Thursday, October 29, 2015

Thanks, but no thanks

Host's site at Pulltite.
One of the maintenance guys here at Montauk is a former National Park Service employee who worked at Ozark National Scenic Riverways. When we met him a year ago, he and I had a good time chatting about various people we knew in common as well as the current status of various structures and landscapes. OZAR was one of my parks; I made several trips here to count buildings and bushes and to document the cemeteries. Each time we've been here, he's suggested the S.O. and I apply to be campground hosts at Pulltite.

Pulltite is a campground on the Current River. I had a vague memory of having seen it, at least briefly, when I documented the Weese Cemetery almost 10 years ago. Yesterday the S.O. and I decided to go check it out. It was kind of a gray day but not actually raining so it wasn't a bad way for us to spend our day off. Besides, it would take us out of the park and away from campers asking us to do the impossible (e.g., find them an empty site with electricity when the park has no vacancies).

On the positive side, the host's site at Pulltite is thoroughly modern. It has full hook-ups, the concrete pad to park the RV on is a decent size, and there's even a DISH satellite dish sitting there just waiting for someone to hook up a receiver. At some point, someone decided to do some landscaping: there are irises and other perennials planted in an attempt to sort of disguise the utility hookups. There's also a camp store located within easy walking distance so if you run out of something basic you wouldn't have to drive anywhere just to pick up some milk or bread. That's the good news.

Looking toward the campground area from the picnic shelter at Pulltite.
The bad news is that the camp store is also the Current River Canoe Rental company, one of the concessionaires allowed to rent canoes for use on the river. The campground itself is not real big (55 sites, according to information I found online) and is primitive, i.e., no hookups. It was hard to tell with the leaves on the ground, but it appears there are also no defined tent pads or parking at each site: you have a metal lantern post, a picnic table, and a fire ring. It's actually quite nice with a decent amount of space between the sites, although the sites themselves are fairly small. It's definitely set up for tent camping, not RVs. Someone with a small trailer or a pop-up would like camping there, but it can't accommodate Leviathans or the gigantic 5th wheels we get here at Montauk. This is not a bad thing except for one small detail: canoes.

The Current River Canoe Rental company is now shut down for the season, but when it's summer, it must do a booming business. There were multiple school buses and specialized canoe-hauling trailers parked in a lot off to one side of the campground; there is a humongous parking lot labeled "Floaters parking" spitting distance from the host's site. And there were photos in the multipurpose building (picnic shelter/showerhouse/contact station) showing so many people on the river in canoes that you could probably walk from bank to bank stepping from canoe to canoe without getting your feet wet.

I have nothing against people who like to canoe. We own a canoe ourselves. I am, however, less than enthusiastic about the idea of spending a summer sitting next to a super busy parking lot while crowds of people are departing or returning from floating the river. One or two people with canoes -- no problem. Dozens, possibly hundreds, of them every time the sun shines? That's a slightly different story.

Looking toward the host's site from the multipurpose building.
It didn't look like there had been a campground host at Pulltite this past season. There were no signs anything bigger than a lawnmower had driven on to or off the site in a long time, and the two picnic tables sitting on the parking pad looked like they'd been there for awhile. Given that it was a dry summer, if the site had gotten used for several months there'd have been some evidence. Jack said the Park Service has trouble finding a host for that campground, and I can see why. All those canoes. . . and then when you add in the fact it's down in a dead zone (neither the S.O. or I had any cell service; the host's site is wired for a landline) and quite a few miles from an actual town of any size . . . we could never host at Pulltite to begin with because we're not giving up spending summers in the U.P., but having seen the site, I now know why even people who live in Missouri aren't lining up to volunteer there.

On the positive side, the host's site is set high enough above the river that in the event of a flood, the host would not have to evacuate. That's not true here at Montauk.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Another of life's little mysteries

I recently finished reading The Prophetess by Barbara Wood. It has a relatively familiar plot line: an archaeologist discovers half a dozen scrolls dating from the early Christian era that apparently contain information about Jesus and his followers that might contradict current church dogma. Almost immediately, she finds herself on the run and fearing for her life. It turns out she's actually running, sort of, from two sets of villains: an insane billionaire* who's obsessed with adding to his secret collection of rare artifacts and documents and the 20th century version of the Catholic Inquisition. The Vatican wants to suppress anything that suggests women were ever considered equal with men in the early church. The billionaire wants the archaeologist eliminated and the scrolls in his possession to be kept secret indefinitely; the church wants the archaeologist discredited and the scrolls buried in a Vatican archive. In either case, the information on the scrolls is to be suppressed.

By coincidence, earlier this year I read Laurie R. King's A Letter of Mary. It has a similar theme: an ancient document is found that suggests long-held assumptions and beliefs about the early Christian church are wrong, that women actually were much more important than current dogma teaches, and that women were among the apostles -- it wasn't exclusively a boys' club. A Letter of Mary is a better book than The Prophetess, possibly because King is a better writer than Wood, but The Prophetess is definitely readable. Both books came out in 1996, both sold reasonably well, but I don't recall either turning into a mega best seller. In any case, reading two books with similar themes fairly close together got me to thinking about a third book that mined that same vein of speculative ore.

In 2003 a piece of clumsily written crap titled The Da Vinci Code hit the bookstores. The book was so awkwardly written I had trouble reading it. Similar plot line: clues suggest that stuff the established church teaches as fundamental truths aren't actually quite so true after all, that maybe, just maybe Jesus had a wife (a theme explored much more competently in The Last Temptation of Christ back in 1955), and all sorts of melodrama ensues. So why did The Da Vinci Code resonate so much with the public that it turned into a cultural phenomenon when at least two earlier and better novels never struck the same chord? Marketing? Dan Brown had a better publicist? Sheer dumb luck?

