Spending two weeks without national parks, or any sort of government for that matter, tends to make you think. Here are some of my musings on the subject:
Night of a fateful September 31st. Crickets chirping. I am tucking my quilts around me, and my mother stands in the lighted doorway.
"Goodnight," she says.
"Goodnight, Mom," I reply. "Goodnight, Mikaela." And then, as an afterthought, I add: "Goodnight, government."
You really don't know what you've got till it's gone, I guess. It certainly took Uncle Sam to call in sick before I realized just how much I didn't know about our democracy. (Yep, this has been a useful "Know Your Government" lesson - and an impromptu dramatization of Gibbon's "Decline and Fall.")
For starters, this has awakened my interest in our case law. Who knew that anarchy is a "substantive evil that Congress has the right to prevent practice?" (Congressionally authorized alteration to 249 US at 47 (1919)) Or that the maintenance of our government's account books is not a "business affected with the public interest" that Supreme Court Justice Devanter wrote of preserving?
My ignorance is truly astounding.
On a more learned note, if I had been called upon to provide a means of negotiation between the two parties, I would have locked the congresspeople into the Capitol and not let them out until they'd reopened our government. Of course, this weasel-in-a-barrel situation would have led to countless personal exigencies for our "public servants," such as missing the premiere of American Idol, carefully rationing the remaining half of a life-sustaining Twix bar, or asking a bombastically rightist colleague in a hushed whisper: "Hey Rep, whoodya think is going to win the Super Bowl?"
Oh, and I can just see Senator McCain running out of cell phone charge while beguiling the weary hours with another internet poker game. What a pity too - he'd just gotten a full House!
And then, as one by one they snuck off to the bathroom, ruefully searched a greasy brown paper lunch bag for remaining crumbs, cast about the Neoclassical chamber for an electric outlet, or finally got bored of playing all-nighter sleepover games, they would begin to wonder whose brainwave this whole thing was.
And so finally, after these two harrowing weeks, the Republicans gave in, locked themselves into the cellar, and waved their white flag. I guess they finally realized they were Cruz-ing for a bruising. Now that they've shushed Ted Texan up, they're sitting around singing a mournful rendition of "The Conquered Banner" and assuring themselves of their uncompromised integrity, all while surreptitiously whispering to their comrades: "You better hurry it up quick, or else we're all gonna miss tomorrow night's game!"
And that would surely be an unprecedented emergency to our national welfare.
So it's over at last - and I learned a lot: 1) the Tea Party really is presided over by Mad Hatters, and 2) as political adviser Tommy Corcoran once sang, "The GOP, it ain't what it used to be."
And now I'll be happy to go take a hike and leave Washington alone.
An iconic attribute of the Great Smoky Mountains is its salamanders - over thirty species live in the national park alone, from the elusive, twenty-nine inch "Hellbender" to the four-inch Jordan's red-cheeked salamander, which is endemic to the park. We joined in "Slimy Salamanders," a ranger-guided program in which the object was to catch these creatures, and subsequently we glimpsed the fast reflexes that these species must have; salamanders are small, fast, and well camouflaged, for the most part. The ranger instructed us to place them in a water-filled plastic bag once we had successfully captured them, so that they could breathe, the oils on our hands would not harm them, and so the other participants could see them as well.
Salamanders are typically thought of as aquatic creatures, but some are actually terrestrial, and we discovered the largest number of species living on land. In fact, the word "salamander" comes from the ancient Greek phrase meaning "fire animal," for they could be seen crawling out of burning logs and it was therefore believed they were born from fire. (Actually, they were just escaping the flames, since they tend to live under fallen vegetation or stones).
They belong to the order Caudata, along with newts, and they are carnivorous and mostly eat invertebrates, such as earthworms, grubs, and beetles. Some species of terrestrial salamanders are unique in that they do not have gills or lungs, but breathe through their skin instead. Most American salamanders le underground in the winter and during the daytime to avoid being eaten by predators and to stay cool and moist. In common with some lizards, they can shed their tails if attacked.
Great Smoky Mountain National Park is a great place to see salamanders because they are diverse and commonly spotted. They are easily found under almost any rocks, logs, or just in shaded pools. According to the National Park Service, on any given day in the Smokies, the majority of vertebrates there, humans included, are salamanders!
