My life and your life

19 September 2018

I got the best compliment ever over the weekend. I was traveling to Shanghai and Nanjing to meet the students in my streaming class. I would up telling other colleagues about my summer trip and Elihu Island and my 2003 trip to western Mongolia among other things. Apparently a bit jealous of my adventures, one of the professors told me, "I wish I could live your life." Of course, I know that my life isn't that great, but it reminds me that it is pretty cool nevertheless. I mean, what better compliment can you get than someone wanting to have your experiences? Too bad they just get the Instagram version, where even the unpleasant experiences look exciting.

Travels and travails

9 September 2018

Over forty days this summer my family and I drove 10,000 miles across the US and back, camping almost all the way. It was awesome. There weren't actually too many travails in our travels, except a few serious downpours, but it sounded good as a title. If there are any genuine travails, they relate to the pain of having to end the trip. This post is really intended as a record of the trip and recollections about the journey. As the trip was forty days long, the entry will have to be built over time.

  1. July 01: Mystic to Newbridge.

    Drove from Mystic to Newbridge, NY during the East Coast heat wave. Did some last minute shopping at the REI in New Haven. The plan was to ease ourselves into traveling and camping by spending two days here and two in the next place.

  2. July 02: Shawangunks.

    Hiked around Lake Minnewaska and visited Stony Kill Falls. Minnewaska is an old haunt of mine from when I lived in NYC. My buddy Brad and I used to drive up to the Gunks once a week to hike in Mohonk or Minnewaska. This time I got to introduce my kids to my memories. Two memories were brand new, however. First, a friendly hiker informed us that if we actually went to the top of Stony Kill Falls, clothing was optional. We, uh, didn't go to the top. Instead, the second new memory was that my wife got us all to stand under the falls, though the dry weather had reduced them to a mere trickle. Still, it was the spirit of the thing and seeing my kids experience something they never expected that was the real treat.

  3. July 03: Newbridge to Tionesta.

    Drove to Tionesta in Allegheny National Forest. This was a long day, as we were working to get out West as quickly as possible. That did not stop us from stopping at the Lackawanna Coal Mine for a tour. The most interesting aspect of the tour was seeing how the miners maximized production by cleaning entire seams while maintaining safety by leaving pillars of coal behind to support the roof. In particular, the Lackawanna Valley had something like eight seams separated by granite, so it was like an eight-story mining apartment building. Plus, it was a well positioned national park. The campground we stayed at was at the base of a huge dam and was home to one of our more dramatic travails. Our trailer site was at the bottom of a small slope, and it rained ferociously for much of the night. So, on our third night camping ever as a family---and my wife and my first time in a long time---I wound up outside in my boxers for an hour (it seemed) digging trenches to try to keep the water from flowing under our tent. We survived. Friendly neighbors asked us how we survived in a tent, informing us that the dedicated tent camping sites across the river had been flooded overnight. So we were lucky, but scarred.

  4. July 04: Tionesta.

    On the holiday, we visited Tionesta and walked around Lighthouse Island, where we met and chatted with an Amish couple fishing. Later, YK and the kids went off to a local fair while I worked on a paper I was supposed to have already finished. It wasn't supposed to rain again that night, but torrential rains came down for a couple of hours and I was out in my boxers again. (I have to admit that while I was a bit stressed, I wasn't really worried, and it was fun to "battle the elements" a bit. I was further scarred and decided that I should buy a hatchet at some point for digging trenches and pounding tent stakes.

  5. July 05: Tionesta to Union.

    A very long drive to a KOA on the west side of Chicago. My wife had to drive through more heavy rain, and I had to drive through Chicago, which was a bit enervating, as I'd only been driving in the countryside for a year. But we did briefly stop in Vermilion, OH to look out over Lake Erie. I believe we also touched Michigan along the way, but I may be wrong. We ate Thai food in Elkhart, Indiana before continuing on toward Chicago and the KOA in Union. Meanwhile, our soundtrack of Jo Jo, Sing, Leap, and later Bruno Mars started to get assembled. I was not often able to listen to my own music selections during the trip, except on my birthday.

  6. July 06: Union to Pikes Peak, IA.

    This was a fairly manageable day. We spent most of it on Route 20, lunching in Lena at a state park and running through Galena and Dubuque and then following the Mississippi River north to Pikes Peak State Park, where the Mississippi meets the Wisconsin River at 500' bluffs and where we camped for the night. Route 20 took us along a stagecoach route through corn country. "Corn again!" my daughter coined to describe how boring the scenery supposedly was. And though I've heard many cross-country drivers complain of the Plains, I found at least this first stretch of "corn again" to be quite attractive and engaging. Perhaps there were more hills than in other areas? At any rate, this was the first time we tried our luck as "walk-ins" without prior reservations at the campground. We were fortunate enough to get one, but the other two free sites were taken within a half hour of our arrival. The campground itself was quite nice and shady, but it was filled with tiny black flies that did not bite but seemed to flock around my face. It was quite unpleasant, and it had us wondering if camping was perhaps a mistake after all! But making our first fire of the trip helped to dispel those worries. The S'mores were tasty!

  7. July 07: Pikes Peak.

    On this day, my job was to work on my paper. So after hiking around Pikes Peak and looking at the old Native American effigy mounds in the shape of animals, I stayed in the campsite trying to avoid the flies. Meanwhile, everyone else went down to the attractive town of McGregor to walk around and shop and to take a ferry on the river, where the girls got a chance to "steer" the boat and where Sienna seems to have lost her pocketbook with her some of her savings inside. But now we were west of the Mississippi.

  8. July 08: Pikes Peak to Pickstown.

    We drove out to the Yanktown Reservation/Pickstown, South Dakota area to camp just below the dam. (NOTE: I need to check the precise location.) Lovely but hot. We saw white pelicans, the girls' first every pelicans.

