Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Tonto National Monument

Or, how my kid tried to kill me by dragging up a hill to look at a cliff dwelling.

Okay, so maybe she didn't actually try to kill me. Going to Tonto National Monument was my idea, not hers. It was March, it was Spring in Arizona, flowers were blooming, the sun was shining, and we were going to be hitting the road to Colorado soon. So spending one last Saturday collecting NPS Passport stamps seemed like a good idea.

Tonto National Monument is near Lake Roosevelt more or less north of Globe. It's about a two hour drive from Safford. The S.O. decided to pass on accompanying us on this particular expedition. He had hit the point where one crumbling pueblo or cliff dwelling looked pretty much like every other crumbling ruin we'd seen.
I, on the other hand, had spotted a flyer at the Canyon de Chelly (another NPS site I'll do a post on one of these days) the previous month noting that among the many events happening in Arizona in honor of March being Archeology Month was an Open House (translation: no admission fee) day at Tonto National Monument. I do not object to paying admission fees, in fact I will sometimes pay them even though the S.O. has a geezer pass because I believe in supporting the National Park system, but I am also half Finn -- and every so often the incredibly cheap frugal Finnish side emerges. So the kid and I decided we'd do Tonto on the free day.
At this point I thought we were getting close. I was wrong.
Tonto is an interesting little park. It has two noteworthy cliff dwellings, one fairly close to the Visitor Center and one that's a little farther away (approximately one mile). The latter site is usually accessible only as part of a ranger-guided hike that you have to make an appointment for. For the open house, however, the trail was going to be open all day. You did not have to go as part of a group at any specific time. Sounded good to me.
Teddy bear cholla
So the kid and I filled our water bottles -- I actually used my CamelBak pack, having gotten a new water bladder for it at REI a few weeks earlier -- and headed for Tonto. It was a gorgeous day, the park had attracted enough visitors that cars actually had to park along the roadside on the way in. We got lucky, though, by arriving late enough that earlier visitors were already exiting the main parking lot. We were directed to a space close to the Visitor Center. We checked that out first so we'd have some idea what we were about to do and then looked at a few outdoor displays before heading up the trail. When we got to the park, a group of Apache kids were just finishing up dancing so we didn't see much of that, but the various displays and demonstrations were interesting. The Tonto National Forest (which surrounds Tonto National Monument) had an archeologist there who does experimental archeology of some sort (and I'm now blanking on exactly what it was so it couldn't have been too exciting) and some local hiking club or birdwatching group had a booth pushing other parks and trails in the area.
And then we headed up the trail. The ranger at the trailhead checked to make sure we had water and decided we were good -- they were handing out bottles of water to anyone who didn't have water already. First part of the trail wasn't bad. It followed a little creek that runs though the bottom of the canyon so there were a couple minor water crossings. We'd been warned to watch for bees, and indeed there were a few places where lots and lots of honey bees were taking advantage of the stream. We ignored them; they ignored us.
Then the trail started to climb. We emerged from the shade along the creek, looked up the hill, and there in the distance, looking like it was a long, long way from us, were the ruins. That's the photo at the top of this post. And then the switchbacking began. We'd walk a couple hundred feet on a gradual climb up in one direction, then there'd be a tight switchback, and we'd do another couple hundred feet in the other direction. . . and so on. . . and on. . . and on. At about the midway point there was a bench occupied by a park ranger and a large water cooler, one of those 5-gallon ones. I did not envy the park employee who got to tote that sucker up the trail to that point. (Nor, when we finally reached the ruins, did I envy the rangers who carried up the cases of bottled water.) I think my kid (aka The Amazon) could have jogged up that trail with no problems, but I found it a tad more tiring than anticipated. I don't do well on hills.
Lake Roosevelt as seen from the ruins
In any case, what would have been maybe a 20-minute walk on level ground turned into about an hour creeping up hill. We paused a lot as I resorted to ploys like "I want to get a picture of this teddy bear cholla" (so cuddly looking and so vicious if you're unlucky enough to come within 3 feet of one; cholla are known as jumping cactus for a reason) or "Wow, what a great view from here!" Not to mention, of course, the classic "Wait a second. I need to get a sip of water." Which I actually did need to do, a lot. It was a gorgeous day that must have hit 90 by mid-afternoon. Heat was a real issue, so was dehydration, which was why the Park Service was pushing water at people like crazy.
Looking at the trail before starting back down.
Eventually, of course, we did get to the ruins. It was worth the climb. Being able to see them up close definitely beats having to view ruins from behind a fence (e.g., the White House at Canyon de Chelly) or from across a canyon (Mesa Verde). A VIP and a ranger were at the ruins to answer questions and to pour water on or into people who needed it. And the view of the lake from the ruins was amazing. I'd do it again despite managing to come dangerously close to actual heat exhaustion. I did stay hydrated but was still feeling borderline nauseous and having chills by the time we got back to the Visitor Center. I am definitely not a warm weather person.

