It Could Be Worse

While hanging around the house in quasi-house arrest, I thought perhaps it was finally time to storm the castle and read Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Defoe’s less well known A Journal of the Plague Year—you know, for comparison purposes. It’s his grim (reader beware) account of the bubonic plague—aka the distemper, the infection, or the visitation—that consumed London in 1665. There was a lot of social distancing going on, which was good, since you could catch it via airborne transmission, including the “breath” or “fumes” or “stench” of an infected person, or, as the physicians called it, “effluvia.” But also, unknown to Londoners or the rest of the world, you could catch it by a flea bite if that flea had bitten a rat carrying the virus. And there were a lot of rats.

During the worst weeks “these objects [dead bodies] were so frequent in the streets that when the plague came to be raging on one side, there was scarce any passing by the streets but that several dead bodies would be lying here and there upon the ground. . . . At first the people would stop as they went along and call to the neighbors to come out on such an occasion, yet afterward no notice was taken of them,” and people would simply “go across the way and not come near” the corpse. London, “I say, was much altered; sorrow and sadness sat upon every face. . . . All looked deeply concerned; and, as we saw it apparently coming on, so every one looked on himself and his family in the utmost danger. . . .Tears and lamentations were seen almost in every house, especially in the first part of the visitation; for towards the latter end men’s hearts were hardened, and death was so always before their eyes, that they did not so much concern themselves for the loss of their friends, expecting that themselves should be summoned the next hour.”

And summoned they were. As the plague spread, house arrest became literal. If anyone in a house were known to have the plague or have died, the entire household was imprisoned, with a watchman day and night to prevent escape of the rest of the household, who themselves often thus became infected. House doors were painted with a red cross; doors were padlocked from the outside. Defoe records escapes, bribery, even murder of watchmen. “Nor, indeed, could less be expected, for here were so many prisons in the town as there were houses shut up; and as the people shut up or imprisoned so were guilty of no crime, only shut up because miserable, it was really the more intolerable to them. . . .They blew up a watchman with gunpowder, and burned the poor fellow dreadfully; and while he made hideous cries, and nobody would venture to come near to help him, the whole family that were able to stir got out at the windows one storey high, two that were left sick calling out for help.”

“Idle assemblies” were prohibited, as were plays, feasting, and “tippling houses.” “Disorderly tippling in taverns, ale houses, coffee-houses, and cellars [will] be severely looked unto, as the common sin of this time and greatest occasion of dispersing the plague,” in the language of the multi-page “Orders Conceived And Published By The Lord Mayor And Aldermen Of The City Of London Concerning The Infection Of The Plague, 1665.” But social distancing wasn’t enough.

The dead-carts trundled through the streets and alleys every night, collecting the dead, throwing them in piles in the carts. How desperate would one have to be to take that job? Huge pits were dug, sometimes in churchyards. The cart would approach the pit under the light of lanterns, turn around, lean backward, and “the bodies shot into the pit promiscuously,” with dirt thrown over them as quickly as possible. Young Daniel was a venturesome soul, or a foolish one:

“A terrible pit it was, and I could not resist my curiosity to go and see it. As near as I may judge, it was about forty feet in length, and about fifteen or sixteen feet broad, and at the time I first looked at it, about nine feet deep, but it was said they dug it near twenty feet deep afterwards in one part of it. . . . Then they made larger holes wherein they buried all that the cart brought in a week, which, by the middle to the end of August, came to from 200 to 400 a week [in his parish alone]. . . . People that were infected and near their end, and delirious also, would run to those pits, wrapt in blankets or rugs, and throw themselves in, and, as they said, bury themselves.”

By late October, the contagion began to recede. Sixty-eight thousand, five hundred and ninety deaths in London and immediate environs were documented: “for about nine weeks together there died near a thousand a day.” Defoe estimated the real number to be closer to 100,000. Londoners, at least the ones who by good fortune or escape to the country were not infected, along with the very few who managed to survive infection, breathed a little easier. But their woes were not at an end. The next year, 1666, would bring the greatest fire, before or since, in London’s long history.

Two Mobsters Walk Into a Bar . . . .

Two mobsters walk into a bar. They’re burly guys, and they both have bulges under their coats. The first one says to the barkeep, “We need to see your boss.”

“He’s not really available right now.”

“Tell him two associates of Don Corleone want to chat with him.”

The barkeep does as he is told. The bar’s owner comes out, a little intimidated.

“Mr. Smith, ya gotta nice establishment here,” Mobster Number One says, surveying his surroundings. “Real nice. Real cozy-like. Lotsa nice customers, I’m sure. Never had no trouble here, I’m sure. Yeah, trouble is bad, the kinda thing ya wanna avoid. Know what I mean? Ya know, fires, and bad stuff like that. We can help ya. I’d like ya to do us a favor though. Ya know we sell insurance. Very reasonable. Two grand a month. Ya think about it, OK? We’ll see ya next week.”

Later that day, a sweaty Mr. Smith goes to the police station and finally gets in to see Detective Jones. The bar owner had a camera that captured the earlier exchange in both video and audio. He tells Detective Jones, “That was a shakedown. You need to arrest these guys, and Mr. Corleone. They tried to extort me for two grand a month. They won’t burn my place down if I hand over two grand a month.”

Detective Jones sees and hears the recorded conversation on Mr. Smith’s phone. He’s skeptical. “Mr. Smith, did they use the word extortion?” “No” is Mr. Smith’s response. Did they use the word bribery?” Another “No.” “Did they say, ‘if you give us two grand a month, we won’t burn your place down’?” A third “No.”

