Unexpected Adventures

Leaving Teddy Roosevelt Park

I lied.  After posting the last update, I visited the Painted Canyon, not once, but twice.  I went in the evening and smuggled Peggy in for a bit.  It’s not just that she’s not allowed in the park, but she insists on sniffing in places that snakes would love to hide.  If she was hurt, I’d feel awful.  Still, I can’t keep her cooped up out of fear.  We covered one beautiful mile, returning to the parking lot in time to watch sunset with a young Vermont couple on their honeymoon.  They started it!  I wasn’t invading their space.  I promise.  They’re on a 3 week road trip around the country.  They’ve described moving very quickly, especially by my standards, and yet are having a great time and seeing tons of stuff.  It just goes to show you there’s no wrong way to do this.  They were great, just starting out in so many ways.  It sounded like there will be a baby in the picture by this time next year.  Honestly, it was super cute.  It would have been picture perfect if the sun had set behind the landscape and not behind clouds, but it was still pretty.  The next morning I wanted to see the canyon in better light, so I returned to repeat the quick 1 mile loop before hitting the road.  It’s a little over 500 miles to Yellowstone from there, so it would be a long travel day.

Pompey’s Pillar

On about half way to Yellowstone, we all needed lunch and a break for an hour or two.  Out of nowhere rose Pompey’s Pillar.  Apparently most tourists learn of this place from the highway sign as they go whizzing past it, making a split second decision to pull in.  It’s not even listed in the National Park Passport App which has hundreds of parks, historic sights, forests, and monuments, not just the big parks.  It is an official national monument though.  The annual pass works here.  Here is the only physical evidence of their entire trip.  Clark, of the Lewis and Clark expedition, carved his name into this high feature, the only one for miles around on this side of the Yellowstone River.  It is remarkable for a number of reasons.  It’s a great lookout and affords a fantastic view through the only gap in the cliff on the opposite bank, a gap traversed by large herds and hostile tribes in those days.  Clark was accompanied by Sacagawea, said with a hard G apparently, and the pillar is named for her son.  What an interesting story!  She had been kidnapped when she was 14 and taken west.  She escaped and made her way east, learning the languages and customs along the way.  Now, perhaps 10 years later, she was guiding these explorers to the west and back, through a land apparently governed by her long lost brother who was now a chief!  When they came by this pillar, they were actually on their return trip.  This was a portion where Lewis had broken off to follow a different river that more or less makes a loop, explaining the name of the camp at the end, Camp Disappointment.  No one really knows what ever happened to Sacagawea.  She died in obscurity not long after the expedition, but no one knows where or why or how.  She apparently sent her son to live with Clark who raised him as his own and gave him an affluent life and robust education.  Later, Pompey just became a hunter and trader I gather.  I learned all of this during a 1 on 1 tour that I conveniently showed up in time for, a group tour with no other guests.  The place is small, but worth a visit.  They’ve got other authentic features like canoes and the like.

After touring the monument and tending to the critters, I continued on almost all the way to the park.  There’s a rest stop that you can spend the night at on the edge of the park, far enough away that it’s free and legal, but close enough to be worth a short drive in the morning.  Campgrounds hate when you show up late anyway and why pay Yellowstone prices for an extra night?  It worked perfectly, other than a sprinkler giving me a heart attack as it popped out of the ground next to me.  I was certain it was a snake!  The drive south from Bozeman to West Yellowstone is beautiful in the morning.  I recommend it.  In fact, almost all of the drive from Teddy Roosevelt had been through gorgeous Montana landscape, and I loved every second of it.  The 500 miles was nothing.

Yellowstone

Set up doesn’t take long these days.  I’ve got the routine down now.  Wagon Wheel Campground let me check in early and I headed straight into the park, to Old Faithful.  The park is huge.  Literally the size of Rhode Island, there are totally separate sections of the park with their own visitor centers that are substantial drives apart from one another.  With the winding roads, speed limits, and slow moving tourists, it takes a few hours to drive across it.  When you come, plan to rush, not see it all, or stay a long time.  As it was, I rushed for 2 days and saw only the touristy parts of the south half of the park, none of the back country.  It was great, though, despite moving quickly.  Yellowstone’s touristy bits are a lot like a museum.  You walk along boardwalks past features as though paintings in a gallery with the pizza / beer / donuts crowd.  These aren’t your hard core adventure seeking adrenaline junkies.  There’s no harm in that, but its worth setting the scene properly.  It’s decidedly different from, say, what I expect Grand Teton to be like.  Despite the crowds, people were well behaved.  It would have been easy to see impatience and grumpiness, but people waited patiently for things, didn’t hassle one another, and generally seemed to be having a great time.  I met a Russian couple who is about to return home after 3 years working in Houston, a chatty and helpful convenience store attendant with bear advice, and various other tourists who commented on their trips or the jaw dropping beauty of it all.  The park rangers are particularly patient, helpful, and up beat here.  I bet you’ve got to be some kind of superstar to get a post at Yellowstone.  I don’t even recall hearing fussy kids!  Oh, and the super friendly bike rental guys sell their good condition used helmets for $4.  Score!  It’s a really happy place.

The immediate vicinity of Old Faithful itself has a couple of miles of trails, and it represents a small fraction of the southwest corner of the park.  There’s a short hiking trail up a hill behind Old Faithful that is a great place to view the eruption from.  That’s where I met and hung out with my new Russian friends.  By the way, if you travel alone, be ready to take a lot of pictures for people.  You’re a prime target for … “would you mind taking one picture of us?”.  It’s no big deal, but do factor it in to your time planning for the day.  It adds up, especially if you’re scurrying from place to place.  Geysers are spread over a wide area, but along these short walks from the Old Faithful visitor center, you see a large number of them.  There are pretty pools here, too, but it’s really about the geysers from this spot.  Just wandering along, you come across so many that it’s hard not to see several erruptions.  I was lucky to see Bee Hive go off nearly simultaneously with Old Faithful.  It would have been a really rare event for them to go off exactly at the same time, but it was still cool.  It was hard not to be at least a little disappointed, though, since they totally would have gone off at the same time if Old Faithful wasn’t strangely and abnormally late.  Stupid geyser!  Grumble grumble.  Then a third geyser erruped all viewable from the same location.

Southern Yellowstone

Geysers seriously come in all shapes and sizes.  They don’t even work as I thought they did.  It’s an open system, so pressure is not building in the way kids are told that it is.  What’s really happening, at least at Old Faithful, is that it’s shaped like an empty beer bottle with no bottle cap, totally open to the outside air.  An underground waterfall fills the bottle.  As it fills, the water pressure rises at the bottom simply due to continuously increasing depth.  This has absolutely nothing to do with the heat that is also being applied at the bottom.  The boiling temperature of water depends on the pressure.  As pressure goes up, so does the required temperature, meaning that as the bottle fills up, it takes more and more heat to make it boil.  The water is constantly getting hotter, but also deeper.  More and more heat is required to reach the constantly increasing minimum boiling temperature.  Eventually, though, the heat overtakes the pressure and the large supper heated steam bubbles form.  As they rise, they push water up the neck of the bottle and that’s what makes it erupt.  Once water starts being ejected, the pressure at the bottom of the bottle goes down since the water depth is now shallower.  This lowers the required boiling temperature to below the current temperature of the water down there.  It instantly burst into steam all at once without any additional heat.  The process accelerates as more and more water is ejected from the top until most of the water is ejected, remaining steam can easily escape, and the relatively cold water from the internal waterfall starts the process all over again.  Please stop telling your kids that geysers erupt because steam pressure builds up until the geyser bursts.  That’s just totally wrong.  You may as well be telling them that the tooth fairy lives in there and makes it go.

All that being said, geysers come in all shapes and sizes.  Some are isolated like Old Faithful.  Some are strongly influenced by the activity of adjacent geysers in the same system.  They can be regular and frequent, or rare and totally unpredictable.  The entire area is subject to frequent earthquakes that can permanently change the behavior of the different features.  Apparently I slept through a 4.8 magnitude quake while I was there.  Geysers and all manner of other geothermal formations abound here.  Just walking around will ensure that you randomly see multiple eruptions, some far more spectacular than Old Faithful.  There are brightly colored pools of all sizes and shapes, cold and hot, some so acidic they’ll dissolve flesh.  Think battery acid.  Most of the time they are surrounded by bacterial mats, thick layers of bacteria that color everything.  They thrive on the strange cocktail of chemicals and temperature bubbling up from below.  Every now and then, such as when I was there, some dummy ignores the signs, strolls across the unstable ground, and boils / dissolves in a pretty pool.  Apparently it took some time to extricate his remains.  I gather it was extremely gruesome.  Do obey the signs.  There’s apparently a book called Death In Yellowstone.  It’s pretty easy to die here.

The pools range from crystal clear bright blue water to green to brown to thick and muddy.  They often have irregularly shaped bright orange or yellow borders.  There’s no such thing as normal behavior.  They’ve all got their own character.  Some boil in the way you might expect.  Some boil beneath the surface, but the bubbles collapse back into liquid water before reaching the surface.  Color is dictated by temperature and acidity which influence what bacteria grow there and how readily the local rock is dissolved.  One feature, called the Dragon’s Mouth, is a cave with waves of water crashing out of it.  The water gurgles up loudly from below, creating a low roaring sound, and plumes of steam and stinky gasses bellow from the mouth of the cave.  It’s mesmerizing.  This is one of those times that you really should go check out the pictures and videos on my Facebook page.  I could write about these for pages and not even begin to capture them adequately.  I’ll just add that interesting formations go on for miles and miles.  You won’t want to miss any of them, and you’ll need a lot of time.  Plan accordingly when you go.

Bears

In order to see a little more of the park, you’ve got to venture into the back country.  There are short trails and long back packing treks.  Either way, people talk like you’re definitely going to see a grizzly bear, and if you’re alone and unarmed, he’s going to attack you.  They don’t ban hiking alone, but they strenuously insist it’s a bad idea.  Your best bet is to hike in groups, make lots of noise, and carry lots of bear spray, supped up pepper spray.  The can is small, but apparently has such kick back that you have to hold with 2 hands when firing.  You might recall that bar tender in the Nebraska bar who knew people who used bear spray.  It only upset the bear who finally left after he sustained several gunshot wounds.  Still, they insist that bear spray helps more often than it hurts.  I hear that bear attacks really are rare.  In the last 25 years, there have been 3 deaths, all in the past 3 years.  They all had extenuating circumstances.  Stories conflict, but here’s what I’ve heard.  One guy ran, prompting the bear to give chase.  One guy may have been a death by bear suicide.  One was a trail runner with headphones on and no bear spray.  One might have been a photographer who intentionally got closer than one should.  It’s not entirely clear, but it sounds like all of the deaths involved rookie mistakes.  I’m told that most locals hike alone, although they tend to do it in areas where other hikers are likely to be making noise and could go for help.  I’ve decided that the little 1 to 2 mile offshoots from the touristy areas are probably fine.  Anything bigger than that will require a group or public traffic.  Yellowstone doesn’t really attract hard core hikers like Grand Teton, just to the south, does.  I decided to wait on hiking Avalanche Peak in Yellowstone until the ranger led hike on the 27th of June.  I’ve left Yellowstone, but I need to go back to see the north half of the park anyway, where this hike is.  I saw the south side, but ended up meeting people which I’ll describe in a bit.  I ended up spending days out of the park, so I’ll go back after Boston and Grand Teton National Park.  That Built To Spill show is in Bozeman on the 27th anyway, so I’ll just do both that day.  I did buy bear spray for what its worth.  As with snakes, I educated myself a bit.  Bears are more of a risk, but not so bad as long as you’re smart about it.

West Yellowstone

Yellowstone really is several parks smooshed together.  Geyser, lake, river, mountain, and canyon areas are reasonably isolated from one another with some degree of blending of course.  Having spent 2 days touring the southern portions, geyser, lake, and river (including an impromptu swim), I decided to take a day off for chores and checking out the town of West Yellowstone.  This also gave me more time to exercise Peggy more rigorously which she enjoyed.  Later in the day, I decided to check out the local transportation museum.  They have old autos, rail cars, stage coaches, and movies / plaques about it all.  The locals there are great.  I ended up talking to them for quite some time.  Hearing that I am a mechanical engineer, they sent me over to check out the old generator that ran the train station and part of the town.  It’s apparently in working order, although the museum staff doesn’t know much about it.  They sent the museum director, Marin, out to meet me to discuss it and see if I could offer any insights.  I recognized her from earlier in the day when I had seen her walking down the street with a train conductor hat on with normal every day clothes.  Now it made sense!  The generator was a super cool 3 cylinder diesel with giant manual fly wheels and huge exposed generator coils.  A large and simple board of enormous switches and dials monitored and controlled the energy output of the device.  It was sooooo much fun to discuss it with Marin.

Marin (pronounced like Mary but with IN instead of Y) is an extremely interesting person.  She’s a historian by education and is happy to discuss a broad variety of historical topics in real world terms, much like that Howard Zinn history book I’ve mentioned previously.  She knows all the sordid details that you don’t find in the tourist friendly publications and how it all relates to what’s going on today.  We hit it off right away and decided to go grab dinner together at the Buffalo Bar, a local watering hole that will make you a vegan burrito.  She was very helpful in this area since she’s a vegetarian / borderline vegan herself, and the year round locals really take care of each other in this town.  She’s not originally from Montana, but has lived here for 2 years.  She’s from Virginia and spent a few years in Portland, OR.  Marin hikes a lot and had some interesting stories and guidance about how to do it safely in bearville.  It was great to spend time with her.  We have a lot in common and talked easily about many topics.  We ended up hanging out a lot over the next couple of days until it was time for me to head down to Jackson for my flight to Boston.  I didn’t get to see the northern half of the park, but spending time with new friends is way more important, plus I’m heading back up that way anyway.  I hope to see Marin again when I’m up there.  Neither Marin nor I are entirely available for a proper relationship, but it was still a wonderful few days.  True connections are rare.  Its funny, I was just discussing that with a friend by phone earlier that day and met Marin maybe 1 hour later.  Despite traveling the country and meeting many people, I’ve really hit it off with a small number of people.  Sure, I’m not going out of my way to date or even meet women, but I’m pretty social.  It’s a little surprising that it doesn’t happen more often, but realizing how rare it is makes it feel all that more special.  Casual friendships are frequent, but anything deeper is not.  In the time that we had, we visited a trendy little coffee shop and a local brewery, took a scenic drive (I finally got to see Idaho!), relaxed with some pizza and TV (I guess I’m right there with the pizza and beer crowd, way to judge, Keith), and just generally had fun.  She’s got great taste in music, literature, tv, podcasts, art, and is also super outdoorsy.  I’m glad I’ve gotten to know her.

Jackson Hole

I drove to Jackson Hole on June 15 to put the trailer in storage.  The local animal hospital has cat and dog care, both of which are pretty nice.  I checked Hank in there, but stuck with Dog Vacay for Peggy.  This doggy caregiver seemed nice and responsive, and I later found out that she’s been taking Peggy hiking which is nice.  I hope they’re happy.  Its funny how quickly I miss them.  Jackson is even bigger and more touristy than West Yellowstone, but still totally walkable in part of an afternoon.  I do like to pop into shops from time to time, but traveling alone I skip over most of them.  It’s just nice to enjoy the vibe from all the happy vacationers.  On a recommendation, I popped into the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar where all of the bar stools are western saddles.  I met a few people there and relaxed with a couple of beers.  Having spent over a week above 6000 feet now, I’m starting to feel more acclimated and less bothered by dehydration and gaspyness.  I hope I don’t lose anything visiting Boston!  There’s also a Grand Teton office in town.  It’s a foundation, not a visitor center, but they do have maps and will talk to you a little about the park.  It’s early season so you can hike, but the highest peaks are still covered in snow and ice, impassible without technical gear like ice axes and significant experience.  There are many open trails though, and lower peaks are reachable.  The storage facility in town let me sleep in the trailer before my flight which was nice, and I’m writing to you now from O’Hare.  Tonight I see The Cure with my friends, the same friends (mostly) that I met in Chicago coincidentally.  You’ll have to wait until next week to hear how that went.  Peace and love everyone!

Peace and natural beauty in North Dakota

This past week or so has been characterized by much calm and peace.  It seems that Susan’s reassuring and soothing words had a calming effect and really stuck with me.  Sure, I never completely shut my brain off, but I’ve done very little obsessing over things.  I’ve hardly thought of career at all, and even had a pleasant realization about my most recent relationship that I don’t mind sharing.  I’ve mentioned previously that it was a rollercoaster with intermixed periods of great times and us treating each other badly.  It was a very important relationship, the kind that leaves a mark and takes a long time to really get over.  Well, I’m pleased to say that I feel a strong and persistent sense of acceptance.  Not just acceptance that it’s over, but rather, that it all happened the only way it could.  She was doing the best she could and so was I.  Neither of us was our best selves with each other.  We are both capable of so much more.  There is no need for explanations or apologies.  It just was, and that realization brings on a new layer of peace.

 

Badlands National Park & Wall Drug

 

Two days of rest didn’t hurt in terms of relaxing either.  I don’t want to give the wrong impression.  The trip has always been amazing, but my last update included some unpleasant experiences and a small but clearly present sense of angst.  Happily, it passed.  I spent 4 days in the badlands of South Dakota, two of which were essentially focused on cleaning, laundry, cooking, bills, that sort of thing.  It was nice to take some real down time from travel and to get these chores done without feeling hurried.  There’s a campground in Wall, SD, right off Rt 90 and not far from the east end of the park.  The east end is where most of the touristy stuff is.  It has all of the hiking trails and the main scenic drive.  There are several vistas with gorgeous views.  Its incredible.  Some of the vistas have short walks.

 

The first day in the area, I did visit Wall Drug since it was walking distance to the campground.  It is an experience.  I’ve wanted to go here for decades, although I had a pretty different impression of it.  It was described to me as essentially a lone small wooden drug store that for some reason exists something like 400 miles down a dirt road.  What does that say about me that I’d be up for that?  It’s true that it’s in a small town, and that it takes up a reasonably large portion of the few main streets, but it’s right off a major interstate.  I guess western South Dakota is not a booming metropolitan area, but I’d hardly call this out of the way.  It has many crafts for sale in its many shops, and yes, there is actually a drugstore inside.  It’s more like a campy pioneer indoor mall than anything.  There are lots of Native American and pioneer crafts.  I wondered if the Native American goods were authentic.  Much of it seemed more like cheap touristy crap to me, but I don’t really know.  I’m glad that I went, but these goods don’t speak to me and this time in history is very dark in my opinion.  What we did to the Native Americans is nothing short of genocide.  We have numerous war criminals in our history, prominent seemingly respectable figures.  Honestly, what I’ve learned about Andrew Jackson is appalling.  What an absolute monster.  He sought to conquer countries, take their land, and eradicate an entire race of people who he considered less than human.  Can you think of any other historical tyrants with such goals?  The only difference is that Jackson and his contemporaries were successful and history is typically told from his point of view.  It bears repeating.  Andrew Jackson was a war criminal and the worst kind of human being every to exist.  In addition to harkening back to a dark period in our history, Wall Drug glorifies hunting, guns, leather products, and ranching, none of which I am for.  Still, I accept that our society is where it is, and that these are still important parts of American life.  I just hope that changes in time.  It was good to go to see it even though it wasn’t what I expected.  The campiness was fun.  So many mannequins and strange figures!  It’s worth stopping in, no matter your personal beliefs.  No one says you have to buy anything.

 

On the last day there, I took the long hike.  It was a hot and clear day.  You can hike the trails from end to end and back for a round trip of about 12 miles.  There are others on the trails, but they are few and far between which was perfect.  It was among the happiest and best days of the trip so far, alone in such a strange and fascinating land for hours to just explore and take it all in.  The occasional passing hiker was a welcome break, and some even paused for a short talk.  One told me about a hike in the coming days at Crazy Horse Monument.  I went there earlier and covered it in my last blog post, but I never got close to the carving.  This was an opportunity to go hike it!  I couldn’t believe my good fortune that I happened to talk to these guys and they happen to mention it!  Do check out the pictures on Facebook.  They are breathtaking, and not because I’m some kind of amazing photographer.  It’s hard to take a bad picture there.  At the very eastern edge of the park, the scenic road has a group of vistas with 3 short hiking trails.  If you’re up for hiking, but not interested in 12 miles across an arid landscape, I strongly recommend these, the Door, Window, and Notch trails.  Door and Window allow you to hike in and among these crazy features, but Notch offers something more.  It’s longer and more strenuous, but still less than 2 miles round trip.  You hike into this ravine surrounded on all sides by tall features.  Then, steps of a sort bring you up to a ledge.  The steps are really just round wooden posts on their sides held in place by steel cable.  It moves as you walk on it and is a little treacherous.  Still, I saw a guy come up them in flip flops while wearing a child on his back in some sort of pack, and this was a large child, the kind that should have been expected to do it on their own.  They were conversing!  Well, he didn’t die so you probably won’t either.  The coolest thing about the Notch trail is its end.  It terminates at a notch in the tall features where you get a unique view into the valley floor below, out over the diminishing erosion features that characterize this landscape.  It’s a gorgeous view, truly.  It’s very worth it.  Don’t pass it up.  Oh, and a final thought on this park.  This is one of the places that make the pass worth it.  I mentioned all the fees to see things like this in my last post along with the fact that the pass doesn’t cover a lot of it.  Well, it was $15 a day to enter the Badlands and I came in 2 days, so that’s $30 right there towards the $80 I paid for the pass.  As I write this, I’ve recouped $58 of my $80 so I guess it really will be worthwhile afterall.

 

Devils Tower

 

Coming up from Nebraska the way I did landed me right in the center of things I wanted to see.  As a result, I found myself headed east from the Wind Cave in the Black Hills area to get to the Badlands, and now I was driving right back through the Black Hills to get to Devils Tower in Wyoming.  This, of course, after learning about the Crazy Horse hike that would take me right back into the Black Hills before finally leaving the area.  I guess some research might have lessened the driving, but I really don’t mind.  I like driving and I get to see different parts of the region without feeling stuck in one place for too long.

 

Devils Tower is super cool.  If you don’t know, it’s the vertical rock structure featured in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  It’s a small park but worth stopping at.  You can do all of the hiking trails in a day.  What I love about this part of the country is that there is a common theme to all of the geology, and yet it all looks so different.  It was the bottom of a shallow sea.  Then it was lifted up as the Rockies formed.  It dried and became a forest followed by a African Savanna like plains. This all took millions of years, and only recently, in the last half million years or so did erosion set in and create all of this wonder.  The formations and colors differ appreciably throughout and its wondrous.  Devils Tower is a great feature on its own, but if you do some of the longer hikes, you pass by interesting red rock formations which are entirely different than the yellow rock formations, which is entirely different from the plains and woodlands you pass through, all for just a 3 mile hike.  Then there’s the paved 1.5 mile trail around the monument.  It’s sooooo cool.  They know it’s cooled magma, but not really how it formed.  It might be the bottom of an eroded volcano, or maybe magma that never reached the surface and perhaps had various forms before eroding.  The mostly symmetric hexagonal columns are due to cooling of the magma, contraction, and fracture at the equidistant stress points.  Cracks formed at these points and propagated towards each other forming the columns that you see from the outside of the monument.  You can climb it, but they prefer you not in June since it’s sacred to so many tribes, particularly so in June.  That’s fine.  I’m not that good a climber.  There’s a difficulty rating system in climbing.  Climbing once a week, I can build up to a 5-11, but when not, only a 5-8.  I have not been practicing.  There is a 5-8 route, but its 500 feet high.  I’ve never done more than 100 feet at a time.  I’d need specific lead climbing skills I don’t have to do it.  It is encouraging, though, that the remaining skills I have yet to acquire to climb this could be attained with a reasonable amount of practice.

 

I stayed for just one night and made my way back to Crazy Horse for the hike on Saturday, June 4.  One small disappointment was that a Native American group was coming to put on an authentic dance for the park, but they didn’t show up.  A kind park ranger put on a presentation about the park which was still nice.

 

Crazy Horse (again) & Jewel Cave

 

I really don’t like backtracking.  Once I leave an area, I have found I didn’t want to go back, at least for the most part.  Everywhere is great and there’s more to see there, but there’s too much ahead to look back.  Still, I just HAD to go hike this monument.  They allow it just twice a year, and I happen to be in the region at that time.  It was meant to be!

 

Well, the hike was a brief 6 miles.  It was packed and not your typical hike, often traveling along dirt service roads, but walking along what will become the arm, just below the carved face was magnificent.  I’m glad such a meaningful monument is being created to commemorate the heroes of the cultures we slaughtered.  It was impactful to stand beneath his gaze.

 

Here again there were plenty of people to talk to.  I spent much of the time with a family from Columbus who now lives in eastern South Dakota.  I believe it was their fifth time.  Its been days now, but I believe their names were Chris and Sarah with a son and daughter along with Chris’ friend Edwin, a serviceman from the guard.  Every time they do this hike, they meet people and enjoy the day with them.

 

That night, I planned to drive up to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, but it was still early in the day.  We were done hiking by a little after 10 AM.  It’s a fast hike.  Since it was so early, I decided to make my way over to Jewel Cave National Monument.  This was suggested to me as an option when I was in the area the first time, but I just didn’t get to it.  The worst thing is I drove by it from Devils Tower to Crazy Horse, but I accepted the extra zig zagging as I needed to ensure I could park my big rig at Crazy Horse.  That’s why I got there so early.  So I back tracked to Jewel Cave and bought a ticket to the 2 PM tour.  That gave me enough time to hike the grounds above the cave which proved interesting.

 

The trail itself goes through Hells Canyon.  There’s a lot of demonic names in the area come to think of it.  There was a fire in Hells Canyon and you can see several burned and toppled trees all over.  The bottom of the canyon is flat.  It would be easy to imagine a gentle river flowing through here, but apparently that was never the case.  The most interesting part, though, is that the trail takes you by the natural entrance to the cave.  It’s gated, but you can see far enough in to tell that it’s an active tour starting point when it’s open.  It was very tempting to crawl through a small but passible size hole up the wall a little.  Concerns of both trespassing and getting stuck in a generally abandoned area got the better of me and I moved on.  I encountered a couple of other holes into the cave that I passed up until I found one that I just couldn’t.  It was too perfect.  I crawled in a little on my belly using my cell phone light.  Just inside the hole was an area where you could stand up.  Up and to the left was an area you could climb up, but the area was littered with large fallen rocks.  Ahead just a few feet was a black hole of unknown depth.  I’ve got reasonable rock climbing skills, and while that does give me confidence, it also has taught me to respect the danger.  Who knows if this area is stable or safe or if it even connects to the main cave?  I enjoyed my moment of solitary spelunking and then exited.  Rangers later described that area.  It has a name which I forget.  That hole is 15 to 20 feet deep and unsafe without ropes, and it doesn’t go much farther.  It doesn’t connect with the main cave.  In fact, it takes hours of belly crawling through a maze of dangerous cave to get from the natural entrance to the current tour entrance.  Proper spelunking requires teams of 3 and I was in no position to give it a shot.  I’m glad I didn’t.  Besides, it was beginning to get towards time for my tour.

