West vol. 1: Adventure

I-5

Seattle, Washington

10 August 2013

Dear friends, family, mentors, supporters, bright spirits and daredevils,

In a moment, I’ll be setting off to walk across the American West.  The journey will take me from Seattle to El Paso (about two and a half thousand miles), and will likely take until early December to finish.  Over the course of my journey, I’ll be compiling video interviews with Westerners who help to move people, goods, and information across the region.  I’m curious how their work ties into local communities, how it influences people’s sense of where they live, and what kinds of geographic issues are particularly important to people doing different kinds of transit work.  At journey’s end, I’ll combine the interview material with footage of my own experiences walking across the West to create a short documentary – a collection of stories about what it takes and what it means to get around in the American West.

When I described the project on Kickstarter, I said it would be adventuresome; and some people would say a trip isn’t an adventure until things start going wrong.  Happily, I’ve been having plenty of adventures already.

I piled together most of the new gear for the trip in Palo Alto, California, where I was staying with family and working at a shoe store.  Two of the major equipment items that I got just in time were the cart I’ll be using to haul everything (a modified Dixon Rollerpack) and a MacBook Air to wrangle the video data I’ll be recording.  Two hours before I had to leave Palo Alto for the bus that would take me to Seattle, I sat down at the kitchen table, frantically trying to print maps for the start of the walk off the new computer.  I had hardly slept in the previous few days.

Within minutes, an unfortunate chain of events led to my brand-new laptop sitting in a pool of cucumber juice, inert, insensible, and very much dead.  I’d never thought before about just how much cucumber juice you can store in a laptop – it’s not usually listed in the technical specs – but the results were impressive.  I left the carcass draining and staggered back to the Apple Store, where, to my overwhelming relief, they volunteered to swap my cucumbery wreckage for a functioning computer.

After this low point in my ability to keep things together, I made it to the San Francisco Greyhound station and began the long haul northward.  I left Palo Alto at 3 pm, and arrived at my host’s in Seattle at 9 pm on the next day.  All in all, the two-hour midnight delay in Sacramento wasn’t much of an adventure, seeing as Greyhound held our subsequent connection in Portland – but adventure came tantalizingly close.

Fate decided not to disappoint me.  The evening before I originally intended to leave Seattle and start the walk, I was heading to REI to pick up a last piece of gear, and I swung down one of the steep narrow lanes on the west side of Capitol Hill.  The sunset view over the city, past the Space Needle, and over the glimmering surface of Puget Sound to the Olympic Mountains seemed worth a picture.

I stopped to set up my camera.  Three dashingly-coiffed young men jogged past in polka-dot pastel animal costumes.  A woman behind me sorted through cleaning supplies in the driveway of a parking garage.  A car turned the corner below me and came squeezing up the alley.

As I stepped out of the way, I realized I was running late for dinner with a friend.  I stooped to get my phone from my backpack, dialed, and as the phone rang against my ear, I stood up directly into a jagged concrete overhang.

I fell flat on the pavement, clapped my hands to my head, and let loose with an extremely undignified shriek.  First the computer, I thought – not my brain, too.  I could feel a long dent in the top of my head; and then, holding my hand in front of my face, I saw that my fingers were red.  I stood up with blood running down my face.

It turned out that I’d knocked myself flat just opposite the workshop of a local violin maker.  He very kindly allowed me to scrub my face and hands in his washroom, and gave me a stack of paper towels to stanch the wound.  A few hours later, with the two-inch gash in my scalp swabbed and glued shut by a competent doctor, I was ready for more adventure.

The next morning – yesterday – I packed, loaded the cart, and headed for the waterfront to begin my journey right on the wave-washed edge of the West.  Before I’d even gotten down Capitol Hill, it was clear that the cargo weight was giving the cart trouble.  The wheel assembly was swaying and splaying alarmingly, even on easy ground.  Two miles later, when I finally stopped on a small beach to take stock of the situation, the metal clips attaching the cart’s wheels split summarily in half, and the cart collapsed flat on the ground.  The axles had both bent.  I spent the rest of the day getting things fixed.

Traveler, 0 – Adventure, 3.  31/2, even, if you count the bus.

Last night I finally got more than a couple of hours of sleep.  The increasing crawling jitteriness of the last week has mercifully eased off.  Now it’s 11 am, and I’ve got a long road ahead of me, if adventure will give me a chance.

Hope all is going well,

Owen

Next: West vol. 2: Inland Empire

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