“But detective, when he said, ‘I’d like ya to do us a favor though,’ that very word though tells me the two things are connected, even if he didn’t use the word extortion.”

“Look, Mr. Smith, what they did was maybe inappropriate. I wouldn’t have done it myself. But it’s not like it’s a quid pro quo, or bribery, or extortion. It’s not like they conditioned the safety of your place on you having to pay them every month. They just made some comments that might not have even been related. And besides, just because they work for Mr. Corleone doesn’t mean he’s involved. Did they say that he directed them? No. You can’t send a guy to trial for that. It’s just not a crime or even a misdemeanor. In fact, we might need to investigate you. Bringing false charges against an upstanding citizen and his employees could be a sham. And do you have the proper license for your bar?”

Dispatches from the Hinterland

Yesterday morning I’m sitting in the waiting room for my eye doctor appointment, innocently reading NPR News on my phone, and two rural women, perhaps a daughter and her 70-ish mother, come in and sit nearby. An older man and woman come in and sit down, three feet away, and eight or nine feet across from me. The man strikes up a conversation with the two women. Within a minute or two the conversation turns political. The next thing I know, the man is saying Trump is the greatest of our presidents (I start shaking my head in sad resignation), followed by his telling them who our two worst presidents were: FDR and—I knew it was coming, as inevitable as sunrise—Obama. FDR, he explains, knew about a Japanese invasion coming two weeks before Pearl Harbor. Apparently assuming no explanation is necessary, he offers not even a specious reason for Obama, though I’d put my money on race. So what does the older woman say, clearly in such obvious agreement that the sides do not even require identification? “I think it’s just come down to good vs. evil.” And I thought, “yes ma’am, you’re right—but maybe not in the way you think.”

It set me back for the whole day, despite my reading of The Daily Stoic. I’m a Mississippian, but even so, such views expressed right in front of me still hit me like a punch in the gut. I probably should have offered a rejoinder, but it wasn’t my conversation, and I just shook my head. Who is living in Alice’s Wonderland, me or them? My truth is their are-you-crazy? lie. Their truth is my are-you-crazy? lie. Their yes is my no, their bad is my good, their black is my white, their up is my down. Either for me or for them, facts just don’t matter, or, more likely, twist themselves through some contorted and fevered illogic into their opposites. The nurse calls me in.

To my own satisfaction, at least, I’ve basically figured Trump out: dishonest, authoritarian, self-dealing, ignorant, bullying, racist, amoral, narcissistic, incompetent. The folks in the waiting room and upwards of 40% of the country have a totally different take, and I keep trying to figure out why. Even accepting the estimate that roughly 30% of any given population have “authoritarian tendencies,” what do they like so much about a man I find so abominable? Well, he’s “tough.” He breaks the rules. He tells it like it is. He never has to admit he’s wrong. He hates all those foreigners taking our jobs and ruining our way of life. He sticks it to those pointy-headed pinko liberals bent on raising our taxes and confiscating our guns. But beyond that, forever Trumpers, let’s get specific: What has he done that makes you like him so much? Do you like it when he lies to you, as when he said Mexico would pay for the wall? Or when he said he would have won the popular vote if it hadn’t been for all the fraud? Or when he said he saw the video of the Muslims dancing in the streets in New Jersey after 9/11? Did you like it when he stiffed those small contractors—often little guys, with a handful of employees—by refusing to pay the amount specified in the contract, then telling them to sue him, then stalling in court for years, sometimes bankrupting them? Do you like how he admires Putin and other autocrats and dictators like Kim Jong Un, Duarte of the Philippines, el-Sissi of Egypt, Erdogan of Turkey, and others? Do you like how he groped women and bragged about it on tape, but somehow claims that he never did it? Would you like it if he groped your wife or your daughter? Do you like how he sold out our intelligence community by saying how “strong” Putin was when the Russian denied interference in our 2016 election? Do you like how he mocked a genuine American war hero like John McCain? Do you like how he paid a doctor to say he had bone spurs in his feet to keep him out of Vietnam, especially if you or your friends or relatives got drafted or volunteered to go?

So what else do you like about him? Do you like how he tried to extort our ally Ukraine by withholding $391 million in arms—already appropriated by Congress—to help them fight his pal Putin unless Ukraine’s president publicly announced an investigation into the Bidens and into how Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in our 2016 election? Do you like how under his presidency, the former anti-Russia GOP has become the pro-Russia GOP? Do you like how he tries to use the presidency to make a buck by trying to have official events at his properties? Do you like how he doesn’t have the stomach to fire people face to face but uses Twitter instead? Did you like how he put a “perfect,” totally innocent phone call on a highly classified platform so no one could see how perfect and innocent it was? Do you like his megalomaniacal bragging about his “great and unmatched wisdom,” how he knows more than all “his” generals, how “only I can fix it,” how he’s a “genius,” and how he’s “the Chosen One”?