California condors are remarkable birds. They have a nine-foot wingspan, the largest of any North American bird! They are so large that they are more often mistaken for airplanes than other birds. Due to their size, Native Americans called them "thunderbirds," because the sound of their wings flapping purportedly made thunder. They are mostly black, with white patches under the wings. Another myth, from the Chumash tribe, tells that condors once had white feathers, but were burned when they got too close to a fire.
The critically endangered condors are in the same family as vultures, and many vultures are scavengers, meaning that they eat the remnants of dead animals. Unlike some vultures, however, condors do not have a particularly good sense of smell, instead using their sharp eyes to find food. They do not have talons and cannot carry prey, so they eat 2-3 pounds of food at a sitting and then sit for a day to recover! They are so big that they intimidate most would-be competitors for food. Even bears ignore them, and golden eagles are the only species that will fight them. Dominant, older birds eat before the younger ones.
Condors mate for life. When a male spots a potential mate, his head turns bright red and he walks towards her with his wings spread. If she lowers her head, it means she accepts. Although no actual nest is built, they lay their eggs in hard-to-access caves in rocky cliffs. Incubation takes two months, with the parents taking turns sitting on the egg.
At one point, there were thousands of condors in the wild. Ten thousand years ago, they lived on both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, from British Columbia to Baja California and from New York to Florida. However, they were endangered by many factors. They were hunted (particularly for museums) and poisoned by DDT. They got lead poisoning by scavenging dead animals killed by hunters who used lead bullets. Their habitat was also destroyed, and, as more people moved in, condor collisions with power lines increased. Additionally, people collected the condors' eggs. In the Gold Rush, condors were even turned into pets. The entire California condor population was reduced to 22 birds.
Captive breeding programs saved the condors. In the wild, condors are slow breeders, but they "double-clutch," or lay a second egg if the first one is lost or taken. So scientists took the condors' first eggs, allowing the pairs to raise the second eggs. The first eggs were put in an incubator until they hatched, when the chicks were fed with condor puppets and recordings of condor sounds were played to them. In twenty years, the population grew to 200 birds.
Today there are 369 condors in the world, and 190 of these are wild. However, they are not safe. Some of them have been killed by coyotes or eagles. Some still flew into power lines, but now before new birds are released they "undergo a power pole aversion training program which uses mock power poles that deliver a small electric shock to the birds when they try to land on them," according to the US Fish & Wildlife Service. This has effectively stopped the collisions. They are also accidentally hunted, or are poisoned by chemicals. Lead poisoning from scavenged meat is still one of the biggest threats. Since reintroduction, 15 condors have died from lead poisoning. (Nine of the cases were proven, and six were recorded as very likely.) Recently, lead ammunition has been banned within the condors' range. Although some people refuse to comply with this law, it has reduced the risk. They have been reintroduced to parts of California, Arizona, and Utah. They are still very rare, but their populations are increasing. Captive breeding and careful conservation seem to have saved this magnificent raptor.
We went on a two mile hike, Riverside Walk.It starts by going down a paved stairway into a canyon. We saw an "amateur arch," an arch which hadn't yet been fully formed. It was part of a hanging garden, which was surprisingly lush for the desert. We also saw a family of deer. They were eating and licking a rock for the salt. Later on the family came out and walked alongside the trail for a while, then went back to the woods. There are nice views of the Virgin River alongside the walk, and some towering rocks leading to the walls of this canyon. The trail ends where the river takes up the whole of the canyon floor, but you can still go on to a place called The Narrows. This is a less populated hike, as there is barely a trail, but it is still one of Zion's top attractions.
Weeping Wall, Zion Nat'l Park
Weeping Wall (or Weeping Rock) is a short, paved hike, only 0.5 miles roundtrip. It goes up to a wall where water drips down. The water is 2000-4000 years old, as it has to seep down through sedimentary layers of shale. The water still drips quickly, despite that. We chose people where our water came from (Mikaela was the Egyptian pharaoh, Khufu, and I was Julius Caesar [I said he splashed Augustus with it].)
The Emerald Pools are very nice if you go in the fall. The trail is filled with ruts and small waterfalls trickle quietly across the trails, but the leaves on the trees are filled with fall color, making the hike to the bright blue-green lake waters very pretty.
Who's hiding in the fall foliage?
