On The Road: Field Notes From The Wreckage Of Tourism

Oops. Meant to post this last week. It’s column #25 of the On the Road series published monthly at 3 Quarks Daily. This column was published there last Monday. Here is a link to all 25 columns.

 

News from the leisure travel world is worse than grim. More than half of the 16 million travel industry jobs in the United States have been lost. On 14 April last year the TSA processed 2,208,688 air travelers. This year that number was 87,534. 

It’s the same everywhere. Da Nang saw a 98.5 percent year on year drop in visitors over Vietnam’s four day Reunification Day holiday. Ninety nine point nine percent fewer foreign visitors entered Japan in April than a year earlier. Planes are parked and ships are docked.

They outfit the American cruise ship industry in a low key shipbuilding town on the Bay of Bothnia in Finland. Turku shipyards built the world’s biggest floating petri dishes, the 360 meter long ships Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seasfor Royal Caribbean International.

Seventy seven thousand employees, Royal Caribbean had, until a virus as unfriendly to people as plastic to the sea torpedoed its heart, soul and balance sheet in three months flat. Maybe Turku can save its shipyard jobs by building hospital ships; Royal Caribbean may tread choppy water forevermore.

If not by sea, what if by air? Qatar Airways, purveyors of dreamy Qsuites, offers a ticket changeable for anywhere they fly within 5000 miles – at the price of the original booking. You could in theory book a business class flight from Philadelphia to Kyiv for $1600 and change it to Hong Kong. They seem to mean it.

Lest your enthusiasm take flight, Forbes stands ready with a harsh de-icing, predicting “no cabin bags, no lounges, no automatic upgrades, face masks, surgical gloves, self-check-in, self-bag-drop-off, immunity passports, on-the-spot blood tests and sanitation disinfection tunnels” and a four hour check-in process.

I don’t buy it. That’s just too grim, if only because airlines and governments alike are committed to maintaining a viable airline industry. Plus, airlines need you way more than you need them for a change. How about that.

Still, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Phuket, Thailand’s biggest tourist island, reported no new cases on Monday and Tuesday 11 & 12 May, so on Wednesday 13 May the tourist board petitioned national authorities to reopen right then and there.

Not so fast, the government replied, as they work on a plan for “high-spending visitors from Asian countries to select areas … to avoid 14-day quarantines.” They will “have to provide a health certificate, buy health insurance, and undergo a rapid coronavirus test on arrival.” Nothing like a carefree week at the beach.

Schemes for survival in the travel industry have veered into wishful thinking. AirNorth, Yukon’s airline, with service (in normal times) to Old Crow, Mayo, Watson Lake and beyond, found itself with a largely idle catering facility. For those fortunate to live near Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, it began offering pick up and delivery of airplane food from its Flight Kitchen.

JetBlue thought nostalgia for airplane food might be a thing, too, and in early May began offering delivery of cheese and snack trays, $2.99 for three ounces of mixed cheeses, dried cherries and crackers through Imperfect Foods. Pardon the … delicious irony.

Everything about the road (and flight paths and shipping lanes) ahead is uncertain. The airline trade association IATA, which offers a comprehensive country-by-country map of travel restrictions, argues against countries imposing quarantines, and forecasts, with wistful tear and jutted jaw, that international travel will return to 2019 levels by 2023. Continue reading

On the Road: Climbing Mt. Kinabalu

Here is this month’s @3QD travel column as it appeared at 3 Quarks Daily:

A fine young man with a Yesus Kristus medallion bouncing around beneath his mirror drove us the seven or so kilometers into Mt. Kinabalu park, through the sleeping village of Kundasang. Farmers congregated at a warren of tin-roofed stalls along the main road. It looked like a good day for green tomatoes, potatoes, and cabbage.

They hauled us all in bas minis from the ranger station to the trailhead. From there, a six-kilometer trail led up to our destination, the Laban Ratah guest house, at 11,000 feet. At 13,432 feet, Mt. Kinabalu’s summit, in Malaysian Borneo, is the highest point in Southeast Asia.

