A Noble Ditch

In my last travel related post I told you of my experience at the U.S. Rocket center in Huntsville, Alabama and of my infatuation with the Saturn V, the most powerful transportation machine ever built and certainly one of the fastest. Today I found myself, unexpectedly, spending the greater part of a day in downtown Syracuse, New York where I became, if not infatuated with, at least deeply fascinated by another museum dedicated to a much slower mode of transport.

After an amazing lunch at the Creole Soul Cafe (who knew Syracuse, NY would have absolutely amazing cajun food?) I walked up to the Erie Canal Museum which lies on the aptly named Erie Boulevard. It turns out that the boulevard, now blacktop instead of water, was the route the famous canal took through Syracuse. The museum is part of the original Weighlock building where passing canalboats were, quite literally, weighed to assess their toll for canal passage.

The Weighlock at Syracuse – Now the Erie Canal Museum.

Looking at a Saturn V rocket and the Apollo program in it’s entirety one can scarcely believe that this little ditch was its equivalent, perhaps it’s superior, in 1820. Considering the resources and technology of a still young nation this project was audacious. In fact, when asked to help with the financing of it Thomas Jefferson, no slouch in the visionary department, wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. “…little short of madness,” he is said to have commented.

It fell, instead to the Governor of New York, Dewitt Clinton, a bunch of progressive legislators, and some even more visionary but less celebrated thinkers and engineers to bring this crazy idea to life. And, like the Little Red Hen, when the wheat grew, was, harvested, ground into flour, and baked into a nice warm loaf, New York ate that loaf and became, well, New York.
Many big cities grow organically from a wide spot in a river. Clinton’s audacity was to build the river. Cities like Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Albany, and, to a greater extent the Big Apple, grew from these seeds.

If going to the moon seems like one giant leap (to quote Neil Armstrong) the building of the Erie canal, in it’s day, was no less improbable. To understand the difficulty it is useful to assess the terrain of upstate New York.

Starting in Albany the canal follows the course of the Mohawk River west. This makes a lot of sense. The more your route can follow existing rivers the less you have to dig. Also, to New York’s great good fortune, the Mohawk possesses a unique characteristic unknown to other eastern rivers. It flows east into the Hudson, but it rises west of the Appalachian mountains. It’s valley transects the one insurmountable obstacle which stymied so many dreamers intent on building a water route to the Ohio or the Great Lakes.

Minimizing the digging is not the only consideration for a canal, though. The Mohawk route made sense from a hydrological point of view, also. A canal is not a static system. Moving water is what makes the locks work and allows boats to change elevation. That means that water must be added to the system continuously from the highest elevations. Having rivers nearby makes that possible. Only sea level canals like the Suez are not subject to this requirement.

The Erie Canal route across upstate New York is emphatically not a sea level affair. Even with the advantage of the Mohawk, the elevation changes from Albany to Buffalo were daunting. The net rise from tide level on the Hudson at Albany to Lake Erie at Buffalo is about 600 feet. That’s just a little less than the height of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. The best locks that could be constructed in 1825 would raise a boat about 12 feet. That would require about fifty locks, a big job. However, kind of like your Grandpa’s old story about walking to school “uphill both ways” the Erie canal route doesn’t just slope from one side of the state to the other. From Albany it goes up to about 420’ at Rome, then back down to about 380’ near Montezuma, then back up again at the Niagara River to 565’. In between it crosses rivers, creeks, valleys, and hills. The original “Clinton’s Folly” had 83 locks, each hand dug, lined with clay and stone, and fitted with heavy gates and valve systems. This was not child’s play.

Not a sea-level affair. A contemporary profile view of the Erie Canal route. Click on image for enlargement.

Looking at the map of the canal and upstate New York one is struck immediately by a question. You slap your head and think, “these people couldn’t have been that stupid.” The question is; Why build a canal across 363 miles of forests and swamps when you could, near Oneida Lake, cut a few miles up to Lake Ontario, ship your goods on this vast natural waterway to Niagara Falls, and build a short canal to bypass the falls? It is a good question, but there was, indeed, a method to the madness.

