A Walk in the Park - Armchair adventures

Written by LeMoyne Mercer. Posted in Taking Care of Your Life

Dealing with shelter-at-home and social distancing has provided ample opportunities for reflection, reading, and other hobbies. Plus keeping in touch with friends in Toledo and those who went to Arizona—where Shirley and I were supposed to be. Our winter trip was cancelled not because of the virus (which was not yet an issue on Dec. 28, our planned departure date) but by Shirley’s hip-replacement surgery. By the time she was physically mobile, we were no longer RV mobile because the whole world was shutting down. One reader emailed to suggest that the surgery turned out to be a blessing in disguise as state and national parks closed campgrounds and non-essential travel was discouraged.

So, with no winter trip, I gave some thought to plans for the summer. Last fall, a return to Alaska sounded like a good idea. By mid-winter, it was becoming somewhat less attractive because of the uncertainties we are still facing. Shirley proposed northern New Mexico and southern Colorado for some fly fishing as an option—assuming that summer brings relief. Fortunately, the way we travel provides considerable flexibility and we can have the RV prepped and packed within 24 hours.

While we were stuck at home, I took consolation in my digital photo files and travel journals as well as some of our old home videos. If we couldn’t get out for actual adventures, we could at least take refuge in armchair adventures.

My early videos did not benefit from editing software, so what I shot was what we got. Or what Shirley shot. While I drove across the Mackinac Bridge on June 24, 1990, for example, she did the taping with enthusiastic advice and encouragement from Sarah and Jessica in the back seat. She had the adjustable viewfinder pointed at the Straights of Mackinac, but the lens itself was pointed straight up so she did not see what she expected to see. After two minutes and nine seconds, according to the time stamp on the video, Jessica figured it out. The video portion is random and out of focus, but the family discussion on the audio is priceless.

Another home video classic is visually stunning but an audio disappointment. On the crest of Maui’s Mt. Haleakala for the sunrise, Shirley and I stood in hushed metaphysical awe as the sun peaked over the far rim of the caldera. Also Sprach Zarathustra was playing vigorously inside my head. Then, the fellow next to me stentoriously announced, “Ah, the dawn of a new day!” As Bugs would say, “What a maroon! What an ignoranamus!”

Truth be told, almost all of the running video commentary I have provided over the years was at least that inane. Fortunately, with more recent technology I can replace that inanity—most of it anyway—with a music soundtrack.

Reviewing those ancient videos during the self quarantine brought to mind a WXYZ Detroit TV program from the late 1950s and ’60s. Raise your hand if you remember George Pierrot’s World Adventure Series. George was a traveler who used to show his travelogues at the Detroit Institute of Art before he got the WXYZ gig. He invited his TV guests to show their own Super 8 or 16mm movies (no soundtracks) with in-studio narrative about the running of the bulls in Pamplona or climbing all 3,000 steps at Machu Picchu. The quality of the guest’s live narrative sometimes made viewers wish they had a remote with a handy mute button. (Maybe someday there would be such a boon to humanity.) Occasionally even George himself was caught on camera taking a little nap while his guest yammered away.

There was a time when friends who said they admired our travels were rewarded with a private screening of my videos. Everybody is socially obligated to say they would just love to see your home videos or slides or photos. Recipients of such flattery are also socially obligated to not actually believe it. When, like George Pierrot, people drift off during your screening or suddenly remember they left a roast in the oven, you should take a hint. Which, eventually, I did. Eventually.

The usual trajectory for family videos is that they are fascinating (at least to the family) for about one or two viewings; then they are forgotten for several decades; then they are resurrected to laughter as we acknowledge how ludicrous a mullet or an O.J. Afro looked; then they bring tears when we are old enough to cherish how wonderful our children were. And still are. Forgive me. I find that I am becoming quite a maudlin old woman.

So, let us return to the armchair adventures. I usually associate adventures with wildlife encounters, though perhaps “adventure” is too strong a word. Friends with limited experience are inclined to think that encounters with wildlife involve some level of danger. Or, at least, potential danger. On the boardwalk in Everglades National Park, for example, the fellow next to me knelt to get a picture of a sleeping alligator. Suddenly the “sleeping” gator lunged up at him. He tumbled over backwards like an Olympic gymnast. “Boy,” he said, “that’ll get your heart pumping!”

Fortunately, we have experienced far more of the potential kind of danger than the actual kind. Even so, there have been close calls. At Colter Bay Campground in Grand Teton National Park, Shirley and I noticed two young men back in the woods. Naturally, I went to see what they were up to. One had a clip board and a long tape measure on a big reel. His colleague held the other end of the tape and a life-size plywood silhouette of a bear. His job was to take the silhouette farther into the woods until his partner called out “Can’t see you anymore!” At which point clipboard boy would write down the distance.

Turns out they were doing official Park Service research on how far you can see a bear in the woods. It seemed to me that there were way too many uncontrolled variables in the research. What kinds of trees? How much undergrowth? What season of the year? They acknowledged that it made little sense to them either, but if you are college kids getting paid by the government plus the right to add “wildlife statistical research” to your resume, well, you don’t have to agree, you just do what you’re told.

