out as best he can.  That’s a hero I can get next to.

Friday, September 18, 2015

No, I Will Not Repost Your Meme

If you spend time on social media – especially Facebook, where old people like myself hang out now that the kids have all moved on to other, trendier, less obvious places where they can be kids and not have to worry about being monitored by all the old people (vide supra) – you know that things come in cycles.

For a while everyone was posting videos of people lip-syncing to popular songs.  There was a phase where every third post was a petition.  And way back in the Jurassic age of social media (2009) there were these things called Notes that people would post, answering questions and asking those who were tagged or interested to answer the same ones – little ice-breaker exercises for a digital medium.

I kind of miss the Notes.  They were a product of a more innocent time.

This tells you how fast the eons flicker in and out on social media.

The Notes have never come back and since Facebook has become the faceless behemoth that it is these days I don’t expect that they ever will.  Nobody has seen or heard from Carly Rae Jepsen in years.  Someone should call her, maybe.  You still see petitions, but they’re pretty easy to ignore since mostly they serve to announce to the world how fine the petitioner’s moral weave is.  Once you have said to yourself, “That person who put this on their social media account is a moral example to this poor benighted world and I hope there are more people like that out there, because there certainly isn’t one sitting in my seat,” you have accomplished the poster’s mission and you’re pretty much done.  Signing is entirely optional.

I don’t mind the fundraising things, oddly enough – the posts that say, “We’re doing a strange and taxing physical thing in order to raise money for this worthwhile cause!” and the like.  There are a lot of good causes out there.  Good luck with them.  Sometimes I even contribute.

And, in general, I like memes.  They're interesting.  They're funny.  Facebook is where the jokes went once email became a chore.

But not all memes are created equal.  Some of them are really irritating.

One of the more pernicious things that went out for a while but is unfortunately now making a comeback is the “Repost This Or You’re An Asshole” meme, and frankly I’m a little sick of it.

Yes, I have a hard-working dad.

Yes, I love my kids.  And my wife.  And my extended family all the way out to cousins (which is as far as my family goes, though Italian families do tend to define "cousin" rather broadly).  And my pets, most days.

Yes, I am happy with my personal religious views.  I regard them as my own business, however, and as the other (more entertaining) meme goes, I find religion rather analogous to a penis in that it is perfectly fine to have and it is lovely for you if you are proud of yours but waving it about in public is annoying, attempting to shove it down my throat will get you forcibly removed from my presence, and you are advised not to point it at my children if you want to see the sun go down.

Yes, I think your occupation is a worthwhile one, unless you’re a telemarketer, in which case you should probably find a new field.

Yes, I have very good friends who I don’t get to see or talk to nearly enough.  We’re still very good friends even so.

Yes, this.  Yes that.  Yes the other.

No, I will not repost your meme. 

It's nothing personal.  Don't infer anything from it. 

Even more exasperating is the current tsunami of Facebook status updates that talk about how the poster really needs to start culling people from their friends list and would I please put one word – just one word! – about how we met in the comments and then repost this whole mess as my status update so they can respond, because otherwise …

Well, I’m not really sure otherwise.

Presumably I will be unfriended, a clumsy but somehow needed verb these days. 

Or perhaps my eternal soul will be cast into the pit of hell, there to spend its time with all the rest of the sinners who have ignored the petitions and other such things that come down the pike.  I’ll be in good company, at least.  The sinners are much more fun.

No, I’m not going to do that either.

If you’re on my friends list at all, it’s because I like you.  It’s because I value spending time with you, either in person or online or both.  It’s because I find you interesting and worthwhile.  I find my world to be a better place with you in it.  I know very well how I met you – I am a historian, after all, and remembering things is what I do for a living – and I expect you do too.  And if I skip that little bit of nonsense on your wall, well, again, nothing personal.

My status updates are my own, and if not responding to these memes leads you to set me adrift then I suppose I didn’t mean all that much to you in the first place and I should apologize for my earlier misconceptions about you.