Questions like this are one reason I'm glad I've never relied on writing fiction as a way to make a living. Brilliant novels languish in remainder bins while the authors survive with day jobs at Burger King; clunkily written drivel attracts movie options and climbs the best seller lists.  It's  a mystery.

*The insane billionaire's company bears a strong resemblance to Microsoft. If you ever wanted to see Bill Gates portrayed as a psychotic cannibal, read The Prophetess.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Random thoughts

Thanks to being relatively isolated from news media here at Montauk, about all we know about the latest round of Benghazi hearings comes from a few comments on the local NPR station and some clips on the Internet. We did not go looking for more -- the Republicans have been obsessing about Benghazi for several years now, and, like most people, we're thoroughly sick of hearing about it. At this point, the only question I have is why the idiots in Congress who keep wasting time with these hearings can't seem to figure out what everyone else already has: it doesn't matter what any of the witnesses say, no one is going to change their minds.

There is a sizable percentage of the American populace that is convinced that Hillary Clinton is evil incarnate, an incorrigible liar and opportunist who doesn't give a rat's patoot about anything other than her own political career. There is an equally sizable percentage of Americans who view her as the best qualified person to be the next President of the United States. Neither group is ever going to change its collective mind. As for those of us who fall somewhere in between those camps, we're so sick of hearing about Benghazi we're tuning out the whole thing. So what's the point? If anything, each round of hearings makes it more and more obvious that it's all political theater, and rather ineptly done political theater at that. At this point, the only people who are paying any attention are the ones who get paid to or are ideologically committed to one of the two camps mentioned above.

Meanwhile, out here in the real world, people seem to be paying a lot of attention to the weather. It's sounding like the folks down in Texas need to invest in arks. A friend who lives near Waco said they got 12 inches of rain down there a day or two ago. That is a lot of rain in a very short period of time. The upper Midwest is being told (depending on which source to believe) to brace for a lot more snow or a lot less. Given that the county is no longer plowing our driveway, I'm voting for the "lot less," but I'm probably going to be disappointed. I'll just have to hope that our POS Dodge plow truck functions through another winter -- and if it doesn't, there's always the Guppy and the highway south.

More and more people do seem to be willing to concede that climate change is real, we can no longer count on much of anything being the same from year to year. Not that we ever really could, but guesstimates of last Spring frost and first Fall frost used to be reasonably accurate. Not anymore. I saw a headline recently that said the sea level rise is going to make it inevitable that both Miami and New Orleans end up underwater. For that matter, most of the state of Florida could vanish in a few decades -- there's quite a bit of it that's only a few feet above current sea level. We have a friend who owns some property in Florida that he inherited from his parents. He's been trying to figure out what to do with it. My suggestion? Sell it now before it reverts back to swampland or worse.

Here in southeast Missouri it's definitely fall. The leaf colors seem to be at peak, or close to it. The rainbow tree (sweet gum) I see out the Guppy's windows is still about half green, but those green leaves are mixed with red and yellow. In some ways the fall colors in Missouri are less spectacular than those of the upper Midwest. Oak tends to be the dominant species in much of the forest, and oaks turn a russet color so don't have quite the drama of the brilliant red of hard maples. On the other hand, there are those rainbow trees. . .

The weather this month has been, I think, slightly warmer than it was when we were here a year ago. We haven't had to run the furnace much, although I did turn it on this morning (it was 40 outside and 50 here in the Guppy when I got up). There also hasn't been as much rain, which means fewer problems with condensation and dampness. I think the S.O. is a little disappointed. He invested a fair number of hours in sealing the front window by the bunk over the cab but we haven't really had enough rain for him to be sure his repairs worked. It would be good if it did rain -- things are tinder dry in the woods; it wouldn't take much when the ground is covered with leaves for some spectacular wildfires to get going. Given that people in Missouri are every bit as inclined to burn trash in the ditches as the folks in Texas, I'm a little surprised we haven't been hearing wildfire warnings on the radio. Of course, we listen to KMST, a public radio station "broadcasting from the campus of the Missouri College of Science and Technology in Rolla," and this is fund-raising time. Lately we're a lot more likely to hear about your chance to win an I-phone if you donate than about anything else.  

In any case, our month here at Montauk is now winding down. The campground (at least our loop) is a little fuller than one would expect for the last week in October -- lots of people staying through the end of the month instead of just coming for this weekend -- but promises to be relatively quiet. This is the time of year when the park gets a fair number of snowbirds from the St. Louis area who stop here for a week or two to make sure their equipment is working right and they didn't forget to pack whatever they need before they head farther south for the winter. We talked with one fellow last fall who gave us a pep talk about the Del Rio, Texas, area. I'm not sure we're interested in that particular part of the state, but you never know. He made it sound pretty nice so we researched it -- the fees at most of the RV parks around there are remarkably low.

We have had slightly more excitement this month than on previous stays here. More weirdness, more knocks on the door late in the evening. Had two strange ones yesterday. First, late in the afternoon a close to hysterical camper came to tell us that some idiot was burning leaves down at the other end of the loop. We looked down that way and sure enough, there was a huge column of smoke wafting through the trees. Got on the radio to alert someone with more authority than we have to go deal with it. Turned out the guy doing the burning wasn't a complete idiot -- he had raked up the dry leaves on his campsite and piled them in the fire ring to burn. His plan was to clear all the leaves in a fairly large radius around the fire ring so they wouldn't be a hazard when he did an actual campfire. Except he had such a huge pile they basically buried the fire ring so to a passerby it looked like he was just burning a pile of leaves out in the open . . . and it's never a particularly smart idea to burn leaves anywhere when an area is in drought conditions and you're surrounded by many square miles of forest where the ground is covered with dry leaves. All it would have taken was one strong gust of wind to scatter those burning leaves and it could have been a major problem.

