Travel Narrative

Oregon Trail: Boulder 1


Day 3: An Uncanny Self

Date: April 20, 2012
Journey: Fort Collins, CO to Boulder, CO
Total miles: 1,079 miles (39.6 mpg)

Continued from part 1

III. Age, Race, & Class

My time with Krista ended at the tasting room of the smaller, but still popular, Odelle Brewing Company. There I had the much talked about 90 Schilling (amber ale) and a taste of Krista’s $15 chemistry set of beers they called a taster tray. My personal favorite was one of the darker ones, but alas, I forgot.

Meanwhile, she, her roommate and I made some conversation over our beers. I had mentioned how much I liked Fort Collins so far, but that it felt almost too cozy. It was too white and affluent for me… what a thing to complain about! Her roommate was several years older than us and didn’t feel the same as Krista and I about wanting a more diverse home. She mentioned how she had already explored different cultural experience, had gotten her taste, had been transformed, and now wanted a comfy place to settle down. She wanted comfort and security, a home, a family, and maybe kids. Something didn’t jibe with me about the way she was addressing multiculturalism, and I had a feeling Krista felt the same, but Krista was a courteous, kind friend and a diplomat. I was a philosopher.

“I don’t want to live in a perfect bubble. I feel responsible to transform the world, and I cannot do that from a bubble. To change the world, we must work with, not for others, and that means dwelling with them. And who am I to advocate changing the world if I am not also willing to risk myself? Not necessarily my life, but my identity. I grow bored and sick with myself when I stagnate. I want transformation. I don’t see unsettlement as always a threat. Often it is a promise for liberation.” She patiently listened as she bit down on her artisinal cheese. Krista said she felt similarly. She wasn’t looking for security either. Her roommate said she used to feel the same way, but attitudes change as one gets older. Would we feel similarly when we were in our thirties?

By the time we returned to their home to pick up my car, I had a lot to drink, but my filling lunch tapered-off the affect of the alcohol. Too their extreme delight, more alcohol awaited us. Her roommate’s father from the Northshore of Chicago had shipped her two boxes of wine from his wine cellar. Thirty bottles laid inside each box, each worth–according to the roommate–an average of $30. Some were decades in age. I figured after the shipping, the whole shipment cost $1,000… just for wine. I was irritated, angry, and a little disgusted.

They were both so giddy with glee, but that’s not what scratched underneath my skin. It was the second day in a row that I found myself confronted with my class privilege and guilt. I was disgusted with myself, my situation. Back in Chicago and Texas I hung out with people from more modest means, but the people from my past were wrapped up in the same social networks of private higher education as I was. It was a revolving door one gets swept up into, but one is fooled into thinking one got inside because of one’s fine skill. It was not so much accomplishment though as it was privilege–the otherside of class oppression. My situation was inescapable, I knew that; but finding myself more aware than ever before of privilege made me feel guilty by proximity. I once lived with gleeful ignorance. I was like that. And now that I was a different person, what had changed. What had I done to bring justice besides “raise consciousness”? I felt just as guilty of the omission of action, more unaccomplished and fake. I couldn’t wait to leave for the next stop on my itinerary.

IV. Boulder: First Impressions on 4:20

I

Galaxy directed Catbird and I down CO-119. When we passed through a buzzing, affluent strip of a town, I thought I had arrived in Boulder, but it was actually another medium-sized city called Longmount. Fort Collins had already impressed me with its vistas of the foothills of the Rockies, but as I continued south-west, the foothills grew closer and larger. The higher-grade roads felt like roller coasters. Catbird accelerated down the slopes with ease, veering toward the sharp contrast in the horizon of puffy white clouds, deep blue sky, and green textured mountains. Entering town and taking a right onto Alex’s street, my lips curled into a smile. The grandeur of the beauty brought instant joy. I was in the mountains. I was in this legendarily awesome city. I was hanging out with awesome people and eating great food. Le sigh.

Alex welcomed me into her apartment. She had just returned from the campus square, eaves-dropping on the annual 4:20 celebration. I originally planned on arriving early to report on it and it’s history on campus as well as its contemporary suppression by the police, but I was bourg-ing on microbrews and I, as a foreigner, was not allowed on campus during the event. This year, Alex told me, was more dispersed. The loom of pot smoke wasn’t nearly as large as it had been in previous years. I hadn’t missed much. With that said, Alex took me to Pearl Street, a cosmopolitan strip of cute, locally-owned shops and restaurants. This section of Boulder immediately reminded me of Ithaca, a mountain college town in the glaciated hills of upstate New York along Cayuga Lake.

She was leaving in several weeks to start her summer job as a tour guide for an American travel company that took young Europeans and Japanese folk on an adventure across the American West through our National Parks. I had already planned my own trip and was doing it solo, but Alex had always been an inspiration and a bit of a trip adviser. If it weren’t for her, I probably would have passed through Page, AZ and Kanab, UT and missed out on their grand beauty. After she completed her summer, she had just a little bit of school left and then another 6 months or so “training” microorganisms to eat toxic and man-made chemicals in the southern seas around Antarctica.