I am probably making too much of this.  But then it is my blog, and that’s what blogs are for, really. 

Maybe I should find a good song to lip-sync to.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

News and Updates

It’s been a busy time, and I’m just going to catch up here.  Because I can.

1. School has started.  This means that we have to get up early again, all of us.  This has not been greeted with universal acclaim.  Honestly, it hasn’t been greeted with any acclaim.  But so far the school year has treated the girls nicely, and if the various campuses where Kim and I are this semester have borne the brunt of the assault by Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) and his presidential ambitions, well, at least we’re among good people and in good company.

2. It has been a source of immense joy to see that Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) is doing a bang-up job of flaming out miserably on the campaign trail.  He’s a void in human shape, kept inflated only by the material pumped into him by his puppet-masters, and quite possibly the worst campaigner in the GOP field, which is saying something.  Even people on his side are pointing out how unfit he has proven himself to be, and the foreign press (who must be watching American politics with unmitigated horror, given that somebody in this field of bozos will be the nominee of a major political party and have a good chance to set American foreign policy going forward) has been merciless.  My favorite comment so far was from an unnamed GOP insider, a professional in the field, who said that he was essentially watching the Milwaukee County Executive run for president.  Amateur hour, in other words.  How this sock puppet managed to win three elections in Wisconsin is therefore both mysterious and not a little suspicious, really.  But for the moment I will take heart that he is demonstrating his true lack of qualifications and dying in the vine.  He is the single most dangerous candidate running, bar none – even The Donald would be less harmful to the survival of the republic – and the nation is well served by him sinking back into the swamp from which he emerged to consume the brains of the living five years ago.

3. It’s finally autumn weather here, which is nice.  Last week it was high summer, with temperatures in the 90s Fahrenheit, and that’s just wrong on so many levels.  I was not meant for summer.

4. My college friend Tiffany came out to spend Labor Day weekend with us, and it was just lovely to see her again.  We hadn’t seen each other since 1990 or so, and that was too long – I’m glad she took the initiative and came out.  I’m looking forward to returning the favor.

5.  We kept her busy while she was here, because that’s how we roll.  We hit the Thresheree, the Renaissance Faire, and Madison.  We had her try deep-fried cheese curds because Wisconsin.  We had Tabitha give us a tour of the museum.  And sometimes we just hung out and caught up, because the joy of old friends is the comfort of being able to do not much at all except be with each other.

6. Tabitha and I went to the local library’s Princess Bride quote-along screening today.  There is never a bad time for The Princess Bride.  It is astonishing how many quote machine movies Christopher Guest has been in.  We said the lines along with the crowd and waved our inflatable sword and had a grand time.

7. My doctor assures me that I am about as healthy as he expected me to be, which is probably a good thing.  So I don’t have to go back for another year, which is definitely a good thing.  Except that next year I will have hit the magic half-century mark, and this means there will be one of those fearsome –oscopies that men of my age have to have in order to remain as healthy as expected, and that will definitely be a bad thing from my perspective even if it is a necessary thing.  When doctors pull out rubber gloves, it is best just to stay calm and endure.

8. Less than a week to the new Doctor Who season.  Life is good.

9. I finished the last Terry Pratchett book – The Shepherd’s Crown – last week.  It was a bittersweet thing to read, knowing that there are no more to come.  You could tell that it wasn’t quite done – had he survived it probably would have been half again longer – but it was a Tiffany Aching book and that’s a good thing.  He had said that he was done with her character after the fourth story, and I’m glad that he revisited her one last time.

