I’m warm and comfortable now. But there’s a noise. Cars idling. Diesel fumes. Oh! I’m inside a hotel. It’s dark. Let’s see...where’s the bathroom? The toilet? Uh ooh...it’s on THIS side. I’m slightly shocked to realize that I spend more nights in Motels than I do in my own home.
Coffee! The first religious event of the day. I throw everything into the car. An egg McMuffin with coffee. Two doughnuts with coffee. Some popcorn...with coffee. Breakfast lasts three hours. Lunch begins immediately. It may be Krispy Kremes. They’re like manna from Heaven. Angles might switch sides for one. They’re giving me a little doughnut shape of my own.
I listen to two truckers on CB. Scintillating conversation. “I should be the president of the Company”, I heard one say. “I do the hauling, I do the unloading, and I fill out all the paperwork. What’s left for him to do?” The other agrees. I’d better switch to radio.
Wanna hear sports? NO. Country-Western? No. Russian Limberbrain? No. I crave information. NPR Radio is it. But the station fades.
What State am I driving in? Am I supposed to be here? It’s my third State today.
The mind roams. I remember that I used to wonder what it would be like to be a grown man. I wondered about that until I was 50...and then I thought, "well to hell with it. I'll never know."
I’m thinking I’m a propertied man. I have property all over America...from coast to coast. Must be worth a modest fortune by now. Stuff I’ve left in hotel rooms and auditorium stages. I wish it wasn’t such a regular feature of my travels. It’s like when you spit your gum in the parking lot...and then you’re the one who steps in it. Sometimes you feel it only happens to you. Because when someone else spits gum in the parking lot, you’re the one who steps in it too.
A young man pulls up next to me in the parking lot as I sit eating a Whopper in my car. (It is a glamerous life after all.) He doesn’t get out of his car and after a few minutes I glance over to see him sitting and staring ahead, slowly stroking his chin. Troubles I guess. I can’t help but wonder how many millions of people there are who would trade places with him...their problems for his. People like those Egyptian farmers I’ve met, who earn maybe $300 in a year. Men who’ll never even ride in a car, much less own one.
My life collides with trucks, truckers, and the trucking industry (not literally...at least not yet). They interest me. Most of these are honest Joes, trying to earn a living for their families.
But there’s a truck about 12 feet from my rear bumper now as I drive at 70 mph. I wonder if the driver hates me for being too slow...for being old...for being alive? An oversight he’s about to correct!
My mind grinds on...like the wheels beneath me, pounding against the pavement, trying to break it down.
“When an 18 wheeler passes over any given point on the highway, that exerts pressure on the pavement equal to 33,000 cars passing over it”, I heard a highway engineer in Wisconsin say. I don’t know how that’s measured, but I have no other data to refute the idea. Sometimes I see trucks with 42 wheels! I wonder what they carry.
“The Interstate highways would last for 100 years without repair if the traffic were autos only”, the engineer says. Wow. Eighty percent of freight is carried by trucks...four million of them today. Twenty percent is carried by rail. Switch that around and there’d be a lot less diesel fumes at the Motel. Which is where we started.
Trying to stay on the trail and out of the woods,
Travel Log #2
The passing scenery outside my window preserves the illusion of freedom, even though I am a prisoner in this cell on wheels...prisoner to my commitment to be 400 miles away by sundown.
I loosen my grip on the wheel, fighting off catatonia. The tires alternately singing in their dull monotone, or, growling in short guttural bursts, issue warnings.
My purpose is to deliver a filmed program to an audience, but sometimes the primary objective seems to be to move your body from A to B...then to C and D...in a crazy zig zag pattern as I move from town to town. The presentation of moving images to an audience almost seems to become incidental.
The mind plays strange tricks in this state approaching catatonia. Stimulated by the play of light on a plowed field, the temperature, or the barometric pressure, the mind runs through the stacks of my memory...tripping over odd little bits sticking out here and there. What's odd is how insignificant these memories are...not the major events you'd think would stand out.
I fall into imaginary conversations...scintillating conversations! My repartee is brilliant and devastating. My arguments are unassailable. I counter all opposing thoughts with overwhelming logic. Six cups of coffee prolong this exchange through the morning.
