Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Earth Day 2021: Travel in Troubled Times

Lake Mineral Wells from Penitentiary Hollow Overlook
To celebrate our newly vaccinated status, The Beloved Spouse, the Adventure Girls, and I recently took our retro canned ham, Porco Rosso, for a mid-week getaway to Lake Mineral Wells State Park. We're still masking in public, although we're no longer topping N-95 masks (made in Fort Worth) with the cute Studio Ghibli Porco Rosso and Totoro masks we bought through Etsy. Just the Ghibli masks now, mostly to send a message, and to prevent inadvertent spreading around of bugs that might be emitted by others. Traveling responsibly nowadays requires both following pandemic mitigation procedures--and preventing as much environmental degradation as possible.

As I've often whinged about on this blog, we are decidedly ambivalent about where we live, but one thing I can say for Texas, it has some splendid State and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers parks. To help us come to terms with what seems to be a permanent situation, we decided last year to begin visiting these oases whenever possible. So in January of 2020, just as the Plague was descending upon Occupied Mexico, we found Palmetto State Park near(ish) Austin (the subject of my last Earth Day post), and in October we celebrated TBS's birthday at Lake Benbrook, just outside of Ft. Worth. This time we decided it would be nice to revisit a park I hadn't seen in about thirty five years, and that he had never visited at all. It's also only a short distance away, which is always good for our patient girls--especially Molly (the cat), who is the best traveling feline I've ever encountered, but doesn't like been cooped up forever. So, an hour and a half travel time means no food or potty stops for anyone, and a good long snooze for the animals.

We arrived by around three in the afternoon, got set up, and Nylah got a nice introductory walk. The campsite (in the Live Oak Campground) was wonderfully private, and the weather--although pretty windy--was fine, and we settled in well. We spent the better part of four days there (three nights), and saw gorgeous buzzard ballets every evening, lovely sunsets, frolicking rabbits, deer, geese, herons, egrets, myriad songbirds (a pair of cardinals lived at the campsite), and a few million (it seemed) oak leaf rollers or cankerworms floating on long strands from the live oaks. Every time we went out, we came back with several little inchworms clinging to various parts of both humans and pets.

Molly finally decided to use her new harness and get out of Porco for a couple of walks. She has been reluctant to emerge from the trailer, but we got her a new harness recommended by one of the RV people we watch who also travels with pets. This seems to be more comfortable than the previous attempt, and it's easier to get on and off her.  She also spent some time in the catio TBS made for her out of her old travel crate (a large screened dog crate we used for her in the old Wrangler, but replaced with a crash-tested, smaller carrier when we got the Gladiator).

The trailer itself attracts a fair amount of attention from passers-by because it's far smaller than most of the rigs we've seen in the parks we've visited. At only 20 feet, it looked somewhat out of place among the 35+ foot fifthwheels and gigantoid motorhomes occupying most of the nearby spaces. It's also really cute, with simple red and white trim, the Retro's retro logo, and its canned ham profile. It also doesn't have any swirls or other trim typical of many RVs on the market these days. We know, because we watch an embarrassing number of YouTube videos about what's new on the market. In general, European RVs are much nicer looking and more cleanly designed than those in the US, but there are a few exceptions, and the recent trend toward nostalgic travel trailers first offered us the re-issued Shasta Airflyte, and then the Retro. 

Here's where the Earth Day meditation comes in. One might fairly ask how, if we're so environmentally conscious, we can justify using up all that gas to pull a largish vehicle with a Jeep truck? Why aren't we driving a more fuel-efficient car and sleeping in a tent, or in one of the shelters provided by many of these parks?

Several reasons come to mind. One is the animals. We don't have anyone who can look after them, and since they were both abandoned by previous "owners," we're not happy about boarding them. And while we could probably make do with a smaller Jeep and a teardrop, it would be a tight squeeze for two adults, a 75 lb. dog and a 20 lb. cat. Tents would be a bit flimsy in some camping situations where one or both of them might start feeling territorial, so we chose a small-ish trailer with a bunkhouse layout (hence the two windows at the rear) so the cat could have some room for exercise.  Of course we moon over Airstreams and the new InTech Terra Oasis, with all their space and windows, but we are trying to minimize the footprint. And 20 feet is about all we can park in our hand-built driveway. What doesn't show in the photo is the solar array we used to power the trailer when it was sunny out (thus not using the shore-power), even though we had paid for a 50 amp hookup (we only use the 30 amp plug when we are using the park's power). 