Then, around 9 pm we had another camper at the door reporting an emergency. Someone had managed to lock himself in one of the individual showers at the showerhouse in Loop 4. I was a little puzzled as to why the guy came to tell us when there is a host in Loop 4 (we're Loop 2), but then I remembered that those hosts were off duty. Still, I'm a little surprised they weren't available -- even on their days off we tend to see them cruising around the park on the golf cart for no apparent reason. If they have a life outside campground hosting, it's not obvious.

In any case, some poor sap managed to lock himself into a shower room. These are individual showers on the end of the building; each opens directly to the great outdoors. They lock with a deadbolt. Apparently, after the man finished his shower and dressed, he wasn't able to get the door unlocked from the inside. That's got to be moderately embarrassing -- here's hoping it doesn't turn into one of those stories his wife likes to trot out when people ask them about camping at Montauk. We contacted the park's assistant superintendent; he called back not long after to let us know he'd been able to open the door. The fellow was actually lucky he was part of a couple. If he'd been someone camping alone (and the park gets a fair number of people who come on their own for a few quiet days of fishing), he could have been stuck in that room a lot longer.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Been there, done that, time for something different?

I may be maxing out on this campground hosting thing. Between dealing with other hosts with boundary issues and campers who know the rules but prefer to ignore them, my not-exactly-great-to- begin-with people skills are wearing rather thin. Or maybe they were worn thin before we even got here, thanks to dealing with the minions at the museum, and I should have had more of a break between dealing with minions and dealing with campers.

The 'beer garden.' Several sites shared this double screen house, which held an impressive number of coolers and a pretty decent bar. The guys were, however, surprisingly quiet and left their campsites clean. It seemed like a lot of work for just a couple days camping, but maybe they thought there'd still be mosquitoes or biting flies.
I am, however, definitely understanding why superintendents go gray and why some park staff find the prospect of working at parks that focus a lot more on natural resources and less on recreation highly attractive. I'm not sure which would drive a person to drink faster: the obnoxious campers who love to parrot lines like "We've been coming here for 35 years and never . . . " or the campground hosts who, having volunteered a number of times, now think they're actually running the park and in a position to tell the newer hosts exactly what to do, even when their exactly what to do directly contradicts the instructions in the host's handbook or the instructions that were given verbally by the superintendent or assistant superintendent. I'm also beginning to understand why campground hosts tend to rotate around a good bit from park to park, because I'm definitely having one of those "I never want to have to deal with those obnoxious asshats again" afternoons. It is good that (a) the month is almost over, and (b) thanks to the way days off are structured, we don't actually see those people very much -- we only overlap two days out of every six. Which means that in the remaining seven days of the month, there only two days of overlap left.

I do have a hunch there are a lot of asshat hosts out there, too, making life miserable for superintendents and folks at other parks. . .  and when we arrived at Montauk this month we discovered trash in the host site fire ring. Whoever was here just before us tossed cans into the fire, and not just beer cans -- "tin" cans, like the ones pork and beans come in. If the host is trying to burn garbage in the fire ring, just how responsible is he or she going to be about trying to keep the rest of the park clean? And campers have told me stories about the guy who was the host before that host, a fellow who has hosted here a number of times now and apparently had also developed an 'I run the park' attitude. Familiarity breeds arrogance?

In any case, between the combination of campers who want to be jerks, fellow hosts who make the obnoxious campers almost look good in comparison, and the fact that as a host the only way to ever be off duty is to physically leave the park, volunteering as a "visitor use assistant" is looking better and better. Tell people where to find the restrooms, sell them an occasional postcard, and know that when we go "home" to the Guppy, no one is going to be knocking on the door at weird hours demanding to know why there are no campsites available. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Cleo, 2000-2015

My cat Cleo died yesterday. She had fairly obviously been getting ready to check for awhile so it didn't come as much of a shock. I was just relieved she was able to drift away while sleeping in a patch of sunlight on the bed, which for a cat has to be about the best way to go. In September she had a checkup, complete with a wide panel of blood chemistry tests, that claimed she was in good shape for a cat with two chronic conditions -- diabetes and kidney disease -- but I'd been having a feeling for several months that she wasn't going to see another Spring.She'd been slowing down a lot, sticking closer to home when she ventured outside, having more trouble jumping up on the bed in the evening, and taking the stairs a lot slower than she used to. Her interest in life in general seemed to be dwindling.

Still, she was behaving more or less normally (for Cleo) when we arrived at Montauk a couple weeks ago. When the screen door was open, she'd sit on the steps staring out. She continued to annoy the S.O. by engaging in claw sharpening on objects not meant to be used for claw sharpening. And she was eating. And then one day she stopped. Didn't matter what was in the food dish, she wasn't interested. Ditto her cat treats. One day we could use them as a lure to get her out from places she didn't belong; a few days later she had no interest in them. I thought about taking her to a veterinarian -- maybe there was something wrong that could be fixed. And then I rethought that idea. The cat was over 15 years old. She had already gone through the stress of having Ringer's solution injected to help get her kidneys back on track -- she hated that procedure. Something told me she wasn't too thrilled about going to the veterinarian every two or three months for blood work -- a procedure that involved dropping her into what I always think of as a kill box to sedate her. The insulin injections seemed to be bothering her more and more -- when she first started getting them 4 years ago, she was pretty much oblivious to the needle, but in recent months I could tell they'd become uncomfortable. It was time to let her go, so I did. After she decided she wasn't interested in eating, she alternated between sleeping on the bed and curling up in a favorite corner in the living/dining area of the Guppy. She grew visibly weaker, but she didn't show any signs of being uncomfortable or in pain. If she had, we'd have taken her to a veterinarian one last time.

Cleo was not a particularly likable cat. She came into our lives under a cloud -- we were asked to take her for "just a week or two" while our older daughter tried to find a different home for her. Zu had been given Cleo when the cat was still one of those tiny bundles of fluff that you'd swear couldn't annoy anyone. Well, Cleo managed to. She decided she couldn't stand Zu's housemate, Lynn. In fairly short order, she'd crapped on Lynn's pillow, Lynn's shoes, and (this was the final straw) in Lynn's Packer hat. The amazing thing is the cat lived long enough after that to end up being given to us.