 

The tour itself was cool.  This cave is distinct, which by now is not a surprise.  They’re all so unique.  This one has large caverns with interesting large and small features.  The lighting in it was great as well.  It’s worth checking out.  It filled with water and drained twice in history which has lent it it’s unique character.  In one place, thick crystalline mineral deposits grew on the wall during the first flooding, and then were left essentially free floating when a second flood dissolved the limestone on which it rested.  I guess the floods came from surface changes over time in which natural reservoirs were created and then drained into the cave.

 

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

 

The Jewel Cave tour ended close to 4, so it was dark by the time I got to Teddy Roosevelt Park.  Rest stops are a great place to spend the night in such instances as a way to save money.  It’s often against the rules to set up late anyway, and why pay for a night when most places will let you come in early if spots are open.  Having no idea where I was going to stay or if places even had availability, I started calling.  My first choice campground right near the park entrance had a spot so I nabbed it.  Before leaving the rest stop, I took Peggy for a walk and was shocked by what I saw in the daylight.  The rest stop is on the eastern edge of the park, and the view stopped me in my tracks.  There were also buffalo grazing in the grass of the parking lot divider.  No wonder Peggy was going so nuts!  We couldn’t see them at first since they were behind other trucks.  What a great way to start off the day!

 

I set up quickly and took the scenic drive through the park.  It takes at least 90 minutes, but longer if you do some of the short hikes and stop at vistas.  Just like caves, each section of this region has its own character, and it’s so interesting to be able to see them all back to back.  It was also a good way to spend a restful and still active day.  I had done much hiking in the preceding days and the rest was nice.

 

STOP READING HERE MOM

 

I got some great recommendations from the visitor center on hikes and mountain bike rides.  It was high time I put that new bike to good use!  There were more chores to do, so I figured I’d spend the following morning doing that and then go for a short mountain bike ride in the midafternoon, maybe 2 hours tops.  Well, that’s not how it worked out.  First, I tried to find the Maah Daah Hey Trail.  It’s very long.  The ranger wasn’t sure, but he did say that the part he knows is 70 miles long with other trails shooting off of it.  He gave me a pretty good map, or so I thought, and some vague description of how to find the trail.  In his defense, its outside the park and not something he can reasonably be expected to know.  There were multiple options of where to find the trail.  My first attempt found a section that disappeared into thick grass after a very short distance.  My second attempt found a section that required fording a wide shallow river, about 2 feet deep, and lengthy rides through deep sand.

 

Finally, I found a section that was to my liking.  This section was within my skill set, but was definitely a reach and took me out of my comfort zone.  It climbed and descended steeply up and down numerous bluffs along narrow trails with sudden sharp switch backs, typically with a cliff on one or both sides.  It took a lot of focus to stay centered on the trail which was at times perhaps 4 inches wide.  As with skiing, horseback riding, or even driving, you go where your eyes go.  The only safe way to enjoy the scenery was to stop.  I posted some pictures, but the most beautiful spots were the most dangerous spots, so I didn’t bother trying to take pictures there.  I was comfortable and building confidence as I went.  Anyone who does a lot of cardio will attest that when you first start a strenuous cardio exercise, its tough until you get past the anaerobic phase into aerobic.  That first bluff was so tough that I’m not ashamed to admit I almost turned back.  I didn’t think I had a second bluff in me.  Then I realized it was just that I was gasping for air and that my muscles felt fine.  I pushed through and found my stride.  It felt great and the views were incredible!  This would not have been possible on my red lead weight.  I owe this magnificent day to Fred from Door County Wisconsin and his generous gift of this bike.

 

The trail is clearly marked and easy to follow.  The map shows it running parallel to a road with several other vague rancher roads crossing it.  Each of these represents a bail out point.  My plan was to ride for a couple of hours and then take the main road back.  I had ridden for 2 hours and was beginning to consider turning around.  Bail out points were coming along often enough and the map showed several, so I figured I’d take one more small section and then head back.  The problem was that it wasn’t entirely clear which bail out I was at.  While the trail is well marked, the markings do not include mileage or location.  The roads do not have signs.  They all look like dirt rancher roads.  I don’t know if I road far enough to end up off the map I was given or what.  I have no idea how far that trail goes headed south of the park.  However, the next bail out point didn’t come along as quickly as the previous many.  In fact, it was so long that I began to consider turning around.  It was getting towards 6 PM.  It’s light out here until 9 now, but shadows can make riding challenging and it gets very cold at night.  I didn’t want to be riding at dusk or hiking the bike back an unknown distance through the cold night along cliffs.  I was still calm and enjoying myself, but beginning to feel increasingly tired and worried.

 

Finally, I came along a road, if you want to call it that.  All of the previous roads were dirt, but they were wide well-groomed things which appeared to see reasonably frequent traffic.  This was two wavy parallel ruts in the grass.  I was skeptical that this was on the map, and I suspected that I hadn’t ridden off the edge of the map yet.  There was a chance that the next bail out was right around the corner.  I kept riding for another 30 minutes.  By now my legs were getting near shot.  Thankfully I had a cliff bar with me.  That lifted my strength and spirits.  During that last leg, I did see a road in the distance, but there was no way to get to it and I’m not going cross country in snakeville.  I’ll take the cold hike thank you very much.  Well, I finally gave up.  The gps on my phone was working, but poorly.  It kept showing me in different areas, but always far from roads.  I decided that I was too tired to keep riding bluffs for much longer, so I returned to the ruts which thankfully was mostly down hill.  I tried the GPS again and this time it placed me on a road.  It seemed like it might even have me depicted on the correct road!  I began riding towards the main bail out road that I always intended.  It was hard to tell, but it appeared to be a 7 or 8 mile ride along these roads back to the truck.  This means that I had probably biked much longer over the bluffs given all of the turns, I’d say at least double but maybe more.

 

It was now nearly 7 PM and I had been on the bike since just after 3.  So much for a 2 hour ride.  My legs were tired and cramping a little, but I was in good shape and spirits.  I knew now that I’d be home well before sunset.  There would be no knocking on a random farmer’s door, sleeping in an unattended vehicle, tromping cross country, all of which had occurred to me as options at one time or another.  Honestly, I was never overly worried.  I was happily enjoying nature the entire time.  I reluctantly admit that I did ask the higher power for a little guidance and to get me home before dark with a minimum of pain and cold.  Be careful what you wish for.  That’s exactly what happened.  I hadn’t yet encountered the most dangerous part yet.  I finally build up a good head of steam on rut road.  I’m feeling home free.  The sun is shining directly in my eyes making it very hard to see, but I figure anything dangerous enough to hurt me will still be visible.  I even consider taking off my helmet to put on my baseball had to help block the sun, but I decide against it.  Thank god!  Moments later I come upon a barrier that remained invisible, drowned in the bright eye level sunshine until the last second.  Rapidly approaching was a fence across the road, but this was no normal fence.  It wasn’t made of wood or any substantial material.  There was no sign or warning.  The fence was constructed of a small number of barbed wires strung horizontally from ankle level to neck level and I was closing fast upon it.

 

I slammed on the breaks and flipped over the handle bars, my upside down backwards body slamming into the barbed wire.  It was the strangest sensation.  It all happened in slow motion.  The wires gave way and caught me far more gently than expected.  They seemed to have been there for some time, tied to a rotting fence post which broke, at least in part.  This dissipated my forward momentum in an acceptable way.  It also caught me in such a way as to dissipate my newly acquired vertical momentum, and it did so in the most peculiar way.  First, one of the horizontal wires impaled itself on my back pack.  One on my shorts, and one across the top of my helmet.  I still struck the ground with enough force to hurt, but I was essentially unharmed!  The helmet had a deep linear gash across the top. Some barbs must have made contact with my scalp, enough to draw a little blood, but not enough to matter.  The top of my forehead struck the bare ground as my helmet was pulled backward slightly, but only enough to cause light abrasions.  My arm was skinned, but not enough to bleed.  A hole was torn in my shorts and boxers, and a 4 inch scrape was cut across my butt, but it had no depth!  It bled, but really was fine.  The most significant injuries had nothing to do with barbed wire contact.  I banged my knee and right hand, both of which swelled up painfully, but all things considered, I was stunned to be standing in one piece.  Had I not seen that wire even at the last second, it could easily have slit my throat.  Had I removed the helmet or not been wearing a back pack, the injuries would certainly have been more severe and possibly life threatening, especially considering that there wasn’t a soul for miles.

 

I stood calmly for a moment.  I didn’t even feel symptoms of shock!  I climbed over the fence and continued on!  Oddly, the one sign of civilization here are small pumping stations.  They look like oil pumps like you see on TV or in movies, but they’re all alone randomly placed at great distances to each other throughout the bluffs.  There are small holding tanks and other pumping components.  It’s a shame to see these in such beautiful places, but I guess that’s life.  I finally made it back to the truck by well before 8.  While a little shaken, I felt lucky to have had such an astonishing day.

 

The next day, my last at this park, I planned to take a 10 mile hike through the petrified forest and possibly a 5 mile hike through the painted canyon.  Instead, I walked just 2 miles to sample the petrified forest and didn’t bother with the painted canyon.  I had seen it from the rest stop already and hiked sufficiently similar stuff already.  I needed the rest.  I came back, napped, and wrote this.  I guess my hand is feeling better!

 

What’s next

 

Tomorrow I drive to Yellowstone!  The main event for this trip!  I’ve got a spot at the west entrance in Montana for a week.  I’ll check out the park as well as nearby Montana and Idaho from there.  That will leave me with just 4 states to visit to complete all 50 in my lifetime which feels pretty cool.  After that comes my Boston break and then I resume with nearby Grand Teton National Park.  I hate to get overly planny, but as we get towards the 4th of July, it seems parks are in increasingly high demand.  I’m tempted to book Glacier now, but I just can’t bring myself to look that far into the future.

Western Nebraska & South Dakota

This past week has been all about National Parks and Monuments.  I’ve visited Scottsbluff National Monument, Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, Toadstool Geologic Park, Wind Cave National Park, Mount Rushmore National Monument, Crazy Horse, Custer State Park / Black Hills National Forest, and have moved on to Wall, South Dakota.  Who needs drugs when nature gives you such a high?  Every one of these places inspires books, music, and art.  They inspire the soul.  For starters, I once again recommend checking out my pictures on Facebook.  Sure, I put a couple on Instagram sometimes, but that hardly does these places justice.  Rather than focus this blog entry on descriptions of the national beauty, I’ll be sharing more stories of the wonderful people that I’ve met and still more incremental progress in what I’m coming to see as my awakening process.

Scottsbluff

I arrived in Scottsbluff, NE too late to see the monument, so I parked in a Walmart parking lot for the night.  A wind storm popped up just as I was arriving.  It was so fierce that I began to worry about the trailer tipping over.  Peggy was not happy.  I was considering parking the wrong way in the lot in order to turn my trailer into the wind, but it passed and the remainder of the night was peaceful.  Scottsbluff Monument is small.  You can take a shuttle to the top or you can hike, although right now the midspan of the hiking trail is closed due to a rockslide.  You can hike most of the trail if you’re willing to come at it from both above and below.  The trail is paved, making it easier to spot snakes.  This became a much bigger concern while I was there.  After eating lunch in my trailer, I stepped out and nearly landed on what I thought was a rattle snake.  It turned out to be a non-venomous bull snake who lazily slunk away, but I am not ashamed to admit that it scared the crap out of me.  I wouldn’t let Peggy walk in the grass at all.  The original Oregon Trail goes through the site and you can hike along that for a bit as well.  A couple I was walking near also spotted a snake slithering into the grass.  I guess the rangers are aware of the snakes in the area but never really have a problem since they are all shy and docile.  I really didn’t have anything to worry about.  At the top of the monument I met a large group of family and friends.  The only name I got was Rhonda, so I’ll refer to them as Rhonda and Friends.  They were great.  Up from Texas on a road trip, we talked for a while and then headed down as another wind storm started to come through.  It was such a pleasure meeting them.

The ranger at Scottsbluff recommended I buy the national park admissions pass, but he did caution me.  They find ways around it and will charge you for all sorts of things like parking and tours that the pass does not cover.  It’s an $80 pass, and he was confident that I’d still make my money back.  He even recommended that I flash the pass even when I know it won’t be accepted because some people will just give you a discount.  This seemed to work when I went up to wind cave.  I camped for half price and everyone seemed fine with it.  At this point, I’ve already made back $35 on the pass.  The ranger had other helpful suggestions, too.  I had considered going to see Carhenge.  It’s junk cars stacked up like Stonehenge about an hour from Scottsbluff.  I didn’t know it was there and drove right through the town where it is without stopping.  I could proceed on to it, but he and others recommended against it.  They described it as lame touristy trash that had started as a joke and then caught on.  I don’t mind seeing such things, but followed their advice to go a different way, passing by Agate Fossil Bed Nationjal Monument.

Agate

While I think I would have Carhenge, heading to Agate was definitely the right call for me.  That was a busy day for me.  I saw Scottsbluff, made a quick stop at a Plains History Museum, and saw Agate all on the same day.  It wasn’t that much of a stretch.  The museum was largely closed due to remodeling and expansion.  I’d love to go back at some point.  They let me in for free so I could watch their 10 minute video.  They also echoed the recommendation to go to Agate.  I made it their just in time to see the visitor center before it closed at 5 PM, but the park and trails were open until sunset, more than 3 hours later.  I followed a 2 mile paved path (yay snakes!) through gorgeous rolling plains up to two hills, and yes, there were snakes.  Well, I really only saw one little baby snake on the path, but I was worried that it’s momma was around.  This one looked even more like a rattler than the first bull snake which was much larger.  It didn’t move as Peggy and I ran / jumped past it.  We were very brave.  I actually like snakes, but I know so little about them that I don’t know how to be safe in their environment.  The little guy didn’t even move so I wondered if he had died there, but he was gone when we got back so I guess not.  The hills are naturally exposed and then excavated fossil beds that were once at the bottom of watering holes.  Both the visitor center and hillside exhibits were very fascninating to me, although Peggy was much more interested in the rabbits.  She damn near tore my arm off!  I guess that’s what the snakes are eating, the rabbits?  I don’t know.  Peggy did manage to grab a hold of some little mouse like rodent, but she dropped it when I yelled at her.

Harris

Two rangers at Agate, Al and William, recommended that I stop for the night about an hour north in a small town called Harris.  The town is a grid of about 5 streets by 5 streets with a single bar owned by a woman named Becky.  The town has a couple of free RV spots with electrical hookups.  I found the town and the spots easily enough.  I was even excited to see the bar.  It’s been a goal of mine to go to a bar in the middle of nowhere and sit with real local locals, and this town was the most middle of nowhere I had been so far on the entire trip.  It’s hours of driving to the nearest interstate.  I walked in to fine Becky’s son, Justin?  Jason?, behind the bar with absolutely no customers.  He was happy to talk and we shared stories for a while.  He’s from Oklahoma and moved up several years ago.  He had worked as a hunting guide and had some interesting stories.  We got to talking about how to deal with grizzlies when hiking.  He recommended against bear spray (supped up pepper spray) since he knew a guy who was attacked and badly hurt after using it.  The bear had attacked two hikers, one with a gun and one with spray.  The bear went for the guy with the gun before he got a shot off.  Spray guy used the spray.  Instead of running away, the bear charged spray guy and attacked him.  Gun guy got up and shot the bear a bunch and it finally left.  Both men survived although badly injured.  A ranger I encountered later still says that, statistically speaking, bear spray reduces attack frequency and severity more times than not.  It is the recommended method.  He cautioned against bells since bears are inquisitive and that can actually attract them.  Shooting a bear only works if you have a big gun and are a good enough shot to accurately hit their few and well shielded soft spots.

Anyway, the conversation was going well and soon others started to slowly filter in.  The first couple was straight out of a western.  I loved it.  They had clearly been working with cattle all day, and the woman’s spurs clinked as she walked.  They seemed friendly enough with the bar tender but not totally open to a stranger jumping in on their conversation after a long day so I left them alone at first.  Then, more people came, 2 locals and another employee.  The conversation opened up and I was able to chime in a little here and there organically.  I didn’t get a negative vibe, but still didn’t feel entirely welcome in the discussion until 3 more locals came in.  These folks sat right next to me and were down right friendly.  Lastly, 2 traveling petitioners came in to get signatures from their captive local audience.  They had been hired to travel the state seeking signatures on a petition to allow casinos.  They were not from the area at all.  James was from Connecticut originally but most recently lived out in California.  He had a very California vibe about him.  With these later additions, the room really livened up.  It started to feel like hanging out with friends.  We were all very interested in each other’s stories.  However, it was noticeable that some of the original patrons who came in earlier remained quieter and less involved.  I wonder if they were annoyed to have outsiders in their quiet little town.  That night, someone banged on the back of my trailer pretty hard.  It was just a quick three bangs all at once.  I was still up and some  lights were on, but I was watching TV in bed.  Peggy barked, but then there was silence.  The door was locked and I was relatively safe, but it was still a little unnerving.  This was the first real hostility of any kind I’ve encountered anywhere, but I think I got the message.  You’re not welcome here.  To be fair, I don’t think that was the sentiment of most of the people I met.  Most people were quite friendly.  I think it was likely one of the two guys who came in after the first couple, and likely the one that looked like he gets in fights more often.

Toadstool Park

After the banging incident, I was tempted to pack up and leave the next morning, but one of the locals strongly recommended seeing the local Nebraska Badlands before leaving, and I wasn’t about to miss something cool because some bully chased me out of town.  I looked up the options and found Toadstool Geologic Park.  This place is amazing, perhaps the coolest place I’ve been so far in terms of strange and interesting natural beauty.  There are large rocks perched on narrow pedestals, rolling green hills, start stone vistas and coves, river beds, cliff walls.  Its otherworldly.  I’ve never seen such a place and I was in love with it.  If I lived nearby, I’d go their often.  What a great place to meditate!  I wish I hadn’t spent the morning cooking and doing chores.  I read that it was small and took only about an hour to see.  This is true and not true.  If you’re up for it, there are longer trails that actually leave the park but the gorgeous scenery continues on for miles to another visitor center.  This felt like the most remote place I’ve ever been.  After following state and local roads, you get on a 15 mile dirt road to get there, but its totally worth it.  The resulting second night in Harris was totally uneventful.  I kept a lower profile mostly just because I was tired and had already done the small town bar thing, but I’m sure that also helped.

Wind Cave

From there, I made my way north to South Dakota.  I originally planned on hitting Badlands National Park first and heading west from there, but my route had landed me in the middle of destinations I planned to visit with things 2 hours east, 2 hours west, and 5 hours north.  Oh well, I’ve done a lot of zig zagging already.  What’s a little more?  I headed to Wind Cave National Park.  It’s a small park, but still cool.  The first thing I did was take a tour of the cave.  The weather was not great so it was a good cave day anyway.  Like Mammoth Cave, this cave is large and interesting, but is not filled with stalactites and stalagmites as you might expect.  It has different formations called boxwork, and is one of the few places in the world where it exists.  Mineral water seeped into cracks in the limestone.  The minerals turned into a rough grid of harder stone.  Then water eroded the limestone leaving behind the grid.  Its mesmerizing.  Honestly, it felt like I was in an art gallery.  I’d have been happy to sit in front of any one of these formations and just stare at the complexity and beauty for hours.

Hot Springs

Wind Cave is a central place from which to check out a few interesting spots, so I decided to spend a couple of days here.  I travelled a short distance south to check out the town of Hot Springs. It was cute little shops and a small river with a stunning waterfall running along the main street.  The river is warm, coming from the hot springs.  At 86 degrees, the water is not overly warm.  You wouldn’t go swimming on a cold day in it.  It’s just not as cold as a regular stream.  They dug out a space for a pool and constructed a building around it.  It looks like a regular pool, but the water filters through the pool every 5 minutes.  I checked it out but didn’t go in or stay.  It just felt like going to the local pool and it was filled with kids.  The town was filled with friendly locals, perhaps the friendliest of these at the local organic boutique grocery store.  I spent a while in there talking with the owners and a couple of their friends.  They recommended that I join the town in the “Wine Walk” that was going on from 5 to 8 PM that night.  A handful of establishments along the two main streets were participating.  Some had beer, some wine, and some had miniature golf for some reason.  Little of the beer and wine was local for some reason.  One place was just tasting Mike’s Hard Lemonade!  It was still cool.  I met many locals, connecting with most for just brief but fun conversations.

The guy at the visitor center was particularly enthusiastic, seemingly well placed in his occupation.  He gave me great travel advice.  Wildlife Loop Road and Needles Highway in Custer State Park are some of the most beautiful drives in the country and are a decent way to get from Wind Cave to Mount Rushmore.  Harney Peak, also in the area, is the highest peak between the Rockies and the Alps, and it includes a number of unique geological features and amazing hikes for all levels.  You can even ride an 1880s vintage train for about 45 minutes in the area.  Even in Hot Springs, there’s a Mammoth Site.  I followed most of his advice and saw everything he mentioned but the train.  I’ll get to those in a moment, but first, the rest of the wine walk.

Political Understanding

Amy, Andy, and their kids were enjoying the wine walk with their friends, Stacey and Jeff.  They were later joined by Alexis and her mother who’s name I forget.  They were an extremely friendly bunch.  We hit it off and they suggested that I join them for the rest of the walk.  Later, they invited me to join them for dinner and then to head back to their place where the group would enjoy a back yard fire under the stars.  We spent many hours together and discussed several topics.  Naturally, veganism came up over dinner and it was a short step from there to politics.  The group is strongly red, and I’m pretty blue, but I found that they were well informed and able to have a calm discussion on the topics.  Early blog entries describe how I’m interested in learning more about how good and well meaning people come to different conclusions than I have.  Clearly the group was not monolithic in their opinions, but I found that we had a lot in common.  Amy had been vegetarian and even now eats little meat.  Alexis, on the other hand, has had bad experiences with judgmental militant vegans and was, at least initially, a little hostile.  Once she realized I wasn’t harassing her she became more friendly.  I don’t blame her.  Aggression is seldom an effective tool in winning hearts and minds.  It’s no wonder she was defensive.  The group appeared to be entirely socially liberal and fiscally conservative.  They backed up their opinions with facts which led to an interesting and stimulating discussion.  I learned that we have a lot in common, but we’re motivated by different priorities and assumptions.  This is what I find most interesting.  I’m not going to get into specific controversial topics like abortion here.  Rather, what I’m really interested in is what makes these people tick.  The lessons for me were that they don’t want to end all social programs.  They just can’t stand people taking advantage of them.  That’s both similarity and difference number one.  I hate it too, but I’m willing to accept it as collateral damage in order to maximize the number helped.  They genuinely want to help those in need, but are so bothered by people milking the system that they’re willing to live with less government aid to the needy.  They would have the rest made up for by charities.  That’s a second disconnect.  They think charities do enough and I don’t.  I think charities existed before government programs, and government programs were started specifically because charities were not enough.  Also, if we collectively agree that there is a legitimate need, is it fair to let generous people satisfy the need with donations while greedy people horde their money and don’t donate?  Government programs seek to prevent that from happening.  Despite my opinions, was able to discuss and understand their views in a relatively open conversation.  I loved it.  A few other interesting disconnects are that they think our military is weaker than I do, that the militaries of other nations are stronger than I do, that diplomacy is less effective than I do, and that military action is more effective than I do.  It’s no wonder why these differences in baseline assumptions lead to dramatically different political viewpoints.  Still other disconnects became apparent, but it’s not necessary to unpack them all here.  The point is that this was my first encounter with reds that didn’t reduce to “because I said so”.  I think the root cause for differences in assumptions has a lot to do with the media.  Who do you trust?  What studies?  What media outlets?  Once the seed of an idea is planted, it’s easy for it to grow and thrive under the natural selection bias in our information intake.  What a stimulating evening.  It ended well and on a friendly note, although I did get the impression that one or two of the group were upset with me for espousing views that they consider to be crazy.  Still, I think everyone enjoyed the night.

Small Town Mindset

One of the other topics we discussed was life in small towns.  Amy and Andy have lived in other parts of the country and traveled extensively.  It’s not surprising that they’ve ended up where they have in terms of beliefs.  Now they live in a small town and are loving life.  Still, they have new challenges that became apparent as we spent time together.  For instance, during the wine walk, one vendor was offering food samples on the sidewalk.  It was pretty obvious, even to me as an outsider, that this vendor snubbed the group as they passed.  It was explained to me that this was an incidence of a local being rude to another local for not being local enough.  These were transplants, outsiders, and they didn’t even live in the town.  They lived in the county.  That’s a foreign concept to me.  Massachusetts has counties, but they’re largely useless designations.  They have little influence over citizens’ day to day lives.  Every square inch of Massachusetts is a town and the local residents identify with the town they live in, not the county.  I understood this wasn’t true in rural America, but I didn’t realize the practical implications.  At dinner, I found myself sitting next to the mayor of Hot Springs, a super nice lady.  I learned that you can’t run for mayor if you live out in the county and not within the town limits.  The people in my group live in the county, and that’s another reason they were snubbed.  Combined with the banging experience in Harris, I’m starting to get a sense of small town life in rural America.  It’s wonderful in so many ways, but it’s got its dark side for sure.

This mindset came up at Wind Cave Campground.  Everyone is in everyone else’s business.  I see life as one big gray area.  Everything is negotiable.  Nothing is black and white.  Here, there’s right and wrong and that’s it.  You’re a Trump supporter or your mistaken.  You’re a local or you’re an outsider.  Everyone knows everyone else’s business and busy bodies let nothing slide.  This is the first place I’ve ever been where someone cared that Hank was walking around outside unattended.  Sure, it’s against the rules, but what’s the big deal?  He’s a cat.  He’s quiet and mostly sleeps under the trailer.  I’ve seen him catch a critter once and let it go.  At most, he’s going to kill a rodent, and even that’s unlikely.  There are signs up about mountain lions.  Clearly this is the land of predatory cats.  What’s the big deal if Hank wanders around the campsite?  He never goes far.  Now, I realize that rangers and campground hosts have to adhere to regulations.  They can’t make exceptions for pets because some dogs and cats can be a real nuisance.  However, so far I’ve been to places where good common sense has prevailed, where people realize there are bigger fish to fry.  In small town ville, they fry all the fish.  By the time I got back from the campfire, the campground host had snagged Hank and kept him in the trailer for hours.  Then they called the rangers who immediately took him to the local shelter.  Next they duct taped a note to my trailer which I didn’t notice until the next morning.  The ranger was very friendly, but gave me a $75 leash law citation.  It was fine.  I get it.  It just struck me as making a big deal out of nothing, the sort of thing you find in many small towns across America, not just here.  There were a handful of other vaguely unpleasant experiences where people were friendly, but not terribly so.  The parking attendant at Crazy Horse or the guy behind the information desk there.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love it here, a lot.  It’s beautiful with many excellent and friendly people.  There’s just also this ugly side that takes the shine off it.  Cities have their problems, but country folk are kidding themselves if they think they’ve got a monopoly on kindness and compassionate living.