TBS is keeping his eye on the progress of electric vehicles capable of towing Porco. Jeep is even making noises about a hybrid Gladiator, which we'd be happy to trade ours in on at some point. I should also mention that we don't fly, so there's that. I've developed a ridiculous phobia and haven't been on a plane since 2004--even though both of my parents were pilots. But that does keep us grounded, and long trips require careful planning and slower paces. It also gives us a chance to visit beautiful places and to spend time enjoying the scenic wonders of the American west.

I should also probably point out that while we're traveling as conscientiously as we can, we're also generating very little waste. We recycle everything in the trailer that we do at home, and even keep a compost bag in the freezer to hold whatever little food waste we generate. Our total trash output for the four days we were camped amounted to one tiny biobag with a few unrecyclable scraps of paper and odd bits of refuse. All of the recyclables went into a bag to be taken home to our municipal blue bin. 

When we make our big trip out west next fall, we'll map out recycling centers ahead of time, and make use of family compost bins when we can. Meals will be carefully planned so that we eat up everything we make, and have little or nothing to trash. No paper plates, no plastic forks, no styrofoam cups. We'll use as little propane as we can (we have portable electric induction cooktop), and take advantage of dispersed camping sites when available and accessible--and where we can use the solar setup.

We have noticed that many of the RV folks we watch on YouTube are manifesting interest in generating less waste and are making increasing use of solar power, so it may well be that climate change is raising awareness in the sphere of recreational travel.

When I think back on my earliest trailer travel experience (with my grandparents to Yellowstone National Park when I was about seven), the main difference I can see is simply in the size of the rig. They had a little sixteen-foot canned ham (which was later replaced by a sixteen-foot real Shasta Airflyte in the early sixties), which had an ice box instead of a 12 volt refrigerator. There was no air conditioner, but even now we try not to use ours by not traveling during the hottest part of the year. And we can't travel in freezing weather because ours is a three-season (only) trailer. Physical limits also kept travel down in my grandparents' day. Of course, weather was rather more predictable then, and the extremes weren't as pronounced. So we adapt.

Responsible traveling in this particular climatic "moment" requires thinking, planning, and foresight, as well as finding ways to compensate for environmental impact.  What we hope we're doing is that by keeping our everyday footprint as small as possible, we can compensate for any increase that might occur while we travel--and work diligently to keep that small as well.

I opened this post with a photo of Lake Mineral Wells (like almost all the lakes in Texas, it's a reservoir), and I'll close it with one of the sunset on the first night. Have a happy Earth Day, folks. I'm hoping more people will be able to get out and celebrate this year. Things do seem rather more promising in many ways than they did last year at this time.

Sunset at Lake Mineral Wells

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Only Collect

As I often do, I'm going to preface this post with a warning: beware of peregrination. Where I start is undoubtedly not where I will end. I'm not even sure it will even make sense. But connections have been buzzing through my busy brain for the last couple of days, and this is my effort to collect them--and to excuse the title.

Larry McMurtry died yesterday. He was only 84. I say only, because my father died at 83, and that was far too young for me. Anyway, I'm not really much of a McMurtry fan; I've only ever read Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, and except for Hud (a million years ago), I hadn't seen any of the films made from his books. But I was a fan of his store in Archer City, Booked Up (pictured at left) to where in our halcyon days friends would caravan out for a day of frolicking among the four warehouses that housed the wonderfully expansive collection of books in the most unlikely of places. We'd head out in the morning, stop for lunch at The Green Frog Cafe in Jacksboro, and not head back until we'd spent ourselves silly on boxes full of literary and philosophical treasures.

There weren't many bargains to be had, because McMurtry knew what he had and what everything was worth, but those trips were responsible for many linear feet of bookshelf occupants in our house to this day. I only spoke to him once, when he asked me if he could move my pile of books to a bench so he wouldn't trip over them while shelving new arrivals. But he was usually on site, and often managing the till when we checked out.

In 2013, I joined a Kickstarter campaign to fund a film about the gigantic auction McMurtry held to sell off the contents of all but one of his spaces, Books: A Documentary. I got a great tee-shirt, a tote bag, and some nifty bookmarks, but haven't heard anything about the film itself since 2014. 

Now, The Beloved Spouse and I own several thousand books, but we don't collect them. Lots of people do, which is why the auction at Booked Up did very well. The shop in the original building still exists (although what will become of it now, I don't know), but it's been at least a decade since our last trip. We've become more sparing in our accumulation of late, and the Plague has forced us to order books online. One of the reasons that McKinney was attractive enough for us to move here twenty years ago is that it had an antiquarian bookshop just off the Square downtown.  Alas, it closed a couple of years ago when the proprietor and his dog got too old to manage it. It's probably a tattoo parlor now; I haven't even looked to see what took its place. Archer City is a much smaller county seat than McKinney is, and it's rather surprising that McMurtry managed to keep the larger version of his enterprise going for as long as he did.

So, that was Thing One. Thing Two was inspired by my having noted in the letters section of this week's New Yorker a comment about Ann Pachett's piece in the March 8 issue, "How To Practice." Because The New Yorker occupies its own large share of space in our house (on shelves and coffee tables), I was able to locate it quickly, which I wanted to do because it's all about what the Swedes call "death cleaning." I'm at the stage in life where I love horrifying friends and family by talking frankly about a matter I consider immensely practical--even though I'm only just now in my 74th year, still ten years younger than my father was when he died. (Had he lived, he'd have turned 100 this Groundhog Day.) 

Patchett's lovely little piece re-inspired me to go back to what I'd started some time ago. I've already done a great deal of tidying up and have begun to address some new issues, but the article renewed my resolve. I didn't know this, but TBS was already thinking along the same lines and just now walked through our study on his way out to the garage to see what he could do about its contents. 

The impetus on his part began a few days ago when we rather suddenly realized that getting out of Texas was almost impossible--in part because of the effort it would take to get ourselves ready to move. Not even considering the expense of transporting what we don't want to get rid of, the physical labor involved is probably beyond us at this point. Nevertheless, the daily reminders of human mortality, and Patchett's timely admonition that what we don't take care of ourselves will be left to our survivors, makes a new effort at sorting-through our accidental collections a not just timely but also appropriate activity to occupy us for as long as the Plague persists.

What complicates the whole process is our increasing consciousness of waste. Everything that can be, must be recycled or repurposed or donated. So what can be, will be sorted into boxes for appropriate children, siblings, nieces, and nephews. We will, however, ask first, since we've been informed by numerous articles on similar topics that millennials don't want our crap. They're into experiences not stuff. But I'm not totally convinced, so I will ask. And then we'll box up the good stuff that might bring in a little cash at an estate sale, which my beloved daughter will no doubt be able to handle far better than I would. My greatest gift to her will, I hope, be the successful sorting of the boxes of memorabilia my mother had shipped to Dallas when she left Taiwan, and still hadn't dealt with when she died just before we moved north.

Mortality is central to being human. And memory is what staves it off, or at least makes it bearable. And the older we get, the more fragile memory--and mortality--become. Writers whose works have influenced our lives are well worth remembering, and so are the objects our forebears have left us and that have filled our homes and helped to shape our memories. Quite often, those objects actually consist of beloved books that have been passed on through generations. It was clear that many of the books I brought back from Booked Up had been just that sort of memento.

Because writers often gravitate towards books, it's probably no real coincidence that both Ann Patchett and Larry McMurtry own(ed) bookshops. Patchett's independent Parnassus Books in Nashville is rather different from McMurtry's, but if I ever have a chance to visit my oldest friend in the world (who lives there) I imagine it will be one of the first places I seek out. If TBS and I ever do shake off the bonds that keep us in Texas, I'm pretty sure we'll settle somewhere with a shop or two. 

Larry McMurtry notes in Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, as a reason for opening up his "anthology of bookshops past," that "books are the fuel of genius." And even though his legacy in Archer City is rather smaller than it once would have been, and even if it fades away for good now that he's gone, it's one that lives in the many of us who visited and spent so many happy hours within its several walls.

Image credit: The photo, an interior shot of one of Booked Up's four warehouses, is by someone called "Cohee (Talk)" via Wikipedia.


Sunday, March 21, 2021

Spring At Last--More Or Less

I meant to get this up yesterday, on the actual date of the equinox, but I became sidetracked by revisiting old spring posts and comparing notes with myself. For a different spring celebration, peek back to last year's post with its better photos and better outcome: Finding Things to Celebrate: The Vernal Equinox.

This year, everything's late, with the exception of one lone iris; these usually appear toward the middle of April, but this one was apparently confused by the unusual weather. Wisteria, which should be in full feather at this point, is only just beginning to bloom. I can smell a  bit of holly blossom, but the flowers are still almost invisible. Daffodils are pretty much gone, but it does look like the paperwhites will survive, since their stems are back. Meager bits of redbuds are showing, but it's clear that we've lost a major trunk. I may give up and plant a more robust version in its corner, now that I've moved the compost bins (to keep Molly from using them to vault up to next-door's fence). I do enjoy encouraging the volunteers, however.