Firstly, canal boats are a great deal different from the sailing vessels required to navigate big open bodies of water like Lake Ontario. They are long and shallow draft to fit their highways of water. They are not designed to take big waves or make top speed under sail. So it would have been necessary to swap one for the other at Lake Ontario, again at Niagara Falls, and again to proceed on Lake Erie. If these dreamers had wanted to load and unload cargo three or four times they would have just kept transporting goods the way they had for years; overland in horse drawn wagons. Secondly, building a canal around the Niagara Falls, while doable (Canada did it in the mid-1800’s near Welland), was not an easy task. There is a reason Niagara Falls is such a famous attraction. It’s a damn 167 foot tall waterfall.

The truth is this though; It was mostly politics. In those days Canada was not the benign little puffball that we know today. Canada, or as they were in actuality then, England, was a very real existential threat to the new nation. We had just fought two wars against them and a multitude of skirmishes. It is easy to forget now, but was undoubtedly vivid in the American imagination then, that only three years prior to the commencement of canal construction, a British force had occupied Washington, D.C. and set fire to the White House and the U.S. Capitol. Only in September 1813 had the U.S. won undisputed control of Lake Erie during the famous Battle of Lake Erie which we all remember, if we remember it at all, from Oliver Hazard Perry’s cable to Washington after the victory, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” The U.S. never did achieve decisive control of Lake Ontario.

To make a long story short we didn’t trust them, we didn’t like them, and we certainly didn’t want them to get the benefit and control of trade in the western Great Lakes. The New Yorkers spent extra time, extra money, and probably extra human lives to keep their new canal just out of reach of those dastardly Canadians. Thanks to their sacrifice we are not obliged to eat poutine three times a day.

Seriously though, building the Erie Canal was a matter of blood, sweat, toil, and tears. The claims of 1000 men dying of swamp fever (probably malaria) during the excavation through Montezuma Marsh in 1819 are probably exaggerated. Still, it is quite likely that many hundreds of men were crushed, drowned, lacerated, blown up with gunpowder, and killed by epidemics.

Consider, if you will, the difficulty of removing a single tree stump. Even today, with chain saws and tractors, and grinding equipment it is difficult, at best, to remove the stump of a large tree to below grade level. If you are digging a canal, grade level is not good enough. You must remove the entire stump including the tap roots. For a tree of considerable size, like the American Chestnuts comprising the primeval forest of upstate New York, these roots can go 20’ deep.

The engineers who met these challenges were clever men. The way they solved the tree stump problem tells you all you need to know about their resourcefulness. Below is a picture of their stump puller. It’s elegant use of simple mechanics and leverage is an inspiration.

Stump Puller – An elegant solution to a big problem.

The catalog of challenges faced by the Scots Irish immigrants who dug the canal, the German Stonemasons who built the locks, and the engineers who mapped out the route, were astounding. In building locks, bridges, aqueducts, and machines to do so, these men advanced science and technology in their age no less than did the NASA scientists who built the Saturn V.

Some of their achievements are truly astounding. There is, of course, the 363 mile long canal 40’ wide and 4’ deep. There are also the 83 locks. Beyond that are the marvelous creations that Pharaoh might have been proud of. There is the “Deep Cut,” a high spot in the bedrock near Pendleton where men, without the benefit of dynamite, chiseled a channel for the canal 40’ deep and 7 miles long. There is the “Flight of Five” locks climbing the Niagara Escarpment near Lockport. There is the giant aqueduct of stone crossing the Genessee River at Rochester. And, there is the “Great Embankment,” a mile long earth fill 76’ deep crossing the valley of Irondquoit Creek. These are all remarkable feats.

A river crosses a river – The Erie Canal/ Genesee River aqueduct at Rochester.

What makes them more mind-blowing is to consider the catalog of things these men did not have. In 1817 they did not have bulldozers (invented 1923), diesel excavators (1930’s), or even steam shovels (patented 1839). They didn’t have the aforementioned dynamite which Alfred Nobel did not perfect until 1867. There were no rubber boots (Wellingtons invented in 1852). There was no nylon rope (1940’s), no steel cable (1830’s), no really very good steel at all (Bessemer process 1855). Feeding huge numbers of men in a remote wilderness area was difficult too because there was not yet refrigeration (1856). There were no antibiotics (penicillin 1928), exactly one “sort-of” vaccine (smallpox, 1796), and no anesthetic (1842) for the inevitable amputation of infected limbs. These men made Chuck Norris look like Steve Urkel.

