Thursday, October 15, 2009

Blogging to Save the Planet: Notes on Imagination

In honor of today being Blog Action Day, I want to talk a little bit about climate change and imagination.

At first you might think the two have nothing to do with each other, other than some general feel-good lessons for us all--like I did. I let go of my cynicism and completely changed my mind and after I read a thesis from the University of California Berkeley Energy and Resources Group: Bryant Carter Brooks's thesis entitled "Who will cry for the ice? An examination of conceptual understanding of climate change through metaphor." And now I think it is essential that we understand our assumptions and the way that we construct ideas with language if we are going to begin to think about climate change coherently.

The thesis is based largely around interpreting conceptions of climate change based on the metaphors we use to describe it. If I had to classify its genre, I would say that the thesis does not neatly fall into a particular discipline, but is some cross between applied linguistics and an act of activism through philosophy. It sits somewhere between the realms of science and psychology, in that it asks us to picture science through metaphor, and systematically examine what we are excluding and misrepresenting by doing so.

Brooks’s thesis is also something of a work of poetry in itself, as it is— through its conversation on how language shapes perception—a compelling look at a world without ice, a consideration of the human imagination, and a series of metaphors that add up to a picture of humanity imagining its world.

At the beginning of his thesis, Brooks makes and repeats the claim that climate change and a world without ice is a crisis of imagination. Landscape, and the concept of landscape, is imagination, and the shapes of mountains, the very perception and understanding of life and death in the earth system are expressions of imagination.

But the failure of politicians to imagine a way to implement clean energy without coming into economic conflict with the powers that be not only represents a failure of imagination, but a crisis of it. What does it mean? --he asks, to be in such a drastically changing world? I read in this an implicit question about whether, as we mourn for the lack of ice we have created, it is that we are mourning for ourselves, and lamenting our own failures of imagination.

Introducing the concept of metaphor, Brooks lists some standard forms of metonymy (defined on the Wikipedia as “a figure of speech used in rhetoric in which a thing or concept is not called by its own name, but by the name of something intimately associated with that thing or concept,” e.g. “lend me your ear”), but doesn’t engage in the jargon of linguistics to do so. Instead, he gives examples in clear, direct ways that a layperson could understand. He keeps this tone through the entire thesis, and for this reason, I would love to see his thesis published as a book for general audiences.

Building on this basic information, Brooks talks about the many metaphors for climate change and the implications they have when we use them. Brooks deconstructs climate change metaphors and shows how the influence our perception and interfere with our ability to truly understand the problem. “An exploration of conceptual metaphor with respect to climate change,” writes Brooks, “not only promises to reveal how we think about climate change, but [is] also illustrative of the difficulties of communicating what we understand scientifically.”

A few examples of metaphor as they relate to climate change:

Warming and warmth perceived as comfort and affection;

The earth as a body (leading to expressions about the health of the planet);

The atmosphere as a container (leading to a perception of its finiteness with respect to pollution);

Global warming as a temperature increase (leading to the reductionist 1-dimensional problem);

Change is motion (leading to the counter-metaphors of “slowing” and “stopping” global warming, as well as the misunderstanding of the “impacts” of global warming being like temporally isolated collisions);

Climate is a hazard or obstacle; also, the earth is a ship or vessel (and our path through climate change as a ship about to hit an iceberg—ironic! he notes);

Climate is an invading force (to be fought).

Metaphor, Brooks points out, can mislead, or reduce the problem to one aspect of its many effects, which in turn can lead to misguided action or lack of action. What is at stake is not simply rising temperatures, but the very fabric of life on earth dissolving. Our language needs to reflect the many implications of climate change, and the urgency with which it must be addressed in order to maintain conditions on the planet that are compatible with human civilization.

I won't go deeper into how Brooks analyzes the scientific and social framing of the question of climate change. I will say that he is able to phrase complicated questions very simply, without missing the subtlety of the subject matter.

Beautiful, compelling, imaginative. And maybe a vision of a way to engage the real meaning of this climate crisis we face.


Thanks for reading.

Also, please take a moment to visit my friend Dustin's blog:

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Your Friend and Mine...

In celebration of finding my long-lost friend Erica B. Newman on Facebook, I want to post something I wrote about a year ago while I was figuring out what to do with myself in North Carolina.

Letter 12. Finding Myself

It’s been almost a year since I moved here. I never planned to stay this long, and now it has become hard to think of leaving. Terry says he thinks I’m trying to find myself. I patiently insist that I have already done this. The process was a long and trying one, replete with difficult emotions, full of travel and strange characters. Indulge me; I need to tell this story.


When I was in high school, I won a prize in a science competition that was one of those little big deals, and so a radio station interviewed me about it. At the end of the interview, the reporter asked me about my leg.

“My leg?”

“Yeah, we just did a story about the car accident you got in last week. Sounded pretty bad. Did you break both legs, or just the one?”

“I was in a car accident?”



The mystery was resolved by the introduction into my world of a second Erica Newman, who spelled her name just like mine, and was a year behind me in the high school in the next district over. A coincidence perhaps, and not one to raise any sort of fuss over, until a similar event occurred three years later with a college setting. My roommate Cara left many whiteboard notes alerting me to the fact that I had not called my grandmother, and that she had tried to reach me four times in the past two days, with increasing anxiety and hostility. I read the tone out of the larger and larger notes on the board, the last of which was circled in red so many times that I actually began to feel like a bad grandchild. I returned the call to the number on that shaming panel.

“Hi, Grandma?”

“Erica, why haven’t you called me? Didn’t you get that package I sent you?”

“No, I didn’t. When did you send it?” I, a grandchild clearly on the far side of wrong, was trying in earnest to be conciliatory.

“I sent it over a week ago!”

“Well, I didn’t get it. Where did you send it?”

“I sent it to your student box at Hampshire College.”

“But I go to Amherst.”

“No you don’t.”

“I do.”

“No, you go to Hampshire.”

I paused here, because this was getting a little surreal, even for me. “Is this Grandma Pearl?”


“Well,” I said, noting that her accent simply could not be bent into Lithuanian, “you’re not Grandma Luce. So which grandma are you?”

Grandma Something Else, she said.

Ah ha! “You want another Erica Newman!” I proclaimed, “and I bet she went to Foxwoods in high school.”

“Of course you did!”

We managed to figure it out, but I got yelled at again in the meantime.

I lived in New York after college, and then in Michigan. For two years, my life was twinless, unique. Time trod on in its usual way, and I didn’t think about Erica Newman again until I moved back to Massachusetts, where I tried to open a membership in an art-supply store and found that I already had one. I tried to open an account in a video store, and found that I had two.

“Are you Erica B. Newman, or Erica C. Newman?” asked the video clerk.

