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The Last Shrine: first chapter.

            The sun bore down; bright and hot, glaring as it had every day of Skander’s life. He shielded his eyes and squinted as a red-tailed hawk traced a lazy circle through the desert sky. It dove, and Skander imagined himself as its prey, heart beating fast in terror, or possibly, unaware, calmly nibbling a morsel of foliage in its last moments on this beautiful spring day. The young cleric lost the bird among the sharp rocks that towered above his home; the small shrine known as Sundial Spring. Here in the lee of the bare mountains, Skander had lived out the last ten years of his life, tending to the needs of the trickle of worshippers who bothered to make the laborious climb from the cool river valley below.

He exhaled slowly as he turned from the mountains, his eyes settling thirstily on the shimmering blue waters of the spring. Their impassive surface sent a dancing reflection playing against the bright limestone columns that surrounded the pool. Six pillars remained of the colonnade that had once bounded the spring. Skander searched his memory. Had he ever read when the columns were erected? Perhaps they had once seemed impressive, but today they seemed pitifully dwarfed by the massive blades of amber-hued sandstone that towered behind. The highest spire cast its long shadow into the town below, tracing the curve of the Sossin River as it meandered through the valley. Sundial Spring was dedicated to the mountain god Anak, whose heavy-browed, black-bearded visage scowled out from carvings on every stone surface, but Skander saw the god’s true monument in the rocks themselves.

The cleric tugged uncomfortably at the woolen vestments that clung doggedly to his body in several chafing, sweaty places. There were many places in the vast realm of Batarrna where clergy of the mountain gods snuggled cozily in their icy eyries, grateful for such warm vestments. Sundial Springs of the boiling Near South was not one of them. Perhaps Anak, omnisciently aware of the impractical choice of garments, would understand if Skander only dipped his toes in the waters. He leaned over for the thousandth time to see if he could see the submerged cavern that led into the underworld. If he dove in, he could finally glimpse the water’s source. Skander frowned at his own blasphemy, blanching at the dread, statue scowl of the Bone Breaker. The god brandished his fearsome halberd in a threatening pose. “Forbidden!” the cleric shouted; voice gravelly in his best impression of Bishop Gustav. “For the gods have fixed their canon ‘gainst it!” Skander smiled, fondly missing the old man, and a bit in the hopes that he would not look mad if someone saw him talking to himself.

“Skander!”.

The cleric’s heart jolted. It was the first voice he had heard in three days. Making a conscious effort to calm himself, he turned and saw Bodrick, a shepherd who tended a small flock in the nearby hills. Bodrick was running, panting. Skander had run with the shepherd many times over the years, if he was breathless, he must truly have come here at a dead sprint. The cleric watched him approaching. Bodrick was flushed with the run, and as Skander saw his friend’s fit, athletic form, he felt the usual flare of jealousy, his mind drifting to his own failings in that regard. He ran a self-conscious hand over his bulging middle.

“Hey, Skander,” Bodrick breathed, holding a hand out as if to ask for a moment. Even Bodrick’s clothing gave Skander a pang of envy. The shepherd wore a loose practical tunic with short sleeves, perfect for a life in the desert hills. He took off his dingy short-brimmed cap and wiped his brow.

“Who’s minding your sheep, boy?” Skander hoped his face looked impassive. On the one hand, he knew it took very little to break up the monotony of a shepherd’s days, but on the other, he had to admit to a mild nibble of curiosity. Nonetheless, calling Bodrick ‘boy’ was ridiculous. Skander was slightly the taller of the two young men, and the gods knew he was much heavier, but as far as the cleric had ever been able to learn, they were only weeks apart in age. He couldn’t resist the awkward jab though. The last time they had seen each other, perhaps several months ago, they had wrestled. Despite Skander’s size, Bodrick had thrown him and pinned him quickly. Not such a big deal really, but of course Seleriya had been there watching. Skander felt a whirl in his stomach and a rush of blood to his face just remembering the way her beautiful green eyes had flashed with laughter to see him floundering on the ground.

“Macey’s got them,” answered Bodrick. There wasn’t a trace of wind in his speech. Skander marveled that he could have recovered so quickly from the run. “Ever since she scared that big Merino, the rest just fall in line. She’ll be fine. Look at this.” The shepherd fumbled for something in his belt pouch.

From what he could see, the small object Bodrick found was a stone. “A stone, Bodrick? Your pastures are practically desert. I’m sure that’s not the first stone you’ve found.” He couldn’t help teasing a bit more but immediately felt he had gone too far. Since the shepherd’s father had died, he and his mother lived in poverty, eking out a living from a small plot of the least productive land in the valley. He was ashamed of using it against his friend and promised himself he wouldn’t do it again.

Bodrick came closer and seemed to brush aside the barb, or at least not to let it diminish the proud grin on his wide-featured face. He held out a thick, callused palm. In the middle of his hand was a hunk of rock that even Skander’s untrained eye could see was more than a mundane pebble. It was green; the subdued glassy green of jade, and its smooth surface was pitted with craters like the surface of the Great Moon seen through a scope. “It’s not natural rock,” said Bodrick. “I think its manmade. You know? Like something left over from mining…” He accented his final word, raising his eyebrows suggestively.

Skander began to see where his friend was going with this. “Mining? You mean like…”

Bodrick cut him off excitedly. “It has to be from the mines! When I asked him about the legend, my father told me that if there were mines in these mountains, there would be slag left. And he’d never seen any sign of it.” The shepherd shook the stone between two fingers, smiling. “Well, I think I found it. This has got to be it. Right?”

Skander was genuinely surprised to hear anyone over the age of eleven saying such things. He knew the myth of Enderion’s Delving. Of course, he did, just as every person in North Bend Valley knew it. He remembered asking Bishop Gustav years ago and receiving a similarly dismissive answer. The legend claimed that centuries ago the last of the Lonely Kings had drawn valknite from the ground here, refined it, and turned it into the enchanted weapons that had unified an empire. As an adult and a scholar, Skander knew the stories for a fantasy. He had read many of the histories of the early imperial conquests. Enderion hadn’t needed magical rocks to unify the Batarrnan realm. The great king had updated his army’s weaponry, crafted new echelon formations, and adopted innovative methods of conscription, all to brilliant tactical effect. Skander agreed with the historians, that was how you won wars, not with mystical stones. He felt the same thrill he always did when dredging up facts and figures from his learning. Skander’s pride left him feeling of magnanimous. He knew valknite was a figment of the folk imagination, but he decided to humor Bodrick.

Skander held out his hand and was surprised to see a flicker of hesitation before his friend placed the stone in his outstretched hand. Whatever the truth of the stone, the cleric saw that Bodrick believed it held power. Skander turned it over, feeling the smooth and rough surfaces alternately slide pleasurably against his skin, then lightly abrade his soft fingers. The color was unique and called to mind the volcanic stones that were common in the Near South; but those were red, brown, even glassy black, never green. He tried to affect a scholarly frown of concentration for his friend’s benefit. “It is strange, Bodrick. Like nothing I’ve ever seen.” Skander meant it. “But that mine is just a silly legend.”

Now Bodrick smiled, a strange, confident smile that Skander hadn’t seen before. Without speaking, he held out his hand. Bodrick’s lips were an inscrutable grimace, but his eyes danced mischievously. Now Skander felt a slight reluctance as he handed back the nugget. He watched as Bodrick drew out a worn piece of leather attached to a cord. The cleric watched as the shepherd nocked the stone into what he realized was a sling. “See that little hollow near the top of the spire?” Bodrick asked.

He was gesturing back in the direction of the sun and Skander had to squint as he followed the pointing finger. The sun made his eyes water as he strained to force himself to look. At the highest point of the formation known as Twelvespike, the gnomon of the sundial that cast its shadow over North Bend, he could just make out an indentation. It was hard to gauge from here how big it was. “I see it,” he said, careful not to say anything stupid. “But that must be 300 feet up,” he added. He knew next to nothing about slings, but he could guess what Bodrick had in mind and it seemed like an impossible shot. Many times, he had watched Bodrick sling with deadly accuracy, training on improvised targets and even hitting the occasional predator that troubled his flock; but at this distance, with such an oddly shaped bullet? He sensed an opportunity. “Why don’t you let me put a few flinders on it?” Skander said and winced, realizing that once again he had forgotten his friend’s situation. He wondered if Bodrick had a single coin to his name, much less anything to bet.

Bodrick answered with a wicked smile and a violent, lightning-like underhand spin of the sling. The smooth, practiced motion was a blur that Skander tried and failed to follow, but the puff of rock dust a second later was clear enough. The cleric felt a thrill seeing that the impact was right in the center of the target and felt a cheer burst from him despite how wrong Bodrick had just proven him. Instead of griping, he slapped Bodrick’s outstretched hand hard. Without thinking, Skander followed through and caught the shepherd’s hand again on the reverse, the way they had done as children. “Astral,” he heard himself congratulate, a strange feeling of pride for his friend swelling inside him. “So, we’ve established that I know nothing about slings, which we already knew. What of it?”

Bodrick shook his head. “No, you were right ‘mano. I could never make that shot. Straight up? With a stone shaped like that?” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. Skander noticed for the first time that a few dark hairs were poking through and felt another wave of nonsensical jealousy. “Maybe with the smoothest rock from the river. Maybe on my best day. But maybe not even then,” Bodrick continued.

“I’d like to see you do it again.” Skander meant it. He pictured himself accompanying Bodrick to the games this coming harvest season. The shepherd was unlettered and naïve, perhaps he could use a friend if he went to compete, a more educated, sophisticated person to help him avoid the pitfalls of the city. A realization cut Skander’s reverie short. “Voids,” he cursed. “Too bad you wasted it on target practice. We’ll never find it in all those rocks.”