They worked 12-15 hour days in terrible conditions with inadequate equipment and, in most cases, for about $12 – $15 per month. The unluckiest, and there were many of these, had been lured to the United States by deceptive advertisements in Irish newspapers promising a good job with decent pay, three meals a day, and an allowance of whiskey. The workers, too poor to pay, were brought to the U.S. by the Erie canal contractors and their passage was charged against their future meager earnings, making them, immediately, indentured servants. They were basically slaves without chains.

Once the canal was completed, New York’s investment paid back, and the financiers made rich, the men who labored to build this canal did what laboring men have always done – they took a deep breath and went back to work. Because they had to. They built railroads, worked in dank mines, and dug more canals.

A canalboat (2016 recreation) in the weigh lock chamber at Syracuse. I am standing where the opening in the building is visible in the previous weigh lock building photo.

Sleeping quareters on a canalboat. Cramped but cozy.

The Erie canal changed the United States. It enriched the country, it sped up western settlement, it insured U.S. dominance of the Great Lakes, and it helped to make New York City the financial and cultural powerhouse it is today. All these things were bricks in the great edifice which became U.S.A. – the Superpower. In this way the Erie canal, “Clinton’s Folly,” the little ditch, changed the world.

As I walked back to my hotel through the streets of Syracuse I thought about these men. I thought about rockets and I thought about canal boats. My thoughts drifted to the pyramids, the cathedrals, the railroads, the highways, and to all these ostensibly “good” things brought forth by men and women who got very little out of the exercise but exercise. Others with money and capital and power got more money and capital and power. As Kurt Vonnegut said, “So it goes.” And yet.

There is nobility in hard work and in struggle and in the creation of things which make the world a better place even if such benefits do not accrue to those who build them. The thing which raises human beings above the animals is not that we have iPhones, but that we can make iPhones. The Gateway Arch is a magnificent thing, but so is the Niagara Falls. What ennobles the Gateway Arch is not that it is pretty and gleaming and very, very tall, but that some man imagined it and a few men developed a plan to make it a reality, and hundreds of men and women with their hands and their feet and their brains summoned it into existence.

The Erie Canal, no less than Michelangelo’s David, was a work of art. The sacrifice of those who built it is not dimmed because their masterpiece has been superseded by bigger, better, and faster modes of transport. The nobility is in the striving, made all the more noble by the difficulty of the task. As John Kennedy said about sending men to the moon (the Saturn V) so might we say about the Erie Canal. We do these things “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Therein lies the nobility.

by: Dustin Joy

North Dakota – The Dirty White Pickup Truck Driven by Vaguely Threatening White Guys with Facial Hair State

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and
narrow-mindedness, and many of our people
need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome,
charitable views of men and things cannot
be acquired by vegetating in one little corner
of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

-Mark Twain
Innocents Abroad

“…nothing so liberalizes a man and expands
the kindly instincts that nature put in him as travel
and contact with many kinds of people.”

-Mark Twain
Letter to San Francisco Alta California, May 18, 1867

Anyone who knows me very well will attest that I love to travel. Even after finishing a four day trip flying around the U.S. I am keen, when I get home, to jump in the car with my wife and kids and take a road trip. I love geography and I love maps and I love to see and meet other people who look and think differently from me. I take Robert Frost’s suggestion seriously that “the best thing we’re put here for’s to see.” The point of travel, I think, is to see, to bear witness. The urge to travel and to “see” molds a man into something different than he was, perhaps even into the liberalized man of expanded kindly instincts that Mark Twain describes. I like to think Mark Twain was right about travel being “fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” I not only like to think it but I do, indeed, believe it. Travel makes a man better and, perhaps, if he can pass that instinct on to his son and daughter then he has changed them, too, for the better. And yet.

If travel is a mind-broadening and prejudice killing force, I think it also tests the “liberalized” man’s liberality. Because when one travels one comes into contact with strangers and strangers are, at least to him, strange. They challenge his assumptions and his expectations and maybe his sense of order and propriety. On the other hand, the man who lives in the same little town all his life may never encounter folks who challenge his narrow outlook. He will live in a comfortable cocoon of conformity (to conjure a Spiro Agnew-ism). He may retain his biases but, if he is geographically insulated enough, it may not matter. It is the traveller who needs to hold Twain’s words not as axioms but as aspirations. Travel is neither necessary for open-mindedness, nor is it sufficient to insure open-mindedness. It is a possible formula for achieving it.

