Northward and Home Again: Road Trip Conclusion

I spent a large part of my time in San Francisco trying to figure out what to do next.  I planned my trip in increments, the first of which was Buffalo to SF, where I could crash for a while and hatch more plans.  I’d started out with a vague idea that I would try to WWOOF in northern California.  It turns out that even in California there isn’t much going on farm-wise in November.  It took a long time just to gather information about all of my options, and then I had trouble getting responses from folks.  I ended up joining Workaway as well, thinking that if farming didn’t work out I could at least work at a hostel or retreat center for a while in exchange for room and board, but most of my requests went unanswered.  Frustrating.  I finally got a positive response from a laid-back-sounding “tree farm” in northwestern Washington.  Since I hadn’t seen Robert in a month and he wanted to fly out to meet me, I planned a week-long mini-road trip for us from San Francisco up to Seattle.

Robert and I went to Yosemite for a day, then to Davis, CA, where we spent a night with my other childhood next-door neighbor.  My brother met us in Davis the next morning and all three of us drove to Crater Lake National Park in Oregon—we actually stayed in a woodstove-heated cabin at a defunct lumber mill through AirBnB.

My favorite part about driving north from Davis to Chiloquin, OR, had to be Mount Shasta.  The sun was already down, and suddenly, out of the twilight, rose this magnificent snow-capped mountain.  As is the way with mountains, words cannot do it justice.  I’m definitely filing it away under “places I’d like to return to.”  That drive also marked the beginning of the Stan Rogers chapter of my journey: I put his entire discography on my music player and listened to it for at least a couple hours a day for the rest of the trip.  Crater Lake had gotten a few feet of snow the week before we went, and when we arrived at the park it was melting at 35 degrees.  We drove up the mountain and ascended into the cloud hovering over it, and when we reached the top, the fog was too dense to see the lake.  It was just a big misty void.  We hiked through the snow along the edge of the purported lake and turned back when we got too cold.  As we neared the visitor center, the fog magically lifted for about five minutes and we were able to get some pictures.


Crater Lake in a cloud.

My brother headed back to San Francisco from there, and Robert and I drove north again through Oregon into Washington.  I was surprised to learn that in Oregon it is illegal to pump your own gas.  The only explanations the Internet had to offer for this were “Tradition!” and “It keeps people employed.”  (Sure, but then why not outlaw more things, like doing your own laundry or driving your own car or carrying your own groceries?  So many jobs!)  We spent two nights at an AirBnB in Shelton, WA, with a family and an 8-week-old puppy who was, of course, ridiculously cute.  We tried to get to Olympic National Park, but my little car was not able to make it down the pothole minefield that passed for a dirt road leading to the nearest entrance, so we hiked in the surrounding National Forest instead.  Then we drove to Seattle, where Robert caught a flight for home.  Because his flight left so late in the day we had time to explore Fremont.  We visited the troll under the bridge, got coffee, went to a chocolate factory and a fancy beer bar where we ran into some guys from Buffalo, and met up with a high school friend of Robert’s for dinner.  I spent the night at a cool hostel in Fremont and drove north to the tree farm the following day.


Olympic National Forest.

“Tree Farm: I do not think it means what you think it means.”
I thought it meant “tree nursery,” and the place I stayed did sell seedlings, sometimes, but that wasn’t really the point of the operation.  The owner was a woodworker and ran a small lumber mill.  His main source of income seemed to be rental properties he owned in rapidly-gentrifying neighborhoods of Seattle.  “Tree Farm,” in the state of Washington, is a designation that one receives for participating in a sustainable forestry program.  So he was raising native trees and planting them in his woods in order to steward his forest.  (Except that many of them weren’t, actually, native trees, but European ornamentals he dug up in Seattle…)  He was a nice, generous older man and was hosting another senior friend as well as four other WWOOFers while I was there.  I slept on a couch in the living room because the WWOOFer quarters were already taken up, so I spent the evenings in the living room with him while he watched Fox News.  I had been planning on staying longer, but for a variety of reasons (upon which I could elaborate, but which I will just summarize as “I wasn’t very comfortable there”), I only ended up staying four days.  I explained, truthfully, that I was concerned about getting my tiny car back over the Cascades and the Rockies in the coming snow storms since I didn’t have chains for my tires.  I picked up a gallon of emergency water and some hand- and toe-warmer packs on my way out of town, and I began my trek back on November 20th.