Bodrick’s expression was another Skander had never seen. For a few awkward seconds, he watched his friend’s face, looking for some hint. Then Bodrick seemed to make a decision. “Skander,” the shepherd said. “That’s where it gets really weird.” Without explaining further, he strode uphill leaving the cleric to follow. He hadn’t gone far when he bent to the ground and picked up what appeared to be the same stone from the broken jumble of sandstone talus that littered the slope.

Skander felt his eyes widen. “What the?”

“I know,” answered Bodrick. “I’ve been shooting it all day. The first few times I kind of accidentally found it again, but then I realized I seemed to know just where to look. I never find the normal stones I shoot. You’re right, my pastures are filled with stones, but every week I walk down to the river and find more of the smooth, round ones that are best for bullets. This is…” Bodrick paused as if unsure whether to say more. “It’s a little scary,” he finally admitted. “And you haven’t even seen what the stones do to the things I hit. You think it’s easy to make a cloud of rock dust we can see from three hundred feet away?”

Skander felt an odd, boyish thrill. He couldn’t contain his excitement anymore. “Could it be valknite?” he asked aloud, letting the words linger.

He had meant the question rhetorically, but Bodrick surprised him by answering. “I don’t think so,” he said. “You would know better than me but wasn’t valknite a shiny metal. Like silver or something?”

The cleric was flattered as he always was when his friends came to him with such questions. He focused. Pages turned in his mind like a book in his hands. Yes, there it was in an illustration he had seen; a metallic sheen like silver twig coins. He had seen precious few silver coins in this backward region, but those he had were imprinted in his mind as well. Skander’s mental eye rarely failed him. He smiled as he realized they needed more information. “There’s only one way to be sure. Let’s go to the library.” As usual, the thought of heading into the book collection brought a broad smile to his face. Without waiting for Bodrick’s reply, he whirled and walked toward the three-story building attached to the shrine.

Bishop Gustav’s small library was a calming place for Skander; his favorite part of a small world. He had no other words for it. Since he had come to live with the bishop, and he had very few memories of the time before, the cleric had whiled away many happy hours among its shelves. He knew the tomes and scrolls lining its walls like friends- perhaps better than he knew he friends- but somehow there were always new possibilities for exploration.

Skander stood at the entrance to the library, an intricate series of columns, doors, and hanging panels that formed a maze of sorts. It had been a long time since Skander had thought about the path he needed to tread to get through, but now he looked at Bodrick. Something about the shepherd’s appearance troubled him. “You’re filthy. Scrape your boots here.”

“Really?” Bodrick said with a raised eyebrow.

Skander felt annoyance. “Yes, really. I know you’re not much for reading, but this place is as holy as the waters outside.” Canonically speaking that was not true, but it felt right.

“Fine,” grumbled Bodrick. “But quit brushing at me like my mother. Next thing you’ll be licking your hand and smoothing my cowlick in place.” He stamped his boots and brushed his tunic, knocking a cloud of grime and dust.

Skander watched in fascination as the warm air leaving the library lifted the dust, gently dragging it and wafting it away. The cleric remembered Gustav’s explanation that the elaborate labyrinth served to bring cooling air into the main chamber of the library. The room was lit by an ancient six-foot-high stained-glass window. Its ornate panes told a visual story of the legend of Bimmuk the shepherd. During the day, the images cascaded onto the worktables from the window. As an acolyte, Skander had often traced the projections into his copybook, laboring over Bimmuk’s battle with the mole dragon. He winced remembering the raps on the knuckles when Gustav had seen him wasting paper. The brilliant windows should have filled the library with air heated by the desert sun, but in some way, the builders had created the maze at the doors so that warm air would filter out and cool mountain air could get in. Gustav had called it an ingenious feat of ancient engineering, but as Skander watched the dust gather up and leave as if on its own, he suspected there was some glamer of minor magic on the building.

“There, your fussiness. Am I presentable?” Bodrick performed a mocking bow.

“It will do.” Skander moved over the worn flagstones toward the shelves. His instincts guided him to the southeastern wall, to a stack just below the great window. He passed over the reflected image of Bimmuk loosing a sling bullet and for the first time felt a glimmer of recognition. He said nothing about it to Bodrick, staying focused on the task at hand. “I thought I saw something here once.” He ran his hand gently over the books, calmed by their familiar feel, passing the thick leather spines of Tridorio’s Great Trees of the Northwest, The Uses of Ever Blessed Cinnabar, and Fifty Beasts of the Dryptic Deeps. It was exactly where he expected. The book was a broad tome of light tan hide: The Tales of the Lonely Kings. Wrinkling his nose at a musty smell both acrid and faintly pleasant, Skander pulled the volume down. He couldn’t make out what animal the hide cover had come from, but it bore large, black spots and was worn through to the leather in several places. The fine hairs edging the title were green with age. A sensation of deep time made the cleric woozy as he wondered just how old this book was; a hundred years, two hundred? He gingerly opened the cover and thumbed through the pages with a sense of purpose, sensing rather than actively remembering what page he was looking for.

“Here.” He held the heavy book out to Bodrick, hoping his friend wouldn’t see the slight quiver he felt in his arm muscles. The page was an illustration; a drawing of a bulbous blue nugget of brilliant blue with a caption that read: valknite in victorious sunlight, middle latitudes. What in the dark, black void did victorious mean? “It’s blue not silver, but it still doesn’t look like our stone.” He felt a surge of disappointment, but a lingering doubt nagged at him. Skander never forgot a picture. So, where had he gotten the idea that it was silver?

“So, it’s not valknite,” said Bodrick. Skander heard annoyance. “What is it? Ore? Something else?”

The cleric knew Bodrick had little time for books and the things written in them, but he found himself frustrated with the shepherd’s impatience. “Give me a second.” He ran his finger over the lines below the drawing. Skander had a sudden flashback to a long-ago session with Bishop Gustav, making his way through Zalanday’s painfully translated version of the epic of Dressik. There was a poem covering the bottom half of the page. He felt a revulsion. What was wrong with prose? “I can’t get anything from this,” he complained.

“Yeah, me either,” said Bodrick flatly. Skander noticed he hadn’t even looked at the page.

It was hard to strike a thoughtful pose with three wispy, nearly translucent blond hairs on his chin, but Skander made the gesture anyway. He turned a broad page, gently, attempting not to crack the dry leaf. “Maybe there’s more, something about slag, or mining,” he murmured. He found another illustration, a black and white copy of an engraving depicting a trapezoidal building with a cavernous opening. Men in heavy leather aprons busied themselves around the building. There was a caption: Of the extraction of the Godsmetal from the sully earth. Skander sighed in frustration. Beneath the drawing were more lines of verse. He read the first line four times without getting any sense of the meaning. “Who wrote this damn thing?” he grumbled. The cleric felt Bodrick pacing behind him. It wasn’t doing anything to help his concentration. “Can you sit down or something?”

“Did you find it? Is it slag? Is it ore?”

Skander fought the impulse to shove Bodrick into a chair. “I don’t know. Give me a few hours and I might be able to puzzle out this page.”

“Hours? Forget it. If it’s slag, there was a furnace.”

“I didn’t exactly say it was…”

“If there was a furnace, there was a mine. Let’s go find it,” he said beaming. Bodrick’s voice had gotten much louder, his eyes were wide with excitement. He looked ten years younger.

The shepherd was heading out the door by the time Skander had carefully closed the book. He left it on the table with a sharp regret not to have placed it back on the shelf. The cleric promised to finish reading later. “Wait for me!” he called out, tracing his usual quick path through the maze. He emerged into the morning sun, blinking. Bodrick was nowhere to be seen. Skander toward the hills. Was the shepherd that much faster than he was?

An echoing voice gave him his answer. “Voids, Skander! How do you get out of this damned thing?”

Skander laughed to himself as he retraced his steps. In the gloomy labyrinth, dazzled as his eyes were, he strained to find Bodrick facing the wrong direction, his face six inches from an enameled wooden panel. Skander reached out to help him.

“I know you’re not trying to hold my hand,” said the shepherd suddenly, startling Skander with a rapid about face.

“Of course not,” lied Skander. Bodrick had just looked so childlike for a second. “Follow me.” He led the way through a quick series of turns.”

“I swear I followed your path exactly,” complained Bodrick.

Skander ignored him. “Where should we go?” he asked. He hoped to salve Bodrick’s pride with the admission of his own ignorance.

The shepherd studied the hills and Skander admired the way his cool gaze projected authority and knowledge. “I found the stone… there. At the north end of my fields.” He pointed to his hardscrabble plot. “It must have washed down from the mountains somewhere above. What do you think?”

Skander tried not to smile. There was nothing he could offer Bodrick by way of advice about this landscape. The shepherd knew every inch for ten miles in every direction, while Skander spent most of the sunny days in his library. Of course, that had taught him a bit about water and gravity. “I think the stone probably came down, yeah.”

“I’d say Twelvespike Arroyo is the most likely place.”

Skander followed his gaze to a small canyon that opened high above them in the mountains. Above it stood the massive plinth of Twelvespike. The formation got its name from the shadow it cast down on the town, but Skander had always seen in it the finger of Anak, pointing ominously toward the town of North Bend. He frowned, realizing what Bodrick had in mind.

“What do you say? You up for a bit of a hike?”

Skander wasn’t, not even remotely. It wasn’t quite noon, and he was boiling already, standing here on flat ground. The thought of trudging into the mountains made him queasy. Skander looked at Bodrick; hale and healthy, rocking on the balls of his feet like a player about to run onto a ballcourt. He would be damned if he would let his friend know how little he wanted to climb into the mountains. Skander breathed deeply and summoned a smile from the depths. “Lead the way!” he commanded. His hoped his false enthusiasm was convincing.

