Atop a nameless mountain in western British Columbia, surrounded by a cloud and struggling to keep my balance in knee-deep snow, I inspect my transceiver while our heli-skiing guide demonstrates how to probe for bodies in the event of an avalanche. Just minutes ago, helicopters lifted our group of 10 skiers and three guides from the deck of M/Y Absinthe, and we now have an area 200 times the size of Vail all to ourselves.
Absinthe, the 201-foot megayacht that serves as our homebase, is moored nearby in Toba Inlet, which stretches east into the British Columbia mainland at the upper tip of the Strait of Georgia. Our journey began at the Whistler Blackcomb resort, where my fellow skiers and I spent a day on the slopes before buckling ourselves into three helicopters for a half-hour flight to our yacht in Drew Harbour. Over the next five days, we would anchor in two inlets, Toba and Jarvis; cruise south to Vancouver through the Canadian Inside Passage; and end our trip in Port Angeles, Wash.
Absinthe’s captain, Roy Cooper, pilots his boat to locations from which its onboard helicopter can shuttle guests to outdoor adventures—skiing the peaks of British Columbia in late winter and early spring, hiking Alaskan glaciers in summer, or fishing remote holes in Costa Rica and Panama from September through February, when the yacht cruises Central America’s Pacific coast. Other charter yachts laden with the kayaks, Sea-Doos, mountain bikes, and other toys Absinthe carries might access the same waters, but none of them, according to the captain, offers the freedom of mobility that his vessel does. “They don’t have the helicopter,” says Cooper, a veteran of several charter yachts. “They wouldn’t be in the mountains; they wouldn’t be fly-fishing . . . . I don’t know any commercial boat that’s doing this kind of thing at all.”
The expedition components to an Absinthe trip are only part of its appeal. The yacht’s teak decks, mahogany rails, and colorful, comfortable furnishings contrast with the glass-and-steel sterility of many modern vessels. Spiral staircases and a grand piano contribute to the maritime nostalgia, as does Absinthe’s age: The yacht was built in 1973, although it relaunched in June 2005 after a 24-month refit. The new decor and amenities draw from the yacht’s winter and summer home in the Pacific Northwest. Native American sculptures and paintings adorn the interiors, and executive chef Steve Ridley prepares such local delicacies as tamari-marinated black cod and roast caribou tenderloin.
Absinthe accommodates a maximum of 12 guests in its cabins and staterooms, which can be reconfigured to provide more privacy and space for smaller groups. But even with a large crew (in our case, 25 staff members, most of whom stay aboard a smaller boat that accompanies Absinthe), the yacht never feels crowded, thanks to its lounges, decks, media room, library, and eight-person hot tub.
One afternoon, our crew showcases the spontaneity Absinthe affords by shuttling us—and the food and equipment for a barbecue—in the helicopter to a large snow cave that one of the guides had spotted earlier in the day. We dine on grilled steaks and chicken at the mouth of the cave before heading back to the yacht. The next day, a cloud cover prevents us from traveling to the heli-skiing slopes, so we take a chopper ride to a remote river, where we land bull trout under the direction of fly-fishing guide Peter Norie.
The skies are clear the following morning—at least, that is, until we land on the peak above Toba Inlet. But the cloud surrounding us on the mountaintop does not discourage our heli-skiing guide, Chris Korthals. “Follow my tracks,” he says before carving a series of perfect turns down the steep slope. I gather my nerve and shove off, cutting my own zigzag pattern to the left of his tracks.
Within minutes, the cloud has engulfed the mountaintop, making our scheduled lunch spot inaccessible. Pilot Steve Flynn picks us up, improvises, and touches down on a bank of the Toba River. The guides set out sandwiches and pour Champagne, and we eat our lunch on the beach, wearing ski boots in the sand.
When the Pentagon learned it possessed $16 billion of ammunition that was banned by international treaty or had become obsolete or unusable, the organization that oversees the United States military spent $1 billion to destroy it, according to a Government Accountability Office report. Some of the destroyed ammunition, however, may have been usable.
In order to warn the country about attacks by cruise missiles, drones or other low-flying weapons, the Pentagon spent $2.7 billion over the last 18 years on a system known as JLENS, which has repeatedly proven to be inadequate, according to The Los Angeles Times. And four missile-defense systems were scrapped after the military spent $10 billion to develop them.
The Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) was meant to be the backbone of the surface combat fleet. However, according to the Center for International Policy, “The LCS is fundamentally under-armed, under-armored and under-crewed, giving it limited utility in littoral (near shore) waters and making it a non-asset in terms of surface combat strength.” In addition, each ship was supposed to cost $480 million to become “mission ready,” yet the first four ships cost $780 million each. One LCS, the USS Milwaukee, suffered a complete loss of propulsion and had to be towed to port 20 days into her maiden voyage.
In Afghanistan, “the Air Force scrapped half a billion dollars worth of transport planes meant for the Afghan air arm,” according to warisboring.com. And since 1997, the Pentagon has spent $32 billion on cancelled weapons programs, according to The Washington Post.
Only a few among thousands, these examples show that whether expanding the nation’s territory, beating back the threat of communism, fighting the war on terror, cloaking themselves in the American flag or invoking national security, the military and multi-billion-dollar defense contractors continue to pick the pockets of U.S. taxpayers.
