Day 55 – Home

When I first brought up the idea of this summer trip, someone pointed me to a video of comedian Howard Kremer performing at the UCB theater:

I am happy to say, my friends… Summah = Had!


Barcode time!

If you missed it, all of the photographs I’ve been taking have been working towards the goal of putting together a “barcode image” (an idea inspired by the Movie Barcode tumblr).

After 55 days and 94 select photographs of landscapes around the country, this is what my trip looks like in a tight, 700×295 pixel package:


Mileage check!

I had originally estimated that this trip would take me 11,200 miles. Looks like I was a little off. The final tally ends up being around 13,500! Check out the odometer comparisons between Day 1 and Day 55!

(note: I didn’t reset the Trip A counter at all while driving. Apparently it doesn’t display enough digits once you get past 10,000 miles)


And finally, I leave you with my last audio journal:

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Day 54 – Riverfront

Starting off today with a few more pictures. The first one, appropriately, is of the sunrise over the western Montana mountains. I love how you can still see the fog in the air that usually clears up by mid-morning:

Driving a little further into the edge of Montana and into Idaho, it’s kind of impressive to notice how much of the mountains are simply covered with trees and trees and more trees:


In Spokane, Washington I hung around the Riverfront Park where there are carnival rides for kids to enjoy year-round as well as food vendors. I stopped at a shaved ice pavilion and met Mackenzie and Cynthia. Mackenzie reminded me very much of Allison, who I had met in Michigan (on Day 42 if you’re keeping score. She had an infectiously upbeat personality, which was all the more surprising given some of the trials she’s been through in the past few years. You see, I started talking to Mackenzie because Cynthia said “She’s the storyteller here.”

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Begging forgiveness for pressing on what I was sure was an exhausted subject to her, I asked Mackenzie about her first seizures. (note: the “her” she refers to is Cynthia)

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We talked about other subjects as well, including math and a shared love of board games (particularly Munchkin! Woohoo!). But I’m not sure I’d ever want to play a game with Mackenzie. You see, she’s got some bad habits. They started coming to the foreground when we were talking about more traditional board games, like Monopoly:

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Yikes!

The evening was approaching, and it was time for Cynthia to close up the shaved ice pavilion and for me to move on.


Walking towards the river (hence “Riverfront Park”), I met Joey, who was hanging out with his friends. Joey said he’d share some stories with me, but when we sat down to talk he was pretty rambly. He admitted that he was pretty high already, so the structure of his conversation shouldn’t be terribly surprising. I’m including a piece of it here simply because I’m kind of fascinated by conversation that comes from altered states of mind.

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As Joey spoke, I noticed other little telltale signs of potential body decay that might indicate other drug use as well. And I’m not implying anything, but it hadn’t escaped my notice that Montana, Idaho, and Eastern Washington seem to have a lot of billboards urging folks to stop using (or not start using) meth. The size of the campaign seems to speak of a large population of meth users up here. Joey and his friends may or may not be part of that population.

Whatever the case, Joey doesn’t attribute any of his demon experiences with the drugs he’s done. And I have to say that I occasionally enjoy entertaining the thought that maybe people like Joey really do have a larger understanding of the world and the universe in a very Lovecraftian kind of way, and the only way to cope with the madness is to turn to numbing agents like marijuana, alcohol, and harder drugs.

Honestly, though, I never entertain those thoughts for very long. ;)


I walked down by the river and spent some time watching a waterfall:

And then took the path a little further to find the sunset reflected in the windows of a building just beyond a bridge:

With that, I knew it was time for me to get some rest for the remainder of the trip tomorrow.

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Day 53 – Hitchers

I spent the night outside of Billings, Montana. When I woke up I met Eugene, a short and scrappy 50 year-old man with a few days’ growth of gray stubble covering his face, and a thin yellow foil-wrapped cigar tucked into his stocking cap. His eyes were blue; that is, the parts that weren’t bloodshot red.

Eugene was walking past my car in a parking lot when he pointed towards my license plate and said “Oregon!” I said “Pardon?” He said “You’re from Oregon! Where from?” I told him I was from Portland, and he told me he was heading back home to Medford where he hadn’t been for years.