How about some more things you might like? Do you like how the generals who have worked for him shake their heads at how ignorant he is of world affairs or how he acts in ways contrary to our national interests, causing them to resign or be fired? Do you like, for example, how he betrayed our Kurdish allies, allies who did almost all the ground fighting against ISIS and lost almost 11,000 men doing so, by pulling our guys out and giving a green light to Turkey to go in and clean the Kurds out? And how his buddy Putin was then able to fill in the void we left, enhancing Russian influence? Do you like how he considers climate change a Chinese hoax? Do you just love how he and the GOP got that tax cut, 63% of which goes to the top 20% of earners, and nearly one-fourth goes to the top 5%? Are you in that top 20%, making over $150,100, or in that top 5%, making over $303,200? Do you like how he said that tax cut wouldn’t help him at all, and that his rich friends would be mad at him? Do you really think he cares anything about you other than your vote and your continued gullibility? And do you love how the GOP used to claim to be the party of fiscal responsibility, but then passed that tax cut that adds about three trillion to the national debt over ten years and puts the annual deficit at a trillion dollars for the first time? Do you like how his first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, called him a “moron,” and was honest enough not to deny that he said it? Do you like how he obstructs justice by firing FBI Director Comey and tries to prevent people under subpoena from testifying before congress? Do you like how in a 2011 poll only 30% of white evangelicals said that someone committing “immoral personal acts” could be an effective public servant, but now 72% say so? Do you like how he represents pretty much the opposite of what Christians, which he claims to be, would say constitutes character?

Two other questions. If Obama had done any of these things, not to mention a majority of  them, would you have liked him a little more? Or would you be screaming “impeachment” and “lock him up”?

Montana Blizzard Will Reach Alabama, President Says

Real Fake News Special Reports
Washington, D. C.

The four feet of snow that hit Browning, Montana this past weekend will likely reach Birmingham, Alabama, according to a map displayed by President Trump in the Oval Office. The map showed the hard-hit area of western Montana in red, but also included a large black loop that swooped down to the Gulf Coast state. Asked by an RFN reporter if the President thought it odd that several feet of snow would fall in a state whose temperatures were currently in the 80s and 90s, Mr. Trump said, “No, not at all. Climate change can happen on a dime. I’ll be heading down to Birmingham to toss out some rolls of paper towels to all the victims.”

President Defends Conversation With Ukraine President

Asked if he thought pressuring a foreign government to find dirt on his political opponents and withholding congressionally appropriated taxpayer funds for failing to do so was an impeachable offense, President Trump said that all presidents do that, and Hillary Clinton’s emails are outrageous and Congress ought to be investigating Benghazi. Reminded that some other Democrat would be his 2020 opponent, the President replied that “Biden had probably been to Benghazi” and had some “really bad” emails also. “And I’m one of the tallest presidents we’ve ever had,” Mr. Trump added.

President Offers to Buy Canada and Alaska

Real Fake News Special Reports
Washington, D. C.

President Offers to Buy Canada

President Trump, rebuffed by the Danish Prime Minister after offering to buy Greenland, approached Prime Minister Trudeau of Canada with an offer to buy Canada and Alaska. Told by a Real Fake News reporter that we already own Alaska, Mr. Trump responded by saying “Well then my offer just went down by one million dollars.” Trudeau said that he appreciated the President’s generous gesture, but felt that a majority of Canadians might object. Trump stated that negotiations were ongoing, and once the purchase was made, he would name the vast new territory Trumplandia.

President Sends Aid to Hurricane Victims in Alabama

President Trump released $4.2 million in financial assistance to “the sad victims of Hurricane Dorian in Alabama.” He added that he planned to visit the state and personally toss out rolls of paper towels “to all the people who had lost so much.” On the White House lawn he told reporters that he was “especially thankful that the hurricane missed Montana, which is right beside Alabama.”

Trump Proposes Dropping Nuclear Bomb on Everglades

The White House announced that President Trump is considering dropping an atomic bomb in the Everglades to rid the area of the ever-growing population of invasive pythons. He said that current methods are not working, adding that he “hates those slimy things.” Former National Security Adviser John Bolton told the President that the snakes do pose a security risk, but that a nuclear response seemed excessive, which seemed to annoy Mr. Trump. Asked if he thought the radiation would be a problem for nearby Miami, he replied that “radiation is just more fake science, and besides, the snakes would absorb all of it anyway. We’ll see what happens.”

Alaska Days 3-5

DAY 3, May 24, Friday

After two nights, we departed Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas, around 9:30. Typical routine for a departure from a campsite with full hookup: Walk dogs. Eat breakfast, usually oatmeal or cereal, but sometimes pancakes. If waste tanks are anywhere close to full, or if in the far more likely situation Val decrees that she wants empty tanks, put on rubber gloves and empty the black tank (15 gallons), then the grey tank (32 gallons). Using the “dirty” hose, clean the dump hose and stow both in bin for that purpose. If the site does not have an individual dump site, go to the dump station when leaving the camp. Put sanitizer in toilet. Unhook the “clean” hose and stow in Tahoe. Unhook the power cord and stow in its location in side of camper. Switch refrigerator to propane. Make sure all outside items are stowed in Tahoe or camper. Hitch camper to Tahoe and avoid swearing as much as possible. How people did/do this without a partner or rearview camera is one of those eternal mysteries. Check brake and turn-signal lights after plugging in hitch power cord (a different one) to back of Tahoe. Get in Tahoe. Set Odometer A to zero to record day’s mileage. Review route and consider any alternatives. Drive.

