Tag Archives: politics

I Like Ike

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There are Presidential Museums for every President that served over the past 100 years, usually located in or near the their “hometown”. Some of the more memorable presidents from the 18th and 19th Century also have museums dedicated to their lives and accomplishments. While some of these museums are located in or near major cities, there have also been a good number of presidents who came from small towns. Their museums can sometime be interesting places to stop while traveling.

The first time I ever visited a presidential museum, I was driving from Saint Louis to Chicago on Interstate 55, a drive that had become familiar and dull to me. It was a July day and temperatures were close to 100 degrees. I knew both me and my car needed a break in the middle of the afternoon. So, I visited the Abraham Lincoln Museum in Springfield, a museum I would certainly recommend. I love stopping at places like this on a long drive, allowing the body to move around a bit, and stimulating the mind with some historical information.  So, on my drive back to Denver from Kansas City, I decided to stop at the Eisenhower Presidential Museum in Abeline, Kansas.

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The museum is located in the EXACT SPOT that the former president grew up.

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On the museum campus is Dwight Eisenhower’s boyhood home, and, with admission, visitors get a brief tour of the house.

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Map from Museum’s Webpage- does not include parts of I-35

The museum is only a few miles from Interstate 70. As president, one of Eisenhower’s signature accomplishments was the signing of the Interstate Highway Act in 1956. So, it seems fitting that this interstate highway system would find a way to serve the town Eisenhower grew up in. Arriving here without using the interstate would feel wrong in a way.

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Every president, no matter the background, has two stories. A story about what they did before they became president, and the story about what they did as president. Before becoming president, Eisenhower was known primarily as the general that oversaw the Allies European Victory in World War 2.

In fact, Eishenhower’s military career, and exhibits regarding World War 2, appear to make up the largest part of this museum. Later in life, Eisehnhower himself considered his role in the military as the most significant one he had played. In his retirement, he preferred to be addressed as “General Eishenhower”, as opposed to “Mr. President” (which is how former presidents are usually addressed).

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After helping start the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), he decided to run for President of the United States in 1952. The museum portrayed him, in a way, as a reluctant president. There is no way of knowing what truly is inside anybody’s heart. However, the way the story is portrayed is not of a man with a strong desire to become president, but of a man who spent his entire life fulfilling the various duties to which he was called. After being called to do so by countless associates, supporters, and both major political parties, leading the nation, as president, was just the final in a series of duties he was called to and performed over the course of his life.

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The entire life story that is Dwight David Eisenhower felt like a story out of a completely different time in history. This idea seems almost like a long-dormant old folklore in American culture. The hero turned leader. A person who wins the adoration and respect of a large group of people based on some heroic acts and then goes on to lead decisively, yet not divisively. A person who sincerely tries to lead all the people, rather than just the ones that are supportive. And, a person who finds a way to be both transformative and a consensus builder with views that are strong without being extreme.

[I will leave the exact details of his presidency to the history books and the museum itself.]

This feels, in a way, like the exact opposite of what has been going on recently. When it comes to this idea of a military veteran/ war hero president, there are plenty of examples throughout history, but no clearer example than Eishenhower.

I do not want to make this another angry political blog (there are way too many as it is), but I do not consider our current president, nor his predecessor, to be a hero, at least not in a general sense like the heroes past. Sure, both men are heroes to a subset of our population. However, both men were also dismissive, and sometimes in a nasty way, to other groups of people within our country. Being the first president of mixed racial background, or the first non-politician president may be important steps for our country. But it’s hard to consider being a community organizer or a business tycoon “heroic” in the traditional sense.

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There is a time and a place for everything. Maybe the middle of the 20th Century was the time and the place for the hero. It could be seen throughout the culture of that time; the Western Hero/Villain movies, characters like the Lone Ranger, and such. Our society has changed significantly since then. Movies this decade more commonly feature protagonists with some form of character flaw, and antagonists who draw some amount of sympathy based on their life experiences or perspectives.