If it isn’t obvious, Alex has pretty good taste and it was this taste that drew her to Boulder to attend school. Boulder: a city hording gorgeous people, shops, bike lanes, and foothills. It was almost too good to be true. Almost. My friend Emma who had attended school here was able to articulate my sentiments exactly: Boulder is a retirement home for hippies–white dudes in dreads in the haughtiest eco-fashion, women flashing their brilliant, perfect white smiles, and  children running around as free spirits without threat of any disciplining. In appearance, it’s as close to a utopia one can imagine a non-intentional community/development could be. The happiness was contagious, and although I wasn’t immune, I became adverse. Boulder had struck a chord. But why? Continue reading

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Oregon Trail: Fort Collins


Day 3: An Uncanny Self

Date: April 20, 2012
Journey: Fort Collins, CO to Boulder, CO
Total miles: 1,079 miles (39.6 mpg)

I. Virtually Dead

I was alive! I had just woken up in Catbird during a large storm. Somehow I had managed to squeeze in a nap at one of the absolutely worst times. Catbird was veering down I-25 toward Fort Collins at about 55 miles an hour and I had gotten a head start on ending the night.

I should have probably took my mom’s advise and not driven at night, but this kind of thing even happens during the day. I carried a Monster energy in the car for these occasions, but was to confident in my ability to stay up to drink it. I’d like to think that my years playing F-Zero for the SNES, in which I somehow still came in first after zoning out during several laps on easier tracks, saved my life. But given that scoring 200s in Wii Bowling did not improve my game in the real world in the slightest. I’ll have to be find more justifications for my obsession with video games… and drive more responsibly.

II. Birds of a Feather

The funny thing about the internet, and Facebook more specifically, is that it can make special occasions banal. For instance, when I arrived at Krista’s door and said hello, it had been six years since we had talked face to face and exchanged more than a couple sentences at a time; yet, it felt so “normal.” It reminds me of those times when I return home to Duke after being a part for nine months and he seems almost unphased, but when an absolute stranger comes to the door, he gets dogshit excited. (Now that I made the analogy, I realize it’s not a very good one. I could delete it, but I like that I reference Duke in this post). The point that I’m not trying to make but am is that I’m perpetually alienated from my experiences. I don’t take reality at face value. Perhaps that’s why I like philosophy.

Krista wasn’t a philosopher, but she was into environmental and women’s studies and that’s one reason I liked her so much. She’s also really friendly and pretty cute. She had gotten involved with owl research in California on disease in Barred and Spotted Owls and was invited to apply to  CSU-Fort Collins where she is working on a masters degree in wildlife management She wanted to pursue her next degree in a different field to work on the impact of the environment on women’s health issues (This could be all wrong. I’ve been taking terrible notes and it’s been two busy weeks later). I asked her what perspective her women’s studies background provided her in her program, but she didn’t have much to say about it other than that it was still a bit of a boy’s club.

Before spooning her guest mattress, I met her roommate who also happened to be from a neighboring suburb of Chicago. At the time, it didn’t register to me how close it was to my home–partly because I never went there and also because I was really tired. Krista offered me a drink. We all laughed.

The next morning I treated myself to a shower. A little 3-minute hourglass suction-cupped to the tile wall made me smile as I got in, but guilty after coming out long after the sand hand emptied into the bottom. Thereafter, Krista introduced me to her backyard chickens. Actually, they were a friends. She was chicken-sitting. (I just had a terrible and perverse image pass through my mind after I said that out loud). She, her roommate, and her roommate’s boyfriend were thinking of getting their own chickens, however. (I later learned that her roommate had met her partner at the time when he was her TA. It was a scandal I could relate to.) They lived in a really nice house. Part of what made the house so cozy were all the animals. Not only the chickens outside but a couple cats and a deaf dog. “You must be so happy to be living with all these animals,” I asked in the form of a truth statement. She was, but it could also be a lot of work.

III. A Taste of Fort Collins

Speaking of which, Krista had to run to her lab on campus and bring her bike in for repairs. We had just enough time for lunch. The detour gave me an opportunity to get a limited perspective of the town I once considered living for grad school. Fort Collins has a special feel. It’s brisk, the people are laid back and they wear casual workout and camping gear. Oh, and the city’s/state’s car is the Subaru Outback (Krista and her roommate each had one). The downtown area seemed pretty new, yet rustic and cozy. The thought passed through my mind that this may be somewhere I could call home.

