Down at the Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras in Louisiana is a season, not just a day, which means I’ve been able to celebrate it in several places: New Orleans, Lafayette and, on Fat Tuesday itself, in Eunice, the gateway to the Cajun prairie.

The Eunice parade was the most distinctive. Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans and bigger cities like Lafayette are pretty similar: People in a wide variety of costumes rolling through the streets on floats that look like they all came from the same float factory, dancing, drinking and throwing beads at people.

Mardi Gras in Eunice and some other small Cajun towns hews more closely to the Courir de Mardi Gras tradition, with elements that go back to medieval villages. Prairie Cajuns feature horses in their parades (bayou Cajuns relied more on their boats). Celebrants’ costumes feature lots of fringe, tall pointed hats, and masks with pointy noses attached. Some of the paraders engage in ritual begging, plunging into the crowd with their hands out, sometimes growling. The tradition says they are begging for food to be added to the community gumbo. Some of them carry live chickens. Their floats, like their costumes, are homemade and many of them have port-a-jons riding on them, for reasons I can't explain. The the folks in the parade also dance and drink and throw beads at people.

As they all say down here, Laissez les bon temps rouler. Let the good times roll.

 

Black, White and the Blues

I got to Clarksdale, the Mississippi Delta town featured in my latest column, just in time for the last night of the Clarksdale Film Festival. This was no red-carpet affair. The venues aren’t fancy – the screening I attended was in Our Grandma’s combination barber shop/pancake restaurant/sports bar – and the people attending aren’t fancy either.

The first thing I noticed was that, in a county that’s 80 percent African American, the small crowd at the film festival was at least 80 percent white. The entrepreneurs behind Clarksdale’s blues-based revival are mostly white as well, and mostly from out of town. The audience for traditional Delta blues has also become mostly white, and most performers of this music – invented exclusively by black people – are now, more often than not, white.

Why? I can’t tell the story of race in Clarksdale with any authority, but it’s easy to speculate. Coahoma County, which is mostly Clarksdale, has lost more than 22 percent of its population just since 2000. The people most likely to leave include the educated, the ambitious and the young – the kind of people that could help fuel an up-from-the-bootstraps, arts-based revival. White people, especially those who moved here out of love for the blues, are more likely to have the money, interest and time for things like local film festivals. Part of the legacy of centuries of slavery and Jim Crow is a stubborn tendency toward self-segregation, which may also come into play.

Whatever the reasons, the race difference was undeniable. I found myself asking:  Can white people can save the blues?

The movie we watched reminded me that white people have already saved the blues, several times.

Blues was a local secret until Alan Lomax came to the Delta with his primitive recording equipment, researching folklore for the Library of Congress. He came to Clarksdale in 1941, and recorded Muddy Waters in his shack on the Stovall Plantation. (The location, under some pecan trees beside a cotton field, is marked by a Blues Trail sign; the shack is on display at the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale.)

His conversation with Lomax helped convince Muddy to bring his guitar to Chicago, where he became the father of Chicago blues. That’s when the blues started finding a white audience. The Rolling Stones got their name, and some of their early songs, from Muddy. Bob Dylan revisited Highway 61, borrowing liberally from Delta blues. In 1980, a couple of white Chicago guys – John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd (a regular visitor to Clarksdale) – introduced a new generation to Chicago Blues with “The Blues Brothers.”

Lomax’s original recordings of old folk musicians lay dormant for decades until a folk music revival hit college campuses in the 1960s. Obscure Delta musicians were suddenly being heard on scratchy recordings from the ‘30s and ‘40s. I was one of those guys. I remember sitting in my attic room outside Harvard Square, listening to Sonny Terry and Brownie Magee on a record I’d gotten from the Cambridge Public Library. It was one of Lomax’s recordings, and it was a revelation.

“Two Rivers Running,” the movie I saw in Clarksdale, tells the true story of three blues fans who left their Cambridge dorm rooms in a quixotic search for Son House, a blues great who had disappeared after a few recording sessions made when FDR was president. At the same time, another group of fans from California hit Mississippi looking for another long lost blues legend, Skip James.