On the other hand, at least I was smart enough to know it. There were a few people who arrived at the ruins while we were there who really should not have attempted the hike at all. No water worth mentioning and wearing footwear more suited for strolling around a shopping mall or a beach than for going up a moderately rough trail in rattlesnake country. We didn't see any snakes, but there were signs up warning people to be careful. (In the 5+ months we were in Arizona we never saw a snake; the one and only rattlesnake I saw in the wild was in Colorado at Hohvenweep National Monument)(and, yes, eventually How I Spent My Winter Vacation will get there, too).

As for how the Ancient Pueblo People (or whatever the preferred term for the long dead indigenous inhabitants happens to be at the moment) coped with living a long way up from where the water is, there is a walled, cistern-like area inside the ruin where it's possible water running off naturally from the top of the cliff was collected. A minor change in weather patterns that caused that water source to dry up could be the reason the cliff dwelling was eventually abandoned.

In addition to the ruins, Tonto has a nifty little Visitor Center. The exhibits are fascinating. They have actual textiles! Pieces of woven cotton material that are about 1,000 years old. Dry climate, sheltered location, and even fabric survives. Apparently quite a few artifacts were looted found back in the late 19th century. At one point the area along the Salt River had been heavily settled, lots of farming activity, so there was a rich archeological record when researchers like Adolph Bandelier* became interested in the area. It's hard to picture that area as agricultural now, especially when most of what was right next to the river is now under Lake Roosevelt, but if the inhabitants were weaving with cotton and grinding corn for flour, they were obviously growing crops somewhere.

Tonto's a little out of the way and it's not real big so visitation there is probably lower than at some of the more iconic parks. It's worth going looking for, though, if a person has a chance to.

*Yes, that Bandelier, the dude Bandelier National Monument is named after. He's better known for exploration and research in New Mexico, but he got around.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Speaking of vegetation

H/T to Ol' Buzzard for inspiring me to take a look through the files.

Some of the stuff I see blooming around here each summer, although not necessarily simultaneously.
Blooming now, one of my favorite Michigan natives: blue-eyed grass. I am inordinately fond of these tiny flowers.
Basically done for this year, an invasive, dandelions.
Just finished blooming, choke cherry blossoms.
 Blooming now, trilliums. This clump started off with just one plant a couple years ago and has at least half a dozen now. This is not the clump I plan to dig up and move -- that's in a different location on the ranch.
Starting to bloom, blackberry blossoms.
Another Michigan native, buttercups.
An invasive, Queen Ann's Lace, aka wild carrot, aka chigger weed.
Two more invasives, both of which are starting to bloom now: daisies and hawkweed (aka devil's paintbrush). I was amazed to learn that the exact date hawkweed got introduced into this country is recorded. It was brought into this country in the 18th century for someone's garden in New England. Hard to believe now that anyone ever thought that a weed that ubiquitous was an appropriate choice for a flower garden.
One we're not going to see until late summer, early fall: Joe Pye weed.
More fall flowers, asters.
Goldenrod and asters in late summer.
Black eyed susans. The guide book said they're temperamental about being transplanted, but the ones I moved to the museum's native plants garden seem to have survived the winter.
Heliopsis. It'll bloom in August. Still looking for a good clump to dig up and split. I don't want to mess with the ones I've got by the Woman Cave.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Why we have a fence around the garden

Every so often I hear guys whining about how lousy the hunting's become, there are no whitetail deer left in Baraga County, if there were no wolves the deer would be back in record numbers, and so on ad nauseum. We have a neighbor, for example, who claims to never see any deer anywhere anymore.
Fawn tracks in the driveway. I was wishing I had a dime to set next to them for scale. The tracks are tiny.
The guys doing the whining are either the most incompetent hunters on the planet or they're blind. I practically tripped over a doe yesterday while hanging out the laundry. Then when I was on my way to check on how my freshly planted raspberry canes are doing in the garden, I noticed evidence of recent browsing nearby.
Maybe we should connect the fence charger. If the deer are browsing within spitting distance of the Woman Cave, sooner or later they might decide the broccoli growing a few feet away looks good.We haven't bothered connecting a battery to the charger for a couple summers, but sooner or later there's going to be a new generation of Odocoileus virginianus that's going to question why they always detour around the fencing instead of trying to go through it.
The deer barrier, which is about five feet away from this patch of browsed on vegetation, consists of a 4-foot wide strip of poultry fencing topped with 3 strands of electric fence. Years ago we started off with just tall livestock fencing, which the deer skipped merrily over. That's when we started adding electric fencing. When it got up to three strands, they quit trying.

