This came out on the Isthmus website, thedailypage.com on
This came out on the Isthmus website, thedailypage.com on
Eco-conscious remodelers and artists find treasure at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore
This came out in the Abode pullout of the 4 April 2013 Isthmus.
Originally published in the Mar/Apr 2013 Eastside News
Julie Garrett, Emerson East Sustainability Task Force member, said that sustainability starts with getting to know your neighbors. That’s the first step to being able to learn from each other and work together on projects like gardening, improving energy
efficiency and sharing tools. Building community at the neighborhood level builds social support as well.
“Usually people are thinking environmental sustainability, but there’s also social sustainability, and the basis of that is knowing your neighbor,” said Jay Kobor, also a member of EESTF.
The group’s main method of connecting neighbors so far has been a series of community potlucks with an opportunity to learn about and discuss topics related to sustainability. These “Sustainable Saturday Nights” have also included live music provided by neighborhood musicians.
The potlucks are held the fourth Saturday of the month at James Reeb Unitarian Universalist Congregation on the corner of East Johnson and Fourth streets. The congregation’s Peace, Justice and Sustainability Group has helped organize the events. Upcoming Sustainable Saturday Nights will be from 6 to 9 p.m. March 23 and April 27.
The potlucks are intended as a fun way to connect with neighbors and discuss ways to green the neighborhood. The resulting projects will be based on whatever captures people’s interest. Some ideas have been: workshops about building bat houses, beekeeping, a canning work party and a carpooling club. The task force is already planning a spring bike tour of solar and urban homesteading projects in the neighborhood.
The Emerson East Task Force also discovered Nextdoor.com, an online network, as another tool to connect neighbors.
The group also seeks to engage surrounding neighborhoods. They’ve had some interest from residents in Eken Park, and they welcome everyone to their meetings. They’ve reached out to more established groups too. Representatives of Sustainable Atwood shared their experiences of local financing for solar installations with EESTF.
Many of the group’s members are relatively new to the neighborhood and looking for ways to connect, share common interests and discuss concern about environmental degradation. Resident Tim Cordon founded the sustainability task force out of a desire to better respond to climate change.
“I have come to believe that the world’s in serious trouble,” said Cordon. “It seems to me that the best thing to do at this point is to change the way we live at a very local level.”
The group’s members agree that lifestyle changes are both easier and a lot more fun when done together with neighbors.
It helps to have community support when you’re “swimming against the stream of American culture,” said Garrett. She and her husband, Doug Renk, host meetings at their home at 2550 Hoard St. over breakfast at 8 a.m. on the first and third Saturdays of the month.
Originally published in the Jan/Feb 2013 Eastside News
Last month the Seed to Table Innovation program at the Goodman Community Center began its first quarter as an alternative education site for the Madison Metropolitan School District. On a Monday afternoon Keith Pollock, one of the program’s two teachers, walked around the Center offices offering a taste of the day’s lesson — fresh banana nut muffins.
When a donation of brown bananas came in that morning it was directed toward the compost heap, but Pollock intervened and had the school’s seven students find a recipe to save the food from going to waste. It’s a typical example of the hands-on experience the school brings to students 16 and older who are not excelling in the traditional school setting.
The school offers an exploration of the culinary arts, urban agriculture and food preservation, while also teaching the academic skills students can apply to whatever field they choose. Students earn six credits per year, one each in English, math, science, social studies, physical education and an elective. Many of the lessons though, come from unconventional places. For example, the Pythagorean theorem might be taught while constructing a chicken coop, geography might involve looking up where allspice comes from and chemistry could be mastered while canning.
Although Seed to Table has existed as a training program for employability skills for a few years, its education component has now grown into a full-fledged alternative school.
“The Seed to Table program is now a program that students request to be in, and
they interview, and are then accepted into the program so it’s a choice for them to be here,” said Pollock.