Today’s route had us crossing the Ouachita mountains for over 50 miles—some steep hills and very curvy. It’s wise to pay attention to the road directional signs and the recommended speed. We took two hours for the first 70 miles, no doubt annoying the speedier drivers behind us. This was a day where we did not know a specific destination, thus hoping for a vacant campsite somewhere around Tulsa, 300-ish miles away. But flooding and Memorial Day weekend had lots of folks camping for fun or escaping the floods, and the state park we were hoping for was full, as were several private campgrounds on the west side of Tulsa (technology and apps are wonderful except when they’re not). Some Wal-marts and other businesses allow overnight camping, but there is no hook-up, and so you are dependent on your generator for A/C, and the generator may make it six hours before needing re-fueling. Today was hot and we were happy to find at the last moment a private RV park on the east side of Tulsa—well worth $35 just for the A/C. We hope to be in the Mt. Rushmore area in about three days, but Custer State Park, where we have reservations, had between one and two feet of snow and their power was out as of yesterday. But hope springs eternal.

DAY 4, May 25, Saturday

Leaving east side of Tulsa, OK at 9:30. Long day in the Tahoe—430 miles—but pleasant, easy driving on sometimes rough four-lane and interstate across the prairie, but little traffic and very flat. Most of it was straight up through Oklahoma. Val is having trouble with inflammation in her eyes, and she called Donna to go to the house and get the name of the prescription medicine she used last time. Jim called it in for her and we will pick it up tomorrow in Kearney, NE. So nice to have good friends! We arrived at a really pretty campsite in Henderson, NE around 6:30. Lots of mature trees, including what I think were silver maple, nice little lake, and considerable bird activity, including robins, red shouldered blackbirds, and killdeer. This camp had the nicest bathroom and showers I’ve seen in a campground. Val is particularly good at doing the technological navigation and logistics of finding campgrounds, especially with the help of the Allstays app. But my competence is improving, though she has to tell me a lot. Doing this solo—driver and navigator in one—seems as if it would be quite challenging. Lots of the campgrounds are full due to Memorial Day weekend and some local flooding, especially in OK. Thanks to cell phones—still an amazing concept to me—we can do all our calling from the car, though some of the campgrounds don’t answer, and they are reluctant to hold a site for you unless late in the day. We had our first campfire tonight as it was pleasantly cool, in high contrast to the 91 degrees of the previous day. The dogs enjoyed bounding through the grass and large trees, a level of activity somewhat unusual for Lucy. Cooked veggie hot dogs on our butane grill, supplemented with baked beans and salad.

DAY 5, May 26, Sunday

Another long day in the saddle. We left this cute little private campground around 9 and lit out for the territories, 427 miles worth. Some of it was on interstate, but the vast majority of it was rolling on two-lane roads across the prairie, sometimes flat or rolling hills, but sometimes through lumpy hills that looked for all the world like sand dunes with grass. Sure enough, they were called sand hills. Traffic was almost non-existent, and Val confessed to being a little creeped out after hours of such driving. You could go a score or more miles without seeing a house. The highways tended to be straight, and often you could see where the arrow-like highway, often seriously rough, crested over the hilly horizon at least two miles distant. No state parks being available, we stayed at a pricey KOA, had pizza at their little snack shack, and noticed cooling weather. The oatmeal cap came off in our pantry drawer that we had made, and Val had a time cleaning it all as I was out walking the dogs.

Alaska Days 6-8

DAY 6, May 27, Monday

We left the KOA just outside Badlands National Park, South Dakota, after dumping at the dump station and discovering that one of the bolts supporting the grey tank pipe had apparently sheered off, diminishing by half the support for the plastic pipe. We managed to get the nut off with a little difficulty, press the bolt up through the Casita frame bar’s hole and re-attach the nut. We are concerned that all the bumpiness and occasional bouncing, or porpoising, is challenging for bolts and rivets alike. But the fix was adequate, though it bears watching. A three-eighths bolt instead of a one-quarter inch bolt would be better. We then drove through Badlands National Park on the way to our destination of Custer State Park, roughly 127 miles away. The Badlands seem forbidding and yet majestic with these other-worldly rock formations, mostly rounded, but others spire-like, with deep valleys separating them. The day was cold (around 50), windy, and rainy, so the park did not show at its best, which on a sunny day is often near sunset when the colors—mostly yellow and red on the stone but surrounded by brilliant green grass—pop out. I felt a little guilty giving the park such short shrift, but it wasn’t even on our original itinerary, so I got over it. At one point we needed something out of the Thule roof carrier, and I was beginning to worry that we were not going to be able to close it and would have to go the rest of the trip with it tied down or something. When closed, a rod goes through a hole in a bar at the front and back as well as attaching in the middle. Anyway, we managed to close it. This trip will be a real test of my stoicism and patience, and I really am working on that. But frustration comes easily to me, I am ashamed to say. At least I am aware of it, trying to be a little cooler under duress.

We then went to super touristy Wall, S. D., famous for its “drug” store, which is really a large complex with a restaurant and gift shops with all sorts of knick-knacks as well as some useful items. We had lunch there and had some cake doughnuts. I also enjoyed the western art on the walls—the kind where there is some dramatic or perilous situation, sometimes reflecting a passage from a western novel. One good example was that of a wounded or possibly even dying man in the arms of his wife in the mountainous wilderness, with her staring not at him but into the distance. The title was something like “Yes, I Love You,” presumably her words to him, but possibly being said with less than total conviction as she contemplates her own fate. Does she leave for possible help many days away? Does she die in this lonely wilderness? Does she have a gun? Or does she stay and either nurse his wound or wait for him to die?