The Wind Cave people weren’t even done harassing me after the Hank situation.  I decided to stay an extra day and called the park to be sure it was ok.  I had left the park that morning and decided while I was out that I was going to make a longer day of it.  My trailer was there after the official check out time and they duct taped another door to my trailer, this time over the handle so I couldn’t enter without seeing it.  They hadn’t gotten the word from park headquarters that I had called.  Once again, I get it, but it struck me as passive aggressive and mild but unpleasant harassment, the work of small minded and inflexible people.  This is a great example of me struggling with non-judgment.  I see people acting in a way I disapprove of, but I don’t truly know their story.  Perhaps they’re sick of people breaking the rules and getting away with it.  People with unruly animals running free or overstaying without paying.  That sort of thing.  It’s good to be challenged in these ways.  The lesson here seems to be that it’s ok to disapprove of someone’s behavior, but it’s important to leave room for understanding that they’re probably just doing the best they can given their own life experience.  Almost as a parting gift, they also decided to pester me about being sure to clean up after Peggy, which I was doing correctly already.  So much nagging.

Rushmore, Crazy Horse, & Custer Park

Well, I don’t want to focus too much on the negative.  This is a great area full of fantastic people and wondrous beauty.  From Wind Cave, I visited Mt. Rushmore via the scenic roads of Custer State Park.  The roads really are beautiful, but I would say that there are other beautiful roads in the country, and I’d hate to oversell it.  The Kancamagus Hwy in New Hampshire and the Pacific Coast Highway in California are each equally beautiful, just in different ways.  In Custer, I was greeted by a heard of buffalo, adults and calves, meandering from a field into the road.  They were very close to the truck, and it was awesome.  Other cars stopped to enjoy the view as well, and fortunately everyone was smart enough to remain in their vehicles.  I also saw some kind of deer from the road, so sweet.  Mount Rushmore is cool, but it doesn’t take long to see.  There’s a half mile paved trail that brings you from the visitor center closer to the monument.  Signs and a small museum provide additional information.  I swung by on two different days since the first day was a bit raining.  Drizzle had fallen on the upward facing surfaces of the carvings leaving dry areas beneath.  This gave the appearance that the presidents were crying and had runny noses.  I returned the next day to get some better pictures under a bright blue sky.  It’s easy to pop in and quickly move right on to the Crazy Horse monument.

Crazy horse is much larger than Mt Rushmore.  All 4 Rushmore heads fit in Crazy Horse’s head, and that monument will depict him riding a horse when it is done decades from now.  It will be colossal.  The Crazy Horse site also has a more extensive museum, although it is largely devoted to the creation of the monument and to exhibiting artifacts rather than to sharing the story of Crazy Horse.  A bus takes you to closer to the construction zone on the weekends, provided there is no lightning anywhere within 30 miles.  This means that very often, you can’t get close, but it’s totally fine.  It’s easy to see from a distance, and still quite impressive.  Additionally, the statues in the museum clearly depict what it will look like when it’s done.  Native Americans are on site selling crafts.  I spoke to one for a bit to learn more.  It turns out that Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota were different tribes in the area.  We talked about the preservation of Native American culture and how much has been lost forever.  According to this woman, only 2 tribes in the entire country have managed nearly complete cultural preservation, the Lakota and the Hope.  Even within those tribes, there is a very small minority who speak the language and understand all of the practices enough to the point where they might be able to blend if they were able to travel back in time to the peak of those civilizations.  At least within these tribes, there is hope that the entirety of the culture that is left can be preserved indefinitely.  Even though only a small number of practitioners are experienced in all arts, there is a greater number who are experienced in at least some (e.g. dances).  It’s sad that so much has been lost, but I’m glad that a substantial amount has been preserved in at least some tribes.

Mammoth Site

Among Hot Springs’s attractions is an active archeological dig.  Similar to Agate, this was a watering hole where mostly mammoths fell in, got trapped, died, and were buried.  The bones are not petrified, but are still old enough to be considered fossils.  A guided tour is available which includes a movie, but I found it unnecessary.  They’ll give you a thin binder with all of the tour narration text.  I overheard the last tour of the day from across the room.  I had missed it, but still gotten there early enough to see the entire exhibit and read the binder in its entirety.  It’s really quite short.  A building was constructed to shelter the entire excavation site, and there’s a lot more digging to do.  They’ve gotten through about 65 feet in some places, but there may be as many as 90 feet to the bottom.  This seems a little unclear to me since the watering hole supposedly wasn’t 150 feet deep.  Hmmm … maybe you should take the tour.  Whatever.  I liked it.  You get to see these fossils up close and personal since many lie right where they were discovered, still half buried, just a couple of feet from the viewing walkway.

Harney Peak

The day trip I made from Wind Cave was to hike Harney Peak.  This is the highest peak between the Rockies and the Alps.  Mount Mitchel, the summit I climbed near Asheville, is the second highest.  Harney is an easier hike than Mitchel since it starts so much higher.  There’s only about a 1000 foot elevation gain vs a 3000 to 4000 foot elevation gain to Mitchel, a summit just 600 feet shorter or so.  All that being said, I still think the hiking in New England is more challenging than any of these, specifically Mt Washington and Katahdin.  All that being said, Harney is the most beautiful of these I’ve mentioned, at least in my opinion.  Sure, the other mountains have breathtaking vistas, but Harney has a huge variety of landscapes and views.  Some areas look like New England, with rocky mountain tops as far as the eye can see.  Other areas look like a strange version of the southwest with black stone spires reaching towards the sky.  There’s even a feature called Little Devils Tower you can climb to the top of.  Trails range all through this part of Custer State Park.  Oh, and don’t listen when they say dogs are not allowed.  No one else listened.  Peggy didn’t get to go on this hike, but I suppose it was nice to have a hike to myself.  Here again, I met a variety of interesting people like Quin and Regina, students from Iowa looking ahead to life’s next chapter (actuarial work and med school).  One person, Susan, stands apart from anyone I’ve met in a while.

Susan, nearly 60, is a transplant from northern Minnesota.  It was an accident that we even started talking as I moved to pass her on the trail about half way back down the mountain, but it couldn’t have been a better timed meeting.  She told me about her life journey and I her about mine.  There were parallels and she had many words of wisdom.  We walked the rest of the way down together and I felt enlightened by the time I reached the parking lot.  We have very similar backgrounds and philosophies, and while our life experiences are different, there is commonality.  She is catholic with a small c, she says.  She has come and gone from the religion.  At times it has suited her and at others it felt confining. We talked about many related topics; how to be empathetic, how to let things go, recognizing when someone else’s behavior is really about them and not you, not overthinking things, patience, how to be your best self, letting life / god / the universe guide you, etc.  Many of these concepts harken back to the concepts I explored in depth on my Costa Rica retreat.  She shared many thoughts, but a few things really resonated with me, things I already knew but needed reminding of.  After getting to know each other a bit, she asked some probing and challenging questions.  Am I thinking about life after this trip too much?  Am I getting too wrapped up in what career will look like?  Am I putting too much emphasis on career as a means to have a positive impact on the world?  Am I keeping myself so busy for a reason, perhaps to drown out the thoughts in my own mind and avoid something, anything, that I might not want to face?  I think the answer to all of those questions is yes.  She was very perceptive and it had a calming effect.  I can get very wrapped up in keeping my mind and body very busy.  When I focus on it, I can slow down.  Meditation helps, but I need to practice it much more consistently.  It was refreshing to be reminded that it’s ok to let a lot of what I carry around go, to calm my mind and body and just be more present.  That’s hard for me sometimes.  I was very lucky to meet Susan when did.  I feel like I was starting to wear myself out.

Relaxing

Along those lines, I’ve decided to give myself a few days off from the trip altogether.  First, I moved on to Wall, South Dakota and set up camp near Wall Drug, just outside of Badlands National Park.  I am writing this whole entry from the campground.  I haven’t gone out at all today except to the grocery store to get a few necessities.  I plan to do essentially nothing today, and probably tomorrow.  I’ll do mundane things like laundry and bills to get those out of the way, but even that will feel good.  Giving myself time to do chores at a relaxed pace instead of squeezing them in is nice.  I finished watching Game of Thrones and am now current.  In a couple of weeks, I’m going home to see friends and family.  I’ll hit a few fun things between then and now which is fine, but this feels like a good time for a break.

The Mid Midwest, Some Intensely Inspiring People

Fargo

Peggy and I did end up hanging out at Itaska State Park for a few more hours.  It was a beautiful day and we hiked along the lake while Hank napped in the trailer.  Then we hit the road.  The Midwest is becoming midwestier as I go.  The land gets flatter, the fields get larger, and the equipment driving down the road gets larger.  Clearly some of it is designed to shred my truck and trailer.  Other vehicles appear to be so large that I could drive under them like a bridge.  They’re about 100 feet wide with, generally speaking, 723 wheels each.  It’s all very Suesian.  You have to be careful driving down these long straight narrow roads.  They are breathtaking, but you can be following an 18 wheeler at 65, he’ll suddenly zip around one of these things, and you find yourself needing to immediately react to a slow moving brick wall right in your path.  Leave lots of space!  Thankfully the road is so straight and easy to drive.  My head was on a swivel.  I was awe struck by the sheer scale of it all.  These fields look to be miles across.  You might be able to walk all day and not reach the other side.

Fargo does not put its best foot forward as you enter on State Rt 10.  It’s industrial, sparse, low slung, like the least attractive parts of Boston but less cool.  However, that is not at all what I found when I began to explore.  It’s a little like New Jersey.  It’s so much more than the smelly ugly turnpike.  The first thing I did was find a rest stop for the night where I watched Fargo, the movie.  Whatever.  Don’t judge me.  I loved it!  The next day I went to the Fargo Moorhead Visitor Center to see the movie exhibits including the wood chipper.  It was very cool.  The folks there were very helpful in giving me suggestions on what to do see.  Bonanzaville was a must just because of its ridiculous name, and hell yeah I’ll go see a Viking ship!  Before I get to those, I’ll share that I found very cool people in Fargo.  There’s a trendy main drag / area with shops, bars, an excellent record store, and a top notch bike shop.  The first thing I saw inside the record shop was a poster for the new Murder By Death album, the band I saw in Cincinnati with Emily.  They had many cool albums prominently displayed there.  At the bike shop, I got new peddles for the bike I was given and found out where to go donate my old one.  Although, I never really found it.  I asked a guy for directions to it and he asked if he could have it.  He was very excited.  He’d just moved to town, was looking for a bike, and money was tight.  It really seemed to make his day so I felt pretty good about it.  I had dinner in a pub called HoDo, unrelated to but reminding me of Game of Thrones.  The waitresses Kate and Tessa had very interesting stories.  Both are single moms, have travelled extensively, and returned to the area.  I don’t think either is in love with Fargo, but it works for them.  Kate has great taste in music.  Tessa owns an amazing home for about ¼ what it would cost in Massachusetts and has a degree in art if I remember correctly.  They were both super cool.

Inspiring People

Shawna, from my last post, seems to have been the first in a string of people I’ve found truly inspiring for one reason or another.  In her case, she wanted to change her life dramatically and did it.  Traveling through North and South Dakota, I’ve come across 4 more compelling stories.

There is a full scale fully functional Viking ship and a Nordic Stave Church at the Hjemkost Center in Fargo.  These were built by different men at different times, and both are now exhibits.  The ship was built by a professor of Nordic descent in the 70s.  They show a heartwarming movie telling the story.  He intended to sail it to Norway, but died of leukemia too soon.  He did see it completed and did sail it in Lake Superior.  There’s a long story of the family completing substantial modifications, forming a crew, and facing challenging circumstances getting across the ocean, but they made it!  The vessel was shipped back home afterwards.  Decades later, a different man, also of Nordic descent, built a Nordic church on the museum site.  It is Catholic but not consecrated and generally only used for weddings.  What an elaborate creation!  Both stories are deeply inspiring.  In both cases, these men had a passion for something.  They had a vision.  Rather than just dream of it, they took many years, nearly a decade in both cases, to see their dream made reality.  It took hard work and dedication.  They were relentless with singular focus, and the product of their work was of the highest quality.  Both were perfectionists and refused opportunities to cut corners.  Incidentally, the Hjemkost (Home Coming) center is amazing.  You should definitely visit these exhibits if you’re ever in the area.

The first 2 inspiring stories deal with regular people accomplishing great things.  I find them compelling.  However, the next 2 are people who have made deliberate and calculated decisions to live a simpler life, the life they want to live.  These men did not accomplish great things in the traditional sense of the word, but they are living happy and full lives without a hint of regret.  I met Mark at Bonanzaville, which I’ll describe later in this post.  He’s a square dance caller amongst other things.  He was just cleaning up from having given a lesson to some school kids on a field trip.  Mark donates his time in the entire month of May for this purpose.  He’s a Vietnam war hero who never earned much money.  He owns his small home outright and feels that Fargo is getting too big.  I ended up talking to him for quite some time covering a wide range of topics including politics, religion, tolerance, etc.  I have to admit I was a bit surprised.  I had a preconceived notion of people in rural communities living intentionally simple lives.  I figured they were probably not well informed on broad world issues.  Mark proved me dead wrong.  What a pleasure talking to him!  Mark is very happy in his life.  He is very active in the square dancing community and with his veterans groups.  He has other hobbies and interests as well and just seems like a really nice guy.

Dale, by contrast, earned a lot of money.  I met him when I stayed on his farm, Hebda Produce, which I found using Harvest Hosts.  I stayed for just one night, but we hung out in the evening for an hour or two and we talked a lot.  He had worked in farm insurance, and also owned a 50 acre farm.  The farm was focused on produce but did include a few animals.  Dale sells some of his produce directly, but also cans and pickles things as well as makes a variety of jellies and salsas.  I’m truly amazed at the range of products he can get out of a farm this size.  While not certified, its all organic.  Dale has a thorough understanding of creating nutrient dense foods and the negative impacts of pesticides, GMOs, and other unnatural food processing practices like ripening gasses.  We discussed this and the pharmaceutical industrial complex as he gave me a tour of his property by tractor.  It might seem like Dale has it made, but there were issues with selling the business, and the farm has yet to turn a profit.  He’s fine, but not in the position he expected to be.  Does he stress about it?  Absolutely not.  He adjusted his lifestyle to match his income and kept on doing what he loved.  He enjoys owning and operating the farm, and things will work out.  I bought some of his products and can personally vouch for their deliciousness.

As a kind of hybrid of some of these is the story of Terry Redlin.  Terry changed his life and also accomplished great things through perseverance.  He began his career as a corporate artist making advertisements and the like.  After 25 years of that, he decided to focus on his own paintings.  He had no idea how that would work out, but he ended up being a nationally recognized artist who’s paintings sell for hundreds of dollars each.  His son was instrumental in creating the Terry Redlin Art Center in South Dakota where his originals are on display and there are some items for sale.  It’s free by the way, and totally worth stopping in at.  He became a huge success by striking out on his own and leveraging his existing skill set.

Taking all 6 stories together, we have 2 people who wanted to change their life and did, 2 people who had a vision and stopped at nothing to bring it to reality, and 2 people who intentionally chose a simpler life at the expense of luxury.  All of these deeply resonate with me, and yet they are no help!  I want to do all 3 things!  They’re not necessarily mutually exclusive, but they don’t necessarily go hand in hand either.  The focus is different, making a change, accomplishing something great, or letting go of accomplishment as a goal in order to achieve greater peace and happiness in life.  There’s no rush.  I’m learning not to stress too much about the future and getting better at living in the moment.  It’s a work in progress though.  The consistent theme here is that these people were true to themselves.  They live(d) totally different lives, but they were happy in what they chose.  There’s no right or wrong career or lifestyle choice provided that you chose one that you can be happy in.  Chose happiness.  And be smart about it.  Know where your strengths lie and go with that.

Bonanzaville

Well, clearly I headed south out of Fargo.  My next real destination was Omaha to go to Isa Chandra Moskowitz’s restaurant called Modern Love, but before I get to that, I just have to describe Bonanzaville in Fargo.  Apparently, Fargo and large parts of the upper Midwest was settled by Norwegians and Swedes taking advantage of the homestead act, hence the Viking ship and Stave Church connection.  These settlers were farmers looking for land and a new life, escaping economic woes at home.  They created what became known as Bonanza farms.  When someone tries to describe bonanza farms to a non-farmer, it just sounds like they’re describing any old farm, but I guess there are specific things a bonanza farm has that others don’t.  Well, Bonanzaville started as a small museum to these farms, but it grew, substantially.  This place isn’t silly at all.  It’s a monument to an era on par with and in many ways exceeding things like Plymouth Plantation and Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts.  They’ve brought in real surviving buildings of the time and created a proper village here.  There are homes, a barber shop, stores, a police station, and it’s all highly interactive.  You can go in and out of the buildings, touch the tractors in the tractor exhibit.  Old and new, large and small equipment, vehicles, and even airplanes are there for you to climb up on and inside of.  I won’t say a bad word about Bonanzaville.  Go here.

Between staying at Dale’s farm and Bonanzaville, I’ve got a real itch to try farming.  I think it falls into the same bucket as brewing.  I’ve gardened successfully, but that doesn’t make me a farmer any more than even somewhat advanced home brewing makes me a master brewer.  As I think about the myriad life path options that lay before me, one option I consider is engineering contracts to make money with alternating jobs where I get to sample totally different careers.  The first pays the bills, the second enriches my life.  These could even be in different cities.  Part of that is deciding where I want to live and how stationary I want to be, but that’s a conversation for another time.  For now, I’m just excited about working outside and with plant based food production.  That seems like a rewarding and noble profession to me.

Corn Palace

Leaving Fargo and heading south, I crossed into South Dakota and stopped at the visitor center.  That’s where I learned about a few interesting attractions on my way south.  I decided to hit the Redline Art Center, of course, and also the Corn Palace.  I missed Sioux Falls and the Little House on the Prairie house but that’s ok.  The Corn Palace was more on my way to Dale’s farm and Omaha.  It was cool, but probably not worth going out of your way to see.  It’s in Mitchel, SD, which definitely has an old timey western style main street.  I could decide if it was intentional to help attract tourists or if that’s just how it is.  There were real shops in these store fronts of the sort that gave the impression of authenticity including a number that were vacant.  Some tumbleweed blowing in the wind would have fit right in.  I’ve never really been on such a street.  It looked like a movie set or amusement park façade.  The corn palace takes like 5 minutes to see.  I’m glad I saw it.  It’s cool, but quick.  I had over an hour to kill to avoid getting to Dale’s farm before he did, so I had a local beer in a bar.  I talked to 2 bar tenders.  Briana is a traveling thespian who is in town for a while but moving to Cincinnati soon.  Jake, or was it Joe … Josh?  I’m terrible with names I only hear once.  Jake is a 5th generation South Dakotan.  He has also travelled, but like Kate and Tessa, returned home.  It just goes to show you there’s something good and worthwhile about anywhere.  Jake’s ancestors were the furthest west Caucasians at one point.  They had thousands of acres and were an influential family.  As happens all too often, people let their ugly side out when relatives die, and it was all lost a couple of generations ago in the squabbling.  People can be horrible.  When you find yourself in that situation, and you probably will, please behave yourself.

Omaha

There’s a campground right on the Missouri River, just 15 minutes outside of town that costs only $15 per night including electric.  It’s a perfect place to recharge my batteries metaphorically speaking.  I’ve spent weeks in a few different places on this trip, but it’s only been a day or two at a time since Cincinnati.  I needed a break from the road, so I decided to stay here through the weekend.  It’s true that leaving great people behind can take a toll, but so can leaving a great place.  I’m still glad to be traveling.  It’s fantastic and I’m thrilled to be able to continue, but it’s also more taxing than I expected.

I arrived the afternoon of Thursday, May 19 and just relaxed.  On Friday I took a scenic drive through the Loess Hills of western Iowa.  Loess is fine silt from when the entire area was at the bottom of a prehistoric sea.  It has blown in the winds, compacted, and been stabilized by vegetation.  It’s actually a source of local debate whether or not to preserve it.  It is pretty to drive through.  The regional landscape is more interesting generally speaking than I expected.  The stereotype is that it’s completely flat.  It’s not.  There are lots of gently rolling hills and formations like these loess hills.  I tried to tour a national forest, but there were no roads into it so I just drove around the hills for a while, continuing my relaxing stay.

After that, I finally found my way to Modern Love, Omaha’s one vegan restaurant.  Isa Chandra Moskowitz owns and operates it.  She’s a famous vegan chef.  I have a couple of cook books that she co-authored with Terry Hope Romero.  I’ve met Terry a couple of times at the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary and have some of her solo cook books as well.  I was looking forward to trying the food at Modern Love and was hoping I’d get to say hello to Isa.  As it happens, she was working as the hostess that night.  There were many reservations, so I sat at the front window bar near the door and got to chat with Isa during my entire meal.  She’s super cool.  People are pretty curious about my trip, but we also got to talk about her move from Omaha to Brooklyn and opening the new Modern Love there.  We exchanged information and ended up hanging out again on Sunday.  I went back to Modern Love for brunch and she joined me.  Other friends of hers joined us briefly as well.  They all seemed great.  After brunch, we hung out for a couple of hours.  It was pretty low key, exactly what I was looking for during my time there.  Isa is a very interesting person, but since she’s a public figure, I’ll share less than I might normally do in the blog.  We connected well, and I hope we stay in touch.

Omaha, like everywhere I’ve been, has a lot to offer.  It’s another great example of an incorrect preconceived notion that it’s all just boring farm land out here.  Sure, it’s no Boston, NYC, or LA, but it’s still cool.  There are parks, art museums, music.  I had no idea that famous bands and band members live here or were originally from here.  The band I saw with Casey in New Orleans, 311, is from here.  Members of bands I currently listen to and have seen live as recently as last year live here.  I checked out a few more things on Saturday, but then just packed up and left on Monday.  I’m getting excited to see some of the bigger national parks coming up soon on my trip and to visit the west coast.  I’ve spent enough time in the Midwest now, especially if you count all the way back to Tennessee.  I get the gist.  It’s all really nice.  There are kind people and interesting culture.  Naturally, everything except the farms is on a smaller scale than the big cities, coasts, and mountainous areas, but I get why people live here.  I’ve enjoyed the culture, and the quirky oddities as well, like the worlds largest ball of stamps right here in Boys Town, another truly inspirational place by the way.    Old Market in Omaha was also lots of fun with cool record shops, labyrinthine vintage toy and candy stores, and cool bars, too.  Omaha, and the Midwest in general score higher in my book than I ever thought they would.  While I can’t say that I’ve exhausted any city’s or state’s offerings, I do feel as though I have a clear understanding of the region as a whole and am ready for the next part of my adventure to begin.

Sand Hills & Transition

Leaving Omaha, the last thing I wanted to do was get on the highway for 7 hours and head west.  Often, the highways make the most sense.  In certain parts of the country, I can’t trust GPS to take me on RV friendly rural routes.  Unexpected low bridges and narrow winding roads are a real concern.  It’s a different story out here.  I had heard about the Nebraska Sandhills, a left over from the bottom of the sea here or perhaps just an ancient desert, I’m not sure.  A wide open scenic byway passes straight through it.  About 300 miles west of Omaha, there’s a National Forest preserving part of the region.  It’s apparently our nation’s largest continuous grassland, about 20,000 square miles.  The sand feels just like beach sand, different than loess, with seemingly tougher grasses stabilizing it.  An unending sea of these green dunes extends to the horizon.  At times, they’re relatively uniform in size and spacing.  Elsewhere, they are less uniform and rise hundreds of feet into the air.  It’s a strange sight to see, stunning and peaceful.  The land unsuitable for crops, but appears to be widely used for grazing.  I passed almost no cars along Nebraska Rt 2 with small towns spread far apart.  End to end its hundreds of miles long.  The campground at the national forest is nice and also very cheap.  It’s a quiet restful place, so rather than blow right through the Sandhills, I spent the night.  I’m writing this now from the campsite picnic bench.  It’s a beautiful 75 degree day under clear blue skies, and the birds are singing.  Peggy is standing guard and Hank alternatingly hunts and naps under the trailer.  I went for a swim in the Middle Loop River and took Peggy for a wade across its wide, flat, sandy bottom.  The current is a bit swift, so we didn’t venture into the deeper center.  Rt 2 follows the path of this river for the most part, along side the train tracks I mentioned.  Riding to the western part of the state, you see more freight trains and coal than cars and trucks.  The river adds to the scenery in varied ways, pooling in small ponds, large lakes, and creating wide flat flood plains with the occasional swamp.  What a perfect day for a drive.

As I got to the western edge of the state, the Sandhills ended abruptly, almost startlingly so, returning me to the expansive flat farmland you might expect, but here, in the distance, there seemed to be some kind of ridge.  As I approached, towering eroded buttes and bluffs came into view, the sort you see in Sedona.  I had no idea Nebraska had such features.  I headed for Scottsbluff National Monument to check it out before heading north to the South Dakota Badlands, Mount Rushmore, and more.  This feels like a real transition point in the trip, the start of a leg of the trip full of famous national parks.  This is some of the area I’ve been most excited about seeing, and I’m greatly looking forward to it.

Madison & Points North

This past week, I’ve ended up in Wisconsin and Minnesota.  It turns out that heading north was a good call.  There were 21 tornados, “larger than softball sized hail”, and 80 mph wind gusts in the states to the west.  Beyond safety, though, I’ve had a great time!  Also, given the unpredictable nature of my trip, I wasn’t sure when I’d get back this way.  What made this week so wonderful was the people.  Everything I did was fun, but it was all about the people.

Madison, WI (Andi, Dan, and brewing)

A dear friend of mine back home, Veronica, has a sister who lives in Madison.  I’ve met Andi before a couple of times and thought it might be fun to visit her and to meet her husband, Dan.  We hung out on my second and third days in Madison.  On the first day, we went to a local brew pub and sampled many delicious beers.  Being a home brewer, I appreciate complexity, variety, and nuance in craft beers.  It’s one of the things I hope to continue sampling as I travel.  Before I left Boston, I even considered working at and someday perhaps starting a brewery.  We all had a fun night, and Dan and I got along well.  He sells food grade pumps to breweries and invited me to come visit the Wisconsin Brewery after his business meeting the next day.  At the brewery, we met with 2 of his colleagues, a brewer, the master brewer, and a PR person.  I didn’t really interact with them, but the CFO and other execs were there.  First off, everyone was super friendly and welcoming.  Feeling right at home, I settled into comfortable conversation with everyone.  Delicious and interesting beers began appearing in front of me.  The group continued to discuss a variety of topics, and without dominating too much of the conversation, I was able to ask a bunch of questions about this specific brewery, a career in brewing, and starting a brewery in general.  I learned a ton.  Not surprisingly, it’s not just a career you easily jump into.  You don’t go from even somewhat advanced home brewing right into being a brew master.  These guys were all a in their 50s and 60s.  They all had decades of related experience.  They brought together many partners, most of whom are silent to start the brewery.  This was a thriving 3 year old business.  Having visited many craft breweries in the past, I’ve seen all manner of them.  There are little garage operations with 2 people barely hanging on by a thread and doing it as a labor of love, sure, and plenty of them.  However, these guys have done it right.  They’ve got business men, investors, and talented and highly experienced brew staff.  They have an impressive array of equipment.  Even their pilot batch rig is a dream machine.  It is everything I’d want for my home brewing set up … if I had $85,000 for it.