The students’ recent Thanksgiving contribution illustrates how the school integrates beautifully into the Center’s mission. In their first experience making pie the students took surplus squash and sweet potatoes from Vermont Valley, a local CSA, and made 527 pies that went to the first families in line to pick up their Thanksgiving bags.
As the school year goes on, the students will continue bringing healthy local produce to low-income families by learning various food preservation techniques. Generous donors helped expand the physical capacity for doing this with a new addition to the building.
“Our new storage facility, our walk-in coolers and our walk-in freezer will assist us to be able to put more options into food pantries and into food that’s produced here at the Center,” said Hugh Wing, Seed to Table Manager.
The students, along with other Center users will learn to blanch and freeze fresh produce gleaned from community farms, extending the season of local availability.
Not all of the learning happens in the kitchen. It also happens in the garden — maintaining the compost pile, building cold frames and raised beds, and tending chickens and bees. The school also maintains classroom reading and study time. The first book they’re reading is “Cooked,” a memoir of a chef who learned to cook in prison and overcame his struggles to get a good job.
The students get work opportunities of their own in the Center’s café and catering service. Wing said the kitchen “is the perfect place for youth education” because with the skills they learn they’ll always be able to get a job.
But you won’t have to wait until the school’s graduates go on to become chefs at area restaurants. Once the students mas- ter the basics and develop their own recipes Wing hopes you’ll stop in to taste the day’s lesson at Ironworks Café.
New elevator installed in old elementary school
Originally published in Eastside News, Vol. 142, No. 6 Nov/Dec 2012
The big machines and large-scale mechanics of construction often fascinate young children. The students of Emerson Elementary have gotten a close-up view for months now on a construction project of especial interest – the addition of an elevator and new entrance to their school.
All the noise and dust in the air is the final phase in an effort that started years ago to make the school accessible. It began when Principal Karen Kepler gave a tour of the school to Don Becker, who had donated some money for teachers to purchase supplies as the need arose. As they walked the steep flights of stairs throughout the school, Becker, who is a disabilities lawyer, asked how kids in wheelchairs get around. Becker says of Kepler’s response, “Her chin dropped. Instantly her mood changed and she said, ‘In fact, kids in wheelchairs can’t come to Emerson.’”
Becker wanted to do something to change that. He has a passion for making the world accessible to people in wheelchairs. He has worked with the UW’s Center for Rehabilitation Engineering to develop cross country skis for people in wheelchairs. Becker asked the center to look at Emerson and figure out options for making it accessible. The best option was an elevator, but it would be expensive, around $250,000. Becker wrote a check for $25,000 to get the project started and the district found federal grants and loans to make up the rest of the cost. “He pushed, and encouraged, kind of challenged the district to make our building accessible,” says Kepler.
The need for an elevator at Emerson is immediate. A current student would need to transfer to another school if not for the increased accessibility. It also will allow many parents and grandparents with mobility issues to participate in school events. “We have a student whose dad has never been in our school,” says Kepler. In the past the student’s teacher had to come out to meet the father in the parking lot for a parent-teacher conference. Kepler notes the irony that the school has a handicapped parking space, but no way for a wheelchair to get into the school.
That is soon going to change, with the end of construction and a ribbon-cutting ceremony scheduled for early November. “The kids can’t wait for their first ride in the elevator,” says Kepler. “It’s a new addition to our school and kids need to know about accessibility for all.” Becker agrees that the project has benefits for all the students, whether they will be using the elevator or not. “[Accessibility] empowers those children, it empowers the other children who are exposed to people in wheelchairs and they understand the normalcy of people in wheelchairs,” he says.
The project at Emerson seems to have started a trend in the district; three other older schools are also under construction for elevators.