I can never remember the name of the stuff the deer have browsed on, but it's kind of a nifty plant for providing fill at the back of a flower garden. I'm contemplating digging some up to fill in empty spaces in the native plants garden at the museum. Maybe. My gathering focus at the moment is more on trilliums and virgin's bower than it is on plants that are so mundane I can't remember what they're called.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Holy wah, I've got my life back

I was puttering around the museum yesterday, doing some shuffling of boxes out in the storage building, and it hit me: it's over, the giant albatross that was the heritage grant headache is actually gone. Oh, there's some minor stuff left to do, like tweaking the exhibit and doing a final edit on the documents going down to Lansing, but basically it's over. I'll do final edits tomorrow, after stuff has sat long enough that I might be able to spot the typos when I look at it one last time, and then into the Drop Box it goes. . . and if I'm lucky, I'll never have to think about it again.

In any case, the simple fact I was out in the storage building shuffling boxes instead of being glued to the computer meant we were done. I had time to spare for mundane stuff, like trying to figure out exactly why there are several disintegrating 19th century Catholic Vulgate Bibles that have (a) no family names in them; (b) appear to have missing pages because the bindings are totally shot; and (c). . . I have no (c). I just know that when I looked at those Bibles I had two thoughts: How well would they burn? and Is there a market on Ebay for the prints in one of them? The Bible itself might be falling apart, but some of the pages are in great shape and the illustrations are quite good. I'll have to do some research on Etsy and Ebay to see if there is indeed a market for that sort of print.

I know there is a strong market for old maps, so maybe if nothing else we could manage to sell the nicely colored map of Palestine that's in the front of the book. This is an oversized Bibles, one of those  huge honking ones that were several inches thick and weighed enough to be hernia-inducing, so it is a reasonably large map, probably somewhere around 11 x 17.

As for why I thought immediately of burning them, that's the fate most of the paper trash that comes out of the storage building or museum. We've got limited space so if something isn't relevant to our mission (preserving Baraga County's history and heritage), is an unnecessary duplication (we really don't need 17 photocopies of the same article), or is in too bad shape to sell if it's flammable it tends to end up on a burn pile. If the tattered Bibles had family names in them, they'd get catalogued because then there would be that local connection. Anonymous, however, they're meaningless.

And, speaking of Bibles, I am now reminded that one of these years it would be nice for the museum to do an exhibit on the county's churches. That could be a neat exhibit: photos of both exteriors and interiors, photos of congregations and confirmation classes, objects like hymnals and psalters in various languages, baptismal and marriage certificates. . . . We do actually have some really great Bibles to include, like an amazing Swedish family Bible published around 1900 that has drop dead gorgeous color plates and is in close to mint condition. I'll have to toss the idea out to the membership one of these days. That could be this coming winter's project. It would also be a nifty excuse to go cruising around the county taking photographs of the various churches as they look now, including the ones that have been converted to other uses. Definitely something to think about. . .

Friday, June 16, 2017

Technological weirdness

Or maybe it's social media weirdness.

Odd stuff has been happening lately when I try posting on Facebook. When I start to type an update, a response to Facebook's "What's on your mind?" question, the text ends up scrambled or backwards. Started typing "Awake much too early" and witnessed the letters appearing on the screen as "ke Awa." It's like it was automatically translating the phrase into Hawaiian. Very strange. It's been happening for a couple days now and it doesn't matter which laptop I'm on. If it only happened on one, I'd assume it's a computer glitch, but when it's on both machines? Nope. Gibberish on both.

Oh well. Good excuse to step away from Facebook and stop wasting time. I need to focus on wrapping up the written report for the museum's heritage grant. It's supposed to be in the online drop box by close of business today. It's a moderately tricky report to write. As is really common with oral history projects, it turned out there's a rather noticeable difference between what people remember and think is true and what the written documentation from the time shows. The fact our chosen area of interest -- the history of Indian gaming locally -- proved to be considerably more complicated and controversial than I thought it would did not help. You'd think that after almost 30 years of Indian gaming being a fact of life there wouldn't be much left to debate. You'd be wrong. Indian casinos were controversial when they first started opening and they're still controversial.

Although the trickiest part of doing the report isn't actually the words. It's the numbers. We're in the rather awkward position of not having spent all the money we were given. We over-budgeted for honoraria. We didn't spend it, so now it's got to go back. No big deal except, of course, the project officer for the humanities council is acting like he just saw a unicorn. Apparently having money returned causes accounting headaches. He's done some pretty heavy hinting that it would be really nice if our unspent/unneeded funds just happened to be exactly the same as what the final payment for the grant would be, i.e., 10% of the total. That way all they'd have to do is simply not issue one last check.