You can do it in a much more “fly by the seat of your pants” manner, but your risk goes way up, starting from a baseline of already pretty high all the way up to playing with fire.  Profitability goes down as well.  Brewing is a lot of fun.  It’s technical, creative, collaborative, and communal.  However, I’ve since moved away from the idea of pursuing this as a career even before meeting these guys.  I was thrilled to get the inside scoop on it, but it has already occurred to me that this might take me in a direction I don’t want to go.  The job satisfaction is there, but really, I think I’m prioritizing other career parameters.  My next gig would have to be deeply rewarding in order to give up so much of my time and potential income.

John

Almost as a cautionary tale, I met John right before meeting Dan at the brewery.  The night before, Andi and Dan had recommended walking down Williamson Street (Willy St.).  I’m glad I did for many reasons that I’ll get to shortly, but one of them was that I wandered into Brew and Grow, or maybe it was Grow and Brew, whatever.  It’s a brew and garden supply shop.  They’ve got some great gear in there, and John is extremely knowledgeable and helpful.  He went to school for brewing as well as psychology.  He’s a smart dude.  We talked about brewing for some time while I was in there, both specific brewing techniques and career path.  He described how hard it is to get into professionally.  There are loads of people willing to do the grunt work for free through volunteering or internships, and breweries don’t need that many master brewers.  The best way to get in is to start your own or know someone well who wants to.  Conversations with friends in the industry back home have also discussed how saturated the market is in certain cities and states.  There’s still room for growth in some areas, but that number is dwindling.  John shared tastes of a few brews he had on tap in the store.  As you might expect, they were delicious.  I’m really glad I popped in there.

After visiting the brewery with Dan, he invited me over to hang out with the family for the evening.  We cooked a stir fry and talked some more, continuing conversations from the previous night and solving the problems of the world.  I very much enjoyed hanging out with them both nights.  Andi has the distinction of being the first person I knew before the trip that I’ve now seen twice on the trip.  She was in Chicago.  Although, I guess you could count my mom and her husband John since I saw them on my way into and out of Florida, but that feels more like one protracted encounter than two separate ones.

Phili

Willy Street had other charms as well.  It is clearly a street I’d like to live on.  There are cool shops, a food co-op with tons of tasty vegan goodness, and a pub called the Weary Traveler.  Out front, there are flyers for all sorts of recent and upcoming shows, some for bands I’d be excited to see.  The menu out front includes vegan chili so I poked my head in and was immediately lured further by the sounds of Belle and Sebastian, a band I’ve never seen and like very much.  I grabbed a seat at the bar where I met Phili, short for Philippa.  She has great taste in music and was playing a lot of “chick rock” as she put it.  I guess I got kind of a Carrie Brownstein vibe from her.  As I ate, we talked about music, my trip, and her life and friends.  She’s getting into selling crafts on Etsy and has a friend who just started tattooing.  She’s lived in Madison for many years.  The music scene used to be better, but seems to be improving again after a lull.  She invited me to a fundraiser on Saturday night.  There would be food, music, and vendors raising money for Spay Panama and for Moto Filly, her and her friends’ all girl motorcycle club.  They’re having a sightseeing scavenger hunt of sorts this summer.  Phili and her friends sound like interesting and exciting people.  It made me sad to leave Madison.  If I were moving here, I would definitely want to get to know this group better.  I even considered staying in Madison for the 3 extra days just go meet go to the event and meet them.  I decided to move on though.  I had seen a lot of the city already, and while I’m sure there was much more to do, it felt like I had gotten the gist of it.  Phili did recommend volunteering at the local animal sanctuary, but here again, I found that they don’t take drop in volunteers.  Honestly, I had some social anxiety about it too.  I’d be finding things to do to keep me busy for the extra days leading up to this event that may or may not work out as I hoped and maybe built up in my head.  Then I’d go and be all awkward.  I mean, I do want to stay places long enough to get to know them well, but I also feel compelled to keep moving.  It’s really what’s driving this trip.  The area is spectacular.  I could live here, but it’s still a little cold out, a little similar to New England, and I was feeling antsy.  Hopefully I will find myself back here and able to reconnect with Phili and her group in the future.  Making new friends is one of the great joys of this trip, but moving on from them is awful and has its own costs.

Professors

Here are a few quick other things I enjoyed about Madison.  Trendy coffee shops, the UW campus, the State House, and really all of State St.  Check out the pictures on Facebook.  The street feels a lot like Davis Square just outside of Boston to me.  It’s similar in that it is near a campus, Tufts, with similar business, buildings, and young people.  There’s a terrace on the UW campus overlooking the lake where you can relax, take in the scene, and have a local beer.  The conversation there is fantastic.  At first, I tried not to eavesdrop, but once I realized how funny this one particular group of professors was, I couldn’t help but listen in.  The trick was trying not to laugh!  I’m pretty sure they saw me, and when I finished my beer, I went over and introduced myself.  I didn’t get their names, but I mentioned the blog.  I’d love it if they found me and we connected.  They were mostly young and discussing politics and day to day life as a professor.  It was clearly exam time.  I had heard two engineers walking down the street debating the total power dissipated.  One of the professors had offered his class an option for a take home final.  The vote was 49 to 1 for take home, but there was one kid who didn’t want it and now the professor felt stuck having to give an in class final.  Honestly, I can relate to the one kid.  Take home finals suck.  The dumb kids want to slow you down and copy your work.  The professors feel like the test can be longer and harder since you have “unlimited” time, resources, and teamwork.  An in class final is clean and neat.  It’s over in one shot and the scope is limited.  I would have been that one annoying kid.  Anyway, the professors all laughed when I told them how funny I found them.  We spoke only briefly, and then I went on my way.

The Lion King

The last noteworthy thing that happened in Madison is that I saw The Lion King for free, the musical with full Broadway production value.  I think you say Off-Broadway when its in NYC but not on Broadway.  Do you still say off-broadway when its in another city?  Maybe I’ve got that all wrong.  Anyway, the venue was large and modern.  I had wandered in just to see the building having no idea that the dress rehearsal was starting.  The show opened that night.  The ticket booth was closed and there were clearly workers all over doing their prep work.  Merch table workers were being trained.  A bar was being set up.  A worker held a door open for me to enter so I figured I may as well go in.  That’s when I heard the music.  There were other spectators, mothers with children who were clearly not working.  They were in the hallway with more of them in the theater.  I walked in to the song “Be Prepared” which is relatively early in the show.  I’ve never seen it, but I remember the movie.  Being the second oldest of 5, I bet I can sing along to an embarrassing number of Disney movie songs.  I figured I’d just grab a seat.  The stress of it was annoying though.  I hated worrying that I’d get kicked out or asked for ticket or made to feel like I was trespassing.  Still, I’m glad I stayed.  It was a top notch performance essentially a private showing!  I gather that some of the other spectators were invited guests and others appeared to be general public who were in the know enough to come.  In the end, I don’t think I was trespassing at all.  I think I was welcome to attend.  Still, I mention it because this type of thing has come up a lot.

Oddly, the show made me think a little of my relationship history in its entirety.  I saw the Lion King at a drive in movie theater with my first girlfriend, Amy.  I felt like I had travelled through time, like I could connect to my younger self in that moment and see at a glance all that has happened between then and now.  Amy, Allison, Jen, Monique, Sarah, and Kate were all long term girlfriends or more of varying durations.  I didn’t feel badly, more contemplative.  By definition, these were all mixed experiences with times I’ll cherish and scars I’ll carry forever.  This flood of memories was powerful, and yet neither good nor bad.  Although, I think it did add to my enjoyment of the show overall.

Best Self and Pragmatism

Recently, I’ve found myself with opportunities to take things without paying.  There are always reasonable circumstances.  I would never steal something.  I’m still on that kick of trying to be my best self and put that positive work out into the world.  All the same, I’ve begun to think about the limits on kindness, compassion, and empathy.  Too much generosity towards one group can actually harm another, or you.  There are indeed times where it’s fair or even important to look out for your own needs or to balance the conflicting needs of different groups.  In this particular case, I’m talking about being sure to pay a fair price for things without giving money away.  How much should you donate if you go to a free museum?  Should you pay if it’s off season and a campground isn’t enforcing fees?  Things like this have been coming up a lot.  Sometimes and answer is clear, sometimes less so.  I could just give away the maximum amount of money everywhere I go, but is that the right thing to do?  What would a man being his best self do?

A brief philosophical aside:  Other topics like this have come up a lot recently as well, or maybe I’m just paying more attention to them.  How far should we go to protect animals.  We could all just kill ourselves.  That would probably have significant positive effects on animals and the environment, but what good is that?  If we all went vegan tomorrow, there would be catastrophic financial devastation, and yet we cannot continue being so cruel to animals.  If we leveled income and wealth inequality all at once, there would also be serious negative financial consequences, but we cannot continue allowing the working poor to struggle against such impossible circumstances, so poor that they need to work full time and still require government assistance to get by.  Being your best self is not just difficult, its complex.  Even “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you” gets muddy real quick if you start picking at it.  I’ve begun to realize that I’m a compassionate pragmatist.  I want the world to be a much better place than it is, but I recognize that change is hard and needs to happen at a controlled pace, and also that balancing conflicting needs is important.

Door County

Andi and Veronica’s mom is from Door County, Wisconsin.  It’s on the peninsula northeast of Green Bay.  It separates the bay from Lake Michigan.  It’s apparently referred to as the Cape Cod of the Midwest.  I can definitely see that.  It’s got a lot fishing and maritime themed activities and museums and similar kinds of shops.  It is a little different though.  The beaches aren’t as good and the atmosphere seems a little more hippie if I got the right impression.  I came up here on Andi and Dan’s recommendation.  Also, it made sense weather wise.  I wanted to see the upper peninsula of Michigan, and this was substantially similar with slightly warmer weather.  This mattered because a cold front had come down from the north bringing temperatures about 20 degrees below normal.  I had avoided tornados by returning to winter apparently.  Overnight lows in Door County were slightly above freezing while on the UP they were slightly below freezing.  Not wanting to winterize and dewinterize for a second time on this trip, I followed the recommendation.  It is definitely beautiful up there.  Also, you ride around on Wisconsin’s ridiculous lettered highway system.  Why don’t you take Road Q, or X, or OO?  That was entertaining.  All sorts of random associations came to mind like a quote from Seinfeld.  “It’s not 00.  It’s OO, as in oo oo ah ah!”

I stayed at Peninsula State Park.  It’s a great place with 4 or so disconnected camping areas.  I got there late and self registered.  Here’s one of those examples of confusion and money.  When I arrived, another camper was at the pay station.  He was confused and angry about it.  He was so negative and unpleasant that I left, set up camp, and came back.  I did see his confusion.  They had left out information on which sites were available, but only for one of the many camping areas.  Even at that there were ambiguous fees and regulations.  I stuffed money in an envelope and called it a day.  The next day I took the ferry over to Washington Island.  The nice thing about coming in the off season is that I could drive right up and get on.  That would be impossible, I’m told, in July.  I met multiple people on the ferry who had deliberately come in the off season because it is apparently more beautiful and peaceful now.  Sure, you can’t swim or do some of the water sports.  Lots of things aren’t open yet, but if you’re looking for peaceful natural beauty, as I was, it was perfect.  I drove around the island and found many interesting things.  I put my feet in the icy water at a smooth pebble and rock beach.  It hurt.  I tried repeatedly and it just kept hurting.  I’ve been swimming in extremely cold water, but this I couldn’t even stand ankle deep in for more than a minute.  I climbed a look out tower for breathtaking views.  I stopped in a no frills bar and had a local beer with local people who were talking about an upcoming bass fishing tournament with a $100k prize.  I had many questions about that.  They were super nice and friendly.  I covered pretty much the whole island.  One area felt like a ghost town.  I took pictures in the windows of the museums.  One part wasn’t locked so I went right in.  The whole thing was quiet, eerie, and wonderful.  It’s a large island with farmland and sparse residential neighborhoods.  I bet it’s packed in the summer.  Don’t take your AT&T cell phone there, though.  It won’t work except at the ferry terminal itself.  There, you might get a voicemail you don’t want, like an urgent request for you to come move your trailer because you parked in a reserved spot.  What happened to your ESP you might ask?  Well, no worries, if that happens to you, the people at the state park will take good care of you.  They were super nice.  When they found out I was hours away from being able to move the trailer, they rearranged some reservations to make it work, and this did so with an audible smile.  Later, I got another voicemail asking me to come into the office but not stating why.  I figured it was for something annoying like showing them Peggy’s paperwork, so I ignored the request.  Later that night, I was looking on the state park website for maps and general info and I stumbled across their fee schedule, much more complex than I had thought.  It looked like they charged for everything.  Camping, owning a car, owning a bicycle, and a variety of other things all appeared to be separate fees.  I now worried that I owed them lots of money and wondered if it mattered if I paid it.  What if I just left tomorrow?  I had already paid what I understood to be the publicized rate which seemed fair market value to me at the time.  Just like the show, this only served to cause me anxiety.  They called the next morning saying that I owed them $10 per night for electricity.  I was happy to have that cleared up even though it cost more money.  They even did that with a sincere smile.  These might be the happiest people in the world.

I spent a little more time in Door County driving around and taking pictures.  I visited Stone’s Throw Winery for a tasting and a local restaurant with vegan food.  Once again I found myself enjoying a meal chatting with the wait staff and two locals.  The locals were an older couple who loved the area and new the guy I had the wine tasting with.  They discussed how much they loved the area, but also relayed some of the trials and tribulations of small town life like businesses not being allowed to expand for silly reasons and generally everyone knowing everyone else’s business.  The woman worked in banking so she knew many people and stories.  How to make a murderer or whatever that Netflix show is called came up as a topic.  It’s about a murder in Wisconsin.  It was interesting to hear their opinion.  They were shocked that someone had taken this up.  I guess regionally, they all felt like this guy was clearly guilty and were surprised that someone would make a show out of it, especially one that they felt misrepresented their local legal competency.  My waitress talked about very interesting travels to Central America, also a fascinating topic.  I had yet another local brew.  Wisconsin is big on that.  I’m ready to take a break from beers for a bit though.  I don’t like having them constantly.

Shawna, Fred, and Derek

On my way out of DC, I decided to stop for coffee at a trendy little coffee shop.  This proved to be perhaps the best decision I made there.  Derek, a customer, is a hard worker who is feeling burned out and considering options to change his life.  I am in the midst of changing my life.  Shawna, the owner, has completed a major life change.  What was intended as a 3 minute stop for coffee for the road turned into a lengthy exchange of ideas and stories.  Shawna had led the typical corporate life just as I had.  She managed people, had a home, and an entire former life.  Now things are entirely different and she is happier.  She bought a failing coffee shop and turned it around, got remarried, and changed other things about her life and is now thriving.  Sure, this new life comes with its own stresses.  No life is perfect, but this is a good fit for her.  She and Derek apparently have discussions like this from time to time, and I was a welcome addition to it.  We all got along well and could have hung out for hours, I think.  Then Fred came in, Shawna’s husband.  He owns a local auto shop and is also a fascinating individual.  He is an award winning competitive off road cycling enthusiast.  It turns out that he helped make the mountain biking trails in Peninsula State Park, the ones I had ridden that morning.  He asked what kind of bike I had and I told him that I ride a 15 year old red led weight from Walmart.  He invited me back to his house to give me his old mountain bike, an expensive assembly of custom components that is in great shape, but that he doesn’t need anymore.  I followed him back and we talked more about his races and experience.  I wanted to take him and Shawna out for dinner, but they already had special dinner plans and I was already on my way out of town.  I love traveling, but I hate leaving!  THERE ARE SO MANY AMAZING PEOPLE IN THIS COUNTRY!!!!  I forced him to take some money for the bike, basically what I had in my wallet.  Far far less than it was worth new, and still very much less than it is worth now, but what I had.  Fred reluctantly accepted.  We exchanged information and parted ways.  I hope they had a fantastic night out.

Defeating the Mississippi River

I decided that it was time to head west.  The area was still experiencing lows in the 30s and I was longing for something that looked nothing like New England.  I decided to head towards Fargo where I would watch the movie Fargo.  This would also check North Dakota off the list of states I’ve never visited.  Neither of these are terribly important goals, but I’ve decided its what I want to do anyway.  To get there, I’d be travelling through Minneapolis, a city I’ve visited twice before on business.  I wouldn’t way I’ve seen it thoroughly, but enough not to stop.  After driving over 300 miles, I came across the MN welcome center rest stop and decided to sleep there for the night.

The next morning, I felt like I might be making a mistake by totally blowing off a state, so I wandered in to ask for recommendations.  I didn’t want more of the same.  For me to detour from Fargo, I’d need something uniquely MN, not just another cool museum, historic site, or hike.  Lisa and Jen were inside.  They were very helpful.  We talked for quite a while.  I enjoyed meeting them very much.  It seems many people I meet on the road have similar goals of changing their lives, and many are about my age.  I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s not so much that people are unhappy.  It’s more that you start off adult life heading in one direction, and then later realize you’d be better off changing direction, perhaps many times.  Lisa would love to save up and become an expat in a less expensive country.  It was interesting getting to know both of them, however briefly.  Lisa had a boyfriend who sounds similar to my ex-girlfriend and other similar life experiences as well.  Here again, people I would like to get to know better.  As I mentioned at the top of this post, it’s the people that make the trip, and life in general, worth it.  I’m not ready to settle down yet.  I still need more travel, but leaving cool people behind is torture.

Lisa and Jen had two recommendations of uniquely MN things that might be worth considering.  The headwaters of the Mississippi River, and Prince’s funeral services which happened to be that day.  Well, it turned out that Prince’s thing was only an unofficial memorial service at his church.  It was invite only, mostly for the congregation.  His family would not be there.  Neither would his remains.  Other typical funeral elements would be missing as well.  I think generally speaking I’d have had mixed feelings about it.  He was an icon, but still, it felt maybe a little irreverent to show up to such a thing as a spectator.  I respect fans who feel a sense of loss doing it, but that doesn’t describe me.  I’d just be a voyeur.

I did decide to head toward Itaska Lake and Itaska State Park, the source of the Mississippi river.  It’s not a significant detour, sounds beautiful, and has some meaning for me anyway.  On this trip, I have attempted to cross the Mississippi and head west only to be turned back by ferocious weather more than once.  It now seems I’m ready to put that and the entire Eastern U.S. behind me for quite some time and head properly west.  Seeing the source and crossing it on foot seemed fitting.  I’ve bumped along it in many states, and now I’d literally step over it.  It would be like concurring it.  Heading there involved driving on local state roads.  I prefer that for the most part.  You get a much more intimate view of the state than from the freeway.  There are typically more headaches, but it’s worth it.  It was a bright, warm, sunny day, and the park was beautiful.  I decided to stay for just one night.  What I came to see is small and the park has a late check out, 4 PM.  I’d be able to see what I came for that day, and then relax the following morning.  That’s where I’ve written this entire post from all in one shot.  The lake is straight out of a postcard.  There are biking and hiking trails, a rental shop with boats, paddle boards, and bicycles, and multiple visitor centers.  Sure enough, there is a clear and well delineated start to the Mississippi river.  Someone described it as a trickle, but in my view, it’s a pretty strong stream even here.  It varies from perhaps 10 to 20 feet wide, more like 20 right at the exit from the lake.  There’s a line of rocks you can walk across right at the boundary of the lake.  You literally walk across the mighty Mississippi.  There’s also a small wooden foot bridge a few feet downstream.  The river actually heads north to other lakes briefly before turning south.  There is a strong current and a substantial flow rate for what some described as a trickle.  You could easily wade across it.  It’s perhaps knee deep there, but still seems to carry meaningful force.  The park is serene.  Even now I’m considering just lingering for another day.  We’ll see how I feel at 4 PM.  I may or may not turn into a pumpkin.

Leaving Cincinnati, Hello St. Louis!

Feeling at home

Four or five days quickly turned into 22 in Cincinnati and northern Kentucky.  Where did the time go?  I did so much there, and yet somehow I feel I’ve just scratched the surface.  However, it was time to either move there, or move on.  The final week of visiting Emily went much the same as the first two.  We hung out, worked at her business, went out to eat, did some activities together, and I explored a little on my own.  Then finally, I prepared to leave.  I’m writing this chapter from Mammoth Cave National Park, just a few hours south of Cincinnati.

Emily and I had begun to settle into a more normal life, and it was nice.  A couple of nights we watched movies, Anomalisa, The Adderall Diaries, and Inherent Vice and relaxed in.  Despite being a good movie, we slept through most of Inherent Vice.  We got on a schedule of staying up way too late and missing a lot of the morning, but I found it relaxing and Emily’s business is retail / activity based.  Late starts are acceptable there.  Helping out, drumming up business, and partaking where appropriate proved to be a lot of fun.  Practice makes perfect!  It wears you out though, hence some of the quiet nights in.  I continued to get to know her family and thoroughly enjoyed all of our interactions.  We even visited her grandmother’s property, a large and lovely place.  It’s amazing that you can be in quiet rolling hillside so close to a major city!  Cincinnati has plenty of attractions beyond what I had seen already, but the real value in staying was spending time relaxing and hanging out with Emily.

I’m in love with art

On Wednesday, April 27, I spent much of the day at the Cincinnati Art Museum.  Normally, I’m all about contemporary art.  Exciting art punches you in the face.  It’s not weird for the sake of being weird, but it is definitely strange, innovative, and evocative.  It should move you beyond mild curiousity, good art anyway.  Often, I’ll shy away from more traditional art museums since they tend to include historical works that I find less impactful.  However, for some reason, I couldn’t get enough of it on this visit.  They had to kick me out at closing time many hours later.  I hereby request lodging in their janitor’s closet.  It was that good.  This museum had it all.  Typos on the placards aside (and who am I to talk), the museum was enormously informative.  Knowledge is intoxicating.  I fell way behind schedule if I wanted to get through it all in one shot.  It’s very large.  There’s something about the way they present the cultural and religious influences.  There are maps, large touch screens for more information, and a wide array of artifacts from all across recorded history … but it doesn’t stop there.  Its so much more than a history lesson.  That alone was compelling, but their treatment of progressively more recent art was impressive as well.  There was a selection of startling portraits, people who seemed to jump out of the paintings with real and varied countenance.  I wanted to know them.  Why the long face lady?  My, aren’t you smug sir.  You kids sure are creepy!  Artists played with light in nature scene after nature scene, all of which spoke to me in a language I cannot explain.  A strong feeling grows in my chest when I’m excited by art in this way.  I don’t have a word for it.  Boom.  I’m calling it boom.  I felt a strong sense of boom in the gallery … and then I found the contemporary art!  I didn’t even know it was there.  At first there were some interesting pieces that did not immediately convey anything to me.  I don’t mind that either as long as the aesthetic is pleasing, and these were impressive.  Then I stumbled into the 30 Americans exhibit, African American art depicting the history of and on-going struggle with oppression.  The first thing you see as you enter this section is a wrought iron gate anchored to brick pillars adorned with stone KKK figures.  It stops you in your tracks, instantly.  In another room, chairs are arranged in a circle facing out, each with a white hood on it.  In the center hangs a noose.  There are other more modern depictions as well.  It was powerful, but by this time I was forced to hurry as they were closing soon.

The vet, food, and career thoughts

On Thursday, Emily and I took Peggy for her follow up booster shot from her visit 2 weeks prior, another benefit of lingering in the area.  There’s a great vegan place right next store, something like Roots Kitchen, you’ll see it on Happy Cow if you look.  They have a large menu with many goodies in a display case as well.  There’s also ready made food and cold pressed juice.  We ordered a lot, well, I did, and it came to not expensive but not cheap dollars.  Just the cold pressed juice was $10 to $12 depending on what you ordered.  Once again, this got me thinking about career.  By now, you all know the parameters I’m struggling to balance:  job satisfaction, time off, geographic flexibility, etc. etc.  It’s true that I’m low maintenance.  I will be happy with whatever I decide.  However, it struck me how nice it is to be able to walk into a specialty vegan restaurant and order a $12 juice without a second thought, how nice it is to be able to take a couple of months off every now and then, maybe every year.  You give up a lot when you go for maximum job satisfaction with low paying jobs, you start your own business, or you take a full time desk job.  I’m still not in love with this idea, but there’s something to be said for picking up engineering contracts.  Six to 12 month contracts are generally easy to find as I understand it.  They keep my resume current, preserving future flexibility in career.  When they end, you can take however long a break you want or can afford.  They are available essentially anywhere I’d be interested in living anyway.  Sure, I have spouted off about the evils of office life, but I wonder if I’d be less bothered by something short term.  I’d be hired for a specific purpose and would presumably be driving towards a rewarding goal, there would be a light at the end of the tunnel, and I’d be less likely to be impacted by anyone’s chronic negativity in such a short period.  It’s just a thought, but it pays so well that I suspect regular extended time off would be possible along with charitable donations towards causes I care about coupled with volunteering during my time off.  Still, it makes my stomach turn a little.  It would have to be the right place.

On that note, by the way, I did find that there is a decent sized animal sanctuary in Kentucky, Home At Last.  I reached out to them a couple of times and was finally told they are not interested in new volunteers at this time.  That’s too bad.  I didn’t get a sense of why, hopefully because they are just inundated with support.  They sound like an interesting operation, split into two parts, livestock and companion animals.  I prefer to work with livestock since they were destined to be food and often saw treatment that would make you vomit if you knew about it.  Anyway, as I’ve lamented, its challenging to do everything I’d like to do on a regular basis on this trip.  I’ll see if I can’t find another sanctuary in the near future.

Indanana – Nature and Noise

Passing through a state is not enough to count it as having been visited.  I feel as though I need to have a proper meal there, meet people, do an activity, something like that, so I visited Indiana on Friday.  Kentucky boarders something like 7 states.  I’m not sure I realized how big it is.  Even just this far west, the states are so much bigger than in the northeast.  Emily recommended Clifty Falls State Park.  It was about a 2 hour drive, some of it along the Ohio River.  I love driving through this part of the Midwest.  Its far more interesting than I expected.  There are rolling hills, winding roads, and beautiful landscapes.  There’s a lot in common with New England, but its different enough to feel like a new place.  Buildings and houses are spread way further apart.  Small houses seem to be set on a bazillion acres of groomed grassy countryside.  The hill sides are dotted with mansions, tiny homes, and farms all ranging from well cared for to falling down, but it is all beautiful.  Its hard to capture with an iPhone, but the entire region seems to be one giant post card.  Fields of wild flowers, fresh tilled farmland, cows and horses in pastures, rusted tractors, and campy decorations, it’s all perfect.  What a great place to decompress from life.  The state park is not large, but big enough to enjoy for a full day if you’d like.  Most of the trails are much improved, but there are some that resemble proper hiking trails.  The park is well worth the short trip.  There’s a pretty substantial cave that you are welcome to walk into.  You can’t get into much trouble in there.  The mouth is big, but it quickly shrinks and gets pretty wet inside.  Peggy and I walked in about 100 feet I’m guessing.  It had rained a lot in the area, and the waterfalls were in full flow.  Peggy was a bit put off by the roar, but she managed.  They were at once peaceful and powerful.  It was inspiring.  At a stream crossing, we gave up on rock hopping, and even rock relocation.  Despite a searching, our best bet was for us both to forge the stream barefoot.  Well, Peggy was already barefoot I guess, but you get the idea.  We ended up spending several hours there, and wrapped up at just the right time to head north to Indianapolis for dinner and a concert.

The drive to Indianapolis was pretty.  I bet people from here, or even most people from the northeast might call it boring, but it was more of the scenes that I love.  I found free parking in town and a vegan friendly place right near the venue, Three Sisters Café I think.  I got a black bean burger, not overly novel, but delicious all the same.  Other dishes looked more creative, but I was in the mood for the old standby.  The venue, The Vogue, was pretty cool.  It’s a little smaller than the Royale but a little bigger than the Sinclair for my Boston readers.  Caveman was good.  I don’t remember hearing of them before, but maybe?  I was there for Frightened Rabbit.  What a great show!  They were fantastic.  It was my first time seeing them.  Not surprisingly, I made friends.  There was a group of 3 guys that came separately from 2 girls, but we all talked and enjoyed the show together.  One of the guys, Andrew, made more of an effort to interact.  The girls, Jen and Shannon, were a riot.  They’re part of a pretty large circle of friends, most of whom were out line dancing to country music that night.  Jen had dragged Shannon out to a band she had never heard of, but seemed to enjoy.  Jen is a big fan of the National who I’ve mentioned previously and is interested in some of the same music I am.  I very much enjoyed meeting everyone last night.  It really enhanced my experience.  The 2 hour drive home took a little longer owing to my rest stop nap and walking Peggy, but it was fine.  I got home at 4 AM which is manageable when you don’t have a job!

Getting ready to leave

Saturday, Sunday, and Monday were largely hang out days with Emily.  We took Peggy back to the dog park where she got briefly lost in the woods, this time with the shock collar.  She’s responding very well to it.  It seems to make her beyond happy to be able to run freely, she comes when it beeps, and in the rare event I have to get her attention with a shock, it seems not to phase her.  It seems just enough to perk her up.  Trust me, this vegan is strongly anti-cruelty, but Peggy will definitely let me know if she’s upset, and this does not upset her.  The benefit of letting her run free while still being under control has changed my mind about these things.  She still needs more training, but it’s going well.  She’s laying next to me sleeping right now.  It’s adorable.  She’s got her butt backed up to my hip on the seat so she’ll know if I get up, but she hasn’t left me enough room!  On Monday we visited 8Ball Brewery.  They’ve got a wide range of beers to sample.  I particularly enjoyed their sour and barleywine, but they were all tasty.  We met a group of guys, one of whom had just run the Flying Pig Marathon.  I wish I got out of bed to see it.  Maybe next year!  It starts at 5:30 AM, but is apparently ridiculous, like going to see a minor league baseball game.  There are serious runners, but also people in costume and all sorts of other things that give it more of a carnival feel compared to Boston as I understand it.  One of the guys told me he’d be all over me if I shaved my beard.  We all laughed.  His friend was like “Dude!”.  I told him Thanks, but I’m pretty attached to it.  They were a good group with a lot of positive energy.

Towards the end of my visit, Emily and I had a chance to talk about my trip, where things stand, what might come next.  We’ll definitely be staying in frequent contact and making plans to see each other again.  My moving on makes us both sad, but it’s necessary.  I’ve got to continue my trip for many reasons, and I think we are both on the same page.  We returned to the Elusive Cow, one of if not the first restaurant we visited when I arrived.  On Tuesday, I went back to Jungle Jim’s, the elaborate grocery store we went to the night I arrived.  This time I was alone getting supplies for the road.  That was definitely a sobering experience.  I’m glad to be continuing my trip, but sad to leave.  I made the trip south to Mammoth Cave as has been the plan as of late, and I had a great day there on Wednesday.

Mammoth Cave!

There are over 400 locations nationwide that are managed by the national park service, but there are far fewer actual national parks.  It would be so fun to see them all, but I’m acknowledging right now that this is unlikely, just as hitting every animal sanctuary isn’t going to happen.  Still, Mammoth Cave seems super cool and is just a few hours south of Cincinnati.  It was an easy drive, and the camping there is first come, first served.  This type of camping works well for me since I never know very far in advance when I’ll be where.  I pulled up after hours and there were ample parking options.  There was no cell service, but I was able to park at the closest spot to the visitor center and the hotel.  Even though both were at least ¼ mile away, my wifi Ranger antenna easily picked up the signal so that I could use my computer and iPhone on my network, Aqua Teen Hunger Force.

The park is fairly small, but it has a lot to offer.  The prime attraction is the cave system, of course, the longest in the world.  They’ve charted 405 miles of cave so far, and suspect there are about 600 more uncharted miles bringing the total to an impressive 1000 miles.  The park offers 3 main tours, but one is closed until Memorial day due to construction.  The other was sold out and is offered less often, so I did the Dripstones tour.  I’ve already visited Shenandoah Caverns and Florida Caverns State Park on this trip, so I thought I knew what to expect, but I was mistaken.  The other two were reasonably large and just jammed full of interesting formations.  Mammoth Cave is not, or rather, there are formations of a different type.  Much of the cave system has been preserved due to layers of shale that keep it dry.  Large sections formed because underground rivers carved out so much rock that there were cave ins. Sure, there are parts that are still wet or even submerged, but there are entire chambers that have never seen water, hence no stalactites or stalagmites.  Other areas saw flowing water that has since been redirected.  Sure, there are regions with some formations, but this is an entirely different experience to the first two.  It was beautiful in its own right, but more scientifically, or perhaps geologically interesting than traditionally pretty.  I enjoyed the tour, descending 250 feet and covering ¾ mile.  Even with a noisy school group hot on our heels, we adults were able to stick together and enjoy ourselves.  I even met John and Jacqui from Australia.  They are on a similar voyage to me, traveling the US for 3 months before being forced to visit Canada.  They’re heading west to east and plan to hit Boston.  We traded tips.  I enjoyed speaking with them very much and hope our paths cross again someday.

The rest of the park includes hiking, biking, and horseback riding trails of all sorts.  Hiking and biking trails come in a variety of flavors from significantly improved to nature in the raw.  There’s also a paddle friendly river and scenic drives.  Outside the park are other entrances to the same cave system, each with its own charm and tour, and so much campy goodness!  This is a great place to bring the family.  I didn’t go in, but Dinosaur World looks perfect for my nephews.  Look no further for your Haunted Hotel or the Funtown Souvenir Shack.  That’s a real place!!!  Definitely hit the antique store if you come here.  I spoke with Doug at length.  He’s got a brother named Keith who he doesn’t speak with anymore.  He told me the story freely, but it’s a bit too personal to share in this forum.  He’s a very interesting guy though, well traveled and charismatic, and yet still somehow able to give that entirely local cliché southern Kentucky experience.  He’s great.  That’s definitely a compliment, just a genuine guy.  I enjoyed the cave tour and the scenic drive, but felt compelled to move on.  I’ve recently hiked and biked through similar terrain and am anxious to head west and see new things.  It’s been nearly 4 months since I left Boston and I am just itching to get west of the Mississippi.  I’d be happy to come back with friends or family to spend more time.  I was motivated by the weather as well.

St. Louis

When I got up on Thursday, May 5, I wasn’t exactly sure what my day would include, but it was raw and rainy, so headed towards St. Louis.  This feels like the decision point in my trip.  I can head northwest or southwest from here.  I’m sticking with my decision to head northwest given the approaching summer.  In just one month from now, I’m sure I’ll be happy I did.  It’s also entirely new area for me.  Even though there’s a lot I haven’t seen there, I’ve visited the southwest many times.  I arrived at Horseshoe State Park just east of St. Louis in plenty of time to relax.  It was an easy travel day, and the sun was shining by the time I arrived.  This park is on a lake, and the campground on an island.  You drive across a causeway to get here.  It’s pretty narrow.  I thoroughly enjoyed driving the trailer across it.  Incidentally, Hank has been holding in his various fluids while crated on the drive, so I decided to experiment with him loose in the trailer during the entire drive.  I figured cats have great balance and he’d have access to the litter box.  I was pleasantly surprised!  Sure, he hid under the bed and under the couch, but there were no messes or foul smells!  Go Hank!

So here’s the problem with not having easy access to wifi / not being willing to pay more for it.  I wrote up to this point a couple of days ago, but haven’t had the correct combination of time, the computer on hand, and wifi to post it.  So now you get to keep reading about St. Louis!  I’ve been here for 2 days now, and will be leaving tomorrow.  I had planned on heading straight west from here, but there seems to be a giant red blob on the weather map saying “You shall not pass!”.  Why can’t I get across this damned river for more than 5 minutes?!  Is it normal for this entire region to be impassable this time of year?  Shows what I know.  Thanks for all the hail, tornados, and other ridiculous storms plains states.  I shouldn’t complain.  I like it here.  It’s tons of fun.  There are just travel challenges I’m not used to.  It looks like Texas to Nebraska is pretty treacherous in the spring.  I wanted to see a little Kansas and then go to Omaha for a famous vegan restaurant.  I’ll figure it out.  I have to be extra cautious since I’m not just driving my car.  I’m driving my house.  So anyway, St. Louis is awesome.  Let’s get into it!

Horseshoe State Park & the Gateway Arch

First of all, I’m paying $8 a night at the Horseshoe Lake State Park, 20 minutes outside of the side in Illinois.  It’s a decent park, nothing special, except that it has a causeway providing access to the island campground.  That sounds cooler than it is, though.  It’s essentially dry camping although there are limited water spigots and a dump station that’s so cramped I’m considering not using it.  My trailer is tough in the corners.  But it’s $8!  That’s a huge win.  I pulled in across from Chelsey and her 2 month old Airsream.  Its so shiny!  On Friday, May 6, I had a whirlwind day around the city.  It was intense.  Since I’m heading west, it seemed only fitting to start with the Gateway Arch.  The whole area is under construction, and I learned that recently they weren’t even allowing visitors to go up to the top.  Thankfully, they resolved that issue.  Construction will not be complete until summer of 2017, so be warned!  The Arch is VERY tall, over 600 feet, way taller than the Statue of Liberty and Washington Monument.  The ride to the top is not in a traditional elevator.  It’s in a pod using a custom mechanism, part Ferris Wheel, part escalator, and part elevator.  The pod first moves laterally like a Ferris Wheel, but then it climbs.  Eight pods ascend and descent at a time from either side of the arch.  As the pod rises, it does not stay perfectly level.  It begins to tilt following the curvature of the arch, but only for a moment.  The hum and jolt of a motor kick in to right the pod.  This happens frequently during the ascent and descent.  Out the window of the pod is the emergency staircase, but its far more interesting and strange than that.  There are well lit dirty work areas in places with things like table mounted vices, stools, and tool chests.  The emergency stairs are often traditional style, but sometimes spiral and sometimes appear to be completely absent.  From the pod, the support structure appears haphazard and dubious.  The pods are also very small.  There are 5 seats.  I saw 5 traditionally sized Americans, take that as you will, struggling mightily to extricate themselves from one.  So what do I give the experience so far?  5 stars of course!  It was awesome.  The view from the top is cool, but I enjoyed the pod experience more.

Forest Park, The Zoo, Pura Vegan, The Jewel Box

It was lunchtime, and Happy Cow recommended a vegan place called Pura Vegan a few miles away, but still within the city.  Pura Vegan is almost certainly a play on Pura Vida which I believe I described in the Costa Rica section previously.  It means pure life and is the general positive affirmation meaning things like Hell Ya! and Awesome!  The café is conjoined with aa yoga studio and has a Costa Rican yoga retreat atmosphere and staff, so I’d be surprised to find I’m wrong about the name.  I loved my homemade twix bar, which in my opinion does this treat a disservice.  Twix has nothing on this thing.  The Rueben and quinoa been soup were delicious as was the green juice.  I left with a coffee as well and headed to Forest Park, a large hilly grassy park, home to many different attractions including a golf course, various stages and gazebos, the Jewel Box, and the zoo amongst other things.  I have a small blister on my foot from walking so much yesterday.  The park is beautiful and just walking through it is a pleasant and peaceful.  It was easy to stumble across the Jewel Box, a large display greenhouse with many plants and flowers.  There’s a $1 admission fee, and you don’t stay long, but it’s definitely worth popping in for a few.

At this point, I was very near the zoo.  Chelsey, who is originally from here with much family still in the area raved about the zoo and told me I must go.  I passed on the Cincinnati Zoo with Emily due to objections on the evils of zoos.  The most neutral thing you can say about zoos is that they change animals’ lives, absolutely for the worse in many ways, but also for the better.  There’s also a possible greater good issue here too.  I decided to go since I didn’t have to pay admission and wouldn’t be supporting the zoo in any way.  I have to admit, I enjoyed it.  It’s great seeing the animals.  Some were pacing which I didn’t love, but most looked happy.  I’m ok with having dogs and horses.  This seems similar.  I still don’t love it, but I think I’m not entirely anti-zoo.  I’m anti things like Sea World, but in my view they really took it to another level when they kept large migratory whales in tiny pens.  I don’t know.  I guess keeping elephants is similar.  Part of me doesn’t like them and part of me doesn’t like that part of me likes them.  But it was fun.  It just was.  The hippos were super cool and playful sea lions seemed to be really enjoying themselves.  I could go on, but I took pictures of everything.  I recommend checking them out on my facebook page.

Hungry Hungry Hippos

The zoo is a madhouse of children, of which I have none.  I am 1 of 5, and am quite familiar with the chaos, but having been removed from it for some time now, I felt I needed a break before my next activity, something quiet and mature.  What came next was human hungry hungry hippos and a dodgeball tournament.  I just wanted a pint of bitter in a quiet pub!  Well, I was on my way over to the City Museum, really having essentially no idea what it was other than it was weird and I was likely to enjoy it.  On my way, I saw a large crowd down a closed off street and lots of music and noise.  All around the stage were fundraising for Lupus signs.  Since a dear friend of mine is afflicted with Lupus, I decided to stay for a bit.  I was about to make a donation when I saw a raffle and figured that’s as good a way to make a donation as any.  I bought a handful of tickets and dropped them into the first item being raffled.  I wasn’t planning on staying long.  Sure enough, my tickets remained on top and I won!  The prize was 2 excellent seats to a Cardinals baseball game in early June along with a goodie bag of cardinals shwag, a poster, replica 1967 world championship ring, 2 jerseys, a hat, a stuff bear in a jersey, some holographic image, and a frameable picture of the team.  What great luck!  I won stuff, donated to a good cause, watched ridiculous team sports, and yes, had my pint of local brew.  The event went on for hours, but Peggy was waiting at home so I didn’t stay long.  There was still the museum to see!

City Museum

Did I say museum?  This is no museum.  It’s insanity, and I want to bottle it up and take it with me.  Think of the most elaborate indoor outdoor jungle jim you can imagine.  Nope.  You didn’t try hard enough.  Think bigger and weirder.  Ok, just go look at my facebook pictures.  There are entire zones with different design elements.  It’s hard to believe it is all connected, or that such a place even exists.  It makes me excited now just thinking of it!  Sure, there are kids all through it, but I was reassured more than once that it was for adults too, as evidenced by the abundance of them climbing through the craziness.  There’s a cave area, a nautical area, a 10 story spiral slide that apparently used to be a shoe shoot.  There’s a bar / adult themed zone, not adult in a naughty way, but not really for kids either.  Tubes come in all shapes, sizes, and materials.  You must climb through them.  There are shoots and slides of all sorts.  There’s a large wooden hamster wheel.  Some of the maze is outside, including replica gutted airplanes, fire trucks, tree houses, castles, and more.  Have a drink at the bar while taking a break.  No really, have a drink and then keep climbing on stuff!  There’s a ball pit with dodgeball sized balls.  I literally was in awe.  And yes, there is actually a section that’s like a museum with interesting art in different forms.  Darkness, light, eerie corridors, mirrors, colors everywhere, sensory overload, magic.

Yoga & The Cardinals

I got home and took care of the critters.  They were fine and we had good family time.  I actually had a lot of trouble sleeping so they got extra family time.  It’s probably because I wanted to get up early and haven’t had to in ages.  Today was a hot day, and I planned on going to yoga at Pura Vegan and then the Cardinals game.  It was a no pets day, and they would need AC in the trailer.  I went to Home Depot and got a heavy duty chain so that I could chain the generators to a tree.  Chelsey agreed to keep an eye on things and let them out.  That was so nice!  Yoga ended up being peaceful.  It wasn’t at all high level, but it was still centering.  Another chance to eat there was nice too.  Carrot cake is delicious, even in smoothie form, as was a coconut curry dish.  I ate both on the way to the game, arriving early enough to get yet another free jersey.  I sold that one later though.  It covered my beers at the game.  How many jerseys do I need for a random team?  The game was great.  The Pirates opened with several consecutive hits and 2 runs.  The Cards answered with 2 runs of their own.  The game was largely quiet from there.  The Cards went up 3 to 2.  Then the reliever came in and gave the win away.  Poor Wainwright!  It’s his jersey I won yesterday and wore to the game completely without knowing he was pitching!  The cards went up 4 to 3, but then the closer blew the save and it was 4 to 4 in the bottom of the 9th.  The Cards won with a walk off home run after a tense few batters and with raging thunderstorms imminent.  People didn’t even make it back to their cars before the sky opened.  I’m still taking credit though.  I say I helped the Reds win their only game of the series against the Cubs, and now I helped the Cards beat the Pirates!  I’m good luck.  What can I say?

St. Louis Summary

I have to say that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed St. Louis.  It’s definitely a cool city with a lot more to offer.  Yesterday raced by at 100 mph with nonstop activities.  Today was a calmer day allowing some time for quiet contemplation.  I even put “pen to paper” on the career front.  I used a decision matrix.  Ok, go ahead and laugh, but I can’t turn it off, the engineer in me.  I put in many careers and priorities and got back the following top 3:  Engineering contracting about ½ time (alternating full time on, full time off), vegan life coach, park ranger.  Big surprise, but it helped me organize my thoughts.  As for the immediate future, I’m moving on tomorrow one way or another.  I want to see the local Frank Lloyd Wright house first.  I saw one in AZ once and it was very cool.  Since I’m right here, I’ll see that on my way out.  Oh, and one last random thought.  Today I realized that I have been on every major US decade east to west coast highway except 30.  I have more north to south ones to hit naturally, but I’ve even done the majority of those.  Now that’s a thing I’ll be keeping an eye on.  Soooooo, anyway … wish me luck wherever I end up tomorrow!

Cincinnati – Part 2

A Religious Experience

My second week in Cincinnati has included several new adventures, but before I get to them, I’ve got to share two religious experiences I had.  To put it in context, I’ve got to say some negative things about religion first.  Please know that I’m sharing my own experiences and reactions, and not judging you personally or your belief system.  The gist is that I realized that I’ve been deeply angry with Christianity and their concept of God, and it’s not ok.  It’s something I need to work through.  Let’s get into it a little.

There are 3 main reasons I’m angry with Christianity.  The first is that I was raised Catholic, and I understood the message to be as follows: “You’re all horrible people.  Hate yourself.  God is probably going to light you on fire forever.  If you’re on your best behavior, and constantly apologize, he might not, but still could.”  Messages like this and others contributed to my abysmally low teenage and young adult self esteem which in turn led to a variety of bad life decisions.  I take personal responsibility, but the root cause, in my mind, was that teaching.  For instance, Catholicism didn’t force me into a 3 year relationship with an emotionally abusive girlfriend, but it primed me for it.

Coming in at a close second is that I perceive a large number of Christians acting in a non-Christian way.  I get it that we’re all imperfect and doing the best we can, but it still bothers me.  As I see it, Jesus gave the following instructions, among others:  “Love everyone.  Help those in need ceaselessly and to excess.  Voluntarily give a thief more than he’s trying to steal from you because he obviously needs it.  Give give give until it hurts and then keep giving.  Own nothing and devote yourself to kindness, love, compassion, and empathy.”  I don’t think Jesus would be happy with many American Christians.  We vote against programs for the poor, refugees, immigrants, minorities, all of whom are groups in need.  Jesus, I suspect, would be all over helping them as soon and as much as humanly possible.  I just don’t understand how anyone can call themselves Christian unless they feel the same way and take similar actions.  Instead, we throw away our perfectly good TV to go buy a bigger and better one.  That’s got to piss Jesus off.  I think it comes down to this.  Religion is give and take.  Believers can ask God for things, and are obligated to return the favor by helping others.  I see a lot of asking and not a lot of returning.  Individual Christians can be great.  You’re probably great and everyone you know probably is too.  I’m talking big picture though.  The American aggregate is supposedly predominantly Christian, and yet our actions are not.  We might donate a little or volunteer sporadically, but Jesus set the bar really high, and it’s my opinion that we don’t come anywhere close to the expectation he set.  It’s like he asked us to walk from the east coast to the west coast, we walked 5 miles, got tired, and laid down to take a nap … for 2000 years.

Last, it seems to me that religion has been coopted.  Perhaps this is really just a corollary of reason 2 above, but people en masse seem to use religion as a way to create barriers between “us” and “them”.  It’s easy to ignore, marginalize, or even wage war against “them”.  They are different and somehow less.  Muslims?  Less.  Poor?  Less.  Mexicans?  LGBT?  Women?  Less.  Underserving.  Wrong and in need of interventional correction in any and all forms.  We must create obstructions to them living happy normal healthy lives under their competing belief system, right?  Christianity is the one true way to live and get into heaven, meaning that the majority of the billions of people who ever existed are going to hell, right?  That concept abhorrent.  It is devoid of the values Jesus espoused.

Currently, I don’t identify with any one religion or ideology.  I am open to all faiths, philosophies, and sciences in my search for grand big picture truths.  Taken together, these represent the culmination of thousands of years of study across all global cultures.  Dismissing any one of these summarily is to throw away knowledge.  Right now, on my trip, I’m exploring this somewhat passively.  At some point, I think I would enjoy a comparative religion class.  The problem is that it’s not possible to explore this topic completely without being open to the positive messages of Christianity.  Sure, I’ve got ample well justified reason to be angry with Christianity and God, but there’s a huge gaping hole in the spiritual tapestry without it.  Furthermore, is it really God and Christianity I’m angry with, or is it people?  This is the “revelation” that hit me this week.  I had gotten to the point where I was aggressively closed minded to Christianity and to even saying the name God.  Jesus’ message was indeed one of peace and love.  Every other element of hate, intolerance, and violence seems to have been edited in by us at one time or another.  These texts are heavily edited, revised, redacted, etc.  It’s a wonder we’ve got any clue at all what the teachings were.  How much do you trust a random 4th century Roman emperor or a British King a thousand or so years later?  I wholly reject all message of intolerance and hostility and assert that these were our own invention.  This then allows me to take a deep breath, and revisit the teachings of Christianity.  I am still angry, but it’s now redirected at people (as a group, not individuals) instead of God.  In time, this realization may allow my anger to dissipate.  People are imperfect.  Of course they manipulated the messages along the way to serve their own purposes.  I’m no saint.  That’s for sure.  Perhaps this is just another lesson in acceptance.  It’s likely that all messages across all faiths and philosophies have been tainted by human contact.

So why am I ranting way up high and mighty on this soap box?  Well, I do want to share the details of my trip, and while this has nothing to do with the Airstream or the adventure sports, figuring out life is a big part of my trip.  Secondly, I joined Emily for 2 religious experiences during my second week in Cincinnati.  They were moving and powerful, a guided meditation and a church service.  These were my first Christian experiences in many years.  Emily is a member of a non-denominational church called Crossroads and I decided to join her at a service and then a meditation event to get a feel for it myself.  It was at these that I felt my hostility towards Christianity well up.  It was almost as if a voice in my head from out of nowhere loudly took over and screamed “Fuck you!”, to myself of course, but kind of Breakfast Club style if you know what I mean.  The strength of this “voice” shocked me.  I teared up as I faced this deeply rooted hate and took the first step in letting it go.  I’m happy I had this experience.

As an addendum to this topic, I’ll share the superficial experience of Crossroads.  I certainly liked the church’s messages and depth, but the surface level presentation was also phenomenal.  This is a high production value organization.  You can have a deep moving experience in a prison cell, but it’s so much easier to connect with a message presented well.  The Brave experience, I’m tempted to call it an exhibit, is a multimedia immersion experience at the Cincinnati Citylink Center.  You wear headphones of the type museums offer for self-guided tours.  In a sequence of chambers, you are invited to sit comfortably, listen to the narrator and some music, and meditate and / or pray (starting to wonder how much of a difference there really is there).  It’s easy to make the experience your own.  There’s a dim room with comfortable chairs for meditating.  The chart room contains nice work benches for you to answer some questions for yourself on a hand out.  You choose the hand out that corresponds with various large messages on the wall, selecting one that resonates with you.  Still another room includes a large projection of a writhing sea that you can go sit in.  The walls cascade down smoothly, I’m assuming over bleachers, so that you can go sit right in the sea.  Exiting that, you pass into a room with a sandy floor, a large projection of people exploring a church, or maybe it was a temple, I think in Jerusalem.  I’d be happy to really delve into the details of the experience, but that’s not the point.  I simply want to convey that this was a deep and moving guided meditation experience with impressive and appropriate production value.  The church service was similar.  Held in arena style, it opened with a Christian rock band that clearly shares musical influences with many of the bands I listen to.  The pastor is legit, a graduate of the seminary with great messages and obvious charisma.  He struck me as a genuinely nice guy.  There were people there with stories like mine, disillusioned with traditional threatening messages or looking for redemption from challenging life circumstances.  The whole thing had a very welcoming feeling.  There wasn’t even any of that “let’s all drink the cool-aid” vibe that you might expect from some alternative churches.  It just straight up seemed like nice people on a similar journey to my own.  I was very glad that Emily invited me to both experiences.

The Cemetery, Parks, Bike Trail

There were a couple of other beautiful but heavy experiences.  Monday, April 18 was the 22nd anniversary of the suicide of a high school friend of Emily’s.  It seems everyone has dealt with it, but it’s still a day of remembrance.  I joined her as she visited his grave and the site in the woods of Ault Park where he did it.  Both the cemetery and the park were tranquil places that are worth a visit in their own right.  The cemetery is huge and old, but still modern with hundreds of years of space left.  Some of the graves are large and ornate commemorating the lives of significant city figures, prominent businessmen, and politicians.  There are fountains, rolling hills, and elaborate landscaping.  The park is much more natural, but the trails are equally peaceful.  We stopped for a meal at Melt, a delicious vegan place in nearby Clifton, a section of Cincinnati.

On Tuesday, I took a solo bike ride up the Little Miami River rail trail.  This is the longest dedicated bike path I’ve ever encountered.  It runs from Cincinnati up through Dayton and beyond as I understand.  I gather it’s more than 80 miles long.  I did a little over 50 miles as an out and back trip from Milford to Morrow.  It’s very much like the Minute Man Bike Path in parts.  There are expanses of untouched nature punctuated by towns.  However, there are important differences.  First, its less crowded.  I know I was there on a week day, but still.  The Minute Man trail is filled with crowds of pedestrians, mothers with double wide strollers, and skaters who are oblivious to other trail users or perhaps annoyed by their presence.  There’s a real attitude problem there, a sort of self-righteous indignance.  Sure, there are nice people there, but the Arlington / Cambridge cyclists are the worst.  Think Portlandia’s caricatures of cyclists yelling “Bicycle rights!” constantly at everyone.  By contrast, the Little Miami is filled with pleasant people who are happy to engage in light conversation or answer questions.  The towns are friendlier and there are fresh local beers on tap at patios immediately adjacent to the bike path.  The nature scenes are breath taking as you ride through fields, forests, hillsides, and along the quiet winding river.  There are old supports for a long since vanished bridge, an old factory, barns in a charming state of disrepair, and lots of wildlife.  The towns are all different too.  Milford was nearly urban while Morrow included both a converted train station with Pennsylvania Railroad Caboose on display along side a pretty run down and perhaps largely abandoned Main Street.