At the start of the 20th century, defense spending was about 1 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). During World War II, it peaked at nearly 36 percent and has never been less than 3.5 percent since, according to the Congressional Research Service and usgovernmentspending.com.
After President Barack Obama proposed his first budget, politicians accused his administration of eviscerating the military. Yet in a 2009 speech to the Economic Club of Chicago, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who served eight presidents, said, “In total, by one estimate, our budget adds up to about what the entire rest of the world combined spends on defense. Only in the parallel universe that is Washington, D.C., would that be considered ‘gutting’ defense.”
In order to slow down the rate at which the Pentagon burns through taxpayers’ money, Congress passed the 2011 Budget Control Act, which limits defense spending through fiscal year 2021. Yet the proposed 2017 budget, if approved, will still give $582.7 billion to the Department of Defense (DoD), including $58.8 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO), which funds fighting terrorism in Iraq and nation-building there, as well as the war in Afghanistan, the longest in U.S. history. The OCO has been called a “slush fund” because it “provides the Pentagon with a relatively flexible source of funds that has been protected from legislated cuts made to all other federal discretionary spending,” according to the National Priorities Project. Even after the Budget Control Act, the military accounts for more than 50 percent of all federal discretionary funds.
FILLING UP ON PORK
When asked about wasteful military programs, Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, sent a boilerplate response via email that embraced the status quo and celebrated pork-barrel politics. It read, in part, “The 2017 budget shows a continued focus on protecting the homeland, building security globally, and projecting power to win decisively. I am pleased that the budget includes funding for Virginia shipbuilding, including $3 billion for the continuation of the Ford Class carrier program and over $1.9 billion in funding for the refueling and complex overhauls of USS George Washington (CVN 73) and USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74).”
Kaine’s responsibilities, of course, include fighting for his constituents’ jobs, and he is certainly not the only politician willing to rubber-stamp any military expenditures that affect their states. For example, the late Sen. Daniel Inouye, a Democrat from Hawaii who spent two decades on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, took pride in his ability to bring home the bacon. According to a book by William D. Hartung titled, Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex, Inouye described himself as “‘the #1 guy for earmarks’…. Inouye brought home over $206 million in 2009 alone…. In return, Inouye had received over $117,000 in campaign contributions since January 2007 from companies that benefited from his earmarks, with over half coming from Lockheed Martin.”
Therein lies the problem. America obviously needs to defend itself against numerous dangerous regimes and organizations, and defense contractors will always participate in that process. Because Congress controls the funding, however, when politicians pass laws that keep themselves in office in exchange for campaign contributions while bandying around “patriotism,” “terrorism” and “national security,” the distinctions among defense, politics and commerce blur. And Americans have a right to be cynical.
In his book Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, Gates wrote about speaking to senators who “made sure to acquaint me with the important defense industries in their states and pitch for my support to those shipyards, depots, bases, and related sources of jobs. I was dismayed that in the middle of fighting two wars [in Iraq and Afghanistan], such parochial issues were so high on their priority list."
And referring to unnecessary engines for the controversial F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, Gates wrote, “Defense was spending hundreds of millions of dollars each year to support a program that, again, we didn’t want, didn’t need, and couldn’t afford. Facts and logic play no part in debates on the Hill when jobs at home are at stake.”
In Prophets of War, Hartung wrote, “As Harry Stonecipher, then Vice President of Lockheed Martin’s chief rival Boeing, put it in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, ‘the purse is now open,’ and ‘any member of Congress who doesn’t vote for the funds we need to defend this country will be looking for a new job after next November.’”
MORE THAN THEIR SHARE
Inefficiency, greed and corruption among the military and its suppliers have been rampant since this country’s inception, and defense has always facilitated commerce. In a letter to his brother in 1778, General George Washington railed against the suppliers who overcharged his army, writing, “There is such a thirst for gain, and such infamous advantages taken to forestall, & engross those articles which the army cannot do without, thereby enhancing the cost of them to the public fifty or a hundred prCt, that it is enough to make one curse their own Species, for possessing so little virtue & patriotism.”
On March 27, 1794, President Washington signed “An Act to Provide a Naval Armament,” which authorized the purchase or construction of six frigates. According to the book The People’s Navy—The Making of American Sea Power by Kenneth J. Hagan, the cost of the ships quickly doubled the amount Congress had appropriated for them. Because Algiers pirates had captured 11 U.S. merchant ships, Massachusetts Rep. Fisher Ames said, “Our commerce is on the point of being annihilated, and, unless the armament [of ships] is fitted out, we may very soon expect the Algerines on the coast of America.”
During the Civil War, “contractors had free rein in their sales to the government, sometimes with the assistance of greedy military men,” according to The New York Times. To fight this corruption, the House of Representatives in 1861 created the Select Committee on Government Contracts. Rep. Charles Van Wyck said the committee was necessary to counter “the mania for stealing … almost from the general to the drummer boy.”
The Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program, known as the Truman Committee, was established in 1941 after Missouri Sen. Harry S. Truman traveled around the country to investigate spending on military bases and at corporations that did business with the government. Addressing the double standard he saw in the way Republicans thought, Truman said, “Every 10 cents that was spent for those relief projects … was looked into … but the minute we started spending all that defense money, the sky was the limit and no questions were asked,” according to Bruce S. Jansson’s book, The Sixteen-Trillion-Dollar Mistake. The Truman Committee is estimated to have saved the country $15 billion in 1940s dollars.