REVIEW: Indeed, if Tasty Harmony, the local vegan restaurant, was as tasty as it advertised itself to be, perhaps I could be persuaded. I was really impressed with the interior design of the space. The relaxed earthy colors and textures and oriental decor rang with a healthy, spiritual vibe. Just like the rest of Fort Collins, the place was super cozy and the wait staff were very kind, hippie-esque folk. Fortunately, I had already predestined my meal so I needed not spend an hour slobbering over the menu. (The waitress tried to dissuade me with the special, but I wouldn’t budge). Kentucky Fried Freedom it was. Krista stuck with the Tempeh Reuben she had enjoyed last time. The KFF did not appear to be that big of a meal (by my standards)l: there were only two “chicken” pieces, a scoop of grave, potato, pinto beans, and sauteed greens, however, the gluten “chicken” and the rest was very filling. Krista, too, was filled by her sandwich. Having been spoiled at Chicago Diner for several months, the KFF did not blow me away, but the “chicken” and gravy were pretty tasty. The Reuben also scored on texture and flavor, but did not impress. I ordered a chocolate chip to go, which was a delicious way to end our meal. Each item hit the golden mean of chew and moisture. Overall, Tasty Harmony scores very high on atmosphere and service, high on taste and hunger satisfaction, but a tad high on price. In any case, I highly recommend hitting it up if you are in Fort Worth. <4.5 carrots out of 5>.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next stop: New Belgium Brewery. Word on the street was that Fort Collins didn’t sport many attractions, but if there was one you had to experience, it was New Belgium. Founded in 1991, this Colorado microbrewery broke out onto the scene with its amber ale, Flat Tire–a common beer on tap or in bottle at many many bars. A combination of their notoriety and the IPA trend, their Ranger is also another crowd pleaser. Despite their large size, New Belgium has a good reputation for sustaining its environmental and social values. The brewery itself was designed to minimize its environmental impact and after several years of employment, workers receive a NBB bike. As is the case with Odelle, NBB refers to its employees as co-workers.

I wasn’t thinking ahead and almost missed out on my opportunity to see the birthplace of Fat Tire and family. It was a Thursday, but tours are FREE–yes, you read that correctly–and fill up days in advance. Luckily, Krista and I were able to get walk-in tickets to the next tour (which runs every 30minutes for an 1.5 hours).  The inside of the building was beautiful. The colors and textures were vibrant and relaxed blues, greens, yellows, and reds. Their tasting room featured 11 of their year-round brews and another three from their Lips of Faith series. Three dimensional found art collages made from bike gears, wood, and obsolete technology adorned the walls. The inside was brightly lit by outdoor lighting. Near the entrance, one could purchase recycled rubber dog leashes and frisbees among other cool merchandise. Even more impressive, the front room had a twisty slide and a stand filled with NBB postcards that they’d send anywhere in the country for free. I decided to buy a Fat Tire Frisbee as a souvenir and sent my friend in Texas, a beer snob, a little message.

The tour began in a large room with two long wooden tables filled with NBB memorabilia underneath the glass top. There were seats and glasses for forty guests. Our tour guide was an energetic, peppy, round blonde from Indiana. She almost charmed all our pants off, we had such a huge crush on her by the end. Good thing we didn’t get more drunk. On the tour we had at least five four-ounce tastings: Dig, Shift, Biere de Mars, Abbie Grand Cru (their first beer), La Folie (sour). I can’t recall what each one tasted like, but the sour was my favorite. I had never been adventurous enough to try a sour before, but this one was free, was given a perfect score by professional beer drinkers, and our guide was hella cute. It had the smooth, bitter bite and sparkle of a good hard apple cider. Definitely my favorite of everything I’ve had by NBB. By the end of the tour, we had been given the brewery’s history, a discussion of the brewing process at the two-story-tall vats, a discussion of the bottling and distribution philosophy, and a ride down the twisty slide. Our guide was right: don’t touch the steel slide with your arms on the way down or you will bleed. I found out the fool’s way.

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Oregon Trail: Greeley


Day 2: 
Date: April 19, 2012
Journey: Lincoln, NE to Fort Collins, CO
Total miles: 1,033 miles (39.6mpg)

Continued from part 1

V. Greeley, Home of the Factory Farms

But the idyllic ranches along I-80 was a thing of Nebraska. I was in eastern Colorado now: the land of factory farmed cows. Along my route down I-76 since entering Julesburg, I was witnessing the monstrosity of the giant feedlots for what would be the first time. I’d seen chicken and egg factory farms in Illinois, Iowa, other states, and even Israel, but not these. Every dozen or less miles was another  concentration camp. I was driving about 72 miles per hour and it would take me over a minute to pass up these bio-generators from end-to-end. (Check out Google Maps: A mile and 15 miles north-east of Sterling. A mile from the Brush Municipal Airport. A half-mile east of the Empire Reservoir.)

The largest of all was not a filthy, ugly, barren dairy cow factory (with hundreds of “replacement calf” shelters), but a “beef” feedlot–much like the one seen in the opening scene of Food Inc.–on US-32, one mile outside of Kersey. Google maps confirmed my mental note that these were “mile-long factory farms.” The shit lagoons alone were the size of city blocks in Chicago. From the satellite image, the factory farm not only has more bovine inhabitants than the entire population of humans in the town of it belongs to; it is also larger than the entire down town area. A city within a city.

According to my friend in Greeley, the people (in general) are quite proud of their agri-business. It’s not something to hide, but to embrace as part of their identity. (The local roller derby team name is Slaughterhouse). This was even the case several years ago, before legislation was passed banning the burning of blood at rendering plants. The smell and toxins under the right (or wrong) wind conditions  could fill the city for days and even reach Fort Collins, 20 miles to the northwest.

In addition to the questionable values that finance Greeley and the environmental are the social issues in town such as gang violence and sometimes racial tensions/competition/hierarchy(not unlike those described in the NYT article, “Somethings Never Die“. (Cities with factory farms have high violent crime rates compared to cities with other industrial job-bases). Greeley is about half white and one third Hispanic with a growing Sudanese refugee population which is protesting Swift & Co., the owners of the packaging plant they work at, for more rights (as they don’t have much protection from serious exploitation). My friend knows someone who works for Swift & Co. in Human Resources who is trying to mediate tensions from inside the company. At times she’s tempted to leave her job at Subway for the much better paying white-collar job at Swift & Co., but her values get the best of her. In some places, violence pays.