As our culture progresses, we enter a period where maybe we should not look to a hero, but within ourselves. Most of the problems we face today are not as straight-forward as a General coming in and defeating Nazis. They’re more complex, like structural racism which results from the cumulative effect of people’s individual attitudes and pre-conceptions, the negative emotional and communal effects selfishness and the accessibility of smart phones create, or the susceptibility of those that feel disenfranchised to messages promoting radical and sometimes violent behavior. They are not solved by a leader, an army, or a bunch of laws. They are solved by each person’s behavior, one by one, day in and day out.

Cycling Day #4: Out of Gas

A decade and a half ago, popstar Christina Agulera, recalling a situation that most of us have faced at some point in our lives, sang “My body’s saying let’s go, but my heart is saying no.”  This morning’s situation was the exact opposite!  My heart wanted to continue riding, and soak in every experience that I could out of this trip.  But, my body, soar after three straight days of 100+ miles of riding (including yesterday’s climbs through the Adirondacks), did not feel like going any farther.

Had I decided not to ride today, I would have cheated myself out of an experience, that being day 4.  I have two previous experiences bike touring.  One, in graduate school, was a three day ride across the State of Wisconsin.  The other, last summer’s ride from Bozeman, Montana to Jackson, Wyoming, was also a three-day ride.  This day would be my first day 4, and regardless of what amount of pain I felt, I had to have this experience.

The ride started northeastward out of Lake Placid, with a little bit of a climb.  This was followed by a descent, which follows the Ausible River by Whiteface Mountain Ski Resort, and several waterfalls.

A strange thing happens when the human body is this worn out, but is forced to start going anyways.  The first few miles, or first 15 minutes or so, are kind of rough.  In particular, my legs did not feel as if they had anything left in them.  After 15 minutes, the resistance abated.  It felt like my body finally, and begrudgingly, agreed to tap some kind of alternate energy source.  For my own sake, I hope this energy source is fat reserves rather than muscle tissue.

The pain did not abate.  Sometimes the worst pain one experiences when cycling long distances is not muscle strain in the quadriceps, calves, or hamstrings.  Due to the long periods of time spent in riding position, other ares, particularly the neck and shoulders, often feel the worst.  In these situations, a little bit of Advil can help.  I usually do not advocate turning to pain medication, or any other kind of medication just to avoid a tough situation.  I even lament how many of us are dependent on caffeine to get through the average Thursday.  But, at least for me, eight hours a day hunched over a bicycle counts as that extreme situation where one can partake in pain medication without it becoming a regular occurrence.

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The first stop of the day, early on, was in a town called Wilmington.  This was an important stop for me, as it kind of represents the end of the Adirondacks.  On trips like this, I tend to spend well over 90% of my time looking forward, to the next destination, to the next activity, and to the next challenge.  In Wilmington, though, I found myself gazing backwards, back at the mountain range I had just “conquered”.  I have now already accomplished something.  Despite having significantly more distance in front of me, and some more amazing places to go, I’ve already had an amazing experience, one where I biked far greater distance than I have ever had before, and seen some amazing places I’ve never been to before.

The next segment of the ride followed back roads farther northeastwards towards Plattsburgh, a town along Lake Champlain.  Forests gave way to farmland, and finally town.

It ended up being a bit harder than I had anticipated to get across Lake Champlain.  First, I hit a wall.  It was as I got into town, just over fifty miles, and only about three hours, into my ride.  I was probably still quite exhausted from the previous three days.

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Then, the last several miles to get to the ferry ended up being more challenging than expected.  To get to the ferry from town, one must follow a trail along the Cumberland Head Peninsula that starts out heading East, but turns towards the South.  In this case, that was straight into the wind, the only strong headwind I had faced.  Although the trail was flat, the combination of wind and fatigue meant I could barely maintain a speed of ten miles per hour for the very last few miles of my ride in New York State.  I had literally run out of gas.