In the speech he gave before leaving office in 1961, President Dwight D. (Ike) Eisenhower said, “We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations….
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
IKE PREDICTED THE PAST
Though Eisenhower warned the American people against a military-industrial complex that threatened to dominate the country’s future, he could just as easily have pointed to the corporate-driven imperialism and military buildup that had largely defined the previous six decades.
Major General Smedley Butler, the only U.S. Marine ever to be awarded the Brevet Medal and two Medals of Honor, spent more than 33 years in the Corps. In a 1933 speech, he said, “I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912…. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.”
Having laid out the “why” of U.S. foreign policy, Butler described in his 1935 book, War is a Racket, how the politicians and corporations convinced soldiers to do their bidding: “Beautiful ideals were painted for our boys who were sent out to die. This was the ‘war to end all wars.’ This was the ‘war to make the world safe for democracy.’ No one mentioned to them, as they marched away, that their going and their dying would mean huge war profits. No one told these American soldiers that they might be shot down by bullets made by their own brothers here. No one told them that the ships on which they were going to cross might be torpedoed by submarines built with United States patents. They were just told it was to be a ‘glorious adventure.’”
Military expansion has continued to grow exponentially. According to Politico, “Despite recently closing hundreds of bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States still maintains nearly 800 military bases in more than 70 countries and territories abroad—from giant ‘Little Americas’ to small radar facilities. Britain, France and Russia, by contrast, have about 30 foreign bases combined.”
Retired Army Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff for former Secretary of State Colin Powell, decries America’s unprecedented military expansion. In an email to Freedom, Wilkerson said the fact that the U.S. spends so much on defense relative to other countries “should tell the American people that their tax dollars are ill-used and their national security budget is far in excess to the nation’s security needs. That budget is now over one trillion dollars annually. That’s [Department of Energy’s] nuclear program, [Veterans Affair’s] veterans support, the intelligence community’s budget, [Department of] State’s international affairs budget, and DoD’s funding. We could cut that budget 100 billion per year for a decade, saving a trillion dollars, and we would improve our national security, not hurt it, and we would free up dollars for much-needed other tasks, such as refurbishment of our crumbling infrastructure—bridges, roads, water systems, and so on.”
BREAKING THE LAW
The Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990 requires that every federal agency be audited. The Pentagon, however, has never been subject to such financial scrutiny, “leaving roughly 8.5 trillion in taxpayer dollars unaccounted for since 1996, the first year it was supposed to be audited,” according to a 2013 investigation by Reuters. Every time Congress approves another defense budget, the DoD breaks the law and avoids accountability for its wasteful practices.
Each branch of the military employs its own accounting systems. In fact, the DoD uses as many as 2,100—and perhaps as many as 5,000—separate accounting systems, very few of which communicate with each other. The Air Force, for example, spent seven years and $1.03 billion on the Expeditionary Combat Support System (ECSS), which was supposed to replace hundreds of outdated systems so that it could track hardware. In 2012, the Air Force killed the program because it proved to be “no longer a viable option.”
The Reuters investigation determined “… the lack of reliable accounts—Pentagon staff routinely insert billions of dollars a year of false accounting entries to cover missing information—conceals huge sums lost to waste, fraud and mismanagement.”
A report by the Defense Business Board said the Pentagon’s logistics systems “have contributed to longer lead times, excess inventory and stockpiling, duplicative activities and systems, inadequate performance measurements, and increased costs.” And the Defense Logistics Agency, which orders, stores and distributes supplies for all branches of the military, built an accounting system that cost more than $2 billion. The system could not produce financial statements required for an audit, according to a DoD report.
In addition to the Pentagon’s logistical labyrinth frequently causing active service members and veterans not to be paid, it also violates the Arms Export Control Act. This law requires the DoD to obtain assurances that armaments will be secured by those countries it supplies with weapons. Yet the Defense Security Cooperation Agency that monitors those shipments has been unable to keep track of hundreds of thousands of weapons, including tanks, in Iraq. Patrick Wilcken of Amnesty International stated in a report that the terrorist organization ISIS has received a “substantial portion” of its weapons from Iraqi army stocks.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, a Republican from Texas, told Military Times that service members have said they have to buy supplies themselves, because if they were to order routine items, they would arrive in three to four months, if at all. “You have folks out there doing their job and they can’t get a pen from the federal government procurement system. It just makes you think, “My gosh, can’t we do better than this?” Thornberry asked.
Of the Pentagon’s lack of accountability, Wilkerson said, “It is reprehensible that the Congress continues to allow the DoD to escape this statutory requirement to tell the American people where their tax dollars are going.”
FROM TOILET SEATS TO AIRCRAFT CARRIERS
Defense contractors have been pilloried for producing $600 toilet seats and $7,000 coffee pots. Though he did not want to go on record, a former employee of McDonnell Douglas, which was purchased by Boeing, explained to Freedom how costs rise and how the process can change. “If I were trying to reduce contract costs, I’d look at eliminating cost-plus contracts, which encourage overruns. Better to have fixed-price contracts where feasible. I’d also look at the military tendency to add new requirements as the design progresses, which increases costs. And I’d have a secondary contract winner to act as a second source to keep the primary source honest and not jack up prices,” he said.