Oddly enough, Cleo behaved just fine once she moved in with us. She bonded with Tammi's dog Charlie, she got along fine with Tammi's two neutered male cats, Rene and Ares, and managed to co-exist with the humans. She wasn't one of those friendly, cuddly kittens who begs to be held and petted, and she grew into a standoffish cat who kind of liked being around people but never seemed particularly attached to any of us. She slept on our bed, but only at the foot, and she'd hang around people, but never did that shoving her head under anyone's hand in to elicit getting petted. It took quite a few years of her shadowing me for it to sink in that cat might like me, at least a little. Then again, maybe she just recognized me as the person who kept the food dish full.

And now she's gone. It feels weird. This is the first time in many, many years that we are totally petless. No dogs, no cats, no rabbits or mice. Just the S.O. and me. It's going to take some getting used to. I woke up last night at about 2 a.m. sure I could hear Cleo purring at the foot of the bed -- I wonder how many nights it's going to take before that no longer happens?

Monday, October 19, 2015

I'm in awe

We're back from Branson. It was interesting. . . one of those things where having survived the experience and satisfied your curiosity you find yourself thinking "Thank God I'll never have to go there again." The rampant commercialism isn't the problem. The city is one giant tourist trap, but it certainly doesn't pretend to be anything else. All the blatant trying to suck dollars out of tourist wallets is actually kind of fun. As I've noted before, Branson is Las Vegas without the hookers, booze, and slot machines. It goes way over the top in a multitude of ways, and it does so with a G-rating. It can be a nice break from reality. No, what shoves Branson into the "never want to go there again" territory is the combination of the infrastructure and the terrain.

There is no level ground in Branson. None. It is an extremely hilly city -- saying it's in the Ozarks is kind of a clue, but nonetheless, it seems to be exceptionally lumpy. Lots of ups and downs and twists and general weirdness. And the hills are steep -- no gentle grades. Then take and overlay that with a main street, Branson's "strip," that is still two lanes (although sections do have a center left-turn lane), bumper-to-bumper traffic, and a secondary street system that is emphatically not a grid, and things get interesting. We were there during the week in October, which is late enough in the tourist season that some motels are already closed until next Spring. Branson in July must be a driver's Hell. It does not help that all the maps the local tourist information places provide are "not to scale" (kind of an understatement) and stylized to eliminate the numerous twists and turns that occur out in the real world.They also haven't been updated for awhile, which throws in yet another level of frustration. It can be a tad annoying to realize that the landmark you were looking for going by the map no longer exists.

Because we were there for only one night, we went to only one show: Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede. I have no complaints about the show: it's fun family entertainment, basically a variety show with horses, and the food was good. We enjoyed it. The show mixes elements of rodeo (variations on barrel racing), trick riding, county fairs (a pig race) and an old-fashioned variety show that includes a magic act. They bring in members of the audience a couple times, e.g., there's a chicken chase where kids from the audience have to encourage chickens to cross a finish line. I hope everyone involved with it, both entertainers and support staff (servers, cooks, ticket counter people, the stable hands mucking out the stalls) get paid a decent wage because they work really, really hard. The performers aren't just doing trick riding and singing, they're also the stage hands shuffling the props around, and the servers aren't just trying to get hundreds of Cornish game hens on to people's plates before the birds cool down, they're also having to act as cheerleaders to keep the audience worked up and engaged. I can see why the show advertises itself as the most popular dinner show on the planet; it was a Thursday evening during the off season but there were very few empty seats in the arena. It was fun; I've no doubt they get a lot of repeat business.

We decided we had time on Friday morning to check out a couple of the other attractions. The Younger Daughter and I decided we liked the sounds of the Butterfly Palace and Rainforest Adventure, and as a sop to the S.O. we'd also go to the Branson Auto and Farm Museum. The Butterfly Palace is exactly what you'd expect: a building with a large room in it that is filled with various butterflies, all quite colorful, and tropical plants. It was nice in a very mellow way. You amble around admiring the butterflies and being mildly astonished by just how big and colorful some of the tropical species are. Eventually you realized that wearing a red sweater into a butterfly garden was not such a great idea as more and more butterflies notice something that registers as a possible food source. After you end up with so many butterflies crawling over you probing the acrylic yarn hoping to find nectar that it starts to resemble something out of a low budget horror film you leave. Moral of the story? Never wear red into a butterfly garden. Being mobbed by butterflies is a very strange experience.

Chuckwagon manufactured by Moline. Asking price is $40,000. 
The Butterfly Palace was actually a pretty typical example of its type. The Auto and Farm Museum, on the other hand. . . holy wah, that place left me in awe. Not because of the quality of the collection, mind you (although there were some pretty nifty tractors, horse-drawn equipment, and special interest autos on the floor). No, what had me in awe was the marketing genius of whatever person or persons came up with the idea. The "museum" is not a museum at all. It's the showroom for a specialized used car and tractor dealership. With a few exceptions, everything on display was also for sale. People pay about $18 per person (I'm blanking on the exact cost because Tammi paid) for the privilege of walking around a used car dealership. Granted, those used cars are not your typical recent model used cars, but that's kind of nitpicking. It's a dealership -- and they've suckered you into paying for the privilege of browsing the showroom floor. I have no doubt whatsoever that there are people who visit that "museum," spot the GTO or Firebird or Hudson business coupe of their dreams and actually decide they're going to buy it. I know I came to a screeching halt when I spotted the 1973 Scamp. Granted, it wasn't exactly like the Scamp I still wax nostalgic about -- this particular Scamp had dual carburetors, a 340 4-speed, and a custom black leather interior -- but I could live with the fact it didn't have a slant-6 engine, automatic transmission, or a peeling vinyl roof like my all-time favorite car did. I know how to shift for myself.