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Perhaps my biggest disappointment of the day was that when I arrived on the other side of the lake, from the ferry, there was no sign welcoming me to Vermont.  There was only this Fish and Wildlife Department sign, which I used as a proxy.

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The other side of Lake Champlain, Vermont, is a very different place.  The attitudes of the people could not be any more different.  In Upstate New York, I was told that Texas has a better image than Long Island.  When I first got into Vermont, I stopped at a local bagel shop and grabbed a sandwich.  I overheard a conversation where one of the locals mentioned “extreme political differences” with Texas.

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I doubt that these difference with Texas corespond to any kind of affinity for the New York metropolitan area.

The family that hosted us that night in Greensboro told us that the town, and probably most of the area, was quite homogenous- politically.  They recommended that anyone who had a differing opinion “bite their tongue”.

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To me, though, Vermont felt like the reciprocal of Texas.  Current political considerations put the two places at odds with each other.  However, as soon as I got into Vermont, I saw signs and heard rhetoric that stressed individuality, and Vermont’s “Independence”, both current and historical.  This felt to me, honestly, reminiscent of Texas.

I decided to take the afternoon “off”, which meant returning to my backup plan; riding in the van that was following Clay’s route.  I came into this ride knowing that I would not be able to keep up with Clay’s pace, often well over 100 miles per day, for the entire ride.  Before booking my flights and such to join on this trip, I made sure that I would have a backup plan when this moment of utter fatigue would eventually set in.  I figured this would be the best time to rest, as the weather turned a bit questionable (that afternoon, it became windier, and it would eventually rain in the evening).

Riding in the van also allowed me to see a couple of additional sites, most notably the Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream factory, which is not along the bike route, but not too far out of the way.

One thing I was told to expect from Northern Vermont, was to see a lot of red barns.  After all, the quintessential Vermont image is of rolling hills, possibly cheese or ice cream, and a red barn.

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During my time in Vermont, which included both the time in the van today, and the time I would spend on my bicycle the next day (before reaching New Hampshire), I would see a total of 80 barns!  During my entire time in New York State, a much longer distance from Niagara to Plattsburgh, I saw only 54.

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Clay arrived at our destination literally minutes before the sky opened up, and started to pour.  Had I continued cycling that day, not only would I have hit a large amount of rain, I likely would have slowed Clay down, causing him to unnecessarily get wet.  This was the last time I had to invoke my back-up plan, but, based on weather considerations, the opportunity to take the Ben and Jerry’s factory tour, and this dirt road, I think I made the right choice.

A Weekend in Texas

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In my last post, I describe my experiences visiting the City of Austin, Texas.  Some people describe Austin as being “not really Texas”.  And, while that may be a simplification, or exaggeration of the experience there, the general point is that the experience of being in Austin is different than the the experience of being in any other part of Texas.  So, while I spent some time in Austin last weekend, I also got the opportunity to experience other places in Texas, and actually get immersed into the culture here.

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One of the first places I went to, just 20 miles or so outside of Austin, was the Salt Lick, for some high quality Texas barbecue.  I was surprised to see such a large establishment.  I had gone to BBQ in places like Oklahoma City and Tulsa in the past, and those experiences usually involved smaller, more side-of-the road type establishments.  I had come to, in my head, assume that was the standard BBQ experience, but the Salt Lick is pretty gigantic.  And, the first thing I saw when I entered the restaurant was a gigantic barbecue pit.  The last time I had seen so much meat in one place was at the World’s Largest Brat Festival in Wisconsin.

Texas style barbecue, of course, includes brisket.  In order to experience the full range of barbecue experience, I ordered a combination plate that included brisket, ribs, and sausage.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that the restaurant asks their patrons if they want their brisket “lean”, or “moist”.  Not being a fan of fatty meats, I chose “lean”, and really enjoyed the entire meal.

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In fact, I kind of felt like I spent the entire weekend eating brisket!  The other establishments I went to, like the Salt Lick, were sizable establishments.  Coopers, in New Braunfels, was big enough to accommodate a group of 16 people without really having to adjust anything from their normal operating experience.