My faith in Mark Twain’s formulation was tested on a recent trip. It was tested by North Dakota. Though I had been to 45 U.S. States and, indeed, every state and Canadian Province surrounding the Flickertail State I had never been to North Dakota. I must admit that I had already imbibed some of the negative stereotype that clings to this state. They have an “official state beverage” for example and it ain’t tequila. (It’s milk, by the way, probably warm white 2% if I don’t miss my guess.)

Or this:

Q: Did you hear the Governor’s Mansion in Bismarck burned down?
A: Yes, it almost took out the whole trailer park.

Or this:

Q: Why do ducks fly over North Dakota upside down?

A: There’s nothing worth crapping on.

Or this:

Q: How do you know if a man from North Dakota is married?

A: The tobacco spit stains are on both sides of the pickup. (The pickup theme will show up again later.)

To be fair I must concede that most of these barbs come from their beloved neighbors down below, the ever so urbane South Dakotans. If we wanted to we could apply a few of these zingers to them. To wit:

Q: Did you hear the Governor’s mansion in Pierre burned down…….?

Most North Dakota jokes can be just as easily reassigned to those bumpkins in Nebraska or Wisconsin or Missouri or even our neighbors to the west. Like this joke:

An Iowan and a North Dakotan were walking along a country road one day and spotted a sheep with it’s head caught in a fence. The North Dakotan immediately began pulling down his trousers. The Iowan, surprised, asked “What are you doing that for?” He replied, “well in North Dakota we don’t pass up an opportunity like this” and he has his way with the sheep. Finished, he turns to the Iowan and says, “Okay, your turn.” The Iowan shrugs, bends over, and sticks his head in the fence.


North Dakota – miles and miles of it

I arrived in Dickinson, North Dakota by airplane. As a pilot for a regional airline I see many small airports which lack the facilities of say, an O’Hare or a JFK. I am accustomed to landing on short runways and boarding and de-boarding without the luxury of a jetway. But after breaking out of a low grey overcast to find a narrow strip of black pavement surrounded by miles and miles of dull brown undulating grass I was surprised to pull up to an airline terminal no bigger than a house. I gingerly coaxed my 65 foot wingspan plane onto the 20 foot wide taxiway as my First Officer made radio calls “in the blind” to any other airplane that happened to be in the area. He made these announcements because not only does Dickinson lack radar coverage it also lacks a control tower to clear planes for takeoff and landing.

The Dickinson terminal - a whole lot less hassle than O'Hare

The Dickinson terminal – a whole lot less hassle than O’Hare

We let the people off the plane and in less than a minute I could see them in the parking lot on the other side of the fence getting into their cars. There is something to be said for small terminals, I guess. We called the hotel for a ride and in a few minutes were picked up at the curb by a young man in a Toyota Sienna, the first of many nonnative-North Dakotans we would meet.

With the discovery of an enormous pool of oil in what is called the Bakken formation Dickinson and its neighbor farther north, Williston, went from sleepy backward hamlets with an occasional bar fight to bustling backward hamlets with many bar fights. The boom in drilling and servicing oil wells brought jobless people from all over the country; places hit hard by the 2008 recession. These immigrants descended on western North Dakota in their thousands until a tiny apartment in Williston rented for what a (well, for what a tiny apartment would rent for in Southern California.) Speculators built houses and hotels on the North Dakota plains like players in a demented Monopoly Game.

And some folks got rich. In a 2012 Reuters Article Staff Writer David Bailey wrote:

“Average income in Mountrail County, the hub of the North Dakota oil production boom, roughly doubled in five years to $52,027 per person in 2010, ranking it in the richest 100 U.S. counties on that basis including New York City, and Marin, California…The boom could be creating up to 2,000 millionaires a year in North Dakota, said Bruce Gjovig, founder of the Center for Innovation at the University of North Dakota.
Many oil region residents receive $50,000 or $60,000 a month in oil royalties and some more than $100,000.”

