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Posts Tagged ‘travel’

Smaller than Larger than Life

Visiting John Muir’s house is a bit of a shock to National Park travelers. Nearly every western park you visit has mention of John Muir: how he explored it, how he mapped it, how he lobbied for its entry into the National Park or Forest Service. Over and over again, you’ll see his weather-worn visage, like this:

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Clearly this was a larger-than-life figure, a man who walked the earth, one of the few who saw wonders and marvels in their natural state, long before the paved roads leading to well-marked vistas. He was clearly a man of the backwoods, in an era when that really meant something.

Then you go to his home in Martinez, California, and you see this.

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Um, what?

Well, turns out that John Muir was (surprise surprise) a human being.

John Muir basically grew old. At 42, after some convincing by his friends, he found he could no longer tromp through the wilderness as he once had. John Muir, like most men, wanted a family. He married Louisa Strentzel, settled down, and fathered two daughters. John Muir then wanted to provide for that family. He proved to be a successful orchardist and businessman, apparently earning enough in five years to provide for his family for the rest of his lifetime (even in the 1880s, that was a remarkable feat). Finally, John Muir needed a place to write and to organize. From his headquarters, he lobbied for the creation of the National Park Service; organized the founding of the Sierra Club; fought the establishment of the Hetch Hetchy reservoir; and published multiple magazine articles and books.

Far too often, folks look at historical figures as being larger than life: omnipotent and perfect individuals, single-minded, focused, driven to their one and only goal. But reality is actually quite different than all of that. John Muir put all his environmental travels on hold and became … a husband, a father, a farmer and businessman. And, apparently, a thumping good one. He lived in a very nice house, in fairly decent comfort, and enjoyed his life. He was not, as his grizzled visage would suggest, purely a “man of the woods”. He was a real human being, appropriate for his time.

Every great person in history, regardless of the pedestals we put them on, was really just a person.

John Muir and Cancel Culture

I recently read Nature Writings, a collection of John Muir’s essays. Muir waxes rhapsodic about everything, from the length of pine needles to the detritus comprising glacial moraines. This is a man who loved the natural world, spending significant amounts of time in the wild lands, sketching flowers and mountaintops and creek beds. His devotion became conservationist zealotry, and his efforts resulted in protecting thousands of square miles from scarring development.

And, apparently, he was also friends with some unsavory characters, including at least one avowed eugenicist. He also said some lousy things about native tribes, slaves, and freedmen. The organization he helped found, the Sierra Club, had a decidedly upper-class, whites-only mentality. The group has enough of a tarnished past, the current directors released a statement at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests last summer. Conservative commentators across the country gleefully declared “John Muir is canceled!“, triumphant in the fact that the “the radical left” has as much ugliness in their past as they themselves do. Of course, this tarnishes yet another “noble tradition” of this country.

I’m not going to argue whether or not Muir was a solid racist. Frankly, I don’t think I’m qualified. I do think he disliked a lot of people, preferring to walk the woods and the mountains instead of towns and cities. Individuals such as Muir do that because they don’t like people in general. Still, the evidence against him is pretty strong, and the condemnation justified. None of that lessens his contributions to the country, to conservation, to the creation of the National Parks. It just means that he was a flawed man, that he shouldn’t be put up on a pedestal as any paragon of virtue, and that his unsavory opinions should be discussed alongside the magnitude of his accomplishments. Those who carry on his work today should strive to do better. Much better.

Fortunately, things are changing. Today’s environmentalists acknowledge that minority populations are at greater risk from environmental catastrophe, and are trying to help. They are also acknowledging that minority populations care deeply about the environment, breaking a long-held stereotype. And as was shown with the XL Pipeline controversy of the past few years, it’s now commonly known that Native reservations have it pretty bad, with some companies taking advantage of extreme poverty to build toxic waste dumps as “job creators”. It’s a shame these groups weren’t brought into the environmental and conservation movements from the very beginning, perhaps it would have gone a long way towards not only inclusion, but also improved living conditions and better health outcomes for those populations. But at least there is movement in the right direction.

It turns out that John Muir was not just a human being, but a flawed human being. It’s up to us to be better human beings. The mistake is not trying to improve on what was done prior. We can be better people than Muir was, while still trying to uphold the better side of his ideals.

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Family Time

I’m a solo traveler, especially on my national park trips. I’m a spectacular hermit; but also my friends and family have other hobbies and interests, and simply don’t share my enthusiasm for American history and the natural world. It’s OK, though. I find solitude enables greater opportunities for observation, reflection & understanding.

When I went to visit JFK’s birthplace, however, I switched things up, and made a conscious decision to share the experience. I took my mom.