Coffee. It's used to wash down donuts and get that sweet taste out of your mouth. It has influenced me to visit every rest stop on every Interstate in America...almost. I may guest them all before I quit. I wonder. Is this a worthy goal in life? Something I share with truck drivers...getting to know America in a superficial way?
With the truck drivers I maybe share the sense that we’re just cogs in the gears of society. Maybe not even cogs...perhaps just the metal shavings...the microscopic flakes wearing off the cogs from the grinding of the gears. I need more NPR! Or coffee.
With all my travels to other places on the Globe, I keep returning to this land I love. It really is a privilege to be skimming over the surface of the land like this...seeing so much of it. Sometimes the sheer beauty, variety and immensity of these landscapes bring tears to my eyes, and I have a powerful, compelling sense that the Earth really is my Mother. I'll be returning, ultimately, to it.
I’ll probably die trying to make a left turn while shifting down to second gear and wiping up the gloop that spilled from my Big Mac. And where the hell is my map? I forgot where I’m going.
Trying to stay on the trail and out of the woods,
This morning, my Ole Buddy Bill Bacon concluded his conscious time on this Planet.
We traveled a lot of miles together…in Alaska, Sweden, Grand Canyon, the Caribbean…making films in all those places. The memories are voluminous.
When filming a grizzly at one time, she began to indicate that she was about to attack me. Bill came up beside me with his tripod folded and at the ready…ready to crack that bear across the head should she come too close. We slowly backed away…and so did she. She could count. Two to one.
On another occasion we were filming glaciers, and arranged to be flown in to a glacier in a remote location that couldn’t be reached in any other way. We had planned to be there for two days, so carried two days worth of rations.
However, it rained and the weather really socked in. No pilot could find us in that weather. It was over a long week before the weather opened up enough for his return. In the meantime we ran out of food.
In those days, photographers often carried a ‘bean bag’…a bag full of beans that he could throw on the ground or on a tree stump and place the camera on it in order to get a steady shot. Bill had one. His was filled with rice, however. But after being without food for three days, we decided to open the bag and consume the rice. We were able to cook it over a little fire, and although it was pretty full of dust after years of being carried in that bag, we were most grateful for it. We also managed to find some blueberries near the glacier we were filming, but by the time the plane arrived to pick us up, we were pretty ravenous.
We had brought a shotgun and slugs along on this excursion, although this was rare for us. This was done at this time because we were in such a remote location. The first evening there, a grizzly feeding on blueberries came up near our camp. We were really focused on him for a while, until he finally wandered on, and we didn’t see him again. After several days without food though, we were sort of hoping he might return…just in case we should really need some roast bear. That thought hovered over us as we became hungrier.
At this location we would stand in front of the glacier all day in the rain, waiting for the ice to calve off. It was necessary to stand next to the camera constantly, because if an iceberg was about to break away, there was only a second or so to start the camera and capture the action. We did this for 14 hours every day in this remote site…there was no where else to go, nothing to do.
At night conversation was our only option for pastime, and we would sit next to our fire and talk into the night. We talked of our filming, of wildlife, of past experiences, and especially, extensive musing about women.
A few years later, filming in the Grand Canyon, we would sometimes go for days without a shower there, as we were then filming on the North Rim in the remote western area of the Park. Finally Bill remembered that he had a black plastic water container in our vehicle, which he filled with water and hung in the sun. When it was thoroughly warm, Bill punched a series of holes in another bucket, hung that in a tree, and we really enjoyed a warm shower!
I thought Bill was really old when we met. I’d just turned 40 and he was 52. He was a big man with big heart (in all ways), big lungs, and strong legs. On another occasion we were attempting to film dall sheep in Alaska, and could see them high in the mountains in the Brooks Range. (They are hunted there and are extremely wild.) But we wanted to film, so began to climb.
I could run off and leave Bill for a time at first. But after an hour or two of climbing with our 60 pound camera packs, I would start to slow down a bit. Bill could just keep powering through, though. When we came down from the mountains that day we shared the food we had…a can of vienna sausage, a can of sardines, and three slices of musty bread. Delicious!
