My one-star reviews of national parks

This blog has grown dormant during my treatment for lymphoma. Mimi and I have traveled little. Even when I felt like traveling, chemotherapy left me vulnerable to infections and getting on a plane wasn’t a good idea. But I got an idea for a travel post when I read Tim Murphy’s I Can’t Stop Reading One-Star Yelp Reviews of National Parks in Mother Jones.

They are hilarious and I won’t try to do them justice here. Really crabby people missed out on the grandeur of our national parks and didn’t have the sense to keep their whining to themselves. I have never not enjoyed a national park. I thank Teddy Roosevelt profoundly for the foresight to protect these national treasures and consider myself privileged every time I visit.

But I decided I should try to do some one-star reviews of national parks and a few other sites I have visited, with links in a few places to my less-grumpy actual posts on some parks (most of my National Park travels predate this blog). I had some family help on this:


The guides here don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. Our guide warned us that most visitors don’t get clear views of Denali (also called Mt. McKinley) because it’s often covered by clouds. That stupid bimbo! It was a beautiful day and we got several spectacular views. Then she warned us that we’d probably only see two or three of the large types of wildlife in the park. But we saw all five: wolves, grizzly bears, caribou, moose and Dall sheep. They should get guides who know what they’re talking about.

Glacier Bay

They told us we’d get to see glaciers “calve,” but that’s total BS. This doesn’t involve cattle at all. “Calving” sounds cute, but it’s really loud. You just watch huge chunks of the glacier thunderously break apart and fall into the bay as new icebergs. Why do they even call that “calving”?


This park is just too damn dark. You can barely get a glimpse of the sun. They should cut down some of the trees and let a little light in.

Zion Canyon

WTF? You go visit a canyon and you expect to look down into it. This one is all backwards. You’re down in the canyon, looking up at the spectacular scenery. C’mon, Zion, learn what a canyon is.

Bryce Canyon

This place really needs something like a ski lift so you can ride down into the canyon and look up at the hoodoos.


Why are these arches scattered all across the park? It would take a lot less time to see them if they had thought of locating them closer together.


Why do the canyons have to be so big? It would take days to visit all the canyons in this park. And you could lose an arm or something hiking them by yourself.

Goblin Valley State Park

Really not all that scary.

Grand Canyon

We visited in February and it was freezing! C’mon, this is Arizona. Is it too much to expect some warm weather to enjoy the canyon?


We tried to take our dog for a walk, and a bear walked out onto the path ahead of us. Rangers should restrict the bears to certain areas for safe viewing.

National Mall

Pretty cool, but no Gap.


We went to hear an Abe Lincoln impersonator do the Gettysburg Address. He was good, but the speech was way too short.

Great Falls

This place is so noisy! My wife and I could barely hear each other talk over all the racket of the falls.

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge

They won’t even let you ride the horses.

Carlsbad Caverns

They didn’t even have the bat show when we were there. If something is that cool, you need to figure out how to offer it year-round. They say they are migratory, but really, where do they go that is cooler than the caverns. I think they should find a way to keep them there permanently.

Mammoth Cave

I was expecting some mammoth bones, but this place didn’t live up to expectations at all. Besides, it’s just too damned big.

Teddy Roosevelt

Our horseback ride through the park took about three hours. They should put in a train or something so you can see all the wildlife much faster.


Wall Drug has cooler stuff to buy than the park. Unless you care about actual badlands you can just skip the park and buy stuff at Wall Drug.

Wind Cave

Totally overblown. It wasn’t that windy.


They wouldn’t let us feed the alligators, even though they looked hungry.


Same thing as Everglades. Everywhere you look, they had signs “Don’t feed the bears.” Think how much the federal government could save of our hard-earned tax dollars if they’d just let visitors to parks feed the animals.



6/3/12 The Haunting Fields Antietam

My grandmother told me once that when she learned about the Civil War in school, the teacher told her that the blood and the horror suffered was God’s punishment because the Founding Fathers allowed slavery to continue when the United States was formed. But I don’t think we can pin the wickedness of slavery and its horrific end on God. The blame rests squarely on humanity, and our infinite ability to be inhuman.

I’d been to Antietam once before. When we arrived at the visitors center, I was aware of a vague, uneasy feeling when we paid our admission and rented a tour CD to play in the car as we drove around to each battle stop. Going down the road, the feeling blossomed to a near panic with ringing ears and sweaty palms. By the time we reached Bloody Lane, I couldn’t get out of the car. Babbling, I tried to explain to my companion what was going on, repeatedly asking, “Don’t you feel that? Don’t you feel some kind of weird vibration?”

No, he didn’t feel it. He was concerned. He was sympathetic. He obviously thought I was crazy.

I’ve wondered ever since if my reaction (or over-reaction, if you prefer) was merely the power of suggestion. I knew Antietam was the single most bloody day of the Civil War. I’d seen the pictures of men’s bodies, piled up like cords of wood. And I knew the claims that ghosts walk there by night. So, when we ended up touring at Gettysburg this weekend, it was my idea that we return to Antietam. I was curious to see if it would happen again.