The timing of their blues odysseys was perilous. It was the summer of 1964, and they showed up in the Delta just as thousands of other white students arrived for “Mississippi Summer,” to organize for voter rights. The two groups found their blues heroes on the same day three other students from up north met their deaths at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan.

When their young fans finally reached them, Son House and Skip James had no idea they were famous in some circles. “I thought the old music was all forgotten by now,” said House. “I never knew that so many people would want to hear it again.”

They heard it again, first at the Newport Folk Festival, as documented in the film. House and James had second musical careers. Their blues survived to be appreciated by people of all races, ages and nationalities.

I don’t know whether Clarksdale will succeed in turning the blues into an economic lifeline. I’d love to go back, though, maybe in April for one of their festivals. But I don’t really worry about the death of the blues. It’s too elemental in its rhythms, chord progressions and sentiments. The blues will always be there for new generations to discover.

 

 

 

 

Along the Forgotten Coast

Before I forget, I wanted to share a few words and photos of what they call it the Forgotten Coast – the Gulf coast on the eastern part of Florida’s Panhandle. It’s the section of coastline that wraps around what’s known there as the Big Bend, though I think of it as Florida’s armpit, with no negative implications intended.

Much of the Forgotten Coast feels like Old Florida – pre-AC, pre-Disney, pre-wealthy tourists. I saw no gated communities, no high-rise condos with water views, and very few national chains.

There’s tourism here, especially in the summer, when families come from all over the South in search of ocean breezes. But there are other industries as well. In Tate’s Hell State Forest (great name, and there’s a story behind it) and Apalachicola National Forest, public/private partnerships have carved up and drained what once were swamps and grasslands so they can grow thousands of acres of scratch pine forest. The pines appear to be harvested before they can grow thick enough to make a 2-by-4. It’s mostly chipped up for composite products, a local explained.

In Apalachicola and Eastpoint, it’s all about oysters. Ten percent of the nation’s commercial oysters come from Apalachicola Bay. Oystermen go out daily in small boats, with tongs with 14-foot long handles. They use the tongs to dig into the sandy bottom of the bay and scoop oysters into the boat, which are then measured, with the ones under a certain size returned immediately to the sea. It reminds me of lobster-fishing in Maine, in that it is labor-intensive work no one has yet figured out a way to industrialize.

The white sand beaches are gorgeous on the Forgotten Coast. On St. George Island, the homes are fancier, prices are higher, and a beach-tourist vibe predominates. But in Eastpoint and Carrabelle, a lot of people are barely scraping by. If you want a place with miles of deserted beaches, tons of great seafood, but with few pretentions, don’t forget the Forgotten Coast.

 

Getting Jefferson Davis out of Memphis

One day last spring I took a long walk in Memphis along the banks of the Mississippi River. I watched the sun set from Confederate Park, and took the pictures you see here. I paused at the statue of Jefferson Davis, and couldn’t get past the inscription’s description of him as a “true American patriot.” In a city where a majority of residents are descended from people Davis waged a war to keep enslaved, the statue seemed a slap in the face at the very least. The inscription seemed an attempt to redefine treason as patriotism.

That statue, it turns out, was erected not in the wake of the Civil War, but in 1964, in the wake of the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

It also turns out that the City of Memphis, which owns the park, had been trying for years to get the statue removed. But the Tennessee Legislature had prevented it with a state law prohibiting the removal of any historic structures from public lands. Some conservatives believe in states’ rights and local self-determination right up to the point when a state or locality tries to do something they don’t like. Just like they support individual freedom as long as the individuals don’t choose to do something of which they disapprove, but don’t get me started.

Last week, the Jefferson Davis statue came down, along with a statue of KKK founder Nathan Bedford Forrest in another Memphis park. City officials, committed to erasing the embarrassment before next year’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King and eager to get it done before the Legislature reconvened in January and tried to stop them, found a loophole in the law. They sold the parks to a non-profit, which removed the statues from the no-longer-public property. Slate has the full story here:

https://slate.com/business/2017/12/how-memphis-outsmarted-tennessee-to-remove-its-confederate-monuments.html

I’m now hunkered down in frigid New England, having left our trailer in much less frigid Macon, Georgia. We will reunite in early January to continue our journey.

New adventures await all of us. Happy New Year to all.