Republicans in North Dakota, as Republicans will, touted the success of their low tax, anti-regulation philosophy in creating the “lowest unemployment in the nation.” In 2012 Yahoo finance put North Dakota atop its list of “Best Run States in America,” specifically noting:

“Budget deficit: None
Unemployment: 3.5% (the lowest)
Median household income: $51,704
Pct. below poverty line: 12.2%
Between 2010 and 2011, North Dakota’s GDP jumped 7.6%, by far the largest increase in the nation. This growth has also increased home values, which rose a nation-leading 29% between 2006 and 2011.”

The politicians in Bismarck did not, of course, give credit for their amazing success to the important strategy of being born atop 18 billion barrels of oil.

But, of course, like many natural resource-based “booms” from the Klondike Gold Rush to the Dutch tulip bulb mania certain well-rehearsed aphorisms apply: “what goes up, must come down,” “all good things must come to an end,” “easy come, easy go,” “the bigger they are the harder they fall,” and, “God, it’s cold in North Dakota!” A whole lot of anything can be a good thing. But, of course time and the market play a role. 18 billion barrels of cabbage patch kids were a wonderful possession in 1983. Not so much in 1988. When the price of oil declined in 2014 many of the “new” North Dakotans found themselves driving hotel vans.

We were driven to our Dickinson accommodations by a Mississippi born former oil company employee who was then studying hotel management at the local community college. He practiced his skills on us. He was friendly and outgoing and optimistic despite his setback. He touted the hotel to us as if he owned stock and even presented the town of Dickinson as an up and coming place. How much of this was salesmanship and how much honest wishful thinking I could not be sure. He was persuasive.

Our hotel was indeed very nice. It is, like many hotels in this area, circa 2012; a product of the boom. The rooms are clean and modern and mine overlooked a Burger King and the Interstate 94 exit ramp. It is surrounded by the same McDonalds/ Wal-Mart/ Applebys/ Car Dealership/ Convenience store composition which is slowly homogenizing the world. The only novelty to these places anymore is the unpredictable and sometimes clever naming scheme of convenience stores. If the interstate-exit-ramp hotel restaurant is closed for the night a hungry crew member can at least count on a microwave burrito from one of the following (All real, by the way):

Circle K
Little General Store
Star Stop
Race Trac

Go Mart
Moto Mart
Sprint Mart
EZ Mart
Xtra Mart
Quality Mart
Lil’ Mart
Gas Mart

Flash Foods
Flash Market
Hasty Market
Roadrunner Market
Road Ranger

Quick Chek
Quick Trip
Quick Stop
Kwik Trip
Kwik Fill
Kwik Sak
Kwik Stop
Fast Stop

Pump n Munch
Pump n Pak
Pump n Pantry
Pick and Pump
U Pump It
Jet Pep

Mother Hubbard’s

Mr. Gas
TrueNorth Energy
Plaid Pantry
Blarney Castle
Town Pump
Kangaroo Express

And my all-time favorite for sheer sophomoric humor:
Kum and Go

Dickinson has one that’s almost as good as Kum and Go. Along the main street from the airport is a gas station called “Loaf ’N Jug.” I wondered immediately how many folks in Dickinson had read Omar Khayyám’s famous poem and considered how it might be repurposed to promote a convenience store. Perhaps:

“A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread–and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—“
Oh, and get me a pack of Marlboros and a slushy!”

I had broken my wristwatch band prior to this trip and so had to hoof it up to Wal-Mart to buy another (since Loaf n’ Jug was fresh out). On the way (about a half a mile) I tried to learn a little something about the local area. I paid attention to the people and places I passed and, sadly found it to be only about 2% different from walking down the street in Monmouth, IL. You have to really look hard to find unique regional differences today. A Wal-Mart in Dickinson, ND is very much like one in Birmingham, AL or Portland, ME. If you are lucky you might detect a slight southern drawl or an R-less “Mainerism” in the checkout clerk but TV and travel and immigration seem to be quickly doing away with regional flavor. It is odd that people are becoming indistinguishable while political differences become more ossified.