On one trip, we hiked in to a hidden glacier to film the calving, taking several hours to get there. We filmed until it was almost dark, then decided we would return to our vehicle.
We had crossed a deep, rugged canyon to reach the glacier during the day, but now re-crossing that chasm without light was deemed to be too dangerous. So, we elected to spend the night on the ridge at the top of the canyon. No tooth brush, no sleeping bag, no food, no water. We could cut alder leaves and branches to sleep on.
It became cold during the night. By morning we each had a pile of alder leaves the size of a Volkswagen, that had grown during the night as we would cut more and more branches to burrow down into…attempting to stay warm.
On our way to this location the day before, we knew we would need to skirt a cliff jutting out into the ocean here, so we carried only our large 35mm motion picture camera and the heavy tripod used to support it.
When we came to this cliff, we saw that we’d have to climb a pretty steep slope to get over the top. We split the equipment with Bill taking the camera in one hand and I took the tripod. Eventually the climb became so steep we had to back down and go inland to the canyon mentioned above.
We were on the edge of the ocean as we made this attempt, and black flies were here. They swarmed around us, creating small clouds of pelting bodies around our heads.
I’ve seen some intense concentrations of mosquitoes in Alaska, especially up along the Arctic coast where I’d spent one summer. On a rare day when the wind would die down there briefly, the mosquitoes could look like smoke rising from the tundra.
But these blackflies were different. They zoomed into your nostrils, into your ears, mouth and eyes! With one hand carrying equipment and the other hand clutching the brush and weeds of this steep slope, it was maddening. Even though we had buttoned the collar and sleeves of our shirts, by the time we retreated back down the slope our wrists were bloody at the edges of cuffs and around our necks. Literally a ring of blood. So we moved inland to cross that deep canyon to reach our glacier destination.
There have been songs written about blackflies, that they can take the meat off your bones. We concurred with that assessment.
Bill had been in the movie business for years, beginning with the Disney organization, and had won an Emmy in 1968. He had a reputation and was well known around Anchorage.
One morning we were having breakfast at a famous restaurant in Anchorage, Gwennies. As we ate, a young lady came to our table and complimented Bill, saying that she was an admirer of his work and accomplishments. Later, as we were leaving and about to pay the check, it had already been paid! I said, “Bill, that’s the first time your face ever got me a free meal”!
Bill was adaptable and resourceful. Car is stuck in a mud hole a long way off the main road? He could find branches and just get it out…no matter where we were.
I’ll miss you old friend.
Letter from Ireland
Although English is used in Ireland, it can sometimes come across as a quite foreign language to me. They speak rapidly, and the accent is distinct, pronounced, and different. Even to my unpracticed ear I can hear distinct differences in accent from region to region.
In Northern Ireland, for example, the English monetary system is still used. When I got my first cash from the ATM there, I asked a lady the value of a particular coin. “It’s a poont” , I heard her say. When she repeated the word for me I understood it as ‘poond’ and then I finally figured out that she was saying ‘pound!
Inquiring for the ATM was also enlightening. It’s called a “hole in the wall” in Northern Ireland. I could understand the cashier in the restaurant very well as he explained this to us. He in turn, was puzzled by the term ‘ATM’.
I had not really realized that the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are two separate countries. I’ve been aware of “the troubles” (as it’s called here) in Ireland since the 1950’s, but only in a vague way. In simple terms it’s a struggle between Irish people who want to be a separate Nation, and those who wish to maintain strong links to England.
Historically the English treated the Irish people quite harshly, and the resentment about that still simmers…somewhat like Civil War sentiments in our own Country. Of course, here it often breaks down along religious lines, with Catholics wanting separation from Protestant England and Protestants favoring strong ties.
We have found many Irish people to be quite politically aware. Many of them seem to know all about politics in American and can even name some of our politicians. (Can you name the president of the Republic of Ireland? Or any president of any Country, other than the U.S.?) Bill Clinton is greatly admired over here, while Donald Trump is not. We’ve encountered quite a few people who are ready and willing to speak out on this subject.
