Saturday, August 19, 2017

Stephen Bannon is out: Good Riddance, it's Democracy over Fascist Advisors 5-0

White Nationalist Richard Spencer thanking Trump
after Charlottesville/AP David J. Phillip
Timothy Snyder, the Yale historian, has contended  that "it's pretty much inevitable" that Trump will at some point attempt to stage a coup and try to overthrow democracy.  The ouster of Bannon makes this seem very unrealistic. Trump has oligarchic, anti-demoratic instincts, but it seems like democracy will keep him in check.

Bannon is gone from the White House and back at Breitbart News. "The Trump presidency that we fought for, and won, is over," Bannon ruefully told the Weekly Standard in his first public interview after his ouster.

It turns out that this administration, like any other, is susceptible to democratic pressure.   The decision to remove Bannon was apparently made before the tumultuous events in Charlottesville last weekend.  Charlottesville merely delayed implementation, but it reinforced why it happened.  "Bannon played to my father-in-law's worst instincts," Jared Kushner is reported to have said (Maggie Haberman of the New York Times). General John Kelly, Trump's still new Chief of Staff, was visibly uncomfortable during Trump's outrageous news conference on Tuesday in which he gave his support to the alt-right. Bannon, said Haberman, was the main voice egging the president on.

The reaction to Trump's poorly handled response to Charlottsville has been widespread and negative.  Criticism has come from many prominent Republicans, including Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and Arnold Schwartzenegger. It puts the lie to Snyder's pessimistic scenario. Democracy has asserted itself and Bannon is out.

Tone comes from the top, of course. Before Bannon, there was Roger Stone, and Roy Cohn, and Paul Manafort, and Michael Flynn. Steven Miller (mentored by white nationalist Richard Spencer at Duke) and Sebastian Gorka (Hungarian neo-Nazi party member) remain in the White House.  There is no very good reason to think that Trump's next go-to advisor won't play to his worst instincts.  Yet, Roger Stone, Roy Cohn, Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, and Steve Bannon have all been pushed aside through democratic pressure--pressure applied by the public, the press, and the political establishment.

It's democracy five, advisors with fascist tendencies zero. If you're going to institute a  coup and overthrow democracy you need people like Stone,  Cohn, Manafort, Flynn, and Bannon at your side. All signs are that despite Trump's worst instincts, democracy will keep him in check.

In the meantime, Jeff Flake's book "Conscience of a Conservative: a Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle" is a best seller (currently 9th place on NYT best seller list).

Today, we spoke with the owners of a book shop in Hermann Missouri, Jack and Pat Wendleton. They report that half of their neighbors who voted for Trump are expressing regrets.

I'm not ready to write off democracy or free speech yet.

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Populism in small doses can be productive if the center holds

A Trump rally in Huntington W.VA this month/Carlos Barria, Reuters

Our dysfunctional politics aside, we are not the Middle East. The Middle East is a petri dish of political dysfunction: from Syria’s Hobbesian state of nature, to the theocracy of Iran, the military junta led state of Egypt, the failed state of Lybia, and the Kingdom of Jordan; from the petro-princeling, theocratic compromise state that is Saudi Arabia, to the corrupted strong-man rule of Turkey, to the deeply flawed democracies of Israel and Lebanon. By paying attention to these negative examples we can appreciate what we have and must never let go of.

Take the recent essay by Hussein Agha and Ahmad Samih Khalidi (The end of this Road: the Decline of the Palestinian National Movement) in the New Yorker, describing the political plight of the Palestinians. In their essay, Agha and Khalidi say a curious thing: “The post-Abbas era will launch an uncharted and unpredictable course,” they say. “The institutional failures of the P.A. all point to an increasingly narrow and more tenuous form of leadership, one that is based more on formal elections [rather than recognized moral authority] and, consequently and paradoxically, on less solid and genuinely representative grounds” (emphasis added).

The fact that formal democratic elections should result in leaders with less genuinely representative grounds is indeed paradoxical. Yet, the legitimacy of the founding fathers of the Palestinian National movement, most prominently Yasser Arafat, was not based on democracy. The remaining legitimacy and moral authority of Mahmoud Abbas is also not based on democracy: any democratic mandate he once may have had has long expired. He last stood for elections in January 2005, and the following year—together with Israel and the United States—he pointedly ignored the democratic legislative assembly victory of Hamas. So how is it that formal democratic elections will result in less legitimacy?