As I walked I started to note some peculiarities, however about the locals and their modes of transportation. Like many places in the West, or even the MidWest, drivers here like their pickup trucks. I would estimate that one out of four vehicles that passed me on my one mile round trip hike were pickup trucks. I didn’t notice at the time whether or not they had tobacco juice running down the door. I did notice a definite trend in the color scheme, however. What I discovered is that while North Dakotans love pickup trucks, what they really love are white pickup trucks. And they love to get their white pickup trucks dirty, very dirty. And while North Dakotans may be male or female, young or old, the one’s who drive the dirty white pickup trucks are, to a man, men. The dirty white pickup trucks driven by men are driven by white men and those white men are almost invariably hairy. I sat down on a park bench for awhile during my little hike and idly counted the number of white pickups which passed my position. I kid you not; in a ten minute period in this town of 25-30,000 people some 62 white pickup trucks passed me or were visible to me in adjacent parking lots (and I’m not counting car dealerships). I was stunned. I took a few pictures as evidence some of which I include here.

IMG_2563 IMG_2564 IMG_2565 IMG_2566 IMG_2568 IMG_2570 IMG_2574 IMG_2575 IMG_2577IMG_2578 IMG_2579 IMG_2580 IMG_2581 IMG_2586 IMG_2588 IMG_2589 IMG_2590 IMG_2592 IMG_2593IMG_2594 IMG_2595 IMG_2596 IMG_2597 IMG_2598

I had read an article in The New York Times by John Eligonjan called An Oil Town Where Men Are Many, and Women Are Hounded. The story, specifically about Williston, pointed to the disproportion between men and women in western North Dakota since the oil boom. Most of the immigrants who came to work on the oil rigs were men. This set up an environment where local girls were a rare commodity and single, not to say horny, men were a dime a dozen. According to the article:

“Many (women) said they felt unsafe. Several said they could not even shop at the local Walmart without men following them through the store. Girls’ night out usually becomes an exercise in fending off obnoxious, overzealous suitors who often flaunt their newfound wealth…Prosecutors and the police note an increase in crimes against women, including domestic and sexual assaults…Some women have banked on the female shortage. Williston’s two strip clubs attract dancers from around the country. Prostitutes from out of state troll the bars.
Natasha, 31, an escort and stripper from Las Vegas, is currently on her second stint here after hearing how much money strippers made in Williston on a CNN report last year. Business in her industry is much better here than in the rest of the country, she said. She makes at least $500 a night, but more often she exceeds $1,000. “We make a lot of money because there’s a lot of lonely guys.”

Because of the article and other news reports I had heard about this oil boom I was prepared to judge the lonely guys in their white pickup trucks harshly. I expected cowering women and leering men at the Wal-Mart. I didn’t see any. The people there and at the hotel and at the Loaf n’ Jug seemed just like people I knew back home. No one acted odd or was ill at ease. On my walk back to the hotel I thought about the generalizations I had made about Dickinson and North Dakota and the people who lived there. I thought about the jokes I had told and the stereotypes I had accepted. And I found myself coming back to the same sad realization I had made about my experiences in Oklahoma (see my essay, Michael). It is easy to travel but it is hard to “know” a place. At best we get glimpses, glimpses of people and places. From the road we see the farms and fields that are along the road. At the hotel or the store we meet and talk to the people who are at the hotel or the store. We do not get to sit down to dinner with folks in town. We do not get to open the gates and drive out into the prairie. We only ever scratch the surface.

My experience of Dickinson, North Dakota consisted of a handful of very friendly people at the Dickinson Astoria Hotel and the local Dickinson Wal-Mart, two days of dreary, low-overcast weather, and a glimpse of an austere brown wintertime prairie seen from the road. It almost seems silly for me to write to you about it. Considering the scale of things I know just about as much about Dickinson as those of you who have never been there.

On our last day in Dickinson the hotel van driver took us over to a local Mexican restaurant so we could get some lunch. My Flight Attendant had lost her credit card and wanted to cash a check. The driver, another oil-boom optimist from Chicago, offered to take her to a local bank. The bank would not accept her out-of-town check. Chivalrously, he drove us to “his” bank where he had an account and when they would not accept her check either he allowed her to write him a check which he then cashed and gave her the money. He drove us over to the restaurant, suggested some good menu items, and refused a tip when I got out of the van. Good people are to be found wherever I go.

What are we to think? How are we to feel? Is Mark Twain right? I think so. I believe that coming to Dickinson opened my mind just a little bit. It wiped away some stereotypes and made me sympathize with the struggles of other people, people who came thousands of miles to a cold and unforgiving place to try to make a living and people who were born and raised here only to see their little town taken over by outsiders.