From there we left for Custer State Park, mostly on an interstate with an 80 mph limit. But for part of it there was dense fog, dense enough that you had to be almost at a road sign before you could read it. I was only doing 62, and certainly hoping no idiot doing 80 would plow into me, or, by contrast, I would not plow into someone stopped or going too slow. But we did fine and arrived at Custer in rain. Val made a nice tomato-pasta meal for supper. We set up the table, but it is a bit of a nuisance to do so and to stow afterwards. The luxury of a permanently set up table in a larger camper would be a treat.

DAY 7, May 28, Tuesday

The rain of yesterday continued, and we did little other than go to the Visitors Center and ask about possible evacuation of the park, since the creeks were raging and overflowing, and crews were putting sandbags in front of park cabins that were close to the water. One or two roads were indeed closed, but there was no evacuation. Decked out in our rain coats, we had a dessert at the Game Lodge in the park and bought a few postcards. Finally in late afternoon the rain stopped, and the camp host knocked on our door and assured Val, who had expressed her anxiety about an emergency evacuation to him, that all was well. Very decent of him.

For the second night in a row, the propane detector alarm went off the night before, or actually in the wee hours of Wednesday. It has cried wolf several times during our ownership of the Casita, and we have to get up, hit the re-set switch, fan it vigorously, turn on the overhead fan or the A/C, and hope it doesn’t come back on. Since we are plugged in to electricity, the propane tank is not even on, and the problem is common among Casita owners. Various odors, apparently including human or canine flatulence, can set it off, as can a hair dryer. Then after that little episode, and sleep had returned to all, I was awakened by a trickle of water right in my face from the ongoing rain, and Val quickly ascertained that it was coming from an exterior capped plug for the television wire. Some carpet was wet, and we sopped some of it with towels and spent the next day with the blower from the air conditioner aimed at it. During the morning of Wednesday, with it still raining, I covered the outside plug with duct tape that matches the Casita. This too is a not an uncommon problem, and Val can go to her fellow Casita cultists and find many others who have usually experienced the problem and can offer possible solutions.

DAY 8, May 29, Wednesday

Sunshine at last. The wild creeks have abated their torrid pace but not yet returned to their tranquil selves. But the sun is out and things are starting to dry out. We did two things today: We took the Wildlife Loop with the dogs and saw bison, pronghorn, mountain bluebirds (beautiful), barn swallow, western meadowlark, the ubiquitous robins, brown-headed cowbird, turkey vultures, Brewer’s blackbird, and tree swallows. The O’Neals have done this loop and the curvy, hilly ride up to Mt. Rushmore on bikes, and I am feeling like quite a wuss.

Then in the afternoon we drove to Rushmore. It was admittedly pretty cool to see “in person” what you have seen pictures of all your life. I was reminded of Cary Grant’s line in North By Northwest as he looked upon those famous four that he didn’t like the way Teddy was looking at him. Val cooked a fine pizza in the electric frying pan for dinner. We covered 91 miles today, all without the camper of course.

Alaska Days 9-12

DAY 9, May 30, Thursday

Another fine day based in Custer State Park. The bathrooms are nice and we have showered there instead of our own shower, though Val and her brother Kevin have gotten me so concerned about cooties in a public shower that I fear that if I let my bare feet touch the floor I will contract some devouring skin disease, so I wear rubber slip-ons, as I loathe flip flops. On the recommendation of a fellow camper—one far more experienced than we are in adventure camping—we decided to go see the Crazy Horse head after all. I need to look into the alleged controversy over it, namely a case of the family of the original sculptor making a fine living off of their compassion and respect for Indian culture. Val told me about it on the way over and I had to admit that it sort of soured me on it. The project was started the year I was born, 70 years ago, and yet all they have is the face, a petty pace if I’ve ever heard of one. The movie—a movie the family had total control over—was highly respectful of Indians, but it also managed to portray the three generation family of the original sculptor as borderline saints. It was almost a white-folks-doing-good-works-for-red-folks scenario—and making a good living at it.

We took the dogs back to the camper, had a very quick lunch, and high-tailed it down to Wind Cave National Park. We did the one-hour tour of part of the cave. When they turn off the lights, it’s darker than the inside of a cow’s belly in there. So far there are at least 150 miles of cave in three dimensions (not all at one level as we tend to think of a cave), all of which are under a single square mile of surface area. There is speculation that only 10% of the cave has actually been discovered.

We covered 107 miles today. The dogs were alone in the camper with A/C on for about four hours.

DAY 10, May 31, Friday

After four nights in the very pleasant Custer State Park, we began a long, three day stretch to the east side of Glacier National Park, knowing, however, that one of the two main east side campgrounds was closed and we would not be able to camp inside the park. In fact, all we could find nearby was a KOA, which, in our self-promoting vision of our pioneering selves, we tend to disdain as appropriate only for wussy alleged campers. But of course the reality is that we too are wussy campers, though our abode does not rival the palatial forty foot RVs with every amenity humankind can conceive.

We exited South Dakota into the northwest corner of Wyoming, and with some reluctance bypassed Devil’s Tower, a huge, naturally fluted monolith of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” fame. A question arises: How many of the roses do we stop and smell? It would have added another 45 miles on a long travel day, and the distance covered in a day is sometimes dictated largely by where Val can find us a place to stay that night. But the Little Bighorn Battlefield in southeast Montana was close by the highway and for me, at least, not to be missed. Also, our enthusiasm for specific sights is variable; Val, pacifist to the core and not overwhelmingly enamored of history, especially military history, came along on that one to accommodate me, which she invariably and generously does.