Exploring Kachemak Bay with the Alaskan Center for Coastal Studies: Part One

                On the southwestern edge of the Kenai Peninsula is the small fishing town of Homer, Alaska. We had heard that it was a good jumping off point for expeditions into the national parks on the opposite side of Cook Inlet, so one day we drove down to see what we could scrounge up. If we could cross over to Lake Clark or Katmai, we stood a good chance of seeing the world-famous gatherings of brown bears that make all the highlight reels of Alaska.

The Sterling Highway, which hugs the western coast of Kenai, gives lots of great views of the snow-covered mountains on the other side of the Inlet. Along the way, we saw a moose crossing the road and more bald eagles than we could count. But even with the views and wildlife, the highway became a bland stretch of road after the first trip. It reminded me of staying on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It doesn’t take more than one drive past the same miniature golf courses and t-shirt shops to dull the mind.

Our first visit to Homer was a bust. We visited a little nature center in the mountains called Earl Wynn and had a nice walk among the spruce trees on a boardwalk. We spotted birds and had fun watching a pair of Canada Jays fighting in the treetops, but it was pretty tame. Down at the shore, along the spit, which is a long strip of gravel and sand that juts out into the sea, we tried multiple tour companies that offered expeditions across the Inlet. None of them could do it for less than a thousand bucks. I’m sorry, but I’m not paying more than I paid to fly to Alaska to jump across a puddle in Alaska. We walked along the beach a little and saw some sea otters out in the water, but otherwise there wasn’t much for us on Homer Spit.

It was my fault to some extent. When we went home, I did some research and found some interesting options. There weren’t any reasonably priced ways to visit the national parks, but there were some fun options for crossing Kachemak Bay to the south. So, I booked us a nature expedition to Kachemak Bay State Park with a local research outfit called the Center for Coastal Alaskan Studies.

The night before the trip, we drove down to Homer and got a room in town. We were just too far away to get to an eight o’clock boat from Nikiski. We took our time getting there and had a nice hike at a state recreation area on the way. That stroll took us along the side of a creek filled with fishermen. Guides were rowing frantically trying to keep the large boats in place against the strong current, then paddling hard to help tourists reel in whatever it was they were catching. On the trail we spotted our closest yet moose, a cow browsing on plants just fifty feet off the trail. She glowered at us for a few seconds and I watched for the characteristic retraction of the ears that signals moose-anger. She stayed calm and let us pass in peace.

We got groceries in Homer. Even when we stay in hotels, I try to save by making meals in the microwave or just from sandwich materials. At the grocery store, a strange local version of Sam’s Club or Costco called Save-U-More, we saw large numbers of Russians. Not the modern, glamorous Russians of the twenty-first century, but the Old Believer, pre-Soviet type. They were bonneted and long-dressed and reminiscent of the Amish. I also made the mistake of buying a pack of Nutter Butters that turned out to lack the characteristic peanut-shaped cookies. Instead, they were disgusting gluten-free wafers that looked and tasted like astronaut food. Yes, I still ate them. Caveat om-nom-nomptor I guess.

In the morning we met our crew and the other tourists on Homer Spit. Of course, we were just barely on time, of course we had to be told to put on our masks, of course I parked in the wrong place, and of course we were chastised for not having rain gear. I’m just that kind of dad. But we were there and soon we were puttering on the water taxi across the bay. It was a sparkling, clear, blue-skied day and again there were glaciated mountains all around us. I’ve mentioned it several times, but it really can’t be overstated and should certainly never be forgotten. Alaska is beautiful and that beauty is everywhere.

On the way, we passed a pile of rocks called Gull Island. The crags were covered in kittiwakes and puffins, and there was even a little harbor seal popping up to say hello. The east end of the island was a sea cave that looked exactly like the first, lightning-streaked room on Pirates of the Caribbean, the one you pass right before shooting down the only drop of the ride.

We docked at an inlet called Peterson Bay, right next to a pay of oystercatchers poking around on the mudflats for clams. There was a steep walkway up to the land, steep enough that I had to dig my toes into the metal slats of the boards and that we were worried the less fit members of the party might have trouble. I think it was like that so that it could serve in higher tides.

The facility we came to was a research station built on the property of a southern doctor’s abandoned retirement home. We sat outdoors and were given wading boots and a talk on bear safety. There are no brown bears on this side of the bay (I wonder why), but the black bears are apparently numerous and not to be trifled with. I had bells and spray, so I wasn’t terribly concerned. We were also in a party of about twelve people, which makes bear attacks astronomically improbable.

To be Continued…

Kenai Fjords: The Four Ice Seals of the Apocalypse

                When I was in sixth grade, the Exxon Valdez crashed into a reef in Prince William Sound dumping ten million gallons of oil into the water. I knew about it, because Mrs. Winkler made us read about it in our current affairs unit. It was depressing, as was most of the news back then. We read articles in Current Science magazine about the AIDS epidemic, the Challenger disaster, the hole in the ozone, global warming, and lots of other cheery subjects for eleven-year-olds.

                The oil spill killed thousands of sea birds, marine mammals, and fish. It was upsetting at a remove, and now that I’ve been to Alaska to see these creatures in person, it seems like an unfathomable tragedy. But in Seward, we learned that some good did come out of the disaster. As part of their settlement for the damage, Exxon was forced to pay $37.5 million toward the construction of the Alaska Sea Life Center. A town like Seward, with about 2500 people, could never have built a state-of-the-art conservation center like this without that money.

                It may seem crazy after a day on a boat viewing wildlife, but my son and I decided to go the Sea Life Center the next morning. We’ve done this kind of thing before. In the environment of a zoo or aquarium, you can learn different things than you can in the wild. A smart phone helps enhance learning in the field, but the best places to see wild creatures are often the worst for cell service.

                Corona has severely limited the number of tourists visiting Alaska this summer, so we essentially had the aquarium to ourselves. At the first exhibit, we met a super helpful biologist named Derrick. He talked to us for quite a while about all the injured animals. They have otters and seals from all over the state. Our favorite was a little spotted seal who kept climbing out of his pool and doing little belly rolls for us. Like my kids, he knew exactly how cute he was, and he was milking it.

                My favorite takeaway from all the recovering animals was the existence of what Derrick called “the four ice seals”. Apparently, there are four species of Alaskan seal that live in the remote, icy Arctic and will basically never be seen by normal mortals like me. If I used footnotes, this would be the place for them, because I would like to leave it up to my reader to decide whether they care about the names of these seals. There is no way I’m not going to write them down. I’m bursting with it. They are the bearded, ringed, spotted, and ribbon seals. Somehow, someway, I’m going to see them. As yet another parenthetical, I’ll mention that when I googled “is there a ribbon seal in a zoo anywhere” I found that someone has looked up “is there a ribbon seal in the bible”. What the hell, people?

                I am equally obsessed with a new shark we learned about, the pacific sleeper shark. Apparently, scientists are only beginning to learn about them, and they are huge, as much as 23 feet long.  The biologist told us that the sharks can live for hundreds of years and that they feed on sea lions. I pictured them lurking around at the bottom of Resurrection Bay, which is one of the deepest bays in the world. They’re like an even more mysterious version of the Greenland Shark, which is one of my all-time favorites.

                We finished up the Sea Life Center with a swing through the lower levels where you can really get a good look at the marine mammals from underwater. My intuition about the California and Steller’s Sea Lions was dead wrong. From down there you could clearly see the that the male Steller’s they had was enormous. He must have weighed a ton, almost in the weight class of walrus.

                After the aquarium, we went back to the national park. First order of business, handing in the junior ranger book and getting sworn in. Through the corona-shielding plexiglass, he took his solemn vows and got his badge. Now when the park is in danger, they will light the junior ranger beacon and my son will have to fly back to Alaska to join with the other nine-year-olds in forming Voltron to protect the wildlife. Or is it Captain Planet?

                On our first visit, we had just sampled the trails around Exit Glacier. This time we wanted to make the difficult hike to the Harding Ice Field. The ice field is named for my favorite scandal-ridden president and my third favorite to die peacefully in office. Obviously, Harding trails William Henry Harrison (I died in thirty days) and FDR.

                We spotted a red-backed vole on the trail as soon as we started walking. Normally, I can’t tell one rodent from another, but there are signs all over the park announcing the existence of these little guys for some reason. As soon as we hit the steep portion of the trail, I realized my legs were dead. And it was a super steep trail. I brought three bottles of water and by the time we had hiked the two vertical miles to Marmot Meadows (great name for a British TV show) I had finished them. So, we pushed on a tiny bit to a point called Top of the Cliffs and called it a day. It was just high enough for my son to see his first glimpse of true, above-the-timberline, alpine tundra.

We were also within sight of the stunning expanse of the ice field. Until the twentieth century no one (and by that I’m sure they mean white people) realized that all the glaciers in the region were connected to a 700-square-mile ice field. It looked the way I imagine Antarctica looks, an intimidating blanket of whiteness dotted with crevasses, seraks, and other incomprehensible dangers. We got great pictures, but I was sad we couldn’t go any farther. Instead, we limped back down the mountain and made the long drive back to Nikiski. Tomorrow I’m rewarding myself with a lazy day around the cabin. Or at least that’s the plan.

Kenai Fjords: Whale Watching among the Glaciers

                Having returned safely to the truck, still free of bear chew-marks, we headed into Seward to get dinner. Aside from Anchorage, Seward is the most town-looking town I’ve seen so far in Alaska. There is a main drag with a few shops and restaurants, all leading to the Alaska Sea Life Center on the water. It makes sense that Seward feels more like a town. It was a huge port until the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake demolished its waterfront. It still is to some extent. There are port facilities at the northern end of Resurrection Bay. Seward reminded me a bit of Galveston, Texas (where I lived for one memorable year in the mid-2000s),a tourist town with grand memories of dominance before a disaster dashed its hopes.

