Tag Archives: national parks

How America Could Be Better in 10 Simple Steps

balloons, hot airPersonally, I’m not complaining about 2012. I published a book and one of my short stories was selected for the first transgender anthology in the US, and I’ve spent all kinds of wonderful moments with my baby, who is fast approaching the Defiant Toddler Years. 2012 was really pretty great for me, in that my candidate won another term as President, there are three more states with marriage equality on the board, and I got to go to some great cities, meet impressive people, run into Angela Davis and Alice Walker (sorry my stroller bag was in your way!), and read my writing to more than 500 people. But for many other reasons 2012 has been a terrible awful tragic year, and I lived through the trials, too. We all listened to that drawn-out, nasty election, filled with one sour sound bite after another, we saw the return of voting laws designed to stifle the electorate, and we watched a relentless attack on reproductive rights. The last two years have been nasty, with self-described conservatives vying for the attention of the most extreme right-wing ideals, their comments filling up the 24-hour news stations like a frothy volcano in a science experiment gone wildly wrong (which I suppose isn’t far from what their comments were). It’s hard to be inundated with incendiary rhetoric and news of the awful and still think we live in a great place. Forget best. We’re not the best country, we arguably never were, and I really don’t know why my fellow Americans keep insisting on this exceptionalism concept. But maybe if we can put our folly aside, we could carve out a renewed sense of community and “we’re in it together”ness that we sorely need these days. Here are 10 simple things we could do:

1. Turn off the pointed, partisan “news” shows—Most of us know that FoxNews isn’t either fair nor balanced, but MSNBC isn’t, either. It may feel good listening to talking heads from “your side” telling you what you want to hear, but it’s often inaccurate, and the skewed perspective only reinforces an “us/them” mentality that keeps us too distanced to listen to each other. I hate to use the word “old-fashioned” when talking about media outlets, but the old-fashioned, “objective” news rooms who fact-check every statement provides better reporting and has not set up its business model on the idea of partisanship. Who are these news outlets? That’s up to each of us to identify, frankly, because managements shift and reporters move around, but AP and UPI reporting are pretty steady, NPR has a mandate to be objective, and there are many foreign news organizations who are not beholden to US interests and so they tell it like it is. But please, shut off the Rush Limbaugh and the Chris Matthews. Go for a walk or something. Read More…

Moose in the City

In all of the traveling I’ve done since moving to the Pacific Northwest—a journey through Glacier National Park, driving through the Rockies and Bighorn National Forest more than once, exploring Yellowstone, walking through the unbelievably tall mountains in Alaska—I have not seen a single moose. I’ve even driven up next to a lumbering bison, which by the way, didn’t smell all that good, but which was still amazing. I’ve stood 50 yards away from a brown bear lolling around on the soft carpet of moss. Black bears make my list of eyewitnessed nature, too, as I’ve taken in a newly independent cub feasting on fresh salmon in a glacier-fed river as close to the Arctic Circle as I’ve ever come. Yes, I really want to explore the Yukon now. Read More…

Kitschy but good

Someone on my Twitter list mentioned yesterday that she would soon be embarking on a trip to Alaska, and I immediately thought of the train ride Susanne and I took over in Skagway. At least four people told us to make sure we rode up and back on the old gold mining trail, so we booked our tickets well in advance of our cruise, and then we climbed on.

It was nothing short of amazing. The White Pass & Yukon Route train was a bit too modern to have jumped out of a steampunk novel, but it belched and groaned like a steam engine all the same, as it dragged us up 3,000 feet into the Canadian Yukon. We sat for much of the trip on the way up, but at the end the conductors moved the engine around, and our front car became the caboose. We didn’t miss the chance to stand on the end, marveling at the mountain ledges, miles and miles of the tallest evergreens I’ve seen in my life, and the detritus those thousands of Klondike miners left behind.

So it occurs to me that there are, in the quadrillions of tourist trap options available in the US, a few very choice gems that should get some fair due. They may be popular, they may be hyped, but they’re worth, say, wearing bright blue plastic ponchos. Here are a few favorites I want to mention:

The Maid of the MistNiagara Falls sounds like a great tourist destination, if it’s 1952. There are a lot of depressing buildings screaming out for fresh paint, and filled with plastic-wrapped souvenirs, but just follow the signs to this boat ride. I think the Maid of the Mist is more fun if you’ve gone to look at the falls from the top first, to help with a sense of perspective. It’s true that the Canadian side of the falls are more majestic; the US side is taller, but our neighbors to the north have the “horseshoe falls,” which I captured from the boat. No matter whether one takes the boat ride from the US or Canadian side, it will still travel into the heart of the falls. I couldn’t believe I was surrounded by hammering, plummeting water. As tall as the falls are around the Maid of the Mist, that’s how much water she’s sitting on—170 feet on both counts. You better wear the silly blue poncho.

Old Faithful at Yellowstone National ParkIt can be argued that my entire generation first learned about this geyser from Yogi Bear and Jellystone National Park. I’m happy that Susanne didn’t rend me limb from limb as I repeated my Yogi Bear impression as we wandered around the wilderness. It might not be the prettiest geyser there, it’s far from the most colorful, like the “paint pots” were, but it was shocking to witness, the smooth vapor all at once belching and hurrying out of the way of boiling white liquid. This is 3rd grade science fair to the 20th power. Once it’s done with its 5-minute show, take a walk on the rest of the geyser platform, and by the time that’s done, Old Faithful will be just about ready to have another conniption.