“I’m Erica A. Newman. I’m the original.” Here she was, in the Pioneer Valley. I had found Erica Newman again after too many years of solitary existence. Erica B. Newman was a woman of many memberships. I tracked her through the art store, the video store, the interlibrary loan system, Dave’s Soda and Pet Food City. Erica C. Newman, in contrast, was harder to track, either uninvolved with the community at large or extremely judicious with her personal information. She belonged to the Temple, and beyond that, her trail petered out.

After some years of abusing my namesake’s art supply membership, I found that it no longer existed, and I worried both about the fate of my doppelganger and the renewal fees I was being asked to pay. Had she moved? Died? Had she found me out? I had no idea. Our relationship was not the kind where we might exchange change-of-address postcards.

Erica B. Newman was gone from my life, once again. As time went on, I would sometimes wonder about finding Erica C. Newman, but not too hard or often. Sometimes I would tell the story about Erica B. Newman’s surly grandmother. But mostly, I found myself moving on with my life.

When it came time to actually move, I considered California and Kentucky, West Virginia and North Carolina. I was determined to know birds. I visited my friend Claudine in San Francisco to see what birds there might require my attention. Claudine and I both artists, and I made her take me to a number of paper and art supply stores. One with an attractively variegated storefront caught my eye, and we stopped in.

As I made my purchases, I asked the woman behind the counter if I could sign up for their mailing list.

“Sure,” she said. “What’s your last name?”

“Newman,” I answered.

“That’s funny,” she said, “That’s my last name, too.”

“You…” I said—disbelieving—but somehow knowing for certain I was correct, “are Erica Newman!”

“I am!”

She was little, tattooed. Punk rock. Pierced. She had blue hair. I’ve always wanted blue hair. She was, and is, everything I have ever wanted in an alter ego. I nursed a secret hope that this is also how she felt about me. Erica Newman and I had a lot of catching up to do. I told her that her grandmother was unpleasant to me, even after she found out I wasn’t her grandchild. “Oh yeah,” said Erica Newman. “She’s a real bitch.”

“So…. How’s your leg?”

We talked, and exchanged phone numbers, and promised to go out drinking if I ever moved to San Francisco. I lost the number, but somehow I don’t think that will keep us from reconnecting.

So is this story over, now that I have met the Erica Newman who has tagged along in almost every chapter of my life? Is there meaning in any of this? And if this really is over, what was all that business with Erica C. Newman? Was that just a diversion? A red herring?

I cannot shake the feeling that some day in the not-so-distant future, perhaps even here in rural North Carolina, I will be walking down some country road distracted in thought, and will look up to find that I have once again come face to face with Erica Newman herself. “There you are!” I’ll say. “I’ve been looking all over for you.”

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Avian Predator

Things are going well for me. I love my job, which I can describe as "pyrogeography," (--how cool is that?) and I think I am fitting in here. Nevertheless, I have been feeling a bit blue for reasons that I will get to shortly.

Myrtle Beach is on fire
, and I should probably be writing about that. In other news, our lab put out another major paper in pyrogeography and global climate change (I was not involved in this, but I think it is great) that discusses how fire in the Earth system is not only increasing due to global climate change, but is also a driver of it. This is also something I need to get around to writing about more in-depth, but I have to say, I have been a bit too busy lately to put together coherent thoughts. So maybe it's a good thing I'm not writing!

Studying fire, its behavior, and its movement into new landscapes is fascinating. But I got into this field because I want to somehow slow down the extinctions we are seeing now. I want to think about fire in terms of habitat enhancement and ecosystem health. But fire driving climate change... this is bad news.

I have become rather obsessed with the problem of mass extinctions and trophic cascades. I keep going to talks that say that global warming by itself will wipe out 1/3 to 1/2 of all life by 2050, or that invasive species will do that on its own by then... that sea ice -- all sea ice-- may be gone by 2013. This is going to be a much larger problem for us than the extinction of polar bears. By the way, here's what they look like while they are starving to death:

The point that all the scientists I talk to seem to agree on is that the changes we are about to experience are so large that we can't adequately predict their magnitude. For example, we can say that if we continue to release carbon dioxide at the same rate as we are doing now, the overall earth temperature will increase 4-6 degrees Celcius in the next 200 years. Even if we stop producing all CO2 right now, there's still a lag time in which the earth's temperature will continue to increase, and even at that lower level, there may be unpredictable events we are not accounting for, like a methane belch from the melting permafrost, or large scale fires that we can't fight but which produce enough CO2 in the short run to cause positive-feedback heating and what people sometimes call "runaway global warming," and sometimes call "global boiling."

Additionally, even though 4-6 degrees Celcius doesn't sound like a lot, the increased atmospheric CO2 in addition to the temperature change will cause almost all trees on earth to die. So in two hundred years, no trees. This is one element of the larger issue of "Tree Death." We are seeing increased tree death already, and in California, Sudden Oak Death makes the issue particularly visible.

The world is going to look very different quite quickly, and I don't know how I feel about being around to see it.

I got into this field because I love birds. But the problems are awfully big and hard to "solve." They're hard, on an emotional level, to even think about.

The earth has gone through major changes before. I guess I hate our current mass extinction so much because I think so much of it is or was preventable. Maybe I am wrong, and man, as an animal, is just unstoppably rapacious. I have begun hoping that whatever evolves next will bring back a large avian predator, like a Roc or a Pterodactyl.

I began a walking route to work that goes through the Valley Life Sciences building. They have a lot of interesting things in the hall there... one of which is a reproduction of the Archeopteryx fossil.

I love it. Look at it. It has feathers, but it doesn't have a beak like a modern bird. It's more lizardy. The position that it's frozen in, for all of eternity, is that of Icarus falling out of the sky. Maybe birds, having become too beautiful in flight and song and feathers and grace, have overreached somehow. Maybe they have outdone man in all but destruction, and are doomed to fall from the skies because of us.

When no one else is around I press my forehead against the glass and stare at the plate, and think.

The other attraction in the hall for me is the Pterodactyl. Boy do I love it. I could stare at it for hours. It looks like a big Kingfisher. Hooray Avian Predators! What a bird!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Black Saturday and Australia's Fire Policies

This is an article I wrote directly after Australia's Black Saturday fires in Victoria. This is cross-posted at the Wonk Room and the Center for Fire Research and Outreach blog.

[Thank you to Brad Johnson of the Wonk Room.]

Even in Australia, where people have learned to live with large wildfires, February’s “Black Saturday” fires in Victoria blew away all expectations. Of the hundreds that died, those who stayed had no time to prepare, and many who fled were overtaken by the fast-spreading flames and died in their cars. Multiple days of above 100-degree Fahrenheit temperatures, extremely low relative humidity and 100 mile per hour winds resulted in an unstoppable spread of the flames, 100-200 foot flame lengths, and fire intensity unlike anything ever before recorded anywhere on the planet.