A visit with Joe Kennedy

I've never cared to collect pictures of myself with politicians, but it's gotten so that politicians expect everyone to want a selfie, so I took one with Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D-Mass.

I've never cared to collect pictures of myself with politicians, but it's gotten so that politicians expect everyone to want a selfie, so I took one with Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D-Mass.

I first met Joe Kennedy III in 2012, when he ran for office the first time. Barney Frank was leaving Congress, and Democrats were lining up to run for his open seat. Joe had never run for office and wasn’t well-known, but he was a Kennedy and this was Massachusetts. His entry cleared the Democratic field, and he easily defeated a pretty strong Republican.

Because his district includes towns covered by the newspaper where I ran the editorial page, Kennedy and I have met with some regularity in the years since. He’s always struck me as smart, humble (for a Kennedy), and dedicated to public service. He’s principled, and as liberal as the bluest parts of his very blue district. But he also scrupulously visits every small town in his sprawling district, keeps in touch with his constituents and has the kind of quality staff that has long been the hallmark of the Kennedys.

During my recent trip to DC (my column is here) I sat down again with Joe. Here’s my report.

By Rick Holmes

Special to the Daily News

Washington, DC - First the good news. Ask Rep. Joe Kennedy III how he’s doing, and he’s all smiles. He and his wife are expecting their second child sometime in December, a boy. And how are things going in Congress? “Not great,” he says.

Kennedy spoke from his office on the prestigious side of the Cannon Building, where you can look out and see the Capitol, if you stand in just the right spot. The House was about to pass a tax reform bill he considers unfair, packed with bad policies and unlikely to accomplish much beyond blowing a hole in the deficit.

The tax bill’s flaws start with a bad process. No Democrats were allowed any input on the legislation, Kennedy says, drawing a contrast with the Affordable Care Act. President Obama’s signature legislation was shaped by months of public hearings and debate, while President Trump’s tax bill was written in secret. Democrats accepted “dozens and dozens” of Republican amendments to the ACA, he says, begging for bipartisanship. GOP leaders made no such efforts, including in the bill provisions – notably the repeal of the deduction for state and local taxes – that seem designed to punish states that vote for Democrats.

The House passed the bill without a single Democratic vote, and Kennedy’s not optimistic that it can be stopped in the Senate.

Kennedy came to Congress in 2013 determined to be an effective legislator, not a partisan bomb-thrower. He wanted to build the kind of relationships across the aisle that helped make his great-uncle, Sen. Ted Kennedy, such an effective lawmaker. His famous name made that difficult – some House Republicans didn’t want to be photographed with him, even at a softball game, he told me at the time, lest it upset GOP supporters back home. But he has persevered.

“I’ve got some very good friends here who are Republicans,” he says. He supports their issues when there’s no good reason not to. He has worked with them on low-profile legislation where there’s common ground, like efforts to encourage advanced manufacturing skills and opportunities. He worked with Rep. Leonard Lance, a New Jersey Republican, to fend off a threat to the ability of websites like TripAdvisor – headquartered in Kennedy’s district – to post negative consumer reviews.

“I think that passed unanimously,” he says. But on the big issues, the ones managed by party leaders, friendship doesn’t come into play. “Just because we’re friends, I’m not going to vote for this tax bill, and they don’t expect me to.”

Americans of all political stripes are angry and frustrated with national politics, he says. He shares their frustration, and tries to put it in perspective. “Democracy is messy,” Kennedy says. “It is a big, loud, noisy place, and we want it to be a big, loud, noisy place.”

He points to a photo on the office wall of him and his wife with Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., standing on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. That’s where Lewis was nearly beaten to death while marching for voting rights long before Kennedy, 37, was born. Lewis is “the most optimistic guy in Congress,” Kennedy says.

“As frustrated as I might be at the moment, there’s nothing I’ve gone through in my time here that could compare to the frustrations Mr. Lewis must have seen over the course of his life,” Kennedy says. “If he can still be optimistic given the long view of what he’s been through, then it’s worth taking a breath and saying ‘we will get through this.’”