I suggested that next year they might research that timeless question “Do bears defecate in the woods?”

“Of course, they do,” said clipboard boy. “The Charmin people already verified that.”

Later, Shirley and I went up Crystal Creek to scout potential fly fishing access points. We pushed through head-high streamside willows to a clearing where someone had built a fire ring. The willows formed a hedge around the clearing and extended as far as the lodgepole pine forest. I don’t know exactly how far that was because I didn’t bring a long tape measure and a clipboard. Maybe 20 feet or so. But we did find out how far you can see a bear in the woods. Maybe 20 feet or so. He nonchalantly emerged from the cover of the willows pretending he didn’t even know we were there. Even with the sound of the stream, he must have heard us talking. Smelled us, too, undoubtedly. Taking a hint from the bear, we moved as nonchalantly as possible back towards the RV, occasionally glancing over our shoulders. Running would have been totally futile given the superior speed of bears. Plus, if you behave like prey you tend to get treated like prey. Of course, we had brought neither bear spray for protection nor a camera to record the encounter for the benefit of whoever might have found our remains.

In 2017 we were at Mammoth Campground in Yellowstone. We are accustomed to watching herds of elk wander right through the campground on their way from the Gardiner River to feed on the tender, irrigated lawns up in the town of Mammoth. It is important to stay within a few steps of the safety of the RV because bull elk can get a little touchy. The cows often give birth right in the campground. When they are feeling protective of newborn calves, they can become a little touchy as well. Now, Shirley is a retired OB nurse. She insists that stories of post-partum mothers “going all postal on you” are purely mythical. Misogynistic too.

Even so, on the afternoon of June 4, we were sitting in the shade of our awning, sipping Elijah Craig with some of her excellent homemade pimiento cheese and crackers. A woman from Palo Alto stopped to chat—perhaps hoping that we might offer some of the bourbon. Then an elk cow came down the road gathering speed as she headed straight for Palo Alto lady. Who immediately made good use of her fluorescent orange running shoes. I took off my hat and waved it while yelling, “Hey! You play nice now!” Which the elk did. Plopped right down in the tall grass near our rig. This is when Shirley started calling me the Elk Whisperer.

Unfortunately, the incident generated expectations that the performance could be repeated as often as required. My grandfather used to say, “Don’t let your mouth write checks that your butt can’t cash.” The next afternoon, my bank account was nearly overdrawn.

In a neighboring campsite were Grandma and five-year-old Kiley. They spotted an elk on the side of the ridge and went to get a closer look. It turned out to be good ol’ Mrs. Grumpy Elk. She took exception to their proximity and turned toward them in a threatening manner. So I grabbed my trusty elk deterrent hat and ran uphill as fast as I could, yelling as loud as I could. Considering the angle of the slope, the 8,000 feet elevation, and my age, the yelling was more like the pitiful mewing of a kitten. And as fast as I could run was more like a stampeding herd of turtles.

I told Grandma and Kiley to make their way behind me, very slowly so as not to further excite the elk, and take refuge in a nearby clump of junipers. Then, still very slowly, to continue down the slope. Meanwhile, I engaged Mrs. Grumpy Elk in what was intended as soothing, distracting conversation of a non-political nature. Which worked just fine. For several seconds anyway. Then her ears came forward, her nostrils flared, and she surged ahead until we were playing musical chairs around a waist-high sage bush. Was I daunted? Not a bit. I have been married 50 years. A crazy old elk woman is no big deal.

In a somewhat similar vein, “LeMoyne, get in the car!” has become a catch phrase with our girls. (It must be uttered in the same tone as “Lucy, you got a lotta ‘splainin’ to do!”) Even four decades later, they post photos on Facebook when they come across any large quadruped with a sloppy, wet tongue fully extended. Here’s why.

On July 15, 1980, we were driving through Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota on our way to Mt. Rushmore. I spotted a herd of wild burros in the shade of some trees across a meadow. Naturally, I left the car and went for a closer look. The burros lifted their heads. They were curious too, so they ambled over to meet me.

Now, Shirley was concerned that their apparent curiosity might be a prelude to unpleasantness. So she uttered that immortal phrase for the very first time. I complied, of course. Not because I was daunted, mind you, but because I am an especially loving, respectful, and compliant husband.

When I was safely on board, she hit the button to raise all the windows. Just in time, too. We were surrounded like Custer at the Little Bighorn. The burro at her window extended a long, wet tongue and gave it a great big slurp. This prompted her to hit the button locking the doors. (A particularly clever burro might be able to lift a latch.) The girls thought it was simply hilarious. Today even their children know that “LeMoyne, get in the car!” need not have anything to do with a car. Its private, family meaning is “Stop your foolishness right this minute!”

As for the dangers posed by snakes, we need not even go into that. Many of you already know that I never worry about them because I have a woman who hikes ahead to kick them off the trail. Which is yet another reason that, after all these years, traveling with Shirley is still just a walk in the park.

LeMoyne Mercer is the travel editor for Healthy Living News. There is limited space here for LeMoyne’s photos. You might want to see more at anotherwalkinthepark.blogspot.com. Please leave comments on the site.