Of course, he has retired from the industry, so he doesn’t have the vested interest he once did in maintaining the status quo. Because trillions of dollars are at stake, the military, defense contractors and many members of Congress seem only to give lip service to the idea that pork should be cut, waste should be eliminated and the parties involved should be held accountable.
One senator who does care, however, is John McCain, a Republican from Arizona. He was an outspoken critic of the much-maligned F-22 Raptor aircraft and is not a fan of the F-35, produced primarily by Lockheed Martin.
On the Senate floor, Sen. McCain said, “… when we look at a program such as this, where it exceeded its original cost estimates by more than $15 billion and more than five years of delay, and there are still problems with the most expensive weapons system in history, and the first time $1 trillion is being spent on one weapons system, we need to do a lot better.”
Yet improving would require the process to change. As stated in Prophets of War, “the first 350 F-35s were going to be produced before full testing had occurred. The maxim of ‘fly before you buy’ had been violated in yet another program, with costly consequences for the budget as well as for the product’s performance.”
Hartung told Freedom that what Lockheed Martin usually does is “bid a little lower than they know it will cost,” then the company makes money on cost overruns and award fees. “They manipulated the system,” he said, referring to the F-35 promotion, acquisition and production process.
In order to decrease the exorbitant costs and prevalent waste generated by the military-industrial complex, Hartung said, “You would need a more assertive Congress or a president who really made it his or her business to make this a priority.”
Speaking to the Senate, McCain said, “Unless we fix this cost-overrun problem, the American people will stop supporting spending money on defense. That is just a fact. It is time we in Congress exercised much greater oversight, much greater scrutiny, much greater questioning, both before, during and after the acquisition process.”
However, Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has written extensively about the military, told Freedom that considering the enormity of the Pentagon, he doesn’t consider the DoD to be “super wasteful,” and he thinks nearly all of the weapons systems are worth their costs.
Yet in Duty, Gates acknowledges that the Cold War is over and warfare has changed, diminishing the need for aircraft carriers and nuclear weapons. “In fact, after Vietnam, when we used our military—in Grenada, Lebanon, Libya (twice), Panama, Haiti, the Balkans, and elsewhere—it was usually in relatively small-scale but messy combat.”
STARTING FROM SCRATCH
Wilkerson believes the way the Pentagon operates needs to be overhauled. “New technologies such as [artificial intelligence], robotics, nano-engineering, 3D-printing … allow hundred-thousand-dollar weapons to defeat these hugely expensive legacy systems. So-called ‘drones’ swimming under the ocean surface, for example, and amply armed with mines and missiles, can hunt out and destroy the billion-dollar systems such as carriers and subs…. But these legacy systems are built by the big, influential defense contractors. The drones are built by small, innovative start-ups. Therefore, the large contractors, who have Congress in their back-pockets, fight to prevent these developments.”
In Duty, Gates suggests methods by which the Pentagon can bring down costs: “wherever possible, build prototypes of new equipment, and don’t start production until testing is complete and problems have been resolved; freeze requirements early in the process…. demand accountability—be willing to fire government project managers or contractor managers if programs go off the rails; finally, the secretary of defense has to get his (or her) hands dirty overseeing all this, getting knowledgeable enough about the big programs, and keeping up to speed on progress to be able to know when to blow the whistle if things go awry."
Based on the history of the military-industrial complex, though, the powers that be don’t seem likely to adopt Gates’ suggestions. Wilkerson’s belief that the country’s political decisions are driven in large part by the military-industrial complex may be more realistic than cynical.
“One of the reasons that the Clinton administration wanted to expand NATO—and this after the previous President H.W. Bush had promised Gorbachev that we would not expand the alliance—was to allow U.S. defense contractors who were heavy contributors to the Democrat's campaign coffers and [Political Action Committees] to have more countries to which they could sell their weapon systems like the F-16 and ballistic missile defense,” Wilkerson told Freedom. “The NATO expansion is strategically ludicrous in military terms…. Imagine, for example, a Russian attack on Georgia to which the American people would support an armed response. Yet that is what Article V of the NATO Treaty calls for. It's absurd to think Americans would support such a response.
“So, one has to ask the fundamental question: If the expansion of NATO is not for national security—indeed, is counter to that security—then what is it for?”
Jacob Hornberger, an author and the founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation, expanded Wilkerson’s argument. He told Freedom, “The entire national security state apparatus should be dismantled, including the Pentagon, the CIA, the NSA and the military-industrial complex. Its adoption was the worst mistake the U.S. has ever made.”
Before sitting down to write this column, I’ve waited a week to allow my body chemistry to normalize, my emotional state to stabilize and my perspective to at least approach “journalistic objectivity.” A week, however, obviously isn’t enough, because I still feel high, high, high. Before you contact the authorities, however, please note that I have imbibed nothing more than adrenaline. A succulent cocktail borne of effort and self-doubt, faith and fear has hijacked my senses, but I have no hangover and no regrets. Rock climbing has me in its throes once again, and if I’m addicted, so be it.
