Not All That Funny

This is a revised post.  I misread the tone and intent of the article “Losing Face”  in the Appendix.  The author and editors quickly listened to my concerns, and I decided I was wrong and hot-headed (not news to some of you).    So there’s nothing to look at here.  Go read the article, and pay attention to the last line, which flew over my head.


The Most Determined Explorer from Breckenridge, Minnesota

An Excerpt from Walter Cheadle, Cheadle’s Journal of Trip Across Canada: 1862-1863 (TouchWood Editions, 2011), pp 127-128.

Perry . . . the most determined fellow he ever knew.  He crossed the prairies to the Rocky Mountain and over them. into California with no means of transport but a wheelbarrow which he trundled before him!  It contained all provisions, tools & effects; after that he returned to the States & set out from some place in Minnesota, I think Breckenridge, without a penny, & nothing except a gun & some ammunition, & the clothes he had on.  He borrowed an axe at Breckenridge, cut down a large tree, made a canoe & paddled down the Red alone 6 or 700 miles to Fort Garry.  From thence he made his way on foot, & supported by his gun to [Fort] Carlton where he obtained employment as driver of a cart to Edmonton; thence crossed Mountains with a party of Cariboo; was working a pretty good claim there, but finding another man working near was making about 5 times as much he, kicked his rocker & pick into the river & left in disgust.  Love not knowing now where he is.

An Interview in a Field In North Dakota

[two trucks in a frozen field, facing opposite directions, drivers talking through the opened windows]

I was a railroad engineer and drove the last steam engine.  It’s on display in Bismarck.

I went to Korea and got married when I came back.

I’ve done every job there is, and saved my money to buy all this land.

I broke out this land, and made that rock pile over there.  It’s a hard rock, and I remember it like it was yesterday, because the plow kept sparking, and we set the fields on fire many times.  We ruined a lot of machinery breaking out these fields.  The work’s not done, but I’m too old now.  Now people are buying the rock, because it is acid-resistant. 

My son borrowed money to buy this field from me.  I see he’s selling part of it, and he’s got a new truck.  I’ll never see that money again. 

I’ve got prostate cancer.  I’ve had it for years.  The doctors wanted to remove it, but I told them no.  They put radioactive seeds in there, and I’ll die before that cancer gets me.

My wife died a few years back.  The nursing home took everything.  Everything.  But I’ve got an apartment and a pension, so I’m okay.

I’ve had a good life, I’m glad for it, and glad to talk to you.  Sure is a beautiful sunny day.




A Brief History of My International Travel Scents

Harper’s (August 2013) has an interesting article by Beau Friedlander, “A Brief History of Scent.”  You’ll need a subscription to read the article (or ask to borrow my copy), but you can also listen to Friedlander on Brian Lehrer.   The cogent points for my brief comments:  some odors are universally offensive at a primal level; odors become related to time and place in very individualized ways; odors are linked to memory, but the linkage is not simple, and neither are the barrage of odors we encounter in some situations.  (He also points out what I think every time I go to a big city, or even see them in the movies—“this place really stinks, in a permanent, embedded sort of way.”)

Here are some brief associations from my permanent olfactory travels and memories, which feature large in my mind, but rarely (if ever) get verbalized.

Dense, wet (alkaloid-rich) vegetation smells like adventure, relaxation and itching from insect bites.  From many jungle treks in Belize.


Iron-rich red dust smells like brine, thirst and despair.  From the Rann of Kutch after the 2001 earthquake.


Intense, blinding sun smells like salt water, limestone, pine, oregano, and sweat dripping into plant-lacerated legs.  From surveying Greek coastlines.


Concrete, rebar, and helicopters smell like death and decay under a hot, rainy Mediterranean sun.  This is from the 1999-2000 earthquake surveys.  It took years for me not to recoil from this.   I still smell it, just not as strong, and the recoil is gone.


Yellow-grey dust and limestone, without a vegetation overlay, smell like isolation, exercise, oatmeal, and an undercurrent of risk.  From Oman; this is a different smell than Mediterranean limestone, which always comes with plants.  The risk undercurrent is new, from our Musandam expedition.  But we always ate a lot of oatmeal in Oman.  Hey, is that Simon Donato, of Stoked Oats fame, in toe shoes?


Expedition Food

In a few days I leave for the long-awaited 100 Miles of Wild-ND Badlands Transect.  I’ll be in the field for 13 days, and one of the challenges is to pack enough non-perishable food in a compact form.  I’ve developed my system over the years, and I prefer items I can buy more-or-less ready-to-go that require no prep beyond boiled water.  It’s not a fun system, but food prep and cleanup takes away from limited documentation and note taking time (or if things are going rough, sleep and rest time).


A 13 day junk food binge would end poorly, however, so I’ve tried to pick the most reasonable options—real food ingredients, minimal chemicals, not jammed full of palm oil and killer fats.

For this trip I’ve got 2700 calories per day.  That will have me running a calorie deficit (especially as it will be cold), but a deficit that will do me some good. 