There should be better sun in that corner this year, due to the severe pruning we did of the privets last fall. Speaking of which, there's still no sign of life on those. But one I planted on the back fence two years ago is leafing out nicely, although it won't be of much use as a screening plant for a while, because it's still quite small.

By this time last year, the figs were promising; big leaves had emerged and a couple of tiny figlets were popping up. This year: nothing. It may have frozen down to the ground this year (as it has in the past), which means we'll have no figs until quite late, if at all. Sigh.

What this all adds up to is that every day brings a small adventure. As soon as I can get to a nursery, I'll fill in some gaps with perennials. I'll get baby veg from Whole foods, and maybe a couple of well-started tomatoes from Costco, but I'm a little less ambitious than I have been.  Now that the greenhouse is in, the soil needs building up, which means assembling compost and well-rotted goodies from behind the garage. This is the site of an attempt at hugulkultur, but has mostly been forgotten, so it's probably time to do something with whatever has come of it. What we need to be doing now is planning for the future that involves mostly things that come back without our help. Now that I have access to a local farmers' co-op, growing an abundance of my own food is less compelling.

The Beloved Spouse and I recently came to a rather sudden realization that moving west permanently is so impractical as to be impossible. (It involves clearing out the garage.) So we've begun to focus on making our place as habitable as we can, and as tolerable as is practicable. This involves putting up a well-insulated tool shed to block the pool pump noise from next door, creating more seclusion by judicious planting along the back and side fences, and rewilding major swaths of the property--while still maintaining spaces for pet-entertainment, human conviviality, and post-pandemic social engagement. 

To address our continuing malaise about where we live, we've vowed to take Porco and the pets and just get out on the road, frequently. In early April, we're taking a trip to Lake Mineral Wells, one of my old hiking haunts from about forty years back. A longer trip much further west is in early planning stages, and exactly when will depend on traffic. RV travel has been quite popular during the Plague, so we're unsure about when we should go. At the moment it looks like late spring or early fall, to avoid as many crowds as possible. The popularity of Nomadland and YouTube RV vlogs makes us a bit leery of gigantic fifth-wheels taking over the desert in mobs. But we will be able to boondock, so that promises to open up some options.

By April 2 we'll both have been fully vaccinated, and so will most of our family. Things are thus looking up, and we should have a fair-weather respite before warm-weather storm conditions begin factoring into our travel ambitions. 

I've written before about my efforts at learning to love the prairie, but hadn't realized at the time that it would become so difficult. Noise, politics, greed, and concrete are only a few of the components that make retirement much tougher than we had anticipated. Some of that has been ameliorated by the regime change in DC, but it will be some time before this part of the world gets over its antipathy toward intelligence, wisdom, and expertise. [Revisiting the linked post (to 9 May 2017) has provided a bit of perspective (we were also contemplating permanence at the time); the current condition of my memory makes it difficult to recall all of the many attempts I've made to reconcile myself to exile in Texas.]

Unfortunately, time is what we have less and less of. But spring does make it easier to ease our anxieties and make better use of that time, by ushering a welcome breath of optimism. 

If anyone who reads this is wondering (as my students used to, constantly) why anyone would want to maintain a blog (let alone more than one), philosophizing and fostering memory both provide compelling excuses. Not many folks frequent my posts, but in the absence of friends and family to keep memory alive, writing is its own reward. I recommend it to young and old alike, because time itself is so very fleeting. 

The last year, as problematic as it has been, is gone. Already. Although far too many people have suffered far to grievously,  it will not be long now before what becomes normality (I'm not sure we can actually return to it) overcomes the recollection of at least a few of the trials.

So, if you haven't already, I urge you to at least begin to keep a journal. Think about shifting from daily snippets on Facebook to longer, more thoughtful posts directed at your family and its collective memory. I have only recently discovered how very fortunate I have been to acquire a repository of family letters, and to have kept numerous journals and several blogs. I rejected Facebook and Twitter from the beginning, and will have more to say about what Jenny Odell calls the Attention Economy in my next post. In the meantime, I'm going out to lay in my hammock with Odell's book, and enjoy the first full day of spring.

Be well, stay safe, and get vaccinated!!