Dealing with the humanities grant has had me muttering about never applying for a grant again. It's been a classic "be careful what you wish for." The simple truth is that we were much too small an organization to take on the project, especially when we're all volunteers. We were fortunate in that our contract researcher knew what he was doing, but that was more a matter of luck than skill on our part. Bottom line: apply only for grants that involve tangible issues, like getting a new roof put on the storage building. Avoid the messy stuff that's hard to operationalize and close to impossible to quantify. And think small, at least for awhile. A couple hundred to help pay for printing an activity worksheet for kids is a lot easier to deal with than $25,000 to use for an oral history project.

The worst part of that $25K, of course, is that almost none of it could be used for anything permanent for the museum, like a few nice vitrines or a slat wall for doing displays. The only money that could be spent on anything remotely physical was for printing, photography, and photocopying. We couldn't even buy a good camera -- we had to rent one. We could legitimately purchase office supplies, but let's face it -- there are only so many reams of paper we're going to use in the foreseeable future. Maybe a more creative (less ethical) Financial Director could have figured out a way to siphon off some of the unspent funds to use on other museum needs, but I wasn't up to the challenge. 

Friday, June 2, 2017

Pulitzer Project: The Killer Angels

Finally. A 10. Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels took the Pulitzer for Fiction in 1975. The premise for the book wasn't particularly promising: the battle of Gettysburg as seen through the eyes of officers who fought there. I have never been a Civil War history buff and I knew next nothing about Gettysburg other than President Lincoln gave a brief speech there when the military cemetery was dedicated.

The Killer Angels turned out to be a pleasant surprise. I don't know if it lived up to the cover hype of being "The greatest Civil War novel ever" but it's good. Despite its grim setting, it's remarkably readable. The battle is viewed primarily through the eyes of Lt. General James Longstreet, a West Point trained career Army officer from Virginia who served in the Confederate military, and Lt. Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain, a college professor from Maine. Chamberlain enlisted as a volunteer with the Maine militia, but his skills on the battlefield made him a brigadier general by the time the war ended.

Shaara reportedly did extensive research and relied heavily on the diaries and letters written by Longstreet, Chamberlain, and others. Not being a Civil War or military history buff, I have no idea how true that is. I've read quite a few political histories, e.g., biographies of Abraham Lincoln, but never really cared to know the details of which units of which armies lined up where, how they maneuvered, or any of the stuff that makes re-enactors hearts race. It's bad enough knowing that the preferred method of combat back then was to take your cannon fodder enlisted men, line them up in nice neat rows and have them march toward each other while firing guns. As far as I can tell, the only reason the mortality rates weren't higher for most battles was most of the weapons were wildly inaccurate. You still had lots and lots of gunshot wounds, but not as many as you'd expect considering how many gazillions rounds of ammunition were expended.

In any case, The Killer Angels focuses on four days at Gettysburg. The Confederate forces commanded by Robert E. Lee had marched north out of Virginia and were angling across eastern Pennsylvania. Union forces (the Army of the Potomac) under General George Meade were marching to intercept them and prevent the rebels from swinging around to attack Washington, D.C. Meade was that rarity in the early years of the Civil War: a Union officer who was actually competent. One of the things that's always struck me in the reading I have done regarding the War is that the South got lucky in its military commanders, at least for the first couple years. The Confederate military was blessed (or cursed, depending on one's perspective) with officers who knew how to command and weren't afraid to fight. The North got stuck with idiots and grandstanders like George B. McClellan. McClellan was good at organizing and training and everyone loved him (he was the very picture of a military man) but he wasn't real keen on actually fighting. He wasn't particularly good at tactics either.

McClellan gets blamed a lot for being an idiot at Antietam because he didn't pursue the Confederate army when they retreated from the battlefield. Lee had no reserve troops; McClellan did. If he hadn't been excessively cautious, the war might have ended in 1862 instead of dragging on for another three years. Antietam is one of the few Civil War battles I actually know something about, having actually been to the battlefield multiple times while working for the Park Service. In any case, McClellan's performance at Antietam led President Lincoln to fire him a few months later. Meade was McClellan's replacement.

Meade doesn't really make an appearance in The Killer Angels. He's mentioned a number of times, but it's more to note that he's nowhere near Gettysburg yet. Lee and his officers are sure Meade is still back in Washington, D.C., well removed from the impending battle scene, and the Union officers are more concerned with what's happening right in front of them than with how quickly Meade is coming up from the rear with more troops. Lee and his subordinates seem pretty thoroughly convinced that they don't need to worry about Meade. They apparently believed he'd be staying in Washington, D.C., politicking awhile longer before getting out in the field. In fact, just before the opening skirmishes of the battle, Lee doesn't believe there are any Union troops worth mentioning anywhere near them.

It turns out, of course, that Lee is wrong. Not only are there sufficient Union troops in Gettysburg to be a problem, Meade and the Army of the Potomac are a lot closer than the rebels believed. End result? A decisive battle that results in the CSA forces being considerably weakened and forced to retreat back to Virginia.