I-90 crossing the mighty Columbia River.

I drove I-90 the whole way back to Buffalo, which took me a week.  Because I went to Boston in 2005, I’m pretty sure that I’ve now officially driven the entire length of I-90.  The places I stopped were Spokane, WA (AirBnB); Bozeman, MT (hostel); Rapid City, SD (weirdly cheap hotel room); Sioux Falls, SD (AirBnB); Pleasant Prairie, WI (former roommate’s apartment); and Fremont, OH (my great-aunt and uncle’s house).  I spent Thanksgiving with my former roommate and her romantic partner, a trained chef who can roast veggies to perfection.  The western part of I-90, all the way up to Illinois, is toll-free, and its rest stops are basically just restrooms and parking lots.  Once the tolls start, the rest stops include fast-food restaurants and gas stations.  The highlights of this leg of the trip, which I titled “Get Home Quick!,” had to be Montana and South Dakota.


Wallace, Idaho.

I had never given much thought to Montana before.  When saw it, the source of its name dawned on me light a light bulb: Montana = montaña = mountain = I am in love.  I spent the night at a funky hostel in the quaint-yet-hip college town of Bozeman.  I got to walk around the town a bit in the morning, and then I drove down to Yellowstone, about an hour and a half south.  The drive was absurdly, breathtakingly scenic, fields and ranches spread out at the base of snow-capped mountains all around, rivers a deep cerulean, and so much sky.  I pulled over several times for mountain pictures.  (Do people ever get used to living amid such beauty?  Do they ever stop staggering around in awe?  I hope not.)  Most of the roads in Yellowstone were closed for the winter.  I hiked on the maze of boardwalks around Mammoth Hot Springs, the only easily accessible geological feature at the time, and drove down the only other open road to try to find bison.  The bison found me!  The herd was blocking the road, making all the cars stop.  I rolled down my window and got some really close pictures.  I also spotted elk, mule deer, and a bald eagle.


Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone.

I spent most of the day there and then had to drive eight hours in the dark to get to my cheap hotel.  Even as I was driving down I-90, I could tell that the stars were incredible, so I pulled off at a “parking stop” in Wyoming to see.  Got out of the car and turned off my headlights.  I wasn’t near a town and there were big gaps in the highway traffic, so minimal light pollution, and I was out of the mountains, so the stars stretched from horizon to horizon.  The moon was not up.  Orion and the Big Dipper had just risen, and I drove east toward Orion for the rest of the night, watching him ascend.

The day after Yellowstone, I drove across South Dakota.  I wanted to stop at Badlands National Park, Wall Drug, and the Laura Ingalls Wilder house in DeSmet, but I knew I didn’t have time for all three.  I got up pretty early after not much sleep to maximize my touristing time.  I drove for about half an hour and hit a Wall of Fog, which was at least as thick as pea soup.  I passed the exit for Badlands in the midst of the fog and ruled it out, figuring I wouldn’t be able to see much.  I did stop at Wall Drug long enough to get the free bumper sticker their signs had promised.  I was trying pretty hard to make it to DeSmet before the museum closed, and I called them to make sure they were open (it was the day before Thanksgiving).  The woman in the gift shop who answered the phone assured me that they were open but said that she would like to leave early, and she asked me to call back when I was getting close.  So I drove over the speed limit (rare for me, since I have too many points on my license to risk getting pulled over) and didn’t stop for lunch, bathroom, or anything else…

…BUT:  I had forgotten to account for the hour I would lose in the middle of the state due to time zones.  I called the gift shop again when I was getting close—my e.t.a. was 2:20—and the same woman told me that she wanted to leave at 3:00, so I should let her know if I was going to be any later.  I figured that at best, that meant I would get a rushed 30-minute tour.  I was driving down country roads surrounded by fields, passing signs like “Town of ____, Population 108,” when I realized I was almost out of gas.  Miraculously, I came across the first gas station I’d seen in an hour and performed the fastest fuel-up of my life, race car-style.  I got to the museum around 2:30.  The woman on the phone, it turned out, was not the tour guide, and the actual tour guide was totally willing to hang out as long as I wanted.  I got a private tour of all the buildings and it was the best tour I’ve ever had of anything, period.  I got to ask all the questions I wanted.  He was incredibly knowledgeable and enthusiastic, a sometimes-high school history teacher who had just moved back to the town where he’d spent part of his youth.  He was able to draw me back into that prairie town I’d loved so much at fourteen and made me want to reread that whole series.


The first house where Laura lived when she moved to SD.

This post concludes the major events of the road trip.  I might write one more just to assemble my thoughts and general observations about it all.  Stay tuned!


Map of my route from

Road Trip Interlude: Three Weeks In San Francisco

I stayed with my brother, his wife, and their dog Pixel from October 18th to November 9th.  They just bought their house in the Outer Sunset in May, so I was excited to go visit them.  My brother is three years younger than me and has lived out in California since 2011 when he was hired at Google; I usually only see him for Christmas, so it was nice to actually have a chance to hang out.  Because I lived in San Francisco for a year (’08-’09) for the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, I’d already done most of the tourist things and didn’t have much interest in doing them again.  I hadn’t been back since my last brief visit in 2012.  Here are some highlights from this visit:

I got my car fixed!  By the time I got it to SF, it needed an oil change, new brakes, a new serpentine belt, and a new wiper fluid nozzle.  All this cost me somewhere around $1400.  Hooray!  (Sarcasm.)


I tried fixing it with electrical tape first – ha!  It didn’t work.

Most days when I didn’t have some other adventure planned, I took little Pixel on walks to the beach, helped cook meals from Plated. meal subscription service, and tried to identify the foreign (to me) succulents and cacti growing in their yard.

I bought a new Muni map, put some money on a Clipper card, and attempted to refresh my memory of the bus system.  Last time I lived in SF, I didn’t have a car, so I took public transport by default.  I tried driving in the city a couple of times on this visit but it was way more of a pain in the ass than it was worth: I would spend as much time circling around trying to park, as I spent driving to my destination.  So I mostly bussed it and hoofed it.


Takin’ pictures, waitin’ for the bus.

I met up with my JVC supervisor for lunch and she caught me up on her life and developments in the San Francisco non-profit world.  My uncle, who’s living in Palo Alto, also met up with my brother, his wife, and me for brunch one day.


Cappuccino at Outerlands on Judah.

I went to a Google-sponsored, Halloween-themed glass-blowing workshop with my brother and his wife at Public Glass, where we each got to make a glass pumpkin.  Pretty cool!

We went to two concerts: Bon Iver at the Fox Theatre in Oakland, and the Bridge School Benefit at Shoreline Amphitheatre where we saw Neil Young, Metallica, Roger Waters, Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds, Willie Nelson, My Morning Jacket, Norah Jones, Cage the Elephant, and Nils Lofgren.   It turns out it’s really hard to get tickets to anything in the Bay Area because the scalping is out of control.  Good luck getting to a show unless you’re a computer wizard or willing to pay twice the retail ticket price.  I enjoyed the shows we saw, but the ridiculousness of getting tickets made me glad I don’t live in such a major population center.


Bridge School Benefit Concert.

I took myself to the San Francisco Botanical Gardens for a day and had a nice time wandering around looking at all the exotic plants.

My brother and I signed up for a two-hour surfing lesson together in Pacifica, CA.  It was not all that I’d hoped—our instructor was not terribly helpful—but I did get to surf a little, so I can say that I’ve done it.  After a few facefuls of salt water, I decided the surfing was not the thing for me… but it sure does clear out the sinuses.

I went to Muir Woods about three times and admired the majestic coastal redwoods there (Sequoia sempervirens), as well as the bigleaf maples in their autumn gold (Acer macrocarpa).

My childhood next-door neighbor, who I hadn’t seen for about 12 years, met up with my brother and me for a walk up the Land’s End Trail from the Sutro Baths ruins to Sea Cliff.  Pixel got to meet her skateboarding bull dog!


Mile Rock Beach, San Francisco.

My brother and I drove back down Highway 1 to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park for a day to go hiking.  The trail wasn’t well-marked.  We thought we were on a trail, albeit a challenging one that included ropes dangling down rock faces from tree trunks that kind of required us to rappel… until it just petered out and we realized it was never a trail.  We basically hiked up a gorge and found some cool waterfalls.

I spent an afternoon wandering around the Mission and went back to visit my old apartment (just the outside; I didn’t knock).  The billboard on the side was gone for the time being, and the businesses that used to be on the first floor had changed—Glama-Rama Salon was now Lotus Center Healing Collective, and the Housing Rights Committee was a guitar shop.  (The previous businesses still exist; they just moved.)  My old laundromat was being remodeled and turned into apartments, and the abandoned gas station that used to be across the street from our apartment is now a swanky new five-story apartment building.  Otherwise, things seemed more or less the same.  All the shops I remembered on Mission and on Valencia were still there, and the 16th and Mission BART station was still a shit show.


Possibly the coolest thing I did during this visit was participate in Food Not Bombs at 16th and Mission.  We met in the kitchen of a housing collective & anti-capitalist event space that was shockingly clean (by my Buffalo housing co-op standards) and full of radical flyers and posters.  About 15 people came to prepare the meal, and most of us set to chopping all the produce that had been donated by local grocery stores that would otherwise have thrown it away.  A couple of people were in charge of putting it all together into a meal.  Those who participated were from all over: Lithuania, France, Boston, L.A., Virginia, and even Brockport, NY!  When the cooking was finished we had pasta, ratatouille perfectly spiced, pinto beans, salad, fruit salad, and apple cobbler.  We ate together with the residents of the collective before taking the rest of the meal down to the BART station to serve to whoever wanted some.  The food was gone within 15 minutes.  It was a great way to meet some awesome, friendly folks and restore some faith in humanity.

My last full day in San Francisco happened to fall on November 8th.  Robert flew out to meet me that evening so that we could embark on a mini-road trip together the next day.  I had a hell of a time trying to find him at the airport—why would a flight from NYC end up at the “international” terminal?—but I finally did manage to pick him up, and we stopped at Safeway for a six-pack to bring back with us while we watched the election coverage.  The cashier asked us if we were sure we didn’t want something stronger.  That was my first real indication that things were going the way they did—I’d been listening to NPR that morning and everyone on the radio seemed pretty confident that Hillary had it in the bag.  As it happened, I was pretty much off the grid for the following three days.  Before I had embarked on this trip, I had created a road trip playlist on my mp3 player, which I tinkered with throughout the journey, adding and deleting tracks.  One of my favorites ended up being “Grand Canyon” by Ani DiFranco, which is more of a spoken-word poem than a song.  During that first week or so after the election, it was the only thing that made me feel better about the state of my country.

Road Trip Highlights So Far: Westward Bound

Since updating as I travel hasn’t worked out too well, please enjoy the highlights below!

Pleasant Prairie, WI, 10/4/16

R and I crashed with one of my favorite former roommates and her partner and met her dog named Dragon!  Driving through Chicago sucked.

Hancock, IA, 10/5/16

Crashed with a friend of a Buffalo friend who runs a small organic farm.  He was an amazingly generous host who cooked us a delicious dinner of farm-fresh veggies.  Slept under a bunk bed with a SLIDE attached!


Hancock, IA Soybean Field

Denver, CO, 10/6-10/8/16

Drove the entire length of Nebraska, which was all corn and soybean fields as far as the eye could see.  The rain that accompanied us turned to snow, and the temperature plummeted.  As soon as we crossed the border into Colorado, the farm fields disappeared and were replaced by pasture full of brush.  We stayed in a super swanky AirBnB in the RiNo neighborhood for three nights while R attended the Great American Beer Festival with his coworkers.  Went to Rocky Mountain National Park for a day and saw elk—and they saw us!  They walked right in front of my car.  Also swung through Boulder.  R and I parted ways in Denver on October 9 so he could return to work, and I continued the journey alone.


Bull Elk, Rocky Mtn. National Park

Taos, NM, 10/9/16

I took the scenic route through the Rockies down to Taos and stopped frequently at “vista points,” designated or not.  Passed many beautiful abandoned ranches.  The whole drive was insanely picturesque.


Rocky Mountains, Colorado

Spent some time looking for coffee after 5pm on a Sunday and finally found it in Salida, CO.  The sun went down, the views disappeared, and I skipped around radio stations trying to catch Presidential Debate #2.  Got quite lost at the end and had to drive back into cell phone range to call the hostel and get directions, but I finally made it to Taos.  Got very little sleep due to the bed bug siege.  Finally gave up on any prospect of sleep and got up around 6:00 a.m.  Went to Black Rock Hot Springs on the Rio Grande, in the process of which I got quite lost again, drove down a seven-mile rut-ridden dirt road and thoroughly messed up my car’s shocks.


Should have rented a Jeep.

Albuquerque, NM, 10/10/16

Stayed at a cool hostel in an old adobe mansion.  Hung out on the porch in the evening sharing beers and chatting with hostel staff and other guests.  This hostel had mattress encasements and forbade guests from bringing their own bedding inside: smart.  Explored Albuquerque Old Town in the morning and asked a local whether anyone calls it “Albuquirky.”  The answer was no.


Albuquerque Old Town

Flagstaff, AZ, 10/11-10/12/16

Since I don’t have a smart phone, before I left, I meticulously hand-wrote directions on how to drive the old Route 66 from Albuquerque to Flagstaff.  (Yes, I learned about Route 66 from the movie Cars.)  I managed to stay on it basically until the Arizona border when the sun went down, because a) the speed limit is much slower than on I-40, and b) I stopped a lot to take pictures.  Route 66 is an urban explorer’s paradise, full of modern ruins.  They are perhaps a little TOO ruined for some people’s taste because you can just walk into most of them.  In Arizona I drove through the Navajo reservation, where I stopped at a “rest stop” that was just a couple picnic tables and a fire pit.  I was able to catch a Navajo language radio station for a while.  The Flagstaff hostel, called the Grand Canyon International Hostel, was a converted motor lodge from the 1930s, which I got a big kick out of.  I’ve wanted to stay in a motor lodge since I started reading Stephen King’s short stories.  This wasn’t quite the same, but it was fun nevertheless.


Worn down by 80 years of travelers’ footsteps.

I chose it because it was the closest hostel to the Petrified Forest National Park, which I explored on my second day there.


Petrified Forest National Park – “The Tepees.”

Two Guns, AZ, 10/12/16

I spent hours exploring this I-40 exit that is entirely abandoned.  You can find a lot of information about it online.  I came first to the abandoned KOA Kamp and gas station; then I followed a dirt road toward some cobblestone buildings in the distance that it turned out were an abandoned zoo.  Everything has been deserted since the 80s, I gather.  I read that there was a caretaker living in a mobile home on the property for a while to keep trespassers and vandals away, but he committed suicide in 2000.  The mobile home is still there in ruins.  There were other tourists exploring the place as well: a young woman with her dog, a couple of guys in pickup trucks, a man with a camper, and family from Illinois with two little kids where the dad was giving them a tour based on a guidebook he brought.


Abandoned KOA, Two Guns, AZ


Abandoned Zoo, Two Guns, AZ

Sedona, AZ, 10/13/16

Before I left Flagstaff, I hiked the Aspen Loop Trail in the San Francisco Peaks.  The aspens were in their full autumn glory, and it was a wonderful hike.  (My favorite part of this trip has been any time I’ve been near mountains!)  I went through Sedona between Flagstaff and Tucson mainly because of the Houndmouth song.  I was again fascinated by the landscape changes.  I drove through Coconino National Forest and Oak Creek Canyon, full of deciduous broadleaf trees—even sycamores!  When I came out of the canyon, traffic slowed to a snail slither approaching Sedona, and I was awed by the crazy rock formations rising out of the forest.  South of Sedona, the trees abruptly gave way to saguaros—then the sun went down.  I played with the radio until I ended up on an AM station with some racist radio hosts, then switched to my audiobook.

Tucson, AZ, 10/13-10/14/16

This was my only Couchsurfing stay so far, and it was very nice.  My host was an interesting and kind woman who liked to garden and told me about desert plants.  I met another visitor/tenant from Virginia who was familiar with one of my favorite bands (Carbon Leaf!), and the second night I met a lovely couple from Ontario, Canada who took me out for tacos and traded travel stories.  I had wanted to go to Tucson mostly because I’ve been a Barbara Kingsolver fan since I read The Bean Trees in the 10th grade, but it seems like Tucson has changed a lot since the 1980s.  I was kind of underwhelmed.  I saw a lot of strip malls and (non-native) palm trees, but it was hard to find an interesting city center.  I eventually consulted my Slingshot organizer and found myself at a radical bookstore where I chatted with the owner and her daughter and picked up a Slingshot for next year.  The highlight of my Tucson stay was Saguaro National Park, where I learned SO MUCH about saguaro cactuses and had to stop myself from trying to take a portrait of every saguaro in the park because they’re all so unique!  In a place with few trees, I guess I just fall in love with the tallest plant around.


Saguaro National Park

Slab City, CA, 10/15/16

I enjoyed driving across southern Arizona, admiring the desert vistas and skipping around Spanish-language radio stations, some of which were actually broadcasting from Mexico.  The California border was a bridge over the Colorado River and marked another sudden transition, from Sonoran Desert to huge sand dunes.  Drove through two Border Patrol checkpoints.  I then found myself driving between the biggest agricultural fields I’d ever seen, stretching almost to the horizon.  I’d originally wanted to spend a night in Slab City, but I was nervous about it as I didn’t know what to expect.  Most of my expectations were based on Into the Wild, and I know better than to base too much on what I see in movies—so I just stopped by for an hour or so.  It turns out Salvation Mountain is actually a pretty major tourist destination.  There were people there speaking all different languages climbing the mountain and taking pictures, and one Slab City resident sitting under a tent taking donations and enforcing the signs that told you where not to walk.  I had been worried that it would be weird for a random tourist to show up at this off-grid camp, but not so.


Salvation Mountain, Slab City, CA

Big Bear Lake, CA, 10/15-10/16/16

I only had this one on my list because I found a cool hostel there through (without which I’d never have been able to plan this trip), but I’m so glad I went.  I drove past Joshua Tree National Park, through the Mojave Desert, and up into the San Bernardino Mountains—as I climbed the desert dissolved, and the higher I went the more wooded it became.  The hostel was called the Mountain Adventure Lodge, and it included breakfast and had a fire built in the common space every night.  I met lots of Workawayers there from other countries, a couple staying there via Groupon after attending Oktoberfest, and a couple of college students from L.A. trying to catch a bit of fall on their school break.  I hiked the Pineknot Trail to Grand View Point in the San Bernardino National Forest and met one of my new favorite trees, the Jeffrey Pine.  A park ranger told me that they’re nicknamed “Gentle Jeffries” because you can cup a pine cone in your hands and it won’t prickle your skin.  They’re tall and majestic, and their bark smells like butterscotch.  Seriously.


Closeup of a wildfire scar and bark regrowth on a Jeffrey Pine.

San Luis Obispo, CA, 10/17/16
The next phase of my plan was to drive up Highway 1 to San Francisco, but I needed to split it up, so I picked SLO as a midpoint to spend a night.  California driving is my least favorite thing.  I spent hours crossing the state in aggravating traffic but was finally rewarded with the Pacific Ocean.  For some reason it hadn’t crossed my mind that I’d be seeing the ocean that day, since I was saving Big Sur for the next day.  I smelled it before I saw it: the moist salty air and the unfortunate gym-socks scent of eucalyptus.  I missed the first exit labeled “beach access” and took the next one, which had some (intentionally?) misleading signs but ended at a small beach with only three parking spaces.  I took off my shoes and ran through the surf.  There was one other person there, a middle-aged woman walking her dogs, and when I returned to my car she asked me if I’d really driven from New York.  I told her about my trip before I continued on to SLO.

First Pacific Ocean sighting!  (On this trip, anyway.)

San Luis Obispo is a cute little city that has good taste in street trees and gives the impression of wealth.  (Its main drag is full of shiny new mall-type stores.)  I only spent a night there so I don’t have much more than passing impressions.  The hostel I stayed in had the best sense of community: everyone hung out and shared drinks and played music in the common space until we all trouped down to a bar for open mic night.

Music Room in SLO Hostel

Highway 1 and Big Sur, 10/18/16

Driving Highway 1 takes FOREVER, but you are rewarded with incredible scenic vistas.  I stopped at one labeled “elephant seal viewing area,” thinking, “Yeah, right, how do they know there are seals there right now?”—but they were!  Got lots of good photos.  If anyone but me had been driving I would have been incredibly motion sick.


Highway 1, California, Bixby Bridge, completed 1932

I also greeted my favorite California coastal plant, whose name I finally learned: coyote brush!  It smells like lemon and mustard and dill and I can’t stop crushing little leaves between my fingers to sniff every time I see it.


Coyote Brush – Baccharis pilularis

And on October 18th I made it to San Francisco, where I’ve been hanging out for three weeks—and that will be another post.

Driving Out West

On Tuesday, I leave for the west coast.  I’ve never traveled alone at all before, and I’ve never driven farther west than Michigan.  Although I lived in California for a year, I only flew back and forth, so I’ve still never seen much of the middle of the country.  Do I know what I’m getting myself into?  Probably not.  But I’ll have my car, which is comforting.  I’ve booked hostels and found couches to surf for all my stops between here and San Francisco.  It should be an adventure.

Robert and I are driving to Denver together over three days and should arrive on October 6.  He and some coworkers are attending the Great American Beer Festival, and I’m just going to check out Denver.  On October 9, Robert drives back and I continue on to Taos, NM; Albuquerque, NM; Flagstaff, AZ; Tucson, AZ; Big Bear Lake, CA; San Luis Obispo, CA; and finally San Francisco where my brother, sister-in-law, and dog-niece live.  I should be getting to SF on October 18.  In between I want to check out hot springs, the Petrified Forest, Slab City, and Big Sur.  (I’m open to other suggestions along that route as well!)

I have high hopes for documenting this journey but I’m not sure how it’s going to go.  Most of the places I’m staying have WiFi.  Perhaps I’ll be able to blog—but that might not be how I want to spend my time.  I also have an mp3 player that records audio, so maybe I could record spoken blog posts and upload them later with some photos.  (If a web log is a blog, and a video log is a vlog, can I call a sound log a “slog?”  I’m told it’s called a “podcast,” but whatever.)

I’m a little bit sad to be leaving the northeast in the fall, but I’m looking forward to the feeling of being in motion.  I’ll let you know how it goes!

Summery Summary: Five Weeks WWOOFin’

…in the heat of the summer, no less.  The sun was INTENSE this year, which made the work seem harder than usual.  The farm had planted ten beds of carrots (3 rows per bed) as a fall crop, and our crew spent about three weeks painstakingly weeding them bed by bed under the burning sun.  When we finally finished the very last bed of carrots, we looked back at the first bed we had weeded only to see that the weeds had returned with a vengeance—and we started over again.

What I like about those WWOOFing experiences, though, is that you really bond with the people who are out there in the weeding trenches with you, toiling in the dirt through all kinds of weather.  I worked with the two J’s, a couple of young rappers from New York City who’ve also interned there in previous years, and who taught us all to play Pinese Choker (a.k.a. Chinese Poker).  I made friends with an awesome woman in her 30’s from Holland who had just quit her boring office job, broken up with her unfaithful fiancé of 13 years, and set off to have adventures in foreign countries; and I met another woman in her 30’s, also from NYC, who is on a very interesting and esoteric journey of self-discovery, involving BodyTalk, aura photography, and flower essences, as well as biking from park to park, solo-camping and reconnecting with the land.  There were several others, too, who came for shorter stays, but these folks were the core crew for the five weeks I was there.

Farming with so many women, for once, translated to SO MUCH skinny dipping.  I went to the lake more often than I had during my other stays there, and it was cool to see her changing moods from day to day: different waves, currents, wildlife, plants and debris.  The three of us celebrated the full moon in August with a late-night skinny dip session that was pretty magical.  The frequent swimming was also partially prompted by the drought which caused the well to run dry on a regular basis and encouraged me to curtail my showers.  There were several days when we were unable to wash dishes until the well had time to replenish.  It really made me appreciate the luxury of turning a tap in my apartment in the city and having potable water flow out.


One among few decent rains.

The drought also meant that the crops were a little sadder-looking and less plentiful than usual.  The irrigation pond completely dried up.  The tractor started a friction fire in a field of rye grass it was mowing.  The Japanese beetles, Colorado potato beetles, flea beetles, and biting flies were thriving in numbers I’d never seen before—I’m not sure whether as a result of the drought, this past mild winter, or something else entirely.  The weeds, of course, still thrived, and we sold purslane and amaranth at the farmers market.  I remember reading somewhere that a “weed” is just an extremely drought-tolerant plant.  I had to think about the fussy, delicate plants we humans prefer to eat and therefore to painstakingly cultivate, when we could as easily choose to incorporate into our diets those plants that are edible, nutritious, and eager to grow in a wide variety of conditions (particularly purslane, amaranth, and lamb’s quarter).  Working in the extreme heat and humidity all day also got me fantasizing about forest farming.  Why not grow mushrooms and nuts and berries instead?

I had some pretty memorable animal encounters this time around.  The farm dog had passed away this spring, and the rodents were having a field day.  Raccoons and skunks would knock over the compost every night and go through our trash, strewing it around everywhere and even shredding the tinfoil into tiny little bits.  I had to start stacking three pieces of firewood on top of the lids every night to keep them out: any less was ineffective.  Our hangout space was full of adorable tiny mice, which I didn’t mind so much, and we found a rat in the farmhouse.  I met my first tree frog when he took up residence on the roof of our outdoor kitchen.  My first day back at the farm, I spotted a bald eagle overhead while I was swimming in the lake.  I saw some crazy-looking red newts on a hike in the Finger Lakes National Forest, and when I was off-road hiking (a.k.a. trespassing) in the woods on the cliffs by the lake, I found an old white oak tree whose base contained a honeybee hive: a honey tree!  Awesome.

My other major hiking highlights were:
1 – Seeing my very first American chestnut trees in the National Forest.  American chestnuts were pretty much all wiped out by the Japanese fungus Cryphonectria parasitica between 1900 and 1940.  I’d been reading about them per my tree obsession but had yet to encounter one.  The chestnuts in the National Forest were all little saplings, suckers sent up by the root systems of the big old trees killed by the blight, and I was told that the blight would take them all out before they reached reproductive age—but I was still excited to see them at all.
2 – Recovering the skull of a 5-point stag from a gorge where it had fallen to its death.  It’s a privately-owned gorge and a bit of a treacherous hike.  Like Watkins Glen, it consists of a series of waterfalls carved in the shale, all leading down toward the lake.  The hike involves climbing up the waterfalls one by one—there are about 8 total that you can scale, depending on how intense of a hike you’re up for—generally accomplished in flip-flops with no climbing gear.  If you’re careful, you’ll be fine.  If you’re not careful, you could die.  Most visitors to the gorge stick to the first couple of waterfalls, which are not too difficult to reach and have nice swimmin’ holes at the bottom.  I led a couple of the new WWOOFers on the whole gorge hike because it’s a cool thing I think everybody should get to experience, and around waterfall #5, we found this deer carcass.  The skin was caught on a branch laying across the creek, and I found the skull submerged in the water, already almost clean of flesh.  I wasn’t equipped to carry a gross skull with me that day, so I left it, but I couldn’t stop thinking about going back to retrieve it—and a few days later, I did.  I had never done that hike alone before.  I thought I could make it easier by walking higher up on the cliff until I came to the point where the deer was, then descending.  It was not easier.  I carefully clambered down, and then scrambled back up, a super-steep slope covered with layers of leaves and pine needles, with a wet skull in a trash bag in my backpack, the antlers poking out.  No regrets—it really was too cool to just let it decay there.  So I cleaned it up and now it lives in my house.