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.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

“I’m not sure I could pee on Kacy-ji’s face if she was stung by a jellyfish” – one of my students (note the honorific)

I love my students. They make me laugh, they keep me in check, they teach me, they support me, and they do all of these things for each other as well. Sometimes I think of our group as a sports team or as a band. I wonder what we would be called. I was sick in bed for almost the whole of last week – with a viral fever. There is nothing like being alone all day, day after day, and being bedridden to make one feel sorry for one’s self. There was plenty of time to make long mental lists of all of things to be grateful for and to look forward to. I missed home (Sage), and for the first time all year (and perhaps quite a bit longer) I missed my physical home: Point Reyes. Of course I have missed friends and family during that time, but suddenly I longed to go there. Here in the middle Himalayas, I felt very lucky to have so many caring people around me. One morning there was an anonymous note on my door that said, “feel better, Kacy-ji.” In addition to the wonderful people already here, my good friend Purvi came for a visit and a guest lecture. I had not seen her since I was last in Gujarat in May 2009. Over the years since then, as many of you know, I have wondered why of all the places in the world, I ended up in Gujarat. I haven’t wanted to go back. For a long time I have only been able to remember the challenges and discomforts. But here was another sign of how things have changed for me over the past year of being abroad. Spending time with Purvi (realizing that I still understand Gujarati!), with my dear friend Keith, and with my lovely students as they experience it all (rural India) for the first time, is definitely changing my relationship with India. I want to come back, and I think I’m even ready to return to Gujarat. Of course, I have no idea of the when or how of it. But being ready and interested is certainly a big step. Tonight we celebrated Deepa’s birthday by singing and dancing, eating and sitting around the fire. As I went into my cabin at the end of the night a couple of students walked by and said, “god, it keeps getting better”. Several of the students joke about taking a road trip to Middlebury to sit in on my classes and to meet Sage (who they can tell is absolutely amazing because of the way I talk about her). As the end of the program grows near, I am beginning to brainstorm about how I will get to come back to see my friends, to be in this incredible place again, to go back to Gujarat, and to finally fulfill some promises from my dissertation research. My dream is for the next job I get after Middlebury to be one that allows me to set up my own study abroad program with Keith in the Himalayas!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Sleep! That´s Where I´m a Viking.

I couldn't very well come to Norway without venturing into the far north, above the arctic circle. It's long been a dream of mine to hike the King's Trail in Lappland, Sweden, so I've traveled up here to the land of the midnight sun. On my way to the hiking trail, I've spent a few days kicking around the Lofoten Islands.

This area is famed for it's cod and herring fishery, still producing more salt cod than anywhere else. The cod migrate south from the Barents Sea and congregate here to spawn in the wintertime. They are caught by large and small fishing vessels and dried on racks on land in vast numbers. Most of the dried fish are taken down in June, but there are still some hanging on the sides of people's houses now.

The Norwegian government devolves much of the authority for managing the fishing stocks to the local communities here- with a fair amount of success. Still, its a hard life to be a fisherman and there are many abandoned villages along the Lofotens. In the summertime, the old fishermen's cabins are largely turned over to artists and tourists. With good reason: it is stunningly beautiful here. These islands are fierce, moss covered rocks rising up out of the north sea- their peaks capped with snow and wreathed with fog. Deep fjords carve into the land mass, and tiny, brightly colored houses cling to the shoreline beneath the cliffs. It must be a very unforgiving place in the winter time, but it sure is scenic.


Some of the largest and oldest ruins of Viking longhouses have been found on these islands. The warm Gulf Stream and the North Atlantic Current bring not only fish, but also a slightly more temperate climate- mild enough for a certain amount of agriculture, anyhow. The tall, blond Vikings lived here contemporaneously with the indigenous Sami people who still herd reindeer further inland in Finnmark, the region where Norway, Sweden, and Finland meet (and where I am headed next). It must have been from these islands that Viking ships sailed west toward Greenland, and eventually Newfoundland.

The Norwegians are quietly battling it out with Russia, Japan, the US, and Canada for both fishing and oil and mineral extraction rights in the Arctic Ocean and Barents Sea which were once more reliably covered with ice year round. Now that the Polar Ice Cap is melting, the possibility for resource extraction in this area has many nations vying to prove just how far their continental shelf extends north. Soon the volume of oil and gas extracted from these seas may rival the number of fish. And we might just get a Northwest Passage after all.

*the title of this post is one of my favorite quotes from The Simpsons. Ralph Wiggum is probably saying that he often dreams that he's a Viking, though I think it could also be interpreted that sleep is something he excels at.


Thursday, July 12, 2012

On The Road Again

I've spent the last week hiking in Rondane, Norway's oldest National Park. The mountains here are bare and rounded, covered with lichen and rock. It is the habitat of Reindeer and Musk Ox and lemmings. The playwright Ibsen loved to walk in Rondane, and every other trail or hut is named Peer Gynt. The weather has been lousy, rainy and foggy and cold, but I slept every night in warm, cosy huts, and ate three course meals cooked by the staff there. The Norwegians didn't seem to mind the weather. They geared up and hiked out into the fog and drizzle every morning, filling the huts at night. Next stop: Trondheim.

As much as I hated to leave the farm, I am glad to be traveling again. Being on the move has a certain addictive charm. The momentum itself keeps you going. From one meal to the bus or train to the next place to sleep. At some moments every change, every new thing, feels jarring. Nothing is familiar. Every day brings something different. But there is so much monotony, too, in travel: waiting an hour for the next bus, sitting on the train as the countryside rolls by, reading by the fire waiting for dinner hour. At times like these it's easy to forget how strange and wonderful it is to set out every day doing something you have never done before. What a gift it can be not to know what will happen from one day to the next.

Also, there's something wonderful about moving through the world like a wide-eyed five year old. Everything is suddenly new and I have no idea how the simplest things work. I can spend a half hour figuring out how to turn on the tap in the bathroom and feel accomplished when I finally get it. The simplest things become mysterious again, and the details of everyday existence take on new meaning. Of course, here in Europe, I don't have to remain a clueless child forever. Unlike traveling alone in Thailand, or India, the customs and signage are slightly more approachable. If I put my mind to it, I will eventually figure it out. And it's virtually guaranteed that someone nearby speaks English at least passably.

I do feel bad, of course, for being the stupid American who only speaks one language. I always think if I could have a superpower I'd love to be a polyglot. That said, there is something so wonderful about not understanding the babble around me. I don't have to be subjected to the inanity of other people's conversations. I can sit there with my own thoughts (fairly inane themselves, but at least mine), while background words blur into noise. Or I can look at other people and make up the conversations they might be having- making them as eloquent or as lewd as I prefer. The two men ahead of me on the bus this afternoon were having a lively conversation about pigs balls, or at least that's what it sounded like to me.

Of course, it is possible to be alone too much. You can easily go a tiny bit crazy if you've had too much time alone with your thoughts, particularly if you've been walking for hours through the rain and the mud in the mountains. On the train this afternoon, I found myself having a furious internal dialogue with the man in the row behind me who kept blowing his nose every few minutes with gusto. The sound itself was annoying and I also felt sure he would destroy his sinuses with the force of his blows. But I told myself not to get annoyed with him- it was hardly his fault that he had a cold. Then I began to feel annoyed that he was spreading his sickness through the stuffy air of the train compartment. I began to actually feel as if I was getting sick myself. I was furious with myself for letting myself be annoyed with him. I worked myself up into quite a fluster. When I finally turned around to get a look at the fellow, I realized that the noise I had been hearing actually came from the automatic sliding door- opening and closing as people came through the train compartment. I spent the rest of the train journey staring out the window, feeling very foolish indeed.