About 13 years ago, when Joshua Tree National Park was still only a monument, I spotted climbers clinging to the odd quartz monzonite rock configurations there, inching their way up the jagged faces, muscles, sinews, tendons and minds working in concert to create a form of athletic artistry that instantly intrigued me. Upon returning home, I signed up for a rock climbing course that took place at the cradle of the sport, Stoney Point in Chatsworth, California. Early in our introduction to the equipment, the knots and the terminology of climbing, our instructor pointed to an almost vertical wall of sandstone about 50 feet high and said, “By the end of the day, you’ll all climb that.” I laughed, thinking he had to be kidding. He wasn’t, and as I later stood atop that rock, before rappelling down, I thought, “This is one of the best days of my life.”
I proceeded to buy gear and books on climbing. I began to go bouldering, generally a simpler form of climbing that requires less equipment and doesn’t necessarily require a partner. I tested my meager skills throughout the western states, quickly learning which campsites provided the best access to boulders. I climbed in rock gyms—indoor facilities that use artificial rock and adjustable holds—and learned to love the athletic challenge and the sporting camaraderie of climbers. But just as I started to see my skills develop, I took a job that rarely allowed me to see daylight, then another that gave me tendonitis in both wrists. I didn’t touch my rock shoes for nine years.
That is, until I heard of Devils Tower Climbing. I was scheduled to visit Devils Tower National Monument in the northeastern part of Wyoming, intending to walk around the geologic anomaly, wonder at the powers of nature, snap a few pictures, then move on. But I packed my climbing shoes and harness, just in case. When I arrived at the monument, I parked the rented RV in the very limited RV parking area, then began the walk on the paved trail that circles the tower. Made up of numerous attached, multi-sided columns that soar upwards from the base 867 feet to a summit the size of a football field, the tower is otherworldly, jutting from the high plains, able to be seen from miles away. It is easy to understand why the local Native Americans consider the tower sacred. The movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind doesn’t come close to doing the tower’s grandeur justice, I thought, as I walked around its base. When I was finished snapping pictures, I called Frank Sanders.
Frank owns Devils Tower Climbing and Devils Tower Lodge, a bed and breakfast that practically sits within the shadow of the tower. The view from his sunroom may soon be illegal, since it makes guests feel so good. Frank is a character in the best sense of the word and is known by everyone in the area (not that there are too many people in a county without a single stoplight). He makes visitors feel at home, both as lodge guests and as climbers.
Since I was there to feel the phonolite porphyry (the tower’s igneous rock) beneath my fingers and feet, I was introduced to Chris Harkness, an apprentice guide, and Jaap Pierse, a man from the Netherlands whose climbing prowess makes me suspect he is half lizard. Both guides have climbed all over the world yet are perfectly comfortable introducing nervous, knock-kneed novices to the sport.
After tinkering in the indoor climbing gym at the lodge, we headed to the base of the route we would climb called Patent Pending. As Chris ran through climbing’s protocols—what I could expect of him and what he expected of me—I reminded myself that climbing is a sport that only seems dangerous. Perceived risk, not actual danger, is what triggers phobias and stagnates limbs. Statistically, we run a greater risk of being killed by a cow than dying while rock climbing, yet no one has ever warned me to be careful on a farm visit. Other than scratched fingers and scraped knees, I’ve never been hurt climbing. Besides, I had complete faith in Chris and Jaap—they could climb Patent Pending in the dark, I was sure. Faith in my abilities, however, was another story.
The route started out perfectly—big holds and simple moves. I reminded myself to keep panic at bay when the terrain changed, which happened almost instantly. I used the sticky rubber shoes to friction my way upward as I wrestled with the crack that defined the route. I had never “crack climbed,” and it was a different animal than the face climbs I had negotiated so long ago. Within a few moves—as I fought to regulate my breathing and tried not to embarrass myself—the rush of climbing was back full force.
When my right foot wedged in the crack, I thought I might have to cut my shoe off, but I eventually managed to extricate myself, then push upward. I reached and pulled, stepped and staggered, progressing inch by inch, gaining altitude, contemplating surrender. “I’ve had enough, guys,” I heard the voice in my head say two or five times. But Chris and Jaap coaxed me onward, offering encouragement, pointing out holds I could grab onto. The muscles I hadn’t used in ages were wearing out fast, so when I reached the end of the first pitch—120 feet up—I knew I had reached my limit.
I’m glad I was roped in, because for a moment I felt like I could fly.
The world’s largest living things cling to the western slope of the Sierra Nevada range as they have for many centuries. Taller, wider and older trees exist elsewhere, but the giant sequoias, which grow only in the southern section of these California mountains, possess more volume—and, arguably, more grandeur—than any other species of flora on Earth. Standing 275 feet tall, with a circumference at its base of nearly 103 feet and weighing an estimated 1,385 tons, the General Sherman Tree is the world’s largest. This reddish behemoth has stood in Giant Grove, a section of what is now Sequoia National Park, for approximately 2,200 years. Despite enduring droughts and dozens of fires over their impressive life spans, however, the General Sherman Tree and the other Giant Forest sequoias suffered their greatest threat in the last century: Humans almost loved them to death.
For thousands of years, various Native American peoples had inhabited the western Sierra foothills, the deep canyons and the granite-strewn high country that make up what are today the adjacent Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, coexisting with the giant trees. In 1856, however, native Potwishas invited Hale D. Tharp to their high camps, and the settler probably became the first white person to see the sequoias. Word was out, and within a few years sheepherders ushered their large flocks through the fragile high meadows, prospectors sought their fortunes in the mineral-rich canyons and lumbermen began felling the giant sequoias.