Eugene has spent time in and out of prisons in Texas, Nevada, New England, and probably a few other places he didn’t tell me about. In fact, he said he was going to have to sneak back into Medford since there were still warrants out for his arrest in Oregon. And California, for that matter. “Can’t go back there,” he said almost proudly.

He’s been hitchhiking his way around back home to see his mother. Hitchhiking isn’t always bad, but you have to be careful. Eugene told me about one time that got really dangerous:

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We talked for a little bit longer, but he told me he was only hanging out at this particular convenience store until 8am, which was the earliest that they would sell him beer. I wasn’t sure whether to be more shocked that he was hanging around to start drinking at 8 am or that the store wouldn’t sell earlier than 8. Really, if you’re going to sell beer in the morning, 8 o’clock is where you draw the line?

Anyway, 8 o’clock rolled around and Eugene went on his way, and so did I.


On my way to Big Timber, Montana, I met Rob. Rob was hitching to Bozeman to look for work and I agreed to take him as far as I was going.

Sadly, Big Timber didn’t turn out to be quite the town of colorful storytellers I was told it would be, so I left after a few hours. And who did I find by the side of the road still trying to get the rest of the way to Bozeman? None other than poor old Rob, who had been sitting in the sun since I had dropped him off.

I felt bad that he hadn’t made any progress, but was happy that I could help him get to where he was going. So he hopped back into the car and we headed west.

Rob is a nature photographer, and has shot some stunning photos of the mountains and lakes he’s climbed and hiked around the country. You can check out his work here. :)


In the evening I picked up Bob, short for Bobby Lee (“It’s a Southern name, see.”), a gruff man in his 60′s who had been baking in the sun while trying to make his way through Montana to Idaho. I was happy to have him along for the ride and for some conversation.

We drove past a big roller-truck, the kind they use for making roads, and Bob said that he used to run heavy equipment like that for $30 an hour. He could have made a lot of money at that, he said, but he ran into an incident that prevented him from working on that job for very long.

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P.S. I recorded that one while I was driving, holding the steering wheel in one hand and the microphone in the other. While I’m glad I got the story, it was a foolish thing to do. I’m lucky that nothing traumatic happened while I was recording. Only minutes after I put the microphone down and placed both hands back on the wheel, a blown-out truck tire emerged from the darkness in the middle of the road as we were running 80mph through Montana. It seemed to come from nowhere! I hardly had time to swerve, and we caught a bit of it on the front bumper which nearly made me lose control of the car. Our hearts were beating double-time, and it was only too clear to me that if I had still been holding that mic in my one hand, there would very likely be a different ending to this close-call story.

Safety first, people. Lesson learned.


Book review!

I know what you’re thinking: “Two book reviews in as many days?!? How does he manage it?!??”

The trick is that all of the books before now have been audiobooks I’ve listened to while driving. This one is one I’ve been taking piece by piece on my Kindle once I’ve stopped driving for the night.

I cannot say enough good things about Nicholson Baker! I love his work, and I look forward to each new book of his that I pick up. He has such a joyous playfulness with language and situation, and the stream-of-consciousness of his characters comes across as completely sincere.

Check out, for example, The Everlasting Story of Nory, about a 10 year old girl who moves to England with her family and has to start in a new school with new friends. You’d be hard pressed to believe it wasn’t actually written by a 10 year old girl.

For more daring readers, look into Vox or The Fermatta, but only if you’re okay with things occasionally dipping into more *ahem* mature subject matters.

The Anthologist is about a poet who is struggling to write the introduction to a poetry anthology he’s compiled. But the book is anything but angsty. It’s a personal and fun exploration of poetry, how to read it, and poetry’s changing place throughout history, not to mention the lives of our narrator’s favorite poets.

Even for someone like me, who has never felt a close tie to poetry, this book was a joy to read. It makes me feel like Nicholson Baker writes solely for me, like I’m the one who gets him. Except I know that it’s got to be more universal than that or he wouldn’t have been such a notable author for the past two decades.

Seriously, go out and pick up The Anthologist or anything else by Nicholson Baker. I can almost guarantee you’ll be glad you did.