Viewpoints and Scenic Drives
The Zion-Mt Carmel Highway's famous
Checkerboard Mesa is a stop recommended
by several travel websites and magazines, but its eroded chessboard pattern is not as remarkable
as many travel episodes show it to be. However, it is a nice stop (and don't forget to bring some checkers: they make a good picture).
Another good stop is the "three patriarchs," Isaac, Abraham, and Jacob. However, Mt Isaac's name cannot be fully attributed to the Biblical character: the man who gave these three mountains their names happened to be called Isaac, too. A clever way to name something after yourself without bluntly stating it?
Besides the obvious issues that global warming introduces, like the melting of the polar icecaps or the rising ocean levels, issues affecting smaller areas are still disastrous. They are determining the future of our everyday lives and the land set aside permanently as national parks. According to a recent National Geographic news article, redwood trees, the world's tallest living things, may go extinct. We might have seen them just in time.
When we were staying in CA, sometimes we would be driving in at night. We lived about 45 minutes away from the beach, so the fog would drift in over the road and make it nearly impossible to see. We would cross over Golden Gate Bridge and look down at the gently rolling mists. While they made it harder to drive, they were also essential to the survival of these botanical giants.
The clouds kept the conifers moist, at exactly the climate they required. A hundred years ago, there was no threat from global warming. A university study said that there has been a 33 percent reduction in the amount of coastal fog produced today when compared to the data from a century ago.
The redwoods only live in the humid areas near the coast, where the fog keeps them watered. Because they have adapted to this ecosystem, they cannot live long in a drought by shutting down their systems to conserve water, as other desert plants do. This means that if there is nothing that can be done, the redwoods may dry out and wither. Some other species of tree, however, can adjust to living with less fog by not growing as quickly as they do in years when water is plentiful.
We went to Humboldt State Park on a mostly overcast, cold day. Logging had thinned many of the forests; the largest existing piece of hewn redwood, made into one person's RV, is on display at the park's visitor center. Early environmentalists had preserved large groves, which have been turned into state parks. To this day, the groves bear names like "Founders Grove," or "Rockefeller's Grove," after these early conservationists.
The tallest tree blew over in a storm a few years before and became a "nurse log." Nurse logs are decaying trees that provide the necessary nutrients for other plants to grow. Saplings, fungi, ferns, and lichen are common plants that sprout from the reddish-brown bark. Insects, like beetles and ants, live in the log's crevices. In places humid enough, these are also home to banana slugs and snails.
As well as being an impressive species themselves, these trees are essential to many other kinds of life. The terrible fact that they are in danger means that if they do not live, their ecosystem will be seriously disrupted. This issue is another reminder that the choices we make in our everyday lives do have consequences and therefore we need to decide to do everything in a manner that will not harm the planet. The fate of these giants is uncertain, the fate even of our planet is uncertain, and it's our actions that will determine it.
A two-hour-long drive from Zion National Park, the forested North Rim of the Grand Canyon offers a shady alternative to the rocky South Rim. In summer, the national parks of the Southwest get unbearably hot, so we went in early November. Depending on how much snow falls, the North Rim sometimes closes in October, but the visitor center was open when we went. It was cold enough in the evenings that we were obliged to wear our winter jackets, but in the afternoon we hiked in T-shirts. (It gets hot in the day - bring lots of water!) Another advantage of visiting the North Rim instead of the South Rim is that, because only ten percent of all tourists traveling to the Grand Canyon visit the North Rim, it is not crowded. The campground was closed during our visit; consequently, we camped at the much warmer Zion. The following trails we hiked in a day, so none are very long or strenuous - no one wanted to hike 21 miles to the South Rim!
Bright Angel Point Even though Mikaela hates heights (she is terrified of Ferris wheels, although they are Katrianna's favorite amusement park rides), this hike allowed for good photo-taking opportunities. The view is best when seen in the morning because air pollution worsens in the afternoon, making it harder to see. The paved, often narrow trail climbs though switchbacks, using fences in some spots and only shrubs in others to block the steep cliffs, to the viewpoint. The Colorado River can be seen from the overlook, still carving away at the canyon it formed. Coconino Overlook is more scenic and less scary but Bright Angel Point is more dramatic. Of course, nothing is as terrifying as the cracked Angel's Window, but this hike will not be enjoyed by people with acrophobia. Coconino Overlook People who hike from rim to rim pass this pretty panorama on their way up or down. We only went 1.5 miles round trip along the North Kaibab trail, which leads through switchbacks into the canyon. It is very easy on the way down and, although the return trip is uphill, it is not very difficult even coming out. The unpaved trail goes through a forest and over a fallen log slanting across the trail. For a short part of the walk, you travel under overhanging boulders (which look scary but assuredly will not fall on your head). Katrianna found it fun to yell things into the canyon and listen to the echoes. The view of the river was Mikaela's favorite scene of the canyon because it was shady and forested. Best of all, she was not scared.