Everywhere we’ve gone we’ve found the Irish people to be most friendly and extremely polite. I’ve wondered if extreme politeness may not be necessary in a land which has experienced so much internal strife. Politeness has become a way to circumvent trouble before it starts, perhaps.
In many of the smaller towns and villages there may not be a restaurant. Food is usually served in bars and pubs in these locations and can range from mediocre to very good on occasion. With our American view of bars, I was surprised however (almost amazed), to see a small collection box in some pubs and bars for missions collections, i.e. collections for missionary activities sponsored by the local church. To my Protestant eye this seemed quite incongruous, but illustrates the different way in which bars are used here. They are very much a social gathering place for the community and entire families may be found there on some evenings.
It rains in Ireland. During the time we’ve been here we had only partial days of sunshine…about 4 half-days for the month we’ve been here. If praying for sunshine will do any good, we have plenty of help. All of Ireland is sick of rain.
Ireland was an unexpectedly beautiful Country. I guess because of the constancy of the rain, even in drier years, it truly is an ‘Emerald Isle’. The fields marked by hedgerows or divided by stone fences present bucolic views every minute of every journey. (Except that the hedgerows often prevent any distant view for a few miles at times.) Trees are often allowed to grow right over the narrow roads and trimmed from below. This forms a charming ‘tunnel’ through the trees that can be most enchanting to drive through.
Driving is done on the left here. The left lane is the ‘slow’ lane when there are 4 lane ‘carriageways’. The car on the right always has the right-of-way.
The attitude about driving is a striking contrast to our sensibilities in the U.S., where the slightest infraction of any driving convention seems to produce a lot of anger and resentment. Here, people seem most patient about someone who has stopped on a two lane road which has no shoulder. He will be parked right out on the roadway. Other drivers just wait for opposing traffic to pass then they go around the stopped vehicle without any emotional reaction.
When two cars approach each other on a street which is just wide enough for two cars to pass, but where one side of the street is filled with parked cars, one driver will pull into an empty space to let the other driver pass, or maybe pull up onto the sidewalk so both cars can get through. It’s all done as a cooperative venture rather than drivers vying for oneupmanship.
The Euro is the unit of exchange used now (only since Jan. of 2002). It is roughly equivalent to the value of a U.S. dollar so calculating prices is easy. Food is generally somewhat more expensive than in the U.S., although milk cost $1.05 for two liter bottle (approximately 1/2 gallon). Food has been better than I thought
Shopping for food isn’t too different from the U.S. There are somewhat fewer products, but the experience is very much like being in an American supermarket. However, people bring their own shopping bags, or the plastic bags they used from the last trip to the store. If you have to have one of the plastic bags furnished by the market it will cost you .15 cents for each one. This sure cuts down on the waste of those damnable plastic bags and I wish we would adopt this policy here in the U.S.
Watching the Irish at restaurants was amusing to my American eye…in this respect: Most Irish people use their fork in their left hand and use the knife in their right to push and scrape vegetables onto the fork. Furthermore the fork is held in an upside-down position! Looks like a real balancing feat to me, but it really distinguishes an American from a European.
We finally had two weeks of sunshine before returning to the States. Everyone knows it rains in Ireland…but not ALL the time!
As youngsters we heard, “....if you drill straight down through the Earth you would come out in China”. That comprised just about the sum total of our knowledge of China. Perhaps the improvement in knowledge since then has been slight.
We all know of our foreign aid program for China. Not a Congressional act, but enormous amounts of U.S. dollars to China, sent through the conduit of Walmart.
At least some of the rise of the middle class in China can be attributed to our purchases of low-cost goods, although there are other reasons for the remarkable growth of their economy in the past three decades.
One American tourist remarked recently that what China has achieved in 20 years took the U.S. a 100 years to accomplish. He was referring to the upscale, modernist look of Shanghai with it’s 24 million people: four times larger than NY City.
There are 3000 buildings in Shanghai that are higher than 30 stories, and the Shanghai World Financial Tower tops out at 121 stories.
There are eight lane highways through the City and traffic seems to fill them all. This is true in all the cities I visited.
China does indeed have cars...lots of cars. There are at least 20 Chinese companies that manufacture autos, and many of the World’s auto builders also make or assemble cars in China: companies such as General Motors, Chrysler, Audi, Volvo, Volkswagen, Toyota, Nissan, and others. Last year (2013) more cars were purchased in China than were purchased in the U.S. You can see the manifestation of that buying spree in the traffic.
We often use the term ‘unbelievable’ in our conversation, but traffic in China truly is ‘unbelievable’ to our American sensibilities. Vehicles casually pull in front of other drivers with impunity, trusting that the driver behind won’t actually crash into him. In our Country a driver would be outraged at such an act, and you might possibly get shot for such an action here. But in China, drivers just ebb and flow ‘with the traffic’ as it were, and everyone accepts such driving behavior with equanimity. Even bicycle riders will pull out into pretty heavy traffic with calm assurance that no one will do them in.
In the same way that you and I will walk through a crowded shopping mall or airport, sort of making way for other people, giving a bit here, or taking a quick step forward to avoid colliding there, so goes the flow of auto traffic in China. But it’s a sphincter tightening experience for us to engage in or to watch as an American driver.
I learned that China has more millionaires than any other nation. The richest woman in the World is a Chinese lady who has built a fortune on recycled waste from America. However, as you will sur- mise, there are still many Chinese at the very low end of the economic scale. But a rising middle class is upending the traditional view of China as a very poor country.
In one upscale mall there were items that most Americans couldn’t afford to purchase. An ordinary living room chair, for example, might cost $6000. The upscale has gone very upscale in some sectors of China and such retail outlets seem to be thriving there,
I had expected China to be sort of a dirty place with littered streets. Not true. Not true today. At five in the morning, street sweepers will be working the streets of the major cities I visited. In Harbin for instance, one of the smaller cities of China (eight and a half million, but still larger than NY City), after the streets were swept, motorized tank trucks would pass through, washing the streets. This continued throughout the day.
In the northeast part of China we traveled to the Heilongjiang Province, a major agricultural region. We were almost to the border of Russian Siberia. Driving through this area reminds one of traveling in Iowa, with vast reaches of corn fields and soybean fields.
It is still a region of small farmers who have a plot of land to farm, but the farmers live collectively in villages scattered throughout the province. Some larger farms are being developed now however, and we visited a 40 thousand acre enterprise where modern farming equipment is being used in ways similar to what is done in the U.S. John Deere has a large plant in this region and is looking toward a growing and expanding market for their products.
There are virtually no fat people in China. I suppose we always attributed that to the notion of many poor people in China. But there is a distinctly affluent class now, and they remain unfattened, so to speak. There seems to be an abundance of food today, but the the diet is different than we are accustomed to.
There is very little meat in Chinese cuisine. They use almost no sugar, but lots of vegetables. Even when meat is served, it is usually mixed in a vegetable dish. In a Chinese restaurant there may be 20 dishes on the lazy susan in the center of the table and most will be vegetarian, or rice and tofu. Some meat is served of course, and it is most often small portions of pork. For American tourists, there will be exceptions.
Everywhere there are tourists by the hundreds. They are Chinese tourists: not so many are foreigners. The Chinese in great numbers are visiting all the monuments and historic places in China today. On the Great Wall (which the Chinese call the Long Wall) people are everywhere...Chinese tourists.
The Great Wall is about 4000 miles long, stretching from the Yellow Sea, or the East China Sea, to the western barrens where the Wall is now almost unnoticeable, almost indistinguishable in the landscape. In those far reaches of China the Wall is now only a few feet high in some places, it’s stones and brick having been scavenged for other building projects.
North of the Capital of Beijing it has been restored and this is the part of the Wall most often visited.
You may have heard that the Great Wall is the only man-made object visible from the Moon. Not true. It’s not as wide as a four lane highway and there are many other man-made structures that are larger.
China is now the second largest economy and still expanding. It’s rate of growth is slowing now to single digit percentages rather than the double digit rate it has sustained for two decades. It is still a Country worth watching, and a Country worth knowing. A fascinating People with a vibrancy, hunger and ambition to make things happen.