The Baltimore AquariumLess kitschy and more just plain overcrowded, the Baltimore Aquarium is organized by ecosystems, very accessible, and proportioned well. I don’t feel like I’m in a tiny building with smelly fish, and I don’t feel like there’s a lot of wasted space (I’m looking at you, new MoMA). Plus it has puffins, the globe’s friendliest, funniest bird species, in my humble opinion. There are dolphin shows, it’s true, but at least they’ve gone to some trouble to unpack how the animals are treated, and they have a fairly prestigious breeding program for bottlenose. That said, it is expensive, so try to get your hands on some coupons or group deals, because at more than $30 a ticket, the cost adds up fast. But the sharks and manta rays, inches away from the homo sapiens, are really not to be missed.

Have any kitschy touristy fun? Pipe up and add your own in the comments!

The human race is doomed

Another brief run-down in numbers of our trip. We’ve now spotted:

  • a beaver, who regarded us from about 10 yards away and let us get a couple of good pictures
  • a white wolf, who went running by our car on the side of the road at the Grand Tetons
  • two bald eagles, separate sightings
  • a hawk or osprey, who flew away when we got too close
  • a mountain blue bird, who literally posed for me
  • at least 30 bison, one of whom walked next to our car
  • an elk couple, gnawing on some grass
  • a grizzly bear, too tired to stand so decided flopping over on his side was preferable
  • a couple pronghorn sheep on the side of a cliff

The Grand Tetons and Yellowstone are really incredible, simply put. There are so many different kinds of features I have a hard time fathoming that we’re in the same 300,000 acre area. Hot springs, geysers, mud pots, and volcanoes on the west side of the parks, enormous canyons, mountain-fed waterfalls, iced-up lakes and evergreens on the east and southern sides. And everywhere, precarious cliff drops, beasts and birds of prey, natural wonders I’ve never laid eyes on before, I could look in the same direction for 10 minutes and keep seeing new and interesting things.

The other thing I’ve realized on this trip is that it takes a hell of a lot of work to make a national park functional, from building in trails and roads without disturbing the ecosystem, staffing the park with rangers who know what they’re doing, writing up points of interest accurately and interestingly, and effectively keeping people aware of safety hazards and relevant laws. This last one cannot be understated as challenging for the park service. There were so many times Susanne and I saw people behaving with total ignorance of their surroundings, or what I can only imagine was disregard for rules, laws, and guidelines.

Passing a sign telling us that this area was “frequented by bears,” a hiker pulled out a sandwich and started eating it as she walked. Mm, tasty human with tasty roast beef sandwich!

At a hot springs basin in which all manner of sulfur-living bacteria floated on the water, smelling like dead bodies, a woman dipped her hand in the water, for what reason I have no idea. Susanne and I were astonished at her carelessness—she could contract a parasite, or worse, become the Undead Swamp Woman. Or so I imagine.

At the same hot springs basin, a sign warned travelers of the thin crust to the earth, and to stay on the raised platform. Here is the sign:

dangerous ground signThis sign clearly shows a boy off the raised path, regretting his action, while a woman with a pained expression on her face looks on, trying to figure out what to do as the child begins boiling himself. Notably, a man with a bag in the background walks on, aloof and indifferent to the entire ordeal, which tells us something important. Never trust a guy with a man purse. Let’s please also note that this sign is in five languages, and topped with an eye-catching red banner. There really is no reason not to at least glance at this sign. You’re about to walk through a lava field, people. Aren’t you the least bit interested in what the rangers saw fit to share with you?

hot springs in yellowstone

Does this look like you should stand next to it?

So what did we see happen four feet from the start of the trail? An entire family, one by one, getting off the platform, walking right up to a bubbling crevice, kneeling next to it, and pointing at it, the other members of the clan gleefully snapping pictures. Of what could be their last moment on earth. I think my jaw dropped.

Later that day we saw several vehicles stopped along the side of a road, and we figured something interesting must have been happening, so we slowed down, since rubbernecking is okay in these parts. Lo and behold a grizzly bear was sitting in the brush, just hanging out. We had also read by this point no fewer than 10 pieces of instructions regarding bear encounters, everything from how to photograph them safely, to proscriptions against feeding them, to what to do if one attempts to rip out your throat (note, it does not involve climbing a tree).

None of the people taking pictures of this grizzly were abiding any of the very incredibly sensible rules around bear trauma avoidance. No one was keeping a safe distance, all of them were out of their cars, presumably going on some kind of numbers game—he’ll probably attack someone other than me, so I’ll have a chance to run back into my Hummer3. One woman with her crappy Canon PowerShot (hey, I’ve got one too, so I know about these things) asked another person, “do you see any cubs?” What the hell, lady? Susanne rightly knew that if there were cubs around, this bear would not be nearly so docile-seeming, and chaos would have already ensued. There’s nothing like a real vacation killer than running for your life because you had to get a close up of a baby animal and your zoom just wasn’t cutting it. People seem not to realize that the professional photographers of the wilderness world have amazing equipment that lets them get extremely close shots from very safe distances. The amateur’s stupid Pentax is not going to be the same. Just by the $10 poster print in the national park store and be done with it.

I can only glean from all of this bad behavior that our time is fairly limited on this planet. Those hot springs have been pulsing out boiling water way longer than we’ve been around, and they’ll be here after we lose out to the cockroaches and sparrows of Earth. But it’s a shame—we humans went to the trouble to create language, and then we spend so much energy not listening.

And all that aside, the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone are really amazing places. More on that tomorrow.

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