So would I recommend this book to other readers? Definitely yes. It's extremely readable. Even if you really are not particularly interested in military history or historical novels, it's easy to get sucked into The Killer Angels. According to the author's biography I found online, Shaara was surprised when the book won the Pulitzer. It didn't sell particularly well at the time of publication, and not even winning the Pulitzer was enough to boost sales. Why is a mystery because it is a good book.

The Killer Angels was made into the film Gettysburg, which had some rather improbable casting -- Martin Sheen as Robert E. Lee? -- but I may go looking for it anyway. After all, the cast list does include Sam Elliott as General John Buford so how bad can it be?

Next up on the Pulitzer list? Humboldt's Gift by Saul Bellow. Naturally, the L'Anse Public Library does not have it in its collection. I'm either going to have to spend actual money or wait until September and the resumption of Interlibrary Loan services. I think I'll wait.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

And now for something different: Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area

Over the years the S.O. and I have been to a lot of National Park sites, National Forests, US Corps of Engineers campgrounds, state forests, state parks, county parks, even township parks, but until we spent the winter in Arizona we'd never knowinglyh gone near anything managed by the Bureau of Land Management. BLM oversees huge swaths of land out West -- big chunks of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, and other states. But you know what I think when I hear "BLM?" I think grazing leases. Or mineral leases. Or truly barren ugly wastelands beloved by boondockers who are so anxious to camp for free that they're happy to ignore the fact the location that's free looks depressingly similar to the surface of the moon. You know, basically places that only starving cows and hard core rockhounds are willing to go.
Gila River. It's the longest river in Arizona and at various points has a fair amount of water in it. Every time I saw it, it looked  muddy and disgusting even though it is supposedly a trout stream.

I did not know BLM also does recreation, as in actual developed recreation. Day use areas with scenic vistas and picnic tables and the cleanest comfort stations I have ever seen. Real campgrounds with fire rings, ramadas over the picnic tables, and potable water available. Hiking trails, including hiking trails that are so developed they're handicapped accessible. Live and learn.
Paved accessible trail to "wildlife viewing area." The pavilion in the distance has several benches so you can sit, relax, and hope something other than a squirrel shows up. There are supposed to be bighorn sheep. We never saw any.

It turned out there was a fair amount of BLM land in the Safford area. There were areas that were open to dispersed camping (aka boondocking), and there were developed recreation areas like Hot Wells (an area south of Safford popular with people who have ORVs) and Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area on the Gila River northeast of town. We went out to Gila Box a couple times. You can canoe or kayak on the river, although I'm not real sure why anyone would want to (but maybe I just saw it at the wrong time of year), you can hike, you can picnic, and there are actual campgrounds. Dispersed camping is permitted, too, but when the daily use fee for a nice site within easy walking distance of a super clean privy is only $5 ($2.50 for those us with geezer passes) I don't much see the point of true boondocking.
Historic cabin restored (sort of) by the BLM.

On one of our trips to Gila Box, we visited the sites close to Safford: a day use area on Bonita Creek that includes a picnic area right down by the creek where it joins the river and a wildlife viewing area that's up higher overlooking the Bonita Creek canyon, and the Riverview Campground, which perches on a bluff overlooking the Gila River. I will confess the drive out to Bonita Creek made me a tad nervous. It was the first time I'd ever seen a steep hill warning sign informing me that the drop ahead was a 20% grade. Fortunately, it wasn't a particularly long hill.

Roads within Gila Box overall were in good condition, but were definitely narrow, winding, and with a lot of up and down. There were sections where you do keep your fingers crossed you won't meet any oncoming traffic. We did meet other vehicles a couple times, but in each case visibility was good enough that one car was able to pull over to the side and allow the other to get past the tight curve or steepest part of the grade before passing each other.
Old Safford Highway bridge. It's a really nice Luten concrete double arch built in 1918 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It does feel a bit odd -- the bridge looks great, but the road on either side of it is one lane dirt.

The old Clifton to Safford highway goes through Gila Box. It parallels the river, more or less, and has a nifty concrete bridge on the Clifton end. That road is now known as the Black Hills Back Country Scenic Byway. It's also one where drivers are warned not to take it unless they're in an ORV or have a vehicle with high ground clearance. When we visited the Clifton end to check out the day use areas and the Owl Creek campground, we did not go beyond the bridge. We were in my Focus, and I had no desire to try rock climbing with it.