                We hit the Seward Brewing Company for dinner. I tried a few new brews and helped my son with his junior ranger book. It was a nice, relaxing follow-up to a strenuous day. I love to cap off a day of hiking with a brewery visit. After dinner, we took a long walk along the waterfront, watching kittiwakes and sea otters, hoping for a glimpse of whales, porpoises, or seals. We ended up traveling about two miles north. In the little tide pools, we found isopods and crabs. There is a huge marina in Seward, and we walked around the boats for a bit. We were surprised to find a sea otter floating just feet away from us. Someone had caught a good size halibut and had either thrown it to the otter or had it stolen. He was rolling on his back, tearing into the fish and eating big, white, jiggling chunks. From time to time, he would drop his meal and dive to retrieve it. I couldn’t tell if it was a genuine mishap or whether he was playing with his food.

                Even with the midnight sun, we could tell it was getting late, so we trudged back to the truck. My whole plan was finding a quiet spot to park and camp. We ended up partway up the road to the national park in a little pullout. I hollowed myself out a little area in the bed of the truck and had a fitful night sleeping diagonally in a space that must have been exactly my height.

                The next morning, we had a fun adventure planned with a cruise into the glaciers and fjords. I got myself some much-needed coffee and then we met up with all the other tourists on the docks. For such a large boat, I could tell there were far fewer passengers than the company would have liked. That’s good for us though I suppose.

                As we steamed out into Resurrection Bay, we were surrounded by spectacular scenery. Everywhere I looked, there were glaciers, bright blue water, and the Bob Ross dots of spruce and hemlock covering the mountains. The captain, or at least the guy on the loudspeaker, was a park ranger and he seemed to know everything about the area. I had a moment of worry when he stopped the boat and made a big deal about a pair of bald eagles on the cliffs above. Bald eagles are beautiful, impressive birds and I’m as much of a patriot as the next guy, but they’re incredibly common in Alaska. You can go to the town dump in Kenai and see a hundred bald eagles. I hoped we were going to see better.

                We were. Just past the eagles, we came to a group of islands that shield the bay from the open waters of the Gulf of Alaska. Apparently, in 1964, these islands stopped a 100-foot tsunami from completely obliterating Seward. 100 feet, think about that. It’s hard to imagine. As we approached, we saw a group of boats floating and an absolute horde of kittiwakes circling above the water. What had attracted them was a small group of humpback whales. As we learned from the park ranger, this is not common behavior. Humpbacks are normally solitary, and this was a strange and rare group strategy called bubble net feeding. The whales dive and blow bubbles, stampeding fish into the mouths of their… I don’t know what to call them, friends? Compatriots? Co-conspirators? I didn’t even know big baleen whales ate fish. Each flamboyant dive gave us a perfect view of the tail flukes. Flukes are like fingerprints for humpbacks, no two are the same. It was like the whales were waving and saying, “Hey, make sure you remember it was Paul the Whale you saw. I’ll be here all week. Tip your servers!”

                We watched the whales awhile then moved on past the islands where we headed out into the open Gulf of Alaska. The captain claimed that from here you could travel south for ten thousand miles before hitting land in Antarctica. Whether that was true, the seas were pretty serious. We rolled and pitched so much that for the first time in my life I could at least understand the concept of getting seasick. My son was not so lucky and got hit with a full lesson. I had to let him lie on my lap with his eyes closed all the way until we sailed into the calmer waters of Aialik Bay.

                He perked up when we passed a rookery of Steller’s Sea Lions barking and lounging on the rocks of a craggy island. We’ve seen sea lions before in California, but these dwarf them. The endangered Steller’s is about four times the size of the California Sea Lion. We also got strafed by a horned puffin zooming by from its own nesting site on the same island. Puffins were one of the big reasons we wanted to come to Kenai Fjords.

                The hit list didn’t stop there. As we went into the bay, we saw a small pod of Dall’s porpoises racing the boat. Through the waves you could see their striped bodies hurtling through the water at thirty knots. They were considerably faster than our boat and they were having fun with it. Through the superior set of binoculars we had borrowed, my son spotted a sea otter floating several hundred yards from the boat. It was a mother with a little pup resting on her belly. When you pay a hundred bucks for a day at the aquarium you don’t see that kind of wildlife.

                At the end of the bay, we came to a narrowing of the fjord. I don’t know how to use those words. A fjord is a narrow waterway formed when glaciers carve out high cliffs. So, a bay can be a fjord and vice versa, right? Anyway, at the end of the bay/fjord we came to the intimidating bulk of Holgate Glacier. Our boat stopped several hundred yards away, just close enough that we were supposed to be able to hear the ice cracking. I heard nothing. There is a safety rule that says you should never get closer to a glacier than twice its height. We watched as a small sailboat shattered that rule and sailed in right under the ice. If the glacier had calved at that moment, they would have been done for. I was still jealous.

                We lingered there for a few minutes and the crew dipped into the sea for a hunk of iceberg. Then they sold margaritas on glacier ice for four dollars a pop. As I had slept in a car and skipped showering, and as it was just past noon, it didn’t seem like margarita-time to me, but that’s a cool gimmick. So, I had one. My rating: cruise margarita 4/10, glacier ice 10/10.

We came about then and steamed out of the bay. I was just settling in to enjoy the ride back when we struck wildlife gold yet again. Close in to a small, pebbly beach, we found a family of orcas playing about. There were at least five of them, and two were calves. Somehow, they were swimming about within about ten yards of shore. I gather that glacial bays drop off in depth sharply, but this must have been a dramatic shelf. The adult male with the group was huge. He swam around our boat as if scoping out a potential threat. With each dive, his huge dorsal fin stood out of the water at least as high as the lower deck of our boat.

After watching the orcas for a good twenty minutes, we headed back into the open sea to make our return trip. We passed floats of both types of puffin, horned and tufted, and made an even closer pass to the sea lions. The surfeit of creatures was exhausting, but we were happy. Back in port, I caved in and got us a motel room at a place across the street festooned with cartoonish drawings of most of the marine creatures we had just seen. Even the relentless midnight sun couldn’t keep us from sleeping early.

To be Continued…

Kenai Fjords: 43 of 62 (Part One)

                After a well-earned day of rest, it was time for us to head out and explore, to chip away at my lifetime goal of visiting all of the national parks. For anyone who is counting, there were 62 the last time I checked. I’ve been to 42 of them. Next on the list? Kenai Fjords. Now, as I explained before, our cabin is in Nikiski, in the far northwestern corner of the Kenai Peninsula. Same state, right? Same peninsula, right? So, it must be pretty close, right? Wrong.

                To get to the eponymous fjords of Kenai, a little beardlike dangle jutting out into the Gulf of Alaska from the peninsula’s southwestern edge, we had to drive 116 miles. The Kenai Peninsula, a little landform you can squint and make out on a map of the state, is bigger than West Virginia. So, yeah, the drive was a big chunk of the day. Along the way, we spotted a mother moose with two calves. We jumped out and got pictures of them from a nice, safe distance while they were nibbling on plants in a little bog by the roadside. I say safe distance because apparently a mother moose is force to be reckoned with.

                When we were nearly to Seward, we made a right turn at the Resurrection River and drove into the national park. There is only one road into Kenai Fjords, but that actually puts it high on the list of Alaska national parks in terms of accessibility. Out of the eight Alaska national parks, only three have roads leading into them. This road followed the river, which is really a smallish stream surrounded by a glacial outwash plain, leading us to our first view of Exit Glacier.

                A glacier is an awesome sight. I don’t know if it’s an innate feeling like the powerful impact of a great mountain, or whether the feeling comes from having read about glacial impacts, but the first time I saw a glacier it was like seeing the inexorable hand of nature’s god. Exit Glacier doesn’t even rank high on the list of Kenai’s glaciers, but it is a stunning sight, nonetheless. As we approached the visitor center, we passed a series of signposts emblazoned with the year that the glacier had ended at that point. They go back to 1815 and steadily move forward in time.

                Now, the point at which the glacial moraine ended in a given year is a simple fact, but I felt the signs were leaning toward a point about climate change. I’m not a climate denier, but I’m not sure this is great evidence. That date of 1815 also happens to be just about the time that the Little Ice Age ended. So, yeah, the glaciers have been receding since then, which seems obvious and almost circular.

                But I digress. When we got to the visitor center, it was closed for Covid. Fortunately, the rangers were holding a limited open house through a plastic enclosed window, so Alex was able to get his passport stamp and junior ranger book. I don’t know how many of those he’s gotten over the years, but I don’t think I’d be exaggerating to say it’s more than fifty. They’re a necessity.

                It was getting late in the day, so we chose the lesser of the two possible hikes and marched directly to the glacier, bear spray and bells at the ready. We followed a paved trail through a forest of mixed spruce, alder, and hemlock and scrambled from there onto the outwash plain. The first thing I saw was a bear ambling toward the river. Then I saw that the “bear” had left his walker near the end of the trail, because the “bear” was an elderly man with such a badly bent back that from afar it looked like he was walking on all fours. God bless him for getting out there in that state, but I really felt like I should offer some help. In the end, I settled for passing with a friendly wave, assuming that if the man wanted help, he’d ask for it. I figured he was like John Locke on Lost and just didn’t want to be told what he couldn’t do.

                My son and I on the other, scampered along like the devil was chasing us. Sometimes when we get to an exciting new park it goes that way. I get so excited that I feel strong and fast enough to mirror his youthful energy. When we first saw Theodore Roosevelt National Park, we spotted bison in the distance, and ran over three miles of badlands to see them from a nearby butte. This was a similar exhilaration. We ran over the outwash plain, then hopped up a crumbling ridge to reach the bluffs above the point where the glacier melted into the river. We were way past the proper end of the hiking trail, but we did respect some signs that warned that further progress was dangerous because of ice falls. This despite the fact that there was no ice over our heads.

                Beneath us, the glacier met the river, melting out an ominous-looking frozen cave. I both wanted to enter that cave and dreaded it like the gates of hell. Above us, the glacier stretched for what looked like miles to the point where it met the Harding Ice Field on top of the mountains. Both my son and I marveled silently for a few moments, and that silence from a garrulous nine-year-old should speak wonders, then began climbing back over the gray rocks to try and reach the main trail.