(See my videos filmed at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago for more on this)

VI.Silver Lining?


When I arrived in Greeley, I was surprised by how suburban it was–far from the rural image I had in my mind. besides being a major player in animal agri-biz, it was also a university town. My friend is majoring in sociology at the University of Northern Colorado and was presently learning a lot about the social injustices and questions of privilege. Even with some more progressive-minded people, I didn’t hear much about activism in town beyond the labor issues at the processing plants.

My friend wanted to show me that Greeley wasn’t all that bad. She had found her niche with some local entrepreneurs in town who owned a restaurants, bike shops, a local magazine, and a hair saloon on 16th street. The downtown area was a lot more developed than I imagine it’d be–a much cozier area to reside than many other small cities I’ve traveled through. Then my friend warned me about wearing certain colors in bars (of which many bars banned due to gang violence). Afterwards, I began noticing all the shoes hanging from telephone wires above the streets.

Originally, I had planned on staying the night before at my friend’s place and spending the morning together so I could get to Fort Collins by the afternoon or earlier. There was not much to do, it seemed, in Greeley, and certainly not any vegetarian restaurants. She said we could go to either Chipotle or a local place she’d order a customized sandwich at. I chose the latter. I wasn’t going to waste my food tourism opportunities (plus, I was sick of Chipotle). I hadn’t had a “real” meal in about two days, so I had my fingers crossed that this place would satisfy my appetite.

REVIEW: The Crvsh-Room on 16th Street and 10th Avenue, wasn’t quite a restaurant or a bar, but food and drinks were served there. A cute little place with some cool art, nonetheless. My friend’s partner recommended I try a local beer, Oskar Blue’s Brewery’s Dale’s Pale Ale. I’m not as fond of pale ale’s as everyone else seems to be, but I liked this one. (Sorry, it was over two weeks ago and I’m not a beer connoisseur so I’m not going to attempt to describe why :P). Based on recommendation (and hunger), I ordered the guacamole and mango salsa appetizer with my vegan panini. The guac and mango salsa were refreshing. Adding jalapenos created more layers and complimented the zest.  The chips, however, were off in taste and texture. Not quite crunchy enough for me. The panini was a delicious combination of veggies and spinach, but the bread seemed like something bought from a grocery store and as a whole it didn’t pack many calories (something most people don’t ever complain about). After all was said and done (appetizer, entree, beer, and tip), it was only $16.  <3 carrots out of 5>

The dinner wasn’t as intimate and enjoyable as I would have liked it to be. After my appetizer came out, we heard a loud dog yelp. We went out to the street to see what happened. A man was joking with some concerned citizens on the sidewalk in front of his car. “I didn’t see it!” he laughed. The small puppy seemed to be alright, but had trouble walking. We weren’t sure if he was a stray, but he had been hanging out on the block for a while. Evidently, the man had hit the puppy while he parked his car. “I slammed on the breaks as hard as I could!” He was still smiling.

Besides, the dog instance, I wasn’t getting much attention because my friend was preoccupied with her iphone. (I would have been more upset about this before I became guilty of the same thing after attaining Galaxy). I started talking to the waitress, a friend of my friends. She was originally from Colorado Springs, but had moved to Greeley for school. She never graduated but ended up sticking around because it was a super cheap place to live. She put her concerns about safety and health aside. The other folks sitting at the bar were the owner and his possees who owned the adjacent shops. My friend’s partner explained that this is how good business is done, local networks and mutual aid. They didn’t say much to me, and I didn’t say much to them. They weren’t my kind of people; no interest in social justice and philosophy. They wanted to have fun and make money, and that was about it. (Even my friend sometimes wondered about them. They were white trust-fund babies, she explained.) Was I being judgmental? Probably. Alienating myself? Certainly.

My friend hadn’t seen one guy in a long time and wanted to hang out with him. I felt short-handed given that I had just driven 1,000 miles and set aside a day to hang out with her. Her partner took me to a microbrewery he liked: Crabtree Brewery. They didn’t have his favorite stuff in, the Oatmeal Stout, so we ordered the Eclipse IPA. Meanwhile, we snacked on faux-buttered popcorn and a super spicy sauce. We chatted a little with the owner who had a lot to say about the microbrew bandwagon. “Everybody thinks they are going to open up there own brewery!” he said. He worried that corporations would appropriate the culture of microbreweries. Afterwards, my friend’s partner  and I talked about the root and cure for societal injustices. He wanted to know what he could do. I shrugged. “I’ve been reading the literature for years and I still don’t know. If we knew, we wouldn’t have to ask.”

We returned to 16th street to pick up my friend who had started to feel sick. I dropped them off at their trailer home and stayed to chat before I departed. We reminisced on Texas and got philosophical about animals and vegetarianism. Her mom had come home from work and it was probably the last thing she cared to hear about. She was clicking away on the computer at what seemed to be an MMORPG. I decided I wanted to make the most of my time in Fort Collins for day 3 as I was planning on being in Boulder before 4:20pm on 4/20/2012, so I did not stay the night in Greeley. I contacted my friend Krista who I studied with in Australia in the spring of 2006, and she said it was not too late to stay with her. So I said goodbye to my Texan friends–but not before dressing up in ridiculous costumes and taking photos– and drove westward into the foothills.