10. The semester is only a week and a half old and already I am a class behind in my upper-level course.  On the one hand, this means that the students are digging deep into the material and keeping me from sailing forward, and that’s education for you.  On the other hand, well, I’d like to get to the end of the syllabus by December, so there will be some editing going forward.  I don’t get to teach upper-level courses much – they’re reserved for the tenured people most of the time – so I’m enjoying it.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Our Trip Out West, Part 5: The Journey Home

It only takes half a summer to forget how frantic the first week of a new semester can be, especially if you’ve got five courses (including two essentially new preps), a 90-minute commute to campus, and plans to have a good friend you haven't seen in decades come visit for a few days over the Labor Day weekend.  It’s been a while since I have had any time to sit down and finish the story of our trip west, is what I'm saying.  It was a fun and happy while - especially the "good friend" part - but now things are settling into their routine and I have some time again.  So here it is.


We left the YMCA of the Rockies on Sunday afternoon, bidding farewell to our English friends as they headed south toward Santa Fe.  Our plan was to head north, though the eastern edge of Wyoming, before turning right and bouncing off of every tourist attraction in South Dakota on the way home.

But first we went to Estes Park and walked around a bit.

We really hadn’t had much of a chance to do that, what with all the Natural Splendor and the Catching Up With Good Friends and the Down Time that otherwise filled our schedule that week, and it seemed a shame for us to be so close to an acknowledged center of tourism and not, as tourists, see what was there.

Shops.  Shops are what is there.  Shop after shop after shop, all of them selling sweatshirts, salt-water taffy, knickknacks, art, or some combination of all of them.  And restaurants, because shopping is hungry work.


We split up as we wandered around, since trying to get Tabitha and Lauren to agree on where to do our window shopping was something of a lost cause and since we only planned to spend a short time there we figured it would be best not to spend it debating where to go and just go.  So Tabitha and I headed one way, while Kim and Lauren headed the other.

Tabitha and I looked at a lot of rocks.  She likes those stores that sell crystals, geodes, and the like, and that was the first place we landed.  It was interesting, in a sparkly sort of way, and they had a cruncher that broke open geodes while you watched if you bought one.  We watched a couple get crunched.  We also found stores with knickknacks, sweatshirts, and art, though we skipped the salt-water taffy stores since they were full of other things we did not care to deal with.  I’m not sure where Kim and Lauren went, but my guess is that it was a somewhat comparable experience.

After lunch – also in different places, since Kim and Lauren wanted to try the Mexican place (review: Excellent!) and Tabitha and I wanted to try to local diner (actual name: The Local Grille) – we found a shop that specialized in matryoshka dolls, those bowling-pin shaped painted wooden dolls that come nested one inside the other.  They had Doctor Who matryoshkas, two different sets covering all thirteen Doctors.  They had traditional Russian matryoshkas.  They had sets that started at a yard high and went all the way down to dolls the size of your thumbnail.  It was a fascinating place, really, and the shopkeeper was very nice.  We were full up on our matryoshka needs, however, so mostly we just looked.  We also found a Western store, full of things made of leather.  It is amazing how many things you can make out of leather if you put your mind to it.  Astonishing, really.

And then we were off.

Wyoming is America’s Empty Quarter.  You head north out of Colorado on the interstate and pass by Cheyenne – the biggest city in the entire state, and one that would rank twelfth in Wisconsin – and then: nothing.  Flat, open space as far as the eye can see.  There are more people in Milwaukee than in Wyoming.

And then you leave the interstate and get onto the state highway and you re-zero your “open space” meter, because otherwise it would be pegged in the red the whole time.  Wyoming makes Nebraska look urban.

We stopped at a highway rest stop somewhere in there, and it was surreal.  It was a one-story brick shack, out in the middle of nowhere, roughly the size of a classroom.  It had a chapel in the back.  And that was it.  The bathrooms, however, were clean and functional.  So there was that.

We also stopped for gas in a town called Lusk.  You stop for gas in Wyoming whenever you get a chance, because there might not be a chance later on.  I think this is why pretty much all twelve vehicles in Wyoming were lined up at the pump ahead of us.  So we waited, we bought snacks, and then we pressed on.