Wildfire expert Max Moritz, a professor at the College of Natural Resources and Center for Fire Research and Outreach at the University of California, Berkeley, explains these extreme conditions raise new questions:

Although we won’t know many of the details until an assessment of the recent Australian fires is completed, the weather conditions and rates of fire spread we’re hearing about are extreme. It highlights a special case for both agencies and homeowners, and we have a lot to learn from each other about what does and does not work under weather conditions that are this bad.

So what caused this colossal inferno? In pointing to arson as the cause of these fires, we miss the overall significance of the fire dynamics that gave rise to this event. While arson is a lamentable and criminal source of ignition, with relative humidity and fuel moisture at below four percent, a lit cigarette or a spark thrown off by a moving vehicle could have caused similar wildland fires. Where there are people, there are always sources of ignition — what fire scientists call the “human-ignition component.” The larger issue at stake here is what gave rise to such extreme fire weather.

Australian fire scientists say that this area of Victoria has experienced between five and 30 years of drought (depending on if you are counting by successive years or overall water balances), the worst in perhaps 1000 years. Some, perhaps rightly, blame global climate change for what is known as the “Big Dry.” Diminishing rainfall, increased temperatures, and increased atmospheric instability all lead to higher fire danger.

An open question for scientists is whether or not with global climate change, we are experiencing “novel ecosystems” with entirely new combinations of environmental conditions. Is Australia really experiencing a “drought,” which is less-than-normal rainfall, or is there a new normal? Should Australia listen to its firefighters and be preparing for a permanently drier future with much more intense fire dynamics?

Australia has a history of successful fire management. Because of the inevitability of fire in Australia’s fire-evolved ecosystems, people have learned to expect and prepare for fires in a highly efficient, centralized manner. The “Prepare, Stay and Defend, or Leave Early” policies have long protected the lives of both citizens and firefighters, and reduced damage to homes and other buildings.

In a paper out this week in Environmental Research Letters, four Australian scientists and three scientists from California including Moritz, examine the policies and recommendations that both countries have in place for dealing with wildland fire on the urban interface.

In the “prepare, stay and defend” approach, property-owners are educated in fire suppression, such as putting out spot-fires, having buckets of water on hand, filling house gutters with water, creating a “defensible space,” and so on. People who chose to stay with their homes are also encouraged to keep protective Nomex clothing and firefighting implements on hand. Those who follow the “leave early” strategy do so when fire is reported for their area to give the wildfire a wide berth.

The unusual combination of extreme fire weather and the sudden onset of fire created conditions in which neither strategy worked. Leaving early works only if there is time to send out a warning. Those who would “prepare, stay, and defend” would have been reducing fuel loads in their yards well before this event, but it is unclear whether landscape-scale fuel treatments or even lowering fuel loads in the immediate vicinity of structures lowers fire hazard in wind-driven events, such as this one.

It will be up to Australian fire scientists and policy analysts to decide if their fire strategies need review. It the face of so primal a force as fire and on this scale, fighting the fires themselves is impossible, but perhaps one solution–fighting global climate change–is not.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Thoughts on the Recent Australia Wildfires, YouTube Videos

I found two videos on YouTube that interest me:

This one has dramatic music and a strange ending, but nevertheless. The two things I want to point out about this are that in the first images you can see the speed with which the wildfire spread. In later images, you can see the Eucalyptus-bark fuel on the ground. Eucalyptus trees have evolved with "catastrophic" or stand-replacing fires, and have grown over time to be more fire conducive. The bark of certain kinds of Eucalyptus trees is a fuel that carries fire from tree to tree along the ground, or from the ground up into the canopy of a tree. Once ignited, strips of bark can remain lit and travel on the wind, creating spot fires 2 kilometers or more away from the initial flame. Some species of Eucalyptus have "serrotinous cones," which means that they only open in fire.

This video made me a little bit happier.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Southern Culture, Part Two of Many (Grabbling)

So, right. No updates. This is because I am trying to write something about the Australia wildfires, settle into my new job and home, and survive the California DMV.

These days, I would say I am homesick for North Carolina. Don't get me wrong, California is great. But North Carolina has a lot of character you don't find elsewhere, and I miss being there.

While I am working on my Australia piece, I'll post a piece I wrote about grabbling in NC.


What do you do in a small Southern town at nights and on weekends? I believe there is a bar in town, but I have still not spent any time exploring Rockingham beyond finding its Chimney Swifts. There isn’t a movie theater, that I know. Nights at home can be fun when the other biologists are staying here, and sure, there’s always Seventeen-Frog Pond (now featuring 21 species of frogs and toads!), but at this time of year the frogs are mostly hanging out under the mud, and even field biologists need to go out and see people once in a while. So while we wait for the NASCAR raceway to reopen, I pass time with other local sports.

Southern Culture, Part Two of Many (Grabbling)

Lincoln invites me out mountain biking. Though I have no talent or ability in this, and no pressing desire to exercise in hundred-degree weather, I am promised a swim in the river, and this is the Diggs Tract we’re discussing here. “I’m taking you grabblin’”—says Lincoln.

We fill a chest full of ice, some water and a few beers, and head out to the river from work. We park Lincoln’s white pickup as far out of sight as possible, and offload two mountain bikes. He says we’re going to get the catfish back up the path on the bike, tied lengthwise to its side, or carry one in the backpack, tail flapping out the top if we get two. He tosses me a length of rope, and we bike many miles over pebbles and rocks and clay and torn up ground, through the oppressive humidity and down to the river.

Lincoln cuts a straight branch and whittles the end into a sharp point with the case knife he carries on his belt. He hands me this makeshift spear, and I strap it to my back with the rope. I think the idea is that if we find one of these monster fishes, we are going to poke it with the stick. This sounds like a plan put together by a four-year-old, but since I don’t have a better one, I assent. We leave whatever clothing we can do without, the backpack and our water bottles in an out-of-the-way wooded cove.

We float down the river on our stomachs for about an hour, arms and legs spread out, hands roving through the water to sense the sharp and unexpected architectures of the riverbed. Sometimes the water is deeper than we can stand in, and then all at once, we are crawling over a rocky landscape just inches from the surface. The rock drops away, and we are once again floating in unknown depths. The water is warm and the air is warmer. Sweetgums and oaks and poplars crowd clay banks that sit opposite one another at a distance of one hundred fifty meters. This year’s drought, combined with the previous year’s, layered on the one from the year before that, has dropped the water level down many feet from where it should be, and so the gentle push of the river is no threat to us. Sometimes a grabbler will get carried away downstream, and you hope he hauls out safely, as you dare not follow his lead. But the current is lazy, and the sun is shining. The world seems simple and beautiful. It is a moment in which I can’t think of anything I would rather be doing.

During our float, Lincoln explains that the spear is used to antagonize the fish. Occasionally you find a catfish that does not want to bite you, and if you are committed to a successful grabbling encounter, you need to punch and prod the fish until it is angry enough to swallow your hand and hang on. The next part is a battle of strength as the fish tries to retreat with its living bait, and you try in earnest to retrieve your ingested limb. The catfish may hold you underwater. It may break your wrist when it thrashes. It may try to pull you into its den. The rock that the fish lives in will bump and thump and boom and rumble, though it may be solid throughout and weigh more than a ton. The rope is reserved for occasions when you win. You string one end of it through the mouth and gills of the fish, and the other around your waist. You swim back up the river, and the fish travels behind you as docile and fine as a water-breathing lapdog.

Lincoln shows me a flat-topped rock as big around as a picnic table, which sits just below the water line. He calls it Lost Rock. He drops underwater, spends about a minute probing the cavity, making sure that there is no fish underneath. He surfaces and tells me it’s my turn.

“I don’t want to do this!” I balk. “This is a terrible idea! And I don’t feel like drowning today,” I pout. I am experiencing a sudden change in mood at the prospect of provoking a leviathan to attack me in an environment where I cannot see, nor hear, nor breathe. I have Lincoln’s assurance that the fish is gone, but I am not confused about the value of a trickster’s word.

“Young lady”—says Lincoln—“if you don’t dahv down there and stick your hand under that rock, ah will drown you mahself.”

I weigh my options, and find them exactly equal. I decide that I might rather take on an unknown beast than irritate Lincoln, who is sporting a serious look. I drop onto my belly underwater, and he stands on my back to keep me there. At the base of the rock is a hole, and I feel around the edge of it with my spear. The opening is about the size and shape of a fat, swaybacked dachshund. I stick the spear in and encounter nothing. I thrust the spear in the other side, and still nothing. I wave it back and forth. More nothing. I put my hand in. Nothing.

At this point, I am less surprised by the absence of the fish as by the vastness of the expanse beyond that opening. The space is rocky, but wide, and it reaches upwards towards the surface. It is an underwater cathedral I am exploring, blind. There is space under this rock—cavernous, unbelievable space. A person could fit in there easily, maybe even two. It would be nothing to load dachshunds into there, one after another. It’s this kind of permanently dark, hidden room that a Flathead Catfish seeks out to live in and lay eggs. I have an underwater sense, like smell, of a swampy, rank fishiness of the previous resident.

Lincoln is standing on me, and I am out of air. I pause for an extra moment to consider the possible outcomes of this situation and question, as always, the wisdom of my actions. I struggle under his feet, and he lets me up without testing me. Though unpredictable, Lincoln sometimes chooses to play big brother to me and has at times shown kind concern for my safety. I’m not going to drown today, which is good, because I’m about ready for that beer.

“You smell ‘im?” —Lincoln asks. I nod. I gasp for breath—“Do catfish just keep showing up here when you take one out?” A nod from Lincoln. “Why?” I demand excitedly. “Underwater, it’s still just lahk the forest. It’s cavity-limited,” says Lincoln. I think of all the birds and squirrels and raccoons and opossums and bats fighting for the few hollow logs that seem to be out there, and I wonder with new interest at the life of a fish.

We visit another grabbling rock, which has a cavity about like a rugby ball. Blue Rock also lacks an occupant, as does Great Rock. It’s late in the season to catch a catfish, but this fails to trouble me. I call it a grand success that I have not had to kill a fish with my bare hands, or haul forty pounds of dead-weight back up the hill on a bicycle. Let these non-native beasts sit and eat up all the other little fishes until someone else comes to grabble them.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

XII. Arrival

"…And that's why my vacations always end in jail." Micah finishes his story while I am taking my last bites of breakfast.

"Yes, well, that's not something I generally do on vacation," I say.

"Really? Then how do you know when it's over?"

I have a few hours to come up with the answer. We spend the early morning driving through Joshua Tree National Park. I'll let someone else describe in detail all the alienness and wonder of this place. For me it is enough that the Joshua Trees, which are tall and branched and twisty—but not really trees at all—are the dominant life form in this one desert stretch, and so no other place on earth is like it. The rock formations by themselves are worth seeing, and climbing on, and falling off of (as Micah demonstrates), as are the birds (worth seeing). We see Ladder-Backed Woodpeckers, the western subspecies of Loggerhead Shrikes, and Black-Throated Sparrows.

On the highway to LA, we talk about our favorite parts of the trip. I say I liked eating boudin and crawfish etouffe in New Orleans, and hanging out with Frenchy in Austin. I liked the cranes, the flock of White Pelicans we saw in Louisiana, the Loggerhead Shrike. I liked seeing the waterless places, and the caverns. But who am I fooling? I liked it all. "What was your favorite thing?"

"I liked the things that went wrong," Micah says. "You know me. When stuff goes right, it's boring."

I know vacation is finally over when I have to drop Micah off with his grandparents in Los Angeles. This part is hard for me. Constantly moving around gives me a certain kind of freedom, but it also means that I am in a perpetual state of saying goodbye to people. Kidnapping might be an option here, but only if I want to end my vacations like Micah does. We disentangle his belongings from mine. "If you find anything more of my stuff," Micah says, "burn it and laugh."

I continue on up the California coastline for some hours. The full moon floats up over the cliffs, lighting the ocean to the left of me in choppy sparkles. I turn a corner, and the moon dips behind the mountains. Another corner, and the moon appears in an unexpected part of the sky.

The water jug in the passenger seat says nothing. It cannot read maps. It does not make screwy facial expressions with its restive nostrils. It does not tell me jokes about clowns and cannibals. I feel as though I got a puppy for Christmas and then had to give it back a week later.

I stop for the night, somewhere.

I think about sending Micah an email with subject line: "Wanted: Navigator" that reads, "I am lost without you." But although I do not know where I am any better than I might hit my location on a map of California with a dart while blindfolded, it is only in the most literal sense that I don't know where I am. I make up a map like the one Micah pulled out when we were stranded in Texas without gas, and get on with mentally preparing for whatever the future holds for me.

Maybe it's a dog.

Music: Long Gone Lonesome Blues, Hank Williams Sr.

Monday, January 26, 2009

XI. Arizona Haiku Death Match

(in which Micah and Erica compete head to head in 5-7-5, starting with Micah)

[Background note: Mesa, Arizona is the base for the online game Kingdom of Loathing. The game designers live there, as does Amplitude, the deejay who runs Radio KoL, a non-commercial talk and music radio station associated with the game.

All of our friends have started moving the Mesa to be with one another. Crossing into Arizona, I become "YerrikTheRealBad," and Micah becomes "Baron Mind."]

Ominous warning
Dust storms may exist ahead
Abandon all hope

Three signs in a row
Two is "No Stopping," and three:
"Dust storm's got a knife!"

Fourth is: "Burma Shave."
Such successful lobbyists!
It's federal law

Heading to Mesa
Through the concrete spider web
Here to see some friends

We love the Loathing
Geeky gamers gathering
Hear nerds hobnobbing!

The Baron is come!
Jester in the social scene
But King of the Road

Real names make no sense
But Xlyinia? Of course!
By that name, we're pals.

Merle and Skipperic
Friends, Gamers, Countrypeople
Lend us your Air-Mats

Yerrik's morningwear:
Shirt, Under Armour and boots
Gotta move the car!

Time for radio
Amplitude plays NIN
Listeners write in

Radio song plays:
"Deep in the heart of Texas!"
But we're in AZ!

Baron Mind tells tales
An adventurer is him!
Too clever, I say

Would you eat road kill?
Yerrik offends listeners
Mm mm, snake tartare!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

X. In Which Erica Inexplicably Asks Me to Take Dictation, Then Doesn't Say Much of Anything to Write Down

[guest entry by Micah, once again]

"Fantastic!" said Erica, for no apparent reason. "Wow, Micah! Look at this! Stop doing the thing I told you to do and do this new thing!

"Fantastic," she said again, and she was right. The scenery was amazing. My dictation skills, exhibited here, were poor as promised; it's hard to write down all of the words being said when you're constantly adding narration. Dictation, incidentally, was the first thing, as referenced in the preceding paragraph, which Erica had told me to do.

"Foray into the desert!" 'This is the place where all the junkies go, to something something and come see our show!'" sings Erica, who is appearing very exclamatory due to my extreme use of exclamation points. This is because she hasn't said a single thing all day, only exclaimed. We drove into hill country of Texas at night, and aside from smelling when we were driving through oil fields, we had no real idea of what was around us. I expect Erica should be numb to the novelty in approximately a quintillion hours. Assuming a quintillion is an actual number and not some sort of a dance, anyway.

You may note a startling lack of input from Erica here, even for my admittedly sparse dictation style. This is because she's settled into singing snippets of Red Hot Chili Peppers songs and staring open-mouthed at the landscape. The latter is untranscribable, and you can look the former up on the Web yourself, if you care. It's possible that she's waiting for me to reach the end of my narration, in which case more fool her; I'm exceptionally verbose.

Erica's talking about assigning music to each of the days, which is all very interesting, but still does not tie into my assigned task of dictation. Therefore, I'll just write things that will annoy her later when she reads them. I find birds uninteresting. All trees look basically the same to me, and serve identical purposes. I enjoy being able to go to any major city and eat in the same restaurant.

Erica has chimed in: "I don't know what you're writing, and it's making me nervous." Let no one question her perspicacity!

Some food-related things I have learned from this trip: dried fruit has the amazing ability, even through a sealed plastic bag, to make everything near it sticky. Despite this small failing, it becomes tastier as the days progress. The same cannot be said – past a certain point – for collard greens. Carrots can be lost under great piles of stuff and emerge days later unscathed. I assume that they receive special training in patience and burial while growing up underground.

"Can you write this sign down? 'Prison Area: Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers.'" A note worth interrupting my food litany for, to be sure. It's not much of a worry on this trip, anyway, as the back is full of stuff. Any hitchhikers we picked up would have to be very flat and not mind extreme discomfort. Of course, this also describes someone who's just squeezed through an escape tunnel from prison, so maybe it's a good warning after all.

"Las Cruces! Wow, we made some interesting time across this country. Not 'good,' necessarily – I think 'interesting' is the best way to look at it." It's true. Although we were making good time up until Sheffield last night, the time spent waiting for policemen to come bail us out was definitely more in the "interesting" category. I've never before had to decide if waking up a small-town sheriff with a K-9 vehicle in his front yard would be a good idea. We are happily unmauled and unshot, so it was at the least not an actively bad idea.

"This is the sort of country that makes you want to leap to your feet and applaud," Erica says, paraphrasing Douglas Adams. I agree, but mainly because the numerous small hills and mesas remind me of the fire ant mounds we saw all along the side of the road down the East Coast. I approve of ants on a Them scale on general principles.

"Holy hell. This is awesome. I'm not getting bored of this!" I told you so. Days of this, I have yet to face. In fairness, I've been telling the same joke for five days now, so it's not like I'm the only one suffering here. Besides which, she's absolutely right. The scenery is beautiful. It's sparse and earthen and fantastically different. Somewhere in the night, we lost the trees; everything here is short and ruggedly tenacious.

That said, we have just taken a detour off of the highway and come across someone's attempt at beautification: a dozen sickly pines strapped up in cages. "Trees? Yeah, right!" says Erica, and she is right. They don't belong here.

I wonder sometimes if my travelogues miss the point, as they tend to be only tangentially connected to where I've been, and far more concerned with the conversations and thoughts I've had along the way. There's a case to be made that those mono- and dialogues could not have occurred under any other circumstances, of course, but perhaps I should try existing outside of my own head once in a while. As I'm currently examining the idea that I overanalyze things instead of watching the scenery, now seems like a good time to start. I'll return later, possibly with more input from Erica.

[Author's note: apparently I won't return later, unless you count this addendum. Also, I still don't know what the heck Erica was planning to dictate to me. I think that means I won this dictation.]


Music: This is the Place, Red Hot Chili Peppers (hey RHCPs, why not put your official videos on YouTube like everyone else does?)

Saturday, January 24, 2009

IX. Micah's Limerick Knockdown

(by Micah, of course)

Take two cannibals eating a clown
Replace them with some other noun.
You'd think it'd choke
But instead you've a joke
That won't fail to bring the house down.

"Guardrail damage ahead," said the sign
But to my eyes, the guardrail looked fine.
It seemed a request,
So at its behest
I smashed that rail way out of line.

"Come eat our garden!" they said.
"Its plants will all keep you well fed!"
But the tree with the beans
Is not what it seems
And now I'm organically dead.

We drove to San Antonio
To go see the Alamo
It was rugged, no gilding
With a big gift shop building
Which I think I'll remember for sho'.

There once was a Texan gas station
Which we passed without utilization
Half a tank of gas later
There were no stations to cater
Which gave me humble pie mastication.

Music: Deep in the Heart of Texas (not the version I wanted, and also the video is ridiculously bad. Missing the lyrics "The sage in bloom/ is like perfume/ Reminds me of/ the one I love/ Deep in the heart of Texas.")

Thursday, January 22, 2009

VIII. Deep in the Heart of Texas

It started in Austin, where we stayed in the luxurious Habitat Suites, for variety. It featured shade-grown coffee, lights that took a long time to turn on and were dim when they did, and rain barrels. They claimed to use green energy. Breakfast was all organic. And the garden, the garden! It had beets, spinach, chard, kale, rosemary, marjoram, sage, pomegranates, figs, lemons, oranges, and edible flowers as well. In fact, the garden was entirely edible except for the very poisonous and unlabeled laurel tree in the middle. When we were invited to "eat the garden," Micah beat out my "I'm never leaving this place!" with an "Oh great, I'm going to have to remove you from here bodily, aren't I?"

So we got a late start.

We headed out towards San Antonio and to the Alamo, and got waylaid by the largest natural caverns in Texas. We toured through the humid, rocky underbelly of central Texas, where water encourages rocks to grow, but ever, ever so slowly. It turns out that Micah knows a good deal about geology, possibly due to some unconscious push from his own name. What's in a name? Advertising, that's what.

And from there we took another side trip to Bandera, a town where it is said that cowboys still come in from the field for an after-work drink, and tie their horses up outside the saloon. It is said that this is the case; it is no longer fact. Bandera is a cute town where everything is cowboy-themed, stores bear names like "Jessi Jane's Outlaw Fashions," and there are John Wayne posters everywhere—except for the diner's bathrooms, which are wallpapered instead with kittens-in-cowboy-costumes. It may be that representations of cowboys are anathema to actual ones, so had there been some here, it was long ago.

So we were late, real late, trying to make time across the oil fields of Texas. We had half a tank of gas and were coming up on a gas station. I said we might stop for gas, just in case, but instead of his usual "It's a good plan. I like it. Let's do it," Micah breaks with tradition and instead says, "What are the chances we won't hit another gas station in 160 miles?"

"You're right," I say, because I am a fool.

One hundred sixty five miles later, we have staked our hopes on a point four miles off Highway 10 called Sheffield. And although we are in a town that exists only to produce oil, there is no possibility of finding gasoline when we finally have to stop. Oil, oil everywhere, and not a drop to pump.

If this has ever happened to you, you might know that you start feeling what distance means. In a car, you can cover ground too fast to even be able to describe it. Without gasoline, the only option is travel on foot, which is nigh impossible. Quick as anything, you can be outside the range of safety, especially when you are headed through west Texas with only a half a gallon of water in your possession. Two hours from our last known gas station, and we have nothing of use. No fuel, not enough water, no way to safely shelter ourselves. Nothing.

I begin to feel a bit blue. I start to feel like things aren't going to work out after all, and that I have failed us in major ways. It's cold, and dark for some hours yet. I lean against the car and try to take in the Texas sky through the dust. I try to think, but nothing comes.

Micah asks me if I'm okay. I reply that I don't know. I tell him I don't even know where we are.

He gets out his all-purpose map that he carries around in his wallet at all times for just such moments. He shows me where we are on it. It's a piece of paper that has the words "You Are Here" written on it, with an arrow that points back to the reader.

"You're right. I guess we are. Let's take pictures."

We do, and we laugh about everything, and things turn out okay after all.

Music: Still is Still Moving, Willie Nelson

VII. A Cookie Cutter City Primer

[by Micah, with follow-up by Erica]
Before I launch into this, I should give you some context, as it really doesn't make any sense without it. Therefore, it's really a shame that I'm not going to give you any. If Erica wants you to know what this is about, she can type something up. I'm not your monkey.

A is for Arby's, American Fare

B is Bojangles, get breakfast there.

C is for Chili's, burgers galore

D is for Denny's, pass out on the floor.

E's Econolodge, a place you can stay

F is TGI Friday's on every day.

G is Golden Corral; it is wafer-thin!

H is Home Depot, DIY yourself in.

I is the IHOP, a faux foreign partner

J, Jack-in-the-Box, an artery hardener.

K is for Kohl's, with its too-frequent sales

L is for Lowe's, selling hammers and nails.

M is McDonald's, that bastion of taste.

N: [nothing here yet; just holding its place.]

O is OfficeMax and its stationery

P is PierOne; you can be sedentary.

Q is for Quizno's, with hot toasted subs

R's RadioShack's strange collection of plugs.

S is for Starbucks, the king of caffeine

T: you want Taco Bell? That's what "yo quiero" means.

U, 'cause U-Haul to a new neighborhood

V is Verizon. Can you hear me now? Good.

W, Walgreen's coupon advertising

X is sort of for Exxon, whose profits keep rising.

Y and Z will go in here, discovery pending

But for now, we've got nothing, so that's how it's ending.

[Erica's note: "Cookie Cutter City" is what we have been calling the loose collection of 15 or more chains that populate most highway exits, north, south, east and west. It is disappointing to find that you can cross an entire country to find exactly what you left on the other side. So far, the only places we have found that do not contain some version of Cookie Cutter City are west Texas and the Californian desert outside of Los Angeles. It takes work to avoid Cookie Cutter City, but that's exactly what we've done.

Some chains not used above: Appleby's, Auto Zone, Bed, Bath and Beyond, Bennigans, Best Buy, Blockbuster, Burger King, Chevron, Chik-Fil-A, Circle K, Comfort Inn, CVS, Dairy Queen, Days Inn, Dollar General, Domino's, Dunkin' Donuts, Enterprise Rent-a-Car, Family Dollar, Flying J's, Hampton Inn, Hardee's /Carl's Jr., Holiday Inn, Hollywood Video, KFC, Knights Inn, Krispy Kreme, Linens 'n' Things, Long John Silver's, Microtel, Motel 6, Movie Gallery, On the Border, PetSmart, Popeye's, Red Lobster, Rite Aid, Ross, Ruby Tuesday, Shell, Sherwin Williams, Sonic, Staples, Subway, Super 8, Target, TJ Maxx, Wal-Mart, Wendy's, Whataburger.

Exotics: Doe's Eat Place, Southwest Milk Logistics, Mr. Appetites Go Fish Trucking]

VI. Mad Libs

Mad Lib 1, "Untitled"
Micah and Erica, 2009
Ink on Paper

"Don't make this a [truculent] Mad Lib™," I said to Erica. My [Islet of Langerhans] was [found], though, for I knew it would not end [artlessly]. Our days have been largely [sweeping] so far. Erica tells me things about birds that I never knew; for example, did you know that [Resplendent Quetzals] are in the family [Aestivalis], along with [Moas] and [Archaeopteryxes]? Neither did I!

We've just [equivocated] into [Nebraska]. It's still [oleaginous] here, which I find highly [festering]. Since I began this sentence, we [recited] over a time zone, making the amount of light [jocularly] more acceptable. Still, I protest on general principles.

Erica keeps [leap-frogging] me, saying I have [restive] [nostrils]. I maintain that making [screwy] facial expressions at someone who spontaneously breaks into an a capella rendition of ["Kiss"] is the only way to assert one's [envy]. Admittedly, I [twistily] joined in, and there's at least a [puny] chance that I started it in the [twelve billionth] place, but the logic is sound nonetheless.

Is it just me, or does everyone get [Billy Ray Cyrus] songs in their [cankles] when [poisoning] Mad Libs™? I can't [excite] the word "[gerund]" without hearing, "How do you say 'goodbye'? [Hauntingly]! [Hauntingly]! [Haunting]-[X]-[Z]!" Then it's the Masochism [Foxtrot], then the Elements. At that point, I get [arrogant] that I can't [Palinate] the elements, or even the tune. Then I [patrol] another [noun], and the cycle repeats.

Erica's [bunny-hopping] songs by [Captain and Tennile] now, and the light is gone, so I think it's time to end this. Until next time, [Godspeed]!

Micah, with [woodsy] assistance from Erica

Mad Lib 2, "__ the Alamo!"
Erica and Micah, 2009
Ink on Paper

From Austin, we have [17] miles to make before we hit El Paso, which is our [blithe] stop for the [eon]. To drive straight through will take us [6] [minutes], but Micah points out to me that I have [rooted] the Alamo. "[By Jove]," I declare, and we head to San Antonio instead, to see this [fiendish] historical [grackle].

The Alamo, for those who have not studied [Intermediate Truth and Beauty], commemorates the [pie-eating contest] between [the Hank Williams Museum] and [the Hall of the Mountain King]. The [blimp] began when Colonel [George Washington] [let slip the dogs of war] and denied the [rental agreement].

All at once, [Helen Keller], [Peter Parker], [Robert Downey, Jr.] and many other [bandoliers] history would one day make famous returned to the [bathroom] and defended the [rodents] and [zero-visibility dust storms] living there. When things started looking [frightening] for the Texan [clouds], [Madonna] cried out, "[Elude] the [Venezuela]!" which became a [hesitating] cry of the U.S. people for the rest of the [nanosecond].

Micah and I take [contrary] pictures of the site, tip our [ascots] to the [penurious] heroes of the day, and [congeal] onwards.

-Erica, with help from the ever [despondent] Micah

Music: T for Texas

Monday, January 19, 2009

V. Day 3 continued: Mobile to Big Thicket National Wildlife Refuge

[in which Micah and Erica trade off writing in a line-by-line fashion, starting with Erica]

They say "You can't get the hell out of Texas," and in fact, when we had driven over 880 miles and finally passed exit 1, only to then hit exit 0, this was proving, uncomfortably, to be true.

Our journey through Texas started on an inauspicious note, in Indian Springs Campgrounds on Holland Cemetery Road. Perhaps it would have been wiser not to have camped in a haunted Indian Burial Ground, but your options in Texas are limited to the Days Inn and various approximations of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Some would say that the Days Inn isn't all that bad, but apparently those sorts were not in charge of accommodations.

So we arrived in Big Thicket National Preserve (it's delicious!), about which we discovered only that the name was accurate. We didn't explore the forest, on account of the unearthly stillness and the horrifying, bloody ghosts which no doubt populated it. Really, you're going to go that route? We almost died due to someone's camping decision, so yes, now it's getting talked about.

Well, the cabin we had been promised was no longer available to us due to the late hour and the fact that the proprietor did not remember renting us a cabin, or that he owned a campground at all, as I deduced from the "You're where?" when I called to alert him of our presence. He wasn't the only one alerted to our presence; as we discussed the stillness of the campground and the lifelessness of its RVs, I swear to you that the trees began to drip ectoplasm onto our heads. "If this turns out to be blood," says Micah, "I warn you I can run faster than you." Whatever, I'm not proud.

So one short quarter of a Texas-Ohio football game later, the proprietor shows up to check us into our clean, safe and relaxing accommodations. The initial relief that he was not carrying an axe quickly turned back to horror when he revealed the RV in which he expected us to spend the night. "Why don't y'all get yer sleepin' bags?" he said, while moving far too many DVD players from the stack of foam mats he implied would be our eventual resting place. Final resting place. That was implied! And now it's been said. Fine.

Anyway, so there we are in an RV full of trash in a campground apparently empty of any life but us. I began cleaning things up and asked Micah, "Do you see a trash around here?" to which he quite accurately responded, "Yes, everywhere!" The chill of the grave was seeping through the RV, possibly due to the unlatchable door, which rattled fitfully as if tried by a spectral hand. Perhaps even spookier than the rattling door, however, was Micah's complete inability to comprehend how the door-latching mechanism worked, but who am I to judge? The one who booked us in Chief Grinning Skull's Serial Killer Resort, that's who.

"So the business plan of this campground," says Micah, "is:

1. Buy an Indian burial ground

2. Buy RVs and fill them with trash

3. Keep no record of travelers in campground, and

4. Put travelers in RVs with trash?"

This model seemed a bit flawed, but perhaps it made more sense from outside of the recreational garbage cans. I stop quaking in my boots long enough to remove them, and as we climb into our beds, Micah, who has been harshing on this perhaps-not-entirely-reasonable place since we arrived asks if I think there might be turn down service? And a mint!

"You know," I say to Micah, "the only people who know where we're here are you, me, the creepy proprietor, and someone from online whose real name I don't even know." To avoid the terror engendered by that thought, I contemplate exactly what the proprietor's job description is; what range of unsatisfactory options he is authorized to offer people in place of the promised cabins. "Here's an overturned dinghy you can drag your tarp underneath!" Erica suggests a dumpster: "Y'all go get yer sleepin' bags while I move some of this garbage around." "We gave away your four star room, but you're welcome to this bed of nails. Hang on, I'll get some cobras."

So as the midnight hour approached, we attempted alternately to laugh and cry ourselves to sleep, and waited to see if we would wake up dead. Our alarm must have been set earlier than the serial killers', as we found ourselves unmaimed in the morning. The Camp (g)Host signs us out in the morning with a surprised "I didn't know that RV was ready for habitation! (--neither did we, I reply). We are given a piece of paper and some vague instructions to give it to the proprietor, but instead we peel out and never look back. In retrospect, this experience would make breaking down without gas in west Texas two nights later seem minor, but that was still in our future, which lay ahead of us as broad and as endless as Texas.

Music: You Can't Get the Hell Out of Texas

IV. Day 3: Sandhills Birds

Have I mentioned that I like birds? I do!

I drag Micah to many out-of-the way places to be near birds that we may or may not have the slightest chance of seeing.

The Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge is closed, but we run into someone who works there.

"Where have the cranes been seen recently?" I ask. "Where will we have a chance of seeing the birds?"

The woman who works there looks like she's about to break some very bad news to me. "Well, you see, they're endangered… so they live in the center of the refuge, which is closed."

"What!? Are you trying to tell me that I drove all the way down here to see a bird that's endangered? Oh, well, forget this! I'm leaving!" I say in my mind. What comes out of my mouth is more along the lines of "We're willing to hike in."

"Well I can't tell you where to go. I'm not a biologist," she says.

"It's a good thing one of us is, then," I growl internally. "I should tell you that it's only your non-migratory subspecies that's endangered." I should, but I don't. Again, what leaves my mouth is: "Alright, I suppose we'll drive outside the refuge to look on the edges."

"Oh, that's a good idea, they've been seen on the edges. I even have a map of where they've recently been seen by private land owners." I think this woman has been put on this earth specifically to make life difficult for everyone else. Could it be that no one else has ever come to the Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge requesting to see Sandhill Cranes?

We drive the edge of the refuge. Micah sees two birds foraging on someone's lawn. They are both banded, and hide behind a bush when we get out of the car with binoculars. We stalk them along the roadside, and they peek their heads out to take a look at us. These are the first wild cranes I have ever seen, and I think these are the first wild cranes ever to see me. They dip into a pre-flight motion, run a few graceful steps with wings outstretched, and fly back into the refuge while giving their haunting calls.

Music: Jackson, Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash
YouTube Video: Sandhill Cranes

III. Day 2: Asheville to Mobile

Not much to report here, other than that GoogleMaps vastly underestimates driving times. I think there is some joker working for them, because I feel a little tricked. I have other reasons to think that their staffers are playing fast and loose with our emotions: I asked, out of curiosity, for GoogleMaps to lay out a route between San Francisco and Tokyo, and it instructed me to kayak for 35 days to Japan, and then make a series of lefts. This is the only mapping tool I have used to plan this trip, so for now I just have to grit my teeth and drive. And so when I do finally kayak to Japan, I know to give myself more than 35 days to make the trip.

We stop in Atlanta and meet Micah's friends Doug and Rich and their wives. They inform us of all the cool things we could be seeing, if we had time. I like them in spite of their travel taunts. We are driving through too late to see any of the Civil Rights sites. We pass by the Hank Williams Museum after business hours, which is the only thing on this entire trip that causes me to swear, which I do continuously for about ten minutes, much to Micah's amusement.

We miss almost all of Alabama, because we are driving through it on a major highway in the dark. I comment to Micah that Alabama is like the most boring dream you've ever had, only longer and more poorly lit. I am sad that it is possible to avoid interacting with a state completely by staying on its highways.

I know that Alabama must be beautiful, because it is the only place we hear frogs.

Music: Settin' the Woods on Fire, Hank Williams, Sr.

II. Day 1: Norfolk to Asheville

I start Day One by waking up far too early to think, and asking myself if I am ready for a road trip across the country. I might as well have asked myself how many angels can dance on the head of the pin for how well equipped I feel to answer this.

I fly from New York to Norfolk, Virginia to pick up my car, which I have left packed with all of my expensive goodies in an airport lot for two weeks. I miss a connecting flight and fall dead asleep in the airport for hours under the dubious protection of a blaze-orange hunting cap. Finally arriving in Norfolk, I find that I have lost my car, endure the embarrassment of having security locate it for me, and experience the queasy relief of finding that it has not been stolen, it is just that I am that forgetful. I often misplace my keys, my wallet, and my camera, and now I find I can extend this practice to much larger objects as well. Things are already not going as planned, and I am now wondering if the whole trip is going to unfold as a series of mishaps.

I get into my car, and take a deep breath. Although I do not know who I am addressing this to, I clasp my hands and recite my car-traveler's prayer, which I make up on the spot:

Dear powers-that-be

I have honed my ability to roll with the punches

But please

Give me more rolling than punches

My first stop is to meet my friend Edward outside of Richmond. In true epic-journeying style, as Perseus received the mirror, the enchanted sack, and Pegasus; and as Dorothy received the ruby slippers; and as every hero on a mission receives some charmed object to accompany them through hardship and adventure, Edward sends me on with a bag of dried apples, a container of boiled collard greens, and four bottles of Schlitz.

Talismen thereby obtained, I continue on to Richmond to retrieve Micah. Then there is copious driving, but not along the Blue Ridge Parkway as we expected, because of a rockslide separating us from our destination. The mountains cabin we stay in is cozy and fireplace-heated, and would have been a wonderful way to end the first day of our roadtrip, except that it was filled with the unmistakable scent of natural gas, and therefore threatened us with its impending explosion.

We share a Schlitz and eat collard greens sandwiches, to prove to ourselves once and for all that collard greens were never meant to be served like this.

I open the windows and keep one eye on the fire all night.

Music: Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound, Hank Williams, Jr.

Journey to the West

Some of my friends have been pushing me to make my blog more blog-like, that is, more frequent, shorter posts about what I am doing these days, and fewer Mark Twainish, lengthy essays. And because my life is changing so rapidly these days, I am going to give it a try.

First things first: my wildlife biology jobs in North Carolina continued to be seasonal and therefore unsustainable for me. I decided to go back to graduate school to study fire and climate change. So off to California with me!

I asked my friend Micah to accompany me on a Journey to the West, and to my great surprise and delight, he accepted. What follows (for the next however many posts) is a chronicle of getting ourselves across the country with most of my stuff in the back of my car.

I. Planning the Trip

I call Micah a few weeks before we are going to begin our Odyssey. I have not heard from him about the trip in awhile, and I want to check in. "I wanted to call and tell you what the plan is."

"Okay," says Micah. "I'm ready."

"I have absolutely no plan whatsoever."

"Sounds like a good plan. I like it. Let's do it."

"For real?"

Micah's genuine flexibility and psychological preparedness to handle the unknown has led me to pick him as a travel partner for this trip, but the extent to which he can handle having no information whatsoever makes me a little suspicious of his metal stability. So I feel better when he writes to me a few days later in the Kingdom of Loathing online chat, requesting an itinerary.

"Itinerary? Right… I supposed we should have one of those." I am quite convinced that if anyone who was even vaguely familiar with my sense of direction and geography had found out that I was going to be planning a road trip, I would have been prevented from doing so. After some contemplation, I return this: "Our itinerary will be: Virginia, North Carolina, Neptune, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, Texas, Texas, Texas, Texas, Texas, Texas…." I'm not sure I expect to make it through Texas, so I stop there. I have skipped South Carolina on purpose, but it doesn't occur to me until later we will also need to pass through Mississippi.

Our friend Gemelli, who is mildly irked that we will not be taking the Indiana route and visiting him, is party to our conversation and points out that Neptune may be a little out of the way.

"Yes, well, I feel like it might be worth avoiding South Carolina, and I hear Neptune is rather pretty at this time of year."

I also tell Micah, just to see how he will respond, that we will be eating whatever we roadkill on the way to California, and I am hoping to learn the art of cooking on the car's manifold. He said that was fine, if we can find some roadkilled broccoli, or maybe we can run down some rows of corn. I have forgotten that he is a vegetarian.

"Fortunately, roadside produce can't run very fast," offers Gemelli, helpfully.