All it would have taken to make me a happy camper would have been $20,000 in cash to drive it home, which is a mere $19,700 than I paid for a Scamp the first time around.

In addition to the cars, the place also sold some remarkably over-priced and ugly metal yard art. If I'd had (in addition to the funds to buy the Scamp) another $3500 in loose change kicking around, I could have purchased a rooster that stood about 8 feet tall. For less than a grand, I could have gotten a more or less life size Wessex Saddleback pig, either a sow or a boar. Obviously, someone buys that crap, too, otherwise they wouldn't bother peddling it. There is indeed a sucker born every minute, and it's pretty clear lots and lots of them go to Branson.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

It's not as easy as makes it sound

I've mentioned before that one of the things I've gotten entangled with since beginning my volunteer association with the Baraga County Historical Museum is genealogical research. Our website indicates we have some family histories -- not many, it's true, but a few -- and we're willing to do research in local records that people living elsewhere don't have access to. Those records include the local weekly newspaper, The L'Anse Sentinel, and indexes to vital records (birth, death, marriage) that might be found at the county clerk's office. This is doing research the old-fashioned way: pulling large bound volumes off a shelf and reading line by line and page by page hoping to find something, anything, that will make the person who sent in the research request feel like they got their money's worth.

It is, to say the least, a remarkably tedious and time-consuming process. Want to find a death notice or an obit for someone who took a dirt nap in 1905? And all you know is the possible year because for some reason the death wasn't recorded at the court house? Good luck, especially when you're dealing with small town papers that have never been digitized. If the paper was a weekly, you've got a potential 52 issues to read through, page by page, because back in 1905 there was no real rhyme or reason to pagination. A 1905 L'Anse Sentinel has no specific page devoted to obituaries; there are no columns headed "Death Notices" or "Funeral Announcements." If someone relatively important died, maybe it would make the front page -- but it can be anywhere on that page. Someone who was not particularly well-known in the community, on the other hand, might not merit an actual obit or news report at all. The only mention in the paper might be one line in the column of "Baraga happenings" or "Skanee news" where tucked in among gems like "Mr. and Mrs. Walter Smith visited relatives in Ishpeming last week" and "Miss Carol Jones was feted on the occasion of her 16th birthday" will be a line saying "Mrs. Carl Erickson of Milwaukee was in town to attend her brother Isaac LeDuc's funeral."

Of course, if we're lucky and the death was recorded at the county clerk's office, no problem. We have a specific date to work with -- all we have to do is find the issue of the Sentinel that came out right after the person died. That's assuming the death was recorded, of course, or that the person was nice enough to keel over in Baraga County. Lots and lots of people died in Marquette or Houghton counties, not Baraga, because Baraga didn't have a real hospital. Want us to find a death record for someone who died out of county? Well, we're willing to do so, but first you better understand that the Houghton County courthouse is 30 miles away from the museum. If you're paying for two hours of our time, one hour of it is going just for driving to where the records are. And if we have to go to Marquette? Mapquest tells me it's 73 miles; I do know the drive time one way is about 90 minutes so don't expect us to do it unless you're willing to pay more than our usual 2 hours up front. You're going to have to fork over enough money to pay for a minimum of 4, and that's without knowing if we're going to find something. When we get research requests that look like they'd send us out of county, I tell people to contact the historical societies in those counties instead. Or, here's a thought: pick up the phone, call the county courthouse and ask if they have a death record for your ancestor. It's cheaper and faster than farming the task out to us, especially when those other counties are in the process of digitizing their older records (which is good, considering how fragile the original journals have become). 

Why am I thinking about this stuff this morning? I'm not sure -- maybe because I checked my emails and was reminded that the museum has a research client who's not satisfied that we've found everything we could about his ancestor. Family folklore had inflated the man's importance in the local community, there were also references to a falling out among siblings at some point in the past. Well, if family folklore says your ancestor was (and this is a hypothetical example, not the actual case) a banker but the death certificate gives his occupation as "laborer" and the obituary says he was a long-time employee of a local sawmill, not the bank, then family folklore is pretty obviously wrong. Not quite as bad as the classic joke among genealogists -- "You find out that the family legend that your ancestor was 'prominent in local affairs' turns out to mean he was hung publicly as a horse thief." -- but still a letdown. In any case, once I'm back up on the tundra I'll have to write the guy another letter saying that we found everything we could, and what we did find wasn't particularly easy to track down: the family has an extremely common surname.

People can be (no surprise here) a bit unpredictable when it comes to doing research for them. A couple years ago we had a research request where we came up close to totally empty-handed: the great-great-great grandparents had not been born in Baraga County, they didn't get married here, only one of their children was born here, and none died here. The family was hoping to be able to at least get photos of the house where the ancestors had lived (now a vacant lot) or worked (a sawmill that vanished before World War II). In short, very close to a total washout on information. We did find one group photo of workers from the mill that indicated their ancestor was in the photo, but the men were not individually identified -- all they'd know is that he was one of a dozen men pictured. I felt more than a tad guilty about taking the initial research fee because we found so little. Then the family members shocked the heck out of us: despite our coming up so totally blank, they gave the museum a $200 donation.

On the other hand, and I have a hunch the current client falls into this category, there are people who just don't seem to understand that sometimes we can't find anything because there is nothing to find. I suppose I could have told the man that if he'd send us more money, we'd keep looking, but I really don't want to do that when I'm reasonably sure we've already found everything that's worth finding. I just hope his letter doesn't include a complaint that he didn't get his money's worth because I know I put in a lot more hours than he paid for; I was intrigued because the extremely common name presented a challenge.