  9. July 09: Pickstown to Badlands.

    Badlands. For me, the first major stop out West and the beginning of the real site seeings. I had long wanted to visit since one of my closest friends from college and after had told me that his father had visited the Badlands on a motorcycle and told him that it was incredible. As it is. Insanely hot, but incredible. And it was a great introduction to the geology of canyons and the Plains...and, of course, dinosaurs. At the ranger station in the Badlands, you can see researchers cleaning up fossils found in the park. And so began the trip's inevitable engagement with dinosaurs for the girls and geology for me. Volcanoes were soon to come. It was also where we learned about the Junior Ranger Program, in which kids complete a number of tasks that teach them about the park. Upon completion, they are sworn in (often with a joke included, like "I promise to always eat my vegetables.") and receive a badge. Somehow, no matter how frazzled or tired the rangers were, they always made time to sincerely engage the kids in asking about their experience and swearing them in. For the girls, the badge was the major goal, but they had fun doing the exercises, too. We often had to spend extra time somewhere just so that they could get their badge. Ultimately, they acquired quite a collection. I will say, though, that the program is excellent and the I applaud the National Park Service for the commitment to this program. It makes the park a richer experience for both kids and parents.

  10. July 10: Badlands to Spearfish.

    Woke up in the last of the mosquito campsites, the Badlands KOA, where I went for the last jog of the trip. On our drive out of the Badlands, we saw our first mountain goats and bison. The four bison were exciting, but nothing compared to what we would soon see in Yellowstone. The rest of the day was basically spent in the Black Hills. First stop was Mount Rushmore, still one of the kids' favorite stops. Like most of the national parks, especially the hyped parks, Mount Rushmore was cooler than expected. The site is a bit too patriotic, but it still is stunning. From Mount Rushmore, we drove along the Needles Highway, admiring the impossibly tall rock spires. After lunch among lodge pole pines, we drove through Custer State Park, hoping to visit Jewel Cave. Unfortunately, we were too late to get tickets, so on our way north toward Deadwood, I gave in to my wife's earlier suggestion that we stop for a swim at Sylvan Lake, where there were rocks towering up out of the manmade lake. Perhaps one of my biggest regrets of the trip is that I was all too often thinking about saving money and getting to the destination at a reasonable time. When I forced myself to relax and follow opportunities (and my wife's typically excellent suggestions), we had more fun. In this case it was a lovely dip in refreshingly cool water at the end of a hot day. Of course, we then had to drive almost two hours to drive through Deadwood on our way to stay in Spearfish for our first night in a hotel. Thanks to the HBO series, Deadwood was a must for me. I wanted to take a minute to imagine this silver-inspired pop-up city in its heyday and visit the famous Mount Moriah Cemetery, even though we did not have time to look around for specific graves. After all, I was the only one interested. Had a tasty dinner at the Steerfish Steak and Smoke.

  11. July 11: Spearfish to Devil's Tower.

    Laundry day in Spearfish. Also made my first experiment with dry ice in the snazzy Yeti cooler, which turned out to be an awesome investment, despite the price. My combination of a couple of pounds of dry ice and a ten pound block of icey ice kept the icey ice frozen for two days and the food plenty cold for a couple 100 degree heat. In the afternoon, we drove to Devil's Tower, still my youngest daughter's favorite spot on the trip. She loved it because I explained how it is a baby volcano and because it was the first volcano she'd every seen. And of course it looks amazing with the geometric edges scraping skyward. We were fortunate to get a site in the park campground, Belle Fourche. I think this was the first time that we headed to a campground without reservations, a practice we got much more comfortable with as the trip progressed. From the campground, you could see Devil's Tower and the feeling was awesome. The girls made friends with a young teenage girl traveling with her father to visit the rest of her family (or something like that). The only drawback was that the girl was up until 2 or 3am listening to religious adventure stories about God conquering demons. I didn't hear it much, but it kept my wife awake for a long time. It was definitely bad campground behavior. Don't know how her father failed to notice.

  12. July 12: Devil's Tower to Cody.

    This day was all about Wyoming. We first hustled back up to Devil's Tower so that the girls could get their Junior Ranger badges. And then we got back on the road. Originally I wanted to visit Thunder Basin National Park, but we decided on this day to stage ourselves for entry into Yellowstone the next day, so we made KOA reservations in Cody, WY. This is as good a point as any to mention the advantages of staying at KOAs. They are very much the hotel of campgrounds. You can make same day online reservations up to 4pm. This is awesome if you know you are going to be on the road until dinner or later and want to be sure you have a place to stay. They simply assign you a site (among the class that you designated), like a hotel assigns a room. This is necessarily as nice as letting you assess what is available and making choices that suit your individual preferences, but it is quick and worry free. And most importantly, as my buddy Brad's sister said, they have pools. And playgrounds. And the kids love this. They would always light up when they learned that we would stay in a KOA, because they knew that we would play in the pool and they could play on the swingset while my wife and I set up camp and got dinner ready. And of course, they have laundry and internet (kind of). So the KOAs had their place. As they did this day.