Late in his life Mark Twain said,

“Travel has no longer any charm for me. I have seen all the foreign countries I want to except heaven & hell & I have only a vague curiosity about one of those.”

Though I am sometimes discouraged about what I can hope to “know” I still think it is worth trying to “see” and unlike my hero, Twain, travel still charms me. I hope it continues to do so.


by Dustin Joy

The Island

The visual approach, contrary to what you might imagine, is one of the more difficult maneuvers that a pilot is asked to accomplish. Using an instrument approach, even with low clouds, places the aircraft in a very stable and consistent position during the landing and is mostly a “straight-in” affair. It is the “visual”, where the aircraft is approaching the field from many possible directions and the pilot is judging his or her descent rate by eye instead of by instruments, which tests one’s art and skill.

At airports I fly into frequently I like to stake out landmarks which help me to judge the “letdown” and plan the diameter of my turn from downwind to final. In Cincinnati landing south I plan my base to final turn to fall just a little north of the Ohio river. In Roanoke, Virginia landing northwest I judge my turn based on a small mountain just left of the final which has a big illuminated star on its peak, a sort of advertisement for the city.

Lately I have been flying into Harrisburg, PA on a regular basis. Except in unusual wind conditions, we land to the northwest on runway 31. With good visibility we approach the field on what is called the “downwind” which is an imaginary track about 1,500 feet AGL (above ground level) paralleling the runway opposite the direction of landing. We usually begin our descent from the downwind “abeam the numbers” (which refers to the big white numbers painted on the threshold of the runway). Smaller aircraft make nearly square turns to the base leg (90 degrees from the runway heading) and then another square turn to the final. In our faster jet we tend to plan a smooth descending 180 degree turn to the final hopefully rolling out in line with the runway and at the appropriate altitude to be on the proper stabilized glide path for landing.

My reference landmark for runway 31 at Harrisburg is an island in the Susquehanna River. On the Island is a nuclear power plant with four 30 story cooling towers two of which are generally belching clouds of steam into the air. These towers make an excellent center point for my imaginary arc from the downwind to the final and my visual approaches here are better than they otherwise would be thanks to this reference.

The Susquehanna, and indeed the entire valley surrounding the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, is beautiful. The low forested mountains to the south run right along the river bank and upstream from Harrisburg the river seems to cut straight through the mountain range at a 90 degree angle in a phenomenon called a “water-gap” which you really should read about. The river itself, at least in low water, seems lazy and inviting as it winds past little islands and rock bars. It looks like it would be great fun to float down it in a canoe or even an inner tube. The airport lies along the river and the runway parallels it behind a small levee so that coming in to land from either direction one gets a stunning view up the valley and, coming from the southeast, a glance at dozens of small pastoral farms with crops planted in contour around the numberless hills. Just downstream from Harrisburg is Lancaster County, famous as the home of the “Pennsylvania Dutch” Amish community, where the tiny picturesque farms are tiny because they are still worked by horses. To know quickly how beautiful the Susquehanna is just look at its Wikipedia page. The photo below the header tells you exactly what I’m talking about.

Some of you, particularly those older than 40, might have had a dim memory awakened by my description of the scene above, particularly of my landmark for landing and the cryptic remark about “two of the four cooling towers belching steam.” Only two of the many FO’s who have accompanied me into Harrisburg had a glimmer of recognition when I mentioned the name of the place to them. None of them had a sense of the momentous events that happened there.

To look at Three-Mile Island now and the Susquehanna flowing past it is difficult to summon up the fear and apprehension that most American’s shared for several weeks in 1979. It is so pretty here. Even the power plant perversely seems to fit its surroundings. It seems benign. Within about 5 miles downstream, in fact, is a coal burning power plant which always has a dirty, yellowish plume of smoke trailing downwind. The cooling towers at Three-Mile Island just seem to have a happy white cloud over them much as Bob Ross might have added if he had ever painted a nuclear plant.

And the people I meet in Harrisburg, or Middletown where our hotel is, don’t seem to think about 1979 either. I have asked numerous residents about it and the result is the same; the young one’s have never heard of it and the old ones don’t really want to talk about it. I guess I don’t blame them. We are all whistling past the graveyard in one way or another whether we be Angelinos living atop the San Andreas Fault, Oklahomans watching the skies in May, or you and I knowing we shouldn’t have that Five Guys Cheeseburger, but having it anyway.