National Park Film, Murals, Findlay Market, Airstream Factory, Peggy

I spent the rest of the week hanging out with Emily again.  I helped out a little with her business, took care of a neighbor’s dogs with her, we cooked together, and went to see a movie on the National Parks.  It was great!  It followed climbers as they visited a variety of parks.  It was more adventure film than PBS documentary, and I loved it.  It was a little like the Warren Miller movies.  These climbers were related to Alex Lowe, the famous climber who died in an avalanche many years ago now.  The movie was shown at an old railway terminal, a large building with interesting architecture and beautiful murals.  It also houses other museums, but we did not have time to check them out on that day.  The city overall has beautiful murals everywhere.  There’s a walking tour to check out 35 murals already completed with more planned.  They are all unique and spectacular.  One of a bird in particular would make a great tattoo.  We checked out many of them, including a large one on the Sam Adams Brewery.  That’s right, I said the Sam Adams Brewery.  Go home Sam.  You’re drunk!  Are you lost?  Boston is that way!  It was so weird that this Boston brewery was here, and enormous!  We also checked out Findlay Market.  What a great place!  It’s more or less an open air weekend market.  Booths set up in pedestrian allies, and permeants shops open their doors for people to meander in and out of.  There’s a farmer’s market, trendy fresh made customized dog food, specialty coffee, various high end arts and crafts, flowers, and food of all sorts including the broadest array of spices I’ve ever seen in one place.  Take that Penzy’s!  I’d happily, even enthusiastically, visit this market every week.  Even the people hanging out there were super cool.  It’s very dog friendly.  The whole city seems to be.  Cincinnati is home to the most elaborate dog park I’ve ever seen.  You can walk around with your local craft beer bought in the pedestrian part of the park.  The fenced dog portion is partly paved, and partly grass / turf.  There’s running water for the dogs to play in, and no mud to speak of.  The dogs were well behaved, and there was a wide range of owners hanging out and socializing.  This wasn’t some sort of conservative Midwest scene.  There were all manner of haircuts, tattoos, and clothing styles right outside of Cincinnati Music Hall where the Pops play.  A performance was just letting out, and mixed into the environment were well dressed and refined patrons adding an air of class to it all.  This city keeps getting cooler and cooler.

I did have to go to the Airstream factory on Friday to pick up a replacement part.  I’ve been staying at the East Fork Campground and needed to go to the dumping station.  I did a hurried, lazy, and incomplete job preparing the trailer for motion, and I neglected to raise one of the rear stabilizer jacks.  Fortunately the factory is only a 2 hour drive away, and I kind of wanted to visit it anyway.  It’s a large place.  I didn’t make it on the tour, but I got to see the grounds and visitor area.  They were super friendly and helpful, and it made me happy to see a lot full of new Airstreams.  The old jack came off fairly easily, but 2 of the 5 bolts were frozen and I had to shear off the heads.  I borrowed a drummel tool from Emily’s mom and machined flat head screw driver grooves into the shanks.  Hopefully the penetrating oil will do the job and I can remove them or perhaps drill them out.  I’m waiting to install the new jack until I do one or the other.  Either way, it’ll be fine with 3 bolts only if necessary.

Emily and I took our dogs for several walks as well.  Peggy had one minor conflict with each dog, but they are all friends now.  Willy gives her kisses and Peggy trots along next to Rece like they are old pals.  They’re still figuring out each other’s boundaries, but she seems to have accepted them and vice versa.  Peggy is a high anxiety dog.  There have been lessons this week in managing her anxiety.  It doesn’t come up much when its just the two of us, but with Hank and other dogs around, it’s something to pay attention to.  She’s fine, and she is learning to cope, but she does sometimes remind me that she’s a rescue with subtle issues that require an extra level of awareness.  She’s happy though, and really just needs a little extra reassurance from time to time.  On one of the walks, she was staying so close with the other dogs that I tried taking her off leash.  We were in a safe park far from dangerous roads.  She stayed with the group for some time, but then ran off into the woods.  She has done this in other off leash experiments, but never gone far.  This time I lost her.  It took a while to find her.  Here again, she hadn’t gone far, but didn’t come back when called.  It got dark and I had to use a flash light from Emily’s car to slowly pick my way through the woods until I heard her tags.  She did park once which at least pointed me in the right direction.  Here’s where her very selective barking was actually a detriment!  I decided to by her a shock collar which I intend to use primarily as clicker training with treat reinforcement, but I think being off leash makes her happy, and it’s probably worth the trade off in the rare event I might need a light shock.  You can turn it way down so they barely feel it.  I doubt it’ll take much at all to get her attention.  I’m going to focus on the positive reinforcement first.  I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s enough.

Emily, Family, and a Plan

Something else a little serious happened this week.  This is turning out to be a bit of a heavier post!  I’m still having a great adventure and I hope reading this isn’t bringing you down!  Well, last heavy thing.  Emily’s grandmother is in a nursing home with seemingly moderate cognitive and mobility issues.  I can relate.  I recently lost both grandparents on my father’s side, and my mother’s parents are also under advanced senior care.  The closer you are with seniors, the harder this time will naturally be.  Emily is very close with her grandmother.  Emily received a phone call just as we were preparing to leave her house for an afternoon out.  Her grandmother had fallen and they had just called 911.  We rushed over and arrived at the same time as the paramedics and fire department.  It was a bit of an ordeal, but she was happily fine.  These things can happen for so many reasons that it’s hard to tell exactly what’s up, but she had only minor bumps and bruises.  We ended up spending a very pleasant afternoon with her.  It wasn’t what we planned, but it had a great outcome!  She didn’t need to go to the hospital, they had a nice family visit, and I got to meet her grandmother.  She seemed to like me which is nice.  Incidentally, her grandmother suffered another fall in the middle of the night later in the week.  She needed surgery, but is doing reasonably well.  In light of this week’s post, I feel it is appropriate to ask for your prayers, positive energy, meditation intentions, manifestations, or whatever your belief system allows.

I’ll add here that I love Emily’s family.  Her father is an accountant and a generally upbeat, charismatic, smart, and friendly guy.  I have enjoyed our discussions and look forward to more in the future.  I met Emily’s mom in Florida as you might recall, and it has been great to see her again as well.  I enjoy their family’s sense of humor and intellect.  They are very welcoming.  I have felt right at home.  In fact, I keep extending my stay here.  I’m having so much fun spending time with Emily, and this city really is awesome.  We haven’t run out of interesting things to do at all!  My updated plan had been to leave today.  I was particularly inspired to hit the road after the National Park film, but there’s time.  Part of me wants to just stay here for a few months, but I just feel that this trip has been so long in coming, and I need more time to have this soul searching and fun adventure.  She understands and supports it.  Emily and I are developing a strong relationship that will continue after I leave here.  We have a variety of options to see each other as I travel, and we are excited about one another.  I am motivated to proceed slowly and not to jump head first into anything, but being with her makes me happy.  I’ll stay a little longer and will head out, perhaps later this week.  She helped me develop a plan.

I think it makes sense to head northwest at this point.  The western National Parks are becoming my focus.  The southwestern ones are important to me, but things are beginning to heat up there, and by the time I worked my way through what I want to see, it could be fall, a bad time to head north.  I think, instead, that I’ll start a park based trek from Mammoth Cave in southern Kentucky, heading generally northwest to Banff, Canada, hitting the Badlands, Yellowstone, and Glacier National Parks along the way.  This will give me a host of other opportunities to see the Midwest as well.  There are so many states to sample!  When I leave here, there will just be West Virginia and Wisconsin that I have never visited east of the Mississippi, and I’ll get to them on my way back.  From Banff, I’d love to head to Alaska, but that’s waaaaay further than it sounds.  It’s like a 33 hour drive to the closest part!  We’ll see though.  That’s still an interesting option.  More likely, I’ll head south towards Seattle and down the west coast from there as fall approaches.  That’s so far out, though, that anything could happen.

Cincinnati, Part 1

Cincinnati

Heading back south was the only logical step.  It was freezing in Chicago.  I’ll head back through Wisconsin and the UP when its warmer.  Besides, Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana are new states for me.  I probably won’t hit WV.  It’s a little too far out of my way.  Hopefully later.  I hear its beautiful.  When I leave hear, I’ll head towards St. Louis and then likely southwest from there.  I stayed in Chicago for an extra day after the friends left.  Veronica’s parents took good care of me while I got things in order.  I had hit it off with someone while up there, but I felt called south to see Emily, another important factor in my decision.

I came down on Monday, April 11.  I had made arrangements to stay at a Harvest Host winery on the northeast side of Cincinnati, but changed my mind.  It would be easier to de-winterize my trailer at a campground, and there is one closer to the Kentucky boarder, where Emily is from.  We ended up getting together on Monday night for a low key hang out.  We actually spent the evening at a grocery store, but not just any grocery store.  Jungle Jim’s is such an experience that it actually appears on Trip Advisor as a thing to do.  Now, I know that a grocery store on trip advisor may imply that there isn’t much to do here.  Let me assure you that nothing could be further from the truth.  First of all, Jungle Jim’s is indeed an experience. I could happily have spent hours in there.  It’s got so much great stuff to pick through!  I was in heaven.  And its super cheap!  I got so much stuff for half the price of Whole Foods, the real brands I typically buy there too.  The scratch and dent section is a steal.  I’m currently making mashed potatoes from perfectly good spuds, the whole bag for $1.50.  Need your organic tempeh, bulk nuts, nutritional yeast?  Look no further.  I particularly enjoyed the giant decorations, the airplane, the huge weight lifter by the vitamins, etc.

On Tuesday, I visited Emily at her job at Water Balls and took a spin, literally.  You get in a giant clear ball and with comedic futility, try to move around the surface of a pool.  Hilarious is an understatement.  We walked across the plaza to the aquarium.  Yes, not vegan, I know.  I’ve mentioned previously my conflicted feelings.  They are not all created equally and some do great work.  This housed no captive marine mammals save a few sea otters in an elaborate enclosure.  I’m not going to lie.  I loved it.  It was so cool!  They had, are the called ray sharks?  I’ve never seen anything like them!  Emily knows so much about everything there.  There’s a giant boss of a sea turtle who picks on the divers, a monster alligator, a sheep’s head fish and a wolf eel if I remember correctly.  So many things I had never seen and got to learn about!  We grabbed a quick pizza and beer at Mellow Mushroom before parting ways for a bit.  I took Peggy to Tower Park, a beautiful park with trails overlooking the river on the Kentucky side.  We ended the night hanging out at Emily’s house.  I also met her parents, both of whom I enjoyed speaking with very much.

Wednesday, I brought Peggy over to Emily’s.  We introduced the dogs, and I met her snake, rabbit, and lizards.  They were all so cool!  Peggy learned an important lesson, too.  Don’t step on stranger dogs.  I pet Willie and she got jealous and tried to climb me to get my attention.  I’m trying to break her of this habit, but have been slow to adopt the firmness that seems to be required to get through to her.  She’s coming along, but after Willies reaction, I think she got it.  There was no blood or harm, but he very clearly put her in her place.  They were fine afterwards though.  I had bought tickets to a band I like, Murder By Death.  I saw them when they were a new band many years ago, and then again more recently last year, both times in Boston.  It was cool to see them in a new venue.  The Southgate House Revival is an old church.  I’ve been to venues like that before, but I particularly enjoyed this one.  Seeing them gave me an excuse to reach out to my friend, Tina, who introduced them to me back in college.  I’ve largely lost touch with Tina, but I value her friendship and I hope to keep in touch to whatever extent our lives allow.  It was great to reconnect with her.

Thursday, Peggy and I met Emily her dog Willie for a quick tour of part of Cincinnatti.  We walked through a park and did a short driving tour before taking the pouches to the vet for shots.  They were troopers and appeared to be well passed their conflict.  Later, we stopped at the local grocery for stir fry ingredients, and it wasn’t even Stir Friday!  Archer?  Anyone?  I doubt it.  Check it out if you like off color cartoons for not so grown ups.  It was great.  We stayed in and watched a movie on HBO called Anomalisa.  It had a distinctly independent film feel to it.  It was a quirky animated film following a day in the life of an older man, dissatisfied with life, and suffering a breakdown.  I absolutely adored it.

Emily was busy with work and life commitments on Friday and Saturday, so I had some time for solo adventures.  On Friday, I went for casual 20 mile bike ride around the area of East Fork State Park.  I did a bunch of chores, cooked a delicious dinner of heavily spiced cashew potatoes, BBQ beans, and steamed spinach.  Then I went out to 50 West, a popular local brew pub.  I sampled 12 of their beers and was pleased with them all.  It was nice to come across some types that I find less often at places like this such as the California Common.  I’ve had trouble NOT sleeping in here.  It’s been very relaxing.  Burning the candle at both ends seems to be in my nature, and I’ve needed some rest.  Cincinnati has provided me with both adventure and rest.  It’s been great.  Saturday morning, I slept in once again and was finally able to begin my day in the city after 1 PM.  In my defense, it takes a while to take care of my neurotic “kids”.  If they don’t get enough love, they let me know.  Peggy tries to climb me like a tree, and Hank wakes me at 6 AM crying for attention.  Who am I kidding, they do this even when smothered with love.  It’s a good thing I care about them so much.  I just wish Peggy wasn’t learning so many bad habits from Hank.  Now she leaps over the table seats, climbs on the table, and scoots past me as I come in and out of the trailer.  I finally had to get quite stern with her and she’s backed off a bit.  Not to worry, no matter what our day consists of, we always start and end with family snuggle time.

Anyway, Saturday.  I decided to visit the Contemporary Art Center.  It’s a small museum.  You can see it all fairly thoroughly in an hour or 2.  Just one exhibit filled the 3 open floors, but despite its small size, it was perhaps the most relevant exhibit to my life I’ve encountered so far.  The artist was from Seoul, Korea, but had later moved to other cities like Berlin and NYC.  In their mind, the perfect home was half way between NYC and Seoul, about 3500 miles from both, smack dab in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.  The individual works were all around finding a place to call home, and creating the perfect home there.  What a perfect exhibit for me!  At first, as I just casually took it all in, I was casually pleased with the interesting and varied pieces.  Once I realized what the theme was, I was down right giddy.  The artist used so many different media to convey the nuances and complexities of his concepts.  There were paintings, small and large scale wood and fabric models, video works, and an entire interactive floor.  I particularly loved the travel trailer decked out in flames.  I could have spent a long time with each piece, but I wanted to get to a vegan lunch place called Park and Vine which closed at 3.  Its one of those small alternative shops / grocery stores with an attached café, but what a café!  The extensive fully vegan menu was a little overwhelming.  I went with some fresh kombucha, a toonah melt, and a reuben since I couldn’t pick just one thing.  After that, I was a little lost for what to do with myself.  I reviewed my options and found some great choices.  That night, I could have seen Shakespear, the symphony, a play, a variety of interesting independent films, but instead, I went to a themed sketch comedy performance that makes fun of 20 and 30 something bar flies and the wait staff who serve them.  I’m super classy.  I found it pretty funny, but the room was pretty dead.  It was filled with 2 bachelorette parties, and lets be honest.  Is there anything more annoying than a bachelorette party?  We get it.  Nice blow job bib and penis straw.  You’re so playful and cute!  Sorry, not sorry.  It’s not cute, or original, or funny, or creative, or anything.  The ironic thing is that this performance is off color, so much so that the reviews warn you not to go if you’re sensitive to that.  These girls were clearly in the wrong place.  The performance is interactive and there were drinking games.  At one point, we played a game where you had to choose between two horrible options and people drank if they picked the wrong thing based on what a randomly selected patron picked.  A girl was asked if she would rather have her grandmother walk in or a puppy die every time she masturbated.  She was not amused.  I couldn’t tell what was funnier, the question or her indignant disgust.  What did you expect lady?!  Take another sip from your penis straw you hypocrite!  Ha!  While I was a little disappointed in the crowd for the most part, I had a great time sitting next to Lisa and Steph, the perfect married couple.  One was reserved and the other was the loudest person in the room.  They were great and we got along famously and enjoyed the show very much.  After that I wandered around some popular nightlife areas of the city until I found a bar with good atmosphere and live music.  The Tin Roof down by the ball parks fit the bill.  It was totally generic and the cover band played everything you’d expect, but it was fun.  I stayed for a couple of hours.  They were pretty good!  As the night passed, though, the music turned more towards club music, the patrons all suddenly looked like children, and the dance floor was packed.  I like dancing to music I like, but I’m all set with dancing for the sake of dancing in a club environment.  In the prime of their club days, people like to pretend its all fun, but in my experience, people start being more honest about it in their later 30s.  There’s a lot of standard behavior in those settings that I find distasteful.  I don’t care that people hook up or whatever.  I more mean that competitive and unfriendly behaviors that people like to pretend aren’t really there, but they totally are.  I thoroughly enjoyed the evening, but once I saw that stuff starting to dominate, I decided to take my 39 year old butt home to bed!  I’m often pretty social, but that night I had really felt just like being around people, not so much directly engaging, and it was time to engage or leave anyway.  I happily went home to family snuggle time.

Sunday, April 17, I met Emily for a 4 hour horseback ride.  It was just the two of us on horses and trails that she knows well.  What a beautiful day!  In fact, the weather here has been spectacular, each day better than the last!  The horses were well behaved if a little antsy.  Willie joined us.  He apparently gained a lot of weight over the winter.  He runs along the horse trails with her when she rides, and it was good for him to get some exercise.  He kept up well.  We forded a stream, went up and down some steep hills, and covered a comfortable miles, maybe 13 or so?  We didn’t want to overwork the dog or the horses, but they all still had some time to run.  When we got back, the horse I had ridden, Jo Jo, was so happy that he began prancing all over!  His tail was straight up in the air, head held high, and he trotted happily along like his body was lighter than air.  I’ve never seen a horse look so happy!  It was enough that other people commented on it to Emily later!  He was horse dancing!  After we cleaned up and went out to dinner at one of Emily’s old haunts.  This restaurant and bar has clearly kept up with the times!  It had a large number of vegan items along side its traditional offerings.  We had vegan jambalaya, chili, and a chili dog.  Then we just relaxed at her house for a while before I headed home.

I’m writing this now sitting in a trendy coffee shop, Rohs Street Café, after getting my first hair cut since leaving Boston!  Man, I was shaggy.  I think I lost 10 pounds!  I like this collegy part of town.  My hair stylist was covered in tattoos and would have happily given me a blue Mohawk if I wanted it.  That’s the kind of place I like to go.  I wasn’t looking for a blue Mohawk, but I like places in touch with style enough to keep me looking good with my abysmal sense of style and dislike of cookie cutter military cuts.  I literally gave her free license to do anything, and sure enough, it looks great!  Anyway, I’m off to see Emily now.  We’re going to some parks and museums this afternoon.  All in all, I love Cincinnati and have decided to stay another week or so.  I want to see a Reds game.  They’re playing the Cubs later this week.  There are a number of other things to do as well.  So far, I’ve seen live music, both a band I specifically sought out and a decent cover band, interesting art, good food, a dynamic city, and peaceful countryside.  It’s cheap and a great size.  There is a diverse culture here.  The city is big enough to be interesting, liberal, and current, and small enough to be totally accessible, and as I mentioned, the traffic is a joke.  It’s great!  I’ll write more about the rest of my stay in my next post.  I’m providing this intermediate update since I got a request for more frequent updates to make it easier to read, shorter updates and all.  Ok everyone, have a great day!

North(ish) to Chicago

The Natchez Trace

I have continued north along the Natchez Trace Parkway, and I’m loving every minute of it.  This place is beautiful and a great place to find the solitude I’ve been craving.  There are still plenty of opportunities for human interaction with fellow travelers, but I spent so much time in cities and surrounded by people that some peace and quiet is appealing, even for this massive extrovert.  I’m writing today from the Jeff Busby Park along the Trace.  I could move on today, but I’m taking another day of rest and low key activity.  When I last wrote, I was staying at the Natchez Trace State Park near Natchez, MS.  There were many wonderful sights to see in Natchez and along the trail near the southern terminus.  Remember, the rail is about 440 miles long, and that campground is at about mile 10.  I stayed there for several days, but finally decided to move on.  As with so many places, I’d have been happy to stay there much longer.  I expected to like MS, but I’m really falling in love with this place.  It seems that happens a lot with me, though.  My original plan was to drive straight up to the Jeff Busby Park where there is free camping, but that’s at mile 193.  That’s far enough to skip a lot of the trace as well as Jackson, which I wanted to see, so I decided to have a short travel day and spend 1 night at the Rocky Springs Park.  That was enough to see both the park and the city.  Rocky Springs was huge in its day with a peak population over 2600, now 0.  Evidence of the old town is visible along certain trails.  There are sisterns, safes that were too heavy to move, and erosion that is evidence of poor farming practice.  They cleared the land to plant cotton and didn’t manage it. well.  I wasn’t surprised to see references to slaves, but I was surprised to see there were over 2000 of them.  That’s more than 3:1!  Some historical signs pointed to the civil war as a contributor of the town’s demise and also included a quote from a local land owner lamenting the loss of his livelihood.  I might have been reading into it, but it looked to me to say “This area would still be prosperous if we had just been left alone”.  By now we all know my feelings on this topic so I’ll leave it alone.  I might have been mistaken about the intent as well, but it did come close enough to make me wonder.  I have yet to hear a reference to the “war of northern aggression”.  I’ll have to bite my tongue if I come across that one.  Like seemingly every town and city down here, they also suffered massive losses to yellow fever.  It’s amazing anyone survived it.  I get the impression that it was every bit as bad as the bubonic plague.  Mobile, New Orleans, here, everywhere I visit in the south has had multiple mass casualty events that sometimes doomed entire towns and cities.  Whole armies abandoned certain regions instead of fighting for the territory they wanted when they just couldn’t take it anymore.  Local descendants of Rocky Springs’ original residents have maintained and still use the church and cemetery.  It’s small, but nice.  It’s private property, but a sign invites you to tour respectfully.  The door is open and you can go in and pray or meditate or whatever works for you.  It’s very peaceful.

Jackson seemed nice enough, but I didn’t feel called to explore it that much.  I’m sure it has a lot to offer, but I got the impression it was more of a Framingham than a Boston for you MA readers, a city that is more focused on function than culture.  Don’t take that to the bank though.  It was just my impression.  My entire stay consisted of going to a food coop with a restaurant inside.  However, I stayed for hours because both were so good!  The food at the coop was stellar.  I particularly enjoyed the quesadilla, but the chili with jalapeno corn bread, cake, and macro-bowl were also great.  I spent double what I had intended.  Prices may have been a little high, but I also bought expensive things like a big bag of nutritional yeast, goji berries, and the biggest jug of apple cider vinegar I’ve ever seen.  I use that for my acid reflux and in my hair.  Incidentally, I’ve got terrible acid reflux if it’s not managed.  I have a leaky valve near the top of my esophagus.  I also can’t burp properly.  How’s that for too much info?  Well, I share this in case you have acid reflux, too.  I used to take medication once or twice a day with extra for acute situations.  I now take nothing, and I don’t have to avoid coffee or alcohol which are both triggers for me.  I simply add 2 table spoons of ACV to a glass of water and drink that once a day.  It completely manages my heartburn.  Now, it takes a few days to really take effect, and the taste takes getting used to.  I also did this twice a day at first, but once is good for maintenance.  Now, no medication is necessary whatsoever.  Low acidity diets are also key.  All meat and all dairy are acid forming in your body.  That’s yet another reason the vegan thing works for me.

At night, I decided to build a fire.  The campground was well picked over, but on my walk around the town site, I saw that there were tons of down and dry wood away from the camping area that people hadn’t bothered to plunder.  Thank god for laziness?  I decided to take two trips dragging large branches behind me, the largest I felt I’d be able to break down into firewood by hand.  Fortunately, someone had left a few larger logs in my campsite.  I’m guessing its wood that they hadn’t gotten to, but now I wonder if someone left it on purpose.  I wish I had thought of that and left some for the next guest.  Once and engineer, always an engineer, I’m coming to believe.  You can’t really turn it off.  After making a spectacle of myself loudly dragging 12 foot long branches down the paved road through the camp site, I proceeded to break them down and pile them by size, twigs, a little larger twigs but still maybe under 1 inch, and things 1 inch and over where I either couldn’t break them or it took a lot of effort.  I wondered what to use to start the fire.  The twigs were nearly small and dry enough.  Patience with a lighter might work.  Gas is always an option, but oof, I hate to go down that road, and I was out of paper and cardboard.  Then I realized I had a half used roll of paper towel.  I considered making some carefully constructed structure, but it was now late.  Beautiful moonlight now lit the campsite, and I was eager to get the fire started.  I lit the paper towel roll and heaped half the small twigs on top of it.  It caught quickly so I heaped the other half on.  As the fire grew, I added half the larger twigs, and then the rest.  I started to worry that my fire would be out in 10 minutes!  Oh well, it wouldn’t have bothered me if it had.  The fire was perhaps 4 feet high at this point and I was satisfied.  I kept laughing at myself as I worked through the best way build up and sustain the fire.  Any normal person would have just sat and enjoyed it like, well, like a normal person.  Still, it was fun for me and the fire did end up lasting hours.

The next morning I proceeded to Jeff Busby, home of Mississippi’s highest point.  As I write this, I arrived yesterday and will be leaving tomorrow, Thursday March 24.  Yesterday, Tuesday, I had a little cooking party for one.  I love to cook.  It brings me peace and this campground is even quieter than Rocky Springs was.  I made green smoothies to last 2 days, a cashew cream salad dressing with lemon, black pepper, dill, and fresh garlic.  I’m a slow chopper, so salads take forever, but it’s fine.  This salad was huge.  It filled my largest pot and my largest salad bowl, but as was remarked on my Facebook post about buying all of those groceries, I’ll still mow through it pretty quickly.  After that, I walked Peggy up Little Mountain to watch the sunset.  It was beautiful.  I also interrupted Wanda and Dub’s sunset picnic celebrating their 42nd wedding anniversary.  I was apologetic, but they insisted it was fine and we had a great conversation as we watched the sun go down.  They live in Houston, MS, not too far from here, and offered me a spot to park, a home cooked meal, and a place to do laundry.  That’s so nice!  I’ll have to see if that fits my travel plans.  I’d like to see them again.  It was great to share some time with them.  Just back from a cruise to Cozumel with 23 of their closest relatives, they decided to keep their anniversary simple.  They road up to the mountain with their nearly brand new 3 wheeled motorcycle, a sharp looking machine.  Wanda worked at the post office, and Dub on oil rigs.  They had interesting stories and were curious about my background as well.  What a great couple.  We parted as the moon was coming up, and Peggy and I came back down to relax and finish up House of Cards on Netflix.  This was a pretty good season by the way, but I won’t spoil it for you here.