We had approached the site from the southeast on a long two-lane highway, US 212, through the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation. The site itself is in the southeast corner of the Crow Indian Reservation. The scale of the place is considerable, far more vast than “Last Stand Hill,” where Custer and many of his men met their end. That particular area is fenced off, with gravestones placed seemingly randomly where individual soldiers, including Custer, fell. There were other officers and their men on the larger battlefield, but Custer and Last Stand Hill are the center of attention. Not far off is a circular monument to the several tribes involved, including Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho, though total Indian losses were estimated below a hundred, compared to 263 of army forces. But the larger issue for me is that the Indians were defending their way of life. The Black Hills had been theirs all along; then we “gave” the land to them as a reservation. But gold was discovered there, and soon enough whites were there in droves. The army tried to expel them. Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and other leaders still wanted their nomadic way of life—who wants to surrender their total way of life to an invading army and, more importantly, an invading, hostile, and alien culture? They attacked white settlers and gold seekers and soon enough the army was attacking them. While we may, and should, weep for those 20 year old boys of both civilizations who lost their lives on June 25 and 26 of 1876, the more melancholy aspect of this place is the clash of cultures, and the inevitable ultimate submission of the one that descended from the first humans on this continent to the one whose technology was greater and whose roots were on a far distant continent. We left this place, both a bit subdued.

Val found us a nice Cracker Barrel in Billings—nice because most Cracker Barrels and some Wal-Marts and a few other businesses allow RVs and campers to stay overnight, no charge, provided that you don’t actually set up camp. It was our first night to boondock, i.e., living totally self-contained, with no hook-up. We had a fine Cracker Barrel dinner, walked the dogs a couple of times, and retired around 10:30, covering 330 miles for the day.

DAY 11, June 1, Saturday

We got up and had a great Cracker Barrel breakfast, then went to a nearby Wal-Mart for “provisions”—a nice pioneer way of saying a few groceries and, in my case, a new $229 Canon camera, since I think my ten year old Nikon may have gone to its greater reward. It wouldn’t charge or even turn on. Upon reflection, however, it might just be that the re-chargeable battery, which was the original battery, may have finally expired. So at some point I’ll buy another battery and hope to resurrect the camera. Again, finding campgrounds at around the 300 mile mark was tricky, and we ended up going well past Helena and Great Falls to a little city campground in tiny Valier, Montana, after a 410 mile day. We are only about two hours away from the KOA on the east side of Glacier. Tonight’s campground is right beside a large lake, perfect for jet skis and some fishing. The snow-patched Rockies loom in the far distance across from the lake. There are some annoying flying bugs called midges that look a little like large mosquitoes, but happily they are not interested in human blood. The camp host, a genial, grandfatherly but active man, said that in mid-March, a mere ten weeks ago, the temperature there was 26 below zero. It was perfect for us though, mid-seventies, and cool in the night.

DAY 12, June 2, Sunday

We slept in until about eight and had a fairly leisurely departure since our KOA destination was only about 75 miles away. But much of the road was curvy through the eastern edge of the Rockies and several miles were unpaved. At one point going downhill the Tahoe braked by dropping into a much lower gear and was revving at over 3000 rpms, whereas on flat ground it hovers around 1500. We arrived around one at a very scenic KOA on the east side of Glacier National Park since there were no “dry” camping spots in the park itself, or at least there weren’t when we made reservations a few days earlier. Dry camping, Val informs me, is self-contained, no hook-up camping in a campground, whereas boondocking is dry camping without the benefit of being in a campground, which still may have a central place for water, possibly bathrooms or at least vault toilets (OK, latrines), and a dump station. We had lunch in the camper, went to the registration/store and had huckleberry ice cream, which Val had been craving for days. In all our previous travels to Kalispell and Glacier, she had long ago acquired a taste for it. But my suspicion is that, as these things often happen, one’s liking of a thing is what it is associated with—in this case, the glory of vacationing in Kalispell and nearby Glacier over many summers.

We decided not to go into the park today and just relax, or at least catch up on laundry and writing. I am usually a day or two behind in the latter category, and while I do wish to record these days, knowing that otherwise they will simply blend together down the road, I don’t want to become overly compulsive about it especially if it gets in the way of actually doing things. I am also having trouble with my occasional Facebook posts from my phone, having thought I posted two which never actually appeared. My vast technological ignorance is a curse.

Alaska Days 13-15

DAY 13, June 3, Monday

I managed to embarrass myself yet again today. I had planned a five-ish mile hike in the park but close enough to our campground that Val could go back to our site and come pick me up. As we entered the park, I asked the ranger about bears and he said that there had been some bear activity on the trails leading in from the St. Mary entrance. Sure enough, we had not gone five miles in before we saw right on the shoulder of the road what for about one second looked like a very large, very furry dog, but in fact was clearly a young bear, which we eventually decided was a light-colored, almost blonde black bear, perhaps two years old, and presumably no longer under Mama’s protection. There were few cars on the road, and I was beginning to re-think my solo hike, the “solo” part of which the park service does not recommend. We arrived at Sun Rift Gorge, and I was not the only hiker, so Val—who considered the whole undertaking “bad judgment”—and I decided that I would go out for one hour and turn around. Within a mile or two it was clear that there were others on the trail, and it is amazing what a boost of confidence that does for a bear-phobic, bear spray-carrying soloist such as myself. The trail meandered along St. Mary’s lake, often well above it, and eventually reached three waterfalls. My hour was up about a half mile from the third, 50 foot falls, so I turned around. On the way I spotted a marmot and a rufous hummingbird, my first. The embarrassing part is that I missed a turn, or actually took a turn that led me up to the wrong parking lot. I soon realized my error since I was way too early. Then with a couple who asked me to take their picture for the grandkids, we studied a map to determine which way I should go on the road. I must have hiked a mile on the road before reaching the conclusion that I had chosen the wrong direction—an astonishingly stupid error—and knowing that Val was waiting for me and possibly worried. Happily, two rangers pulled over, and I described our car and gave Val’s name waiting for me at Sun Rift Gorge. They then drove back there to tell her where I was. I also left in the car my cycling Garmin, which would have told me actual distance, elevation, speed, and grade.