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Whenever I was not eating barbecue food, I was eating Mexican food, which is plentiful in Texas due to it’s close proximity to, as well as history of being a part of, Mexico.  I visited several Mexican food establishments while in Texas, including a place many of us that live elsewhere should become familiar with: Torchy’s Tacos.  Later this year, they will expand beyond the borders of Texas, opening up a location in Denver, Colorado.  They may very well expand to some other areas as well.

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This area is often referred to as “Texas Hill Country”, as, well, unlike most of the Great Plains, it is kind of hilly.  Parts of it sort of remind me of the “Driftless Area” of Southwestern Wisconsin, with rolling hills one to several hundred feet tall.  Although, the geological history these regions is quite different.

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Here I attended a wedding, and took part in another local custom, floating the river.  At the wedding, the main thing I noticed about the culture here in Texas was the affinity for line dancing.  I had expected the country music line dancing.  But, what shocked me was how often people would just naturally form a line while dancing to other songs.  When YMCA, and Gangnam Style, came on, people here just naturally formed themselves into a line as if it were second nature.

In Texas, if is quite common for people to go on “floating”, or “tubing” trips.  It is basically an outdoorsy activity that is far more relaxing than the ones I usually take part in here in Colorado.  It mostly just involves laying in a tube, and gently floating down a river.  Many people here own their own tubes to float in, and bring floatable coolers, where they pack beer.  I have heard it is quite common for people to get quite intoxicated while taking part in a float trip.

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Texas hill country also contains a lot of natural features, some of which have become common family-type tourist destinations.  A few miles west of New Braunfels is a place called Natural Bridge Caverns, which, just as the name advertises, is a Natural Bridge above ground with a cavern below ground.

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Every time I visit a place like this, I always come away with mixed views regarding the commercialization of these natural features.  One one hand, I look at staircases, buildings, and all of these artificial looking features being present, and wonder if we are losing out on some of the experience.  But, I also see that having paved roads to get here, walkways through the area, and other comfort related conveniences opens up the experience of viewing these places to many people who otherwise would not have been able to see them.

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It was in San Antonio, however, where I learned about the history of Texas.  Downtown San Antonio kind of has an odd combination of historical significance.  On one end of downtown is The Alamo.  Originally a “mission“, the place later became a military post in the war for independence from Mexico, and now a museum, which is also considered a Shrine of Texas Liberty.  This place very much celebrates the people of Texas separating from Mexico, and, of course, later joining the United States.

On the other end of downtown is a place called Historic Market Square, a place that celebrates Mexican cultural heritage.  In the plaza, I saw T-Shirts for sale that exuded Mexican pride.  In fact, with authentic Mexican food and cultural items for sale everywhere, I almost felt like I could have actually been in Mexico.

It just makes me wonder.  Is this a City that is in conflict with itself?  How do those of Mexican decent here in San Antonio feel about Texas history?

The area between the Alamo and Historic Market Square was also kind of confusing.  On the surface, the city looked kind of dreary.  I kind of felt like I was in a bad part of Chicago, or any other big city that has a significant amount of blight.  But, underneath the surface was San Antonio’s Riverwalk, which is quite lively.

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In fact, San Antonio kind of pioneered the idea of riverwalks.  And, it appears other cities are trying to copy them.

After reading about Texas history, I kind of had a better understanding of the place.  Specifically, at the Alamo, they describe a struggle in Mexican politics.  On one side there was a group of people that strongly supported a Federalist type system of government based on a constitution that was modeled after the United States.  Under this system, some powers were devolved to the states, of which Texas (or Tejas) was one.  On the other side, was a group of centralizers that wanted more control in the hands of the central government in Mexico City.  Texans strongly supported the former over the latter, and when the latter won power, they felt their way of life threatened.  The successful defense of Texas, establishment of the Lone Star Republic, and later admission to a country whose values more closely resembled their own is viewed as a triumph.