 

 

 

 

Franken's punishment

I just finished reading Al Franken’s recent book, “Giant of the Senate,” which is pretty good, as biography/polemics by politicians goes. Franken is a gifted writer, a good liberal, a risk-taker in entertainment and politics, and a nice guy who is willing to admit it when he screws up. He also comes across as the most straitlaced man on the SNL set, still happily married to Frannie 30-something years.

Well, he screwed up again, and he’s paying for it. He kissed a woman without her consent and a photo shows him grinning at the camera while (maybe) groping her while she was asleep on an Air Force plane. Both incidents happened while the woman, model and radio newscaster Leann Tweeden, and Franken were performing together on a USO tour for troops stationed overseas.

I can see how Tweeden could feel violated by the photo. That’s her, and she’s asleep. But the photo also looks a lot more like sophomoric mugging than sexual assault. The UFO organizers included the photo in a souvenir DVD made for those on the tour, which says something about the context.

We can argue the fine points. But to equate what Franken did with the accusations a half-dozen women have made about Roy Moore’s pursuit of teenagers – or the allegations of harassment 16 women have made against Donald Trump – reeks of partisanship. Trump tweet-slapping Franken over sexual improprieties just reeks.

There’s an important discussion happening now about how men treat women. The list of celebrities and politicians accused of behavior ranging from inappropriate to criminal grows with each day’s headlines. But this isn’t just about celebrities. Sexual harassment and sexual assault happen daily in countless situations far from the spotlight. Turning allegations of misconduct into political footballs makes it harder to hear what women are saying about the times they have been mistreated.

Franken’s statement Thursday is a more worthy contribution to this discussion than Trump’s boorish tweets. Here it is in full:

"The first thing I want to do is apologize: to Leeann, to everyone else who was part of that tour, to everyone who has worked for me, to everyone I represent, and to everyone who counts on me to be an ally and supporter and champion of women. There's more I want to say, but the first and most important thing—and if it's the only thing you care to hear, that's fine—is: I'm sorry.

"I respect women. I don't respect men who don't. And the fact that my own actions have given people a good reason to doubt that makes me feel ashamed.

"But I want to say something else, too. Over the last few months, all of us—including and especially men who respect women—have been forced to take a good, hard look at our own actions and think (perhaps, shamefully, for the first time) about how those actions have affected women.

"For instance, that picture. I don't know what was in my head when I took that picture, and it doesn't matter. There's no excuse. I look at it now and I feel disgusted with myself. It isn't funny. It's completely inappropriate. It's obvious how Leeann would feel violated by that picture. And, what's more, I can see how millions of other women would feel violated by it—women who have had similar experiences in their own lives, women who fear having those experiences, women who look up to me, women who have counted on me.

"Coming from the world of comedy, I've told and written a lot of jokes that I once thought were funny but later came to realize were just plain offensive. But the intentions behind my actions aren't the point at all. It's the impact these jokes had on others that matters. And I'm sorry it's taken me so long to come to terms with that.

"While I don't remember the rehearsal for the skit as Leeann does, I understand why we need to listen to and believe women's experiences.

"I am asking that an ethics investigation be undertaken, and I will gladly cooperate.

"And the truth is, what people think of me in light of this is far less important than what people think of women who continue to come forward to tell their stories. They deserve to be heard, and believed. And they deserve to know that I am their ally and supporter. I have let them down and am committed to making it up to them.

Like I said, he’s a gifted writer.

As an editorial writer, I was never comfortable demanding anyone’s resignation, especially elected officials, over a personal scandal. Back in the late ‘80s, my paper called on Barney Frank to resign after he got mixed up with an escort, and I disagreed. Unlike Kirsten Gillibrand, I never thought Bill Clinton should resign over the Lewinsky affair. It’s up to voters to decide who they send to Washington, weighing personal and political issues as they see fit, not nosy outsiders - and especially those seeking partisan advantage.

Accountability comes in many ways. Barney Frank went on to have a great career and could still be in the House if he wanted to be. Ted Kennedy’s career survived Chappaquiddick, but he was never allowed to forget it. If more evidence comes to light that Franken is a terrible jerk, the voters of Minnesota will hold him accountable – and I won’t read any more of his books.