    After making our reservations, we took our time driving out I-90 to Route 14. Though I wanted to take Route 16 through Ten Sleep, since our Big Agnes tent was named the Ten Sleep 6, Route 14 is purportedly the most attractive road through Bighorn National Forest. And it was a gorgeous route. From the Plains, you climb and climb up the steep roadway into the Bighorn Mountains, which are a sister range to the Rockies. As the Plains fade away, you traverse wide, alpine meadows and then drop into precipitous, geometric valleys before exiting back out onto the Plains. One the last empty stretches of Wyoming highway, with no restroom for miles and a bladder threatening to burst, my youngest daughter was forced to pee on the side of the road. She refused at first, but her bladder insisted, and then her worries were over. One step tougher. After pulling into the Cody KOA, the girls went to the playground and inflatable trampoline while we set up. After a brief swim at one of the nicest pools on the trip, I pushed us out for one of the few things I consciously planned for: the Cody Nite Rodeo. I'm not a great fan of rodeos, but they have their interesting aspects and more importantly no one else in the family had ever been to a rodeo. And what better place to see your first rodeo than in Cody, the town established by Buffalo Bill Cody, the most famous rodeo man in history? Turns out it is the 80th year of the Stampede. The quality was not the highest, but it was better than I recall having seen. We enjoyed our dinner in the stands. And my older daughter watched fascinated. I think it was the amazement of seeing so many horses. It was also cool to see young girls and women riding and roping and whatnot. (I really should have let my wife get us all out for a horse ride at some time during the trip, but money made me shy.) At any rate, my daughter made us stay until the very end of the show and was ready to go back as soon as possible. The girls even joined the kids' game of trying to grab a red cloth off the back of a calf. I don't think they ever came close, but they were out there in the middle of the stampede field, something I have never done. I'm not sure they liked it. But they got a bit tougher again. I don't want delicate daughters.

  13. July 13: Cody to Colter Bay.

    After an aggravated effort to clear hosts of little tiny sand flea looking bugs out of our tent, we left Cody for Yellowstone. I have always stubbornly rejected the idea of going to Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. Both are so famous and popular that I thought I needed to resist visiting. In my head I guess it was all Yogi Bear and tourists. But Yellowstone was on the way, so we figured we'd pass through on our way to Grand Teton National Park, which I was confident would be, well, grand. And with some good fortune, I was lucky enough to get us reservations for two nights in tent cabins (two solid walls and canvas for everything else) in Colter Bay. They were a bit expensive ($80/night), but I figured we could benefit from a modicum of comfort since we had stayed in our tent the whole time so far. Plus, they had bunk beds, which I knew the girls would enjoy. To go in through the east entrance of the park, the closest, we got to pass through Shoshone Valley, a reservoir and power plant that gave way to rough, rocky mountains and forests of lodgepole pine. We finally knew we were getting out of cattle country and into the wilds. But our entrance to Yellowstone was anti-climactic, if interesting in its own right. We wound our way down toward Yellowstone Lake, which sits at the heart of the park. The entire landscape consisted of grass and tall blackened sticks of burnt pine. It was disheartening, but it showed what forest fires can do. Indeed, it showed what forest fires must do to keep the forests themselves healthy. But it did not seem to bode well for our visit. At one point, we presumed that the whole park had burned down, reinforcing my belief that Yellowstone might not be all it is cracked up to be.

    But then we approached the lake. On the way down, we passed a waterfall that tumbled downward for 300m or more. Then we saw an elk walking along a spit projecting into the lake (and followed by 20--30 people!). We had sandwiches for lunch under some pines overlooking the lake. Suddenly it felt like we should stop the car and get out at every corner and turnout. We visited the ranger station to get Junior Ranger activity books and saw our first up-close bison and were warned about bears. And then we headed for Old Faithful, because if you're going to be in Yellowstone for one day in your life, you obviously have to see Old Faithful. I expected a disappointment (still!), but I wanted my daughters to be able to say that they had seen it. And they did. And we all loved it. I must mention again here how amazing the National Park Service is. They have done a fantastic job of spreading the crowds out around Old Faithful and protecting both them and the geyser from damage. We were also fortunate to be seated at the spot that a roving ranger came and explained how the pressure builds up inside the chamber below the surface and leads to the eruption. It also served as their ranger activity for their Junior Ranger books, which was convenient since we were trying to finish the activities and get their badge before we left the park in a few hours. One of the activities was to use a simple formula to calculate when Old Faithful's next eruption would take place, a great bit of math practice for my older daughter amidst the fun. We marked the time when the geyser started and timed how long it lasted, and my daughter was able to make the exact prediction that the rangers made. The eruption itself was also pretty cool. Not necessarily awe-inspiring, but definitely satisfactory. I probably would have pushed to move on, but the Junior Rangers saved us. The girls had to do a hike to get their badge, so off we went on the one-mile walk among the geysers and hot springs adjacent to Old Faithful. The clear water filled rock formations were amazing. Precipitated calcium formed jagged snow-like bluffs around the edges, and the sulfur tinged other spots a fascinating orange. And just as we returned from our hike, it was time for Old Faithful to erupt again, 5:39pm according to my daughter's calculations. She was exactly right. Awesome. In a few short hours the girls had finished their Junior Ranger activities. They were quite determined. So we went in to get their badges. When the ranger asked how many elk and bison they had seen, they responded just a couple. The ranger was surprised, so I asked where we should be going. Lamar Valley and Hayden Valley was the answer. Suddenly I had a feeling we would be back.

    But by now it was time to head south to our tent cabin in Grand Teton. The drive down was lovely all over again. There is just no end to the magnificence up there. The kids loved the bunk beds while my wife and I worried about mosquitoes flying in through the gaps between the canvas roof and the walls. The mosquitoes turned out to be a false alarm, since it is so cool at night there. But we did have to worry about bears for the first time. Everything that smelled vaguely edible had to go into the bear lockers, even make up and toothpaste. I expected to run into a bear at any moment, especially when I went out to pee in the middle of the night. But we didn't see any...until the next day.