Just at first the trail led downhill, charming, to a cool, wet place called Carson’s Falls. On the way down the mountain, conversely, having to climb at the end was just one last kick in the butt on the way out the door.The first kilometer (the trail was marked at each 1/2 kilometer) popped by in 23 minutes. We were flyin’, and all that stuff about how hard this would be was just talk. The first kilometer, we only stopped long enough to shed our wraps.

Still before 8:00 a.m. no sunlight had fought its way to the forest floor. The air was downright chilly once our shirts turned sweaty. And they did — at the first K marker they weren’t soaked through, but a breeze blew down the rise and chilled our damp skin.

We were cocky, jaunty, making tracks, and unappreciative of the flora, except the little violet flower of the Kinabalu Balsam, which was shaped more like it had a beard than lower petals.

The massif stood silent and still, the only sounds birds or a rustling squirrel. There are no monkeys on Mt. Kinabalu. They live nearer the sea, to the east.

Our guide Erik was a volcano of phlegm at first, hacking, spitting, coughing, exercising all facial cavities. He was a little guy, as these highland people were, but with the strong, imposing legs you’d imagine.

He guided once a week, reckoned he’d done the climb fifty times. His personal record to the top — a place called Low’s Peak — was about three hours.

The rest of the week he helped his parents haul their produce to the Kundasang market, where you cain’t make no money. Erik said a kilo of cabbage brought fourteen U.S. cents.

•••••

Grim realization set in during kilometer two. I felt my pack with every step, even though all it held was a camera, a towel, a dry t-shirt, bread, cheese and water.

We appreciated the moss, ferns and banana trees and searched for these particular birds who sang in two notes, but a little more grimly, a little less buoyant, quieter. Still, we made two kilometers in 58 minutes, and there were only six, total. We fed the squirrels some of the tiny peanuts Mirja had bought. Still cool and still, the entire third kilometer. Dark, thick, jungly, even almost cold, and about an hour and a half after we’d set out, at two minutes to nine, we marked halfway.

•••••

In the fourth kilometer, blazing red running shorts caught my gaze. I looked up from the path and it was a Japanese fellow, smiling. He made the summit, turned, and passed us on his way back down before we’d made four and a half K. I just couldn’t believe that.

They do this run as competition. The winner last year, Ian Holmes of the U.K., did 21 K up to the peak and back in 2:43:20, trailed by fellow Brit Simon Booth at 2:43:22. Poor Simon Booth.

•••••

I thought of Beck Weathers on that famous ill-fated Everest expedition, who was left for dead, but stumbled, frostbitten, back to camp. He said mountain climbing, really, was simple. All you had to do was be in shape and then not let your mind defeat your body. One foot in front of the other, he said, it’s all just endurance.

But by now I was grim, unhappy, soaked-through wet. I used Weathers’ advice and eventually thought I’d achieved a sort of runner’s high. I had a little bounce back, but I was hiking sloppy — lurching, and, when there was something to grab on to, I hauled myself up by it. Still, I was sure for the first time since Carson’s Falls that we would make it. I turned cocky.

We stopped to enjoy Mirja’s chocolates and tiny peanuts, like they sell in Nuwara Eliya, back in Sri Lanka. We sat there steaming. Our own personal dew points produced our own, individual, self-generated clouds of steam, our shirts purely drenched through.

•••••

Porters made good money — six ringgits per kilo — but that work’s just too hard, Erik thought, and I was sure he was right. A typical load was ten to twelve kilos (twenty max) and that’d bring you twenty bucks — then you had to haul the trash back down from the top.

Erik liked guiding.

U.S. twenty was real money. The park required we have a guide and took a fee for him, so that Erik made about eight bucks for his day, probably as good as a porter if he got a right-tipping foreigner — and no taking out the trash.

The porters plied the path up and back, right alongside us, low to the ground and bent, exchanging local-language intelligence with Erik on the way, usually hauling rice bags full of supplies for the restaurant and guest houses up above, held by straps across their foreheads. Or sometimes they’d be laden with daypacks and duffels of tourists.

Twice we passed Japanese girls in flip-flops, and the last one was really hobbling, on her boyfriend’s arm. Mountain climbing may involve stepping over rocks. Apparently they were not told.

•••••

Erik commanded pretty good English.

Had he ever been to K. L. (Kuala Lumpur, the capital)? I asked.

“No, but when I get money I take my baby.”