I am perplexed as to why race relations in the upper Midwest are so pathetic. After all, these are northern states, some with progressive histories. We have a reputation for decency and wholesomeness. Yet Wisconsin is one of the worst states in the nation for rates of black incarceration, and also consistently tops the charts for greatest achievement gap for black students in our schools. Milwaukee is in fact, the most segregated city in the nation, according to U.S. Census data. The north side is black, the south side is latino, the east is white, and the suburbs are pale as can be. Based on these abysmal statistics The Black Commentator rated Wisconsin, specifically Milwaukee, as the worst place in the nation to be black. Wow, worse than Houston? Jackson? Montgomery? Dang.
Unsurprisingly, rural Wisconsin, where I grew up, is markedly white. We did have a large influx of Hmong immigrants while I was in school though, so close to 10 percent of my schoolmates were Hmong. I remember a concerted effort to educate the community about Hmong history and culture, and although there was some racism directed toward them, I also remember many friendly interactions. I could count the number of black or Latino kids in my high school class, however, on one hand. I remember one high school teacher telling us that he was afraid of black people and he thought it was perfectly natural to be afraid of people who look different from you. I hear that same fear in the voices of white suburbanites when they talk about going into Milwaukee proper. Crime is expected and accepted in the black neighborhoods.
Living on the west coast and traveling to the east coast I’ve experienced much different race relations. Mostly, I saw lots of black professionals and other professionals of color downtown, in businesses and commuting on the buses and other public transit. In contrast, in Wisconsin you are more likely to see a black person who is clearly poor than one who is clearly a professional.
Seattle was by no means perfect on race relations, but it was different. While the north side is predominately white, it also includes the university, which has a large Asian population. And the south side is very diverse, with immigrants from all over Asia and Africa next to African Americans, and Latinos. It’s called the International District for a reason. There just aren’t that many white people.
The first place we lived in Seattle though, had a racial dynamic more similar to Milwaukee. Thirtieth and Cherry was right on the border between rich, white Madrona, with its upscale boutiques and coffee houses, and the poor, black Central District, with its iron-bar-windowed convenience stores. In some of those stores in the CD we were looked on as outsiders, like what were we doing there? But there was one neighborhood cafe, where we always felt welcome even if we were the only white people in the room. It was a neighborhood institution, whose owner, Sam, knew everyone, and on afternoons could often be found working on an oil painting between customers.
On one visit home to Wisconsin we stayed in a Victorian style B&B in Milwaukee for a night. It was in a black neighborhood, but the owners as well as other guests were all white. In the morning at breakfast the owner lamented to me how some people wouldn’t consider staying there when they saw the neighborhood. I was sympathetic until she said, “We don’t mind being in a black neighborhood, as long as the people around here are good blacks.” It reminded me of landlords who allow dogs, as long as they’re good dogs. The frustrating thing is I was so shocked, I didn’t have a smooth, articulate response. “And do you allow only good whites to stay here?”
I don’t have the answers to how Wisconsin got to be such a poor example of race relations. Nor do I have ready solutions. But I do know that fear is not healthy in society, and ignorance and lack of exposure to those who are different than you seems to breed fear. We need more places where people of different races can interact. Since we segregate the neighborhoods we live in, those spaces tend to be public: public libraries, public parks, buses, schools. One of the perks for me of not owning a car is that I ride city buses and am reminded that Madison is not an all-white city.
This is take two at reviving the blog. The first attempt stalled out with trouble posting to facebook. The previous post explains the new (temporary?) name. I know, it’s absurdly vague, but I like the freedom to write about anything.
Now that we are settled into life in Madison, we have returned to Madison’s problems. Perhaps, in some ways they are why we moved away in the first place. We have learned our lesson, though, and will not leave again. At times since moving back into the near east side have been amazed at our good fortune to live in this little utopia. From our quiet, tree-lined, family-friendly street we can walk to a half dozen locally-owned restaurants, as well as choice of coffee shops, liberal churches, a local theater, various art galleries, multiple bus lines, a bike path to downtown, and a large park along one of Madison’s two beautiful lakes. You can also walk to a branch of the library and a fabulous new community center… and see the Capitol dome from certain vantage points… I could go on. It is easy to imagine the good life sharing vegetables from the community garden with like-minded neighbors.
