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Posts Tagged ‘President Theodore Roosevelt’

I spent an afternoon at the Grand Canyon in the summer of 1986 and it was pretty awesome.  Of course, that’s akin to saying that I spent an afternoon in the Smithsonian.  Or maybe it’s like saying that I read the first five pages of The Lord of the Rings.  Or I flew over the Himalayas.

Not that I’ve done all those things…I’ve only done two of them.  It’s just that a half day was only a fleeting glance at one of the most incredible natural wonders, and that can’t possibly have allowed me to absorb all that is the Grand Canyon.  Even the name “grand” comes off as woefully inadequate.  “Stupendous” might be better, or maybe “phenomenal”, or maybe “awe-inspiring”.  But mentioning the Awe-Inspiring Canyon still wouldn’t give it the justice it deserves.

Then again, maybe just calling it “grand” is purposely meant to be an understatement.  You know, the whole “under-promise and over-deliver” thing.  It’s named “grand” so when you get there, you’re blown away by the unbelievable, indescribable, awesome incredibleness of the place.

President Theodore Roosevelt, a naturalist at heart who ventured all over the world and saw hundreds of examples of nature’s magnificent beauty, visited the Grand Canyon and was quoted as saying, “The Grand Canyon fills me with awe. It is beyond comparison—beyond description; absolutely unparalleled throughout the wide world…”

That’s pretty much my sentiment, too.  It is beyond description.  There is no way to, in human language, tell someone what the place is like.  There are millions of photos you could look at (I posted a reasonably nice example above), but no photograph, no matter how big or how many megapixels, could possibly capture the spectacle.  You simply have to go visit and be thankful for the two eyes that God gave you, so you can take it in visually.

It’s been a quarter century for me, and that’s a long time.  We’re planning on visiting our son again sometime in the spring (he lives in a Phoenix suburb), and we’ve talked about driving down.  If we do, a stop at the Grand Canyon will not only be suggested, it’s probably required.  It’s just a remarkable place.

Oh, by the way, the Grand Canyon National Monument came into being on January 11, 1908.  I, for one, am grateful for that.  I think there are millions of people who, every year, discover they agree with me.

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Sometime I get things backwards.  Instead of starting at that beginning, I begin at the end.  When it comes to studying historical figures, it’s certainly not the best way to approach things.  I did just that more than two years ago when I wrote about Alexander Hamilton’s duel with Aaron Burr.  It was the first piece on Hamilton, it was the only thing I knew about the man, and it was done largely from memory without good references to back me up.  The following year, I read Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton (if you haven’t read it, it’s worth every sleepless night), and I learned that, while I had the essentials right, there was so much more I could have said.  So much, in fact, that I’ve often considered going back and completely re-writing that article.

That’s the danger of beginning at the end.

I now I repeat that mistake…but I hope to proceed more carefully this time.

I’ve written about President Theodore Roosevelt before.  Last year, I read Timothy Egan’s The Big Burn and came away with a budding interest in a man that, to this point, was a complete mystery to me.  I knew that he was the President and I knew that he led a charge up San Juan Hill.

And that’s it.

But Egan gave me glimpses of much more than the two facts I possessed.  From a distance, I saw a man that had dealt with grievous loss.  I saw a lover of adventure and travel and exploration.  Roosevelt seemed to be something of a risk-taker.  He looked to be a man of great passion.  The 21st-century concepts of wildlife preservation and environmental responsibility were his during the industrial explosion of the late 19th-century.

My look at Theodore Roosevelt “through a glass darkly” gave me the impression of a man ahead of his time.  A progressive, maybe.  But I didn’t know for sure.

Last week, I purchased one of Edmund Morris’ three biographies of Roosevelt.  Well, actually, it’s one biography written in the three volumes.  And true to form, I got Colonel Roosevelt, the last in the series.  But I got it for a super price at Costco, and it gives me a great excuse to (eventually) grab the first two.

So, as I sometimes do, I start at the end.  On January 6, 1919, (former) President Roosevelt died in his home, succumbing in the early morning hours to an embolism of the lung.  Roosevelt was “larger than life” to many, and Morris captured this sentiment when he wrote, “A common reaction among the millions of Americans who had imagined him to be indestructible, and headed again for the presidency, was a sense shock so violent they took refuge in metaphor.”

Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about Roosevelt to feel that way…yet.  I’m hoping that a little bit of study will work to change that.  So now we know the end…we can only backwards from here.

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Theodore Roosevelt was many things besides the 26th President of the United States.  Of course, he gained great notoriety as a soldier.  We’ve touched on his passion for nature and the preservation of America’s wilderness.  Along with that was his love of hunting and exploring, which took him to Africa (on safari), Europe, and eventually South America.

Roosevelt was clearly something of an adventurer, which probably explains his willingness to subject himself to one of the newer inventions of the day…the airplane.  The first image that might be conjured up in your mind might be of the former President strapping himself into one of our modern aircraft.  As the photo above verifies, that is not the case.  In fact, the only resemblance between today’s aircraft and the one that carried Roosevelt was its ability to defy gravity.

It was low-flying, slow-flying, built by the Wright brothers, made of wood, and powered by just a few horsepower.  It was probably an airplane I wouldn’t be the least bit nervous riding in…or would I?  It had been just a couple of years before that a very similar craft had crashed during a demonstration to the Army, killing the Army’s observer/passenger and leaving Orville Wright seriously injured.

So there was some consternation when Roosevelt, foregoing a flight suit, helmet, and oxygen, climbed aboard to ride with pilot Arch Hoxsey in his plane on October 11, 1910.  Fortunately, the 4-minute flight was completed without incident, and Theodore Roosevelt had the distinct pleasure of not only escaping the bonds of gravity, but being the first President to do so.

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The summer of 1910 was dry.  Well, it was generally dry in the mountain regions of western Montana.  But it was extremely dry even by Bitterroot standards.  The fledgling United States Forest Service was hard-pressed to deal with the danger and prospect of fire when conditions were ideal.  And conditions were far worse than ideal.

It’s pretty well-known that fire (in proper doses) is good in the woods.  It cleans out dead undergrowth and allows new growth to begin, which provides food and shelter for wildlife.  Controlled burns create firebreaks that help reduce the chances an “uncontrolled” burn will turn catastrophic.  And, in the case of pine trees, the pine cones hold their seeds until the heat of fire opens them.  So in some sense, the destructive power of fire is also the precursor to new life.

But the summer of 1910 provided precious little time and certainly no money to control any burn.  The Forest Service was headed by noted conservationist Gifford Pinchot, a close personal friend of President Theodore Roosevelt (another strong conservationist).  The goal of preservation of the forests led to the removal of millions of acres from the public domain.  These “national forests” may have been nice for people to walk around and view, but for the logging interests that sought to harvest the trees for building and profit, it meant countless dollars removed from their coffers.

Many of these industrialists had tremendous influence in Congress, and as a result, the Forest Service (seen as Roosevelt’s pet) was grossly underfunded.  It struggled even to police and protect the set-aside lands from “tree-poaching”, much less engage in true forestry and preservation.  During the summer of 1910, small fires broke out here and there in the timbers all throughout the northern Rockies, but in the Bitterroots (of western Montana and eastern Idaho), conditions were unbelievably dry and volatile.

The biggest danger after man’s carelessness was (and is), of course, lightning.  A single million-volt matchstick bursting between ground and sky, instantly turning wood and kindling into flame, is a potentially deadly event.  So when a lightning storm hit the area on July 26, 1910, no good result could come from it.  I read Timothy Egan’s book The Big Burn earlier this year, and his description of the storm is worth plagiarizing.  “On July 26, the night sky over the Bitterroots exploded – not an isolated thunder boomer or two clapping around the valleys, but a rolling, continuous, full-throated electrical storm.  It sounded like breaking glass amplified a hundredfold, and could be heard in the higher reaches of three states.  The fireworks spread across the range, one supercharged bolt after the other.  Entire mountain flanks came to life with the pulsing skeletal arms of the storm, shooting down crooked until they hit a big rock outcrop or grounded in the blunt edge of a summit.”

Daylight brought the smoke from hundreds of little fires started by the myriad of lightning strikes.  But worse was to come.  Fire needs two things to survive and thrive…fuel and air.  Fuel there was in dry, parched abundance.  All that remained to add were the breezes.  They were some time off, but when they arrived…well, we’ll take this up again in a few weeks.

Recommended Reading:  The Big Burn – What David Laskin’s The Children’s Blizzard did with a blizzard, Egan has done with a forest fire.  It’s highly recommended.

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