                The path I chose, thinking it looked well-trodden, instead led us into a narrow defile choked with alders. I looked at it and my roleplaying instincts kicked in. It was the perfect place for an ambush. If we ran into a bear nibbling berries in that thick stand of bushes, there would be no way for him to leave, as the guidebooks say, with dignity. But there was no other route. So, we jingled our bells as loudly as possible, and pushed through the mosquito-infested trees until we reached the trail. Whenever I tumble out from some unexpected place, such as a bear-haunted glen of alders, to the surprise of more normal tourists, I picture the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones emerges from the water onto the deck of U-boat to the cheers of a pirate crew. That mental scene played now as we surprised the hikers on the main trail. I had to imagine the pirates cheering for me, but it was still a thrill.

To Be Continued Wednesday…

Bearanoia

                On our first morning in Nikiski, we decided to go back to the well from which the wildlife gods had favored us yesterday, home of the weasel: Captain Cook State Recreation Area. We went with the full intention of stopping at every possible point and exploring the park. Unfortunately, at the first viewpoint, along the shore of Smith Lake, we climbed out and were immediately descended upon by those furies of the north, mosquitoes. I didn’t even realize until later that we were ducking under the fronds of a nasty plant called cow parsnip. We avoided it this time, but apparently if you touch it, you get a rash that becomes unbearably if you let sun fall on it. Personally, I feel like the botanists missed anopportunity to make some vampire-related pun a la James Howe, but I’m glad I avoided touching the damn things regardless.

                We slathered ourselves in cheap bug repellant and made a second attempt to explore on a little creek a bit farther into the park. The owners of our little chateau asked if our brand of spray was carcinogenic. I didn’t know, but I told him that since it didn’t work, it was probably safe. Our second foray was more successful. We poked around on the shores of the creek and I was overly nervous about bears again. After a few more days in Alaska, I’ve learned that the odds of encountering a bear are slim, and certainly not something to spend your time worrying about, but at this early moment, I hadn’t taken that in yet. Other than the bear-anoia though, our nature walk was just like a million from my childhood exploring the creeks of Northern Virginia. Of course, the “deer” tracks and scat we found were on a Pleistocene scale because they were moose, but we felt at home.

                Little multicolored birds hopped through the trees, and when we got back to the car, we pored through my son’s pile of nature books to identify them as varied thrushes, a mundane, but still novel sighting. Then the illusion of normalcy was shattered for us when we drove down to a picnic ground on the edge of Cook Inlet. Those white-capped mountains do it every time. It’s like George Lucas using a simple double exposure effect to tell us that no, Tatooine is not earth. We parked and climbed down to a gray-mud beach pelted by icy winds even in June.

                When my son was a baby, I took a picture of him on the beach where he was gazing pensively at the waves. It’s a famous family photo that we call the “Admiral of the Ocean Seas”. I got several updated photos of the commodore as we looked west toward Lake Clark and Katmai. They’ll go into my portfolio of the boy as a romantic poet series.

                But our appetite for adventure was only whetted by the relative peace of Captain Cook, so we headed back east, through the commercial jumbles of Kenai and Soldotna, typically American in their disorganized scatter of car dealerships, fast food joints, and strip malls. We had seen the sign for a visitor center on the way through the burnt-out district of Kenai Wildlife Refuge, so we thought we would double back and get ourselves stamps and junior ranger guides. No such luck. When we got there, we found a one-room shack that was closed for Covid.

                For a few minutes, we were disappointed, but we looked at the map posted on the walls and realized there was a side road, south of the main highway that dipped out into the refuge along the shores of a lake called Skilak (pronounced like a dearth of slaloming equipment). It looked like it was dotted with little hiking trails, so we jumped back in the truck enthusiastically.

A side note about our truck by the way. I had made a reservation with Enterprise, a company that uses the word “reservation” extremely loosely. I learned they do the hard way, when I showed up in Denver and was given a gigantic cargo van instead of car. So, I was really nervous when I got a voice message saying there was a problem with giving us a pickup truck. I pictured navigating the Dalton Highway in a Prius. It turned out that all the pickups had been given to firefighters so all they had for us was a full size Ford Expedition, which turns out to be much more useful for our purposes than a pickup; crisis averted.

So there we were bouncing happily down the Skilak Lake Road, looking for hiking trails. We found our first one, called simply the Kenai River Trail. Now I had to mull over my bear spray in a serious way for the first time. I had tried to puzzle it out at REI, but had made the jet-lagged decision to just but it while still in the dark. Now it was time to get serious. Fortunately, I had a knife, so I cut the little plastic safeguard. All I needed to do now was remove a harder safety clip wedged into the trigger, but I was too nervous to take it out when not needed. Of course, I had no illusions about how well I would do trying to learn a new skill during a bear charge, so I don’t know how much good it does to carry it. But I put it in my back pocket.

My son and I have discussed bear safety, perhaps ad nauseum, but here is our thinking. There are multiple lines of defense. First, make sure the bears can hear you. Surprising a bear is bad news (so is surprising a moose for that matter), so you have to let them know you are there. I made the questionable decision to read through the Wikipedia listing of brown bear fatalities the other night. One guy was killed (in Idaho I think) when he was mountain biking and crashed right into a grizzly on the trail. They didn’t even bother removing the bear after the killing, figuring that was completely understandable behavior. I suppose I might maul some guy who crashed into me on a trail with his mountain bike if I could.

So, if you have avoided surprising the bear, you’ve cut out a certain percentage of unpleasant bear encounters. Next is to make sure that once you see one, you don’t run. Running signals that you are prey and triggers a hunting response in the bear. Of course, the first time I saw a bear in Shenandoah National Park, that was exactly what I did, but I am an idiot. I promise I won’t do it again. Fortunately, that bear was busy eating berries, and may not have even seen me.

One of the hardest things to do in a bear encounter I think, is the third line of defense. This is assuming you haven’t surprised the bear and haven’t run, but it still behaves aggressively for some reason. When the bear charges you, you are supposed to stand still and not run because most charges are just bluffs to scare you. I guarantee this will scare me. I enjoyed the frankness of one of the bear country warning signs which advised you to “pretend not to be scared” when you see a bear. They don’t even countenance the possibility that you might be some Tarzan being who isn’t afraid of bears. Those are imaginary people, the park service admits.

Post bluff charge, and this is something I’m not clear on, you can go ahead and spray the bear. My question is whether I get the time to draw down on the bear once I know it’s not a bluff. Doesn’t the non-bluff charge result in me being torn limb from limb by a raging hell beast? So, I’m amending the list and going ahead with pulling out the spray before that charge happens. That bear gets it in the face if he gets within like thirty feet as far as I’m concerned. Sorry to you bluff-charging bears out there, but that’s my policy and I’m sticking to it. I hope you’ll understand.

On this trail though, we remained bear free. We walked down to a beautiful crystal blue, rushing river. There were anglers farther upstream and a side trail that led to a gorgeous view of the Kenai as it flowed west. A loon crossed the river as we watched from the heights of a fifty-foot cliff. We drove farther along the road and found a second, much longer trail called Hidden Creek. Ominously, there were signs about a man who had gone missing on the trail back in April. The bears, I thought. The damn bears got him. In reality, he probably fell into the cold water back in April and it was hypothermia that got him.

We hiked about two miles down a winding, thickly wooded trail and then out across a sort of alpine tundra of stunted trees and mountain flowers. We saw three-toed woodpeckers, and my son made the dubious claim to have seen a pine marten run across the trail while I was scanning the trees for ursine attackers. Then we were at Skilak Lake. We walked down to the water and scared a pair of yellowlegs who flew to the top of a tree and squawked at us. A bald eagle landed in the trees nearby with the ever-present icy mountains in the background. It was ideal Kenai.

We walked happily if a little tired back to the truck. I joked that it would be crazy if we saw a bear right before we got there. That was why it caught me a bit off guard when my son said, “There’s a bear!” right as we got to the truck. And there was. Just up the road was a momma black bear with two little cubs. She looked up at us as I tried to calmly walk to the truck. I imagine I looked about as calm as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs, but she ignored us. We got in the truck and took a slew of pictures of her and the cubs. They were adorable, and she was a smallish adult bear. It was a good way to take some of the edge of my bear-anoia. This was no grizzly of course, but hopefully the gentle introduction will ease some of our fears when we see the real deal.

The Alaskan Adventure Begins

                For the next month, I’ll be writing from Alaska. Originally, I had planned a shorter visit, two weeks of a whirlwind tour with my nine-year-old. We found cheap tickets and the poor guy has been trapped in the house watching the entire run of Full House and Modern Family for three months. I bought the tickets on an impulse back in the early days of Covid, when I quaintly thought the plague would be a finite historical event that would one day end. I thought for sure people would be over it by June. Then I slowly came to realize that Alaska was only ending a quarantine order at the beginning of June. We needed a backup plan, and that plan was not going to be staying in New Mexico watching more Full House.

                My amazing wife came up with the idea of renting a cabin for the additional two weeks that we might need to quarantine, so that’s what we did. We had to get tested for Covid before we left; negative of course. There was a whole complicated procedure for clearing the airport in Anchorage, on paper that is. In practice, I showed up and talked to a teenager who was doing the screening. He glanced at our documentation and said, “You good.” For a beat, I was about to argue, then I smartened up and we left the airport, hustling like twelve-year-olds who had just stolen a pack of baseball cards from 7-11.

                And I was in my 49th state. I’ll be doing these last two in the same order they were admitted to the Union. I guess I would have had to be born in Delaware to do the whole thing that way. There’s a part of me that regrets that.