After Abbas there is no consensus leader who might be able to lead the Palestinians to a compromise political settlement with Israel, say Agha and Khalidi. A new leader may emerge from formal elections, but such a leader will lack the moral authority for leadership of the Palestinian national movement, presumably because the Palestinians lack a cohesive and coherent vision of what the Palestinian nationalist movement should be, and what kind of society they should have.

Because the Palestinians do not have sufficient established political structures, and because they lack a consensus around such structures, they need a strong, universally accepted leader, a charismatic strong leader like Arafat. Winning the most votes in an election is not sufficient.

What can we Learn from the Palestinian’s Plight?

In the United States we can relate. We have been more and more divided in our politics. We have the feeling that our elected officials are exercising leadership based on merely formal electoral victories. Merely formal electoral victories are not satisfying. Nearly half the country did not feel that Barack Obama was “their” president. More than half the country does not feel that Donald Trump is “their” president. Like with the Palestinians, mere formal electoral victories do not confer moral authority to speak for the entire country.

But we have something the Palestinians lack. We have a democratic consensus around institutions and political norms. Particular elected leaders are secondary. Driving around the country this past month and speaking with many Trump voters, I have the strong impression that their support for Trump is not about cult of personality, or because they are racists. There is a non-rational belief that “maybe he’ll shake things up!” The non-college educated, previously Democratic voting whites who put Trump over the top want to be noticed. They want someone addressing their concerns. They feel the Democratic Party has taken them for granted. They did not identify with Hillary Clinton as their champion. But these people are not rejecting our political consensus: a free, democratic society, rule of law, free enterprise, social security, Medicare, Medicaid, National Parks, National Forests, apple pie and baseball.

Indeed, as the Republicans in Congress are learning, “repeal and replace Obamacare” does not mean Trump voters don’t care about actual solutions for improving our healthcare system. Trump voters don’t believe the government has no role to play in providing affordable healthcare, they just think the established politics has not delivered. Obamacare was a first step to expand coverage, but it did nothing about making medical insurance more affordable. And these voters are not wrong to be dissatisfied. They recognized that “repeal for the hell of it,” as McConnell, Ryan, and Trump were set to do, would not have served their purpose. And so, despite seven years of using “repeal and replace” as a war-cry, when it came down to it, GOP voters wanted something productive done about health care, and when Ryan and McConnell offered nothing productive, there was not enough support for repeal to get it done.

In the wake of their 2016 defeat, Democrats are adjusting their politics to deal with the new reality. The next Democratic campaign, starting in 2018, won’t make the mistake of ignoring Michigan voters, or belittling non-college educated voters. Populism in moderate doses can be useful.

Populism is dangerous only if the populists are successful in undermining our institutions to such an extent that they can’t be thrown out of office in the next election when they don’t accomplish what they promised. Do Bannon, Miller, Gorka, Sessions, Trump, et al, want to undermine our political consensus and institutions, and our right and ability to “vote the bastards out?” There is concern that’s what they aim to do. But there is cause of optimism. The path to replacing our political consensus with a cult of personality would run through events like we witnessed in Charlottesville this weekend. But the country has rejected this march of a few hundred hate filled white nationalists. Trump, who initially bent over backwards not to criticize this hateful, pathetic mob of neo-Nazi marchers, has had to back-track. Just like GOP senators and representatives have learned these past six months, Trump is finding that the center is holding. We want our presidents and Congress to get positive things done. . ., and if they fail to, we will vote them out of office. 

2018 and 2020 can’t come soon enough!

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Farm States of South Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin

The areas suitable for plow agriculture in the Great Plains is affected by past glaciation.  Great glaciers covered much of North America during the Pleistocene (~2.8 million years ago to 10,000 years ago), and as they they receded they left behind a deep and fertile soil covering. The glaciers did not reach everywhere.  In the Dakotas, they traced a diagonal line from midway on the western border of North Dakota toward the northeastern corner of Kansas. South of the glacial line, the top soil today consists primarily of thin layers of windblown loess not suitable for plow agriculture. 