The trouble with utopia is that you have to live with the rest of the imperfect world. This is a problem on two fronts. First, people argue over how to protect utopia from outside influences. In Madison this is an endless debate over whether chain stores should be allowed in, whether density is a lesser evil than sprawl, and how to finally clean up the lakes when much of the pollution that feeds their algae blooms comes from outside the city’s jurisdiction. Madison has been called 70 square miles surrounded by reality. While I take umbrage with this characterization on a number of fronts, I can sometimes see it’s truth if narrowed down to the hip and hippie east side. Reality is SUVs instead of cargo-carrying bikes, and in a shared world the presence of the former threatens the safety of the latter.
The second major trouble with utopia could be described as the do-gooder’s dilemma. We don’t have enough problems to solve in our own neighborhood. How can a young idealist make a difference in what’s already a utopia? Our local elected representatives already agree with us, so lobbying feels pointless. After marching to the Capitol once again doesn’t free Tibet we feel called to go someplace we can make a difference, some place with problems. After a few years away in the peace corps or teaching in the inner city you may find out it’s not always pleasant living in a place with problems and decide to make your way back to utopia.
Of course Madison, just by being a city in the United States, does have some problems. Maybe not so much in Utopia, but definitely in parts of Madison. The neighborhoods are somewhat segregated and the neighborhoods of color are disproportionately poor, with the social problems that accompany poverty. The UW liberal arts grad do-gooder wants to stand up for social justice and equality. Yet she’s vexed by the realization that the white girl going into the black neighborhood to solve its problems stinks of colonialism. And the truth is utopia is rather white and middle class. While somewhat less pale than the more affluent west side, the near east side is still fairly homogeneous. Which is irksome to the educated white liberal. Utopia is supposed to be diverse.
(More to come on race relations in the Midwest.)
It’s taken me a while to figure out what I want to do with this blog now that my move back to Madison, Wisconsin has made “33 degrees of separation” inapplicable. That theme was about my perspective while living in Seattle as a foreigner from the upper Midwest. The experience of living far away from “home” for three years, of course also gave me new eyes with which to see this place I’ve known all my life.
Different perspectives are the beauty and the bane of this terrifically diverse world. Two people can have completely different experiences of the same set of events, so each would tell a unique story. It calls into question the very notion of objective reality.
A little perspective can be a godsend. I call up a friend to hash over a problem I’m experiencing and she sees it in a different light, or tells me about her own problems that I am not burdened with. I hang up the phone a little lightened. Or I am stewing about the minor frustrations in my life when I see a homeless person in the cold, or I read about famine-stricken and war-torn lands where people are struggling for day-to-day existence, and suddenly my problems are put in perspective.
So in this blog I would like to play with perspectives. I realize it is a fantastically broad theme, but I have a broad curiosity so I hope you’ll indulge me. While I am limited to the perspective of my own two eyes, I want to challenge myself to think of other perspectives on the topics I write about, whether from other people, other environments, even other species. What does my city look like from the perspective of the owl I sometimes hear at night?
I would also love to hear your perspectives. Please share.
p.s. Even though it no longer reflects my location, I will keep the Seattle photo for the time being. Mostly because my friend Emily did such a great job with it and I don’t know when I will be able to get a new one of comparable quality.
Now that we have moved away it feels more acceptable to write about our two favorite Seattle restaurants, since our experiences of them are not exactly the material of rave reviews. And yet we loved both of these places, one from each of the neighborhoods we lived in.
Our first year in Seattle we lived in the second story of an old brick building at the corner of Cherry and Thirtieth. It’s a historically black neighborhood that has recently seen an influx of African immigrants. There were, I think, six Ethiopian restaurants in six blocks of Cherry street. They varied minimally in decor and menu, and some were accompanied by small convenience stores. For the most part these convenience stores were patronized exclusively by Ethiopians so we got looks any time we ventured in. We were excited to sample the restaurants since we like east African food, but I was hesitant because it seemed too hard to try to explain my dietary restrictions to someone with limited English. This was a legitimate issue because the main starch served is injera, a spongy sourdough flat bread, that usually contains wheat flour.