If the giant trees were to be saved, someone had to stand up to the commercial enterprises that were devastating the sequoias’ habitat. In 1875, naturalist John Muir made his way to the sequoia grove that he dubbed Giant Forest. A San Francisco newspaper published his accounts of his southern Sierra trip. The stories were both celebrations of the area’s natural wonders and indictments of their commercial destruction. A few years later, George W. Stewart, a city editor for the Visalia Delta newspaper, published scathing editorials that called for those who destroyed giant sequoias to receive fines or imprisonment. Prominent scientists and politicians, including California’s Governor Robert W. Waterman, were on Stewart’s side, and the drive to establish the nation’s second national park was underway. On September 25, 1890, President Benjamin Harrison signed the bill that created Sequoia National Park. Loggers could no longer chop down sequoias, but Giant Forest’s trees were far from safe.
“Giant Forest … is a particularly engaging place,” says William Tweed, chief of interpretation for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. So engaging, in fact, that tourists soon arrived at Giant Forest by pack train to stay in tent camps. A road stretched from the valley floor to the edge of the popular grove in 1903, and Sequoia tourism picked up steadily as the automobile age kicked into high gear. “People wanted to stay in the key feature areas,” Tweed says. “If you went to Yellowstone, you wanted to camp on the side of Yellowstone Lake or next to Old Faithful Geyser. If you went to Yosemite, you camped at the base of the waterfalls…. And [in Sequoia] we have a road to the biggest trees in the world.”
The public, of course, needed access to National Park land in order to appreciate it. “If the National Parks were going to grow and prosper, they must be used,” says Tweed. “Because if they were used, they’d be loved, and if they were loved, they would be protected and cherished. That was the premise not only of the campaign to create the National Park Service but of the next decade of National Park management. It is both the key to our grand success and sometimes our worst, self-inflicted injuries. It cuts both ways.”
And those scars could soon be seen in Giant Forest. As the popularity of Giant Forest continued to grow, the commercial operations and the infrastructure necessary to accommodate the escalating numbers of visitors raced to keep pace. By 1930, four campgrounds, more than 200 cabins, numerous tent-top cabins, corrals, a gas station, retail stores, offices and dining halls serviced visitors, not to mention the water and sewer systems that cut through the roots of the giant trees. A sequoia’s root system is very broad but only about three feet deep, and each new building, every sunken pipe and all those parking lots sprawled across these shallow roots weakened the trees everyone rushed to the park to see.
Sequoia National Park Superintendent John R. White had had enough by 1930, when he sagely stated, “If we do not plan carefully and transfer the major part of the present activity away from the heart of Giant Forest, the beauties of that area—already badly tarnished—will be further impaired.”
He was, however, practically a one-man voice of dissent, and his advice was ignored. In fact, says Tweed, “Once in the 1950s and once in the 1960s, we chopped down large giant sequoia trees to make it safe to have cabins, so people could come and see the trees. We actually moved cabins out of the way and felled the tree, then put the cabins back.”
Building cabins and the accompanying infrastructure not only damaged the sequoias’ roots but also required the modification of landforms, adversely affecting the area’s overall ecosystem. Rearranging the land caused runoff from rain or snowmelt to flow differently than it had for thousands of years, increasing soil erosion. Wild animals were either displaced or tamed, in effect, as tourists fed deer by hand and gathered to watch bears rummage through a garbage dump, an event sanctioned by the park.
Petroleum products impacted vegetation, meadows and stream habitats, and airborne pollutants from the populated Owens Valley harmed the trees. Numerous scientific studies decried the damage tourism was reeking on Giant Forest and pointed out that the suppression of fires was preventing any new sequoias from growing. Natural fires had for millennia burned away competing vegetation, opened the sequoias’ cones—releasing their seeds—and providing ash in which the seeds could germinate. None of these things could happen, however, since the Park Service was extinguishing fires so that the buildings would not burn.
Gridlock soon defined Giant Forest. Seventy- and 80-year-old buildings began to fall apart. “The place was a mess,” says Tweed. “It got so commercial, the commercialness had almost overwhelmed the seeing of the trees.” “It made you sad to see the litter and the volume of cars, the traffic going through, knowing the trees are so fragile,” says Jerry Eckel, celebrating her 40th wedding anniversary in the park with her husband, Ulrich.
A planning team in 1974 delivered a report that stated, in effect, “what you ought to do is remove the commercial enterprises from the grove,” says Tweed. The Park Service consulted with the public, many of whom loved Giant Forest just the way it was. “The public eventually accepted the fact that we weren’t going to have a city and a giant sequoia grove last forever in the same place,” says Tweed. “We weren’t trying to get people out of the grove—we were trying to get overnight use and hot dogs and popcorn and postcards out of the grove,” he says.
The process moved slowly, but eventually backhoes lifted pavement, and excavators removed concrete utilities. Long forks attached to loader buckets lifted small buildings off their foundations, and chains fastened to the bases of larger cabins dragged the structures to a central destruction site. Propane tanks were unearthed and removed, and mules hauled away broken-up concrete, later to be crushed for future construction projects. “We took out … 282 buildings, one million square feet of asphalt, umpteen miles of overhead power lines,” says Tweed. The Park Service restored as many of the natural landforms as possible and built new accommodations—outside of Giant Forest—at Wuksachi Village.