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Oregon Trail: Cattle Land


Day 2: Cattle Land
Date: April 19, 2012
Journey: Lincoln, NE to Fort Collins, CO
Total miles: 1,033 miles (39.6mpg)

I.The Next Morning

I woke up dry. Not a bad way to start the day. It hadn’t rained much the night before as had been forecasted, or if it had, it wasn’t evident. I seemed to be the first person up. It was 7:45.

If I was a dishonest son-of-a-bitch, I would have regretted putting money in the box the previous night. I probably could have gotten away without paying if I left early enough. The $20.75 seemed like a lot of money to pay simply to sleep in one’s vehicle–but I felt safe and I was not disturbed by cops or prostitutes, so…

I drove to the front to see if anyone was around to let me into the bathroom and sell me some fresh fruit. Before I had time to exit the car, a man came up to me with some change. “You over-payed,” he said. “Do you have the passcode  to the bathroom?” Thirty minutes later I was semi washed up, contacts back in. (They had been falling out in the morning because my eyes dried out). I went into the store and he and I had a little chat about traveling. He liked to travel every now and then since there wasn’t much offered in Nebraska. It also gave him an opportunity to meet people and get past the stereotypes he heard about (like those about New Yorkers being dirty and rude). That’s one reason I liked traveling to, I told him. He liked Lincoln better than Omaha because it didn’t have that big city feel. He like a lot of people I would talk to later, never moved far from their place of birth. This only recently became a primary topic of contemplation.

II. Entering Colorado

I was happy to be back on the road. I felt anxious being off it. The open road was a non-place–a space where  inhabited myself. Solitude. It was also a medium for adventure, something which I long associated as synonymous with “being alive.” In eight hours, around 4:00pm (due to a change in time zones), I would be in Greeley, CO. I hadn’t heard many nice things about it until recently when after my friend from Texas had moved there with her mom and boyfriend. I’d finally be able to pass my own informed (albeit limited) judgement.

After following the ever-important Platte River for (like the pioneers had) for several hundred miles, I arrived in Colorado early in the afternoon. I had remembered from a previous geology road trip–didn’t I mention that I’m a nerd?–that the east was pretty barren and flat. Barren, yes. Flat, no. I was in the foothills of the Rockies–if you’d even call them that. My gas was almost out, so I filled up my third tank in Julesburg. Luck had me at the one pump that I’d have to pay inside. I really disliked doing so. Was it the inconvenience? The human interaction? But this time it felt a little different because I was a stranger in town and it was an opportunity to meet a local.

The man at the stand was a large, thick black man with a stained white uniform. He was also the owner. I asked him, like everyone else I would talk to later, what he thought of his home. He liked Julesburg. In fact, he was born and raised there and had owned this business for about 35 years. He had family around, which was one reason he stayed, but that wasn’t the only reason. He, like the man at Camp-A-Way, would travel, but only as breaks from the everyday. He hit the clubs up in Denver. He liked that city a lot. We said our farewells, and I was back on the road. But now I could sense the mountains. I was in the West!

III. Ecocide

I really admired the horizons in Nebraska as I did Iowa and now Colorado. But at some point that day, I was hit by the obvious realization that I was not traveling on the same Oregon Trail as the original pioneers had. It was a different place completely. The place that once was, that was romanticized was for all practical purposes extinct. The fertility of the wheat fields were a distraction from the eradication of the mixed grass prairies, of which only 2% remain. People have much more sympathy for trees than grass.

This wasn’t just a product of the industrial revolution. The pioneers had brought the beginning of the end with them. An entire past and ecology had been erased from the flesh of the earth–the prairies and all their inhabitants: the peoples, cultures, meanings, stories, and languages, all gone. Well, not completely. Certain endangered languages, cultures, and species were being conserved by future generations, but in isolated pockets that were more like memorials, monuments, museums, and old-folks homes than sustainable and “restored” beings. I tried to imagine how different the horizon was for the pioneers and indigenous people before me and the century-old line of trees bordering the interstate. Was it lonely and populated back then, too?

IV. Thinking-Animals

Nebraska’s landscape along I-80, unlike Iowa’s, was populated with some animals. There were ranches. As always, I felt ambivalent passing them by. The cows had space, natural food, shelter, clean air and water, and families. It would not be a stretch to describe such beings as “happy.” Their was little direct human interference for most of their lives. Beautiful. I’ve long been struck by the beauty of large ungulate animals, especially bovines. Is it a prehistoric instinct of the time spent watching, chasing, hunting, and dreaming about them for tens of thousands of years of my human history? I loved the way they inhabit the land: in communities and with most of their time eating and resting. Maybe not so much for their sake, but mine. Just by watching them, I was becoming-cow. Ruminating on life, food, and the land.