Backing up a bit, I have to describe flying into Anchorage. It’s hard to capture the immensity of the Alaskan landscape. The clouds broke somewhere around Juneau and we got to see the approach across Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Prince William Sound. It is one thing to know in an academic way that Alaska is big, that it is mostly composed of mile upon mile of trackless wilds. It is entirely another to see that landscape, covered in glaciers and mountains that have almost never seen a human presence. New Mexico seems big and empty to me, but it is dwarfed by Alaska. I’ve gotten used to needing four-wheel-drive to navigate the seldom used back roads of the Land of Enchantment, but here in the Last Frontier, they don’t exist. The desert seems welcoming in comparison to this landscape. Flying over a thirty-mile-wide glacier, calving thousands of ice bergs into the ocean, you know that to end up there would mean death. Alaska is big, beautiful, and terrifying to contemplate.

                But we were in Anchorage, which feels like a completely normal city. That is except for the fact that it was nine when we landed, and the sun was still high up in the western sky. We got an Uber with an Albanian driver (I’d like an insight into his state selection process) and the sun was still up. We checked into our hotel, still up. We dropped off our things and walked to find something to eat, still up. Ate teriyaki by the side of a small lake filled with float planes, still up. It really wasn’t going down. So, I very carefully tried to pin the curtains as widely as possible to block out the light, and we slept.

                And amazingly, we slept through until nine o’clock the next morning. The night before leaving I had lain awake in bed like a kid on Christmas Eve. Jet lag and the midnight sun hadn’t stood a chance against my exhaustion I suppose. One of the joys of being a grownup is the ability to just spring for a nice place to stay on the first day in a new place. I have many memories of attempting to survive on zero sleep, or sleeping in a car after first arriving in Europe. No more.

                The extra sleep fortified us for the drive to Nikiski, a speck on the map of the Kenai Peninsula that I chose for no other reason than that it was the last reasonably priced Air B and B property in the entire state. I wasn’t choosy, we just needed a backup plan. Now we didn’t, and I was worried about what we were getting into. Thirty miles out of Anchorage, we saw our first bald eagles. By the time we were fifty miles away, we were saying, “Oh look, another bald eagle,” and driving on. They’re as common as rock pigeons in New York. Still beautiful and majestic mind you, but not worth pulling over to the side of the road. We stopped at a short scrambling trail called Beluga Point at the urging of my son. He was absolutely sure we would see the whales there, but I grew up near Wolf Trap and I know better. The views of Turnagain Arm were breathtaking though. Even after days I still haven’t gotten inured to the 360 surrounding views of ice-capped mountains and glaciers.

                We drove on through Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, which has had a serious series of fires in the last decade. All along the Sterling Highway, from Cooper Landing to Sterling, the hills are brown and burnt. We saw no wildlife and wondered at the dozens of cars parked along the road, their drivers wandering into the blackened forest. Were they collecting something? It was late afternoon by the time we found our house and it was a pretty big disappointment. One big surprise, we’re sharing it with a family. We have our own little side unit, but there are family noises, and dogs barking all through the day. Also, while we met the owner, all three of us were coated in mosquitoes after a two-minute conversation. The mosquitoes did not agree to stay outside during the night.

                And I use the term night loosely. There was no way to stop the sunlight coming in through the glass-paned front door, so even at two in the morning, there was daylight coming in. I still haven’t figured out what to do about that. There is also only one room and we have no proper range, just a hot plate on top of a strange oven hybrid whose instructions were crafted in some inscrutable country like Finland. It was only by day two that I figured out how to make eggs.

                But I don’t want to end on a down note. We’re thrilled to be in Alaska. We dropped off our things at our hellhole… I mean cabin, and took a walk around the neighborhood looking for a view of the sea. There wasn’t one, so we drove up the coast a short way to Captain Cook State Recreation Area. Yes, that’s the same Captain Cook from Australia. He also “discovered” this part of Alaska for the British. Right as we crossed into the park, I slowed down so we could see the startlingly immersive greens of the temperate rainforest. As I did, a weasel ran across the road. I can’t remember if I’ve seen a weasel before, but I was a fun sighting. We parked and walked carefully, bear spray at the ready, down a verdant trail to the beach and could finally see Cook Inlet up close. We said hello to a squirrelly guy who was wandering the beach alone and spooked him away. I wasn’t sure why he acted so weird until I realized it was already past ten at night. God knows what he was up to out there.

                We poked around in the mud and stones looking for strange tracks. Lake Clark National Park was on the other side of the inlet, with Mount Redoubt’s cone just poking through the clouds. These are places I’ve wanted to see my whole life. Our month-long adventure begins!

Cookes Peak Hike(Not to be confused with Cox)

                Cookes Peak stands out in southern New Mexico. It has a bare rock peak shaped like a tiger shark tooth. I was surprised when I saw that the hike was listed as moderate in most of my guides. Still, with the distance given as nine miles, I thought it was something that needed to wait until my son was a lot older and we were experienced with overnight camping. But after we tackled Cox Peak in April, I realized that he had become a strong hiker. So, I revisited the idea and found that the actual hike to the peak is several miles shorter if you have four-wheel-drive, which I have.

                This time the drive was much easier, or at least the initial approach was. We drove out I-10 west and got off at Deming. A sound like a minor artillery barrage on my windshield made me think it was hailing until a quick glance at the sky revealed zero cloud cover. Grasshoppers were exploding like little bloody firecrackers as we drove into what must have been a swarm. I hope I spared some village from being eaten alive.

                The turnoff for the trailhead was across 26 from a derelict pile of farm equipment that must have been used as a Breaking Bad location. In other words, it was a perfect site for making New Mexico look depopulated and borderline post-apocalyptic. There were two miles of reasonable gravel road before All Trails suggested that I pull over and walk. Instead, we pushed on through a series of rolling dips into dried out creek beds. I watched as the tenths of miles ticked off, doubling each one and subtracting from how far we would have to walk. I know hiking is the whole point of these adventures, but I don’t relish the trudge along a dirt road to get to the good part. Before I knew it, we had cut the hike down to a completely manageable five miles.

                I missed the trailhead on the first pass and had to double back. The “trail” here was a rocky rut. With a jeep it still might have been passable, but I thought we had done well enough and could walk it. As we were unloading and strapping on camel packs, a rickety VW bus came the other way, jouncing its aging hippie drivers as they came down from somewhere farther into the outback. I couldn’t imagine how they were making it, and that gave me a boost of confidence about my own wisdom in driving this far.

                It was hot but manageable as we trudged along the rocky ravine. Cookes Peak still towered over us in intimidating fashion. I always have trouble judging mountains from below, but it looked like there was no way we could climb it in one day. Still, the pedometer doesn’t lie. We were two and a half miles from the summit, so we went for it. Spring flowers dotted the sides of the trail which clung to the north rim of what began to grow into a fairly deep canyon. It narrowed, and the trail began to have trouble making up its mind which rim it should follow. We splashed across pools and carefully leapt over mossy, flat boulders of granite. These crossings were fun, but we did get a little wet.

                On one particularly steep portion of the ravine, both my son and I heard a scrambling through the rocks on the opposite rim and just caught the flash of a striped, furry tail as a ringtail scurried away from us. We watched for a while hoping he would come back out, but there must have been a hole dug into the bushes where he disappeared. That’s certainly the first time I’ve seen a ringtail, and it was exciting.

                Further on, despite my care in watching out for snakes on point, my son let out a yelp as a gopher snake slithered out in front of him. It took me a second to make sure it wasn’t a rattler. He let out a little hiss to make it harder to tell and I think that’s defensive mimicry. The snake was aggressive, moving quickly right at me when I came back to help my son get by without hurting it. Sometimes the smallest creatures show a bravery that’s breathtaking. I can’t imagine a creature that would outweigh me to that extent that I outweigh a small gopher snake, but if it existed, I sure as hell wouldn’t run at it. (Actually, I just did the math and that would be about 18 tons. So, bigger than any living land animal, bigger than a T-Rex, and somewhere around the size of a modest sauropod. Yeah, I don’t think charging would be my first response if I met one.)

                We gave the gopher snake a wide berth and continued on. With less than a mile to the peak according to our steps, the trail finally began to switchback, climbing up and to the south of the summit. The elevation was deceptively low, and as we climbed the flatter eastern ridges, the trail was still was flanked by thick stands of juniper and mesquite. We never did see the trees transition to pine. Instead, the vegetation gave out completely for the last quarter mile of the approach. We wound around the first outcrop of bare rock and saw the dramatic rise of the shark tooth-shaped peak from up close. It reminded me somehow of the Scottish Highlands, just a stark tower of granite jutting like the spines on a Stegosaurus.

                The last hundred feet were a true climb, nothing difficult, but needing the use of hands and feet to move upward. I hung close to my son as he went and I was impressed when he managed the whole thing on his own. The top of the mountain was all bare rock, not because we were anywhere near the timberline, but because of what I think must be severe winds. The peak stands out as the tallest thing for a hundred miles in either direction. In fact, we saw a few straggling monarch butterflies. I don’t know if this is true, but I imagine them choosing Cookes as a landmark as they fly south.

                We found a hiking log in a pile of broken rocks and signed it with our usual note about hiking in the time of Covid. My favorite things on the mountain top though were two plaques left by the United States Geological Survey. They dated back to the thirties and listed an address in DC where we could write with questions. Just the mention of Washington made my nostalgic and a bit homesick. I thought of the Smithsonian and Nationals Park sitting empty. The plaques were worn, but still clearly legible after nearly a century. I imagined someone placing them like a time capsule and someone else climbing up here in the twenty-third century and finding them looking not much different. Will that person call themselves an American?