Physical divisions of U.S. and maximum extent of
glaciation/USGS map

South Dakota

We followed the Bad River Valley east along highway 14 from Wells, South Dakota, towards Pierre (pronounced Pier by the locals) the state capitol, on the Missouri River. This area, south of the line of glaciation, is dominated by cattle ranching and small irrigated crops over an undulating western landscape.
Bad River drainage, South Dakota/Platek
In Pierre we swam in the Missouri River and hobnobbed with local Trump voters. Three young city employees tended a well kept river-front park with weed-whackers. Others were setting up for a local hog farm's annual barbecue in the park. "I'm 24 years old, and I have to pay $400.00/month to add my two year old to my health plan," complained one of the city workers. "I still support Trump. Perhaps he'll make a difference." He was a friendly young man. He sounded less than adamant. Perhaps he'll be receptive to a pitch for universal health care from Bernie?

Pierre, South Dakota/
The Missouri River forms a distinct boundary line between ranching and plow agriculture. Moving east from Pierre along highway 14 we drive over glacial till next to fields of alfalfa, canola, corn, sugar beets, sunflowers, and wheat. The terrain is flat, treeless, and the crops stretch wide across the horizon.

South Dakota has a small population of 865,000, but it has 32,000 farms. There are 4,075 farms between 1,000 acres and 2,000 acres; 3,667 farms between 2,000 and 5,000 acres; and 1,970 farms with more than 5,000 acres. The average farm size is 1,366 acres (fifth place behind the large cattle ranching states of Montana, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Nevada).


Although we cross no discernible natural border, there is an unmistakeable transition as we cross into Minnesota on our way to Minneapolis: the farms are more numerous, smaller, and they are nestled among stands of trees. 
Minnesota farmland/Robert Mizrahi 
Minnesota, just 11% larger, has twice as many farms as South Dakota (74,542), but the farms are smaller: only 205 farms exceed 5,000 acres; there are only 1,960 farms between 2,000 and 5,000 acres; and only 4,003 farms between 1,000 and 2,000 acres.  

Minnesota has a population of 5.5 million. Hillary Clinton eked out a 1.5% victory in Minnesota over Donald Trump in 2016 (46.9% vs. 45.4%). The "never Trump" Evan McMullin (1.8%) and the libertarian Gary Johnson (3.9%) were the spoilers for Trump in Minnesota. 

Minnesota is represented by five Democrats in the House of Representatives (Tim Walz, Betty McCollum, Keith Ellison, Collin Peterson, and Rick Nolan) and three Republicans (Jason Lewis, Erik Paulsen, Tom Emmer) and by two Democrats in the Senate (Amy Klobucher and Al Franken). 


From Minneapolis we drove south on Highway 52 into Amish country. At Cannon Falls, home of Pachyderm Studio, we turned left towards the Mississippi River, and entered Wisconsin at La Crosse, the largest city in Western Wisconsin. [Yes, the name is derived from the Indian game] Wisconsin is only slightly smaller than South Dakota and Minnesota, yet it has nearly the same number of farms as Minnesota (69,754); but its farms are much smaller. Only 74 farms are larger than 5,000 acres; there are only 587 farms between 2,000 to 5,000 acres; and only 1,580 farms from 1,000 to 2,000 acres. 

Forty-six percent of Wisconsin is covered by forest. It has been gaining, not losing, forest acreage as marginal crop and pasture land has been planted with trees, or reforested naturally. Today the state  has more forestland than at any time since inventories began in 1936.

The stereotype is true: Wisconsin is a heavy hitter in the production of milk (30 billion pounds annually) and cheese (3 billion pounds annually).  Wisconsin, just forty percent the size of California, produces nearly as much milk as California and produces more cheese than California. 

Glaciers largely bypassed the western uplands region of Wisconsin. Erosion in this "Driftless Area" was accelerated when ice dams, backing up large lakes, suddenly gave way as the ice receded. Rivers draining into the Mississippi have carved shallow east-west trending valleys in this region.

Regions of Wisconsin
In the fertile central plain soft hills were formed by glacial moraines. 

Drumlins formed by glacial moraines west of Milwaukee
Wisconsin has a population of 5.8 million. They gave the nod to Trump by 1 percentage point (47.9 vs. 46.9) in the last election. The lefty, Jill Stein, received 1.1 percent of the vote, and the libertarian Gary Johnson received 3.6 percent of the vote.  

Wisconsin is represented by five Republicans in the House (Paul Ryan, Jim Sensenbrenner, Glenn Grothman, Sean Duffy, and Mike Gallagher) and three Democrats (Marc Pocan, Ron Kind, and Gwen Moore) and by a Democrat (Tammy Baldwin) and a Republican (Ron Johnson) in the Senate. 

