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Barracks

It is darker than any black I have ever known. There is usually a frisson in the darkness of night, a reflection, a spark. Here all orientation is removed.

Ten meters underground, through a yellow transitory tunnel 5.2 feet in diameter and into a bomb shelter 59 feet long… is my lodging. I am curled in a sleeping bag seeking warmth in the constantly almost-frozen air. Dreams of mushrooms clouds, the Kennedy family on old black and white monitors, clips of Vietnam, the World Trade Center and terrorists in India clutter my brain as I try to sleep in a bunk without a pipe of ambient sound. There are no honking cars, no garbage trucks, no birds, no barking dogs and I can’t sleep.

Shelters come in various forms and sizes. The smallest among them are the local, temporary shelters, built for no-warning emergencies. Then there are the “medium shelters” that can house one or two families for a more extended period time, for use if, for example, a nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan were to break out and go global. Finally there are the units in Montana or Texas capable of housing 1,000 or more for a few weeks at a time. I spend my nights in a temporary, emergency type shelter built for a terrorist attack rather than an extended-stay suite.9

Above me, in a Salt Lake City tract home in Utah, Western US, my host Paul, a sweet and mild mannered man, lives with his wife and three daughters. There are dirty dishes, toys and discarded cloths strewn about, a different world from my ordered boxes of bullets, soap, raisins and nutrition bars down below.

Paul strongly believes that the world is both unpredictable and dangerous. “Anyone within 10 miles of an airport with a 7,500 foot runway should have a shelter,” he says with a relaxed smile that belies the gravity of his statement. Paul installs these contemporary pharaonic tombs at the rate of one a month with his business partner Sharon. The goal is to simply survive impeding disaster, be it a product of god, man or nature, and they are, quite literally, preparing for the end of the world.7

The Mormon religion dominates the social, political and economic environment of Utah. A central tenet of Mormonism is the need to be prepared and not depend on government for survival. While not all Mormons have shelters, the majority of shelter-builders in Utah and Montana are Mormon. In Spring City, Utah (pop. 1018) alone there is a colony of about eight or ten ‘medium sized’ 115-foot shelters, most completely independent of one another.

Mormons tend to have large families and conservative political views. They believe the US Constitution should be strictly enforced and the 2nd Amendment, which speaks to the right to bear arms, left as is. My host Paul has two handguns and a knife on him at all times. A Beretta pistol is in a lock-box on his pickup truck console, and an AR-15 is behind the back seat.1

Mormons believe they can survive to begin anew in a radically altered world that will favor them. Unfortunately, such a belief is based on the premise that society as we know it will fail, but who can say with 100% accuracy that this is crazy? The insanity of the modern world certainly backs up their position, and doesn’t let me sleep any better, either.

In the 1950s during the atomic age, shelters were built in response to the threat of mushroom cloud nuclear destruction. That movement fell out of favor for a while, and the tins of biscuits and emergency supplies were left to rust and rot. But the events of 9/11 and Mumbai have given the shelter movement a renewed sense of purpose.6

Turning on a small, low voltage, battery operated light, I examine my supplies. The food is small canned sausages, instant dehydrated food (Mexican and Middle Eastern flavors) and left over candy from Halloween. The shelves are stocked with the basics: water-purification tablets, vitamin C, potassium iodide and paper products. The entertainment consists of the entire DIE HARD collection, Red Dawn, Cape Fear, Winnie the Pooh, and a Tom Clancy novel whose name seems to sum up the library: The Sum of All Fears.

Archives at the Library of Congress

Capitalization

I’m embarrassed to say it, but I dig DC. Close to collecting social security but I have to say it is a hip city.  Restaurants are top quality and there is a buzz around most of the city that may be the result of the current administration, or it may have been there all along, just blanketed in a political and social quagmire. Maybe those young interns from conservative colleges were not the most devil-may-care bunch. Perhaps it was an exceptionally mild summer weekend that was the reason for the spirit, but I suspect it was a bit more than that. There is a distinction between the “United States” and “America.” “America” is a concept, a dream and a hope for much of the world that might have been clouded and obscured for a bit, maybe the last eight years. But enough political rant, the business of travel is to learn and DC is a living civics lesson.