It is probably a good idea to remember, once in awhile, that things are not as bad as they could be. The mistakes of 1979 were big mistakes. They encompassed all manner of human failing and frailty from inattention to denial to tunnel vision to misleading optimism to outright deceit. They commanded the nation’s attention for good reason. They made us step back and take stock of our unquestioning embrace of nuclear power. The lessons learned were ultimately applied to making power plants safer and machines more dependable. And the worst did not happen here. This lovely valley was not laid waste to like the dead zone surrounding the Chernobyl reactor in Ukraine. Thousands of people were not killed in a devastating explosion or in the hopeless effort to stop the radiation from spreading. Southeast Pennsylvania and Harrisburg and the Amish country and the Chesapeake Bay were not poisoned and rendered uninhabitable for hundreds of years. And, though there is still some argument about the long term effects of the radiation that was released, there were not thousands of cancer deaths and birth defects in the major cities of the east coast.

But it could have been that way. Some things went right here that did not go right at Chernobyl or Fukushima. Were our people smarter than theirs? Probably not. Was Three-Mile Island better designed than these? Probably better, for that time, than Chernobyl for its time, but probably not better than Fukushima. So could the disaster have happened in this lovely valley? It seems likely that it could have if a few things that went right had gone wrong instead. 50% of Three Mile Island’s uranium fuel melted down. That is 20 tons. Chemical reactions generated a huge hydrogen gas bubble in the reactor containment building which could have exploded releasing radiation and radioactive elements into the air over the east coast much as happened at Chernobyl. It might have been worse, much worse.

There were not exactly villains in the drama at Three Mile Island, just flawed humans who made mistakes, some poor designs, and, as we always see in such circumstances, a tendency to “cover your own ass.” The utility running the plant and its contractors paid over $100 million in compensation to various plaintiffs and spent about $1 billion dollars cleaning up the site. Hundreds of tons of radioactive fuel and wreckage from the site were shipped to a Department of Energy facility in Idaho. Radioactive coolant which had seeped into the concrete of the containment building could not easily be recovered and its removal has been deferred likely until the other reactor at Three-Mile Island is decommissioned.

The fact that the infamous Three-Mile Island nuclear plant continues to generate power and a white cloud of steam above two of its four cooling towers is what surprises me most. Despite heavy local opposition reactor #1 was allowed to resume operation in 1985 and, in 2009 the Nuclear Regulatory Commission extended Three-Mile Island’s license to allow reactor #1 to continue operations until 2034. Money is money, after all. When I do my circle to land around the ominously quiet cooling towers of reactor #2 I think about what still lies inside that building and reflect on the huge concrete sarcophagus the Russians had to build over the wreckage of Chernobyl at great personal cost to those who did it.

What happened at Three-Mile Island in 1979 has largely been forgotten and perhaps that is as it should be. Our “collective memories” are already filled up with worries and, in some cases, manias. Kids today don’t think about the possibility of the Russians blowing us up like I did when I was a kid. Parents today don’t obsess about their kids getting Polio, as our grandparents did. And apparently people in Harrisburg today don’t fret about nuclear meltdowns like they did in 1979. Today kids worry about terrorism (which they statistically shouldn’t have to) and parents worry about vaccines (when they should be worrying about the renewed specter of Polio and the diseases that these vaccines nearly eradicated) and the loonies give us a thousand other things to worry about if we listen to them.

Worry is something we all live with and it is hard not to. It harms us in many ways and it seems, often enough, that the things we worry about, terrorism, illegal immigration, other people’s morality, are not the things which we really should statistically worry about. If you look at the data we should be concerned with heart disease, auto accidents, suicide, and the overuse of antibiotics. From Three-Mile Island to 9/11 to saturated fat the challenge has always been to worry about the things that matter, to learn from our mistakes, and, finally, to ignore those boogeymen who pose us no real threat. Only by doing this do we make progress without hurting ourselves in the process.

When I look at the steam plume at Three-Mile Island I still can’t decide if it represents a victory or a defeat. Did we learn from our mistakes and advance our search for clean energy or did a bunch of people with money find a way to overcome a PR nightmare to keep on making more money? I’m still not sure. But I do still feel lucky when I look around this pretty valley and reflect on what might have been.

by: Dustin Joy