We poked around the summit for a few minutes, pounded some Snickers, sucked down half our water, and then started back down. We had a few hours left before sundown, but I had to think about the drive too. I didn’t want to negotiate those arroyos in the dark. We didn’t have any trouble though. Aside from the first climbing bit, which we did have to take carefully, the trail was much easier on the way down. That sounds obvious, but if a trail is too steep, I find that going down is just as hard on the knees as going up is on the quads. This was the perfect grade to make the return trip an unequivocal joy. We made it back to the car in just over an hour. Overall, I would highly recommend Cookes Peak. The views up top are well worth the effort, and if you don’t have high clearance, just leave yourself an extra two hours to hike the jeep road approach. Go for it!

Cox Peak April, 2020

                The idea for the expedition began with a family trip out into the desert to climb around Kilbourne Hole. I’d visited Kilbourne before, and this time we decided to do as the Romans do and bring a gun (bb that is) to shoot at targets on the crater rim. We did a little scrambling into the maar, followed animal tracks, and plinked at the remains of bottles left by other visitors (I would never bring my own garbage to litter such a cool site, but what’s the harm of using what others have left).

                I always get lost driving through this part of the desert. We have a recreational atlas, but it’s hard to tell which little red lines are roads, which are arroyos, and even if I can follow the road, it’s nearly impossible to pinpoint where I am. Lots of wrong turns and backtracks are unavoidable. Landmarks aren’t super helpful. On this trip, I drove around much of the rim of Hunts Hole before realizing that it wasn’t Kilbourne. Like I said, I’ve been there before, but one maar looks pretty much the same as the next.

                It was getting close to dusk as we headed home. I decided to take the shorter route to state road 9, the paved road that follows the Mexican border between Columbus and Sunland Park. That was when I noticed the three volcanic mounts that form a weird signpost between the East and West Potrillo Mountains. They really stand out in contrast to the flat landscape around. The two smaller mountains are Mount Riley and the prosaically named Point 5872. I feel bad for 5872 and would like to volunteer to name it after myself. The tallest of the trio is Cox Peak at 5936. As we drove between the north ridge of the East Potrillos and the three volcanoes, my son and I took one look and decided we would be back.

                We’re on lockdown, so we don’t have a whole lot of structure in our schedule. That left us able to come back just a bit more than a week later. I’m not good at leaving early for hikes, so we didn’t even leave the house until after noon. Sticking to the paved roads, we still took more than an hour to get to route 9. I had planned to follow our exact route from the earlier trip, but instead I thought it might be fun to get a good look at the East Potrillo mountains. So, we took a county road that follows their eastern slope. Aside from a few jeep trails that die at the foot of the ridge- probably remains of mining operations of varying degrees of success- there seemed to be no human presence at all in the mountains. On a whim, we took one of the trails and found just what I had expected, a pile of scree and a scar from some extraction. When we tried to explore a bit, we were immediately covered in aggressive flies and retreated quickly. I hoped the hike to Cox Peak would be more pleasant.

                Hopping back in the truck, we swung back through the mountain gap, then followed a packed earth road clockwise around the volcano base. I took a few wrong turns trying to find the trailhead. All I had was an odometer reading, and with our unplanned diversion to the Potrillos, I was left guessing. Both turns led to a place where it looked possible (just) to climb the mountain, but I kept going. The road we wanted led into the basin between the three mountains. It looked like the setting for an unimaginative painting of the Mesozoic.

We parked at the end of a bumpy track. The only way I could see where the “road” ended there was that other people had left circles of stones from old campfires. There was also a slightly higher concentration of spent shell casings. Looking up the slopes of Cox I could see no obvious way to climb up. I would have paid better attention to my topographical map, but there was absolutely no cell service, so we were on our own. I had googled the mountain and found another hiker’s description of climbing Cox. He talked about following a scree trail up the slope. As we hiked over the rolling foothills, we could see tongues of broken rock dipping down from the peak like lava in a child’s drawing, so we chose one and followed it upward. It was rough going. The rocks shifted treacherously under our feet, with a sound like stacking dinner plates. They were at least three or four deep, leaving caverns under our feet that seemed like perfect hiding places for snakes. I just had to tell myself that any rattlers napping in the rocks would be happy to let me pass over them peacefully and hope that was true. Aside from fence and tree lizards, we saw no living creatures as we climbed.

                Three quarters of the way up the slope, the climb got even steeper. I began to slip from time to time. I felt a bit woozy, either from a bit of fatigue, the altitude gain, or maybe from the sharp grade playing hell with my equilibrium. We slowed down a lot. I should mention at this point how impressed I was with my son’s performance. He followed behind me, moving only slightly slower than I was. I was impressed. At nine, if he’s keeping up with me, it won’t be many years before he’s the one leading the way.

                But today, I was the first to reach an outcropping of rocks that we had seen from the base. I climbed up to a flat, comfortable resting spot and watched him make his laborious way up after me. I ate a Snickers bar, nibbled on homemade trail mix, and wished I was a bit higher up. From the north side of the slope, I couldn’t quite see over the two mountains to the north. Our views would have to wait. When my son caught up, we hung out a bit longer. The late start had me watching the time carefully, but I figured as long we started heading down by 5:30, there would be plenty of time before sunset. I really don’t like being out in the desert after dark, especially off-trail.

After getting our breath, we made the final push to the summit, which turned out not to be the actual highest point of the mountain. So, we trudged along the ridge, following piles of deer scat and came to a large rock cairn with a metal pole sticking out like a flagpole. Inside the cairn we found a climbers’ log in a protective glass jar. I fished it out and took the helpfully provided pencil to write our names along with a comment about how the coronavirus couldn’t get us up here. Hardy har, I know, but I was tired.

                From the true summit, we really could see everywhere. To the west we could pick out both the Big and Little Florida Mountains. They’re still a bit of a mystery to me, but I know they have introduced Ibex climbing in their heights, so I plan to hike there sometime soon. Between us and the Floridas is the north south oriented field of the West Potrillo Mountains. Mountains are a bit of a misnomer for that range. Especially from high up, they look more like a scattered field of modest cinder cones. As far as I know, they are an active area of volcanic activity. We could conceivably have a lava bursting forth from the earth less than fifty miles from Las Cruces at any time. As far as I can tell, that would mostly be cool, not dangerous. Of course, if the magma beneath our feet boiled enough groundwater to create another maar like Kilbourne, that would be a lot more exciting.

                South of us, we could see far into Mexico, but I haven’t learned that landscape yet aside from being able to pick out the aptly named Tres Hermanas mountains south of Columbus. I wasn’t thrilled about the idea of picking our way down the same broken slope we had just climbed, so I decided to get creative. From the summit, I could make out that the mountain had a much more gently sloping ridge down and to the west, so we walked that way. The way was still unfriendly to my middle-aged knees, but we had an easier time of it. I zigzagged down the talus and only had a few slips along the way. At one point, I took a little video of my climb and of course that was when I had my most dramatic stumble. I got a hilarious movie from the perspective of my phone as it tumbled down the rocks and into a hole. Otherwise, it wasn’t long before we were working our way across the gentle grade of the open desert. Of course, that was when the one blemish on our successful mission happened. My son had fallen behind me, and he suddenly became very distressed when he realized he had left his camera somewhere. The sun was headed down, time was short, and we weren’t following a trail. So, I had no idea where to start looking for it. I had to make a hard decision to leave it and that was hard on him. I felt like a terrible dad, but the fact is that he might as well have dropped it into the ocean. I’ve heard stories about people finding things like rifles just sitting against a tree a hundred years after someone misplaced them in the desert. It was crappy, but we had to leave it. Overall, it was a successful adventure, but it was unpleasant to leave it on such a note. Not only did the camera cost a little bit of money, but there were pictures of my recently deceased mother on it. I hated to leave the day on a down note, but there it was.

Does anyone else love the End Times?

I used to think that an obsession with post-apocalyptic and disaster fiction was weird. I thought it was a niche, slightly dirty fascination, something that should never be a topic of conversation among decent company. It was a bit like how I felt about liking Star Wars so much. I thought it was just me. Now every other dad I see at Cub Scouts is wearing a Rebel Alliance insignia on his tee shirt. Where were those guys in seventh grade?

                My first introduction to the genre was actually a bizarre relic, a coloring book from the 1979 movie Meteor. I don’t know where I came by such a strange thing, but it may have been a yard sale. The idea of the world being destroyed by meteors appealed to me, not in a nihilistic way, but just the idea that such a terrible thing could happen. I had a nascent death instinct I suppose. It didn’t hurt that one of the locations in the movie was clearly the DC metro, with its honeycomb concrete blocks prominently featured in one of the film stills in the coloring book. Come to think of it, I’ve never seen Meteor, and I think I’ll leave it that way. It was right in the midst of Sean Connery’s bizarre sci-fi phase along with Zardoz and Highlander. There were other hints of the apocalyptic in my childhood. Thundarr the Barbarian took place in a ruined world far into the future and I loved it, especially the opening sequence that showed the end times.

I really hit my stride with a slew of eighties nuclear holocaust movies. My parents let me see The Day After on primetime TV in 1983. Yeah, if you know I was born in 1977 you can do the math. I was six. It was terrifying and upsetting, but I was hooked. I can still picture the image of John Lithgow and friends watching the missiles take off from a football game. Somehow, I also managed to watch an airing of Threads, another nuclear war movie, similar in almost every way except that it takes place in the United Kingdom. I don’t remember which of the movies I watched first, but the impact was huge. Famously, Ronald Reagan was heavily moved by The Day After too. Apparently, it took a movie to get our Hollywood president to understand the threat and start working on disarmament. That seems a bit silly, but I’ve also heard that John F Kennedy’s forceful response to the Cuban Missile Crisis was heavily influenced by his recent reading of Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August. These are human beings. It’s scary to think how they can be nudged so randomly, but it’s reality.