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Day 52 – Big Sky

They call Montana “Big Sky,” and they call it that for a reason. When you drive through Montana (or goodness, I can’t even imagine what it’s like being a rancher on the plains), there isn’t much to look at except for sky, sky, and more sky.

It’s pretty amazing in its own way. Photographs can’t nearly capture the immensity, the 360-degree, the panorama of the sky that you get in Montana; you just have to come here and see it for yourself. Still, I did find a few interesting places to pull over and get some of the more interesting landscapes:


Book review!

There is a certain kind of non-fiction, popularized science book that has become its own genre in the past few decades. They are books that re-examine things that we reason as common sense, simple and true, and ask “What if the opposite is true? Or what if things are more complex than we think, and there is a lot of evidence to back it up?”

One of my favorite illustrations of this kind of thinking is the way the sun rises and sets. For thousands of years our own eyes told us that the Earth stands still while the sun revolves around us. I mean, hey, look up in the sky and your own experience will tell you that it’s so. It wasn’t until Galileo came along and said “Actually, it’s the Earth that’s orbiting the sun, but the Earth is also rotating. Both of those facts combined give the appearance of the sun orbiting around us. But that just isn’t the way it works.”

In order to offer a counter-explanation, however, you need someone who is really really good at explaining things to an interested public who doesn’t have the scientific background to understand journal articles laden with tables and charts of data.

I’m happy to say that Christopher Ryan’s and Cacilda Jethá’s Sex at Dawn succeeds on nearly every level at accomplishing their goal.

The goal of the book is to re-examine the standard narrative of human monogamous relationships (“We are meant to find a mate and be monogamous for life. Infidelity is unnatural. Cheaters deserve their derision.”) and turn it on its head asking “What if humans evolved to live and love and sleep with many partners? Can we find evidence of this in the distant past as well as the present?”

They can, and do, over and over. And they do it with a good sense of humor laced with a touch of sarcasm, reminiscent of Richard Dawkins’s writing (though maybe a little less acerbic). It’s fascinating to hear so much of the “standard narrative” research turned on its head and shown to be very twisted and contorted in order to make the data fit that narrative. The simpler, though less socially acceptable, answer seems to come over and over again: human beings have not evolved to be monogamous–that’s simply the mold that our culture and religion try to push us into.

Evidence of this is found all over the place, everywhere from our nearest genetic relatives (bonobos and chimpanzees), to the lives of pre-agriculture humans, to the basic biology of male testosterone and even the human female’s capacity and pleasure in orgasm.

I enjoyed the audiobook version of Sex at Dawn very much, but I think I’d like to purchase the physical copy as well and give it a read. Ryan and Jethá tend to use long sentences, detoured here and there by parenthetical phrases, and it would be much easier if I were able to see the commas, parenthesis, and quotation marks on the page. Not to mention that I ended up re-listening to passage after passage in order to follow along, which I may not have had to do if I were reading at my own pace on the page.

That’s not to say the book is poorly written. It’s anything but. Maybe it just doesn’t come across as powerfully in audio form. It’s still plenty powerful, though.

The one other thing I noticed about the book is that it seems to have a few proponents of the standard narrative that it picks on over and over. This is understandable, and maybe even necessary. But one of them is a man I respect very much: Steven Pinker, author of (among other things) The Language Instinct and Words and Rules. Those two books changed my thinking on language, and I can’t say enough good things about them. So when I hear people beating up on Steven Pinker, it strikes a sour note with me. The trouble is, Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá appear to have all of their facts and arguments right on the money. So what do I do with the fact that they’re attacking this hero of mine?

Well, for one thing, they’re attacking Pinker’s arguments on human social behavior and his research supporting his beliefs in humanity’s natural propensity for war and gender roles. (two different arguments, but they find good fault with both of them) They don’t address his linguistic scholarship at all. Is it possible for someone to have all of their facts and research correct in linguistics but be way off the mark when they examine other fields of study? Of course it is. (I came across a similar disconnect a few years ago when I fell in love with John McWhorter’s linguistic work, but found that I completely disagreed with his political views)

So it looks like I’ll have to expand my thinking on the scientists I admire. I’ll have to recognize that they may be very right about some things, but very wrong (or at least very misinformed) about others. And to be fair, Ryan and Jethá do this over and over in Sex at Dawn, particularly with Charles Darwin whose genius they acknowledge while at the same time taking apart some of his less-informed views of gender and mating.