I really appreciated being able to see them, to see animals other than the occasional bird, the road kill, and insecticide on the windshield. But someday soon, in a year or less, they would be “road kill” to. A semi with a livestock trailer passed me as I looked out onto the ranches. Inside were a couple dozen or more, some looking back. What was in those cows’ eyes? (I wondered if I had done the same in Iowa–taking a photo from the car–, if I would have been a potential target of the new ag-gag lawsuits that were made to threaten activists with even exposing illegal farming practices.) I wanted to see cows pigs and chickens, but not (only) in a context in which they were to be slaughtered and exploited. I wished to see them as I passed them on the road in healthy relationships with humans in which they were not objects to be consumed for profit.  I’d like them to be happy and free as possible in a way that is good for our culture and land and our so-called “humanity.”

A previous conversation I had with a friend suddenly became relevant: the importance of animal sanctuaries as a space for positive human-animal relationships. We had brought up the taboo: what if we did not spay and neuter rescued animals? What if we allowed them to nurture a new generation? Before we even answered, we imagined outrage at even the suggestion for “letting” more farmed animals in the world when so many needed rescuing and their were limited spaces and human and and financial resources. “Irresponsible!” I could imagine other activists yelling. Yet, do we hold ourselves to that same standard? How many children are suffering and need homes and resources, yet we (selfishly?) bear our own children? We call our reproductivity a right. Is this speciesist? Animal others are killed “humanely” when they are “overpopulated,” while poor and orphaned children are given a fighting chance, so there is a difference. I bookmarked the thought for a later time.

(Please comment if you have a position on this, btw. I’m curious.)

To be continued in part 2…

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Oregon Trail Day 1.2


Day 1: On the Road
Date: April 18, 2012
Journey: Chicago, IL to Lincoln, NE
Total miles: 529m (40.5mpg)

… continued from part 1

IV. Agri-Cultures of Animals and Machines (Illinois)

It had been a while since I had driven through western Illinois. I used to travel in this region on my way to and from college during vacations, but never this far west. Past DeKalb, were several egg confined animal feeding operations [CAFOs], or what people call “factory farms.” This would be the last I would see of land animal life in a long while. Animals were absent out here. I wondered how many drivers ever thought to notice. The replacement of companion species and wildlife by machines had become so common place, that this was once the home of other life besides humans and corn, wheat, and soy had been lost. It reminded me of Aldo Leopold‘s hard words on Wisconsin’s relationship with a prarie plant:

In [the cars] there must ride at least 10,000 people who have ‘taken’ what is called history, and perhaps 25,000 who have ‘taken’ what is called botany. Yet I doubt whether a dozen have seen the Silphium, and of these hardly one will notice its demise.

Yet animals as a general class of beings ought to be a much more noticeable absence. We interact with them everyday at restaurants, grocers, and in the kitchen, but their lived existence has become all but part of a mythical past or never never land. One does not think much of animals until someone brings up an argument of their “rights,” and then comes out the argument that if we did not kill them, where would all the animals go. If only they got out to the country and witnessed that the animals are gone, stuffed into warehouses and feedlots, their wild cousins extinct or displaced from the land presently devoted to feeding “livestock” with unsuitable crops. The crisis between our relationship with animals is one of space and ethos. We no longer dwell with, amongst, or on them except in the abstract field of debate and internet memes.

 

V. The Poetry of Place (Illinois, Iowa)

Wind turbines stood like giants in the horizon. Were they the herald of a new age of sustainable technology or an ominous signpost of an age where the land would no longer be inhabited by humans and animal others? Their was something so foreign about them, as if they were artifacts of an alien civilization.They were so elegant, but also so sterile. The land looked even more efficient and productive under their whirling shadows.

Yet, even the tallest of the titans paled in comparison to the sea blue dome above. Was it just me, or was the curvature of the Earth clear as day under the concave sky? Outside of the city one could experience the vastness of space, the stretches of what was once a sea of prairie. It was humbling to drive through such an expanse. The churches seemed fitting. The mosaic of soft clouds above beckoned some form of worship or at least a moment of reverence. Compelled to narrate my excursion through analogies, I could not make sense of my experience otherwise. The open road has poetry at its essence.

The Ronald Reagan fed into I-80 like a capillary into a vein. The road is the circulatory system of modern America, part of “the American experience” and its commercial excellency. Capital circulated through this vast system, and so did people.

I popped out on the other side of the Mississippi. I was in the West–sort of. Often people bash Iowa. They say it is a bore to drive through, but they are probably just not paying attention, or perhaps I arrived during the right season. On I-80 there were not so much of corn fields in sight, but there were undulating paved roads banked by lush green fields and trees. Catbird breezed up and down as if it was her first flight on the road.

As the road conditions scrapped-off some of my car’s fuel economy, I thought about the interstate highway system. It’s designed to transport people and capital from point A and B as efficiently as can be. But was efficiency the ultimate value of an open road? They could have flatten out I-80 for a little extra dough to save that much more fuel. It would have perhaps saved money and resources over the long term, but it would have eliminated the geography and history of the land. The tides of traffic and and ebbs and flows of the road gave testimony to the land and its inhabitants. To iron out these inefficiencies would be to erase the land of its personality and the experience of place. Agriculture had already butchered the land up into a grid, each piece having become property, and not much more. The obstacles to efficiency was a reminder of the alterity of the earth, which prevented us from getting too caught up in our narcissistic narrative of our mastery over it. The winds and bombs forced us to look and perhaps even respect that we were traveling not only in between landscapes, but through a living history of meanings and beings.

