Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Thanksgiving in Death Valley

I’ve been away from the blog for a week because this year, on a lark, our little family decided to take advantage of the week-long Thanksgiving school vacation and head out on a camping adventure. Our initial thought was to return to the Grand Canyon and take it in this time from the South Rim (we visited the North Rim in August). But our trailer is not well-insulated and, because we prefer to do without hook-ups so as to avoid the parking-lot style RV "resorts," approaching cold weather discouraged us. At the last minute I had a brilliant inspiration and suggested Death Valley. Neither my husband nor I had ever been there and indeed, prior to this desperate inspiration, I had never had any inkling to go there. Who makes a point of going somewhere with such an unfortunate and foreboding name? But our kids are on this kick of collecting National Park Jr. Ranger badges and--thanks to Bill Clinton--Death Valley became a National Park in 1994. The weather would be right at this time of the year (highs in the 80s and lows in the 50s). So why not?

Rarely have my expectations about a place been so minimal or so wrong. I was expecting stark, ugly desert--much like what I’d seen on our drive across Nevada this summer on the way to Zion. So as we turned North from Baker, CA, I wasn’t very disappointed to see much of the same sort of landscape before me. But as we crossed over the ominous looking mountains on the East side of the park and entered the Valley, I was surprised by my fascination with the vistas before me. First we saw things that were noteworthy mainly because of their peculiarity--like the slimy white salt deposits at Badwater that, as you press forward, gradually form into weird dry, crystallized formations jutting up from the surface of the long-dry Lake Manly. But as we got closer to the heart of the park in Furnace Creek, we came upon Artist’s Drive and Artist’s Palette. There can be no doubt as to why that place got its name. One feels an almost overwhelming urge to pick up a brush and a canvas at every turn. The colors and the light and the deep contrasts make it look deceptively easy to duplicate and irresistibly beautiful. My daughter--ever true to her Italian roots--commented that it looked like melted spumoni. Indeed, it rather did!

The dry, crisp air made insects a rarity and we were able to sit out in short sleeves well into the evening over a campfire and to enjoy the imaginative rendition of a Thanksgiving "play" from our kids about a turkey named "Slick" who comically manages to avoid every attempt to get him on a plate.

Wonderful as all of that beauty and family fun was, my awe for the beauty of nature and my patience with the antics of my kids will only extend so far. I still need a good juicy story to hold my interest in a thing. What stories could a place like Death Valley tell? It’s a barren desert, after all. What history could it have? Fortunately, my kids and their obsession with these Ranger badges brought us to attend a lecture given by Park Ranger Dale Housley on the "Colorful Characters of Death Valley." As colorful characters go, Ranger Housley can certainly claim to judge them from his own experience! Every history teacher in America should be required to sit in on such a lecture. This is how it is done. Apart from some very small children and some very old audience members for whom this talk was past their bedtime, every eye in the room was on this man as he spoke. Even my 8 year-old was able to laugh at the appropriate times and see the wonder of the tales he was weaving. The stories he told about men like John C. Fremont, Robert Manly, Shorty Harris, Death Valley Scotty, the native Ohioan, Albert Johnson (who actually built Scotty’s Castle), and--of course--the 20 mule Borax wagon teams were fascinating. Who knew that such a place could have such an interesting and compelling and uniquely American past? But then, this is America we’re talking about. Of course our deserts are our playthings. Of course we can pull riches from their soil and make riches out of their salt. We can even--as Death Valley Scotty so vividly demonstrated--make riches and rewards out nothing but what exists in our own imaginations with no other tools but a penchant for friendship (and a little BS). What a beautiful and a great country we have and I am even more thankful for her now that I have seen and learned about this part of her. I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving too.

Discussions - 14 Comments

Don't forget about Louis L'Amour. He spent some time in Death Valley in his youth and tells a great tale about it in his good book, The Education of a Wandering Man. If you haven't read it yet, it's worth a look.

Clint begins to resemble a spammer.

What a wonderful way to spend a holiday. As a small government proponent, I oughtn't enjoy national parks as much as I do. Death Valley sounds like a great one.

We survived Thanksgiving. It was wonderful in its own way.

Well, no one on this blog gives Huck a fair shake, with the exception of Lucas Morel who rarely posts. I'm just doing my part to keep NLT from missing the boat, and I must say it's like throwing a handful of mud at a breaking dam.

Heh, Clint.... I have to say I know how you feel. Trying to get any coverage of Ron Paul from some NLT authors is like pulling teeth.

No, Clint. You do a lovely job of keeping Huckabee always before us in the comment section, which reminds those on the front pages not to forget him. I think Ron Paul gets less comment, but is certainly not ignored.


I knew a year ago that I would be sick of the whole election by this time and I am. A plague on all their houses; which is a sad place for an otherwise enthusiastic observer of politics to be.

I'm all for small government but I'm also all for national parks. But I'm not an unabashed fan of the way they are run. Indeed, much about the way the national parks are operated irritates me. Like everything that is bureaucratic, there are layers of waste and counter-productive efforts. I think national parks should exist more to protect the access of citizens to beautiful and accommodating places than for the sake of deifying the land and nature itself. My problem with the way some of the parks are run is that they seem to think that the visitors are invaders rather than customers. There is a false assumption that visitors must be in conflict with the goal of preserving these places. This leads to deterioration of facilities and ridiculous rules of usage that cause people (campers, especially) to have very little respect for even sensible rules. We should be made to feel more welcome when we visit our parks.

JSG: I read Education of a Wandering Man--probably 15 or more years ago--and I had forgotten all about the Death Valley part. Thanks for reminding me about it so I can look it up in light of my new appreciation for the place.

Teddy Roosevelt, the beacon of small government, started our National Park system. If you would like to be a "customer" maybe we should lease them to private firms to run them. Oh, that's right, we basically do and it sucks.

Yes . . . the firm running them now does suck--but I have heard that they're losing their contract (don't know if that's true or just a rumor). But I think one reason they suck is because they have a monopoly over things and they are still under the bureaucratic thumb of the Feds whose priorities within the parks do not include the enjoyment and education of the public at the top of that list. One place that is run beautifully (IMHO) is the old lodge that's within Yosemite (not Yosemite Lodge, but the private one). I could be wrong, but I believe they are grandfathered under some kind of an exemption and can operate within their sphere with more freedom than the concessionaires in the other parts of the park have. Even though it's a very old lodge, it is maintained beautifully and is one the most spectacular hotels I have ever seen. (Can't afford to stay there, however!)

Julie,
What a wonderful story, and how nice to know that you and your family and well and happy.

I'm for small government, but I'm not in favor of mixing the public and private sector. If we want private corporation to run the parks, then let them go, but if not, then we should give the government the money to do it. Whenever the government contracts out its responsibilities to the private sector, huge corruption results. Private companies get either great deals from government allies, or get the benefit of public assets without any need to repair them, or both. It's just as stupid as Ken Blackwell's idea to lease the turnpike. Someone gets a goody deal, the company profits from the road, and then they turn it back to the state in poor condition, leaving the public to fix it up.

That's exactly what we see in the National Parks. The private sector only works when it is private, and some of the biggest corruption and inefficiency comes when we mix public money with private corporations.

Clint, I haven't given the thing as much thought as you seem to have done . . . but what you say seems to make a certain amount of sense. The public services parts of all the parks I've been in (run by Xanterra, I think) are really shoddy. This was especially true at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. But the campgrounds are not run by private firms and those are also not really up to snuff in my view. And the rules governing them are . . . shall we say, unfriendly to campers? Well, specifically, to RVs and families. If you're a mountain man in a tent, I suppose you'd like it just fine.

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