  14. July 14: Grand Tetons.

    The Grand Tetons are quite simply gorgeous, and we were fortunate enough to have clear skies that showed them off to their best advantage, even if we didn't wake up for sunrise. Still, I was excited. We were going to go on our first real hike. We stopped by the grocery store in Colter Bay to pick up and pack up lunch. Most of us wound up with mediocre pulled pork sliders. We then stopped by the ranger station to pick up the Junior Ranger activity book and get some advice on trails. After some discussion, we settled on walking along Jenny Lake up to String Lake for lunch and then I would probably return alone to get the car and pick everyone else up. But the chief advice we received was to be wary of bears and that the rangers "recommend" carrying bear spray, available at the low, low price of $50--70. To be honest, they weren't pushing the bear spray sales; they were simply trying to keep people safe. If it had been just my wife and I, I would not have thought too seriously about the bear spray. But we were with the girls, and parental instincts urge you to protect. Still, since the cost was so high, we resolved with some nervousness to simply go for it. Never having encountered a bear in the wild, I was imagining that just seeing a bear would result in three-inch claws flying everywhere and ripping us to shreds. Needless to say, I was uncomfortable. And observing other people on the trail only added to my concern. Those trail runners who passed us? Small canister of bear spray strapped to the lead runner's shorts. The couple that passed us going the other way? Holster full of bear spray. It seemed that each of the four or five groups we passed were carrying bear spray, and I started to get very worried. Then, 20 meters away up on the hill above us, I saw the black fur of a bear's back as it walked by. We immediately aborted the mission, turning around and heading back to the car. Looking back now, I know I was over-reacting and things would have been fine, but it was the first time encountering a bear in the wild and it freaked me out. My feeling quickly changed. On our drive up to Jenny Lake for lunch, we stopped with others to watch a bear foraging in the trees nearby. As we walked along the lake, someone let use their binoculars to look at a grizzly on the other side of the lake. At the picnic area, we saw someone alerting an entirely nonplussed ranger that they had seen a bear a few hundred meters up the path. It became apparent that the bears were much less of a danger than I had imagined.

    In the afternoon we returned to Colter Bay. My wife insisted that we go canoeing on Jackson Lake. Ever money conscious, I was opposed to such an extravagant expense for such minimal returns. After all, we could canoe for free back in CT if we really wanted to. But my wife prevailed. We had a small heated debate when I learned that we would have to rent two canoes and our cost would double to $70 for two hours. As we debated, the counter person faded away. Eventually I realized that canoeing under the Tetons would be a unique experience and that $70 would not matter much in the long run. So off we went. One daughter and one parent in each canoe. The views were fantastic, and my wife and daughters had a brand new experience. Upon our return, we moved north to the Colter Bay beach of small, smooth stones. The water was chilly, but there was no way I wasn't going in. After all, I had jumped into the water off Elihu Island each day through the end of October. I could handle and even thrill in cold water. So in I went. What I didn't expect was that my younger daughter would so happily follow me, while my wife and older daughter entertained themselves on the shore. I was so proud of my daughter for being so bold and for enjoying the challenge of the cold water. It was a serious bonding moment.

  15. July 15: Yellowstone.

    There is no way to "finish" one of these incredible parks. There is only moving on when the time comes. And it came. We headed out of Grand Teton after breakfast and headed for the Yellowstone South Entrance to see if we might be able to get a campsite for night. On the way up we passed a bear, some elk, and a bison by a steaming geyser. And there were indeed a few open up by the Northeast Entrance. We aimed for Tower Fall. We traveled through Hayden Valley. It was fairly uneventful, but I was focused on Tower Fall and wasn't ready to stop and look around. We were fortunate enough to get a site looking across the valley to another hill. The view was not exceptional, but it was a view and air was clean and we were going to sleep in Yellowstone. We didn't have to leave yet after all.

    After lunch, we visited Tower Fall and hiked down the hill to the Yellowstone River, where we waded and cooled down for a while before heading back up. After that, we headed out Route 212 to Cooke City through the Lamar Valley, which I had seen billed as one of the best drives in America. And, indeed, one wants to stop at every corner and pull out as you wind through the steep, pine valley alongside Soda Butte Creek. And then we discovered why the ranger was so surprised that we'd only seen a couple of bison. We saw at least two huge herds. Males were fighting. Dust was flying. Calves were munching. And all were on the move. Not far away, there were countless elk. Exactly the kinds of things you seen in nature documentaries. We later learned from a ranger (at th eGrand Canyon, I think) that the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone had significantly impacted the ecosystem. I had already seen How Wolves Change Rivers. The short film shows how reintroducing wolves had cut down the populations of herd animals and that this had allowed the grasses to grow more lushly, which in turn countered the erosion caused by the river. And one simply assumes that the causal mechanism is hunting, but the ranger told us that they now think the biggest impact is due to fear. Because the herd animals fear being hunted by the wolves, they pay more attention to their surroundings, which means that their heads are up longer and more frequently, so they do not eat as much.

    In some ways, I think this day may have been the climax of the trip. We felt so fortunate to stay another day in Yellowstone, and we had seen all the nature one imagines when one imagines Yellowstone. We had seen the river, bear, elk, bison, rugged valleys, water falls, broad alpine meadows. It was unbelievable. So we made a nice, big fire, and my wife and I sat around a while in the coolness of the mountains' night sky and had a beer.

  16. July 16: Tower Fall to Pocatello.

    The day was a bit gray, but that was fine, since we were ready to get on the road. Or at least we had decided it was time to get back on the road. After all, we were already about halfway through our time and still far from the Pacific. We drove out to Mammoth Hot Springs, where rain started to drop lightly and we were able to marvel at the mineral deposits from the hot springs. Of course, there were water falls and elk and bison and breathtaking scenes. What else would you expect from Yellowstone? How could I ever have doubted how amazing the place is? Anyway, the intricate and unique patterns the hot springs created fascinated me. I couldn't stop taking close-ups of just parts of the mineral mounds. I think this is when my older daughter started to also zero in on the coolness of the small details of the landscape. By the time we hit southern Colorado, she was taking close up pictures of rocks and dirt and trees and things.

    Originally we planned to simply sneak out the North Entrance of the park, but since Yellowstone continued to deliver, I decided we might as well drive down the one stretch of road we hadn't covered yet. Also, around this time, my buddy from long ago Korea bailed on us. He and his son were supposed to meet us in the northern Rockies for a drive out to Haida Gwaii. This promise may well have been the final weight that tipped the scale in favor of actually getting on the road. But after a week or two of failing to convince us to go through more empty plains to a family house on a lake, where we have "lost" a week of seeing North America's greatest hits, he told us that he had rented the place and wouldn't be able to meet us. While a big disappointment, since I haven't seen the guy since 9/11, the original promise helped get us on the road and breaking it freed up my family to do our thing. All good in my world. Cosmic determination in his. So rather than head north to Glacier National Park, Kootenai, Banff, and beyond, we decided to get to the West Coast as soon as we could. I was starting to thirst for those big waves, long beaches, salty winds, and ocean sunsets. So we headed south to Norris and then out the West Entrance to West Yellowstone, Montana. Perhaps we should have gone north. We got held up by multiple bouts of road construction. But by the end we had basically seen "everything" (at least as far as roads go), and our pizza in West Yellowstone was a total delight. From here, we jumped on Route 20 and then took I-15 south to a KOA in Pocatello, Idaho.

  17. July 17: Pocatello to Twin Falls.

    I think our initial plan was to visit Craters of the Moon National Park and then high-tail it into Sawtooth or something. After dawdling in Yellowstone, I was starting to feel pressure to cover some ground so that we could actually get to the Pacific Ocean. My wife suggested that maybe we didn't have to go all the way across the country, but what did she know? There was no way we could come this far and not touch the Pacific. That said, we held out the possibility of staying at Craters of the Moon, since it was in the middle of lava and volcanoes are my youngest's thing. Though sites were available, it would have been to hot, so we decided we'd push on.

    But not without checking out the lava fields and climbing an old cone volcano. We would also have visited lava tubes, but unfortunately we had visited Lackawanna and did not have shoes we could wear without threatening the local bat population. While visiting various spots, though, a couple from the region strongly recommended that we visit Shoshone Falls on the Snake River, which they said was called the "Niagara Falls of the West". So we made reservations at the Twin Falls KOA and headed for a visit. To my mind, though, Niagara Falls should probably be designated the "Shoshone Falls of the East". While Niagara Falls, which we visited in October 2018, exhibits sheer power, Shoshone Falls tumbles in strong staggered steps around rocky parapets and thereby expresses more character.

  18. July 18: Twin Falls to Deschutes.

    Having burned the last of our Yellowstone wood the night before (so as not to spread parasites or disease), we hit the road in earnest, following 84 west to Route 20 and Deschutes National Forest. Route 20 is basically the historic Oregon Trail, and it is a barren, forbidding stretch. We camped amid pines at Gull Point Campground on Wickiup Reservoir. Due to the drought, the reservoir water was low, but it was a calm, quiet site where we basically alone. We were finally within striking distance of the ocean, but it was clear that we wouldn't have time to drive down the coast and visit friends. We still had to get back.

  19. July 19: Deschutes to the Oregon Coast.

    This was a huge day. We started by visiting Crater Lake National Park, where there is a volcano inside a lake inside a volcano. This was destined to be one of my youngest's favorites, and perhaps it was. We were blessed with beautiful weather. As a result the lake's color was a brilliant azure and the pines a lush chartreuse. The endless photos we took fail to do the place justice. We wound up driving all the way around, which turned out to be a bit longer than we'd hoped.

    Fortunately, we did not have to stress out. I had managed to make reservations for the night at William M. Tugman State Park. The campground was a bit crowded, but the facilities were decent and the sites were separated by dense redwoods. Most importantly, one could feel and smell the moisture of the Pacific. Perhaps it's just nostalgia my days back in SF, but there is something about the smell and feel of the Pacific that energizes and embraces me. Somehow it just feels right to me.

    When we arrived, though, I was in a hurry. Sunset was approaching quickly, and we had to get out to the dunes to see the sun go down. We quickly set up camp, ate dinner, and then rushed off to dunes. The kids loved it. They had never seen so much sand, never seen a sand dune. We climbed up the closest dune just in time to watch the sun hit the horizon. My youngest daughter and I watched it closely and were rewarded. We got my favorite kind of Pacific sunset. As the sun goes down, the bottom edge widens out into a trapezoid and when the last sliver is about to drop below the horizon, it turns ever so slightly green. To have my arm over my daughter's shoulder and point out the whole transformation was a special moment to share.

    For the kids, the best was yet to come. I taught them how they could do what I called moon leaps down the dune. With a heave and huge steps it feels like you're defying gravity as you run down the dune. The kids loved it. I think they climbed all the way up the 100m dune two or three more times just to run down again and finally collapse on their butt. I don't think they would have stopped if my wife hadn't made us all go back.

  20. July 20: The Oregon Coast to Portland.

    We got a bit of a slow start and then headed up the Oregon Coast. Again, for me, it was like coming home. The big sweeping beaches stretching away under the bluffs. The stiff breeze mixing salt and pine in the air. The crash of waves occasionally obscured by a splash of fog. Just heaven. We made three major stops, benefiting from low tide. First, we visited a wide beach and walked out to the waves to officially touch the Pacific. My youngest misjudged a wave and got a shoe soaking wet. After changing her shoe, we moved on to a random area of tidal pools. The girls loved jumping from rock to rock and looking for life amidst the streaming seaweed. Our third stop was the top of a bluff to get some lunch (in the wind). After one woman kindly pointed out that we had left our engine on, we got yelled at by the landscaper for parking too close to the exit (never minding that he had occupied half of the parking area!).

    I had made reservations in Portland for Saturday night. It was to be our first and most expensive hotel. So, all too soon, we left the coast to turn back east toward Portland. On the way, we stopped for a coffee at Wild Rain, where the proprietor's ocean paintings demonstrated some skill. With only one night in Portland, we got there while it was still light and headed out. For me, the main destinations were books and beer. First it was off to the Deschutes pub for dinner. After all, we had stayed in Deschutes National Park... The beer was, of course, tasty. Then we made the obligatory stop at Powell's Books, which thrilled everyone since we all got a book. For the kids, I tried to head over to Voodoo Donuts for dessert, but the line was ridonkulous and we pushed on. My wife wanted to go down to the riverside park, and so we did. She was amazed at the number of homeless people, though I don't think it affected my kids too much. The evening ended by watching the beginning of Wonder Woman in Pioneer Square.

  21. July 21: Portland to Umatilla.

  22. July 22: Umatilla to Ogden.

  23. July 23: Ogden to Spruces Campground.

  24. July 24: Spruces Campground to Cedar Breaks.

  25. July 25: Cedar Breaks to Zion and back.

  26. July 26: Cedar Breaks to Grand Canyon North Rim.

  27. July 27: North Rim to Flagstaff.

  28. July 28: Flagstaff to South Rim.

  29. July 29: South Rim to Cortez.

  30. July 30: Mesa Verde.

  31. July 31: Cortez to Black Canyon of Gunnison.

  32. August 01: Black Canyon of Gunnison to Dinosaur National Park.

  33. August 02: Dinosaur National Park to Rocky Mountain National Park.

  34. August 03: Rocky Mountain National Park.

  35. August 04: Rocky Mountain National Park to Limon.

  36. August 05: Limon to Kansas City.

  37. August 06: Kansas City to Hoosier National Forest.

  38. August 07: Hoosier National Forest to Cambridge.

  39. August 08: Cambridge to Hersey.

  40. August 09: Hersey to Mystic.

Austerity and capabilities

2 September 2018

Last fall I was asked to contribute to a special issue of International Planning Studies with an article on austerity and Korea. That article is now available as Austerity in reverse: Korea, capabilities, and crisis. You can also download the accepted manuscript here. I worked with Jeeyeop Kim (Ajou University) to understand Korea's long development trajectory, which I posited was the reverse of austerity since austerity relies on a reduction of social welfare or capabilities and development is fundamentally about increasing capabilities. We argue that the developmental state advanced capabilities, that the neoliberal policies since the mid-1990s have increasingly threatened those gains, and that social pressure has been essential to slowing the deterioration of capabilities, using housing as an example. Here is the full abstract.

Development is austerity in reverse. And austerity is development in reverse, a form of de-development. This paper argues that austerity is a neoliberal technology for returning countries to positive economic growth that reduces social spending and thereby reverses development. Drawing on Sen and Nussbaum's human capabilities approach, an exploration of Korea's development since 1960 supports this and three additional claims. First, the expansion of capabilities in Korea is tied to democratization and exponential increases in social spending. Second, Korea's experience with financial crises and austerity programmes demonstrate that increased social spending is compatible with rapid recovery. Third, Korea's roll out of neoliberal technologies and economic transformation since the 1980s have undermined the capabilities developed during earlier industrialization. Fourth, the importance of housing as a vital tool for political legitimation, especially since democratization, has sustained political interest in providing better housing, suggesting that social movements are essential to protecting social spending.

Korea and KPOO

30 August 2018

I've been busy. The main thing was spending 40 days in the wilderness driving to the Oregon Coast and back with the family. Totally awesome, but a story for another day. Right now I just want to mention that I returned to Korea last night and am setting up my bachelor pad for the next four months. After lots of bad signs about my arrival (torrential downpours mainly), I just received a good sign. As I hooked up the computer speakers I had forgotten I had stored in my office, the first music that came on was KPOO's Wake the Town Radio, which is one of my very favorite radio shows of all time. Perhaps things will be more awesome than I expect. After all, moving in the rain is considered good luck in Korea...and it was fucking pouring.

Noddings and Sahlins

17 May 2018

In the midst of a middle of the night read, I was struck by a curious parallel between the moral positions presented by Nel Noddings in her work on caring and Marshall Sahlins on reciprocity in primitive society.

Nel Noddings strove to counter a masculine notion of abstract ethics based primarily on reason with a feminine notion of materialist ethics based primarily on emotion. She critiqued the view that ethics was at its most sublime when the basis for decision making was each individual's abstracted value. The result is that one should apply the same rational ethic principles and standards to one's immediate family as to those across the world. (Kant?) As the example shows, this leads to emotionally contradictory behavior. Rather, Noddings argues for a situated ethics based on caring in which one should make ethical decisions contingent upon how emotionally close a person is to you. That is, one should certainly favor one's daughter's well being over that of a stranger in a strange land. Because one cares for those closest to them (socially and emotionally), ethics should prioritize those close to the individual making the decision. Therefore, as (social) distance increases, one's ethical obligation to others decreases.

This is precisely the way Sahlins describes the ethics of reciprocity in primitive societies. Generalized reciprocity, in which resources are pooled and redistributed without demand for repayment (Mauss' gift), is morally correct for those in your household. As one moves further out along kinship and tribal lines, the moral impulsion to give weakens and moves toward balanced reciprocity, in which explicit expectations of equitable exchange prevails. As social distance increases and one deals entirely with strangers, it is often morally permissible--and sometimes even lauded--to cheat them in trade or even to outright steal from them, like Navajo horse raids. This he calls negative reciprocity. So, like Noddings' ethics of caring, primitive societies embrace stronger ethical commitments to those closest to them, and these commitments wane as social distance increases.

What makes this more interesting to me is a comment that Sahlins throws out that modern, industrial economies rely much more on balanced reciprocity to function effectively. The import, I believe, is that the mode of production drives ethics (economic structure drives the superstructure). The primitive society is a segmentary one of significant autonomy at the household (of kinship group) scale. There is little to no interdependence on individuals socially distant. The individual is primarily (more) dependent on those immediately around them. However, as the mode of production moves toward specialization and mass production, the level of interdependence increases, and moral standards of exchange shift strongly toward balanced reciprocity.

Sahlins has not (yet) spoken of how social distance and anonymity in modern economies simultaneously fosters negative reciprocity (caveat emptor). But it is clear that a change in the mode of production entails a change in the ethics of reciprocity. The fourth industrial revolution or sustainability entail the transformation of moral obligations. The question is one of causality. Can moral change can lead economic change? Or does economic change lead moral change?

Clastres and Sahlins

10 May 2018

I have recently finished reading Pierre Clastres' Society Against the State and am in the midst of reading Marshall Sahlins' Stone Age Economics. Clastre's book famously influenced Deleuze and Guattari, while Sahlin's book influenced Clastres and the whole post-development literature.

Clastres' book develops a political anthropology of so-called primitive societies, in which he draws on his knowledge of indigenous American peoples to argue that they are organized (almost rhizomatically) into small groups that are designed to limit the exercise of power of leaders over others. He concludes that states must be forced on society and should be considered an external force of expropriation that is fundamentally based on uneven power relations. Presumably this is the origin of Deleuze and Guattari's "Ur state".

Sahlins' book, on the other hand, develops an economic anthropology based in a Marxist reading of political superstructures reflecting economic foundations. He posits the notion of a domestic mode of production (DMP), in which the household (broadly conceived) is the fundamental unit of production and distribution. There is much here of relevance for development theory. Three elements stand out for me at the moment. First, the contradictory Western colonial views of so-called primitive peoples as, on one hand, living harsh lives that require them to work ceaselessly to just barely survive the day and, on the other hand, as being inherently lazy. The first view is one used to justify colonization as a bringer of civilization and wealth, while the second view is used to justify the use of force to compel indigenous people to work (as effective slaves). This is a clear ideological contradiction that I hadn't really considered before. And it is one that immediately suggests the underlying political economic goals of colonization. Sahlins' solution to this contradiction--and the second notion of interest--is to empirically show that indigenous societies are the "original affluent societies" (drawing on John Kenneth Galbraith's famous notion). He demonstrates that in those very societies that Westerners tend to see as incurably impoverished and technologically backward are actually so efficient in procuring sustenance and supplied from their environment that they only work four to five hours a day on average. That is, they do not live lives of bare subsistence. And in this way, they are better off than many proletarian workers in the early industrial revolution. Heck, they may even be better off than many of us with our eighty hour work weeks. At any rate, this observation also addresses the view that indigenous workers are lazy and prone to run away after earning some money: this is the only thing they have to do to survive on their own. People are accustomed to working until near term stocks are replenished and then relaxing to enjoy themselves. Because they can. The third item of interest is that primitive peoples (often nomadic) lifestyles do not support or require high levels of accumulation since their environmental so abundantly provides for their needs, and therefore accumulation is not a societal value. The Western capitalist mode of production, however, is fundamentally based on the believe that no level of accumulation is sufficient. While the domestic mode of production naturally imposes limits on accumulation, e.g., how much one can carry, accumulation under the capitalist mode of production is theoretically infinite. The indigenous approach has proved sustainable; the latter has not.

When we put these two books together, two points immediately pop out. First, "development" and the "civilizing mission" rely on the external imposition of statehood. That is, the colonial powers had to literally force states upon indigenous peoples who wanted no such thing. To the extent that development is based on introducing economic and political capitalist relations, it is thus rooted in unequal power. Second, these books taken together imply that to achieve sustainability, we must not only find a replacement for accumulation but also reduce power imbalances in society.

I don't know if this is possible, of course. For another unexplored aspect of both books is the notion of population density and political structure. The affluent and equal society in both cases appears to depend to a great degree on low population densities, including the possibility of rhizomatic meiosis to reduce population densities. Both authors, however, leave open the question of political transformation as population density increases. This surely lies at the base of differences between anarchist and socialist concepts of appropriate political structures (cf. the debate between Bookchin and Harvey over the role of cities). Or perhaps this is a difference between the domestic and industrial modes of production?

Things done and undone

12 April 2018

What have I accomplished so far during my sabbatical? My previous post about finishing Marx's Capital has engendered a moment of reflection on my achievements during my sabbatical to date. The thoughts are amplified---as they always are---by the sense of impending endings. Though I have more than four months before I return to Korea, other endings lurk near. In about six weeks I will have to move off the island and resettle in my parents' house. During those weeks I will have to prepare my final report for research project, explaining what has and has not gone according to plan. Soon after, we plan to travel for a month, which is a new beginning but also a probably end to my scholarly work. All these closings demand a sort of reckoning. Why it has to be public, I don't know, but here it is.

Over the greater part of the last year, here is what I can say I have done.

  • Lived on a lovely island (despite the undertone of jealousy for others' wealth and good fortune and infrastructure challenges)
  • Stayed quite fit
  • Bicycled regularly in beautiful surroundings (something difficult to do in Seoul)
  • Chaperoned a number of my daughters' school field trips (unlikely in Seoul)
  • Helped my daughters with their science projects (a volcano and a water rocket)
  • Spent a lot of time with my family (also difficult in Seoul)
  • Begun to get my daughters outdoors
  • Taken the family to DC
  • Started gardening at my parents' place
  • Plan to take the family across country car camping
  • Managed my uncle's transition to a nursing home (including cleaning out and selling his house)
  • Written two and a half papers
    • Fragmented states and pragmatic improvements: Susan S. Fainstein's contributions to planning theory, an introduction to Susan's theory (forthcoming under AESOP)
    • Austerity in reverse, now in the midst of minor revisions
    • Transnational gentrification as imperial process, which is half written
  • Attended four conferences
    • RC43 in Leeds
    • ACSP in Denver
    • AAS in Washington DC
    • UAA in Toronto
  • Read some good books
    • Marx's Capital
    • Mumford's Pentagon of Power
    • Lees et al. Planetary Gentrification
    • Beauregard's Cities in the Urban Age: A Dissent
    • Thant Myint-U's River of Lost Footsteps
    • Pierre Clastres' Society Against the State (May)
    • Marshall Sahlins' Stone Age Economics (May)
  • Read a large number of articles
  • Read some novels (mainly classics of worker exploitation)
    • Dickens' Hard Times
    • Dickens' Tale of Two Cities
    • Upton Sinclair's The Jungle
    • John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men
    • John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath
    • China Mieville's The City & the City (May)
  • Rooted my old phone and tablet
  • Created external SSD drive install of Arch Linux that I hope to use in classes in place of my laptop and the locally installed OSes (May)

Of course, there are many things I wanted to do and have left undone.

  • Write three or four more papers
    • Built Out
    • Contemporary Concessions
    • Quick quant paper comparing Vietnamese and Korean attitudes to high rise housing
    • Two or three other co-authored papers awaiting a few days of work from me :(
  • Read a gazillion more books (I shipped a whole box of books and have read practically none of them.)
  • Lay the basis for a new stage of research, which depended on reading many of the books as mentioned above
  • Read a large number of articles
  • Create graphs and tables to use for my Introduction to Development and Cooperation class
  • Cook lots of Indian food
  • Learn how to make and control robots with a Raspberry Pi

Heather Campbell (formerly Sheffield, now UBC) told me that if you accomplished half of what you planned, you have been successful. Not sure if I have been successful (academically), but I am close and I've done pretty good on the family front.

Also, I have to remember that when I return to Korea, I will be alone for four months and can live the monastic scholar's life. Of course, I won't get everything done then either!

Two years and three volumes

10 April 2018

Today I have completed a project. Over the last two years I have been reading all three volumes of Marx's Capital a few pages a day. I finished the last of more than 2,500 pages this afternoon. Time to break out the IPA.

Of course, there is Bernstein's Volume 4 and the Grundrisse that I could still read...and hopefully will eventually do so. But I have finished those volumes of Capital written primarily by Marx. And that is no small feat. So I will ignore the existence of an endless list of follow up readings and simply celebrate my accomplishment. This achievement is all the sweeter for coming just before Marx's 200th birthday on May 5th.

David Harvey once said that anyone who finishes reading Capital wants to write a book about it. I guess I'd better start.

Myths and machines

15 January 2018

It's been almost exactly six months since my last post. You would think that being on sabbatical would have given me more than ample time to write about my experiences and my thoughts. But so far you would be wrong. I mostly blame the young kids in the house, but life has also intervened unnecessarily.

I should write about our amazing---if small and drafty---1875 farmhouse on Elihu Island. I should write about swimming through the end of October despite rapidly declining fall temperatures. I should write about the hurricane just before Halloween that pushed an immense oak tree across the only road to the island and the only power line to the island, leaving us stranded without power for days. I should write about having responsibility for my negative equity uncle's tiny estate thrust on me when it was suddenly determined that he was no longer fit to live on his own. I should write about the grounding reflections on aging that experience has engendered. I should also write about the joy my daughters express at their new school and how they have code switched into English. I should write about how full-blooded the holiday season has felt here in America. I should write about the Arctic temperatures that have frozen the cove outside our kitchen window except for a small hole where the hooded mergansers have gathered. I should write about the kids' first major snowstorms, the snowmen they built, and the sledding they did. And I should probably write about reading Ta-Nehisi Coates on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday. I should write about many things.

But I have a few words about Lewis Mumford's The Myth of the Machine. Mostly I just want to announce that I've finished reading both volumes. I've been reading them piecemeal a couple of pages a day for more than a year, and I finally finished the second volume last night. The main thing that has struck me while reading these volumes is the influence he must have had on Deleuze and Guattari. It may sound a bit odd, but I am convinced of the connection. First of all, from citations in A Thousand Plateaus, I know they read him. It may only have been the essay version of The Myth of the Machine, but there is sufficient commonality to suggest a fuller reading. Prime among these is the notion of assemblage, a term Mumford uses throughout the volumes to refer to a socio-technic system for transforming the world. More specifically, D&G appear to draw their concept of the war machine from the machine in Mumford's title. For Mumford the machine is the model for the modern power complex that strives to centrally manage society as if it were a mechanical device. That is, the machine cum war machine is an assemblage for channeling living energy. For Mumford, the machine is too rigid to contain living, creative energy and is thus prone to breakdowns that open opportunities for revitalization and renewal. These openings, of course, are D&G's lines of flight.

There are also strong parallels between the history Mumford offers and that of D&G. Both parties argue that the modern state was created by hunting tribes dominating pastoral cultivators. And both highlight the role of metallurgy. I understand that D&G got many ideas from Pierre Clastres, but he is next on my reading list, so I do not want to push this potential influence further at this time.

Most striking to me now, however, is Mumford's final chapter on materialization and etherialization. These concepts parallel D&G's territorialization and deterritorialization. Materialization, like territorialization, refers the process by which pre-linguistic ideas gradually take on material form; and etherialization refers to the opposite process by which material form crumbles over time until it is hidden in our language and thought, like long lost etymologies. For these three authors, these two processes are always interacting and shaping each other in a nondirectional evolutionary process. They are also profoundly human and subject to human determination.

All these parallels suggest to me that D&G drew many ideas from Mumford. It may have been that this way of understanding the world was materializing all over and both parties simply followed the same natural course. Regardless, I believe I will have to dig deeper into history. Not to determine who influenced whom, but to read Patrick Geddes's work. Mumford consistently contributes his most fundamental understandings to his advisor, Geddes. So, if Mumford influenced D&G, then Geddes was an indirect influence. If the Mumford and D&G only moved along parallel paths, Geddes's writing should still offer a productive framework for considering D&G's writing. It doesn't hurt, of course, that I am an urban planner and Geddes was one of the most influential early planners.