Wanda had recommended getting up for sunrise and moon set the next morning.  I kept waking up last night, and happened to feel wide awake in time, so Peggy and I walked up the hiking trail.  I’m glad we did.  The morning was perfectly still in the dim predawn light.  Hiking trails are generally places of pure tranquility for me, but this was especially so.  As we climbed the short trail, the clouds burst forth with purple, then pink, then a fiery orange.  We reached the summit in plenty of time.  The moon was enormous as it sat low in the sky directly opposite the ascending morning.  It was fading as the sky brightened, and in fact, it disappeared from view just before touching the horizon as the sky became too bright.  Almost simultaneously, the sun peaked up from the other side of the Earth, a glorious moment that sent shivers down my spine.  This was perhaps the best and most peaceful moment of my journey thus far.  It’s what compelled me to sit down and write right away.  I didn’t take pictures as my phone had died.  Thank you House of Cards.  However, I’m glad I didn’t.  It was nice to be entirely present in the moment.  Pictures wouldn’t have come out anyway.

An important dream

Ok, so I find I need to write about something I said I wouldn’t, something I have been avoiding.  As I’ve travelled, though, I find it’s been weighing on my mind and I’m not sharing completely if I don’t.  I’m choosing now to unpack it a little because it’s the reason I didn’t sleep well last night.  It’s hard to say how long my last relationship lasted.  It depends what you count.  We were on and off, and sometimes even when we were on we were off.  It’s safe to say that she was emotionally important to me for about 4 years.  I’ve thought of her a lot as I’ve traveled.  I left Boston in mid-January, only about a month after it ended for this most recent time.  We definitely loved each other a great deal.  For my part, I always will.  There are people who remain important to you long after they permanently leave your life.  We started from impossible circumstances.  She was not actually available when I fell for her, and I was freshly divorced and not well positioned to begin something meaningful.  The early times were filled with longing, broken promises, and hurt.  It was not an ideal place to build trust from.  We would stop talking from time to time and the universe would bring us back together.  I would see other people in the meantime, but could never get her out of my mind.  We’d start up again, but things would quickly go bad.  It was rocky, a wonderful, magical, hellish roller coaster ride sometimes.  The other day, my iPhone memory reached capacity.  I literally couldn’t take a single picture without deleting one for one.  I spent a couple of hours removing all pictures from my phone.  Many if not most of the pictures were of her and good times we shared together.  It made me very sad, but I was finally ready to not have them at my fingertips.  We were supposed to take this trip together.  Costa Rica was booked with the intention of us traveling together.  This entire journey has been one of healing in that respect.  I’m genuinely looking forward, and it does continuously get easier, but so many experiences take me back and remind me of her.  There are times when it hurts badly, and all I want to do is reach out to her, but I don’t.  I know that it was not good or healthy for me overall.  As she was breaking up with me, she admitted that she has so much love to give, and for some reason, cannot consistently give it to me.  There are times I’m all she wants, and yet it’s not enough.  It’s more complicated than that, but I’d like to avoid sharing her personal details here and focus on my own experience.  I loved her so much that I was trying to overlook all of that, but I wasn’t always happy.  Neither of us were our best selves around each other.  Sometimes yes, but the result was that we would hurt each other, badly at times.  Last night I had a dream that I felt was a milestone.  It’s the reason I’m sharing this now.  I dreamt that I bumped into her.  She told me what she’s been up to and said that she’s still working through things, but that she’d like me back in her life in the meantime.  I told her what I’ve been up to, about meeting other people, people who treat me the way I want to be treated and with whom I am closer to my best self as it seems are they.  We talked it over in some detail.  It was a vivid dream, the kind where you wonder if the other person is really dreaming it too, at the same time.  I ultimately said no.  I can’t go into it further without really oversharing.  However, it seemed important to share this personal story.  I don’t necessarily need to find a relationship on this trip.  I’m open, but have never been specifically looking.  It’s more about looking back at some of my patterns and trends, and giving some thought to the type of relationship that will be healthiest for me.  For those of you keeping score, I haven’t seen Emily in a while now, but we’re still in touch, and I’m excited to see what might become of that down the line.

Back to the Trace

On Wednesday, I took a day trip up the Trace from Jeff Busby Park.  I brought Peggy as I usually do.  By this point, I’ve seen each type of site on the Trace.  It continues to be interesting, but now it’s just variations on a theme.  I’m enjoying learning bits of information that are starting to fit together.  Out at historical sites, they try not to overwhelm you with information all at once.  If you go to enough sites, you end up collecting a level of knowledge that begins to feel like inside information.  For instance, at first I learned that the Lousiana area was traded back and forth a couple of times.  The French were at war with the British, so rather than let the Native Americans have it back, the French sold it back to the Spanish before they were defeated on the condition that the Spanish not sell it to the British … which they promptly did 10 days later.  There’s always the superficial story, but it always gets juicier if you dig deeper.  Meriwether Lewis of Lewis and Clark fame may have committed suicide, but he may also have been murdered.  He had been called to DC to explain his illegal misappropriation of government funds to his private business and died of gun shot wounds on the way.  Did he shoot himself in the chest and then also in the head as is the going theory?  That sounds implausible to me, but perhaps.  As I’ve learned more about our history, I’ve gotten emotionally invested at times as described above.  However, the more I learn, the more I’m beginning to look at it as a continuous saga that never ends, one that you can step back from and see as a spectator.  We tend to get very passionate about the issues of today, but I suspect that most of us fail to see that these same issues have come up time and time again in one form or another for all of US history and often beyond.  Furthermore, the specific circumstances around today’s issues did not occur in a vacuum.  They are the culmination of years, decades, and centuries of events, all building on one another.  US history starts to look like a very short story in the grand scheme of things where the 1700s are relatively recent, and our current situation is not really that far removed from then.  It makes me wonder how we’d all feel about politics today if we were better informed about US and world history.  I know many highschools require these topics, but how many of us got into very much detail then, or bothered to remember it as adults?

I’m writing this section on Friday, and rather than recount all of the individual sites I’ve continued to see along the Trace, I’ll just direct you to my Facebook page.  The Trace, as I’ve mentioned, is well worth a visit.  There have continued to be additional experiences though, that I haven’t put on Facebook, unexpected personal experiences that I’ll share now.  At one site, I came across James from Tupelo, MS.  James was resting at a Trace site I stopped at, sitting on a short wall next to his bicycle.  He was in jeans with a studded black leather belt, a gray t-shirt, a thick chain with a cross around his neck.  He struck me as probably not that old, but perhaps a man who had seen some rough times, with bright eyes and a weathered face.  The bicycle, an orange mongoose, is a perfectly fine machine, but not one known for performance or quality.  It’s designed for function and cost.  I stood near James, reading some of the materials.  We were quiet at first, probably each wondering if the other wanted to talk.  I said hello, and he piped right up.  James ended up sharing a lot with me, and I with him over what became a relatively extended conversation.  Here was a man who I’ll suggest that a mother with small children might have avoided.  He didn’t look at all sinister to me, but I would guess that more timid people might have avoided him.  I was thoroughly rewarded for my curiosity.  James had indeed seen some rough times.  There had been several deaths in his family, infighting amongst the rest, financial set backs, a car fire, a motorcycle accident (James was rehabbing his leg on the bicycle), and yet here before me was a man with a positive attitude.  He wasn’t shy about some of his political beliefs.  For instance, that Obama has done nothing right, save for somehow being responsible for the cell phone currently in James’ hand, and that he was a Muslim.  He also felt that the terrorist situation had been handled all wrong.  I listened intently as I’m genuinely interested in the different perspectives found across America.  However, after sharing all of that, he described an almost zen-like perspective.  He felt that people need to stop hating, all hating, everywhere.  We didn’t drill down into that too deeply, but he has totally forgiven his family, and doesn’t dwell on his misfortunes.  His eyes are on the future, and he is optimistic about his prospects.  It was a real pleasure speaking with James.  I’m not sure we have much in common in day to day life, and we did not exchange information.  However, he enriched my life that day by showing me that, despite our significant differences in background and opinions, that indeed all you need is love.

James said one other thing that stuck with me.  He had no knowledge of my current minimalist attitudes when he said this.  Honestly, I don’t even really know what prompted it.  It seemed a little out of the blue, but he said something to the effect of “those who say money isn’t everything should try living without any”.  I’ve had a couple of days to think about that now.  It’s relevant to my current musings.  I have explained how I felt that my possessions owned me and that by getting rid of them, I have found greater happiness.  It now occurs to me that what I’ve done is not just downsize, but rather, change the ratio of assets to debts or financial liabilities.  I am not wealthy in the traditional sense of the word, but relative to my meager expenses, I am.  The point is that it’s really about spending much less than you make or have.  In this context, James’ point really seems to be that there’s a floor to living expenses in America.  If you want food, clothing, shelter, and transportation, you can’t get lower than monthly expenses of X, whatever X is.  For those that make less than X, life is very stressful.  It’s probably pretty stressful even for those who make a little more, but not much more.  This one seemingly random comment of his helped me connect my life experience with that of those who have been much less fortunate than I.  This is an important consideration as I ponder what career to embark on or perhaps continue with next.  I am very grateful for my interaction with James.

For what it’s worth, I’ve not gone into my interactions with other people that I’ve met on this trip, but with whom I shared similarly unexpected encounters.  Just today I met two men on a brief walk at one of the Trace sites.  Keith and his friend whose name I did not get did not immediately strike me as friendly, and were perhaps people I might not want to approach.  Keith was dressed head to toe in camo, and for some reason I found this disconcerting.  Clearly I’m still working on non-judgment.  It’s important to me, and it does seem like practice makes perfect there.  Sure, keeping an eye on safety is key, but every time I’ve pressed my luck, it’s been fine / interesting.  In this case, Keith and his friend were locals who gave me some additional information on the site I was visiting and tips on other local sites.  By talking to them, I ended up meeting two cyclists who were biking all 444 miles of the Trace.  This is all just reinforcing my attitude that people are people.  We are all the same with the same core.  Our experiences change us and morph us into a wide range of people, but we’ve all got the same core, and that seems to be the key to all communication, compromise, and compassion.

Hank

While at the Jeff Busby campground, a black cat approached me.  It was clearly in desperate need of both food and affection.  I was confused, because this cat was familiar with people and its fur was in good condition, but it acted like a stray.  I asked around the campground to see if it belonged to anyone, and finally someone pointed out a sign on the billboard.  Officials are aware of a large number of feral cats.  They’re trying to round them up and rehome them.  Please do not feed them.  Well, too late.  This cat was already fed.  The cat had already come in the trailer and socialized with Peggy.  I began to consider taking the cat on my trip with me.  I’d get it checked out and could see if it would be a good fit on the road and with the dog.  If it didn’t, what would be the harm in finding it a no kill shelter, or better yet, directly finding it another home?  I left it out at night since I didn’t have a litter box, and sure enough, it was waiting outside the next morning.  I brought it with me when I left.  However, at the local(ish) vet, I discovered that the poor thing was chipped and already had an owner!  It was a neutered male, not a young non-spayed female.  This cat had strayed more than 10 miles from home and had been missing for an unspecified time.  He was a relatively recent rescue from a shelter, but the woman didn’t really like him.  He was too needy.  In her words, he kept mounting her older female cat.  Now that I have seen his behavior, I see that it’s not sexual mounting.  He “mounts” Peggy, but not how you might think.  He is just a little aggressive about his snuggling.  He likes to lay right on top of Peggy if he can, across her body, or even on her face.  I don’t think it’s a dominance thing.  He also lays at her butt and spoons with her.  He’s an opportunist snuggler.  For her part, Peggy seems to have mixed feelings about this.  At first she had a deer in the headlights look about it.  The more I pet her while he’s snuggling with her, the more she gets accustomed to it.  She seems to like it generally speaking, but late at night when she’s trying to sleep, she get’s up and moves if he’s too much.  I have caught them snuggling a bunch now, though, and it’s going well.  The owner did not want him back.  If I didn’t take him, he was going back to the shelter she had gotten him from.  I guess I can’t judge.  I don’t know the details.  It’s just hard for me to relate to.  It would take a lot for me to return a rescued animal, and I can’t imagine being indifferent towards any animal’s whereabouts or safety.  Anyway, now I have cat!  It’s going well, and I’m optimistic about it.

Nashville

On Saturday, finally having completed touring the Trace, I took a day trip to Nashville.  I wasn’t sure what to expect, or what I was even looking for.  I’m not a huge fan of country music.  I don’t hate it I guess.  I like good music, but I don’t gravitate towards country, especially the popular radio stuff.  I had skimmed a pamphlet, but it was packed with things I wasn’t interested.  I’ve seen my fill of museums and historical landmarks for the time being, and despite my time on the Trace, I wasn’t in a rush to head back into crowded cities.  I did a little internet searching, and started to get some information that worked for me.  First, I found a vegan place for lunch out near Vanderbilt University.  There’s a large city park and some music venues out that way.  Then I went downtown and checked out the Bourbon Street of Nashville.  It was fine, but I wasn’t immediately in love.  Then I started to make this area my own as well.  I passed by several bars until I found one with some decent live country music and a good beer selection.  Next I upgraded to a venue called the Listening Room where there was a scheduled show of 3 artists playing together.  They were all fantastic, one from Carlisle, MA, right near where I lived most recently.  The $7 cover was totally reasonable, and my day was definitely improving.  Like so many cities, I’m discovering that you can find what you are looking for if you scratch beneath the surface.  This was pretty good music!  It was not at all like the mainstream country that is so popular, and yet it was clearly still country.  It was nice to hear innovative music in this genre.  They call Nashville “Music City”, so I figured I’d continue my evening with a trip over to the Exit / In to see 2 more bands.  They were fine, but honestly, I liked the stuff at The Listening Room better.  Exit / In, though, has an impressive list of bands that have played there posted on their wall above the bar.  I’ve seen several, but so many more are on my to see list.

There is so much more to see and do in Nashville.  Now that I’ve gotten the lay of the land, I’d love to see more of it.  However, I find I’m feeling restless.  I’ve seen several cities already, and while my time on the Trace did have me outside and in nature more, I’m craving some serious outdoor activities.  It’s so challenging to keep everything in balance!  There are so many things I enjoy and want to include in my trip!  It’s a constant but pleasant struggle.  I have tickets to the Big Ears Music Festival in Knoxville.  It starts Thursday.  Today, Sunday, I relaxed with a movie and did some chores.  Tomorrow, I’ll head east in advance of the festival.  I’ll be able to have 2 or even 3 days of real hiking in the Smoky Mountains with Peggy.  I didn’t expect to be making a loop this early in the trip, but Knoxville is very close to
Asheville, NC.  Dedicated readers may remember my failed attempt to visit Asheville on my way out of Boston early in the trip.  I may hit that after the festival.

Knoxville, Big Ears

Ok, so I definitely should have posted what I’ve written up to this point instead of waiting.  As I write this portion, I’ve now been to the Big Ears Music Festival in Knoxville, hiked Mt Camerer in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, hiked Mt Mitchel in the Black Mountains National Forest, visited Asheville, driven to Chicago, and spent a weekend here visiting friends.  As with everything, I’ll have to hit just the high points, so here goes!

Maybe the first thing I’ll mention is that, since taking that down day, it’s been literally two weeks of non-stop activity.  Sympathy is not warranted or deserved, but I’m feeling a little wiped out!  Driving with Hank at first was horrible.  He barfed within the first 15 minutes, then would poop on the floor.  I started crating him, but that only served to keep the car clean.  He quickly coated the inside of the crate and himself in filth.  However, in desperation, I picked up some supplies in Asheville, and the drive to Chicago went much more smoothly!  He still cried, but fell asleep more quickly and did not have any “accidents”.  The trick was a liberal application of cat nip and pheromone spray.  We still took breaks, but he basically held himself together for a 14 hour day!

In Knoxville, or rather Maryville, I found a “Boondockers Welcome” home to stay at.  What an amazing and welcoming family!  The mom, Barbara, homeschools her two kids, and is a wonderful person.  They invited me in for dinner the first night, and we shared food, watched an episode of Heroes, and generally chatted for a while.  The topic of ice wine came up.  Since I was staying there for so long, about 5 nights, I went out and picked up a bottle for them as a thank you.  They in turn shared it with me on a separate night.  It was such a pleasure meeting them.

There driveway was my launch pad for all things Knoxvillian.  I started with a pretty substantial hike up a 5000 foot peek (3000 foot ascent).  Peggy and I ended up on a 16 mile loop covering about 5 miles of the Appalachian trail.  We hiked with Rachael, a through hiker who had started 3 weeks earlier and was covering 18 miles that day.  Meeting through hikers is just about the best thing that can possibly happen on a hike in my opinion.  They are super heroes, and they all have amazing stories.  Rachael was just finishing her work with the National Guard and this was her break before taking her life in a new direction.  She hopes to complete the route in about 5 months.  It normally takes 6 to 8, but she knew a trail runner who did it in under 5.  Good luck Rachael!  Peggy wants to do whatever I’m doing, and she can hike big mountains like a champ.  She took one power nap, but spent the rest of the time hurrying me along, that is, when she wasn’t pulling my arm off to sniff something … like what was most likely a bear cub.  I figured pulling her head off with the leash was better than being eaten by a mama bear, so I had no problem pulling hard against her unyielding and strenuous objections to moving on.  It was a beautiful day, but I was glad to be down.  My hiking boots feel more like light hikers than light back packers.  I’m used to a more rigid boot and my feet were feeling it.  I decided I wanted pizza and saw that there was a Mellow Mushroom nearby.  Imagine my horror when Gatlinburg punched me in the face.  Gatlinburg is a carnival, one big carnival of a town, and it appears magically, abruptly, and without warning, like an eruption of crassness from an otherwise pristine landscape.  I’m not knocking carnivals or people who like them, but this was an unexpected and unwelcome surprise given my day of peace and relative solitude in nature.  Still, I made the best of it.  Plus, I love the pizza at MM.

Big Ears is an entirely different music festival than Okeechobee.  Both were tons of fun with high quality acts, but Big Ears felt like a lot more adult of a festival.  I liked referring to it as the fine dining of music festivals.  Okeechobee felt more like a party.  At Big Ears, I went to see the symphony perform music by artists like Bryce Dessner.  I am a huge fan of Bryce’s work.  He and his brother play in a band called the National that I like a lot.  They are also heavily involved in the Boston music and art scene.  Big Ears is a city music festival where shows are spread across 8 venues that span about a mile.  Walking between them one night, I overheard an older couple talking about Bryce.  One said something like “Well, Bryce is …”.  During their pause, I blurted out “ … a genius?”.  They laughed and asked if I knew him.  I said no but mentioned some of his work that I liked, particularly an evening of performance art at the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art.  They knew exactly what I meant and then told me that they were his parents.  I couldn’t believe it!  We were headed towards the same venue and we talked the whole way there.  It was great.  I offered to buy them a drink when we got there, but they declined and we parted ways.  They seemed pleased to meet a real fan.  Big Ears also included performances by Andrew Bird, Yo La Tengo, and Angel Olsen, a few of the main artists I went to see.  There were instrument specific performances like guitar, percussion, harp, etc. from big name and extremely talented musicians.  Often musicians would play collaboratively with each other.  For instance, Bryce played with Yo La Tengo, the conductor from the symphony, one of the harpists, and the a saxiphone player unexpectedly.  Lamb Chop played as a super group with Yo La Tengo as well.  Some bands played traditional sets of their own music.  Others played totally non-traditional more experimental sounding music.  There was trance inducing “drone” music, high energy music to dance to.  I loved every second of this festival and wish I could have bottled it up to take it with me.  I even bumped into people I knew there.  A friend from Chicago had come down to the festival.  I hung out with him and some of his friends at different sets and joined them for the free festival BBQ meal.  It included vegan food!  Knoxville is cool.  There are lots of great bars.  One in particular, not a Big Ears venue, did have live music similar to the festival music.  I wandered in there and was pleasantly surprised by an excellent local artist called Hudson K.  I visited a winery that I kept parking near as well.  It was perhaps the best wine I’ve tried on this trip!  The venues for the festival were interesting.  One was brand new.  Another was a church.  Two others were theaters with individual seats, one of which you were issued an assigned seat for.  This was a perfect festival for me, and it makes me excited just to think of it now.  I saw very few traditional performances.  There were so many different kinds of instruments integrated into the vast majority of the performances, sax, flute, and sooooo many different string instruments!  I saw almost no basic band set ups with a guitar, bass, drums, and singer.  Come to think of it, over the 3 day festival, only 1 comes to mind.  I enthusiastically endorse this festival.  I could happily write extensively about it, but I’ll move on now.

Asheville

Big Ears included a number of interesting film exhibitions, but sadly I made it to none of them.  I had every intention of it and a strong interest, but something always seemed to stand in the way.  There were actually a few films showing on Sunday.  The festival primarily ran Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.  Sunday was a bit of an add on, or so it felt to me.  I wanted to see the Sunday offerings, but decided to move on.  I figured that if I headed straight to Asheville, I could have two non-travel days there, one to see the city, and one to hike.  I’d have a rushed and long drive to Chicago, but it seemed worth it, and it turns out I was right.  Monday, April 4, was my birthday.  I spent that wandering around Asheville with Peggy.  I found a vegan restaurant and a separate donut shop.  I had intended to head down to the River Arts District, but I never made it.  I also intended to hit several breweries to try the local offerings.  Clearly I need to go back to Asheville.  Peggy and I met so many friends at the first brew pub we went to, Wicked Weed, that we never made it to any others.  I spent hours sampling the beer and talking to a few different groups of people while Tame Impala played in the background.  I left there and found a new place for dinner, another vegan place recommended by Casey, the friend from the 311 shows in Nola.  The friends from the bar invited me out, but I was tired and wanted to get Peggy back to the campground.  It was very near town and super convenient.  When I had arrived on Sunday the 3rd, I had thought of heading into Asheville then, but I ended up hanging out with the group of campers next to me from the mid afternoon until late evening.  We played cards against humanity and a similar game involving ridiculous accents.  Then we had a camp fire, roasted marshmallows, and watched the walking dead outside in the dark.  It was kind of perfect actually.  I continue to be thrilled with the people I am meeting on this trip.  This continues to be such a rich, dense, and positive experience.  There is nothing I could possibly write that would even begin to convey the experience, but I hope you’re getting the gist from these ramblings.

On Tuesday, April 5, I hiked Mt. Mitchel, the highest peak east of the Mississippi River.  Peggy and I took an 11 mile route that was largely up and back, but with an alternate path to make it vaguely into a loop.  The peak is also accessible via auto road off the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Closed in winter, it had just opened on the first.  There were few people there.  I mostly had the mountain to myself.  The large parking lot was nearly empty and I was able to have a reasonably solitary summit experience.  Clearly this would not have been possible in the height of summer.  It reminded me of the summit of Mt Washington in NH which has both an auto road, the cog railway, and a large weatherstation with cafeteria on it.  You hike for hours and come out to senior citizens with walkers.  I’m glad its accessible to everyone.  It’s just a surprise when you come out of a trail to civilization unexpectedly, just like Gadlinburg.  I found the first third of the hike a little annoying, just a bunch of switchbacks up a rather steep hill.  However, the majority of the hike is beautiful.  They are having trouble with insects killing many of the trees, but it’s still a great hike with amazing views.  After I returned to the base, I drove down the parkway and went back up the mountain via auto road to get pictures in the near sunset light.  I could have done without the dude and his drone, but that’s fine.  Then I drove down the parkway to the closed end to see the sunset fully over the mountains.  I had hoped it would be open all the way back to Asheville, but it was not.  It was still too early in the season.  It appeared they need to clear the fallen rocks from the road.  The drive down to the parkway and down the mountain road back to the city was challenging in the dark, but manageable.  I made it back to camp and prepared for my 700 mile drive to Chicago the next day.

Chicago

Winterizing the trailer took longer than expected, so I got a late start to Chicago, leaving at 1 PM from south of Asheville.  Still, the drive was nice.  The ride through the mountains is breathtaking, but it takes a lot of focus.  The highway winds through up and down narrow passes and through tunnels appearing in quick succession, better than an amusement park ride.  I was due in Chicago by 7:30 AM on Thursday morning, but my late start meant that I only covered 500 miles by the time the animals and I were spent.  We pulled into a truck stop just north of Indianapolis and got 4 hours of sleep before getting up early to complete the drive.  At least we had the time change on our side!

I made it to Veronica’s parents’ house on time, but they live on a busy street.  I was able to back into their driveway successfully, but not on the first try.  I blocked traffic twice for a couple of minutes.  It was a challenging procedure and the added pressure didn’t help.  I backed the trailer into the neighbor’s mailbox and knocked it over.  I didn’t even know it was there!  Veronica’s dad, Carlos and I easily repaired it later that day.  By 8 AM, I was parked and we were on our way to pick up my friends Veronica and Meredith at the airport, just coming in on their flight from Boston.  We went out to breakfast and had a nice reunion.  Thursday was a pretty low key day.  We were all pretty tired.  Later that day, we met up with our friend Mike and went to a local bar. Sleep deprived and stuffed full of home cooking, I drank half a beer and promptly fell asleep at the bar.  Well, I was in and out.  We still had fun but called it an early night.  I slept in the next morning, sadly missing out on yoga with the friends.  I figured I’d have more opportunities to go with them, but I did not.  Friday we joined Veronica as she met a local friend for coffee.  There, we bumped into a highschool acquaintance of hers who suggested a different bar that night.  Mike and another friend of Veronica’s, Fouzia, joined us that night.  We all had a great time.  There was live music and a DJ who promptly ignored most of our requests, but not all.  This time, I had all of the energy.  We packed it in as the others got tired.  I was ready for yoga bright and early, but the others were feeling relaxed and sleepy, so we had a peaceful and quiet morning at home.  No complaints here!  Veronica’s mom had made delicious vegan scones, perhaps the best I’ve ever had!  It’s such a pleasure staying with her parents.  We’ve visited before, and they are always so welcoming and accommodating.  Her mom made sure to have ample vegan food on hand all weekend.  She cooked for us on Saturday night when we decided to stay in, and even after Meredith and Veronica left early on Sunday, they continued to invite me in all day.  I’m writing this Sunday night, and I’ll be leaving tomorrow morning.  By the way, her mom’s mushrooms are quality.  My mouth is watering just thinking about them now.  I spent hours today hanging out with Carlos and Debbie.  They are so easy to talk to for hours.  As we had all weekend, we covered all manner of topics such as family, politics, my trip, their trips, etc.  During this weekend, we barely visited Chicago at all.  I don’t mind.  I’ve been here numerous times.  I love it, but was happy to hang out with my Boston friends and Veronica’s local friends and family.  Her sister even came down from Madison, WI to visit us as well.  We did head into the city briefly to check out an art museum that was having a Van Gogh exhibit, but we didn’t realize that it closed so early.  We had less than an hour there.  It was till fun.  We saw some really interesting things, although they don’t let you into the Van Gogh area that late in the day.  I did get to see the Ferris Beuler painting and American Gothic amongst other things.  We had a good time and were glad we went.