Eventually we found our hotel in Rapid City, SD – a very nice place, out on one edge of the city near a whole lot of mall sprawl – and bedded down for the night.

Monday was tourist day.

We started off with Mt. Rushmore, because who wouldn’t be impressed by the megalomania required to carve faces into a mountain?  Tabitha, that’s who.  She was pretty underwhelmed by it, at first, though eventually she saw the humor in the basic absurdity of the place.  Mt. Rushmore is very funny if you think about it.

You slide very gradually into Mt. Rushmore.  You go through the Black Hills, so you can cross that one off your list – they are hilly and from a distance they look black, and that’s all there is to say about that.  The road down to the monument is much bigger and more well marked than it was the first time I was there, nearly two decades ago now, and there is a whole lot more kitsch than I remember there being.  It’s like the Wisconsin Dells, only more so and spread out for miles along a highway.  I think the roadside attraction that finally put me over the edge was the full-sized replica of Independence Hall, there by the highway in South Dakota.  I suppose it made sense to someone at the time.  It makes as much sense as Mt. Rushmore, anyway.

Eventually we showed up at the monument.  If you’ve never been there, it’s part of that large category of things that are really cool for about half an hour and then you realize that they’re not ever really going to change or do anything and you move on to something else.  Niagara Falls is in that category.  So are mimes.  Things like that are fun because you can see them and then get on with the rest of your day with a clear conscience. 

We marched our way up the avenue of the flags to the observation deck and stood there, looking at the faces of the presidents.  It was a beautiful clear day, and we could see them quite clearly.  They looked back at us. 

We stared at each other for a while.  We continued to stare.  We decided we were impressed by the way the sculptors managed Roosevelt’s glasses.  And then we headed back down.

We stopped at the cafe on the way back to our car and bought a Fudgelo.  It’s a buffalo-shaped cookie cutter filled with tasty chocolate fudge.  Everyone should have a Fudgelo.  Someone should write a song about that.  There isn’t one now, to my knowledge, so I believe that opportunity still awaits if anyone is interested.  Just saying.

We left Mt. Rushmore and – because why stop with one megalomaniacal project when there are multiple megalomaniacal projects within easy driving distance? – we headed off toward the Crazy Horse Monument.

Bye, George!

Crazy Horse, for those of you not fully up to date on your multi-generational mountain-carving displays of hubris, is an attempt to make an entire mountain (not just the top) into a carving.  It has been going on since, well, forever, and it dwarfs Mt. Rushmore.

According to the promotional video that you watch in the vast gift shop/museum/visitor center complex that they’ve built since the last time I was there (and a very nice gift shop/museum/visitor center complex it is, really), the faces on Mt. Rushmore would fit comfortably into the cleared rectangle behind Crazy Horse’s ear.  Eventually it will look like the top two thirds of the white sculpture that we found in the courtyard.

Like Rushmore, it’s really cool for half an hour and then it’s time to go, although the museum did attract Tabitha and Kim’s interest and Lauren and I hung out at the gift shop, where they had books for sale cheap and those little viewing telescopes that work when you plug a quarter in them.  In Wisconsin terms, the museum bears no small resemblance to the House on the Rock in that every time you turn a corner there is a whole other room full of things that almost but not quite go together (and the occasional cat) and ultimately you just have to go outside and find your bearings because otherwise you’d get lost and starve.

From Crazy Horse we headed to Custer State Park, because obviously we hadn’t had enough Natural Splendor in the Rockies.

There are any number of roads you can take, and we decided to take the Wildlife Loop on the theory that we might run into some wildlife there.  We were particularly interested in bison, which roam the park like large angry pot roasts looking for mashed potatoes to make their lives complete. 

It turned out that the bison were on holiday, so we only saw a couple of them way off on the horizon.  We did see a few prairie dogs, and when we stopped at the Wildlife Center there were antelope or whatever these things are.

And they were pretty cool.  But no bison.