On our way back we saw another small bear—Val did—and chatted with another fellow who had also stopped and who was a great wildlife photographer, the three of us hoping that the bear would re-emerge. Val had seen him in the rearview mirror, pulled over, and got a couple of shots of him at a distance, and the three of us concluded that this was indeed a grizzly, though not a big one. Our companion showed us some of his shots—a grizz, a baby moose suckling its mother, and some beauties of a fox, the moose and fox shots being real wall-hangers. In my haste to get a shot of our bear, I unknowingly dropped my Maui Jim sunglasses, and we both heard a strange crunching sound as we drove off. Then the aha. Ever fastidious, Val insisted that to leave them there was littering, but she was not fully aware of how exceedingly fine sunglasses can be mortared and pestled under the wheel of a large vehicle, so there wasn’t much to retrieve.

Later in the afternoon we drove from the campground back into the park at St. Mary’s hoping for wildlife. Before we had even gotten out of the campground we saw a fox, and while both of us got a picture, no wall-hangers. We went several miles into and back out of the park, but no more wildlife, except for a few birds of the duck persuasion.

The day has been mostly cloudy, upper 60s, and exceptionally windy. We had sandwiches for lunch in the camper, and for a couple of hours it was really rocking and rolling with very gusty winds, at one point sounding a little like a hurricane.

DAY 14, June 4, Tuesday

Today was an easy day. I cooked eggs and pancakes in the electric skillet. Val had a couple of pancakes and a piece of toast, which, cooked that way, resembles toast from a grilled cheese sandwich. We drove up to Babb, eight miles away, and then entered the park at Many Glacier. Again, all the wildlife were shy, and other than some birds, we saw nothing. At the end of the road I did part of the hike to Red Rock Lake where the photographer of yesterday had gotten those spectacular shots of the female moose and her calf. But here is a conundrum: I don’t want Val to sit in a parking lot for two or more hours, so, like yesterday, I walked in for a an agreed-upon time and turned around, giving me a very predictable arrival time. So I went in for half an hour, probably about a mile, and turned around, for a one hour, two mile walk in the woods, with the usual scenic views. I was probably only about half a mile from the lake, and that is the frustrating part. But someone who was returning had walked the whole thing and saw no wildlife at all since so many of the birds and other animals in this particular area are extremely fearful of cameras and binoculars. An alternative is for me to take the car, leaving Val at the camper, where at least she might have phone usage, if not reliable internet access. The Tahoe, which uses AT&T, can’t get a signal at our campsite, and of course the campground service is not secure; but we did manage to get a signal through the Tahoe at Babb and managed to transfer money from our individual accounts to our joint account.

On the return from Many Glacier, we had a delightful restaurant meal at the Two Sisters Café right outside of St. Mary’s, before returning to camp and repairing a small crack in the windshield.

The daytime hours are long. Sunrise here is at 530, and first light before that; with sunset at 9:30, and it is still dusk at 10. Alaska days will be so much longer that Val made blackouts for the windows since it will likely still be dusk at midnight.

In 1963 my Boy Scout troop travelled from Raleigh, NC to DC, to NY, crossed into Canada at Niagara Falls, travelled all the way across Canada, up the 1500 miles of unpaved road on the Alcan Highway to Fairbanks, to Denali, back down the Alcan, down through California, touching into Tijuana, Mexico for a day, hiking the Grand Canyon (a redemptive 20-plus mile hike for me after failing at it two years earlier at age 12 on an earlier cross-country Boy Scout trip led by the same Scoutmaster, the incomparable John Murphy), and then a final dash from Arizona to our termination point in Cumberland Gap National Park, Kentucky. I mentally compare that trip to this trip every few days:
Then: Every night for 11 weeks on the ground in a sleeping bag, almost always in a tent, occasionally under the stars.
Now: Every night on a memory-foam single bed, in a (very small) camper with heat or a/c if needed, bathroom, and shower.
Then: Every hot meal, with maybe two or three exceptions over 11 weeks and 17,000 miles, cooked over an actual campfire; always one per day, and more often than not two. All hot water heated over a fire.
Now: No campfire meals. All hot meals cooked in an instant pot pressure cooker, a microwave, or an electric skillet. Or in a restaurant. Camper has a water heater.
Then: Travel in a used school bus whose only air conditioning is a collection of open windows, and routes are determined by paper maps.
Now: What vehicle today isn’t climate controlled? Paper maps are still in, but at least as much routing is with GPS and various apps to help with where to get gas, find Cracker Barrels or Wal-Marts, the night’s campground, etc.
Then: Youth, fairly high tolerance for discomforts, blissfully dependent on adult leadership to solve all problems.
Now: Encroaching age, arthritis, and the two of you are on your own. But also, you set your own course, stay where and how long you want, and have, perhaps, a little greater appreciation of what you’re seeing and doing.