                I saw Wargames and loved it. It dealt with the threat of nuclear war in a serious, but ultimately much cheerier way. I think my passion for these movies was rooted in the same impulse that makes people watch slasher movies, or supernatural thrillers like The Exorcist. I had no interest in those. When I was a young child, the jump scares, blood, and general terror were too much for me in those movies. Then when I got older, I found I had no capacity to be afraid of the supernatural. I didn’t believe in it at all, and what’s scary about that? What I did like was things like Jaws, which took a perfectly natural threat and made it terrifyingly real. Are great white sharks likely to hunt and kill large numbers of people? Of course not. But are they really out there? Yes, unlike the devil and Captain Howdy, yes, they are.

                Alien invasions may not be likely, but they do fit into a rational world view. I saw the fifties version of War of the Worlds, read the H.G. Wells book, and devoured the entire White Mountains series by John Christopher the instant I discovered the books. I can still smell or almost taste the vinyl of school bus seats when I picture those books, read over the course of a week in fifth grade. Having my fear button pushed must have been part of the fascination, but I think I just liked to imagine the effects on terrible events on my world. There was always a part of me yearning to actually see the tornado when we did drills in elementary school.

                In my pre-teen years, I started catching late night showings of Red Dawn and I was hooked there too. One of my friends, who shall remain nameless, criticized the film because he couldn’t see why if the Russians invaded we would only resist with one helicopter. What movie was that guy watching? There was a whole scenario fleshed out in the movie, with the cities that got hit with nukes, the map of the battle lines, and which allies the United States had in World War III described in detail. The deliciously tantalizing, nightmare scenario was exactly the kind of horror movie that appealed to me. And here we come to another thing about horror rooted in reality. I began thinking about my own plan for what I would do in such a scenario. My best friend and I had an idiotic scheme to hide out in the thick woods between the 495 cloverleaf and launch raids on Soviet troops. Many of these disaster porn movies lead a mind to the same question, what would I do?

                It wasn’t all so rational though. I repeatedly poured over the opening pages of the sourcebooks for roleplaying games like Shadowrun, Rifts, and After the Bomb. Palladium’s After the Bomb dealt with viruses run amok, nuclear war, and genetic mutation, which are at least science-adjacent concepts, so they fit my theory of being fascinated with horrific things rooted in science. But Shadowrun involved the reappearance of magic, dragons, elves and trolls. Rifts involved the tearing open of trans-dimensional space and the infestation of earth by a million different kinds of alien being. Neither is grounded in anything like reality. When I think about it deeper though, what I loved about those books was the aspects of their settings that dealt with the ramifications of catastrophe. How many people would die? What cities would survive? How would the political map of the world change? Yes, the cause of apocalypse was silly, but the authors had put some thought into the effects of their silliness. The question that most fascinated me after “what would I do” was simply “what would happen?”

                When I grew up, it began to dawn on me that I wasn’t the only one who loved post-apocalyptic scenarios. I loved Stephen King’s novel The Stand and was surprised to learn that according to him it was the most popular of his novels for fans. I started talking to more people who shared my weird obsession. It was a bit like learning that everyone had really liked Judge Reinhold. Anyone? It was really obvious by the time Walking Dead became such a huge hit. I think when other properties try to market the idea of zombies, they are totally missing the point. It’s the apocalypse that transfixes viewers, not the stupid monsters.

                This post started out as a lead-in to writing about living through a minor apocalypse we’re seeing now in 2020, and the reading I’m doing in response, but I think I’ll let that grow into a second article to post later this week. For now, I’ll let it suffice to write about how strange it is to learn that I’m not the only one. But isn’t that what this era is about in a lot of ways? I may be part of a larger phenomenon, and it feels like it, but maybe I can just find other weirdos because we’re all so connected. Anyway, I have to go, that Judge Reinhold message board isn’t going to post on itself.

A Proposal for Modest Revolution: A Proportional Electoral College

                The electoral college is an unpopular beast. After the 2016 election I had moments of frustration, wondering why we give such disproportionate voting influence to the worst among us. But the problems with the system are not that it helps one party win. Obviously only one half of the partisan divide would think that is a problem. The simplistic objection is that the electoral college produces a different result than the popular vote. That objection ignores the fact that no one ever said it was supposed to match the results of the popular vote. We don’t elect our presidents directly, we never have elected our presidents directly, and the founding fathers didn’t want us to.

                It is precisely the point of our federal system that we don’t just put things up to a popular vote. Particularly, the bicameral system of our legislative branch was created to make a compromise between the powerful, populous states, and the smaller ones. The fact that each state, per the compromise struck between the Virginia and New Jersey plans, gets two senators no matter its size, means that mathematically, the inhabitants of those states get more per capita power in government.

                That is no accident. It is a conscious feature of a system where sovereignty derives from the states. It is also designed to prevent presidential candidates from ignoring the populations of those smaller states. This is the motive for the electoral college. It has become fashionable to blame the motives of southern slaveholders for the system. The argument derives from the fact that southerners gained voting power by the apportionment system that multiplied the slave population by 3/5 when determining the population of states. In 1865 the Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery, leaving this as an historical footnote. The argument seems to be aimed at creating guilt by association despite the lack of any logical connection between the two ideas. It is the kind of argument that only helps when one is preaching to the choir.

                Similarly, the mention (I won’t dignify it by calling it an argument) of the 1876 election brings no logical argument against the electoral college. An electoral tie was only broken when Rutherford B. Hayes agreed to remove federal troops from the south. This was a terrible result and it doomed the promise of Reconstruction to miserable failure, but it has no connection to the electoral college. It speaks of dreadful corruption in the latter years of the nineteenth century, and of the moral cowardice of the Republicans, but only damns the college by association. Only someone who hasn’t been paying close attention or is already convinced would agree that this bolsters arguments against the electoral college.

                So how does the college work? Each state gets a number of electoral votes that equals its number of congressmen. Basically, we hold a general election in the state and whoever wins that election is given all the votes in the state. The only exceptions to this are Maine and Nebraska. They use a modified system where the general determines who gets the two votes based on the senators. Then an election in each congressional district decides who gets the vote for that district. In theory this should break up the winner take all approach of the other 48 states, but in these two limited cases, the effect is more or less the same.

                The electoral college as it stands is a system where the votes of smaller states count for more than they otherwise would. That was the intent. It is a feature not a bug. Where I see the problem is in an entirely unintended effect. With even the slimmest margin giving all the votes to one candidate, the candidates have no incentive to campaign in states they are guaranteed to win or lose. Conservatives in California, and Liberals in Georgia have no incentive to vote in presidential elections. All of the campaigning is concentrated in a few battleground states. Since these states are all or nothing, and most of the states aren’t significantly in play, candidates focus on getting more turnout in contested states. They tack farther and farther to the extremes of their parties every year. Winner take all systems also discourage third party candidates who have no chance on garnering any electoral votes whatsoever. This is how you get Trump and Sanders. Do you want to get Trump and Sanders?

                So, what could we do to change this short of abandoning the electoral college and relegating the less populated states to irrelevance? Let’s consider two ideas. First, we could have all the states adopt the Maine/Nebraska model. This would produce a situation where even in large, purple states, candidates can earn partial credit for winning in at least some of the congressional districts. The only bonus for winning the overall by a slim margin would be the two votes for the senators.

As an example, let’s see how this would have changed the 2016 election in Florida. The actual result was that 49.0% went for Trump with 47.8% going for Clinton. The winner by 1.2% took all 29 votes for the state. What would happen under the Maine/Nebraska system? Unfortunately, voting results were tallied by counties, not by congressional districts, so I’ll have to use the results in the elections for representatives. I admit that could introduce problems if the personality of the candidate was an issue, but it should indicate how a district leans. There are 27 congressional districts in Florida. 18 of these went red and 11 blue. Thus, using the congressional elections as a proxy, Trump would get 2 for the overall win and 18 for the districts, leaving 11 electors for Clinton. Trump still wins, but the result is a lot more proportional. This already feels a lot fairer, but the problem is that it leaves us in a situation where there is very little incentive to campaign in the middle. Each candidate would be best left to play to a few battleground districts, and we have the same problem on a state scale that we had at the national level. There is also the problem that districts are gerrymandered to often quite unjust results.

Which leaves us with my second idea. What if we took the overall vote, then allocated the electors based on the percentages? Applying the 2016 results, we would now award 14 votes to both Trump and Clinton. Rounding would be necessary, but I can’t see any reason why that shouldn’t be done based on the standard rules we all learned in grade school. We round Trump down from 14.239 to 14 and Clinton up from 13.862 to 14. I also can’t see any reason why we should treat the two senator votes differently, but if a state so chose, they could certainly do so. One major difference in the Florida case would be that Gary Johnson would have garnered one electoral vote. I certainly didn’t think he was a strong candidate, but at least this system could open the door a crack to a candidate from a third party. I can’t see how that could be anything but healthy.

One of the healthiest results though would be to give an incentive for the major party candidates to campaign everywhere. For example, under the system I am proposing, Trump would have picked up 17 of California’s 55 districts. He did this despite the largest margin of defeat since 1936. How would his campaign have changed if he had seen even the possibility of picking up a few more of them? Would he have hammered away about a wall if he seen even a glimmer of catching a few more California voters? This system would have to force candidates to tack toward the middle, toward reasonable policies that appeal to a broad cross section, and away from the lunatic fringes that have become so loud in 2020.

Is it possible to have such a system? Of course. The primaries essentially function this way. A win in a state isn’t absolute. That is where the similarity ends though. The delegates aren’t awarded in the proportional way I propose and the process is more like the Maine/Nebraska system. It seems to produce candidates who skew toward the extremes. Still, the biggest problem for adopting such a system is that the state legislatures decide how to allocate electors. That is laid out directly in Article II of the constitution. So, any sweeping change would either have to be done by appealing directly and individually to the states, which would take forever, or through the amendment process. There are already proposals afoot to pass amendments abolishing the electoral college. Why not get the ball rolling on something that would produce a leveling effect and a widening of democracy instead of allowing the population centers to place a stranglehold on government?

I’m certainly in.