One of the restaurants and convenience stores happened to be on the ground floor of our own building. The store, called Amy’s Merkato, had just one row of shelving, stocked with such essentials as fava beans, mango juice and toilet paper. In the window there were intricately decorated metal teapots for sale. On a shelf to one side were baggies of mysterious powders, unidentified spices, all labeled only in a foreign script. There was also freshly made baklava on a tray at the counter, which Mike bought on occasion.
The adjacent restaurant was a small, bare-walled room with a few tables and a mounted big screen TV. No photos on the walls, no menus, and in fact, no sign out front. Mike felt the need to name the place so it became his namesake, between the two of us, anyway. Any time we walked into the store whoever was working would get the only person who seemed to speak enough English to help us: a large, friendly man with a mustache. He asked us what we wanted, describing the options, and was a little baffled by our vegetarianism. “You just want veggie combo? That’s it?”
Meat actually seemed to be their specialty. And he was the butcher. Every so often he’d put on his white butcher coat and direct an order of meat delivered from the street back to the kitchen. I once looked down from our apartment window above and saw a man carry what looked like half a cow, raw, in a large plastic tub, into the building. We also guessed that they supplied meat and injera to some of the other Ethiopian restaurants. We’d see the women carrying out large plastic bags filled with injera rounds and placing them in the trunk of a Camry.
Aside from when an order of meat came in, the butcher didn’t seem to do much work. The women did all of the cooking. We mostly saw him sitting among the empty tables watching TV, chatting with a visitor or smoking cigarettes outside. The restaurant was usually empty, except for the occasions when a bunch of the Ethiopian cabbies all came to Mike’s Ethiopian for lunch, four or more of their yellow cabs parked on Cherry Street.
Since this was “our” Ethiopian restaurant we decided to try talking to the guy about making gluten-free injera for me. Injera is typically made from teff flour, which is gluten-free, but in the U.S. people use a mixture of flours including wheat, making it a no-go for me. When we explained this problem, the butcher was very willing to accommodate, we just had to give a day or two notice, since the dough needs to ferment. After this we had a wonderful arrangement where we would go downstairs, put in a request for gluten-free injera and a day or two later come down for dinner. The butcher already knew our order – “veggie combo.” He would say something to the women working in the kitchen and then go sit in the sparse dining room and watch the large screen TV.
Mike and I would sit, usually the only customers in the room, trying to converse over the distraction of the TV, which was typically tuned to some old cable show we weren’t interested in. Anyone else who came in conversed solely in a language of Ethiopia, I have no idea even which one. It felt a little like we were squatting in an immigrants’ living room. It wasn’t like a regular restaurant where you’d expect standards of service, so it wasn’t a big deal that it took a while for one of the women to come out of the kitchen and bring us waters and maybe napkins. Maybe forks too, but you’re supposed to just eat with your hands.
The food was worth it. A soft, spongey round of injera, big as the serving tray, topped with neat piles of spicy red lentils, mild yellow split peas, chopped greens, potatoes and cabbage, and lettuce salad with onion slices and vinaigrette. Filling comfort food meets excellent nutrition. There were always leftovers and since we lived right above we just ran up and got tupperware from our cupboard. When we were done we’d find the butcher and pay. The pricing was a bit inconsistent (considering we always ordered the exact same thing), but always cheap for the amount of food.
When we moved to a different neighborhood we were sorry to leave Mike’s Ethiopian behind. Before we left we went to the store and bought a few of the unidentified spices to take with us. We tried asking the butcher what they were, but of course he didn’t know their English names, nor what to do with them, since he didn’t cook. For the most part we lucked out, except for one that seemed to be an enormous quantity of ground cloves.