 

 

 

A confluence of rivers

I came to Harpers Ferry for the history, so I was surprised and stunned by the scenery. Here, the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers come together at a gap in the Blue Ridge. Jefferson came here in 1783 and admired the beauty. Naturalist that he was, he also saw forces at work. Here's what he wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia:

"The passage of the Patowmac through the Blue Ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature. You stand on a very high point of land. On your right comes up the Shenandoah, having ranged along the foot of the mountain a hundred miles to seek a vent. On your left approaches the Patowmac in quest of a passage also. In the moment of their junction they rush together against the mountain, rend it asunder and pass off to the sea. The first glance of this scene hurries our senses into the opinion that this earth has been created in time, that the mountains were formed first, that the rivers began to flow afterwards, that in this place particularly they have been so dammed up by the Blue Ridge of mountains as to have formed an ocean which filled the whole valley; that, continuing to rise, they have at last broken over at this spot and have torn the mountain down from its summit to its base. The piles of rock on each hand, but particularly on the Shenandoah, the evident marks of their disruptions and avulsions from their beds by the most powerful agents in nature, corroborate the impression.

"But the distant finishing which nature has given the picture is of a very different character. It is a true contrast to the former. It is as placid and delightful as that is wild and tremendous. For the mountains being cloven asunder, she presents to your eye, through the cleft, a small catch of smooth blue horizon, at an infinite distance in that plain country, inviting you, as it were, from the riot and tumult roaring around to pass through the breach and participate in the calm below. Here the eye ultimately composes itself; and that way, too, the road happens actually to lead. You cross the Patowmac above the junction, pass along its side through the base of the mountain for three miles, the terrible precipice hanging in fragments over you, and within about 20 miles reach Frederictown and the fine country around that. This scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic."

Democrats win in Virginia

IMG_6502.JPG

I got to Virginia just in time for the biggest political event of the year. The governor’s race here was the closest thing we’ve seen to a referendum on Trump and Trumpism, and the results were heartening. Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, a mild-mannered Democrat, beat Republican Ed Gillespie by 9 points. Here are a few things I read in the tea leaves:

-       Trumpism lost. Gillespie is an establishment swamp creature who was nearly beaten in the primary by a Trump-Bannon radical. Running scared, Gillespie changed his tune in the general, beating the drum in favor of Confederate statues and against sanctuary cities. It was supposed to fire up the base, but it probably cost him more votes than he gained.

-       Trump lost. Gillespie borrowed some of Trump’s hot-buttons, but he rarely mentioned him by name and he never asked the president to campaign with him. In all but the reddest states, Trump is a liability for Republicans. (Trump, with characteristic class, bad-mouthed Gillespie in an election night tweet.)

-       Trump’s issues lost. A CNN exit poll found that 37 percent of voters care most about health care; just 13 percent about immigration. Obamacare won. Democratic gains in the legislature means Virginia may expand Medicaid. Maine voters called for Medicaid expansion there as well, endorsing a referendum designed to overcome resistance from Trumpite Gov. Paul LePage. Also, Obamacare enrollment is exceeding expectations in the early going, despite Trump’s attempts to sabotage it.

-       For once, the Democrats got their people to the polls in a non-presidential year. I haven’t studied all the numbers yet, but it looks like turnout was the difference. Democrats also swept down-ballot races and came close to taking control of the House of Delegates.

-       Northam beat a candidate to his left in the Democratic primary, but it was a clean campaign and the party came together for the general. Northam, a pediatrician and Army vet who is moderate in politics and demeanor, kept his integrity and didn’t get down in the gutter. And he won big.

-       The candidate who appealed to unity and respect – Northam – beat the candidate, Gillespie, who sowed division and resentment. Thanks, Virginia.

We always make too much of off-cycle elections because there’s nothing else to talk about. Governor elections often don’t turn on national issues or reflect national trends. But sometimes they do. In 1965, a year after Barry Goldwater and Republicans had been crushed by LBJ’s landslide, John Lindsay, a handsome, liberal Republican, was elected mayor of New York. I remember a political cartoon showing a beat-up GOP elephant getting up from the mat in Manhattan, declaring “I’m alive!”

The Democrats are alive.

 

Finding Nathan Hale

The Nathan Hale statue outside the dorm where he studied at Yale.