Everyone (or almost everyone) would like to have an ancestor who was important or did interesting things, but the reality is that most people live pretty ordinary lives. They work at ordinary jobs, they don't get involved in community affairs except at a low level (e.g., a veteran joins the VFW but never becomes an officer at the local post), they go through life as happy and productive people and are important to their immediate family but don't leave much of a mark in the wider world. And even when they do something this is a little out of the ordinary, will it be recorded or remembered a few years or decades later? Probably not. It won't matter if I spend 2 hours or 200 hours reading through old L'Anse Sentinels because unless the ancestor got nailed for something illegal and shows up in the court reports, most people never get their names in the paper.

Oh well. I won't know for sure what type of soothing phraseology I'll have to craft until next month when I see the actual hard copy letter. In the meantime, I think I'll work on figuring out how to update the museum's web page to make it clear that the research we do is meant to fill in the gaps left when resorting to leaves you wanting to know more than just what's on the census records or state vital records databases. might tell you that your great grandmother died in Baraga County in 1937; our research will find you her obituary.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Wish us luck

We're going to Branson.

Having spent one night in Branson and having read the various come-ons aimed at tourists, we figured out back in 2012 we really had no desire to go there again. The entertainment might be okay, and technically we fit into their target demographic -- when dinner shows start at 5:30 you know they're aiming for the early bird special crowd -- but overall we just weren't that interested in seeing much more than we did on that one brief stop 4 years ago.

Then the Younger Daughter mentioned checking it out. So on our next days off we're going to Branson, we're seeing a dinner show that somehow manages to combine people chowing down on chicken with a lot of horses kicking up dust in an arena. I always wondered how those Medieval Times shows managed to keep the food from tasting like horseshit; the Dixie Stampede features a lot more horseflesh in action simultaneously than any of the medieval shows do so I guess I'll find out later this week. The Dixie Stampede was one of the few things I saw advertised in Branson on our first trip there that I thought I wouldn't mind seeing; it has the major positive draw of not featuring any geriatric musicians or being a tribute to some performer that you never pictured having a tribute to begin with. I can understand Elvis impersonators -- Elvis is dead and gone -- but George Strait? Why would anyone want to see a George Strait tribute done by some performer you've never heard of before when the original George Strait is still alive and performing? The Dixie Stampede, on the other hand, has horses.

Our days off this week fall on Thursday and Friday. They rotate. We're on for four, off for two, because there are 3 sets of campground hosts. When there were only two sets back in March, the schedule was a little different. One nice thing about Montauk is they do try to do the schedule so the hosts get at least one weekend a month off. That's apparently unusual. We stayed in the park for our last two days off. Not a smart move, of course, because if you're physically present at the host's site campers assume you're on duty. In fact, some will refuse to believe you when you make the mistake of saying you're off. I had a woman yell at me this past Saturday morning (we had Friday and Saturday off). I tried telling her that I didn't know something because it was our day off so I hadn't gotten a copy of the morning report, and she went into a rant about having been a host herself and she knew for a fact that the hosts never get a weekend off. Holy wah, I'm glad we never volunteered wherever it was that she did.

Then again, the folks on the site adjacent to the host's site at the moment are a couple slightly older than us who have been campground hosts at parks in Missouri off and on for quite a few years. They've volunteered at Montauk in the past, and they can recall previous park management that didn't treat the hosts nearly as nice as the current superintendent does. We do know that just how much hosts have to do and how their hours are scheduled does vary from park to park, both from state to state and from park to park within a state, so I guess we got lucky with Montauk. One of the S.O.'s classmates is spending the winter volunteering in Florida state parks. He's being the "host" at a park that has day use only; in exchange for a warm place to spend the winter he and his wife will have the fun of cleaning comfort stations used by picnickers. I imagine they're also expected to deal with the trash and litter in the day use area. That's like accepting a full-time job just for the privilege of parking your camper in a location where it's not likely to snow. Thanks, but no thanks. If I wanted to scrub toilets and pick up trash several hours a day, I'd stay home and just apply for a job at one of the local motels.

Both the couple next door to us here and one of the other host couples have mentioned two parks in Missouri that are nice to host at because although they're extremely nice parks they're too close to Corps of Engineers campgrounds. The state parks are never super busy because the COE campgrounds are so cheap. We like coming to Montauk -- we've gotten to know people here, it's always nice to come back to a place where you like the folks you're going to be working with or for -- but this is an extremely busy park. Maybe it would be nice to host someplace quieter. Besides, one of the reasons for getting an RV in the first place was to be able to see new stuff. So maybe we'll do a quick trip on our days off later this month to see what those parks look like and think about putting them down as possible choices when we do our online applications for 2016.

Ol' Buzzard suggested we apply to host at parks in Maine. Unfortunately, we're kind of out of luck when it comes to the northern states. We want to stay home in the summer, enjoy the brief U.P. warm weather season, and that means any volunteering in parks we do has to be down South where the season is longer and it's possible to be comfortable in an RV even in mid-winter.

I did do some applications for this winter for VIP slots at a couple national parks where we'd be "visitor use assistants" (i.e., the persons at the information desk who tell you how to find the rest room) but no luck so far. I have moments when I still fantasize about hearing from LBJ NHP, but don't think it's going to happen. We'd have heard from them by now if they wanted us for January.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Another gutless wonder cuts and runs

I refer, of course, to Kevin McCarthy. We're pretty well isolated from day to day news here at Montauk, but we do have access to NPR. We get highlights -- and it appears yet another politician has decided that if he can't win with 100% unanimous support the heck with it, the thing to do is just bail out completely. All or nothing. If even a small but vocal minority isn't going to support you, well, then what's the point in trying at all? Or at least that appears to be McCarthy's reasoning.