In Wallingford we had an excellent selection of restaurants to choose from. No Ethiopian, but at least more variety. The one thing there was an over abundance of was sushi restaurants. There were four in about as many blocks and a new one opened just before we left. One was particularly popular and frequently had a crowd of people waiting outside its tiny seating area. We looked at the menu posted in the window and passed it by, as it had almost no vegetarian options. For that there was Kitaro, which advertised on its window signs, “Lots of vegan options.” We ate there once and knew we had found our sushi joint.
Kitaro also gives the feeling of being in someone else’s living room. Someone who delightfully does not conform to expectations. There was a bar, cluttered with stereotypical Japanese restaurant paraphernalia: the white cat statue that waves a raised paw back and forth, red Japanese lanterns and calligraphied calendars. There were also a few piles of high quality reading material, like National Geographic. But no one sat there and no one used the cooking equipment behind the bar. The real kitchen was in the back. You sat instead at the small tables, each with the obligatory stands advertising Japanese beer and sushi rolls that I presume were offered at this particular restaurant, but I don’t really know. It was not their menu, and we always ordered off their extensive vegan roll menu. But I am not yet finished describing the ambiance. At least one table always had a chess board set up, sometimes in the midst of a game. The front window was a jungle of potted plants and a bin full of plastic toy dinosaurs and children’s books sat in a back corner. Pleasant but bland wildlife paintings hung on the walls. And Delilah was always on the radio. The “Queen of Sappy Love Songs,” each one individually dedicated from right there in Washington.
It must have been the owner/waitress’s favorite station. I wish now that we actually knew her name. She and her husband, who was Japanese and spoke broken English, owned the place. He did all the cooking, and most days she did all the serving. I think they played chess together when there were no customers, which sadly, was not infrequent.
The woman, I’ll call her Linda, was great. She had short, mousy, graying hair, and crooked front teeth. She wore sensible sweaters, and leaned forward excitedly when she talked about nearly anything. After our first time there she got comfortable talking to us and she would come up to the table with our waters and say, “So I saw this great movie last night, called ‘King Corn’. I watched it with my husband and son, and there was really something for everyone. You know my husband’s English isn’t so good, but he got parts, and then there was this part that was so interesting and it really got a point across…..” So we would chat about these topics that came out of nowhere, until eventually she asked us if we were ready to order.
The food, again, was great. A vegetarian’s dream for sushi. Most sushi restaurant’s vegetarian options simply eliminate the raw fish, but don’t replace it with anything. There’s the cucumber roll and the avocado roll. Maybe a carrot or pickled radish roll. Those are your choices. But Kitaro actually combined vegetarian ingredients, and added tofu for protein, and unique flavors like olives and garlic to make a list of some 20 or 30 rolls to choose from. We would choose four to share. Some combination of shitake tofu, avocado, cucumber, olive and garlic, seaweed tofu, and eggplant, cucumber, ginger, garlic. They had wheat-free soy sauce for me, too. We would fill up on such nutritious food, and still feel wonderfully light on our walk home. “Why hadn’t any other sushi restaurant tried this?,” we wondered.
And why was Kitaro always empty? We were usually one of just two filled tables even on a Friday or Saturday night. Perhaps not everyone found the random decor and Delilah so charming. And with just one cook they were swamped if there was ever a table of more than four or perhaps three tables filled at once. They were very reasonably priced though – under $20 for both of us. We committed to keeping them open by eating there frequently and also going there for take out.
Linda was genuinely sad to see us go, when we told her we were leaving town. She had been telling us that day about feeding her dogs a vegetarian diet and how she used to play Lacrosse. And we were genuinely interested.
We left Seattle on a rainy afternoon, our damp dog anxious and eager to be on my lap in the passenger seat of the Penske truck. Instead of heading east, in the direction of our destination, we drove south into Oregon, through the green, sheep-riddled valleys hugged on either side by mountains. We stopped in Eugene for Mike to check out their bus rapid transit, remarkable for a city of their size. Like in Portland, we were impressed by Eugene’s bike- and pedestrian-friendly, and just plain well-maintained infrastructure. Seattle never seemed to understand that it made any difference that their sidewalks and roads were broken up and disheveled looking.