The daily menu is pretty much the same:

Boosted Oatmeal—this is rolled oats, mulberries, gooseberries, dates, flaxseed, walnuts, powdered milk with a dash of whey protein and brown sugar.  No need to make this—just buy some Stoked Oats.  I put 1 cup in a heavy plastic zip closure bag.  Add 1.5 cups boiling water, shake it up, and eat.  300 calories.  

Odwalla Super Protein Bars x 2.  420 calories

Larabar x 2. 400 calories

Almonds and Dried Cherries, 2/3 cup. 400 calories

Stinger Bar x 2.  380 calories.

Honey Stinger x 2.  320 calories.

Mountain Trail Pro Pak (2 servings): 480 calories

There are, of course, other ways to do this.  Tuna fish pouches, soynuts, peanut butter.  This is what works for me. 

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Shooting Napoleon (ND)

Special guest blogger today:  Mike Black, a student from North Dakota State University, shares his perspective on an architectural inventory trip.  (Some photos from the author).


We were somewhere around Buffalo on the edge of the desert when the prairie began to take hold. It had been years since I had ridden this straight-as-an-arrow concrete ribbon across North Dakota. It hadn’t changed much. A monstrous blob of grey concrete rose up on the approaching horizon and all manner of silos and elevators and gangways came into slow hazy focus. “Barley plant for Budweiser.” Makes sense. Go to The Source. We were traveling West to Napoleon to perform something called a Cultural Resource Management (CRM), a stilted name only a bureaucracy could love. Under the aegis of the North Dakota State Historical Society (NDSHS) and guidance of Dr. Richard Rothaus (RR) of Trefoil Cultural and Environmental we were to photograph and categorize the structures of the town for possible consideration by the National Register of Historic Places. I later saw it called a “Reconnaissance” which I much preferred. Much better to say you were on “recon” than “management”. I was riding with The Distinguished Professor Dr. Thomas Isern (DP) and a fellow student with a difficult name. Let’s just call him Chris. At the time, going into a weekend in close contact with two PhDs hadn’t raised a red flag; more on that later.

This was the kick-off of Spring Break 2013, such as it would be in Napoleon ND. When asked I was telling people I was “going south” for the break. Well, south of I-94 anyway. I then began adding onto and elaborating my Magical Made-Up Spring Break Fantasy by further saying that MTV was hosting (not) one of their bacchanals there and some people actually believed me. It just may be marketing genius for MTV to do just so; “Hutterites Gone Wild in Wishek”, something along those lines. You know, in an ironic, snarky way (memo to self: contact MTV).

The day was waning and there was no differentiating where the grey snow white land ended and the grey snow white sky began. Why try anyway? Just go with it. I It was nebulous and mysterious and beautiful and I wondered what it would have been like moving over this same plain 150 years ago on a horse. As the silver sun drifted North and down, glistening irregular geometric patches of wind-polished snow sparkled and shone in an ever changing kaleidoscope on the fields. Remarkable. I don’t remember seeing it in my youth. I grew up on the eastern edge of the Great Plains but left for over 30 years. As a teen I recall a handful of drives through the Dakotas. A fanciful Road Trip with my pals to Belle Fourche SD, the summer drives to golf tournaments, infrequent family vacations. But in your late teens you don’t notice things like you do in your late decades. You are pretty much focused on yourself. Of course there is that knowledge thing too. Who knew at 16 you were tramping on the same lands where dinosaurs and bison and Indians and Custer had?

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We pulled into Napoleon and went straight to the 1904 House the DP had booked. A Grandma house in every sense of the word that had become what is known as a “hunter house” (HH). These are homes in small Dakota towns that are unoccupied but for groups of hunting parties that migrate through the respective seasons, using it as their Base of Operations for shooting pheasants, walleye, deer, each other, whatever. The Volkswagen sized hot-tub in the garage gave that away. Otherwise it was like walking into Grandma’s house. Family photos in the upstairs hallway with heavy rimmed eyeglasses and old timey soldiers, carpet on the landing of the stairs running three feet up the wall, lots of paper plants, the usual. Cozy though, very comfortable. The DP got first pick on the bedrooms (of course) and I lost a Roshambo throw to Chris for the second choice. Now that I think of it there was malfeasance. I should have protested. He blew the first throw (on purpose?) and said “Oh I messed up” as he looked down on my scissors choice. He then
threw a rock next toss to break that same scissor.

RR was somewhere between Sauk Rapids and Bismarck so he had no say in these matters. Still he made out. He ended up with what appeared to be the Grandma Suite on the main floor. Then we headed for the Downtowner Bar Restaurant and Hotel. We gnawed on rib-eye steaks and watched the semi-finals of the Class B basketball tournament. As in most small towns it is fairly obvious “you’re not from around here” so we were ogled by the locals before beating a hasty retreat to the HH for the second game.  RR rolled in sometime later and we made a quick run through of his game plan for tomorrow. Photograph, Categorize and Move. There were 120 odd structures not counting the downtown commercial area and a massive stand of elevators and silos along the train tracks. He thought we could get maybe 1/2 of them done over the two days set a start time of 0800 the following morning.