It wasn’t just because I thought she’d enjoy the trip, it was also because I wanted to hear what it was like to live during the vaunted “Camelot” era. JFK was  the first  modern-day celebrity president, and I wanted to know what that was like. John and Jackie’s superiority in handling themselves on television changed everything about campaigning, getting elected, and serving in the highest office in the land. Suddenly, it became less about stump speeches, shaking hands, working the political machinery, and back-room deals. It became more about media savvy.

The tales of Camelot have entered into American legend. JFK’s photogenics destroyed Richard Nixon in the presidential debates. He then became the second youngest person to ever take office. Jacqueline Kennedy was charming and pleasant, with impeccable fashion sense. As a couple, the Kennedys were hip and new, and gave the promise of a bright future. 

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Funnily enough, my mom didn’t have too many stories about the Kennedy era. Neither her nor my father were political types, rarely turning on the news and never talking about it at the dinner table. The only thing she talked about was the shame of the assassination, and how it saddened the whole nation. She talked a lot about the funeral, and how Jackie held up with such grace through it all. 

Then she told me about how she met JFK. 

When she was in high school, she worked on the school paper. A young John Kennedy, then Congressman John Kennedy, was running for the Senate, and touring the state, trying to drum up votes. He came to Western Massachusetts, quite likely just once (the western part of the state rarely gets much attention from Boston). So the high school paper decided to go meet him for some photo ops. 

My mom went with three other girls from her class. The photographer asked the other three to step out of frame because, as my mother said, “they weren’t pretty enough”. [Note: her intonation suggested the photographer was a bit of a perv.] She then had her picture taken, which was published in the paper later that week.

Being a typical high school girl, she was unhappy with how her hair looked, so she never kept a clean copy of the photo. Fortunately, the local paper still had the photo in their archives, and she was able to get a decent copy. 

Mom and JFK

It’s been many years since we went to JFK’s boyhood home in Brookline. She enjoyed the trip, and had fun reminiscing. Today, she can’t get around quite like she used to, her days of travel are long over. She’s seen quite a bit in her years: the Great Depression, World War II, the Civil Rights Movement, Watergate, 9/11, a global pandemic, and now an insurrection. She’ll be 87 in a few weeks, still doesn’t like talking about politiecs and, woefully, is not happy with how her hair looks.

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Failures in Leadership

When it comes to posting about Jimmy Carter — Nobel Peace Prize winner, home builder, human rights advocate, international statesman — I could have gone in many directions. In light of his recent cancer diagnoses, I could have focused on his positive, post-1980 accomplishments, and may have gotten a lot of positive comments and referrals. Instead, I feel compelled to talk about his greatest failure: his leadership during his tenure as the 39th President of the United States.

Before I go on, I have to say it’s really unfair for me to criticize others for poor leadership. I have practically no leadership abilities at all. I’ve proven time and time again that this is a skill or talent that I simply do not possess, and almost every attempt I’ve made to take leadership of anything has been a fairly abysmal failure. However, I think I can recognize good leadership when I see it. I’ve known a lot of good, and even great, leaders personally, and through careful observation of their methods, I think I have a fair bead on what makes a good leader. I’ve also known a lot of horrible leaders, and am fairly certain I know what poor leaders lack.

Any post criticizing Jimmy Carter would also be unfair if it did not include a disclaimer statement about “level of difficulty”. Carter was elected President in 1976, a period of great internal strife in the U.S. President Nixon resigned in disgrace in 1973. America’s most divisive and most embarrassing confrontation — the Vietnam War — ended in 1975 with the Fall of Saigon. The Cold War’s nuclear arms race was well into its fearful Mutually Assured Destruction phase. Inflation was at a troubling 12%, and the nation was in a depressing funk barely masked by the revelries celebrating our nation’s 200th birthday. Carter was entering into a losing proposition, it would take immense skill to turn the ship of state around.

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Yeah, times were GREAT!

Unfortunately, Jimmy Carter, during his tenure as President, was a pretty poor leader.

Of course, that’s not particularly insightful. Folks have been saying this for 35 years, Jimmy Carter has taken quite a bashing from all sides since 1980. If he hadn’t been so successful in his post-Presidential career, he’d be nothing but an entry on a list between Martin Van Buren and Calvin Coolidge: barely remembered unless you went to Carter High School or your commute took you over the Carter Bridge. I’m glad he went on to do great things after his presidency, he’s probably one of the most ethical men to ever hold the office, and he deserves better than a minor footnote in a history textbook. So how did an otherwise good man fail to be an effective leader?