Fortunately, the good folks at Custer State Park are prepared for this.  They know that wild animals keep their own schedules and are not concerned with impressing the tourists, and for that reason they keep some emergency backup animals in the park.  They insist that these donkeys are wild animals too, and I suppose that is technically true in the sense that they don’t live in barns and wear saddles.  But really?  They’re pretty tame.  And they’re the only animals in the park that you’re allowed to feed.

Not that you could avoid it if you try.

In fact, once they figure out that you have food, they can be pretty insistent.  They will follow you back to your car, nose through your luggage, and threaten to encrypt your iPods unless you hand over the rest of your snacks.

Our next destination was Wall Drug, because it’s illegal to travel across South Dakota without stopping at Wall Drug.  Swarms of Harley-riding law enforcement will track you down and drag you back and force you to put bumper stickers on inconvenient locations if you try to pass by without seeing the castle of kitsch that is Wall Drug, and we couldn’t risk that.  Besides, Lauren really wanted to see the place.

Wall Drug is a city-block of small conglomerated shops, all crammed under one roof.  There’s an actual drug store where you can get useful medications.  There’s a cafe.  There’s a book store.  There’s a leather goods store, three or four stores selling miscellaneous tourist items (they give the bumper stickers away for free, so you can put them on inconvenient locations yourself if you so choose), and a chapel that is about eight feet wide and a hundred yards long, or so it seemed.

And in the back there are jackalopes.  So we all got on the jackalopes.  We’re tourists, after all.  That’s what tourists do.

Wall Drug sits about twenty minutes from the Badlands, which were actually the only thing in South Dakota that I didn’t want to miss.  The Badlands are one of the most fascinating places in the United States, geologically speaking.  At least I think so.  They’re like negative mountains.  You enter Badlands National Park on the little highway and you drive along, not really seeing anything and thinking that this is all a giant waste of time.  And then you realize that they’re not above you – they’re below.  You’re at the top of the Badlands, not the bottom, and they’re carved out of the land and you need to look down.

And if you go at sunset, they’re just gorgeous.

We walked around for about half an hour, as the sun set and the light slowly faded.  They’re eerie, and they’re beautiful.  Of all the Natural Splendor that we saw on this trip – and we saw a lot of really lovely places – I think they were my favorites.

We went back to Wall Drug after that, because Lauren hadn’t fully gotten her kitsch on, and we shut the place down.  And then we headed off into the night for a couple of hours before finding a hotel somewhere in central South Dakota for the night.

It was quite a Monday.

The next day we set off fairly early, because we were all ready to get home by then.  Fortunately South Dakota offers few obstacles for the determined traveler.  It’s empty enough that you don’t have to slow down, and populated enough – at least along I-90 – that you don’t feel like the aliens have come along and stolen everything and you might end up running out of gas, carving a hut out of the topsoil, and spending the rest of your days subsistence farming on the plains the way you do in Wyoming.  At least the way I did, anyway.  So we made good time.

We did stop at the Corn Palace, because reasons.

The Corn Palace is somewhere north of the town of Mitchell, SD, which they don’t tell you on the highway signs because otherwise you’d never stop.  You get off the exit, thinking that it must be right there by the off-ramp, and wend your way slowly through town and eventually, just as you begin to despair of ever finding the place, you see a sign for it and it keeps you going for another mile or two until there is another sign, and the process repeats until eventually – BOOM! – there it is.

It is the world’s only auditorium, basketball arena, and livestock pavilion all rolled into one, so far as I know.

The interesting thing about it – the only interesting thing about it beyond the events that might be staged there – is that all of that artwork on the facade and above the stage is made out of corn cobs and other crops.

Like Rushmore and Crazy Horse, it’s kind of cool for half an hour, and then you buy some popcorn (really, really good popcorn, as you would expect from the Corn Palace) and get back on the highway.

We drove through Minnesota, found Wisconsin, and by dinnertime we were home.  It’s good to be home, with all of your stuff and your own bed.  The goldfish had passed away in our absence - a year is a long time for a County Fair goldfish - but the cats, rabbits, and chickens were happy to see us.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Our Trip Out West, Part 4: Rocky Mountain High

There is a lot to do at the YMCA of the Rockies, but you can’t really spend your entire time there without going to Rocky Mountain National Park.  It’s right next door, after all.

And they make it easy to get to, in theory. 

From the YMCA there is a shuttle bus that will take you directly to the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center.  From there you can get the RMNP shuttle up to the Park and Ride, and from there you can get yet another RMNP shuttle – aptly named the Hiker’s Shuttle – up to Bear Lake, which is a lovely little spot just perfect for people who have just arrived at those altitudes, since it is a) a short hike of less than a mile if you go all the way around the lake, and b) flat and well groomed.

That’s the theory.  The reality is somewhat more complicated.

Tabitha wasn’t feeling very well on our second day due to the altitude, so Kim, Lauren and I decided to go to Bear Lake for a look around.  We walked down the hill to the shuttle bus stop at the YMCA and boarded the bus that arrived moments later.  “Hey, this is great!” we thought.  It took us directly to Beaver Meadows, where a RMNP bus arrived mere seconds after we got out.

Unfortunately, the driver of that bus was either a troll or not very well informed, since he told us that we needed to buy a park pass at the visitor center before we could board the bus, and then he took off.  It turned out that you could not in fact buy a pass at the visitor center, and that we should have just gotten on the bus, and another one would be along in half an hour.  So we hung out at the visitor center for a while, and eventually another bus showed up.

It turns out that if you take the shuttle buses there really isn’t a clear place for you to buy a visitor pass at all.  Nobody checks, and even if they did I’m not sure what they’d check for.  So there is incentive to use public transportation, is what I’m saying here.

Eventually we found our way to Bear Lake, which is at the very end of the Hiking Shuttle, and we set off.

It’s a lovely place.

We walked the entire circumference of the lake and had a grand time looking at all of the various Nature that was there.  And then it was time to go back to the YMCA.

Getting the bus from Bear Lake was no problem.  Getting the bus from the Park and Ride to Beaver Meadows was slightly more of a problem but not all that much.  And then we sat there at Beaver Meadows waiting for the YMCA shuttle, which it turned out we had missed by less than three minutes.  This meant we would have to wait another hour for the next one, which would then take us through the entire one-way loop before arriving back at the YMCA – another hour.

Or, as we eventually decided, we could walk the mile or so downhill to the main road and catch the bus we missed on its way back to the YMCA.  We made it by less than a minute – the driver was, in fact, nice enough to wait for us – and after that we decided that we’d just drive in to the park from that point on.

Regardless, we enjoyed our time at Bear Lake enough that on Friday we went back with our friends.  They were new to the altitude, and Tabitha was feeling better.  It seemed logical.  And we had yet another good time, which is all one can really ask of a vacation.

We had planned just to drive to the Bear Lake site, but since that lot was full we stopped at the Park and Ride and took the bus up. 

Much of our time at Bear Lake this go-round was defined by the kids rampaging ahead of us, finding new and ever more exciting things to jump on, climb up, or explore in other potentially hazardous ways, while the adults dragged on behind and watched.

It was a very peaceful sort of place nonetheless, just the right place for introductory hiking for people who don’t hike much.  As someone whose idea of exercise consists of building arguments, jumping to conclusions, and making tea, it was ideal for me.

And then we decided to get more adventurous.  Not “pack up dried fruits and head off into the wilderness” adventurous, fortunately, but “hey, there’s a cool something just a mile or two down the path that we could walk to” adventurous.

That cool something was Alberta Falls, which was in fact a cool something.  It’s a relatively easy hike from Bear Lake – most of it downhill, and given the cutoff to get to the Alberta Falls shuttle bus stop you don’t actually have to go all the way uphill to get back – and there’s a lot to see along the way. 

The thing is that you end up following this roaring stream for long enough that you’re not really sure when you get to the actual Falls until it’s obvious.  “Is this it?”  “No, this must be it.”  “No, perhaps this.”  “Oh, yes, clearly this is it.”

And it is clear, once you get to it

We spent some time just hanging out on the rocks for a while, watching the water go by.  It was peaceful in a loud kind of way. 

Eventually we started to get hungry, and so we left.  In separate groups.  Which is always a recipe for interesting times.

Kim, Richard, Tabitha, Magnus, and Ginny left first, since Lauren had graciously volunteered to take a picture of a fellow tourist who had not returned yet.  They set off toward the Alberta Falls bus stop and made good time.  So good in fact, that the three kids ranging far ahead of the two adults completely missed the turn to the Alberta Falls bus stop and continued on toward the Bear Lake bus stop.  This is why, after the tourist came back and Lauren and I set off after the rest of our party, she and I found Richard sitting by himself at the Alberta Falls bus stop.  Kim had gone on to Bear Lake to collect the rest of the party, except that they had realized their error and doubled back to the Alberta Falls bus stop.  So several rides and missed connections later – and for the record, natural wildernesses have lousy cell phone reception, which may well be the point but can be desperately annoying at times – we found ourselves together at the Park and Ride, ready to go back to our cabin and none the worse for the wear.

Next time we will bring snacks with us.

Our other foray into RMNP was on Wednesday, before our friends arrived, when we decided to drive out to the Alpine Visitor Center – the highest destination point in the park.  We piled into the van and headed in, paying our entry fee in the process since a minivan is clearly not public transportation.  The fee is good for a week, though, and national parks are something I don’t mind chipping in for.

The thing about driving to Alpine is that you work your way up gradually.  This is good for two reasons.  First, Alpine is at roughly 12,000 feet elevation – half a mile higher than the YMCA of the Rockies and a long, long way from Wisconsin – and it’s good to do that in small bits.  Even so, we could feel it by the time we got there – Lauren felt it most, but even I could tell that another few hills would not go well with me.  And second, every time you turn a corner or emerge from beneath some trees you see impossibly scenic things, each one grander than the one that came before, and if you started at the top and worked down it would all seem anticlimactic.  This way it was an unfolding adventure.

Our first stop, just past the Bear Lake turnoff, was the climbing rock.  I have no idea what it’s officially called, if it is officially called anything, but that’s what we used it for.  Everywhere along the road through the park are pulloffs and turnabouts, so you can get out of your car and explore.  We pulled over for this one and spent some time just walking about and enjoying.

And then we worked our way ever higher, one stop at a time. This one was just one of those scenic places that make you sit and look.

This one was a place where you could walk about a bit.  It had a big rock to climb and a long walkway along the precipice for you to look out over the valleys and mountains, or refresh yourself with snacks.

There were also chipmunks.  You’re not supposed to feed the wildlife in the park and for the most part we adhered to that, but not with the chipmunks.  Chipmunks are chipmunks, and they like Cheeze-its.  The former Eagle Scout who stood next to us was rather annoyed by it, but so be it.  We’ll let the elk fend for themselves, but the chipmunks were friendly.

Higher up the trees fade away and you get to Alpine tundra territory.  The wind gets brisker and the temperature falls down, down, down until you are mighty glad that you brought your jackets even though it is August and down in the valleys it is 79F and those valleys aren’t all that low either.

Eventually you find your way to the top.  It looks a lot like the rest of it, which is to say lovely and impressive in its way.

We had lunch at Alpine and spent some time pillaging the gift shop for things to take home, some for ourselves and some for the various friends who had agreed to take care of our various animals.

And then we drove back down. 

Oh, Hidden Valley?

Found it.

If you ever get a chance to go to Rocky Mountain National Park, you should.  It’s quite a place.  Bring your friends and family.