 

VI. Half-way Stretch (Iowa, Nebraska)

At a rest stop before Des Moines, it had not been more evident that I would have to make this a two day trip.  And I definitely wasn’t going to make dinner at McFoster’s Kind Cafe (which i had been looking forward to reviewing for at least a week). It was at least four hours away from Omaha–the midpoint to Greeley from Chicago–, and I had just woken up from an accidental nap. I couldn’t just show up somewhere at midnight and expect a place to stay and I had made a rule not to stay at motels/hotels/hostels during my trip, so I searched for campsite on Galaxy and found one in Lincoln, Nebraska that got good reviews. They had spots open for cars and tents and would allow me to pay in the box when I arrived so I would not have to pay up front if I decided to travel any more or less.

Although the drive was beautiful, the repetition on the road offered a lot of time for self-reflection. In fact, I had so many during the drive about love, sex, and death (including my mass murder of insects) that I decided to dedicate a whole post just to them. There were, however, every now and then breaks from the common scenery such as the “World’s Largest Truck Stop” outside of Iowa City, equipped with a parking lot of spaces the size of semi’s and a gas station with several fast food chains inside. You’d think you were in Texas. I entered Des Moines after nightfall. The city was lit up and the Capitol looked beautiful. I had never been to Des Moines, but wish I had some time for a visit after seeing all the pedestrian bridges over I-80.

Nebraska was not as hilly and lush as Iowa, but had its own natural beauty… at least on the other side of the windshield. Then I rolled the windows down it smelt like beef jerky and burt tires. Omaha also looked like a cool city, or at least they wanted you to think that from I-80. It had a bridge decorated in giant heart art and an epic welcome sign three stories off the ground next to the beautiful engine train car. Outside of Omaha, I fed my second tank ten gallons of what might be called “corn oil,” the Midwest’s finest. It was also the first time I was excited to pay $3.50 for a gallon of gas–$0.60 cheaper than in Lombard.

At midnight, I finally arrived at my $19 a night site at Camp A Way, an RV campground in Lincoln, Nebraska. I bumbled my way around the office and bathroom in the dark to fill out my information and deposit my money for the night, but there were no such forms, no map of the property, and no access code for the bathrooms. I made do with the envelop and pencil I was provided and drove down to an empty site and parked there. I cracked open the windows for some night air and laid awkwardly on the backseats. Sleeping didn’t come quite so easy this time, but it felt darn good  to be on the road with such an extended period of solitude and a bright future ahead.

Categories: Oregon Trail 2012, Travel Narrative, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Oregon Trail Day 1.1


Day 1: On the Road
Date: April 18, 2012
Journey: Chicago, IL to Lincoln, NE
Total miles: 529m (40.5mpg)

I. Preparation vs. Procrastination

Like the previous 20 years of my life, my road trip was delayed. I had meaninglessly busied my way around the internet during April 17. I intended to leave on the 18th because it was two days after my mother’s and dog’s birthday. This left me Tuesday to finish preparing. But I procrastinated. It’s what you do when you’re anxious.

I had several months to prepare for my trip, which meant several months “wasted.” I wanted to leave for the Pacific Northwest as soon as I returned home upon graduation, but I was naive about winter driving conditions in the mountains as well as access to National Parks. I decided to leave in April, but I still had many more decisions to make. Should I plan the trip or be spontaneous? Should I hang out with friends or strangers? Was I going to get a car or hitch hike? If I got a car, would it be a Honda Fit, Subaru Impresa, or Hyundai Accent? Should I buy a smart phone? Which one: an Android or an iphone 4S? How much should I spend on a tent? Should I get a better pocket knife? A gas, petrolium, or alcohol camping stove? Purification tablets, bottle filter, or ceramic pump? The list of decisions went on…

So much cautionary thinking and over-analysis hindered my preparation and enjoyment. I weighed the costs and benefits of each purchase. I made several visits to each car dealer, REI, and the AT&T store to become more informed. It was all so silly. I knew that whatever I got I would eventually be happy with, but I wanted it to be the right choice! (Eventually, I decided to go with a 2012 Honda Civic LX, a Samsung Galaxy SII, an REI Passenger 2 tent, a Jetboil Flash Stove,  and Portable Aqua purification tablets. I originally wanted to write a post about why I decided to purchase each of these, but that would be a little too neurotic, even for me). As I started to realize all the expenses and planning, I had burts of second thoughts. The closer my departure date, the more I felt in-over-my-head.

II. Goodbyes

The anxiety grew. There was so much left unplanned, but perhaps this was a good thing. I decided to let go in the last several days leading up to the trip. I fit in a few of the final hours visiting the grandparents. They were getting older and sicker. It was obvious they had concerns about their future. They were sad (yet excited) to see me leaving town again so soon after returning from 2.5 years in Texas. I also made sure to fit in some time with Duke before I left. I felt bad I hadn’t spent so much time with him in the last week. I would miss him more than anyone. He was my buddy, and he’d grown very attached while I’d been home. For the first time since my last visit he was taking 1.5 hour walks and playing with that darn remote controlled car in the basement. I felt bad about not spending more time with my other sibling, my sister. I had really intended to, but I got so caught up with my own projects and de-prioritsed her like many other important people in my life. It was a bad habit. I had become accustomed to going into “Dean-land,” as they called it, since I took refuge in my imagination from all the family conflict on the first floor above me.