The removal of the Giant Forest commercial development, the restoration of the grove, the improvement of and creation of trails and the building of Wuksachi Village have cost about $70 million. Once the Park Service implements the shuttle system in the next couple of years, completes the new General Sherman Tree parking lot and removes the old one, the Giant Forest restoration will be complete. “This is the National Park Service at its best,” says Tweed, “looking forward to the next couple centuries.”
Despite the years of inconvenience caused by the construction around the grove, the public seems pleased with the result. Annie Esperanza, air resources specialist and a 23-year park employee, says, “I have yet to hear any negative comments about us taking the buildings away.” Tweed, however, acknowledges a sentimental contradiction: “I believe you can both miss the old facilities in a nostalgic sort of way and be glad they’re gone.”
Tweed is understandably proud of what the Park Service has accomplished. “We end up being the grand exception and—we also modestly believe—the great model, in that we were able to do at Sequoia Park what a number of other major western parks have wrestled with. The model we’ve done here certainly has to make you look at all these other sites.”
Tony Frary, who grew up in Visalia and visited Sequoia and Kings Canyon often, now works in Giant Forest Museum, a must-see interpretive center converted from the old village market. “Having traveled around the world a lot,” he says, “I realize what a special place this really is, in that there’s nothing like this anyplace else in the world, with trees like this.” He smiles, then adds, “You can always build a gas station somewhere, but you can’t build a 2000-year-old tree.”
To lessen the possibility of first-tee jitters, I was tempted to slink down the descending arroyo that defines the monster par-five opening hole at Laughlin Ranch Golf Club to a less daunting tee box. A mining theme permeates the course and clubhouse, and I wondered whether an ore cart was required to negotiate the elevation drop between the gold tees and the distant fairway that cascades between boulders and cacti. Hoping I’d left my bad luck at the casino the night before, I calmed my nerves, launched a drive well down the fairway, and congratulated myself for not being in Las Vegas.
Sure, that megalopolis has its appeal, but most everything that Vegas has too much of—snail-like traffic, endless hype, bling—is blessedly absent a hundred miles south in Laughlin, Nevada, and neighboring Bullhead City, Arizona. I used to play poker three or four times a year in Las Vegas. A decade ago, however, I discovered Laughlin, and on my numerous return visits to this desert retreat I’ve stayed in most of the casinos, camped on a bluff above the Colorado River, hiked the nearby canyons, fished in adjacent Lake Mohave, and canoed a stretch of the dam-tamed Colorado. This body of water most distinguishes Laughlin from Vegas. Faux canals, mechanically created waves, dancing fountains and concrete-encased “rivers” comprise Vegas’ waters. When I wake up in Laughlin, however, to the flow of a real river a few yards from my hotel room, then stroll along the Riverwalk, I feel my day has started perfectly. In Laughlin, I find the poker tables to be more profitable and the attitudes to be friendlier than those in Vegas, and visitors can negotiate Laughlin far more easily than they can its highly hyped big brother. In fact, I now only suffer the snarl of Sin City’s famous Strip when visiting my grandmother, a Vegas denizen.
And then there’s Laughlin golf. Named for Don Laughlin, the town sprang from the 98-cent, all-you-can-eat chicken dinners that he and his wife sold at their restaurant. The growth that followed, including the development of retirement communities in the area, shattered the region’s somnolent image and created the mini-Vegas that is today’s Laughlin—a neon-bedecked, year-round destination that draws more than 4 million travelers annually to its slots, table games, card rooms and waterways. What the region has not done, however, is establish itself as a must-experience golf destination. Currently, therefore, savvy golfers can book tee times on the four preeminent courses (there are six within a half hour’s drive) without being shoehorned between the hordes that descend on Vegas.
Though less lavish than the likes of Shadow Creek and Wynn Las Vegas, Laughlin’s courses serve up captivating desertscapes that include mountains as backdrops. Golfers who find the cards, dice or slots running cold can still afford rounds in this budget-conscious version of Vegas (the peak green fee at Laughlin Ranch is $125). Stretching to 7,155 yards from the tips and bearing a slope of 142, the Laughlin Ranch course delivers sustained challenges, with stark waste areas nipping at the edges of numerous fairways. Yet this course’s allures are not all so demanding. An award-winning clubhouse, a comprehensive spa and The Grill at Laughlin Ranch add comfort to a round of golf on the course that overlooks Laughlin’s casinos.
The Mohave Valley offers enough elegant golf to justify a visit to this stretch of desert for at least a long weekend. Mojave Resort Golf Club, for example, conjures up one deceptive tee shot after another, causing golfers to wonder where among all those traps a ball is safely able to land. Though my drives stayed clear of the sand during my last round on this meticulously manicured course, the cattail-lined lakes proved to be punitive as well as aesthetically pleasing.
El Rio Golf & Country Club’s impressive Spanish mission–style clubhouse suggests that the round ahead will be first rate. And it is. El Rio is a cross between a desert and a links course; its forgiving fairways wend past red iron-infused rocks but rarely demand target-golf shot-making, since elevation changes are few. The large undulated greens are tough but true, and the whole layout delivers views of jagged mountain peaks. Course architect Matt Dye displays a less-sadistic streak than his famous uncle tends to, so perhaps some credit for the best round I’ve ever shot goes to the younger Dye’s benevolence.