It’s a big city, you know, tallest building in the world (at the time)….

“Oh, no!” Scornful reply. He was aiming high. “Maybe one day I get 10,000 ringgits I go around the world!”

•••••

I spent long minutes anticipating the sun, by which to energize. We were still deep within the forest at the two- hour mark, and again I had begun to flag. It was damp, I was wet, and the path stretched only straight up.

Twenty or thirty meters of steep steps would lead to a bend, and you’d yearn for a stretch that didn’t lead straight up, but time after time after time after time after time, you’d reach the bend and see even crueler steps beyond. And then you’d do it again. And then again.

•••••

At first the sun would hit the forest floor in this odd spot or that, then as we rose (so slowly) up the hill you’d see sun more often than not, and by 10:00 in the morning we stood at the Layang Layang staff hut, on a little plateau flooded by sunlight. I drenched my head under a water pipe.

Up to now there were few on the mountain with us except the runner and a couple of porters. Now groups of overnight campers passed us bound for the bottom, but no one but Malay boys climbed (in fact, we were the first to set out, and first to arrive at Laban Rata).

Eric was constant. Mirja and I waxed and waned at intervals, and kept one another going. At the four K mark, I hit my stride one last time. It was 10:08, only two K to go. I fairly strode ahead. The sun was out now, but we’d ever be ducking into a crook in the trail that led through shaded forest.

Here was a sign, “NEPENTHES VILLOSA areas 9000-10,300 ft.” by which they meant those curious pitcher plants were about, and we spied several in the woods, the biggest the size of two fists.

The curious pitcher plant.

A big Chinese contingent slid downward, all chatty. Along about here my recently found vigor ran out and I resented their being able to breathe. Like Mirja said, on the way up it’s your heart and lungs, on the way down it’s your legs, and I began to get an ugly payback for my cocky “hitting my stride” bit, as I could hear my heart pounding in my head.

We stopped (it was an excuse to stop) to watch a green bird, the “Mt. Kinabalu Blackeye.”

•••••

Now this was terrible. Stretching above us we had to begin some scrambling. It was just damned hard. Mud. I saw myself closed off now, thinking only of where my next foot would go (except I had this vague “What the hell were you thinking!?” notion bouncing around my head, too).

I seized upon a mantra. I said to myself, over and over, “Mt. Kinabalu blackeye.” Over and over. Now, whenever we’d spy anyone above us on the trail, we’d (“graciously”) stop to let them slide by.

One fifty-something Japanese fellow laughed at himself how he’d taken eight and a half hours to the summit. Hell, we weren’t even going to the summit and we weren’t laughing. Yeah, but anybody can laugh and climb down, I thought.

Now came a section where you had to haul yourself up by rope. Now the trees were small, dwarfed and gnarled by the wind, cold and thin air. They were small, but Erik said some were hundreds of years old.

At 10:58 we stood on the five K marker. Someone coming down asked if this was our first time and Mirja peremptorily replied, “And the last.”

We could see the South China Sea from here, 52 kilometers to the north. And our hotel, the Perkassa, high on its hill overlooking Kundasang town, was an insignificant little speck below. We stopped every third or fourth step for the last kilometer, which took 50 minutes.

At 11:48 we reached the top.

Which wasn’t the top. The Laban Rata guesthouse was built 15 years ago to support summit seekers. At 11,000 feet, it has 20 tables, bunks and a grocery with Milo, old batteries, candy bars, Carlsbergs and a kitchen serving up fried rice, sweet corn soup and coffee. The bulletin board admonished, though, that today we had no: cream of chicken soup, Maggi chicken, chicken, lemon or chicken curry. Cursed porters.

So we had lunch – fried rice – and climbed down. Four hours twenty minutes up, 3:10 down. On the way to the bottom we passed a mere boy carrying a 40 kg coil of rope. Impossible. Weak as I was by now, I couldn’t even lift it, but he hoisted it through two loops onto his back and it would take a day and a half to haul it up there — for 63 dollars in ringgits.

We were both thoroughly hobbled by the last two K down, Mirja and me, our brakes having given out, both of us gripping the handrails when there were any, noticing all too clearly that Eric just ambled on down the hill ahead of us the way he had ambled up. We went home, ate a table full of daging redang and papadums with a side of fiery red chopped chillies, and slept hard by eight o’clock.