Back in the '90s the Republicans in Congress were stupid enough to decide that they're supposed to operate in lock-step, nothing gets done unless they all agree.Even worse, they've more or less given up on the idea of ever cooperating with the Democrats in Congress on anything. Compromise, which is the way politics works in the real world, got replaced by "our way or not at all." And then the "Tea Party" came along. They now have a group, a minority within their party, that won't agree with the more moderate (saner? pragmatic?) members on anything. It can be something as innocuous as renaming a federal building and there will be Tea Party types who will oppose it just for the sake of being contrary. Still, the GOP members who bought into that 100% agreement concept back in the days when Dennis Hastert pushed for it think they can manage to achieve it today despite clear evidence they're screwed if they do.

In a rational world, the slightly more rational GOP members of Congress would recognize they've got the numbers to marginalize the extreme reactionary Tea Party types, but it's unlikely that's ever going to happen. Instead, it's a classic case of the cliched tail wagging the dog. The vocal minority is setting an agenda that the craven majority knows is either not achievable or a really, really bad idea, but the craven majority remains incapable of shutting the loudmouths down. John Boehner couldn't "control" the Tea Party types, neither can anyone who succeeds him as Speaker, so why do they even bother to fantasize about it?

I suppose it is possible McCarthy bailed not because of fear of losing, but because he's worried about the fallout from his faux pas regarding the Benghazi hearings. After all, he did publicly admit to using those hearings for a purely political reason -- to damage Hillary Clinton's image -- and that's definitely not legal.

And, speaking of cliches, it is inevitable that I embed this particular video:

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Washington State Park, Missouri

Formal entrance station to Washington State Park
Having been given a break from campground hosting at one Missouri State Park, the S.O. and I naturally decided to spend one of our days off by checking out another. Washington State Park is located north of the community of Old Mines on Missouri Highway 21, which means it's real close to St. Louis. It's got to be a madhouse in the summer, especially when Washington has something for everyone, or close to it. Hiking trails, campground, swimming pool, fishing, picnicking, you name it. They even do boat rentals. About the only things missing are bike and equestrian trails.

And, in addition to the recreational stuff, it has History, both ancient and modern. It has Civilian Conservation Corps constructed structures (lots of them) and it has petroglyphs. Indeed, the park is one of the few places in Missouri where pre-European contact rock carvings have been found in the state. The CCC-constructed structures have an additional layer of significance; the only African-American CCC camp in Missouri was at Washington State Park.

Interior of interpretive center.
Because this park is so close to St. Louis, I have no doubt it is incredibly busy in the summer. Even on a rather gray day in October, there were a good number of people there. The day use area parking lots are extensive, and there are a gazillion picnic areas scattered throughout the park. The picnic areas are nice -- the tables are spread far enough apart that even on a busy day you're not going to feel too crowded.  We decided to do a short hike, the 1.5 mile long 1000 Steps Trail, and encountered a number of other hikers both coming and going. The trail loops around from the Thunderbird Lodge and climbs a fairly steep slope that takes you to a scenic overlook and also past the formal entrance to the park. The trail was laid out by the CCC in the 1930s and takes its name from the rock steps that the CCC workers installed. Time has taken its toll on those 1000 steps, but some sections are still intact.

That trail reminded me that the next time we decide to do a hike, I either need to be wearing my Tevas or my hiking boots. The shoes I had on just didn't feel right, probably because they've got the orthotic insoles and I don't wear them often enough to get used to them. The orthotics are supposed to position my feet in a way that prevents under-pronation, but as far as I can tell, all they do is make me feel like I'm walking on rocks barefoot. Which probably explains why I avoid using them, which in turn means I never get used to them and my feet will continue to under-pronate. But that's a digression. . .

1000 Steps Trail
The park information describes the trail as "rugged." I'd tend to agree. At least half the trail is either steep uphill or steep downhill, and the 1000 Steps are no longer 1000 Steps -- and even when they do still look like steps, the spacing is a bit odd with the rise too short in some places and too tall in others. You definitely need to watch your footing, and a hiking staff is a good idea, especially for the vertically challenged. It was a nice walk, though. Long enough to feel like an actual hike, varied enough to be interesting, and challenging enough in places to work up a bit of a sweat -- although someone younger and in better physical condition than me might disagree with that last part.

We were curious about the petroglyphs so after we finished the hike we went looking for them. There are two locations in the park that are easily accessible to visitors. We only visited one. It was interesting. Two things amazed me about the petroglyphs we saw: one is the fact that anyone ever found them to begin with. The carvings are not large, and there isn't any contrast between them and the rock they're carved into. It's possible that at the time they were carved, the Native Americans doing the work rubbed charcoal or colored soil into the carvings to highlight them, but if they did no trace of that remains. The other amazing thing is that they're still discernible at all. They're carved into limestone, a notoriously soft rock that weathers easily. I couldn't help but marvel that they'd survived centuries of exposure to the weather. They're under cover now, but that's a pretty recent protection.

What the steps for 1000 Steps Trail originally looked like.
I was also amused to see that the most common item carved into the rock was, to put it euphemistically, a "female fertility symbol." People are people, after all, regardless of time period or location, and people do tend to obsess about sex. I've often thought that a lot of the ancient petroglyphs are simply the result of guys getting bored and doing the equivalent of carving on a schoolroom desk or scribbling on a bathroom wall. No deep ritualistic meaning or religious significance, just the usual human behavior in a different medium. I took an anthropology course years ago where one South American's mythology was described as being basically nothing but raunchy stories and dirty jokes -- but isn't that true of most mythologies? Some just phrase the dirty jokes a little more elegantly than others.

And, speaking of graffiti and the human tendency to want to leave a mark, any mark, we noticed that the roof at the overlook shelter had been reshingled recently. From the underside, you can see that several boards were replaced. They already have graffiti scrawled on them. No female fertility symbols, though, at least not yet.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Back at Montauk

 Well, we are back at Montauk State Park. This is our third time here so we're starting to feel like we sort of know what we're doing, although I'm sure I'll screw up something on the computer the first time I touch it. I have a knack for making electronic devices decide that it's time to crash and burn. Our arrival followed the usual pattern: lovely weather when we got to the park, really nice and easy to get set up because the sun was shining, temperatures were (by our standards) balmy, and there wasn't much wind to speak of.