There were a number of “small world” connections this weekend.  We went to lunch on Saturday with another of Veronica’s friends.  Meredith also has a friend from college who lives in Chicago.  It turns out that this friend, Margarete, works at a hospital and is involved with a clinical trial being run by the company I just left.  She knows many of my old coworkers … including my ex, the one who would have been at that very lunch if we hadn’t broken up and she had come on this trip.  Weird.

I’ve been torn about what to do next when I leave the area.  There are many things I want to do in this region, but it’s cold.  It has rained and snowed while I’ve been up here.  As I mentioned, it was necessary to winterize my trailer just to come.  I’ll come back through when it’s nicer.  I think I’ll start heading towards Austin ultimately, but with many stops along the way.  I’ve made arrangements to hit stay at a winery outside of Cincinnati for the next few days.  This will give me a chance to see some of Ohio and Kentucky, two states I’ve never really seen as well as an opportunity to visit Emily.  I’m looking forward to that.  After that, I’ll probably head across to the west side of the Mississippi to hit new states, but we’ll see.  This past two weeks has been pretty agenda driven.  It’s been wonderful, but it’s taken me out of my blissful drifting through life place.  I want to slow down a little again and get back to that time and space for contemplation that I’ve talked so much about.  It’s true that I’ve begun to mull over what might come next career-wise, but there’s no rush on that.  I’m not done with the focus on personal growth that I consider so important, and I’m very happy that I have no further commitments of any kind for the duration of my trip at this point.

Leaving Florida & The Gulf Coast

Leaving Florida

It was finally time to start making my way out of Florida, but as the state is huge, and I hate missing out on anything, it has proved to take a while.  After leaving the Keys, I found a few nights of free lodging at a Christmas Tree Farm / Santa’s Village type of place with animals and a zip line.  There was even a fire pit I was invited to use.  I mostly just pet the petable animals and spent some time introducing Peggy to these strange new creatures.  She was all set with them, all except the rabbits.  I had to keep her away from those.  She wanted into their enclosure so badly!  She did sniff the adorable baby goats.  They cried out to me whenever I was in sight and I was happy to oblige with affection.  I don’t think they can accommodate guests in season, or at least not where I was parked, right in the middle of what would normally be the center of their operation.  The owner, Jack, said they get 5000 guests a day during those times.  He is exceedingly nice.  I found him through Boondockers Welcome.  I had power, water, and use of their public bathroom during my stay.  Jack refused to take any money in return.  I really enjoyed his facility and speaking with him.  It turned out to be a great launching pad (pun intended) for my central Florida activities on my way out.

The first order of business was to complete the truck repairs.  The windows for the cap had come in while I was in Costa Rica.  The guy at Cap World, also super nice, took $100 off for the delays in getting them in.  I am seriously meeting such wonderful people out here.  It’s amazing.  After that, I found my way to the Kennedy Space Flight Center, a more impactful experience than I expected.  The National Air and Space Museum in DC had been exhilarating, but at the KSFC, I found myself having a strong emotional reaction.  There was something more real about this.  This is where the work really happens.  Also, this visitor complex is dedicated exclusively to space flight, unlike the museum which is largely focused on earthbound flight.  Space flight is the work that I found most rewarding during my aerospace engineering tenure.  At the KSFC, you are immersed in the experience.  You see the actual launch pads, the crawlers, the astronauts!  It reminded me why I became an engineer.  It is often stressful and frustrating, but you can make such great things.  I still don’t know if I’ll go back to engineering.  I can’t imagine sitting in an office right now.  I’m typing this from the parking lot of a winery.  However, I’m deeply grateful for the opportunities and experiences I had.  I am tempted to describe in great detail all of the attractions of the center.  However, I would rather focus on the depth of my reaction to the place rather than the individual experiences of the day.  I will say that you should definitely bring your children here if you are at all interested in getting them into STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics).

The next day I decided to finally take some time to volunteer.  I want to do more of that as I travel, but it’s hard.  I want to do so many things that even getting to each activity once takes ages.  Journey’s End Animal Sanctuary is worth a visit.  I loved it there.  I think the owner said she is in her 80s and that she converted the home she lived in with her husband, possibly now deceased, into this sanctuary.  It’s different than the other sanctuaries I’ve visited.  This one is much more focused on disabled dogs and cats.  There are farm animals too, but fewer of them.  I’m having difficulty remembering the owner’s name, but it is something like Fiona and so that’s what I’ll call her for this blog.  Fiona has been vegan since 1964, and she is amazing.  She has traveled the world extensively and lived in different countries.  She is well versed in different cultures and philosophies.  I think she could tell that I was not her typical volunteer and so she opened up to me a lot, I gather more than typical.  She mentioned that I remind her of her son.  I happily worked sweeping, mopping, mucking stalls, washing dishes, and moving horses, but I found that a lot of my service came in alternative forms as well.  Why not leverage my social skills?  I chatted with Fiona and the rest of the staff at length.  I think they get a lot of regular volunteers, so it seemed like a welcome breath of fresh air to get in a new volunteer with interesting stories.  This was great for me as well since I crave meeting people and hearing their stories.  That’s a big part of this trip for me, and the staff and volunteers there are so interesting.  Fiona says that helping people is as important to her as helping the animals.  She clearly has made an effort to provide employment and volunteer opportunities to people who might be in need for one reason or another (e.g. alcoholics, homeless, court ordered community service workers, etc.).  Not everyone is down on their luck, but they are all kind and work hard.  It was an absolute pleasure meeting them and being immersed in that environment.  I would go back in a heartbeat and I recommend that you do as well if you get the chance.  This operation is clearly a labor of love for Fiona.  She has given up a lot to be permanently situated and give so selflessly to the animals and people around her.  There is clearly a cost, but it seems like a decision she is happy with.  The needy animals do not get adopted out.  They live there until they pass, under constant care with volunteer veterinary support and other donations to help.  The animals are separated as necessary.  Cats are largely separated from dogs, and even certain types and demeanors of cats and dogs are separated from each other.  I found them all wonderful though.  I helped buddy get up from his bed when his hip dysplasia was acting up.  I also helped keep the beagles calm as one got laser treatment for his, was it arthritis?  I’m not entirely certain of that.  Regardless, I pet many things, talked to many people, helped a lot, and had a blast doing it.  It’s called Journey’s End Animal Sanctuary.  Please consider making a donation.

It took me a while to decide what to do next.  I got very into my head over analyzing my options, something I’m great at.  It’s simultaneously, perhaps, my greatest strength and weakness.  I could make my way quickly to South By Southwest, a bucket list music festival in Austin, not rush and spend time in the gulf, or attend the Okeechobee music festival just 2 hours away.  I finally recognized this as a growth opportunity, got out of my head, and followed my heart.  What I wanted in that moment was to go to Okeechobee, so I did.  It had a variety of advantages as well.  There was a lot of yoga and a spiritual element to it that blended nicely with my Costa Rican experience, it was close, I could camp there unlikely SXSW, and it was way cheaper than SXSW.  It also allowed for the option of at least one or the other, dawdling on the gulf coast or still attending SXSW.  I left Jack’s place and headed back south.  I know!  The wrong direction!  I dropped Peggy off with Phaedra in Vero Beach, another Dog Vacay house.  This one, by the way, was incredible.  Phaedra is a professional.  Her house and yard are immaculate and set in a nice neighborhood.  She’s clearly a dog expert.  I received many updates and Peggy was very happy.  On pick up, Phaedra gave me a care package for Peggy along with a letter that she helped Peggy write.  I particularly enjoyed hearing about Peggy’s first experience with ceiling fans.  I wish you could all meet Peggy.  She’s so sweet and adorable and capable of such apoplectic seizures when she sees something new and scary.

Okeechobee proved to be the perfect festival experience for me.  It was magical, and I didn’t want it to end.  City festivals are fun, but I prefer the outdoor middle of nowhere ones better.  I spent the night in a nearby truck stop so I could get there early on Friday, March 4.  The schedule was jam packed.  It just wasn’t possible to do everything, but I saw tons of bands, did a bunch of yoga, met amazing people.  I was tired for 2 days afterwards.  There were activities 24 hours a day, although I typically put myself to bed by 3.  I particularly enjoyed the giant bouncy fire breathing monster guy and the parachute we all hot boxed in.  Here again, it’s just not possible to share how wonderful it all was.  I wish it was.  I met a fellow traveler, AJ, who had spent a long time traveling the US and is planning a European backpacking trip this summer with his girlfriend.  He tried to keep a journal and always found that he was unable to convey the weight of his experiences no matter how much detail he included.  I very much enjoyed our brief talk on life, travel, and truly opening your mind to new possibilities.  It’s interactions like that that made the weekend special for me.  It wasn’t just the Kirtan, it was meeting the group after, down from Burlington VT and buying their CD.  It was going to acro-yoga, befriending a group from UCF, and then joining in an impromptu after class session where I learned to do a head stand, a real head stand!  I’m not even mis-using hand stand.  So cool.  It was going to Mumford and Sons, expecting to close out the festival on Sunday night at the reasonable hour of midnight, and instead going to the DJ section and giving a swing dance “lesson” and hanging out with new friends until much later.  It was going to the quiet “tea” area, passing out against a tree briefly only to wake up to a singer beginning an unexpected and wonderful set!  It was meeting Chase from Nahko’s band!  When I needed time and space to myself, I found it.  When I wanted time with others, they found me.  Honestly, I think most of my interactions with others were initiated by them.  It was as though I manifested comradery when I needed it, and I haven’t even scratched the surface of it.  I found spirituality, quiet reflection, loud music from a wide variety of genres, and good festival friends.  I do recommend checking out APigeon, a new artist I hadn’t even heard of.  Her performance commanded my attention and drew me in totally unexpectedly as I passed on my way to the bathroom.  It’s worth a listen.

 

The Gulf

Ok, now it’s time to leave Florida for reals.  I dragged myself out of bed on 4 hours of sleep, picked up Peggy, and drove out to the Florida pan handle.  It was a long drive.  Stopping for meals, adventures in searching for diesel fuel (fill early, fill often folks), and walking Peggy meant that it was after 9 by the time I covered the more than 400 miles that day, well, after 8 considering that I crossed a time zone.  My sister-in-law’s uncle is a park ranger there.  I was able to score a couple of free nights there along with a private tour of the cavern!  There were no other tours then either.  We had the cavern to ourselves.  It was beautiful.  Her uncle, Robert, is a super cool guy.  He greeted me when I arrived Monday night, and we took our tour at the end of the next day when there were no more tours waiting to go.  This was exactly the peace and quiet I needed following my crazy festival weekend.  By now I’ve decided not to go to SXSW.  It’s far, expensive, and encourages me to skip over too many sights too quickly.  I was glad to rest at the park, and even go hiking with Peggy.  Really, it was wading as the river had overflowed onto the river trail.  I had a very grounding barefoot hiking for a good part of it.  There’s so much joy in squishing mud between your toes.  I just made sure to keep an eye out for scary animals.  I also enjoyed my first camp fire of the road trip while at the park.  That realization surprised me, but it makes sense all things considered.  I called it a night as the fire burned low, and Peggy began to bark into the dark woods.  Peggy never barks, ever.  I took that as a sign that it was time to go inside.

I’ve decided to spend some time on the gulf coast.  There’s a conveniently located Boondockers Welcome location, but they didn’t respond to my e-mail.  The next best thing was a Harvest Host location, a winery only about an hour down the road from the caverns.  It was worth the stop.  This makes a better location to see the gulf beaches from.  Byron has some great wines and good advice on the area.  Both he and Robert suggested Falling Waters State Park, so I checked that out.  It’s small, but has interesting sink holes and a small waterfall that is apparently the biggest one in Florida.  By the way, I can’t wait to leave Florida if only for the small reason that I’m tired of typing Floriday all the time.  Why do I keep doing that???

Byron let me stay long enough to have a couple of non-travel days.  Those are so valuable since uprooting and moving even a short distance can eat valuable time.  I followed his advice and headed to the shore.  He recommended that I check out the beach in a less crowded location, so I headed down HWY 331, about half way between Panama City and Pensacola to Santa Rosa Beach.  The surf was crazy, so I was only able to go in up to my waste.  There were people on the beach, and a small area of shops, but it was clearly a smaller area.  It was a cloudy day, but the sun came out enough to enjoy the beach and a walk with Peggy.  I continued for a drive along the scenic HWY 98 along the gulf coast, headed towards a delicious vegan meal in Destin.  This was a fairly new establishment that I thoroughly enjoyed.  The food was great, décor to my liking, and owners I could really identify with.  I did pass through Pensacola just to see it, and ended up having a great time at a dog friendly brew pub!  Peggy sat in her bed next to my bar stool while I tasted a flight of beers and people fed her dog treats and love.  I met many people there and spent a long time talking to locals and fellow travelers.  Everyone was very interesting.  It was a varied group.  Carly came in with her dog Hank.  We talked for a bit too, and then I left.  There was another fantastic vegan place walking distance, Sluggo’s, that was great.  They have live music there, but nothing much going on that night, or at least that early.  After a great day, I headed back to the winery for the night.

I try to keep an eye on the weather as I travel.  Serious storms could destroy my trailer and end my trip in a heartbeat.  The high surf was an indicator of strong storms in the area.  As it turned out, there was a massive storm to the west covering several states and causing severe flooding.  Lousiana was hit hardest and many parishes were under a state of emergency.  I was torn between a need to flee and a desire to help with rescue and support activities.  I called the New Orleans emergency management office and left a message volunteering to help, but I never heard back.  I took that as a sign that I should stay clear of the storms.  I proceeded west, finally actually leaving Florida, but only as far as Mobile, AL, Spanish Fort to be specific.  I didn’t want to skip over AL and MS anyway.  I moved on Friday, March 10, but ended up waiting until Monday to see Mobile.  Casey, a friend from MA, texted to let me know that he was coming down to New Orleans on Saturday for 311 Day, a bi-annual 2 day festival of sorts.  The band 311 was big in the 90s, but has kept active and retained a strong following that gathers every other year, alternating between Las Vegas and New Orleans.  Casey came down for both days, and when he saw my posts on being in the area, he offered me his extra ticket for Saturday night.  I took Peggy with me and drove the 2 hours from Spanish fort to NO.  I had time to walk Peggy around the city for a bit before meeting up with Casey, as well as a couple of times after.  The rest of the time she slept in her bed in the back seat of my truck.  Casey and I caught up as we walked around the French Quarter and found still more amazing vegan food for dinner as well as a vegan hot dog place, food to go for after the show.  I am shocked how much delicious plant based food is out there across America.  I can’t wait for omnivores to try these places.  They’re delicious!  I have friends and family, omnivores, who love the places I’ve taken them.  Casey and I were in separate areas during the show, but it was tons of fun all the same.  We met up briefly afterwards, and I drove back to Spanish Fort that night.  I was tired, maybe even pushing the limits of safety, but made it home without incident.  I was due to make it back by 3 AM, that is until daylight savings time hit at 2 AM and Waze suddenly corrected my arrival time to 4 AM.  That suddenly felt so much worse!  I enjoyed my day in Nola.  It was overwhelming at first.  The main streets were mobbed with people and some of the vendors were pushy and unfriendly, but I quickly found joy in the city and decided to return in a few days.

The next day, Sunday, was beautiful.  I decided to go to brunch at the other vegan place in Pensacola, a place that Slugo’s had recommended.  They are also dog friendly.  The outdoor seating area was very peaceful, and the meal was great.  Carly was able to join me as well, which was nice.  I love meeting new friends and including them in my experiences.  After that, I went to Pensacola beach by myself.  Carly had other plans.  I was also pretty tired after a short night’s sleep, so I wasn’t planning on staying long.  I ended up staying for a few hours.  The beach is beautiful, and though the water was still rough, it was very nice.  The sand is white and smooth, the sun was shining, and spring breakers were everywhere.  I was never a beach spring break kind of guy, but it was nice to be able to visit it briefly, soak up some of the positive energy, and move along.  I napped on the beach, and even had a beer from the beach bar, a special treat.  After that, I returned to Meaher State Park at Spanish Fort.  The park, by the way is very small, but right on the water.  It was a great board walk with a nice view of the sunset over the Florida Keys like bridges of I-10.  It’s pleasant, to be sure, except that you really do need to spray around your trailer for ants while you’re there.  Do follow that guidance.  Fortunately, I wasn’t there long enough to pick up too many hitch hikers, and they don’t seem to have come along with me.

Finally, on Monday, I made my way into Mobile.  They have a museum that is an interesting combination of local art, a slavery / civil rights exhibit, other local history, and a rotating gallery which currently includes a King Tut exhibit.  The slavery exhibit is fantastic and horrible.  I was pleased to see that a southern state like Alabama had not white washed this atrocity.  It shines a spot light on the horrors and describes the city and state’s arduous struggle towards equal rights.  I was moved to such strong anger that I had to sit down and meditate to clear my head.  Racism is evil.  The era doesn’t matter.  The race doesn’t matter.  The reason doesn’t matter.  It’s evil, always and forever.  It is incompatible with love, compassion, and kindness.  We, as a species, continue to struggle with this concept.  The lighter portions of the museum helped calm me down, and I continued on enjoying my day.  Mobile isn’t a super trendy city, but it definitely still has some cool areas.  I found great street art, government sanctioned and clearly otherwise.  There was a wall with paintings of several famous musicians who have passed that I liked very much.  There was also a bar that was my speed with page after page of local beers on tap.  I tried a couple which I spoke with a guy named Challo, a mechanical engineer in the power plant industry.  He had amazing stories!  He has traveled the world for work, often spending long periods abroad.  He was down from Memphis, but I’d never have been able to guess where he might’ve been from.  It’s amazing how similar and yet completely different our lives have been.  I regret not getting his contact information.  What a cool guy.

Having no plan has really been working for me, and at this point, I really didn’t know what I’d be doing by the end of the week.  I did know, however, that I’d want to start heading north sooner rather than later.  I plan to visit my friends in Chicago in early April and wanted to get there slowly, savoring the trip.  I figured that I’d like no less than 3 weeks to get there, and there was a list of cities and other areas that I’d like to hit on the way up.  This gave me time to spend a couple of days in Nola, but I decided to leave the trailer in Mobile and just sleep in the truck.  I was beginning to think of traveling through Montgomery to get more of the AL flavor before heading north.  With the truck packed up Tuesday morning, Peggy and I headed back to New Orleans.  This time, I took a bus tour and got some advice from a friend who went to Tulane on what to do and see.  The tour ended up being informative and fun.  I learned a lot and saw parts of the city I wouldn’t have otherwise, the 9th Ward in particular.  There are still signs of Huricane Katrina there.  The city is beautiful.  I could live there.  Sure, the main drag is full of drunk tourists, myself included, but the architecture, art, music, and history run deep here.  I took a guided ghost tour, saw live jazz, and visited our country’s premier WWII exhibit.  Once again, I had a strong emotional reaction to the WWII museum.  This time, instead of fury at the oppression our country committed, it was sorrow for the total devastation brought about by the entire experience.  65 million people died, countless more were injured, cities and cultures were destroyed, and atomic bombs were dropped.  I had to fight back tears in their 4D movie, narrated by Tom Hanks.  This museum makes the war real and present in a way I didn’t think possible.  WWII was a horror show.  It damaged humanity permanently, in my opinion.  We’ll never fully recover from that wound.  In 10,000 years, it will still haunt us.  War is pure hell.  You can’t win a war.  You can only lose less than your opponent.  It’s clearly sometimes necessary, but it’s never good.  Much like in Mobile, I was able to find much cause to be cheerful in Nola after leaving the museum, and my good spirits returned.  On my drive back to Mobile, I decided to stop at the Hard Rock Casino in Biloxi.  I’m not much of a gambler, but I enjoy the slot machines and also low pressure table games where you can meet people and socialize.  I played roulette and met more great people, a father and son on vacation together and a young couple.  We played together and all seemed to go up and down together.  Every time I gamble, I follow the same pattern.  Step 1, set a dollar amount up front.  Step 2, lose half.  Step 3, win some back so that you’re slightly up.  Step 4, gradually lose it all.  Step 5, leave satisfied.  This night was no exception, but I’m glad I stopped in.  It’s been about 10 years or so since I last gambled, and it was a fun night.

Sleeping in the truck proved to be very comfortable as well, and Peggy seemed very happy with the whole experience.  However, I think both she and I were craving some country time.  We’ve spent a lot of time in cities, and even our nature time hasn’t been very solitary.  Peggy is a trooper in the city, but she thrives in the country.  On the way to Nola on Tuesday morning, I had stopped in at a MS visitor center.  There I learned of the Natchez Trace Trail and Parkway.  It is a 440 mile parkway with all sorts of historical and nature sites off of it.  Merchants used to send their cargo to Nola on the Mississippi River, but then have to travel back north by land.  They used the Trace to get from Natchez to Nashville.  I decided to follow this exact route.  Natchez wasn’t entirely on the way, being 2 hours north of Baton Rouge, but it accomplished what I wanted.  I’d get to drive across rural MS and AL and end up in Nashville.  The drive to Natchez across MS was beautiful for the most part.  I passed through a national forest and other scenic areas.  MS has lush green rolling hills, trees like New England, large plots of land with mansions, regular homes, farms, and depressed areas of the kind you’d find in many states.  Peggy and I made this drive on Thursday, March 17, and we settled right in.  I’m realizing how active I’ve been.  I’m a driven person and get antsy when idle for too long, but I do find myself feeling a little worn out and needing to slow down for a bit.  Friday was meant to be total down time, but I found I needed to run some errands.  It was still a light day.  I made breakfast, and lunch.  Cooking has been a lot of fun for me on this trip.  A batch of vegan burgers I whipped up the other day has lasted for days, and adding new veggies and spices to left over beans and rice brought about delicious curry!  Then I found my way into Natchez with Peggy.  It’s right on the Mississippi river.  Peggy and I walked along it for a while.  We also checked out the town.  It’s a sweet place.  There are colorful buildings, historical landmarks, mansions, a nearby plantation, important cemetery and all manner of shops.  There’s a coffee shop and local brewery in town as well.  I enjoyed my visit and might find my way back in there for live music on Saturday night.

Incidentally, I’m all set with plantation tours.  I’ve seen them before.  As far as I’m concerned, they celebrate a dark period and upsell the glory and grandeur while downplaying the purchase and sale of human beings, tribal prisoners of war from another country.  I’ve heard the whole “Jefferson was nice to his slaves” thing and I’m not buying it.  I don’t care what else you may have accomplished, how great or nice you might have been.  If you owned slaves, ever, you’re a bad person.  How nice you were to them only makes you slightly less bad than a monster who abused them.  That being said, I do like the south.  It’s a beautiful and culturally rich place full of nice people.  As long as we all agree that slavery and racism was and are crimes against humanity that we’re all permanently sorry for, we’re fine.  Geez guys, sorry for the strong messages!  I’m leaving them in though.  These were my thoughts and reactions, so they’re very relevant to my trip.

Saturday, I began exploring the Natchez Trace.  I visited several local sites as a day trip.  I had intended to make it out further, but I stayed too long at the sites I visited.  Also, a park ranger gave me tips on local sites that are not directly on the parkway.  As a result, I saw more local to me here.  I think that I may add a stop along the way north to see more that the guide recommended.  Also, the Natchez visitor center had great guidance and information on the Trace.  I’ve got a pretty good idea of where I’ll be stopping and how long it will take me to get to Nashville.  It’s tentatively planned for next Sunday, about 9 days from now.  That gives me 9 or 10 days to get from there to Chicago which sounds reasonable to me.  Today I visited the second largest Native American ceremonial mound in the country.  It was huge!  Peggy and I sprinted around on top of it for a while before moving on.  Our next stop was a Trace Inn called Mt. Locust.  It had everything you’d expect, but I loved seeing it up close and personal.  I guess it’s the only intact one!  After that, I stopped at the Windsor Ruins, the largest antebellum home in MS I gather.  That is, until it burned down 120 years ago.  All that are left now are Roman looking columns.  It’s eerie and awesome.  The next stop was an abandoned town called Rodney.  It thrived for about 100 years, but then a variety of circumstances, not least of which being the route of the Mississippi River changing, caused the town to become abandoned.  There are people living there now, and the buildings are not in great repair.  The only thing that I was sure was part of the abandoned town was an old church and cemetery with signs all over it.  I wasn’t so sure about the rest of the area.  I did get to drive down some muddy dirt roads.  It’s fun to drive really fast on roads like that, but I kept it under control … mostly.  Other than the sites, I also took 3 hours or so to hike the Trace itself with Peggy.  We were situated on an out of the way stream relaxing when I realized we might have strayed into hunting territory.  In short order, a faint curious sound became hunting dogs barking and getting very close.  I threw my shoes back on and headed back to the Trace.  I had planned on going further, but I figured we had had enough and should move on.  I met Steve and Anne, down from Maine as I headed back towards the car.  We talked for a bit and I warned them about the hunter.  The Trace is beautiful.  I love how it has sunk due to weather and wear.  It’s such a great hike even though there’s no real elevation gain.  The last noteworthy thing from today was just the landscape I was driving through.  With the lush green grass, rolling hills, and even small ravines, I wondered in places if I was in MS or New Zealand!  I love the land here.  I can’t get enough of it.

During my hike today, I continued grappling with something that’s been on my mind, one of the primary areas of contemplation for me as I travel.  I have very much enjoyed my engineering career.  You’ll also remember how frustrated I’ve mentioned it being.  I took a step forward in my thinking on this, and I’d like to share it briefly here.  When you incentivize people to compete with each other, it creates an adversarial relationship instead of a collaborative one.  Different incentive structures can promote more or less collaboration, but in your typical office environment, regardless of company or industry, you often win when your coworker loses.  There are only so many promotions, raises, career opportunities, and general accolades.  This promotes negative behaviors.  Additionally, some people who aren’t even attempting to attain such rewards also bring in their own negativity.  For instance, I have seen a sensitive person use aggression as a defense mechanism and then react badly to far less aggression than they themselves employ.  Some people are simply very negative.  In the offices I’ve worked in, I’ve witnessed some great behavior and collaborative teams, but I’ve seen the negative side of things as well.  None of this is a surprise to you, I’m sure.  What did strike me was the realization that the amount of negativity I’ve been exposed to is neither generally acceptable or unacceptable.  There’s no global standard on such things.  It’s really a personal decision whether or not what you’re exposed to is ok or not, within reason anyway.  I have the option of using my new emphasis on compassion and empathy to discourage unhealthy behavior and promote healthy behavior.  I can also lessen the degree to which I am affected by another’s bad behavior by realizing that it’s about them, not me.  However, the thing that struck me most was the thought that its better to place yourself in a healthy environment than to find coping mechanisms for an unhealthy one, and you get to personally decide what’s healthy for you.  All of this is to say that I’m beginning to think that, while I am a good engineer, I may not be well suited for a standard office environment.  I am too affected by the negativity, and I don’t think it brings out the best in me.  This is something I will continue to think over.  More time and space might bring me to a place where I am well equipped to handle any such negativity.  However, in this moment, I want to find a way to move in a direction of increased peace and love and less thinly veiled hostility.

I always hate wrapping up a blog post.  It’s difficult leaving out so much important detail, experiences, and lessons learned along the way.  I hope you’re all enjoying this and I welcome your critical feedback if you have any.