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It is without a doubt that many Texans today see a lot of parallels (whether or not they are correct) to today’s political struggles in the United States.  Having this history, one in which many people in the state take pride, definitely explains why succession talk would be much more prevalent here than it would be in other states who strongly oppose some aspects of how our Federal government is operating.

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There was always some concern over whether I would fit in here in Texas.  Anyone that talks to me can clearly hear my Long Island accent.  I do not try to hide it.  Some people who have lived in Texas  told me that it would also be obvious that I am an outsider by the manner in which I conduct myself, and the types of topics I discuss on a regular basis.

But, I took a “leap of faith” of sorts, and just decided to be myself when interacting with people here.  And, I was actually received quite warmly here, by people who probably have a significantly different lifestyle and set of values than my own.  Everyone was friendly to me, and they were even receptive to the kinds of conversation topics I tend to engage people in.

As I thought through the acceptance I experienced here, as well as the history, the current succession talk and anger, I came to an important realization.  Maybe we are not nearly as divided as people make us out to be.  Maybe it is really only the most vocal (and angry) among us that display this division.  After all, if 1.4 Million people can live in a city which celebrates both it’s Mexican heritage and it’s struggle for independence from Mexico, maybe we can find a way to celebrate what makes everyone unique.

Bent’s Old Fort

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The idea of racial unity, or more accurately the idea of two or more racial/national groups living side-by-side without conflict, and mutual respect for one another is not new.  It isn’t, as it feels like some people believe, something that mankind first came up with in the middle of the 20th century after finally sorting through the fallout from World War 2.  It is just an idea that has never really overcome other pressures.

In the early to mid 19th century, brothers William and Charles Bent, of Saint Louis Missouri, actually believed that it was possible.  Early in life, these brothers participated in a series of trade missions along the Santa Fe Trail.  As the Bent brothers encountered both Mexicans and Native Americans on these missions, over time they established good relations with both groups of people.  William Bent was even accepted into the Cheyenne tribe, and participated in negotiations on their behalf.  This included negotiations with other native tribes, as well as with the United States. The two brothers, along with Ceran St. Vrain established a trading fort in what is now Southeastern Colorado, along the Santa Fe trail.

For this reason, I decided to make the trip to Bent’s Old Fort, but I ran into one minor issue.  Apparently, I did not realize that Bent’s Old Fort is a National Historic Site, and therefore is closed due to the current government shutdown.

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So, I did the only sane thing.  I pulled my car off to the side of the road (the parking lot was also closed), and I snuck around the gate.  Heck, I didn’t have to pay the entry fee!

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The fort is reconstructed really well.  I should probably come here sometime when I could actually get inside the building.  And also when the bulls and horses that are kept there are contained rather than wondering around where I could have theoretically provoked them and wound up in trouble.  In fact, that is why I did not stay very long, and did not take any pictures of the animals and the trail.  I was, however, able to imagine what it was like for pioneers and traders to travel along this trail, and encounter this fort, the first building of any sort travelers along the trail would find for miles.  And, according to the information presented in the parking lot, which I did get to read, from 1833 (when it was built) through 1849, this place would have been bustling.  Surely, a welcome sight for travelers.

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One question that often comes to mind when learning about Bent’s Fort, is why it was placed where it was, near La Junta, Colorado.  Currently, most of Colorado’s largest cities are a lot closer to the mountains, within 20 miles or so.  From the perspective of modern day Colorado, it appears illogical for this major trading post to be located over 60 miles east of Pueblo, the mountains, and all of the good fur and pine.   However, at the time Bent’s fort was built, 1833, it was built right on the border with Mexico.  For someone traveling west on the Santa Fe Trail, this fort marked the end of the portion of the trail in the United States.  After this, travelers would have entered Mexico, or, after 1836,  the Republic of Texas.

Unfortunately, both Bent brothers ended up on the wrong side of history despite their good intentions.  Actually, it was perhaps because of their good intentions.  Charles Bent, the older brother, was appointed the first territorial governor of New Mexico following the Mexican-American war.  The reading material outside the fort suggested that he was appointed to this position due to his good relations with the people there.  However, he was killed by the Native Americans in the Taos Revolt in 1847.