That changed the following day, of course. Temperatures dropped low enough during the night that I felt compelled to turn on the furnace first thing in the morning, and then, despite the Weatherbug claiming that the Montauk area was enjoying clear, sunny skies, it stayed gray and overcast most of the day. Not a particularly auspicious start to the annual Rose Holland Trout Fishing Derby, altough I've hear many anglers say they prefer gray days. I'm not sure why -- makes it harder for the fish to see them? Trout have really good vision -- maybe they are smart enough to make the connection between some oddly dressed human upstream from them and the possibly edible lure floating their way. In any case, the weather didn't matter. The park was full, 100% occupied, every reservable site reserved and all the first come, first served sites snapped up by early afternoon on Friday. I was happy we weren't in the fee booth. The folks working there was going to be forced to repeat over and over that the No Vacancy sign really did mean no vacancy, no empty spaces whatsoever, and that campers were going to have to go back up to the hill to Happy Pappy's, Tradewinds, or one of the other privately-operated campgrounds in the area.

In any case, the park is full, and we're not there. Through sheer dumb luck our first scheduled days off fall this weekend, Saturday and Sunday, so bright and early (for us) yesterday morning we tossed a suitcase in the car and headed east to Farmington. I'm still feeling sufficiently irritated by the hassles getting the new siding on the museum entailed that my supply of patience for clueless people (and that describes most campers) is rather low at the moment. Avoiding one of the busiest weekends of the camping season is probably a good thing. The S.O. got to spend the afternoon watching NASCAR (Xfinity Series) instead of having to field queries from clueless campers; the kid and I went grocery shopping.

Current River at Montauk State Park, October 2014
Today, instead of having to cruise around the campground pulling tags off posts, putting up Vacant signs, and fishing half-melted Busch Lite cans out of fire rings, we're going to check out another state park: Washington. It's between Potosi and St. Louis and, according to the web site, has extensive Civilian Conservation Corps features -- lots and lots of steps and walls and whatever. We'll hike at least one trail, have a picnic lunch, and maybe check out the campground to see how busy it gets in October. That's assuming it doesn't rain, of course, the weather is still looking a little iffy.

The S.O. did remind me that we'll have the fun of checking multiple camp sites tomorrow. Quite a few of the campers did reservations that include a Monday departure. Some really will stay until sometime Monday, but others will pull out late this afternoon or early evening. They just reserved a site through the weekend because they want to be around when the winners of the derby are announced and prizes are awarded. In addition to the usual prizes given for largest fish, heaviest stringer, etc., a certain number of fish are tagged and there are prizes associated with them. I'll just keep my fingers crossed that they're typical campers and leave their sites clean; the guys who try to burn beer cans are the exception, not the rule. Although it does seem rather petty to bitch about campers trying to burn cans when we discovered a partially burnt can in the fire ring at the host's camp site -- whoever Host 2 was for the month of September, they didn't set a particularly good example by burning garbage, especially when it's an easy walk from the Host's site to the dumpster. J was less than impressed by the evidence left by previous hosts at our site. In addition to the can in the fire ring, they had left a vinyl tablecloth thumb tacked to the wood top of the picnic table. Don't know how long it had been there, but the wood underneath was thoroughly saturated. The flip side of the tablecloth itself was so thick with mold I'm a little surprised it hadn't started growing legs and trying to crawl off the table on its own. 

Thinking about the fishing derby and its prizes reminded me a story I heard last year that just illustrates that some people will cheat at anything. The state hatchery has a lunker pool where they raise trout to Loch Ness monster size, truly humongous fish. Well, you guessed it -- someone tried cheating at the fishing derby by sneaking in and using a dip net in that lunker pool. He got caught with four huge fish in his waders. This brings up several intriguing questions and images. How do you manage to walk with any semblance of normalcy with 4 humongous trout stuffed into your pants? Who noticed that the legs on his waders were bulging in strange ways? And how many years will have to pass before people stop asking him "Is that a trout in your pants or are you just glad to see me?"

When I say humongous trout, I do mean humongous trout. There's a white board up at the lodge where people can record the size of their catches if they think they did especially well. Last year some woman caught a rainbow that weighed over 7 pounds. That is a large fish. . . How weird would it be to walk around with 4 fish each weighing about that much stuffed into your waders? And why bother cheating at all? This particular fishing derby doesn't have huge amounts of prize money involved. It's a fund-raiser for, if I recall correctly, the American Heart Association. You get bragging rights if you win but not much else.

Cruise-in October 2014
The fishing derby does have one event that interests the S.O.  On Friday evening a local car club does a cruise-in. There are usually some interesting vehicles. I didn't bother walking over to the lodge to see what was there this year, but the S.O. did. He said there were a couple rat rods; he always enjoys looking at them. There was also a rather nice looking late 60s Barracuda. The owner was camped in our loop; we could see it from the Guppy. The owner was definitely proud of the car. Seemed like every time I glanced over that way, he was dusting it. He had the hood open, too, a clear sign he wanted people to stop and admire his toy. Don't know if anyone did, but, if not, I'm sure there were plenty of people willing to schmooze about cars for a few hours at the car show in the park office parking lot.

And, speaking of special interest vehicles, I'm now wondering if the World War II group will come camping again this year. Last October members of a club that specializes in World War II equipment spent a weekend at Montauk. They had some interesting vehicles, including jeeps, trucks, and a general's limo. If they come back, I'm going to be a lot more aggressive this year about getting photos of the equipment. Or at least make sure the battery in my camera isn't dead. I haven't taken any photos at the park yet because when I did pull out the camera, I couldn't use it. The photos with this post are from last year.