Gettysburg and Antietam are very different. The battlefields around Gettysburg are not far from the town. The nearby highways are busy. There are more people, more noise. There was only one, brief moment when I could feel a vague rumble of vibration reaching out from the past. (See my post on Gettysburg.)

By contrast, Antietam is quiet – so very quiet. At several of the stops, my companion and I were quite alone. Just me and him, and yes, that strange, deep vibration that raised the hair on the back of my neck and he still couldn’t feel.

There was no panic this time. I expected that I would feel odd while we were there, and this time I was able to get out of the car, read the signs at every stop, and try to understand what happened over those broad, rolling acres. It was a beautiful day, sunny and warm, with a strong breeze and bright blue sky. But I couldn’t pretend I wasn’t uncomfortable.

I’m not claiming that I saw any ghosts. All I saw was beautiful countryside. But I do wonder if the energy of that hideous struggle, if the thick aura of violence, still hasn’t quite dissipated after all these years. The valor, the waste, the dauntless courage and the craven depravity – surely they must have left their mark. When I stood down in Bloody Lane, looking up the ravine, knowing the Union soldiers assaulted it over and over, and how desperately the Confederate soldiers held their ground, the vibration seemed nearly to hum with the lingering power of the fight. My ears strained, I was so certain I could catch the sound of it. But no, it was perfectly quiet. There wasn’t even any sound from the birds.

Lee’s army finally withdrew from Antietam Creek, a technical victory for the North, although they actually fought to a draw that day. I tend to think those mighty generals knew that death was the only winner on those bloody fields. It rained down on them, indiscriminate of the colors of their faces or their uniforms. Each one of those men had a life. They had babies to make, or families to raise, parents to see to, or grandchildren to hold. Instead they fell down and died, painfully and horribly and by the thousands. Thousands. The word seemed to echo up the lane.

I found myself thinking of a popular song by Kevin Costner and Modern West called The Angels Came Down. In it, when Costner sings that the angels carry the soldiers’ souls away, one line is: “They left no one and they placed no blame.”

The souls of the men who died there are mercifully gone. God made those rolling hills. It was the hatefulness of man that profaned them. That’s the tragedy that throbs through that beautiful countryside. And that’s what haunts me.


Livetweeting a journalists’ tour of the Gettysburg battlefield

Marc Charisse, Civil War buff and editor of The Evening Sun in Hanover, Pa., and I livetweeted a Gettysburg battlefield tour on June 2.

I blogged my reflections on the battlefield visit (and earlier tours I’ve taken). My companion also blogged about our day in Gettysburg. I also blogged a text of my keynote speech to the journalists that evening. Here are Marc’s and my observations as we toured the battlefield:


Saturday, 6/2/12 in Gettysburg

My companion was in involved with the Pennsylvania Press Conference until mid-afternoon. But after a rainy night, the morning was crisp, clear and too perfect to sit around the hotel waiting for him to join me.

I got to the downtown square with plenty of time to explore the Farmer’s Market after a nice breakfast a the Ragged Edge Coffee shop. It’s always fun to check out the booths, but since we were traveling I didn’t pick up any of the luscious-looking strawberries or crisp, bright greens, tempting though they were. I also enjoyed walking around the downtown streets.

There is something of a tourist-trap element in Gettysburg. There are lots of t-shirt shops and it’s true that you could eat your weight in ice cream and fudge. But the history is still there. Pick any random street and walk down it. You’ll find plaques in front of the buildings that stood at the time of the battle, and sometimes a story to go along with it. I stopped in at the a shop called the Union Drummer Boy, where you can buy any number of Civil War artifacts, from mini balls to muskets, something that seems to me both a little sad, and a little ghoulish. It gave me pause, looking at tree trunks embedded with cannon balls, and chunks of wood peppered with lead shot, at the courage or foolishness of the men who rushed head-long into them.

Before I left downtown, I toured the David Wills House, where President Lincoln spent the night before, and put the final touches to, his Gettysburg address. As a writer, I was amused by one of the videos, which told that Lincoln’s words received mixed reviews. One newspaper declared it, “vulgar jargon,” another twisted Lincoln words, saying we did not need a “new birth of freedom, but a new president.” But one scribe got it right, declaring it a “brief but immortal speech.” (The video didn’t credit which newspapers gave those opinions.) As a kid, I memorized the Gettysburg Address, and the words came back to me as they were recited on the video. It is a masterful piece of writing, and it never fails to move me.

That afternoon I joined my companion along with a group from the conference for a tour of the battlefield. Our guide, Richard Goedkoop, was friendly and superbly knowledgable, and he wove in newspaper accounts of the fight as we made our way from site to site.

Military stragedy is lost on me. I don’t even play chess well, let alone grasp the fine points topography advantage and artillery power. But even I could see the strategic advantage of Cemetery Hill and Little Round Top. When we reached the end of the tour, and story of the Pickett’s Charge, we looked across the open field from the Union side, toward the Viriginia Monument. That’s where the Confederate troops massed, where they launched their last attempt to break the Union forces. Richard read newspaper war correspondents’ accounts of that third day of battle.