Cliff Springs Trail Driving along the paved road to Cape Royal, you will see a pullout with a hard-to-spot sign reading, "Cliff Springs." If you park there and cross the road, you will see a flight of pine-needle covered steps leading down into the forest. We hiked this trail at dusk, when it is mysteriously shadowy and very nice (even though it gets cold after sunset). A few steps down the trail, we came to an ancient Puebloan granary. The old walls had partly crumbled, revealing the inside chambers. Continuing down the trail, we hiked though a subalpine forest of aspen, pine and fir trees, a habitat we had not expected to find in Arizona. But the actual "spring" was the best part. To access it, we had to walk under a rock ledge that in parts was dripping water - and growing mold - across damp, sandy patches and through a small stream (which Dad found slippery, and proved it by almost falling in). The sunset was making the rocky hills on the other side of the valley glow with a soft pink light. It was definitely a worthwhile trail.
Cape Royal and Angels Window Those with a fear of heights should not attempt to walk out on Angels Window. Cape Royal Overlook was also scary - in Mikaela's perspective - but is tolerable to acrophobics and will not leave them with quaking knees. We went a few steps out onto the window (which in national parks does not refer to a software program, instead meaning a narrow rock formation with a hole in the center). From our viewpoint you could not see straight down but on either side was a sheer drop with a frightening panorama. When we had returned to the first view of the window and were looking back at it, we were startled to see the crack that had been directly under our feet. The window is prettiest at sunset, when it is softly pink with the fading light. Cape Royal was another overlook and is easily confused with Bright Angel. The view from the point, however, is worth the short walk.
To Keep Passengers Entertained On Long Drives Get a copy of Brighty of the Grand Canyon, by Marguerite Henry. It's a short (224 pages long) novel based on the life of a real burro named Brighty. In the book, Brighty has many adventures. In one chapter, the burro accompanies Theodore Roosevelt on a mountain lion hunt and in another he is the first to walk across a bridge spanning the Grand Canyon. His owner, a prospector named Old Timer, was killed by a miner who wanted the valuable minerals on Old Timer's property. In the end, Brighty and his new owner, Uncle Jim, take the miner into court for a trial. The story is especially interesting to visitors to the Grand Canyon. WARNING: This book is extremely hard to put down and will inevitably be the cause of quarreling between readers in the backseat, who turn to questionable means to get the book (including hiding it between the folds of a jacket or snatching it from another reader's lap when they were not holding it). Nevertheless, it is still worth getting.
When Wyoming was still a territory, Lieutenant Gustavus Doane, head of an exploring expedition, noticed something strange when looking out from the top of a mountain. He noticed that there was a giant volcano. But the Lieutenant, even though he made a good guess, thought wrong: in his mind, the ancient crater was extinct.
Twenty craters have been in existence since mighty sheets of ice covered Yellowstone National Park. The volcano is known to be the cause of all the geysers, mud pots, terraces, and hot springs in the park.
When we went to Yellowstone, we liked seeing the mud pots (even though they smelled like rotten eggs) and we saw Old Faithful erupt three times. Then we went to Morning Glory Pool (a multicolored hot springs.) But, while we were there, we didn't see any symptoms that the supervolcano's blast was going to happen soon.
Earthquakes have been happening recently (which is a sign that the park could explode soon). However, scientists say the eruption could happen anytime from next week to the next millennium. The future is anybody's guess!