In my opinion, one event, more than any other, illustrates exactly why Carter was such a bad leader as President. That event was his infamous Malaise Speech, delivered to the nation via broadcast television on July 15, 1979. This was a speech that, although initially receiving a favorable reception by the American people, would go down in infamy as the worst speech ever given to the nation by a seated President. This was a speech that would become so reviled, it not only resulted in the loss of the White House to the Republicans in 1980, it most certainly caused the death of American progressive politics.

But wait, something here doesn’t quite compute, does it? How could a simple speech ruin a Presidency and kill a political movement? Speeches are nothing, really, just air exiting through a larynx, magnified by microphones and amplifiers. Most people, even then, rarely listen to political speeches, and of those who do, few even remember anything about them. Throughout American history — over 400 years if you include the colonial period — only half a dozen or so political speeches (“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, etc.) have entered into the national consciousness. It’s certain that dozens upon dozens of Presidential speeches quite literally sucked, full of triteness and pandering and even lunacy. Did any of them derail a presidency?

No, and this speech, itself, did not derail Carter’s. What killed his presidency, and what marked Jimmy Carter as a terrible leader during that phase, was he felt that the nation actually needed a speech to solve its problems. That was the fundamental mistake, the fundamental error, the fundamental misunderstanding of leadership that Carter had during that period. What he did was deliver a speech as the solution, rather than delivering a speech to communicate the solution. 

Not a great idea.

Not a great idea.

So many people in positions of authority try this tactic. These folks think that they can inspire people by words. They’ve heard the lore of those half-dozen cool American speeches, or have seen Patton, Braveheart, Henry V, or even Independence Day, and think “ooh, that’s what I need to inspire my troops, a good speech!” Well, no, nothing can be farther from the truth.

My first encounter with a real leader was my Boy Scout scoutmaster. He was a quiet, soft-spoken guy. I can’t remember his speaking voice, honestly. But all the kids loved him because he did stuff. We always had stuff to do, every meeting was full of activities, and our camping trips were chock-full of things to do. His job moved him to second shift, and we got a new scoutmaster. That one was a chatty guy, and the absolute worst scoutmaster. Activities dropped, camping trips dropped, and I dropped Scouts entirely.

Later, I worked at an apple orchard. The owner was not necessarily soft spoken, but he was a great guy. He motivated us to work hard, not through his words, but because he was a hard working guy. If you were employed by him, you would be ashamed to be a slacker because he worked so hard.

I would see other good leaders who displayed good leadership because they loved what they did, or they took the time to teach those under them, or they took bold moves, or they were simply good at their job. They were leaders because they did stuff, not because they talked about stuff. It’s not even about caring for your people — there is no doubt that Jimmy Carter cared about the American people — it’s about recognizing that doing is a prerequisite to leading. 

If Carter had focused more on getting things done as President, he could have made all the crappy speeches in the world and no one would have cared. But he felt the people needed a speech, and history has proven that was a bad choice. Fortunately, Mr. Carter would go on to do plenty of good things in his post-Presidential career, and now he is well respected by many. But for one, brief time, when it was needed the most, he had the wrong idea of what true leadership actually is.

Well, maybe I stand corrected.

Well, maybe I stand corrected.

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I didn’t bring my camera when I visited the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site. All photos used in this post are public domain and hosted on Wikipedia Commons.

Jimmy Carter National Historic Site

Character Above All Essay on Jimmy Carter

Jimmy & Roslyn Carter Work Project at Habitat for Humanity

Google Map to JCNHS

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Concepts of Time

When Lewis and Clark left St. Louis to explore the Great Frontier:

It’s only been 210 years since they set off. In the grand scheme of things, that’s pretty tiny. But look at everything that’s happened.

  • The country: Nearing 320 million
  • The population center is now actually west of Missouri, showing the great expansion of the country and the migration of her people.
  • New York City: 7 million
  • St. Louis: 300,000, and the city has existed so long it’s actually decaying (like all the other great industrial cities)
  • About three hours from Boston to New York if you’re a stodgy driver.
  • A couple more to fly to London
  • You can drive across the entire country in just a few days, or fly over it in about six hours or so.
  • But really, who cares? With Skype, you can talk to someone across country instantaneously. No reason to go anywhere.

It’s hard to fathom sometimes how quickly things have changed, and how much has happened in a measly 200 years.

Courtesy National Park Service

Courtesy National Park Service

Go to St. Louis. See the Gateway Arch. It’s way cool.

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Jefferson National Expansion Memorial

Visionaries with Courage (Video)

Some Gateway Arch photos taken by the masses

Google map to the Gateway Arch

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