The Nathan Hale statue outside the dorm where he studied at Yale.

Nathan Hale was a bad spy – he got drunk with some of the British troops he was spying on and basically confessed – but he had a memorable exit line. As the British put the noose around his neck, he said “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” Pro-independence propagandists and generations of American history teachers took that line and ran with it.

Hale was a Yale grad, and a handsome statue of Hale stands outside the student dorm that bears his name. According to Yale tour guide Scott Hicks, the CIA wanted the statue of America’s first spy to adorn its new headquarters in Langley, Va., but Yale said no way. So some CIA spooks snuck into the Old Campus in the dark of night, made a wax mold of the Hale statue and had a copy made. Now an exact likeness of Nathan Hall stands at CIA HQ.

But it’s not much of a likeness. When he was hung for espionage, Hale was a young man of little renown, and there were no drawings of him or even descriptions of his appearance. So the artist lined up all the men of Yale’s class of 1920 and chose the “typical” Yalie, to stand in for Nathan Hale.

He does look like a dashing, 20th century Ivy Leaguer, but neither the statue in the Old Campus, nor the replica the CIA stole for Langley, look like Nathan Hale.

 

Crow people on parade

The Absaalooke people, also known as Crow, have pitched their teepees and the valleys and grasslands around the Little Bighorn River for centuries. They still do.

Every August, they return for the Crow Fair for five days of rodeos, dancing and good cheer in Crow Agency, Montana. They pitch their teepees, park their campers and build small corals for their horses. It’s a family reunion and a celebration of Native culture.

Every morning during the fair, people put on their finest outfits and parade their horses through the campgrounds. It’s a feast for the eyes. Here are a few pictures.

Beyond Red and White

IMG_3971.JPG

In my column this week, I argue that we get closer to truth, empathy and unity by making popular history more complicated - by telling everyone's stories. Let me elaborate.

The Indian Memorial was designed to express "Peace Through Unity," which is a historical reference to the fact that not all tribes fought on the same side (two tribes, the Crow (Apsalooke) and the Arikara, provided about 50 scouts to Custer's 7th Cavalry) and an aspiration.

A memorial a couple of miles down the road (shown above) illustrates why. The Mystic Warrior statue is in the center of a park on the Crow reservation honoring all Apsaalooke veterans. A plaque explains that the statue commemorates a battle in 1860 or 1861 - 15 years before Custer's battle - in which the Crows, outnumbered 10-t0-one, defeated an invasion by an alliance of Lakota Sioux, Cheyennes and Arapahos intent on taking away what had long been Crow territory. That's the main reason Chief Plenty Coups, leader of the Crow, agreed to treaties with the white man. The chief had also had visions telling him white men would eventually rule his tribe's vast homeland.

Some of those feelings have persisted. Native American protests against the treatment of Indians in the Little Bighorn narrative were led by Sioux activists. Some Crow members have complained that some of the red marble markers describe fallen warriors as having "died defending his homeland and the Sioux way of life." This wasn't their homeland, say the Crow, this was our homeland the Sioux were invading.

Thus the "Peace Through Unity" aspiration. Conflicts between indigenous North American tribes goes back millennia. Tribal alliances to either oppose or support European factions started as soon as the white men hit the shores. White leaders have always tried to divide Native tribes; Native leaders have always tried to unite them - some leaders, at least.

American history isn't all black and white. Or all red and white. Or, for that matter, all red and blue. The shades of nuance are easy to see if you look in the right places.

 

Chasing the eclipse

I find myself in the position to chase Monday’s solar eclipse, if only I could come up with a strategy.

I’m now in Billings, Montana, which seems to be as close to the Path of Totality – I love that phrase – as I can afford. Rooms much closer to the magic path cost $1,000 or more.

So I’m thinking: Do I drive into the path, find a long dirt road and sleep in my rented car? It’s more than three hours to where I can see the total eclipse. Do I drive hours into Wyoming, watch the sky for 20 minutes, then turn around and drive back? Do I find some cool place in Billings and just enjoy the partial eclipse?

Further complicating things, I don’t have any eclipse-watching sunglasses, and doubt I’ll find any now.

Anyone have any suggestions?