•••••

See more photos in the Malaysia Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.

New On the Road Column Today

My monthly On the Road column at 3 Quarks Daily is live this morning. This month I’ve taken a look at fallout (forgive me) from the official reaction to the Chernobyl disaster.

Read it here at 3QD right now, and I’ll post it to CS&W later this week.

See more photos from Chernobyl in the Ukraine Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.

On the Road: Getting to Tasiilaq

Here is my monthly travel column as posted to 3 Quarks Daily on Monday:

On the Road: Getting to Tasiilaq

First thing we have to do, we have to find Robert.

The men smoking outside the concrete block terminal are not Robert so I ask around inside. The man behind the check-in counter might as well be collecting Arctic tumbleweeds. No flights are pending; no one is checking in.

He does not know Robert.

Together we lean over his counter to look down to the harbor. One boat is speeding away and there don’t seem to be any others. He flips his palms up and shakes his head, “I think you just go down there and wait. That is your only chance.”

•••••

Humans inhabit the fringe, the perimeter of Greenland not flattened by the ice cap, and I mean flattened, literally. Even with its thinning, ice reaches three kilometers deep at its thickest, pushing the bedrock into the mantle such that if the ice disappeared, the island would become an archipelago.

You can’t fly to Tasiilaq, the biggest town on the eastern side of Greenland, for lack of sufficient flat space for an airstrip. So we have flown to a gravel strip called Kulusuk airport. To get to Tasiilaq we must traverse the mouth of the Ammassalik fjord. We booked that online and all we know is, get to Kulusuk and ask for Robert.

We can see our destination twenty kilometers across the fjord behind a few icebergs and a coastline of precambrian rock thrust from the sea long before humanity, possibly even contemporaneous with the first life on earth.

We invade and insult the silence with our prissy roll aboard carry-on bags, scraping and skipping the damned things down the rough gravel. Show more respect and stand still, and the quiet closes up around you as a vehement, absolute thing.

A man from Cologne with a massive backpack walks ahead of us. He has arrived with no itinerary beyond walking for two weeks. His pack reaches up past his head, bulging with two weeks of freeze dried food and powdered milk.

Once he walked from Ilullisat to Sisimiut in western Greenland, and that is far, far farther than from here to Tasiilaq and then clear around the island, but that time he was advised that there was no danger of polar bears and he has yet to be so advised here. His itinerary may have to be revised based on local information. Right now he plans to circumambulate Ammassalik island. He puts great store in the advice of Robert, but none of us know how to find him.

Airport to harbor, perhaps a twenty minute walk. No boats in sight. Either side of the gravel path, just rock and a little but not much tenacious flora. Our destination across the water is low and bare with mountains rising snow capped, glaciers embedded toward the top. Clouds tease the ridges but do not suggest a threat of rain. In between individual icebergs, not a field, rise like several-story buildings.

It turns out that two tiny Danish-built fiberglass Poca speedboats, so low slung that the dock hides them both, bob in the sea beyond the dock. Two Greenlandic men stand down there on the shore below the dock, neither in so much as a jacket, enjoying the northern summer.

We ask, “Robert?” and the younger man, with no English, shakes his head no, “Christian.” We and the backpacker, who is expecting the same ride, are at a bit of a loss until we work out, through gestures and good will, that Christian is on behalf of Robert. For us, that is good.

The dock is too high for the boats, and so we scramble down onto rocks to climb aboard, and Christian takes the backpacker, my wife Mirja and me screaming across the fjord toward a similar spot on the far shore. Christian, hair stood up to a greased crown, drives standing, and stops us dead in the water alongside this iceberg, then that, so we can take photos.

We clamber out on a rock where there is no dock at all. Christian motions without words, “up that way,” and makes no move to leave the boat. So off we scramble, not having paid anybody for anything, off to find someone who wants our money. Robert, maybe.

The Inuit seldom keep individual dogs as pets, but rather tether them in groups outside in summer, and we rouse the mild attention of a pack of tethered dogs as we troop up the hill. Inuit sled dogs have two layers of fur, the inner short, like wool for insulation, and the outer longer, coarser and water repellent. That may make them hot today but overall, they are surely chillin’, taking the warm season off, lounging all day except when growling and snapping over territory.

