Friday, April 28, 2006

Out from Aurora, OH

I was astounded by the miles and miles of new housing in this distant suburb of Chicago, they all seem to have been just now built. I wonder what intensified the suburban sprawl in this particular area, a new highway, a big plant, a city that encourages development. It was a little alarming to see as it didn’t stop for what seemed like miles and miles. As we are fast approaching $3.00 gas, I wondered whether these people will be able to pay their mortgage and their gas bill to commute to work., and I worried that what must have all been corn fields last summer was now ¼ acre lots with houses on them. Leavittown on steroids. I assume that there were shopping areas and schools and churches nearby but I didn’t see any only land zoned commercial but yet unbuilt. At this rate, if ethanol is the answer, we will have nowhere left to grow the corn to make it. And anyway, how much tractor diesel does it take to grow it in the first place?

At this point we are staying off the interstates and rolling along on state roads which mainly go dead straight for miles and miles turn a pair of corners where a section line ended and then go on more and farther. The occasional speed zone slows us, but we don’t see a traffic light for 40-50 miles at a time.

Eventually, the housing infestation gives way to the land of corn, and the geometry of the farm buildings, and not much else. I am relieved, this is how the heart land is supposed to be. In this area there are old corn storage buildings that are made of cement bricks with holes in them that are round on each end and flattened on two sides, they have steep roofs perched on them with a smaller shed that sits on the top, sometimes with windows. Most of the corn storage is the steel cylinder with a conical hat, clustered together with conveyors and ducts drawing up to a point together so that one machine can move the grain to each building. There are also the cylinders of wire still here and there, although that doesn’t look as though it would keep the corn dry in either a driving wind or snow. The ones I see have whole ears of dried corn in them.

There are barns and sheds of every shape, half cylinder Quonset huts, half cylinder roofs on low walls, barns with roofs that go right down to the ground on two sides making me imagine wind driven snow. Lean-tos, open sided barns, gable roofs. Most of them are painted white and assume a visual punch in the endless fields beyond their actual size. Many of the older buildings appear to have had animals in them, but here there are few farm animals that I can see, everyone is growing corn as hard and fast as they can. The next day we see the low sheds set away from the rest of the buildings that mean pigs to me, and now and then we are passed by truck loads of pigs heading off to sausage land.

We pass through a wind farm, the huge slow blades turning against the sky. They too are white, and so big that I am fascinated by them. How tall are they ? How long are the blades? How big is the generator? They remind me of some of George Lucas’s imaginary Star Wars machines lumbering to do battle. I guess they are noisy, I wish I could stand right next to one and put my hand on the mast to feel the vibrations and hear what the blades sound like as they cut through the air. Compared to the old fashioned will mills or a pinwheel, they are very slow, but maybe the outside ends of the blades are going fast in a huge path against the sky. I can’t understand why anyone would not want at least 6 of these to look at, and free electricity besides, but I know that these rather innocent looking white tethered birds cause all kinds of NIMBY.

Near Cedar Rapids we stop for the night at a state park that is on the banks of the Cedar River, with Chinese brush painting rock cliffs along the river. It was a CCC project, so has been a state park for a long time and it is heavily treed. We go into the trees from the wide corn fields as if entering a room. Here spring wildflowers are under the trees, we walk along the river and up to a lodge of rock and rough round cedar beams with the original wrought iron light fixtures and long hand made tables and benches. One end is round and over looks the river with multi paned windows. I try to imagine what all those unemployed folks thought of their time in the woods, doing all this manual labor, were they city people? Did they have masonry and carpentry skills or did they learn all this right here ? It reminds me of the rather naive philosophy of the park movement, that poor urban troubled souls would be healed in the woods by a nice fire in a fieldstone fireplace eating simple fare and sleeping deep after a day of hiking or fishing. Thomas Jefferson would have approved. And Lord Baden-Powell. Our prison system still, I believe, has the idea that farming will tame the criminal mind, I wonder what the gangsters and gangstas would think of carving benches or milking a cow.

A night in Iowa at a state park called Brushy Creek, we have the place nearly to ourselves, self check-in and solitude. The park is there because Brushy Creek is dammed up, looks like terrific bass fishing, and it is a big enough creek that the whole park is down below the level of the flat prairie, you wouldn’t t know it was there until you came to the edge and drove down in. Hidden in plain view. The signs tell about how big wall eye or muskellunge have to be to keep.

Later in our travels, I begin to see single farm sized feed lots, beefers by the barn with the corn to fatten them all around them. And by the time we reach the Missouri River, the flat land rolls and tosses, and there are more cattle out on the hillsides, while they are still growing corn where they can, terracing the fields, contour plowing, alternating strips with grass. On the other side of the Missouri, corn gets scarcer and scarcer until it is all rolling grassland with cattle. Now I know I am west. All I need to see is the mountains

The high plains are an unforgiving place to live and farm, the wind blows constantly carrying away moisture and top soil. There are elaborate windbreaks, triple rows of trees around many of the homesteads, and rows planted along the edges of the fields to try and slow the remorseless wind. The land on the other hand feels soft somehow, the passage of a river or creek erodes and pulls the earth away at a fast rate and with no rocks to stabilize it, even the edges of a pretty good waterway are smoothed and rounded. The bottom of the great inland sea still moves with the elements, like the sand on the beach after a storm.

We cross and run parallel to the Missouri, with signs to say we are on Lewis and Clark’s route. I often wonder what a place would have looked like before “progress” came along. The prairies are pretty unchanged in general shape from L & C’s time, fences and roads and houses aside. I realize that if I had a copy of their journals I could read what they were seeing as I drove through. The Missouri makes the land roll, so I feel as though I am getting to the high plains with the velvet hills that roll bigger and bigger until they fetch up at the feet of the mountains.

We stop at Niobrara State Park for 2 nights. The Niobrara River (running water in Sioux) begins far away in Wyoming and runs into the Missouri right here. The Missouri is a relaxed river, very wide, lots of water, but here it wanders across the wide flood plain, moving sandbars, finding new short cuts. The Niobrara comes in fast and as it hits the slower Missouri, it curls and eddies, dropping its sediments as it slows. So the junction of the rivers is a maze of shifting channels. The park is on a big set of pretty large hills, and has cabins up on the very top for rent that over look the Missouri and picnic and tent areas up high too. The big RV campground is lower down and over looks the Niobrara. We walk and drive much of it, there are deer and turkeys everywhere, the turkeys are in full mating time and we come upon two or three toms all fanned out trying to impress a lady, and rushing at each other to run the other off. We walk out to many of the over looks and then, after dinner down to a trail on an old RR bed that uses the old bridge so we can get out right onto the river and watch the sun go down in a soft pink glow. Then we drive up to the highest part to use our cell phones for email as the last light fades.

On west, leaving the Missouri and the land flattens out again to corn and pasture, then just pasture and some hay fields in the bottom lands. The hills begin to roll again and to dry out and there are fewer and fewer cattle, and fewer farms, it takes many acres to support one cow out here. We are soon in the Rosebud Reservation, where the once mighty Sioux live in small government houses with yards filled with dead and dying cars and trucks. Sometimes in tiny towns, but often just scattered across the hills. Unlike the tidy farms of the Midwest, especially those of the Amish, most ranches are no thing of beauty, equipment and sheds, barns not always painted. But the homes on the “Rez” are a discouraging thing to see mile after mile. A Stone Age people unable to cope with either the 19th, the 20th or the 21st centuries, and seemingly physically unable to tolerate or learn to live with firewater and drugs.

The reservation ends, we come to the town of Interior SD where the hills are all dry and only faintly green, and the top soil has less and less of a hold on the silty muddy soil below, any washed out slope or creek corner shows the light sediment of the ocean floor. Gradually bits and pieces begin to stick up out of the grass, rearing up with horizontal lines of red sediment, and then we are at the Badlands.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Hitch Itch

I took my trailer over to Walt Barksdale’s undercover Airstream repair business. He lives on the western edge of Ocala, advertises not at all and has more work than he can cope with just by word of mouth. He keeps threatening to retire which is bad news. On the way a wave of feeling rolled over me, close to glee, that I was on the road with my home behind me. I only had a week left at the plant and tree factory, but there was a powerful temptation to just keep on going.

And now, April 5, I am gone.

We left Ocala together, Don on his second trip with his new trailer and me bringing up the rear. He did the navigating so all I had to do was motor along behind. I stopped to say good-by to Hunter, and to my buddies at Lowes, tears shed on both, and some sadness to be leaving Ocala where I have spent 2 winters and will not see next winter. There is a comfort in knowing where the bank and etc is, but I am ready for new.

Before we left, we actually did some tourist things: drove to Daytona and saw the Atlantic, stuffed with people and cars and pretty seedy. A lot of the older hotels are being torn down. Funny to see cars driving on the beach. We went twice to Cedar Key on the west coast of FL, just about the only actual Gulf access in miles of swamps. It was the end of the first cross FL RR and a serious shipping point for all sorts of things that supplied the Confederacy. The name reflects the pencil business that flourished there, graphite imported all the way from Siberia. Now they are aqua-culturing clams. We went to a nifty museum which included the house of one of the pencil workers left pretty much as he lived in it, including a HUGE collection of shells which are just lying around in boxes the way he must have had them. It is a nice quiet small town, with only one set of condos, and a lot of older cottages and houses. The old main street is still standing, although it needs a job.

Another trip was to Homassassa where a big spring sends hundreds of gallons of 72 degree fresh water out to the sea. It was a hunting preserve and resort, Winslow Homer visited and prints of some of his water colors were in the visitor center. There is a zoo of sorts for injured or retired tropical animals, including a Hippo movie star, several pathetic bald eagles who can’t fly, wonderful noisy bird area with fluorescent flamingos, pelicans herons, egrets, cranes all making a mighty racket at each other. Poultry is poultry, even in fancy dress.

The real draw is the manatees which used to come in for the winter when the Gulf gets too chilly and now some tame ones are kept there, too tame to be in the wild. They need two years with Mom to learn the ropes and these were born in captivity. Very curious creatures, one single rounded flipper for a tail, two stubby arms and a great snout. They are related to elephants and they come to get treats so we can see them, nuzzling the interpreter like great water-going dogs. They get run over by boats a lot, too slow and phlegmatic to get out of the way. Unless they raise their heads, they really look more like a large oblong patch of seaweed moving along with the wind or the tide. The cute factor, which is on lots of stuff in the gift shops, would only be visible underwater where they look like a cross between the Michelin man and a seal. Early Spanish explorers thought they were mermaids which indicates they were way too long at sea or were hallucinating on ergot.

I liked the underwater viewing area that looks out over the great blue hole that is the spring, here all sorts of ocean fish are having a winter vacation, milling around in the sunlight, flashing silver. I hoped to see one of the mantees through it, but no luck.

So Northward. The first night at a truck stop, Flying J, in Brunswick GA. Masses of other RV folks are on the road north too, and many of them stay for free in certain truck stops. We got in a very slow line for cheap fuel and tucked ourselves in for the night with trucks idling on either side. It is very hot, so they have to run to keep their sleeping cabs cool. We don’t have the big generator that his motor home had and kind of melt a little with our 12v roof fans running. It was amazing, but after a while we didn’t hear the trucks, and it cooled down and we slept well.

Next night in Latta SC at another Flying J, this one has a whole empty field for us snowbirds to park in for the night. I thought it would be quiet, but even with a whole field to park in, a small motor home pulled up so close to me that I could hardly open my truck doors and turned on their generator. Geez.

It was oppressively hot and very windy, a line of severe thunderstorms headed our way and, ack, tornado warnings. The Fifth Wheel has only one 12v outlet, so none of my 12v toys are any use, we went into the AS to log onto weather sites and watch to see if we needed to make a quick getaway. The storms passed to the south and the temperature cooled way down, so we had a nice night. I did bring over my dinky 12v TV so he could watch basketball. Smug.

We parted ways and I went on north, the leaves getting smaller and smaller and the traffic getting worse and worse. I am finding it hard to adjust to sitting in the driver’s seat essentially doing nothing physical for hours on end. I get out of the truck and hobble for a few steps. I guess I should think about the seat and how I am sitting in it.

A night in Pocohontis State Park, blessedly quiet after the truck stops, and odd to be solo again. There I got talking to the camp host who lives with his wife in a 5th wheel. He started to describe what they had done to the interior and I just had to see it. The walls are painted maroon and white stripes or lilac, with funky neo-hippy stuff hung on the walls. They removed all the existing cabinets and put in antique pine kitchen cabinets instead, and since they have 3 dogs in there, they made tables that double as kennels. It was a little hectic looking, and the color choices were a little wild, but they get high marks for attacking and molding it to their tastes and needs, and very high marks for whimsy and good cheer. They were going to come over to see mine after the lady got home from work but didn’t.

On to Harley and John’s house on the Potomac. The corn field that hid the river is now grassy, so we can see the gray line of the water, and the wind blows all the way from Europe on this chilly day, rocking the trailer and sending me digging for hidden warm clothes. The windmill still creaks in the wind. John hates it and it is a horrible squeal and sometimes a barking that sounds like the sound track to a movie that will have a bad thing happen any minute.

I wonder about this windmill. I don’t understand how anything made of metal that makes that much noise can still be turning with no maintenance. It has been there since 1857, but no one knows when it was last serviced. The old guy in the old house doesn’t. Some Amish folk came to try and buy it, but he wouldn’t sell. It almost certainly has been turning for 20 years without service, not pumping anything. I would have thought that the bearings would just be worn away by now.

We have a jolly dinner and leave the next day for the famous Cherry Blossom Rally.