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Mount Rushmore and our Common Inheritance

Mt. Rushmore at Minneapolis MIA/Nikles
Mount Rushmore, unlike the Crazy Horse monument, lives up to its billing. We stayed off the road, out in the woods on the western slopes of the Black Hills. “Dispersed camping,” they call it. We pick our spot anywhere, at least 300’ off the road, pull up the trailer, and we’re home. We woke up and got an early start with the sun. Completing the Needles Highway loop, we drive through a narrow one-lane tunnel cut into granite, and there they were, perfectly framed in the tunnel: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln (stage right to stage left).

Doane Robinson, South Dakota’s state historian, pushed hard to fund the art project. He correctly foresaw the tourist attraction it would become and the dollars this would draw to the Black Hills. From mid-Wyoming to Minneapolis and Chicago; from eastern Colorado and Nebraska to Iowa and eastern North Dakota, the Black Hills have been a draw ever since the Model-T came along. Construction of the monument started in 1927, President Calvin Coolidge authorized federal funding in 1929, and it was deemed complete in 1941, five weeks before Pearl Harbor. A remarkable 393,000 people visited the Black Hills and the monument in 1941, and after the war, attendance steadily climbed to more than two million annually.

It matters not so much who was chosen for the carving. It could have been John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, W.E.B. DuBois, Susan B. Anthony, or Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It could have been a host of others. What matters is that we bothered, and that we chose individuals around whom we can come together to tell an inspiring story. There is enough inspirational about the four who were chosen to serve our purposes. What matters is that when we walk up to this monument we can summon our better selves, our idealism, and our will to carry this experiment in democracy forward. To keep perfecting it. There is nothing commercial or base about this.

Mt. Rushmore, in that sense, is the anti-Crazy Horse. Rapid City, a town of ~70,000 (144,000 metro) in southwestern South Dakota has benefitted from the tourists drawn to the Black Hills for a century. It’s a college town that voted for Trump over Clinton 2:1. We had breakfast in a hip cafĂ© (Harriet & Oak), complete with a vintage VW bus, couches and bookshelves upstairs, and the best coffee latte art for 400 miles around. Bobbi struck up a conversation with Bob Hurd. He grew up in Rapid City, joined the navy and became a submariner, went to college on the GI bill and now travels across the West for a consulting business to inspire company leadership, and he regularly visits this hip coffee shop in Rapid City. He owns 40 acres up in the Black Hills, a true mark of local success. “What do you think about that Crazy Horse memorial?” we ask him. He paused, like we do when approaching a sensitive subject. “Ziolkowski (the owner-sculptor) had a bit of a reputation for philandering; he was a self-promoter,” he offered. He echoed the opinion of everyone we spoke to: “It probably will never be finished, but in the meantime, the family is doing a great job promoting it.” He admired the entrepreneurial spirit.

But successful memorials require the opposite of entrepreneurial spirit, they require collective vision and action; radical sharing. When memorials are successful, like the Statue of Liberty or Mt. Rushmore they inspire and unite. We could dwell on Jefferson's slave-holding, but at Mt. Rushmore we don't. When the negative and cynical outweighs the positive, memorials lose their purpose. It's why they've been tearing down statues of General P.G.T. Beuregard and Jefferson Davis in New Orleans. Despite all, Thomas Jefferson remains central to our vision of ourselves. Crazy Horse would make a fine memorial, but not as a 1/4 finished private venture.

Mt. Rushmore at dawn
Despite being surrounded by commercial ventures designed to profit off tourism, the non-commercial, welcoming nature of Rushmore—in marked distinction from Crazy Horse—helps to keep our cynicism at bay. A friendly young native American woman took our ten dollars to park the car. “It’s good for a year,” she said apologetically. “You can come back at night to see the light-show; you can come back anytime.” Mt. Rushmore leaves the commercialism to the merchants: Rushmore is for the people.

The same holds true of our great national parks and national forests. The National Park Service safeguards these magnificent lands for us with a welcoming air. It’s our tax dollars as a nation, our collective will, not our user fees, that protects these jewels and guarantees them to future generations.

State parks also serve a unifying purpose. They are our collective inheritance as citizens of the several states, and we open them up to visitors from everywhere. We gladly paid six dollars to stay overnight in a well kept South Dakota state park on our way to Minnesota. It made us Californians welcome in South Dakota, it made us feel at home. It made us feel like we share this great land together. 