A vehicle makes its way down the hill picking its path, for the way is gravel and bumpy. A slight girl stops to ask that we wait here, drives down the road to drop some camping supplies and returns to drive us to the Red House, a tour shop and hostel run by the famous Robert.

Robert’s reputation should have preceded him. Turns out in 1983, extreme explorer Robert Peroni from the Italian south Tyrol walked across the Greenland ice cap, all the way across the island at its widest point, some 1400 kilometers, on an 88 day journey.

Now 72, Robert stands before us trim and erect, and above all relieved to find we aren’t planning to stay in his hostel, for he is booked solid as he would hope to be in a very short high season. We pay him for the crossing from Kulusuk, bid farewell, and the girl drives us up the hill to the Hotel Angmagssalik.

•••••

There was a time when airline passengers celebrated successful landings. I remember applause in 1986 when my Lufthansa flight landed in Frankfurt from Moscow. I thought it was as likely for getting the bloody hell out of the Soviet Union.

We came over from Iceland today on a brand new, gleaming Air Iceland Bombardier Q400 prop plane, twenty rows two by two. Bustling their baby refreshment cart up and down the aisle meant actual work for the flight attendants, compared to the doorman role they play on short domestic flights.

Come time to land, the plane took on a buzz incongruent with today’s humdrum air travel. In a small plane you’ve more of a sense of flying, and when the pilot maneuvered to dip under the clouds and between the mountains, we all craned to be the first to see icebergs, and phone cameras filled the windows. The runway at Kulusuk came up fast and we rode it right to the end lights.

About fifty of the seventy aboard were here for a day trip. Over in the morning, touch the soil, check Greenland off your list and fly back. I met a taxi driver in Reykjavik who said he did it as a fifteen year old.

What did they do?

They deplaned, someone took them around the side of the terminal and they watched a man in a costume play a drum and a fat woman dance.

Some months ago he drove a man to do the same and picked him up later that day. What did they do? A drum and a dance.

The east Greenland coast near Tasiilaq

Excerpted from Out in the Cold, Travels North: Adventures in Svalbard, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and Canada by Bill Murray

More photos in the Greenland Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.

This Month’s On the Road Column

Tasiilaq, eastern Greenland

Here’s a link to my travel column for this month at 3 Quarks Daily. It’s called On the Road: Getting to Tasiilaq, about arriving in eastern Greenland. I’ll post the entire column here later this week. Here’s a link to all 21 of my 3QD columns.

By way of explanation, my contributions have been scant here the last several weeks. After twenty years in southern Appalachia we’ve sold our farm and moved back to the big city, with all the attendant turmoil and disruption. Things should smooth out over the next several weeks, allowing me more time to properly tend to things here at CS&W. Hang with me.

On the Road: The Iowa Caucuses

Here’s this month’s 3 Quarks Daily column, as it appeared Monday:

Banners waved, the converted preached and hawkers peddled hats, buttons, “Impeach This” sweatshirts and dodgy conspiracy theories. The sky hung sullenfrozen in the shade of dull cutlery. A big screen kept those outside Drake University’s Knapp Center apprised of the slow boil inside.

Fire safety officials began to turn away an overflow crowd two hours before the start of Donald Trump’s Iowa MAGA rally last Thursday. The Presidential interloper came to crash the Democrats’ caucuses, and MAGA fans glowed with an intensity rather like coyotes circling the Democrat’s family pet.

Welcome to Des Moines, where unmarked satellite trucks troll snowy streets, coffee houses and hotel lobbies are broadcast-ready, and legions of reporters and crew and a few political tourists have swept up and besieged an entire town.

The candidates still standing are punch-drunk. Former Congressman John Delaney called it quits as flakes fell across the capital Friday morning. Even without Delaney, a relentless event-holder, the Des Moines Register’s candidate tracker listed 64 events over the campaign’s final weekend.

Saturday, while Pete Buttigieg worked the National Cattle Congress Electric Park Ballroom out in Waterloo, candidates Yang, Klobuchar and Steyer held rallies in brew pubs, and Joe Biden harangued a community center. And that was all before noon. By then, Buttigieg was on to his second event, at the coliseum in Oelwein.