Montanans at the Fair

It's state fair season, and I got to Billings just in time for MontanaFair, the biggest agricultural and entertainment expo in the Big Sky State.

I didn't draw any big conclusions from my day at the fair, but I had a pretty good cowpie (basically a cheeseburger grilled, then wrapped in dough and deep-fried) and I took bunch of pictures.

Into the Big Sky Country

For my first full day in Montana, I took on the Beartooth Highway, one of America's great roads. It starts in Red Lodge, south of Billings, and climbs the mountains to Cook City and the northern entrance to Yellowstone National Park. At Bearfoot Pass - elevation nearly 11,000 feet - you get above the tree line where there's snow, silvan mountain lakes and beautiful alpine meadows.

It's hazy in the northwest, smoky from wildfires raging from here to British Columbia, about which I expect I'll have more to say, but beautiful nonetheless. Here are a few pictures.

While in Montana, I hope to visit the Crow Reservation (and the Little Bighorn battlefield), Glacier National Park and other sights along the way. Today I'm headed to the Montana State Fair. Any suggestions for things to do in Montana would be welcomed.

Gettysburg up close

The "witness tree" above Devil's Den.

The "witness tree" above Devil's Den.

There are maybe half a dozen “witness trees” in Gettysburg – trees documented to have been alive on the days the Civil War came to town.

One stands at the top of the rockpile known as Devil’s Den. Confederate sharp-shooters hid amid its boulders, picking off Union soldiers on the hill above them, known as Little Round Top. The Union soldiers fired back, with cannons as well as rifles, as bodies filled the small space between the lines. The flat spot to one side of the white oak is known as the “Slaughter Pen.” To the other side is the “Valley of Death.”

It’s a wonder anything stuck in this haunted place survived, but the little oak did.

For those who care about history, the value in visiting a battlefield comes from being able to put great events in human scale. Here you can see how close the opposing soldiers were to each other, imagine how terrifying it must have been to charge up that hill, understand how vulnerable every soldier was.

Here are a few pictures from that corner of this sprawling battlefield.

The view from Little Round Top.

The view from Little Round Top.

 

Looking down on Devil's Den from Little Round Top.

Looking down on Devil's Den from Little Round Top.

Another view of the Devil's Den witness tree

Another view of the Devil's Den witness tree

Pittsburgh shines

Pittsburgh was long known as "Smoky City," with the dirtiest air in the U.S. But the day we got there - the 4th of July, as it happened - the place sparkled. There's a story in Pittsburgh's transformation that I hope to tell in my next column.

Meanwhile, I thought I'd share a few pictures. Above is the view from atop Mount Washington, which used to be called Coal Hill. We climbed the cliff on board the Duquesne Incline, an ancient contraption that is dramatic and a little scary. Below is one view from inside the car. Finally, three 'Burghers celebrating Independence Day.

'I Miss America'

It was foggy day on Hogback Mountain. The sign on the long-closed restaurant advertised “100 Mile View,” but you couldn’t see anything that day. I stopped anyway. Just before leaving, I saw the sticker on the guardrail. “I miss America,” it said.

It’s haunted me ever since. Who put it there? Does it date from the Obama administration or the Trump administration? Is it about politics or something deeper? What is it about America that we miss?

I’ve come up with a few ideas, but I’d really like to hear yours.

I miss seeing kids playing pick-up games at the park during summer vacation. I miss the days when we didn’t let “stranger danger” ruin childhood.

I miss elections where candidates tried to appeal to the center, not just fire up the base.

I miss the America that had a functioning Congress, where decisions were made, deals were struck and leaders treated each other with respect.

I miss an America where everything wasn’t turned into an over-hyped controversy, where people, media and parties didn’t find so much profit in driving us apart.

I miss an America where Americans weren’t so hyphenated.

I miss a time when the American president was the leader of the free world, when America was respected by other nations, in part because we stood for something besides self-interest.

I miss the America where schools taught grammar, civics and the proper use of the word literally.

I miss the America where facts were facts, authority figures had authority and where science and expertise counted for something.

Sorry to launch a holiday weekend on a down note, but this is a moment that calls for reflection on the state of our nation. So reflect with me, if you will, by dropping me a note at rick@rickholmes.net. What do you miss about America?