Mt. Rushmore succeeds in uniting us behind a positive, inspiring, and unifying vision for the country. May it continue to do so for a long time; may it help to heal our wounds. 

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Sunday, July 23, 2017

From the Coal Town of Gilette, Wy to the Black Hills of South Dakota

Highway 14 from Cody to Gardiner/Nikles
Cody to Gilette, Wyoming feels like the West: wide open spaces, farms enabled by irrigation projects, grassy hills, and antelopes grazing on untamed land. The 200 car-long train parked outside Gilette brings to mind the West: the railroad replacing wagon trains rumbling across the prairies. Today, Gilette is home to the world's larges open pit coal mine. The train we saw is pulling coal cars.  And that, too, feels like the West: boom and bust towns built around natural resource extraction.

It used to be gold. All over the West, towns sprung up to bloom briefly around the discovery of gold  or silver deposits, only to wither away as the mineral was depleted. Today, in Gilette, it's coal.  Wyoming produces 39% of the nation's coal, and a big portion of this comes from the 12 coal mines around Gilette. Gilette's population doubled in the 60's, and then double again since the 1990's to a population of around 30,000 today. The coal extracted from around Gilette has been more efficient (cleaner) than most coal areas. It has made the town wealthy: median income for a family in 2000 was reported at $78,377.

Mike Enzi, the Junior Senator from Wyoming, used to be mayor of Gilette.

Today, as the nation looks to move away from coal to cleaner sources of energy, the town has to grapple with its future. Will it be another ghost town when we decide we want to obtain electricity from renewable sources instead of open pit-mining.  Those long coal trains on the outskirts of town will disappear too. It's an essentially Western phenomenon.
Coal train outside Gilette, Wy/nikles
Needles Scenic Byway, Black Hills SD
Moving further East into the Black Hills of South Dakota--Devil's Tower, Custer state park, Mt. Rushmore,  it feels more Mid-West than West. More Hollywood than the real deal.

The Black Hills started in the West. With the discovery of gold in 1874, miners swept into the area in a gold rush.  Some towns, like Spearfish and Hill, and Custer, survive from that era. But today, they are more about tourism. The state of South Dakota employs hordes of t-shirt clad youngsters in the summer to collect $20 from every car driving the scenic Needles byway through and around dramatic granite spires.

The Black Hills themselves are soft, rounded, and wooded. They bring to mind the Appalachians, or landscapes in old-Europe, not the rugged independent, individualist West. They are an isolated range, rising from the Great Plains to a height of just 7,244 feet. There are genteel, prosperous ranches, bed and breakfast hotels. Private property with expensive looking houses dot the landscape. Large, fenced tracts of land are forebodingly private. The land has lost its Bureau of Land Management and National Forest Service public spirit.

Down the road from Mt. Rushmore is a competing private venture: the Chief Crazy Horse monument.  Started in 1948, it is planned to be the world's largest sculpture upon completion. But there are doubts it will ever be completed. This is an entirely private venture, on privately held land, and seemingly controlled by the wife, and children of the initial carver/sculptor, Korszak Ziolkowski.

Zilkowski's vision of Crazy Horse Sculpture
All that exists as of now is the face, which is big, but not impressive from afar. A face and a big fund raising operation. They charge $11/head to enter, and the main thing to see, and what they steer you to, is a fund-raising propaganda film.  You can spend money at the gift shop and the restaurant.  And they invite you to put them in your will.  You can pay an extra fare to go to the foot of the mountain by bus.  Hiking seems to be not allowed, or discouraged. The purpose is to honor the American Indians. There is mention of a college for Indians of the region.  But all the help seems to be young White college kids.  The whole venture strikes me as a mix of crazy obsession, family empire building, and a grifting operation. I may be wrong about that, but my antennae are up. An accounting of money raised, and where it goes, is not readily available. But See this report from Non-Profit Explorer.

View of Crazy Horse today/photo NPR

South Dakota Facts

South Dakota was admitted as state on November 2, 1889.  Today it has a population of 865,454 (2010 Census). 

The two senators are John Thune and Mike Rounds (the same number as California's 39 million, lest we ever forget).  The state has one member in the House of Representatives, Kristi Noem

The state capitol is located in Pierre, SD (population 13,646) located right in the middle of the state. The largest city is Sioux Falls (metro population is 252,000).