Both campgrounds at Gila Box struck me as being pretty nice. Neither is very big -- according to the BLM web site, Riverview has 13 sites, Owl Creek has 7 -- but they're nicely designed. They're spaced far enough apart that even totally full it would not feel crowded, each site has a ramada over the picnic table, and there's both a fire ring and a grill at each site. I was surprised they weren't busier. If I recall correctly, Granville had one camper at the far end of the campground while Riverview had maybe 2 or 3 plus a campground host. The host's site struck me as being pretty nice. It was tucked off to one side instead of being the first thing you saw when you pulled into the campground, which means the host doesn't end up feeling like he or she is living in a fishbowl. That's a real positive when BLM hosts (just like NPS, Forest Service, and Corps of Engineers) are expected to sign up for longer stays than the hosts at state parks.
Camp site at Owl Creek campground

I don't know if we'd ever try camping at Gila Box. I know we wouldn't have any trouble getting the Guppy in to the Owl Creek campground, but can't think of a reason why I'd want to be closer to Clifton than to Safford. And the Riverview campground is nice, but there were one or two sections of road that come down a steep hill and almost immediately start climbing another steep grade. The Guppy is only 27 feet long, but there's quite a bit behind the back axle. I saw a school bus get hung up trying to climb a steep driveway into an apartment complex on Buford Highway. The back end of the bus hit the pavement before the whole vehicle was far enough up to keep moving. Not a pleasant situation for the bus driver -- if he tried backing up, he'd damage the bus, but he couldn't go forward. I had visions of something similar, or worse, happening if we tried bringing the Guppy out to Riverview. It's a bit odd -- it's one of the few situations I can think of where a Leviathan might be able to go where the Guppy couldn't simply because the typical Class A has a longer wheel base/less overhang on the back end..
View from one of the campsites at Owl Creek campground.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

What's the point?

I have noticed that following the firing of James Comey that talk about impeaching The Donald has migrated from the wishful thinking of the left-wing fringe to the main stream media. It's a tad bizarre.

Okay, I get why it's quite possible that in his blundering naiveté and insecurity The Donald managed to commit a high crime or two -- obstructing justice, providing aid to a foreign power, whatever. The man is impulsive and stupid, a definitely dangerously self-destructive combination. He's been a nightmare for White House staff to deal with because the man has spent his entire life surrounded by yes men (and women) so tends to ignore anything that contradicts whatever he happens to be thinking at any given moment. What I don't get is why anyone would think his impeachment, even if it did result in his removal from office, would lead to some dramatic change in the political climate in Washington.

First, and most obvious, if The Donald leaves he'll be succeeded by Mike Pence, an extremely conservative Republican. The biggest difference between Pence and Trump is that Pence has enough experience in government to know how things actually work. He won't waste his time on photo ops of him signing meaningless executive orders; he'll put minions to work crafting legislation that could actually pass in the majority-Republican House and Senate. There would be no drama or 3 a.m. tweets with Pence; he'd just be quietly competent at implementing an extremely conservative agenda grounded in Christian Dominion beliefs.

In the highly unlikely event that Pence also got swept up by the colluding with the Russians charges, who comes next? Well, that would depend a great deal on whether or not a successor to Pence had been appointed before Pence's theoretical departure. Given the current levels of chaos and noncooperation prevalent inside the Beltway, it's quite possible the baton would get passed to the current Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan. Not exactly an improvement over either Pence or Trump.

In any case, speculating about which way the dominos are going to fall is kind of pointless. Whatever does happen, it won't be what the pundits might predict. All the so-called experts have been spectacularly wrong so many times in the past few years I'm amazed they still get paid to bloviate and/or write opinion columns.

Here's what I think is a likely scenario in the unlikely event the House does decide to pursue impeachment. The pundits are saying it would disastrous for the Republicans, that a Trump fiasco would hurt the party's chances in 2018 and 2020. I say pshaw.

If the Republicans were to vote to impeach the titular head of their party, they would then be in the perfect position to claim the mantle of true reformers. After all, they could brag that they recognized -- a little late, granted -- that The Donald was unfit for office. They'd cleaned house. They'd started at the top with draining the swamp.

Alternatively, they could turn him into a martyr: look what the evil, evil Democrats did. The leftist socialist godless Commies lied, they cheated, they fabricated evidence, they drove a good man out of office. They'd blame it all on Obama, Hillary, and the minority party -- and the rubes would believe every word of it.

Either way, it becomes a win-win for the Republicans. Which route they'd take would depend a great deal on how worried they were about incumbents getting primaried by die-hard Trump supporters.

As for The Donald, at this point I think the best historical comparison is with Warren G. Harding, another pussy-grabbing President who kind of personified the Peter Principle in action, except Harding was self-aware enough to recognize his limitations. . .and Harding was a better golfer.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Intimations of mortality

Opened the paper recently and learned the woman who taught a belly dancing class in L'Anse back in the '70s is dead.