So: Lewis and Clark we’re not, but we’re doing OK, and it’s adventure enough.

DAY 15, June 5, Wednesday

We left the KOA on the east side of Glacier around 9:20—somehow it takes us two hours or so to decamp when we have to fully un-hook electric and water, hitch up, fill the fresh water tank, and dump grey and black tanks. We were only about 23 miles from the Canadian border, and we were fully prepared to have to pull over, get out, and have the customs agents rummage for an hour or so through the camper and car. But Val’s sweet look of preternatural innocence reduced the agent to mush, asking us only the standard questions (where you’re going, do you have firearms or other weapons, do you have firewood or produce), and wishing us a good trip. We drove to Calgary where we traded for some provisions at the general store. That’s Lewis and Clark talk for buying some groceries and other odd items at a Wal-Mart. Val also went into an IKEA, a new experience for her. Calgary is big and I was pretty happy to have it in the rear view mirror.

We covered 231 miles today and are in a small provincial park for one night, then on to Banff tomorrow.

Internet and other tech services are spotty up here, and we discovered that I won’t be making or receiving calls or text because I foolishly assumed that I’d have coverage. I had added international coverage when we were in Italy, but neglected to do so for Canada. My coverage will resume when we hit Alaska, and then I hope to be able to add the coverage retroactively for our return through Canada. Obviously, for anything even remotely complicated, Val figures it out for me. It’s pathetic. The good news on the tech front is that my new camera, which does not have a cord to my computer, can load my pictures onto the computer by some internet magic but also by removing the scan disk card and putting it into the computer slot. Perhaps I will have more success with Facebook.

We meet interesting people. More on that eventually.

Alaska Days 16-18

DAY 16, June 6, Thursday

We lingered in a provincial park only a hop away from Banff this morning since check-in at Banff was not until 2pm. I cooked eggs and pancakes and Val microwaved grits for both of us and she had part of a donut and coffee. Our individual roles are solidifying: she does almost all of the cooking and dishwashing (I make too much of a mess in our tiny kitchen but I don’t mind doing it outside; at home, I do most of the dishwashing). She also does virtually all the logistics and technology. I do almost all the driving and dog-walking (at least three times per day) as well as most of the grumbling. We fairly equally share the various tasks of setting up and breaking camp, and we review routes and discuss daily agendas. I hope to improve on the tech, which would allow her to drive a little more and marginally advance my pitiable skills.

I got a fairly nice shot of part of a rainbow over rain-shrouded mountains this morning, and maybe it will make it to Facebook. But I am aware that most of us generally like people in our pictures, and scenery shots grow pretty old pretty quickly.

It’s been chilly most of the day, only about 56 at 2pm., with grey and gloomy skies all day. At 8pm it was 52, and it is supposed to go down to 34 by early morning, with rain tonight, an hour or so of snow early tomorrow morning, and then more rain all day. Val said that she was glad not to be in a tent, like the folks forty feet across the lane from us. Ditto here.

Our campground seems rather crowded to me, with sites close together in regimented rows. Even its name, Tunnel Mountain Trailer Court, in Banff National Park, is hardly endearing. But the mountain scenery is spectacular. The town of Banff is within the park, and it is young and hip and touristy. More like Whitefish, less like our beloved Kalispell. We had an enjoyable pizza dinner, did a tiny bit of shopping (I bought some hiking socks), shivered our way back to the car, and returned to our sleeping mutts in the camper.

DAY 17, June 7, Friday

Woke up this morning about 6 and it was already snowing, temperature in the mid-30s. The snow is heavy and wet, with flakes about the size of your thumbprint. It doesn’t seem to be sticking on the road, happily, as we have a few errands to run. As of 11am, it was still snowing hard.

We drove to Canmore, about 15 miles away, to get the oil and air filter changed. Unexpectedly, we found Canmore a good bit more appealing than the tourist mecca Banff (the town)—though still a little touristy, it was far less so than Banff, and had the weather been nicer, it would have been quite pretty.

We watched a DVD movie on the camper TV, a first. Knocked off about 10:30.

DAY 18, June 8, Saturday

The temperature got down to around 33 last night, and I set off from the camper for a walking trail around 9:30, with a temperature of 37. All the remnants of yesterday’s two to three inch snow were gone. The trail sometimes went by the fast-flowing Bow River and ended up somewhere close to downtown, with a final 50 foot precipitous and rocky descent down to the water. I thought better of going all the way to the water, especially since I had forgotten my walking stick. That was the turnaround point and I headed back. The trail generally had gentle undulations, though occasionally there were some double digit grades, and at one point there was a hundred yard stretch that maxed out at 21%. My bicycle Garmin claimed that it couldn’t find satellites, but somehow it could usually determine grade, so it wrongly reduced my eight-mile walk to less than two. On flat ground I was averaging about 2.5 mph, and I think my overall was about 2.0.

I saw a few birds—ducks, ravens, a downy woodpecker, and a fair number of the sparrow persuasion, though determining denominational affiliation was difficult. They may have been Jesuits, or possibly Zoroastrians.

I was damned tired after this little excursion, and it provided my legs with a good reminder that they would have to return to work when we got home. But I summoned the energy to join Val for a trip down the hill to town, where we went to a bakery, a small grocery store, a small hardware store, and then I cooled my warm heels sitting in the car while Val wandered for a little while more, using the GPS walking feature on her phone.

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