The younger Bent brother, William, was persecuted by the other side.  During the Sand Creek Massacre, he was captured by General John Chivington after attempting to make peace between the U.S. and the Native tribes during the gold rush.  He was forced to lead Chivington and his troops to the Cheyenne campsite where he conducted the Sand Creek Massacre, killing hundreds of Native Americans.  William’s end was not nearly as dramatic as his brother’s, but his efforts failed to create peace between the U.S. and the Native Americans.

The story of the Bent family and their fort reminds us that it is important to judge everybody as an individual, and not paint every member of some group with one brush.  Throughout this time, there were definitely more white people like Chivington, who murdered natives despite their efforts to make peace, and also more white people like the Bents, who approached native tribes with deep respect for their culture, and attempted to share in the human experience with them.  There is more to who someone is than their racial identity.

Just in case the lines were not blurred enough in this whole story, John Chivington was a hard-core abolitionist.  He could not wait to free the black population and share our culture with them.  Yet, he viewed all Native Americans as savages that needed to be exterminated.  On the flip side, the Bent brothers owned slaves, and William would eventually support the cause of the confederacy.  So, there is a group of people out there who would potentially view Chivington in a more favorable light than Bent.

So, who is the good guy and who is the bad guy?  People like to simplify history, assign one side ad good the other as bad, and establish one or two themes.  This makes them feel like the have a good handle on the situation.  However, in reality, history is about as complicated as the human mind, and all of the many mechanisms that cause people to behave in the way that they do.  Some people may know more individual facts about history, but that does not necessarily mean they understand history better.  Some people view all facts through the lens of a preconditioned idea about the nature of the people involved, and cannot appreciate all of the facts.

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One amazing thing about traveling is that travel has this way of causing people to build upon their thoughts.  Sometimes it almost feels as if the world has found a way to set itself up in such a pattern that it creates certain themes in everybody’s lives, or at least each person’s individual trips.  After pondering these thoughts on the drive from La Junta back to the interstate, the drive home took me through two towns that recently made waves in our current political climate; Pueblo and Colorado Springs.

Last month, these two towns made news across the state as they surprising recalled two of Colorado’s state senators.  One of them was actually the leader in the senate!  The recall election was at least partially about the gun control debate, but other factors may have contributed.  Advocates on each side of the debate appeared, at least to me, to be motivated by ideological differences rather than some form of tribalism.

But is it all just ideology?  Have we really replaced racial issues with actual issues about how we view our government and society (which would be a positive change)?  Unfortunately, last year’s election results, and specifically the large difference in voting patterns by race indicates differently.  Race also still finds it’s way into may of the political debates we have in this country today.  I am not going to assign blame to either side on this one.  This is not a partisan political blog.  But, pondering the racial component to our politics, the self-segregated neighborhoods in Chicago and other places, the Indian Reservations and the like, makes me think that we are not really living side-by-side the way the Bents had envisioned.  The middle of the 20th century saw a major push towards that end, with Matrin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech articulating that goal in a manner that most can relate to.  But, there does still appear to be a disconnect.

Tribalism is an inevitable part of human nature.  But will our “tribes” always be dictated by our origins?  The internet now provides us access to nearly everybody around the world, and more and people are moving more frequently.  These factors may encourage our future “tribes” to be more determined on different grounds, such as worldview, or common interests.  But, would this be better?  Less disconnected?  Less violent?  Maybe the key is not how we determine our “tribes”, but having respect for other “tribes”, or at least letting them live the way they want to as long as they are not hurting you.  This is a tall task for the human race, but one that is theoretically possible.  All challenges can be met, like the one below, Pike’s Peak, which I got one last view of before it once again becomes snow packed tomorrow (which is fine, it looks better with the snow on it anyways).  A mountain whose peak was once unreachable, is not reached by People on foot, in their cars, and by the cog railway.

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