The notorious metallic monsters of the sci-fi movies are fictitious. At least, that's what they're supposed to be. But they're real. For if not monstrous, what are the machines used to cut the logs of Washington State into boards or reduce them down to a sticky pulp? These gigantic tools of destruction are both awful and scary, for they look like horrible monsters with fangs (possibly dripping poison), trying to inflict indescribable pain on things. We had to drive past a factory from the house that we were living in every time we wanted to go to Target or Wal-Mart, but no matter how many times I saw it, it remained a very distressing sight. The plants manufacture boards and planks that are either used locally, in other parts of the United States or shipped abroad. British Columbia, Canada, even manufactures chopsticks for Japan! As you read this, destruction is reigning as the trees, old and new alike, are being sawed down without regard to size, age, or any other category that they could fit into.
Yet that factory was not the worst factory we'd seen. Compared to the most horrible one that any of us had ever seen, that one could have been called environmentally-friendly!
Just outside of Olympic National Park, on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, an almost unbelievable tragedy was -and is still- happening. Whole hillsides are getting completely destroyed, not to return for over a lifetime. Magnificent old-growth forests are being turned into devastated graveyards with unwanted trees strewn on the barren hillsides. As you drive through Olympic National Park, overwhelming numbers of 18-wheelers hurtle past, bearing loads of cut logs, many with clumps of moss still clinging to the mottled bark, to the factories where they are cut into boards or pulped into paper while the smokestacks are polluting in great puffs of smoke. And if you look across some lakes to the private property on the other side, the park border is marked by straight lines of trees. The private property is completely barren, having been clearcut by loggers. I found it disappointing when the Obama Administration, even though it is doing many things to help protect the environment, including a recent statement saying that no more roads could be built in national forests, recently approved a logging contract in a roadless Alaskan national forest. George Bush was going to build roads in several national forests to log, but I do not think that the national forests should be cut down, even to provide jobs. Some states use their forests as tourist attractions, generating jobs and money, and if they log it is very seldom and very little at a time. When we were driving towards Aberdeen, the hills were an awful shade of brown. Vast, depressing, and uninhabited, these hills hardly look like what they once were: shady forests where squirrels frisked and owls once swooped down from their perch in the high branches of firs, hemlocks, and spruce, in the soft, dusky evening light. This scene is now uncommon, found only in state and national parks. Now what is left of that landscape is a carpet of broken branches and wood chips with an occasional tiny tree, sprouted from a pinecone left behind or missed by the logger's chainsaws, still standing.
Yet the worst was still to come.
Just outside of Aberdeen, we saw it. We were on a concrete bridge spanning a river adjacent to it, and when we looked down we saw one of the most terrible sights possible to see in the entire state. We'd gotten used to seeing logs that were decaying into "nurse logs" in the rainforests all around the state, but most of those had fallen naturally. And they were only one at a time. What we saw was incomparably different. Huge piles of logs, the bark unevenly stripped off of them, sat in the largest lumberyard any of us had ever seen. To prevent shrinking, the logs had been misted with dirty water, staining them gray in irregular splotches. It was so atrocious that I could not bear to look at it any longer than I had to. It was the worst thing I'd ever seen. It still is.
In American folktales, loggers are made heroes by legend. Paul Bunyan, the famed "lumberjack," is actually considered a good guy because he could cut down hundreds of trees with one swing of his axe. But by destroying the trees, people are destroying themselves. These giants are the source of oxygen and without them we will not have so many renewable sources of fresh air in the world. As if to prove this point, many trees are endangered. The Bigleaf Mahogany, found in Central America, is number eight on the Top Ten Endangered Species list. This species of mahogany is very valuable-one square meter is generally 1,300 dollars.
This is an important issue and species will continue to lose their habitat, resulting in many going extinct. Every second, an area of the Amazon rainforest the size of one and a half football fields is burned to make room for farmland. People must react to this ongoing injustice, or we will have a plain, ugly, and lifeless world. Today millions of trees are being sliced up into useless furniture that no one needs, into wood pellets for wood-burning stoves, and into a thousand other things that are unnecessary. Having a little wood furniture is not terrible, but buying more than you really need is. Instead of wood-burning stoves, which not only use wood but also pollute, electric heaters or, even better, wearing sweaters are much better alternatives. Even pencils use much more wood than buying mechanical pencils and refilling them, in which case the only wood is in the cardboard packaging. (If possible, buy things with the least packaging possible.) It is very important to conserve this resource, for if this devastating logging continues, the hillsides will be gray, global warming will not end, and millions of animals, both known and unknown to science, will become extinct. Because today we are headed down the infamous road to Aberdeen.