Should golfers need a breather before playing the last of the four stellar courses in the region, Los Lagos Golf Club, they may want to lounge in cabanas at Harrah’s Laughlin and the Golden Nugget, then take a high-speed jet-boat tour downriver to … the London Bridge. This iconic historic landmark now straddles a section of Lake Havasu, about a 90-minute boat ride south of the casinos. If travelers head upriver instead, they’ll encounter Lake Mohave, a scenery-rich aquatic playground that spreads out south of Willow Beach, where the world-record freshwater striped bass—67.1 pounds—was landed in 1997.
About 40 minutes from the casinos, the former gold mining town of Oatman, Arizona, on a remnant of Route 66, features semi-wild burros, horseback rides and shops selling touristy kitsch. Visitors to this dusty town can peer into the room at the Oatman Hotel where Clark Gable and Carole Lombard spent their wedding night. The perplexed looks on people’s faces when they view the dingy, cramped quarters are almost worth the trip.
Natural wonders and historic oddities aside, golfers should not skip Los Lagos Golf Club, the newest addition to the valley’s courses. Despite not yet being open the day I played it, Los Lagos ranks among my top-five favorite courses anywhere. The links-style elements—wide-open treeless expanses, pot bunkers, heavy rough and ample mounding—are novel features in a desert setting and contribute to my glowing assessment, but only slightly. Incorporating what to my sensibilities proved to be the perfect mix of water hazards, elevation changes, risk-reward opportunities and waste areas that remind golfers that this is, in fact, naturally harsh terrain, Los Lagos delivers plenty of memorable challenges. One of these days when I tee it up at Los Lagos I expect to greet playing partners who have made the two-hour drive from Vegas. Until word gets out, however, Mohave Valley golf will still be a sure thing.
Anyone who drops his first name, then assumes his last name as his moniker — but not before adding an exclamation point to it — either suffers from megalomania or appreciates fun to a degree that the average person cannot comprehend. Local sculptor Raggio!, born John Raggio, sans punctuation, appears to be devoid of ego, yet he comprehends life’s obvious and hidden amusements so thoroughly that he could teach clowns to laugh, puppies to frolic and songbirds to sing.
To walk through his Trinidad home, his garden, his studio or his garagio — as he’s dubbed the structure in which vehicles are traditionally stored — is to immerse oneself in the outer reaches of human possibility. The shapes, structures, sculptures, protrusions, profusions, discarded stuff and countless whatnots that decorate, brighten and elevate these spaces prove that Raggio! sees the world and its detritus differently than anyone else does.
As a kid, Raggio! collected objects that he found in the wilds of Whittier, California, yet it took a near-death motorcycle crash, time spent in a coma and an artistic guardian angel to turn Raggio!’s fondness for collecting into pieces of art worthy of being collected.
In the motorcycle accident that he experienced when he was still in his teens, Raggio! damaged the left side of his brain, and his grades at Rio Hondo Community College plummeted. He was studying to become a forest ranger, but a pottery student named Tim Andrews suggested that Raggio! take a pottery class; Raggio! signed up, proved to be a natural (“I was making pretty nice pots the first day”) and found his calling.
The aspect of Raggio!’s personality that truly makes him an artist is positivity: What other potters would likely see as mistakes, he sees as perfectly acceptable pieces of art. On his second day of pottery class, for example, he made what he determined to be a substandard pot, so he threw the less-than-perfect object against the ground, and the now-ruined bowl transformed itself into a “unique expression,” a distorted clay face that perhaps only he could see. But he continued to perfect this creation-through-destruction process, and today numerous versions of his “unique-expression” pieces hang on his wall, there to be admired, and perhaps purchased, by art fans and potential buyers.
Raggio! works in various media, including painting and poetry, yet despite his range, the constant motif running through his work is fun. Whether his sculptures feature numerous coils layered upon each other to create vaguely human forms or display the planes and angles of Cubism, Raggio!’s art celebrates the energy and excitement inherent in being alive, an energy and excitement that most often have been sapped out of daily living.
Raggio! says of Picasso, “I feel the energy that he extruded,” and on Raggio!’s wall hangs a quote by the unparalleled Spanish master: “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”
Yet the process of creating can often be messy. By his own admission, Raggio!’s mind is cluttered, as are his home, garden, studio and garagio. Yet from such clutter spring invention, innovation and beauty.
His property, which he purchased in 1995 for $20,000, combines the whimsy of Dr. Seuss with the self-conscious commentary of Dalí, yet every inch of his domain resonates with the unique perspectives of Raggio! For example, many of his paintings are framed with saw blades, literalizing the concept of “cutting-edge ideas.” He has entered eight pieces in the upcoming ArtoCade event that will run September 13-15 in Trinidad, and yet his clay sculptures are what have built his reputation, selling for between $1,200 and $1,500 for his “less-intense” works.
His pieces, however, should by all rights be called “plays,” because Raggio! does not appear to labor over anything. In fact, he considers the world to be one big sandbox.
“Whatever you do is ok — just allow your brain to play. It’s great to create — so do!,” says Raggio!, an artist who is the personification of “a happy accident.”