I had the usual mixed reaction that hits once you get to be a certain age (i.e., older than dirt). First there's the "holy wah, she wasn't that old" that hits when you realize someone who's more or less a contemporary just died. Then there's the vague sense of relief and rationalization: "but, hey, she was at least three years older than I am."(Translation: those aren't actually buzzards I see circling overhead.)

I hadn't thought about the woman in years. She taught a belly dancing class offered through the local Community Schools program. Forty-plus years ago the local school districts had actual money for community enrichment classes and offered a pretty wide variety: cooking, crafts, dance classes, photography, woodworking, you name the hobby and at some point there was probably a class. I took a few. There was a needle crafts sampler: we tried several different things like bargello (a type of needlepoint) and specialized quilting (yo-yos, cathedral window). My friend Cindy had enough ambition to complete several of the suggested projects. I think I did a bargello pillow and that was that. I tried a cooking class and acquired a few recipes I still use. I learned how to develop my own black and white photos, a hobby I enjoyed for a couple years but gave up when we moved out to the Seattle area in 1979.

And then there was the belly dancing class. One of the neighbors talked me into trying that. I was hesitant, but what the heck. It was an excuse to get out of the house one evening a week for a month or two. I have absolutely no sense of rhythm, never have been able to dance at all (not even that most ubiquitous form on non-dancing for white people, line dancing and the Texas two-step), but I made the unexpected discovery that I liked the music. So I went to belly dancing. (Side note: belly dancing was a brief fad 40 years ago. I'm not sure why. It is not the route to thinness -- in order to be a successful belly dancer, you need to have a belly. It can, however, be really good for your back as it tones your core muscles.)

It was an interesting mix of students. Don't really remember much about any of them now other than the instructor and one or two others, like the wife of a local businessman who confessed to the group that the reason she was taking the class was to spice up her love life. Her husband couldn't get it up unless they did role playing. I guess she decided she'd rather be a harem girl with sequins than a French maid with a skimpy apron. I haven't seen the dude in question in probably 30 years, but you better believe I still start laughing when I hear his name. 

As for the instructor. . . that was the only class I ever took with her, and, despite the fact we were both living in what is a fairly small town off and on for several decades, I don't think our paths ever crossed again. And now they never will. Vita brevis.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Lost City of the Monkey God

Okay, I know I just did a book review, but Douglas Preston's The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story was so good I can't help pushing it. It's Indiana Jones in the real world.

Preston is a writer and journalist (the two are not necessarily synonymous) whose work includes both nonfiction and fiction. He's had a lot of nonfiction published in National Geographic, New Yorker, and other major magazines, and he's written or co-authored quite a few books. His fiction falls into the techno-thriller or horror categories. The latter tend to have an anthropological or archeological connection: an expedition to explore a mysterious region of Amazonia meets with misfortune, people die mysteriously, crates get shoved into storage and are forgotten for decades, and then weirdness emerges. You know, the usual improbabilities that always result in lots of gore and general creepiness. Fun to read but not exactly Great Literature.

I had read several books Preston co-authored with Lincoln Child that definitely fall into the horror category. They were entertaining, but they had the effect of making me a bit skeptical about The Lost City of the Monkey God. One of my favorite authors, John Sandford, recommended it in a Facebook post a couple months ago, but I had a hard time believing it was actually nonfiction. Let's face it: The Lost City of the Monkey God is a cheesy title. It sounds like something you'd see on the cover of cheap pulp fiction back in the 1930s displayed on a rack next to some Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan novels. Tacking "A True Story" on to the title doesn't help much.

Then on a recent trip to the local public library there it was sitting on the New Books shelf. I couldn't resist. After all, Sandford had recommended it. Back before Sandford became a best-selling novelist, he was a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist. He should know what good nonfiction looks like.
Photo from The Lost City of the Monkey God

As it turned out, good is an understatement. The Lost City of the Monkey God was fascinating. It has it all: a multi-year search to find a "lost city" that's been featured in local folklore and legends for several centuries, a remote tropical rainforest location that's considered so isolated and dangerous that it is one of the few totally uninhabited regions in Central America, horrendous working conditions (seas of mud, humongous poisonous snakes everywhere, clouds of sand flies and hordes of chiggers devouring expedition members in their sleep), a government in turmoil, mysterious diseases striking expedition members months after their return to civilization. It does read like the plot line for The Lost World or an Indiana Jones movie. Except it's all true.

The lost city in the title was supposedly located in the La Mosquitia region of Honduras. It's a mountainous, treacherous region that is so isolated and inhospitable (snakes, chiggers, heavy rains, thick vegetation, you name it) that humans simply do not live there. There are indigenous groups living on the fringes -- the Miskito, Pech, and several other native peoples have villages and farms on the edges of La Mosquitia but the interior is basically devoid of humans. Logging and cattle ranching are nibbling at the edges and drug smugglers have carved out a few landing strips, but there are no land routes into the interior. Anyone going into La Mosquitia does it either by air or by boat. Vegetation is reportedly so thick and the threat of snakes (primarily fer de lance, a species known for its nasty attitude and aggressive behavior) so bad that it can easily take a full day to travel less than a mile over land.