The two people I spent the most time with during my time home were an old friend from college who had moved to Chicago months ago and a cute gal I met on an online dating site. We had made a date to camp in my backyard to test out the camp gear before heading off on my adventure. The Jetboil worked really well and the tent held up in stormy weather. I took her down Sheridan Road the next morning back to Logan Square on the 15th and then went on a final date with the other special lady in my life. We caught a bite at the Chicago Diner, a favorite of ours.

The next day I celebrated my Mom’s birthday at the Museum of Science and Industry, and on the next I went out shopping again–but in the afternoon. This included picking up my contact prescription with my aunt who was adamant that I replace my scratched-up 5 year old glasses. I told her I planned on leaving at 8am tomorrow, and wasn’t going to wait for them to be made. She said she knew I wouldn’t be reedy to leave by then and that she’d get them for me. Before midnight, I had a chance to say goodbye to my sister and grandma, but insufficient time to pack.

I realized I wasn’t going to make it out by 8am the next morning, so I went to sleep for six hours after spending couple hours finalizing my paper contact list and calendar (a backup). When I woke up, I also recognized that I was not going to be able to make it to Greeley, Colorado–a 16+ hour drive–in one trip. My trip was already getting off to a messy start and it hadn’t even started! I was adamant about making a video of my gear before I left so I spent a good a mount of time organizing it all on a coffee table in the den. Part for fun, part check-list, I made sure I had everything I needed accounted for. I wasn’t too surprised, but I was bringing a lot more gear (mostly clothes and food) than I had anticipated. To think I originally planned on hitchhiking and backpacking! Then again, I was planning on moving out there. Fortunately, it all fit comfortably in the trunk.

At about 11am, I took Duke for a final walk and filmed him running in the park. I could now watch the 12-year old guy thousands of miles away. We stopped by my father’s parents home to say goodbye to them and then ran back home. My mother had just returned home from picking the glasses up from my aunt as I was saying goodbye to Duke. Looking into his sad doggy eyes was almost enough for me to postpone the trip. But I was set in my ways and didn’t want to give my family any reason to think they were right about me not leaving that day.

At approximately 1pm, 5 hours after my original departure time, I turned on Catbird’s ignition and left for the West with a nearly empty gas tank.

III. Hitting the Road (Illinois)

Driving on the the Ronald Reagan Memorial Tollway (I-88) was exhilarating. (Never thought I’d use the word “exhilarating in a the same sentence as “tollway” and Ronald Reagan”). Windows down, the crisp Spring air  blew away any anxiety buried under my skin. I felt like a free man. The open road meant an open future. I was as much excited for the past I was leaving literally behind as for the plans I had before me. The West was a symbol of dreams to come. It was a direction. It was an experience.

I got a bit cocky. I pressed my luck, seeing how far I could drive the car with the little fuel I had. I hadn’t filled it up the tank the night before because I was in a hurry to get home, but in the morning I was even more anxious to get out of town. With a half a gallon of gas (22 miles of driving), I pulled off the tollway into Lombard to fill up–a $50 start on my road trip. Soon I hit the tolls. Over $10 in total to make it to Iowa. I regretted avoiding the tollway. A woman at the toll explained the fee doubled a few months ago from $1.80 to $3.60. I was glad I took the extra change my grandmother threw at me earlier. As I pulled money out at a later poll, I grumbled that I remembered when the tolls were $1. “You’re not that old,” said the toll woman.

I probably looked like a kid form the suburb moving into a University of Iowa dorm. My bag of gear and a stash of food (Fritos, pretzels, deluxe nuts, and dates) sat shotgun and my Nalgene accompanied my Galaxy SII under the armrest. Galaxy, in addition to Catbird, would be my travel companions: an electronic 140 horse-powered wagon and a jack of all electronic trades. Depending so much on technology made me ambivalent a week before. I didn’t like the environmental toll and fiscal expenses of having a car and I once despised the obnoxious use of smartphones as much as I had of cellphones a decade earlier before I came to own one. Now that I had a car for the first time in over 2.5 years, I felt empowered. I no longer had to worry about getting rides form others and planning my day around others’ schedule. The smartphone was a handy distraction, but an all-in-one tool.  It took better photos and videos than my last stolen camera and it made texting and managing a list of contacts less of a chore. (More on my thoughts about this to come).

I was getting all too close to my travel companions too fast. Galaxy has become a mobile flirting device. A fine lady from Arcata who I met online invited me to spend a day with her before arriving at my destination of Sanctuary One in southern Oregon–she promised to make it a day I’d never forget. I wondered whether suggestive text messaging with voice command should fall under the category of phone sex–the PG13 version. Meanwhile I had teamed up with Catbird to maintain the highest mpg average won our cross-country adventure. We got off to a grand start: 42mpg! As we hit winds near Iowa, our average dropped to 38mpg. “You know you have a cool car when you’re disappointed it only gets 38 miles per gallon,” I told Galaxy. We were one small family on the road.

 

To be continued in part 2…

Categories: Oregon Trail 2012, Travel Narrative | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

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