•••••

Getting the hang of the Des Moines Skywalk is a fine idea. It’s a seemingly random four-mile web of corridors linking the second floors of 55 buildings across downtown, and roaming the central business district without going outside is a fine idea in February.

A Skywalk bridge over and a block or two down, Andrew Yang stood in a Marriott conference room Saturday night, filling out an under-tailored blue blazer and road-wrinkled trousers, promising his gang they’d shock the world in two days, but his canvassers still sought precinct captains at the door.

Joe Biden made his closing argument Sunday afternoon at Hiatt Middle School. He booked a small room he could fill. His presentation didn’t approach the MAGA rally’s feral vibe, not even close, but neither did he present as feeble. He didn’t dodder, seemed confident enough. Aim high.

Over at Lincoln High School, Mayor Pete had a much larger crowd, and a dedicated amen corner. His presentation was trademark, straight-up and sober, hardly visceral, but with way cleaner production values. And unlike the VP, he didn’t cycle eight politicians out to the stage first. Bless him.

No one dared challenge the Super Bowl for attention. You could attend a watch party with Senator Klobuchar or Senator Sanders, but no one laid on the traditional final night rally.

•••••

All week the Senators absent from Iowa because of impeachment cursed their luck while Biden and Buttigieg made hay. Biden has been here for a week. Except former Senator Chris Dodd, who is traveling with Biden, moved to Iowa for the three months prior to the 2008 caucuses. Look what that got him.

While Senators Klobuchar, Sanders and Warren (and Michael Bennett) were back in the capital, surrogates flooded the zone. Their stand-ins’ star power varied: Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for Senator Sanders; former Secretary Julián Castro, his twin brother Representative Joaquin Castro of Texas, the actress and activist Ashley Judd for Senator Warren; and Phill Drobnick, a Minnesotan who coached the Olympic gold medal-winning men’s curling team in 2018, for Senator Klobuchar. Yes, THAT Phill Drobnick.

•••••

Participants gather tonight (arrive early! doors close at 7:00!). In, for example, a high school gym, candidate A’s caucus-goers will muster under one goal, candidate B’s under the other, candidate C’s near the home team’s bench and so on. Candidates who fail to gather a minimum of fifteen percent of caucus-goers are eliminated.

Speeches will be given and arms twisted. The remaining candidates’ representatives will woo the disenfranchised while the failed candidates’ representatives will speechify and arm-twist back, hoping to persuade enough others into their corner to achieve fifteen percent. Or, maybe they’ll  just go home.

The whole thing will take maybe three hours. It is one of the few times American voters engage each other directly and publicly outside the voting booth.

Much of this race is for the right to play second fiddle, or even third. Nothing would please good old midwestern-values Amy more than to finish above fourth place, and Mayor Pete above third. Only John McCain has finished lower than third and gone on to win a nomination (2008) and no Democrat has ever done so, but for now, never mind about that.

•••••

A month ago sunrise glinted off the gold state house dome behind the right shoulder of a young cable news correspondent declaring “game on.” All the candidates were here then, too. With one-month-to-go cries of “now it’s time to get serious,” the cable channels crashed the champagne bottle against the campaign’s bow and declared it time to play now, for real.

So: Will Elizabeth and Bernie please start fighting? They did, with the no handshake moment after the mid-February Iowa debate. How’s that working out for Senator Warren? Late polling suggests maybe not that well.

Is Mayor Pete mild-mannered or secretly mean? These last couple days he’s begun to criticize Biden and Sanders explicitly, by name. So, secretly mean.

Oh Senators Klobuchar, Booker and Bennett, no traction no traction no traction.

And please, let’s have a gaffe, Uncle Joe.

About Joe: Richard Ben Cramer wrote that “the joy of being with Joe” in 1988 (the plagarism campaign) was that “you were included – not just in his politics, but in his life, and the lives of his family. You were more likely to hear from Biden what Jill said the other day about teaching … than you were about his five-point education plan.”