The sun was setting fast so we hurried on to Bend, our destination for the night. We drove the scenic route, but only got the headlight view, up the mountains, through dense forest to the pass at the top, where the landscape changed to a barren moonscape of nothing but basalt rock. At one point we tried pointing our headlights at the promised view, but to no avail. At least we got to see the stars, as the clouds had cleared overhead. We got out of the truck and experienced absolute silence and a magical view above, the Milky Way thick across the sky. As soon as we crossed onto the other side of the mountains the forest changed, still thick with evergreens, but a different type – ponderosa pine, with a layer of grass beneath.
I relished getting to explore this new landscape the next day, because it was the setting of my grandpa’s stories from his early childhood. His dad worked as a lumberjack, cutting down that pine for the Shevlin-Hixon lumber company until Grandpa was 11 years old. He described it as a paradise for kids and one of the places they explored (unsupervised!) was the lava caves. These have been made into a park and we planned to tour them, but alas, it was a Tuesday and the sign blocking our entrance said, “Closed Tuesday and Wednesday.” We followed a different sign to a waterfall and discovered that the near-by picnic grounds were where the Shevlin-Hixon Company’s annual Labor Day picnics had been held. Grandpa had told me about these too, how they had games for the children like climbing a greased pole or wrestling a greased pig, along with more typical baseball games and relay races. For the adults the company laid down a brand new wood floor each year for dancing. These stories are detailed in the book I wrote, “Grandpa Ranney’s Stories: From Pioneer Days to the Present,” which I was able to verify can be found in the Bend Historical Center.
Our last obligatory historical stop was Prineville, where on a homestead in 1918, Grandpa was born. The town is in a valley surrounded by rimrock and Grandpa told a story about his dog chasing the coyotes up the slope until they got near their dens at thetop, at which point they turned around and chased him back down. Looking at the dry, brown landscape I could see that any fields that are green clearly rely on irrigation. And that is why Grandpa’s parents moved from Prineville into the lumber camps – they didn’t receive enough of the irrigation water they had been promised to be able to grow much of anything.
We drove on, intent on making up time from our stops, but eventually one has to pee and one has to eat, so we found ourselves in the one cafe in a tiny town called Unity. The bartender was friendly. She seemed glad to have someone she hadn’t known most of her life to talk to. She opened up about her ex-husband and family history, but she also sympathized with me on the difficulty of finding gluten-free foods (the cafe didn’t offer me many options). She said she prefers herbal medicine to conventional, partly because her options for doctors, especially good ones, are so limited.
I noticed signed dollar bills stapled to every available inch of the wooden beams overhead and I asked about them. Apparently they are Unity, Oregon’s means of saying, “I was here.” People put them up in honor of those who die. Foreign exchange students put them up. As I thought about what it must be like for foreign exchange students to land in a rural town of a few hundred people, with large cities an hour or more away, the bartender seemed to read my mind, and said the students are often surprised to end up being sent there (apparently they have no choice in the matter), but end up loving it. The opportunity to put up our own dollar bills was not offered, nor did I press for it. I didn’t feel the need to proclaim to Unity: I was here.
As we made our way through southern Idaho we felt obliged to stop at a site that had been recommended by friends: Craters of the Moon park. We felt obliged not so much for our friends’ sake, as for making up for lost chances. The view this area promised sounded similar to what we had missed on the road to Bend, and when we got there we discovered they had lava caves, also something we had missed out on in Oregon. So we walked through the black, rocky landscape, past spatter cones and collapsed tunnels. The earth around us had clearly at one time been alive in a very viscous way, flowing and bubbling and splatting like cookie batter. The cave we walked in was fairly bright because of holes in the ceiling, but nonetheless I was ready to get out of there, out of the hot, hostile and mostly barren landscape (although much of the signage focused on the amazing ability of a few plants and animals to make a go of it there).