My favorite thing about this book, however, comes from the introduction. Ryan and Jethá say that they’re not trying to make an argument for non-monogamy (though the book could certainly support such an argument), they are simply putting their research out there to the general public and saying “Here’s the information we’ve found and the conclusions we’ve drawn. Do with it what you’d like.”

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Day 51 – Car Wash

For some reason, I’ve always loved the sight of a field with hay bales in it. I think it has something to do with randomness, and color and shape, but it always looks so pretty to me:

However, most of today was spent driving through rancher country in Nebraska, known as the Sand Hills because of, well, the rolling hills of sand that cover the region.


In the middle of the day I passed by two teenagers standing by the road holding signs advertising “CAR WASH.” Well “Heck,” I thought, “this car could sure use a wash.” So I pulled over and they directed me up the driveway to the Hyannis, Nebraska high school where a group of students were giving car washes to raise money for the school band’s and choir’s future trip to perform in Branson, Missouri.

Of course I had to take the opportunity to see if any of them cared to share stories. It started off a little slow (understandable any time a stranger approaches you mid-day and says “Got any stories???”), but things got rolling pretty good once the band director, Brian Regier, got it started with a story from his college days:

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Then a young man named Aaron said he had a story to share:

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I know that the impressive thing in that story is supposed to be the cat, but I’m fascinated by a guy who goes to visit his neighbor… by plane!! Then again, some of the high-schoolers seemed curious that my bicycle is my main mode of transportation back home. That works well because everything is so closely packed in in a city, I suppose. But when you live in an area where your nearest neighbor is 3 miles away, maybe a plane does make more sense for transportation.

Conversation turned to the weather, and with the hurricane on the east coast at the moment, I was curious about some of the extreme whether that happens in places like Nebraska. It turns out that tornadoes and funnel clouds are relatively common:

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Kelsey said that wasn’t much of a story, but I simply love the image of sitting in a boat on the lake when the sky fills up with funnel clouds!

Payton shared his memory of the first tornado he saw:

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“Little Twister” almost makes it sound adorable, doesn’t it??

Stephanie, a diminutive, but tough-as-nails-looking young woman, stepped forward to offer this story:

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A few minutes later, she also remembered a tornado story she wanted to share:

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Payton recalled a story from when he was a little kid:

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A few more cars pulled into the parking lot and everyone had to get their soap-buckets and hoses, so I bid them farewell and wished them all the best of luck in getting all the money they need to fund their trip to Branson. It sounds like it’ll be pretty exciting when then get there!


A little further down the road, I caught these two stunning landscapes. What’s even more impressive is that they are directly across the highway from each other. If the highway weren’t there, this would be the same land!

I’m curious about those trees–whether they died naturally, or if there was a fire, or…? But they’ve certainly left a striking image.

And finally, after a full day of driving and car washes, this is where I ended up:

Not a bad place to stop for the night.

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Day 50 – State Fair!

Today’s plan:
Drive from Des Moines, IA to Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.

The kink in today’s plan:
I saw a billboard for the Nebraska State Fair in Grand Island, Nebraska.

So I said “Screw it, I’m goin’ to the state fair!”

I had no idea what I would find once I arrived–I haven’t been to a fair since I was a little kid–but I was super excited when, just inside the entrance, I found that I was moments away from the next performance of the Paul Bunyan Lumberjack Show!

The show included a demonstration of targeted axe-throwing, chainsaw sculpture, crosscutting, and a saw competition between a two-man saw and a chainsaw!

The show was hosted by Lee, seen here enjoying the heck out of his souped up chainsaw:

Lee’s patter for the show was full of totally awful jokes and puns (which is to say, totally awesome jokes and puns), and the show even ended with a for reals log-rolling competition!

That’s Fred in the red and Webb in the green. The competition was fierce, but then Webb started to lose his balance…

And then, inevitably, this happened:

Ain’t no comin’ back from that.

That’s all the more impressive of an accomplishment from Fred once you hear the story Lee told me after the show:

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Pretty impressive, right? Right!


After the lumberjack show, I headed over to the exhibition halls showing the livestock. I was especially taken with the birthing pavilion, where expectant mothers and newborn babies were kept. There were incubators with chicken eggs (some of which had already hatched), a cow who was likely to give birth soon, and a few pigs with fresh litters and one poor sow who was in obvious discomfort waiting out the final hours until her 10 to 12 new piglets arrived:

This is one of the adorable piglets from the neighboring pens, by the way:

But my favorite pen had some lambs who were only a few hours old. They were absolutely adorable, still learning to walk (and even hopping on all fours! did you know they do that?? I didn’t!).

One of the lambs still had a bit of umbilical cord hanging from its midsection, just as its mother had a lot of the post-birth… um… stuff… hanging from her…um… area. It was a little bit disturbing for this city boy’s eyes, but hey, that’s nature and that’s what happens. No denying that.


Inside the sheep pavilion, I saw a 4 Horned Jacob Ram:

I didn’t know that there was even anything with 4 horns that existed! Cool!

I also met Bill, a rancher who has been showing animals for nearly 50 years. He is a large man with short gray hair, a beard, and unlike the standard rancher clothes everyone else seemed to be fitted with (jeans, button-down shirt, and cowboy hat), Bill wore khaki shorts and a large tie-dyed shirt with red suspenders. He agreed to talk with me, but only if he could kick back with a beer while we spoke. I was more than happy to oblige.

Bill told me about one of the old annual show competitions that used to take place in Chicago. It doesn’t happen there anymore, but it was the source of many a good memory for he and the other ranchers who would show their animals. They’d look forward to it every year. Bill told me about his first time getting ready to show at Chicago:

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Bill’s met a lot of wonderful people over his years of showing animals at over 1000 competitions, and he shared a story involving some of them:

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I think that’s terribly sweet. :)

Finally, this is one of Bill’s sheep that he was getting ready to show:

The coat is to keep the sheep clean for showtime. And although I wish I could have seen the sheep in all its glory, I kind of like the look of the coat–to me it makes the sheep look like a medieval knight, don’tya think?

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Day 49 – Rollin’

Although I’ve tended to cross the Old Mississip’ only twice on previous road trips (once going west, once coming back east), I think I actually zig-zagged across it a few times in Louisiana in July. But regardless of how many crossings I’ve had so far, this is the final time I’ll be seeing her in 2011.

Until we meet again, Old Man River!


In the evening I drove all over Des Moines, Iowa looking for some folks to interview. I found many potentials, but no one who would agree to step up on the mic.

I did want to mention Your Mom, though. No, no… not your mom. Your Mom. That is, the roller derby team from Des Moines. That is, the male roller derby team from Des Moines. I met them as they were leaving practice from a local skate arena. I had no idea that male teams were starting to take off in the sport, but they are! Oblivious to the guff they’ve been given for entering into what has recently been seen as a female sport, these guys seemed aggressive and ready to prove they’re worth paying attention to.

I wish they had had some time to tell some stories on the microphone, but I understand the imposition of asking them for their time late at night after getting out from an exhausting practice. Most of them were looking forward to getting back home to families and meals.

Better luck tomorrow, let’s hope!

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Day 48 – All Around Chicago

Talked to lots of folks around Chicago today. Let’s dive right in!

Ah, but first a disappointing note: Apparently the following interview did not record the entire way through. Normally that would encourage me to leave it out entirely, but in this case the story is simply too fascinating to shove aside.

I was in Pizzeria Due waiting 40 minutes for my deep dish pizza to cook (that’s not a complaint, that’s just how long it takes to make the pizza), so I thought I’d take the opportunity to talk to the hostess, Kiya, up front to see if she had any stories to share.

Like most people she claimed that she didn’t really have an interesting story in her life, but then her friend Ean said “She lived in Israel when she was a kid.” This was a little surprising because Kiya is black, and you wouldn’t normally associate black people with Israel. I asked if she was Jewish and she told me no, but her parents (or maybe just her mother?) were Black Hebrew. That’s different than being Jewish, but they still hold Israel as a holy place:

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And then, gahh, of all of the places for the recording to run out! I can only tell you that when she was 9, Kiya’s mother finally succeeded in sneaking her back out of Israel to the United States. She doesn’t remember how she was snuck home, only that she was.

It’s a story she doesn’t tell too often, partly because she doesn’t really feel like it defines her as an individual, and also because the few times she’s shared the story she usually gets accused of cribbing the story from the Sally Field movie Not Without My Daughter.


I biked up to Grant Park and snapped a quick photo of the giant Cloud Gate sculpture:


At the edge of the park I met Emily, a college student who was just digging in to the final few dozen pages of Slaughterhouse Five, and I simply had to say hello because I love Kurt Vonnegut.

Emily is incredibly friendly, and a natural storyteller to boot! It’s so wonderful when I come across someone with a natural instinct for storytelling; not only are they more compelling and fun to talk to, but they also make the whole audio-editing thing go a lot smoother. ;)

Ever since Brooklyn, I’m enjoying asking people about times they got in trouble as kids. Here’s Emily’s recollection:

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We talked a little more about Chicago, and the subject of crime came up. Depending on where you go crime is either a big problem or a slightly smaller problem, it seems. Had Emily ever run into trouble in the city? She had:

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I biked on over to Navy Pier, snapping this photo along the way:

(okay, not the most stunning example of Chicago architecture, but I was mostly thinking of the “barcode” image I’m compiling for the end of the trip)


On the pier, I spotted a man who appeared to be in his late 50′s, wearing shorts, no shirt, sunglasses, and long locks of graying blond hair. His body looked, I’m not kidding, spectacular! Not ripped and cut, but very fit in a way that tells you that this isn’t a guy you want to eff with. In fact, although I say he appeared to be in his late 40′s, he could have told me he was in his early 40′s and I would have believed him.

He didn’t seem too keen on talking, but I did manage to get this much out of him:

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Down further on the pier, I met Georgette and Cha-lie. “There’s no R in it,” he told me. You see, Georgette and Charlie (I know, I know) are from Rhode Island originally. Even though they haven’t lived in the Ocean State for nearly two decades, they still had the accent.

They were in search of a good old-fashioned Chicago Hot Dog and a Beer, and they agreed to talk on the microphone once they accomplished their mission. It had been a long quest, and after we were all seated inside the Pier’s food court, I got the whole story:

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I also got this story of mischief from Charlie’s teenage years:

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For clarity, it was all of Charlie’s friends who were responsible but not Charlie himself– he was just as surprised as his mother, though maybe a little wiser about the source of the mysteriously appearing gourds.


I biked along the beach (yes, Chicago has a legitimate beach right there in the city! I was totally surprised!) to the neighborhood known as Boystown. I walked around looking for some folks to talk to, but was mostly told “No, thank you” by folks.

So I wandered in the nighttime around the houses and turned a corner to find myself face to face with… a baseball stadium! In full effect, in the middle of a Cubs game!

I neither know how there were no indications that I was just around the corner from Wrigley Field, nor how I continue to stumble and bumble myself into these famous landmarks, but it was pretty exciting to see even if I’m not a baseball fan.

Feeling like the day had been long and full, I boarded the L train back home.

At one point I was the only person in the car for a few stops. Then a woman got on and sat at the other end of the car. She looked friendly, so I thought I’d try out a little joke:

“No, no, no… this is MY car!” I said, and made a gesture that she should find her own car. I thought I was being sweet and funny and exaggerated enough to be absolutely clear that I was joking, but she made such a stunned face that I quickly had to reassure her “I’m totally kidding. I’m totttttally kidding.”

She gave me a kind of smile, and when I remarked on her seeming shaken she said “I was startled is all.”

We spent the rest of the ride at opposite ends of the train car, in totally silence.

Guess I need to work on my material.

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Day 47 – Chicago Neighbors

Eric gets a little indulgent:

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And then shares his own Chicago story:

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Walking around North Chicago in the evening, I came across some folks hanging out on the corner with a massive black dog–something between a Rottweiler and a Labrador, probably. I was told he is “the best dog ever” and it was true, he was super well behaved and friendly. Not at all the impression I had of Rottweilers.

The dog belongs to Tim, a tall and soft-spoken man who was enjoying the evening talking to his neighbors Kim, her daughter Madeline, and her step-daughter Lexi. Kim is clearly a dog-lover, as evidenced by the several small dogs who kept poking their heads out of the curtains of her front windows behind her. In fact, you can even hear them yipping occasionally as she tells this story that happened just the night before:

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Oh, and about Tim’s dog, the greatest dog ever? He found him while he was working one day. You see, Tim boards up old houses. Strangely, it never occurred to me that there was someone who was responsible for that. He’s an independent contractor–not affiliated with a city service. When a house needs boarding up, Tim gets the call:

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Yeah. “Always an adventure” sounds about right. It can even get pretty dangerous at times:

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But sometimes it turns out that you find the world’s best dog in one of those houses, too, so it’s not all bad, right?

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Day 46 – Huntress

Spent the morning and early afternoon in Baraboo, Wisconsin at the Circus World Museum. I had expected a kind of half run-down amusement grounds with a few interesting exhibits. And while that’s pretty much what I found, superficially, I wasn’t prepared to enjoy the actual circus performances as much as I did!

The circus has never been a huge draw for me. I remember going a few times as a kid, but it was always more of an opportunity to get those souvenir flashlights with the plastic cones and streamers on them more than to see the animals and death-defying circus acts.

This time, however, I really was enthralled to see a spectacularly trained dog act (with 7 Pekanese and 1 moxie-filled terrier), an illusionist (performing one of my favorite illusions, the Metamorphosis), a skilled trapeze artist, a hula-hoop expert (manipulating upwards of 20 hoops all at once!), and a balancing act that blew my mind!

It made me think of how much more impressive all of these things are when seen live, as opposed to on television or movies. But it also made me wonder that maybe I needed to be an adult to really appreciate the time and effort and talent that goes into working on acts like these. As a kid, maybe I took too much for granted and didn’t understand entirely what I was seeing.

On another side note, I had to wonder a bit about the animal acts and what kind of training they went through. In addition to the dogs, there was a monkey, a beautiful dancing horse, a small pony, and the show-closer, Tiny the Elephant. None of these animals, I believe, comprehended what they were doing or why– and it kind of made me sad to see them being used for our entertainment instead of simply being animals. I’m sure their trainers/keepers/performers (I think they’re all one and the same, no?) love and care for the animals as best they can. But at the end of the day, there’s something a little bit icky about it that I just can’t shake.

Still and all, I had a fun time at Circus World. In addition to the performances, there is also a large collection of Circus parade cars, some going back as far as the 1920′s, and it’s amazing to see the wood-carving-and-painting-artistry and craft that went into creating the spectacle when, once upon a time, the would circus come to town.


In the early evening I was getting tired from driving so I pulled into a rest stop near Milton, Wisconsin. I slept for nearly two hours! (that’s a long time for a rest stop nap, for me anyways)

When I woke up I got out of my car and was intrigued to see a scrappy middle-aged woman with long graying hair, shorts and a blue t-shirt, stooped over the grass and gravel by the side of the road slowly examining the ground as if she had lost something. Only she hadn’t lost something– she would occasionally pick up a piece of gravel, look it over and either place it back on the ground or put it into a small plastic sandwich bag she carried with her.

I had to know more about what she was doing. So I asked.

It turns out that Darlene (that’s her name) collects rocks and fossils and rest stops–not to mention truck stops, camp grounds, and gravel mines–can be untapped resources for finding some beautiful specimens. From ancient fossils to semi-precious stones, it’s all there in the rocks by the grass if you know what to look for.

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Darlene also shared with me the process a rock goes through before she finds it:

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And the things she finds really are pretty spectacular. She showed me some of the stones she had found that still needed a little cleaning but were still pretty cool. She showed me a fossil that was clearly some kind of small animal at one time. But what really blew my mind were, get this: Shark’s teeth! And she had a ton of them! Big ones, small ones, pieces of the root attached, and sometimes even pieces of the gum and jaw attached– all found in the most innocuous-seeming places!

So the lesson here should be: keep your eyes open. You never know what lies just below your feet. :)

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