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After a nice, big breakfast we were on it. We split into two teams of a shooter and a writer, me with RR and Chris with the DP. This would be my high point of Architecture in Napoleon. Of our first six homes we had four for consideration by the NDSHS: Moderne, Prairie, Craftsman, Mansard. At noon we met at Reuben’s for lunch where I inadvertently insulted the Pulitzer Prize Committee and, by proxy or association, both of the Good Doctors. Apparently my naive disdain for a movie version (CHICK FLICK!) of Willa Cather’s book “O Pioneers!” and demeaning of “Wolf Willow” by Walt Stegner was justifiable cause for verbal abuse by the academics at the table. Whatever. RR did, however, take an unexpected liking to my description of the “Genesis” chapter in Wolf Willow, “…Stegner devolves into a bad Louis L’Amour…”.


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Back on the street we switched mates and I rolled with the DP. The day had gone from brisk to chilly-windy to sideways snow flurries and we worked into the early evening. Then back to the HH and some of the DP’s bison chili. Apparently the cold had frozen brain synapses so I had to reboot (literally) and go beer hunting. Bagged some Grain Belt and life was good. Delicious chili with home canned bread and butter chiles and Fritos as croutons. Structure Tally for the day: 80!!!

Final game of the class B pitted the Indians versus the Germans. I watched from the garage near the vat of human stew, smoking a cigar and sucking The Grain. Somehow it got to be midnight and time to Go Out. The Doctors were down (and I don’t mean “…I’m down…”) so it was left to Chris and me to represent. And we did. We held an informal taste test of Jim Beam, Johnny Walker Red, Crown Royal and, because of a girl, Jagermeister. That girl was married to a young local man we spoke with who was part of a multi-faceted family company ranging from concrete aggregate to house framing to material supply. Before you knew it the Magic Hour came and we were turned out into the cold for the two block walk back to HH.

With the “spring ahead” hour lost, our start was not near as crisp and focused. 0900 found RR and me stalking the downtown commercial area while DP and Chris set off for the far flung NE quadrant on our satellite map. Cold, dang cold, windy and bright sunny. We found some interesting brick buildings with mysteries to solve. RR wove a deductive tale like some Sherlock Holmes of Architecture. I demurred. Before we knew it we were back at The White Maid for lunch. Tater Tots? Cannot even remember the last time I had those but I did and nummy. The young couple from the bar earlier that morning sauntered in around 1400 and we chatted a bit more. Small world, er, town. Indeed.


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Another team split and we were back on the streets. As the DP and I worked the neighborhood north of the bowling alley a Sheriff’s SUV pulled beside us. A grumpy Wilford Brimley-type with hands the size of baseball mitts gave us the Third Degree, recorded our ID’s and told us the Old Ladies of the town have been giving him fits about people taking pictures of their houses. I commented that if we WERE up to no good we weren’t very good at it. Standing around in the street in full view for two days snapping away and writing on clip boards is not exactly a high crime nor an efficient way to “case the joint”. He was not amused. I told him there was another team and that they were the ones he should be interested in.  A May/December love couple, both known felons and heinous sex offenders specializing in Blue Haired Spinsters and Barnyard Animals. But RR had been buying the Grain Belt and lunches so I didn’t actually say that.  We were nearing completion of the survey and the mind numbingness of it was setting in. Napoleon ND would not make a shining example of historic and diverse architecture. We rolled back to HH, packed up and got out of town.

Close outside of town on State Highway 34 the DP abruptly veered off onto a snow covered hill. I was concerned about sinking frame deep into a ditch but the DP reassured me: “I’ve been here before.” In front of us was a line of threshing machines dating back into the early 1900’s. They were randomly (?) scattered and semi-lined up the side of a steep hill, forming a sort of ant parade of steam powered technology. I grabbed the camera and followed the DP out onto what I would find to be very dodgy, slippery and threatening snow that I had waxed so poetic about earlier. Kaleidoscope my ass! That shiny beauty could be treacherous to old people trying to simply walk across it (me). As I whimpered and cursed with nearly every (mis)step and near calamity, the DP was scampering, nay, flitting over and across it like some lithe snow fairy nymph. No small accomplishment for a 6 foot five, 250+ pound beast. I marveled at his balance and grace and stood stock still in front of the first machine. We got a series of pictures and then slip-slid (in my case) back to the truck.

The road stretched out before us, empty and endless. At times it was a band of grey receding into the distance thread thick, a small black line disappearing, reappearing, rolling up and over and around the couteau formations. Cattle stood in the waning sunlight staring vacantly, herds of deer worked the stubble fields and pheasants made good use of the proximity to grain farms. We wanted pie so we pointed towards Gackle to no avail. Then Jamestown. Closed. Gas station coffee for the DP and Chris took over driving the I-94 back to Fargo. I rode.