The problem with familiarity dogged Biden all those years ago, already. Cramer: “One time, an Iowa room, Joe was in mid-monologue, and there was a woman at a table, facing away, who would not turn around. Joe didn’t break stride in his talk … he got to this woman, came up from behind … and gently, but decidedly, he put his hands on her…. He got both hands onto her shoulders, while he talked to the crowd over her head, like it was her and him, through thick and thin. The woman looked like she’d swallowed her tongue.”

•••••

Last summer I took the optimistic position that the Dems had a wealth of talent and plenty of time to talk through the issues, select a candidate and then methodically set out to retire Donald Trump. Fact, though, is different from truth, or optimism. It is a fact that Joe Biden has consistently led national polls. It is a broader truth that few are rabid about his candidacy.

People say the Democratic left wields more enthusiasm than the Biden wing. If tonight’s results demonstrate the left’s fervor as fact, that will underline another larger truth, that social spending priorities define what’s important to the voter in a way that, say, Vice-Presidential laurel-resting, does not.

Do they have a chance, these Democrats? In seven of the last nine contested caucuses the Iowa winner has gone on to win the nomination, but only two, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama, have gone on to win the presidency.

Does Iowa even matter? Yes, but just for a week, until New Hampshire.

And more fundamentally, why is this country so full of hand-wringing a scant thirty years since it stood astride the world triumphant? No longer dreaming of indispensableness, now we just hope the domestic body politic can be governed at all.

But back to Iowa. I’m pretty sure Iowans are ready for all the attention to be over, to get their lives back, for the TV ads to go away. (Who wouldn’t want an Authentic American Collectibles 2020 Battle for the White House Chess Set for only 39.99?). Still, it really does feel like an engaged electorate. Everyone has interviewed everyone else. In every restaurant and tavern, the talk at the next table is political. Phrases waft across the room … “abuse of the public trust” … “You break it you own it” … “Appropriations process.”

These people are really into this thing.

•••••

Candidates don’t get to caucus day by being shrinking violets. Many candidacies have already shrunk to nothing. And my goodness, just the amount of sheer, unrelenting effort expended here, by so many people, day after day after frozen day. Now, at last, after all the fury, frenzy (and studied investment by non-Hawkeyes in learning to walk on icy sidewalks), starting today, we’re out of the gates. There will be numbers.

Just not very many. If every registered Iowa Democrat caucuses today, by the end of the night 0.45 percent of Americans will have spoken.

It’s big on an Iowa scale, though. The Democrats expect record participation. Party chairman Troy Price expects more caucus-goers than the record year 2008 (the first Obama election). In anticipation, besides the usual gyms and firehouses, libraries and churches, Iowa Democrats have signed up private venues like the Science Center of Iowa and the Iowa Events Center, capacity 17,100.

The party could spend $20,000 on venues alone. “We’ve never paid for this many (sites) in one year,” Polk County (Des Moines) Democratic Party chairman Sean Bagniewski said.

“They pass the hat” at the caucuses, Dallas County Democratic chairman Bryce Smith said, so they hope to make their money back.

•••••

Casual observers are perennially vexed by Iowa’s high level of undecided voters. It’s not vexing. It’s down to the system that requires participants to be prepared to support another candidate if their first choice doesn’t get 15%.

One thirtyish couple at the Andrew Yang rally, for example, were torn about where to go if the Yang Gang doesn’t shock the world tonight. Attending their second caucus, in Altoona, they’ll listen to the Warren and Sanders pitches. Anyone but Biden, they say. One poll shows only seven percent of Iowans under 50 support the former VP.

(In 1976 “Uncommitted” got 14,508 votes. Jimmy Carter tallied 10,764 votes but was declared winnerCarter won by trailing “uncommitted.” That was an undecided year.)

Here in the early going, none of the candidates do much of the vision thing. No one strides across Iowa corn fields hoisting the banner of inspiration. Instead they frame themselves in terms of their opponent to come. This year’s version of ‘Yes We Can’ is more of a mumbled ‘Gee, we really think our side is best positioned to counter the bared teeth of the MAGA coyotes.’

Could use some work.

As caucus day dawns, polls don’t help much. Publication of the definitive final poll by the Des Moines Register on Saturday night was cancelled because of possible “irregularities in the polling methodology.” By tomorrow morning there may be a clear winner, or a muddle. Whatever happens, the press will get what it came for, and Iowans will get their state back.