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Up the Continental Divide and into Wyoming

Like a deep ocean groundswell, the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains gently lifted us up and  on to the Continental Divide. We followed the meanderings of the Snake River from Twin Falls (3,700 feet), to Idaho Falls (4,700 feet), to the Palisades reservoir on the western side of the Teton National Forest (5,600 feet), to Jackson Wyoming (6,200 feet), and up to the Divide (7,988 feet) near Lewis Lake in Yellowstone National Park.

The Continental Divide brings to mind the magnificent Rocky Mountains with their imposing peaks: Mt. Robson (12,972 feet) in Jaspers National Park, British Columbia, the Grand Teton (13,775 feet), Gannet Peak in Wyoming’s Wind River Range (13,809 feet), Mt. Elbert in the Sawatch range in Colorado (14,440 feet), the Maroon Bells (14,163 feet) that we see from top of Snowmass ski resort, or any of the other 14,000 footers in Colorado. But the Divide does not straddle these tall peaks. The Divide is gentle and imperceptible on first encounter. Railroads, highways, and rivers find their path through and around the great mountains. It’s only gradually that we realize the rivers are no longer heading towards the Columbia and the Pacific, but towards the Missouri and the Gulf of Mexico.

Yellowstone, our first national park, established by Congress in 1872, lies on a high volcanic plateau, eight thousand feet above sea level. The park is blessed with lakes, rivers, geysers, hot springs, lodgepole pine forests, flower-filled meadows, bison, elk, wolves, coyotes, trout, ducks, and swans.

Pelican Valley Trail, Yellowstone National Park.
We encountered a lounging Bison just beyond the rise.
Unlike the free-wheeling national forests we’ve become used to, the Park Service keeps a tight lid on activities in the park, including where you camp overnight. “Camping and fires” are only allowed in designated camp sites, says the park brochure. It’s in fine print, and we didn’t see it, and if we had we might have said “it depends on what ‘and’ means.” We don’t build fires when we’re out camping, so . . . .

The park rangers didn’t see it that way. All the designated camping sites were full and as we returned from our hike on the Pelican Valley Trail at 7:30 p.m. we decided to stay right there, where our car and trailer were parked. Two other cars remained at nightfall, the owners apparently on an overnight hike. But no sooner had we fallen into a nice slumber in our fine camping spot that the park rangers came along and rousted us out of bed and kicked us out of the park. “Don’t speak when I’m talking to you,” said an officer shining his flashlight. “You can find some spots in the National Forest, just outside the park,” they said. Don’t mess with park rangers.

We awoke in the morning just outside the park entrance above the very young Shoshone river tumbling down a steep canyon towards Cody, Wyoming. It's the landscape you think of when you think "Wyoming." 
North Fork of Shoshone

Cody, a town of 10,000, is on Route 14, which traverses Wyoming from Yellowstone to Spearfish, South Dakota. 
Wyoming, Route 14 and Alt 14
East of Cody, arid, golden hills, are interrupted by picaresque irrigated fields and well kept farms. We stopped in Byron, a community founded by Mormons in 1902. "It was the policy of the (Mormons) to colonize areas where people could establish homes in towns, rather than to settle on ranches so widely separated that it was difficult for them to engage in church and social activities," says the plaque in a small park.  And we noted several such well kept, comfortable looking towns along Route 14: Ralston, Powell, Garland, Byron. . .  

Then, suddenly, we are at the foot of the imposing wooded Bighorn Mountains.  The Bighorns are a northwest-trending spur of the Rocky Mountains, extending approximately 200 miles northward on the Great Plains. They are separated from the Absaroka Range, which lie on the main branch of the Rockies in western Wyoming, by the Bighorn Basin at 4,300 feet.  

The ascent up the Bighorns from the West along Route 14 is steep and hard for our little car-that-could, with an average grade of 8-10%. The road rises with switchbacks like an hors categorie climb on the Tour de France from the Basin up to 9,430 feet near Burgess Junction. 
Up the Bighorn Mountains from the West
Our car lumbered from the altitude and the steep gradient. We became concerned whether she would make it, but make it she did. And we were rewarded with a spectacular scenery at the top. 

Bobbi near Medicine Wheel Mountain, Bighorns

Wyoming Facts

Wyoming was acquired from Mexico in 1848, as part of the settlement of the Mexican American War. It was admitted into the Union as a state on July 10, 1890. Collectively, through the federal government, we own half the land in Wyoming. 

Wyoming is the least populous state in the country: ~590,000. 

Cheyenne is the capital and most populous city: 63,000 in 2015. 

