Sunday, October 7, 2012

For Amber Waves of Grain

Glacier National Park, east side

Every town in America has something it wants to tell you about itself as you drive through. Sometimes it's just the town motto, or the population, from the sign which welcomes you as you're driving in. Sometimes it's the historical monument or museum you ought to visit. Often there are signs pointing the way to particularly beautiful vistas, or 'historic downtowns' (many of them sadly empty and dying these days).  It seemed like every town in North Dakota had a sign listing all the different denominations of churches present in the area (all Christian, of course). Every town in Montana broadcast the mascot of their high schools' sports teams and their various state championships over the years.

The town of Poplar, Montana, which is the tribal seat for the tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, boasts the high school mascot the 'Indians.' The teams of the nearby town Culbertson, Montana, which is 89 percent white, are the 'Cowboys.' They don't pull any punches in Montana, I guess.

Glacier National Park, North Fork

I drove from Seattle across Idaho, Montana, and North Dakota on highway 2, also known as the Hi-Line.  The road is mostly two lanes with a speed limit of 70mph, and an endless vista of flat plains and wheat fields. You drive directly through  all the small towns along the route, slowing down to pass crumbling grain elevators and crusty looking bars. When you stop for lunch, you're sure to find a lot of ranch dressing. It's exactly what you want a cross country trip to be..... until you get to North Dakota.

borrowed from Flickr user calwest

Several years ago, North Dakota offered a tax break to oil companies to drill in their state. This, plus the development of new technology for horizontal drilling and fracking, led to an explosion of development over what is called the Bakken Formation in the Northwest corner of the state. When Travis and I drove across the border from Montana, we were instantly covered in a thick cloud of dust which hung in the air over the down of Williston, ND. They are building so many new roads and houses and hotels, that the construction itself has generated a dust cloud far out over the horizon. The drilling derricks are visible in the hundreds from the highways, and the flares light up the night sky. We arrived there in the early evening, hoping to find a hotel room for the night and quickly found that every hotel within driving radius was completely booked. We were lucky to find one room for $200.00 at the brand new hotel, Black Gold, which offered breakfast from 3:30am-8am. The nearby mini-mart was almost completely sold out of beer. A woman who worked at the hotel told us she could find no work in her home state of Minnesota, but landed a job in Williston within the first hour of arriving in town.

After Williston, the Hi-Line widens out into a four lane highway, so we dropped down across the state towards Fargo, and then took in Brainerd, Minnesota for good measure. In Minnesota, I dropped off Travis, and picked up Liz. We managed to absorb a little of the wonders of Wisconsin (

the Forevertron

) before we hit the ugly mess of interstates around Chicago. The cat managed to surprise quite a few toll booth operators in Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania by popping up from my lap to meow at them as I handed over the change or the ticket. Our goal that night was simple: Detroit.

borrowed from Flickr user bucksot.jones

 Having read a lot about both the rampant urban decay and the few hopeful renewal projects, Liz and I were both excited to see what we could of the city. We were not disappointed. Though I think were were both amazed at the extent of the decay, we had an incredibly wonderful lunch at the Avalon Bakery and drove around to the soundtrack of Detroit-natives Madonna and Eminem.

From there it was a relatively quick drive through upstate New York, across Lake Champlain, and into my new home state, Vermont. State Tree: Sugar Maple. State Fruit: Apple. State Mineral: Talc.

Tomorrow I start my new job producing Vermont Edition at Vermont Public Radio.

Liz with Vermont fall color

Travis and I at Glacier National Park

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

If you eat like a Vermonter....

We've traveled from India and Norway to land in the middle of small-town, dairy-farming, creemee-eating, swimming-hole-jumping, roadside-farm-stand, muggy New England summer Vermont. We've spent the last few days driving around, pointing out the window at adorable all-brick colonial farmhouses, and wondering what the bright green hills will look like in another month or two. We've found an apartment right in the center of town, so we can walk to all five local businesses and the college campus. Kacy has been settling in to her new office.

When I interviewed for a job at the local public radio station last week, they told me that, since the only restaurants nearby the station were fast food joints: "If you eat like a Vermonter, you'll have to bring your own lunch." What does a Vermonter eat like? "Oh, you know, local, seasonal, whole grain...stuff like that." I do believe we've come to the right place.

It's hard to synthesize how the last year of traveling has affected us in the long-term, or to imagine what kind of impact it is going to have on our future. I do know that we are both very thankful for all that we have learned, and for the kindness and generosity we have received along the way. We are also very glad to be back together again, building a home once more.


Though I never thought I would be a blogger, it has been an incredible experience for both of us to keep this record of our journeys. Thanks to all of you who have read these pages and sent comments and encouragement. If I get a chance, I'll post an update or two as I'm driving across the country, but for the most part, I believe this blog has reached the end of the road.  Middlebury, Vermont.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Norwegian Wood

Norway's three largest exports are: oil, fish, and black metal. That's not some kind of rare earth mineral, but rather a very specific variety of hard rock music. Black metal is satanic heavy metal music, mostly sung in Norwegian. The musicians often dress up in corpse paint and burn crosses on stage. The music is rabidly anti-christian and some of its most famous singers have also been arrested for burning down churches here in Norway. It is apparently very popular among a certain set of listeners.

Most of Norway's money, though, comes from oil. Norway currently produces about 12 percent of Europe's oil and 30 percent of their natural gas. They're not a part of OPEC, and they have repeatedly voted by a slim margin not to become part of the EU. They are pretty thankful for that now, though Norway's Prime Minister recently made a statement warning citizens that if things get worse for Europe, Norwegians too might begin to feel the pinch of this economic downturn.

This used to be a very poor country. Right up until oil was discovered in the early 1970's, leagues of poor Norwegians fled the country, ending up in places like Minnesota and Seattle to escape the desperate poverty of their homeland. This landscape, although stupendously beautiful, is isolating and difficult to farm or industrialize.

This is a ridiculously expensive country to travel in. Even if the exchange rate were better, the high taxes make things like food, alcohol, cigarettes, and transportation mindbogglingly priced (food is taxed at 28 percent, for example). A young American tourist I met the other day asked me what my favorite food experiences had been in my time here. I told her that actually I hadn't eaten so much ramen noodles since I was in college. I haven't had the guts to test my wallet against dinner at a restaurant here. Thank god I have been camping most of the time.

For Norwegians, though, things are not really so expensive. Currently Norway has the highest income per capita of anywhere in the world. Their income (and that of corporations) is progressively taxed up to 38 percent. All those high taxes fund what conservatives in America right now rail against as the specter of 'Socialism,' but here they refer to as social democracy. Norway is the classic welfare state. The Government provides a large quantity of money for education, health care, transportation, pensions, and other social services.

When I talk to Norwegians about this I very quickly turn green. There is state support for disability, single parents, unemployment, and skills training. Health care and pensions are completely provided by the government. The government also provides money and cheap loans for education and housing. There is a mandated 38 hour work week and 14 months of full-pay maternity/paternity leave. The farmer I worked with pooled her government vacation and sick leave pay with other farmers in the village to hire a 'replacement farmer' who shuffled between farms, covering for everyone when they had an emergency or needed a holiday.

The state has also made a conscious effort to hedge against the day when there is no more oil to draw out of the North Sea. They have invested heavily incentives for businesses involved in fish farming, medicine, technology, and renewable energy. There is a law which limits the use of petroleum revenues and mandates that the profits are invested into a pension fund. That fund is currently valued around $189 billion dollars.

This still seems to be a country in transition. It is not yet quite comfortable with wealth, and yet the people in general are now very well off. As you travel through the western fjord country you see thousands of tiny mountainside farms that were abandoned in the 70's and 80's. Many of them are now owned as vacation cabins. And yet you don't see a lot of SUV's, helicopters, iphones, or other evidence of conspicuous consumption. People told me it is not considered good taste to display your wealth.

Norway has quite a lot of millionaires, but not so many billionaires. The US has over 400 billionaires. In Norway there are four. One of them recently pledged to give away his entire fortune before he dies. Another can regularly be found selling fish from his boat on the pier in Oslo.

Of course this country is far from perfect. As a relatively homogenous society, they are struggling with increased immigration and I have personally encountered a fair amount of casual racism. That famous Scandinavian stoicism means that, while people friendly once approached, they are a long way from outgoing and cheerful. I will be glad to return to the US, however frustrated I have been trying to defend our economic system over the last several months.

Yesterday I was here:

Today I am here:

In a week I will be back in the US, and this long explore will be nearly at its end.