Gettysburg is a busy place. There are lots of tourists. We heard some laughter, people calling to each other, yelling kids, a barking dog or two, and even a repeating honking horn from someone’s mistaken thumb on the panic button of a car remote. But when Richard stopped reading, it suddenly became very quiet. Looking across that open, sunny field, it seem to me a faint vibration rose, a lingering energy of violence and horror. So many men died there. It was the battle that broke the back of the Confederacy.

What drives soldiers in moments like that to pick up their weapons and rush head-long into the cannon’s mouth? Patriotisim to their country? Loyalty to their commrades? Did any of them wonder how they got there? Were any of them apalled at the volume of death and destruction? Did they know, as they fought so ruthlessly, that the tragedy they were creating would hang like wisps in the air to this very day?

It’s a train of thought that haunted me into the next day, when my companion and I decided to visit Antitam as well.


With the battlefield behind him, guide Richard Goedkoop reads press accounts of Pickett's Charge.

Gettysburg: We can’t forget what they did here

Gettysburg Battlefield: Little Round Top

This is why Little Round Top was important: You can see the whole Gettysburg battlefield from there.

I wonder how many different tours of the Gettysburg National Battlefield you can take before it starts getting old.

I took a bus tour with the Pennsylvania Press Conference Saturday, my fifth tour, and heard a perspective I hadn’t heard before. Richard Goedkoop, our guide, covered lots of battlefield history I had heard before. But he provided a different twist, tailored to the group of journalists he was leading.

More on Goedkoop’s tour shortly. But first, I’ll review the other ways I’ve toured the battlefield.

First, about a decade ago, I met my oldest son, Mike, at the historic battlefield. I had an extra day on a business trip to Philadelphia, and Mike was living in Washington. Like the Union and Confederate armies (only moving much faster), we converged on Gettysburg. We paid for a bus tour, led by one of the many licensed battlefield guides (whose name I’ve long forgotten). Continue reading

Dad and Ike: military men who enjoyed painting

My father, Chaplain Lucas W. Buttry, served a career as an Air Force chaplain, his largest stretch with President Eisenhower as commander-in-chief.

I couldn’t help but think of Dad again and again as we wandered the grounds and home of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farm Friday in Gettysburg, Pa.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower

Both grew up in small Midwestern towns, then saw the world serving in the U.S. military. Both liked TV Westerns. Both avoided political partisanship (well, until Ike joined the Republicans and ran for president). Both enjoyed painting.

Luke Buttry served in the Army Air Corps under Ike’s command in England during World War II. After going to college on the GI Bill and then graduating seminary, Dad served as an Air Force chaplain when Ike was commander-in-chief.

As a chaplain and later as a civilian minister, Dad was careful not to express political opinions or affiliations. He believed that ministers should preach the Gospel and minister to the needs of their people. Political affiliation would alienate people of whichever party he didn’t support, so Dad avoided taking sides. He was adept at making his sermons timely by addressing current issues without showing a consistent bias.

Ike was a political independent as a general, wooed by both parties as a presidential candidate following World War II. Even when he became a Republican to run for president, he was easily the least partisan president of my lifetime.

Continue reading

The Eisenhower farm: a window to Ike’s and Mamie’s personalities

This weekend brings us to Gettysburg, PA. My companion is speaking to the Pennsylvania Press Conference tomorrow.

We got an early start, dropping Duffy de Dog at his dog resort in the morning so we could make it to Gettysburg in time for a tour of the Eisenhower Farm with the group in the afternoon.

The day was muggy and overcast, a good indicator of the storms that are rolling through a huge swath of the East tonight. But riding down the road next to my companion is one of my very favorite things to do, even if the beautiful green, rolling hills were not set off at their best. We had no trouble filling the time. We talked about our kids, the newspaper industry, my writing, the newspaper industry, the twist and turns of my companion’s career and, oh yeah, the newspaper industry. It was just starting to sprinkle when we arrived. Continue reading

A visit to the Eisenhower farm — and a lesson in leadership

General Dwight D. Eisenhower meeting with Generals Patton, Bradley, and Hodges in Germany, March 1945. Photo from

I have a suggestion for today’s politicians: Tour the retirement home of Dwight D. Eisenhower in Gettysburg, Pa. And ask for Park Ranger John Joyce to be your tour guide.

Dwight D. Eisenhower. Photo from

Ike’s leadership would be an example to leaders of both parties. In a time of extremism and conflict (remember McCarthyism?), he was a calming, unifying influence. He was a Republican who didn’t diminish or shrink from using government properly: to build our national infrastructure (the Interstate highway system) and to uphold civil rights. He knew how to end a war. He placed country above party. He thought big, but not about himself.

On a rainy afternoon, Joyce provided insights into Ike’s leadership style to a tour group of Pennsylvania editors visiting the Eisenhower National Historic Site outside Gettysburg. His guiding leadership principles, according to Joyce, author of the Ike Blog: Continue reading