Wyoming has one member of Congress: Liz Cheney (because we Americans love dynasties). 

And Wyoming has two senators:  Mike Enzi and John Barrasso (same as California's 39 million, lest we ever forget).  

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Thursday, July 20, 2017

From Nevada to Idaho and the Snake River Plain

Our trailer battery was dead. At the Chevron in Carlin, Nevada--also a burger joint--heading towards Wells on 80, we asked who might help.  They direct us to "Randy's."  Tim is Randy's "chief" (and only) mechanic, if we don't count the itinerant film-maker apprentice working off a new engine on his broken-down van. Tim washed up in Carlin (pop. 2368) in 2003 from Hisperia, California. He started at the gold mine in the hills nearby.  "They dug a million ounces of gold out of there last year," he said.  He was hired at the mine to maintain all their machinery.  "It was too high stress," he said, "so I joined Randy."

The Carlin Trend is the seventh largest gold producing region in the world, the most abundant in the Western hemisphere. It contains three open pit mines, four underground mines, and by 2008 the mines had produced 70 million ounces--(~$85 Billion at 2010 prices). Nevada accounts for 75% of U.S. gold production, most of it from the Carlin Trend.

Work is quieter now, for Tim.  "Yesterday a young Norwegian couple rolled in, on foot.  They ran out of gas a couple of miles down the road.  I drove them back with a Jerry can of gas, and the woman proceeded to spill the gas all over the car. How did they every get this far?" he wondered.  "All the way from Norway!"

Tim quickly diagnosed our problem: no live feed to the trailer from the car. He proposed to run a wire from our car battery to the trailer connection.  "About an hour's work," he said, sounding apologetic about the $75/hr rate. The installation eventually lasted two and one half hours over lunch. We chatted, he explained, he snipped the ties, he installed an in-line fuse, lovingly sealing the connection with a torch. When it came time to settle up, "We'll honor our hour estimate," said Tim. Bobbi gave him her CD, he sent a Facebook request as we drove on down the road.

Tim fixing our trailer connection
Entering Southern Idaho the great Basin and Range country--marked by  elongated mountain ranges interspersed with long flat, dry deserts--lifts and gives way to the Snake River Plain. Desert, tumbleweeds, and grazing cattle are replaced by lush irrigated fields with crops of potatoes, corn, sugar beets, and wheat. The Snake River has enabled this agricultural oasis in Southern Idaho since the beginning of the 20th century.

Columbia River and Snake River Basin
At a Starbucks in Twin Falls we charged my computer and picked up extra reading glasses at the Dollar Store across the street:  "How much?" we ask the clerk.  "Everything in the store's a dollar," she says.  Dollar stores dot the urban landscape here in red America like Starbucks dot the big coastal cities. The clerk does not look like she gets paid $14.00/hr (the minimum wage in San Francisco). But she's friendly. Friendly like Tim, the garage mechanic.

Twin Falls looks prosperous, clean, trim. Median household income is $50,447.00. Unemployment is almost non-existent (3.2%), recent job growth is robust (4.2%), and the economy is diverse. So why all the support for Trump?  Idaho went for Trump 2:1 over Clinton; in Twin Falls it was 3:1. It would have been bigger but for the 6.8% garnered by the "never Trump" GOP protest candidate, Evan McMullin.

Today, Idaho has a population of 1.7 million.  For that they get two senators (James Rish and Mike Crapo), same as California's 39 million (lest we ever forget).  

Lewis and Clark crossed what is now the middle of the state in 1806 on their way to the Columbia river. President Thomas Jefferson commissioned the expedition shortly after the Louisiana purchase. Wilson Price Hunt followed with a party in 1811-1812. They unsuccessfully attempted to travel down the Snake river to the Columbia. So they split into four parties and carried on to the mouth of the Columbia.  In 1812-13 Robert Stuart led an expedition east from Astoria to St. Louis along what became the Oregon trail. 

Between the late 1830’s and 1869 about 400,000 settlers, farmers, miners, business owners, and families travelled the Oregon trail. In 1869 the first transcontinental railroad opened and made the trip across the rockies much faster and safer.

We stopped for lunch at Massacre Rock, a beautiful narrow spot on the Oregon trail. Apparently there were some close-by altercations with Indians during the migrations west, but the name derives more from the anxiety of settlers as they traversed this spot ideal for an ambush.  

Today it's a well kept state park. 

Snake River at Massacre Rock