As before, we were behind schedule. We needed to get on to Wyoming, where the road would take us right through Grand Teton National Park. We thought we could make it there before the sun went down or at least by twilight. As we climbed the mountains we could see the start of the fall color. But once again, due to our changing position in time zones, our jog south, and simply the time of year, we had mis-estimated sunset, and by the time the peaks came into view it was dark. We had hurried through Jackson, missing Ernie’s pee break, so we pulled over at one of the view points, got out of the car, looked at the fading outline of the peaks and again consoled ourselves with an above-average view of the stars.
Mocking our disappointment, the view we had in the daylight for most of the next day’s drive was the generally flat, treeless, dusty brown, sagebrush stretch of Wyoming. For miles only the occasional antelope or oil well punctuates the landscape. We looked at the even more occasional grouping of trailer homes and wondered how the people living there don’t go nuts. How long would it take to become comfortable being surrounded by a landscape that looks sickly, like it’s succumbing to measles, dotted with sagebrush instead of pus-filled welts? Maybe if you grow up there it’s different.
Nebraska, the state we love to deride as the most flat and boring, was actually a relief after this landscape. It at least has more grass and even a few trees. We cruised along Highway 20, often the only vehicle on the road. Our goal for the night was O’Neill. But when we pulled into town we discovered all of the hotels were full. “For the convention,” the receptionist told Mike, as if he should know what that meant. We figured it must be some sort of religious convention, but were told in the next town that it was actually a convention about the effects of the Keystone pipeline, which is slated to go through that part of the country. It would have been fascinating to sit in on.
So we found ourselves spending the night in the one motel in Orchard, Nebraska. It was late, after 11 p.m. so the owner was already in his robe. He was chatty though and felt the need to give Mike a tour of the room: “Here’s the radio, it gets local stations… and here’s the TV, you watch what we watch so there’s Letterman and then whatever’s after Letterman…” Finally he left us to ourselves and I surveyed the room for myself. Tacky carpet with a dark square tile design, pastel bed spreads that didn’t match this, paintings on the wall that didn’t match anything… In Seattle we would have considered this place super sketchy, probably hiding illegal activities. Somehow in rural Nebraska though it’s just quaint, or maybe just the way it is. Don’t mistake me, I didn’t find the place charming, not with the musty smell, and age of its appliances.
In the morning I stepped out the door and smelled manure. Earlier Mike had done the same and the owner said to him, “smells like money,” apparently referring to a hog farm down the road. While Mike filled up with gas, I checked out the hardware/general store across the street. The front window was decorated with a 12 inch metal dome that presented a hologram of Jesus’ face. The face looked like it turned toward you and then followed you as you walked by. For those who like their religious inspiration on the creepy side, I guess. Above Jesus’ head (priorities) taped to the glass was a sign supporting the local high school sports team, the Tornados.
Inside, the store owner knew all the customers and was mildly suspicious of me and Mike. When Mike stopped by earlier the lights were out and the man said “yes, we’re open,” but he sometimes waits to turn the lights on until the first customer shows up, maybe 9, 9:30 a.m. He told Mike he doesn’t like the changes that have happened to Orchard. Mostly they’ve lost a lot of population, and the farms just get bigger. The front page of Orchard’s newspaper showed a photo of the year’s homecoming court. I wondered if any of those young people will stay in Orchard, and what opportunities it could offer them. But also, what will happen to the old people who stay behind?
By the Iowa border the landscape was getting even more familiar: gently rolling hills, more trees. But it was when we crossed the Mississippi River into Wisconsin itself that we saw the most beautiful landscape of the whole trip. What could be more picturesque than the rolling green farm fields of Wisconsin, dotted with red barns and outlined in deciduous trees coming into their fall color? I suppose it helped that we passed through the more promising, competing landscapes in darkness.