Paring It Down: Reflections while packing to move

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Packing in Progress

One week left until we’re out of this apartment.  I’ve moved a fair amount in my adult life, and I’ve grown to enjoy it.  (I mentioned this to a friend recently who looked at me all sideways and said, “NOBODY likes moving.”)  The longest I’ve spent in any one place was the three years I lived in an attic apartment in North Buffalo, and that was also the most difficult move: three years is ample time to accumulate a heck of a lot of STUFF.  I don’t have as much to pack this time around.  Even so, I find that this process is a great time to reflect on what I actually need in my life.

Stuff is a problem.  Life requires stuff.  Unfortunately, sometimes life requires stuff that you don’t end up using very often, and it spends a lot of time just sitting around, taking up space in your house.  I’m sorting things based on a loose rule that whatever I haven’t used in a year needs to go.  (There are, of course, some exceptions.)  But where should it go?  I get frustrated with all this STUFF lying around, but it would be irresponsible to just throw it away.  Material goods are problematic partially because of the duty I feel to steward them.  I try to deal with it in a mindful way.  Whatever I don’t use, I pass on to other people who will appreciate it.  I offer things to my friends, and I take a lot of things to my favorite thrift store, Amvets.  Even they seem overwhelmed by objects.  Their donation area often looks like the aftermath of an explosion.  Nevertheless, I usually see the stuff I donate end up on their shelves eventually.  (Kudos to Amvets for keeping track of it all!)

I always come back to the idea of a Stuff Bank.  I would really like one to exist someday.  It would be kind of like a tool library, but in addition to tools it would just have an incredibly broad variety of random things people end up needing.  Maybe there would be a small fee for membership, but after that it would work like a library, where you can check things out and return them by a due date, and there would be fines for late, lost, or broken items.  There are so many things I only need once in a while that I would be happy to borrow from a Stuff Bank: lawn mower, vacuum cleaner, iron and ironing board, blender, camping gear, pet cages…  Think about it.  Why does everyone on the block need their own lawn mower when they use it maybe once a week?  Why not just have one lawn mower and pass it around?  Because a) the tragedy of the commons, and b) capitalism depends on people buying shit they don’t actually need to keep its gear$ turning.


Packing up a room full of crafting supplies also got me thinking about simplifying my life in terms of the ways I choose to spend my time.  Crafting is a tough one.  I really enjoy making things—these days, mostly cards, crocheted hats and mittens, and nature-inspired jewelry—but I don’t need to keep all the things that I make, and I don’t even have enough people to give them to for holidays and such.  I tried to set up an Etsy and turn it into a small side-business but I’ve only sold two things in the year it’s been in existence.  Attending local craft shows and artisan fairs is more productive but requires a bigger time commitment.  Supplies cost money and you always end up with more than you need, so then it takes up space in your house along with your fifty half-finished projects.  Is it really worth it?  I go back and forth.  I end up crafting mostly in the colder months and spend the rest of the year focused on other things, which seems like a reasonable compromise—for now.

And while I’m weighing whether crafting is a good use of my time and energy, I would be remiss not to examine the biggest fucking waste of those resources in my life: Facebook.  I hate Facebook So. Fucking. Much.  I’m pretty sure there’s some kind of demon on the other end of all the wires that feeds on my soul, and Facebook is the straw it uses to suck it out.  Like many other people, I think about deleting my account on a regular basis, but unfortunately I can’t get past how useful it is for certain things like finding out about events, polling your friends, and crowd-sourcing the sex of your house mice or the names of plants you find on hikes.  I think, “Well, instead of deleting it I can just exercise greater self-control by only logging in every few days and limiting the amount of time I allow myself to spend scrolling down the news feed.”  The self-control thing never works.  That damned infinitely-scrolling news feed always sucks me back in, and I always end up feeling terrible about myself after seeing how great everyone else’s life is.  I tell myself I’m being unreasonable, but it doesn’t help.  Facebook: it may not be a waste of space, but it sure as shit is a waste of time and emotional energy.  I’m hoping that when we set up the new apartment, I can find a way to make it really inconvenient for me to use my computer.  My theory is that if I have to go to more effort to get to Facebook, I’ll find a better way to fill my spare time.

Throughout my life, I have found it useful—if kind of weird and uncomfortable—to periodically reassess my values and let go of what no longer serves me, even if it is something that previously brought me much joy.  Most of these practices have been fine initially, but I get too intense and obsessive about them, and they become more of a burden than a benefit.  I can think of several examples off-hand:

When I was in middle school, I would spend all week looking forward to Friday night, when I would be glued to the TV watching ABC’s “TGIF Block Party” programming.  The highlight for me was always Sabrina the Teenage Witch.  After listening to a sermon at Mass about relinquishing worldly things that distract us from God, I chose to give up my favorite show for Lent.  A few weeks in, I realized that I didn’t even care much about the show, and planning my week around catching the new episode was more trouble than it was worth, so I never went back to watching it.  Incidentally, I still feel like this about TV shows to this day: I don’t really like to watch them because they just keep going, and I don’t need that kind of time commitment.

I had a crush on a different boy in my class every year from about ages 10 to 13.  When I was 13, it was a quiet boy at my lunch table who always brought a book.  Since he never spoke, I could imagine anything about him that I wanted to, so I ascribed to him all the personality traits I wanted in a boyfriend.  Then I got kind of obsessed: I would think about him all the time and keep track of when I saw him in the hallway, so I ended up walking to class certain ways to maximize the odds of running into him—things like that.  My life was really boring at the time, so I guess it gave me a way to occupy my brain.  When I came back to school in the fall to start ninth grade, I saw him in the hall one day, and when I got home, I suddenly and consciously decided: no more.  It was pointless.  I was done.

Ahh, Barbies.  I could say a lot about Barbies.  I had them throughout my childhood, and the ways I played with them changed as I grew.  (I feel like someone could do a really interesting psychological study on the ways kids play with Barbies.)  When I was in middle school, I had approximately zero friends, as you may have gathered from these anecdotes—but my Barbies had very rich and interesting lives.  At some point they moved outside and became survivalists.  I made them clothes out of fabric scraps, built them houses and furniture out of sticks and leaves and rocks, and left them out the woods to brave the elements.  I made up soap-operatic storylines about their relationships inspired by my avid reading of Sweet Valley books.  They made “preserves” out of berries and salt mashed together in film canisters, and they suffered the occasional squirrel attack.  (Limbs were lost.)  I had to go out to the woods pretty often to check on the Barbies, move their storylines along, and make repairs to their houses.  It was a lot of fun, but it was very time-consuming.  When I started the tenth grade, just as I had done with my old crush the previous year, I decided that it was time to let this go.  The day I made that decision, I packed the dolls away for good, and their houses were gradually reclaimed by the woods.

Throughout high school and into college, I kept wall calendars.  At first I just wrote upcoming events on them, but as I found myself trying to use them as a record of what I had done on previous days, I started editing them retroactively.  This evolved into writing down everything I had done at the end of every day in a weird sort of shorthand to fit in a tiny square.  I did this for SEVEN YEARS.  I became really attached to the idea of having a written record of everything I had done on every day of my life—just in case.  I would frequently look back at past years’ calendars to see what I’d done on this date back then.  Sometime in college, though, I decided I was being ridiculously anal-retentive, and the effort it took to keep up with this weird practice was not worth what I was actually getting out of it.  So I let it go.

More recently in my life, I’ve realized that I can get really obsessive about researching the history of local buildings.  I’m willing to spend hours upon hours combing through old newspapers and city directories to find information about the lives of people who used to live where I or my friends live now.  It’s interesting, and I enjoy it, but do I enjoy it enough to justify the MASSIVE time expenditure?  Mostly the answer is no.  Maybe on some super rainy, cold, boring day, I’ll delve into the history of my new place of residence, but I’m not really chomping at the bit to do it.

Finally: pet mice.  I really got a kick out of keeping my house mice as pets over the winter.  However, I ended up with five separate mouse cages in my house that each needed to be cleaned once a week.  It was insane.  I freed the house mice in early April, thinking that I would miss them and would probably adopt a real pet mouse now that I had all the supplies… but so far, it turns out that I don’t miss them at all.  Despite all of the enjoyment they brought me over the winter, from my present vantage point, keeping pet mice just seems like a huge waste of time.  It surprises me sometimes how quickly my feelings about things can change—but when it comes to simplifying my life, once I decide I’m done with something, it turns out, and I am really, profoundly, well and truly DONE.

This is pretty key to my life philosophy: sometimes there is value in quitting things boldly and spectacularly, with no warning and no remorse.  Society often discourages us from being “quitters.”  It’s easy to fall prey to the sunk cost fallacy, thinking that we’ve already invested so much time and energy into something that we really ought to follow through—but we don’t have to.  There’s always a choice.  In big ways and in small, sometimes dropping everything and turning on your heel is really the best thing you can do.


I think I have always had certain ascetic tendencies, perhaps as a result of my strict Catholic upbringing.  When I was eleven or twelve, I gave all my toys to the Goodwill, taking Matthew 19:24 to heart: “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”  (Of course I missed them later, and then I felt guilty for missing them.)  I wore the same cargo jeans and hoodie for an entire semester in college, then wondered why I couldn’t get a date—ha.  I periodically guilt myself for indulging in tea and chocolate since they cost a lot, have to be imported from far away, and are purely for pleasure (not actually necessary for existence).  (My compromise is buying only fair-trade and buying much less of them than I would if I wasn’t buying fair-trade.)

For many years, starting sometime in college, I’ve gone through cycles of dressing to be noticed.  I don’t mean dressing sexily, but rather wearing bright colors, crazy homemade bellbottoms and hippie skirts, and braiding feathers and ribbons into my hair.  It was an attempt to break through the natural invisibility cloak of my overly-reserved personality by non-verbally signaling, “Hey, I might be interesting!  Please talk to me!”  I can’t say that it ever had much of an effect.

I gave a lot of those clothes to Amvets this spring.  My strategy is shifting: these days, I find I would rather be comfortably camouflaged.  I slouch around the city in cargo pants and loose shirts in neutral colors.  So far, I haven’t had to deal with any of the usual unwanted curbside comments in this attire (Smile!  Hey beautiful!  Lookin good!).  (I realize people might do this with good intentions, but mostly what I want in public spaces is to be left alone.  I’m not parading around town for strangers’ pleasure, and I don’t give a shit whether they approve of my body.)  Am I making a concession to a misogynistic society that views women first as bodies and second as people?  How would I dress if I didn’t have to worry about anyone else’s reaction?

I honestly have no idea.  I can’t even conceive of such a situation.  It’s like asking, “What would you want if it weren’t for all of the outside influences that contribute to how you view the world?”  No one can know that.  I do know that I feel comfortable with this boring and pragmatic approach to fashion at the moment because it allows me to do what I want and to pass unharassed through public spaces.  It also, perhaps, gives people less information about me visually, so to know anything about me, they’d be forced to talk to me and connect on a human level.  I feel like I’m dressed for the journey, a wandering pilgrim on a quest with no time for frippery.  I’m trying to narrow my focus to what’s important to me right now: reading and writing, spending time outdoors, connecting with friends, and incubating plans for later hatchment.

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Winter to Spring

So, winter’s finally over.  I returned from road trippin’ with plans to spend the winter in Buffalo working some part-time job that wasn’t too loathsome and making the most of the weather by skating, sledding, snowshoeing, and crafting cozily indoors.  I had forgotten that:

a)  it can take a while to find a part-time job that’s “not too loathsome;” the ones you find quickly usually suck;
b)  climate change has been making for some dud winters where snow is in short supply and the world is just dark and gross; and
c)  I kind of hate this apartment.

Because I was holding out for a job I wouldn’t hate, I didn’t end up with a decent level of employment until mid-March.  I started working at a beer store a couple days a week in January, and in March I started part-time at the public library as a senior page.  The two jobs together have been working out pretty well.  It can be challenging to balance two rotating schedules, but having multiple jobs brings to my work life a refreshing sense of variety, and the flip-side to working weekends is that I feel less stuck in the old M-F 9-5 synchronized rat race.  I had been planning on traveling or WWOOFing this summer, but since I just started the library job, I’ve decided to stick around Buffalo for a while longer.  I have vague plans to start a new degree here in the fall, and it would be nice to be able to hang onto a part-time job while going to school.

The apartment problem is getting solved through a fortuitous rent increase!  Even though I have never particularly liked this place, I was willing to keep living here because it was stupid cheap, and I couldn’t justify giving that up for petty reasons like bed bugs, mice, minimal natural light, and an antique gas stove that shoots flames out under the oven door when lit.  (We definitively got rid of the bed bugs over a year ago now, don’t worry.  I’m much more willing to tolerate mice, of which I caught ten this winter.  They now live in various places where people probably would not like me to be releasing live mice.)  So our landlord suddenly announced that he was going to raise our rent by at least $200 starting June 1, and we figured that if we were going to be paying that price, we could probably find an apartment we liked better.  And we did!  R. and I are moving about ten blocks away, closer to some parks and the river and less than a block from his soon-to-be work site.  For the same price our landlord wanted to charge us for this place, we’ll have a big southwest-facing balcony, windows on all sides, and a washer, dryer, and dishwasher in the apartment.  I’m super stoked and ready to move right now, but I still have to wait til June.  In the meantime I’m starting seedlings and planning a container garden for the balcony.

So things are looking up.

There was one other reason the winter sucked.   Continue reading

March Post

I tried writing something to post in March, but I didn’t like any of the things that I wrote… probably because I don’t like any of the things I’ve been thinking.  I’ll try to come up with a real blog post soon.  In the meantime, here’s the best thing I’ve stumbled across on YouTube lately: an exquisite performance by The Band, and purportedly the last time Levon Helm ever performed this song.

Winter

Winter sneaks up on you.
You’re crafting,
watching Netflix,
drinking tea,
hoping for a snow storm,
still anticipating those days
of stark beauty
and coziness.

You think you’re fine.

Unexpectedly, the first warm day comes—
birds sing,
buds swell,
the smell of damp earth rises
all around you—
and you feel yourself start
to thaw in places
you didn’t know
were frozen.

You realize
you were never okay.

How much of your life
have you spent hibernating
without knowing it?

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Cottonwood buds.

Reflections On The Road

PART I: Journal Excerpts

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My road trip journal & sticker collection.

Monday, November 21, 2016, Treasure State Hostel, Bozeman, MT
          From Spokane this morning, I started driving down Ye Olde I-90 and found myself in Idaho almost immediately.  Was driving in and out of mountains all day, through rain and a little snow.  Was staggered by their beauty, as always.  Even pulled over right on the I-90 to take pictures a couple times.  Saw at least one other guy doing the same.  I feel a sort of kinship with fellow travelers who pull over when awestruck by the sheer beauty of the landscape.
          I was also amazed by all the different kinds of conifers covering the mountains.  They reminded me of something.  It tugged at my brain until I could name it: When I was in grade school, for choir concerts they would put the whole class up on risers, tallest in back and shortest in front, so every proud parent could see their child’s tiny face peeking through the crowd.  Aww, trees—I’m so proud of all of you!  And proud to call this turquoise planet my home.
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Conifers near Wallace, Idaho.

Thursday, November 24, 2016, AirBnB in Sioux Falls, SD
Regarding Yellowstone—
          Approaching the park and exploring within it, I was overcome with a sense of awe, of reverence, of sacredness.  In the car I was playing Josh Groban’s first album all the way through, which I haven’t done in a long time, and as I listened to “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” when I could get past my queasiness toward Christianity, I felt that the song was very suited to the landscape.  It has a kind of power and an… epic-ness to it.  And I thought, if Jesu is the joy of man’s desiring, then what is the joy of my desiring?  I thought about how I have teared up at every national park, I who suck at outward emotional expression, who can only cry by cutting onions.  And the answer that came to me was: Wilderness.
WILD (untamed) ER (increasing) NESS (the state of)
Wilderness: the practice of fostering what is untamed.
          I called my mom later on the dark drive to South Dakota, and she told me that when she was a kid her family went on a western road trip, but they mostly went to Catholic shrines instead of national parks.  I thought: the national parks ARE my shrines, and this drive my pilgrimage.  Alleluia.
          I have never in my life felt more patriotic than I have on this trip.  I don’t think I’ve ever felt “patriotic” at all before.  But, let me say this: I love my country.  And by that I don’t mean its laws or its government—I mean the land itself, and the people who care so deeply about the land that they have fought to preserve it for future generations.  And the thought that I might have gone my whole LIFE without witnessing these wonders is terrible and preposterous to me now.  This year, I know what I am thankful for: all of this.  For all of the slim possibilities that converged to allow me to be HERE, under the crazy stars, among the Crazy Mountains, breathing with the bison.
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Bison close-up.

Friday, November 25, 2016, my friend’s apartment, Pleasant Prairie, WI
On the road, I feel hyper-sensitized, alive and awake and aware in a more profound way, and small interactions can shake me to my core.  At times I am seething with emotion, cruising down the highway, letting every song resonate through me.  It occurs to me that I’d like to redouble my efforts toward my old challenge.  I am so much more than I manage to appear.  I want to exchange some of this reserve (which I have in droves) for courage and vulnerability.
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Crossing Montana.


PART II: What I Did and What I Learned

If you ever find yourself with a car and not much to do, I highly recommend driving off to random places.  There’s so much to see!  Everything is an adventure!  If I didn’t have a car I might have considered crossing the country by train, but the nice thing about driving is that it forces you to stay aware of everything around you, so you’re able to appreciate even subtle changes in scenery.  Before this trip, my mental map of the United States was pretty roughly sketched out:us-map-pre-trip
It’s difficult to picture places in detail when you haven’t actually been there.  Now, I have sights and sounds and people and experiences to fill in a lot of that space.  Reading about it isn’t the same as going there and being able to make your own observations.  For example, I went to Tucson specifically because I’ve read a lot of Barbara Kingsolver, but the Tucson I met wasn’t much like the one in her novels.  (A lot of time has passed.)  If I hadn’t gone there, I would have gone on picturing the Tucson of the 1980s.

This was my first time traveling alone, aside from taking a day’s drive to visit friends.  I planned it a chunk at a time.  The most helpful websites for planning where to go, where to stay, and what to do were:
Roadtrippers – helps you plot out routes and easily see which cities have hostels.  It will even help you calculate how much gas money you’ll spend.
AirBnB – great for finding cheap places to stay where hostels aren’t an option, even last-minute.
Couchsurfing – great for free places to stay and meeting locals, but best to use this one well in advance.
Workaway – helps you find arrangements where you work part-time in exchange for room and board.  If you want to spend a larger chunk of time in one place without spending a ton of money, this is a good way to do it.  (You do have to pay for a one-year membership.)
WWOOF – similar to Workaway but specifically for farms: free room and board in exchange for farm work.  More options during the growing season, and better for rural areas.  (Again, you have to pay for a one-year membership.)
National Park Service – if you’re going out west, you should go to some national parks.  It costs $80 for an annual pass and it is well worth it, as the parks cost between $10-$30 to enter otherwise.

I made this trip in a 2011 Ford Focus.  At various points, I had between 0 and 2 passengers.  I packed:
– a plastic bin full of clothes for all weather
– boots, sneakers, sandals, Crocs (a stupid-looking but oh-so-useful piece of footwear)
– a box full of non-perishable food I kept in the trunk, along with a dish, a bowl, a cup, silverware, and a tiny camp stove
– a cooler that I could fill with ice from gas stations and use as a car fridge
– a tent, which I didn’t end up using since most of the places I went were not very warm
– sleeping bag, pillow, blanket
– craft supplies and books
– stationery and stamps for writing to people
– a bucket full of shower stuff
– a dirty-laundry bag
– a square box of tissues that fit in the center console
– DSLR camera and point-and-shoot camera
– car chargers for phone and iPod
– laptop

My technology use is stuck around 2006, but I have to say that this was one instance where a smart phone would really have come in handy.  When I needed to find a laundromat in Spokane, for instance, I had to punch “Find Point of Interest –> Café” into my GPS to get to a Starbucks where I could hover outside with my laptop in the passenger seat running on battery to use Google Maps.  I made it work, but it was kind of ridiculous.  The GPS, at least, was super helpful, except in northern New Mexico where it got pretty confused, and any time I asked it to help me find a gas station.  I landed at a working gas station about half the time, but the rest of the time it was either a convenience store that didn’t sell gas or a gas station that was no longer in operation.

Before I set out, I loaded up my iPod with songs, made a road trip playlist (which I honed as I went), and downloaded a new audio book.  I figured I would get super bored with all that driving.  Not so!  I only got through about 8% of the audio book.  Most of the time I surfed through radio stations, intrigued by what people were listening to in each place I passed through.  I liked to scroll through all the numbers to take surveys of how many Christian, country, classical, hip-hop, classic rock, and pop stations appeared in each place.  I also pulled over to take pictures so often that at times it was hard to get through a whole song.

Driving alone is glorious.  I pulled off at every “vista point” without worrying that I was annoying my passengers.  I listened to whatever I wanted and had conversations with people on the radio, again, without annoying anyone else.  (Sometimes I listen to things that piss me off on purpose so I can argue with them.)  I also took a bunch of pictures while I was driving.  It’s probably not a great idea, but I was focused on the road—I just held up the point-and-shoot camera, pressed the button, and hoped for the best.  95% of them came out terribly, but at least they jog my memory enough to recall what I was trying to photograph.


I’ve been back for over a month now.  It’s been hard to adjust to the mundanity of daily life again, but I suppose one cannot spend one’s whole life in motion.  On the bright side, I’ve officially kept my 2016 New Year’s resolution: to blog at least once in every month of the year.  Let’s see if I can keep it going!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Map of my route from Roadtrippers.com.

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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.