Supreme Court

Most of the museums of the world are reasonably adamant in their refusal to allow photography, which is why I felt my head spinning as I entered federal building after building and was told both it was free and photography was no problem. The only building that declined was the Library of Congress, but even here is a silver lining worth digressing. I asked if I could enter the main floor and view the main reading room from the ground. The response was all I need to obtain was a library card. I am a citizen of this country and I was given free rein in these buildings—VERY COOL. There are some rules: when Congress is in session you need to apply to your representative or Senator for a gallery pass, but everyone seemed to bend over backwards to make you feel you belonged and were welcome. There is a sense of common ownership. Dare I say democracy and even pride? Some tips around town might be good to remember. If you want to visit the capitol building, enter from the Library of Congress tunnel and avoid a long congested line, although the tour of the capitol itself leaves one debating about the worth of the time spent here. Next to the Capitol is the National Arboretum, depending on the time of day, a possible respite. The Museum of the American Indian is worth a visit, especially around lunchtime. The food court is excellent with meals offered by regional tribes from all over the country. The restaurants on the mall are generally good quality at decent prices so you won’t go too far wrong. The one exception is the “Natural” food carts around the entrances. These are green and white to feign environmentally, healthy meals…but the fare is ordinary hot dogs, chips and soft drinks—a very far cry from the healthy food within any of the Smithsonian institutions. Archives at the Library of Congress

 

There is a plethora of museums, so it pays to spend a few days and pace yourself. The best hotels are those located near the mall. You will exhaust yourself, so stay close, although the metro is a convenience that allows you to stay father out at a corresponding lower price. Weekend nights are prone to very elaborate groups of riders from visiting marines to multi-ethnic drag queens on their way to Dupont circle. Every evening seemed to be an underground Broadway musical. No train was silent, and each boasted a themed group of eclectics with locals rolling their eyes.National Art Gallery

 

Museums? Nowhere else is there such a diverse and imposing collection in density and importance. Air and Space Museum, the Hirshhorn, Spy Museum, the Mint…they seem to satisfy every curiosity and appetite. The American Museum is where to see Lincoln’s hat, Archie Bunker’s chair and Julia child’s kitchen but my heart belongs, correct that, belonged to the Museum of Natural History. Until recently– 5

 

The American dioramas were the creation of Carl Ackley. First unveiled in 1936, the African mammals were spectacular studies of the animal within its environment. New York, Washington D.C., and Los Angeles, these three-dimensional worlds formed the heart of exotic memories for at least four generations. The dioramas resonated with meaning as the animals seemed completely real and at home in their setting, yet undisturbed by the presence of an endless parade of visitors, many elementary school-children with no access to these worlds the specimens inhabited. At most, a musk ox or a cougar would seem to sniff the wind at the presence of warm milk on the breath of young children on the other side of the glass. The animal within the environment was a distinct break in the history of taxidermy and display. From the world of cabinet of curiosities, to that of quantity as quality in the age of discovery, to a pre-Discovery Channel generation of showing the interaction of fauna with flora, these displays were the highlight of generations for the past 70 years. Now with many specimens in need of repair and a world exposed to television, Planet Earth, and Night at the Museum, the Museum of Natural History has remodeled its African Mammal hall so that it is devoid of the romantic panoramas that defined an exotic landscape for several generations of museum visitors. The photographs of Richard Ross, taken in 1977 and originally published in Museology (Aperture, NY 1989) and Gathering Light (2000) form a rich framing for a contemporary look at how we view the animal within, or now in the cases of Washington D.C. and San Diego, devoid, of a contextual landscape. A current world may be looking more at images within environment in the arena of a computer and filmic world, but as we enter a world of computer visualization, a sense of loss for these historical displays must be noted. Here when a child stood with his nose to the window with a lioness and her cubs on the opposite side, there was a sense of wonder and awe. This is spoken with first hand experience–I was that child.Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, Washington D.C. USA