Photo from The Lost City of the Monkey God
The region had been the subject of speculation since the time of the Spanish conquest. When Spaniards entered what is now Honduras, they heard stories of cities back in the mountains that had fabulous riches. Depending on who was telling the story, it was either referred to as La Cuidad Blanca (the White City) or the City of the Monkey God, reportedly because there were numerous statues (idols) of a monkey-faced god. The Spanish conquistadors never got around to looking for the White City, and if it existed its location got lost in time.

Stories about the White City surfaced again in the 19th and early 20th century. Discovery of Mayan ruins loaded with artifacts fired up treasure hunting impulses. Several would-be looters claimed to have found the Lost City of the Monkey God, but serious archeologists who tried to follow the clues the looters left never found anything that qualified as a "city." Most never made it very far into La Mosquitia -- conditions were simply too rough.

Then filmmaker Steve Elkins became intrigued by the legends. Elkins produces documentary films, and has been quite successful. In the mid-1990s he thought the White City would be a good subject and mounted an expedition to find it. His approach at the time was to try going up a river, which was how most previous expeditions had tried to get into the interior. He didn't find any trace of something that could be called a city, but he did experience an epiphany: seeing a petroglyph depicting what appeared to be a farmer made him realize that what is impenetrable rain forest today might not have been dense rain forest a thousand years ago.

It strikes me as being one of those "no shit, Sherlock" moments. Anyone who knows even a smidgeon of history is aware that when the first Europeans arrived in the Americas there were a lot more people around before those Europeans introduced smallpox, measles, influenza, and a host of other diseases to the Native Americans. The pathogens spread faster than the Europeans could explore; the English, French, and Spanish all documented finding villages and towns completely deserted, empty except for corpses of the victims of disease. Even in temperate climates it doesn't take long for vegetation to rewild farm fields. In the tropics even a large city could go from obvious to totally covered with vines and trees in less than a decade.

Still, even though Elkins realized that the stories about the lost city were probably based on fact, he walked away from the search in the 1990s. He worked on other projects for a decade, and then he learned that the LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) system that had been used to find the lost city of Ubar on the Arabian Peninsula had progressed from being satellite-based to being used in aircraft for mapping and exploration.

You know where this is going. Elkins managed to arrange for a LIDAR survey of four sites in La Mosquitia that had a strong probability of being the location of a lost city. Skeptics said that LIDAR won't work, the rain forest canopy was too thick. LIDAR uses lasers so anything that can block light is going to reduce its efficacy. The skeptics were wrong. Results from the LIDAR scans clearly showed an extensive complex of man-made structures. Elkins then spent a couple years putting together a team and getting the various permits required by the Honduran government. The government proved to be extremely cooperative. Not only did it issue the required permits, the government arranged for members of the military to accompany the expedition to help with logistical issues (setting up a base camp, for example, and bringing in supplies) and provide security against drug cartels and wildlife. The site selected for an on-the-ground survey turns out to be so untouched that animals, including jaguars, have no fear of humans.

Preston documents it all, from Elkins's initial interest to the aftermath of the expedition. He untangles the documented history of past search, finding both serious scholars and con men in the mix, and provides a context for the turbulent Honduran political climate. Rather than giving in to the temptation to wrap the book up triumphantly when Elkins successfully ground truths the LIDAR scans, Preston details the aftermath: health problems expedition members experience, the strange backbiting highly politicized world of Mesoamerican archeology, and what the Honduran government was doing to try to protect the site.

When National Geographic published a short piece describing the discovery of the lost city, for example, several prominent archeologists who specialized in Mesoamerican cultures basically flipped out, denounced the so-called find as a fraud, ranted about the terminology used, and claimed that the expedition was an illegal treasure-hunting scheme bent on looting. The phrase "lost city" came in for a lot of carping, although as Preston notes how else would you describe a place that for almost 400 years existed primarily in rumors? No one knew where it was, so was it really a misnomer to call finding it a "discovery"? And was it really being sensationalist to call it "the lost city of the monkey god" when that's how it had been described for decades? From the perspective of this reader, the complaints of the archeologists seemed to fall pretty squarely into the "I'm really pissed you guys didn't ask me to be part of this" category, i.e., major professional jealousy.and a bad case of annoyance that a non-archeologist (Elkins) was the person who put the pieces together.

In any case. the book is well worth reading, but if you don't think you'll ever bother looking for it, National Geographic Explorer did the Readers' Digest Condensed version last fall. If for some reason the video doesn't want to play, a quick search on YouTube will find it for you.: