Dancing Rabbit Visit

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Ducks crossing the main street in Dancing Rabbit

Ducks crossing the main street in Dancing Rabbit

I’ve been back at Dancing Rabbit for a full two weeks, and I’ve made numerous attempts to write about it… but hopefully this one will stick. I wish I’d done a better job of keeping a journal or something, because the past two weeks have been so intense, rich, full and fulfilling that I don’t know if I could possibly condense it all into a neat little blog post. In fact, the days have been so full that I don’t know if I’ve really had the time to process and integrate everything I’ve seen, heard and experienced. Perhaps there will be time for that when I leave– if I leave.

Unlike the last visit to Dancing Rabbit, this time I’m here for the official visitor program, which runs for 3 weeks. The program started off being more structured, and has become progressively less structured, though there never seems to be a shortage of things to do. About half of our scheduled time so far has been in workshops, which covered everything from the history of Dancing Rabbit, its organizational structures and governance models, land use, natural building, the humanure systems, ecological covenants and guidelines, to “softer” topics like communication, conflict resolution, and “inner sustainability” (which covered subjects like emotional self-care, personal growth, etc).

The other half of the time has been spent doing work of all sorts. We’ve had organized “work parties” where we’d help a specific Rabbit (as members and residents are called) do whatever they needed help with. So far, most of the organized work parties have had us working in gardens, but there’s plenty of other work to be found too. On one afternoon, a few of us escaped the official program and headed to Sandhill Farms on rickety bikes to help with the sorghum harvest. On another afternoon, I found myself smearing manure-based aliz onto someone’s home. The other day, I got an in-depth look of Strawtron, a beautiful straw bale and timber-frame house built by Ziggy and April (of The Year of Mud blog). Other than that, I’ve also helped stomp cob, sift sand, haul dirt up onto a living roof, helped replace EPDM on another roof, chopped or cut wood, and later this week, I’m hoping to help slaughter and process some birds. There are also some chores we help with, like hauling humanure buckets, cleaning the Common House once a week, or taking turns to help cook dinner.

Our evenings have also been quite full. There was a talent show a few nights ago, and the night before that, a few people organized a dance, and the night before that, a folk singer gave us a small private concert when he stopped over in his tour. On Sunday nights, I’ve gone to the incredible men’s group they have here, which is something I’d been meaning to do in the city and never got around to. Tuesday night is the community potluck, and Thursday night is pizza night at the Milkweed Mercantile, where they serve delicious homemade pizzas topped with mozzarella cheese made here. On Wednesday night, a few of us visitors organized a little support group for ourselves. And if nothing else is scheduled, there are usually a bunch of people around to play board games with, or have interesting conversations with.


In short, it’s been pretty amazing. I haven’t felt a single moment of boredom, and if things get too chaotic, I could always go for a walk on Dancing Rabbit’s 280 acres of land (of which less than 20 acres is developed), or go sit by the pond. I’ve also been able to find the right amount and right kinds of human contact, just about whenever I felt the need. What’s more, it feels great to be among people who see the world similarly. In the city, I’ve always struggled with feelings of alienation, like being the one person at a roaring party who wasn’t having fun and was worrying about the fire on the roof that nobody seemed to be paying attention to. Here, I don’t have to explain to people everything that’s wrong with mainstream society — they know pretty damn well. I also don’t have to tell them another lifestyle is possible; they’re already living it.

So, I’m happy here. I’m happier than I’ve been in quite some time, and that’s also unsettling. I guess I’m not really used to happiness being sustainable. I’ve found periods of happiness, but they were also in unsustainable circumstances, such as solitary stints on my property or at time-bounded places like Burning Man. And, I also find myself trying to anticipate ways in which I may not be happy should I stay longer. The visitor program is full of information and experiences, but living here would be a different experience. Maybe different in a good way, but also maybe different in an undesirable way. Maybe I’ll feel differently when the autumnal sunshine is replaced by cold, dark, and damp winter clouds. I also somewhat unwittingly fell into a quasi-relationship with a woman I met here, and that could be clouding my judgment. Yet, there’s also a part of me that’s trying to just savor what is, and not worry too much about the future.

I’m sure I’ll write more soon, but I’ll leave this post here.


Thoughts From a Short Visit to Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage

As I sat in a toilet stall in Terminal 1 of the Minneapolis St. Paul airport, I thought to myself, “this is nuts”. There I was, depositing my output in a pool of potable water, about to flush it with even more potable water, to be sent to a treatment plant where the sewage would be processed using electricity generated in large part by burning coal. No part of that made any sense.

Twenty-four hours and a few hundred miles prior to that, I sat similarly in a communal stall, except this one was over a bucket. When I was done with my deposit (lovingly called “contributions” by residents), I had simply covered it up with a bit of saw dust. The bucket would be carried down to the compost heap, and a few years later, the resulting compost would be spread in the garden to enrich the local clay-y soil, which in turn would help produce food to be consumed. That made sense.

When I decided to visit Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in rural Missouri, I told some friends that I was visiting a “crazy hippie commune.” I wasn’t entirely serious about the “crazy” label, but even I didn’t quite anticipate how sane the place would feel, and how crazy the “real world” would seem once I came out of the experience.


Let me step back. In late July, I spent several days at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage to attend a workshop. Located in north-eastern Missouri, about 3 hours from St. Louis near the town of Rutledge, Dancing Rabbit (DR) is part of a cluster of 3 sustainability-focused intentional communities (the other two communities are Sand Hill and Red Earth farms). Originally founded in the late 90s by a group of young Stanford and Berkeley grads from the Bay Area, the village today is home to some 40 to 70 residents and visitors of all ages, including over a dozen children. They live in accordance with a small number of covenants, most of which are designed to make life more environmentally sustainable, while still allowing for enough flexibility to be accepting of a range of personal preferences in areas such as diet, technology use, spirituality and community involvement.

Perhaps one of the most noticeable physical characteristics of the community is its structures (see pictures). In addition to one large dorm-style two-story straw bale building, most members live in a wide variety of shelters, ranging from tents and converted busses and shacks, to beautiful and modest yet comfortably sized single family homes. What gives the place and its structures a distinct look is probably the combination of one of the covenants (that all structures use natural materials and locally harvested or reclaimed lumber) and the county’s lack of building codes. The covenant banning new lumber has practically forced folks to replace traditional stick-framed construction methods and factory-made materials with beautiful local natural materials, while the lack of building/zoning codes has allowed for experimentation and creativity. Since there are no codes to dictate minimum house sizes or densities, and there’s no requirement for homes to have road frontage, the village is densely inhabited but with enough green spaces and gardens interspersed such that it doesn’t feel crowded. I was also told that warrens (as plots of land are called there) and structures were planned specifically to encourage interaction among residents.

I was impressed with the community’s commitment to environmentally sustainable practices. Although the village is now hooked up to the electricity grid and city water, they are incredibly mindful of those resources. Most folks seem to be living off of harvested rainwater, and I heard the community generates 3-4x more electricity through solar panels and wind turbines than it uses (they got tied to the grid to be able to charge an electric vehicle, essentially using the grid as a buffer, which IMO is probably more environmentally friendly than the alternative: a big bank of lead-acid batteries). Some people use gas for cooking (though I did see quite a few solar ovens and a couple of cob ovens), but they rely on passive heating and locally harvested firewood for warmth in the winter. They also share just 4 cars among the entire village, and supposedly use something like 94% less fuel per person than the average American (on driving). Overall, other than the restrictions around building materials, the sustainability practices seemed quite similar to how I’ve lived on my property.

What impressed me most, though, about DR was the fact that the community functions at all, and has for almost two decades. It’s one thing to get a bunch of idealistic young hippies together in one place. It’s another to go from 6 to 60 people, and have a community in the middle of nowhere where people can live reasonably comfortable lives. Granted, even in my short stay, it was clear that not everything was peachy. The last of the original founders had just left indefinitely a few days before I got there, and I caught glimpses of some large disagreements about the future of the community. Nonetheless, it appeared that they had figured out an economic model and governance model that was functional and self-sustaining, which alone is quite impressive.

Since I mentioned it, I’ll try to briefly describe their economic and governance models. Keeping the cost of living low seems to be a priority, and most residents pay land use fees (I think on the order of tens of dollars a month, depending on home and lot sizes) as well as 2% of their income. Sources of income seemed to vary quite a bit: food stamps, trust funds, working in the village or for the nonprofit, working online, renting cabins, etc. The village and umbrella non-profit organization also makes money from hosting workshops and visitors, but it wasn’t clear how much that accounted for the village’s revenue. Other than that, people pay for their own needs, in some cases by buying into individual co-ops (for food, for transportation, for showers, for power, etc). As far as governance goes, they have an interesting streamlined version of a consensus-based model, where functional areas are broken into separate committees. The committees are responsible for taking proposals through a consensus-based process, but eliminates the need to have everybody in the village in the same room at the same time for all decisions. There’s also a village council and a system called “power levels” that delineates what kind of decisions can be made where (I think) but my understanding is murky on those areas.


When I think back at what it was like there, this is what I experience in my mind: Wind turbines whir overhead, the sound intermixed with the laughter of children playing on the dirt paths as a couple of old dogs look on and a pair of ducks waddle by. The people seem relaxed, and happier. They stop to interact with each other. All around, we’re surrounded by the green hues of trees and gardens, the blue of the sky, and the bright yellows and oranges of colorful houses blending into the landscape with more crooked lines than straight ones. It’s pretty damn idyllic.

My first moments of arriving at DR reminded me of the trope often seen in post-apocalyptic narratives: the promised land where people live happily and peacefully, free of whatever ails the world around them. Here, I thought to myself, people live sane and sustainable lives, in community. It combined aspects of what I loved about living on my property, with what I’ve been searching for more recently: a community. It opened my mind and eyes in the way that my first Burning Man did; it made me realize that another kind of life and society was possible. I don’t know if DR, specifically, is my ideal. But it made my ideal a little bit less of an abstract dream, and more of a reality than it ever was.

Yet, when I step back, big questions also loom in my mind. As impressive as it is that this community that started with half a dozen dreamers has grown to a village with dozens of people, is this The Answer? Some folks at DR want to grow the village to a 1000 people, which seems like quite a challenge. And even if the model could be replicated 1000 times over, which, again, sounds like quite a challenge, that’s still only 1 million people out of the over 300 million people in our country. And, let’s not forget the rest of the world. There are around a billion people who live in rapidly developing countries where, over the coming years and decades, they may achieve the kind of affluence that will allow them to live increasingly energy and resource intensive lives. So, in the grand scheme of things, getting a large number of people to slightly change their behaviors might be far more impactful than getting a tiny number of people to live drastically different (albeit sustainable) lifestyles.

This conundrum may, in many ways, be at the root of my inability to choose definitively between a rural life and a life in the city. I am happier in a rural setting, and I want to live a lifestyle that is congruent and consistent with my values. But what draws me to the city, at least partially, is the promise to affect change from the belly of the beast. That is the promise of Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area: it’s the place where a great deal of technological, cultural and social changes were/are born and disseminated throughout the country and the world. Even Dancing Rabbit started there, before moving to Missouri. But, then again, Silicon Valley’s focus these days seems to have been redirected more towards getting rich quickly, rather than changing the world for the better. And I haven’t figured out how I can orient my skills and experiences to push for a more sustainable world in an impactful way. Perhaps nobody has.

I’m returning to Dancing Rabbit in October for their 3 week visitor program. My intention is to learn more about the inner workings of DR, and to also more fully experience life in an ecovillage. But, in the back (or front) of my mind will be this question about where and how I want to live, and how I want to orient myself to engage the world. I don’t expect to have answers. But I hope to have another piece or two to fit into the puzzle of my life.

I’ll be living in this cozy little “Summer Cabin” when I return in October!

Journal: December 19th, 2010

It started snowing last night, so I moved the car about a 3rd of the way back down the dirt road, past the worst bits where I got stuck last time. Later in the evening, a warm front moved in, and the snow turned to rain, accompanied by strong gusty winds. The storm kept me up for a while, as the winds rattled the loose Tyvek on the extension roof. Rain, sleet and hail peppered the south-facing wall and windows. Out in the woods, you can hear wind approaching from a mile away, like an oncoming freight train. The sounds –which travel faster than the wind itself– of air rushing by trees, move ahead of the actual pressure wave, and as I lay in the dark hut, under my blankets, could do nothing but to cringe as wave after wave of air tore through the woods and crashed upon my untested cabin. Hut 2.1, with its broad and high wall that faces prevailing winds, has a high wind profile, and that’s always been a concern to me, especially since the structure isn’t anchored to the ground. Fortunately, the hut withstood each assault with barely a shudder. Eventually, I drifted off, as I gained confidence in my dwelling, and the rattling of the Tyvek, and the pattering of the rain, and the roaring of the wind lost that threatening edge, turning instead to a calming lullaby, just another soundtrack of a life in a cabin in the woods. My last thoughts before falling asleep were “Man, if I had a wind generator, they’d be cranking out mad Amps right about now…”

Then, I almost got myself killed on the way out today. It had started snowing heavily just as I was leaving. Though the temperature was a few degrees above freezing, the heavy sticky snow accumulated quickly, and by the time I made it a few miles down the paved county road, the pavement was covered in half an inch of slush. Coming out of a gentle right-hand turn, I felt the car sliding as I tried to straighten out. I turned the wheel farther to the left, then suddenly the tires caught traction, catapulting me into the opposing lane and towards the hillside. With the car’s slip indicator beeping rapidly and franticly –as if I didn’t notice what was happening– I gave full right rudder, as the car straightened out with the left wheels rumbling on the gravel shoulder off the opposing lane. I slid, straight, half on and half off the pavement, as the side half-off the pavement tried to pull me farther off to the left, while the front wheels tried desperately and futilely to pull me back on to the right. After what seemed like minutes, but probably no more than 3 seconds, the car finally shuddered to a halt. I quickly scooted back to my side of the road, and pulled over on the shoulder with the emergency lights blinking. It was a close call. I’d scraped a bush off the side of the road, and my laptop had flown off the passenger side seat where it had been charging contentedly, but there was no discernible damage to car, contents, or person.

As I got back on the road, I reflected on what had happened. In my rush to get out before the snow got worse, I’d failed to notice the rapidly changing surface conditions — which had been wet, but not snowy, just a few minutes and a couple of miles prior. I was going way too fast for the conditions. The treads on my front tire are also worn down almost to nothing (need to get new tires, or at least rotate the back tires forward). I’d also braked too hard, though I’m not sure what the car’s fancy electronic safety systems were doing during that whole ordeal. I was also fortunate there was no oncoming traffic — that could’ve ended catastrophically.

Conditions got better as I got down into the valley, with the snow turning to sleet, then rain. But to get out of the area, I still had to go over a mountain pass at 4300ft elevation. There was at least an inch or two of accumulation on the road surface, with heavy snow falling steadily. I thought about waiting for a plough to come through and following it, but it was 3pm –an hour before sunset– with the thermometer showing 34F. That close to dusk, it’d get colder soon, and then icy. I decided to just take it slowly. Fortunately I made it up over the pass and back down to less snowy conditions without having to pull out my chains.

Normally, I’d just wait out a storm, since I have plenty of supplies, and usually, nowhere to be. But, I’m heading out of town in a few days to go spend the holidays with my parents, so I was actually on a schedule for once. It looks like I got out just in the nick of time, other than that brief sledding adventure.

So, that’s it from Serenity Valley for 2010. I’ll be back in January, but rest assured, I have blog posts lined up for the interim period as well. I also have a big-ish announcement possibly coming up, so stay tuned for that as well.

Update: After posting this, I realized that, while it’s just past midnight in Serenity Valley Time, and therefore the 19th, it’s actually December 18th local time. Thought I’d add an explanation in case anyone was wondering why the post is from the future…

Fork in the Road

The day of reckoning came sooner than expected. I ran out of money. My checking account was practically empty, and my credit cards maxed out. It was a day I knew was coming, but it happened a little sooner than I’d anticipated due to some sudden and unexpected expenditures. So, I activated my backup plan, which was to jail-break some funds I’d locked away in a CD, but things got complicated when the banker gave me misleading information, then flat-out wrong information, then explained that to get my money, I’d have to run around in a circle eleven times, bark thrice, do a 350 degree back flip, and cough up $6000 first.

Anyway, with the help of some friends, it looks like I’m going to be able to get my money out, but only enough to last me a couple of months. Which is to say, I got a two month extension on my day of reckoning. But it’ll come back, and hopefully I’ll have a better plan the next time I come to this juncture.

It’s not that I haven’t been thinking about this problem. In fact, I’ve put a lot of thought into my next steps, but I simply haven’t been able to make a decision. This is a new phenomenon for me. My life has always been guided one way or another, and whenever I came to a fork in the road, I somehow always knew what the next step should be. Sure, I’ve had some tough decisions to make, like in 2005 when I had those two enticing job offers, one from this big company called Yahoo, and another from this pimple-faced Harvard dropout named Mark Zuckerburg who wanted me to come work on this little website called TheFacebook.com. But, as difficult as that was, I knew in my heart which option I wanted to take.

Now, I’ve got options, and I’m not entirely sure where my heart is. So, let’s turn my life into a little Choose-Your-Adventure game, shall we? What, dear readers, do you think should happen next in my life, and by extension, to this blog?

Here are the options (in no particular order):

  • Adventure A: Go back to work full time. Part of the problem right now is that my expenses are way too high. I’m still making monthly payments on my land, as well as my car, then there’s health insurance, car insurance, phone bills, credit card bills, etc, etc. All told, I need over $1200 per month just to keep up with my bills, and that’s not including food and gas. Yes, it’s a sad state of affairs, especially for someone living a fairly frugal lifestyle in the woods, but that is the truth. However, I could make enough as a software engineer, so that if I went back to work full-time, I’d be able to pay off all my debt and save up some, in just a year or two. Once my recurring expenditures have come down to something more reasonable, I can come back to the woods, and spend a year or two without worrying about money. Of course, that would still only be a temporary option. Though not impossible in Silicon Valley, it’s highly unlikely that I’d be able to make enough money to last me a life time, which means I’d eventually need to find some way to make money again. I also left Silicon Valley cube farms for a reason, and I don’t know if I can stand going back for a year or two of office life without losing my soul.
  • Adventure B: Stay on my property for the winter. When I first started thinking about my land-ventures, my plan was to buy land, spend a year on it, then write a book about my experiences. I’ve been up here now for the better part of this year since late-Spring. If I could stay the winter, that would constitute more or less a year, and I might have enough material for a book. At the very least, I’ll have more material for this blog, which I won’t have if I left again for the winter.

    As far as adventures go, staying here for the winter seems like a pretty good one. It’ll be quite a challenge, and it seems like the odds are pretty good that I’ll be miserable for the better part of the colder months, but it’ll be an interesting experience nonetheless. Besides, it’s the only way to get a realistic view of conditions during the winter, and unquestionably, there is much to be learned. There’s also the satisfaction of being able to say “I live on my property for a year.” As it stands, I can only claim to have spent the nice warmer months here, and that’s pretty lame.

    The problem, of course, is that I’m out of money. Or will be out of money again probably around December. Additionally, I’d need to buy more gear to survive the winter reasonably comfortably, so I’d need even more money. One option is to try and find some contract work that I can do while on my property, but that’s a little iffy. While I can get decent internet up here through Verizon’s wireless network, I’m not sure how much power I’ll have over the winter. The days will be short and sunny days will be far and few between, so I won’t be able to generate as much solar power. I’d probably also get a wind generator, but those obviously only work if there’s good wind. Most contract jobs also require some face-time with the clients, but I could conceivably get snowed in for weeks at a time. The paved road will be kept plowed, but I have no idea what kind of condition the dirt road that leads from my camp to the paved road will be in.

    One possibility is to do some contract work full-time for a month or two. With the rates I get, I can probably earn enough to last me several months that way, and if the timing works out, I can still spend most of the colder months here. Naturally, this option depends on finding the right gig, and has the same problem as Adventure A, in that I’ll come back to where I am now in a matter of months. While I may be able to write a book, it would be foolish of me to assume that I’d find a publisher, much less that I’d make any money off of it.

  • Adventure C: Enlist in the Air National Guard, followed by career change. Now for something completely different, as Monty Python would say. I started looking into the Air Guard a year ago, when I was in a somewhat similar situation as I find myself in now, and saw a recruitment billboard for the 129th Rescue Wing while driving up Highway 101. I must’ve driven past that billboard hundreds of times when I lived and worked in Silicon Valley. In fact, I’d noticed the sign before, too, though I’d always been happily and gainfully employed, and so never gave it much attention. This time, it was different.

    Having never outgrown my boyish fascination with things military, I’ve always been interested in the armed forces. But being something of a pacifist, I’d never considered a career in uniform, especially not with an organization embroiled in two conflicts I don’t agree with. Besides, I was massively obese for most of my adolescent years, then I became a computer nerd and spent a decade sitting on my ass in front of the computer screen, and it just didn’t seem like I’d have the brawn to get through military training. But as I passed that sign, one late Autumn day last year, something felt different.

    For starters, the billboard depicts an HH-60G PaveHawk helicopter plucking someone out of the water. Rescue. Rescue is good, even for pacifists. Then another part of my brain piped up saying “You always did love helicopters.” I drove on in silence. “Wasn’t doing aircraft maintenance one of your childhood dreams?” Quipped my brain, suggestively. “You just spent months in the woods. You’re pretty fit. Probably about as fit as you’d ever be.” My brain had a point. I was intrigued.

    I did a little research online, and learned that the Air Guard works very differently to the regular Air Force. For starters, National Guard units belong to individual states, unless loaned to the federal government. With the Air Guard, you get to choose your unit and occupation when enlisting, so I’d be reasonably sure that I wouldn’t end up a door gunner in Alabama, for instance. Guardsmen (and -women) serve one weekend a month, plus two weeks a year, and can lead mostly normal civilian lives the rest of the time. The 129th had an opening in helicopter maintenance. The job came with a $20k bonus.

    So one warm day in December last year, I walked into their nondescript recruitment office located just a couple of blocks from the restaurants and cafes in downtown Mountain View bustling with Silicon Valley tech workers on lunch break. The recruiters were happy to see me. For starters, I wasn’t obese (“it’s rare these days” they explained), I had a college degree (two pay-ranks’ promotion off the bat), and no known medical conditions (they suggested I keep quiet about the braces behind my lower teeth). But, ultimately, I didn’t continue with the process then because the helicopter maintenance job I’d wanted had just been filled. They had an opening in engine maintenance, and though I find aircraft engines to be fascinating and can explain the difference between turbojet, turbofan and turboshaft engines, I ultimately didn’t want to be an engine geek; I like helicopters, and I want to learn all about them, not just the engines.

    Over the past year, I’ve continued to think about this option. It’s compelling in a lot of ways. If nothing else, it’s something completely different, and I think it could be a challenging but interesting experience. If I time things right, I could let Uncle Sam feed, shelter and clothe me during the colder months while I’m in training. If they’re still giving $20k bonuses, that’d go a long ways towards paying off my debt, and once I’m out of training I’d also secure 4 days pay a month (they pay double-time) thereafter. I could also use the education benefits to go back to school, and retrain for a career change in my civilian life. Military training might also teach me skills that could help me get a job as a seasonal firefighter near my property, since that’s basically the only well paying job around here (besides, who wouldn’t want to be a firefighter?).

    So, why haven’t I enlisted yet? The short answer is, fear. And it’s not the fear of being deployed, which is what my friends seem to worry about. Rather, it’s fear of the unknown. The fear of being thrust into a foreign culture. The fear of commitment. There’s also the fear of losing my individual freedom, especially during the 5-6 months of training. Then there’s the fear of failure and ridicule — that I’d show up and they’d laugh at me and say I’m too short, old and weak… and worse, that they’d be right. But then, I hate the feeling of succumbing to my fears, of letting my unfounded worries prevent me from living. And while less of a consideration, the thought that enlisting would be looked upon unfavorably by those around me also weighs on me. I don’t generally let my friends and family tell me how to live, but it still takes an extra ounce of conviction to do something without the support of the people who are important to me. And on this one, I’m not sure I have that extra ounce.

When I quit my job at Google a year and a half ago, I thought, or wanted to think, that I’d return after a break. But as the months ticked by, it’s become clear to me that, as a software engineer, I’m like a racehorse with a broken leg; I may never race again. Sure, I can run in short stints, but a full-blown comeback with any chance of success is starting to seem less and less likely. Ironically, that makes any plan that involves making money as a software engineer unsustainable in the long run. Of the three options above, the one that may seem the most brash –enlisting– seems like the best option in the long run because, in addition to providing short term employment, it also has the potential to fund, or otherwise prepare me for, what I probably need: a career change. But, no doubt, it’s also the scariest and most controversial option, hence the indecision.

Any thoughts?

Quick Update

I’m parked outside a pizza parlor in town, mooching their internet connection. In the back of my car is my purpose for this trip into town: 8 big bags of soil and fertilizer, along with 23 gallons of water. So this update’ll be quick…

First, my excuse for the long silence on this blog. I was in Japan for the last half of May visiting my parents, and then the first week of this month, I spontaneously went to Beijing for several days. Awesome times were had, though that’s a whole ‘nother post, and for now, I’ll simply refer your to the copious photographs I took.

Now, I’m back on Serenity Valley. It’s finally warmed up, and you wouldn’t think that it had snowed just 2-3 weeks ago. The temperature’s up in the 80s (in the shade) during the day, with lows comfortably in the 40s or so. It’s great to be back outside in the sun, getting my creaky old body going again. I’ve been helping my neighbor smooth out the dirt (erm, and rock) road, which is only fair since he bought a few truck loads of gravel to cover it all up.

I’ve also been working on my garden bed, which is a lot of hard work. There’s a hard clay layer about 16-20″ down (and about 3-6 inches thick), and I’ve had to get down on my knees to pound in my spading fork with a mini-sledge hammer to break it up (I guess a pickaxe would’ve also worked, but I don’t have one of those). Fortunately, unlike last time, the plants I brought with me have not died, so I’m hopeful. I’m starting to realize that the soil is probably too nutrient poor, hence this trip to buy soil and compost (I did get the organic stuff, at least). Keeping the garden watered is going to be a challenge, but I found a free source of water in town, so for now, I’ll probably continue to just truck wanter onto my property.

I’ve also been thinking about the next iteration of my hut. The big question on my mind is whether to expand/improve my current hut, or to start on an entirely new one and do it right (or at least, better) from the beginning. But that’s a whole other post too… For now, I’m actually back to sleeping in my car, because it has more windows, more headroom, and better ventilation than the loft-cot in my hut. Until my hut improvements are done, I might go back to sleeping in a tent, though, maybe I’ll at least get a cot this time. In a few weeks, it might even be warm enough to sleep outside in a hammock, though there’s always the risk of getting eaten alive (by mosquitos, or bigger things)…

Anyway, the adventures continue. I’ll try to post more in coming weeks.

Finding a Home in the Urban Forest

As I indicated at the end of my last journal entry, I left Serenity Valley for the winter (rest assured, dear readers, my hut in the woods adventures will resume in a few months). The reason for leaving was almost entirely financial — I’d simply run out of cash… and credit. Without cash, I couldn’t prepare my hut for yet colder and wetter climates. Without cash, I’d have to choose between paying this month’s payment on the (small) loan I took out to buy the land, or health insurance. Not to mention, you know, car payments, food, gas, cell phone, and all those other recurring expenditures.

Yes, the reality is, even though I “lived” in the woods in a $600 hut, I was still not completely free. I still had shackles in the form of bills1

So, I came out of the woods, and headed back to Silicon Valley to start a short-term consulting gig I had waiting for me. The gig is part time, and I can work from pretty much anywhere, so in theory, I don’t have to “live” in Silicon Valley. But I want to. I lived here for 4 years before I moved away, and the roots I established during those years still remain here. I have friends here. My shooting club is here, as are shooting ranges. And, besides, if I’m working in tech again, it makes sense to be here. Oh, and it’s nice and warm here too 🙂

But there’s one problem. Having built a $600 hut in the woods, I’m having a hard time justifying paying for an apartment or room. For those of you not familiar with the area, a 1 bedroom apartment starts at around $1000 here. If I share a place, I might pay $600 instead. Per month. That’s a new hut I could be building every month.

I recently did some calculations, and realized that I’d paid somewhere in the neighborhood of $50,000 in rent during the 4 years I lived here. Some people will argue that that’s why it makes sense to buy a house. Sure, if you considered money to be the most important resource, then buying would likely save you a ton of money. But to me, money isn’t the most important resource; time is. And buying even a cheap condo in the area means taking out a huge mortgage, that would take 15, 20, 30 years to pay off. That’s 15, 20, 30 years of financial obligations. That, to me, sounds like a 15, 20, 30 year prison sentence. I’m not going to prison, just to put a roof over my head2.

So, I’m trying to find the equivalence of my $600 hut in this (sub)urban forest. I even considered buying land out here and, yes, building an actual hut. But that’s simply not feasible. Land around here is scarce and insanely expensive, and, not to mention, I’m pretty sure I’d have city inspectors swarming me the instant I erected a single two-by-four without a permit.

Rather, the same way my hut was an exercise in minimalism, I’m trying to apply the same idea here. That process starts by asking the question, “What do I need?” For starters, I need a place to sleep. I have that covered right now, since my “employer” has graciously offered to look the other way if he were to find me sleeping at the office. Then, what else do I need? I need to bathe, occasionally. Here’s a dirty (literally) little secret: I can go for days without showering before anyone notices. Last night I borrowed a friend’s shower. Perhaps I can keep rotating between various friends’ showers… Or maybe I’ll get a gym membership, to use the showers. What else do I need? I could use a kitchen, so that I don’t waste money eating out. Well, except, maybe I could live off of sandwiches, and eat out occasionally if I wanted a warm meal. Sandwiches don’t require a kitchen to make, and are cheap.

So I have all of the above covered, without paying rent. But there’s one thing missing: it’s that sense of home you get from having your own place. Partially, it’s about privacy. Partially, it’s about freedom. And partially, it’s purely psychological. Whatever it is, it’s somewhat unsettling to not have that. On the other hand, I’ve been practically homeless for the last 3 months, except for when I was living in my hut, and I’ve become accustomed to that feeling. At least, accustomed enough that I wonder if it’s worth paying hundreds of dollars a month to make it go away.

There are also smaller inconveniences. For instance, I went to the range yesterday, and then didn’t have anywhere I could go afterwards to clean my rifle. I probably could’ve done that at the office, especially since there’s nobody there, but there’s a bit of a resistance to bringing an AR-15 to a place of work. Along similar lines, I’ll eventually need a place to setup my reloading equipment. One of the last things I did before moving out of my apartment back in April was to load as much ammo as I could. Nikki and I loaded something like 700 rounds, in between packing up the apartment and hauling things to the storage unit, but now that I’m shooting again, I’ll probably go through that in a month or two. But I don’t need an apartment to clean a rifle or reload. Maybe I could rent a storage unit and setup my reloading bench in there — if I ignore that clause about no hazardous materials…

In any case, I’m still at that stage where I’m looking at various options, and weighing the pros and cons. I’ll keep y’all posted on how things pan out…


  1. I should note that my total combined (non-cash) financial assets are still greater than my obligations. In other words, if I liquidated my non-cash assets, I could pay off all my debt, and thus “buy” my freedom.
  2. Comparing a mortgage to prison might be a little harsh, since you can get out of mortgages, either by selling your house, or by simply foreclosing. But I imagine there’s a huge mental barrier for that, and I’d rather not build a prison in my head either.

End of a road trip, preparing for the next

I got back to the Bay Area on Monday night, 3440 miles and 10 days after leaving Chicago. I forgot to check the odometer on the Ryomobile when we left the Bay Area in April so I don’t know the total mileage of this entire trip across the country, but I think it comes out to about 9000 miles. The route I took from Chicago is approximated in the Google Map embedded above, and as you can see, I took the “scenic” route. The return trip was, in many ways, more enjoyable than the trip to Chicago. Unlike in April, the weather was much warmer, and I was able to camp every single night, except for that one night in Salt Lake City that I spent in my car in a Wal-Mart parking lot. I also stayed off the interstate highways for the vast majority of the trip, spending most of the time on nice two-lane roads where I often had the entire road all to myself for as far as the eye could see. And nothing beats the complete freedom of traveling alone; of being able to stop when and where I wanted, or to push on as long as I wanted, to see what I wanted to see. I saw quite a bit of history, that gave me much to ponder. I was surrounded by gorgeous scenery pretty much the entire way, and there was just enough variation that it never got old. Every single day, as the sun gradually sank towards the western horizon ahead of me, I would look at the scenery around me being lit in that magical glow, and think to myself with a grin on my face, “man, this is awesome.”

On my way through California, I made a slight detour to my land to drop off some supplies, and explore a bit more. I tried driving the Ryomobile into the back of my property using a dirt road that cuts through some neighboring land, and found the path to be too rough for my little city car. I tried inching along, clearing big boulders away by hand and shoveling in dips, but after my car nearly got stuck in the soft dirt, retreated back to the paved road. Unfortunately, this throws a pretty big monkey wrench into my plans. I definitely want to set up camp in the back of my property, where it’s farther from the paved road, has better scenery, is closer to places where I can shoot, and is also closer to a new source of water I discovered. But I’ll have to find some way to get my 600+ pounds of supplies from the paved road to my property. I’m debating between buying a cargo trailer and towing it on to my property with a rental truck, or leaving my car near the road and hauling my supplies to my camp by myself.

On a more positive note, though, I was able to verify a spring or pond about 200 yards west of my property, on Government land. It’s just a little pool of mirky greenish liquids, but teeming with signs of life, both visible, and invisible. It is almost certainly a cesspool of nasty bacteria that could probably kill me, though with proper treatment, I may be able to draw drinkable water from there. At the very least, the water should be good enough for irrigation, and with some sanitation, maybe even bathing.

After discovering that I still had more logistical issues to work out, and after hearing about my friends preparing for Burning Man, I had a change of heart and decided to go to Burning Man next week instead of going straight to my land. After all, I’d prepared to go live in the middle of nowhere for an extended period of time, which means I’m definitely prepared for a week in Black Rock City. In fact, planning for Burning Man is, in some ways, easier than what I’ve been planning, because it only lasts a week, and I don’t have to think about shooting (so I can leave my guns and shooting supplies behind), or making improvements (so I can leave some of my tools behind).

That’s not to say that the last couple of days have been easy… I have a pile of stuff to pick up in Sunnyvale, but my car was packed full of stuff from my trip back from Chicago (which included, for instance, my miter saw that I took with me for Scav Hunt), but my storage unit is completely full as well. It’s hard to shuffle things around when you don’t have any buffer space. I started tackling this problem by picking up my roof rack, then driving to the East Bay to buy a used cargo basket. Today, I moved some of my stuff into the basket, threw some stuff in my car into my storage unit, and built a cot to be installed in my car. Now that I’m done with construction, I can put my miter saw away, which further frees up space in my car. It’s like those brain teasers you sometimes get in job interviews, but doing it in real life requires a lot of work, as it turns out.

In any case, hopefully tomorrow, I can pick up all my stuff, pack my car, and head out of town. I’m not sure where I’m going yet. I might go to my land, or maybe camp somewhere for a couple of days until Sunday, then head to Nevada (again). After Burning Man, I have about a week and a half to kill before my parents are coming to visit. I’m planing on spending a week-ish with them, then I might finally be able to head to my land for real (although I might head up there for the week and a half between Burning Man and parents too). In any case, the adventures continue…

Journal: 8/19-8/22

Continuation of my road trip journal. Disclaimer still applies: these entries are raw and unedited.

August 19th

I woke up to unbearable heat, and clawed my way out of the tent into the cool morning air. The tent had been turned into a demonstration of the greenhouse effect.

I gave myself a nice slow morning. I made some instant coffee and instant oat meal for breakfast, then sat down to write (most of the previous days’ entries were written this morning). At around 11, I finished packing up, made a couple of sandwiches for lunch, then hit the road, continuing back West.

One of the fun things about going on a road trip without any particular plan, is that you make serendipitous discoveries. This trip has been no exception, for instance, stumbling upon Fort Robinson was purely accidental. Today’s discovery was Scott’s Bluff. A towering geological curiosity that also happened to be a landmark on the Oregon Trail. The bluff is actually a cousin of the Badlands, in that geologically, they were formed in a similar manner. Once upon a time, the Great Plains were at a much higher altitude than now. Wind and water eroded those plains, down to the level they’re at now, but at places like Scott’s Bluff or the Badlands, one can still see the old plains eroding into the new plains today.

About half an hour West from Scott’s Bluff was Fort Laramie. I decided to make a stop there as well, since I’d read about it at Fort Robinson. Fort Laramie was a major re-supply station on the Oregon, California and Mormon Trails, and also played a key role in the conflict between whites and Native Americans. Many treaties were signed there, and of course, when they were broken (mostly by the whites) it was also from there the army rode out to suppress the Native American “rebellion” (or on rare occasions, to enforce treaties that weren’t yet broken).

Before the wagons arrived in the area though, the first whites to venture that far west were fur traders. At first, they were beaver fur traders, mostly independent. Apparently relations with Native Americans for these solitary fur traders were mostly amicable. It wasn’t until the fur trading corporations arrived that the trouble started. Interestingly enough, demand for beaver fell when beaver fur hats fell out of fashion in favor of silk. The next fad, though, was buffalo fur coats. In other words, to some degree, Westward expansion of the US was driven by fashion fads. And that still hasn’t changed much. In Silicon Valley, whenever there’s a successful startup, people wonder if it’s just a fad. Is Facebook a fad? Is Twitter a fad? The irony, of course, is that everything out there is a fad. In 50 years, a hundred years, how many of these tech companies will people remember? How many Hollywood stars will be remembered? In the East, I think people have more of a sense of permanence, whether they’re into banking or politics. Say what you will about politicians, but they all know that what they say and do will be recorded and, if successful, be memorialized for ever. Although, technically, the Silicon Valley mentality might be closer to that held by gold miners. Success is measured in millions of dollars, but I don’t think anybody really thinks, or cares, about whether or not they, or their work, will be remembered a century from now.

I stopped for the night in Eastern Wyoming, in a State Park just outside a little town called Gurney. Hidden behind some hills is a river, a dam, and a lake. There were a number of campsites along the lake, but, with the sun setting quickly beyond the canyon walls, I chose the campsite closes to the entrance. Yet again, I had a whole campground all to myself.

August 20th

I slept in, on the account of having left my only clock, my iPhone, in my car overnight. When I’m camping, the sun usually wakes me up long before my intended wake up time, though I usually snooze for a while. This morning was no different. Eventually, I stuck my head out of the tent, looked at some shadows, and guessed it to be around 9am, and crawled out of the tent for good. My mornings are so much more pleasant when I’m camping, than when I’m living in an apartment. In an apartment, it doesn’t really seem to matter how late I sleep in or how many hours of sleep I get, it’s about equally difficult to haul myself out of bed. When I sleep out, I have no problems getting up at a reasonable hour. I think it’s just that I need sunlight to wake up. Next time I get an apartment, I should make sure the bedroom faces the East.

Since I had a big dinner last night, I skipped breakfast tea/coffee, and packed up quickly to hit the road. I was barely out of the State Park when I realized that I hadn’t taken a picture of my campsite. I’ve been trying to take a picture every place I stop, and this was a particularly beautiful site too. The thought gnawed on me, until I turned around. Turning around only cost me half an hour; not doing so might’ve tainted my memory of the site for good, or at least, bugged me for the rest of the day. I have a tendency to mull on such things. I wish I didn’t, but I do, and sometimes the best recourse for me is to right whatever wrong happens to be tormenting me. The easier cases are the ones that are as simple as turning a car around and driving a few extra miles…

With a picture of my site taken, I decided to head back East briefly to check out some site purporting to contain visible remnants of the Actual Oregon Trail. I figured I might regret it if I don’t check it out, and again, a little detour was a low cost to pay, even if just to rest my mind. The site turned out to be nothing more than wagon-width grooves cut into stone. Sure enough, it looked like a wagon trail. Whelps, at least I can claim to have seen (and stood in) the Actual Oregon Trail, in Real Life.

To be honest, though, I was more intrigued by a couple of bullet holes in a nearby sign. Since there’s a military base close by, I thought maybe the holes were caused by stray bullets from the base. Unlikely, but it wouldn’t be unheard of for soldiers at the range to shoot in random directions. But by looking through the holes, I determined that someone had sat on a nearby bench and shot at the signs. The holes looked pretty big though, maybe .45 caliber.

The rest of the day was spent covering mileage in a North Westerly direction. The only major stop of the day was in Casper. I got an oil change, and got online at a Safeway to take care of some stuff (mostly checking on the status of orders gear to take to my land). Conveniently enough, my dad called me while I was in a Wal-Mart parking lot, and we talked briefly about their visit next month.

Speaking of Wal-Mart, I’ve been stopping at every Wal-Mart I see. I’ve lost count of how many, but I’ve stopped at at least half a dozen just on this trip (and a few more on my DC trip). I’m not a big Wal-Mart fan or anything, but they happen to have the best deals on ammo, if they have any in stock. So far I’ve scored plenty of .22, but I haven’t seen a single Wal-Mart that stocked 9mm ammo in the last several months. That dry streak was finally broken today in Cody, where I scored a 250-round value pack for about $50.

The drive from Casper to Cody was quite beautiful, though not the kind of beauty that stirs my heart the way Nebraska did. In the intervening miles since Nebraska, it’s gotten much drier, and the terrain has more of a blondish hue, with an occasional green tint. It was definitely the green grass in Nebraska that captured my heart. Wyoming is also much rockier, with nice canyons and buttes punctuating the landscape.

Driving through scarcely populated and undeveloped landscapes fills me with happiness. There were places in today’s drive, where if I ignored the telephone poles, electric lines, and the road, I could imagine what the place might’ve looked like before we showed up. I don’t know why this appeals to me so much. I’m human. Yet I love the wilderness with minimal human impact. Is it self loathing? I don’t know. I’m also fully aware of the hypocrisy. There I am, in a one-ton metal and plastic machine, burning processed fossil fuels, traveling at unnatural speeds on an unnatural surface, marveling at the relatively untouched natural beauty. But, nonetheless, it fills me with happiness that I can do this. I have the technological, financial, and social ability to roam the entire continent as if it were my backyard. I wonder what those pioneers in their ox-drawn carts would think about that. They’d probably think it was pretty cool. I think it’s pretty cool too.

August 21st

Last night, I camped by a lake right outside Cody. Buffalo Bill Reservoir, I think is what it’s called. If you’re around Cody and you’re not sure what it’s called, just tack on “Buffalo Bill” and you’ll probably be right. Buffalo Bill Dam. Buffalo Bill State Park. It was dark by the time I pulled into the campground, and it was quite full, mostly with RVs. After having spent several nights in a row in practically empty campgrounds, it felt a little crowded, especially when my neighbor was running his generator. It was a Honda 2000i.

After a slowish morning, I headed back towards Cody again. I got a shitty car wash, which left most of my car about as dirty as it was. Then I made another stop at Wal-Mart to buy some supplies, and by supplies, I mean ammo and alfalfa sprouts. I’ve been eating turkey and alfalfa sprouts for lunch every day, and had finally run out of the alfalfa that I’d bought at Hyde Park Produce.

Just out of town is Buffalo Bill Dam. The “Buffalo Bill” in this case supposedly isn’t completely frivolous; apparently Buffalo Bill Cody played an active role in brining irrigation to the area. Who knew. The dam, built in the early 1900s, was also the tallest at the time, and at 200 or so feet tall, the view down from the bridge atop the dam is quite disorienting.

There’s a squirrel yelling at me from a nearby branch. It’s going “chirp! chirp!” and when it does so, its entire body shakes. It’s as if it’s mustering all the energy in its little body to make the loudest chirp possible. I hope whatever it’s doing that for is worth the energy expenditure. That reminds me of a beast pretty common around here, that makes this rattling, clicking sound. It took me a while to figure out what was making the sound, but it turned out to be a moth or similarly winged insect, which appears to be clapping its wings with sufficient force to make these loud clicking noises as it flies. It seems like a huge waste of energy, but I’m sure it serves some kind of purpose; likely to either scare predators away, or to attract mates.

Let me back up. I’m currently at Yellowstone. After a short visit at the dam, I drove the 50 miles or so West into Yellowstone. Yellowstone was the first National Park, designated as such by Roosevelt (I think) when he established the National Park system (Edit: see comment below). It is of course home to Old Faithful, the geyser, and that’s what I was here to see. I checked into a campsite since the park seemed pretty busy, then headed to Ol’ Faithful.

Contrary to how the pictures you’ve seen might make it appear, Ol’ Faithful is in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart. Ok, not really, but there are a couple of huge parking lots nearby, along with a couple of large buildings with hotels, grocery stores, restaurants, gift shops, and tons of people. There’s a paved ring that goes all the way around the periodically erupting cavity, and rangers put up signs predicting the next one. I was there about an hour early, so I got an ice cream cone, and walked around some of the smaller geysers nearby. They’re mostly holes in the grounds with water bubbling out of them, and judging by the smell, apparently filled with rotten eggs (actually it’s sulfur, I think).

At 4:38, almost to the second, Old Faithful blew her load as the rangers had predicted. It was impressive and disappointing at the same time, which I guess applies for just about any famous tourist attraction. I think that’s why I prefer the less well known and serendipitously discovered spots I’ve stopped along the way.

Back at my campsite, I invented a new dish for dinner, or rather a re-creation of a Japanese dish. Basically, you cook some rice, but instead of just rice and water, you put other stuff in the pot as well. I put some chicken, onions, and mushrooms, along with soy sauce, salt, and sugar for seasoning. The rest is the same as if you’re cooking rice. Bring the whole concoction to a boil, after some time (depending on the type of rice), lower the heat and let simmer for another 10-15 minutes, and let sit for another 5-10 minutes with the heat off after that, according to preference. Open the pot, and eat its contents, if edible.

August 22nd

Today’s goal was mostly to cove mileage. The last of my supplies should be arriving in Sunnyvale on Monday, so I’m hoping to get back to the Bay Area around then as well. The route I picked took me out of Yellowstone from the South entrance, through Grand Teton National Park. From there, I continued in a South-Westerly direction, cutting across the South-Eastern corner of Idaho, skirting Bear Lake, then into Utah. All in all, a very beautiful route.

Something I saw in one of the forts I stopped in has stuck in my mind. It was about the conflict between Indians and white Americans, and how it was a cultural conflict as much as a fight for resources. The Native Americans, nomadic hunters unfamiliar with property ownership, clashing with whites who are all about sedentary lifestyles and property ownership. Today, we recognize that the US Government’s actions destroyed the way of life for an entire people, but back then, I’m sure at least some whites saw the government’s action as a more or less benevolent one. The government was simply trying to upgrade the Native Americans, you see. Teach them how to farm like modern people. Teach their kids to dress and act like white kids, speak English, learn the Good Book. Undoubtedly, some people scratched their heads when the Native Americans rebelled against assimilation.

I can’t help but see numerous parallels between the conflict with Native Americans, and our conflict with the Muslim world today. Like then, our involvement in the middle east is at least partially about territory and resources (gold and fur then, oil today). But, perhaps more so than that, it is a war of ideas and cultures. What are we trying to achieve in Iraq and Afghanistan? Why, we’re trying to upgrade them. Teach them about Capitalism and Democracy. We’re trying to show them how to be a Good Modern Nation. Yet they keep trying to blow us up. What’s going on?

What’s going on is that we’re meddling. We’re trying to “improve” a culture that hasn’t necessarily asked to be “improved.” At least, they don’t want to become like us, and that’s what they’re telling us with their bullets and bombs. If I understand correctly, Osama Bin Laden’s original beef with the US was our presence on their holy lands. I don’t think he wants to destroy America; he just wants us out of there. What do Iraqi insurgents want? They probably just want us out of there. What do the Afghan insurgents want? Probably the same thing.

It’s not surprising that Democracy is struggling in Iraq and Afghanistan. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Democracy, a bottom-up approach to governance, fails to work when it is introduced in a top-down fashion. But that’s what we’re doing. We went in, toppled pre-existing regimes, and said, “here, you are now a Democracy.” And then we scratch our heads when it doesn’t work, and when some people resist our attempts to tell them how to run their country.

Campgrounds in Utah are filled with crazy people. In every other state I’ve driven through, public campgrounds are mostly empty, and the few occupants are friendly campers from afar. But in Utah, the campgrounds are filled, swarming, with locals. There are at least 3 cars in each camp site, in addition to an RV, and at least 18 kids, running around a roaring fire that shoots devilish flames 8ft high. I drove through a couple of campgrounds looking for a site for the night, but the look these people gave me as I drove by made me fear for my safety, should I be foolish enough to stop the car and step out of my vehicle.

I gave up on camping in Utah, and drove on. Unfortunately, my route put me on an Interstate, after dark, which is not a happy place to be, especially after getting used to the leisurely pace on two-lane highways. I thought about staying in a motel, but after spending between $10-20 a night to sleep in the woods, the thought of spending $50-70 a night in a crappy motel didn’t appeal to me.

So I decided to spend a night in a Wal-Mart parking lot instead. I’d heard for some time that Wal-Mart, unlike many other retail stores, let people spend the night in their parking lots. I decided to give this a shot, mostly as an experiment.

The experiment really was comprised of two components. Experiment 1 was spending the night in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Experiment 2 was spending a night in my car; something I’d never done before. Of the two, the former experiment turned out to be the less challenging. The bright lights in the lot certainly were annoying, and getting attacked by shopping carts in the middle of the night was unexpected, but it was the discomfort of being cramped in my car that kept me up longer. I foolishly assumed that sleeping in my car wouldn’t be all that different to sleeping in an economy class airplane seat. But, it is. I’m not sure how or why, but I just couldn’t get comfortable. Eventually, it occurred to me that the stuff piled in the back of my car almost offered a flat surface, so I crawled back there. My body spanned a cardboard box, a plastic container, and an assortment of soft stuff crammed in between. My head was inches from the rear window, and my feet dangled in the space between the two front seats, but at least I wasn’t folded up like a shrimp. I fell asleep in this configuration, and slept until well past 8am.

Another night survived.

Journal: 8/15-8/18

I’ve been keeping a journal during my road trip from Chicago to SF. The material is raw, unedited, hammered out on a picnic table or inside my tent at night, but I’m posting it anyway. As they say, if a Ryo writes in the woods and nobody reads it, did Ryo really write?

August 15th,

I didn’t leave until after 4pm. I thought I’d loaded most of my stuff into the Ryomobile the previous night and just had “some stuff around the apartment”. I’ve moved well over a dozen times in the last several years, yet I still succumb to this illusion that there is less stuff than reality. I have a hard time dealing with lots of odd bits and pieces lying around. I get distracted too easily, and find myself wandering around with Widget X in one hand, Widget Y in the other, thinking about how Widget Z should actually be in that box in the car with Widget A.

In any case, after several hours, everything was finally in the car, and I headed towards Open Produce to do some grocery shopping and say bye to Nikki. I bought about 10 packs of ready-to-eat Indian food, several cans of Mediterranean food, and some fruit. Nikki rang me up, we hugged, and said bye. I focused mostly on adventures that lie ahead, and tried my best not to think too much about the last couple of months that we spent together in that dark, claustrophobic hole of an apartment.

I made a brief stop in Kimbark to buy some alfalfa sprouts from Hyde Park Produce, and dinner of Sesame Chicken from Nicky’s. I’d been meaning to get some Nicky’s all sumer and never did, so this was my last chance. I ate the chicken, or whatever it really is, in the car, then hit the road. I headed East down 53rd, North on Lake Park to 47th, then on to Lake Shore Drive.

From Lake Shore Drive, I got onto I-55 until I was out of Chicagoland, then got on US-6 and started heading West in earnest.

I didn’t get too far before the sun started hanging precariously low over the horizon, signaling to me that I better find a place to camp soon. I have an atlas that shows little tent symbols for public camping sites, but the map’s resolution is such that the tent icons usually are about a square mile. In other words, it might look like there’s a campsite right by the highway, but it could also be a mile or two away. You never know.

The first campground the map indicated turned out to be a bunch of places one may camp, along some canal. I stopped at the visitor center, closed on Saturdays, and read a little bit about the canal. Supposedly it was supposed to be a faster/cheaper route from Chicago to the Mississippi, but by the time it was completed, rail had become cheap enough or some such that the canal was never used for its intended purpose. Today it is a state park, with grassy banks, on which one may camp.

I found that to be all too confusing, so I got back on US-6.

The next camp icon on my Atlas was a mile, or maybe 5, off of the highway. I took what appeared to be the nearest local road, and headed South. For miles, all I saw on either side was corn fields, which had me concerned. Do I keep going? How far should I go? But just about when I thought about turning around, the road went over a little hill, and once over the hill, I saw some nice wooded areas to the left. That must be it.

The campsite was in an artificial forest, perhaps planted by the CCC in the last Depression; pine trees stood at attention, in perfect rows. I picked an undeveloped site away from the pavement, although with trees evenly spaced apart, you could see the next site over as if they were camping in a school hallway, lined by lockers of trees. At least it was cheap, at $8 a night.

With Nicky’s still lingering in my tummy, I boiled some water, made tea, drank it, and went to bed.

August 16th

For breakfast, I had a cinnamon roll from the Med Bakery that Nikki had set aside fro me the day before, which I picked up on my way out, along with a hot cup of coffee. I packed up my tent, made a sandwich (turkey and alfalfa) for the road, and headed out.

I continued West on US-6, into Iowa. An uneventful drive until I hit Des Moines.

At first, I considered circumventing Des Moines, but then just as I thought I was successful, it occurred to me that I might never come through this way again (I mean, it’s Iowa), so I turned around to check out the city that I’ve read so much about in Bill Bryson’s books.

Downtown Iowa is clean, gleaming with modern looking buildings, and empty. I drove down some major looking road that headed straight towards the Iowa State Capitol, then veered off. Along the way, though, I was informed by lamp-post signs that the Iowa State Fair was currently on. Bill Bryson talks about the fair, or at least how he could never seem to get into a peep show of some sort, as a teenager. I had to check it out.

The fair was far more crowded than expected, or perhaps it seemed that way after seeing how empty downtown Des Moines was. In fact, there were more people there than I would’ve guessed lived in the entire state of Iowa.

Other than all the expensive heart-destroying foods on sale, and the bovine humanoids consuming such foods in large quantities (which is also the only quantity in which such foods are served), the most exciting exhibit must’ve been the show put on by some “cowboy.” He did it all. He taught kids how to spin a rope, cracked a whip like a little kid with a cap gun, cut straws out of spectator’s hands with the whip, demonstrated fast draws, shooting water balloons out of the air, and made his horse do things you’d never think a horse would do. And to top it all, he was quite a motivational speaker, occasionally putting in a quip about how to succeed in life. Not sure if he thought of himself as a model of success, but nonetheless, I was quite impressed and amused by the show.

Feeling sick after consuming ice cream, a pork chop on a stick, a egg on a stick, and big cup of soda, I rolled myself out of the fairgrounds, and back into the car. Form Des Moines, I got onto Route 44, which parallels I-80 a few miles to the north and cuts through endless miles of cornfields. I like these smaller roads than the big interstates though. You pass through dilapidated small towns, past pristine front lawns of picturesque farm houses, and you can see the oddly scientific looking labels placed in front of experimental strains of corn, planted in tight neat rows. You see real people, living real lives. Some will wave at you when you pass them on two lane roads. Old men sitting on porches will stare as you pass. You see them. They see you. This is all vastly more interesting and human than what you see on big Interstates, which is usually nothing but the blur of green and yellow of the countryside, punctuated by giant billboards advertising the next McDonalds, 10 Miles Ahead on Exit 29, and the only towns you see consist solely of fast food chains and gas stations.

I spent the night at Prairie Rose State Park, which had a real shower.

August 17th

I continued West on Route 44, then onto US-30 into Nebraska. I decided to pass by Omaha, and continued onto US-275 in the North-Westerly direction. I’m planning on seeing Yellowstone, thus the somewhat Northerly route.

Nebraska is absolutely gorgeous. On our journey from SF to Chicago, we passed through South Dakota, which is also pretty similar, but having driven across the county, I have a better appreciation of how unique the Great Plains are. To the West of it is the towering Rockies, covered in pine trees. To the East is the lush woodlands, and heavy, moist air. To the South is the dessert. To the North is the taiga. The Great Plains, before humans, may have also been covered in trees, but today, it is a vast grassland, with rippling green swells for as far as the eye can see. I love it. I’m still trying to understand why I’m so drawn to this terrain, but I think it’s the combination of the dry air, the inviting openness of the place, and the solid green and blue colors. I feel more free, more unencumbered than anywhere I can imagine. I feel like there’s nothing that can stop me, that I can go for miles and miles, unbothered. As tacky and cliche as it may sound, I can’t help but feel a certain kindred with the Native Americans who once roamed freely on these lands.

I camped for the night at Fort Robinson, a surprisingly large complex in such an empty region. The girl at the inn who assigned me a campsite noticed that I’d written down “San Francisco” as my home city, and said she was moving to Palo Alto. I asked if she was going to Stanford, and indeed, she said she was. She’s originally from Wyoming, but working in Fort Robinson for the summer. I told her I used to live in Mountain View, and she nodded knowingly. Noticing the wedding ring, I asked if she was going to gradschool. She hesitated for a moment, then said “no, freshman.” I can’t imagine what it’s like to be married before even going to college. Or maybe she just had the ring to ward off us single men.

I got a site with electricity, so that I can keep my freezer plugged in over night. I keep my freezer plugged into my car, but it only runs when the car’s running. It turns out that’s not sufficient freezing capacity to generate enough ice to keep my ice chest chilled. Having this extra capacity at night will surely help.

For the first time on this trip, I built a fire and cooked a proper dinner. I saute’d some onions and mushrooms in a new cast iron skillet I bought. I also grilled up some chicken sausages, to make hot dogs.

In addition to the skillet, I also bought a machete, which was useful in hacking off some kindling from the thick pieces of firewood I had. It also makes a handy poking stick for the fire, and of course, when I’m on my land, I’ll use it to clear paths through dense shrubbery. Not to mention, it makes a good defensive weapon. You don’t mess with a guy with a machete.

August 18th

I took a tour of the Fort in the morning, and learned about its colorful history. Preceding Fort Robinson was Camp Robinson, an army garrison intended to protect the employees and supplies of Red Cloud Indian Agency. The Agency was part of a treaty with the Sioux people, in which they gave up land, and settled near the Agency where food and supplies would be doled out. In other words, instead of being free self-sufficient people, they became static and dependent on Uncle Sam. Some of the Indians were understandably unhappy with the arrangement, hence the army garrison, which was established after a employee for the Agency was killed. You might think Fort Robinson was named after him, but actually it was named after Lt. Robinson who was killed around the same time in neighboring Wyoming. Go figure.

It was also at Fort Robinson that Crazy Horse was killed. Throughout the fort, there were signs saying that he was bayonetted by a private, after resisting arrest. But in the museum, there was a report written some time ago in which Little Big Man claims Crazy Horse accidentally wounded himself while the former attempted to wrestle him into submission. I guess the truth will never be known, and I reflected on how fickle our understanding of history really is.

After the Indians were finally beaten into submission, the fort became barracks for cavalry, infantry and artillery units. Around WW1, it was the biggest supply for war horses, with up to 12,000 of them on the premises. It was also there that the US Equestrian Olympic team trained during the 30s.

During WW2 it became a K-9 training camp, as well as a POW camp for German prisoners. From all I could tell, the Germans were treated well. They were fed and clothed well, and given enough freedom to form bands and theater troupes. It appears that at least some of those prisoners later opted to remain in the US. In the museum was a letter of recommendation for a prisoner written by one of the officers in charge. In it, he writes: “I do not hesitate to recommend him as being honest, intelligent, industrious, and worthy of any position.” and that he had been successfully “de-nazified”. Contrast this with prisoners held in Gitmo today. We treated Nazi bastards better than we treat suspected terrorists. Why? Is it because the Nazis believed in the same God as we do? It is because they weren’t brown skinned? Or maybe it’s the beard that’s condemning those in Gitmo. Why aren’t we de-extremizing them? If we are truly righteous, then we should believe in our ways, and show that our way is better than theirs not through violence or brutality, but through generosity and understanding. How we treat our enemies is a reflection of our selves. It is sad to think, that some time in the last 60 years, we have become brutal, torturing, unforgiving bastards with no sense of respect for others, or for ourselves.

After leaving the museum, I stopped by the cafe for a BBQ Buffalo burger. I don’t eat factory grown beef, but do eat grass fed beef, and I assume buffalo are raised in pastures. Maybe that’s not necessarily true, but I’d like to think that buffalo are the kind of creatures who would not survive in a closed pen. While chewing on buffalo meat, I mulled over where to head next. My natural trajectory would take me further North West towards Yellowstone. But I like Nebraska so much, and what’s the hurry? Most of my supplies haven’t arrived in Sunnyvale yet, and probably won’t until next week, so even if I get there sooner, I won’t be able to head to my land any sooner.

So I decided to enjoy Nebraska some more, and headed South, then East. Route 61 in Nebraska must be the most beautiful drive I’ve ever done. Just miles upon miles of the green seas that I love so much. There were hardly any other cars, just me, the road, the green grasslands, the sky, clouds, cows and windmills.

I eventually got down to Lake xxx where the atlas told me was a cluster of campgrounds. It was still too early to setup camp, and I needed to mail some checks, so I shot past the lake and into town. I bought some supplies at the local Safeway (also to get cash). While at the checkout line, a local behind me gazed out the window and noticed the wind had picked up and was pushing a storm our way. Sure enough, when I headed out, I saw dark clouds off in the distance, and the wind was blowing steadily.

I hit the road, heading back towards where some campgrounds supposedly were, while eyeing the storms brewing in the distance. There were three campgrounds in the area, and I picked a route that would take me past all three. I drove into, but back out of the first two campsites, mostly to kill time. I wanted to give the storm a little more time to see where, when and how hard it would hit. Depending on how bad the storm was, I might want to head on to the next town and stay in a motel.

My delaying tactics could last only so long. I eventually made it to the 3rd campground. I would have to make a decision here. If I didn’t stay here, the next campground would be a couple of hours down the road. Unlike the first two campgrounds, though, this campground was empty. There was an old camper, but no sign of any occupants. What made it especially eery was that this was the biggest campground of all three. There must’ve been over a hundred sites, split up into multiple areas. There were two playgrounds, with old, empty swing sets, rocking gently in the wind. An unattended sprinkler system went “thuck thuck thuck”. Under the orange glow of the lone lamp, an old telephone booth. The lights in the bathroom were on, for whom, one may only guess. I could’ve sworn I’d walked onto the set of some gory horror flick.

The skies continued to darken, the wind now howling, as I contemplated whether I would be able to ward off the black-clad hockey-mask-wearing psycho-killer I assumed was lurking behind one of the bushes. I saw lightening in the looming darkness, and realized that I was on high ground, with trees all around me. I knew the psycho-killer was an irrational fear, but fear of lightening on high ground with trees — that was rational. I decided to wait it out in my car, its rubber tires and metal shell offering protection from all contingencies. I pulled out the book I’ve been reading, ironically about the world after humans. I occasionally walked out to check on the status of the storm. The wind was blowing from the South, and West, depending on altitude. The darkest of clouds were to the South-West, but I could also see rain to the South. Depending on prevailing winds, I could get the storm, or the rain, or both.

The worst of the storms passed me to the West, and continued to my North and North West. I saw spectacular flashes of lightening spanning the entire horizon to my North. Then came the rain. Slow drops at first, then a constant hammering on my car roof. But that, too, passed. Then the stars came out. I pitched my tent, on the dry sandy soil that had sucked up all the rain, and turned in for the night. Now, I would only have the psycho-killer to contend with.

I slept with my machete at my side.

Roadtrip Part 2

I got back from my roadtrip on Friday night (Google Map embedded above — if you don’t see it, go here). Some highlights: