I finally made it to the southernmost end of Florida and the greater Everglades ecoregion – I spent a week in and around Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve, adventuring by foot, boat, and bicycle and getting wet, muddy, and mosquito-bitten in the process! It was different from what I had expected, and I discovered some fascinating facts to pass on! Fresh water flowing slowly but steadily towards the ocean, over surface bedrock, has created five distinct ecosystems within those 4,000 square miles. The next few posts will go into more depth on what I learned and experienced, and provide some recommendations for exploring this area in even greater depth! Enjoy!
One of the purposes for my Midwestern road trip was a stop in the Loess Hills of western Iowa. They are a geological feature, an eco-region, and a socio-cultural distinction, none of which are well known beyond its boundaries!
I decided to take a quick roadtrip through the Midwest this summer – the middle of the Midwest, the part where no one goes for vacation! I drove across northern Iowa, then down its Western border, and continued following the Missouri River through its namesake state all the way down to its mouth in St. Louis. I popped in to South Dakota and Nebraska, but Kansas offered too much traffic for me to brave. You don’t think of traffic when you think of Kansas, do you?
This wasn’t just a whim; I had destinations in mind. When conceiving of the trip, those sites seemed disjunct, just a mix of places and things that I might be interested in. As I traveled, though, the pattern became obvious. I drove through cornfields to find prairies, through a modern metropolis to find an ancient civilization. I was exploring the beginnings of the American West, the conquering of wilderness, the root of our national psyche. There in the cornbelt, surrounded by the simple life, I found myself feeling that I was on the cusp of great excitement. In the middle of nowhere, at the edge of everything. Maybe Iowa should adopt that as its new motto.
“In battle, what cannot be predicted is the enemy’s reaction; in exploration, what cannot be predicted is what is around the next bend in the river or on the other side of the hill. The planning process, therefore, is as much guesswork as it is intelligent forecasting of the physical needs of the expedition. It tends to be frustrating, because the planner carries with him a nagging sense that he is making some simple mistakes that could be easily corrected in the planning stage, but may cause a dead loss when the mistake is discovered midway through the voyage.”
—Stephen Ambrose, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West
The journeys I take are not Voyages of Discovery, and they do not involve dozens of men for several year. Yet, I feel some sympathy for Ambrose’s description of Meriwether Lewis’s struggles in planning for the unknown. Though it can sometimes be stressful, I deny that it is in fact frustrating – at least not during the planning phase itself. I actually get a certain energy from the planning, spending much more time on it than necessary, and getting more excited for the trip ahead with every moment.
I love reading a map – planning the route of a road trip is one of the best parts. Deciding which personal effects to pack for a journey helps me realize my priorities. Determining meals for a backpacking trip makes me examine my true needs.
However, it is true that I usually pack too much. Maybe I am afraid of those “simple mistakes that could be easily corrected in the planning stage.” Of course, I’m sure most of you can attest that bringing along unnecessary items can be as big an error as omitting a useful tool!
The frustrating part for me is when the journey is not an adventure. Making hotel and plane reservations do indeed try my patience. I prefer to travel in a way that does not require advanced planning for every step of the way. Yet, even planning the complicated logistics of a longer trip or one with multiple participants or specific objectives to accomplish can stimulate me. In that case, it may be less excitement that I am feeling, and more a positive type of stress. It is that feeling that I imagine Captain Lewis to have had while planning his famous journey to discover what would become the western two-thirds of the United States.
What about you? Do you find planning and packing to be exhilarating or frustrating? Do you have tups to make the process go more smoothly? What is your favorite part about planning for a journey?
The photos on this page document the packing portion of a research project that I worked with in Chile, ten years ago. We not only had to pack our personal items, but also quite a bit of our food for four months, as well as materials for the project, including fence construction. These photos show us packing the gear once in Santiago, then bringing it to the boat yard in Valparaiso, where it was loaded into crates for its journey to our island destination. That was, indeed, a frustrating project! And yes, we packed many things that we never used, and not enough of some items we couldn’t do without! Luckily, we were not in uncharted waters, and were able to make things turn out alright in the end.
A friend sent me a text message this morning, wishing me a “Happy Earth Day!” Hunh, I commented, I hadn’t realized that was today. For some reason I thought it was the 24th of April, not the 22nd.
When I got to work, I wished my colleagues the same… and got the same response. “Hunh,” said one, “I thought it was on the 25th for some reason.”
Another wryly commented, “Didn’t you know? Every day is Earth Day… to a Forester!”
That’s right, folks, our office is full of people whose jobs are to think about the Earth, or at least the environment. We work for an agency whose leader sent out an Earth Day message, thanking us for what we do. We live in Wisconsin, the state where Earth Day was created, the state whose Wild Rivers legislation formed the basis for the National Wild and Scenic Rivers, the state where Aldo Leopold lived out his years with his family, the state where our soils, our minerals, our timber, and our waters form the basis for the economy as they always have. And we didn’t even notice it was Earth Day.
I’m not criticizing us, not myself nor my colleagues. We might not have made any special effort to conserve water or turn off lights today. We might have wasted some paper and we surely drove some gas-guzzling trucks around. But we did our darndest to make the Earth a better place for all of its living things to thrive. As we do every day.
For me, I can honestly say that no day goes by when I do not think of our natural world in some way. Sometimes it is indeed taking the extra step to recycle my grocery bags, or composting kitchen waste, or buying local produce. Sometimes, though, it is just sitting outside on a sunny spring afternoon and breathing deeply. And being thankful that I live in a place where that is possible. And hoping that we can maintain the best parts of our Earth, and repair those places where clean air and water aren’t the reality.
The theme of this blog is discovery on our rare planet – discovery of the first blossoms of spring, of waterfalls and oceans, of our diverse human cultures. This year, I haven’t been doing much exploring, because I slipped on ice and broke my leg, the day after the bulk of our snow melted. When I have paused from my reading and internet-browsing and other indoor diversions, I’ve felt sorry for myself, because I can’t get out and enjoy the spring of the year. I have watched as friends posted on Facebook the first wildflowers of the year, the Pasque Flowers and Hepatica. I am facing the reality that I won’t be walking by the time my Wild Turkey hunting season rolls around next week. I have been following the progression of spring bird migrations, but haven’t gotten out to see and hear the flocks. I join in the speculation about whether or not this will be a good year for morel mushrooms (I’m voting on the yes side, if the weather pattern holds), but I won’t be stumbling around in the woods looking for them myself.
Yet… I live in a world, on an Earth, where all of this is possible. I am lucky enough to be able to get out and do all of those things, most of the time. I have been so fortunate as to see so many of the truly amazing places on our continent and our planet! And if there is one thing that I know more surely than anything, it is that I want to keep living in this amazing world, and I want future generations to have the same opportunities.
So yes, I forgot that it was Earth Day. In fact, I don’t really care that it is Earth Day, because, even if it makes me sound like a corny tree-hugger to say it… Every day is Earth Day. Or it should be.
The second reason that Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden Walk is so fascinating to me, is its theme. As an Anthropology major many years ago, I have a lasting appreciation of cultural exploration. I have also been particularly interested in hominid evolution since interning at the Field Museum of Natural History back in 1999. At the time, I was involved in a project to create a computer-based “field trip” touring students through human evolution. Technology-wise, our efforts were laughable in the face of what is commonplace today. In fact, the Out of Eden project itself has a program to bring classroom students along for the walk, as it were. It looks really neat – I wish I were a teacher or homeschooling parent and could sign my students up!
But I digress…
My particular interest in hominid evolution and expansion has focused on the linguistic repercussions. I have always wondered if it would be possible to track expansion out of Africa based on the similarities of languages… and for now I am left to keep wondering! Mr. Salopek is a journalist – his trip isn’t intended for scientific research, or to bring new facts to light for the world community. Instead, he is documenting the way life is now in each of these places, with reflection on the first humans to have walked before him. His intent is to slow down his speed of observation to a walking pace, to get to know the locals on his trek, and to bring that experience to the rest of us. He has chosen to travel in a mode that humans – and one might add only humans – have always had at their disposal: our two feet. In doing so, with all the added support and conveniences of modern life apart from transportation, he showcases the tremendous effort it must have taken those first humans, the drive they must have had to reach new lands. Along the way, he records the struggles and ambitions of modern people along his route, in conversations and interactions that point out our universal human similarities, as well as our large cultural differences.
This is what travel is always about, for me. I can find similarities and difference a couple of towns over – and not more or less of either on the other side of the world! I may not get to walk around the globe, or the country, or even this state, but whenever I reach a new destination, I am full of curiosity about the people who live there. I do get out of my car, off the bus or train, and just walk, through neighborhoods, fields, skyscrapers, or backcountry trails. I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Salopek that you can’t see the world of people unless you are moving at a human pace.
Since I can’t do much of anything myself right now, I am living vicariously through others to get my adventure fix. I recently read a months-old issue of National Geographic magazine, and found this article on one man’s plan to walk around the world, following the path of human expansion out of Africa and eventually into the Americas. I find it fascinating on many levels!
For one, I have long had an interest in walking across the country. This will never happen, largely because I think my weak joints would fall apart if I attempted it, but it is fun to think about. In 2000, while hiking and walking regularly along Rattlesnake Creek in Missoula, Montana, I concocted a plan. At the time, I imagined asking random strangers along my route for lodging – a spot to pitch a tent in a yard, or a couch to sleep on. I would let word of mouth follow me ahead, and I would build a network of generous folks willing to help out their fellow travelers. I would maintain a list of those willing to offer a couch, and screen potential travelers. There might even be a place in all this for the internet, I thought. Remember, this was at a time when we had just begun making our own plane reservations via online sites, before craigslist had spread out of the Bay Area, before Facebook (Friendster, now that’s a different story…). Most people did not have cell phones, there wasn’t even decent infrastructure for cell phones and internet across the nation. It is both humorous and overwhelming how much things have changed in such a short time!
In his around-the world trip, Paul Salopek seems to be doing an excellent job of integrating 21st-century technology into his primitive mode of transport. The website for the project includes a wonderful array of information: “dispatches from the field,” “milestones,” and “map room” showcase these remarkable well.